Cliff Hillis

'Love Not War Stories' SONG ONE


SONG ONE- "Love Not War"

This song was born from a song-of-the-week group, and I started with an acoustic demo that sounded rather different than the final version. It was a little too straight. My long time partner in crime Greg Maragos (aka "the Secret Weapon") and Mr. Patrick Berkery (aka "Cadillac Pat") came over one night & helped get the feel & arrangement together, then laid down a kickass rhytm track. I tried to keep things as live as possible with many of the songs and what you hear is essentially one live take once we got the groove, with a few notes or beats tweaked here & there.

I then put a good acoustic guitar & decent vocal on the song & my friend Shelley Weiss came over just before she left for Seattle. I was hoping for some kind of melody to occur in the intro & turnaround, as she was plucking her violin to hear the notes & come up with an idea I said "That's It!!!". Pizzicato violin run through a Leslie simulation & spring reverb became the signature riff. Shelley also played some fine violin & viola throughout to help make the song lush.

I enlisted the uber talented Jason Loughlin to add some tasty electric guitar to the song from afar, and I grabbed him just before he had to leave town for a while. He cut some electric guitar from his studio in NY and sent me the tracks which I automatically loved. Sweet 70's inspired riffs take the song out to the end of the fade.

I headed to Greg Maragos' one afternoon to drink some beers and see what he might come up with keyboard-wise. We actually drank many beers and cut keys for a number of songs in one sitting, for this one Greg gave it the ol' piano & wurlizter combo to keep the 70's feel solid.

The bridge still needed something, so one evening I pulled David Kershner from his busy schedule & he laid down the trumpets in the bridge, sealing the deal in the best kinda way. David also doubled the violin on the turnaround with a muted trumpet. Yeah!

When you get to the end of the song I must point out the bongos. Pat B laid down one hell of a bongo track that I loved so much I made sure it stayed way up in the mix. Once everything was on I cut a bunch of final vocals & guitar then mixed the song & sent to Steve Turnidge for mastering.

And that is the (partial) story behind the song "Love Not War". Buy the EP at

'Love Not War Stories' SONG TWO


SONG TWO- "The Buddha's Belly"

So, I had to look back to figure out the exact story about this song... What I did recall was that it was on a trip to Cleveland with Beth Lennon where I made some joke about "scratching the Buddha's back" since I was feeling kinda portly, and she came up with the best/most important line in the song "everybody wants to rub the Buddha's belly, but nobody's scratching the Buddha's back". And a Hillis/Lennon co-write was born. This was another song-of-the-week offering, and I found the email where I handed it in that said-

"Had grand plans of recording a full on version, here's a sort of Dave Edmunds/Rockpile inspired song. I made a joke about scratching the Buddha's back & my wife came up with the best line in the song. Long weekend to Cleveland ran late so this was just recorded in the back of the car at a service area on the PA Turnpike. Cheers!"

FYI the lyric that week was "at first sight". It's there, buried deep in the song.

When it came time for the proper recording, the "Masters of Disaster" Greg Maragos & Patrick Berkery were once again the crux of the song on bass & drums respectively. Looking at my notes, we cut rhythm tracks for this, "Suicide Doors" and "Too Many Songs" in one evening. I recall the basement started smelling pretty rock 'n roll by the end of the session... once again we tried to keep it lively & loose, there were minimal punches or edits to the basic rhythm track. Pat B also played some shaker & tambourine before they guys left for the night.

I kinda held off working on the song for awhile because I wasn't sure where to go with it. I had been playing it solo at gigs for some time & getting really good response, I didn't want to turn it into a full-on rockabilly type song since that's not exactly my thing.

During our marathon beer-inspired keyboard session, Greg Maragos played some appropriately jaunty piano on the song that worked perfectly, and I was still figuring out where to go guitar-wise. I had an acoustic guitar rhythm on there but hated most everything I tried to play on electric.

