Was Puppet Show really recorded at Camp Taji, Iraq, in a combat zone?
Yes (and no).
In 2007, I found myself heading back to Iraq for a second tour. The Army had extended my contract involuntarily (a policy called “stop loss”). I was a character in a Kafka story.
As a radar operator, my job was essentially “frontline” air traffic control. It sounded exciting in theory, but the truth was, most of my team’s equipment malfunctioned most of the time, clogging with dust or overheating, breaking down and sitting for days (even weeks) as we waited for proprietary repair parts to be delivered and installed by military contractors. What’s more, ambiguity fogged our mission: the insurgency weren’t flying planes. What were we doing there? I had time to kill, frustrations to channel and many questions.
Rewind several months. Before deploying, I had bought a portable multitrack recorder, thinking it would be a way to kill downtime. The machine was the size of a slim hardback book, but it packed a fully stocked digital studio: the Boss BR-600. My plan was to record a couple demo tracks that I could use to start a band after getting out of the Army and going back to college.
Forty miles north of Baghdad, at Camp Taji, I set up a guerrilla studio in the storage closet next to my team’s radar control room, at the end of a long hallway in a brick warehouse (formerly used by the Iraqi Army), atop of which sat our dead or dying Sentinel radar, a monument to American profligacy.
I turned the closet into a studio using onsite resources. An old mattress deadened reverberations. Stray canvas Humvee tops helped with soundproofing. I was surprised at how quiet the room actually was: the mic didn’t pick up any of the incessant blips, bleeps or radio static which filled the control room next door. The helicopter landing pad, not fifty meters away, with its near constant rotor noise, was only an occasional low hum. The grind of diesel generators was muffled. Sandbags and plywood covered the single window of the room, emplaced to stop potential rocket or mortar shrapnel. No one could hear me from outside. I worked alone on our radar site’s night watch, and so could steal time to practice and write music, slip next door and record a take or two.
Gear wise, I had packed in a single Shure SM57 microphone and a Martin Backpacker guitar. Soldiers who had come
before us left an old Silver Tone acoustic guitar (as heard on “Sparrow’s Revenge”). I patiently waited for a MicroKorg synthesizer to be shipped in, my Gibson SG, a bass, even a tambourine (the mail clerk questioned why my package jingled).
Over several months, the music began to take on political undertones, which would then become more explicit. I was frustrated with the military, my country and myself for participating in a war I felt was not only futile, but immoral. Writing and recording music provided me an outlet for my anger.
After returning to the U.S. and getting released from the Army, my recorder and the memory cards holding Puppet Show would go into a shoe box in (yet another) closet, this time in Philadelphia. There the project would sit for the better part of seven years, though always on my mind.
Why didn’t I let anyone hear the music after I got home, in 2008? One, the drums sucked. This was the one instrument I couldn’t pull off in Iraq. My plan early on had been to use samples. But, for the low-fi sound I was going for (the only one I could realistically achieve), samples were too clean, too exact. I would eventually have a miniature electronic kit shipped in, but it turned out to be little more than a toy.
This problem would be met by my brother, Greg. When asked to overdub drum tracks, in 2013, he was more than enthusiastic. I had emailed him tracks-in-progress from Iraq as I was recording, so he already had a sense of the music, my personality and the atmosphere. I knew, too, that his style—unpolished, yet nuanced—would fit well with the music.
There was also a question of reception. How would the message of my music be accepted, especially by those soldiers I had served with—and by my family, many of whom had been in the military themselves. I intended for Puppet Show to be provocative, though at the time I didn’t have the guts to stand behind what I had written and advocated. I questioned myself as being cynical and too self-deprecating.
Courage to speak out would be encouraged by Iraq Veterans Against the War. After joining the organization, I found myself surrounded by veterans openly voicing a radical, dissenting anti-war message. This was the push I needed to dust off my music, finish it and let others listen.
All told, about half the tracks (i.e. individual layers: vocal parts, tambourine, guitar, etc.) making up each song were recorded in Iraq. The other half (drums especially) were recorded seven years later in my parents’ basement and my brother’s apartment in rural western Pennsylvania. To maintain the integrity of the project, I recorded under similar studio conditions: one microphone (drums were recorded mono), using the same instruments I had with me in Iraq, with whatever rooms and dirty mattresses were available. Thankfully, mortar attacks could not be reproduced.
It’s a strange experience, harmonizing over vocals sung seven years prior—like singing karaoke with your ghost. I resisted the urge to change lyrics, only adding those spoken through a bullhorn during the middle section of “The Master.” I wouldn’t have written those lyrics back in 2007 (I may have bent my rules a bit here), because I hadn’t yet learned about some of the things I reference, and I felt they needed to be there for the overarching message to come together. I, at 32, was essentially responding to questions a still-naive 25 year old was asking.
While I released Puppet Show for free online, I also released an edition of 300 CDs, in packaging made by hand. The paper used for the cover was handmade from a uniform I wore during my 2007 deployment. The back cover was letterpressed on recycled cardboard sleeves. This pamphlet stitched insert was inkjet printed on 65 lb. paper. It was constructed over more than a few long nights at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey, from late 2013 to early 2015.
It’s done. I can sleep.
Thanks: Greg Basl, for drums; Eli Wright, for help with cover image layout and packaging production; David Keefe, for many breakthrough opportunities and connections; The Printmaking Center of NJ, for resources and work space; Drew Cameron, for Combat Paper’s first act; Lovella Calica of Warrior Writers, for her constant push; and my parents, for giving me space to be myself (especially my dad, who picked up the three trunks I shipped home from Iraq, each about 60 lbs., with all of my musical equipment and books). And I can’t forget those friends I wore a uniform with—especially those who knew what was going on in the closet next door and didn’t raise a protest.
May 2007 – May 2015
CD/digital download available for purchase on Bandcamp