Here’s a sobering thought: I haven’t released a new album since the summer of 2011. By the standards I set for myself in the handful of years leading up to that point, I should have released about six additional full-length albums in the interim. Instead, there’s been nothing since the profane-but-surprisingly-catchy breakup album that was GIFT FOR A SPIDER.
For some — maybe most — people who make music, that would be normal. For me, it’s an unprecedented period of time without new spinning plastic things to share. It’s beyond a break or a hiatus. It’s almost unforgivable.
There were a slew of reasons for the gap, some of which have been mentioned here. The good news (or bad news, depending on how you feel about me and the noises I make) is there’s an onslaught of new music on its way in the New Year to make the gap ashamed it ever existed.
It’s probably been a decade or more since I was as busy as I am right now. It’s a little crazy. How crazy? I’ll break down what’s been going on and let you decide. Prepare for several large titles in bold, beginning with…
NEW TIRE SWING CO. MUSIC
On my end, Tire Swing Co. started as an unexpected but welcome job, with me pretending to be a producer and recording someone else’s music for the first time in a good few years. That lasted for about five minutes before it became something I was much more a part of than I thought I was going to be. “Hark!” the bearded one cried. “An emotional investment!” Now I think I can safely say I’m a dedicated, full-time member of the band, or ensemble, or whatever it wants to be called.
Tire Swing Co. really exists as two separate, distinct things, and that’s something I find kind of fascinating. In the studio it’s not really a band at all. It’s just Steve and me, with the occasional guest stopping by. Steve writes the songs, he sings them and plays guitar, and then most of the time I’m left to my own devices to figure out how to dress them up. He trusts my instincts, and though there have been times when I’ve sent him a rough mix of something and thought, “I went too far this time,” I’ve yet to hear back, “You did wrong! To Hades you go!” So I listen to my gut, and if it’s not saying, “Feed me, you scoundrel,” I run with whatever arrangement ideas it gives me.
Live, Tire Swing Co. is usually Steve backed by members of James O-L and the Villains. I sit out most of the shows because of sleep demons, and because playing live isn’t where I’m at my most comfortable, though the few times I’ve participated it’s been a lot of fun.
So you could pick up an album, see the band live (where it really is a proper band), and experience two very different takes on the same material. It’s not that one is better than the other. Maybe the recordings are a little more atmospheric, and some of the songs would be difficult to pull off in a live setting, while the shows have their own specific energy, rocking out a bit more. I like that.
The first Tire Swing Co. album is still available on Bandcamp in its entirety as a pay-what-you-want, have-it-for-free-if-you-like download.
The follow-up is in the works right now. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a full-length album or an EP. If it’s a short-form album, it just might sneak out before the year’s end.
(Edit: it did turn into an EP, and it did sneak out a little early, on Christmas Day. It’s available for free download over HERE)
Where the first album was an alt-folk record at root, the new songs have been going some different places. One thing that hasn’t gone away, though, is the intentional lack of polish. Steve shares my fondness for rough edges and early takes. We’ve never once used a click track. I’d rather let the songs breathe. If they want to speed up or slow down a little halfway through, that’s their right. Besides, it’s my job as the drummer (in the studio, anyway) to worry about rhythmic matters of the heart later on.
THE SECOND COMING OF PAPA GHOSTFACE
I didn’t see this one coming.
I always hoped the old Papa Ghostface fire would start spitting out sparks again someday, but I wasn’t sure how realistic that hope was. It’s one thing when you’re teenagers and you have all the time and energy in the world. It’s a little different when you’re adults, one of you has a family, and the other finally gets the facial hair he always wanted.
Gord and I have been friends since we met under cover of musical serendipity in grade ten English class, and I expect we always will be. I can’t remember us having one semi-serious argument about anything over the years. Our lives and music just took us different places after we’d finished recording a few careers worth of songs almost no one has ever heard while we were still teenagers. He went off to form the long-running (and long-evolving) band Surdaster, while I did my “making lots of restless music under my own name” thing.
Earlier this year, when I was working out who to talk to about potentially playing/singing on my ambitious idea for a new solo album, I thought I’d shoot Gord a message to see if he might be interested in doing a little messing around for old time’s sake. The timing turned out to be perfect. Surdaster had just dissolved after more than a decade of shifting lineups, and I caught him feeling — as he put it — “like a pimple filled with musical pus, ready to pop”.
Maybe these things happen when they’re supposed to sometimes.
We got together and found the near-telepathic musical connection we stumbled onto when we were high school sophomores was still there, undiminished. Jamming gave way to an explosion of creative energy, and we found ourselves making an album together — our first since the CASTRATED EP, if you don’t count 2002’s semi-posthumous KISSING THE BALD SPOT.
