Subliminal Bile (2001)
we became a proper four-piece on A ROOMFUL OF SEXINESS only to watch things shift once again as andrew moved to welland, we were whittled down to a three-piece, and something really clicked in a way it never had before.
it didn’t hurt that i was in the middle of a tumultuous long-distance “relationship”, which appeared to have just ended after threatening to actually turn into something tangible, and working as a telemarketer, both at the same time. i had only been doing the job for a few weeks at this point, and it was my first job out of high school, so it was still sort of exciting in a weird way, but it was also a bit like entering a bizarro universe for nine hours everyday, populated with people who weren’t all quite normal. those two things informed the music to such an extent that my working title for this album was “sex and telemarketing”. fortunately, good taste prevailed and i came up with something more appropriate.
the title SUBLIMINAL BILE is basically a response to (and an acknowledgement of) some things tyson had said. we had a lot of long conversations about all kinds of things at the time, sort of a getting-to-know-one-another-more-intimately process of philosophizing and throwing ideas around while we were becoming closer friends and more of a real band, and many of the conversations took place out on my side porch while he was smoking a cigarette. when i mentioned that this was some of the most intense music i had ever made, tyson was puzzled, because for him our music was relaxing. i guess next to the music he was making with fetal pulp and ADHD it would be a bit like floating on a serene ocean. but for me there wasn’t anything relaxing about it most of the time.
i explained that it was emotional intensity i was talking about — what i was singing about, and where it was coming from. for him, the music was probably relaxing because he wasn’t the one singing and he wasn’t putting his guts into it, but for me it was a sudden explosion of pent-up frustration. it was also the most desperate — and honest — music i had ever made in my life up to this point. i’d never allowed myself to be this exposed in my music before.
so the album title nods to the idea that, while the songs may be unpleasant and autobiographical for me, it doesn’t necessarily mean other people will pick up on it. i wasn’t in a great place emotionally at the time, and i decided to stop role-playing and start singing about what i was really feeling and thinking — not something i had been doing much of in the music i’d been making over the past few years. instead of trying on different characters and voices, i was singing as myself for the first time in a long time, and in a way i never had before.
i also started using the guitar and the voice as a means of expressing my feelings, instead of attempting to produce pleasing or interesting sounds. i wanted to make the music feel my pain. at the end of voyeur in particular, i just took out all of my anger on the guitar without any thought given to what i was actually playing. i felt a little like i was possessed. it was unnerving and exciting at the same time.
while i was working out the anger and bitterness, a whole lot of sex talk came falling out as well. what had been little more than silliness on A ROOMFUL OF SEXINESS, where i was trying on the clothes just to see how they fit, now had more of an edge to it. some of it doesn’t sound far off from misogyny, though i’ve never come anywhere near being a misogynist even at my angriest moments…this was just how my frustration ended up expressing itself. i was pretty sure i would never get to experience sex without having to pay a prostitute, and i figured if i couldn’t have it, at least i could sing about it. the vitriol and disappointment over feeling chronically led-on only to get the old bait-and-switch, along with being a sexually frustrated teenager (and part of a group of slightly less sexually frustrated teenagers), all got mixed together, and i saw no sense in editing myself. there were also some darker thoughts at play (made most explicit in dance on my brain), but it would take a few more albums before they really boiled to the surface.
a few of the songs were originally intended for a solo album of mine that didn’t happen, even though they were generally just sketches i hadn’t finished yet (voyeur and nicotine & beer only had about one verse apiece). i would have got around to recording the songs on my own eventually, but as soon as i realized how well we were playing off of one another, i stopped thinking about recording any of this stuff by myself and just hit the record button and improvised the songs into a state of completion with gord and tyson. until you lose had originally been written as an acoustic ballad but was soon transformed into something a good deal more aggressive, which was a much more accurate reflection of where my head was at. the words hadn’t meant anything when i wrote them, but now i found i could inject them with genuine feeling, particularly when it came to the chorus of “you can’t say goodbye”.
while the three of us had only played together once in the past five months (there was one very casual jam session in the summer where we tried messing around for the first time as the trio we had unexpectedly become, and that was it), it was almost as if we had been unconsciously wood-shedding the whole time. we had never been anywhere near this tight before. maybe breaking things down to the basic guitar/bass/drums setup forced us to realize our true potential as a band. it felt like we were somehow stronger now that we were less than we had been before, and there was more space for all of us to work with.
