Month: December 2010

Yes-yes? What-what?


Never mind — I know what to do now. Funny how bewilderment can shift to an erection in the space of a few days.

Did I type “erection”? I meant to type…something else.

The name of the album and the cover art/layout has changed completely as well. I wasn’t expecting that to happen, and I had no ambition to make it happen. It just…happened.

While you’re here, you wanna see something funny? I was messing with the handy Internet Wayback Machine and thought I would type in the address of my old website just for kicks. Some images don’t quite load, or they take a very long time to appear, but it’s kind of surreal to step back in time a bit and peruse remnants of my old internet stomping ground.

The home page is HERE, the news page is HERE, the music page is HERE, and the “bio” section is over HERE. Dig the bitterness. That’s right — even back then I was a bitter bearded balladeer through-and-through.

I already have the intro finished for January’s video progress report a month in advance. It’s completely ridiculous — both the intro itself, and having it finished already. Who knew making those little progress reports would become one of my favourite blog-related things to do? Maybe you did, but I didn’t. You shouldn’t go around knowing things I don’t know, ‘specially when they pertain to me. Don’t show what you know! Stuff it in a box and make it scream.

(This is what happens when I write stuff here while sleep-deprived.)

Don’t dilly-dally, Sister Sally.

It’s that time of year when people start talking about “best of the year” type stuff. I never got into doing that myself, mostly because I don’t keep up with enough of what’s new to really weigh in, but some CJAM peeps have been playing some of the music I put out there this year on their best-of-2010 programs. That’s a nice surprise. I’ve said it about a hundred times already, and I’m sure I’ll continue to say it some more in the future — thanks to everyone at CJAM for all the support. For me at least, it never gets old hearing my noise on the radio. It’s always a surreal feeling.

Elsewhere, I’m encountering a bit of a dilemma. You know that album I’m working on right now? You know how I said it was going to be a pretty crammed CD? Last night I was going over the work I need to do — songs that need to be mixed, songs I still need to record, and other such things — and I did some rough math. Even after dropping a good six or ten songs that probably won’t end up making the cut for one reason or another, there’s still far too much material to fit on one CD.

As you probably know, a CD will hold a maximum of eighty minutes of audio, and maybe another few seconds beyond that if you really try to push it. By the time I’m finished recording everything I want to have in place for this album, there’s going to be at least two hours worth of music there, and about forty songs. Again, that’s not counting the tracks I’m already discounting as probable out-takes.

I don’t think there’s any way I can shave it all down to eighty minutes or less. It would be like making a film that needs to be three hours long to pack everything in, but in editing you cut it down to about an hour and forty minutes to make it more commercial. Maybe it’s a tighter film that will appeal to a wider audience, but as the creator of the film you know it’s emotionally all wrong and there are huge gaping holes left in the story you wanted to tell. It doesn’t matter if no one else feels anything is off. The point is, you feel it.

I really didn’t plan it this way. I mean, I know there are some people who assume the reason I’m so prolific is because I never came up with an idea i didn’t like and I literally throw everything I have lying around at any given time onto an album. The reality is nothing like that. IF I HAD A QUARTER and LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS have about twenty out-takes between them, and those out-takes aren’t throwaway songs. Some of them still feel like they’re up there with the best work I’ve done. They just didn’t feel like they belonged on the albums for which they were recorded.

A lot of thought goes into choosing which songs belong on any given album, and how they’re sequenced, though that wasn’t always the case. From what I understand, most people go into an album with everything more or less mapped out already. All the songs are written, and they have a pretty specific vision in mind. I tend to work the other way around. I record a bunch of songs, sometimes with an idea of what kind of album I want to make, but the deeper I get into it the more things start to shift. I write more, I record more, and things shift some more. When I feel I have enough material recorded, then I start taking a serious look at what kind of album it wants to become and how it’s going to get that way.

So I guess, on some level, I discover what kind of album I’m really making during the “editing” or post-production process. A lot of good material gets thrown on the “to be revisited later” pile. A lot of it will find its way out into the world eventually, one way or another, but only when it feels right.

Anyway. As I see it, there are about three things I can do here to solve the problem:

1. Make another two-CD set.

A little insane, because I just released a double CD in the summer. This one would be a good deal more jagged, disjointed, and off-kilter — which is the kind of album it’s going to be anyway by design, but it could be a bit much to take in a concentrated two-hour dose. Then again, I thought the same thing about MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, and I didn’t really get any complaints about that one being too much music. A few people don’t seem to like the second disc as much as the first, but that makes sense, since a lot of the weirder stuff is over there. Making a double CD is also double the workload, and a bit more expensive. One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t come up with a CD design that used anywhere near the amount of ink the last album did. Not about to put myself through that kind of headache again.

