Friday, July 2, 2010

The Authorized Biography of Clockwork Man


The core idea for The Memoirs of Clockwork Man actually predates the first SpinTunes challenge by over a year. When I entered my very first Song Fu (Song Fu #4, in the spring of 2009), I was pretty nervous. I hadn't written very many songs, and I had never written, much less recorded one in a week. In the time between being accepted and the drop of the first challenge, I decided to brainstorm a couple potential ideas, in the hopes that one of them would just happen to fit the challenge.

In my biography, I had explained having strong roots in Classical music, but also being influenced by Jonathan Coulton. I tried to come up with a way to mash these differing traditions into one song. Since Coulton has written about robots on multiple occasions, some sort of pseudo-historical, steampunkish, pre-robot seemed fitting. Something like Boilerplate (BTW, that website is an awesome hoax!). I wasn't exactly sure what the song would be about, since the challenge hadn't been announced but when robots are involved, their lack of emotions is often played on. The chorus (in 3rd person) that came to me at the time was:

He's Clockwork Man, He's a crime-fighting automaton,
Clockwork Man, this lever turns him off-and-on,
Clockwork Man, if you take him apart, you'll find that
Clockwork Man wasn't built with a heart.

Incidentally, my idea for the melody was essentially identical to what I have now, only without the triplets (placing the accent unnaturally on figh-TING). The key part of the chorus is the three-note theme (A,C,G) repeated each time you hear "Clockwork Man". That was the hook for the chorus, and was designed to have a mechanical quality to it, with leaping intervals in a straight quarter note rhythm.

When the Song Fu challenge came out (which Coulton helped Ken Plume to come up with), it was to write a song from the perspective of an inanimate object. Excellent! Except that robots were specifically excluded. So instead I wrote a song from the point of view of the Great Pyramid, which I also think did a good job of mixing old and new styles. The second challenge was to write a march. I briefly considered reviving Clockwork Man, but I couldn't find a way to make it work, so I tabled it and wrote about Dwarves.

When SpinTunes #1 came out, I pretty quickly decided that this would be the time to recycle Clockwork Man. Settling on an idea of which direction to take a challenge, and then starting to flesh it out is usually the hardest part of songwriting for me, so I'll do anything that I can to minimize my wallowing in indecision. I started by rewriting the chorus so that it would be in the first person, and I replaced the "off-and-on" line (which was kinda silly) with "a hero you can depend upon". After all, why would a hero advertise how to turn himself off?

On the other hand, I knew some awesome chord progressions that could create a cinematic effect, like a score for a superhero film, and I thought it would be neat to incorporate them in an orchestral setting. As I was going through my virtual instruments to grab my usual orchestral string sound, I stumbled across some string-like synth sounds that I hadn't used before, and decided to try using them instead. I spent WAY to much on the Saturday after the challenge dropped playing with synth settings and bizarre chord progressions, until I came up with the movie-trailer sound that I ended up with. It was really cool, but didn't help me with my song so I tried to set it aside and get back to work. I hoped I could use it, but I wasn't sure whether I should.


As usual, the hard part was what to do with the rest of the actual lyrics. Superheroes are all about action, adventures, and a nemesis with over-the-top schemes, so I knew I wanted a lot of that (the name "Captain Billiard" popped into my mind one day driving home from work. I didn't know who he was, but it sounded cool, so I decided to keep it). But at the same time, I had a character who was essentially a bucket-of-bolts. I needed to somehow create some sympathy between the character and the listener -- some type of emotion that the listener could recognize and reflect on. Clockwork Man needed a backstory and a personality.

To flesh this out, I looked at the chorus that I had. First, he "wasn't built with a heart", so he's got no emotions; everything is a number for his internal Babbage Engine to process. Second, he's "a hero you can depend upon." He's almost boasting, so he might be a bit arrogant, thinking he's better than the people he's saving. Maybe he thinks that emotions are a weakness, and he is better off for not having them. This sounds a bit like Spock in Star Trek, and reminded me of the line "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", which gave me a potential idea for a final conflict in my song.

In order to create sympathy for the character, I looked at another Star Trek character, Data, who was always curious about human emotions, but could never achieve them (until they gave him that stupid emotion chip...). We've already established that Clockwork Man thinks he doesn't need emotions, but that doesn't mean he can't be curious about them, which gives us another conflict.

