One eye is shared among three witches. Take the eye, and, well, you've got it all.
This is how Perseus — the Greek hero who adorns the movie poster of 1981's Clash of the Titans — learns how to defeat the Kraken sea monster: He must take the head of Medusa.
Understandably so, it was this scene — where Perseus confronts the Stygian witches — that captivated a young Ethan Jones. Now one of two songwriters in the Omaha band Baby Tears, Jones pays tribute to one of his favorite childhood movies in the song "Stygian Witches."
A two-minute trip through electrified tremors of dark sound, with actual lines from the witches whispered toward the end, "Stygian Witches" represents a different sort of sonic palette than Baby Tears normally uses. It opens their latest LP Rusty Years, and Jones says the song works well onstage, too.
"It’s good to throw that in there to break up the set. A lot of our songs are so manic and teetering on the edge. That song brings it down to this sort of gloomy, almost Black Sabbath sort of thing."
Read on to learn more about "Stygian Witches," from the importance (or lack thereof) of lyrics to the inclusion of an iPhone app's sound. Then see Baby Tears live in concert this Saturday at Slowdown with The Men and Gordon. The show will start at 9 p.m. Cover is $10 advance, $13 day of show. RSVP here.
Hear Nebraska: Could you start by telling me about how "Stygian Witches" was written?
Ethan Jones: Well, I wrote this song on guitar and played it along to this cheap drum machine that I kind of use to write everything. It has, I don't know, 30 or so beats, and there’s one called punk rock. Kind of funny. It has this simple 4/4 beat, so it’s easy to write along to it.
That song in particular, "Stygian Witches," instead of doing our usual thing we do with Baby Tears, with a lot of picking and parts that change, a lot of tension, this song kind of holds back. The notes are open, and there’s a lot of space in the song compared to most of our other tracks, I guess.
The subject matter is the movie Clash of the Titans, but not the remake. When I wrote this song, I hadn’t heard about the remake being made, and it came out technically after the song. But the '80s version is one I watched a lot as a kid.
My favorite part in that movie is where there are these three blind witches called the Stygian witches. They're all-knowing and Perseus has to go to them to find out that he needs to cut off the head of Medusa to kill the sea Kraken that's holding his damsel in distress, or whatever.
We’re not into a whole lot of fantasy stuff, but I just like the idea of focusing on the three blind witches. And in the background, the whispered vocals, they’re actual quotes from the movie, things that the witches say.
HN: I can’t make out the lyrics very well. How important are the words to you?
EJ: Oh, they are not important at all.
HN: What purpose do you think they serve?
EJ: More of a texture that goes along with the music. I would say a lot of our other songs, maybe the lyrics are important or the subject matter for the lyrics kind of inspired the feel of the song. But "Stygian Witches" was just, "Hey, I want to do a song that sounds like something that we wouldn’t do, that has some gloom and some space."
That’s the song that opens the record, so it works almost as an instrumental. The vocals are thrown in there just for texture really.
HN: Tell me about the process of tracking the album Rusty Years, and how this ended up being the first song.
EJ: Sure. We’d done a couple things, and we were all interested in home recording. We all had analog cassette four-tracks, and we had used those over the years. When we did our first demo, that’s what we did it on.
But for the whole Rusty Years LP and the seven-inch we did on Rainy Road, we had a group of songs, everything we liked up to that point that we wanted to use, and we recorded them all straight to four-track, Ramones first album style with bass cranked all the way to the left, guitar in the right and drums in the middle. And we got a pretty raw recording of that, and sort of mixed it, bumped it down to a computer.
Then we layered tons of stuff: extra guitar parts, toy keyboards. toy drum machine here and there. There was at least one track that had a kind of sound collage. Our drummer Jeff compiled that from a bunch of stuff we experimented with while practicing. He stitched it all together. That one’s called “Flesher.”
Yeah, that's it, and then we'd put vocals on. You know, we learned more as we went along. There were some problems, but we were pretty happy with how it turned out considering the strange way we went about recording it and the things we added. I think we all wanted it to sound raw and primal. And I think we achieved that.
HN: You mentioned using a drum machine to write along to. Did that end up anywhere on the recording?
EJ: No. Todd (VonStup) and I both write songs for Baby Tears, and we have different writing processes. He writes a lot of stuff on acoustic. He’ll make an MP3 of the cell phone field recording or whatever and send it to us. But I like to play along to a drum machine and put a couple different parts in. When we send it to each other, it’s not the end-all-be-all. It's just, "Here are these riffs I put together. Here's a rough structure. We’ll screw around with it the next time we get together to practice."
So with "Stygian Witches" and the drum machine, that was just the beginning, then Jeff does his own thing. It always turns out more interesting than just a drum beat that goes on and on and never changes.
HN: Definitely. It seems like the time signature changes in the song. Was that added to the song as you worked it through with the band?
EJ: Yeah, all the basic tracks are live. So like I said, it’s sort of imperfect. It's not like we do a bunch of drum takes, and then lay our guitars over it. We would just do one, two, maybe three takes of each song, depending on how we felt about it. What's there is there.
So if the time signature wavers a little but the song sounds cool, that's just how it is. It's like a band really is live without doing every individual thing and making it perfect. I like that it's imperfect.
HN: The song opens and closes with sort of electrified shaking sound. How was that produced, and what do you think it adds to the song?
EJ: That sound is actually an iPhone application. I don’t have it on my phone anymore, but it's some android robot sound creator or something. It has this grid, and you can move your finger around on the grid, like a chaos pad. There are a bunch of different presets, and you can tweak each sound.
