Month: January 2016

you took the lid off of your cup to let it breathe.

a little while back, steven bought a new martin acoustic guitar. it didn’t quite have the magic he was hoping for, so he didn’t play it much. he thought about selling it. instead, he brought it to a guy who did some setup work and found the magic was there all along — it just needed someone to coax it out. now it’s one of steven’s favourite guitars.

he wrote a song for the magic-coaxer. a bit of a musical letter. because that’s the kind of guy steve is.


the main acoustic guitar he’s playing here is my funky old gibson LG-2, but his martin does come in at the moment everything suddenly thickens up a whole lot, lending a bit of support. so when he sings, “thank you for the bridge mic / it’s what you’re hearing at this moment,” it’s sort of a lie, but you are hearing that guitar. you’re just hearing it in the background, recorded with an LDC instead of its built-in mic.

his is a similar model to my 000-15. it might even be the same model, minus the satin finish…i’m not sure offhand. i haven’t had much of a chance to get to know it yet. it does seem to record well. it’s got a nice natural compression to it, and a brightness that plays well off of the somewhat darker sound of the gibson.

i had some fun with the arrangement. after adding bass and the clean electric guitar, i thought i’d tack on some brushed drums and that would be the end of it. seemed like a song that didn’t want to be layered too much.

but the drums didn’t feel quite right. i tried recording some shaker. that didn’t feel right either. so i got rid of the percussion and started thinking in a different direction.

two years ago i bought a circuit-bent casio SK-1 off of ebay. here’s a picture joey acott took of me showing dave dubois some of the whacky things it can do.

i show dave the casio SK1

(good god, that man takes good pictures.)

my memory is pretty reliable when it comes to music-related things. in this case it had a bit of a hiccup. see, one of the first instruments i ever had as a kid was a casio SK-10 — a more streamlined version of the SK-1. i had a blast forcing that thing to make music out of sampled armpit farts and television sounds before i had any real musical skill.

my grown-up head got it twisted, and i assumed what i had back then was an SK-1. they’ve grown in popularity in recent years, and after hearing some of the interesting sounds people were making with circuit-bent examples i thought i’d pick one up for myself. i was wise (in the accidental way) to do this when i did, because now the bent ones don’t seem to be around as much as they used to.

when the keyboard showed up without a vibraphone sound and looking a little different than i remembered, i realized the mistake i’d made. turns out the SK-1 can do a lot more than an SK-10, though. with the bends, i’ve been able to make a cough sound like insane industrial percussion, and i’ve created strange loops and electronic sounds that would be impossible to reproduce with any other equipment. even without engaging a single bend, i’ve made a ukulele pitch pipe sound like a strange synthesizer and a harmonica sound like an evil underwater flute choir.

the flute patch all on its own is pretty special, and some subtle processing with effects can lead to some very cool mutations of the base sound.

so that’s turned into a not-so-secret weapon. it’s on the last tire swing co. EP, it’s on the new papa ghostface album, and it’ll be on the O-L west album and my next solo album when both of those are done.

a while after getting to be good friends with the SK-1, i read about the yamaha VSS-30. the SK-1 and the VSS-30 have a lot in common. they were both made around the same time (1985 for the casio, 1987 for the yamaha). both have 32 keys, 4-note polyphony, a built-in microphone for sampling, and a sampling depth of 8 bits. both are much more than the toys most of us thought they were when we were kids.

they’re full of great, unique lo-fi character. run either one into a high end mic preamp (my choice has been the great river MP-2NV, because that’s still my mic pre swiss army knife), add a little reverb or delay, and you’d be surprised how good they can sound.

now, i love the SK-1. it isn’t going anywhere. but the VSS-30 can do things the SK-1 can’t even get within sniffing distance of.

it took me a while to snag one for myself. no one on ebay wanted to take a money order. so a little over a year ago i buckled down and made a paypal account, just so i could get an archaic little sampling keyboard that’s almost as old as i am.

