Performer Magazine premiered a video (and David Bowie song) that Tim Huggins and I recorded recently.
Here’s what I said about the track:
Every February I go to Kansas City for Folk Alliance International. It’s a really special event, and it’s always inspiring but after four days and nights of un-amplified acoustic music you kind of need a palette cleanser.
So for the past two years, on the last night of the festival, my buddy Tim and I have gone late-night to a local studio and recorded a bunch of 70’s pop and rock covers. We only have a handful of hours until dawn to get the takes, so we try to keep it un-fussy: put down the basics live, throw on some extra guitar, sing the vocals, mix the song, go eat breakfast. This year we did “Oh! You Pretty Things” and a swampy version of Badfinger/Nilsson/Mariah Carey staple “Without You.”
By next year we might have enough of these sloppy cover songs to release a whole record, but for now I at least wanted to put this video out there, since Bowie’s passing was still very heavy on our hearts when we went into the studio. It’s a song I’d covered live a few times, but we’d always done it the faithful way, with the drums only coming in on the choruses.
That night Tim got his friend Mike Patrum, who plays with Kerry Livgren, to come and record drums, and I figured if he’s gonna be here, we might as well have him play on the whole song… thus the bigger arrangement.
As for the song itself, the chords kill me. So good. Not sure Bowie gets enough credit for how genius his harmonic changes were. And the lyrics, so bizarre, with the Ubermensch starman stuff amidst the cozy domestic details…
I just watched the preview for Werner Herzog’s “Lo and Behold” and started really obsessing over the obsolescence of mankind. Gotta make way for the Homo Superior!
And here’s Breting Engel playing a set right before ours at The Midwestern Musical Co. This store is one of the coolest music establishments I’ve been in, run by the coolest of people — very fun, welcoming folks.
And here’s us back at the hotel in one of those upstairs showcases — taken by the lovely Oregonian songwriter Kathryn Claire.
Then, after hanging for one final afternoon in Kansas City, watching the Lego Movie, making a trip to FedEx, and discovering that the midwest winters can actually be more forgiving than Maine’s, I flew home.
Here’s a shot of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument (obviously not in Kansas… or Missouri).
In 2004, I joined a band called The Imprints with this bass player who’d recently moved to Portland, Oregon from Austin, TX — and he kept talking about how cold it was all the time. He’d actually wear long johns (thermal underwear) in the the Fall, Winter, and Spring. This in a place where it maybe snows once a year.
Ok, maybe that would’ve made sense considering he’d traveled from Texas. But come to find out, he’s actually from KANSAS — where it sometimes actually IS really cold! So how could that mild Oregon air feel so harsh in his bones?
Well, the whole body temperature regulation thing remains a mystery to me. But one thing is for sure: I’m happy to have met and befriended Tim Huggins.
We’ve played together in various projects throughout the years, and now — after having both moved away from Portland, Oregon — we’re meeting up in Kansas City, MO (his new town) to perform a handful of times at the International Folk Alliance Conference. Graham Nash and Al Gore will also be there, so ya now, that’s kinda cool.
Anyway, I’m excited to play some of my new tunes with Tim on bass and vocal harmonies. If you’re out there in Middle America, come see one of our showcases!
“Silent Night” — written in 1818 by J. Mohr and F. Gruber
Chris Robley – arrangement, guitars, vocals, casios Mike Coykendall – engineering, drums
East Greenwich, Rhode Island.
If you take Old Frenchtown Road west off Route 2 and head back into the woods a few miles, you’ll come to a small Baptist church where I spent every Sunday morning until I was 17; a wooden-pews-and-sturdy-hymns kinda place founded in 1798; heavy velvet curtains hiding the steps going down into the baptismal font behind the pulpit.
Every year on Christmas Eve there was a candlelight service which commenced with the same reading from the Gospel of Luke that you hear Linus recite in A Charlie Brown Christmas. King James, of course.Followed by a sermon recounting the Nativity.
