Month: December 2011

looking back at an uneven year.

i don’t tend to do “year in review” type things, but what the hell. since i’m not making a life-altering montage for the year-end video progress report like i did at the end of 2010, here’s a brief look back at what this year was like for me, at least in terms of music and the blog.

JANUARY

i write a random piece about the first go-betweens album. lindy morrison — drummer in the go-betweens — leaves a comment. i proceed to fall over.

shortly after i manage to stand up again, the external CD burner for my digital mixer finally craps out on me after almost 12 years of faithful service. a few days later, my CD printer dies too. maybe out of sympathy.

i manage to replace both essential tools without too much trouble, aside from the inconvenience of having to spend about a thousand bucks i would much rather keep in my pocket. after having two dymo discpainters in a row die on me, i make a note never to buy anything from dymo again and invest in a different printer for my CD-related needs.

official solo CD #31 is released — MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS. if ever an album title of mine really summed up the music, it’s this one. i don’t expect the album to get as positive a reception as the past several have, given how willfully schizophrenic it is even by my standards. once again i’m wrong, with a few people telling me it’s one of their favourite things of mine they’ve heard. go figure.

FEBRUARY

for the first time ever, i manage to film myself recording a song and then edit the footage in such a way that the result is sort of a music video, where you get to watch me play and sing the song i’m playing and singing in real-time. i’ll go on to get a lot better at it in short order, but the first attempt doesn’t turn out too bad, all things considered.

i discover a fella in london, england has been playing my music on his podcast for quite some time. one of the happier unexpected side-effects of that brief period of time in early 2009 during which i was okay with the idea of entire albums of mine being up online in MP3 form.

i make a bunch of crude computer drawings to illustrate a heart-warming children’s book written by my friend joshua jesty, and sell a bunch of gear i don’t use anymore through the magic of kijiji. an unexpected development will grow out of this a few months down the road.

a companion album to MEDIUM-FI MUSIC is mostly finished, and slated for a projected release date sometime in april.

MARCH

i find myself chest-deep in a romantic adventure with someone who was kind of “the one who got away”. we lost touch about seven years ago and i assumed i would never see her again. before i know it, i’m sleeping in her bed and we’re sort of seeing each another.

it seems pretty great for a few weeks. i feel like i’ve died and gone to some happy place. all my cynicism seems to flake off of me like dry skin.

then the whole thing turns to complete shit, creating a lightning-fast transition from “cynical single johnny” to “sappy romantic johnny” to “more cynical than ever before and once-again-single johnny”. i throw out the entire almost-finished album i’ve been working on and start writing/recording much more personal material that better reflects where my head is at now.

APRIL

as an april fools’ day joke, i claim i’m finished with music and will be releasing a greatest hits album as a way of saying goodbye. as flagrantly ridiculous as the joke is, a few people kind of half-believe it, which is pretty funny (here i thought the “essay by bono” advertisement and the insane song titles were dead giveaways).

work on the next album continues through april and may, and i make the unusual (for me) decision to play a proper CD release show for once in my life. i start rehearsing with a rhythm section for the first time in nearly a decade — dan, who i sold a microphone to through kijiji, happens to be good friends with liam (the resident physician at dr. disc), they have a long-standing rapport as a rhythm section, and we figure it might be fun to try playing together as a trio.

turns out it’s more than fun, and suddenly i kind of have a band, when it was the last thing i ever expected to happen with anyone after the last band i had dissolved in 2002.

JUNE

GIFT FOR A SPIDER (official solo CD #32) is released. it’s the first balls-to-bones breakup album i’ve made in almost ten years, and the most unguarded i’ve allowed myself to be in my music in a long time.

again i have a feeling not so many people will be into this album. again i’m wrong. it debuts at #1 on the CJAM charts, staying inside of the top 5 for a month solid. i think that’s a new record for me.

i play a show at mackenzie hall to give the album its official release. it’s another affair where everything is free and a lot of music is played. it’s also quite a bit different from the first mackenzie hall show. instead of a one-man balancing act, things are roughly split between solo and band performances.

there’s a good turnout, the audience is as receptive as i could hope for them to be (i get them to sing along during a song about trying to save a group of young girls from an evil fake nun…really), and just about every insane chance i decide to take seems to pay off, culminating in a long and winding spoken word improvisation to end the evening.