BUT! Then, the always wise Beth Lennon had the great idea for me to see if Mike Molnar of The Bellfuries would be willing to play on the song. Excuse my French, but that guy is truly a motherfucker of a guitar player. Several years ago our friend Craig Fitzgerald had turned us properly on to the band & we caught them at the New England Shake Up. So good! Go buy all their records now! I chatted with Mike at a show the next time the Bellfuries passed through Philly & he said he was game to put some guitar down for the song... I sent him a rough track to cut to & he recorded a variety of parts with a friend back home in Austin TX, and sent me plenty of stuff to work with. I sorted through parts & constructed pretty much what you hear on the recording. It was tough because there were quite a few guitar takes and they were all different, but all great.

I was getting ready to put a final acoustic & vocal on and then my friendKen Herblin reminded me of the surfy riff he had played on the song at the first ever live band performance we did of it. I believe that was at Arden Gild Hall opening for Joseph Arthur (trio w/ Ritchie Rubini on drums & no bass! Greg & his wife Julie were about to have a baby). Ken put the riffy part down & it fit quite seamlessly with the other stuff that Mike had done, rounded the song out nicely.

I put some finishing touches on, mixed it & sent to Steve Turnidge for mastering. And boom! Song two was done.

'Love Not War Stories' SONG THREE


SONG THREE- "Don't Drown The Wind"

This was another one from the song-of-the-week group (I'm seeing a pattern here..). The lyric to be included that week was "drown the wind" so I went rather literal with it, although I figured I'd try to make a hopeful song, in my little existential pop way.

I recorded an acoustic demo to hand in to the group, then filed it away & promptly forgot about the song. It wasn't til a couple months later when I was getting near the tail end of recording the EP that I realized this song was hanging around in the "possibilities" folder. I decided to see if Greg Maragos thought I should do something with it and his reply was "Yes. Yes, you should." I'm glad he said that!

I got in touch with my friend Kevin Killen who is an all around badass musician. He had played some really nice drums & bass on the song "Keep The Blue Skies" and we both played a bunch on my friend Joe Miralles' last EP that I recorded. Kevin came over one day & we messed around with the drums downstairs. I put mics in odd places in the room & he played different patterns with mallets & the snares turned off. There are sort of two complete different drum tracks that happen in the song if you listen closely. Also, to make the song move Kevin did a cool overdub thing where he scratched on the snare drum as a percussion track & we added that in as a sort of a train beat feel thing. One of my favorite bits in the song.

After multiple tracks of drums, Kevin played some rootsy sounding piano on my old Minipiano upright that was just out of tune enough to be charming. Suddenly the song started coming to life!

I realized at the end of that day the acoustic guitars I had put on the demo sounded great so I kept 'em. I should add that my friend Van Morgan had lent me his parlour sized Martin acoustic for recording, and it sounded amazing. I then sent a rough of what we had to Greg so he could do his magic. Greg laid down a really sweet Beatlesque bass line at home with his Hofner & sent the track to me. Then he came up with some really cool atmospheric mellotron & chamberlin parts that added to the melancholy of the song in just the right way.

I then sang a bunch of vocals (put in the obligatory Beach Boys-y bridge harmonies) and played some electric guitar run through a Memory Man to tie up the loose ends. Mixed by me & mastered by Steve Turnidge and then song three was complete!

This song is a perfect example of a thing I love where the parts just kinda fall into place without trying too hard. It makes it easy when you have great musician friends to call on!

'Love Not War Stories' SONG FOUR


SONG FOUR- "A Boy Downtown"

Me, Me, Me!!! Enough about me, let's talk about me! Okay, so I have always aspired to one day write & record a song start to finish all by myself & put it on a record. I've done countless demos that way, but I finally was able to realize my dream with "A Boy Downtown".

So, it occurred to me after the fact that five of the seven songs on this EP were born from weekly songwriting groups and this one is no different. The phrase that pays for the week was "a boy downtown" and I was kinda stumped on how to write a serious song with those lyrics in it. I started imagining an over-the-top power pop song with the age old story of a guy pining after a girl he can't have, or at least keep. I've been trying to veer away from the power pop & perhaps more into the "serious singer songwriter" world lately, but this song is clearly the former.

The week that I had to write this song, as fate would have it I went to go see Todd Rundgren with his ace band (including that John Ferenzik fella!) doing their "nothing but the hits" tour. Beth Lennon, Michael Kropp & I caught the them in Harrisburg and it was a stellar show. I sang a little idea for "A Boy Downtown" into my phone during the intermission & the next day I fleshed out the music & lyrics and got to working on "my version of a Todd song" complete with me recording all the parts. That would include drums, and I'm a terrible drummer (although I love to try!). Through the miracle of modern editing I put down a demo during the day that as I built it started to sound scarily legitimate, or so I hoped. I quadruple tracked all the background vocals, squashed the hell out of the drums & guitars with compression. I cut all the parts (aside from the drums) in pretty much one take recording fast & furious. I did start to realize that the song was sounding as Rick Springfield as it did Todd, but in my book that's not a bad thing. And hopefully it was sounding a bit like Cliff Hillis too!

I got everything done start to finish in a few hours, just before my lovely wife got home & I proudly played it for her. She quickly pointed out that it kinda sounded like Rick Springfield. wink emoticon


Fast forward to the mid-to-late recording process of the "Love Not War" EP, and after having played my glorified demo to a handful of friends & getting a good response (thanks for the kind words, Tom Ransom) I decided to include it. I re-sang some of the vocals and tightened up the drums a bit (thanks Pro Tools!), and then added a few last bells & whistles. Finished the mix & sent to Steve Turnidge for mastering (who pointed out that it was pretty darn bright & loud when I sent it to him), and "voilà!", track four was complete.

I hope the listener gets half as much joy out of this song as I did recording it!

'Love Not War Stories' SONG FIVE


SONG FIVE- "Suicide Doors"

Here's yet another song that was inspired by a weekly songwriting group, this was actually written in the back of a car (with suicide doors, I might add) on the way home from a trip to Boston. Beth Lennon was driving & I was sprawled out in the back of our Honda Element, I wrote the song somewhere along I-95 in Connecticut, then made a quick demo on my laptop & emailed it in just before the weekly deadline via wifi from a New Jersey Turnpike service area.

The rhythm track was provided once again courtesy of the rock n roll hosts-with-the-most Greg Maragos & Patrick Berkery, recorded one evening in the hacienda basement between "The Buddha's Belly" and "Too Many Songs". I had been playing this song solo for a bit & it was inspiring to hear it with the band. We cut a few passes & got some solid stuff down. It was a while before I revisited the song & put some acoustic & electric guitars down. I wasn't sure what would happen in the solo section, but Greg put some cool organ and arp type synth in there that I really dug. I eventually put a reference slide part down & open stringy type solo that I ended up liking enough to keep.

I recall that for some reason I thought the vocal would be easy to cut on this one, and I kinda hated what I did on the first couple passes. I came back to it a week or so later & eventually knocked out what I felt was fairly solid. Funny how sometimes you can get it in one or two takes and sometimes it takes a bit more work!

Not too many other bells & whistles went on from there... got a mix together & sent to mastering & bam! Song five was done.

'Love Not War Stories' SONG SIX


SONG SIX- "Mayor Of Midnight"

Me, myself and I and Brad...

Continuing with the theme of "songs that were inspired by weekly songwriting groups", this one also started out in such a way. I believe the lyric of the week was "decoder ring" and I started writing a song about a guy who lived in his own little fantasy world where he was kind of like a grown up kid pretending to be a spy.

As fate would have it, while I was writing the song Beth Lennon was in her Retro Roadmap HQ room down the hall and could hear what I was coming up with. She mentioned that it sounded kinda like The Knobs, a truly awesome Delaware band that had a storied life span which was tragically cut short. I decided to morph the song into a sort of an ode to Phil Healy, the main writer and voice for The Knobs who died tragically in 2004, but that's a whole different story.

I recalled that Phil used the moniker "the Mayor of Midnight" when he wrote for one of the coolest entertainment papers to come out of Delaware- "The Bystander", run by Rob Waters & Erin Tanner. I immediately had a title for the song & wrote some verses that I thought described Phil, and then the first verse seemed to make sense with the rest once I looked at it as a whole. I played my demo of the song for Phil Young, a long time member of The Knobs who is a damn fine songwriter in his own right and he approved!

