Month: October 2011

Hello again, mandola. Goodbye for now, Facebook.

Today I recorded what must be one of the catchiest things I’ve ever written in all these years I’ve been making music. Seems appropriate that it happened on Devil’s Night. It’s a mandola-driven tune that’s about as accessible as I ever get, though it’s still got a healthy dose of weirdness with lyrics like, “Meat lasagna coats your fallow septum.” So no need to worry about me crossing over to the pop world or anything.

The funny thing is, I meant to record this song quite some time ago, and I would have if the mandola hadn’t developed a pretty ugly buzzing issue. I assumed I made a mistake in keeping it in my bedroom and out of its case for as long as I did and resigned myself to getting someone to look at it at some point before I would be able to record with it again.

I just about forgot I even had the instrument for some months there, until today, when I thought I’d take it out of the case for probably the first time this year and see what kind of shape it was in. I braced myself for the worst and was greeted with…no buzz at all.

Maybe it’s true what they say: a few seasons worth of neglect will sometimes encourage a mandola to forgive you.

That was a pleasant surprise, since this song kind of depended on the mandola being the crux of it in order to work, and it wouldn’t have been the same without it.

Tomorrow I’m going to be on Chris Crossroads’ show Deliverance, on CJAM at 2:30 in the afternoon. Because what would be more fitting on Halloween? That’s a scary one-two punch if ever there was one — record a ridiculously catchy song and then grace the airwaves with my ghastly presence.

Might play a little bit of unreleased/unheard material off of this ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE thing I’m working on. I don’t think I’m going to be posting too many more tastes of that stuff here until the album is finished, so if you want to hear some things of mine you haven’t heard and won’t hear anywhere else in the immediate future, that there shall be your heads-up.

If you’re not in Windsor but you’d still like to listen, you can stream the show live over on CJAM’s website. And if you miss it but you’d like to catch it at some point later on, you can always visit the MP3 archives at your leisure.

Another heads-up for anyone who is both a Facebook friend and a regular or occasional reader here: I’m about a day away from deactivating my Facebook page, as soon as I tie up a few loose ends. I won’t be gone forever, but I need a serious break from that place for the time being.

I thought I could ignore the news feed and only use Facebook as a glorified email server. I managed to pull it off for a little while. Then I got sucked back in, because Facebook is far too convenient a time killer, and it seems I’ll keep going back as long as it’s there.

I don’t want to read any more shit posted by people who will be my fake friends on Facebook but won’t bother to communicate with me in any meaningful way there or anywhere else, and I’m tired of the meaningless noise of so-called social networking. The benefits (like the ease of letting a large group of people know when there’s a new album out, or finding an old grade school teacher) no longer outweigh all the things that make me swear. And I probably already swear too much as it is.

A few people might notice I’m gone and get the mistaken impression I’ve blocked them, but I figure anyone who actually cares knows how to get in touch with me if they’re really concerned about it.

I’m not implying that I have any disrespect for anyone who thinks Facebook and sites like it are the best thing since crunchy peanut butter. I just think the healthiest thing for me to do is disappear from that place for a while.

This month’s video progress report is probably going to be a few days late, as tends to be the case about half the time. It should be along soon.

She’s an alligator girl.

vintage side show art of a supposed "alligator girl"

Now that I’ve figured out something to focus on I seem to be getting some momentum going again.

For four months I didn’t really record anything serious at all. I haven’t taken a break anywhere near that long since the “lost year” that was 2007. I finally decided (not for the first time) to put some genuine effort into finishing a ridiculously ambitious album that’s been years in the making, and in a short period of time I’ve gone from having a mess of about a hundred-and-fifty songs in various stages of completion I had no idea what to do with, to putting together rough sequencing ideas for the first two discs and realizing I could have a rough assembly of the first disc finished within a week.

Up until a week or so ago, I had no idea what I was supposed to channel my creative energy into next. Now I find this projected album that’s been a huge elephant in my closet for a very long time is coming into focus in a way it never really has before.

The secret, I’ve found, is ignoring the fact that there’s a BIG FUCKIN’ PILE OF MUSIC I probably won’t live long enough to finish or release, and just picking something from that pile to work on without being intimidated by the full scope of the workload. Sooner or later I end up tackling a song that’s been puzzling me for years, having a eureka moment in which I figure out what was missing all along, and the whole thing starts to look a lot less daunting.

Example — there was a piano idea I came up with back in 2006 or 2007. Like many of the ideas I wasn’t sure would ever become proper songs, I gave it a title just for fun. I called it “She’s an Alligator Girl”, because it was a phrase that was the right amount of syllables to sing along with the main melody.

It took me a long time before I bothered to write any lyrics. Once I had some words, I recorded it as a glorified tiny song in February 2009, during the sessions for IF I HAD A QUARTER. I left it alone for a while until the summer of that year when I was recording CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, and then I added drums, bass, and some electric guitar. I mixed the song, but it didn’t feel like album material to me. It felt like it never got to wherever it was supposed to go. So I let it be.

