Author: johnnywestmusic

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

Broadcasting from home.

The deeper I dig, the spookier the unintentionally prescient elements of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK get. There’s a bit I wrote but didn’t use for “Don’t Let the Preamble Ramble” that reads:

Distance is its own undoing.
All systems set to self-implode.

I don’t even know what to say about that.

On a lighter note, I’ll be talking to Brady at CJAM (through the phone) about music-related things around 3:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Friday. Feel free to tune in to 99.1 on the FM dial (or grab the live stream) if you’re interested in listening. Should be fun. And I think we could all could use a little fun right now.

Subsonic city.

Add this to the list of things I never thought I’d live long enough to witness: people selling single rolls of toilet paper on eBay, with everyone outbidding one another in an effort to snag a bit of precious bum Kleenex, driving the cost into oblivion.

Everyone’s been hoarding supplies in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. I understand it, even if I think it’s a little selfish to take more than you need, leaving nothing for the next person. I know it’s about fear, self-preservation, and trying to prepare in the event of a government-enforced lockdown or the need to self-quarantine. As for the soulless cretins who have seized the opportunity to profit off of this pandemic, buying up as much hand sanitizer and toilet paper as they can and then selling it back to the people they’ve deprived at exorbitant prices, well…leave it to a global crisis to bring out both the best and worst humanity has to offer.

In this skittish new world of self-isolation and social distancing, I find myself in a pretty strange position. I get to stand back and marvel at how much has changed while recognizing how little my own life has been impacted. My heart goes out to those who are struggling without the human contact they’re accustomed to. For me it’s been business as usual. Few people cared enough to engage with me in any meaningful way when there wasn’t any reason to keep their distance. It’s not as if my social life has taken a hit.

As far as the music is concerned, the work I was getting recording other artists had already dried up, and I’ve been looking forward to operating in solitude for the rest of my days after what I went through making the most recent album. So nothing has changed there either.

With CJAM being closed to the public until further notice, I assumed my days of charting were over. I assumed wrong. A number of DJs have found a way to go on producing new content without access to the station, and after hanging around the top ten for a few weeks I somehow find myself back at #1.

You have to understand — even with every live event being cancelled for the foreseeable future, it’s a pretty busy time for local music right now. There are a number of new albums that have just been released by people who (unlike me) are a significant part of this city’s music scene. They’re active on social media. They put a concerted effort into calling attention to their work. They’re a part of the club. I’m not. I deactivated my Facebook page a while back and never said anything there about my new album. Even if I did, no one would have cared. I’m not on Twitter or Instagram. I don’t promote what I do in any way, outside of maintaining a blog doesn’t get a whole lot of traffic.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m about as close as you can get to being invisible without turning into Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man. Throw the world’s current preoccupation with the coronavirus into the mix, and I would expect my music to be the last thing on anyone’s mind right now. So to hit #1 at a time like this might be the most surprising and meaningful chart entry of my life, all things considered. I have no idea who’s been playing me at CJAM. Thank you, whoever you may be.

I was able to get copies of the album to most of the people I wanted to share it with back when we were living in more carefree times and canned tuna wasn’t so hard to come by. I think there are only two packages I haven’t sent out yet — one for a friend in Montreal and another for a producer of adult films in California.

You think I’m kidding.

I sure picked a good time to get healthy and fortify my immune system. And I think Windsor is one of the safer cities a person could hope to live in right now. Most civilians and businesses appear to be taking the necessary protective measures, and we don’t have an orange-coloured hairpiece adding to everyone’s unease by spouting a bunch of contradictory hot air that has no basis in reality.

I don’t envy you if you live on the other side of the border. But here’s something sure to put a smile on your face: a Portland strip club has reacted to the pandemic by diversifying their business and offering a topless food delivery service.

What’s a little spooky to me is what a timely album YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK has suddenly become. I look at some of the song titles now and see this:

Cure for the Uncommon Cold
My Inflamed Lung
Buying Time at the End of the World
When the Bottom Drops Out

Then I look at some of the lyrics. The first words in the very first song are, “What you call a trench I call a home, if home is where the hope you had eats itself alive to keep from starving.” In “Lullaby for Unborn Child” an expectant mother struggles to find language to encapsulate all the death and destruction she’s seen. “Vector” ends with a phrase that becomes a mantra: “For the first time in a long time, I’m talking to myself.” The key line in “Your Dishrag Soul” is, “So much to see, so much to back away from now.” Before that: “Don’t trust the air.”

The first verse in “The Stillness of Us” goes:

All rise in fragility,
and hope for something nourishing
our bodies can metabolize —
nutrients from the government.
We break bread with the weaker ones.
There’s a stillness in the heart
that dissipates as it gathers strength
and turns the mind against itself.

“Dark and weird” has always kind of been what I do. But that’s a whole lot of unintended symmetry right there. It’s almost disconcerting.

You might be wondering, “Whatever happened to the homemade documentary-thing that was supposed to act as a companion piece to the album?” I should have finished editing it a few weeks ago. I’ve had more than enough time to get it done. I’ve just been lazy.

If you want to know the truth, I’ve also been a little intimidated. Making a video progress report that’s twenty or thirty minutes long is one thing. This is a much more ambitious undertaking, incorporating almost twenty years worth of self-shot footage, a wide variety of public domain films, voiceover material, archival footage that was shot by others, text, music, and photographs. The final runtime is probably going to be somewhere between two and three hours.

I’ve started to chip away at it in earnest. I’ve been making good progress. But I wasn’t prepared for the trouble my video editing program has been giving me.

I’ve been running Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum 9.0 on an Acer laptop since 2010. Ten years ago the laptop and the program were both new. Today it’s a minor miracle the laptop still functions, and the latest iteration of Vegas is eight versions removed from what I have. Running Final Cut Pro on my Macbook would probably make me never want to touch Vegas again, but I’ve been using the program long enough to get comfortable with it. It’s always done the job for me.

The problem now is the amount of media I’m working with. Apparently Vegas can only accommodate so many items on the editing screen at a time before it says, “No mas,” and crashes. I’ve never tried to do anything this crazy before, so I wasn’t aware of that quirk. I made the decision early on to shun the usual “talking to the camera” approach for the most part, presenting the bulk of what I want to say as narration. It’s freed me up to get a lot more creative with the visual side of things. It’s also the main reason Vegas has been on the fritz. The number of clips I’m working with has gone through the roof.

There’s one thing I’ve got going for me. I was going to break everything down into segments even before Vegas went goofy on me. Given the trouble I was having, I thought I could edit each segment as a standalone piece and use MPEG Streamclip to combine them all into the larger thing they’re supposed to be without any re-encoding.

To make this work, I would need to render the videos as MP4 or MOV files. Vegas has decided to crash every time I try to do that. MPEG Streamclip won’t recognize the WMV files I usually favour. I thought I’d work around that by rendering each segment as a massive uncompressed AVI file. Then I would stitch them all together in Vegas. Every time I tried to make an AVI file, Vegas would freeze up about halfway through and never finish the rendering process.

I’m nothing if not stubborn. I managed to find a program called Steeper. It’s an outgrowth of the commandline utility ASFCut. It allows you to combine WMV files into one all-encompassing file with no additional compression.

Beef be braised. Saints be praised.

As irritating as this technical hiccup has been, it’s a blessing in disguise. Rendering the video as a single project was going to take about twelve hours. Now I’m able to separate it into smaller pieces that only take half an hour or forty-five minutes to finalize.

It’s been fun to see things start to come together. The first few segments are finished now. The early passages need a fair bit of exposition to fill in some blanks and provide some backstory. Once that’s out of the way I’ll be able to let the visual content do more of the talking for me. Then I won’t need to have as many video clips on the go at once and Vegas should unclench its bowels a little.

My goal is to have the whole thing finished by the end of next week. I’m not sure how realistic that is, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Good things are bound to happen with Elliott riding shotgun.

The plan is to tie the video in with a giant blog post that breaks down every song on the album. The rough draft is at about sixteen thousand words right now, and it’s nowhere near finished. It’ll probably end up being the longest thing I’ve ever written here. I’ve come to enjoy digging into every aspect of an album’s making instead of just trying to provide an overview.

A lot of musicians have been holding live streaming events as a way of staying connected to their fans. I don’t have the equipment or the technical know-how to do something like that. Consider this humble homemade documentary my contribution to the “keep ’em busy with art” movement. I doubt anyone will have the interest or stamina to sit through the whole thing, but hopefully those who do will find something of value in it.

The Real McCoy.

To me living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life. I play what I live. Therefore, just as I can’t predict what kinds of experiences I’m going to have, I can’t predict the directions in which my music will go. I just want to write and play my instrument as I feel.

— McCoy Tyner

Erroneous hunches.

My hunch was wrong. YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is now sitting at #1 on the CJAM charts. Many thanks to Brady, Carley, Ron, Jim, and anyone else who might have given it a spin when I wasn’t looking.

I usually get a generous amount of airplay when I have something new to share, but it’s not something I expect or take for granted. It’s always a heartening feeling when people I have good feelings for respond to something I’ve done in a positive way. And I don’t think seeing yourself on the charts ever stops feeling good.

I’m always curious to hear which songs the DJs are going to gravitate toward. This time — and I don’t remember hearing this happen with any other album I’ve made — one specific song was played at least three times in succession, on three different shows, on three different days. You never really know what’s going to grab people. That’s part of the fun. In this case I blame Kelly Grace, who has a featured vocal spot on the song that got so much action early on. There’s something uniquely beautiful about the sound of her voice. “Quiet power” is the only way I can think of to describe what comes across when she sings.

In a part of the house I guess you’d call our living room (we’re alive, and we relax in there, so I think it meets the criteria) we have this old radio that used to belong to my Bubi. It’s probably sixty or seventy years old by now. It’s powered by tubes. It doesn’t look too imposing, but music comes roaring out of its mono speaker with a power that belies its size. I’ve been around this radio for most of my life. I still can’t get over how rich and full it sounds.

Last week, Brady devoted a segment of his show Music From Planet Earth to a whole chunk of songs from the first disc of the album. Pause with me for a moment to admire this great art Greg Maxwell made for the show’s Facebook page.

Gotta say I’m a little envious of the dude performing in that image. I’ve always wanted fans with tentacles and antennae.

I listened to Brady’s show on Bubi’s radio. The sound of my own songs coming through that mono speaker almost parted my hair. And there were no audible phase issues! Hooray! That was a treat in itself, but what was really fascinating was getting to hear five or six songs out of sequence, arranged in a way that was unfamiliar to me.

Something that simple allowed me to step back and listen with some small amount of objectivity for the first time. Since I’ve finished this album, the main thing I’ve felt is relief that the whole ordeal is over. I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish, but it’s been difficult to untangle the music from everything that went into making it. It felt pretty great to be able to forget about all of that and just enjoy the songs.