here’s one example of what the VSS-30 can do, or what it can be made to do. the grimy low synth-pad-sounding thing that comes in during the instrumental section of this tire swing co. song and sticks around until the end is a sampled wurliter electric piano. i held the VSS-30 in front of one of the wurlitzer’s built-in speakers with one hand and played an open fifth with the other hand. then i mangled it with some of the keyboard’s built-in effects.

the only thing touching what’s coming out of the VSS-30 is some reverb. the weird chord that kind of hangs there right before the last instrumental section starts and comes back again at the very end is what happens when you take a sample of a power chord and play it as a major chord so there are three different open fifths grinding up against one another at the same time, making a giant chord you’d need another few hands to create the old-fashioned way.

the amount of sound-warping you can do with this thing is insane. it even allows you to “oversample”, so you can layer as many samples on top of the first one as you want. i’ve made myself sound like a disembodied choir of monks this way.

the VSS-30 gave the song something that felt like it fit and skewed everything a little at the same time. then i added some piano and some shoegazey electric guitar, and it felt like it was done.

i’ve been playing around lately with running distortion after a reverb pedal instead of the other way around. it creates this smearing effect, almost like the guitar is exploding in slow-motion. it isn’t always going to be the right sound, and i don’t want to overuse it, but when it works it’s a whole lot of fun.

all the electric guitar parts, clean and distorted, are coming from a squier j mascis jazzmaster. i’m done getting any more guitars for the foreseeable future — i’ve got enough already, and not much room left for additions to the family — and i never, ever thought i would have any use for a squier of all things. but this one is a really nice guitar. it would be a nice guitar with any name on the headstock. at this price point it’s a ridiculous value. and i financed it at long & mcquade, with payments so low it doesn’t hurt that much.

having said that, i’ll never so much as buy a set of strings at that place again after the experience i had with them this time. long story. not worth telling. nutshell: run away. if you can, buy anything you need off the internet instead.

anyway, back to the guitar — i was surprised how comfortably it played right out of the box. i haven’t brought it to anyone for a setup yet because i haven’t felt a need to. the intonation is solid, and it feels good in the hand. the neck has a nice smoothness to it. some people don’t like the gold pickguard, but i kind of like the way it looks. a lot of people rip out the stock pickups and replace them with something more authentic and jazzmaster-ish, but i like the way they’re voiced. they’ve got a nice P90 thing going on.

new guitars aside, the moral of the story is this: if you’re into recording and sonic sorcery, you could do a lot worse than picking up a used SK-1 or VSS-30 if you find one for a good price. yeah, they’re lo-fi little creatures, and the sampling time you’ve got to work with isn’t a lot (i think the VSS-30 at least gives you a little bit more than the SK-1’s 1.4 seconds). but you can do some very cool things with them, circuit-bent or stock, whether you want to use them in pursuit of sounds that are beautiful, or chaotic, or both.

i vote for both. because what’s one without a little bit of the other?

vote both

one more thing — during that first instrumental section, at about the halfway point there’s this odd sound that’s a little like someone singing semi-off-key in the background for two seconds. i couldn’t figure out what it was at first, until steven reminded me it was a harmonica.

sometimes when we’re recording his lead vocals i’ll do goofy things during instrumental passages, just for a laugh. this time i picked up a harmonica and tried to bend a note, and it came out sounding like the harmonica was sick.

no way would i ever keep something like that in someone else’s song (in one of my own songs, maybe). when i played a rough unfinished mix for steven two or three weeks ago, after we finished laughing at the ridiculousness of the groaning harmonica i mentioned i was going to chop it out when i did a real mix. he asked me to leave it in.

this is one of the reasons it’s such great fun recording with him.

things get eaten. then other things happen.

lienke raben

a little over two weeks ago, at about four in the morning, i thought it would be fun to write sort of an old-timey country waltz about a couple who’ve sold their souls to the devil to stay forever young and are coming to understand maybe it wasn’t such a wise decision. because these are the kinds of ideas i get when the world makes it tomorrow but in my vampire mind it’s still today.

