After an easy birth, a pretty happy childhood, and an interminable adolescence, the debut O-L West album has grown up and gone out into the world to fend for itself.
It’s called AFTERTHOUGHTS. It exists only as a physical album. You can’t buy it anywhere, because it isn’t for sale — though if you’re reading this, you probably knew that part already.
It’s the first thing I’ve ever been a part of where there are two distinct dominant voices throughout. Things are split pretty much down the middle between songs I sing lead on and songs Steven sings lead on. On some level, an album where we both share the writing and lead singing duties feels like a natural outgrowth of the work we were doing with Steven’s Tire Swing Co. songs. It was probably only a matter of time before we started writing together.
The thing is, you can never predict how — or even if — that’s going to work. You really don’t know until you sit down with someone and start bouncing ideas and creative energy around. Sometimes the energy is right. Sometimes it isn’t. I’ve had both experiences. With some people collaborating has been effortless, and with others it’s been about as easy as plucking out a polar bear’s ass hair with chopsticks.
With Steven, it’s as natural as breathing. We just click, in a way I’ve only ever clicked with a few people. It’s a joy making music with someone when that happens.
If you’re a friend and/or someone who contributed to the album, you probably already have a CD, or else one is on its way to you from one of us right now. If you’re not on my “mailing list”, or if we don’t know you but you’d like a copy, feel free to get in touch with me or Steven and we’ll do our best to get one to you.
Each Polaroid that makes up the collage on the album cover is related to one of the songs. Here’s what that’s all about, along with some of the stories behind the music — including most of the existing relevant demos, in case you want to compare some of those to the definitive versions and ruminate on what changed, what didn’t change, and which spontaneous late night arrangement ideas had staying power.
I suggest not listening to too many of these demos until after you’ve heard the full album. You don’t want to spoil too many surprises. But hey…I’m not here to tell you how to live your life.
Paint as You Like and Die Happy
Along with Trespassing, this was the true beginning of the O-L West. We jammed out the music one night in the fall of 2014 — Steven playing acoustic guitar, me on lap steel — and made a quick recording to preserve the idea.
Steven came back with some great lyrics the next time we met up. We got down his acoustic guitar and lead vocal, and then I added the bass and lap steel.
That felt like almost enough. But it needed a little more.
On a musical level, the song is all about drift, with long instrumental passages leading into and out of the verses and choruses — which aren’t really choruses, because the words are different each time. Any kind of extended solo or conventional drum part was going to chip away at the almost dream-like quality of the thing. What I needed to do was find the right accents.
One of my favourite things about working with Steven is the uniqueness of his voice, and getting to play off of it with my own voice. Here I threw in some high whispered background vocals on the chorus sections. Also added some piano to the second half of the song.
On a different kind of tune I’d float around and improvise a lot more. In this case, the simpler and sparser I kept my playing, the better it seemed to work. Sometimes just a few notes played on a piano can contribute an incredible amount of depth to a song. It’s a little nuts.
(Digital pianos need not apply.)
The little synth-sounding melody that runs through the second verse, never to recur, is the Casio SK-1 set on the flute sound with some subtle effects added. Even if it didn’t allow you to sample anything, the SK-1 would be worth the cost of doing business just for that flute patch. Though it sounds very little like a real flute, it’s got a great soul to it. It’s a sound that works in places you’d never expect it to.
Here’s the SK-1 on top of a small pile of things, staring at you all stiff-upper-lip-like, as photographed by Joey Acott.
The other synthy wash of sound that’s more of a background colour and doesn’t go away once it’s introduced isn’t a synth at all. It’s another lap steel track. I plugged the steel into the old Digitech guitar effects processor that’s been making a bit of a comeback lately, found an ambient-sounding patch I’ve always liked, and played around with harmonics and volume swells.
The problem with this patch is it can sometimes introduce some hiss when you’re feeding it a low-output instrument. It did that here. You probably wouldn’t notice unless you listened on good headphones or a nice hi-fi. Even so, as much as I like my rough edges, something like unintentional-but-audible hiss drives me batty. If I didn’t do something to cover it up, it was going to bug me for the rest of my life.
I recorded a soft brushed snare part to act as another little sonic accent, since nothing else seemed like a viable hiss-hiding solution, and hoped for the best.
These days I almost always record drums in one very specific way, with a stereo ribbon microphone set up in the middle of the room. It gets a slight boost from a tube EQ to counteract the high frequency roll-off inherent in most ribbon mics, a bit of compression, and that’s it. No close mics. No other ambient mics. I did throw in a distant room mic a few times on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART so I could slap a gated reverb or some delay on it for a bit of additional texture, but that’s not the norm for me.
There are three reasons behind this:
(1) I’ve grown to like the natural, unhyped, “drums in a room being played by a person” sound this approach imparts a lot more than the “close-mic’d up the wazoo, sound-replaced, and smashed to hell with compression until it doesn’t sound anything like a real drum kit anymore” sound I hear coming out of most modern recording studios. If I want drums that don’t sound a whole lot like acoustic drums, I’ll use a synth or a drum machine. If I’m playing a drum set, I want it to sound like a drum set. That’s just my own personal taste.
(2) With only sixteen tracks on my mixer and more ambitious arrangement ideas than I used to have, every track counts now.
(3) I spent years messing around with different drum-mic’ing configurations. I don’t have the patience for that anymore, unless someone’s paying me to record them and they want something other than my typical homegrown drum sound.
By the time I started thinking about drums in the context of this song, I didn’t have two leftover tracks to work with anymore. I only had one. I sort of close-mic’d the snare with a Pearlman TM-LE since it was the only part of the kit I planned on playing anyway, and left it at that.
The sound lived in just the right frequency to mask the hiss. It even added a little bit of extra glue to the drift.
There’s one last thing to tell you about this song, and that’s the weird trembling sound that comes in for the last chorus. You’ll never guess what it is.
It’s a ukulele pitch pipe.
Late one night, I got the idea to try sampling that little thing with the SK-1. For some weird reason it worked really well. The way the sampled sound took the natural vibrato created by the way I blew into the pitch pipe and altered the speed of it based on what notes were being played, generating a sound much more complex than its humble origins would ever suggest, was a total happy accident.
