MP3 Debut: Steinski, "What Was Raymond Doing With His Hands? (A Soundtrack for a Real Swinger of a Nightmare)"
When we originally spoke with Steinski, he'd just fixed mixing the Frank Sinatra mix "What Was Raymond Doing With His Hands? (A Soundtrack for a Real Swinger of a Nightmare)" approximately 90 minutes before his phone call with Rob Trucks. Graciously, Steve Stein let us post it here, in full worldwide debut glory. Say thank you at steinski.com. Part two of yesterday's Steinski conversation is below. — Yr blog editor
How long ago did you start on ["What Was Raymond Doing With His Hands? (A Soundtrack for a Real Swinger of a Nightmare)"] ?
Well, it would've been like the first week in June, because it was the week after I came out of the hospital and couldn't really do anything except look at movies.
Are the movies what turns the lightbulb on rather than the music?
No, I think what happened was before I went into the hospital I knew I was going to have down time afterwards. And I thought, 'Well, you know, rather than just sit around and take painkillers, I'd like to be doing something, you know, vaguely productive.' And so part of this was, 'What's something where I can like do a thing and it'll kind of fill up the time?' And one of the reasons I settled on Sinatra was because, you know, he's an enormous cultural icon in the U.S. Probably not so much now as he used to be, but still very large. And he recorded a tremendous amount of stuff with a lot of different kinds of people, and he had a very varied career in movies. And I thought, 'Well, this is not going to be a completist thing because I don't have the time for that, but I am going to have a bunch of time when I can't really do much.' So I ordered a couple of movies from the movie place and started looking at stuff, and some of the movies he did were just fucking wonderful. They were really good.
Like Man with the Golden Arm, the Otto Preminger film, is excellent. And it's different too. It's like a fable. And the sound design in it is really wild, which I hadn't noticed until I started trying to work with the soundtrack. But nonetheless . . .
So what I wanted to do was, like in any project where I want to do something fairly sizable, I just sit around and say, 'Well, where am I going to get all the pieces from?' So the first thing was, 'Well, let me watch the movies and see if that gives me some ideas.'
And, you know, there's plenty of cool dialogue in the movies, so I stripped off some of that. You know, there's that wonderful character actress in Man with the Golden Arm – her name is Doro Merande—and she's the woman who does that “ripped the pages off the calendar” line. And I just thought that was the greatest thing. Also, with movies, even if the dialogue is sometimes not the most sparkling or inspired when it's out of context, and you know you shine a light on it differently because of where you're putting it, all of a sudden, you know, it takes on a different character.
So I pulled lots of things that I thought would work out of context, and I started listening to a lot of Sinatra music. And I discovered that really what I liked best—I mean, it's not really a surprise to me—is I like the stuff he did with Basie, I like the stuff he did with Ellington. Because that stuff is brass-oriented and not string-oriented like a lot of the stuff he did with Axel Stordahl and some of the people who came after him. You know, this stuff felt more like a working band on a bandstand type stuff, which I like. And, of course, you have Basie and Ellington and their arrangers doing the stuff behind him, so the stuff kills.
And I also discovered that he did two sessions, apparently, with Antonio Carlos Jobim. And I listened to some of that stuff and it's like, 'Yeah! I don't mind this. You know, this is good.' So rather than the syrupy stuff that I guess I was used to hearing when I was a kid, there was all this sort of more meaty, big band material for the most part, and I just was really digging it. So I thought, 'Well, okay, I'll restrict it to that and we'll see what comes out.' I mean, there's always a certain amount of surprise, at least as far as I'm concerned, in this. You can go into it really feeling one way, but it's very hard when you have this many pieces to work with in this large a subject to say, 'Well, I'm definitely going to lock it down and it's really going to come out exactly this way.' Unless you have the luxury of a tremendous amount of time. Now for me a month or a little bit over a month is a lot of time, but it's still not . . . I mean, Sinatra's an enormous subject. If you were going to do something like this in some sort of a concerted way, it would take a hell of a long time. And if you wanted it to be vaguely even complete or reference the many parts of his career . . . I felt lucky that I figured out a place to put a snatch of “All Or Nothing At All,” which I think was probably his first huge hit, and figured out a way to put that in there just sort of as a tag, you know, like, 'Oh yeah. And that's Frank Sinatra, too.'
The Sinatra-Basie album came out in '62.
I think that may be the first one.
Yeah. So other than a tag here and a tag there, both the music and the movies that you've pulled from center around on the mid-'60s Sinatra, do they not?
You're right, although I think the Jobim stuff is a little later. But for the most part, yeah, I'd have to say you're right. I had my own taste in it and, as I said, I wasn't going at this to do a completist piece. So here I was looking at it, and I was going like, 'Well, you know, I'm not really into that Rat Pack-type stuff, and I'm not even going to mess with it.' So I didn't mess with the music from that era that much and I certainly didn't mess with the movies like Ocean's Eleven even though, again, that's the more known type of material.
