I’ve always loved scary stories. So maybe it’s fitting that Johnny Smith and I once recorded an album full of them.
In November of 1994 we were renting a Yamaha PSS-190 keyboard. You don’t want to know what kind of detective work I had to do to figure that out more than two decades after the fact. It was third in the sequence of four keyboards we rented before Johnny Smith bought me a Yamaha PSR-210 as a Christmas present at the end of the year, and it was the one I liked least out of all the rentals. There weren’t a lot of sounds under the hood that got me excited. The drum sounds were what really killed it for me. They had no balls. It didn’t help that the PSS-190 had the bad luck of coming right after the huge-sounding Kawai X40-D. It did at least have some fun demo songs built in — chief among them a quirky version of the Shocking Blue hit “Venus”.
We didn’t record much music with that keyboard, but we did use it to create sound effects and incidental music for an album of improvised stories. Inside the tape jacket I wrote the date of the first recording session and a provisional title: Not for the Nervous!
The night we started recording, my grandfather was visiting. So was the lady the Smithster was dating at the time. You can hear their voices in the background from time to time. The way we worked it out, we took turns ducking out from the get-together. First I went in the bedroom, put the keyboard and tape recorder on the bed, sat down, and recorded a story. When I was finished, Johnny Smith took my place. He listened to what I’d done and recorded a story of his own.
It was a lot of fun. Nothing was written down beforehand, so we didn’t know where our stories were headed even as we were telling them. We recorded three stories that night and two more the next day. Over the next three years we added another story or two to the tape whenever inspiration struck. The subject matter darted all over the place. There was typical spooky stuff like vampires and monsters, but we also made room for an ambitious squirrel with dreams of a musical career, a girl’s dangerous obsession with rain, and a vindictive sea captain trying to hunt down his aquatic nemesis. By the time we were recording the last few stories in late 1997, I came up with a much better title: A Glimpse of Horrific Pleasure.
Since it’s Halloween, here’s my favourite story from that first night of recording in 1994. What can I say? Even when I was eleven years old, I already had a pretty sunny outlook on life.
The stop button on my mixer hasn’t been working so well over the last little while. It still functions, but I have to wrestle with it now. When you’re doing vocal punch-ins or any kind of recording that requires some precise stop/start points, a sticky stop button is a huge pain in the posterior.
It got to be a little too frustrating after a while. So I dug out this foot switch I’ve probably had for close to twenty years but never used — the tank that calls itself my desk holds many forgotten and semi-hidden treasures — and plugged it into the back of the mixer. Any attached foot switch just happens to default to controlling play and stop functions, so I didn’t even have to tweak any settings on the mixer to get it to work.
I even got to make use of one of the crummy little patch cords I got when I was thinking about putting that pedal board together. I grabbed a bunch of them from Long & Delayed because they were dirt cheap, only to discover not all patch cords are created equal. I’ve accumulated a ridiculous amount of cabling over the years, and it runs the gamut from cheap no-name stuff from the mid-90s (all of which still works!) to pricey Mogami cables. I’ve never heard any difference in sound quality in any of them. That all changed when I bought these cheap Fender-branded pedal board cables. I tried them out when I got home and heard a marked loss of high frequency information. It wasn’t a pleasing warmth. It was a disconcerting dullness.
I spent quite a bit more money on some short patch cords made with Mogami 2524 cable. All those lost highs came back with a vengeance. But I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been shafted, regardless of how little I paid for those unusable Fender patch cords.
When you’re dealing with a foot switch that’s only performing mechanical duties, tone isn’t an issue. So there’s a bit of unexpected vindication for a little cable that didn’t really deserve it.
What else is new?
I’ve deactivated Facebook for the first time in years. The goal is to cut out some distractions and get into Merciless Album-Finishing Mode again. It seems to be helping at least a little bit. I’m still having some trouble working out the sequencing of the second disc. It’s tricky, because it needs to work as both a continuation of the first disc and a standalone musical statement.
I’ll figure it out at some point. I think. I hope.
More than half the songs now exist as mixes I like enough to call “final”. Come to think of it, almost all of the work I have left to do is mixing-related. There are only about half a dozen songs that need a bit of additional work at the recording stage. Sequencing issues aside, that’s a definite step in the right direction.
With a little elbow grease, I might get this album done before I turn to dust after all.
Things have been downright tumultuous around here.
I wanted to get in the habit of blogging more often so I could hold myself accountable on the recording side of things. I haven’t managed to do that. I havebeen making good progress with the album. I’ve also had to accept this sad truth: there’s no way to get it finished in time for the show. It’s turned into too tight a race. I can get it close, but not all the way there.
This is a handbill the wonderful Katie Schram designed for me.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
It would be great if I could print a bunch of these and start handing them out to people. I can’t. For the first time in my life I have promotional material I can’t use, because the show it’s supposed to promote isn’t going to happen.
First my trombonist pulled out after committing to the show. Then my cellist stopped talking to me with no explanation. Before long my drummer was out of commission and unreachable, the only person I could get to agree to show up for a rehearsal was the bassist, and many of the most important musicians either wouldn’t acknowledge me at all or were pretty vague about when and if they might grace me with their presence.
Sounds a bit like a lame comedy sketch.
You might say, “Well, the musicians involved in this are talented enough that they don’t need much preparation. They could turn up the night of the show with a single rehearsal under their belt and fake their way through it just fine.”
Even if that’s true, the whole “rehearse very little and pray for a miracle” approach doesn’t work for me. It never has. It would be one thing if we were a band with some history. We’re not. I’ve only worked with these people one-on-one in a recording situation. Playing live as a group is a very different beast. You need time to build chemistry and work out arrangements.
I’ve played as a supporting musician in bands that half-assed everything and hoped for the music to glue itself together in the ninth hour. None of those performances were anything to write home about, and I was always a nervous wreck onstage. Why would I want to put myself through that when the music is my own?
The last time I played at Mackenzie Hall I had a three-piece band. We only had six or seven songs we needed to learn as a group. The rest of the show was made up of me doing solo pieces. We must have rehearsed a dozen times over a period of three months. The idea was to get to a place where we were comfortable enough with one another to take off on an improvised tangent in the middle of a song and navigate whatever twists and turns it took with confidence — to be able to pick up on tiny physical cues and execute pin-point dynamic shifts.
We put the work in to toughen ourselves up until we were a real band, and it paid off big time at the show.
That isn’t going to happen this time. Even if every necessary piece of the musical puzzle showed up to rehearse for every Saturday that’s left between now and August 17th, I don’t think there would be enough time for us to get good. At best we would be okay. And that’s not going to cut it.
I may go out of my way to leave mistakes and human moments in my recordings, but I care a great deal about what I do. I’m not going to half-ass my first serious live performance in eight years and the biggest show of my life to accommodate the absent asses of others. If people can’t be bothered to show up and put in the work, there’s no point in losing my mind trying to salvage something out of the chaos. I won’t march into a public humiliation out of some misguided sense of duty, and I didn’t work to get that grant so I could pay people for being a bunch of fucking deadbeats.
I wouldn’t be able to rehearse now anyway. All the stress has caught up with me and made me sick. Ain’t that a kick in the nuts?
I already had my mind pretty much made up about cancelling the show before I got sick, but I took some time to think it over. During my thinking-it-over time, the ghostly cellist popped up to say she’d be available to rehearse about three weeks before the show. As if that would somehow be enough time to get up to speed when she’s never played any of these songs before. The person who was supposed to be my main backup vocalist and a fill-in lead singer for other absent vocalists said she wouldn’t have any time to rehearse with me until the end of July — this after telling me she’d be available to start getting together in early June. Better yet, after letting me believe for months that she was going to be an integral part of the show and one of the main performers, she changed her mind. Now I could only choose three songs I really wanted her to sing on. That was all the material she felt like learning.
There’s no putting a good face on this — she lied to me. She misled me about the role she was prepared to play and how much time she was willing to set aside for me. She’s second-billed on that handbill up there. Someone who’s a glorified walk-on guest doesn’t deserve to be second-billed. And I don’t care how busy you are. If you’re not going to be honest with me, I don’t want to know you.
Any doubts I had about cancelling the show died a violent death right there.
The singer who didn’t want to do much singing wasn’t the only person who was full of shit. Not by a long shot. It’s as if some of these people believed the simple act of attaching their names to my show should have been satisfaction enough for me, and whatever near-nonexistent amount of effort I could get out of them beyond that was supposed to be a bonus.
Someone told me, “You have to understand…most musicians don’t operate the way you do. They have their heads perpetually stuck up their own asses, and their main concern is themselves. That’s just the way they are. You can’t take it personally. It isn’t about you.”
How am I not supposed to take it personally? What other way is there to take it? “Laziness” is not a valid excuse to me. You don’t get to treat your so-called friends like dirt just because you’re talented.
Actually, let me correct that: in most cases you do get to treat your so-called friends like dirt. A lot of people get away with being pretty awful human beings because they have some amount of talent — or at least the ability to convince others they do — and they can be charming and ingratiating when they feel like it. I don’t swim in that ditch. A talented piece of shit is still a piece of shit.
You can make all the excuses you want. My music is who I am. You blow that off and you’re blowing me off. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.
I understand now that I made the tactical error of devising a show that relied on a large supporting cast of characters in order to succeed. Many of the most important players let me down. My dream was to give a multi-faceted gift to the community through music and visual art. The indifference of my peers has decimated that dream.
So I’ve cancelled the dates at Mackenzie Hall (dress rehearsal and performance), and a week ago I gave the grant money back to the city. I refuse to compromise my vision to the point that the show no longer resembles what it was supposed to be. This was going to be something special. It was the culmination of more than five years of work. I put it together a specific way and worked my ass off to make it a reality. Limping into Mackenzie Hall with some half-formed version of what could have been would feel even more like defeat than pulling the plug and walking away.
Could I have done something with just a rhythm section? Sure. Could I have done a one-man show? Yeah. But I’ve already done both of those things at Mackenzie Hall (and I think I did them pretty well). I have no desire to repeat myself.
Most of the people who were going to be my “special guests” were great at communicating with me. I didn’t have to chase them. I’m grateful for that. Darryl and Christy Litster, Ron Leary, Jess O’Neil, Jim Meloche, Dave Dubois, Natalie Westfall — all these folks have been wonderful every step of the way.
In the end, it just wasn’t enough. I felt like I had one big show left in me. This was it. Now it’s dead.
Lesson learned — I won’t try to do anything like this again. And if anyone accuses me of being a weirdo recluse who doesn’t play well with others after this, I will bite their head off and spit it back into their jagged blood-spurting neck hole.
You might think this is an extreme overreaction to a situation that wasn’t beyond help. Unless you’ve been through it, you have no idea what it’s like to put your heart and soul into something like this only to watch it collapse in slow-motion. You can’t force people to show up. You can’t force them to care.
I’m told I’m the first person in the history of the ACHF to refund their grant money. It felt like the right thing to do. The event as I pitched it to the jury ceased to exist, and I didn’t want to abuse the system. I know there are people who do that and get away with it. I would rather be honest.
Maybe someone else with better luck will be able to use the money to realize a dream that’s more realistic than mine was. I hope so.
I’m not as disheartened as all of this might make me sound. I’ve gone through the grieving process and more or less made my peace with things not working out. As a wise woman once said, “[You] can’t hug every cat.” I won’t pretend it isn’t disappointing, though. I was pretty proud of the set list and supporting cast I put together. I think it could have been a night to remember.
We’ll never know now.
On a lighter note, the J, K, and L keys on my MacBook stopped working a few weeks ago. Every once in a while I could mash the other keys around them and trick them into cooperating with me for a little bit. After a few days my subterfuge no longer did any good. I was hoping it was just some dirt on one of the contacts. Nope. Had to get the whole keyboard replaced. That was a $200 expense I could have done without. At least the people at Experimax were great to deal with and they fixed it the same day I brought it in.
You don’t notice how much you rely on certain letters until they’re no longer accessible to you. The S key on my crusty old video-editing laptop died years ago, but it’s easy to work around. All I have to do is copy an S from an existing document or file and paste it whenever I need it. When you have to do that with three different letters it becomes much more frustrating and time-consuming, turning what should be a two-minute email into fifteen minutes of tediousness. It’s nice to be able to type freely again.
It hasn’t all been janky laptop keys and crumbling dreams of ambitious live shows over here.
For the better part of twenty years I’ve been trying to track down video footage of my March 2000 performance at the Air Jam (Walkerville’s quirky name for a talent show). I’ve mentioned this a few times before.
I knew of two tapes — the one Gord’s high school girlfriend Amanda filmed, and the one the school filmed. I saw both of them in the summer of 2000. Then I never saw anything that was on either tape again.
I started trying to talk Amanda into letting me borrow her tape so I could make myself a copy when we were still in school. I kept trying after we graduated. Nothing happened. When Facebook came into our lives I started pestering her over there. I tried to get Gord to help. After a lot of false starts, in 2010 Amanda said she had the tape I was after. I rejoiced.
My rejoicing didn’t last long. I spent a month or two trying to arrange to get that tape from her. I offered to pay her just for showing up. It didn’t do any good. She was either noncommittal in her responses to my messages or she ignored me. She wouldn’t give me her phone number or her address, so I couldn’t go to her. I was stuck in limbo.
I nudged Gord into sending her some messages in 2014 and 2015 when we were working on STEW. He said he thought there might be some kinky business on the tape, explaining Amanda’s apparent reluctance to share it with either one of us. I told him to tell her I would give her the money to have a video place transfer the tape into a digital format herself, allowing her to snip out anything she didn’t want me to see. That didn’t do the trick either.
In 2017 I sent Amanda one last heartfelt message. I told her this was a piece of my musical history I felt incomplete without. I explained how much it would mean to me if I could somehow see it again. I also wanted to try and incorporate whatever archival material I could into the DIY documentary I was — and still am — making about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. This stuff was the Holy Grail of archival material.
She wrote back and apologized for the long silence. She said she wasn’t sure what tapes I was on, but she was able to narrow it down to seven possibilities. Years ago she bought some equipment so she could transfer the tapes at home. Then her camera stopped working and she gave up. If I was willing to transfer the tapes myself, I could have all of them. All she asked for in return was that I make her copies of the digital files.
Gord was supposed to swing by her place and grab the tapes before bringing them to me. He couldn’t do a thing with them, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to help pay to have them transferred. He was just another barrier between them and me. It would have made a lot more sense for me to pick them up myself. I couldn’t do that. Amanda still wouldn’t give me her address or phone number.
I don’t like relying on other people for things like this, but I left it in Gord’s hands. He rewarded my trust by almost ruining what looked like my one real shot at a happy ending. The night he was supposed to pick up the tapes, he blew it off.
This is a guy who’s known me since I was fifteen years old. He knew how long I’d been trying to gain access to this material. He knew what it meant to me. And he couldn’t even take five minutes out of his beer-drinking time to make good on what he told me he was going to do. He didn’t care. It didn’t mean anything to him.
I was ready to end our friendship right there. Lucky for him, Amanda took time out of packing for a vacation to bring the tapes to his door, and he was forced to pass them on to me.
Victory at last? No. Not quite.
I paid Unique Video Systems to convert all those 8mm tapes into MP4 files. I found some great footage I didn’t know existed — some of it featuring a skinny, beardless teenage version of me. But the Air Jam footage wasn’t there.
I told Amanda. She dug up some more tapes. This time I wasn’t on any of them.
I was discouraged but not defeated. There was still the matter of the second tape — the one filmed by the school.
I emailed John Vacratsis. He was a teacher involved in all kinds of art and media-related things at Walkerville during my time there. If anyone was going to know anything about the tape or its whereabouts, it was probably going to be him.
This was the crappiest of crapshoots. I didn’t have a great relationship with Vacratsis when I was a student. He seemed to resent me for not taking any of the music classes he taught, going my own way instead of letting him develop me into another talent Walkerville could be proud of, and he once chewed me out for some material he found offensive on a collage I made for grade twelve English class.
(That our English teacher, who was really a transplanted drama teacher, would have us making collages like children and answering questions about movies untethered to anything in the curriculum so he would have something to base our grades on without having to teach anything that resembled an English class — that was the more alarming issue to me than some goofy thing I put on a collage. But never mind.)
I expected Mr. V to remember me as a troublemaker if he remembered me at all. It didn’t matter. I would play nice in an email and see if it got me anywhere.
To my amazement, it did. He sent me a very kind response and tried to help as much as he could. He gave me the names of media students who might have been operating cameras on that day, he gave me the name of a media teacher who was still teaching at Walkerville, and he wished me luck in my epic quest.
I felt a renewed sense of purpose. Now I had something solid to work with.
One film student said he remembered my performance but didn’t know where the tape might be. The others ignored me. I wrote a letter to the media teacher outlining my plight, with a few albums included as thanks, and left it for him at the front desk.
Stepping inside my high school for the first time in almost nineteen years was a bizarre experience. I was happy to see they now had an upright piano in the hall and anyone was welcome to play it. I sat down and noodled a little. There wasn’t much volume or tone there, but hey, a real piano is a real piano.
Something about being there made me angry. No one was unpleasant. No one ogled at the long-haired bearded guy who was way too old to be a student. I don’t even have that many bad memories from high school, so it wasn’t a matter of old hurts coming back to haunt me. Believe it or not, I wasn’t an outcast or a loner. I was one of those odd students who managed to become popular and well-liked by refusing to be anything other than myself.
