The making of “11:11”

(Terrestrial physicians recommend pressing play before beginning to read this post.)

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Making a record was the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on. I wanted so much more when it was over. I would have done the whole thing over again. Now that it’s out, though, I’m pretty glad it’s done… but I’m already scheming about the next one.

Most of what we did in the studio was straightforward. The Portal songs are simple enough pop tunes with rock instrumentation. Kirk and I recorded the drums and guitar in live takes to a click track, and I sang a scratch vocal just so we could build around it. Then we put down bass, then a second guitar pass, then we took out the scratch track and did real vocals, and then we did all the overdubs. The process was more or less the same for every tune.

Except one. And that’s the one people keep asking about.

The 11th track of this 11-track record is an 11-minute, 11-second composition entitled “11:11.” It’s a controlled improvisation intended to cause a complete freak-out for its parallel main characters, the vocals and the guitar. From the instant I completed the mental download of Portal, I knew that’s what it was going to be. But how I would actually make it was unclear. We sure figured it out, though. It was such a fun process that I feel like sharing the story.

Kirk conducts the alien ritual. (Photo by    Justin Benttinen   )

Kirk conducts the alien ritual. (Photo by Justin Benttinen)

Here’s all you need to know about the origin of “11:11”: There was a festival up in the woods of Mendocino County. On the second night, Kirk instigated some kind of alien communion ritual at 11:11 p.m. He ranted and chanted and got hundreds of people to wave glowy wands in the air, and this precipitated the first-ever documented encounter between humans and extraterrestrials.

I was tasked to play guitar in the backing band for that ritual. I am aware that I successfully did so, although the details are hazy. Other bandmates — with whom I had never played beforehand — reported the next day that I was clearly “transmitting” the contents of our communal contact with aliens. I just remember green fire spitting out of my amp.

That 11:11 ritual was what opened the music portal through which the entire record was downloaded into me over the course of the night. All the titles and many of the lyrics on the record refer to those events. “11:11” was to be the grand finale meant to recapture the full-spectrum contents of the transmission.

Transmitting. (Photo by    Justin Benttinen   )

Transmitting. (Photo by Justin Benttinen)

So, I knew this much: It would be the 11th track. It would play for 11 minutes and 11 seconds exactly. It would be improvised. I would play only guitar, and Kirk would try to re-summon his space shaman character and be the master of ceremonies. Now, how do we make that the least bit interesting?

There are plenty of space jams in rock and roll history. For my money, the progenitor is “European Son” by The Velvet Underground, which is, by complete synchronistic non-coincidence, the 11th track of The Velvet Underground & Nico. It is also, speaking charitably, challenging to listen to. Since then, the interminable zone trip has been the ambition of many a rock and roll artiste. Few have succeeded. Many have failed.

I chose “Echoes” by Pink Floyd as my high-water mark. It gets pretty wild, but there’s still such blazing musicianship present even in the weirdest parts. I had to try to live up to that. I do love me some noise music, but it just isn’t what I was doing on Portal. This record was about the guitar. The guitar was the antenna that received the transmission. “11:11” still had to be a rock and roll song. So it was clear that the core instrumentation should be the same as the rest of the record: bass, drums, guitar, and vocals.

Michael Feinberg on bass.

Michael Feinberg on bass.

The first week of recording was in Tiny Telephone’s B room, and we had to do all the full-band tracking in there. We wouldn’t be bringing the drums back for the A room days the following week, so backing tracks for every song had to be done. After a couple days, we started feeling the time pressure, and I knew an 11-minute song would be hard to squeeze in, especially an unpredictable one that we might have to do over. I had to come up with some constraints that would keep us on the rails.

The morning of the day we had to do “11:11,” I woke up with an idea. I grabbed The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson off my shelf and brought it to breakfast. I explained to Kirk that this was one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read, and one of its several climaxes involves a charismatic supporting character whipping up a frenzy at an enormous rock festival. I’d do an enthusiastic reading from the book for 11 minutes and 11 seconds, then we’d pipe it through the headphones and play to the reading. Then we’d throw out the reading, and Kirk would MC the return of the aliens in an isolation booth.

Kirk playing a synth he couldn't hear.

Kirk playing a synth he couldn't hear.

When we got to the studio, I explained the plan to Ian Pellicci, our chief engineer. In his characteristically professional manner, he took it in. “Cool,” he said. “So while you’re doing that, I’ll set Kirk up in the iso room with a synthesizer, and we’ll get that, too. I’ll take it out of the monitors.” Ian had just taken it up a notch. For our improv stimulus, not only would I be reading from this filthy book, Kirk would be playing along on a synthesizer we couldn’t hear. All I told him beforehand was that the key of E was home base for reasons that will become clear shortly.

