Surprising quality

PIOP! Say it a few times. Sling that diphthong around like a tether ball one orbit from the top of the post. Make it home in one syllable, if you can. Shoot it with a downward pitch glide through a high pressure, double-reed embouchure, like spitballs through a straw. Try it backwards, too. There’s mouth fun to be had there as well.

You have now successfully passed 17 or 23 seconds of Quarantine Day fifty-what? Is it, perhaps, cocktail time?

It’s an acronym, silly: Pass It on Project, and for me it has been one the sunniest and most productive redemptions in this the age of plague.  Suggested by the drummer and songwriter Sammi Niss, PIOP is a collaborative songwriting and recording process that has filled the last month with challenge and reward and that has yielded, to date, upwards of twelve songs of surprising quality, and of unsurprising, attention-deficient diversity.


The cast is six musicians that together in various alignments represent near total membership of four well-known Hudson Valley bands — Battle Ave., American Film History, Hiding Behind Sound and Peter Naddeo — and nearly the complete roster of SubFamily Records, a micro-collective of bands and record makers we all founded a couple of years back.

The premise is simple. Someone records a riff, a fragment or in a few cases a demo of a whole song. Availing themselves of an online randomizer, they pick the next person in line, and the file moves from one bedroom studio to another. Sometimes the next person does something obvious like a bass line or a solo. Other times, it’s a whole micro-choir arrangement or a complete electro-meltdown that the poor saps downstream will have to make sense of.

The wheel spins again, and on it goes. Frank McGinnis maintains an online spreadsheet that tracks the progress of each “seed,” as we call them.

After the sixth person has had their say, the invariably chaotic project heads home to its originator for mixing and sense-making, though the ownership and right-to-mix can be murky, disputed and contentious, even, and that is part of the fun.

The joys and surprises are exactly as you’d expect — songs that seem to be one thing and headed one way transforming into something radically otherwise; even more, a writing personality that sounds maybe a little like each of us but not a lot like any of us—a new self in which we are all kind of equally powerless. A life of its own!

Hey! Want to check out a few? Here’s two examples that sit nicely together but came about in opposite ways

I offer:

1. “CompliKate”

A seed I started as complete song demo and that progressed entirely as the song would have wanted, if a song could have wishes and aspirations and dreams for its future and its children. Voila, out the other end pops a cheeky midtempo rock track I am hardly embarrassed to call one-sixth mine.

2. “You & the Government”

A kind of miracle of self-forming rock, started by Sammi as a T-Rex inspired riff, picking up wicked dual and dueling lead guitars from Adam and Jesse, a spot-on period drum track from Peter and a thumping pop bassline from Frank before dropping in my lap, the sixth lap. I wrote some lyrics — what else could I do? —  that I cannot explain, did a vocal part that surprises me still with its lecherous and really unattractive personality, and there it is. Unlike “CompliKate,” this is a track that none of us would ever have had a chance of writing on our own.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.