ghosts from the past

it’s just you and me now, clovis.

sleepwalkers

it has just come to my attention that sleepwalkers is the best horror movie of all time. BECAUSE CATS.

(actually, it’s one of those “insanely bad but entertaining because it’s insanely bad” movies. watching it, you wonder if someone was drugging stephen king’s toothpaste when he wrote the screenplay. but still. cats.)

in the real world, where madchen amick doth not caress a cat while whispering my true feline name, the unnecessary construction crap continues, and continues, and continues. if i spend too much time thinking about how, if not for all the noise killing by ability to record for all of the most useful portions of almost every day, i would probably be almost finished that ambitious solo album there, it makes me want to murder things. i’m all for decompressing a little between albums, but not being able to do much of any meaningful work for almost two months now is getting ridiculous.

at this rate, i expect them to still be beeping and banging and alternating between working and pretending to work when next summer rolls around, and for our street to still not be repaired. hell, they should move in. why not? it already feels like they’ve been here forever and are never going to leave. might as well make it official.

the whole remastering thing has fallen by the wayside a little. instead of focusing on that the way i planned to, i’ve been dipping my toes back into the cassette archives.

i’m not sure what got my brain drifting back in that direction. i think it might have been one or two specific songs i wanted to hear. before i knew what was happening, i was listening to my ten-year-old self banging on a keyboard and singing about how endless matters are all that matter, and reading handwritten album notes from 1994 in which i thanked my wife and daughter.

you heard it here first — i was married and a father when i was ten years old. hey, i’m as surprised as you are.

then it hit me that i didn’t have access to a working tape recorder anymore. and that needed to change.

from 1994 (and maybe earlier) to the summer of 1998, this was what i recorded with:

my-old-friend

that’s a sony CFS-W305 cassette-corder. dig the “space sound”.

sometime in late 1997 it started getting finicky. sometimes it wouldn’t start recording right away. a few times it stopped recording at a random moment in the middle of a song. it still did the job most of the time, but when you’re constantly making music, you want something you can rely on.

around the time our sony friend was developing some issues, johnny smith bought a magnasonic CPS-912 boombox from a coworker. it didn’t have a built-in mic, but it had some nice speakers on it, so i started using it for listening and dubbing purposes.

then the CFS-W305 got even more temperamental and started chewing up tapes. that wasn’t going to stand. in the summer of ’98 i bought a cheap genexxa mic from radio shack that was sort of a poor man’s shure SM58, plugged it into the magnasonic, set it up as a room mic, and couldn’t believe how much fuller things sounded.

i’d put up a picture of the magnasonic here, but it’s packed away somewhere. and you can’t find a picture of it online. with the sony guy there, you can find the service manual without even trying, which is pretty neat. with the CPS-912, there’s no evidence anywhere on the internet that the thing ever existed at all.

it’s big and red. i can tell you that much. even after i wasn’t recording on tape anymore, i used its speakers as my monitors for a while before it got packed away.

there was another tape recorder in there for a bit. it wasn’t used to record a whole lot of music, but when i was in grade eight i would carry it around with me and make goofy field recordings. i loved that thing. i remember dropping it or damaging it somehow, and then it either got lost in a move or unloaded at a yard sale.

i don’t know what brand it was. in my memory it looks like a realistic CTR-70. kind of like this, only…more beige.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

it goes without saying that they don’t make a whole lot of cassette recorders anymore. not too many people are looking to record anything on cassette tape — not when you can buy digital sound recorders with stereo microphones that will probably fit in your pocket for not a whole lot of money. for me there’s just something appealing about cassette tapes and mono that never really went away. i grew up with tapes. a huge chunk of my musical life was recorded on that medium, live in one shot.

i know i posted a picture here a long time ago. here’s a new one that came out blurry for no apparent reason.

blurry-cassette-archives

aside from a handful of “greatest hits” and out-takes collections, all of that is original material, and they’re all full-length albums, most of them 90-minute or 120-minute cassettes. if you thought i was prolific about half a dozen years ago when i was putting out a few albums a year, you don’t want to know how productive i was when i was going through puberty. i was on a mission. it never occurred to me to play any of the stuff for anyone else. i just knew i needed to make it, and i wore the reluctant smithster down over a year or two until he became a vital collaborator.

(don’t ask me why i named him johnny smith but called us “the west team”. i’ve never understood what my logic was there.)

i’ve only revisited a few select songs here and there. i want to wait to really dig in until i can do it in a straight chronological line, and to be able to do that there are a few unlabelled tapes i need to go through to see what’s on them, and a little detective work i need to do to try and figure out when certain things were recorded early on.

the thing i’m realizing from the little bit of listening i have done — there’s very little music here that embarrasses me. even with the recordings where it’s obvious i didn’t know my way around a keyboard yet, there’s an almost violent creative energy there that’s a lot of fun to listen to all this distance on the other side of it.

i mean, i improvised a concept album when i was eleven years old. with shifts in perspective. and recurring narrative and melodic motifs. and i could barely even string a few chords together back then. that’s insane.

i’m not bragging. i just can’t believe i had the audacity to try something like that, and that i was confident enough to pull it off.

there’s a scary amount of music on those albums, taking in a lot of different sounds and subjects. i’m not going to put any of those songs up here, though. what’s going here is something i never thought i’d let anyone in the world hear, and one of the few things hidden in the spaces between all those audio photo albums that does embarrass me.

this is an out-take that didn’t end up on any proper album. it was recorded on july 2, 1997, the day i bought my first acoustic guitar.

by this point we’d recorded a lot of music and i was pretty comfortable at the keyboard. i felt i had a pretty good grasp of harmony and structure, even with my music theory-resistant brain. i thought i could pick up the guitar without having ever held one in my hands before, and just…play. i’ve written a bit about this before.

when i sat down with my shiny new piece of crap vantage acoustic, hit the record button on the sony CFS-W305, and started improvising, i had what you earth people call a rude awakening. i could not, as it turned out, just pick up a guitar and play. at all.

i think i was somewhere near standard tuning. i’m not sure. it wasn’t like i knew how to tune the thing.

here’s a little excerpt from that song, from that day when i was thirteen years old and feeling pretty demoralized all at once about not being able to make instant magic with six strings. the whole thing is more than six minutes long, and while it’s not quite as soul-destroying as i remembered it being, i’m not about to make you sit through all of that.

i don’t know what to do (excerpt)

and here’s a little song idea that was recorded a few days ago using my new tape recorder friend, also played on an acoustic guitar.

sunny day (fragment)

there’s nothing very intricate at all going on there. it’s just a dead-simple outline that may or may not someday turn into a fleshed-out song. but man, what a difference some years can make when it comes to things like knowing how to play an instrument.

i mentioned a new tape recorder friend. that would be this guy.

tapey-mctaperson-2

it’s a panasonic RQ-2102. new, these things go for outrageous prices. there are a bunch of people selling used ones in great condition on ebay for next to nothing. so i went there, and paid my next-to-nothing, and got one that might as well be new. i really miss that little tape recorder i remember being beige, and this is the closest-looking thing that seems to exist now.

i have to say i’m pretty impressed with the clarity of the tiny built-in microphone. of course it’s going to be lo-fi, but it’s the kind of lo-fi that brings back all kinds of good memories for me. while i’m not about to start recording full albums on cassette again, i’m looking forward to using this thing as both a way to capture random ideas at the embryonic stage (which is what happened here) and a field recording tool.

there are times when you just don’t feel comfortable standing on your porch with a microphone in your hand and headphones on. it’s a lot easier to play it cool with a little tape recorder under your arm. the added portability is an asset too.

i know you are, but why?

vincent

early on in my digital recording days, when i was still trying to work it all out, i didn’t always back up everything i recorded. with cassette tapes it was simple. you recorded the thing, the thing was there, and you were done. this was different.

there are whole albums i neglected to preserve in any way beyond dumping the tracks on an audio CD. half of SINGING THE OESOPHAGUS TO SLEEP and most of DON’T TALK LIKE A BABY got the backup treatment. none of SCREAMING NIPPLES or LIVE AT THE NAKED GIRAFFE THEATER did.

i can still remember sitting in the tiny music room i was working out of in 1999 and deleting all of YOU’RE A NATION from my mixer, thinking, “the CD’s finished. there’s no need to back any of this up. besides, i need the mixer space to record new things. see you later, entirety-of-what-will-later-become-one-of-my-favourite-early-papa-ghostface-albums.”

there went any chance to revisit the album once i knew a little bit more about what i was doing and at least get rid of the low end mud and out-of-control digital clipping.

i did think SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was worth backing up in full. that right there is what you call an epic fail in the “being a good judge of your own work” department.

by the time we got to SHOEBOX PARADISE i wised up and started backing up everything but the odd out-take i didn’t think i’d ever want to revisit. by OH YOU THIS out-takes were getting backed up too, no matter how crummy i thought they were. today i don’t just back up every song i record — i back up in-progress versions and alternate mixes, and every backed-up thing gets a backup copy of itself, just in case one disc decides to crap out at some point.

this comes with its own set of problems. if i haven’t been specific enough in scrawling on a CD how evolved any given song on it is, sometimes i’ll have no idea which disc has the specific thing i’m looking for. example: there’s an O-L west song i’ve backed up at three different points. and it’s still not finished. it took me weeks to track down the most up-to-date unmixed backup. some of that comes down to the most recent several dozen backup CDs being scattered all over the place with no rhyme or reason, but still.

the other day i started thinking. it’s a pain in the ass to have to dig through boxes of CD-Rs for whatever i’m after at any given time. it doesn’t help much that the boxes are arranged in chronological order. i mean, look at the discography sidebar on this blog. i’ve recorded a goofy amount of music over the years, and what’s out there in the world in one form or another is only a fraction of it.

what if i went through every little box one by one and itemized what was in them? what if i built a database of what was on the backup CDs, so the next time i wanted to load something back on the mixer i could pinpoint where it was in seconds?

i can’t believe i didn’t think to do this sooner. it hasn’t been as tedious or time-consuming as i expected. i’m just about finished. it’s funny to see how many different brands of CD-Rs i went through over the years, and impressive how many of them still work. only a few have gone wonky on me, and they don’t have anything on them i’m missing too much.

here’s the thing. i have a pretty good handle on all the different things i’ve done. anything music-related has always lived in my memory longer than just about anything else that rattles around the old brain. but when you’re dealing with seventeen years of archived material, you’re going to uncover the odd thing you forgot all about, or that you didn’t even know was there.

the day before valentine’s day in 2004 i sat in on chris hewer’s CJAM show actual air. it was my fourth and last time on his show, i think. i played him some songs off of NUDGE YOU ALIVE (which had been released, to the extent that i released anything back then) and GROWING SIDEWAYS (which was still being recorded).

for the live performance segment — always something chris encouraged — i thought about covering a blue nile song to tie in with the looming day of romantic grotesqueries, since paul buchanan’s songs on a walk across the rooftops and hats were some of the only love songs i could stomach in those days. i decided to improvise something instead. i brought my acoustic 12-string and a few half-formed melodic ideas with me and hoped for the best.

