Month: June 2009

Papa’s got a brand new synth.

the alesis micron.

I got me a new toy — an Alesis Micron, little brother (or sister) to the Alesis Ion.

Thanks again to Eric for letting me borrow his Ion for a few days last month. Playing around with that awesome thing was what inspired me to get the Micron. It’s pretty cheap and small, which is a strong selling point for me, because I need to conserve all the space I can around here, and because spending money is about as much fun as…well…spending money. But this thing packs a lot of sound and tweakability into a small package.

Needless to say, if it wasn’t already the case, it’s now a pretty safe bet that there will be a lot of synth and general sonic silliness on the next album. I don’t know what it is, but something about new synth sounds always inspires a torrent of new songs to come pouring out of me in short order. It happened in the past with the likes of GROWING SIDEWAYS and WHO YOU ARE NOW, and now I expect it’ll probably happen again. I wish I had this thing a few weeks ago for the show at the FM Lounge. Could have made some pretty wild sounds when Max and I went to hell at the end of “Capricorn Cloves”.

I guess there’s always the next show, which will probably take place in 2011.

Also got me a ridiculously cheap no-name banjo from the 1920s. The tuners are a little weird, but the intonation doesn’t seem to be all that wonky, and the thing sounds better than it has any right to given its price and no-name pedigree. What is it about funky old instruments that makes them funky? Maybe it has something to do with old wood. I’d be hard-pressed to find a new acoustic guitar that really speaks to me now, even in the several-thousand-dollar price range, and yet I can find a guitar that’s two or three times my age at a fraction of the price, and it sounds and feels so much better and more inspiring it’s hilarious.

Old wood: it’s not just getting a second lease on life thanks to the likes of Viagra anymore.

Also, it’s been as muggy as a cow’s rectum outside. All I can say at a time like this is, “Thank God for central air.” Or maybe I should thank Dionne Warwick. After all, she taught me what friends are for.

Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh.

Why is it that just when things calm down after a protracted period of ridiculousness, you get sick? Or does it only happen to a select few of us who always have a project or seventeen on the go that we want to work on, just to frustrate the crap out of us? Whatever the case may be, it happened to me again just after the three-shows-in-one-day extravaganza, and that’s why things have been quiet around here lately. I didn’t have anything very interesting to say — or any news to report — while I was coughing all over the world.

Being sick did at least give me an excuse to go through all three seasons of Deadwood from the beginning again, so that was fun. If you haven’t seen that show and you have any interest in westerns, profanity, the use of the English language, nudity, and what is affectionately known as the “blowjob monologue”, you’re missing out. I first watched the show on a whim some years back to kill time while waiting for the season four premiere of Six Feet Under to come around.

Watching the first season finale of Deadwood without ever having seen any of the other episodes, I had no idea who the characters were or what the hell was being said half the time (the dialogue is not at all your typical dumbed-down “no character’s total vocabulary shall exceed thirty words” shit). But something about it grabbed me. I went back and watched the first season from the beginning, and after a few episodes my brain adjusted to the density of the language. Before too long Deadwood had supplanted Six Feet Under as maybe my favourite thing to ever grace the idiot box. I’m not sure I’ll ever find another television show that comes close for me, or another character as wonderfully complex as Ian McShane’s take on Al Swearengen. The music — incidental and otherwise — is pretty great too.

The point is, HBO are fuckheads for cancelling the show after only three seasons. If I had a subscription, I would have junked it with extreme prejudice right there. But I don’t. So I didn’t. Does HBO even have any good shows left anymore? Deadwood’s gone. The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are long gone. Oz is ancient history. The Wire is supposed to be good, but I’ve never seen it. I like Gabriel Byrne, but I don’t have the patience to catch up with all eight thousand episodes of In Treatment.

When did this turn into a blog about television without borders?

