ghosts from the past

That’s all the naked parakeet wrote.

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 the dust clears we’ll have 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.

Rippin’ (countrified demo)

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 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.

Spandex (initial improv, 1998)

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.

Spandex (remastered)

“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.

We’re All Gonna Go (quick comparison)

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’ve still got no idea 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 all 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 those 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 itself 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?

They did.

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 house, 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 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 more.

“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 does the song that goes, ‘We’re all gonna go down slowly’?”

“That’s one of John’s songs,” Gord said, laughing.

“Really?”

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.

And yet I backed up all of SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.

Ugh.

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 I could hear everything my acoustic guitar was doing in the left stereo channel, and all my weird little bass runs, when 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 the 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few interesting discoveries were made along the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You failed me, Machete.

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

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

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

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

A home at the end of the frozen river.

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

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

So I decided to go for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Home at the End of the Frozen River

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

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

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

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

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

Sufjan had this to say about his decision:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boo.

Happy Halloween from this unmasked ninja and his gallant posse.

I want to say this picture was taken in 1991? Maybe? A lot of pictures of me from the pre-teen years are hard to date, because in most of them I look older than my actual age. I was one of those kids who never seemed to stop growing.

I remember this party, but I have no idea who any of the other kids are or what they might be up to now. The main thing is, all these years later I still have my plastic ninja sword, safely sheathed in the garage, just in case there’s ever a need to use it.

If you were a child of the ’80s, you might remember this cassette tape.

It was the soundtrack to every Halloween at my house growing up. Whether I was handing out candy with the tape blaring from stereo speakers inside the house or coming back from trick-or-treating to hear it moaning in the distance, it never failed to creep me out.

That tape popped back into my head today for the first time in years. I had no memory of what it was called, so I did a search for “Halloween cassette tape” and hoped for the best. The very first result was the exact tape I was looking for. Its familiar orange face all on its own is still almost enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Listening to it now is total nostalgia overload. Even if it’s mostly made up of bootleg recordings lifted from other sources, there’s still something unnerving about its lo-fi ambience.

Twenty years ago today, the mother person asked me if I could record some eerie background music so we’d have something different to play on Halloween. It caught me off guard. She never did much to support my interest in music — it was the opposite, really. But I was game.

I wrote down the name of every sinister-sounding patch I could find on my Yamaha W-5 synthesizer, soaked the Clavinova in built-in effects (piano with reverb and a Leslie speaker approximation seemed to be the most unnerving combination), switched to a pipe organ sound every once in a while, and improvised for about half an hour, trying to come up with the spookiest and most discordant sounds I could. I called the finished product Walking Down Fear Street. In every way it was my attempt at making something similar in spirit to Horror Sounds of the Night.

I don’t think she was a big fan of what I came up with. And the hi-fi system threw the limitations of the recording into stark relief, captured as it was on the little Sony stereo/tape recorder of yore with its tiny built-in microphone. None of that ever bothered me much. I had fun trying something different, and it’s pretty amusing to listen to today.

Join me, if you will, in laughing at my fourteen-year-old self trying to scare trick-or-treaters. It’s tough to work out what some of the individual songs are now without the use of a stopwatch, since everything was recorded as one continuous performance. I think this is part of a track called “Time Stands Still”, and all or most of “Sour Grapes”. While it’s only a small segment (I’m not about to subject you to the whole thing!), it gives you a pretty decent idea of the atmosphere I was aiming for.

“Walking Down Fear Street” excerpt (1997)

The gift-giving spider.

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.

Then there’s GIFT FOR A SPIDER.

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 had to listen to it 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 because 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 got all of three or four warm and fuzzy songs written 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. It was a fun moment.

The spoken addendum was improvised later, after things fell apart, trading in sunny-eyed optimism for foul-mouthed venom.

