Month: May 2019

The grass is greener when you don’t cut it every day.

When you make music and you work in a room that has never been the beneficiary of any kind of acoustic treatment, you sometimes find yourself subject to the whims of the world around you. Aside from the odd nightmarish situation like the D’amore Construction debacle that ate up huge chunks of 2016 and 2017, I haven’t had a lot of my recording time interrupted by outside noise in this particular house. But lately the amount of people cutting their grass on an almost daily basis has been getting a little out of control. It’s left me wondering if some of these folks have lives outside of obsessing over the incremental growth of their lawns.

I was expecting Detroit’s Movement Festival to make me almost long for the sound of renegade lawnmowers. Every year an interminable low frequency 4/4 electronic kick drum thrum carries across the river and makes it impossible for me to sleep for three days straight. I like some electronic music an awful lot, and I don’t begrudge anyone their right to listen to whatever music they want at whatever volume they prefer, but I don’t think I should have to hear it in my house. Now that I’m locked into a sleep schedule that’s both consistent and healthy for the first time in eons, I’m wary of anything that might threaten to knock things off-balance again. I don’t ever want to go back to being a vampire if I can help it.

I don’t know what on earth happened this year, but for once the residual noise from the festival was almost nonexistent. The first day I heard the usual thing.

Boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom.

It wasn’t constant, so I was at least able to get some broken sleep until it stopped a little past midnight. The next two days there was nothing. I can’t find any information online that points to a sound system failing or a power outage, so I can only guess that the organizers of the event got tired of people from Windsor complaining and decided to turn it down a little or angle the speakers so they weren’t pointed right at us. Or maybe it was a cosmic fluke. Either way, I’ll take it.

It still needs to be said: when you’re playing music loud enough for me to hear it five miles and a river away from you, something isn’t right. I can understand wanting to “feel the bass”, I guess, but how about keeping your ears in reasonable working condition? If it’s that loud over here, I don’t even want to know how loud it is in Detroit. And something tells me not a lot of people are wearing earplugs to protect themselves.

I started out talking about recording, didn’t I? Right. Here’s a pro tip for you: if you’re going to play something resembling an album release show, it’s a good idea to have the album finished before you book the date. Time is flying, August 17 isn’t so far away anymore, and there’s still a lot of work I need to do on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.

I was in a position a bit like this once before with an album called GIFT FOR A SPIDER. I had to finish that one while rehearsing for a Mackenzie Hall show that ended up supporting it almost by default. It was easy enough. This album is a little more complicated, and more than twice as long. Not so easy.

The good news is I’m closer to being done than I thought I was. A few days ago I sat down and hashed the whole thing out. I’ve recorded one hundred and twenty-four songs for this album (yikes). I’ve had a pretty good idea which ones were making the cut for a while now, but the thought of trying to put them in an order that made some amount of sense was pretty intimidating. After forcing myself to take an honest stab at it, I’ve got a rough sequence that comes out to fifty-two songs spread across two CDs. I know it’s going to shift at least a little, and a few of those songs might get lopped off because of time constraints, but having a clearer picture of the album’s structure makes a huge difference. Now I feel much more focused, with a better idea of what I need to work on.

Of those fifty-two “keeper” songs, thirty-five exist as either rough mixes or mixes I feel good enough about to leave alone, sixteen need some work, and one still needs to be recorded.

There are probably at least twenty other songs I’d like to record. Given the amount of time I have to work with, it just isn’t realistic. If I let myself fall down that rabbit hole we’d be looking at a maxed-out triple-CD. The four-hour album slot has already been reserved for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I want this one to be at least a little more approachable than that behemoth.

The show is a little less than eighty days away. If I’m diligent, that’s more than enough time to get everything squared away. I’ve at least found a printing place that seems to be competent and reliable, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

A quick note about that:

The Minuteman Press ridiculousness was only the beginning of my printing-related fun. After A&A fared no better, I gave both Lacasse and Standard Printing a try.

