The White Birch, ca. 1899
Stephen Immerwahr: I first saw Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s The White Birch in 1990 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and loved it immediately. The two female figures float silently in a violent blue-green cloud and they seem overcome, lost. This reserved and stylized depiction of nature and oblivion was my kind of thing, and when it was time for the second Codeine record, I knew this was a perfect fit with our aesthetic and a perfect album title, too. In April of 1992, I wrote to the painting’s owner, Detroit industrialist Richard Manoogian, asking for permission to use it and if they would sell us a photo negative. My very earnest fax described our music as “sensitive and sincere.” Without revealing our band’s name, I assured him that “we do not promote the use of drugs, sexism, or violence.” Vera E. Novak replied to tell me that Joan Barnes would present my request to Mr. Manoogian personally and that they would respond at a later date.
Codeine, June 1990 – May 1992
John Engle: When we recorded Frigid Stars LP, we had only played together a handful of times. Aside from an initial show the previous summer, we had played live once, and had perhaps ten practices. We recorded in our producer Mike McMackin’s ground floor apartment in Brooklyn over two weekends—side one in June and side two in August. It was all very new to us and was completed very quickly, and we were a bit surprised to hold an album in our hands a few months later. It was 33 minutes long and a step in a direction that was headed somewhere different.
SI: In the two years since Frigid Stars LP, my perception of what it meant to be in a band and make band music had expanded entirely. We had released a record on the coolest label possible (Sub Pop) and people liked us; we started opening for up-and-coming big-timey bands like The Smashing Pumpkins. Sebadoh III and Spiderland had come out, we’d played shows with Seam and toured Europe with Bastro, and I’d listened to a lot more music.
At the very end of May 1992, Chris came down from Boston for us to rehearse and then record The White Birch. When we recorded with Mike in 1990, he made it sound professional. Now I wanted us to play at a professional level, too, and I quit my data entry job to do Codeine full-time.
Chris Brokaw: We tried rehearsing with a click track and I immediately protested, arguing that the songs and the tempos had to breathe. I think I was right. Steve felt that our first album was marked with flaws, which I could hear too, and he wanted something more perfect.
Harold Dessau Recording, June 1992
CB: Dessau was in a part of town I didn’t know, the space felt airy and fresh, the possibilities seemed good. Pat Place’s Fender Super Reverb was there; I was seeing stars. Steve began on the first day in the studio by pulling a mango from a paper bag and declaring “and now, we eat...the ceremonial mango!” He cut it open on newspaper spread on the studio floor, and the inside was rotten, inedible. It felt a little like a curse.
SI: We ended up at Harold Dessau Recording because Mike knew the place. It had natural light and weird angles, and we could record on a 2” 16-track machine. Things started strong. Mike got great sounds, and Chris’s drums and drumming went down great too, e.g., the pounding tom-toms on “Jr,” the gentle swing of “Something New,” and his delicate snare rolls on “Smoking Room.” John’s clean guitar, which starts out half the songs here, was translucent and beautiful, the cool liquid alternating with his fire on the four songs where Chris also added guitar.
JE: The songs on The White Birch were slower, longer, deeper. More monolithic, more deliberate, more desolate. The pulse of the songs was harder to find and playing at that pace is, well, less forgiving. Sometimes it felt like whatever we were playing might collapse in the space between notes. Beginning with “Sea,” we played just enough to propel us forward. By the time we made it to “Smoking Room,” there was just enough to sustain it until the whole thing froze over.
CB: Drummer’s note: this is the only time in my life when I tuned my drums to specific notes, and I did it mostly for the song “Sea.” I tuned the rack tom to D and the floor tom to A—kind of the opposite of what you’d think it should be, i.e., with the bigger and boomier drum holding the lower bass note—and I thought it sounded fantastic on “Sea,” fine on everything else. I only did this for a few months and never since.
SI: Then it was time for the real vocals, just me and Mike. And when we listened back, I heard high-pitched, radio frequency-like noises on all my vocal tracks. That no one else could hear them—including Mike—did not make me doubt that they were there. I was also becoming upset that our performances were not as tight and consistent as I wanted them to be. I felt a deep, sickening fear that what I wanted us to achieve was beyond our reach. Mike made semi-final mixes of everything. At that point, I was too distraught to continue.
JE: When Steve told us he didn’t want to release what we had done, it was quite a surprise. Questions along the lines of “What are you hearing? What are you thinking? What’s going on in there?” We were not responded to with much directness. But ultimately Steve answered, “If this is the last album we ever put out, I don’t want it to be this.” So we left it at that. But it’s funny how things work out.
