Return of the uke.

Zara was back in the studio this past week to record the songs that will make up her third album. We got started on Monday and wrapped up on Friday.

This time there was a pretty even division between guitar songs and ukulele songs. Zara brought her own uke but gave my wizened Gibson LG-2 some more run after playing it on UNCERTAIN ASSERTIONS way back in 2014. One new wrinkle: we double-tracked her voice on a few songs. I always enjoy hearing the way a voice almost morphs into something new when it’s doubled or tripled to become an exaggerated version of itself.

As intense as Zara’s music is, she’s great fun to work with. There’s a lot of laughing, and it doesn’t feel much like work. All I really do is move a few microphones around and try to capture the way she sounds in the room, and then mix the results in such a way that the dynamics are left intact.

It feels good that she would want to keep coming back here five years after we recorded her first album. Makes me think I must be doing something right.

I should have everything mixed by the end of the month, or early May at the latest. There’s a bit of video footage to share as well. This time I used the Canon T5i instead of one of my little Flip friends. We’ll see what impact that has on the quality. The lighting in the room on the day wasn’t great, so it might still be a little grainy.

Most exciting for me — I asked Zara if she would be up for singing on another song of mine. She said yes. The trick now is writing the right song. I tried to get something ready for Friday. In a rerun of what happened with Tara, a bunch of ideas came tumbling out, and none of them quite felt like “the one”.

I would love to drape her voice over some weird ambient electronic ballad. Knowing the way my brain works, I’ll probably end up with something folky and acoustic guitar-based instead. She’s in town for another four weeks (she moved to British Columbia a while back), so there’s a bit of time to play with.

Oh yeah — yesterday was 420, the day of celebrating all things marijuana-related. To mark the occasion, here’s a grainy video still of me taking a drag from a joint in 2002.

Most of the time 420 doesn’t register for me. I haven’t smoked pot in more than twelve years now. Even if I had a debilitating illness and marijuana was the only thing that would alleviate my symptoms, I don’t think I would touch it again.

Don’t get me wrong. I used to smoke. I caught a buzz for the first time in late 2001 while working on SUBLIMINAL BILE, and it became a fun weekend thing for a while. I appreciated the way it made every conversation feel profound. Stupid things became hilarious. Music I already liked seemed to develop new dimensions, and music I had no interest in became almost tolerable.

I cut out everything a year later after getting a good amount of self-destructive energy out of my system. I tried smoking again in 2005, found it was still fun, and started using it as a substitute for going downtown and getting drunk on the weekend. Why waste my money on an aching bladder and a hangover when I could stay home, light up, and watch a Werner Herzog movie or listen to Miles Davis, waking up the next day without feeling like I got hit by a bread truck?

The first mistake I made was turning it into a solitary thing, and not something I only did once in a while in a social setting. Now that I had a consistent hookup and could smoke pot whenever I wanted, I found I liked it a little too much. It also made me lazy. It was a way to have a good time without having to do anything. Why work on music when I could sit around thinking about how great my ideas were? Why flatten them out into finished things when they were doing just fine floating around in my head?

My second mistake was buying a bong from a friend in the summer of 2006. I thought it would be an easy way to make my stash last longer. Since no one told me one toke from the bong was all I needed, I treated it like it was a pipe, got way too high, and found myself singing for my soul to two different higher powers. It was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. The sound of a street cleaner set me off on a dissociative loop from hell, and I became convinced I was dying and stuck in some sort of limbo.

I couldn’t make anything that sounded like music happen on a guitar, but I still had my voice. Music became my weapon and my one hope for salvation. Over the next two hours I sang almost nonstop, improvising an entire a cappella concept album in which I bartered with both Satan (arguing I could be of some use to him if he allowed me to spread his message through my music) and God (promising to be a good Christian if he would save me). I felt the strong presence of both good and evil higher powers at different moments, and I felt myself being judged by both of them. As long as I kept singing, I knew I could at least buy myself more time. Being judged was better than being taken.

Right around the time my high wore off, I saw some sunlight filtering through my bedroom window. Instead of hearing a choir of angels singing and ascending to some heavenly afterlife, I went downstairs to get myself something to drink — my throat was killing me — and then came back upstairs and watched Millennium Actress.

To this day, part of me regrets not hitting the record button on my camcorder and capturing at least some of the madness. I remember some of the bits I sang. There were some pretty catchy song fragments in there. Whenever I was singing to Satan I would slip into this exaggerated James Hetfield voice. At one point I got into some beatboxing and borderline throat singing, coming up with some pretty strange vocal sounds. A much sweeter voice came out when I sang to God.

I stopped believing in most of the Christian ideology I was taught right around the time I went through puberty, so I thought it was odd how things split themselves into such clear divisions between good and evil. The whole thing fascinated me. I found I could laugh about it. More than that, I felt a swell of something resembling joy. It was as if I’d come through some dark night of the soul and emerged a better, happier version of myself.

Reluctant to cut my strong-smelling friend out of my life altogether, I chalked up the bad experience to smoking some stuff I bought from an untested source. It must have been cut with something nasty. A week later I tried smoking some of my “normal” supply out of the bong. I should have just gone back to joints and pipes, but I was confident I knew what I was doing.

The high that followed was much more frightening than my first bong experience. This time I felt no higher powers judging me. I lost control of my body — or my mind convinced me I did — and became a vegetable trapped in my bed, unable to move, knowing I really was going to die this time and there was nowhere for me to go. No sunlight was going to save me. There was nothing waiting for me on the other side but a vast expanse of oblivion.

I like to believe there’s something beyond this level of existence after we die. There are too many preternatural happenings that can’t be explained away as simple coincidences. I don’t pretend to know what comes next, but it gives me some comfort to think there’s some kind of afterlife, and that we go on in some way. Some atheists find comfort in the idea that there’s nothing more than this, and once we die it all goes dark. That scares me more than I can tell you. I don’t even know why. I think it’s something about the finality of it all that unnerves me.

The high wore off after a while, I was able to move again, and life went on. But this time there were after-effects. I felt disconnected from myself. I developed issues with stairs. I felt anxiety that didn’t exist for me before, and there were some borderline panic attacks — though they were nothing compared to the fun I experienced after the break-in of late 2008.

After a while I felt more or less like myself again. I’m not sure if my brain eventually got rid of whatever lingering weirdness was hanging on there, or if I accepted the new normal and adjusted to it. One thing was clear: I couldn’t smoke pot anymore. It was toxic to me now.

There was one more little adventure a year later when someone I thought was a friend pressured me into smoking one last time. I should have told him to get out of my house, but I didn’t have the guts. My reward for that bit of cowardice was locking myself out of my own house a few minutes after getting high. This time the universe decided to cut me a break, and an ex-con friend who just happened to be passing by took it upon himself to help me break into my own house.

You can’t make stuff like this up.

The high wasn’t as bad this last time, but there was none of the euphoria or false sense of heightened mental acuity I got from marijuana in the past. All it gave me now was a feeling of dread that fanned out over everything like a filthy blanket.

I thought I would miss it. After that last hurrah, I didn’t have any trouble leaving it behind.

