The view outside my house while recording Ilsa - February 2015
I started recording Ilsa a month or so prior, but the bulk of the tracking was done in January and February of 2015. If any of you live in Chicagoland or the upper midwest, you'll probably remember that last winter was bone chillingly cold and came with an excess of snow. So it's no surprise that Ilsa sounds more like a record to listen to indoors or with headphones on than it does a windows down, top volume sort of record. In my mind, there is no doubt that the snow and cold made it's way onto the feeling of the record. Couple that with the fact that I was by myself during almost all or the sessions and you can start to connect some of the dots as to why it sounds the ways it does.
That is not to say that Ilsa is a depressing record, in fact I think of it as hopeful. But I often associate certain records in my collection with certain times of the year or tend to listen to them more during certain seasons or occasions. I think the best ones do that, thay make you associate something in your own life with them, making them personal to the listener. Maybe some people just like all music whenever, and I do too in a lot of cases, but there are always those that are really closely associated with a time and place.
In any case, I hope that you can find enjoyment all year round and maybe more in certain months.
I'm very lucky to have a group of extremely talented, unique and interesting long time friends of which Peter Hoffman is a part of. Pete is always good for some strong debate, laughter and some thought provoking conversation. One of those recent conversations centered around the bad cd's we spent money on in our youth while being pretty oblivious to Sleater-Kinney. Pete's also an unbelievable dancer and once you have seen it, you'll never be the same. With an ability to mesmerize using his lightning quick feet, impressive stamina and flair which I attribute mostly to his semi-paleo diet and love for trail running, he can turn any gathering into a ridiculous dance party.
Pete makes his living as a photographer, and a darn good one at that. It might seems like it would be tough to connect dots from photography to music, but Pete and I seem to have little issue in relating the mediums or at least our views on how we approach our work or that of others. He has really made think a lot about what art is, what the value of it is, and why anyone would make it. Pete has been a huge inspiration to me in that he has a style that is his own, framing the world through influences past and present. He is unafraid to strive and possibly fail and because of that it's rare that he does.
Always being a good friend and a huge supporter of my music I asked if he might be interested in contributing a photograph for the album art. The idea was that once I finished tracking Ilsa, I'd give Pete the rough mixes, let him sit with them and then he'd go out and shoot whatever he felt like fit the songs. I was curious to see what he translated from sound to sight through his camera and after a couple weeks he returned about twenty to thirty photo's he'd either shot before that he felt fit the work or he had shot with his perceived mood of the record specifically in mind. I didn't know which was which, but I was pretty instantly drawn to the photo that became the cover and it turns out that he shot it with the music in mind. Somehow, he had captured the feeling and emotion of what I was trying to express with this photograph. Pete's good like that.
So how did we miss Sleater-Kinney? Well neither of us had older siblings, so we were left to our own devices and therefore, give ourselves passes. But more seriously, we failed in identifying lasting value and we must have known that somehow back then because we were not content and kept on searching. I am not going to speak for Pete, but I suppose that is what I am trying to do. Keep pushing a little further in search of creating something better. I have no idea what the means or where that takes me but I suppose the finish line is not the really the point. Pete helps to continuously remind me of that, keeps me honest and inspires me to keep reaching a little further.
I suggest you check out some of Pete's work here. I particularly love the Fox River Derivatives and Untitled: Loop Pt. 2
It's here! I couldn't be happier to share this record with you and really hope that you'll dig it. You can grab it at pretty much any online music retailer (the following see to be popular - iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp), stream it on every streaming service imaginable and for a limited time I am happy to get it to you for a pay what you want option (yes, even free!) via Noisetrade.com! Click right here get it for whatever price your heart desires.
If you do enjoy it, please feel free to spread the love and give it to friends, family, co-workers, enemies, favorite baristas, your pets groomer and anyone else you can think of that might be interested. Remember, it's free to download and stream!
