Month: May 2016

Back me up.

BACKUP CDS batch 1

At long last, all those backup CDs are organized and the “Database of Stuff” is up to date.

If you’ve been over here at any point over the past few years, you’ve probably seen the mixing desk — not an actual “mixing desk”, but a massive, hulking thing with steel casing that holds the mixer, mic preamps, and other relevant outboard equipment — littered with white CDs, some labelled, some not.

For the first time since I can’t remember when, those are all gone. Well, not gone, but redistributed. They’re where they’re supposed to be.

Some of them are on that shelf seen up there. It doesn’t look like it, but there are a good dozen or so boxes hanging out there. Some of those rows run three deep.

I was trying to figure out where the rest of the boxes could go. Somewhere that allowed for easy access but was kind of out of the way. Then I remembered this little cabinet beside the drums. I pretty much forgot it was there after stashing some drum keys and extra sticks in there nine years ago.

I’m not sure what the people who lived here before us used it for. A china cabinet or a cutlery dungeon, I’d guess. It just happens to be the perfect depth for the boxes I’m using to store backup CDs. It’s even got cute little doors to keep the dust out.

BACKUP CDS batch 2

I gotta say, it’s a little strange to have all of this organized and to know where everything is for a change. I think I’ll be able to get used to it, though.

I know you are, but why?


Early on in my digital recording days, when I was still trying to work it all out, I didn’t always back up everything I recorded. With cassette tapes it was simple. You recorded the thing, the thing was there, and you were done. This was different.

There are whole albums I neglected to preserve in any way beyond dumping the tracks on an audio CD. Half of SINGING THE OESOPHAGUS TO SLEEP and most of DON’T TALK LIKE A BABY got the backup treatment. None of SCREAMING NIPPLES or LIVE AT THE NAKED GIRAFFE THEATER did.

I can still remember sitting in the tiny music room I was working out of in 1999 and deleting all of YOU’RE A NATION from my mixer, thinking, “The CD’s finished. There’s no need to back any of this up. Besides, I need the mixer space to record new things. See you later, entirety-of-what-will-later-become-one-of-my-favourite-early-Papa-Ghostface-albums.”

There went any chance to revisit the mixes once I knew a little bit more about what I was doing so I could at least get rid of the low end mud and out-of-control digital clipping.

I did think SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was worth backing up in full. That right there is what you call an epic fail in the “being a good judge of your own work” department.

By the time we got to SHOEBOX PARADISE, I wised up and started backing up everything but the odd out-take I didn’t think I’d ever want to revisit. By OH YOU THIS, out-takes were getting backed up too, no matter how crummy I thought they were. Today I don’t just back up every song I record — I back up in-progress versions and alternate mixes, and every backed-up thing gets a backup copy of itself, just in case one disc decides to crap out at some point.

This comes with its own set of problems. If I haven’t been specific enough in scrawling on a CD how evolved any given song on it is, sometimes I’ll have no idea which disc has the specific thing I’m looking for. Example: there’s an O-L West song I’ve backed up at three different points. And it’s still not finished. It took me weeks to track down the most up-to-date unmixed backup. Some of that comes down to the most recent several dozen backup CDs being scattered all over the place with no rhyme or reason, but still.

The other day I was thinking about this. It’s a pain in the ass to have to dig through boxes of CDs for whatever I’m after at any given time. It doesn’t help much that the boxes are arranged in chronological order. I mean, look at the discography sidebar on this blog. I’ve recorded a goofy amount of music over the years, and what’s out there in the world in one form or another is only a fraction of it.

What if I went through every little box one by one and itemized what was in them? What if I built a database of what was on the backup CDs, so the next time I wanted to load something back on the mixer I could pinpoint where it was in seconds?

Now seemed as good a time as any other.

I can’t believe I didn’t think to do this sooner. It hasn’t been as tedious or time-consuming as I expected. I’m just about finished. It’s funny to see how many different brands of CD-Rs I went through over the years, and impressive how many of them still work. Only a few have gone wonky on me, and they don’t have anything on them I’m missing too much.

