Month: March 2018

And this bird you cannot change.

The piece those four nice people wrote about me has gone up over at the Sound Collective blog. If you’re interested, the Diane Motel piece that sort of mirrors mine is over here, with an audio interview here.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve read anything about myself that weighs more than about half a paragraph. It’s strange at first, trying to calibrate the old brain to the experience. But I have to say, of all the things about me that have appeared online and in print media over the years, this is one of the few — along with Dalson Chen’s Windsor Star article from early 2009 — that will give you some useful information if you aren’t familiar with my work in the field of tonsil upholstery.

The bits about Tara and Jesse made me cackle out loud. Talk about unexpected. Also unexpected: the mention of Tyson’s influence. These folks did some serious digging into the blog’s rarely-explored sidebar to pick that up. But I’m glad it’s there. As much of a miserable teenager as I turned into for a while, that band I had with Gord and Tyson long ago was a great adventure. Even if Tyson and I didn’t always see things the same way, he had some ideas that changed the shape of our music for the better. At a time when I hated the sound of my voice and didn’t ever want to overdub anything, he pushed me to record vocal harmonies, and though I resisted more than I should have, I learned to love doing it in a whole new way once I made some amount of peace with my vocal cords later on. I’m not sure it would have happened the same way without his encouragement.

Having read the Diane Motel piece first, I assumed part of the theme would be working me into the context of the larger Windsor music scene — a scene I’ve had a bit of a checkered relationship with. I was wondering how you stitch someone into the fabric of something they’re not really a part of anymore. Reading what they wrote near the end, it struck me that I’ve worked with a lot of the people in this musical community in some capacity, at one time or another. Maybe there’s a way to be part of a scene while choosing to be more or less invisible. I have a hard time believing anything I’ve done has had a palpable influence on anyone else, but you never know. Maybe some of my fingerprints are in there somewhere even if I don’t think they are.

All else aside, “genre-melding outlier” has to be one of my favourite things anyone has ever said or written about me. I’m keeping that one.

Check out the video interview for Maximum Beardage.

Two takeaways from this video:

1. This was the least awkward I’ve ever felt in an interview situation. I think it shows. I’m not sure if they caught me on a good brain day, or if I’ve just passed the point of caring how I come across to anyone in any situation and it’s freed me up to be more comfortable in my own skin-coloured birthday suit. Either way, for once I can listen to myself speak about something I know a thing or two about and think, “Hey! I sound like I know what I’m talking about! Go me!”

2. I was thinking it was about time to trim the beard. Now I’m having second thoughts. I mean, look at that thing! It’s been at least a few years since I’ve let it go this long without a serious trimming-down. Looking at it in the bathroom mirror every day is one thing. Seeing it like this and getting some idea of how it looks to other people has me considering letting it go a while longer. I kind of like the grey hairs that have snuck in there, too. Makes me look like a low-rent elder statesman in training.

You sound like I feel.

Not too long ago, I was talking with a friend about recording other people. When someone comes here to record an album or an EP, most of the time they want me to do some amount of playing and arranging. “Just do your thing,” is a wonderful thing to hear. Even so, you want to make sure you don’t bring so much of yourself into someone else’s music that it starts to sound like they’re little more than a singer in your band of evil clones. You want to add layers to their voice without diluting it.

This has always been an enjoyable challenge for me — finding a way to incorporate whatever ideas I have while serving the songs. In my own music, I can throw an intentionally off-key bugle blast or the slowed-down sound of a squirrel screaming in the middle of a ballad and think nothing of it. In someone else’s song, that’s usually not going to fly.

My friend and I were talking about all of this when I sent along a rough mix of a song written and sung by someone else that had me playing most of the instruments. “There’s that familiar Johnny West snare sound,” he said. And I thought, I have a recognizable drum sound? Really? How did that happen?

I imagine this is what most producers are chasing on at least some level. A sound that’s their own. It’s just a little weird when you realize you got there almost by default, while trying to avoid certain sounds.

I do seem to have a drum sound that’s “mine”. The thing is, it only ended up that way because as much fun as it was to hear my drum sound change every few albums when I tried out some new mic placement strategy, I got tired of having to move those mics around all the time and wanted to stick with something simple that ate up less tracks on the mixer. I also wanted to get away from anything that felt like it resembled a conventional “produced” drum sound. Too many homogenous drum recordings heard on mainstream radio stations took their toll on me over the years.