Maybe it was just one of those days.
Mr. Allison — the media teacher — sent a very thoughtful email in response to my letter. A lot of people probably would have blown me off, but he did some detective work on my behalf. What he found out wasn’t encouraging. In the days before they had digital video equipment, the school would routinely reuse and record over existing tapes instead of buying new stock. Everything pointed to the Air Jam tape being one of many victims of this recycling program.
This was it. The end of the road. There was no one left to talk to, no lead left to follow, and there were no tapes left to digitize. I was a few hundred bucks poorer and no closer to that Holy Grail footage. There was no reason left to believe it still existed. I had to accept that maybe I just wasn’t meant to ever see it again. Maybe all my efforts had been for nothing.
A few weeks ago I got a message from Amanda. She told me some things that did a lot to explain her apparent standoffishness over the years (I always assumed she never liked me; turns out it had nothing to do with me). She also told me she found three more tapes while going through some things in her basement. She didn’t know what was on them, and she thought it was mostly personal stuff, but she figured it was worth sharing them with me just in case.
I brought those tapes to Unique Video Systems and got my MP4 files. I went through them at home. The first tape had footage from Amanda’s trip to visit a post-high school boyfriend in 2002. The second tape was full of video messages she made for that same boyfriend and some bits of her hanging out with a few friends. I took a look at what was on the third tape and braced myself for more disappointment.
I saw some chunks of what looked like high school performances. I jumped to a random place in the video and landed on an image of myself seated at a digital piano, wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans, and I knew at once what this was.
The 2000 Air Jam. The Holy Grail.
This is what I’ve been chasing for my entire adult life. There was no reason to believe I would ever find it. Now I have it on my hard drive. The absurdity of it all is still sinking in.
I’d chalk that up to the best $61 I’ve ever spent.
Some backstory might help explain why this footage means so much to me, and why unearthing it feels a bit like winning the lottery.
Gord and I tried out for the Air Jam for the first time when we were in grade ten. The “brain” of my very tiny home studio was a Roland VS-880 digital mixer/hard disk recorder. I didn’t have a CD burner that was compatible with the mixer. We recorded a few passes at John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and I dubbed the best takes onto a cassette tape. A friend’s sister was part of the group of students organizing the show. I gave the tape to him to give to her.
We didn’t get in.
Later that same school year, a few other students announced they were putting together something they called an Arts Night. It was really just an after-hours Air Jam. Gord and I auditioned in the music room. We did a rowdy version of “Sweet Jane” (the original Velvet Underground arrangement, not the Cowboy Junkies remake) and I did John Cale’s “Paris 1919” alone at the upright piano.
In those days I had this idea that playing cover songs was a better bet than playing my own material live. I’m not sure why. At least I had good taste in covers (I think). Before settling on those two songs, the Talking Heads track “Drugs” was another consideration.
We passed the audition with flying colours, but the students in charge didn’t feel like putting in the necessary work to make the show happen (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). It died before it even got off the ground.
In grade eleven, Christian Masotti was one of the head organizers of the Air Jam. We were good friends. We respected each other as musicians. This time I knew I would make the cut. Auditioning would be little more than a formality.
My idea was to flesh Papa Ghostface out with another member or two. I had some classes with a guy named Isaac Osmer. I got the chance to jam with him a little when I played another John Cale song in the music room one day before the morning bell. Mr. Ross kicked me out before the song could really get going, but Isaac seemed like a solid drummer and a nice person. When I suggested we do something together sometime, he said he was into it.
Then Christian and my pal Jesse almost sabotaged the whole thing.
Jesse wanted to put a band of his own together for the Air Jam. He wanted Adam Cohen on drums, Max Marshall on lead guitar, and me on bass. He had a song about a young boy losing his mind called “Something in the Attic”. After recording a whole slew of songs with Jesse that didn’t stray far from acoustic love song territory, I was kind of looking forward to being his bassist and rocking out a little on something dark and moody.
Jesse wanted more time to prepare. He had friends on Agora — Walkerville’s student council, named for the public square built in Athens in 500 BC. He pulled some strings and convinced Christian and the other Air Jam organizers to put on two shows instead of one. He claimed he needed the extra time to study and get some of his grades up.
No one believed that story for a second, but he got what he wanted.
Two shows didn’t sound like such a bad idea at first. Christian told me the plan was to have the first show at the end of March. The focus would be on solo performers — students strumming acoustic guitars and wailing cover songs, Faith Hill clones singing to pre-recorded country music on cassette tape, and the like. Two months down the road, the second show would be for full bands and performers who wrote original material. This way everyone would have a chance to shine.
With that kind of structure, it seemed to me the first show would be boring beyond belief and all the good stuff would land in the second one. I told Christian I was putting a band together and had no problem pulling double duty in the second show, backing Jesse up in his band before stepping into the spotlight with mine. Even if we didn’t get anyone aside from Isaac to play with us, Gord could move over to bass and I could play guitar or keyboard. I thought a drummer would give our music a whole new punch.
When the lineups for both shows were posted on the bulletin board in the hall, I did a mental double-take. It wasn’t at all what Christian told me to expect. Neither show had any real theme or focus. Bands, karaoke singers, and solo acoustic performers were thrown together with no apparent thought given to who went where.
Jesse was in the second show. I got bumped to the first one against my will. I didn’t have Jesse’s connections. There were no strings for me to pull. And it was March already, so there would be no time to get tight with Isaac now.
Hot on the heels of that foul-smelling revelation, I learned I wasn’t going to be playing bass with Jesse anymore. Max never showed up for rehearsals. Instead of moving forward with a three-piece band, Jesse decided he would go it alone with an acoustic guitar.
My first impulse was to drop out of the Air Jam as an act of protest. Between Jesse’s machinations and Christian’s shitty organizational skills, I felt like I’d been painted into a corner for no good reason. Then I got a better idea. I would repurpose my frustration and blow it out of my system during our performance. Maybe it would just be the two of us on the stage, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t pull out all the stops.
“Fuck ‘em,” I said to Gord. “If they’re going to screw up our plans, we’ll give them something to remember us by.”
The song we chose to perform was “Pacing the Cage”. It was the first song Gord and I ever wrote together. We ran through it once and knew we wouldn’t have to run through it again. It was in our blood.
There was one mini-rehearsal at school. Everyone played truncated versions of the songs they were going to play at the show. They cut us off halfway through “Pacing the Cage”, just as I was starting to ramp up my voice.
The day of the first Air Jam show, Gord and I slipped into the auditorium after lunch to see how things were going. There was only one mic stand on the stage. I asked Christian if they had any more. He said no. That wasn’t going to work with Gord playing acoustic guitar and me singing at the same time, and I was pretty sure there were other performers who would need more than one mic stand. I walked home and grabbed a few SM57s and mic stands of my own to lend to the cause. It was one of the many times living a two-minute walk away from school came in handy. I also grabbed my acoustic guitar, my harmonica, and my harmonica holder, though I had no idea what I might need them for.
There was no keyboard on the stage. Christian told me I would probably be able to borrow one from one of the music classes. A few teachers turned me away before someone told me I could use one of the two keyboards collecting dust in the back of their classroom. Jesse saw me and wished me luck in the show. Then he asked me what I was doing in his class. I told him I needed a digital piano for my performance.
“One of those is no good,” he said. “It’s got sticky keys.”
I thought I’d try them both. Neither keyboard had any internal speakers, so Jesse grabbed one, I grabbed the other, and we carried them to the auditorium along with a keyboard stand.
The one with sticky keys wouldn’t make a sound. The other one worked, but it only had sixty-one keys. It felt like a toy. The piano sound was thin and one-dimensional.
I tried to set it at a good volume so I wouldn’t have to mess with it later. Jesse climbed up on the stage, sat down at a drum kit that was set up behind me, and started playing. He noticed my harmonica.
“Can you play that thing?”
“Sort of,” I said. “I just play chords on it most of the time.”
“Play something, man!”
I blew a few chords into a microphone. Jesse laughed. “Is that all you can play?”
“It makes more sense when I’m playing the guitar or the piano at the same time.”
“Is it just you and Gord playing?” he asked me.
“Yeah, just the two of us. We were gonna get a drummer to play with us, but we were moved from the second show to the first. That threw things off a little.”
“I could have played drums for you. Why didn’t you ask me?”
“I never even thought to ask.”
“What’s your song like?”
I played a bit of “Pacing the Cage” for him. He hammered out a steady 4/4 rhythm. It was all wrong for the song. I tried to explain how I needed something more along the lines of a polyrhythmic funk beat, where the snare didn’t fall on the two and the four. He asked me to give him an example. I took his place behind the drums for a minute and showed him what I meant.
I moved back over to the keyboard. Jesse started playing the same 4/4 beat again.
“The song’s okay without drums,” I said. “It’s way too late to figure it out now anyway, and it wouldn’t sound right without bass. But thanks for the offer.”
When it was time for the show to start, I met up with Gord in a hallway that led to the stage wings. It dawned on me that I left my leather jacket on one of the chairs in the front row of the auditorium. I waited until Cerah Steele’s band finished their three-song set and made my move during the brief lull between acts.
Then this happened.
I’m almost positive that’s Matt Strukelj screaming, “John West!”
What you don’t see, because the camera didn’t catch it, is me approaching a guy who was sitting on my jacket and asking him if he could stand up for a second so I could grab it. He didn’t move. I asked him again. He looked at me like he didn’t know what words were. The people around him had to liberate it from beneath his uncomprehending body.
Back out in the hall, Christian was trying to get a handle on the chaos swirling around him. No one knew when they were going to get their turn to perform. A tentative list was taped to the door, but it was incomplete and subject to revision. First we were supposed to be the third-last act. Then we got pushed to second-last. We would have been dead last, but Steve Mitchell was slated to close the show.
All along we were told to prepare one song. Now Christian was telling me we might have five minutes, and we might have ten. He couldn’t offer a definitive answer one way or another.
“Pacing the Cage” was good for four or five minutes. There was no way to stretch it out to ten. Gord and I took our acoustic guitars to the outside of the front entrance of the auditorium where things were quieter, tuned up, and tried to figure something out. We had four full-length Papa Ghostface albums to draw from by now, plus the in-progress SHOEBOX PARADISE, but a lot of our songs were improvisations that were never revisited after we recorded them, and nothing jumped out at me as being appropriate for a school performance. What could we pull off with no time to practice?
We could do “Fatties”. That would be a hit with all the pot-smokers. But the vicious impressions of a few well-known teachers wouldn’t go over so well, nor would the sex talk. We’d be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
There was “Ballad of Bob and Marie”. It was simple enough. Just a few chords. I wasn’t sure how many students would appreciate a song that was little more than a vehicle for my Bob Dylan impression, but I thought I remembered most of the words from the initial improvisation.
We recorded this song for the double-CD HORSEMOUTH (AND OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) on August 17, 1999. It was the day after my sixteenth birthday, and twenty years to the day before the doomed Mackenzie Hall show was supposed to happen. We started out with a little live instrumental improv. I got a drum loop going on the Yamaha W-5, ran it through a distortion effect built into the synth, and played synth bass with my left hand and an atmospheric synth pad with my right. Gord made barking dog sounds with his electric guitar and a wah pedal. He brought over an old harmonica he had in the key of C, so I strapped it on and blew into it a little.
My grandfather was supposed to call me to wish me a happy belated birthday. I kept thinking I heard the phone ringing, so we would stop recording mid-improv only for me to discover it was the sound of the harmonica’s wheeze tricking my ears. After the third or fourth fake-out he really did call. Once our conversation was over, I thought it would be fun to treat the little instrumental jam as an intro and cut straight to a song that had nothing to do with it. I swapped out Gord’s harmonica for my own and did my best shouty young Bob Dylan impression. After we got down a live performance with me on acoustic guitar and Gord on electric, I overdubbed some shaker and shouted some distant backup vocals. Gord overdubbed acoustic bass.
I remixed this song about a week ago, just before I got sick. It had some serious issues, and if I was going to post it here I wanted it to sound as good as possible. Twenty years ago I knew almost nothing about mic placement, and I knew less than nothing about things like EQ and compression. I would stick an SM57 in front of anything with strings and hope for the best. No surprise then that the acoustic guitar and acoustic bass tracks were muddier than mud, and my vocal track got pretty out of control during some of the more forceful passages with nothing to tame it.
It’s pretty amazing what you can do with a VS-1680 to fix up a mediocre recording. “Ballad of Bob and Marie” was recorded on a VS-880-EX before I upgraded to the sixteen-track machine, so I had to import it into the 1680. Everything past that was smooth sailing. I was able to carve out all the low end mud with EQ. Some limiting got the acoustic guitar and bass sounding pretty crisp and controlled. A little EQ and compression on the vocal and it was sitting right in the pocket.
Everything was done “in the box”, and I left all the original effects intact. The chorus and delay on the lead vocal felt essential. I didn’t want to do anything to alter the spirit or soul of the song. I just wanted to undo some old mistakes.
I can hardly believe how good I was able to make the acoustic guitar sound. It was a crappy instrument to begin with, even before my half-assed recording job. But the real shocker for me is the electric guitar. That’s not a real amp you’re hearing, and this was before the Digitech guitar effects box came into the picture. I plugged Gord’s B.C. Rich Virgin straight into the mixer and used one of the 1680’s built-in guitar amp modelling effects called “Vin.Tweed” (it’s supposed to emulate an overdriven 1950s tube amp). Everyone will tell you Roland’s speaker-modelling technology is beyond outdated now, but to me it sounds a lot more realistic than anything I ever got out of a POD.
I wish I’d thought to start backing up whole albums earlier in the game. I could give some of the early solo and Papa Ghostface CDs a whole new lease on life with just a little tasteful remixing. I did at least back up a few other songs from HORSEMOUTH. Though some of them are things I considered borderline filler at the time, it might be fun to revisit them and see if I can clean them up in a similar way.
I digress. We decided “Ballad of Bob and Marie” would be our second song if we needed one. Just in time, too, because few minutes later Christian told me we were up next. We walked through the wings. Christian asked if we had enough material for ten minutes. I told him we did. We made our way onto the stage. I laid my guitar on the floor and sat down at the crummy keyboard I was stuck with. Gord sat down beside me. Christian helped us both set up our microphones. After making sure my vocal mic was working, I went off.
“All right!” I screamed. The audience screamed back. I felt like a psychotic low-rent preacher.
“I’d like to tell you something before we start,” I said. “Originally we wanted to put a band together, but because of time constraints and being shifted around and shifted around, we weren’t able to do so. That makes me angry! But maybe I’m not the only person in here who’s angry right now. Maybe some of you are angry. Maybe your boyfriend left you. Maybe your girlfriend left you. Maybe things aren’t going too well for you in general, ’cause ain’t life stink? And so, I want you to scream when I tell you to let it out at the end of this song. All right?”
We launched into a version of “Pacing the Cage” that made the original recording sound like a lullaby. I slipped into the skin of the character narrating the song — an unrepentant killer who murders his unfaithful wife and her lover, relating the tale from prison not with pride or remorse, but with the belief that he was hardwired from birth to do something horrible and in committing these crimes he found his true purpose in life. My hands were shaking. Every time I hit a bad note, I mashed the keys and went out of my way to hit every bad note I could. I twisted my voice into a guttural groan when I wasn’t screaming, pounding on the keyboard I hated until I was punching it more than I was playing it. In the absence of a music stand I balanced my lyric sheet on top of the keyboard. All the turbulence sent it flying to the floor.
When the lyrics ran out I addressed the audience again. “LET IT OUT!” I screamed, and a sea of voices screamed back at me. The song dissolved into dissonance and everyone went nuts. We got a standing ovation.
The Bob Dylan piss-take was a little anticlimactic after that, but I felt invincible even with my voice half-shot from the vocal cord brutality of the first song. If anything, the diminished vocal range probably helped my Dylan impression. I lost my pick inside the sound hole of my guitar mid-song and kept going, improvising new lyrics when the adrenaline wiped my brain clean. We got another standing ovation (well, half of one this time) and left the stage to thunderous applause.
Jesse appeared in the wings with a look of bewilderment on his face.
“THAT WAS FUCKING AMAZING!” he shouted at me, giving me a bear hug, my harmonica holder coming between our chests. “I love the way you play guitar! I love it!”
This was almost as shocking as the audience’s response to our performance, coming from someone who just a few months earlier was belittling my “fucking lap guitar” playing as if it was the lowest form of musical expression. For all of our musical differences and the tug-of-war we waged as collaborators (with Jesse trying to get me to write more conventional songs like him, and me trying to get him to let go and get a little weird), it felt like he finally got what I was doing and I managed to bring him over to the dark side, even if it was only for an afternoon.
“I gotta go,” Jesse said. “I just wanted to come back here and see you guys. Fuckin’ amazing.”
Then he was gone, and I was left with a buzz that wouldn’t go away. The afterglow seemed to extend throughout the entire school. Even Steve Mitchell got on board. He closed the show with Steph Sarafianos backing him up on guitar for a version of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” that was rewritten as “Blue-Eyed Girl” in Steph’s honour.
The first thing he said when he got onstage was, “How about that John West?” and everyone went crazy all over again.
The rest of that day is a bit of a blur to me now. I remember jumping up and down like a manic kangaroo in the hallway with Max and Paul Clairmont (at least I think it was them), feeling a natural high I didn’t know what to do with. I remember walking back to my house with Gord and talking for a minute to Amber Hughes, who was sitting cross-legged on the grass. I remember Gord saying, “She digs you, man.” I don’t think she did. She was just friendly.
