TRACK-BY-TRACK: Zak Smith ‘Precambrian Age’

Zak SmithZak Smith was kind enough to share a track-by-track of his new album, Precambrian Age with us. Check it out after the jump and be sure to check out more of his music, buy concert tickets, or purchase a CD here.
“Tombs Don’t Roll Back-”

This song went through a lot of different changes from when I wrote it, it had a bunch of different titles, the chorus was different for a long time. But it’s always kind of been about saying to someone “music means more to me than you”. The line “tombs don’t roll back” means I can’t, or I won’t, change. One of  the older titles for the song was “You Would Be in the Band”, the hook being, “If you really meant that much you would be in the band”. I love Phil Spector’s records, those really full, huge sounding things. Not all my stuff sounds like that, but this has a touch of it.

“Doomed Youth”

There’s a slower version of  this on the album that I put out before this newest one, although it has slightly different lyrics and the chorus is a little different. This is actually the original version of the song though, I recorded the basic tracks for this a couple years ago and then overdubbed the horns and the piano and redid my vocals. I like this version better. The title comes from some quote I remember reading about Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones. It was something along the lines of, “he had an air of doomed youth about him.”

“Drugs”

This song has one of my favorite musical elements in it, the call and response gospel thing. I love Ray Charles and the Raelettes, the meshing of male and female voices together, answering or responding or backing up the lead vocal. It’s just a cool sound and it can be really big and soulful sounding. The song is about taking drugs and being so happy with them that you feel like you don’t need anything or anyone else. I used to take Adderall and stay up all night reading and feel like I could do that for the rest of my life and be happy.

“Hard Year Alone”

This is one of my favorite songs to play live, if I could go back and re-record it I would do it in a higher key, because we do it like that now and it sounds a lot better. I wrote it when I was sad about breaking up with my girlfriend. Not that long afterwards she got married to her ex-boyfriend so it was extra hard and I was hurt and bitter. I rewrote the lyrics for the last verse at the studio right before I was going into the vocal booth to record them, it ended up being my favorite verse of the song. A lot of times when you pull off those things on the fly they end up being the best.

“K (Part 2)”

On my first album there’s a song called K, so this is part 2 of that song. I really like how this one sounds, it was mixed by Chris “Frenchie” Smith who has produced or mixed songs by bands like The Darkness and And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. I love how my guitarist, the great Gavi Grodsky, sounds on this one. It’s a dark song, it comes from a very cold feeling.

“Calvary’s Cross-”

Lyrically this is one of my favorite things I’ve written. Alby Cohen, who produced and mixed almost the whole album with me came up with some very nice horn parts on this, kind of Van Morrison sounding, This is another song that went through a lot of changes since the beginning. It started out as a song called “Let Me Just Kill Myself”, that was one of the very first songs I ever wrote, I was probably 15. The chorus went “Let me just kill myself, let me just kill myself, I’m strong enough, I’m smart enough, to know you can’t get good without the red stuff”. I think I was thinking about dead rock stars, like Kurt Cobain, people who died early and then became legends. So Jesus fits in there too, Calvary was the name of the hill that he was supposedly crucified on. I’m not religious at all, I’m as atheist as you can get, but religious imagery resonates a lot with me for some reason, there’s a lot of poetic stuff there. I also love the sound of biblical names and places, Calvary, Golgotha, Moriah. My favorite though is Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus prayed the night before he was crucified, I put that in an earlier song of mine, “Under Your Possession.”

“Wait On Me”

Again with the call and response stuff. I came up with the horn line after listening to a lot of tracks that the Dap Kings played on. It’s a cool song, it’s strange though, which I like. It’s hard to play live because you need that big call and response sound for the song to work and we don’t always play with backing singers, a lot of places are too small to bring that many people up on stage. I guess if there’s any deeper meaning to it it’s about being poised and ready for success. It’s the most upbeat song on the album.

“Selling Out”

Another song about the same girlfriend who I broke up with and who then got married. Is it selling out to give up on someone you love even after they’ve given up on you I guess is what I was thinking about. But there’s some bitterness too, specifically the line “So what did you get, are you a queen? Are you glad you went through it? Is the grass greener yet?” I remember sitting in my basement and feeling like I was talking to her when I wrote that. It’s a good feeling to be mean in a song if you can find the right words.