Lacasse never gave me a quote, and three different people had to search the manager’s office for the booklet and insert I dropped off as a sample, with said manager nowhere to be found. They all came up empty-handed. By the time they dug up my materials I didn’t even want to know how much they would charge.

I had a much better feeling about Standard Printing. It’s a long-standing family-run business. I like supporting those places when I can. Again, it wasn’t to be. It took forever to get a proof, and when I asked if I could have the afternoon to look it over — something I’ve been doing with every printing job I’ve paid for over the last sixteen years — the woman I was dealing with got snippy and condescending with me, acting like my request was way out of line. Turned out someone working there wasn’t very good at following instructions. They went ahead and printed the whole run of booklets and inserts before I gave my go-ahead. She didn’t want me to see something I didn’t like and put her in a situation where she had to eat it.

I could have lived with their prices, which were pretty outrageous, but I’m not going to shut up and fork over my money to make up for someone else’s oversight. And if you’re going to talk to me like I’m a piece of shit when I’ve asked to be extended the same basic courtesy as any other customer, you don’t deserve my business.

A friend recommended Herald Press. On my fifth try it looks like I’ve found a place I can deal with. I got them to reprint the booklets and inserts for STEW as a test. Those turned out well, and the price was fantastic. Then I had them make a few prints of some art Greg Maxwell made for the SLEEPWALK booklet. Same story there. The plan now is to get all of the remaining album-related artwork printed in one shot so I’ve got prints of everything to display at the show. It’s pretty great to see these things at their intended size. I’ve got half a mind to put some of my favourites up on a wall in the stock room. I mean, how many people can say they’ve got a room full of (mostly) local art that was made just for them?

That’s the scoop over here. I’ll try to post a bit more often so I can hold myself accountable as the sand really starts pouring out of the hourglass.

There’s nobody here.

On Tuesday we paid a visit to Mackenzie Hall to take a few pictures and shoot a bit of test footage in preparation for the August extravaganza. I wanted to see how the Canon T5i would do in the Court Auditorium with whatever light was available.

It turned out to be a bit of a wasted experiment. We had no access to the pot lights we’ll have the night of the show, and there was little to work with outside of the sunlight leaking in through the windows. Even in these conditions the camera’s stock lens acquitted itself better than I expected it to, and Johnny Smith was kind enough to take some pictures of me pretending to sleep in various different positions. Stretching out on a row of chairs and making them into an improvised bed is more comfortable than you might think.

It was surreal being in that room again. I guess eight years of distance will do that to you. It’s more spacious than I remembered. Fitting a whole lot of musicians in there isn’t going to be a problem. And it’s pretty neat to hear your voice halfway disappear into the natural reverb when there are no other bodies filling the room and soaking up some of the sound.

I’ve been searching for someone to film this show since 2015. I wasn’t even sure the show was going to happen back then, but I wanted to get that side of things squared away just in case.

What I’ve learned and experienced in that time doesn’t flatter this city’s filmmaking community at all. My main takeaway has been this: almost everyone is all about the money. Not making art. Not having an opportunity to collaborate with other artists. Not building a unique body of work. Just money. If they don’t think they’re going to be able to squeeze as much out of you as they want, you’re nothing to them but a waste of time.

How bad is it? Make yourself a bowl of popcorn and I’ll tell you. I’m not going to name any names, but some of these interactions need to be preserved. You know, for the history books.

At first I couldn’t get most of the filmmakers I contacted to acknowledge me at all. One of the few people who did respond to an email told me he refused to film anything at Mackenzie Hall because it didn’t look exciting enough on camera. He wouldn’t quote me a price. He told me if I grew a brain and decided to put on the show at a cooler place like The Olde Walkerville Theatre maybe he’d be interested. Otherwise, there was no point in the two of us having a conversation. The condescension was so thick my internet connection almost gagged on it.

And yet…in 2012 this same person directed a five-minute “film” documenting the making of the first album by now-defunct Windsor group The Walkervilles. Guess where it was filmed?

Mackenzie Hall.

I had to guess at the amount of money I would need to pay a filmmaker when I was putting my grant proposal together. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I was finally able to get people to start talking to me with some level of consistency, and when that happened it made me miss those glorious years of being ignored by everyone.

