Month: November 2019

The island of misfit songs.

For the first time since I started work on this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK thing, I can see the finish line. It’s almost close enough to touch. Worst case scenario, I should be able to get this thing in the hands of the few people I’m planning on sharing it with in time for Christmas. After beginning to feel like one of those blowhards who’s always talking about some project they never manage to finish, it smells a bit like vindication. And cinnamon.

(Don’t tell me finish lines are scentless. I’ll never believe it.)

In spite of all the progress made, I’ve been wrestling with the track list for some time now. It wasn’t too difficult to work out a sequence for the first disc that felt right, but the second disc has given me all kinds of grief. I couldn’t get past the feeling that there were too many subdued, mid-tempo songs. At the same time, whenever I tried throwing in something catchy and upbeat to shake things up, it felt like it cheapened the whole album — like I was letting a song sneak in not because I felt it was my best work, but because it made for a more accessible listening experience.

It took a bit of banging my head against the wall, but I decided if the second disc wanted to be a little more low-key than the first, I might as well let it. Bad things happen when I try to force the music somewhere it doesn’t want to go.

Within a few days of making that decision, a peppy little bluegrass song I thought was an outtake became album material out of nowhere — fleshing out the arrangement really transformed it — and I recorded a ninety-second rock song called “Your Music in Commercials After You Die” that was too much fun not to include. Three guesses what that last one’s about!

So I got a little bit of what I thought I needed, but in a much more organic way.

The second disc is still going to be a less hyper-eclectic affair than the first one, but in all fairness the first half of this album is probably the most diverse collection of songs I’ve ever squeezed onto a single CD. It takes in experimental rock, progressive piano pop, sombre folk, shoegaze/dream pop, doo-wop — and that’s just the first five songs.

Needless to say, if you’re one of those folks who’s always longed for me to make a concise ten-song album that stays rooted to one place, you’re not going to find that here.

Along the way, a lot of things have fallen by the wayside. I think I’d have to go all the way back to 2003’s NUDGE YOU ALIVE to find the last album I made where every song that was recorded made the cut. As more thought has gone into the crafting of each album as an artistic statement, outtakes have become a fact of life. Sometimes a song sounds like a keeper when you’re carrying it around in your head, but when you get around to recording it there’s something missing. Other times the song is strong enough, but it doesn’t fit in with the emotional or sonic arc you’re trying to create with the album. In some cases the arrangement doesn’t feel right and you abandon the song before it even gets a rough mix.

It almost always boils down to a gut feeling for me, even with the most random-seeming segues — does this belong?

It stands to reason that when you take ten times longer than usual to make an album, you’re going to end up with a pretty substantial collection of outtakes. This YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK situation is a new one for me, though. It’s the first time in my life the outtakes have outnumbered the album tracks.

I’m going to try and squeeze fifty songs onto these two CDs. The limitations of the media will determine whether or not I can. Even if I do manage to pull it off, there are still eighty-four songs I’ve recorded for the album that won’t be moving on. And that’s not counting any of the sketches or demos. There are hundreds of those by now.

I’m not bragging. I’m a little bewildered. I expected there to be a fair amount of outtakes, but not this many.

Some of these songs are destined for a second “misfits” compilation somewhere down the road. A few might sneak onto THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE if I ever finish that thing. A whole whack of them will probably never see the light of day at all, or else I’ll re-record them from scratch at a later date if it feels like they’re right for a different album.

Some of my favourites still haven’t been given a proper mix, but a handful of them have. After all, I thought at least some of these things were potential album material at one time or another.

Here’s a little taste of what didn’t make it out of the kitchen.

Love Among the Cannibals

I wrote more piano ballads for this album than I knew what to do with. Somewhere around half of them made the cut. This one didn’t. I like it — especially the way it starts out so sparse and then ends as an overdriven wall of sound — but my dreamy, hazy side is already well represented in a number of other songs that take more interesting turns.

La Noche Está Viva con la Locura de Los Hombres

A song written in Spanish, sung with a straight face when the lyrics are secretly ridiculous? That’s right up my alley. So why isn’t it going on the album?

It’s fun, but it feels a little thin to me — more of a novelty song. I also never quite got the arrangement the way I wanted it. The plan was to punctuate the end of each verse with mariachi trumpets. By the time I got around to fleshing this one out, I was pretty sure I never wanted to bring another outside musician into my music again. I settled for singing into the Yamaha VSS-30 and utilizing the oversampling function, creating some silly lo-fi operatic vocal harmonies where the horns were supposed to be. The highlight of the recording process might have been singing “chin to chin” through a child’s voice transforming toy and layering some grimy harmonies.

In English, the title is “Night Is Alive with the Folly of Men”. If you’re curious, this is what the lyrics translate to:

These gifts you bring me —
they are such abysmal shit.

You do not know me at all.
You make my anus weep such tears of disappointment.

I want to walk naked on the moon
and urinate in silence
as God would do
if He drank a lot of beer.

I want to eliminate your nipples
from my memories and visions,
but life is long and hard,
so spank me gently.

Sweet Exposure Dance

This is one of those catchy little tunes I tried to sneak onto the second disc before realizing it was best to leave things alone. The swearing at the end was inspired by my neighbours. The afternoon I sat down to record the basic tracks, everyone on the block decided to cut their grass. But they didn’t do it all at once. They took turns. As soon as one person finished, another would start. This went on for hours. It got pretty irritating after the seventh or eighth person decided the world was going to end if they waited another day to mow their lawn.

It might not surprise you to know I did a little internal celebration when we got our first real snowfall of the season the other day. No more lawnmowers until next year. Hallelujah.

Headless Man in a Three-Piece Suit

As many different places as this album goes musically, “excerpt from a futuristic soft porn soundtrack” felt a little too random even for me. This one is all Alesis Micron and VSS-30. The Micron supplies the synth bass and the percussion that sounds a little like it’s short-circuiting. Everything else is the VSS-30, and the sound that holds everything together is my voice, oversampled about a hundred times (okay, maybe five or six). It’s kind of funky, isn’t it?

Tunica Media

I always try to end an album with something that feels like an ending. There’s usually one song that jumps out at me and grabs that spot. This time a number of tracks were considered. This one got voted off the island, but I still like its unpredictable harmonic movement.

Gratitude, Latitude, Something Something Attitude

I wasn’t able to nail the feeling I wanted here. I was going for something with a bit of punky energy, and it all came out sounding pretty bloodless. I didn’t have it in me to push for the more aggressive vocal performance the song needed to put it over the top. It didn’t help that I ran out of tracks on the mixer and couldn’t add the group vocals I hoped would punch things up a bit.

The initial GarageBand demo somehow got a lot closer to what I was after:

Gratitude, Latitude, Something Something Attitude (demo)

Wake Me When It’s over

Now, this is a tiny song I like an awful lot, even if there isn’t much to it. A bunch of guitars do melodic things while love is interred and finds itself more appreciated as a cadaver. Sounds like a winter rom-com hit to me. I really tried to find a place for this one in the album sequence. It wasn’t meant to be.

There’s a lot more, but I think that gives you at least some idea of the sheer breadth of stuff we’re dealing with here. It almost feels like a miracle that I’ve been able to pare things down to a lean two-disc set. I’ve had to kill some of my darlings along the way, but sometimes that’s the cost of doing business.

Headphones: the final frontier.

Headphones can be such a nuisance.

Since the beginning of time, every year or two the cord for my Sennheiser HD265s craps out on me — though I seem to have solved this problem at long last by using separate cords upstairs and downstairs, cutting down on wear and tear. If I’m not accidentally sitting on a pair and destroying them (sorry, Direct Sound EX29s), I’m swearing when one of the drivers stops working and I’m left with sound in only one ear (I’m looking at you, Vic Firth isolation headphones).

The most frustrating of them all might be my Denon AH-D7000s — and not for any of the reasons you’d expect.

I bought them ten years ago, right in the middle of recording LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS. They ran me about a thousand bucks. I was reluctant to spend that much money on a pair of headphones, but these were worth it. Some headphones will lie to you and make poorly-recorded music sound okay. Not these guys. Bad recordings and bad mixes are revealed in all their awful, glorious mediocrity. At the other end of the spectrum, when something is recorded and mixed well, it sounds otherworldly on these headphones. They’re a little on the bright side, but that allows me to hone in on and eliminate lip smacks, tongue clicks, and other unwanted incidental sounds that might otherwise slip through the cracks.

I’m sure something like the Stax SR-009s would blow the AH-D7000s away. I’m going to go out on a limb and say even if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t begin to consider spending $10,000 on those headphones and the amp needed to drive them. The AH-D7000s do the job just fine for me.

They’ve become an indispensable mixing tool. If I can get a song to sound good on my monitors, the darker (and somewhat more flattering) Sennheiser headphones, and these Denon headphones, I know it’s going to translate just about anywhere, whether it’s a full-range hi-fi setup or tiny laptop speakers.

All was well until three or four years ago, when something strange started to happen. Every once in a while I would leave one of my spiral notebooks lying around in the studio and a small splotch would appear somewhere on whatever page the book was flipped open to. I don’t have oily fingers, so it was a bit of a mystery to me. I started to think maybe there was a friendly ghost wandering around in our house and he/she enjoyed reading my lyrics. Nothing else made much sense.

Then I noticed I kept leaving the Denon AH-D7000s on top of whatever notebook I was using. It wasn’t greasy ghost fingers making those splotches. It was the ear pads on the headphones.

I’ve never been rough with the AH-D7000s — I take care of my stuff — but they’ve been very well-used in the time I’ve had them. When one of the structural screws popped out, forcing Steve Chapman to turn into MacGyver and save the day, it was shoddy craftsmanship on Denon’s part that led to the problem, not headphone abuse on my part.

Now it’s the same thing again. Here’s a company that charges a lot of money for high-end headphones, and they can’t be bothered to use a PVC solution that won’t completely break down over time.

It’s been getting worse over the last little while. Now both the headband and the ear pads are degrading, and some days I’m finding bits of pleather in my hair and on my face.

Laurette, the owner and alterationist at Seams to Fit, has done a fair bit of mending for us over the years. Seventeen years ago, Johnny Smith brought Jiffy — a stuffed giraffe I’ve had since I was a baby — to her for some surgical intervention. Too many trips to the washing machine in my childhood left him with some awful scoliosis, and he couldn’t even raise his head anymore. Thanks to Laurette, Jiffy got his swagger (and his posture) back, and he’s still going strong today at the age of thirty-six.

If anyone was going to be able to do something to salvage these headphones, I thought it might be Laurette.

I asked her what she thought about sewing a fabric over the headband to cover the decrepit pleather so it wouldn’t break off in my hair anymore. Without batting an eye, she said, “What about vinyl?” She had an extra piece squirreled away that looked like it was just the right size. It was black, and it looked and felt very similar to the material the existing headband was made out of. She said she could rig something up with velcro so it would be removable, in case I ever wanted to clean it.

Two days later it was ready. She charged me all of five bucks. From a distance, you wouldn’t even guess the headphones have been altered in any way.

The ear pads are another story.

A lot of third party companies sell replacement pads that cost anywhere from thirty to sixty dollars. That sounds semi-reasonable, but there’s a serious drawback. Because none of these ear pads are manufactured from the original materials Denon used, they all change the way the headphones sound. That wasn’t going to work for me.

You’d think I could just buy replacement ear pads from Denon themselves. Nope. They used to sell replacement parts, but they’ve discontinued most of the headphones they used to make, and though the new AH-D7200s look almost identical to the AH-D7000s, you can’t even buy replacement ear pads for them. Talk about not standing behind your products.

After doing some research, I discovered Fostex is the only reputable company making replacement ear pads that are more or less interchangeable with the original AH-D7000 pads, and they won’t alter the sonic signature of the headphones too much. After shipping, they would run me well over a hundred dollars. For ear pads. Made of the same material that will someday degrade and flake off on my face all over again.

“Nuts to that,” says I.

I’m sticking with the decaying ear pads I’ve got. I don’t mind picking the occasional tiny bit of pleather off of the side of my face. At least I don’t have to worry about it getting stuck in my hair anymore. That’s progress.