Musicians with grand plans aren’t generally known for their fantastic humility. And no artiste in general wants to admit that any part of his or her unrelentingly sterling output was ill-conceived, painfully trendy, or borne of some drug-fueled experience at whichever Mercury Lounge afterparty Ryan Gosling’s slutty girlfriend was Hoovering mounds of cocaine.
After all, how can mundane turds drop out of the otherwise gleaming, sainted assholes of our favorite musicians? Perish the thought!
But revisiting artistic failures is about more than public shaming, or wallowing in bad choices. It’s about acknowledging fallibility, owning past mistakes, and sifting through the smoldering pile to see what, under different conditions, might have survived the freakish birthing process.
That brings us to the second installment of Bringing in the String Section, a.k.a. What The Fuck Was Your Band Thinking? We talk to musicians about the worst songs and records of their career. Simple as that.
The “string section” here could be more than an ambitious but botched idea, like an orchestral turn in the studio. It could be a new lead singer, a whole new band (nice one, Axl), a detour into radio-friendliness (Liz Phair, Lupe Fiasco, etc.), or the adorable notion that you’re creating some kind of lasting art (there there, Radiohead).
You reached for the stars and all you grasped was the sweet pube-mound of infinite failure. Accept it.
And yes, getting out of one’s comfort zone into the blinding realm of possibility is often a great and necessary thing. Just know that not everything you do is going to be gold. Or even pyrite.
Finding a musician who would reopen old wounds and rub tasty rock salt into their squishy crevices is not easy. But for Bob Nanna, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. His influential post-hardcore band Braid was formed in 1993 and put on ice in 2004, but they recently returned to the touring and recording circuit—giving him a choice perspective on his early work.
Nanna is the longtime guitarist and singer for Braid (now on Polyvinyl Records), but also leader of the relatively short-lived emo upstarts Hey Mercedes. So, you know, dude’s got some experience.
VICE: What's your least-favorite album when you look at your bands’ past work?
Bob Nanna: Braid’s Frankie Welfare Boy Age 5, by far. Out of the 26 songs on the album, I’d say there are about 4 or 5 good ones.
Where did it go wrong?
Oddly enough, the mad gobbledigook of the album is a direct result of us having TOO MUCH freedom. Our friend in town was dabbling in music engineering so whenever we wanted to come throw some random idea down, he was available and up for it, mostly for the practice.
What were the circumstances that set this up for failure?
It was right around the time that Chris Broach (other guitarist) and I, still underage, arrived in Champaign-Urbana for school so instead of trying to sneak into bars, we just had Todd Bell (older, bass) buy us beer, which we'd consume in peace at this friend's house before, during, and after recording sessions. Given this freedom, and the random coincidence that none of the songs we had written began with the same letter, we decided to do a 26-song record—one for each letter of the alphabet. This meant basically writing a good portion of the record on the spot.
That’s a ballsy move for your first album.
The other day, as a dare, I had trouble even naming all of the songs on there. As if that wasn’t enough, we thought it would be a hoot to put samples of our friends’ bands in between each song to make the whole thing even more unlistenable.
The topping on the proverbial cake was our packaging idea. We wanted a “see-through” cover that said the name of the band/album that would slide in over the actual cover. This proved to be too expensive, so we instead, wrote on coffee shop napkins that you could sorta see through (1,000 of ’em). When we found out they couldn't be packaged ABOVE the insert, we just said to throw ’em inside, on top of the CD. Fail. We also hand-painted 300 or so of the LP covers. Double LP, mind you.
Suitably shamed as you are, what have these past missteps taught you?
We were definitely ambitious but we needed to keep things within reason. Feedback from trusted peers helps. If we had some subtle editors in there with us to suggest not doing any of the asinine things listed above, we probably would have made a much better album.