I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (and again, and again): blog neglect is a sad thing.
You know what isn’t a sad thing at all, though? Having the chance to reacquaint yourself with a guitar that’s led a troubled life.
The first acoustic guitar I ever bought that wasn’t a hunk of junk was a Simon & Patrick 6CW Spruce. I got it in the summer of 2002. It’s in my bedroom as I type this, leaning against my closet door. But the first really good acoustic guitar I got my hands on was a Washburn D82SW. I found it at Riverside Music in late 2004. It was used but in perfect condition. I dropped it in a bit of an odd tuning I started favouring around the time of OH YOU THIS (D# A# C# G# A# D#) and the guitar took it like a champ. The more I played it, the more I liked it, until I decided it was coming home with me.
I played that guitar all the time. I wrote a pile of new songs on it. When 2004 turned into 2005, I noticed I was getting dead fret sounds on one string. I didn’t know what that was about. I didn’t think anything of it until the morning I heard something that sounded like a gunshot in my room.
It was my guitar. It had cracked in about four different places.
I brought it back to Riverside and told them what happened. The guy who sold me the guitar asked if I’d been humidifying it.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t know I was supposed to.”
“Didn’t we tell you about humidifying your guitar when you bought it?”
“Oh. Well, we usually do.”
And then he laughed. He thought it was funny.
If he’d bothered to do his job, I would have known I couldn’t treat this guitar like any cheap piece of plywood with strings on it. Now it was a mess. I asked if he could fix it. He said he’d have to talk to Washburn and see if the warranty would cover the repairs. Then he’d have to send them the guitar and I’d have to wait however long it took them to get to it.
He didn’t do anything. The guitar sat in the store for a few weeks until Johnny Smith found Folkway and we brought it there instead. The Washburn got a second chance at life (and some cool scars), Folkway became the source of most of the stringed instruments I own today, and I never gave Riverside Music my business again.
Everything was fine until about six years ago. I humidify all my guitars now, but when I grabbed the Washburn after another long period of estrangement there were dead frets all over the place. Anything past the fifth fret was toast. I don’t know if it’s the kind of wood they used when they made the thing or if the old wounds have made it more sensitive to changes in humidity, but I’ve never owned a guitar that hates the winter as much as this one does.
I kept humidifying it and taking it for a spin every once in a while, but after that it was borderline unplayable. The only real option was to rip off the strings and give it some deep humidifying treatment, and I was too lazy to do that. I thought about getting rid of it so it could be someone else’s problem.
It’s been really humid lately. The kind of humid that leaves people glued to their leather couches with no hope of escape. The kind of humid that has squirrels sprawled out on their stomachs on tree branches, their eyes full of contempt for the universe. I thought maybe the Washburn would be in a better mood now. And it was. Things were still buzzing out higher up on the neck, but it wasn’t as bad as before.
As an experiment, I supplemented the usual sound hole humidifier with one of these snakelike things you use in violins and cellos. I stuck the guitar back in its case. I wasn’t expecting much, but I thought it was at least worth a try.
A few days later, I opened the case and tried playing the guitar again. It played just fine. No dead frets. No buzzing. Nothing.
Score one for the green snake.
I haven’t really been able to play this guitar in any serious way in more than half a decade. It’s been fun to dust off some old ideas that don’t work in any other tuning — and this is a tuning that doesn’t work on many guitars. Either the intonation goes to hell or strings start breaking. The only instruments that have taken it well over the years are the Epiphone Casino and this Washburn.
There’s a little instrumental thing I’ve been meaning to record for almost as long as I’ve had this guitar. It was inspired by the sound of clock bells chiming the Westminster Quarters melody. It took me a few minutes to remember all the different bits of it, but I was able to piece it back together. I thought I’d celebrate this guitar’s return to relative normalcy by recording it. It’s not a perfect performance. There are a few sloppy bits in there. I think I might try playing it on electric guitar instead and see how that works. But it’s a start.
The microphone cables I use for the AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic have a habit of contorting themselves into unusual shapes. More than once they’ve formed themselves into a heart. This most recent shape looked to me like a cross between a treble clef and an ampersand, so I took a picture of it.
What can it mean?
I couldn’t say. But I’ve been slacking again with blog updates. Here’s an attempt at shaking off some of the cobwebs.
One of the things I’ve been working on over the last little while is a posthumous compilation of Papa Ghostface out-takes. There were some good things that didn’t make it onto STEW or WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD for one reason or another. I thought I should give those things a home. As much as FLOOD still feels like the best ending there could have been to the Papa Ghostface story, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a bit of unfinished business to take care of.
When I started sifting through the pile of finished and half-finished songs, I realized a lot of things just weren’t worthy of any kind of release. No amount of kicking those songs around was going to make them album material. Instead of being defeated by that, I saw it as an opportunity to shift the focus, dig a little deeper, and reach back farther. It changed the whole shape of the album.
The best of the late-period misfits are still going to be there, but now they’re going to have a lot of company. Instead of just a collection of out-takes, this thing is going to be a love letter to Papa Ghostface, taking in everything from the very first songs Gord and I ever recorded together on cassette tape in 1998 to songs I recorded on my own last week.
One of the most interesting things about putting all of this together has been revisiting songs I wrote more than twenty years ago. There were a few songs I always really liked, but I felt like the recordings we made as teenagers didn’t do them justice. I thought it might be worthwhile to take another crack at them. It’s been a little like having a conversation with a previous version of myself and discovering we’ve got more common ground than I thought we would.
This isn’t one of those songs, though. This one got its start in March of 2017. I asked Gord to bring his classical guitar over for one recording session. The idea was for both of us to play classical guitar at the same time, just to see if anything came out of it. I came up with some melodic ideas, he started shadowing what I was doing, and I hit the record button. I stuck a Pearlman TM-LE in front of my guitar, a TM-250 in front of his, and then we did the same thing a second time. That was my go-to tactic for recording acoustic guitar tracks with Gord. It always felt like there was just the right amount of air in the sound after we double-tracked a live performance, and just the right amount of bleed.
He recorded some bass. And that was it for a while. By the time I came back to the song to see what I could do with it, it was August of 2018 and my relationship with Gord didn’t exist anymore.
I wrote some lyrics. It was an interesting challenge, because I had to bend the words to accommodate the music. I couldn’t shift anything around to make room for an extra line or two. The second verse was longer than the first, and a hook that sounded like it might become a chorus only appeared once. The song title came from an expression that was born during the Spanish Civil War. A fifth column is “any group of people who undermine a larger group from within”. I swear I wasn’t thinking of Gord shutting me down in my own band when I chose that title. I just liked the sound of the words.
The song was a contender for WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD, so I picked away at it a little when I was working on finishing and shaping the album. I recorded some harmonies and a rough scratch vocal. It felt a little uninspired, so I abandoned it.
It took me until last fall to give it another look. I was able to capture a vocal performance I felt good about. I recorded new harmonies and added a new bass track. Gord had a habit of showing off sometimes when he played bass, injecting busy countermelodies where they weren’t always welcome. In this case, some of the things he played didn’t suit the song at all. I added some shaker.
And then I wasn’t sure where to go with the arrangement. I let it sit for another five or six months.
A few weeks ago, I decided it was about time I finished the thing. I recorded drums, electric guitar, trumpet, and a few more vocal tracks. But what really glued everything together was the piano. I thought I’d improvise just to see what would happen. Maybe I’d get a few little bits I could use. I ended up keeping the whole take. Sometimes I forget how much I enjoy sitting down at the piano and floating on top of a song without working out what I want to do beforehand.
The part of the song I struggled with the most was the long instrumental section at the end. I did this little vocal chant over that part. I liked it well enough. But once I got rid of that and let the piano take the lead, everything felt like it opened up. I even got rid of most of the drunken elephant sounds I layered over that part with the trumpet so those atonal anti-harmonies wouldn’t kick against what the piano was doing.
All told, it took four years for this song to find itself. In that time, I went from thinking it was little more than a middling cast-off to liking it quite a bit. It’s fun when songs surprise you that way. Now I think it could have fit onto WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD without much trouble at all.
There’s a lot of work left to do. It might be a double CD by the time I’m done. But I’m looking forward to pulling all the disparate threads together. I’m calling the album FLARES AND SIGNAL FIRES. I can’t really tell you why. It’s a title that grabbed me, and it felt like it summed up a lot of what I feel about this music.
I asked Amanda Brierty to make the cover art. This is what she came up with:
There’s also this variation on the theme, with a darker colour palette that creates a more apocalyptic atmosphere:
I love how both images look like they’re made out of a fabric you could reach out and touch if you wanted to. There’s something really unique and tactile about Amanda’s art.
There are even more “remixes” — she gave me a lot of options — but these are the two that jump out at me. I’m going to use them both, but I’m having a hard time deciding on which one to put on the cover. Day or night? I think it’s going to come down to how light or dark the album feels when all the sprigs and sprockets are in place.
Back in December of 2019, I wrote a bit about changing my diet, getting some regular exercise, and losing weight. I didn’t want to know how much I weighed. I didn’t want to see a number that didn’t line up with where I thought I should be. It was enough to know I’d lost a few inches in my waist and I could fit into clothes I didn’t think I’d ever be able to wear again.
A year ago I had to step on a scale. It was part of the process of getting a new family doctor. In August of 2019, I weighed at least 270 pounds. When I weighed myself in the doctor’s office in February of 2020, I decided I would be happy to be at 240. I stepped on the scale. I prepared myself for the worst.
I weighed 224 pounds.
I couldn’t believe it. Yeah, I’d been exercising and eating better, and I’d been on a healthy, consistent sleep schedule for a year by then. But I didn’t think there was any way I could lose almost fifty pounds in half a year without working out every day and going on a really strict diet.
That was a good feeling.
I kept waiting for the dreaded weight loss plateau to kick in. From what I read, I figured I was right around the point where I should expect my metabolism to adjust to the changes I’d made, and my weight loss was probably going to slow down before stopping altogether. I bought a bathroom scale to have at home just so I could see where I was when everything ground to a halt.
I kept setting goals for myself that I thought were unrealistic. I thought, “If I can get down to 200, that would be unbelievable.” I got there in June. Then I thought, “If I can somehow get down to 190 by my birthday, I’ll have lost 80 pounds in a year. I’d feel pretty fantastic about that. But there’s no way.” Come August 16, I was at 189. Then I thought, “Hell, if I can get down to 180 or 175 by the end of the year, I’ll be a very happy guy. Maybe I’ll even treat myself to a pizza to celebrate.” When I weighed myself on New Year’s Eve, I was at 174.
I didn’t eat any pizza.
Then I thought, “If I can get down to 170, I’ll have lost a hundred pounds. But that’s not even possible.”
I weighed myself this morning. The scale said 169.8. That means I’ve now lost 37% of my total body weight. That’s madness.
I’ve been walking with Johnny Smith for more than a year and a half now. Willistead Park has become our place ever since walking at the mall stopped being an option about a year ago (and man, was it ever a change for the better). We’ve walked through rain, through heat and humidity that made it feel like we were walking in a sauna, and now we’re walking through the snow. We haven’t missed a day on our walking schedule. Not one. I still really enjoy what I’m eating, but all the junk is long gone. There’s no more iced tea. There are no more snacks. Not even healthy ones. Maybe an apple slice once in a while if I’m feeling dangerous. The only thing I drink that isn’t water is half a glass of orange juice with my breakfast.
I haven’t set foot inside of a gym. I do about ten minutes of exercises using my body weight in the morning, and then I do the same exercises again before I go to bed. When I started, I could do about a dozen crunches, and I could hold a plank for about as long as it took me to spell my name. Now I do two hundred crunches and I can hold a plank for more than two minutes. I don’t think I’ll ever have washboard abs, but there’s definition in my stomach I’ve never seen before, and I think the muscles in my legs have children and grandchildren now. Doing burpees used to make me feel like my legs were on fire. Now they’re just something I do to wake up and wind down.
I’m not bragging. This is all surreal to me. I imagine it’s going to keep feeling that way for a while. If you told me doing a few simple things and fixing my sleep would bring about this sort of change, I would have laughed at you. Now I really wish I took before and after pictures. Even awful, embarrassing shirtless ones. But as much as I would get a kick out of having that sort of stark visual evidence of the way my body has changed, I’m more concerned with the way I feel. And I almost feel like a different person now. I guess I should, since I’m 63% of what I used to be.
Here are some pictures anyway. This is me in 2015.
I thought I carried that extra weight pretty well, but Jesus Christ. I look at those pictures now and I don’t even recognize that guy. When these were taken, I was already down to about half a dozen shirts that were loose enough to hide my gut. By the summer of 2018 those shirts weren’t doing such a great job anymore.
And here are two bathroom selfies. Because I’m so 2005. The first one was taken a few weeks ago. The second one was taken today.
I have a whole new wardrobe now. I’m wearing clothes I haven’t worn since high school. Things I shouldn’t be able to fit into. I even bought myself a few cardigans just to treat myself. It’s a lot more fun buying yourself new clothes when you like the way you look than it is when you’re trying to find things you can wear that will hide the shape of your body.
I don’t expect to lose too much more weight beyond this. I still haven’t hit a plateau, but things really are slowing down now. I’ve gone from losing about five pounds a month to just two. I’m fine with that. I’d be fine with it if I didn’t lose another pound from here. I think I’m at a pretty healthy weight now. I wish I made these changes a lot sooner than I did, but I guess the main thing is I made them while it still counts.
I never imagined I would feel younger and better — emotionally and physically — at 37 than I did at 30. But here we are. Maybe it’s true what they say: you’re only as old as you weigh. And if that’s so, I’ve got a few hundred more years ahead of me. You know what that means.
BRACE YOURSELVES FOR TWO THOUSAND MORE JOHNNY WEST ALBUMS.
I had a few different ideas for blog posts I was working on in the last weeks of 2020. I got sidetracked, time got away from me, and I wasn’t able to finish any of them. I thought I might as well treat the first post of 2021 — late as it is — as a multi-purpose dumping ground for everything I’ve wanted to say here for the last little while. Just throw it all together in one place and let the stray dogs and feral cats sort it out.
So here is my “2020 in review” blog post, and my “what’s to come in 2021” blog post, and several other blog posts stitched together to create one gruesome Blogenstein creature. Hear it roar.
2020 was a strange year for a lot of people. It was a pretty productive one for me. I didn’t get THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE finished, but I managed to finish another long-range project — the tangled musical adventure that became YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. I also finished a DIY documentary that was just supposed to follow the making of that album but grew some longer legs along the way.
I was listening to YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK some months back. I had another one of those moments of self-doubt. I started thinking I’d botched the whole mix and buried the drums (again). I went to the trouble of remixing about half a dozen songs — and this was after the album had already been released — before it hit me that my brain was trying to convince my ears there was a problem I needed to address when there wasn’t a problem at all. I was still having a hard time processing the idea that after six years of working on this album there wasn’t any work left to do.
So I filed SLEEPWALK away in a proverbial drawer. I haven’t listened to it since. I don’t plan to listen to it again for a long time. I’ve had to accept that I’m incapable of hearing it with anything approaching objectivity, and this time the problem goes beyond the usual need to gain some distance from a piece of work after it’s finished. Making this album was one of the most frustrating and demoralizing experiences of my life. It’s impossible for me to listen to some of these songs now without the ugly emotional residue of that experience colouring everything like an overenthusiastic anthropomorphic crayon with halitosis.
Someday I hope to be removed enough from the shit to appreciate the album for whatever’s hiding underneath the stink. Right now I just can’t do it.
But I’m stubborn. I thought I’d take another crack at throwing a few more microphones on the drums. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was time for a change. The last time I tried mic’ing up the drums in a more conventional way I didn’t really care for the results. I thought it might be a different story if I had an actual piece of music to work with and I wasn’t listening to a drum recording as an isolated thing.
I wrote something on the piano. After getting down some basic tracks, I pointed a Shure SM57 at the snare, stuck an SM7 in front of the kick, and moved the AEA R88 so it was acting as a stereo overhead. I liked the results a lot more than what I was hearing when it was a Sennheiser 421 in front of the kick instead of the SM7. I got a performance I was pretty happy with. Then I listened to it in the context of the song.
It was the tightest, punchiest, most “professional” drum sound I’d heard in my own music since 2006. It kind of sounded like something you’d hear in a professional studio. And that was part of the problem. On a sonic level it was fine. On an emotional level it was all wrong. It was almost garish.
This all sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
I was forced to come to the same conclusion all over again. I’ve been recording my drums in such a specific way for such a long time now, I’ve kind of ruined more conventional drum sounds for myself. Or at least I have when it comes to my own music. I think my sensibilities have shifted to the point that I just don’t want to hear those sounds anymore. For better or worse, that solitary stereo ribbon mic capturing the honest sound of my drum kit in my room has become my drum sound.
So I’ve embraced what I was already embracing, and it looks like I’m sticking with the “documentary” approach. If it feels like the drums are getting lost in a busy arrangement, I can always nudge them up in the mix a little or move a few things around to make more space for them.
This second failed experiment in changing up the drum sound dovetailed in a nice way with the beginning of serious work on the next album that’s going to have my name on the spine.
Post-YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, there hasn’t been a shortage of things to work on around here. I’ve been picking away at a collection of late-period Papa Ghostface out-takes — sort of a more wizened companion piece to KISSING THE BALD SPOT. There’s THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, aka “the album I’ve been working on in the background for about sixteen years now and should probably try to finish while I still have some of my wits about me”. There’s a whole pile of solo out-takes spanning the last dozen or so years. There’s a low-key album of cover songs I might never release. And I’ve been toying with the idea of remixing a few late-period GWD albums (along with the trilogy of post-band solo albums beginning with BEAUTIFULLY STUPID) to get rid of some low frequency mud that’s been bugging me forever.
A back-to-basics album of new solo material has also crept into the picture. It started out as just another thing I was picking at once in a while. Before too long it became my main focus.
It didn’t take long for me to fall into over-thinking mode. I told myself I needed to make a clean break from everything I’d done before. I needed to revert to avoiding anything that resembled a conventional song structure or a rhyming couplet. I needed to reinvent my whole songwriting language all over again.
This impulse has roots that stretch back a little farther than you’d think. I revisited BRAND NEW SHINY LIE in early 2016 after not listening to it for years. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with an old friend who was always convinced it was some of my best work. I spent some time reacquainting myself with all the music I was making during that time, when I was pursuing a non-repetitive, rhyming-free way of writing with tunnel vision. What struck me was how well it all worked.
There are so many things you can do with musical architecture that are more interesting than grabbing the same two or three bricks and turning them over in your hands until your fingers bleed. Forcing myself to stay away from any of the tried and true methods of song construction was a challenge I got a lot of enjoyment out of for a few years. Then one day it stopped feeling like a challenge and started feeling like it was just the way I wrote songs now.
It felt good to return to that work and to feel like I accomplished everything I set out to do, and maybe a little more.
All this time, I had no idea there was an official name for this kind of songwriting. “Through-composed”. Oxford Music Online defines it like so:
A term describing a composition with a relatively uninterrupted continuity of musical thought and invention. It is applied in particular in contexts where a more sectionalized structure might be expected, as with a Strophic song text, an opera divided into numbers, or an instrumental piece divided into movements. In the context of art song, “through-composed” describes settings in which a repeating verse structure is contradicted by the use of substantially different music for each stanza, unlike most hymns and folksongs, where strophic texts are reinforced by an equivalent repeating musical structure.
With THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, I made my peace with more repetitive song structures and started writing lyrics that were allowed to rhyme again. I found subtler ways of playing with form and stopped going out of my way to build songs that were aggressively unpredictable. Every album since CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN has been something of a balancing act, with songs that are content to inhabit less jagged forms rubbing shoulders with songs that don’t want to play by the rules. While I still write songs that keep shifting and mutating until they die, I haven’t made a whole album of songs like that since the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISMEP in 2005.
For years I’ve thought it would be fascinating to return to the through-composed approach and stretch it out all album long. A few times I thought it was going to happen. LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS started out barrelling down that path with songs like “Kings”, “Skull Jugglers”, and “The Things You Love (Are Always the First to Leave)”. Then I found myself writing some songs that didn’t want to be fragmented or abstracted in the same way and liking them just as much as the others.
Falling back down the rabbit hole that had BRAND NEW SHINY LIE and GROWING SIDEWAYS grinning at the bottom got me thinking about all of this again. But the real turning point came last summer when Bob Dylan released his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways.
I call it Shit and Shitty Shit.
I’ve always liked Bob, just as long as I don’t spend too much time thinking about how awful he’s been to the women in his life (hello, Joan Baez) or how he just happensto bean unrepentantserial plagiarist. But any interest I had in buying his new album shrivelled and died when I heard “My Own Version of You” on the radio.
Here are some of the lyrics:
All through the summers, into January, I’ve been visiting mosques and monasteries looking for the necessary body parts — limbs and livers and brains and hearts. I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do. I wanna create my own version of you.
Well, it must be the winter of my discontent. I wish you’d’ve taken me with you wherever you went. They talk all night and they talk all day, But not for a minute do I believe anything they say. I’m gon’ bring someone to life, someone I’ve never seen. You know what I mean. You know exactly what I mean.
I’ll take the scar-faced Pacino and the Godfather vandal, mix it up and attack, and get a robot commander. If I do it up right and put the head on straight, I’ll be saved by the creature that I create. I’ll get blood from a cactus, gunpowder from ice. I don’t gamble with cards and I don’t shoot no dice. Can you look in my face with your sightless eyes? Can you cross your heart and hope to die? I’ll bring someone to life, someone for real — Someone who feels the way that I feel.
There’s a whole lot more to the song, but that’s as far as I got. After I heard him rhyme “real” with “feel” I turned the radio off. I’d heard enough.
You’ll have to search far and wide to find someone else who feels the same way I do. Rough and Rowdy Ways has received universal critical acclaim. It’s been hailed as some of the greatest work of Bob’s long career. I don’t put much stock in anything the writers at Pitchfork have to say anymore, but their review can stand for all the others out there. They gave the album a 9.0 out of 10 (an uncommonly high score) and dusted off their now-meaningless “Best New Music” distinction, praising the lyrics as being “dense enough to inspire a curriculum” and “clever enough to quote like proverbs”.
I don’t know if the rest of the world has gone batshit insane or I’ve just turned into a bona fide curmudgeon, but man…I really don’t get it.
Very few songwriters put any effort into avoiding rhyming in their lyrics. I know this. You know this. Everyone rhymes everything with everything all the time. It’s the way things are done. Bob has always been one of the worst offenders when it comes to forcing rhymes into crevices that don’t need them, but once upon a time his words really were dense and witty. Blonde on Blonde is overflowing with dizzying, thought-provoking turns of phrase. This stuff? To my ears it’s the lazy, uninventive work of a hack who’s fallen in love with his own dubious cleverness. You can predict the end of almost every line in every song before it even begins to show its ass to you.
I can appreciate rhyming “orphanages” with “sons of bitches”. Here Bob rhymes “me” with “be”, “wall” with “all”, “two” with “do”, “one” with “done”, “play” with “day”, and “meet” with “street” — and that’s just pulling from two verses in a single song.
What’s most troubling to me is the knowledge that a lot of Bob’s words aren’t even his own. Not that he cares. He’s said, “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.” In a 2012 Rolling Stone interview he used stronger language. “All those motherfuckers can rot in hell,” he said. “It’s an old thing. It’s part of the tradition. It goes way back.”
He can gnash his teeth all he wants. The truth is the man who was once called the spokesman of his generation and is now called an elder statesman is really just a fraud. It’s true that most artists borrow or steal some of their ideas from the artists who have come before them. But I’m not sure anyone else who’s ever lived has been so bereft of ideas that they had to pilfer the bulk of the material in their purported memoir. I bought the first and only volume of Chronicles when it was published. It’s a book I’ll never read now, knowing the sickening plagiaristic depths to which its author sank, presenting the re-contextualized work of others as his own.
He couldn’t even use his own words to talk about his own life. Think about that for a second.
Some have argued Bob’s behaviour constitutes high level trolling. Others have said it isn’t plagiarism. It’s a long-form “artistic collage”. I think it’s sad. If you don’t have anything to say, maybe instead of stealing the words of others and calling them your own you should shut your mouth and take up a new hobby. Get into nude skydiving. Knit a penis-shaped quilt. I don’t know. Do something constructive with your time.
I guess the esteemed Mr. Dylan has other plans. And I’m sure he would brand me a wussy and a pussy for being bothered by this stuff. Maybe he’s right. After all, he just sold his entire catalogue of music to Universal for three hundred million dollars, relinquishing any future control over his work for a disgusting amount of money he’ll never be able to begin to spend in what remains of his lifetime, proving once and for all that his artistic integrity (or whatever remains of it) has always been for sale.
At least I can say I write my own material and I haven’t prostituted my art for money. That’s worth a little more to me than some smelly paper.
Anyway. After hearing those rough and rowdy rhymes, I thought it was about time I kicked rhyming in the nards and locked it away somewhere cold and unforgiving. It felt like the time was right to get back to a less predictable way of constructing things, too.
I wrote some songs that were through-composed and rhyme-free. I started to get excited about the new material I was creating. Then I decided it was all garbage and I was wasting my time. At the same time, I was telling myself I needed to find a way to top the last album. YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is by far the most eclectic thing I’ve ever done. How was I supposed to follow something like that?
You’d think I would be past this sort of thing by now. I guess not. I guess every once in a while I need to drag my feet through the mud of a low-level creative crisis in order to reaffirm that I just make the kind of music I make, whatever that is these days, and the “clean break” approach isn’t what I do. I take stock of what’s in the quiver, add a few fresh arrows to the bow, and then I fire them all up into the air, letting them fall where they want to. Things don’t tend to go well when I try to force the music to contort itself into a given shape. I need to let the muse have her way, and if it doesn’t always feel like I’m reinventing the wheel, so what? The important thing is that the art continues to evolve in some way, whether it’s a giant leap or a near-invisible shift of balance from one foot to the other.
Tied in with all of this was the realization that WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD was a more important album for me than I thought it was at the time. I think in some ways it crystallized my current musical identity. I’m thinking of the way those songs incorporate self-made samples and lo-fi ambient textures into the usual more organic sonic tapestries. In one way or another, everything I’ve done since then has been building on the foundation I established there.
I needed to accept that and run with it, instead of trying to force myself to make an avant-garde EDM death metal album when that wasn’t where my heart was.
The song that served as the backdrop for my unsuccessful second drum recording experiment was the turning point. After I gave up on chasing a more conventional sound and fell back into my usual way of recording the drums, everything opened up and started to breathe easier. Then I started second-guessing the song itself. I couldn’t work out the arrangement. It wasn’t clear what the song needed. I wasn’t sure if it was album material.
I was tempted to throw it in the trash. I forced myself to keep banging my head against the wall until I started seeing interesting-looking stars. By the time I was finished with the thing, it felt like this little song that wasn’t much more than a minute long had become a teachable moment. It didn’t provide the blueprint for what the rest of the album was going to sound like. I think I’ve moved pretty far past the point of being able to make an album that’s rooted to any one specific place. What it did provide me with was a useful lesson in what I should be doing, and it’s the same thing I’ve always done: making music without spending too much time analyzing it.
Of course, there were still some rough moments even after what felt like a breakthrough. Some days I felt uninspired and wondered why I was working on anything music-related at all. I’ve had to acknowledge that some of this is an outgrowth of the post-SLEEPWALK emotional hangover — not just in terms of what I put into making that album, but what the album and the failed live show took from me. You don’t bounce back from something like that overnight. You can’t just fill your empty guts back up like a vending machine.
One thing I’ve been doing now and then is revisiting random songs from the cassette recording days, gathering some thoughts in preparation for when I start digitizing all those tapes and making that music and the stories behind it a significant part of this blog. One day I listened to a song called “Forever Rocking” for the first time in more than twenty years.
In the early going, a lot of the West Team albums were more like solo albums. It took me a while to twist Johnny Smith’s arm into becoming a regular collaborator. One of those near-solo albums was called Forever Rocking, and it was recorded in May of 1995, hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed The Hole in the Ground.
Okay, so no one in the known universe has ever heard that album or any of the others I was making at the time. But you listen to “Smashing Back: Theme from Rocky VII” today and tell me it wasn’t prophetic.
When I was recording music on cassettes, the last song on a given side was always a slave to however much time was left on the tape. It added a sense of urgency to whatever was being recorded. Sometimes I was limited to a ninety-second throwaway. Sometimes I had fourteen or fifteen minutes to work with, so I would improvise an epic song knowing it was probably going to get cut off at some point.
With “Forever Rocking”, I can’t remember if I’d already decided on the album title, but I had a chunk of tape left on the second side and I wanted to fill it up. So I improvised a song and decided it was going to be the title track. It felt pretty slight to me, but it meant the album was finished, so I was happy.
I listened to this song more than half a lifetime removed from when it was recorded. I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to hear. I was wrong.
The song starts with me having breakfast by myself. I’m eating toast in my wife’s nightgown and singing to myself about my life, wondering where it all went wrong. Later on, I grab lunch at Burger King and try to find a character named Baby Ching. When I track him down, he starts bragging about how great his life is. I decide it doesn’t matter how well he’s doing. I’ve got something he’ll never have. I’ve got something he can’t begin to understand. I’ve got music inside of me. While I’m reading Time magazine in the bathroom, I see the residue of some green Kool-Aid that was spilled on the floor, and it inspires a song.
And that’s the idea I keep circling back to. Between non-sequiturs like, “Think of solutions for your prostate,” there’s a sort of almost-chorus that keeps shifting but returns again and again to the same idea:
Rocking — forever rocking. That’s where I’ll be. Forever rocking. That’s where I’ll be. Singing. Singing. Praising. Playing for myself.
Making music isn’t a hobby. It’s something devotional. And it doesn’t matter if no one else hears it or cares about it. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t anything earth-shattering. It doesn’t matter if Baby Ching has a fancy new car or more money than me. Let him enjoy his meaningless material possessions. I make music. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. That’s what gives me joy and makes me whole.
Singing a tune and I’m watching a wave. What’s gonna happen when I go out today? Forever rocking. That’s where I’ll be. You’ll never be fast enough to catch me.
I listened to that and I wondered how I could understand this all so well when I was eleven years old and all I was doing was trying to fill up a side of tape with whatever was in my head. It really is that simple. It’s always been that simple. I need to make music. It’s what I was made to do. Forever rocking. That’s where I’ll be.
So that’s what I’ve been doing. Even with the odd frustrating moment when I still get too stuck in my own head, it’s a relief to get back to working on my own again. I’d forgotten how much I can get done when the only person I have to rely on is myself.
There have been distractions. One of the big ones that ate up a lot of my time for a while was tennis. And I don’t mean tennis played on a tennis court. I mean Tennis — the 1984 Nintendo game.
I was at the Devonshire Mall about fifteen years ago when I saw someone selling these Gamezone things at a kiosk. They had more than a hundred Nintendo games built into a single controller. I’ve still got all my original eight and sixteen-bit consoles and all the games I gathered to go with them, and they all still work except for a few Sega games that died in the flood a few years ago. But this Gamezone puppy had some NES games I didn’t have. It had Contra. I always loved that game. It had Urban Champion — a game I once rented and spent so much time trying to conquer, by the time I gave up the tips of my thumbs had lost all feeling. It had Mighty Final Fight. It had Popeye, and Donkey Kong, and the original Mario Bros., and all kinds of other fun things.
So I bought it. It looked like this. It still looks like this.
Contra came with the Konami Code burned in. Thanks to all those extra lives I was able to beat the game for the first time. There were some pretty weird and interesting unlicensed games too. I didn’t get much mileage out of those, though. The games I ended up playing the most were Bomberman and Ring King. Bomberman was a lot of fun, and after a while I got good enough to beat it without dying. Ring King was pretty frustrating. It was still worth playing for this little interlude between rounds of pixelated boxing.
I don’t think I have to tell you what it looks like those trainers are doing to their fighters. It cracks me up every time.
The Gamezone controller got put away in a closet — a real one — and I forgot about it for a long time. Last summer I thought I’d dust it off and enjoy a little NES nostalgia. After running through some of the classics, I discovered a tennis game hiding in plain sight. I’d never noticed it in the list of games before. Tennis is just about the only sport I still follow with any real interest. I thought I’d give the game a try.
It’s called Tennis. Really. That’s it. It’s considered pretty crude and outdated these days. Most people don’t even think it’s the best tennis game for the NES. But I fell in love with it. For its time, and for all the limitations of the eight-bit system, there’s a surprising amount of accuracy. The scoring is as it should be. The matches are best-of-three. Once you learn how to time your serve, there’s some pretty decent variation. You can hit something that looks like a slow kick serve, or a hard flat serve, or a wide slice serve.
You even get Mario as the chair umpire. And Mario never makes a bad call.
The level construction doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s no tournament mode. There are five levels, and the difficulty increases with each new opponent you face. Each level consists of a “normal” match and then a “championship” match (assuming you win the first match). This means you’ve got ten stages when there are only five opponents in the game. This means opponents get recycled. This means by the time you get to the championship match in Level 2, you’re already facing off against the second most difficult guy in the game.
This isn’t fair at all.
It took me a while to get the hang of the mechanics, but pretty soon I’d made my way through the first level. The first guy in Level 2 gave me some fits, but I beat him too. I started giving my opponents the names of real tennis players. Two guys were erratic but given to moments of brilliance. I called them Monfils and Dimitrov. One guy was an annoying pusher. I called him Gilles Simon. I started providing my own colour commentary. I adopted a Scottish accent that made me sound a little like Jim Watt. Then it shifted to a British accent that made me sound more like Jason Goodall. I wasn’t biased. I gave credit to my opponent when it was due. I poured on the accolades when he came up with a great shot.
Then I got to the second level’s championship match and the guy on the other side of the net took my head off. He was all but impenetrable. I didn’t like him.
I called him Novak Djokovic.
This game can make you crazy, because where the ball is and where you are in relation to your opponent when you hit the ball has everything to do with where it goes once it leaves your racket. A tiny adjustment in movement can be the difference between a forehand smash that goes right to him and a running backhand volley he can’t reach. When you’re moving right you can only hit a forehand, and when you’re moving left you can only hit a backhand, and if you’re standing still to return serve you better be sure you’re facing the right way or you’re gonna have a bad time.
With Super Tennis for the SNES — still considered one of the best console-based tennis games — you can control your ball toss when you’re serving. You can decide how hard you want to hit your serve and what kind of spin you want to put on it. You can hit slices and topspin shots from anywhere on the court. You can lob, volley, control the strength of your volleys, and put left or right sidespin on the ball.
Tennis for the NES gives you a hard shot and a lob shot. Your ball toss is automatic. The strength and positioning of your serve are at the mercy of how good your reflexes are. You can either hit the ball on the rise or you can hit it when it’s on the way down. The safer choice is hitting the ball as it’s falling, but it’s harder to hit aces that way and you end up with a lot of slower kick serves. Hitting it on the rise gives you more power, but the margin for error is much smaller. You have some control over where your serve goes depending on where you position yourself behind the baseline and when you hit the ball, but it takes a lot of time to figure out all the little intricacies.
You have no control over the strength of your volleys. It all depends on the strength of shot coming at you. Sometimes you’ll hammer the ball. Other times you’ll just dink it back. And the game mechanics are very unforgiving and finicky. You can set up a smash with more than half the court to work with and have it fly wide on you, and you can hit into an almost nonexistent amount of space and pull off a perfect pass.
Here’s another thing this game throws at you: as your opponents get tougher, they get faster, and the ball moves faster too. Your speed also increases, but the pixelated shithead you’re playing is always a little bit faster than you are.
I was playing this game so much it started to hurt my hands. I wanted to beat Djokovic but I couldn’t figure him out. I put the Gamezone controller thing away for a day. Then I plugged it back in and went back to work. I made a decision. I was going to beat every level no matter how long it took me. I started doing finger exercises. I kept playing. And pretty soon I got good enough to beat Djokovic.
I had to reinvent myself as an all-court player. In the early stages I could get away with rallying and mixing up my shots until my opponent made a mistake. That wasn’t going to work anymore. Now I had to hit an outright winner if I wanted to win a point. He was tough to ace, so the only way to get the ball past him most of the time was to come to the net. It was tricky working out the timing at first, but I started to get the hang of it.
My reward for beating him was playing him again at the end of Level 3, and then again at the beginning of Level 4. He was tough, but I kept getting through him.
Then I had to play the guy at the end of Level 4.
This guy was ridiculous. As far as I could tell, he had no weaknesses at all. His patterns of play were tough to read. It didn’t matter if he was serving or returning. Sometimes he would hit a return and stay behind the baseline. Sometimes he would chip and charge. I tried to serve and volley. It was dicey at best. I might get a weak return I could put away for an easy winner, or he might sail a lob over my head or handcuff me with a return I couldn’t get back in play. His serving patterns were just as unpredictable. Sometimes he would serve and volley. Sometimes he would hang back. Sometimes he would crush a second serve that was harder and had more work on it than his first serve.
If he came in behind his serve, my only safe option was to hit a lob back at him. If I hit a hard return, he would respond with a smash that was so hard and hit at such an acute angle I wouldn’t have any hope of tracking it down. He would retreat to the baseline to retrieve my lob, and then I had to try and figure out when the time was right to attack the net. When he didn’t come in behind his serve, I would experiment with hitting a harder shot back at him to try and get ahead in the point. Sometimes it seemed to work, but it gave me less time to get to the net if I wanted to try and pressure him.
I learned there were a lot of things he could do that I couldn’t do.
He could hit a lob over my head when I was at the net, and if I couldn’t chase it down at the baseline he would win the point. I couldn’t hit a lob over his head. He would always get back to retrieve my shot. In the thousands of points I’ve now played against him, I’ve only ever tripped him up half a dozen times when I’ve hit a lob and he’s whiffed on it. Once I managed to change direction and slice back a return the wrong way, and it threw him off, but that’s almost impossible to do.
