Studio Time

Chris Baty drops his Hotpants.

This spring, I decided to record my debut album. As conceived, The Hotpants Serenade would be, without a doubt, the greatest work to grace the East Bay music scene in decades. A heart-fibrillating mix of indie rock, country, and singer-songwriterisms, the CD would shatter the complacent music world into agonized and ecstatic shards, then piece them back together into a fetching lamp or mobile. It was going to be that kind of album.

A theologian once wrote on a bumper sticker, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” As the time came to actually lay my tracks down, I learned how true this is. Contrary to what those touchy-feely Apple iMac ads would have you believe, the home-computing revolution has not progressed to the point that you can record an album with Microsoft Word and a Webcam. I felt betrayed and confused. Would my debut be DOA?

I was ready to give up entirely when my friend Gabe volunteered to record my album in his garage. Hooray! We set aside two weekends, and I headed to the Richmond Costco to lay in supplies for the big dates. For Gabe, I bought a carton of cigarettes and a case of Diet Coke. For the other musicians and their groupie hordes, I carefully picked out a case of midpriced beer, a two-pound bag of M&Ms, and a box of Wheat Thins. The Wheat Thins worried me, as they seemed like the kind of conspicuous consumption that could induce a slothful sense of entitlement in the hired help. But the snacks were to be their only payment, and I threw caution to the wind and got the family size.

I had zero recording experience going into the Hotpants sessions, but some Internet research bolstered my confidence. The main thing I learned from my cyber-sleuthing was not to let my engineer anywhere near the sound board. Given the opportunity, the Web sites informed me, Gabe would fly in some overpriced New York diva to wail all over my outtros, or, even worse, backfill the tracks with saxophone solos.

I kept Gabe away from the recording equipment for as long as I could, but as he owned the mixing board, mike stands, and all the cables, the task proved more difficult than I had imagined. Eventually we established a wary truce and the recording commenced in earnest.

There’s a karaoke-tested wisdom that goes “Put a microphone in front of someone, and strange things will happen.” The mike is like an unpredictable sorcerer’s wand; it can make the shy suddenly boisterous, or turn the loudest lion into a mouse. Gabe’s microphones apparently turned me into a citizen of the British Commonwealth; for the duration of the recording, I afflicted every song with a confused, patrician twang, like Belle and Sebastian covering a George Jones record.

Despite the curious brogue, the hundreds of blown lines, and my persistent problems with timing, there were several instances of brilliance over the weekends spent in Gabe’s garage. Organ pickup notes that added a new dimension to melodies, guitar leads that roughed things in exactly the right way, and chiming bass lines that gave everything a low-end sparkle.

When things jelled, it felt like some sort of blessed alchemy was at work. Of all the Hotpants participants, I was in the best position to appreciate these magical moments, as they tended to happen while I was seated on the futon watching other people record their parts.

The album emerged slowly. By the time Gabe’s CD burner was cooking up a rough mix, we had moved deep into a third weekend. I had acquired a smoking habit and Gabe had picked up this thousand-yard stare that reminded me uncomfortably of Charlie Sheen’s character in Platoon.

And then, impossibly, we were done. It’s weird: You spend hundreds of hours on this thing, clipping, tweaking, and arranging, and it all adds up to a pile of junk-food packaging and 35 minutes’ worth of songs that you would happily pay someone to never have to hear again. In my more caffeinated moments, I can see that my big debut has some selling points, and I’m happy I did it, even if my general lack of musical ability ended up compromising my stratospheric vision.

I know that this record won’t make me rich — I’m too lazy to get the thing into local record shops, much less to a distributor or label. But the whole process does make me deeply appreciative of those transcendental albums where every track is amazing, and every part perfect. Mostly, though, it makes me thankful for grandparents. They will buy anything.

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