ear candy

We were so much older then…we’re younger than that now.

I just can’t do it. I can’t finish putting my long-gestating pedal board together.

I put a lot of thought into the final pedal I was adding to the group. I had room for one more. I came close to pulling the trigger on a Walrus Audio Julia and then an Earthquaker Devices Transmisser. The Julia is a really pretty-sounding chorus/vibrato pedal, but the Count to Five can get me some similar sounds, the POD (which I only use for effects now, and never for its amp-modelling) can fill in most of the rest, and I can’t see myself wanting to use chorus all that often. The Transmisser only does one thing, and while it does it in a way that sounds like nothing else, after falling in love with it I realized I wouldn’t be able to use it too often without it becoming something of a cliché.

If I was going to get anything, it was going to have to be a pedal that was a real wildcard — something unique and versatile.

I knew I’d found what I was looking for when I saw this.

The Shallow Water isn’t quite chorus or vibrato, though it can create sounds that live in both of those worlds. It calls itself a K-Field Modulator. There are two things that set it apart from your average modulation pedal.

The first thing is the low pass filter, which is incredibly sensitive to dynamics and can go from “subtle”, to “dark and mysterious”, to “the universe is swallowing up my sound source and only faint suggestions of its soul remain”. When the LPF isn’t engaged and you’ve got a full wet mix, you get some noise, but I kind of like that. Sometimes you want things to get a little lo-fi. It can add character.

The second thing is the modulation itself. It’s random. There’s something about modulation that can’t be predicted. A strangely emotional quality. It engages the brain in a different way. You’re listening for a pattern, and there isn’t one.

This thing is deep as hell. It can do lush chorus sounds. It can also make your guitar or synth sound like it’s violently drowning in a small pool of water. Its name is very apt. It’s going to take me a while to learn all the ins and outs and harness everything it can do, but I think we’re going to be friends.

So I bought this pedal, the final one, I put money on the credit card to buy a power supply and the cables I needed, and then I hesitated. And I hesitated some more. And then I noticed a month had gone by since I was supposed to order the stuff, and I still hadn’t done it.

What it comes down to is this: I can’t justify spending more than three hundred dollars on an isolated power supply and a few feet of Mogami cable. I just can’t. To me, that’s outrageous, and borderline offensive. Three hundred dollars can buy an awful lot of food. It can pay a few bills. It can buy a fancy dinner for a medium-large group of reformed miscreants. It can buy a lot of recordable CDs, ink cartridges, jewel cases, and other practical supplies. It can change someone’s life in a small but pivotal way.

Besides, I think the Wurlitzer looks pretty nifty with some of my pedals sitting on top.

So I’ll live with the mess it creates on the floor when I feel a need to have a few pedals running at once, and I’ll clean it up when I’m done. It’s not like I play live, ever. Putting my board together would make things a little more convenient, sure. But convenience isn’t worth that amount of money to me. Not right now. Not in this situation.

Sorry, Captain Convenience. I’ll have to drink from your cup some other time.

I did make good on something else I’ve been meaning to do for a while now. I finally had enough mixer space — if only for a moment — and the motivation to make it happen. I’m talking about taking the raw camcorder footage of SEED OF HATE being recorded back in November of 2001 and editing it into something more digestible.

It was more of a pain in the ass than it should have been.

If I wanted to have better quality audio to punch up some of the recording segments, there was only one way to make that happen. I was going to have to go back and remix most of the songs without the vocal tracks. There’s a lot more footage of us getting the music down without Jay than there is of him and Tyson summoning the best screams they had to offer the following day, and what the camcorder’s built-in microphone captured in most of those instances is either drum-heavy to the almost total exclusion of all other musical elements, or little more than headphone bleed (which made syncing up the proper recordings with the camera’s audio a task and a half).

The album was recorded in a single song file on my mixer, separated by track markers, and backed up on two CDs. Those CDs are now sixteen and-a-half years old. With these multiple-CD backup jobs, all it takes is one disc crapping out on me and the whole thing is lost forever. I found that out the hard way when I tried to remix some of the late-period GWD albums about eight years back.

I braced myself for the worst. Both discs dumped their aging guts back onto the mixer without a hitch. Score one for Maxell.

Making instrumental mixes was pretty straightforward. I had no notes to rely on, so I used my ears to dial in mixes that were as close to the originals as I could get them. That seemed to be the smart way to go. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on music this heavy, and treating it with my current sensibilities would probably be a recipe for sonic weirdness. I did bring up Tyson’s guitar a little to highlight how creative his work on the fretboard was. Other than that, I tried to keep things sounding about the same.

A few interesting discoveries were made along the way.

I took the time to type in a name for each track, using the super-tedious “select one letter at a time to make words” function the mixer provides. Things like “L Guitar”, “R Guitar”, and “Bass” show up on the LCD screen when specific tracks are selected. It’s pretty surreal. I don’t remember ever doing that for anything else I recorded back then. I don’t even remember doing it this time. I sure as sugar cookies don’t do it now.

There were even more mics on the drums than I remembered — six. We mic’d up the kick, snare, floor tom, rack toms, set up a general mono overhead to capture the cymbals, and had more of an ambient room mic going as well. How much ambience it added is debatable, since all the mics were SM57s and 58s, but this is the tightest and most conventional drum sound you’ll find on anything I’ve ever recorded. I’m not likely to use that many microphones on a drum kit again.

And I got to solve a small mystery. All the false starts, count-ins, and between-song moments of banter were erased at Tyson’s request, but one brief bit of dialogue survived at the end of the last song. The mics we were using were so directional, and so far away from most of the people talking, I could never make out a thing being said. Now, after cranking the volume on the mixer, I can rest knowing the song I called “Your Friendly Neighourhood Waterbed” in the absence of a proper title ends with Tyson saying, “Yeah! That’s the best we’ve ever played that!” and Brandon muttering, “Not really.”

“That all sounds pretty hassle-free,” you’re thinking. And you’re right. What got me swearing at the sky was the editing process.

I spent chunks of a few days chopping out superfluous crap until I had an eighty-minute assembly I was happy with. It feels like a pretty honest picture of the recording process and the surrounding shenanigans. Really, all I got rid of were things no one needs to see, like Gord filming a light fixture for ten minutes (I exaggerate, but not by much), and a few moments where the burned-in camera effects got kind of maddening.

For example, when we were recording the vocal tracks, Gord hit the “fade to white” button, causing the audio and video to disappear…only to have it come back three seconds later. Then he did it again three or four more times. It broke up the natural rhythm the footage should have had and made synchronizing the audio from the CD impossible. I made a few cuts, lived with whatever choppiness was created, and that problem was solved.

There were times when I wanted to go back in time and tell Gord to stop using every built-in effect the camera had to offer, and just point the thing at what was happening and film it. Close to half of this footage was marred with a negative image or “ghost” effect that looks cool for about ten seconds and then gets old fast. I was able to reverse this by inverting the image a second time, effectively cancelling out the effect. I left a bit of it intact in a few places, but believe me when I tell you most of the scenes I removed it from are much better off without it. You can actually see what’s going on and who’s saying what, for one thing.

The other effects range from the sometimes-effective “double image” to an infuriating and distracting rapid zooming in and out that I can only imagine was designed to simulate motion sickness. There’s nothing I can do to counteract any of those. I can only hope you find them charming or amusing. They drive me nuts.

Gross overuse of effects aside, I have to say Gord did a decent job of capturing what was going on. The one serious exception, and some footage I wish I could have included, is a bit where Tyson talks me through one of the songs while we listen to a rough instrumental mix. He points out different moments, highlighting the abilities of the other musicians in the band, talks about how hearing the music recorded in a more professional way gives him a deeper appreciation for it, and delivers a fascinating monologue that makes it clear just how much thought went into crafting these songs.