JULY

i find myself in the odd position of not knowing what to do next. i can feel the bitter breakup album took a little something out of me. thus begins an extended period of writing a lot of songs but not recording much of anything at all. in the meantime, i revisit and re-evaluate CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, realizing for the first time what an important album it was for me and how much i’ve grown to like it.

the blog gets its third (and final) makeover. it’s the simplest layout of them all, but it feels less cluttered and more pleasant to look at than either of the other themes.

(i first typed “vinyl” instead of “final”. make of that what you will.)

AUGUST

i get older. again. and here i thought you could just start skipping those birthday things after a while. i still don’t know what to focus my musical energy on, and continue to write a lot without recording much of anything.

SEPTEMBER

i play a gig with liam and dan at an outdoor festival. it’s not a fun time. i have such a negative experience, i start to think i had the right idea when i just said to hell with playing live in any capacity and concentrated on writing and recording exclusively. i make a note never to play another show i don’t have complete control over, if i bother playing live again at all.

OCTOBER

i write one of those borderline think pieces i spit out every so often, this time about barbara payton, after reading a book about her life. to my amazement, the author of the book comments on the post and tells me i “get” it. i fall over again.

i go on to write a long email to ray carney that i’ve been marinating in my brain for about a decade, thanking him for writing cassavetes on cassavetes, which introduced me to the films of john cassavetes and remains one of the best and most fascinating books i’ve ever read. he responds the same day with an email almost as long as mine.

i attach retractable wheels to my back so my trips to the floor will be more pleasant, and become a temporary human gurney.

after years of half-assed threats, i finally sit down to untangle the story of my self-imposed musical re-education.

my friend james opens his own record store and gives me my own section.

my protracted period of musical inactivity (at least in terms of recording anything of substance) comes to an end when i resolve to finish THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE — a tangled beast of an album i’ve been picking away at here and there since 2007 — one way or another.

NOVEMBER

i get fed up with reading bullshit on facebook from people who call themselves my friends while failing to ever communicate with me in any meaningful way, and deactivate my page. the facebook vacation of 2011 begins. i go one better and gut my CBC radio 3 page, since deleting it outright doesn’t seem to be an option. feels like it’s time to jettison some dead internet weight.

my friend joshua jesty comes down from olmsted falls to play a show at taloola, and we meet in person for the very first time after sending epic emails back and forth for a good three or four years. the turnout at taloola is pretty much nonexistent, which is disappointing. but somehow it makes for a better show, since the few of us who are there end up becoming a part of what’s happening in a way we probably wouldn’t if there was a larger audience present.

DECEMBER

i pass 100,000 blog hits/views — not an earth-shattering number for some people, but mind-boggling for a small potato like me.

and there you go. as always, if you really want to get a feel for what went down, you can trawl through the archives or check out this year’s video progress reports. but those are some of the more notable happenings.

for reasons that mostly went unmentioned here on the blog, my 2011 was kind of a piece of shit. i’m not at all sad to see it disappear in the rear view mirror. at least it was a good year from a musical perspective. while i didn’t put out as much material as i planned to, i’m happy with the two albums that did escape, and i managed to put a good dent in that ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE beast as the year was winding down.

most of the music i heard and films i saw this year that really moved me or got me going in some way were not released in 2011, so a “least crappy stuff of the year in my opinion” list wouldn’t be much use.

you don’t come here for that sort of thing anyway. you come here for the dirty words and innuendo. you know it’s true.

i will give you this much: the most moving thing i heard all year was this. the most abysmal things i heard this year, if not in my life, were this, and this, and especially this steaming chunk of ass vomit.

musical goals for 2012? why not.

my plan for ANGLE — and i think it’s a pretty realistic one, all things considered — is to have the whole thing finished and ready to go by the end of march. i’m well aware of the fact that i’ve been setting myself deadlines for this album off and on throughout the entire life of this blog, but there’s a big difference this time. in the past i was always working on other things at the same time and had a general attitude of “maybe i’ll get to it”. now there are no other distractions, the album has my undivided attention, and i feel the urgency. i need to finish this thing before it gets away from me. so i will.

i’d like to make an artistic and unorthodox music video. not another chopped-up-public-domain-film experiment (though i enjoy making those and don’t plan to stop anytime soon), but a real music video that’s a wholly original creation. if i can’t find someone who’s capable and interested in directing/filming something with me, with no ambition to get on television or drum up any attention, i’ll stop trying to find a collaborator and just do it myself.

