Month: February 2011

Some people have a blowout…so does an automobile.

Once again, it’s end-of-the-month video progress report time. Check out how unruly my beard has become. Take that, scissors!

While not the most music-heavy progress report I’ve put together, this might be one of the best editing jobs I’ve done so far in terms of how the talking is broken up with the public domain film content. As usual, some segues make sense and others are intentionally ridiculous. I especially like the transition from the evil undead being set on fire to Betty Boop singing a happy song about the trials and tribulations of automobiles. Dig how the sound of the elevator in that cartoon is a man’s voice in “grumble” mode.

Also, Elliott tells me he really does like Radiohead, and the only album of theirs that doesn’t do it for him is Pablo Honey. He just isn’t a fan of the band’s current business model, he doesn’t feel MP3s are worth paying for in general, and being asked to pay twice for the exact same content rubs him the wrong way. He does enjoy the new album, though he wishes it wasn’t mastered so hot in order to fight as yet another soldier in the pointless ongoing Loudness War. At least it isn’t distorted all over the place or as fatiguing to listen to as some other recent albums, so that’s something to be thankful for.

Blow out the candles, blog-face.

Happy third birthday, blog of mine.

There was a time when I thought you were just a temporary place to rest my head and I would eventually lose the motivation to keep you updated, rendering you an online ghost town. Instead, you helped to kick my ass back into gear after I’d been slacking off for a while on all things music-related, and now you’re busier and more sprawling than ever before. I mean, I’m even talking to you like you’re a person, when I stopped doing that back in March of 2008. I bet you never saw that coming back again, did you ol’ blog?

Since I first got the random idea to create you three years ago, a lot has happened.

I went from being lethargic and having no real motivation to put any work into harnessing my musical ideas (I think some people call that “post-crackhouse blues”) to recording and releasing seven full-length albums plus a three-CD compilation of out-takes/misfits — with two hundred and thirty-four songs between them all — in the space of just over two years.

I added a few instruments, noise-makers, and sound-sculptors to the room in which music is made.

I wrote a whole lot of stuff (three hundred posts so far — some silly, some serious, some random, some rant-tastic — plus a separate page for every CD I’ve ever officially released, and dedicated sections for some other things of note), made a lot of videos (there are about eighty self-made videos of various shapes and sizes scattered throughout this place), shared a lot of music (more than two hundred MP3s between album pages and regular posts), posted a lot of silly pictures, and butchered others to make them silly when I didn’t feel they were ridiculous enough to begin with. Things looked like halloween around here for a long time, until they suddenly didn’t anymore.

I went from being so far under the radar I might as well have not existed as a musical entity in this city, to becoming someone who is considered somewhat “cool”, and somehow built up a far larger audience than I ever expected I would. I don’t think it would have been possible without some strong support from CJAM, Liam and the gang at Dr. Disc, Tom and Frank at Phog, some good friends from all walks of life, and my Uncle Kanye, who sometimes gives good advice when he’s not interrupting me during my big moment at a music video awards show.

After being shunned by the local music scene for years, I was finally treated as if I were part of the club, sort of, though I still don’t think I really am when you get right down to it. I guess it just got to the point where it wasn’t so easy to ignore me anymore. I learned a lot about the way a city’s music scene works — the good stuff, the weird stuff, and how there’s some bizarre double-dealing that goes on sometimes behind the scenes. Thankfully I was able to avoid the bulk of the weirdness by not being an active participant in the usual conventional ways.

I tried the unpaid session musician thing for a while, playing as a sideman both live and in the “studio” with a few different people. I had good experiences and bad experiences. Ultimately, I learned being a sideman — while it’s something I can do, and I think I can do it pretty well — is not really for me. It was a worthwhile experiment, at least. I did manage to make a few good friends in the process, and was reminded for the first time in a long while just how much fun it can be to collaborate with someone when there’s no stupid crap involved and you’re not only given free reign to contribute whatever ideas you might have — you get credit for everything you do, too.

I was threatened with rape and death during a home invasion but survived with my muffler intact, though I could have done without the PTSD that followed. I redirected some of the anxiety into pop songs like this one.

Cinders

After avoiding live performances for years, I played my own material live in a few small concentrated doses and then threw caution to the wind and played an extended free one-man show at Mackenzie Hall. What could have been a grotesque failure was instead a surprising success, and it still almost doesn’t quite feel like it really happened.

Then I went back to avoiding live performances.

I reissued and repackaged almost thirty CDs from the back catalogue with new artwork (many of them never had any proper artwork to begin with), mostly for my own amusement. A few people who were interested got a big black box full of these CDs.

A short-form documentary film was made about me.

(The actual number of albums recorded is much higher than the figure in that trailer, but whaddayagonnado?)

