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 uber-expensive fancy headphones that few have seen and lived to remember seeing). it appears in this scene that someone has returned my beloved childhood casio SK-1 to me, complete with sleek new paint job, and i am in awe. one of these days i need to buy one of those 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 well, 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 actually exist; rather, he thinks i am eric welton’s musical alter ego. this is probably the funniest thing i have heard in at least six days. putting aside the musical evidence (our voices and styles/sounds are pretty 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 actively try to convince people i don’t really exist, but am in fact 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 involving the next album recently. i kind of knew it was coming. when you normally just record a bunch of stuff with no grand plan in mind, and decide that 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 that 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 me-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. luckily it was a short-lived crisis, as recording some songs with travis reminded me that i work best when i just fly by the seat of my pants. because my ass has wings.

some people need to have an album written completely before they go into the studio, 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 / etc. 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 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 (though not in the same way the old guys with dicks stuff was improvised). if i sit on an album and tweak it for a year or two, it will either turn into a giant mess that i will abandon when i finally lose interest, or it’ll be a 4-cd set by the time it’s finished. and option #2 there is probably going to become a reality one of these days in the not too distant future, but i digress…

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 that 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 (since leg slaps seem to come out sounding much nicer when recording). i got the guitar take i wanted, only to realize too late that my guitar was in tune with itself but out of tune with everything else; the change in humidity had caused it to rise a bit in pitch overnight.

instead of changing the recording speed so that everything else would be slightly out of tune in order to be in tune with the guitar, i tuned it properly and then recorded a second guitar track, which 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 slightly out of tune with each other, mostly playing the same things, make for an interesting sound. the leg slaps gave the whole thing almost a flamenco-ish lilt.

i added bass, but the song seemed unsure of where to go. then i picked up a banjo, which is an instrument i’ve been neglecting lately, and just messed around a bit. i ended up coming up with a banjo part that altered 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 violent tremolo — 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 often 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 things tonally. or maybe, when my vocal mic is just 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 in omni, turn up the preamp gain, and go to town.

who knows where the truth lies? all i know is that i started doing this around the time i was recording AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, and it’s stuck. some frilly things like to be mic’d 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 double-tracked, and yet it sounds about ten times better than it would have if i had close mic’d the same performance and double-tracked it.

space is a funny thing. it’s more fun using odd mic-placement techniques to get things to sit where you want them tonally, instead of eqing everything to death. although, death by EQ would certainly be an event. “give him a 12dB boost at 18k! fry his ass!”

the song that is finished is a different affair altogether, and proof that i don’t need to really think about what i’m doing in order to do something different. it started out as nothing more than a percussion track, with two different gongs playing off of one another. 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 one another but slightly out of tune with everything else. this time i did change the recording speed just a titch to get everything in tune.

after the gongs had been tracked, i added some bass and fender rhodes, a little improvised vocal silliness, and wasn’t sure what else to do. so i just tried a bunch of different stuff, because isn’t that what stuff is for? through a lot of improvisation and randomness, i ended up with an eight minute song called “skull jugglers” that is 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 got to shoegazer 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 that i kind of liked, but it turned out that the music didn’t want them for the most part. i guess the stuff about the words that 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 or something, but i’d rather keep it under wraps for now. i’m sure something else new 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 later on in the song. my grunty paul tube amp and its tremolo give the double-tracked rhodes an almost vibraphone-like sound at times. i’m not sure why i don’t think to plug the rhodes into that thing more often. i also never thought to record d.i. electric guitar before — straight into the preamp, with no amp or amp simulator anywhere. 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 suppose it’s better that way. the important thing is that it will 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 bitten hands.

one thing i can tell you is that there will probably be a number of fairly long songs. aside from the aforementioned track with multiple personality disorder, there’s another that’s 8 1/2 minutes long, and a few more that have yet to be recorded but should end up hovering somewhere around the 6-10 minute realm. it’s fun working with longer forms again, and completely subverting/avoiding conventional song structures. death to choruses! long live random segues and jarring jump-cuts!

i’m still aiming to have it done and release-ready sometime in december. we’ll see how that works out.

guys with dicks appreciation day.

i once had a band. the name of that band was guys with dicks. our nomenclature was intended as a lame joke so i could call the first album WITHOUT DICKS and laugh about it softly to myself, and 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 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, which are easily 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 (i’m sure i’ll have a hefty post about all of that when the time is right). 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 sadly i never quite managed to get him to dub me a vhs copy of what he had. and now that he’s in prince edward island and we’ll probably never be on speaking terms again, it’s a dead donkey.

as heartbreaking as that is for the three people who would actually want to watch a documentary about the weird not-quite-rock group i once had (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, for one of our only live gigs of any kind. 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…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 pie-hole and stopped grandstanding, and things hadn’t dragged on for so long, we might have ended up getting the whole 11-song set on video. alas, 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 i was able to capture most of the rest of the set on my mixer (though with less than ideal sound quality).

“something about lies” completely destroys the cd version of the song, where for once the fact that we were improvising everything out of thin air while recording 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 re-learn songs we had originally improvised and never really learned or even written in the proper sense, draining some of the surprise out of them in the process, but this was one song that definitely benefited from some tightening.

my voice is a little distorted and the sound quality isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely 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 12 again.

“mean it”, on the other hand, doesn’t stack up to the “studio” recording, and it gets a little muddled at the end. that’s partially due to the fact that we had to try to re-work the end of the song since i couldn’t scream my way to a climax the way i normally would, given the fact that 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 had gone more than an hour and-a-half over-time, so people were tired and in no mood to stick around for the live entertainment). the whole debacle is a long story that i won’t delve into here…i think i might have touched on it very briefly on the CONDOM MINTS page. suffice to say it was not the ideal gig for us, but at least we got this video footage out of it.

for “mean it”, i thought i would synchronize the video with the audio from the cd recording of the show for better sound quality; larry got in closer with the camera for this one to get some better shots, so the sound suffered a bit and the drums kind of overpowered everything else. my audio recording is an improvement, but still deeply flawed. my voice is now terribly distorted, while the overall mix is more balanced than it is on the video’s soundtrack. 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 as i tried 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 nastier 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 sexual imagery when i was angry back then.

Guys With Dicks – I Feel Great

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…the sound is 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, and i wasn’t role-playing.

still, as ugly as some of the music 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 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 definitely a far cry from what i’ve been doing in recent years, musically and vocally. that final build-up at the end kind of raises the hair on the back of my neck. i wonder how 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 be finished.

so 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 there, 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 oo-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 into 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.

more importantly, last night i was fortunate enough to catch a new steven seagal movie on tv called driven to kill, in which our man steve plays a russian mobster…complete with a russian accent (really), and 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 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 1GB lately, which is 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.

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 had captured some of the recording process on video, because it was really interesting how things took shape sonically, and two guys doing a whole lot of different things is visually more 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 TM1 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, partially to eat up less tracks and partially 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 40-something-year-old tube amp when we were looking for more grit and some combo organ didn’t quite cut it. normally 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 at all if you heard the results. it turned out to be exactly what the song needed, and kind of glued the whole thing together in a nice way.

all told, we ended up maxing out all 16 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 all 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 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 these sorts of things, 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?