Was it an easy album to make? Not hardly. But as much as I might grumble about the frustrations and indignities I had to endure along the way, I think the juice was worth the pulp. It’s beginning to dawn on me just how proud I am of this one. You never want any statement to be your last, and I intend to make a lot more music, but if I got flattened by cartwheeling bears tomorrow I’d feel pretty good about going out on a note like this.

There have always been two impulses inside of me standing in direct opposition to each other, struggling for supremacy. There’s the desire to share my music and connect with people. And there’s the desire to keep it to myself and operate in total obscurity.

At one point I told myself I wasn’t going to give anyone a copy of this album when it was finished. I changed my mind. Already some of the contributing musicians have ignored my messages. I could go on harassing them until I get their attention for a few seconds, but having to beg someone to accept a free copy of something they played a part in is a bit too much for me. All it does is prove how little they cared to begin with. They never had any skin in the game.

Of the thirty-four singers, musicians, and visual artists who contributed to the album, there are at least fifteen I can’t share it with because they won’t acknowledge me. If I’m not in a great frame of mind, this is the sort of thing that makes me want to wall myself off from the rest of the world and start living up to the “reclusive” label I used to get tagged with by idiot writers who had no interest in learning anything about who I really was.

But the battle between those two oppositional impulses rages on. Hot on the heels of that latest disappointment, I gave some serious thought to sending the album out to a bunch of different radio stations.

Every now and then, one well-meaning friend or another has told me I should consider sending my music to different campus/community radio stations outside of Windsor. Other local artists have done this and had some amount of success. Why not me?

Tempted as I’ve sometimes been to give it a shot, the only way I’ve ever felt I could offer someone a decent introduction to my music was by giving them a stack of my last six or eight albums. If I sent a package that size to a radio station’s music director, I think they would roll their eyes and chuck the CDs straight into the “rejected music” bin.

I wouldn’t hold it against them. That’s a lot of music to dump on anyone.

One radio station playing my noise has always been more than enough for me. I have a relationship with CJAM that spans almost twenty years. I think it means something to the people there when I give them a new album and a handwritten note. It means something to me when they play my music. I know it’s a personal choice they’ve made — not something they’ve been instructed to do. My music would mean nothing to a music director who’s never heard of me or a host of DJs in another city.

I know it sounds like I’ve got the whole thing backwards. Local support is often taken as a given. You’re supposed to have some desire to expand your reach and gain new listeners outside of your own city. I’ve heard the expression “hometown heroes” used to belittle artists who don’t have any interest in building their brand.

My brain doesn’t work that way. I don’t have a brand. I make music. I share it with the people I care about. That’s about as far as the promotional game goes for me.

I’ve always wondered, though…would any music director or DJ at a station outside of Windsor have any interest in the noises I make? If I’ve ever had an album I could let stand on its own as a showcase for what I’m capable of, this is the one. I’ve learned I could send my packages through CJAM, eliminating shipping expenses and increasing my chances of being taken seriously. Why not give it a try? At least I’d be able to say I put myself out there. I’ve cracked the !earshot Top 200 a few times on the strength of CJAM’s support alone. You never know. If I scared up a bit of airplay at a few other stations, I might be able to make a real run at the Top 50. It would almost be worth doing just to piss a few people off.

I’ve given all of this a lot of consideration over the last few weeks. The more considering I’ve done, the less appealing the idea has become.

There’s a protocol you’re meant to follow when sending your music to a radio station. Along with a copy of your album, you need to include something called a one-sheet. This is a single-page overview of your music, usually geared toward whatever your current album is. You provide a brief bio and praise yourself in the third person. Maybe you include a few quotes from local journalists to make yourself sound important. You offer a list of three or four suggested tracks, since no one is going to take the time to listen to your album all the way through. You specify what genre your music falls into. You include a RIYL (Recommended If You Like) subsection, noting what your music sounds like or who your influences are.

There are some music directors who are receptive to a more unique or less formal approach. But ask anyone how to run a successful radio mailing campaign and they’ll tell you the one-sheet is a must. It’s all most people have the time to read, and it gives them the information they need in a form that’s easy to digest.

There’s no polite way to say this, so I’m just going to say it: I think one-sheets are bullshit. I think they should be renamed “one-shits”. I understand why artists make them and why radio stations request them, but this idea that some semblance of who you are and what you do can be condensed onto a single piece of paper is absurd to me. It’s impersonal. It’s reductive. It’s worthless. It’s like handing someone a business card on your first date and assuming they now have a good understanding of what you’re all about based on that little laminated piece of nothing.

I’ve never made a one-sheet. I’ve tried once or twice just to see if I could do it. I can’t. It’s an affront to everything I believe in. Even trying to put together a parody of a one-sheet for the purpose of this post felt like a colossal waste of time. I lasted all of three minutes before throwing in the towel.

I don’t know what genre I fit into. I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer to that question. If I tell you I’m a progressive alternative folk artist, I fail on two fronts — it’s not really what I am at all, and contorting myself to fit inside that box doesn’t begin to capture how my music sounds, what it does, or where it goes. If I invent my own genre like “kaleidoscopic anti-pop” or “homespun sonic archery”, I come off as being pretentious. There’s no way for you to know I’m slapping those words together with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Singling out a few choice tracks? Ha! There are no singles on the album. It’s an album. And writing about myself in the third person always makes me feel kind of ridiculous.

(Note: if you’re an artist who’s made a one-sheet as part of a radio mailing campaign or a music director who finds them helpful, I’m not criticizing you. My disdain is reserved for the one-sheet itself. It’s the concept of the thing I object to.)

I’ve also learned a number of stations no longer accept physical albums. They’ll only consider digital submissions.

I refuse to digitize this album. Forget about losing the precise spacing I programmed between the songs to create the rhythm of the listening experience. I won’t separate the music from the lyrics and the artwork. I didn’t work to make this a meaningful tactile experience so I could turn around and flatten it out into a one-dimensional online magazine.

After mulling it over, I decided I can live without solving the mystery of what would happen if I sent my music to different radio stations across Canada. At best, I’d gain nothing but some bragging rights, and I’d deplete my already limited supplies. At worst, I’d deplete those supplies for nothing.

Here’s what I did instead. I sent copies of the album to three specific DJs who have shows on CJSW (Calgary), CBFX (Montreal), and KEXP (Seattle). I wrote each of them a handwritten letter. I did it because I like what they do and my gut tells me they might be open-minded enough to get something out of the music. I’m bypassing the music directors of these stations altogether, making it clear I’m not after any airplay or attention, and kicking an inherently impersonal undertaking in the ribs with everything I’ve got until it passes out from the pain.

Believe it or not, this is how I first gained some traction at CJAM. I tried to get the attention of two different music directors in 2002 and 2003. Or maybe they were station managers. I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. The first guy wouldn’t give me the time of day. The second guy was nice enough but didn’t do anything. He was gone within a few months. I was later told he was incompetent and nothing ever got done on his watch.

After respecting the chain of command and getting nowhere, I found a few shows I liked, with DJs who had eclectic enough taste that I thought they might at least be willing to listen to a song or two instead of dismissing me out of hand. I dropped a few CDs and letters in their mail slots. Most of them ignored me, but one person started playing my music. Because of her I got the attention of the station manager and the music director, my albums made it into the on-air library, and the rest is lobster ravioli.

Today I’m not trying to get anyone to notice me. I don’t expect any of those three people to play anything of mine on their shows. I don’t expect any of them to even acknowledge me. But if just one of them happens to find something of value in the music and they take the time to convey that to me, it’ll mean more than any amount of airplay in another city ever would.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying hearing myself on the radio right here at home. Who could ask for anything more?

A little bird told me Brady is going to be playing some selections from the second disc of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK on his show this Friday. If you’re expecting a copy of the album but haven’t received it yet, you can get a bit of a preview of what’s on the way by listening to Music From Planet Earth on CJAM tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. If you’re so inclined, you can stream the live feed here (or peruse the MP3 archives later on).

Unrelated, but kind of fun:

A few days ago I was listening to the 2003 CD remaster of Synchronicity by The Police. I pulled out the lyric booklet for a read-through. When I got to “Walking in Your Footsteps”, I did a double-take. There’s a glaring typo in the chorus. It reads, “Walking in YOU footsteps.” The R is nowhere to be found.

What’s incredible to me is that this wasn’t missed once or twice. It was missed five times in succession in the same song. There isn’t a single error-free iteration of the phrase in the body text.

These typos don’t exist in the lyric sheet that came with the vinyl record or the original CD. So someone fell asleep at the wheel when they were putting the reissue together. This was a major label project with (I assume) some serious money behind it.

After seeing that, I feel a whole lot better about the two minor typos I missed in the initial run of SLEEPWALK booklets. I guess we all miss a letter, a word, or a bit of punctuation sooner or later.

Silly typos, lyric booklets are for kids.

YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is somehow already at #3 on the CJAM charts, even though not a lot of DJs have had it long enough to give it much airplay yet. I’m a little surprised to see it debut so high.

There are a few other new albums being released right now by local artists with much higher profiles than mine. I have a twisted premonition that this will be the first thing I’ve done in years to never make it to #1 and in the weeks ahead it’ll get repeatedly lodged in the second or third spot behind the cool kids. Given all that’s transpired over the last little while, it would be kind of fitting to be on the outside looking in.

I’ll find out if my hunch is correct soon enough.

Also, if you got one of the first copies of SLEEPWALK, I owe you an apology. In spite of all the painstaking proofreading I subjected myself to, I still managed to miss two mistakes in the initial run of booklets. They’re two things most people will probably never notice — a missing bit of punctuation at the end of one song, and one printed word that isn’t the word being sung (though it sounds like it could be).

That I would forget a line in one of my own songs gives you an idea of how long I lived with this music and how much I had to try and keep in my head. I had dreams about screwing up the packaging even after I knew everything was fine. It took a while before I could relax and stop worrying about some other boneheaded blunder hiding in plain sight.

(One thing that looks like it might be an oversight is a deliberate stylistic choice. The word “Bible” appears in two different songs. In “Wherever the Lord May Be” I meant it in the literal, Old Testament sense, so I capitalized it. In “Losing Light” the phrase “black-eyed bible” refers to the unreliable words of some unsavoury characters. In that case it felt more appropriate to forego the capital B.)

Invisible though the typos may be to the naked and partially-clothed eye, I’m always a little miffed when these things sneak through. But I guess I have to accept human error creeping in once in a while. One wrong word and a missing period does hurt a little less than some of my hits of the past like “bilss” and “electic guitar”.

I made the necessary corrections and had more booklets made. If you’re one of the lucky few to receive one of the typo-enhanced copies, you now own a collector’s item.

No need to thank me. It’s what I do.

Now my heart is full.

It’s everyone’s favourite Hallmark holiday today, and you know what that means — time for a gooey song about holding hands and learning to understand while wearing a single leather glove and opening an umbrella to shield yourself from some stuff that’s falling from above.

I’ve kind of had my fill of love songs. Given how little there is left to say that hasn’t already been said on the subject, I thought I might provide a useful service to the world by writing a one-size-fits-all love song so no one else would ever have to write another uninspired variation on the theme.