The whole time this is happening, the camera is pointed at the wall, nowhere near either one of us. I wanted to weep when I saw it. You might think I should have included it anyway, but five minutes of looking at a wall is pretty hard to take, no matter how good the soundtrack is.

If only I had the ability to create a little animated short to serve as a replacement to the nothingness captured by the camera. But I’m not an animator. At least there are a lot of other fun moments in there, and you get to watch a bunch of teenagers alternate between goofing off and doing some serious recording. And there are a few moments of supreme lunacy from a skinny, beardless version of yours truly. I don’t remember saying any of those demented things I said, but the camera doesn’t lie.

Gord’s spur-of-the-moment decision to record over some of the footage from the second day is a mixed blessing. You lose Tyson trying to talk me into improvising a vocal track on the most melodic Fetal Pulp song, along with most of the sound effects he added in lieu of vocals. There was more of Jay in there too. But what Gord filmed on top of that is some of the only surviving GWD footage, even if it’s just me and Tyson running through a tongue-in-cheek medley of some of our “hits”.

(I’m saving that GWD footage for something else. It wouldn’t have made much sense to include it here, even if it was the way our second day of recording ended.)

I recorded a little voiceover to act as an introduction and a coda to the main course. I’m not sure I’ll be doing that again — it feels more natural talking to a camera when I’m doing this sort of thing — but it was fun to try something different. I think it works well enough, offering a little bit of context and allowing me to make use of a few pieces of music that will probably show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE someday.

Even the rendering process wasn’t the disaster it could have been. The crusty old laptop I use for video editing purposes has experienced something of a rebirth since that nice fella at PC Outfitters blew a mountain of dust from the casing that holds the fans. It’s still slower than mud, but with a new swagger in its step. A slow swagger.

This was a real test for it. An hour and twenty minutes is by far the longest video project I’ve ever asked Sony Vegas to process. I think the meatiest thing I’d done before this was one packed video progress report that touched down around the fifty minute mark, and that was back when the laptop in question was still in its prime.

It took six hours, but the video rendered without the computer once overheating or shutting down. Not so long ago, expecting it to survive for a tenth of that time was pushing it. This gives me hope that when my semi-documentary about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is done, it too will render without the world coming to an end.

The trouble came after the video was finished rendering. I noticed the sound went out of sync around the halfway point. There was no explanation for it. I’ve never had this happen before with any video I’ve edited. Vegas was at least helpful enough to tell me how far things were out of sync, but it wouldn’t tell me the cause. Why I was able to see how much things had shifted was a mystery in itself.

There was only one fix. I painstakingly uncoupled the audio from every single clip past the forty-five-minute mark and inched it forward until everything was synchronized again. I rendered just the second half of the video. Then I discovered the last few minutes were still out of sync, so I fixed those bits and rendered that part. I was left with three separate video files I needed to trim and stitch together.

I assumed I could do this with the ever-handy MMPEG Streamclip without suffering any quality loss through additional compression. I was wrong. The program doesn’t recognize WMV files. The only thing I was able to find that seemed like it might help me was something called Machete. Only the “lite” version was free, but it had all the capabilities I needed. It wasn’t Mac-compatible, though. I had to download it on the sluggish laptop reserved for video editing.

Machete let me trim and join clips to my heart’s content. It left a second or two of ugly blank space where each edit was made, but I was okay with that…until I went to save the file and discovered it was going to take even longer than it did to process the full-length video in Vegas.

You failed me, Machete.

I was left with no choice but to start from scratch and render the whole video file all over again. That meant another five and-a-half hours of waiting, and then an additional four or five hours to upload to Vimeo.

There’s one little wonky editing mistake near the end where Tyson’s smile appears to break the space-time continuum. With all the audio I had to move around, I missed snipping out a split-second piece of footage that repeated itself. After all that frustration, I don’t care enough to go back and fix it. Maybe some other time.

Watching this makes me wish all over again that I could go back in time and buy a video camera of my own long before I started thinking it might be a good idea to get one. I missed out on capturing a whole lot of cool music-related things. At least there were weekends like this one when someone else had the foresight to grab a camera and let it roll. But what I wouldn’t give for some Papa Ghostface recording footage from 1999, or any number of other things…

Viewer discretion is advised: there’s a whole lot of swearing in this video, a bit of onscreen drug use (just a bit of pot being smoked, but still), and while I’m pretty sure Brandon only pretends to expose himself a little past the fifty-five minute mark, I’m not taking any chances with the powers that be at Vimeo. This one gets a “mature” rating.

Rebuilding a mystery.

Another period of blog neglect. Another lonely tear shed by a forgotten Tonka truck resting at the bottom of a toy chest.

At least I have a good excuse this time: I’ve been busy recording music. While my own album has remained the focus, there’s been the odd pleasant detour. On Thursday Ron’s friend Alison swung by to add some violin to one of his songs.

I like how this video still makes it look like a very inept special effects department took a shot at making Ron look like Evil Microphone Hybrid Man and failed with flying colours.

Before we got together, Ron asked if I had any ideas for songs we might have Alison play on. I picked the song that felt like the last one you’d expect violin to show up in, because these are the things I do.

I’m not sure Alison even heard the song before she played on it, but she gave us some great stuff. The last two takes in particular are full of perfect little countermelodies that add something special to the fabric of the song. Choosing a take or coming up with a composite that grabs the best moments from both is going to be a little tricky. But when you’re working with good material to begin with, you really can’t go wrong.

A few nights before all this, I was watching a bunch of “Steamed Hams” remix videos on YouTube. If you aren’t familiar with them, these involve a memorable scene from “22 Short Films About Springfield” — an episode of The Simpsons from a time when the show was still operating at the height of its powers — being warped and/or re-contextualized in a number of ways. Some of the things people have come up with are pretty great.

A few of my favourite variations on the theme:

At some point, this popped up on the sidebar:

…which led me to this:

And that was it for me and “Steamed Hams”.

I don’t know how many times I watched those last two videos that night, but it was a lot. I also don’t know how you make Tom and Jerry and The Pink Panther seem like the saddest cartoons in the world. Whoever edited these videos found some untapped melancholy I never knew was there, and they bit down on it hard until they drew blood. As much as I appreciated that element of it, it was the voice I kept coming back to. It was as beautiful as it was unusual.

That voice belongs to someone known only as Shiloh Dynasty. No one knows anything for sure about Shiloh’s gender, location, or age — or if they do, they’re not talking. Even the most cursory biographical details are impossible to come by. The only person to go on record saying they’ve had any contact with Shiloh used the pronoun “she”, so that’s what I’ll stick with until I’m told otherwise.

As far as I can work out, Shiloh posted a slew of videos on Vine and Instagram in 2014 and 2015, doing little to call attention to herself. Most of these were live acoustic guitar/vocal performances. A few were apparent vocal ad-libs over instrumental beats found on the internet. You can find a video on YouTube that features every known surviving Shiloh song fragment stitched together. It makes for hypnotic listening, and inspires more than a few thoughts of, “How on earth do you come up with vocal melodies like this?”

“Fragment” is the key word here. There are no full songs. Most performances are somewhere between six and twenty seconds long. It almost feels like this was done intentionally — to encourage producers to loop and cut up these mini-songs and stretch them out (something a whole host of people did, sharing the results on SoundCloud). It’s possible she was just getting down ideas using the camera in her phone. Whatever the case, there’s more heart, soul, and melodic invention in many of these gesture drawings than there are in most people’s full-length songs.

As Shiloh’s following grew, it seems she was uncomfortable with the rising interest in her music and chose to step back. People were left to speculate. Some minds drifted to dark places, starting rumours that she’d committed suicide.

Last summer, rapper XXXTentation released his debut album, 17. Three of its songs featured Shiloh, albeit in sampled form. Potsu, who produced those songs, had to get in touch with Shiloh at some point to clear those samples. According to people who claim to have spoken to Potsu, he’s said she’s alive and well. She just isn’t interested in having any kind of spotlight shining in her direction.

How someone could manage to remain an absolute mystery in spite of being a featured performer on an album that hit #2 on the Billboard charts and got a ton of publicity…it’s not easy to wrap your head around. But that’s Shiloh: a friendly ghost in the age of information overload. It’s kind of refreshing to know such a thing can still exist.

Try as I might, I can’t listen to her as a hook placed between someone else’s rapped verses. It feels like a perversion. An intrusion. Her voice needs to stand alone. Like this.

What Potsu did here, for the most part, was just make a beat to play off of Shiloh’s song fragment and then punch up the sound of her original lo-fi phone recording with some well-chosen reverb, compression, and EQ. It’s all about supporting what’s already there. As it should be. Sometimes less really is more.

As usual, I’m late to the party here. I didn’t find out about Shiloh until long after she retreated into the shadows. But listening to her and discovering just how little there was to be discovered about her got me thinking about the odd, two-faced relationship I have with mystery as a general thing.

Unsolved crimes and unexplained disappearances have always intrigued me, as morbid as that might sound. There’s often the feeling that if you could uncover just one crucial piece of information, the whole thing would snap into place and everything would be explained, but nothing ever quite adds up. For every rare case like Lori Ruff — whose real identity was finally revealed without offering much in the way of closure — there are insoluble enigmas like the bizarre case of Tamam Shud and the disappearances of Jean Spangler, Louis Le Prince, Ray Gricar, the Sodder children, and the entire crew of the MV Joyita.

I love reading about this stuff and playing armchair detective. At the same time, there’s a part of me that would almost be disappointed if some of these strange cases were ever solved. When the answer to an unanswerable question feels too mundane to do it justice, you can find yourself thinking it was all a lot more compelling when you didn’t know what to think.

This applies to music as well. I enjoy learning about the artists whose work speaks to me, but I’ve always had an attraction to those who are more obscure. The ones who seem somewhat unknowable. Here again the urge to know everything fights against the excitement of not knowing.

Syd Barrett is a good example.

I remember being twelve or thirteen years old, reading all the available information about Syd, and thinking he was the most interesting person I’d ever heard of. Here was a guy who, even as he was losing his grip on reality and was about to be kicked out of the band he was responsible for creating, still had enough of his wits about him to play a brilliant little practical joke on the rest of Pink Floyd.

One day he brought in a new song to show the band. It was called “Have You Got It Yet?” Syd tried teaching it to Roger Waters, but Roger was having a hell of a time trying to work it out.

After a few run-throughs he figured out what the problem was. Every time he played the song, Syd would change it just enough to make whatever memory remained of the previous version useless. He did it over and over again, always altering the music in some subtle but fundamental way. The one part that stayed the same each time was a call-and-response chorus that had Syd singing, “Have you got it yet?” and the rest of the band shouting, “No, no, no!”

No one else was ever going to be able to get it. Syd made sure of that.

I devoured stories like this one, along with details about unreleased songs like “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream” — songs I thought would be forever inaccessible to me. Then I got a little older, the internet grew some serious legs, and I got to hear those songs. As much as I enjoyed them, on some level I missed having to imagine for myself what they sounded like, creating half-formed songs for my brain to sing to itself in the absence of the real thing.

Maybe more than a “losing the mystery” thing it was a “losing some of the wide-eyed wonder of youth” thing, and Syd got mixed up in it. I’m not sure. But today you can even hear the mythical unreleased solo session Syd cut in 1974 without having to look very hard. It isn’t the “abortion” some witnesses described it as at the time. It sounds like Syd was having a bit of aimless fun jamming on a few rough guitar ideas, overdubbing his own bass tracks and the odd additional guitar part.

It’s nice to be able to hear it, if only to refute the claims of those who’d have you believe Syd was an acid-fried vegetable incapable of stringing anything coherent together on the guitar by the mid-1970s. There are moments that make you wonder what he might have been able to do if he kept showing up at the studio often enough to refine the sketches and record some vocal tracks. It wasn’t to be. After wandering for a while, the music retreats into itself before fading away, much like Syd was about to do himself.

The last time I got wrapped up in a good musical mystery was when an album called L’Amour hit the streets in 2014. It wasn’t a new album. It had been recorded all the way back in 1983, written and performed by a man named Randall Wulff who called himself Lewis.

Jack Fleischer’s liner notes for the Light in the Attic reissue are a compelling read. He was able to untangle some of Lewis’s story, but every bit of information he managed to unearth only raised more questions. What kind of person worked as a stockbroker in Calgary in the ’80s, lived in an apartment with all-white furniture, left town after writing a bad cheque to a photographer, and made music that sounded like…this? And why would he then go to such great lengths to fall off the face of the earth?

When L’Amour first gained a wider audience after existing for decades as an obscure self-funded private press LP, some listeners made comparisons to Arthur Russell. I can sort of hear it, maybe, a little, but I think there’s a fundamental difference between the two artists. Arthur sang softly to pull you closer. Lewis sounds more like he’s trying to keep his heart hidden at the same time he’s holding it out for you to see. Most of his lyrics are impossible to decipher. The harder you squint to try and see him, the less sure you are that he’s there at all.

L’Amour is an album out of time. It doesn’t sound much like anything else that was recorded in the 1980s, or in any other decade. You’ve got Lewis playing piano and acoustic guitar and mumbling his lyrics in his strange whisper-croon, and then you’ve got someone named Philip Lees (a mystery himself, and maybe a pseudonym invented to make it look like more than a one-man operation) playing a synthesizer that sounds like it has a malfunctioning pitch wheel. It’s as if one of the background characters in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street stumbled into a recording studio after a little too much cocaine and the microphones captured his dark night of the soul.

“Cool Night in Paris” was the first song I heard. I was transfixed. The bluesy acoustic guitar, the soft, warped synth sound, and that quivering voice created a sound that was a little unsettling, and impossible to forget.

Now that his album wasn’t just haunting the odd thrift shop anymore, people wanted to know more about this dude who made a point of dedicating one of his songs to model Christie Brinkley for no apparent reason. A second Lewis album — Romantic Times — was discovered and reissued in short order. If it didn’t have quite the same gravity as L’Amour, it had some gorgeous songs and richer soundscapes to recommend it. It wasn’t a simple retread. This time there was wailing saxophone! And a drum machine! And analog synths straight out of the Vangelis Blade Runner playbook.

For a while, the best source of Lewis-related intel was an epic thread on the hipinion message board. I tried to join so I could be a part of the fun, but it turns out you can’t just register and get an account there the way you can at any normal message board. You have to try and get the attention of an existing member who has some amount of clout, assuming you can find a way to contact them outside of the site. After that, maybe they’ll put in a good word for you and you’ll be allowed into the club, if you’re lucky. If not, your account will be “pending approval” forever.

That’s some pretty goofy shit right there. And if you know me, you probably know how I feel about “clubs” and “scene cred” and all that stuff. So you’ll be stunned to learn my account was never approved and is lying dormant somewhere inside the vast anus of cyberspace.

Still, there was some good discussion over there. A few posters even dug up some interesting nuggets. They were able to verify that Lewis used Randy Duke as another alias, recording some music in the late 1980s and early 1990s that got a belated release during the height of Lewismania. Most of it is pretty horrible, with some ham-fisted overdubs that do nothing to serve the music. The alien quality that gave the first two albums much of their power is gone. But that voice is still there, if a little older, harsher, and less concerned with melody.