trying to improvise a song out of thin air in a live setting when you’re not a jazz musician isn’t always a great idea. sometimes it works out. sometimes not so much.

it wasn’t a great idea that friday night. i played a little bit. then i sang:

i smell something cooking in the kitchen
don’t burn don’t burn don’t burn the prosthesis

and there wasn’t another word in my head. after all the countless times i’d opened my mouth while recording, alone or with other people, and watched a torrent of unwritten lyrics come pouring out, this time i had nothing.

i laughed, said, “i don’t know what the hell i’m doing,” and it fell apart before it could really turn into anything.

later that night i listened to the archived MP3 on CJAM’s website. it didn’t sound as much like it was falling apart in hindsight as i thought it did in the moment, until it…you know…fell apart.

kind of wish i thought to download that, if only for posterity.

a week later i sat down with the thing, built on it, and recorded it as an instrumental piece. i didn’t mix it. and then, as far as i could tell, i never backed it up and it was lost forever.

i didn’t feel like anything amazing got away there. but it was a little frustrating. the passage of time made me more curious about what i did with that song. only one or two vague bits hung around in my head long-term, when i knew it passed through something like a dozen different sections.

there’s a song called “i know you are, but why?” on one of the backup CDs from the GROWING SIDEWAYS period. i always assumed it was one of the songs that ended up on that album. must have been a working title i gave whatever song it was before i figured out what i wanted to call it.

when i was building my archival database, i decided it was time to drop it back on the mixer and find out what it really was. i saw the file size was pretty small. probably one of the shorter tracks. “an elegant insult”. “feckless”, maybe.

nope. it’s the song that got its start as a botched improvisation the day before valentine’s day in 2004. the one i was sure i never backed up.

talk about your surprises.

it’s weird to hear it all this time later. it’s not any great lost masterpiece. there are some flubs in there. i think i always meant to re-record it once i had a chance to sit with it and tweak it some more. but it’s pretty neat for what it is.

the first chunk is played on that washburn D10S 12-string. the simon & patrick spruce 6 CW that’s all over every non-synth-driven thing i recorded from 2003 to 2007 picks it up from there, and then the 12-string comes back for a brief coda punctuated by the distant sound of a door opening.

those were the only two decent acoustic guitars i had at the time. i recorded them with a rode NT4 stereo mic and ran that into one of the now-departed DBX silver series mic preamps.

i don’t regret unloading that mic. it didn’t do much to excite me anymore once i stepped up to high end mic preamps. but it served me well for a good few years there, and i can’t hear anything in this recording now that sounds harsh or cheap to me.

if you’re recording on a budget and you want a mic that will capture the sound of an acoustic instrument in stereo, you could do a whole lot worse.

anyway, here’s the song i didn’t even know existed. beef be braised.

i know you are, but why?

ballast from the past.

IMGP0026

most of the time, when i’m figuring out which CDs i want to send someone who either doesn’t have any of my albums or only has one or two, i stick with things from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN forward. it’s simpler that way. i think some of my best solo work has come on that most recent stretch of albums. my priority tends to be giving people an idea of what my “modern” music sounds like, because if i start digging into the vault it can be difficult to know how far to go. there’s a lot of stuff in there.

i decided to break with tradition when i was putting together a package for someone who asked for a copy of STEW. i figured that album could use a bit of context for a listener who’d never heard any papa ghostface music, so i thought i’d toss in a few early PG albums. then i thought it might be useful to contrast an older solo album already in their collection with some of the things i did right after it was finished — things that expand on what i was trying to do on that album and, at least to my ears, pull it all off with a lot more confidence and effectiveness.

one thing led to another, and i’ll just say you wouldn’t believe me if i told you how much music is getting stuffed in that one package now. it’s a good thing i’ve got some hefty mailer-things kicking around and a surplus of bubble wrap.

i needed to make copies of some CDs i didn’t have any leftover stock for, and it led to a little bit of listening and revisiting. i’ve tried to limit it to a song or two here and there. you fall down the rabbit hole of your own musical past when it’s full of meth-addicted rabbits and taciturn lampshade creatures like mine is, and there’s no telling when you’ll make your way out.

but there was one album i hadn’t listened to in so long, i remembered the broad outlines but not all of the subtleties. i thought it was about time for another visit with BRAND NEW SHINY LIE.

i’ve always had mixed feelings about this one. always liked it, but i felt like it never quite got to where it was supposed to be. we’re talking about a projected double-CD that came out the musical birth canal as something that fits on one side of a 90-minute cassette. there’s a pretty good chance i’ll go the rest of my life without ever making a full-length album that short again.

i sat down to listen to it front to back the other night, for the first time in probably six or seven years. and i’m here now to tell you how badly i misjudged this thing.

when the album was pretty new, a friend told me it was the best thing i’d ever done. “sorry to be the one to tell you this,” he wrote a decade ago in a fascinating series of mini-reviews for a stack of CDs i gave him, “but you’ll never surpass this. better you hear it from me than read it in spin or rolling stone.”

i thought it was bizarre at the time. we’re still friends, and i think he would tell you his opinion has shifted a bit over the years as i’ve continued to make music. but for the first time, i think i heard a bit of what he must have been hearing when he got so excited about it back then.

this album is so stripped-down compared to what i’m doing now, it’s a bit of a shock to the system. the closest it gets to “layered” is a few electric guitar parts, bass, drums, and a few vocal tracks happening at the same time. and that only happens in a few songs. there are very few creative sonic touches, aside from a few guitar effects and some reverb and delay here and there. i was very much in “get down the bare essentials of what the song needs and then move on” mode in those days.

but damned if it doesn’t work all the way through. this might be the single best example of the violently anti-chorus, anti-rhyming, anti-repetitive way of writing i was forcing myself to explore for all i was worth at the time. the thing i’m proudest of after reacquainting myself with these songs is the way it never feels like a trick. it always feels natural. a few songs even go places i forgot they went, but the changes always make a strange kind of sense.

and the lyrics might still be some of the more interesting i’ve written. how i got in such a short period of time from countless variations on “why can’t i find a girl to give a shit about me?” to a line like “without tires, there is no mendacity for a vehicle to crave” is a mystery to me. but i got there.

now i think this might be one of my best albums — not just from that specific period, but from any period, full stop, without any caveats.

GROWING SIDEWAYS was recorded at the same time. the non-repetitive way of writing is alive and well there too, but that album has always had a very different personality to my ears. it’s really interesting to listen to the two of them back-to-back, and to consider how they’re similar, and how they’re not.

all of this listening has been a catalyst for further re-evaluating. a few of the write-ups on the album pages have changed a little to reflect that. it took me until today to figure out, eleven years after the fact, why WHO YOU ARE NOW IS NOT WHAT YOU WERE BEFORE has always felt like it wasn’t quite on the same level as GROWING SIDEWAYS, even though they’re as close to being siblings as any two albums i’ve ever made. and i think i’m only realizing now that SIDEWAYS is a much more personal album than i thought it was at the time, in ways i wasn’t cognizant of when i was making it.

i wasn’t expecting this to happen, but now i’m giving some serious thought to “reissuing” some of these things. they were important albums for me on a creative level, they were the first things i did that got any significant airplay on CJAM, and it would be fun to repackage at least a few of them with lyrics, now that i don’t feel awkward about the whole “printing the lyrics with an album” thing anymore. i think having the words there would be a little more interesting than the brief “here’s what the deal is with this album” blurbs i printed on most of the bare-bones, period-correct inserts.

i have no interest in trying to remix or remaster anything. i’ve never had any issues with the way these albums sound. and i don’t think i would be spreading them around in any meaningful way — i already did that when they were new. i just think it might be a fun little mini-project to give some of them a few little liner note tweaks, for myself.

i wanted to throw a song up here that would be tied into all of this. most of the existing BRAND NEW SHINY LIE out-takes landed on the MISFITS compilation, but i thought i might get lucky if i threw “nobody loves you when you don’t exist” back on the mixer and took a listen to the drum part i ended up junking. a fun little revisionist mix of “symbolism therapist” happened some years back when i reinstated that song’s lost drum part and added bass and electric guitar. maybe a similar thing would happen here, and i’d find myself saying, “hey! this drum track is pretty cool after all!”

nope. not gonna happen. turns out there was a reason i felt like the drums were never really working on “nobody loves you”. they stunk then, and they still stink now.

so here instead is one of the first songs i recorded for BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. it didn’t make the cut. you can hear i still had one foot planted in OH YOU THIS territory, and while there isn’t anything like a proper chorus, the structure of the thing is pretty normal. for that reason, along with a bit of a rough vocal performance i never got around to touching up, it was never serious album material. i kind of like it now, though, roughness and all. that high note at the beginning must be one of my longer held notes on CD, and it would be a long time before i would let myself cut loose with an extended guitar solo like this again.

random tidbit: i wrote the lyrics while feeling a bit of a tylenol 3 buzz in the first days after having my wisdom teeth removed. the jury’s still out on whether or not i lost any wisdom when those teeth went away.

husk

you took the lid off of your cup to let it breathe.

a little while back, steven bought a new martin acoustic guitar. it didn’t quite have the magic he was hoping for, so he didn’t play it much. he thought about selling it. instead, he brought it to a guy who did some setup work and found the magic was there all along — it just needed someone to coax it out. now it’s one of steven’s favourite guitars.

he wrote a song for the magic-coaxer. a bit of a musical letter. because that’s the kind of guy steve is.


the main acoustic guitar he’s playing here is my funky old gibson LG-2, but his martin does come in at the moment everything suddenly thickens up a whole lot, lending a bit of support. so when he sings, “thank you for the bridge mic / it’s what you’re hearing at this moment,” it’s sort of a lie, but you are hearing that guitar. you’re just hearing it in the background, recorded with an LDC instead of its built-in mic.

his is a similar model to my 000-15. it might even be the same model, minus the satin finish…i’m not sure offhand. i haven’t had much of a chance to get to know it yet. it does seem to record well. it’s got a nice natural compression to it, and a brightness that plays well off of the somewhat darker sound of the gibson.

i had some fun with the arrangement. after adding bass and the clean electric guitar, i thought i’d tack on some brushed drums and that would be the end of it. seemed like a song that didn’t want to be layered too much.

but the drums didn’t feel quite right. i tried recording some shaker. that didn’t feel right either. so i got rid of the percussion and started thinking in a different direction.

two years ago i bought a circuit-bent casio SK-1 off of ebay. here’s a picture joey acott took of me showing dave dubois some of the whacky things it can do.

i show dave the casio SK1

(good god, that man takes good pictures.)

my memory is pretty reliable when it comes to music-related things. in this case it had a bit of a hiccup. see, one of the first instruments i ever had as a kid was a casio SK-10 — a more streamlined version of the SK-1. i had a blast forcing that thing to make music out of sampled armpit farts and television sounds before i had any real musical skill.

