misfits

The evil angel on your shoulder.

I wonder how often this happens to other songwriters. You write a song, you think it’s finished, you let it sit for a while, and then it doesn’t evolve so much as grow a vestigial head that pops off one day to reveal a fully-developed body of its own. It’s not a twin, but a sibling, sometimes so unlike its older brother or sister it’s hard to believe they’re related.

Over the space of seven or eight months in 2002, a song called “You Could Never Be” mutated from a rough, venomous band vehicle:

You Could Never Be (GWD version)

…into a solo tune that’s almost R&B by comparison:

You Could Never Be (solo version)

A less dramatic but still notable transformation was “Skinny Ditch” being born as a synth-based thing only to show up again one album later in a more ethereal, synth-free form.

Skinny Ditch

Skinny Ditch Redux

In both cases the words stay the same (a few ad-libs notwithstanding) while the music goes through some serious changes. The final version of “You Could Never Be” is almost unrecognizable from the first unrehearsed stab I took at it with Gord and Tyson the night of an unused recording session for the album STELLAR. Some months after the band broke up I dropped those lyrics on top of new music (played in standard tuning, no less) and found they worked better than they had any right to. What felt before like an attitude in search of a song now felt complete.

With “Skinny Ditch” the structure is the same in both versions — at least until the words run out and both instrumental end sections develop minds of their own — but the change in instrumentation alters the mood in a pretty profound way. On WHO YOU ARE NOW IS NOT WHAT YOU WERE BEFORE it’s practically a synth-pop song, even in the absence of anything resembling a conventional verse/chorus structure. On the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP it becomes a dreamy guitar-based piece that’s much more open-ended.

I’ve always felt the singing was better and more committed in the first version, but the “redux” take on the song has an atmosphere all its own. It also offers one last chance to hear the more frenetic kind of drumming I would slip into when I used more microphones on the kit, before simplifying things with the stereo ribbon mic forced me to change my approach in order to get the sounds I wanted.

More examples abound. “Hiraeth” existed for twelve or thirteen years as a simple acoustic guitar duet before it grew some unexpected psychedelic appendages when it was recorded for STEW. “Psychotic Romantic”, one of the highlights of the Mr. Sinister album, was written as caustic piano rock — a universe away from the blackhearted ballad it became. “In My Time of Weakness” was written as a pretty straight waltz and sounded nothing like the spacious album-ending track it became until a last-minute impulse forced me to rethink the whole thing.

Here’s a much more recent example.

It began as one of the many things written for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. I was messing around with synthesized rhythms on the Alesis Micron when I found a groove I liked. I recorded it while manipulating it in real-time and tried out a few different melodic things to layer on top before hitting on a moody little organ lick. I wrote lyrics for it, which led to a title (“The Evil Angel on Your Shoulder”), and meant to flesh out the recording…only to turn around and decide it was too slight to be album material, so there was no point in doing anything more with it.

Long after that song was forgotten, I reminded Gord of an old riff we messed around with once:

Demon Bee, Demon Bunny (demo)

This was recorded in November of 2002 at the house on Chilver. My guitar is in the right stereo channel. Gord’s is in the left. There wasn’t even the shell of a song there, but I thought the interlocking guitar bit at the beginning had some serious potential. Once Gord faded from view I toyed with the idea of recording it as a solo piece for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. My friend Maya has the word “bee” in her email address. I must have had that and one of Luke Chueh’s evil rabbit drawings in my head at the same time, because the only words I could come up with were, “Maya is a demon bee / Maya is a demon bunny,” sung to the melody of my guitar part.

Fourteen years later, with Gord back in the picture, the fragment developed into something that sounded like a finished song in a matter of minutes. Maybe it was eager to prove it could amount to something after all those years in the wilderness. The most meaningful addition ended up being the simplest chord progression you could imagine — C, G, F — but it was clear they were the right chords.

When the structure was more or less hashed out, we recorded it with Gord playing the Futuramic archtop he favoured on STEW and me playing the same Simon & Patrick I used on the original demo. I went with the same setup I used on the last PG album for the songs where we both wanted to play acoustic guitar at the same time — the Pearlman TM-250 on Gord, the Pearlman TM-LE on me — and then we double-tracked it for a four-guitar spread with some nice bleed to glue everything together.

Right away I thought of the lyrics I wrote for the abandoned synth-based song called “The Evil Angel on Your Shoulder”. They were a perfect fit for the first section of music. After that I had no more words to sing, and there was a lot of music left that wasn’t meant to be instrumental. I wrote an additional rambling verse without bothering to figure out how many measures I had to work with, overshooting the mark quite a bit. In one of those “you can’t make this up” moments of hilarity, it became a much better set of lyrics once I had to chop out a few lines in order to get everything to fit.

I thought it would make for an interesting contrast if I let my voice stand on its own for the first bit and then switched to the well-worn triple-tracked vocal sound for the body of the song. I added bass on my own, along with drums and more acoustic guitar. That could have been enough. The gut said it wasn’t there yet. It still needed to marinate.

I came back to it with a fresh sense of purpose once I knew this Papa Ghostface album was going to be a solo mission the rest of the way, getting down clean electric guitar, lap steel, a new drum track, some more vocal harmonies, and a mangled piano sample care of the Yamaha VSS-30. I mixed it, but something felt off.

About a week ago I tried re-recording the drums for just the first part of the song. Instead of hitting the snare on the second and fourth beats, I chopped the tempo in half and came down on the snare every third beat. A change that simple, and everything opened up. It was ridiculous. I went from treating it as an outtake to being certain it was going on WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD (the name of the Papa Ghostface album that’s inching closer to the finish line by the day).

Over the weekend I revisited the unfinished first version. There was less there than I remembered — only the beat and a bit of organ so I wouldn’t forget the melody. I recorded a proper organ part and some synth sub bass. Tried adding colour with a lot of different synth sounds but couldn’t come up with anything I liked. Wednesday I finished it off, adding vocals, electric guitar, and another mangled piano sample care of the Yamaha VSS-30. It’s pretty close to the stripped-down bluesy electro-funk I heard in my head before I abandoned it, if a little less synth-heavy than it would have been if I finished it in 2014 like I should have. Still probably not album material, but a fun misfit.

Here are both takes on the song.

The Evil Angel on Your Shoulder (first version)

The Evil Angel on Your Shoulder

Aside from sharing some lyrics and a rhythmic vocal delivery imposed by those lyrics, they have almost nothing else in common. The first version has no real structure to it. The bass line that’s introduced at the beginning never changes. It’s more of an exercise in creating movement or the illusion of it through the addition and subtraction of sounds.

(The synth bass probably won’t register unless you’re listening on a full-range system or some good headphones. All the other important stuff should come through.)

The second version sprints in the other direction. It’s all about movement. Even the instrumental bit that acts as a link between the two main sections of the song isn’t the same when it returns near the end to serve as a backdrop for the final few lines.

The VSS-30 piano samples also serve two different purposes. The first time around the idea is to throw things off-balance a little and introduce a sense of unease. In the final version of the song it’s more of an ambient textural thing, at least until it becomes the unexpected star of the show during the instrumental coda.

That little keyboard has become a great friend. Now when a song feels like it’s missing something and I can’t put my finger on what it is, I’ll try sampling something random — wind chimes, Wurlitzer, my voice, a soup pot, a pop can tab — and experiment with how and where I can incorporate it. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it can lead to an absorbing arrangement of organic and manipulated sounds with varying levels of fidelity.

It’s amazing to me how much character a touch of lo-fi weirdness can bring to an otherwise well-recorded song. But the VSS-30 isn’t a one-trick pony by any means. I’ve used it to generate entire soundscapes all on its own, and some of the sounds it’s capable of creating have a real old-school analog synth vibe to them. With all the onboard effects and the ability to oversample, it’s a much more powerful tool than you’d ever expect a glorified toy keyboard to be. There’s going to be a whole lot of it on both FLOOD and YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.

A home at the end of the frozen river.

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

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

So I decided to go for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Home at the End of the Frozen River

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

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

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

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

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

Sufjan had this to say about his decision:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nostril algae.

I imagine most people who owned tape-based camcorders during their heyday filmed things like family get-togethers, live music, home movies, class projects, and documentaries.

I used mine to record demos, and almost nothing else.

Until I got my MacBook in late 2013 and thought to give GarageBand a try, I didn’t record “normal” demos of anything. I either recorded for keeps or I didn’t record at all. The little Sony Handycam I had — and later, the two Flip Mino cameras that would usurp it — became a useful way to get down ideas when they were fresh so I wouldn’t forget them.

We got this camera in 2003. It felt like it was time. I was frustrated that there was a good amount of video different people had shot of me over the years, sometimes playing music, sometimes acting in plays, sometimes just being a goofball, and it was almost all inaccessible to me.

