Small Sacrifices Must Be Made! is my new record. You can download it now, or order a physical copy on CD. (Vinyl is coming with the official street date, October 9. I’m making the album available through this site today because it’s my birthday and I’m nice.)
This is the post where I tell you everything about the album I can think of. Lots of words follow!
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I started working on Small Sacrifices when I was 16. That’s when I wrote the oldest song on here: “Babysitter”. I hated little kids then and I hate them even more now!
But the process of realizing the record began in 2008.
At that point, I was waist-deep in another album you haven’t heard yet, Failing Upwards. I had assembled this crazy recording band and everything was done except guitar. Three tracks in, the guitarist went out on tour*. I decided to wait for the dude.
I waited, and waited, and got really bored. I had upgraded my home studio, so I started digitizing and archiving old stuff to pass the time – mainly four-track recordings and synth sequences from the early ’90s. Turned out to be a lot of promising material in there: riffs and patterns, chord progressions, the occasional fully-arranged but forgotten instrumental. And one or two songs that were complete, lyrics and all, but had just slipped through the cracks in the intervening decade-and-a-half.
I was like: huh.
Most of my ’90s solo work was programmed on a Korg workstation keyboard called the O1-W. The O1-W had a sequencer feature which enabled me to do full-band arrangements of up to 16 tracks using instrument samples in the keyboard – drums, piano, organ, bass, strings, and so on. I was only making demos for reference, but then whenever the time came to record the shit for real, I had no band to perform it. So I plugged in the O1-W, crossed my fingers and hoped that a decent engineer could magically make my electronic drums sound like real ones, my canned bass sound like a real bass, and so on. That was impossible, of course – physical laws and such.
So when I hear stuff I did in the ’90s, my first impulse is to wonder what it would sound like if, as originally intended, real human musicians played it.
With that in mind, I gathered seven pieces of archived ephemera, patched any lyrical/musical/conceptual holes, and brought them to Anton Fig for drums. Some of this material was so old that I didn’t yet know how to program drums when I sequenced it – sometimes I’d have a snare, tom and cymbal hit all at once. Again, physical laws. But Anton made sense of the junk and pulled off some awesome, heroic drumming.
As I began to tweak the lyrics, I noticed a prevailing theme: the passage of time. I know, that’s broad. But there were specific concepts being reflected from song to song: the effect of time on perception and understanding; contrast and conflict between people of different ages and generations; the inevitability of change over time and also the patterns that create the illusion of change over time.
I got pretty into this… I mean, at this point, the project was basically a collaboration through time between two versions of myself: the teenager who started the songs and the thirtysomething who was finishing them.
I pulled four additional unreleased songs of similar theme to fill out the record, and then eventually wrote two more that happened to fit. As Anton finished the drums, I moved them on to Graham Maby for bass and Reeves Gabrels for guitar. The result is something I’ve never had on any of my solo records: a consistent band from start to finish, smoothing out some of the stylistic jerkiness that’s affected my previous full-length efforts. (There is one exception, noted below.)
It’s probably worth mentioning that this entire album was recorded and mixed in people’s homes. I did piano, electric piano and organ tracks in a studio, but that’s only because I don’t own a real piano, electric piano or organ. Anton tracked all the drums at home. I recorded the vocals, synths, and guitars in my apartment. Graham did the bass in a friend’s home studio. Horns, strings, pedal steel… all recorded at home by the players. The album was mixed by Pete deBoer in his home studio. This kept costs way down, and I still got what I think is the best-sounding album I’ve ever made. The moral: great musicians sound great, and a great mixer does great mixes. Pay for talent.
One of the old tracks, a nine-minute mëtal epic called “You, Succubus”, was ultimately cut. The music was all recorded but I couldn’t make the lyric resonate, no matter how much I rewrote the ’93 original. When you collaborate with a much younger version of yourself, you are technically working with somebody who no longer exists. I empathized with much of what teenage JD was trying to say, but not everything… and it’s not like I could just call the dude for clarification. Early ’90s Jed is a very different person from me; on “You, Succubus” we had a disconnect. I’ll keep at it, and maybe the song can end up on some other thing.
Which brings me to the part where I tell you shit about each track individually.
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In 2001, Blondie made a record that would eventually be titled The Curse of Blondie. There was a hangup with the album’s release and it appeared that the band would have to go back to the drawing board and cut all new material. Chris Stein asked Arturo Vega if that kid who was writing the musical would be interested in contributing a few songs for the project. Blondie is one of my favorite bands ever, so of course I said fuck yeah!
I submitted three demos: “Bowery Electric” (which at that point was still just a Collider tune), “Aftermath” (which I had written the previous year) and “Again”. This last song was grown from snippets of melody and lyric I’d been kicking around since 1999; I brought it together and arranged it with Blondie in mind.
I was told that two songs had made the cut (“Bowery Electric” was out because they’d already written a tribute song for Joey Ramone called “Hello Joe”). I got so psyched.
But one of the tracks from The Curse of Blondie snuck out in Europe and became a top-40 hit. Their U.S. label scrambled to capitalize by rushing out the album as it was. That didn’t work out so well, and Blondie didn’t put out another record until last year. By then my two submissions were long forgotten.
