Day: June 6, 2010

Everybody wishes for more wishes. Where’s the originality in that?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: blog neglect is a sad thing. But from time to time, it’s an unavoidable evil. As George W. Bush said, “Sometimes you need a break from the internets, because families is where our nation finds hope — where wings take dream.”

To make up for this most recent instance of wings taking dream, here’s some fairly lengthy rambliness (shut up, Firefox…”rambliness” is a word, because I say it is), beginning with a random little video. There’s a lot more on the mixer I meant to get to, but I ran out of space on the camera after only going through pieces of a few songs. Dig the single long grey hair. I wonder what it wants out of life.

Since I got cut off prematurely while in the middle of explaining how I recorded some acoustic guitar but it sounded a bit too trebly and percussive to really work in the context of the song, I felt it was only appropriate to end with a repetition of my instructions to the mixer to come on, time-stretched and warped with a cheesy effect.

I’m not sure why I was so strangely animated while talking this time. And I should have looked into the camera more when I was speaking, but then I wouldn’t be able to see what I was doing on the mixer. All of those songs will probably end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE.

There will be more video action later on, but first…

One of the things I meant to play a bit of in the video, but didn’t get to, is an old Papa Ghostface song that was given a tentative title of “The Magic Fatty”. It was recorded about two seconds after I finished work on KEEP YOUR SCARS, which takes us back to October of 2002. Up until “On Your Life” came out of nowhere two years ago (and I still haven’t figured out what to do with that bit of one-off reunion residue), it was shaping up to be the last new Papa Ghostface song there ever was.

I don’t remember much about the night it was recorded. Gord came over to the house on Chilver, long before the crackheads came to haunt us, and we ate some pizza, drank some beer, and had some laughs. Then we sat down to make some music. My cheap Strat copy had just become a six-string again, and I wasn’t too happy about it. The high E string was borrowed to replace a broken string on a rented Les Paul just before we recorded “She’s Awfully Lovely” for YOU’RE A NATION back in 1999. It was only supposed to be temporary, but I found myself liking the guitar as a five-string. Losing a string seemed to free me up to experiment with tunings and try different things, and when I did finally go to the trouble of replacing all the strings — not because I wanted to (I hate the sound of new strings and never change them unless they break), but because I felt it was important for me to learn how to change strings, and Gord was nice enough to show me — I made sure to rip that high E back off in a hurry.

Even after I had better guitars at my disposal, I still found plenty of uses for the five-string red thing. During the late-period Guys with Dicks days it became my go-to “heavy” guitar for sludgier material, and it’s the only guitar I used on the low-fat version of the CASTRATED EP — now available with proper artwork for the first time ever! Holy frozen bean sprouts! Something about that cheap single coil pickup just sounded sweet to me when I would dial in a lot of distortion, and it was easy enough to avoid the dead frets.

By the fall of 2002 a few dead frets had turned into too many, and the humbucker pickup had stopped working altogether. It was time to bring it in to Schlong & McLame. The guy who took my order tried valiantly to convince me the cost of repairs, while reasonable, was more than the guitar was worth. He reasoned I’d be better off buying a new Squier Strat copy or something to replace it, so I could come back in a few years to trade it in for something else and they could give me a fraction of the resale value of the guitar and smile knowing they would mark it up by 400% the second I left the store, giving me a good ass-fu…I mean nothing.

By this time I’d learned enough to know what a good guitar was. A Squier trying to pretend it was a Strat would be more of a sideways move than any kind of step up. If I was going to buy any kind of new Strat, it was going to be a Fender.

My Strat copy was not a “good” guitar. But it was mine, and it was a part of my musical history. No way was I going to dump it over a bill of a hundred bucks. I had the work done, the dead frets came back to life, and then I got the guitar back with all six strings, in standard tuning. It looked wrong somehow. Like a beautiful actress who’s had some plastic surgery when she really didn’t need it. Sure, her nose was a little crooked, but that was why you found her attractive. Her flaws made her interesting.

I came close to ripping the offensive string right back off of the fretboard again, but something stopped me. I decided to play around with some new tunings, since this guitar had always taken anything I threw at it without much trouble. I slowly found myself starting to like it as a six-string. Isn’t that one of the seven stages of guitar grief, when something has been modified and you’re not entirely happy about it? Grudging acceptance? No?

Anyway, when we sat down to record I picked up this guitar, using a new tuning I’d been messing with a little bit. Gord grabbed the bass and we sketched out a few ideas. I made a drum loop on the Yamaha W-5 synth (still a year away from having its revenge on NUDGE YOU ALIVE), and we recorded about nine minutes instrumental improv that started out sounding like a soft echo of the Guys with Dicks track “We’re out of Tuna” before developing into its own unique thing. I messed around at the synthesizer for some overdubbed atmosphere, flicking through different patches, playing random things through the whole song with no real direction. I thought it was pretty mediocre and figured I’d cut most of the synth stuff out of the mix later on.

