As an aspiring recording artist/producer, as I was honing my recording/producing skills, and trying to build a recording studio and reputation over the years, I have arranged and participated in a number of Christmas recording projects/releases. Some of these were one-off projects done with whatever band/artist I had been working with at the time; while others were part of an ongoing band/concept/project I returned to for more than one Holiday Season. This Uncle Eddy’s Mixtape is a compilation from the various Christmas projects I’ve played on and produced over the past couple of decades or so.
Back in the winter of 1997, I played drums in a band called Daughter Silas. We formed around a year earlier at Central College in my hometown of McPherson Kansas. In December of 97, DS was asked to work up a few tunes for the school’s Christmas Banquet, a formal “date” night event, in lieu of a school dance (being that the Free Methodist college frowned upon dancing). After spending a couple practices working up 5 songs, we decided that our arrangements were much too fun to let go undocumented. So we spent a couple evenings recording and mixing those songs in the college’s small ADAT based studio. One of my favorite memories of that ordeal was sitting in our guitarist’s office, listening to Jingle Bell Rock, Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer, and Rocking Around the Christmas Tree from a tape that had been recorded from the jukebox at the convenience store our singer worked at… trying to figure out/learn the chord progressions for our guitar arrangements. That was before the internet provided streaming services and chord charts for us to reference and learn from. After we finished tracking, the mixing session went late, and I had to be at work at 7:00 AM the next day (I was finished with college and working full time at that point). It might have been during the mixing session when we realized one of the guitars on O Holy Night had a terrible sounding buzz/distortion when it was supposed to be clean. So we hooked up and added some synth strings to cover for the guitar we had to pull out of the mix. But the work and late night was worth it, because we were really proud of what we accomplished with those five songs. Unfortunately, at that time, the only means we had to mix down the multi-track ADAT to 2-track stereo was a Pioneer compact cassette deck; which lost a lot of fidelity and clarity in the mix-down process. Also, the only copy I seem to possess might not even be the original, first generation mix-down tape. So these computer digitized tracks don’t sound the best. What I wouldn’t give to have the ADAT tape to transfer the tracks to the computer to completely remix and actually master.
Two years later, 1999, Daughter Silas had split up, and I had been working with another band, comprised of Alaskans transplanted to Kansas for college. When Grain came to an end, our friend Candi, who was a teacher at Central College, asked some of us to help her perform for that year’s Christmas Banquet. So once again I participated in working up some carols and classic novelty songs…and once again I decided to utilize Central’s ADAT studio to record and release our hard work. But this time the studio had upgraded to 2 ADATs for a total of 16 tracks and a DAT machine for mix-down, and I had purchased my first computer. So we were able to give A Wonderful Awful Idea [the album title taken from a line in the Seuss book… since we donned the band name Who-ville… because we were covering Sixpence None the Richer’s cover of “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch”, a much better, fully digital treatment. This included my first dive into Photoshop to make the cover/jacket/tray-card art. The cover photo shoot came about because the Weeble figure had randomly appeared in the school studio at some point, and had become somewhat of a studio mascot. We thought it would be fun to feature the vintage toy in a wintery, holiday scene. So we went out and bought the tiny trees, snow man tea candle, and spray snow/frost… placed the tiny figures and string of Christmas lights on a green towel which we had sprayed with the snow, and shot a series of pics right in the college dorm lobby. Also, I thought it was important, and a little tongue-in-cheek to include the disclaimer:
In order to preserve the intensity of a performance, most of the tracks on this CD were recorded “live” with as few takes as possible. Therefore the music you will hear may contain a number of audible mistakes made by the musicians. We apologize for the inconvenience, and will try to do better next time. – Your Friends from Who-ville
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is the perfect example of the benefits and drawbacks of our mostly “live” tracking process. That song was such a simple, mostly 2-chord arrangement, that it gave us the opportunity to improvise and read each other in the studio… with Paul overdubbing a couple additional guitar parts to keep it interesting. While there are moments of great musical chemistry between the band, there are also moments that reveal some technical weakness and blatant mistakes (especially on my part)… but overall it makes for an exciting listen as we theme-and-vary the heavy, Drop-D riff. It seems we might not have pulled off the live performances of the song as well as the recording.