so i did that, and recorded a rough garageband demo using the laptop’s invisible built-in microphone. it came out sounding like this:

blind spot between the years

i tweaked a couple of the words a few minutes after recording that, but the gist of it was there. the lyrics go like so:

when we are old and well-preserved
from all the deals we made
with slick old scratch to keep our youth
the polaroids we take will seem a little funny
to our least convenient friends
dance, soft tissue
realign
some crooked kindness kissed us blind

help yourself to nothing
it’s everything we’ve got
don’t you fret about the distance
between the guarded and alone

and every orchard keeper’s rendezvous
will get the demon gunning for his due
all we’ve lost to memory’s erosion
will crystallize and flush anew
when fire ants discover you

it was one of those songs that happened fast, and i was pretty happy with the way it came out. even the random yodeling in the middle felt like it worked. it isn’t always this easy, but sometimes you say to your brain, “hey, i’d like to try doing something like this, even though it’s a bit of a change of pace,” and your brain says, “cool beans. let’s do it.”

i had a few ideas about who i was going to ask to play a bit of country fiddle on it. in the meantime, i asked darryl litster if he’d be up for laying down some upright bass. he was game.

(as with some of the other people who’ve become a part of the “solo album with many guests” adventure, i didn’t know darryl before this, but having met and played with him now i can tell you he’s a great fella and a great musician.)

i put down some bed tracks, using microphones that aren’t so small the eyes can’t find them. couldn’t quite get the singing where i wanted it, but there was a good enough foundation to work with. i was adding some harmony bits last tuesday afternoon just before darryl came over, when something happened that’s never happened before in all the fifteen and-a-half years i’ve been recording music with this obsolete digital mixer.

the mixer ate part of the song.

i was working on yodeling harmonies when i thought, “hey, this specific chord sequence is only supposed to happen twice. now it’s happening three times. and the first line of the next verse disappeared. what’s that about? am i losing my mind here?”

i wasn’t losing my mind. the mixer’s hard drive decided to extend part of the bridge section and chop out four bars of the last verse to compensate. a chunk of the song was just gone, out of nowhere. nothing i did could bring it back. all the work i’d put into it had been for nothing. the whole thing was ruined.

giphy

when you’ve got someone coming over in less than an hour to play some upright bass and the song you were supposed to work on has turned itself into toast at the worst possible time, you need to figure something else out. quick.

i thought of a song that was hanging out on the growing pile of “things i like but i’m not sure if they’re album material right now”, called “hollow mast”. i couldn’t really tell you what was in my head at the time i wrote it. it uses a sailing vessel as a metaphor for…well, i’m not altogether sure what. but mizzen-mast goes on the list of “words i never thought i’d find a place for in a song”.

truth be told, the main reason i wrote it was because i thought i might get lucky and convince great aunt ida to sing harmony on a song. i wanted it to be something in her wheelhouse, and this was the thing that came out when i was thinking of her. as much as i’ve enjoyed keeping it local with everyone who’s been a part of this stuff, i figured it was worth taking a shot at a non-windsor-dwelling guest. why not?

she read my facebook message, but never acknowledged it or responded to it.

that’s why not.

after that, i tried to get someone local to sing on it. figured my chances were better there. they seemed enthusiastic about it. then they blew me off six million times.

so i said, “to hell with this song,” and pretty much forgot about it for a good half a year.

what i’m saying is, i traded one doomed thing for a different doomed thing. smooth, man. smooth as silk pajamas.

as far as the structure of “hollow mast” goes, it’s a very simple A-B-A-B form, but the second time around the A and B parts both double in length, and then there’s a little C part that acts as a turnaround (it’s a little too brief to be a real bridge) before our friend A comes back again for a few seconds to say goodbye. there’s nothing in it that resembles a chorus. hey — if you’re going to write a song with a repetitive structure, it doesn’t mean you can’t mess with it a little.

i chose this song as a last-minute backup because of its simplicity. it’s only made up of a few chords. there’s a lot of space in there for floating around and improvising, where some of the other songs i’ve written for this album jump through a much more complex series of flaming hoops and leave less room to wander.

