The X&Y Project

by Nick Swan

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about

My reinterpretation of Coldplay's X&Y album.

Notes about The X&Y Project

A note on the name...

Those who are in the fortunate disposition to know me well have come to learn that I have a particular aversion to the word "project" when it is used to describe music. Its not that I dislike the word itself; it just seems better fit to describe things such as homework, or construction jobs. It implies something which I hate - work - and tarnishes something I love - music. I hate it even more when applied to a band. If I ever start a band called The Nick Swan Project, I would hope that one of my close friends would immediately shoot me in the head, for I would clearly have gone mentally insane. Once I began "working" on this album, it became sort of a running joke between a friend and I to call this venture, The Coldplay Project. Finally, I had to admit to myself that if anything I was to do musically would fit the definition of a "project," this would be it. And thus, The X&Y Project was born.

A note on why I chose this album...

I originally got the idea around September of 2005 to cover an entire album. It was intended to be an experiment in song interpretation, which ideally would spark new ideas in my own songwriting. At the time, I was considering three different albums to try this experiment. My love of the blues (and lack of blues material recorded) prompted me to think of the seminal blues record for me: I Am the Blues by Willie Dixon. Being a huge Springsteen fan, I also thought of his debut, Greetings from Asbury Park. It is, in many ways, his least-formed record, and one in which I felt there was room to work with. The third, obviously, was X&Y. For a variety of reasons, this was the option that quickly rose to the top. The Dixon record, while it would have been highly enjoyable to play, would also be the easiest and least adventurous for me to do, and the idea of doing the Springsteen record seemed more promising as an idea than it did in reality. X&Y, however, seemed to offer limitless opportunities for me to experiment and grow as an artist, and for whatever reason, it seemed to be calling me to embark upon this project. There is the coincidence that this album happened to be released on my birthday, June 7th, but there is more than that. I am a self-admitted addict to music and buying cds, but no matter how many albums I bought in 2005 and 2006, this is the one that I have kept going back to. Like most great records, it took some time for me to get into, but it grows upon repeated listens, and it has withstood the test of time, if only for a year thus far. At least that is longer than most music lasts these days. At the same token, while I feel this is certainly Coldplay's most accomplished album, and one of the best albums of this new millennium, it has not yet attained "classic" status, and thus it was a less daunting task than taking on, say, Dark Side of the Moon or Revolver. Hopefully diehard fans of Coldplay will not be offended by this comment, and take this project for what it is - a genuine tribute to one of the greatest modern bands. It was a relief to know going in, though, that most people would not think it sacrilege to change - and in some cases drastically change - these songs. Finally, this record stood out to me because it has functioned as a musical bridge between Tennessee and New York City. This will not make sense for those of you who don't know me, so I'll explain. I bought this album when it came out, in June of 2005, and listened to it repeatedly. For a number of reasons, I decided to sell off a number of my possessions and move to New York City in August of that same year. The first (and, to date, the only) concert I saw in Madison Square Garden was in early September. You can guess the band. Long story short, this is the one record that I have listened to consistently from my last weeks in Knoxville through my first year in New York, and for that reason, it remains a very relevant and poignant record to me. Obviously, completing this project has only increased those feelings.

A note on the band...

The common charge against Coldplay from the beginning of their popularity has been that they are but a simpler and less-inspired version of Radiohead. Of course, the obligatory comparisons to U2 also crop up on a regular basis. I must be honest and admit that I used to think the same thing, more or less. I didn't become a fan of the band until A Rush of Blood to the Head, and though I thought the songs were great on that album, I didn't believe they were particularly original or anything new. That is why X&Y came as such a shock to me, and why I believe it has exalted them to perhaps be recognized as the greatest band in the world right now. It is on this album that they finally forged their own sound, something that is uniquely Coldplay. Even the b-sides, like "Proof," "Sleeping Sun," and "Gravity," are some of the best work they've ever done. Their unabashed ambition is refreshing. It is clear they were swinging for the fences with this one. While their counterparts Radiohead, much like Pearl Jam, have made a self-conscious decision to retreat from being the "biggest band in the world," Coldplay has accepted the crown as if they were always meant to wear it. In a time when "indie rock" reigns supreme and many of our supposed "leaders" are shrinking in the face of a momentous period, we can take at least some solace that there is still a damn rock and roll band out there that wants to be great. Not good, but great. Thank God. Of course, by recognizing this through X&Y, it has caused me to revisit their earlier work, which appears much more brilliant in hindsight than I could see at the time...

A note on the recording process...or, the distinction between X and Y...