The Who-ville band concept was dormant for a few years, until the Holiday Season of 2003, when my band, In Light of Ezel, and singer Candi’s band, Dear Vanity, were both taking a brief hiatus. I came up with the idea of reviving the holiday band moniker, but this time I played guitar because Dear Vanity had a great drummer and I was looking for an opportunity to get out from the drums. I worked on chord arrangements for carols like “Silent Night” (I’m still really proud of this slightly darker arrangement) and favorite classics like The Royal Guardsmen’s “Kinda Looks Like Christmas”. For the “Ukrainian Carol (aka Carol of the Bells)”, I combined the lyrics from the traditional carol with those from Ray Conniff’s “Ring Christmas Bells”, and we worked up prog-rock influenced intense arrangement, singing the “Merry Merry Merry Christmas” lines in 5/4. This project also gave me the opportunity to work up a couple more modern songs written by some of my favorite Christian Alternative Rock songwriters, including Babe in the Straw. But my favorite song from this project might be Senor Santa Claus, which I took from my favorite Christmas record from my childhood. By this point, I had moved to a computer based home recording studio, but I still didn’t have a multi-tracking recording interface, just a stereo sound card. We borrowed one of the ADAT machines from Central College to multi-track the drums, which I transferred to the computer (2 tracks at a time), and we overdubbed everything else on the computer. We had finished recording the drums for the rest of the record, and returned the ADAT before we had a chance to work up and learn Senor… but I desperately wanted to include it. So while we were recording some bass parts for the project, I called up the drummer (who turned out to already be in bed) to see if he would be willing to come and try to record the song kinda live. We set his drums up with a couple overhead mics, I mic-ed up my guitar amp, plugged in a mic for the bassist’s lead vocal, and used the bass signal he was already using for the session… plugged it all into a little 4 channel mixer and sent the “live” stereo mix to the computer. We ran through it a couple times, and recorded it in one take. I decided that the vocal was a little weak in the mix, so we overdubbed a doubled vocal… but my landline phone rang during the take, and the drummer started shouting “woo-hoo” in the background, thinking that we wouldn’t use it. But I insisted on even the overdubs, including one acoustic guitar part and an accordion, be done in one take… so the “woo-hoos” stayed (and you can’t hear the phone ring). It certainly made for an imperfect recording, but I think the rough feel and sound is perfect for the light-hearted and retro vibe of the song. Really, I’m still proud of how that whole Vol. II record turned out. It was one of the last projects I fully mixed and mastered myself, and I am still amazed at how easy mixing that record was, and how great it sounds after all these years.
Somewhere in 2004, both Ezel and Dear Vanity disbanded, and we combined members of both bands to form a new DV era, as well as another Who-ville season. But we didn’t make a record that year. However, in 2005, we added a couple more friends for a 3rd Whoville record, A Who Holiday Hullabaloo (title taken from Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!) Once again I worked up arrangements of traditional carols, classics like Charlie Brown’s Christmas Time Is Here, and more modern tunes like Switchfoot’s “Evergreen”. We even included a song written and sung by bassist Ryan. For some reason, I don’t seem to have a copy of the chord chart I worked up for Christmas Time Is Here anymore. I had found some chord tabs online, but they were much ‘jazzier’ than I had the skills for. So I figured out the song’s melody by ear, and wrote a chord arrangement, using the jazziest chords I know how to fake, around that (which also gave me the opportunity to play the melody as a guitar solo). The idea for “I Want A Hippopotamus” had come to me at least a year earlier. I have this thing for taking songs in 4/4 ‘common time’ and putting them into a triple time signature. I couldn’t seem to find any chord charts for the song online. So I had to figure out the chords by ear, listening to the original Gayla Peevey version…and then I realized that I could just switch between the tonic chord and its relative minor for the waltzy opening I had been hearing in my head (based on a beautiful and melancholy acoustic song by the band Luxury). This was the last year we visited Who-ville, but I continue to use chord arrangements from all three of those projects to this day.
The last Christmas recording project I worked on was over a decade ago, 2009. I had been working with Janelle Shae for a year or so. We had made a record of her original written songs, and we were about to start working on demos for a second record. I had the idea of recording a few Holiday songs, to release for free download, to promote Janelle as well as my recording label, Cama Fly Art. The idea was to work up and record a simple arrangement, featuring Janelle’s vocal, Wurlitzer electric piano, myself on electric guitar, studio partner Ryan on drums, and maybe some vocal overdubs, of one or two songs in an evening. I would work on some guitar and bass overdubs, and hand the tracks over to Ryan to mix and master. Then I would post/release one or two songs every week, leading up to Christmas. We ended up with a total of 5 songs, all traditional carols to be sure they would be covered by Public Domain. The process didn’t go quite as smoothly as I had planned, and we certainly could have spent more time and intention getting the vocals more solid. But I’m still really proud of the bass work I did on songs like Joy to the World and Away in a Manger. Of course, I had to insist on working up a medley of Hark the Herald Angels Sing/O Come All Ye Faithful, because combining songs like that was something I loved doing with Who-ville, as well as turning 4/4 songs into triple times.
The final, “bonus” track on this mixtape is from a record I made with a friend, that he decided not to release due to a change in his sound/direction before we had it completed. It’s another project that was recorded entirely on a stereo sound card, before I had a multi-track recording interface. I’m still proud of the way the project turned out, even with just the rough mixes, and I wish I could release it to the world. Even though it wasn’t a Christmas record, this song is Holiday appropriate, and he has even released a Christmas album featuring a reworked version of this song as the title track.
If you like the Who-ville songs on this mixtape, you can hear a few more of our tunes here on Bandcamp. I released this compilation, featuring only Public Domain songs and our one original bassist-written tune, the same year as Janelle’s Christmas project. Also, I put together a Daughter Silas compilation several years ago, that you can stream and/or download.
Every year, as the Holiday Season approaches, I think about trying to record another Christmas record. I’m not currently in a band, and it’s harder than ever to get musician friends with enough time together for such a project, as well as the forethought to start putting one together long before the holiday Season begins. But I do have a list of songs I would love to work on.
These Christmas projects are among the sessions I look back on with the fondest memories, and I have to return to listen to most of them every year at this holiday time.
Happy Holidays from Uncle Eddy!!!