Month: October 2017


Happy Halloween from this unmasked ninja and his gallant posse.

I want to say this picture was taken in 1991? Maybe? A lot of pictures of me from the pre-teen years are hard to date, because in most of them I look older than my actual age. I was one of those kids who never seemed to stop growing.

I remember this party, but I have no idea who any of the other kids are or what they might be up to now. The main thing is, all these years later I still have my plastic ninja sword, safely sheathed in the garage, just in case there’s ever a need to use it.

If you were a child of the ’80s, you might remember this cassette tape.

It was the soundtrack to every Halloween at my house growing up. Whether I was handing out candy with the tape blaring from stereo speakers inside the house or coming back from trick-or-treating to hear it moaning in the distance, it never failed to creep me out.

That tape popped back into my head today for the first time in years. I had no memory of what it was called, so I did a search for “Halloween cassette tape” and hoped for the best. The very first result was the exact tape I was looking for. Its familiar orange face all on its own is still almost enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Listening to it now is total nostalgia overload. Even if it’s mostly made up of bootleg recordings lifted from other sources, there’s still something unnerving about its lo-fi ambience.

Twenty years ago today, the mother person asked me if I could record some eerie background music so we’d have something different to play on Halloween. It caught me off guard. She never did much to support my interest in music — it was the opposite, really. But I was game.

I wrote down the name of every sinister-sounding patch I could find on my Yamaha W-5 synthesizer, soaked the Clavinova in built-in effects (piano with reverb and a Leslie speaker approximation seemed to be the most unnerving combination), switched to a pipe organ sound every once in a while, and improvised for about half an hour, trying to come up with the spookiest and most discordant sounds I could. I called the finished product Walking Down Fear Street. In every way it was my attempt at making something similar in spirit to Horror Sounds of the Night.

I don’t think she was a big fan of what I came up with. And the hi-fi system threw the limitations of the recording into stark relief, captured as it was on the little Sony stereo/tape recorder of yore with its tiny built-in microphone. None of that ever bothered me much. I had fun trying something different, and it’s pretty amusing to listen to today.

Join me, if you will, in laughing at my fourteen-year-old self trying to scare trick-or-treaters. It’s tough to work out what some of the individual songs are now without the use of a stopwatch, since everything was recorded as one continuous performance. I think this is part of a track called “Time Stands Still”, and all or most of “Sour Grapes”. While it’s only a small segment (I’m not about to subject you to the whole thing!), it gives you a pretty decent idea of the atmosphere I was aiming for.

“Walking Down Fear Street” excerpt (1997)

Talking on the phone like an unsure bride.

In the early summer of 2008 I still had a Myspace page. Once in a while I used it as a place to post a song or two from whatever album I was working on at any given time. One day I was floating around to see what I could scrounge up when I came across a music page for this guy named Joshua Jesty.

I had no idea what to expect. Thought I’d hit the little play button just for fun. I listened to one of the songs on his playlist.

“I like this,” I thought. “This is catchy. The kind of catchy where you want to get it stuck in your head. This is good.”

I listened to another song, and then another. The more I listened, the more I liked what I was hearing. I checked out his website, which was rich with information about all the different music he’d made over the years. His writing was like his songs — smart, funny, and full of life.

I wrote him a long, rambling email telling him how much I dug his songs and sharing a few of mine. I also told him I was his long-lost twin brother who looked nothing like him, and though he’d never been told of my existence, I’d been watching him with pride from a distance for all these years. As you do.

I have a long history of being ignored by most of the artists I try to start a dialogue with, whether they’re local or a thousand miles away. In those pre-CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN times it was about as one-sided as it ever got. I kept trying to connect with people, and nothing would come back. It felt like I was screaming into a void. So when Josh responded to my goofy email, I almost fell out of my chair and broke my collarbone.

We started firing emails back and forth. We sent CDs to each other in the mail. Nine years later, we’re still sending emails and sharing music. We’ve had a lot of laughs, shouted about our triumphs, wept hot, salty digital tears when life has knocked us on our asses, and though we’ve only met in person once, Josh has become one of my favourite people and one of my most trusted friends. In a way he’s like the wise big brother I didn’t have growing up.

The outlines of our respective musical lives are almost mirror images. We both made a lot of wild and silly music when we were younger, on our way to finding our voices as songwriters. We both fronted bands that sometimes made pretty aggressive music and tested our vocal cords with the kind of screaming we’d probably be a little afraid to attempt now. We both turned to recording on our own at home and playing all the instruments ourselves when those bands broke up, making some of the most ambitious music of our lives when no one was looking.

Even now, we’ve both started bringing other singers and musicians into our solo music to introduce new textures, and we’ll both take on the occasional gig producing someone else when we really like them and their music.

We also both enjoy making videos that incorporate hand puppets.

Josh once told me if we traced our family trees back far enough we’d probably discover we’re related somehow. I believe it.

We have different approaches when it comes to live performance (he’s toured and played a lot of different places; I tend to play live about as often as it rains shrieking badgers from the sky) and distribution (he’s embraced the online tools at his disposal, while I’m too stubborn and set in my ways to let go of my physical-albums-only philosophy). But even twins who look completely different and were born on different days, in different months and years, and on different sides of the Canada/US border are going to have different philosophies now and then.

One other thing we have in common: we’ve both made a whole lot of albums. Visit the Joshua Jesty Bandcamp page and you’ll find a bewildering selection of music that touches on many different sounds and emotional states. All of it is well worth exploring, but the best starting points for my money are 2009’s Girl and 2011’s Portugal — self-described “big” albums that take in everything from power pop, to folk, to ambient interludes, to acoustic guitar-driven salsa, all without ever losing the feeling of being self-contained artistic statements pulsing with deep personal meaning. Girl remains one of my favourite albums by anyone.

Both These Violent Young Lovers albums are great fun. All four of the “Like Rabbits” EPs are full of beautiful songs. And the stripped-to-the-bone Skeleton makes for a harrowing but rewarding listen.

What I’m saying here is you should listen to everything he’s done, pretty much. In an ideal world, the man would be a household name.

The two of us have been talking for years now about making some sort of long-distance collaborative album. Life and other musical commitments keep getting in the way, but I’m pretty confident it’ll happen one of these days. We’ve at least taken care of some of the preliminary world-building, working out the kind of album we want to make and how best to approach it.

If/when that album comes to fruition, if someone writes a review they’ll probably tell you there’s a sort of Lennon-McCcartney dynamic at work, with Josh more of the thoughtful craftsman and me more of the anarchist. I’m not sure that’s true, though. We can both get pretty demented when the moon is right. For every “How We Float When We Shit” and “Mary Anne Says Grace” in my catalogue, there’s a “Freaky Sexy Clown Jam” and “Dirty Talk” in Josh’s. And while I think he tends to be more open-hearted in his songwriting and I tend to get pretty cynical in mine, we’re both serious fans of a good old-fashioned BSME (Big Sprawling Musical Explosion).

The first Joshua Jesty song to dig its fingernails into my ribs way back when was “From Invincible to Invisible”. The juxtaposition of sounds that might have been awkward in someone else’s hands — DI’d electric guitar set against a looped disco beat, weird underwater-sounding synth during the instrumental bridge, a lot of chord changes over an unchanging bass line — felt like the only arrangement that ever could have made sense, and there was something quietly devastating about the whole thing. It was like a naked admission of defeat made alone in the dark, with synthesized handclaps.

Late one night when I had a horrible sinus infection and Girl wasn’t finished yet and was calling itself Finally, Joshua Jesty is making a record with a short title, and the title of the record is “Girl”, I spent more time than most people would want to admit syncing up the music video with the rough mix of this song Josh posted on myspace, just so I could hear it in stereo on headphones while I watched. When I finally managed to time it just right, I forgot about being sick for a few minutes and lost myself in the music.

That music video proves you don’t need a big budget, a fancy setting, or a fifty thousand dollar camera to make something great. All you need is any kind of camera that shoots video, some open-minded friends, and your imagination. I keep holding out hope an HD version will sneak out into the world someday, with the mastered album version of the song on the audio track.

Though the final mix tightened things up and got a new vocal track, I’ve always been glad the soul of that rougher version I first fell in love with stuck around.

A few years back, when our projected Jesty Westy album came up again in conversation, Josh floated the idea of covering a few of each other’s songs. I reached for this one right away. In turn, he recorded a surprising, beautifully nuanced take on “Is You My Lover Still?” from IF I HAD A QUARTER.

