Here's What It's Like To Write An Album in a Month
Darrin Robertson and Jim Saccoman are looking at me suspiciously.
The two local musicians thought a mutual acquaintance of ours had put me up to this interview, and asked me how I encountered their self-described “recording project” Sha-Pink, which has been creating music locally for more than 30 years.
“We’re pretty much under the radar,” explains Robertson.
Saccoman says, “We haven’t played any gigs in years.”
I explain that I discovered them through researching Arizona musicians who have completed the RPM Challenge (RPM stands for Record Production Month). The New Hampshire-based initiative allows musicians to get their creative juices flowing under a deadline and record an album during the month of February that is either 10 songs or 35 minutes in length. Submissions should meet the following guidelines: Recording can only be done in the month allotted; content must be previously unreleased; and participants are encouraged to write the album’s content in February.
Of the 12 Arizona musicians who signed up on the RPM Challenge website, Sha-Pink is one of four who saw it through to completion. The result was Art Party, a synth-heavy party album that simultaneously celebrates and winks a clever eye at New Wave and punk. If the album art featuring Teddy Ruxpin wearing sunglasses and playing a keyboard isn’t a clear indication of Sha-Pink’s intentions, the title track deftly drives the point home with musical and lyrical references to Duran Duran and painter Bob Ross.
Robertson is hesitant to tell the story behind the popular ’80s toy adorning the album cover. He and a friend played the song “Taitschi Tarot” by Nina Hagen inside Teddy Ruxpin’s cassette player while under the influence of “mind-altering substances.” They saw the doll’s arm move around as it chanted “reincarnation” over and over.
Robertson asked his friend, “Are his arms supposed to move around like that?”
“No,” he answered, “but I’m seeing it, too.”
Sha-Pink’s origin story is also a little blurry for the duo. The Midwest transplants recall bonding over electronic duo Soft Cell on a high-school class trip to California. No one else in their suburban Phoenix school knew who the band was beyond their New Wave hit “Tainted Love.” Robertson knew they had to talk.
“When my friends were listening to Journey, I was listening to the first Dead Or Alive album,” Saccoman says.
Saccoman originally wanted to be a cartoonist, but became frustrated when he couldn’t draw proportions correctly. After playing a synthesizer with a sequencer that his brother found at a used music store, he knew he had found the direction he wanted to pursue. The duo collaborated on their first recording, “Loose Chicks,” which Robertson describes as “the type of song you write when you’re in high school.” The two would continue to write tracks together sporadically, implementing other musicians as needed to bring their various musical concepts to life.
Three decades later, not much has changed in the way Sha-Pink works, but its scope is slightly wider. Robertson recalls how the band would write one song at a time and move on. Now, they work on entire records. Art Party is the eighth album they’ve done for the RPM Challenge. Sometimes, they go in with an idea on a theme. Other times, they focus on achieving a sound.
“We’re aesthetics people, even though we dress like this,” Robertson says, pointing to his “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” T-shirt.
Hearing the two describe their creative process on Art Party, they seem to have a good strategy firmly in place. They spend the first two weeks writing parts of the song. Next, they begin recording the vocals and instruments. During the last week, Saccoman takes over on production duties while Robertson puts together the artwork.
The age of internet and smartphones has made it easier to collaborate as the deadline for completion looms. Since the two live across town from each other, tracks are organized in the cloud as the sound of the album becomes finalized. Saccoman shows me an app that resembles a keyboard with a sequencer, and plays for me a loop that I recognize as part of the title track. Saccoman recalls receiving text messages from Robertson. The exchange eventually became the lyrics to “Art Party.”
“For some reason, I was hearing in my head the sound of Russians going to an art party,” Robertson recalls with a laugh, “Then it got put through a vocoder and we started texting jokes back and forth.”
Since this was a leap year, I ask what Saccoman and Robertson did with their extra recording day. Putting in marathon sessions to complete the album usually results in both of them succumbing to allergies or worse, the flu. This year was no different; the duo became too sick to record vocals on one of the tracks. When I ask what (if any) parameters the pair employ to keep themselves honest throughout the challenge, the answer is simple.
“You want the personal pride of completing the album at the end of the month,” Robertson explains. “That’s what keeps you honest. The challenge, more than anything, is to get you to do something.”
“At the end of the month, you’re dead tired,” says Saccoman.
Once the album is finished, fortune and fame rarely come calling. Record labels aren’t knocking on the door, but an online network has formed among RPM Challenge participants. Ideas and music are shared and collaborations begin. Podcasts and listening parties have been created to feature submissions.
“I think for us and a lot of people we know that do it, the deadline is a great motivator,” Robertson says. “A lot of groups use the RPM Challenge to write 10 songs. They record them roughly. They submit and complete the challenge, and then go on to revisit the track later on. The challenge is almost secondary to creating a body of material.”
Saccoman, who also works on remixes and DJs under the moniker QUBIQ, sees the experience as a way to experiment with new ideas and processes on other projects. The death of David Bowie hit right before this year’s RPM Challenge began. With the new recordings, Saccoman was able to pay homage to things he loved from The Thin White Duke’s albums like Station to Station and Lodger, which is apparent on the song “Drive Like A Demon.” It became a way for him to release some of his own demons.
Robertson recalls, “I recognized this cathartic process going on in Jim, and I really backed off on the lyrics this time.”
“I was up all night watching these documentaries on David Bowie and reading these conspiracy theories [about his death], just trying to piece it all together and figure out what he was thinking at that time and why his music came out so cool,” recalls Saccoman. “I knew we were growing and making more interesting music.”
The RPM Challenge offers musicians a reason to experiment and express, often with little reward apparent to the outside observer. With nearly 10 months until February 1, 2017, I ask what will bring Sha-Pink back to the challenge.
Saccoman sums it up in one word: “Obligation.”
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