On that note (sort of), don’t ever watch Star 80 if you can’t handle horribly depressing movies. Myself, I have a hatred for happy ending-humping sugar-coated Hollywood bullshit that knows no bounds. I loved Hitchcock’s Rear Window up until the last five minutes or so, and then it jumped the shark for me out of nowhere. The ending was just too neat and tidy. So I’m all for a butter knife in the thigh of convention. But man…Star 80 is one movie that isn’t going to leave you with any good feelings when it’s over unless you’re a pretty sick puppy.

To quote the immortal Mickey Rourke, someone needs to give Eric Roberts another meaty role in a good movie and let him “show his shit” again, because the guy can act. He’s scary in Star 80. As slimy and depraved as his character is, he comes across as painfully human. You almost feel sorry for him in spite of his ultimately horrific, unforgivable actions. Which makes it even more unsettling. Dude has more talent in one of his toenails than his sister Julia has in her entire body.

He was on a roll for a while there in the early-to-mid ’80s with Runaway Train, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Star 80…and then it seemed like his career just descended into bad Hollywood and direct-to-video hell. Later came head-scratching cameos in music videos by Akon, the Killers, and Mariah Carey. Someone give the guy a part in a movie that isn’t dreck already. I mean, take a look at his IMDb page. Out of the almost two hundred movies and TV shows he’s been in, the ratio of “good” to “crap” skews very heavily in the direction of “crap”, so much so that the scale is probably warped to the point of looking like a snake trying to eat itself.

There’s been the occasional exception, like his guest bit on an episode of Oz. It’s My Party, in which he plays a man dying of AIDS who decides to take his own life, is really well done. And La Cucaracha is supposed to be a good little indie film. More recently there have been quirky small roles in Spun and The Dark Knight, but a real comeback along the lines of Mickey’s has yet to happen.

Though you have to admit, something like Best of the Best is pretty amazing in the best/worst “unintentionally cheesy” way. It has to be one of the all-time great comedy films that wasn’t trying to be a comedy. You’ve even got James Earl Jones doing his best to add gravitas to a movie that’s gravitas-repellent.

And speaking of that guy, it’s easy to forget, but once upon a time he was a serious actor as well. Another horribly depressing movie is The Great White Hope, based loosely on the Jack Johnson story. It’s maybe a little overdone in the melodrama department, but it’s still surreal to realize James can be a powerful, resonant actor when he wants to be, and not just “James Earl Jones playing James Earl Jones”. Maybe we’ll get to see it again someday when he decides to stop doing voiceover work almost exclusively while popping up in occasional bit parts in depressingly bad movies.

Enough film talk. Let’s talk about music.

As usual, I’m working on a few different things at once right now. The aim is to at least get an album out there sometime this summer, probably in July or August. Maybe there really is something to that “seasonal release” idea I floated here a while back after all. I would probably have a new album finished or almost finished by now, but some other things got in the way for a while. Part of me is glad. I think it might have helped to have a bit of a break for a change, instead of just diving into the next thing the moment I finished the last album. Sometimes it’s good to take stock and think a bit about where you want to go next. Not that it’s going to matter much in the end, since whatever I plan on doing always seems to find itself warped into something unrecognizable from what my original plan was by the time it’s finished…

Regardless, more new music is on the way. I’d tell you what to expect from it, but I don’t even know which projected album is going to get to the finish line first, so I couldn’t say. It could be something jazzy. It could be something synthy. It could be my idea of a rock abum. It could be a return to the folky/bluesy sort of thing that permeated CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. Or it could be all of those things fused together. Only thyme will tell.

Finally, here’s something to watch and listen to. Pardon my Spanish, but this is how you play a fucking medley of hits. Nobody seems to know how to do it anymore without everything coming off sounding horribly truncated and lame. Let Sly take you to school, little children.

Don’t lie, Steve.

me & max---maximum thrust.

The Field Assembly CD release shows at Phog and the FM Lounge both happened. On the same day. I played three different sets in the space of about six hours. I got through it all with more energy than I was expecting to have and didn’t really feel it all catch up with me until I got home after it was all over, when just brushing my teeth started to seem like a herculean task.

