David talks about the making of What Happens When Things Fall Apart

This record, this whole song cycle, started a few years back. I was really struggling with some things in my personal life and I had written a couple of songs that just didn’t sit right with the content on our last record (Something Old, Something New). As soon as that record was recorded and mixed, I was already moving on and really focused on the darker aspects of what my life had become. I had these tumultuous feelings about the people in my life and some of my relationships, as well as about my own place in the world and the music and art that I made. After releasing Something Old, Something New and having a hard time getting any sort of publicity traction with that set of songs, I was horribly discouraged with the state of the music scene around me, and in the world in general. And on top of all of that, there was a space in time where I had numerous fiends die or kill themselves in the span of about 6 weeks. Obviously, this deeply affected me and my own feelings of mortality rose up.

There was already a base number of songs for what I had originally intended as an EP release. The original plan was to record 5 or 6 songs and release them, and then move on from this darkness as soon as I could. The hitch came when I started recording those first few songs and the creative juices welled up and suddenly I was writing a few more songs, and then a couple more, and a few more. It really was like it was when I was much younger and feeling super creative; the songs would write themselves in ways and I was merely the vessel to get them out. So we grew the EP to a 9 song mini-album, and then 11 songs was my goal. Then I realized that I wanted to include the song that I had written about my friend Gary Lee who had passed away, the song “21 Gun Salute,” which I had originally written and recorded within about 48 hours of his passing. That song has resonated so strongly with me since I first sang it that I knew that this collection of songs about my life and how I was seeing the world would be incomplete without it.

I went into the recording sessions with a couple of production decisions laid out and hard-set in my mind, which was a new way of working for me. First, I wanted to get a bunch of the great rock drummers that I know to play on the record; I knew I wanted the songs to be hard and strong, and we just didn’t have that in the Franklins at the time. As a band, we had mellowed a bit and were more relaxed, and I knew this new record was going to be anything but relaxed. Second, I made the decision to use very little acoustic guitar on the recordings and what little I did use I wanted to be that somewhat thinner sound that I grew up loving from bands like Love And Rockets, instead of the full-bodied acoustic tones that I generally prefer to hear. Third, all guitars and vocals would be played by me – this would be a real throwback to the early days of NBF; dark songs, noisy guitars, pounding rhythms. Fourth, and possibly most importantly, I didn’t want there to be cymbals played on all but maybe 2 of the songs. This last one posed a bit of a conundrum for most of the drummers, as they tend to rely on cymbals for their expressionism; the things that go crash are always more fun than the things that go boom for most.

So I had my work cut out for me. I laid down basic guitar and scratch vocal tracks to click. Then I herded some of the greatest drummers I know into coming to the studio and recording these songs with me, often sending them the rough tracks with small notes like ‘Don’t play any cymbals. Rhythmic tribal drumming mixed with a train beat.’ Needless to say, there was some conceptual ideas that the drummers couldn’t really understand when they showed up to record and I basically said, “Look, I know you know what you’re doing and I like that take, but could we try one where you don’t play any cymbals and you emphasize the up beats instead of the down?” I got a lot of puzzled looks, but professionalism reigned for the most part and each and every one of those guys played amazingly well, and really gave their all to get me something that they might not have really understood. A few of them have called me after the record came out and told me that they had no idea what I was going for, but that in the end the song sounded great and now they understood. So, small artistic vindications.

When gathering bass players and asking them for similar things, it was a touch easier, but I still got many quizzical looks and shoulder shrugs. Again, I could not have done this record without any of those guys and they all did amazing work for the songs. Then the onus was on me to lay down the guitar and vocal tracks. I had Lief Sjostrom come over and play heavily-effected cello on the lead song, because I wanted a pedal steel feel, but not using pedal steel. He did an amazing job as well. And then I spent days and weeks holed up in the studio – much like when I was younger – making amps screech and howl. I’m sure the neighbors had to be wondering why there was such a racket at midnight coming from the house. But overall, I think the guitars on the record are tremendous and play the parts they were meant to play. I tried to get the Franklins’ second guitarist at the time to come in and play on a couple of the songs, but didn’t have any luck or interested reaction, so I stuck to it myself. The community of the record became all these great rhythm players and me.

As I was nearing the end of recording and had started doing rough mixes on most of the songs I realized that there was a song missing, I had one more song that I needed to write. And it needed to be short, powerful, and succinct. My goal was to write a 2-minute song to even out the “album sides” just in case we went to vinyl. I sat down with the drum machine, something I had not done in more than 15 years, and started with that very basic beat that became “NQE.” I love that beat and it’s not something we’ve ever really gotten to use. And it was fun to play with the drum machine again after so many years. That song was one of those rare moments for me that I was writing the song as I was recording the music. Normally, I have chord structure and lyrics down before arranging it all into what it needs to be, but this happened organically, and fast. A perfect little tune that summed up many of my feelings on my relationships at the time. And it got us to lucky number 13 for a track count.

Then I spent about 3 weeks mixing that record. Sitting in the studio late at night, listening over and over to these songs about how terrible a person I could be, basically brainwashing myself into being the worst person I could be, and it really started to affect my life and my relationships with the people around me. I was very short-tempered and isolationist. I didn’t want to see much of anyone and do much of anything. And I realized it was happening, but had to buckle down, because I had to get these songs finalized before I broke down my studio to move it to a new location. I had a hard, fast deadline and I was determined to make it. There were two reasons… 1. I knew it would take a while to establish a new recording space and I wouldn’t know how the room sounded for at least a year or so. And 2. I really, really did not want to take the negative energy of these songs into my new space. I love these songs a lot, but they needed to be from a different place to allow me to be somewhat happier and easier to live with in my new place.

So that is kind of how the record happened. There were so many small stories, amazing happy accidents, great people playing, that I could write an entire book just about the making of this record. It changed my life and changed the way that I play music, and listen to music. It changed the way I think about the people with whom I play music. It made me realize that I am surrounded by some of the most talented musicians on the planet, and I’m happy to call them friends. But I didn’t get to play with everyone I wanted on the record, so there’s going to have to be more of this kind of thing in the future. I love how other people can approach the same song from different angles. Each musician has his or her own accent to this wonderful language we call music.