I bring this up because a few weeks ago someone was over at the house to get down some piano and vocal tracks. My name might not carry much currency in the local music scene anymore (thank God for small miracles), but apparently I’ve become known as “the guy in Windsor who has a real piano in his studio that isn’t a hunk of junk and will maybe let you use it if you ask politely”. I got a message from a guy who also has a home studio, asking me what I would charge to record him playing piano and getting down some vocal tracks so I could then send those raw tracks to him and he could build around them in his own studio.

It struck me as a somewhat convoluted way of going about it — wouldn’t it be easier to record the tracks onto his rig and then have his way with them? — but I have this impulse to help people in situations like these, when what I should probably say to them is, “If you want the sound of a real piano in your songs, do what I did and buy a real piano.”

I told him if he wanted to throw me twenty bucks to put toward my next piano tuning it would be appreciated. Other than that, I felt funny charging anything. I looked at it as one producer helping out another.

I won’t get into the specifics of the recording session. The one bit I want to mention is this. Before we got started, the guy asked me if I smoked. He said when he mentioned he was paying me a visit he was told to bring a joint as a peace offering.

It seems there are still some people out there who assume I’m this massive pothead based on the amount of music I’ve made and its refusal to stay in one place. Here’s the thing about that. If I hadn’t stopped smoking pot more than a decade ago, none of the music I’ve made from 2008 to date would exist, and what little work I might have done in its place wouldn’t be any good.

Drugs inspire some artists and open them up to different ways of thinking. They never did that for me. At least not in any way that had a positive impact on my music. Pot didn’t just sap my motivation, leaving me content to brainstorm forever — the few times I did try writing or recording while under the influence, the results were unusable. When I was high I thought all my bad ideas were good and all my good ideas were great.

I would try to record a miserable song about a dying relationship with Gord and Tyson and laugh my way through the whole thing after forgetting the lyrics that were right in front of me. Like so.

Cottonmouth (GWD version)

Fun? You bet. Album material? Not on your life. Compare this to the version recorded two months later for BEAUTIFULLY STUPID and it’s not even a fair fight.

My point, if I have one, is this: I don’t judge anyone who smokes pot or puts any other foreign substance into their body. Their life, their choice. But I never got one good song out of being high, and I feel it does something of a disservice to the body of work I’ve built when someone assumes it’s the product of an altered state of consciousness.

Life is bizarre and maddening and inspiring enough as it is when viewed through the prism of a clear mind. If you need a drug to help you come up with your ideas, I’m not sure you’re trying hard enough.

A comedy of terrors.

Here’s the song Tara came by to lend her vocal magic to. I’ve spent the last few mornings picking away at editing the recording footage I grabbed along the way, and as much as I’m trying to keep things under wraps until the album is finished, I can’t resist putting this one out there as something resembling an advance single.

The thing I can’t get over is how catchy it is. I didn’t go out of my way to make that happen…it just happened. Must be the groove. I blame the djembe and the shaker that almost looks like an edible pepper. They’re always up to no good.

Editing this was a bit of a pain in the posterior, with everything I had to find a way to fit in there. It was rewarding to see it all come together, though, and I think it’s one of the better editing jobs I’ve done along these lines. It’s always fun when your cuts move in rhythm with the music. It’s a subtle thing, but I find it makes for a video that feels like it breathes a little better.

Also, dig those pyjama pants. Lately I find myself doing a fair bit of recording in the morning, before I’ve put on normal people clothes for the day. When you’re recording drums at 9:43 a.m. the last thing on your mind is throwing on some jeans. Me wearing boxer pants in a video is nothing new, but I don’t think any pair has ever been given quite this much screen time. Maybe these ones are special.

While I’m proud of all the elements that make up the thick soup of this song’s sound, the real secret sauce is the Yamaha VSS-30. I swear it keeps finding new ways to sneak its way into a song and add the texture that’s needed. It’s ridiculous how useful and versatile a little “toy” keyboard from the 1980s can be. You can get so many different sounds just out of sampling a bit of Wurlitzer and warping it (which is what I did here).

In less pleasant news, here are some words I never thought I would type, say, or even think: I won’t ever do business with Minuteman Press again. I won’t even recommend them for the simplest of jobs. If you’re in Windsor and you have any printing needs beyond what you can do yourself at home, I urge you to go somewhere — anywhere — else.

Here’s the deal. In early 2003, when I first thought it would be worthwhile to try giving my CDs a somewhat professional appearance, Johnny Smith said, “I’ll take you to Minuteman Press. That’s where I get my business cards done. I bet they’ll be able to help.” And they did help, printing a two-sided insert I slipped like an embarrassed apology into the abomination that was the initial album art for OH YOU THIS.

In short order, Minuteman Press became my go-to place for all things related to album packaging. Over a period of sixteen years they printed the booklets and inserts for fifty different albums (that’s not a typo), along with two posters and a handful of redesigns when I decided I wanted to “reissue” something or print the lyrics for an album that got slighted the first time around.

In the beginning it was pretty clear they’d never done this kind of work before. The initial inserts (or “tray cards”, if you like) for NUDGE YOU ALIVE had only one tab with the album’s name on the spine instead of the traditional two, leaving one side of the CD jewel case bereft. For my part, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to arranging text and images. We both got better in a hurry. They started producing more professional-looking results with more experience, and I taught myself how to handle the layout side of things.

By 2010 we were a well-oiled machine. I started handing in polished image files with proper bleed lines instead of asking them to set things up for me, and Heather and I almost had our own verbal shorthand. She was always great to work with. If I still sometimes got inserts that were a hair too tall to fit into a jewel case and I had to take a little off the top with my own cutting board to compensate, it was a small price to pay for being able to give my albums the visual presentation I wanted on a DIY budget.

Heather left a few years ago. The people who stayed on still did pretty reliable work. Then the ownership changed altogether in late 2017, and every familiar face was gone.

The woman who took over the business was a great surprise. Her attention to detail was incredible, and the packaging for both the long-overdue remaster of YOU’RE A NATION and the Papa Ghostface sign-off WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD came out looking better than I thought possible. It seemed safe to assume I could keep giving Minuteman Press my business forever.

Everything changed when I swung by a few weeks ago to have the booklets and inserts for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC reprinted. The woman with the great attention to detail was gone. Another woman she once referred to as her “colleague” was now running the show. I’ll call her Esmerelda, because it’s a world away from her real name and it sounds a little evil.

There was a disgruntled customer ahead of me in line, and she was giving Esmerelda the business. The conversation went something like this:

CUSTOMER:
I paid a professional designer to put this flyer together. The printing is all wrong. The bleed lines are off, and there’s all this white space.

ESMERELDA:
Yes. It’s like because the format we were like given. We can only like play with it so much.

CUSTOMER:
No…this was done by a professional. There’s nothing wrong with it. Something went wrong with the way it was sized after I gave it to you. You’re the ones who made the mistake.

ESMERELDA:
Yes. Like when you give it to us, like we can do almost nothing. You have to like give it to us in a different format.

CUSTOMER:
My event is a few days away. I can’t use this. This is no good.

ESMERELDA:
If you want to like give it to me in a different format maybe we can like fix it, but the way you gave it to me there’s nothing we can do.

Put that on a loop for about ten minutes and you get the idea. The Smithster and I got tired of waiting after a while and turned to leave.

“No, no,” Esmerelda said.

“We’ll come back tomorrow,” he said.