my grown-up head got it twisted, and i assumed what i had back then was an SK-1. they’ve grown in popularity in recent years, and after hearing some of the interesting sounds people were making with circuit-bent examples i thought i’d pick one up for myself. i was wise (in the accidental way) to do this when i did, because now the bent ones don’t seem to be around as much as they used to.

when the keyboard showed up without a vibraphone sound and looking a little different than i remembered, i realized the mistake i’d made. turns out the SK-1 can do a lot more than an SK-10, though. with the bends, i’ve been able to make a cough sound like insane industrial percussion, and i’ve created strange loops and electronic sounds that would be impossible to reproduce with any other equipment. even without engaging a single bend, i’ve made a ukulele pitch pipe sound like a strange synthesizer and a harmonica sound like an evil underwater flute choir.

the flute patch all on its own is pretty special, and some subtle processing with effects can lead to some very cool mutations of the base sound.

so that’s turned into a not-so-secret weapon. it’s on the last tire swing co. EP, it’s on the new papa ghostface album, and it’ll be on the O-L west album and my next solo album when both of those are done.

a while after getting to be good friends with the SK-1, i read about the yamaha VSS-30. the SK-1 and the VSS-30 have a lot in common. they were both made around the same time (1985 for the casio, 1987 for the yamaha). both have 32 keys, 4-note polyphony, a built-in microphone for sampling, and a sampling depth of 8 bits. both are much more than the toys most of us thought they were when we were kids.

they’re full of great, unique lo-fi character. run either one into a high end mic preamp (my choice has been the great river MP-2NV, because that’s still my mic pre swiss army knife), add a little reverb or delay, and you’d be surprised how good they can sound.

now, i love the SK-1. it isn’t going anywhere. but the VSS-30 can do things the SK-1 can’t even get within sniffing distance of.

it took me a while to snag one for myself. no one on ebay wanted to take a money order. so a little over a year ago i buckled down and made a paypal account, just so i could get an archaic little sampling keyboard that’s almost as old as i am.

here’s one example of what the VSS-30 can do, or what it can be made to do. the grimy low synth-pad-sounding thing that comes in during the instrumental section of this tire swing co. song and sticks around until the end is a sampled wurliter electric piano. i held the VSS-30 in front of one of the wurlitzer’s built-in speakers with one hand and played an open fifth with the other hand. then i mangled it with some of the keyboard’s built-in effects.

the only thing touching what’s coming out of the VSS-30 is some reverb. the weird chord that kind of hangs there right before the last instrumental section starts and comes back again at the very end is what happens when you take a sample of a power chord and play it as a major chord so there are three different open fifths grinding up against one another at the same time, making a giant chord you’d need another few hands to create the old-fashioned way.

the amount of sound-warping you can do with this thing is insane. it even allows you to “oversample”, so you can layer as many samples on top of the first one as you want. i’ve made myself sound like a disembodied choir of monks this way.

the VSS-30 gave the song something that felt like it fit and skewed everything a little at the same time. then i added some piano and some shoegazey electric guitar, and it felt like it was done.

i’ve been playing around lately with running distortion after a reverb pedal instead of the other way around. it creates this smearing effect, almost like the guitar is exploding in slow-motion. it isn’t always going to be the right sound, and i don’t want to overuse it, but when it works it’s a whole lot of fun.

all the electric guitar parts, clean and distorted, are coming from a squier j mascis jazzmaster. i’m done getting any more guitars for the foreseeable future — i’ve got enough already, and not much room left for additions to the family — and i never, ever thought i would have any use for a squier of all things. but this one is a really nice guitar. it would be a nice guitar with any name on the headstock. at this price point it’s a ridiculous value. and i financed it at long & mcquade, with payments so low it doesn’t hurt that much.

having said that, i’ll never so much as buy a set of strings at that place again after the experience i had with them this time. long story. not worth telling. nutshell: run away. if you can, buy anything you need off the internet instead.

anyway, back to the guitar — i was surprised how comfortably it played right out of the box. i haven’t brought it to anyone for a setup yet because i haven’t felt a need to. the intonation is solid, and it feels good in the hand. the neck has a nice smoothness to it. some people don’t like the gold pickguard, but i kind of like the way it looks. a lot of people rip out the stock pickups and replace them with something more authentic and jazzmaster-ish, but i like the way they’re voiced. they’ve got a nice P90 thing going on.

new guitars aside, the moral of the story is this: if you’re into recording and sonic sorcery, you could do a lot worse than picking up a used SK-1 or VSS-30 if you find one for a good price. yeah, they’re lo-fi little creatures, and the sampling time you’ve got to work with isn’t a lot (i think the VSS-30 at least gives you a little bit more than the SK-1’s 1.4 seconds). but you can do some very cool things with them, circuit-bent or stock, whether you want to use them in pursuit of sounds that are beautiful, or chaotic, or both.

i vote for both. because what’s one without a little bit of the other?

vote both

one more thing — during that first instrumental section, at about the halfway point there’s this odd sound that’s a little like someone singing semi-off-key in the background for two seconds. i couldn’t figure out what it was at first, until steven reminded me it was a harmonica.

sometimes when we’re recording his lead vocals i’ll do goofy things during instrumental passages, just for a laugh. this time i picked up a harmonica and tried to bend a note, and it came out sounding like the harmonica was sick.

no way would i ever keep something like that in someone else’s song (in one of my own songs, maybe). when i played a rough unfinished mix for steven two or three weeks ago, after we finished laughing at the ridiculousness of the groaning harmonica i mentioned i was going to chop it out when i did a real mix. he asked me to leave it in.

this is one of the reasons it’s such great fun recording with him.

one of these things plays well with the other.

magnus plus sm7

i all but forgot i had this little magnus reed organ. the last time it got any action was on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, when i had to wedge a roll of yellow electrical tape underneath the fan on the bottom of the thing to get it to stop buzzing so i could record it without losing my mind.

with the acetone combo organ out on loan for a bit, the place where it normally sits was looking a little lonely, so old magnus there got lifted off the floor where he was hiding, dusted off, and situated where he could be of some use again.

then i started wondering how i was supposed to record it. back in the day i just pointed an SM57 at the top, but i’d rather use something a little more hi-fi now. a lot of my better mics won’t stretch across the room far enough to do the job, though. and the KM184s would probably be too sensitive and pick up too much of the fan noise (which has mellowed out to a pleasant whirring sound in its old age).

the oft-neglected SM7 is sitting right in that area all the time, and that guy’s got a nice long cord. so i popped off the foam windscreen and gave it a try. the results were hilarious. these two were made for each other. the SM7 is a low output microphone that needs a lot of preamp gain, but it’s a great mic, even if i haven’t used it as much as i should have over the years. it’s also directional enough that it doesn’t grab a lot of the fan noise. the magnus gets pretty loud once it’s warmed up, and the sound might be a little too strident for one of the better LDCs, but this mic likes it just fine.

now i just have to figure out how much i need to adjust the recording speed so this little brown dude will actually be in tune with other things in the universe.

things that have been happening.

all-the-things

here’s a sobering thought: i haven’t released a new album since the summer of 2011. by the standards i set for myself in the handful of years leading up to that point, i should have released about six additional full-length albums in the interim. instead, there’s been nothing since the profane-but-surprisingly-catchy breakup album that was GIFT FOR A SPIDER.

for some — maybe most — people who make music, that would be normal. for me, it’s an unprecedented period of time without new spinning plastic things to share. it’s beyond a break or a hiatus. it’s almost unforgivable.

there were a slew of reasons for the gap, some of which have been mentioned here. the good news (or bad news, depending on how you feel about me and the noises i make) is there’s an onslaught of new music on its way in the new year to make the gap ashamed it ever existed.

it’s probably been a decade or more since i was as musically busy as i am right now. it’s a little crazy. how crazy? i’ll break down what’s been going on and let you decide. prepare for several large titles in bold, beginning with…

NEW TIRE SWING CO. MUSIC

on my end, tire swing co. started as an unexpected but welcome job, with me pretending to be a producer and recording someone else’s music for the first time in a good few years. that lasted for about five minutes before it became something i was much more a part of than i thought i was going to be. “hark!” the bearded one cried. “an emotional investment!” now i think i can safely say i’m a dedicated, full-time member of the band, or ensemble, or whatever it wants to be called.

tire swing co. really exists as two separate, distinct things, and that’s something i find kind of fascinating. in the studio it’s not really a band at all. it’s just steve and me, with the occasional guest stopping by. steve writes the songs, he sings them and plays guitar, and then most of the time i’m left to my own devices to figure out how to dress them up. he trusts my instincts, and though there have been times when i’ve sent him a rough mix of something and thought, “i went too far this time,” i’ve yet to hear back, “you did wrong! to hades you go!” so i listen to my gut, and if it’s not saying, “feed me, you scoundrel,” i run with whatever arrangement ideas it gives me.

live, tire swing co. is usually steve backed by members of james O-L and the villains. i sit out most of the shows because of sleep demons, and because playing live isn’t where i’m at my most comfortable, though the few times i’ve participated it’s been a lot of fun.

so you could pick up an album, see the band live (where it really is a proper band), and experience two very different takes on the same material. it’s not that one is better than the other. maybe the recordings are a little more atmospheric, and some of the songs would be difficult to pull off in a live setting, while the shows have their own specific energy, rocking out a bit more. i like that.

the first tire swing co. album is still available on bandcamp in its entirety as a pay-what-you-want, have-it-for-free-if-you-like download.


the follow-up is in the works right now. i’m not sure if it’s going to be a full-length album or an EP. if it’s a short-form album, it just might sneak out before the year’s end. (update: it did turn into an EP, and it did sneak out a little early on christmas day, and it’s available for free download over HERE)

where the first album was an alt-folk record at root, the new songs have been going some different places. one thing that hasn’t gone away, though, is the intentional lack of polish. steve shares my fondness for rough edges and early takes. we’ve never once used a click track. i’d rather let the songs breathe. if they want to speed up or slow down a little halfway through, that’s their right. besides, it’s my job as the drummer (in the studio, anyway) to worry about rhythmic matters of the heart later on.