Light in the Attic, acting on a tip they received from someone who knew Lewis, managed to track him down at one of his favourite coffee chops. He refused to reveal anything of substance about his past, turned down a royalty cheque, and seemed amused and a little surprised by the mystique his music had generated thirty years after it was made. He said he was still making music but had no desire to make any money off of it and no interest in discussing his earlier work.

Of course, he was wearing all white.

As a lover of mystery, you couldn’t hope for a much better ending to the Lewis story. Though there’s some amount of resolution, things are still left open-ended. And yet I can’t help wishing they never found the guy at all. Somehow it would be a better story if he remained an unseen subject of conjecture.

Shiloh knows where it’s at. When you have nothing else to go on, you’re forced to generate everything you think you know about an artist from their art alone. And maybe, sometimes, that’s enough.

Quiet beasts don’t seek acceptance.

Yesterday it was April Fools’ Day and Easter on the very same day. And yet I had nothing ludicrous to report. It’s shameful, I know. In all honesty, this goof right here — which somehow fooled at least two or three people at the time — was always going to be hard to top.

A few kernels of news:

Mixes for Jess’s album have been approved, so that one should be out in the world as soon as she feels the time is right to release it. The video up there will give you a bit of an idea of what to expect. From beginning to end, it’s been a pleasure working with her. She even gave me one of the most challenging (and rewarding) drum assignments of my life. It’s a great surprise to be tested on what you think is one of your weaker instruments, only to come away from the experience thinking, “Hey…I did pretty good!”

I know I said this before, but it’s worth saying again: what a difference it makes working with a camera that’s a little more robust. It’s nice to be able to shoot handheld and move around without everything degenerating into a total shaky mess. Instead of being limited to static shots, it allows me to introduce a bit of movement when I’m not stuck filming myself. It wouldn’t be pretty if I tried to do the same thing with one of the trusty old Flip cameras.

About half of the songs on Ron’s album already exist as rough mixes, so some serious progress is being made there. It’s a very different project from Jess’s album. Where that one was recorded live for the most part, with her doing everything on every song but one, here my job is much more about arranging and fleshing out the songs. It’s fun having that kind of contrast in your work, where every gig is different.

The next Papa Ghostface album now has a title and cover art. One less thing to worry about during crunch time. That one’s been sitting on the back burner for a while, but it’s starting to come into sharper focus. I think we need to record a few more songs, and then all the necessary raw material will be there. Haven’t been filming any of the recording process so far, when my plan was to grab more footage of us working on this one after only documenting a little bit of STEW. Thankfully there’s still time to remedy that.

My oft-mentioned solo album with many guests continues to hum along. I’m not even going to try and work out where I am with that one anymore. I’ll just keep chipping away at it, and eventually it’ll be finished.

If all these things manage to see the light of day in 2018, maybe this will be my real making-up-for-lost-time year. Here’s hoping.

What good does the night do me?

I came to the music of Shudder to Think in a pretty backwards way. My introduction to the band was their soundtrack for Lisa Cholodenko’s underrated 1998 film High Art.

Every poster, DVD cover, and promotional image makes this movie look like a steamy soft porn flick. It’s a universe away from that. The story goes much deeper than “pretty people getting naked”. There’s some sex in the film, but it grows out of the characters and their interactions in an organic way. It isn’t there to titillate. When it happens, it means something. Ally Sheedy gives what might be the performance of her life in the role of a talented but troubled photographer, and the always excellent Patricia Clarkson is terrifying as a drug casualty who’s much more intelligent and manipulative than she lets on.

As good as the film is, the music was what stayed with me. When “She Might Be Waking up” played over the end credits, it was a hard kick to the chest that made a devastating ending hit even harder, and I knew I needed to own the soundtrack album.

I ordered it online. There was no way I was ever going to find it in a record store anywhere. When the CD showed up in the mail, the packaging was just as it was supposed to be, but the music on the disc wasn’t the High Art soundtrack. It was live jazz. The first track was “All Blues”. Given the crisp drum sound and the large band, I assumed it was a single-disc distillation of highlights from Miles Davis’s 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival performance.

I loved Miles even back then, but I didn’t listen beyond the first song. This wasn’t what I paid for, and I was a little pissed. I ordered another copy of the CD, got the music that was supposed to be on it in the first place, and tossed the “defective” copy aside. I forgot all about it.

A week or two ago, that mysterious jazz album popped back into my head. I was pretty sure I still had it somewhere. It took a while to dig it out of my CD collection, but I found it hidden away in one of the dustier corners. I was long overdue to give it a real listen and figure out just what I had here.

Two songs in, someone started singing, and I knew straight away it wasn’t Miles. It was Chet Baker. There’s no mistaking that voice for anyone else’s.

What I got, on what was supposed to be my first copy of the High Art soundtrack, was My Favourite Songs: the Last Great Concert, recorded in April 1988, two weeks before Chet died. It only took me close to twenty years to realize it.

The story behind the album goes something like this: some German fans who were involved in the music business wanted to honour Chet. They probably knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer. They said, “Chet, here’s the deal. You tell us what your favourite songs are. We’ll take care of the charts and put a big band and an orchestra together, and we’ll record the show. All you have to do is show up and play.”

Chet took that a little too literally. He didn’t bother to materialize for rehearsals. He walked into the concert hall for the first time the day of the show. You’d never know it to listen to the recording. It isn’t late-period Chet at his absolute best (for some of that, check out 1979’s Broken Wing and then Chet Baker in Tokyo from nine years later), but it’s still great stuff.

Watching video footage from the last years of Chet’s life is like eavesdropping on a ghost. He looks far older than his fifty-something years, with the crumbled majesty of his once beautiful face serving as hard-won proof that heroin can turn James Dean into the Grim Reaper. Then he raises the trumpet to his lips and is transformed, playing with a level of grace and invention someone in his condition shouldn’t be capable of.

One of the great twisted tragedies of the Chet Baker story is that he made some of his best music while he was slowly killing himself. He bragged about never needing to practice, but in his later years he played more than he ever had before, taking every gig he could get. He needed the money for drugs. The more shows he played, the better and deeper his playing became.

Rarely has such beautiful music been made under such sordid circumstances.

The mystery for me is how what might be the last recording Chet ever made ended up packaged as a Shudder to Think soundtrack CD. Every issue and subsequent reissue of My Favourite Songs is on the German label Enja. The High Art soundtrack was issued on Velvel Records, an offshoot of Koch. As fas as I can tell, the two were never affiliated in any way. The only thing I can think of is maybe both labels used the same media broker at some point in the late ’90s and someone fell asleep at the wheel.

At least there’s an easy way for me to differentiate between the two CDs with identical packaging.

As for Shudder to Think, taking in the rest of their discography after only hearing the music they made for High Art was a bit of a shock, the same way I imagine the soundtrack startled fans of their earlier work.

This is my favourite kind of band — the unclassifiable kind. To try and squeeze them into a genre is to drive yourself insane. They were labelled “post-hardcore”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and on some of their early albums on the Dischord label you can hear traces of Hüsker Dü. By the time you get to an album like Get Your Goat, they sound like no one else.

The tricky time signatures, unorthodox guitar riffs that balance melody and dissonance on a knife edge, and pinpoint dynamic shifts might have slid them into an uneasy position somewhere in the realm of math rock if they were an instrumental band. But then Craig Wedren’s unique, elastic, theatrical voice (once described as sounding like “Michael Stipe’s psychotic uncle on LSD”) bends everything in a different direction. It’s at once the last voice you would ever expect to hear singing this music and the only voice that makes sense. Imagine Jeff Buckley singing with Stone Temple Pilots after being held hostage for years by The Dillinger Escape Plan and developing some serious Stockholm Syndrome, and you’re still only halfway there.

