I was hoping Travis might write his take on the recording of Outside the Factory Gates, and he did over on his website. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in what the music is about and what was going on in and around the album while he was writing it and we were recording it. He also says some very nice things about me.
In case you can’t access his site or just lack the finger strength to click through, here’s the story behind OUTSIDE THE FACTORY GATES from Travis’s perspective.
It’s amazing what can happen when two people with immense amounts of mutual respect for one another get together. I released Bluebeard in the summer of 2008, and although I’m proud of what Eric Welton and I accomplished with that album, I’m ultimately not too happy with it. I quickly moved past it and found that my music evolved quite quickly away from it. Within about a month of its release, I had another album completely written.
Just two months after Bluebeard‘s release in August, Eric and I got together again and started working on my second album Holes & Tones. Needless to say, it still hasn’t been released. It’s been sitting about 90% done for the better part of a year. Circumstances and difficult times stalled the album time after time and I still haven’t found the motivation to finish it. It will eventually come out and Eric will produce it, but I’m not sure when.
I went on tour in July with Derek Harrison. That tour was originally intended to be a CD release tour for Holes & Tones and although I had a great time and really enjoyed the experience, it was ultimately a disappointment as I had nothing to sell and quite often told people that I simply had nothing to give them when they asked. I also had to cancel numerous magazine and campus radio station interviews which added to the frustration. I returned to Windsor for the rest of the summer to find that my mother (living back in my hometown of Cobourg) had fallen ill with the reoccurring symptoms of a brain tumour. I was so discouraged with everything that I seriously considered giving up on music all together. The thought continued to cross my mind until October.
So how did Outside the Factory Gates come to fruition?
I met Johnny West right around the time The Chicken Angel Woman with a Triangle came out in 2008. Ron Leary had turned me on to his music about a year before that and Chicken Angel was one of the best albums I’d heard from anyone in a long time. It truly is one of my favourite albums.
As I was getting increasingly discouraged with music, Johnny and I started talking more and more frequently and I realized we had a very strong musical connection and many of the negative things I was feeling about music and the music scene in Windsor, he agreed with wholeheartedly. We found that the level of respect in the city amongst musicians left something to be desired and people did way too much shit-talking for their own good. But I digress, that’s a story for another day.
Johnny and I hung out often throughout the summer and I eventually started playing some songs for him. One in particular, “Factory Gates”, made an immediate impression on him and he suggested recording it someday. Halloween night we finally got around to doing it and we immediately realized how easy it was for the two of us to work together. I immediately felt re-energized with music and realized why I loved playing so much in the first place. I credit Johnny for bringing the fire back. He made music enjoyable again.
That night I got home and thought, ‘I have to record a full-length album with Johnny.’
For a few months, I had been throwing around the idea of writing an album of songs for the working class; a protest folk album of songs themed around Windsor and the profound things currently happening here with the horrific economic conditions. Over the summer, the Veteran Taxi and City workers strikes provided just the inspiration to write such an album. When Johnny and I agreed to pursue the album I wasn’t sure I had enough material, but it turned out I had been writing more than I thought. I actually had over an hour of material done and ready with another couple songs waiting in the wings. After editing out the songs that still needed work or just weren’t good enough, I settled on a list of 12 tracks covering just under 44 minutes.
For the next two months, Johnny and I got together about 8 or 9 times and to our amazement recorded the entire thing, usually finishing at least one song in its entirety each time, often finishing two. That may sound rushed, but it wasn’t. We just let things happen naturally and it naturally went very quickly.
As far as the nuts and bolts of the album itself, I believe Johnny did a much better job of describing it than I could ever hope to on his website. I will say that my favourites on the whole album ended up being three songs that I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about when we started out; “Beggars”, “Renée’s Song”, and “Neodepression”.
My favourite moments are the studio dialogue during the breakdown in “Factory Gates”, Johnny’s piano on “Beggars” and “Stop Comin’ Round Here”, his glockenspiel on “Renée’s Song”, and how every song is filled with small mistakes and holes that I believe give the album the exact flavour I was hoping to achieve.
I have some not-so-favourite moments as well, but trust me, even though they bug me, I still want them in there because it just wouldn’t be the same without them. The main one being my breathing at the beginning of Beggars which was picked up by Johnny’s ridiculously high-quality pencil microphones used to record the guitar. We could have re-recorded it, but I chose to leave it in there because it seems more real to me that way. What I really love about this album is how you can tell it was made by people and not in an over-sanitized studio by machines.