That’s about it. The rest is gone, including the weekend that followed.
I wasn’t unpopular before that performance, but it seemed to catapult me once and for all into the realm of “those who are considered cool”. The thing that strikes me now is what an out-there performance it was. There’s no guarantee an audience is going to stick with you when you do something that confrontational and unconventional. It wasn’t even a great musical display from a technical standpoint. It was more about the energy. And to the great credit of that group of students, they were with me every step of the way. I could feel it. Maybe I tapped into some universal angst pretty much everyone feels at that age. I don’t know.
Even some of the teachers got into it. On the Monday after the show, Mr. Zawadski — my math teacher in grades nine and ten — pulled me aside on my way to society class and said, “I have to tell you, John, I really enjoyed your performance. There’s a market for that, you know. It’s avant-garde!”
Along with the grade eight talent show, it was one of the formative musical events of my life. To play your own material live, to do nothing to compromise it or make it more palatable for an audience, and to have a bunch of teenagers — in some ways the most difficult age group to impress — respond like that…there’s nothing quite like it.
I see now that everything going wrong was a blessing in disguise. If things had gone my way and we’d been able to put a larger band together, I’m sure we would have given a good performance. But it probably wouldn’t have turned into interactive musical theatre. It took a perfect storm of inconveniences and injustices to get me pissed off enough to take command of the room the way I did. People still remember that Air Jam performance to this day, which is insane to me.
The second Air Jam show in May was a complete disaster. Half the scheduled performers skipped out on the event, forcing the few who did show up to stretch themselves pretty thin as the emcees improvised lame banter to fill up time. It made the March show look like the best-organized event in the universe. The audience got bored, with a lot of students shuffling out of the auditorium while the show was still going on. Best of all, Jesse — the guy who pressured the organizers into putting on a second show in the first place — didn’t even show up.
I was able to put a full band together for the 2001 Air Jam. But that’s another story for another time.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “If you can see the value of turning adversity to your advantage in a situation like that, why didn’t you do the same thing with the Mackenzie Hall show?”
I’m not the same person I was in March of 2000. I watch that footage now and the raw energy on the screen almost scares me. I had a lot of anger taking up space inside of me, most of which stemmed from hearing what a piece of shit I was all the time from certain family members who have been dead to me for a number of years now. I used it as creative fuel on a regular basis. And I was fearless on a stage. You could have chopped off one of my fingers and I would have kept on going and incorporated it into the performance.
I don’t have that wellspring of boundless energy anymore. I also feel like I’ve been fighting against one form of bullshit or another in this city’s music scene ever since I got out of high school, from complete indifference, to being treated as a novelty, to being misrepresented, misunderstood, and lied about by talentless coattail-riding douchebags with agendas.
Even this album I’ve been working on forever has had its share of setbacks. Sure, it’s been a grand adventure. It’s also been another thing: a profound test of my patience, my resilience, and my ability to absorb one rejection after another. You know how many people in this city ignored me, blew me off, flaked out on me, or stood me up on my way to getting almost thirty singers/musicians and a dozen visual artists to contribute to the album?
Many of those eighty-two people claim to have an immense amount of respect for me and what I do. And that’s just Windsor people. I tried to bend my own self-imposed rule and involve some talented folks from Detroit and other not-so-far-flung places, with disastrous results.
For every singer I got to show up and sing on something, another ten either never acknowledged me or made a commitment to work with me only to come up with some bogus excuse to use as a last-minute escape clause. My favourite, though it’s hard to choose, is probably the singer who spent more than half a year sitting with a song and telling me it was right in her wheelhouse, only to claim she forgot her own vocal range the day we were supposed to record. It takes a special kind of idiot to come up with a story like that. It must have taken me twenty horn players to find two or three who would talk to me. And I lost count of how many visual artists said they were enthusiastic about contributing to the lyric booklet and then never spoke to me again no matter how many times I tried to follow up with them.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that for all the guests appearing on the album, more than half the songs still feature me doing everything on my own. If I’d been crazy enough to put an actual band together to play on every song, there wouldn’t be an album. You can’t work with people who won’t show up.
I’m proud of the songs I’ve written and the performances I’ve been able to get out of a colourful cast of characters. It might end up being one of my best albums when all is played and sung. And I won’t ever do anything like it again. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to banging out a guest-free album inside of a few months, the way I used to do it, once this thing is out of the way.
Really, it comes down to a very simple thing — I’m tired. Tired of fighting an uphill battle against a music community that, for the most part, never wanted me around in the first place. Tired of eating shit. Tired of a lifetime of rejection from people who are too apathetic or self-important to have a conversation with someone who isn’t already a part of their selective inner circle.
I want to make music and live my life. That’s it. I don’t have any energy left for the other garbage.
I hope cancelling the show sends a message to the musicians who forced my hand. I take this stuff seriously. I always have. I always will. If you can’t come to the table with at least some degree of reverence, you have no business pulling up a chair.
Since moving into this house a little less than twelve years ago, a former bedroom has served as my stock room. It’s where I keep CD booklets and inserts, mailing supplies, spare copies of albums, and other such things.
Over the years it’s gone through a number of transformations, alternating between “more or less uncluttered” and “total chaos”. It’s probably been nine years since I last sat down and organized things in any sensible way. I’ve just been throwing more and more stuff in there, hoping it wouldn’t get too unruly.
My hope was in vain. For a while now it’s been almost impossible to take more than two steps into that room without tripping over something. It was time for a change.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
The picture at the top of this post is from somewhere around the halfway point of the room being gutted and reorganized — something I did with a whole lot of help from the indispensable Johnny Smith. I’m a little sad I wasn’t crafty enough to grab a shot of what it looked like in there before we got started. Words can’t do justice to what a horrifying mess it was.
I’ve never been any good at throwing things out. I’m a bit of an emotional packrat. I attach nostalgic value to items that should be chucked in the trash without a second thought or invent some impossible scenario in which they might prove useful at some later date. It’s not so bad that you’ll ever see me show up on a reality show about hoarding, but we filled at least four large garbage bags with stuff that served no purpose and liberated no less than half a dozen boxes full of similarly useless stuff.
There were some fun surprises along the way. I dug up a stash of random blank CDs I didn’t know I had. I found extra inserts for some albums I thought I was running low on. And there’s this thing — a homemade album display case I made for my own amusement.
One decision transformed the whole room. I’ve always used this beautiful antique coffee table to keep all my copied and printed CDs together. It found its way into the stock room because we didn’t know where else to put it. Now it felt almost criminal to keep something so unique covered up like this…and there just happened to be a huge shelf taking up space in the basement, doing nothing, feeling unloved.
Out went the table, in came the shelf, a bamboo vase I’ve always loved but never known what to do with found a home at last, I cleared everything off of the desk and the shelf that holds album artwork so I could dust and tidy things up, and what we’re left with now is a series of images that tell a tale of redemption and grape soda.
It’s a much more functional room now in every way. You can walk around in there! You can even see the cheap double-neck acoustic guitar I bought when I was working on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY and have never used. I’m still waiting for a call from Robert Plant, as you might have guessed.
It’s a little awkward trying to wrap your head around the realization that something you’ve made isn’t as good as you thought it was when you were making it.
I’ve done my best to avoid this very personal kind of disappointment over the years. As slapdash as some of my albums may sound on the surface, for a long time now a lot of thought has gone into determining what shape each collection of songs wants to take. I don’t put something out there unless I believe in it and feel it’s an honest representation of where my head and heart are at in that moment.
I think as long as you work this way it’s difficult to be embarrassed by what you’ve done. My ambition has never been to make a Masterwork That Stands the Test of Time, but rather to document the entirety of my musical life, warts, growing pains, nose hair and all. While it might not all be top-shelf material when we look back at the whole discography in 2079 as I’m wheezing my last digital breaths here, at least I can say I always gave it everything I had and never compromised my artistic vision, even when that vision was murky.
By and large, I’m proud of the work I’ve done up to this point. But every once in a while I’ve found my feelings for an album souring once the honeymoon period wears off.
(The internet tells me a traditional honeymoon period lasts between six months and a year. For me it’s more like two weeks.)
As much fun as it was to make the second Papa Ghostface album, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it rambled a little too much over its two-and-a-half-hour running time. There was no focus. The first disc was pretty strong, and then everything degenerated into a massive improvised free-for-all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about massive improvised free-for-alls. But I started thinking PG album number three might benefit from a more considered approach. I wrote a bunch of lyrics — most of them while pretending to pay attention in grade eleven math class — grabbed what I thought were the eight strongest selections (leaving space for two improvised instrumentals), and declared, “This will be our next album.”
My thinking went something like this: Given how well Gord and I play off of each other and how often our improvisations seem to produce good moments, if I’ve already got the lyrics sorted out before we start recording and I don’t have to make all the words up as I go, I’ll be able to channel all my energy into the music. That’s going to make everything better. When it’s all been played and sung, we’ll have made a great album.
For at least the first week or two after SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was finished, I thought we did have something brilliant on our hands. I even went to the trouble of making more than two copies of the CD, which was unheard of at the time. I gave one to a classmate I wanted to impress, one to my drama teacher, and another to my piano teacher. I wanted everyone to hear this stuff. It felt like some of the best work I’d ever done.
Once the initial excitement wore off and something closer to objectivity set in, it hit me that the album was no masterpiece. It was a mess. The weirdness that had been such an integral part of our music from day one was barely there. I came off less like the live wire I was used being on record and more like an impotent firecracker with a faulty fuse. Trying to force the improvised music to fit the shape of the written lyrics led to songs that sounded unsure of their identity. Aside from “Compassion to Deceive” — a rare example of music and lyrics merging as if they’d been born wrapped up in each other’s arms — the songs were just sort of there, not daring to do anything very interesting. Worse, almost none of the lyrics I wrote were about anything. There was some fun wordplay, but it didn’t add up to much.
It didn’t help that the sound quality was pretty awful throughout, with some serious clipping whenever I came close to screaming and a lot of mud in the low end. I had no outboard mic preamps, no outboard anything aside from a guitar effects processor, and though my mixer offered built-in EQ and compression that could have helped the cause, I had no idea how to use those tools. I thought I would screw things up even worse if I messed around with them, so I didn’t try. The results weren’t pretty.
Aside from OH YOU THIS, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such a quick turnaround from thinking an album was great to deciding it was a total piece of crap.
I was determined to make up for my error in judgment with the next Papa Ghostface album. I kept writing lyrics in class — I couldn’t stop doing that if I tried — but allowed the words to grow much more depraved. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep at the time. Some of that was my fault for embracing my night owl tendencies. My almost-stepsister’s bedroom was right next to mine, and she had a habit of watching TV late at night with the sound turned up past any sane level. She wasn’t a big fan of closing her door. That was another factor.
There came a day when all the sleep-deprivation caught up with me. I staggered home a little after 2:00 in the afternoon — I had a fourth period spare that semester — and fell into bed. It wasn’t unusual for me to nap for an hour after school to give myself an extra shot of energy. This time I was so exhausted I woke up in the dark five hours later. I got up, ate some chicken stir-fry, listened to a bit of music, and went to bed around 11:00. I had no trouble getting back to sleep. By the time I got up to eat breakfast I was operating on no less than thirteen hours of sleep, when I was used to getting less than a third of that.
I felt an almost disturbing sense of mental clarity all day. Every part of my body felt like it had been replaced with an upgraded version of itself. I was Super Johnny the Full-of-Energy Man.
It was a fluke. I didn’t get another sleep like that on a weeknight for the rest of my high school existence. The very next day I was back to alternating between being tired all the time and oversleeping on the weekends to balance things out. But I saw an opportunity to use the mental fatigue to my advantage. When I was tired enough, my brain got to a place where all the usual inhibitions sloughed off and anything at all might come out of my mouth (or pen). It made for some interesting lyric-writing sessions.
The first thing I wrote with the fourth Papa Ghostface album in mind was something called “19 to Go”. We tried recording it. I’ve got a dub of a rough mix on a cassette tape somewhere. It isn’t worth digging up. I made the mistake again of marrying written words to improvised music that wasn’t given enough time or space to figure out what it wanted to be.
The lyrics didn’t go anywhere interesting anyway. “Your nudity inspires me to reach heights that were previously unattainable,” went the first line. I went on to list all the other positive and negative things this imaginary person’s naked form inspired me to do, from “[standing] tall in the face of all things malignant” to destroying valuable antiques.
Not some of my best work.
Separate from that failure of a song, I had some music in my head I couldn’t seem to find the right words for. I heard this dark, swirling soundscape, inspired in part by the Pulp song “This Is Hardcore”.
How was I supposed to build anything even half that dense and compelling with only six tracks to work with on my eight-track mixer? I had no idea. After one abandoned attempt at writing lyrics that matched the imagined musical mood, I wrote in my spiral notebook:
I was trying to write something dark to accompany the stark musical landscape within my mind but found myself to be an utter failure. I know there is darkness left inside of me! There has to be!
There was. I only needed to wait another twelve hours to find it.
The next morning in math class I wrote a set of lyrics about a guy who catches his wife cheating on him with a horse. The horse turns out to be both kinky and immortal — repeated gunshots kill him, but he rises again after each apparent death. The desperate cuckold sleeps with the horse’s wife to get back at him. She indulges his foot fetish but otherwise isn’t the most sympathetic partner. His wife returns and tries to make amends with an offering of cornbread pancakes. When the dude scarfs them all down like a thoughtless pig, she grabs his gun and he makes a run for it. There’s at least a happy ending when he finds someone who accepts him for who he is, human-sized genitalia and all.
(What the hell went on in my sixteen-year-old brain? I couldn’t tell you. Writing accessible pop music clearly wasn’t on my radar.)
I started laughing at the ridiculousness of the lyrics and the crude illustrations I added. Kevin Heffernan — not the actor, but a guy who sat in front of me in math class — turned around and said, “Did you smoke up before class, John?”
“No,” I said, giggling. “I’m just tired.”
Kevin wasn’t buying it. “He’s ripped,” he said to a friend sitting next to him.
I was stuck for a title. Now I wrote Rippin’ at the top of my two-page saga. Thanks, Kev.
I envisioned it as a jaunty country song in a major key. Though it was never recorded in that form, I remember how it was supposed to go. Here’s a brand new GarageBand demo to give you an idea.
Gord came over to record again a few days later. I threw out the country song business and made up my mind to build an approximation of the ominous sound world I’d been carrying around in my head for a few days straight.
When you don’t have a lot of tracks to work with, you learn how to create the illusion of layers through a bit of trickery. I made a drum loop on the Yamaha W-5 synth and messed around with built-in distortion and reverb effects until each snare hit sounded like it was ricocheting off of itself. Making use of the synthesizer’s sixteen-track sequencer — something I almost never thought to do — I played some fifths in time with the drum beat on a second track, using a synth cello patch, and made that a part of the loop. Then I set it up to record on a single mono track on the mixer.
I started the loop without the string part, faded it in, decided it was too loud, and pulled it back a little to where it felt just about right. I grabbed those twisted lyrics I wrote with a country song in my head and stood them up on my music stand, playing my hunk of junk Vantage acoustic guitar and singing while Gord played his white B.C. Rich Virgin. I had only one amp at the time and was years away from recognizing how useful it was, so Gord played straight into the Digitech GSP-21 effects processor, using the foot controller to switch between clean and distorted tones.
When it felt like the song had pretty much run its course, Gord encouraged me off-mic to get into some primal screaming. I didn’t have it in me, and it didn’t feel right for the song. It was starting to occur to me that there were other ways of conveying madness through sound. As a way of getting my point across without verbalizing it, I pressed the microphone grill against the strings of my guitar and used it as a slide, making harsh, atonal sounds. After a bit of that, I put the guitar down, walked over to the W-5, and faded the drums out of the loop, playing some synth string improv on top of the looped fifths.
We overdubbed a few splashes of Arp Omni-2, both of us playing at the same time. I was trying to play things that made some melodic sense. Gord was hitting random notes. It made for some fun dissonance. I messed with the resonance and VCF to give it a little extra character.
“You want to add some bass?” I asked Gord.
“You should play bass, man,” he said.
I did that, alternating between holding down the low end and playing improvised melodies and runs higher up on the neck. Gord contributed a little audio postscript of his own with a bottle of blue Powerade he was drinking, using his mouth and the liquid in it to make some strange, guttural sounds.
The next day I added a few bits of vocal harmony to some unused portions of the Arp Omni-2 track and mixed the song to the best of my ability. I had some fun with the intro, swamping the drum loop in reverb for a second and then taking it away, adding a rotary speaker effect to the loop for a bit, then adding it to Gord’s guitar for a few bars, and much later in the song using it to process my voice.
Just six tracks, and there was the most sonically ambitious thing I’d ever done. For some reason it never seemed to drag over its thirteen-and-a-half minutes the way some of our other extended pieces did. It wasn’t identical to the half-formed musical idea that wouldn’t leave my brain alone, but it was close enough, and maybe a little better.
Of the nine songs that would end up on the album, six feature words that were written beforehand. Only two of those six songs aren’t warped by additional improvised lyrics and music that’s unafraid to flirt with chaos. “She’s Awfully Lovely” ends with an unrehearsed hook topped off with distorted screams, and then there’s a little a cappella addendum that has nothing at all to do with anything that came before. “Piss on Me” sheds its established structure like an exoskeleton around the halfway point for a long post-bridge section that’s all improv. “The Happy Dentist” begins with a spontaneous Neil Young piss-take and ends with several minutes of uncompromising sonic mayhem. “Spandex” is a self-immolating piñata that keeps beating itself until interesting surprises start to leak from its broken skin.