When they signed with Epic Records in the mid-’90s, a lot of fans cried “sell-out”. And yet the first album they delivered to their new label, Pony Express Record, is probably their finest moment. It sounds like a distillation of everything the albums that came before were working toward.

From the hard rock deconstruction of “Hit Liquor”, to the power ballad from another planet that is “Earthquakes Come Home”, to the eerie beauty of “No Rm. 9, Kentucky”, it’s a funhouse mirror album of elements that shouldn’t work together finding a way to coil themselves into something harmonious and wonderfully strange. No list of the least commercial albums ever released by a major label is complete without it.

The lone cover song is a deranged take on Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You”, exposing the latent creepiness buried beneath the soft rock sheen of the original.

Random confession time. When I first heard the ARS version on the radio as a twelve-year-old, I thought the opening line was:

When you walked into the room, there was doo-doo in the vase.

Not quite the romantic sentiment of “voodoo in the vibes”. But if a whirlwind attraction can survive the smell of random crap, surely it’s built to last, no?

The next Shudder to Think album, 50,000 BC, was seen by some as a betrayal of everything the band was about. One angry fan called it “art rock for losers”. It didn’t help that an Epic press release hailed it as “a totally commercially accessible album that includes pure alternative rock ‘n’ roll songs and simple ballads” — in other words, the opposite of everything Shudder to Think had ever done.

I can’t help feeling this album got a little more hate than it deserved. It does feel like a bit of a step back, and if there was some record label pressure to make music that was more accessible to the masses, well…it sounds like it. The confrontational energy of Pony Express Record is gone. But this band was incapable of making boring music.

Listen to the opening track, “Call of the Playground”, with its stop-start rhythm and some sweetly-sung lyrics that read like a confusing childhood nightmare. It sounds more like a demented parody of an alternative rock hit than anything anyone ever could have believed stood a chance of garnering significant airplay on mainstream radio. And “Red House” is a glorious song by any measure, even if it was first recorded for 1991’s Funeral at the Movies, recorded another three times after that, and loses a bit of its punch in this final, more polished incarnation.

The fans that didn’t jump ship after hearing 50,000 BC were probably baffled by the mood pieces that made up the soundtrack to High Art. Recorded for the most part in Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson’s respective apartments, this music is more about creating atmospheres and soundscapes than constructing or deconstructing conventional song shapes. Only “Battle Soaked (Amnesian Mix)” features the sound of Craig’s voice, multi-tracked and mostly wordless, adding splashes of colour to a funky electronic workout.

The one song with a full set of lyrics just happens to be one of the best songs you’ve probably never heard, and it’s proof that Craig wasn’t the only great singer in the band. Guitarist Nathan Larson takes the lead for “She Might Be Waking up”, revealing a voice capable of moving from a broken, half-whispered croon to a soaring falsetto. In a way, this is a dress rehearsal for the songs Nathan would go on to write for Jealous God, his first solo album. It’s also better than anything on that album — darker, deeper, and with the lo-fi production lending it more character.

There was more soundtrack work ahead, with the band contributing a few songs to Velvet Goldmine and then a whole pile of tunes to First Love, Last Rites — a classic example of the soundtrack being a lot better than the movie it’s attached to.

This last one is a bit of a mixed bag of genre exercises, but the idea to write songs for a lot of different singers and then play the whole thing off as a series of radio broadcasts throughout the film was kind of brilliant, and there are some real gems knocking elbows with the near-misses. You could make a pretty wonderful EP out of “I Want Someone Badly” (sung by Jeff Buckley), “Appalachian Lullaby” (sung by Nina Persson), “Speed of Love” (sung by John Doe), and “Day Ditty” (sung by Angela McCluskey).

And then the band very quietly called it quits.

Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson have both gone on to have successful film scoring careers punctuated by the occasional solo album. There have been a few reunions here and there and a live album or two, but there hasn’t been a new collection of Shudder to Think songs in twenty years now.

Elsewhere in the abandoned old bowling alley of life, Dale Jacobs asked me a few weeks back if I would be willing to be an interview subject for a class he’s teaching at the University of Windsor called Writing about Music.

I’ve unofficially “retired” from granting interviews to anyone, for any reason. I think the last one happened back in 2011, and it might not even exist on the internet anymore. I had a few good experiences during my thirty-eight minutes of local fame/infamy, but after too many run-ins with agenda-humping writers who had no interest in learning anything about who I am, what I do, or why I do it the way I do, I decided it was better to let the music speak for itself. Besides, there’s already more information about me and what I do available here than anyone could ever want to know.

Maybe that sounds a little harsh, but I’m not talking about something as simple as not being a fan of someone’s writing style or not liking the way I was presented in a certain piece. I’m talking about shit like this:

I once spent an hour or two talking to a writer, giving him a ton of material to work with, and when the article he wrote was printed, I learned he didn’t use a single thing I said. Not one word. Instead, he lifted uncredited quotes from my blog, defeating the whole purpose of meeting with him.

This is someone who began the interview by complaining about other people plagiarizing his work. Then he turned around and did the same thing to me.

Smooth move.

Another writer invented quotes I never said in an effort to bend me to his purpose, because I wouldn’t say what he wanted to hear. He thought he could bully me into submission by painting me into a corner. When that didn’t work, he took every opportunity he could to denigrate me in print and deliberately misrepresented the nature of a show I was playing to try and perform some small, impotent act of subterfuge. When that didn’t work, he settled for trying to drag my name through the mud whenever I came up in the course of a conversation he happened to be privy to.

I’ve been told by a number of people this is something he still does from time to time. How do you respond to that kind of absurdity? I don’t know if it’s funny or sad. Maybe a bit of both. I guess a half-hearted laugh-shrug is appropriate.

My point is, you have enough experiences with people like that, and you don’t feel much like giving an interview to anyone anymore.

This was a little different. Dale has been supporting my music for years. He was one of the people who gave CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN some serious airplay on CJAM during the surreal summer of 2008, back when he was still hosting Steel-Belted Radio. And when he told me the other local interview subjects were going to be members of Diane Motel, I thought, “I might be able to offer an interesting contrast to that interview.”

So I said sure. Why not?

Earlier this week, four students from Dale’s class — half of a group called The Sound Collective — came over to the house and interviewed me. I went into it with an open mind while bracing myself for the usual one-size-fits-all questions.

My least favourite, and one that’s come up in almost every interview I’ve ever done: “What are your influences?”

I hate this question. I hate it because it implies the person asking it couldn’t be bothered to listen to any of my music to work out for themselves what they think they might hear in it. It also says to me, “What you do can be boiled down to a sentence and a musical reference or two.”

I’m not sure that’s true of anyone. I know it isn’t true in my case. I’ve always thought the whole point was to discover and develop your own voice — not to see how much mimicry you can get away with without being called a ripoff artist.

There are two ways I can answer this stupid question.

I can tell you my music has always been more influenced by my personal life, where I am emotionally at any given time, and the people I interact with. It’s the truth, but it sounds pretty pretentious.

Or I can name some of the bands and artists who have had a serious impact on me. But if I do that, I want to explain why their work grabbed me and how it spoke to me. I want to tell you how certain singers turned me on to the idea of using the voice not just as a vehicle to deliver the lyrics, but as an instrument in its own right. How hearing a specific album at a specific time in my life short-circuited my brain and forced me to recalibrate all my ideas about what a song could be. How pianists as disparate as Thelonious Monk, John Cale, and Nicky Hopkins changed the way I approached playing the piano.

Most writers don’t want to hear all that, because they’re not really writers at all. They don’t want a story. They want a soundbite.