But let’s start from the beginning.

SET # 1 (at Phog)

Michou opened in stripped-down form, with just Michael Hargreaves and Stefan Cvetkovic. Some nice vocal harmonies. There was a funny moment when Mike asked how everyone was feeling and the response was pretty much dead silence until I let out an inappropriate high-pitched cackle.

There were somewhere between ten and twenty people in the audience. And it didn’t get any larger than that (that’s what she said). But I kind of liked that. It had a nice way of diffusing a lot of the nerves, and the people who were there made for a really respectful, attentive crowd.

Our openers got the hell out of there as soon as their set was over and didn’t even stay for one of our songs. Seems like pretty douchey local band etiquette to me. I also found out later on they didn’t do their part at all to help promote the show. What can you do?

For this Field Assembly set the band was just Adam, Dean Drouillard, and myself. Like so.

I got to dig in a bit more and play meatier things than I would later on in the full band set. That was fun. Singing the harmonies in just about every song was…less fun. Kind of awkward. I’m used to doing that in maybe two or three songs at the most. Couldn’t really tell if my pitch was on or not. It felt kind of wobbly to me, so I didn’t put a whole lot of force into my singing, and in some places I think it was pretty much inaudible. But all things considered, I wasn’t that nervous, I didn’t play anything ugly on the piano, and it felt pretty good.

Also made sure to protect those ears with isolation headphones. I don’t care if it doesn’t look cool. Temporary threshold shift is not my friend, as I learned from Tara’s CD release show when I thought I could get away with being selective about when I put the headphones on.

It was the first time I ever played with Dean. He’s a really tasteful musician. He did some nice things with melodic feedback while playing a very pretty red Gretsch guitar and a Gibson hollow-body. Funny to think I was almost seduced by a vintage Gretsch like that last summer but found myself swayed by the infinitely cheaper Teisco instead.

Also worth noting: Tom and I were both wearing our CJAM T-shirts from the last pledge drive. As the kids like to say, “Represent!”

People still say that shit, right?

After the show at Phog, the full band met up at the FM lounge and set up for soundcheck. I played a few bugle blasts for good luck and got to listen to Matt Rideout play some nice Latin-jazz sounding things on one of my funky old acoustic guitars. We played a bit of “Eye of the Tiger” during soundcheck just for a laugh. That was fun.

Sound was checked. Things were done.

Max joined the party. We did our own soundcheck as the doors opened and people started to trickle into the place. We ran through “Do the Mountain Hop”. Then a few of us went off to the Pour House to grab a bite to eat before the show. I’d never been there before, but the combination of a pretty waitress with a fun personality and a sexy salad made it a winner in my book.

Then it was back to the FM. The place was starting to fill up. I didn’t feel all that nervous, maybe because the show at Phog went well and I felt warmed up. I don’t know what it was.

SET # 2 (FM Lounge)

Max and I climbed onstage for what was the first proper live show I’ve played that didn’t involve being a sideman or backing someone else up since 2005. We opened with a radical reworking of a Bruce Springsteen song only die-hard fans of the boss would have recognized. I threw in a mid-song melodica solo just for fun. It felt good.

What’s funny is our set started out leaning pretty heavy on the covers, with something like a 60/40 ratio in favour of other people’s songs. And then one by one the covers were discarded, until all but one of the songs were my own. Almost all of them came from AN ABSENCE OF SWAY. I’m not sure why it worked out that way, but it cracks me up that I ended up defeating my own effort to hide behind semi-obscure cover songs.

An improvised solo instrumental piano piece fell apart before it could really go anywhere, probably because I was trying to juggle three different sets of music in my brain and something had to give somewhere. But I was able to shrug it off and move on to the next thing.

I have no idea how it happened, but I felt pretty comfortable up there onstage playing my own stuff. A lot of the credit should go to Max, who’s a fantastic musician and a great guy to have in your corner when you’re unsheathing your musical genitals in a public setting. There was a lot of improv going on in some songs, and with some people that could have been disastrous. With Max it felt comfortable. The connection was there.

