McCurdy stretches musical muscles on "15 Favorites"
by Drew Olson
With a wife, two young sons and a heavy schedule of live performances, Pat McCurdy needed nine months to record his ninth solo CD.
OnMilwaukee.com chatted with the Milwaukee singer-songwriter about his latest effort, "15 Favorites."
OnMilwaukee.com: Whose "15 Favorites" are these songs?
Pat McCurdy: Mine. Well, they're not anybody's, really. I just thought it was a catchy title. They're certainly not the favorite songs of most people who come to see my shows.
OMC: Given all your commitments, how did you find time to write and record a CD?
PM: It's difficult. All the writing gets done late at night. The recording was all done on weekends. It's pretty tough. The studio I use (Nexus Studios in Waukesha) is open evenings and weekends. I can't go there on a weeknight. I just do Saturdays and Sundays, pretty much. It took four sessions a month from October until about June.
OMC: Did you ever think about putting a studio in your house and working there?
PM: I don't know anything about technology. I was floating the idea of getting an 8-track digital recorder and recording a live CD on our own. But, I don't know.
OMC: It seems like most of your fans would be happy if you went into the studio and recorded the songs exactly the way you play them live.
PM: They would prefer live CDs. Almost hands down.
OMC: You play live almost every night, just you and the guitar. How liberating is it to go in the studio and play around and add textures and sounds to the songs?
PM: That's exactly why I do the CDs. I have so much fun. There are songs where there are 24 tracks of me singing. I layered the singing like crazy.
OMC: What's your writing process like? When you compose a song, do you think about it for you and the guitar in the live setting? Or, do you hear in your head the more elaborate things we hear on the CD?
PM: The CD is how I hear the song when I'm playing it live. That's where I get the ideas. I multi-task.
PM: Normally, the ideas I have are much simpler. Then you get in the studio and you say, "Wow. I think I'll do this." I wanted to play a bunch of different instruments on this CD.
OMC: I noticed the ukulele ...
PM: I love the ukulele. Every time I pick it up, I have to refresh myself with the chords. I don't have them locked in. I have this ukulele book. I had a banjo, too, and I got to throw that in there even though it was missing a string.
OMC: There is a fair amount of piano on the CD. Do you write some songs on piano?
PM: Never. A lot of them are written in my head. I don't even sit there with a guitar when I make them up. Here's what I'll do: I'll make them up when we're driving home at night (after a show). Pipe (Jim Schaufelberger, sound and lights) and Murf (manager Brian Murphy) can attest to this. They'll hear me gently singing in the front seat. They know I'm making up songs. What I do sometimes is use my cell phone and call the Pat Line at my house and leave a message for myself. Sometimes, I can't figure out what I was saying. Some of them are keepers. There are a couple songs on this CD that are cell phone songs.
OMC: What do you have against drummers and bass players?
PM: It's bands, not drummers.
OMC: Well, you could have played drums or used a drum machine. You could have thrown a bass in there, too.
PM: I've found that the people who come to see me play like that even less. It's too different from what they're used to. If you strip down these songs, the basic tracks are me singing live with four mics. I sing into one and there are three on the guitar. It's close to what I do live but then I get to have my way and have the fun stuff. If you listen close, there is a little drumming. I played bass drum on one song. I played cymbals. I played bongos a little bit.
Have you ever heard of a band called "The Divine Comedy?"
PM: It's an English guy (Neil Hannon) who does these orchestral pop songs. His stuff will have 30 strings on a song and it's really interesting music. It's kind of gothic, but '60s pop-ish, too. It's pretty cool. I listened to a lot of that and thought, "If he can do it, so can I."
OMC: You're so used to singing live, a lot of times with people singing back to you. How strange is it to just sing in a studio alone?
PM: Very strange. It takes a long time to be able to cut loose like you do live. You don't sing as loud in the studio. You hear your voice better. You say "Oh, my God." There are a couple of notes on the CD -- I left them in, because I was playing live -- but some of them are so out of tune that I just cringe when I hear them. But, I left them in.
OMC: There are a couple of moments when you're starting a vocal part and it sounds like you're laughing. Did something funny happen in the studio at those points or were you kind of mugging for the crowd out of habit?
PM: On one of them, my voice cracked a little bit. It sounded funny to me, so I started laughing. It sounded nice in the song, so I just kind of left it in. I left them all in. You kind of go for the feeling. I do, anyway. Music is processed enough now. Listen to that Eagles single that is out now, it sounds like it could be made by machines. Everything is so perfect.