Then I thought we might turn this into one of our demented spoken word tracks — something along the lines of “What They Had Was So Pure” or “The Happy Dentist”. I found something I’d written back in high school called “The Magic Fatty”. It was just a few paragraphs of setup for a bizarre story I intended to finish and never did. It was written with this exact thing in mind — making a weird Papa Ghostface spoken word track out of it. I thought I would improvise the story as I went during the recording process, which was my whole modus operandi back then. After all, “What They Had Was So Pure” started out with a written sketch that was very unfinished, only to grow legs and head off in an unexpected direction when I was forced to improvise the meat of the story while recording the vocal track.

So I put on a goofy voice and talked about this mythical marijuana cigarette that was shrouded in mystery, and started telling a story about how, when I smoked it, a holy mackerel appeared before me and granted three wishes. After wishing for more wishes and being denied, I wished to eat my fishy wish-giver and was rebuffed. And then I had nothing else in my head, and it was less than two minutes into the song. I hit on the idea of adding some demented falsetto singing with a rhythmic delay effect, but the words weren’t coming.

What had come so easily to me in the past wasn’t there this time, and leaving the song instrumental seemed like an admission of defeat. We ran out of steam after that and the evening wound down with nothing else recorded. Shortly thereafter, Gord and I went our separate ways musically, he to form Sürdaster and me to record a whole lot of solo albums. Papa Ghostface didn’t break up so much as go dark, and while we’ve threatened to wake the beast a few times since then, it hasn’t yet stirred for long enough to do much more than scribble out a few of its more interesting dreams before drifting off to sleep again.

So the song sat unmixed, remembered but not listened to, for seven and-a-half years.

Fast-forward to the present day. The world is overrun with artistically vacant musical atrocities like Stereos, Justin Bieber, and Wondersexstuffmuffinface, Paris Hilton’s infamous Spanish poodle who fancies himself a singer. I’m in the process of giving a few dozen albums from the back catalogue the proper packaging they never received the first time around, and I arrive at the final Papa Ghostface album, KISSING THE BALD SPOT. This is a posthumous collection made up of out-takes from the PAPER CHEST HAIR sessions and some things recorded later on when GWD had all but taken over — tracks we considered album material, though they never quite found an album to live on.

At the time I put it together, back in the summer of 2002, I had yet to gather all the finished material from the CHILDREN HAVE NO EYES solo sessions in one place, so I dumped some of the newly mixed tracks on KISSING THE BALD SPOT to pad out the album and bring the runtime up to about an hour, since the recording dates for CHILDREN and CHEST HAIR overlapped to the point of blurring together.

I was pretty happy with my sequencing for a few years. Not so much anymore. For a while now I’ve been meaning to get rid of the solo tracks that don’t really belong and replace them with some other out-takes to make it a true PG album. Problem is, while there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of forty or fifty Papa Ghostface out-takes unavailable in any official capacity, the majority of them are either (a) not worth putting on a proper album, (b) not in a format that allows me to remix them, and with existing sound quality that isn’t good enough to make the grade — “If You Were Mine” and “You Are Me”, two of our better and more interesting non-album tracks, sadly fall into this category — or (c) not bad songs, but just not really compatible with the rest of the material on BALD SPOT and not anything I could throw on the CD without disrupting the flow of the whole thing.

The one song I think might fit in is this “Magic Fatty” thing, and at eight minutes and change it’s long enough to help keep things at a decent length even without the CHILDREN HAVE NO EYES tracks. Maybe if I get all revisionist on the song’s ass, adding real drums and some new vocals, it’ll become something a lot more interesting. So I dump it back on the mixer — again, not having heard it in more than seven years, but remembering it as a middling, waffling instrumental with unrealized potential.

The first thing I notice is the quality of sounds I have to work with. It’s a whole lot better than most other Papa Ghostface material, sonically speaking, because I had much more equipment by late 2002 and knew a lot more about how to get decent sounds out of it. I clean up Gord’s bass, getting rid of some low frequency mud, and manage to carve it into something defined and upfront without too much work. Too bad I didn’t know how to kill the mud like this back when we were recording those GWD albums…but I don’t have the time or energy to go back and remix that stuff right now. Maybe I’ll get to it someday. Or maybe the music should be left alone.

