Guest Post by Kevin Bloom of The Dead Shakers – The Creation of Brother Stomach
When I listened to ‘Brother Stomach’ by The Dead Shakers, I heard a deeply personal song that I did not completely understand. I knew that the story behind the song could be told only by the artist who created it. Kevin Bloom has given us a story full of details… and full of ambiguity. It’s a fascinating read, too long to fit on Instagram. But every paragraph describes a link in the chain that became ‘Brother Stomach.’ So for my Instagram readers: Link in bio! — Reverb Raccoon
July of 2017 was pretty weird for me. I was moving back to Burlington, Vermont from Portland, Maine. I was driving back and forth a lot and staying up pretty late. On Thursday the 27th, I was awake all night packing up in Portland and hanging out in the parking lot behind my building, thinking about my brother. Weird building, weird parking lot. It was great. You can hear vulture-like seagulls sing in circles like loopy Paul McCartney in the demo I recorded that night. I held my laptop in an open window and caught all these weird echoes in the concrete valley outside my third floor apartment.
My brother always had a stomach, and so do most people, but his is different. So after I’d written this song about him and cut a demo I thought, ‘Neat! Now time to keep moving these boxes and drive 93 South to 101 West to 93 North, to 89 North, turn around, and then come back again and do another loop. That’ll be easy.’ I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I thought because I was pretty wrapped up in the move.
About twenty-five miles into the journey going south (not east to west as you might have imagined because you have to drive a big ‘U’ shape unless you want to go over the mountains), traffic came to a complete and total stop. And it didn’t move for about two hours. It was infuriating, I was infuriated. I had somewhere to be and I wasn’t moving. In my mind it was all about me. It’s easy to do when you’re alone in a car; I think that’s why people have road rage.
Slowly, traffic bottlenecked forward and I eventually passed alongside remains. It used to be two 18-wheelers, and two or three cars, maybe a motorcycle. It was graphic. Commercial trucks honked their horns in solidarity as our funeral procession passed. I was embarrassed that I had been angry at being inconvenienced.
Being no more than a mile or so from a rest stop, everybody who had just waited in line for hours to see some gruesome mess thought a break for coffee, or whatever, would be good. There was an instantaneous ad hoc funeral in the parking lot. People recognized each other by their cars and hung out, said some words, and I bet no more than thirty minutes later that rest stop had turned into a normal place again. As I left, I wondered how many times stuff like that happens and how we might drop into these situations in our daily lives. I wondered if I hadn’t been hung over, and left thirty minutes before I did, whether or not all those people would have been driving by my charred remains.
I love AM radio — it’s got the best rhythm. It’s not about the words anyone is saying, but the tempo, patterns, and pitch of the speaker’s voice. It never fails to put me into a trance. Commercial placements for gold and other precious metal investment strategies are ideal driving music in my book. The rhythm of the fuzz and the fading interference patterns leaves room for you to write the song yourself in your head.
All of a sudden on 101 West, the emergency broadcast alert tones destroyed my train of thought and warned of impeding flash floods. Five minutes later, the sky turned black. I remember turning on my headlights and thinking about how similar it looked to night. Then came the rain. Traffic was pulled from medium fast, down to thirty mph as if a million sandbags attached to ropes were pulling cars and trucks to the earth. The rain fell so hard that I couldn’t really even make out anything other than taillights. As soon as it had started and I was feeling all stressed out, the rain stopped, it became daytime again, metaphorical birds started chirping, and I saw a literal rainbow in my rearview mirror.
I thought to myself, ‘Wow, things really do work out! Life is beautiful in its balance.’ A car, exactly like mine, passed on my left. About 600 yards in front of me, a strong wind blew, and the car was pushed from the left lane, fishtailing, and slamming itself into the wall of a bridge over a graveyard on the highway. I passed slowly just as the sideways Subaru turned on its hazards. I thought about how my brother used to fall down when we were playing when we were kids. He would clutch his gut and I could see that he was in a pain I could not understand when I was eleven. I thought about the song I wrote the night before.
When I was eleven
I saw my brother full of tubes
And we drove monster trucks
From the wheelchair
I am a race car
After an uneventful return trip, I worked through the night on my last night in Portland. I still had my tape machine, drum machine, and an acoustic guitar with a pickup, and – with luck – I even had a blank chrome tape! I emerged (finally ready to sleep) at 11AM with forwards and backwards acoustic guitar tracks and drums on tape.
