pedal board blues.

for a long time i wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy.

my first electric guitar came with an amp i still use today. on early CDs, if i wasn’t plugged into that, i was using a guitar effects processor or a built-in mixer effect to simulate an amp, or else i was going direct into the mixer with no effects at all. sometime around 2000 or 2001 i got a vox wah pedal. not long after that i picked up a boss DS-1 distortion pedal.

while the vox got some use here and there, the boss sat around wondering what its purpose in life was supposed to be. in theory it seemed to be a good buy. once i had it, there was never a time when i felt compelled to reach for it over the tones i was getting out of the POD or from natural tube amp breakup.

the third pedal i got, and the last one i thought i would ever get, was a voodoo labs tremolo pedal. it was meant to make up for the tremolo circuit i was no longer able to access in my fender twin reverb once the foot switch that triggered it went missing.

i never used any of these pedals enough to justify keeping them around, so when money was scarce a few years back i dusted off the tremolo and distortion pedals and sold them both for some extra pistachios. the wah pedal got to stay. why? well, because you never know when you might need a little wah in your life.

after that i was pretty content either plugging straight into an amp with no effects, the way i started out, or using the POD for effects after disabling the amp simulation settings. i bought a little big muff and a yamaha FX500 when i wanted to make some shoegazey sounds i couldn’t seem to get with what i had, and i thought that would be about as far as it went.

then i got to thinking, and the thinking sounded like this: “with the few pedals i bought before, i never really put much thought into what i was getting or why. now that i have a better handle on what i’m doing and what tones i’m after, maye i can build a small collection of things i’ll actually want to use on a semi-regular basis.”

i found out about strymon pedals and fell in love with the smooth, sweet sounds they made. i picked up an el capistan and in a matter of minutes was pretty sure it was the only delay pedal i would ever need. then i grabbed a walrus audio iron horse — a distortion pedal that packs a serious punch and has a more interesting personality (at least to my ears) than the DS-1.

i wanted some reverb. the strymon big sky was beautiful, but more money than i wanted to spend, and i couldn’t find another pedal that nailed the tone i was after. i wanted something lush and kind of modulated that could work just as well as a textural thing or an overpowering wash of sound.

the mr. black supermoon, the red panda context, and the wet reverb were all contenders. i just wasn’t sure they were quite what i was looking for. the boss RV-5 was another consideration, but i find all of the sounds that thing produces outside of the modulated ‘verb to be pretty uninspiring, and its buffer is a notorious tone-killer.

when i heard the ’80s reverb setting on the strymon flint, i knew that was it. that was the sound i wanted. turns out the other reverb options are perfectly usable too — the spring reverb can double for the fender twin’s in a pinch without bringing with it the extra hum the amp does when its reverb is engaged — and the tremolo does a nice job of filling in for the absent voodoo labs pedal.

after adding the magic box that is the montreal assembly count to five to the crew, i wanted one more pedal. i had no idea what it should be. i got some good advice from a few different knowledgable folks, but as hard as i tried, i couldn’t get into the idea of a compressor or a volume pedal (i’m way too accustomed to manipulating a volume knob with my fingers by now). i found a great deal on a chase bliss warped vinyl only to have it fall through. i kept coming back to quirky reverb and delay pedals, even though my bases were already covered there.

in the end i settled on hungry robot’s the wash. there was something about it that grabbed me…maybe the way it gets into some really cool self-oscillation at more extreme settings, almost making it sound like whatever amp you’re plugged into is about to explode in the prettiest way.

somewhere in there, it started to seem like a good idea to get a board to put all these pedals on — my first-ever pedal board. i haven’t done any significant gigging in a long time and that isn’t likely to change, outside of the occasional show backing up a friend or a possible once-every-decade-or-so show of my own to remind the small group of people who still care that i’ve gone on existing and making music. so i didn’t need it for that. i just thought it made good sense and would keep things from getting too messy on the studio floor, where it’s a challenge to keep microphone and instrument cords from getting tangled and turning into tripping hazards at the best of times.

i didn’t want one of those massive boards that holds six million pedals. i wanted to keep things simple. you only need to see how many guitars i have to know what happens when temptation and a surplus of physical space meet up in my world.

half a dozen pedals was my cutoff point. i wanted a board that wouldn’t allow me any room for expansion beyond that. something like a pedaltrain nano looked like it would do the job, but it was kind of bland-looking to me. i needed something with character.

if i float around on the internet long enough, i always seem to luck into finding something interesting, whether i’m looking for it or not. i came across the website for tone snob pedal boards this way. i fired off an email to donny, who’s one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to buy a pedal board from, and told him what i was after. he suggested a 12×18 wedge style board so i could mount the power supply on the bottom, keeping the wires out of the way. he said he had some nice tweed to work with, too.

i gave him the go-ahead, and he built me this beautiful thing:

i made one big mistake, and it wasn’t failing to think, “i should take a picture of this pedal board on a darker surface so it stands out more.” my mistake was not factoring in how expensive a good power supply would be. a little less than two years after my board showed up, i’ve yet to get it up and running for that reason alone.

a few weeks back i decided to sell it. right now i could use the extra money more than something cool that’s been spending all its time covered up in a closet wondering like that old boss distortion pedal before it when the meaningful portion of its life is going to start.

i took a few pictures to use in a kijiji ad. thought it made sense to put all my pedals on the board and take a picture of that too, to give a potential buyer a sense of what it would look like in action.

i took a good look and thought, “man…it’s a shame to sell this. it really is the perfect board for me.”

so i decided not to sell it after all. a few months from now, spending a bit of money on an appropriate power supply might not seem like the dumbest financial decision i could make anymore. besides, it looks too nice to give it to someone else.

i’m not sure this is the exact order these pedals will end up in. one thing’s certain, though: the distortion will be after the reverb. i know it’s not the way most people set up their signal chain. i just really like the smeared sound you get out of flipping the tried and true on its head there.

my friend little big muffy probably won’t make it onto the board when the day of reckoning comes. i can get close to fuzz territory with the iron horse if i crank the gain, so it’s a little redundant now, and i don’t find myself feeling a need for super fuzzed-out guitar tones all that often.

i’m not sure what i would put in its place. the wah pedal is too much of a tone-hound to go there. i’ll figure something out, i guess. maybe get a chromatic tuner to put at the beginning of everything. maybe discover something totally weird and random and convince myself i can’t live without it.

oh hey — AFTERTHOUGHTS turned one year old a few days ago. no way does it feel like a year since that album was released, but the time, she don’t lie.

you know what else doesn’t lie? this bust of jennifer connelly’s face.

was nina persson singing a coded message to a mastering engineer in the cardigans song “been it”?

a final note about this whole remastering thing, as i make the last few tweaks and double-check my work:

part of the reason it’s taken me so long to finish is an inability to master in any conventional way, due to the nature of my equipment. i think when most people tackle this stuff, they have all the songs gathered together in one place. usually their setup is at least somewhat computer-based, so they’ll have the whole album in a pro tools session or something. this way they can compare any songs they want with ease, right down to split-second sections of music, and work to achieve something approaching sonic continuity.

i can’t do that. i don’t work with a computer when it comes to music. outside of recording garageband demos on my laptop, everything i do happens inside the same roland VS-1680 i’ve been using for almost twenty years now. technically you could say the mixer itself is a computer, sort of, but it’s a very limited one, and the only one i use.

back when i didn’t routinely max out all the tracks i had to work with, recording all the songs on one file and keeping them together was an option, even if it didn’t allow for much creativity when it came to sequencing the songs. a lot of the guys with dicks albums were recorded this way, with the songs transferred to CD in one shot, left in the order they were recorded, separated by track markers but with no spaces between them.

that’s not an option anymore. now i have to work on one song at a time.

as you can imagine, level-matching after the fact often turns into a huge pain in the posterior. i try to make life as easy as possible by mastering all the songs at several different volumes, making microscopic adjustments, so i’ve got a lot of play when it comes time to put all the pieces together. achieving a good balance by guessing and hoping is just about impossible, though i did manage to pull it off sometimes on much older albums when i had a pretty solid, if crude, template for how i recorded and mixed everything.