As I have been doing over the last couple weeks, I'll continue to share the people, places and things that helped me make Ilsa in the blog at mikecastlemusic.com. I've had a lot of people reach out and let me know they have enjoyed it and shared similar personal experiences which has really been wonderful. If you're so compelled, don't hesitate to reach out.
Finally I want to thank everyone who helped along the way, and none more than Elisa and Eva. I'll write about them in greater detail later.
Please Enjoy - Mike
Like many musicians, I geek out about gear. I spend time at shops, online and my good buddy Neil (one time member of original backing band The Wolffman) and I seemingly don't go much more than a couple weeks without sending texts about this gear or that gizmo. Everyone loves and wants stuff from the 50's and 60's because it's awesome but I also have a lot of stuff that I've collected for the last fifteen years or so that end up making it on to records, regardless of vintage or price tag. Odd things, cheap things, expensive things, things passed to me by people who don't want them; they all have a home in my collection. My space is the island of misfit gear in a lot of ways. Enter my Boss Phase Shifter. Likely described by no one as coveted, this thing has somehow made it on to most records that I have recorded on in some shape or form. So many times I have thought to myself that I should get rid of it, but the thing is the resale value of these is so low that I just end up keeping it anyway.
To be totally honest, it's a pretty average at best piece of gear, some might even describe it as poor. It boosts or cuts, depending on the stage setting, it really can add some very ugly color to your tone if you let it, and it's just not a cool looking pedal. All that said, I have not really come across a phase shifting pedal that does really sound great in all situations or that you don't have to really try and manipulate to work in a mix, and so I keep toying and making it work for me.
On Ilsa, I wanted some swirling sounds at different points and I wanted to add some movement to some guitar parts that had long sustain. I also had been using a lot of fuzz on the record and I wanted to distinguish different moods in different songs. What I really wanted was the Crowther Audio Prunes and Custard pedal but I didn't have one and I couldn't find one that was suitable to my budget so I just tried to make my own. You only hear the phase coupled with the fuzz on Ilsa but you hear it in varying degrees and you hear it a lot. It's most prominent on 'Lake of Fire' where the slow guitar swell and move and then end in full on noise. If I may boast, I think it's my finest use of phase.
Like many works, this effect pedal gets overlooked, put down, critiqued and maybe even forgotten. Sometimes it feels like it has no real value at all. In some ways, it feels a bit like putting Ilsa out is the Boss Phase Shifter pedal amongst all the other beautiful, well made, more colorful effect pedals available out there. The truth is that like anything that anyone is passionate about, there is value, if used properly, just more to some people than others. There have been a lot of phases in my journey, this seems to be the truest so far. I hope you enjoy it.
I don’t know why I decided to make this a songwriting book, its actually a personal organizer, mostly a calendar with random notes pages and blank pages for sketches and such. I just chose to write over everything. It was given to me by my wife, who thought I should be carrying something like this around, specifically when I was not using my iPhone to keep track of things and that thought i'd be able to sketch and such. I was accepted into the Art Institute of Chicago some years back but never really pursued it so she has always really encouraged that I keep it up. The book itself is not very masculine looking to be honest, but that is really not a big concern of mine at this point in my life so carrying it around is just fine by me and this little guy was easy enough to tote around. Eventually I just thought to myself "why not just write over everything?"
Since I started writing Ilsa in large part on the road, it’s was nice to be able to make quick notes and it houses a lot of those along with ideas, chords, sketches and lyrics. Anything that seemed like it might be useable went in. I also have to admit that the inspirational messages throughout the book were helpful. Make It Happen. Write Every Day. Today Is The Day. Think. Dream. Believe. As cheese ball as they are, when you I looked at them so consistently, it felt like Elisa was there with the positive re-enforcement that I often needed and probably the reason she gave it to me in the first place. She knows me better than I know myself.
