Month: August 2009

you are my candy, girl…and you’ve got me wanting you.

max came over this afternoon, and love — i mean music — was made. here’s a little bit of what we ended up doing.

i recorded about half an hour of video, and a bit more than that on digital tape. this right here is something we improvised out of thin air, followed by a bit of goofing on dan hill. later on we also goofed on “lean on me”, complete with beat-boxing, and max provided some warped singing for a version of “sugar, sugar” unlike any you’ve ever heard before. it was kind of sinister. there was a lot more jazzy improvising in-between, but i think the song in the above video might have been the best thing to come out of the afternoon.

i like how the music is evolving every step of the way. it starts off pretty free and a little dissonant, floats around without any firm rhythm or direction for a while, and then rhythm is introduced and things start to take shape, only to keep on shifting until rhythm floats away again and the whole thing wafts away into nothing. it’s a nice feeling, being able to play with someone where you can improvise without any idea of what you’re going to play or what’s going to happen, not working from any preconceived musical ideas at all, but because you’re listening to each another and always changing and refining what you’re doing based on what the other musician is doing, the results tend to sound more like songs than aimless noodling, without anything ever being “written” at any point.

i might start out following what max is doing on the bass, or he might start out following me, and then we might switch places when the other person introduces a new musical idea. before long it becomes impossible to tell who’s following who. it’s just an organic process of mutual exploring.

and just like back in the days of guys with dicks, listening to what was recorded is like hearing the music for the first time, a totally unpredictable experience, because once we’ve finished playing we’ve already forgotten what we just did, since it was just growing out of the moment anyway. this is a universe and a half away from anything i was doing with the band, though, and i’d feel wrong trying to sing on top of the music. seems like it should stay mostly instrumental to me. it’s also fun to concentrate on one instrument, challenging myself to see what i can wring out of it in any given situation.

i guess this is my roundabout way of saying, “playing with max arouses me.”

we came full circle just as i ran out of time on the camcorder, with a mantra-like improvisation that had both of us singing and making odd noises, complete with max speaking ethnic-sounding nonsense in a stephen hawking voice and some unexpected but somehow perfectly-timed vocal harmonies. it was epic, but we need to overdub some additional vocal nonsense before it’s ready to leave the womb. we weren’t using any vocal mics, and so our voices aren’t as present in the mix as they could be. they’ll need a little help.

again, apologies for the crummy cinematography. i ended up cutting max’s head off in an attempt at getting both of us in the frame, and trying to work around the microphones didn’t make it much easier. next time i’ll make sure both of our faces can be seen, or else i’ll hire someone else to work the camera and provide some movement and a more interesting visual representation of whatever we’re doing musically. but i’m digging being able to record videos of stuff like this, and then being able to put them up here.

while the sound of the recording proper is much better than this, the little video camera does a surprisingly good job with the audio. if you’ve got a decent pair of headphones or computer speakers with a good amount of dynamic range, the bass and piano should both come through pretty well. you don’t quite get all the nuances (some of the bass harmonics don’t come off as well as they do on the proper sound recording), but you don’t come here for nuance anyway. you come here for the steak and baked potatoes.

(note: i later came back to the raw video and synchronized it with the recording proper, making for a much nicer audio experience. you lose our “let it be”/”letter B” silliness, but gain a whole lot of sound quality and — you guessed it — nuance.)

i don’t know if anyone around here (or elsewhere) would be into listening to more of this sort of thing, but i’m tempted to put together a CD of instrumental improvisations like this with max. a few more jam sessions and there might be enough for a full-length album. as much fun as it might be to add all kinds of other sounds and instruments to the mix, i like the way things sound with just bass and piano. there’s lots of space.

i like space. it tastes like spaciousness.

besides, it feels like we can do more with just the two of us than we could if other musicians were involved. and if we played at a place like, say, taloola, i’d have half a mind to throw out any existing songs of my own and just unleash an hour of heavily-improvised instrumental explorations along the lines of what’s in this video, or the first eight minutes of it anyway.

i don’t know. something to stew on. i can tell you right now, if we do end up playing somewhere, i’m renting a real upright piano for the occasion if i can. upright piano, upright bass, and a can of mace. who could ask for anything more?