He could hit me with the ball to steal a point whenever he felt like it. I couldn’t hit him with the ball even if I tried to. Not that I’d want to win that way. He could move a lot faster than I could. He could chase down balls I could never get to in a million years. He could hit a volley at any angle he wanted, with as much speed and power as he wanted, and he could put it out of my reach any time he felt like it. I could only pass him or get him out of position to hit a winner if I played smart, strong, tactical tennis.
He would never hit a volley that went wide or long. Once in a while he would dump a volley into the net if I pressured him enough. Aside from the occasional double fault, those were the only points he gave away. Meanwhile, he could force me to hit a volley wide when I tried to get the ball around him.
He could hang in a rally forever. There was no way to win a point against him from the baseline. It didn’t matter how well I mixed up my shots or how long I hung with him. One time I went toe to toe with him for eighty-four shots. Another time I stayed in the point for five shots more than that. Both times he got tired of toying with me and just hit the ball somewhere I couldn’t get to so he could put me out of my misery.
He could shorten up his hard shots so I had less time before the second bounce to get my racket on them. He could put the ball wherever he wanted on the court and make it travel as slow or fast as he wanted, and he could hit it as shallow or deep as he wanted. I didn’t have anywhere near that amount of control over any of my own shots.
There was one thing I could do that he couldn’t do. I could hit a lob when I was at the net. It was almost impossible to time. Nine times out of ten I would hit air, he’d dink the ball past me, and he’d win the point. Even when I did pull it off, there was a fifty-fifty chance it was going to sail long. Twice I managed to get the ball right on the baseline and he lost the point because he didn’t know what to do.
I abandoned that strategy in a hurry. It wasn’t doing me much good even when I was in a tough position and I knew I wouldn’t be able to hit around or through him. I was better off sticking with hard shots at the net and retreating to the baseline if he tried to lob me.
I had a name for this guy too, but I didn’t name him after any real tennis player. I named him for how much I hated him. I called him Cocksucker Joe. I called him CJ for short.
The first time I played CJ he beat me in straight sets. I won one game. I couldn’t figure out a way to counter his speed and precision. The second time he won 6-1, 6-4. I started making inroads in the second set. I couldn’t hold serve to save my life, but I broke him a few times. That gave me hope. The third time he beat me again but I took a set off of him. I was getting better. I was learning how to construct points. I was learning when to attack and when to defend.
Here’s a scenario. You’re at the net. CJ hits a shot on his ad court side and comes in behind it. You can run back to the baseline and hit a lob to push him back the baseline, but that’s no fun. So you stay at the net. If you move to the right to hit the ball, you’ll be in position to hit a forehand volley. It’ll go right to him. He’ll hit a crosscourt volley way over into the ad court on your side of the court where you have no hope of getting to the ball, and he’ll win the point. The only way to pass him is to hit a backhand volley down the line into the tiny bit of space you have to work with inside of the singles line. To do that, you have to run to the right and then at the last second move to the left just a little to change your stance so you’re in position to hit a backhand. Then you can crush the winner.
That’s just one situation you might find yourself in when you’re playing this guy. That’s how fast you have to think to have a chance against him.
The fourth time we met, I beat him 6-4, 6-4. It wasn’t easy. I had to hit 70 winners against 10 unforced errors. If you follow tennis, you know that’s unheard of for a straight sets win. It took some crafty and aggressive play to put him away. I lost serve in the first game of the match and trailed 2-4 before finding a way to break back. I kept the momentum going, winning four games in a row to take the first set. I got broken again in my first service game of the second set and had to battle back from 1-3 down. Again, I took over and won four games in a row. I served for the match at 5-3 only to get broken again. I had to break his serve to win.
Guess what your reward is for beating CJ at the end of Level 4? You get to play him again in Level 5, and then you get to play him a third time in the final championship match.
So I played him twice the next day. I beat him in straight sets both times. And then I kept playing him. I wanted to prove beating him wasn’t a fluke. I went 16-1 in our next seventeen matches. I averaged 71 winners against 5 unforced errors. There were some tough battles, but a turning point was a match I won after losing the first set and going down 1-5 in the second set. He served for the match twice. I had to save match points. I didn’t lose another game the rest of the way, serving up a bagel in the third set.
After that, I knew I could back myself to beat him no matter how far behind I was. And I seemed to get in his head. He started making more mistakes. Sometimes he would break his own serve with a double fault. Sometimes he would even double fault on match point. I did the hard work to put him in a position where a double fault would cost him, but it was still cause for concern. I started thinking he might need to see a pixelated sports psychologist.
I felt bad for him. I started thinking of ways I could handicap myself to make our matches competitive again. I stopped looking for the right moment to attack and started coming in behind every single serve and return I hit. I started moving farther inside of the baseline to return serve, flirting with something resembling Roger Federer’s SABR tactic. My net game got so good, pretty soon I was winning a lot of matches 6-0, 6-0. I couldn’t go back and scrap with any of the guys in the earlier levels anymore. Now playing them felt like crawling through quicksand. It was CJ or bust.
I started analyzing the matches on a deeper level. I would keep track of our first serve percentages, how successful we were behind our first and second serves, and how many winners and errors we both hit. I worked out how often he came in behind his serve and how often he stayed back. The backhand became my favourite shot. It was the way it transformed at the net from a two-handed rallying shot to a single-handed whip. It looked elegant. I started trying to hit as many backhand winners as I could just for something to do.
After a while I was averaging about 50 winners and no unforced errors. It was getting too easy. So I stopped using the lob shot. I took away my ability to defend and I started returning serve with nothing but hard shots and rushing the net. I started daring myself to hit chip and charge winners. Sometimes he passed me or hit me with the ball, but I kept him guessing. I even pulled off the occasional flukey return winner when he came in behind a wide serve and didn’t cover enough of the net because he didn’t think I was going to get it back in play. It got tougher to beat him when half my game was gone, but I kept winning.
Then I started playing him on my laptop.
I found a website that let me play Tennis online. I set it up so the W, A, S, and D keys on my MacBook operated as the direction pad and the left and right arrows functioned as the A and B buttons. It was like learning to play the game all over again from scratch. My movement was compromised. I had to revert to the old safe serve because I couldn’t time it when the ball was on the rise anymore.
I lost my first laptop match 0-6, 0-6. I played CJ again. I lost again. It was more difficult to time my volleys now. It was easier for him to pass me, and sometimes I would line up a perfect pass only to have the game take it away from me when the ball smacked into the net.
I played him again. I won in three tough sets. I played him again. I won again. And then one day I looked at the standings and saw I’d won 36 times in a row, and now I was beating him 6-0, 6-0 on my laptop.
This isn’t normal. I know that. Playing one specific opponent in a Nintendo tennis game 185 times, amassing a 178-7 lifetime record against him, and doing a deep statistical dive into almost half of those matches is pretty pointless. But you’re talking to a guy who’s writing an enormous book about five years of his life knowing no one will ever get to read the results. Pointless projects are kind of my bread and butter.
Hey, I’ve had fun. And I accomplished what I set out to do. I conquered the game and humbled CJ. I got so good, I won a doubles match 6-1, 6-2 without breaking a sweat, pitting just one of me against two CJs.
Another thing I did in 2020 was reclaim responsibility for being the custodian of my dreams.
Dreams have fascinated me for as long as I’ve been alive, but for the first twenty years of my life I almost never wrote them down. I didn’t remember them that often, and the few dreams that stuck around usually embedded themselves in my long-term memory, so there was no need to write them down. It wasn’t until 2003 that I started making a point of documenting some of the more interesting fragments I was able to hold onto. It took me another three years to figure out I was dreaming every night and I just needed to train my brain to remember what was going on. After making steady progress throughout the year, things ramped up in the last third of 2006 and I became a dream-documenting fiend. I had a dream journal now, and I was committed to maintaining it and watching it grow.
In that 2012 blog post, I touched on the slow erosion of my devotion to the cause. There was a little bit of slacking in August of 2007. I was pretty disillusioned after we had to move into a new house. It didn’t help that I couldn’t sleep in my own bedroom for a while because my boxspring wouldn’t fit up the stairs (though I had some pretty interesting dreams when I was sleeping downstairs). But things didn’t take too much of a hit at first. I think there were only a few days where I neglected to do my usual second pass to extract every last detail from each dream. Before long I was back in my own bed and back on track, with only a few lethargic days creeping in here and there.
April of 2008 was where the rot started to set in. I started to get lazy. It didn’t help that my sleep was a mess half the time and I woke up most days (or nights) feeling like someone took a violent piss inside my skull while I was asleep. When I had a really meaningful dream I wanted to hold onto I would put in the work to flesh it out, but my work ethic really started to slip.
I wasn’t just spewing wishful thinking in that blog post. 2012 marked a significant return to form. I was inconsistent at first, but I started to generate some serious momentum in June and July after flashes of brilliance in the spring. I got my dream journal back on track for a while. Things dropped off again after August, with a brief turn-around in October and a serious resurgence in November. The momentum carried over into December for a while, and then I lost the plot again at the end of the year. 2013 got off to a decent start, but soon I was back to slacking off again. Still, it was an improvement over the middling work I did 2010 and 2011, if a little disappointing after 2012’s advances. 2014 was more of the same — hit and miss, with the occasional masterstroke.
2015 started strong and then slid back downhill in a hurry. Things improved a little later in the year. 2016 was like 2010 all over again, but with some signs of life in the summer. By 2017 things were back to being pretty fragmented, and I didn’t flesh out a single dream with any real effort until July.
2018 was a hot mess.
2019 got off to a very slow start, with only a few things fleshed out here and there, but I ended the year strong. Some nights I only got a handful of fragments, but at least I rediscovered some amount of consistency, pushing myself a little more often to document what I remembered in as much detail as I could, ready for the meaty dreams when they decided to show up. Fixing my sleep once and for all didn’t hurt any.
2020 was my best year since 2007, and that was my dream diary’s greatest year by some distance. I documented almost three thousand pages of dreams that year, and I wasn’t even firing on all cylinders the whole way through. Thirteen years later, it was a bit of a different story. There were some missteps along the way, but in the last third of the year things really picked up, and I made the decision to never again disrespect a night’s dreams by recording them in tepid, halfhearted fashion. I came through the last six weeks of the year in fantastic form. It was my best and most consistent burst of dream activity (and dream documentation) in more than a decade.
The dream that turned me around once and for all came early in December of last year. It was called Home and Away (yes, I name all my dreams like they’re movies). My longest dreams have always seemed to top out around six thousand words. I thought that was a built-in ceiling I wasn’t ever going to break through. After all, your brain can only store so much information, and the all-important short-term memory is at its most vulnerable when you’re just waking up. I considered myself lucky for being able to remember that much when I was firing on all cylinders. Six thousand words is nothing to sniff at.
Well, my rough draft for Home and Away was already more than six thousand words long. That’s never happened before. By the time I was finished with the second pass, it came out to twenty-six pages and more than fourteen thousand words. It took about two hours to type up the rough draft and more than twice that long to finish the more fleshed-out version. It ate up most of my day. I didn’t regret it for a second. It was one of the most interesting and satisfying dreams of my life. It took me on a hell of an emotional journey. It had a little bit of everything: romance, violence, sex, animation, music, mystery, humour, suspense, and more. It even threatened to become a nightmare for a while before steering itself in a more poetic direction.
I looked at the mountain of text that made up that dream when I was finished typing it all up and I thought, “There was a time I would have scratched out a few lines to represent a marathon dream like this, and that would have been it. I would have lost the entire substance and soul of the thing by failing to put in the work necessary to do it justice. I don’t ever want to let that happen again. If my brain is going to give me material this good, I owe it to myself to dedicate an hour or two after I wake up and another hour or two before I go to bed to treating my dream journal with the respect it deserves.”
So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve established (or re-established) a solid rhythm, giving my dreams their due while still leaving room for music and other things. A month into 2021, I’m already on pace to give 2007 a run for its money. I can’t remember seventeen dreams a night like I used to. Those days are long gone. I don’t sleep long enough to dream that much now that I’m on a consistent, healthy sleep schedule. But I seem to be good for at least one or two substantial, thought-provoking dreams on any given night, along with whatever fragments stick around from earlier sleep cycles. I’m good with that. I don’t think I could handle the amount of dreams I used to remember. My brain would explode.
It still bothers me that I was so lazy with this for so long. The Word document that serves as my dream journal is now about seventy-five hundred pages and well over three million words long. That’s crazy. You know what’s even crazier? It would be a whole lot longer if I got my ass in gear sooner, or if I never fell off the wagon at all.
I try to use that thought as motivation. If I ever feel like taking a day off and falling back into old habits, I think about Home and Away. I think about all the great dreams I only documented in piecemeal form. I can’t do anything about the sins I committed against my subconscious during one rough stretch or another, but I can do something about the here and now. I can dream my dreams, and I can gouge them into my hard drive, where they’ll live until I’m gone and dreaming other dreams that have no end.
So yeah. 2021 should be an interesting year for music, and dreams, and melted ice cream. I’m not setting down any New Year’s Resolutions here or anywhere else — I know better by now — but I’ve got a pretty good handle on what I’m aiming to do in the next eleven months, and I think I should be able to get at least some of it done.
Not much has changed around here. I remain luckier than most when it comes to navigating these post-coronavirus times. Music continues to be made, hair continues to be grown, and profanity continues to be profane. But there was something I was looking forward to that had to be scrapped because of this strange, surreal semi-dystopic world we’re living in right now.
Dave Konstantino has been hosting a great show on CJAM called Revolution Rock for more than a decade now. I went to high school with Adam Peltier. He once hosted a great show of his own called Fear of Music. Now he co-hosts Revolution Rock with Dave. These guys have been two of my staunchest supporters, so it seems poetic that it would work out this way. I think Dave has been playing my music on CJAM for as long as he’s had his show. As for Adam, he was the first person to give me any kind of airplay at all, traumatizing unsuspecting listeners with my X-rated Christmas album twenty years ago.
Earlier this year, Dave and Adam and I were plotting an on-air interview and live performance to coincide with the release of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. We thought we had plenty of time to make it happen. Then everything changed, and playing live anywhere — even in an intimate setting with only a few people present — became impossible.
That was the end of that, or so I thought.
Dave got in touch a few months ago and asked if I would be up for doing an interview through email or Skype instead. My MacBook has a built-in webcam, but I don’t think it’s capable of producing a level of video or sound quality I’d be happy with, and I tend to feel like less of an inarticulate blob when I have a chance to sit with someone’s questions for a little while and work out how I want to respond to them. I opted for the email interview and offered to film myself performing some songs in my studio as a substitute for a live performance.
You can check out the results over here. Dave wrote a really kind, thoughtful review of the album, and he and Adam put together some surprising and thought-provoking questions. For once my answers were unedited and presented in their entirety. Take that, other people who interviewed me and whittled down my words without giving me an opportunity to edit them myself.
They also dedicated the entirety of the most recent episode of Revolution Rock to me and my music. Here’s the whole thing (Dave was kind enough to share the file with me).
I was kind of gobsmacked. I expected them to play a few songs off of the new album and talk a bit about the interview and video performance. No way was I expecting something like this. I think they ended up playing close to thirty songs, including some things I never thought I’d hear on the radio. There’s even a song from the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP in there!
I think it works as a pretty great encapsulation of what I’ve been up to over the last decade and change. And it has to be one of the best compliments anyone’s given me in recent memory. Huge thanks to Dave and Adam for the incredibly kind words, the airplay, the interview, and for supporting me and what I do for all these years.
A few words about the video performance:
I thought I’d bang it out in an afternoon. It took me the better part of a week to get what I wanted on video and digital tape. Deciding on just a handful of things to play was a serious challenge. I was able to get it down to a shortlist of twenty-seven songs. That was the best I could do. From there, I started trying different things to see what worked and what didn’t. I settled on two songs from YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, two that are slated for inclusion on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE whenever I finish that thing, one that hasn’t found a home anywhere, and an improvised instrumental piano piece that just sort of toppled out along the way.
Filming myself was pretty straightforward. By now I have a pretty good handle on where to put the camera and how to work with manual focus instead of relying on the autofocus and hoping it doesn’t do any obvious hunting in the middle of a performance. Having some decent lighting in the studio has been a revelation. I’m never going to produce a super slick-looking video. That isn’t what I’m after. But the difference between this stuff and the footage I used to grab with those Flip cameras in crummy lighting…it’s pretty striking.
Also striking is the absence of the chunky wildebeest seen throughout Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories). I’ve morphed back into something resembling the svelte Johnny of old. I think it says something about my current state of physical and mental health that after discovering two songs were filmed at an angle that created the illusion of a receding hairline, instead of being embarrassed or feeling a pressing need to re-record those songs, I kept the footage and treated it as an excuse to throw in a silly little gag. A year or two ago? Never would have happened.
Back when my mic cabinet consisted of little more than a Shure SM58 and two SM57s, recording acoustic guitar and vocals at the same time was a piece of cake. Those microphones were directional enough that I didn’t have to worry about any significant bleed or phase issues. Recording with the sensitive condenser mics I have now is a different story. I thought I’d save myself some trouble and play electric guitar instead of acoustic. Recording QUIET BEASTS with Yessica Woahneil taught me how much good energy the bleed from the Pearlman TM-1 can add to an electric guitar recording when it doesn’t get too out of control. I went for a similar thing here, with an SM57 and a Sennheiser 421 pointed at the old Paul tube amp. I think it worked out well.
The problems started when I tried to record the piano and my voice at the same time. It didn’t matter what I used for a vocal mic. The Neumann KM 184s I use to record the piano would pick up the sound of a dog scratching itself three miles away. There was no way to control the vocal bleed.
I moved over to the Wurlitzer electric piano. The timing couldn’t have been better. We were experiencing the tail end of a nice little Indian summer before the cold finally settled in once and for all last week. In the fourteen years I’ve had the Wurlitzer, its tuning has never once wavered, but I’ve noticed the action gets a little sluggish once winter kicks in. Some of the keys turn heel for a while. They don’t like to produce any sound unless you really lay into them. When I was filming this stuff, I caught the Wurly at its most agreeable.
I’ve recorded this electric piano a few different ways over the years. I’ve never plugged it into an external amplifier. There’s something wrong with the output. It emits a horrible buzzing sound that renders the signal it produces unusable. I chalk it up to the shoddy work of the now-defunct Speakeasy Vintage Music. I could write a few thousand words about the ridiculous experience I had with those jokers. I got my Wurlitzer in the end, and it’s served me well, so I’ll tell that tale some other time.
The shittiness of the output has never troubled me. I like the earthy sound I get from sticking a microphone in front of one of the internal speakers. For whatever reason, I’ve always gone with the left speaker instead of the right one. I’ve never tried recording the Wurlitzer in stereo, though I’ve double-tracked it more often than not.
I started out using a Neumann KM 184. This is one of the first recordings I ever made of the Wurlitzer, way back in October of 2006.
I’d share “Wurly Test #1”, but I can’t find the CD I stashed it on, and I don’t have the patience to search for it right now.
When I was recording LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I switched over to a Pearlman TM-LE. That’s the mic I’ve used on the Wurlitzer ever since. It wasn’t working for me when I was recording this video, though. Again I couldn’t control the bleed. So I replaced it with an SM57. It shouldn’t have surprised me how much I liked the sound. I’ve been recording guitar amps with SM57s forever. What I really wasn’t expecting was the amount of body I got from just that one mic. I had to use a high pass filter to tame the low end a bit.
I wanted to try using something different for a vocal mic here, and I was too lazy to move the TM-1 over to the Wurlitzer and mess with the mic stand, so I dusted off an Audio-Technica 4047 I’ve been babysitting since 2009. I used it on a few songs on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, liked it, and then never used it on anything again. This mic grabs a lot of low frequency information, but in this situation it was an asset. I was able to keep the mic a fair distance away from my face, eliminating the need for a pop filter and allowing myself to concentrate on my performance without thinking, “I need to eat the microphone to make this work.”
Everything is presented as it was tracked, with one exception: I punched in a few vocal bits on one of the Wurlitzer songs. I know that’s cheating. I couldn’t resist. And you know what Lyle Lovett had to say on the subject.
So if you notice a few moments in “Brighter Than the Deepest Dark” where it sounds like the vocal is double-tracked in a subtle, distant way, now you know why. The small bits of the vocal track I replaced are butting up against remnants of the original performance that bled through the SM57. I kind of like the unintentional idiosyncrasy it created in the recording.
Maybe it’s a little strange to end with a song as acidic as “Popular Music Has Made Us Complacent”, but it felt right. I had to work some dirty words in there somewhere, didn’t I?
I’ve always loved scary stories. So maybe it’s fitting that Johnny Smith and I once recorded an album full of them.
In November of 1994 we were renting a Yamaha PSS-190 keyboard. You don’t want to know what kind of detective work I had to do to figure that out more than two decades after the fact. It was third in the sequence of four keyboards we rented before Johnny Smith bought me a Yamaha PSR-210 as a Christmas present at the end of the year, and it was the one I liked least out of all the rentals. There weren’t a lot of sounds under the hood that got me excited. The drum sounds were what really killed it for me. They had no balls. It didn’t help that the PSS-190 had the bad luck of coming right after the huge-sounding Kawai X40-D. It did at least have some fun demo songs built in — chief among them a quirky version of the Shocking Blue hit “Venus”.
We didn’t record much music with that keyboard, but we did use it to create sound effects and incidental music for an album of improvised stories. Inside the tape jacket I wrote the date of the first recording session and a provisional title: Not for the Nervous!
The night we started recording, my grandfather was visiting. So was the lady the Smithster was dating at the time. You can hear their voices in the background from time to time. The way we worked it out, we took turns ducking out from the get-together. First I went in the bedroom, put the keyboard and tape recorder on the bed, sat down, and recorded a story. When I was finished, Johnny Smith took my place. He listened to what I’d done and recorded a story of his own.
It was a lot of fun. Nothing was written down beforehand, so we didn’t know where our stories were headed even as we were telling them. We recorded three stories that night and two more the next day. Over the next three years we added another story or two to the tape whenever inspiration struck. The subject matter darted all over the place. There was typical spooky stuff like vampires and monsters, but we also made room for an ambitious squirrel with dreams of a musical career, a girl’s dangerous obsession with rain, and a vindictive sea captain trying to hunt down his aquatic nemesis. By the time we were recording the last few stories in late 1997, I came up with a much better title: A Glimpse of Horrific Pleasure.
Since it’s Halloween, here’s my favourite story from that first night of recording in 1994. What can I say? Even when I was eleven years old, I already had a pretty sunny outlook on life.
If you’re someone who visits this blog once in a while, you’ve probably noticed it’s been all quiet on the Western front since the middle of May. You’d be forgiven for blaming the inactivity on a bit of post-album-hangover. The truth is I’ve been active all this time, toiling away on a gargantuan, long overdue post that dives deep into the making of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
Over the last few months, I’ve seen a lot of artists doing one of two things. They’re either releasing work they completed before this whole COVID-19 thing became a part of our lives and trying like hell to recontexualize it as (a) something life-affirming, (b) a soulful commentary on these Coronavirus Times, (c) a balm for those who are struggling, or (d) all of the above, or else they’re throwing together some half-assed new work and shouting at the top of their lungs about how it’s inspired by the current public health crisis.
It makes my skin crawl.
If the work you create grows out of what’s happening around you in an organic way, I can get behind that. An honest emotional response is a valid artistic statement, whatever you’re responding to. But most artists aren’t looking inward. Maybe it’s because they’ve got nothing but wet fecal matter and some swollen hunks of unjustified ego where their guts should be. They’re treating this pandemic as an opportunity to engage in the musical equivalent of performative activism, making a big show of how tuned in they are to what’s going on when all they’re really doing is engaging in a socially acceptable form of profiteering. It might not be as violent an act as buying thousands of dollars worth of hand sanitizer and selling it back to a skittish public at an inflated price, but as far as I’m concerned it’s just as disingenuous, and just as hollow.
Today everyone goes to great lengths to let you know their new album was recorded “in isolation”. I’d like to know what studio album made over the last hundred years or so hasn’t been created in an isolated environment. But hey, the “artists” who wouldn’t know real art if it bit them in the face are going to go on milking this shit for all it’s worth, because that’s what they’re all about, and the so-called music journalists who couldn’t write their way out of a used condom are going to lap it up like the sycophants they are, and the sheep are going to keep lining up in droves to express their mindless adoration for the things they’ve been instructed to like while ignoring the things they’ve been told aren’t worth their attention.
It wouldn’t be difficult to cloak YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK in cheap, loose-fitting coronavirus clothes. “Dark and weird” is my default musical setting even at the best of times. But I enjoy being able to look at myself in the mirror without throwing up in my mouth. I’m not going to denigrate my work by trying to attach some false sense of grandeur to it so I can generate a bit of extra publicity for myself. Anything about this music that sounds timely is little more than a bizarre coincidence.
Some will try to justify their crazed bandwagon-humping by claiming artists have a responsibility to hold a mirror up to the times in which they live. They’ll call their blatant opportunism “social commentary”. I’m not buying it. I’m glad I was able to finish and release my album in those sepia-tinted pre-coronavirus times. I wasn’t able to do the same with this blog post. Given how many words there are here — more than fifty-four thousand of them — it was going to take a while to put all of this together anyway, but I wanted to make a point of at least holding it back long enough to make it clear I wasn’t diving into the filthy river of virtue signalling along with everyone else.
If you’re not up for reading the longest missive I’ve ever coughed up here, the video above will probably tell you most of what you want to know about the album. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a way to kill some time, I just might have you covered for the next week or two. In that case, pour yourself a glass of turnip juice and pop some overpriced popcorn, ’cause we’re gonna be here a while.
I’ve fallen into a pattern of releasing a double CD every ten years. Each of these albums has felt like some of my strongest work and a consolidation of what’s come before. In 2000 there was the Papa Ghostface epic SHOEBOX PARADISE. In 2010 there was the solo album MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART. Now in 2020 there’s this thing called YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
I don’t know what it is about these ten-year markers that inspires me to dig deeper and paint on a larger canvas. Maybe it has something to do with only having so much time to get all of this stuff out. Maybe the end of a decade has the effect of throwing the impermanence of my existence into sharper focus. Or maybe it’s just an accident of timing. It’s hard to say.
Making an album — however long or short it is — is usually pretty straightforward for me, even if I go about it in a backwards way. I write some songs. I record the ones that resonate with me the most. I go on writing and recording, determining the shape of the album as it’s in the process of revealing itself. At some point the album lets me know it’s finished. Then I move on to the next one and the process repeats.
My goal has always been to document the entirety of my artistic life with as much honesty and clarity as I can. As I (hopefully) continue to evolve as a human being, the music does the same. An album can only freeze a series of small moments in time, but the hope is that all those moments combine to create a body of work I can point to and say, “This is who I am. This is where I’ve been. Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of my life.”
Whatever else I go on to do, I think it’s safe to say I won’t have another experience that begins to approach the strange, almost violent divisiveness that defined the making of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
My little homemade documentary doesn’t present a sugarcoated, idealized account of what I had to go through to make this album. I won’t stoop to that level in this blog post either. I want to do justice to the totality of the experience. I’ll try not to dwell too much on the rotten eggs and lost erections, but in some cases it’s going to be a bit of a struggle to take a glass-half-full approach. It isn’t about score-settling. It’s about telling the truth.
You’ll see what I mean.
I was hanging out with Tyson one night in 2003. It was about a year after our band dissolved. He asked if he could hear some of what I was working on. I played him a handful of songs that would soon find homes on NUDGE YOU ALIVE and the PAVEMENT-HUGGING DADDIES EP. We were listening to “Puppet Shoot Puppet” when he locked eyes with me and said, “You’re very by yourself now musically.”
In the wake of the band’s breakup, I felt like I found a way of working that was very specific to me. It was difficult to hear room for anyone else in the music I was making. Still, it startled me when he said that.
I guess I became a lone wolf right around the time I was able to start growing something that looked like it might one day develop into a respectable beard. I got tired of trying to find other people my age who were serious about making music and willing to turn empty talk into action. Even after I gained enough visibility and clout to convince other local artists there might be some value in working with me, it was almost always a one-sided proposition. I was never much more than a put-upon sidekick. That got old pretty fast.
When it became clear I wasn’t going to get what I wanted from other artists, I stopped trying to work with them and got on with the business of doing my own thing. As my music matured, I put more time and thought into crafting songs and albums and devoted more care to the production side of things. As much as this slowed me down, I was always good for at least a few new albums within a given twelve-month span, not counting the “lost year” of 2007.
All of that changed in 2011 when I made a breakup album called GIFT FOR A SPIDER. The music was necessary (and effective) therapy, but when the dust cleared I was left feeling rudderless and scraped out. After an extended creative purple patch that produced eight full-length albums and a bloated out-takes collection in the space of three years — the music a large part of my “reputation”, to the extent that I have one, was built on — I had no idea where to go next.
Seemed like a good time to finish an album I started working on in my head around 2004. I called it THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. It was going to be my magnum opus on steroids — an all-encompassing distillation of everything I’d been trying to say and everywhere I’d been over the last several years of rewriting my own musical language. That was the idea, anyway.
I spent the waning days of 2011 and a good chunk of 2012 trying to pull it all together. I mixed and remixed existing songs, recorded a lot of brand new ones, kept writing and rethinking and rejigging, and made ridiculous, spatially unbalanced hypothetical album cover art.
I got as far as sequencing and assembling the first two CDs of a projected four-CD set. Then I started thinking everything I’d done was garbage. I convinced myself I was never going to get my arms around the unwieldy mess THEANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE had become, and I kicked the unfinished thing down the stairs so I wouldn’t have to look at it anymore.
Turning thirty in 2013 didn’t help. That messed with my head. All the feelings of worthlessness I thought I put to bed years ago came screaming back at me. Music has always had a cathartic element to it for me. I’ve used it as a weapon to beat back the darkness more times than I can count. Even at my worst, I’ve always been able to take what I’m feeling and spin it into art. Now it seemed pointless to even try.
If that wasn’t bad enough, I started thinking maybe I’d chosen the wrong path.
I’ve never wanted to turn this music thing into anything as conventional or limiting as a career. I don’t crave fame or infamy. I don’t want my albums on the internet for everyone to treat as meaningless background noise. I’m content with being so far under the radar I make most obscure cult artists look like household names. I’m comfortable with the near-invisible niche I’ve carved out for myself. I get to have a meaningful dialogue with the small group of people I share my music with. That’s worth far more to me than any amount of money or recognition.
I’ve never regretted the decision to demonetize my music. But I started wondering if it was a mistake to keep things so low-key. For the first time, it hit me that my music would die with me. Once the small number of people who heard my work and cared about it were gone, it would be as if nothing I created ever existed. As if I never existed. And then what would be the point of having lived and created the music at all?
My whole life, I’ve made music because I can’t not make music. The process of creating it has been its own reward. It hasn’t mattered much if anyone was listening. I’ve enjoyed sharing what I do with others when it’s meant something to them, but having it heard has never been what gives it value for me.
Now all rational thought went out the window. All I could think about was being a useless waste of space and having nothing of much importance to show for my three decades of sucking up oxygen on this planet. I kept writing new songs, but the recording process has always been where the real catharsis happens for me. Now I couldn’t drag myself into the studio to work on anything I was writing. When I listen to what little I was able to push myself to record during this time, it sounds like the work of someone who’s given up.
In the spring of 2014 I had a brain fart. A big loud fragrant one. Maybe the way out of this funk was to stop being such a lone wolf.
Maybe I could kick a few large stones out of the way and invite some other creatures into the cave. Maybe I could get a group of people together and set up a new collaborative thing that demanded a band name, disappearing inside of the music, letting other singers, musicians, and writers do some of the heavy lifting. Maybe I could write songs for other people to sing, showcasing some of this city’s diverse vocal talent while slipping into more of a producer’s role. Or maybe I could record songs by a lot of different artists, working on music that wasn’t even a little bit mine, stretching and testing myself as a producer, with an aim toward pulling together a kind of anti-compilation album with no real theme, cohesion, or purpose.
All of those things happened. They just had their own ideas about how they were going to happen.
I got quite a bit of unanticipated work producing music that wasn’t my own — not just a free-floating song or two, but whole self-contained albums. Like this one. And this one. And this one here.
A few collaborative projects became serious things for a while. One of them was an old ghost that came back to life before dying again. Another was a newer development. Both were the opposite of massive. The core of each “band” was a duo, with only occasional guest performances. Instead of vanishing into the music and letting others do most of the work, I ended up flexing every musical muscle I had and developing a few new ones along the way.
I got the chance to write for other singers, but it only happened because I fought tooth and nail to make it happen. And outside of the side projects mentioned above, writing with other people never got off the ground. Plenty of folks expressed an interest in writing with me. None of them ever showed up so we could give it a try. I had to accept in the early going that my dream of forming a studio-bound band wasn’t realistic. The best I could hope for was getting some people to appear for a single recording session on an individual basis. There would be no starring roles. Only cameos and walk-ons.
I gave a lot of thought to who I wanted to reach out to. The pool was thinned until it only included singers with voices I found unique and compelling, and musicians who played instruments I didn’t have access to or couldn’t really play myself.
There are a number of talented drummers, bassists, and guitarists around these parts. None of them are on this album, and they’re not going to show up on any future albums I make. I won’t relinquish those roles to someone else when it comes to my solo work. There are musicians who can do things I can’t on some of those instruments, but I know what sounds I’m after. I know how to make them real. And I know I can count on myself to show up.
From this vantage point, it was probably a good thing I couldn’t put a proper group together. I like playing all the different things I play. It’s a pretty insular way of working, sure, but it’s become an important part of my artistic identity.
Upright bassists were the one exception to this rule. I don’t own an upright bass, and I couldn’t play one if I did. I need my frets.
As for the voices I chose, Leonard Cohen once said this about his song “A Singer Must Die”:
“There’s something I listen for in a singer’s voice, and that’s some kind of truth. It may even be the truth of deception. It may even be the truth of the scam — the truth of the hustle in the singer’s own presentation — but something is coming across that is true. And if that isn’t there, the song dies, and the singer deserves to die too and will, in time, die.”
Without wishing death on anyone, I was looking for that same kind of truth.
I’ve always made a point of treating my voice as the imperfect human instrument it is. It’s blown up in my face a few times, and I still wish I would have taken another pass at one thing or another (hello almost every vocal track on OH YOU THIS), but for the most part I’m glad I’ve never tried to present some airbrushed illusion of what my voice could be if my body happened to be built around a series of circuits and mechanical components instead of flesh and tendons and blood. If my tone cracks or gets weird while I’m singing, that stuff usually stays in the song.
I always try to get a continuous vocal performance I’m happy with, only punching in a phrase or two after the fact if it’s unavoidable. Many producers find it useful — even necessary — to build a performance through comping and tuning, stitching bits and pieces of different takes together. This isn’t an approach that holds any appeal for me, and I’ll go to my grave convinced pitch correction is one of the worst things that’s ever happened to music. Turn on a mainstream radio station today, and at any given time you’re rarely hearing an accurate representation of how someone’s voice really sounds. What you’re listening to is a series of carefully constructed lies.
I’ve had my fill of being lied to by people who don’t have anything compelling to say and aren’t even singing their own words half the time. Why would I want to lie to myself?
Some would argue sleight of hand is what recording music is all about. They’re welcome to their opinions. Here’s mine: using an existing performance as little more than raw material for a glossy fabrication drains all the magic and mystery out of human-generated sound. I don’t want to extract the flaws from my recordings in an artificial way. I want to capture something real — warts, freckles, beauty marks, crooked teeth and all — and I want to make sure the room is lit well enough that no imperfection goes undetected.
I’m not suggesting everyone should go about producing music this way. These are just the sounds that move me and make sense within the context of what I do.
Overall, I’m much more concerned with a singer’s personality (assuming they have one) than I am with their technical abilities. I think this is one of the reasons I’ve always connected with Tim Buckley’s music on a deeper level than I have with Jeff’s. Jeff had an incredible voice, and he wrote some great songs, but in some of his recordings I can’t escape the feeling that he was showing off instead of trying to serve the songs. I’ve never felt that with Tim. He had an otherworldly voice of his own, and he took it to some far-out places, but I can’t think of one song where it sounds like he’s having a Mariah Carey moment.
There’s a world of difference between doing something just because you can and making a choice that grows out of the music.
Case in point: there’s a deep cut on Tim’s 1970 album Starsailor called “Jungle Fire”. When he sings, “And life breathes from deep inside,” his voice veers off-key. He comes down hard on the last word. The note is so sharp it’s almost a half-step too high. Instead of recording over it or trying to act like it didn’t happen, he emphasizes the bad note, extends it, and makes it intentional, twisting it into a crazed Tarzan yodel. It’s a weirdly joyous moment, as if Tim is saying, “A mistake is only a mistake if you decide it’s wrong. If you treat it as an opportunity instead of an accident, there’s no telling where it might lead you.”
Plenty of singers can hit all the right notes and engage in vocal gymnastics until the cows come home and say, “Please pick a note and sit on it for a second or two. Also, moo.” Others don’t have a lot of range to work with, so they rely more on phrasing and subtle shading. What it boils down to for me is a simple question: does it sound like you believe what you’re singing? It doesn’t matter if it’s a love song or an Irish jig about an angry squirrel. I don’t care if you’re screaming your head off or barely singing above a whisper. If it feels genuine, you’ve got me. If I think you’re full of shit, it’s much more difficult for me to find a way into your music no matter how impressive your vocal range is.
When Paul Buchanan sings, “I am in love with you,” I believe him. When Billie Holiday sings, “I know that I’ll soon go mad,” I believe her. When Ariana Grande coos, “I’m looking for love,” I don’t believe she’s looking for anything but a pile of dirty money — probably so she can pay the four people who helped her write the song she’s singing — and I feel a strong urge to listen to some Swedish death metal so I can scrub her soulless ululations from my memory.
The local vocalists I reached out to were all people who struck me as having some amount of truth in their voices. When I was able to get someone in the studio and the right voice met the right song, it was thrilling. When I kept getting blown off by one singer after another, I wanted to yank all my hair out by the roots and strangle myself with it.
So it goes.
