It’s always been one of our Rock Band fantasies to videotape a band playing the game to its own songs - surely there has to be someone out there who can do a better job than Rush did in that Stephen Colbert video you’ve all seen. Salvation was at hand when the great Boston alternative band Big Dipper landed a three-pack of DLC earlier this year. They’re local, they write great songs, they’re smart and funny guys - the perfect candidates for our little experiment.
When we got them into our offices, Big Dipper had just come off a reunion mini-tour: The indie label Merge had just released Supercollider: The Big Dipper Anthology and indie hero Robert Pollard had invited them to open some gigs. (If you aren’t from Boston, love brainy pop and wonder what the fuss is about this band, we recommend tracking down the compilation, or at least the DLC tracks).
So we welcomed Dipper members Gary Waleik, Bill Goffrier and Jeff Oliphant to our office one recent evening (Band friend Alice Austin, who leads the Stark Raving Mad, took original member Steve Michener’s place on bass; you may also catch Brett making a cameo on drums). Though they’d had no hands-on Rock Band experience before, we set them up with their respective instruments, called up their tracks and let it rip.
We’re glad to say that nobody wiped out, and that drummer Oliphant came up with the best strategy: he ignored the gems altogether, played the same parts he played on record, and scored 94% on Expert! Finally, the Dipper members were both honored and horrified to read our forums, where someone had named them and Cannibal Corpse as their two favorite tracks of that week. So they had to have a go at playing the Cannibal Corpse track, with suitably surreal results.
In this video, Dipper’s Rock Band performance is cut in with an interview, where they shed light on the three-pack songs and reveal that new stuff is on the way. Our thanks to HMXPope and our ace community team for their help putting this together.
[Big Dipper playing their song "Younger Bums" in Rock Band 2]
Gary Waleik: Steve Michener and Mission of Burma drummer Peter Prescott were walking through Kenmore Square and Steve made a comment about there being more bums than usual, and Peter retorted back, "No, they're just getting younger." And that accounted for the plethora of homeless people in Kenmore Square. We just took that idea and made it even more absurd, I think, in the verses.
Bill Goffrier: The little melody of "Younger Bums are coming to win us," that came out of that was inspired by a Cat Stevens song. We knew it was pretty obvious that it was. We gave him son
GW:riting credit. Didn't we even check with his publishing company to make sure?
GW:: We were afraid there was gonna be a problem, so we preemptive…
BG: You know, those days he was kinda hard to track down in the late '80s, but it was a melody that - I don't know that it was stolen any more than it was...
Jeff Oliphant: Borrowed.
BG: …than the Flaming Lips would've done. It was a catchy series of notes from - what's the song?
JO: "Longer Boats"
BG: "The longer boats are coming to win us." I guess it was.
Brett Milano: I guess it was, yea.
BG: Longer Boats, Younger Bums. It was a natural.
[Big Dipper playing their song "All Going Out Together" in Rock Band 2]
GW:: Steve had a dream that he was at a Bruce Springsteen concert and Bruce Springsteen was singing "All Going Out Together" and he came into rehearsal one day with a simple little bass line and a few lyrics, anti was one of those collaborative efforts where everyone had their part to add. It seemed to be - it may have taken longer than this, but it seemed - that it took about ten minutes to put the song together, if that. It really came together. We didn't have a complete set of lyrics. Bill and Steve worked on those and it just happened very naturally. We were playing a new, not working on it. And I think you can hear that when bands do that, and when we did that.
BG: We learned to find a balance of pop-iness with a dark substance. Balance with it's a heavy subject, but it's done in a light way.
[Big Dipper playing their song "She's Fetching" in Rock Band 2]
BM: "She's Fetching," I think, was one of the first songs of yours that got a lot of airplay in Boston and was a big hit in these parts.
GW:: That was the first song that Bill and I wrote together. On his porch, about a year or ten months before Big Dipper was even a gigging band. And Bill had this really catchy chorus and a line that "She's Fetching" and then long blank. And I came up with a line - no, no. That's wrong. [It was] "She's blank" and I came up with "Fetching."
BG: Oh, really?
GW:: We went to the dictionary and fleshed out the verses with the various definitions of the word "fetching."
BG: Nerds that we were, it was fascinating to find out how many different definitions there were for the word "fetch." And they all worked in the song. And we thought, "Well, if we think it's so interesting to learn about [laughs], the rest of the music crowd in Boston is gonna be fascinated by it, I'm sure. [Big Dipper checking out their scores on "She's Fetching"]
GW:: We're about halfway done with an album's worth of stuff, which we're recording in my basement. It's a nice informal setting that allows us to partake in what Bill termed "guerilla recording." In and out real quick.