Here’s the thing. I have a pretty good handle on all the different things I’ve done. Anything music-related has always lived in my memory longer than just about anything else that rattles around the old brain. But when you’re dealing with seventeen years of archived material, you’re going to uncover the odd thing you forgot all about, or that you didn’t even know was there.

The day before Valentine’s Day in 2004 I sat in on Chris Hewer’s CJAM show Actual Air. It was my fourth and last time on his show, I think. I played him some songs off of NUDGE YOU ALIVE (which had been released, to the extent that I released anything back then) and GROWING SIDEWAYS (which was still being recorded).

For the live performance segment — always something Chris encouraged — I thought about covering a Blue Nile song to tie in with the looming day of romantic grotesqueries, since Paul Buchanan’s songs on A Walk Across the Rooftops and Hats were some of the only love songs I could stomach in those days. I decided to improvise something instead. I brought my acoustic twelve-string and a few half-formed melodic ideas with me and hoped for the best.

Trying to improvise a song out of thin air in a live setting when you’re not a jazz musician isn’t always a great idea. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes not so much.

It wasn’t a great idea that friday night. I played a little bit. Then I sang:

I smell something cooking in the kitchen.
Don’t burn don’t burn don’t burn the prosthesis.

And there wasn’t another word in my head. After all the countless times I’d opened my mouth while recording, alone or with other people, and watched a torrent of unwritten lyrics come pouring out, this time I had nothing.

I laughed, said, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” and it fell apart before it could really turn into anything.

Later that night I listened to the archived MP3 on CJAM’s website. It didn’t sound as much like it was falling apart in hindsight as I thought it did in the moment, until it…you know…fell apart.

Kind of wish I thought to download it, if only for posterity.

A week later I sat down with the thing, built on it, and recorded it as an instrumental piece. I didn’t mix it. And then, as far as I could tell, I never backed it up and it was lost forever.

I didn’t feel like anything amazing got away there. But it was a little frustrating. The passage of time made me more curious about what I did with that song. Only one or two vague bits hung around in my head long-term, when I knew it passed through something like a dozen different sections.

There’s a song called “I Know You Are, but Why?” on one of the backup CDs from the GROWING SIDEWAYS period. I always assumed it was one of the songs that ended up on that album. Must have been a working title I gave whatever song it was before I figured out what I wanted to call it.

When I was building my archival database, I decided it was time to drop it back on the mixer and find out what it really was. I saw the file size was pretty small. Probably one of the shorter tracks. “An Elegant Insult”. Maybe “Feckless”.

Nope. It’s the song that got its start as a botched improvisation the day before Valentine’s Day in 2004. The one I was sure I never backed up.

Talk about your surprises.

It’s weird to hear it all this time later. It’s not any great lost masterpiece. There are some flubs in there. I think I always meant to re-record it once I had a chance to sit with it and tweak it some more. But it’s pretty neat for what it is.

The first chunk is played on that Washburn D10S twelve-string. The Simon & Patrick Spruce 6 CW that’s all over every non-synth-driven thing I recorded from 2003 to 2007 picks it up from there, and then the twelve-string comes back for a brief coda punctuated by the distant sound of a door opening.

Those were the only two decent acoustic guitars I had at the time. I recorded them with a Rode NT4 stereo mic and ran that into one of the now-departed DBX Silver Series mic preamps.

I don’t regret unloading that mic. It didn’t do much to excite me anymore once I stepped up to some high end mic preamps. But it served me well for a good few years there, and I can’t hear anything in this recording now that sounds harsh or cheap to me.

If you’re recording on a budget and you want a mic that will capture the sound of an acoustic instrument in stereo, you could do a whole lot worse.

Anyway, here’s the song I didn’t even know still existed. Beef be braised.

I Know You Are, but Why?

The boy and the tree.

Yesterday I thought I’d punch Susumu Yokota’s name into frugal Google to see if there were any new albums I didn’t know about. I found out he died last March. It came as a bit of a shock. I had no idea he wasn’t long for this world.

This guy was one of my favourite living electronic artists. He was always a shadowy presence. Information about his life was tough to unearth. Even now, I’m not sure you can find out what the actual cause of death was beyond “a long battle with illness”. He was only 54.

