Category Archives: Music

My Music Career (Part 9) Word

(This is the 14th chapter in this semi-autobiographical series. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on September 24, 2020. It has been slightly edited for this blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)

Digital “Album Cover” for Word

I wrote the 3 songs of Word at different times, and recorded home demos of them.  In 2015, in parallel with my Total Flower Chaos recording project, I took these 3 songs to Brian Hunter, engineer at Sawtelle Studio at Swallow Hill, to remix at professional-level quality.  Brian had engineered Me and The Other Side of Nowhere, so I trusted his expertise.  We also re-recorded the vocals, and, in some cases, we edited and/or added some things to the songs.  I then released the 3 songs as a digital-only EP called Word.  Here’s a description of the 3 songs.

Wave the Flag and Give ’em God (2006)

I got the idea for this song in 2006, while walking with my handheld digital recorder to a Chinese restaurant near my house.  I was thinking about how politicians use patriotism and religion to manipulate people.  I wrote in character of a cynical campaign manager advising his rather dull candidate;  it was obvious at the time that my models were Karl Rove and George Bush.  I also referenced Bill Clinton, during the verse where the campaign manager advises him, “you need to start going to church.”  When Clinton was impeached, I noticed that, all of the sudden, there were photos and videos of him and HIllary attending church, which we had never seen before.  To me it was an obvious attempt to suck up to the religious right that was calling for his impeachment.

For the music, I programmed a hip-hop beat on my drum machine, and recorded electric bass and two electric guitar layers.  I then recorded the spoken word vocals.  I mixed it myself.  I included it as a hidden track on my first acoustic CD as a songwriter, Some Songs I Wrote

While re-mixing it with Brian Hunter in 2016, I sampled the ending of speeches by the last three presidents, saying “God Bless America.”  In the song, the campaign manager advises the candidate:

I want you to end every speech by saying
“God Bless America”
Those 3 words are so powerful
Those 3 words alone will get you millions of votes
Those 3 words combine the two things
patriotism and religion
that allow you to manipulate the common people.
So that’s why I say:
Wave the flag, and give ’em God.
Wave the flag, and give ’em God.

You can listen to, and download, the remix of Wave the Flag and Give ’em God on my Bandcamp site.

Indigenous  (2008-2009)

I’m not going to discuss the lyrics of this song here, because it has a surprise ending, and I don’t want to give it away.  But also the politics of this song need an explanation that would be too lengthy for an email.  Someday I will write a separate blog about it instead.  Suffice to say that the topic is the impact of European colonial settlements on indigenous people.  But not the indigenous people that you think, hence the surprise.

They ridiculed our religion
They ridiculed our way of life
They said we were backward people
They said they brought “civilization” to a backward land
They lied about our history
Some of them even said we were never here when they arrived
But we
were here.

The music of Indigenous is perhaps my most creative and adventurous.  I used a synthesizer to simulate non-western instruments.  It’s definitely the best synth playing I’ve ever done.  I created beat on GarageBand that wasn’t a typical kick drum/snare sound.  Then I added western instruments that I know how to play– acoustic guitar, electric guitar and electric bass.  For the song outro, I play a guitar solo on a heavily distorted electric guitar.  My model for this solo was Carlos Santana, because he plays with so much emotion, and you can hear it.  I think it’s one of my best– if not my best– guitar solo.

Like the other two songs, I took the tracks I recorded at home to Brian Hunter at Swallow Hill.  I re-recorded the vocal, and Brian remixed the tracks.  Check it out on my Bandcamp site.

