Month: November 2009

Some things are true whether you believe in them or not.

Meryl made me a rendering of myself as a South Park character, and it’s too good to keep to myself. So I thought I’d share it here. It’s so me it’s kind of hilarious, right down to the shirt (which is very much like one of my favourite shirts with buttons from recent years) and headphones (which are very much like my fancy new headphones few have seen and lived to remember seeing). It appears in this scene that someone has returned my beloved childhood Casio keyboard to me, complete with a sleek new paint job, and I am in awe. One of these days I need to buy one of those Casios off of eBay or something. The circuit-bent ones look pretty neat, and you can coax some startlingly demented sounds out of them.

Speaking of funky things with keys, I finally found a user manual for the Arp Omni-2 over here in PDF form. Craziness. I’m not sure I want to know what the supposed “honky tonk piano” setting sounds like, though. Old analog synths don’t exactly do piano sounds very convincingly, which is part of their charm.

Speaking of identity, it has come to my attention that there’s a local dude who doesn’t believe I exist. He thinks I’m Eric Welton’s alter ego — a musical practical joke Eric has invented and played on the whole city.

I’m serious. This is a real thing.

It’s probably the funniest thing I’ve heard in at least six days. Putting aside the musical evidence (our voices, recording/production styles, and the kind of music we make are all very different), I give you visual evidence.

Here is Eric looking pensive.

Here is Johnny looking pensive.

And here is a pink dragon looking pensive.

Maybe we’re both just alter egos for the pink dragon. Think about it.

Or maybe I should take the opportunity to have some fun with this and try to convince more people I don’t exist and really am just a figment of Eric’s imagination. It would be a good story, wouldn’t it?

Most important of all, “wilkins” is British slang for “penis”. This word will now show up in every song I write for at least the next three days.

She’ll be using 7A sticks when she drums.

I ran into a bit of a roadblock.

I kind of knew it was coming. When you normally just record a bunch of stuff with no grand plan in mind, and then you decide this time you’re going to map it all out beforehand and it must be brilliant, and challenging, and ambitious, and unlike anything you’ve ever done before…well…you’re asking for trouble.

After recording a few songs I liked and considered album material, I found myself at a bit of an impasse. New songs kept on coming left and right, but most of them seemed too “normal” and “typically Johnny-like” to fit on this next album. I think I recorded one song in the entire month of October. That’s slower than arthritic molasses by my standards. I’m glad to say it was a short-lived crisis, as recording some songs with Travis reminded me I work best when I fly by the seat of my pants. Because my ass has wings.

Some people need to have an album written before they go into the studio. They record demos of the songs to figure out how they want to arrange them, and then spend months — if not years — perfecting the performances, recordings, mixes, artwork, and everything. Me, I’m at my best when I record the bulk of an album in a mad burst of activity in the space of two or three weeks, don’t go into it with any concrete plans, and just let the music do what it wants to do, since most of the time it knows better than me what it should be anyway.

Some of the best songs on the last few albums were either written in about five minutes and thrown together haphazardly or more or less improvised into existence while recording. If I sit on an album and tweak it for a year or two, it will either turn into a giant mess I’ll abandon when I lose interest, or it’ll be a quadruple CD set by the time it’s finished. And option #2 there is probably going to become a reality one of these days…

Two new songs kind of hammered home for me that I can do things that are different and more ambitious without getting bogged down in mapping it all out beforehand. One is still a work-in-progress recording-wise, while the other is finished and has just been mixed.

The one I’m still working on was born as an interesting (to me, at least) acoustic guitar thing that has an odd rhythm to it, and I figured it would work well with a few tracks of leg-slapping feigning handclaps. I got the guitar take I wanted, only to realize too late my guitar was in tune with itself but out of tune with everything else in the world. The recent change in humidity caused it to rise a bit in pitch overnight.

Instead of changing the recording speed so everything else would be a little out of tune in order to sound in tune with the guitar, I tuned it up right and then recorded a second guitar track on top. That made for a cool natural chorus effect. I’m not sure why I never thought to try this before. Two guitars that are in tune with themselves but just a hair out of tune with each other, mostly playing the same things, make for an interesting sound. And for some reason I feel like the leg slaps give the whole thing a flamenco flavour.

I added bass, but the song seemed unsure of where to go. Then I picked up a banjo — an instrument I’ve been neglecting lately — and messed around a bit. I ended up coming up with a banjo part that changed the tone of the whole song, and it suddenly became a lot more interesting. It still needs some work. My drum part probably needs to be simplified a bit, it needs vocals, and I think I want to add a bit of piano and distorted guitar with some pretty violent tremolo action. But it should be pretty spiffy once it’s finished.