I’ll probably retire it now and move onto another notebook since there is not much space left. I also thought that maybe i’d keep notes about things pertaining to the record after it gets released, just as a little time capsule and something to look back on. I'm certainly not a Neo-Luddite but I still do like flipping through books and touching paper.
Either way, I did make it happen, so thanks, little book.
Photo by Calvin Engel
Without Marty, this record would likely not have happened like it did.
Marty and I met our freshman year in high school where we were both out of place meatheads. Our friendship really started later on when we started playing in a band together, although I can't remember the exact circumstances of how that came about to be honest. Marty knew about music, he knew something about theory and harmony, he came from a musical family and had what I considered at the time to be far more refined taste than most of us High School kids. Marty introduced me to Radiohead at a time when some of musical choices were, well, questionable, and helped me become a far more discerning listener. I like to think that some of my better choices rubbed off on him as well, being a flag bearer for the burgeoning garage rock scene of the late 90's and early 00's.
It was the encouragement that I received from Marty that led me to make Ilsa on my own. By this time it seemed like we were both listening to a lot of artists that kind of opted for a sound that didn't sound like it costed a lot of money and were DIYing it themselves. The Mac Demarco’s and Ty Segall's of the world. When I showed him the demos I remember him telling me to just do it. "These are a lot better than your other stuff." Part of what I value about our friendship is his honesty. "Just do it yourself. Get the drums to sound like drums," he said. It was with his help that I bought and borrowed a little equipment and we set up mics and started recording drums.
Two channels was all we had, taking a fair amount of time and care to get a sound that we liked and making sure it didn't feel like a two mic set up. Recording drums this way presented some pretty serious challenges but beauty in the limitations. I'm a limited drummer to begin with so forcing me underplay and to let the drums be the backbone, rather than a focal point turned out to be pretty key. I think it's possible that I would have really tried a lot harder to do things that I'm not capable of had we had more resources and this probably would have led to scraping it all from the jump. I'm not sure if this was part of Marty's genius or just the way things unfolded but either way, it worked. We spent two days on drums for Ilsa in which Marty served as the engineer. After that, Marty exited, allowing me to do my thing on everything else. I'd have him listen in from time to time to make sure I was on the right path and once we were finished, Marty was back to work on the mixes, undoubtedly shaping the record.
It’s a pretty rare thing that people make music together over a long period of time. It’s really hard. People have a lot of differing opinions, tastes and agendas. Bands come and go and often friendships are made and broken in that time. It should be said that Marty has played a role, in every one of my records, either playing, helping write, engineering and/or mixing. For me, it’s important to have someone with an opinion I trust to bounce things off of. Someone who I am on the same wavelength as but also thing totally different than. For me, that person is Marty. Beyond being a collaborator and a contributor, he’s a true friend, and that, beyond anything else, helped to shape Ilsa into what it became.
We used only Camel cigarette commercials from the 1960's in the making of this video. They were all in the public domain so we grabbed them. Interestingly one of the tag lines used over and over was "They're not for everybody," which also felt fitting.
Please enjoy the smooth flavors.
One of my favorite films of all time is the 1942 classic Casablanca. This film is one of those pieces of art that has set the standard against which I judge all other art. It goes right up there with The White Album and The Sun Also Rises and to say that I hold this movie in the highest regard would be an understatement. I'm a sucker for a lot of movies of that era and almost anything with Humphrey Bogart in it peaks my interest. This is pretty astounding to me given that even being mindful of it, my attention span can be fleeting, a quality that I'm sure many of my generational counterparts can empathize with.
During the time I was making Ilsa I watched the film again and realized that the major themes present in it mirrored what I was trying to express. While not totally apparent at first, you realize that this is a love story in it's truest form. Even though it's set in Nazi occupied early 1940's Moracco, the struggle of finding and keeping love has not changed, only the circumstances in which we do so have. It's easy to say that love is simple and between two people and if they are in love nothing can keep them apart, but that is naive. Love changes, makes you question your values, makes you do things you might not do without it. The struggle is eternal.