in other news, CREATIVE NIGHTMARES is on the CJAM charts, much higher than i thought it would be, right here. madness, i tell you. thanks, as always, to everyone at CJAM for all of the support — particularly to adam fox, cassie caverhill, adam peltier, jan blondin, mike whaley, jon nehmetallah, max himself, nicole markham, cristina naccarato, jim meloche, eric arner, dale jacobs, j. kyle lebel, murad erzinclioglu, and if there’s anyone else who’s been playing my stuff and i don’t know about it, thanks to you too. i’ve had more booklets/inserts made up and am in the process of re-building my stockpile of CDs, because they seem to be going a lot faster than usual. must be because my face is on the cover for a change.

nothing involving cheetos can ever be pointless.

racy cheetos?

i was just on CJAM talking about the new album and general johnny things. it was a little last-minute, so i couldn’t warn y’all beforehand, but you can check it out here if you like. i’m about fifteen minutes or so in, though i think the interview with the drummer from fiftywatthead is well worth listening to as well.

my brain was a little soggy, but i think it’s safe to say i was full of scintillating information and dirty jokes. only not. thanks to adam for chatting with me on the phone. that’s the first time i’ve ever done a radio interview via telephone. dig the lo-fi lisp of imposition.

i’ve always been a sucker for that squashed telephone sound, and used it as a vocal effect in the old days once or twice — most notably on “ebeneezer scrooge” on DON’T TALK LIKE A BABY ten years ago. i need to pull that sound out again one of these days.

the CJAM MP3 archives seem to be down at the moment, so if the above link doesn’t work, and/or if you just want to hear my bit, you can do so right here:

CJAM NIMBY snippet from August 25, 2009

i’ve gone through at least 130 copies of the new CD already, in less than two weeks. that’s insane. i’m already close to needing more booklets/inserts/jewel cases. AN ABSENCE OF SWAY and IF I HAD A QUARTER… are pretty close to being “out of print”, because i’m more or less out of inserts for them. i guess those subliminal messages i planted in the songs have really kicked in.

on a random note, i think i need to put together a song called “the rise and fall of steven seagal”. it’ll be at once uplifting and heartbreaking. it will also be a psychobilly polka.

a bit of what i did this morning/afternoon, and an unexpected new addition to the family.

apologies for the shitty framing/cinematography. filming oneself while recording is not an easy thing to do well. one thing tends to suffer in favour of the other, and in my case it’s the filming that’s going to take a hit to the genitals in favour of the music.

the ideal situation is to have someone else manning the camera, that way you don’t end up, say, cutting your own head off with a music stand while recording drums, and there can be some movement of the camera happening to make things more visually interesting. but for the time being i have no one to film me, so i thought i might do it myself to give you a bit of an idea of what happens when i’m doing whatever it is that i do.

in the interest of keeping things from getting too bland, there are only bits and pieces of what i did. i don’t think watching entire vocal takes and drum performances would make for very interesting viewing. so here! bits and pieces!

thanks to stephen for linking on facebook to the sale of that combo organ on kijiji. i first thought, “that looks cool, but i don’t have the room for it.” then ismal and i went out there to tecumseh, played the organ on the deck of the nice dude who was selling it, and as soon as i started playing “alabama song” by the doors and got a farfisa-ish sound out of it, i knew i was toast and it was coming home with me.

i’m not sure it really fits in this song, but that organ will definitely be showing up on future albums. you can coax some cool sounds out of it, with a grit and personality that no digital organ emulation can capture.

also, you can’t really see the stereo ribbon mic in front of the drums, but i assure you it was there. or maybe i just recorded them without microphones at all. like magic.

she’s just…a little fishy.

the man. the myth. peter infante.

talk about a blast from the past…

almost exactly ten years ago, i got a summer job working at WOHIS with two other young ‘uns as part of a united way-funded program called SPEEC (student program to eliminate environmental cancers). our job was to create an original video examining environmental cancers, and also to put together a gigantic package of research material to accompany the video. we all contributed pretty much equally, doing research, amassing material, typing endlessly, transcribing video interviews, filming at various locations and interviewing cancer survivors and friends, learning as we went. the resulting video is not the most professional thing ever made (not to blow my own bugle, but i think my narration bits come off a little better than the rest), but it was fun to do, and even made the rounds at some schools at the time and was shown a few times on local television, though i don’t know if it still does/is.