I do know a bit about the music. If you’re into ambient music and IDM (is that still a thing?), the albums Sakura, Grinning Cat, and Laputa get my highest recommendations. The last of these might be one of the least accessible and most difficult entries to find in a vast discography that touched on many different sounds and aliases, and it isn’t drenched in the same pure beauty something like Sakura is (deservedly held up as a high watermark in his catalogue), but I think it’s some of his best and most compelling work.

While his taste in samples was always fantastic (check out what he does to Joni Mitchell, Harold Budd, and Gary Burton/Chick Corea on Sakura), on Laputa it becomes much more difficult to trace most of his sources. It sounds more like he’s drawing from — and creating — a whole new sonic world. It’s an album you can get lost in. You hear new things each time you listen. It took me years to pick up on a few recurring organic sounds sharing space with all the sounds not so easy to describe — bits of great bluesy Hammond organ and clean electric guitar.

“Laputa” is an imagined place from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a flying rock of an island “where impractical projects [are] pursued and practical projects neglected”. I doubt that association was an accident.

Some of the sound collage ideas he comes up with here don’t make much sense on paper. And yet they work, and in some strange way they get your head.

Take this track. It’s a dense sculpture of a song, shards of melody flitting in and out, most of them coming from string swells and reverb-soaked saxophone runs. The closest thing to percussion, and the sound that pulls everything together so you can hear how all the interlocking parts make sense, is a sampled female voice repeating what sounds like, “The prime minister,” fragmented just past the point of intelligibility by the tremolo circuit of a guitar amplifier.

The song at the top of this post is from Sakura. It’s a great example of the knack Yokota had for creating wordless, often beat-less music full of feeling. These are not ten-minute workouts that lull you into a state of near-hypnosis. They’re vivid little sound dreams that poke you in the heart and then fade away, leaving you equal parts frustrated that they’re gone so soon and grateful you got to experience them at all.

She ain’t got no one. She ain’t ever had no one.

Throwback Tuesday is not a thing, but here’s a throwback to less bearded times anyway.

This has always been one of my favourite tracks on OUTSIDE THE FACTORY GATES. It always felt like there was something haunting in the spaces between the words, and in the words themselves (I’m not sure another song exists in which a weapon mount is referred to as a source of light rather than a destructive tool).

I can’t really take credit for making the video. I’ve been stockpiling public domain film material for months now in preparation for the epic “making up for lost time” progress report video/semi-documentary thing that aims to cover all the musical goings-on around here over the past two years and change. Every once in a while the right footage meets the right song, and a little standalone video happens.

All I did here was take a chunk of one of Brook Hinton‘s videos from his Trace Garden series and drop “Turret” on top. I added a little fade at the end, because there was more footage than song by about twenty seconds and I didn’t want to chop anything out in-between. It’s otherwise untouched.

The video has nothing to do with the song in a literal sense. But in a strange way, I feel like it works.

Trace Garden is all about Hinton taking these beat-up old home movies from a time he probably doesn’t remember — maybe from a time before he even existed (I’m not sure) — and then beating them up some more, abstracting them, making them even more lo-fi and ancient-looking, until something ghostly happens and the film almost splits apart to allow an accidental fuzzed-out transmission from the other side. The resulting videos tap into the hazy, sometimes painful quality of memories you want to amplify but can’t, because they were never yours to begin with.

I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone else pull that off. Old photographs taken before you were born get close to that sort of thing, but this is like those photographs have come to life.

We recorded this song a little over six years ago. I imagine I wouldn’t produce it in quite the same way today. The mix would be different, and there would probably be more layers to it. But on some level it feels like the video makes it new again, opens it up, and bends the haunting thing that was already there in a different direction.

You and me and Dr. Lee.

Brent Lee came over and worked his magic on two songs back in February. The first is a ten-minute semi-psychedelic thing I still need to staple a few finishing touches to. The second is this thing right here.

You’re hearing only five different sounds (or sound sources) even in the noisiest moments.

The first sound is the Fender Rhodes electric piano. I ran it through the Count to Five pedal and then processed it some more. There are two iterations of this. One is distorted and smeared by a series of delays set to overlap. The other sounds much more like itself, but it’s distant, more of a murmur, heavy with reverb and phaser.