I resurrected my long-dormant Myspace page and made it somewhat presentable, using it as a convenient place to post random things I was working on before they had finished albums to call their homes. Then I realized Myspace is kind of lame, their streaming sounds absolutely hideous (I had to hide the built-in music player using html and attach my own external MP3 player for higher quality audio), and there’s really no point in me having a music page over there with all the stupid restrictions and rules when I have complete freedom to do whatever I want over here. I also have no real interest in “networking” with other bands who only want to pad out their friends lists and gain another person they can send impersonal spam to.

So I killed my profile for good, thus rendering me perhaps the only musician in this city who doesn’t have a Myspace page. It was long overdue. Just about the only good things to ever come out of having a Myspace profile were having an easy way to get in touch with Travis for the first time, being able to share silliness with some long-distance friends, and the running joke of being able to refer to that place as “Spyspace”.

The obligatory “bio section” shifted a number of times, from a very skeletal thing, to an insanely long cross between an FAQ and a place to dispel some bizarre rumours and myths that were floating around, before finally mutating into something informative but not as long-winded.

I came up with the idea of making monthly video progress reports as a random thing, only to watch as the half-assed idea took on a life of its own and grew tentacles. I’m working on progress report #9 right now and kind of wish I started doing this years ago, because it’s a lot more fun than I ever thought it would be and a great way to keep track of what I am (or should be) working on.

I also came up with several ideas I’ve yet to really run with, like a comic strip about a wild-haired, cynical-beyond-all-reason child prodigy of a focus-puller named cormac.

And a whole lot of other stuff happened too. A few weeks ago I went through the archives to insert some links where I neglected to do that in the first place (mostly linking to an album’s relevant page when its title appears in a post), and it was a little startling to realize just how much content there is here. I had to make a point of only skimming most of the posts instead of reading them all the way through, otherwise it would have taken me days to get through it all.

There’s a lot of stuff here. You can actually trace my progress from wading through a bit of a slump after an exhausting move into a new house, to getting things back on track in a big way and then keeping the momentum going while figuring out just what this blog was supposed to be. A few links have gone dead in that time (most of them other people’s sites that were abandoned, or links to my now-defunct Myspace page), and I removed them where I caught them, though I’m sure two or three slipped through the fingers of my eyes.

In all honesty, I feel like I’m only now really hitting my stride. There’s a lot more left to say, and much more music to share. Thanks to everyone who’s tagged along for the ride. It’s been interesting so far. Let’s see what else shakes loose.

(I should add that MEDIUM-FI MUSIC… is at #3 on the CJAM charts this week. Thanks, as always, to everyone who plays my stuff.)

A story for children.

My friend Joshua Jesty wrote a short but educational children’s book. I thought I would take it upon myself to illustrate it with intentionally crude computer drawings. Here is the fruit of our odd, unexpected, and (on his end) unasked-for collaboration. I think it has the potential to be a best-seller.

(Warning: it isn’t really for kids, so if you’re a wee one, run away!)

You’re not really you; you’re just words on a page. You taste like the salty sea.

A ridiculous little hatchet job of a comic that has nothing at all to do with the subject at hand? You bet. If you want to know what inspired it, take a look at the page of absurdity called HOW SOME PEOPLE END UP HERE (warning: it’s R-rated all the way). I just went back through five months of search terms to bring it up to date. People type some pretty strange things into their search engine of choice in order to get here, let me tell you…

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I wanted to pose a question to whoever might be reading this: when an album comes with lyrics/liner notes, do you read them? Or do you just rip the MP3s onto your computer/iPod/hover-thingy and toss the physical album aside, never to be examined again? While I’m all about the hard copy, I know there are a lot of people who feel differently about the whole thing. Even so, for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to pretend MP3s never really caught on and the majority of people still buy a lot of CDs and vinyl records.

On a purely local level, I’ve rarely seen any bands/artists in Windsor go to the trouble of printing the lyrics with their physical releases. The only exception to the rule that comes to mind offhand is my friend Ron. This is only an observation, not a criticism. I know there are a lot of factors at play here. It’s more more expensive to print booklets than it is to print two simple one-piece inserts, for one thing — especially when you’re an independent artist without a label to shoulder production costs. It’s time-consuming to put it all together if you’re doing the layout yourself, for another. Proofreading a lot of text is a pain in the posterior. And some people don’t have much interest in releasing their music in any physical format at all anymore, since MP3s make the world go ’round.

For me, having something tangible to touch and examine has always been a large part of what I enjoy about music.

There are plenty of examples of interesting packaging that don’t involve the lyrics being printed at all. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, sometimes not knowing what all the words are has a way of enriching the musical experience. I’ll never understand more than a handful of the words being sung by Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher on the My Bloody Valentine album Loveless, but that music is more about communicating through sound, and not so much about what the actual words are saying. Understanding it on a more basic level might rob the music of some of its mystery and power. It’s also fun to make your own associations and hear what you want to hear.

