by: Mr. C (@wmchammer33)
If there is a song in the Phish lexicon that might sum them up best, it’s Chalk Dust Torture. Big rock chords with a definable groove, strange lyrics and an endless opportunity for improvisation, this song has it all. “Can’t this wait till I’m old, can’t I live while I'm young” indeed. Yet the studio version of this defining classic has always left some mystery, in particular, Trey's vocals. This anomaly has been puzzling to our community for decades.
I decided to dig deep and find the answers. There are no third party versions here. I went right to the source. We needed to talk to sound experts and people who were in the room and we managed to do both.
Here is the definitive answer to the question: What is up with Treys vocals on the studio version of Chalk Dust Torture?
In 1991, Phish signed with Elektra Records, inking their first major label deal. The band was looking to bring in an outside producer to collaborate with and the name Kevin Halpin came up. Kevin had an assistant named Jon Altschiller. Jon was a big Phish fan and, hoping to get
Kevin to share his enthusiasm for the project, gave him a cassette.
Kevin wasn't interested. He balked at producing a jam band, being more of a Bowie or XTC guy. Altschiller tried one last ploy, doing what every Phish fan does, he said, “You have to go to a show!” They did for Phish’s first appearance at the storied Capitol Theatre in Port Chester NY, and that, like it has done for so many of us, sealed the deal.
The live show Halpin saw was a “whole ‘nother thing.” They met the band backstage at the show that night. They became fast friends and Halpin agreed to do the record. Shortly after, he and Altshiller drove to Burlington Vermont’s White Crow Studios to begin recording Picture of Nectar.
Recording took 3 months to complete. Anticipation among Phish fans was at a fever pitch, but they would have to wait another 6 months before it would debut. February 1992 finally saw the release of Picture of Nectar and its 13th track Chalk Dust Torture. Fans were happily listening to this new album until the familiar chords of Chalk Dust came on and the vocals kicked in.
Wait. What? What is going on? Who is singing? Is it Trey? If it is, did he just roll out of bed? Or was it something more illicit, like Trey enjoying a balloon (not the birthday kind)? There has never been a definitive answer, so Wook+ decided to look into these theories and rumors to find the truth.
My first step was to go to the source. I emailed Kevin Halpin and he graciously allowed Wook+ behind the curtain into that recording 28 years ago.
So - Chalkdust Torture vocals.
Again, I never heard any of these songs before we recorded them. Well - they probably played some of ‘em the one time I saw them at the Capitol Theater, but I didn’t remember them. Trey sang a scratch vocal as we ran it down, and the first few lines of the song made me think of a monster or maybe something like the Hunchback of Notre Dame … that was my first impression.
Come stumble my mirth beaten worker
I'm Jezmund the family Berzerker
I'm bought for the price of a flagon of rice
The wind buffs the cabin
You speak of your life
Or more willingly Locust the Lurker
I immediately thought we should do something to the vocal to convey that. I came up with the idea of making Trey’s vocal sound “berzerker-ish. I decided to pitch his voice lower. There was a piece of equipment called an Eventide Harmonizer that we could have used to do that while we mixed… if we had access to one. We didn’t.
So, the other way to do it is to run the tape machine faster while recording Trey’s vocal and when you played it back, it would sound effected and weirdly deeper. And - you were locked into it as it was printed to the multitrack. We probably did a couple of tests and decided on just the right pitch … and went with it. We LOVED the sound of it - it was so different.
Now - If I could have recorded it so that the affected vocal would be on one track and the regular speed vocal would be on another track… I probably would have done that. But being we were recording to tape, if I recorded with the machine running fast, everything recorded during that pass would be pitched down - so there would be no "regular" vocal.
Nowadays with Pro Tools, you could easily have one track normal and another track “slowed down” with various plug-ins. That would have been ideal. But as I said, that option wasn’t available … and to tell the truth, I was so thrilled at the idea of that “sound” and that the band dug it, that’s what we are gonna go with anyway.
I believe I did ask Trey if he wanted to sing a track at regular speed so it wouldn’t be effected, but he wasn’t interested in it either. He was really into the altered sound of his voice. Almost 30 years later, I wonder how he feels about it. I think this was the last song we recorded. I thought it was definitely their most commercial song on the album. If we had done it first, I probably would have thought the entire album would be like that… it wasn’t..
I’m not quite sure how the band feels about this record. I know they were happy with the result at the time.
Interesting. So a first hand account from the man who made that seminal record, Kevin Halpin, seems to eliminate a lot of the questions.
We decided to send this to the Wook+ Sound Laboratory to see if our resident sound engineer, The World's Greatest Chad, could help us learn more.
So lets recap...
Question 1: Is it even Trey singing Chalk Dust Torture?
Yes. It is most definitely Trey singing, he is just pitched lower.
Question 2: Was Trey sleepy?
Trey has told this story in the past, but as is often the case, it's a misdirection. He might have been sleepy, but that's not why it sounds that way.
Question 3: Was nitrous used to create the sound?
So the mystery is solved and can be put to bed. Some inventive studio work from a talented producer and a band willing to play along. They went for the “berzerker” sound and nailed it.
We will have more from our interview with Kevin Halpin, including insights into the recording of the studio version of Tweezer, and more in depth details about Picture Of Nectar and Rift.
Stay tuned to the Wook Blog for more.