Month: May 2011

Super! Natural! Plus!

I’ve never been a big fan of acoustic guitar pickups. The only ones I’ve heard that sound halfway decent are insanely expensive, and they tend to be some sort of system where three different pickups are used in sequence along with a lot of EQ in an attempt to approximate something resembling authentic acoustic guitar tone…and they still don’t come all that close.

When it comes to playing live, a pickup is usually an unfortunate necessity if you’re going to play acoustic guitar, unless you’re in a very controlled, low-volume environment. Using a microphone — even inside of the guitar itself — is a feedback nightmare waiting to happen if you want to have any hope of hearing what you’re doing in the monitors.

But when you’re in a recording studio, you’d almost never even think about recording an acoustic guitar with anything other than a microphone or several in front of it, unless you were aiming for a specific effect or a less natural sound. I can think of a few exceptions offhand where the acoustics were recorded with pickups and it suits the song — “One” by U2, “Laid” by James, “On Your Own” by the Verve — but I would still argue sticking a mic in there might have sounded a bit better in all of those songs and helped the music breathe more.

Of all the acoustic guitars I own, only two have pickups, and that’s only because they came with them built in. These are guitars I don’t play often. I doubt I would ever go to the trouble of having a pickup installed in any of the guitars that do see a lot of action these days — the thought of drilling a hole in my 1945 Martin 00-17 almost makes me a little nauseous — and there would really be no point, given how rarely I play live. If I’m going to be playing in a high volume setting, which is something I try to avoid as much as possible, it makes more sense to me to play electric guitar and be done with it.

This didn’t occur to me when I was sort of the lead musician in the short-lived Tara Watts band Tara now likes to pretend never existed. All my guitar parts on About Love were played on a six-string banjo, and none of the electric guitars I had at the time seemed to like that banjo tuning a whole lot. Trying to get them to cooperate introduced intonation problems that were difficult to work around.

After a while I got my hands on a 1950s Kay Thin Twin that likes this tuning just fine and has more or less been living in it for the past two years. But by the time that axe was in the picture, the band was soon to be defunct, and I only got one chance to use it live.

I tried mic’ing the banjo live once, for authenticity’s sake. That didn’t work out well. Feedback nightmare.

I didn’t like the idea of having a pickup installed in the banjo, because I knew it would sound tinny and lifeless. A funky old Kay acoustic guitar happened to find the banjo tuning agreeable (what is it with Kay guitars from the 1950s being so friendly?). I decided the best course of action for live gigs would be to stick a pickup in the sound hole of that beast and electrify it.

I still have the cheap Dean Markley magnetic pickup I bought way back in 1999, but that wasn’t going to cut it. Low output. Shitty tone.

So I went out and bought this thing — a DiMarzio “Super Natural Plus” magnetic pickup — plugged it into the grunty old Paul tube amp, and that took care of the problem.

In hindsight, I wish I thought to mess around with effects. A bit of reverb and delay might have made for some nice dreamy sounds to fill things out a bit more. I guess I was still pretty much a “plug straight into the amp and don’t mess with it” guy at the time, and aside from engaging the amp’s built-in tremolo circuit once in a while I played effects-free.

After my stint as “pseudo-lead guitarist in someone else’s band” came to an end, my new friend Mr. DiMarzio was put away and seldom seen again.

Now it’s found a second life as an unexpected secret weapon on the new album.

When I was neck-deep in the process of writing and recording this stuff, I got the random thought to grab a cheap Washburn acoustic twelve-string guitar I almost never play anymore. I think the last time it showed up anywhere was on “Abandoned House Burning Down” (on IF I HAD A QUARTER).

It’s not a great guitar by any means, and it isn’t the most comfortable axe to play, but every once in a while it has a shining moment. I put it in a bit of a weird unresolved open tuning, and within about ten minutes a song had written itself.

It’s probably one of my favourite things on the album. I think it’s one of the highlights of the live set I’m in the process of putting together with Liam and Dan. If I hadn’t grabbed that unremarkable guitar on a whim, it wouldn’t exist at all.

Funny how these things pan out.

So, I was recording this song. After getting down the basic acoustic tracks and the vocals, I was trying to figure out what to do with it. Since one random idea deserves another, I thought I might slide that DiMarzio pickup inside the twelve-string and see what happened. It took a long time to find Mr. DiMarzio there, but eventually I tracked him down, dialled in some delay/reverb/phaser goodness, plugged into the Fender Twin, and off we went.

A few tracks of electrified acoustic guitar later, the song had a whole new layer of atmosphere to it that made it a whole lot more interesting.

The key when using this pickup, I’ve found, is not even trying to make an acoustic guitar sound like…well…an acoustic guitar. It does a pretty decent job for live use, as far as magnetic pickups go, without too much of the “quack” you tend to get from similar pickups. But when you use it to treat an acoustic guitar like an electric guitar, that’s when some really interesting things start to happen.