i was the youngest of the three, and didn’t turn 16 until the program was just about finished. what a strange time that was…i could write a book about the experiences i had during my first proper summer job. like how libby and greg (my teenage co-workers) had a bizarre rivalry that seemed to disguise some grudging attraction they had to one another, and how i doubled as spectator and occasional co-conspirator. or how we didn’t say much to one another for the first few days, and then i brought my first-ever proper cd (SINGIN’ THE OESOPHAGUS TO SLEEP) with me to work one day along with a discman, and somehow that broke the ice and we all warmed up to one another. seeing libby with the headphones on, listening to me sing about penises that were too wide to hold inside and wretched skylines, while working with a deadly serious expression on her face…that was a tender moment, and something i still remember vividly, along with greg damning me later that same day for getting “yer boobs” stuck in his head. or how i managed to break up all the research and writing by typing out countless demented song lyrics at the computer, most of which were never recorded. or my mock-interview and illustration of peter infante that will forever live on as the man’s greatest tribute. the resemblance was uncanny.

there was also the time libby told me all my songs were about sex, and she commissioned me to draw a picture of a naked man who declaimed (in french, no less), “yes, libby — it’s true! i am a nymphomaniac!” only for me to end up getting savagely chewed out by the boss for being such a horrible person and insulting libby’s womanhood in such a way. i was so stunned, it didn’t even occur to me to explain that there was an audience for the whole thing and she was in on the joke until it was too late.

there was the day libby and i had fun recording ridiculous voice over material that was never used, improvising insane things and using funny voices. i wish i had the rap about cancer i did using a dog’s voice. there was the time i brought a bunch of equipment to interview gord and then dropped the camera on the ground while trying to set it up on the stand. thankfully it survived. there was the time a french/african man was helping out, and when i thanked him in french for helping me figure out a camera stand, he blew up at me for not thanking him in english instead. there were lots of good conversations with mike lawson, who paid me a great compliment when he said about the music i was making at the time: “i hear a bit of lou reed and neil young in there, but i also hear a lot of johnny west.”

there was the time, early on, when i was filming random stuff to try to figure out the workings of camera equipment, recording myself (without sound) throwing myself around an empty office and holding an empty jug of water over my head, looking like an escaped mental patient. or when greg captured the iconic “dead fish out of water” shot and said, “oh yeah…oh yeah! that’s the money shot right there!” sadly we cut that out in post-production. and then there’s my goofy “what is cancer?” educational segment—the introduction to which was just me amusing myself, and yet somehow everyone else liked my silliness enough to keep it intact and add a touch of irreverence to a video about a pretty serious subject.

you see what i mean…i could keep on going with no end in sight.

one of the most interesting things about the job for me was getting to create the music all on my own. i assumed i would go home some days and record things with my equipment, and maybe ask gord to help out, since papa ghostface was in full swing at the time. turned out i didn’t have that luxury; marg (the boss who bitched me out for drawing the libby-approved naked picture and made me throw it in the garbage) bought some weird computer music program for me to use instead of actual instruments. i had never worked with anything like that before, and never would again. i forget the name now…it was something like a primitive form of “adobe music maker”.

working with canned sounds was not my thing, but after a day or two of futzing around i started to figure it out. a lot of it was dragging and dropping different things. trial and error. choosing between fifty different bass lines and then figuring out which notes/patterns to use…then trying to figure out what drum beat/guitar part/keyboard part would fit with that. then doing it again every bar or two. it was slow going, and most of the provided sounds/patterns were abysmal shit.

i got some encouragement from mike when i played him some bits i had been working on, and we went off in search of the theme song. the first thing i thought had potential was a riff-heavy electric guitar piece with ridiculous solos. well, they sounded sort of like semi-real electric guitars. no one else was really feeling that one. i got a better response from an odd piece with some interesting organ, but it wasn’t quite catchy enough. i got access to some cds of additional sounds to import into the program and liked a dark guitar-driven piece i came up with, though when i imported some baby’s cries into the song they got sped up and sounded bizarre.

