Hark And Enamour Me! Sir Army Suit Turns Forty!
This month marks the ruby anniversary of Sir Army Suit, the third and perhaps most eclectic album in the Klaatu canon. Hard to believe we're talking forty years here - even more unbelievable is how forward-sounding this decades-old release is, when you consider the sonic artistry at play could easily rival the more esoteric diversions of Beck, Wilco and The Flaming Lips.
Whereas the band's auspicious debut, 3:47 EST was subsumed by the unfounded rumors that, in essence, Klaatu were actually The Beatles in disguise, sonic signposts which pointed to the Fab Four occurred on only a handful of tunes ("Sub Rosa Subway" being the most obvious example). The other influences were quite varied, including Van Halen, King Crimson, Aerosmith and the Beach Boys. Even so, the overarching mood on 3:47 EST definitely hearkened to classic, late 60's rock. The sequel, Hope, seemed to take a page from the Queen/Who playbook, and was a 'space opera' about an obliterated planet (not unlike Earth), with it's lone survivor searching for a new place to call home and avert total extinction. Ambitious, perhaps excessively so, it left songwriter John Woloschuk physically and artistically drained, and wasn't as commercially successful as its predecessor.
And so, with Sir Army Suit, Woloschuk and cohorts Terry Draper and Dee Long decided to step out of the shadows, and go for broke. They used illustrative images of the band members on both the cover and the animated video for lead single, "A Routine Day", which premiered on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert half a year later. They did interviews for the press. They brushed off previous compositions toyed with, but never committed to tape. They expanded their influences to incorporate glam, disco and Floydian space-rock, slathering on the sitars, tambouras, strings and backwards guitar filigrees. They wrote a paean/diatribe about Charles Manson and a Turtles-influenced tune about "Tokeymor Field". In a previous review of the Klaatu discography, I made no bones about stating the fact that I think Sir Army Suit is the pinnacle of Klaatu's musical acumen and variegation.
Now, in their own words, Klaatu reflects on the 40th anniversary of this album - the challenges in recording, techniques employed and overall daringness to experiment even further which resulted in one of the most underrated pop/rock albums of the decade. A huge nod of thanks to Dee Long, John Woloschuk and Terry Draper for taking the time to revisit this classic disc with me:
Dee Long: In several ways, the recording of this album was different from anything we had done before. Although the bulk of Sir Army Suit was recorded at Sounds Interchange, we spent a significant amount of time working with an incredible mobile unit, usually at producer Terry Brown's house. The bed tracks for John's tune, "A Routine Day" were done there, for example. Eric Robertson was responsible for all the string arrangements, and I believe we did that at Eric's house, via the mobile recording unit that was parked outside of his residence. As for my personal contributions to Sir Army Suit, I'd say I'm particularly fond of "Cherie" and "Older." I like the simple waltzing melody that runs through "Cherie", and the hard-rock edge of "Older." I revisited both "Older" and "Mister Manson" on my solo release, Life After Life. My objective was to cover the old songs, but in a new way. It's very easy to steal a vibe or musical phrase, but much harder to come up with a unique melody or pattern that stands out from the crowd.
Terry Draper: Sir Army Suit was recorded under duress. The first two albums were done at Toronto Sound, which producer Terry Brown owned. We had unlimited access to the studio when Terry wasn't working with another artist who was paying for studio time - Terry was very generous in that regard. For the third record, we recorded at a new studio (Terry had either sold or simply walked away from Toronto Sound) called Sounds Interchange. The cost of using that space ran us about a hundred and fifty dollars an hour, and we booked a room for an entire month. It was scary for us - we were spending all this money to put the album together, so if, for example we wanted to re-do a maraca part, it's gonna take us about three hours to re-record, at a price tag of nearly five hundred dollars alone. It was a very daunting task, unlike the more relaxed environment we were used to working with Terry.
Then there was the challenge of making Sir Army Suit be more of a pop album, following the rock-opera stuff we did on Hope - the record label definitely wanted us to come up with a more commercial-sounding record. "Mister Manson" started out poppish, but we were still very much influenced by our more progressive roots - so what ended up happening was that we slowed the track down to a grinding halt, and introduced the sound of machine guns and Hitler's speech! I mean, seriously - that doesn't make for an AM-radio friendly tune!
Me: That was one of the first tunes that really jumped out at me when I first listened to the album. I think the combination of slowing it down during the middle eight, throwing in the sound effects, the Hitler thing, the 'courtroom dialogue' from Manson's trial - effin' brilliant.
