I imagine most people who owned tape-based camcorders during their heyday filmed things like family get-togethers, live music, home movies, class projects, and documentaries.
I used mine to record demos and almost nothing else.
Until I got my MacBook in late 2013 and thought to give GarageBand a try, I didn’t record “normal” demos of anything. I either recorded for keeps or I didn’t record at all. The little Sony Handycam I had — and later, the two Flip Mino cameras that would usurp it — became a useful way to get down ideas when they were fresh so I wouldn’t forget them.
We got this camera in 2003. It felt like it was time. I was frustrated that there was a good amount of video different people had shot of me over the years, sometimes playing music, sometimes acting in plays, sometimes just being a goofball, and it was almost all inaccessible to me.
A shopping list, on the off chance some filmmaker discovers my music after I die and wants to make a documentary about me in which people who never knew me pretend they understand me since I’m no longer around to speak for myself or shut them down:
A few grade school plays were filmed, and I’m pretty sure the tapes still exist
My not-aunt’s wedding tape features me singing a half-improvised a cappella song about love in 1997
Andrew Deane shot what I guess you could call “test footage” of me walking around in 1999 for a music video he never ended up making for the REM song “Strange Currencies”, documenting some of the best hair days of my life when I was just starting to grow it out
Unused B-roll from the 1999 student documentary Fish out of Water, including some silliness with me doing my best impression of a canine rapper while Libby Salonen looks on
Papa Ghostface playing “Pacing the Cage” and “The Ballad of Bob and Marie” at the Air Jam in March of 2000
Gord and I playing “Bob and Marie” in the hall during lunch recess a few months before the Air Jam
A few bits of random footage Evan Hansen and Tyson Taylor shot of me at Walkerville in 2001 (I popped up in one video where Tyson was filming a fight as it broke out, playing the role of “sleep-deprived non-observer”, wearing a short-sleeved black shirt I always liked)
Papa Ghostface playing “Be Sorry” as a full band at the Air Jam in the summer of 2001 (I think Amy Mifsud filmed this…I saw the tape once when she let Tyson borrow it)
A lot of footage Tyson shot of GWD recording and hanging out in 2001 and 2002, which may or may not still exist
One or two piano recitals I was told were filmed in the mid/late 1990s
I have the video of my first birthday party (at least I think I still do). I recorded the appearance my grade twelve drama class made on The New WI on my VCR. I’ve got the tape of the two live GWD songs from 2002 that were posted here long ago. That’s about it for things that were filmed before 2003. Whatever else survives, I don’t have it.
We probably should have picked up a video camera a little sooner than we did. If I had access to one even a year or two earlier, I would have been the one to film all that teenage band footage myself, and I’d be able to incorporate the best bits here, instead of wondering if I’ll ever get to see those tapes again (I’m pretty sure I won’t, because there’s a good chance they’ve all been lost or recorded over). I think I remember any kind of decent video camera being prohibitively expensive for amateur home use for quite a while. These were the days before you could shoot video on your cell phone, and before the advent of cheap digital video recorders small enough to fit in your pocket.
By the time we went looking for something, the prices had come down a bit, and we were able to buy a Sony DCR-TRV19 without having to rob a bank. I didn’t know anything about cameras. We just grabbed one that looked nice and was affordable.
Turns out 2003 was the last year Sony made MiniDV camcorders with a 1/4-inch image sensor. This is one of the last models they produced with such good low light sensitivity, headphone and external microphone connections, and a hotshoe adapter for a light or mic, before they started cheaping out.
Talk about having good timing.
I’d like to say once I had a camera of my own I made it count. I did have ideas. I thought about making a DIY documentary following the making of an album, filming myself recording different elements of songs, talking to the camera about the music, breaking things up with random puppet shows and stuffed animal interludes.
I talked myself out of it before I got started. I told myself I wouldn’t be able to make it visually interesting enough to appeal to anyone. Watching one guy do everything on his own would get boring after a while. And how was I going to edit the raw footage — by dumping it onto VHS?
After filming a few random things I leant out the camera in 2005 and didn’t think to ask for it back until the summer of 2007. By then I had a different idea: I would start making a video diary. The crackheads had established themselves in the other half of the duplex we were living in, I couldn’t record any music or sleep in my own home thanks to their twenty-four-hour wall-shaking parties, and I was bitter about romance and the almost violent indifference I was coming up against while trying to get gigs and get my music heard.
I had a bit to say. Talking to the camera seemed as viable a form of self-expression as anything else. It was therapeutic for a while. And it wasn’t just an excuse for me to vomit up a nonstop litany of complaints. I talked about Orson Welles and Keith Urban and the Rocky movies too.
Then we moved, and my motivation went missing. Moving into a new house when it’s something you want to do and you’ve found the perfect place can be exciting — even energizing. Doing it out of necessity, when calling the police nineteen times and documenting more than forty pages of noise complaints and drug buys won’t get anyone to do anything because it isn’t happening next door to any of the cops or politicians or people working at Crime Stoppers or “writers” for the Windsor Star, so they don’t care, and finding out your box spring won’t fit up the stairs at the new place, and the landlord neglected to tell you the central air only works on the bottom two floors, and the furnace is dead…that’s demoralizing.
I kept using the camera, but I stopped talking to it. Now it became my idea-capturing device.
When the first little Flip camera came along and transferring videos onto the computer became as easy as flipping out a built-in USB connector and plugging it in, my old camcorder friend and all the tapes I’d filmed with it got shoved into a dresser drawer and more or less forgotten about. Aside from picking up some slack at the first Mackenzie Hall show I played in 2010 when the Flip camera ran out of recording time, it wasn’t used again.
I dug it out of the dresser a year or two later to have another listen to some of those old musical ideas I recorded. There were lines through the image when I tried to play a tape and the sound was distorted. I tried again some months down the road and didn’t even get the distorted sound. There was no sound at all, and the screen showed nothing but an impenetrable blue square.
I tried different tapes. It wasn’t a tape issue. I tried slamming the camera on a tabletop repeatedly to intimidate it into working (I never claimed to make good decisions all the time). No joy.
I assumed the camera was dead, tossed it back in the dresser drawer of lost souls, and got on with recording my not-quite-demos with the Flip fellas.
Lately I’ve been thinking it would be kind of nice to have access to those ideas again. Maybe I could figure out a way to get all the tapes onto the computer. Worst case scenario, if the camera really was toast I could buy another DCR-TRV19 for a hundred bucks or less on eBay.
I did some research and learned iMovie has a spotty record when it comes to importing camcorder footage. I’ve never been a big fan of that program. I almost never use it for anything. It gobbles up resources on my MacBook, turns it into an oven, and either freezes up for ten minutes at a time or is so sluggish it’s impossible to get much done. Reading about some of the problems people have had with audio and video coming out unsynchronized was all I needed to dissuade me from trying to tame the savage beast.
I’m pretty sure the old Acer laptop I use for video editing has FireWire ports, but even though it’s been a lot friendlier to me since a nice dude at PC Outfitters blew an ocean of dust out of its cooling fans, I’d rather not push my luck with that aging computer. It’s still slower than mud. At this point, asking it to do anything more strenuous than running Sony Vegas and a few other programs is probably a nightmare waiting to happen.
My online travels led me to a program called LifeFlix. It was created with the sole purpose of transferring MiniDV tapes onto a computer or an external hard drive. The more I read about it, the more it seemed like the smart way to go. I bought it, bought a FireWire cable and a FireWire-to-Thunderbolt adapter, bought a cleaning tape for my camcorder, and hoped for the best.
The cleaning tape worked brilliantly. I let it play for all of ten seconds and went from the blue screen of death to being able to play all my old tapes again. No artifacts, no lines through the screen, nothing. I was almost expecting at least a bit of that to stick around, because this camera is fourteen years old now. Nope.
Best twenty five bucks I’ve spent in recent memory.
The FireWire-to-Thunderbolt connector Apple makes is stupidly expensive, and there are no real alternatives, but it works. LifeFlix recognized the camera right away and went to work importing video. It works in realtime, so an hour-long tape will take an hour to digitize (at least in theory…more on this in a minute).
The program does a faultless job of breaking a tape up into scenes based on where the recording originally stopped and started, saving you the hassle of separating things into individual clips later on. The user interface is simple but intuitive. Getting files onto your computer after they’ve finished importing is as easy as two clicks of the mouse or trackpad. If you want to trim a little dead space out of the beginning or end of any given clip, you can do that too.
The video compression LifeFlix uses is all but invisible. I can’t detect any loss of visual or audio quality compared to the uncompressed video. Not that this footage was pristine or pro-shot to begin with, but I’m pretty picky when it comes to these things. Being able to keep the file sizes reasonable is a nice bonus when you’re dealing with a lot of footage.
That’s all the good stuff. Now for the things that are a little irritating.
I don’t know if it’s just me and my computer, but the “combine clips” function has been hit-or-miss. It works about half the time. The rest of the time the progress bar will stop moving around the halfway point, assuming it starts moving in the first place, and then it’ll hang there forever, not frozen but with all functions locked up. The only option when that happens is to force the program to quit.
The good news is I haven’t lost anything doing this. LifeFlix saves all the work you’ve done no matter when or how it shuts down. Clips don’t disappear unless you delete them yourself. But when a certain group of clips decide they don’t want to be combined, you’ll never be able to join them together. Doesn’t matter how many times you try. Doesn’t matter how many mean names you call the computer. And these are not long clips I’ve been working with. In most cases I’m trying to combine two or three snippets that are each a minute long or less.
Another thing I’ve noticed: I can’t set the program up to import a tape and leave it to do its business. I need to stay at the computer the whole time, because the best I’ve been able to get is five or ten minutes of uninterrupted importing. At some point a clip will freeze up within the program, or there will be a glitch, and while the camera itself will be playing just fine, when that happens I have to stop the importing process, rewind the tape to the beginning of the last clip, and start again. Otherwise I’ll get flawed video on the computer.
Sometimes I can get another five or ten minutes before I have to do it all again. Sometimes I need to keep going back to the same spot a few times before it manages to import without any issues, and I’m lucky to get one or two clips at a time. With the tape I’m working on right now, it’s taken me more than forty tries just to get eleven short clips totalling about fifteen minutes of footage to import glitch-free.
These are minor complaints. This is taking a little longer than it would if there were no glitches, and there have been a few frustrating moments, but all things considered it’s been pretty easy and pain-free. In the space of a few days I’ve managed to get the full contents of almost half of those tapes onto the computer. Who knows how long I’d be waiting and how much I’d have to pay if I got someone else to transfer the tapes for me.
With my luck, they’d all get lost, or some freak accident would send them off to MiniDV tape heaven.
Now for the part that made me swear so much I had to start wearing a parental advisory sticker on my face.
I’ve been using Sony Vegas as my video editing program for years now. The learning curve was a little weird at first, but once I got past the initial feelings of bewilderment after Windows Movie Maker spoiled me a little with its insane simplicity, I grew to really enjoy using it.