Let me ask you about going to the movie place and ordering movies. You come up with at least Man with the Golden Arm and the Manchurian Candidate and . . .
Yeah, From Here to Eternity is in there and The Tender Trap is in there and I watched Some Came Running which was another James Jones thing that I guess he optioned because he'd had such success with From Here to Eternity, which is a very Peyton Place-y kind of thing. You know, the raw life behind the suburban small town ideal façade.
So it sounds like the movies come before the music.
In this case, yeah.
How are you picking them? Are you going with films that you've seen before and retain some kind of positive memory? Are you going for a chronological time frame?
Well, I wouldn't say it's random because, first of all, I thought, 'Yeah, okay. From Here to Eternity he won an Academy Award. I should really see that.' And his part is pretty wonderful, although Montgomery Clift, it's really his movie. 'Manchurian Candidate? Yes,' for any number reasons. One of which was, that was the era before there was a lot of sound design behind the vocals, so the stuff's pretty clean and clear, and also it's a pretty fascinating plotline anyway. And I know a lot of people know the movie, you know, so there was that. And there's that insane cry he has when he's beating the shit out of that guy where he goes, 'What was Raymond doing with his hands?' Because he's trying to figure out what the key is to this nightmare he's been having. And I looked at that and I went, 'Oh. Yes. That has such a feeling in it. This is really going to give it an atmosphere.'
That's not even a thought for you. That's so immediate for you as to be an instinct.
I mean, movies, in order to have any kind of shot at blockbuster success, seem to try to mine catch phrases. You walk out of the theater going, 'Make my day' or something. But I think most people who watch The Manchurian Candidate . . .
For Manchurian Candidate I also used 'Why don't we play a little solitaire?'
Yeah, that would be the one.
Yeah, that's the key phrase.
Is there any way to look at the phrase “What is Raymond doing with his hands?” and find out why it hit you like it did? Or is the process completely instinctual and you knew that it was right?
It's probably more completely instinctual. I can always come up with a rationalization afterwards, but when I listen to it and that little feeling, you know, the little bell starts to ring, it's like, 'Yeah. I pull that.' I went kind of back and forth on it because it's kind of gritty in terms of its sound, so that's why I named the mix after that, so people would understand, 'Oh, that's what he's saying.'
What's your Sinatra experience before this? Was Sinatra played in the Stein household when you were growing up? It sounds like you'd never seen From Here to Eternity before.
Well, there's a lot of movies I haven't seen. I mean, my cultural background is kind of on the mangy side. You know, it's sort of spotty. And I might have seen it when I was a kid, but it's not the kind of thing that would keep my attention when I was a kid. And I was looking at it now and going, 'Shit, Burt Lancaster is dynamite and Debbie Reynolds is playing a hooker?' [laughs] It's like the revelations are coming thick and fast. And, you know, I was really enjoying it.
Where is it in the household?
I don't know. I mean, I guess I'm familiar with some of Sinatra's work. Obviously the most-played, float to the top-type stuff: “New York, New York” and, you know, some of the other things of that ilk. The big showy Top 40-type tunes. But a friend of mine who lives in the Midwest now turned me on to Sinatra and Basie at The Sands (Sinatra at The Sands (with Count Basie & the Orchestra)). And I was listening to that and I was like, 'Oh man. He's so much better than what I sort of expected in this kind of a setting for his voice.' You know, Basie and his band were just kicking it. And then I went from there to, 'Oh yeah. I remember. He did an album with Ellington, too.' And there's that wonderful song in the mix called “Follow Me” which is an Ellington arrangement, and I was thinking, 'Wow. Oh, damn.' And, 'Hey, what do you know? Jobim.' So a lot of the musical stuff was revelatory to me. Obviously not his voice and his quality as a singer but, you know, a lot of the places where I found myself really, really being interested were new and different to me. Which helps. It's nice to not have a feeling of resignation about the pieces you're working with. For me, it helps.
But Sinatra was not playing in the Stein household on Wednesday nights while spaghetti and meatballs were being prepared in some misguided attempt to acclimate into the Italian-American way of life.
Uh, no [laughs] . I'll just let it go at that. The picture is astonishing.
Does that process of discovery, having to, at the very least, reintroduce yourself to both the music and film work of Sinatra, increase the excitement of working on this project? I mean, maybe it even increases the sense of loss of control, that literally this is a blank palette you're working with here and anything is possible?
Yeah, and also don't forget, obviously I'm a lot more familiar with Basie and his work and Ellington and his work and other parts of Jobim's work than I was with any of their work with Sinatra. So in that respect I kind of had like this outside . . . You know, I had outside friendly feelings towards the other half of the pairing there.
Do you feel differently about Sinatra now than you did two months ago?
Yeah. Yeah, I would say. I mean, I think he was a much more talented movie actor than I gave him credit for. And I think he probably lost interest in it, it seems. You know, he kind of fluffed off and started using the movies as an excuse to just be, you know, this cool guy, either with his friends or not, and not working at it too hard. Because when he really worked at it he was pretty good.