"Mister Manson" got no airplay, or should I say virtually no airplay. Nobody would play it. We made it unplayable for people. Interestingly, Supertramp did something similar at the end of their record, Even In The Quietest Moments. "Fools Overture" had that famous Winston Churchill speech in it, amidst church bells pealing, air raid sirens etc. But I guess using the words of Winston Churchill was a better choice than using Adolf's, I grant you that. The subject matter we were daring to address with Charlie Manson.........Jesus, what were we thinking?
John Woloschuk: I would agree with you Dave when you say that Sir Army Suit is an eclectic album, musically-speaking. And definitely as experimental as the stuff we did on the first record, if not more so. I think an outstanding example of that would be on "Silly Boys." I have to give all the credit to Dee for coming up with that one. "Silly Boys" is based on some backwards lyrics - specifically from a tune we initially recorded back in 1973, "Anus of Uranus." When we put it out as the first single (from what would become known as 3:47 EST), we changed the title to "Hanus Of Uranus" so that stations would give us airplay.
Anyway, what happened was I took home the 'monitor mix' of "Anus Of Uranus" (because in those days, you could do that, and it was always fun to go home and listen to the fruits of our labor in the studio), and gave it another listen. For some reason, I decided it would be cool if I played the track backwards, just to see what that might sound like. Listening with headphones, I could hear these phonetic sounds coming out of the words sung in reverse - so I started writing words that sounded phonetically like what I was hearing, without it coming off as gibberish. At our next recording session, I brought along the lyrics I wrote to show Dee. At that point, it was just me and Dee - Terry didn't join up with us until later. I showed the words to both Dee and producer Terry Brown to see what they thought: we played the track in studio backwards, and looked down at what I wrote, and they both agreed that it sounded like the words I wrote was what Dee was really singing!
We all thought it was a pretty cool thing, but we wound up filing away that bit of craziness for about five years. We didn't revisit the song until we were working on the third album - both the song title and the album title came from the lyric I wrote. So Dee totally re-wrote the music to fit the new lyrics (just using the original track played backwards would have been too taxing on the ears). I don't know how he managed to make that work the way that he did - Dee put in a whole bunch of special effects on that tune, and could give you more detail on what he wound up using on "Silly Boys."
Dee Long: That has to be, hands-down, the highlight of the entire recording process for me. We parked the mobile studio outside of Terry Draper's house, and had (unsupervised) access for about two weeks! Picture two mad musicians with a passion for doing things 'the wrong way' let loose in a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art recording facility.
As John mentioned, the piece started off with him coming into Toronto Sound about five years earlier with the monitor mix of "Anus Of Uranus", which he had played backwards, and added these really trippy lyrics for. We put it aside for that long, but felt it would be an ideal addition to Sir Army Suit, so Terry and I took it out of mothballs and let our imaginations run wild. First thing we did was erase Terry's drum parts from the original - this meant Terry would have to record all new parts for it, but not just that, the parts would have to work in sync with the backwards tempo, which is not as easy as you might think. The Music Shop was a local instrument store that would always clue us in on the latest gear, and give us a chance to play around with it. I recall us getting ahold of this cool Electro-Harmonix guitar (flange) pedal called Electric Mistress.
That rhythmic, chugging guitar part that propels "Silly Boys" is me playing a Fender Stratocaster through the Electric Mistress, which added EQ to the flanging effects, plugged directly into a Neve recording console. I'd say "Silly Boys" is a work of collective genius: John came up with the concept, Terry and I worked together on some parts when John wasn't around, but his musical contributions to the track are just as important. Neither Terry nor myself knew what we were doing with some of the newer equipment at our disposal, which led to a lot of the experimentation. I'm honored by the praise you've heaped on us for that song in your review of our catalog.
Me: I should also mention there's that part from "Little Neutrino" thrown in for good measure toward the climax....
Oh yeah, that's right...how could I forget?
Me: That slide guitar part is what I think gives it a very Pink-Floydian atmosphere.
Always loved the ending with the slide guitar. Makes no sense, but I love it. I remember playing the song for Gary O'Connor at ESP Studios, and when he heard it, he turned to me and said, "I don't know what that is!"
Terry Draper: There's a few songs where I think we missed the boat and went overboard with the production - one of my faves is Dee's tune, "Older." I regret that we didn't make it sound heavier and less pop-rock. During the recording of Sir Army Suit, Black Sabbath happened to be working on their album in the larger recording room. We all wound up hanging with Ozzy (Osbourne) for a couple of months. Ozzy would sit in our control room, waiting for his band to finish laying down the instrument tracks, so he could add his vocals. When he heard "Mister Manson", Ozzy's response was, "Fuckin' great song, mate!" In the back of my mind, I always thought if we had gotten Black Sabbath to play on "Older" it would have been the song I'd envisioned it could be. Our version just wasn't heavy enough. I think it could have been a killer single and a breakthrough for us as a band if Ozzy and the guys had a hand in the recording.