Vegas has been fine with MOV files over the years. Until now. It doesn’t like the ones LifeFlix makes. Whether they’re compressed or not, all that shows up when I import one of these clips is the audio. There’s no video. Any media player on the planet will play them no problem, so the issue isn’t with the clips themselves. It’s Vegas being a douchebag.
If I wanted to have any control over assembling individual clips into something more meaningful, I was going to have to find a way to convert the MOV files into something Vegas was less prejudiced against without the quality taking too much of a hit in the process.
Rewrapping them as MP4 files would be the ideal thing. But no way was I spending more money on yet another program to do that.
I tried downloading a few free programs that claimed to offer video rewrapping, only to find all the relevant functions were disabled and if I wanted to do more than open and close files I was going to have to pay for the privilege. I found something called FFmpeg that was supposed to make rewrapping easy, but I’m not all that tech-savvy, I don’t know anything about UNIX or Linux, and I haven’t for the life of me been able to figure out how to use the program. It doesn’t help that every online tutorial seems to assume you already know what you’re doing. I tried using the VLC media player to save the videos in a different container. That worked, but Vegas still wouldn’t budge.
This is the workaround I’ve come up with:
First I go back and import the specific clips I want to edit again, this time with the compression turned off. Then I use a free program called MPEG Streamclip to rebrand the uncompressed MOV files as MP4s. There has to be some re-encoding happening, because the conversion takes a lot longer than straight rewrapping does, but if the quality is taking a hit it’s so subtle my eyes and ears can’t tell.
Any given MP4 file is about ten times the size of the MOV file it started out as. I save as many of these as I can fit onto a flash drive. From there, I transfer them onto the external hard drive I use with the laptop that has Vegas on it (my Mac external hard drive isn’t recognized by that computer, while the external hard drive I use for that one becomes read-only once it’s plugged into the MacBook). Then I go back and do it all again, and again, and again, until I’ve got all the files I need on the external hard drive. Then I import them into Vegas, and at last I can start editing.
It’s a pain in the ass, but it works.
It’s been an interesting, schizophrenic emotional experience sifting through all this old footage.
There’s regret. I wish I could say I’ve been sitting on a treasure trove of footage from the time of BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. I had my chance to film elements of those songs being recorded and to talk to the camera about the thought process behind trying to short-circuit my own musical language and writing impulses in an effort to get somewhere I’d never been before, and I let it blow by. Even past that, I went to the trouble of testing out different camera angles in the studio when I was recording CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, and then did nothing with what I learned from it. I didn’t start to think it was worthwhile to document some of these things in the process of happening until much later.
Hard not to feel like there were some missed opportunities.
There’s the strangeness of seeing in black and white just how much was here the whole time. There were twenty MiniDV tapes in that dresser drawer. I found another two in a different dresser drawer after I took the picture at the top of this post. They’re all full to the brim, recorded in one-hour SP mode for the best quality. Take away everything that isn’t music-related, and that’s at least twenty hours of ideas, almost all of them recorded between 2007 and 2009, many of them things I have no memory of ever coming up with. So many sketches that never turned into finished songs. So many finished songs that were left unrecorded. So many unused alternate sections for songs that did show up on official albums.
If there’s anyone out there who still thinks I throw every idea I ever come up with on my albums, I’d kind of like to sit them down with these tapes for a day. I knew I was going through something of a creative purple patch at the time, but I don’t think it ever hit me just how much I threw away. It’s going to be fun to dig back into these ideas and work out which ones deserve a fresh look.
And there have been some surprises along the way. There’s an acoustic version of “Last of the Two-Finger Typists” filmed in 2003, minutes after I finished writing it. I recorded a song called “Electric Teeth” three times in 2007, from three different angles, almost like I was anticipating someday being able to edit the best bits together. There are some brainstorming sessions where I took the time to make sure my face and my hands wereboth visible, when framing was usually an afterthought. And those video diaries are surreal to experience now. It’s me talking, but I’m not the same person.
I might not have been able to stick the landing, but I wasn’t without ambition. The plan with the short-lived video diary was to break up the rants with songs and song ideas. I started throwing in an absurd comedy sketch called Grandpa the Russian Jew. An old man who sounded half-Russian, half-Jewish (you weren’t expecting that, were you?), played by me, would go on a short tirade about something ridiculous. He would always begin by saying, “You know, when I was your age…” and he would always end with, “…and that is the story of my life,” before passing out snoring. Only instead of talking about technological advances or respecting your elders, he’d insult Julia Roberts in some nonsensical way or muse about having sexual intercourse with a ceiling fan.
In a way, I’ve made good on a lot of what I was trying to do there with the video progress reports, and now on a deeper level with the semi-documentary-thing I’m piecing together about the last few years of musical insanity. I’m still talking to the camera about what’s on my mind, and if it’s a little less personal than the video diaries of yore, well…there is such a thing as over-sharing. The talking is broken up with musical segments and absurd bits featuring stuffed animals and re-contextualized public domain films. And when I started filming entire songs being recorded piece by piece, I discovered it wasn’t so difficult to stitch all the elements together after all, with a little help from some video editing software I didn’t have access to in the beginning.
So maybe I didn’t fail at it after all. I was just a slow starter. And there are things on these tapes I’m realizing I can slip into the larger video I’m making.
Though I might not have any actual recording footage from the house before this one, I have some good shots of my studio space in that house before I dismantled it. I have footage of my current studio space in complete chaos after moving in, and footage of it slowly starting to come together. I filmed myself recording the banjo part for “Blue Cheese Necklace” and then for some reason I’ll never understand didn’t film any other elements of the song being recorded (I want to kick myself now). I can show footage of a song being played at its inception to get the music and vocal melodies down and then segue into a piece of the finished recording. I can even slip in some video diary moments where they make sense, breaking up footage of myself with older footage of myself.
Which brings me to this.
In January of 2008, at exactly the halfway point of the Papa Ghostface hiatus that lasted twelve years, Gord came over and we recorded a song that’s never seen any release outside of an MP3 that’s long since sunk deep into the archives. This was one of the few times I went to the trouble of filming a recording session during the Handycam days. I didn’t have any way to get the raw footage on the computer back then. Now, nine years later, I’m able to do that and edit it into something a little more concise.
The song lives in its own little space, separate from the work we did before and the work we would go on to do later. At the time it felt like a potential first step toward making a new album. It was really a one-off, and it would be another six years before we started working toward a shared goal again with some real commitment.
It’s more a mood in search of a song, though there are moments I’ve always liked. I think “Speed the Truth”, the first track on STEW, is a good measuring stick. Both are dreamy things grounded in the key of A minor, but “Speed the Truth” is a layered soundscape that’s very sure of its identity. This one’s more half-baked. For every interesting turn of phrase (“You’re looking through one bloodshot tier” is one — sounds like “tear”, but it’s not) there are two that either make no sense or are little more than random nothingness (“Anomanomahee…hatred, smoke and…” won’t be showing up in a discussion of my best moments as a lyricist anytime soon).
Such is the danger of improvised lyrics. Sometimes you hit. Sometimes you miss.
Of course, I didn’t think to film myself recording the vocal and guitar tracks. I went through a rough mix on-camera instead. And because I only had the one camera, without even a tripod to screw it into, it was tough to get good shots of the two of us together. There’s a bit where I’m playing chords on the Arp-Omni 2 with one hand and synth drums on the Yamaha W-5 with the other, and because of the crummy framing, you’ve got Gord in the foreground and you can’t see a thing my hands are doing.
I gotta be honest about my 2008 mix, too. It’s not very good. The vocals are way too upfront, everything is swimming in about 600% more reverb than necessary, and I was going through that lame “clipping is okay because it means I can make things louder” stage when it came to the mastering process.
What I’m playing on the monitors is an unmastered rough mix, so the occasional moments of distortion in the video have nothing to do with mastering. They’re present in the original soundtrack, burned into the video, impossible to repair now. The Sony camcorder’s built-in mic is really good for what it is, but I found out the hard way it wasn’t built to handle volume past a certain point.
The instrumental fragment that ends the video, meanwhile, is a mix I did just the other day, stripping away the vocals, dialling down the reverb, and tightening everything up a little. It’s got me thinking about remixing the whole thing just for fun.
This segment will get trimmed down quite a bit when it appears in the epic video of stuff. Here I let it run a little longer. And I still left some things out. I filmed about twenty minutes of us jamming on acoustic guitars, playing pieces of old songs and riffing on new ideas during a break in recording. The first half of the jam felt pretty aimless, so I recorded over it a week or two later.
A funny thing happened there. A few snippets survived between the song ideas I replaced the bulk of the footage with, all of them about three seconds long. It felt like they worked well as random little bits thrown in without warning between the “On Your Life” footage, so I chucked a few of them into the mix.
The last ten minutes of the acoustic jam are still on tape. None of that made much sense in the context of this video, but I’m sure I’ll find a place for it one of these days.
Completely unrelated: Zara just released her new album. If you liked UNCERTAIN ASSERTIONS, there’s a good chance you’ll like this one too.
At the intersection of Riverside Drive and Devonshire Road stands a four storey building that’s been there for almost a century. It looks like something that grew up out of the earth and now the earth wants it back. Its brick is overrun with vines and ivy that goes from green to red to green again, and in some places where windows were broken by people who find value in breaking things without purpose, the colour has curled its way inside.
Everyone and their brother and me has been calling this place the Old Peabody Building as long as I can remember. But that isn’t what it is. The Peabody Building stood just to the west of this one, beside the Peabody Bridge, which was used for shipping and receiving and lasted until the 1990s when the rail lines were removed from the riverfront. The Peabody Building itself lasted almost as long. It was bombed during the First World War by Nazi sympathizers, survived, and went on to become the base of operations for various engineering and pharmaceutical companies before it was demolished by the city in 1985.
There’s a mystery tied in with this part of the city.
In the summer of 1854, fifty seven Norwegian immigrants died of cholera after getting here by train, packed into windowless freight cars. They were on their way to Chicago via Detroit. They didn’t make it across the border.
Today our population is well over two hundred thousand. In 1854 it wasn’t even eight hundred. There was no hospital, and only one doctor. He did what he could, but he couldn’t save those people.
The Great Western Railway Company promised to pay for coffins and the burial of the immigrants. Then they broke their promise and didn’t pay for anything. They gave the doctor a gold watch.
We didn’t have a cemetery or a church then. No one knows what was done with the bodies. None of the names of the dead are on record. Some people believe they were buried beneath the Peabody Bridge before the bridge was there, but no amount of digging has ever turned up anything definitive.
The building that still stands — the one we call the Peabody Building without knowing we’re naming a ghost — is the Walker Power Building. It seems to have been designed in 1911 by three architects whose names read like a law firm and built in 1923 by Albert Kahn.
I was never able to exhume much of any reliable history. From what little I’ve been able to piece together, it started out doubling as industrial space and a power source for the buildings Hiram Walker owned, later became office space, and then slipped into its most interesting and varied life around the turn of the century, when the ivy was already taking over.