I’ve wanted to return to my cover and give it a fresh mix for a while now. Today felt like a good day to give it a shot.

At the time I recorded this, I was going through a bit of a weird piano mic’ing period. I couldn’t seem to get things to sound right no matter what I did, when getting a good piano sound had never been a problem for me before.

Turned out the placement of the Neumann KM184s I use as piano mics was off in an almost microscopic way, just enough to throw things out of whack a little. You’ve got your sensitive microphones, and then you’ve got those guys.

It took me a while to figure out what I was doing wrong and set it right. At the same time, I was driving the mic preamp those mics were plugged into more than usual, hitting the transformers a little harder, again without realizing it.

Those two slight changes were responsible for a piano sound that was a little more bottom-heavy and compressed-sounding than usual.

The first thing I did today was strip away almost all of the effects. A few years ago I had a thing for using rhythmic delays all over the place. Here I had some pretty audible delay on most of the guitars and the drums, and it made things muddier than they needed to be. I got rid of the reverb on my voice too. Everything started to sound more intimate and better-defined.

The strangest thing was the piano. I was prepared to re-record it from scratch, but when I was working on making a new mix the existing piano track sounded better than I remembered. Maybe not quite as open as I might have wanted it, but more than good enough to do the job.

I wasn’t expecting that. Maybe the excessive delay was pranking my ears all this time.

The spastic-sounding piano-thing that kicks in during the instrumental bits is one of the first recorded appearances of my friend the Casio SK-1. I sampled myself playing a few notes at the piano, sped it up to an insane degree (before slowing it down at the very end), double-tracked it, and for some odd reason it felt appropriate. I wanted to respect the original spirit of the song, but I also wanted to put my own spin on it.

From Invincible to Invisible

When I was finished I noticed some extra tracks that weren’t in use, so I gave them a listen. There were a few takes I tried behind the drums with sticks before deciding on brushes. I also messed around with the flute sound on the SK-1 over the bridge before hitting on the idea of the piano sample, and recorded some clean electric guitar through the whole song that was later replaced with the acoustic guitar that shadows the piano and a bit of backwards electric guitar that comes in later.

I have no memory of recording any of these things. And I don’t forget a whole lot of musical details. So it was a fun little surprise to stumble across these unused elements.

I think the sounds I chose to use in the end were the right ones. At the same time, I think it’s interesting to hear the different direction things might have gone. If I’d forsaken the acoustic guitar for electric and the brushes for sticks, everything would have felt a little dreamier.

Like this:

From Invincible to Invisible (alternate mix fragment)

No regrets. But man, I have to say I kind of like that different slant on it. Maybe I’ll make an alternate mix along those lines so they’ve got something to tack on as a bonus track when the after-we’re-gone reissue starts making the rounds.

I don’t know if this is still my favourite Joshua Jesty song. There are a lot of contenders vying for the top spot. But it’s probably still the one that speaks to me the loudest.

Know which way to go.

I’ve never owned a Tragically Hip or Gord Downie album. I never considered myself a fan. And yet the music Gord made with and without that band with the name we all wish we’d thought of ourselves has been a vivid part of the soundtrack to my life ever since I started navigating the strangeness of puberty.

I’m thinking now maybe that makes me a fan after all.

The first Hip song I was conscious of hearing was “Poets”. Seemed like that song was everywhere the summer I was about to turn fifteen. At first I thought it was a pretty typical rock song with a singer who didn’t feel like he really fit the music. He didn’t sound like a rock singer to me. He sounded like something new I hadn’t heard before.

Then I started paying attention to the lyrics.

Spring starts when a heartbeat’s pounding,
when the birds can be heard
above the reckoning carts
doing some final accounting.

Who writes words like that to kick off one of the catchiest songs in their catalogue and the leadoff single to their new album? That’s fucking insane. And it’s brilliant.

I have a memory that makes me smile every time it resurfaces, of dancing to that song at the campground in Lambton County and weirding out a girl who was a little younger than me.

“You like this music?” she said, making a face.

I guess I was supposed to be into Limp Bizkit or the Goo Goo Dolls or something. Who knows. I went on dancing and sang at her not to tell me what the poets were doing.

Not long after that, MuchMoreMusic developed a thing for playing the video for “Ahead by a Century” on an almost daily basis. If I timed it just right, my walk home from school would get me inside the house right around the time it started.

