How The Story Ends
Pour yourself a drink
As you promise everything
Yeah, you build me up
But leave an empty cup
Everyone is warning me
Telling me what to believe
Still I want so desperately
To hear what you see in me
You think you know best
But you don’t know the half of it
This is how the story ends
Tell me what did you do?
You lack the follow-through
Why did I believe in you?
I was just a fucking fool?
Full of all the answers
But do you ever question
Your own place
In this equation
Do you ever wonder
If you might be
Part of the problems
That you misperceive
You let me down
("You could do so much for me, if you just would")
Change your name again
I thought I found a friend
Always so quick to defend
I guess this how the story ends
The song which would become “How The Story Ends” began in 2001 as a tune called “The Petty Principle.”
At the time, I’d only written three other songs (“Darkest of Days,” “Start Anew,” and “Unspoken” ) since the 1950’s-rock’n’roll-inspired tunes I was recording in my parents’ master bedroom at age eight.
The latter two (both ballads) would appear on Dog Days, my first full-length solo release in 2008. By this time, I was specializing in acoustic, singer-songwriter fare, but this song was always firmly rooted in my love of aggressive rock—particularly that of Nine Inch Nails.
“The Petty Principle” did not ultimately appear on my debut album, but I did rework it as “Hellbent,” and that version made it as far as a voice-and-guitar demo for my second LP. However, it stuck out as a sore thumb on what turned out to be another set of acoustically-based material and was shelved, accordingly.
In April of 2102, my brother Brian recorded a full-blown, distorted guitar-and-bass affair. He took the acoustic sketch I’d recorded on in early February 2011 and transformed it into a terrifically meaty-riffed rock song. All I had to do was sing the main vocal, which I imagine I did while home for the holidays at some point in 2012.
This was one of the experiences that made me want to record this new album with Brian. He made things so easy for me and delivered such badass-sounding songs.
By the fall of 2013, Brian and I were collaborating on the recordings that would become The Furious Light album. Also that autumn, the first Nine Inch Nails album in five years had just come out, and I was revisiting each of the band’s 28 releases (or "Halos"), as well as Trent Reznor side projects like How To Destroy Angels.
It was with all of this in my head that, on the morning of October 24th, “How The Story Ends” really began to take shape. I wanted to write a “fuck you” song—and go “full NIN” with it. The melody and most of the lyrics come together during my commute to and from Minneapolis that day. To help capture the ideas as they occurred to me, I pointed my iPhone in the general direction of my pocket-notebook and sang the lines I scribbled down in traffic. The first snippet came at 8:35am and the last at 7:11pm.
Watching this back now, two years later, it’s remarkable to me how much of the finished lyrics, melody and construction remain from this initial spark. I remember trying on several occasions to fit in more ideas and probably bigger words, but it never seemed to work.
Part of the NIN homage and approach is the simplicity and directness of the lyrics and phrasing. It’s a pretty liberating way to write.
Brian is also a big NIN fan, so I know he had some fun working on this, too. Here's what he remembers...
PRODUCER’S NOTE: Dave and I would communicate via phone, text, emails, dropbox, youtube etc. and this song started with an iphone video, shared via youtube. It was Dave’s scenic drive to work, capturing lyric phrases as they come to him. The video started in the daylight and ended in the nighttime, which I found slightly funny, but also compelling with his dedication. I had picked up on a line where he was pounding the steering wheel in time and thought “I need a bass line to match up with that phrase”. Well, the line didn’t make it in that fashion, but it led us to the main riff of the song.
From my recording journal (1/29/14 @ 10:51pm):
A couple of nights ago, I went into “the room” (i.e.: the office/rehearsal room) to chip away at more cleaning, but I got sidetracked trying out some ideas for “This Is How The Story Ends” (HSE).
Earlier in the day, I got an idea to try combining HSE with “Hellbent,” as one had verses I kinda like but no strong chorus, and the other has a more appealing chorus than it does verses. Plus, HSE seems (at this stage) less unintentionally silly.
Instead of reading @ the gym, I read over my lyrics and combined the songs in my head for a good 25 minutes of my elliptical time. When I got home, I took this riff (if you could call call it that) I’d punked around with while working from home that afternoon and began fiddling with the preset beat-patterns in the RC-50 loop station. I think my hope was to find the BPM, but also to have something to play against in order to plot out the sections.
115.00BPM seemed to feel right, and I used the “Rock 1” patch for the verses, “Groove Beat 5” for the choruses, and the “Shuffle (I think) 5” for the breakdown.
I recorded these sections as loops into the H4N, with a little sloppy guide-track acoustic guitar, and worked a little bit on Tuesday during lunch to try and edit together a tempo template—even using the original car-driving iPhone video soundtrack to organize the vocals.
Around this time, Brian was very engaged in working on other songs, so I didn’t send him the above demo right away. It would be a few months until I knew he was ready to tackle this tune.
I spent much of the spring working on the song ultimately entitled "The Furious Light." That one was a particularly tough nut to crack, the story of which will be told in a future blog post. I believe I finished it sometime in May 2014.