still, no matter how much legwork i do, after settling on a good overall master volume i always have to go back and revisit at least a few songs to make them a little quieter or a little louder so they fit in with all the rest.

so when i say doing this involved remastering 188 songs, i mean that in the most literal sense. it was very much a drawn-out, one-song-at-a-time process.

i thought i was finished before i really was. all the hard, time-consuming work was done, but the final step of getting everything to live in a pretty consistent volume range remained. this is the “smallest” job of all, and also the most important.

the goal, at least for me, is to be able to set your volume — whatever device you’re listening on — in one place that’s comfortable, and then not have to make any adjustments from the beginning of an album to the end. there are going to be quieter and louder passages. you want those dynamic moments to be there. but as long as the loudest moments in those songs all live close to the same place, hitting a similar apex, the ears will adapt to the ebbs and flows of the album, the same way your eyes adapt to changes in light. if i’ve done my job right, those ears will still be feeling pretty fresh when the headphones come off or the speakers stop singing, and they’ll have gone on a bit of a sonic and emotional journey along with the rest of the body and brain.

i wasn’t always great at this. i think i’m getting pretty good at it now.

some albums are much easier to achieve that balance with than others. you would think an album like MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS, with so many songs that go so many different places, would be a nightmare to master. and you’d think an album like LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, a shorter one by my standards, would be much easier to deal with.

i thought both of those things. i was wrong on both counts.

i got MEDIUM-FI MUSIC almost all the way there on the first pass. i couldn’t believe it. a few small changes and it was right where i wanted it to be. even a song like “i love you”, which was always tricky because of the harshness of its vocal sound blurring the line between perceived and actual volume, was sitting in just about the best place it could hope to be.

NIHILISTS has taken at least half a dozen tries. i knew it was a dynamic album. i didn’t realize it had this much dynamic range until the clipping was gone and i could hear everything that was going on with more clarity. in terms of the way so many songs move from near-silence to huge, sometimes violent crescendos, it might be the most extreme album i’ve ever made.

i think i’ve got it about as good as it’s ever going to get now, and i’ve accepted that this is one album where there’s no avoiding the need to manipulate the volume control a little while listening to it, unless your ears can handle the extreme soft/loud dynamics (and maybe they can…i know mine are more sensitive than most).

AN ABSENCE OF SWAY is the last one i need to do this final precision work on. it should take a day or two. then this will all be finished, and i will never have a need to remaster anything else again if i can help it.

the gift-giving spider.

you make a thing. you decide how you feel about the thing. sometimes you know while you’re making it. sometimes it takes a while before you know. sometimes you think you know, and then your feelings shift.

i like to say it takes me a year or two before i can stand back and really see where an album fits into the bigger picture. that isn’t always so. there have been albums that felt like some of my best work when i was recording them and still feel that way today, albums i thought were shaping up to be great only to find they sounded like garbage to me not long after they were finished, and albums that felt kind of slight or sub-par at first but have grown on me over the years — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

then there’s GIFT FOR A SPIDER.

since the world didn’t end the other day, in spite of all those doomsday theorists doing their best to convince us all that this time they were right and everything was gonna go kaboomy-bye, i thought it was time to revisit that album. plus, i was doing some final level-matching tweaks as part of the remastering process and had to listen to the album from start to finish to make sure i got it right anyway.

i was never sure how i felt about this one. i was waist-deep in the making of another (still unreleased) album when the need to do something different bubbled up because i found myself with some serious butterflies in my stomach about someone when i didn’t think butterflies were something i would feel again after some of the soul-destroying romantic adventures of yore. i got all of three or four warm and fuzzy songs written before it all went to hell, and suddenly instead of making my first true album of love songs for a living, breathing human, i was making a breakup album when i didn’t think i’d ever have a reason to make one of those again.

there’s no clearer illustration of the jarring shift in tone than “nightside”, where you get to hear the change happen in the space of one three-minute song.

the words and music were written when i thought the burgeoning relationship had a great future ahead of it. i’d just finished spending the better part of a weekend with the person i was pretty sure was my new girlfriend, and it felt like i was gliding with my feet a few inches off of the floor when i walked. she really did jump sideways on the bed to get to me. it was a fun moment. the spoken addendum was improvised later, after things fell apart, trading in sunny-eyed optimism for foul-mouthed venom.


i liked the songs but couldn’t tell how well they played together as a larger piece of work. a lot of them were coming less from craftsmanship than a need for catharsis. i had such a difficult time sequencing everything in a way that felt like it made sense, i got a headache trying to suss out the order of the songs.

in all the years i’ve been making music, i can’t say any other album i’ve worked on has ever done that to me. and i’ve made double and triple CDs that have been packed with as much music as the media could handle.

when it was done, it just felt too raw to hang out with for any length of time. it wasn’t one of those cloying, maudlin breakup albums full of self-indulgent exercises in self-pity. it had sharp teeth. it had a goofy rap song and some insane slowed-down scream-coughing in-between songs of love and post-love. it was pretty eclectic, both sonically and emotionally. but it took a lot out of me, taking all the mixed feelings i had in the aftermath of that intense, ill-fated, whirlwind relationship and shaping them into songs. it isn’t a coincidence that i haven’t made a solo album since (though that’ll change soon enough).

i listened to it once or twice to make sure everything felt like it flowed okay. i played some of the songs live at the second mackenzie hall show (though not very many of them, which is pretty funny in hindsight, since that was the only proper “album release show” of my own i’ve ever played). after that, i kind of wanted to keep my distance. the last time i gave it a listen all the way through was about five years ago at kevin kavanaugh’s studio space, when i was knocked out by how good it sounded on his mega hi-fi system, even with my too-hot mastering job. those speakers of his meant serious business.

listening to the album now, it’s not so raw anymore. it’s amazing what some moisturizer and half a decade away from something can do for you. and i’ve gained enough emotional distance from what inspired the songs to realize something: i like this album.

“some things are better left buried” felt a bit like filler at the time. it doesn’t anymore, especially now that all the stupid distorted vocal peaks are gone. i really enjoy the way some of the catchiest, most uptempo music on the album is juxtaposed against some pretty morbid lyrics. i liked “a puppet playing possum” fine back then. now it’s one of my favourite songs i’ve ever written. “light sleeper” remains the bruised heart of the album for me. i can still feel the hope and uncertainty that went into that one.

part of me still wishes the last section of “different degrees of wrong” wasn’t such a tease. the segue from a rare venom-free love song into the violent lunacy of “surrender to thee” will probably always crack me up. and a fresh, saner mastering job allows me to hear that i did a pretty solid job with the recording and mixing side of things, when i wasn’t so sure at the time.

the album title was one i had kicking around for years before i knew what to do with it. at the house before this one, for a while there was a spider that spent a lot of time upstairs in my bedroom and the bathroom. i started to think of him as something close to a pet. i wondered what to get him for christmas, if he stuck around that long.

he didn’t. he came out of nowhere and bit me on the back of the leg while i was sitting on the toilet one night. i don’t like to kill any living thing if i can help it, aside from mosquitos (fuck those guys), but biting me when i’m dropping off some kids at the pool…that ain’t right.

i’m sad to say i didn’t develop any spiderman-like super powers.

there’s also the whole “partner as a spider trapping you in their web” thing i lucked into as a useful accidental metaphor for a breakup album.

finding cover art to play off of the title was always going to be tricky. but around the time of MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, johnny smith hired bree gaudette for a photo shoot and she captured a bunch of evocative images out in the county. i kept coming back to a few shots of a dilapidated barn. they just happened to feature a pretty prominent spiderweb.

as much as i liked the original colour version of the picture that became the cover image (seen above), there was something about the black and white edit i couldn’t shake. something in there felt right.

there’s another accidental meaning behind the album title — something i never knew it meant until just recently.

there’s something called a nuptial gift. “food items or inedible tokens that are transferred to females by males during courtship or copulation,” trusty old wikipedia says.

it isn’t specific to insects by any means, but in certain species of spiders the male will offer the female a gift wrapped in silk as a way of enticing them to mate. as a rule, what’s being offered is prey caught by the male. if the female accepts the gift, she eats it while the male hops on and does his little sex dance.