I loved that song. There was a hard-won beauty about it I didn’t know how to put into words then. All i knew was I could watch the music video a thousand times and never get tired of the music that drove it. When Gord smiled through his singing, it did something good to my heart.

I kept up with new albums from a bit of a distance, always drawn to the intelligence and surprising turns of Gord’s lyrics, but for some dumb reason never got around to buying a CD. I think I didn’t know where to start, when I should have just started anywhere.

Last year came the revelation that Gord had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. He followed up that jarring news by releasing Secret Path, a collaboration with Jeff Lemire that has to go down as some of the most emotionally lacerating, compelling, commendable work of his life. Just weeks ago came an announcement that another new solo album was on the way. And now comes the news that Gord is gone.

I think we knew this day was coming. We hoped the man’s mental acuity and continuing drive to work were signs pointing to a postponement of the inevitable, but cancer is the ultimate asshole. Too often it takes good people away from us long before they should be going anywhere.

The minute I read the news, I scrawled out the words to what’s been my favourite Tragically Hip song for fifteen years, went downstairs, sat at the piano, and recorded it in one take (the harmonies were added a few minutes later and also done in one take). I wanted to get down an emotional response without over-thinking it. Almost like a prayer. With my next-door neighbour having a whole lot of noisy work done on their house, leaving me with only small pockets of quiet here and there, I didn’t have much choice anyway.

It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken

I’m not one to record musical tributes. But there’s something in this song that’s always grabbed me.

It sounds simple. A few chords and a single long verse and chorus that come back a second time. Then you listen a little closer and notice the second time the verse comes around, there are subtle little changes that shift its meaning, and the second chorus is twice as long as the first, and then a miniature hook comes back and changes its colours too.

Great songwriters can do things like that without calling attention to the sleight of hand. Whether you knew it or not, Gord Downie was a great one.

Pedal board blues.

For a long time I wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy.

My first electric guitar came with an amp I still use today. On early CDs, if I wasn’t plugged into that, I was using a guitar effects processor or a built-in mixer effect to simulate an amp, or else I was going direct into the mixer with no effects at all. Sometime around 2000 or 2001 I got a Vox wah pedal. Not long after that I picked up a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal.

While the Vox got some use here and there, the Boss sat around wondering what its purpose in life was supposed to be. In theory it seemed to be a good buy. Once I had it, there was never a time when I felt compelled to reach for it over the tones I was getting out of the POD or from natural tube amp breakup.

The third pedal I got, and the last one I thought I would ever get, was a Voodoo Labs tremolo pedal. It was meant to make up for the tremolo circuit I was no longer able to access in my Fender Twin Reverb once the foot switch that triggered it went missing.

I never used any of these pedals enough to justify keeping them around, so when money was scarce a few years back I dusted off the tremolo and distortion pedals and sold them both for some extra pistachios. The wah pedal got to stay. Why? Well, because you never know when you might need a little wah in your life.

After that, I was pretty content either plugging straight into an amp with no effects, the way I started out, or using the POD for effects after disabling the amp simulation settings. I bought a Little Big Muff and a Yamaha FX500 when I wanted to make some shoegazey sounds I couldn’t seem to get with what I had, and I thought that would be about as far as it went.

Then I got to thinking, and the thinking sounded like this:

With the few pedals I bought before, I never really put much thought into what I was getting or why. Now that I have a better handle on what I’m doing and what tones I’m after, maybe I can build a small collection of things I’ll actually want to use on a semi-regular basis.

I found out about Strymon pedals and fell in love with the smooth, sweet sounds they made. I picked up an El Capistan and in a matter of minutes was pretty sure it was the only delay pedal I would ever need. Then I grabbed a Walrus Audio Iron Horse — a distortion pedal that packs a serious punch and has a more interesting personality (at least to my ears) than the DS-1.

I wanted some reverb. The Strymon Big Sky was beautiful, but more money than I wanted to spend, and I couldn’t find another pedal that nailed the tone I was after. I wanted something lush and kind of modulated that could work just as well as a textural thing or an overpowering wash of sound.

The Mr. Black Supermoon, the Red Panda Context, and the Wet reverb were all contenders. I just wasn’t sure they were quite what I was looking for. The Boss RV-5 was another consideration, but I find all of the sounds that thing produces outside of the modulated ‘verb to be pretty uninspiring, and its buffer is a notorious tone-killer.

