A brand new thing dressed as a memory.

Two months shy of six years after I first started work on it, YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is finished. Over the next few days I’m going to proofread my art files for the booklets and inserts until my eyeballs liquefy. Then I’m getting them printed and bringing this baby home while it screams at me and throws up on my shoulder.

It usually takes me at least a few months after the completion of an album before I’m able to listen to it in something approaching an impartial state. I get the feeling it’s going to take a little longer with this one. I feel good about the sequence I settled on. I think it strikes a nice balance between unpredictability and plotting out a clear sonic and emotional arc. But it’s very strange to hear all of these songs together in one place after all this time, and it’s beyond strange to think of the album as a finished thing. I don’t think the reality of it is going to sink in until I’m holding the first official artwork-enhanced copy in my hands.

There’s always some minor snag or curve ball that comes along to slow me down when I’m gearing up to finish an album. Sometimes an essential piece of equipment dies on me right when I need it the most. Sometimes my immune system says, “Oh, you wanted to accomplish something? Here’s some sickness! Good luck hearing through six layers of snot!” Sometimes a pony gets the blues.

This time I couldn’t seem to make a master copy of the album that didn’t have a few glitches in it somewhere. The external CD burner I’m using has never let me down before, but it’s eleven years old now. It makes sense that it would start to break down after how hard I’ve worked it in that time.

I went out and bought a new external burner. It worked like a charm. I burned a disc, gave it a listen, and didn’t hear any glitches, but it sounded…off somehow. The high frequencies seemed to be exaggerated in an almost imperceptable way.

I was reminded of the time I tried about five different brands of recordable CDs when I was making copies of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN and every one of them sounded different to me. For all I know, my brain convinced my ears I was hearing something that wasn’t there at all. And maybe that’s what happened again with this CD burner. It doesn’t make any sense that two copies of the exact same recordable media would sound different just because they came out of two different optical drives.

It’s a subtle difference. It might be an imaginary difference. But if I went ahead and made a bunch of copies of the album with that perceived change in sound and then shared them with other people, it would bother me for the rest of my life.

One thing led to another, and I discovered my crusty old CD burner wasn’t the problem at all. It was the CDs themselves. I’ve been lucky over the years and haven’t had to deal with too many “coasters” (a common slang term for defective discs), but I finally ended up with some duds at the bottom of a spindle.

Here’s the irony of it all: my recordable CDs of choice for twelve years now have been JVC-branded Taiyo Yudens. A different company took over the production of these CDs a few years ago. I read a lot of horror stories about a dramatic drop-off in quality control. So I bought up as much old stock as I could while it was still available. A lot of people consider CDs to be a dying medium, and reliable media is getting more and more difficult to come by. I only ended up with a few batches of the dreaded CMC-branded Taiyo Yuden discs when the one store I found that still had some of the JVC-made ones ran out and sent me the new guys instead.

The dodgy CDs? They were my trusty old TYs. I tried some of the new ones just to see what would happen. The glitches disappeared.

Burn burn, spin spin, oh what a relief it’s been.

I was determined to fit fifty songs onto these two CDs. I almost pulled it off, until two songs found themselves on the cutting room floor very late in the game. Every other song that made it onto the album earned its place there. Losing even one of them would knock over the whole chain of dominoes. These two tracks, though — they could go and I wouldn’t miss them. It was a good thing they were expendable, because once I dropped them I had just enough space to cram everything onto two CDs.

Since they don’t really give away any surprises, here are those two last-minute outtakes.

I’ve talked a bit before about the experience of writing songs for other voices. It isn’t something I plan on doing again after this. I’m pretty sure at least two-thirds of the grey hair now living in my beard is a direct result of being given the long-distance runaround by so many flighty and uninterested singers. Most of the people I had in mind to sing the vocal parts I didn’t want to handle myself aren’t even on the album. Almost all of my first, second, and third choices expressed at least some interest in working with me only to turn to dust when I tried to make concrete plans with them.

I’m not at all disappointed it worked out this way. I was forced to get creative and reach out to people I might not have thought to contact otherwise, and now I can’t imagine anyone else in place of the featured guest vocalists who are on the album. I think the songs were ultimately sung by the singers who were meant to sing them.

Being able to see the positive side doesn’t negate the mind-numbing frustration I had to endure. I’ve got stories galore. Some of them are so bizarre you’d be forgiven for thinking I made them up.

I’ll save all that stuff for a post that digs into the making of the album and all its songs in a week or two. Trust me — it’ll be worth the wait.

I only mention any of this here because the first of these outtakes is one of those things I wrote with someone else’s voice in mind. I was thinking of a singer who sounds a bit like Frazey Ford. I tried to emulate that when I recorded the demo, with mixed results.

The Inverse Is Also True (demo)

I wrote an instrumental section to graft onto the beginning, worked out a horn arrangement both for that part and for the body of the song, and brought in Kelly Hoppe to play it. When I told him my lead vocal was a scratch track and I planned on replacing it with someone else’s voice, he said, “I like your singing on this one. You should keep it.”

After a year of trying and failing to get the singer I was communicating with to commit to anything, I decided Kelly was right and recorded a more serious vocal track of my own.

The Inverse Is Also True

There are a number of things on the album that thumb their noses at the conventional rules of song construction. This song does that too, but it was the one instance in which I felt I could see the seams between the disparate sections a little better than I wanted to.

I like the intro. It was inspired in equal part by the simple, declarative, powerful melodic statements John Coltrane made at the beginning of some of his songs (“Seraphic Light” comes to mind) and the brief, mournful saxophone interlude in the middle of David Bowie’s “Sweet Thing” suite on the album Diamond Dogs. I was trying to capture something of that quality when I wrote the melody Kelly darts around on tenor sax. I like that a lot of the singing is pretty high in my range without dipping much into the falsetto register, at least until the last section. But I can’t shake the feeling that I never quite nailed the lead vocal, and I couldn’t come up with a smooth transition between the final fading sax harmonies and the piano-driven coda.

It just felt a little too thin to me when I held it up against the other songs. And it seems appropriate that I would take what might have been one of the catchier moments on the album and chuck it right out the window.

Here’s a bit of video (from the time of Maximum Beardage, no less) demonstrating the outrageous difference in richness between my initial synth-sax guide track and the real thing.

The other last-minute cast-off is a much simpler affair. It’s not quite a fragment or a full-length song. It lives somewhere in-between those two poles.

A Will to Love (demo)

I went through a few different arrangements for this one before settling on something a little more pared-down. There are handclaps and lap steel tracks that didn’t make it into the final mix, among other things. I thought about getting a few people together for some group vocals at the end, but by this time my patience for being strung along was at a pretty low ebb. I’m still not sure if I should have left in that random drum flourish at the end or cut things off right before it happens.