A favourite pastime when I was younger was sitting at an old typewriter with my fingers fixed to the pause and play buttons of the cassette player, trying to work out what the words were to my favourite songs without the aid of a lyric sheet. Years later I got a lot of this music on CDs with more extensive packaging, and sometimes I found I liked what I thought I heard when I was a kid better than what was really being sung. My friend Milan once misheard a line in the song “People Are Starting to Move in There” (on GROWING SIDEWAYS) as, “God, this is your decrepit house,” which seems more meaningful than what I was actually singing (instead of “God” it was a repetition of “gone” from a previous line).

On the other hand, sometimes the words are more important than anything else, or at the very least an integral part of the music. Leonard Cohen would be the first person to tell you he was always a poet first, and simply found music an effective vehicle for his words — “poetry with guitars”. Very few of the melodies of his songs have ever really struck me, but the guy sure has a way with words, and his voice keeps getting more interesting the older and more weathered it gets. Scott Walker’s Tilt was arguably the most important album I ever picked up on a whim (I keep threatening to go into more detail about my self-imposed musical re-education during my teenage years…I’ll get around to telling the whole tale someday), and the experience wouldn’t have been half as powerful if I hadn’t been able to read the words while I listened and tried to wrap my brain around the alien soundscapes. The lyrics were like some strange poetry ripped from a dream, as fascinating standing alone on the page as they were in musical form.

As for my own music, I’ve never considered my lyrics to be poetry by any stretch of the imagination. But the words have become more important over the years, as blunt emotional nudity gradually gave way to something more thoughtful. “Evening comes and uncoils like a fist,” is a long way from, “You’re so special, I wanna marry your ass.” With CREATIVE NIGHTMARES I thought I would try printing the lyrics with the album just as an experiment. I’ve been doing it ever since. Some of the credit for that has to go to Maya, for insisting the lyrics were deserving of being printed long before I thought they were.

While I print the lyrics mostly for myself because I’ve come to enjoy doing it, sometimes I wonder how many people actually read the words and how much of a role they play in the listening experience. If an album comes with the lyrics, I tend to listen for the first time without reading along, letting my brain hear whatever it’s going to hear and devoting all my attention to experiencing the music. The second or third time through is when I’ll commit to reading along while listening.

I’ve also always been interested in whatever minutiae and technical information is made available — who did the album artwork, who produced/recorded/mixed/mastered the music, who played what, whatever personal message or thanks the artist might have included, and all the stuff in small print that’s probably skipped over by most people. I found out the skipping-past-stuff pattern extended to my own albums when people used to ask me, “Who’s in your band?” when it clearly says in most of the liner notes that I played all the instruments myself.

Sometimes I find myself a little disappointed when a CD comes with liner notes that don’t bother to explain much of anything, though having some pictures or art to explore is a good trade-off. I’ve always enjoyed knowing which musicians were responsible for specific sounds. I guess I’m a bit of a stickler for detail that way. If I play on someone else’s album and basically engineer my own parts, but don’t get any credit for that, it grates a little. I credit the crap out of everything, and I’ve always felt that’s the way it should be. If through some strange twist I ever ended up with anything resembling a band again, I would probably find myself printing musician credits for each individual song. If two musicians trade off on bass and guitar duties, I like to know where the instrument-swapping happens so I can pay attention to the different ways they might approach playing the same instrument.

Initially the whole point of this post was going to be an excuse for me to ask, “How many people read the lyrics when they get my CDs?” and if most people said no, I was thinking about maybe not printing them anymore, at least for a while. Because it does start to get pretty expensive after a while when you’re putting out albums at the rate of at least a few a year. But again, I enjoy doing this purely as an artistic exercise, and the expense isn’t really enough to dissuade me from doing it. So I think the lyric booklets are here to stay.

THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE definitely won’t be getting a lyric booklet when it finally sees the light of day, because a booklet with that many pages wouldn’t fit inside of any jewel case. The album will still come with a booklet of some sort, though. You gotta have something to look at while you’re listening to a four-disc set.

Any thoughts anyone else has on the subject of printed lyrics/liner notes/packaging are welcome and appreciated.

Citrus fresh.

Every so often I’ll type one of my song titles or a lyric into a search engine and hit enter just for fun. While I don’t always find things that have anything to do with me, random searches have been known to produce some interesting results. Yesterday I thought I would try “Please Remember to Forget Me”, for no particular reason.

Instead of random silliness I found myself at the website for a podcast called Cold Citrus, created by a dude in London, England, and discovered he’d been playing my music since late 2009. As well as I can suss it out, he must have somehow come across CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN when I put it up on the CLLCT website, where tons of people from all different places share free MP3s.

The site eventually went offline for a while, all of the content was lost, and I didn’t end up re-uploading my files because in the interim my feelings about MP3s shifted a bit. I still think the website is a great idea, and there’s lots of very cool music there that you won’t hear anywhere else. I’ve just realized I’m very much a hard copy guy when it comes to the dissemination of my own music in album form.

Anyway. I think it’s pretty cool, and a pretty big compliment, that someone as far away as England thought enough of my music to make it a part of his internet radio show without any prodding from me. The first podcast I came across was this one, which features my music both at the beginning and end of the show, and there’s a moment early on where he quotes from a then-new blog entry of mine that just about made me fall over from laughing. I forgot all about that little rant.