i’ve been storing new songs and ideas that seem like they don’t belong to ANGLE (while not hesitating to send new material over there where it feels appropriate), and after that album is out of the way i think it might be time to do something that kind of redefines whatever my musical language is at this point. so after taking care of an album that is almost insanely ambitious in size and scope, i’d like to do something that refocuses the ambition and channels it into different crevices. i feel like ANGLE is going to close a chapter for me, and after that it’ll be time to go somewhere else. maybe that projeted collaborative album with mr. jesty will come to fruition at some point in the new year as well.

and i’d like to see if i can find a mastering engineer who might be able to work a little sonic magic on a few albums from the back catalogue like YOU’RE A NATION and STELLAR, where i’m unable to do a proper restoration job of my own. if i can find someone who can tame the clipping and carve out the low end mud on the former and clean up the latter a little, well…it sure would be nice to be able to hear that music sounding a little more refined, if only for my own enjoyment.

we’ll see what happens.

the last video progress report for the year should be along in a day or two.

i’m a board. i’m chairman of the boards.

we used to use this white board to play hangman. we drew all kinds of crazy things on it when i was a kid. but at the time we moved into this house, it hadn’t been used in years.

i thought i might give it a new lease on life as an “ideas board”. it would really come in handy if i ever had something resembling a band again, i thought — an easy way to keep track of what we were working on and how far along we were.

of course, a band wasn’t happening. so i set it up and used it for my own nefarious purposes. that up there is what it looked like in late 2008.

this is what it looks like now.

note how the smiley face grew a mustache and turned evil.

what it’s turned into is not a list of things i’m working on at the moment (there hasn’t been room to write much new information on the board in a while now), but more of a safety net. if i’m having trouble figuring out what i want to tackle, or if none of the recent things i’ve written are screaming at me, i can take a look at the board and find something to work on.

it’s now mostly made up of songs intended for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, along with a list of projected albums that may or may not come to fruition at some point. with the work i’m doing on ANGLE, a lot of those songs should be getting crossed out over the next little while, so it might soon be time to wipe it clean and start fresh. a new board for a new year, maybe.

what else? i had a dream last night that put a new spin on the well-worn “love potion” theme. a girl removed a tree from the backyard of the object of her affection. the trick was, she needed to dig it out by the roots and then transplant it into one specific field, in a desolate wooded area, hoping it would survive the trip.

she had to chop the tree into three different pieces in order to get it to fit in her truck, which seemed to doom the whole thing to failure. but somehow, once it was back in the ground, the tree healed itself almost immediately. the top of the tree morphed into something resembling a human face, and then nothing more happened.

she realized there was one missing ingredient — she needed to utter a random phrase in the voice of elvis presley. so she said some nonsense in her best elvis impression. in an instant, the tree was gone, and in its place was a shaggy-haired musician.

he explained, with the assistance of some flashbacks, that there was never any need to go to such extremes to get his attention. he always liked her. she just didn’t notice, and he was as shy about expressing his interest as she was with hers. when she threw out some random historic detail and he fleshed it out with authority and confidence, she took it to mean that he had somehow been with her the whole time she was learning about the world, and so he possessed the same knowledge she did and it was all part of the spell she cast. but something in his eyes said it wasn’t so, and no spell had ever been necessary.

after all the dreams i’ve had involving the opposite sex that end in romantic ambiguity, mind games, betrayal, and missed connections, it’s strange to have one with a clear happy ending, even if it’s a strange one and i took on the role of the camera recording the film as opposed to an actor on the screen. you could argue that the shaggy-haired musician was my obvious stand-in, but his hair was much shorter than mine, he had no beard, and he revealed he’d once been a part of a band named “murder murder”.

i would never be caught dead in a band with that name.

a polite look over the shoulder.

i’ve said this before, but i always find it interesting how your opinion of your own work can shift over time as you gain some distance from it and amass more work. you get to a place where you can contextualize things more effectively than you could when they were brand new.

there are all kinds of minute changes that happen, but it’s the dramatic shifts in perspective i’m mystified by.

you can believe you’re creating something that leaps over everything else you’ve ever done, decide it’s a piece of garbage the moment it’s finished, and then spend the next several years watching your contempt for it shrink while never quite disappearing (as has been the case with OH YOU THIS).

you can make what you think is a fine piece of work but not anything too special, only to realize later on that it’s become one of your favourite things you’ve ever done (as was the case with PAPER CHEST HAIR, BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, and some others).