A shopping list, on the off chance some filmmaker discovers my music after I die and wants to make a documentary about me in which people who never knew me pretend they understand me since I’m no longer around to speak for myself or shut them down:

  • A few grade school plays were filmed, and I’m pretty sure the tapes still exist
  • My not-aunt’s wedding tape features me singing a half-improvised a cappella song about love in 1997
  • Andrew Deane shot what I guess you could call “test footage” of me walking around in 1999 for a music video he never ended up making for the REM song “Strange Currencies”, documenting some of the best hair days of my life when I was just starting to grow it out
  • Unused B-roll from the 1999 student documentary Fish out of Water, including some silliness with me doing my best impression of a canine rapper while Libby Salonen looks on
  • Papa Ghostface playing “Pacing the Cage” and “The Ballad of Bob and Marie” at the Air Jam in March of 2000
  • Gord and I playing “Bob and Marie” in the hall during lunch recess a few months before the Air Jam
  • A few bits of random footage Evan Hansen and Tyson Taylor shot of me at Walkerville in 2001 (I popped up in one video where Tyson was filming a fight as it broke out, playing the role of “sleep-deprived non-observer”, wearing a short-sleeved black shirt I always liked)
  • Papa Ghostface playing “Be Sorry” as a full band at the Air Jam in the summer of 2001 (I think Amy Mifsud filmed this…I saw the tape once when she let Tyson borrow it)
  • A lot of footage Tyson shot of GWD recording and hanging out in 2001 and 2002, which may or may not still exist
  • One or two piano recitals I was told were filmed in the mid/late 1990s

I have the video of my first birthday party (at least I think I still do), I recorded the appearance my grade twelve drama class made on The New WI on my VCR, and I’ve got the tape of the two live GWD songs from 2002 that were posted here long ago. That’s about it for things that were filmed before 2003. Whatever else survives, I don’t have it.

We probably should have picked up a video camera a little sooner than we did. If I had access to one even a year or two earlier, I would have been the one to film all that teenage band footage myself, and I’d be able to incorporate the best bits here, instead of wondering if I’ll ever get to see those tapes again (I’m pretty sure I won’t, because there’s a good chance they’ve all been lost or recorded over). I think I remember any kind of decent video camera being prohibitively expensive for amateur home use for quite a while. These were the days before you could shoot video on your cell phone, and before the advent of cheap digital video recorders small enough to fit in your pocket.

By the time we went looking for something, the prices had come down a bit, and we were able to buy a Sony DCR-TRV19 without having to rob a bank. I didn’t know anything about cameras. We just grabbed one that looked nice and was affordable.

Turns out 2003 was the last year Sony made MiniDV camcorders with a 1/4-inch image sensor. This is one of the last models they produced with such good low light sensitivity, headphone and external microphone connections, and a hotshoe adapter for a light or mic, before they started cheaping out.

Talk about having good timing.

I’d like to say once I had a camera of my own I made it count. I did have ideas. I thought about making a DIY documentary following the making of an album, filming myself recording different elements of songs, talking to the camera about the music, breaking things up with random puppet shows and stuffed animal interludes.

I talked myself out of it before I got started. I told myself I wouldn’t be able to make it visually interesting enough to appeal to anyone. Watching one guy do everything on his own would get boring after a while. And how was I going to edit the raw footage — by dumping it onto VHS?

After filming a few random things I leant out the camera in 2005 and didn’t think to ask for it back until the summer of 2007. By then I had a different idea: I would start making a video diary. The crackheads had established themselves in the other half of the duplex we were living in, I couldn’t record any music or sleep in my own home thanks to their twenty-four-hour wall-shaking parties, and I was bitter about romance and the almost violent indifference I was coming up against while trying to get gigs and get my music heard.

I had a bit to say. Talking to the camera seemed as viable a form of self-expression as anything else. It was therapeutic for a while. And it wasn’t just an excuse for me to vomit up a nonstop litany of complaints. I talked about Orson Welles and Keith Urban and the Rocky movies too.

Then we moved, and my motivation went missing. Moving into a new house when it’s something you want to do and you’ve found the perfect place can be exciting — even energizing. Doing it out of necessity, when calling the police nineteen times and documenting more than forty pages of noise complaints and drug buys won’t get anyone to do anything because it isn’t happening next door to any of the cops or politicians or people working at Crime Stoppers or “writers” for the Windsor Star, so they don’t care, and finding out your box spring won’t fit up the stairs at the new place, and the landlord neglected to tell you the central air only works on the bottom two floors, and the furnace is dead…that’s demoralizing.