THE SECOND COMING OF PAPA GHOSTFACE

photos by chrisy husanik; manipulated by jw.

i didn’t see this one coming.

i always hoped the old papa ghostface fire would start spitting out sparks again someday, but i wasn’t sure how realistic that hope was. it’s one thing when you’re teenagers and you have all the time and energy in the world. it’s a little different when you’re adults, one of you has a family, and the other finally gets the facial hair he always wanted.

gord and i have been friends since we met under cover of musical serendipity in grade ten english class, and i expect we always will be. i can’t remember us having one semi-serious argument about anything over the years. our lives and music just took us different places after we’d finished recording a few careers worth of songs almost no one has ever heard while we were still teenagers. he went off to form the long-running (and long-evolving) band surdaster, while i went off and did my “making lots of restless music under my own name” thing.

earlier this year, when i was working out who to talk to about potentially playing/singing on my ambitious idea for a new solo album, i thought i’d shoot gord a message to see if he might be interested in doing a little messing around for old time’s sake. the timing turned out to be perfect. i’d caught him feeling — as he put it — like a pimple filled with musical pus, ready to pop.

maybe these things happen when they’re supposed to sometimes.

we got together and found the near-telepathic musical connection we stumbled onto when we were high school sophomores was still there, undiminished. jamming gave way to an explosion of creative energy, and we found ourselves making an album together — our first since the CASTRATED EP if you don’t count 2002’s semi-posthumous KISSING THE BALD SPOT.

the recording process has been a bit of a stop-start affair, due in large part to recurring sleep issues on my end, but at this point i think we’re only a month and a hair away from the finish line. almost all the songs we want to squeeze in there have been recorded. some just need to marinate a little longer, we need to figure out a good sequence, and i need to do some serious mixing.

if PAPER CHEST HAIR has long stood as the closest thing to a “mature” papa ghostface album, as made by our then-16-year-old selves, this is the real deal — PG older and wiser, without quotation marks. after all these years of writing about certain solo songs, “this is what i imagine a modern day, grownup papa ghostface track would sound like,” there’s no longer any need to imagine. now there’s a whole album full of actual grownup papa ghostface songs.

it probably goes without saying that the production and sound quality are a little better than on our earlier albums. i have better gear now, and i know a bit more about using it than i did half a lifetime ago. we’re both better, more confident musicians. that helps too. stylistically i’m not sure where we’re at now, but then i never knew what to call the music we made when people would ask me about it. one thing i can tell you is that the marathon psychodramas of papa ghostface and guys with dicks past aren’t making a comeback just yet. there are no twenty-minute chunks of molten psyche packed into music here. there’s no twisted role-playing, no larynx-obliterating screams, no trying on a different vocal persona for every song.

but it wouldn’t be a papa ghostface album without at least one ominous spoken-word piece. so we made sure not to overlook that.

i’ve always wished i’d been able to get gord to sing on more of our songs, because when he did step up to the microphone (most notably on YOU’RE A NATION and SHOEBOX PARADISE), some interesting things happened. while most of the singing on this album is still coming from me, this is probably the most collaborative thing we’ve ever done. in the past it fell to me to supply the lyrics most of the time, whether i was writing them or improvising them as we were recording, and around the time of PAPER CHEST HAIR i started sometimes showing gord more or less finished songs for us to mess around with, to supplement our well-worn “improvise around an idea or hit the record button with no idea what we’re about to do” songwriting methods.

this time around there’s more craft than improv, and there’s really no dividing line anywhere, aside from the odd song that was already fully-formed by one of us before it was brought into the “studio”. most of the time a song that starts as his or my idea is overflowing with additions from both of us by the time we’re finished with it, and some of the lyrics have been written as a two-man effort while sitting on the porch with acoustic guitars, both of us tossing out lines.

it’s a good thing we’ve found a replacement space for the porch, now that the weather ain’t looking too kindly on porch-sitting anymore.

one new wrinkle is that we seem to have developed, without meaning to, a way of playing guitar together that’s so locked-in it becomes difficult to pick out who played what after the fact, even for us. on some songs there are four or six or more individual guitar tracks, and yet it sounds like one very large guitar playing countermelodies and harmonies with itself.

i love the insanity of a lot of our old music, as raw as some of it is. i wouldn’t have written as much as i have about it on the album pages if that wasn’t the case. but something like this is so far removed from anything we were doing or could have even tried to do back then, i almost can’t believe the same two guys responsible for a song like PAPER CHEST HAIR‘s “piece of crap in your shoe” did this.

who knew we would grow up to make actual grownup music?

for all that’s different, one thing hasn’t changed — gord still brings out something in me no one else ever has, and i find myself experimenting when we’re working together and doing things with my voice i wouldn’t normally think to do, whether it’s middle-eastern-inspired wordless wailing or multi-tracked theatrical growling (both of which show up in the same song, for the record).

another thing i’m realizing: this is a pretty somber album we’re making here. i don’t think that’s a bad thing by any means. i’ve always liked swimming around in darker, murkier subject matter, and there was never a dearth of that on earlier papa ghostface albums. but this time around there’s a distinct lack of goofiness throughout. we’ve gone from weird sex and spandex-wearing muppets to ruminations on fate, faith, solitude, betrayal, and love that’s as ephemeral as the seasons turning over.

i guess we’ve come a long way. and i can’t help cracking up at the idea that some people will probably assume this is the first papa ghostface album, since it’ll be the first one they’ve heard, when it’s going to be our ninth.

TEENAGE GEESE

when things didn’t work out with the first female vocalist i was hoping to have sing on some of my new solo material, some friends put me in touch with a few great people who are now a part of the album in that person’s place. first to come into my orbit was natalie, after steve suggested i talk to her. she sang a lead part on a song i’d written as a male/female dialogue, and she was fantastic. then i got her, steve, and james to do this with me:

there’s much more to it than that, but there’s a little sneak peak until i get around to editing more of the raw footage into something digestible.

as it happens, she’s a songwriter too. she liked the work i’d done on the first tire swing co. album, and she was feeling the pull to record something. we ended up recording some of her songs together, with her singing and playing guitar (plus electrified ukulele on one song) and me adding the kinds of things i add when someone says, “addition!” and throws me proverbial pen and paper. the group vocal madness worked out so well on my own song we went back to the well for one of her songs, with caleb offering baritone goodness in steve’s absence.

natalie is a really beautiful, down-to-earth person who makes you feel good just to be around her, and her songs are very much extensions of her and the people, creatures, and things she cares about. she also has a wonderfully unique voice and doesn’t sound like anyone else i can think of — except for that one time it sounded a bit like she was channeling neko case for one song.

a few songs still need a bit of work on my end, but there isn’t a whole lot left to do, and i’m excited for the finished album to see the light of day, whether it comes out under the “teenage geese” name, natalie’s actual name, or something else, whether she spreads it around a lot or just shares it with friends and family. they’re great songs, and i’m really happy i got to be a part of capturing them and their beating hearts.

ZARASUTRA

zara was someone i reached out to on my own when i was starting to really get excited about the idea of having not just one but several unique female voices taking spotlit turns on my album. we’d never met or communicated in any form, but i remembered hearing a few of her songs years ago and liking her voice a lot. i had no idea if she would be interested in singing on something of mine. i figured i had nothing to lose, so i sent her a message just to see what would happen.

i’ll let another excerpt from what will eventually be the video companion to the album tell the rest of the tale.

so that happened, and my mind was suitably blown. and then something else happened.

some months back i mentioned this idea i had to “pay” people for contributing to my album by offering to record a song of theirs for free. i have no issues with paying anyone actual money if that’s what they’re most comfortable with, as long as it’s understood that it’s a straight session fee and no money is going to be generated by the music itself. but i liked the idea of a musical trade of sorts, and i thought some fun might come out of recording people i hadn’t worked with before, assuming anyone took me up on the offer.

zara was one of the people who did take me up on it, and recording one song led to recording a whole album — another development i wasn’t anticipating. i don’t think i’m someone people tend to think of when they’re looking to record an album in this city. they think of mark plancke at the shark tank, brett humber at sound foundry, josh kaiser, martin at SLR, polaris…you know, actual established studios and people who make a habit of recording other people for a living.

i don’t put my name out there as someone who does that kind of work, because it’s not a regular thing for me. these days i’m pretty selective in who i’ll work with in any meaningful way when i do choose to record music that isn’t my own. to be blunt, if i don’t feel any connection with your music, i don’t see the point. i don’t charge enough to make musical work i can’t get enthusiastic about worthwhile. and if you want something that sounds like it’s been polished to death (a lot of engineers, producers, and artists seem to work very hard at achieving the sonic equivalent of a giant waxed, photoshopped-to-death scrotum), i’m the absolute last person you want to call.

i can record somewhat shinier-sounding things if that’s what a band or songwriter is going for. i somehow found a way to do it in the past, when i didn’t even have the kind of equipment that should have allowed it to happen. but i really don’t like to work that way, and unless someone wants to pay me a stupid amount of money to craft something that wouldn’t sound too out of place on commercial radio (which won’t ever happen, for many different reasons), i won’t willingly go there.

on the other hand, if you want something imperfect that reflects the way you actually sound, without pitch-correction or sound replacement or laser hair removal or guided trigonometry, maybe i’m not the worst choice.

zara was after something raw and stripped-down. i can do raw and stripped-down. aside from adding a really simple piano part to one song, all i did was try to grab the sound of her playing and singing in the room. i don’t think her songs need any embellishing — though if at some point she wanted to have me record her again and there was a bit more time to sit with the material, i’d be happy to experiment with adding some more sounds, if she wanted to hear that happen.


she has a very dynamic way of singing and playing guitar. songs will ramp up from whisper-quiet to intense strumming and belting without warning. and it’s not belting in the “i am singing loud because loud loud oh my god hear how loud i am” way. it’s more like her emotions are exploding out of her throat and this is the only way she can redirect them so they won’t explode you too.

i like that unpredictability. i wanted to stay out of the way as much as possible and just let it (and her) be, without imparting much of whatever “sound” i have. i feel like i could have done a better mixing job, but i feel that way about everything i’ve ever done and will probably go on feeling that way about everything else i ever do, so at a certain point i have to walk away and accept that a perfect mix isn’t something i’m ever going to arrive at. i just don’t have the skill set to make that happen. and i could have used more compression and got everything sounding a bit louder and narrower, but i felt more comfortable leaving the dynamic range intact.

i spent more time than i should have in the past trying to get things as loud as possible at the expense of sound quality. i’m not ever going to do that again. no offence intended to anyone who likes their music loud and compressed to the point of strangulation (for certain kinds of music that sound works very well), but the loudness war can suck my spit.

anyway. about that imperfection thing. there are brief drop-outs in two songs you can hear if you’re listening on headphones, where a finger or a shirt sleeve touched the capsule of one of the super-sensitive neumann KM184s pointed at the 63-year-old gibson LG-2 that’s become my default “you play guitar the right way? here’s something in standard tuning!” axe. you can catch a car horn honking outside at the tail end of the penultimate song’s fade. i thought the performances were good enough, and the sonic flaws small and unobtrusive enough, that it didn’t make sense to re-record those things. those are the kind of flaws i think can add character to a recording when they’re not so jarring that they take you out of the music.

this is the first official full-length album zara has recorded as far as i know, and the one thing out of all this madness i’ve been involved in that’s sure to slip out before the end of the year, because it already has — she had her CD release show at phog last night. though i’m still a little surprised she chose to record the album with me, i’m glad she did. that voice all on its own is about three hundred different kinds of special, and it’s surreal to hear it coming through your headphones not as a record of a past performance but as a thing happening in the room that you’re a part of capturing.