The recording process has been a bit of a stop-start affair, due in large part to recurring sleep issues on my end, but at this point I think we’re only a month and a hair away from the finish line. Almost all the songs we want to squeeze in there have been recorded. Some just need to marinate a little longer, we need to figure out a good sequence, and I need to do some serious mixing.
If PAPER CHEST HAIR has long stood as the closest thing to a “mature” Papa Ghostface album, as made by our then-sixteen-year-old selves, this is the real deal — PG older and wiser, without quotation marks. After all these years of writing about certain solo songs, “This is what I imagine a modern day, grown-up Papa Ghostface track would sound like,” there’s no longer any need to imagine. Now there’s a whole album full of actual grown-up Papa Ghostface songs.
It probably goes without saying that the production and sound quality are a little better than on our earlier albums. I have better gear now, and I know a bit more about using it than i did half a lifetime ago. We’re both better, more confident musicians. That helps too. Stylistically I’m not sure where we’re at now, but then I never knew what to call the music we made when people would ask me about it. One thing I can tell you is that the marathon psychodramas of Papa Ghostface and Guys with Dicks past aren’t making a comeback just yet. There are no twenty-minute chunks of molten psyche packed into music here. There’s no twisted role-playing, no larynx-obliterating screams, no trying on a different vocal persona for every song.
But it wouldn’t be a Papa Ghostface album without at least one ominous spoken-word piece. So we made sure not to overlook that.
I’ve always wished I’d been able to get Gord to sing on more of our songs, because when he did step up to the microphone (most notably on YOU’RE A NATION and SHOEBOX PARADISE), some interesting things happened. While most of the singing on this album is still coming from me, this is probably the most collaborative thing we’ve ever done. In the past it fell to me to supply the lyrics most of the time, whether I was writing them or improvising them as we were recording, and around the time of PAPER CHEST HAIR I started showing Gord more or less finished songs for us to mess around with, to supplement our well-worn “improvise around an idea or hit the record button with no idea what we’re about to do” methods.
This time around there’s more craft than improv, and there’s really no dividing line anywhere, aside from the odd song that was already fully-formed by one of us before it was brought into the “studio”. Most of the time a song that starts as his or my idea is overflowing with additions from both of us by the time we’re finished with it, and some of the lyrics have been written as a two-man effort while sitting on the porch with acoustic guitars, both of us tossing out lines.
It’s a good thing we’ve found a replacement space for the porch, now that the weather ain’t looking too kindly on porch-sitting anymore.
One new wrinkle is that we seem to have developed, without meaning to, a way of playing guitar together that’s so locked-in it becomes difficult to pick out who played what after the fact, even for us. On some songs there are four or six or more individual guitar tracks, and yet it sounds like one very large guitar playing countermelodies and harmonies with itself.
I love the insanity of a lot of our old music, as raw as some of it is. I wouldn’t have written as much as I have about it on the album pages if that wasn’t the case. But something like this is so far removed from anything we were doing or could have even tried to do back then, I almost can’t believe the same two guys responsible for a song like PAPER CHEST HAIR’s “Piece of Crap in Your Shoe” did this.
Who knew we would grow up to be real boys one day?
For all that’s different, one thing hasn’t changed — Gord still brings out something in me no one else ever has, and I find myself experimenting when we’re working together and doing things with my voice I wouldn’t normally think to do, whether it’s Middle-Eastern-inspired wordless wailing or multi-tracked theatrical growling (both of which show up in the same song, for the record).
Another thing I’m realizing: this is a pretty somber album we’re making here. I don’t think that’s a bad thing by any means. I’ve always liked swimming around in darker, murkier subject matter, and there was never a dearth of that on earlier Papa Ghostface albums. But this time around there’s a distinct lack of goofiness throughout. We’ve gone from weird sex and spandex-wearing muppets to ruminations on fate, faith, solitude, betrayal, and love that’s as ephemeral as the seasons turning over.
I guess we’ve come a long way. And I can’t help cracking up at the idea that some people will probably assume this is the first Papa Ghostface album, since it’ll be the first one they’ve heard, when it’s going to be our ninth.
When things didn’t work out with the first guest I was hoping to have sing on some of my new solo material, some friends put me in touch with a few great people who are now a part of the album in that person’s place. First to come into my orbit was Natalie, after Steve suggested I talk to her. She sang a lead part on a song I’d written as a male/female dialogue, and she was fantastic. Then I got her, Steve, and James to do this with me:
There’s much more to it than that, but that’s a little sneak peak until I get around to editing more of the raw footage into something digestible.