OMC: The opening track on the CD, "Unplug Yourself," is an interesting take for a guy who is not techno-savvy:
"Unplug yourself, turn off the screen
Switch off your phone and float downstream
Then disconnect your circuitry
Cut all the cords and you'll be free
To see some real people for a change
Stick out your hands and try to catch the rain"
You're not exactly addicted to e-mails and Blackberrys. How did you tap into that?
PM: I made that up because I was playing a show in Eau Claire and this drunk woman was standing in front of me with her back to me, text messaging through the whole set. She was in the middle of 150 screaming people. And she was drunk, because she was swaying a little bit. But, she kept on texting. I thought, "You can't put that thing down, with all this bedlam and excitement going on?"
I started noticing other people, and I do this too, you clutch your cell phone. You walk into a bar and you need to know where it is. It's always within arm's reach. Or, you see two people walking down the street, ostensibly together, and they're talking on their cell phones. Then there are the Bluetooth people, who are talking to themselves. That's creepy to me.
OMC: You do the "F*ck Buddy Song," is different than the way you play it live. It starts with the "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," piano treatment and ends up sounding a bit like a Queen song.
PM: That's supposed to be more like Gilbert and Sullivan.
OMC: When I heard the song "Give Me Your Love," I thought of the classic pop songs you used to hear on AM radio. It's two minutes five seconds, but it doesn't seem short because it's kind of self-contained.
PM: I'm real proud of the middle of that. It completely changes key and it goes in a direction where you don't expect it to.
OMC: It reminds me of an early Beatles single.
PM: I've listened to so much Beatles with my boys. With the minute counter on my Toyota van, you see how long the songs are. "Norwegian Wood" is a minute and 51 seconds. A lot of songs on "Revolver" are two minutes long. You get all that effort and all that stuff in two short minutes. It's amazing. Then, in the van, Pipe and I will listen to the Dixie Chicks and the songs are all five minutes. They're good songs. They're very well played. But, they could cut a lot of crap out.
OMC: A lot of songs seem to have a throwaway verse that is just there to pad things out.
PM: I've been listening to the new Springsteen CD and he's really cut back. The solos are short. The CD goes by quickly and you want to listen to it again. That's kind of what I was going for.
OMC: The song "Strange Things Happen" is pretty clearly homage to Herman's Hermits and "Something Tells Me I'm Into Something Good."
PM: Yep. It's a complete rip. I love that song. The original version was by a girl group. That's great, too.
OMC: The song "Those Were Not the Days" has a Beach Boys feel.
PM: That's one where I have about 25 tracks of vocals.
OMC: One of the more interesting songs on the CD is "Life is a Buffet." You've got this happy, calypso beach groove going and then you hit the listener with an Agnostic verse:
"Well I know what you believe, I know just how you feel; But what if Hell's a myth, what if Heaven isn't real? What if all your prayers fall on non-existent ears? If there's no afterlife, well you'd better live one here"
PM: That's just something I've been thinking about lately.
OMC: The song "Too Soon to Tell," has a feel similar to things that you'd have written a long time ago, like on the CD "Memorial Day."
PM: That was one of the newer ones, actually. But, I was still kind of writing with a band in mind. It's not goofy or anything.
OMC: You have goofy with "Tiny People (With Enormous Heads)" and "Monkey Paw." The first one reminds me of the itsy, bitsy bikinis and purple people eaters.
PM: I like novelty songs. "Tiny People," -- this whole CD is sort of for my hardcore fans in Madison and Chicago. That's a song I don't even play anywhere else.
"Monkey Paw," I play everywhere and everybody loves it. I can sell a few more CDs with that on there.
I really had more fun doing that track. The last verse is another one where I sang the chorus and sang the bass part. That was so much fun. It was so hard to do.
OMC: What's the next CD going to be like? Is it in the works?
PM: The next one will probably be a live one. I've got three songs that I did for this CD that I didn't even use. The last song, "Happy Ever After," is one that I wrote on Monday and recorded on Saturday.
That's one of my problems. I'm my own producer. I don't have anyone saying, "Don't do that one." That would probably help greatly with my recorded output, but I don't like anybody telling me what to do.
OMC: A lot of artists would be envious of that freedom. It seems to have worked out pretty well in this case.
PM: I'm proud of this CD. Most of the time, I'd never send them to places like the Journal Sentinel to get reviewed. But, I sent them one. Of course, they'll never listen to it. But, I sent it, anyway.