Author: johnnywestmusic

i was born a leafless tree in a field of soccer balls. communicating was difficult, but we devised our own methods.

Meet the new board, same as the old board.

This whiteboard began its life in a pretty unassuming way. Once in a while we’d draw some silly things on it or use it to play a large-scale game of Hangman. It got packed away and forgotten about until the Great Demoralizing Move of 2007. Once I had my new studio space up and running, I thought it might be worthwhile to repurpose it as an “ideas board”.

I started out with good intentions…

…but within a few years the board was maxed out, and most of what was written on it was pretty outdated. I kept meaning to wipe it off and start fresh. I kept forgetting to do that. I think about six hundred people have heard me say, “I need to clear that thing off and write some new stuff on it,” at one time or another when they’ve been over here and have noticed the whiteboard.

Lately I’ve been in a bit of a recording funk. A lot of it has to do with feeling a little overwhelmed. It’s not as if I haven’t been here before, with several albums on the go at once, but sometimes it can be difficult to figure out what you want to work on when the options are a little bewildering. The whole idea behind propping up that whiteboard in the studio was to have something to fall back on. If I couldn’t figure out what to work on, I could walk over to Mr. McBoard and just point at something random and say, “You. I’ll work on you.”

It worked for a while, until I ran out of room to add anything new. Then it was just a thing that took up space.

Seemed like a good time to revitalize the board and get it up to date. The only things I was sad to lose were the doodles a few people contributed over the years.

There was a bird.

There was a cat.

And there was this happy face that grew evil over time.

Now I’ll have to ask some friends to draw some new things in the spaces between the words.

I hadn’t written anything new on the board in at least a good five or six years, and I made the mistake of using permanent marker, so you can imagine how difficult it was to wipe clean. It took toilet cleanser, a sponge, and some serious wrist action to make any progress at all. Soap and water wasn’t cutting it.

Right around the time my hand was ready to fall off, I finally had a blank slate to work with. It was very strange to see the board with nothing on it for the first time in a decade.

I picked up some dry-erase markers so the next time I feel a need to do some wiping it’ll be a lot less time-consuming. Then I went to work building a new list of stuff to fall back on.

Now it looks like this.

Most of the song titles are abbreviated, because some of them would stretch all the way across the board if they were written out in full. And what’s there is really just a drop in the bucket. But at least there’s a group of songs to choose from when I need to bail myself out of an overthinking (or underthinking) jam, with room for expansion.

Songs in red boxes have been recorded. Some need a lot of work. Some just need a fresh mix. Songs that aren’t in boxes haven’t been recorded yet. When there’s no work left to do on a song in a box and it feels CD-ready, the box will get filled in. “Stricture” at the top of the second column got smudged, and it’s annoying me every time I look at it (these dry-erase markers live up to their namesake to an insane degree), but once that song ends up in a box of its own no one will be the wiser.

It feels good to have a fresh start in this little corner of the room. Weird, but good.

Phone it in.

These fellas have moved on to greener pastures. I’ve had pretty good luck with selling gear on Kijiji for quite a while now, and here again a little bit of patience paid off.

I haven’t used these headphones much at all in the fifteen years I’ve had them. Their pristine condition all but gives it away. Thought they’d be better served in the hands and on the head of someone who could get some use out of them, because they’re fine ‘phones.

Waving goodbye to them got me thinking about all the different headphones I’ve owned over the years.

The first “real” pair of headphones I got were Koss TD/60s, in 1994 or early 1995. After settling for Gameboy earbuds and the free, cheaply-made headphones you’d get with pretty much any inexpensive Walkman (complete with a headband that always seemed to want to catch on your hair), these guys felt like a BMW wrapped around my head.

They were mainstays until my first serious set of headphones came along in early 1999 — a pair of Sennheiser HD 265s. The difference in sound almost blew my head off. Everything was so much more vivid and three-dimensional.

I bought a backup pair of HD 265s when I got the feeling they were going to stop selling them soon. One day I sat on that second pair while they were resting on the seat of the chair that sits in the heart of the studio, destroying them in a split-second of absentminded movement. By then my hunch had come to pass and the model had been discontinued.