Instead of forcing the music to do the lyrics’ bidding, the written words were treated as a rough guide and nothing more.
“She’s Awfully Lovely” was the first thing we recorded at our next session a week later. The title came from Gord. He suggested Awfully Lovely as an album title. I liked it but wasn’t sure it was right for the material.
I was renting a Les Paul to supplement my cheap Strat copy. It was the first “good” guitar I ever played. It had a sparkle finish. I want to say it was green. It looks green in my memory. I loved that thing. The cloth that lined the hardshell case smelled like heaven.
The Strat copy, which doesn’t appear on the album at all, became a five-string — and stayed that way for a long time — when I broke a string on the Les Paul and didn’t have an extra pack of strings on hand. I recorded a bit of Gord tuning up after making the transfer because I thought it sounded cool. Then he handed the guitar back to me.
This song is probably home to my best guitar-playing on the whole album. There’s even some volume swell stuff in there. It’s nowhere near the atmospheric textures I’m capable of creating today, but it works. I don’t think I’d ever tried doing that before. I was growing in confidence, unrefined as my playing was.
The lyrics are about a “fake aunt” (my stepfather’s sister) and her impending motherhood. She always said she never wanted children. Now she was married and pregnant, and I was convinced her impending bundle of joy was in for a rough ride. She was a horrible, emotionally abusive person, and that’s the kindest thing I can think of to say about her.
Hey, hey, she’s pregnant.
What’s she gonna do to that kid? Is she gonna torture him? Is she gonna make him feel inadequate? Is she gonna raise him up — raise him up to the sky? Is she gonna fill his head with all of her lies?
Pretty serious personal business there. Not the sort of thing I was used to singing about. Of course, I married those lyrics to some chunky power chords and got Gord to scream with me into a mic that was plugged into the Digitech guitar box, just to throw a wrench in the works. Then we tacked on the improvised singalong about someone with magical breasts.
“Spandex” was recorded next. I must have mixed it out of sequence, because it shows up before “She’s Awfully Lovely” on the album. Or I might have decided the album would work better if I flipped the order of those two songs. I can’t remember what happened there. It’s unusual either way, because these were the days of dumping songs on CD in the order they were recorded and giving no thought to the ebb and flow of things.
When Gord and I first met up outside of school in 1998, it was to work on writing a song for a grade ten English assignment. He played me a pretty, melancholy piece of music he was messing around with on guitar, I worked out some things to play on piano that complimented what he was doing, and within about three minutes we had our song. All I had to do was write some lyrics the next day and we’d be finished a week ahead of schedule.
Problem was, the lyrics I wrote didn’t suit the music at all. I could find a way to sing them that would work, but the whole thing was going to feel way too maudlin.
When we got together a second time three days later, Gord brought his girlfriend Amanda with him. She sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor of my tiny basement studio as we hammered out some new music much better suited to the defiant nature of my lyrics. The song was called “Pacing the Cage”.
After jamming on pieces of a bunch of classic rock songs and running through our own song a few times, Gord started playing a single-string variation on the main riff that ran through the verses of “Pacing the Cage”. I played along, started singing about Kermit the Frog wearing spandex, and this happened.
I’d kill to have video footage of something like this. At least I had the foresight to record our first jam sessions on cassette tape, using a single RadioShack mic plugged into a Magnasonic boombox from the 1980s (my main method of recording at the time, and an upgrade over the Sony boombox I’d been recording everything on since 1994).
“Pacing the Cage” may be the first thing we created together, but “Spandex”marks the true birth of Papa Ghostface. It was the first time we conjured something out of thin air in a communal act. You can hear the excitement in the room as it starts to dawn on us that we could have the seed of something interesting here.
A little over a year later, that fiery two-minute improvisation was still on my mind. You could call the version we committed to CD a “re-improvisation”. After a partial reconstruction of the original fragment, the song fanned out and became something much more expansive and dramatic. I rifled through different keyboard sounds and effects. Gord strummed my acoustic guitar with such force he managed to overload an SM57 — no mean feat. We both added overdubs: demented harmonies from me, African drums and a distorted mid-song howl from Gord.
Spandex for you. Spandex for me. It felt almost operatic. It was ridiculous, outlandish, fun, and everything that had been missing from SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.
“We’re All Gonna Go” was the only song on the album that set out to do one thing and didn’t stray from the path. For years I thought it was the least interesting track by some distance. Now I view it as a necessary break from the madness that surrounds it.
It’s all about the idea of an afterlife in hell being inevitable — how in spite of our best efforts to fight the good fight, some unseen force is lurking just out of sight, waiting to drag us down to a place where “sometimes, on special occasions, you don’t even perspire”. I didn’t really believe that then, and I don’t believe it now, but I enjoyed flipping the conventional wisdom on its head, imagining hell as a picturesque resort where serene family reunions take place.As opening lines go, “Down where the drunkards collide,” is pretty evocative, I think, though it didn’t stand out to me at the time.
The music I first wrote to accompany the lyrics was nothing like what ended up on the album. It was this sweeping orchestral thing, or as sweeping and orchestral as something played on a keyboard’s synth strings setting could hope to get. I don’t remember if I worked out music for the bridge section. I do at least remember how the verses went.
I’m not sure what inspired me to give those words a different musical backdrop at the last minute. The memory is fuzzy here. I either picked up my acoustic guitar before Gord came over, started playing a few chords that sounded good to me, and thought, “I wonder what ‘We’re All Gonna Go’ would sound like if I sang the words to this,” or it happened when he was present and the evening was winding down.
In any case, it made for a much catchier tune. It became almost uplifting in a warped way, ending with the comforting thought, “All’s well that ends in hell.”
You can hear me saying, “One more and then we’re done,” to an inquisitive Johnny Smith before the music kicks in. It was about time to call it a night. We rehearsed for all of thirty seconds. I tried to show Gord a change I worked out on the fly, but he didn’t really grasp what I was doing. When I called out a chord change in the middle of the recording, he just kept doing what he was doing, oblivious. Some interesting accidental harmonic interplay came out of it.
Here I used a drum pattern built into the Clavinova instead of creating one myself on the W-5, setting it up so the damper and sustain pedals would let me trigger fills and transitions with my feet at the same time I was playing and singing. I added some vocal harmonies the next day and a pair of rudimentary guitar solos, one in each stereo channel. Gord surprised me by telling me he liked them.
Our next session produced another three songs. This time we were alone in the house. I’m not sure where everyone else was.
Before we got started, Gord asked if I wanted to smoke a joint with him. I’d never been high in my life. I said sure.
We ducked into an alley. I felt a little uneasy. I still remember the long-sleeved white shirt I was wearing (hell, I still have that shirt). I had no idea how to inhale the right way. I think Gord assumed I’d done this before. I was too embarrassed to tell him I was a rookie. I did my best to fake it.
I didn’t get high at all. It would be another two years before that would happen for the first time.
Back inside, I did feel…something. Must have been a contact buzz. It was a very low-level thing, almost subliminal, but it was there. We plugged in, put on headphones, and recorded “Piss on Me”. I don’t think I even showed Gord what chords I was playing. He ran through different effects on the Digitech in search of something trippy and blissed out. I cranked up the reverb on my voice for extra dreaminess, ran another Clavinova drum pattern through a bit of a chorus effect on the mixer (an Ace of Base-style Euro reggae beat, of all things), and shook a homemade Mason jar percussion instrument into my vocal mic for a few seconds before getting down to business.
Subtitled “a love song in the key of Sinatra” on my lyric sheet, the song wasn’t really a paean to golden showers. It was more of a celebration of meaninglessness. “What does it matter if we defile one another if nothing matters?” More of a figurative pissing than the literal act of taking a leak. Although, “Piss on me before it starts to rain,” is pretty literal (and sensible).
At the same time, there was room for lines like this:
Rotting fish within the threshold of man.
Bamboo cartilage dropped by five degrees.
If you have any idea what that means, let me know. I still don’t know almost two decades later, and I’m the guy who wrote it.
There’s also one of my favourite nonsense rhymes on the album:
It is only this that grows
through an affidavit’s nose.
We kept going for another six minutes after I ran out of written lyrics. “Tie me at the crossroads with a metal bow,” I sang. “I’ll always be yours when the seedless garden grows.” That became a mantra. Tie me at the crossroads. It felt poignant somehow, and more poetic than “tie me to the train tracks”, even if it made less literal sense. Gord played some inspired guitar throughout, from a few licks that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a death metal song to some beautiful extended lead lines. I let loose with some wild runs on a simulated Wurlitzer electric piano patch on the W-5, and it all came to a head with a speaker-blowing cry of, “So piss on…..MEEEEEEEEE!”
I’ve always been glad I captured Gord asking if we were recording at the very end. One of those neat little slices of life. And I still remember the look on his face. It said, “Please, for the love of God, tell me you got that!”
There’s something joyous about letting a song unfurl like this, with only a torn scrap of some strange map and no certain destination. I was lucky enough to have a lot of those moments with Gord. I might have been the voice and the main creative engine behind the music, but there was a fearlessness in his playing that made him an ideal companion when I was navigating creative dirt roads that might lead anywhere or nowhere. He wasn’t afraid to make a mistake in pursuit of something great.
Another mark against SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was the absence of a spoken word detour. Having at least one spoken word piece show up on each album was a Papa Ghostface tradition from the beginning.
This album features two of them, back to back, almost like an act of penance.
“The Happy Dentist” is pretty self-explanatory. A perverted dentist with a sweet tooth gets a character sketch, and then he gets what’s coming to him. Gord managed to make it sound like he was playing both bass and electric guitar at the same time by sticking a slide on his pinky finger, throwing in creepy little glissandos here and there. I kept accidentally whacking my guitar mic with my own slide and felt like my guitar-playing was the shittiest shit in the universe. I was limited to bits of open chords, single-note runs, and some discordant slide guitar, when I wanted to be able to do some interesting harmonic things and treat the instrument an extension of myself. It was frustrating.
I would get there. It was just going to take a while. But man, I’ll never forget that feeling of wanting to do more than I was capable of in the moment and running face-first into a brick wall. All my limitations on the instrument were thrown into stark relief at once.
Listening now, I have to say my guitar-playing did the job just fine, in spite of my feelings of musical uselessness in the moment. The song didn’t need anything flashy. And I’ve always loved the singalong chorus, with Gord sing-shouting, “The happy dentiiiiiiist!” at the top of his lungs. We did two or three tracks with both of us singing into the same SM58. Just like Springsteen and Little Steven.
This time I used a drum loop already programmed into the W-5. These loops were triggered by pressing a key on the keyboard, but as soon as you removed your finger the loop would stop. You couldn’t lock it into continuous-play mode. The only way I ever found to get around this was by using a sustain pedal to trick the loop into thinking the key was still pressed down. Gord is credited with “foot” in the liner notes for some of our albums from this period because he would always volunteer to take care of that side of things so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.
There was an odd quirk to some of these loops. Using the modulation wheel, you could sometimes uncover another layer of synthesized percussion. A lot of these hidden accents had a habit of slowly going out of tempo. The longer you kept the loop going, the worse it would get. You can hear this happen in real-time on the SHOEBOX PARADISE song “Partners in Crime”.
Halfway through “The Happy Dentist” I did the little modulation wheel trick and found the sub-loop was so unsynchronized with the main loop it threw everything off, destroying all sense of rhythm.
You’ve got two choices when a thing like this happens. You can either kill the song, or you can embrace the chaos.
With Gord’s foot still on the sustain pedal, I hit a number of keys low on the synth to trigger even more arrhythmic loops, creating a giant mess. Then I sat back down with my acoustic guitar, went nuts with the slide, and started singing faux-Japanese gibberish.
This was too far from home for Gord. He went along with it, but in later years he told me he thought it ruined the whole song. He wanted a coup de grâce, and here I was prolonging the suffering. For me it’s always been one of the album’s defining moments. I love how everything falls apart in such an absurd, exaggerated way. It’s a great example of something that never would have been allowed to happen on SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.
For the record, there was no racist intention behind what I sang as all hell broke loose. It was little more than some silliness that came to me in the moment.
Cha chaka chee cha, chicka chee cho. Two dogs fuckin’ in the sand.
To this day I can’t make it to the end without collapsing into a laughing fit. If I do manage to get most of the way through, the part that kills me is, “Suck my dick ’til my ass falls down.”
You gotta have fun, even if it’s not always in great taste. Besides, who on earth could take the idea of someone’s ass falling off at the moment of climax seriously in the first place?
I ended the song by spitting the gum I was chewing into my vocal mic, screaming a deluge of profanity through a kazoo, and dropping the loudest F-bomb of my life.
If you ever wondered who the wildcard was in Papa Ghostface, I guess now you know.
With “Nothing from Nothing”, for the first time I had no written lyrics to work with. The tale of a secret society of damaged people hellbent on self-annihilation almost seemed to construct itself. I made one giant boner of a grammatical error at a climactic moment and went from addressing the Charlie character as an established member of the group to making him sound like more of a novice without seeming to notice — such is the danger of improvising for almost thirteen minutes and trying to keep your story straight — but that didn’t stop it from becoming one the most effective things of its kind in the whole PG catalogue. Gord made the unusual (for him) decision to play a few bit parts, contributing some great moments and giving me something to play off of.
Even the things that didn’t work seemed to work. We were able to incorporate the drum loop’s initial skittishness into the narrative without missing a beat. Gord played some evil-sounding electric guitar, setting the perfect tone, and I managed to hold things down on bass without getting distracted from the scene I was trying to paint. I overdubbed a bit of W-5 electric piano but it felt a little superfluous, so I kept it brief.
I owe a huge creative debt to John Cale and Tom Waits. Those two brilliant madmen taught me it was possible to make compelling “talkies” without being pretentious. I’d listen to “The Jeweller” or “9th & Hennepin” and sit spellbound, hanging on every word, wanting to know how the story was going to end. They were little movies in sound form.
I didn’t have that kind of poetry in me. Not yet. But their work gave me something to aspire to without trying to mimic or recreate what they’d already done.
(The pinnacle of my work in the spoken word department might be a song called “Average Jim” that’ll show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE one of these days. It’s a good one. The one that’s going on the next Papa Ghostface album is no slouch either.)
We couldn’t end the album on such a dark note. We got together one more time and recorded “Fatties”. Jesse, the classmate I wanted to impress (more on him in a bit), was working with me by then — or I should say I was working for him without getting paid anything — and he came over for a bit before Gord did, leaving his acoustic guitar behind. He didn’t feel like lugging it home. I was tasked with bringing it to school for him the next day.
It was serendipitous. Gord picked up Jesse’s acoustic, I reached for my own, and we were recording before we knew what we were doing.
“Fatties” is really two different improvised songs grafted together. The first is about smoking pot in Willistead Park — something I’d never done, but I knew a lot of students who did — and the effects of a month or so without cable TV on a teenage male libido — something I was all too familiar with. Whatever my guitar-related shortcomings were on “The Happy Dentist”, I made up for them here with a nice little slide solo and some walking bass lines, my unresolved chords playing off of Gord’s closed majors and minors. (My guitar is in the right stereo channel. Gord’s in the left.)
Apropos of nothing, my grade ten geography teacher Mr. Kuszowski worms his way in there — as a narc or a pothead, it isn’t made clear. All three of his favourite catchphrases appear, one after the other:
“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
— Said to discourage us from asking him anything about what he was teaching us.
“You got the answer? Shut your mouth.”
— Said when someone raised their hand to answer a question he asked the class.
“You want a week or a month?”
— Said when he was threatening someone with detention.
“What have you,” was a verbal tic my grade nine science teacher would often use to end a sentence. I threw that in there too.
I don’t know why I did that. But the overlapping Mr. Kuszowskis admonishing the listener not to ask stupid questions while a frenetic modulated synth-sitar line is introduced never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
Once that felt like it had gone as far as we could take it, we stopped recording and I got a drum loop going. It was the same one used on “The Happy Dentist”, only a little slower and deeper this time. I introduced a new chord progression in a different key and Gord picked out some lead lines when he wasn’t shadowing what I was doing.
There was a marked change in the lyrics now, with the silly sex talk and drug references forgotten.
Light in the east, in the west, in the south. From the north, to the underground, to my home room, to my hometown.
(I always liked that “home room” / “hometown” bit.)
After the impressionism fades, this section reveals itself to be a wistful look back at a failed relationship. I’d never had a girlfriend and didn’t think I ever would. I wasn’t about to let a thing like that stop me from delving into matters of the heart (and genitals).
I used Gord’s voice in a way I never had before and never would again, feeding him lines, making both of us supporting players to my lead narrator. I got a huge kick out of directing him. There’s nothing quite like this tapestry of our voices in anything else we did together, and it’s somehow fitting that the backdrop is by far the prettiest music on the whole album.
After some fun duelling guitar action, Gord took his foot off the sustain pedal and started strumming a D major chord without warning when I was still playing a C. I switched to playing lead, sang, “That’s all the naked parakeet wrote,” repeated the line in a near-scream, and everything ended with a neat little callback to “Spandex” from Gord.