Even vocally, I felt confident. I pushed harder than I have in a long time — not screaming or anything like that, but really full-on belting some things without relying on the falsetto range or backing away from the mic. It felt like I could do pretty much anything I wanted with my voice during our set. My vocal cords were there for me.

Thanks guys. I know I mistreated you in the past, but thanks for sticking with me.

One of the highlights for me was “Capricorn Cloves”. I brought the bugle onstage with me, but when it came time to play it with one hand while playing piano with the other, I noticed the mouthpiece had fallen out when I kicked it over in the middle of an earlier song without knowing it. There was a bit of a pause while I fixed that, and then I started making drunken elephant noises.

People applauded my bugle “solo”. It was the craziest thing. I can’t even play that horn.

On the album the song fades out on a jazzy piano/fake upright bass vamp. We decided to stretch it out live. I played the bass line for a while and comped a bit while Max improvised a long, ridiculously sexy bass solo. Then he picked up the bass line and I did a little exploring of my own.

And then, as Max put it, we “went to hell”. I broke the tonality of the piece and he created a gigantic, dissonant swath of noise using his upright bass and a delay pedal. I didn’t know you could get sounds like that out of an acoustic instrument. It was pretty nutty. I played some dissonant piano runs underneath that, and we eventually brought it down to a more melodic, muted close.

It’s fun messing with a song like that.

“Water to Town” was more or less rewritten on the spot. The lyrics were unchanged, but the music was totally different. I wonder if anyone familiar with the album recognized what we were doing there. And I sang “Do the Mountain Hop” in my normal voice for a change, instead of slipping into the weird voice you hear on the album version.

The audience response was pretty insane. People seemed to be into what we were doing, and it was a nice feeling to have a positive live experience playing my own songs after so many disasters and so much indifference in the past. Thanks to Max for being my partner in musical mayhem (you might be seeing an album from the two of us before too long), thanks to Adam for having us open the show, and thanks to everyone who came out and showered me with gifts of floral-smelling sweatbands. Or applauded. Same thing, really.

Thanks to all you folks who came over and said nice things after the show, too. My head grew at least six sizes before the end of the night. Standing up is difficult now, but it was a nice ego stroke nonetheless.

As for the two people who assured me our set was being recorded, well…I later found out nothing was recorded at all. One of the best live performances I ever gave will survive as nothing more than a memory in the minds of the people who were there. So thanks a lot for misleading me there, guys. I appreciate it.

Here’s the set list, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

SET # 3 (same place)

Most of the time, after you play a show you get to relax, and if someone else is playing you can hang out and listen to them. I got about five minutes to take a breather. Then I got back up onstage for the full-band Field Assembly show.

It was like some kind of ridiculous Windsor supergroup — Adam Fox at the helm of it all, Dean Drouillard on guitar, Adam Rideout-Arkell on guitar/bass and Matt Rideout on drums and percussion (both of Yellow Wood fame), Eric Arner on bass, guitar, and glockenspiel, Stephen Hargreaves playing hammond organ and percussion, and my hairy self playing piano/Wurlitzer and glockenspiel.

While there was a whole band full of singers up there on the stage, I ended up covering almost all of the vocal harmonies. A certain someone who was supposed to sing the harmonies couldn’t be bothered to learn their parts, so I had to fill in for them. Not something I was expecting going into it, but hopefully it sounded alright. I still haven’t done enough of this in a live setting to judge how good my pitch is when I’m harmonizing with someone else’s voice. At home with no amplification it’s fine. Once a PA system is involved, my confidence in my live harmonizing skills takes a hit to the nether region.

In any case, it was fun, and it was my first time playing in anything as large as this seven-piece band. Everybody got their moments to shine like Sinead, and Adam R. played some nice lead guitar on the lone instrumental track. Stephen and I also had a nice moment during “Old Spell” where I was dancing around since there wasn’t much for me to do between glockenspiel cues and we did a bit of a spontaneous choreographed dance routine during the instrumental break coming out of one of the choruses. Jumping back and forth between playing Wurlitzer and piano in a few songs was fun too.