CB: Steve’s shelving of this recording was crushing to me. I was really disappointed. I felt like we’d moved forward a lot from Frigid Stars LP and were on the verge of something greater, more beautiful, more wondrous, more harrowing. At the time at least, Steve seemed, besides the high-pitched noises he was hearing, most unhappy with the vocals, which I felt he could have redone to his satisfaction in an afternoon.
Barely Real, July 1992
SI: We were now running out of both money and time. We’d spent the advance from Sub Pop to do a Singles Club 7” but we all agreed that the first recordings of “Realize” and “Jr,” done at Toxic Shock, weren’t what we wanted. Now, despite a week of non-stop practice (very little for most bands, but a lot for us because Chris lived in Boston) in a rehearsal studio (not free) and spending four days with Mike (not cheap) in a nice studio at daytime rates (also not cheap), I was dissatisfied with the results and we’d spent most of our advance for the album. It was June and we also absolutely had to have a record done for the European tour that was already booked for the late fall.
Our solution was to return to 8-track, thinking we would record everything on our own with me helping to engineer, and then maybe mix with Mike. Chris went home to Cambridge for a couple weeks and then came back down for more rehearsal. In July, we played our last two shows with him, first CBGB and then up at The Middle East in Cambridge. The next day, we went to a small, just-opened studio in Allston to record third versions of “Realize” and “Jr,” a second attempt at “Tom,” and a new song: “Barely Real.”
CB: We finished our last show at CBGB with me in the band with a version of “Smoking Room” that ended with a kind of suggestion of a jazz path. More so even than the Mitch Mitchell stuff I’d insinuated in “Pickup Song.” Alan Licht and Dean Wareham were there and we discussed it afterwards; they know what I’m talking about. Codeine got very specific and pretty regimented with that. But even as I left, there were new and maybe random possibilities.
SI: Around this time, we received a “No” from the office of Mr. Manoogian about the painting. We ended up assembling a wide variety of recordings into an EP, came up with new cover art lifted from a blue-green postcard of Belvedere Castle in Vienna, used the title Barely Real, and just got on with it. Chris left to play full-time in Come, our EP did very well when it came out, and Josh Madell played drums for the European tour and was a delight. Then fortune gave us Doug Scharin, with whom we successfully recorded The White Birch more than a year later, including four of the songs first attempted at Dessau. Due to technical problems, we also recorded and abandoned most of that record the first time, too.
CB: I was probably going to leave Codeine anyway to focus on my band Come; I didn’t feel like it was fair to either band to be in both, given all the touring commitments. But the scrapping of these recordings definitely pushed my hand, or I should say my level of frustration colored how I moved forward. I knew these recordings were good.
Unearthed by Numero Group
SI: We didn’t listen to the Dessau tapes for thirty years, other than briefly in 2012 when Numero Group reissued our three records, each with an accompanying LP of related recordings, including four of these songs. As Sub Pop championed Codeine in the 1990s, Numero Group has championed us in the 2010s and 2020s, and I’m very glad that Ken Shipley and Rob Sevier at Numero went back and dug these DATs out.
CB: I think the Dessau sessions contain some of our best performances committed to tape. We’d worked hard at it and I think we got at several of the things we were trying to do, many of which I think people understood without necessarily being able to verbalize.
SI: To me, the recordings we made at Harold Dessau Recording are not The White Birch, which is Sub Pop SP166. But listening now, I am far less bothered by any real or imaginary shortcomings in performance, and I am instead much more pleased and excited by its charms, including, by contrast, the different ways that Chris, and later Doug, applied their skills to these songs. I hope you feel the same way, and I thank you for listening.
CB: John and Steve both stopped recording and touring after Codeine, while I have continued with various projects. I’ve been complimented many times in many parts of the world over the years on the album The White Birch. Usually I say, “Thank you,” sometimes I say, “Thank you, though I didn’t play on that record,” and very occasionally I say, “Thank you, but that’s not the real White Birch. The real White Birch was recorded at Harold Dessau in New York City in 1992.” There’s a lot to explain.
Chris Brokaw: drums & guitar
John Engle: guitar
Stephen Immerwahr: bass & singing
Produced by Codeine & Mike McMackin. Recorded by McMackin at Harold Dessau Recording, 25 Murray Street, New York, NY, June 1992. Additional engineering & mix on Realize by Chris D. Butler at Newtown Recording, Brooklyn, NY, September 2021. Mastered by Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice at Peerless Mastering, Boston, MA, December 2021. Codeine thank: Keith Hutchins for perspective, Octopoda for support, and Multi-Platinum.
Band photograph ca. 1992 by Mike Galinsky.
Cover front: The White Birch (detail), ca. 1899 by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 43" x 54".