you can convince yourself you’ve done the best work you will ever be capable of, and there’s nowhere left to go but downhill, as i did when i was 18 and had just finished BEAUTIFULLY STUPID…and then you can go on to prove yourself wrong several times over, without ever losing your affection for the thing that didn’t turn out to be your creative plateau after all.

one of trickiest love/hate relationships i’ve ever had with an album is with SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN, the third proper full-length papa ghostface CD.

the bloated double-CD HORSEMOUTH (& OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) seemed a little too unwieldy for its own good, so i decided i would write the lyrics for every song on the next album i made with gord. it was a pretty bold move at the time. i had a habit of avoiding just about anything the least bit premeditated when it came to recording, leaving the lyrics i actually wrote to collect dust, because it was more fun to improvise and discover what the lyrics were going to be as they were in the process of being sung.

i figured if i stuck to the ten songs that felt like the strongest material on paper, we would have a papa ghostface masterpiece on our hands. see? i did put together an album with my ten best songs on it, like a good little boy.

i just did it in 1999, when no one was listening.

the thing is, i wrote most of the lyrics while pretending to pay attention in the middle of different high school classes. and while i usually had music in my head even when i was writing lyrics away from an instrument, in this case most of the words came without any strong immediate musical ideas attached to them.

gord and i got together in the cramped little music room, and in two nights we recorded the whole album, fusing my written lyrics with improvised music that was given no time to develop. for some reason this seemed like a good idea to me at the time. it didn’t occur to me that i was forcing spontaneity and premeditation together in ways that didn’t always work very well.

the moment it was finished, i thought this CD was some of the best work i’d ever done. i gave copies to jesse topliffe and my grade eleven drama teacher mr. lewsaw. that led to an unexpected musical relationship with jesse that would go a lot of different places over the next few years. as for mr. lewsaw, i’m proud to say i think i weirded him out a little.

a month or two later, when the honeymoon stage had long since passed, i saw the album for what it really was — not the worst papa ghostface album (that distinction will always rest with LIVE AT SILVERS), but a bit of a mixed bag, and nowhere near what we were capable of at the peak of our powers. it’s basically one great song, a few good ones, and a handful that never quite lift off. it feels kind of slight. which is weird for an album that’s more than an hour long — though that was a little short by our usual standards.

in the summer of 2000, i toyed with the idea of re-recording the whole album with gord from scratch. i had it in my head that if we just took a bit more time and fleshed the music out a bit more, maybe it really could be as great as i thought it was for the first five seconds after it was finished. i wrote out a list of what i felt each song needed (“yogamo” with real drums! “nerve” with more committed singing!), but it never got beyond the brainstorming stage.

yesterday, while i was scanning the handwritten lyrics for the album’s page, i thought i’d pull it out for a listen. i’m going to guess the last time i sat down and let it play all the way through was when i remixed the whole thing in late 2002, with mixed results (oh look! a pun!).

there wasn’t a single song that made me wince. i didn’t expect that. it’s still a mixed bag, but it’s not quite as mixed as i remembered it being. some of the stuff i used to hate doesn’t really bother me anymore, and the highlights sound just as good as they ever did.

a song called “compassion to deceive” was the one thing that always stood out for me. it’s that rarest of things in the papa ghostface songbook — a ballad, or as close as i was going to come to a genuine ballad in 1999. on the first day of the first semester of grade eleven, i turned on the TV before i left the house and caught a bit of a music video by keith sweat. it was this one right here.

not really my thing. i’ll stick with al green and marvin gaye, thankyaverymuch. but that “nobody” refrain…that thing stuck in my head.

i wrote the lyrics for “compassion to deceive” in math class with that slow jam playing on a loop in my brain, mutating until it no longer resembled the song i heard on my way out the door. i don’t imagine it’ll come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard a decent amount of my music that the song i wrote didn’t end up sounding much of anything like keith sweat. but i’ve always found that bit of inspiration amusing.

this is one of the few places on the album where the words are married to music that feels like a perfect fit. i still remember recording it with gord, a little amazed that those chords just fell under my thumb — literally, given the way i play guitar. they’re simple chords, but they felt just right.

gord started following me on the bass, i hit the record button, and off we went. all the words aside from the “you got it” refrain were meant to be spoken, but in the moment i decided to sing them instead. you can hear me at a few points mentioning off-mic when a change is coming. it’s a rough, first-take performance, with a lot of off-notes from both of us (to say i’m a better guitarist now is like saying the sun shines brighter at 1:00 in the afternoon than it does at 7:00 in the evening), and the transition into the bridge section is very sloppy, improvised and unrehearsed as it was. the song also rambles for about two minutes longer than it needs to.