I chose my first excerpt at random from the middle of the book, but we had a false start due to some control room malfunction. It was still pretty early in the recording session, but I was already starting to freak out a little about wasting time. Trying not to show frustration, I flipped to another random section of the book, closer to the end this time, and I landed right at the beginning of the big rock show scene. So that made me feel better. I really got into the reading. I’m not exactly a trained actor, but this book leaves little to the imagination. Mere paragraphs into my random selection, weirdo submarine captain Hagbard Celine grabbed the mic to address the freaked-out concertgoers, and I knew we were in for it. I lost myself in the reading until... “Eleven... eleven...” Ian intoned over the monitors, indicating that time was up, and I finished my sentence and shut the book.

As Ian rewound the tape, Kirk came into the main room and got behind the drums. Mike chose from Ian’s menu of synth pedals he could use on the bass, and I plugged my Telecaster into my Vox AC30, my standard rig. I had two key pieces of gear in between: an EBow, a little battery-powered gizmo that vibrates and sustains the strings like a bow, and an EHX Freeze pedal, which grabs the last millisecond of your guitar signal and locks it into an infinite, shimmering moment.

We sat in a triangle facing each other. We were giggly and excited, especially since we hadn’t even heard Kirk’s synth part. (Ian is such a genius). I told Ian to start the clock when I hit my first note. I knew where to begin, at least. Track 10, “Root (Waking Up With You),” ends on a fading E minor chord. So to commence “11:11,” I plucked the low and high E strings and kicked on the Freeze pedal. You can still hear the click of the metal button on the pedal in the final track. The pedal froze those notes into a never-ending drone.

Ian playing the Kirk.

Ian playing the Kirk.

The jam felt powerfully locked in from the very beginning. The reading provided a clear emotional arc, and Kirk’s synth parts followed it amazingly. We kept making faces at each other as we played. It actually took some discipline not to exclaim aloud, which would have been picked up by the drum mics. The beat came in naturally, and I suddenly had the opportunity to play the kind of classic psychedelic rock guitar solo I’ve always dreamed of playing. As I tore into it, I had this ecstatic feeling: This is my record! I can play whatever I want!

I don’t think any of us wanted to stop when Ian’s “eleven... eleven...” sounded over the headphones. Each of us seemed pretty sure that we’d gotten it done in one take. We also immediately agreed that Kirk’s surprise synth part had to stay. We charged into the control room to listen back. Ian was far too professional of an engineer to give artistic opinions, but I could tell from his face that he was having fun now.

The following week, in the A room, it was time for Kirk’s big lead vocal. We had only heard the backing track of “11:11” once, and we’d heard the more straight-ahead songs over and over and over since then, so the chance to work on the weird one again filled us with the same giddy energy. All I could do was sit on the control room couch and listen. Before rolling, Ian spent a while plugging and unplugging various gizmos in the signal chain between the vocal booth and the board. He was preparing to make alien contact. Kirk took a deep breath, entered the booth, and closed the door.

I sat on my hands and listened intently as the track started, and I instantly recognized Kirk’s otherworldly character the moment he started whispering into the mic. As the backing track built up energy, Kirk responded in kind, but then Ian stood up and started tweaking knobs. Kirk’s voice was wrenched sideways and ripped and crushed. It screamed up and dove down and yanked back up again. He began responding to the new sounds immediately. Ian’s deft live manipulation of the vocal sound drove Kirk crazier and crazier. I immediately decided that Ian had to get credit for playing the Kirk in the “11:11” performance credits. He had turned Kirk into a human instrument.

The Studer.

The Studer.

Kirk’s narration recalled the original incident that started this whole mess. He even used a few of the lines we deciphered from the soundboard recording. He was bouncing off the walls by the end. He didn’t even know he was nearly out of time as he intoned, “Don’t fight it… don’t fight it… don’t—” and the tape clicked off.

When we made the final mix, Ian took a few parts out here and there to create space, and he reversed some of the drum sounds in one section to give it a ‘60s psychedelic vibe, but we really didn’t change much. The last thing we did was rig up a microphone in the control room and record the Studer, the tape machine whose whirring sound defined the whole recording session for me. We put the sound of it starting at the beginning of the record, and we ended “11:11” with the sound of the tape running out and clicking to a stop.

I hope that story gives you a glimpse of all the love and fun that went into making Portal. If you haven’t heard the record yet, please do check it out.