Me: I wouldn't exactly call it a "killer single", but I do recall market stations in New York picked up on "My Juicy Luicy"....
(sighs). Yeah, well, that's one of the songs where my response was, "Really? We're going to record this?!!" Terry Brown wanted us to do it because he thought it had commercial appeal, and we begrudgingly said, "Okay." But we recorded it as a parody of disco, not a homage to it. I mean, that was our intention anyway. It may have gotten some airplay where you lived, but nothing significant. We never wanted to be pigeonholed as pop-rock, or prog-rock, or Beatlesque, or what have you. We just wanted to write and play whatever we wanted to record. I think one of John's best tunes of all time is on Sir Army Suit, and that would be "A Routine Day." My drum part is very nondescript and in the background, which is what that tune called for. I think that's the best piece of music he's ever written, and it's still one of my personal favorites of his.
Me (to John): I understand that you were influenced by Gilbert O'Sullivan on "Routine Day", correct?
John Woloschuk: Yep, definitely. Gilbert's biggest hit, "Alone Again (Naturally)" was a track that really blew my mind when I first heard it. I originally thought it was solo (Paul) McCartney for two reasons: one, Gilbert's vocal inflection was very McCartney-esque, and the chord progression he utilized was so inventive and complex, I felt it had to be McCartney. I invested a lot of time analyzing the song to figure out that chord progression. I also admired the fact that Gilbert had a very poetic lyrical flair, and used words you wouldn't expect to hear in an AM-radio friendly pop song. My songs have similarly-tempered language sprinkled in from time to time.
Me: I noticed that the piano playing on "Routine Day" is also pretty involved - not your standard pop structure, either...
You're right. They're not dissimilar from what McCartney did with "Fool On The Hill" or "Martha My Dear", for example. I definitely learned a lot from checking out McCartney's piano playing on those Beatles albums. I admire him for his inventiveness. It's easy to string a bunch of five-finger chords together, the hard part is making that sound natural. The complex chord structure contributed to the melancholy feel of "Routine Day" - and sometimes you just get lucky: you accidentally play a chord you hadn't intended on, and it works.
Me: Or to quote McCartney on "Hey Jude", "Take a sad song, and make it better...."
I didn't start out consciously thinking, "I'm gonna write this complicated piano part in three movements", but that's what it wound up becoming. Sometimes, you work at something for hours and hours and end up with nothing - other times, you get lucky and inspiration allows you to turn something around relatively quickly.
Me: I was very impressed with the complexity of your playing when I saw a video online somewhere of you doing "Routine Day" - just you and a piano. Free of the orchestral trappings of the studio version, I could better discern how involved the compositional process had to be.
Right. Just hearing it on piano you can hear how complex the piano part is, but you notice that it still sounds fluid and natural, not overwrought. Trying something that inventive could have ended up sounding contrived, but it doesn't - at least I hope it doesn't. Otherwise, it's just a bunch a chords thrown together, which would not work at all.
Me: "Routine Day" is also notable for being the first song you guys had a "music video" for, pre-MTV as a matter of fact. It had its world premiere on none other than Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. That had to be a pretty big deal, wasn't it?
Terry Draper: You mean the animated short film for "Routine Day." That's a whole other story. We met these people, and Capitol put up the money for us to do a music video. We were filmed "in Rotoscope" , first at High Park in Toronto, then against a blue screen in a studio, which inserted the band into the locales that were used in the animation. A total of six videos were done in this fashion - four tunes from Sir Army Suit, plus "Calling Occupants" and "Sub Rosa Subway", though the latter two were never completed. The whole concept was for a tv show called "Happy Birthday Planet Earth." The story revolved around an astronaut in his spaceship trying to land on this planet, and each time he landed in a different place, and each place featured on of our songs, with us in all the animations.
A consortium of lawyers contributed some cash to fund this project, but they couldn't collectively agree on anything....
Me: Which means, the show never aired?
Nope. It never aired. I tried a couple of years back to reach to these people in Hollywood in 2013, seeking their permission to use some of the animated clips on a DVD to include on the remaster I was working on for Sir Army Suit. The response from Al Guest and Jean Matheison was very enthusiastic. Jean said, "Let's do this. I want the three of you filming yourselves discussing the making of the album, send it to us, we'll put together a DVD that will incorporate that with interviews with the folks who did the rotoscoping." They truncated a few seconds off of the other animated videos (for legal reasons) and they sent us back an hour-long DVD, excluding the 3:47 EST tunes that were never finished. Since Sir Army Suit is your favorite album, you really need to check out the remaster with the DVD. We worked with the leading audio guy in the world, based in Toronto, and what he did with it really blew my mind. Alas, the remaster with the DVD was a limited edition, so it's probably impossible to get a hold of a copy now.