This article describes the events leading up to my decision to record a cover version of the song This Life – the theme from the television series Sons of Anarchy. It also details some of the process and the decisions made during the recording itself. It is probably of limited interest to all but fans of the show and people interested in home recording so please forgive the navel gazing and self indulgence of the piece in general.
Last year, between Christmas and New Year, my wife and I watched the first six seasons of Sons of Anarchy in a marathon Netflix session. We live in Canada, and at that time our version of Netflix didn’t have the Sons, so we had to spoof the IP address of our PS3 to pick up the US programing feed. We sat in our living room, bunkered in against the cold, enjoying what was several days of quiet indulgence together – something that is rare in our busy lives. As a business owner, the idea of time-off is itself a fantasy and both my wife and I have been unable to commit to watching any shows in their first run so the Netflix on demand experience works very well for us. As for the marathon session – it was the perfect way for us to put the stress of our lives at bay and get lost in a grand story arc while spending time together enjoying what we enjoy most – each other’s company.
The spoofing of the IP made the whole thing feel clandestine – our own secret rebellion against the powers that govern things like broadcast license agreements, and international tariffs on programing. This was our act of defiance – a rebel yell of our own – just us and the Sons of Anarchy against the world.
Really Digging on the Song
The Sons of Anarchy is known for its excellent use of music throughout the show, and its theme song, “This Life” has been a fan favorite from day one. As we watched each episode, the theme song, which bookends the drama, became the mile marker heralding our penetration and distance into that world. And of course being the fool, I began to sing along with it – trying to entertain my wife – still somewhat amazed that we were actually spending our holiday time doing this. Over the course of watching the first six seasons, the theme would have played over 150 times – with me goofing around and dancing and singing excitedly in a manic celebration of our winter indulgence at least half the time. (Oh my poor wife I think now!)
It wasn’t long into our journey that I started googling to find out more about the song and the music from the show. I started hunting down live performance clips and lyrics, listening to covers and reading more about the show’s music and Curtis Stigers, the singer and co-writer of “This Life”. And of course this started a discussion between my wife and I over the lyrics of the song – particularly one line that the internet seemed to have wrong or at least seemed to be confused about. All the clips and even the live performances made it hard to isolate just what was being said (although we were able to eliminate some of the more obvious misconceptions). Our “disagreement” over lyrics lasted a couple of days (30 episodes or so) and became part of the fun of anticipating the theme song playing at the start of each episode.
As we talked more about the series and the theme, I tried to pull rank on her by way of expertise . I had been a very serious guitarist and vocalist that suffered nerve damage to my playing hands when I was in my early 20’s (early 90’s) which forced me to abandon my rock n roll dreams and drop out of a University classical guitar performance degree program, (sending me down another life path entirely). Because of this I had been estranged from playing and from music for over 20 years, and had only recently again began to play a little. I still had bad nerve impairment, but through the discovery of home recording I had realized that I could use the recording medium to create music without having to live up to the expectations that a live performance demands. Earlier that November I had started playing and recording, looking at each new project as a tutorial to rehabilitate my playing and develop some recording workflow that would allow me to call myself a musician again. My hands were still claws, and I was not even playing at 10% of my previous capacity, but the process itself was thrilling and psychologically healing – and the best part was that my wife was super supportive and encouraging – so I had my audience as well. As we watched the Sons, I kept a guitar at the ready, and started to play along whenever the theme played. That’s when my wife suggested I try recording the song. I was intrigued, but also dismissive — it was far more demanding than what my current recovered abilities were at the time – but the spark was at least planted.
A Little Help From Curtis
As we made our way through season 5 and into season six (which I had to source from elsewhere as Netflix only had to the end of season 5) our disagreement over the lyrics continued right up to New Years Eve where we finished the series mid-day. Come New Years Day we found ourselves sitting around that morning without anything to watch. We had finished the series, and still had a couple days before work would kick back in full steam, but our disagreement over the lyrics continued, and so too did the idea that I should record the song as a cover. I half jokingly said that I would only record the song if I could confirm the lyrics – so on that New Years Day morning I emailed Curtis Stigers, the co-writer and the original performance artist of the song itself, asking for clarification. I didn’t expect a response (I was kind of banking on not getting one which would get me off the hook for recording it) so you can imagine my surprise when I received an email back within about 20 minutes.
I can’t share Curtis’ email – but here’s what I wrote him:
Hi Curt et al.