I took the same approach with instrumentalists. I believe almost anyone can achieve some degree of proficiency on an instrument if they work at it hard enough. Not everyone can speak through their instrument, and those who can don’t always have interesting things to say. I wanted people I could have a dialogue with, both verbally and musically. That I had to put words in their mouths most of the time just proves how rare it is to find anyone able and willing to have a real conversation with you about anything, in any setting.
I was able to get a handful of great musicians to improvise inside of some prepared musical situations. The results were often exciting and surprising. I wasn’t able to make it happen nearly as often as I would have liked, though. Don’t get me wrong — getting people to play parts I’d written was satisfying in its own way. But guiding a performance isn’t quite the same as watching someone take flight as they find their own path through the puzzle you’ve constructed for them.
The thought of working with other singers was enough on its own to light my brain on fire. In a matter of days I went from feeling uninspired to writing a flood of new songs that felt like some of my best work. I’ll tell you more about that in a bit. I also wrote string and horn parts — always fun when your music theory knowledge is almost nonexistent — and found string and horn players to bring them to life. That was more rewarding than I ever imagined it could be.
Another stipulation was geography-based. Everyone had to be local or at least in town long enough to record over here. There would be no trying to incorporate parts recorded at other studios and no outsourcing any elements of the production. The sound of the room I record in has become an integral part of what I do. Getting rid of that would just feel weird.
I think one of the dangers of making an album that features a large cast of contributors is creating something that has no real artistic identity. It can become more about playing Where’s Waldo? with your ears than anything else. With technology now allowing you to literally phone in a performance if everyone can’t be in the same place at the same time, a lot of soul can get lost if you aren’t careful. Some albums feature a different producer and engineer on almost every song, muddying the water even more.
Recording and producing everything myself at home felt like it helped to keep things grounded. Though there are a handful of juicy spotlit moments where a musician takes a solo or I step back and let someone else’s voice carry a song, one of my goals was to weave those musical contributions into a larger tapestry so all the strips of fabric made sense together. The guests also feature on less than half of the album, and they’re spread out quite a bit, with no more than a few of them — and often only one — popping up on a given song. On all but one of those songs, I’m still playing all or most of the instruments myself.
If things had panned out the way I thought they were going to in the beginning, I would have made an album so collaborative in nature it would be difficult to sit here now and call it a solo effort. That didn’t happen. I was forced to ride or die with my own creative and sonic vision. It was a little disappointing to learn I wasn’t going to be able to get anything close to what I was after. I expected cookies. I got crumbs — some of them so small I needed a microscope to be sure they were there at all.
The silver lining hiding in the belly of that misshapen cloud was getting the opportunity to be an auteur in a way I never had before.
Exposure (by Robert Fripp) and ///Codename: Dustsucker (by Bark Psychosis) are two albums I look to as great examples of this sort of thing in action. Both feature a rotating cast of singers and songs that take some unexpected turns, but in each case there’s a single architect at the helm of it all. Though I didn’t try to emulate anything about either one of those albums, I think there might be a similar sense of cohesiveness at work on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. In spite of a few unusual sounds and a handful of guest vocalists, it never stops feeling like a Johnny West album for a second. And maybe that’s as it should be.
Making this album was one of the great adventures of my life. It was also one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever navigated on a personal level. I had no way of knowing it, but I couldn’t have come up with a less effective way of trying to work my way out of a period of depression. I went into the album a little beat-up but still in decent shape. I came out of it looking like a human hematoma.
I was confronted with the cold, hard truth of just how ignorant, apathetic, and stuck up its own ass a music scene can be. When I started work on the album, I never imagined it would take me more than half a decade to finish it. Some of that was a side effect of recording so many albums for others along the way and having to push my own work to the side. I lost huge chunks of time and momentum to incompetent construction workers taking forever to tear up our street for no good reason, and then to a few neighbours with more money than sense and an inexplicable desire to have unnecessary work done on their homes. And remastering a whole pile of my own albums in 2017 didn’t help. But what dragged the process out more than anything else was the quest to find people to fill the roles I wanted to fill.
In most cases I was either stubborn or stupid enough to keep trying until I got what I wanted. Failing that, I would sing a song I wrote for someone else myself, or I would record a stack of vocal harmonies where I wanted a horn part to be.
It’s impossible to overstate how frustrating and discouraging it was to try and connect with other singers and musicians — many of whom claimed to be fans of my music and told me they were honoured I would invite them to work with me — only to slam face-first into a brick wall over and over again. You might think I’m exaggerating and it couldn’t have been that bad. It was far worse than anything you can imagine, and I’m being as kind as I can.
The list of people who contributed to the album looks impressive until I tell you it took being ignored, shot down, stood up, and jerked around by more than a hundred other people to get to the ones who were willing to show up. Sometimes it took me years of chasing someone just to get an hour or two of their time. And those were happy outcomes.
Here’s a colourful pie chart that breaks down my success rate.
Not too pretty, is it?
When all was played and sung, I was left with a batting average of .254. The ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson isn’t shaking in his sweat socks looking at that number.
At the other end of the spectrum, I got to see firsthand how generous and open-minded some people can be. Almost no one who played or sang on the album would let me pay them a session fee — and I offered. Two musicians asked for what amounted to gas money. Another charged me a small fortune. Everyone else made a point of donating their time and talents, knowing what they were getting involved in was the opposite of a vanity project and the end result wouldn’t make any money or generate any significant attention for anyone. Not one of the visual artists who contributed to the booklet would accept a dime.
I’ll always be grateful for that. I think it’s a nice little riposte to the self-important windbags who like to denigrate the efforts of those of us who aren’t in this for money or glory, dismissing us as “hobbyists” because we’re not dancing the same dance they are. Here’s what their small minds fail to comprehend: not everyone wants to be seen and heard. Not everyone needs that validation in order to reach a state of sexual arousal. For some artists, the work itself is the whole point, and it’s a self-sustaining thing.
I’ve talked about the live show that was supposed to put an exclamation point on all of this work. I’ve explained why it didn’t happen. There’s no point in rehashing any of that here. I included only a brief reference to it the liner notes, hoping to offer a preemptive answer to the question of why there wasn’t an album release show for such a weighty, long-range project. The film delves into this in much greater detail. I’m content to let what I’ve said there stand as the last word on the subject.
I do need to mention this, though: working on finishing and mixing some of these songs after the collapse of the show stirred up a pretty thick mess of conflicting emotions. I had to listen to the performances of a number of musicians who destroyed a dream I spent five years building. Some of the best performances were authored by people I no longer had any good feelings for.
It was a little like having an ex-lover pay me a visit after setting my house on fire and leaving me for dead, having her kiss me like she wanted to shove her soul down my throat, and then learning she was a hologram and the whole thing was someone’s idea of a practical joke.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t give some serious thought to erasing their parts out of spite. A small part of me wishes I’d gone ahead and done that to make a statement. The only way I was able to short-circuit the impulse to treat them the same way they treated me was to look at those people not as human beings, but as tools I used to fulfill some artistic ambitions. If that sounds cold, it’s also the unvarnished truth. I could have sung all the songs and played every instrument myself without feeling like anything was missing. I went out of my way to involve other singers and players as much as I could because it was something I wanted to do. Had I known what I was in for, I would have kept the entrance to my cave barricaded and gone on howling by myself.
Alas, I’ve yet to develop the power of precognition, so here we are.
Some of the people who did come through for me were wonderful. Others showed up unprepared, forcing me to coax something usable out of them through ingenuity or sheer force of will. I might not have paid for most of these performances in paper currency, but I earned them. Even with the people who were so awful to me I couldn’t hold myself back from kicking them off the album, my main considerations were musical. Two songs that felt like borderline filler hit the chopping block, and I replaced someone else’s middling vocal work with a more committed performance of my own.
I’d like nothing more than to be able to tell you I’m no longer by myself musically. I’d love to offer YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK as proof. I didn’t go into this looking for confirmation of how isolated I was from my supposed peers. I didn’t want a lesson in how an entire artistic enclave can claim to respect you when in reality you have no value to them at all. But life gives you the lessons it wants to give you, and not the lessons you’re hoping to get.
What Tyson told me seventeen years ago is still true today. I’ve never been more alone in what I do. SLEEPWALK might be the culmination of my life’s work up to this point. In many ways it’s also the loneliest album I’ve ever made.
If the experience of making the album wasn’t enough to get that sense of isolation across, a few experiences I had in the immediate aftermath hammered it home in a whole new way. This is why there’s a part of me that wants to laugh whenever someone talks about “social distancing”. It’s not that I’m trying to make light of what I know is a serious situation. It’s just that what you might have found jarring and difficult to adjust to over the past few months is nothing new to me. I’ve been preparing for the times we’re living in right now for the last twenty years.
I guess there are two ways you can respond to having it shoved in your face that you’re a misfit. You can mope about not being a part of the group, or you can choose to be empowered by it. There’s great strength to be mined from solitude if you get along with yourself. And really, when you get right down to it, the recognition of a bunch of gutless, creatively bankrupt self-seekers would be empty and worthless anyway. Who needs that?
I think YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK offers a cogent argument in support of the “strength in solitude” thesis. It’s an album that shouldn’t exist. I should have given up on it a hundred times for a hundred different reasons. The idea of giving up never entered my mind. I chewed up every obstacle in my path, spat it out, and manipulated the wet mess into music. The end result is not a small artistic statement by any means, but not one of its one hundred and fifty-three minutes is superfluous.
On that note, if there’s anyone out there who still thinks I need an editor or an outside producer, I’d like to put that idea to bed once and for all. I wrote two hundred and seventy-eight songs for this album, not counting ideas and sketches I didn’t develop into finished things. I recorded about half of those songs. Forty-eight of them made it onto the album. If that isn’t some pretty judicious editing, I don’t know what is.
The album title was set in stone before any of the songs were written.
Back when we still had cable and I still watched TV once in a while, I caught Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Only God Forgives on TMN (before it became Crave). It was one of the most dreamlike things I’d ever seen. It reminded me of one of those borderline nightmares that’s visually arresting enough to keep you from abandoning it in spite of a growing sense of dread. In those dreams, you tend to have at least some understanding of what’s going on, intuiting important information without having it spelled out for you. Watching this film for the first time, I had none of that context, and no idea what was happening or why.
I read about some of the ideas behind the film. I watched it a second time with the understanding that one character was meant to be God, and the emotionless haze another character seemed to inhabit was really thinly-disguised fear. The whole shape of the thing changed. It was like watching a different movie.
I could understand why audiences and critics were so divided. Some people thought the movie was a masterpiece. Others thought it was a nice-looking pile of pretentious garbage. I wasn’t sure which side of the debate I came down on, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. There were images that stayed with me long after I turned the TV off. Cliff Martinez’s music was moody, immersive, and worth the cost of doing business all on its own. And I didn’t think there were too many movies out there in which God sang karaoke as a cleansing ritual after mutilating sinners with his katana. So it had that going for it.
After my second viewing, I watched an interview with Nicolas Winding Refn on YouTube. He talked about Ryan Gosling and how they discussed “the fear of the sleepwalker” as a guide for his almost silent performance. I didn’t hear him say “fear of the sleepwalker”. For some strange reason, what I heard instead was “year of the sleepwalk”.
There was the name of my next album. It ran through me like lightning.
At first I just liked the way the words fell together. Now the phrase has come to mean a few different things to me. On some level, I felt like I was sleepwalking through most of 2013. There was a time when I believed I could get the album finished inside of a year. I struggled with serious sleep problems for well over a decade, only getting a handle on them for the first time in early 2019. And dreams have always been important to me. I’ve been keeping a dream journal for almost my entire adult life. Words, imagery, and ideas from my dreams have made their way into more than a bit of my music.
Every so often, I’ve been lucky enough to remember enough of a song born in the dream world to give it expression in my waking life. One of those dream songs even made it onto the album.
Here’s something I don’t get to say about every album I make: this one comes with a twenty-eight-page booklet crammed full of words and art.
After resisting the idea of including lyrics with my albums for years because I didn’t think the words I wrote were interesting enough to justify being printed, and then trying it out just to see how the shoes fit, I’m in a place now where I think my lyrics have grown more considered, better able to stand alone, and more worthy of being given their own platform. CREATIVE NIGHTMARES and AFTERTHOUGHTS aside, I’ve never broken up the lyrics with pictures. I don’t tend to have any extra images at my disposal for that sort of thing, and I like letting the words live in their own space, undisturbed.
I thought it was worth trying something different this time. I started out trying to connect with different artists outside of the city — people who claim they do freelance work and encourage you to get in touch with them to talk about collaborating, whoever and wherever you are, whatever the scope of your project might be.
No one would give me the time of day.
Well, that’s not quite right. One person responded and offered to make me something for a price that would have tripled my packaging costs. Everyone else either ignored me, said they were too busy, or wrote back with some condescending snark about how they weren’t going to bother quoting me a price because I wasn’t worth their time and they knew I wouldn’t be able to afford them.
Seems a little disingenuous to present yourself as being open and accessible on your website when the truth is you’re only chasing projects that will yield the most visibility and money, with no consideration given to anything or anyone else. But I guess avarice disguised as art makes the world go ’round.
Then I got an idea so obvious I was a little surprised I didn’t think of it sooner. Why not carry over the Windsor-only theme? There are plenty of talented visual artists in this city. I put the feelers out. The response was a lot more enthusiastic than I was expecting it to be. Within a week, I’d communicated with more than twenty artists who told me they were interested in contributing.
My idea was to send everyone some songs to give them an idea of where the album was heading. They would each create one image, whether they worked with paper and ink, a canvas and paint, a camera — whatever their medium was. Their image could be a direct representation of a song. It could be a more general response to the music, only connected to it in a tangential way. It could be completely abstract. What they made and how they arrived at it was up to them, so long as the music catalyzed the image in some way. I didn’t want to guide the artists. I wanted them to follow the muse wherever it took them.
The one exception to the “Windsor artists only” rule was Maya Klein. I’ve known Maya and have been sharing music with her since long before anyone around here had any interest in what I was doing. She was the first person I ever asked to make me real cover art, at a time when I was just starting to make CDs that had something resembling proper packaging. Not asking her to be a part of this would have been a huge oversight. Besides, what good are rules if you can’t bend or break them once in a while?
A lot of the people who said they would make me art didn’t make me anything. My batting average here was almost identical to what I managed to pull off with singers and musicians. But the artists who were good to their word gave me all kinds of great things to work with. Thanks to them, I was able to give the music a rich, colourful visual presentation, with the words and images playing off of one another.
If I’ve ever made an album that deserves to be experienced as a vinyl record, it’s this one. It’s meant to encourage you to sit down and take the whole thing in as an extended audio-visual experience, the way we used to listen to music before so many people developed a playlist mentality and stopped treating albums as pieces of art worthy of their undivided attention. Vinyl would put the tactile nature of the thing over the top, and it would allow me the luxury of presenting the artwork on a larger scale.
There’s one problem. This album is almost three hours long. Given the limitations of the vinyl format, it would take at least a quadruple record to accommodate all the songs. Combine mastering costs with what a pressing plant would charge for a job that size, and it adds up to an unproduced horror film called The Path to Financial Ruin is Paved with Vinyl Records.
I did give some serious thought to self-publishing a book to accompany the album in place of a traditional lyric booklet. I asked a number of people for advice or a quote. Some of them were published authors. Some ran printing presses. Every single one of them ignored me. After deciding the scale of a CD booklet would work for what I wanted to do, I asked a local graphic designer if the way I laid things out looked okay. That person ignored me too.
You sense my being ignored is going to be a recurring theme here, don’t you? You’re not wrong. You should trust your instincts more often.
I know the compact disc doesn’t get much respect anymore. I grew up with records. I’ve always loved everything about them. If I had my way, every album I’ve made would be pressed to vinyl. It just isn’t feasible to put thousands of dollars into getting records made when you’re not selling your music — and I’ll drink bleach before I put a price tag on this stuff. If I ever make another album that’s short enough to fit on a single record, I might look into doing an ultra-limited run of lathe cuts. Unless a pile of money falls from the sky, that’s about as far as my vinyl-related ambitions are going to take me.
CDs have always done the job. They’re the best and most cost-effective method of delivery I’ve found for the noises I make. They don’t compromise the sound quality the way online streaming does. They allow me to get creative with the physical presentation of my albums. I’ve always liked the medium, though I’m probably in the minority there. If most people don’t own CD players anymore, most people aren’t interested in my music anyway, so it all evens out.
I have to say I’m really happy with the way the booklet turned out. It was a proofreading nightmare, and there were a few pieces of art I wasn’t able to include because of space considerations, but I managed to squeeze in most of the things I liked best.
Along the way, I was fortunate enough to have everyone agree to let me capture some video footage of the recording process.
I’m not a professional filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination, as all those video progress reports of yore will attest to. If my Canon T5i had come into the picture sooner, the singers and musicians who came over to the house probably would have seen me walking around looking like this (but with a lot more junk in the torso trunk):
Instead, what they usually saw was one of these guys set up on a tripod:
I did most of my filming with these trusty old Flip cameras that look like diminutive cell phones. I didn’t get the T5i until pretty late in the game, so I was only able to use it for some inserts and a few talking-to-the-camera segments. By that time I also had the luxury of pointing a Zoom H1 Handy Recorder at my face. While the difference in image and sound quality in those bits is pretty pronounced, I think the Flip cameras did just fine. Their invisible built-in microphones were often tasked with picking up whatever was being said by whoever happened to be in the room with me. I never had trouble working out what someone was saying no matter how far away from them the camera got, and the autofocus never hunted or got weird on me. The footage these cameras capture gets grainy when the lighting isn’t great — and the lighting in my studio is almost never great — but I’ve learned to live with it.
What I had to shoot with didn’t matter so much. I felt a need to preserve some of the process of making this thing beyond the act of taking pictures with my mind. Even in the beginning, when I was full of energy and misguided hope, I knew it was probably going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.
There was something I noticed when I started filming pieces of recording sessions. Every time I dumped some raw footage from one of the Flip cameras onto the computer, the program I used as a go-between would grab and save a frame from the video as a still image before sending it to a folder I didn’t know was hiding on my hard drive. These weren’t professional-grade pictures — technically they weren’t pictures at all — but a fair few of them were pretty interesting shots that almost looked posed when they weren’t. After I drained the colour out of them with a photo editing program, they took on a quality I really liked.
This became the cover art: accidental lo-fi photographs of all the singers and players who were a part of the album. It felt like the only imagery that made any sense.
Which brings us back to Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories), the DIY documentary at the top of this post.
Ten years ago, a guy I sort of knew through CJAM approached me with the idea of making a documentary. He was a film student. He was producing a short film for his final project. He thought I would make a good subject. He caught me at a time when my music had about as large and attentive an audience as it was ever going to get. It seemed like a good moment to document who I was, what I did, and what other people thought about it.
I played nice on my blog when all of this was going on. I didn’t want to be a dickbag. Ten years on, I think I’m entitled to say what I think, and I don’t care if I come out of it looking like a wrinkled scrotum. So here’s the truth: I had some serious issues with the film, the way it was edited, and the director himself.
I gave him a huge amount of archival material — a lot of pictures and video footage no one had ever seen and a lot of music no one had ever heard. He used almost none of it. He filmed large chunks of a solo show I played at Mackenzie Hall in early 2010 and another show I played at the Green Bean Cafe backing up Travis Reitsma. No more than ninety seconds of that footage was incorporated into the film. I put him in touch with almost every person he interviewed, since he wasn’t interested in doing his own legwork. They all told me he asked a few generic questions and was ready to end each interview within about five minutes. They had to urge him to let them say more. If they hadn’t interviewed themselves, I would have been the only person saying anything of substance in the film.
My music was minimized to an extent that still mystifies me. The music was the only reason anyone was interested in talking about me. It was the only thing that merited a film being made about me. And yet it was treated as subliminal mood muzak, mixed so low in the background it might as well have not even be there. I almost wished it wasn’t. It got distracting when someone was speaking and I was singing on the soundtrack at the same time.
Pro tip: if you need to have music playing on top of an interview clip, an instrumental piece is going to work a whole lot better than a vocal piece.
The same snippet of interview footage was shown twice for no apparent reason. A few bits were edited in such a bizarre way it was impossible to follow what I was saying. And something went awry with the audio of a lot of the interviews that were conducted with people who weren’t me. The director didn’t catch that during the editing process. I had to point it out to him. I was told those segments were marred by a “surround sound” effect that was accidentally engaged in whatever video editing program was being used. This was corrected at some point, or so the story went. I’ve never seen a version of the film that reflects the change.
The way the Mackenzie Hall show was glossed over was another thing that never made any sense to me. The guy who never plays live is suddenly playing a show at the end of the film, with no explanation, and then it’s all over. Roll credits.
The director told me he was going to make the live performance the heart of the whole film. I spoke at length on camera about what the show meant to me and what I hoped it would achieve. I talked about how nervous I was to take that kind of gamble (no one else on the bill, no alcohol, no other musicians backing me up, no built-in audience, no tickets being sold to gauge what kind of turnout I might get), how a number of people told me I was going to embarrass myself and assured me no one was going to show up, and how the whole thing was designed to break down the wall that separates performer from audience while poking holes in all the strange myths people who didn’t know me had built up around me and my music.
None of that is in the film.
I sat down at the piano and improvised for a while. I sat down at the drums and talked about how there was something comforting about playing them that always seemed to cut through any anxiety I might be grappling with. I played my Arp Omni-2 analog synthesizer and talked about how it came into my life.
None of that is in the film.
I broke down the mix of a song (“Jesus Don’t Know My Name”) and talked about the recording process. Some of that footage did make it into the film…as a silent DVD menu.
When I talked about how I came to play guitar the way I do, director dude edited out the part where I demonstrated what I was talking about by playing the instrument. When I offered to let him and his ragtag film crew film me recording a song from soup to nuts so people could get a look behind the scenes, he told me it would be a waste of time. “By the time it’s edited,” he said, “no one will know what’s going on anyway.”
I appreciated the absurdity of the title. I Am Not a Seagull was something silly I said in an email to the director. It was one of the few elements of the film that reflected my artistic sensibilities. Otherwise, the whole thing felt like an object lesson in how not to make a documentary.
I wasn’t able to make it to the official unveiling. My sleep was a mess, which was par for the course back then. A friend who was at the screening told me the director slipped this bit of self-fellating madness into his spoken introduction: “Anyone can make music. It’s a pretty simple, straightforward process. Making a film like this is much more complex. A lot more work goes into it.”
He took a public shit on the subject of his own film. Not that he ever bothered to learn much of anything about my creative process. I guess he assumed I farted out songs in my sleep and a group of friendly elves recorded them for me while I snorted baby powder from the comfort of an improvised hammock. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is a guy who once wrote an article for The Lance that described my music as “entertainingly simplistic”. It was meant as a compliment.
Some people shouldn’t be allowed to use words. And some people shouldn’t be allowed to make films.
The whole thing sank without a trace after that one local screening. I was relieved. I thought the film was a huge wasted opportunity, and I wasn’t looking forward to paying the director’s post-production costs myself in order to dissuade him from selling DVDs and making money off of me. He told me the DVD sales were supposed to offset his production costs. He never explained what those production costs were. He had free access to all the video equipment and editing software he would ever need at the university.
I later heard he put together a longer edit that he felt was a better film. I never saw it.
Today I’ve gained enough distance from the experience to look at the film as an amusing little time capsule, technical flaws and personal misgivings aside. That doesn’t mean I’m going to share it here. If you really want to see it, you can shoot me an email or scream at me through a tin can and I’ll send you a private link. If you’re only going to watch one chunk of video about me and my music, I’d really rather have it be Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories).
Here’s the trailer for I Am Not a Seagull, at least. I always got a kick out of the way it poked fun at the rumours people were circulating about me at the time, even if the director got the number of albums I’d made wrong (there were a lot more than twenty-nine of them even in 2010).
A few months later, a different filmmaker was over at the house to document a performance for the short-lived Rose City Sessions.
The mission statement for Rose City Sessions was: “a collaborative project that brings together Windsor, Ontario-based filmmakers, visual artists, musicians, writers, photographers, and recording engineers to shine a light on our community’s burgeoning artistic and musical talents.” It was meant to be a serialized thing, with a new video released each month. The goal was to build a vast online archive showcasing Windsor’s original music scene, with an aim toward eventually releasing a DVD set.
It stalled a few videos in when the people involved got busy with work and school. At least that was the official story. What really happened was more of a classic “biting off more than you can chew” scenario, compounded by a director whose mouth wrote cheques his ass couldn’t cash.
Some of the artists who filmed segments a decade ago still haven’t seen their videos. They never will. I got to see mine, which was nothing short of miraculous. It showed up on the internet three years after it was filmed. I’d share it here, but I can’t. You’ll understand why in a minute.
My initial idea was to put a band together for my Rose City Sessions segment. I wanted play “To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free”, which had just been recorded for the album that would become MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS. I thought it would make for a good video. Today I wish I’d gone ahead and done that. Instead, for reasons I still don’t understand, I opted for a solo acoustic take on “I’m a Witness, Not Your Waitress”, one of the catchiest songs on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART.
I liked this director. He seemed genuine. He expressed an interest in hearing more of my music, so I sent him some CDs and a handwritten letter in the mail. He asked me to record myself reading the contents of my letter so he could repurpose my gift as a school project, call it “found art”, and contrive a way to squeeze a free grade out of my gesture without doing any work of his own.
What is it with film students? Are they all like this?
When he said he was making a documentary about Windsor’s music scene and he wanted to get my take on things, I agreed to sit down with him for an interview. I thought I could offer an interesting perspective. Every time he was in town, he would send me a message about the two of us getting together. Then he would blow me off. He was the one who was supposed to interview me, and I was the one chasing him.
When he heard I was going to be playing at the now-defunct Shores of Erie Wine Festival in 2011, he asked if I wanted him to film my performance. I told him I wasn’t in a good financial situation at the time, so I wouldn’t be able to pay him a fortune, but I’d love it if he filmed my set and would be happy to pay him whatever I could. I asked if there was any way he could edit my performance of “I’m a Witness, Not Your Waitress” so I could use it as promotional material to tie in with the gig. He’d done that for another band when they were gearing up to play a big show.
He never spoke to me again.
Two years later, he got around to editing my Rose City Sessions performance. Then he took to Facebook to announce the impending release of his documentary. He shared the trailer. I wasn’t in it, because he never interviewed me for it.
I called him out on his flakiness. He scrubbed my Rose City Sessions video from the internet as an act of retaliation. Then he removed himself from the web altogether after a few people who paid for video work got angry with him for never delivering what he was hired to produce. You can’t even find his film about the music scene online now. Outside of a few trailers like the one above, it doesn’t exist.
I wasn’t crafty enough to download the video for “I’m a Witness, Not Your Waitress” while it was still on YouTube. All that remains of it now is an old screen cap and a WAV file I might throw on an out-takes collection someday.
In the summer of 2012, I was dropping off a few CDs at CJAM after learning someone had stolen some of my albums from the station’s music library. I started talking with a guy who was sitting on one of the couches in the lounge area. He told me he was making a documentary about the Windsor music scene. The central question of his film was this: is music a universal language? The answer would be revealed in the final ten minutes, when four musicians who’d never played together before were thrown onstage at a local venue and asked to improvise a piece of music as a collective.
Yeah. I know.
He asked if I’d be interested in filming an interview. I said sure. I like talking about music. Maybe I’d have a better experience this time around.
He came over to the house with his gear. I’m pretty sure his camera was the same MiniDV Camcorder I got in 2003. He asked me some questions. He interrupted most of my answers and asked me to repeat his questions back to him so he would know what stage of the interview he was at when he was editing. It threw me off, but I did my best to play along.
I was supposed to be one of many talking heads. Just a bit of extra colour. But the more this guy learned about me, the more he started thinking I had an interesting story. He decided he wanted to shift the focus of the documentary and make me the “star”. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I grew more ambivalent when he told me the person in charge of sound was someone who had no respect for me or what I did, and when he told her he was thinking about making me a much more prominent part of his film, she said, “Why the hell would you pick him?”
Out of the dozens of people he interviewed, she was the only one who came down on the side of music not being a universal language. Her argument? “Not everyone can read sheet music. If you can’t read music, you can’t understand it.”
You hear that, Paul McCartney? Better hang it up. And while you’re at it, maybe you could reanimate Buddy Rich’s corpse so we can let him know he was never a real musician, since he couldn’t read or write notation.
As much as I was looking forward to locking horns with that deep thinker when she had to be in the room for something we were filming, I was hesitant to become more than a supporting player in this guy’s documentary. When he told me he wanted to film a dramatic re-enactment of me replacing my stolen CDs at CJAM, I balked. He told me he staged re-enactments of scenes he wasn’t able to capture on camera all the time. To sell me on the idea, he shared footage of what was supposed to be an emotional conversation between two people. “Unconvincing” doesn’t begin to describe how bad it was.
I didn’t hear from him for a while. When he got back in touch with me, I told him he was welcome to use my interview footage but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being the focal point of someone else’s film after what I’d already been through, and I didn’t want the added visibility that might come along with it.
As far as I can tell, the film was never finished or released. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
When it came time to find someone to film my YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK-related Mackenzie Hall show, I thought it would be pretty straightforward. Most filmmakers want to be paid to film things. I had some money and an event I wanted to film. How much simpler could it get?
Here’s how that went:
The first filmmaker I was able to get to acknowledge me wouldn’t quote me a price. He said he refused to film at Mackenzie Hall because it looked “boring” on film, but told me if I grew a brain and decided on a cooler venue like the Olde Walkerville Theatre he might be interested in talking to me.
I reached out to someone who once came here and interviewed me about my music for yet another film that was never edited or released. She ignored every message I sent her over a period of eight years.
Rob Fraser — a great friend, and one of the unsung heroes of the Show That Almost Was — snagged a filmmaker friend of his. He quoted me a fantastic price. I was impressed with the quality of his work. Everything looked good. Then the filmmaker fell off the face of the earth. After a year of radio silence, we found out he’d sold all his equipment and quit the filmmaking profession.
A woman who worked at the camera shop where I bought my Canon T5i told me she would get in touch with a filmmaker friend who she was sure would be happy to work with me. I never heard from him. When I emailed her to thank her for at least trying to help, she ignored me.
A local filmmaker who will remain nameless told me he would read my email and respond to it within the week. That was in January of 2019. I’m still waiting for his response.
A guy Johnny Smith tracked down said he could film the show and edit it for $1,500. When we asked about sitting down with him for a face-to-face conversation, he said he was too busy to talk to us and suggested getting in touch with his “agents”. We wrote him off as a blowhard.
I emailed the guy responsible for Southern Souls. I thought I might get lucky, since two of the people I’ve recorded albums for (Yessica Woahneil and Ron Leary) have been featured in his videos. He didn’t email me back until January of 2020. He asked if I still needed someone to film my show — a show that was scheduled to happen in August of the previous year. I swear I can’t even make this shit up.
Another local filmmaker who won’t be named told me he could film the show for $50 or $1,500. He claimed he could make it work no matter what my budget was. He also spent three hours lecturing me on what I should be doing with my music after admitting he’d never heard a lick of it and knew nothing about me. He talked himself into and then straight out of the job in a single sitting. It was almost impressive.
One guy said he would be willing to film the show for free if I didn’t get the grant. He negated that apparent show of kindness by following it up with, “If you wanted to throw me a thousand bucks to keep me honest, that would help.” Still, I had a better feeling about him than anyone else. After I decided he was the lesser of all evils and my best choice, he told me he checked his calendar and realized he wasn’t going to be in town the night of the show, so he wouldn’t be able to help me out after all.
A friend put me in touch with a filmmaker who told me he could film the show with multiple cameras for $1,500, but he would only be willing to edit two minutes of the raw footage. If I wanted him to edit the whole thing, I’d be looking at spending closer to $6,000 — every cent of the grant money I was awarded, plus another three grand out of my own pocket. He also told me he watched some of my videos. He liked the music but thought all the talking was boring. Nice guy.
Another local filmmaker told me he could film and edit the show for $3,000. When I told him the best I could do was half of that, he said $1,500 would only get me a brief video of “highlights”. Then he came back and told me he was willing to drop his rates. He could either film and edit the whole show for $2,500, or for $1,500 he could film it and then hand over the raw footage to the editor of my choice (who would be happy to take the rest of my money). The generosity of some people is astonishing, isn’t it?
I found someone who was willing to cut me a better deal for filming the show without editing the raw footage. It wasn’t ideal, but I wasn’t about to give some opportunistic douchebag with a camera all the money I had in exchange for a ninety-second nothing video.
The show didn’t happen, so it didn’t matter anyway. But I can’t say I have a very high opinion of the local filmmaking community after all of that. Come to think of it, the stupidity dates all the way back to high school, when a friend got me to star in an amateur music video he was making for the REM song “Strange Currencies” and then never let me see any of the footage he shot. In the twenty years that have passed since then, I don’t think I’ve had a single positive experience with a Windsor-based filmmaker.
Not that it’s a Windsor-specific thing by any means. When I tried to commission someone outside of the city to make me some sort of artistic music video, it was the same old song and dance all over again.
I started making video progress reports in the summer of 2010. The idea was to keep myself oriented within the maze of music I was working on while hopefully offering something of interest to the five or six people who followed my blog. In the course of putting those things together and teaching myself the rudiments of video editing, I found I really enjoyed creating videos as a form of expression. I also learned it wasn’t at all difficult to edit footage of a song being recorded so the viewer would know what was going on, contrary to what that one filmmaker told me once upon a time.
Two years and eighteen videos later, I had my little ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE-shaped crisis of confidence and lost my momentum. My plan was to make a longer, more action-packed video progress report when that album was finished. But it didn’t get finished. Then I thought I’d do something for this blog’s ten-year anniversary. That didn’t happen either.
When I started grabbing video footage of the recording process and stockpiling public domain material in early 2014, the idea was to incorporate the best bits into a video progress report that would make up for lost time. The more probing I did, the more I came to understand a simple progress report wasn’t going to cut it. So I dug deeper and assembled a two-and-a-half-hour film.
Everything pivots around YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, but there’s a lot more to it than just the making of a single album. I wanted to take the opportunity to try and get across something meaningful about who I am, what I do, and why I do it the way I do. I also got a chance to address some of the sins filmmakers have committed against me in the past. The West Team, Papa Ghostface, and Guys With Dicks are all profoundly important chapters of my musical life. They got a combined two minutes of screen time in I Am Not a Seagull. Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories) gives them the consideration they deserve. My music is treated as more than an afterthought. The sound comes out of both stereo channels. You get to see and hear me play guitar. There’s no myth-making. Just the truth straight from the horse’s larynx, whether you want to hear it or not.
It isn’t a slick, conventional documentary, but my hope is that it’s a worthwhile and somewhat illuminating companion piece to the album, even if it takes almost an hour before the serious SLEEPWALK discussion begins. If you’re a semi-regular blog visiter, chances are you’ve already seen a little bit of the footage. I posted a few excerpts and isolated recording-related segments here and on my Vimeo page before the larger thing was finished. Those were just teasers. Almost all of the material in the finished piece will be new to you, whoever you may be.
I should pause here to thank a few people who helped out in one way or another.
Johnny Smith provided transportation, moral support, and assisted in countless big and small ways. Amanda Salden gave me access to her archive of 8 mm camcorder tapes, revealing a treasure trove of footage I either believed to be lost forever or didn’t know existed in the first place. Joey Ouellette and Merry Ellen Scully were kind enough to allow me to film the opening sequence and a few inserts at Mackenzie Hall. Andy Magoffin made me two different instrumental mixes of the Ron Leary song “To Living”, allowing me to create what I think is one of the best emotional payoffs in the whole film. Brady Holek and Carley Schweitzer made it possible for me to bring my little CJAM cutaway gag to life. Likewise with Chris Piccolo and Nick Angelini, who helped make the Dr. Disc gag possible (Nick blanked me up a profane mock divider card, and that’s Chris leading me to the mythical GWD section). Greg Maxwell designed the opening titles, or rather the “post-opening-sequence titles”.
There’s a bit of overlap between what’s onscreen and what I’ve said and have yet to say here. There isn’t much song-specific discussion in the film, though. I didn’t want to bog down the action with too much talking once I got to the point where I could let you be a fly on the wall and start showing you how some things came together. After all, getting into the details no one really cares about is what blog posts like this are for!
What follows is a song-by-song breakdown, complete with almost every existing relevant demo I thought was worth sharing, along with a few bits and pieces of footage I couldn’t find a place for in the documentary — things that would probably be included as “deleted scenes” on a DVD. Some rough drafts are more revelatory than others, and the sound quality of the demos is all over the place. Some are GarageBand recordings, some were preserved on whatever camera or sound-capturing device was nearby, some were recorded with the Zoom H1, and a few were recorded in the studio. If you’ve lived with the album for a while, I hope it’ll be interesting to learn how the songs were born and how some of them sounded before they knew what they were going to be when they grew up.
On we go.
With almost every album I’ve made, the opening and closing tracks have announced themselves somewhere along the line, and that’s been the end of the discussion. This time there were several songs vying for both spots. I thought about kicking things off with “Vector” for a while. Then it was going to be “Boy See”. Then it was going to be a song that didn’t make it onto the album. But when you write a song with the word “preamble” in the title, I think you have to go where the words lead you.
“Don’t Let the Preamble Ramble” was a completely different song to begin with. I wrote something on the piano that was meant to segue into some a cappella weirdness. Then I sat on it for a while. Separate from all of that, I came up with a little instrumental idea when I was messing around with the Montreal Assembly Count to Five pedal a few days before my birthday in 2016. A pitch-shifted delay setting inspired a guitar riff in 7/4 time. I recorded a bit of that and added some chopped-up bits of looped guitar on top. It was a cool little musical mood. I had no idea how I wanted to develop it. I called it “Squiggly” and assumed it would be another one of those things that fell by the wayside.
Seven months later, I revisited it. I tried singing the lyrics for what was meant to be the a cappella section of the piano song on top of this weird little guitar thing. The words and music made a better pair than I thought they would. I got down some harmonica and a rough drum track. It took me another two years to get around to fleshing out the arrangement with acoustic guitar, backwards piano, and sampled vocals and wind chimes care of the Yamaha VSS-30.