For some reason, whenever I record a background/supplemental part on guitar or banjo or something with strings I almost always find myself distant mic’ing it. I don’t know why. Maybe I like getting more of the room in there and not having any low end mud to contend with. Maybe I just like playing around with different tonal things. Or maybe, when my vocal mic is staring at me expecting some action, I’m too lazy to walk four feet over thataway to grab an SDC, so I just stick the Pearlman TM-1 in omni, turn up the preamp gain, and go to town.

Who knows where the truth lies? All I know is I started doing this around the time I was recording AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, and it’s stuck. Some fiddly things like to be recorded from a distance. And some of my favourite sounds have come from doing things the wrong way. Some of the best electric guitar sounds I’ve captured didn’t even have the microphone pointing at the amplifier. I’m not sure if or when I’ll ever be moved to use anything more than the stereo ribbon mic on my drum set again, because it sounds like drums in a room, which is what I like to hear most of the time. The banjo part on that leg-slapping song was recorded with the mic nowhere near the banjo and then double-tracked. I’m not sure it would have the same character I like so much if I close-mic’d it.

Space is a funny thing. It’s more fun using odd mic-placement strategies to get things to sit where you want them tonally, instead of EQing everything to death. Although, death by EQ would be an event. “Give him a 12dB boost at 18K! Fry his ass!”

The song that is finished is a different beast. It started out as nothing more than a percussion track, with two different gongs playing off of each other. I liked the way they sounded muffled in my hand instead of ringing out freely, and found two that I thought would work together nicely the way they were pitched. They also turned out to be in tune with each other but slightly out of tune with everything else. Just like that guitar was. This time I did change the recording speed just a titch to get everything in tune.

After the gongs were tracked I added some bass and Fender Rhodes, a little improvised vocal silliness, and then I wasn’t sure what else to do. So I just tried a bunch of different stuff. Isn’t that what stuff is for? After a lot of improvisation and randomness I ended up with an eight-minute song called “Skull Jugglers” that’s more of a soundscape than a proper song, though it isn’t really that either, because it keeps changing shape until it dies.

It starts off with about thirty seconds of guitar noise that’s as close as I’ve ever been to shoegaze territory. Then there’s the gong-driven thing, which is mainly an exploration of a groove, with different sounds appearing and disappearing and reappearing. Then all of that cuts out and a completely different piano thing kicks in, ambling around, building, finally cohering into something that starts to sound like a proper song (though an odd one — like some sort of demented mournful spiritual with marching band snare or something). And then that cuts out in favour of more random guitar.

While the music was taking shape I ended up writing a bunch of lyrics I liked, but it turned out the music didn’t want them for the most part. I guess the stuff about the words we use to define ourselves developing minds of their own will have to wait for another song. I’d put the finished product up on Spyspace, but I’d rather keep it under wraps for now. I’m sure some other new song will be showing up there (or here) in the next little bit.

One of my favourite things about the song is tonal again. In this case it’s the sound of the Fender Rhodes. My grunty Paul tube amp and its tremolo gave the double-tracked Rhodes an almost vibraphone-like sound. I’m not sure why I never thought to plug the Rhodes into that thing before. I also never thought to record DI’d electric guitar before — straight into the preamp, with no amp or amp simulator anywhere in the signal path. I think it makes for an interesting guitar sound at the end of the song before it doubles back on itself.

I now have no real concrete idea of what this album will sound like by the time it’s finished, but I guess it’s better that way. I know it’ll be different from the last one, and the one before that, and so on. But I need to let it find its own identity instead of trying to lead it around like a musical doggy. I don’t need no song-bitten hands.

One thing I can tell you is there will probably be a number of pretty long songs. Aside from the aforementioned track with multiple personality disorder, there’s another that’s eight minutes long, and a few more that have yet to be recorded but should end up hovering somewhere around the six-to-ten-minute mark. It’s fun working with longer forms again and completely subverting or avoiding conventional song structures.

Death to choruses! Long live random segues and jarring jump-cuts!

Guys with Dicks Appreciation Day.

I once had a band. The name of that band was Guys with Dicks. It was meant to be an immature joke so I could have an excuse to call the first album WITHOUT DICKS and laugh about it softly to myself. I didn’t feel pressed to come up with anything better because I didn’t think we would ever turn into anything serious. Ten albums of original material, a few “greatest hits” type compilations, and a collection of out-takes later, I still couldn’t for the life of me come up with any other name that felt appropriate. We were stuck with our gender and our genitals.

I’ve covered some of the story/history/herstory throughout the album pages for the CDs we recorded, found on the sidebar off to the right. And it isn’t yet wintertime, so the snow hasn’t made me all nostalgic for GWD days gone by. It isn’t the one-year anniversary of either our formation or our demise. Still, I decree that this day of this year — but not any other year — shall be Guys with Dicks Appreciation Day.