NEW SHIMMER DEMOLITION

my good friend adam makes some really cool music that blurs the lines between shoegaze, grunge, dream-pop, doom-thrum (i just made that one up), and a whole lot of other good stuff. i’ve been lucky enough to master a few of his albums in recent years, and the best job i’ve done in that department is probably still this right here.


his next (and not-yet-released) album might be his best one yet. his music just keeps getting catchier and dreamier, in the best possible ways, and the vocal harmonies he’s thrown into the mix here and there add a whole new layer of goodness.

speaking of harmonies…i got to sing some of those on one song. the moment i heard the track, a harmony line popped into my head, and i twisted adam’s arm a little into letting me come in and give it a try, just to see what would happen. i know what it’s like when you’re a one-person operation and you’re reluctant to let other fingers feel their way into the pie, but i felt like i had something here.

fortunately i was able to sing what was in my head after a few shaky early takes, and the results conjured a whole music video in my head. you know you’re on the right track when that happens. i’m really proud i got to wail a little on a song, and relieved adam liked what i did. hopefully the album will get an official release sometime next year. i get to be a guest again! a guest on someone else’s thing! hooray for guesting, i say.

THE CONTINUING SOLO ADVENTURES

vocal recording

there are now thirteen different singers and musicians who have contributed to what is in some ways the most ambitious album i’ve ever sunk my teeth into — this thing i’m calling YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK — and there should be a few more contributors by the time i’m done. as an album it doesn’t have the physical enormity of the eons-in-the-making and still-far-from-finished multiple-disc mess that is THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, but the sonic scope of the thing is beyond anything i’ve attempted before, with several voices aside from my own, strings, horns, and upright bass, along with all the sounds i usually make myself and a few i’ve never made before.

this one has taken a little longer to pull together than i first thought it would. i haven’t been obsessing over it or working on it nonstop. it’s been more a matter of coordinating schedules and having to wait a little while in some cases for some people to come in and record their parts. but man, has it been worth the longer-than-usual gestation period.

you’ll just have to trust me when i tell you it’ll be worth the wait. these are some of my favourite songs i’ve written in years, i think it’s some of the more interesting work i’ve done in a textural sense (mixing some of these songs has been a challenge, to put it mildly), and the performances i’ve got down on digital tape from the ladies and gentlemen who’ve contributed their fingers and breath and vocal cords add whole new emotional and sonic dimensions.

it’s tempting to stretch it out to a double-CD. i’ve written a lot of songs for this album. when i say “a lot”, i mean you would punch me if i told you how many. it’s ridiculous. but i think i’m probably better off squeezing as much as i can into the eighty minutes offered by a single disc and saving the rest of the songs for something else. otherwise it could all get out of hand pretty fast. one huge ill-fated album that keeps hovering in the background and takes forever to finish is enough for me, thankyaverymuch. i wouldn’t want this stuff to suffer the same fate.

so there’s enough material there for at least a few sprawling albums after this one. and then there’s THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, which i still do intend to finish someday. and there will be another out-takes/misfits collection somewhere down the line as well. and there’s another unexpected collaborative project in the works, but i think i need to stay tight-lipped about that one for a little while.

so there’s the news. that was a pretty long-winded way to say, “expect to hear a whole lot of new noise in the months ahead,” but i’ve rarely been concise here. why start reeling it in at this late stage in the game? WHY, I ASK YOU?!

i love you.

i_love_you_wallpaper_cory_1920x1080_full_hd

a year or two ago, my friend adam asked me if i’d be up for recording a CJAM station ID. when he told me he wanted to build it around “i love you” from MEDIUM-FI MUSIC (one of the more intentionally twisted tiny songs i’ve recorded in recent years), there was no way i could resist.

i don’t believe it’s ever been used on-air. i pretty much forgot it even existed, until last night, when the memory of coming into the station to record the voice-over bit came back to me. adam was kind enough to send me the finished station ID, and i think it’s too hilarious not to share. so here! listen and be changed in some fundamental-but-indescribable way!

mysterious long-lost CJAM station ID

(yes — we’re both insane. but we like it that way.)

speaking of CJAM — it’s pledge drive time again. and you know what that means. time to break out the banjo and open up the old heart. i’d encourage anyone who has any affection for the station at all to give to the cause, even if it’s only twenty bucks. there are probably more cool pledge incentives this year than there ever have been before. i got me a gift bag, a vinyl record i was actually looking for (plucked from the 1,200 or so CDs and records to choose from), and an awesomable shirt. that’s right. awesomable. that’s what you call something that is equal parts awesome and comfortable.

someone at the station put my 2010 pledge drive jingle up on youtube last year, and though the bit about hoodies doesn’t apply this year, i think it’s worth sharing again, just for fun.

come to think of it, CJAM is pretty awesomable itself. until i popped in yesterday, i hadn’t been there in a while, and i’d forgotten how much i like hanging out in that atmosphere.

the words have been burned on the memory bone.

it’s been said over and over again that the best songs come out of heartache, heartbreak, or some kind of crisis. most of the time i think that’s less a truism than it is a lazy cliché — just as much great art has been inspired by positive feelings and experiences. sometimes, though, it’s the simple truth.

AN ABSENCE OF SWAY was not an unhappy or difficult album for me to make, but it passes the “art coming out of a period of crisis” test with flying colours. i was in a very strange place emotionally at the time. coming after CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, which i still feel is a “happy” album by my standards, this felt like a deeply melancholy affair. i still get that feeling of pensive sadness from it now.

for whatever reason, few other people seem to have taken that away from the music after listening to it, and it’s pretty much tied with CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN as the most popular/widely-heard album i’ve ever made. i’m still not sure why that is. maybe it’s because, for a lot of people, those two albums were the first music of mine they ever heard.

the winter of 2008 was a turbulent time for me, for a lot of different reasons. i was dealing with the beginning of the PTSD that grew out of the break-in during which i expected to die, and on some level i thought this might be the last album i ever made before i dropped dead of a spontaneous stroke or heart attack (anxiety will do fun things to your brain). so there was a feeling of urgency, of needing to get this music out while i still had time.

elsewhere, there was the strangeness of suddenly having a real, visible audience for my music, after years of no one having much of any interest in what i was doing. there was a volcanic outpouring of inspiration to deal with, now that i had my musical momentum back in a big way after the veritable “lost year” of 2007, and i was writing songs and spitting out ideas on every instrument i owned faster than i could keep up with myself.

and then there was the small fact that i was in love with a friend who was also in love with me, but treated me in such a way that i had no idea she came even close to reciprocating my feelings for her. she erected a wall around her heart that i was trying to wear down, with mixed results.

we were both a mess, each of us having just gone through our own individual traumatic experiences that shook us out of any comfortable rhythm we’d grown accustomed to. i had this idea that we could help each another through our respective messes and come out the other side stronger than we were before, and maybe while we were at it we could give each another the support and affection we’d always been denied by most of the people we cared about.

i was very wrong about that.

my friend would ultimately reveal herself to be an emotional vampire and a full-blown narcissist, who took what she wanted from people and then threw them away once they were all used up. she was incapable of any kind of consistent honesty or consideration for anyone other than herself, and unwilling to build any kind of relationship not based on mutual debasement. i was a good friend to her through difficult times for both of us, and all i got in return was a mouthful of shit.

some good music came out of the anger and depression i went through when the whole thing blew up in my face. so at least there was that. but if i could go back and do it all over again, i’d be tempted to trade the music in exchange for never having anything to do with her. i could have done without that pain.

i didn’t know any of this at the time. i only knew i wanted to spend as much time with her as she would allow. i felt like i had nothing inside of me to give to anyone, but i wanted to give all of the nothing i had to her.

for a time, it seemed like we were cultivating a special kind of friendship, and i hoped it might lead to something more. after spending an afternoon talking to her, i sat down with a ukulele, and a song sketch i’d been kicking around for a day or two seemed to shape itself into a finished song without much of any urging from me.

it turned into one of the more uninhibited things i’d written in a long time. the lyrics were still pretty cryptic, and i was vehemently against the idea of coming out and singing anything as clear-cut as, “i’m in love with you and i don’t know what i’m supposed to do about it, since from where i sit you’ve made it pretty clear you don’t feel the same way about me,” but all of the anxiety and confusion i was feeling (both because of her, and for reasons that had nothing to do with her) came out in the vocal performance. it was the closest i’d come to screaming in seven years. when i shouted “i feel for you” over and over again, and then turned it into the question of “what do i feel for you?”, i felt the fear and excitement of that uncertainty tear through my stomach like acid.

i called the song “absence makes the heart grow fondue” — a play on another old cliché. it’s essentially all buildup, with no real hook outside of a wordless vocal part that recurs a few times, no bridge or chorus, and no resolution. it just builds in intensity until it dissolves into nothing.

the piano part was improvised while recording. it wasn’t meant to be such a prominent part of the music, but it seemed to focus the whole thing in a way i wasn’t expecting, playing off of the frenetic energy in the vocal performance. just about every recorded element was frenetic, really, from the double-time ukulele strumming to the drum part i improvised in one take.

if i were to record the song today, i’m sure it would have a much denser mix, with some ambient sounds swimming around. maybe some distant electric guitar or organ. maybe some acoustic guitar. the vocals probably wouldn’t be triple-tracked all the way through. the ukulele would probably be a lot more prominent and recorded in a completely different way for a thicker sound.

even so, while i enjoy putting more thought into the sonics of my songs these days, and i like how there’s a lot more going on in much of the music i’m making now than there was a few years ago, at least in a textural sense, i think in some ways the albums i was making during this time are more effective than they might have otherwise been because of their relative austerity. i got down what the songs needed and nothing more. that was where my head was at. and that was enough.

i played this song for the girl who was somewhat responsible for inspiring it a few days after it had been recorded. i didn’t tell her what it was about. i just said i was really happy with the way it turned out, and i told her she had acted as a kind of muse without being aware of it.

she listened without saying anything. she was silent for a while after the song ended. finally, she told me she had to remind herself to start breathing again halfway through. she’d been holding her breath.

i took that as a compliment, and maybe an acknowledgment that i’d managed to knock out a chunk of that wall of hers, if only for three and-a-half minutes.

over the years, i’ve written a few songs that manage to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. that’s probably an odd thing to admit as a writer. it tends to be someone else’s work that gives you the prickly, elevated feeling that something special is happening. certain pieces of music and moments in films have done that to me. but it’s a little strange to realize i’ve written a few things myself that generate those same feelings.

the songs of my own that do it for me the most are “the sun is a red ball of lies tonight”, “the cost of allowing yourself to remain living”, and “everyone you love is dead”. they all feel like they come full circle in strangely perfect ways, and they all share that “how the hell did i ever write a song like this?” kind of bewilderment. there’s “dopamine” off of BEAUTIFULLY STUPID — a raw, improvised howl of pain that has always felt like one of the most honest things i recorded during one of the most miserable times in my life. “fidget” has always hit that elusive spot, particularly during its climax, because that was a really important and surprising song for me.