What I’m left with, then, is my own personal history with the building. That only stretches from 2001 to 2002, with one little blip four years later that almost doesn’t count. Still, there are some vivid snapshots.
First there was recording Gord and Tyson’s metal band.
It seemed like half the bands in the city were renting a room at the Neon Shop when I was just getting out of high school. That was another name people called the Walker Power Building, because on one floor there was a business that sold neon signs. There were stairs, and there was an old freight elevator. You had to pull a rope to close it, and you had to check the floor to make sure it was level before you pressed a button to take you where you were going, because if it wasn’t level you were going to get stuck between floors.
I trusted that elevator with most of the equipment I had at the time and recorded the only proper “studio” album that metal band ever made over two days in November, in 2001. I monitored with headphones and some tiny powered speakers Tyson brought for me to use. I was wearing leather pants and a blue dress shirt.
Their space was littered with empties and trash. Brandon’s drum kit was so decrepit the snare drum’s top skin was falling off. But damned if that kit didn’t sound good with a few microphones on it.
For only getting paid twenty bucks and working in a genre of music I’d never recorded before, I think i did a pretty solid job. It still surprises me how good the album sounds for what I had to work with. We recorded most of the instrumental tracks live, running the bass and guitars direct to cut down on bleed. Tyson overdubbed guitar harmonies for one track while his father grinned with whiskey and weed in his eyes and said, “It’s like an orchestra!”
Then there were keg parties I didn’t go to. Some of them got so out of control the cops showed up. There were punk and metal shows. I saw video footage of one of them. I remember a guy who kept breaking empty 40s of Olde English over his head until he started bleeding from a cut on the bridge of his nose. He dipped one of his fingers in the blood and flicked it at the camera.
One of these parties got Gord, Tyson, and the rest of the band locked out of the room they were renting. They spent the better part of an afternoon taking turns trying to convince me over the phone to rent out a new room in my name so they could get back in there.
The idea was for me to move in my equipment. Then I could record them whenever they wanted, and everyone’s gear would be accessible to everyone else.
“Brandon loves Pearl Jam,” Tyson said. “I’m sure he’d love to jam with us.”
Our music sounded nothing like Pearl Jam.
It might have seemed like a decent plan if I cut my head open, plucked out my brain with some heavy duty salad tongs, and chucked it in the river. With my name on the books, if there was any trouble at all, I’d be the one on the hook for it. And I had a great recording space at home. Setting up shop somewhere else made no sense at all.
I said no, and nothing happened there.
There was the night an Adam whose last named rhymed with “hustle” passed out drunk and pissed himself on Tyson’s brother Rick’s couch. They were renting a different room by then. When Adam was sober enough to stand they threw him out. Somewhere there’s a videotape of him demanding to be let back in, screaming, “I’ll pull a Pesci on you! I’ll kill you all!” until Rick walks over and punches him in the face to shut him up, and then punches him again, and again, and again.
“He looked like the Elephant Man for about a week after that,” Gord told me not long after it happened. “Rick fucked him up.”
There was the time I jammed with Gord in the new room and he told me to be careful where i sat on the couch, because that was the one, that was the famous couch, and even though it had dried months ago, well, you never can be too sure with piss stains.
He had long hair then. He has short hair now. We’re still friends.
And there was the time I got a call from a friend because she knew I was looking for work. She told me she was working on the fourth floor of the Walker Power building with a few other people, and there was one position still available if I was interested. It was light assembly work.
The Imagination Factory. That was the name of the business. That was May 2002.
I went in for an interview that wasn’t really an interview. Kate was the name of the boss. She had blonde hair that was turning grey and looked like it was grey hair turning blonde. She explained what the job was. It was putting together these kits that would be sold in stores — replicas of some of Leonardo Da Vinci’s inventions. We were putting together something for someone else to put together. I liked the loopiness of that.
She asked me a few questions, and then she told me I had the job, and then I did the job for as long as the job was there.
It was one of the more enjoyable jobs I’ve had. We listened to WDET, back when WDET still played music. I got to listen to Nick Drake and jazz and Iggy and the Stooges while I was making boxes and counting out parts and talking to the other people working there.
There was Ken. Ken had a ponytail. Ken told me about Steve’s Music in Toronto and talked to me about Tony Iommi. There was Kate. She was a little testy sometimes, but mostly nice. And there was another woman. I remember her face but not her name. She told me when she was a little older than me she had a brief, doomed romance with someone who looked just like me, only he had blonde hair. He was a heroin addict on a methadone program, trying to put his life back together after his child had fallen out of the crib and died while he and his girlfriend were high.
One day, on our last break, I went outside with the friend who got me the job. We took the elevator down and sat together in the tall grass. After a while she laid herself down on her back, so I did the same. We lay together there. I thought about kissing her pretty face, didn’t think she’d want me to, didn’t do it. I wouldn’t have known how if I tried. She pulled a leaf out of my hair when we were back inside and smiled at me.
She had long hair then. She has short hair now. We’re not friends anymore.
The job only lasted about a month. That was all the work there was. But I got a call from Kate inviting me and my dad over for a barbecue at her place on the Fourth of July that year. Kate’s common-law husband was there too.
They had a funny dynamic, those two. They would jab and prod at each another, but you could tell they were having fun with it. That was just their way. You could almost see the history of their whole relationship in one of those little spats they had.
They were comfortable. They were lived-in. They were them. It was nice.
Later we watched the fireworks from the roof of the building we’d worked in. Some stairs got you up there, and maybe there was a ladder at the end. I can’t remember. But it was the perfect place to be.
More people showed up. One of them was someone I’d worked with at a different summer job three years before. She was a little older than me. She was wispy, with a deeper voice than you expected when you first met her. She had perfect long brown hair, straight as any I’d ever seen. I had a crush on her but figured I was too young, she was too cool, nothing was ever going to happen there.
As she was leaving, she went to kiss me without telling me a kiss was coming.
It would have been the first kiss of my life. It would have been just right, except she was so drunk she could barely walk, so it happened like this:
She leaned in to kiss me. I tried to prepare for whatever I was supposed to do. The wind from our leaning blew my hair and her hair in our faces.
That was what we kissed. Hair. There were no lips. There was no spit. There was no me into you and you into me, and she was so far gone she couldn’t even tell hair was all we got, and I didn’t have the guts to tell her. By the next day I knew she would forget all about how we almost kissed, and how she’d been the one to almost make us kiss.
As missed opportunities go, that one was a real asshole.
Then there wasn’t much of anything, until I dropped in on Josh and Mark a few years later. I didn’t trust the elevator anymore. I took the stairs. Gord wasn’t there that night, but he was in their band.
Their jam space was a lot nicer than the other ones I’d seen. neater. Pretty spacious. I dropped off some music, hung out for a while, and left.
That was the last time I was inside.
A year after that, whoever owned the building (maybe a new owner…I’m not sure) got the idea to kill whatever made it what it was and carve it into condos he could sell. When he found out how much money it was going to cost him to get the place up to code with the fire department, to get the zoning he needed, and to get the polychlorinated biphenyls out of the ground, he decided it wasn’t worth it and just evicted everyone and walked away, leaving the building to be condemned.
Local band Yellow Wood elbowed their way inside to shoot a music video for a song off of their final album, 2009’s Son of the Oppressor. And it remained a popular spot for photographers, whether someone wanted some interesting wedding pictures or they just wanted to grab some compelling images of a sleeping structure.
Bands were born there. Artists had lofts there. Small businesses got their start there. There was a vintage bicycle shop. There were print shops. There was a sheet metal fabrication shop. Raves were held there.
This building could be a place for artists and small business owners to thrive. Just like it was in those last years before it went dormant. You want to stimulate a city with an economy that’s bottoming out? Here’s a place to start.
For a long time it just sat there and went on becoming more evergreen than brick. Someone bought it last year, but no one thought anything would come of it. Now comes news that it’s being renovated and redeveloped into a business hub. There’s an artist’s rendering of what the redesign is supposed to look like. It’s so sterile and depressing, I can’t bring myself to put it here.
The shape of the building will remain more or less the same, but they’re going to strip it of all its quirks and transform it into just another faceless husk, no different from any other commercial building, ignoring how it grew into something much more than that. Then they’re going to sell whatever might be left of its soul to the highest bidders.
There’s talk of putting a Starbucks in there, not thirty paces from Taloola, where they serve you real coffee and tea, and not the fast food equivalent. What I guess you’d call the new owner’s statement of intent calls this part of the city “trendy”.
That probably tells you everything you need to know about where their heart is.
Everything about this is wrongheaded. People will call it a useful advance. A rebirth, even. It’s not. Once the renovations are finished, what was once the Walker Power Building will be as dead as the building that owned the name we borrowed when we didn’t know what this one was called, that died two years after I was born. And though its bones will still stand, its face will be a garish mask it never asked to wear.
And another piece of history will be gone. Not just the city’s history. Mine too.
I wanted to get some pictures of it today while it still looked like itself. They’ve already knocked out some of the windows, and by the time the ivy springs to life and lets it colours loose again, they’ll have ripped all that out and thrown it in the trash. At least you get some small idea of its crumbled majesty.
A lot of the pictures here aren’t mine, but these last four are, along with the one of the grass and the very first image. Click on the second one in this group to enlarge it and you’ll see some wall graffiti, with a season misspelled. Some folks must have been squatting there for a short time when things were in limbo.
Here’s how I’m going to remember the Walker Power Building — as a living work of art — knowing it will never look anything like this again.
A little while back I was talking with Johnny Smith about how much our culinary horizons have broadened in recent years. Not to blow our own brass instruments too much, but at this point I think we make quite a few meals at home that rival some of the better dishes we’ve eaten in restaurants.
I thought it would be fun to document some of our creations. So I started doing that, taking the occasional picture with the trusty little Pentax point-and-shoot camera I’ve had since this blog’s infancy.
The image at the top of this post is Johnny Smith’s famous chili. For my money, the only chili in the universe that rivals it is the vegetarian chili they serve at With the Grain in Guelph. That stuff is otherworldly. All others pale in comparison.
Here’s some shrimp linguine. We take the tails off our shrimp. You hear that, lazy restaurant chefs?!
This is one of the roughly five thousand salads I’ve made between the hours of two and five in the morning. I put a picture of one such salad up on Facebook a few years ago. To this day it’s the most likes and comments anything I’ve posted has ever generated. Share some music you’ve been working on for a long time and are proud of? Twelve people like it. Share a picture of a salad? It gets a hundred likes.
Good old Facebook — ridiculous to the last drop.
Here’s some jambalaya. The picture doesn’t begin to capture how good it tastes. One of the keys to its power is the honey garlic sausage. You gotta go all-out when you’re making jambalaya.
French toast with strawberries. Because why not?
Chicken Greek salad. Do you think we put enough black olives in there?
Improvisation on a nicoise salad. Take it from me: those fresh artichokes are sex.