Nightside

I liked the songs but couldn’t tell how well they played together as a larger piece of work. A lot of them were coming less from craftsmanship than a need for catharsis. 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 in-between songs of love and post-love. It was pretty eclectic, both sonically and emotionally. But it took a lot out of me, taking all the mixed feelings I had in the aftermath of that intense, ill-fated, whirlwind relationship and shaping 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 (though not very many of 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 it 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’s not 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 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 ever 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 fresh, 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, for a while there was a spider that spent a lot of time upstairs in my bedroom and the bathroom. I started to think of him as something close to a 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”.

It 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 one she wanted most but couldn’t find 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.

Radio killed the video star.

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.

A Well-Thought-Out Escape

(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.

Twelve strings.

This is a Takeharu WTK-65H twelve-string acoustic guitar. It was built in Japan in 1977.

Gord found it at Value Village seventeen years ago. He left it at my house not long after getting it, for at least a day or two, so I could try it out. I remember putting it in an open tuning and strumming the chords to “The Ballad of El Goodo” and John Lennon’s version of “Be My Baby”, feeling the sound fill up the room. It wasn’t anything fancy as guitars go, but it had soul, and it showed up on a handful of Papa Ghostface and early Guys with Dicks songs.

Champagne Suicide (2000)

If it came with a case, I don’t think Gord ever used it. He left the guitar leaning against a wall wherever he was living at any given time for anyone to play. Some drunk person would always pick it up and break a string.

It became a running joke: the twelve-string that never lived up to its name. Sometimes it was an eleven-string. Sometimes a ten-string.

For Gord’s nineteenth birthday I bought him a new set of strings, and for a moment the guitar was whole again. That lasted about a week before someone got drunk and careless and broke another string.

At some point in its life it either fell or was thrown into the Detroit river. I’m pretty sure it also caught some embers from a bonfire one night.

When Gord brought it over a few weeks ago for a long overdue visit, he left it here for me to borrow again. I think he just couldn’t get much use out of it anymore and thought maybe I’d be able to pull something out of its dust-covered guts because of the way I play. A thumb that’s spent years dancing across fretboards might be more forgiving than the other fingers.

The pickguard was hanging on through sheer force of will, the glue or adhesive solution having lost most of its hold a long time ago. It was so sucked-in it made the whole guitar look warped. The action was so high, about all you could do was play with a slide. Fretting a chord was almost impossible. When I tried, it felt like I was going to break my thumb off. The intonation up the neck was about the worst I’ve ever heard on a stringed instrument. Two strings and a bridge pin were missing. There were cobwebs inside the soundhole.

There’s neglecting a guitar, and then there’s this.

I brought it to Stephen Chapman, because he’s the guy I bring guitars to when they need work.

“Who gave you this guitar?” he asked.

“A friend,” I said.

“This is not a good friend. Give it back.”

You know it’s bad when someone who can find a way to fix a broken pair of studio headphones tells you a derelict guitar is a lost cause. He lowered the action as much as he could and said that was all he could do. “Don’t even try to tune it,” he told me. “You’ll just start snapping strings. Take it out back and shoot it.”

I’m nothing if not stubborn. Back at home I lowered the tuning so there’d be less stress on the neck and the messed-up bridge. I took it slow. None of the strings broke. It was pretty comfortable to play now, but one string was buzzing something awful. We raised the action back up just enough to get rid of the buzz. I found some extra bridge pins I had sitting around and replaced the one that was missing.

I have three almost-complete sets of strings for acoustic twelve-string guitars. They’re all incomplete because every time I’ve broken a string on my own twelve-string, it’s always one of the high E strings that goes. It never fails. And I never feel like restringing the whole thing.

Wouldn’t you know it — one of the missing strings on Mr. Takeharu was a high E. I had none of those left.

I improvised. I stole a high E from a spare set of strings for a six-string guitar. The gauge looked about right. It worked. Then I replaced the other missing string with one that was meant to live in that place. You wouldn’t think two strings would make much difference on a guitar that’s got twelve of them, but the change was striking and immediate. The sound went from just sort of being there to filling up the room again.

Johnny Smith peeled off the dying pickguard and tried to scrub away the ugly scar the glue on its underside left behind. It was slow going. We decided it made more sense to get a replacement pickguard and cover up the ugliness. But it turns out Hummingbird style pickguards are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. The new one I ordered was too small.