The other night, that question I hate wasn’t asked. In its place was this: “Is there anything you’re listening to right now that you find is influencing you or inspiring you in some way?”

A very different, much more thought-provoking question, this one. And it opens the door for a story to sneak through.

Every question they asked me was unexpected, and intelligent, and forced me to give some serious thought to how I wanted to respond. They did some actual research beforehand, which is more than I can say for most of the folks who interviewed me in the past. What’s more, they all seemed genuinely engaged and enthusiastic to be talking to me.

It was the most enjoyable, surprising, and stimulating interview I’ve ever been involved in. Kind of restored my faith in the whole process.

Thanks to Brittany, Iovan, Aria, and Shannon for a really positive, memorable experience, and thanks to Dale for asking me to be a part of the project. It’s the first time in years I can say I’m looking forward to reading something that’s being written about me instead of dreading it. I’ll link to the piece here when it goes live on the Sound Collective blog.

That dusty old radio.

A little less than a week ago, this blog turned ten years old. Every single other personal website or blog-ish thing I once maintained has long since turned to digital dust. Still this one persists. It defies explanation.

I wanted to do something special to commemorate a decade of bloggage. Maybe make a silly video or something. But the only thing my creative energy seems to want to fling itself into right now is music. As luck would have it, I was able to find a video made by someone else that carries with it a suitable feeling of triumph. If this doesn’t get your pulse racing, I’m not sure what will.

All the bed tracks for Ron’s album have now been recorded and tucked in, and I’ve already started working on the arrangements. I have a feeling the “production” side of things isn’t going to take too long there. Every time I sit down with one of his songs I seem to find myself maxing out the mixer in an afternoon. Rough mixes for Jess’s album have been delivered and approved, so all I need to do there is some fine-tuning to arrive at what will hopefully be final mixes. The followup to STEW has ground to a halt for the moment, but work on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is starting to pick up again.

All in all, I’d say things are just about back on track.

You are much more adept at enunciating with a shoe in your mouth.

Ric was over here tuning the piano on Valentine’s Day. My Yamaha U1 has the Piano Life Saver System installed, pulling double duty as an internal humidifier and dehumidifier. It’s helped a lot during those times when the air has been less than kind to instruments that crave moisture. Even so, Ric said it might not be a bad idea to pick up a hygrometer and a room humidifier, to guard against the damage the cold months can do and keep the piano happy.

Enter this little guy:

And his co-conspirator:

The humidity in the studio is now hovering between 30 and 40% all the time. Not quite ideal, but a marked improvement over the horrifying 16% the hygrometer was reading before the new humidifier started doing its thing. It should help pick up some of the slack so the Life Saver System doesn’t have to work so hard.

It’s funny what a difference it can make when you’ve got something to counteract the way your furnace sucks all the moisture out of a room. Breathing the air in there even feels better now.

I thought I’d take the opportunity to perform a little humidity treatment on a 1939 Kalamazoo mandola. I have a habit of leaving this instrument out of its case for long stretches of time (not smart, I know), and when winter shows up it lets me know it isn’t happy. It’s about as upset with me right now as it’s ever been.

The other day I shoved a Dampit inside of each F-hole and stuck the mandola on top of the Ace Tone combo organ, as close as I could get it to the humidifier without putting it somewhere I might forget about it and knock it over. Already we’re down from four or five dead frets to just one that’s a little bit buzzy. Talk about a fast turnaround. If I promise to make sure the mandola gets the moisture it needs from now on, maybe it’ll find it in its headstock to forgive me.

The dying gasp of that residual coughing crap is still hanging on, but my voice seems to be fine. Time to get back down to business and regain some of the momentum I had going at the end of 2017 before stupid germs stole it from me. To paraphrase the great Dolph Lundgren: “If I cough, I cough.”

I wanted to post a song to make up for the relative scarcity of blog updates so far this year. Of course, instead of working on something new, my brain made a direct beeline for the past. I had to go along for the ride. You really don’t have a choice in a situation like that, unless you want to experience spontaneous psychic decapitation.

If you were around during the infancy of this blog, you might remember a little sketch I posted in July of 2009. Here it is again. Blast from the past!

(Washed-out image care of the Flip camera’s protective adhesive plastic lens cover, which I didn’t realize you were supposed to remove until a day or two later.)

It took a while for the sketch to turn into a finished song. The music was easy. That came right away. The words were the tricky part. I got a verse or two right off the bat, and then nothing for a few months, until the rest of the words decided to show up one day without any fanfare.

Over the back half of 2009, Mark Plancke (owner and operator of Sharktank Productions, a long-running Windsor recording studio) reached out to just about every music-making life form in the city and invited them to be a part of a compilation he was putting together called From the Tank. I was one of those life forms.

The idea behind the compilation was this: he would record as many artists and bands operating in as many different genres as possible. The end result would be a convenient musical business card he could use to advertise his services. In return, the musicians involved would get to record a song in a professional studio environment.

Sounded interesting in theory. I’ve written before about how some part of me will always wonder what would happen if, as an experiment, I tried recording in someone else’s studio and let an outside producer have their way with my music. With the passage of time that part of me has shrunk down to almost nothing, but I think some vague echo of it will always be there.

When I was mulling it over, the first and only song that came to mind was this one. It was a very clear, immediate thought: “If I decide to go through with it, this is the song I want to record.”

I was curious to see how the other half lived — how people did things in a “proper” studio. And Mark had an impressive list of gear. But I had some good gear of my own. A lot of money and time and effort went into accumulating those tools and teaching myself how to use them. For someone who’s spent a lifetime working in untreated rooms, I’ve had a ridiculous amount of luck, never finding myself saddled with a space that’s posed any serious acoustic problems. I was happy with my room and the recordings I was making in it.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get involved or not. What knocked me off the fence was the discovery that the Tank, like most other local studios, didn’t have a real acoustic piano. Once I got my upright, there was no going back, and no amount of expensive processing was going to make a digital piano sound like the real deal.

I recorded the song myself in the summer of 2010 while working on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, knowing it was destined for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE if it ended up anywhere at all. The whole thing was built around a nice Larrivée acoustic guitar I was trying to make a point of playing more after neglecting it for a while. I spent one afternoon in June working on it and then left it unmixed for over a year.

In late 2011, after getting GIFT FOR A SPIDER out of my system, I gave it a fresh listen, added some combo organ and a bit of melodica, and mixed it. Around this time, someone told me they thought the snare drum didn’t come through in my mixes as much as it should. That got stuck in my head for a while, and I ended up making some mixes that were far too drum-heavy in an effort to make up for that supposed oversight.

Good sense prevailed before too long, and I decided the drums were right where I wanted them to be. But the original mix of this song is one that came out of that short-lived Jack up the Drums period of uncertainty. For more than six years I’ve been meaning to revisit it and give it a new mix. Today seemed like a good day to get it done.

Bass Shakes the Salmon

I didn’t change much. All the HELLHOUND-period effects — the medium delay I was favouring on my vocal tracks at the time, the reverb on the organ, the ping-pong delay on the piano — were left intact. The drums got pulled down quite a bit, but not so much that they disappeared. They sit in the pocket better now, driving the music without getting too vocal about it. The electric guitar came up a titch, and I snipped out a few lip smacks and unwanted ambient noises I was too lazy to get rid of the first time. Other than that, I left it alone.

I like how the bridge section feels kind of aimless, with the singing sounding unsure of what melodic logic it wants to follow, and then everything kicks back in after the first of two false endings with a renewed sense of purpose. The piano and electric guitar are both first-take scratch tracks I meant to either re-record or get rid of. I improvised them without knowing what I was doing. All this time later, I like the way they provide a bit of colour without ever settling down into conventional or studied “parts”, and the way the piano drifts into jazzy dissonance now and then to keep things a little off-balance. So they get to stay, unedited.