some spiders are crafty little guys. because of their ability to wrap and obscure the gift they’re offering, the female has no way of knowing what’s inside until she removes the proverbial wrapping paper. two specific species have been known to wrap plant seeds and insect exoskeletons devoid of any edible parts. by the time the female figures out what she’s been given and realizes how useless it is, the male has already done his business.

that an insect with a brain the size of a poppy seed would think to do something so duplicitous is kind of amazing. i wish i could say i knew about this and it was in my head when i was deciding to dust off that old title for this group of songs, but i had no idea.

what’s strange about relationships as doomed and damaging as the one that fed into this album is the way the passage of time seems to dull some of the bad feelings while shining a light on the little pockets of happiness.

one unexpected bit of common ground i shared with the person a lot of these songs are about was a still-strong affection for the animated disney films we loved as kids. we watched oliver & company and the aristocats while she leaned back on me and ashed her cigarette in a coffee mug. i felt like i was five years old again, only now i was a five-year-old in a grownup body with my hands cupping someone’s breasts through the thin fabric of a thing they called a shirt.

all five-year-olds in grownup bodies should be so lucky.

the suits at disney have marketing down to a fine art. they take these classic movies everyone loves, the ones that helped shape your childhood, and they deny you access to them for years. decades, even. then they make a big show of releasing one of them on home media, letting you know it’s only going to be a limited release before the movie goes “back in the vault”.

it allows them to charge a ridiculous amount of money for something people will be glad to shell out for, given its scarcity and sentimental value. and if the movie you’re after is out of print by the time you show up, well, you can always find someone generous enough to sell you their used copy on the internet for a week’s pay.

the one she wanted most but couldn’t find was the lion king. disney had put it back in the vault. i wanted to surprise her. i found someone selling it on DVD for a pretty decent price and bought it.

with a perverse sense of timing the best fiction couldn’t invent, it showed up in my mailbox the day after we broke up. i chucked it in a dresser drawer and made myself forget about it.

six years later, i’m doing some long-overdue cleaning and reorganizing when i dig the lion king out of the bottom of its wooden tomb, still in the bubble bag that has my address written on the front. now it’s nothing but a relic from a few weeks spent trying to pry love or something like love from the mouth of indifferent animal instinct. now it’s a little bit funny.

it’s good when you get to a place where you can laugh about the things that used to sting.

da doo ron ron.

ron was here earlier today to lay down a few things. it’s always a treat to hear that fella in my headphones.

the last time ron came over to record, he played the takamine guitar he’s had forever on all but one of the songs we recorded. i think it’s an EF341SC? i’m not positive. but that’s what it looks like.

i’m pretty sure that was the first time it was ever brought into the studio. it’s always been more of a gigging and songwriting guitar. the thing is a beast. when i caught ron playing with kelly hoppe at taloola, i was convinced he was hiding a small amp somewhere. no way could a dreadnought — with a cutaway, even — put out that kind of volume without a little help.

i was wrong. there was no amp. just an axe with a lot of love to give.

with a few mics in front of it, the takamine almost seems to morph into a different guitar. there’s some nice natural compression happening when ron digs in a bit. it’s bright, but not in a bad way. it’ll retain a nice amount of punch no matter how dense a mix might get. that’s a valuable quality for a guitar to have.

this time ron played my old gibson LG-2. he’s got such a distinctive way of playing guitar, he’s going to sound like himself no matter what, but it’s interesting to hear the different personalities of the two instruments thrown into stark relief. i think they play well together, even if they haven’t found themselves both being played in the same song.

we’ve got seven and-a-half songs in the can now. two and-a-half more and i can get to work on figuring out what shirts and shoes they want to wear. i’m looking forward to it. this album is going to have a pretty different feel to it from tobacco fields, but the songs are great, and ron’s great. so if i don’t screw it up, the end result should be…triple-great.

here are a few pictures i took.

radio killed the video star.

the music video as an art form is far from dead. there are plenty of people out there creating compelling things full of imagery that encourages thought and stirs the emotions. but these are sad days for television as a medium for the transmission of music videos.

MTV was where it all began, and they stopped showing videos eons ago. MTV2 followed suit not long after. that was a real shame, because they made a habit of dusting off some cool things you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. BET doesn’t show music videos anymore unless you pay to subscribe to some of their sister channels. otherwise their programming now consists of 80% tyler perry shows, 5% late night televangelist mind control, and 15% censored movies.

muchmoremusic phased out a lot of their more interesting programming — spotlight programs that played half-hour blocks of music videos broken up with interview snippets, semi-obscure videos popping up in the wee hours, a weekly show that took a look at artists from other countries who weren’t always well represented in north america — before dissolving into nothing a year ago and being replaced by a cooking channel. even bravo used to show some interesting music videos sometimes. now their programming seems to be made up of hallmark movies and crime procedurals that are little more than CSI retreads, and nothing else.

there are a handful of specialty channels you can pay for if you want access to music videos on your TV. so that’s a thing. but if you’ve got any kind of sane or semi-affordable cable package, chances are all you have left now is much (or, as we used to call it, muchmusic). and if you’re not a fan of mainstream top forty music and the creatively bankrupt music videos made to accompany most of the sounds living in that world, about all much has to recommend itself to you now is an afternoon block of videos from the 80s and 90s called much retro lunch and the occasional near-naked nicki minaj.

even here, music programming is falling by the wayside. a few weeks ago much retro lunch was running for three hours every weekday. now it’s only a one-hour segment. in place of all the music videos they used to air in the early evenings we’ve got anger management and TMZ. a one-hour-a-week “alternative” block that resembled the decaying corpse of what the wedge used to be has gone the way of the dinosaur and elton john’s falsetto. i imagine somewhere in the not-too-distant future much will stop showing music videos altogether, just like the rest of the pack.

CMT is dead too. oh, it’s still calling itself by the same name. it still lives in the same place on your digital cable box. but the only thing left on the schedule that has anything at all to do with what was once “country music television” is reba mcentire’s mid-2000s sitcom reba.

when the CRTC licensed a series of new canadian specialty television channels in 1994, one of those channels was the country network. this was the beginning of CMT as we knew it in canada. in the US it had been around in one form or another for ten years by then. the canadian version got its official launch in 1995 as NCN (new country network) and was relaunched in 1996 as CMT.

almost all of CMT’s programming — 90% of it — was made up of country music videos. that was part of the deal with the CRTC. it dropped to 70% in 2001, and then to 50% in 2006, with nashville, live music programs, and the occasional sitcom making up the balance.

last year the CRTC decided CMT were no longer obligated to play any music videos at all, as long as they invested 11% of their annual profits into the funding of canadian music videos (they didn’t have to be country music videos). even then, there were still blocks of music videos aired in the early mornings and afternoons, along with the long-running weekly chevy top 20 countdown.

a week ago, all music video broadcasting on the channel ceased, and a major platform for country music artists went up in smoke. their official website and facebook page both neglect to tell you anything about this total overhaul, but CMT’s programming now consists of nothing but moronic reality shows and sitcoms. fridays and saturdays are twenty-four-hour everybody loves raymond marathons.

for some of us, this is what hell looks like.

maybe it’s a little strange that i would mourn the loss of this channel when i’ve never been all that into country music.

well, that’s not quite right. the truer thing to say would be that i didn’t think i was into country music until i heard some of the artists who helped define what country music is, and some others who made a habit of colouring outside the lines — folks like johnny cash, kris kristofferson, emmylou harris, gram parsons, glen campbell, patsy cline, waylon jennings, hank williams, the louvin brothers, rodney crowell, and too many more to mention.

in some ways CMT was the road that got me there, beyond the homogeneity of most modern mainstream country music, which at this point is just pop music with pedal steel guitar as far as i’m concerned.

i can’t claim i started watching with pure intentions. the long and short of it is this: i was going through puberty, and i thought a fair few country singers were nice to look at. leann rimes, faith hill, patty loveless, and beverley mahood were especially pretty to my thirteen-year-old eyes.