Now I make sure if any headphones are going to be hanging out on that chair they’re hooked on an armrest, and not anywhere my thoughtless ass can cause them pain.

The first pair of HD 265s remain. They’ve been my workhorse headphones for almost two decades now, getting heavy use both in the studio and in more casual listening situations. These are the headphones I would wear when I was in high school, walking around at lunchtime with my Discman stuffed into my inside coat pocket, oblivious to how funny I might have looked to anyone else. They’re the headphones I use today when I’m tracking anything that isn’t loud electric guitar or drums, and they’re what I listen on when I’m in my bed that doubles as a desk.

They’ve been through a lot, but they refuse to die.

What doesn’t refuse to die is the stereo headphone cable. I’m convinced they designed it to break down after a few years so they could make more money selling replacement cables.

The first one went on me in 2003, not long after OH YOU THIS was finished. Until I was able to scrounge up a new cable, I was forced to pull out my old Koss friends. It surprised me how decent they sounded. Sure, they were no match for the Sennheiser headphones, but they didn’t embarrass themselves.

I’d be curious to give them another listen today. I had two sets of them. I know I gave one to a friend a long time ago. The other pair must be buried in a box in the basement somewhere.

Since then, the HD 265 cable has died on me every three years, like clockwork. Lucky for me, between Glen at Audio Two and a few good contacts at Sennheiser, replacing it has never been a problem.

Around the same time I picked up that first set of HD 265s, I grabbed a pair of Sennheiser HD 570s. That way I’d have both closed and open-back headphones to work with.

The 570s have also long since been discontinued. Mine are still kicking, though I haven’t used them much in a long while. Never had any issues with the sound, and the cord never went goofy on me. I just found myself reaching for them less and less.

They did get quite a bit of use for a few years there early on, and there’s some pretty hilarious footage of Tyson wearing them while recording guitar for SEED OF HATE — hilarious because death metal is the last thing in the world these headphones were voiced for.

The closed headphones Sennheiser advertised as the next step up after the HD 265s were phased out and something of a replacement for them were the HD 280 PROs. I bought a pair when they first came out. They’re still made today.

I’ve never understood the hype these things get. To me they’ve always sounded horrible and uninspiring. To this day, the HD 265 is the best closed headphone design with a sane price tag I’ve ever heard. The soundstage is wide and full. They’re comfortable to wear over a long period of time. Maybe there’s a little more bass than some people like to hear, but to my ears the sound has always been balanced, natural, and just right.

The HD 280s sound like junk in comparison — boxy, thin, and lifeless, with very little depth or definition. I have no idea what everyone else has been hearing all this time.

I gave them to Gord when his cheap headphones died on him. He seems to like them. Better they get to live out the rest of their existence somewhere they’ll be appreciated, right?

The AKG 271s were another backup choice. They did the job, but I was never moved to reach for them over my go-to Sennheiser cans. They were there more so someone else would have something to listen on when I needed to have more than one set of headphones active at a time.

Later on I got a pair of Extreme Isolation headphones — the last thing you’d ever want use as a mixing reference, but great for recording loud sounds without endangering your hearing. If you saw me play live in any high volume situation between 2008 and 2012, I was probably wearing them to protect my ears.

A few years ago I sat on these headphones and broke them. What is it with me and sitting on things?

I bought a pair of Vic Firth isolation headphones to replace them. At half the price they isolate just as well and don’t seem to sound any worse. Works for me.

When I was working on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I started reading about Denon headphones. I’d read about pricier ‘phones before, made by Grado and Stax and others. But these Denon AH-D7000 headphones were advertised as being some of the most open-sounding closed headphones on the market.

They were also more expensive than any pair of headphones I’d ever bought before.

I threw caution to the wind (the wind said, “Hey, thanks for the caution, pal,”) and ordered a pair through Live Wire Audio before that place closed. The day they came in, the store owner asked if he could have a listen. We plugged them into a hi-fi system, I put on Manu Katché’s album Playground, he slid them on, and his eyes got as big as grapefruits.

These are true reference headphones. They waste no time in letting you know what’s what. Badly-recorded music sounds awful through them. Well-recorded music sounds stunning. And the clarity is unreal. When I first got these monsters, I heard things I didn’t know were there in songs I knew inside and out.

When someone else comes over here to record something with me, these are usually what I give them to wear. Something like the Stax SR-009s might blow them away, but the AH-D7000s are the best I’ve ever heard, and the most money I’ll ever be willing to spend on this sort of thing. They’re plenty good enough for me and what I do.

For all the time and thought that went into designing the guts of these headphones and making them sound good, I don’t think much went into making sure the exterior was robust enough to stand the test of time. Though I decided early on not to baby them and they picked up a few scuff marks in the line of duty, by and large they’ve been treated well.

It didn’t matter. One day one of the little screws that attach the ear cups to the hinges that connect to the headband popped out without any encouragement, everything collapsed on one side, and there was no getting the screw back in. These headphones, like my favourite Sennheiser ‘phones before them, have been discontinued. A cable is one thing. Getting a replacement screw from the source? That was out of the question.

Johnny Smith put in a valiant effort, even investing in a set of tiny screwdrivers, but none of his work paid off. An eyeglasses place that once reattached a broken arm on my favourite pair of wire frame glasses took a shot at it. They fared no better.

Then the Smithster said, “What about Steve Chapman?”

Steve is a wizard with guitars. But would he even want to try and Macgyver some temperamental headphones back together?

I never should have doubted him. He determined that the screw Denon used was the wrong size to begin with. He found one that fit and screwed it in. Then, to guard against this sort of thing happening again on either side, he reinforced the hinges with twist ties and two small pieces of foam rubber.

Good as new. Better than new. And now these headphones have added character.

Before I sold the AKGs and gave away the Sennheisers I never liked, I was thinking it would be nice to have better-sounding headphones on hand when I needed to take care of more than just myself and one other person. My headphone amp has four outputs, and there have been times when I’ve maxed that out recording group vocals. Someone would always end up with the isolation headphones or something else that — at least in my opinion — gave them a pretty mediocre representation of what was happening.

There had to be something out there that was cheap but decent. I did some research. The Audio-Technica ATH-M20X headphones caught my eye. There were a lot of good reviews, and I could get two of them for less than what a single pair of the HD 280 PROs ran me. Worst case scenario, I’d donate them to CJAM and then swear about it here when someone stole them.

Within about thirty seconds of unboxing one pair, I knew neither one of them were going anywhere. These might not quite have the extension of the HD 265s, but they’re easily some of the best, most natural-sounding closed headphones I’ve heard in a long while. Given the cost, the sound quality is pretty ridiculous. I don’t think you’re going to find a better $60 set of headphones anywhere.

Even Eli, Elliott’s long-lost evil twin brother, is a fan.

Under different circumstances, I would recommend the Sennheiser HD 265 as a great sleeper for anyone looking for some good closed headphones. There’s one problem. They’re almost impossible to find on the used market. Almost no one who has them seems to want to part with them. When they do show up on eBay, prices range from $300 (a little more than they used to cost new, but still a decent deal) to $600 (outrageous). For a lot less money, those Audio-Technica headphones aren’t a bad way to go at all.

While we’re here, a quick bit of advice to fellow home studio warriors:

I see a lot of threads on recording-related message boards that have people asking what the best headphones are to mix on. Sometimes they’re in an apartment or they’re working in a room with no sound treatment, and they feel the monitors they’d be able to afford wouldn’t give them an honest representation of what’s going on in their recordings, or they wouldn’t be able to turn them up loud enough to get the most out of them.

Headphones are often necessary when you’re tracking. They can be an important reference when you’re mixing, allowing you to check phase relationships and stereo balances and no end of other things. But to mix on headphones alone…that’s a mistake.

I know because I used to do it.

Very few of the things I mixed exclusively on headphones ever transferred over very well to other systems. There was always something that sounded off. On the other hand, when I get a mix to sound right on the monitors, it almost always sounds good on headphones and everywhere else.

I know a lot of us are working in rooms that aren’t perfect, but even a middling set of monitors can make a world of difference. There are things your most expensive headphones won’t tell you. They can play tricks on your ears sometimes, especially when it comes to the perceived volume of tracks that are hard-panned. And from my experience, monitoring at a low or moderate volume often leads to better results than cranking the volume. The louder things get, the easier it is to get caught up in the energy and stop listening critically. Ear fatigue becomes an issue as well.

The real trick is to get to know your listening equipment and — where applicable — how it reacts to your room. I’ve found I get the best results by switching back and forth between headphones and monitors. If I can get something to sound balanced on the monitors and my trusty Sennheiser and Denon headphones, usually it means I’m on the right track. Then I audition a mix on as many sources as I can, from different stereos to laptop speakers, and make adjustments based on what I hear.

(I used to use car speakers as another reference. I’m too lazy to do that these days. It doesn’t seem to have hurt my mixes.)

Some folks will put a lot of effort into getting a mix to sound big and punchy on tiny speakers, with the idea that most people will be listening to the music on their computer or an iPod. I understand that, but I’ve never done it. I mix things to sound as good as possible on a full-range system. Too many strange things start happening to the low end and midrange when you try to compensate for speakers with weird frequency responses and very little bass.

You should do what works best for you, of course. But headphones will only give you part of the picture. Before I had proper studio monitors, I used to monitor through a boombox, and then a stereo/record player I found in a pawn shop with slightly bigger speakers. While the mixes I made in those days weren’t great, being able to hear the music moving around in the open air taught me a lot about sound.

You can find an infinite amount of information on the internet about recording and mixing, and people will tell you a hundred different ways to do any given thing. As great as it is to have those resources at our fingertips, I still think there’s no better way to learn than to experiment and use your ears. Some of the best sounds I’ve ever captured have come out of doing things the wrong way, and sometimes rough mixes that were made in the heat of the moment have managed to beat out later, more considered mixes.

Boo.

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.

Was Nina Persson singing a coded message to a mastering engineer in the cardigans song “Been It”?

A final note about this whole remastering thing, as I make the last few tweaks and double-check my work:

Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to finish is an inability to master in any conventional way, due to the nature of my equipment. I think when most people tackle this stuff, they have all the songs gathered together in one place. Usually their setup is at least somewhat computer-based, so they’ll have the whole album in a Pro Tools session or something. This way they can compare any songs they want with ease, right down to split-second sections of music, and work to achieve something approaching sonic continuity.

I can’t do that. I don’t work with a computer when it comes to music. Outside of recording GarageBand demos on my laptop, everything I do happens inside the same Roland VS-1680 I’ve been using for almost twenty years now. Technically you could say the mixer itself is a computer, sort of, but it’s a very limited one, and the only one I use.

Back when I didn’t routinely max out all the tracks I had to work with, recording all the songs on one file and keeping them together was an option, even if it didn’t allow for much creativity when it came to sequencing the songs. A lot of the Guys with Dicks albums were recorded this way, with the songs transferred to CD in one shot, left in the order they were recorded, separated by track markers but with no spaces between them.

That’s not an option anymore. Now I have to work on one song at a time.

As you can imagine, level-matching after the fact often turns into a huge pain in the posterior. I try to make life as easy as possible by mastering all the songs at several different volumes, making microscopic adjustments, so I’ve got a lot of play when it comes time to put all the pieces together. Achieving a good balance by guessing and hoping is just about impossible, though I did manage to pull it off sometimes on much older albums when I had a pretty solid, if crude, template for how I recorded and mixed everything.

Still, no matter how much legwork I do, after settling on a good overall master volume I always have to go back and revisit at least a few songs to make them a little quieter or a little louder so they fit in with all the rest.

So when I say doing this involved remastering 188 songs, I mean that in the most literal sense. It was very much a drawn-out, one-song-at-a-time process.