Accept, Embrace, Surrender (2012-2013)

There is a 4-day class series given every year at the Song School by Paul Reisler, called Directed Writing.  In that class, Paul pairs everyone up with a random person, and you exchange stories about “something that changed you as a person.”  (It was at this class in 2004 that I met Lori Cook, and she wrote “Little White Boy.”)  My friend, Nancy Farmer, took this class in 2011, and was paired up with a singer-songwriter by the name of Joe Stevens.  Joe’s story was that he had been born a girl, but it never felt right.  He always felt like a boy.  As a young adult, he decided to make the change.  This was the story Nancy had to write a song about– and she did– but she felt like she had not done the story justice, and wanted to write a new song for Joe.  I met Nancy at the Song School the following year, in 2012, and she told me about it.  I was intrigued by the challenge, and offered to co-write, and she accepted. 

We began work on it at the Song School in 2012, and continued into the fall.  I had recently seen the documentary movie “Free Style,” which is about free style rapping.  People gather in small groups and take turns rapping.  It all has to be improvised on the spot– nothing can be previously written– and it of course has to rhyme.  And around the same time I saw the Eminem movie, “8 Mile,” which is about “battles,” another form of improvisational rapping. 

After seeing those movies, I decided to try free styling while walking around my neighborhood with my handheld digital recorder.  I had no plans to be a rapper, but I thought it might help me generate some lines for songs, particularly for the song I was doing with Nancy for Joe.  It was very fruitful– I got a lot of potential lines from it.  But in hearing myself back on the recordings, it occurred to me that this style– hip hop– seemed to fit the subject matter.  Hip hop rap has attitude;  it’s defiant.  And what is more defiant that transforming your gender, and becoming who you really are?

I told this to Nancy.  She was less acquainted with hip hop than I was, but she was willing to give it a go.  I drove up to Jamestown, Colorado, where she lives, and we walked around Jamestown free-styling and recording it.  Nancy took to it like a fish to water.  She came up with great lines.  We soon had enough material, and now just had to put it together in a coherent form.

For the music, I decided to make it a blend of hip hop, folk and rock.  I programmed the drum machine, and recorded it all the instruments at home.  I rapped the verses, and Nancy sang the chorus.  Nancy also doubled some of the rapped verse lines for emphasis, in true hip-hop style.  I then mixed it, and we played it for Joe at the 2013 Song School.

I don’t know who I am
but I’ve got my suspicions
What you see isn’t me
and the signs point in both directions

In 2015 I took the tracks to Brian Hunter at Swallow Hill, and he added some effects and remixed it.  Please have a listen to Accept, Embrace, Surrender by Rob Roper and Nancy Farmer on my Bandcamp site, and download it if you like it.

The Release of Word

Word was released in January, 2016.  Given the decline in CD sales, I decided to release the 3 songs of Word in digital form only, for download and streaming.  You can listen to them on most of the streaming services, such as Apple Music, Tidal, Deezer, Amazon Prime, Spotify, etc.  But please consider buying the downloads, since even a $1 download pays 500-1000 times more than a steam.  And Bandcamp allows you to pay more than a dollar if you want to help the artist.  All download money helps me pay for future recording projects.

Word Artwork

Since I didn’t release Word as a CD, I didn’t hire a graphics artist to design the CD artwork.  But I needed a pseudo-album cover for the digital release, so I created a simple text cover, as you can see above.  Boring.  I’m hoping to find a fan who is a graphics artist who would like to volunteer their time and skills to design an “album cover” for Word. Better yet, artwork for each of the 3 songs. It could be a different artist for each song. I would love that. But alas, I have not found such a person yet. Email me if you’re interested: rob@robroper.com

Next: I go back to school to study music theory.

My Music Career (Part 8) Total Flower Chaos

(This is the 13th chapter in this semi-autobiographical series. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on July 29, 2020. It has been edited for this blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)

Music Full Time!

In March, 2014, I was laidoff from my day job as a field service technician for an IT company.  I volunteered for the layoff, because I had saved almost two years pay over the past several years, and wanted to do music full-time for awhile.  I knew I would have to take another day job when the money ran out, but I was going to take advantage of this for as long as I could.  I was now a fulltime musician.  It felt great;  it felt natural, waking up in the morning and going to work, not for The Man, but for my music. 

