with Jesse Topliffe
what can i say about this without writing a book?
the condensed version of the story goes something like this. i went to high school with jesse and he was a year ahead of me. i always kind of looked up to him, even though i was a fair bit taller than he was. for the first few years we would say hi in the hall, but that was about it. then, when i was in grade eleven, we had a drama class together and started to talk more often. i gave him a copy of SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN when i was convinced it was some of my greatest work and wrote a bit of a letter to go along with it. he was surprised to discover that i did what i did, and an odd collaborative relationship developed. initially i thought some sort of lennon/mccartney-like thing would transpire and we would have all kinds of musical adventures…instead, i ended up being the producer/engineer who recorded jesse’s songs, contributed piano and harmonies, and sometimes co-wrote the songs or provided music for jesse to write lyrics to. to be sure, there was some collaborating, but it was quite a bit different from what i was expecting. jesse’s songwriting was firmly entrenched in the pop world, and he seemed a little frustrated at times that i wasn’t hanging out there myself. when he listened to my music, he heard potentially radio-friendly songs i was slaughtering with weirdness, while i had no real ambition to build a following in the first place and just wanted to follow my muse completely uninhibited. we were coming from entirely different places (i made music purely for my own enjoyment and didn’t think anyone else would ever be into it, while jesse was much more ambitious and wanted to get his music out there), and yet somehow we were able to meet in the middle and make music together pretty much effortlessly.
if i even attempted to tell the whole story, i would end up writing a 500-page book. it was a strange time in my life. so i’ll just say that some of my most inspired piano work of the time is on GIOVANNI’S GLISSANDO, particularly on innocence and the second version of after the rain. some days jesse would come over after school, we’d work on some of his stuff, and then gord would come over an hour after jesse left and we’d record songs for YOU’RE A NATION.it was a musically schizophrenic existence, bouncing from one extreme to another. working more as a side-man/producer was a new experience for me, but after a while i began to feel like i was being used…jesse’s free recording studio and gopher rolled into one, as it were. my feelings of anger resulted in a vicious butcher of goodnight melissa that i wish i still had in my possession, because it was pretty wild. at least i remember enough of it to transcribe what i did and play it back in my head. i still can’t believe that jesse was amused when he heard it; i expected he would want to kill me. in addition to that, another one of my finest moments is gone forever — for some stupid reason i made only two copies of the cd, and for one of them i accidentally left off mary, which featured an insane piano solo from me in the middle of the song. jesse took the cd that wasn’t missing anything and never made me a copy with that track on it. sad for me.
things were very different in 2002. jesse had an agent and was much more serious. he also had more of his own ideas about what the music should sound like, so i stuck to recording and mixing for the most part while he assumed more of a producer’s role than before. he even plays the bass and drum parts himself, and somehow manages to get the best sound anyone ever got out of the inferior, altered two-mic setup tyson had implemented at the time. at this point i had more (and better) equipment, and a much better idea of what i was doing with it, so the sound quality took a pretty huge leap forward. i play almost no piano at all on SESSIONS and my vocal harmonies are mostly absent (where there are harmonies, jesse tends to sing them himself). i do, however, play guitar on about half of the tracks, and somehow the results remain some of my favourite things i’ve done on guitar, as raw as some of the playing is. back in 1999 jesse wasn’t such a big fan of my guitar-playing, but now he seemed content to let me play whatever i wanted, and i unleashed some seriously inspired lead guitar on sessions and another day. there was an amusing session where tyson attempted to record drums for one of jesse’s songs (amusing in large part because they both had a lot of contempt for one another but were always polite and friendly when in the same room together), but that’s quite a long story, as is the whole ordeal.
the music for who can i blame? is mine, written on a four-string acoustic guitar in standard tuning at gord’s old place one night at a time when i almost never played in standard tuning, and then played on jesse’s axe of the time (roland), with all six strings intact. i’m not sure what i would have done with it if left to my own devices (i did drop a bit of it into a piece of shit song on KEEP YOUR SCARS), but when jesse heard it he thought he’d try his hand at making a song out of it and improvised the lyrics while seated behind the drums, taking it to an interesting, somewhat bluesy place i probably wouldn’t have thought to go myself at the time.
while we were recording SESSIONS, i was working on STELLAR and the songs that ended up on the CASTRATED EP. again, it was pretty strange ping-ponging back and forth between the emotionally naked, raw music i was making with the band, and jesse’s music. the first half of STELLAR was recorded one day just after jesse took off following one of our less productive sessions. i never really played him any of the GWD stuff because i didn’t think he’d be into it, though there was an interesting moment just before that STELLAR session when he asked me to play him the song i had written that i was most proud of, and i drew a complete blank. if he only hung around a few hours longer, i might have played him “mean it”.
jesse was branching out in some new musical directions here, and i still think sessions is the best song he ever wrote, which may have something to do with the large amount of improvisation that was involved and the fact that the song just kind of came out of nowhere, more or less fully formed. first we improvised the whole thing while recording, and then jesse went back and wrote down some of the lyrics he liked, embellishing them and carving them into something more polished. “half of the lyrics don’t even rhyme,” he said, looking kind of surprised, as if the words had come through him with no real prompting. the chord progression is pretty simple, but somehow jesse’s voice and our guitars elevate it and turn it into something compelling, and i’m still not sure where the things i played on my cheap red strat copy came from. i mess up pretty badly at the end when i try to play a flashy run, but that main chiming riff was like some kind of divine inspiration come to life. jesse ended up unintentionally robbing the song of a bit of its power when he came back a few days later to re-record his vocal and add harmonies, not realizing that the rawness was what made the song. i think it took me a while to realize that myself. i gave him the polished version on his cd at the time and saved the original vocal take for my copy.
a lot of the songs are in keeping with jesse’s previous style, which is to say they tend to be acoustic-guitar-based ballads, but there’s a lot more variety here than on the previous cd, along with a few improvised curveballs like i would sell my soul (which sounds like jesse had been listening to soundgarden or something) and i’m already dead (a cool bluesy little thing hailing from a thoroughly messed up night that’s another very long story). there were also a lot of alternate takes that we didn’t end up using, and i should cobble them together someday for a collection called “unused sessions” or something.
jesse and i kind of lost touch eventually…the last time i heard from the guy, he had changed his mind completely about my music; where once he decried the lack of conventional structure in most of my songs, now he seemed to be a fan of that very thing and told me i was rediscovering what a song really was while i was in the process of turning it inside-out. it was very flattering, and very unexpected. i’ll always be curious about what would happen if we got together in the studio again, but i think the chances of it happening are pretty slim at this point, given the physical distance between us. our love may forever remain unrequited. at least we have the memories…
GIOVANNI’S SAMPLER (1999)
contains most of GIOVANNI’S GLISSANDO, plus a longer intro to losing isabelle (including all of the false start), drops, an earlier version of wade, my savage remix/re-imagining of goodnight melissa, and a few silly comedy sketches, including one in which jesse and i chat up a girl on an elevator and he lets me take the reins, looking on like a proud father. i also drew a picture of myself as a ballet dancer on the cover, tutu and all. sadly, i don’t think i’ll ever see this again because i lent it to jesse and it never returned to me, but at least i have a few of the songs dubbed on cassette tape.
GIOVANNI’S GLISSANDO (1999)
after the rain (take 1)
after the rain (take 2)
news song (love crush)
who can i blame?
baby song #1 (reawaken)
baby song #2 (acoustic)
take a chance
i would sell my soul
i’m already dead
if only there’s a way
wade’s cousin (alternate take)
take a chance (alternate take)