Live in Absentia.

Not much has changed around here. I remain luckier than most when it comes to navigating these post-coronavirus times. Music continues to be made, hair continues to be grown, and profanity continues to be profane. But there was something I was looking forward to that had to be scrapped because of this strange, surreal semi-dystopic world we’re living in right now.

Dave Konstantino has been hosting a great show on CJAM called Revolution Rock for more than a decade now. I went to high school with Adam Peltier. He once hosted a great show of his own called Fear of Music. Now he co-hosts Revolution Rock with Dave. These guys have been two of my staunchest supporters, so it seems poetic that it would work out this way. I think Dave has been playing my music on CJAM for as long as he’s had his show. As for Adam, he was the first person to give me any kind of airplay at all, traumatizing unsuspecting listeners with my X-rated Christmas album twenty years ago.

Earlier this year, Dave and Adam and I were plotting an on-air interview and live performance to coincide with the release of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. We thought we had plenty of time to make it happen. Then everything changed, and playing live anywhere — even in an intimate setting with only a few people present — became impossible.

That was the end of that, or so I thought.

Dave got in touch a few months ago and asked if I would be up for doing an interview through email or Skype instead. My MacBook has a built-in webcam, but I don’t think it’s capable of producing a level of video or sound quality I’d be happy with, and I tend to feel like less of an inarticulate blob when I have a chance to sit with someone’s questions for a little while and work out how I want to respond to them. I opted for the email interview and offered to film myself performing some songs in my studio as a substitute for a live performance.

You can check out the results over here. Dave wrote a really kind, thoughtful review of the album, and he and Adam put together some surprising and thought-provoking questions. For once my answers were unedited and presented in their entirety. Take that, other people who interviewed me and whittled down my words without giving me an opportunity to edit them myself.

They also dedicated the entirety of the most recent episode of Revolution Rock to me and my music. Here’s the whole thing (Dave was kind enough to share the file with me).

Revolution Rock Episode # 855 (11/14/20)

I was kind of gobsmacked. I expected them to play a few songs off of the new album and talk a bit about the interview and video performance. No way was I expecting something like this. I think they ended up playing close to thirty songs, including some things I never thought I’d hear on the radio. There’s even a song from the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP in there!

I think it works as a pretty great encapsulation of what I’ve been up to over the last decade and change. And it has to be one of the best compliments anyone’s given me in recent memory. Huge thanks to Dave and Adam for the incredibly kind words, the airplay, the interview, and for supporting me and what I do for all these years.

A few words about the video performance:

I thought I’d bang it out in an afternoon. It took me the better part of a week to get what I wanted on video and digital tape. Deciding on just a handful of things to play was a serious challenge. I was able to get it down to a shortlist of twenty-seven songs. That was the best I could do. From there, I started trying different things to see what worked and what didn’t. I settled on two songs from YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, two that are slated for inclusion on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE whenever I finish that thing, one that hasn’t found a home anywhere, and an improvised instrumental piano piece that just sort of toppled out along the way.

Filming myself was pretty straightforward. By now I have a pretty good handle on where to put the camera and how to work with manual focus instead of relying on the autofocus and hoping it doesn’t do any obvious hunting in the middle of a performance. Having some decent lighting in the studio has been a revelation. I’m never going to produce a super slick-looking video. That isn’t what I’m after. But the difference between this stuff and the footage I used to grab with those Flip cameras in crummy lighting…it’s pretty striking.

Also striking is the absence of the chunky wildebeest seen throughout Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories)I’ve morphed back into something resembling the svelte Johnny of old. I think it says something about my current state of physical and mental health that after discovering two songs were filmed at an angle that created the illusion of a receding hairline, instead of being embarrassed or feeling a pressing need to re-record those songs, I kept the footage and treated it as an excuse to throw in a silly little gag. A year or two ago? Never would have happened.