At this point, I had the basic idea for the song's layout. The verses would have an unfolding series of adventures as a sort of episodic "memoir" (that word has a period flavor), and would have a mechanical sort of steampunky accompaniment. Turns out there isn't much music written in the steampunk genre, so I got to make it up as I went along. In the bridge, this story would drop away, and Clockwork Man would explicitly make his argument that "Hearts aren't needed", and "You can't have friends". It gives the listener an insight into how Clockwork Man thinks, but it's an argument, that the listener knows is wrong. This would be underscored by a heart-felt accompaniment that contrasted with the earlier mechanical sound, and the final line "sometimes I wonder..." -- an open-ended line that invites the listener to interact with and complete Clockwork Man's thought process, while the song is modulating back to the original key, and the rational ticking of Clockwork Man's Babbage Engine comes back online. Ironically, the song is arguing the exact opposite of what the character is saying in the song (this is a technique Coulton likes to use as well, notably in "Not About You").

An early version of the first verse would have started in media res, with Clockwork Man serving tea as a loyal butler to his creator as the shadow of an airship suddenly covers the city. But I realized that wouldn't work for several reasons. First of all, the listeners don't know who or what Clockwork Man is a this point, and I needed to establish that -- especially since it's a rather unusual concept to begin with. So to establish the character, I decided to do what all good superheroes do, and begin with an origins story. Second, I had started to define his personality as a bit arrogant and friendless, as explained above, and not necessarily the "loyal butler" type. So the origins story involves the creator getting rid of him instead. I came up with the rhymes "created"/"he hated" and "didn't know"/"where to go", and I had the verse more-or-less written. I decided to use some short detached phrases (4-5 syllables) in the verse because I thought they sounded more mechanical than longer more lyrical phrases. I also introduced the line "my gears didn't know" which was as close as I could come to saying "Babbage Engine" in the lyrics. That set up the question of Clockwork Man's free will, and whether he is even capable of choosing his actions -- he's talking about his thought process in the third person.

At this point, we know who Clockwork Man is, but it isn't really clear what he does. The second verse is where the hero action really starts to take off. A lot of this verse is the weird result of random brainstorming, in an attempt to weave an elaborate "over-the-top" type of plot. I wanted to demonstrate Clockwork Man's powers so I waned to compare him to well-known characters of the era -- in superhero parlance, some sort of alliance, or league, or cross-over. In fact, I was thinking something along the lines of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Instead Sherlock Holmes came to mind. That made sense, because he was also known for his dispassionate use of logic; he's almost a human counterpart of Clockwork Man. But why are they teaming up? What rhymes with Holmes? Gnomes! Of course! And the adjective "psionic" fits the meter... Psionic Gnomes! Huh? Hilarious and over-the-top! Just go with it. Besides, it gives Clockwork Man a way to boast about bettering Sherlock. The later can become entranced, which conveniently rhymes with "advanced". I also wanted an army to fight. Originally, it was going to be an army of evil Gatling-gun-wielding Abraham Lincoln clones (ignoring the fact that cloning is completely anachronistic... this is steampunk after all), but that didn't fit the meter. Then it was going to be legendary game hunter Quatermain, but he's a bit more obscure, and neither are actually evil. So I finally settled on Frankenstein (or at least, his monster). If Frankenstein can create a monster, surely he can clone them?

Now that we know who Clockwork Man is, and what he can do, we can insert the bridge to explain how he thinks. Then all that's left for the third verse is to demonstrate how his thinking determines his actions. It's also where I can include some earlier ideas that didn't make it into the previous verses: an airship, a showdown with a nemesis (what rhymes with that?) named Captain Billiard, the city being threatened, and the needs of the many versus the few. Of course, every good (bad?) villain has to kidnap a hostage to use as a bargaining chip. Bonus points are given if it happens to be the hero's love interest. This means that valuable screen time in an action movie has to be devoted to building a relationship between characters... BORING! Let's just subvert that whole aspect and cut straight to the action. That works fine for Clockwork Man, since he has no attachments. But the outcome proves again to the listener just how wrong Clockwork Man is for thinking the way he does. The whole song has been building to this point where you really have to question whether he's a hero, or maybe more of an anti-hero. You have to question his motives, but are reminded of the "gears in his head" and that he may not even have a choice. Because, as the final chorus reminds us, he's Clockwork Man, a crime-fighting automaton.