I thought I was finished before I really was. All the hard, time-consuming work was done, but the final step of getting everything to live in a pretty consistent volume range remained. This is the “smallest” job of all, and also the most important.

The goal, at least for me, is to be able to set your volume — whatever device you’re listening on — in one place that’s comfortable, and then not have to make any adjustments from the beginning of an album to the end. There are going to be quieter and louder passages. You want those dynamic moments to be there. But as long as the loudest moments in those songs all live close to the same place, hitting a similar apex, the ears will adapt to the ebbs and flows of the album, the same way your eyes adapt to changes in light. If I’ve done my job right, those ears will still be feeling pretty fresh when the headphones come off or the speakers stop singing, and they’ll have gone on a bit of a sonic and emotional journey along with the rest of the body and brain.

I wasn’t always great at this. I think I’m getting pretty good at it now.

Some albums are much easier to achieve that balance with than others. You would think an album like MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS, with so many songs that go so many different places, would be a nightmare to master. And you’d think an album like LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, a shorter one by my standards, would be much easier to deal with.

I thought both of those things. I was wrong on both counts.

I got MEDIUM-FI MUSIC almost all the way there on the first pass. I couldn’t believe it. A few small changes and it was right where I wanted it to be. Even a song like “I Love You”, which was always tricky because of the harshness of its vocal sound blurring the line between perceived and actual volume, was sitting in just about the best place it could hope to be.

NIHILISTS has taken at least half a dozen tries. I knew it was a dynamic album. I didn’t realize it had this much dynamic range until the clipping was gone and I could hear everything that was going on with more clarity. In terms of the way so many songs move from near-silence to huge, sometimes violent crescendos, it might be the most extreme album I’ve ever made.

I think I’ve got it about as good as it’s ever going to get now, and I’ve accepted that this is one album where there’s no avoiding the need to manipulate the volume control a little while listening to it, unless your ears can handle the extreme soft/loud dynamics (and maybe they can…I know mine are more sensitive than most).

AN ABSENCE OF SWAY is the last one I need to do this final precision work on. It should take a day or two. Then this will all be finished, and I will never have a need to remaster anything else again if I can help it.

The gift-giving spider.

You make a thing. You decide how you feel about the thing. Sometimes you know while you’re making it. Sometimes it takes a while before you know. Sometimes you think you know, and then your feelings shift.

I like to say it takes me a year or two before I can stand back and really see where an album fits into the bigger picture. That isn’t always so. There have been albums that felt like some of my best work when I was recording them and still feel that way today, albums I thought were shaping up to be great only to find they sounded like garbage to me not long after they were finished, and albums that felt kind of slight or sub-par at first but have grown on me over the years — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

Then there’s GIFT FOR A SPIDER.

Since the world didn’t end the other day, in spite of all those doomsday theorists doing their best to convince us all that this time they were right and everything was gonna go kaboomy-bye, I thought it was time to revisit this album. Plus, I was doing some final level-matching tweaks as part of the remastering process and had to listen to it from start to finish to make sure I got it right anyway.

I was never sure how I felt about this one. I was waist-deep in the making of another (still unreleased) album when the need to do something different bubbled up because I found myself with some serious butterflies in my stomach about someone when I didn’t think butterflies were something I would feel again after some of the soul-destroying romantic adventures of yore. I got all of three or four warm and fuzzy songs written before it all went to hell, and suddenly instead of making my first true album of love songs for a living, breathing human, I was making a breakup album when I didn’t think I’d ever have a reason to make one of those again.

There’s no clearer illustration of the jarring shift in tone than “Nightside”, where you get to hear the change happen in the space of one three-minute song.

The words and music were written when I thought the burgeoning relationship had a great future ahead of it. I’d just finished spending the better part of a weekend with the person I was pretty sure was my new girlfriend, and it felt like I was gliding with my feet a few inches off of the floor when I walked. She really did jump sideways on the bed to get to me. It was a fun moment.