So I stuck a stereo ribbon mic in front of my drum kit, patched it into a nice mic preamp, added a bit of compression and a slight EQ boost to counteract the high frequency roll-off inherent in most ribbon mics, and said, “That sounds about right.” Give or take a few experiments with adding a distant room mic, this is the way I’ve been recording acoustic drums for ten years now. It’s by far the longest I’ve ever stuck with a single approach.

This means my “drum sound” is the sound of my drums in my room, recorded to sound as natural and unaffected as possible. That’s kind of hilarious. An anti-sound became a sound.

I’ve developed ways of recording other instruments that work for me, even if in some cases they might be a little unorthodox. Sometimes recording with other people has opened up alternate approaches I wouldn’t have been able to attempt on my own. The way I like to record acoustic guitars with Gord when we’re working on Papa Ghostface songs, both of us playing at the same time, with the guitars mic’d in such a way that the bleed is emphasized instead of negated, and then doing it a second time and layering the tracks — that’s impossible when I’m recording by myself, for the obvious reasons. I love experimenting and discovering new ways of doing things, but when I’m recording someone else’s songs and they ask me to play a lot of different instruments, I’m going to grab the microphones I know work for me and put them in the places where I tend to get the best sounds.

If someone asked me to throw more mics on the drums, I would. For whatever reason, that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s because every time a drummer is supposed to come in and play on an album I’m recording for someone else, they never show up, and I end up having to do it myself.

It would probably sound like a mess if I tried recording a different drummer the way I record myself. I’ve learned how to get the most out of this setup. I had to change the way I play to make it work. I used to be a much busier drummer, as you can hear on things like the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. These days I prefer a more minimal approach. Something tells me that would have happened anyway, regardless of what microphones were involved.

As with any other studio, if an artist has any thoughts about recording here, I imagine it’s because they like at least some of the sounds I’m getting. I always want to keep an active dialogue going so I know what they want to hear, what their musical vision is, and whether or not what I’m doing feels right to them. But I do have a pretty specific way of doing things, and it isn’t going to be for everyone.

The great thing about not advertising and keeping this whole thing low-key is I end up working with people I already know, or people who have heard enough of my work to know what they’re getting themselves into if they come here. Working with people you like, recording music you can get excited about, and sensing they’re happy with the work you’ve done when it’s all over and they wouldn’t fire you out of a cannon into a vat of bacon grease if given the chance…that’s a pretty great gig.

Now, if someday Vampire Kate Beckinsale hears an album I’ve produced for another artist, without knowing I was involved, and says, “Hey, I know where this was recorded! That’s the Johnny West drum sound!” my life will be complete.

What good does the night do me?

I came to the music of Shudder to Think in a pretty backwards way. My introduction to the band was their soundtrack for Lisa Cholodenko’s underrated 1998 film High Art.

Every poster, DVD cover, and promotional image makes this movie look like a steamy soft porn flick. It’s a universe away from that. The story goes much deeper than “pretty people getting naked”. There’s some sex in the film, but it grows out of the characters and their interactions in an organic way. It isn’t there to titillate. When it happens, it means something. Ally Sheedy gives what might be the performance of her life in the role of a talented but troubled photographer, and the always excellent Patricia Clarkson is terrifying as a drug casualty who’s much more intelligent and manipulative than she lets on.

As good as the film is, the music was what stayed with me. When “She Might Be Waking up” played over the end credits, it was a hard kick to the chest that made a devastating ending hit even harder, and I knew I needed to own the soundtrack album.

I ordered it online. There was no way I was ever going to find it in a record store anywhere. When the CD showed up in the mail, the packaging was just as it was supposed to be, but the music on the disc wasn’t the High Art soundtrack. It was live jazz. The first track was “All Blues”. Given the crisp drum sound and the large band, I assumed it was a single-disc distillation of highlights from Miles Davis’s 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival performance.

I loved Miles even back then, but I didn’t listen beyond the first song. This wasn’t what I paid for, and I was a little pissed. I ordered another copy of the CD, got the music that was supposed to be on it in the first place, and tossed the “defective” copy aside. I forgot all about it.

A week or two ago, that mysterious jazz album popped back into my head. I was pretty sure I still had it somewhere. It took a while to dig it out of my CD collection, but I found it hidden away in one of the dustier corners. I was long overdue to give it a real listen and figure out just what I had here.