The main acoustic guitar used here is a 1932 Washburn 5200. It’s not an axe I pull out often — it’s in a somewhat weird C tuning that only works for certain things — but when I do I’m always reminded how well it records. It puts out a lot of sound for such a small-bodied instrument. And it’s got the nicest smell to it. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s sweet without being saccharine. I’ve never experienced a fragrance quite like it with any other guitar I’ve held in my hands.

A Will to Love

Self-portrait in silhouette.

Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh. So said Al Swearengen in the first season of Deadwood. As much truth as there is in that sentiment — and as often as I’ve set goals for myself only to fall short of achieving them — it’s still fun to start a new year on an optimistic note.

These are the things I hope to finish in the year of perfect vision.

Year of the Sleepwalk

This one’s a no-brainer. I have one mix left to work on. Once that’s out of the way and the mastering is taken care of, I can go ahead and get booklets and inserts printed. Everything should be done by the end of this month.

The Angle of Best Distance

A.k.a. “the albatross I’ve been wearing as a necklace since I was in my early twenties”. I can see the appeal of an album that goes on growing without ever being finished — a musical map that traces something approaching a lifetime of artistic development — but I think fourteen years is long enough. It would serve as a nice counterpoint to YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. While that album is the most ambitious thing I’ve done in terms of overall vision and scope, this one covers a longer period of time and doesn’t feature any guests.

It would also be a nice way of bringing this specific chapter of my creative life to a close with a swift two-punch combination. I feel like I’ve said all I have to say for now in the realm of more conventional song forms. Both of these albums are home to some songs that do some pretty radical things with structure and dynamics, and I can count the number of songs with conventional choruses on one hand, but I think it’s time to get back to the way I was writing during the BRAND NEW SHINY LIE period. Not to recycle or repeat what’s already been done, but to challenge myself to sustain that method of song construction over the space of an entire album again.

I’ve said this before and it hasn’t happened. I’ve let the music take me where it wants to go and written whatever kind of songs want to come out. This time it’s different. I feel in my gut that it’s time for a change, and I’ve already starting writing some things that are leaning in this direction. I want to hear what happens when the non-repetitive way of writing gets funnelled through everything I’ve learned about production in the intervening years.

We’ll see if that actually happens.

Outtakes, Misfits, and Other Things (Volume 2)

I’ve amassed such a large collection of misfit songs at this point, it’s getting a little crazy. I learned a lot from the first misfits compilation. That one was pretty haphazard and just kind of thrown together for the sake of giving a bunch of cast-offs a place to call home. A lot of things probably shouldn’t have made the cut. I mean, even outtakes albums should have standards. And discussing the songs in chronological order in the booklet while sequencing them in a completely unrelated way on the actual album is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time but makes no sense to me at all in hindsight.

The second misfits compilation will pick up where the last one left off, covering things that have fallen by the wayside from the time of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN to the present. I think this one will be a much more interesting and illuminating assemblage of music, and it should work better as a continuous listening experience.

A posthumous Papa Ghostface compilation

This would act as a more wizened sibling to KISSING THE BALD SPOT — the outtakes collection I pieced together following the end of the first phase of Papa Ghostface only to discover it worked pretty well as an album in its own right. There are a number of worthwhile things that didn’t make it onto STEW or WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD for one reason or another, along with a few things we never got around to recording that I’d still like to take a crack at. I don’t expect the results to upend FLOOD as the definitive ending to the PG story, but it would be nice to take care of some unfinished business.

The first order of business is polishing off SLEEPWALK. Once that’s done, I’m going to dip my toes back into THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE and see how the water feels. If it starts to get overwhelming, I’ll kick it to the side (again) and get to work on something else. If, on the other hand, I get in a good rhythm and figure out how to sequence the mess of music I need to untangle, I just might manage to tame that savage beast once and for all.

The vanishing man.

As a rule, the end of a year doesn’t register for me beyond a few thoughts about the perceived acceleration of time and a few minutes spent taking stock of what I did or didn’t accomplish over the preceding twelve months. It’s a little different this time. It isn’t just the end of a year. It’s the end of a whole decade.

This hasn’t been my most productive ten-year period.

In the years that spanned 2000 to 2009, I made sixteen full-length solo albums (plus four EPs and two outtakes collections), nine full-length GWD albums (plus one EP, a few “best-of” compilations, and an outtakes collection), four full-length Papa Ghostface albums, a Mr. Sinister album, a West/Smith album and EP, the long belch that was The Adam Russell Project, the silliness I cooked up with Matt Malanka for grade eleven English class, various other odds and ends, and somewhere in there I found time to record albums for a few friends and appear as an unpaid, sometimes uncredited session musician on a few albums other people were recording.

From 2010 to 2019, I managed only four solo albums (the last of them released in 2011, so I started out on pace to match my output from the previous decade), two Papa Ghostface albums, and an O-L West album. I also did a few quickie mastering jobs, made a few musical cameo appearances, and recorded nine albums for other artists — ten if you count an album that was scrapped after the basic tracks were recorded because I found out the frontman was a piece of human garbage and I didn’t want my name associated with his music (I gave the band their money back). Eleven if you count another album that I don’t think got a proper release.

There have been valid reasons for slowing down so much. As my approach to making an album has grown more considered, it’s taken me longer to finish things. I’ve been getting an unprecedented amount of work recording other people over the last five years, and it’s taken an incredible amount of time away from my own music. YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK and THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE are not a normal albums, whatever constitutes “normal” for me, and they were always going to be long-range projects.

Still. That’s a pretty staggering drop-off in activity.

2019 has been one of the more topsy-turvy years I can remember having. It started out on a serious high. I managed to turn my dream of an ambitious multi-platform live show into a reality, thanks in no small part to a grant I received. Then the show fell apart when almost no one felt like honouring the commitments they made to me, I got sick from the stress, and I gave the grant money back.

That kind of summarizes my year — bouncing from hope and excitement to rejection and indifference on a level unlike anything I’d experienced before. Having that show disintegrate after putting five years of work into making it happen was one of the worst experiences of my life. Then I had to watch as some of the same people who didn’t care enough to show up for me turned around and showed up for the Wards of Windsor Music Project — at the same venue I booked for my show, with promotional material showcasing the same insect that was on my handbills — while the local “journalists” who wouldn’t give me the time of day when I reached out to them fell all over themselves to hype it up.

I don’t begrudge anyone their success. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that the whole thing was designed by the universe just to shove my face in the mud. People will be talking about that show for a long time. No one will ever talk about what I tried to do, or how a group of musicians who are celebrated for their talent and professionalism screwed me over and revealed how pathetic, lazy, and superficial they really are.

I had to eat that and find a way to live with the taste. It didn’t go down easy.

In the seventeen years I’ve spent trying to find a place to plug into this artistic community, I’ve been treated as a novelty, a trouble-maker, an aberration to be ignored, a whimsical distraction, a tool to be used and then discarded once I’ve served my purpose and injected some credibility or unpredictability into someone else’s music, a figure of ridicule, a subject of absurd speculation, and no end of other things. Outside of a handful of people who decided they liked my music based on its own merits, I’ve never been embraced as an artist or seen as a human being. I was never really accepted. I just made so much music for so long, it became impossible for an entire city to go on ignoring me.