The second sound is Brent’s soprano sax. My first thought was to run him through the Count to Five and maybe something else, but there’s such a beautiful tone to his playing in the open air, it felt like it would be a sin to hide that. So there’s a fair bit of reverb and delay on him, but it’s accenting the naked sound instead of reshaping it.

The third sound is wind chimes. In the past I only ever recorded them straight. This time I sampled them with the Yamaha VSS-30 and messed with the sound a little, reversing it in places, playing lower or higher on the keyboard to create sounds the wind chimes couldn’t ever make on their own.

The fourth sound is the flute patch on the Casio SK-1, not too prominent in the mix, more of a subtle sonic wash than anything.

The fifth sound is Brent’s sax again, fractured and bent out of shape. I was trying to figure out a way to sample him after the fact. I don’t work with a computer or any recording software, so there aren’t a lot of options, and the digital mixer’s routing capabilities as I understand them are limited at best. I’ve worked out a way to run a master out from the mixer into the SK-1, but all the samples I’ve grabbed like this have come out sounding distorted and lo-fi — even for the little Casio.

As a backup plan I thought I’d try cranking the monitors a bit, holding the VSS-30 up to one of them, and soloing the sax track. I didn’t expect it to work.

It did, and it sounded far better than it had any right to.

I sampled a few seconds of sax and processed that a few different ways. A lot of what you’re hearing that sounds like a synth or a hung-over, heavily-treated electric guitar is this, and when the real sax drops out of the mix, everything you hear for the rest of the song — that whole warbly, shoegazey coda — is nothing but the treated sample layered a few times, played a few different ways. There isn’t a second of guitar or conventional synthesizer anywhere in the song.

I toyed with the idea of adding some bass, drums, and acoustic piano to all of this, to ground things a little and introduce some groove, arrhythmic as it would have been. The few bits of work I did in that direction didn’t really inspire me at all. Felt like things were getting too grounded.

I liked it all better when it was swirling and weightless. So swirling and weightless it stayed.

Brent’s sax ends up being the only sound that’s more or less presented as itself, right down to the occasional clicking of his fingers against the keys. It’s the one organic thing fighting to keep its head above water, almost but not quite getting swallowed up by all the ambient sound around it. I didn’t plan it that way. It was just one of those things.

Cole Porter understands.

Public domain footage comes to you care of Walter Ruttmann, an early experimental film pioneer who abandoned architecture and painting after the first world war left him scarred with PTSD. He left the hospital determined to make films and was financially secure enough to work outside of the studio system, creating short films free of any commercial considerations. Most of what you’re seeing here is Lichtspiel: Opus II (1923), with a little bit of Opus I (1921) thrown in at the end.

These must be some of the earliest abstract films, and some of the earliest examples of cinematic kinestasis. The images were created with smudges of oil on panes of plate glass, paper cut-outs, and camera movement. Sometimes you stand back and look at some of the art people were able to make long before you were born, through improvised methods, without any of the advanced tools we take for granted now, and all you can do is shake your head and give a little awed-like grin. And sometimes you slap some music you’ve made on top and it just works.

You can run wild without a leash.

"wolf howling", by taylor jones.

Thanks to some casual Google Fu, I discovered Mark over at Ride the Tempo did a nice little track spotlight for Natalie’s song “Howler”. Dig the unexpected shout-out to my steel-playing.

The volume swell noodling at the beginning was something I was going to get rid of. When I sent Natalie a rough mix, I told her it was just a bit of messing around and didn’t really feel solid enough to keep. Plus, you can hear a bit of amp hiss in there. There was no way to mask it that early in the song, before too much else was going on in the mix.

“We have to keep it!” she said. And so it was kept.

Natalie played my Kay Thin Twin here. Sometimes I forget what a cool guitar that funky old thing is. I played the other things. A few of the songs on her album felt like they weren’t going to be well-served by any kind of traditional drum part, and this was one of them. So you get drums played with mallets, all background thump and cymbal swells.

The group vocals were a lot of fun to record. We were going to go for a repeat of the quartet that worked out so well on one of my own songs — Natalie, Steven, James, and me — but Steve couldn’t make it. Caleb Farrugia stepped in to provide the baritone foundation in his stead.

We did two tracks that were pretty straight harmonies. The Pearlman TM-1 is still my go-to “stick it in omni in the middle of the room and record group vocals” microphone, but here I used a TM-250 instead. Then we did the howling. Some of the best howls are Caleb’s. My little high harmony on the line, “It may not be Oahu”, was one of those spontaneous things that just felt right in the moment. Another thing to dig: Natalie’s own high harmony on the choruses, tracing a second pattern around the main vocal melody.

(CAT & CORMORANT has been living inside CJAM’s top 20 for five weeks now. After hitting the top spot a second time, it’s sitting at #14 this week. I think that might mean people at the station like it.)

Allied with sin and solitude.

trespassing cropped

In the fall of 2014, before we knew we were working on something that wasn’t going to be a Tire Swing Co. album, Steven came over here with some chords, a few vocal melodies, and an idea for a song. Something about a guy who’d hidden himself away inside an abandoned-looking house, and a woman who wondered about him.

I’m not sure if what I was starting to do with musical dialogues for male and female voices on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK rubbed off a little, or if it was just divine inspiration, but he had the idea to see if we could get Natalie to sing the part of the good-natured voyeur. And he had a title: “Trespassing”.

So there was a concept and a skeleton. But there weren’t any words. I set up a few microphones to record our acoustic guitars and we played through the half-formed haze of a song that wasn’t written yet, Steven improvising words and not-words, me doing my best to harmonize without knowing what he was singing, introducing a bit of harmonic friction with my guitar-playing and ripping out a solo just past the four-minute mark that was more confident than it had any right to be.

Trespassing (rough jam)

(Whatever I improvised for that little solo there when I had no idea what i was doing, I was never able to replicate it once the song was nailed down.)

Later that night I sat down and listened to the improv. A few lines stuck out and felt like solid building blocks. I went a little nuts, and wrote a lot of lyrics of my own to go with them.

The whole thing took on a darker hue as I was fleshing it out. Started to sound like maybe there was some history between these two characters. Maybe the woman wasn’t just curious about someone she didn’t know. Maybe the man was a ghost haunting the house, and maybe that explained the place being so rundown. Maybe it was a sad kind of love song, the two of them singing to each other from opposite sides of life and death, his memories of whatever they shared eroding in a sort of death beyond death, hers as clear as they ever were, both wanting to connect but not knowing how.

I recorded a rough GarageBand demo at about 4:00 in the morning and sent it off to Steven. I had no idea how he was going to respond to it.

Trespassing (demo)

Lucky for me, he didn’t mind that I pretty much hijacked the song, and he liked the words I came up with. So I sent it to Natalie too, and she said she was up for singing on it.

I changed “thorn tree” back to “thorn bush” about five seconds after recording that demo. Liked the ring of it better. And I think that closing verse is one of my favourite verses of anything I’ve ever written. I don’t know. It just feels like it brings things full circle without resolving anything. There’s this weight of sadness there, with a bit of hope tugging at its shirtsleeves.

(Side note: I ended up hijacking other songs after this. I’ve learned if you give me a skeleton of a story, or even just a few chords and a vocal melody, it’s going to light my brain on fire. Once I snap into fill-in-the-blanks mode, songs happen pretty fast.)

We got down the guitars first. With the odd exception, I’ve been recording acoustic guitars with Steven the same way since INAMORATA. First I record him in stereo with a pair of Neumann KM184s. Usually he’s playing my old Gibson LG-2. After that, I’ll play something to accent or shadow what he’s doing. Instead of recording myself the same way, I stick the Pearlman TM-LE in front of my guitar and double-track it. A lot of the time I’m playing the newer Martin 000-15.

Some people have complained about the KM184s being bright and hard-sounding compared to the KM84s they succeeded. I don’t doubt that the originals are great microphones, but my 184s have never let me down no matter what I’ve stuck them in front of (acoustic piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, Wurlitzer, hammered dulcimer, toy piano, and who knows what else).

The LG-2 has a bit of a darker, rounder sound to it. The Martin is a brighter, punchier guitar. Those guitars and those mics just seem to play well together. It all makes for a nice bed of sound to build on.

I added bass next, and Steven recorded a lead vocal (we would replace it with a new take later on). Then Natalie came in to record her part.

With all the writing I’ve been doing for voices that are not my own, I’ve had the great fortune to record more than a dozen different singers over the last year or two. No one shows up with the song they’re going to sing committed to memory. Ever.

That’s not a problem. It’s never been a barrier to getting a good performance out of anyone. It just isn’t a thing that happens.

It happened with Natalie. We’d recorded a fair bit of CAT & CORMORANT by this time, so there was already a comfortable recording rapport there, and I knew she was going to do something good. What I didn’t know was that she was going to show up with all the words memorized. She’d absorbed the song to such an extent that having the lyrics in front of her threw her off a little. She didn’t need them.

Her voice gave the whole thing a great kick in the heart. She brought this quality of vulnerability to it that didn’t exist before she sang on it. And she altered the vocal melody just a little, leaning up on the end of the words “trespassing” and “sleepwalking” for the choruses-that-aren’t-actual-choruses instead of dipping down the way Steven and I did when we were singing those parts. Kind of like one of those freed flowers the song mentions, stretching to see the sun.

Right about then, I asked Steven, “Is this a Tire Swing Co. song? Or does it feel like maybe it’s supposed to be something else?”

I get to contribute a lot of musical and arrangement ideas to the Tire Swing Co. material (at least with the recordings — the live band is a different beast), and it’s really rewarding work, but the songs themselves aren’t mine. Those are Steve’s babies. I’m just the tailor, giving them nice things to dance around in.

This was different. This was something we built together, before even thinking about what clothes it was going to wear when it grew up.

“I think it needs to be an O-L West song,” he said.

And that was it. Just like that, the O-L West became a serious collaborative project.

“Trespassing” wasn’t the first O-L West song we recorded. It was the second. But it was the one that made it clear we had the makings of something interesting here, and we’d be wise to see how it played out.

(How it played out: we made an album with fifteen songs on it, both of us sharing the writing and lead singing duties. It could have turned into a double CD if we didn’t hold ourselves back a little once we had all the material we wanted in place. But the album isn’t quite ready for public consumption yet, so more about that another time.)

I added my high harmony for the verses. It’s a lot easier doing that once you know what the words are. Toyed with some third-part harmony and decided I liked it enough to keep it. We added the leg slaps when we weren’t sure yet if the song wanted drums. The lap steel and Fender Rhodes were things I added in the course of throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall, after the song said, “Go ahead and give me some drums. I can handle it.”

For whatever reason, I’ve found myself playing harmonica on quite a few of these songs. That instrument’s rebirth as a meaningful tool for me began with STEW, and it’s carried over to just about everything else.

I’ve only been able to teach myself how to bend one note, and that’s only happened in the last year or so. A lot of the sounds someone like the magnificent Kelly Hoppe can coax out of the harmonica are way beyond me. But I feel like I can do a lot more with the instrument now than I ever could before, minimal bending and all. I know my way around better these days, even if a lot of it’s still guesswork for me.

I’m not sure what changed. It’s not like I’ve been practicing much.

The point is, it’s fun to be able to drop the harp into a song where it feels like it fits, and to be able to have some options beyond the old “blowing sloppy chords like young Bobby Dylan with numb lips” trick.

Here I thought there should be some lead-like thing happening over the mid-song instrumental break. A guitar solo like the one I played for the initial improv was going to be a little too busy with everything else going on in there. Improvising at the piano didn’t feel like the way to go either. So I pulled out my D harmonica — the first harp I ever bought — found a few notes that felt right, and there it was.

Watching that, I’m realizing I sometimes move the harmonica around like I’m trying to generate vibrato after a note has already trailed off and I’ve stopped blowing. It’s not a conscious thing. Come to think of it, I do the same thing with an electric guitar sometimes, minus the blowing. I guess I just like to shake things.

Here’s what the song sounds like now in finished form. Not sure if it’s a final mix, but it’s probably about as good as it’s going to get. If we were signed to some satanic record label and releasing singles, this would be the track we’d send out into the world as a lead-in to the full-length album.