The spoken addendum was improvised later, after things fell apart, trading in sunny-eyed optimism for foul-mouthed venom.

Nightside

I liked the songs but couldn’t tell how well they played together as a larger piece of work. A lot of them were coming less from craftsmanship than a need for catharsis. I had such a difficult time sequencing everything in a way that felt like it made sense, I got a headache trying to suss out the order of the songs.

In all the years I’ve been making music, I can’t say any other album I’ve worked on has ever done that to me. And I’ve made double and triple CDs that have been packed with as much music as the media could handle.

When it was done, it just felt too raw to hang out with for any length of time. It wasn’t one of those cloying, maudlin breakup albums full of self-indulgent exercises in self-pity. It had sharp teeth. It had a goofy rap song and some insane slowed-down scream-coughing in-between songs of love and post-love. It was pretty eclectic, both sonically and emotionally. But it took a lot out of me, taking all the mixed feelings I had in the aftermath of that intense, ill-fated, whirlwind relationship and shaping them into songs. It isn’t a coincidence that I haven’t made a solo album since (though that’ll change soon enough).

I listened to it once or twice to make sure everything felt like it flowed okay. I played some of the songs live at the second Mackenzie Hall show (though not very many of them, which is pretty funny in hindsight, since that was the only proper “album release show” of my own I’ve ever played). After that, I kind of wanted to keep my distance. The last time I gave it a listen all the way through was about five years ago at Kevin Kavanaugh’s studio space, when I was knocked out by how good it sounded on his mega hi-fi system, even with my too-hot mastering job. Those speakers of his meant serious business.

Listening to the album now, it’s not so raw anymore. It’s amazing what some moisturizer and half a decade away from something can do for you. And I’ve gained enough emotional distance from what inspired the songs to realize something: I like this album.

“Some Things Are Better Left Buried” felt a bit like filler at the time. It doesn’t anymore, especially now that all the stupid distorted vocal peaks are gone. I really enjoy the way some of the catchiest, most uptempo music on the album is juxtaposed against some pretty morbid lyrics. I liked “A Puppet Playing Possum” fine back then. Now it’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written. “Light Sleeper” remains the bruised heart of the album for me. I can still feel the hope and uncertainty that went into that one.

Part of me still wishes the last section of “Different Degrees of Wrong” wasn’t such a tease. The segue from a rare venom-free love song into the violent lunacy of “Surrender to Thee” will probably always crack me up. And a fresh, saner mastering job allows me to hear that I did a pretty solid job with the recording and mixing side of things, when I wasn’t so sure at the time.

The album title was one I had kicking around for years before I knew what to do with it. At the house before this one, for a while there was a spider that spent a lot of time upstairs in my bedroom and the bathroom. I started to think of him as something close to a pet. I wondered what to get him for christmas, if he stuck around that long.

He didn’t. He came out of nowhere and bit me on the back of the leg while i was sitting on the toilet one night. I don’t like to kill any living thing if I can help it, aside from mosquitos (fuck those guys), but biting me when I’m dropping off some kids at the pool…that ain’t right.

I’m sad to say I didn’t develop any Spiderman-like super powers.

There’s also the whole “partner as a spider trapping you in their web” thing I lucked into as a useful accidental metaphor for a breakup album.

Finding cover art to play off of the title was always going to be tricky. But around the time of MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, Johnny Smith hired Bree Gaudette for a photo shoot and she captured a bunch of evocative images out in the county. I kept coming back to a few shots of a dilapidated barn. They just happened to feature a pretty prominent spiderweb.

As much as I liked the original colour version of the picture that became the cover image (seen above), there was something about the black and white edit I couldn’t shake. Something in there felt right.

There’s another accidental meaning behind the album title — something I never knew it meant until just recently.

There’s something called a nuptial gift. “Food items or inedible tokens that are transferred to females by males during courtship or copulation,” trusty old Wikipedia says.

It isn’t specific to insects by any means, but in certain species of spiders the male will offer the female a gift wrapped in silk as a way of enticing them to mate. As a rule, what’s being offered is prey caught by the male. If the female accepts the gift, she eats it while the male hops on and does his little sex dance.