My brief time spent as a partially-tolerated guest in The Club made it clear this wasn’t a world I wanted any part of. Even so, I thought I managed to carve out my own place and create my own community in miniature. I thought I paid my dues and then some, putting my heart and soul into what I did regardless of whether or not anyone else was interested in hearing the results, putting my money where my mouth was, seeking out collaborative situations when I didn’t have to, and going out of my way to help other artists in whatever capacity I could. I thought I accrued some amount of stature and respect. I thought I found some people I could count on.

I was wrong on every count. There isn’t a place for me. There never was. There isn’t ever going to be. Nothing I’ve done has meant much of anything to anyone. And in the end, the only person I can count on is myself.

It hasn’t been a fun lesson to learn, but I’ve learned it. Repeatedly. The difference this time is there’s no way to put a positive spin on it, and no way to delude myself into believing I’m a part of something when I’m not. Call it a rude awakening if you like. I call it a violent forced bowel movement of truth. I wish I wasn’t the human toilet bowl in the equation, but hey, you can’t have it all.

You don’t go through a thing like that without doing some serious soul-searching in the aftermath. I’ve done a lot of thinking over the last few months. Here are the conclusions I’ve come to.

I’m not going to stop making music. I couldn’t do that any more than I could stop myself from breathing. What I am going to stop doing, with a few exceptions, is sharing it. Having the stuff heard has never been what gives it value for me. Creating it is what I care about. Putting CDs together by hand and writing letters for people who can’t take five seconds out of their busy lives to acknowledge the effort has caused me too much frustration for too long. There won’t be any more of that.

I’ve deleted the page on this blog that provided contact information (though you can still find my email address if you care to dig a little), and I’m only making a very small number of copies of SLEEPWALK. Just enough to give to a few good friends. Anything beyond that feels like a complete waste of time. I know this is the kind of album you’re supposed to spread far and wide and scream about from the rooftops. Almost forty different people contributed to it, and by the time I’m finished I’ll have spent almost six years putting it together. It’s a massive Artistic Statement, in capital letters.

I’m going to do my best to make sure it sinks like a heavy stone. If anyone wants to swim deep enough to find it, that’s up to them. Even some of the musicians who contributed to the thing won’t be getting a copy. If you’re going to force me to hound you in order to share some music with you, you’re not all that interested in hearing it, are you?

A lot of artists don’t care about any of this stuff. I know that. They farm the majority of the work off to other people, from recording, to mixing, to mastering, to graphic design, to the physical packaging of their albums (assuming they don’t go the online-only route to save some money). If they bother to write their own songs, they’re often concerned with little more than tapping into whatever sound is popular at the moment and hitting on some mindless, heartless, gutless universal platitudes so whoever is listening will be able to stare into the massive ink blob of nothingness and hallucinate some bullshit they believe is applicable to them. The writer has no interest in expressing something or working to develop a voice that’s their own. Their music is a product, with all the emptiness and cynicism that implies. As long as they sell some albums and get a linguistic blowjob from a would-be writer somewhere along the line, they couldn’t care less about creating art or connecting with anyone. Listeners are seen as consumers.

If that’s what you’re all about, knock yourself out. What you do with what you make is no one’s business but your own, and I’ve got no quarrel with anyone who treats music as a job. I’m coming at it from a different angle because I don’t have a choice. Music isn’t something I create for money, or to generate attention, or because I think it’s going to get me laid or make me look cool. It’s something I do because if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t be a healthy person. I’ve spent my life eating, sleeping, and dreaming music — literally. It’s what defines me as a human being. When you get one of my albums, it’s something I’ve put together myself by hand, one piece at a time, with the specific intention of giving it to you. As stupid as this might sound, what I’m offering you is more than just a recording. It’s a piece of myself.

For too long I’ve been sharing these pieces of myself with people who accept them because they’re free and think nothing more of it. The music doesn’t mean anything to them. Well, it means something to me. I would rather share it with no one and at least know it holds some value for the person who created it than go on devaluing it this way.

I thought I found a way around this issue when I stopped distributing the albums in public places and forced anyone who wanted access to the music to communicate with me. It seems to be inescapable. Most of the people who’ve emailed me asking for music don’t respond when I follow up asking for an address or a convenient place to drop off some CDs (which begs the question: why waste your time contacting me in the first place?). The few who do respond almost never let me know when they get what I send them, offer nothing in the way of feedback or gratitude, and never communicate with me again in any form.

I’m done dancing this dance. I’m not going to beg anyone to let me share my music with them after they’ve expressed an interest in it. And if someone doesn’t care enough to fire off a six-word email letting me know they got what I sent them in the mail or delivered to their doorstep, they’re not going to get music from me anymore. I get nothing out of hemorrhaging time and money in order to send CDs to people who as far as I can tell don’t even listen to them.

I’ve gone to great lengths to prove I’m not in this for money. Some people seem to appreciate what I do for some odd reason. So what? That’s not enough for me. I want a dialogue with my listeners. Not some silent, faceless transaction. I know I’m asking for the moon here, but if I can’t have that, I’m not going to waste any more of my life chasing something that will never exist because I’m the only one who cares about cultivating it.

(If you’re reading this and you’re one of the few people who does take the time to acknowledge what I share with you, this doesn’t apply to you. You can expect to keep getting music from me until the end of time.)

You might think this is all sounding kind of negative and self-defeating. I don’t see it that way. What I’m doing isn’t shutting down, though it might sound like I am, and it isn’t an effort to punish anyone for not giving me what I want. I’m simplifying things and refocusing my energy. The happiest times in my life have come when I’ve gone about my business, made my music in a vacuum, pretty much kept it to myself, and paid little or no attention to what anyone else is doing. I think it’s time to get back to that. It’s served me well in the past. Maybe it’s selfish. I think I can live with that. Let the folks who don’t like what I do think they’ve “won” and I’ve stopped making music altogether. Let anyone think whatever they want.

Believe me, the people who won’t be getting CDs from me anymore aren’t going to sit around feeling sad about it. They’re not going to miss my music. They never cared about it to begin with. It was little more than background noise to them. When you think about it, I’m doing them a favour. They won’t have as much junk they need to find a place to stash so they can forget all about it.

I’m helping to fight the battle against clutter so we can all have a brighter tomorrow. I think it’s pretty commendable.

Two of the best things I did this year, meanwhile, had nothing to do with music.

I’ve struggled with my sleep for a long time. The trouble started in high school, with a lot of late nights and groggy mornings. I worked around the loss of sleep by taking naps and sleeping in on the weekends. I was able to keep things from getting out of hand until 2007, when a merry trio of crackheads moved into the other half of the duplex we called home. After seven months of being unable to sleep at any sane time thanks to their nonstop partying, I no longer knew what a healthy schedule looked like. I moved into this house with a broken body clock.