even so, there’s an odd sort of tender bitterness to the whole thing. somehow, a line like “saliva on the window of fate” comes off as being weary instead of ridiculous (though it’s always sounded a bit to me like i changed “fate” to “faith” at the last second).

i think the lyrics still stand as some of the best i’ve written at any point. the song title all on its own has to be one of the best phrases i’ve ever come up with. i have no idea where it came from, and i didn’t think anything of it at the time. now it’s got a gravity to it i didn’t feel when i was 16 years old. in a twisted way, sometimes there really is something compassionate behind misleading or lying to someone.

stranger still is the way it’s grown into an almost eerily prescient song, reading very much like the sort of thing i would write now, more than a decade later.

compassion to deceive

some songs really gained something when i cleaned them up and got rid of the low end mud in my 2002 remix. not this one. it lost something fundamental when i touched up the dodgy bits of my harmony vocal and removed the slapback echo from my acoustic guitar. it was technically “better”, but it sounded wrong somehow.

maybe some things just aren’t meant to be messed with.

i learned that in a whole new way when i decided i was going to take a stab at recording a brand new version of the song today. after all these years, i thought i could invest it with a whole new depth of feeling, to say nothing of the difference in musicianship and production skills. i could hear the keyboard part being replaced with real piano. i could hear drums and a wash of harmony vocals coming in near the end.

it was all going pretty well until i got around to recording the vocals, and i realized i left out a pivotal chunk of music when i was laying down the acoustic guitar, making it impossible to sing a few lines properly. instead of starting from scratch, i erased the whole thing. i got the message: leave it alone, warts and all.

the original, less polished mix is still the one i come back to, and it’s the one that’s up here on the blog. maybe i’ll save the revisiting for a live performance, when i play another show in 2023.

what happens in bed doesn’t always stay there.

i was struck by a thought the other day that surprised me, both with how sudden and how true it was, though it probably shouldn’t have.

my bed has become my creative workstation.

i’m not quite sure how it happened. i have two desks — one a pretty nice, medium-sized, faux-oak thing i got when i was maybe 11 or 12. it’s one of the few nice things i can remember getting from my mother and stepfather that was actually useful (the only contribution they made to my interest in music was buying me a single blank cassette tape one year for christmas. you think i’m joking. i ain’t). it sits in the “stock room” upstairs, housing my trusty old remington typewriter, along with the huge vertical tape cases holding the cassettes that preserve all of the musical adventures i had before i was able to start putting my noise on CDs in 1999.

the other desk is a gigantic metal and wood beast johnny smith found sometime in 1996, and a finer desk i will never know. it began as a place for me to write, type using different typewriters (both manual and electric), transcribe the lyrics on some of those old tapes, and store relevant materials. by the time we were making the transition into this house in 2007, the desk’s contents filled several large boxes and i had to use dividers to  delineate what belonged in which drawer.

there’s one narrow main drawer in the middle, and then three on each side that are much deeper. i couldn’t even begin to tell you what lives inside of them…thousands of pages of notes, lyrics, doodles, random information related to all those tapes, instruction manuals for different pieces of equipment, spare headphones, several pencil boxes from the grade school days, pens long-dead and still living, my shitty old dean markley guitar pickup, a multi-channel headphone amplifier for those rare occasions when i’m recording with someone else present…you name it, it’s probably in there somewhere.

this desk also holds the guts of my “studio”. a saner person would use racks for their mic preamps, compressors, effects processors, and other relevant gear. i would feel very awkward doing that. all that stuff needs to sit on top of the desk, huddled together like a little community. though i haven’t been able to do any proper writing at this desk for years outside of taking some quick recording-related notes and scrawling track names on backup CDs, it’s done a great job of keeping the mixer and the important signal processing in one place where i can have easy access to all of it.

for someone who is an “artist” (i guess that’s what i am) and who produces as much work as i do, you would expect both of these desks to be frightening, messy landscapes where song ideas go to duke it out for supremacy. and you would be wrong. both of them are pretty well-organized. the huge desk in the studio may be crammed with gear, but it’s neatly and symmetrically assembled. the desk upstairs with the typewriter and tape cases on it is just about pristine. the place that’s a chronic mess, and where i do most of my writing, is my bed.