This was one of the last things slated for inclusion on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK to find itself on the chopping block. It’s one of my favourite songs that didn’t make it onto the album. I felt like I never quite got the arrangement right, I wanted to take another crack at singing it, and in the end time constraints kept it from finding a place on either disc.

I dumped it back onto the mixer this afternoon because I thought it would be a fun thing to polish off and share on the day before Half-Price Chocolate Day. I was a little surprised to find I liked the arrangement just fine after some time away from it and didn’t feel I could do a whole lot to improve on the existing vocal take. The mix is a bit of a quickie job, and I’ll probably fine-tune it a little, but it feels good enough to share.

Turn the lights down low, pour yourself a glass of onion juice, and let the love in.

This Is an Overwrought Love Song

This is an overwrought love song
written for someone who doesn’t exist,
given a name and attributes
broad enough to allow you to project
the likeness of just about anyone
and whatever feelings you have for them
onto this uninspired canvas so you can tell yourself
the words were written just for you.

Well, if this song were a small town,
it would have a population of a hundred and nine,
and all of the people who lived there
would dream up poetic ways to pass the time,
like finding a name for a fragrance impossible to articulate.
And that’s the smell of the person you love,
whoever they may be.

Maybe you’d call it deceptive.
Maybe you’d say it was something sweet
with the breath of menace inside it —
a metaphor for something you weren’t wise enough

to recognize when it might have done you some good.
And now the song has grown bitter.
But you’re bitter too, so it’s nothing offensive or jarring.

Now this is the part where a new melody
is introduced to keep you engaged.
The setting has changed but your clothes are the same.
There’s a lazy trope you can hang your hat on.
The music conveys a hint of regret,
but it hasn’t collapsed into self-pity yet.
That’s another song for another time.
You won’t find it here.
It’s not one of mine.

And here’s where a key change would happen
if I cared enough to engage in histrionics
common to the artistic vernacular,
employed in moments such as these,
but this is an overwrought love song
written for an idealized, nonexistent subject,
and if they were real a last-minute key change
wouldn’t appeal 
to their sensibilities.
So fuck all that.

This wasn’t really a love song, was it?

You’re just filler, ’til the real thing comes along.

If you get a copy of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK (which has now been officially “released”, to the extent that I release anything anymore), you might notice a link in the liner notes to the album’s video companion.

My goal was to have a DIY documentary-like thing edited before the album was finished so both could go live at the same time. If I had two brains I might have been able to pull it off. As it stands, some segments have been edited, but there’s still a bit of work left to do. I need to record some more voiceover material, film a few more things, make a few more choices about what to use and how to use it (I’m working with something like sixty hours of raw footage), and try to get Bono to sit down for an interview so I can pour a pint of Guinness on his head.

I should have everything finished in a week or two. In the meantime, here’s a little teaser/placeholder video so the URL will actually link to something.

Adventures in drum recording.

I got the chance to record a real drum set for the first time in late 1999. I piled most of my gear into the car one afternoon and brought it over to Gord’s friend Andrew’s place. The three of us became “Papa Ghostface and Friend” for a day and recorded two songs that found a home on the HERE COMES TROUBLE EP. I stuck a Shure SM57 in front of Andrew’s kick drum, put up another SM57 as a mono overhead, and that was it.

My next experiment in drum recording came in early 2000 while working on what was supposed to be a full-length Soul Crossing album. This time I used four mics — an SM57 on the kick, another pointing at the bottom of the snare, and two more dynamic mics serving as stereo overheads (an SM58 and a cheap RadioShack mic). I couldn’t believe how much more depth the sound had with just a few more microphones added to the mix.

I bought my own drum set in the summer of 2000 and started using a similar four-microphone setup, with the snare mic’d from the top and the kick mic leaning against the shell of the resonant head. I only had three mic stands, so I had to improvise. One overhead mic came in from above the high-hat. The other was situated near the ride cymbal. I had no preamps, no compression, and no idea what I was doing, but the results sounded pretty good to me.

Things got more chaotic when I found myself in band situations. For a few years those four dynamic microphones were all I had. I was recording everything live off-the-floor, with only the occasional overdub. When I needed something to sing into, the drums had to take a hit. Sometimes I would stick a single SM57 in front of the kit and hope for the best. Sometimes I could spare another mic or two. When I recorded someone else’s band, I used anywhere from two to six microphones. It was always changing depending on the nature of the music, how many extra mics they had to lend to the cause, and whatever limitations were imposed by the space we were recording in.

After trying out a few different two-mic configurations with Tyson in the GWD days, I settled on one SM57 for an overhead (we called it the “crotch mic” for obvious reasons) and another on the beater side of the kick drum. The trick was not pointing the second mic at the kick. Instead, I placed it at a ninety-degree angle so it picked up some snap from the snare. Those two mics captured a surprisingly balanced sound with a lot of character.

That wonky setup lasted longer than most, carrying over to the three solo albums I made after the band broke up. By the time of OH YOU THIS I felt it was time to start using a few more microphones again. I picked up a Rode NT1 and an NT4 stereo mic. The ART preamps and Aphex compressor I’d been using for the two-mic approach were usurped by two DBX 576 preamps and a 1046 compressor. I recorded acoustic guitar tracks with the NT4 and sang into the NT1. Then I moved the NT1 across the room, aimed it at the kick drum, used the NT4 as an overhead mic, and stuck an SM57 on the snare.