It probably helps that this pickup doesn’t make it sound like the tone is rolled off all the way once you get some distortion going. You can do a lot more when your base sound isn’t muffled coming right out of the gate.

My brain and fingers weren’t 100% awake when I recorded this little video, and it wasn’t meant to be anything serious or song-like, but at least you get a bit of an idea how much this twelve-string seems to like this pickup.

Getting there.

At this point I’m closing in on the finish line. With the album I’m working on right now, I mean. All of the twenty-five songs slated for inclusion have been recorded. Three need a bit of work,six6 need to be mixed or remixed, and the rest are CD-ready. If the sequence I’ve decided on in my head works outside of my head, there’s a good chance the whole thing will be finished by the end of the week, and then the packaging and post-production fun can begin.

The “lost album” of material that found itself pushed aside when all these new songs came pouring out is almost as substantial — twenty-one songs by my count, all of which have been recorded in some form, though not all of them are finished. I’m pretty sure most of them will turn up somewhere eventually. Maybe even on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE when I get around to finishing that beast.

Here are a few of those stragglers, just for fun.

Phoenix Descending

Ain’t No Friend


Phoenix Descending was the Guild D40’s final recorded hurrah before I parted with that guitar in favour of the more worldly 1951 Gibson LG-2. I like how there’s three-part vocal harmony more or less running through the entire song, and the piece of shit classical guitar that played a surprisingly prominent role on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS shows up near the end to provide some nice ambient glue.

I should probably take another pass at the mix at some point. The vocals seem a bit louder than they need to be. I like the song well enough. Just feels a little too bouncy to have a place on an album this specific and bitter. But don’t you tell me there’s no place for a silly rap song, or you’ll have a fight on your hands.

The recording of Ain’t No Friend was captured on video over HERE a little while back. This song is hard-edged enough in the lyrics department to fit right in, but it’s about a different person than the one who ended up inspiring the new album. It also has a certain bounce to it that I decided to sort of mimic for another song that will be on the CD called “Emotional Blackmail”.

A few years ago (I’ve been maintaining this blog for that long now?), I posted an ABSENCE OF SWAY out-take called “I’ll Make a Mockery of You Yet, My Dear” that ended up acting as something of a “study” for the vastly superior “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondue”. I didn’t consider the first song to be a complete success, but there were elements of it I liked, so I took the approach I used behind the drums along with the idea of setting percussive ukulele-strumming against piano, and used that as the backdrop for something a lot more interesting. A similar thing happened here, albeit on a smaller scale and with very different results.

In this case, I think Ain’t No Friend is a much stronger song than “Mockery”, and it probably is album material. It just doesn’t belong on this specific album.

Upright has yet to feel at home on any album. feels to me like it either needs to be a beginning or an ending, but to what, I’m not sure.

Maybe part of that has to do with the odd way in which it came to be a song. Way back when Max and I were recording some jazzy improvisations together, there was one little bit of noodling I always liked. It was only about minute long and never turned into anything. More of a between-song riff.

A year or so after the fact, I decided I felt like playing around with it a little. I added some drums and vocals on top of the existing upright bass and piano duet, improvising the words while recording, and then grafted on a whole new second section with my own bass-playing taking over for Max’s, somehow managing to make the new piano track sound like it grew organically out of the old one.

The electric guitar went through a 1955 Mason Model 6, of all things, which looks like this.

It really is as tiny as it looks there. Maybe even tinier. It sits on top of my Fender Twin, looking a bit like a figurative kitten resting on a very large person. It’s only got six watts to it, but the thing sounds great when you crank it and it starts to break up. Someday, if I ever find myself recording a harmonica player who can actually play, I’d like to try the amp in that application. I think it could do a great job getting a bluesy, overdriven harmonica sound.

These might not be the most interesting cast-offs, but then I can’t be giving away all my best secrets too soon, can I?

In other relevant news, I’ve decided to make next month’s Mackenzie Hall show a proper CD release show after all. Though I don’t like sitting on new music, I’ll only really be holding it back for a week or two at the most, and it’s possible this will be the only time in my life a live show and the release of a new album will line up just right. Might as well have some fun with that and make it count.

The album is still free, and after the show it’ll be available in the usual places. But until a week or so after the show, when I’ve recovered from all the nude dancing and Simple Plan cover songs and built up more stock to spread around, the only place you’ll be able to get the album is by coming to the show.

I plan on giving some copies to CJAM like I normally do, so you’ll be able to hear some of it before its “official” release, assuming you listen to CJAM. And if you don’t, hey…it’s never too late to start. What better reason to tune in than some hairy guy releasing an album full of dirty words and romance-bashing?

There’s a first time for everything, unless you suffer from “second time syndrome”.