For the next eleven years I fell into a holding pattern. It was impossible for me to get to sleep at a reasonable hour, so I would stay up late and sleep in until I was getting to bed after the sun came up and waking up in the dark. The only effective way I found to turn it around was to go without sleep for thirty hours or so, crash at seven or eight at night, and get up at four in the morning the next day, forcing my sleep clock to reset itself. I would switch over to farmhand hours for a week. Then I’d start to have trouble getting to sleep again, things would shift, and after another week or two I’d be back on vampire hours.

I lost an unfathomable amount of time. I had to cancel plans I made with friends when my sleep got in the way. Hundreds if not thousands of hours of good recording time went to waste. My dream journal took some serious hits when I didn’t have the energy to get down more than vague impressions of what I remembered dreaming some days and nights — and that thing is well over six thousand pages long, so who knows how much more epic it might be by now if my commitment to it never wavered. Even when I managed to get a good amount of sleep, I almost never felt rested. Most of the time I woke up feeling like my head was gummed up with motor oil.

It can take a while for the body to recover from just one all-nighter. The sleep loss messes with your ability to store memories, your brain’s overall performance, your circadian rhythm, and your metabolism. Long-term sleep problems can contribute to the development of diabetes, depression, obesity, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.

On average, I went without sleep to shock things back into shape every three weeks. There are seventeen three-week intervals in a year. That means from 2007 to 2018 I had close to two hundred self-imposed sleepless nights.

No wonder I felt like wet garbage all the time. That’s horrifying.

Kind of casts a new light on the decline in my productivity over the last decade. Viewed through this prism, I’m amazed I got anything done at all in that time, and a little surprised I’m not dead or in a state of complete putrefaction.

It wasn’t a whole lot of fun to live through that. The worst part was feeling powerless to change it. Nothing I did would break the cycle. A sleep clinic wouldn’t have done me any good. I wouldn’t have been able to get any sleep in that environment. Sleeping pills weren’t the answer either. With the leftover anxiety I had from the 2008 home invasion, I probably would have had a meltdown if I couldn’t pull myself out of sleep that felt like it was about to take a bad turn.

I made a bit of progress in 2018. I only had to pull one all-nighter early in the year. My sleep started to shift, as it always did, and then it stopped shifting. I settled into a rhythm of getting to bed at one or two in the morning and getting up at noon. It wasn’t perfect, and it started to drift at the end of the year, but I was able to make it work. I ate at more reasonable times, even if lunch was my first meal of the day and breakfast was a distant memory. I saw some consistent daylight. I felt a little better. I was able to get out of the house more often and get more done.

By the beginning of this year my new schedule wasn’t working so well anymore. It was getting too close to the vampire territory of old. In February I went without sleep to recalibrate things one more time. I told myself having to do this once a year was a serious improvement over having to do it every few weeks.

I don’t think I’ll ever have to do it again.

For the last ten months I’ve been on a healthy, stable sleep schedule. I’m in bed before eight and up around five-thirty. I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I see a whole lot of daylight. I can’t remember the last time I woke up with that motor-oil-in-the-brain feeling. I feel rested and clear-headed every day.

I feel like I got my life back. The last time my sleep was in this kind of shape, I looked like this:

There were a few rough nights early on when I couldn’t get to sleep until around midnight. I didn’t let myself sleep in, and my body and brain got the message. They’ve been programmed so well now, I don’t need to set my alarm anymore. I can trust myself to wake up when I’m supposed to. Having trouble falling asleep is no longer a concern. The sleep demons that dogged me for so long have been decapitated and set on fire.

There are drawbacks, if you can call them that. Late nights aren’t an option for me anymore. There are events I’m not able to attend or participate in. One deviation from the schedule could throw everything off, and I won’t risk it. I’m rigid with the time I go to bed and the time I get up.

There isn’t too much going on around here at night I’d want to be around for anyway. So it’s a small price to pay.

I also lost some weight this year, though the exact amount is a mystery to me (and I think I might leave it a mystery).

For a very long time, I weighed one hundred and forty-five pounds. I was probably underweight. I went through such a protracted growth spurt during my adolescence, I didn’t start to grow into my body until I was in my early twenties. I didn’t exercise much, and I ate like a horse, but my metabolism always kept things in check.

I started putting on a bit of weight around the time we moved into this house. It was such a cumulative process, I didn’t notice it was happening until it became impossible not to notice. If I had to guess, I’d say every year I probably put on another ten pounds. Given how skinny I was for so many years, I figured this was me “filling out”.

Earlier this year I was at the walk-in clinic with a case of bronchitis. I was curious, so I weighed myself. The scale told me I weighed two hundred and sixty-five pounds.

I’m a large person by design. I’m six-foot-three, give or take half an inch, and my frame is not small. I think I carried that weight pretty well. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t starting to bother me. By this time I had a pretty serious gut and more than the suggestion of man boobs. I was down to a rotation of five or six shirts that were loose-fitting enough to hide the excess baggage. I found myself sweating sometimes when I was working on something in the studio, even when it didn’t involve any significant physical activity.

According to the Body Mass Index, I was obese. The BMI is about as reliable as a bunch of Windsor musicians who’ve signed on to play a show with you at Mackenzie Hall. I wasn’t obese. I was overweight, though. I could see it. I could feel it.

I’d been on Johnny Smith’s case to start walking for a while. In August, around the time of my birthday, I asked if he thought it might help if I walked with him. He said it would. I thought he could use the motivation and I could use the exercise. We decided on the Devonshire Mall as a convenient weather-proof place to walk. He drew up a schedule and we started walking every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning. I didn’t expect much to come of it.

A few weeks in, it hit me that I was still eating a whole lot of junk. Having that stuff in the house wasn’t going to help the Smithster get healthy. I decided if he was going to give it an honest try, I might as well give it a shot too. The junk food went in the garbage, and I started augmenting our walks with burpees, planks, and crunches twice a day.

I had no idea just how many unnecessary calories I was putting into my body. I used to have a muffin or a bagel with my breakfast every morning. I’d have a bunch of potato chips or Doritos with a sandwich for lunch, a pop or an iced tea to drink, and I’d follow that with a chocolate bar or a plate of cookies. I’d have another high-calorie drink with dinner, and for dessert I’d have a piece of cake, a piece of pie, or a bowl of ice cream. Sometimes I’d make myself a banana split. The meals I was eating were all pretty healthy. The problem was everything around them. Once I started looking at how many calories were in those cookies and chocolate bars and carbonated beverages, it made me want to weep.