I guess i don’t mince words when someone ruins a Beatles song.

You can listen right here, if you’re so inclined:

I’ve got reach! Thanks to Shaun for giving me some English exposure. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to send him some newer music at some point.

Speaking of complaining about stuff, I think it’s safe to say Live Wire Audio have lost my business. A week or two back I vented about a CD player that stopped working. I bought it from them back in December of 2008, along with a full hi-fi system and some beefy PSB speakers. Two years for a fairly high-end CD player is not a good run in my book. I have a few much cheaper and supposedly inferior all-in-one CD players that are more than a decade old now, and they’re still going strong.

I was told the problem with the CD player was a simple fix and something that shouldn’t take too long to take care of. It was sent back to NAD through Live Wire so they could take a look at it.

A few weeks later, it came back. Nothing had been done to it. They determined the laser mechanism that reads CDs needed to be replaced, and it would cost $30 or so. The labour for replacing the part would cost more than twice that much, which I think is a complete rip-off. All told, with tax/shipping/whatever, it comes to more than $130.

This is a CD player I bought two years ago that has been incredibly well cared-for, used very gently, and is in immaculate condition. I could buy a brand new, warranty-enhanced replacement CD player for not much more than that amount of money. Matter of fact, that’s what I ended up doing at Audio Two so I would have a backup player until the NAD thing was back in working order.

Today Johnny Smith and I popped in at Live Wire to ask two questions — what is the warranty on this replacement part, and how long can we expect the turnaround time to be? We’ve already lost a few weeks and nothing at all has been done. A guy who works there — I’ll call him The Nice One — said he was sure there was a warranty. Probably sixty or ninety days (which is pathetic). He said he would call to find out. He did make a phone call, but he got an answering machine and then went off to do something else. We were then approached by another guy who works there. I’ll call him The Other One.

The Other One had been handling the order from the beginning, for the most part. I asked him the same questions I asked The Nice One.

“We just need you to give us the money and then we can get it sent off and fixed,” he said, smiling, ignoring every word that came out of my mouth, giving me no useful information.

“Well,” I said, “If it’s just going to break again in a year or two I don’t really see the point in spending the money. It doesn’t seem like a sound investment to me if it isn’t built to last and there’s no real warranty there.”

His jolly disposition vanished and he said, very curt and condescending, “I don’t have a wizard’s hat. So I can’t help you there. I mean, I don’t have a crystal ball.”

In other words, Don’t ask questions, and don’t ask me to do my job. Shut up and cough up the money. And by the way, your business doesn’t mean a thing to me, especially in a case like this where I don’t stand to make much money either way.

It just so happens that I do have a wizard’s hat. You know what I’ve gathered from the powers of perception it has bestowed upon me? Live Wire just lost a customer. I know you’ve got plenty of other people to overcharge and condescend to, but put that in your nonexistent crystal ball and chew on it a while, Other One. Chew it good.

Set your spirit free. It’s the only way to be.

Hey, the Grammy Awards are on right now! You know — that corporate vomit-fest that has lost any remaining shred of credibility and is really just an excuse for Lady Gaga to wear another costume the bloggers and journalists will write lame, snarky shit about the next day while masturbating in a pool of lukewarm adjectives.

You probably thought a long-winded rant/tirade was coming, but no. That’s all I’ve got. I did at least quote the Spice Girls in the title of this post. I have better things to do with my time, like slowly starting to delete the lyrics on the pages for the last several albums and replacing them with scans of the original handwritten lyrics. Everyone has their lyrics typed up on their websites/blogs, and I think it’s a bit more interesting to have something unique to look at. I’m not saying my handwriting will set your soul aflame. I just think it’s a bit more personal than the alternative of text on a screen.

So far the album pages to get the most amount of handwritten material are probably LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, GROWING SIDEWAYS, and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. I plan on doing a lot more of this over the next little while, so there’s lots of scanning ahead. Even if no one else ever reads those album pages, I’m having fun doing this for myself. And I’m finding some fun things along the way, like my handwritten setlist for the solo show I played at Phog back in January of 2005. Written on orange paper!

“Ambient Guitar” and my revamped version of “Skinny Ditch” would soon end up on the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP, while “Like a Deeper Brother” and “Wipe That Stupid Face off Your Smile” were played once at that show and then never heard again. Some of the lyrics for “Deeper Brother” were later recycled for “Judas Goat”, which is so much better than the song some of its source material was drawn from it’s not even funny. I played electric guitar throughout my set, making for a very different slant on some of the material (like the normally synthesizer-centric “Surprise, Sunrise, Turpentine”). I wasn’t altogether happy with my performance at the time, but now I kind of wish I had the foresight to record it. I think it would be interesting to look at now.