“After the Crash”

In a bunch of reviews I’ve gotten I’ve been compared to Bruce Springsteen. I love Bruce, I’m from Jersey, I know all his songs, I know all his albums, I know his bootlegs, I’ve seen him live way more than anyone else I’ve ever seen. It’s a comparison I hate to hear though, if I sound like him then you might as well just go listen to him. This is an older song of mine, I like it, but out of all of my songs, looking back at it now, I think this is one where you could make the strongest case for a Bruce influence. I’ve never played it live. It used to be called “Love and Kisses From a Burning Wreck”, but I decided that was too “emo” sounding. The song is about what kind of person you’ll be when your potential goes away.

“Because You’re Young”

This feels like a song that got away from me. I think it’s a good song, it has the potential to be very strong but it doesn’t hit as hard as I want it to, it could have been much better. I remember Kurt Cobain in an interview said he felt that way about the song “Pennyroyal Tea” on In Utero, that it was actually a better song then it appeared to be on the record. Whenever I hear older stuff I’ve put out I almost always hear things that bother me and I get really depressed. The mixing process is my least favorite part of recording, everything starts to bother me. This album in particular felt like it took forever to finish, that’s why I called it the Precambrian Age.  I think the song is about trying to hold on to your youth, I hate getting older. I love how my drummer, Keith Robinson, played the pre-choruses though, it reminds me of Stewart Copeland and a Police type groove. I don’t really like them, but I like that groove.

“American Stripper”

I like how this one came out. I remember I wrote the lyrics to this one in my high school parking lot. There are curses in this song. I don’t think it’s about anyone in particular, I guess the general theme is about growing up and selling out, and the pressure to do that in America. Like bands licensing their songs for commercials.  I’m pretty sure that I came up with the title of the song first before I wrote it. In terms of “protest” songs, besides the old folk standard songs Pete Seeger sings, my favorite protest songwriter is Joe Strummer from the Clash. They have some great songs, but even ones that aren’t that good have awesome lyrics, at least on their first three albums. He was one of the greatest lyricists ever. It’s not peace and love stuff, it’s grab you by the throat stuff. I recorded a cover version of their song “Death and Glory” once that I never put out. Another great song about compromising and selling out, one of the best lines is “Grabs the mic to tell us, he’ll die before he’s sold. But I believe in this, and it’s been tested by research, he who fucks nuns will later join the church”

“Amen Baby”

This is one of the best songs to play live. I recorded and put out an earlier version of this song on an album I put out a couple years ago, but this one is better. I’ve done that a couple times, re-recorded songs I’ve already put out. Occasionally I’ll have a better idea about how to do a song and feel like I have to re-record it and put it out again. This song is my militant atheism coming out. The line ”Oh it’s sure been a long strange fraud” is a call back to the Grateful Dead’s ”What a long strange trip it’s been” line.

“Nowhere to Go”

A great horn arrangement by a trumpet player in New York named Dave Levy on this one. It elevates the track a lot, it’s a pretty simple song. The line “he fed his body all the best known chemistry” is dealing with the same themes that “Drugs” is about. A pretty self explanatory song, feeling stuck where you are and the futility of trying to get away. 

“The Human’s Home”

I like my piano player Dov Manski’s playing on this one lot. The song’s about death, and art in the face of that, I guess would be the grandiose way to put it. “Like a lake that floats a sonnet” is a line I like from this one. That line always makes me think of this great Warren Zevon song called “My Ride’s Here”. It has a line in it that goes “I was wrestling with an angel, you were working on a sonnet” that I always loved.

“Angelina”

This is a simple song but it’s one of my favorites to play. That’s Jessica Labus on backing vocals, and singing the chorus with me, she’s the best singer and songwriter I’ve ever personally known. I never had a girlfriend named Angelina, and the only Angelina I think I’ve ever known is a little kid. I love songs with girls’ names as titles though, I don’t know why. I once recorded a home demo album of songs with only girls’ names as the titles, or that had a girl’s name in the title. I called it Under Different Stars, the demo for the song K (Part 2) and this song, Angelina, were on it. A song called Cynthia was on it too that I put out on my last album. There were also a bunch on it that I never put out, some songs called Caitlyn, Ashley, Julia, and a few others.

“The Universe is Bigger”

I really like this song, the outro especially. This was recorded with a whole elaborate band arrangement, with slide guitar and drums and all these keyboards and organs in it, but something about it didn’t feel right. Then I was playing with the tracks at home and it sounded good to me with just the piano in it. There’s an Oscar Wilde quote in one of his plays that goes, “All of us are in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”, so the part in the beginning that goes “All of us are in the gutter but some are looking in your eyes” comes from that.


 

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