Salmon salad. I think maybe we like our monstrous salads…
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. I snapped a picture of tonight’s dinner with the brand new camera, just for something to do. Didn’t dig into any of the manual settings. I was hungry and impatient. I just pointed it at the food, got it in focus, and pulled the trigger.
So here’s steak stir-fry.
The difference in clarity between this and the Pentax pictures is blowing my mind a little. I think I like this camera.
So yeah. I guess this is a food blog now, at least until I post something music-related again in a few days.
After an easy birth, a pretty happy childhood, and an interminable adolescence, the debut O-L West album has grown up and gone out into the world to fend for itself.
It’s called AFTERTHOUGHTS. It exists only as a physical album. You can’t buy it anywhere, because it isn’t for sale — though if you’re reading this, you probably knew that part already.
It’s the first thing I’ve ever been a part of where there are two distinct dominant voices throughout. Things are split pretty much down the middle between songs I sing lead on and songs Steven sings lead on. On some level, an album where we both share the writing and lead singing duties feels like a natural outgrowth of the work we were doing with Steven’s Tire Swing Co. songs. It was probably only a matter of time before we started writing together.
The thing is, you can never predict how — or even if — that’s going to work. You really don’t know until you sit down with someone and start bouncing ideas and creative energy around. Sometimes the energy is right. Sometimes it isn’t. I’ve had both experiences. With some people collaborating has been effortless, and with others it’s been about as easy as plucking out a polar bear’s ass hair with chopsticks.
With Steven, it’s as natural as breathing. We just click, in a way I’ve only ever clicked with a few people. It’s a joy making music with someone when that happens.
If you’re a friend and/or someone who contributed to the album, you probably already have a CD, or else one is on its way to you from one of us right now. If you’re not on my “mailing list”, or if we don’t know you but you’d like a copy, feel free to get in touch with me or Steven and we’ll do our best to get one to you.
Each Polaroid that makes up the collage on the album cover is related to one of the songs. Here’s what that’s all about, along with some of the stories behind the music — including most of the existing relevant demos, in case you want to compare some of those to the definitive versions and ruminate on what changed, what didn’t change, and which spontaneous late night arrangement ideas had staying power.
I suggest not listening to too many of these demos until after you’ve heard the full album. You don’t want to spoil too many surprises. But hey…I’m not here to tell you how to live your life.
Paint as You Like and Die Happy
Along with Trespassing, this was the true beginning of the O-L West. We jammed out the music one night in the fall of 2014 — Steven playing acoustic guitar, me on lap steel — and made a quick recording to preserve the idea.
Steven came back with some great lyrics the next time we met up. We got down his acoustic guitar and lead vocal, and then I added the bass and lap steel.
That felt like almost enough. But it needed a little more.
On a musical level, the song is all about drift, with long instrumental passages leading into and out of the verses and choruses — which aren’t really choruses, because the words are different each time. Any kind of extended solo or conventional drum part was going to chip away at the almost dream-like quality of the thing. What I needed to do was find the right accents.
One of my favourite things about working with Steven is the uniqueness of his voice, and getting to play off of it with my own voice. Here I threw in some high whispered background vocals on the chorus sections. Also added some piano to the second half of the song.
On a different kind of tune I’d float around and improvise a lot more. In this case, the simpler and sparser I kept my playing, the better it seemed to work. Sometimes just a few notes played on a piano can contribute an incredible amount of depth to a song. It’s a little nuts.
(Digital pianos need not apply.)
The little synth-sounding melody that runs through the second verse, never to recur, is the Casio SK-1 set on the flute sound with some subtle effects added. Even if it didn’t allow you to sample anything, the SK-1 would be worth the cost of doing business just for that flute patch. Though it sounds very little like a real flute, it’s got a great soul to it. It’s a sound that works in places you’d never expect it to.
Here’s the SK-1 on top of a small pile of things, staring at you all stiff-upper-lip-like, as photographed by Joey Acott.
The other synthy wash of sound that’s more of a background colour and doesn’t go away once it’s introduced isn’t a synth at all. It’s another lap steel track. I plugged the steel into the old Digitech guitar effects processor that’s been making a bit of a comeback lately, found an ambient-sounding patch I’ve always liked, and played around with harmonics and volume swells.
The problem with this patch is it can sometimes introduce some hiss when you’re feeding it a low-output instrument. It did that here. You probably wouldn’t notice unless you listened on good headphones or a nice hi-fi. Even so, as much as I like my rough edges, something like unintentional-but-audible hiss drives me batty. If I didn’t do something to cover it up, it was going to bug me for the rest of my life.
I recorded a soft brushed snare part to act as another little sonic accent, since nothing else seemed like a viable hiss-hiding solution, and hoped for the best.
These days I almost always record drums in one very specific way, with a stereo ribbon microphone set up in the middle of the room. It gets a slight boost from a tube EQ to counteract the high frequency roll-off inherent in most ribbon mics, a bit of compression, and that’s it. No close mics. No other ambient mics. I did throw in a distant room mic a few times on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART so I could slap a gated reverb or some delay on it for a bit of additional texture, but that’s not the norm for me.
There are three reasons behind this:
(1) I’ve grown to like the natural, unhyped, “drums in a room being played by a person” sound this approach imparts a lot more than the “close-mic’d up the wazoo, sound-replaced, and smashed to hell with compression until it doesn’t sound anything like a real drum kit anymore” sound I hear coming out of most modern recording studios. If I want drums that don’t sound a whole lot like acoustic drums, I’ll use a synth or a drum machine. If I’m playing a drum set, I want it to sound like a drum set. That’s just my own personal taste.
(2) With only sixteen tracks on my mixer and more ambitious arrangement ideas than I used to have, every track counts now.
(3) I spent years messing around with different drum-mic’ing configurations. I don’t have the patience for that anymore, unless someone’s paying me to record them and they want something other than my typical homegrown drum sound.
By the time I started thinking about drums in the context of this song, I didn’t have two leftover tracks to work with anymore. I only had one. I sort of close-mic’d the snare with a Pearlman TM-LE since it was the only part of the kit I planned on playing anyway, and left it at that.
The sound lived in just the right frequency to mask the hiss. It even added a little bit of extra glue to the drift.
Don’t you find your drift needs some extra glue sometimes? No? Just me?
There’s one last thing to tell you about this song, and that’s the weird trembling sound that comes in for the last chorus. You’ll never guess what it is.
It’s a ukulele pitch pipe.
Late one night, I got the idea to try sampling that little thing with the SK-1. For some weird reason it worked really well. The way the sampled sound took the natural vibrato created by the way I blew into the pitch pipe and altered the speed of it based on what notes were being played, generating a sound much more complex than its humble origins would ever suggest, was a total happy accident.
I like how this song sounds like it’s going to stay a stripped-down thing for the first few minutes, and then out of nowhere it fans out into a much wider, deeper soundscape. I think we both knew it needed to be the opening track pretty early on. Sometimes you gotta kick things off with something quick and punchy. Sometimes it needs to be a more immersive track the listener can get lost in for a while.
As for the picture, that’s Steven sitting on my front steps holding the actual photograph he’s singing about in the first verse. Pretty nifty, eh?
This song is about a mysterious Russian shortwave radio station no one has been able to explain for three decades, with the second verse made up of snippets of cryptic dialogue listeners have picked up over the years. It’s probably the closest the album gets to “moody rock”, Afterthought No. 3 notwithstanding.
It didn’t start out sounding like that. The rough jam that planted the seed of the song was acoustic guitar-driven.
And I thought the non-demo version would keep it that way. Many of these songs were born while the two of us were playing acoustic guitars. It made sense to use that as a starting point and build from there. But after a while, I got to thinking it might be a nice bit of contrast to have one or two songs not lean on acoustic stringed things at all, and I started to wonder what this one would sound like electrified.
I grabbed the Kay Thin Twin and gave it a try. Natalie reminded me what a great friend that guitar was when she played it for a few songs on CAT & CORMORANTafter I’d been neglecting it for a while. The two interlocking main guitar parts were played on the Kay. The other guitar accents and the distorted not-quite-lead guitar that comes in for the instrumental end section were all played on a Telecaster. The little harmonica bits from the demo carried over, along with the hazy wordless vocal stuff near the end.
It took me a while to get the lead vocal right once I wasn’t singing it cross-legged on my bed into a tiny laptop microphone I couldn’t see. Too much force and the meditative mood would be broken. Not enough and it would sound like I was sleepwalking through the song.
I think I found the right balance in the end.
I wanted to wedge a small shortwave radio inside of a tree with a hole large enough to accommodate it and small enough to hold it in place, and then take a picture of that. It wasn’t to be. I couldn’t find the little shortwave feller I’ve got kicking around somewhere in the basement (or the garage, or Switzerland…who knows where that thing is), and I was going to have a tough time finding a tree sympathetic to my plight.
Took a picture of this big old tube-driven character with shortwave capabilities instead. It was the first picture I shot with TheImpossible Project’s temperamental black and white Polaroid film that didn’t come out overexposed to the point of being unusable. The framing is a little askew, and now I kind of wish I took another run at it, but it works well enough in the context of the collage. And in these troubled times, collage context is more important than ever, isn’t it?
This one is discussed in detail, complete with all the demos, over HERE. It’s a musical dialogue, with Natalie’s singing on the choruses-that-aren’t-really-choruses adding something special. The way the story unfolds, I think it almost feels more like a short film than a song.
By the time we were thinking about images to accompany the songs, the house that inspired Steven’s initial concept for this one wasn’t looking so abandoned and evocative anymore. I always had the Walker Power Building (aka “the Old Peabody Building”) in my head. Some of the imagery in the first verse came from thinking about that place.
A picture of the whole building felt too distant, in every sense of the word. Then I got closer and lucked into seeing the No Trespassing sign.
Maybe that’s a little on-the-nose. But when it’s right, it’s right.
I kind of hijacked this one, similar to what happened with Trespassing.
It started as a jam. Steven had the verse chords and a vocal melody, but there weren’t words yet. I heard him singing what sounded like “and I know” a couple times. It got stuck in my head and wouldn’t leave. The same night of the initial jam I added some more music, wrote a bunch of lyrics, and sent along a demo of the finished thing at about one in the morning.
There was no concept in my head when I was writing these words. They were just the words that came out in the moment. But it was fun to find a way to work some boxing-related imagery in there, and now I’m pretty sure the bridge section has to do with faculty-dulling substances and the recklessness of darker days.
There isn’t a single proper guitar solo in any of the other songs on the album. So it stands to reason that the one song to buck the trend would have not one, but two solos.
Getting down the solo at the end was pretty straightforward. The first one was a different story. I recorded a bunch of takes of a totally different, flashier solo without ever quite nailing it to my satisfaction. Then I threw it out and tried something simpler and more melodic. That worked a whole lot better.
The arrangement for this one vexed me a little. It was the last song left that needed some work before I could focus on final mixes. It got almost all the way there, but it was missing one last bit of sonic wallpaper. It needed something to give that long bridge section a bit of a different feeling.
I tried lots of things — backwards piano, additional electric guitar, lap steel, synth. Not one proverbial coat of paint I threw on felt like it was the right colour.
I sat down with Steven and we knocked our heads together to try and figure it out. I played him a rough wordless ambient vocal thing I tossed in as an idea when I was trying out anything I could think of. He liked it. He suggested building on it and then taking out the drums for almost the whole bridge section.
That did the trick.
The intro…now that was a bit of a surprise.
I thought a dreamy little ambient piece might act as a nice segue into the song proper, to shake things up a little. A few different ideas toppled out in one night, but the one thing that felt like it could work in the context of this song wasn’t so dreamy after all. It was this evolving loop I made using the Strymon El Capistan’s sound-on-sound function. I can’t remember if I ran the El Capistan into the Yamaha FX500 or if it was the other way around, but I know the FX500 was in the signal path adding a little extra ambience.
You can do some interesting things with the El Capistan’s tape emulation settings, forcing a loop to keep degrading until the source sound is unrecognizable. Every sound in this loop was made with a guitar, and it’s just one track, but there’s something weirdly menacing about it in a muted sort of way. I like how it smash cuts to the start of a song that’s a lot catchier than the intro sets the listener up to expect.
The clean electric guitar lines that run through the body of the song also got some help from that pedal. There it’s more of a background effect, adding a bit of shimmer that doesn’t call much attention to itself but would be missed if it was gone.
For a long time I wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy. I’ve turned around on that over the last little while, building up a small group of pedals that might someday live on a board (if I ever get a power supply to run them all at once). The El Cap is a versatile beast that does pretty much everything I think I’d ever want a delay pedal to do, and I haven’t found a way to make it sound bad yet.
So, all else aside, this song is a bit of a showcase for a few of the tricks the El Capistan has up its sleeve.
The “gospel” vocal wailing in the background near the end before the final section really kicks into high gear was just me being silly, singing from behind the drums to kill time until I had to start hitting them again. I never dreamed it would end up in the final mix. But I grew to like it as a little bit of unexpected oddball character, and Steven was into it too, so it got to stay.
I had no idea what to do for a picture for this one. All I knew was, I wanted an image of something eaten by time. Wasn’t sure what the eaten thing should be. It wasn’t a bust of Jennifer Connelly’s face with a wounded nose, though I gave it an honest try.
One afternoon, hunting for things to photograph around the city, I snapped a picture of a heap of scrap metal. It came out a little overexposed and ancient-looking.
You could build a pretty convincing argument for this song being inspired by William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in the Secret Sea. It wouldn’t be true, but it would be an easy untruth to sell.
I haven’t read that book. I didn’t know it existed until after the song was written. I’m going to guess Steven hasn’t read it either.
What happened here was, we’d written all the songs we wanted to put on the album. We were kind of holding back from letting ourselves write any more, because there’s this thing that happens when the two of us sit down with a few guitars: we can’t seem to avoid coming up with song ideas. Even if we’re going out of our way not towrite, we’re probably going to end up writing something anyway. It can’t be helped.
This one wanted to come out. It didn’t care what we wanted. I set up a microphone or two in the room as really rough audio floodlights, not even trying to place them sensibly or get good sounds — just trying to capture enough of what was happening to make a useful documentation of what we were doing — and we played for a while.
I listened to it later that night and was struck by how well the improvised lyrics worked. I tweaked a few lines and added a few new ones to introduce a little more shape, but left the bulk of it alone, as you can hear. The end result is about a 70/30 split, with what Steven improvised making up the larger portion of what’s there.
Only when the song was finished did it hit me that it seemed to be telling the story of a couple struggling to hold themselves together in the aftermath of the unexplained death of their young child. None of that was in Steven’s head when he was winging it, or in mine when I was transcribing and tidying up what he winged. The song decided for itself what it was going to be about.
These are almost always the most interesting songs for me — the ones that tug you somewhere you’re not expecting to go and construct their own hearts out of materials you didn’t know they had access to.
There was a sleepy quality to Steven’s singing in the demo we both came to really like, and he was able to tap back into that without any trouble. For my part, instead of singing straight harmony I messed around with wordless backup vocals over the “chorus” sections, stacking one line on top of another until there was a blanket of four-part harmony.
This is the only song where I thought to grab video footage of the whole recording process so I could edit it into something like a music video later on. I meant to put an effort into documenting more of what we were doing, but it kept slipping my mind. What can you do?
The picture fell into my lap the same day I snapped the pic for Trespassing. Getting a shot of a little raincoat wasn’t happening, but there on the grass, feet away from the Walker Power Building, was a broken child’s umbrella. Less literal. More atmospheric. Even better.
We played this live once at Taloola as a three-piece O-L West/Teenage Geese hybrid. My wave of overdubbed four-part vocal harmonies over the long coda were impossible to reproduce, for the obvious reasons. Our workaround was layering live three-part harmonies one voice at a time. Steven started it, then I came in above him, and then Natalie came in on top of both of us.
Hearing a thing like that happen live and being a part of it made the hair on the back of my brain stand up.
Afterthought No. 3
(Shining a Light, Making a Scar)
As a rule, I don’t go into a solo album with all or even most of the songs that are going to end up on the album already written. Usually I’ve got a couple I think I might want to group together, or maybe just one idea I want to develop, and I start recording. Then I write more, record more, maybe pull a few things from the giant pile of songs that have been hanging around waiting to find a home, get rid of some things that don’t feel like they fit anymore once more pieces are in place, and figure out what the album wants to shape itself into along the way, making adjustments as needed, improvising, experimenting, seeing what happens.
Over the years a few people have labelled me a “reluctant editor” of my own work. I think the assumption goes something like this: I make long albums. Some of those albums have a lot of songs on them, and some of those songs are weird and/or very short. Therefore, I must never throw anything out, and I must have a pretty murky concept of the dividing line between what constitutes album material and what belongs in the out-takes bin. Otherwise, I would make compact ten-song albums like a normal person.
That couldn’t be more wrong.
The amount of written and recorded material that doesn’t make the cut on any given album sometimes outweighs what’s allowed to see the light of day. You don’t want to know how many things I’ve got slated for inclusion on the followup to the first volume of OUT-TAKES, MISFITS, AND OTHER THINGS. And you would either think I was lying or you’d want to punch me if I told you how many songs I’ve written just in the past two years or so for the still-in-progress “solo album with many guests” that’s calling itself YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
I write a lot. I record a lot. I don’t release everything I write and record. Not even close.
A lot of time and thought goes into discovering what each album wants to be and what makes emotional and sonic sense taking up space on it. Album sequencing alone involves a great deal of consideration. I never put anything out there just for the sake of putting it out there, and I don’t believe in “filler” tracks. Even the most random-seeming segue has a purpose, and some of my favourite things end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. That’s just the way it goes.
The point is, I make long, unwieldy albums by design. And while I value imperfection and make a point of retaining and sometimes emphasizing it, it doesn’t mean I don’t put a lot of work into what I do. The absence of excessive gloss isn’t a manifestation of laziness, and it isn’t an accident. It’s a deliberate choice.
Perfection, especially when it’s achieved through artificial means, bores the shit out of me. I’m more interested in getting at something that’s got some character, that has something emotionally interesting crawling around in its guts. Give me that over technical precision without feeling any day.
Even when I have a pretty clear picture of where I think I’m going, I almost never end up with an album that’s much like the one I thought I was going to make when I started. That’s not because I need an outside producer to reign me in or focus me, though a stranger showed up here once to make that suggestion. It’s because I let the albums tell me what they want to be.
Going about it this way keeps the process fresh and engaging. I don’t think creative energy is something to be bent or bullied where you or someone else thinks it’s supposed to go. I think it’s best served by letting it find its own way, and letting yourself be surprised.
The day the music ceases to surprise me, there won’t be any point in making it anymore.
I say all of this because this album — even though it isn’t a solo mission — is pretty long. It’s also one of the more crafted things I’ve been involved in. Steven and I went on such a songwriting tear together, very early in the recording process we already had a group of about a dozen songs we knew we wanted to make up the framework of the album. And almost all of those songs are here. But new ideas kept falling out anyway. And in spite of our best efforts to hold them back, we liked a few of them far too much to keep a lid on them. So we let the most convincing of them squeak through while doing our best to keep the quality control pretty unforgiving.
We decided to call the songs that came a little later and didn’t want to be denied “afterthoughts”. Another Turn was an exception, and the one late addition to get a proper title.
We wanted the album cover to be a collage of pictures that commented on each of the songs in one way or another (that was Steven’s idea, and man, was it a good one). The more songs there were, the more difficult it was going to be to come up with an appropriate image for each of them and then create a collage that made some amount of visual sense. Elbowing a few songs into a different category did a neat job of getting rid of that potential stumbling block.
It was also a nice way to play off of the album title. We called it AFTERTHOUGHTS, in part because it began as a very casual thing, sort of an unassuming detour, before exploding into something that obliterated whatever our expectations were. TIME AWAY would have been a full-length album if this one didn’t strong-arm its way in there and demand our attention.
At the same time, a lot of the reasoning behind the name has nothing to do with the “tossed-off” connotation the word sometimes carries. This album is a lot of things, but tossed-off it ain’t — it took two years of intermittent work to finish. It has more to do with things that are thought of, said, or felt after a bit of distance has grown between you and whatever you’re commenting on or turning over in your head. There’s a lot of that going on in these songs.
The first afterthought we wrote and recorded didn’t make the cut. As with several other songs, we liked it but it didn’t belong here. It was that emotional thing. The other three were sequenced according to feel rather than strict chronology.
This is why you don’t see an “Afterthought No. 1” anywhere, and why the first one to appear is the third one we wrote.
This afterthought is one of the shorter, sharper, catchier things on the album. When it was just starting to hatch, it sounded like this.
It cracks me up to hear us talking about me hijacking it over the next few days, and Steven predicting it won’t even take that long for it to turn into a fleshed-out song. He was right. Later that night I recorded this.
On the demo all the singing is me, and I carried over that little seesawing guitar riff of Steven’s (which didn’t make it into the final recording). On the album it’s him singing lead for the first two verses with me backing him up. Then I take the wheel for the big chorus that not only never comes back but ends the song just as it’s picking up steam, letting the bottom drop right out.
I love doing that sort of thing.
I snapped into “let’s make a rock song” mode here and tried building everything around some pretty distorted electric guitar. It sounded a little too obvious. Letting acoustic guitar drive it instead and using the electric guitar to play off of that seemed to get everything breathing a little better. The drums were getting lost a little in the last section when more electric guitar came in, so I overdubbed an additional drum part with a single room mic to give it a little extra excitement.
This is one of the few places on the album where the “textural ambient guitar” thing I mess around with sometimes comes to the forefront. I try not to overuse it, but it’s something I really enjoy doing when a song is agreeable. I blame the great John Berry.
West Coast Blues
Another one that came out of a jam early on, though it was really Steven’s song from the get-go. The words he improvised when we recorded the rough demo were so good, he was able to keep most of them when he was putting the final lyric sheet together.
The above is another pretty lo-fi sketch, recorded with a few distant mics and the preamps saturated like crazy just to see what would happen.
Post-demo, we recorded some group backup vocals with Jim Meloche, all of us standing around a single microphone, and I added more harmonies on my own a little later. Jim’s voice brings something to the song that’s difficult to put into words. You don’t always hear him that well, because there’s no separation between our voices, but you feel him there. If you’ve only ever heard the great fire he forces from his lungs when he’s singing with Orphan Choir or Worry, you might be a little surprised by what he does here.
There’s an even bigger Jim-shaped surprise at the end of the album. But more about that when we get there.
When we all come in together, I always picture us huddled around a piano in a saloon, half-drunk, sad about something but smiling through the pain. I can’t explain it. There’s just something evocative there, and it wouldn’t exist without Jim.
Thought about adding drums and electric guitar and some other things. In the end, the feeling of the stripped-down demo felt too good to deviate from much. So this one stayed percussion-free, and I held back a little when it came time to play piano over the instrumental passages. It didn’t feel appropriate to go too crazy there. I did add a little bit of bluesy harmonica, though.
This is the one place where the acoustic guitar Steven’s playing isn’t my old Gibson LG-2. He brought in his Martin (the one mentioned over here — I’m going to guess it’s a D35), and it added all kinds of tasty glue, playing really well off of the sound of my own double-tracked 000-15.
For the picture, we wanted to capture someone sitting on some stairs looking forlorn. Finding a model wasn’t going so well. Steven asked his fair lady Danielle if she’d be willing to help us out, and she saved the day. It seems fitting somehow that hers — and not either one of ours — is the only face to appear on the cover.
You know what I always say: “If you’re only going to have one person’s face on your album cover and it isn’t going to be your own, make it the face of a beautiful woman.”
The Yuan Dynasty
I was feeling a little guilty about some of my hijacking tendencies and thought it was Steven’s turn to get in on some of that action. I sent him some sketches I had that kind of stalled before they could become finished songs and asked if he had any ideas for lyrics. This was one of those.
He came up with the story of a fleeting connection on a train, retaining my refrain from the demo (some of the only coherent words I threw in there), making for one of the more playful moments on an album that’s pretty dark stuff for the most part.
Not that I’d have it any other way. You know me. I like those shadows and dark corners.
True story: that’s Steven hitting the gongs at the beginning of the song.
In one of those “you can’t make this stuff up” moments, we found out he had a period-correct vase that played right into the whole Chinese history theme. Trouble was, it was impossible to get a picture that captured its personality and did it justice.
I took a picture of some train tracks instead. As with the image for Time Erodes, it came out looking like something very old that got dug out of an attic-dwelling shoebox.
Sometimes you get lucky with these things.
I wrote this thinking it would be fun to have a song where we both kept trading off on singing lead — something where our voices would give the “A” and “B” sections very different personalities. Did my best “poor man’s Matt Berninger” for the verses when I demoed it.
Then Steven did his best “rich man’s Steven” when we were recording it for real.
Before it had drums, he played some djembe. It was a nice touch, but once the drums were in there it wasn’t working anymore. Someday after we’re both gone someone will restore that lost djembe part for an “alternate mix” and they’ll make it a bonus track on an unauthorized reissue released in an effort to give their fledgling record label some added credibility, selling something that wasn’t made for money and was never meant to be sold, and Pitchfork will hail it as “the best obscure reissue we’ve heard since last week’s re-release of Wilford Brimley’s long-lost prog-metal/rap album from 1982”.
Just you wait and see.
I played a lot of harmonica on this album. I think it’s the most harmonica I’ve played on any album in my life. It was one of those things that happened without any real thought going into it. On this song it gets a little more impressionistic.
That I’ve reached a point where “impressionistic harmonica” is even a feasible thing I can do is kind of mind-boggling to me. I have no idea how that happened.
The thing that comes in during the last chorus-that-isn’t-a-chorus and sounds a little like a wheezing carousel organ is sampled recorder, courtesy of the Yamaha VSS-30. That thing and the SK-1 play very well together.
The stop-start drumming was really the only approach that made sense here. I tried a more conventional drum pattern first. All it did was lay there like a dead thing. Filling up the spaces between guitar strums with a more unpredictable rhythm gave the whole thing a much more interesting pulse.
Getting a picture for this one was tricky. The lyrics are more imagery than story. You would think that would help, but it was maddening trying to find an image to pluck from the song. Tried barred-up windows. Didn’t turn out. Tried to find a diagram of a hand’s inner workings in an old medical journal. Couldn’t find an old medical journal to save my life. Tried to get someone to eat an apple so I could snap a picture of them mid-chew (you know, to tie in with the whole “original sin”, apple-in-the-Garden-of-Eden thing). Couldn’t get anyone to show up and eat an apple.
Then I thought, “What if I stop trying to come up with an image that’s related to the lyrics? The song has a pretty prominent harmonica part. I’ve got this cool-looking big old harmonica. Maybe I should throw it on top of my battered snare drum, take a picture, and see how it turns out.”
It came out looking better than I thought it would. And that was the end of that.
Afterthought No. 4
(Waiting for Armageddon)
The most non-afterthought-like afterthought of them all.
There are more than a few places on this album where I’m singing words Steven wrote, or he’s singing words I wrote, or one of us is singing words we both wrote together. There are some things that are more or less solo pieces one of us wrote on our own, but for the most part who wrote what is all over the place.
This is the only song where we’re both singing lead and whoever’s taking the lead at any given time is singing their own words. It starts with Steven backing me up and ends with me backing him up, though our voices blend together to the point that it can be difficult to differentiate.
We each wrote lyrics without having any idea what the other was writing. There wasn’t even a basic concept discussed beforehand. When we got together to compare notes, it was surreal how well my two verses and Steven’s one long verse worked together. Each part completed the other.
You know you’re pretty in sync with someone when you can write pieces of a song separately and have them fuse in such an organic way no one would ever guess you didn’t write the whole thing together in the same room in one sitting.
This is a demo I made for the first chunk of the song before there were really any words at all from either one of us. I can’t help hearing, “It’s salami,” instead of, “It’s alarming.” Happens every time.
I tried a lot of different things when the words were there and it was serious recording time. I got the arrangement just about right, but again something was missing. What ended up pulling the whole thing together was some delay-drenched Omnichord.
The Omnichord is another one of those funky little tools that rewards you for sneaking it into places no sane person would think to put it. I love the uniqueness of its voice. Once you turn off the auto-chording function it starts to sound like some sort of ghostly synthesized harp.
This one crept up on us and became one of our favourite tracks on the album. It feels like a perfect fusion of our sensibilities, with elements of INAMORATA, TIME AWAY, and my post-GIFT FOR A SPIDER solo work all coagulating in the same pot. If a musical scientist stitched together a Tire Swing Co./Johnny West Frankenstein creature, this is what it would come out looking and grumbling like.
Dying to Be Born
The first dedicated O-L West writing session produced three song ideas and three demo recordings to go with them. The first was what became Paint as You Like and Die Happy. The second was a song we didn’t revisit. The third was this one.
I love the little accents and fiddly bits Steven improvised while I was playing the main fingerpicked part. I did my best to emulate them when I was recording all the guitar parts later on.
When I finally sat down and wrote some lyrics to go with the music, there was a clear idea behind them: aging in reverse, literally, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button-style. But you know what? In his own way, John Cassavetes brought the seed of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to the screen long before David Fincher did.
There’s a movie called She’s so Lovely that came out about twenty years ago.It’s based on an unproduced script John wrote, given posthumous direction by his son Nick. You know Nick as the director of The Notebook and My Sister’s Keeper — sentimental Hollywood movies that are pretty much the embodiment of everything his father spent his life kicking against and offering a jarring antidote to in the fiercely uncompromising films he wrote, directed, and usually paid for out of his own pocket.
John tried to make She’s so Lovely when he knew he was dying. Back then it was called She’s Delovely. Sean Penn was supposed to star in it. But Sean wanted to draw up contracts and have all the details hammered out in advance with lawyers, and that wasn’t the way John worked.
There was another problem. Sean was married to Madonna. He wanted her to play the other lead role opposite him. That wasn’t happening on John’s watch. “I’ve worked with lots of non-professionals,” he said, “but I have to draw the line somewhere!”
The two had a falling out when Sean went off to act in Casualties of War without explanation after balking at John’s insistence that his friend Peter Bogdanovich serve as “backup director” in case his health broke down in the middle of filming. John put a solid year into trying to get the production going, but he passed away before he could get the script off the ground.
As it exists now, it isn’t really a John Cassavetes movie. It’s not even really a John Cassavetes script. Nick admitted to getting rid of whole chunks of the text that didn’t make sense to him and rewriting a lot of what he didn’t throw away because he felt it needed to be “simplified” for the actors. He pumped up the drama and filed down the heart, missing the whole point of his father’s work.
So the “written by John Cassavetes” credit is somewhat disingenuous.
John said he liked to make movies that didn’t “go”. The problem with She’s so Lovely is it goes too much. Jonathan Rosenbaum did a neat job of summing this up when he wrote in his contemporary review that the film offered “a fascinating glimpse at what Cassavetes was from the vantage point of what he wasn’t”.
If you know the man’s films, watching this one is a bit of a disorienting experience, even after you accept that of course it’s going to feel a little different because he’s not behind the camera this time. To offer just one quick illustration of how wrong it goes, there’s a scene where Eddie (Sean Penn’s character) talks on the phone with Maureen (Robin Wright’s character). She was his wife. They were in love. By the time they’re having this conversation, they haven’t spoken or seen each other in ten years.
As Nick directs it, the scene is loaded with feeling. But he doesn’t respect you enough as his audience to let you figure that out for yourself. He beats you over the head with it. There’s melancholy music swelling on the soundtrack while the characters are talking, all but screaming at you, “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO FEEL. NOW FEEL IT, YOU MINDLESS IDIOT.”
I can’t stand that stuff. It’s the kind of simplistic cinematic shortcut John never settled for. Bo Harwood’s music is an important part of several of his movies, but it’s music that’s rough and human in all the right ways — not at all typical “movie music”. It’s an extension of the art, sometimes co-written by John himself. It’s never used to cheapen or simplify a scene, or to tell the audience what to feel. It doesn’t cheat.
Nick cheats. He embraces that shortcut, dry-humps it, and whispers something dirty in its ear for good measure.
Which is fine. That’s his thing. It works for him. It’s made him rich and successful. I enjoy Alpha Dog in an “unplug your brain and let yourself be entertained” kind of way. I can admit that without any shame. I think it’s good for what it is. Not everything has to be great, meaningful art all the time. And there’s a moment near the end that redeems the whole movie. Sharon Stone’s character is talking about the death of her son when her eyes, from behind an unnecessary and not-entirely-convincing fat suit, go to some dead place for a few seconds as she taps into a kind of horrifying primal grief — a pain beyond pain, where laughing and weeping are the same thing. It’s so real, it makes me flinch every time I see it.
