I make a rare detour this week to feature an extraordinary video, and to talk to its creator, David Paul.
The sour truth of being an obsessive music collector is that, like any addiction, the longer you feed it the longer it takes to reclaim those visceral moments of excitement that guided you into the habit in the first place. I listen to thousands of new and new-old recordings every month. Of those, only a few dozen will make it into any sort of permanent rotation in my life, whether it’s my physical record collection or my iTunes playlists. And, of those, it’s only every few months that something really takes me out of myself for a bit, and that has me instantly and obsessively reaching to replay a recording.
This was one of those recordings.
In full disclosure I am a huge fan of the Bee Gees’ ‘60s pop records – “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man,” in particular – and I’m a big fan of the sound and effect of echo. This recording has both. But there are many great components of David Paul’s recording beyond mere acoustics and song choice.
There’s the lighting, for one. Simple but dramatic – an unwavering luminescent globe bathes the performer. There’s the tank. It creates an utterly alien, unreal atmosphere, the vastness of its interior indistinguishable in the gloom but instantly obvious from the boundless echo. There’s the performance itself. The chords are basic, serviceable. Here it is the human voice that provides the focal point. Unrehearsed but clear, it soars high, playing off oceanic masses of gorgeous, decaying sound.
Like any memorable recording, this performance transcends its components, becoming an experience. There’s the artfulness and drama of its setting, of course, but everything here breathes honest, spontaneous, solitary joy. There is something heroic about the pure and stupendous sound that one person can create.
Well, it stirred me. And there was obviously a good story in there. So I recently contacted the recording’s creator – electrician and musician David Paul – to ask him some questions, to which he kindly assented.
LD: I’d love to have any biographical details about yourself, as well as about your musical background.
DP: Well first off Dan, I wanna thank you for your interest and taking the time to expose me getting tanked! Ha!
I live in Kansas City, Missouri, where I was born and raised. I’ve always seemed to have a knack for playing music, as far back as a young child, when I learned to play guitar by ear and noodle on my grandparents’ reed organ. I played trumpet in elementary school and worked my way up to first chair, until circumstances forced us to sell it. I never bothered to try and read music after that. I always had a guitar around, though, playing old three-chord standards, you know, “Home On The Range,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” “Down In The Valley,” etc. Around 1971 or ‘72, I got Neil Young’s album Harvest, and that really struck a spark in me – must have learned every song on that record! That’s when I took up the harmonica. I bought about three or four harps before I got the right key to play “Heart Of Gold.”
Back in 1978, I took up the fiddle, and about six months later I was asked to join a local band named Denver Locke. That’s when I started playing professionally – full-time for about four-and-a-half years. We had an old 1959 Greyhound bus and toured Colorado, the Northwest and Canada. I’ve been in and out of bands every since. My most recent venture musically has been with my good friend Harv Fitzer, a professor and guitar teacher at JCCC in Kansas. Harv got on a roll and started writing songs, and I’d throw in my two cents’ worth. We just call ourselves “Fitzer and Paul”. We currently have a song called “Stupidity” on Neil Young’s web site Living With War. You can also hear some other stuff on our website or our myspace page.
Over the years, I’ve had to have a real job, so I make a living as a handyman, jack-of-all-trades, so to speak, master of none (same with musical instruments). Over the last several years I have been an electrician, building control cabinets and wiring for these big train and ship engines with generators on them. Many small towns have their own power houses and use these to generate electricity for peak use and power outages.
Which brings us around to how I gained access to the big tank.
LD: Right – how did you come across the tank – and at what point did you realize “Hey, this would make an interesting place for a recording”?
DP: We were working in Belleville, Kansas at the city power plant, and right outside of the place the city was upgrading their water system. We (Steve Payne, mechanical and electrical engineer and guru for Industrial Diesel Service, and a guitar picker in his own right) watched this half-million gallon steel tank being constructed from the ground up.
When it was finished and painted inside and out, they’d left the hatch unbolted, and we got the idea to take some instruments in there in the evening after work. With flashlight in hand, we proceeded to check it out. The sound bounced around in there so much that we could barely understand each other when we tried to talk – simply mind-boggling. Steve commenced to experiment with his guitar, and me with my mandolin, not really playing any songs in particular, just bouncing notes around. We only had cell phones and a digital camera as a means to capture the experience.
Well, once was obviously not enough, and as luck would have it, the tank went untouched (except by us) for a few weeks. We must have had a few hours of noodling out notes in there, but so far I’ve been too cheap to by any software to try and edit it down to something listenable.
LD: The Bee Gees’ song worked beautifully within the tank. Were you a fan of the early Bee Gees in particular, or was “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man” a spontaneous choice, knowing that it was a song that would work well in there?
DP: Being born in 1958, I grew up listening to every Beatles album as it was released, and we (brothers) had the Bee Gees’ first album somewhere around 1968. It always struck me as a great album, and was very Beatle-ish sounding. Whilst working I would think about songs to try out in the tank, and then “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man” popped in my head. I remembered how it started out with that chant that sounded like it was in a big cathedral, and wanted to see how it sounded in there. The night I recorded it, I went in there alone with a flashlight, guitar, and Panansonic Lumix digital camera. Propped the light to where it shone on the wall, and set the camera on a paint can. Proximity to the microphone is fairly critical. I later realized being too far away, your voice is indistinguishable, and too close, you lose the “big” sound. As luck would have it, the camera was placed about right.
LD: Your singing and harmonizing with the guitar and echo was incredible, yet it feels spontaneous. Had you already worked out the parts to the song?
DP: Well, sorta. I never could understand what the Bee Gees were chanting in that song, so I just made something up to fit. But it was the first time I ever tried to play that song, just prior to going in there, so the spontaneity seems apparent.
In hindsight, I probably would have left the last round out of the song, but I was having so much fun with it I didn’t want to stop!
LD: You mentioned “Within You Without You,” too. Did you try any other songs in there?
DP: One night I had my fiddle in there, and the Beatles’ song “Within You Without You” came to mind. I probably played that over and over for at least half an hour, having never played it before, until I thought I was happy with it. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t have the means to edit the sessions, so I haven’t posted any more “tank sessions” on YouTube yet. If I remember right, I think I have bits of “Amazing Grace”, and some Moody Blues stuff on the fiddle, as well as lots of miscellaneous noise.
LD: And what was the experience of being and playing in the tank like?
DP: There was just such a magical feeling and sound inside the tank – especially when you turned off the flashlight… total darkness, only your mind’s eye at work. Every little sound was something new to your ears! It could be angelic, or to the other extreme. I wish there had been more time (and inspiration), and better equipment to really take advantage of the rare opportunity. We could have/ should have done so much more with it. And then, as usual, all things must pass, and the tank hatch was sealed, and filled with water, of which the town of Belleville now drinks.
LD: And then you eventually posted this to the Internet...
DP: Yeah, I’m glad I did. I am truly amazed and flattered by all of the comments and interest I have received from people around the world! For some reason, it has really had an impact on a few people. I love reading the comments, some of which are very humorous, and so far all have been quite positive. I wonder if any of the surviving Bee Gees will ever hear it?
Thanks again to David for the interview and for his remarkable recording. I would encourage anyone who enjoyed the video to leave a comment on David’s YouTube page (or here at Office Naps, too).