then one day i hit on a synth string riff and started building sort of a dance song around it, dropping in funky bass lines and sax sounds. then i messed with it and made the second half of the song a little crazy with dissonant sax harmonies, backwards canned voices and a brief bit of backwards piano. i was really digging this one. i figured no one else would like it and it wasn’t video material (greg said it was all downhill once the sax started wailing in a crazy way), but everyone seemed to think this was exactly what we needed. so it became the video’s theme song. we recorded it onto cassette tape in mono and then dumped it into the computer that had the video editing software in it. talk about degradation of sound quality. still, i think it came through well enough.

not much of my other music was used. one brief little guitar bit from the rock-ish song was inserted at one point, but mostly it’s just that theme song looped and recurring at a few points, and then coming back with a vengeance at the end. most of the other bits are pre-existing things that came with the program instead of things i came up with myself, like that cheesy dance organ bit around the three minute mark. seemed like a bit of a waste of what i could do musically, but it was still an interesting experience.

i made a pretty good amount of money for my first real job, and ended up buying my drums with the cash i made. i still use and record those drums today, so i’d say it was money well spent. i haven’t heard from greg or libby since the project ended…we were each presented with a “health & safety award of recognition” from WOHIS at the 2000 clifton grant award banquet for our work, but i was the only one of our ragtag trio who showed up. i found an email address for libby not long ago, but she never responded to the message i sent her. no surprise there…most people are wet noodles anyway. we knew that already. i also found an online resume where she says she “directed all aspects” of the video. that’s interesting, because i remember it a little differently, and when you get to the credits, there are some other names there aside from hers. just a few. gotta love revisionist history.

and now, video action:

check out the dude with short hair and no facial hair smiling at the beginning. i haven’t changed a bit since then, have i?

meet my new friend martin.

it’s surprisingly light. it’s pretty. it’s one of the most comfortable guitars i’ve ever played (the work they do at folkway is second to none). it doesn’t sound too bad either. hooray for early birthday presents, i say. i apologize for the awkward framing and cutting off the top of my own head, but filming myself on a beanbag chair is uncharted territory for me. the real eye candy is the guitar anyway. i can tell already that it’s going to record ridiculously well.

to go into a bit more detail than i do in the video — back in march i decided to buy it as a fixer-upper. i always wanted a martin, but didn’t want to spend ten thousand bucks on a really nice vintage one. here was an opportunity to have a 1945 martin restored for much less money. the only caveat was that i would have to wait a while. i didn’t have any problem with that…but who knew it would be finished the day before my birthday? talk about poetic timing.

mark did a hell of a lot of work on this guitar; when i first saw it in march, the neck wasn’t even attached to the body and the original frets were in pretty bad shape. he set the neck, added a new bridge and bridge pin, made new frets, added a new bone nut and saddle, new tuners and end pins, re-glued some braces and refurbished/repaired some damage. and damned if that old hunk of wood doesn’t sound pretty special. the video’s sound does it no justice at all.

the work he did is seamless, and it’s difficult to believe the guitar ever wasn’t assembled in one piece. i almost don’t believe it myself. he also put it in an open tuning before it even got to me, knowing the way that i play and that standard tuning doesn’t often do much to get me excited. i’m used to giving people guitars in odd tunings and getting them back in standard, which is kind of irritating, so you can imagine my surprise. some people really do think before they tune. who knew? since the little video clip, i’ve tuned the guitar down another half-step to d-flat, and it sounds even more ridiculously earthy and good.

now i find myself playing bluesy things all over again, so i guess some sort of sequel to CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN will eventually force its way into the world whether i like it or not. maybe i’ll call it THE DUCK DEMON MAN WITH AN ASHTRAY. the cover art would be epic.

there’s another new musical friend (a complete surprise, this one), but i’ll save that one for another video. the point is, getting older doesn’t hurt quite as much when you’ve got new wooden friends to play with.

p.s. the new cd is now at phog for anyone who wants a copy. tom took a picture of me making a creepy face and holding it up like a confused parent coming down off of a questionable pineapple juice high. some tasty carribean cream soda was consumed. luckily i wasn’t driving.