“absence makes the heart grow fondue” also belongs on the list, but it falls into the hair-on-end category for a different reason. it takes me back to that moment in time, and what i was feeling right then, and at the same time there’s something else going on there. it may not be autobiographical in a literal, straightforward way like the late-period guys with dicks albums and my early post-band solo albums are, but it’s emotionally autobiographical on a deeper level.

i’ve almost never listened to someone else’s song and felt they were singing directly to me, or about my life. i usually only ever get that feeling from my own music. and sometimes, as is the case with this song, it’s something very different from just leafing through an old aural diary. there’s a gravity there that’s powerful in a way i can’t really describe, as if i’ve somehow managed to transcend myself.

i’m not sure that makes much sense.

navel-gazing aside, i’ve always felt that “absence makes the heart grow fondue” was the centerpiece of the whole album, even if it shows up very near the end. it’s one of the songs on SWAY i still feel closest to, to the point that i don’t think i would ever be comfortable performing it live, assuming i ever did play another live show. it’s not even that it’s too close to the bone. i just wouldn’t want to mess with the purity of the recording. it was a moment i captured, and i don’t believe i could ever come close to matching the emotional intensity of the original performance, because i’m not in that edgy, frightened-animal head-space anymore.

you know what’s funny? to most people who’ve heard the album, i bet it just sounds like a pretty catchy song.

and now it’s a music video. how did that happen? one word: facebook. that place i swear about and vacillate between hating, tolerating as a way to waste time when i don’t feel like doing anything useful, and taking long breaks from (right now i’m a week or two into hiatus number two). it happened because of facebook.

you gotta laugh at that. or maybe you don’t. in that case, i’ll laugh in your stead.

to explain: earlier in the year, i saw something someone posted on facebook about two ladies who have their own production/film company called ladymeta. they were starting a project called letwelve. the goal was to make twelve music videos in 2012, for twelve different artists/bands, for free — both as a way to collaborate with a lot of different people, and to have a good excuse to challenge themselves creatively.

i thought that was a pretty cool idea. for a few years now, i’ve been stewing on the idea of paying someone to make a real music video. something interesting and artistic, more for the sake of having it than anything else. maybe this was a way to make that happen without money even coming into play.

i sent an email expressing an interest in what they were doing, not expecting much to come of it. i’ve spent a good chunk of my life reaching out to other artists and getting nothing back, with a few notable exceptions (maya and travis come to mind as two people who much bucked the trend).

i figured this would be one of my last moments of reaching before i gave up on all of that. and it very well could be. but if that turns out to be the case, it was a hell of a way to go out, because for once everything worked out just right. they reached back, we started a dialogue, and it developed into something really exciting.

my idea was to send daniella and catrina a bunch of CDs, and then leave it in their hands. i thought it would be more interesting if it was a real collaboration that way — “you choose a song that speaks to you in some way, and you decide what kind of video to build around it, without any input from me. i don’t even need to appear anywhere in it. in fact, it’s probably better if i’m nowhere to be seen.”

in general, i like the idea of a music video functioning as more of a short film, as opposed to an advertisement for the artist. the images can act as a counterpoint to the music, or twist it in an unexpected direction. anything is game, really. that’s what makes it so interesting.

their first choice didn’t quite work out. it was one of the few songs i’ve recorded that i didn’t write myself, and i thought that might be a bit of a problem. then inspiration struck, and they did the last thing i ever would have expected, with the last song i ever thought anyone would single out as a music video candidate. or, i should say, daniella had an idea, and she ran with it.

the thing that’s fascinating to me is how there’s this strange synchronicity to the way it worked out. she took a song i had a personal connection to, without knowing any of the backstory or what the song meant to me. it became something personal for her, without me having any idea that was happening. and while the video might seem on the surface to not have much to do with the song, since it’s not a literal translation of the lyrics by any means (no one gets skinned alive and made into a blanket, for instance), what does happen is actually very much what the song is about.

for me, the video plays like a dream. those two people are doing the same thing i wanted to do at the time i wrote the song, with the person who went some way toward inspiring it. i wanted that feeling of closeness with her, where the rest of the world seems far away and you spend an entire day in bed — just you, the person you love, and their cat.

i never had that. not with her. and in a lot of ways, i think it was for the best. the whole mess would have been even more painful if that kind of intimacy had been a part of our relationship.

when i say the video plays like a dream, what i mean is, for me it’s a dream of what could have been, if we’d both been different people (literally). in a way, it gives that unfulfilled part of the story a proper ending, and it gives me an odd feeling of closure.

for daniella, who directed/shot/edited the video, it’s something different altogether, personal in a way that’s unique to her. again, i had no input into what the video was going to be, and she didn’t know anything about what was really behind the song. these things all intersected somehow on their own.

i think so many music videos being made these days are sad exercises in what happens when you give someone a disgusting sum of money and they spend it on a glossy-looking piece of nothing. you either get glorified soft porn, atrocious acting in the service of horribly clichéd and half-baked storylines that rarely make any sense inside or outside the context of the song, hackneyed mimed musical “performances” where half the time electric instruments aren’t even plugged in to at least create the illusion of authenticity, choreographed dancing that’s all about the objectification of women and ignores the possibility of doing anything interesting or artistic with movement, or — if you’re really lucky — you get all of those things in one steaming pile of celluloid horseshit.

this is none of those things. and i wouldn’t have it any other way. i

like how i’m able to feel connected to it without being a physical presence in it. i like the fact that it feels raw and real in a way that flies in the face of what a typical music video is supposed to be. there’s a kind of voyeuristic quality to it, but in an innocent way. i like how the time-lapse photography creates the impression of stop-motion animation with people in place of figurines, and it almost makes it seem like the couple are being manipulated in rhythm to the music at some points (the amount of work daniella put into editing it must have been insane).

i like how, when i almost scream “what the fuck have i done?”, instead of an overcooked dramatic moment you get a cat named wilson looking up at the camera as if to say, “you did something? was i supposed to be paying attention?” i like how the action occasionally cuts to non-time-lapse moments that look like grainy old silent home movies. i like how it looks like no artificial lighting was used beyond what was available in the room.

and i really like the look of that homemade pizza. doesn’t that thing look delicious?

the whole thing is surreal to me — the way it worked out, and the fact that it exists. one of my songs has a music video i didn’t make myself by chopping up public domain footage. it didn’t cost me a thing. and i got to swim in the same river as two people who have integrity, who are creating things that are unique and beautiful purely for the sake of creating, who understand me and what i’m trying to do with my music. you know how often that happens? pretty much never.

many thanks and bear hugs to daniella and catrina for being open to this whole thing, and for making it happen. thanks also to brennan rikard, flora bird, and wilson the cat. and to josh babcock, because i think he may have been the one who posted the link on facebook that set this all in motion.

(note: i strongly suggest watching the video with google chrome as your browser, if you have it, or at least something that isn’t firefox. from my experience, firefox has had horrible latency issues with any and all video content ever since the latest update of flash came along. and with this specific video, that latency means you lose a lot of the fast movements, which are kind of the whole point here. happily, chrome doesn’t seem to have any of these problems. then again, maybe it’s just my computer being a pain in the ass.)

(later note: it probably was my computer being a pain in the ass. these days, on a macbook, firefox works just fine.)

a polite look over the shoulder.

i’ve said this before, but i always find it interesting how your opinion of your own work can shift over time as you gain some distance from it and amass more work. you get to a place where you can contextualize things more effectively than you could when they were brand new.

there are all kinds of minute changes that happen, but it’s the dramatic shifts in perspective i’m mystified by.

you can believe you’re creating something that leaps over everything else you’ve ever done, decide it’s a piece of garbage the moment it’s finished, and then spend the next several years watching your contempt for it shrink while never quite disappearing (as has been the case with OH YOU THIS).

you can make what you think is a fine piece of work but not anything too special, only to realize later on that it’s become one of your favourite things you’ve ever done (as was the case with PAPER CHEST HAIR, BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, and some others).

you can convince yourself you’ve done the best work you will ever be capable of, and there’s nowhere left to go but downhill, as i did when i was 18 and had just finished BEAUTIFULLY STUPID…and then you can go on to prove yourself wrong several times over, without ever losing your affection for the thing that didn’t turn out to be your creative plateau after all.

one of trickiest love/hate relationships i’ve ever had with an album is with SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN, the third proper full-length papa ghostface CD.

the bloated double-CD HORSEMOUTH (& OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) seemed a little too unwieldy for its own good, so i decided i would write the lyrics for every song on the next album i made with gord. it was a pretty bold move at the time. i had a habit of avoiding just about anything the least bit premeditated when it came to recording, leaving the lyrics i actually wrote to collect dust, because it was more fun to improvise and discover what the lyrics were going to be as they were in the process of being sung.

i figured if i stuck to the ten songs that felt like the strongest material on paper, we would have a papa ghostface masterpiece on our hands. see? i did put together an album with my ten best songs on it, like a good little boy.

i just did it in 1999, when no one was listening.

the thing is, i wrote most of the lyrics while pretending to pay attention in the middle of different high school classes. and while i usually had music in my head even when i was writing lyrics away from an instrument, in this case most of the words came without any strong immediate musical ideas attached to them.

gord and i got together in the cramped little music room, and in two nights we recorded the whole album, fusing my written lyrics with improvised music that was given no time to develop. for some reason this seemed like a good idea to me at the time. it didn’t occur to me that i was forcing spontaneity and premeditation together in ways that didn’t always work very well.

the moment it was finished, i thought this CD was some of the best work i’d ever done. i gave copies to jesse topliffe and my grade eleven drama teacher mr. lewsaw. that led to an unexpected musical relationship with jesse that would go a lot of different places over the next few years. as for mr. lewsaw, i’m proud to say i think i weirded him out a little.

a month or two later, when the honeymoon stage had long since passed, i saw the album for what it really was — not the worst papa ghostface album (that distinction will always rest with LIVE AT SILVERS), but a bit of a mixed bag, and nowhere near what we were capable of at the peak of our powers. it’s basically one great song, a few good ones, and a handful that never quite lift off. it feels kind of slight. which is weird for an album that’s more than an hour long — though that was a little short by our usual standards.

in the summer of 2000, i toyed with the idea of re-recording the whole album with gord from scratch. i had it in my head that if we just took a bit more time and fleshed the music out a bit more, maybe it really could be as great as i thought it was for the first five seconds after it was finished. i wrote out a list of what i felt each song needed (“yogamo” with real drums! “nerve” with more committed singing!), but it never got beyond the brainstorming stage.

yesterday, while i was scanning the handwritten lyrics for the album’s page, i thought i’d pull it out for a listen. i’m going to guess the last time i sat down and let it play all the way through was when i remixed the whole thing in late 2002, with mixed results (oh look! a pun!).

there wasn’t a single song that made me wince. i didn’t expect that. it’s still a mixed bag, but it’s not quite as mixed as i remembered it being. some of the stuff i used to hate doesn’t really bother me anymore, and the highlights sound just as good as they ever did.

a song called “compassion to deceive” was the one thing that always stood out for me. it’s that rarest of things in the papa ghostface songbook — a ballad, or as close as i was going to come to a genuine ballad in 1999. on the first day of the first semester of grade eleven, i turned on the TV before i left the house and caught a bit of a music video by keith sweat. it was this one right here.