Two songs in, someone started singing, and I knew straight away it wasn’t Miles. It was Chet Baker. There’s no mistaking that voice for anyone else’s.

What I got, on what was supposed to be my first copy of the High Art soundtrack, was My Favourite Songs: the Last Great Concert, recorded in April 1988, two weeks before Chet died. It only took me close to twenty years to realize it.

The story behind the album goes something like this: some German fans who were involved in the music business wanted to honour Chet. They probably knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer. They said, “Chet, here’s the deal. You tell us what your favourite songs are. We’ll take care of the charts and put a big band and an orchestra together, and we’ll record the show. All you have to do is show up and play.”

Chet took that a little too literally. He didn’t bother to materialize for rehearsals. He walked into the concert hall for the first time the day of the show. You’d never know it to listen to the recording. It isn’t late-period Chet at his absolute best (for some of that, check out 1979’s Broken Wing and then Chet Baker in Tokyo from nine years later), but it’s still great stuff.

Watching video footage from the last years of Chet’s life is like eavesdropping on a ghost. He looks far older than his fifty-something years, with the crumbled majesty of his once beautiful face serving as hard-won proof that heroin can turn James Dean into the Grim Reaper. Then he raises the trumpet to his lips and is transformed, playing with a level of grace and invention someone in his condition shouldn’t be capable of.

One of the great twisted tragedies of the Chet Baker story is that he made some of his best music while he was slowly killing himself. He bragged about never needing to practice, but in his later years he played more than he ever had before, taking every gig he could get. He needed the money for drugs. The more shows he played, the better and deeper his playing became.

Rarely has such beautiful music been made under such sordid circumstances.

The mystery for me is how what might be the last recording Chet ever made ended up packaged as a Shudder to Think soundtrack CD. Every issue and subsequent reissue of My Favourite Songs is on the German label Enja. The High Art soundtrack was issued on Velvel Records, an offshoot of Koch. As fas as I can tell, the two were never affiliated in any way. The only thing I can think of is maybe both labels used the same media broker at some point in the late ’90s and someone fell asleep at the wheel.

At least there’s an easy way for me to differentiate between the two CDs with identical packaging.

As for Shudder to Think, taking in the rest of their discography after only hearing the music they made for High Art was a bit of a shock, the same way I imagine the soundtrack startled fans of their earlier work.

This is my favourite kind of band — the unclassifiable kind. To try and squeeze them into a genre is to drive yourself insane. They were labelled “post-hardcore”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and on some of their early albums on the Dischord label you can hear traces of Hüsker Dü. By the time you get to an album like Get Your Goat, they sound like no one else.

The tricky time signatures, unorthodox guitar riffs that balance melody and dissonance on a knife edge, and pinpoint dynamic shifts might have slid them into an uneasy position somewhere in the realm of math rock if they were an instrumental band. But then Craig Wedren’s unique, elastic, theatrical voice (once described as sounding like “Michael Stipe’s psychotic uncle on LSD”) bends everything in a different direction. It’s at once the last voice you would ever expect to hear singing this music and the only voice that makes sense. Imagine Jeff Buckley singing with Stone Temple Pilots after being held hostage for years by The Dillinger Escape Plan and developing some serious Stockholm Syndrome, and you’re still only halfway there.

When they signed with Epic Records in the mid-’90s, a lot of fans cried “sell-out”. And yet the first album they delivered to their new label, Pony Express Record, is probably their finest moment. It sounds like a distillation of everything the albums that came before were working toward.

From the hard rock deconstruction of “Hit Liquor”, to the power ballad from another planet that is “Earthquakes Come Home”, to the eerie beauty of “No Rm. 9, Kentucky”, it’s a funhouse mirror album of elements that shouldn’t work together finding a way to coil themselves into something harmonious and wonderfully strange. No list of the least commercial albums ever released by a major label is complete without it.

The lone cover song is a deranged take on Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You”, exposing the latent creepiness buried beneath the soft rock sheen of the original.

Random confession time. When I first heard the ARS version on the radio as a twelve-year-old, I thought the opening line was:

When you walked into the room, there was doo-doo in the vase.

Not quite the romantic sentiment of “voodoo in the vibes”. But if a whirlwind attraction can survive the smell of random crap, surely it’s built to last, no?