I started having an apple with my breakfast instead of a muffin. I substituted a healthier low-calorie iced tea for my usual Snapple iced tea at lunch. Every Snapple product tastes like mud ever since they switched over to plastic bottles, so that was no great loss. I started making myself a small salad to go with my lunch instead of greasy potato chips, using a low-calorie dressing and being a little more judicious in how I applied it. If I wanted a snack, I’d eat a peach or a slice of watermelon. I started drinking water with dinner and following it with another slice of watermelon, or a handful of grapes, or nothing at all.

When we started walking in late August we averaged about thirty minutes. Now we’re averaging more than an hour and a half every walk. We haven’t missed a day. We even walked on Boxing Day. It was a bit of a nightmare, but we made it work.

After trying to stay away from the mall for a number of years, walking there on a regular basis has been an eye-opening experience. I knew a lot of people had been zombified by their cell phones, but I had no idea it was this bad. We see masses of people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities with their eyes glued to their phones, oblivious to their surroundings. Many of them are parents who are ignoring their offspring because whatever is on their phone is more important to them than their children. Some of those parents act more like children than the kids do. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the thirty-something dad in a toque who whined to his young daughter, “We can never like go anywhere because you always have to go to the bathroom!”

(You’ve failed as a parent and as a speaker of words. Good job, dude.)

The androids, as Johnny Smith calls them, will walk right into you if you don’t get out of their way in time. Most parents don’t even hold hands with their children anymore. If they bother to tear themselves away from their cell phones long enough to notice their kid is still present, they shout at them like a disobedient dog. “Come! Come on! Get out of there! Stop that! Catch up!” Then they walk on as the distance between them grows, not looking back at the child, assuming they’ll follow. I’m amazed there isn’t an abduction every five minutes. And I’ve lost track of how many mothers I’ve seen pushing strollers, ignoring the child inside in favour of a texting session.

This is child abuse. Plain and simple. These people are sending the message to their children that an electronic device is more important than they are. They should be thrown in some pit of a prison and kept there until they see the stupidity of their ways.

You know what else I’ve noticed about the cell phone zombies? Whatever games they’re playing or whoever they’re texting, the expressions on their faces are always flat and emotionless. There’s no smiling. No laughter. No grimacing. Nothing. Just one dispassionate dead-eyed stare after another. I wonder if they have any feelings left, or if the totality of their reliance on this soul-deadening technology has sucked all of their emotions out of them like a giant cosmic turkey baster. They’d be more upset about someone stealing their phone than they would if their child got hurt. It’s disturbing.

One image seemed to capture the startling inhumanity of it all. I couldn’t have invented it if I tried. One morning we saw a bicycle flipped upside down so it was supported by the seat. There was an iPhone wedged between the spokes of the front wheel, sucking juice from a wall outlet to recharge its battery.

Back to that weight loss thing for a minute —

I was wearing a 42″ pair of jeans when our walking adventures began. A few weeks in, I noticed they were getting loose. I dug through a closet and saw I’d saved almost every pair of jeans I outgrew over the years. I forgot to get rid of them. I found a pair of 38″ jeans, hung them in my bedroom, wrote GOAL JEANS on a Post-it note, and stuck it on the ass of those pants. I decided if I could somehow get into them by the end of the year, I’d be a very happy guy.

In October I was wearing my goal jeans. I found two more old pairs with a 38″ waist in the same closet. They were much tighter and less forgiving. By November I was wearing those in place of the goal jeans, and I couldn’t use my belt anymore. It was too big for me.

I kind of wish I’d taken some “before” and “after” photos, as embarrassing as they would be. I didn’t think to do that. I’ve never consciously tried to lose weight before, and I didn’t think anything noteworthy was going to happen.

What I can share is this:

Those are my 42″ jeans. That dark cavern is the gulf that’s grown between their waistline and my stomach. That’s…not nothing.

I have no idea how much I weigh now. Again, I’m not sure I want to know. If the number that shows up on the scale isn’t close enough to the number I have in my head, it would be a little discouraging. The number doesn’t even matter. And it doesn’t bother me if no one notices or asks me if I’ve lost weight. What matters is I know I have, and I feel better than I have in years. I also have a whole new wardrobe now. There’s a pile of shirts I had to stop wearing because they were too tight or unflattering. Some of them haven’t seen the outside of the closet in close to a decade. Now I can wash all the dust off and wear them again. It’s pretty neat.

Most diets don’t stick, and most people gain back all or most of the weight they’ve lost within a short period of time. I think this happens because you end up eating things you don’t like when you’re on a health kick, and once you lose some weight you convince yourself the hard work is done and revert to unhealthy eating habits. What I’ve tried to do here is not go on a diet at all. It’s more about making some lasting lifestyle changes. I don’t miss the junk food for a second. I’ve always loved fruits and vegetables. A good peach (when peaches are in season) or some watermelon satisfies my craving for something sweet in a way a chocolate bar never did. I still eat like a horse, but I’m a much healthier horse now. Neigh.

Here’s the secret to my modest success: I love the things I’m eating. I have no desire to go back to the way I was eating before. And instead of dreading walking days, I look forward to them, cell phone zombies and all.

Sure, I could go the extra mile and cut out my morning orange juice and my afternoon iced tea to drop even more calories. I could weigh my portions and count calories. Many people find that an effective approach to getting healthy. It’s not the way for me. Food is one of the great joys of my life. I’m not going to drain all the fun out of it with a scale and a measuring cup, and I’m not going to deny myself the occasional vegan donut or piece of pecan pie as a special treat. I’ve made some healthy changes that are going to be permanent, and they’ve made a world of difference. If I plateau around here and don’t lose much more weight, I’m good with that. I don’t want or need to be as skinny as I used to be. That would be too weird for words.

So that’s my story. I leave the house almost every day (pretty bold for an enigmatic recluse, eh?). I’m out in the world more than I’ve been since I was a teenager. At the same time, I have less to do with people than I ever have. Most of them are full of shit anyway.

Here’s to inhabiting a new level of obscurity in 2020 and learning how to disappear completely.

A grain of rice at the end of the funnel.

I set a low-key goal to have a rough assembly of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK on CD by the end of this week, if only for my own peace of mind. There were two mixes that needed some last-minute tweaks and two songs that required a little more in the way of clothing before I could mix them. If I could get all of that taken care of and the sequencing felt right, I’d be able to focus on finalizing the layout of the lyric/art booklet.

I didn’t do myself any favours by leaving some of the most difficult work for last. These are four of the most ambitious songs on the album, with an average track count of twenty-five. Two of them are more than eight minutes long.

For those who work out of a commercial recording studio — and even for most home recordists — twenty-five tracks is nothing. For me and my humble sixteen-track mixer, it’s a lot.

The mixing process has developed all kinds of new and interesting wrinkles. Mixing a song was once almost a set-it-and-forget-it thing for me, because there were so few tracks to work with. Now it’s become a musical performance in itself, with countless pinpoint changes in panning, volume, and effects.

Early in the week, I tackled one of the songs that still needed some work at the recording stage. It was in a very unfinished state. I had an acoustic guitar track, bass, some rough piano, a scratch vocal, and multi-tracked trombone and cello.