a bed as a general thing has become a lot more important to me over the years. when i was a child, i could fall asleep anywhere. i’m convinced i could have slept on a jagged stone tablet without any trouble. these days, if i’m not in a bed that my body finds comfortable, little if any sleep is going to happen.

lucky for me, my bed remains arguably the most comfortable thing i’ve ever slept in. part of that must come down to the fact that it’s mine and i know it so well, but i don’t think that tells the whole tale. it’s an all-around good bed, offering a nice balance between firm support and sink-into-the-mattress give. just as i’m picky when it comes to pillows (i’ve yet to find one that approaches the comfort of my fallen comrade from “the great de-feathering of 2006”), it’s difficult to find a bed that feels just right for me. this one has always felt that way.

in high school i used to work on some of my homework in bed, but it wasn’t by any means an exclusive arrangement. the big beefy desk, which wasn’t yet maxed out in those days, got plenty of play. i don’t think the big shift happened until around late 2003. i started bringing a guitar or a mandolin into my bedroom sometimes, and ended up writing a number of songs that would end up on BRAND NEW SHINY LIE and the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP while playing in bed.

when i started to develop a deeper interest in dreams and taught myself how to build up my recall, i would scratch out the salient points in a spiral notebook as soon as i woke up and then type them up in more detail later. over time this gave way to typing up a rough draft of what i remembered on a laptop while i was in bed and half-asleep, still making another pass for more detail later in the day, but saving myself the transcribing job, since i can type a lot faster than i can write. i always did a lot of listening to music on headphones in bed, but now i found the space getting a lot more cluttered. it didn’t register for me as an indication of any kind of significant change taking place.

fast-forward to the present day. at any given time my bed is littered with CDs, notebooks, envelopes, DVDs, books, and anything else i might be working on, looking at, thinking about, or considering working on, looking at, or thinking about. if i ever have cause to sleep in the same bed with another human being again (and i’m not holding my breath for that to happen), i will be immensely gifted at sharing the space, because i’ve grown adept at — and very comfortable with — sleeping on what amounts to less than half of my bed. there’s my side, and then there’s the side that’s submerged beneath the debris.

even when i manage to clear off the bed and restore it to something that looks like a normal sleeping space, i still stay on my designated side. on some subconscious level i think i almost feel like the creative debris is still there in some invisible form, and i shouldn’t disturb it.

what began as an occasional thing — putting songs together in bed here and there — has become a serious part of the way i write. these days there’s usually at least a guitar or two hanging out somewhere in my bedroom, sometimes flanked by a smaller friend like a ukulele or a banjo. with any given song that’s shown up on my last several albums and is played on an acoustic stringed instrument, i can tell you almost without fail it was written in bed, from the very first germ of the idea to the finished piece, or as close as it came to being finished before i improvised to get it the rest of the way there at the recording stage.

when i began this blog/site back in early 2008, i wrote something on an album page about how it would be fun to compile a list of the songs i had written in bed. to compile that list now would be a gargantuan undertaking. on GIFT FOR A SPIDER alone, of the 22 songs that make up the album, 15 of them were written in my bed.

and it’s not that i’m lazy. my bed just happens to be where a lot of my best ideas seem to form themselves. the studio may be where the heavy lifting happens, but the bedroom is where a lot of the songs are built before they make their way down the stairs. it’s strange to realize just what an important part of my creative process my bed has become. if something happened where it was gone, or i wasn’t able to access my bedroom for a while, i think it would throw me off my game.

maybe that’s why i haven’t been writing so much on the piano over the last little while. you can’t bring the piano to bed with you.

i wonder if there are other people who do as much writing and creating in their beds as i do, or if i’m just weird. i guess in the end it’s mostly about being comfortable, and having a space that feels like it’s yours. i’m lucky enough to have a few spaces that fit the description. it just hadn’t hit me how important the bed had become to my own personal creative equation.

i think what really brought it home for me was when i started going through all the little ideas and song fragments i’ve recorded on the little flip camera and then dumped onto the computer. about a week ago, i thought it might be an idea to begin the task of organizing them according to date and whatever working titles they have, giving myself some indication of what they are instead of leaving the file names as “video 27” and “video 28”. i lost some things when my computer was infected with a virus last summer (just how much i lost remains a mystery), but even so, it took me a few days to categorize everything.