not really my thing. i’ll stick with al green and marvin gaye, thankyaverymuch. but that “nobody” refrain…that thing stuck in my head.

i wrote the lyrics for “compassion to deceive” in math class with that slow jam playing on a loop in my brain, mutating until it no longer resembled the song i heard on my way out the door. i don’t imagine it’ll come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard a decent amount of my music that the song i wrote didn’t end up sounding much of anything like keith sweat. but i’ve always found that bit of inspiration amusing.

this is one of the few places on the album where the words are married to music that feels like a perfect fit. i still remember recording it with gord, a little amazed that those chords just fell under my thumb — literally, given the way i play guitar. they’re simple chords, but they felt just right.

gord started following me on the bass, i hit the record button, and off we went. all the words aside from the “you got it” refrain were meant to be spoken, but in the moment i decided to sing them instead. you can hear me at a few points mentioning off-mic when a change is coming. it’s a rough, first-take performance, with a lot of off-notes from both of us (to say i’m a better guitarist now is like saying the sun shines brighter at 1:00 in the afternoon than it does at 7:00 in the evening), and the transition into the bridge section is very sloppy, improvised and unrehearsed as it was. the song also rambles for about two minutes longer than it needs to.

even so, there’s an odd sort of tender bitterness to the whole thing. somehow, a line like “saliva on the window of fate” comes off as being weary instead of ridiculous (though it’s always sounded a bit to me like i changed “fate” to “faith” at the last second).

i think the lyrics still stand as some of the best i’ve written at any point. the song title all on its own has to be one of the best phrases i’ve ever come up with. i have no idea where it came from, and i didn’t think anything of it at the time. now it’s got a gravity to it i didn’t feel when i was 16 years old. in a twisted way, sometimes there really is something compassionate behind misleading or lying to someone.

stranger still is the way it’s grown into an almost eerily prescient song, reading very much like the sort of thing i would write now, more than a decade later.

compassion to deceive

some songs really gained something when i cleaned them up and got rid of the low end mud in my 2002 remix. not this one. it lost something fundamental when i touched up the dodgy bits of my harmony vocal and removed the slapback echo from my acoustic guitar. it was technically “better”, but it sounded wrong somehow.

maybe some things just aren’t meant to be messed with.

i learned that in a whole new way when i decided i was going to take a stab at recording a brand new version of the song today. after all these years, i thought i could invest it with a whole new depth of feeling, to say nothing of the difference in musicianship and production skills. i could hear the keyboard part being replaced with real piano. i could hear drums and a wash of harmony vocals coming in near the end.

it was all going pretty well until i got around to recording the vocals, and i realized i left out a pivotal chunk of music when i was laying down the acoustic guitar, making it impossible to sing a few lines properly. instead of starting from scratch, i erased the whole thing. i got the message: leave it alone, warts and all.

the original, less polished mix is still the one i come back to, and it’s the one that’s up here on the blog. maybe i’ll save the revisiting for a live performance, when i play another show in 2023.

one step up and two steps back.

i’ve been meaning to do this for years now. the other day, i decided i might as well get to it now, while i’ve still got my wits about me. so, just for fun, here is the story of my self-imposed musical re-education, which i’ve hinted at a time or two over the three and-a-half years i’ve been talking to myself on this blog, without ever delving into many of the details.

i was a child of the ’80s, and i grew up listening to what was on the radio at the time. some of the things i heard as little johnny i can still enjoy today — particularly the music of billy joel, dire straits, and supertramp, which i’ve come to appreciate more over time as my taste in music has broadened exponentially. there are some great songs that never got played on the radio; i defy anyone who thinks billy was little more than an MOR hit machine to sit down and listen to the nylon curtain, and tell me who today is capable of producing a song like “scandinavian skies” or “surprises”, where they somehow seem to be channeling john lennon and paul mccartney at the same time while managing to retain their own musical identity and spin the beatles influence into something wholly original. oasis it ain’t.

i’m not about to argue that the music i was singing along to during my formative years wasn’t good, even if i can’t stand to listen to most of it these days. without all those journey and styx songs that got my pulse racing as a kid, the drive to create my own music might not have been so strong. those songs gave me a lot of happiness. but i can tell you without any doubt, i didn’t go into high school with a single “cool” album in my collection. if someone had ripped my headphones off of my head while i was walking home for lunch in those days, they probably would have found me with a simple minds greatest hits cd in my discman, and i wouldn’t have been listening to the more interesting, angular material from the earlier days of the band.

looking back, the thing that’s surprising to me is the disparity between the music i was creating and the music i was listening to. while i was very much into pop/rock, with a strong slant in the direction of anything that fell into the “corporate rock” category, the music i was making with a keyboard and a tape recorder was pretty idiosyncratic, varied, and not derivative of any of that. it wasn’t pop or corporate rock by a long shot, nor did it aspire to be. i’m not sure why that is. maybe whatever my musical vision was, it was already strong enough to go its own way. i mean, listen to the song i posted over here some time back, recorded when i was eleven or twelve years old, and try to hear where the music of journey or bryan adams fits into that silliness.

i was content to listen to commercial radio all day long, but if a song didn’t have a piano or a synthesizer in it somewhere, i didn’t want to hear it. that’s how open-minded i was. today i can’t believe i ever thought that way, but i did.

something happened to me when i was fourteen. i woke up one day, and every album in my collection was boring. everything on the radio was boring. none of it did anything for me anymore. there was no progression there; it happened in an instant, as if my brainwave patterns had changed while i was sleeping the night before. it didn’t make any sense to me then, and it still puzzles me now. how do you outgrow all of the music you love overnight?

whatever caused it to happen, i needed to find something new to listen to. the problem was, i had no idea where to start, and the radio wasn’t giving me any help. someone out there must have been looking out for me, because after leafing through my rolling stone rock ‘n’ roll encyclopedia and failing to find much that interested me, i came across this at the chapters bookstore in the mall:

a blurb from a review on the back called it a “sexy, all-conquering guide, with big, brash entries colourfully written by opinionated maniacs”, which is a pretty fair assessment. instead of dry facts and chart information provided by dour critics, here was a book written by music fans, for music fans. and the stuff inside…most of these artists were people i had never heard of before, with no discernible genre attached to what they were doing. i devoured that book, scouring it for anything that sounded like it might be interesting and different, and went about completely rebuilding my cd collection.

it isn’t an exaggeration to say this book was, and remains, the most important musical resource i’ve ever had. without it, i’m not sure what i would have done. but with it as my guide, i plunged head-first into a strange, exciting new world of music that was completely alien to me.

i started with things that had some frame of reference i felt i could relate to. i had already picked up avalon by roxy music a year or two before without really knowing what i was doing, and it was something i could still listen to without wincing. david sylvian’s vocal style was compared to bryan ferry’s, so i thought i’d dig into some of his work. i was happily surprised to find that most of this music, which seemed so obscure, was easy to find locally, at either HMV or dr. disc. i found both secrets of the beehive and the eponymous rain tree crow album in different places on the same day, and then went home and listened to them. that was a good day.

first i listened to rain tree crow. one song in particular — “pocket full of change” — just took me to some other place. i wanted to live inside of that song. i still hold out hope that someday i’ll slow dance with someone while listening to it, preferably in some expansive space with an atmosphere that compliments the music. you never know…stranger things have happened.

next i popped in secrets of the beehive, and my mind was blown. this was the complete antithesis of everything i had been listening to on the radio. aside from the odd wash of synthesizer or a backwards piano treatment, there was nothing artificial or hyped about it. it was organic, three-dimensional, full of space and unexpected dynamic shifts. it was immediately the best thing i’d ever heard in my life, and by the time the album was over i felt i’d had an elevating experience. music had never taken me anywhere like that before. i wanted more elevating experiences.


i read about what a very different kind of band roxy music had been in the years before avalon, and dug into the earlier albums, enthralled by the jagged edges and strange turns of phrase. i read about kate bush and intentionally started with the dreaming because it was described as her strangest, most difficult album. i read about nick drake long before the volkswagon commercial rendered him more than a mere footnote in music history, and was amazed by the fact that it was one man playing one guitar on pink moon, with no overdubs aside from a bit of piano on the title track. it sounded like two or three guitars.

the creepy atmosphere of fear of music by the talking heads, the damaged brilliance of syd barret’s solo work, television’s marquee moon taking the electric guitar to a place that transcended the typical rock band instrumentation, the gorgeous voices of marvin gaye and al green — the book introduced me to all of these things.

with bob dylan and tom waits, what i read convinced me to take a chance on two artists i had no interest in at all. in tom’s case, i had once caught the music video for “downtown train” on television, and i did a bit of a mental double-take. that was the guy’s voice? he sang like that? it sounded like he’d spent a few years swallowing broken glass, and then washed it all down with gasoline for good measure. i thought it was just about the worst thing i’d ever heard. there was nothing nice about it. nothing i would ever want to listen to.

but the book told me tom was a genius, and the book hadn’t steered me wrong yet. might as well give it a shot, i figured. worst case scenario, i’d be out a few dollars. i bought heartattack and vine and braced myself for the worst. to my amazement, i found myself enjoying it. tom’s voice grew on me. in a short period of time, i went from hating what little i’d heard of his music, to owning every album he’d ever made and loving all of them. the great irony is, to this day i can’t listen to his first few albums…because his voice is too “normal” and smooth, and the gravel isn’t there yet. how funny is that?

it got to the point where i would walk around at lunchtime most days singing the theme from westside story in my best tom waits impression. it was a pretty dead-on impersonation, too, for a fourteen-year-old. sadly, it was also a terrible irritation to my vocal cords. i found myself coughing all the time, and i couldn’t figure out why, because it wasn’t like i had a cold or anything. finally my on-again, off-again-until-he-decided-to-stop-acknowledging-i-existed piano teacher dustin said to me, “i think you’re coughing so much because you’re spending too much time singing like your hero.” he was right. i stopped singing like tom waits, and my cough went away.

i used to make fun of bob dylan, imitating his voice and singing bits of “like a rolling stone”. just like with tom, i thought, “this guy can’t sing! what’s the big deal?” and again, the book convinced me it was worth exploring. i listened to blood on the tracks and my opinion of bob shifted forever. soon i was imitating his voice not out of contempt, but because i enjoyed being able to mimic the sound of someone whose music i had grown to like so much.


my favourite rolling stones album, by quite some distance, is and will always be exile on main st. everything that made the stones great (back when they were still capable of being great) is on that album, along with a lot of odd detours that are very specific to the murky, unique atmosphere that seems to have belonged to the time and environment in which those songs were recorded. no other album the band made sounds like it. i never would have even known it existed if i hadn’t read about it in my rock book.

listening to “rocks off” in the car for the first time ever, i could hardly believe what i was hearing. i’d never heard mick and the boys take an infectious rock song and then turn it on its ear like that, slipping into a smeared, druggy, inverted sonic world during the bridge section, making it that much more powerful when the original elements of the song came roaring back again. as much as i love beggars banquet, let it bleed, sticky fingers, the back half of tattoo you, and black & blue (an album i’m still convinced is much better than people have given it credit for), if i could only have one stones album to listen to for the rest of my life, i’d choose exile in a second.