the opposite of fail.

the key to success?

today my booklets were released from purgatory and official cd release day was allowed to happen. all praise processed cheese, and scantily clad women too. there is now a gigantic box of cds at dr. disc (more than twice what i normally leave there, so it should last a while), and by tomorrow night there should be some copies at phog as well if anyone wants to grab one. next week about three hundred of them will go out in the mail. i’m slightly exaggerating, but still. if i have your address and you haven’t horribly wronged me in some way, chances are you’ll find one in the mail in the next week or two. it’ll be interesting to see how people respond to it. an EP of songs that didn’t make the album and/or weren’t finished in time should follow in the next month or two, complete with ridiculous cover art. and then i might have time to squeeze out at least one more album before the year’s end. gotta make up for lost time. so far, i think i’m doing pretty good…i don’t think i’ve had a year this productive since 2004, and the year ain’t over yet.

it’s nice to be back on track.


angry garfield

turns out today isn’t official cd release day after all; my booklets are sort of being held hostage at the moment. i guess we’ll have to shoot for tomorrow instead. in the meantime, you can read a bit about the album here if you like. and if i don’t get my booklets by tomorrow afternoon, i’m going to come back here and type nasty things that will make even paris hilton blush. you’ve been warned.

now those are what i call implants…

holly madison doubles her pleasure

cds are currently being assembled. by me. because i am the man of our times. only not. i think i’m up to about 75 right now. that’s a pretty good start. i caught an unexpected error in the bookets, so those had to be sent to correction purgatory, but they should be back and error-free by tomorrow afternoon. so that means tomorrow is “official cd release day”, when little boxes of cds materialize at phog and dr. disc, and about fifty of them go out in the mail to different people, in different places. i better start writing some letters to go with them…

it’s kind of neat having a proper booklet to accompany one of my cds for once—not like the novel that came with OUT-TAKES, MISFITS & OTHER THINGS, but a booklet with lyrics and pictures. i don’t know if i’ll end up doing it again for future cds (printing the lyrics for all to see feels a little odd, for one thing), but it was fun to try this time, just to see what it would be like.

most of the new album was recorded before i got that a-designs hammer eq, but i can definitely hear a difference in the drum tracks recorded before and after i got it. it’s subtly serious. or seriously subtle. that thing is smooooooth. needless to say, i’m never using digital eq on a ribbon microphone again, or much of anything else for that matter.

more exciting news coming soon. because i’m just an exciting guy. i should rename this blog “johnny’s big shiny exciting stuff happen place!” i think that would totally expand my readership. and what’s a ship if the occupants are illiterate anyway?

we’re lit, sir.

i put this up in a secret place just to see what it looked like, but thought i might put it up here for the moment too. last night’s show was a lot of fun, and i even got to keep my ears intact for a change. here’s the pudding-proof. thanks to ismal for handling the camera.

FIELD ASSEMBLY, live at taloola (saturday, august 8, 2009)

adam fox 
voice, guitar, master of ceremonies

stephen hargreaves 
snare drum, melodica, brushed melodica, bass, terminally cool hair

yours truly 
wurlitzer, harmonies, a bit of ill-advised melodica at the beginning of one song

funny how the last song wasn’t even remotely rehearsed, but we nailed the harmonies anyway. and i was almost trapped into playing something of my own as a post-encore encore. really…there was an amp blocking my way out of the little performance area so i couldn’t run away. entrapment!

but seriously. it was a good time.

would you like to see my pet giraffe?

after having a few days to absorb something-or-other, my ambivalence faded and i decided my attempt at sequencing the album seemed to work well enough. then came the fun stuff — album art.

lately i find myself in one of two positions: either i end up scrambling at the last minute for album cover art, or i have an idea/image in mind for a while before things reach the finish line, and it sticks.

this time it was a little different. i figured it was time to give the old “artist appearing on their album” thing a try again. maybe i could erase the bad taste left in my mouth when previous forays into that sticky territory didn’t quite turn out as i planned. generally i like to see something more interesting than the artist’s face on an album cover (unless the artist in question is pj harvey, emmylou harris, kate bush, chan marshall, or…well…you get the idea), but sometimes it fits. i also thought it might be fun to try capturing some “in the studio” type images, since my recorded work hasn’t had a whole lot of visual documentation.