around 2004 or 2005, i began using my mini DV camcorder to get down ideas i didn’t have the patience to record proper-like. i’ve never recorded demos in the proper sense. it’s always felt like a waste of energy to me. so the camera became a tool that allowed me to split the difference — i could capture a riff or sketch out a song at the moment it was born, and then return to it later when i wanted to flesh it out or record it for real. though i would occasionally mic up a guitar or plug in a digital piano and spend half an hour recording a pile of different ideas at higher fidelity so i would have a record of all the unused pieces of things i had floating around, for the most part i stuck with the camera.

it’s pretty easy to get a tangible feeling for the amount of ideas i stockpiled in that time, because i have a dresser drawer full of little 60-minute tapes. not so with the little flip camera, which came along in 2009 and supplanted the analog camera as my main “demo” recording tool. now i would use the camera until it was full and then transfer the contents onto the computer, and the files would end up scattered in different folders, mixed in with pieces of things i would edit together to make progress report videos. so i never really got a handle on how much was there until i sat down to organize it all.

putting aside whatever i lost last summer, there are 700 surviving song ideas that have been recorded over the last two years. a lot of them ended up turning into songs that are on albums you may or may not have under your couch. just as many were forgotten as soon as i recorded them. revisiting them has been interesting, not only because of the surprising amount of good ideas i have no memory of coming up with (and i tend to have a pretty solid memory when it comes to unused musical ideas), but because i’d forgotten the surprising ways in which some songs grew up. i usually write songs pretty quick and leave them alone once they feel fully-formed, but every once in a while something will need to be given some time to figure out what it wants to be.

the lyrics for “a puppet playing possum” went through three different sets of music before the final album version revealed itself, and none of them sound anything alike. “kicking the new corpse” began as a finger-picked acoustic thing that doesn’t begin to resemble the way the song sounds on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART. “emaciated crack monkey” almost became a different song when i toyed with taking the guitar figure that comes in at the end and weaving it through the whole thing. and for all those songs that came pouring out and seemed to write themselves, it’s fascinating to be able to hear the seed of an idea develop in five or six pieces over a span of minutes, progressing from a musical idea and a wordless vocal melody to a finished song with a full set of lyrics.

of these 700 fragments, licks, variations, a cappella ideas, and full songs, at least two thirds of them were written and recorded in my bedroom while i was sitting on, lying in, or kneeling against my bed. by this time next year, i expect there will be a few hundred more. you know what they say — if it ain’t broke…

crawling out of the basement.

sometimes it’s fun to pull out the first pair of prescription glasses you ever owned, after not wearing them in years, and then get dressed up for no reason. especially when it somehow leads to finding a great glasses case you haven’t seen in ages and assumed you’d lost forever.

you know what else is fun? having a dream some random guy who isn’t you writes an epic song called “hey, kid — decade-long video game parties don’t always end well”, in which he examines what happens when your whole life has been consumed and shaped by video games and the friends you play them with in dimly lit basements, and then you wake up one day to find yourself squinting in the harsh light of an unfamiliar world, working at a menial office job where one of your co-workers demonstrates his superiority by forcing you to eat the intestines of his pet snake as a sort of twisted form of workplace hazing.

i would never come up with a song like this in the waking world. you can bet i’m going to take that idea and run with it now.

this is one of the many reasons why dreams are my friends.

somebody tell me, please — why do i have to pay attorney fees?

when writers who get paid to string together lazy musical comparisons compile lists of the great breakup albums, one that seems to get shafted most of the time is marvin gaye’s here, my dear. and that’s a shame. because as breakup albums go, there aren’t many that cut deeper or are less steeped in clichés than this one.

as marvin’s marriage to anna gordy collapsed in the mid-70s, he found himself so financially drained by his lavish and drug-fueled lifestyle, he couldn’t even make child support payments. his attorney had a brainstorm — why not give anna half the royalties from the next album? marvin agreed, in part because he saw a great opportunity to make the worst album he could, as a gigantic fuck-you to everyone involved.

of course, this is marvin gaye we’re talking about. so it didn’t quite work out that way. in spite of his best efforts to make an embarrassingly bad album, he found his conflicted feelings for his ex-wife and his own pride wouldn’t let him off the hook that easy, and soon he was writing the most ambitious and nakedly autobiographical music of his life.

according to david ritz’s liner notes, marvin would often end a grueling day in court by going into the studio, smoking a joint, and channeling his frustration into the music. listening to the sprawling double-album, you probably get a better idea of why the marriage failed than the two people who were in it had at the time. marvin also attacks himself, admitting in songs like “anger” and the austere funk of “time to get it together” that his drug abuse and paranoia have taken their toll, and he’s caused his share of pain.

musically it’s all over the map — equal parts funky, jazzy, angry, pensive, arrogant, and mournful, with marvin playing all the keyboard/synth parts and providing every vocal track himself. it might be his most diverse album vocally, moving from smooth, soulful harmonies to guttural growls.