The next Shudder to Think album, 50,000 BC, was seen by some as a betrayal of everything the band was about. One angry fan called it “art rock for losers”. It didn’t help that an Epic press release hailed it as “a totally commercially accessible album that includes pure alternative rock ‘n’ roll songs and simple ballads” — in other words, the opposite of everything Shudder to Think had ever done.

I can’t help feeling this album got a little more hate than it deserved. It does feel like a bit of a step back, and if there was some record label pressure to make music that was more accessible to the masses, well…it sounds like it. The confrontational energy of Pony Express Record is gone. But this band was incapable of making boring music.

Listen to the opening track, “Call of the Playground”, with its stop-start rhythm and some sweetly-sung lyrics that read like a confusing childhood nightmare. It sounds more like a demented parody of an alternative rock hit than anything anyone ever could have believed stood a chance of garnering significant airplay on mainstream radio. And “Red House” is a glorious song by any measure, even if it was first recorded for 1991’s Funeral at the Movies, recorded another three times after that, and loses a bit of its punch in this final, more polished incarnation.

The fans that didn’t jump ship after hearing 50,000 BC were probably baffled by the mood pieces that made up the soundtrack to High Art. Recorded for the most part in Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson’s respective apartments, this music is more about creating atmospheres and soundscapes than constructing or deconstructing conventional song shapes. Only “Battle Soaked (Amnesian Mix)” features the sound of Craig’s voice, multi-tracked and mostly wordless, adding splashes of colour to a funky electronic workout.

The one song with a full set of lyrics just happens to be one of the best songs you’ve probably never heard, and it’s proof that Craig wasn’t the only great singer in the band. Guitarist Nathan Larson takes the lead for “She Might Be Waking up”, revealing a voice capable of moving from a broken, half-whispered croon to a soaring falsetto. In a way, this is a dress rehearsal for the songs Nathan would go on to write for Jealous God, his first solo album. It’s also better than anything on that album — darker, deeper, and with the lo-fi production lending it more character.

There was more soundtrack work ahead, with the band contributing a few songs to Velvet Goldmine and then a whole pile of tunes to First Love, Last Rites — a classic example of the soundtrack being a lot better than the movie it’s attached to.

This last one is a bit of a mixed bag of genre exercises, but the idea to write songs for a lot of different singers and then play the whole thing off as a series of radio broadcasts throughout the film was kind of brilliant, and there are some real gems knocking elbows with the near-misses. You could make a pretty wonderful EP out of “I Want Someone Badly” (sung by Jeff Buckley), “Appalachian Lullaby” (sung by Nina Persson), “Speed of Love” (sung by John Doe), and “Day Ditty” (sung by Angela McCluskey).

And then the band very quietly called it quits.

Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson have both gone on to have successful film scoring careers punctuated by the occasional solo album. There have been a few reunions here and there and a live album or two, but there hasn’t been a new collection of Shudder to Think songs in twenty years now.

Elsewhere in the abandoned old bowling alley of life, Dale Jacobs asked me a few weeks back if I would be willing to be an interview subject for a class he’s teaching at the University of Windsor called Writing about Music.

I’ve unofficially “retired” from granting interviews to anyone, for any reason. I think the last one happened back in 2011, and it might not even exist on the internet anymore. I had a few good experiences during my thirty-eight minutes of local fame/infamy, but after too many run-ins with agenda-humping writers who had no interest in learning anything about who I am, what I do, or why I do it the way I do, I decided it was better to let the music speak for itself. Besides, there’s already more information about me and what I do available here than anyone could ever want to know.

Maybe that sounds a little harsh, but I’m not talking about something as simple as not being a fan of someone’s writing style or not liking the way I was presented in a certain piece. I’m talking about shit like this:

I once spent an hour or two talking to a writer, giving him a ton of material to work with, and when the article he wrote was printed, I learned he didn’t use a single thing I said. Not one word. Instead, he lifted uncredited quotes from my blog, defeating the whole purpose of meeting with him.

This is someone who began the interview by complaining about other people plagiarizing his work. Then he turned around and did the same thing to me.

Smooth move.