“No, I can wait on you.”

She slid a smiling man with grey hair into her place and took my order. I gave her my original materials and asked for another thirty copies of each. She said she’d call me in a day or two to come look at a proof, and then she’d print it. Easy as cake.

More than a week went by. There was no phone call. I called them and got Esmerelda’s son on the line. He talked to me as if he was the new graphic designer of the operation. He told me my file of sixteen years — once a monster of a thing — was now all but empty, and almost none of the work any of the previous employees had done for me was in there. I would have to give him the art files for these booklets and inserts, and they would have to be printed from scratch.

I dug up the old art files from early 2011, dumped them onto a flash drive, and brought them in. Son of Esmerelda told me he would email me a proof later that day. He did no such thing. The next day I popped in to see my proof. It wasn’t ready.

“Oh, he had some car trouble,” Esmerelda said. “He told me he’s going to send you an email tonight. Like a hundred percent, for sure he’ll do it tonight.”

He did not, like a hundred percent, for sure, email me anything.

I came back the next day.

“I was just going to call you,” Esmerelda lied.

She printed up a proof for me. The insert looked fine. The smiling man stood there staring at the song titles, looking bewildered. I like to think “Taylor Swift Sings Death Metal in My Dreams” gave him a brain cramp.

The booklet wasn’t fine. It was a mess. The image and text on the cover were both too small. Inside, the size of the font increased and decreased five or six points at a time from one page to another. I always make sure to keep the font size consistent through all my image files, so it was a bit of shock to see things looking so out of whack.

Esmerelda’s explanation: “Yes. You gave us JPEG, and like we can do almost nothing. If you give it to me in like a Word document, then I can like size it myself and everything will be like perfect.”

For nine years JPEG files were never an issue. All Son of Esmerelda had to do was drag and drop the image files into whatever program he was using and make sure they were the right size. Instead, he took it upon himself to increase the size of the text on every page that had any appreciable amount of white space. Of course, Esmerelda wasn’t about to admit it, and he wasn’t around to answer for his screw-up.

She said she would email me a proof once I sent her the lyrics in a Word document. I sighed, went home, and put together what she said she needed. I emailed it to her the next morning. She didn’t email me back.

Thursday was the day of reckoning. I showed up to ask what the hell was going on. Son of Esmerelda looked horrified when he saw me walk in the door. He ducked into an office as fast as he could, where I assume he watched videos of dogs slobbering in slow motion while contemplating the nature of existence.

“Our server has been down all day,” Esmerelda said. “We haven’t been able to like do anything. But we almost have it like fixed now. If you come back at 12:30, I’ll have it for you. You don’t need to call. Just come back around 2:00 and it will be ready.”

Not just anyone can make an hour-and-a-half leap like that almost in the middle of a sentence without even acknowledging it. I had to genuflect in respect.

I should pause to tell you Johnny Smith was with me for each of these visits, and he noticed Esmerelda had a habit of looking at him instead of me when we were talking to each other. It was weird.

A little after 2:00, we came back.

“I just printed it,” she said. “I’ll have it for you in a moment.”

In a virtuoso display of lying to someone’s face and assuming they’re too stupid to notice, she walked a few feet to a printer and proceeded to print what she told me was already printed.

She brought the pages over, and I saw my body text in the booklet had morphed from Bookman Old Style into Arial.

“You changed the font,” I said.

“Yes. It’s much clearer now.”

“No,” I said, opening the original booklet to show her. “This is the font I used. See? I used the same font in the Word document I sent you, because that’s the font I want.”

“Yes,” she said. “It was Times New Roman. I changed it to Arial, but I can just like change it back. I just thought it looked better like this.”

“It wasn’t Times New Roman. But you know what…let’s do this. The other part that’s fine — the insert? Let’s go ahead and print that, and forget about the booklet.”

“No,” she said. “I can change the font back.”

“I’d like my original booklet back please, and we’ll just print the one piece that doesn’t have any problems.”

“I’ll just change the font back.”

“No. It’s been one thing after another. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Yes, but I’ll just change the font.”

Right here is where Johnny Smith took it upon himself to break the loop of stupidity, slipping into what I can only call “Punisher Mode”. He told Esmerelda we were done. She tried to come up with some bullshit. He told her to give me back my original booklet and insert. She wouldn’t budge. He had to cut her off at least ten times before it sunk in for her that this was one person she wasn’t going to be able to wear down with smiling condescension. She gave me my booklet and insert back, said, “Well, I’m very sorry to hear it,” and we walked out.

I’ll never set foot in that place again. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re out of business a few months from now. Word spreads fast, and awe-inspiring incompetence is not something most people look for when they need something printed.

It’s a shame. Once upon a time there were some good, honest people working there who did fine work. Not anymore.

We made a list of about half a dozen other local printing businesses to try. I brought the packaging for STEW to A&A Printing so I’d have something to offer as a sample. The manager came out to talk to us and I asked a bunch of questions. He told me they had a lot of experience doing CD-related work. PDF files were the best format for them. They would have a proof for me the same day I brought in my art files, the job would be finished the day after that, and for fifty each of these two pieces of packaging I could expect to pay a little over a hundred bucks.

Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?

He said all the right things. There didn’t seem to be any need to check out any of the other places on our list. On Friday, around noon, I spoke with a woman at the front desk. I asked if I could have a lyric booklet and a separate insert made, and presented her with samples of the original pieces (again for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC) and the relevant PDF files on a flash drive. She told me she would have a proof ready for me in two hours and she would call when it was finished.

Something I’ve learned: when someone tells you they’re going to call you for anything business-related, they’re almost always lying. We came back at 4:00 and a different woman claimed she’d called us to let us know the files I provided didn’t work. When we told her we never received a phone call, she said, “Well, I was trying to call you.” That made for two lies in less than ten seconds, unless in her mind “trying” meant “thinking about maybe doing something and then not actually doing it”.

She invited us into the work area and brought me over to her computer, where she showed me the files wouldn’t work when she tried to open them.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I saved them all as PDF files. That’s what the manager told me to do. He told me that was the best format for you. Everything worked fine on my computer.”

She started laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” Johnny Smith asked her.

“Because the manager told you to do that, and the files don’t work.”

“What about that is funny?”

She didn’t have an answer.

Pro tip: laughing at your customer’s misfortune isn’t a great way to get their return business.

The woman who took my order earlier in the day tried the flash drive on her computer. She had no problem opening the files. Way to troubleshoot, people! She told us if we could wait five minutes in the other room she would print up a proof.

Half an hour later she had a sheet printed out to show me the paper stock they were going to use for the booklet. She said the binding would take three hours to do and she didn’t realize there were so many pages.

Johnny Smith told her we’d just left a printing business after sixteen years because of mishaps and miscommunications like this. She apologized and let loose with a stream of excuses. They had a lot of unexpected cutting work that day. There was more work involved in putting the proof together than she thought there would be. The printer jammed. She thought the booklet was a flyer with no pages in it (the second you touch or even look at the booklet, it becomes clear it isn’t a flyer).

She said she would work on it over the weekend and call us on Monday whether the work was done or not.

Believe it or not, on Monday there was a phone call. We came in to look at the proof with some sneaky feelings of optimism. Those feelings were dispelled soon enough.