It was too bad. I liked the look of it.

I got rid of the cobwebs, rescued a blue pick with a skull on it that had been living inside the guitar for who knows how long, and we picked up some of this stuff.

That crazy tape gave the old pickguard a new lease on life.

Now it’s almost unrecognizable from the mess of a guitar it was when it landed here.

Somewhere along the line I realized I was in a tuning not far off from the one I used seventeen years ago when I first met this guitar. I started playing “The Ballad of El Goodo” again. It felt like making a full turn. Then I played some other things.

On a technical level, it’s still not a great guitar. I’m not sure it ever was, even forty years ago when it was brand new. But it’s got its soul back. All it needed was a little bit of affection and double-sided tape.

You say you got a need for a celebratory season.

Work continues on the next Papa Ghostface album, though my sleep issues and Gord’s rotating work hours have slowed things down a little.

Yesterday was our first session in a while. The last time we got together before this, we had plans to work on a specific song. Then I started playing a random unrelated thing on an acoustic guitar, Gord joined in, I started singing the lyrics for “Be Sorry” from SHOEBOX PARADISE, and our plans got chucked straight into the trash.

“Be Sorry” was one of our more accessible songs back in the day. It had a recognizable verse/chorus structure, the lyrics were pretty straightforward, and with a little more polish it might have almost sounded like something that could have made sense on college radio. It was also one of the songs we always liked best in our own catalogue of work.

Whatever high school class I was pretending to pay attention in when I wrote the words, I had Joe Cocker’s version of “Feelin’ Alright” in my head. I thought we might do something with a similar good-time bluesy energy when it came time to set the words to music.

But songs have minds of their own, and they were trying to teach me that lesson even back then. The day I pulled out those lyrics in my little music room at the house on Kildare, I started playing a descending chord progression on an electric guitar that was more indebted to “All Along the Watchtower” than Joe Cocker. Gord came up with some inspired lead lines, playing through this cool little Zoom pedal he had that’s sadly missing in action now. I found an appropriate drum pattern on the Clavinova, and we got down to business.

I ditched a twisted bridge section mid-song because the lunacy no longer seemed to fit:

Popsicle head in a European convict’s mind.
You don’t pay attention.
Blood red blush in a rush of amputated loveless fear.
You don’t pay attention.
So kiss my head — my hairless head.
Kiss my head, or I’ll make you pay.
Kiss my head. Kiss my head.
Number five — your creation is terminated

What that randomness was supposed to mean is beyond me. I sang the first verse a second time at the end instead of trying to pancake those words into music that didn’t suit them, and then we improvised a long instrumental coda with some fun duelling guitar business.

Slowing the song down and playing it in a different key seventeen years later wasn’t planned. It was just one of those happy accidents. The new music felt like it gave a little more depth to some of the simplest words I ever wrote. Defiance turned to something weary and maybe a little wiser.

We got down the acoustic guitars. I added some bass. Then we left it alone. I meant to record some singing and experiment with other sounds. I still haven’t done that.

When Gord came over yesterday, he brought his old acoustic twelve-string with him. The idea was for both of us to play twelve-strings and see what happened. There was one problem: his axe is in much rougher shape than I thought it was. The intonation is a mess, and the action is pretty stiff.

My own twelve-string has held up a lot better over the years. I gave it to Gord, he slipped it into a tuning a little kinder to fingers that play the conventional way, and we tried adding it to this new version of “Be Sorry” in a few different places.

I’m not sure any of what we recorded is going to end up in the final mix when all is played and sung. Still, it was nice to be reminded again that while this cheap Washburn twelve-string might not be anything fancy, it sounds pretty nice when you stick a good mic in front of it. All I did here was aim a single Pearlman TM-250 at the guitar and put it in omni.

I still need to mess with some video settings on the T5i and figure out how to get the best results in different lighting situations. This was shot in auto mode, with autofocus on, in a room that isn’t all that well-lit most of the time. I think the ISO got bumped up a bit to compensate. So it came out a little grainy.