One guy wanted all of the grant money and a few thousand more. He did offer to cut me a deal, though. For $1,500 he said he would film the show and give me a final edit that was two minutes long.

Two minutes. 

That would be like me recording an album for someone and then giving them a CD not with full songs on it, but three-second snippets of each track. The end result wouldn’t be worth $15, never mind $1,500.

You can probably guess what I wanted to say to that guy. I bit my tongue and swallowed a river of blood instead. It wasn’t worth it.

Another person showed up at the house and told me he had no idea who I was, had never heard of me, hadn’t heard a lick of my music, and only knew what a few friends told him when he mentioned my name, which amounted to, “Johnny’s a genius and you’re lucky to have an audience with him” (their words, not mine).

This is how he made use of that audience. First he bragged about big money jobs he was involved in and B-list celebrities he knew. Then, when I handed him a stack of CDs and it struck him that I wasn’t some clueless hobbyist, the gloves came off. For three hours he lectured me on what I should be doing with my music and why everything I do is wrong. He told me I was selfish for hiding it from the world. He told me no one was going to knock on my door and ask for some of my CDs (someone really did do that once, but he wasn’t going to be distracted by details like that). He said making all of this music and sharing it with so few people was akin to having a massive library of books that was inaccessible to the public. He said the work had no intrinsic value if it wasn’t available for everyone to hear.

The best part came when he brought up Martin Shkreli — the hunk of human waste who paid two million dollars for the one existing copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (don’t even get me started on the idiocy of that whole enterprise).

“Let’s say someone came here,” filmmaker dude said, “and offered you two million dollars to buy this album you’ve been working on for the last five years with all these different people on it. The catch was, once they gave you the money the album was going to be locked away forever and no one would ever hear it. What would you do?”

Two million dollars is a life-changing amount of money. But an incredible amount of work has gone into this album. I think it’s home to some of the best songs I’ve written and some of the best work I’ve done as a singer, musician, producer, arranger, and recording engineer.

It’s been a profound test of my resilience. A staggering amount of people ignored, rejected, or flaked out on me on my way to assembling the supporting cast. More than once I wrote a song for a specific person to sing, only to find myself forced to find someone else to sing it in their place when they came up with some bogus last-minute excuse to get out of doing what they told me they would do. The frustration has been worth wading through, though, because a lot of great people have contributed some beautiful musical performances and pieces of visual art, and almost all of them have done it for no renumeration.

The whole thing has been one of the great artistic adventures of my life. And while sharing my music isn’t what gives it value for me, a lot of friends have been looking forward to absorbing the culmination of all of this work for a long time now.

If I took that money and threw the album in the garbage — because that’s what I’d really be doing — I would probably be set for the rest of my life if I played it smart. I would also be miserable. I would feel like the world’s biggest sellout, flushing five years of my life down the toilet in exchange for some smelly paper. I imagine I’d fall into a deep creative slump. I might stop making music altogether.

So, as stupid as it might sound, I would say no to the massive payday offered to me by this hypothetical stranger. My artistic integrity is worth more to me than any amount of money, and as I’m so fond of reminding everyone in my album liner notes, my music is not for sale.

All of this is what I told him, more or less.

“That’s a beautiful answer,” he said. “And it’s a fucking lie. You’d take the money, and then you’d go in that fucking room and you’d make another fucking album, because that’s what you fucking do.”

At this point he was shouting at me. I mean full-on belting, on the edge of screaming. Words can’t convey the unique horror of having a stranger yell at you in your own home, claiming to know everything about you after admitting they don’t know the first thing about you.

Around the fourth hour of our visit he brought up filming the show for the first time. We talked a bit about it, but by then he’d talked himself out of the job several times over.

I started thinking there were only two scenarios that would work out in my favour. I either had to find someone who was so passionate about the idea of the show that they were willing to set aside their ego and cut me a deal, or I had to find someone who was inexperienced enough that they would look at this as a portfolio-building opportunity and charge a more reasonable amount of money to reflect that.