By then I knew I had my opening track. It only took me five years to find it.
Before “Don’t Let the Preamble Ramble” became the first song on the album, I gave some serious thought to leading off with this one. In a way it still serves that purpose, acting as more of a proper beginning after the prelude-like feeling of the first song.
Almost nothing on this album operates according to the established rules of song structure. Even when a song seems to follow something resembling a conventional ABABCB form, with sections of music that recur, the words rarely fall into a predictable or repetitive pattern. Working within the confines of a verse/chorus/verse framework lost its appeal for me a long time ago. Unless a song seems to demand a traditional chorus — and there are a few things on the album that did — I won’t write one.
It’s not about discrimination. I love plenty of songs that have choruses and don’t lead me anywhere unusual. As a writer, it just isn’t a way of working that interests me anymore. And while I made my peace with rhyming after avoiding it for a number of years, it isn’t something I force on a song. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. The important thing is that whatever rhymes do work their way into the lyrics aren’t lazy or obvious. I will never, God-willing, rhyme “glove” with “love”, “please” with “knees”, or “hand” with “understand”. I’d sooner kill myself.
Sometimes I like to bend things out of shape in subtle ways. Other times I want to violently disrupt what’s expected of a song and obliterate any expectations the listener might have. If “Don’t Let the Preamble Ramble” is the equivalent of swimming in a river and finding the currents are a little more turbulent than the quaint-looking surface of the water might have led you to believe they were, “Vector” is more like getting sucked into a riptide and discovering a whole new world under the water. Like The Little Mermaid in reverse. There are at least six distinct movements, and none of them are reprised once they’ve run their course.
First I wrote a song for Steve O-L to sing. He’s got this great lived-in-sounding baritone. I wrote a dark folky thing I thought would be a good fit for his voice. He liked it, but he was a little more interested in something else I played for him that wasn’t a song at all.
It started out as a random guitar bit. The day after the Tire Swing Co. album release show for INAMORATA, I started noodling on my Epiphone Casino and recorded this via the lo-fi but useful sound-recording tool built into a cheap Pentax camera:
This was how Steve heard it — as an idea driven by the piano. He thought it had potential. I reshaped the idea into a song and wrote a chunk of it specifically for him to sing. I thought it would be fun to record a deliberate homage to The National. We’re both fans of the band, and Steve’s voice can do a bit of a Matt Berninger thing when he steers it in that direction. So I had that in the back of my head the whole time.
I recorded a piano track and Steve came over to sing his part. I recorded a guide vocal for his section so he’d have something to work with. It was the first time he was hearing the song as an actual song with words. He listened to it a few times, I handed him some headphones and the spiral notebook I’d written the lyrics in, and I set up the vocal mic so he could hear himself. We weren’t recording. It was a test run.
After two or three lines, I stopped him and said, “We need to record this. It sounds too good not to.”
He nailed it in one take. We did a quick punch-in for one bit where the timing was a little tricky. That was it. I’m not gonna lie. I raised my fist a few times in giddy celebration while he was singing.
“What do you think?” I asked him.
“I think that’s about as good as I can sing it,” he said.
We both started laughing.
It sounded like he was meant to sing those words. His voice added a whole new depth to the song. It didn’t hit me until a while later that I’d written something of an internal dialogue without realizing it, with Steve serving as the voice in my head.
I added more to the song over the next day or two. I liked the sound of Steve’s lead vocal and my harmonies so much, I didn’t want them to get buried in a dense mix. I pared our little homage to The National down until it wasn’t an homage to anything anymore, letting the drums drop out before the medium-large wall-of-sound coda came in.
Here’s a fragment of a rough work mix that’ll give you an idea of how this part of the song sounded before I stripped it back a little.
Hearing another person sing words I wrote and having it work so well planted an idea in my head, and it wasn’t an idea I’d ever had before. I could write songs for multiple voices, including my own, and the voices could be treated like actors in a play. As I’ve said, doing this became a much lonelier exercise than I was expecting it to be. But when I was able to make it work, man…it was really something.
The little sax part Kelly Hoppe plays over the instrumental break is the first horn part I ever wrote for a living, breathing horn player. I didn’t have the confidence to write it out on paper at the time. I recorded it as a vocal part first.
Then I figured out what notes I was singing and layered the three interlocking harmonies with Kelly. Here’s an out-take from Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories) featuring some sax takes that weren’t used on the album.
Funny thing about this song: the words didn’t mean much to me when I wrote them. They mean an awful lot now. All the talk of “leathered plans in disarray”,“walking barefoot on a burning roof”, and being “better when I was lonely” came to feel pretty prescient after a while. In the last section of the song, the phrase “for the first time in a long time I’m talking to myself” becomes a mantra, with Steve singing lead and me singing harmonies, and then everything drops out and I sing the last repetition of “I’m talking to myself” on my own.
That’s more than an internal dialogue. It’s a summary of everything I experienced while I was making the album — and I wrote those words before I experienced any of it. Songs sometimes have a way of getting at some deeper truths you might not be actively searching for, and every once in a great while they let you see into the future. You just have to know where to direct your eyes. As a nonexistent French philosopher might have said, “Mais petit à petti la lumière s’est faite, et j’ai compris.”
This verse is probably one of my favourite verses I’ve ever written:
You move in memories I can’t follow.
They don’t belong to me.
I can’t trace them to their origins,
but I can sing them in my sleep.
These melodies connect to those
terse lines and four diminished chords,
and now we’re on our own again.
I’m not sure if the intricate tree Amanda Brierty designed was inspired by this song, but I chose to make that image the first thing you see when you open the booklet. It felt right on a gut level. Over the last twelve or thirteen years, I’ve found myself returning again and again to elemental imagery in my writing — earth, sky, water, air, fire. Instead of turning away from that, I’ve embraced it.
There must be a reason those themes keep bubbling up from the depths of my subconscious. Better to let them bubble.
This is the first thing I wrote with Steve in mind. It more or less created itself in the middle of the night. When it was finished, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was one of my best songs.
I guess you’d call it “dark alt-folk” if you had to call it something. I’ve grown comfortable enough with this sort of thing that I’ve thrown out entire albums of analogous songs. Keep climbing down the same well too many times and you’re bound to drown in it. Nothing wrong with taking a look down there once in a while, though. You never know what you might find crawling around.
When it comes to narrative songwriting, the first person I think of is Harry Chapin. I can’t listen to “Taxi” or “Mr. Tanner” without being struck by how complete they are. These are songs that tell involving, nuanced stories, with an incredible amount of feeling and detail packed into not much more than five minutes. Harry was a master of the craft. So too were Leonard Cohen and John Prine. And Bobbie Gentry wrote one of the all-time great story songs in “Ode to Billie Joe”.
I’m not that kind of writer. In my adult years I’ve leaned more on images, impressions, and wordplay. I’ve written songs like “The Sun Is a Red Ball of Lies Tonight” and “Murder Dressed as Mercy” from time to time, but they’ve been anomalies, and I haven’t gone looking for them. It wasn’t until Steve and I were recording AFTERTHOUGHTS that I started thinking it might be worth trying to do that sort of thing more often. With “Pave over It All” and “Trespassing”, I felt like I found a new way of attacking the narrative song form, or at least an approach that was fresh for me, and I was reminded how rewarding it can be to carve out a little film with words and sound.
The first verse of “Losing Light” was ambiguous enough to leave a fork in the road. I could either keep it vague or I could paint a clearer picture. I chose the second path and traced the interior monologue of a low-level underworld character who’s hopped a train after catching a bullet, hoping to get back to the woman he loves before he bleeds out. He may not be a good man, but he has tenderness and poetry inside of him. The act of “leaving on a train” is both literal and figurative. The locomotive carries him to another city as he drifts into a dying dream. The final lines constitute the displaced soul of the man revealed: “Bless this artificial heart / It knows not what it does.”
I’ve always been fascinated by how razor-thin the dividing line can be between “good” and “evil”. I sometimes find myself writing about people who haven’t quite figured out which side of that line they’re standing on. “A Soft Kiss From Cold Lips” (the closing track on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS) is a good example, and I think in some ways it functions as a younger brother to this song.
For whatever reason, Steve was more attracted to what became “Vector”. I had to sing this one myself. That’s why it’s right at the bottom of my vocal range. For a while I kept hearing Steve’s voice in my head. Then I let go of that and the song became mine again.
When I was working with visual artists, most of the time I gave them a pile of songs and left it up to them to decide what they would use as fuel for whatever imagery they created. I still don’t know which specific songs inspired some of the pieces I was given. Since most of the art wasn’t tethered to anything in particular, I had the freedom to get creative with where I placed a lot of the images in the lyric booklet.
“Losing Light” is different. It’s one of two songs on the album I made a point of asking someone to create a direct visual response to, though how they responded was still up to them. Something told me Greg Maxwell was the guy to illustrate this one. There’s a stark, unsettling beauty that runs through his art like a poisoned river.
This is what he came up with.
I can’t imagine any better visual representation of the song. I love how it looks like a page that was torn out of a battered old existential comic book.
GarageBand became an important tool when I was writing this album. It allowed me to record demos that were more fleshed-out than anything I was able to do in the past with whatever video camera was nearby (more about this later). All told, I recorded one hundred and fifty-eight GarageBand demos for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. This one was the eighth.
I liked the little secondary guitar part I came up with enough to carry it over to the final recording. Then the tempo slowed down and everything took on a more elegiac quality. I layered a lot of guitars. The first thing you hear is the 1951 Gibson LG-2 the song was written on. In the second verse, the Martin 000-15 comes in to thicken things up, along with some Kay Thin Twin. The ambient volume swell stuff is the funky old Teisco I’ve had since CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN — the same guitar responsible for the single G note that keeps wailing away through the second half of “Vector”.
Sometimes the simplest songs are the ones I’m proudest of. There isn’t even a hook to this one, unless you count the little instrumental break. It just felt right. It still feels right.
Here’s a statement you’re going to see a lot more of in the next little bit: I wrote this song with a specific singer in mind. That singer isn’t on the album.
For years it’s been a dream of mine to have a female vocalist sing lead on something shoegazey. I was only able to make it happen once, so I pulled out all the stops and made this song the dreamiest thing I was capable of creating.
When the person I wrote the song for had no interest in it, I reached out to Kelly Grace. Kelly used to sing in a band called The Infidels. Now she’s relocated to Kingsville, where she performs as Kelly Grace and the Honey Bees and sings backup with her husband’s band Paradise Grove.
Kelly may be the quietest person I’ve ever recorded. I had to crank the mic preamp to get the signal to hit the compressor because of how little volume she was putting out. There’s something really unique going on with her voice. It’s an ethereal instrument that can get a little gritty when you’re least expecting it to. You can hear that happen in this song when she sings, “Suture degrades the same as pride.” Building layers of harmonies around her with my own voice was a fascinating exercise in trying to support her without overwhelming her. I felt like I was weaving a blanket around this delicate, beautiful thing.
I’m not sure why I felt a need to title the song as if it were two separate things when there are plenty of other songs on the album that are more suite-like than this one. It was just one of those things. I thought about asking Kelly to sing over the “So Happy” section, but I felt a little funny saying, “Could you sing these words that aren’t actual words over and over again?” So I sang all the wordless stuff myself.
Two tools that were brand new to me at the time had a lot to do with the sound of the second part of this song. The first was the Strymon El Capistan delay pedal, which allows you to create loops that get stranger and murkier the longer they repeat. Here I plugged an SM58 into the pedal and bent my voice out of shape until it didn’t really resemble a human voice at all anymore. You can also hear the El Capistan working its magic on the clean electric guitar tracks in the first part of the song.
The second helpful tool was a Yamaha FX500. It’s an effects processor that saw a lot of use in the early 1990s by bands like Lush and Slowdive. You can grab these things on eBay now for not a whole lot of dough. Some of the effects are pretty standard and uninteresting delays and reverbs, but two of the presets justify the purchase price and then some. Lush Strings turns an electric guitar into a compressed, chorused, crystalline thing. And nothing else sounds quite like Soft Focus. It’s got to be one of the most aptly named effects patches anyone has ever come up with — an immersive modulated delay/reverb soup that has “instant shoegaze” written all over it.
The first electric guitar track that comes in after Kelly’s voice drops out is played through the Lush Strings effect. The hazy countermelody that joins it a few bars later is all Soft Focus. After the vocal loop is introduced, all hell breaks loose. I’ve since sold my Electro-Harmonix Little Big Muff fuzz pedal because I didn’t use it enough to justify keeping it around, but it came in handy here for some of the scorched-earth tones that threaten to swallow up the whole song.
After piling one guitar part on top of another, something was still missing. What the song needed was some reverse gated reverb. Kevin Shields popularized this sound using a Yamaha SPX90 effects processor. I didn’t feel like trying to find space for two funky old used rackmount effects units in my studio, so I made a custom patch on the FX500. I can’t remember which of these sets of parameters I used, so here are all three of the variations I toyed with. Maybe someday they’ll be useful to someone who has an FX500 and wants to dial in a similar sound.
When I started taking tentative steps in this shoegazey direction ten years ago with songs like “It’s Only a Chocolate Cigarette” and “Raccoon Eyes”, I had no idea I would end up here. But I think this is what I was working toward all along, even if it wasn’t a conscious or linear progression.
Yes, my friends…I was working toward a love song for a gutted candle.
There’s a restaurant in Windsor called Route 42. They’ve got a dairy bar with more than a dozen flavours of ice cream and homemade mini-donuts. Best of all, they serve breakfast all day. Johnny Smith and I used to stop in at least once every few weeks for an omelette or some pancakes.
We stopped eating out long before most restaurants shut down or switched over to a takeout-only business model, and based on the online reviews I’ve read, it sounds like the quality of the food and the service at Route 42 have both gone straight into the toilet. It’s a shame. I’ve got fond memories of shovelling food into my face at what was once a fun retro diner. They used to have this thing called a pancake wrap. They threw scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and melted cheddar cheese on a pancake, rolled it up, and you picked it up and ate it like a sandwich. It tasted like sex.
Our visits to Route 42 even inspired a song. See, they only play period music there. Anything past 1962 or so doesn’t get a look-in. So you hear a lot of great songs from the 1950s. After soaking up enough of those tunes, I started thinking it might be fun to write a doo-wop song with some atypical, ridiculously cerebral lyrics. I already had one doo-wop song written — “Careless Spermicide”, which operates as the unofficial sequel to George Michael’s early solo hit “Careless Whisper” — but that one hasn’t been recorded yet, and it’s always been slated for inclusion on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. This album needed something brand new.
The words came first. The music followed soon after.
I wanted to construct something that nodded to the period in which this kind of music was made without sounding too derivative. That meant keeping the arrangement simple — just two guitar parts (one arpeggiating, the other playing the chords in full and letting them sustain), bass, drums, and piano twinkling up top. The only real extravagance I allowed myself was stacking a lot of vocal harmonies. While the absurd “ghee-ghee-ghee-ghee-ghee” refrain was in my head for a while before I sat down to record the song, the spoken introduction was a moment of silliness I improvised on the spot.
I thought about trying to create a vocal reverb that sounded period-correct. In the end it felt more appropriate to leave everything pretty dry. There’s a bit of spring reverb on the guitars. That’s about it.
All the electric guitar parts were played on this Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster. I bought it on a lark four or five years ago. I had no idea it would become one of my favourite guitars. I’ve never done a thing to modify it. There are some instruments I just feel connected to. The funky old Teisco is one of them. This Jazzmaster is another.
Here’s where things start to get convoluted.
I wrote this song with Kelly Grace in mind. I sent her the demo but didn’t get a response. I assumed she wasn’t interested. I pitched it to Jen Knight instead and sent Kelly the demo for “Embedded Ignitable/So Happy” when the singer that one was written for didn’t acknowledge it.
If everything had gone according to plan, Kelly would have sung this song and Jen probably wouldn’t be on the album. That’s a strange scenario to wrap my head around, because at this point it’s difficult for me to imagine anyone else singing either one of these songs.
I’m getting a little ahead of the plot here, though.
Sometimes I like to look at the Windsor Kijiji musician classified ads just for fun. That’s how I found Jen. She was looking for a guitarist to back her up at live performances. There was a link to a video in the ad she posted. I clicked on it and listened to her sing a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” live in a recording studio, and whatever I might have thought of the blues-rock treatment she gave the song, her vocal power knocked my socks off and bounced them right back into the dresser drawer in which I store my unmentionables.
Getting her over here wasn’t easy. I sent her an email. Nothing happened. I learned she was friends with my then-neighbour and saw we had a few mutual Facebook friends, so I tried sending a message over there. I got a response. She said she was up for singing on something and interested in hearing what I came up with. Over the next few months, I sent her demos for half a dozen different songs. She ignored every one of them. Then I stopped trying to write bluesy, soulful things that lived in her comfort zone, sent along my demo for this song, and thought, “If this doesn’t get her attention, I give up.”
She wrote back and told me she started singing along the first time she listened to it. So there you go.
I actually wrote two very different lullabies for unborn children. This is the first one:
The two songs are separated by a lot more than just an indefinite article. The first one begins with death through alcoholism but winds its way around to something resembling optimism, wondering what passion the unnamed child will choose to give themselves over to as they grow, before declaring, “There’s a whole world you ain’t lived in yet — a shaky but stubborn alliance.” The second is written from the perspective of someone who fears for their unborn child, struggles to find words to convey the horrors they’ve seen (which take on biblical proportions), and comes to a much grimmer conclusion:
When you grow tall and straight and true, an awful kind of clarity will reveal itself to you. All you have known someday shall end. When your old bones have dissolved, it’ll all begin again.
The second song struck me as being deeper, darker, and more engaging.
Jen was a little weirded out by the absence of a chorus, and a dark folk song wasn’t the sort of thing she was used to singing, but the nature of the material forced her to dial back her usual vocal intensity just enough to turn in a performance that was commanding without getting strident. If Kelly had sung it instead, the whole thing would have shifted on its axis and taken on a much more vulnerable quality.
Working with Jen was a little different from working with most other singers. We broke things down line by line and I kind of coached her through the song. You can see a little bit of this in the documentary. She must have given me at least a dozen different takes, and there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch. Choosing a single take to live with in its entirety was impossible. There was only one solution: comping.
I grabbed bits I liked from a few different takes and stitched them together until I had a composite I was happy with. Jen was consistent enough from take to take that none of the seams were obvious. It sounded like a continuous performance.
This isn’t something I ever plan on doing again, but it worked out this time, so maybe it was a worthwhile experiment.
Having already written a song that was built around a string arrangement (“Freedom as a Child”, on the second disc), I thought it would be a worthwhile challenge to try writing a string part that was more of a textural thing. This song seemed to be a good candidate. I messed around on the Casio SK-1 until I came up with some two-part harmony I liked. Then I fired up the old Korg Triton and went to town with the least offensive fake string sound I could find.
I sent a rough mix to Karen McClellan and told her what the notes were. I would have written it all out as notation, but she told me she was fine with what I’d given her. She came over with her cello and we replaced the placeholder track with the real thing, double-tracking each part.
Going from synth strings to real strings was a lot like getting to work with a real acoustic piano after spending years settling for a digital emulation. The mimicry can get pretty close sometimes, but technology hasn’t yet managed to work out a way of capturing the sense of movement you get with an acoustic instrument. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend or how much processing power you have at your disposal. That extra little bit of soul always gets lost. And that’s huge.
It’s impossible to quantify what getting a real piano in late 2008 has done for my music. Getting my hands on a Wurlitzer 200A was a bucket list item I was lucky enough to cross off when I was still in my early twenties. Writing string parts and hearing them played on a real violin or cello is a whole different ball game, and something I didn’t think I’d ever be able to pull off.
There’ll be more about this when we get to “Freedom as a Child”.
I played this song for a handful of friends when I was first working on a rough mix. Almost everyone had a strong reaction to it, but the most unexpected response might have come from Gord. I played it for him deep into the sessions for STEW. I didn’t think it would appeal to him, but I was proud of it and I wanted to share. He flipped out and told me the song was amazing. He also said it needed to be longer, it needed a chorus, and it belonged in a car commercial.
Maybe we drifted onto different wavelengths a lot sooner than I thought we did.
There’s a work mix that features my original guide vocal, a drum track that didn’t make it into the final mix, and melodica standing in for the string part. I’d share it here, but I think I’d rather save that one for an out-takes collection somewhere down the line.
My hammered dulcimer hasn’t shown up in too many songs since it had its coming-out party on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY back in 2009. You can tell how little it’s been used from the very visible dust in the picture above. It’s a serious chore to clean that beast, and a real pain in the ass to tune, but every once in a while it’s just what a song needs.
This is only the second time I’ve ever built a song around the dulcimer instead of adding it as an accent to an existing piece of music. One afternoon I gave it a strum and sampled the sound with the Yamaha VSS-30 just for something to do. I got a nice rhythm going by triggering the sample at a few different places on the keyboard. I sampled some other things — my voice, Wurlitzer, piano, wind chimes — and recorded some bass, drums, and acoustic guitar. I thought it made for a nice atmospheric mix of mangled and organic sounds.
I gave the little mood piece a working title of “Ooh Yah”. I liked it, but I didn’t think it was significant enough to stand on its own. I just happened to have an unfinished song fragment in the same key — recorded, mixed, and everything — and no idea what to do with it. “Sure Shot” was the working title for that one.
Curious, I fused the two mixes together to see what would happen. They sounded like they were meant to share the same space, and the two fragments combined to create a song that felt complete.
This is the first of several showcases for the VSS-30 on the album. There are those who complain about how overpriced these little sampling keyboards have become now that some people are catching on and figuring out how cool they are. Mine was worth every cent I spent on it. As much fun as I’ve had with the Casio SK-1, the VSS-30 gets into some serious next-level sonic sorcery. It’s become an indispensable sound-sculpting tool, allowing me to do things that wouldn’t otherwise be within my reach without access to recording software. I used to reach for a guitar when I felt a song was missing something. Now my immediate impulse is to sample something and see how I can shape and integrate it.
I love having no existing sample library to fall back on. I’m forced to get creative and generate my own sounds. The results are often pretty lo-fi, but they’re full of character, and they almost always work in the context of a mix. Knowing whatever I’ve come up with will be lost once I turn the keyboard off makes the search for compelling sounds that much more engrossing.
When I was working on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I stopped in at Belle Air Music to chat with a friend who was working there. I took a look at the acoustic guitars and saw an Oscar Schmidt OC11 classical resting on one of the stands. It looked lonely. I picked it up and gave it a try. In a matter of seconds I was playing things I’d never played before on any other guitar. When I told my friend I wanted to buy it, he looked at me like I was nuts.
“You don’t want that thing!” he said. “It’s a piece of junk.”
I took it home with me anyway. At $149, I think it might be the cheapest guitar I own.
What my friend failed to understand, and what I’ve learned to appreciate over the years, is just how little price and a sexy name have to do with an instrument’s usefulness. Is the OC11 a “good” guitar? Not really. But when I pick up an instrument and it starts inspiring new song ideas right away, I know it’s got something special inside of it. “Improvised Lake”, “Jesus Don’t Know My Name”, “The Cost of Allowing Yourself to Remain Living”, “Crustacean Cancer Survivor”, and “In My Time of Weakness” never would have been written without this guitar. And I’m pretty proud of those songs.
The OC11 lived in a DADF#AE tuning until the D string broke five or so years ago. I’ve always had a difficult time restringing guitars with slotted headstocks. I replaced the broken string, but I didn’t tie it quite right, so I wasn’t able to tune it up as high as I wanted. I had to alter the tuning to DABF#AE. Something as simple as that one string moving from a D to a B opened up a whole new world of harmonic possibilities and inspired me to write “In the Name of the Impostor” (the closing track on STEW). A whole pile of other new ideas came pouring out in short order.
I never sat down and thought, “I should write a bossa nova song.” I had the classical guitar in my lap one late night or early morning, I started playing around on the fretboard, and a bossa nova song wrote itself. The obvious approach to take with the lyrics would have been to write a love song for a nonexistent person. I wrote some words that took the time to consider the feelings of clouds instead. As you do.
I thought about trying to slip a flute solo in there somewhere. Seemed a little too obvious. A horn was more appealing. I came up with a little motif.
I asked Amanda Hanson to play it. She levelled with me and said she didn’t think her chops were in good enough shape to take it on. She recommended a few other local trumpet players to take her place. Of all the people she suggested, she gave Austin Di Pietro the equivalent of a gold star. “Try to get him if you can,” she said. “He’s brilliant.”
Some of the musicians I worked with on this album performed parts I mapped out note-for-note. Others were given space to improvise inside of prepared musical situations. Sometimes the two approaches were fused together, becoming something I’m told the Swiss like to call writprovisen.
Okay, so that’s a lie. But it would be a fun word if it were real, wouldn’t it?
This was one of those times a written part and improvisation got friendly with each other. Austin came over and played a few takes. There was room for him to do a bit of exploring after stating the melody a few times. I thought the last take he played on the trumpet was good enough to keep.
He brought his flugelhorn with him just in case I wanted a different tonal flavour. I asked him to give that horn a try. The first take he played with the flugelhorn is what’s on the album. It bobbed and weaved in all the right places. The take before it — which you can hear in the documentary — was great, but the trumpet sounded like it was sitting on top of the song. There was a darker, rounder tone to the flugelhorn, and it sat inside of the music.
Trying to get horn players on this album was a very mixed experience. They were some of the most unreliable people I’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing with. Austin was a treat to work with, though. You can check out his own work as one half of The Bishop Boys over here.
Brent Lee came over one afternoon in early 2016 with his soprano sax. I had no idea what I wanted to ask him to play on. I settled on “Flood and Fists”, which became the leadoff track on WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD, and this song right here, which existed as little more than some Fender Rhodes noodling. Brent responded with some brilliant playing on both songs when he’d never heard either one of them before.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Brent. He’s a professor at the University of Windsor. I looked him up online before we got together and found a review in which a former student wrote, “Arriving in his class every day was like standing before the firing squad — a very painful death.”
Funny, but terrifying.
I started thinking he was going to take one look at me and decide I was a rank amateur who wasn’t worth his time. That didn’t happen. He was very kind and open-minded. He seemed to be into the music, too.
When you hear the words “soprano sax”, it probably conjures nightmarish images of…well…something like this.
It seems to be the least loved of all saxophones, thanks in no small part to the music of the not-so-esteemed Mr. G. I’m happy to say Brent’s sensibilities have nothing to do with that sort of thing, and his soprano sax was easier to record than I was expecting it to be. All I did was put the Pearlman TM-1 in omni. No EQ was necessary.
This song is interesting to me because it features no more than five sound sources even when things get pretty dense.
The first sound is the Fender Rhodes electric piano. I ran it through the Count to Five pedal and then processed it some more through my old Digitech friend (the GSP 21). There are two iterations of this. One is distorted and smeared by a series of delays set to overlap. The other sounds much more like its natural self, but it’s distant, more of a murmur, heavy with reverb and phaser.
The second sound is Brent’s saxophone. My first thought was to run him through the Count to Five and maybe something else, but there was a beautiful tone to his playing in the open air. It felt like it would be a sin to hide that. So there’s a fair bit of reverb and delay on him, but it’s accenting the naked sound instead of reshaping it.
The third sound is wind chimes, sampled with the Yamaha VSS-30, reversed in some places and played lower or higher on the keyboard to create sounds wind chimes couldn’t ever make on their own.
The fourth sound is the flute patch on the Casio SK-1. It isn’t too upfront in the mix. It’s more of a subtle sonic wash.
The fifth sound is Brent’s sax again, fractured and bent out of shape. I was trying to figure out a way to sample him after the fact. I don’t work with a computer, so there aren’t a lot of options, and my digital mixer’s routing capabilities are limited at best. I’ve worked out a method of running a master out from the mixer into the SK-1, but most of the samples I’ve grabbed this way have come out sounding distorted to the point of being unusable.
I thought I’d crank the monitors and try holding the VSS-30 up to one of them while soloing the sax track. I didn’t expect it to work, but it did. I sampled a few seconds of sax and messed around with the keyboard’s built-in effects. A lot of what you’re hearing that sounds like a synth or a hung-over, heavily-treated electric guitar is this, and once the real sax drops out of the mix, everything you hear for the rest of the song — that whole warbly, shoegazey coda — is nothing but the treated sample layered a few times, played a few different ways. There isn’t a second of guitar or conventional synthesizer anywhere in the song.
I thought about adding some bass, drums, and acoustic piano to all of this in order to ground things a little and introduce some groove, arrhythmic as it would have been. The little bit of work I did in that direction wasn’t very inspiring. I liked it better when it was swirling and weightless. So I left it that way.
Brent’s sax ends up being the only sound that’s more or less presented as itself, right down to the occasional clicking of his fingers against the keys. It’s the one thing fighting to keep its head above water, almost but not quite getting submerged beneath all the ambient sound around it.
The public domain footage used in the video above is the work of Walter Ruttmann, an early experimental film pioneer who abandoned architecture and painting after the First World War left him scarred with PTSD. He left the hospital determined to make films and was financially secure enough to work outside of the studio system, creating short films free of any commercial considerations. Most of what you’re seeing here is Lichtspiel: Opus II (1923), with a little bit of Opus I (1921) thrown in at the end.
Ruttmann’s work figures pretty heavily throughout Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories). I would have included “Do Not Don’t Do That” in the film if I’d been able to find a place for it, but I wasn’t sure if I’d already used some of this imagery elsewhere. Didn’t want things to get too visually redundant if I could help it.
Have you ever wanted to thank someone who doesn’t deserve thanks, for something they didn’t intend to work out in your favour? It’s a funny place to be.
When I started laying the groundwork for this album, one of the possibilities that appealed to me the most was working with singers who were not guys. My failed efforts to make something like this happen date all the way back to the summer of 2002, when I put up “drummer wanted” classified ads at Long & McQuade and Dr. Disc. I got calls from a handful of skin-beaters. I also heard from a clarinetist, a church organist, and a few other people who weren’t drummers.
One of those people was a female vocalist. Not at all what I was looking for. But the possibilities intrigued me. I was up for bouncing some ideas around with her and seeing what happened. We made plans to get together. She stood me up. I called her to ask if we could reschedule. I got her voicemail. I left a message. She didn’t call me back. I never heard from her again.
I wish I could remember her name so I could look her up and see if she’s still making music in this city. For all I know, our paths crossed later on and we had no idea we’d almost met before. Some small part of me will always wonder what might have happened if she didn’t bail on me. Then again, given the raw, uninhibited songs I was writing at the time, she probably would have made a run for it the second she heard some of my music.
I tried to work with a number of other female singers in the years that followed. It always degenerated into chasing people whose interest seemed to wane within seconds of talking to me for the first time. I gave up after a while, but the idea never really left me.
It looked like things were about to take a good turn in early 2014. I started hanging out with a fellow singer/songwriter. Mondays became our thing. She would come over to the house and we would talk shop, sharing songs, ideas, and musical war stories. She encouraged me to write something for her to sing. I was inspired enough to write three songs in one day. The one she liked best was a musical dialogue with featured spots for both of our voices.
I’m still not sure I know what a floral mocking dress is, but I like the picture the words paint. In David Peschek’s interview with Paul Buchanan for The Quietus, Peschek talks about “the way in which poetry can have a meaning, a resonance that derives from the way in which the words chime against [one another], beyond whatever the actual meaning of the poem may be.” I think I’ve always been fascinated by this capacity for language to convey different things. Film is unique in the way it can create images for you. Words are different. No matter how descriptive they are, you’re forced to create your own imagery.
This is why most books are unfilmable — not that it’s stopped Hollywood from trying. A hundred different people can read the same description of a character’s face and they’ll all see someone different. Any film adaptation is going to contain some amount of visual dissonance, no matter how well-intentioned it is, and that can be fatal. I don’t ever want to see The Road. I’ve read the book, and the best bits can’t be reproduced onscreen. I also have a very clear image of what The Man looks like. I like Viggo Mortensen just fine, but his face isn’t the one I see when I read Cormac McCarthy’s prose. It’s a face that exists only in my mind.
Anyway. This is probably where you think I’m going to tell you I recorded the song with that singer and she’s become a great friend. The song is on the album, but her voice isn’t anywhere near it. The same is true of the other two songs I wrote with her in mind.
Here’s what happened. She told me she needed to rest her voice for a while to get it back to full strength. Not that it stopped her from talking up a storm and belting out her own songs when she was playing my piano every Monday.
I took her at her word. I waited.
There were a few unusual episodes along the way. I should have seen them as huge red flags, but I’ve always had a bad habit of giving the people I think are my friends the benefit of the doubt when there are fireworks gouging out words of warning in the sky, and I’ve gone on believing the best about them for far too long while they’re busy showing me the worst parts of themselves.
She flaked out on me a few times with some pretty lame excuses. I didn’t think anything of it. One night she let it slip that she’d been recording me with her phone when I was sitting at the piano with her, capturing my playing without telling me what she was doing or getting my go-ahead first. She claimed she did this because she wanted to learn how to play a song of mine from AN ABSENCE OF SWAY called “Do the Mountain Hop”. The next time I saw her after that revelation, she played me a new song she’d written that was a blatant ripoff of — wait for it — “Do the Mountain Hop”.
That right there should have told me this was someone I didn’t want to have anything to do with. But brains work in strange ways. I told myself only a handful of people were ever going to hear my music, and her work was likely to reach even less ears than mine. That she more or less sucked the guts out of one of my songs, decorated its skeleton with some half-digested nothingness, and called it her own wasn’t something that kept me up at night.
If it was anyone else, I would have taken their head off. But I cared about her. I thought she cared about me too. I wanted to believe I was more to her than an easy mark.
I filed all of those things away without thinking too much about them and stayed patient through two months of music and goodbye hugs and moments of what felt like genuine connection. Then there came a night when she told me I’d waited long enough. She said she’d be ready to record with me the next time we got together. I did a dance of celebration and recorded some basic tracks on my own so we’d have something to work with.
She stood me up.
When I asked her what happened, she apologized for being “unprofessional” and gave me a vague story about “not feeling up to doing much of anything these days”. The next day, she mentioned on Facebook that she was going to a show downtown. She went to another show the next day. And the next day. And the day after that. I guess whatever had her feeling under the weather miraculously took its leave as soon as she didn’t have to share space with me anymore.
I’ve dealt with depression, anxiety, physical injury, debilitating sleep problems, and PTSD — things that really do make it difficult for a person to feel “up to doing much of anything”. Bullshitting me about that just to get out of spending time with me was pretty pathetic, I thought. Again, I kept my cool. I decided I would wait and see what she had to say for herself when she was feeling “better”.
By the time she got back in touch with me, she had a different story. Now she said she had a serious vocal problem that required surgery. She told me she couldn’t speak, let alone sing, so there was no reason for us to hang out anymore.
If you know me at all or you’ve read a little bit of what I’ve written here over the years, I probably don’t have to tell you I wrote her back and gave her several pieces of my mind. Even if I believed her — and going from, “I need to rest my voice,” while not resting her voice at all, to, “I need vocal surgery and can’t even talk,” at the precise moment she was supposed to record a vocal part, without any segue, strained credibility at the very least — she still led me on, made promises she knew she wasn’t going to keep, and when the truth became unavoidable she brushed me off like I was some lowly business associate instead of a friend.
That’s the thing, though. She wasn’t telling the truth about any of it. A few days later, she was playing a show downtown. She played more shows in the immediate aftermath, stressing her supposedly wounded voice a hundred times worse than singing on one of my songs ever would have.
I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why she put all that work into spinning a series of flimsy lies when it would have been a lot easier and less time-consuming to say, “I decided I don’t want to record with you or spend time with you anymore.” I’ll never understand why most people do half the things they do, though, so that’s nothing new. It doesn’t matter. In hindsight (because 2020 is the year of clarity), it’s pretty clear to me what happened. She saw an opportunity to leech some creative energy off of me, she took it, and when it was time for her to give a little something back, she bolted.
All I had to show for myself when the dust cleared was a lot of time wasted on someone who wasn’t worth the investment, who wasn’t a friend and never intended to be one, who fed me some nice-sounding hot air about Mondays with me being a refuge and the highlight of her week because it sounded good at the time. And you know what? For some time now, I’ve wanted to thank her. If she hadn’t left me in the lurch, I wouldn’t have vented to a few friends who put me in touch with a few people I didn’t know. And if a few other people I reached out to hadn’t been flaky beyond comprehension, I wouldn’t have remembered someone else whose voice I heard years ago, who I’d never once talked to.
I thought I had one guest vocalist lined up. Then I had none, and I didn’t know if I would find anyone else I clicked with or who was interested in working with me. I ended up with thirteen guest vocalists in all — seven women and six men.
If that one person hadn’t let me down, none of those people would be on the album.
Things didn’t turn around right away. I found someone else to sing this song with me. She said it was right up her alley. We set aside a day and a time for her to come over. She changed her mind at the last minute and said she’d rather meet up with me in a public place first to talk it over. I asked her where she wanted to meet and told her I would work around my schedule to accommodate her. I also pointed out our twenty or thirty mutual Facebook friends and told her she was welcome to ask any of them about me. They could vouch for my professionalism and lack of creepiness.
She never responded. We never met up anywhere.
When I was just about ready to throw the song away out of spite, Steve put me in touch with Natalie Westfall. She showed up. She sang. I rejoiced. And then we recorded an album of her music together.
If, in an alternate universe, the singer who was supposed to be my original duet partner did come through for me, you’d probably listen to the album and think, “Who’s that Feist imitator singing on that one track?” Because she sounded like a carbon copy of Leslie Feist every time she opened her mouth. That would have been fine by me. I’m a big fan of Feist’s voice. But Natalie doesn’t sound like anyone else. She sounds like Natalie. And now I can’t hear anyone else in her place.
There’s a small part of me that will always wonder what Not-Quite-Feist and I could have done together. She had a warped sense of humour and a musical weirdness about her that led me to believe we had some common ground. Given the kind of person she turned out to be — and I haven’t even scratched the surface of that here — I think I’m better off not knowing.
Working with Natalie was a lot of fun. She’s the kind of person who will see a squirrel fall out of a tree and run over to make sure the little critter is okay. That isn’t guesswork on my part. It’s a thing that happened the night I met her, when she came over to sing on “First Dialogue”.