“when did you stop loving me, when did i stop loving you?” has always been the high point for me. a lot of the songs on the album don’t follow predictable structures, but this one is especially complex, with no chorus in sight, vocal harmonies that weave in and out like horns, and brilliant chord changes the likes of which we’ll probably never hear again outside the realm of jazz.

when he sings, “do you remember all of the bullshit, baby?” and twists his sweet voice into a vicious scream on the last two words, it’s the sound of a man speaking to a woman he loves and hates, blaming himself as much as he blames her for the way things turned out. though the album ends on a hopeful note with a song called “falling in love again”, a brief reprise of “when did i stop loving you…” undercuts the hard-won happiness with fear and uncertainty.


marvin almost didn’t release the album, feeling it was a little too close to the bone, but he was legally and contractually obligated to set it free. it didn’t sell well, with critics and consumers alike unsure of what to make of the songs. this wasn’t the “hey baby, i want to sex you up” marvin gaye seductively vamping in your ear. this was an attempt at unraveling the failure of his marriage and what he saw as his own failure as a human being, and fusing it to some wonderfully unpredictable and inventive music in the process.

after marvin’s death the album was re-evaluated, and now it’s recognized as one of his boldest and most uncompromising artistic statements. but it still seems to be one of the albums most people — even serious fans — haven’t heard. you won’t catch any of its songs on the radio.

maybe that’s as it should be. even if it grew out of a need to make money, this is music that doesn’t have a single commercial bone in its body. it’s deep marvin gaye. i hadn’t heard it in so long, i’d almost forgotten just how good it is.

find me a song with a more atmospheric groove than “is that enough?” and i will bow down before you.

dirt on the piano.

just when i thought i finally had a pretty solid sequence worked out for the first disc of this album i’m working on, i found myself writing and recording something that was practically a melodic punk song by my standards.

now everything has shifted yet again, because this song has to be the very first thing on the album. it’s too ridiculously catchy, and the lyrics work against the catchiness every step of the way, urinating all over what such a poppy song is supposed to be. that’s a win on all fronts for me.

while it’s taken a lot longer than i thought it would, i expect to have a rough assembly of that first disc prepared pretty soon. and if it works, it’ll be much smoother sailing from here on out.

other than that, there isn’t much to report. i’ve been scanning a whole lot of things, adding relevant lyrics and notes to more album pages. in the process of doing this, i’ve been realizing just how many things i’ve written over the years that have gone unrecorded. i mean, i knew there was a lot of stuff there…but the reality of it is a little frightening.

if i ever lost the ability to write new material, i could spend years just working through piles of that stuff. almost none of it was neglected for reasons that had anything to do with quality or my fondness for the material. there are entire albums i conceived on paper, with every song written and ready to go, only to push them aside because the improvisational way of working was too exciting to bother with recording premeditated material.

by the time i finally started recording some of the things i was writing instead of hitting the record button and winging it all the time, there was so much music coming out, i had no time to double back and take care of unfinished business. even when i get THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE finished, at best i’ll have only put a dent in all the things that have piled up over the past little while, without touching anything that was written before 2006 or so. and then it’ll be on to the next thing.

i’m not bragging here. if anything, i’m trying to understand how i could have written such an insane amount of music over the years, in addition to all the songs i was improvising and recording at the same time, and how it could have continued for so long unabated. there was a brief period around early/mid 2001 when i hit a bit of a fallow patch and wasn’t really satisfied with anything i was writing, but aside from that, the inspiration has been pretty much constant for about the past 17 years.

there is no conceivable way i can live long enough to give every song and idea its due. maybe, if i’m lucky and scientific advancements somehow lead to the possibility of more hours in a day, i can get a third of the way there. maybe.

i guess the adventure is getting out what i can, while i can. today it was a deeply caustic song written about a shitty friend, and a little acoustic thing that sounds a bit like i was trying to channel elliott smith. what comes out tomorrow or the next day is anyone’s guess.