I mean, when Sinatra started, when he was all of a sudden not the returning serviceman in any number of these different contexts anymore, and he became, you know, the swinging bachelor, like in The Tender Trap, all of a sudden there's that line about nembutol and Methadrine, or whatever it is in the medicine cabinet, tossed off very blithely. You know, no qualification about the fact that, yeah, everybody in this film is drinking like a fish and now you can have some Benzedrine, too. It's like, 'Wow.' And these are wholesome films. Debbie Reynolds is in that film for God's sake, and this time she's not even a hooker. Just looking at that, that's quite interesting the way that stuff came across. And obviously he sort of played that line out into . . . I mean, I know he did TV shows and things like that as a character, but in the movies he always seemed to me to be that, you know, slightly dissolute guy in a suit hanging around with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr waiting to wisecrack and make each other laugh. And before then, I don't know what Otto Preminger did—hold a gun to him or hit him over the head with a board or something—but shit, the way that Man with the Golden Arm comes across is like really, 'Damn, he plays a junky?'
Do you have friends who refuse to visit you in June and July because they couldn't handle hearing any more Sinatra?
Well, actually, like I said, since I was holed up from the surgery I didn't have any friends coming by. They would just call up and go, 'What are you doing?' I'd say, 'Oh, I'm listening to a lot of Sinatra.' And they went, 'Oh really, that's interesting.' So they were spared, they were spared that part of the bath.
But do you need to take a break from Sinatra now?
I probably won't be messing with it, yeah. Although I have to say that the Ellington record I rather like. You know, part of this is just professional routine, because a lot of times, working on an industrial film or working on another project, you have to immerse yourself in this. And it almost mandates a certain loss of perspective about what you're doing. You need to navigate by your best instincts and, you know, give yourself a reality check every once in a while. But you really have to just stay with it the whole time and so a lot of my projects are like that.
Okay, if you have to recommend one Sinatra album . . .
I'd probably take one of the Basie records, actually, for the immediate thrill of it. At The Sands? I would say not, because a lot of his dialogue in that is like embarrassingly horrible. But probably the first Basie/Sinatra record.
And the Sinatra movie you would recommend would be Man with the Golden Arm.
Yeah, well, of course. I've been going on about it.
Okay, let's finish up with some nuts and bolts. You're watching movies, listening to music, and you can pretty much do that anywhere in the house, but when it comes time to lay down tracks that equipment's in the basement.
Yeah, and that's pretty much where I am too, in the studio, when I'm watching these things.
When it comes time to start your recording, what's the first thing you do to start this track?
Well, I think I did movie dialogue and just kind of listened and listened and listened and listened before I started listening to the music again. I mean, I knew what I had in terms of music, but I hadn't listened to it in terms of 'Now what am I actually going to use?' I had listened to just a tremendous amount of stuff, but I'd say taking the dialogue and seeing what the dialogue says about what's going to happen. You know, there's a certain amount of dependency on that.
Do you know what piece of dialogue you put down first?
God. No. It was probably some of the stuff from From Here to Eternity.
And when we talked on Tuesday you said that you'd finished the track about an hour before I called.
What's the last thing you did so you could honestly use the word “finished”?
Oh God. Mixed it for like the seventh time [laughs] . Oh man, I so much don't have the patience for doing that well. You know, I just sit there and you have to listen to the same piece 25 times, adjusting the delay or the volume or the pan or some shit or other, and it's like, 'Oh God,' you know.
Seven times, huh?
Well, sometimes more, sometimes less.
Here's a hypothetical for the future. You're all healed up. You're as healthy as a horse. You go to a party, you walk inside and on the stereo, “What Was Raymond Doing With His Hands?” is playing. Do you immediately turn around and leave the party, do you sit down and listen with them or do you try to find a beer?
A combination of B and C, while also sort of scanning the crowd, seeing how people are reacting, if anybody's listening.
So you can handle listening to it one more time if you can get some kind of feedback in return.
Yeah. Oh, of course. Yeah. That's probably the biggest thing I lack when I'm working is the fact that since I'm not working with a partner or a client or someone who's giving me feedback, you know, I'm very conscious of the fact that, 'Jesus Christ, somebody else is going to have to listen to this at some point.' And a couple of my friends did get early versions of it.
Some artists aren't comfortable listening to their own recorded work.
Yeah, I mean, there's certain things that once I was done with them I was very happy if I was never going to hear them again. I mean, the Sinatra thing is at least long enough and intricate enough . . . I mean, I could've . . . . If I'd been sicker I might've worked on it longer, but I had enough energy to start saying, 'Okay, enough of this.'
So the track's finished and you expect to be all healed up in September, but that's almost five weeks away. What are you doing in the interim?
Going to the gym in the morning, when I can, just to use the treadmill and get some endorphins up, and kind of just work back slowly to normal activities. Which is kind of hard, to tell you the truth. Man, they opened me up and they walked around with muddy boots.' PREVIOUSLY
Interview: Steinski (a/k/a Steve Stein), Part I