Happy New Year from Canada
There’s a line in “This Life” that is eluding me and so far the internet offers three different opinions on it.
“on the Devil’s _________ until you die”
I see “path” “back” and “bed” out there but I just can’t quite make it out for sure.
I even asked my wife (who is of Indian decent and speaks Punjabi where b, th, and ph sounds are very subtly differentiated, and also include uses of bt, pb as combined consonants) to help me figure out for sure (I thought I had a ringer) but after about 2 hours on youtube listening to various clips of you singing both live and studio versions, we just couldn’t be sure.
Any clarity you could offer would be fantastic as this is now a family mystery. The wife goes with the argument of context – in her mind it’s path or possibly back. I agree on context but my ear keeps hearing bed. Many Thanks and best wishes with your current musical endeavors.
Curtis’ immediate response cleared up the mystery – my wife was right. He confirmed the line as “back“ and included the tidbit that that particular line was written by none other that Kurt Sutter himself.
So there I was – New Years Day – mystery solved – put up or shut up time – my wife very pleased with herself for getting it right. The decision had been made for me – my next project was going to be to record This Life.
California Cool & Acid Rock
Recording a cover can be dangerous if you have thin skin. You open yourself to some pretty heavy criticism as your work is compared to the quality and standard of the original recording. This is particularly true when the song is highly venerated and loved, or very familiar. It can be hard for those listeners to hear anything other than what they expect to hear and their criticism can be merciless . The only way I was going to even attempt recording This Life was if I could come up with a treatment or version that offered something different without disrespecting the original. It would have to break through the wall of expectation but deliver conceptually without being arbitrary.
The original theme has a real Southern Rock, or Outlaw Western rock sound. It’s got great guitars – electric and acoustic – some cool alternate and open tunings, with a great modern rock sequencer running in the background. The song sounds very modern while keeping those Western and Southern Rock roots alive. In season 3 of the series the show “moved” to Ireland and the theme was remixed with an Irish or Gaelic sound. I wasn’t a big fan of this change though I got it – my criticism was that it just didn’t seem to sound right in context…. It suggested leprechauns and that just didn’t really ride with me. But this also gave me an idea – a treatment that was more geographically authentic.
I started thinking about California during the days of the club’s formation – about Oakland and San Francisco. The Son’s are a basically a Central or Northern California Outlaw Motorcycle Club. When I imagine the soundtrack to the early days of the club’s formation, I hear less Southern Rock and way more Acid Rock. The club jukebox would have been spinning Jefferson Airplaine, or the Dead, or Steppenwolf, and less Allman Brothers or Skynyrd. With their Irish roots they would have been playing more Cream, & Thin Lizzy – certainly more Blues based psychedelia than Southern. My idea was to re-conceptualize the theme to better fit this imaginary playlist. I would try to make it a late 60’s or early 70’s Acid Rock Anthem. Easier said than done for sure.
I kept my guitar handy waiting for random moments of inspiration and spent several weeks playing around with different tunings and sounds, developing little motifs and riffs that might be usable before discarding them . In one of these little sessions I stumbled on something that sounded promising.
The Rolling Riff That Started It
I had wanted to find something that was slightly reminiscent of a revving engine but with more fluidity and without being derivative. Derivative or cliche would be the death of the project. The riff I came up with had a bit of a roll to it (and in the tracking notes I called it the “rolling riff”) . It seemed to capture a certain kind of energy and have a sound that was very saturated with some distortion without being too slick. I was pretty happy with what I had captured, it seemed to fit with my conception of an overall arrangement so I decided it was a keeper. Of note – in the final mix the rolling riff is a blend of amp sims (GuitarRig Pro 5) and a couple of passes recorded through a Mesa Boogie MK 2C+ close mic’d with an SM57 at very low volume).
The second element that really helped me iron out the arrangement was something I found in the following live clip of Curtis Stigers playing a stripped down version of This Life with some local Idaho musician friends for 94.9FM the River in Boise. It featured a neat little guitar line played by “Shaky Dave” Manion that was perfectly minimal but still captured the essence of the guitars in the original recording. He basically condensed the rather complex multi-guitar part in that section of the original recording into something much more singular and clear.
Curtis At The River With Shaky Dave Manion
I pulled that lick right out of Shaky Dave’s performance. Many thanks to Shaky Dave for his unknowing contribution. He totally nailed it – I totally “borrowed” it.