The woman who showed me the initial printout wasn’t around. The one who laughed at us was there instead. She showed me a booklet that had the font at the right size throughout, but the print quality left something to be desired. The printout I was shown on Friday made the text look nice and smooth. Now it was bleeding all over the place. The text on both spines of the insert was way out of alignment, and instead of fixing it themselves she and the manager told me it was my job to edit the image file, guessing at where they needed it to be. I’ve been doing this long enough to know where the text is supposed to go. This was their mistake, not mine.

Worst of all was the cost. Because there were a few extra pages in this booklet, the price I was quoted on Thursday tripled.

The woman asked for a 50% deposit. I gave it to her and left feeling defeated. Over the next few minutes my attitude shifted from just wanting to get the booklets and inserts reprinted, to thinking this was more of the same garbage and I didn’t want to eat it anymore.

We went back. When I brought up the bleeding, the laughing lady said she could try lightening the text to see if that helped. I told her the price was another sticking point. She disappeared into the back of the work area for a while, and when she came back she said the manager was willing to come down almost a hundred bucks. If you can afford to do that, either your profit margin is sickening and you’re cheating people out of their money, or your business isn’t as prosperous as you’d like your customers to believe it is. Either way, it wasn’t good enough.

I asked for my money back and we left. They still have my memory stick and original lyric booklet. I need to get those back sometime this week.

Instead of trying more local printing places I thought I’d contact a business that makes album packaging full-time. I sent an email to someone at Duplium, which is where Ron got Tobacco Fields manufactured. The lyric booklet for that album came out looking great. While I’m waiting to hear back from them, I might email another place in Canada that does similar work. I prefer to be able to go in and see a proof in person, but if I have to go through something like this again on my way to finding someone in Windsor who knows what they’re doing, I think I’m going to tear my own face off.

Hopefully something good shakes loose. I’m running low on booklets and inserts for a good half a dozen albums, and I’d like to be able to get more of them printed somewhere.

The flute of truth.

Making art and trying to involve other people can lead you down some pretty circuitous roads.

I sent Lianne Harway a Facebook message three years ago when my search for local woodwind players led me to her. She never saw it. As I’ve learned, if you send a message to someone you’re not already Facebook friends with, said message almost always gets stuffed into a secret spam folder somewhere deep in the ass crack of cyberspace.

A few months ago I asked Tara Watts if she’d be interested in singing on something. She responded with an enthusiastic yes, so I wrote something with her in mind. The more I sat with the song, the more it started to feel like second-tier material. And she deserved my best.

I wrote at least half a dozen subsequent songs, hoping to find one that shouted its rightness at me. None of them did. I thought I had a good idea for a potential duet one night when I was cooking some green beans. That didn’t go anywhere interesting either.

Then a 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 Tara 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. I liked how this one took a turn away from implied specificity, limiting itself to images and statements. There was no “you” at all.

I recorded the thing and sang placeholder harmonies of my own. Then I started to grow attached to those harmonies. Pretty soon I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone else singing them after all — even someone with a voice as great as Tara’s.

What I really wanted was to showcase her voice in more than a supporting role. I just couldn’t seem to write something that felt like an appropriate vehicle.

As soon as I gave up on the idea of writing a song Tara might have some fun singing lead on, the right song all but wrote itself. Ain’t that the way it always goes?

I have a thing for slinky, jazzy, sensual songs with musical backdrops that are either semi-electronic or full-on trip-hop/downtempo. I’ve wanted to try doing something like that with a female singer for a long time, with no success. Whenever I reach out to a singer who lives in or near Windsor and has a voice that seems appropriate for that sort of thing, they either ignore me or feign interest before disappearing.

This time I was lucky enough to have a singer lined up and waiting in the wings. And I guess the subconscious part of my songwriting brain said, “You know that thing you keep wanting to do? Here’s an opportunity to do it. NOW DO IT.” I recorded all the music, got down a guide vocal, and sent a rough mix off to Tara. She liked that it was something a little outside of her usual musical wheelhouse. We made plans to get together so she could take a stab at singing it.

Yesterday those plans came to fruition. I felt a little awkward taking pictures while we were recording, but Tara was kind enough to pretend to sing for me in hilariously exaggerated fashion after we were finished, allowing me to capture an image that’s sure to become iconic in the years ahead.

This is not that picture. The world isn’t ready for that kind of visual intensity. Instead, this is an “accidental” shot that I thought turned out pretty nice.

Sometimes when I ask someone to play or sing on one of my songs they’ll show up having spent no time preparing, and before we can get anything useful recorded I have to teach them the song they’ve had weeks or months to sit with. It doesn’t bother me, and it’s never stopped me from getting a good performance out of anyone. It’s just a thing that happens.

It didn’t happen with Tara. She did her homework. I didn’t even have to play her my guide vocal before we started recording. She slipped right in there like she owned the song. My only regret is maxing out every track on the mixer but one (reserved for the lead vocal), because she told me she heard some potential harmony lines in there. Maybe I’ll have to write something else with her in mind and leave some space so she can harmonize all over the place. I don’t think anything bad could come of it. Tara’s a master when it comes to vocal harmony.

That other song — the one I thought I was going to ask Tara to harmonize on before I decided I liked my own harmonies enough to keep them around — had an instrumental chorus/refrain. There was almost a Celtic feeling to it, I thought. It needed to be played on a flute to really put it over the top.

I asked Facebook if anyone knew someone who played flute and might be interested in doing some session work. I didn’t expect the question to even be acknowledged. As proof that social media is about as unpredictable as a naked meteorologist, recommendations came pouring in. One Facebook friend tagged Lianne, and she said she was interested.

Three years after I sent her a message that was never seen, I sent a friend request and a new message that didn’t end up in limbo. That was a few weeks ago. This past Thursday Lianne 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 this 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.

Like Tara, Lianne 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 putting on headphones and getting the microphone in place, we were done. It would have been foolish to ask her for another take. She nailed it every time, and though the melody was already written, the way she played it glued the whole song together.

Sometimes persistence rewards you, even if you have no idea where you’re going until you get there.

I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway.

Damn it, man. First Mark Hollis, and now this? The year is already gunning for a failing grade in its stunning lack of preservation of the artists who have been mainstays on the soundtrack of my life.

If you want to know a bit about what Scott Walker’s music did for me (and to me), I wrote about that once over here. If his album Tilt hadn’t blown my brain apart when I was fourteen, I’m convinced my musical vocabulary would be very different. Maybe another album would have performed a similar mind-expanding role for me, but the experience and its aftershocks wouldn’t have been the same. Tilt upended all of my ideas about what a song could be, and after wrestling with that music to the point that I was able to understand and appreciate it, nothing ever sounded inaccessible again, no matter how far-out it went.

And then there’s that voice. There’s never been another quite like it.

Scott’s four self-titled albums from the late 1960s are chamber pop of the highest order, approachable without surrendering their twisted sense of humour and pessimistic worldview. His work from 1978’s Bizarro World Walker Brothers reunion album Nite Flights forward, on the other hand, is not for everyone. It makes for a musical journey into some pretty dark places (including the mind of Mussolini’s mistress as she faces her execution). The man seemed to delight in setting fire to his former pop persona and poking around inside of its charred husk to see what kind of reverb chamber it made. Some have found the results pretentious. I find a lot of the music thrilling. Even his obligatory “80s-sounding album” Climate of Hunter, with its period-correct drum sound and fretless bass groans, is like nothing else anyone released in the 1980s, with the weirdest Billy Ocean cameo of all time.