2. Make two separate albums.

This approach could make the whole thing a little easier to digest. At the same time, sequencing it would be a lot more difficult. With a double CD you treat the whole thing as one album in two movements, and you let it ebb and flow accordingly. To make two distinct albums out of one big pile of material is a very different challenge, and there’s going to be some serious overlap between the two no matter what, so they would have to be considered companion pieces. I would also have to come up with a whole new album title, new cover art, and a new design template for the second album. I have a number of album titles and covers sitting around waiting for future use, but I’m not really feeling any of them right now for this music, aside from the one title I already have in place for what I thought was going to be a single CD. Releasing two albums right out of the gate would be a pretty cool way to kick off 2011, though…

3. Make an album and an EP.

In theory, I could take what I feel is the absolute strongest material from the pile of current stuff, cram as much of it onto one CD as possible, and then take the best of what’s left and carve a shorter album out of it. For me, at this point, a “shorter album” or EP is probably going to be no less than forty minutes long. More likely closer to an hour. Which is longer than most full-length albums. Again, this would necessitate coming up with a second album title, different cover art, and so on. So it wouldn’t be a whole lot different from the second solution.

Cutting myself off before I’ve recorded all the songs I want to have in place is not an option. The last thing I’m going to do is mess with my own creative process and risk throwing things off balance. Right now I’m thinking something hovering between option #2 and option #3 might be the way to go, with the second album not being released right on top of the first so it’s a little less overwhelming (and a little less expensive for me).

I’m sure I’ll figure it out as things get closer to the finish line, but if anyone wants to weigh in with an opinion, feel free.

We three pimps.

If you know the first verse to the parody of “We Three Kings” referenced in the title of this post, you win an internet high five from me. And while I’m mentally slapping your hand with mine, here’s this month’s progress report, and the last one of the year.

It’s the longest progress report video yet — a few have approached the thirty-minute mark, but this is the first one to crack it — and it functions as three things in one.

Before anything else, it’s just another progress report. But it’s showing up on Christmas day, so there had to be at least some tie-in (most of it has to do with my dirty Christmas album). And the year will soon be gone, so there’s a brief look back at a handful of notable music-related events in JohnnyLand from this year.

Could it be the best one yet? I think it’s possible.

A few things to mention:

If you’re expecting saccharine Christmas cheer and/or are offended by sexual subject matter, you might want to skip it altogether. While I like Christmas just fine, I’m not one of those people who walks around with mistletoe fastened above my head so I can kiss every person I meet, nor am I interested in sugarcoating what I have to say or curbing the profanity just because it’s Christmas. And when it comes time to talk about the Christmas album I made back in 1999, well…let’s just say it’s not an album anyone younger than sixteen should ever be exposed to.

It’s absolutely filthy, and it was designed to be as offensive as possible. I wanted to slaughter every Christmas song in sight after being scarred by hearing the same generic takes on Christmas standards on the radio for years on end. As a general thing, I seem to say more dirty words as I get more comfortable and confident with these videos. It’s pretty funny when Elliott ends up with a milder case of potty mouth than me.

I was going to use one of those dirty Christmas songs for the extended introduction sequence, but it didn’t feel right. For some bizarre reason I thought of pulling out an old Guys with Dicks out-take recorded in early 2002 when we were stoned out of our heads.

Most of the time I was pretty rigid about never making music under the influence of anything at all. I felt it was important to be firing on all cylinders when the bulk of my music, with or without the band, was improvised on the spot while recording. But this was the first time I ever tried shrooms, and we all entered a giddy state that had us thinking we might capture brilliance if we hit the record button.

Some of the results ended up on the CASTRATED EP. Outside of “Beautiful High” (recorded after eating the shrooms but before they kicked in), nothing we produced that night was ever considered album material. If anything, our music was stranger and more interesting when we were stone cold sober. But it made — and still makes — for some amusing listening. Highlights include botching a take of a miserable song about a girl because of how happy we are and how hilarious everything seems, and Tyson zoning out while staring through the skin of my snare drum, to the point that for a while he isn’t even aware he’s playing the drums or that we’re making music.

At the time pretty much everything I was doing was driven by anger and depression. The shrooms made me melt into a laughing blob of bliss, which didn’t exactly make for convincing performances of unhappy songs. But at least we all had fun.

The closest thing to a proper song we recorded that night after getting happy, and just about the only thing that didn’t break down halfway through, was something I later called “Walking with Speed” when it needed a title. It’s mostly instrumental, kind of aimless, the guitar-playing is very far from my best work even when you take into account that I wasn’t anywhere near as adept at playing the guitar eight years ago as I am now, and it isn’t the most interesting example of our three-way improvisational interplay. But there are moments and skewed dynamic shifts in it I’ve always had a real fondness for.