I didn’t like the way my last almost-screamed line came off, so I replaced most of it by saying, “And that, my friends, is the story of the penis farmer from Brazil.” You can still hear my wailing bleeding into the guitar mics. When I was doing the harmonies and faux-baritone bit (how I got that low back then, I have no idea), Gord added a little overdub right at the beginning of the second section, rubbing a metal slide against a mic that had some heavy distortion on it and singing a falsetto melody before my singing came in. I let out a little shout of affirmation in the background.
As for me swearing at my headphones and telling them to stay on my face after dedicating the song to Priscilla Presley — I was just starting to grow out my hair for the first time, and I liked the way it looked. I was so particular about keeping it in place, I would wear headphones upside down with the headband beneath my chin. It was a short-lived arrangement.
“Fatties” felt like a fine ending, but I still had a tiny bit of space left to work with on the CD. In the days before reliable eighty-minute CDs were available, I liked to squeeze every millisecond I could out of the seventy-four minutes I had to work with. Gord took off for the night, and I recorded the unlisted final song by myself with every track running through the Digitech. I held a mic in front of the bass and smacked it with my fist, overdubbing myself singing about the song I was singing:
This little song — it isn’t very long. There isn’t lots of time left, so I have to make it short.
It went on for a while longer like that. Felt like it lost steam pretty quick. I recorded over what I’d done as soon as that first “verse” ended, beat-boxing and screaming about a grasshopper. I cut that off to play a few seconds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Clavinova, also plugged into the Digitech to give it some extra hair. Then I mashed the keys and found the last few seconds of the beat-boxing section worked well enough as an outro.
The funny thing is I usually had to chop up a hidden track in order to make it fit on a CD, and I almost always ended up losing moments I was fond of. This time I went out of my way to chop the song up, only to discover there was just enough space left to accommodate it.
It’s less than thirty seconds long, and it’s probably my favourite unlisted track I’ve ever committed to a piece of spinning plastic. Its unbridled lunacy feels like the perfect ending to an album full of unhinged moments.
Awfully Lovely didn’t sit right with me as an album title now that I had all the pieces in front of me. I reached for one of my playing-with-words titles and called it YOU’RE A NATION. Seemed appropriate. The “Piss on Me”/urination connection never entered my mind.
The moment it was finished, I knew this album destroyed SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN. I could feel it in my bones. This time my feelings didn’t change after the honeymoon period passed. In a lot of ways it was the first Papa Ghostface album that felt like an album instead of a group of songs sharing the same space.
The sound quality…that was the trouble. I still couldn’t quite get things where I wanted them to be. I tried to get around the clipping issue by riding the fader and bringing down the volume of my singing during some of the more intense passages. There was a little less distortion in places, but there were moments when my voice all but disappeared (“Spandex” is a good example). About halfway through the album I gave up on that altogether and let things go into the red.
Today I know how to ride a fader if I need to, making minute adjustments that don’t call attention to themselves. Nineteen years ago…not so much.
Another thing I didn’t know much about was mic placement. I had two Shure SM57s and an SM58. That was my whole mic cabinet. No condensers. No ribbons. Those SM57s got pretty close to the sound hole of whatever acoustic instrument they were tasked with recording. I could have countered the mud by cutting some lows, but EQ was a foreign concept to me. I lived with the mud. I couldn’t even hear some of the mud — I was still monitoring on that old Magnasonic boombox.
My recordings of the bass guitar were a mixed bag. On some tracks, like “Rippin'” and “We’re All Gonna Go”, it was at least running through the Digitech and somewhat controlled by some built-in compression. On most of the other songs, Gord or I plugged straight into the mixer with no compression. The dynamics were all over the place. For some reason I’ll never understand, I added a low boost effect to my bass on “Nothing from Nothing” and introduced even more mud.
To be fair, I was only a few months removed from starting serious work with this mixer. Digital recording was still brand new to me. I had to figure out everything on the fly, learning through trial and error. And my “monitors” weren’t giving me the most accurate imaging or frequency response. But it wasn’t my finest moment as an engineer.
I made a copy of the album for myself and a copy for Gord. My own CD travelled with me through all my classes the next day, and a few students asked to hear what I was listening to on my DiscMan. There was a lot of giggling whenever “Fatties” was played. One guy who was always a bit of a dick to me was obsessed with the hidden track. That was funny. Nothing crazy happened, though. I didn’t put any effort into spreading the music around. I was years away from even thinking to do that sort of thing, and it would be another month or two before MERRY FUCKIN’ CHRISTMAS became a weird little high school sensation behind my back.
You’d be surprised what kind of legacy an album can have when only about eight people in the known universe have heard it. For instance, YOU’RE A NATION once helped endear Gord to some police officers who might have been looking to make an example out of him.
He was hanging out with Amanda in a city park not long after I gave him his copy of the album on CD when some cops who were canvassing the area saw them, grew suspicious of the two teenagers who looked like they walked straight out of the Woodstock film, and started asking questions.
They found some roaches and a small amount of pot on Gord. He found himself in the back of a police car, scared shitless. He was going to jail for only having enough marijuana in his pocket to roll one joint. He was sixteen.
Amanda was crafty. Gord might have been too terrified to speak, but she was friendly with the cops. She talked to them. She told them her boyfriend was a musician. Told them he was making all this crazy music with his friend. Told them she just happened to have their new album right here in her purse. Did they want to see it?
Those two cops looked at our song titles and my goofy drawings of us showing our asses to the world and thought it was pretty cool. They warmed up to Gord. They let him go with a warning: keep your drugs at home.
Talk about a weird album to save someone’s ass.
Jesse (I told you we’d come back to him) had a more troubled relationship with this music. As soon as he heard SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN he saw an opportunity, and he was on that shit faster than a dog on a shiny new fire hydrant. Today anyone can record an album on their laptop for little or no money. In 1999 things were a little different. Having the ability to record music at home and put it on a CD when you were a teenager…that wasn’t normal.
Halfway through the recording sessions for YOU’RE A NATION, Jesse was over at my house for the first of what would be many recording sessions. I was excited to work with another singer and songwriter my age. Gord was a great musical companion, but he wasn’t a writer. Aside from the odd thing like “Rotten Fruit”, he would never show up and say, “Check out this song I just wrote.”
I saw the potential for a unique creative partnership with Jesse. Not only did he and I both write our own material, but we had different influences and ideas. That could be exciting. We could push each other into uncharted territory by writing together.
My vision of our future was only half right. Jesse saw potential too, but it involved getting free recording time and absorbing my musical ideas to improve his own songs. And that was pretty much what our relationship was all about for the next few years, until he no longer saw any use for me and stopped hanging out with me. I was there to make him sound better and to listen to him spew hot air about how great he was and how lame everyone else was. When I asked him for a little bit of money after years of thankless work, he bolted.
I put up with this for as long as I did because I didn’t have a lot of confidence in those days. And to be honest, for a while I kind of looked up to the guy, before I realized he was a bit of an ass. He had charisma. That stuff can be pretty powerful.
The creative friction between us was interesting, even if he was the only one benefitting from it. Here was someone who wanted to take over the world, and he was convinced he was only a few steps away from his goal. I was the audience for a number of monologues in which he detailed his aspirations. He was going to The Top. He was taking me with him to The Top, whether I wanted to come along for the ride or not. He didn’t care who he had to step over or betray on his way to The Top. He knew he had the goods, and to hear him tell it, he was one of the only people on the planet worthy of this kind of success.
As someone who had no grand ambitions to conquer anything and was content to make music that didn’t fit into any particular box, his ego bewildered me. Meanwhile, I think I seemed like some sort of alien to him. The few times he did try to write with me, it was never about meeting me on my wavelength. It was about trying to get me to write the way he did. And that wasn’t gonna happen.
I’ll never forget him saying to me once, after listening to some songs that would end up on SHOEBOX PARADISE, “You’ve got so much talent it makes me fucking sick. You know, these could actually be good, commercial songs if you got rid of all the weird shit. I don’t know why you’re just throwing your talent away.”
There was contempt in his voice. He looked like an angry parent chastising a misbehaving child.
The “weird shit” was the whole point for me. I was a weird teenager with a twisted sense of humour and a wide range of interests. I wanted the music I made to reflect that. More than that, I wanted my music to sound like me. Not something somebody else had already done. It didn’t matter if no one else liked it. What mattered was I enjoyed creating it, it came from a place that was real, and I could enjoy listening to it.
I was art. He was commerce. It was that black and white.
Here’s an illustration of the war we waged:
That first time we met up outside of school in mid-October, I had a chance to play Jesse some music and watch him react to it. Giving my work a look-in was nothing more than an afterthought after we’d spent hours honing and recording a number of his songs, but I still wanted to share some of what I was working on.
The synthesizer stabs on “Rippin'” were “science fiction movie shit”. Jesse made it through three or four minutes of the song before he told me to play him something else. He made it all the way through “Spandex” but liked it even less. He told me Gord’s distorted screaming and a lot of my own singing was horrible, and the only way I could salvage the song was if I got rid of all that garbage.
I played “She’s Awfully Lovely” next.
“It sounds like you recorded this in your garage,” he said. It wasn’t a compliment.
I didn’t bother playing him “We’re All Gonna Go”. Having my work denigrated after I gave his soulless, brain-dead, emotionally vacant love songs a fair shake wasn’t my idea of a good time.
Two days later Jesse was over at the house again to work on some more of his music. He brought his friend Steph with him to sing some harmonies. Before we got started he said, “Play ‘Spandex’ for her.”
It was strange to me that he’d want anyone else to hear a song he had so little affection for, but I gave Jesse and Steph the two pairs of headphones I had and listened to the bleed I was able to pick up from across the room.
Steph laughed a few times. It wasn’t the laughter of someone who was put off by my lyrics about lycra-clad frogs, breasts from Montana, and my distaste for geography class. She was enjoying the song. For his part, Jesse had a look on his face like he was staring at something horrifying and couldn’t quite make himself turn away. It was hilarious.
Gord screamed, “Spandex for MEEEEEEEE!”
Jesse shook his head. “I told you to get rid of that shit. You left it in, huh?”
I smiled and shrugged.
“What do you think?” Jesse asked Steph once the song ended.
She told me she thought it was fun and she liked my vocal harmonies. That felt good.
“We need to get Johnny here to start writing normal songs,” Jesse said.
Here was the real tragedy of that night. I wrote two songs at school earlier in the day with the idea of asking Jesse and Steph to sing harmonies on them. One was a piano ballad. The other was a more uptempo thing. Both featured lyrics that were about as “normal” as I could stand to let myself get without lapsing into uninspired cliché territory (that was Jesse’s bread and butter, not mine). There was nothing weird about them. They were good, straightforward songs.
I had the music all worked out. I was ready to prove I could hang with Jesse as a songwriter — ready to assert myself and bend this into a true collaborative situation. I was convinced I would win his respect. And the thought of us singing three-part harmonies on my songs…that was thrilling.
I never got to hear it happen. Didn’t get to play even half a verse of one of those songs for my guests. As soon as “Spandex” was out of the way, Jesse made the night all about him. He had no interest in anything I had to say, musically or otherwise. He acted like it was his home, his equipment, his time. By the time he was trying to coach me into giving him the vocal tone he wanted for a third part harmony I was adding to one of his songs, bitching at me for not getting breathy enough, I was ready to tell him to get the hell out of my house.
I should have done that. I wish I wasn’t so gutless for so long when confronted with people whose unchecked arrogance sucked all the fun out of making music. It’s a serious regret.
At least I did one thing right. After he went home, I annihilated the song he had us working on with one grotesque, ill-fitting overdub after another, taking everything he hated about my music and injecting it into his.
As passive-aggressive revenge scenarios go, that one was pretty satisfying.
I ran into Jesse at lunchtime one day in early November. By now I’d recorded almost a whole album for him between Papa Ghostface sessions and work on my own foul-mouthed Christmas album. He noticed I had the just-finished YOU’RE A NATION in my hand. He invited me to eat lunch with him in the school’s music room. I didn’t have anything better to do.
He asked to see the album after we sat down. I handed it over. As soon as he saw “Spandex” written on the back insert his face lit up.
“You have to hear this song Johnny made,” he said to the six or seven other people in the room. “Check this out.”
He fired up Mr. Ross’s hi-fi system, slid the CD into the disc tray, hit play, and cranked up the volume.
No one seemed to know what to make of it. A girl named Katie Goertzen looked mortified. Jesse was smiling. I couldn’t believe it.
Just as Gord’s acoustic guitar was threatening to blow up the world, Mr. Ross appeared and killed the sound. He popped out the CD and asked who it belonged to. I reached out my hand and took it. He gave me a dirty look but didn’t say anything.
“That’s fucking bullshit,” Jesse said. He was pissed.
Two weeks earlier, when he first heard “Spandex”, he was disgusted by it. Now he wanted everyone to hear it.
He never did come around to my way of looking at music as an art instead of a business. But I think that song broke his brain a little.
The best moment of all came when I was walking with Gord and Amanda in the park, probably a few more weeks down the road.
“I’ve had this song stuck in my head forever,” Amanda said. “Who sings the song that goes, ‘We’re all gonna go down slowly’?”
“That’s one of John’s songs,” Gord said, laughing.
I sang a bit of it for her. Gord sang along on the chorus.
“That’s the song! I love that song!”
When you’re in high school and a beautiful girl has a song you wrote stuck in her head…it doesn’t get much better than that.
Over the years, YOU’RE A NATION has remained one of my favourite Papa Ghostface albums. It’s foul-mouthed, idiosyncratic to the core, full of mistakes and human moments, and the music makes no concessions to the listener. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of what PG meant to me, and it paved the way for albums like SHOEBOX PARADISE and PAPER CHEST HAIR.
The thing that’s always killed me is the sound quality. It’s not an album I think a lot of people would enjoy or “get”, and to those who’ve only heard the music I’ve made over the last decade or so it would probably be a shock, but I’ve been reluctant to share it with anyone at all for a long time because of all that clipping and low end mud.
Too self-conscious to share an album you’re proud of. That’s a funny place to be.
Remixing it has never been an option. I have a very clear memory of staring at the mixer nineteen years ago and making the decision to erase every single YOU’RE A NATION track without backing any of them up. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t think I was ever going to get very good at this whole recording thing, and there wasn’t any reason to believe returning to this material in a year or two with fresh ears would make any difference.
My only recourse was to find a mastering engineer willing to take a crack at it. I started giving that some serious thought around the time the album turned ten years old.
In 2009, when I was beginning work on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I sent an email to a mastering engineer I won’t name. I felt it was time to give the professional mastering thing another shot, and that album felt like it was going to be especially dynamic and worthy of a master’s touch (ooh, a pun).
At the time, this guy was willing to master a single song for free to give potential clients an idea of what he could do. I sent him “Knee-Jerk Howl”. He told me his free samples were done on a “first come, first served” basis, so it could take a few weeks, but he would get to it when he could.
Nine years later, I’m still waiting to hear back from him.
In 2011 I emailed another mastering engineer I won’t name. This time I cut right to the chase. I told him about YOU’RE A NATION, detailed the album’s issues, and sent along a sample track to give him an idea of what he’d have to work with. I asked how much he would charge for a project like this and what the turnaround time would be.
I’m still waiting for a response.
It was just like the demoralizing weirdness I went through when I was trying to make friends with fellow musicians and get gigs in Windsor in the days before CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN made me “cool” overnight, only now it was mastering engineers who decided I was so insignificant they didn’t even want to take my money.
The YOU’RE A NATION Reclamation Project became a bucket list item for me. Something I hoped to get done someday, assuming I could ever find a mastering engineer who would give me the time of day. I wasn’t optimistic. I put it on the back burner and went about my business.
A lot of mastering engineers charge an awful lot of money. I understand why. You put a lot of time, money, and work into building a studio that’s acoustically treated just right and you hone your craft. Your ears and your gear are valuable — often indispensable. You provide an important service. You need to make a living.
But with the Loudness War showing no signs of fading, it’s become difficult to asses the kind of work some professionals are capable of when maximum loudness isn’t a consideration. I’ve heard $3,000 and $5,000 mastering jobs that sound like something a dead squirrel could have done with a stolen plug-in. And I know this isn’t even always the mastering. Some mastering engineers are given awful mixes by recording and mixing engineers — mixes that are intentionally distorted and devoid of headroom so they won’t be “tampered with” — putting them in an impossible situation. The issue still stands. When so much music is crushed beyond the point of no return and almost no one offers free samples anymore, how are you supposed to even guess at what someone might do to your music if your priorities are dynamics and musicality?
This is why I’ve been doing it myself for a good long while now. It keeps things simple.
Still, a few years back I got to thinking it might be worth one more try. One name I kept coming across on the internet was Scott Craggs. His rates were incredibly reasonable. What’s more, every shred of evidence I could find told me he did great work and was a pleasure to deal with. I listened to some music he mastered. It wasn’t squashed. It sounded good. I read some things he wrote. He was funny. He was articulate. He was against the Loudness War. I liked this guy already.
I sent Scott an email. He wrote back the same day. I almost had him master STEW. It was a shorter-than-usual album for me, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to find out what a real mastering engineer could do with my stuff now that I knew a lot more about the whole recording thing.
About five seconds after that email exchange, money-related things went straight into the toilet and paying a mastering engineer was no longer an option for me. So much for that.
These days things are better. And after losing most of September to that stupid cold and some subsequent bronchitis (boo), I felt the time was right for YOU’RE A NATION. There was never going to be a more opportune moment to cross it off my bucket list.