Really, I just finally have some video to share that I’ve been meaning to put up here for well over a year and-a-half now. Tyson has (or at least had at one time) a ton of footage he shot of us in the studio and elsewhere that would make for a fantastic homemade documentary of that time, the music we were making, and the people we were, but I never got around to getting him to dub me a VHS copy of what he had. And now that he’s living in Prince Edward Island, that ship has probably sailed and sunk, never to be exhumed.

As heartbreaking as that is for the three people who would want to watch a documentary about the weird not-quite-rock group I once had when I was a teenager (and you have no idea how much I’d enjoy putting something like that together if it were possible), I do have this footage of us playing together for what turned out to be pretty much the last time, at one of our only live gigs. We broke up just as we were finally going to take what we were doing behind closed doors and bring it out into the world while honing our live chops.

Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something. Something like, “Don’t play live.”

Anyway. Huge thanks have to go out to Larry Girard — not only for helping me to digitize the battered old VHS tape so I could put the video up here, but for filming it in the first place way back in April of 2002 with the tiny bit of film he had left in his camera after the Clifton Grant Award banquet had finally spun itself out. Just think — if Ken Bondy had shut his hot-air-spewing pie-hole and stopped grandstanding a little sooner, we might have been able to get the whole eleven-song set on video. It wasn’t to be, and Ken is probably still spewing hot air wherever he is now to anyone who’ll listen.

At least we have these two songs on video. And at least I was able to capture most of the rest of the set on my mixer in audio form (though at less than ideal quality).

“Something About Lies” straight-up destroys the album version of the song. On CD it was one of the few times our “improvising everything out of thin air while recording” ethos led to a performance that didn’t quite cohere. This is about as close as we got to ballad territory back then. Rehearsing for the show put us in the strange position of having to teach ourselves songs we’d improvised and never really returned to after that, draining some of the surprise out of them in the process. But this was one song that benefited in a big way from being tightened up.

My voice is a little distorted and the sound quality isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the audio I “professionally” recorded sans-video. And I didn’t think to hit the record button until the second song, so it’s a good thing the camera caught what was probably the best performance of the night. I can’t get over how young I look without any facial hair. Based on this evidence, if I shaved it off today I’d probably look like I was twelve years old again.

“Mean It” doesn’t stack up to the studio recording, and it gets a little muddled at the end. Part of the blame rests with being forced to rework the end of the song. I couldn’t scream my guts out the way I normally would since we were playing at a dinner banquet for an audience of people several times our age. I did get to let loose more later on, because before long just about everyone had left and there wasn’t as much of a need to play it safe anymore. The banquet lasted more than an hour and-a-half longer than advertised (thanks again in large part to that shithead Ken), so people were tired and in no mood to stick around for the live entertainment. The whole thing is a long story I won’t delve into here. Suffice to say it was not the ideal gig for us.

Hey, at least we got this video footage out of it.

With “Mean It”, I thought I would synchronize the video with my own audio recording for better sound quality. Larry got in closer with the camera for this one to get some better shots, and as a result the sound suffered a bit and the drums kind of overpowered everything else. My audio is an improvement, but it’s still very flawed. My voice is now really distorted, though the overall mix is more balanced than what the camera’s mic captured. Check out Gord’s fingers dancing all over the bass. You even get a full-on guitar solo from me, though it’s far from my most blistering work. There’s some pretty aggressive guitar-playing squirreled away on those old GWD CDs, with me trying to strangle the instrument and let loose as a “lead guitarist” in some ways I haven’t really touched on since.

To give you a better indication of what we were doing around that time when we didn’t need to tone it down (while still not providing you with one of my more unhinged guitar moments), here is what remains one of my favourite tracks off of STELLAR, our last full-length album. It’s very much an R-rated song, or maybe even NC-17, so be prepared. I’m still not quite sure why I gravitated toward such graphic sexual imagery when I was angry back then.

I Feel Great (2002)

The whole thing was improvised while recording as usual, complete with the introductory “interview” bit, though Tyson was able to talk me into breaking my usual “no overdubs” rule to add a little bit of vocal harmony after the fact. The sound quality isn’t even close to what it would be within just a few months. It’s dark and muddy. But that’s always seemed appropriate to me, given what was going on in and around my head at the time. I wasn’t in a happy place. It wouldn’t have felt right if I tried to make happy music.