I have no idea why I thought to try using this of all songs as the soundtrack to an old Christmas cartoon. I think it lends the whole thing a bit of a creepy atmosphere, and I kind of like that. It tells you something about how high we were at the time that I thought the music sounded jazzy while we were recording it (my actual description, as you hear at the end: “That‘s like free-form jazz Guys with Dicks from hell”).

The public domain film content is an interesting mix this time around.

There are two animated christmas shorts. Christmas Comes but Once a Year is present almost in its entirety as the opening “music video”, though I edited it a bit to shave the overall length of the video down. Dig the part where saintly Professor Grampy teleports a good twenty feet in an instant while walking to get to a window so he can sneak into the orphanage and save Christmas. I could have fixed that editing snafu, but it made me laugh. So I had to leave it in.

Where that short has what I think is a pretty admirable message — and that’s part of the reason I couldn’t bring myself to pervert it by throwing a dirty Christmas song on top — Santa’s Surprise is a little messed up. I guess in the 1940s it might have seemed like a valid attempt at “cultural diversity”, but man…some of the racial caricatures present are pretty abrasive. Still, I couldn’t resist chopping up a few bits and using them for my own purposes.

And then we’ve got two hilarious propaganda films.

Duck and Cover is a gem from 1950 that taught children all they had to do in the event of a nuclear holocaust was hide under their desks and they would be safe from harm. It’s so grotesque and offensive in its stupidity, it achieves a kind of absurd brilliance. I thought Lewis Black was joking when he talked about seeing films like this as a kid. Turns out he wasn’t.

Perversion for Profit is all about the supposed evils of pornography. It’s as terrible and amusing as you’d expect.

This is the most ambitious I’ve ever let myself get with the re-contextualized film thing, drawing from several different sources instead of just sticking with one and really chopping things up to create some intentionally absurd transitions. Lucky for me, there’s a long list of films that have fallen into the public domain, from cartoons, to horror movies, to an all-little-person western (you read that right). So it doesn’t look like I’ll be running out of material anytime soon.

I have to say, the bit where the turtle hides in his shell from an atomic bomb blast while a bit of my cover of the clash’s “Bankrobber” plays just about makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I don’t know why. There’s something about the combination of the music and imagery that has a weird gravity to it even if they make no literal sense together. It was more or less an accident. I was throwing random bits of footage from Duck and Cover on top of a fragment of the song to see what would happen.

The more I listen to that overhaul of “Bankrobber”, the more I like it. I’m almost tempted to look into paying whatever fee is necessary to secure the rights so I can put it on an album. But I’m not about to hold back the album I’m working on in order to make that happen.

The original Fuzzy Duck (from a family of three) returns, and I think he and Elliott work well together. Their little tag-team moment could be a harbinger of things to come. Elliott, for his part, has another tender moment that’s strangely devoid of bitterness — minus his contempt for bland, generic renderings of Christmas songs.

I was halfway tempted to record a new intro bit for him with a Christmas theme,complete with a Yuletide-infused re-recorded version of his theme song, but he talked me out of it. I believe his words were, “Nobody’s gonna buy the idea of me doing sappy wholesome shit, and no way am I wearing a Santa hat, unless it’s while I’m eating hard boiled eggs and hitting on chicks. You know what I’m fuckin’ sayin’?”

I can’t argue with that.

The little instrumental bit that plays when I’m talking about the 1951 Gibson LG-2 was recorded on the Flip video camera. So you can imagine how good that guitar sounds with a real microphone or two in front of it. As mentioned in the video, it should show up in a pretty prominent role on the next album. The little banjo bit was recorded just to get the idea down (something I use the video camera for quite a bit now), without any thought given to what it looked like or whether or not any part of my body was even in the frame. So you get a nice look at my bedroom ceiling there. And I forgot to mention in the video that I just passed seventy thousand blog views. That’s demented. At this rate, by the spring we’ll end up hitting the one hundred thousand mark.

But yeah. Merry Christmas, and all that jazz. May all your terrorist-driven situations be diffused by Bruce Willis, and may all the censored-for-television versions of your movie be similarly ridiculous and amusing.

A lifetime serving one machine is ten times worse than prison.

joe strummer

On some level I think of Joe Strummer not unlike the way I think of John Lennon — as a bundle of contradictions who found himself the “spokesman for a generation” and grew from an angry, confused kid into an intelligent, articulate, thoughtful artist. He was flawed. He was human. He didn’t try to pretend he was anything more or less than that. But he did try to use his influence to wake up the world a little, and he made some great music while he was here.