I found both of those people. Not that it did me any good.

Option A arrived in the form of a filmmaker who said he would be willing to film the show for free if I didn’t get the grant, and if the grant did come through, he would do it for an amount of money that wasn’t grotesque. He said all the right things. Then he went home, checked his calendar, and said, “Uh…it looks like I’m not going to be in town the day of your show or the dress rehearsal, so I can’t do this after all. Sorry.”

(Maybe you could have checked your schedule before you sat down with me and all but committed to the project, huh?)

Option B was a guy my friend Rob Fraser found. He said he would film and edit the show for such a low price it made my head spin. Then he disappeared. We came to find out he sold all of his film equipment and decided he no longer had any interest in filmmaking as a career or a creative pursuit.

It looked like my best bet was going to be investing in another good camera and filming the show myself.

Then Dave Konstantino, who was trying to help me find someone sane and interested in filming the show, said, “You know what…this is ridiculous. I’ll just film it for you myself.”

Unlike all of the other people I talked to (or tried to talk to), I’ve known Dave for a long time. I know he understands and respects what I do. From the work he’s done with Greg Maxwell for the CJAM Sessions video series, I know he knows what he’s doing. And he’s got extra lighting if we end up needing it.

Talk about a relief. It’s so much easier dealing with someone you know you can trust, instead of hoping someone who has no real interest or emotional investment in what you’re doing won’t screw it up. And if I have to, I’ll just edit the raw footage myself. I’ve done enough video editing over the years to get a pretty good handle on that side of things.

Now I need to start looking at putting a setlist together so we’ve got something well-defined to work on during rehearsals. Good luck with that, self.

Give us this day our first-ever grant.

I’m proud and a little bewildered to share this bit of news: I’ve received a generous Arts, Culture, and Heritage Fund grant from the City of Windsor to help fund the production of an ambitious live show featuring many of the artists I’ve been fortunate enough to work with in recent years.

Ever since YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK became something more than a vague idea, I’ve had this crazy dream to release the album at a Mackenzie Hall show inspired by The Band’s Last Waltz. The idea was to have a pretty large core band in place. We would play some of my songs. At some point a guest would come up and take the spotlight for a song on the album that featured them. Maybe they would also perform a few of their own songs with me backing them up. Then someone else would come up, the same thing would happen again, and it would go on happening until everyone — or almost everyone — was sharing the performance space at the same time and making a huge communal racket.

I thought it was a pipe dream at best. I knew it would be expensive to make the show what I wanted it to be. I’d have to find someone to film it. And my chances of getting all the musicians I wanted on board were pretty slim. Still, it was fun to toy with the possibilities, and whenever I mentioned the idea to anyone they seemed excited about it.

In January I had a little unexpected brain drizzle. Ron got an ACHF grant to support the recording of his soon-to-be-released new album (the one I produced and played a bunch of stuff on). I started thinking maybe I had a shot at getting a grant to cover some of the costs involved in putting on this hypothetical show. The financial assistance would allow me to pay the musicians something fair without killing myself. It would give me a budget to get the thing filmed at a level of professionalism that would otherwise be beyond my reach. It would even help to offset some promotional expenses, like getting posters printed and planting demonic messages in the cell phone ring tones of strangers.

I only had a few weeks to work with before the deadline, so I threw myself into the process of applying for a grant for the first time in my life. I made a curriculum vitae. That was a strange experience. I dug up and scanned old newspaper articles from that brief time when The Windsor Star deemed me important enough to pay attention to. When I learned it wasn’t possible to submit any physical materials, I made a whole mini-website from scratch to serve as a preview of both the album and the show. I wrote and rewrote my proposal until it felt like it was tight as a drum. And I solicited letters of support — something the ACHF requires you to do when you’re not a corporation.

I thought I’d try to cover as many bases as I could. I asked Dale Jacobs (professor and published author), Brady Holek (CJAM station manager), Kelly Hoppe (one of the higher-profile musicians I’ve worked with), and Dan MacDonald (AM 800 and The River DJ/radio personality) if they would be willing to write letters for me. All of them said yes without any hesitation.