I was never happy with the acoustic guitar sound I captured for this song. I used my Martin 000-15. I love that guitar, and it’s really opened up in the eight or so years I’ve had it, but I’ve come to rely on it more for accents and secondary parts. It can sound a little thin when you try to build a whole song around it. I prefer the warmer, richer-sound of the 1945 Martin 00-17 or the 1951 Gibson LG-2 for that sort of thing.

When I revisited the basic tracks the acoustic guitar part wasn’t doing it for me at all. It wasn’t just the sound that bothered me. It was flat and lifeless. It sounded more like I was trying to avoid hitting an ugly note than really letting go and expressing something through the instrument. So I junked it, plugged in the Telecaster, and rebuilt the whole arrangement around electric guitar instead. Everything started to feel more dynamic right away. The bass was good enough to keep. I ditched the piano in the body of the song and recorded some Fender Rhodes in its place, recorded some drums, added some of the crummy twelve-string acoustic that’s become an occasional secret weapon, nailed down some keeper vocal tracks (the vocals are layered at the beginning before collapsing down to a single, unembellished performance), bounced the trombone down to a stereo submix to make my life a little easier, threw in a bit of lap steel, and braced myself for a mixing nightmare.

This is one of those songs that goes out of its way to subvert anything resembling a traditional verse/chorus structure. I tend to do that anyway, rarely writing a chorus even when sections of music in a song repeat, but it’s often a subtler thing (at least compared to the violent refracting of song forms that drove albums like BRAND NEW SHINY LIE and GROWING SIDEWAYS). Here it’s not subtle. There are four distinct movements, and none of them recur once they’ve run their course. The instrumentation shifts a fair bit as well, with different elements coming and going. The only straightforward part from a mixing standpoint is the final section, which is kind of striking in its starkness compared to the rest of the song — just piano and cello.

I almost fainted when I listened to the first mix in a few different settings and it hit me that I only needed to make a few small adjustments. That doesn’t happen with songs like this. It almost always takes me at least a few mixes to get things right, or at least as right as I’m going to get them.

The second mix, which isn’t much different from the rough pass, became the final mix. It might be one of my better mixes on the album. It’s ridiculous.

Luck? A fluke? I don’t know. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.

Full of self-belief, I jumped right into the other song that still needed some work, thought I might get it done in a day, and smacked face-first into a glass door. Proverbially speaking.

This one also has four movements, but they’re much more disparate, almost as if four different songs have been fused together. There are layers of vocals, saxophone, violin, many guitars (some acoustic, some electric, some backwards), bass, drums, and by the time I’m finished adding Wurlitzer and a few more atmospheric touches it’ll top out somewhere near thirty tracks. Not all of these elements are in play at the same time, which is part of what makes it such a delicate dance to pull all the threads together.

I added some new vocal tracks to the last section. Then I tried re-recording the vocal tracks for two other sections before deciding I liked the existing takes better. They may be imperfect, but there’s an energy there that feels right. I recorded some acoustic twelve-string guitar over the most propulsive part to thicken things up a little (using my own axe this time) and started forming some ideas about just how I’m going to mix this monstrous thing. I still need to replace some of the sax stabs with vocal harmonies and take another pass at the drum part.

It’s taking a little longer than I hoped, but given how complicated the thing is, it was probably unrealistic to think I could blow through it in an afternoon. Better to let it take its time. If that means another few days of experimenting before I figure out all the final touches the song needs, and if the two mixes I still need to fine-tune end up getting impatient and rolling their eyes at me, so be it.

I’m not quite there yet. But I’m close.

Sinus infections are still stupid.

In what’s become a frustrating recurring theme, I once again find myself getting sick when I’m days away from wrapping up the album I’m working on.

I still need to tweak a few mixes, and there’s one vocal performance I want to take another crack at. All of that’s going to have to wait a bit, because my voice and ears are not quite at their best right now (thanks, congestion).

There’s good news, though. For the first time in years, instead of one of those brutal colds that knocks me out for a few weeks, what I’ve been saddled with this time is little more than your average seasonal cold. There’s been no bullfrog voice, no hacking up a lung, and no feeling like my head’s going to explode if I cough or sneeze one more time. I haven’t had to pop a single throat lozenge. I’ve felt a little run-down here and there, but for the most part my energy has been good. I’ve been getting a lot of fresh air and staying just as active as I was before I got sick (which is more active than you might think).

It’s the third time I’ve been sick this year. That’s a little irritating. But I’ll take this mild inconvenience over the alternative any day.

Because of the time I’m losing, I don’t think there’s any way I’m going to be able to get YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK release-ready by the end of the year now. I’m still confident I’ll have a final master of the album by the end of the month, but I doubt I’ll have a chance to work out the packaging side of things before the holidays. And I’m okay with that.

As impatient as I am when it comes to releasing things — especially when I haven’t put out a solo album since 2011 — and as much as I enjoy the perversity of tossing something out there at the tail end of a calendar year, knowing it’s probably going to get buried and ignored, I think this album deserves a little better than that. It’s been a long time since I had an opportunity to come roaring out of the gate with a new album right at the beginning of a brand new year. It would be kind of fun to have that experience again, and to see what impact it has on my momentum through the rest of 2020.

So that’s the new plan. It feels like a good note to start the year on.

Getting closer.

There are three songs that still need a bit of work before I can mix them, four songs I need to fine-tune the mixes for, and then YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is done.

It’s a strange feeling to be this close to the end after spending years feeling like it was a mountain I could never climb. There’s satisfaction, but it’s laced with disbelief. Some part of my brain is having a difficult time processing the idea that I’ve really made it this far.

I’ve saved some of the most intimidating songs for last. A few of them have arrangements that are so ambitious and fluid, mixing one song becomes more like mixing three or four at once. You’d think it would make more sense to get these things out of the way early on, but I feel better tackling them after getting most of the other mixes the way I want them, using the confidence and momentum I’ve accumulated as fuel.

So far I haven’t had to take ten different passes at a mix the way I did with one of the tracks on WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD. So there’s that. A lot of times the rough mixes are pretty good, and the difference between “rough” and “album-ready” is only a few small adjustments. The lead vocal comes up a bit, a secondary guitar part gets nudged down in the mix, and suddenly everything fits together just right.

Every time I tried to guess at a “release date” in the past, it was little more than a prayer-filled shot in the dark. Now I can say with some degree of confidence that there’s no reason I shouldn’t have the album packaged and ready to share sometime in December — probably in time for Christmas.

Attentive readers will notice that the picture above marks the end of Maximum Beardage (2017-2019). I let it go for two years, which has to be a new record for me. It was fun, the hair didn’t get in the way too much when I was eating, and my plan was to hold off on trimming it down until the album was finished.