My first Clash album was Combat Rock. Maybe not the best place to start. Almost everyone would tell you to grab London Calling first, and I’d say just as strong a case could be made for the sprawling madness of Sandinista. But it did the job as well as any gateway drug and made me a fan when I was thirteen.

I’m not about to try and write some ambitious piece about Joe’s life and the music he made with and without the Clash. There’s a lot of information on the internet for anyone who’s interested. There are a handful of well-made documentaries out there too. There was one moment in one of those films that really resonated with me, though, and it still does.

I was watching Westway to the World on TV ten years ago when they were showing it on MuchMoreMusic, back when they would play Roxy Music videos at two in the morning and had a bit more credibility than MuchMusic. A lot of people have been critical of the way the film doesn’t fill in all the blanks and assumes the audience knows a bit about the band and the time in which they existed. I enjoyed it. I liked that there was a lot of great music and vintage performance footage, and I liked that the band members were onscreen telling their own story.

The bit that got to me was right at the end. Joe, who was animated and charismatic through the whole film, had the last word. His body language changed and his tone shifted to something more resigned. “Whatever a group is,” he said, “it was the chemical mixture of those four people that made the group work. That’s a lesson everyone should learn — don’t mess with it! If it works, just let it. Do whatever you have to do to bring it forward, but don’t mess with it. And we learned that…bitterly.”

They’re simple words, but I felt them in my gut. A few years later, after I had a band with its own peculiar kind of magic and it all fell apart, I understood what he meant in a deeper way. When you have a band or an artistic collective of some kind and it clicks, that’s something special. Something to cherish. The stars don’t align like that too often. It only takes one rift, or one person to turn into a bag of douche or leave the group, and the whole axis shifts.

We’ve seen this happen countless times with bands where the original singer leaves, or the drummer dies, and the band either keeps going or reforms later on with an ill-fitting replacement. I can’t think of one example where it’s worked out well. A lot of money gets made, sure. But the magic is gone, and the music that comes out of it is either embarrassing or underwhelming. Most of the time it’s both of those things.

There’s a point behind bringing up Joe.

Tomorrow is something CJAM has dubbed Joe Strummer Day, when their programming does its best to tie Strummer’s life and work in with reports on homelessness and poverty in the Windsor and Detroit area. I was asked to contribute something. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come up with anything, but after throwing away the idea of a cover of “Straight to Hell” (too obvious) it came to me out of the blue. I knew what I had to do. Shooby-dooby-do.

Back when I was watching Westway to the World in 2000 as a short-haired, clean-shaven Johnny, I liked the song “Bankrobber” a lot — maybe more than anything else I heard in the film. Because of the lack of exposition, I was left to assume the song was on Sandinista, so I went out and bought the album. But “Bankrobber” wasn’t there.

It’s not on any studio album. It only shows up on a few compilations, none of which were readily available at the time. Now, of course, you can find just about any piece of music in crummy compressed form on YouTube, just as long as Sony Music or some other soulless entity hasn’t taken it down so they can keep dancing the corporate bullshit dance.

Today you can find “Bankrobber” on YouTube in a few different forms. The strange thing is when I first heard the song there was something weary and beautiful in it that grabbed me. Now I find I don’t like it half as much as I used to. It’s still a great song, but it’s not something that would get me to run out and buy the album I think it might be on anymore. I’m not sure what happened there.

In most cases I’m not a big fan of artists transposing cover songs into another key when they sing them. If you can’t sing the song in the key in which it was written, in my opinion you have no business singing it at all unless you’re going to do something drastic with the arrangement and really make the song your own. Then I think it can be justified.

I’m not one to cover other people’s songs much anyway. But when I do, I like to try and put my own spin on the song without transposing it at all. This time I thought I would do something different. If you tune in tomorrow, maybe you’ll hear it on CJAM at some point if someone decides to play it. If not, you can hear it right here.

Bankrobber

If it reminds you a little of a song of mine off of AN ABSENCE OF SWAY called “Will Work for Food”, that’s not quite an accident. I was toying around with a different take on that song, playing with the rhythm, shifting it around a bit, and playing it on the Martin 00-17 half a step lower than I did the first time around on the Regal parlour guitar the song was written on. Then I started singing the words to “Bankrobber” and this happened.

I recorded it this afternoon. While I could have done a better mixing job, I don’t have the patience or the space on the mixer to take another crack at it right now. I’ve been recording so much stuff I’ve maxed out everything and need to mix a bunch of things and get them off of there to free up some space. So this is as good as it’s going to get for now. I like the song in its original key and thought about keeping it there, but I also kind of like what happened here when it stepped into a new pair of slippers.

What’s interesting to me is this: when you get rid of the reggae rhythm and the dub effects and concentrate on the lyrics, it becomes clear just what a good folk song is hiding in there. The words are even kind of relevant to the whole poverty/homelessness theme, though it wasn’t planned that way. Just a happy accident.