As it happens, she’s a songwriter too. She liked the work I’d done on the first Tire Swing Co. album, and she was feeling the pull to record something after the band she was in broke up. We ended up recording some of her songs together, with her singing and playing guitar (plus electrified ukulele on one song) and me adding the kinds of things I add when someone says, “Addition!” and throws me proverbial pen and paper. The group vocal madness worked out so well on my own song, we went back to the well for one of her songs, with Caleb offering baritone goodness in Steve’s absence.
Natalie is a really beautiful, down-to-earth person who makes you feel good just to be around her, and her songs are very much extensions of her and the people, creatures, and things she cares about. She also has a wonderfully unique voice and doesn’t sound like anyone else I can think of — except for that one time it sounded a bit like she was channeling Neko Case for one song.
A few songs still need a bit of work on my end, but there isn’t a whole lot left to do, and I’m excited for the finished album to see the light of day, whether it comes out under the Teenage Geese name, Natalie’s actual name, or something else, and whether she spreads it around a lot or just shares it with friends and family. They’re great songs, and I’m really happy I got to be a part of capturing them and their beating hearts.
Zara was someone I reached out to on my own when I was starting to really get excited about the idea of having not just one but several unique female voices taking spotlit turns on my album. We’d never met or communicated in any form, but I remembered hearing a few of her songs years ago and liking her voice a lot. I had no idea if she would be interested in singing on something of mine. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I sent her a message just to see what would happen.
What happened was this.
Then something else happened.
Some months back, I mentioned this idea I had to “pay” people for contributing to my album by offering to record a song of theirs for free. I have no issues with paying anyone actual money if that’s what they’re most comfortable with, as long as it’s understood that it’s a straight session fee and no money is going to be generated by the music itself. But I liked the idea of a musical trade of sorts, and I thought some fun might come out of recording people I hadn’t worked with before, assuming anyone took me up on the offer.
Zara was one of the people who did take me up on it, and recording one song led to recording a whole album — another development I wasn’t anticipating. I don’t think I’m someone people tend to think of when they’re looking to record an album in this city. They think of Mark Plancke at the Shark Tank, Brett Humber at Sound Foundry, Josh Kaiser, Martin at SLR…you know, actual established studios and people who make a habit of recording other people for a living.
I don’t put my name out there as someone who does that kind of work, because it’s not a regular thing for me. These days I’m pretty selective in who I work with when I do choose to record music that isn’t my own. If I don’t feel a connection to the music and I don’t feel like the people are involved are trustworthy, I don’t see the point. I don’t charge enough to make musical work I can’t get enthusiastic about worthwhile, and I’m a little wary about working with people I don’t know after the amount of times “helping out a new friend” has turned into “getting screwed”. Beyond all that, if you want something that sounds like it’s been polished to death, I’m the absolute last person you want to call.
I can record somewhat shinier-sounding things if that’s what a band or songwriter is going for. I somehow found a way to do it in the past, when I didn’t even have the kind of equipment that should have allowed it to happen. But I really don’t like to work that way, and unless someone wants to pay me a stupid amount of money to craft something that wouldn’t sound too out of place on commercial radio (which won’t ever happen, for many different reasons), I won’t willingly go there.
On the other hand, if you want something imperfect that reflects the way you actually sound, without pitch-correction or sound replacement or laser hair removal or guided trigonometry, maybe I’m not the worst choice.
Zara was after something raw and stripped-down. I can do raw and stripped-down. Aside from adding a really simple piano part to one song, all I did was try to grab the sound of her playing and singing in the room. I don’t think her songs need any embellishing — though if at some point she wanted to have me record her again and there was a bit more time to sit with the material, I’d be happy to experiment with adding some more sounds, if she wanted to hear that happen.
She has a very dynamic way of singing and playing guitar. Songs will ramp up from whisper-quiet to intense strumming and belting without warning. And it’s not belting in the “I am singing loud because loud loud oh my God hear how loud i am” way. It’s more like her emotions are exploding out of her throat and this is the only way she can redirect them so they won’t explode you too.
I like that unpredictability. I wanted to stay out of the way as much as possible and just let it (and her) be, without imparting much of whatever “sound” I have. I feel like I could have done a better mixing job, but I feel that way about everything I’ve ever done and will probably go on feeling that way about everything else I ever do, so at a certain point I have to walk away and accept that a perfect mix isn’t something I’m ever going to arrive at. I just don’t have the skill set to make that happen. And I could have used more compression and got everything sounding a bit louder and narrower, but I felt more comfortable leaving the dynamic range intact.