The demo I made to hand in for my weekly group was a loose & jangly track, mostly one take performances which featured distorted baritone guitar and wispy vocals cut to a drum loop. Like many of my weekly songs, if it was due on Sunday at midnight, I'd be quietly singing & playing in the studio on headphones at about 11:30pm trying to get it done in time, also trying not to wake up my wife who was asleep in the next room.

I decided to turn that demo into a full fledged recording for the EP, and went about cutting some drums myself, being that I had accomplished a (hopefully) listenable performance on "A Boy Downtown" thanks to lots of editing. After a bunch of drum takes I felt like it was turning into something cool. I re-sang some vocals and was set to have two songs on the EP that I wrote & played start to finish all by my lonesome, but the song needed a solo & I wasn't sure what to do there.

Just as I was finishing up the EP, the Fwd Thinkers did a rehearsal and learned the song for a gig, and Brad Newsom came up with a really cool atmospheric slide solo. Brad had actually done a lot of recording with & for The Knobs and was a member of the band in the later line-up, so it made perfect sense to get him on there. Brad cut some takes of his slide solo through a Leslie at his place and sent them to me just as I was finishing mixing the song. The solo rocked, and I also took one of the passes, chopped it up and flipped it backwards to throw some more sonic weirdness throughout the song. Mixed, mastered & "The Mayor Of Midnight" was done!

'Love Not War Stories' SONG SEVEN


SONG SEVEN- "Too Many Songs"

Here's the last installment of my random musings about the writing & recording of my new "Love Not War" EP. Hope you have enjoyed the stories!

So, track seven on the EP (I know that's a rather lot of songs to call it an EP, but it clocks in at a tidy 22 minutes all told) is a song that I wrote with the esteemed Mr. Dan Bern. The first time Dan & I got together to write at his place in L.A. we had really good luck, so the next time I was out west I inquired about a second writing session. He was very hospitable & we once again sat down to see what we might come up with.

I usually try to bring a snippet or two to a writing session to maybe spark an idea, just in case creating something from total scratch doesn't seem to be working. I had been staying at my friend Mark Turner's place near Los Feliz, and was strumming on my guitar before heading over to Dan's to write. I literally thought to myself about how many songs there were already in the world, and sang a little something into my phone. Turns out it was a starting point for "Too Many Songs". We worked up something we felt really good about. Dan liked my Beatles-y chords and I loved all of his lyrical offerings. We recorded a quick version onto a laptop, doing a little Everly Bros kinda harmony as we put it down.

Fast forward to the recording of the song... this was the last track of a fruitful evening where Patrick Berkery & Greg Maragos had laid down "The Buddha's Belly" and "Suicide Doors" before it. I think everyone was getting a little tired by the time we got to this one and it actually reflected in a good way, with a nice lazy performance that I think the song called for. Once again we got a mostly live take for the bass & drums, them guys are the goods!

I slowly built the song up, first with acoustic guitar and then with some moody piano thanks to Greg during our marathon keys session at his place. Dan had extemporaneously sang a bit of a trumpet solo idea as we recorded our original live demo & that kept resonating with me. David Kershner was kind enough to come over and basically chart out the idea, then played a really nice solo on trumpet. David had a cool idea for little majestic piccolo trumpet run behind the last chorus, it was a nice touch (listen for it!).

Not too long after we got the trumpet on, Shelley Weiss came over and laid down a beautiful string bed behind the solo section & end on violin and viola which totally brought things together. One funny note is that I had recorded a last vocal line of the song "there's still a place for this song", but it sounded a little hokey... I realized if I just muted it that it let Shelley's strings send the song off into the sunset. Definitely a good example of subtractive mixing.

I had really hoped to nail down Dan Bern to cut a harmony like the one we did for our quickie demo. I didn't think it was going to pan out, but then as fate would have it I was able to open the show the next time Dan came through Philly, and I brought my little portable setup & recorded his vocals just after sound check backstage at the Tin Angel. That was fun! And the dressing room has nice acoustics for vocals btw.

Once I had all the main parts, I added a some supportive electric guitar & some percussion and did the mix, sent to mastering and there ya have it. The last song of the EP was done!

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