I was expecting to get a paragraph or two of generic back-slapping. Those expectations were obliterated. Some of the things these people wrote made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The passion and respect they expressed for me and what I do was kind of overwhelming.

Really, the outpouring of support from everyone I asked for any kind of help was pretty incredible. Rob Fraser and Johnny Smith wrote letters clarifying their roles in helping to make the show a reality (Rob is handling the audio recording side of things, and the Smithster is doing a little bit of everything). Rob, Ron, and Greg Maxwell all offered great advice that helped me to shape my proposal. Cathy Masterson, my Cultural Affairs contact, was patient and helpful beyond all reason. Merry Ellen Scully and Joey Ouellette were wonderful to deal with at Mackenzie Hall, as they always are. And I owe an immense amount of gratitude to Michelle Soullière. I asked if she had any advice to offer, knowing she had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. My proposal wouldn’t have been half as strong as it was without her help.

I had a good feeling about this from the moment I submitted all my materials online. That isn’t like me. I tried to temper the optimism with some more realistic ideas about my chances, but the good feeling would not be defeated. It didn’t make it any less surprising when I got an email telling me I got the grant. It’s a pretty cool feeling when a jury that has no vested interest in you at all determines you’re worthy of their support.

The craziest thing of all is the people I’ve managed to snag for the show. I swung for the fences and asked the musicians and singers in Windsor I would want playing and singing with me if my life was on the line. I didn’t expect everyone to say yes.

Everyone said yes.

My trombonist backed out when I sent a message to re-confirm his involvement, so my dream of a three-piece horn section is no more. But it’s no big thing. I mean, check out this lineup.

(This is a placeholder poster I made myself. I’m hoping to have a Greg Maxwell special to spread around in the next month or two so I won’t have to use this one. Still, it’ll give you an idea of what’s going down.)

I didn’t want to put a conventional band together and try to recreate album arrangements in a live setting. That would be boring. What I wanted to do was get some of my favourite people and players together in one place, and then see what kind of energy there would be. We haven’t had our first proper rehearsal yet, but I think there’s the potential for some pretty fascinating textural things to happen with two horns, violin, cello, and everything else going on there.

That’s not all. The artwork created for the album booklet will be displayed, and then the prints will be donated back to the artists who created the imagery that adorns them. It’s the least I can do to thank those people for donating their talents to the cause. Free copies of the album will be available for whoever wants them. There will be free non-alcoholic things to drink and munch on. No vodka-infused crackers, I’m sorry to say.

Free handshakes and hugs will have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. I tend to be pretty generous with that stuff. As long as you don’t try to grab my flounder fish, we shouldn’t have a problem.

Though I think this part goes without saying by now, it’s going to be a free, all-ages show. It’s happening at Mackenzie Hall on Saturday, August 17 — the day after my birthday. It felt too poetic not to snag that date.

I need to do everything I can to keep things in check now that I’ve somehow managed to convert my sleep schedule to that of a normal human being, so it’ll be a pretty early show for a Saturday evening thing. The music will start at 7:00 p.m. and we’ll probably wrap up around 9:00 at the latest. If there’s anything else you’d like to do with your Saturday night, you’ll have time leftover to make it happen. Want to go pretzel-bowling with your friends? You can still do that!

One thing I can’t stress enough: when I say the music starts at 7:00, I mean it really starts at 7:00. Not 7:30. Not 8:00. I know a lot of people are incapable of showing up on time for anything. A lot of live shows start late to account for all the latecomers. I hate that crap, and I refuse to participate in it. I can understand extreme situations, but being “fashionably late” isn’t cool anymore.

I might wait until ten or fifteen minutes past the hour to accommodate a few stragglers. That’s as far as my goodwill is going to stretch. Show up an hour late at your own peril, knowing if you do you’ll miss half the show and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.

Anyway. If a wild musical extravaganza with me acting as the ringleader is something you think you’d enjoy, you might want to save the date.