This is probably the closest thing I’ve done to a CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN-sounding song in a long time, aside from the absence of vocal multi-tracking. I kind of went out of my way to do that just for fun — right down to the skeletal kick drum/tambourine rhythm, which isn’t the kind of drum part I seem to play much anymore.

Also, the end-of-the-month progress report video will be along shortly. There’s a good chance it’ll show up on Christmas day. And that’s just funny.

Master of your own debate.

Now here’s what has to be a first — my lyrics. On cookies.

A few crafty friends got positively Westian on those cookies. I couldn’t resist eating them (they were tasty, too), but I made sure to take pictures first.

Another first — I’ve had a lot of odd dreams about a lot of odd things, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a dream about audio mastering until the night before last.

I had a dream I was just coming back from having Greg Calbi master my new album in New York. I had no memory of the session, which took place offscreen (or offdream), and no memory of the New York experience at all, beyond a brief moment when I was saying goodbye at the studio and telling Greg I was looking forward to giving my reference CD a good listen on the hi-fi once I got home.

Johnny Smith summed up the session for me: “He’s a nice guy. Seems to like your music. But he lets himself get a little too wound up sometimes.”

Apparently Greg did a lot of talking and ranting while we were there. I was a little disappointed the dream didn’t supply me with at least some vague recollection of that. I imagine my whole “giving it away for free” mentality would have sparked some interesting conversation.

I decided to fire up my new master on headphones first, and the results were…not encouraging. The volume was competitive with current commercial releases, but that was kind of the problem. Some things were squashed and distorted. Other songs sounded really good, but they had different problems. There’s a song that will be on the album called “To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free”. Greg somehow made it sound like the drums had been recorded in a professional studio — in a good way, not a glossy and homogeneous way — and the whole thing sounded really warm and organic. But he sped up the song to make it shorter, and it sounded all wrong at a higher pitch.

In the waking world that album isn’t quite finished yet, and the dream reflected that. Because I’m still not sure exactly what songs will be on it or what order they’ll end up in, the dream didn’t seem to know that information either. The sequencing seemed all wrong, and one song appeared about five times in a row with no apparent changes from one version to the next. Many of the songs I’m planning on putting on the album weren’t present in the dream, while several songs that were there don’t exist in the real world. I guess the dream supplied those to fill in the gaps. One of them was a cool electric guitar-driven thing full of digital distortion that wasn’t horrific, but it still took away from the song.

One bit of silver lining behind the clouds: Greg gave me a bit of a deal. I mean, the guy’s a pretty big potato. He’s considered one of the best mastering engineers around, and I don’t imagine his services come cheap. I don’t know what his rates are, but with the average length of my albums and how many songs are on a given CD, if I ever asked him to master something, I’m going to guess I’d be looking at spending somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. In the dream he only charged me $2,000, which seemed generous (if still expensive). Maybe he really did like my music after all.

I started making notes for the changes that would need to be made for each song. Part of the mastering process tends to involve some revisions, and different engineers have different ideas about how that should work. Some will keep tweaking your album after you’ve paid them, at no additional charge, until you’re happy with their work. Some even have a “you don’t pay me until you’re satisfied” policy. Others will keep charging you more money for every change you want made, no matter how small. Others still have a mentality of, “You got what you paid for and I’m not doing anything more.”

 

In my dream, Greg’s approach seemed to be a willingness to make changes “off the clock”, within reason. But it seemed to me it would be pretty difficult to whip what I’d been given into any kind of decent shape given all that was wrong with it, and I knew I wasn’t going to get any of my money back just because the master I received was subpar and bizarre.

Things were left unresolved, without much hope for a happy ending. It looked like I was going to have to remaster the album myself with much lighter pockets.

I thought that was a pretty strange dream to have.

First of all, I don’t have a low opinion of Greg Calbi at all, and I’m pretty confident if I shelled out the money and told him I just wanted my music to sound as good and three-dimensional as possible, without even a passing nod given to the stupid Loudness War, I would get a pretty great mastering job that probably wouldn’t need any tweaking at all. Even when the artists and/or record labels force him to squash their music to make it sound as loud and lifeless as most other modern music, he still has a way of retaining some musicality.

The first Interpol album, for example, is so much louder than it needs to be it’s kind of absurd. But even though there are practically no dynamics left, it still doesn’t sound like crap in the way that, say, Regina Spektor’s Begin to Hope does. Love the album. Hate the way it sounds. Bob Ludwig crushed it to death, and it took a lot of work for me to get through the whole album in one sitting without my ears collapsing into sobbing wrecks. The most recent albums by Idaho and Grizzly Bear are both loud, but they’re also pretty dynamic and sound really good. The recent Brian Eno remasters also sound pretty great. I have a number of albums in my collection that were mastered by Greg, and I find most of them enjoyable to listen to. So I don’t know why my sleeping brain would decide to make him somewhat inept.