At first she felt a little uncomfortable singing without a guitar in her hands. It can be strange to stand in front of a microphone and separate the act of singing from playing an instrument when you’re used to doing both of those things at the same time. You feel exposed. It took me a while to get used to it myself when I started recording unaccompanied vocal tracks 2002. I suggested Natalie try smiling and cradling an invisible acoustic guitar. Somehow that made all the difference, and those self-conscious feelings disappeared.
The “neigh goes a horse” section was first envisioned as a dissonant, chaotic act of musical violence, complete with screaming and braying sounds. After the plagiarizing opportunist ditched me, I took the melancholy thing I was feeling and used it to push that part of the song in a very different direction. Instead of an angry splintering, it became a weary sort of surrender — as if communication between the two lead voices had broken down, words had lost all meaning, and all they could think to do was sing a sad nursery rhyme.
It was more ambitious than that humble demo makes it sound. There was the main vocal line, a countermelody of layered vocal harmony, and then I came up with an idea for a violin melody to snake its way through all of that.
On top of all of that, the time signature kept shifting from 4/4, to 7/4, to 6/4.
I wanted to get some group vocal action happening for both the “neigh goes a horse” part and the bit before it. Aside from recording some vocal harmonies with Travis for OUTSIDE THE FACTORY GATES that had the two of us singing into a single microphone at the same time, I’d never been able to make anything like this happen. The headphone amplifier I use in the studio only has four outputs. I didn’t want to put anyone through the anxiety of trying to sing along to something they couldn’t hear, so that limited me to three people (plus myself). I thought Steve, Natalie, and James O-L might be an interesting combination of voices.
Stu Kennedy came in and recorded the little violin melody, along with a second track of double stops. As for the group vocal business, it turned out better than I dared to hope it would. During the pre-neigh “gallop-a-trot” part, Steve and Natalie improvised unexpected melodic accents while James and I settled for sing-shouting (dig Steve’s descending “trot, trot, trot” bass line). And Natalie’s voice gave the last section an extra emotional kick I didn’t anticipate. There’s some footage of us recording these parts in Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories). I love the way Natalie smiles while I’m “conducting”, using my body to guide everyone through a few bits where the rhythm gets tricky.
The artwork I chose to pair with this song comes from Reannon Price, who once said this about her art: “When I’m not drawing flowers, I’m thinking about how I should be drawing flowers.” There’s a uniquely organic quality to her work that leaves me feeling like I can almost reach out and touch the paper it was drawn on, even through a computer screen. She made me two pieces. I loved them both but was only able to include one of them because of the way the booklet had to be formatted.
This painting has nothing to do with any of the imagery in the song on a literal level. All I can say is I liked the way it chimed against the words.
One other thing worth noting: this song marked the recorded debut of my Fender Telecaster. I bought it from a guy named Emerson who was selling it on Kijiji. It’s the only guitar I own that doesn’t have any strap locks. As soon as Emerson saw the way I played, he said, “I guess you won’t be needing this,” and ripped the strap off of the instrument along with all of its relevant accessories. I would have told him off for being a cheap piece of shit, but I was too stunned to say anything.
These days I think I might have misjudged him. It’s possible he was just a misunderstood soul who ran out of anal beads, and he needed those strap locks to stimulate his battered prostate. If that was the case, I can only hope he found what he was looking for.
I go through extended periods of not writing a whole lot of songs on the piano. It’s easy to grab a guitar and bring it with you wherever you want to go in the house. You can’t do that with an acoustic piano. You need to go to it. There’s an element of devotion involved. So I devoted myself, sat down at the piano with a tape recorder, and this happened.
I hit a bit of a snag when I was mapping out the lyrics. As soon as I stopped trying to force the song to be about anything specific, the floodgates opened and I got what I needed.
This is the first song on the album to feature lap steel, but not the first song I ever played the instrument on. “Buying Time at the End of the World” carries that distinction. I’ve always been attracted to the sound of lap and pedal steel guitars, especially when they’re treated as an atmospheric thing outside the context of country music. The problem is you don’t see a lot of them around here. And if you do happen to find one at a place like Schlong & McQuade, it’s bound to be some inferior new lap steel made on the cheap.
I only saw a pedal steel in the flesh once. I was too intimidated to try it. There’s a whole science to playing those things that’s foreign to me.
I thought it might be worthwhile to try and get someone over here to play some pedal steel on the album. If there’s anyone in the area who plays, I’m not aware of them. I did find someone a few hours away who said he was willing to travel, but it didn’t pan out. I started to think if I couldn’t find a pedal steel session player, maybe picking up a funky old lap steel wouldn’t be such a bad idea. If nothing else, it might be an interesting new sound to play with.
In early 2015, when all of this was on my mind, I got a call from Kelly Hoppe. He’d noticed my trumpet the last time he was over at the house. Within a few seconds of playing it, he got some of the best sounds I’d ever heard anyone coax out of the thing.
He said my trumpet’s mouthpiece was a lot more comfortable than the mouthpieces on some of the more expensive horns he’d played. He was wondering if I’d be okay with him borrowing it for a while so he could mess around and see if he could get his chops back. I told him I just needed to make a run to a pawn shop first to check out an old lap steel.
“You need a lap steel?” he asked.
I thought he meant, “Do you really need another stringed instrument? Your place is overflowing with them as it is.”
Before I could answer, he said, “I’ve got an old Silvertone. Hold on a second. Let me go make sure it still works.”
I heard him plug it into an amp and make some noise with it. He came back and suggested we borrow-swap — a trumpet for a lap steel. It sounded like a good plan to me. He came over and gave me his lap steel, and I gave him my trumpet. That trumpet stayed with him for more than two years. He played it with The Walkervilles. He even played it on a Big Sugar song, though his part didn’t make it into the final mix. Meanwhile, I went to work incorporating the lap steel into everything I was working on, from AFTERTHOUGHTS, to Natalie’s album, to Ron’s album, to STEW and WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD. I stuck it in a weird tuning that gave me access to major and minor chord shapes without the need for bar slants. It’s lived in that tuning ever since.
By the time Kelly gave me my trumpet back, I’d picked up another old lap steel and his Silvertone had become an important tool for me. I asked if I could buy it from him. He told me to keep it. He never used it anyway.
It doesn’t have a serial number, but through some internet sleuthing and a little luck I was able to figure out what it is. It’s a Silvertone 1315, made by Harmony sometime in the early or mid 1950s. It’s got a Gibson P13 in it. That’s something of a forgotten pickup. Gibson decided it was too expensive to produce, since it necessitated a different profile for the bridge and neck pickups along with custom surrounds, and there were too many intricate parts involved. They produced a handful of instruments with P13s before going back to the drawing board and coming up with the simpler, more affordable P90. Gibson sold all their P13s to Harmony, who made use of them in the instruments they issued well into the 1960s.
Some people will rip the P13 out of an old lap steel and Frankenstein it onto an electric guitar. I can understand why. It’s got a warm, thick tone to it. The sound might be too dark for some people in some applications, but through a Fender Twin it sings.
What’s interesting to me about the arrangement for this song is the way it shifts once all the words have been sung. The Yamaha VSS-30 is pure texture until the drums drop out. Then it hijacks the whole song, and what sounded like it was shaping up to be a piano ballad dissolves into an ambient instrumental piece driven by a warped piano sample.
This is one of the smallest songs on the album. It’s also one of the most naked.
The first verse is about the way mockingbirds will lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and then their offspring will bully any other young occupants out of the nest and steal their food, leaving the adults with no choice but to raise them as their own. The second verse is about being a self-aware organic compound derived from sugar. A state of being we all think about from time to time, I imagine.
This music existed for a few years without any lyrics. The words took their time showing up, and then they just appeared one afternoon in the space of about five minutes. I’m glad they decided to reward my patience instead of leaving me hanging forever.
I can’t tell you what possessed me to sit down at the drums and layer a crazed vocal sample on top of a drum sample with the VSS-30 in one hand and a brush in another, but here’s a little demonstration of how it was done.
After recording that madness, I added some even more out-there vocal samples and a bit of beatboxing, as well as a few different tracks of fuzz bass, some scratchy electric guitar, shaker, drums, and a bit of distorted piano at the end. I threw in some ridiculous singing through a toy megaphone, but it was a little too much clutter. You’ll have to wait for the alternate mix that will serve as a bonus track on an obscure Japanese import if you want to hear that part.
Back when I had my fifteen minutes of local infamy, this is the sort of song that used to make some people question my sanity. “Why would you put something like that on an album?” they would ask me.
Because I can. And because it’s fun. That’s why. If you call yourself an artist and you’re not getting at least some amount of enjoyment out of what you do — even when your inspiration is coming from a dark and troubled place — I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe try pulling your head out of your ass once in a while. Believe it or not, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored.
This is what happens when I start reading about raphides in plants. The first chunk of the song is driven by a descending bass line that’s shadowed by the vocal, before switching to a more conventional chord-based approach. It felt like a good excuse to dust off the old Ace Tone combo organ. It’s also home to the only real extended guitar solo on the album. I tried it a few different ways before settling on the dirtiest take.
I was going for something resembling swampy garage rock on barbiturates, though you wouldn’t know it from the demo.
The a cappella outro captures one of the few times I’ve resorted to changing the recording speed to alter the pitch of my voice. There was no way I was ever going to get down to those low bass notes without a little help. It wasn’t written as an a cappella section, but once I removed all the instrumentation from the mix it struck me as being a lot more compelling, almost like some twisted, lethargic gospel work song.
I doubt this is anyone else’s favourite song on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, but it’s one of mine. I considered making it the opening track before “Don’t Let the Preamble Ramble” became the obvious choice. For me, it’s one of the linchpins of the album.
It started out as a little idea on the hammered dulcimer.
I wrote lyrics, and the song became another one of those things I like to do sometimes where anything resembling a verse/chorus/verse structure is thrown out the window in favour of a piece of music that follows its own internal logic as far as it’ll go. To that end, the long instrumental section was an experiment in controlled chaos. I wrote a six-note motif and asked Kelly Hoppe to improvise around it.
All he heard when he came over to record his harmonica part was the piano and my lead vocal, because that was all there was of the song. By the time Stu Kennedy came in to add some violin, everything was a little more fleshed-out, with bass, drums, and acoustic guitar. I let Stu hear those tracks, but I didn’t let him hear what Kelly played. I wanted to see what would happen when I combined their performances without allowing them to react to each other.
It could have been a mess, but it wasn’t. The experiment produced a number of moments of accidental harmony and dissonance, and I got exactly what I was hoping for — the sound of us feeling our way through the music without a map, having a three-way conversation. Two of the participants only ever heard the sound of their own voices, but isn’t that the way most conversations tend to go these days?
I had to fight Kelly a little to convince him to let me keep his harmonica performance. He said he heard a lot of mistakes in his playing and he wanted to come back and give me a better take. I explained that I didn’t want a better take. I wanted those hesitations and awkward moments. I live for that stuff.
One of my favourite things about this song is the contrast between its different sections. At one point the music is held together by little more than the sound of my voice, with so much space between the notes you can hear every detail of the reverb on the vocal track as it curls into silence. Not long after that, everything starts going crazy and the dynamics swing in the other direction.
You also get to hear two of my favourite effects in action. Twenty years ago, when I was recording a quickie album for a few friends, I slapped a ping-pong delay effect on the violin tracks when no one was around just for fun. I expected chaos. What I got instead was a ghostly, elongated sound that I loved. It wasn’t a good fit for that music, but I filed the idea away and hoped to incorporate it into my own work someday. I got my chance when I was recording the viola track for “The Sun Is a Red Ball of Lies Tonight” on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY. Since then, I’ve used the same delay effect on most of the violin and viola tracks I’ve recorded. Here it’s on both the violin and harmonica tracks.
Kelly was playing a chromatic harmonica this time around. It sounded a little thin to me, so I punched it up by running it through an amp simulator effect that’s supposed to tap into the sound of an “old British” guitar amplifier. I have this little six-watt Mason tweed amp from the 1950s that’s similar to a Fender Champ, and it would be a perfect for blues harp if I had a bullet mic to drive it properly…but I don’t. So when I want a distorted harmonica sound, I have to cheat a little. I don’t like to use amp simulators for anything anymore, but in this application I find the VS-1680’s built-in effects get me where I want to be.
There are a number of songs on this album that strained the limits of what I could do with a sixteen-track mixer. “First Dialogue” ate up more than twenty tracks. I had to make a sub-mix of the acoustic guitar tracks, and a few other tracks were forced to pull double duty in order to get everything to fit. Some songs went way beyond that. This one wasn’t the worst offender, but it was still a tricky mixing proposition. I had piano (recorded in stereo), bass, drums (also recorded in stereo), two acoustic guitar tracks, four electric guitar tracks, five vocal tracks, harmonica, violin, trumpet, and melodica all taking up some part of the sixteen-piece audio pie. I was able to get away with making a single sub-mix that held the vocal, melodica, and trumpet tracks, but I still had to execute a lot of precise mixer moves at specific times to keep things together.
For those who work out of a commercial recording studio — and even for most modern home recordists — working with twenty or so tracks is no big deal. You’re limited only by your DAW and the processing power of your computer. For me and my humble sixteen-track mixer, it’s a different story. Once upon a time, sitting down to mix a song was almost an afterthought. There were so few tracks to work with, some songs just about mixed themselves. Now the act of mixing has become a musical performance in itself, with countless pinpoint changes in panning, volume, and effects. Sometimes I need to make notes to keep track of some of the necessary mid-song adjustments.
When I first got my hands on this mixer twenty years ago, sixteen tracks seemed like more than I would ever need. I never thought I would someday be maxing out those tracks and pushing this machine beyond what it’s supposed to be able to do. It can get a little frustrating when I’m most of the way through the mix of a ten-minute song and one small mistake or missed cue sends me all the way back to the beginning, but I enjoy having to find solutions to problems that wouldn’t exist if I worked the way everyone else does. It keeps me on my toes.
Just two things going on here — sampled electric guitar that’s being manipulated by the Casio SK-1, and Omnichord drenched in delay and reverb. I created two very different instrumental pieces using the same guitar sample. The first one was integrated into “Every Angry Element” on WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD. This is the second one.
The Omnichord is one of those funny instruments I can’t see myself using too often, but I’m very glad to have it hanging around. There’s an idiosyncratic beauty to its voice that can sometimes add something unquantifiable to a song.
I was in bed with a tenor banjo one night, watching some random movie on BET. The banjo and I weren’t doing anything unwholesome. Get your mind out of the gutter. I wasn’t paying much attention to whatever was happening onscreen until a man shot and killed a woman. I think she was sitting behind the wheel of a white van. That’s the image I’ve got in my head, anyway.
After hearing the sound of the midi upright bass in the demo, I knew this song needed the real thing. I asked Paul Loncke if he’d be up for playing on it. He said he was in. Paul isn’t just great company and a great musician — he also sounds like a reassuring Harrison Ford. Close your eyes, listen to him speak, and tell me I’m wrong.
We recorded the banjo and bass tracks together live off the floor. I wanted to capture some bleed and some of the sensation of air moving around in the room. I added some rhythm and lead mandolin licks after the fact and got Stu to layer a few violin tracks — nothing studied, just responding to what he was hearing. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to add any more instrumentation to the mix beyond that. I was on the fence about it for a while. I tried messing around with some low notes on the piano, and I thought about recording kick drum or some stomping. Then I got rid of the piano and decided the song didn’t need any percussive accents to emphasize the rhythmic pulse that was already there.
After that, the plan was to have Steve O-L and Jim Meloche come in and record some background vocals. I thought they could come in on the second repetition of each line. Jim’s voice brought so much grit and power to the table, I started thinking the song might work better if I gave it the call-and-response treatment. I double-tracked Jim’s voice and muted my lead vocal on the second repetition of each line. It changed the whole shape of the thing for the better.
I gave Jim some vocal support to thicken up the soup a little, with help from Pat Robitaille. I wrote something for Pat to sing lead on, but I didn’t have any of the bed tracks ready when I was able to get him in the studio, so I asked him to contribute to the group vocals on this one instead. I thought it would make for a fun contrast in vocal tones — Jim all scorched earth and jagged stones, Pat smooth as silk.
I’m not sure any sane person would think to put those two voices together in the same song, but I did, and it worked. Steve comes in at the end, anchoring the low end when we all let out a series of collective battle cries.
Leah Bechard illustrated this song. She draws her material from vintage books and magazines, but I think it does a disservice to her work to call it “found art”. She repurposes and re-contextualizes the images she unearths in such a unique way that they become something brand new. I like how she rendered the face of the song’s main character as being devoid of human features, like something that sprouted out of the earth.
I’m sad to say the scale of the lyric booklet doesn’t quite do this image justice. I had to crop it a little because the text at the bottom was impossible to read at CD size. At least you can see it here in all its unaltered glory.
I like to devote a lot of time and energy to projects most people would consider trivial. For example, I have an alphabetized index of all the dreams I’ve ever documented, complete with dates and a thematic key code. I can’t explain why I felt a need to create a thing like this. I can only tell you it was something I enjoyed doing.
At the top of the list of Pointless Exercises I’ve Undertaken is writing a memoir no one will ever read. I started working on it more than ten years ago. I’ve returned to it every few years to throw a few more wadded-up balls of newspaper on the fire. It doesn’t begin to capture the totality of my life or the music I’ve made, but that isn’t the point. The focus is on one narrow window of time near the end of my teenage years when I had a band, did a lot of reckless things, and made a lot of very angry music. It’s a sort of bildungsroman in hell. For reasons that are too thorny to get into here, I’ve always felt compelled to preserve as much of that period as I can while the emotional scar tissue still has some vivid memories attached to it.
The book, if that’s what it’s going to turn into, is still very unfinished. It might never be finished. Even if I do find a way to bring it to a satisfying conclusion someday, I don’t think anyone would have any interest in reading about a band they’ve never heard of and all the warped things that went on inside and outside of the frontman’s head. And even if someone did want to read a thing like that, I don’t think I’d be comfortable sharing it. It’s the literary equivalent of stripping naked and screaming all my darkest secrets into a megaphone.
It isn’t meant for anyone else’s eyes anyway. It’s just for me.
One of the pivotal events in the text is a drug-fuelled weekend that features a projectile-vomiting stranger, an unlawful cab ride, the worst musicianship I was ever subjected to, multiple threats of violence, a staged suicide attempt (not my own), and a real-life version of the classic Saturday Night Live skit “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave”. The story of that weekend accounts for more than sixteen thousand words. It’s a novella in itself.
The main antagonist in this part of the story is a guy I worked with at my first post-high school job. His name was Tom. It’s difficult to find kind things to say about him. He wasn’t a great human being. And yet I owe him an immense debt of gratitude, because he introduced me to Aphex Twin.
My taste in music was pretty varied by the time I was eighteen, but I had no interest in electronica. I didn’t think the genre had much to offer me beyond bloops and bleeps and repetitive thumps. One morning in January of 2002, Tom slid his DiscMan over to me and said, “Check this out.” He played me “Flim” off of the Come to Daddy EP. The soft, fragile synth tones and frenetic drum programming created a sound unlike anything I’d heard before. Listening to it was like reliving a hazy childhood dream.
“It’s so relaxing,” Tom said.
He was right. It was relaxing. But there was a lot more going on there. The music conjured an atmosphere that was comforting and a little bit disquieting at the same time. Tom also played me “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” and a few other songs he liked.
I don’t know if he stole that CD, if a friend let him borrow it, or if he bought it on a whim because he liked the nightmare-inducing cover art. Hip-hop was his bread and butter. He would preach about the greatness of Nas, Big Pun, and Raekwon. He bragged about doing time — probably a lie, but I couldn’t say for sure — and mythologized these larger-than-life, street-smart figures without understanding that their outsized personalities were a cover for how damaged and afraid they really were. So it was a little surprising how taken he was with this music that was a world away from “Criminology” and “My Dick”.
The most memorable and unsettling night of my strange sixteen-thousand-word weekend was spent in a basement with Tom and a few other people as “Flim”, “IZ-US”, and the “Pappy” and “Little Lord Faulteroy” mixes of “Come to Daddy” played on on a loop that felt like it would never end. We were all high on Ecstasy. Or maybe “high” isn’t the right word. It was more like a living purgatory than a low-key rave.
Those songs burned themselves into my brain, even if they served as the soundtrack for a pretty awful experience. Come to Daddy wasn’t the first Aphex Twin album I went out and bought for myself, though. I went with I Care Because You Do. Within a few weeks, I owned just about every available Aphex Twin album and EP. That led me to Autechre, Boards of Canada, Seefeel, Prefuse 73, Clark, Susumu Yokota, Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Philip Glass, Four Tet, DJ Shadow, Burial, Baths, Flying Lotus, J Dilla, Nabukazu Takemura, DJ Premier, and a whole universe of ambient and electronic sound.
I like to think I would have found my way to all or most of this music on my own at some point, but it’s hard to say for sure. For all I know, without Tom providing the gateway drug, electronica never would have appealed to me, and I wouldn’t possess the sonic vocabulary necessary to create a song like “A Constellation of Conditions”.
The way I understand it, most electronic artists do the bulk of their work on a computer. I’ve always enjoyed taking a cruder, more archaic approach, playing every note by hand. On albums like NUDGE YOU ALIVE and GROWING SIDEWAYS, I created percussion loops on one synthesizer or another and quantized them, but I had to play those parts with my fingers before I could loop them, and everything else was played in real-time as it was recorded. I don’t like the idea of snapping everything to a grid. I want human error to creep in and keep things grounded even when the sounds I’m working with are synthetic.
This song features a bona fide drum machine, which is a rarity for me. I bought a Korg Volca Beats (with the snare mod/fix) from a Kijiji seller in 2015. I wanted to try messing around with something that would allow me to program my own rhythms in a more involved way, and the price and small footprint made it an easy purchase to justify.
The learning curve was almost nonexistent. I started creating and recording beats the day I got the thing. I’m not sure if this rhythm was recorded on that first day, but it wouldn’t have been very long after that. I did some manual tweaking while I was recording it, muting and introducing certain sounds at different points to create some movement.
Almost every other sound comes from the Yamaha VSS-30. The childlike main melody is one of the stock sounds. I think it might have been the marimba patch. The little background pad is another stock sound (strings, maybe?), with a slow attack and a long release. There are also some samples — Wurlitzer, vocals, and the like. The only non-percussive sound that isn’t provided by the VSS-30 is the synth bass, which I played on an Alesis Micron.
The title was something Johnny Smith came up with. If I remember right, it was meant to be the name of a nonexistent Stevie Wonder song. I couldn’t come up with anything that felt like a good fit for this song — “Happy Volca” wasn’t going to cut it — so I applied his phraseology to something real. Sorry, Stevie.
The creative process would be pretty monotonous if I could sit here and untangle the meaning of every song I’ve written, tracing each word to some specific thought or event. I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to. Half the time I have no idea where these songs come from. They just happen. Sometimes I do have a very clear idea of what I’m writing and why, but a lot of the time it’s a mystery to me.
This song is one of those mysteries.
I was messing around on my old Gibson LG-2 one night when I hit on an idea that felt like it was worth preserving. Neither one of my Flip cameras had a second of recording time left on them. The Pentax point-and-shoot camera I sometimes used to record song sketches was also full, and its battery was dead. It was a few hours past midnight, so recording in the studio wasn’t an option.
I remembered my MacBook — which was still pretty new at the time — came with GarageBand installed. Figured it was worth a try if I wanted to get my idea down in some form before it started to fade on me.
The program was pretty intuitive and easy to use, and I was surprised by the halfway decent sound quality of my laptop’s invisible built-in microphone. I recorded my guitar and voice on one live track, added midi upright bass and fake Wurlitzer electric piano (playing the notes on the computer’s keyboard, which was…interesting), added some vocal harmonies, processed them with a pitch-shifting effect, and came away with something crawling toward a song.
After that, GarageBand became the main tool I used for capturing ideas at the incubation stage. I started recording proper demos, when I’d never really bothered to do that before. It was fun and incredibly useful to have the ability to sketch out rough arrangement ideas. Some of the demos got pretty ambitious and layered. Once or twice I even broke down and brought the laptop downstairs to record the piano.
When I brought the song into the studio, I fleshed it out a little more, but I tried to retain as much of the clouded feeling of the demo as I could, right down to using the same pitch-shifting effect on the background vocals. Even after replacing the gibberish with actual words, I sang them so they would remain somewhat unintelligible. I asked Ashley Thompson to play violin, and she contributed long, sweeping lines that added another layer of atmospheric goodness.
Along with “Losing Light”, this was one of the very first things I wrote for the album. I was going to make it the title track, not only to acknowledge the way it sort of kickstarted everything, but because there was something sleepy about it. Then I started thinking about how I hadn’t put a proper title track on any album I’d made in about twenty years. Who would want to mess with a streak like that?
At least I was able to keep the thematic link strong. “Somnambulist” is a fancy word for “sleepwalker”, derived from the Latin somnus (sleep) and ambulō (to walk).
This is the second thing I wrote for the singer who plagiarized one of my songs and faked having a vocal problem to get out of working with me. It might sound like it’s about reincarnation. It’s really about impermanence and restlessness.
I found someone else to sing it. She said it was right in her wheelhouse. She had eight months to get comfortable with the song. She waited until the day or our scheduled recording session to tell me a few bits were outside of her vocal range. She asked if she could alter some of the vocal melodies a little. I said sure. A few hours later, she wrote back and changed her story. Now she said the entire song was outside of her vocal range and she couldn’t sing it at all.
I asked her what a comfortable range was for her. She said higher was better. I sent her a different song. She said it was too high. I sent her five more songs and asked her to pick one she felt capable of singing. She did. I asked her when she would be available. She said to check back with her again in a few months. I never spoke to her again.
Here’s the thing: I haven’t just heard her sing before. I’ve recorded her voice. I have a pretty good handle on what she can and can’t do. I know for a fact the first song I sent her wasn’t outside of her vocal range.
It was pretty clear to me what happened. She didn’t bother to listen to the demo I sent her until the day we were supposed to get together. When she realized it was a somewhat demanding vocal part that required a bit of work on her end, she decided to feed me a ridiculous story about forgetting her own capabilities as a singer instead of showing up unprepared and embarrassing herself.
She made me wait eight months for nothing. So I sang the song myself.
I wasn’t feeling the barely-there bridge section I improvised when I recorded the initial demo. I messed around a little and came up with something I liked a lot more.
I thought I’d try and get someone to play some pedal steel over this part. I found a steel player who wasn’t too far from Windsor. He seemed open to coming in and doing some session work. When I tried following up with him, he never acknowledged me again.
With pedal steel off the table, I thought a horn might be a nice touch. I found a trumpet player who said he was interested. He cancelled on me the day we were supposed to get together. I didn’t hear from him again until I poked him months later to start another conversation. Again we made plans. Again he cancelled on me. Then he did it again. With a determination that bordered on lunacy, I managed to get him over here…only to discover he couldn’t play the trumpet to save his life and wasn’t at all prepared.
I had to come up with a horn part off the top of my head. Then I had to sing it to him so he would know what to play, and we had to layer it one note at a time. I was kind of shocked I was able to squeeze that much out of him. It’s a part I could have played myself — and I’m not a trumpet player — but it worked in the context of the song, so I was satisfied.
I made the mistake of trying to hang out with him again after that session. He was supposed to come over with a photographer who was a mutual friend. He cancelled on me. I tried again. He stood me up. I asked him what happened. He said he forgot his evening plans with me because he had lunch with someone else that day, as if the two things were somehow related. I tried again. He showed up two hours late and proceeded to talk nonstop about a whole lot of self-absorbed nothingness until I kicked him out.
He’s lucky I kept him on the album. He doesn’t really deserve to be there.
My Arp Omni-2 synthesizer has been on the fritz for a while now. It’s developed a strange dissonant drone that kicks in within a few seconds of playing anything on the keyboard, whether it’s a chord or a single note. I heard a whisper of this problem starting to form around the time of AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, but it only announced its presence once in a while, and when it did I was able to make it work in the context of a song. Over the years, the drone kept getting louder and bolder until it all but drowned out whatever else I tried to play, and eventually I couldn’t make it work anymore. I need to try replacing some of the capacitors one of these days to see if that makes a difference.
The drone of death had already rendered the synth more or less unusable by the time I was working on this song, but I managed to coax a few unsullied notes out of the old beast. You can hear those notes at the very beginning of the bridge section, just before the drums come back in.
The fuzzed-out guitar that weaves its way through the arrangement is a result of one of my favourite simple pedal tricks. Conventional wisdom says reverb should come after distortion so you don’t smear your tone. I like the smearing that happens when you tell conventional wisdom to go stuff it.
This might be the first thing I ever recorded with the VSS-30. I sampled some Wurlitzer electric piano, processed it a few different ways with the onboard effects, played around with one of the stock sounds, and came away with this little mood piece. The title was something I’d been kicking around since the early 2000s. I thought it would be a good name for a band, assuming I ever put another band together. Something about this piece of music struck me as being climactic, so I grabbed the unused title and gave it a forever home.
I don’t have to worry about the redundancy of someday using the phrase as a band name anymore. After what was involved in making this album, I don’t intend to work with another human being in any meaningful musical capacity for the rest of my life, outside of a West Team resurgence (which everyone knew was coming anyway).
I sat down at the piano one afternoon when I was about to make myself some lunch. Some chords fell out, along with a vocal melody.
The only words I had were something about “a way of living”. I sang them so I’d have something to sing. I didn’t expect them to stick.
I made myself a sandwich. As soon as I sat down to eat it, my brain decided to hurl itself into lyric-writing mode. I ran to grab a piece of paper and something to write with, and started scratching out the words between bites. By the time I was finished eating, I had something resembling an existential gospel song.
I recorded piano, bass, drums, a bit of acoustic guitar, and a vocal track. I started fighting myself over what else was needed. I don’t have any problem keeping things sparse when a song calls for it. This one felt especially naked, though…even more so than something like “Alien Eggs”, which is made up of nothing but piano and a vocal track.
I’ve written things like this before, where thick piano chords hang in the air and a simple drum beat is often the only thing holding the song together. “To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free” on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC comes to mind. So I’m not sure why this one unnerved me so much. For whatever reason, I felt the full weight of all that empty space, and I wasn’t sure if I should fill it up or leave it alone.
I did something I never do when I’m making music. I asked a few friends what they thought. One person told me the song needed a gospel choir. Everyone else suggested adding very little or nothing at all. I thought the gospel choir idea was way too obvious and a little silly, and anything else I tried to add felt inessential, so I left it as it was.
An instructive moment for me was seeing the insane response my tribute to Gord Downie got back in 2017. These days I don’t share anything on Facebook. Most of my “social media friends” have never cared about anything I have to say, and I got tired of shouting into a void after a while. But I shared my version of “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken”. A lot of people seemed to connect with what was little more than a quick piano/vocal recording. It was good to be reminded that the most powerful music is sometimes the simplest and most direct.
This is one of the vocal performances I’m proudest of on the album, and it’s a good demonstration of the human qualities I’m always trying to emphasize. And still, I sang a single line about a hundred times over a period of a few weeks trying to get it right. It was a technical issue — there was a nasty lip-smacking sound I couldn’t edit out, and it happened in one specific spot. It was difficult to match the tone to the rest of the performance so it didn’t stand out as an obvious punch-in.
I must have found a way to get it right, because now I can’t tell or even remember where the edit is when I listen to the song.
This is the third thing I wrote for the singer who plagiarized one of my songs and faked having a vocal problem to get out of working with me.
One of the things that fascinated me the most about writing for other singers was the way it rewired my creative impulses. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but the second I started thinking about someone else’s voice I stopped writing as myself and started writing as a character. In this song, the character is someone who’s desperate for a little more time as the world around them crumbles…so they buy some from a street vendor.
I tried singing it myself. I couldn’t get inside of the song. It wasn’t meant for me to sing.
I remembered hearing a few of Zara’s songs on her Myspace page years ago and liking her voice. We’d never met or communicated in any way, but I sent her a message asking if she’d be open to doing some session work. She responded with an enthusiastic yes. She came in and sang this song, and it found the voice it needed.
Zara has this Cat Power/Sharon Van Etten thing going on with her voice. It isn’t an effect she reaches for. You can hear it in her throat when she speaks. I don’t know how to describe it other than to call it a darkness. It’s a quality I always get excited about when I hear it in a singer. There’s also an interesting duality at work when she sings, with strength and vulnerability braided together so tight they become inseparable. When I played a rough mix of “Buying Time at the End of the World” for Natalie, she told me it felt like there were all these complicated emotions wrapped up in something as simple as Zara singing the word “singing”. And that’s just one word.
I wanted to punctuate the hook with a horn part. I couldn’t get a horn player to acknowledge me to save my life. I recorded some vocal harmonies in an effort to approximate what the horn part was supposed to sound like. Over time, what began as little more than a placeholder track came to feel like an integral part of the song, and I decided horns weren’t necessary after all.
I asked two different local artists to illustrate this one. The first artist said he was excited to contribute to the album. He never created anything, and after a while he stopped acknowledging my attempts to communicate with him. So I tried a different artist. The exact same thing happened with him. Isn’t it fun when someone who doesn’t do what they tell you they’re going to do elects to never speak to you again instead of offering even a half-assed explanation for their awe-inspiring uselessness?
I stopped thinking local after that and discovered Maya was the right artist for the song all along.
I recorded a lot of segues and mood pieces with the Casio SK-1 before the Yamaha VSS-30 showed up and became my little sampling keyboard of choice. This is one of those mood pieces. Something about it made me think of rain.
I wasn’t going to put it on the album. I sent it to Greg Maxwell along with a few other lo-fi interludes just for fun. He told me this one stood out and had a cinematic quality that appealed to him. I tried throwing it in at the end of the first disc to see what would happen. It felt like a perfect bridge to the second disc.
Talk about your happy accidents.
The whole thing is made up of a glockenspiel sample. And that’s it. Just one note, layered a few different ways to create some harmonic movement. I tend to avoid using filters on anything, but there was a lot of hiss here, so I ran all the tracks through a low-pass filter to knock that down a bit. Since there wasn’t a lot of high frequency content to begin with, it made the overlapping samples more pleasant to listen to without doing any significant damage to their intrinsic tonal qualities.
Someday some obscure filmmaker will place this music over either the opening or closing credits of a film only three people will ever see. Mark my words.
A grade school friend showed up in one of my dreams a few years ago. I hadn’t seen her on any plane of consciousness in decades.
In the dream, we shared a long hug on a school bus. There were romantic overtones, but she was reluctant to get involved with me. She said she was afraid she would end up leaning on me as an emotional crutch.
“Why can’t it be a relationship where we just like each other and help each other and it’s a healthy, balanced thing?” I asked.
She gave me a look that said she might be willing to take the plunge.
We walked through syrup-covered snow. The dream jumped backwards in time to revisit a different moment on the bus. I was wearing a Santa Claus suit. We kissed. She commented on the flashback after it ended. She said she was so surprised by how handsome my face was that day when I removed the hat and fake beard, she thought she might fall over. Feeling self-conscious about the weight I’d gained, I told her I was wearing padding and the suit made me look heavier than I really was.
The next thing I remembered was examining a cardboard box fill of things outside of a school. Someone had left the items there for me to sort through or throw away. Now it was mild outside. Spring weather. No snow anywhere. My Santa suit was one of the things inside the box.
“It’s too early for Santa Claus,” I said, confused.
I fired off an impromptu list of some other things I felt it was too early for. I rounded a corner to find Tom Waits, Morgan Freeman, and the girl from the bus all sitting on the ground together. Melancholy jazz music played on the soundtrack as Tom sang a verse, every line beginning with, “It’s too early,” picking up where my train of thought left off. Morgan talked his way through the second verse, ignoring the rhythm of the song, delivering each line with great deliberation. Tom took the last verse, which felt like more of a chorus, dipping into the top of his vocal range on the last line and recapturing the pretty, breathy tone heard on songs like “Johnsburg, Illinois” and “Burma Shave”.
It’s too early for forgiveness. It’s too early for regret. It’s too early for the sun that never shines.
“Nice,” Morgan said, smiling.
Tom and Morgan turned their attention to some kid who’d made a mess of himself playing in the dirt. In the aftermath of the musical interlude, my friend had a sad, distant look on her face that implied our relationship was over.
And then I woke up.
The music that shows up in my dreams has always been elusive. I never know how much of it is going to hang around in my memory. The lyrics are always the first thing to fade after I wake up. The music is also pretty temperamental. I’ve often remembered the sound of a song — right down to the arrangement and production techniques employed — without remembering the actual melodic substance of it.
This time I woke up with all the music, all the vocal melodies, and at least some of the words still in my head. I don’t take it for granted when that happens. I treat the song as a precious transmission I’ve been lucky enough to extract some part of in petrified form, and I do my best to flesh it out in a way that does justice to the way I dreamed it into existence. Dreams have a way of making a piece of music feel more vivid and powerful than it really is, but in a strange way some of that gravity seems to almost always carry over to the waking world. Simple as these dream songs tend to be, there’s something about them that sets them apart from the other songs I’ve written.
I chose to keep this one small, holding onto the words I could remember and filling in the rest by plucking details and feelings from the dream. I altered the last line from “the sun that never shines” to “a sun that never comes”. You can hear how much the piano needed a tuning at the time. That bit of drift struck me as being perfect for the song, lending a little more depth to the austerity of the piano/voice arrangement.
I can’t be sure, but I think Tom Waits and Morgan Freeman would approve of the way this one turned out.
If I could only play someone a single song to represent the entire album in microcosm, it might be this one. All the eclecticism and ambition is there in full force, and while a few other musicians contribute for a little while, it begins and ends with me alone.
It was written out of sequence. The longest chunk of the song came first, and for a time I was content to let it stand on its own.
Then I started messing around on a Fender Strat I don’t play as much as I should, and something different started to come into focus, with rhythmic lines inspired by funk and Afrobeat music. I recorded a few guitar tracks, some bass, and some rough drums, and the funky stuff segued into a dreamier section. There were no lyrics to guide the music, so I let it go wherever it wanted to go. The words came a little later on.