I like how this song sounds like it’s going to stay a stripped-down thing for the first few minutes, and then out of nowhere it fans out into a much wider, deeper soundscape. I think we both knew it needed to be the opening track pretty early on. Sometimes you gotta kick things off with something quick and punchy. Sometimes it needs to be a more immersive track the listener can get lost in for a while.
As for the picture, that’s Steven sitting on my front steps holding the actual photograph he’s singing about in the first verse. Pretty nifty, eh?
This song is about a mysterious Russian shortwave radio station no one has been able to explain for three decades, with the second verse made up of snippets of cryptic dialogue listeners have picked up over the years. It’s probably the closest the album gets to “moody rock”, Afterthought No. 3 notwithstanding.
It didn’t start out sounding like that. The rough jam that planted the seed of the song was acoustic guitar-driven.
So was the demo that followed.
And I thought the non-demo version would keep it that way. Many of these songs were born while the two of us were playing acoustic guitars. It made sense to use that as a starting point and build from there. But after a while, I got to thinking it might be a nice bit of contrast to have one or two songs not lean on acoustic stringed things at all, and I started to wonder what this one would sound like electrified.
I grabbed the Kay Thin Twin and gave it a try. Natalie reminded me what a great friend that guitar was when she played it for a few songs on CAT & CORMORANT after I’d been neglecting it for a while. The two interlocking main guitar parts were played on the Kay. The other guitar accents and the distorted not-quite-lead guitar that comes in for the instrumental end section were all played on a Telecaster. The little harmonica bits from the demo carried over, along with the hazy wordless vocal stuff near the end.
It took me a while to get the lead vocal right once I wasn’t singing it cross-legged on my bed into a tiny laptop microphone I couldn’t see. Too much force and the meditative mood would be broken. Not enough and it would sound like I was sleepwalking through the song.
I think I found the right balance in the end.
I wanted to wedge a small shortwave radio inside of a tree with a hole large enough to accommodate it and small enough to hold it in place, and then take a picture of that. It wasn’t to be. I couldn’t find the little shortwave feller I’ve got kicking around somewhere in the basement (or the garage, or Switzerland…who knows where that thing is), and I was going to have a tough time finding a tree sympathetic to my plight.
Took a picture of this big old tube-driven character with shortwave capabilities instead. It was the first picture I shot with The Impossible Project’s temperamental black and white Polaroid film that didn’t come out overexposed to the point of being unusable. The framing is a little askew, and now I kind of wish I took another run at it, but it works well enough in the context of the collage. And in these troubled times, collage context is more important than ever, isn’t it?
This one is discussed in detail, complete with all the demos, over HERE. It’s a musical dialogue, with Natalie’s singing on the choruses-that-aren’t-really-choruses adding something special. The way the story unfolds, I think it almost feels more like a short film than a song.
By the time we were thinking about images to accompany the songs, the house that inspired Steven’s initial concept for this one wasn’t looking so abandoned and evocative anymore. I always had the Walker Power Building (aka “the Old Peabody Building”) in my head. Some of the imagery in the first verse came from thinking about that place.
A picture of the whole building felt too distant, in every sense of the word. Then I got closer and lucked into seeing the No Trespassing sign.
Maybe that’s a little on-the-nose. But when it’s right, it’s right.
I kind of hijacked this one, similar to what happened with Trespassing.
It started as a jam. Steven had the verse chords and a vocal melody, but there weren’t words yet. I heard him singing what sounded like “and I know” a couple times. It got stuck in my head and wouldn’t leave. The same night of the initial jam I added some more music, wrote a bunch of lyrics, and sent along a demo of the finished thing at about one in the morning.
There was no concept in my head when I was writing these words. They were just the words that came out in the moment. But it was fun to find a way to work some boxing-related imagery in there, and now I’m pretty sure the bridge section has to do with faculty-dulling substances and the recklessness of darker days.
There isn’t a single proper guitar solo in any of the other songs on the album. So it stands to reason that the one song to buck the trend would have not one, but two solos.
Getting down the solo at the end was pretty straightforward. The first one was a different story. I recorded a bunch of takes of a totally different, flashier solo without ever quite nailing it to my satisfaction. Then I threw it out and tried something simpler and more melodic. That worked a whole lot better.
The arrangement for this one vexed me a little. It was the last song left that needed some work before I could focus on final mixes. It got almost all the way there, but it was missing one last bit of sonic wallpaper. It needed something to give that long bridge section a bit of a different feeling.
I tried lots of things — backwards piano, additional electric guitar, lap steel, synth. Not one proverbial coat of paint I threw on felt like it was the right colour.
I sat down with Steven and we knocked our heads together to try and figure it out. I played him a rough wordless ambient vocal thing I tossed in as an idea when I was trying out anything I could think of. He liked it. He suggested building on it and then taking out the drums for almost the whole bridge section.
That did the trick.
The intro…now that was a bit of a surprise.
I thought a dreamy little ambient piece might act as a nice segue into the song proper, to shake things up a little. A few different ideas toppled out in one night, but the one thing that felt like it could work in the context of this song wasn’t so dreamy after all. It was this evolving loop I made using the Strymon El Capistan’s sound-on-sound function. I can’t remember if I ran the El Capistan into the Yamaha FX500 or if it was the other way around, but I know the FX500 was in the signal path adding a little extra ambience.
You can do some interesting things with the El Capistan’s tape emulation settings, forcing a loop to keep degrading until the source sound is unrecognizable. Every sound in this loop was made with a guitar, and it’s just one track, but there’s something weirdly menacing about it in a muted sort of way. I like how it smash cuts to the start of a song that’s a lot catchier than the intro sets the listener up to expect.
The clean electric guitar lines that run through the body of the song also got some help from that pedal. There it’s more of a background effect, adding a bit of shimmer that doesn’t call much attention to itself but would be missed if it was gone.
For a long time I wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy. I’ve turned around on that over the last little while, building up a small group of pedals that might someday live on a board (if I ever get a power supply to run them all at once). The El Cap is a versatile beast that does pretty much everything I think I’d ever want a delay pedal to do, and I haven’t found a way to make it sound bad yet.
So, all else aside, this song is a bit of a showcase for a few of the tricks the El Capistan has up its sleeve.
The “gospel” vocal wailing in the background near the end before the final section really kicks into high gear was just me being silly, singing from behind the drums to kill time until I had to start hitting them again. I never dreamed it would end up in the final mix. But I grew to like it as a little bit of unexpected oddball character, and Steven was into it too, so it got to stay.
I had no idea what to do for a picture for this one. All I knew was, I wanted an image of something eaten by time. Wasn’t sure what the eaten thing should be. It wasn’t a bust of Jennifer Connelly’s face with a wounded nose, though I gave it an honest try.
One afternoon, hunting for things to photograph around the city, I snapped a picture of a heap of scrap metal. It came out a little overexposed and ancient-looking.
You could build a pretty convincing argument for this song being inspired by William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in the Secret Sea. It wouldn’t be true, but it would be an easy untruth to sell.
I haven’t read that book. I didn’t know it existed until after the song was written. I’m going to guess Steven hasn’t read it either.
What happened here was, we’d written all the songs we wanted to put on the album. We were kind of holding back from letting ourselves write any more, because there’s this thing that happens when the two of us sit down with a few guitars: we can’t seem to avoid coming up with song ideas. Even if we’re going out of our way not to write, we’re probably going to end up writing something anyway. It can’t be helped.
This one wanted to come out. It didn’t care what we wanted. I set up a microphone or two in the room as really rough audio floodlights, not even trying to place them sensibly or get good sounds — just trying to capture enough of what was happening to make a useful documentation of what we were doing — and we played for a while.
I listened to it later that night and was struck by how well the improvised lyrics worked. I tweaked a few lines and added a few new ones to introduce a little more shape, but left the bulk of it alone, as you can hear. The end result is about a 70/30 split, with what Steven improvised making up the larger portion of what’s there.
Only when the song was finished did it hit me that it seemed to be telling the story of a couple struggling to hold themselves together in the aftermath of the unexplained death of their young child. None of that was in Steven’s head when he was winging it, or in mine when I was transcribing and tidying up what he winged. The song decided for itself what it was going to be about.
These are almost always the most interesting songs for me — the ones that tug you somewhere you’re not expecting to go and construct their own hearts out of materials you didn’t know they had access to.
There was a sleepy quality to Steven’s singing in the demo we both came to really like, and he was able to tap back into that without any trouble. For my part, instead of singing straight harmony I messed around with wordless backup vocals over the “chorus” sections, stacking one line on top of another until there was a blanket of four-part harmony.
This is the only song where I thought to grab video footage of the whole recording process so I could edit it into something like a music video later on. I meant to put an effort into documenting more of what we were doing, but it kept slipping my mind. What can you do?
The picture fell into my lap the same day I snapped the pic for Trespassing. Getting a shot of a little raincoat wasn’t happening, but there on the grass, feet away from the Walker Power Building, was a broken child’s umbrella. Less literal. More atmospheric. Even better.
We played this live once at Taloola as a three-piece O-L West/Teenage Geese hybrid. My wave of overdubbed four-part vocal harmonies over the long coda were impossible to reproduce, for the obvious reasons. Our workaround was layering live three-part harmonies one voice at a time. Steven started it, then I came in above him, and then Natalie came in on top of both of us.
Hearing a thing like that happen live and being a part of it made the hair on the back of my brain stand up.
Afterthought No. 3
(Shining a Light, Making a Scar)
As a rule, I don’t go into a solo album with all or even most of the songs that are going to end up on the album already written. Usually I’ve got a couple I think I might want to group together, or maybe just one idea I want to develop, and I start recording. Then I write more, record more, maybe pull a few things from the giant pile of songs that have been hanging around waiting to find a home, get rid of some things that don’t feel like they fit anymore once more pieces are in place, and figure out what the album wants to shape itself into along the way, making adjustments as needed, improvising, experimenting, seeing what happens.
Over the years a few people have labelled me a “reluctant editor” of my own work. I think the assumption goes something like this: I make long albums. Some of those albums have a lot of songs on them, and some of those songs are weird and/or very short. Therefore, I must never throw anything out, and I must have a pretty murky concept of the dividing line between what constitutes album material and what belongs in the out-takes bin. Otherwise, I would make compact ten-song albums like a normal person.
That couldn’t be more wrong.
The amount of written and recorded material that doesn’t make the cut on any given album sometimes outweighs what’s allowed to see the light of day. You don’t want to know how many things I’ve got slated for inclusion on the followup to the first volume of OUT-TAKES, MISFITS, AND OTHER THINGS. And you would either think I was lying or you’d want to punch me if I told you how many songs I’ve written just in the past two years or so for the still-in-progress “solo album with many guests” that’s calling itself YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
I write a lot. I record a lot. I don’t release everything I write and record. Not even close.
A lot of time and thought goes into discovering what each album wants to be and what makes emotional and sonic sense taking up space on it. Album sequencing alone involves a great deal of consideration. I never put anything out there just for the sake of putting it out there, and I don’t believe in “filler” tracks. Even the most random-seeming segue has a purpose, and some of my favourite things end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. That’s just the way it goes.
The point is, I make long, unwieldy albums by design. And while I value imperfection and make a point of retaining and sometimes emphasizing it, it doesn’t mean I don’t put a lot of work into what I do. The absence of excessive gloss isn’t a manifestation of laziness, and it isn’t an accident. It’s a deliberate choice.
Perfection, especially when it’s achieved through artificial means, bores the shit out of me. I’m more interested in getting at something that’s got some character, that has something emotionally interesting crawling around in its guts. Give me that over technical precision without feeling any day.
Even when I have a pretty clear picture of where I think I’m going, I almost never end up with an album that’s much like the one I thought I was going to make when I started. That’s not because I need an outside producer to reign me in or focus me, though a stranger showed up here once to make that suggestion. It’s because I let the albums tell me what they want to be.
Going about it this way keeps the process fresh and engaging. I don’t think creative energy is something to be bent or bullied where you or someone else thinks it’s supposed to go. I think it’s best served by letting it find its own way, and letting yourself be surprised.
The day the music ceases to surprise me, there won’t be any point in making it anymore.
I say all of this because this album — even though it isn’t a solo mission — is pretty long. It’s also one of the more crafted things I’ve been involved in. Steven and I went on such a songwriting tear together, very early in the recording process we already had a group of about a dozen songs we knew we wanted to make up the framework of the album. And almost all of those songs are here. But new ideas kept falling out anyway. And in spite of our best efforts to hold them back, we liked a few of them far too much to keep a lid on them. So we let the most convincing of them squeak through while doing our best to keep the quality control pretty unforgiving.
We decided to call the songs that came a little later and didn’t want to be denied “afterthoughts”. Another Turn was an exception, and the one late addition to get a proper title.
We wanted the album cover to be a collage of pictures that commented on each of the songs in one way or another (that was Steven’s idea, and man, was it a good one). The more songs there were, the more difficult it was going to be to come up with an appropriate image for each of them and then create a collage that made some amount of visual sense. Elbowing a few songs into a different category did a neat job of getting rid of that potential stumbling block.
It was also a nice way to play off of the album title. We called it AFTERTHOUGHTS, in part because it began as a very casual thing, sort of an unassuming detour, before exploding into something that obliterated whatever our expectations were. TIME AWAY would have been a full-length album if this one didn’t strong-arm its way in there and demand our attention.
At the same time, a lot of the reasoning behind the name has nothing to do with the “tossed-off” connotation the word sometimes carries. This album is a lot of things, but tossed-off it ain’t — it took two years of intermittent work to finish. It has more to do with things that are thought of, said, or felt after a bit of distance has grown between you and whatever you’re commenting on or turning over in your head. There’s a lot of that going on in these songs.
The first afterthought we wrote and recorded didn’t make the cut. As with several other songs, we liked it but it didn’t belong here. It was that emotional thing. The other three were sequenced according to feel rather than strict chronology.
This is why you don’t see an “Afterthought No. 1” anywhere, and why the first one to appear is the third one we wrote.
This afterthought is one of the shorter, sharper, catchier things on the album. When it was just starting to hatch, it sounded like this.
It cracks me up to hear us talking about me hijacking it over the next few days, and Steven predicting it won’t even take that long for it to turn into a fleshed-out song. He was right. Later that night I recorded this.
On the demo all the singing is me, and I carried over that little seesawing guitar riff of Steven’s (which didn’t make it into the final recording). On the album it’s him singing lead for the first two verses with me backing him up. Then I take the wheel for the big chorus that not only never comes back but ends the song just as it’s picking up steam, letting the bottom drop right out.
I love doing that sort of thing.
I snapped into “let’s make a rock song” mode here and tried building everything around some pretty distorted electric guitar. It sounded a little too obvious. Letting acoustic guitar drive it instead and using the electric guitar to play off of that seemed to get everything breathing a little better. The drums were getting lost a little in the last section when more electric guitar came in, so I overdubbed an additional drum part with a single room mic to give it a little extra excitement.
This is one of the few places on the album where the “textural ambient guitar” thing I mess around with sometimes comes to the forefront. I try not to overuse it, but it’s something I really enjoy doing when a song is agreeable. I blame the great John Berry.
West Coast Blues
Another one that came out of a jam early on, though it was really Steven’s song from the get-go. The words he improvised when we recorded the rough demo were so good, he was able to keep most of them when he was putting the final lyric sheet together.
The above is another pretty lo-fi sketch, recorded with a few distant mics and the preamps saturated like crazy just to see what would happen.
Post-demo, we recorded some group backup vocals with Jim Meloche, all of us standing around a single microphone, and I added more harmonies on my own a little later. Jim’s voice brings something to the song that’s difficult to put into words. You don’t always hear him that well, because there’s no separation between our voices, but you feel him there. If you’ve only ever heard the great fire he forces from his lungs when he’s singing with Orphan Choir or Worry, you might be a little surprised by what he does here.
There’s an even bigger Jim-shaped surprise at the end of the album. But more about that when we get there.
When we all come in together, I always picture us huddled around a piano in a saloon, half-drunk, sad about something but smiling through the pain. I can’t explain it. There’s just something evocative there, and it wouldn’t exist without Jim.
Thought about adding drums and electric guitar and some other things. In the end, the feeling of the stripped-down demo felt too good to deviate from much. So this one stayed percussion-free, and I held back a little when it came time to play piano over the instrumental passages. It didn’t feel appropriate to go too crazy there. I did add a little bit of bluesy harmonica, though.
This is the one place where the acoustic guitar Steven’s playing isn’t my old Gibson LG-2. He brought in his Martin (the one mentioned over here — I’m going to guess it’s a D35), and it added all kinds of tasty glue, playing really well off of the sound of my own double-tracked 000-15.
For the picture, we wanted to capture someone sitting on some stairs looking forlorn. Finding a model wasn’t going so well. Steven asked his fair lady Danielle if she’d be willing to help us out, and she saved the day. It seems fitting somehow that hers — and not either one of ours — is the only face to appear on the cover.
You know what I always say: “If you’re only going to have one person’s face on your album cover and it isn’t going to be your own, make it the face of a beautiful woman.”
The Yuan Dynasty
I was feeling a little guilty about some of my hijacking tendencies and thought it was Steven’s turn to get in on some of that action. I sent him some sketches I had that kind of stalled before they could become finished songs and asked if he had any ideas for lyrics. This was one of those.
He came up with the story of a fleeting connection on a train, retaining my refrain from the demo (some of the only coherent words I threw in there), making for one of the more playful moments on an album that’s pretty dark stuff for the most part.
Not that I’d have it any other way. You know me. I like those shadows and dark corners.
True story: that’s Steven hitting the gongs at the beginning of the song.
In one of those “you can’t make this stuff up” moments, we found out he had a period-correct vase that played right into the whole Chinese history theme. Trouble was, it was impossible to get a picture that captured its personality and did it justice.
I took a picture of some train tracks instead. As with the image for Time Erodes, it came out looking like something very old that got dug out of an attic-dwelling shoebox.
Sometimes you get lucky with these things.
I wrote this thinking it would be fun to have a song where we both kept trading off on singing lead — something where our voices would give the “A” and “B” sections very different personalities. Did my best “poor man’s Matt Berninger” for the verses when I demoed it.
Then Steven did his best “rich man’s Steven” when we were recording it for real.
Before it had drums, he played some djembe. It was a nice touch, but once the drums were in there it wasn’t working anymore. Someday after we’re both gone someone will restore that lost djembe part for an “alternate mix” and they’ll make it a bonus track on an unauthorized reissue released in an effort to give their fledgling record label some added credibility, selling something that wasn’t made for money and was never meant to be sold, and Pitchfork will hail it as “the best obscure reissue we’ve heard since last week’s re-release of Wilford Brimley’s long-lost prog-metal/rap album from 1982”.
Just you wait and see.
I played a lot of harmonica on this album. I think it’s the most harmonica I’ve played on any album in my life. It was one of those things that happened without any real thought going into it. On this song it gets a little more impressionistic.
That I’ve reached a point where “impressionistic harmonica” is even a feasible thing I can do is kind of mind-boggling to me. I have no idea how that happened.
The thing that comes in during the last chorus-that-isn’t-a-chorus and sounds a little like a wheezing carousel organ is sampled recorder, courtesy of the Yamaha VSS-30. That thing and the SK-1 play very well together.
The stop-start drumming was really the only approach that made sense here. I tried a more conventional drum pattern first. All it did was lay there like a dead thing. Filling up the spaces between guitar strums with a more unpredictable rhythm gave the whole thing a much more interesting pulse.
Getting a picture for this one was tricky. The lyrics are more imagery than story. You would think that would help, but it was maddening trying to find an image to pluck from the song. Tried barred-up windows. Didn’t turn out. Tried to find a diagram of a hand’s inner workings in an old medical journal. Couldn’t find an old medical journal to save my life. Tried to get someone to eat an apple so I could snap a picture of them mid-chew (you know, to tie in with the whole “original sin”, apple-in-the-Garden-of-Eden thing). Couldn’t get anyone to show up and eat an apple.
Then I thought, “What if I stop trying to come up with an image that’s related to the lyrics? The song has a pretty prominent harmonica part. I’ve got this cool-looking big old harmonica. Maybe I should throw it on top of my battered snare drum, take a picture, and see how it turns out.”
It came out looking better than I thought it would. And that was the end of that.
Afterthought No. 4
(Waiting for Armageddon)
The most non-afterthought-like afterthought of them all.
There are more than a few places on this album where I’m singing words Steven wrote, or he’s singing words I wrote, or one of us is singing words we both wrote together. There are some things that are more or less solo pieces one of us wrote on our own, but for the most part who wrote what is all over the place.
This is the only song where we’re both singing lead and whoever’s taking the lead at any given time is singing their own words. It starts with Steven backing me up and ends with me backing him up, though our voices blend together to the point that it can be difficult to differentiate.
We each wrote lyrics without having any idea what the other was writing. There wasn’t even a basic concept discussed beforehand. When we got together to compare notes, it was surreal how well my two verses and Steven’s one long verse worked together. Each part completed the other.
You know you’re pretty in sync with someone when you can write pieces of a song separately and have them fuse in such an organic way no one would ever guess you didn’t write the whole thing together in the same room in one sitting.
This is a demo I made for the first chunk of the song before there were really any words at all from either one of us. I can’t help hearing, “It’s salami,” instead of, “It’s alarming.” Happens every time.
I tried a lot of different things when the words were there and it was serious recording time. I got the arrangement just about right, but again something was missing. What ended up pulling the whole thing together was some delay-drenched Omnichord.
The Omnichord is another one of those funky little tools that rewards you for sneaking it into places no sane person would think to put it. I love the uniqueness of its voice. Once you turn off the auto-chording function it starts to sound like some sort of ghostly synthesized harp.
This one crept up on us and became one of our favourite tracks on the album. It feels like a perfect fusion of our sensibilities, with elements of INAMORATA, TIME AWAY, and my post-GIFT FOR A SPIDER solo work all coagulating in the same pot. If a musical scientist stitched together a Tire Swing Co./Johnny West Frankenstein creature, this is what it would come out looking and grumbling like.
Dying to Be Born
The first dedicated O-L West writing session produced three song ideas and three demo recordings to go with them. The first was what became Paint as You Like and Die Happy. The second was a song we didn’t revisit. The third was this one.
I love the little accents and fiddly bits Steven improvised while I was playing the main fingerpicked part. I did my best to emulate them when I was recording all the guitar parts later on.
When I finally sat down and wrote some lyrics to go with the music, there was a clear idea behind them: aging in reverse, literally, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button-style. But you know what? In his own way, John Cassavetes brought the seed of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to the screen long before David Fincher did.
There’s a movie called She’s so Lovely that came out about twenty years ago. It’s based on an unproduced script John wrote, given posthumous direction by his son Nick. You know Nick as the director of The Notebook and My Sister’s Keeper — sentimental Hollywood movies that are pretty much the embodiment of everything his father spent his life kicking against and offering a jarring antidote to in the fiercely uncompromising films he wrote, directed, and usually paid for out of his own pocket.
John tried to make She’s so Lovely when he knew he was dying. Back then it was called She’s Delovely. Sean Penn was supposed to star in it. But Sean wanted to draw up contracts and have all the details hammered out in advance with lawyers, and that wasn’t the way John worked.
There was another problem. Sean was married to Madonna. He wanted her to play the other lead role opposite him. That wasn’t happening on John’s watch. “I’ve worked with lots of non-professionals,” he said, “but I have to draw the line somewhere!”
The two had a falling out when Sean went off to act in Casualties of War without explanation after balking at John’s insistence that his friend Peter Bogdanovich serve as “backup director” in case his health broke down in the middle of filming. John put a solid year into trying to get the production going, but he passed away before he could get the script off the ground.
As it exists now, it isn’t really a John Cassavetes movie. It’s not even really a John Cassavetes script. Nick admitted to getting rid of whole chunks of the text that didn’t make sense to him and rewriting a lot of what he didn’t throw away because he felt it needed to be “simplified” for the actors. He pumped up the drama and filed down the heart, missing the whole point of his father’s work.
So the “written by John Cassavetes” credit is somewhat disingenuous.
John said he liked to make movies that didn’t “go”. The problem with She’s so Lovely is it goes too much. Jonathan Rosenbaum did a neat job of summing this up when he wrote in his contemporary review that the film offered “a fascinating glimpse at what Cassavetes was from the vantage point of what he wasn’t”.
If you know the man’s films, watching this one is a bit of a disorienting experience, even after you accept that of course it’s going to feel a little different because he’s not behind the camera this time. To offer just one quick illustration of how wrong it goes, there’s a scene where Eddie (Sean Penn’s character) talks on the phone with Maureen (Robin Wright’s character). She was his wife. They were in love. By the time they’re having this conversation, they haven’t spoken or seen each other in ten years.
As Nick directs it, the scene is loaded with feeling. But he doesn’t respect you enough as his audience to let you figure that out for yourself. He beats you over the head with it. There’s melancholy music swelling on the soundtrack while the characters are talking, all but screaming at you, “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO FEEL. NOW FEEL IT, YOU MINDLESS IDIOT.”
I can’t stand that stuff. It’s the kind of simplistic cinematic shortcut John never settled for. Bo Harwood’s music is an important part of several of his movies, but it’s music that’s rough and human in all the right ways — not at all typical “movie music”. It’s an extension of the art, sometimes co-written by John himself. It’s never used to cheapen or simplify a scene, or to tell the audience what to feel. It doesn’t cheat.
Nick cheats. He embraces that shortcut, dry-humps it, and whispers something dirty in its ear for good measure.
Which is fine. That’s his thing. It works for him. It’s made him rich and successful. I enjoy Alpha Dog in an “unplug your brain and let yourself be entertained” kind of way. I can admit that without any shame. I think it’s good for what it is. Not everything has to be great, meaningful art all the time. And there’s a moment near the end that redeems the whole movie. Sharon Stone’s character is talking about the death of her son when her eyes, from behind an unnecessary and not-entirely-convincing fat suit, go to some dead place for a few seconds as she taps into a kind of horrifying primal grief — a pain beyond pain, where laughing and weeping are the same thing. It’s so real, it makes me flinch every time I see it.
But — Sharon’s unexpected grace notes aside — if that’s who you are as an auteur, save it for your own scripts or the ones you commission from other living writers. Don’t turn good writing into Swiss cheese and dumb it down so it can walk around in Hollywood without getting thrown in jail. And for God’s sake, don’t do it to a guy who risked everything every time he made a movie, who was always digging at some deeper truth, resisting easy answers. You don’t strong-arm his work into somehow being cute. You don’t do that to him after he’s dead and he can’t do a thing about it.
As much as the original vision has been gutted and diluted in She’s so Lovely, there’s still some of the father in there that the son can’t kill — enough to make it interesting and throw things off-balance sometimes. There are moments and bits of dialogue you can tell weren’t tampered with. A little bit of John’s soul is buried in that movie. You just have to squint pretty hard to see it.
There’s a small scene about halfway through that’s pure Daddy Cassavetes. Eddie’s been committed to a psychiatric hospital. This is the last time he’ll see Maureen for a decade, though he doesn’t know it. He’s in a straitjacket. And this is what he says to her.
There might be more going on emotionally in this minute-and-change than most films manage in their entire runtimes. And hey, Sean still got his leading lady of the time to be his leading lady in the movie. He was just in a relationship with a more capable actress by the late 1990s.
No disrespect to Madonna Louise Ciccone.
What could have been with John directing his original script (impossible dream cast: transplant it to the 1970s, before it was actually written, and have Cassavetes himself play Eddie, slide Peter Falk into the role John Travolta ended up playing, and substitute Gena Rowlands for Robin Wright)…well, that’s one of the great cinematic what-ifs.
But anyway. What was I saying? The lyrics. Right.
When I looked at them later on, it felt like they could also be read as a meditation on how aging in a linear fashion mirrors childhood. As my Bubi used to say, you’re a baby twice in your life — when you’re born, and then again when you die.
It works both ways. However you choose to interpret it, it’s not exactly the stuff of summer pop songs. But this is one of the side effects of a protracted, hopefully perpetual self-imposed exile from anything resembling a romantic relationship. It forces me to draw inspiration from other places and write about different things. I have to use my heart and my brain.
I don’t know what it is about this one, but it makes me think of a lullaby. Maybe it’s that delicate little guitar figure that drives the verses. It stayed a stripped-down acoustic thing for a long time, and then it got a little more layered and interesting all at once, with several interlocking guitar parts, lap steel, and some of my more effective harmonica-playing added to the mix.
I used two different steels on this album. Most of what you’re hearing throughout is Kelly Hoppe’s 1950s Silvertone 1315. Here it’s a Magnatone, also from the ’50s.
I have no idea what pickup is in the Magnatone. It’s embedded in the guitar, hidden beneath the mother of toilet seat (MOTS) finish. It’s a magnet-based pickup — that much I know — and it’s a lot brighter than the Gibson P13 in the Silvertone. It’s not bright in a bad way, but I find myself rolling off a fair bit of tone to get it where I want it. That’s pretty unusual for me. I almost always play electric stringed things with the volume and tone wide open, altering my playing if I want a brighter or darker sound.
Those lap steels both have their own personalities. They’re both good friends to have.
We had a tough time getting a picture here. It felt all kinds of wrong asking someone if we could take a picture of their child, or a grandparent near the end of their life, or both, as powerful as the image might have been if it was done right.
I got the idea to have a makeup artist make the two of us up to look like old men and have someone take a Polaroid of us sitting on a park bench, creating the feeling of decades of shared history between us. I thought it might be a pretty unique experience to be able to see ourselves age half a lifetime or more in a day and then wash the makeup off and become ourselves again.
When that didn’t work out thanks to the flakiness of a few makeup artists, Steven suggested doing something with ashes. I took a few pictures of him blowing a handful of them on my front lawn with Danielle egging us on, not realizing until it was too late that I had the camera’s exposure set too bright for the amount of natural light we had to work with. None of those shots came out looking so hot.
I grabbed the best one and found it had a certain washed-out quality to it that worked. The sweater comes through with more clarity than the ashes. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way.
This is another one Steven hijacked. One afternoon he went on a tear, writing great lyrics for three or four half-formed musical ideas I sent him in one shot. Dude was a machine.
I sent him this roughage.
The lyrics he wrote for it caught me off guard. The last thing I was expecting was a meditation on Anne Frank and the difficulty of believing in a God who allows unspeakable things to happen to innocent people. It was a pretty far cry from my initial nonsensical improv. Sing it with me, friends: “Back then there was an opening for birds to shit and men to sing.”
I demoed the finished thing on acoustic guitar, because it’s hard to haul an upright piano up the stairs to your bedroom, and there’s something to be said for not always having to think about mic placement. It still surprises me how well that microscopic microphone built into my laptop acquits itself when I’m playing and singing into it at the same time on one live track (I never record vocals and guitar separately when I’m demoing things in GarageBand).
(For the record, the Steve referred to in the first verse is Stephen Hawking, and not our Steven with a v.)
Then it was back to the piano for the recording that would end up on the album.
I had an idea for a little string part. It was pretty disappointing when I tried it out with synth strings to get a feel for what it would sound like and it felt clunky. Matter of fact, each time I tried to dress the song up beyond the piano/bass/acoustic guitar bed tracks, everything felt clunky. It didn’t help that I couldn’t seem to get my singing right.
This album is home to some of the most restrained singing I’ve ever committed to digital tape. While I’m not that much of a belter these days as a rule, some of the hardest songs to sing are the ones where your range isn’t being tested, but you’re not pushing out a lot of air, and you’re trying to find a good middle ground between delicacy and strength. Especially when you’re singing about serious stuff like this. Wordless vocal weirdness wouldn’t cut it here.
What set me free was returning to the triple-tracked lead vocal approach that became a bit of a signature sound on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN but hasn’t seen a whole lot of action in recent years. After that, the arrangement fell into place. Keeping it simple turned out to be the best approach. Just some clean electric guitar, lap steel, and brushed drums — mostly floor tom and snare — on top of the bed that was there already.
Here I wanted a picture of a broken-down old bookshelf that looked like it had been through hell. Finding something scarred enough to fit the bill proved impossible. I got lucky with this old church (suggested by Johnny Smith), figuring it would play off of the whole “loss of faith” theme.
The picture came out overexposed in a way that makes it look a hundred years old. Just what the song wanted.
Afterthought No. 2
Within a day or two of getting my hands on that Yamaha VSS-30, I was showing Steven how you can sample your voice and manipulate it with the effects built into the keyboard to create a really cool, eerie sound. He surprised me and said, “We should do something with that.”
I sang into the VSS-30, did a little mangling, and improvised around the ghostly sampled vocal sounds. Steven grabbed my Telecaster (it was in a nonstandard tuning, plugged into the FX500) and did some improvising of his own. Then I added some distorted harmonica and we both gave a little mutual yell.
There’s no demo for this one. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, done and dusted before a demo could be made.
I experimented a little with adding other sounds later on. It felt like the more fleshed-out the music got, the more power it lost. There was something a little unsettling about it as a weightless thing. When the yell came in, it sounded like a desolate cry echoing through the ruins of a dying world. After the song had some bottom end and more bells and whistles, it just sounded like a yell.
We left it half-naked out of respect for that yell. It was the only sensible thing to do.
We started writing this one by throwing lines and ideas back and forth. Steven had most of the music already worked out. He hit on the image of an old Italian rug as a lead-in to a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, and we went from there. Later on I added some more lyrics to fill in a few blanks.
Getting into the crimes themselves felt like the easy way out. We attacked it from a different angle, giving more attention to the little details hiding in the margins of the story.
On a random note, “green side-gabled bungalow” is a phrase that rolls off the tongue a lot easier than you might think.
I handled the singing on the demo. You can hear there’s a verse missing that hadn’t been written yet (it showed up about ten minutes after the demo was recorded), along with a line or two that changed later on.
On the CD it’s Steven singing lead, with me backing him up. I think it’s got a good bit more gravitas in that form. Some of those low notes are tough for me to hit. Steven just sings ’em good and true every time. Plus, it’s cool to hear him inhabiting a darker character like this. He sang the words in a much more rhythmically unpredictable way than I did, which made adding harmonies a little tricky. But I enjoyed the challenge, and I think it makes the song that much more interesting. It feels less like you’re being sung to, and more like you’re being told a tale.
My idea of a working title was “And of Course in the End Hope Is Just Another Wrong Turn”. Steven came up with the much better, more concise Zebra Stripes. The song’s narrator/central character takes an honest shot at living the straight life, but he can’t escape who he is or who his partner wants him to be. That stuff won’t wash off.
The ghost of the main guitar figure that runs through The Yuan Dynasty returns here in the form of a very similar banjo part. Once I realized that was happening, I liked the little bit of unexpected continuity. In a way, you could look at this song as a follow-up to that one — one idea of what might have happened if the flirtation snowballed into a full-blown relationship once those two people stepped off the train and then everything went a little sideways.
The instrumental coda came about when it felt like there needed to be some sort of palate cleanser before the final track. It couldn’t just jump straight from those last banjo notes hanging in the air to the beginning of Pave over It All. Besides, it’s fun to keep things a little unpredictable. Every sound there is coming from the VSS-30. It’s all samples — electric guitar, harmonica, and piano.
The first time Natalie heard this song she said she thought the lyrics were Leonard Cohen-esque. Given the towering giant of song Leonard is, it was impossible to take that as anything other than a mighty compliment.
And then there’s the picture. There’s a line in here that goes, “Couldn’t say if they were tears of joy, or the runoff of ambivalence cooked by crooked power lines.” Sometimes you see exactly what you need to see when you’ve got your Polaroid pal in the back seat. That’s what happened when I noticed these power lines on one of those “driving around looking for inspiration” jaunts.
If I’ve taken one good Polaroid picture with my Spectra 2 and this sometimes-maddening black and white film, it’s this one.
Pave over It All
This must be one of the best songs I’ve ever had a hand in writing. It’s also one of the bleakest. As if the last few songs leading up to it weren’t dark enough!
Again it started as a jam. Steven had the first two chords and a vocal melody. I added the D major-to-A minor turnaround and the vocal melody that happens there. He wanted to incorporate the image of something being buried, and in the course of the jam I heard him sing something about someone taking a beating and something about someone’s crooked mouth.
I put all that in my head, let it stew a while, and later that night a song about separated-at-birth conjoined twins who hitchhike out of town after killing their abusive father came pouring out.
A little later we came up with the little musical tag that bookends the body of the song and I threw in a vocal harmony idea.
Then Steven got the great idea to have a rotating cast of singers — a different voice delivering each verse.
There are nine verses to the song. So we were looking at nine different singers. After accepting that the logistics of getting that many people to show up to sing on one song were a little insane, we downsized a bit. Decided two or three verses for everyone might work better. And I thought maybe we could all come in together for the last verse to bring things full circle as a group.
What we ended up with was a cast of four: me, Steven, Dave Dubois, and Jim Meloche, all of us taking turns telling the same tale.
Dave’s voice was made to sing a song like this. But the real revelation here is Jim. It’s a different Jim voice than you’re probably used to hearing, and he nails it. When he sings the bit about nothing coming out of Billy’s “dry, crooked mouth” and the strings paint a little counter-melody around him, that’s one of my favourite moments on the whole album.
Mixing this one was an interesting challenge, because all four of our voices live in slightly different ranges. It was tricky trying to get it sounding consistent, so no voice felt like it commanded more or less of the spotlight than any of the others. When Greg Maxwell told me it felt to him like the four of us were all the voice of the same character at different ages, I was pretty sure I had the balance right.
Joey Acott (who sat in on a few of our recording sessions and took some great pictures) grabbed a bit of video footage of us laying down the group vocals at the end. The quality his camera produces is so much better than what I’m accustomed to seeing with the stuff I film myself, it’s unbelievable.
Almost makes me wish I’d invested a lot of money in a really good camera at some point. Almost. But I feel like the whole grainy, DIY, not-really-a-filmmaker thing works for me. Besides, the file sizes would kill me with a camera like Joey’s. I think a two or three-minute clip would come out to something close to a gigabyte.
There are more people playing and singing on this one song than on all the others combined. In addition to the singers-in-the-round thing, Kelly Hoppe contributes some of the best harmonica-playing you’ll ever hear in any genre. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I’ve had the great fortune to have Kelly contribute sax and harp work to a number of different things over the last little while (most of which haven’t been released yet). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he’s one of the best living harmonica players.
What he does here is some of the best work I’ve ever heard him do. The amount of soulfulness and melodic invention he’s able to pack into a short amount of time is staggering. There’s a part where he “plays” the rain. Seriously. You have to hear it to believe it.
And Stu Kennedy becomes a whole one-man string quartet — and then, briefly, a sextet — playing both violin and viola, acting as a wordless Greek chorus, adding another emotional and dynamic layer to everything. I think he might have outdone himself too.
Those guys are two of the most talented people I’m lucky enough to call friends, and also two of the most genuine.
When all the elements were in place and I was able to dial up a rough mix of the finished thing for the first time, it hit me so hard I started to tear up a little. No music I’ve been a part of in my life has ever done that to me. And I’ve been making music for more than twenty years now, since before I even knew what armpit hair was.
For the picture, I was trying to get a good shot of a ditch out in the county. It was a losing game. Too much detail was getting lost. Right when I was about to give up I saw the No Exit sign.
Accidental existentialism for the win.
We were going to end the album with one more afterthought — the very first one we recorded — closing the book on a somewhat hopeful-sounding note. By the time this song was CD-ready, that wasn’t going to cut it anymore. You can’t follow something like this with a little sixty second burst of sunshine. You just can’t. It would cheapen the journey. The intensity of it needs to linger and be reckoned with.
So that’s the album, and those are the details, about as well as I can give them to you.
One quick technical note before you go (assuming you’ve made it this far and haven’t jumped ship or fallen asleep yet): this is the quietest mastering job I’ve done in at least ten years. More and more, the whole “everything must be louder than everything else” mentality seems a little pointless to me, and more than a little destructive. I’d rather get the stuff sounding as good as I can and leave it at that, instead of pushing the volume a little more only to look back in a few years and find myself wishing I’d used a lighter touch — which is exactly what’s happened with a few of the albums made during my short-lived “hey, I can make things competitively loud, so why not?” phase.
I need to kick off a little Quieter Is Better (2008 – 2011) remastering campaign someday soon for my own peace of mind. Been meaning to do that for a while now.
You can always turn up the volume on your computer/CD player/iPod if you’re listening to something that wasn’t mastered all that hot and you want it louder. With music that’s been hammered at the mastering stage to infuse it with built-in perceived loudness, no amount of turning it down is ever going to make it sound good again, and the more you turn it up, the harsher and more fatiguing it’s going to get, and the less your ears are going to like you.
Long story short, you’ll need to turn this one up a little. I think it’s worth the tradeoff. Dynamic range is our friend!
All in all, it always takes some time before I can pull back and look at an album with some amount of objectivity, but I think we did good. There’s a lot going on here, both lyrically (not a whole lot of rhyming, quite a bit of variation in subject matter) and texturally (I’m not sure I’ve ever put this much thought into the production of a thing). I think/hope it’s the kind of album that will reward careful listening.
On a visual level, the collage turned out better than I ever expected it to. The same is true of the layout of the lyric booklet, even if some of that comes down to luck, as it always does with me.
On a personal level, Steven is a great friend, and recording these songs with him — and getting to involve other great friends like Natalie, Jim, Dave, Stu, and Kelly — was a deeply rewarding experience.
I have no idea where the music will take us next (EDM, maybe?), but I’m looking forward to the ride.