I kept using the camera, but I stopped talking to it. Now it became my idea-capturing device.

When the first little Flip camera came along and transferring videos onto the computer became as easy as flipping out a built-in USB connector and plugging it in, my old camcorder friend and all the tapes I’d filmed with it got shoved into a dresser drawer and more or less forgotten about. Aside from picking up some slack at the first Mackenzie Hall show I played in 2010 when the Flip camera ran out of recording time, it wasn’t used again.

I dug it out of the dresser a year or two later to have another listen to some of those old musical ideas I recorded. There were lines through the image when I tried to play a tape and the sound was distorted. I tried again some months down the road and didn’t even get the distorted sound. There was no sound at all, and the screen showed nothing but an impenetrable blue square.

I tried different tapes. It wasn’t a tape issue. I tried slamming the camera on a tabletop repeatedly to intimidate it into working (I never claimed to make good decisions all the time). No joy.

I assumed the camera was dead, tossed it back in the dresser drawer of lost souls, and got on with recording my not-quite-demos with the Flip fellas.

Lately I’ve been thinking it would be kind of nice to have access to those ideas again. Maybe I could figure out a way to get all the tapes onto the computer. Worst case scenario, if the camera really was toast, I could buy another DCR-TRV19 for a hundred bucks or less on eBay.

I did some research and learned iMovie has a spotty record when it comes to importing camcorder footage. I’ve never been a big fan of that program. I almost never use it for anything. It gobbles up resources on my MacBook, turns it into an oven, and either freezes up for ten minutes at a time or is so sluggish it’s impossible to get much done. Reading about some of the problems people have had with audio and video coming out unsynchronized was all I needed to dissuade me from trying to tame the savage beast.

I’m pretty sure the old Acer laptop I use for video editing has FireWire ports, but even though it’s been a lot friendlier to me since a nice dude at PC Outfitters blew an ocean of dust out of its cooling fans, I’d rather not push my luck with that aging computer. It’s still slower than mud. At this point, asking it to do anything more strenuous than running Sony Vegas and a few other programs is probably a nightmare waiting to happen.

My online travels led me to a program called LifeFlix. It was created with the sole purpose of transferring MiniDV tapes onto a computer or an external hard drive. The more I read about it, the more it seemed like the smart way to go. I bought it, bought a FireWire cable and a FireWire-to-Thunderbolt adapter, bought a cleaning tape for my camcorder, and hoped for the best.

The cleaning tape worked brilliantly. I let it play for all of ten seconds and went from the blue screen of death to being able to play all my old tapes again. No artifacts, no lines through the screen, nothing. I was almost expecting at least a bit of that to stick around, because this camera is fourteen years old now. Nope.

Best twenty five bucks I’ve spent in recent memory.

The FireWire-to-Thunderbolt connector Apple makes is stupidly expensive, and there are no real alternatives, but it works. LifeFlix recognized the camera right away and went to work importing video. It works in realtime, so an hour-long tape will take an hour to digitize (at least in theory…more on this in a minute).

The program does a great job of breaking up video into scenes based on where the recording originally stopped and started, saving you the hassle of separating things into individual clips later. The user interface is simple but intuitive. Getting files onto your computer after they’ve finished importing is as easy as two clicks of the mouse or trackpad. If you want to trim a little dead space out of the beginning or end of any given clip, you can do that too.

The video compression LifeFlix uses is all but invisible. I can’t detect any loss of visual or audio quality compared to the uncompressed video. Not that this footage was pristine or pro-shot to begin with, but I’m pretty picky when it comes to these things. Being able to keep the file sizes reasonable is a nice bonus when you’re dealing with a lot of footage.

That’s all the good stuff. Now for the things that are a little irritating.

I don’t know if it’s just me and my computer, but the “combine clips” function has been hit-or-miss. It works about half the time. The rest of the time the progress bar will stop moving around the halfway point, assuming it starts moving in the first place, and then it’ll hang there forever, not frozen but with all functions locked up. The only option when that happens is to force the program to quit.

The good news is I haven’t lost anything doing this. LifeFlix saves all the work you’ve done no matter how it shuts down. Clips don’t disappear unless you delete them yourself. But when a certain group of clips decide they don’t want to be combined, you’ll never be able to join them together. Doesn’t matter how many times you try. Doesn’t matter how many mean names you call the computer. And these are not long clips I’ve been working with. In most cases I’m trying to combine two or three snippets that are each a minute long or less.