I looked in the mirror a week or two ago and saw this:

That’s a pretty fine beard if you ask me. I could have tidied up a few scraggly bits and gone about my day. But then I started thinking. I’m a tall guy. Most people who look at me don’t see me at eye level. They get a view that might look more like this:

Scary stuff.

I kind of got tired of all the grey hair in there anyway. So I grabbed the scissors and marvelled at the amount of hair that came off of my face. I still have a significant beard, but it’s much neater now, and birds are less likely to try and nest there for the winter.

Musicians make great construction workers.

Ron just redesigned his website, and while he was at it he snuck his new album in there. You’ll find it if you scroll about halfway down the page. It’s just below the video for “Ballad of Bob Probert”. You can’t download it just yet, but you can stream all the songs. The plan is to give it a more visible online release soon, and then a physical release (complete with a CD release show) early in the New Year.

If you’d like, you can read all about my take on the making of the album over here. Spoiler alert: I give away a few recording secrets.

I had a great time working with Ron on this one, and I think the culmination of that work is both a great Ron Leary album and some of the best work I’ve done as a producer/arranger/stuff-doer. I’m excited for people to hear it.

About the video at the top of this post — I didn’t capture anywhere near as much recording footage as I wanted to, but I did document most of the title track being put down on digital tape. I say “most” because my camera’s battery died before I could get all of Ron’s acoustic guitar track. That’s why it fades out before the song is finished. I think it’s still a neat little behind-the-scenes vignette, even if the grainy vocal footage stands out like a sore thumb (I used both the T5i and the old Flip camera for different things, and the contrast between the two is…not subtle).

The island of misfit songs.

For the first time since I started work on this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK thing, I can see the finish line. It’s almost close enough to touch. Worst case scenario, I should be able to get it in the hands of the few people I’m planning on sharing it with in time for Christmas. After beginning to feel like one of those blowhards who’s always talking about some project they never manage to finish, it smells a bit like vindication. And cinnamon.

(Don’t tell me finish lines are scentless. I’ll never believe it.)

In spite of all the progress made, I’ve been wrestling with the track list for some time now. It wasn’t too difficult to work out a sequence for the first disc that felt right, but the second disc has given me all kinds of grief. I couldn’t get past the feeling that there were too many subdued, mid-tempo songs. At the same time, whenever I tried throwing in something catchy and upbeat to shake things up, it felt like it cheapened the whole album — like I was letting a song sneak in not because I felt it was my best work, but because it made for a more accessible listening experience.

It took a bit of banging my head against the wall, but I decided if the second disc wanted to be a little more low-key than the first, I might as well let it. Bad things happen when I try to force the music somewhere it doesn’t want to go.

Within a few days of making that decision, a peppy little bluegrass song I thought was an outtake became album material out of nowhere — fleshing out the arrangement really transformed it — and I recorded a ninety-second rock song called “Your Music in Commercials After You Die” that was too much fun not to include. Three guesses what that last one’s about!

So I got a little bit of what I thought I needed, but in a much more organic way.

The second disc is still going to be a less hyper-eclectic affair than the first one, but in all fairness the first half of this album is probably the most diverse collection of songs I’ve ever squeezed onto a single CD. It takes in experimental rock, progressive piano pop, sombre folk, shoegaze/dream pop, doo-wop — and that’s just the first five songs.

Needless to say, if you’re one of those folks who’s always longed for me to make a concise ten-song album that stays rooted to one place, you’re not going to find that here.

Along the way, a lot of things have fallen by the wayside. I think I’d have to go all the way back to 2003’s NUDGE YOU ALIVE to find the last album I made where every song that was recorded made the cut. As more thought has gone into the crafting of each album as an artistic statement, outtakes have become a fact of life. Sometimes a song sounds like a keeper when you’re carrying it around in your head, but when you get around to recording it there’s something missing. Other times the song is strong enough, but it doesn’t fit in with the emotional or sonic arc you’re trying to create with the album. In some cases the arrangement doesn’t feel right and you abandon the song before it even gets a rough mix.

It almost always boils down to a gut feeling for me, even with the most random-seeming segues — does this belong?

It stands to reason that when you take ten times longer than usual to make an album, you’re going to end up with a pretty substantial collection of outtakes. This YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK situation is a new one for me, though. It’s the first time in my life the outtakes have outnumbered the album tracks.

I’m going to try and squeeze fifty songs onto these two CDs. The limitations of the media will determine whether or not I can. Even if I do manage to pull it off, there are still eighty-four songs I’ve recorded for the album that won’t be moving on. And that’s not counting any of the sketches or demos. There are hundreds of those by now.

I’m not bragging. I’m a little bewildered. I expected there to be a fair amount of outtakes, but not this many.

Some of these songs are destined for a second “misfits” compilation somewhere down the road. A few might sneak onto THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE if I ever finish that thing. A whole whack of them will probably never see the light of day at all, or else I’ll re-record them from scratch at a later date if it feels like they’re right for a different album.

Some of my favourites still haven’t been given a proper mix, but a handful of them have. After all, I thought at least some of these things were potential album material at one time or another.

Here’s a little taste of what didn’t make it out of the kitchen.

Love Among the Cannibals

I wrote more piano ballads for this album than I knew what to do with. Somewhere around half of them made the cut. This one didn’t. I like it — especially the way it starts out so sparse and then ends as an overdriven wall of sound — but my dreamy, hazy side is already well represented in a number of other songs that take more interesting turns.

La Noche Está Viva con la Locura de Los Hombres

A song written in Spanish, sung with a straight face when the lyrics are secretly ridiculous? That’s right up my alley. So why isn’t it going on the album?

It’s fun, but it feels a little thin to me — more of a novelty song. I also never quite got the arrangement the way I wanted it. The plan was to punctuate the end of each verse with mariachi trumpets. By the time I got around to fleshing this one out, I was pretty sure I never wanted to bring another outside musician into my music again. I settled for singing into the Yamaha VSS-30 and utilizing the oversampling function, creating some silly lo-fi operatic vocal harmonies where the horns were supposed to be. The highlight of the recording process might have been singing “chin to chin” through a child’s voice transforming toy and layering some grimy harmonies.

In English, the title is “Night Is Alive with the Folly of Men”. If you’re curious, this is what the lyrics translate to:

These gifts you bring me —
they are such abysmal shit.

You do not know me at all.
You make my anus weep such tears of disappointment.

I want to walk naked on the moon
and urinate in silence
as God would do
if He drank a lot of beer.

I want to eliminate your nipples
from my memories and visions,
but life is long and hard,
so spank me gently.

Sweet Exposure Dance

This is one of those catchy little tunes I tried to sneak onto the second disc before realizing it was best to leave things alone. The swearing at the end was inspired by my neighbours. The afternoon I sat down to record the basic tracks, everyone on the block decided to cut their grass. But they didn’t do it all at once. They took turns. As soon as one person finished, another would start. This went on for hours. It got pretty irritating after the seventh or eighth person decided the world was going to end if they waited another day to mow their lawn.