I like that if you put Small Sacrifices on repeat, this song signals the album starting over. Again!
This is the oldest composition on the record. As I said at the top, I wrote it when I was 16, and it was originally a punk tune so simple I was actually able to play guitar myself on the four-track demo.
I used to make these holiday recordings to give my friends as gifts – each one involved a bunch of cover tunes arranged to sound like some unlikely third party was performing the track. Like a Silver Jews song recorded by Mr. Big, or Fugazi doing an LL Cool J track.
When I approached “Babysitter” for this project, I used that method and tried to imagine the act least likely to record the song. That would be the Jackson 5.
The lead that sounds like an organ in the instrumental break is Reeves playing his guitar through a VG-8 synth. The lead that sounds like a sax at the end of the song is a sax – that’s the amazing Ralph Carney!
As time passes and my work becomes more obscure, I think about the condition of being an “outsider artist”. That is, not really an artist, but a crazy person who makes things that are condescendingly referred to as art by third parties who don’t understand the difference between a crazy person and an artist.
Art is a form of communication. Intent to communicate something, even just a feeling, has to be there – without that, it’s simply craft… or crazy. Perfect example: Emily Dickinson.
Here’s this loony chick who didn’t leave her room for decades. There she wrote a bunch of stuff – technically poetry – meant to be shared with almost no one. She wanted it all burned upon her death; her family didn’t comply. A woman named Mabel Todd stumbled upon Dickinson’s work posthumously, declared it art, edited and published it.
Can we derive enjoyment from the work of Emily Dickinson? Sure, though that was not her intention. This is outsider art, which reaches the world at large by ignorant attrition, framed by people who don’t understand that the context in which a work of art is created is as important as the work itself.
And that’s one of the reasons I cherish my small audience more and more as time goes by. As long as you’re here, someone is picking up what I’m laying down, and I’m not just some nutjob singing to myself!
My pal Joe Student came to visit Albany in the fall of 1995. He was all bummed out with some midlife crisis bullshit, which I didn’t really understand as I was barely 20. But after hearing Joe’s lament, I felt like there was a song in there so I jotted down some lyrics. The lyrics came with a musical concept, which I sequenced up.
I don’t remember whether Joe just happened to have a synthesizer with him, or if he came back with one later, but he played me this really cool pattern that made for the perfect intro and coda to the intense middle section I’d written. We recorded the tune in the WCDB production studio, which had a four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder at the time. The Small Sacrifices version of “Two-Thirds” is built right on top of that recording – Joe’s synth is the original take he tracked back in ’95.
I’m now just about the age Joe was when we wrote that song.
RIDE THE PARTY BUS
This is the most recently written track on the album. It’s also the only one that doesn’t have Reeves or Graham on it – it was a last-second addition to replace the aborted “You, Succubus”, and by the time I decided to include it Reeves had joined The Cure and left the country.
I ended up keeping the guitars from my demo, which were played by John Delehanty. I think John’s guitars are absolutely perfect, and to be candid, if Reeves had played on this one I probably would have just begged him to do something similar.
And here’s to Bryan Thomas: eternal props for his just-under-the-wire superhero bass assist! Graham wasn’t available for this one, and neither was my original choice of backup, the great Rudy Sarzo. I was in danger of having to leave “Party Bus” off the album, but Bryan (whose first ever rock concert was an Ozzy show that featured Rudy on bass) stepped in and threw down!
This song is for my pal Rosie. We went on a date on my birthday in 2010, and I had no idea that’s what it was supposed to be; it never occurred to me that Rosie could have any romantic interest in me.
Actually, that’s not true. I had just enough suspicion that it might be a date that I was a nervous wreck. Because Rosie is awesome. I don’t think I uttered a single coherent sentence all night, I had so much agita.
I had already moved upstate by then, and was staying at the Hotel Chelsea. In my room at 2am I had plenty of time and silence to ponder whether we’d just gone on a date, and how badly I might’ve choked if it had in fact been one.
I started writing Rosie a Facebook message (“Question” was the subject line – FB still used those back then), but then it occurred to me that the message had a certain cadence which might lend itself to a melody, and next thing I knew I was in the bathroom (better acoustics, plus all the interesting Chelsea Hotel shit happens in the bathroom) singing it into my iPhone. I had a four-track app so I recorded the message in four-part harmony.
I sent Rosie an MP3 the next morning; she enjoyed the song (enough to give me permission to include it here), and let me know that she had considered it to be a date! However, I was also informed that for any dates she may go on in the future, my services would not be required.
You may be aware that I’ve been working on a musical theater piece since 2000 – Rise And Shine. But even if Rise And Shine someday makes it to a stage, it won’t be the first time something I wrote was performed on Broadway.
“Aftermath” is about a girl named Lauren who I used to pass in the hall at high school every day… after math. I wrote the song in 1999 or 2000 and it’s remained virtually unchanged from my very first arrangement. Collider recorded the song twice. We cut it at Scarlet East in Albany with Chris deRosa and Tom Kaz in 2001; that version was mixed by Tommy Ramone and included on a Collider demo CD (I also gave it to Blondie that year). We revisited “Aftermath” with Tommy as producer in 2002 for our WCYF EP.