With just a touch of EQ and compression, I felt like this was the tightest drum sound I’d ever managed to get. The best part was how easy it was to dial in, with the stereo overhead mic eliminating phase issues. The sound got even tighter when I picked up an AKG D112 before recording BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, removed the resonant head from my kick drum, stuck a blanket inside, and messed with the tuning a little. Having a dedicated kick mic made my life a little simpler, and I got more “air” in the overheads when I moved the NT4 to the other side of the drum kit so it was pointed at me, where before I had it looking down at the drums from my perspective.

I was content with all of this until I upgraded my mic preamps again after finishing THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET and started hearing what was really going on. All at once those Rode mics stopped doing it for me. I bought an AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic without knowing much about it, since I liked the convenience of being able to stick a single mic in front of the drums, filling in the rest by spot-mic’ing the kick and snare.

Before I could try out my new three-microphone setup, a trio of drug dealers moved in next door and partied nonstop for seven months, robbing me of my ability to record anything. The R88 sat in its carrying case, wrestling with troubling existential questions. I didn’t unsheathe it for the first time until after we moved into this house.

When the R88 finally did come out of its case, I learned the swivel mount attachment it came with was defective. I screwed the mic into a heavy duty boom stand, tried it in front of the drum kit, and almost fell over. I heard the sound of my drums in my room, with a three-dimensional quality that didn’t exist in any recording I’d made before. There was no need for a close mic to reinforce anything. I took the SM57 off the snare and sold my AKG D112.

It took me an album or two to get a good handle on how I needed to play if I wanted to get the most out of using just a stereo front-of-kit mic. A lot of the drumming habits I developed over the years weren’t going to work anymore. I had to lay off the cymbals and simplify my approach. I was always a quiet drummer, but now I found the softer I played the more the tone seemed to open up. I got some of my best sounds using brushes. When I did play with sticks, I started keeping a brush or a mallet in one hand so I could hit the crash with a lighter touch.

The Great River MP-2NV gave me all the gain I needed to drive the R88. I added some high frequency EQ on my mixer to compensate for the ribbon mic’s rolloff at 8k and 20k. Then I got an A-Designs Hammer tube EQ in the middle of recording CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, started using that in place of the digital EQ, and almost fell over a second time.

I’ve been recording my drums this way for twelve years now. Every once in a while I’ll put up a large diaphragm condenser as a distant room mic if I want to add some extra ambience or a weird effect, and I’ve recorded a few brushed snare parts with an LDC up close, but that doesn’t happen often. Most of what you hear on every album I’ve made since 2008 is just the stereo ribbon mic in front of the drums. I’ve stuck with the same approach on albums I’ve recorded for other artists. I wouldn’t have a problem putting more microphones on the kit if someone wanted me to, but no one’s ever asked.

I’m the only person who’s played drums on any of those albums, which is pretty funny to me. This way of recording forces you to “mix” your own playing, since there are no close mics to compensate for whatever might be off. A surprising amount of people seem to have trouble controlling their dynamics. But that isn’t the reason no one else has sat on the drum throne for anything I’ve recorded since 2002.

It’s because I’m the only one who shows up to play.

When I was making final adjustments to a few mixes for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, I started thinking the drums sounded kind of anemic. It was a strange thing to experience after being happy with the sound I was getting for so long. It wasn’t even based on anything I was hearing. It was my brain’s way of trying to find something wrong with the album. I was having a hard time processing the idea of finishing something I’d been working on for almost a fifth of my life.

That lasted about two days. Then I came to my senses. I think I’ve heard too many soulless modern recordings where the drums are pumped-up and sound-replaced to within an inch of their lives. Sometimes you get it in your head that drums are supposed to sound that way all the time, even when you know better.

Before that weird little brain blip, I was thinking about making a change. After twelve years of recording drums this way — by far the longest I’ve ever stuck with a single approach — maybe it wouldn’t hurt me to put a few more mics in front of the kit again. The single-mic method has taught me a lot about subtlety, and I’m a big fan of the naturalistic approach, but sometimes you want a harder-hitting sound.

I did some experimenting on Wednesday. I tried out a few different things before settling on an over-the-shoulder position for the R88. I pointed an SM57 at the snare drum for the first time in fifteen years. In the absence of an AKG D112, I tried a Sennheiser 421 on the kick.

The first thing I noticed was how much sound I was getting from the R88. It was insane how vividly it captured every part of the drum kit no matter where I put it. Once I brought the snare and kick mics into the mix, it started sounding like a record.

And I hated it.

I wasn’t expecting that. The bigger, punchier sound was what I thought I wanted. As soon as the close mics came into play, I felt all the great dynamics the overheads captured starting to get choked and flattened out. More than anything, I missed all the space that lives in the sound when the R88 is out in front of the drums. This more traditional configuration sounded artificial in a way that didn’t appeal to me at all. I could have moved the mics around some more, but it wouldn’t have made much difference. I found out what I needed to know.

I moved the R88 back where it belonged.

Conclusions? I’ve got a few.

The AEA R88 is one serious microphone. Easily one of the best recording-related investments I’ve ever made. I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of its potential by limiting it to drum-recording applications, but no other combination of mics I’ve used has ever done a better, more honest job of reproducing the sound of my drum set.

A conventional, “produced” drum sound doesn’t work for my music anymore. It isn’t what I want to hear. I’m not sure if it’s because of what my ears have grown accustomed to or the specific aesthetic I’ve developed, but it’s inescapable. My drum sound has become — quite literally — the sound of my drums.

I guess I’m sticking with what works.

Proof of concept.

I hold in my hands a proof.

