I couldn’t possibly count all the times I’ve said to myself “If I only had more money, I could…”
Everyone is on some sort of budget. But too often, we let these monetary restraints prevent us from creating. The Subway Sessions was born out of that necessity to capture something special, utilizing the limited resources I had at my disposal.
Here’s a little background to give you some perspective: I’m an LA-based musician originally from Philadelphia. I’m a songwriter, performer, and composer of music for film & TV. Prior to relocating to the west coast, I worked extensively in the band scene, playing all over the east coast in a number of groups. But as it so often happens, I grew weary and inevitably distanced myself from it all. As I adjusted to life in a new city, I took time off from performing live, and mainly focused on composing and studio work.
But I couldn’t stay away from the stage for too long. I started playing guitar in support of other artists, and eventually booked a show of my own material at a singer-songwriter event in the San Fernando Valley. It was all under the guise of “it’s just for fun.” In the year since, the body of work has grown, and the intent more serious, but it’s still about enjoying what I do. When working on new material, I always ask myself “If I walked into a club and a guy was playing this song, would I sit down and have a beer?”
Gregory Kasunich, film director and co-conspirator, has spent many nights with me over the years on some bar stool in Los Angeles, just talking. The drinks go back and the conversations take their turn; sometimes into the realm of absurdity, sometimes profound. It was here in this place between sobriety and enlightenment that the concept for the Subway Sessions first came about. Inspired by the wealth of talented busking musicians I’ve encountered around town, I mentioned my interest in capturing live performances of my original music on film. So we started brainstorming. It was not long after that he an idea: “Why don’t you film it on the Metro Red Line; call it the Subway Sessions?”
I loved the idea, but I didn’t immediately jump out of my socks and get to planning it. How would I accomplish this? How many songs would get recorded? How would we handle the camera work? The potential directions I could take were seemingly endless and overwhelming. Soon enough I was in deep, caught in the all-too familiar trappings of my over-ambitions. I was going to play a song at every stop. I would have guest musicians meet me at various stops, playing all sorts of unique instruments. There was going to be a documentary companion piece, covering the event as it unfolded. I found myself losing perspective on what the project was supposed to be about: simple, loose, fun performances in the subway. And in the end, simplicity almost always triumphs.
It was stripped back to seven songs at the stops that felt most essential. I corralled a small group of musicians (Al Aguilar, Dylan Cooper Hayden, Jennifer Micofsky) to spend the day traveling with me to every stop, adding variety to the arrangements. In addition to Gregory, I enlisted another director-friend, Joe Raffa, to capture additional footage, and fellow musician Andrew Marks to record the audio.
It became apparent that spontaneity was paramount. These were not going to be high-fidelity studio recordings, so we might as well embrace the raw nervous energy of the whole thing. All the performances would be the first and only take. If mistakes were made, they were immortalized. Flubbed lyrics, wrong chords, it all became part of the chaotic fabric.
First stop, Union Station, and already we encountered a hitch. We planned to shoot outside; the environment seemed a great fit for the bluegrass-inspired feel of “Paved in Gold.” However, we had not been aware there would be a Mexican street festival blaring obscenely loud music only a block away from the station. But we committed to the idea that these performances would happen come hell or high water. So we set up and went for it.
The second stop, Pershing square, was also an outdoor shoot. It has here we filmed blues number, “Fist for A Hammer.” Due to unforeseen complications, we got a very late start and were losing daylight sooner than the schedule accounted for. Only the second stop of the adventure, and we were already becoming quite accustomed to the improvisatory nature of it all. As luck would have it, the dark atmosphere blended quite nicely with the decorative electric lighting in the fountain area. Our very own low-budget Vegas show. Onward…
Westlake/McArthur Park was tackled next. It was chosen not for its visual beauty, but for the unpredictability of the environment. And we certainly got plenty of that. Here we recorded “Restless Motion”, an appropriate title for this location. A random fist fight broke out only a couple hundred feet from the shoot location. Just prior to filming, a woman approached me to brag of her vocal prowess, “I can really blow,” as if she was some sort of jazz trumpeter from the 40’s. A bustling block indeed, and plenty of the urban ambience found it’s way onto tape.
For our first indoor shoot, we chose to film “Stories Untold” at the Vermont/Beverly station. It was staged on the platform that overlooks the tracks from above. We knew a train might plow through at any moment, possibly rendering the performance inaudible, but the gamble is part of the fun. As luck would have it, when a train did in fact roll through the shot, it occurred right at an instrumental moment in the song. Production value!
Next up, Hollywood/Western. The walls are decorated with a sea of small colored tiles, just the right backdrop for an uplifting number. Here our band of merry men (and woman) performed “Song in Your Heart,” a tune about overcoming depression and learning to trust yourself again. This was the most attended of the underground performances. Our setup attracted a small crowd, some of which documented the event on their cell phones. We’re now underground rock stars.
Anyone that has been to the intersection of Hollywood/Highland knows it is pure madness. It’s home to Grauman’s Chinese Theater and a ton of celebrity cement prints. So naturally it’s a tourist hotspot almost year-round. It was here we decided to perform “Wicked Love,” right at the mouth of the subway entrance, and amidst all the calamity. I have to admit, I have never performed in a more electric yet distracting environment. It was not only difficult to find a nook for the band to set up, but also ensure the cameras had a good line of sight. Somehow, we pulled it off, and no one was arrested. Win-win.
For the final song, “Run Away,” we decided the most fitting location would be to film right on the train itself. We had between the final two stops, Universal City and North Hollywood, to accomplish this task. Knowing the moving train would most likely be too noisy to get useable audio, we opted to record it in the 5-minute window of time the train sat motionless at North Hollywood.
Alas, one final snag for the final sendoff. There was a hitch with the computer capturing audio, and it wasn’t ready in time to record the entire performance before our train began moving again. We went for it anyway. The train started rolling mid-song and the band kept on playing. So not only were we fitted with the task of performing well in a completely foreign environment, but now had to balance ourselves to keep from falling while doing so.
In the end, the entire project cost little, but we all got so much out the experience. I hope when you check out the series, you’ll hear the music and decide you want to sit and have a beer too.
Watch the first three videos from the series here: