I’m proud and a little bewildered to share this bit of news: I’ve received a generous Arts, Culture, and Heritage Fund grant from the City of Windsor to help fund the production of an ambitious live show featuring many of the artists I’ve been fortunate enough to work with in recent years.
Ever since YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK became something more than a vague idea, I’ve had this crazy dream to release the album at a Mackenzie Hall show inspired by The Band’s Last Waltz. The idea was to have a pretty large core band in place. We would play some of my songs. At some point a guest would come up and take the spotlight for a song on the album that featured them. Maybe they would also perform a few of their own songs with me backing them up. Then someone else would come up, the same thing would happen again, and it would go on happening until everyone — or almost everyone — was sharing the performance space at the same time and making a huge communal racket.
I thought it was a pipe dream at best. I knew it would be expensive to make the show what I wanted it to be. I’d have to find someone to film it. And my chances of getting all the musicians I wanted on board were pretty slim. Still, it was fun to toy with the possibilities, and whenever I mentioned the idea to anyone they seemed excited about it.
In January I had a little unexpected brain drizzle. Ron got an ACHF grant to support the recording of his soon-to-be-released new album (the one I produced and played a bunch of stuff on). I started thinking maybe I had a shot at getting a grant to cover some of the costs involved in putting on this hypothetical show. The financial assistance would allow me to pay the musicians something fair without killing myself. It would give me a budget to get the thing filmed at a level of professionalism that would otherwise be beyond my reach. It would even help to offset some promotional expenses, like getting posters printed and planting demonic messages in the cell phone ring tones of strangers.
I only had a few weeks to work with before the deadline, so I threw myself into the process of applying for a grant for the first time in my life. I made a curriculum vitae. That was a strange experience. I dug up and scanned old newspaper articles from that brief time when The Windsor Star deemed me important enough to pay attention to. When I learned it wasn’t possible to submit any physical materials, I made a whole mini-website from scratch to serve as a preview of both the album and the show. I wrote and rewrote my proposal until it felt like it was tight as a drum. And I solicited letters of support — something the ACHF requires you to do when you’re not a corporation.
I thought I’d try to cover as many bases as I could. I asked Dale Jacobs (professor and published author), Brady Holek (CJAM station manager), Kelly Hoppe (one of the higher-profile musicians I’ve worked with), and Dan MacDonald (AM 800 and The River DJ/radio personality) if they would be willing to write letters for me. All of them said yes without any hesitation.
I was expecting to get a paragraph or two of generic back-slapping. Those expectations were obliterated. Some of the things these people wrote made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The passion and respect they expressed for me and what I do was kind of overwhelming.
Really, the outpouring of support from everyone I asked for any kind of help was pretty incredible. Rob Fraser and Johnny Smith wrote letters clarifying their roles in helping to make the show a reality (Rob is handling the audio recording side of things, and the Smithster is doing a little bit of everything). Rob, Ron, and Greg Maxwell all offered great advice that helped me to shape my proposal. Cathy Masterson, my Cultural Affairs contact, was patient and helpful beyond all reason. Merry Ellen Scully and Joey Ouellette were wonderful to deal with at Mackenzie Hall, as they always are. And I owe an immense amount of gratitude to Michelle Soullière. I asked if she had any advice to offer, knowing she had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. My proposal wouldn’t have been half as strong as it was without her help.
I had a good feeling about this from the moment I submitted all my materials online. That isn’t like me. I tried to temper the optimism with some more realistic ideas about my chances, but the good feeling would not be defeated. It didn’t make it any less surprising when I got an email telling me I got the grant. It’s a pretty cool feeling when a jury that has no vested interest in you at all determines you’re worthy of their support.
The craziest thing of all is the people I’ve managed to snag for the show. I swung for the fences and asked the musicians and singers in Windsor I would want playing and singing with me if my life was on the line. I didn’t expect everyone to say yes.
Everyone said yes.
My trombonist backed out when I sent a message to re-confirm his involvement, so my dream of a three-piece horn section is no more. But it’s no big thing. I mean, check out this lineup.
(This is a placeholder poster I made myself. I’m hoping to have a Greg Maxwell Special to spread around in the next month or two so I won’t have to use this one. Still, it’ll give you an idea of what’s going down.)
I didn’t want to put a conventional band together and try to recreate album arrangements in a live setting. That would be boring. What I wanted to do was get some of my favourite people and players together in one place, and then see what kind of energy there would be. We haven’t had our first proper rehearsal yet, but I think there’s the potential for some pretty fascinating textural things to happen with two horns, violin, cello, and everything else going on there.
That’s not all. The artwork created for the album booklet will be displayed, and then the prints will be donated back to the artists who created the imagery that adorns them. It’s the least I can do to thank those people for donating their talents to the cause. Free copies of the album will be available for whoever wants them. There will be free non-alcoholic things to drink and munch on. No vodka-infused crackers, I’m sorry to say.
Free handshakes and hugs will have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. I tend to be pretty generous with that stuff. As long as you don’t try to grab my flounder fish, we shouldn’t have a problem.
Though I think this part goes without saying by now, it’s going to be a free, all-ages show. It’s happening at Mackenzie Hall on Saturday, August 17 — the day after my birthday. It felt too poetic not to snag that date.
I need to do everything I can to keep things in check now that I’ve somehow managed to convert my sleep schedule to that of a normal human being, so it’ll be a pretty early show for a Saturday evening thing. The music will start at 7:00 p.m. and we’ll probably wrap up around 9:00 at the latest. If there’s anything else you’d like to do with your Saturday night, you’ll have time leftover to make it happen. Want to go pretzel-bowling with your friends? You can still do that!
One thing I can’t stress enough: when I say the music starts at 7:00, I mean it really starts at 7:00. Not 7:30. Not 8:00. I know a lot of people are incapable of showing up on time for anything. A lot of live shows start late to account for all the latecomers. I hate that crap, and I refuse to participate in it. I can understand extreme situations, but being “fashionably late” isn’t cool anymore.
I might wait until ten or fifteen minutes past the hour to accommodate a few stragglers. That’s as far as my goodwill is going to stretch. Show up an hour late at your own peril, knowing if you do you’ll miss half the show and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.
Anyway. If a wild musical extravaganza with me acting as the ringleader is something you think you’d enjoy, you might want to save the date.
Since moving into this house a little less than twelve years ago, a former bedroom has served as my stock room. It’s where I keep CD booklets and inserts, mailing supplies, spare copies of albums, and other such things.
Over the years it’s gone through a number of transformations, alternating between “more or less uncluttered” and “total chaos”. It’s probably been nine years since I last sat down and organized things in any sensible way. I’ve just been throwing more and more stuff in there, hoping it wouldn’t get too unruly.
My hope was in vain. For a while now it’s been almost impossible to take more than two steps into that room without tripping over something. It was time for a change.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
The picture at the top of this post is from somewhere around the halfway point of the room being gutted and reorganized — something I did with a whole lot of help from the indispensable Johnny Smith. I’m a little sad I wasn’t crafty enough to grab a shot of what it looked like in there before we got started. Words can’t do justice to what a horrifying mess it was.
I’ve never been any good at throwing things out. I’m a bit of an emotional packrat. I attach nostalgic value to items that should be chucked in the trash without a second thought or invent some impossible scenario in which they might prove useful at some later date. It’s not so bad that you’ll ever see me show up on a reality show about hoarding, but we filled at least four large garbage bags with stuff that served no purpose and liberated no less than half a dozen boxes full of similarly useless stuff.
There were some fun surprises along the way. I dug up a stash of random blank CDs I didn’t know I had. I found extra inserts for some albums I thought I was running low on. And there’s this thing — a homemade album display case I made for my own amusement.
One decision transformed the whole room. I’ve always used this beautiful antique coffee table to keep all my copied and printed CDs together. It found its way into the stock room because we didn’t know where else to put it. Now it felt almost criminal to keep something so unique covered up like this…and there just happened to be a huge shelf taking up space in the basement, doing nothing, feeling unloved.
Out went the table, in came the shelf, a bamboo vase I’ve always loved but never known what to do with found a home at last, I cleared everything off of the desk and the shelf that holds album artwork so I could dust and tidy things up, and what we’re left with now is a series of images that tell a tale of redemption and grape soda.
It’s a much more functional room now in every way. You can walk around in there! You can even see the cheap double-neck acoustic guitar I bought when I was working on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY and have never used. I’m still waiting for a call from Robert Plant, as you might have guessed.
This whiteboard began its life in a pretty unassuming way. Once in a while we’d draw some silly things on it or use it to play a large-scale game of Hangman. It got packed away and forgotten about until the Great Demoralizing Move of 2007. Once I had my new studio space up and running, I thought it might be worthwhile to repurpose it as an “ideas board”.
I started out with good intentions…
…but within a few years the board was maxed out, and most of what was written on it was pretty outdated. I kept meaning to wipe it off and start fresh. I kept forgetting to do that. I think about six hundred people have heard me say, “I need to clear that thing off and write some new stuff on it,” at one time or another when they’ve been over here and have noticed the whiteboard.
Lately I’ve been in a bit of a recording funk. A lot of it has to do with feeling a little overwhelmed. It’s not as if I haven’t been here before, with several albums on the go at once, but sometimes it can be difficult to figure out what you want to work on when the options are a little bewildering. The whole idea behind propping up that whiteboard in the studio was to have something to fall back on. If I couldn’t figure out what to work on, I could walk over to Mr. McBoard and just point at something random and say, “You. I’ll work on you.”
It worked for a while, until I ran out of room to add anything new. Then it was just a thing that took up space.
Seemed like a good time to revitalize the board and get it up to date. The only things I was sad to lose were the doodles a few people contributed over the years.
There was a bird.
There was a cat.
And there was this happy face that grew evil over time.
Now I’ll have to ask some friends to draw some new things in the spaces between the words.
I hadn’t written anything new on the board in at least a good five or six years, and I made the mistake of using permanent marker, so you can imagine how difficult it was to wipe clean. Soap and water didn’t do a thing. It took toilet cleanser, a reckless sponge, and some serious wrist action to get anything happening at all.
Right around the time my hand was ready to fall off, I finally had a blank slate to work with. It was very strange to see the board with nothing on it for the first time in a decade.
I picked up some dry-erase markers. This way, the next time I feel a need to do some wiping it’ll be a lot less time-consuming. Then I went to work building a new list of stuff to fall back on.
Now it looks like this.
Most of the song titles are abbreviated, because some of them would stretch all the way across the board if they were written out in full. And what’s there is really just a drop in the bucket. But at least there’s a group of songs to choose from when I need to bail myself out of an overthinking (or underthinking) jam, with room for expansion.
Songs in red boxes have been recorded. Some need a lot of work. Some just need a fresh mix. Songs that aren’t in boxes haven’t been recorded yet. When there’s no work left to do on a song in a box and it feels CD-ready, the box will get filled in. “Stricture” at the top of the second column got smudged, and it’s annoying me every time I look at it (these dry-erase markers live up to their namesake to an insane degree), but once that song ends up in a box of its own no one will be the wiser.
It feels good to have a fresh start in this little corner of the room. Weird, but good.
These fellas have moved on to greener pastures. I’ve had pretty good luck with selling gear on Kijiji for quite a while now, and here again a little bit of patience paid off.
I haven’t used these headphones much at all in the fifteen years I’ve had them. Their pristine condition all but gives it away. Thought they’d be better served in the hands and on the head of someone who could get some use out of them, because they’re fine ‘phones.
Waving goodbye to them got me thinking about all the different headphones I’ve owned over the years.
The first “real” pair of headphones I got were Koss TD/60s in 1994 or early 1995. After settling for Gameboy earbuds and the free, cheaply-made headphones you’d get with pretty much any inexpensive Walkman (complete with a headband that always seemed to want to catch on your hair), these guys felt like a BMW wrapped around my head.
They were mainstays until my first serious set of headphones came along in early 1999 — a pair of Sennheiser HD 265s. The difference in sound almost blew my head off. Everything was so much more vivid and three-dimensional.
I bought a backup pair of HD 265s when I got the feeling they were going to stop selling them soon. One day I sat on that second pair while they were resting on the seat of the chair that sits in the heart of the studio, destroying them in a split-second of absentminded movement. By then my hunch had come to pass and the model had been discontinued.
Now I make sure if any headphones are going to be hanging out on that chair they’re hooked on an armrest, and not anywhere my thoughtless ass can cause them pain.
The first pair of HD 265s remain. They’ve been my workhorse headphones for almost two decades now, getting heavy use both in the studio and in more casual listening situations. These are the headphones I would wear when I was in high school, walking around at lunchtime with my DiscMan stuffed into my inside coat pocket, oblivious to how funny I might have looked to anyone else. They’re the headphones I use today when I’m tracking anything that isn’t loud electric guitar or drums. They’re what I listen on when I’m in my bed that doubles as a desk.
They’ve been through a lot, but they refuse to die.
What doesn’t refuse to die is the stereo headphone cable. I’m convinced they designed it to break down after a few years so they could make more money selling replacement cables.
The first one went on me in 2003, not long after OH YOU THIS was finished. Until I was able to scrounge up a new cable I was forced to pull out my old Koss friends. It surprised me how decent they sounded. Sure, they were no match for the Sennheiser headphones, but they didn’t embarrass themselves.
I’d be curious to give them another listen today. I had two sets of them. I know I gave one to a friend a long time ago. The other pair must be buried in a box in the basement somewhere.
Since then, the HD 265 cable has died on me every three years like clockwork. Lucky for me, between Glen at Audio Twoand a few good contacts at Sennheiser, replacing it has never been a problem.
Around the same time I picked up that first set of HD 265s, I grabbed a pair of Sennheiser HD 570s. That way I’d have both closed and open-back headphones to work with.
The 570s have also long since been discontinued. Mine are still kicking, though I haven’t used them much in a long while. Never had any issues with the sound, and the cord never went goofy on me. I just found myself reaching for them less and less.
They did get quite a bit of use for a few years there early on. There’s some pretty hilarious footage of Tyson wearing them while recording guitar for SEED OF HATE — hilarious because death metal is the last thing in the world these headphones were voiced for.
The closed headphones Sennheiser advertised as the next step up after the HD 265s were phased out and presented as something of a replacement for them were the HD 280 PROs. I bought a pair when they first came out. They’re still made today.
I’ve never understood the hype these things get. To me they’ve always sounded horrible and uninspiring. To this day, the HD 265 is the best closed headphone design with a sane price tag I’ve ever heard. The soundstage is wide and full. They’re comfortable to wear over a long period of time. Maybe there’s a little more bass than some people like to hear, but to my ears the sound has always been balanced, natural, and just right.
The HD 280s sound like junk — boxy, thin, and lifeless, with very little depth or definition. I have no idea what everyone else has been hearing all this time.
I gave them to Gord when his cheap headphones died on him. He seems to like them. Better they get to live out the rest of their existence somewhere they’ll be appreciated, right?
The AKG 271s were another backup choice. They did the job, but I was never moved to reach for them over my go-to Sennheiser cans. They were there more so someone else would have something to listen on when I needed to have more than one set of headphones active at a time.
Later on I got a pair of Extreme Isolation headphones — the last thing you’d ever want use as a mixing reference, but great for recording loud sounds without endangering your hearing. If you saw me play live in any high volume situation between 2008 and 2012, I was probably wearing them to protect my ears.
A few years ago I sat on these headphones and broke them. What is it with me and sitting on things?
I bought a pair of Vic Firth isolation headphones to replace them. At half the price they isolate just as well and don’t seem to sound any worse. Works for me.
When I was working on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS I started reading about Denon headphones. I’d read about pricier ‘phones before, made by Grado and Stax and others. But these Denon AH-D7000 headphones were advertised as being some of the most open-sounding closed headphones on the market.
They were also more expensive than any pair of headphones I’d ever bought before.
I threw caution to the wind (the wind said, “Hey, thanks for the caution, pal,”) and ordered a pair through Live Wire Audio before that place closed. The day they came in, the store owner asked if he could have a listen. We plugged them into a hi-fi system, I put on Manu Katché’s album Playground, he slid them on, and his eyes got as big as grapefruits.
These are true reference headphones. They waste no time in letting you know what’s what. Badly-recorded music sounds awful through them. Things that have been recorded and mixed with care sound stunning. And the clarity is unreal. When I first got these monsters, I heard things I didn’t know were there in songs I knew inside and out.
When someone else comes over here to record something with me, these are usually what I give them to wear. Something like the Stax SR-009s might blow them away, but the AH-D7000s are the best I’ve ever heard and the most money I’ll ever be willing to spend on this sort of thing. They’re plenty good enough for me and what I do.
For all the time and thought that went into designing the guts of these headphones and making them sound good, I don’t think much went into making sure the exterior was robust enough to stand the test of time. Though I decided early on not to baby them and they picked up a few scuff marks in the line of duty, by and large they’ve been treated well.
It didn’t matter. One day one of the little screws that attach the ear cups to the hinges connected to the headband popped out without any encouragement. Everything collapsed on one side, and there was no getting the screw back in. These headphones, like my favourite Sennheiser ‘phones before them, have been discontinued. Finding another cable is one thing. Getting a replacement screw from the source? That was out of the question.
Johnny Smith put in a valiant effort, even investing in a set of tiny screwdrivers, but none of his work paid off. An eyeglasses place that once reattached a broken arm on my favourite pair of wire frame glasses took a shot at it. They fared no better.
Then the Smithster said, “What about Steve Chapman?”
Steve is a wizard with guitars. But would he even want to try and Macgyver some temperamental headphones back together?
I never should have doubted him. He determined that the screw Denon used was the wrong size to begin with. He found one that fit and screwed it in. Then, to guard against this sort of thing happening again on either side, he reinforced the hinges with twist ties and two small pieces of foam rubber.
Good as new. Better than new. And now these headphones have added character.
Before I sold the AKGs and gave away the Sennheisers I never liked, I was thinking it would be nice to have better-sounding headphones on hand when I needed to take care of more than just myself and one other person. My headphone amp has four outputs, and there have been times when I’ve maxed that out recording group vocals. Someone would always end up with the isolation headphones or something else that — at least in my opinion — gave them a pretty mediocre representation of what was happening.
There had to be something out there that was cheap but decent. I did some research. The Audio-Technica ATH-M20X headphones caught my eye. There were a lot of good reviews, and I could get two of them for less than what a single pair of the HD 280 PROs ran me. Worst case scenario, I’d donate them to CJAM and then swear about it here when I found out someone stole them from the station.
Within about thirty seconds of unboxing one pair I knew neither one of them were going anywhere. These might not quite have the extension of the HD 265s, but they’re easily some of the best, most natural-sounding closed headphones I’ve heard in a long while. At this price point the sound quality is pretty ridiculous. I don’t think you’re going to find a better $60 set of headphones anywhere.
Even Eli, Elliott’s long-lost evil twin brother, is a fan.
Under different circumstances I would recommend the Sennheiser HD 265 as a great sleeper for anyone looking for some good closed headphones. There’s one problem. They’re almost impossible to find on the used market. Almost no one who has them seems to want to part with them. When they do show up on eBay, prices range from $300 (a little more than they used to cost new, but still a decent deal) to $600 (stupid). For a lot less money, those Audio-Technica headphones aren’t a bad way to go at all.
While we’re here, a quick bit of advice to fellow home studio warriors:
I see a lot of threads on recording-related message boards that have people asking what the best headphones are to mix on. Sometimes they’re in an apartment or they’re working in a room with no sound treatment, and they feel the monitors they’d be able to afford wouldn’t give them an honest representation of what’s going on in their recordings or they wouldn’t be able to turn them up loud enough to get the most out of them.
Headphones are often necessary when you’re tracking. They can be an important reference when you’re mixing, allowing you to check phase relationships and stereo balances and no end of other things. But to mix on headphones alone…that’s a mistake.
I know because I used to do it.
Very few of the things I mixed exclusively on headphones ever transferred over very well to other systems. There was always something that sounded off. On the other hand, when I get a mix to sound right on the monitors, it almost always sounds good on headphones and everywhere else.
I know a lot of us are working in rooms that aren’t perfect. But even a middling set of monitors can make a world of difference. There are things your most expensive headphones won’t tell you. They can play tricks on your ears sometimes, especially when it comes to the perceived volume of tracks that are hard-panned. And from my experience, monitoring at a low or moderate volume often leads to better results than cranking the volume. The louder things get, the easier it is to get caught up in the energy and stop listening critically. Ear fatigue becomes an issue as well.
The real trick is to get to know your listening equipment and — where applicable — how it reacts to your room. I’ve found I get the best results by switching back and forth between headphones and monitors. If I can get something to sound balanced on the monitors and my trusty Sennheiser and Denon headphones, usually it means I’m on the right track. Then I audition a mix on as many sources as I can, from different stereos to laptop speakers, and make adjustments based on what I hear.
(I used to use car speakers as another reference. I’m too lazy to do that these days. It doesn’t seem to have hurt my mixes.)
Some folks will put a lot of effort into getting a mix to sound big and punchy on tiny speakers. The idea is that most people will be listening to the music on their computer or an iPod, so you want it to sound its best there. I understand that, but I’ve never done it. I mix things to sound as good as possible on a full-range system. Too many strange things start happening to the low end and midrange when you try to compensate for speakers with weird frequency responses and very little bass.
You should do what works best for you, of course. But headphones will only give you part of the picture. Before I had proper studio monitors I used to monitor through a BoomBox, and then a stereo/record player I found in a pawn shop with slightly bigger speakers. While the mixes I made in those days weren’t great, being able to hear the music moving around in the open air taught me a lot about sound.
You can find an infinite amount of information on the internet about recording and mixing. A hundred people will tell you a hundred different ways to do a given thing. As great as it is to have those resources at our fingertips, I still think there’s no better way to learn than to experiment and use your ears. Some of the best sounds I’ve ever captured have come out of doing things the wrong way, and sometimes rough mixes that were made in the heat of the moment have managed to beat out later, more considered mixes.
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.
For a long time I wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy.
My first electric guitar came with an amp I still use today. On early CDs, if I wasn’t plugged into that, I was using a guitar effects processor or a built-in mixer effect to simulate an amp, or else I was going direct into the mixer with no effects at all. Sometime around 2000 or 2001 I got a Vox wah pedal. Not long after that I picked up a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal.
While the Vox got some use here and there, the Boss sat around wondering what its purpose in life was supposed to be. In theory it seemed to be a good buy. Once I had it, there was never a time when I felt compelled to reach for it over the tones I was getting out of the POD or from natural tube amp breakup.
The third pedal I got, and the last one I thought I would ever get, was a Voodoo Labs tremolo pedal. It was meant to make up for the tremolo circuit I was no longer able to access in my Fender Twin Reverb once the foot switch that triggered it went missing.
I never used any of these pedals enough to justify keeping them around, so when money was scarce a few years back I dusted off the tremolo and distortion pedals and sold them both for some extra pistachios. The wah pedal got to stay. Why? Well, because you never know when you might need a little wah in your life.
After that, I was pretty content either plugging straight into an amp with no effects, the way I started out, or using the POD for effects after disabling the amp simulation settings. I bought a Little Big Muff and a Yamaha FX500 when I wanted to make some shoegazey sounds I couldn’t seem to get with what I had, and I thought that would be about as far as it went.
Then I got to thinking, and the thinking sounded like this:
With the few pedals I bought before, I never really put much thought into what I was getting or why. Now that I have a better handle on what I’m doing and what tones I’m after, maybe I can build a small collection of things I’ll actually want to use on a semi-regular basis.
I found out about Strymon pedals and fell in love with the smooth, sweet sounds they made. I picked up an El Capistan and in a matter of minutes was pretty sure it was the only delay pedal I would ever need. Then I grabbed a Walrus Audio Iron Horse — a distortion pedal that packs a serious punch and has a more interesting personality (at least to my ears) than the DS-1.
I wanted some reverb. The Strymon Big Sky was beautiful, but more money than I wanted to spend, and I couldn’t find another pedal that nailed the tone I was after. I wanted something lush and kind of modulated that could work just as well as a textural thing or an overpowering wash of sound.
The Mr. Black Supermoon, the Red Panda Context, and the Wet reverb were all contenders. I just wasn’t sure they were quite what I was looking for. The Boss RV-5 was another consideration, but I find all of the sounds that thing produces outside of the modulated ‘verb to be pretty uninspiring, and its buffer is a notorious tone-killer.
When I heard the ’80s reverb setting on the Strymon Flint, I knew that was it. That was the sound I wanted. Turns out the other reverb options are perfectly usable too — the spring reverb can double for the Fender Twin’s in a pinch without bringing with it the extra hum the amp does when its reverb is engaged — and the tremolo does a nice job of filling in for the absent Voodoo Labs pedal.
After adding the magic box that is the Montreal Assembly Count to Five to the crew, I wanted one more pedal. I had no idea what it should be. I got some good advice from a few different knowledgable folks, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t get into the idea of a compressor or a volume pedal (I’m way too accustomed to manipulating a volume knob with my fingers by now). I found a great deal on a Chase Bliss Warped Vinyl only to have it fall through. I kept coming back to quirky reverb and delay pedals, even though my bases were already covered there.
In the end I settled on Hungry Robot’s The Wash. There was something about it that grabbed me…maybe the way it gets into some really cool self-oscillation at more extreme settings, almost making it sound like whatever amp you’re plugged into is about to explode in the prettiest way.
Somewhere in there, it started to seem like a good idea to get a board to put all these pedals on — my first-ever pedal board. I haven’t done any significant gigging in a long time and that isn’t likely to change, outside of the occasional show backing up a friend or a possible once-every-decade-or-so show of my own to remind the small group of people who still care that I’ve gone on existing and making music. So I didn’t need it for that. I just thought it made good sense and would keep things from getting too messy on the studio floor, where it’s a challenge to keep microphone and instrument cords from getting tangled and turning into tripping hazards at the best of times.
I didn’t want one of those massive boards that holds six million pedals. I wanted to keep things simple. You only need to see how many guitars I have to know what happens when temptation and a surplus of physical space meet up in my world.
Half a dozen pedals was my cutoff point. I wanted a board that wouldn’t allow me any room for expansion beyond that. Something like a Pedaltrain Nano looked like it would do the job, but it was kind of bland-looking to me. I needed something with character.
If I float around on the internet long enough, I always seem to luck into finding something interesting, whether I’m looking for it or not. I came across the website for Tone Snob pedal boards this way. I fired off an email to Donny, who’s one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to buy a pedal board from, and told him what I was after. He suggested a 12×18 wedge style board so I could mount the power supply on the bottom, keeping the wires out of the way. He said he had some nice tweed to work with.
I gave him the go-ahead, and he built me this beautiful thing:
I made one big mistake. And it wasn’t failing to think, “I should take a picture of this pedal board on a darker surface so it stands out more.” My mistake was not factoring in how expensive a good power supply would be. A little less than two years after my board showed up, I’ve yet to get it up and running for that reason alone.
A few weeks back I decided to sell it. Right now I could use the extra money more than something cool that’s been spending all its time covered up in a closet wondering like that old Boss distortion pedal before it when the meaningful portion of its life is going to start.
I took a few pictures to use in a Kijiji ad. Thought it made sense to put all my pedals on the board and take a picture of that too, to give a potential buyer a sense of what it would look like in action.
I took a good look and thought, “Man…it’s a shame to sell this. It really is the perfect board for me.”
So I decided not to sell it after all. a few months from now, spending a bit of money on an appropriate power supply might not seem like the dumbest financial decision I could make anymore. Besides, it looks too nice to give it to someone else.
I’m not sure this is the exact order these pedals will end up in. One thing’s certain, though: the distortion will be after the reverb. I know it’s not the way most people set up their signal chain. I just really like the smeared sound you get out of flipping the tried and true on its head there.
My friend Little Big Muffy probably won’t make it onto the board when the day of reckoning comes. I can get close to fuzz territory with the Iron Horse if I crank the gain, so it’s a little redundant now, and I don’t find myself feeling a need for super fuzzed-out guitar tones all that often.
I’m not sure what I would put in its place. The wah pedal is too much of a tone-hound to go there. I’ll figure something out, I guess. Maybe get a chromatic tuner to put at the beginning of everything. Maybe discover something totally weird and random and convince myself I can’t live without it.
Oh hey — AFTERTHOUGHTS turned one year old a few days ago. No way does it feel like a year since that album was released, but the time, she don’t lie.
You know what else doesn’t lie? This bust of Jennifer Connelly’s face.
Ron was here earlier today to lay down a few things. It’s always a treat to hear that fella in my headphones.
The last time Ron came over to record, he played the Takamine guitar he’s had forever on all but one of the songs we recorded. I think it’s an EF341SC? I’m not positive, but that’s what it looks like.
I’m pretty sure that was the first time it was ever brought into the studio. It’s always been more of a gigging and songwriting guitar. The thing is a beast. When I caught Ron playing with Kelly Hoppe at Taloola, I was convinced he was hiding a small amp somewhere. No way could a dreadnought — with a cutaway, even — put out that kind of volume without a little help.
I was wrong. There was no amp. Just an axe with a lot of love to give.
With a few mics in front of it, the Takamine almost seems to morph into a different guitar. There’s some nice natural compression happening when Ron digs in a bit. It’s bright, but not in a bad way. It’ll retain a nice amount of punch no matter how dense a mix might get. That’s a valuable quality for a guitar to have.
This time Ron played my old Gibson LG-2. He’s got such a distinctive way of playing guitar, he’s going to sound like himself no matter what, but it’s interesting to hear the different personalities of the two instruments. I think they play well together, even if they haven’t found themselves both being played in the same song.
We’ve got seven and-a-half songs in the can now. Two and-a-half more and I can get to work on figuring out what shirts and shoes they want to wear. I’m looking forward to it. This album is going to have a pretty different feel to it from Tobacco Fields, but the songs are great, and Ron’s great. So if I don’t screw it up, the end result should be…triple-great.
The first musical instrument I was able to call my own was a Casio SK-10. I had a lot of laughs playing the demonstration songs and selecting a sampled sound instead of an existing preset. My finest moment was probably warping “Heigh Ho” so every instrumental part was replaced by a chorus of sampled voices saying “bum hair”.
I can still hear the intro in my head:
I got some interesting sounds out of sampling the television, and “wrote” my first real song on that keyboard — little more than a C major scale played forward with one finger and backward with the other, using a clarinet sound.
When I started to get more serious about making music and needed something with more than thirty three keys, we rented larger keyboards. Through the back half of 1994 there was a new one every month, thanks to Johnny Smith. First there was a Roland EP-9. Then a Kawai X40-D. Then a few Yamahas — a PSS-190 and a YPR-20.
(You don’t even want to know what kind of detective work was involved in figuring out what the model names were for all these keyboards more than two decades after the fact when I never made a note of any of them at the time.)
The first musical instrument I ever fell in love with was that Kawai X40-D.
Its “Super 3D” speakers put out a huge sound, and the ad-lib function allowed me to press one key and trigger a bunch of flashy runs that made me sound like a virtuoso musician. Better still, there were song “styles” built in with all kinds of different quirky personalities. While I was faking flash with my right hand, one finger on my left would lead the invisible band in auto-accompaniment mode, with buttons to trigger intros, outros, and fills.
Without the manual or any music theory knowledge, I didn’t know anything about getting minor or diminished chords out of the single-finger auto-accompaniment, so everything was always in a major key. Most of the songs I recorded during this period have me walking one finger up the keyboard without direction, getting a little carried away with the “fill” button, and not doing a whole lot of singing.
The song titles tend to outstrip the songs themselves for creativity. A few favourites: “Kiss Me Honey, Don’t Sting Me”, “The Underwater Jellyfish (They Jump More Than You Think)”, and “Beyond Modern Temptation”.
The other rented keyboards didn’t have any auto-accompaniment functions. They forced me to get a little better at playing without help. At the end of the year we stopped renting and I got my very first “serious” keyboard as a Christmas present — a Yamaha PSR-210.
A huge part of my musical education happened with this keyboard at my side (or in front of me, resting on the dinner table). For a full year I recorded with it almost nonstop, both with and without Johnny Smith as my musical other half. Little by little, I figured out how to make music that felt like an extension of myself without relying on an instrument’s artificial intelligence to fake it for me.
Early in 1996 we got a Clavinova CVP-59S. The week it took to show up after it was ordered was maybe the longest week of my life. There are few things I’ve looked forward to with such all-consuming fury. I have a vivid memory of taking time out from a grade school field trip at an ice skating rink — I couldn’t stand on ice skates anyway, never mind skate — to buy some nachos. I sat, and ate those cheesy chips, and all I could think was, “Clavinova. Clavinova. Clavinova.”
The PSR-210 was a great companion, with enough interesting sounds under the hood to let me go a lot of different places. But the Clavinova felt like a huge leap forward. I couldn’t believe how much richer and more realistic the drum sounds were. The piano sounds were meaty and robust. And it just felt good to play. Like a real piano, only better (or so I thought).
A few synthesizers would join the fray later. The Clavinova would be my main instrument for quite a while. Even when I started to gain access to dedicated “studio” spaces (aka “rooms in houses”) and picked up more instruments, it remained an important tool.
For a long time I thought, “What would I ever need a real acoustic piano for? I’ve got the Clavinova. It doesn’t need any maintenance.” It was always in tune. When I wanted to record, I didn’t need to worry about mic placement. All I had to do was plug it in. And it allowed me to record on its internal memory when I had an idea I wanted to get down fast.
Here’s a small piece of “The Things You Love (Are Always the First to Leave)” that was captured in this way, a good two years before it became part of the finished song that showed up on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.
When I was working on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE the Clavinova started to sound a little one-dimensional next to the other more organic sounds I was recording. I worked around it by using either a Wurlitzer or a Fender Rhodes in all the places I wanted the piano to go.
Then I fell in love with a Yamaha C5 grand at Ouellette’s Pianos.
I’d played acoustic pianos before. Usually they were mediocre uprights or grands that weren’t very well cared for. This piano was different. It inspired me. It sang. For the very first time, I understood why you’d want to have the real thing around.
For about five days I was determined to own that piano, until it sunk in that it was prohibitively expensive and there was no way we would ever be able to make room for it in this house. You’d have to climb on top of it just to get into the kitchen.
I was a little disappointed to have to shrink my dream. But I thought there had to be a vertical piano somewhere out there that would be good enough to give me at least a few gooey feelings, if not the full body orgasm I got from playing the C5.
In the late summer of 2008, operation Find a Good Upright Instead was set in motion. I played a whole slew of upright pianos in the store. The one I liked best was a YUS series Yamaha. The price was a whole lot less insane than what the grand was going for, and it was a world away from the poorly maintained institutional uprights I was used to playing in classrooms and living rooms. The Pearl River pianos were alright, but they sounded kind of cheap and tinny to me. This one had class.
When I told Bob I was interested, he said, “Can I give you some advice? Wait about a week. I’ve got some new Yamaha U1s coming in. That’s a nice piano, but if you like that one, you’re going to love the U1.”
I’ve never been the most patient person. When I want something, especially if it has anything to do with music, I want it last year. Bob convinced me to sit tight.
That week was nothing like the the week twelve years before when I waited for my Clavinova to come in. I was looking forward to trying out some pianos. I wasn’t expecting to hear anything that knocked my socks off.
When the day came, there were two U1s for me to try. I must have spent close to two hours moving from one to the other, trying to decide which one felt and sounded better. There were subtle differences. Hard stuff to put into words.
The upright I was going to buy before Bob told me to wait a little while was a nice piano. For not much more money, these were on another level. He was right. Holding off was the right move.
After a lot of waffling, I settled on the U1 I wanted. My grandfather had just passed away, and after telling me he was writing me out of his will I was shocked to discover he either didn’t get around to making good on the threat or he’d been bluffing all along. I inherited enough to pay for that piano, almost down to the cent. It was surreal.
My U1 was delivered to the house a day or two later. Somehow it sounded even better at home than it did in the wide open store. It was a game-changer for me, giving me a whole new appreciation for the first instrument I developed any kind of proficiency on. It isn’t an accident that the first album I recorded with this piano features it on sixteen of its twenty-two songs.
That was the beginning of the end of my ability to play a digital piano, live or in any other setting, without feeling like too much soul was getting lost. If you grow up playing keyboards, I don’t think you can appreciate what a real piano gives you until you get the chance to play a good one. Just playing a chord and holding the sustain pedal down with your foot or letting a few simple notes ring out is an almost otherworldly experience. There’s so much more living inside the sound than you could imagine. A real piano sounds alive in a way even the best digital pianos haven’t yet found a way to emulate.
Nine years later, I’m still in love with this piano. It’s never felt like a compromise. As much as I lusted after that C5, my U1 has always felt like the piano I was meant to end up with. It’s added depth to my recordings that couldn’t have existed otherwise and been a great ally and songwriting tool.
Ric was over here about a week ago, tuning it for the forty-seventh time in its life. I snuck a picture as he was finishing up. Even its guts look like art.
When I told him I still sometimes feel like I’m on my honeymoon with the piano and it’s been fascinating to hear the tone mature over the years, Ric said, “It’s at its peak. It’ll probably never sound better than it does right now.”
That got me thinking about the first song I recorded with the U1 — not the first song I wrote on it, but the first one I wrote specifically for it.
When I knew I was a few days away from getting my black and white beast, I wrote one last song on the Clavinova so I’d have something to tackle as soon as the real deal showed up.
(I wasn’t kidding when I said I never gave much thought to whether or not my face and hands were visible when I was using the camcorder to capture ideas and songs in the process of being written.)
The difference in sound when I was able to play the chords on a real piano for the first time almost knocked me over.
You know that thing I said about being impatient? I couldn’t even wait to get the piano tuned before I started recording with it. The factory tuning held up well enough that I didn’t mind a bit of drift. I propped the lid open, moved two Neumann KM184s around until things sounded right, and that was it. I’ve been recording the piano the same way with the same mics ever since.
Technically this was the first song recorded for AN ABSENCE OF WAY, though it didn’t end up on the album. I made at least four different mixes in rapid succession. I almost never do that. Most of the time I’ll do a rough mix, take a look at what needs tweaking, do another mix or two for fine-tuning, and then move on.
In this case every mix was different. The first one had everything in it, the second had less glockenspiel, the third stripped away almost everything but piano and vocals, and the fourth featured most of the instruments minus electric guitar. None of them felt definitive. They all had elements I liked and didn’t like.
Three years later I took another crack at it. I always felt the drums were a little weak, both sound-wise and performance-wise. I was expecting to mess with a lot of things, but adding a new, more robust drum track seemed to be all the song needed. I thought I was done.
About a month later I listened again. All at once, everything sounded wrong. The drumming was too aggressive. I went back and tried it a lot of different ways. Something more intricate with brushes. Something more subdued with mallets. Something more skeletal with sticks.
I thought about ditching the bass part and replacing it with some deep sustained organ notes. I tried recording some metallic bell-like synth sounds. I thought about ditching the triple-tracked vocals.
I didn’t know what to do to get this song where it needed to be. The more I tried to change, the less sure I was of where I was supposed to go.
The thing that finally glued it all together was plugging in the Alesis Micron and playing some simple synth chords to shade what the piano was doing right at the point where the drums came in. I got rid of a lot of the electric guitar, threw out the drums altogether, kept the vocals and the original bass track, got rid of some wordless vocal harmonies near the end, and chopped out a little instrumental electric guitar/bass harmonics bit (I always liked it, but now it sounded a little superfluous).
After three years and far too many different mixes, at long last the song felt just right.
It’ll probably end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I’ve been picking away at that album here and there for ten years now. That’s a scary thought, but one of the benefits of taking such a long time to finish a gargantuan album is giving a song like this the time to find the clothes it wants to wear.
This is what a MiniDV tape looks like after its casing has been disassembled and the guts have been pulled out.
When I was just getting started importing all these old tapes, one of them decided to jam up on me after being rewound to the beginning. I was able to get it out of the camera, but there was no way to get it to play after that.
Bob at Unique Video Systemstook the thing apart, transferred the tape into a new casing, made a splice to fix the part at the beginning that went janky, and all the ideas preserved therein got to live to fight another day.
If you need any video-related work or repairs done in Windsor, Bob is your guy. To say he knows his stuff would be a bit like saying the sun is hot and if you got close enough to touch it you might lose a finger.
Now, this righthere…this is the Holy Grail.
You know how a few posts ago I broke down a list of video footage different people shot of me over the years that I didn’t have in my possession? And you know how I mentioned some early Papa Ghostface footage filmed back in our high school days?
This is that, and a whole lot more.
I’ve been trying here and there for fifteen years now to gain access to this material. A few days ago I thought I’d give it one last shot. I reached out to Amanda, Gord’s high school girlfriend. She’s the one who filmed this stuff.
I wasn’t even sure the tapes still existed. It’s been almost two decades since the earliest of them was filmed. Things get lost or thrown out over that period of time. It just happens.
She sent me a picture so I could see she’d kept the tapes and they were still intact. She said she wasn’t positive which ones we were on, because her camera didn’t work anymore and she never really documented the contents of her tapes, but she was able to narrow it down to seven possibilities. If I was willing to share copies of the digital transfers with her, she’d be glad to let me have them.
As of today, I have those seven tapes. There isn’t just vintage Papa Ghostface footage on them from a time when I had short hair and a beard was nothing but a distant hope in my head. There are house shows Fetal Pulp and ADHD played at. There are candid moments from the times Amanda brought her camera to school. There’s…I don’t even know what, to be honest with you. There could be footage of me and people I went to Walkerville with in here that I didn’t know existed. There probably is.
It goes without saying that I’d love to have the video Tyson shot of the band in late 2001 and early 2002. Knowing how easy it would have been to pop a tape in my VCR and hit record each time he hooked his camera up to my TV so we could watch what he’d filmed makes me want to go back in time and throttle myself for not thinking to do that when it counted.
In a way this is even better. Beyond a few things I’m pretty positive are here, I don’t know what I’m going to see. I get to be surprised.
After spending a good few years getting used to the idea that I’d never get to see any of this again, I get to go see Bob on Monday and talk to him about transferring all the tapes onto DVD (I’d make the transfers myself, but these are 8mm tapes and I don’t have the necessary equipment). I’m still trying to wrap my head around that. I thought I was doomed, and here I am waiting for the weekend to disappear so I can dive even deeper into the past than my own camcorder tapes have allowed me to.
Never underestimate the power of dogged persistence, right?
When someone finds out I went to a Catholic grade school, they tend to think of uniforms, Jesus overload, and outstretched hands stung red by rulers.
It wasn’t really anything like that.
There were no uniforms. The Christianity was there, but it wasn’t force-fed to us. We went to church sometimes. We read the bible. We were also respected as individuals and left to work out what we thought of it all for ourselves.
Instead of berating us for not being better Christians or trying to scare us with stories about the horrors of hell, our priest told us God wanted us to be happy and enjoy our lives. He sang harmonies to hymns instead of singing the melodies straight. He was a baritone. “Lamb of god,” we would sing, “you take away the sins of the world,” and while he was tracing out a countermelody, my best friend Pete would be sing-shouting the words like the hymn was a Metallica song, screwing his face up into a look of exaggerated intensity that was so funny I thought I might die from trying to laugh in church without making a sound.
Pete would probably still sing “Agnus Dei” just like that. It’s part of what makes him Pete. This is a guy who slow-danced with his mother to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” at his wedding, and it was one of those perfect moments you get lucky enough to witness every so often, because it was so him.
My high school was Walkerville — Walkerville Collegiate Institute, if you want to call it by its big boy name. Walkerville had (and still has, as far as I know) a celebrated arts program. For eons it’s been touted as a place for musicians, actors, writers, and artists in any medium to thrive.
It had nothing on St. William Catholic Elementary School, where I was taught to be myself, to be inventive, to think outside the box. At Walkerville I was expected to live in the box, with nothing but a few ragged holes for air and the odd muffled sound of someone walking by to remind me there was life outside the cardboard, until I got fed up and started tearing through it with my teeth. I was not a rebel by nature. High school warped me into one through the sheer force of its bullshit and my resistance to it, which was more instinct than anything.
In the fourth grade, Mr. Janisse told us about the Family Allowance — more commonly known as the “Baby Bonus”. He explained its history and purpose, explained how Brian Mulroney’s government wanted to abolish it, and then opened up the floor for all of us to weigh in with our thoughts. I don’t remember what I said, but I got pretty fired up about it, railing against Mulroney’s shortsightedness.
Think about that for a second. We had a political discussion in grade four,and all of the students were treated as intellectual equals. Find me a Catholic school — or any elementary school at all — where that happens now, and I will eat my own chin.
My sixth grade class wrote our own play about decision-making. Mr. Giannetti suggested a riff on The Twilight Zone. Six or eight of us who were up for the challenge committed to it, and we created our own characters and wrote our own dialogue, workshopping out in the hall, bouncing off of one another, improvising, testing things out. I don’t know what was running through anyone else’s head. I thought it was thrilling.
Mr. Giannetti offered advice and ideas when we got stuck, but he left us to determine the final shape of the thing. He did make the suggestion that I could be a Rod Serling type character, framing the story, offering exposition, and part of my shtick could be an oral fixation. There I’d be, looking suave, clutching a lollipop.
My suit was a loaner from an adult. I was going through a growth spurt that didn’t seem like it was ever going to end, so it just about fit. The sunglasses were my own. The lollipop was a red Tootsie Pop.
I still don’t know how many licks it takes to get to the motherlode of chewy goodness inside.
What we came up with was a morality tale called The Decision Zone. There were two performances. One was during the day for the rest of the school to see. The other was an evening show for our parents.
At the late show we stretched things out, took more chances, improvised more of the dialogue, and got a little more “adult”. Somewhere someone has a decaying VHS tape of that performance, with my closing narration making room for a spontaneous rant about taking my kids to the lollipop factory only to leave appalled by the mediocrity of the modern lollipop and its desecration at the hands of soulless capitalists.
The body of the story followed a court case. The finer details left my memory a long time ago. I think Kyle Jaques might have been a court clerk? I know Ashley Coulter was the judge. I’ll never forget Pete walking into the “courtroom”, hiking up his pants past any sane place, presenting her with a bouquet of flowers, and slipping into a high-pitched, nasal voice to announce, “Beautiful flowers for a beautiful lady!”
It took everything we had not to crack up onstage along with the audience.
In grade seven I got to be the bad guy in a Christmas play called The Villain and the Toy Shop. My character’s name was Mr. Glowerpuss. Now there’s a name you can sink your teeth into. I borrowed someone’s cane, put on a fake moustache and a black fedora, and someone came up with the idea of massaging baby powder into my hair to make it look grey.
I acted in a lot of grade school plays. It kind of became my thing. One time I was a Jamaican guru who helped a group of stranded explorers. That play ended with everyone singing Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”. I owe Ms. George a lifelong debt of gratitude for introducing me to the greatness of “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers, which served as our musical introduction if I remember right.
In another play we wrote ourselves, I did my best impersonation of Mr. Giannetti. Jeremy Head electrocuted me with jumper cables when I started choking on hard candy, shouting, “He’s blowing chunks!” as the curtain came down to end the first act. Gary Collins inhabited a low-rent James Bond-type character named Dan Ger, with a soft g (“The name’s Ger…Dan Ger”).
Over the years I got to be everything from a solemn offstage narrator to the high-strung father of a fugitive played by Matt Brown. But playing the main antagonist in that Christmas play was my proudest moment. I got to chew scenery and cackle the most evil, maniacal laugh I could come up with. I loved it.
When you’re a kid, you look forward to your time away from school. For me, school was the escape. I wasn’t living with the father person yet. Things at home were…well, I’ll just tell you I was breaking out in hives and developing the beginning of an ulcer when I was thirteen because of the emotional strain, and let you fill in the blanks.
On the days I didn’t get to see my padre and musical other half, school let me forget about what I was afraid to go home to for a little while. It gave me a place where I could be as weird as I wanted to be without being made to feel like there was something wrong with me.
In grade eight I showed up for school every day dressed like a stockbroker. By then the way I looked was the only thing in my life I felt I had any control over. I liked to dress up. It made me feel good about myself.
That my self-imposed dress code and emphasis on immaculate grooming would somehow become an act of rebellion tells you all you need to know about the absurd atmosphere I was living in.
Some days I walked around with a bulky old cassette recorder, documenting snatches of conversation, amusing moments from other students, and song ideas. No one ever told me to put it away. No one at school made fun of me for the way I dressed. The only thing I ever heard about it was, “You look nice today, John.”
Brandi Rivait wrote in my yearbook, “Johnny, don’t wear dress pants and a suit in ninety degree weather! Please! You’ll get sunstroke!” But I think she was only looking out for me.
I showed up dressed the same way for my first day at Walkerville. Before the end of lunch recess, someone outside my field of vision whipped a glass bottle at me that just missed my head and screamed, “FUCKING FAG!”
Welcome to your new liberal arts school.
I went into high school thinking it wouldn’t be too much different from grade school, where in the sixth grade we listened to the O.J. Simpson verdict being read live on the radio and talked about it after, where I made great friends and scared one of the few borderline bullies stupid when I slammed his head against a brick wall after he stole my winter hat one time too many, where I learned how to snap my fingers but not how to whistle, where I cheated on a test just once and the look of disappointment on my French teacher’s face when she caught me was all the punishment I needed (I never thought about cheating again), where I learned CPR only to forget most of the salient bits in a matter of days, where I said something dirty to a girl who was going through a mean phase in front of my entire class and won the Student of the Month award for politeness a week or two later, where we were educated about grammar, racism, sex, and everything in-between.
In stark contrast to that, high school taught me only one real thing, and I don’t think it was the intended lesson: there’s a lot of stupidity and hypocrisy in the world, and if you choose not to buy into it, you become an insurgent in spite of yourself.
All of my St. William brethren moved on to St. Anne’s after graduation. I went from knowing every soul in my school in the eighth grade to knowing no one my freshman year of high school. It was disconcerting, and a little lonely. I settled in and made friends after a while, and I had some twisted adventures, but out of the forty or so different teachers I must have had at Walkerville I can count the good ones on one hand. A few were wonderful. Most of them were just kind of there. A few were incompetent, abusive, and so negligent I was amazed they managed to hold onto their jobs.
At St. William it was different. I don’t know if the teachers had a tacit agreement with the principal, or if they were all just left to do their own thing, but I don’t think more than one or two of them paid too much attention to whatever the curriculum was supposed to be, or else they created it themselves. They seemed to tailor their lessons to us. Almost every one of them felt like a friend, and the feeling hung around long after they’d stopped teaching me. The few times I came back to visit after graduating, it felt like coming home.
Our teachers were interested in who we were and who we were going to be. They wanted to do what they could to help us grow in whatever direction we wanted to grow. I don’t remember ever being condescended to, or anyone telling me, “You know, this passion you have for music isn’t all that realistic.”
Walkerville even managed to kill my love of acting. It was a ninth grade production of Peter Pan that did it. During rehearsals a lot of the actors and dancers would talk and joke around with me. Sometimes when nothing was going on a group of us would walk to Tim Hortons to get some coffee or something to eat. I felt there was something there to grab onto.
When we were finished with the play, all the camaraderie evaporated. I would see one of the dancers or one of my acting buddies in the hall, I would say hello to them, and they would look at me for a moment like I was a door-to-door salesman with some awful, disfiguring infectious disease. After registering their disgust, they would ignore me.
The message was clear. I wasn’t cool enough for them to acknowledge once they were no longer obligated to.
A little later, when I started sharing my CDs and performing music at assemblies, all those people decided I was cool enough to talk to after all. Funny how that works.
I guess you could say grade school showed me what people were capable of when they were committed to being the best versions of themselves, and then high school tore all that down and introduced me to the fickleness and mixed messages I would have to navigate throughout my adult life.
Instructive? Yeah, sort of. Fun? Not so much.
This isn’t really about all that, though. I have too many stories to tell, and you have a finite amount of time left in your life. This is about one afternoon in grade eight when I felt I knew, if only for an instant, what it was like to be one of the Beatles during the crazed height of their fame.
For a long time I pretty much kept my music to myself. I think there were two things behind that. The first thing was not giving a whole lot of thought to sharing it. I made it because there was something inside that needed to be expressed, and because it gave me joy. Using it as a means of generating attention was never a consideration. The second thing was maybe being a little shy about it, not thinking I was good enough to get anyone interested in what I was doing even if I wanted to try.
I almost went out for the talent show in grade seven, but playing a song out of a book didn’t hold much appeal, and I was still in the early stages of the on/off piano lessons that would do little more than force me to get a lot better at picking things up by ear to make up for my lack of facility when it came to trying to make sense of all those dots and dashes and squiggles on the page. So whatever I might have done had I gathered up the courage to go through with it, it wouldn’t have been too impressive. And it wouldn’t have really been me.
In grade eight the urgency of the moment convinced me to swallow my nerves and grab the mechanical bull by the plastic junk. High school and the unknown were right around the corner. I wasn’t going to get many more chances to perform in front of all these people I’d grown up with — to share this part of myself with them.
The music I was making had grown a little more refined and conventional by now. Maybe in hindsight it was sometimes, in some ways, a little less compelling than what I was doing back when I was still trying to suss out things like harmony and structure, stumbling onto unorthodox chord voicings, twisting my limitations into idiosyncratic strengths without having any idea what I was doing most of the time.
The music would get consistently weird again soon enough. In the meantime, I had more confidence now that I knew my way around the piano better. That made all the difference.
The culmination of this surge in confidence was bringing a pile of home-recorded tapes with me on our week-long grade eight year-end field trip that took us to Ottawa and Toronto. I’d be playing one of those tapes with Johnny Smith himself sitting next to me on the bus (a handful of parents acted as chaperones/group leaders), someone would ask what I was listening to, they’d perk up when I told them it was me, and the Walkman would get passed around all over the place.
The most memorable moment came when the headphones made their way to Victoria Gunn. I asked what song she was listening to. “All I know,” she said, “is your dad’s singing something about a Tyrannosaurus rex.”
(That would have been “No Luck”, a deep album cut on Return to Innocence.)
But before the field trip, there was the talent show. Mrs. Howell was running the thing. I auditioned for her in a room with a dozen other students, playing the school’s old upright piano, belting out “Evil Woman”. I was a bit of an Electric Light Orchestra nut at the time.
I asked if it would be alright if I played two songs at the show. She said that was fine. Only about half as many kids had come out to audition as the year before, so there was some room to play with.
My second song would be an original, and the one I chose to play was something called “Duty-Free”, which was…not very representative of the music Johnny Smith and I were making as the West Team. Almost all our songs were improvised as they were recorded. “Duty-Free” was something I wrote, with the words on paper and the music mapped out and hammered down. I can’t remember why I went for that tune. Maybe it was a simple case of recognizing that it had some pep and was fun to play.
Agnes Wnek provided the initial spark. I had a crush on her the size of a small country. One day she said to me, “We should write a song together. I’ve got some words for you.”
They went like this:
I’m duty-free. They can’t sell me alky. I’m underage. And besides, I can’t afford it — I’m on minimum wage.
I took the first line and ran with it, treating it as a punchline before the joke and an excuse for some wordplay over a pretty simple bluesy vamp. While the result wasn’t a masterpiece by any means, following up a line like, “Temptation overcomes common sense,” with a bit about Michigan’s public spitting laws is the kind of oddball turn that still appeals to me today. And all the talk of one-night stands is sort of hilarious, coming from someone who didn’t even know what first base was.
It says something that I never gave “Duty-Free” another serious thought after its one live performance, and it only got something close to a proper recording when “Dust in the Wind” (the on/off piano teacher) wanted to record me playing one of my songs with his DAT machine as an experiment and I thought it would be fun to revisit it. It was more of a novelty song to me than a meaningful piece of music.
I think you need to hear a little bit of what constituted “serious” music for me at the time to understand what I mean. So here are two songs that were recorded a few weeks before the talent show, from an album called Kaput.
Our West Team songs were an unpredictable stew that mixed up events and characters from our lives, toilet humour, philosophy, and pure fiction. Though there were some solo pieces here and there, most of what we did involved a tag-team dynamic. One of us would start singing, setting the scene, and then we’d take turns filling in the finer details. I’ve said this before, and it’s worth repeating: the thing that never stops being surprising to me every time I pull out an old tape, even just to hear a song or two, is how varied this music is. The songs go a lot of different places.
My favourite go-to song shape in those days was the dark psychodrama. There’s some pitch black music on these tapes that wrestles with madness, isolation, and broken relationships, at a time when you’d probably expect to hear me singing about crushes on girls and hating homework. There is a little bit of that in the odd song like “My Dad Ate My Homework”, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Some of our best songs were the ballads, and very few of them were typical love songs.
Here’s the thing: Pubescent Me did not like to play it straight when hanging out in ballad territory. At all. In any given song you’d get Johnny Smith singing something tender and sweet, and then I’d come in and start wailing about dirty bras in laundry baskets (“Julie, Are You Listening?”), the lonesome plight of a vacuum cleaner salesman (“Just a Dream”), or escaping the pain of a failed romance through prostitution (“Caroline”).
There were plenty of songs that didn’t take themselves too seriously to begin with. Take the third track on the Kaput cassette, for example:
Early in 1997 I discovered the auto-accompaniment built into the Clavinova keyboard that served as my main creative workstation at the time. Before that, if I wanted drums in a song I would set up a split mode and have piano or whatever keyboard sound I wanted on the right side and bass or strings on the left to fill in the low end. Then I would trigger a drum pattern and go to town.
With the auto-accompaniment engaged, I could play chords with my left hand and lead an invisible band. Those drum patterns I thought I knew so well developed all kinds of new wrinkles, and all at once I had access to musical backdrops that were much more fleshed-out.
It got a little stale once I’d gone through every available style and all its variations. Eventually I started stripping away most of the extra sounds aside from bass and put the keyboard in a different mode that would allow me to play without using a split, the invisible bassist following me wherever I went, freeing up both of my hands to do whatever they wanted. But for a good few months there, I revelled in all the new sounds.
Here I went for an imaginary Dixieland jazz band, alternating between playing what was supposed to sound like a clean, tremolo-kissed electric guitar with the right hand and messing with the new (to me, at the time) Arp Omni-2 that was sitting on top of the Clavinova.
On songs like this we could both let loose with whatever random weirdness popped into our heads. When it came to the ballads, things were a little different. Johnny Smith became the resident straight man, and I became more of the resident basket case.
There were exceptions. One of them came near the end of the first side of the same tape. I came up with an idea using another sound that was meant to emulate a guitar. This time it was supposed to be a steel-string acoustic.
“We should start recording this,” Johnny Smith said. “Don’t change a thing,” he added, knowing I had a hard-on for those auto-accompaniment sounds, knowing too that the virtual band wasn’t needed here.
“No strings attached,” I said, and we had a title before we had a song. He hit the record button while I was still playing. Then this happened.
What you have here is an example of something I listen to now, after not hearing it for twenty years, and think, “How on earth did we improvise that?” This was at a time in my life when I thought lyrics were always supposed to rhyme. So there’s that. But the song tells the story of a life seen in snapshots through someone else’s eyes. The music moves through different sections and shifts in intensity.
None of it was written. I had the little lick that introduces the song and recurs through the verses, and that was it. Beyond that, it was all made up on the spot, like almost all of our music was. We took turns picking up the thread of the narrative as we were both discovering what it was.
We were both excited about what we came up with when we were finished recording it. It was one of a number of songs that felt like catching lightning in a bottle. But time and distance have a way of making some things seem better than they really were. You return to something like this hoping the music lives up to your memory of it, not knowing how reliable that memory is given all the dust caked into its face.
I was not expecting to be as affected by this one as I am two decades after the fact. There are well over a thousand West Team songs on tape, and not too many outright stinkers in my opinion, but songs like this are special. I mean, if someone wanted to play this at my funeral, my well-dressed ghost would not object — though I think just as strong a case could be made for “The Sack of Symphony”.
(And if you’re wondering, yes, the sack in question is a scrotum.)
See, this is why I’ve resisted listening to too much of this stuff until I commit to digitizing every tape we ever made. There’s so much there, most of it is music I haven’t heard since it was recorded, and a lot of it has the capacity to surprise me and move me and crack my shit up even now. If I step too far into the musical past, I might get lost in there and not want to come back to work on all the things I’m excited about in the present.
Anyway, back to the talent show.
I don’t know why I didn’t play the school’s old upright like everyone else who played piano did that day. We rented a fancy Yamaha keyboard from Ouellette’s and I played that thing instead. I would give half the hair on my legs and maybe a toe or two in exchange for some video footage I could share here now. I don’t think any exists. I don’t remember seeing anyone in the audience, parent or teacher, with a video camera.
There was someone taking photographs. Here’s one that ended up in the yearbook.
If the school had a mic stand, it was either missing in action that day or I couldn’t get it positioned right. Michael Greff stood in front of the rented keyboard and held a microphone in the place a stand would have kept it fixed in an ideal world. If you’re out there somewhere, Mike, I owe you one for going beyond the call of duty and doing it with a smile on your face.
I at least had the foresight to ask Johnny Smith to bring that bulky old tape recorder with him (different from the one we used to record our albums). He sat in the gym with the other parents and captured the whole show on cassette, dance numbers, announcements and all.
It needs to be said: the recording is very lo-fi. It makes our albums from the same period — themselves captured using the invisible microphone built into a consumer-grade tape recorder — sound like million dollar studio productionsin comparison. The mic I was singing into was patched into the PA system. For some reason the keyboard didn’t get the same treatment, left to sink or swim on the strength of its built-in speakers. So my singing is a lot louder than my playing, and it’s not one of the more pristine audience recordings you’ll ever hear by a long shot.
Still, I’m grateful to have an audio record of that day.
I played my first song pretty early in the show. I was sitting on the floor at the back of the gym with my classmates, trying to ignore the butterflies eating at the inside of my stomach, when Mrs. Howell said this and I did a mental double-take.
The first thing that stunned me was the way she was talking about me. This was not someone given to doling out praise. I had no idea she had that kind of respect for me as a musician. It really threw me.
The second thing that stunned me was the way everyone went nuts as soon as she said my name. She had to shush them to finish introducing me.
I went up there, played “Evil Woman”, and got the whole school to sing along. When I was finished, the applause was so loud I’m convinced it would have parted my hair if I hadn’t put enough gel in it that morning to keep it frozen in place through a hurricane. It was insane.
I came back later to close out the “talent” portion of the show before Mrs. Hale got up onstage with her Praise Group to sing catchy songs about Jesus and his dad. Hey man, don’t knock “Glory to God” until you’ve heard it. That stuff gets stuck in your head.
I grafted my little intro/interview with Johnny Smith to the beginning of the song, even though that bit was recorded before any of the talent show performances happened, because I’m weird. Dig the faux-British accent that develops and then disappears with no fanfare. And then dig the sound of everyone going apeshit. You can’t even hear the end of the song. It gets swallowed up by the screaming, and then the tape cuts out, almost making it seem like the audience went on making that sound forever.
I’ve had a few surreal moments playing live in the years since then. I’ve given better performances of better songs. But I’ve never felt anything like the collective explosion of sound that room packed with about four hundred people made twenty years ago when I was thirteen years old.
I think it’s kind of like your first kiss. If everything falls into place just right and you get the meeting of lips you deserve, the first one sears itself into your brain and never really leaves, and all the others that come after are judged against it.
I haven’t had a better kiss yet. I’m not sure I ever will.