The Life and Times of an American Remixer

Oh the challenges of remixing a '60s recording * and the odd ethical conundrums that go with it

It's 10 a.m. on a Wednesday and the Count is already awake. Strange for a musician, let alone someone who calls himself Count. This musician, however, is a busy guy. Today, at his home studio in Bernal Heights, he's got a session scheduled with a singer/songwriter from Dallas, John Price, whose album he's co-producing; the singer for his band, Halou, is coming over to pick something up; he's having a sit-down with a San Francisco Conservatory cellist in a few hours to teach him some of Halou's songs; and of course the lawyers and manager will be calling, not to mention this pesky little music writer who just wants to talk more about –

Oh, wait. I guess I can't talk about that. Fuck.

Lemme explain: Count is a man of many talents. He's a producer/engineer who has worked with an impressive list of names, including Blackalicious and John Cale; last year he recorded a good chunk of local hip hop phenom Lyrics Born's acclaimed debut, Later That Day. He's one-third of the atmospheric trip hop act Halou. And, with help from Halou bandmate Ryan Coseboom, he composes music for films such as Quality of Life, which premiered last month at the Berlin Film Festival and will be coming to San Jose next month as part of the Cinequest festival. That's a lot of stuff. But it doesn't pay the bills – working on ultra-low-budget independent albums and movies is not the gold mine you might expect. The way Count puts food on his table is remixing.

In the past few years, Count has done remix work for No Doubt, New Order, Run-D.M.C., and Third Eye Blind, to name just a few. Sometimes these songs end up as B-sides on singles, or as 12-inch vinyl-only releases for DJs, or in more obscure places, like when the WB network used a "My Generation" remix he co-produced in one of its promo spots. Recently, Count, together with Coseboom, completed his most high-profile project yet, a variant of a tune sung by an icon of modern song whose work has never undergone a commissioned remix. But I can't tell you who it is. Originally the track was supposed to be released on a compilation last December by Warner Music, but certain changes (the company is in the midst of being acquired by a group of investors led by Seagram's heir Edgar Bronfman Jr. – hooray mergers!) have put it in limbo, and now the label is insisting that Count keep a lid on things. And as much as I'm all for shaking up the major-label ant farm, I'd hate to get between an independent musician and his income. So humor me as I change a name and title.

The challenge with remixing "Weird Al" Yankovic lies in the original recording itself. Forty years ago, when "I Lost on Jeopardy" was recorded, producers didn't individually overdub each instrument separately as they do today, when it's not uncommon to have anywhere from 25 to more than 100 tracks on a typical major-label-financed song. As Count explains, cueing up his version of the tune on his computer, "This is recorded in 1961, so there is a vocal mike, [Al's] mike, and a mike for the orchestra; even when you mute the orchestra, you still hear it in [Al's] voice. So we had to process his voice so you couldn't hear the orchestra. And there's only so much we can rewrite, because whatever we rewrite has to work with his old vocal line. We tried to make it sound darker – because it was originally kind of happy, schmaltzy – and it was a pain in the ass. But I think what we ended up with was kind of cool."

He's right; it is. Hearing "I Lost on Jeopardy," a once-grandiloquent Vegas showstopper, recast as an eerie, pensive ballad, complete with nervous, stop-start drumming and spooky, Twin Peaks-ish vibraphones, is exhilarating in an odd sort of way. It's one thing to remix Madonna or New Order – after disco, pop music took on a disposable-commodity quality that lent itself to reappropriation. But this tune is part of the canon, remixing it like rewriting Faulkner or Hemingway. So I have, er, mixed emotions about it: There's the thrill of trampling on sacred ground, but also the feeling of, "Hey guys, I don't think we should be doing this." I imagine it's an echo of what goes through the minds of scientists in the cloning business.

As Count points out, he and Coseboom "joked about how, because my version of the song is so strange, if ['Weird Al' Yankovic's] estate eventually heard it they'd probably show up at my door to rough me up for mutilating [Al's] classic hit."

Equally disturbing about this kind of project is that it's a particularly extreme example of what I'll call "pop deforestation." Since the birth of hip hop, producers have been sampling and resampling yesterday's hits and turning them into tomorrow's singles. In dance music there's the widespread phenomenon of throwing a four-on-the-floor beat underneath something like a Bob Marley song to create a high-energy club favorite. P. Diddy built his empire aping everyone from the Police to Led Zeppelin. The Strokes ripped off the Velvet Underground and jump-started the retro-rock revolution, which saw bands worldwide assuming the visage of every vintage garage act ever to have cut an album. Now that the major labels – which own the back catalogs of pillars of pop like "Weird Al" – are opening their vaults to producers like Count, what's next? Robert Johnson? "Wooly Bully"? How much of itself does pop have to eat before it gets sick and dies?

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