i wrote out the lyrics with the root notes so darryl would have a bit of a road map. then he showed up and i gave him the news. we ran through the “new” song maybe three times with me singing. after that, i stopped singing and we started recording.

darryl 3

we recorded piano and bass at the same time, the same way i did it with max way back when — two neumann KM184s on the piano, and the pearlman TM1 in omni on the bass. the best upright bass sounds i’ve ever been able to get have been captured this way. something about the bleed that happens when the bass is inches away from the piano is really pleasing.

another nice thing about doing it this way: we’re both playing acoustic instruments that put out a lot of volume, so there’s no need to monitor on headphones. we can play to the open air and kind of mix ourselves. then we can put on the headphones and hear what we’ve done a different way.

the first proper take was just a run-through. the second, third, and fourth takes were incomplete. the fifth take came out sounding pretty nice. the sixth and seventh takes broke down when i kept hitting a chord i didn’t want to hit.

the eighth take was the one. it was perfectly imperfect. it ambled in all the right ways. it felt right. we could both feel it.

we could have kept attacking it, but it would have started to lose some of its soul. maybe we’d have a better grasp on what we wanted to do and it would sound a little bit tighter a few more takes in, but the searching quality, where you can hear the music kind of finding itself in real-time, would be gone. i think the law of diminishing returns would have set in before too long. and i like being able to hear the search.

so we have the guts of the thing, and i think i’ve got a take i’m pretty happy with for the lead vocal. i’m not sure if i want to leave it naked or layer it a lot. feels like it could work either way. one thing’s for sure: i’m not asking anyone else to sing the harmony part again. i’ll do it myself.

and there you go. one thing ruins itself, and something else rises up in its place. if the old-timey waltz song cooperated with me i probably never would have recorded “hollow mast” at all. now i’m pretty glad it worked out the way it did.

in other news, STEW is at #1 on the CJAM charts for the second week in a row. i think just about everything i’ve done over the past dozen years has charted somewhere inside of the top 10 at some point (except for the MISFITS compilation, which i never expected to get much airplay), and a few things have hit #1, but i’m not sure i’ve ever had anything stay at the top spot for two weeks running. that’s just nuts.

i’ve said it before, and i’ll say it again — subliminal messages work!

airplay.

grainy pg edit

given how long it’s been since i last had a new album i was any kind of front-person on to give to CJAM (we’ll just say, “it’s been years,” and leave it at that), i wasn’t sure what kind of play this new papa ghostface thing was going to get.

STEW is at #1 on the CJAM charts this week. i guess that answers that question mark-free question.

many thanks, as always, to everyone at the station who supports the noises i make, whether i’m making them alone or with friends.

we’ve already started working on the next papa ghostface album. my hope is to be a little quicker with the post-production work on this one and, if all goes well, maybe even get it out by the year’s end. we’ll see how that goes.

sad songs say so much.

idaho

there’s a lot to say about the recent passing of david bowie. maybe at some point i’ll ramble about that a little. but someone else who had just as much of an impact on me as an artist passed away not twenty four hours before bowie did. this is about him.

i’ve never been a fan of the “what are your favourite bands?” question. for me it’s up there with “do you have air miles?” and “can i mow your lawn with a toothpick for fifty bucks?” in the pantheon of annoying nothingness.

if i wanted to be flippant, my answer would be, “how many days worth of free time do you have lined up?” because i love a lot of music, and it’s difficult to quantify it in terms of what speaks to me the loudest. what i want to listen to and why i want to listen to it changes all the time. i don’t want to pancake my taste in music into something easy to digest and reproduce on command.

but if you held a squirt gun loaded with liquefied liver to my head and forced me to play the favourites game, one band near the top of the list would be idaho. jeff martin (not the tea party guy) has made a lot of music over the years that’s gone a lot of different places, sometimes with others, sometimes alone, and he’s never done anything that’s failed to grab me. i don’t think there’s one idaho song that doesn’t do something for me. that’s pretty rare.

early idaho is a world away from the music jeff makes now. these days his albums sound like a series of perfect soundtracks to kaleidoscopic independent films that are projected onto your brain while you listen.

