Looking back at Jack Mayer’s footage from Exit Ghost’s first couple of weeks working at HCL, I’m a little bit struck by the nervousness in my voice when it starts to become clear that the song we were working on at the time (“Speaker”, what would become the first single off of Elston) needs to undergo some pretty profound changes before Mike and Dorian feel it’s album-ready. I wasn’t hurt, but I was a little confused. We’d performed “Speaker” before, had rehearsed it for these sessions specifically. This was a song cut from the same cloth as songs of mine that they’d really resonated with—it was one of the few familiar feeling, uptempo pieces on the record as it stood. A three-chord, Fleetwood Mac-ish guitar rocker, with solidly penned harmonies barreling into the choruses. In my mind, “Speaker” would be the island of visceral, guitar-rock predictability in an otherwise ambient and ethereal record. It would give the rest of the album something to kick against, an opposite pole to the listening spectrum. I was culling from production tenets we’ve always relied on—namely, if you want to make something sound really unfamiliar, drop it in a context of familiarity.
My apprehensions were mostly a reaction to my understanding of recording practices: songs should be solid and cohesive by the time they reach the studio, otherwise a band can find itself paying hundreds of dollars an hour to work out changes they could have explored in a rehearsal, free of financial pressure. In music, as in life, decisions made under pressure are usually out of desperation rather than real creative vision. So this was my concern.
But our residency at HCL was offering an entirely new recording idiom, a freedom from the usual married constraints of budget and time. Mike had tapped into this new understanding more willingly than I had, and saw an opportunity to rework any reservations we still had with the song before committing it to our mobile recording rig. It’s strange, with a bit of hindsight, to have such a clear document of our collaborative process. I tend to be a songwriting engine, creating structures that I push forward into fruition, into eventual releases. I’m grateful to my collaborators, Mike, Dorian, Neal, and Curtis, for their endless willingness to pick apart my home recordings and turn them into much more complex and conflicted works than I’m singularly capable of imagining. That sounds awfully romantic, but after a few years of this, I’m starting to think it’s just the truth. My conspirators slow me down, and make me think.