If those two disparate song ideas were going to be joined together, they needed to be resolved somehow. I wrote another chunk of music and some words to go with it.
The idea was to make this another musical dialogue and have a female vocalist sing the dreamy part. The “you say” introductory bits on the handwritten lyric sheet are a dead giveaway. I asked Leanna Roy to sing it (more about her in a bit). She had no interest in the song. Zara said it was too high for her. Instead of trying to find someone who did want to lend their voice to the song, I scrapped that idea and sang it all myself.
The two contributing musicians are Kelly and Stu again, but this time they aren’t having a conversation without the advantage of hearing what the other person is saying. They each have isolated cameos in different parts of the song.
I came up with some ideas for saxophone harmonies. I wanted to write them out on paper, but it’s been a long time since I last tried to draw a treble clef. I couldn’t seem to remember how to make one that didn’t look like it was suffering from some sort of disease. Don’t take my word for it. Have a look for yourself.
I settled for writing the notes out in a less advanced way.
I recorded some rough synth sax to give Kelly an idea of what I was going for.
When he came in to record his parts, we played around a little. One specific part just didn’t sound right to me anymore, so I sang vocal harmonies where I thought I wanted the saxophone to be.
The real meat of the song remains the very first part I wrote — the one with the “all my lies” refrain, which was placed third in the sequence of “scenes”. Stu recorded three or four violin parts, all of them improvised, building from an almost inaudible beginning to a dramatic, trembling peak that almost had me expecting his strings to catch fire. I fell in love with a twisting little melody he hit on during the choruses. I asked him to turn it into a recurring hook, and then I emphasized it with my own electric slide guitar. After that, the fourth and final section operated more as an extended comedown.
Years after I began work on the song, I added some new vocal tracks to the coda, along with backwards electric guitar and sampled Wurlitzer. I tried re-recording the vocal tracks for two of the other sections before deciding I liked the existing takes as they were. The energy was right. I recorded a new drum track, layered some acoustic twelve-string guitar through the whole song (and piano through most of it), and started forming some ideas about just how I was going to mix this monstrous thing. Again I had to make notes to keep myself oriented.
In the end, there are four movements to the thing, all of them so different from one another they might as well be four different songs — and they sort of are. I braced myself for a gruesome mixing experience, since I was squeezing about thirty tracks worth of sound onto the sixteen I had to work with and not all of the elements were in play at the same time. The density and distinctness of all the different sections had me giving some thought to making a dedicated mix for each chunk and hoping I could find a seamless way to stitch them all together.
Somehow, against all the odds, my first rough mix wasn’t bad at all. It was a delicate dance, but I was able to pull it off. I made a few small adjustments, dialled in a mix that was a little more refined, and I was done.
Both the opening section of the song and the “All My Lies” segment feature bona fide choruses, while the other two segments evolve in far less linear ways. The overall structural arc looks something like this: ABABCDEFEFGEGHIJ. In other words, it’s the sort of thing that would probably get me kicked out of a songwriting workshop. And that makes me happy.
The image I paired with this song is something Sandra DeVries created. She makes very cool abstract art with rubbing alcohol and Sharpie markers. I have no idea what her process is, but I like her results.
I took on/off piano lessons from about the time I was thirteen until I was sixteen. There was a false start a few years before that. When I was eleven or twelve, I had a single lesson with a teacher who opened a book of sheet music and said, “Figure this out,” without beginning to teach me any of the rudiments that would allow me to understand what I was looking at. Then he left me alone in the room for about half an hour, knowing I’d never looked at notes on a staff before.
I wish I knew that guy’s name so I could get in touch with him today and tell him his grotesque incompetence and total lack of giving a shit made me consider giving up on music altogether, because once upon a time he made me feel like I was a stupid kid who would never be able to develop any useful skills. I can still see his face in my mind. I want to say his first name was Mark, but that’s just a guess.
The real piano lessons got started with the introduction of a guy I like to call Dust in the Wind for reasons that will soon reveal themselves. I did manage to learn a tiny bit of theory once I had a teacher who wasn’t a total douche, but that side of things never really clicked for me. It was always a struggle. I could stare at a piece of music and pick out what the notes were one at a time, like a skittish dentist extracting teeth, but I could never play all the way through a piece without missing a beat the way some natural sight-readers can. My brain wouldn’t let me get anywhere near that level of understanding.
Music theory was like French class. I was great at pronunciation, I knew how to conjugate a verb and what tense to use, but having a simple conversation in the language outside of asking, “Can I go to the bathroom?” or telling someone my name was beyond me. When I had to write something that had any real depth to it, it was a slow slog that involved burying my face in a French-English dictionary, finding the words I wanted one at a time, and hoping I was arranging them in a way that made sense.
I don’t think I got a mark lower than 90% in any French class I ever took, but a large part of that was luck. When I had to answer questions after an oral report, I was terrified.
Same deal with sheet music. I could work out the nuts and bolts well enough to fake it for a while, but I couldn’t speak the language. Once the grade one piano book was out of the way and those wonderful, helpful numbers that told you which fingers to use were gone, learning new pieces got a lot more difficult. So I became the skittish dentist, taking it one note at a time, guessing at the dynamics and articulation, hoping for the best.
It wasn’t long before I discovered a much better way of learning songs. I started paying close attention to what Dust in the Wind was doing when he played a new piece for me. I would watch his fingers and listen with every bit of focus my brain and ears would allow. In the process, I started developing my ability to learn things by ear.
I did my best to memorize what my teacher did and spit it back out. Sometimes I wouldn’t remember things quite right. I’d miss a few notes, or I’d play a few that weren’t there on the page. He got wise to me after a while and made me turn around whenever he played something new so I couldn’t see what his hands were doing. That sharpened my ears even more, since I couldn’t rely on my eyes. When he got hip to that, he said, “I’m not playing anything for you anymore. You can figure it out on your own.”
I was back to the painstaking process of working things out one note at a time, and now I didn’t have a dictionary to fall back on.
Sometimes I wonder if I would play piano the same way I do today if I’d never taken another lesson after the very first one. I didn’t learn many useful things that stuck around in my brain for any length of time, aside from a fun blues progression in C major. Even after I learned proper fingering, I went on doing it wrong, ignoring the way my hands were supposed to be positioned, running with whatever felt natural to me. Having long fingers helped. I got better, but I was playing so often, making so much music at home, and forcing myself to come up with musical solutions on the fly all the time with the improvised nature of everything I recorded, I was going to improve one way or another.
I think the one thing piano lessons gave me was something they were never supposed to give me. They made me better at listening and more adept at solving problems away from the notes on the page.
To Dust in the Wind’s credit, he shifted the emphasis away from theory a little bit when it became clear I was never going to become anything resembling a concert pianist. At recitals, he let me sing Beatles songs and Bruce Springsteen’s take on “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” as a reward for learning things from the book. I never wrote an exam to graduate from one grade to the next. We would get to a point where he would say, “Right, you’re done with this book,” and then I would move up a grade. And we had a really interesting conversation when I made him a copy of SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN in 1999. He got me to consider how other people might react to my music for the first time in my life. But the pieces I was supposed to learn eventually grew too difficult for me to figure out on my own, and my heart was never really in it.
I thought we were friends. He gave me the impression it would stay that way. We kept in touch for a while after my lessons ended, talking on the phone every few weeks. He showed up for a surprise party my dad threw for my seventeenth birthday. Then Dust in the Wind stopped answering his phone. I spent years leaving occasional messages on his answering machine before giving up. I must have left him fifty. Maybe more. He never responded to any of them.
Then again, maybe we were never friends at all.
Something happened when I was fourteen that has never made a lick of sense to me. Dust in the Wind had another student who was about my age. Sometimes her lessons were right before mine, so we’d see each other in passing. Her name was Bonnie. She had dark hair that was always tied back. She was beautiful. There was an unpretentious elegance about her. And man, she could play.
One of our recitals fell on Father’s Day. Dust in the Wind said he wanted me to write something for the occasion — to sit down and map out a piece of music when I was used to creating things through improvisation. I was glad to have the challenge. I came up with a few vague melodic ideas and motifs and played him what I had at my next lesson. He told me what he liked and didn’t like, offering some constructive criticism.
Then I didn’t bother writing anything. I tried once or twice. Whenever I would sit down at the keyboard with an aim toward hammering out something definitive, the inspiration wasn’t there. I thought everything would snap into place once I wrote some lyrics.
A few days before the recital, I experienced a sudden puberty-inspired voice change. I didn’t start squeaking or become a baritone overnight. It was nothing like that. My vocal range didn’t seem to budge. I was just incredibly hoarse, for no apparent reason, at the worst possible time.
My response was to improvise and record a song cycle on my first day of hoarseness to preserve the ragged vocal sound in all its glory. It was strange. I could sing in a goofy Barney the Dinosaur-inspired voice and I was fine. As soon as I sang in my normal voice and went anywhere near my upper register, things got hoarse again. It did wonders for my Bill Clinton impression, but I couldn’t sing live sounding like that.
The day of the recital came. I still didn’t have anything solid written. I ran through the few ideas I’d been able to dredge up one last time. I decided all I could do was improvise, using those scraps as a safety net, and hope it wasn’t a complete disaster.
At the recital, I learned Bonnie was also given an assignment to write something of her own. She played a piece out of the book for whatever grade she was in. She followed it with her original song. It was bold and percussive, full of thick minor chords. I dug it. I went up after her and played a piece out of my book. It went well. And then I had to introduce a song that didn’t exist.
I was used to hamming it up at recitals. The parents of a few other former students might still have some video footage of me belting out a twisted original Christmas song after a spoken introduction that got a lot of laughs. This time I was nervous. Robbed of the ability to sing, I felt like I’d been knocked off-balance. I stood up, called my ghost song “Father and Daughter” after deciding to tie it in with the occasion so I could at least make it sound like it was about something, sat back down, and started improvising.
It wasn’t a masterpiece, but I was able to think my way through it and create the illusion of a structured piece of music without hitting any ugly notes. Somewhere in the back of my head I was laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Here I was pulling something out of my ass, while everyone in the audience assumed I’d written and rehearsed this song that wasn’t a song at all. It even kind of sounded like I knew what I was doing.
After all the performances wrapped up and it was post-recital mingling time, Bonnie’s father came over and told me he liked my song. He said his brother worked in music publishing, and he thought this song of mine that I’d already forgotten most of as soon as I stopped playing it might be something I could get published and make some money off of. I was in shock, but not so catatonic that I couldn’t express my eagerness when he suggested I come over sometime to talk business and play piano with his daughter. Since no one had a pen and these were pre-cell phone times, he suggested getting his phone number from Dust in the Wind at my next lesson.
The next time we saw Dust in the Wind, me and my pa told him about the conversation I had with Bonnie’s father at the recital and asked for his phone number. Dusty wouldn’t give it to us. I expected him to be as excited as I was. He wasn’t. He looked at us like we’d just murdered his whole family and pissed on their carcasses.
I’d been his student for at least two years by then. He knew both of us. He’d been over to our apartment. He knew I wasn’t out to try and seduce anyone. He knew all I wanted to do was play some music, maybe make a friend, and maybe get the chance to make a little bit of money off of my music while I was at it, at a time when a thing like that made some amount of sense to me. For reasons he never explained, he made sure none of that happened.
I didn’t know Bonnie’s last name. He wouldn’t give us that information either. Her lessons now fell on a different day than mine, so approaching her wasn’t an option. I never saw her or her father again.
There went my big opportunity, wiped out in one fluid motion by my piano teacher and supposed friend.
The only plausible explanation I’ve ever been able to come up with is that he was jealous…which is bizarre to even consider. He was a grown man with a girlfriend who would soo become his wife and the mother of his child. His students liked and respected him. He was a gifted musician. He seemed pretty content with his lot in life. I was just a kid who could barely read music, improvised a pile of weird songs behind closed doors, and had no concept of what a girlfriend was.
Would he really go out of his way to kill my chances of getting a publishing deal because it wasn’t being offered to him when he was the better musician and had spent more time honing his craft? Would he sabotage my potential friendship with someone before it even began because he wasn’t fourteen years old and it wasn’t him she was going to be playing with “off the book”?
I didn’t care that much about the publishing business. I was more upset about being teased with the idea of playing some music with a pretty girl only to have it ripped away from me by someone who was supposed to be helping me. We should have went after him for an explanation, but I think we were both too caught off guard by the weirdness of his reaction to know what to say.
All of this is just a digression-filled way of getting at a simple truth: I never took to music theory, and once I stopped taking piano lessons I let what little information I’d learned from them wither and die in whatever small part of my brain it had been leasing. I haven’t looked at a theory book or a piece of sheet music in twenty years. If we’re working on something together, I can tell you what notes I’m playing and what the basic chords are. I can tell you what time signature a song is in. But if you stick those lines and dots in front of me, I’m lost.
Sit down and play me a song, on the other hand, and chances are I can figure out what you’re doing and come up with something to compliment it off the top of my head. I don’t know why. It’s just always been a thing I can do.
One night I had a dream I was listening to something I’d written and recorded but hadn’t played a note of myself. It was an instrumental piece for violin, with four or five tracks layered to create a sound not too far removed from that of a string quartet. While I knew the music was mine, I remember thinking, “I came up with this? How?”
The chords and melodies were gone by the time I woke up. I remembered the feeling of the music, but that was it.
If the dream didn’t give me a song outright, it gave me an idea I wouldn’t have allowed myself to reach for otherwise. Stu Kennedy was the musician playing all the parts in my dream, but I thought a violin might struggle to create a full enough sound on its own. Maybe cello was the way to go.
I did some research on which keys were the most comfortable to play in for a cellist. I wrote something in G, picking out melodies with an acoustic guitar, trying to think in terms of single-note lines and how they would lock together to create harmonies. It was a little strange, because this is something I tend to work out instinctively without sitting down and giving it any serious thought. A bowed instrument with four strings is also a very different beast from a plucked six-string instrument, and I wasn’t sure of the cello’s range. Some guesswork was required.
I’d seen Karen McClellan at a few gatherings over the years — she was a friend of a good friend — but we’d never spoken to each other. The only thing I really knew about her was that she was a cellist. I sent her a message outlining my nefarious plan. She said she was interested.
I attached a late-night GarageBand demo to a Facebook message, along with my best attempt at explaining the structure, notes, and movement of the thing. I didn’t know how helpful any of that would be, so the night before our session I took a quick look at Wikipedia to remind myself what a staff looked like and where the different notes were supposed to go. Then I thought, “Maybe I can make some sense of this.” So I broke each part down on paper. Notes on a staff. Half a lifetime — literally — after forgetting everything I ever knew about theory, it took me ten or fifteen minutes to do what might have taken forever back when I was wrestling with sheet music on a weekly basis.
Six years after the fact, I’m still a little dumbfounded that (a) I was able to do this, (b) it wasn’t all that difficult to do, (c) Karen was able to look at what I wrote and see logic instead of a mess of scribbles, and (d) it’s something I could do again if I wanted to write another part for someone who can sight-read. I’m not going to be able to write out entire songs this way, or even complex chords, but I don’t think I need to.
I even put my sharp in the right place.
I’d thank Dust in the Wind, but I don’t think he deserves any credit here. None of the theory he taught me came back when I was doing this. I taught myself what I’d forgotten from scratch, with a little help from Wikipedia.
Building the piece one layer at a time was pretty simple. I stuck the Pearlman TM-250 in omni, set it in front of the cello, and off we went. Turns out that mic likes the cello as much as it likes the violin.
The placeholder guitar tracks stuck around all through the recording process, serving more as a rhythmic backbone than anything else. When we’d done enough that I could mute them and hear my voice supported only by strings, it was surreal. It’s still surreal. I mean, I wrote and arranged a piece of music for strings. It’s a real thing. It’s not a terribly complex thing, aside from one verse slipping into 7/4 time and no verse or hook ever running for the same number of measures as the one that came before it, but it feels like it’s exactly what it was supposed to be.
I thought about adding a little more to the song. Maybe some subtle percussion to cover up the sound of Karen’s stool creaking here and there. I came to my senses in a hurry and left it as it was.
There’s a pretty lengthy segment about all of this in Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories) that also explains how my string-part-writing adventures led to the unexpected experience of writing a string arrangement for the last song on Ron Leary’s album TOBACCO FIELDS. It’s one of my favourite parts of the whole film, and that little string part in Ron’s song is one of my favourite things I’ve ever created, even if I didn’t play it myself. But that’s another story.
I bought my first electric guitar in 1999. It was a red Strat copy. A guy was selling it through a classified ad in the Windsor Star. I think I paid something like $200 for it. The guitar came with a stand, a soft case, and a ten-watt tube amp made sometime in the 1960s by a Canadian company called Paul.
I bought my first acoustic guitar three years before that. It was a Vantage VIS-2A, aka “the crappiest hunk of crap ever crapped out by a guitar manufacturer”. It hasn’t aged well. Most of the frets are dead now, and it’s such an uncomfortable, uninspiring thing to play, it isn’t worth doing any amount of work on it to try and make it less crappy. About the only thing it has going for it is the distinction that a crummy picture I took of the guitar was lifted from my blog and posted on a Vantage tribute website without any credit being given to the original source (hooray!).
The Strat copy might not be a great guitar, but it’s held up much better than the Vantage shitbox over the years. I’ve always liked the sound of the single coil neck pickup, even if it’s probably some cheap hunk of nothing. You should have seen the look on the salesman’s face when I brought it into Long & McQuade in 2002 to replace the dying humbucker and have the frets redressed. He tried to convince me I would be better off buying a Squier Strat copy instead of spending more money than my guitar was worth just to get a few more years of use out of it.
Eighteen years later, it’s still going strong. As for the tube amp that came with it, you can hear it on every single album I’ve recorded from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN to date, along with a few early Papa Ghostface and solo CDs.
It isn’t a guitar I play too often anymore, but in the summer of 2015 I dropped it into a weird tuning and came up with a little idea.
Then I forgot all about the idea before it could grow any legs.
When Zara was in Windsor to record her third album last year, I asked if she’d be willing to sing on another one of my songs. I thought it might be a worthwhile experiment to place her voice in the context of something hazy and electronic. She said she was excited to give it a try.
Over the next week or two, I wrote a handful of songs on classical guitar. I recorded a series of VSS-30 ideas I meant to turn into ambient soundscapes. Everything I came up with felt flat and uninspired. Before long, Zara’s album was finished, she was back in Vancouver, and I hadn’t accomplished anything.
Something good did come out of it. I was moved to play more classical guitar than I had in a long time, and a number of new ideas came pouring out. One of them appealed to me more than any of the finished and half-finished songs I’d written while I was trying to come up with something for Zara to sing on.
It got me thinking about the dreamy thing I’d improvised on the Strat copy. Both ideas lived in the same key. Maybe I could stick them together and a noisy shoegaze song could relax into a laid-back acoustic piece. I wrote some lyrics and recorded the whole thing in the space of a single afternoon, treating it as two separate songs and grafting the two mixes together.
In the first section, a lot of the guitar tracks and all of the vocal tracks are stretched out by my favourite effect on the Digitech guitar effects box. I almost never play guitar with a pick anymore — I prefer the sound and control I get with my fingers — but here it felt like the acoustic guitar needed a little more treble to help it cut through the mix. For the classical guitar-driven section, I went back to using my fingers. The acoustic guitar solo was played on a six-string guitar in two different octaves instead of on a twelve-string guitar, because sometimes it’s fun to take the scenic route.
There’s something about lo-fi hip-hop that reaches inside of my soul and sticks there. It can get pretty samey after a while, but when it’s done right the music conjures an atmosphere I love to get lost in for a while. I wanted to see if I could create something that lived in a similar sonic and emotional space. This is what I came up with.
The initial idea was born on a Kay 1954 K-22 acoustic guitar.
Then it moved over to a Kay Thin Twin made in the same year — in many ways the electric sibling to the K-22. Every guitar track went through the Fairfield Circuitry Shallow Water modulation pedal for a warbly, chewed-up sound. I plugged the bass into the same Paul tube amp I used on the guitars instead of recording it direct. The drums were played manually on a Korg Triton. I wanted to add some shaker, but it sounded a little too forceful. Brushed snare gave me the accent I wanted. The only other sound is the VSS-30, with some backwards piano and vocal samples swirling around in the mix.
Most of the music videos people make for lo-fi hip hop songs rely on vintage cartoons or an endlessly looping GIF. I went with the second option, but I didn’t want to settle for just one cloud-themed GIF, so I found four and used them all.
I got the idea to write something jazzy and atmospheric for a female voice.
I kicked the idea around until it became a song. I sent a rough mix with a guide vocal to another local singer I found on Kijiji. She told me her band was looking for someone to record some of their music. She proposed an exchange of services. I told her I hadn’t recorded a full band in a while, so I wasn’t sure if I would be the right guy for the job, but I was open to giving it a try. I suggested we sit down and have a face-to-face conversation first. That way I could get a handle on what they were after in terms of sonics, and they could get a feel for what I was all about.
She didn’t respond. Nothing happened. I tried a second singer. She ignored me. Nothing happened. I tried a third singer. She didn’t ignore me. Something happened. She showed up and sang the song, and I mixed it, and if you were listening to CJAM last summer you probably heard it a time or two. I submitted it to the station as an entry for their local Singles Club and it got enough airplay to top the chart.
That singer helped sink my live show. I was left with three choices in the aftermath of her supreme shittiness. I could leave the song on the album as it was and get angry every time I heard her voice. I could kick the song off the album out of spite. Or I could erase her part and sing it myself.
I went with option number three. Problem solved. Song salvaged. It wasn’t like she brought any of her own ideas to the table. Every other singer who’s on the album found at least some small way to inject a bit of their own personality, even if it was just the way they sang a single word. Not this person. She imitated my guide vocal note for note and inflection for inflection.
Nothing against mimicry — it can be sublime when it’s done well — but I can do me better than anyone else.
I was going to talk about all of these things in the documentary, and then I was going to end with this song as an audiovisual middle finger meant for that singer and all singers like her. The “music video” part was already edited. All I had to do was slip in some clips of myself singing, or so I thought. Somehow the Sony Vegas file that held all the edited footage vanished from my hard drive. I had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch, shot for shot. It took me two days.
Right when I was finishing up, I thought, “No. It’s too on-the-nose.”
I think I found an ending that’s both a little more poetic and a deeper, truer expression of who I am and what I feel. Still, I had to laugh at putting so much work into editing something only to find there was no place for it in the film. At least there’s a place for it here.
For a while there, I fell in love with writing musical dialogues. There are only two of them on the album — three if you count “Vector” as a conversation (which it sort of is), and four if you think of “Oxygen Damage Due to Lack of Brain” as the conversation it almost was. There could have been several more if I had it in me to keep pursuing singers no matter how many times I got shafted. But maybe, as frustrating as it was, it all worked out for the best. The concept didn’t have a chance to get stale.
The song-as-dialogue approach doesn’t get much respect anymore, for good reason. It’s often abused by artistically handicapped opportunists who see it as little more than an excuse to engage in some ego-enhancing mutual masturbation. For every “In Spite of Ourselves” or “Don’t Give Up”, you get a dozen of these:
Catchy? Sure, I guess, if you’re a fan of the dreck you’re forced to listen to when you’re sitting in the dentist’s chair. It’s also got all the emotional depth of a puddle of urine. And don’t try to tell me urine plays an important role in the earth’s nitrogen system and has been used to aid in the production of gunpowder and leather tanning. I know these things. A pee is still a pee.
I mean, feast your eyes on this deathless chorus:
I don’t wanna live forever, ’cause I know I’ll be living in vain. And I don’t wanna fit wherever. I just wanna keep calling your name
until you come back home. I just wanna keep calling your name
until you come back home. I just wanna keep calling your name
until you come back home.
Swifty and McZAYN repeat that hunk of nothing about six million times, in case you didn’t get the point the first time around that they! Embrace idiocy! Over life!
Now, I’m not saying I’m a brilliant writer of songs-as-conversations. But I did make an effort to get at something a little deeper and less specific when I was writing them. If I ever write a line as dumb as, “I don’t wanna fit wherever,” I’ll pluck out my own eyes as an act of penance.
(I’d mention something here about how “Closer” by The Chainsmokers featuring Halsey is the absolute nadir of braindead duets, but everyone knows those walking cancer sticks just ripped off Tenerence Love’s immortal “A Sweaty Overweight Jam”, so it ain’t even worth getting into.)
On “Pave over It All”, I shared lead vocal duties with Steve O-L, Jim Meloche, and Dave Dubois. We were all omniscient narrators who took turns telling portions of the same story. The musical dialogues on this album live in a different space. Each voice belongs to a character who doesn’t stand outside of the narrative.
I wrote “Second Dialogue” with a specific singer in mind. There was a husky quality to her voice that grabbed me. I recorded a demo, singing both parts myself, and sent it to her.
She said she was excited to sing on it. We made plans. The day we were supposed to get together, she told me she couldn’t get a ride over to my place. I offered to come pick her up. She didn’t acknowledge the offer, and she didn’t show up. I had to chase her like crazy to reschedule. She blew me off again, this time because of a concert she admitted she wasn’t even sure she wanted to go to. Then she asked if I wanted to meet up for a coffee somewhere, as if we’d never confirmed and then reconfirmed that she was coming here to record a vocal track.
I stopped chasing her, and that was the end of that.
I vented to Ashley Thompson about all these flighty singers who were giving me the run-around. She told me she had a friend with a voice like an angel. Her friend was Leanna Roy, who performs as LeLe Danger. I sent her a message and learned she once dated the dude who directed I am Not a Seagull. I sent her the demo, she said she was into it, we made plans, and she showed up. Easy as you like.
One of the best things about working with other singers was having the opportunity to watch someone get inside of a song. Though they were singing the words and vocal melodies I’d written, almost everyone slipped in a bit of their own musical personality. Sometimes it was an unexpected bit of phrasing I wouldn’t have thought of myself. Sometimes it was altering a vocal melody just a little. Sometimes it was something as simple as the way they chose to emphasize a syllable.
Listen to the way Kelly sings “suture” on “Embedded Ignitable/So Happy”, the way Jen sings “foster” on “Lullaby for Unborn Child”, the way Zara sings everything on “Buying Time at the End of the World”, and you’re hearing moments only they could have created.
When Leanna sat down and sang a verse and a half of this song, it felt like she took a character I sketched out and made her into a three-dimensional human being. This is going to sound stupid, but it’s true: I watched her trace her index finger across the words in my spiral notebook, listened to her sing the word “capsized” like it was something she was falling into, and I fell in love with her for a few minutes.
What you hear on the album is her second take. When you get a second take that good, I think you’re a fool if you ask for a third. She told me the song brought something special out of her. I believe it. If the lyrics struck her as being weird, she didn’t let it show in her performance. Come to think of it, I’m a little surprised the look of intensity on her face at the end of the “Second Dialogue” segment in Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories) didn’t melt the camera.
Getting down my own lead vocal track wasn’t so straightforward. I didn’t have a problem singing the way I wanted to when it was four in the morning and I was sitting cross-legged on my bed recording the demo. It was a different story when the vocal mic was staring me down and I had to follow Leanna’s first verse. I started thinking about it too much. I don’t know how many takes I recorded, but none of them were very good.
I don’t know how I ended up with a take I liked. I think I got so frustrated my brain just shut off. I remember wiping the sweat off of my face, closing my eyes, and going for it, and finally feeling like I nailed it, and then collapsing in the corner and sleeping for a week.
Okay, so it wasn’t that dramatic. But there was definitely some sweat involved, and it felt good when I was able to grab what I was reaching for. After that, recording the harmonies was a piece of cake.
I asked Kelly Hoppe to play a harmonica solo over the little 7/4 instrumental bridge section. I didn’t leave him much space. He only had sixteen seconds to work with — just enough time to make a musical statement in miniature. He misheard me when I told him what key the song was in and brought over a B-flat major harmonica instead of one that was more compatible with B-flat minor. He solved that problem by bending the notes, working around the minor third, and then ignoring it altogether.
Of the seven or eight takes he gave me, at least five were keepers. They were all great, and they were all different. Picking one was impossible. I found a compromise by combining the best parts of two different takes. The beginning of one of the more subdued performances featured some beautiful octave playing. That made up the bulk of the composite take. Then I flew in a bit of an earlier take that featured a held note driven with so much vibrato it sounded like a voice weeping.
I had a serious scare when I was first working on making a rough mix of this song in 2014. The mixer went wonky on me for no apparent reason. The master fader was maxed out on the display screen, and all the peak indicators were overloading when there was no sound passing through any of the inputs. I put on some headphones. Everything seemed fine until I loaded a different song and hit play. The sound was distorted.
I shut the mixer down to give it a rest. It froze up halfway through the shutdown process. I had to turn the power off manually. When I turned it back on, I was stuck in mixer purgatory.
I’d already been through something like this six years earlier. That time around, I was at least able to navigate system parameters when I couldn’t play or record anything. Now I couldn’t even do that much. Everything would boot up fine, the mixer would load the last song I had open, and then it would freeze up. None of the buttons or dials or faders had any effect. I couldn’t run a drive check to see what the problem was. The cooling fan was working, the clock was still functioning, and the input peak indicators responded to being hit with the signal from a mic preamp or a compressor being switched on, but the hard drive wouldn’t respond no matter what I tried to do.
Right about then, I started thinking I should have hopped on the bandwagon and bought Pro Tools when I had the extra money.
I was up late digging around online and leafing through my dusty old owner’s manual and troubleshooting guides, searching for a solution. There wasn’t one. And I couldn’t ask anyone I knew for advice. I think I’m the only person in the city who owns one of these obsolete Roland VS-series mixer/workstation/hard disc recorder thingies.
Finally, I found a way to bypass the booting process and skip straight to the drive reformat screen. When I did that, the mixer no longer recognized the two separate partitions of the drive. This told me my data had either been wiped out or it was fried past the point of recovery.
I’m pretty good about backing things up these days. I even back up songs and mixes in-progress, long before they’re finished, just in case. But there were a few things I didn’t have a chance to preserve before everything stopped working. I wasn’t too happy about the prospect of losing those things forever.
While I was considering cutting my losses and wiping the drive clean, I noticed the little green light above the play button was flashing, inviting me to restart the mixer without powering down all the way. I did that just to see what would happen. After restarting, the mixer recognized both partitions again. I still couldn’t play anything, and the master fader was overloaded again, but now I could access the menu and run a drive check.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a screen saying, “YOU WILL LOSE DATA.” Just like the first time it happened, something got corrupted somehow. The corrupted data was in this song. I told the mixer to get rid of whatever had gone bad, and then it was back to business as usual.
I didn’t revisit this song for about six years. I didn’t want to know what I’d lost. When I was putting the finishing touches on some of the mixes and the album was just about done, I decided it was time to bite the bullet. If I had to re-record a banjo part or something, I wasn’t going to like it, but I’d deal with it. I dumped the song back on the mixer and held my breath.
You know what I lost? A tambourine part. In one verse.
I re-recorded the thirty seconds or so of missing tambourine, trying not to laugh with giddy relief while I was at it. Then I tightened up the mix a little and marvelled at my twenty-year-old digital mixer’s resilience and longevity.
In December of 2015, there was a little O-L West/Teenage Geese house show at FarWest Acre. It was the last time I played live in any capacity.
I was proud of AFTERTHOUGHTS then, and I’m still proud of it now, but those songs lost something fundamental in a live setting. They all started to blur together and sound a little bland to me when they were stripped of the arrangements I was able to build around them in the studio. I wanted to inject a little bit of energy and fun into the evening, so I wrote this silly little song as an opportunity for a bit of audience participation (and also to give myself an excuse to play some stride piano).
The catalyst, if you can believe it, was a bottle of Snapple iced tea. Before I cut all the junk out of my diet, I used to drink that stuff like it was water. Snapple started doing something they called “Bottle Cap Real Facts”. When you screwed the cap off of your iced tea, there would be an amusing random factoid printed on the underside.
A few examples:
All porcupines float in water.
The average smell weighs seven hundred and sixty nanograms.
You blink over ten million times in a year.
A quarter of the bones in your body are in your feet.
I got one cap that said, “In the state of Arizona, it is illegal for donkeys to sleep in bathtubs.”
That had to work its way into a song. There was no question about it.
The night of the show, I played Natalie’s upright piano and asked the audience to sing along during the refrain. You never really know how that sort of thing is going to go or how many people are going to humour you. For whatever reason, everyone seemed to get into it. All those voices filling up that room made for a pretty glorious sound. I wish I’d been recording it.
When it came time to record the song in the studio, any desire I once had to involve anyone else in my music was dead, buried, and in the process of being violated in unspeakable ways by a group of horny insects. I wanted the sound of a bunch of people singing together, but I didn’t have the patience to chase anyone anymore. So I recorded my own voice the same way I would record group vocals, standing far enough away from the microphone to get some significant room sound, did that about eight times, and made a point of changing my vocal tone every time.
The arrangement is pretty stripped down. There’s just piano, bass, some brushed snare, and a bit of guitar. I dusted off the quirky old Futuramic archtop for extra authenticity and went for a rudimentary Western swing approach with the rhythm guitar. In a break with tradition, the drums weren’t recorded with the usual AEA R88 stereo ribbon microphone. Instead, I stuck a single Pearlman TM-LE in front of the snare and double-tracked it.
The howling and barking at the end of the song was an outgrowth of being in a goofy mood, and something of a tribute to Johnny Smith’s wild days as a wolf-like creature. At one point I hoped to get some horn players going crazy over that part, but again, by the time I was recording this one I was through with bringing anyone else into the studio. I figured I could either pick up the bugle and throw in some good old-fashioned drunken elephant flatulence, or I could bark like a dog.
I chose to bark. I think you’ll agree it was the only logical choice.
I was messing around on a guitar one afternoon when this happened:
The idea was to have Michael Stone play trombone on this song and another one called “Chivalry’s Ghost” — a weird little thing built around a throbbing circuit-bent Casio SK-1 rhythm and some gnarled vocal samples. Of the two, I thought “Chivalry’s Ghost” was the song most likely to end up on the album.
Michael came over and bolstered both tunes with some great jazzy multi-tracked trombone. It was a lot of fun working with him and kicking ideas around. He even got up to some notes I didn’t know were accessible on such a low-register instrument, flirting with trumpet territory.
This is the only example in my entire body of work where you’ll hear me really getting crafty with the editing of a performance and shifting it around. It isn’t something I plan on doing again, but there’s a recurring four-note trombone melody that comes in during the main chunk of the song, and when I was working on the mix I decided I wanted to hear it repeat a few more times. The only way to make that happen was to copy and paste it.
I assume doing this is pretty straightforward if you’re working with a modern DAW. With the Roland VS-1680, not so much. You don’t get to look at a waveform or choose where you want to place something on a timeline. You have to select the precise time you want the phrase to start based on guesswork, and then you have to hope your guess is right. It’s a bit of a blind fumble. Took me a lot of failed attempts before I got it right.
I also took one specific little bit I liked from the instrumental break and brought it back later just to see what would happen if I dropped it into a completely different part of the song. It worked out so well, it was a little bit nuts.
The more I sat with it, the more “Chivalry’s Ghost” started to sound like filler. “A Star Is Stillborn” had a lot more going on. I couldn’t seem to finalize the arrangement, though. I got down acoustic guitar, bass, a vocal track, a rough piano track, and aside from Michael’s trombone tracks, that was it.
I was never happy with the acoustic guitar sound I captured for this one. I used my Martin 000-15. I love that guitar. It’s opened up a lot in the eight years I’ve had it, and I think it’s shed some of its initial brightness and developed a nice, mature voice. But I’ve come to rely on it more for accents and secondary parts. It can sound a little dry and thin sometimes if I try to build a whole song around it. I prefer the 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 for this song half a decade after I recorded them, the acoustic guitar part wasn’t doing it for me at all. It wasn’t just the sound that bothered me. The performance was flat. It sounded like I was trying to avoid hitting an ugly note instead of letting go and expressing something through the instrument. So I junked it, plugged in the Telecaster, and rebuilt the entire arrangement around electric guitar. Everything started to feel more dynamic right away.
The bass track was good enough to keep. Almost everything else went in the trash. I ditched the piano and recorded some Fender Rhodes in its place. I recorded drums, the 1977 Takeharu WTK-65H twelve-string acoustic guitar that’s become a bit of a secret weapon, replaced all the vocal tracks with fresh performances, bounced all the trombone tracks down to a stereo sub-mix to make my life a little easier, and threw in a bit of lap steel for good measure.
This is another one of those songs that goes out of its way to subvert anything resembling a traditional verse/chorus structure. The instrumentation shifts a fair bit as well, with different elements coming and going, and the time signature moves from 7/4, to 6/4, to 4/4, to free time. The only straightforward part from a mixing standpoint was the final piano-and-strings section, which is kind of striking in its starkness compared to the rest of the song.
As with “Oxygen Damage Due to Lack of Brain”, I was ready for a difficult mixing experience. Again, I almost fainted when I listened to my rough mix in a few different settings and realized I only needed to make a few small adjustments. That doesn’t happen very often with songs like this. It almost always takes me at least a few mixes to get things right, or as right as I’m going to get them. The second mix, which wasn’t much different from the rough pass, became the final mix.
The day Karen came in to play cello on “Freedom as a Child”, I asked her if she would be up for doing some improvising as well. I played her my piano track for what became the instrumental coda, she played along, and then I had her add a second track as a reaction to her first take. At the time, I drenched both cello tracks in my favourite ping-pong delay effect. After a while I came to prefer the raw sound without any trickery, so I stripped away the effects when I was putting together the final mix. I did use that delay effect on the trombone tracks, though.
Here’s an out-take from Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories) that shows some of the horn parts being recorded.
Taking six years to finish an album has its perks. One of them is having the luxury of allowing songs to take their time working out what clothes they want to wear.
The basic tracks for this one were recorded in September of 2014. I tried finalizing the arrangement a year later, but the VSS-30 vocal samples and processed Fender Rhodes I added to the mix felt like they were fighting against the spirit of the song. I didn’t figure it all out until 2019, when I recorded more acoustic guitar, six-string banjo, drums, ditched the vocal samples, and replaced the Rhodes with acoustic piano. Without that five-year grace period, the song wouldn’t have made it onto the album, and I’m not sure if I ever would have finished it to my satisfaction.