I spent more time than I should have in the past trying to get things as loud as possible at the expense of sound quality. I’m not ever going to do that again. No offence intended to anyone who likes their music loud and compressed to the point of strangulation (for certain kinds of music that sound works very well), but the Loudness War can suck my spit.
Anyway. About that imperfection thing. There are brief drop-outs in two songs you can hear if you’re listening on headphones, where a finger or a shirt sleeve touched the capsule of one of the super-sensitive Neumann KM184s pointed at the sixty-three-year-old Gibson LG-2 that’s become my default “you play guitar the right way? here’s something in standard tuning!” axe. You can catch a car horn honking outside at the tail end of the penultimate song’s fade. I thought the performances were good enough, and the sonic flaws small and unobtrusive enough, that it didn’t make sense to re-record those things. Those are the kind of flaws I think can add character to a recording when they’re not so jarring that they take you out of the music.
This is the first official full-length album Zara has recorded as far as I know, and the one thing out of all this madness I’ve been involved in that’s sure to slip out before the end of the year, because it already has — she had her CD release show at Phog last night. Though I’m still a little surprised she chose to record the album with me, I’m glad she did. That voice all on its own is about three hundred different kinds of special, and it’s surreal to hear it coming through your headphones not as a record of a past performance but as a thing happening in the room that you’re a part of capturing.
NEW SHIMMER DEMOLITION
My good friend Adam makes some really cool music that blurs the lines between shoegaze, grunge, dream-pop, doom-thrum (I just made that one up), and a whole lot of other good stuff. I’ve been lucky enough to master a few of his albums in recent years, and the best job I’ve done in that department is probably still this right here.
His next (and not-yet-released) album might be his best one yet. His music just keeps getting catchier and dreamier, in the best possible ways, and the vocal harmonies he’s thrown into the mix here and there add a whole new layer of goodness.
Speaking of harmonies…I got to sing some of those on one song. The moment I heard the track, a harmony line popped into my head, and I twisted Adam’s arm a little into letting me come in and give it a try, just to see what would happen. I know what it’s like when you’re a one-person operation and you’re reluctant to let other fingers feel their way into the pie, but I felt like I had something here.
Fortunately I was able to sing what was in my head after a few shaky early takes, and the results conjured a whole music video in my head. You know you’re on the right track when that happens. I’m really proud I got to wail a little on a song, and relieved Adam liked what I did. Hopefully the album will get an official release sometime next year. I get to be a guest again! A guest on someone else’s thing! Hooray for guesting, I say.
THE CONTINUING SOLO ADVENTURES
There are now thirteen different singers and musicians who have contributed to what is in some ways the most ambitious album I’ve ever sunk my teeth into — this thing I’m calling YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK — and there should be a few more contributors by the time I’m done. As an album it doesn’t have the physical enormity of the eons-in-the-making and still-far-from-finished multiple-disc mess that is THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, but the sonic scope of the thing is beyond anything I’ve attempted before, with several voices aside from my own, strings, horns, and upright bass, along with all the sounds I usually make myself and a few I’ve never made before.
This one has taken a little longer to pull together than I first thought it would. I haven’t been obsessing over it or working on it nonstop. It’s been more a matter of coordinating schedules and having to wait a little while for some some people to come in and record their parts. But man, has it ever been worth the longer-than-usual gestation period.
You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you it’ll be worth the wait. These are some of my favourite songs I’ve written in years, I think it’s some of the more interesting work I’ve done in a textural sense (mixing some of these songs has been a challenge, to put it mildly), and the performances I’ve got down on digital tape from the ladies and gentlemen who’ve contributed their fingers and breath and vocal cords add whole new emotional and sonic dimensions.
It’s tempting to stretch it out to a double CD. I’ve written a lot of songs for this album. When i say “a lot”, I mean you would punch me if i told you how many. It’s ridiculous. But I think i’m probably better off squeezing as much as I can into the eighty minutes offered by a single disc and saving the rest of the songs for something else. Otherwise it could all get out of hand pretty fast. One huge ill-fated album that keeps hovering in the background and takes forever to finish is enough for me, thankyaverymuch. I wouldn’t want this stuff to suffer the same fate.
So there’s enough material there for at least a few sprawling albums after this one. And then there’s THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE itself, which I still do intend to finish someday. And there will be another out-takes/misfits collection somewhere down the line as well. And there’s another unexpected collaborative project in the works, but I think I need to stay tight-lipped about that one for a little while.
So there’s the news. That was a pretty long-winded way to say, “Expect to hear a whole lot of new noise in the months ahead,” but I’ve rarely been concise here. Why start reeling it in at this late stage in the game? WHY, I ASK YOU?!