The story of Daily Thumbprint Collection 3, The Wandering

Twelve years ago, I released my debut solo-project, Daily Thumbprint Collection. I handled the whole process: writing a complete album, tracking all the parts, mixing and mastering, artwork, package design, and even distribution using my own independent record label. It wasn’t without flaws, but I learned an incredible amount about making an album from scratch.

During the process, I became inspired to make something bigger, louder, and much better. The skills I was picking up could be used at a much larger scale. More than a decade later, this is that follow-up album.

June 9th, 2020, Daily Thumbprint Collection 3, The Wandering was released on Orenda Records. It’s currently available in digital formats only. The best place to buy is Bandcamp.com; you can also find it and subscribe to my artist pages in all major streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, and more.

In 2008, I had an idea to create a large-ensemble album that would include musician-friends from across the country, unconstrained by distance. I wanted to include people from Los Angeles, Nashville, Reno, and New York. Not everyone in these pockets of musicians knew each other. I had met them over the course of several years through school, gigs and touring, or through recording projects. It would never be a real band because they all lived in different cities, but it could be my “imaginary band.”

What I did not comprehend back then was that making this album would document — in numerous ways — a snapshot of my life and the journey through the next decade.

2010 — Caleb Dolister recording with Dan Rosenboom Septet in Los Angeles

In the project’s early stages, I was living in Nashville, Tennessee, and touring and performing with a number of bands and projects across the country. I was traveling around 150 days a year and performing many different kinds of music. I was part of a spontaneous/improvised metal quintet in Los Angeles called DR. MiNT; I was touring the jam band festival circuit with a band from Reno, NV named Sol’Jibe; I was doing sessions and playing every gig I could around Nashville; and I was backing a number of creative projects that had launched on my small independent label, SNP Records.

My downtime was spent writing music on my laptop and recording using a cheap interface. This was the setup that opened a path to making my debut self-titled solo album Daily Thumbprint Collection. Musically, it was an exploration into electronic ideas sequenced in midi, and to provide a dynamic feel, I recorded live rock drums on each track. I still enjoy listening to it today.

Daily Thumbprint Collection, self-titled 2008

What makes the album important today is that it sparked a creative inspiration to do something bigger. The album lacked live instruments aside from drums, and that’s what founded the idea for my “imaginary” band.

Another inspiration was the Norwegian group Jaga Jazzist. In 2005, they released an album titled What We Must, which had a vast range of instrumentation, a rock-feel, and modern sophistication. It’s a great album and fueled the idea that if I could make a strange combination of midi instruments sound cool in my writing software, it would work even better when replaced with recordings of living and breathing musicians.

By the fall of 2008, I had already started working on a number of song ideas and I estimated that it would take 1–2 years to write a few more, and another 1–2 years to travel around and track the players.

I had a general sound in mind that was driven, rooted in progressive odd-meter rock, powered by strong rhythms and heavily distorted guitars, and then used orchestral instruments like strings and horns to convey a sense of space. And ironically as a drummer, I really did not want the album to be a drum-feature. At the most, there would be a few sections to setup with larger fills, but primarily I wanted the drums to play the important role of making the hundreds of parts sound intentional… but with a closer listen they would reveal that the music is more tricky and sneaky than it first came across. I also didn’t stop my imagination. If I heard an instrument like harp or tuba in a section, I would write for it, even though I didn’t initially know players for those instruments at that time. I ended up writing enough parts to require a small orchestra. By 2009, I had enough material completed to reach out to musicians and start recording.

Today, I understand that the soul of this album really was the journey, which would span for years while I traveled to record, revise, record again... and so forth. It was never intended to be the kind of recording project where I would record all in one place because I had to travel to so many places. I knew I would bring the studio to each musician.

I built a mobile rig using my laptop, upgraded to a 16 channel interface, a couple of mic stands, and a handful of mics that I had inherited. It was just small enough that I could carry it in one trip through an airport, or up a couple of flights of stairs.

The very first recorded parts were in Los Angeles to record some horn parts. A month or two later, I spent a week in San Francisco working on strings and brass parts. It was shocking how much the compositions changed once the real instruments were involved.