Writing for male voices other than my own isn’t something that’s ever held much appeal for me, outside of working with Steve and writing some things for Johnny Smith way back when. But one male voice I knew I wanted to involve in this album was Ron Leary’s. I wrote two songs with him in mind. Both of them wanted to come out pretty short.
He was open to singing either one of them. I decided I liked “Firecrackers” best, so we went with that one. It was a little lower in Ron’s range than he was used to singing. As luck would have it, he told me he’d been drinking whiskey the night before the recording session and the mild hangover made it easier to get down to those low notes.
Ted Hogan played the sax solo over the instrumental break. We recorded somewhere around half a dozen takes. The last one was probably the best of the lot, at least on a technical level, but we both agreed the second-last take had something a little bit special about it. That’s the one you hear on the album.
I gotta tell you, I’ve never been too crazy about fireworks. I thought they were kind of pretty to look at when I was a kid. That was about as far as it went. As an adult, I don’t see them as much more than expensive noisemakers. But I know most folks enjoy them for one reason or another. And some people have just seen too many Michael Bay movies and have developed a fetish for things that explode.
A normal person will buy some firecrackers and set them off on the fourth of July or Memorial Day. We’ve got someone living in this area who left “normal” far behind a long time ago. Just this year, he used Memorial Day as an excuse to set off firecrackers every night for two weeks in a row. Since then, he’s taken periodic breaks, only to start up again at random. Sometimes he’ll do it for a week at a time. Sometimes two or three. Sometimes just a few nights.
I say “he” because I’m assuming we’re dealing with an idiot who has a penis. But I guess you never know.
It’s bad enough that the guy does this all the time. What makes it worse is how he does it. Most of us who live on planet earth will buy some firecrackers, wait until it gets dark, light them, and then go inside. Not this dude. He’ll light one firecracker. He’ll wait five minutes, ten minutes, maybe half an hour. Then he’ll light another one. He never sets off more than a few at a time. There’s no rhythm or logic to it. Something that should only last thirty minutes ends up stretching out for two or three hours. Sometimes he even starts before it gets dark.
There’s only one scenario that makes sense to me: he’s making his own firecrackers in his garage. He puts one together, takes it out into the back yard when it’s ready, lights it, and then heads back in the garage to continue the process until he runs out of materials.
It’s pretty far-fetched, I know. But I can’t come up with any other explanation. I’ve never heard anyone set off firecrackers in such a stupid way in my life.
You’d think at some point this person would run out of firecrackers, run out of money to buy firecrackers, or get tired of doing the same moronic thing every night. But apparently childish, mundane things can retain their appeal forever if your brain is small enough. I mean, this is a guy who will set off a single firecracker some nights just because he can.
I’m not even going to get into how useless the City of Windsor is when you try to get them to enforce their own bylaws (because, hey, it’s ILLEGAL to do this shit when it isn’t a recognized holiday). I’ve been lucky enough to keep my sleep in check through all of this, but loud pops and bangs aren’t my favourite thing to listen to when I’m trying to wind down at night. The absence of any sane pattern to their detonation makes it a lot more frustrating. You never know if or when the next one is coming. For the last week or two it’s been quiet, and I’ve enjoyed the break, but I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last. I’m so used to hearing those firecrackers now, some nights I hear them when they’re not even there.
This was happening as far back as six years ago. The first time I heard the mysterious idiot making love to his tiny explosive devices, there was snow on the ground and it was the middle of the afternoon. I assumed he was drunk. Inspired by what I thought was a freak occurrence, I grabbed a guitar and wrote “Firecrackers”. Those were more innocent times.
At least I got a song out of the guy. But some nights I think I’d trade the song for some peace and quiet.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this complicated thing called “legacy”. What I keep circling back to isn’t the work an artist leaves behind, but rather what happens to that work when they’re no longer around to decide for themselves how it’s going to be disseminated. One of the first substantial blog posts I ever wrote touched on this subject.
It’s a sad truth that most of the decisions made by someone’s estate aren’t driven by a desire to honour the work and wishes of the artist in absentia. The question that guides almost every action is: “How much money can we make through questionable means?” Scraping the bottom of the barrel would be one thing. More and more, what we’re seeing is the barrel being ground down into wood chips, marketed, and sold.
There are more examples of this sort of thing than I could ever hope to touch on. Here are just a few highlights.
Mary Guibert, Jeff Buckley’s mother, took some heat for releasing Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk after Jeff’s death when the album was far from finished. Instead of asking any of the surviving members of his band for their input, she asked Chris Cornell for advice when he and Jeff were, at best, distant acquaintances. In the liner notes, she reproduced a personal note Jeff wrote to Bob Dylan when it had nothing to do with either man’s music, but never mind that. While it wasn’t the album Jeff would have released, there was enough good material there to make the argument that it deserved to see the light of day.
It didn’t end there, though. First there were a number of live albums Jeff probably never would have signed off on. There were remastered and repackaged “legacy editions” of the lone full-length album and EP he released in his lifetime. There was Songs to No One, a collection of demos and live recordings made with Gary Lucas. There was a note attached to the tapes on which Jeff wrote “DISGUSTO GARBAGE”, making it pretty clear how he felt about the music. Overdubs were added to some of the tracks without his involvement. There were best-of collections — borderline offensive, given Jeff’s slim recorded legacy. There were out-takes compilations. There was a shameless Record Store Day cash-in that by all accounts was the victim of a botched vinyl pressing job. Today you can even read Jeff’s diaries and browse his private record collection.
Short of exhuming her son’s corpse and auctioning it off in pieces, I’m not sure what’s left for Mary to profit off of. But I’m sure some garish opportunity will present itself. After all, the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Grace is only five years away. How about remastering it yet again to make it even louder and more compressed, so whatever dynamic range the music once possessed is obliterated, and tacking on two “alternate mixes” that use a different snare sample? That’s worth at least thirty bucks a pop, isn’t it?
And who could forget Greetings From Tim Buckley — a “dramatization” of Jeff’s performance at a tribute concert for his father in 1991 that tosses in an imaginary love interest just for shits?
Director Daniel Algrant said, “The concert is true. The rest is fictionalized and conjecture. I really tried to be as emotionally honest as I could be, as opposed to having to worry about truth.” And who could blame him? I mean, what filmmaker worth their salt would want to concern themselves with something as inconvenient as the truth when they’re presenting a story that purports to have some basis in reality? So what if there are recordings of the concert documenting exactly what Jeff said to introduce the songs he played? Fuck that! Just make up some dialogue that has nothing to do with the words that really came out of his mouth so you can create a more cinematic moment, completely negating your flimsy argument that your portrayal of the live event is “true”. That’ll jack up the emotional honesty something fierce! And let’s take what was a very difficult and emotional experience for a young man wrestling with some complicated feelings for a father he barely knew, and shove it to the side in favour of an imagined relationship with a manic pixie dream girl. MTV Movie Awards, here we come!
Ted Hughes burned — or claimed he burned — Sylvia Plath’s final journal as soon as he learned she’d committed suicide. He erased her final words from existence and justified it by saying he didn’t want her children to read what she’d written. The more you read about the esteemed Ted and how he treated the women in his life, the more you start to think maybe he destroyed that journal because it recorded some uncomfortable truths about the kind of human being he was. In this light, his view of “forgetfulness as an essential part of survival” takes on a sinister edge.
Though he derided fans of his late wife’s work for perpetuating what he called “the Plath Fantasia”, much of the blame for creating that image rests with him. He altered the shape of her final collection of poems, Ariel, in a pretty profound way by removing twelve of the pieces she selected for inclusion, adding twelve of the poems she omitted, and ignoring the sequence she assembled in favour of his own. You could make a case for his keen editorial sense creating a stronger book, but it wasn’t the book Sylvia wanted to publish. He reshaped her work to suit his own sensibilities. Ariel wasn’t released as its writer envisioned it until 2004, more than forty years after her death.
Did Sylvia Plath struggle with serious depression? Sure she did. But that wasn’t the only quality she possessed as a human being. Many of the people who claim to appreciate her work reacted with righteous indignation when a photograph of her wearing a bikini and smiling was unearthed and used as the cover image for a recent collection of her letters. Here’s an image that spits in the face of the myth of Sylvia Plath as the human personification of impenetrable misery, and it’s been met with some pretty stiff resistance when it should be embraced as a necessary rejoinder to the one-dimensional image others have projected onto her for too long.
This woman wasn’t an idea. She was a person, with all the attendant complications and contradictions. To think of her as anything less is reductive, misguided, and it minimizes who she was and what she was able to accomplish in spite of the debilitating mental illness that killed her.
At least you can read her surviving journals — the ones Ted Hughes didn’t destroy or suppress. You can also read Kurt Cobain’s journals. Courtney Love published them in 2003 after redacting all the unflattering things he wrote about her. In many ways, Courtney and Yoko Ono have set the template for how an estate should go about desecrating the memory of the artist it claims to represent. They’ve both spent decades releasing a slow, steady trickle of “previously unreleased” work, never pausing to consider whether or not it has any artistic value, and they’ve mastered the art of lining their pockets while holding onto the interest of a fickle public.
We live in a world where a person can buy a Kurt Cobain action figure. Think about that for a second.
It’s easier to account for the release of Fragments, a collection of Marilyn Monroe’s private musings, poetry, and letters. Instead of perpetuating the idea of Marilyn as a one-dimensional sex symbol, it reveals the troubled, thoughtful, three-dimensional person she really was. But it’s difficult to reconcile the desire to know more about an iconic figure with their right to retain some amount of privacy and dignity in death. When we’re allowed access to material like this, it can reframe someone’s art and create a deeper understanding of what made them who they were. But are we entitled to it? Do we really need to know about someone’s secret sexual attraction to sewer grates, or their compulsive nose-picking habit, or what they thought about some infomercial they saw on television once at 3:42 in the morning when they were high on amphetamines and nursing a urinary tract infection?
I think some things aren’t meant to be known or understood. No matter how much you learn about another person, on some fundamental level they’ll always remain a mystery to you. That’s just a part of life. All we really have is the sum total of what we think we know of another person. This is probably why it’s so engrossing to read private thoughts that were expressed with the belief that no one would ever be privy to them. It’s as close as you can get to walking around inside someone else’s mind with a visitor’s pass around your neck.
That doesn’t make it right.
From a Basement on the Hill is one of my favourite Elliott Smith albums. I wouldn’t want to be without it. And still, there’s no escaping the knowledge that it isn’t the album Elliott wanted people to hear. It isn’t finished. Songs that were finished and were supposed to be on the album were deleted because his estate (there’s that dirty word again) didn’t like the way they came off in those songs. Can you imagine having the nerve to edit someone’s work after they’re gone in order to paint a more flattering picture of yourself? It’s ludicrous. And it happens all the time.
I can understand doing your best to assemble someone’s unfinished scraps into something cohesive when they’re no longer around to tell you how everything is meant to fit together. If it’s a labour of love and you’re doing the best you can to honour the artist and the work they didn’t have enough time to see through to the end, it can be a rewarding project for everyone involved. But there was at least one person who did know what Elliott had in mind for this album. David McConnell recorded a great deal of the material that ended up on From a Basement on a Hill. The two men had a number of long conversations about which songs were going to make the cut, how they were going to be mixed, and what the overall shape of the thing was supposed to be.
He wasn’t consulted when Basement was being compiled after Elliott’s death. Elliott’s family hired Rob Schnapf and Joanna Bolme to assemble the final product. Rob co-produced some of Elliott’s other albums, so he had some insight into his artistry, but to disregard all the insights of the person who recorded most of the songs because “he was kind of an asshole” doesn’t cut it for me. One of the songs that made it onto the album isn’t even an Elliott Smith song! It’s one of David’s random sonic experiments. A quick phone call or an email would have cleared that right up. Instead, Rob and Joanna threw it on the album assuming it was Elliott’s work, and now it’s a part of that album when it was never supposed to be there. There’s also very little in the way of musician credits in the liner notes. I bet David McConnell could have helped to clear that up too.
Like I said, I think it’s a great album. “King’s Crossing” is one of the few songs that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time I listen to it. “Let’s Get Lost”, “Twilight”, and “Little One” are three of the most beautiful things Elliott ever wrote. “Shooting Star” is monumental. And you couldn’t ask for a better closing track (or a better song title) than “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free”. But it’s all marred by some pretty careless shit imposed on the work by people who could have and should have done a lot better. Their shoddy work does a disservice not only to Elliott, but to the person he trusted as his last collaborator.
Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon documented almost every waking moment of the last five years of his life with a camcorder. After a very long wait and a lot of unhappy Kickstarter backers who never received what they were promised in exchange for their financial support, Shannon’s footage — all two hundred and fifty hours of it — has been edited down to a taut one-hundred-and-two minute film, and it’s been released in “virtual theatres” as All I Can Say. You can’t buy a copy. The best you can do right now is “rent” it online for a few days.
Like most people, my introduction to Blind Melon was the song “No Rain”. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t inspire me to dig any deeper into the band’s discography. I didn’t know anything about them. I assumed they were just another 1990s one-hit-wonder with nothing of substance under the hood. Gord let me borrow Nico on cassette tape in early 2002, but I didn’t get much mileage out of it.
Gord’s parents were out of town one weekend in March of that year. He celebrated by throwing a wild party. He got three or four different bands to play at his house and invited all his friends. His living room became a drunken mosh pit. One of the partygoers stole Tyson’s seven-string Ibanez electric guitar, though no one noticed it was missing until the following day.
While everyone else was drinking themselves into oblivion, Gord and I were buzzed on E. We were the last men standing at the end of the night. It was about three in the morning when we sat down in the living room, which was a mosh pit no longer, and Gord slid Letters Form a Porcupine into his VCR.
I was gobsmacked. Turned out Blind Melon were a whole lot more than just “No Rain”. They got lumped in with the alternative/grunge movement of the mid-90s, but they didn’t really fit into that scene. They threw folk, southern rock, psychedelia, and dixieland jazz into the blender and came up with a sound that was all their own. As a band, they built their songs on a bedrock of intricate musical interplay, which is something you don’t hear a whole lot of in this era of soulless “fix it in the mix” shortcuts. And in Shannon Hoon they had a magnetic lead singer capable of both great power and great subtlety.
Watching that quasi-documentary with one of my best friends, coming down as the sun came up, was something akin to a spiritual experience. I went out and bought every Blind Melon album the next day. Soup was the one I kept coming back to. It was a great friend during a pretty dark time in my life. I still think it’s one of the great unsung albums of the 1990s.
Given all of that, you’d think I would jump at the chance to sample what went on in Shannon’s mind. But I’m on the fence about watching All I Can Say. I’m not sure anyone should be allowed to edit the raw material of someone else’s life into what they feel is an acceptable narrative. At some point, I think you need to either make everything available as it is, or release nothing at all. I also question the decision (based on what I’ve read) to include very little music in the film. The excuse is that it was too expensive to get the rights to the songs the filmmakers wanted to use. You raised well over a hundred thousand dollars during your Kickstarter campaign, the footage you’re editing has already been filmed for you, and you’re prepared to live with a relative paucity of music in a film about someone who made music their whole world because you don’t want to use someone else’s money to cover the very expenses it was supposed to help offset? Really?
It doesn’t just call into question the integrity of the filmmakers. It makes me wonder about the surviving band members. If they own the rights to their music, they’ve put the desire to make money above their own singer’s posthumous film project. If it’s an issue with the record label demanding a huge payday in exchange for a few minutes of music being used in a film they know isn’t going to be a serious money-maker, it confirms everything I already believed about the borderline criminal nature of the music industry. Either way, I’m not sure I want to throw my fifteen bucks into the hat so I can participate in the grand parade of lifeless packaging (thank you, Peter Gabriel).
I could go on forever, but I think the best illustration of this very slippery slope might be the case of Vivian Maier.
Vivian worked as a nanny in Chicago for almost four decades. During that time, she took more than a hundred thousand pictures of the people and buildings around her. She never showed those pictures to anyone.
In 2007, her negatives, prints, sound recordings, and reels of film were auctioned off when she wasn’t able to keep up payments on the storage space she was renting. Three men who fancied themselves photo collectors bought some of her work without knowing anything about who she was or what they were getting. One of those men was Ron Slattery. He shared some of the photographs on the internet in the summer of 2008, but there wasn’t much of a response.
After Vivian’s death in 2009, John Maloof — one of the other men who purchased her work — uploaded a number of her photographs to Flickr and linked them to a post on his own blog. The post went viral. What followed was the “discovery” of Vivian Maier, complete with international mainstream media coverage, gallery exhibitions, books, and documentary films, all curated by Mr. Maloof.
There was just one problem. Vivian Maier never wanted to be discovered.
She made no effort to call any attention to her photography in her lifetime. She took pictures because it was something she loved to do — something she needed to do. Many of her negatives were left undeveloped. What does that tell you?
Her photographs are remarkable. But is it right for someone who had no connection to her in life to decide how those photographs are presented, or if they’re presented at all, now that she isn’t here to speak for herself? Is it right for him to make money off the back of her work and her story? Do you think she would appreciate the way he’s turned her into something of a circus sideshow attraction — the weirdo hermit nanny who was secretly a master photographer — while inserting himself into the narrative at every opportunity? One thing’s for sure: Vivian Maier isn’t benefitting from any of this, and there’s some pretty damning evidence to support the idea that it would have made her feel uncomfortable, if not outright violated.
Let’s imagine for a moment that I’m going to die in a tragic beard-trimming accident thirty years from now. Let’s assume I won’t have any surviving family or friends to serve as custodians of the music I’ve left behind. Through some twist of fate, let’s say a stranger gains access to all of my recordings, written work, and video footage. They immerse themselves in it. They learn about who I was and what I tried to do. They decide the world needs to hear my music. It doesn’t matter to them that I went out of my way to put a very hard ceiling on how many people the music was capable of reaching while I was alive. Since I’m no longer around to protect my own work, they remaster, repackage, and sell my albums, they drum up some media attention for themselves, they make a hip documentary that emphasizes how “eccentric” and “enigmatic” I was, they hold tribute concerts populated with musicians who can’t even be bothered to learn my songs and are more interested in the free publicity than my music, they write books about me, they take credit for discovering me, they present themselves as the world’s expert on my life and work, and they laugh all the way to the bank.
I don’t believe anything like this will ever happen. Even if the person who took control of my estate was a marketing genius, I doubt my music would appeal to a broad enough audience to make them any significant amount of money. At best, I’d be a strange footnote, kicking up a bit of dust on a few obscure music blogs before fading back into obscurity. You’re never going to get a Johnny West album reviewed on Pitchfork or The A.V. Club no matter who you buy flowers or glow-in-the-dark contraceptives for.
But if it did happen, it would be a grotesque insult to everything I worked so hard to build for myself. I would come back to life and murder that person for messing with my work, no matter how good their intentions might have been. It still bothers me knowing someone once sold a few of my albums to Value Village and a few dollars changed hands there, because my music is not a product. It won’t ever be for sale in my lifetime, and if I have my way, no one will be paying a cent for it after I’m gone.
I feel the same way about Vivian Maier. I’m glad I got to see some of her photographs, but I don’t think my personal enjoyment — or anyone’s — is worth the affront to her artistry and integrity. If I’d been the one to inherit a pile of her work, I would have considered it a gift and kept it to myself out of respect for what she would have wanted. I would hope anyone discovering my music and stumbling into a position of power over it would possess enough humanity to make the same decision.
It’s a good joke, isn’t it? If given an opportunity to profit off of the work of someone who isn’t in a position to stop them, most people will perform whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to convince themselves they’re doing the right thing. They’ll use your photographs in an ad campaign for arsenic-laced e-cigarettes, and they’ll stick your heartfelt songs in a glorified snuff film if they think it’ll help them make a buck.
With all of this in mind, I wrote “Your Music in Commercials After You Die”.
I get a kick out of this being one of the snappiest tunes on the album, because it’s married to some of the most acerbic lyrics I’ve written. It got even catchier half a year after I wrote it. I started playing a completely different riff on an electric guitar, tried singing these lyrics on top of it, and found I liked the words a whole lot better in the context of this new music.
If you spend some time with the lyric booklet, you might notice a credit for “eleven-string acoustic guitar” popping up in a few places. That’s the aforementioned Takeharu hunk of crap. After all these years, it still doesn’t like to stay a twelve-string for too long. One of the high strings will always break at some random moment. It’s almost as if the instrument is hellbent on asserting its indomitable dickishness.
Since it’s lived as a ten or eleven-string for most of its life, I thought I might as well let it go its own way. After how perversely useful the guitar has proven itself to be, it’s earned the right to be a little difficult. As I’ve said before, it’s a very uncomfortable axe to play, and there’s nothing very special about the way it sounds on its own…and yet every once in a while it glues a song together like nothing else can.
I sent Lianne Harway a Facebook message five years ago when my search for local woodwind players led me to her. She never saw it. I’ve learned if you send a message to someone you’re not already Facebook friends with, it almost always gets stuffed into a secret spam folder somewhere deep in the ass crack of cyberspace.
About four years after my message to Lianne got lost in the shuffle, I wrote a song with a female singer in mind. The more I sat with the song, the more it started to feel like second-tier material. So I junked it.
I wrote at least half a dozen other songs, hoping to find one that jumped out at me. None of them did. I thought I had a good idea for a potential duet one night when I was cooking up some green beans. As soon as I sat down to work on it, all the inspiration disappeared.
Another song came out of nowhere when I wasn’t trying to make anything happen, and I thought, “This would be a good one to have her sing harmony on.”
A lot of my songs are directed at one “you” or another, though I’m not often singing to a real person anymore. With this one, I made an effort to turn away from that implied specificity, limiting myself to images and statements. There’s no “you” or “we” or “I” in there at all.
I recorded the thing and sang some placeholder harmonies. When the singer I was going to ask to sing those harmonies in my place revealed herself to be a pretty terrible person, I decided there was no reason to replace my vocal tracks with anything else and left them as they were. The chorus — if you can call it a chorus — was wordless. I just sang the vocal melody to take up space. I thought it had an almost Celtic feeling to it. What it needed to put it over the top was a flute stating the melody.
Before I deactivated my Facebook page, I asked my fake internet friends if anyone knew a flautist who might be interested in doing some session work. I didn’t expect anyone to acknowledge the question. Proving that social media is about as unpredictable as a naked meteorologist, recommendations came flooding in. One Facebook friend tagged Lianne.
Years after sending her a message that was never seen, I sent a friend request and a new message. This time I got through. Within a few weeks, she was over at the house replacing my wordless vocal melody with flute-shaped goodness.
I moved the Pearlman TM-1 in front of her, put it in omni, and was reminded for about the seven hundredth time how ridiculously versatile that microphone is. You’d think a high-register wind instrument like a flute would need some EQ to tame it, but no. A little kiss of reverb and it sounded just right — bright and lively without being harsh.
She came prepared. There were three sections of the song that wanted flute, with the first iteration of the melody subtly different from the final two. Within fifteen minutes of handing her a pair of headphones and getting the microphone in place, I had what I needed.
As happy endings go, that was a pretty unexpected one.
When I started programming rhythms on the Korg Volca Beats, there was one beat in particular that felt like it had the potential to turn into something compelling. I layered some sampled Wurlitzer on top of it, and after adding a few other VSS-30 samples I thought it was turning into a really cool atmospheric piece. All I had to do was write some lyrics and add some more things to enrich the soundscape.
I wrote a few sets of lyrics in an attempt to find something that worked with the music, but nothing felt right. I didn’t want to leave it instrumental, but nothing I sang had the effect I wanted. What I hoped would be a highlight of the album ended up on the junk heap. I still haven’t finished it.
The last time I revisited this half-formed song, it was the spring of 2019 and I was trying to come up with something new for Zara to sing on. I messed around with it some more but wasn’t able to accomplish much. After finishing and mixing “A Constellation of Conditions”, I noticed a single track sitting on its own, away from the rest of the song. It was one of the first rhythms I programmed on the Volca Beats in 2015. I had no memory of making it, but it had this strange, muted, ominous quality that made me wonder what I could build around it.
With that rhythm in my head, I sat down at the piano. After a few minutes I had the bones of a song.
The lyrics came without any coaxing. The song was pretty adamant about having a chorus. I made sure to at least mess with it a little so it didn’t repeat itself verbatim the same the second time around.
At the same time Zara was recording ARRIVING FOREVER, Ryan Lewis (owner/operator of RadSouls Studio) came over to record some piano and vocal tracks for one of his songs. For a while there, it seemed like I became the go-to guy for Windsor artists who wanted to record a real acoustic piano. At first it didn’t make much sense to me. I’m pretty sure at least two other local recording studios have acoustic pianos, and they’re probably going to get you a much more conventional and radio-ready sound than I am. Then I figured it out. I’m the only guy in town who will let you come over and use my piano, mics, and preamps without charging you any money. I also have a pretty great-sounding piano, and I keep it in tune.
This isn’t a service I’m going to be offering anymore. I’ve suffered through too much shitty music for my trouble, and most of the time my reward for helping other artists has been getting no credit for the use of my studio. Putting that aside, my piano shouldn’t have to experience the indignity of being played or recorded by people who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. It deserves better.
At least when Ryan was here I got to record the piano myself, so it didn’t come out sounding like a sterile, hyper-compressed pile of nothing. He told me to do whatever I wanted with the basic tracks. I added bass, drums, and a bunch of VSS-30 samples.
When I’m working on someone else’s music, sometimes I contribute ideas to their songs that I wish I’d saved for myself. It happened here. I used the VSS-30’s oversampling function to build up a mass of warped, lo-fi voices. Right around the time I was making a rough mix and realizing the vocal sample put the song over the top, I thought, “Damnit, I should have used this in one of my songs instead.”
I had that layered vocal sample in mind when I was working on “Cure for the Uncommon Cold”. I wanted to tap into something similar without repeating myself. I ended up creating a number of new vocal samples, all of them very different from the one I made for Ryan’s song. I also threw in some sampled Wurlitzer and piano, manipulated a few different ways.
One of the segments I cut from Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories) focused on some of the new tools I’ve accumulated over the last little while and how I’ve made use of them. I filmed the whole thing and recorded voiceover narration for it, but Sony Vegas crashed on me every time I tried to render the video. There was too much going on for the program’s middling amount of RAM to handle, and I didn’t have the patience to chop it up into pieces to make it work.
Here’s an excerpt from what was supposed to be a featured spot for the VSS-30.
And so, out of a fortuitous drum programming discovery came something resembling an EDM-tinged piano ballad. A song I thought was a sure thing never quite came together, while a song that didn’t exist created itself out of a bit of forgotten detritus. Funny how these things work out sometimes.
It took an insane amount of time and thought to figure out how to make an album out of all of this music, but this was the one time I got a bit of help from a serendipitous mistake. “Neon Roulette” was supposed to fall after “Cure for the Uncommon Cold”. I accidentally reversed the order of the two songs when I was putting together a rough assembly and found I liked the way they played off of each other even better in that sequence.
When it comes to overused and endlessly recycled film plots, “new teacher overcomes a rocky start and inspires students to become better versions of themselves” is second only to “underdog sports team somehow succeeds against all odds”. Coach Carter manages the neat trick of combining both tropes.
You’d expect Monsieur Lazhar to be more of the same after reading its synopsis (“Algerian refugee steps in to teach at a Montreal elementary school after sixth grade teacher commits suicide”). It isn’t. At all. It’s a small miracle of a film that sidesteps every potential cloying moment, trading in the usual reliable clichés for a series of deeper, messier emotional truths. If you have any appreciation for films that tell meaningful stories and don’t condescend to you by tying everything up in a neat little bow at the end, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
I was watching the film on television when what sounded like a celesta started playing on the soundtrack. My 1932 Washburn 5200 was hanging out in my bedroom at the time, so I grabbed it and began to play without knowing what was going to come back at me. I hit the record button on my Pentax point-and-shoot camera to document the moment. The sound quality was awful, which was par for the course with that camera, but I liked the way the celesta haunted the background for at least the first fifteen seconds, tracing out wraithlike melodies that were almost subliminal.
It made me think of Brian Eno and the story of what inspired his work in ambient music. In 1975, while recovering from injuries he sustained in a car accident, he was given an album of eighteenth-century harp music. A friend who was visiting him put the record on before she left. The volume was set so low, the rain outside was louder than the music. Too weak to get out of bed, he listened to “these odd notes of the harp that were just loud enough to be heard above the rain”.
“This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music,” he said, “as part of the ambience of the environment, just as the colour of the light and sound of the rain were parts of the ambience.”
I always wanted to make a proper recording of my little “guitar with incidental celesta” idea. I didn’t get around to doing that until the album was almost finished. Getting the acoustic guitar part down was easy. Working out what else to add was a little tricky. I didn’t want to settle for a synthesizer’s celesta simulation. I tried sampling synth celesta, with the VSS-30 held up to the speaker of my Clavinova digital piano, but it wasn’t quite right. I sampled a single glockenspiel note, stretched it out, and reversed it to get rid of the attack. That was the sound I was after. I took the few notes I could make out from the initial improvisation as a guide and went from there.
I needed a few more atmospheric touches. I recorded some leg slaps, but they sounded jarring in the context of this music. The recurring soft percussive sighing sound you hear is me breathing into the VSS-30. Sampled piano added a bit of weight to the ending. I wanted a clattering sound on top of that. Keys jangling? Too garish. A door closing? Not musical enough. Coins falling? Too random. I got the sound I wanted by dropping some cutlery in a half-full glass of water and sampling that.
The song title came from a carton of milk that really did expire on my birthday. I thought it was an amusing coincidence, and I wanted to commemorate it somehow.
This song was called “Maybe Everything That Mattered Didn’t Matter at All” until I woke up one day and realized the title had nothing to do with the substance of the thing. I’m all for giving songs names that are thought-provoking and not so obvious, but in this case “Feral” was more direct and a lot more honest about what was under the hood.
Before it fanned out into a full song, it was just a single verse.
As soon as I demoed it, I knew I wanted to get someone else to sing the harmonies. Throughout the process of making this album, I was much more interested in what a singer could bring to a song as a lead performer. Still, as much as I enjoy overdubbing my own voice, I wanted to hear what would happen if another singer was supporting what I was doing instead of the other way around. This was the only time I was able to make that happen, because unlike most of the other singers I reached out to, Kaitlyn Kelly was willing to show up.
Though she’s no longer in the band, Kaitlyn was one of the founding members of Middle Sister and the driving force behind the Sundays and Mondays Theatre Collective. She’s now living in Paris and doing great things in the spoken word community. I met her in 2013 when when she came by to add her voice to “Skipping Stone” and “Forgive Me” on the first Tire Swing Co. album. I liked her right away, and I thought her singing brought something really beautiful to those songs.
She was my first and only choice for this song. She made some time for me when she was in Windsor in January of 2015. I got down some basic tracks and recorded some placeholder harmonies of my own to give her something to work off of. She was really just singing the notes I’d already sung, but her voice brought something different into the mix, and she didn’t blink when I asked her to double-track the harmonies.
Two weeks later, Anthony Giglio was over at the house recording some flugelhorn.
I had this idea to thread something languid through the instrumental bridge section, though I didn’t have any specific melody in mind.
After we decided sustained notes were going to work best, Anthony used my little melodica idea as a springboard and played a few improvised takes, moving in and out of harmonic union with the rest of the piece. I took two different takes and stuck them on top of each other, creating some accidental moments of harmony and friction that were interesting to me.
And then that was pretty much it. For more than four years, the song sat in unfinished form. There was a solid foundation — acoustic guitar, bass, vocals, and flugelhorn — but I had no idea what to build around those elements. It took me until March of 2019 to make up my mind to finish it one way or another, and it wasn’t a case of figuring out what I wanted to do as much as it was an admission that if I didn’t tackle it soon, I was never going to get it done.
I wasn’t expecting to add so much to the arrangement, but once I got going the ideas started flowing. In came piano, electric guitar, backwards electric guitar, drums, Omnichord, SK-1 organ over the bridge section, and a degraded El Capistan guitar loop I flew in as an ambient coda.
I filmed every step of the recording process (minus the outro), but by the time I started editing the raw footage I knew my DIY documentary was in danger of tiptoeing past the three-hour mark. My concern wasn’t making a film that was too long for anyone else’s taste. I wanted to be able to enjoy watching it myself without losing interest. I also didn’t want to give away too much of what was on the album, in case there were some people who watched the documentary before they listened to YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. It felt like this was going to be one musical segment too many, so I snipped it out.
One thing I wasn’t expecting Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories) to document was the slow expansion of my waistline. As a viewer, you get to watch the skinny Johnny West of the GWD days evolve into a chunky wildebeest with an untamed beard. I was able to hide my weight gain to at least some degree by wearing looser-fitting shirts, but in some places it’s impossible not to notice the extra pounds.
Nothing that made it into the documentary is as bad as the drum recording footage in the video clip for this song. When I was doing my final edit yesterday, I was kind of shocked by the size of my gut. As embarrassing as it was, it gave me a deeper appreciation for just how much weight I’ve lost over the last eleven months. You won’t ever see me carrying around a spare tire like that again.
More about that some other time.
Zara is responsible for this song’s visual art. She’s one of only two people to contribute to the album as both a performer and a visual artist. I came across a drawing she posted on Facebook of a naked woman with the head of a beast. Something about it resonated with me. I asked her if she would be willing to draw something like that for my album. I thought it would play well off of “Lullaby for Unborn Child”. She drew me a woman with a deer’s head, but as much as I liked it, I couldn’t shake that first image.
I went with the drawing that hooked me in the first place, making it the only piece of art in the booklet that wasn’t created as a specific reaction to the music. After sitting with it for a while, I thought it made much more sense to have it serve as a visual accent to this song instead of “Lullaby for Unborn Child”.
An interesting thing happens at the very end of the body of this song, right before the chewed-up guitar loop kicks in. When I sing, “Ain’t no ending yet,” all the vocal tracks are my own. Then Kaitlyn comes back in, but this time only one of the harmony tracks is hers. The other one is mine. For those last three repetitions of “I know” that trail off, it’s just me on my own again. Because of the way the vocal tracks were recorded and panned, this has the effect of creating a gradual narrowing of the stereo field. It’s best heard on headphones, but I think even if you’re listening to the song on speakers you can still feel something shifting there.
I woke up one day without the ability to yawn. There was a sharp pain on the left side of my chest that put a hard limit on how much breath I could draw. Like any reasonable person, I grabbed a tenor banjo and wrote a bluegrass song for my left lung, thinking if I sang to it maybe I could work out why it was giving me a hard time.
The next day I was able to yawn without any difficulty. The pain never came back. Maybe I just slept funny.
I recorded the tenor banjo part, added acoustic guitar, mandolin, bass, and a vocal part, and then I left it alone for a long time. I figured the song wasn’t album material anyway, so it didn’t really matter.
Late in the game, I revisited it to see if I could make anything out of it. After layering three-part harmony through the whole thing, I started reconsidering my decision to relegate the song to the out-takes pile. The eleven-string Takeharu piece of crap helped thicken things up a little more, but the elusive final touch came from an instrument I’d never been able to record to my satisfaction before.
I bought a kalimba from the Green Earth store at the Devonshire Mall (remember that place?) in 2009. I figured out a tuning I liked, and I wrote a song on the kalimba that was supposed to appear on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, but I could never figure out where to place the microphone to get a good balance between the resonance of the notes and the attack of my fingernails on the tines.
I first played the little two-note melody that snakes through this song on the Fender Rhodes. It was a little too soft, so I tried the kalimba. I didn’t give much thought to mic placement this time. I just didn’t get too close. I got the sound I wanted the first time out. Had to change the recording speed a little because I wasn’t willing to retune the kalimba. I used it as an excuse to warp the pitch of my voice at the very end for a moment of levity.
When I was recording ambient mood pieces in search of something I could thread Zara’s voice into, one idea stood out by a proverbial mile. I kept adding bits and pieces to it. Over time I came to understand how much more effective it was without any lyrics. Sampled Wurlitzer was the basis for everything, as it was with all the other ambient pieces I didn’t pursue, and this is another one of my favourite examples of using the oversampling function on the Yamaha VSS-30 to create overlapping vocal harmonies. There’s just something emotionally resonant in that sound.
Like the Casio SK-1, the VSS-30 only has a mono output. I like to create the illusion of stereo movement by double-tracking a sample, reversing the second track, engaging the vibrato effect (which is really more of a slow chorus), and panning both tracks out pretty wide. You can get some fun spatial things happening this way.
Here’s another clip from that unedited video segment about tools and toys, in case you’re curious about how some of these sounds are made.
Even after the song was finished, I could feel something was missing. As luck would have it, I had a little piano idea that was in the same key. I thought it was going to be a little too similar to “Your Dishrag Soul” if I tried to turn it into a song in its own right, so I threw it in here as an instrumental postscript.
The pastor in the title is the same person GROWING SIDEWAYS was written about (along with a decent chunk of WHO YOU ARE NOW IS NOT WHAT YOU WERE BEFORE). She had a difficult relationship with her parents. They never approved of the life she chose to lead. They were deeply religious, and she grew up resenting them for weaponizing their Christianity and using it against her. She wanted to get as far away from that world as she could.
When I heard she became an ordained minister, I thought it was an ironic twist even the best fiction couldn’t invent.
I’ve yet to watch True Detective beyond the first episode of the first season. I did read a bit about the show while it was airing. Some fatalistic thoughts started bouncing around in my head, and I wrote an imaginary theme song for a show I’d never seen.
When I caught that first episode on television, I was confronted with an opening song that was quite a bit different from my own bluesy creation.
Not knowing those two singers were husband and wife, or that he wrote the music and she wrote the words — knowing nothing at all about The Handsome Family — what struck me was the male/female dynamic. If you want to know the truth, that was the precise moment I made up my mind to bring other singers into the album I was making, come hell or undrinkable tap water.