I just finished rehearsing with a bassist and a drummer — the first time I’ve played my own music with a rhythm section in nine years.

For a first get-together, I don’t think it could have gone much better. We took one of the songs that will be on the new album, which is normally a languid, dreamy, percussion-free piece, and stretched it out and made it swing. Never has an electrified acoustic twelve-string guitar been more jazzed about life.

I kind of forgot how much fun it can be to play off of other musicians in those things some people call “bands”. Especially when the other people involved are into improvising, listening, and responding to what’s going on around them, so things keep shifting and don’t get too static. Liam and Dan are definitely into that.

Anytime three people who’ve never played together before can fall into a ten-minute funky-jazzy Wurlitzer/bass/drums improvisation that starts out sounding something like an electric-period Miles Davis groove sans-trumpet and randomly segues into a Latin rhythm for a while, well…I think that’s pretty tasty stuff.

I just got a whole lot more amped about the idea of playing live in about a month. I’m also considering the prospect of holding off on the release of the new album until the day of the show, not in an effort to get more people to show up, but more because it may be one of the few opportunities I’ll ever have to play a proper “CD release show”, since live shows and album releases don’t tend to ever line up for me.

Something to stew on, anyway.

A puppet playing possum.

I think sometimes songs can be almost clairvoyant. I’ve talked before about how a lot of times I don’t feel like I write songs as much as it feels like they just kind of…appear. But sometimes I’ll look back at a song that comes about this way and find it eerily prescient, even though it wasn’t about anything that was going on at the time it was written.

There are a few songs like this that are going on the next album. They sound like they fit right in thematically, and yet they were written before I was anywhere near the headspace the bulk of the songs have come out of. I find it interesting. Some people have prophetic dreams. Apparently I write prophetic songs from time to time.

One such song is delivered from the perspective of a puppet that’s put in storage and left to rot after its owner/puppeteer grows bored with it and turns their attention to a newer, fancier puppet. It never even occurred to me until I was recording it that the whole thing works as a metaphor for relationships that don’t involve inanimate objects.

The box at Dr. Disc is full again, but there are no copies of MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART in there. That album’s “out of print” for the moment, until I replenish my supply of double CD jewel cases. I threw in copies of a few older things to make up the difference, including the MISFITS compilation (which probably hasn’t shown up in the box in a good two years).

Tuesday I play my own music with a rhythm section for the first time since 2002. Now that’s gonna be interesting.

The unholy trinity.

Three things to report:

1/ Before the week’s end the box of CDs at Dr. Disc will be full again, stocked up from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN to the present. Still seems like I can’t fill that thing up fast enough, and there ain’t even a new album out there yet. Who keeps sharing the love? Or taking the free love? Or sharing the free love they’ve taken with other people? Who be you? Whoever you be, I appreciate the continued interest. The next time I fill the box, hopefully it will be with brand new music.

2/ I am playing a live show at Mackenzie Hall on Saturday, June 18th.

You read that right. I even made a fancy Facebook event for it over HERE. Everyone is invited, even if for whatever reason you don’t happen to get an invitation on Facebook, and I should have some posters to spread around soon.

Here’s the deal. There’s that Shores of Erie Wine Festival gig in September, which is far enough away that I don’t have to get nervous about it yet, but still a little bit scary when I think about the idea of performing in front of somewhere upwards of a thousand people. While I’m confident it’ll be a good experience, it’s a little outside of my comfort zone. But hey, so was last year’s show at Mackenzie Hall, and that went a lot better than I expected it to.

I haven’t played my own material in a live setting at all since that show last March. That’s fourteen months ago now. I thought it might be an idea to play a show before September in a more intimate setting where things can be looser and a little more spontaneous. It’s a way to warm up a little for what’s coming, and to try some things out that I may not be able to do on a big outdoor stage. After waffling a little over where to do it, I realized Mackenzie Hall was a no-brainer. The only question was whether or not I really wanted to play two live shows of my own in one year. That probably sounds hilarious, because most people wouldn’t think twice of playing two gigs inside of one week. I obviously operate a little differently.

I would be happy to never play live again for the rest of my life. Making the music and sharing it with whoever wants to hear it is what it’s all about for me, and everything else can fall by the wayside. But I really enjoyed that first show at Mackenzie Hall. I took a chance, tested myself, and while some things were a little rough around the edges, I didn’t fail.

It was a good learning experience. Some things worked better than others. I can take some of what I learned from that show and (I think) do a better job the second time around. Mix things up. Instead of doing another one-man show, I can have a few friends play some songs with me to flesh things out a little more. I can take more chances and just have some fun playing music.

It also feels like a good way to again say thank you to the people who have supported me and the music I make. I knew if I didn’t bite the bullet and book something now I would end up second-guessing myself until I decided it probably wasn’t such a good idea. I almost did that last time, and I’m glad I ended up going through with it.