but here’s the thing. in the mid and late 1990s, whoever was responsible for programming the videos would sometimes slip in some interesting songs that didn’t always fit under the country umbrella.

bruce cockburn’s “night train” showed up more than a few mornings when i was waking up my brain before heading off to school. once in a while i’d catch springsteen’s “i’m on fire” and lennie gallant’s “meet me at the oasis” (a sweet, atmospheric ballad that deserved more love than it got). and every so often i’d run into someone who was a country artist on the surface but much more complex and compelling than they seemed at first blush.

matraca berg was one of those. her songs were huge hits for trisha yearwood and deana carter. her solo work only saw moderate commercial success, with no single she released ever cracking the top thirty. she had the looks, and the voice, and real depth as a writer. how she never became a huge star in her own right is a bit of a mystery.

my best guess is it’s another example of the catch-22 harry nilsson and laura nyro got stuck in before her, where in someone else’s hands your songs become palatable enough to appeal to the masses, but your own superior and more emotionally three-dimensional readings of the same material are a little too idiosyncratic and real for the people who want wallpaper instead of art.

i will argue until my voice gives out that matraca’s “back when we were beautiful” is one of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written. i almost can’t get through it, and there are only a few songs that have ever had that kind of emotional impact on me. it was released as the second single from her 1997 album sunday morning to saturday night. it didn’t even chart.

one of the biggest country singles that year was “how do i live”, sung by both trisha yearwood and leann rimes. trisha’s version sold three million copies and netted a grammy nomination. next to “back when we were beautiful” it sounds like a bunch of half-baked manipulative treacle.

but don’t take my word for it. have a listen.

we live in a world where taylor swift is a celebrated crossover artist who’s considered a great songwriter and a feminist icon when (a) she doesn’t even write her own songs anymore, or at least not without a whole lot of help (these days it isn’t uncommon to see half a dozen different writers credited for any given song on one of her albums), (b) her whole career is now seemingly built around a two-pronged attack of getting involved in short-lived romantic relationships that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame the other party in her music once the relationship ends without ever taking any responsibility for her own failings, and getting involved in short-lived platonic friendships with women that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame most of those women through her music when they dare to criticize her in any way or expose some of her blatant hypocrisies, bending one narrative after another to suit her own purposes, manufacturing feuds to sell more albums, almost always making sure to paint herself as the victim rising from the ashes, (c) her lyrics are so juvenile and devoid of anything resembling insight or real human feeling, it’s kind of hilarious, (d) she thinks nothing of stealing other people’s work and profiting off of it without giving any credit to the originator of the material, and (e) she once made a music video in which she played a silver guitar with so much glitter applied to it, the universe itself was made to squint and cry out in pain.

so maybe, when you get right down to it, it’s no big surprise that someone like matraca berg never became a household name. i just think it’s sad, the way we go on rewarding artifice and empty double-dealing while ignoring a lot of the people who actually have something to say.

the same applies to song interpreters. nothing against reba and trisha and faith, but dawn sears blew them all away. there was a mixture of power and emotional purity in her voice that was startling. she could take a mediocre song and make it sound like a classic.

chances are you’ve never heard of dawn sears even if you’re a country music fan. i rest my case.

but i digress. sort of. maybe.

in recent years, CMT’s programming skewed more toward the mainstream than ever before. but you’d still get the occasional moment of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty like this, even if most of those moments were limited to the more freeform wide open country program.

there at least, for an hour a day, you could hear the likes of corb lund, lindi ortega, brandi carlile, jerry leger, and serena pryne — people who are making music that nods to country but refuses to be governed by genre. bruce still made the odd appearance too, whether it was with “i’m on fire” or something more recent like “devils and dust”.

there’s also this: without CMT, at least one of the songs i’ve written wouldn’t exist. it just happens to be the closest thing to a “hit” i’ve ever had, though quantifying that sort of thing is a little difficult when you don’t release singles.

when i played “a well-thought-out escape” live for the first time and told the audience it was inspired by ashley kranz (an on-air host at CMT for about a year), everyone thought i was joking. i wasn’t.

for years now i’ve been writing a lot of songs on stringed instruments in bed. sometimes the TV’s on when ideas are born. here’s some video of the genesis of what became “a well-thought-out escape”, right at its inception, with a little bit of what would later become “everything he asked you” mixed in.

i came up with this little cyclical chord progression i liked and kept playing it over and over again, trying to work out a vocal melody and some words. the words weren’t in any hurry to show up, so i sang random gibberish for the most part. i had CMT on in the background while i was playing the six-string banjo. ashley kranz showed up to introduce a video while i was trying to form this new idea into something tangible, so i sang her name to fill up some space.

later on the words would arrive, beginning with the idea of someone selling their love at a yard sale for so little money they might as well have been giving it away (don’t ask me where these ideas come from…i have no idea). and still, ashley stuck around. it would have felt wrong to get rid of her. she was there from the start, after all. instead of an incidental detail, her name became the climax of the whole song, a half-shouted mantra that broke the whole thing open.

a well-thought-out escape

(side note: i always thought it was a shame they didn’t keep ashley around longer. she had a fun personality. “endearing” is the word that comes to mind.)

i don’t know if the bits of country music i heard in my channel-surfing travels had anything to do with the rootsy sound of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. it’s possible some of those sensibilities snuck into my brain when i wasn’t paying attention. it’s also possible the album only came out sounding the way it did because of the instruments i lucked into finding at the right time and the qualities they possessed — the twang of the dirt cheap teisco that was the only electric guitar i used for the whole album, the earthiness of the regal parlour guitar, and the…uh…banjo-ness of the six-string banjo.

i do know without ashley kranz on my television screen “a well-thought-out escape” probably never would have progressed beyond a half-formed sketch. i’ve always been tempted to send the song her way as a strange little thank-you, but i think it’s the sort of thing that has the potential to weird a person out. so maybe it’s best to leave it be.

fare thee well, CMT. i’ll never watch you again, knowing what you’ve become, but i’ll always have the memories of what you once were.

pump down the volume.

i’ve rambled a bit before about this thing called the loudness war.

(unintentional rhyme! score!)

in a nutshell, at some point in the early or mid-1990s, someone involved in the music industry — no one’s clear on who — thought it was time to start pushing the limits of how much overall volume CDs could handle. the idea caught fire, everyone started trying to outdo everyone else, and it all got a bit out of control by the time we were in the mid-2000s. some vinyl singles were cut hot back in the 1960s so they would jump out of a jukebox and demand your attention, but this was a whole new beast.

there are a lot of high profile albums that have been damaged, if not ruined, by mastering engineers pushing the levels far past any sane place. i defy anyone to listen to metallica’s death magnetic, iggy pop’s 1997 remixed and remastered version of raw power, or the first version of rush’s vapor trails without getting a headache, an earache, and a brain-ache, in that order. regina spektor’s begin to hope and bruce springsteen’s magic are a little better but still pretty harsh and fatiguing to listen to on headphones for any length of time. i’ve even heard local albums that have been compressed to smithereens to get them as loud as everything else.

on the whole, it’s not quite as bad now as it used to be. the remastering of an album once meant little more than making it as loud as possible and beefing up the bass, whatever the cost to the integrity of the original recordings. check out the awful slowdive remasters from about a decade ago for just one example. there’s so much unnecessary compression added to the brilliant pygmalion, the soft brushed drums on “blue skied an’ clear” take on a dead, gated sound. i’m happy to say a number of recent remastering campaigns have gone in the opposite direction and opted for dynamics and richness over maximum volume. the “legacy edition” of dennis wilson’s pacific ocean blue, the mono and stereo beatles remasters (but not the remixed/remastered version of sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band george martin’s son slammed to death), and the remastering of the classic albums by sly and the family stone come to mind. you even get the odd new album that’s got a surprising amount of dynamic range to it.

but the sad truth is a lot of albums both in and out of the mainstream are still mastered far hotter than they need to be, and television and radio commercials continue to be over-compressed to make them six million times louder than everything that surrounds them.

note to the people who first thought it was a good idea to do this second thing, and to those who keep the legacy alive: it doesn’t make anyone want to buy what you’re selling. it makes them mute the sound or change the channel/station until what they were watching/listening to comes back on.