But I have to say I’m enjoying this camera a lot. The autofocus seems to do a solid job of keeping the important things in focus, and there’s no way I could ever shoot handheld with either of the Flip cameras and get movement this smooth.

Remastering update #3.

156 songs done. 32 to go.

Smells like the homestretch to me. If I can keep tackling at least a few songs a day, in about two weeks I should be finished. Then I can finally make good on some packages I’ve been meaning to send to a few people for about six million years.

By now the number of unused and alternate tracks I’ve found for these songs is getting a little crazy. There are even a few alternate mixes I don’t remember making. Here’s one of those.

Makeshift Ashtray (alternate mix)

I knew there was a percussion track I didn’t end up using for this little electronic mood piece, because it felt like it worked better as more of an ambient thing. I didn’t realize I went to the trouble of making a mix that included the beat just in case I decided to use it, though.

I still think the right version ended up on the album, but it’s kind of neat to hear it like this. The Aphex Twin influence might be a little more pronounced in this mix.

Until the sun blows up, I’m never gonna let you down.

All through high school, I wrote songs for assignments every chance I got. It made life more fun and kept me on my toes. I had the most success doing this when Mrs. Gilham — one of the few great high school teachers I had — was teaching English or French, finding endless ways to contort what were meant to be essays or oral presentations into musical shapes.

One time I stood in front of the class and strummed a mandolin while singing in French about celebrity endorsements. The song was called “Les Atheletes qui Chante”. “Je suis Michael Jordan,” went one bit. “J’aime les Ball Park Franks.” Another time, for a group assignment, I played the part of Bill Clinton. I was very attached to my pet pig, Oinky, played by Matt Strukelj. When Oinky died, I hit the play button on a CD player and moaned along to some insane instrumental music I recorded at home the night before.

I liked to think it kept things interesting, not just for me, but for the other students too.

In grade eleven one of the books my English class dug into was The Catcher in the Rye. We were supposed to write something while inhabiting the psyche of one of the characters in the story. I asked if I could write a song from the perspective of Holden Caulfield. Mrs. Gilham gave me the go-ahead.

I wrote a song called “Holden On”, because bad puns are the best thing ever. It was a good excuse to mess around in a strange guitar tuning and to write in a voice that was a little different from whatever my typical songwriting voice was in those days.

I brought my crummy Vantage acoustic guitar to school with me the next day, sat on top of an unattended desk in my first period English class, and sang my song. It went over well enough that some of my classmates asked if I could play it again at the end of the period. That blew my mind a little. I went through it a second time, put a little more energy into the vocal performance now that I was warmed up, and threw in a bit of “Henry the Horny Hamster” from my X-rated Christmas album before Mrs. Gilham shot me a look that said, “That’s as far as you go, pilgrim.”

The guitar came with me to my second period society class. Sean Lauria was one of the guys I shared that class with. He asked me what the deal was with the axe. I told him about my English assignment and “Holden On”. He asked if he could hear it. I told him I’d already played it twice and wasn’t really up for playing it again.

He stuffed thirty or forty bucks into the front pocket of my shirt to try and convince me. I almost fell over. I handed the money back to him, laughing in disbelief. He wasn’t giving up, though. He talked Ms. Davis into letting me play the song for the class. So I sat on another desk that wasn’t taken and played it a third time, without quite the same intensity as before.

I only knew of one other person who ever talked their way into substituting a song for a writing assignment, and that was Gord. It seemed almost poetic, since that was how we hooked up and became friends in the first place. The same year my English class was analyzing The Catcher in the Rye, his was reading Animal Farm. He wrote a song in the voice of Boxer the horse — the most tragic character in the book.

For a while I only heard bits and pieces of the song. Brodie Johnston, who was in Gord’s class when he debuted his ode to Boxer, sang a few lines for me, substituting lyrics about his favourite running back for the parts he couldn’t remember. Gord played part of it for me outside of school. But I didn’t hear anything close to the full thing for at least a few years.