When I heard the ’80s reverb setting on the Strymon Flint, I knew that was it. That was the sound I wanted. Turns out the other reverb options are perfectly usable too — the spring reverb can double for the Fender Twin’s in a pinch without bringing with it the extra hum the amp does when its reverb is engaged — and the tremolo does a nice job of filling in for the absent Voodoo Labs pedal.

After adding the magic box that is the Montreal Assembly Count to Five to the crew, I wanted one more pedal. I had no idea what it should be. I got some good advice from a few different knowledgable folks, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t get into the idea of a compressor or a volume pedal (I’m way too accustomed to manipulating a volume knob with my fingers by now). I found a great deal on a Chase Bliss Warped Vinyl only to have it fall through. I kept coming back to quirky reverb and delay pedals, even though my bases were already covered there.

In the end I settled on Hungry Robot’s The Wash. There was something about it that grabbed me…maybe the way it gets into some really cool self-oscillation at more extreme settings, almost making it sound like whatever amp you’re plugged into is about to explode in the prettiest way.

Somewhere in there, it started to seem like a good idea to get a board to put all these pedals on — my first-ever pedal board. I haven’t done any significant gigging in a long time and that isn’t likely to change, outside of the occasional show backing up a friend or a possible once-every-decade-or-so show of my own to remind the small group of people who still care that I’ve gone on existing and making music. So I didn’t need it for that. I just thought it made good sense and would keep things from getting too messy on the studio floor, where it’s a challenge to keep microphone and instrument cords from getting tangled and turning into tripping hazards at the best of times.

I didn’t want one of those massive boards that holds six million pedals. I wanted to keep things simple. You only need to see how many guitars I have to know what happens when temptation and a surplus of physical space meet up in my world.

Half a dozen pedals was my cutoff point. I wanted a board that wouldn’t allow me any room for expansion beyond that. Something like a Pedaltrain Nano looked like it would do the job, but it was kind of bland-looking to me. I needed something with character.

If I float around on the internet long enough, I always seem to luck into finding something interesting, whether I’m looking for it or not. I came across the website for Tone Snob pedal boards this way. I fired off an email to Donny, who’s one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to buy a pedal board from, and told him what I was after. He suggested a 12×18 wedge style board so I could mount the power supply on the bottom, keeping the wires out of the way. He said he had some nice tweed to work with.

I gave him the go-ahead, and he built me this beautiful thing:

I made one big mistake. And it wasn’t failing to think, “I should take a picture of this pedal board on a darker surface so it stands out more.” My mistake was not factoring in how expensive a good power supply would be. A little less than two years after my board showed up, I’ve yet to get it up and running for that reason alone.

A few weeks back I decided to sell it. Right now I could use the extra money more than something cool that’s been spending all its time covered up in a closet wondering like that old Boss distortion pedal before it when the meaningful portion of its life is going to start.

I took a few pictures to use in a Kijiji ad. Thought it made sense to put all my pedals on the board and take a picture of that too, to give a potential buyer a sense of what it would look like in action.

I took a good look and thought, “Man…it’s a shame to sell this. It really is the perfect board for me.”

So I decided not to sell it after all. a few months from now, spending a bit of money on an appropriate power supply might not seem like the dumbest financial decision I could make anymore. Besides, it looks too nice to give it to someone else.

I’m not sure this is the exact order these pedals will end up in. One thing’s certain, though: the distortion will be after the reverb. I know it’s not the way most people set up their signal chain. I just really like the smeared sound you get out of flipping the tried and true on its head there.

My friend Little Big Muffy probably won’t make it onto the board when the day of reckoning comes. I can get close to fuzz territory with the Iron Horse if I crank the gain, so it’s a little redundant now, and I don’t find myself feeling a need for super fuzzed-out guitar tones all that often.

I’m not sure what I would put in its place. The wah pedal is too much of a tone-hound to go there. I’ll figure something out, I guess. Maybe get a chromatic tuner to put at the beginning of everything. Maybe discover something totally weird and random and convince myself I can’t live without it.

Oh hey — AFTERTHOUGHTS turned one year old a few days ago. No way does it feel like a year since that album was released, but the time, she don’t lie.

You know what else doesn’t lie? This bust of Jennifer Connelly’s face.