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Headlights Chapter Two: The Domino Effect

Looking back now, it seems like I’ve always written music on my own. The way my favorite artists felt like ordinary people making something that felt so massive. They wrote their own stuff and played it, too. That was the thing that pushed me to write myself. I respect songwriters who sell their music to other artists or artists who perform songs written by other people. But it does feel different to hear someone playing a song that they wrote themselves.

The craft of songwriting was a thrill I discovered very quickly. I used to say the inspiration was just life. My best ideas wouldn’t usually come from sitting down and actively trying to write something. I would be at work, or at school, or out somewhere and suddenly I hear a drum pattern in my head. In 8th grade, my father bought me a ZOOM R8 8-track recorder with a 2GB SD card inside of it. When my ideas became more intensive, I was able to hook it up to the computer in our living room and install a free version of Cubase 5 that came packed in with it. Recording music quickly became the center of my lifestyle.

I don’t remember watching a lot of TV or movies at the time. I came home from school, I worked on music, did homework, played video games at night, rinse and repeat. The only change was throwing in an afterschool job two to three days a week. I was a cashier at a local donut and coffee shop my family owned. If I ever needed work, I went there. I grew up in the suburban town of Fairfield, Connecticut and my family owned a small business. I would say I was about as privileged middle class as you could get. There’s a bubble that’s closed off from the rest of the world that comes with that package. Even though it is a privilege I am grateful for, I noticed at a young age it can be hindering on a personal level. I think suburban life can numb people. It's very strange how it works. There's an obliviousness in it. I told myself I was different from it but ultimately forced a reckoning that I was cut from that cloth. It numbed a part of me I had to push through as an adult. I value being earnest, and I don't know if I was very earnest growing up.

Finding songwriting, however, did feel earnest. That was my teenage lifestyle. Music. Video games. Homework (sometimes). Donuts and coffee. Music was always in its own tier, though. Writing and recording music was when I realized who I was as a person.

I filled those notebooks I have with a blend of many things. Mostly lyrics, track lists for project ideas I had and sometimes random journal entries of where I was in life at the time. It was random, unorganized and it couldn’t have been any other way. By my Sophomore year of high school my social life became barren. Music was the only outlet I had. Listening to albums during the day, going home and practicing, writing and recording ideas. I’d walk around my high school during my free periods listening to demos I made, sitting in the stairwells with my journals making notes on track list flow and what ideas worked and what didn’t. Making music was the thing that saved my life during those days. No one knew I was doing it but that didn’t matter.

I do remember a very specific moment from this period of my life; I was listening to Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile and I was wondering why it felt so different compared to other modern works. It sounded richer, the tones felt closer as a listener. The guitars felt more tangible. The drums felt roomier. There were more distinguishable textures. A specific color was in the album’s sound. It occurred to me it was because of how the music was recorded and produced. The color that recording and mixing offer strongly influences and shapes how the music is perceived. There are sounds, and there are how the sounds sound. It lends a hand in how the music lands, especially in the music and albums I loved. On a larger scale, I began to understand how generally important production is in music. To harness that power as a songwriter I saw as essential. I was compelled to learn how to record and mix music more. It was all to service my songwriting.

Many people don’t understand that recording music is an art and an instrument in of itself. Each phase, from producing (assembling the sounds, the tech and people needed, arrangement and performance) to engineering (where the recording occurs, setting up mics, etc) to mixing (setting levels, equalizing) and mastering (final tweaks before being printed and uploaded to streaming services) are all different skill sets. I view each phase as an equivalent to an instrument in its own right. To me, in the music I love to make, production is almost everything. I didn't know anything about production at first; it was always my Achilles heel. Everyday, and with every project I move forward in, I get closer to where I want to be.


I've often referred to older music and "starting over", implying an ongoing process. I was partially nodding to all the projects I wrote and recorded in my teenage years. I made six projects in those years. Two of them, The Domino Effect and Nurovia, I shared back then. The other four I kept to myself. I never knew how to talk about something I didn’t share in a larger context. There was a larger plan I had for some of the projects that I’ll get to later. Given how big of a role they played in my musical development and my life in general, I wanted to open up and talk about them in a way that hopefully makes sense. And while these songs represent some of the things I sought to avoid when making Songs for the Millennium and “Never Doing That Again”, these older songs are monumental to me in my work.

A draft track list dating December 14th, 2011, featuring early abandoned tracks. Some lyrics for "Wasted", a song that made the cut, are below.

The first project, The Domino Effect, wears the innocence of a first project. I worked on that for a while. It’s the most lighthearted of everything I made. The sound blended my love for the heavy desert rock attack of Queens of the Stone Age with the more melodic, sappy harmonic range of say Dinosaur Jr. I wore my influences on my sleeve. Naturally, you bring your own color to the sound so my personality was definitely audible. I tuned my guitars a whole step down, D standard, to utilize a lower timbre and looser vibrations of the guitar strings. The bass, a cheap used Squier I bought for like $120 my Freshman year, was buzzy and basic. I didn’t own drums, so I programmed a crude sounding drum machine to structure the songs. I distorted my voice through a cheap ART channel strip I bought. On The Domino Effect, I played everything on it. Though isolated, I do love the control that comes with that kind of process. I was young and mimicking like most people do when starting out. It was just fun. The songs were fun. I recognized the feeling of carrying out and recording a project and how it felt like nothing I had ever done before. It was a blast.

The final track list for The Domino Effect, dating January 6th, 2014.

The first song, “Select”, showcased what I love about a good rock song. When that chorus hits, it’s a euphoric blast that really sends it flying. It’s a feeling I look for in every great chorus of this style. It has that moody ring to it, but the drive in the delivery gives an aggression that elevates it. It’s brief, concise, and leads to an outro that gives it a proper status as an “opening track.” I think I was 14 when I wrote Select. It’s incredibly on the rails, and more pulls from what the Foo Fighters did in the mid 2000s. I brought a character to it that channeled the candid nature of the early 90s. Other tracks were worthwhile: the second track “Like Me Too” brings in a heavier guitar part that channels Josh Homme’s work on Kyuss. “Sharp”, the fourth track, gets in and out in about two minutes. It follows a tidy verse-chorus-verse structure, with a pre-written guitar solo that’s actually kind of neat (reminiscent of J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr). “Sticks” is driven by a loose, warm down-tuned riff that’s pretty menacing. Hypnotic in nature.

The Domino Effect feels really naïve. But it manages to work the way a first project usually does. I showcase a solid understanding of basic verse-chorus-verse song structure. Songs like “Sticks” and the instrumental drone “Crevice” carry more progressive structures (even early on, a part of me wanted to break from those conventional song structure). The production was terrible; these are demos at best and the reason why I took then down from the internet when I was in college. But I like the songwriting on The Domino Effect. It wasn’t original, but I didn’t know how to be original yet. It was about making music like the stuff I loved listening to. I was a student learning how to make something for the very first time. “Being better” is a journey that never stops, no matter the skill level. And I don’t believe progress is always linear. Your trajectory comes down to choice. I think there are good days and bad days that can come out of it. I started that journey on The Domino Effect.

The only way to hone your craft is to keep doing it. I listened deeper and kept writing. As my life developed, so did the sound. The Thing and Fahrenheit were on the horizon.

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