Sure, it would technically sound better if I cleaned up the low end, did what I could to bring out the drums more on some of the songs where Tyson completely killed the snare’s attack through bad mic placement, and pushed my voice way up in the mix. But it would be like painting new additions on a mural you finished years ago. Maybe you’re a better artist now, but the whole point of the work is that it exists as a document of who you were and what you were capable of then. I didn’t particularly like my voice back in those days, and I went out of my way to bury it in the mix and slather it in slapback echo so it became just another instrument. And I didn’t know much about EQ, nor did I have the bass DI tools I have now, so the bass doesn’t have as much definition as it could and there’s some mud in places.

Maybe that’s as it should be. I feel a bit uneasy about the whole revisionist mixing thing in most cases, and sometimes sit uneasily on the fence with “the overall sound could be improved quite a bit” on one side, and “it sounds good enough, and the way I meant for it to sound at the time” on the other. It’s possible I could make everything sound a little better without messing with the spirit of the original recordings, but I think it would be a tricky thing to navigate. And it really would take a lot of time to do and necessitate clearing everything off of the mixer for a while, killing the ability to record any new material until I was finished. These are huge albums we’re talking about, often pushing the limits of how much music a single CD can hold, and most of them were recorded as one complete file, with all of the songs (and out-takes, and sound checks) in one place, bleeding into one another. It’s a huge job to undertake for music only a small group of people outside of myself would even have any interest in.

Maybe I’ll get to it someday in the not-too-distant future. Maybe when all this stuff I’m working on right now is finished.

But where were we? I’m playing with the mix, surprised by how workable the raw sounds are. I get things sounding pretty good, and then I pull up the synth track. What sounded like aimless crap back then now sounds off-kilter in a good way, and it fits the song. At the time it was recorded I thought I would keep a few pieces here and there, but most of it would end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Now I find myself keeping it all. I kill most of the vocal track (the half-assed attempt at a story goes nowhere and is as lame as I remember), retaining only the brief bits of falsetto weirdness and a few odd words that seem to work when taken completely out of context.

I mess around with some subtle dub-like effects on the drum loop, adding delay and reverb here and there in real-time when I feel like it, and thicken it up a bit with some compression. I add a bit of reverb to the synth sounds and my electric guitar to give things a bit more body and atmospheric heft. I was still using a POD at the time we recorded this instead of mic’ing up an actual amp, but the guitar sounds pretty good. I make a mix, “print” it to CD, listen to it, hear nothing that makes me want to take another pass at it, and am kind of stunned to find myself really enjoying this song I’ve completely neglected since the night it was recorded.

What I dismissed for years as a substandard out-take is now probably one of my favourite instrumental songs we ever recorded. It sounds like the beginning of a new chapter in the Papa Ghostface story we never bothered to explore any further, and the musicianship is light years ahead of what we were doing a few years earlier. My guitar-playing has reached a level of fluidity I couldn’t even come within sniffing distance of on PAPER CHEST HAIR, firing off distorted chords and chiming harmonics at the same time, playing some pretty busy runs, switching back and forth between pickups and occasionally grabbing a metal slide. Gord does the same, making it sound a bit like he has four hands when he’s anchoring the low end while throwing in slide glissando’s with his pinky.

The telepathic musical connection Gord and I seemed to share almost from the beginning is still there in full force, and the whole thing dissolves in a sea of dissonance that somehow feels like the only ending there could be. I add nothing new to the song, leaving it as one guitar track, one bass track, a drum loop, a not-even-half-there vocal track, and a stereo synth track. It doesn’t need anything more after all.

After listening to it half a dozen times on repeat, I decide this has to be the first song on KISSING THE BALD SPOT. It can’t be any other way. “The Street That Got Laid” was never a great opening and always felt more like a mood piece that belonged in the middle of the album. This track is the one that belongs at the beginning (though I now need to come up with a better title than “The Magic Fatty”), and it needs to be immediately followed by “C’mon”, one of our best and most sinister pseudo-spoken word creations that never felt like it found a comfortable place in the first sequence I put together.

This means I have to rethink the whole thing and shuffle the order of the songs. It takes a bit of thinking, but I figure it out, and I think the result is an album that flows much better than it did in its first incarnation. It’s always going to feel a little scattershot no matter how I sequence it, with the songs coming from different places over a period of a little over two years, but I think it can now stand alongside YOU’RE A NATION, SHOEBOX PARADISE, and PAPER CHEST HAIR as one of the best Papa Ghostface albums (and, if there isn’t ever going to be another PG album, a fitting epitaph as well).

Before too long it will also have proper cover art for the first time ever.

This is what I drew a few weeks ago, very quickly, by hand, with a few coloured markers and a piece of paper, in an attempt at tapping into the old school crudeness of something like the original SHOEBOX PARADISE album cover.