During most of June, Brian was tied up prepping music for a friend’s wedding, and I was working on a storytellers-type show with my friend and fellow songwriter, Phil Little. I was also rehearsing for the month-long weekly residency I had setup at The Acadia in July.
For this string of shows, during which I planned to workshop the new songs we'd been recording, I purchased my own Sure 520DX “Green Bullet” mic. Brian and I had used this on a couple of recordings already—notably the breakdown of “Deep Dark Secrets.”
The Bullet is intended for harmonica players and only picks up certain frequencies. When used on vocals, it gives something of a dirty, “telephone” character to the singing.
On July 13th, I had a bit of a marathon demo recording session using the Green Bullet, which I also paired with the delay pedal Dad and Brian sent me as an early birthday present.
I recorded a separate acoustic guitar guide to the 115.00BPM s “Rock 1” drum patch I’d selected; but, somehow, I managed to either delete this or was simply not recording. All that survived the session to send Brian was some sort of occasional accent strum.
There must have been something else recorded at some point because I also sang a few full passes through the Green Bullet, which was great fun. I did this also for “Almost There” and “The Furious Light,” which I’ll share more about in the remaining weeks of the blog posts.
By the time I got to HTSE, my voice was pretty rocked, and I was amusing myself by imitating Lance Heinricksen in Hard Target, which I’d watched the night before. I left those bits of nonsense in the stems I sent Brian to mix, as I thought he might recognize the impression—though I don’t think I sent him the HTSE stems until much later.
I knew he was ready to dig into this song when he sent me the following video late one night:
He didn’t know I’d changed the chorus from the “This Is How The Story Ends” chant to the “You think you know best” assault from “Hellbent," and I didn’t realize until midway through the clip that the bass line he was playing was meant to accompany the now-abandoned chorus.
As he plucked out the first notes, I started singing the verses in my head, which seemed to work out perfectly—much more interesting than the boring riff I played on the 2-16 sketch.
He, too, was pleased by the serendipitous mixup. It’s definitely a better song for it.
Brian plays most all of the guitar and bass on the recorded version, and he did much of this in my absence. Once he sent me the bass idea, I shared with him the vocal takes I'd done with the Green Bullet. About six weeks later, he surprised me with the following:
Rather than try to accurately recount my reaction, I thought I'd share my email response.
from: David Ullman <email@example.com>
to: Brian Ullman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
date: Mon, Sep 15, 2014 at 9:55 AM
subject: Re: brian ullman shared "How the Story Ends - Early Mix.mp3" with you
First thoughts: Awesome. About 30 seconds in, I realized I was having physical reactions (making excited faces and shit), so I rolled my iPhone during my first listen:
Definitely not too heavy. Love the drum track. It reminds me of some specific NIN track of the last 10 years, but I'm not sure which. I also really dig the idea of some ambient guitars.
The little guitar accents right from the get go were great. I could tell they were inspired by the one acoustic remnant I managed to record and send along. No need to include that actual acoustic in the mix. You've got that little flourish more than covered.
Another mix/arrangement idea... Let's save the higher-register vocal pass until the 3rd verse. I sang them all just to have the option, but it feels like holding it back will give something new to listen to at the 1:15 mark.
Even with the addition of those harmonies, when the super-cool guitar riff goes away before that verse (1:20 or so), it feels like a let-down. Do you think it would be too busy to keep it--or a slightly less busy version of it--going through the verse?
There's so many cool playing moments I could point out. I think you can see a lot of it on my face in the video (though, I guess you can't hear the song I'm listening to).
Oh my god, I love how the guitars come back in after the bridge!
Not sure just yet what to do to make that bridge special. Maybe a whole-note guitar strum with whatever effect you've got dialed in for the ambient track?
That extra stuff at the end kills me!!!
Thanks so much. This is fucking perfect.
Two weeks later, I was in Ohio to do another session. The following is from my recording journal from that time:
9/29/14, 5:40pm @ The British Pub, near Gate B - Cleveland Airport
After recording the guitar for “Lately,” we moved on to vocals for “HSE.” As we did for “Furious Light,” we ran the Green Bullet into the Vox amp and baffled the sound with the same twin-bed mattress I used to sing and dance behind on Dog Days almost 10 years earlier. Without the mattress, the feedback from the omni-directional mic was deafening.
One nice thing about putting the GB through the vox in this way is that I didn’t always need to push my voice hard to make an egressive-sounding vocal. That said, BT coached me through an especially gritty 2nd half of the song. This also led to a very humorous exclamation after a particularly energized take.
Feeling like Trent Reznor, I shouted something into the mic that ended up sounding like the bark of a Chihuahua dog! We had many good laughs about that outburst.
We worked pretty hard on parts of that performance to arrive at the right tone & character. I even sorted out something new for the higher bridge harmony.
Speaking of the “HSE” bridge, I slowly remembered what I’d originally played on the acoustic pass that was ultimately not recorded during my particularly productive Northfield Sunday Session in July and played it on the Les Paul through the MESA. Fourth top-notch guitar in four days… Pretty sweet. I was glad to be playing all of these electric guitar parts—even if it was primarily an open D chord—every so many measures.
Unfortunately, this electric guitar work did not fare so well when it came time for me to play the bass part for “Almost There.” (Next week’s blog)