I thought I would turn the camera on this afternoon when I felt an idea starting to bubble up. This might be a better demonstration of the way songs just sort of happen than the last time I tried filming myself writing something. You don’t see the idea evolve into a complete song, but that’s because I stopped playing when I got hungry and ate lunch. You gotta heed the call of the stomach. There’s the seed of something there that I like, anyway. Now I just need to finish unearthing it on another day. I edited six minutes of footage down to three and put no effort into guiding or “writing” the music, so what you see is what happened.

Fair warning — this is nowhere near as exciting as the video of a finished song being recorded from the last post, and I recorded it using the camera’s built-in microphone instead of any of my gear. There isn’t any profanity in this one either, sad to say. Still, maybe it’s something to watch on a commercial break while you’re waiting to find out who’s going to win the Grammy for “best album written by nineteen other people and mastered to sound like distorted garbage even though a disgusting amount of money went into the production of the thing”.

Can you tell I’ve been neglecting to trim my face bush for longer than usual?

(Note: you can hear what this song eventually turned into over HERE)

Oh yeah — the box of CDs at Dr. Disc was empty, so I filled it up again on the weekend. I’ll have to check and see how the box at Phog is doing.

Building a song from the ground up, as captured on video. Finally.

About two weeks ago I said I was thinking about recording some in-studio footage, and instead I ended up posting some random piano noodling.

Here at last is something more substantial — a proper song being recorded and captured on video at the same time. Though I put an effort into synchronizing the footage with the music (and succeeded!), nothing you see is mimed or recreated. It’s all actual footage of me doing exactly what you’re hearing, right down to the camera falling over while I’m recording piano. It’s about time, too. It’s been too long since I posted this sort of thing here.

Pity about filming the drums from the wrong angle and not showing my head or much of my hands (that’s why there isn’t a whole lot of drum footage included), but what can you do? It’s kind of the cost of doing business when you don’t have someone else to operate the camera.

Though it probably goes without saying by now, there are some dirty words in there. Virgin ears, beware.

I find it kind of amusing that this is almost the sort of thing you could call a music video. It’s the closest I’m ever likely to get, anyway, and a huge leap past any of the other recording footage I’ve pieced together. I’m almost a little proud of myself for putting it together so quickly and competently. It flows! It works! You can see me doing what I do while I do it!

I think if I tried to edit this using Windows Movie Maker I would have ended up throwing my laptop against the wall in frustration. Three cheers for Sony Vegas. Now that I’ve started to get the hang of using it, I can’t see ever needing anything else when it comes to editing video.

As for the song itself, it’s the first time I’ve ever thought to play the drums with a stick in one hand and a brush in the other. I’ve gone with a stick and a mallet a handful of times but never thought to brush-and-stick it, for whatever reason. I think it worked well for the song. While there were other songs I could have filmed that would have been more interesting sonically and structurally, I felt like having an excuse to pull out the 1983 Martin D35 after neglecting it for a little while.

You also get to see the 1960s Teisco in action, and I do some fun things with distortion, delay, and manual volume swells. I’ve grown so accustomed to working the volume pot with my fingers, I never think to use a proper volume pedal to cut down on the multi-tasking even though I’ve got one sitting under the Fender Rhodes.

Funny how I’ve got some electric guitars that are a lot more expensive and “sexier” than this one, but at least eight times out of ten I gravitate toward a cheap japanese-made mystery guitar with only one functioning pickup. I’ve yet to find anything it doesn’t do well.

You know what they say — if it ain’t broken, bend it.

Darlin’-honey, that’s just part of lettin’ go.

For one hour a week MuchMusic stops being a shitty propaganda receptacle and dips into more “alternative” territory with a show called The Wedge. I’ve tuned in from time to time over the years, because even though I think at least half of what they play isn’t any better than the crap that gets played the rest of the time, every once in a while something cool pops up. Like an old video by the Cocteau Twins, or My Bloody Valentine, or PJ Harvey. And every once in a great while, there’s something new that doesn’t make my ears cry. Like a Wax Mannequin video. Or this.

This is a song by a band called Madrid. Good luck digging up much information about them. From what little I’ve been able to unearth, it looks like they’ll be releasing an album in the next month or so. Hopefully they put this version of the song on it and not the remix from an EP they released a little while ago. I couldn’t even tell you what it is about the song that grabs me…it just does. There’s something nostalgic and otherworldly about it. I’m sure the video has a little bit to do with it as well.

Note to self: always choose the dark-haired girl over the ski instructor who promises he can shape me into a champion, regardless of how cynical my feelings about “romance” become.

Even if the ski instructor has a moustache.

Especially if he has a moustache.

How I grew up to be a thumb-fretter.

I was wondering where this thing disappeared to after losing track of it for a few years. I found it yesterday while looking for something else.

It was sort of my attempt at a diary entry, though I was never able to motivate myself to keep a paper journal of any kind at any point in my life (music ended up serving that role more than anything). Yes — I wrote cursive once upon a time. Shocker!

In case you can’t read my writing, here’s what my little note says:

My thoughts at 2:40 am, July 1, 1997.