it’s not attention-grabbing. it’s obnoxious.

one of the problems is how easy it can be to buy into the whole “louder is better” myth, either because your brain perceives sounds that are louder as having more energy, or because you get a little self-conscious about your own music maybe not being as loud as you’ve been conditioned to believe it should be.

it happened to me.

when i was first able to experiment with digital recording in 1999 after years of recording everything on cassette tape, i didn’t know a thing about gain staging. there’s a fair bit of clipping on the early CDs i recorded while i was trying to figure it all out.

by the middle of 2000 i had a much better handle on things. it seemed to me the most sensible approach was to do the best recording and mixing job i could with the equipment and skills i had at any given time, and then get out of the way and not do anything to mess with the results. i didn’t see the point in trying to make anything loud just for the sake of being loud. i could always turn the music up after the fact on a CD player or computer.

this means you get a lot of CDs over a period of half a dozen years that are pretty quiet, without any clipping at all, because they’re not even coming close to eating up all the available headroom. i did get a kick out of the way GROWING SIDEWAYS gained a little extra volume and booty when i paid someone to master it professionally, but i never would have signed off on it if it didn’t sound good. the music still has a pretty healthy dynamic range, with only a few moments where you can really hear some compression happening (the loudest section of “oven head” comes to mind), and there’s no clipping anywhere.

i thought it was going to be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with that mastering house. it wasn’t. the follow-up album was more or less left to master itself while we ate lunch. really. compression and limiting were used in such a strange way, the quieter passages in the middle of some songs disappeared. 

i don’t know how you even make that happen.

my efforts to get a master that didn’t sound like garbage were met with some pretty thick condescension from the guy who ran the studio. i got two “makeup” masters that weren’t much better than the initial train-wreck i paid for. in some ways they might have been worse. after that, i was told i’d have to cough up more money if i wanted any additional work done.

i chalked it up to an expensive learning experience and went back to handling the mastering myself, keeping things quiet and dynamic. that was the last time i paid someone else to master anything i recorded. barring a winning lottery ticket or a future vinyl release — which isn’t likely to happen without a winning lottery ticket — it’ll probably stay that way.

(the mastering engineer did send me a final revision sometime later, out of nowhere, long after my relationship with the studio had been severed. it was his way of trying to apologize and make up for what happened. by then my self-mastered version of the album had been pressed and out in the world for a while. it was a nice gesture, i guess, though a belated refund would have been nice too.)

with the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP and THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET, i learned almost by accident that i could push the volume a little without anything getting too hairy. things got a little bit louder there. then i retooled the studio and figured i might as well try pushing it even more, to see if i could get closer to the general volume of the new albums i was buying in record stores and online. they all seemed to hover around a built-in volume much higher than anything i was doing.

i don’t know why i started thinking in this direction. it wasn’t as if i thought more than three people would ever hear my music. but THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE was by far the loudest thing i’d ever done, and for the first time in eight years there was some noticeable clipping.

i guess i did it to see if i could. i told myself it wasn’t a big deal. i wasn’t using an insane amount of compression. i was just turning everything up so someone else wouldn’t have to. some occasional digital distortion didn’t feel like it hurt the music, and i told myself it was okay if it was a little lo-fi.

then a lot more than three people heard that album.

no one complained about it being mastered too hot. i kept pushing the volume with the next few albums. it took me three or four years to realize what i’d done and how destructive it was.

one day i asked myself: do i really want part of my imaginary musical legacy to be that some of my most widely-heard (and some would say best) albums are marred by pointless, annoying distortion i introduced after the mixing stage just because i started feeling weird about everyone needing to turn my CDs up a little louder than most of the other music in their collection?

no. i don’t want that at all.

around the time of LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS i started pulling back a little. but i would still sometimes trade in a bit of sound quality for some extra volume. “animal altruism” and “bent bird, broken wing” were allowed to clip for this reason, which is no good reason at all.

it wasn’t until a failed attempt at finishing THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE in 2012 and the recording of steven’s album INAMORATA in 2013 that i said to myself, “you know what, self…this is stupid. so what if everyone has to turn it up a little? i want this music to sound as good as i can get it. period. i want people to be able to enjoy listening to the things i’ve recorded without their ears starting to yell at them halfway through. i don’t want to wince every time i hear something clip, and i don’t want to have to find a way to justify to myself why i allowed it to happen.”

i promised myself i wouldn’t dance that dance anymore. i’d get an album to the best general volume i could within reason, and then i’d leave it alone. if anything started to get even a little nasty, i wouldn’t bring the volume of everything around it up to compensate. i’d make everything quieter to kill the nastiness. i wouldn’t do anything to damage the work i did when i was recording and mixing the stuff. i’d just get out of the way, like i used to.

so that’s what i’ve been doing.

for years i’ve wanted to go back and remaster some of those albums that got hit the worst. when AFTERTHOUGHTS was finished and the city decided to mess with my ability to record during the most useful hours of the day by installing a new water mains no one asked for or needed, turning a job that should have taken a month into a clusterfuck that dragged on for more than half a year, i thought maybe it was a good time to stop thinking about it and start making it happen.

the idea was to tackle two or three albums and be done with it. instead, i ended up remastering every song on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, IF I HAD A QUARTER, CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEARTMEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS, and GIFT FOR A SPIDER. those last four weren’t pushed quite as hard as the first four, and it would have been easier to live with the way most of the songs sounded as they were, but once i got going it felt like it was worth it to go all the way. the deeper i went, the more it hit me how proud i still am of this music, and the stronger the need to preserve it in its best-sounding form became.

i posted MP3s of both the original and remastered versions of “weak bladder blues” a while back as an illustration of what a difference a lighter touch can make. here i’d like to offer a visual example, using the same song.

here’s what the too-hot 2008 master looks like as a waveform.

with more than a few songs that have been released commercially in the last two decades, you’d see pretty much nothing but blue. this isn’t that horrific. it still has dynamics. but as you can see, all those peaks are clipping. they’re so loud, they have nowhere to go.

here’s what the new, quieter master looks like.

bit of a difference, right? nothing is smacking its head on the ceiling anymore. and believe me, i know how it feels to crack your head like that. it’s not a whole lot of fun.

several songs on the first MISFITS collection were pushed way too hard as well. i’m not sure i’ll ever get to those. after remastering 188 songs, i’ve had pretty much all the remastering i can handle for now. i have other things i need to work on. i think the second misfits collection is going to be more interesting than the first one was anyway.

IF I HAD A QUARTER needed the most medical attention out of anything. the original master had clipping in almost every song. today i’m a little embarrassed i ever let that happen. listening to it now in its kinder-to-the-ears form, the way it always should have sounded, i’m realizing i like the album more than i thought i did. it’s not as much of a haphazard mess as i thought it was when i was making it.

along the way, i took the opportunity to remix a few songs i never quite felt i got right. most of the changes i made were pretty minimal. and we’re talking about a whopping total of nine songs here:

  • “please remember to forget me” (got rid of the sound of the dust cover being slipped back onto the ribbon mic at the end so i could give the song a proper fade that didn’t feel rushed, and fixed the weird drum panning that was at odds with all the other songs on the album)
  • “your sweaty golden mouth” (the drums were a little too low and the vocals a little too overpowering, and that always bugged me but i was too lazy to fix it until now)
  • “getting into character” (more compression was used on the drums here than on almost every other song on the album, and i wanted to correct that)
  • “once more, without feeling” (same thing)
  • “i must be your prey” (the vocal tracks fluctuated in volume to an insane degree and i should have done something about it the first time around)
  • “cinders” (i wanted to get the mid-song dissonant bugle blasts at a volume that was a little less ridiculous and better-integrated into the music)
  • “how these things tend to go” (same thing as “getting into character”, plus the harmonica at the end was a little too loud and strident)
  • “zombies on parade” (the vocals were a little too loud here, making for an off-balance mix; so was the scrap metal during the intro)
  • “bent bird, broken wing” (same story here, minus the scrap metal)

it was an interesting challenge. if i mixed these songs based on my current sensibilities, they would sound more than a little out of place on their respective albums. i had to try and find a balance between fixing some issues and keeping enough of the spirit of the original mixes that it wouldn’t sound like much had changed at all.

i think i was able to find the sweet spot.

i’ve been working with backup CDs that are getting up there in age. some of them are almost a decade old now. for the most part they’ve held up just fine over the years. there were a few scares along the way, but i was always able to find a different source when one CD went funny on me, until deep in the homestretch, when it all got a little more complicated.