But — Sharon’s unexpected grace notes aside — if that’s who you are as an auteur, save it for your own scripts or the ones you commission from other living writers. Don’t turn good writing into Swiss cheese and dumb it down so it can walk around in Hollywood without getting thrown in jail. And for God’s sake, don’t do it to a guy who risked everything every time he made a movie, who was always digging at some deeper truth, resisting easy answers. You don’t strong-arm his work into somehow being cute. You don’t do that to him after he’s dead and he can’t do a thing about it.
As much as the original vision has been gutted and diluted in She’s so Lovely, there’s still some of the father in there that the son can’t kill — enough to make it interesting and throw things off-balance sometimes. There are moments and bits of dialogue you can tell weren’t tampered with. A little bit of John’s soul is buried in that movie. You just have to squint pretty hard to see it.
There’s a small scene about halfway through that’s pure Daddy Cassavetes. Eddie’s been committed to a psychiatric hospital. This is the last time he’ll see Maureen for a decade, though he doesn’t know it. He’s in a straitjacket. And this is what he says to her.
There might be more going on emotionally in this minute-and-change than most films manage in their entire runtimes. And hey, Sean still got his leading lady of the time to be his leading lady in the movie. He was just in a relationship with a more capable actress by the late 1990s.
No disrespect to Madonna Louise Ciccone.
What could have been with John directing his original script (impossible dream cast: transplant it to the 1970s, before it was actually written, and have Cassavetes himself play Eddie, slide Peter Falk into the role John Travolta ended up playing, and substitute Gena Rowlands for Robin Wright)…well, that’s one of the great cinematic what-ifs.
But anyway. What was I saying? The lyrics. Right.
When I looked at them later on, it felt like they could also be read as a meditation on how aging in a linear fashion mirrors childhood. As my Bubi used to say, you’re a baby twice in your life — when you’re born, and then again when you die.
It works both ways. However you choose to interpret it, it’s not exactly the stuff of summer pop songs. But this is one of the side effects of a protracted, hopefully perpetual self-imposed exile from anything resembling a romantic relationship. It forces me to draw inspiration from other places and write about different things. I have to use my heart and my brain.
I don’t know what it is about this one, but it makes me think of a lullaby. Maybe it’s that delicate little guitar figure that drives the verses. It stayed a stripped-down acoustic thing for a long time, and then it got a little more layered and interesting all at once, with several interlocking guitar parts, lap steel, and some of my more effective harmonica-playing added to the mix.
I have no idea what pickup is in the Magnatone. It’s embedded in the guitar, hidden beneath the mother of toilet seat (MOTS) finish. It’s a magnet-based pickup — that much I know — and it’s a lot brighter than the Gibson P13 in the Silvertone. It’s not bright in a bad way, but I find myself rolling off a fair bit of tone to get it where I want it. That’s pretty unusual for me. I almost always play electric stringed things with the volume and tone wide open, altering my playing if I want a brighter or darker sound.
Those lap steels both have their own personalities. They’re both good friends to have.
We had a tough time getting a picture here. It felt all kinds of wrong asking someone if we could take a picture of their child, or a grandparent near the end of their life, or both, as powerful as the image might have been if it was done right.
I got the idea to have a makeup artist make the two of us up to look like old men and have someone take a Polaroid of us sitting on a park bench, creating the feeling of decades of shared history between us. I thought it might be a pretty unique experience to be able to see ourselves age half a lifetime or more in a day and then wash the makeup off and become ourselves again.
When that didn’t work out thanks to the flakiness of a few makeup artists, Steven suggested doing something with ashes. I took a few pictures of him blowing a handful of them on my front lawn with Danielle egging us on, not realizing until it was too late that I had the camera’s exposure set too bright for the amount of natural light we had to work with. None of those shots came out looking so hot.
I grabbed the best one and found it had a certain washed-out quality to it that worked. The sweater comes through with more clarity than the ashes. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way.
This is another one Steven hijacked. One afternoon he went on a tear, writing great lyrics for three or four half-formed musical ideas I sent him in one shot. Dude was a machine.
The lyrics he wrote for it caught me off guard. The last thing I was expecting was a meditation on Anne Frank and the difficulty of believing in a God who allows unspeakable things to happen to innocent people. It was a pretty far cry from my initial nonsensical improv. Sing it with me, friends: “Back then there was an opening for birds to shit and men to sing.”
I demoed the finished thing on acoustic guitar, because it’s hard to haul an upright piano up the stairs to your bedroom, and there’s something to be said for not always having to think about mic placement. It still surprises me how well that microscopic microphone built into my laptop acquits itself when I’m playing and singing into it at the same time on one live track (I never record vocals and guitar separately when I’m demoing things in GarageBand).
(For the record, the Steve referred to in the first verse is Stephen Hawking, and not our Steven with a v.)
Then it was back to the piano for the recording that would end up on the album.
I had an idea for a little string part. It was pretty disappointing when I tried it out with synth strings to get a feel for what it would sound like and it felt clunky.Matter of fact, each time I tried to dress the song up beyond the piano/bass/acoustic guitar bed tracks, everything felt clunky. It didn’t help that I couldn’t seem to get my singing right.
This album is home to some of the most restrained singing I’ve ever committed to digital tape. While I’m not that much of a belter these days as a rule, some of the hardest songs to sing are the ones where your range isn’t being tested, but you’re not pushing out a lot of air, and you’re trying to find a good middle ground between delicacy and strength. Especially when you’re singing about serious stuff like this. Wordless vocal weirdness wouldn’t cut it here.
What set me free was returning to the triple-tracked lead vocal approach that became a bit of a signature sound on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN but hasn’t seen a whole lot of action in recent years. After that, the arrangement fell into place. Keeping it simple turned out to be the best approach. Just some clean electric guitar, lap steel, and brushed drums — mostly floor tom and snare — on top of the bed that was there already.
Here I wanted a picture of a broken-down old bookshelf that looked like it had been through hell. Finding something scarred enough to fit the bill proved impossible. I got lucky with this old church (suggested by Johnny Smith), figuring it would play off of the whole “loss of faith” theme.
The picture came out overexposed in a way that makes it look a hundred years old. Just what the song wanted.
Afterthought No. 2 (Black Hole)
Within a day or two of getting my hands on that Yamaha VSS-30, I was showing Steven how you can sample your voice and manipulate it with the effects built into the keyboard to create a really cool, eerie sound. He surprised me and said, “We should do something with that.”
I sang into the VSS-30, did a little mangling, and improvised around the ghostly sampled vocal sounds. Steven grabbed my Telecaster (it was in a nonstandard tuning, plugged into the FX500) and did some improvising of his own. Then I added some distorted harmonica and we both gave a little mutual yell.
There’s no demo for this one. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, done and dusted before a demo could be made.
I experimented a little with adding other sounds later on. It felt like the more fleshed-out the music got, the more power it lost. There was something a little unsettling about it as a weightless thing. When the yell came in, it sounded like a desolate cry echoing through the ruins of a dying world. After the song had some bottom end and more bells and whistles, it just sounded like a yell.
We left it half-naked out of respect for that yell. It was the only sensible thing to do.
We started writing this one by throwing lines and ideas back and forth. Steven had most of the music already worked out. He hit on the image of an old Italian rug as a lead-in to a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, and we went from there. Later on I added some more lyrics to fill in a few blanks.
Getting into the crimes themselves felt like the easy way out. We attacked it from a different angle, giving more attention to the little details hiding in the margins of the story.
On a random note, “green side-gabled bungalow” is a phrase that rolls off the tongue a lot easier than you might think.
I handled the singing on the demo. You can hear there’s a verse missing that hadn’t been written yet (it showed up about ten minutes after the demo was recorded), along with a line or two that changed later on.
On the CD it’s Steven singing lead, with me backing him up. I think it’s got a good bit more gravitas in that form. Some of those low notes are tough for me to hit. Steven just sings ’em good and true every time. Plus, it’s cool to hear him inhabiting a darker character like this. He sang the words in a much more rhythmically unpredictable way than I did, which made adding harmonies a little tricky. But I enjoyed the challenge, and I think it makes the song that much more interesting. It feels less like you’re being sung to, and more like you’re being told a tale.
My idea of a working title was “And of Course in the End Hope Is Just Another Wrong Turn”. Steven came up with the much better, more concise Zebra Stripes. The song’s narrator/central character takes an honest shot at living the straight life, but he can’t escape who he is or who his partner wants him to be. That stuff won’t wash off.
The ghost of the main guitar figure that runs through The Yuan Dynasty returns here in the form of a very similar banjo part. Once I realized that was happening, I liked the little bit of unexpected continuity. In a way, you could look at this song as a follow-up to that one — one idea of what might have happened if the flirtation snowballed into a full-blown relationship once those two people stepped off the train and then everything went a little sideways.
The instrumental coda came about when it felt like there needed to be some sort of palate cleanser before the final track. It couldn’t just jump straight from those last banjo notes hanging in the air to the beginning of Pave over It All. Besides, it’s fun to keep things a little unpredictable. Every sound there is coming from the VSS-30. It’s all samples — electric guitar, harmonica, and piano.
The first time Natalie heard this song she said she thought the lyrics were Leonard Cohen-esque. Given the towering giant of song Leonard is, it was impossible to take that as anything other than a mighty compliment.
And then there’s the picture. There’s a line in here that goes, “Couldn’t say if they were tears of joy, or the runoff of ambivalence cooked by crooked power lines.” Sometimes you see exactly what you need to see when you’ve got your Polaroid pal in the back seat. That’s what happened when I noticed these power lines on one of those “driving around looking for inspiration” jaunts.
If I’ve taken one good Polaroid picture with my Spectra 2 and this sometimes-maddening black and white film, it’s this one.
Pave over It All
This must be one of the best songs I’ve ever had a hand in writing. It’s also one of the bleakest. As if the last few songs leading up to it weren’t dark enough!
Again it started as a jam. Steven had the first two chords and a vocal melody. I added the D major-to-A minor turnaround and the vocal melody that happens there. He wanted to incorporate the image of something being buried, and in the course of the jam I heard him sing something about someone taking a beating and something about someone’s crooked mouth.
I put all that in my head, let it stew a while, and later that night a song about separated-at-birth conjoined twins who hitchhike out of town after killing their abusive father came pouring out.
A little later we came up with the little musical tag that bookends the body of the song and I threw in a vocal harmony idea.
Then Steven got the great idea to have a rotating cast of singers — a different voice delivering each verse.
There are nine verses to the song. So we were looking at nine different singers. After accepting that the logistics of getting that many people to show up to sing on one song were a little insane, we downsized a bit. Decided two or three verses for everyone might work better. And I thought maybe we could all come in together for the last verse to bring things full circle as a group.
What we ended up with was a cast of four: me, Steven, Dave Dubois, and Jim Meloche, all of us taking turns telling the same tale.