i read about plastic ono band, john lennon’s first proper solo album following the dissolution of the beatles, and was shaken by how raw and unguarded it was. i read about john cale (who, as far as i’m concerned, was the real genius in the velvet underground, so thoroughly does his solo work thrash lou reed’s) and soaked up the wild, unpredictable energy of his music. the first time i listened to music for a new society, alone in the dark, was a singularly unsettling experience. but it was an album i returned to again and again, because the music made me feel something i hadn’t felt before. the same was true for big star — radio city and third/sister lovers both remain desert island albums for me, even though they hardly sound like the work of the same songwriter and inhabit completely different sonic and emotional spaces. i picked up there’s a riot goin’ on by sly & the family stone and was fascinated by the dark, grimy feeling of it all, so at odds with the sunny albums that came before.

a walk across the rooftops by the blue nile, david bowie’s “berlin trilogy” and scary monsters, fun house by the stooges, iggy pop’s the idiot, isn’t anything and loveless by my bloody valentine, surfer rosa by the pixies, rumor and sigh by richard thompson, good by morphine, pink flag and chairs missing by wire, pygmalion by slowdive, spiderland by slint, street hassle by lou reed, spirit of eden and laughing stock by talk talk, robyn hitchcock’s i often dream of trains — i could keep going forever. these were all hugely important albums for me, and all things i first learned of while reading this book. many of the artists (with the exception of lou, who has so completely jumped the shark he may never touch the ground again) have remained favourites of mine. john cale and david sylvian in particular continue to redefine their musical identities, commercial considerations be damned. following the different turns they’ve taken has been incredibly rewarding and exciting for me; it’s encouraging to see there are still people out there who have enough respect for their audience to challenge them, instead of getting lazy and sticking with a winning formula.


for whatever reason, i never really listened to any music by female artists in the first fourteen years of my life. maybe i felt i couldn’t understand a woman’s musical perspective. i’m not sure what it was. but here again the book compelled me to explore. in addition to kate bush, i discovered the music of people like rickie lee jones, jane siberry, mary margaret o’hara, cocteau twins, pj harvey, bjork, and others. two albums stuck out a proverbial mile for me — jane siberry’s the walking and mary margaret o’hara’s miss america, both masterpieces of wholly original artistic expression that sound like nothing else anyone was doing in the 1980s, warping song forms and stretching them out until they become something entirely new. today some of my favourite music in any genre is being helmed by women, and it’s difficult to believe there was a time when i felt a little strange about listening to music that wasn’t made by men.

there’s one album, though, that stands above all the rest. mojo magazine (the only music magazine i feel is worth reading anymore, as it happens) has a regular feature called “last night a record changed my life”, wherein an artist will talk about an album that was especially important to them when they were developing as a musician. in a bizarro alternate universe where i sell my music like normal people do and go on to experience commercial success, leading to an eventual article in mojo, i would talk about tilt by scott walker. that album really did change my life.

as with so much of the music i discovered during this time, i read about scott in my first edition of rock: the rough guide. i thought he was a fascinating character. he started out as a crooner in a band of fake brothers who set the charts on fire with pretty harmless pop music (though “the sun ain’t gonna shine anymore” is a pretty great song any way you slice it), and then gradually turned his back on all of that until he had effectively alienated almost his entire audience, rewriting his own musical language to such an extent that the crooner of old no longer existed.

it all sounded very cool to me, especially when he was compared in some superficial way to david sylvian, who i was already a huge fan of. given how similar the first music i heard by sylvian’s band japan sounded to late-period roxy music, at least on the surface, i was expecting something along the lines of “david sylvian with more electric guitars”. i ordered tilt from dr. disc, since it wasn’t as widely available as most of the other things i had been adding to my collection, and waited impatiently for it to arrive. when i popped it into the car cd player for the first time on the ride home from the store, i didn’t quite get what i was expecting.

i heard this huge operatic voice come wailing out of the speakers, singing, “do i hear twenty one, twenty one, twenty one?” like a disembodied auctioneer on barbiturates. and i thought, “well, that must be a guest vocalist or something. surely that isn’t scott singing.” but it was. the voice sounded barely human to me. almost grotesque. like a sweaty handshake that was too firm and lasted an uncomfortably long time. there was nothing in the music that was familiar to me — the dynamics were all over the place, the instrumentation was orchestral one minute and industrial the next, there was hardly a discernible chorus in sight, and if i’m completely honest it kind of scared the shit out of me. i couldn’t believe i’d bought this thing. the book had finally let me down. i hated this music.

let me paint the picture for you more vividly, if i can. i’m fourteen years old. i’m in grade ten. i have short hair, believe it or not, and am still dreaming of being able to cultivate facial hair someday. i’m sitting at my desk in the basement of the house we’re living in with two women and a psychotic little dog, in my tiny little music room, working on a geography assignment.

i know i’m not going to get a good mark. geography has always been one of my worst subjects, and my teacher, mr. kuzowski, is a fucking prick — good for little more than his amusing admonishments to us to “don’t ask stupid questions”. he sounds like a poor man’s charles bronson when he says it. he will also sometimes say to someone he doesn’t want to respond to, “you got the answer? shut your mouth.” not exactly a teacher who inspires you to ask him for assistance when something isn’t making sense to you.

a pretty girl named tabitha tatar is friendly to me in geography class, so there’s that. if i had more experience and confidence where the opposite sex are concerned, i would probably see that she likes me and work up the nerve to ask her out. but i don’t…and i don’t. it’s pretty much a given that i’m not even going to pass the class.

so i’m sitting at my gigantic desk in the basement, trying in vain to figure out this map i’m supposed to draw, and at the same time i’ve got my big black sennheiser headphones on and i’m listening to this insane music that makes no sense to me. i might as well be hitting a brick wall with a baseball bat. nothing positive is going to come out of this. i manage to make it look like i did my homework without understanding a thing about what i’m doing, and finish listening to the last song on the album in bed.

“well,” i think to myself, “at least i can say i gave it a chance and got through the whole thing. i tried.”

i go to sleep assuming nothing much has changed. i still suck at geography, and i still regret buying this cd, which is a complete disappointment to me.

it turned out i was only right about one of those things. something drove me to keep listening to tilt. to this day, i have no idea why i didn’t just put it away for good. generally, when i decide i don’t like something, i stay away from it. maybe it wasn’t that i even felt this music was bad exactly…i just didn’t get it. i felt a need to understand it. i wanted to get at least something out of it. for the next week or two, that album was all i listened to. and in the space of about ten days, i went from actively despising it, to thinking it was the most exciting thing i’d ever heard.

at some point, somehow, it all clicked for me. i would lie in bed at night reading the lyrics while listening. they were like some sort of fever dream poetry that followed their own internal logic. the voice that had seemed so ugly to me at first became this wonderful, otherworldly, resonant thing that soared above and beyond the endlessly shifting sonic landscape. i still haven’t heard anything else quite like it. it’s music that is a universe completely unto itself.


this album rewired my brain, and changed everything about what i thought music could or should be. that’s not a hyperbolic statement; without tilt, i know for a fact i wouldn’t have half the music i have in my collection now, and i wouldn’t be capable of appreciating it on the level i do. miles davis, tim buckley, john coltrane, those last two talk talk albums, bark psychosis, helium, aphex twin, autechre, suicide (the band, not the end-of-life choice), charles mingus, duke ellington, nico, cat power, peter gabriel’s first four albums and the passion soundtrack, nina simone, laura nyro — none of these albums and artists would be a part of my vocabulary if it wasn’t for scott walker, because after i was able to make sense of tilt nothing else ever sounded so foreign to me. nothing seemed impenetrable or impossible to connect with (unless it was just genuinely bad, which is another story entirely).

without that album, a lot of things would just be noise to me, and a lot of the most exciting musical moments i’ve experienced from other people’s work never would have happened at all. i never would have spent a small fortune on tim buckley’s long out-of-print starsailor, nor would i have been able to enjoy bitches brew as the soundtrack for a train ride to toronto. i wouldn’t have revisited an album like the charity of night, which i initially dismissed because it didn’t have any keyboard sounds on it, and come to recognize it as perhaps the best album bruce cockburn has ever made (and the man hasn’t made many albums that aren’t at least very good). brian eno’s ambient music wouldn’t do a thing for me. i don’t think half of the music i’ve made myself would exist. if you take away tilt, i’m a different person, and a different songwriter.

in spite of its importance to me, i’ve never made any music that takes anything on tilt as a point of reference or strives to emulate it in any way. but then, i’ve never worked that way. when people have asked me what my musical influences are, i don’t think they’ve often been satisfied with my answer, because instead of giving them band names, i tell them i’m influenced by the people i meet, the things they say, the things i experience, and the dreams i have. i’ve always felt it’s a lazy way of working to take something someone else has done and knowingly use it a building block.

i’m not trying to discount this in anyone else’s work; some of the best music ever made in any given genre is derivative on some level, and everything influences everything else at one time or another. i just try to avoid outside influences as much as possible in my own music. i don’t want to sound like anyone else. i don’t listen to a great album and think, “i want to do something like this.” that would almost cheapen my enjoyment of it. the music i enjoy most says things i haven’t heard before, and takes me places i haven’t visited.

i will only listen to something like tilt or laughing stock very occasionally now — sometimes only once every few years — because i want to keep it as fresh as i can. i almost never put anything on repeat. i can’t listen to music that way. i want to absorb something completely, take in all it has to offer me, and then return to it only when i feel the time is right…almost like visiting another country. if i went there all the time, i think it would lose some of its mystery, when that’s what i most want to preserve. at the same time, i can listen to plenty of things as background music on a long drive. but for me, that’s a completely separate thing from sitting down and really listening.

i’ll proudly admit there was a discernible john cale influence in a handful of things i did back in the papa ghostface and guys with dicks days, but i was also an angry teenager who felt like screaming my head off, so those two things had the funny effect of dovetailing nicely. aside from that, i’ve never been able to easily compare myself to anyone else musically, and it seems to be a problem other people have with my music as well. i take it as a compliment, and an indication that i’ve succeeded in carving out my own musical identity. now the trick is to keep messing with it and chipping away at it so it never remains static for long.

i still dig for interesting music that lives off the beaten path all the time, and the internet has become a great resource, even if i still buy all my music the old fashioned way and avoid online distribution as much as possible. there are a lot of things i intend to listen to that i haven’t got around to yet. i still have lists of things i read about in the rock book and jotted down, only to forget all about them. it took me more than a decade to get around to hearing anything by the band wire, for instance. but it seems like certain things come around at the right time, and if i had heard something like chairs missing ten years ago i probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much as i do now, with all the different music i’ve absorbed in that time.

the adventure continues. i haven’t willingly listened to a single commercial radio station in the past thirteen years. and i still wish i’d asked tabitha out in the tenth grade.