It might not surprise you to know I did a little internal celebration when we got our first real snowfall of the season the other day. No more lawnmowers until next year. Hallelujah.

Headless Man in a Three-Piece Suit

As many different places as this album goes musically, “excerpt from a futuristic soft porn soundtrack” felt a little too random even for me. This one is all Alesis Micron and VSS-30. The Micron supplies the synth bass and the percussion that sounds a little like it’s short-circuiting. Everything else is the VSS-30, and the sound that holds everything together is my voice, oversampled about a hundred times (okay, maybe five or six). It’s kind of funky, isn’t it?

Tunica Media

I always try to end an album with something that feels like an ending. There’s usually one song that jumps out at me and grabs that spot. This time a number of tracks were considered. This one got voted off the island, but I still like its unpredictable harmonic movement.

Gratitude, Latitude, Something Something Attitude

I wasn’t able to nail the feeling I wanted here. I was going for something with a bit of punky energy, and it all came out sounding pretty bloodless. I didn’t have it in me to push for the more aggressive vocal performance the song needed to put it over the top. It didn’t help that I ran out of tracks on the mixer and couldn’t add the group vocals I hoped would punch things up a bit.

The initial GarageBand demo somehow got a lot closer to what I was after:

Gratitude, Latitude, Something Something Attitude (demo)

Wake Me When It’s over

Now, this is a tiny song I like an awful lot, even if there isn’t much to it. A bunch of guitars do melodic things while love is interred and finds itself more appreciated as a cadaver. Sounds like a winter rom-com hit to me. I really tried to find a place for this one in the album sequence. It wasn’t meant to be.

There’s a lot more, but I think that gives you at least some idea of the sheer breadth of stuff we’re dealing with here. It almost feels like a miracle that I’ve been able to pare things down to a lean two-disc set. I’ve had to kill some of my darlings along the way, but sometimes that’s the cost of doing business.

Headphones: the final frontier.

Headphones can be such a nuisance.

Since the beginning of time, every year or two the cord for my Sennheiser HD265s craps out on me — though I seem to have solved this problem at long last by using separate cords upstairs and downstairs, cutting down on wear and tear. If I’m not accidentally sitting on a pair and destroying them (sorry, Direct Sound EX29s), I’m swearing when one of the drivers stops working and I’m left with sound in only one ear (I’m looking at you, Vic Firth isolation headphones).

The most frustrating of them all might be my Denon AH-D7000s — and not for any of the reasons you’d expect.

I bought them ten years ago, right in the middle of recording LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS. They ran me about a thousand bucks. I was reluctant to spend that much money on a pair of headphones, but these were worth it. Some headphones will lie to you and make poorly-recorded music sound okay. Not these guys. Bad recordings and bad mixes are revealed in all their awful, glorious mediocrity. At the other end of the spectrum, when something is recorded and mixed well, it sounds otherworldly on these headphones. They’re a little on the bright side, but that allows me to hone in on and eliminate lip smacks, tongue clicks, and other unwanted incidental sounds that might otherwise slip through the cracks.

I’m sure something like the Stax SR-009s would blow the AH-D7000s away. I’m going to go out on a limb and say even if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t begin to consider spending $10,000 on those headphones and the amp needed to drive them. The AH-D7000s do the job just fine for me.

They’ve become an indispensable mixing tool. If I can get a song to sound good on my monitors, the darker (and somewhat more flattering) Sennheiser headphones, and these Denon headphones, I know it’s going to translate just about anywhere, whether it’s a full-range hi-fi setup or tiny laptop speakers.

All was well until three or four years ago, when something strange started to happen. Every once in a while I would leave one of my spiral notebooks lying around in the studio and a small splotch would appear somewhere on whatever page the book was flipped open to. I don’t have oily fingers, so it was a bit of a mystery to me. I started to think maybe there was a friendly ghost wandering around in our house and he/she enjoyed reading my lyrics. Nothing else made much sense.

Then I noticed I kept leaving the Denon AH-D7000s on top of whatever notebook I was using. It wasn’t greasy ghost fingers making those splotches. It was the ear pads on the headphones.

I’ve never been rough with the AH-D7000s — I take care of my stuff — but they’ve been very well-used in the time I’ve had them. When one of the structural screws popped out, forcing Steve Chapman to turn into MacGyver and save the day, it was shoddy craftsmanship on Denon’s part that led to the problem, not headphone abuse on my part.

Now it’s the same thing again. Here’s a company that charges a lot of money for high-end headphones, and they can’t be bothered to use a PVC solution that won’t completely break down over time.

It’s been getting worse over the last little while. Now both the headband and the ear pads are degrading, and some days I’m finding bits of pleather in my hair and on my face.

Laurette, the owner and alterationist at Seams to Fit, has done a fair bit of mending for us over the years. Seventeen years ago, Johnny Smith brought Jiffy — a stuffed giraffe I’ve had since I was a baby — to her for some surgical intervention. Too many trips to the washing machine in my childhood left him with some awful scoliosis, and he couldn’t even raise his head anymore. Thanks to Laurette, Jiffy got his swagger (and his posture) back, and he’s still going strong today at the age of thirty-six.

If anyone was going to be able to do something to salvage these headphones, I thought it might be Laurette.

I asked her what she thought about sewing a fabric over the headband to cover the decrepit pleather so it wouldn’t break off in my hair anymore. Without batting an eye, she said, “What about vinyl?” She had an extra piece squirreled away that looked like it was just the right size. It was black, and it looked and felt very similar to the material the existing headband was made out of. She said she could rig something up with velcro so it would be removable, in case I ever wanted to clean it.

Two days later it was ready. She charged me all of five bucks. From a distance, you wouldn’t even guess the headphones have been altered in any way.

The ear pads are another story.

A lot of third party companies sell replacement pads that cost anywhere from thirty to sixty dollars. That sounds semi-reasonable, but there’s a serious drawback. Because none of these ear pads are manufactured from the original materials Denon used, they all change the way the headphones sound. That wasn’t going to work for me.

You’d think I could just buy replacement ear pads from Denon themselves. Nope. They used to sell replacement parts, but they’ve discontinued most of the headphones they used to make, and though the new AH-D7200s look almost identical to the AH-D7000s, you can’t even buy replacement ear pads for them. Talk about not standing behind your products.

After doing some research, I discovered Fostex is the only reputable company making replacement ear pads that are more or less interchangeable with the original AH-D7000 pads, and they won’t alter the sonic signature of the headphones too much. After shipping, they would run me well over a hundred dollars. For ear pads. Made of the same material that will someday degrade and flake off on my face all over again.

“Nuts to that,” says I.

I’m sticking with the decaying ear pads I’ve got. I don’t mind picking the occasional tiny bit of pleather off of the side of my face. At least I don’t have to worry about it getting stuck in my hair anymore. That’s progress.