Colorado Gigs and a Vacation to the Northwest

Around this time, my acoustic trio, Scupanon, was making progress, playing more gigs in more venues.  Dorian had completed its demo recording in February and was finally ready to gig.  In early July, I took a 3-week vacation to the Pacific Northwest.  Having never been in that part of the country, I took my time and drove through Wyoming and Idaho. 

I wanted to check out the music scene in Portland and Seattle.  Not having a day job, I was considering touring as a solo singer-songwriter, so I brought an acoustic guitar with the goal of playing a couple of open mics and testing the waters.  In Portland, I played an open mic at the Artichoke Cafe, a folk music venue.  I was then invited to play a set at a show later that week.  I was also invited to play a short set at a singer-songwriter showcase at the White Eagle in Portland. 

The White Eagle in Portland, 2014

Then I drove to Seattle, where I had an interesting little epiphany.  I went to live music bar, and there was a guy playing solo acoustic.  A person sitting at the bar next to me asked, “Do you know who that is?”  He said the guy’s name and that he was in such-and-such rock band, who I hadn’t heard of.  Frankly, I wasn’t impressed; I didn’t think he was any better than me.  But everyone in the bar sat in raptured silence, as if it was Kurt Cobain playing solo acoustic.  That got me thinking about my musical image.  I never really wanted to be a solo singer-songwriter.  I always enjoyed playing with people in a band.  I realized that I wanted to be like that guy– a guy who is known for his rock band, and plays solo occasionally.  That ended my flirtation with being a touring solo singer-songwriter. 

Total Flower Chaos

Dorian played its first gig at the Larimer Lounge in Denver on July 27, 2014, and would continue playing gigs into the fall and Spring of 2015.  I continued co-writing songs with them, but at the same time, I was writing other rock songs that didn’t fit the Dorian style.  I decided to make a solo rock record, and, in December, 2014, I contacted Evergroove Studio in the mountains outside Evergreen, Colorado, and scheduled sessions for June, 2015.

Evergroove Studio

At this time I only had one finished rock song with lyrics, “The Voice of Doubt.”  Everything else was just rough ideas– a chord progression or a riff.  I had hundreds of these.  I had read in interviews that The Cure, The Church and Sonic Youth– 3 of my favorite bands– all wrote songs by writing and recording the music first, and then the lyricist would write lyrics.  I decided to try that technique.  So my first goal was to get the music composed and recorded in demo form for several songs.  I would write lyrics later.  I worked furiously on that for the next 5 months.  Meanwhile I was not only gigging with Scupanon and Dorian, but doing all the promotional and admininstrative work for both bands.  I was busy.  But I had no day job!

By May, 2015, I had a handful of song demos recorded, without lyrics.  I was ready to go into the studio.  I ran a Kickstarter Crowdfunding Project and raised $4,000– about half of the projected cost.  I covered the rest from my savings.

The Recording of Roses

The engineer and co-producer, Brad Smalling, brought in Cameron Hays to play bass and help with the song arrangements, and Ben Waligoske for lead guitar.  I recruited Dorian’s drummer, Jon Cox, to play drums.  We met a couple of times and rehearsed.  I told the “band” that I was open to suggestions on the arrangements, and the songs were changed even while recording in the studio.  I decided to record the basic tracks live in the studio– drums, bass and two guitars.  That was done in late June, 2015.

After the basics were recorded, I came back in July and recorded more guitar layers, and Ben recorded guitar solos for all the songs except “Carmine’s Dream.”  Brad brought jazz keyboardist Adam Bodine in to add keyboard parts.  He mainly played Evergroove’s Hammond B2 organ with the rotating Leslie speaker. 