Shaky Dave Lends A Riff
With the Rolling Riff and the Shaky Dave ready to go, all that was needed to tie it together was a rhythm track. I took my inspiration for that from Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride that has this nice little bouncy syncopated Hammond organ/guitar thing going on. I came up with a two guitar rhythm part that had that bouncy feel and for anyone that cares featured an alternate tuning with a capo at the 4th fret (I think – I’d have to go back and relearn that now to be certain).
Steppenwolf Inspired Rhythm
The other homage that I included in the arrangement was a reference to one of my favorite Cream songs – White Room. If you know the song you’ll hear the reference. And given that Cream featured two powerhouse monster Irish musicians in Ginger Baker & Jack Bruce, and had some of the best early Acid Rock guitar tones courtesy of Eric Clapton, I was pretty happy with the recipe and forged ahead to lay down the tracks.
Just Add Cream
Cutting Vocals – Don’t Try To Be Curtis!
Earlier I had talked about being a classical guitar and vocal performance major in University in my early 20’s. This is true — but it is also true that most of my vocal experience had been ensemble based. I had come to singing quite late and had been plucked out of the general choral ensemble to begin individual vocal training with Canadian classical vocal instructor David Astor (known internationally for being K.D. Lang’s classical vocal instructor) shortly after starting the music program. It had been a long time since I had sung that’s for sure – rusty wouldn’t even come close to describing my ability. That said, I was pretty confident that I could sing the verses, but I knew I was going to be stretched on the chorus as far as my comfortable (non practiced) vocal range would be.
After spending some time on Youtube listening to covers I knew there was something I couldn’t do — try to sing it like Curtis; no deep resonant baritone – no raspy inflections – no shaping of notes in the back of the throat. Curtis’ original performance was a masterclass of that particular vocal style and anything that was even suggestive of it would have been a disaster comparatively. Because of this I decided to cut the verses pretty straight. I kept the sound away from the back of my throat and avoided tone shaping there, laying down a rather restrained front of mouth timbred and shaped pass. This was partially influenced by the fact that I was cutting tracks at 2:00am in the den of my condo and was mindful of the neighbors. (Surprisingly that early original vocal, and background vocal pass survived into the final mix.)
After cutting that original vocal for the verses I had to figure out what to do with the choruses. I was convinced I needed a collaborator – perhaps a girl – to really bring it home. I was thinking about The Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter and the great Mary Clayton vocal that just lifted that track into a higher orbit. I put a call out on reddit to see if I could find someone willing to give it a go but found no takers. I finally cut the choruses myself in another late night session where my voice opened up just enough to hit the notes that were needed. It was a little rough around the edges (still is) but I got it down.
The First Chorus Vocal
Mixing It Up
The whole point of the home recording that I have done (and am doing) is to attempt to rehab my hands and recover some of my guitar playing ability as well as to find a way for me to participate and identify myself as a musician again – something I lost many years ago. Each recording project I tackle is an opportunity to learn and develop workflow in the recording process itself. This includes things like mixing and mastering – both skills independent of the playing and recording. Currently my version of This Life is on it’s 38th mix. I have rendered 38 different versions of the mix – posting and asking for feedback – in an attempt to make what I recorded sound the best that I can. I’ve posted on places like reddit.com, hamerfanclub.com (known as the HFC), homerecording.com, recording.org, soundcloud.com, reverbnation.com…. all of them invaluable. I’ve re-tracked guitar and bass – reworked drums and drum fills. I’ve applied and removed effects and equalization — boosted frequencies – suppressed and compressed. The project remains an active tutorial and lab for learning. Is it finished? Absolutely Not. Is it any good? It’s okay – certainly not perfect or pro by any means. But the cool thing for me is that I did it. And that it reflects the promise of what I might be able to do if I keep going. My hands are still gimped and I go weeks without being able to play sometimes (more time for mixing). But I’m having fun – and I’m so totally stoked to be making music again. And that’s the win for me – that’s the win. And if others enjoy the cover, or are similarly inspired to record then that makes it all the better. As of today the soundcloud account I set up to post my stuff has over 40,000 plays – most of those coming from the various versions of This Life that I have posted there. That makes me smile.
If you made it this far then I thank you for your patience and apologize for the wordiness of this whole article. I guess all that’s left to do or say is link you to the current mix (#32) and wish you well. Don’t forget to check out the series on Netflix or FX network. And special thanks goes again to Curtis Stigers for answering an email that triggered the decision to record the song on New Years day 2014. That little push started the ball rolling and for that I am grateful. Regards.