I found that had to adjust some of the parts because of this and specifically I had to redo my “scratch” drum parts. Sloppy drums make midi sound great… but they also make it hard for live musicians to feel downbeats together. I revised my parts, revised the charts, and eventually learned that I needed to create new “mixes” for each musician that was going to track. The horn players needed to hear certain parts and melodies prominently in order to sit in the right pocket… whereas the guitar sessions benefited from a mix without horn parts or melodies.

Over the next couple of years, I spent time revising the project after each recording session and then heading back out to track again and again. I returned to Los Angeles several times. I recorded musicians in Santa Cruz, Nashville, Reno, and finally, recorded the last notes in New York City in late 2012. I had flown several times in airplanes with my heavy interface carried by hand through airports. I drove thousands of miles. During one of my trips, I not only survived a major car accident but also avoided damage to my drums and all of the recording equipment, including the laptop with years of work on this project and the hard drive with all the backups. I still remember the smell of musty car-fire and smoke in the air while I pulled everything from the wreckage of my totaled SUV, just wondering if all of it was lost. I tracked musicians in storage units, college offices, bedrooms, living rooms, at home studios, and thankfully only once in a woodshop warehouse where I had to set up my recording interface and laptop on a giant table saw. Every part on this album has a memory of traveling, a connection to a person, and a time and place in my life.

Thanks to my wild imagination, I ended up recording instruments that I had no previous experience with, clumsily placing multiple microphones all around the instrument or room in the hopes that one of them would provide a usable source. My charts often had mistakes because of my unfamiliarity with how the instruments worked. Graciously, the musicians were able to read through the lines and helped me every step of the way. I recorded my drum parts 4–5 times. I scrapped songs that were not working and wrote new ones (it’s amazing how a composition will continuously change after each instrument is added). I chopped arrangements in half, throwing out months of work at a time, only to dig out little snippets from my archives years later.

I began 2013 with thousands of takes to edit between all the parts and instruments in each song. And because I had been making different mixes for each session, it wasn’t even clear what was correct anymore. The original composition was absolutely modified, and the new task would be sifting through everything to find the best version of the new song they had become.

By that point, I was living in New York in a small apartment and touring frequently again with a new project, a post-jazz group called The Kandinsky Effect, based in Paris and New York. Whenever I could set aside time to mix, I would continuously discover the hard way that some of the sources were not as clean as I thought. Sometimes I could hear talking, coughing, or police sirens in the background. It became a behemoth to edit and mix. I mixed it to near completion multiple times and would burn out, eventually coming back to start it all over again.

In 2014, I took a hiatus from the project to write and release a separate EP that I called Daily Thumbprint Collection 2, Stencils (SNP Records, 2015). Spending time focusing on another project was useful, and in a funny way, I think it cleaned my ears.

Caleb Dolister — Daily Thumbprint Collection 2, Stencils (2o15)

I was finally able to refocus on mixing the project and finished in late 2018. It was mastered in June 2019. Since then, I worked on music videos, artwork, and put my plan into place to share the album with the world in 2020.

Performing in Slovenia, 2018, with The Kandinsky Effect | www.thekandinskyeffect.com

All of that said, I couldn’t be more proud of how this project turned out. I also could not be more thankful to all the musicians for their contributions. Without them, this album would be stuck in my imagination.

Today, listening to the album reminds me that more than a decade has passed. I still feel like it’s just a recent memory to sit in my old backyard and imagine how it would sound in its completion. In some ways, it feels a little ironic to present this body of work to the world as “new”, but it kind of feels new to me, again.

Ten years ago, it was a simple idea to jump in my car with a bunch of gear, drive hundreds of miles, sleep on the floor, and wake up the following morning ready to spend the day collaborating with a musician face to face. But things have changed since 2008; in recent years, more and more musicians have learned how to record themselves at home. Sending large session files over the internet works great. And now in the summer of 2020, as the world adapts to life after a global viral pandemic, the same journey would not be possible at all. No musician could responsibly invite me in as a wandering composer to record in their homes and sleep on their floors. Knowing that I physically could not make this album the same way today makes the journey so much more impactful.

It took a decade to make this album. I hope you enjoy Daily Thumbprint Collection 3, The Wandering.