I sent Scott “Spandex”, explained what I was hoping to do, and asked if he thought it was a worthwhile project. He said he’d be glad to take a stab at it. He thought it would be fun. He also said the song made him think of a cross between Tago Mago-period Can and teenage silliness.
I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to high-five someone through a computer screen as much as I did right then.
At the time this music was being made, Can was one of many bands on my list of “music to check out”. I read about them and wanted to dig into their catalogue, but I didn’t end up picking up any of their albums until well over a decade later. And then, of course, I thought, “What took me so long?! This is great!”
What was I listening to in late 1999? There would have been a lot of Tom Waits, David Sylvian, and Roxy Music on the menu. Big Star. Kate Bush. Robyn Hitchcock. John Cale. Lou Reed. There wouldn’t have been any jazz, blues, or electronica yet.
I don’t know if much of that seeped into YOU’RE A NATION. But I know if anyone had dropped Can as a reference point in 1999, I would have flipped out. Might have asked them to marry me if I was feeling bold.
I wanted to make Scott’s work as painless as possible, so I experimented with the “Clip Fix” tool in Audacity. According to the manual, it “attempts to reconstruct clipped regions by interpolating the lost signal. It is only likely to be effective for repairing lightly clipped audio.”
It was a good deal more effective than that. Some of these songs were a mess of clipping all the way through. I was able to undo almost all of that junk. As I’ve said before, I know it isn’t technically possible to replace information that’s been lost through digital clipping. An algorithm like this can only “guess” at the way things might have sounded before the clipping occurred.
I applied it to whole songs, and it wiped out nineteen years of frustration in one fell swoop. It was unreal. The only sounds I couldn’t repair were those where distortion was burned in, either from a vocal effect being hit too hard at the source (“The Happy Dentist”) or a microphone overloading (“Spandex”). I expected as much. What I wasn’t counting on was being able to give Scott WAV files that had some actual headroom and lots of dynamics.
Score a major coup for Audacity’s guesswork.
In a way, I think something like this is the ultimate test of a mastering engineer’s skills. It’s one thing to work on an album that’s been well-recorded and well-mixed. When that isn’t the case and there are giant, gaping flaws that need to be addressed, you get to find out what an audio surgeon is really capable of.
I tried to keep my expectations low, given the source material. When Scott sent me the remastered songs, I burned them onto a CD, put on the same Sennheiser headphones I used when I was recording and mixing the album in 1999 (headband up this time), and braced myself.
If I hadn’t been listening in bed, “Rippin'” would have knocked me over. It had a punch to it I’d never heard before. The first W-5 drum hits smacked me right in the chest. For the first time in my life, I could hear everything my acoustic guitar was doing in the left stereo channel and all my weird little bass runs. Those tracks used to be twin layers of mud. The Arp Omni-2 bits came alive in a whole new way. It was like a thick blanket had been lifted from the sound to reveal hidden abdominal muscles and a tasteful nipple ring.
Gord’s acoustic guitar overload on “Spandex” was now a cool lo-fi sound that didn’t bring way too much low end energy with it. On “She’s Awfully Lovely”, “Piss on Me”, and “Nothing from Nothing”, out-of-control bass tracks were reigned in until they sat right in the pocket. Hearing the songs like this was almost like hearing them for the very first time. The drum loops all had a whole new depth to them. The keyboard drums on “We’re All Gonna Go” almost sounded like real drums, they were so dynamic and full. My acoustic guitar sounded like it had been recorded by someone who knew what they were doing, and not a clueless teenager shoving an SM57 too close for comfort. Even my beat-boxing on the unlisted track had a new depth to it.
It was everything I didn’t dare to hope for and more. An album I thought was destined to have a saggy bum forever now had a tight, powerful bottom end. And the mud! Did I mention the mud? It was gone! Dead! Kaput! On some songs Scott had to contend with both acoustic-guitar-generated mud and electric-bass-generated mud. He killed them both without ever sacrificing the body of those sounds.
I asked him how he managed to do a thing like that. It was pretty amazing to me. Some people would scoff at this kind of question and say, “I’m not telling you how I work.” Not Scott.
Here’s some of what he told me:
From memory, it was basically something like this: De-esser on most songs, around 4-5k. EQ was a high pass filter around 25-30, usually a cut somewhere between 100-200, maybe another cut between 200-400. I added some high end on one or two of them. Nothing drastic, 1-2db at most. Couple songs might have had a dynamic EQ doing a bit of low end control as well. Then there was a compressor in M/S, just working on the M. I was trying to reign in the vocals a bit. So, high ratio, hard-ish knee, mostly just working to grab the louder vocal stuff. Then a regular broadband compressor, low ratio/soft knee, slow attack/fastish release, just tapping along doing a db or so. A little saturation, a tape sim, and a limiter….again, all of those just tapping a lil bit each. A couple of the really loud vocal bits I just went in and turned down manually.
That might not mean much to you if you’re not into recording and audio, but to me it’s riveting. So many different things, all doing small amounts of work that add up to a profound sonic difference. It’s a good lesson to me, too, about how less is often more even in situations where you’d assume otherwise. I thought an album like this would need huge EQ moves and a lot of compression to get it to sound right, or as close to “right” as it could get.
You know what else? It’s dynamic. It breathes. The volume is right in line with the ballpark range I try to shoot for these days when I’m mastering one of my own albums. The jarring moments like my scream of “Oh Jesus!” in “The Happy Dentist” are still jarring, as they were meant to be. They just won’t destroy your listening equipment or your ears now.
I mean, take a look at this beautiful waveform:
That’s how you do it. That’s how the game is won.
If I had the opportunity to remix these songs today, I could clean them up something fierce. I think that would be a mistake. Scott understood that without me even telling him. Instead of trying to make the album something it wasn’t, he respected the funkiness of the original recording and kept it intact, concentrating on making it the best possible version of itself.
It’s still a lo-fi beast. But now it’s got some shiny fur, some sharp teeth, and I’m no longer embarrassed to share it with anyone who’s brave enough to dive into the insanity. The best part is I can enjoy listening all the way through without any reservations for maybe the first time in my life. I used to almost want to weep when I heard how much out-of-control low end there was on a song like “Nothing from Nothing” or “Piss on Me”. It ruined the songs for me. That’s all gone now. It’s a little shocking to find myself thinking, “That’s a pretty cool bass sound,” when the only bass sound I thought this album would ever have was “shit”.
Huge thanks go out to Scott for making this stuff sound better than I ever dreamed possible, and for being so open and easy to work with. Fellow recording adventurers: if you ever find yourself in need of a mastering engineer who’s going to approach your music with an open mind, is responsive, has a quick turnaround time, won’t charge an arm, a leg, and a lung, and just does great work, Scott gets my strongest recommendation. You won’t find a nicer person or a better set of ears. I know who I’m going to now if I ever feel like an album needs an extra little something and it’s in the budget. The man is a sorcerer of the highest order.
You’d think this would be the end of our tale, but no. Now I had to think about cover art.
The first time YOU’RE A NATION was issued on CD with proper cover art I had no idea what to do. I went with a picture of the room the music was recorded in, more out of desperation than anything.
This picture was taken at the door. The room doesn’t look smaller than it is. It really was that cramped. I think it was ten feet by ten feet, if that. I spent a lot of time in that big chair, sometimes wheeling it over here when I wanted to play things with keys:
This would have been about a month before sessions for the album began. The rented acoustic bass is a dead giveaway.
I felt the first picture worked well enough as a cover image in a “you are there” way. Now I think it’s a little too bland for an album this nutty.
I didn’t feel up to commissioning an artist to draw something for me. I thought I’d see if I could scare up any interesting public domain images on the internet. I found a striking drawing Georges Méliès made during the production of his 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans le Lune (A Voyage to the Moon). I know an astronomical body and a stable community of people are two different things, but check out how cool this thing is.
The film itself is well worth viewing. It’s almost eerie to watch something that was made over a hundred years ago, knowing not a single person who was involved in front of or behind the camera is still living.
But maybe that was too classy for an album like YOU’RE A NATION. I wasn’t sure Georges would approve of a song like “Piss on Me”.
I looked at all kinds of abstract art in the public domain, from scrolls made in the 1300s to modern day digital drawings. A few things caught my eye.
Arthur Dove’s “Foghorns”, from 1929:
And Georgia O’Keefe’s “Sunrise”, from the 1930s:
These were just too pretty for an album that worked so hard to avoid prettiness.
I was about to give up when I typed “public domain melting face” into a Google image search and this came up:
It was a sticker someone created and left on a website for anyone to use in any way they wanted. I downloaded it, reversed the polarity so it became white on a black background, and bingo. There it was. Something simple and off-kilter enough to feel like an accurate representation of what’s under the hood.
The plan is to go to Minuteman Press sometime next week and have a small amount of inserts made. I can’t wait to see that creepy smiley face on an album cover. It feels right. Almost iconic.
One thing I have to say: revisiting this album at the same time I’m wrapping up work on the last Papa Ghostface album there’s ever going to be has made for some interesting symmetry. In spite of all that’s changed, I’m proud to say the spirit of experimentation and anything-goes-ness is still alive and well. I think you’d have to kill me to get rid of it. Sorry, Jesse old pal. I just wasn’t made for the mainstream.
I just can’t do it. I can’t finish putting my long-gestating pedal board together.
I put a lot of thought into the final pedal I was adding to the group. I had room for one more. I came close to pulling the trigger on a Walrus Audio Julia and then an Earthquaker Devices Transmisser. The Julia is a really pretty-sounding chorus/vibrato pedal, but the Count to Five can get me some similar sounds, the POD (which I only use for effects now, and never for its amp-modelling) can fill in most of the rest, and I can’t see myself wanting to use chorus all that often. The Transmisser only does one thing, and while it does it in a way that sounds like nothing else, after falling in love with it I realized I wouldn’t be able to use it too often without it becoming something of a cliché.
If I was going to get anything, it was going to have to be a pedal that was a real wildcard — something unique and versatile.
I knew I’d found what I was looking for when I saw this.
The Shallow Water isn’t quite chorus or vibrato, though it can create sounds that live in both of those worlds. It calls itself a K-Field Modulator. There are two things that set it apart from your average modulation pedal.
The first thing is the low pass filter, which is incredibly sensitive to dynamics and can go from “subtle”, to “dark and mysterious”, to “the universe is swallowing up my sound source and only faint suggestions of its soul remain”. When the LPF isn’t engaged and you’ve got a full wet mix, you get some noise, but I kind of like that. Sometimes you want things to get a little lo-fi. It can add character.
The second thing is the modulation itself. It’s random. There’s something about modulation that can’t be predicted. It has a strange emotional quality. And it engages the brain in a different way. You’re listening for a pattern, but there isn’t one.
This thing is deep as hell. It can do lush chorus sounds. It can also make your guitar or synth sound like it’s violently drowning in a small pool of water. Its name is very apt. It’s going to take me a while to learn all the ins and outs and harness everything it can do, but I think we’re going to be friends.
So I bought this pedal, the final one, I put money on the credit card to buy the power supply and patch cords I needed to complete my pedal board, and then I hesitated. And then I hesitated some more. And then I noticed a month had gone by since I was supposed to order the stuff, and I still hadn’t ordered it.
What it comes down to is this: I can’t justify spending more than three hundred dollars on an isolated power supply and a few feet of Mogami cable. I just can’t. To me, that’s outrageous, and borderline offensive. Three hundred dollars can buy an awful lot of food. It can pay a few bills. It can buy a fancy dinner for a medium-large group of reformed miscreants. It can buy a lot of recordable CDs, ink cartridges, jewel cases, and other practical supplies. It can change someone’s life in a small but pivotal way.
Besides, I think the Wurlitzer looks pretty nifty with some of my pedals sitting on top of it.
So I’ll live with the mess it creates on the floor when I feel a need to have a few pedals running at once, and I’ll clean it up when I’m done. It’s not like I play live, ever. Putting my board together would make things a little more convenient, sure. But convenience isn’t worth that amount of money to me. Not right now. Not in this situation.
Sorry, Captain Convenience. I’ll have to drink from your cup some other time.
I did make good on something else I’ve been meaning to do for a while now. I finallyhad enough mixer space — if only for a moment — and enough motivation to make it happen. I’m talking about taking the raw camcorder footage of SEED OF HATE being recorded back in November of 2001 and editing it into something more digestible.
It was more of a pain in the ass than it should have been.
If I wanted to have better quality audio to punch up some of the recording segments, there was only one way to make that happen. I was going to have to go back and remix most of the songs without the vocal tracks. There’s a lot more footage of us getting the music down without Jay than there is of him and Tyson summoning the best screams they had to offer the following day, and what the camcorder’s built-in microphone captured in most of those instances is either drum-heavy to the almost total exclusion of all other musical elements, or it’s little more than headphone bleed (which made syncing up the proper recordings with the camera’s audio a task and a half).
The album was recorded in a single song file on my mixer, separated by track markers, and backed up on two CDs. Those CDs are now sixteen and a half years old. With these multiple-CD backup jobs, all it takes is one disc crapping out on me and the whole thing is lost forever. I found that out the hard way when I tried to remix some of the late-period GWD albums about eight years back.
I braced myself for the worst. Both discs dumped their aging guts back onto the mixer without a hitch. Score one for Maxell.
Making instrumental mixes was pretty straightforward. I had no notes to rely on, so I used my ears to dial in mixes that were as close to the originals as I could get them. That seemed to be the smart way to go. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on music this heavy, and treating it with my current sensibilities would probably be a recipe for sonic weirdness. I did bring up Tyson’s guitar a little to highlight how creative his work on the fretboard was. Other than that, I tried to keep things sounding about the same as they sounded in 2001.
I made a few interesting discoveries along the way.
When we were recording this stuff, I took the time to type in a name for each track, using the super-tedious “select one letter at a time to make words” option the mixer provides. Things like “L Guitar”, “R Guitar”, and “Bass” show up on the LCD screen when specific tracks are selected. It’s pretty surreal. I don’t remember ever doing that for anything else I recorded back then. I don’t even remember doing it this time. I sure as sugar cookies don’t do it now.
There were even more mics on the drums than I remembered — six. We mic’d up the kick, snare, floor tom, rack toms, set up a general mono overhead to capture the cymbals, and had more of an ambient room mic set up to grab some extra air. How much ambience it added is debatable, since all the mics were SM57s and 58s, but this is the tightest and most conventional drum sound you’ll find on anything I’ve ever recorded. I’m not likely to use that many microphones on a drum kit again.
And I got to solve a small mystery. All the false starts, count-ins, and between-song moments of banter were erased at Tyson’s request, but one brief bit of dialogue survived at the end of the last song. The mics we were using were so directional, and so far away from most of the people talking, I could never make out a thing being said. Now, after cranking the volume on the mixer, I can rest knowing the song I called “Your Friendly Neighourhood Waterbed” in the absence of a proper title ends with Tyson saying, “Yeah! That’s the best we’ve ever played that!” and Brandon muttering, “Not really.”
“That all sounds pretty hassle-free,” you’re thinking. And you’re right. What got me swearing at the sky was the editing process.
I spent chunks of a few days chopping out superfluous crap until I had an eighty-minute assembly I was happy with. It feels like a pretty honest picture of the recording process and the surrounding shenanigans. Really, all I got rid of were things no one needs to see, like Gord filming a light fixture for ten minutes (I exaggerate, but not by much), and a few moments where the burned-in camera effects got kind of maddening.
For example, when we were recording the vocal tracks, Gord hit the “fade to white” button, causing the audio and video to disappear…only to have it come back three seconds later. Then he did it again three or four more times. It broke up the natural rhythm the footage should have had and made synchronizing the audio from the CD impossible. I made a few cuts, lived with whatever choppiness was created, and that problem was solved.
There were moments when I wanted to go back in time and tell Gord to stop using every built-in effect the camera had to offer and just point the thing at what was happening and film it. Close to half of this footage was marred with a negative image or “ghost” effect that looks cool for about ten seconds and then gets old fast. I was able to reverse this by inverting the image a second time, effectively cancelling out the effect. I left a bit of it intact in a few places, but believe me when I tell you most of the scenes I removed it from are much better off without it.
The other effects range from the sometimes-effective “double image” to an infuriating and distracting rapid zooming in and out that I can only imagine was designed to simulate motion sickness. There’s nothing I can do to counteract any of those. I can only hope you find them charming or amusing. They drive me nuts.
Gross overuse of effects aside, I have to say Gord did a decent job capturing what was going on. The one serious exception, and some footage I wish I could have included, is a bit where Tyson talks me through one of the songs while we listen to a rough instrumental mix. He points out different moments, highlighting the abilities of the other musicians in the band, talks about how hearing the music recorded in a more professional way gives him a deeper appreciation for it, and delivers a fascinating monologue that makes it clear just how much thought went into crafting these songs.
The whole time this is happening, the camera is pointed at the wall. It’s nowhere near either one of us. I wanted to weep when I saw it. Maybe I should have included it anyway, but five minutes of looking at a wall is pretty hard to take no matter how good the soundtrack is.
I wish I had the ability to create a little animated short to replace the nothingness captured by the camera. But I’m not an animator. At least there are a lot of other fun moments in there, and you get to watch a bunch of teenagers alternate between goofing off and doing some serious recording. And there are a few moments of supreme lunacy from a skinny, beardless version of yours truly. I don’t remember saying any of those demented things I said, but the camera doesn’t lie.