She’s an Alligator Girl (first mix)

This is a song that’s vexed me for more than two years. Normally I would consider it a write-off and save it for an out-takes collection somewhere down the road, but yesterday I thought I’d dump it back on the mixer and mess around with it for fun. Couldn’t hurt anything to try.

Instead of taking what was there and trying to pile more sounds on top of it, I got rid of everything but the bare bones and started all over again. I always liked the drum performance (at least until the flubbed fill near the end, which could have been covered up with a fade-out), but I felt like it was limiting what else I could do with the music. The triple-tracked vocals went away too. I kept one vocal track, the piano, the bass, and threw the rest away.

I recorded about half a dozen tracks of leg slaps (which are sometimes easier to sit in a mix — and always less taxing on the hands — than conventional hand claps when you don’t have anyone else to clap with you) and bounced them down to two stereo tracks to give myself a bit more play. I liked one particular melody from the guitar part that existed in the first mix, so I sang it while slapping my legs to keep it around.

Then I messed around with the Telecaster Travis lent me and was reminded how difficult it was to figure out an appropriate guitar line the first time around. Something about the circular piano part seems to resist easy accompaniment. It wasn’t until I completely simplified what I was doing and stuck to letting a few harmonics ring out that it started to feel like something interesting was happening.

I left it like that until today, when I tried a few different approaches behind the drums and recorded a new vocal track far away from the microphone using an insane amount of compression (I didn’t end up using it, but it was worth a try). Still felt like I could do more to flesh the song out. Add some organ or synth, maybe.

I thought about recording some acoustic guitar, using it as more of a percussive thing and trying to play a drone that would work against the linear harmonic movement of the song. I’ve pretty much avoided using a pick in my guitar-playing for years now, but here it seemed to work really well as an accent. Probably didn’t hurt that the guitar I was playing was the 1945 Martin 00-17 and the mic was the Pearlman TM-LE.

You can bet if I’d gone to the trouble of fleshing the whole thing out two years ago the acoustic guitar would have been distant-mic’d, the vocals would have stayed multi-tracked, I would have stuck with brushes on the drums, and it would all sound very different.

This is what it sounds like now.

She’s an Alligator Girl

I don’t think it sounds like a whole new song as much as it just feels…finished. While it probably won’t be an album highlight, it’ll work just fine as a segue or a quick curve ball. And I think the two mixes do a decent job of illustrating some of the ways my production/recording methods have changed over the past little while. A lot has shifted. The rough edges are still there, but in different places. The first version is also louder than the second, because I was mastering things a bit hotter a few years ago.

There are a lot of songs like this that have been sitting around, waiting for the right clothes to find them. I’ve been dreading trying to dress some of them, because I hit a wall at some point in the recording process and became a bit of a reluctant tailor where certain songs were concerned. Now I’m beginning to see it isn’t always necessary to break that kind of creative wall down with brute force. Sometimes it’s easier to leave the wall intact, paint it a different colour, and take a running leap over when no one’s paying attention.

You’re the same kind of bad as me.

It turns out the whole batch of Laughing Stock LPs was defective and noisy as hell.

Maybe it was meant to be. Yesterday I had a choice to make between the new Tom Waits album (which Liam managed to get in the store before the official release date) and Talk Talk. My line of thinking was Tom will always be there, but neither of those last two Talk Talk albums are easy to come by on vinyl. But since the Ba Da Bing label (or whoever is cutting their records) seems to have a problem with making sure the vinyl they send out isn’t defective, today when I was returning the shit-sounding record I opted for Tom’s new album Bad as Me instead so I at least wouldn’t walk away empty-handed.

I don’t think the man has ever made a bad album. I’m not sure he knows how. Even the first few records I can’t really listen to — because Tom Waits without the gravel is just too weird for me — have some great songs on them. But I feel like this is maybe the best thing he’s done since Mule Variations came out back in 1999.

The rockers are twisted and infectious. The ballads are beautifully broken in that Waitsian way. Even the otherworldly falsetto voice he’s used sparingly over the years (once described by some brilliant person as being “beautiful like a supermodel aged way past her prime getting in a car crash”) pops up again. There’s also something really interesting about the way the grizzled voice of Keith Richards sounds a whole lot more mellifluous when it’s juxtaposed against Tom’s scorched vocal cords.

There’s one song that stands out by a mile, called “Hell Broke Luce”. Tom has put together some pretty unique — and uniquely unsettling — songs and soundscapes over the years, but he’s never done anything quite like this. It’s like a nightmare smashed into a song, and it’s a more effective anti-war message than any of the more overtly political war-related songs I can remember hearing. At the same time, it’s hard not to laugh at the insanity of it all, and there’s something wonderful about hearing the man with lungs of leather barking, “Big fucking ditches in the middle of the road. You pay a hundred dollars just for filling in the hole. Listen to the general, every goddamn word. How many ways can you polish up a turd?”

(Also, whoever came up with the idea to mash up Tom Waits and the Cookie Monster is an evil genius.)

It’s good to hear Tom is still Tom — the complete antithesis of everything pitch-corrected, generic, and polished to the point of sterility. Like most Tom Waits albums, the music sounds somehow low-fi and hi-fi at the same time. And who else writes lyrics like, “I sewed a little luck up in the hem of my gown,” and is a man, and can sing a line like that and make it sound weary and defeated instead of ridiculous?