The making of the album was not without its tragedy. I ended up losing my mother about half-way through on November 19th. She was one of the biggest supporters of my music from day one and I’m sad that she’ll never get to hear the album, but I know she would have loved it. Making the album with Johnny really did prevent me from going completely crazy during the whole time my mom was sick. I owe Johnny quite a bit for keeping me sane; even if he didn’t realize that’s what he, and this album, was doing.
Outside the Factory Gates allowed me to shake loose some of the feelings I had been experiencing for most of the seven years I’ve lived in Windsor. This city is a wonderful place, filled with truly amazing people who are an inspiration. We’re down on our luck through absolutely no fault of our own because of rich assholes that have run the economy into the ground with a particular brand of fundamental, unfettered capitalism that causes a very visceral reaction within me. The working class and their unions have taken the brunt of the blame when the responsibility rests completely with those in power. It’s something that I believe we should all be in the streets protesting angrily. Outside the Factory Gates, for me, is one part of my protest.
I hope everyone enjoys it as much as Johnny and I enjoyed making it.
So there’s that.
I’m not kidding when I say Travis’s album is one of my favourite things I’ve been a part of, and I think it’s some of the best work I’ve done so far on the production/mixing side of things.
Over the last few albums I’ve made, I’ve been pushing things harder than ever before in terms of master volume, trying to get everything as loud as possible without sacrificing the sound quality. But sometimes the sound has ended up suffering a little. I think it was a worthwhile experiment. I learned how far I could go without paying for the professional mastering treatment, and I learned how far was too far. I think by the time of CREATIVE NIGHTMARES I started to find a better balance between making things reasonably loud without compromising the sound quality too much.
With this album I decided I owed it to the music to just concentrate on trying to make it sound as good as I could, without worrying at all about it not stacking up to how loud everything else is (in the end, time and good ears will reveal there are no winners in the Loudness War). In doing that, I think I found an even better balance between a healthy overall volume and keeping the dynamics intact while not letting any ugly clipping sneak in anywhere.
I also discovered a new technique for recording harmony vocals that resulted in a huge, earthy sound not quite like anything I’ve recorded before. It’s not a new technique in the world of recording, but it’s new to me, and I never would have been able to try it without Travis here to help the cause.
None of that would mean a whole lot if the material wasn’t there. But I think the songs are some of the best I’ve heard come out of the city, and things like “Beggars” and “Neodepression” are to my ears some of the best songs to come out of anybody, anywhere. It’s refreshing to make music with friends for the enjoyment of it and not because anyone is trying to get anything from anybody. I kind of lost sight of that after some of the experiences I had as a sideman (a useful education, if nothing else). I owe it to Travis for reminding me what a joyous experience it can be to collaborate with someone when your hearts are in the right place — in your socks, of course — and there’s no bullshit or agenda involved.
I’m proud to call him a friend, and proud to be a part of the album. There aren’t many people I think I would work with very well in the studio these days. I’m so wrapped up in my own music, I don’t think I’d have the time or creative energy to record other artists on a regular basis even if the interest was there and it was something people wanted me to do. But I would work with Travis again in a heartbeat. I hope we do a lot more together in the future, whatever musical form it may take.
On Monday we’re both going to sit down for an interview about the album. That should be interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the dynamic of any kind of group interview session before. There was that one time when I was a member of Styx and we did an interview for the Sears Catalogue, but it was never officially printed. My heart was broken.
“Don’t let it end this way!” I wailed, and Dennis DeYoung said, “That sounds like a good line for a song. Also, you’re fired.”
The crafty bastard stole my thunder, and my lightning too.
My sleep is a pretty dire mess right now. That’s nothing new. So work on my own album has again slowed down a bit. But I still think I can get it finished by the end of the month. And I think I might print the lyrics with the album for a second time. I know that’s pretty daring. Still, even if I don’t think the words are all that interesting to read, it’s nice to have them there for whoever does want to read them.
And speaking of friends who make music, the talented Derek Harrison has started a blog and resolved to write, produce, perform, and record a new song for every week this year. That’s something I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on. You can do it, Derek! My ears are all buckled in, ready to go.