The pivotal person in Casablanca for me is Ilsa. She is flawed and perfect all at once, the very essence of everything worth while in our world. Nothing is perfect, and no time is right. But Ilsa, for a short time was the ideal; something to aspire to with all your being and proof that desiring that ideal, that time and that place is not a fools errand. It's a reminder of what we should be doing everyday, driven by love and that which inspires. It's a reminder that life will not work out the way we planned or wanted it to in so many ways but that does not mean life stops or the world quits spinning.
Ilsa for me is personal. It's an idea and it's people. For me, it's not a far stretch to relate to either of the flawed main character of Casablanca, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) or Ilsa (Ingred Bergman), but because of the easy gender association I always gravitate towards Bogart, imagining this man in modern times as a man like myself, struggling to figure it all out. The story is easily relatable to me because of the mirroring in gender yes, but I subscribe that gender is not important when examining the overall theme. Love happens at messy times and under the poorest of circumstances but it's always there and always will be there a the only thing that truly matters. That is what Ilsa is all about.
Photo taken from Shannon Stephenson
You should know Nate for a number of reasons. The first being he is an excellent guy. The second, is he is the only person besides myself to play on Ilsa. And third, he is super tall and makes me look like a ventriloquist dummy when we are photographed together.
Nate and I met on New Years Eve a couple years back and quickly became friends, playing and hanging on the regular, which quickly led into some recording sessions the first week of February that year. He was only supposed to come in and track piano, but stayed to hang out, help and give feedback. Nate is a real actual honest to goodness musician who possesses mountains of technical ability and skill, which to be honest, made me pause when we started playing together. Massive amounts of proficiency often comes with some pretty defined rules, rigidity and an unwillingness to not play “the right notes” (translation; sometimes musicians that really know what they are doing are boring to me) but Nate has the unique ability to translate those notes into something more interesting and a willingness to "go for it" that never makes his playing boring. Knowing what everyone "should" play, he has no issues heading the opposite direction and making things ugly when the time is right.
When we began to make the new record, Nate took making Ilsa as seriously as I did, bringing notebooks of ideas to the sessions and taking a lot of time before we hit record to get things right. I clearly remember one particular instance where we were discussing a certain section, he said “so you want me to just pound on the keys?” I couldn't tell if it was horror, excitement or both that I saw on his face and heard in is voice in that moment but he figured out a way to make it work. Sometimes he'd suffer my rudimentary piano playing and would nod and say “oh, ok,” as to say "yea, I understand what you are trying to tell me, but really you mean this..." sit down behind the keys and make that idea one hundred times better than I could have imagined. It always felt like he took some ownership in the songs as he never just phoned it in or threw up his hands and said “thats good enough, I gotta get out of here.” He’d be positive that he could come up with something better, something more suited to the mood of the song, something that felt better. We were on the same wavelength, a rare and invaluable experience when making music with someone.
Ilsa was always supposed to be a dynamic recording, filled with noise and space and ferocity and beauty, and I think that without Nate, it would not have gotten there. He brought the goods and his playing pushed the songs into a better place than they would have been without him. Often, the end result was informed by his playing and pushed the sonic landscape closer to the vision and intension of what I wanted to final work to be. Thanks Nate.
When I started making Ilsa, I had no idea where it was going to end up. I knew it was going to take some time to get there, much longer than I had taken on any record I had made before. I knew I wanted to turn 20 demos into a full length record. The way I imagined it, sound was going to to play as big a role as lyrics. There were ideas and emotions that I just couldn't communicate through words but I knew what they felt like and I knew what that sounded like in my head. Getting what I heard and felt into a sound recording was going to be the challenge and the reward.
A lot happened in my life during the writing and recording on this record. Embracing those experiences and sharing them is important for me. It is disarming and it's true, frightening and exciting. I hope you'll enjoy it in whatever small way and bring some amount of happiness and love into your life.
Don't be a stranger.