Setup for drums, bass and rhythm guitar recording
Adam Bodine

I mentioned before that I wanted to use the technique of some of my favorite bands and write lyrics after the music was completed.  But I struggled with that, and decided to compose melodies on guitar instead, and make it a pure instrumental rock album.  One of the songs, The “Voice of Doubt,” already had lyrics, written years before.  It didn’t make sense to only have one song with lyrics on the album, so I I decided to hold it for a later album.  In 2019 I released it as a Total Flower Chaos single.

I spent the second half of the summer and the early fall composing and recording melodies and other guitar layers for the songs.  Mixing and mastering was completed in February, 2016. 

Album Title and Artwork

Many years before this, I was walking past a neighbor’s house, and their yard was all flowers.  And the flowers weren’t neatly arranged like a landscaping company would do.  It was wild, chaotic and natural-looking.  I stopped and looked at it and smiled, and said to myself, “this is total flower chaos.”  I then immediately said to myself, “hey!  That’s a good name for a band!”  I decided to make this new album with the Total Flower Chaos bandname, with the idea that I would form the band with that name after releasing it.  But the band idea took a detour, as we will see in a future chapter in this series.

Photo I took of my neighbor’s yard. “Total Flower Chaos”

In March, 2016, I hired Nick Jackson, who did the artwork for my second CD, Me, to design the artwork for the album.  I sent him photos of my neighbor’s yard, as well as photos from my front yard flower garden.  Nick chose a photo of the neighbor’s yard that featured roses.  He used software to distort it and I loved the design (see photo).  I decided to name the album Roses as a result of his design.  I also used his design for a Total Flower Chaos tshirt.  The tshirts were completed in May, 2016, and finally everything was in place for the release. 

On June 7, 2016, Roses by Total Flower Chaos was released. 

“Roses” by Total Flower Chaos album cover

How was Roses received?

The $8,000 I raised for the album was just enough to pay for the cost of recording, mixing, mastering, artwork, replication of 300 CDs, and digital distribution.  There was no money for promotion. 

As for the reception from my fans, the truth is, it was largely ignored.  I sold less than 10 CDs and downloads.  But actually, I expected a cool reception because most of you had become fans because of my acoustic performances and albums, and were probably bewildered by this instrumental psychedelic, hard rock album.  I realize that most people aren’t like me– loving both hard rock and folk music.  But I have met a few people who really like it.  “Black Mountain” seems to be the favorite song.

What I learned from Roses

I’m quite proud of Roses.  As a music composer and guitarist, it was a major step forward for me, another step beyond what I had done with Dorian.  I used 5 different guiitar tunings on these songs.  I blended hard rock and metal with Cure-like clean guitar melodies, Church-like psychedlic music and Sonic Youth-style noise.  I learned how to compose melodies on guitar– check out what I did with “Carmine’s Dream.”  If you had told me a year earlier that I would make an instrumental rock album, with composed guitar melodies, I would have told you you’re crazy, I could never do that.  But I did.  And it’s good!  And Roses was a step towards the original goal I had when I took up songwriting in 2004– to write rock songs and lead a rock band. 

Smell the Roses!

If you haven’t yet, please give a listen to the 5 songs of Roses.  You can listen for free at the Total Flower Chaos Bandcamp site.  (Note that this is a different site than the Rob Roper Bandcamp site.)  If you like the music, you can buy the Roses CD with it’s beautiful artwork on the Bandcamp site. You can also buy the CD at any of my live shows, whenever things get going again!  I will autograph any CD if you request it.  You can also download the album or individual songs on the Bandcamp site.  Bandcamp allows you to pay more than the listed price, if you want to help me recover some of my investment, and raise money to record my next album.

Total Flower Chaos songs are also available on all the streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, etc..  I have created a Spotify playlist of the 5 instrumentals plus the single, “Voice of Doubt.”  But keep in mind that a $1 download pays 1000 times more than a stream, so please consider downloading your favorite songs on the Bandcamp site.

Coming next:  my 3-song spoken word EP, Word, released in the same year as Roses