I would like to try playing the guitar. I need to know how much they cost, and how to tune a guitar. The rest I can figure out myself. Acoustic or electric? Both? I don’t know. It’s 2:42. That’s all for now.

Johnny Papa West.

This is the exact moment I decided I was interested in playing guitar. For the entirety of my life up to that point I had no interest in stringed instruments. At all. There was no desire there to explore. I played piano, I sang, and that was enough for me. I didn’t even really like a lot of guitar-based music. If there wasn’t a piano or keyboard or synthesizer somewhere in the mix, I didn’t want to hear it.

Then I saw the music video for the Eric Clapton song “Change the World” on television one day during the summer vacation that stood between the end of grade school and the beginning of high school, and all that changed.

It wasn’t the song that got my attention. I liked it well enough, but I didn’t think it was anything earth-shaking. What got my brain humming was this: somehow, I saw Clapton fretting the strings on his acoustic guitar with his thumb.

I was thirteen years old and wouldn’t ingest a single illicit substance that had any effect on me until I was eighteen. So I can’t blame it on being high. Some synapse somewhere must have misfired. Whatever it was, I was convinced of what I thought I was seeing, and it was a revelation. I thought playing guitar was a complex science far beyond my comprehension, but here was Eric Clapton — considered by a lot of critics to be one of the best guitarists around (not sure I’d agree with that today, though when Eric was good, he was very good) — playing barre chords with his thumb.

At least that’s what I was convinced was happening.

“I can do that!” I said. “I can pick up a guitar and immediately be just as good as Clapton! Who knew it was so simple? And what have I been missing all this time?”

I was so excited I had trouble sleeping. That explains my note-to-self at almost three in the morning, long before the sleep demons I wrestle with now were even a twinkle in my eye.

The next day I withdrew a few hundred bucks from my bank account and Johnny Smith drove me to Leone’s Music World. I wince a little to type that now. But this was more than a decade ago, long before the horrific crimes of Carl the Ass-Monkey. Though the place already had a reputation for ripping people off, I didn’t know that. All I knew was I wanted a guitar, and I wanted it right away.

I said to some guy working in the store, “I don’t know anything about guitars. I’ve never played one before. I want something that’s a decent instrument to start on, but I don’t want to spend a lot of money.”

He sold me a Vantage VIS-2A and a soft case to go with it. To his credit, he gave me what I asked for.

It was the only acoustic guitar I owned until the summer of 2002, and even if it had a ridiculous number of dead frets by that time it got the job done for those five years, appearing on a lot of the albums I made in 1999 and 2000 both as a solo entity and with Gord as Papa Ghostface. It even popped up once in a while after that, dropped into a warped tuning to disguise its shittiness — it’s the guitar I’m playing on the BRAND NEW SHINY LIE track “Peachy Pear”.

It’s impossible to overstate just how much of a piece of shit this guitar was and still is. When I picked up a mid-level Simon & Patrick acoustic in 2002, it felt like going from a cardboard box to a Cadillac. And when I tried playing the Vantage for the first time in years when I was documenting the serial numbers on all of my guitars a month or two ago, going back to that thing after all the great guitars that have come into my life was a surreal and hilarious experience.

But back to 1997. I brought my first guitar home, played barre chords with my thumb in standard tuning, and it didn’t sound like Clapton. It didn’t sound very good at all. I have this first attempt at playing guitar documented on cassette tape, but I’m not quite masochistic enough to post it here. Just trust me when I say it wasn’t pretty. Our man Eric would have hung his head in shame. I was disappointed, and discouraged, and realized it wasn’t so simple after all.

I was taking on/off piano lessons at the time with a teacher I like to call “Dust in the Wind” (for reasons explored in some detail over here). I thought I’d ask him for some advice. The first thing he did was give me a funny look and explain to me the perils of shopping at Leone’s. It wasn’t a mistake I made again. Then he showed me how to form some chords on the guitar. Simple shapes like A minor and G major.

I couldn’t do it. My brain didn’t want the fingers on my left hand to do those things. I don’t think I managed to form a single solid chord. It was hopeless.

My guitar got thrown in the corner of the apartment to collect dust. It stayed there for a while. Then one day I thought, “I spent a few hundred bucks on this thing. I might as well try to get some use out of it.”

I tried tuning it to a major chord and playing barre chords with my thumb again. It sounded better than what happened when I did the same thing in standard tuning, though not by much. It was still very rudimentary and not too pleasing to the ears.

After that, every once in a while I would pick up the guitar and mess around a little. I was pretty sure I’d never be even a little bit good at it, but at least I could have a bit of fun. In the summer of 1999 I found myself with the ability to record my music in digital form and preserve it on CD, and decided I would make the guitar a permanent part of what I was doing. Even if I couldn’t really play the thing, at least it would give me a different set of sounds to mess with.