I’m glad I got to meet all the guys who were in the band. They’re all great people and great musicians. Thanks to Adam for inviting me to be a part of it all, and to Ryan Fields for doing a great job making everything sound good. Another hearty thanks goes out to Ron Marston for taking all of these pictures and letting me post some here.

Here are some more.

eric prepares to glock your world

steven has the most stylish hair by far
adam wonders how a headstock became a part of his own head, but plays on anyway
matt could totally play chet baker in a biopic.
protect yer ears...
adam and eric throw in some funk licks for good measuredean laments the absence of his sexy red gretsch, but the gibson hollowbody loves him anyway

It was a fun night. Nuts, but fun. Congratulations to Adam on the successful release/launch of his first album under the Field Assembly banner. Everyone who doesn’t have a copy should go buy one at Dr. Disc or from the man himself, because I said so. Support!

Big swing face.

Check this out. Buddy Rich on The Muppet Show in 1980. The man is sixty-three years old here, but even Animal can’t keep up with him. Alas, we don’t get to see the very end when Animal gets so angry about being bested that he smashes a bass drum over Buddy’s head.

Reviewage and raw sewage.

dancing eyeballs? of course.

Looky-see over here. Thanks a lot to Matt for all the kind words. Looks like there’s a lot of interesting music and writing on his blog. It’s always nice to have new brain food, so if your brain be hungry, check it out.

Also, on the subject of kind words, Adam Fox says some mighty nice things about me and my spinach supply in the new issue of WAMM. You should buy a copy of his new album Broadsides & Ephemera when it’s officially released at the end of the week. It’s tasty stuff. I’m on a few songs making piano noises, most prominently on “Out of the Arms” and “Still Life”. A lot of the keyboard parts are played by Adam himself, though. A lot of everything is played by Adam himself, actually, which is always something I enjoy hearing, and he did a great job recording the album.

The way to tell the difference: if it sounds like it’s been processed in a cool way or it’s a Wurlitzer electric piano, it’s Adam. If it sounds like an acoustic piano that’s free of effects, then it’s probably me. On “Alkali” it’s both of us — Adam playing the chords, and me playing the lead piano melody along with a heart-stopping glockenspiel cameo. You can hear how much the beast needed tuning at the time the song was recorded, but I kind of like that. As Adam said, it gives it character. I’m on “Daylight” too, but almost all of the piano on that track is Adam’s work. I’m just in there for about five seconds of piano harmony in the middle of the song. I like how he processes the digital piano and dirties it up until it doesn’t really sound digital anymore.

My favourite contribution to the album is probably the piano part on “Still Life”. It’s nowhere near as busy as my playing on that song would later get in a live setting, but I think it fits. I was just kind of winging it when that last piano line came out of nowhere. That’s one of the fun things about playing on someone else’s songs, at least for me. It often inspires ideas I probably wouldn’t have come up with if left to my own devices.

Technical details aside, it’s a great album, and I’m glad I got to be a part of it. Thanks to Adam for having me play on it, and for coming here to record my piano for the occasion — it’s fun to listen and think, “That’s my piano! It’s a real piano!” It’s the stuff rejoicing is made of. I really don’t think I could go back to playing a digital piano at this point, at least when it comes to recording. The real thing has a much nicer shank to it. So if you want me to be a session musician and play piano on your album, you’re gonna have to come to me. I don’t know of any other way to prove our love.

Oh, wait…I just quoted from one of my own songs. Never mind.

And look at that: I’m part of a Facebook event. Fun stuff. Y’all should come out on Friday and give me homemade brownies. It would totally help me play and sing better. Chocolate just has that effect on people. They even did studies that proved it. Don’t ask me which studies or where you can get your hands on them, but they exist. Somewhere.