Still, as ugly as some of the work that came out of that time is, somehow I can enjoy listening to it now. I’m glad I was honest about what I was thinking and feeling, and glad I chose to channel it into the music I was making, whatever I happened to be feeling, whenever I happened to be making music. I listen to something like this now and barely even recognize that guy. It almost doesn’t sound like me. It’s a far cry from what I’ve been doing in recent years, that’s for sure. I wonder how the people who are only familiar with my recent solo work would react if I reissued some of this stuff. Hell, everyone else remasters and reissues their back catalogue. The problem is my back catalogue is so bloated, if I started that kind of project I might never finish.

Maybe that’s a task for someone else to tackle posthumously, making at least sixteen dollars off of my music after I’m gone. I can totally hear that song working in a car commercial…can’t you?

Pick it like you mean it.

I guess after barraging you with YouTube videos for a while it was about time I started barraging you with videos that didn’t originate from there. So here’s a little bit of visually uninteresting messing around on the Martin 00-17. It ain’t the tidiest playing, but I wanted to get the idea down while it was fresh.

If I didn’t like that guitar so much in its current open D-flat tuning I’d drop it down even more open C and I think my jaw would drop down to my genitals. And then I could nibble on my wee-wee!

Did I just type that? I guess I did.

Also, last night I was fortunate enough to catch a new Steven Seagal movie on TV called Driven to Kill. In it, our man Steve plays a Russian mobster — complete with a Russian accent (really) — and he has lines like, “The men who did this will cry tears of blood.” It needs to be seen to be believed.

It is, quite simply, the best movie ever made.

In the studio with T-Rizzle and J-Wizzle.

At long last, here is some more “in studio” video. But this time it’s more interesting, because there are two people doing a bunch of stuff instead of just one, and the camera actually moves around sometimes instead of being a static observer.

This should give you an idea of a little bit of what happens when two guys with facial hair get together in a room full of instruments and musical equipment. I only wish I captured Travis singing in the voice of Kermit the Frog. The pathos would bring a tear to your eye. I swear it would.

The original file is gigantic and takes hours to upload, and right now it keeps crapping out on me. WordPress seems to not like it when I give it files in excess of a gigabyte lately. It’s odd, because I’ve uploaded files twice that size with no trouble before. So this is a compressed version. Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to get it up here at the intended quality level, though I don’t think it took too much of a hit in shaving it down to blog-friendly size.

Until that time comes, remember the wise words of Eddie Money: “No, you can’t spend me. I’m not paper. Stop making currency-related jokes at my expense! I am not ‘so money’! Don’t make me pull out my saxophone!”

Prune juice and vodka for everyone.

Weiner War

Hollow Weiner weekend is coming to an end. At least we’ll always have the charcoal stains to remember it by.

My Halloween was not spent doing anything scary at all. Instead, Travis came over and we had some fun with one of his songs. I’ve been talking about wanting to do something more layered for a while now, and I finally got the opportunity to do just that — with someone else’s music.

I wish I’d captured some of the recording process on video, because it was really interesting how things took shape, and two guys doing a whole lot of different things is much more visually interesting than just one guy doing a whole lot of different things. Maybe next time.

Random ideas became accidental epiphanies. I thought it would be fun to try recording harmonies with both of us singing into one microphone (the Pearlman TM-1 in omni — still putting a smile on my ears all the time and never needing any EQ no matter what’s in front of it) and then double-tracking it, to eat up less tracks and just to see how it sounded. Having more than one person around a microphone is hardly a new concept in the world of recording, but it’s not something I often get to try. The result was a huge, organic, almost quasi-gospel vocal sound.

Later on, Travis suggested plugging his sexy Martin acoustic guitar into my little forty-something-year-old Paul tube amp when we were looking for more grit and some combo organ didn’t quite cut it. Most of the time you don’t even want to hear what an acoustic guitar sounds like going into an electric guitar amplifier. It’s not too pretty. But this guitar has some kind of bizarre magic going on, and it sounds so chunky and delicious you probably wouldn’t believe it was an acoustic guitar if you heard the results. It turned out to be exactly what the song needed, gluing the whole thing together in a nice way.

All told, we ended up maxing out all sixteen of the available tracks on the mixer, which isn’t something I’ve done since “Amphetamine Rush” on OH YOU THIS more than six years ago. Mixing it was an interesting challenge, trying to find space for every voice and instrument. You want the electric guitars to be big and powerful without drowning everything else out. You don’t want all those acoustic guitars to get lost in the shuffle. You might have to move the Wurlitzer around a bit mid-song when things start to get busy so it doesn’t end up completely buried by everything else. It’s fun to have to think a bit more about all of this, not being able to just fall into my usual mixing comfort zone where certain things have specific places to go and that’s the end of it. One of Beyonce’s backup dancers would surely approve. Maybe I can get her to defect and become my backup dancer instead.

The point is, fun was had, and not a single trick-or-treater interrupted. Who could ask for anything more?