Song of the Week: Sandbox

Our Cereal Killers celebration continues with “Sandbox,” one of the songs on the disc that earned cries of “overproduced,” even though all the bells and whistles were put on there at the band’s insistence and, in a few cases, over producer Paul Fox’s strenuous objections.

This was one of the hardest to nail down during the couple weeks of pre-production in L.A. during which we played each song live for Paul over and over again, finalizing the arrangements. I remember Paul telling Jay the guitar part should sound like an Al Green number, and Jay’s repeated inability to mimic Teenie Hodges was a source of much frustration. All of which may explain why the song never made into the set on tour.

But I adored the finished product, and still do, as all the accoutrements — those horns, the effects on the harmonies, that odd guitar broing! in the “where is the sun?” bit — are exactly what major label production budgets are for, as far as I’m concerned. Plus, I love any excuse to attempt a falsetto.

Lyrically, the song owes a huge debt to Paul Quarrington’s novel, Whale Music, which itself owes a huge debt to the life of Brian Wilson. I can’t recommend the book highly enough: it’s funny and sad and incredibly wise about the creative process and what happens when it runs headlong into business concerns and an audience’s expectations.

I hadn’t encountered any of that, myself, but the mere act of Christmas shopping in a mall was giving me an existential crisis, so I found myself wishing I had a better excuse to go crazy.

UPDATE:  Drummer Tommy Vinton just sent along his own memories of this one.

I was definitely the “anti-production purist” in the band. Give me raw drums, guitar, bass, vocals, and I’m a happy camper. Enter Sandbox. Not the Metallica song, but the TMJ song. I remember having to go back and forth between LA and New York to play cop in the Bronx, all while the CK recording process was going on. Each time I would return to LA to continue recording, it seemed “Sandbox” was growing producer tentacles. Horns, bells, whistles, keyboards…you name it! Being the purist I am, I suggested (it might have been Sandy and I that suggested) we do this off-tempo breakdown part in the middle. It was a cool 3/4 to 4/4 time signature, back to 3/4 and 4/4 and so on (a half-assed attempt at trying to be like Rush). Nothing that complicated, but complicated enough to cast doubts in the mind of our producer Paul Fox as to whether or not it should be part of the song. Paul reluctantly agreed to the part, and it soon became this part of the song where Sandy and I, drums and bass, stood alone for a few seconds, away from all the crazy other production going on in the song. That, mixed with all the other cool stuff going on made me like the song. A lot.

2 Responses to “Song of the Week: Sandbox”

  1. NYC musician Says:

    Long time TMJ listener here. “Sandbox” was never among my favorites on Cereal Killers (though I did not dislike it per se). I actually may come down on the side that the song was not produced enough – or at least, it needed a re-working in some fashion. But for two decades, I could never put my finger on what the song was missing, musically or production-wise. Until about six months ago.

    I was standing at the 125th street station listening to Cereal Killers on my phone. I was trying to drown out the street performers playing bongos by listening to a little TMJ. But I nevertheless could just faintly hear the percussion in the background, even as I blasted the album’s classics such as “King of Beers.”

    Then the strangest thing happened – “Sandbox” came on in my headphones. And, juxtaposed with the subway bongos – IT SOUNDED AWESOME. The percussion gave the stanzas that little kick that it needed. It even brought out the chorus to some degree.

    So that, in my humble opinion, is what would have improved the song “Sandbox”: Bongos and congas. You can even test it for yourself – just play the track “Sandbox” concurrently with a solo percussion track, and see how it sounds.

    This is not the best recreation/mashup of what I heard months back (in light of the serendipitous union of timing between what I heard in my headphones and what was played on the subway platform), but it might give you an idea. Play both of these links simultaneously, and adjust your volume control accordingly:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9W9BvRNud4
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6d2dd3HHoXA

    Post script: This Reply is not meant to take away from Tommy Vinton’s performance on the song. Furthermore, I happen to think that the album Cereal Killers features some of his finest playing, and that the sound and feel of songs like “Pirate” and “Pride” would have suffered without him behind the kit. My comment is really more of a footnotewith regard to the production/approach on “Sandbox”…

  2. splashsaturn Says:

    Pulled up both links and played them together. I now have a headache, my ears are ringing, I feel miserable and I am REALLY craving a bag of Doritos…

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