The best part: the record itself sounds fantastic, in stark contrast to the abomination that is the Laughing Stock reissue. Ba Da Bing get a pass with me because they put out Epic, a great album by Sharon Van Etten, but right now I’m not too hopeful that even their non-defective vinyl will be too impressive.

Laughing Stock is on regular grade skinny vinyl, and supposedly it was mastered from the CD instead of any original master materials. That’s not encouraging. As soon as I pulled Bad as Me out of the sleeve, the difference in quality was astonishing. Here’s 180 gram vinyl you can almost tell will sound good just based on how serious it feels in your hand.

A little tip to labels everywhere: if you’re going to re-release an album that was immaculately recorded and is considered a masterpiece by more than a few people, you might want to make sure you do it right. Botching a classic will not win you any points with the people who care about the music. If you’re not prepared to treat it with respect, you shouldn’t be touching it at all.

Spin me round.

Ba Da Bing just reissued Talk Talk’s seminal Laughing Stock album on vinyl.

That’s seminal as in “singular work of art that many have been influenced by and attempted to emulate in various ways without ever coming anywhere near recapturing the brilliance of the original”, and not “pertaining to or consisting of semen”.

Elliott was maybe more excited about this than anyone else, and upon learning of the unexpected reissue earlier today he was heard to say something profane before vanishing and returning a little later on with his own vinyl copy. He remained elated until he removed the record from its sleeve.

He then noticed what appeared to be the residual anus leavings of a tiny bird near the groove separating the first and second tracks on the first side of the LP. After a few fruitless attempts to remove it through conventional cleaning methods, he surmised it was a defect in the record itself and not dirt or tiny bird splatter.

He responded by writing a curt message on a green piece of paper and asking me to hoist him up so he could take a picture as a record of his disappointment.

Here’s hoping this was a fluke and the other available copies aren’t similarly marred.

In the meantime, here’s an interesting interview from a while back with Phill Brown, who in addition to engineering the last two Talk Talk albums has worked with Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Harry Nilsson, Traffic, and John Martyn, among others. That’s some kinda resume.

That’s AH some.

Finally, the box at Dr. Disc is full of CDs again. If anyone was wanting some of that stuff, it’s there for the taking.

CDs are also available at a new place — my friend James just opened up his own record store called AH Some Records, and he gave me my own section. That’s right…a Johnny West section! That’s a first for me. Wish I thought to bring a camera with me to snap a picture of it.

There’s a cool vibe to the place, and I like the green theme that ties in with the wicked sign Chris designed. James is at 2343 Pillette, and I think he and Liam are the only people in the city still selling actual vinyl records. So go buy some rekkids, young ‘uns. They’re good for what ails you. And grab some free Johnny West CDs while you’re at it if you need some extra makeshift coasters and mini-frisbees.

Thanks to James for all of the support, and for giving me my own section. I almost feel like a real boy now.

Sad, sad, sad.

A few random things:

I think this is pretty amusing. While I’m glad to say none of the templates made me think, “My god! That’s me!” I’ve known a few people over the years who are eerily well-described there, and I had a few chuckles.

Hipsterism aside, if you have a soul and/or any musical taste, I suggest you stay far away from a little show on MuchMusic called Discovered. Hearing the music these bands produce and realizing they’re being given the opportunity to get their foot in the broken-down door of the music industry when countless more talented artists are ignored and rejected will — if you’re at all like me — make you want to kill things.

I’ve only caught a few bits of episodes here and there. I wish I could erase them from my memory. Greig Nori doing his all-knowing guru/tastemaker thing once again doesn’t help. I’m sure he’s a nice guy in “real life”, but I have a difficult time taking anyone seriously when they describe themselves on Facebook as the “best thing to ever come from Canada”.

To that end, sort of, I really don’t like bashing Lady Gaga too often, because I feel it’s a bit like kicking a puppy. It’s just too easy when you’re as bitter about popular music as I am, and I get no enjoyment out of it. However…I recently read some comments on Björk videos on YouTube where people were insinuating that she was little more than a Lady Gaga ripoff artist.

That there are people who are this moronic, ignorant, and clueless shouldn’t come as a surprise. It still made me do a bit of a mental double-take.

Consider:

Björk was making game-changing, fiercely individual music when Lady Gaga hadn’t even hit puberty yet and probably didn’t know what a song was.

Björk has written a reasonable amount of her songs alone, while Lady Gaga has exactly two songs in her catalogue of recorded work that haven’t been besieged by multiple co-writers.

Björk has somehow turned English not being her first language into a strength, writing some very unique and thought-provoking lyrics with unexpected turns of phrase, and she rarely writes anything that follows a conventional, typical chord pattern, using the strengths of whoever she collaborates with to bend the production of her music in new and interesting directions. Not all Björk albums are masterpieces, but you can’t say she ever sounds much like anyone else.

Gaga sings about wanting to take a ride on your penis and blinding you with her vagina, and all of her songs follow tired, predictable chord progressions that were already overused decades ago, while the production fits firmly into the lifeless, sterile, over-compressed sound that seems to be the de facto setting for most popular music today.