The whole idea of the maverick artist seems to be slowly turning into just that — an idea. It doesn’t help that we just lost two of the greats in the space of a month.

If it came from a bull, and it smells like a bull…

There’s this thing called the RPM Challenge. It started back in 2006. Participants record a full-length album that’s ten songs or thirty-five minutes long, and they do it inside the month of February.

I’ve never done this. I used to record albums in a matter of days all the time, but for whatever reason I don’t think any of them were started and finished in February. Not since I started working in the digital domain twenty years ago, anyway.

My friend Joshua Jesty, on the other hand, has been a proponent of the RPM Challenge for about as long as it’s existed. He hasn’t made a “February record” every single year, but I think his latest instalment is his sixth. That’s some serious commitment to the cause right there.

This time around he asked a bunch of different friends to contribute to the album. I was one of those people. The thing is, he didn’t just ask me to play on one of the songs. He asked me to make the cover art too. And if you know me, you know I’m not someone who’s ever asked by anyone to do that sort of thing, because I’m not really a visual artist.

I am, however, a little bit nuts. I like to make up for my inability to draw freehand by tracing on top of existing pictures in a computer program that wasn’t designed with that in mind and then warping the context. In this case I took a photo of Josh holding a bowling ball in front of his face and turned the bowling ball into a massive mound of crap. Then I added a gloating bull to make the album title Nonstop Bullshit literal.

He used that image for the cover art, unmodified.

The song he asked me to play on is a pretty, atmospheric ballad called “Endless”. Josh felt it needed some dobro at the end, so I pulled out this guy, who’s been feeling a little neglected.

I’m not one of those crazy bluegrass pickers who can play frenetic, brain-melting slide solos. I tend to gravitate toward simple, melody-based things. I sat with Josh’s song for a bit until I felt I’d figured something out, recorded a handful of takes with a single Pearlman TM-250, and picked the second-last one. It wasn’t the best technical take, but it felt the most like me. Then I sent it off as a WAV file and Josh stuck it in his song.

Check it out.

I feel pretty good about that solo, I have to say. It isn’t flashy, but it works.

Elsewhere, things are getting back on track. My pseudo-vampire sleep schedule, while workable, drifted to the point that I wasn’t seeing a whole lot of daylight anymore, I didn’t have a lot of energy, and I couldn’t get much done. After not having to go a night without sleep to reboot my sleep cycle for more than a year — a pretty monumental accomplishment when I used to have to do it every few weeks — I admitted defeat and did it again. I’ve now been back on days for almost two weeks, and though readjusting to eating meals at normal times was a little strange at first, it’s nice to be reminded just how much time a proper day gives you to accomplish things.

My goal now is to pick a song every day and either evolve it in some significant way or finish it. So far, so good. Guest-related fun is starting to pick up steam again as well. Tara Watts is supposed to swing by in a little over a week to sing on something (remember her? I used to play in her band six million years ago!), and a few days after that a flautist is supposed to come over to record magic flute things.

I just might manage to reach my goal of thirty musical contributors on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK after all.

An effigy blessed.

It’s an odd feeling when you get old enough that the deaths of your musical heroes are no longer isolated events.

I’ve loved a lot of music over the years, but I can’t say there are many artists who have had a profound impact on what I do. Mark Hollis belongs on the short list of those who have. As the main songwriter and voice of Talk Talk he helped to create some of the most glorious pop music of the 1980s. Then, at the peak of his success, he turned around and committed commercial suicide with music that played a large role in paving the way for what we now call post-rock, as his lyrics took on a new depth and left things like rhyming and conventional metric ideas in the dust.

I mean, how do you get from this (pre-Talk Talk, with a short-lived band called The Reaction)…

…to this…

…to this?

They’re all great songs, but all three of them live on different planets. Few musicians are open to allowing this kind of artistic evolution to happen, let alone capable of pulling it off in a way that feels not only natural, but inevitable.

Random thing: “New Grass” features what may be my all-time favourite recording of an electric guitar. There’s something so beautiful and pure about it — a sound in constant bloom.

There’s also evidence that Mark had this kind of music in him before Talk Talk existed. Maybe he needed the right people and resources to do justice to the sound in his head, and he was biding his time until everything lined up the way he wanted.

Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are albums that create an endlessly evolving world of sound for you to get lost in. They achieve this not with synthesizers or sonic trickery, but with real instruments recorded in the most organic, dynamic way possible, and with silence treated as an instrument in itself. Weaving in and out of the sounds and the spaces between them is Mark’s voice — one of the most unique in all of “pop/rock”. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand much of what he’s singing in a given song without looking at the lyric sheet. It doesn’t matter. It’s a voice that can move you even if you don’t know what it’s saying.

Those last two Talk Talk albums, along with Mark’s lone self-titled solo album, form a triptych of uncommon power. Each one grows quieter and more minimal, until there’s silence and nothing else. Few bodies of work have trailed off with such grace.

This music has taken me places little else has, moving me near to tears one minute only to scare the bejesus out of me the next. Years ago I was listening to Mark Hollis late at night. During one of the more turbulent instrumental passages I noticed a tree branch flailing against my bedroom window as if it was having a visceral reaction to something only I could hear. The song sounded like a storm, and here it was storming outside, the wind shaking that tree’s arm with almost enough force to pry it loose.

“This is music that knows the world,” I thought.

Then I wrote the thought down, because I don’t often think things that sound so poetic.

I think Mark felt he’d said all he had to say after his solo album was finished. It’s difficult to fathom where else he might have gone after those half-whispered tone poems. What was there left to strip away? He even explained his vanishing act in the songs themselves, singing about his family and the joy it gave him. He wanted to step away from the music industry and dedicate himself to being a good father and husband, making his life his art instead of the other way around. There’s a great nobility in that.

The one bit of new material to surface in recent years was a brief instrumental piece heard over the end credits of an episode of Boss. It sounded like the soundtrack to a made-for-TV horror film that had been disassembled and reinterpreted by curious robots. Whether it was the beginning of a beguiling new direction or just a one-off, we’ll probably never know. Maybe it was only a wink meant to say, “I’m still here.”

Now the man who fell off the face of the earth is gone for good. I doubt we’ll get the usual deluge of reissues and biographies to cash in on the renewed interest in his work, and that’s as it should be. In a strange way, the permanence of his absence feels like it’s brought him closer. When he sang he sounded like a fallen angel, but it turns out he was one of us after all.

My introduction to Mark Hollis and Talk Talk came in 1994. MuchMusic played the music video for “Life’s What You Make It” one Saturday morning. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen or heard before. I picked out the song’s insistent piano line on a rented keyboard, feeling proud of myself for being able to figure it out at a time when getting my fingers to play anything that sounded like music was a challenge.

