i know you could have been more than a memory.

if you followed this blog back when i used to update it every few days (i now call that “the maniacal period”), you may remember a dude named steven leaving a comment on a post in 2010 or 2011, saying some very nice things. steven and james O-L are brothers. they’re also in a great local band called james O-L and the villains. they’re also two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. they’re also both capable of growing some great beards.

i made a bet with myself to see how many times i could start a sentence with the words “they’re also” before my left eye started twitching. i only made it to three. shame on me.

unexpected things have a way of happening, never more so than in the realm of music. that’s the way it works for me, at least. to wit: i just finished recording an album with steven, and it should get an official release (and an official CD release show) sometime before the end of the year. “tire swing co.” is the band name. steven wrote and sang the songs, james came by to lend some tasty electric guitar and bass to the opening song, kaitlyn kelly sang some gorgeous harmonies on two songs, and i did my one-man-band-of-session-musicians thing — something i haven’t done outside of my own music since OUTSIDE THE FACTORY GATES.

steven has a really interesting, unique voice. i like interesting, unique voices. if nick cave was more serene and laid-back, and less tremulous, he might sound a little like steven. on travis’ album, our vocal ranges are similar enough that if you don’t read the liner notes you might assume he’s singing all the harmonies himself (and he did do quite a bit of harmony-vocal-singing, but then so did i). in this case, there’s much more of a contrast, and i had a lot of fun playing with it. out of the seventeen songs on the album, there’s only one that doesn’t have me singing on it somewhere in the background, and that’s because it’s an instrumental and no one’s singing on it anywhere. unless you consider a banjo to be a voice.

hey — some people do.

i’ve really only recorded something other than my own music twice in the last decade. both were projects that kind of fell into my lap when i wasn’t expecting them. whatever is responsible for my musical lap-visitors, it has some good taste. there isn’t one song on the hour-long tire swing co. album that feels like filler to me. this is stuff i would want to listen to even if i didn’t have the chance to play on it. for weeks, i couldn’t even pick a favourite song to pull out for one of those “hey, here’s what i’ve been working on” moments, because seven or eight immediately came to mind and whittling them down was like trying to amputate my legs with plastic child-proof scissors.

what can i tell you without telling too much before the album comes out? steven played my 1951 gibson LG2 throughout, and i was reminded what a fantastic recording guitar that thing is. i played a lot of my newer martin OOO-15, because i liked the way the different tones of those two axes played off of one another. the funky old teisco wormed its way into a few songs. so did my long-neglected epiphone casino, which has been getting a little more love these days. i dropped my kay thin twin into standard tuning for james when he was over, and i really like the clean sounds he got out of it. there’s even some ukulele in one song.

i think the whole thing sounds like a unified, organic work, but at the same time there’s a lot of variety, and a lot of different sonic things happening, whether it’s a bit of delay coming in at the end of a piano solo, or the african drums gluing a song together in the most unexpected way. that last one was steven’s idea, and the sound works so well, in the last song i ever would have thought to use it, it’s insane. sometimes i forget how useful it can be to have so many random noise-makers like that lying around.

i was given a ton of creative leeway when we were recording. that was both a great compliment, and a little unnerving. it’s a great feeling when someone trusts your creative judgement enough to say, “here’s a song. do whatever you like with it.” at the same time, you want to contribute whatever ideas you might have without derailing the songs or making it sound like they’re yours, so your musical brain has to pull out some different dance moves than the ones it might normally reach for.

i’m still not sure i could call myself a proper producer, but i had a lot of fun arranging songs that were not my own. i think i only really went off the deep end once. there was one song i had a whole mess of ideas for, so i ran with them, and when i stopped running i looked up and saw that i’d kind of altered the whole shape of the thing. luckily steven was happy with what i did, and that song’s on the album.

the song is called “the maple tree”, and it’s up there at the top of the post. anything that sounds like a synthesizer is a fender strat played with a lot of reverb and manual volume swells. i couldn’t tell you where that guitar solo at the end came from. it was another one of those things that just happened, without any premeditation. i feel like it’s one of the best guitar solos i’ve played in my life. at the very least, it’s high on the list of my own personal favourite guitar moments. and it wouldn’t exist without the great song steven wrote inspiring me to find that sequence of notes somewhere in the part of my brain that speaks to my fingers.

as for the video footage — it’s from some public domain silent kids’ film from 1960 called the sky. i don’t know anything about it, aside from the fact that it was either horribly edited, or the version i found is incomplete. there are long stretches of nothing but black screen breaking up the images of actual things. nothing really happens on-screen, but i thought the imagery of sea and sky and dawn and dusk suited the music. i chopped it up, rearranged it, got rid of the kid (sorry kid), messed with the speed of some bits, and tried to assemble it all in a way that made emotional if not rational sense. there’s a gritty bit at the end of the smokestack footage, and i didn’t catch it until the video had already been rendered, but whaddayagonnado?

and in keeping with the recent theme of talking about live shows after they’ve happened instead of before, i should tell you we played a tire swing co. gig at taloola just a week ago. here’s the cool poster greg maxwell made:

poster by greg maxwell

there was a good turnout, and people seemed to like what they heard. for me, it was fun to get the chance to do something different in a live setting. most of the time when i’m doing the sideman thing, i’m playing piano and that’s about it. this time i played no piano at all. it was all lead acoustic guitar, except for a few times when i picked up a ukulele or banjo or melodica. i’m probably always going to be a little more comfortable sitting at something that has black and white teeth, but i like the challenge of not having that to fall back on. and i enjoyed how steven and i were both able to break out our vintage gibson acoustics and let them chatter at each other like siblings meeting for the first time.

maybe next time i’ll say something here before a show happens, not after. we’ll see.

more about the album as it inches closer to a proper release.

4 comments

    1. and i look forward to being able to share it! i’m really proud i got to be a part of it. getting to work with friends like you and steve, doing things i might not normally do on my own, or in ways i might not think to try, has really helped my brain and skills (brainskills? skillbrain?) grow in ways i don’t think they could otherwise.

      so if i get smarter, it’s all your fault.

  1. Aw shucks. Thanks for the compliment, Johnny. And here I thought I was only good for killing brain cells!
    Back to the album though: this is brilliant, melancholy, nostalgic genius.

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