tyson’s drumming became a lot more creative and unpredictable, and gord’s bass-playing was all over the place, at once providing the low end and throwing in unexpected melodic jabs. for my part, i played guitar better than i ever had before by quite some distance, and the singing was some of my most committed vocal work in a long time. none of us could really believe this stuff was coming out of us. after we finished playing dance on my brain, tyson had a look about him like he had just emerged from a near-death experience. “i think we just became better musicians while we were playing that,” he said, mesmerized. for the first few minutes of the song, it didn’t feel to me like it was going anywhere, but 19 minutes later there was a visceral energy in the air, and it was electric.
the morning after the first session (from whence half of the songs came), i ran into tyson at the bus stop on my way to work and his way to school, and we both agreed the previous evening had produced some of the best music either one of us had ever been a part of. an oddly quiet moment passed between us where we both seemed to acknowledge the excitement and surprise of what was happening, but we were almost too in awe of it to be excited in an animated way. we didn’t know we could be this good, and we didn’t even put in any rehearsal time to make it happen. it just came out of nowhere.
suddenly tyson was interested in getting together a lot more frequently and started to think of our unit as more than just a fun side-project. for me, it was an strange time. at the same time i was striking out repeatedly with the opposite sex and longing for the intimacy it seemed i could never have, i had a real band to call my own that had finally figured out what it wanted to be. it was one of the greatest musical adventures of my life, and a much-needed cathartic playground at the same time. i also managed to get stoned on pot for the first time in my life right in the middle of it all, and found i enjoyed it more than i ever thought i would.
i had no idea what strangeness lay ahead.
i eschewed the “no overdubs” credo i had been maintaining through all of the GWD cds for practically the first time ever, when i overdubbed vocal harmonies for the “chorus” of voyeur. i didn’t intend to keep them, but once tyson heard what i had done he was adamant that the harmonies stay. he took it upon himself to talk me into adding harmonies to a few more songs, though i wasn’t sure they were a good idea at the end of ring around me, thinking they might take away from the nastiness of what i was saying. on charlatan shuffle i really wasn’t feeling it at all, so i gave the microphone to tyson and he overdubbed a bit of falsetto wailing himself — hence the “falsetto spine chorus” credit on the album sleeve.
so vocal overdubs were now allowed, but that was about it. the music would still generally be a “live”, unfiltered representation of exactly what we sounded like in the little music room playing together. there would be no supplementary instrumental parts added after the fact, and guitar solos would be limited to what i improvised in the moment, mistakes and all.
gord told me redound changed the way he played bass. it might have changed the way i played electric guitar, too. i felt it was easily the best guitar-playing i had ever managed up to that point. i’m not sure where it came from, because we were all just improvising as usual and i wasn’t working from any preconceived melodic ideas, but even gord and tyson were in awe, miming with their thumbs and saying, “how do you play that with your thumb?” i was surprised myself, since i thought they were both still far better guitarists than i was, and i certainly never expected to become the only guitarist in a band. and yet here i was.
having to fill in all that space with only a rhythm section to fall back on was a brand new thing for me, and it seemed to force me to become a better guitarist overnight. oddly enough, i never found it awkward to suddenly have to carry lead and rhythm duties, with no guitar overdubs to help me out. i kind of got off on the challenge.
dance on my brain and vicodin are the album’s epic centerpieces. it’s always felt to me like everything pivots around those tracks, which add up to more than half an hour of music just between the two of them. as i said, dance on my brain got off to a slow start, and i didn’t think it would amount to much. then i started talking about my new job, and talking about the girl my head was messed up about — just working out some thoughts instead of attempting to sing a song. as i dug deeper, the whole thing kept growing in intensity until i was snarling into the microphone in a more nakedly angry voice than anything i had ever dared to do on record before. gord and tyson were with me every step of the way, shifting repeatedly from one end of the dynamic spectrum to the other, and when it finally ended after almost 20 minutes and i was muttering “that was fucked up”, tyson had that awed look in his eyes that spoke for all of us. all at once, we had more or less discovered a whole new musical language for ourselves, without even meaning to.