You might think I’m going to start bragging about how I was hip to The Colour of Spring and Spirit of Eden when I was ten or eleven years old. I’m not. Because I wasn’t. I didn’t even catch the name of the band on the TV screen that day. I would read about Talk Talk a little later on when I found the book that would become my musical Bible for a while. It still took me much longer than it should have to go out and buy one of their albums. I didn’t get my hands on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock until I was in my early twenties. The first time I heard “The Rainbow” and that overdriven harmonica solo kicked in, I wanted to scream with happiness.

If there’s such a thing as perfect music, I think this stuff is about as close as it gets, but I’ve rarely tried to emulate it in any direct way. I think that would be a mistake. From the time I started banging on a tape case with a drum stick and singing in the absence of an instrument to play, my goal was always to develop my own voice without taking cues from anyone else. Besides, to take a real, honest stab at tapping into the specific magic of late-period Talk Talk would be…difficult. In a number of articles and interviews that are available online, you can read about how a lot of the songs started as nothing but a man-made click track of light percussion or a drum pattern and were then built piecemeal over a painstaking period of time. While the songs sound like continuous performances with all the musicians playing together in one space, that’s an illusion created through a lot of creative editing. A trumpet player might come into the studio to record ten improvised takes only to find what was used in the final mix was two seconds of them clearing their spit valve. Or a performance meant to sit in a certain space might find itself moved out of context to a different part of the song.

In a lot of ways it’s music as meticulous collage. That it sounds so spontaneous and untethered from time is a testament to the brilliance of all involved. The contributions of producer/co-writer Tim Friese-Green and recording engineer Phill Brown can’t be overstated here.

It might have taken me five years to finish an album I’m still not quite finished yet, and I might build things a piece at a time out of necessity (and a lack of Johnny clones), but I don’t have the patience or the technology to work the way those guys did in the studio. I don’t think I’d want to even if I could.

The inspiration I’ve taken from these albums lives somewhere deeper than the desire for mimicry, though I’m sure the way Phill Brown recorded Lee Harris’s drums on Laughing Stock — a great example of the “drums in a room being played by a human” sound we don’t hear too much of anymore — had as much to do with my decision to start recording my own drum kit in a more minimal way as laziness did.

A confession: there was this one time, in early 2008, when I did go out of my way to do something that sounded like a poor man’s version of a song that might have been recorded for Laughing Stock, just to see if I could pull it off. I played some unresolved chords on an electric guitar and gave them a lot of room to linger, without using a click track. I added a second guitar part, bouncing a pencil on the strings before playing in a more conventional way. Bass and drums followed. The vocals came last. Each part was improvised and recorded in one take without any preparation. I sang without knowing what the vocal melody was supposed to be, feeling it out along the way.

I didn’t have the assortment of instruments or the musician friends I do now. I couldn’t add piano because I didn’t yet have a real one, and it was clear something digital wasn’t going to cut it. I thought about buying a violin and trying to get something out of it before finding a cheap melodica at Belle Air Music. The melodica was the secret sauce I was looking for, and it felt like it tied everything together.

The freakout section a little over two minutes into the song is more me than Talk Talk. And I didn’t begin to try and sound like Mark Hollis. No one else can sing like that. But as homages go, I felt it was pretty successful. Eleven years later I still like it and believe there’s a place for it on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. Given the circumstances, it seems appropriate to share it here.

The Trance Lethargic

Boulevard of bokeh dreams.

I just bought this thing — a 50mm Canon lens that’s been nicknamed “the nifty fifty”. For a year or two I’ve been talking myself out of getting it for one reason or another. I’m not a professional photographer, I doubt I’ll ever progress far beyond “bearded hobbyist”, and I don’t need an assortment of lenses for what I do…but it doesn’t hurt to have a second option.

That inescapable thought was what swayed me in the end.

For less than $200, this lens is insane. It isn’t a Zeiss Makro Planar, but it isn’t trying to be. One thing it allows you to do is blur parts of the image that are out of focus in a way that’s really pleasing to the eye. This effect is called “bokeh”. It’s also called shallow depth of field, but I prefer the idea of someone trying to say “bouquet” and sneezing at the moment of truth. Best of all, it’s fast, so it doesn’t mind low light situations.

Though this isn’t a great picture, it’ll give you a bit of an idea. The light in this room is far from ideal. Most lenses would either refuse to take an in-focus picture or laugh at me while ejecting themselves from the camera body. The nifty fifty didn’t care. The shot is a little grainy, but it has no business looking this decent given the lighting situation. Notice how the floor beneath the snare drum isn’t just out of focus in a conventional way — it has a creamy quality to it.

Sneeze it with me now: bokeh!

I’m just starting to play around with it, but I’m not feeling any buyer’s remorse.

There’s a learning curve here. With no zoom, you’re forced to move around and really think about composition. I’m not sure how much I trust the autofocus when it comes to still images. I’m probably going to have to get more comfortable using manual focus to get the most out of this lens.

These are good things, and they’ll lead to better, more artistic pictures.

Even so, the nifty fifty has given me a new appreciation for the kit lens that came with my Canon T5i (an EFS 18-55mm zoom lens). Everyone craps all over this thing and says you can’t take good pictures with it, but for my modest purposes it’s been great. The autofocus is fast, quiet, and almost never seems to hunt. The image stabilization allows me to shoot video handheld without things getting too jerky. It isn’t amazing in low light, but it sure beats the pants off of the Pentax point-and-shoot of yore and shoots much cleaner, deeper-looking video than my Flip friends. It’s never prevented me from getting the shot I wanted, and sometimes that zoom really comes in handy.

My point is, it isn’t the glass in the lens, but the lass and her hens. Wait…that’s not right. Ask not what you can do for your camera, but what your camera would do if forced to watch Samurai Cop on an endless loop. No…that’s still not it.

Eh, you get my drift.

(Seriously, go watch some clips from Samurai Cop if you want to collapse in a bewildered fit of animal laughter. It has to be up there with The Room and Troll 2 in the pantheon of the most hilariously bad films ever made.)

The answer, my friends, is written on a cheque.

Apparently Bob Dylan accepted a big smelly bag of money so Budweiser could use “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a new commercial they debuted during the most boring Super Bowl of all time. Somewhere someone who once believed Bob was the voice of their generation is vomiting up a winter scarf.

I’ve reached a point in my life where I can understand why a young or struggling artist would allow their song to be used in a stupid commercial. If they’re offered a life-altering amount of money, they can tell themselves the payday will enable them to make the art they want to make and get it into the ears of more people. That’s not a bad thing, assuming they’re not making bad music. I’m not going to tell you I wouldn’t at least be a little tempted if a good offer came my way, and I don’t even want my music to reach a lot of ears.

With Bobby, I just don’t get it. You can’t tell me the guy needs the money. If there was any doubt, at least we now know the man doesn’t hold any of his songs sacred.

Let us remember better times.

Worse than this weirdness — far worse — is the news that Disney is releasing a live action remake of Aladdin. Are they really that bereft of ideas? In the right hands it might not have been horrible. Guy Ritchie does not have those hands. His hands are wrong. Very wrong.

From what I can tell, he handed CGI duties over to a blind mouse with a drinking problem. A lot of what’s in the trailer looks less realistic than the animated film did. Hell, this looks more true-to-life than some of the backgrounds in the new movie:

Will Smith is playing the Genie. Nothing against Will, but his character looks like the most hilariously half-assed green screen creation in the history of film. Think “The Fresh Prince in blueface with the body of a random beer-swilling amateur wrestler Photoshopped beneath his head” and you’re most of the way there.