Another thing I thought was strange was my total lack of backbone in the dream. It was pretty clear I let him sequence the songs the way he wanted. I would never do that. Ever. If I did someday decide to pay someone else to master one of my albums again, I would already have the song order sussed out (that’s a no-brainer), and I would give them detailed instructions outlining what I wanted, how I wanted it done, and why I wanted it done that way.

Finally, it was an odd dream to have because of how normal it was. I mean, my dreams routinely involve things like: a young girl who thinks her parents have died in a freak accident talking to a pipe under the sink in her house, referring to it as if it were a person but calling it “chair”, asking it difficult questions that have no answers about why good people die for no apparent reason and why she has to be left alone; attacking a snake with a plunger while riding on an elevator only to realize someone forgot to attach a tranquilizer dart to the bottom of the plunger; scenes from an amusingly bad movie in which people who are riding on a bus verbalize what are supposed to be interior monologues, emphasizing the poorly-written dialogue in the process; eating a strange “lime cream” pie with a double hazelnut crust…and those are just a few things off the top of my head from the past few nights. I don’t tend to have dreams that involve realistic situations like paying someone else to master my music and not being happy with the work they’ve done.

Maybe the dream was my brain’s cynical way of responding to the occasional thoughts I still have of, “I wonder what my music would sound like if I paid someone else to master it.” It’s difficult not to get at least a little curious sometimes, even if the amount of material I tend to produce would make it too expensive to give everything the “professional” treatment even if I wanted to go down that road. And if you’re going to be selective about it, how do you determine which albums are worthy and which ones aren’t? I couldn’t do that.

Experience has shown me I’m probably better off doing it myself for the time being, if not for the rest of my life. I understand the importance of a good mastering job, but I don’t have the time or the endless bags of money necessary to set off in search of that one mastering engineer out there who is (a) really good at what they do, (b) not prohibitively expensive, (c) into giving a bit of a deal to someone who will return every three to five months with a new album for them to master, and (d) into the kind of music I make and after the same things I am sonically.

I really do think you’re good at what you do, Mr. Calbi, and if I won the lottery I would probably look into retaining your services. My dreams just have minds of their own.

Never underestimate the power of a horn you can’t actually play.

I’d make a “horny” joke with the title there, but even I would wince at that.

In all seriousness, it’s kind of funny (serious and funny? what?) — not so long ago, I was posting only once every week or two, but my posts were pretty gargantuan. Now I’m posting every few days and not saying much at all. It comes in waves, I tell you. Waves lapping at the shore of love.

One thing’s for sure: word spreads fast. People in offices the world over are already talking about the new album that’s on the way. See for yourself:

I’m having way too much fun making ridiculous little cartoons over at Xtranormal. As far as text-to-speech goes, once you get the hang of it there’s a surprising absence of glitchy crap. Sometimes whole sentences come out sounding like real people speaking.

I’ve got twenty-eight songs recorded for the album, hanging out in various stages of completion, and another eight or nine I want to record. Then it’ll be time to shave it down a bit and figure out what exactly is album material and what isn’t. Should be interesting. It really could become another double CD if I’m not careful, but I’m not sure I want to go there again so soon. Maybe a full-to-bursting single disc is enough this time.

As I suspected, getting it out there before December is gone is going to be pretty difficult. I don’t want to rush it. A January release looks pretty solid. I imagine we’ll be seeing more of those two animated Johnny West fans as the release date draws near.

Working on my bloodshot eye.

This video is kind of hilarious and sad at the same time because of how true it is. Thanks to Mark for posting it on Facebook. Reminds me why I haven’t bothered to send a CD to a record label in four or five years now, and why I’ll never waste my time or resources doing that again for the rest of my life.

Also, David Firth is a genius, and his take on the British music scene is pretty prescient.

It’s like looking in a mirror with flash-fried eyes.

It’s Johnny Smith in the early 1970s!

Huge thanks to Sylvia for sending these pictures. If you took the second one and put it beside a picture of me from back when I didn’t have any facial hair, and I was making a similar facial expression, you would assume both pictures were of the same person. It’s kind of freaky. I’ve seen plenty of pictures before where the resemblance is pretty uncanny, but never anything quite like this. It’s like looking at a picture of myself…only, it’s not me. But I almost start to believe it is after a while. It’s almost like we’re related or something.

I tried using the “fade correction” function on the scanner with this one just to see what it would do, and the colours became a bit more vivid and sharper, but I’m not sure which I prefer.