Yes, the record is called X&Y, and yes, the two sides are named with a different letter. However, I cant really distinguish any significant musical or lyrical differences between the two sections. Perhaps none was intended. Nevertheless, on The X&Y Project, I decided to exaggerate the differences between these two sections. Were gonna get technical here, so anyone who is bored by this sort of thing should probably just skip this section, or better yet, just put on the cd and listen. Ok, for those of you still with me...Since 2001, I have done all my recording on a Korg Digital 12 track machine. It has suited me well, and, up until recently, did mostly what I needed it to do. The entire portion of X was recorded on this machine. As I said, this project started out as an experiment in song interpretation. And, for the duration of the recording of X, this is what it remained. I had basically mastered using this machine, and most, if not all of the recording techniques I used were developed and used on many of my recordings from years prior. Therefore, I had only the arrangements and performances of these tunes to focus on. All of these 6 songs were recorded in a 2-week span, mostly in my tiny bathroom, and mostly late at night after a long shift at the neighborhood grocery store. Whatever spare cash I had on me after work was mostly spent on Budweiser and McDonald's, and hopefully that influence is felt on the recordings.
After I finished recording all the songs off X, I decided to take a little break before tackling Y. That break turned into several months, and eventually friends, and even myself, wondered if I would actually ever finish this project, or whether it would remain eternally "half-done." I got the kick-start I needed, though, when I decided to acquire the industry standard in recording - Pro Tools. To make matters more urgent, I sold my Korg 12 track to a good friend and talented songwriter, Danny Schlaubach. The project then took on new meaning, as it became not only an experiment in song interpretation, but an experiment in recording and production. I decided that I would learn Pro Tools through recording the Y portion of The X&Y Project. Thanks to a lot of help from one of the original masters of Pro Tools, Robert Khozouri, I was able to accomplish far more than I ever have before in the art of recorded music. In some ways, recording on Pro Tools made things much easier, but in many ways, it made things much more difficult. I definitely worked harder on Y than X, in terms of hours put in, and effort. I was also rewarded that much more. It is safe to say that I think Y is better than X. I wouldn't change a note on either section, though, because it shows the entire transition that Ive made since being in NYC; sort of a "musical biography," if you will. The distinctions between X and Y are not merely as superficial as which recording system I used, however. There are plenty of musical and stylistic distinctions, as well. For example, X is mostly driven by the acoustic guitar, while Y is much more dominated by the electric guitar, and, some may say, the keyboard....Both sections signal a break from my previous work, which was very guitar dominant, into a more vocal-centered style, but on the whole, Y is the stronger section vocally. The X section also tends to be more straight-forward and simple, while Y reveals a more diverse and colorful sonic palette.

A note on the song interpretations...

(An introductory note: I call these "song interpretations" as opposed to "covers," because that's what they are to me - interpretations, not note-for-note covers. In some cases, I have stuck fairly close to the original. In others, I have made drastic changes. In all cases, though, I used the original song as a template - a road map - and went from there. My apologies if this sounds pretentious...)

X1 Square One - This is a great opening track, and with my own version, I wanted to capture that same excitement right off the bat. There is somewhat of a "tribal" feel here, and it features what may be my best guitar solo on the album.

X2 What If - One of the highlights of X&Y, and a true anthem. This is one song that I do not feel I did justice. I tried to go the opposite direction from the original, to strip the song down to its core and capture the essence of its emotion. Unfortunately, my execution was off. Still, that is part of the process, and I would not change it, even if I could, which I cant. To hear myself struggling to reach the high notes in this song only reminds me of how far Ive come, and how easily I could hit those notes now. Its annoying and satisfying, at the same time.

X3 White Shadows - One of my favorite tunes on the record, and probably the most "rocking" song Coldplay has ever done. This song, along with "Talk," is as good of an example as any on this project of my acoustic guitar style. The aggressive strumming style was developed when I was in an acoustic duo in Memphis called Nick and TJ, and the name we came up with to describe it was, "The Chopping," because people would often comment that it looked like we were chopping wood when we were playing.

X4 Fix You - This is a difficult one because if I didn't do a good job with this song, I don't think Coldplay fans would forgive me. Its apparent that the band themselves, and many others, believe that this is the best song they have written to date. And who am I to argue? It is definitely one of my favorites, and I certainly wanted to do it justice. Ill leave that verdict up to the listener.

X5 Talk - Ill admit that this is one song where I don't get the hype. Its not a bad song by any means, but I'm not sure why it has been exalted as one of the top songs off this album. That said, I'm proud of my version of this song, which was adapted from an original tune of mine, "The Bottom."

X6 X&Y - This song is kind of an "in-between" song for me - neither bad nor great, and that's how I feel about my version, as well. Its good, but probably not a stand-out. On the other hand, I feel its a perfect transition into the Y portion of the album. This basically shows me trying to do everything I possibly can on the 12 track, many things which would become effortless with the advent of new technology...