The little lead melody during the instrumental break was supposed to be a guitar solo. For whatever reason, it seemed more compelling to me when I played it on the combo organ and then doubled it with melodica. Take that, intended guitar solo!

The piano line at the beginning might sound familiar if you’ve listened to a fair amount of my music. When I wasn’t sure if this song was album material, I took that little musical idea and repurposed it, sticking it in the middle of the instrumental bridge section in “No Better Than Before”, the opening track on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC. Most of the time I try to avoid recycling melodies and riffs with about as much force as I try to avoid being subjected to the musical halitosis of my old pal the Paddle Pop Lion, but every once in a great while you come across an idea that wants to get out and make some friends. To clip its wings would just be cruel.

The title can be read as either one fish shaking another, or sound frequencies causing the salmon to vibrate. If you want to get absurd, it can even be an action performed by a bass guitar with a mind and a will of its own. I still haven’t decided which reading I prefer, and none of them have anything to do with what the lyrics have to say.

You can look at it as a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of thing.

This is also the song I was listening to when it hit me what important roles silence and space have come to play in my songwriting.

For some weird, logic-defying reason it’s one of my favourite ANGLE songs. It’s more of a lazy lope of a deep album cut than anything, showing up well past the halfway mark on the first disc of my failed attempt at sequencing and finishing the album back in 2012. I can’t explain what it is. There’s just something about the song I’ve always really liked.

Today I kind of wish I could say I went ahead and tried recording it at the Sharktank around the same time I was recording my own version at home. It would be fun to be able to compare two very different recordings of the same source material, interpreted by two producers with profoundly different philosophies and methodologies. I can only guess at how the recorded-by-someone-else version of this song would have sounded. The drums probably would have come out sounding a lot more “produced”, with more microphones on the kit. You’d have Wurlitzer in place of the piano part and Hammond organ in place of the Ace Tone. The melodica-and-organ solo would probably be the more conventional guitar solo it started out as in my head. The mics and their placement, effects, and mixing choices would all be very different.

It would have been interesting. But I’m not sure it would have really sounded or felt like me. So maybe it all worked out the way it was supposed to.

Speaking of the quadruple CD that almost was…

In 2012, THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE had my undivided attention. I was convinced I would be able to shape that years-in-the-making mess into something that made sense as a self-contained album. I was so sure of myself, I went ahead and sequenced the first two discs of an intended four-disc set, paid to have inserts printed, copied a large batch of CDs, and gave everything a copyright date of 2012.

The plan was to put a different picture I’d taken on the cover of each individual CD. Then those pictures and others would form a collage that would serve as the “master cover”, and all the CDs would be housed in a fancy slipcase. All I had to do was finish the other two discs, get a huge lyric booklet printed, and work out how and where to get a slipcase made.

I thought it was a smart move. It turned out to be a serious tactical error. By dating the back of those first two CDs, I gave myself a limited amount of time to tie up all the loose ends. I took my best shot at it, recording a lot of new songs, mixing and remixing a lot of old ones, but I just couldn’t get it done in time. 2012 gave way to 2013, I started feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing, and before too long I’d kicked it to the side and given up on it — not for the first or last time.

I was at least able to repurpose the CD jewel cases for other albums. The hundreds of inserts I had printed became useless, along with the hundreds of CDs I spent hours copying and printing myself. I had to eat those expenses.

Lesson learned: don’t package your album before it’s finished.

I have no idea what the sequencing of ANGLE is going to look like when it’s finished, but I know it won’t even begin to resemble what I put together in 2012. Half the songs that made it onto those two discs back then might not even make the final cut. Whatever album it might have been had I managed to pull it together six years ago, I’m convinced it’ll be a much stronger piece of work when it finally sees the light of day in 2089.

I hear music.

For ten years running now, almost every time I’m ramping up to finish work on something after a period of relative inactivity or uncertainty, a big bad mega cold comes out of nowhere and knocks me out for a good week or two. I should have known another one was on the way.

It hasn’t been all bad. For one thing, between coughing fits I found that video up there. I think it’s fifteen minutes of your life well spent. Count Basie was the coolest, and there will never be another Judy Garland. Her take on “A Cottage for Sale” at the end of that block of music has to be the song’s definitive treatment. Frank Sinatra does a masterful job singing it on his great album No One Cares, but Judy takes it somewhere even deeper. You sense she feels those words because she’s lived them.

If I could stop coughing and sneezing all the time, I’d sing some things too. Soon, hopefully.

A home at the end of the frozen river.

Ten years ago Sufjan Stevens set this thing in motion called The Great Sufjan Stevens Xmas Song Xchange. The idea: people would submit original Christmas songs. Sufjan would select the song he felt was the best and most original of the bunch. The winner would get the rights to an exclusive Christmas song of Sufjan’s, and he in turn would get the rights to theirs.

I’ve talked before about what I think of most music-related contests. In this case there didn’t seem to be any way for anyone to cheat or turn it into a popularity contest. I didn’t expect or even really want to win, but I thought it might be pretty neat to get one of my songs to Sufjan’s ears even if I would probably never know how he reacted to it. And I liked the idea of challenging myself to write a Christmas song that wasn’t profane and offensive for once. It would be unbroken songwriting ground for me.

So I decided to go for it.

I didn’t have a real piano then. I sat down at the Clavinova and wrote a song that was sung in the voice of a homeless man who tries to get his wife and kids through the Christmas season with some amount of hope intact, struggling to find beauty in the face of adversity. I spent the better part of a day chipping away at it, committed to crafting the lyrics and music into something serious and meaningful.

By the time I sat down to record the song I’d lost all interest in it. It sounded like just the sort of sappy thing that would win this kind of contest, but it didn’t feel authentic.

This was also right about the time it started to sink in that the sound of a digital piano wasn’t cutting it for me in the studio anymore. So that didn’t help. I got down piano and guide vocals, and that was the end of it.

A few weeks later I sat back down at the Clavinova and started writing a new set of lyrics to some very different music that had a lot more energy in it. “The temptress of the ice will swallow us whole and cough us up as we wish to be,” the opening line went. That felt more like me. I plucked a few of the more interesting lines from the first song and tried to incorporate them, but I couldn’t get it to a place where it felt finished.

The day of the deadline for submissions, I threw out all the music to the second song, grafted together a few different ideas I’d been kicking around on the mandolin without knowing what to do with them, took what I liked from the words I’d written, improvised the rest, and recorded and mixed the whole thing in about half an hour. I wanted to add more acoustic guitar, some stomping and clapping, more vocal tracks, maybe some bass, and maybe some Wurlitzer or something, but there wasn’t time for all that.

It wasn’t a perfect performance or mix, and the acoustic guitar dropped out a little early at the end. Even so, I was pretty happy with the way it turned out. Felt like I found a way to write a Christmas song that sidestepped the obvious imagery and well-worn phrases. Aside from a silly little riff on “Frère Jacques” and one line at the very end, there weren’t any overt references to Christmas at all. And the closing verse tempered that with a healthy dose of cynicism.

A Home at the End of the Frozen River

When the winning song was announced, it wasn’t mine. I was expecting that. What surprised me was the song that did win. It was one of the worst things I’d ever heard in my life. The lyrics alone were so awful they defied belief.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, check out this bit:

For I’ve got a secret that no one else can know
that keeps my temperament even during times of snow.
I’ve got the perfect present, one not wrapped up in a bow.
It lifts my spirits high when I’m feeling low.
Others long for the holidays, yes indeed they do.
But every day is Christmas when I’m with you.

