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.