Back when my mic cabinet consisted of little more than a Shure SM58 and two SM57s, recording acoustic guitar and vocals at the same time was a piece of cake. Those microphones were directional enough that I didn’t have to worry about any significant bleed or phase issues. Recording with the sensitive condenser mics I have now is a different story. I thought I’d save myself some trouble and play electric guitar instead of acoustic. Recording QUIET BEASTS with Yessica Woahneil taught me how much good energy the bleed from the Pearlman TM-1 can add to an electric guitar recording when it doesn’t get too out of control. I went for a similar thing here, with an SM57 and a Sennheiser 421 pointed at the old Paul tube amp. I think it worked out well.

The problems started when I tried to record the piano and my voice at the same time. It didn’t matter what I used for a vocal mic. The Neumann KM 184s I use to record the piano would pick up the sound of a dog scratching itself three miles away. There was no way to control the vocal bleed.

I moved over to the Wurlitzer electric piano. The timing couldn’t have been better. We were experiencing the tail end of a nice little Indian summer before the cold finally settled in once and for all last week. In the fourteen years I’ve had the Wurlitzer, its tuning has never once wavered, but I’ve noticed the action gets a little sluggish once winter kicks in. Some of the keys turn heel for a while. They don’t like to produce any sound unless you really lay into them. When I was filming this stuff, I caught the Wurly at its most agreeable.

I’ve recorded this electric piano a few different ways over the years. I’ve never plugged it into an external amplifier. There’s something wrong with the output. It emits a horrible buzzing sound that renders the signal it produces unusable. I chalk it up to the shoddy work of the now-defunct Speakeasy Vintage Music. I could write a few thousand words about the ridiculous experience I had with those jokers. I got my Wurlitzer in the end, and it’s served me well, so I’ll tell that tale some other time.

The shittiness of the output has never troubled me. I like the earthy sound I get from sticking a microphone in front of one of the internal speakers. For whatever reason, I’ve always gone with the left speaker instead of the right one. I’ve never tried recording the Wurlitzer in stereo, though I’ve double-tracked it more often than not.

I started out using a Neumann KM 184. This is one of the first recordings I ever made of the Wurlitzer, way back in October of 2006.

Wurly Test #2

I’d share “Wurly Test #1”, but I can’t find the CD I stashed it on, and I don’t have the patience to search for it right now.

When I was recording LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I switched over to a Pearlman TM-LE. That’s the mic I’ve used on the Wurlitzer ever since. It wasn’t working for me when I was recording this video, though. Again I couldn’t control the bleed. So I replaced it with an SM57. It shouldn’t have surprised me how much I liked the sound. I’ve been recording guitar amps with SM57s forever. What I really wasn’t expecting was the amount of body I got from just that one mic. I had to use a high pass filter to tame the low end a bit.

I wanted to try using something different for a vocal mic here, and I was too lazy to move the TM-1 over to the Wurlitzer and mess with the mic stand, so I dusted off an Audio-Technica 4047 I’ve been babysitting since 2009. I used it on a few songs on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, liked it, and then never used it on anything again. This mic grabs a lot of low frequency information, but in this situation it was an asset. I was able to keep the mic a fair distance away from my face, eliminating the need for a pop filter and allowing myself to concentrate on my performance without thinking, “I need to eat the microphone to make this work.”

Everything is presented as it was tracked, with one exception: I punched in a few vocal bits on one of the Wurlitzer songs. I know that’s cheating. I couldn’t resist. And you know what Lyle Lovett had to say on the subject.

So if you notice a few moments in “Brighter Than the Deepest Dark” where it sounds like the vocal is double-tracked in a subtle, distant way, now you know why. The small bits of the vocal track I replaced are butting up against remnants of the original performance that bled through the SM57. I kind of like the unintentional idiosyncrasy it created in the recording.

Maybe it’s a little strange to end with a song as acidic as “Popular Music Has Made Us Complacent”, but it felt right. I had to work some dirty words in there somewhere, didn’t I?

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