I rented a few electric guitars (a pretty spiffy sparkly Gibson Les Paul among them, with the most wonderful-smelling case, that showed up on YOU’RE A NATION and MERRY FUCKIN’ CHRISTMAS), and then I bought the mysterious Strat copy/tube amp combo so I’d have something more stable to rely on.

The rest, as they say, is a tale as old as thyme. Teenage dude climbs up a very steep hill very slowly, accidentally figures out how to bend a string in the middle of recording a guitar solo, experiments with a lot of different odd tunings, starts walking up the hill faster, then starts sprinting, and wakes up one day to discover to his amazement that against all the odds he’s somehow become a pretty decent guitarist after all.

I still couldn’t tell you how it happened. I never learned how to play the “right” way. I didn’t even try to after it became clear it wasn’t going to work out. I never practiced scales, or did any exercises, or learned how to read tablature. I just kept playing and trying out different tunings, and somehow I kept getting better — first in tiny, almost undetectable increments, and then in huge leaps and bounds.

The moment it hit me I’d reached a place where I could do genuinely interesting and creative things on the guitar was when the song “Redound” was being improvised and recorded for SUBLIMINAL BILE.

Redound

I considered both of my band mates to be better guitarists than I was. But I found myself in the position of being the only guitarist in the band once we were cut down to a three-piece and they settled into their new roles as the rhythm section. I think having to fill up all that space on my own forced me to get a lot better in a hurry.

Even so, I’d never played anything like that before. I wasn’t working off of any preconceived melodic ideas I had in my head. That stuff just came flying out of my fingers while we were recording.

Gord and Tyson looked at me when we were listening to the playback and said, “How the hell did you do that with your thumb?” They almost looked a little frightened.

I’ve never been a virtuosic guitarist, nor have I aspired to be one. There are things I can’t do — won’t ever be able to do — given the way I play. You’re never going to hear me doing crazy scale-based shredding, for instance. And there are certain chord shapes I just can’t get, no matter what weird tuning I’m using.

I think those limitations made it necessary for me to adapt and advance the way of playing I developed and find my own way. My thumb had to get used to flying all over the place in order to make up for the absence of other fingers to help out.

Around 2004 or 2005 I started throwing the index finger in there once in a while when I wanted a different shape and the thumb couldn’t do it alone (though this doesn’t happen often, and a lot of the time it’s still all thumb, all the way). I went from playing with a pick about 90% of the time to phasing that out, and now I almost always play with my fingers, regardless of what kind of guitar I’m playing or what the music entails. I don’t fingerpick in any conventional way with my right hand, but I seem to be able to do quite a bit with just my right thumb and index finger.

These days I feel almost as comfortable and confident on the guitar as I do at a piano. I never in a million years thought that would happen.

The fun part is, if you sit down and listen to all the albums I’ve made, solo and with friends, from 1999 on (because I didn’t really start to get serious about the guitar until then), you can hear the technique take shape a little at a time. It starts out very crude and amateurish. By the time you get to an album like SHOEBOX PARADISE less than a year later there’s a pretty clear improvement, even if I still didn’t know how to bend a string yet. Fast-forward another year or two and it doesn’t even sound like the same person playing guitar anymore.

At this point, even if a very skilled and patient guitarist wanted to teach me how to play the right way, I don’t think I would be interested. I’ve been doing it this way for so long, it’s moved far beyond trying to compensate for not being able to get my fingers to do what they were supposed to, and it’s just become the way I play. Once, back in the band days, Gord told me his brother Cliff said to him, “He does all that with his thumb. Imagine what Johnny could do if he played with his fingers!”

I used to wonder about that myself. I don’t really wonder anymore, though.

I never really get the chance to tell much more than the skeleton of this story to people who see me play for the first time and say, “What the hell are you doing to that guitar?” So if anyone was ever curious about how and why I came to play things with strings in such a weird way, there you go. Maybe at some later date I’ll get into all the different stringed instruments I ended up with, the stories behind them, and all the different tunings they live in. That’ll be a pretty grotesquely large post when/if it happens.

In other news, it seems there are a few people who have asked for CDs to be “reserved” for them at one of the places where my music is available. Only, these aren’t your ordinary reservations. The people have been right there, standing a few feet away from available CDs, and just haven’t felt like reaching out and grabbing one. They’ve asked for a copy to be held for them so they can take it at some later date.

I think that’s one of the weirdest things I’ve heard in a long time. It’s a CD, not a sewing machine. You’ve got jackets with pockets. You’ve got purses. You’ve got hands. It’s not a difficult thing to take home with you. If the CDs in question are still there a week or two from now, I’m going to take them back myself and redirect them. I don’t have an unlimited supply of this stuff to let sit somewhere while there are people who want to listen to the music who don’t let the fear of gripping plastic hold them back.

Also, one of those mics I put up on Kijiji is gone already. I wasn’t expecting that. Big thanks to Kevin for his interest in the Rode K2, and for being so easy to deal with. It’s a nice microphone…I just think it will be better served in the hands of someone who’ll use it more often than I did.