Okay, so I’m holding it in one hand between my thumb and a few fingers. And I’m not holding it right now. But I was holding it when I took this picture with my free hand.

I’ve been designing my own CD inserts and booklets for seventeen years. While I wouldn’t call myself a professional graphic designer, by now I have a pretty good handle on how to get the most out of the format. I’ve even taken care of the layout side of things for a few of the albums I’ve recorded for other people (Ron’s album is the most recent example). You only need to look at the first-issued versions of OH YOU THIS and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE to understand how unlikely it was that anyone else would ever trust me to do this for them. I have no idea how I got here.

I enjoy this stuff. I enjoyed it even before I knew what I was doing. I know a lot of people don’t bother to read album liner notes or lyric booklets anymore. I know sometimes you just want to let the music wash over you with your eyes closed in the dark, shutting out the rest of the world. But having something visual to explore can add another layer to the listening experience. A lot of my favourite music was first absorbed while reading the lyrics so my eyes could follow along with what I was hearing. I’m not sure if the music would have had the same impact on me if I’d listened to it in a different way.

This is one of the reasons the whole digital distribution thing doesn’t cut it for me. Bandcamp allows you to include collapsible lyrics for each song you upload, but it isn’t the same as holding a physical album in your hands and digging into its guts for whatever secrets it might contain. I have no idea how many listeners bother to read my lyric booklets. Maybe no one does. It doesn’t really matter. I like making them for selfish reasons.

I can’t say I’ve ever made a lyric booklet quite like this one. It’s full of art that plays off of the words. Putting it together was a real challenge. I had to find a way to fit all the words and images into a booklet that wouldn’t be too thick to get inside of a jewel case. The number of pages had to be divisible by four. My first finished draft ran thirty-two pages. With a little massaging, I was able to get it down to twenty-eight. The text couldn’t be too large, but it had to be easy enough to read. Some images needed to bleed right through to the edges of the page, with no white space around them. There needed to be musician credits after each song. I used one font for the outer layer and another for the body text in the booklet. Those two fonts needed to be able to play off of each other. I had to get creative with the spacing to make everything work.

You can make something look good on a computer screen, but you never know how it’s going to translate until you see it on a bunch of pages stapled together. I was a little worried this one would come out looking like a lumpy mess until Joe (who has become my main man at Herald Press) called on Thursday to tell me the proof was ready.

“How does it look?” I asked him. “Do you think I laid everything out okay?”

“I think it looks pretty damn good,” he said.

He was right. It’s pretty powerful to see everything put together. This is going to sound strange, but reading the booklet hammers home for me just how much time and care went into making this thing in a way listening to it doesn’t. It isn’t just a bunch of music and words. It’s something more than that.

I made some boneheaded typos. My brain has this habit of compensating for the odd missing word, and sometimes it causes me to miss what’s missing. I wish there was a switch I could flip to turn that off. It’s a convenient cerebral function when you’re reading someone else’s words. Not so much when you want to make sure your own work is solid. More than once I’ve had to pay for a booklet to be printed twice when I failed to catch a mistake until it was too late. I’m hoping to avoid that this time.

One of the nice things about having a proof is getting another chance to catch what’s amiss. I might have been able to live with giving myself credit for playing tambourine on a song that doesn’t feature any tambourine in the final mix or forgetting to credit myself with playing shaker on a song that does feature the instrument, but it would have been pretty embarrassing if I never noticed how I somehow managed to list two songs on the back insert in reverse order.

As impatient as I am, I’d rather have things put together a day or two later than planned instead of rushing the process and letting these mistakes slip through the cracks. I have to say I’m usually a lot better at catching most of these stragglers before a proof is even made. Then again, I’ve rarely dealt with anything close to this amount of text in a lyric booklet. It’s beyond tedious to go through each page over and over again at a snail’s pace, but it’ll all be worth it when I’ve got a stack of error-free booklets and inserts in front of me a week or so from now.

A brand new thing dressed as a memory.

Two months shy of six years after I first started work on it, YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is finished. Over the next few days I’m going to proofread my art files for the booklets and inserts until my eyeballs liquefy. Then I’m getting them printed and bringing this baby home while it screams at me and throws up on my shoulder.

It usually takes me at least a few months after the completion of an album before I’m able to listen to it in something approaching an impartial state. I get the feeling it’s going to take a little longer with this one. I feel good about the sequence I settled on. I think it strikes a nice balance between unpredictability and plotting out a clear sonic and emotional arc. But it’s very strange to hear all of these songs together in one place after all this time, and it’s beyond strange to think of the album as a finished thing. I don’t think the reality of it is going to sink in until I’m holding the first official artwork-enhanced copy in my hands.

There’s always some minor snag or curve ball that comes along to slow me down when I’m gearing up to finish an album. Sometimes an essential piece of equipment dies on me right when I need it the most. Sometimes my immune system says, “Oh, you wanted to accomplish something? Here’s some sickness! Good luck hearing through six layers of snot!” Sometimes a pony gets the blues.

This time I couldn’t seem to make a master copy of the album that didn’t have a few glitches in it somewhere. The external CD burner I’m using has never let me down before, but it’s eleven years old now. It makes sense that it would start to break down after how hard I’ve worked it in that time.

I went out and bought a new external burner. It worked like a charm. I burned a disc, gave it a listen, and didn’t hear any glitches, but it sounded…off somehow. The high frequencies seemed to be exaggerated in an almost imperceptable way.