We were told our songs were being judged based on their originality. Here was one trite, clichéd, unoriginal turn of phrase and predictable forced rhyme after another. As for the music, it was a few simple chords that never strayed far from the key of C.

There was no complexity or invention to any part of it. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, there was no there there.

Sufjan had this to say about his decision:

“I fell most in love with one particular song because of its happy simplicity: Alec Duffy’s ‘Every Day Is Christmas.’ It feels, at once, like a classic show tune, the perfect parlour song, a lackadaisical bar ballad, and a church hymn. It is unencumbered with the pejoratives and prophetic exclamations of Christmas, the most complicated of holidays. Oh sure, I continue to indulge in the Christmas blues, the heavy winter dread, the melancholy expectations of the season. And I still marvel at the sacrilege, the subversive satire, and the silly nonsense of Christmas as commodity, patterned with the cartoon characters of Charlie Brown, Santa Claus, and Rudolf. For me, the entertainment of these bipolar fantasies will never quite fade away; they are fundamental to the mysteries of Christmas. But when it came down to it, I just wanted the simple relief of ordinary, everyday love, the love between two people, the kind of love that doesn’t obligate itself to the trumpet fanfares and jingle bells of a holiday spectacle. Alec Duffy’s unfettered song ‘Every Day Is Christmas’ summarizes this simple phenomenon with the most effortless of words and melodies, somehow making perfect sense out of a senseless holiday.”

I read that and thought the dude must have some kind of magic ears capable of turning the sound of a rake scraping across sidewalk into choirs of angels singing. The song sounded like none of those things he said it did. It accomplished nothing he claimed it did. Listening to it again today for the first time in ten years, my feelings haven’t changed. Not every song aspires to be some great, incisive piece of art. Not every song needs to be that. But bad is bad. And I can’t fathom how anyone could listen to that song and hear anything but bad.

As for Sufjan’s song, most of us will die without ever having a chance to hear it.

It came out that the contest-winner was the director of a theater company. He said his plan was to take Sufjan’s song and build a play around it. Fair enough. There was one problem: by forcing people to buy tickets to see a play if they wanted to hear this elusive Sufjan Stevens song, the guy was defeating the explicitly stated purpose of the song exchange. It was supposed to be about sharing music without money being involved, and here he was going to use the spoils of his victory to line his pockets and raise his own profile. Talk about missing the point.

At first I assumed Sufjan just didn’t have very good taste. A few dozen of what must have been hundreds or thousands of submitted songs were put up on a media player on the Asthmatic Kitty website for a while, and every single one of them put the winning song to shame. Then I read something that mentioned Alec and Sufjan worked in the same building at some point, and everything got a whole lot clearer. There was evidence to suggest the two of them knew each other a little bit before the supposed contest was even created, at least in passing. It didn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out the rest.

Hey man. You heard about my Christmas song contest, right? What do you say you whip something up? It doesn’t even have to be any good. I’ll juggle some words to justify why it takes home the prize when there are many more deserving candidates, and in return you’ll work my song into one of your productions and introduce my music to a whole new audience. You make money and get more attention, I expand my reach, a bunch of people get to feel like they had an honest shot at something that was rigged from the start — everybody benefits.

Maybe that wasn’t what happened. But it would have explained a lot.

The play was never produced. I’m not sure why. Instead, the winning songwriter and the music director of his theater company decided to host listening sessions where a handful of people would be allowed to come over to one of their homes and listen to the song while having tea and cookies. Which was great if you were in Brooklyn and they deemed you worthy of a visit, and not so great if you lived anywhere else.

A blog post was written to explain the reasoning behind all of this. It was supposed to be about bringing some of the mystery back to new music in the internet age, bending the act of listening back into a more meaningful experience. And part of me can appreciate that. The loss of mystery is another thing I’ve rambled about before. It’s one of the main reasons I go to great lengths to keep money far away from the music I make and keep it a very low-key thing, only sharing it with a small group of people I know have some genuine interest in it. I like knowing when you get a new album from me you have no idea what you’re going to hear, because there’s no way to stream it beforehand. It’s a physical thing you have to sit down and spend some time with.

Having said that, imagine for a second you found your way to this blog and sent me an email asking how you could get your hands on an album or six, and instead of responding with, “All I need is a mailing address and I’ll send you free CDs wherever you are,” I told you the only way you were ever going to hear any of my music was if you came to my house. If you didn’t live nearby or couldn’t get out this way, you were out of luck. And if you did manage to make it here for a little listening party, all you would have to take with you when you left would be your memory of the music you heard, because I wouldn’t even consider sharing any of my songs with you in any way other than a one-time “fire it into the air and watch it disappear” in-person experience.

I don’t imagine you’d leave that exchange with a lot of good feelings about me. You would probably think I was a pretty arrogant person with an inflated sense of my own importance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned you off enough that you wouldn’t want to hear any of my music anymore in any format.

I mean, if you own the music, what you do with it is your choice. That’s the bottom line. But the endgame here has never made any sense to me. There has to be a better way of keeping that sense of wonder alive than making people jump through flaming hoops to hear one song. I don’t go out of my way to call attention to my music, but if someone in Alaska sends me an email asking for some stuff, I’m going to send them whatever albums they’re interested in even if it costs me a hundred bucks to do it. I don’t care if you live on Mars. I’ll still send you music. Discriminating against the majority of the human race because they don’t live close enough to make things more convenient for you smells pretty self-defeating to me, not to mention elitist and kind of messed up.

(As for how to describe the scent of self-defeat, well…that’s a discussion for another time.)

About the nicest thing I can say here is I lost a lot of respect for everyone involved. Then again, maybe a lot of it really does come down to Sufjan having crummy taste. He recorded a cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost” a few years back. It’s an insult to the universe. He took a beautiful little open-hearted love song and turned it into shallow-sounding pop pablum with every trace of humanity removed.

I guess just because you’re capable of writing some great songs, it doesn’t mean the intelligence required to do that extends to your interpretation or assessment of anyone else’s work.

Anyway. Back to my Christmas song up there. It was only ever made available on the MISFITS (1999-2007) compilation, and there are probably only a few dozen people in the world who own that reckless, sprawling thing. It also landed on a CLLCT Christmas compilation way back when, but that site has been gone for years now and I’m not sure how many people still have the MP3 hanging out on their hard drives. I thought it was about time to dust the song off again.

Even in its less-layered-than-I-wanted-it-to-be form, it’s a very clear precursor to the CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN sound. The triple-tracked lead vocals, the emphasis on acoustic instruments and organic sounds, a mix that’s more interested in energy than polish — it’s all there already. I even lifted an overlapping vocal bit from “Mismatched Socks”, a song that would later end up on that album (it’s the part that goes, “White, white, white, white snow melts into your braided hair”).

“Mismatched Socks” got its revenge when it came time to record that song. Every time I tried to sing the overlapping vocal harmonies it came out sounding like a mess. I had to reconstruct the vocal melody on the fly and take it to a different, harmony-free place.

I was prepared to give A Home at the End of the Frozen River a fresh mix, but aside from the vocals getting a little quiet in some parts and the glockenspiel being maybe a little too upfront, I don’t hear a whole lot wrong with it. This is one of those rare times I got away with a pretty loud mastering job that didn’t introduce any ugly clipping, and it might be the best I’ve ever heard those Neumann KM184s capture my mandolin. I’m starting to think I should try playing that thing with a pick more often.

If I probably won’t be moved to write another Christmas-themed song at any point in the next fifty years, at least I went out with something I can still share without shame. And that’s half the battle, isn’t it?

Merry Creased Mousse to you and yours. May all your mistletoe find four other toes to complete the rare and precious mistlefoot.

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.