I don’t know how much airplay the new album is getting on CJAM. I tend to listen via the online audio archives, and that feature of the CJAM website has been absent for a few weeks with no sign of returning anytime soon. Hopefully it isn’t gone forever. In the meantime, thanks to anyone who’s playing my stuff, if you are playing it. The feedback I’ve received so far has been positive, so maybe it’s not as inaccessible an album as I thought it was! As I like to say, wonders never cease, and dress pants never crease.

Bye-ya.

When audio equipment dies, it doesn’t mess around. The stuff dies in groups.

I didn’t mention this at the time, but days after my CD burner and printer died, the standalone CD player component of my hi-fi system decided to go to heaven too. Since I finally got around to putting together a good stereo system about two years ago, it’s become an important reference when I’m mixing things. While the sound coming out of the speakers may not be as flat and uncoloured as it is on the studio monitors, it seems to be a pretty good litmus test. If it sounds good on the hi-fi, I can feel pretty confident that it’s going to translate well just about anywhere else. This isn’t the only reference I use by any means. It just happens to be one of the most useful. So losing the ability to listen to CDs on that system is a bit of a problem.

The one good thing about not being able to play CDs is that it’s forced me to start digging into the collection of vinyl records, which has grown a bit over the last little while.

And there are more that aren’t on the shelf, because the wood is already starting to warp from the weight. I think it’s time to get a stronger shelf.

The CD player that stopped working is an NAD C 515BEE, and it turns out I’m not the only one who’s had trouble with it. There are many reviews on the internet that mention the player’s unreliability. I just never bothered to look for them before. I should be more specific, though. The CD player didn’t stop working in any conventional way. It powers up just fine, the tray opens and closes, and everything works as it should electronically. The problem is it won’t read CDs anymore. No matter what you place on the tray, the LCD display reads “no disc”, and it never did that before.

It seems this was a common problem with these NAD players around 2007, due to a defect, and then the issue was resolved. I think in my case some internal internal component wore out. I was told it was a simple thing to repair. Now I’m waiting on NAD to fix it and send it back to me.

And I might be waiting a while, because though my CD player could probably be fixed in an afternoon by someone who knows what they’re doing, I doubt it’s a priority for the company. I think I’ll be lucky if I get it back before the third week of February.

I don’t like mixing music without the benefit of using the hi-fi as a reference, but I didn’t feel like spending another $400 or something to replace the NAD. For all I know, it would just stop working after a year or two like my first one did, if it even lasted that long. Some things seem designed to keep breaking down. I swear I’ve had to replace the cable for my Sennheiser HD 265 headphones at least half a dozen times in the past eight years, because it always starts to crap out on the left stereo channel after a year or two. It keeps getting more difficult to replace the cable, too, because Sennheiser stopped making these headphones a while ago. I guess they were discontinued because, unlike most of the other closed headphones the company makes now, they don’t sound like muffled donkey crap. I could devote an entire post to my adventures with headphones over the years…we’ll save that for some other time.

If the CD burner and printer hadn’t died on me a few weeks back, I would have an extra $800 to throw around and I’d just go out and buy a Marantz CD5004 or something and be done with it. But things die and need to be replaced, and Dawson Leery cries. It’s the way of the world.

I thought it might be worth it to check in at Audio Two and see if those guys had something that was a bit less expensive. Unlike most audio places, they won’t try to sell you something pricey just because they can. At the same time, they won’t sell you crap. I got a great deal on my turntable there, and I still haven’t had a single problem with it. Glen is also the guy who managed to finagle a replacement cable for my headphones last time it went south on me, and he’s in the process of doing it again, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to take a look. Waiting close to a month before I can listen to CDs in the sitting room again isn’t going to work for me.

I ended up leaving with this thing.

In addition to playing CDs, it has a USB port in case I ever crossed over to the dark side and wanted to play MP3s using a memory stick or an iPod, and it doubles as a burner in case my dedicated CD burner ever decides to crap out. While those are potentially useful features, I really just wanted a decent CD player, and it fits the bill.

I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t been able to listen to CDs on my system for a week or two and my brain is messing with me, but it seems like this CD player imparts a slightly different sound from the NAD. Not in a bad way. Just…different. It seems a little more articulate, while the NAD was maybe a little warmer. Then again, maybe I’ll compare when I get the chance and they’ll both sound exactly the same. And that ain’t a bad thing when the TEAC is significantly less expensive.

But yeah. I have a backup now in case I ever need it. Hooray for Huggies.

Also, I put a few microphones up for sale on kijiji HERE and HERE. I offered to sell them for a little less on Facebook and offered to lend them out if anyone wanted to mess around with them, but I didn’t get any serious bites. So I figure I’ll see if I can sell ’em this way. If it works out, maybe I’ll put the Chandler mic preamp up there at some point too. I don’t think I’m ever going to get around to using that gear again, and it’s perfectly good stuff, so someone should get some use out of it. I wouldn’t mind having a little extra money either.