“hostages” was backed up on two different CDs. both of them were toast. unable to remaster the song any conventional way, i had to use the “clip restore” tool in audacity and hope for the best.

i know it’s technically impossible to “fix” clipping this way. you’re trying to replace information that’s been lost. but whatever sonic trickery was performed — by a free program, no less — i can’t find too much fault in it. the distorted peaks are gone. maybe there’s a little less “air” in the sound of the song now compared to the others, but its a tradeoff i’m willing to accept.

“kings” was only backed up on one CD in finished form, and it just happened to be one of those verbatim CDs i stopped using a long time ago thanks to how glitchy and unreliable they became. that one was dead too. for some reason i thought to back up an unmixed version of the song, when that wasn’t something i did much at the time. that CD wasn’t dead. talk about getting lucky.

i tried to reconstruct the original mix on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS to the best of my ability. i don’t think you can hear too many differences between the two. a few of the reverb swells early in the song are a little different in the new mix, because it’s almost impossible to dial that sort of thing in the same way twice. otherwise it’s about the same as before.

all the other mixes were left alone.

i don’t really believe in revisionist mixing. give a listen to harry maslin’s soul-destroying sound-replaced 2010 mix of david bowie’s station to station if you want to hear just how wrong that whole thing can go. seriously, what was the dude thinking trying to make a classic bowie album from the 1970s sound like homogenous modern rock?

could i do a better job today than i did back then? sure. an album like CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN would sound better if i remixed the whole thing with the benefit of nine years of hindsight and additional mixing experience. for a while i had a habit of pushing my voice up a lot higher in the mix than i needed to, and the panning of some elements could get kind of off-kilter. i was still getting used to the sounds coming out of the new mics and preamps i was working with. it took a while before i was as comfortable with those tools as i was with the ones i’d grown close to before.

it also took me an album or two to figure out the drums leaned pretty far to the left of the stereo field when i kept the two outputs of the stereo ribbon mic i was now using as an all-in-one drum-mic’ing solution at the same level on the mixing board and didn’t make any panning adjustments, given where the drums and the mic were placed in the room.

but better isn’t always right. these are the mixes i made at the time, for better or worse. a small handful of minor changes aside — changes i felt i would have been foolish not to make — i’m sticking with them.

there were a few changes that didn’t involve remixing anything:

  • “water to town” used to have a very abrupt fade-out so you wouldn’t hear me swearing at myself after hitting a wrong note. now it plays all the way through to the end, dirty word and all. i think it feels more natural this way. also, there’s always been a very audible click in the first verse. it was something my mouth did mid-phrase when i was singing “while the heat sleeps lightly on every rooftop”. i didn’t notice it until it was too late to go back and do a little split-second vocal replacement surgery. there was no way to fix it in the mix, so i just lived with it. i thought i’d give audacity another try here, honing in on the offensive sound with the “click removal” tool. it did nothing. i gave brian davies’ clickrepair program a shot, and that did the trick. no more click.
  • a little bit of random banter was restored to the beginning of “abandoned house burning down”. the only reason i snipped it out in the first place was because i knew i was pushing the limits of what i could fit on one CD, and i thought a few extra seconds of space here and there might come in handy down the stretch.
  • i always wanted the last bit of the reverb tail on the organ at the end of “revenge is sweet” to cut straight to the beginning of “new ways of saying old things” on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, but i didn’t have a CD burning program that would let me make that happen at the time. now there isn’t any dead space between those two songs and they’re heard as one unbroken thing, as intended.
  • “bring rain in case of fire” has a slightly longer fade at the end now, with a few extra seconds of backwards combo organ.
  • the slide guitar at the end of “kamikaze daybreak” used to be a fair bit louder than the rest of the song. it was kind of jarring. i brought the volume of that section down to integrate it a little better and make up for the oversight.
  • likewise with the instrumental jig at the end of “laugh like a god of death”.
  • “oh, you pretty little narcissist” now has a clean ending instead of an abrupt, somewhat unnatural-sounding fade.
  • “flatten the learning curve” used to suffer from a split-second glitch in the middle of the song, thanks my mixer-specific CD burner being on its last legs. that CD burner has since been replaced two times over, and the glitch is gone.

most fades at the end of songs have been made to match the original mixer moves as closely as possible. in a few cases a song fades out a little sooner or later than before. we’re getting into hair-splitting territory here, though. even if you know these albums very well, you probably won’t notice much (if any) difference.

i did play with the spaces between songs in a few other places when i wasn’t expecting to. the end of “skull jugglers” never used to smash-cut to the beginning of “jesus don’t know my name”. as soon as i tried that, i thought, “why didn’t i do this the first time?” likewise with the end of “molly, go home” cutting right to the start of “the penultimate kiss”. it felt right.

in most cases i took great care to match the exact length of pauses between tracks present on the original CDs. but when i saw a few opportunities to improve the rhythm of the listening experience a little or make it more interesting, i took them.

track spacing is a whole art unto itself. no one seems to talk much about it in the context of making an album. i think it’s a lot more important than most people realize. a few seconds here and there can make a world of difference in the way the songs flow into and out of one another.

this all took a lot longer than i ever thought it would when i started the remastering process. i thought i’d be finished sometime in the spring at the latest. here i am only wrapping up now, deep in the heart of summer. i think it was worth the effort, though, because now you get to hear the music the way it should have been presented in the first place.

as for me, i no longer need to brace myself every time i know things are about to distort in the middle of a song. those moments of distortion that used to almost cause me physical pain no longer exist. they’re dead. every one of them. and they’re never coming back to life.

getting to hear some of these songs in unblemished form for the first time in years has been a revelation. and the surprises i’ve uncovered along the way have been a lot of fun to experience. even though i wasn’t touching most of the mixes, i took a quick look at them anyway.

when it comes to music — especially my own — my brain is a serious hoarder. i don’t tend to forget many things. so it was surreal to hear countless alternate vocal and drum takes, guitar and piano parts that didn’t make it into final mixes, unused intros and outros, and even sketches that were never developed, stashed between songs like invisible little bookmarks. i have almost no memory of recording any of this stuff.

even when you don’t count any of the between-song sketches, out of these 188 songs, at least 100 of them have recorded elements that weren’t used, ranging from subtle little things, to “holy crap, this would have changed the feeling of the whole song if i kept it in the mix” things.

i’ve got a plan for some of this “lost” material. i’ll tell you more once it gets past the brainstorming stage.

twelve strings.

this is a takeharu WTK-65H twelve-string acoustic guitar. it was built in japan in 1977.

gord found it at value village seventeen years ago. he left it at my house not long after getting it, for at least a day or two, so i could try it out. i remember putting it in an open tuning and strumming the chords to “the ballad of el goodo” and john lennon’s version of “be my baby”, feeling the sound fill up the room. it wasn’t anything fancy as guitars go, but it had soul, and it showed up on a handful of papa ghostface and early guys with dicks songs.

champagne suicide (2000)

if it came with a case, i don’t think gord ever used it. he left the guitar leaning against a wall wherever he was living at any given time for anyone to play. some drunk person would always pick it up and break a string.

it became a running joke: the twelve-string that never lived up to its name. sometimes it was an eleven-string. sometimes a ten-string.

for gord’s nineteenth birthday i bought him a new set of strings, and for a moment the guitar was whole again. that lasted about a week before someone got drunk and careless and broke another string.

at some point in its life it either fell or was thrown into the detroit river. i’m pretty sure it also caught some embers from a bonfire one night.

when gord brought it over a few weeks ago for a long overdue visit, he left it here for me to borrow again. i think he just couldn’t get much use out of it anymore and thought maybe i’d be able to pull something out of its dust-covered guts because of the way i play. a thumb that’s spent years dancing across fretboards might be more forgiving than the other fingers.

the pickguard was hanging on through sheer force of will, the glue or adhesive solution having lost most of its hold a long time ago. it was so sucked-in it made the whole guitar look warped. the action was so high, about all you could do was play with a slide. fretting a chord was almost impossible. when i tried, it felt like i was going to break my thumb off. the intonation up the neck was about the worst i’ve ever heard on a stringed instrument. two strings and a bridge pin were missing. there were cobwebs inside the soundhole.

there’s neglecting a guitar, and then there’s this.

i brought it to stephen chapman, because he’s the guy i bring guitars to when they need work.