I dusted off the Kay Thin Twin again for this one, plugged it into the old Paul tube amp, and cranked it up for some serious grit. I filmed myself getting down the bare bones of the song — the electric guitar, bass, and lead vocal — and then forgot to film the rest. That’s a serious regret.
This was the first song of mine Kelly Hoppe ever played on. I wanted to make it a bit of a showcase for his harmonica playing, so I left him a lot of room to do his thing. His first take was great. His second take almost blew me out of the room. I felt like I was witnessing a masterclass in what the instrument can be made to do in the hands of a master.
That’s the take you hear on the album.
After Kelly took off, I recorded drums, tambourine, acoustic guitar, and some vocal harmonies. I tried adding some piano and Ace Tone combo organ. It didn’t work. I recorded some Wurlitzer electric piano. I wasn’t so sure that worked a whole lot better than the piano and organ tracks, and I couldn’t figure out what else the song needed, so I left it alone and let it stew in its own juices for a few years.
I dumped it back on the mixer one afternoon when Kelly came over to add a bit of harmonica to two songs on Ron Leary’s album MUSICIANS MAKE GREAT CONSTRUCTION WORKERS, just so he could hear what he’d done in the context of something resembling a finished piece. I was shocked to find the song didn’t need anything. It was fine the way it was. All I had to do was mix it.
I sent a rough mix to a friend who chastised me for letting Kelly “take over” the song. I think if you’ve got someone who can make a harmonica sing the way that guy can, you’re an idiot if you confine him to a few cute puffs and toots. I say nuts to that. Let the man wail.
It’s a challenge to find good things to say about some of the people who came into my orbit when I was putting this album together. Nancy Drew isn’t one of those people. She was eager to get involved from the moment I contacted her, and patient beyond all reason. Every time I think about her, I kind of want to hug her.
Nancy has a uniquely versatile voice. She’s leant it to projects as stylistically disparate as Luxury Christ, Citywide Vacuum, and ASK. There’s something in her singing that’s at once childlike and world-weary, if that makes any sense.
It took me more than a year to figure out what I wanted to ask her to sing on. I must have written a dozen different songs with her in mind. None of them had staying power. I wrote this one after thinking about how, when you’re a kid, hearing one of your parents say, “Your mother [or father] and I are very concerned about you,” can be the most horrifying thing in the world. As banal as those words are, they can mean anything. They can lead anywhere. I took them to an absurd, exaggerated, nightmarish place. Then I started thinking of treating the song as a duet, I thought of Nancy, and it all snapped into place.
I couldn’t record the bed tracks right away. A staple I didn’t see sticking out of a manila file folder tore the skin on my fretting thumb. It wasn’t a deep laceration, but it took a long time to heal. I wasn’t comfortable playing a lot of guitar while I was waiting for that skin to regenerate. “Lead Bullets” was recorded during this time, and if you look closely you can see the bandaid on my thumb in some of the studio footage in Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories).
I’m happy to say everything healed up just fine. It just took a little longer than I would have liked. I only wish I’d filmed the moment when we were both singing into the same microphone and I almost knocked the mic stand over before Nancy’s quick reflexes came to the rescue.
This is another song where the arrangement took a while to sort out. I built everything around a beat from the Maestro Rhythm King. Beyond electric guitar and bass, I wasn’t sure what to add. I recorded more than ten different drum tracks and none of them did the trick. After some time away from the song, I took a different approach behind the drums, playing with birch dowels instead of sticks for a thinner sound with a bit more bite. Then I added acoustic guitar, shaker, and some sampled piano (care of the VSS-30, as usual).
Jim Meloche illustrated this one. I love how it looks like the scenario outlined in the song is being relived as a childhood memory that time has bent into an image from a surreal imagined horror film.
Some songs fall out of the sky. This is one of them.
I was about to brush my teeth and get ready for bed when I picked up a Larrivée D-03 walnut acoustic guitar I don’t reach for as often as I should. I started strumming a few chords, started singing, “Wherever the lord may be,” and pretty soon I was working backwards from that point, trying to thing of different ways to build up to the question without a question mark. When I was finished, I had a gospel folk song that painted scenes of a gunfighter marching to his natural end in the Old West, the deathless power of songs sung while working on the land, and outlaw lovers given a hasty burial and a grudging eulogy.
I recorded some vocal harmonies over the choruses, but there wasn’t enough energy in them. I needed the sound of a group of people in a room. I learned the combination of Steve O-L, Dave Dubois, and Jim Meloche made for a great cross-section of voices when we recorded “Pave Over It All” and a song that didn’t make it onto SLEEPWALK. I thought that same group might do the trick again here. Steve wasn’t free the night we made plans to get together, so this time it was just Jim, Dave, and myself.
What was interesting to me was how tuneless the group vocals were. We didn’t really rehearse, and I was the only person who seemed to know what the vocal melody was. But once I threw two tracks of that on top of the existing vocal harmonies, everything opened up in a whole new way. There was the energy I was missing.
This is another one of the few “songs with actual choruses” on the album. When it feels right, it is right, and that’s all there is to it.
This is the story of a song I threw in the garbage only to watch it grow limbs and lift itself out of the trash.
I thought it would be fun to write an old-timey country waltz about a couple who’ve sold their souls to the devil to stay forever young and are coming to understand maybe it wasn’t such a wise decision. It isn’t always so easy, but sometimes you say to your brain, “Hey, I’d like to try doing something like this, even though it’s a bit of a change of pace,” and your brain says, “Cool beans. Let’s do it.” The song was finished in record time, and I recorded a rough GarageBand demo using my MacBook’s invisible built-in microphone.
I had a few ideas about who I was going to ask to play some country fiddle. In the meantime, I asked Darryl Litster if he’d be up for laying down some upright bass. He said sure.
I recorded some basic tracks. Couldn’t quite get the singing where I wanted it, but I figured I could always come back to that later. I was working on it the afternoon Darryl was supposed to come over when my mixer ate part of the song. In twenty years of running my Roland VS-1680 into the ground, this is the only time anything like that has ever happened.
I was working on the yodelling bit when I thought, “Hey, this specific chord sequence is only supposed to happen twice. Now it’s happening three times, and the first line of the next verse has disappeared. What’s that all about? Am I losing my mind here?”
I wasn’t losing my mind. The mixer’s hard drive decided to extend part of the bridge section and chop out four bars of the last verse to compensate. A portion of the song was just gone, and there was nothing I could do to bring it back. All the work I’d put into it had been for nothing. The whole thing was ruined.
When you’ve got someone coming over in less than an hour to play some upright bass on a song that’s turned itself into toast, you need to figure something else out in a hurry.
I thought of a song I’d thrown away called “Hollow Mast”. I couldn’t really tell you what was in my head when I wrote it. It uses a sailing vessel as a metaphor for…well, I’m not altogether sure what. A broken relationship, I guess. Whatever it’s about, mizzen-mast goes on the list of “words I never thought I’d find a place for in a song”.
The main reason I wrote the song was because I thought I might get lucky and convince Great Aunt Ida to sing harmony on it. I wanted to write something that would appeal to her, and this was what I came up with.
She read my Facebook message but never acknowledged or responded to it. So that was the end of that.
I tried to get someone local to sing on it. She seemed enthusiastic. Then she blew me off six million times. I tried another local singer. The same thing happened again. I got fed up, said, “To hell with this song,” and chucked it.
Now I was reaching for “Hollow Mast” as a last-minute backup because of its simplicity. It was only made up of a few chords. Where some of the other songs I wrote for the album jumped through a much more complex series of flaming hoops, this one left a lot of room to wander. There wasn’t anything in it that began to resemble a chorus, but the structure was a pretty straightforward ABAB form. The second time around, the A and B parts both doubled in length, and then there was a little C section that served as a turnaround (it was a little too brief to be a real bridge) before doubling back to the A part.
I wrote out the lyrics with the root notes so Darryl would have a bit of a road map. He came over. I gave him the news. We ran through the “new” song once with me singing, and then I stopped singing and we started recording.
Before I abandoned the song, I had a recording of it that was more or less complete. All it was missing was one or two little decorative touches.
I never thought of asking Darryl to record bass on top of the existing recording. It made more sense to start fresh.
We recorded piano and bass at the same time, with two Neumann KM 184s on the piano and the Pearlman TM-1 in omni and pointed at the bass. This is my favourite way to record upright bass. There’s something wonderful about the bleed that happens when the bass is inches away from the piano. And since you’re playing acoustic instruments that put out a lot of volume, there’s no need to monitor on headphones.
The first proper take was just a run-through. The second, third, and fourth takes were incomplete. The fifth take came out sounding pretty nice. The sixth and seventh takes broke down when I kept hitting a chord I didn’t want to hit. The eighth take was the one. It was perfectly imperfect. We could both feel it.
We could have kept attacking it. Maybe we would have had a better grasp on what we wanted to do and it would have sounded a little bit tighter after a few more takes. The tradeoff would have been losing the feeling of the music being alive in the act of discovering itself. I like being able to hear that search.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the first version of the song. Building the arrangement for the remake was a lot more inspiring, though. Without a steady rhythm clamping down on it, the music was free to stretch its legs, and it drew a richer vocal performance out of me. I only added a few small things — some electric guitar and a bit of brushed snare. Anything beyond that would have been too much. When it came time to record the vocal harmonies, I sang them myself.
The art that accompanies this song in the lyric booklet is something Christy Litster painted. Christy is Darryl’s wife. I didn’t plan for it to work out that way. It was one of those poetic things that fell into place all on its own.
If my mixer hadn’t thrown a wrench in the works, I don’t think I ever would have given “Hollow Mast” another look. Fate disguised as coincidence? Sometimes I think so.
This was just a little goof. I wasn’t going to put it on the album, but I tried throwing it in for fun when I was figuring out the sequencing. It worked a lot better than I expected it to as a mood piece in the late going, so it got to stay. Every sound you hear is a sample made with the VSS-30, except for the bass, which was played on the Arp Omni-2. When the bass section is engaged on its own, the irritating drone that creeps in the rest of the time takes a vacation.
One of my favourite moments on the whole album is that last repetition of the main vocal sample, where I’m singing “somehow” but it’s played very low on the keyboard so it comes out all grainy and slowed-down. You can read into that whatever you’d like.
I imagine the songwriting process is different for everyone. It’s different for me from one song to the next. Sometimes it happens in one sitting. Sometimes things come together piecemeal over a longer period of time. And sometimes pieces of songs change their shape and get absorbed into other songs.
This was a verse that could have grown into an acoustic guitar-based song. What happened instead was I sat down at the piano, started playing some chords, like the way those chords were sounding, started singing the lyrics for the little guitar thing I never finished, and discovered they worked much better in this context, serving as a hook instead of a typical verse. All I had to do was alter the tense. The end result is a far better song than anything I would have come up with if I didn’t deviate from what seemed to be the obvious way forward.
There’s a harmonica solo in this song, and I’m the person playing it. I never thought it would become an instrument I could get some valid sounds out of. Around the time of STEW, I started playing again after years of neglecting the harmonica. I stumbled onto a little more proficiency without spending a whole lot of time searching for it, figured out how to bend one note (how the Gods trembled with awe!), and it became a useful tool instead of just something I could blow into once in a while when I wanted to sound like a bad Bob Dylan caricature.
Dave Dubois gave me the ultimate compliment when I played him “West Coast Blues” off of AFTERTHOUGHTS for the first time and he assumed Kelly Hoppe was playing the harmonica parts. Kelly’s forgotten more things about the harmonica than I’ll ever know, and I’ll never even begin to approach his level of dexterity, but being mistaken for him felt pretty great.
While I like to think I’ve developed a voice on the piano that’s my own, there are a number of musicians who’ve had a pretty meaningful impact on the way I approach the instrument. John Cale’s urgent, percussive playing, Thelonious Monk’s jagged, angular chord voicings, the lyricism of Nicky Hopkins, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Kate Bush, Harold Budd’s haiku-like impressionism (especially in his work with Brian Eno), Nina Simone’s classical leanings, and Laura Nyro’s Brill Building/gospel/jazz amalgamations have all been a source of inspiration.
But if I could only listen to one person play piano for the rest of my life, my choice would probably be Bill Evans.
A lot of pianists have been inspired by Bill. No one else has ever sounded quite like him. For all the harmonic complexity built into his work, there’s an almost weightless, delicate quality to his playing that persists no matter how dense things get. For my money, his trio with Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro was responsible for some of the best piano-based jazz ever documented in audio form. The apex of their communion can be heard on The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961. There isn’t one second of inessential music in that three-CD box set. Even the version of “Gloria’s Step” that’s marred by a mid-song power failure is a thing of tarnished beauty.
Ten days after this music was recorded, Scott LaFaro was killed in a car accident. He was twenty-five years old. It’s impossible not to wonder what else that trio might have been capable of if he’d lived a while longer.
A fascinating companion piece to those 1961 recordings is another box set, Turn out the Stars, which collects Bill’s final performances at the Village Vanguard in 1980, this time with Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LeBarbara on drums. Bill said he felt this was the only band he had that could compare to the level of inventiveness and musical telepathy his trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian achieved. It’s easy to hear why he felt that way.
If the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings win on warmth and beauty, the 1980 recordings possess a startling amount of guts and invention. That luminous quality is still there in Bill’s playing, but it’s tempered with an almost frightening intensity. It’s as if he sensed time was running out, so he took everything he had in his head and heart and forced it through his fingers every time he sat down at the piano.
This performance was filmed even nearer to the end, five weeks before his death.
My plan was to show a bit of that video to Johnny Smith because I thought Bill looked so much like me it was kind of spooky. We ended up watching the whole thing.
Aside from the power of the performance, one of the things that struck me the most was his posture. I’ve always felt a little self-conscious about the way I slouch when I play piano. I know how you’re supposed to sit. I just can’t do it. I don’t feel connected to the instrument unless I’m leaning into it and engaging in some sort of meaningful physical communion with the thing.
Bill Evans had awful piano posture. Just like me. So maybe I’m not in such bad company.
After we finished watching the video, I sat down at the piano and started improvising. I was just inspired to play. I hit the record button and captured a few minutes of what I was doing. The next day I sat down and played a variation on the same themes. The second take was more confident and maybe a little cleaner, but something fundamental was missing. There was a probing quality to the first take I knew I wasn’t going to be able to recapture. Take one went on the album. Take two went on the out-takes pile.
As with the opening track, there were a number of songs I thought were going to close this album at one time or another. My ideas kept shifting until I landed on this one. On some level, ending with an improvised instrumental piano piece makes no sense, but I felt like it brought everything full circle. The piano was my first love. I think it’ll always be the instrument I feel closest to, and tracing out melodies on those black and white keys might be as close as I can get to transmitting something of my spirit to you through a spinning piece of plastic.
The final image in the booklet is a painting by Anthony Di Fazio. When I first shared some music with Anthony and asked if he would be willing to create some art for me, he said he was visualizing “a tree coming through the clouds with a wedding happening on the tree tops [and] vibrations coming from the sky”. Instead of a surreal wedding scene, he painted this oil on canvas piece that makes it look like the sky is not raining, but weeping. He named it “Tear Pound”.
I wanted to tie it in with a specific song, but nothing made sense, so I made it my parting shot. Now I’m not sure what else I might have put in its place. As with so many things, I can’t tell you why I think it works. I only know it feels right.
Maybe Magritte said it best: “The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.”
One of the most rewarding and frustrating things about making a film (if I can call the thing at the top of this post a film) is being forced to make thousands of small decisions about what footage you use, how much of it to use, what context to place it in, and how to edit it. Countless possible films exist inside of whatever raw material you’re working with.
Here are a few things I drew from to add more colour to Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories) but wasn’t able to include in their entirety.
I’ll leave you with this:
Making this album — and dealing with everything that grew out of it — put a lot of grey in my hair. In the three or four months that have passed since I finished and released YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, a significant amount of that grey hair has turned brown again.
Call it hysterical pigment loss if you like. I call it hair imitating life.
You’re probably getting sick of hearing about my video-related travails by now, but in the interest of being thorough I’m going to tell you how it all turned out.
When last we met, I’d just finished rendering every segment of a one-hundred-and-fifty-three-minute-long homemade documentary from scratch as a bunch of HD WMV files. After converting them to MP4s, I found there were still moments where the sound stuttered. Even though they were all 1920×1080 files, some segments featured video content that had a different aspect ratio within those dimensions (mainly MiniDV footage and some of the public domain stuff), and HandBrake decided to recognize the aspect ratio of that footage instead of the aspect ratio everything was rendered at. Since the characteristics of the individual files no longer matched, it became impossible to join them together and create one large file.
I took my higher-quality joined-together WMV file and tried re-encoding that as an MP4. I got fourteen glitches for my trouble. They didn’t show up in the same places they appeared in my original file, but they were still there.
I was running out of ideas when I thought of Bob at Unique Video Systems. That guy has been immersed in all things video for decades. If anyone was going to have a fresh take on the situation, it was him.
For the first time, I got someone on the horn who was willing to talk to me for more than ten seconds and prepared to offer advice beyond “just convert your file to an MP4” (which was the whole crux of my problem). He asked me some questions about Vegas, offered some suggestions, and said he knew someone who once taught the program at St. Clair College and might be able to lend some additional insight.
After talking to a guy at a computer place who told me I was wasting my time and I should give up on the whole thing — and this was the response I got when I offered to pay him to help me troubleshoot the problem — it was encouraging to have a conversation that imparted a different message.
One thing Bob suggested was checking to see if Vegas would let me make an AVCHD file. It did. Sort of. A ten-second test clip rendered just fine. Anything much longer than that and the program would crash on me. In a repeat of what happened ten years ago when I was first teaching myself how to use Vegas, I tried MOV files. They looked good but sounded like crap. I tried MPEG files. They sounded good but looked like crap. I didn’t try AVI files. An uncompressed AVI of this thing would have been impossible to work with. The file size would have been ridiculous.
I brought Bob my WMV file and asked if he could take a shot at making an MP4 out of it. Maybe he would have better luck than me. His system rendered an MP4 that was free of audio glitches…and in their place were a whole slew of visual glitches. Better still, the sound drifted way out of sync.
He told me this was a common problem, and the only way around it might be to go back to the timeline and re-edit the whole thing so each piece of video footage was an MP4 at the source. That wouldn’t just entail re-rendering the segments I stitched together to make a larger file. It would involve re-editing every single element I used to edit those segments, rebuilding the whole film from the ground up. If that was what it was going to take to lick this thing, I was prepared to cut my losses and walk around with a scowl on my face for the rest of my life. I’m stubborn, and I don’t like to give up on anything, but after a month of pounding away at this problem and getting nowhere I was ready to move on.
The only idea I had left was to try importing my Vegas files into a newer version of the program in the hope that I would then have access to better MP4 rendering settings. I downloaded a free trial version of Vegas Movie Studio Platinum 17. No way was I going to pay five hundred bucks for the Pro version if I had to buy it, and I thought it would be best to stick with the same lower-tier version I was already working with for maximum compatibility. A pile of other programs came bundled with the free download. When I tried to download the new version of Vegas on its own, the download helper crashed. When I tried to download everything in one go, I’d get all the programs I didn’t have any use for, and then Vegas would fail.
It was starting to look pretty hopeless. I’d tried everything I could think of and I was right back where I started. I couldn’t make an MP4 file at the source that didn’t look like crap, and I couldn’t convert my nice-looking WMV files to MP4s without something going wrong with the sound.
I always use the “Make Movie” menu to render my videos with Vegas. There’s a separate menu called “Render As”. I always assumed it was the same thing given a different name. I took another look at it for something to do. Guess what? Clicking on “Custom…” in the “Render As” menu lets you tweak a bunch of settings you don’t have access to in the “Make Movie” menu.
Now I know why all my MP4 files kept coming out looking like this:
The video bitrate is fixed at well under 2 Mbps even for the MP4 templates that claim to offer better resolution. That’s just mean. I bumped it up to 10 Mbps. The clouds parted. Birds started singing Puccini’s “Turandot”. I pulled it back down to 6 Mbps, which was right around where my HD WMV files were living, and didn’t notice any difference in quality. Then I created my own template tailored to the precise specifications Vimeo lists in their “Video Compression Guidelines”.
In case there’s anyone else out there who’s still using the buggy, maddening mess that is Vegas Movie Studio Platinum 9.0, if you’ve ever run into a similar problem these are the parameters that will set you free.
Save as type: Sony AVC (*.mp4; *m2ts; *avc)
Video rendering quality: Best
Video format: AVC Frame size: High definition (1920×1080) Profile: High Entropy coding: CAVLC Frame rate: 29.970 (NTSC) Field order: (whatever looks best to you) Pixel aspect ratio: 1.0000 Bitrate (bps): 6,000,000
This produces an H.264/AAC-compliant MP4 file that will hump the leg of Vimeo, YouTube, or any other video hosting website all day long. No glitches. No re-encoding necessary. You can raise the bitrate as high as you’d like. I set mine at 6 Mbps to keep the file sizes reasonable.
Not that my trouble ended there.
I had to re-render each segment of my video from scratch. Again. Vegas got even testier now that I was making MP4s that didn’t look like hot death. It was almost as if the program wanted to punish me for forcing it to do my bidding. Some of my segments had to be split into two or three even smaller segments in order to get them to render, and even then it was a crapshoot. Sometimes Vegas would crash at an arbitrary stage of the rendering process and I would have to trick it into getting over the hump the second or third time through. Sometimes no amount of trickery did any good. One bit of footage that had never been an issue before now wouldn’t render in black and white. Vegas decided it didn’t like a few of my still images anymore. When I replaced those images with video footage that ate up far more memory and processing power, it was fine. It made no sense.
My final concern was joining all the files together. There were now almost thirty of them, and I had to get creative with where some of the transition points were. Would Avidemux connect all those files so the seams between them didn’t show at all? Would the resulting Frankenstein file upload to Vimeo without incident?
Yes. Oh yes.
So now I have a version of this thing on Vimeo that’s stutter-free. A quick recap of what it took to get here:
Tried to edit the film as one unbroken thing but Vegas wouldn’t let me, so I broke it up into sixteen segments
Stitched those segments together with Steeper
Uploaded my final WMV file to Vimeo and found the sound stuttered in unexpected places
Spent the next week or two uploading the file over and over again, even re-editing a few parts to try and eradicate the glitches, only to learn my WMV file was being re-encoded as an MP4 and that was the source of the problem
Spent a few days re-rendering every segment of video in MP4 form, which was a complete waste of time because those MP4s came out looking like they were run through a cheese grater
Spent a few days re-re-rendering every segment of video as higher quality WMV files with an aim toward converting each individual segment into an MP4 file and then joining them all together
HandBrake decided the files had different aspect ratios even though they didn’t, making the joining process impossible
Joined my higher-quality WMV files together with Steeper and tried uploading that file to Vimeo in the hope that it wouldn’t suffer from so many glitches (my hope was in vain; the glitches just showed up in different places)
Tried making WMV files using different video and audio codecs (again, once they were converted into MP4s the glitches were still there…all they did was move around to keep things interesting)
Tried other video formats like MOV and MPEG, with no useful results
Tried downloading a newer version of Vegas; the download failed
Got someone with more advanced tools to try re-encoding my WMV file as an MP4; the audio stuttering disappeared, but it was replaced with even worse visual glitches
Stumbled onto access to a level of customization I didn’t think this scaled-down version of Vegas provided, which allowed me to make the kind of files Vimeo wanted in the first place
Spent a few days re-re-re-rendering everything as MP4s and was forced to break things up into even smaller segments
Joined all the smaller files into one large file with Avidemux
Uploaded that file to Vimeo
Slept for fifteen years
One thing Bob said to me was, “There is a solution. It’s just probably incredibly tedious.” Man, was he ever right. I’ve had my issues with video editing before, but they were nothing compared to this.
I’m stuck halfway between relief and exasperation. This whole thing could have been avoided if this stupid version of Vegas had a single menu for video rendering that allowed the user to adjust all the parameters in one place. But that would have been easy. And as I’ve said before, apparently nothing that has any connection to YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK can be easy.
There was no way to keep my final MP4 file under the 5 GB upload limit imposed by my Vimeo Plus account. I had to upgrade to Vimeo Pro. I’m not thrilled about paying four times the amount it was costing me before to host some videos on a website, but paying Wistia twenty times that amount for the ability to upload no more than ten videos wasn’t gonna fly. I like you, Wistia, but not that much. At least there’s no ceiling on how many videos I can host on Vimeo, so long as I don’t exceed my shiny new 20 GB weekly limit.
In the thick of it all, I figured out just how compromised our internet speed was. I thought things were running slow because my computer was getting older. That wasn’t the problem. This was the problem: we were paying for 25 Mbps, and we were getting 5 Mbps, if that. Our upload speed was about 0.6 Mbps.
That’s…not good. At that speed, uploading my master MP4 file to Vimeo would have taken twenty-four hours. Maybe longer.
Johnny Smith worked his magic and got a Bell tech to come out to the house last week. He upgraded us from our degraded old copper cabling to a new fiber optic setup. Now the upload and download speeds both top 50 Mbps — and that’s using the wireless router. The file that would have taken a whole day to upload took about twenty minutes. Files that used to take half an hour to upload to the WordPress server now take ten seconds. I’m still getting used to the speed difference.
Another good thing to come out of this debacle: my homemade documentary looks a bit better now. It topped out at 480p when I had to work within the limitations of my Vimeo Plus account. Now it goes up to 1080. The MP4 looks a little different from the WMV files I’m used to. It’s sharper, and the colours seem to pop a little more. It took me a day or two to adjust to the change. Now I don’t think I’ll ever make another WMV file. I’ve gone back and replaced most of the videos I’ve uploaded to Vimeo over the years with new and improved MP4 versions, and I’ve done the same with a handful of videos here. The difference in quality is not subtle.
I kind of wish I’d figured all of this out a long time ago. Could have saved myself a whole lot of unnecessary anguish. And I still don’t understand why these specific WMV files gave me so much trouble after a decade of hassle-free uploading. But a happy ending is a happy ending no matter how you happen to get there.
I guess I owe Vimeo an apology. Come to find out the problem with the video wasn’t their doing after all.
Sorry Vimeo. (Your bedside manner still kind of stinks, though.)
It’s pretty funny to me that the only really human response I was able to get from anyone didn’t come from either of the websites I’ve spent years paying for, but from someone affiliated with a site I’ve never given a dime. A dude named Falcon (is that a great name or what?) told me — again — that my best bet would probably be to re-encode my video as an MP4 file, but he said HandBrake would probably take care of that without any noticeable dip in quality.
He was right. And after converting my WMV file into an MP4, I discovered those same stuttering issues were present in the very same spots they showed up on Vimeo.
I thought if I re-encoded each video segment from scratch on Vegas and made them all MP4s I could just stitch those files together to make one big MP4 file and we’d all live happily ever after. I spent two days doing that, only to learn Vegas is incapable of spitting out a reasonable-looking MP4 file. It doesn’t matter how high you set the resolution. The results are unusable. So that was a complete waste of time.
Then I thought Steeper was the culprit. Maybe when it joined all those smaller WMV files together it created a larger file that wasn’t very agreeable to the MPEG-4 codec. If I used HandBrake to re-encode each individual WMV file and then joined all those MP4s together with a program like Avidemux, I assumed I would have a single glitch-free MP4 ready to upload to Vimeo, or Wistia, or wherever I wanted to put it. So I started re-rendering each segment from scratch again — this time as higher quality WMV files to minimize whatever small amount of degradation the re-encoding stage might introduce. The first time around I rendered everything at 640×480 to keep the file sizes down. This time I opted for a frame rate of 1280×720 and doubled the video and audio quality.
It was going pretty well. The occasional stutter was still showing up even in the smaller individual files after I converted them into MP4s, but there weren’t nearly as many of them, and they were pretty unobtrusive. Just when I thought I’d turned a corner, HandBrake decided a few 1280×720 videos weren’t 1280×720 at all because some of the Mini-DV and public domain footage didn’t satisfy those dimensions. There was no way to work around that, which made fusing those MP4 files together impossible, since their aspect ratios no longer matched.
All this for something only twelve people will ever see.
Back to the drawing board again, then. I thought I found another potential solution in the JWPlayer (those are my initials, for crying out loud!). It sounded like just what I needed. You pay ten bucks a month for a bunch of server space and an embeddable player, and they support WMV files. Beautiful. All I need is to be able to upload this file somewhere that will allow me to connect it with an embeddable player, and if I can somehow bypass the re-encoding stage this stuttering issue will no longer exist.
I did a little more reading and found out they re-encode anything you send them as an MP4. Of course they do. For the low price of $2,400 a year you can pay them for “customized video solutions”, but I’m not willing to go that far.
It doesn’t help that no one will tell me what a timestamp overlap is or how to fix it. The best I’ve been able to get in the way of constructive advice is the very useful information that WMV is a shitty format and I should use something else. IT’S ALMOST AS IF I CAN’T RENDER TO ANY OTHER FORMAT AND I’M STUCK WITH THIS ONE.
I would be happy to pay someone to take my WMV file, perform some technological wizardry, and make it into an MP4 file that isn’t buggy. No one seems to have any interest in offering any serious assistance. So I persist, coming up with one idea after another, and each idea leads nowhere.
If I knew this was going to happen, I would have set Sony Vegas on fire, pissed on its charred remains, bought Final Cut Pro, learned how to use it, and saved myself a whole lot of grief. I’d go ahead and do that now if I thought I could re-edit the whole thing from the ground up and render the results as a nice-looking MP4. But I refuse to believe there isn’t some way to pivot around this. If two pieces of something are overlapping, you should be able to pull them apart so they line up the way they’re supposed to. And if there’s nothing wrong with your original file(s), the re-encoding process shouldn’t be fraught with so much difficulty.
One thing’s for sure — however it plays out, I won’t be working on anything video-related for a good long time after this.
There are two reasons my DIY documentary hasn’t gone live on the blog yet. The first is pretty innocuous. I underestimated how long it would take me to put together the giant blog post that’s supposed to accompany the video content. I’m still working on it here and there. The second reason is a good deal more frustrating, and part of the reason I haven’t finished the blog post yet. Distractions: they’re what’s for brunch.
I started using Vimeo to host some of my videos a few years ago. The maximum file size I’m allowed to upload here is about one gigabyte, which is a little strange since I’m paying for 38 GB of storage space. I’ve been able to work around this for the most part, but back when I still hung around Facebook there were times when I wanted to embed a video over there without having to link to a blog post. Vimeo allowed me to do that. When they removed the functionality of the embeddable video player for users with basic accounts, I upgraded to a Plus account and got on with my business. Then Facebook stopped supporting Vimeo’s player and I couldn’t embed anything there anymore.
It didn’t bother me a whole lot. I grew to like Vimeo. It was fast, it was easy, and it didn’t blink at files the WordPress server didn’t want to play ball with. The weekly 5 GB upload limit wasn’t very generous, but it was far more than I would ever need. Even the re-encoding process was pretty invisible.
My feelings for Vimeo have soured over the last week or two. It’s not me. It’s them. I’ve been trying and failing to upload a version of this documentary that isn’t glitchy. If I upload a shorter segment, everything’s fine. When I upload the whole thing, the video and sound stutter in some places. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to happen if your internet connection wasn’t able to handle the video you were trying to watch and it kept buffering. But buffering isn’t the issue here.
I re-edited a segment or two where the stuttering was really noticeable, thinking maybe there was too much visual information in those parts for Vimeo to handle. It didn’t make any difference. I updated my MacBook’s operating system — something I’ve resisted doing for years — and made sure my browser was up to date. I made sure no other programs were open during the uploading process and there was nothing else hogging any of the browser’s resources. I must have tried uploading the same video seven or eight different times. It kept stuttering in the same places. It didn’t help that I could only do this so many times in a week, since you’re only allowed to replace an existing video with a new file once or twice before it starts to count toward your weekly limit.
The size of the file I’m working with is a hair over 3 GB. It takes almost twelve hours to upload. I can’t close my browser or allow my computer to slip into sleep mode at any point throughout that twelve-hour period. A whole day disappears every time I try to fix a problem I didn’t create. As a point of comparison, it took me about four hours to back up more than 450 GB of stuff from my MacBook’s hard drive when I updated my macOS to High Sierra (and that’s as far as I’m willing to go, because too many programs I rely on are no longer supported by Mojave).
I couldn’t figure it out. I’ve asked Vimeo to deal with a ton of WMV files before this. I never had a problem with any of them. One of those files was about half the size of this one. It took six or seven hours to upload (oh, the joys of having a slow internet connection), but there was none of this stuttering junk when it was done. My original file plays all the way through without any issues on a 2009 Acer laptop that runs like a slug and should be dead by now. It’s also glitch-free on my MacBook, which is no spring chicken itself. It isn’t 4K or HD. It’s not a huge or complex file. And yet Vimeo can’t seem to handle it.
I had to pester Vimeo Support to get them to acknowledge me, and what I got was little more than a brush off. I was told the issue was a timestamp overlap, which I assume was created at the re-encoding stage. I was told to try uploading an MP4 file instead. And that was it. I don’t know what causes a timestamp overlap or how you fix it, but I know I didn’t create it, and when you pay for the privilege of receiving assistance in a situation like this only to get a curt “change your file format and stop wasting my time” when you ask for help, well…let’s just say I won’t be recommending you to any of my friends after this, Vimeo.
I tried appealing to WordPress. I explained the situation. I’ve never needed to upload a file this large before. I’ll never need to do it again. All I want is to be able to host this file somewhere so I can embed it in a blog post. I told them I would be willing to pay for some temporary WordPress superpowers that would allow me to upload a larger file. After paying for this blog’s server space for twelve years running, I thought I might have built up enough goodwill for them to give me a pass this one time.
The response I got was a little more detailed than what I was able to squeeze out of Vimeo, but it wasn’t any more helpful. The guy who wrote back told me there was no way to get around the maximum upload file size. He said WMV wasn’t a great format anyway and I should consider re-encoding my video as an MP4 file and splitting it into two or three parts.
Here’s the problem with that. I tried making MP4 files when I was editing this film. Sony Vegas crashed on me every time. The only format I could get it to spit out with any reliability was WMV. Could I take my WMV file and re-encode it as an MP4? Sure, if I wanted it to look like it was filmed with a piece of charcoal. The quality wouldn’t just take one hit — it would be degraded a second time when whatever hosting service I uploaded it to re-encoded it again. It isn’t a slick, professional film, but I’m not prepared to live with that level of visual atrophy.
Nothing connected to this album can be straightforward. It’s almost comical.
I found a website called Wistia that allowed me to upload my file for free. It took another twelve hours, but I thought I might fare better over there. No dice. There must be something in the file that doesn’t respond well to being reprocessed as an MP4 (which is what every video hosting site on the planet does no matter what kind of file you give them). I don’t know what it is. The stuttering didn’t seem quite as bad over there, and there are things about Wistia that appeal to me. The quality of their 360p streaming video is as good or better than Vimeo’s 480p. You’re allowed to get into quite a bit of customization, too. You can insert chapter markers into your video, for example — something Vimeo doesn’t allow you to do unless you pony up the dough for a Pro account.
I sent them a message asking if they could do anything to compensate for the timestamp overlaps on their end. I told them I was prepared to migrate over to Wistia and sign up for a paid account if they were willing to help me out. We’ll see what kind of response I get.
Don’t think the absurdity of all of this is lost on me. I know I’ve put a lot of time and energy into trying to solve a problem no one else would care about. The stuttering hasn’t bothered the small group of people I’ve shared the video with so far, and I’ve been getting some pretty incredible feedback. But it isn’t about how small the issue is. I put a lot of work into this thing. I’m not okay with the idea of presenting it in a compromised form. I want it to play from beginning to end without getting buggy.
Spending a few hundred dollars a month for a video hosting service that’s geared toward commercial businesses isn’t an option. YouTube isn’t an option either. They’ll hammer the video quality into oblivion. Dailymotion won’t let me sign up for an account because of some glitch in their website. There are other sites out there like Vidyard, but I doubt their server would handle my file any better than Vimeo’s has, and I’d have to pay for a year’s subscription if I wanted to give them a try.
With all the advances that have been made in computer technology, you’d think by now it would be the easiest thing in the world to upload uncompressed video to the internet and stream it at the speed of light, regardless of the format. But no. That would be too simple.
Whatever response I get from Wistia, I might have found a solution. And you’re going to laugh. Because all of the sudden, for no apparent reason, Vegas is letting me render MP4 files. I don’t know what changed. Maybe clearing some debris off of the Acer laptop’s hard drive shook something loose. I’ve had to break one or two of the individual segments into even smaller pieces in order to get them to render, but there are enough existing transitions in the film for me to do that pretty seamlessly, and MPEG StreamClip should allow me to glue all those pieces together without any transcoding.
If that works, and if the gaps between the joined files are as nonexistent as they were when I did the same thing with Steeper, I might be in business. Logic would dictate that Vimeo shouldn’t introduce any stuttering into a file that’s already in their preferred format.
So far I’ve been able to render about two-thirds of the segments I need without any serious trouble. There doesn’t appear to be any discernible difference in quality from the WMV files I was working with before, and the file sizes are about the same. It’s probably going to take me the better part of tomorrow to finish all of this, and then it’ll take another day to upload the results, but with a little luck I just might have a version of this video I can share without gritting my teeth by the end of the week.
It’s a long walk to make for some peace of mind, but I’ve come this far. I’m far too stubborn to give up now. And hey, this debacle got me to update my operating system to something a little less archaic. Everything seems to run a little smoother now. Microsoft Word doesn’t freeze up on me anymore! Getting the computer out of sleep mode in the morning takes ten seconds instead of ten minutes! Rejoice!
A few other quick things that have nothing to do with any of this:
YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is at #7 on the CJAM charts right now. It’s lived inside the top twenty for eleven weeks in a row now, and in that time it’s hit #1 more than once. CJAM has been very good to me for a very long time, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one of my albums get this kind of extended consistent airplay. It’s nuts. Thanks, as always, to everyone who’s playing my noise, whoever you might be.
You’ll be shocked — shocked! — to learn none of the DJs I sent the album to outside of Windsor have acknowledged the gesture in any way. At least I only wasted three copies. That’s better than wasting thirty, right?