Then we’d light our candles in a chain, starting with the pastor at the front of the church. The darkened sanctuary began to glow, signifying Christ’s light spreading out across the world. Warm orange on the walls. The wet glimmer of yellow and white in every eye. Shadows moving on the ceiling like a tide, back and forth, back and forth, as we swayed — singing. It was the kind of sound that had weight and mass, the way it could hold you: all three verses of “Silent Night” sung a cappella, and miraculously — in key!
I haven’t been a churchgoer in almost 15 years, but one thing that’s never changed for me is the emotional power of “Silent Night.” It was my grandmother’s favorite carol and I’m sure a bit of sentimentality and nostalgia work their way into my heart whenever I hear it — but really it’s just a great song written by a couple Austrians (via Salzburg), and it’s still going strong after almost 200 years.
“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” — words written by Father Joseph Mohr:
… and music composed by Franz Xaver Gruber:
Our congregation would sing it in English, of course. And also in unison, without any organ or piano accompaniment. SometimesI would amuse myself by imagining all the wrong chords behind that familiar melody. Is there such a thing as imaginarily subversive?
Many years later, a couple of those “wrong” chords worked their way into my version of “Silent Night.” It was recorded at Blue Room Studios, which is essentially my friend Mike Coykendall’s amazing, vibey, highly analog attic studio. Hey, that should be the title of a blog: Mike Coykendall’s Highly Analog Attic!
Anyway, this version of Silent Night was tracked over a few hours, and is based around an alternate guitar tuning so strange (to me) that it takes 15 minutes to re-figure it out every winter. For guitarists keeping score at home, it’s E-G-E-G-C-E.
For the session, I played acoustic guitar and then doubled the same part on Mike’s Nashville-strung acoustic. Nice n’ bright n’ chimey. Then I layered the hell out of my vocals. Yes, I swear all those vocals are me putting on my best choir-boy voice. Then we added a little casio keyboard line or two and Mike laid down some super minimal drum parts.
I think we took a break at that point and walked down to Zack’s Shack, a hot dog joint on Hawthorne in southeast Portland, close to where Mike lives. (Try the dog with double-slaw on top!) Then back to Mike’s to mix the tune real quick with his great plate reverbs and tape echoes blanketing the song. Print!
That same night, I ran the final mix over to my buddy Tim Huggins’ house so he could get it onto a compilation album he was about to finalize: PDXmas Volume 1, a charity fundraiser for Toys-for-Tots. Besides the fact that it’s for a good cause, the album is worth picking up just for my friend Justin Jude’s song about the real spirit of Christmas: motorbikes and hexing people who don’t give you the presents you want.
A few weeks ago, Tim sent me this message on Facebook:
I’m cooking dinner as I traditionally do, and listening to xmas tunes. I can only hope that one day your version of “Silent Night” gives yer kid the willies as much as it does mine. Happy holidays, you freak 🙂
Then the other day, my girlfriend’s sister Andrea was listening and said, “Hey, you should make a whole album of these creepy Christmas songs.”
(One song down. Nine to go. Got any requests?)
As for that creep-factor, it was never my intention to make “Silent Night” sound menacing so much as uncomfortable and weary. Two newlyweds stopping in the middle of a long trip (for a census, no less!) in a crowded town to deliver their baby in a barn? Hay is scratchy. Barns are drafty. And mangers are just nasty! I’ll bet Mary and Joseph weren’t sleeping in heavenly peace that night. My daughter was born in September, and while she’s amazing, a miracle, even — I wouldn’t say there’s been much heavenly peace ’round the house.
…. Banshee Babies!
Anyway, that’s the story behind this song. I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions for future Song Stories. What songs do you wanna know about? What sorta details are you interested in? Lemme know.
Also, “Silent Night” is available to downloadHERE and HERE.
Here’s wishing you a happy Christmas! And as ((°J°)) said: WAR IS OVER, if you want it.
P.S. In the random-YouTube-find department, here’s a dress rehearsal video of the Desert Jewels’ dancing to my arrangement of “Silent Night.”