I liked it just fine until I started messing around with the paint program, which led to an outpouring of new ideas, and this.

I like that a bit better. I think it’s supposed to be a sad turnip suffering from male pattern baldness. It’s still crude, but it seems a bit more appropriate and looks more like a proper album cover. Even SHOEBOX PARADISE now has new cover art — the random weirdness of old has been replaced by my best attempt at capturing what we looked like at the time, when I was growing my hair out for the first time ever and experiencing some of the most stylish hair days of my life (it hurts me more than you can imagine that I have no photographic evidence of just how stylish I was lookin’ at the time).

Just about every album on the sidebar at the right now has new cover art, aside from some early solo CDs I haven’t got around to yet. The whole Discography page is a pretty different beast from what it was up until a few weeks ago. It’ll take a while to get everything up to speed in terms of physical copies, but so far I’ve got a few late-period GWD CDs done, and it’s surreal to see them looking like real albums for the first time in my life. The cover art for GOOD LUCK IN THE NEXT LIFE still cracks me up.

Back to that red Strat copy for a minute.

This axe was always a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve only recently uncovered a bit of information about its lineage. Seems the makers of “Stage” guitars, whoever they were, operated out of Texas in the 1980s and early ’90s before going under, or closing shop, or getting into the adult film industry. It’s almost impossible to find any information about the company on the internet (try doing a search for “stage guitars” and finding something useful), but I did manage to find some old advertisements on a message board somewhere.

The full name is “Center Stage”. All these years I had no idea. Maybe there’s even a model number or at least a serial # hidden away somewhere that’s also evaded me all this time. Mine most closely resembles the red guitar below in the top half of the image, third from left, with white pick guard…but my guitar has two pickups and looks a bit different, and it also has a tremolo arm.

I still remember buying the guitar in the summer of 1999 from a guy who advertised it in the paper as a “Stratocaster” without any particular name. He was upfront with me on the phone about it not being a Fender. I think he said he bought the guitar for his nephew, but the young ‘un either never expressed much interest in learning how to play or he no longer had any use for the guitar. It also came with an amp, a stand, and a soft case. All for just a bit over $200.

Seemed like a deal at the time. I didn’t realize how much of a deal it was until years later. Not only is the guitar still going strong in spite of its odd lineage (it’s basically the bastard son of an unknown Texan operation), but I got a free amplifier that doesn’t sound like anything else and has added immeasurably to the music I’ve made, even if it took me until halfway through the recording of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN to realize just how cool the grunty old thing is and how good it sounds with a mic or two in front of it.

One interesting tidbit — the guy who sold me the guitar and amp also had a bunch of banjos at his place, and I asked him some questions about them. I thought it might be cool to mess around with a banjo at some point, and I wondered if you could buy a pickup to use while recording with one (shows how much I knew at the time). He told me I probably wouldn’t need a pickup, since banjos are such loud instruments, and offered to sell me one of his at some future date if I decided I was interested. Little did I know I would someday own three funky old tenor banjos and a banjitar.

I can still see the guy in my head. He was maybe in his early forties, had brown hair that was a little wavy, wire rim glasses, a friendly smile, and looked a bit like a kindly college professor. His name is lost to the sands of time, as is the classified ad I answered. But he was very nice to talk to, and I think we could have an even more stimulating conversation today, now that I kind of know what I’m doing. At the time, he told me the amp was made in the 1960s and he had just replaced the tubes. My idea of bartering was asking him, “How low would you be willing to go?” and the price dropped a bit more.

Come to think of it, that was the only time I ever bartered with anyone. As a rule I just pay the asking price.

For some reason I think his name might have been Mark. Maybe someday, some way, he’ll stumble across this blog and fail to recognize me, since I scarcely resemble the short-haired, clean-cut fifteen-year-old I was when he last saw me and I don’t tend to post a lot of pictures of myself here anyway. But I think he’d get a kick out of all the adventures his guitar and amp have had with me over the past eleven years.

Finally, here’s something I did just for fun — a few random bits of footage thrown together to make a half-assed “promo” video with the intent of providing a little taste of what’s on the way. I’m not sure if this one or THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE will hit the finish line first, or if they’ll both be done at the same time. Suppose we’ll find out before too long. But this other album seems to be attracting some of the catchiest songs I’ve written in quite some time. I’m not sure why. I recorded one the other day with mandola, bass, drums, piano, suitcase glockenspiel, melodica, banjo, three different miscellaneous percussion instruments, and about seven vocal tracks.

(Warning: this video is six hundred times louder than the last one, so if you hiked up the volume on your computer to hear what was going on up there I suggest you turn it way down before checking out what’s going on down here just to make sure something doesn’t explode)