Scientific studies have been done to demonstrate how the brain responds to music. The gist of it is something like this — your brain wants to hear those same predictable chord progressions, and a healthy dose of dopamine is released when you get what you’re expecting, creating a sort of low-level natural high. This goes some way toward explaining why so many people seem to enjoy music that’s devoid of any semblance of substance or creativity.

It also tells me I must have suffered brain damage at some point in my life. Because it doesn’t work that way for me at all.

I could go on. But instead, I’ll let the music make my point for me.

There’s this:

And then there’s this:

And never the twain shall meet.

There’s no comparison. To even consider making one goes so far beyond idiocy it creates its own black hole of nothingness in which it swallows and digests itself. Saying Björk has ripped off Lady Gaga is akin to saying Frank Sinatra was just a Michael Buble imitator.

Someone, for the love of sandpaper, make the stupid go away.

That’s an awful lot of dancing for just one carrot, honey…are you sure you’re alright to drive?

Assuming I get this ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE THING finished while I’m still young, and pretending for a second that I operate the way most other people do, here is what would probably be the first “single” off of the album. If I released singles. Which I don’t.

Don’t Be Tense (rough remix)

The original incarnation of this track was chosen by Craig Norris of CBC Radio 3 as a “track of the day back in September of 2008. That still seems a little surreal to me. It was always meant to be the first proper song on the album, and I think it still will be, but now it’s got a little more rhythmic thrust.

While listening to it again in the context of some of the other songs it struck me that the drum sound was a little weak. The song was recorded about two seconds after work on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN wrapped up, and I hadn’t yet learned how to get the most out of the stereo ribbon mic I started using as a one-stop drum-recording solution earlier that year. It’s especially noticeable on a song like this where I played with sticks instead of brushes, resulting in an erratic sound with the cymbals louder than everything else and the snare not cutting through so much.

Eventually I would find a simple solution — instead of using any close mics, when I wanted a more forceful drum sound I would play with a stick in one hand and a brush or a mallet in the other, only striking cymbals with the softer weapon — but in 2008 I was still some distance away from hitting on that idea.

I’ve gone on rants before about the revisionist approach to music and how I feel things should usually be left as they are, for better or worse. My music is a series of documents of who I am and where I happen to be at different times, so it always seemed pretty pointless to go back and alter anything I’d done, even if I felt I could technically improve it in some way.

Turns out I feel a little different about all of that in this case. This is an album that hasn’t hit the finish line yet. The material has been recorded on and off over a period of more than four years, in two different houses.

On the one hand, I don’t want to strip the songs of the things that tie them to the time and place in which they were born. On the other hand, I do want to feel all the songs are as good as I can make them.

I’m not after technical perfection. I’m after something that feels emotionally satisfying to me.

Example — I re-recorded the drums for this song earlier tonight, and while I used the same microphone and the exact same signal path I used back in September of 2008, the drum sound is quite a bit different now. The cymbals are much more in the background, and the snare has more punch to it. Overall the sound is still ramshackle, but with much more body, and mixed much more prominently (too prominently, as it happens…I need to remix it at some point and bring the drums down a little so they sit better).

You can hear a pretty big difference when comparing what the song sounds like here to what it sounded like on the CBC Radio 3 site three years ago.

I could have taken the opportunity to change a lot of other things about the song. I didn’t. Aside from getting the drums to agree to some genital enhancement surgery and getting rid of a bit of ambient noise at the end that’s always bothered me (my fingers striking the body of a banjo), I didn’t do a thing to alter what was there in the first mix. The levels stayed the same. The panning of the instruments stayed the same. I resisted the urge to punch-in a bad note on the bass a little past the three-minute mark, when it used to drive me nuts every time I heard it. I even left in a little fffff sound when one of the vocal tracks comes in in on, “Forgive me my stupidity,” a hair too early.

So there is a happy medium to be found, sometimes, honouring the original intent while giving it a little injection of whatever it was missing the first time around.

I don’t plan on revising too many songs like this. In most cases, any improvements I might be able to make would be so insignificant it wouldn’t even make much sense to try. But where it feels like a song really could benefit from a little tweaking, I think it can be done tastefully, in a way that doesn’t disturb the original fabric of the piece, and the end result will be an album that — while grotesquely long — will feel to me like an organic whole and won’t leave me with any lingering feelings of “if only I’d taken another pass at that part there”.

I’ve set myself deadlines before, and none of them have stuck. I figure if I aim to have the album finished by the tail end of the year, I’ll probably fail — but I’ll get close enough that I’ll be able to have the thing ready to come right out of the gate at the beginning of next year. I’ve got about two hours of music CD-ready right now, which means I’m a little less than halfway there. So there’s hope.

Hey — when you’re a dancing carrot, sometimes hope is all you need.

One step up and two steps back.

I’ve been meaning to do this for years now. The other day I decided I might as well get to it now while I’ve still got my wits about me. So, just for fun, here is the story of my self-imposed musical re-education, which I’ve hinted at a time or two over the three and-a-half years I’ve been talking to myself on this blog without ever delving into many of the details.