Dave’s voice was made to sing a song like this. But the real revelation here is Jim. It’s a different Jim voice than you’re probably used to hearing, and he nails it. When he sings the bit about nothing coming out of Billy’s “dry, crooked mouth” and the strings paint a little counter-melody around him, that’s one of my favourite moments on the whole album.
Mixing this one was an interesting challenge, because all four of our voices live in slightly different ranges. It was tricky trying to get it sounding consistent, so no voice felt like it commanded more or less of the spotlight than any of the others. When Greg Maxwell told me it felt to him like the four of us were all the voice of the same character at different ages, I was pretty sure I had the balance right.
Almost makes me wish I’d invested a lot of money in a really good camera at some point. Almost. But I feel like the whole grainy, DIY, not-really-a-filmmaker thing works for me. Besides, the file sizes would kill me with a camera like Joey’s. I think a two or three-minute clip would come out to something close to a gigabyte.
There are more people playing and singing on this one song than on all the others combined. In addition to the singers-in-the-round thing, Kelly Hoppe contributes some of the best harmonica-playing you’ll ever hear in any genre. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I’ve had the great fortune to have Kelly contribute sax and harp work to a number of different things over the last little while (most of which haven’t been released yet). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he’s one of the best living harmonica players.
What he does here is some of the best work I’ve ever heard him do. The amount of soulfulness and melodic invention he’s able to pack into a short amount of time is staggering. There’s a part where he “plays” the rain. Seriously. You have to hear it to believe it.
And Stu Kennedy becomes a whole one-man string quartet — and then, briefly, a sextet — playing both violin and viola, acting as a wordless Greek chorus, adding another emotional and dynamic layer to everything. I think he might have outdone himself too.
Those guys are two of the most talented people I’m lucky enough to call friends, and also two of the most genuine.
When all the elements were in place and I was able to dial up a rough mix of the finished thing for the first time, it hit me so hard I started to tear up a little. No music I’ve been a part of in my life has ever done that to me. And I’ve been making music for more than twenty years now, since before I even knew what armpit hair was.
For the picture, I was trying to get a good shot of a ditch out in the county. It was a losing game. Too much detail was getting lost. Right when I was about to give up I saw the No Exit sign.
Accidental existentialism for the win.
We were going to end the album with one more afterthought — the very first one we recorded — closing the book on a somewhat hopeful-sounding note. By the time this song was CD-ready, that wasn’t going to cut it anymore. You can’t follow something like this with a little sixty second burst of sunshine. You just can’t. It would cheapen the journey. The intensity of it needs to linger and be reckoned with.
So that’s the album, and those are the details, about as well as I can give them to you.
One quick technical note before you go (assuming you’ve made it this far and haven’t jumped ship or fallen asleep yet): this is the quietest mastering job I’ve done in at least ten years. More and more, the whole “everything must be louder than everything else” mentality seems a little pointless to me, and more than a little destructive. I’d rather get the stuff sounding as good as I can and leave it at that, instead of pushing the volume a little more only to look back in a few years and find myself wishing I’d used a lighter touch — which is exactly what’s happened with a few of the albums made during my short-lived “hey, I can make things competitively loud, so why not?” phase.
I need to kick off a little Quieter Is Better (2008 – 2011) remastering campaign someday soon for my own peace of mind. Been meaning to do that for a while now.
You can always turn up the volume on your computer/CD player/iPod if you’re listening to something that wasn’t mastered all that hot and you want it louder. With music that’s been hammered at the mastering stage to infuse it with built-in perceived loudness, no amount of turning it down is ever going to make it sound good again, and the more you turn it up, the harsher and more fatiguing it’s going to get, and the less your ears are going to like you.
Long story short, you’ll need to turn this one up a little. I think it’s worth the tradeoff. Dynamic range is our friend!
All in all, it always takes some time before I can pull back and look at an album with some amount of objectivity, but I think we did good. There’s a lot going on here, both lyrically (not a whole lot of rhyming, quite a bit of variation in subject matter) and texturally (I’m not sure I’ve ever put this much thought into the production of a thing). I think/hope it’s the kind of album that will reward careful listening.
On a visual level, the collage turned out better than I ever expected it to. The same is true of the layout of the lyric booklet, even if some of that comes down to luck, as it always does with me.
On a personal level, Steven is a great friend, and recording these songs with him — and getting to involve other great friends like Natalie, Jim, Dave, Stu, and Kelly — was a deeply rewarding experience.
I have no idea where the music will take us next (EDM, maybe?), but I’m looking forward to the ride.
I got a proof. Or a sample. Or a prample. Or a sproof. Please ignore the crooked staple (which I put there to keep said sample together) and what the camera’s flash did to the picture of the umbrella (making it look washed-out when it actually looks really nice). I’m really happy with the way this font ended up coming out on the page. I was afraid it might bleed a little, but it looks like it came right out of a real manual typewriter, with none of the “nice try but you’re just a pretender” feeling you get from some typewriter-based fonts.
If I didn’t make any bone-headed typos anywhere, I’ll give ’em the go-ahead to start making the booklets and inserts tomorrow. A release date next week is looking right on target now. Progress! Palpable progress! It’s a beautiful thing.
At long last, all those backup CDs are organized and the “Database of Stuff” is up to date.
If you’ve been over here at any point over the past few years, you’ve probably seen the mixing desk — not an actual “mixing desk”, but a massive, hulking thing with steel casing that holds the mixer, mic preamps, and other relevant outboard equipment — littered with white CDs, some labelled, some not.
For the first time since I can’t remember when, those are all gone. Well, not gone, but redistributed. They’re where they’re supposed to be.
Some of them are on that shelf seen up there. It doesn’t look like it, but there are a good dozen or so boxes hanging out there. Some of those rows run three deep.
I was trying to figure out where the rest of the boxes could go. Somewhere that allowed for easy access but was kind of out of the way. Then I remembered this little cabinet beside the drums. I pretty much forgot it was there after stashing some drum keys and extra sticks in there nine years ago.
I’m not sure what the people who lived here before us used it for. A china cabinet or a cutlery dungeon, I’d guess. It just happens to be the perfect depth for the boxes I’m using to store backup CDs. It’s even got cute little doors to keep the dust out.
I gotta say, it’s a little strange to have all of this organized and to know where everything is for a change. I think I’ll be able to get used to it, though.
Natalie is having her CD release show next saturday at the Windsor Beer Exchange. She’s dubbed her music “flock and roll”, which is almost too perfect. Greg Maxwell made the poster. That guy is one talented beast.
I’ll write more about the album once it’s out there in the world. For now I’ll just say this: along with the Tire Swing Co. albums, it’s the best, most rewarding work I’ve ever done as a pretending-to-be-a-producer person. If you’re going to record and play on songs that aren’t your own, Steven and Natalie are the people you want to do it with.
Sometimes I write string parts for songs that aren’t my own, that are being recorded somewhere other than here, by someone other than me. Or maybe I just did it this one time.
The top line for the second cello section is missing (printer snafu, I think), so I used the second line as the top, since it turned into that by default in the top line’s absence. Not that it really matters, because that part was rewritten as something a violinist could play instead.
I’m sure some of the note values are wrong. Probably should have written eighth notes or sixteenth notes at the end there. Keeping track of that stuff and knowing how to represent it on paper is beyond me. But the notes themselves are right. There’s a recording with a synthesized placeholder version of the string part so the player can hear what’s meant to happen.
That I’ve even reached a point where I can scratch something like this out in a way that might make some amount of sense to someone who can sight read is a little hilarious.
I got a Polaroid Spectra 2 camera for cheap off of Kijiji seven or eight years ago. I loved that thing, but finding film for it was difficult. They weren’t making it anymore, and they hadn’t made it for a long time. At first I was able to track down expired packs of film through marketplace sellers on Amazon. Then even the expired stuff grew scarce.
A little while back I found out about The Impossible Project. They make and sell new film for every Polaroid camera you can think of. It’s expensive beyond all reason — when you factor in shipping charges, the shrinking scrotum of the Canadian dollar, and the sad truth that you’re only getting eight exposures in a package, it’s enough to make you cry — but I thought it would be worth it just to be able to shoot with that camera again. I ordered some black and white film with a black border, because I liked the way it looked.
Ended up wasting half a pack before I figured out my Spectra 2 was dead. Bought a different Spectra 2 for cheap, again through Kijiji. The guy who sold it said it belonged to his mother. She sold used cars and took a Polaroid of every customer after making a sale. Sometimes in the space of a few seconds you hear a small story that has so many larger stories tucked inside of it you know you’ll never get to hear. This was one of those times. Can you imagine the photo album that woman had, and all the memories it held?
I wasted another few pictures in the process of discovering Impossible film is aptly named. It’s very sensitive to light. If you don’t cover up a picture in the first few seconds after it leaves the Polaroid womb and then keep it covered for at least a good ten minutes before peaking at it, it’s not going to turn out at all. All you’ll get is a milky haze, maybe with the ghost of what you saw through the viewfinder lens hidden in it, maybe not.
After all of that was sussed out, I started taking some pictures that were more than haze. I think it was Steven who first came up with the idea of taking a picture to represent each proper song (not counting the “afterthoughts” that act as segues, siblings, and rhythm-breakers) on the O-L West album, with an aim toward making a collage out of them. I wasn’t expecting the temperamental black and white Polaroid film to become a part of this, but there’s something there — a quality to the image when everything lines up right with a well-enough-composed shot that develops the way it’s supposed to. You get something that looks like a picture taken a very long time ago and forgotten for decades.
It’s been an interesting challenge trying to come up with images that play off of the songs. You don’t want to hit it too hard on the nose, but some things are just too good to pass up. I wanted to take a picture of the abandoned Walker Power Building, because it was the inspiration for a lot of the imagery in the first verse of a song called “Trespassing”.
I shot it from a bit of a distance. The picture didn’t turn out. Then I got closer and saw a No Trespassing sign, framed by vines. Maybe a little obvious, but it made for a good picture.
With other songs it’s been a little more difficult. What kind of picture do you take to represent a song that’s a pitch-black story of two brothers murdering their abusive father and hitchhiking out of town? I came up with an image I liked that commented on the theme without getting too obvious, but it took some time to get there.
Of the twelve songs that need pictures, there are only two stragglers left. One of those is easy. I already know what the picture’s going to be. I just need to take it. The other one’s been a bit of a pain in the ass.
Some of these pictures are more striking than others. A few didn’t turn out as well as I hoped and only really work in the context of the collage because they’re small enough not to call too much attention to themselves. But there are a few I’m really happy with as standalone images. That’s one of them up there.
Here’s something that almost made it into the booklet for STEWbut didn’t quite get there in the end. I wanted to put some pictures of us in there and thought the easiest way to do that would be to grab some video stills and make a collage. I liked the way it turned out (Ted and Stu are in there too!), but when I was putting everything together for some reason it felt more appropriate to keep the inside of the booklet image-free.