Forgot what a great song this is.

If I want a sound, I usually feel better if I’ve chased it and killed it, skinned it and cooked it. Most things you can get with a button nowadays. So if I was trying for a certain drum sound, my engineer would say: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, why are we wasting our time? Let’s just hit this little cup with a stick here, sample something, and make it bigger in the mix, don’t worry about it.” I’d say, “No. I would rather go in the bathroom and hit the door with a piece of two-by-four very hard.
— Tom Waits

Are sixteen tracks still enough?

A thought struck me recently, and after mulling it over for a few days I think I finally have a good answer for why I choose to keep recording with the same obsolete sixteen-track digital mixer/workstation I’ve had for a decade now while everything around it has improved exponentially, and why I will likely never upgrade to Pro Tools or the like. Not that it’s a question I find coming up often, but it’s something I’ve thought about from time to time.

Pretty much everyone I know — and everyone I don’t know — who records music with some amount of seriousness uses some sort kind of software, whether it’s Pro Tools, Garageband, Ableton, Reaper, or something else. I’ve got some good outboard equipment at this point which wasn’t always the case, and the converters in the roland VS-1680 are not exactly up-to-date with the best of what’s out there now. You would think it would be a no-brainer to make that final (and, some would say, most important) upgrade.

When someone asks me why I haven’t done that, I usually say I’m comfortable with the 1680, I know how to use it, and there’s a fair amount of power under the hood for what it is. There are still things it’s capable of that I haven’t taken the trouble to figure out yet. Only last year did I finally learn it’s possible to do meticulously timed automated punch-ins if necessary. I’ve only used this function half a dozen times at most, but it comes in handy when you’d like to re-record, say, half of a piano part without having to sprint a twenty-foot distance in a span of two seconds in a doomed attempt at getting to the instrument at just the right time.

I recognize the sound quality of my recordings might improve in a whole new way if I worked with better conversion and at a higher bit/sampling rate, and with how sensitive my ears have become I’d probably hear the difference loud and clear. At the same time, I really don’t feel like spending thousands of dollars on a computer dedicated to recording, along with all the proper software/plug-ins/horse radish and enough high quality conversion to be able to record several tracks at any given time. I’ve already spent a lot of money on recording-related things, and for the time being I think my days of “big purchases” are over. I feel like I have just about everything I could ever need to do what I want to do.

I used to sit at this desk and write and type. As you do. These days that doesn’t happen so much, because the desk looks like this.

To be honest, I kind of like the limitations the mixer forces me to work inside of. You can only do so much with sixteen tracks. My arrangement ideas have grown quite a bit denser and more ambitious over the years — as recently as a year or two ago, I would often have somewhere around four or six tracks left over even after mixdown time, whereas now I often find myself eating up every single available track — but I kind of feel like if you can’t say what you want to say musically in sixteen tracks, maybe it isn’t something that should be said in the first place.

Sure, there are times when I’ve maxed out the mixer and thought, “It would be nice if i had another few extra tracks so I could add a few more vocal harmonies, or a synth string part, or some additional percussion.” But if I really want to make that little extra sonic wallpaper happen, I can finagle a way to sneak it in somewhere between the crevices of another track. And if I really wanted to get ambitious, I could chain my mixer to the extra one I bought off of eBay some years back as a fall-back in case this one ever craps out, and I’d have double the amount of tracks to work with. But a lot of times I find the song doesn’t need that extra bit of clutter. And if it does, then maybe it isn’t interesting enough as a song to begin with, and not something worth putting on an album.

I think having more tracks to work with has the potential to backfire. If a song doesn’t seem to be working, you can just keep piling stuff on top of it until it’s been hammered into submission and is a huge wall of shapeless noise. Granted, sometimes shapeless noise is exactly what you want a song to be. But the more elements you have to try to find space for in the mix, the less space there is in general. There’s that old saying about how you can’t polish a turd. Well, modern pop music proves once and for all that you can. You can take a generic, soulless, creatively bankrupt piece of music and add enough surface gloss to make it sound pleasing to the ears of most consumers, and you can take musicians who can’t really play and singers who can’t sing and use technological trickery to manipulate them into something more musical than what they’re capable of.