I was reminded of the time I tried about five different brands of recordable CDs when I was making copies of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN and every one of them sounded different to me. For all I know, my brain convinced my ears I was hearing something that wasn’t there at all. And maybe that’s what happened again with this CD burner. It doesn’t make any sense that two copies of the exact same recordable media would sound different just because they came out of two different optical drives.

It’s a subtle difference. It might be an imaginary difference. But if I went ahead and made a bunch of copies of the album with that perceived change in sound and then shared them with other people, it would bother me for the rest of my life.

One thing led to another, and I discovered my crusty old CD burner wasn’t the problem at all. It was the CDs themselves. I’ve been lucky over the years and haven’t had to deal with too many “coasters” (a common slang term for defective discs), but I finally ended up with some duds at the bottom of a spindle.

Here’s the irony of it all: my recordable CDs of choice for twelve years now have been JVC-branded Taiyo Yudens. A different company took over the production of these CDs a few years ago. I read a lot of horror stories about a dramatic drop-off in quality control. So I bought up as much old stock as I could while it was still available. A lot of people consider CDs to be a dying medium, and reliable media is getting more and more difficult to come by. I only ended up with a few batches of the dreaded CMC-branded Taiyo Yuden discs when the one store I found that still had some of the JVC-made ones ran out and sent me the new guys instead.

The dodgy CDs? They were my trusty old TYs. I tried some of the new ones just to see what would happen. The glitches disappeared.

Burn burn, spin spin, oh what a relief it’s been.

I was determined to fit fifty songs onto these two CDs. I almost pulled it off, until two songs found themselves on the cutting room floor very late in the game. Every other song that made it onto the album earned its place there. Losing even one of them would knock over the whole chain of dominoes. These two tracks, though — they could go and I wouldn’t miss them. It was a good thing they were expendable, because once I dropped them I had just enough space to cram everything onto two CDs.

Since they don’t really give away any surprises, here are those two last-minute outtakes.

I’ve talked a bit before about the experience of writing songs for other voices. It isn’t something I plan on doing again after this. I’m pretty sure at least two-thirds of the grey hair now living in my beard is a direct result of being given the long-distance runaround by so many flighty and uninterested singers. Most of the people I had in mind to sing the vocal parts I didn’t want to handle myself aren’t even on the album. Almost all of my first, second, and third choices expressed at least some interest in working with me only to turn to dust when I tried to make concrete plans with them.

I’m not at all disappointed it worked out this way. I was forced to get creative and reach out to people I might not have thought to contact otherwise, and now I can’t imagine anyone else in place of the featured guest vocalists who are on the album. I think the songs were ultimately sung by the singers who were meant to sing them.

Being able to see the positive side doesn’t negate the mind-numbing frustration I had to endure. I’ve got stories galore. Some of them are so bizarre you’d be forgiven for thinking I made them up.

I’ll save all that stuff for a post that digs into the making of the album and all its songs in a week or two. Trust me — it’ll be worth the wait.

I only mention any of this here because the first of these outtakes is one of those things I wrote with someone else’s voice in mind. I was thinking of a singer who sounds a bit like Frazey Ford. I tried to emulate that when I recorded the demo, with mixed results.

The Inverse Is Also True (demo)

I wrote an instrumental section to graft onto the beginning, worked out a horn arrangement both for that part and for the body of the song, and brought in Kelly Hoppe to play it. When I told him my lead vocal was a scratch track and I planned on replacing it with someone else’s voice, he said, “I like your singing on this one. You should keep it.”

After a year of trying and failing to get the singer I was communicating with to commit to anything, I decided Kelly was right and recorded a more serious vocal track of my own.

The Inverse Is Also True

There are a number of things on the album that thumb their noses at the conventional rules of song construction. This song does that too, but it was the one instance in which I felt I could see the seams between the disparate sections a little better than I wanted to.

I like the intro. It was inspired in equal part by the simple, declarative, powerful melodic statements John Coltrane made at the beginning of some of his songs (“Seraphic Light” comes to mind) and the brief, mournful saxophone interlude in the middle of David Bowie’s “Sweet Thing” suite on the album Diamond Dogs. I was trying to capture something of that quality when I wrote the melody Kelly darts around on tenor sax. I like that a lot of the singing is pretty high in my range without dipping much into the falsetto register, at least until the last section. But I can’t shake the feeling that I never quite nailed the lead vocal, and I couldn’t come up with a smooth transition between the final fading sax harmonies and the piano-driven coda.

It just felt a little too thin to me when I held it up against the other songs. And it seems appropriate that I would take what might have been one of the catchier moments on the album and chuck it right out the window.

Here’s a bit of video (from the time of Maximum Beardage, no less) demonstrating the outrageous difference in richness between my initial synth-sax guide track and the real thing.

The other last-minute cast-off is a much simpler affair. It’s not quite a fragment or a full-length song. It lives somewhere in-between those two poles.

A Will to Love (demo)

I went through a few different arrangements for this one before settling on something a little more pared-down. There are handclaps and lap steel tracks that didn’t make it into the final mix, among other things. I thought about getting a few people together for some group vocals at the end, but by this time my patience for being strung along was at a pretty low ebb. I’m still not sure if I should have left in that random drum flourish at the end or cut things off right before it happens.

The main acoustic guitar used here is a 1932 Washburn 5200. It’s not an axe I pull out often — it’s in a somewhat weird C tuning that only works for certain things — but when I do I’m always reminded how well it records. It puts out a lot of sound for such a small-bodied instrument. And it’s got the nicest smell to it. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s sweet without being saccharine. I’ve never experienced a fragrance quite like it with any other guitar I’ve held in my hands.

A Will to Love