“who gave you this guitar?” he asked.

“a friend,” i said.

“this is not a good friend. give it back.”

you know it’s bad when someone who can find a way to macgyver a broken pair of studio headphones back together tells you a derelict guitar is a lost cause. he lowered the action as much as he could and said that was all he could do. “don’t even try to tune it,” he told me. “you’ll just start snapping strings.”

i’m nothing if not stubborn. back at home i lowered the tuning so there’d be less stress on the neck and the messed-up bridge. i took it slow. none of the strings broke. it was pretty comfortable to play now, but one string was buzzing something awful. we raised the action back up just enough to get rid of the buzz. i found some extra bridge pins i had sitting around and replaced the one that was missing.

i have three almost-complete sets of strings for acoustic twelve-string guitars. they’re incomplete because every time i’ve broken a string on my own twelve-string, it’s always one of the high E strings that goes. it never fails. and i never feel like restringing the whole thing.

wouldn’t you know it — one of the missing strings on mr. takeharu was a high E. i had none of those left.

i improvised. i stole a high E from a spare set of strings for a six-string guitar. the gauge looked about right. it worked. then i replaced the other missing string with one that was meant to live in that place. you wouldn’t think two strings would make much difference on a guitar that’s got twelve of them, but the change was striking and immediate. the sound went from just sort of being there to filling up the room again.

johnny smith peeled off the dying pickguard and tried to scrub away the ugly scar the glue on its underside left behind. it was slow going. we decided it made more sense to get a replacement pickguard and cover up the ugliness. but it turns out hummingbird style pickguards are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. the new one i ordered was too small.

it was too bad. i liked the look of it.

i got rid of the cobwebs, rescued a blue pick with a skull on it that had been living inside the guitar for who knows how long, and we picked up some of this stuff.

that crazy tape gave the old pickguard a new lease on life.

now it’s almost unrecognizable from the mess of a guitar it was when it landed here.

somewhere along the line i realized i was in a tuning not far off from the one i used seventeen years ago when i first met this guitar. i started playing “the ballad of el goodo” again. it felt like making a full turn. then i played some other things.

on a technical level, it’s still not a great guitar. i’m not sure it ever was, even forty years ago when it was brand new. but it’s got its soul back. all it needed was a little bit of affection and double-sided tape.

getting in tune.

the first musical instrument i was able to call my own was a casio SK-10. i had a lot of laughs playing the demonstration songs and selecting a sampled sound instead of an existing preset. my finest moment was probably warping “heigh ho” so every instrumental part was replaced by a chorus of sampled voices saying “bum hair”.

i can still hear the intro in my head:

bum hair
bum hair
bum hair

bum hair
bum hair
bum hair

i got some interesting sounds out of sampling the television, and “wrote” my first real song on that keyboard — little more than a C major scale played forward with one finger and backward with the other, using a clarinet sound.

when i started to get more serious about making music and needed something with more than thirty three keys, we rented larger keyboards. through the back half of 1994 there was a new one every month, thanks to johnny smith. first there was a roland EP-9. then a kawai X40-D. then a few yamahas — a PSS-190 and a YPR-20.

(you don’t even want to know what kind of detective work was involved in figuring out what the model names were for all these keyboards more than two decades after the fact when i never made a note of any of them at the time.)

the first musical instrument i ever fell in love with was that kawai X40-D.

its “super 3D” speakers put out a huge sound, and the ad-lib function allowed me to press one key and trigger a bunch of flashy runs that made me sound like a virtuoso musician. better still, there were song “styles” built in with all kinds of different quirky personalities. while i was faking flash with my right hand, one finger on my left would lead the invisible band in auto-accompaniment mode, with buttons to trigger intros, outros, and fills.

without the manual or any music theory knowledge, i didn’t know anything about getting minor or diminished chords out of the single-finger auto-accompaniment, so everything was always in a major key. most of the songs i recorded during this period have me walking one finger up the keyboard without direction, getting a little carried away with the “fill” button, and not doing a whole lot of singing.

the song titles tend to outstrip the songs themselves for creativity. a few favourites: “kiss me honey, don’t sting me”, “the underwater jellyfish (they jump more than you think)”, and “beyond modern temptation”.

the other rented keyboards didn’t have any auto-accompaniment functions. they forced me to get a little better at playing without help. at the end of the year we stopped renting and i got my very first “serious” keyboard as a christmas present — a yamaha PSR-210.

a huge part of my musical education happened with this keyboard at my side (or in front of me, resting on the dinner table). for a full year i recorded with it almost nonstop, both with and without johnny smith as my musical other half. little by little i figured out how to make music that felt like an extension of myself without relying on the instrument’s artificial intelligence to fake it for me.

early in 1996 we got a clavinova CVP-59S. the week it took to show up after it was ordered was maybe the longest week of my life. there are few things i’ve looked forward to with such all-consuming fury. i have a vivid memory of taking time out from a grade school field trip at an ice skating rink — i couldn’t stand on ice skates anyway, never mind skate — to buy some nachos. i sat, and ate those cheesy chips, and all i could think was, “clavinova. clavinova. clavinova.”

the PSR-210 was a great companion, with enough interesting sounds under the hood to let me go a lot of different places. but the clavinova felt like a huge leap forward. i couldn’t believe how much richer and more realistic the drum sounds were. the piano sounds were meaty and robust. and it just felt good to play — like a real piano, only better (or so i thought).

a few synthesizers would join the fray later. the clavinova would be my main instrument for quite a while. even when i started to gain access to dedicated “studio” spaces (aka “rooms in houses”) and picked up more instruments, it remained an important tool.

for a long time i thought, “what would i ever need a real acoustic piano for? i’ve got the clavinova. it doesn’t need any maintenance.” it was always in tune. when i wanted to record, i didn’t need to worry about mic placement. all i had to do was plug it in. and it allowed me to record on its internal memory when i had an idea i wanted to get down fast.

here’s a small piece of “the things you love (are always the first to leave)”, a good two years before it became part of the finished song that showed up on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.

when i was working on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, the clavinova started to sound a little one-dimensional to me next to the other, more organic sounds i was recording. i worked around it by using either a wurlitzer or a fender rhodes in all the places i wanted the piano to go.

then i fell in love with a yamaha C5 grand at ouellette’s. i’d played acoustic pianos before. usually they were mediocre uprights or grands that weren’t very well cared for. this piano was different. it inspired me. it sang. for the very first time, i understood why you’d want to have the real thing around.

for about five days i was determined to own that piano, until it sunk in that it was prohibitively expensive, and there was no way we would ever be able to make room for it in this house. you’d have to climb on top of it just to get into the kitchen.

i was a little disappointed to have to shrink my dream. but i thought there had to be a vertical piano somewhere out there that would be good enough to give me at least a few gooey feelings, if not the full body orgasm i got from playing the C5.

in the late summer of 2008, operation “find a good upright instead” was set in motion. i played a whole slew of upright pianos in the store. the one i liked best was a YUS series yamaha. the price was a whole lot less insane than what the grand was going for, and it was a world away from the poorly maintained institutional uprights i was used to playing in classrooms and living rooms. the pearl river pianos were alright, but they sounded kind of cheap and tinny. this one had class.

when i told bob i was interested, he said, “can i give you some advice? wait about a week. i’ve got some new yamaha U1s coming in. that’s a nice piano, but if you like that one, you’re going to love the U1.”