To me that isn’t music at all. But that’s just my personal taste. I like sounds that are more organic and maybe a little bit rough-around-the-edges. I like listening to music made by people who actually wrote the songs, played the instruments, and sang without a computer program making them sound more adept at staying in tune than they really are. I think Auto-Tune is maybe the single worst thing to ever happen to music, and without it there would be far fewer talentless pop tarts flooding the universe with do-nothing, say-nothing noise, performing live shows that amount to little more than souped-up grade school lip-syncing performances.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

The point is, I don’t want any part of that stuff. I don’t want to spend hours working with a plug-in to make my drum tracks sound like they were recorded in a baseball stadium and played by a giant with tree trunks for arms, as opposed to the reality of drums being played by a guy in a room. I don’t want to be able to take every vocal moment that’s a little off-key and make it pitch-perfect. People devote entire careers to this sort of thing. It seems to be a large part of what professional audio recording/production is about these days, at least in some camps. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It just isn’t relevant to what I’m doing. I’m more interested in making the music than I am in manipulating sound. I can’t spend nine hours mixing a song. It just isn’t the way my brain works.

One of the things about the 1680 that I think has forced me to get a lot better at what I do is the almost complete inability to work post-production magic on anything. For the most part, once something is inside the box I’m stuck with the way it sounds. In a way, it’s a little bit like recording to tape. I can’t post-produce the crap out of anything or twist a poorly-recorded source into something good with a plethora of plug-ins. I have no choice but to make decisions on the fly while recording in terms of compressor settings, mic placement, effects, and other such things. And I like that immediacy.

Collaborating with anyone long-distance would not be so easy, because the 1680 isn’t really compatible with anything aside from other workstations in the Roland VS-series family. There are ways to make it work if I want to record a piano part for someone else and put it in a format they can incorporate into whatever program they’re working with, but making it work the other way around would be difficult. As it happens, this is pretty much a moot issue, because most of the time when someone says they’re interested in some sort of collaboration it tends to never happen for one reason or another. So the lack of compatibility with other DAWs has never really been a problem for me.

I also enjoy the dependability of the mixer. Yes, it’s depreciated in value so much it’s kind of hilarious. Yes, most professional audio engineers scoff at the mention of the thing and strongly suggest anyone who’s interested in making a good-sounding recording should avoid it at all costs. But have you ever had a problem-free computer? I haven’t. I’m not sure such a thing exists. At some point there’s always a virus problem, or the system crashes for no apparent reason, or something freezes up and some potentially important work is lost, or the thing just gets old and breaks down.

I’ve had the 1680 since the summer of 2000. It’s crashed on me exactly once in that time. It took about ten minutes to fix itself with a built-in drive check operation. There were a lot of songs on the hard drive in various stages of completion when it happened. You know how much I lost? One bass part in one song. That’s it. I have the feeling a computer might not have been so kind.

A lot of the things I record contain elements of improvisation that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to recreate if the tracks were lost. If I used a computer to record, and the system crashed, and I lost even one whole song, I would literally toss that computer right out the window. If for no other reason, it’s probably best for the neighbours that I stick to what I’m doing.

On a similar note, for a long time I wondered what might happen if someone else recorded and produced my music. In the back of my mind I’ll probably always be a tiny bit curious about it. While recording has become such an insular, personal process for me that handing someone else the keys to my musical kingdom would be a bit like getting naked in front of a stranger and saying, “Here — study my genitals and tell me what you think,” I was always curious what someone else — someone perhaps more adept at the recording/mixing side of things — would do with my music. But do I really want to find that out?

If the person who recorded me was good at what they did, the results would technically sound “better” than what I do on my own, I’m sure. But it wouldn’t be my music anymore. Not really. It would be someone else’s idea of how I should sound. I think I would listen to the end result and feel very strange and uncomfortable, because chances are it would feel too slick and “produced” when my whole ethos kind of runs in the opposite direction. I think just about any proper producer or engineer would try to get rid of at least some of the weirdness and rough edges, because it’s in their nature, and in their eyes (and ears) some of what I do might violate the rules of what recording or songwriting are “supposed” to be. WhereasIi think the rules should be violated until they cease to exist. Writing and recording a song shouldn’t be a mechanical process, like constructing a model car. It should be something that grows out of a deep personal need for expression. If that were the case more often, I think maybe there would be a whole lot less abysmal, empty music out there.

I’ve said this before, but I think if I spent a year or so trying to make a ten-song album that was as good as it could possibly be and picked away at the songs until I felt they were crafted as well as they could ever hope to be, by the end of that year I would feel like I wasted twelve months of my life and I would never want to listen to any of the songs again. I’m much more interested in capturing musical moments as they exist and occur, as opposed to trying to summarize or condense a certain period of time and stay in that one specific place for longer than necessary. I mean, I kind of thought the next album might be a shorter, more streamlined affair…and now I can see it’s going to be difficult to cut it down to something that will fit on one CD. I just don’t make short, tidy albums. At least not anymore. It isn’t in me. And it’s not somewhere I’m interested in going.

Was there the thread of something in there that explained why the 1680 isn’t going anywhere? Maybe. Are sixteen tracks still enough? Undoubtedly. Do ducks have sex with transport trucks? Now that’s the burning question.