Gord’s spur-of-the-moment decision to record over some of the footage from the second day is a mixed blessing. You lose Tyson trying to talk me into improvising a vocal track on the most melodic Fetal Pulp song, along with most of the sound effects he added in lieu of vocals. There was more of Jay in there too. But what Gord filmed on top of that is some of the only surviving GWD footage, even if it’s just me and Tyson running through a tongue-in-cheek medley of some of our “hits”.
(I’m saving that GWD footage for something else. It wouldn’t have made much sense to include it here, even if it was the way our second day of recording ended.)
I recorded a little voiceover track to act as an introduction and a coda to the main course. I’m not sure I’ll be doing that again — it feels more natural talking to a camera when I’m doing this sort of thing — but it was fun to try something different. I think it works well enough, offering a little bit of context and allowing me to make use of a few pieces of music that will probably show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE someday.
Even the rendering process wasn’t the disaster it could have been. The crusty old laptop I use for video editing purposes has experienced something of a rebirth since that nice fella at PC Outfitters blew a mountain of dust from the casing that holds the fans. It’s still slower than mud, but it’s got a new swagger in its step. A slow swagger.
This was a real test. An hour and twenty minutes is the largest chunk of video I’ve ever asked Sony Vegas to process. I think the meatiest thing I’d done before this was one packed video progress report that touched down around the fifty minute mark, and that was back when the laptop in question was still in its prime.
It took six hours, but the video rendered without the computer once overheating or shutting down. Not so long ago, expecting it to survive for a tenth of that time was pushing it. This gives me hope that when my semi-documentary about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is done, it too will render without the world coming to an end.
The trouble came after the video was finished rendering. I noticed the sound went out of sync around the halfway point. There was no explanation for it. I’ve never had this happen before with any video I’ve edited. Vegas was at least helpful enough to tell me how far things were out of sync, but it wouldn’t tell me the cause. Why I was able to see how much things had shifted was a mystery in itself.
There was only one fix. I painstakingly uncoupled the audio from every single clip past the forty-five-minute mark and inched it forward until everything was synchronized again. I rendered just the second half of the video. Then I discovered the last few minutes were still out of sync, so I fixed those bits and rendered that part. I was left with three separate video files I needed to trim and stitch together.
I assumed I could do this with the ever-handy MMPEG Streamclip without suffering any quality loss through additional compression. I was wrong. The program doesn’t recognize WMV files. The only thing I was able to find that seemed like it might help me was something called Machete. Only the “lite” version was free, but it had all the capabilities I needed. It wasn’t Mac-compatible, though. I had to download it on the sluggish Acer laptop reserved for video editing.
Machete let me trim and join clips to my heart’s content. It left a second or two of ugly blank space where each edit was made, but I was okay with that…until I tried to save the file and learned it was going to take even longer to do that than it took to process the full-length video in Vegas.
You failed me, Machete.
I was left with no choice but to start from scratch and render the whole video file all over again. That meant another five and a half hours of waiting, and then another four or five hours to upload the thing to Vimeo.
There’s one little wonky editing mistake near the end where Tyson’s smile appears to break the space-time continuum. With all the audio I had to move around, I missed snipping out a tiny piece of footage that repeated itself. After all that frustration, I don’t care enough to go back and fix it. Maybe some other time.
Watching this makes me wish all over again that I could go back in time and buy a video camera of my own long before I started thinking it might be a good idea to get one. I missed out on documenting a whole lot of cool music-related things. At least there were weekends like this one when someone else had the foresight to grab a camera and let it roll. But what I wouldn’t give for some Papa Ghostface recording footage from 1999, or any number of other things…
Viewer discretion is advised: there’s a whole lot of swearing in this video, some onscreen drug use (just a bit of pot being smoked, but still), and while I’m pretty sure Brandon only pretends to expose himself a little past the fifty five minute mark, I’m not taking any chances with the powers that be at Vimeo. This one gets a “mature” rating.
Ten years ago Sufjan Stevens set this thing in motion called The Great Sufjan Stevens Xmas Song Xchange. The idea: people would submit original Christmas songs. Sufjan would select the song he felt was the best and most original of the bunch. The winner would get the rights to an exclusive Christmas song of Sufjan’s, and he in turn would get the rights to theirs.
I’ve talked before about what I think of most music-related contests. In this case there didn’t seem to be any way for anyone to cheat or turn it into a popularity contest. I didn’t expect or even really want to win, but I thought it might be pretty neat to get one of my songs to Sufjan’s ears even if I would probably never know how he reacted to it. And I liked the idea of challenging myself to write a Christmas song that wasn’t profane and offensive for once. It would be unbroken songwriting ground for me.
So I decided to go for it.
I didn’t have a real piano then. I sat down at the Clavinova and wrote a song that was sung in the voice of a homeless man who tries to get his wife and kids through the Christmas season with some amount of hope intact, struggling to find beauty in the face of adversity. I spent the better part of a day chipping away at it, committed to crafting the lyrics and music into something serious and meaningful.
By the time I sat down to record the song I’d lost all interest in it. It sounded like just the sort of sappy thing that would win this kind of contest, but it didn’t feel authentic.
This was also right about the time it started to sink in that the sound of a digital piano wasn’t cutting it for me in the studio anymore. So that didn’t help. I got down piano and guide vocals, and that was the end of it.
A few weeks later I sat back down at the Clavinova and started writing a new set of lyrics to some very different music that had a lot more energy in it. “The temptress of the ice will swallow us whole and cough us up as we wish to be,” the opening line went. That felt more like me. I plucked a few of the more interesting lines from the first song and tried to incorporate them, but I couldn’t get it to a place where it felt finished.
The day of the deadline for submissions, I threw out all the music to the second song, grafted together a few different ideas I’d been kicking around on the mandolin without knowing what to do with them, took what I liked from the words I’d written, improvised the rest, and recorded and mixed the whole thing in about half an hour. I wanted to add more acoustic guitar, some stomping and clapping, more vocal tracks, maybe some bass, and maybe some Wurlitzer or something, but there wasn’t time for all that.
It wasn’t a perfect performance or mix, and the acoustic guitar dropped out a little early at the end. Even so, I was pretty happy with the way it turned out. Felt like I found a way to write a Christmas song that sidestepped the obvious imagery and well-worn phrases. Aside from a silly little riff on “Frère Jacques” and one line at the very end, there weren’t any overt references to Christmas at all. And the closing verse tempered that with a healthy dose of cynicism.
If you don’t want to read the whole thing, check out this bit:
For I’ve got a secret that no one else can know that keeps my temperament even during times of snow. I’ve got the perfect present, one not wrapped up in a bow. It lifts my spirits high when I’m feeling low. Others long for the holidays, yes indeed they do. But every day is Christmas when I’m with you.
We were told our songs were being judged based on their originality. Here was one trite, clichéd, unoriginal turn of phrase and predictable forced rhyme after another. As for the music, it was a few simple chords that never strayed far from the key of C.
There was no complexity or invention to any part of it. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, there was no there there.
Sufjan had this to say about his decision:
“I fell most in love with one particular song because of its happy simplicity: Alec Duffy’s ‘Every Day Is Christmas.’ It feels, at once, like a classic show tune, the perfect parlour song, a lackadaisical bar ballad, and a church hymn. It is unencumbered with the pejoratives and prophetic exclamations of Christmas, the most complicated of holidays. Oh sure, I continue to indulge in the Christmas blues, the heavy winter dread, the melancholy expectations of the season. And I still marvel at the sacrilege, the subversive satire, and the silly nonsense of Christmas as commodity, patterned with the cartoon characters of Charlie Brown, Santa Claus, and Rudolf. For me, the entertainment of these bipolar fantasies will never quite fade away; they are fundamental to the mysteries of Christmas. But when it came down to it, I just wanted the simple relief of ordinary, everyday love, the love between two people, the kind of love that doesn’t obligate itself to the trumpet fanfares and jingle bells of a holiday spectacle. Alec Duffy’s unfettered song ‘Every Day Is Christmas’ summarizes this simple phenomenon with the most effortless of words and melodies, somehow making perfect sense out of a senseless holiday.”
I read that and thought the dude must have some kind of magic ears capable of turning the sound of a rake scraping across sidewalk into choirs of angels singing. The song sounded like none of those things he said it did. It accomplished nothing he claimed it did. Listening to it again today for the first time in ten years, my feelings haven’t changed. Not every song aspires to be some great, incisive piece of art. Not every song needs to be that. But bad is bad. And I can’t fathom how anyone could listen to that song and hear anything but bad.
As for Sufjan’s song, most of us will die without ever having a chance to hear it.
It came out that the contest-winner was the director of a theater company. He said his plan was to take Sufjan’s song and build a play around it. Fair enough. There was one problem: by forcing people to buy tickets to see a play if they wanted to hear this elusive Sufjan Stevens song, the guy was defeating the explicitly stated purpose of the song exchange. It was supposed to be about sharing music without money being involved, and here he was going to use the spoils of his victory to line his pockets and raise his own profile. Talk about missing the point.
At first I assumed Sufjan just didn’t have very good taste. A few dozen of what must have been hundreds or thousands of submitted songs were put up on a media player on the Asthmatic Kitty website for a while, and every single one of them put the winning song to shame. Then I read something that mentioned Alec and Sufjan worked in the same building at some point, and everything got a whole lot clearer. There was evidence to suggest the two of them knew each other a little bit before the supposed contest was even created, at least in passing. It didn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out the rest.
Hey man. You heard about my Christmas song contest, right? What do you say you whip something up? It doesn’t even have to be any good. I’ll juggle some words to justify why it takes home the prize when there are many more deserving candidates, and in return you’ll work my song into one of your productions and introduce my music to a whole new audience. You make money and get more attention, I expand my reach, a bunch of people get to feel like they had an honest shot at something that was rigged from the start — everybody benefits.
Maybe that wasn’t what happened. But it would have explained a lot.
The play was never produced. I’m not sure why. Instead, the winning songwriter and the music director of his theater company decided to host listening sessions where a handful of people would be allowed to come over to one of their homes and listen to the song while having tea and cookies. Which was great if you were in Brooklyn and they deemed you worthy of a visit, and not so great if you lived anywhere else.
A blog post was written to explain the reasoning behind all of this. It was supposed to be about bringing some of the mystery back to new music in the internet age, bending the act of listening back into a more meaningful experience. And part of me can appreciate that. The loss of mystery is another thing I’ve rambled about before. It’s one of the main reasons I go to great lengths to keep money far away from the music I make and keep it a very low-key thing, only sharing it with a small group of people I know have some genuine interest in it. I like knowing when you get a new album from me you have no idea what you’re going to hear, because there’s no way to stream it beforehand. It’s a physical thing you have to sit down and spend some time with.
Having said that, imagine for a second you found your way to this blog and sent me an email asking how you could get your hands on an album or six, and instead of responding with, “All I need is a mailing address and I’ll send you free CDs wherever you are,” I told you the only way you were ever going to hear any of my music was if you came to my house. If you didn’t live nearby or couldn’t get out this way, you were out of luck. And if you did manage to make it here for a little listening party, all you would have to take with you when you left would be your memory of the music you heard, because I wouldn’t even consider sharing any of my songs with you in any way other than a one-time “fire it into the air and watch it disappear” in-person experience.
I don’t imagine you’d leave that exchange with a lot of good feelings about me. You would probably think I was a pretty arrogant person with an inflated sense of my own importance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned you off enough that you wouldn’t want to hear any of my music anymore in any format.
I mean, if you own the music, what you do with it is your choice. That’s the bottom line. But the endgame here has never made any sense to me. There has to be a better way of keeping that sense of wonder alive than making people jump through flaming hoops to hear one song. I don’t go out of my way to call attention to my music, but if someone in Alaska sends me an email asking for some stuff, I’m going to send them whatever albums they’re interested in even if it costs me a hundred bucks to do it. I don’t care if you live on Mars. I’ll still send you music. Discriminating against the majority of the human race because they don’t live close enough to make things more convenient for you smells pretty self-defeating to me, not to mention elitist and kind of messed up.
(As for how to describe the scent ofself-defeat, well…that’s a discussion for another time.)
About the nicest thing I can say here is I lost a lot of respect for everyone involved. Then again, maybe a lot of it really does come down to Sufjan having crummy taste. He recorded a cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost” a few years back. It’s an insult to the universe. He took a beautiful little open-hearted love song and turned it into shallow-sounding pop pablum with every trace of humanity removed.
I guess just because you’re capable of writing some great songs, it doesn’t mean the intelligence required to do that extends to your interpretation or assessment of anyone else’s work.
Anyway. Back to my Christmas song up there. It was only ever made available on the MISFITS (1999-2007) compilation, and there are probably only a few dozen people in the world who own that reckless, sprawling thing. It also landed on a CLLCT Christmas compilation way back when, but that site has been gone for years now and I’m not sure how many people still have the MP3 hanging out on their hard drives. I thought it was about time to dust the song off again.
Even in its less-layered-than-I-wanted-it-to-be form, it’s a very clear precursor to the CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN sound. The triple-tracked lead vocals, the emphasis on acoustic instruments and organic sounds, a mix that’s more interested in energy than polish — it’s all there already. I even lifted an overlapping vocal bit from “Mismatched Socks”, a song that would later end up on that album (it’s the part that goes, “White, white, white, white snow melts into your braided hair”).
“Mismatched Socks” got its revenge when it came time to record that song. Every time I tried to sing the overlapping vocal harmonies it came out sounding like a mess. I had to reconstruct the vocal melody on the fly and take it to a different, harmony-free place.
I was prepared to give A Home at the End of the Frozen River a fresh mix, but aside from the vocals getting a little quiet in some parts and the glockenspiel being maybe a little too upfront, I don’t hear a whole lot wrong with it. This is one of those rare times I got away with a pretty loud mastering job that didn’t introduce any ugly clipping, and it might be the best I’ve ever heard those Neumann KM184s capture my mandolin. I’m starting to think I should try playing that thing with a pick more often.
If I probably won’t be moved to write another Christmas-themed song at any point in the next fifty years, at least I went out with something I can still share without shame. And that’s half the battle, isn’t it?
Merry Creased Mousse to you and yours. May all your mistletoe find four other toes to complete the rare and precious mistlefoot.
Happy Halloween from this unmasked ninja and his gallant posse.
I want to say this picture was taken in 1991? Maybe? A lot of pictures of me from the pre-teen years are hard to date, because in most of them I look older than my actual age. I was one of those kids who never seemed to stop growing.
I remember this party, but I have no idea who any of the other kids are or what they might be up to now. The main thing is, all these years later I still have my plastic ninja sword, safely sheathed in the garage, just in case there’s ever a need to use it.
If you were a child of the ’80s, you might remember this cassette tape.
It was the soundtrack to every Halloween at my house growing up. Whether I was handing out candy with the tape blaring from stereo speakers inside the house or coming back from trick-or-treating to hear it moaning in the distance, it never failed to creep me out.
That tape popped back into my head today for the first time in years. I had no memory of what it was called, so I did a search for “Halloween cassette tape” and hoped for the best. The very first result was the exact tape I was looking for. Its familiar orange face all on its own is still almost enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Listening to it now is total nostalgia overload. Even if it’s mostly made up of bootleg recordings lifted from other sources, there’s still something unnerving about its lo-fi ambience.
Twenty years ago today, the mother person asked me if I could record some eerie background music so we’d have something different to play on Halloween. It caught me off guard. She never did much to support my interest in music — it was the opposite, really. But I was game.
I wrote down the name of every sinister-sounding patch I could find on my Yamaha W-5 synthesizer, soaked the Clavinova in built-in effects (piano with reverb and a Leslie speaker approximation seemed to be the most unnerving combination), switched to a pipe organ sound every once in a while, and improvised for about half an hour, trying to come up with the spookiest and most discordant sounds I could. I called the finished product Walking Down Fear Street. In every way it was my attempt at making something similar in spirit to Horror Sounds of the Night.
I don’t think she was a big fan of what I came up with. And the hi-fi system threw the limitations of the recording into stark relief, captured as it was on the little Sony stereo/tape recorder of yore with its tiny built-in microphone. None of that ever bothered me much. I had fun trying something different, and it’s pretty amusing to listen to today.
Join me, if you will, in laughing at my fourteen-year-old self trying to scare trick-or-treaters. It’s tough to work out what some of the individual songs are now without the use of a stopwatch, since everything was recorded as one continuous performance. I think this is part of a track called “Time Stands Still”, and all or most of “Sour Grapes”. While it’s only a small segment (I’m not about to subject you to the whole thing!), it gives you a pretty decent idea of the atmosphere I was aiming for.
You make a thing. You decide how you feel about the thing. Sometimes you know while you’re making it. Sometimes it takes a while before you know. Sometimes you think you know, and then your feelings shift.
I like to say it takes me a year or two before I can stand back and really see where an album fits into the bigger picture. That isn’t always so. There have been albums that felt like some of my best work when I was recording them and still feel that way today, albums I thought were shaping up to be great only to find they sounded like garbage to me not long after they were finished, and albums that felt kind of slight or sub-par at first but have grown on me over the years — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
Since the world didn’t end the other day in spite of all those doomsday theorists doing their best to convince us all that this time they were right and everything was gonna go kaboomy-bye, I thought it was time to revisit this album. Plus, I was doing some final level-matching tweaks as part of the remastering process and needed to listen to the thing from start to finish to make sure I got it right anyway.
