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Chasing the Magic of the Demo


March 31, 2015

Chasing the Magic of the Demo

Sandy MacKay

0000582798_10I’m working with a group called ThreeFoolsPeak. It’s me, and two other guys – Bill Preeper and Clinton Charlton. We each play an array of instruments, and we are all writers. Last summer we decided to work together to create a recording, but we did not have any songs.

We’re bringing together our various musing and scribblings, new musical ideas and working together to see what fits.

Here’s how it goes, for example. Bill Preeper would pick up his antique Hensel and noodle away as we get settled, and as he noodled, I would play the double bass and try and catch what he was doing. Clinton would find some rhythms, and sing ‘scrambled eggs’ lyrics, making up words and noises as he went along, trying to find a melody. Anyone with a melodic or lyrical idea could chime in, and take it in a new direction. The tempo, lyrics, chord progression, everything, would morph as we jammed, add a bridge maybe, go back to the original noodle maybe.

Then we’d switch on a little recorder and make a recording of the piece as it was being born.

Our “scrambled eggs” lyrics didn’t usually make sense at first; they were noises, placeholders for real words. We’d transcribe those words, creating real lyrics from the jumble. Then we’d edit viciously, remove clichés and obvious rhymes. We’d sharpen the lyrics and tighten up the production, devise specific sections, verse, chorus, bridge, instrumental breaks, get it into shape.

Then, we record, track by track, drums, bass, rhythm guitars, mandolin, banjo, lead and back-up vocals, piano, whatever the song calls for, choosing the lead singer, everyone tries it on for size, in a careful repetitive manner, working to find the best tracks that fit together to create the final song.

But sometimes in this process, we’d lose something.

A feature of this process is what the Skydiggers Andy Maize called “Chasing the Magic of the Demo”. The demo- the recording of the song being born- is technically weak, musically incomplete and full of errors, meanderings and silliness. However, there is also energy, freshness and creativity in situ; the demo captured everything, the errors and the magic. It’s a bunch of people playing music in a room, fooling around and having fun, creating music from thin air, dancing molecules.

[Tweet “There is energy, freshness and creativity; the demo captures everything, the errors and the magic.”]

As we continue with a more formal track-by-track recording process, capturing the magic of the demo is the challenge. It’s a distillation process. We have to be careful about how much we boil off, to find the right mixture, the balance between purity and energy. One potential is to end up with an end product- a recorded song- that is sterile, devoid of the magic. You can ‘produce’ the magic out of a song!

Tonight, we’re doing this: we’re pulling out the instruments and the drums again, and we’re sitting down by the woodstove and we’re singing these songs. The brilliant Steve Sellors says “A song is a bunch of people in a room.”

So, to see if we saved the magic, we’re putting our new songs to the test. We’re sitting down to fool around again, invite some other musicians in, to see if these songs will handle being fooled around with. Are they pliable? Are they fun? Are they energetic? Are they real songs that a bunch of people in a room can sing together or did they become brittle cardboard reproductions of a bit of magic we once made?

ThreeFoolsPeak’s new album should come out sometime this spring. You can let me know.

You can hear Sandy’s previous recordings online at: