Month: June 2017

Until the sun blows up, I’m never gonna let you down.

All through high school, I wrote songs for assignments every chance I got. It made life more fun and kept me on my toes. I had the most success doing this when Mrs. Gilham — one of the few great high school teachers I had — was teaching English or French, finding endless ways to contort what were meant to be essays or oral presentations into musical shapes.

One time I stood in front of the class and strummed a mandolin while singing in French about celebrity endorsements. The song was called “Les Atheletes qui Chante”. “Je suis Michael Jordan,” went one bit. “J’aime les Ball Park Franks.” Another time, for a group assignment, I played the part of Bill Clinton. I was very attached to my pet pig, Oinky, played by Matt Strukelj. When Oinky died, I hit the play button on a CD player and moaned along to some insane instrumental music I recorded at home the night before.

I liked to think it kept things interesting, not just for me, but for the other students too.

In grade eleven one of the books my English class dug into was The Catcher in the Rye. We were supposed to write something while inhabiting the psyche of one of the characters in the story. I asked if I could write a song from the perspective of Holden Caulfield. Mrs. Gilham gave me the go-ahead.

I wrote a song called “Holden On”, because bad puns are the best thing ever. It was a good excuse to mess around in a strange guitar tuning and to write in a voice that was a little different from whatever my typical songwriting voice was in those days.

I brought my crummy Vantage acoustic guitar to school with me the next day, sat on top of an unattended desk in my first period English class, and sang my song. It went over well enough that some of my classmates asked if I could play it again at the end of the period. That blew my mind a little. I went through it a second time, put a little more energy into the vocal performance now that I was warmed up, and threw in a bit of “Henry the Horny Hamster” from my X-rated Christmas album before Mrs. Gilham shot me a look that said, “That’s as far as you go, pilgrim.”

The guitar came with me to my second period society class. Sean Lauria was one of the guys I shared that class with. He asked me what the deal was with the axe. I told him about my English assignment and “Holden On”. He asked if he could hear it. I told him I’d already played it twice and wasn’t really up for playing it again.

He stuffed thirty or forty bucks into the front pocket of my shirt to try and convince me. I almost fell over. I handed the money back to him, laughing in disbelief. He wasn’t giving up, though. He talked Ms. Davis into letting me play the song for the class. So I sat on another desk that wasn’t taken and played it a third time, without quite the same intensity as before.

I only knew of one other person who ever talked their way into substituting a song for a writing assignment, and that was Gord. It seemed almost poetic, since that was how we hooked up and became friends in the first place. The same year my English class was analyzing The Catcher in the Rye, his was reading Animal Farm. He wrote a song in the voice of Boxer the horse — the most tragic character in the book.

For a while I only heard bits and pieces of the song. Brodie Johnston, who was in Gord’s class when he debuted his ode to Boxer, sang a few lines for me, substituting lyrics about his favourite running back for the parts he couldn’t remember. Gord played part of it for me outside of school. But I didn’t hear anything close to the full thing for at least a few years.

Most of the songs I wrote for school-related purposes were recorded in one form or another, but outside of a truncated instrumental reprise on WATER ONLY HATES ITSELF SILLY, “Holden On” was never documented in any meaningful way. Gord’s Boxer song was another story.

In late 1999, Amanda filmed a performance with her then-new 8mm camcorder. It has to be the first existing recording of the song, made just days before or after gord played the PG-rated version at school.

Three years later, I asked Gord if he wanted to revisit it and give it a proper recording. He wrote out what he remembered of the words, changing some of them in the process. We got down a rough demo just to run through it, both of us playing electric guitar, Gord singing through a cold that made him a temporary baritone.

And then we didn’t do anything more with it for fourteen years.

When we were bouncing ideas around for the followup to STEW, the Boxer song came up. I learned Gord never quite settled on a version he was satisfied with.

I finally got around to mixing the 2002 demo so we could both hear it again, muting my guitar part, since I didn’t think it added much.

Ode to Boxer (2002 demo)

We both felt this was the version to build on. It lost the anger and desperation that was there in the beginning and took on a more defeated, mournful quality, with Gord improvising some words at the end about a sugarcane mountain that sounded to me like the doomed horse’s dying dream.

We sat down and tried to work out where we could tighten things up without doing too much to alter the soul of the song, and I recorded a late night demo on my own that reflected the changes we made.

Ode to Boxer (2016 demo)

Gord first had Benjamin the donkey predicting Boxer’s fate. A quick look at the source text revealed it was really wise pig Old Major who warned him he would be expendable once he’d given the last of his great strength. I tweaked that and a few other lines, but left most of the lyrics untouched.

We picked at it some more, experimenting with the length and placement of different sections until it felt right. An instrumental bit that had been forgotten for well over a decade was reinstated. Brand new music was written for the “sugarcane mountain” coda.

Recording it was pretty straightforward. We got down the acoustic guitars and then the rest fell into place pretty quick. There’s a bit of a different dynamic driving what we do now, though. In the past we never talked much about what we were doing. We just did it. Now there’s much more of a dialogue happening, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions to each other.

When Gord plays bass, he tends to throw in these great little jabs of unexpected melody. “Situations” on STEW is a good example. The bass doesn’t just hold down the low end. It dances.

With this song, I thought the bass might be more effective during the 3/4 “sugarcane mountain” section if it wasn’t so busy. I asked Gord to try a simple walking bass line without throwing in any fiddly bits. As for me, after I recorded a rough drum track Gord said he felt playing with sticks didn’t really suit the song. I tried playing with brushes and everything started to feel a lot more open and dynamic.

We were both right.

It’s nice to be able to voice an idea or ask someone to try something a different way without having to worry about any egos getting bruised, because you know everything is being done in service of the music.

A great example of this philosophy in action: I assumed Gord would want to handle the vocals here, since the song is really his baby and has been for a long time. He asked me to sing it instead. I did twist his arm into singing a bit of backup for the final “never gonna let you down” bit, but aside from that all the singing is me.

I really liked the acoustic guitar countermelodies I came up with for my demo. When it came right down to it, including them in the final recording would have made everything feel a little too cluttered. So that fell by the wayside. But there was still room for banjo and piano. As for the lap steel, that’s the 1950s “mother of toilet seat” Magnatone first heard on AFTERTHOUGHTS. This might be that old beast’s best moment on record so far.

I thought it was about time I performed a bit of surgery on the rough mix that’s been sitting around for a while, because I’ve been wanting to make a little music video to go with the song. The moving pictures come to you from John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s animated film version of Animal Farm from 1954 — secretly funded by the CIA! The last time I saw it was when my own English class read the book in 2000 or 2001, so I couldn’t remember how much of Boxer was in there. As it turned out, there was more than enough material for what I wanted to do, including some moments that were more evocative than I was expecting them to be.

And there you have the near-twenty-year-long journey of a song that began life as a high school english assignment, from raw teenage howl to refined alt-folk, or whatever it wants to call itself now.

No creativity among thieves.

Every once in a while it’s fun to type one of your own album or song titles into a search engine to see what pops up. Sometimes you find out someone played one of your songs on their college radio show six years ago without you ever knowing. Or maybe someone wrote about your music on their blog.

You find other things as well.

As I’ve mentioned a couple times now, I’ve been slowly picking away at remastering a whole slew of albums. At the moment I’m working on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.

For years I’ve been meaning to tweak the packaging for this one. On the tray insert, beneath the place where the CD sits, there are several links to internet places that no longer exist, like my now-long-dead Myspace and CBC Radio 3 pages. The formatting of the booklet also came out a little wonky the first time around (that was my doing), and I wouldn’t mind fixing it now that I know a bit more about the whole graphic design thing.

I was just finishing up one last read-through of the redesigned booklet to try and catch any lingering typos before bringing the art files to Minuteman Press when I thought I’d punch the album title into Google for no real reason. I don’t know what I thought I’d find, but I know I wasn’t expecting this.

The best way I can figure it, a few years ago this dude did an internet search to see if there were any albums out there with the name he wanted to give his EP. He must have ended up here, must have seen I’d already made an album with the same name, and then he must have decided not only was he going to keep the name, but he was going to steal my cover art while he was at it, to save himself the trouble of making his own.

Either that, or he found his way here some other way, didn’t have that album title in his head to begin with, and decided he liked the name and the cover image enough to appropriate both of them.

Here’s what the cover of my album looks like.

I’m the first one to admit it’s not some of my more creative work in the design department. I had the title kicking around for years but could never come up with an idea for an image that made sense with it. I was writing and recording the songs that make up this record in the middle of a pretty strange emotional time in my life, and when it came down to it, simple white text on a black background felt about right.

Now here’s his album cover art.

I don’t claim ownership of any phrases in the English language. There are tons of albums and songs out there that share names, themes, chord progressions, lyrics…you name it. So if someone puts out an album or song that happens to have the same name as one of mine, even if it isn’t a straight coincidence, that doesn’t bother me. It’s bound to happen sooner or later.

This is another thing altogether. To rip off my existing cover art and then just tack your own name on it in a font that doesn’t begin to make sense with the one I used, with no credit given and no permission asked…that’s pretty lame. Why the hell would anyone do that? It’s not even an interesting album cover to steal! It’s just text.

If you really feel a need to have cover art that looks similar to mine, at least use your own font and make something yourself that’s inspired by what i did. It would take you all of fifteen seconds. Invest a minute or two of your life and you could probably come up with something better than what I did back in 2010.

I’m sure there are some people in the world who would find a way to interpret something like this as a warped compliment. I’m not one of them. I don’t like it when someone steals my shit. It’s not like he stole my songs, so I’m not livid about it. But I have to say the whole thing is a little weird to me. I don’t understand why anyone would go to the trouble of doing a thing like this. You steal an image that has nothing for the eyes to get lost in, you can’t even be bothered to copy it at a reasonable resolution, and then you type your name beneath the title and pretend it’s yours? Really?

If I’d included my name on the cover along with the title of the album, I imagine he would have crossed it out and penciled his in above it, thinking no one would notice.

It’s a whole lot more rewarding to put a little thought and effort into creating a visual component to your music that’s yours, or even asking a talented friend to make you some art, than it is to steal something someone else has already done. Believe me.

Try coming up with your own stuff. The rest of us do.

Snag You.

I don’t really fancy myself a mastering engineer of other people’s music. So it was a bit of a surprise when I got the call to master the first two Shimmer Demolition albums. Adam is one of my very best friends, and I had a lot of fun working with his songs, trying to give them the extra volume and punch he was after without going too crazy.

For his third album he decided to go it alone on the mastering front. It’s been a long time coming, but I think the album is only a few weeks away from being released now.

A little over three years ago Adam emailed me an MP3 of a song he’d just finished recording — the song that now serves as the album’s first single. As soon as its infectious wordless chorus kicked in and I started singing along, I knew I had to try to talk him into letting me sing on it.

His process is about as insular as mine is. He’s got his creative vision, and he knows how to get the sounds he’s after without anyone else’s help. I get that. But I heard a vocal harmony in my head, and I knew it would work if I got the chance to try it.

He was reluctant at first. I got him to give me a shot by promising if he didn’t like what I did he didn’t have to use it, and I wouldn’t be offended. We sat together in his basement and I sang into a microphone held together with duct tape.

I couldn’t hear myself in my headphones. You’d think that would help my pitch, but I didn’t sing all that well the first time through. The confidence wasn’t there.

I asked adam if he could mute his own vocal tracks. I gave it another shot and pretty much got what I was after. We doubled it. Then I threw in a high third-part harmony at the end. We doubled that too. I could feel Adam making a slow transition from thinking, “I’m not so sure about this,” to, “Maybe it was a good idea after all.”

He made a rough mix and we listened to it upstairs five times before ordering pizza. I did sitting arm pushups with his cat Nemo on my lap, and Nemo winked at me because he liked the song and my singing on it. At least that’s what I told myself then, and it’s the story i’m sticking with now.

The third-part harmony that came in on the last chorus made me visualize a music video that ended with us dressed up in suits and ties, adam ahead of me, standing outside the bedroom window of the object of his affection, singing to her without words because there weren’t any right ones for the feeling being expressed and “ah” was the only one that would do, so we both opened wide and sang it out.

It was a good enough mental music video for me to put in regular rotation for a while. I realized it was a cliché — the whole “singing at your star-crossed lover’s window” thing. But the music took it somewhere sweet and heavy, almost making it new again.

Eight years ago I sang a bit of harmony on a song that ended up on an album the artist now likes to pretend never existed. That was very much a spur of the moment thing. This was different. I had an idea, and thanks to Adam I got to run with it and be a small part of what I think is one of the best songs he’s written. Of the few vocal cameos I’ve had on the albums of others so far, this is my favourite one.