Enough about that.

My grant proposal went off into cyberspace about two weeks ago. It’s in the hands of four strangers now. I should get an answer in a month or two. Fingers, toes, and earlobes crossed.

WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD has finally slipped off of the CJAM charts after nine weeks straight in the top thirty. That has to be a new record for me. I have no idea who was giving it airplay for such an insane length of time, but I bow before them in gratitude.

I’d like to be able to tell you I’ve been recording up a storm since my last post. That would be a lie. It’s been slow going so far in 2019.

I got my little replacement effects-generating red kidney, the piano was tuned for the fifty-third time, I was all set to get back down to business, and then I got sick. Again. At least this time it wasn’t so bad (I started eating zinc and vitamin D the second I knew something was coming, which seemed to cut my usual symptoms in half), but I still lost some time when I don’t have a wealth of it left to work with.

Motivation has been a problem. Even now that I’m not trembling beneath the covers with an upset stomach and angry elbows, it continues to be a problem. But you know what hasn’t been a problem? Writing songs.

The well kind of ran dry for a little bit. Well, that’s not quite right. It only felt like it did. See, I’m used to writing all the time. Musical ideas show up on a daily basis, pretty much, even when I’m asleep. Some of them turn into songs. Some don’t. And then the words show up when they feel like showing up.

For a while nothing much was showing up at all. I didn’t sit down and try to force it. I don’t work that way. Nothing good has ever happened when I’ve tried. It just wasn’t happening, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.

I started to think it was my first real brush with writer’s block. Then I looked at how much writing I was doing in the run-up to the supposed dry spell.

I started writing for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK in March of 2014. Not counting the latest batch of songs, and not taking into account any of the sketches that haven’t yet been fully fleshed-out, in that time I’ve written six songs with Adam (Mr. Shimmer Demolition himself), eleven with Steven, twenty-eight with Gord, and two hundred and thirty-six on my own. A dozen of those two hundred and thirty-six songs were meant for either AFTERTHOUGHTS or FLOOD. The rest were written specifically with SLEEPWALK in mind, even if a few ended up on STEW and a few more ended up on FLOOD because they made sense there.

Two hundred and twenty-four songs written by one person for one album might not seem like a whole lot when it’s spread out over a period of five years. That only averages out to forty-five songs a year. But consider: about a hundred of those songs were written in the last ten months of 2014, and the vast majority of the rest were written in 2015 and 2016. Things slowed down a lot after that. I wouldn’t be surprised if I only finished a dozen new songs last year. By my standards, that’s downright anemic.

What happened was, I went on a real tear for a while there. The sketches and undeveloped ideas from 2014 to 2016 might even outnumber the finished songs. I’ve been pretty prolific for a pretty long time, even if I haven’t released a lot of albums in recent years, but I don’t think I’ve written with a sustained fury like that since I was in high school and had to resort to writing lyrics in the middle of most of my classes to save my brain from atrophy.

When I look at the bigger picture, it makes sense that things would taper off at some point. You can’t keep writing like that without your brain exploding. And I think on some subconscious level the songwriting part of my mind probably said, “Maybe it’s time to take a bit of a break. You’ve got some serious catching up to do in the recording department.”

Still, going too long without writing has never been good for me.

Just as I was starting to get worried, I picked up a guitar and a new song happened. Then I sat down at the piano and wrote another one. And another one. And it snowballed from there. In the past week I’ve written eight new songs. Three of them still need some more words, but other than that they’re done.

There was no feeling of a switch being flicked. Songs just started coming again. You know what they say: visions come to prepared spirits.

I’m not sure how many of these most recent songs will end up on the album. I think at least a few of them are worth tackling. I’ve already recorded piano and a vocal track for one of them.

Baby steps.

You don’t know what you’ve got until it explodes internally.

I didn’t mean to go so long without saying anything here. Things have been busy, and my brain has been dancing to music no one else can hear.

For one thing, I’ve been consumed with putting together a proposal for the City of Windsor’s Arts, Culture & Heritage Fund in the hope of getting a grant that will help cover expenses for a monster of a summer show at Mackenzie Hall.

Bet you never thought you’d read those words on my blog.

Even if I don’t end up getting the grant, the outpouring of support from every single person I’ve asked for any kind of assistance has been overwhelming. If you’re an individual and not an organization (raises hand), you need to submit at least three letters of support with your application. The letters people have written for me…they’re not normal letters. They vibrate with a passion my brain has had a hard time processing.

And don’t even get me started on the musicians. Oh man. Wait until you hear the lineup I’ve got in place for this show.

I know. I never thought I’d get excited about the idea of playing live again either. I figured I maybe had one show left in me, and I was in no great hurry to make it happen. But here we are. And here I am. And there you are. You’re slicing ham.

More about that when matters clarify. For now, just know something pretty special is brewing.

And hey, guess what’s at #1 on the CJAM charts again after coming in at #2 again last week? I swear every time I release an album I’m pretty sure won’t get much airplay because there’s a lot to take in, the Campus Radio Gods say, “Oh yeah? We’ll show you.” And then CJAM plays it like crazy.

Thanks again to all the DJs who support the noises I make.

There have been some “technical difficulties” in the studio that have stalled my work on this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK behemoth. I could have worked around them, but I’ve been lazy.

See, long ago and far away, Line 6 came out with this amp modelling device they called a POD. And lo! All the recording magazines in the land said, “Give us hollowed-out dildos stuffed with cash and we will write glowing reviews of your product, overflowing with superlatives.” And all was well in the land.

I bought the hype and got a POD in the late summer of 2000. I used it on everything for a long time because it made my life easier. It wasn’t until we moved into this house in 2007 that I thought, “Maybe I should try sticking a microphone in front of an actual amplifier again.” And when I did that, all the tone I’d been missing kicked me right in the nards.

It’s a difficult thing to explain. As amp modelling technology goes, I think the POD does a fine job. I don’t listen to any of the many things I recorded with my guitar plugged into it and cringe. But there’s this three-dimensional quality you don’t notice you’re missing until you’re recording the real thing.

For a while I was a purist reborn. From CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN up to CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, for every electric guitar track I recorded I plugged my guitar straight into the amp with no effects in the signal path. If I wanted some reverb, I added it after the fact when I was mixing. I either used an SM57 on its own or I added a Sennheiser MD421 for a stereo spread, and my ears were happy.

Halfway through work on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I dusted off my POD XT — a supposed upgrade from the original POD. It had many more sounds under the hood, but I always thought the amp simulation was a step backward. So I never really used the thing. Now I started to wonder what would happen if I tried using it as a souped-up stomp box. I switched off the amp simulating effect and plugged it into the Fender Twin.

I didn’t unplug it again for almost nine years. As unhip as it probably is to say anything positive about a POD today, that red kidney-looking thing became an indispensable tool for me. It allowed me to access tremolo, delay, phaser, flanger, distortion, chorus, auto-wah, and other effects with the press of a button, without altering my clean tone in any nefarious way.