I started off with the idea for the chorus already there, with just a bit of editing to the rhythm to make it fit better, by using triplets. By the time I completed the words to the first verse, I was starting to figure out the rhythm. Since there were a lot of 3-syllable groupings, it was originally going to be in triplets, similar to those in the chorus. The problem was that that made the words go by too fast, and with the clock theme going, I wanted to stick to a strict 120 bpm. Then I remembered that a lot of music uses syncopation to create "pseudo-triplets" by following three quarter notes with a longer note. For possibly the first time, I understood the reasoning behind that rhythm and made a conscious decision to use it for that effect, rather than just to emulate a style. It was almost like a mini-epiphany, and it slowed the lyrics down to a more manageable speed, just as I had hoped.

I knew that if I were to use the intro, I had to musically tie them together -- the chorus and the intro are extremely different. For one thing, that meant making the verse start in a minor key (A minor) and letting it modulate to C major by the end, so I could go into the chorus. I was also able to use some minor key progressions to add tension to the "action scenes".

Continuity also led to reusing a lot of the same instruments between the intro and the rest of the song. I was going for a percussive sound, with clock ticking, a ratchet wrench, a triangle, a last-minute timpani, and other clanking sounds (though in retrospect it needed "moar cowbell"). The piano is also a percussive instrument, which I emphasized by using staccato notes. Originally, it was going to have mallets and bells as well, but I gave the mallet part to a harpsichord instead. Granted, the harpsichord was already at least 150 years obsolete by the time in which the action in this song purportedly takes place, but it still provides an effective "historical" sound -- and have I mentioned that steampunk doesn't mind anachronisms? This also fulfilled something I had been thinking about doing since my first Song Fu, but hadn't had the chance, which is to include a harpsichord in my arrangement.

This gave me an anachronistic trio of harpsichord, piano, and synth, in addition to the percussive sounds. I left the percussive sounds off the chorus and bridge, hoping that they wouldn't become too repetitive (which didn't work as well as I had hoped). I also chose to use the harpsichord on the first verse, to emphasize the setting and the "invention" aspect, use the synth on the second verse to emphasize the weird "psionic" stuff, and then bring everything in on the third verse. The bridge makes the common modulation to the bVI key of Ab, but then I had to further modulate up one half step and back into the minor in order to return to the third verse. That proved to be a bit interesting challenge in enharmonics and trial and error. I think the pivot chord was E7 in A minor, which is I think is enharmonic to an Fb German Sixth in the key of Ab. Or something. It was preceded by a Db chord, at any rate.

For the vocals, I ended up with something like 8 takes (that I bothered keeping), broke them into phrases, and selected the best of each. This went pretty smoothly thanks to the melody actually containing a number of short and detached phrases.

At this point, it was almost done, but it needed two bits more. I wanted some sort of brass instrument fanfare in the chorus, and I felt the bridge (which only had piano and bass) needed something more. Since I would be adding brass to the chorus, my original thought was that I could add it to the bridge as well, but that didn't really seem to fit the mood. Then I was given a mandolin for my birthday, and that fit perfectly. I played some long tremolo notes over the chord progression, and I think it added just the right dose of "tugging at the heart strings" that it needed. It took lots of takes, and a touch of post-processing to get the tremolo right, considering this was my first time ever playing a mandolin.

Since the brass part was now relegated to a relatively simple part in the chorus, I realized I could play it on a replica Civil War bugle I just happened to have lying around, and which is (almost) in the right key. To be fair, the thing doesn't sound all that great, and I pretty much used the only 3 notes that it's capable of producing, so I quad-tracked it, applied liberal doses of pitch-correction and reverb, and placed it low in the mix, off to one side. True, I could have just used MIDI, but I like the extra touch of authenticity the real bugle gives it.

Finally, the very last thing I had to do was record the "Don LaFontaine" intro vocals. To help in getting the low pitch, I recorded this part shortly after waking up (before going to work), which is when my voice is at it's lowest pitch. I also used a "vocal fry" (creaky voice) and a touch of EQ to cut some of the higher-pitched harmonics. I realize that the faux movie-trailer intro could be seen as damaging to the song, or it could be seen as funny or cheesy. I almost didn't leave it in, but in the end I decided that this song is based on an unusual concept, and it has to stand on its own and explain its own concept to the judges. For movies, a trailer is a quick and concise way to present an unusual setting, so I decided to keep it for the same reason. However, there is a full break between the intro and the song, and the song could certainly stand on its own without the intro, for a "low-cheese" version.

1 comment:

Spin said...

I love it when you guys make blogs like this. It's always interesting to learn more about the song. Thanks Caleb.