I was never sure how I felt about this one. I was waist-deep in the making of another (still unreleased) album when the need to do something different bubbled up. I found myself with some serious butterflies in my stomach about someone, when I didn’t think butterflies were something I would feel again after some of the soul-destroying romantic adventures of yore. I wrote all of three or four warm and fuzzy songs before it all went to hell, and suddenly instead of making my first true album of love songs for a living, breathing human, I was making a breakup album when I didn’t think I’d ever have a reason to make one of those again.
There’s no clearer illustration of the jarring shift in tone than “Nightside”, where you get to hear the change happen in the space of one three-minute song.
The words and music were written when I thought the burgeoning relationship had a great future ahead of it. I’d just finished spending the better part of a weekend with the person I was pretty sure was my new girlfriend, and it felt like I was gliding with my feet a few inches off of the floor when I walked. She really did jump sideways on the bed to get to me, too. It was a fun moment.
The spoken addendum was improvised later, after things fell apart, trading in sunny-eyed optimism for foul-mouthed venom.
I liked the songs, but I couldn’t tell how well they played together as a larger piece of work. A lot of them had more to do with a need for catharsis than craftsmanship. I had such a difficult time sequencing everything in a way that felt like it made sense, I got a headache trying to suss out the order of the songs. In all the years I’ve been making music, I can’t say any other album I’ve worked on has ever done that to me. And I’ve made double and triple CDs that have been packed with as much music as the media could handle.
When it was done, it just felt too raw to hang out with for any length of time. It wasn’t one of those cloying, maudlin breakup albums full of self-indulgent exercises in self-pity. It had sharp teeth. It had a goofy rap song and some insane slowed-down scream-coughing wedged between songs of love and post-love. It was pretty eclectic, both sonically and emotionally. But it took a lot out of me when I gathered up all the mixed feelings I had in the aftermath of that intense, ill-fated, whirlwind relationship and shaped them into songs. It isn’t a coincidence that I haven’t made a solo album since (though that’ll change soon enough).
I listened to it once or twice to make sure everything felt like it flowed okay. I played some of the songs live at the second Mackenzie Hall show (not very many of them, them, which is pretty funny in hindsight, since that was the only proper “album release show” of my own I’ve ever played). After that, I kind of wanted to keep my distance. The last time I gave the album a listen all the way through was about five years ago at Kevin Kavanaugh’s studio space, when I was knocked out by how good it sounded on his mega hi-fi system even with my too-hot mastering job. Those speakers of his meant serious business.
Listening to the album now, it doesn’t seem so raw anymore. It’s amazing what some moisturizer and half a decade away from something can do for you. And I’ve gained enough emotional distance from what inspired the songs to realize something: I like this album.
“Some Things Are Better Left Buried” felt a bit like filler at the time. It doesn’t feel like filler anymore, especially now that all the stupid distorted vocal peaks are gone. I really enjoy the way some of the catchiest, most uptempo music on the album is juxtaposed against some pretty morbid lyrics. I liked “A Puppet Playing Possum” fine back then. Now it’s one of my favourite songs I’ve written. “Light Sleeper” remains the bruised heart of the album for me. I can still feel the hope and uncertainty that went into that one.
Part of me still wishes the last section of “Different Degrees of Wrong” wasn’t such a tease. The segue from a rare venom-free love song into the violent lunacy of “Surrender to Thee” will probably always crack me up. And a saner mastering job allows me to hear that I did a pretty solid job with the recording and mixing side of things, when I wasn’t so sure at the time.
The album title was one I had kicking around for years before I knew what to do with it. At the house before this one, there was a spider that spent a lot of time upstairs in my bedroom and the bathroom for a while. I started to think of him as something close to a wayward pet. I wondered what to get him for Christmas, if he stuck around that long.
He didn’t. He came out of nowhere and bit me on the back of the leg while I was sitting on the toilet one night. I don’t like to kill any living thing if I can help it, aside from mosquitos (fuck those guys), but biting me when I’m dropping off some kids at the pool…that ain’t right.
I’m sad to say I didn’t develop any Spider-Man-like super powers.
There’s also the whole “partner as a spider trapping you in their web” thing I lucked into as a useful accidental metaphor for a breakup album.
Finding cover art to play off of the title was always going to be tricky. But around the time of MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, Johnny Smith hired Bree Gaudette for a photo shoot, and she captured a bunch of evocative images out in the county. I kept coming back to a few shots of a dilapidated barn. They just happened to feature a pretty prominent spiderweb.
As much as I liked the original colour version of the picture that became the cover image (seen above), there was something about the black and white edit I couldn’t shake. Something in there felt right.
There’s another accidental meaning behind the album title — something I never knew it meant until just recently.
There’s something called a nuptial gift. “Food items or inedible tokens that are transferred to females by males during courtship or copulation,” trusty old Wikipedia says.
It isn’t specific to insects by any means, but in certain species of spiders the male will offer the female a gift wrapped in silk as a way of enticing them to mate. As a rule, what’s being offered is prey caught by the male. If the female accepts the gift, she eats it while the male hops on and does his little sex dance.
Some spiders are crafty, evil little shits. Because of their ability to wrap and obscure the gift they’re offering, the female has no way of knowing what’s inside until she removes the proverbial wrapping paper. Two specific species have been known to wrap plant seeds and insect exoskeletons devoid of any edible parts. By the time the female figures out what she’s been given and realizes how useless it is, the male has already done his business.
That an insect with a brain the size of a poppy seed would think to do something so duplicitous is kind of amazing. I wish I could say I knew about this and it was in my head when I was deciding to dust off that old title for this group of songs, but I had no idea.
What’s strange about relationships as doomed and damaging as the one that fed into this album is the way the passage of time seems to dull some of the bad feelings while shining a light on the little pockets of happiness.
One unexpected bit of common ground I shared with the person a lot of these songs are about was a still-strong affection for the animated Disney films we loved as kids. We watched Oliver & Company and The Aristocats while she leaned back on me and ashed her cigarette in a coffee mug. I felt like I was five years old again, only now I was a five-year-old in a grownup body with my hands cupping someone’s breasts through the thin fabric of a thing they called a shirt.
All five-year-olds in grownup bodies should be so lucky.
The suits at Disney have marketing down to a fine art. They take these classic movies everyone loves, the ones that helped shape your childhood, and they deny you access to them for years. Decades, even. Then they make a big show of releasing one of them on home media, letting you know it’s only going to be a limited release before the movie goes “back in the vault”.
This allows them to charge a ridiculous amount of money for something people will be glad to shell out for, given its scarcity and sentimental value. And if the movie you’re after is out of print by the time you show up, well, you can always find someone generous enough to sell you their used copy on the internet for a week’s pay.
The movie she wanted most but couldn’t find a copy of was The Lion King. Disney had put it back in the vault. I wanted to surprise her. I found someone selling it on DVD for a pretty decent price and bought it.
With a perverse sense of timing the best fiction couldn’t invent, it showed up in my mailbox the day after we broke up. I chucked it in a dresser drawer and made myself forget about it.
Six years later, I’m doing some long-overdue cleaning and reorganizing when I dig The Lion King out of the bottom of its wooden tomb, still in the bubble bag that has my address written on the front. Now it’s nothing but a relic from a few weeks spent trying to pry love or something like love from the mouth of indifferent animal instinct. Now it’s a little bit funny.
It’s good when you get to a place where you can laugh about the things that used to sting.
The music video as an art form is far from dead. There are plenty of people out there creating compelling things full of imagery that encourages thought and stirs the emotions. But these are sad days for television as a medium for the transmission of music videos.
MTV was where it all began, and they stopped showing videos eons ago. MTV2 followed suit not long after. That was a real shame, because they made a habit of dusting off some cool things you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. BET doesn’t show music videos anymore unless you pay to subscribe to some of their sister channels. Otherwise their programming now consists of 80% Tyler Perry shows, 5% late night televangelist mind control, and 15% censored movies.
MuchMoreMusic phased out a lot of their more interesting programming — spotlight programs that played half-hour blocks of music videos broken up with interview snippets, semi-obscure videos popping up in the wee hours, a weekly show that took a look at artists from other countries who weren’t always well represented in North America — before dissolving into nothing a year ago and being replaced by a cooking channel. Even Bravo used to show some interesting music videos sometimes. Now their programming seems to be made up of Hallmark movies and crime procedurals that are little more than CSI retreads, and nothing else.
There are a handful of specialty channels you can pay for if you want access to music videos on your TV. So that’s a thing. But if you’ve got any kind of sane or semi-affordable cable package, chances are all you have left now is Much (or, as we used to call it, MuchMusic). And if you’re not a fan of mainstream top forty music and the creatively bankrupt music videos made to accompany most of the sounds living in that world, about all Much has to recommend itself to you now is an afternoon block of videos from the ’80s and ’90s called Much Retro Lunch.
Even here, music programming is falling by the wayside. A few weeks ago Much Retro Lunch was running for three hours every weekday. Now it’s only a one-hour segment. In place of all the music videos they used to air in the early evenings we’ve got Anger Management and TMZ. A one-hour-a-week “alternative” block that resembled the decaying corpse of what The Wedge used to be has gone the way of the dinosaur and Elton John’s falsetto. I imagine somewhere in the not-too-distant future Much will stop showing music videos altogether, just like the rest of the pack.
CMT is dead too. Oh, it’s still calling itself by the same name. It still lives in the same place on your digital cable box. But the only thing left on the schedule that has anything at all to do with what was once “Country Music Television” is Reba McEntire’s mid-2000s sitcom Reba.
When the CRTC licensed a series of new Canadian specialty television channels in 1994, one of those channels was The Country Network. This was the beginning of CMT as we knew it in Canada. In the US it had been around in one form or another for ten years by then. The Canadian version got its official launch in 1995 as NCN (New Country Network) and was relaunched in 1996 as CMT.
Almost all of CMT’s programming — 90% of it — was made up of country music videos. That was part of the deal with the CRTC. It dropped to 70% in 2001, and then to 50% in 2006, with Nashville, live music programs, and the occasional sitcom making up the balance.
Last year the CRTC decided the folks at CMT were no longer obligated to play any music videos at all, as long as they invested 11% of their annual profits into the funding of Canadian music videos (they didn’t have to be country music videos). Even then, there were still blocks of music videos aired in the early mornings and afternoons, along with the long-running weekly Chevy Top 20 Countdown.
A week ago, all music video broadcasting on the channel ceased, and a major platform for country music artists went up in smoke. Their official website and Facebook page both neglect to tell you anything about this total overhaul, but CMT’s programming now consists of nothing but moronic reality shows and sitcoms that run the gamut from “good” to “ugh”. Fridays and Saturdays are twenty-four-hour Everybody Loves Raymond marathons.
For some of us, this is what hell looks like.
Maybe it’s a little strange that I would mourn the loss of this channel when I’ve never been all that into country music.
Well, that’s not quite right. The truer thing to say would be that I didn’t think I was into country music until I heard some of the artists who helped define what country music is, and some others who made a habit of colouring outside the lines — people like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Glen Campbell, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Rodney Crowell, and too many more to mention.
In some ways CMT was the road that got me there, beyond the homogeneity of most modern mainstream country music, which at this point is just pop music with pedal steel guitar as far as I’m concerned (and it’s fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but I always seem to want to hear a little more grit or weirdness or something that isn’t quite there).
I can’t claim I started watching with pure intentions. The long and short of it is this: I was going through puberty, and I thought a fair few country singers were nice to look at. Leann Rimes, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, and Beverley Mahood were especially pretty to my thirteen-year-old eyes.
But here’s the thing. In the mid and late 1990s, whoever was responsible for programming the videos would sometimes slip in some interesting songs that didn’t always fit under the country umbrella.
Bruce Cockburn’s “Night Train” showed up more than a few mornings when I was waking up my brain before heading off to school. Once in a while I’d catch Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and Lennie Gallant’s “Meet Me at the Oasis” (a sweet, atmospheric ballad that deserved more love than it got). And every so often I’d run into someone who was a country artist on the surface but much more complex and compelling than they seemed at first blush.
Matraca Berg was one of those. Her songs were huge hits for Trisha Yearwood and Deana Carter. Her solo work only saw moderate commercial success, with no single she released ever cracking the top thirty. She had the looks, and the voice, and real depth as a writer. How she never became a huge star in her own right is a bit of a mystery.
My best guess is it’s another example of the catch-22 Harry Nilsson and Laura Nyro got stuck in before her, where in someone else’s hands your songs become palatable enough to appeal to the masses, but your own superior and more emotionally three-dimensional readings of the same material are a little too idiosyncratic and real for the people who want wallpaper instead of art.
I will argue until my voice gives out that Matraca’s “Back When We Were Beautiful” is one of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written. I almost can’t get through it, and there are only a few songs that have ever had that kind of emotional impact on me. It was released as the second single from her 1997 album Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. It didn’t even chart.
One of the biggest country singles that year was “How Do I Live”, sung by both Trisha Yearwood and Leann Rimes. Trisha’s version sold three million copies and netted a Grammy nomination. Next to “Back When We Were Beautiful” it sounds like a bunch of half-baked manipulative treacle.
But don’t take my word for it. Have a listen.
We live in a world where Taylor Swift is a celebrated crossover artist who’s considered a great songwriter and a feminist icon when (a) she doesn’t even write her own songs anymore, or at least not without a whole lot of help (these days it isn’t uncommon to see half a dozen different writers credited for any given song on one of her albums), (b) her whole career is now seemingly built around a two-pronged attack of getting involved in short-lived romantic relationships that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame the other party in her music once the relationship ends without ever taking any responsibility for her own failings, and getting involved in short-lived platonic friendships with women that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame most of those women through her music when they dare to criticize her in any way or expose some of her blatant hypocrisies, bending one narrative after another to suit her own purposes, manufacturing feuds to sell more albums, almost always making sure to paint herself as the victim rising from the ashes, (c) her lyrics have grown so juvenile and devoid of anything resembling insight or real human feeling, it’s kind of hilarious, (d) she thinks nothing of stealing other people’s work and profiting off of it without giving any credit to the originator of the material, and (e) she once made a music video in which she played a silver guitar with so much glitter applied to it, the universe itself was made to squint and cry out in pain.
So maybe, when you get right down to it, it’s no big surprise that someone like Matraca Berg never became a household name. I just think it’s sad, the way we go on rewarding artifice and empty double-dealing while ignoring a lot of the people who actually have something to say.
The same applies to song interpreters. Nothing against Reba and Trisha and Faith, but Dawn Sears blew them all away. There was a mixture of power and emotional purity in her voice that was startling. She could take a mediocre song and make it sound like a classic.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Dawn Sears even if you’re a country music fan. I rest my case.
But I digress. Sort of. Maybe.
In recent years, CMT’s programming skewed more toward the mainstream than ever before. But you’d still get the occasional moment of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty like this, even if most of those moments were limited to the more freeform Wide Open Country program.
There at least, for an hour a day, you could hear the likes of Corb Lund, Lindi Ortega, Brandi Carlile, Jerry Leger, and Serena Pryne — people who are making music that nods to country but refuses to be governed by genre. Bruce still made the odd appearance too, whether it was with “I’m on Fire” or something more recent like “Devils and Dust”.
There’s also this: without CMT, at least one of the songs I’ve written wouldn’t exist. It just happens to be the closest thing to a “hit” I’ve ever had, though quantifying that sort of thing is a little difficult when you don’t release singles.
When I played “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” live for the first time and told the audience it was inspired by Ashley Kranz (an on-air host at CMT for about a year), everyone thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
For years now I’ve been writing a lot of songs on stringed instruments in bed. Sometimes the TV’s on when ideas are born. Here’s some video of the genesis of what became “A Well-Thought-Out Escape”, right at its inception, with a little bit of what would later become “Everything He Asked You” mixed in.
I came up with this little cyclical chord progression I liked and kept playing it over and over again, trying to work out a vocal melody and some words. The words weren’t in any hurry to show up, so I sang random gibberish for the most part. I had CMT on in the background while I was playing the six-string banjo. Ashley Kranz showed up to introduce a video while I was trying to form this new idea into something tangible, so I sang her name to fill up some space.
Later on the words would arrive, beginning with the idea of someone selling their love at a yard sale for so little money they might as well be giving it away (don’t ask me where these ideas come from…I have no idea). And still, Ashley stuck around. It would have felt wrong to get rid of her. She was there from the start, after all. Instead of an incidental detail, her name became the climax of the whole song, a half-shouted mantra that broke the whole thing open.
(Side note: I always thought it was a shame they didn’t keep Ashley around longer. She had a fun personality. “Endearing” is the word that comes to mind.)
I don’t know if the bits of country music I heard in my channel-surfing travels had anything to do with the rootsy sound of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. It’s possible some of those sensibilities snuck into my brain when I wasn’t paying attention. It’s also possible the album only came out sounding the way it did because of the instruments I lucked into finding at the right time and the qualities they possessed — the twang of the dirt cheap Teisco that was the only electric guitar I used for the whole album, the earthiness of the Regal parlour guitar, and the…uh…banjo-ness of the six-string banjo.
I do know without Ashley Kranz on my television screen “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” probably never would have progressed beyond a half-formed sketch. I’ve always been tempted to send the song her way as a strange little thank-you, but I think it’s the sort of thing that has the potential to weird a person out. Maybe it’s best to leave it be.
Fare thee well, CMT. I’ll never watch you again, knowing what you’ve become, but I’ll always have the memories of what you once were.