After a few months lying dormant, the track left the world of tape cassettes. I recorded drums with my dear friend, mentor, and collaborator Ezra Oklan at my buddy Charlie’s (Chazzy Lake) old studio in Burlington. However, the bulk of the album that became All Circles Vanish was recorded in February of 2018 at Hawkes Plaza in Westbrook, Maine with Chuck Fay. I felt like I needed to escape all possible distractions so we decided on illegally living in a commercial space / rehearsal studio for a week.
Chuck is my biggest musical influence — I saw him play the bass with State Radio about thirty times when I was a teenager. I still feel myself asking, ‘How could I be collaborating with the same person who inspired me to write music at that formative time in my life?’ The first song we worked on was ‘Brother Stomach.’ Chuck asked me what I wanted him to play. I told him that, when I try to write bass parts or melody, I ask myself what would Chuck do?
After Chuck cut the bass and organ tracks, he mentioned that the song sounded ‘happy and warm.’ I told him about my brother and my trips back and forth from Maine to Vermont. Chuck had driven up from Wayne, Pennsylvania and, though we took separate routes, we both would pass the scene of the accident I had seen in July on our separate journeys home at the end of the session.
Back in Burlington, I brought the mostly finished track to Walker Allen’s studio, Future Fields. Walker is a (tasteful) shredder. He was a little confused, though, when I showed him the instrumental. Walker thought that the track was complete, but I solo’ed the backwards tape guitar I played back in July at my old place in Maine, and I asked Walker to re-enforce the vibe and play to be felt but not heard. He nodded his head and improvised two perfect takes back-to-back.
Work on the instrumental was still incomplete. My collaborator, Lauren Costello, had yet to play cello on the track. She is like a conduit to the spirit world. It’s not so much that she plays the cello, but touches the strings and bows a rift in reality. I swear sometimes I can see atoms fall apart when she plays. We recorded her parts in the living room of the apartment in Burlington I moved into. It turned out that her brother lived in the apartment directly below my unit and was home while we were tracking.
Singing used to be a real challenge for me. I used to get self-conscious and frustrated when I couldn’t hit the notes. I never practiced singing. I was lucky enough to have Ezra and my friend Dan Bishop around when I was tracking the vocals. We did it at Dan’s studio that is now currently my studio in downtown Burlington, Leilani Sound. I have to say, I’m really lucky to have such supportive friends. I really took out my anxieties and fear on Ezra and Dan, but eventually I got myself together and started laying down acceptable takes.
On the last day, I was going to record the vocals for ‘Brother Stomach,’ the only song I hadn’t finalized the lyrics on. It was pretty easy to convince the two of them that today I should work alone (I’m pretty sure they had had more than enough of me at this point, a week and a half in). Before Dan left, I told him that I had a tab of acid and asked whether or not he thought the acid would help me be more productive. Dan asked me if I wanted to make this process harder than it had to be and if I wanted to create a song weirder than it should be. I took the tab anyways.
I was listening to the track in my headphones and I started to hear my voice in the future linking up with the present. The white walls of the control room started to close in. I saw the Subaru on 89 North fishtail into the cement wall of the bridge and in my mind’s eye I saw the car turn into my brother falling onto the floor when we were kids. I saw Chuck, Ezra, Walker, and Lauren and the love they left on the track. I saw Dan remind me that I was making this harder than it had to be. It’s not that he was wrong, but I felt like I was already in this deep, and I had to keep going — it was worth it. I thought about how my brother cried when the Patriots lost the Super Bowl and what I wish I could have told him in that moment.
When you fishtail
I want you to know
That there’s no such thing as touchdowns
That there’s (absolutely) no such thing as touchdowns
They’re not real
That moment felt like a crumbling metaphor for all the things I wanted then and still want to tell him. I sang and cried for about three hours. And that was it — ‘Brother Stomach’ was complete.
Kevin Bloom is a musician, songwriter, recording and mixing engineer, and music producer based in Burlington, Vermont. He is the head shaker of The Dead Shakers and an occasional shuffleboard champion. ‘Brother Stomach’ appears on The Dead Shakers’ new eleven-song album, All Circles Vanish, available on Bandcamp, and Spotify. Be sure to visit The Dead Shakers website, and follow The Dead Shakers on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook.
Bonus Video: ‘Brother Stomach’ performed live at Burlington’s ArtsRiot, October 2018. A fascinating counterpoint to the studio version.