About two years later, chunks of “Aftermath” showed up on Green Day’s American Idiot in the form of a song called “Whatsername”.
I know, the claim is baseless. Except it’s not; I lived in the Ramones Loft back then. Billie Joe Armstrong has been in my apartment.
I’m not gonna accuse the dude of willfully lifting parts of “Aftermath”. It could have been a subconscious thing.
Then again, this is the music business.
Anyway, there are two reasons why “Aftermath” is on this record, and neither is a knock on the excellent WCYF version, which featured great playing by Mike Keaney and Joe Abba (in fact, I used Joe’s shaker and finger cymbals from that recording). First, it fit the theme of passing time… and second, Anton requested we record it after doing the song live. When Anton Fig asks you to let him play drums on something, you put that shit on your album!
I wrote this song in early 1994. Skyscape was still active back then, but in flux – Dom left the band, then Steve Theater, then we spent a year figuring out our direction. By the time Skyscape was ready to play “Symbiosis”, The Hanslick Rebellion had claimed the song and was doing it live. But I felt guilty and pulled it back for Skyscape, which promptly broke up. And “Symbiosis” sat around for almost two decades, existing only in demo form.
I think it’s one of the best songs I have, and it makes me so happy to finally hear “Symbiosis” brought to life. Rebecca Coleman, formerly of Avi Buffalo and now of Pageants, sings the shimmery backing vocal. Sometimes I feel like Rebecca might be Earth’s most talented human.
THE KNOWING ONES
There’s no record of my family history pre-Holocaust; when I was growing up, we had only stories from a generation that, frankly, couldn’t remember a heck of a lot. For example, according to my paternal grandmother, we either had family in England, or someone in my family had once taken a trip to England. Not particularly helpful.
The message of “The Knowing Ones”: if nobody’s around to tell you who your ancestors were, there’s also no one around to tell you who they weren’t. Dream, baby, dream!
SECRET PRESTRICTIONS FROM THE PAST
I love the Dead Milkmen song “Stuart”… the way the spoken-word vocal fits so perfectly over the music as it builds and releases. I wanted to give that kind of thing a try.
The story is something my friend Sputnik told me freshman year of college. I tried to recount his tale word for word, in as close as I could get to his voice, complete with all the “dude”s. Sputnik used to begin and end every sentence with “dude”.
“Dude” was not as played out back then as it is today, but I felt like I should stay true to the spirit of the original telling.
The piece of music was salvaged from a stream-of-consciousnessy 1993 sequence and performed by the band almost note-for-note. Graham in particular did an amazing job with the ’90s slap bassline. It’s really awesome playing by the whole group – Anton had to do a million little things to make the drums work, and Reeves is pure Reeves on this track. And let’s not forget Sheridan Riley’s conga playing to tie it all together. Very tricky piece of music, deftly handled.
I HEAR AN ECHO
I once had this boss named Bob. Our gig was magazine production, where the deadlines can be long and killer. I was 22 at the time, with no attachments that weren’t music related (something that hasn’t much changed, come to think of it), but Bob was in his late 30s and married. He and his wife had moved from Chicago to New York City so he could take a promotion.
During my year working for Bob, I watched the dude’s marriage and life implode. It was a horrible thing to see, and I vowed never to let a day job interfere with… well, anything I give a fuck about.
I lost touch with Bob when I left that company; I can only hope he’s doing okay these days. Bob, this one’s for you.
LOSE ME FOREVER
This was a very early Collider song from 1997. It’s a bummer. I wrote it after getting dumped by Elena in the first dumping of what would become an ongoing series.
Collider played “Lose Me Forever” at one or two early shows and even included it on our first demo tape, but it didn’t fit with what was becoming the Collider thing – loud, fast, electronic and snotty. So we put the song aside and I forgot all about it until I came across it on a Zip cartridge formatted for the Roland VS-880 recorder. Remember those? Either of those?
I know this is a depressing way to go out; my advice would be to keep the record on repeat so “Again” comes back on!
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The album’s title (and cover imagery) comes from the story of Otto Lilienthal, the 19th Century “Glider King”. Lilienthal was an inventor who built some of the earliest gliding apparatus, which he tested himself. On a flight in August of 1896, his glider stalled and he fell more than 50 feet, breaking his back. Lilienthal died the next day; his final words were small sacrifices must be made!
Otto Lilienthal’s work directly inspired the next generation of aviation inventors, particularly the Wright brothers.
Just like the work of teenage Jed, and all the shit that poor motherfucker had to go through to create it, has inspired and benefited the version of me that carries on for him today.
The folks at Germany’s Otto Lilienthal Museum were very cool about providing me with hi-res imagery for the album packaging; I am so grateful!
Okay, that’s a long post. I hope you’re still going to listen to the record after all this.
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*The guitarist is still on tour five years later. I’ve moved on and unless something crazy happens, you’ll get that other album exactly one year from today!