year after year and the palms EP, meanwhile, are full of intense, wounded-sounding music. it was labelled “slowcore” at the time. i’m not sure that quite fits. i don’t know if any label fits.

i do know this: i read a review once for one of the early idaho albums that said, “don’t listen if you’re depressed.” i’ve always felt it was the other way around. for my money, there isn’t much music out there that’s a better blanket when you feel defeated and angry with the world. it might move slowly, but there’s real fire and life in those songs. they refuse to curl up in a ball and admit defeat. they give you a place to wallow for a while, and then they hand you a length of rope to pull yourself out of there.

there’s a message board on the idaho website i used to frequent. it’s still there, and i still pop in once in a while.

john berry, who co-founded idaho with jeff and played drums and some beautiful, evocative lead guitar on year after year and palms, is the guy wearing glasses in that picture up there. he was around quite a bit in the run-up to 2005’s the lone gunman, acting in more of a managerial capacity by then, fielding people’s questions on the message board.

i didn’t have paypal at the time. i wanted to know if i could send him a money order to pay for the album. so i emailed him.

we struck up a dialogue. he ended up sending me more than just the new idaho album, and i sent him some of the music i was making at the time. re-reading those emails from eleven years ago, what strikes me now is how angry i was. not at him, but at everything. i couldn’t pay people in my own city to listen to my music. i kept trying to connect with other musicians only to get ignored or slapped away. nothing i did made any difference. i didn’t know the right people, i wasn’t cool enough to pay attention to, and that was the end of it.

it was pretty demoralizing. i didn’t see it at the time, but the bitterness that grew out of all that coloured everything i wrote.

he had no real reason to acknowledge me beyond giving me an amount and an address to send the money order to. but john kept talking to me. he was always kind, witty, and full of good humour. a little later, we became facebook friends when facebook became a thing in our lives.

when i posted something here a few years back about retiring from making music (an april fools’ day joke i was sure no one would be fooled by — i thought the “essay by bono” bit on the fake greatest hits album cover was a dead giveaway), he popped up to tell me i better not stop making music. and he said some really kind things about a song i sent him, at a time when i was about as depressed as i’ve ever been. i could tell he meant it. he had no idea how much that meant — to have someone like him, one of the architects of some music that’s been important to me, offer encouragement and take the time to let me know he really liked what i was doing.

i always figured we’d end up meeting face-to-face someday for a jaws-of-life handshake and some laughs. that’s not going to happen now. learning he’d passed away in his sleep came as a bit of a shock. i was aware of some of his health problems, but i thought he’d find a way to beat them, the same way it seemed he’d managed to beat or hold at bay everything else that tried to pull him under. i didn’t know him on an intimate personal level, so i don’t know much about the demons that dogged him, but he was never anything but a positive force in my life. it seems wrong that he wouldn’t be here anymore.

these days i know a lot of good people and have some actual support for the music i’m making, even if i’ve done my best to keep it a small-scale, low-level thing (one person’s “shooting yourself in the foot” is another person’s “holding onto sanity and weeding out the stupid crap”). but i’ve never forgotten the way john took the time to connect with me at a time when so few people bothered, and the way he kept that connection alive.

i still can’t believe he did this — when he sent me the lone gunman, he also burned me a CD of a soundboard recording of a live show and tacked on a few demos. there were a lot of songs i knew in there, and then there were about half a dozen things i’d never heard anywhere. pieces of an idaho album that never quite happened, from a time when he was playing guitar with jeff again for a while. i listened to those songs again when i found out he was gone, and was knocked out all over again by what he played on them.

there are things about the way i play electric guitar now — the “ambient” stuff, when i’m not playing straight chords — that likely wouldn’t exist if i’d never heard what john did on the fret board way back when. i arrive at it in a different way than he did, because i don’t play at a high enough volume to generate any actual feedback. still, i like to think there’s a little bit of john berry in there every time i do something with distortion and volume swells that straddles the line between dissonance and melody, slicing open the belly of a song without making it bleed out all over the place.

i’ll miss him.