I was a child of the ’80s, and I grew up listening to what was on the radio at the time. Some of the things I heard as Little Johnny I can still enjoy today — particularly the music of Billy Joel, Dire Straits, and Supertramp, which I’ve come to appreciate more over time as my taste in music has broadened. There are some great songs that never got played on the radio. I defy anyone who thinks Billy was little more than an MOR hit machine to sit down and listen to The Nylon Curtain and tell me who today is capable of producing a song like “Scandinavian Skies” or “Surprises” where they somehow seem to be channeling John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the same time while managing to retain their own musical identity and spin the Beatles influence into something wholly original. Oasis it ain’t.

I’m not about to argue that the music I was singing along to during my formative years wasn’t good, even if I can’t stand to listen to some of it these days. Without all those Journey and Styx songs that got my pulse racing as a kid, the drive to create my own music might not have been so strong. Those songs gave me a lot of happiness. But I can tell you I didn’t go into high school with a single “cool” album in my collection. If someone had ripped my headphones off of my head while I was walking home for lunch in those days, they probably would have found me with a Simple Minds greatest hits CD in my DiscMan. And I wouldn’t have been listening to the more interesting, angular material from the earlier days of the band. I probably would have been rocking out to “See the Lights”.

Looking back, the thing that’s surprising to me is the disparity between the music I was creating and the music I was listening to. While I was very much into pop/rock, with a strong slant in the direction of anything that fell into the “corporate rock” category, the music I was making with a keyboard and a tape recorder was pretty idiosyncratic, varied, and not derivative of any of that. It wasn’t pop or corporate rock by a long shot, and it wasn’t trying to be. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe whatever my musical vision was, it was already strong enough to go its own way. I mean, listen to the song I posted over here some time back, recorded when I was eleven years old, and try to hear where the music of Journey or Bryan Adams fits into that silliness.

I was content to listen to commercial radio all day long, but if a song didn’t have a piano or a synthesizer in it somewhere I didn’t want to hear it. That’s how open-minded I was. Today I can’t believe I ever thought that way, but I did.

Something happened to me when I was fourteen. I woke up one day and every album in my collection was boring. Everything on the radio was boring. Everything on television was boring. None of it did anything for me anymore. It wasn’t a progressive thing. It happened in an instant, as if some small surgeon had crawled inside my skull and cut into my brain while I was sleeping. It didn’t make any sense to me then, and it still baffles me now. How do you outgrow all of the music you love overnight?

Whatever made it happen, I needed to find something new to listen to. I had no idea where to start, and the radio wasn’t giving me any help. Someone out there must have been looking out for me, because after leafing through my Rolling Stone Rock ‘n’ Roll Encyclopedia and failing to find much that interested me, I came across this at the Chapters bookstore in the mall:

A quote from a review on the back called it a “sexy, all-conquering guide, with big, brash entries colourfully written by opinionated maniacs”, which is a pretty fair assessment. Instead of dry facts and chart information, here was a book written by music fans, for music fans. and the stuff inside…most of these artists were people I’d never heard of before, with no discernible genre attached to what they were doing. I devoured that book, scouring it for anything that sounded like it might be interesting and different, and started rebuilding my CD collection.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say this book is the single most important musical resource I’ve ever had. It became my Bible. Without it, I’m not sure what I would have done. I didn’t have a home computer. I didn’t have regular internet access, and the internet wasn’t what it is now. But with the book as my guide, I plunged head-first into an exciting new world of music that was totally alien to me.

I started with things that had some frame of reference I felt I could relate to. I’d already picked up Avalon by Roxy Music a year or two before without really knowing what I was doing, and it was something I could still listen to without wincing. David Sylvian’s vocal style was compared to Bryan Ferry’s, so I thought I’d dig into some of his work. I was surprised to find that most of this music, which seemed so obscure, was easy to find. I found both Secrets of the Beehive and the eponymous Rain Tree Crow album in different places on the same day, and then I went home and listened to them. That was a good day.

First I listened to Rain Tree Crow. One song in particular — “Pocket Full of Change” — transported me to some other place. I wanted to live inside of that song. I still hold out hope that someday I’ll have the chance to share a slow dance with someone while listening to it, preferably in some expansive space with an atmosphere that compliments the music. You never know…stranger things have happened.

Next I popped in Secrets of the Beehive and my mind was blown. This was the complete antithesis of everything I’d been listening to on the radio. Aside from the odd wash of synthesizer or a backwards piano treatment, there was nothing artificial about it. It was organic, three-dimensional, full of space and unexpected dynamic shifts. It was immediately the best thing I’d ever heard in my life, and by the time the album was over I felt I’d had an elevating experience. Music had never taken me anywhere like that before. I wanted more elevating experiences.

I read about what a very different kind of band Roxy Music had been in the years before Avalon and dug into the earlier albums, enthralled by the jagged edges and the otherness of it all. I read about Kate Bush and started with The Dreaming because it was described as her strangest, most difficult album. I read about Nick Drake long before the Volkswagen commercial introduced him to everyone and their iguana and was amazed to discover it was one man playing one guitar on Pink Moon, with no overdubs aside from a bit of piano on the title track. It sounded like two or three guitars.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of Fear of Music by the Talking Heads, the damaged brilliance of Syd Barret’s solo work, Television’s Marquee Moon taking the electric guitar to a place that transcended the typical rock band instrumentation, the gorgeous voices of Marvin Gaye and Al Green — the book introduced me to all of these things.

With Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, what I read convinced me to take a chance on two artists I had no interest in at all. In Tom’s case, I once caught the music video for “Downtown Train” on television and I did a bit of a mental double-take. That was the guy’s voice? He sang like that? It sounded like he’d spent a few years swallowing broken glass and then washed it all down with gasoline for good measure. I thought it was just about the worst thing I’d ever heard. There was nothing nice about it. Nothing I would ever want to listen to.

But the book told me Tom was a genius, and the book hadn’t steered me wrong yet. Might as well give it a shot, I figured. Worst case scenario, I’d be out a few dollars. I bought Heartattack and Vine and braced myself for the worst. To my amazement, I found myself enjoying it. Tom’s voice grew on me. In a short period of time, I went from hating what little I’d heard of his music to owning every album he’d ever made and loving all of them. The great irony is, to this day I have a hard time listening to his first few albums, as great as the songs are. The voice is too “normal” and smooth, and the gravel isn’t there yet. How funny is that?

It got to the point where i would walk around at lunchtime most days singing the theme from Westside Story in my best Tom Waits impression. It was a pretty dead-on impersonation, too, for a fourteen-year-old. Sadly it was also a terrible irritation to my vocal cords. I found myself coughing all the time, and I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t like I had a cold or anything.

Finally my on-again, off-again-until-he-decided-to-stop-acknowledging-I-existed piano teacher said to me, “I think you’re coughing so much because you’re spending too much time singing like your hero.”

He was right. I stopped singing like Tom Waits and my cough went away.

I used to make fun of Bob Dylan, imitating his voice and singing bits of “Like a Rolling Stone”. Just like with Tom, I thought, “This guy can’t sing! What’s the big deal?” And again, the book convinced me it was worth exploring. I listened to Blood on the Tracks and my opinion of Bob shifted forever. Soon I was imitating his voice not out of contempt but because I enjoyed being able to mimic the sound of someone whose music I’d grown to like so much.

My favourite Rolling Stones album will always be Exile on Main St. Everything that made the Stones great (back when they were still capable of being great) is on that album, along with a lot of odd detours that are very specific to the murky, unique atmosphere that seems to belong only to the time and environment in which those songs were recorded. No other album the band made sounds like it. I never would have even known it existed if I hadn’t read about it in my Rock book.

Listening to “Rocks Off” in the car for the first time, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I’d never heard Mick and the boys take an infectious rock song and then turn it on its ear like that, slipping into a smeared, druggy, inverted sonic world during the bridge section, making it that much more powerful when the original elements of the song came roaring back again. As much as I love Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, the back half of Tattoo You, and Black and Blue (an album I’m still convinced is much better than most people have given it credit for), if I could only have one Stones album to listen to for the rest of my life I’d choose Exile in a second.

I read about John Cale, who as far as I’m concerned was the real genius in the Velvet Underground, and soaked up the wild, unpredictable energy of his music. The first time I listened to Music for a New Society, alone in the dark, it scared the shit out of me. But it was an album I returned to again and again because the music made me feel something I hadn’t felt before. The same was true for Big Star — Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers both remain desert island albums for me, even though they hardly sound like the work of the same songwriter and inhabit completely different sonic and emotional spaces. I picked up There’s a Riot Goin’ on by Sly & the Family Stone and was fascinated by the dark, grimy feeling of it all, so at odds with the sunny albums that came before.

A Walk Across the Rooftops by the Blue Nile, David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” and Scary Monsters, Fun House by the Stooges, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, Isn’t Anything and Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, Surfer Rosa by the Pixies, Rumor and Sigh by Richard Thompson, Good by Morphine, Pink Flag and Chairs Missing by Wire, Pygmalion by Slowdive, Spiderland by Slint, Street Hassle by Lou Reed, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock by Talk Talk, Robyn Hitchcock’s I Often Dream of Trains — I could keep going forever. These were all hugely important albums for me, and all things this book introduced me to. Many of the artists (with the exception of Lou, who has so completely jumped the shark he may never touch the ground again) have remained favourites of mine. John Cale and David Sylvian in particular continue to redefine their musical identities, commercial considerations be damned. Following the different turns they’ve taken has been rewarding and exciting for me. It’s encouraging to see there are still people out there who have enough respect for their audience to challenge them, instead of getting lazy and sticking with a winning formula.

For whatever reason, I never really listened to any music by female artists in the first fourteen years of my life. Maybe I felt I couldn’t understand a woman’s musical perspective. I’m not sure what it was. But here again the book compelled me to explore. In addition to Kate Bush, I discovered the music of women like Rickie Lee Jones, Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Cocteau Twins, PJ Harvey, Bjork, and others. Two albums stuck out a proverbial mile for me — Jane Siberry’s The Walking and Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America, both impossible-to-describe masterpieces that sound like nothing else anyone was doing in the 1980s, warping song forms and stretching them out until they become something entirely new. Today some of my favourite music is being made by women, and it’s difficult to believe there was a time I ever felt a little strange about listening to music that wasn’t made by men.

There’s one album, though, that stands above all the rest.

UK’s Mojo magazine has a regular feature called Last Night a Record Changed My Life, wherein interview subjects will talk about albums that were important to them during their formative years and had a significant impact on the artists they became. If there was an alternate universe in which I was someone people wrote about in magazines, and if Mojo was one of those magazines, I would talk about Scott Walker’s album Tilt.

Scott was one of the people I read about in the Rock book. I thought he was an interesting character. He started out as a crooner in a band of fake brothers, setting the charts on fire with pretty harmless pop music (though “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” is a great chunk of Phil Spector-influenced infectiousness any way you slice it, and I can just about hear how Karen Dalton might have played it), went solo, found his voice as a writer, lost the plot for a while, stopped writing songs and released a few albums of schlock, almost became Tom Jones, and then turned his back on all of that and found a brand new voice, alienating his entire fan base in the process, rewriting his own musical language to such an extent that the songwriter he’d once been ceased to exist.

It all sounded very cool to me, especially when he was compared in some tangential way to David Sylvian, who I was a massive fan of by then. I was expecting to hear something along the lines of “David Sylvian with more electric guitars”, and that would have been just fine by me. I ordered Tilt on import, thinking that was the best place to start, waited a few weeks, and then got the call telling me it had come in.

I popped it in the car CD player on the ride home from Dr. Disc and heard this huge trembling voice come wailing out of the speakers. And I thought, well, that must be a guest vocalist or something. Surely that isn’t Scott singing. But it was him. The voice sounded barely human to me. Almost grotesque. It was a sweaty handshake that was too firm and lasted too long. There was nothing in the music I felt I could grab onto. The dynamics were all over the place, the instrumentation was orchestral one minute and industrial the next, there was hardly a discernible chorus in sight, and the closest thing to a “normal” song was the title track, which sounded like a country song played by a band of skeletons in hell, sung by a disembowelled opera singer.

I couldn’t believe I bought this thing. After a great purple patch, the book had finally let me down. I hated this music.

At home I took the CD with me down to the basement, sat at the desk in my little music room, and listened some more while I worked on a geography assignment I knew I wasn’t going to do well on. Geography was always one of my worst subjects, and my high school geography teacher was a prick. He told us not to ask stupid questions before we’d asked him anything. He did that a lot. He sounded like a poor man’s Charles Bronson when he said it. Sometimes when someone raised their hand to answer a question and he didn’t feel like hearing them speak, he would say, “You got the answer? Shut your mouth.”

He wasn’t the kind of guy who made you feel like it was a good idea to approach him when something wasn’t making sense to you. He wasn’t going to help me with geography or Scott Walker. I was on my own.

There was a dark-haired beauty named Tabitha in that geography class. She talked to me a bit. She was nice to me. At least there was that. If I had any experience or confidence at all, I might have picked up on it and seen that she liked me, and I might have worked up the nerve to ask her out. When she gave me a Christmas card before the holiday break and signed it “love” and I was the only person in our class she gave anything to, that should have been the tipping point. I should have asked if she wanted to go for a coffee or something. But those words weren’t there for me to say. I just felt awkward. The idea of a girl liking me didn’t begin to make sense.

So I was sitting at my hulking desk in the basement, trying to figure out this map I was supposed to draw, right before or right after the Christmas card and the awkward feeling, I can’t remember which. And I had headphones on and was listening to this insane music that made less sense to me than maps.

I might as well have been trying to take a bite out of a brick wall.

I was able to make it look like I did my homework without understanding anything I was doing, so it wasn’t a total wash. I listened to the last song on the album in bed. At least I gave it a chance. I got through the whole thing. I tried.

I went to sleep thinking not much had been accomplished in the time I spent struggling with the map. I still sucked at geography, I was still probably going to fail the class, and I still regretted buying Tilt. I was disappointed.

I was half right. That was one of only two high school classes I didn’t pass. The other was grade eleven math, when the concepts changed and the skills that had served me so well in the years before shrivelled and died. But I was wrong about Tilt. Something drove me to keep listening to those songs. I felt a need to get inside them and see if there wasn’t something there I could understand.

For the next week or two that album was all I listened to. And in the space of about ten days I went from actively despising it to thinking it was the most enthralling music I’d ever heard. It ripped my brain out of my head and performed a much more violent kind of surgery than whatever the tiny visitor had done that night he took my love of mainstream radio away from me, and at some point it just clicked. I would lay in bed at night reading the lyrics and listening. The words were like fever dream poetry. The voice that sounded so ugly to me before became this wonderful, unearthly thing that soared above and beyond the endlessly shifting landscape of strings and drums and flutes and detuned guitars.

This music changed everything about what I thought music could or should be. That’s not hyperbole. Without Tilt, half the music I have in my collection now wouldn’t be there, and if it was I wouldn’t be capable of appreciating it on the level I do. Tim Buckley, John Coltrane, those last two Talk Talk albums, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Suicide, Mingus, Ellington, Monk, Cat Power, Peter Gabriel’s Passion soundtrack, Nina Simone, Can, even Scott’s own more recent work, which almost makes Tilt sound warm and friendly — none of this would be part of my vocabulary. Brian Eno’s ambient music and Miles Davis’s electric period wouldn’t do a thing for me. I don’t think half of the music I’ve made myself would exist.

Take away Tilt, take away the growing it forced me to do as a listener, and I’m a different person and a different writer.

In spite of its importance to me, I’ve never made any music that takes anything on Tilt as a point of reference or strives to emulate it in any way. But then I’ve never worked that way. When people have asked me what my musical influences are, I don’t think they’ve often been satisfied with my answer. Instead of giving them band names, I tell them I’m influenced by the people I meet, the things they say and do, the things I experience, and the dreams I have. I’ve always felt it’s a lazy way of working to take something someone else has done and use it a building block.

I’m not trying to discount this in anyone else’s work. Some of the best music ever made in any given genre is derivative on some level, and everything influences everything else at one time or another. I just try to avoid outside influences as much as possible in my own music. I don’t want to sound like anyone else. I don’t listen to a great album and think, “I want to do something like this.” That would almost cheapen my enjoyment of it. The music I enjoy most says things I haven’t heard before and takes me places I haven’t visited.

I will only listen to something like Tilt or Laughing Stock very occasionally now — sometimes only once every few years — because I want to keep it as fresh as I can. I almost never put anything on repeat. I can’t listen to music that way. I want to absorb something completely, take in all it has to offer me, and then return to it only when I feel I’m in the right headspace. Almost like visiting another country. If I went there all the time I think it would lose some of its mystery, when that’s what I most want to preserve. At the same time, I can listen to plenty of things as background music on a long drive. But for me, that’s a separate thing from sitting down and really listening.

I’ll proudly admit there was a discernible John Cale influence in a handful of things I did back in the Papa Ghostface and Guys with Dicks days, but I was also an angry teenager who felt like screaming my head off, so those two things had the funny effect of dovetailing. And “No Better Than Before” on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC is a very deliberate Slowdive homage. Aside from that, I’ve never been able to easily compare myself to anyone else. It seems to be a problem other people have with my music as well. I take it as a compliment and an indication that I’ve succeeded in carving out my own musical identity. Now the trick is to keep messing with it and chipping away at it so it never remains static for long.

I still dig for interesting music that lives off the beaten path. The internet has become a great tool here, even if I still like to buy all my music the old fashioned way in physical form, and I sometimes miss the days of not being able to audition anything before I heard it and having to go in cold. There are a lot of things I intend to listen to that I haven’t got around to yet. I still have lists of things I first read about in that book and jotted down only to forget all about them later. Lists I wrote half my life ago. But it seems like certain things come around when they’re meant to. I wasn’t ready for Tilt when I heard it the first time, but I needed to hear it when I did.

The adventure continues. I haven’t willingly listened to a commercial radio station in the past thirteen years. And I still wish I asked Tabitha out in the tenth grade.

I left my pants in Puerto Rico.

I’m still writing a lot and not recording anything. That’s not much like me at all. Usually I’m both writing and recording things on a pretty continuous basis, and the momentum keeps feeding off of itself. At this point, my goal to get four albums out there this year is looking like a pretty serious long shot.

I could blame the unusually protracted break on messed up sleep, or that breakup album taking more out of me emotionally than an album usually does, or wanting to avoid the trap of getting too comfortable and falling into a musical comfort zone, and they would all be valid reasons. But I think it boils down to something a lot less complicated, and really I’m just in another one of those places where I’m over-thinking things again, trying to plot my next move when I don’t work that way at all. There’s a need to challenge myself, but after all the things I’ve done and all the different places I’ve gone musically, where does that challenge come from, outside of making a thirty-three-minute album with ten songs on it that all sound the same and have no discernible innards?

The obvious challenge would be to put a concerted effort into finishing that ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE thing before it gets away from me completely. But that’s a daunting thing to even think about, given all the work there is to do.

Maybe it’s good sometimes to have a plan without mapping things out too much. So here is my current plan, in four easy steps.

1 — Start working on ANGLE again with no particular method to the madness. Pick a song, finish it, pick another, finish it, and repeat the process until maybe, just maybe, the finish line starts to materialize in the foggy distance.

2 — Start writing at the piano more often. These days I almost always end up writing on acoustic guitar, because there’s always at least one hanging out somewhere in my bedroom and it’s right there when I feel an idea bubbling up. I don’t think the piano has been the dominant force on an album of mine in quite some time now, and it’s about time it reasserted itself.

3 — Record another song that’s built from the drums up, just to get things bouncing around in a different way. The only time I’ve really done that before was with “Raccoon Eyes” on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, and that song turned into an album highlight for me. Now I have a very different rhythmic idea in mind…something a lot more propulsive and uptempo, with the rhythm repeatedly fragmenting and tripping over itself.

4 — Put a bit more effort into finding someone who may be interested in making some sort of genuine music video just for the hell of it.

Throw those three things in a blender, and something interesting should transpire before too long.