bree came over on saturday and took 143 pictures of me. that number was shaved down to 59. and then i was left with a problem i’ve never had before — having a whole of images to choose from.

i ping-ponged back and forth between different ideas. i liked that there were a lot of shots of my hands doing things without the face being seen. i liked the pictures of my reflection caught in the piano’s shine, but they seemed like they would work better for an album that was more piano-centric. for a while i was almost set on a shot of a microphone in sharp focus, juxtaposed against my out-of-focus face.

in the end, the picture i least expected to take home the prize ended up feeling like the most appropriate one. i’m there, but my face isn’t clearly seen, obscured by shadows. sounds about right.

then i selected a handful of shots for the booklet, to break up some of the words and make it more interesting. it was kind of a shot in the dark, really. i have way too many favourites to fit in one CD booklet. you could make a hardcover coffee table book out of them. but it’s nice to have some pictures of me in my element, doing a bit of what i do. there haven’t been any of those since 2003. not all of the chaos that’s the studio was captured, but that would have been an insane undertaking anyway with everything there is to see and all the different angles it could have been shot from.

maybe some of the shots i didn’t use will show up in different places down the road. for now, here are some of my favourites that didn’t end up making it onto the cover or into the booklet, for no real reason at all. huge thanks to bree for taking all these pictures and making me look not as much like the least photogenic person in the world i am most of the time.

this is a pearlman TM-LE, which is maybe my new favourite microphone. it’s got some of the sweetest “air” i’ve ever heard, without getting the least bit harsh. just yummy extended goodness. leave it to dave to make another mic that makes an amazing swiss army knife.

here i am in the midst of a little bit of the chaos, wondering how i’m ever going to record everything i need to while i’m still virile and able.

happy micron

yes, alesis micron. you is my friend.

in focus, out of focus, hocus pocus.

this guitar (a washburn D82WE — probably one of the only really high end, non-cheapo models washburn has made in recent years, so of course it’s discontinued now) tried to commit suicide once, but we brought it back and convinced it life was worth living. it’s still got the scars to remind it of wilder times. it’s been in a pretty weird-ass tuning for a number of years, and is the guitar “don’t be tense”, “creepy crawly things”, “organ smears”, and a lot of other songs i still need to record were written/played on.

the kay thin twin. a lot of the electric guitar on the new album is this thing. funny how two of my favourite guitars these days are kays. the K-22 i picked up late last year has become my go-to acoustic guitar and is all over the last few albums, while the thin twin is fast becoming one of my favourite electrics. these seem to be two of the only guitars that will tolerate a particular D tuning i’m fond of without the intonation getting dodgy at all, so that’s nice too.

they’re also kind of sleepers on the vintage guitar market, so they don’t command anywhere near the price of a vintage martin or gibson, though i’d put them right up there in terms of tone, playability, and overall coolness factor. someday people will catch on and a vintage K-22 like the one i got for a song will probably be going for five grand or so. or maybe i’m wrong. time will tell.

there are about half a dozen shots of piano hands, and i like them all. picking one to put in the booklet came down to which one struck me as having the most appropriate mood to it. but any of them could have made the cut. those are some pretty long fingers…

and there are many others i like a lot as well. these are just a few of my favourites. bree takes some snazzy pictures, she do. she also makes you forget the camera is there, which gets rid of the self-conscious hooey that tends to kill good candid shots. i never enjoyed family picture time at olan mills when i was younger…fake smiles all around.

emotionally stunted hypocrites really do pull off that smarmy fake smile thing, though, don’t they? gotta give them credit for that.

now that i know you’re busy drooling over my rugged good looks (or plucking out your eyes to make the hurting stop), i should pause to tell you i’m playing a show at taloola cafe on saturday august 8th backing up adam. music starts at 8:00 pm and ends by 9:00. an early show! in a place with no p.a. system whatsoever! no hearing loss! praise señor jesus, and the little girl who sold me lemonade last summer.

the field assembly lineup for this show will be just adam, stephen hargreaves, and myself. i get to play wurlitzer electric piano in a live setting and drink tea that smells pretty. should be fun.