i’ve never been the most patient person. when i want something, especially if it has anything to do with music, i want it last year. bob convinced me to sit tight.

that week was nothing like the the week twelve years before when i waited for my clavinova to come in. i was looking forward to trying out some pianos. i wasn’t expecting to hear anything that knocked my socks off.

when the day came, there were two U1s for me to try. i must have spent close to two hours moving from one to the other, trying to decide which one felt and sounded better. there were subtle differences. hard stuff to put into words.

the upright i was going to buy before bob told me to wait a little while was a nice piano. for not much more money, these were on another level. he was right. holding off was the right move.

after a lot of waffling, i settled on the U1 i wanted. my grandfather had just passed away, and after telling me he was writing me out of his will i was shocked to discover he either didn’t get around to making good on the threat or he’d been bluffing all along. i inherited enough to pay for that piano, almost down to the cent. it was surreal.

my U1 was delivered to the house a day or two later. somehow it sounded even better at home than it did in the wide open store. it was a game-changer for me, giving me a whole new appreciation for the first instrument i developed any kind of proficiency on. it isn’t an accident that the first album i recorded with this piano features it on sixteen of its twenty two songs.

that was the beginning of the end of my ability to play a digital piano, live or in any other setting, without feeling like too much soul was getting lost. if you grow up playing keyboards, i don’t think you can appreciate what a real piano gives you until you get the chance to play a good one. just playing a chord and holding the sustain pedal down with your foot or letting a few simple notes ring out is an almost otherworldly experience. there’s so much more living inside the sound than you could imagine. a real piano sounds alive in a way even the best digital pianos haven’t yet found a way to emulate.

nine years later, i’m still in love with this piano. it’s never felt like a compromise. as much as i lusted after that C5, my U1 has always felt like the piano i was meant to end up with. it’s added depth to my recordings that couldn’t have existed otherwise and been a great ally and songwriting tool.

ric was over here about a week ago, tuning it for the forty seventh time in its life. i snuck a picture as he was finishing up. even its guts look like art.

when i told him i still sometimes feel like i’m on my honeymoon with the piano, and it’s been fascinating to hear the tone mature over the years, ric said, “it’s at its peak. it’ll probably never sound better than it does right now.”

that got me thinking about the first song i recorded with the U1 — not the first song i wrote on it, but the first one i wrote specifically for it.

when i knew i was days away from getting my black and white beast, i wrote one last song on the clavinova so i’d have something to tackle as soon as the real deal showed up.

(i wasn’t kidding when i said i never put much thought into whether or not my face and hands were visible when i was using the camcorder to capture ideas and songs in the process of being written.)

the difference in sound when i was able to play the chords on a real piano for the first time almost knocked me over.

you know that thing i said about being impatient? i couldn’t even wait to get the piano tuned before i started recording with it. the factory tuning held up well enough that i didn’t mind a bit of drift. i propped the lid open, moved two neumann KM184s around until things sounded right, and that was it. i’ve been recording the piano the same way with the same mics ever since.

technically this was the first song recorded for AN ABSENCE OF WAY, though it didn’t end up on the album. i made at least four different mixes in rapid succession. i almost never do that. most of the time i’ll do a rough mix, take a look at what needs tweaking, do another mix or two for fine-tuning, and then move on.

in this case every mix was different. the first one had everything in it, the second had less glockenspiel, the third stripped away almost everything but piano and vocals, and the fourth featured most of the instruments minus electric guitar. none of them felt definitive. they all had elements i liked and didn’t like.

three years later i took another crack at it. i always felt the drums were a little weak, both sound-wise and performance-wise. i was expecting to mess with a lot of things, but adding a new, meatier drum track seemed to be all the song needed. i thought i was done.

about a month later, i listened again. all at once, everything sounded wrong. the drumming was too aggressive. i went back and tried it a lot of different ways. something more intricate with brushes. something more subdued with mallets. something more skeletal with sticks.

nothing worked.

i thought about ditching the bass part and replacing it with some deep sustained organ notes. i tried recording some metallic bell-like synth sounds. i thought about ditching the triple-tracked vocals. i didn’t know what to do to get this song where it needed to be. the more i tried to change, the less sure i was of where i was supposed to go.

the thing that finally glued it all together was plugging in the alesis micron, playing some simple synth chords to shade what the piano was doing right at the point where the drums came in. i got rid of a lot of the electric guitar, threw out the drums altogether, kept the vocals and the original bass track, got rid of some wordless vocal harmonies near the end, and chopped out a little instrumental electric guitar/bass harmonics bit (i always liked it, but now it sounded a little superfluous).

after three years and far too many different mixes, at long last, the song felt just right.

someday our children will give us names

it’ll probably end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. i’ve been picking away at that album here and there for ten years now. that’s a scary thought, but one of the benefits of taking such a long time to finish a gargantuan album is giving a song like this the time to find the clothes it wants to wear.

you say you got a need for a celebratory season.

work continues on the next papa ghostface album, though my sleep issues and gord’s rotating work hours have slowed things down a little.

yesterday was our first session in a while. the last time we got together before this, we had plans to work on a specific song. then i started playing a random unrelated thing on an acoustic guitar, gord joined in, i started singing the lyrics for “be sorry” from SHOEBOX PARADISE, and our plans got chucked straight into the trash.

“be sorry” was one of our more accessible songs back in the day. it had a recognizable verse/chorus structure, the lyrics were pretty straightforward, and with a little more polish it might have sounded like something that could have made sense on college radio. it was also one of the songs we always liked best in our own catalogue of work.

whatever high school class i was pretending to pay attention in when i wrote the words, i had joe cocker’s version of “feelin’ alright” in my head. i thought we might do something with a similar good-time bluesy energy when it came time to set the words to music.

but songs have minds of their own, and they were trying to teach me that lesson even back then. the day i pulled out those lyrics in my little music room at the house on kildare, i started playing a descending chord progression on an electric guitar that was more indebted to “all along the watchtower” than joe cocker. gord came up with some inspired lead lines, playing through this cool little zoom pedal he had that’s sadly missing in action now, i found an appropriate drum pattern on the clavinova, and we got down to business.

i ditched a twisted bridge section mid-song because the lunacy no longer seemed to fit:

popsicle head
in a european convict’s mind
you don’t pay attention
blood red blush
in a rush of amputated loveless fear
you don’t pay attention
so kiss my head
my hairless head
kiss my head
or i’ll make you pay
kiss my head
kiss my head
number five
your creation is terminated

what that randomness was supposed to mean is beyond me. i sang the first verse a second time at the end instead of trying to pancake those words into music that didn’t suit them, and then we improvised a long instrumental coda with some fun duelling guitar business.

slowing the song down and playing it in a different key seventeen years later wasn’t planned. it was just one of those happy accidents. the new music felt like it gave a little more depth to some of the simplest words i ever wrote. defiance turned to something weary and maybe a little wiser.

we got down the acoustic guitars. i added some bass. then we left it alone. i meant to record some singing and experiment with other sounds. i still haven’t done that.

when gord came over yesterday, he brought his old twelve-string with him. the idea was for both of us to play twelve-strings and see what happened. there was one problem: his axe is in rougher shape than i thought. the intonation is a mess, and the action is pretty stiff.

my own twelve-string has held up a lot better over the years. i gave it to gord, he slipped it into a tuning a little kinder to fingers that play the conventional way, and we tried adding it to this new version of “be sorry” in a few different places.

i’m not sure any of what we recorded is going to end up in the final mix when all is played and sung. still, it was nice to be reminded again that while this cheap washburn twelve-string might not be anything fancy, it sounds pretty nice when you stick a good mic in front of it. all i did here was aim a single pearlman TM-250 at the guitar and put it in omni.

i still need to mess with some video settings on the T5i and figure out how to get the best results in different lighting situations. this was shot in auto mode, with autofocus on, in a room that isn’t all that well-lit most of the time. i think the ISO got bumped up a bit to compensate. so it came out a little grainy.

but i have to say i’m enjoying this camera a lot. the autofocus seems to do a solid job of keeping the important things in focus. there’s no way i could ever shoot handheld with either of the flip cameras and get movement this smooth, either.