So there you go. A live show that will probably end up roughly coinciding with the release of the next album.

3/ That album, speaking of the devil in a purple dress, is coming along. It now has completely different cover art (thanks to Bree) and a new title.

Almost all the songs I was planning on including have been tossed aside to make room for all the new material that’s been pouring out in the aftermath of romantic stupidity. So there’s a whole “lost album” that I’m sure will see the light of day at some point. This album just decided it wanted to be something else late in the game, and most of those other songs no longer feel like they fit in. I might as well start referring to it as a breakup album, but to me it feels nothing at all like IF I HAD A QUARTER or any of the other things I’ve done that fall into the breakup category. There’s an odd wistfulness to some of the material, along with a whole lot of bitterness sharp enough to slice through speaker cones. The first line of the opening track is, “There’s no such thing as love,” and the closing track is about writing a horrible love song, ending a relationship, and dying.

In other words, it’s gonna be the feel-good album of the summer!

Don’t worry about your index finger; it’s in a better place now.

The box of CDs at Dr. Disc is barren once again. I’ll have it filled to the brim again just as soon as I’m stocked up on supplies. I’m running a little low on CDs at the moment.

I’m very close to booking Mackenzie Hall for a mid-late june show. I feel the itch, and I know if I don’t scratch it soon it will disappear and I will itch no more. It’s not a complete certainty yet, but I’ll know which way the cookie crumbles within the next few days. If it does happen, I intend to actually promote the show with some amount of gusto this time. I might even make an official Facebook event page.

Also, after being set on SLIGHTLY REHEARSED for an album title for a while now, I’m not so sure I’m feeling it anymore. I think I might have to change the title to something a bit more reflective of what a cynical collection of music it’s turning into. The thing isn’t done yet, so I still have some time to waffle over decisions like this.

I can feel my wet teeth bleed at summer’s speed.

Here’s April’s progress report video. It’s a day late, but technically I finished it yesterday, right on time (hence the “see you in May” comment at the end).

I think this could be the best editing job I’ve done yet. The intro in particular turned out better than I was expecting. I just started cutting up a bunch of stuff and throwing it together, and it had the strange effect of making that new song seem a little more interesting that it is. Almost none of the subtitles I added have anything at all to do with what the characters in Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer are actually saying, with the exception of the bit where he asks a cab driver to keep the meter running. I just added a bunch of random things for fun. It’s almost like a real music video! Hooray for chopping up films that have fallen into the public domain, I say.

The Driller Killer is an interesting glimpse at very early Abel. A lot of the themes that would figure prominently in his later work are there already (inner turmoil, Jesus, death, redemption or a complete lack thereof), and the movie has an interesting, grimy feel to it. Some Bach via Wurlitzer electric piano on the soundtrack is a nice little touch. It’s not a masterpiece by any means — it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be an exploitation/slasher flick or a low-rent art film — and some of the acting is really bad…but that seems somehow appropriate.

Baybi Day is almost painfully beautiful, and I thought she did a good job playing that “somewhat dimwitted but well-meaning, sort of, sometimes” kind of character. I was positive I’d seen her in other movies, but it turns out this was the only thing she ever did in the realm of cinema. It’s a shame, because she had a face for the movies. It’s also amusing to see Ferrara himself in a starring role, under or over-emoting depending on what’s going on inside his character’s head.

From what I’ve read, Abel’s commentary track on the DVD is pretty amusing. He spends most of the movie’s run-time making fun of it and himself. Evidently he fell for Baybi too. According to the IMDb trivia section, she was asked to return to Ferrara’s fray for Bad Lieutenant and declined (it isn’t clear why). It would have been interesting to see what part she would have played in that film.

Perversion for Profit is, as the end credits say, a scary-as-hell propaganda film from 1965. It was meant to be an exposé of the evils inherent in literature and pornographic/nude images, but the great irony is that in its homophobic, Bible-humping absurdity it’s far more offensive than any of its targets ever could have been. I left out most of the really offensive parts. I used a few little bits of this in an earlier progress report video some months back, but there were too many great moments ripe for context-warping that I missed the first time around, so I felt a need to bring it back for an encore. This time George Putnam really gets to shine.

I usually seem to end up looking pretty serious whenever I’m addressing the camera, and I might look even more humourless here than usual. I think it’s just because I’m talking off the top of my head and trying to keep track of what I want to mention, hoping it comes out of my mouth making some amount of sense. This one is a few minutes longer than the last progress report, though I say at the end it feels a little short. to me Just goes to show that Iggy Pop was right about the TV eye.

Also, I didn’t even realize this until after I finished editing the whole thing, but after I sing, “Nobody loves you, baby…” during the opening song, there’s a quick shot of Baybi. Kind of a neat little coincidence.