So we just did a couple takes of that sound. It’s sort of like what you can do on the keyboard, but a little different. We all thought it was cool. But we tried a lot of things, ditched a lot of things, that was just something that seemed to work.
HN: About how many tracks were there on the recording?
EJ: When it was imported, it was just one stereo track with guitar, bass and drums. With those tracks, there’s usually an extra guitar. Not all of them, but some have an extra guitar that’s textured, doesn’t stick out as much. It’s more like a solo part after the fact. That song probably had seven, eight tracks on top of the one stereo analog four-track dump track (laughs), if that makes sense.
HN: Was there a reason why the song switches from sung vocals to whispered vocals?
EJ: No. We had played this song live for a couple months before we recorded it. We recorded it instrumental, and after we layered on, say, that iPhone noise and whatever else is on there, it just seemed like it needed some sort of, not vocals, but voice texture.
I thought about doing a sample of the witches talking, but that’s kind of cheesy. I don't like to do that stuff. So we just started messing around. A couple of us had mics, and we wrote down lines of a few things the witches said. We recorded three or four tracks of whispering those chants over and over. Then after the fact, we panned them different ways and put on effects.
HN: For anyone who hasn’t heard of Rainy Road Records, could you give a synopsis of the label and your experience with it?
EJ: Sure. Rainy Road is run by a dude named Kevin Cline. I think he grew up around Grand Island. He played guitar in a band called Watching the Train Wreck. They did a Brimstone Howl singles collection then Austin Ulmer’s project Peace of Shit and Worried Mothers.
I don’t know, Kevin’s just always come out to our shows. That's how I got to know him. He’d show up at Baby Tears shows. He’s a nice dude, and we’re friends or at least know all the other people whose music he releases. He was interested in putting out a seven-inch. He had done all cassette tapes before then.
HN: Then to clarify, the seven-inch came before Rusty Years?
EJ: Yeah, it was before that. It was referred to as The Homeless Corpse seven-inch. That was on Rainy Road, but it was from the same recording session as Rusty Years.
HN: And did Rainy Road release the LP also?
EJ: Yeah, it was kind of a split label release. My friend Justin O’Connor and I have this non-label thing called Doom Town, real low-key, and we had just done cassettes. But we’d had this Rusty Years thing recorded for quite awhile. Kevin was like, "Yeah, I’ll do that, too."
But it costs money, and he was still saving up, so we decided to do a split so that Doom Town paid for half and Rainy Road paid for half. It made it more affordable for everyone. So it was cool, and we just did 200 copies and silk-screened the covers ourselves: pretty punk rock, I guess.
HN: For sure. You still have copies left?
HN: Cool. That's pretty much it. Do you have anything to add about "Stygian Witches"?
EJ: I don’t think so. It’s one that we all like to play live. It’s good to throw that in there to break up the set. A lot of our songs are so manic and teetering on the edge. That song brings it down to this sort of gloomy, almost Black Sabbath sort of thing. Then it gives Todd and I a break from singing because we don't do vocals on that song live. But yeah, it's a song we all like.
HN: Lastly, tell me about the music the band been working on most recently.
EJ: Since Rusty Years, we have about eight new songs that we’re currently recording. We’re taking our time, still doing it ourselves. Instead of messing with the four-track, we’re doing it all digitally in Logic. We all have similar recording setups, so we’ll pass the recordings around.
We're doing it little by little. Some songs, say, vocals aren’t ready on two of them but we'll continue recording. It’s been a different process. It's slower, but we're not in a hurry. Some of the songs are more complicated, too. Not that we’re turning into a math metal band, but on a handful, they were planned more for recording than ever for playing live.
PS: After getting off of the phone with you, I realized that I left out some important/interesting info about "Stygian Witches.” First off, Rainy Road/Doom Town mailed the Rusty Years LP off to a few radio stations, cool blog/web reviewers and zines that we all dig. Several reviewers contacted Doom Town saying that they were confused by "Stygian Witches" and the first half of the record.
Because "Stygian Witches" is the first song on the album (Rusty Years), they were not sure if they were supposed to play the album at 33 rpm or 45 rpm (it's supposed to be played at 33). Kinda funny. After that, I listened to the album on 45 and thought, "Damn! This is pretty good.”
All of the songs on Rusty Years have their own weirdness going on, so I guess we successfully made an album where none of the songs sound the same/have the same formula.
Another thing I should have mentioned… after getting off the phone with you and listening to the track again, I remembered that Jeff (drummer) added a vocal/voice part to the beginning of the song. At the time, Baby Tears was practicing at Jeff's house, which was also home base for finishing the recording (which would become Rusty Years). To our (Todd and my) surprise, Jeff recorded a vocal/voice part at the beginning of the song. It sounded cool… the rest is history.
Jeff Shadoan (intro)
She wanted to be part of the plan
She bought it
It didn't feel right
I saw the transformation
She only wanted to dance, so I said…
Ethan Jones (whispers)
Come closer, come closer
Come closer, come closer
A# – A – G#
A# – A – G#
A# – A – G#
C# G Em
Head of the Gorgon, head of the Gorgon
C# G Em
Creatures turn to stone, creatures turn to stone
C# G Em
Blood is deadly venom, blood is deadly venom
C# G Em
Titan versus titan, titan versus titan
Michael Todd is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. He can claim only Jumanji as a beloved mythical movie of his childhood. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.