BG: In doing those reunion shows after so long of not playing, we learned what would it take to get together and get the juices flowing and be able to play and all that. And that was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work to get up to a certain speed. And then we started having more fun with the creative part of that. We found that if we keep the momentum going some way, it's not day to day like it used to be, but it's like month to month and make the best use of the time that we can. And as a result of that, we're doing a whole lot of writing because we're not doing so much playing and practicing. We're doing a whole lot of writing and having a lot of time to reflect on things we're putting together, listen and think about what to do with those ideas. And it's, I think it's a really great creative process to work towards.
GW:: The realist that I am, I would say that if we got it done by the end of the year, we'd be doing pretty well. But it's not like we have to meet any deadlines or satisfy any expectations, other than our own. So the whole process has been very liberating because there's no limitation of studio time, we're doing it in my basement. We're not racking up hours at $90 an hour or whatever they are these days, and we're not having to deal with major label a**holes vibe and everything else in our lives. We just do it because we love to do it, and it's fun. If they see the light of day, it'll be great. If people like 'em, great. If they don't, we all have careers and families that occupy us otherwise so it wouldn't be the biggest tragedy if we did this record and no one paid any attention to it. We're having fun and that's enough.
BM: So how did that [playing their songs in Rock Band] compare to playing those songs at the Ratt or the Channel?
GW:: It smells better in here than in either of those places.
JO: It's much more difficult, this is, I think much more difficult.
GW:: It's difficult. As I was saying before, I played the guitar part to "All Going Out Together" just hundreds if not thousands of times, and it's so ingrained even twenty years later. You remember the parts and how to play them on a real guitar, but on Rock Band it's just very different because there are sometimes fewer notes to play. In the case of "Younger Bums," my guitar part and Bill's guitar part were comped, which I didn't realize until maybe a verse and part of a chorus had elapsed. So it was very difficult to get ready for those changes on the fly. It's not something I'm used to because this is the second time I've played Rock Band.
BM: Bill, you had to sing it exactly as you sang it on the record, right? Did that matter?
BG: I didn't know how forgiving it was gonna be. Of course now for years I've had the lyrics scrolling across the screen in front of me when I'm singing. I was used to that. I like the graphic of the up and down, that it shows you that the notes gonna go up here, it's gonna go down, and that was cool. But I was trying to [makes a motion with his head], like my head was going up and down to get the note. It is helpful. But it's hard to be that precise, I think.
JO: I nailed it.
BG: He did better on singing my part than I did. You did, didn't you?
JO: I don't know.
BG: You got a 99. I don't even know if I got that good of a score.
GW:: See, I've always been a feel guitarist. Precision is, I could be precise if I wanted to.
BM: Now, Jeff, you played Expert about ten minutes into your first session in the game. I don't think that gets done very often.
JO: I noticed that the harder it gets, the more notes you have to play. So I actually could play the song the song the way it was. Where on Easy it's almost like half notes.
BG: Does it work that way with the singer? Like I could have sung maybe the first word of every line?
GW:: Just the good lines.
BM: Did your hands wind up instinctively doing what you do when you're playing the song in real life?
JO: Yes, but at the same time I caught myself looking at the colors and trying to hit the colors was throwing me off a little bit. And then by the third time I did it, I was just like, I'll play it like I really play it. And I think I scored the highest doing it that way.
BG: But it's really fun.
JO: You have to anticipate it. You can see them coming, and you told me you could do all these different fills. So it leaves space in there just to do different fills. And in "All Going Out Together" that had never really been the case before so I just started doing rolls, following Gary's lead.
BG: Oh, we didn't try that song, what was it? By Corpse Grinder or whatever they are...
BM: Somebody on our boards said that their two favorite bands were Big Dipper and Cannibal Corpse.
GW:: For Rock Band? Probably not in the rest of the world, but on Rock Band, yeah, that took me by surprise. But having not played a Cannibal Corpse song on Rock Band yet, I can't really say whether that's a good combo or not.
[Jeff Oliphant of Big Dipper playing Cannibal Corpse in Rock Band 2, with Brett Milano and HMXPope]
GW:: Wouldn't that be great? Our musical career ends at the Harmonix offices. Yeah, that would be great.