Most of the songs I wrote for school-related purposes were recorded in one form or another, but outside of a truncated instrumental reprise on WATER ONLY HATES ITSELF SILLY, “Holden On” was never documented in any meaningful way. Gord’s Boxer song was another story.

In late 1999, Amanda filmed a performance with her then-new 8mm camcorder. It has to be the first existing recording of the song, made just days before or after gord played the PG-rated version at school.

Three years later, I asked Gord if he wanted to revisit it and give it a proper recording. He wrote out what he remembered of the words, changing some of them in the process. We got down a rough demo just to run through it, both of us playing electric guitar, Gord singing through a cold that made him a temporary baritone.

And then we didn’t do anything more with it for fourteen years.

When we were bouncing ideas around for the followup to STEW, the Boxer song came up. I learned Gord never quite settled on a version he was satisfied with.

I finally got around to mixing the 2002 demo so we could both hear it again, muting my guitar part, since I didn’t think it added much.

Ode to Boxer (2002 demo)

We both felt this was the version to build on. It lost the anger and desperation that was there in the beginning and took on a more defeated, mournful quality, with Gord improvising some words at the end about a sugarcane mountain that sounded to me like the doomed horse’s dying dream.

We sat down and tried to work out where we could tighten things up without doing too much to alter the soul of the song, and I recorded a late night demo on my own that reflected the changes we made.

Ode to Boxer (2016 demo)

Gord first had Benjamin the donkey predicting Boxer’s fate. A quick look at the source text revealed it was really wise pig Old Major who warned him he would be expendable once he’d given the last of his great strength. I tweaked that and a few other lines, but left most of the lyrics untouched.

We picked at it some more, experimenting with the length and placement of different sections until it felt right. An instrumental bit that had been forgotten for well over a decade was reinstated. Brand new music was written for the “sugarcane mountain” coda.

Recording it was pretty straightforward. We got down the acoustic guitars and then the rest fell into place pretty quick. There’s a bit of a different dynamic driving what we do now, though. In the past we never talked much about what we were doing. We just did it. Now there’s much more of a dialogue happening, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions to each other.

When Gord plays bass, he tends to throw in these great little jabs of unexpected melody. “Situations” on STEW is a good example. The bass doesn’t just hold down the low end. It dances.

With this song, I thought the bass might be more effective during the 3/4 “sugarcane mountain” section if it wasn’t so busy. I asked Gord to try a simple walking bass line without throwing in any fiddly bits. As for me, after I recorded a rough drum track Gord said he felt playing with sticks didn’t really suit the song. I tried playing with brushes and everything started to feel a lot more open and dynamic.

We were both right.

It’s nice to be able to voice an idea or ask someone to try something a different way without having to worry about any egos getting bruised, because you know everything is being done in service of the music.

A great example of this philosophy in action: I assumed Gord would want to handle the vocals here, since the song is really his baby and has been for a long time. He asked me to sing it instead. I did twist his arm into singing a bit of backup for the final “never gonna let you down” bit, but aside from that all the singing is me.

I really liked the acoustic guitar countermelodies I came up with for my demo. When it came right down to it, including them in the final recording would have made everything feel a little too cluttered. So that fell by the wayside. But there was still room for banjo and piano. As for the lap steel, that’s the 1950s “mother of toilet seat” Magnatone first heard on AFTERTHOUGHTS. This might be that old beast’s best moment on record so far.

I thought it was about time I performed a bit of surgery on the rough mix that’s been sitting around for a while, because I’ve been wanting to make a little music video to go with the song. The moving pictures come to you from John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s animated film version of Animal Farm from 1954 — secretly funded by the CIA! The last time I saw it was when my own English class read the book in 2000 or 2001, so I couldn’t remember how much of Boxer was in there. As it turned out, there was more than enough material for what I wanted to do, including some moments that were more evocative than I was expecting them to be.

And there you have the near-twenty-year-long journey of a song that began life as a high school english assignment, from raw teenage howl to refined alt-folk, or whatever it wants to call itself now.