This is the main reason I had no interest in guitar pedals for so long. I didn’t feel I needed them. I had everything I could desire right there in the POD XT. And it wasn’t limited to a front end for one of my main amplifiers. If I wanted to record backwards piano, all I had to do was plug a mic into the POD, switch to the reverse delay effect, turn it up until it was 100% wet, plug it into a mic preamp, and I was golden.

Being able to do something like that when you don’t work with a computer program that allows you to reverse any sound you want with a click of your mouse is a godsend.

A few weeks ago the POD started making this awful loud buzzing sound. I messed around with some patch cords and it went away. I was able to record a few guitar tracks. Then the buzzing sound started again, and this time it wouldn’t go away. Everything seemed to be working fine electronically. The trouble was the input didn’t seem to be “hearing” anything anymore. When I turned the tuner on, it wouldn’t even recognize the guitar.

I assumed the 1/4-inch input jack must have worn out after all those years of constant use. I called up Steve Chapman and asked if he’d be willing to take a look at it. He said sure.

A few days after dropping it off, he called me up and gave me the news. Turns out the power switch broke off inside the POD somehow and there was serious heat damage obscuring some of the connections.

“Have you ever seen the inside of one of these things?” Steve said, laughing. “It’s pretty clear they weren’t designed for anyone with hands to ever work on them.”

He asked to hold onto it for a little while longer, because he doesn’t like to give up, but told me the POD was probably toast. If I wanted to replace it, I’d best start looking.

I checked out eBay.ca and found one in good shape for a very reasonable price. Best of all, it was in Canada and would get here within a week. I pulled the trigger on that and it should be showing up not too long after the weekend scurries away.

Funny how you don’t notice how much you lean on something until it’s gone. I thought I’d pull out my old first-generation POD and just use that for a while. None of those sounds are what I’m after anymore, and it doesn’t have any of the effects I need. Sure, I could simulate something close to the multitap delay effect I like to use on atmospheric lap steel tracks if I hooked up about three pedals and set them just right. It still wouldn’t quite be the sound I want.

Honestly, I think it’s been healthy to have this break. I was floundering a little, trying too hard to dig up some motivation to work on things when it wasn’t there. If you’re not feeling it, I’ve found there’s usually a good reason. In this case I think I just needed to recharge the batteries after working on one album or another almost without any significant period of inactivity since early 2008.

Putting things together for this potential grant has re-energized me. It’s allowed me to step back a bit and take a good look at just how much has been accomplished, even though there’s still work to do. I’m looking forward to getting back into it and finishing up this five-years-in-the-making album. As soon as my replacement kidney shows up, the game is afoot.

How about some random album review ramblings without any proper segue?

I’ve been an Iron & Wine fan almost since the beginning. I got on board when Our Endless Numbered Days came out in 2004. It was enthralling to hear Sam Beam start to open up his sound with the Woman King EP and the Calexico collaboration In the Reins before letting loose with the sonic explosion of 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog.

What I loved about that album was the way it layered a multitude of new sounds around Sam’s songs without ever disturbing the delicate quality that made his work so compelling. His musical identity was still intact, but everything was so much more vivid and colourful. It felt at once like a giant leap and a natural progression.

I lost track of his work after that. It wasn’t because I stopped being a fan. I’m not sure what happened. I think I was exploring so much music, it became impossible to keep up with everything. I would read about another album or two that delved into even more sonic experimentation, but felt no great urge to investigate.

A few days ago Iron & Wine popped back into my head. I read there was a relatively new album that was something of a return to the earlier sound, and it was getting good reviews, so I thought I’d check it out. I picked up Beast Epic (the new-ish album) along with a long overdue copy of the very first Iron & Wine album, The Creek Drank the Cradle.

I hate to say it, but I’m finding Beast Epic kind of…well…boring. All the songs seem to blur together. They’re nice enough, but they don’t feel like they really do anything or go anywhere. Very few melodies stand out.

It’s admirable to make a point of getting back to basics, recording an album mostly live off the floor with acoustic instruments in this age of over-processed everything. And Sam still has a way with words. “Jesus and his trophy wives are praying for the suicides and the orphans” is a line that sticks in your mind for a lot of different reasons. For me the songs just aren’t there, and as a result the limited sonic palette starts to grate after a while.

The only thing that stands out so far is “Last Night”, which features some welcome jolts of dissonance and can only be described as acoustic chamber reggae.

The music video was clearly inspired by this one:

(Okay, maybe not. Sam Beam probably isn’t a closet Johnny West fan.)

Maybe the album will grow on me over time. I’d be surprised if it did.

What’s interesting is falling back fifteen years and following Beast Epic with a visit to The Creek Drank the Cradle, where it all began. This is an even more limited album in terms of its sonic makeup. It was recorded on a four-track tape recorder, and the only sounds are Sam Beam’s voice, his acoustic guitar, his banjo, and some muted leg slaps in one song. Where there’s a solo, it’s usually either a simple banjo flourish or some slide guitar.

The difference is this: these songs create a sense of place. Some music is lo-fi in a harsh, confrontational way. This album is lo-fi in a comforting way. All the sharp edges have been flattened out without losing their teeth. Beast Epic is beautifully recorded but bland. The Creek Drank the Cradle is much rougher, and yet it feels alive.

Almost all of the chord progressions are pretty simple. Then the singing starts and your brain says, “Wait…what?” So many of the vocal melodies are not at all what you’re expecting to hear. But they all work beautifully.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long to pick this one up. It’s a great album.

One out of two isn’t that bad, right?

It’s a brand new ear.

I swear these years keep going by faster all the time. It’s getting a little unnerving.

2018 was not as productive as I hoped it would be. That’s been a recurring theme in recent years. It was a definite step in the right direction, though. Jess’s album was released. Ron’s album hit the finish line and will hopefully see the light of day early in 2019. And I was able to finish one of the two major albums I’ve been working on while putting a decent dent in the other.

As a rule I don’t have many feelings about a year one way or another when it’s brand new. It’s up to the year to show me what it’s going to be. But I’ve got a sneaky feeling this one might be pretty good.

(That probably means we’re all doomed.)

If nothing else, 2019 is going to be the year of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. It’s not a choice anymore. I need to get that album done before it gets too big for me and starts thinking it can boss me around and stay out all night without calling.

One reason for serious celebration — this year we’re getting the Deadwood movie we were supposed to get more than a decade ago. I didn’t think it would ever happen.

It’s really happening. Really. For real.

Of course, you can’t have pancakes without a little mediocre cocaine. We’re also getting a live action Cowboy Bebop series, whether we want it or not.

You’d think writers and producers who have such defective, corroded fucking brains they’re rendered incapable of generating any ideas of their own would have changed career paths by now, opting for something more suited to their abilities — landfill-licking, or drinking hair growth serum, or the like. But no. Steadfast in their idiocy, they go on remaking and rebooting existing films and television shows with diminishing fucking returns, as if someday, if they recycle the right thing the right way, they might manage to produce through sheer luck something other than a piece of shit.

(Spoiler alert: this lazy, cynical, money-before-brains way of working will always produce a piece of shit. Also, the above paragraph was my poor man’s attempt at emulating something approaching Deadwood’s unique marriage of eloquence and profanity. Couldn’t resist.)

Anyway. I hope you did something fun to ring in the New Year. Me, I switched back to my old shampoo. And if that doesn’t set the tone for the excitement of the year ahead, I don’t know what will.