Y1 Speed of Sound/Clocks - The difference in sound quality is immediately apparent, as are the production values and vocals. While I recorded all of X in order, I set this song aside until nearly the end because I foresaw how difficult it would be to manifest my ideas for this track and pull it off properly. Many people griped that this song was too close in style to the bands previous hit, "Clocks," so I decided to merge the two and see how it worked.

Y2 A Message - Lyrically, this song is as brilliant and powerful of a love ballad as anything Chris Martin has ever written. Musically, I didn't think it quite reached those heights. Ive attempted to bridge that gap here, and I have to say that this is possibly my favorite song off the entire project.

Y3 Low - This is another song that I really didn't get into that much at first, though it has grown on me, especially after I heard Brian Eno played synth on it...This one I changed up quite a bit. In some ways, Ive come to appreciate the songs I wasn't as into as much, even more-so than my favorite songs, because they enabled me to have more freedom to explore, whereas with the songs I really liked, I felt more constrained to get them right and do them justice.

Y4 The Hardest Part - This was actually the first complete song I finished on Pro Tools, and fortunately my naivete paid off well. I always heard a country song inside this tune, and since I grew up in the South, this arrangement came very naturally to me. This is one of the simplest songs on the entire project, and its one of the most enjoyable to listen to.

Y5 Swallowed in the Sea - Ok, Ill admit - This is not only my favorite song off this album; its my favorite Coldplay song, period. To me, it is a perfect pop song. I would be ecstatic to write a song even half as good as this. Obviously, I wanted to make my version something special. So I came up with something I like to call a "Symphony of voices." This is the last song I recorded for this project, and I'm still debating whether or not its good enough. I agonized over it, but as of now, I believe this is the best I can do.

Y6 Twisted Logic - The most psychedelic song Coldplay has ever done, and so obviously I tried to make it even more psychedelic. This is where the Meddle-era Pink Floyd influence comes in. Aside from "Speed of Sound," I am probably most proud of this song, from a production standpoint.

Y7 Til Kingdom Come/Long Black Veil - This was a "hidden" track on the record, though it quickly became a fan favorite, and understandably so. The band wrote this song for Johnny Cash, but unfortunately he passed before he was able to record it. Thus, they decided to do the tune themselves, and its a great song. For my own interpretation, I decided that instead of going even further into the Cash/Country direction (which most people would expect me to do) that I would rework the tune in more of a pop, and thus, more of a Coldplay direction. I still wanted to pay tribute to Cash, though. When I saw the band live, they worked "Ring of Fire" into this song. While I love that song, I thought a more appropriate tune, both lyrically and musically, was a song that Johnny made famous in the 60's, called "Long Black Veil." This was an easy choice, as its a tune Ive played many times, mostly notable with the aforementioned Nick and TJ, when we played this a few weeks after Johnny died live in Nashville, at the Gibson Café. It was quite an emotional experience, and it insured that this song would always have a permanent place in my heart. In a way, these 2 songs combined bring everything full circle to me. It bridges a gap not only between Tennessee and New York City, but between my musical influences, almost all of which have come either from the American South or the United Kingdom, and more specifically, that sleepy London town...

A final note on this project...

As I stated above, this started out as an experiment in song interpretation. Then, it became an experiment in recording and production. Somewhere along the line, though, it became more than both of those. It took on a life of its own, and became a quest for originality, for style, for uniqueness, for greatness...Whether any of those objectives has been achieved is up to the listener. I know some people will question (or have questioned) the point of doing this at all. After all, it seems kind of absurd to spend all this time and expend all this energy and emotion on songs that someone else has written. I refuse to think of it that way. I firmly believe that going through all of this will benefit me immeasurably in the future when I do resume recording my own material. I know this because it already has benefited me beyond any expectations I could have had when I started this project. Music is slowly but surely drifting towards mediocrity. It is becoming more and more like any other commodity that people use for their own purposes and then discard. Precious are the few remaining artists who would dare fly in the face of this trend and attempt do to something truly artistic; something truly great. Coldplay, like them or not, are one of those artists. I hope to join them. This is my opening salvo. Hope ya like it.

A thank-you note...

I have to thank the Almighty God, my parents - Sam and Sheriann Swan, Rob Khozouri (your help was, and is, priceless), my neighbors (you moved out - I win!), Cookie, Rendawg, all girls with blonde hair, the writer, director and cast of The Misfits, and Chris Martin, Jon Buckland, Will Champion, and Guy Berryman, for the inspiration...

credits

released August 8, 2006

Nick Swan - all instruments, programming

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Nick Swan Nashville, Tennessee

I play guitar. And sing. And write songs. And drink. And swim. Like a swan.

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