vicodin is still one of my favourite things we ever did as a band, all these years later. everything comes full circle and all of the album’s themes meet head-on for one last psychotic hurrah. i somehow manage to work my entire telemarketing spiel into the song (in somewhat mutilated form), along with a dissection of an email the girl had sent me, and a whole bunch of other twisted shit. the sex talk is there as well, but twisted in a darker, stranger direction. there’s even a carpenters reference in there, of all things.
i once explained the meaning of the “ketchup/catch up” line to tyson (while it doesn’t appear to mean anything, it’s actually referring to about three different things at once), and he looked kind of surprised that there were so many ideas behind such a small, seemingly throwaway line. “there’s a lot of stuff that goes on in your brain,” he said to me. i guess he was right.
what’s funny is, tyson wanted to record a ballad to end the album, while i wanted to explore this evil, semi-dissonant arpeggio i had on the guitar instead. i can’t imagine what would have happened if i had yielded and tried to come up with something tender. i’m glad we got this instead of a ballad. i love the screams and random noise gord and tyson contribute throughout the song, and there are some uncanny moments of rhythm section telepathy between the two of them. one of my very favourite bits is the “argument” between gord and i, with him screaming into a kazoo and me acting out the part of a typical womanizing guy trying fruitlessly to have a conversation, while he plays the role of the woman. it’s music as performance art, sort of, and at the same time it’s just one small part of the epic insanity going on around it, but it fits in seamlessly.
nicotine & beer was one song i wasn’t so sure about. i wanted to keep it for the aforementioned (and soon-to-be abandoned) solo cd, because it seemed a bit too upbeat to fit in with the rest of the songs here. once i played part of it for gord and tyson, though, they wouldn’t let it back in the bag, and a band favourite was born. it’s probably the closest thing to a radio-friendly song on the cd, the talk of sex and vomiting notwithstanding.
the sound on this album, and on the subsequent GWD cds, is a pretty serious shift from anything i had done before. on most of the songs i slathered my voice in slap-echo and left myself somewhat buried in the mix, like another instrument. some of the inspiration came from john lennon, particularly from plastic ono band, which is still one of my favourite albums made by anyone. i loved that vocal sound, and the sound of the album in general. so raw and stripped down, but huge at the same time. it was probably the least spector-esque thing phil spector ever produced, and yet it made sense somehow.
i wasn’t much of a producer at the time, though, and i’m still not. so instead of spending a lot of time trying to get a specific drum sound, or a specific anything, i just set things up quickly in a way that seemed to make sense with the equipment i had, and off we went. the main reason i mixed my voice so low was because half the time i didn’t really like my voice all that much. the drum sound was a definite improvement over A ROOMFUL OF SEXINESS, with two mics on the kit this time instead of one, the kick drum mic picking up some of the snap from the snare and the lone overhead mic aimed at tyson’s crotch. that seemed to be the sweet spot. those two SM57s were all i would use to record drums for the next eight or so albums i made. in hindsight i wish i had used a real guitar amp instead of a pod, but it definitely made the recording process easier, and it did the job well enough.
i have a lot of memories and stories from the band days (it’s one of those things where i could write a huge book that no one would ever want to read, and someday i probably will just for my own enjoyment), but one of the most vivid comes from this album. we were in the middle of recording charlatan shuffle (incidentally the one thing that’s always felt a little bit like filler to me), and it got to the part where the groove gets really deep and i’m singing “shake it loose” and all of that stuff. i looked up at tyson, and he had this huge smile on his face. i looked over at gord, and he had a huge smile on his face. i had a huge smile on my face.
and i had one of those “wow” moments, where it hit me that here i was in a little room between the kitchen and the living room of my house, with two of my best friends, each of us just a few feet away from one another, and we were improvising this music out of nothing and having the time of our lives doing it. and i could tell that we were all thinking and feeling the exact same thing, because i could see it in their eyes. it transcended the bitterness i was pouring into the song. i felt this really strong connection, like i was a part of something larger than myself, and it was very powerful…almost spiritual, in a strange way.
this strange three-way bond we’d built wouldn’t last long, but it was really exciting while it did.
ring around me
until you lose
dance on my brain
nicotine & beer