Another writer invented quotes I never said in an effort to bend me to his purpose, because I wouldn’t say what he wanted to hear. He thought he could bully me into submission by painting me into a corner. When that didn’t work, he took every opportunity he could to denigrate me in print and deliberately misrepresented the nature of a show I was playing to try and perform some small, impotent act of subterfuge. When that didn’t work, he settled for trying to drag my name through the mud whenever I came up in the course of a conversation he happened to be privy to.

I’ve been told by a number of people this is something he still does from time to time. How do you respond to that kind of absurdity? I don’t know if it’s funny or sad. Maybe a bit of both. I guess a half-hearted laugh-shrug is appropriate.

My point is, you have enough experiences with people like that, and you don’t feel much like giving an interview to anyone anymore.

This was a little different. Dale has been supporting my music for years. He was one of the people who gave CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN some serious airplay on CJAM during the surreal summer of 2008, back when he was still hosting Steel-Belted Radio. And when he told me the other local interview subjects were going to be members of Diane Motel, I thought, “I might be able to offer an interesting contrast to that interview.”

So I said sure. Why not?

Earlier this week, four students from Dale’s class — half of a group called The Sound Collective — came over to the house and interviewed me. I went into it with an open mind while bracing myself for the usual one-size-fits-all questions.

My least favourite, and one that’s come up in almost every interview I’ve ever done: “What are your influences?”

I hate this question. I hate it because it implies the person asking it couldn’t be bothered to listen to any of my music to work out for themselves what they think they might hear in it. It also says to me, “What you do can be boiled down to a sentence and a musical reference or two.”

I’m not sure that’s true of anyone. I know it isn’t true in my case. I’ve always thought the whole point was to discover and develop your own voice — not to see how much mimicry you can get away with without being called a ripoff artist.

There are two ways I can answer this stupid question.

I can tell you my music has always been more influenced by my personal life, where I am emotionally at any given time, and the people I interact with. It’s the truth, but it sounds pretty pretentious.

Or I can name some of the bands and artists who have had a serious impact on me. But if I do that, I want to explain why their work grabbed me and how it spoke to me. I want to tell you how certain singers turned me on to the idea of using the voice not just as a vehicle to deliver the lyrics, but as an instrument in its own right. How hearing a specific album at a specific time in my life short-circuited my brain and forced me to recalibrate all my ideas about what a song could be. How pianists as disparate as Thelonious Monk, John Cale, and Nicky Hopkins changed the way I approached playing the piano.

Most writers don’t want to hear all that, because they’re not really writers at all. They don’t want a story. They want a soundbite.

The other night, that question I hate wasn’t asked. In its place was this: “Is there anything you’re listening to right now that you find is influencing you or inspiring you in some way?”

A very different, much more thought-provoking question, this one. And it opens the door for a story to sneak through.

Every question they asked me was unexpected, and intelligent, and forced me to give some serious thought to how I wanted to respond. They did some actual research beforehand, which is more than I can say for most of the folks who interviewed me in the past. What’s more, they all seemed genuinely engaged and enthusiastic to be talking to me.

It was the most enjoyable, surprising, and stimulating interview I’ve ever been involved in. Kind of restored my faith in the whole process.

Thanks to Brittany, Iovan, Aria, and Shannon for a really positive, memorable experience, and thanks to Dale for asking me to be a part of the project. It’s the first time in years I can say I’m looking forward to reading something that’s being written about me instead of dreading it. I’ll link to the piece here when it goes live on the Sound Collective blog.

That dusty old radio.

A little less than a week ago, this blog turned ten years old. Every single other personal website or blog-ish thing I once maintained has long since turned to digital dust. Still this one persists. It defies explanation.

I wanted to do something special to commemorate a decade of bloggage. Maybe make a silly video or something. But the only thing my creative energy seems to want to fling itself into right now is music. As luck would have it, I was able to find a video made by someone else that carries with it a suitable feeling of triumph. If this doesn’t get your pulse racing, I’m not sure what will.

All the bed tracks for Ron’s album have now been recorded and tucked in, and I’ve already started working on the arrangements. I have a feeling the “production” side of things isn’t going to take too long there. Every time I sit down with one of his songs I seem to find myself maxing out the mixer in an afternoon. Rough mixes for Jess’s album have been delivered and approved, so all I need to do there is some fine-tuning to arrive at what will hopefully be final mixes. The followup to STEW has ground to a halt for the moment, but work on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is starting to pick up again.

All in all, I’d say things are just about back on track.