Some spiders are crafty, evil little shits. Because of their ability to wrap and obscure the gift they’re offering, the female has no way of knowing what’s inside until she removes the proverbial wrapping paper. Two specific species have been known to wrap plant seeds and insect exoskeletons devoid of any edible parts. By the time the female figures out what she’s been given and realizes how useless it is, the male has already done his business.

That an insect with a brain the size of a poppy seed would think to do something so duplicitous is kind of amazing. I wish I could say I knew about this and it was in my head when I was deciding to dust off that old title for this group of songs, but I had no idea.

What’s strange about relationships as doomed and damaging as the one that fed into this album is the way the passage of time seems to dull some of the bad feelings while shining a light on the little pockets of happiness.

One unexpected bit of common ground I shared with the person a lot of these songs are about was a still-strong affection for the animated disney films we loved as kids. We watched Oliver & Company and The Aristocats while she leaned back on me and ashed her cigarette in a coffee mug. I felt like I was five years old again, only now I was a five-year-old in a grownup body with my hands cupping someone’s breasts through the thin fabric of a thing they called a shirt.

All five-year-olds in grownup bodies should be so lucky.

The suits at Disney have marketing down to a fine art. They take these classic movies everyone loves, the ones that helped shape your childhood, and they deny you access to them for years. Decades, even. Then they make a big show of releasing one of them on home media, letting you know it’s only going to be a limited release before the movie goes “back in the vault”.

It allows them to charge a ridiculous amount of money for something people will be glad to shell out for, given its scarcity and sentimental value. And if the movie you’re after is out of print by the time you show up, well, you can always find someone generous enough to sell you their used copy on the internet for a week’s pay.

The one she wanted most but couldn’t find was The Lion King. Disney had put it back in the vault. I wanted to surprise her. I found someone selling it on DVD for a pretty decent price and bought it.

With a perverse sense of timing the best fiction couldn’t invent, it showed up in my mailbox the day after we broke up. I chucked it in a dresser drawer and made myself forget about it.

Six years later, I’m doing some long-overdue cleaning and reorganizing when I dig The Lion King out of the bottom of its wooden tomb, still in the bubble bag that has my address written on the front. Now it’s nothing but a relic from a few weeks spent trying to pry love or something like love from the mouth of indifferent animal instinct. Now it’s a little bit funny.

It’s good when you get to a place where you can laugh about the things that used to sting.

Da Doo Ron Ron.

Ron was here earlier today to lay down a few things. It’s always a treat to hear that fella in my headphones.

The last time Ron came over to record, he played the Takamine guitar he’s had forever on all but one of the songs we recorded. I think it’s an EF341SC? I’m not positive. but that’s what it looks like.

I’m pretty sure that was the first time it was ever brought into the studio. It’s always been more of a gigging and songwriting guitar. The thing is a beast. When I caught Ron playing with Kelly Hoppe at Taloola, I was convinced he was hiding a small amp somewhere. No way could a dreadnought — with a cutaway, even — put out that kind of volume without a little help.

I was wrong. There was no amp. Just an axe with a lot of love to give.

With a few mics in front of it, the Takamine almost seems to morph into a different guitar. There’s some nice natural compression happening when Ron digs in a bit. It’s bright, but not in a bad way. It’ll retain a nice amount of punch no matter how dense a mix might get. That’s a valuable quality for a guitar to have.

This time Ron played my old Gibson LG-2. He’s got such a distinctive way of playing guitar, he’s going to sound like himself no matter what, but it’s interesting to hear the different personalities of the two instruments. I think they play well together, even if they haven’t found themselves both being played in the same song.

We’ve got seven and-a-half songs in the can now. Two and-a-half more and I can get to work on figuring out what shirts and shoes they want to wear. I’m looking forward to it. This album is going to have a pretty different feel to it from Tobacco Fields, but the songs are great, and Ron’s great. So if I don’t screw it up, the end result should be…triple-great.

Here are a few pictures I took.