August 31, 2017
I’m Not Blacking Out, I’m Breaking Through
By Scott Taylor
#9: ‘Tell Me When You Can’t Breathe’
Hi there and welcome back to ‘I’m Not Blacking Out, I’m Breaking Through’! I’ve really run down to the wire this time, seeing as it’s the end of the month and all. At any rate, the subject of my latest digression is a personal favorite and one I’m really feeling right now. So, let me tell you about ‘Tell Me When You Can’t Breathe’, the title song off our 2010 sophomore release. Here we go…
Do you stress and strain getting nowhere?
Sometimes a song pops right out practically ready to go right from the start, other times it needs to stay in the oven for a little while. This one falls in the latter category. I think it endured the longest gestation period of any of my songs to date and is in fact the oldest one I’ve covered in this column thus far dating back to 1996. I fussed with it several times for over a decade, but it started out like so many of my tunes do. An intriguing melody and interesting chord progression kept nagging at me. I couldn’t lock onto a lyric right away and the words kept changing. The only part that remained constant was the phrase 'Tell me when you can’t breathe'. Where does a cool little phrase like that come from? Let’s just say my brain has an unusual capacity for storing varied and peculiar recollections in surprising detail.
Show me something cool
It's weird how sometimes random distant memories can pop up and take you right back to a moment. In this instance I recalled a scene from way back in the summer of 1990. My brother, a couple friends and I were playing the stupid kids game Marco Polo in a swimming pool at the apartments where I lived. My friend Jason kept dunking his brother Jeremy and at one point exclaimed, “Tell me when you can’t breathe!” I thought it was freakin’ hilarious and filed it away in the recesses of my noggin. This was before I had even written my first song. On a similar hot summer day while sitting and strumming my guitar in my old studio apartment in 1996 I stumbled upon that memory. I don’t know if it was the heat making me goofy or what, but I still found it pretty funny. I thought to myself, now there’s a song title and I set out exploring.
Here’s another verse…still not there
Initially this curious little ditty was comprised of several sections that didn’t survive to make the final cut. It was an experimental, almost progressive musical exercise of sorts featuring adventurous time signature changes and non-repeating parts. I remember thinking it felt kinda like a poppy Rush song. My band at the time, Toybox, was heavily influenced by Rush, as well as bands like Soundgarden, Living Colour, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana and The Beatles. We used to tell people our sound could be summed up by three albums: Moving Pictures (Rush, 1981), Abbey Road (The Beatles, 1969) and Bleach (Nirvana, 1989). You could say this composition in progress was pretty accurately representative of that assertion. So it was to be that in progress it would remain, simmering on the back burner for a long time.
So this is how it goes
Many years later, during a period shortly after The Hard Way had recorded our first record but prior to its release, I got on this jag of writing a song a day. Naturally, some were better than others. Nevertheless during the spring of 2008 I racked up a decent chunk of tunes, several of which did make it to the finish line finding a home on our second album. Alongside nursing all those new songs I found myself starting to gnaw on ‘Tell Me When You Can’t Breathe’ once again and decided I’d make a concerted effort to zone in on and figure it out once and for all. Ironically after all that time and lots of variations it came together and reached completion surprisingly fast. In fact, I think I knocked it out for good in a single afternoon!
Ultimately I ended up tossing out pretty much all the tricky time change bits in favor of nailing it as a tight, aggressive, catchy pop tune. Similarly, all the overly cerebral lyrics I’d toyed with got burned away and replaced by a searing, in your face scream of desperation. This was a song teetering on the verge of suffocating itself. I’d found the right fit.
Though we choose between reality and madness it’s either sadness or euphoria
- Billy Joel (‘Summer, Highland Falls,’ 1976)
Take another step, don’t come any closer
In a nutshell, ‘Tell Me When You Can’t Breathe’ is about suffocating under the psychic and emotional strain of being bipolar. I’ve dealt with this my whole life and it is painful (and not just for me, but for those close to me as well). I do, but I don’t. I will, but I won’t. I’m on again. I’m off again. I’ve got the market cornered when it comes to self-sabotage and I don’t like having to interact with others. The oft used term 'rollercoaster' is indeed an apt description. I’ve always felt that the stops and starts and subtle jolts in this song are suitable aural illustrations of my mood fluctuations. Also, I particularly dig the alternating major/minor third interval in relation to the E major chord during the chorus – it sounds to me like a manic high followed by an impending crash. At the end of the song this effect is underscored as it see-saws back and forth over and over. Get it?
Take it back
As I was saying, when I finally landed on the lyrics that clicked with the music it all made sense. It was kinda like sculpting. Sometimes songwriting can be that way. You throw a bunch of ideas against the wall to see what sticks. You might get into a space where you think you’re being clever, but then you leave and come back to it multiple times. One day, you get to a point where you wind up chucking a bunch of unnecessary stuff that is only obscuring the purity of the expression screaming to spring forth. It is a process of chipping away until the song reveals itself.
Stumble toward reward
At our release party for Only If…And Even Then we played ‘Tell Me When You Can’t Breathe’ as an encore. We’d been rocking it on our first tour that summer along with several other new songs prior to the release of the first album. At the time I had no way of knowing we were debuting what would end up as the title track of our second release. We actually had a good portion of songs that were destined for the second album already in our repertoire by the time the first one came out. Two weeks after the release of Only If… we started recording the follow-up utilizing our home practice space as a studio.
Incidentally, Tell Me When You Can’t Breathe didn’t become the album title until the last minute. We had debated several silly potential options and one day shortly before sending it out to be mastered it struck me as an appropriate summation of the album’s overall vibe. It hadn’t occurred to me to name the album after the title of one of its songs, but it felt perfect considering it encompassed the claustrophobic, implosive venom of many of the tracks contained within. Funny how the album title came so suddenly that late in the game yet seemed so obvious and natural. I guess it’s akin to the way the song itself lingered unfinished for years only to be completed fairly quickly once I finally zeroed in and figured out how to tie all the loose threads together. Also, it was kinda cool how the first tune that took shape as the recording commenced became the final word. I really like this song.
Well that about does it, wraps her up for this round of reminiscing. As always it’s been a trip cracking open the corners of my memory, regaling you folks with my quirky anecdotes and insights. Thanks again for reading and I’ll catch ya later!
Fun Fact: The working title of our second album was Toledo Bar Fight. But that’s a whole other story for another day…
If I seem confused it’s only to amuse you
Don’t you know that you can count me out/in
- The Beatles (‘Revolution 1,’ 1968)
CLICK HERE TO BUY:
CLICK HERE TO STREAM: