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 not to worry.

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’d 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 wouldn’t have turned out very well 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 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, once 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, and i managed to pull it off for a little while. then i got sucked back in, because facebook is far too convenient as 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.

to be clear, 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 to 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 roughly 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 150 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.

funny how that works, isn’t it?

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 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 left it alone.

she’s an alligator girl (first mix)

this is a song that has 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 on some level.

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 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). it 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 something of 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.

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 many 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 actually got in 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. 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 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. even the first few records that 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 proverbial 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 translated into a song, and 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?”

it’s good to hear that tom is still tom — the complete antithesis of everything auto-tuned, 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 is, 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 released epic, a great album by sharon van etten, but right now i’m not too hopeful that even their non-defective records will be too impressive.

laughing stock is on regular grade skinny vinyl, and supposedly was mastered from the existing 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 — 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 records 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”, as opposed to “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 fecal matter 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 realized 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, john martyn…and the list goes on. 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 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.

hipsters 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, and already i wish i could erase the ugly stimulus from my memory. greig nori doing his all-knowing guru/tastemaker thing doesn’t help. i’m sure he’s a perfectly 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, but 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 unusual 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.

there are scientific studies that have demonstrated 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 contemplate 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 intended 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. 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 hitting 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 off and on 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 were 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 batty every time i heard it. i even left in a little fffff sound when one of the vocal tracks comes in in on the “forgive me my stupidity” line 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 exponentially. 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 most 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 without any doubt, 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.

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, nor did it aspire 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 or twelve 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. none of it did anything for me anymore. there was no progression there; it happened in an instant, as if my brainwave patterns had changed while i was sleeping the night before. it didn’t make any sense to me then, and it still puzzles me now. how do you outgrow all of the music you love overnight?

whatever caused it to happen, i needed to find something new to listen to. the problem was, 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 blurb 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 provided by dour critics, here was a book written by music fans, for music fans. and the stuff inside…most of these artists were people i had 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 went about completely rebuilding my cd collection.

it isn’t an exaggeration to say this book was, and remains, the most important musical resource i’ve ever had. without it, i’m not sure what i would have done. but with it as my guide, i plunged head-first into a strange, exciting new world of music that was completely alien to me.

i started with things that had some frame of reference i felt i could relate to. i had 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 happily surprised to find that most of this music, which seemed so obscure, was easy to find locally, at either HMV or dr. disc. i found both secrets of the beehive and the eponymous rain tree crow album in different places on the same day, and then 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” — just took me to some other place. i wanted to live inside of that song. i still hold out hope that someday i’ll 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 had been listening to on the radio. aside from the odd wash of synthesizer or a backwards piano treatment, there was nothing artificial or hyped 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 strange turns of phrase. i read about kate bush and intentionally started with the dreaming because it was described as her strangest, most difficult album. i read about nick drake long before the volkswagon commercial rendered him more than a mere footnote in music history, and was amazed by the fact that 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 creepy 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 had 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 can’t listen to his first few albums…because his 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, because 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 dustin 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 had grown to like so much.


my favourite rolling stones album, by quite some distance, is and 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 have belonged 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 ever, 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 & blue (an album i’m still convinced is much better than 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 plastic ono band, john lennon’s first proper solo album following the dissolution of the beatles, and was shaken by how raw and unguarded it was. i read about john cale (who, as far as i’m concerned, was the real genius in the velvet underground, so thoroughly does his solo work thrash lou reed’s) 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, was a singularly unsettling experience. 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 i first learned of while reading this book. 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 incredibly 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 people 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 masterpieces of wholly original artistic expression 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 in any genre is being helmed by women, and it’s difficult to believe there was a time when i 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. mojo magazine (the only music magazine i feel is worth reading anymore, as it happens) has a regular feature called “last night a record changed my life”, wherein an artist will talk about an album that was especially important to them when they were developing as a musician. in a bizarro alternate universe where i sell my music like normal people do and go on to experience commercial success, leading to an eventual article in mojo, i would talk about tilt by scott walker. that album really did change my life.

as with so much of the music i discovered during this time, i read about scott in my first edition of rock: the rough guide. i thought he was a fascinating character. he started out as a crooner in a band of fake brothers who set the charts on fire with pretty harmless pop music (though “the sun ain’t gonna shine anymore” is a pretty great song any way you slice it), and then gradually turned his back on all of that until he had effectively alienated almost his entire audience, rewriting his own musical language to such an extent that the crooner of old no longer existed.

it all sounded very cool to me, especially when he was compared in some superficial way to david sylvian, who i was already a huge fan of. given how similar the first music i heard by sylvian’s band japan sounded to late-period roxy music, at least on the surface, i was expecting something along the lines of “david sylvian with more electric guitars”. i ordered tilt from dr. disc, since it wasn’t as widely available as most of the other things i had been adding to my collection, and waited impatiently for it to arrive. when i popped it into the car cd player for the first time on the ride home from the store, i didn’t quite get what i was expecting.

i heard this huge operatic voice come wailing out of the speakers, singing, “do i hear twenty one, twenty one, twenty one?” like a disembodied auctioneer on barbiturates. and i thought, “well, that must be a guest vocalist or something. surely that isn’t scott singing.” but it was. the voice sounded barely human to me. almost grotesque. like a sweaty handshake that was too firm and lasted an uncomfortably long time. there was nothing in the music that was familiar to me — 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 if i’m completely honest it kind of scared the shit out of me. i couldn’t believe i’d bought this thing. the book had finally let me down. i hated this music.

let me paint the picture for you more vividly, if i can. i’m fourteen years old. i’m in grade ten. i have short hair, believe it or not, and am still dreaming of being able to cultivate facial hair someday. i’m sitting at my desk in the basement of the house we’re living in with two women and a psychotic little dog, in my tiny little music room, working on a geography assignment.

i know i’m not going to get a good mark. geography has always been one of my worst subjects, and my teacher, mr. kuzowski, is a fucking prick — good for little more than his amusing admonishments to us to “don’t ask stupid questions”. he sounds like a poor man’s charles bronson when he says it. he will also sometimes say to someone he doesn’t want to respond to, “you got the answer? shut your mouth.” not exactly a teacher who inspires you to ask him for assistance when something isn’t making sense to you.

a pretty girl named tabitha tatar is friendly to me in geography class, so there’s that. if i had more experience and confidence where the opposite sex are concerned, i would probably see that she likes me and work up the nerve to ask her out. but i don’t…and i don’t. it’s pretty much a given that i’m not even going to pass the class.

so i’m sitting at my gigantic desk in the basement, trying in vain to figure out this map i’m supposed to draw, and at the same time i’ve got my big black sennheiser headphones on and i’m listening to this insane music that makes no sense to me. i might as well be hitting a brick wall with a baseball bat. nothing positive is going to come out of this. i manage to make it look like i did my homework without understanding a thing about what i’m doing, and finish listening to the last song on the album in bed.

“well,” i think to myself, “at least i can say i gave it a chance and got through the whole thing. i tried.”

i go to sleep assuming nothing much has changed. i still suck at geography, and i still regret buying this cd, which is a complete disappointment to me.

it turned out i was only right about one of those things. something drove me to keep listening to tilt. to this day, i have no idea why i didn’t just put it away for good. generally, when i decide i don’t like something, i stay away from it. maybe it wasn’t that i even felt this music was bad exactly…i just didn’t get it. i felt a need to understand it. i wanted to get at least something out of it. 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 exciting thing i’d ever heard.

at some point, somehow, it all clicked for me. i would lie in bed at night reading the lyrics while listening. they were like some sort of fever dream poetry that followed their own internal logic. the voice that had seemed so ugly to me at first became this wonderful, otherworldly, resonant thing that soared above and beyond the endlessly shifting sonic landscape. i still haven’t heard anything else quite like it. it’s music that is a universe completely unto itself.


this album rewired my brain, and changed everything about what i thought music could or should be. that’s not a hyperbolic statement; without tilt, i know for a fact i wouldn’t have half the music i have in my collection now, and i wouldn’t be capable of appreciating it on the level i do. miles davis, tim buckley, john coltrane, those last two talk talk albums, bark psychosis, helium, aphex twin, autechre, suicide (the band, not the end-of-life choice), charles mingus, duke ellington, nico, cat power, peter gabriel’s first four albums and the passion soundtrack, nina simone, laura nyro — none of these albums and artists would be a part of my vocabulary if it wasn’t for scott walker, because after i was able to make sense of tilt nothing else ever sounded so foreign to me. nothing seemed impenetrable or impossible to connect with (unless it was just genuinely bad, which is another story entirely).

without that album, a lot of things would just be noise to me, and a lot of the most exciting musical moments i’ve experienced from other people’s work never would have happened at all. i never would have spent a small fortune on tim buckley’s long out-of-print starsailor, nor would i have been able to enjoy bitches brew as the soundtrack for a train ride to toronto. i wouldn’t have revisited an album like the charity of night, which i initially dismissed because it didn’t have any keyboard sounds on it, and come to recognize it as perhaps the best album bruce cockburn has ever made (and the man hasn’t made many albums that aren’t at least very good). brian eno’s ambient music wouldn’t do a thing for me. i don’t think half of the music i’ve made myself would exist. if you take away tilt, i’m a different person, and a different songwriter.

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, because instead of giving them band names, i tell them i’m influenced by the people i meet, the things they say, 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 knowingly 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 the time is right…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 completely 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 nicely. aside from that, i’ve never been able to easily compare myself to anyone else musically, and 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 all the time, and the internet has become a great resource, even if i still buy all my music the old fashioned way and avoid online distribution as much as possible. 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 read about in the rock book and jotted down, only to forget all about them. it took me more than a decade to get around to hearing anything by the band wire, for instance. but it seems like certain things come around at the right time, and if i had heard something like chairs missing ten years ago i probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much as i do now, with all the different music i’ve absorbed in that time.

the adventure continues. i haven’t willingly listened to a single commercial radio station in the past thirteen years. and i still wish i’d asked tabitha out in the tenth grade.

i left my pants in puerto rico.

i am still writing a lot and not recording anything. that’s not much like me at all. usually i am 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 than an album usually does, or simply 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 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 33-minute album with 10 songs on it that all sound the same and have no discernible innards?

the obvious challenge would be to finally put a concerted effort into finishing that ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE thing before it gets away from me completely. but it’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…just 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 frequently. 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 forward, 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.