Another thing I’ve noticed: I can’t set the program up to import a tape and leave it to do its business. I need to stay at the computer the whole time, because the best I’ve been able to get is five or ten minutes of uninterrupted importing. At some point a clip will freeze up within the program, or there will be a glitch, and while the camera itself will be playing just fine, when that happens I have to stop the importing process, rewind the tape to the beginning of the last clip, and start again. Otherwise I’ll get flawed video on the computer.

Sometimes I can get another five or ten minutes before I have to do it all again. Sometimes I need to keep going back to the same spot a few times before it manages to import without any issues, and I’m lucky to get one or two clips at a time. With the tape I’m working on right now, it’s taken me more than forty tries just to get eleven short clips totalling about fifteen minutes of footage to import glitch-free.

These are minor complaints. This is taking a little longer than it would if there were no glitches, and there have been a few frustrating moments, but all things considered it’s been pretty easy and pain-free. In the space of a few days I’ve managed to get the full contents of almost half of those tapes onto the computer. Who knows how long I’d be waiting and how much I’d have to pay if I got someone else to transfer the tapes for me.

With my luck, they’d all get lost, or some freak accident would send them off to MiniDV tape heaven.

Now for the part that made me swear so much I had to start wearing a parental advisory sticker on my face.

I’ve been using Sony Vegas as my video editing program for years now. The learning curve was a little weird at first, but once I got past the initial feelings of bewilderment after Windows Movie Maker spoiled me a little with its insane simplicity, I grew to really enjoy using it.

Vegas has been fine with MOV files over the years, until now. It doesn’t like the ones LifeFlix makes. Whether they’re compressed or not, all that shows up when I import one of these clips is the audio. There’s no video. Any media player on the planet will play them no problem, so the issue isn’t with the clips themselves. it’s Vegas being a douchebag.

If I wanted to have any control over assembling individual clips into something more meaningful, I was going to have to find a way to convert the MOV files into something Vegas was less prejudiced against without the quality taking too much of a hit in the process.

Rewrapping them as MP4 files would be the ideal thing. But no way was I spending more money on yet another program to do that.

I tried downloading a few free programs that claimed to offer video rewrapping, only to find all the relevant functions were disabled and if I wanted to do more than open and close files I was going to have to pay for the privilege. I found something called FFmpeg that was supposed to make rewrapping easy, but I’m not all that tech-savvy, I don’t know anything about UNIX or Linux, and I haven’t for the life of me been able to figure out how to use the program. It doesn’t help that every online tutorial seems to assume you already know what you’re doing. I tried using the VLC media player to save the videos in a different container. That worked, but Vegas still wouldn’t budge.

This is the workaround I’ve come up with:

First I go back and import the specific clips I want to edit again, this time with the compression turned off. Then I use a free program called MPEG Streamclip to rebrand the uncompressed MOV files as MP4s. There has to be some re-encoding happening, because the conversion takes a lot longer than straight rewrapping does, but if the quality is taking a hit it’s so subtle my eyes and ears can’t tell.

Any given MP4 file is about ten times the size of the MOV file it started out as. I save as many of these as I can fit onto a flash drive. From there, I transfer them onto the external hard drive I use with the laptop that has Vegas on it (my Mac external hard drive isn’t recognized by that computer, while the external hard drive I use for that one becomes read-only once it’s plugged into the MacBook). Then I go back and do it all again, and again, and again, until I’ve got all the files I need on the external hard drive. Then I import them into Vegas, and at last I can start editing.

It’s a pain in the ass, but it works.

It’s been an interesting, schizophrenic emotional experience sifting through all this old footage.

There’s regret. I wish I could say I’ve been sitting on a treasure trove of footage from the time of BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. I had my chance to film elements of those songs being recorded and to talk to the camera about the thought process behind trying to short-circuit my own musical language and writing impulses in an effort to get somewhere I’d never been before, and I let it blow by. Even past that, I went to the trouble of testing out different camera angles in the studio when I was recording CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, and then did nothing with what I learned from it. I didn’t start to think it was worthwhile to document some of these things in the process of happening until much later.

Hard not to feel like there were some missed opportunities.

There’s the strangeness of seeing in black and white just how much was here the whole time. There were twenty MiniDV tapes in that dresser drawer. I found another two in a different dresser drawer after I took the picture at the top of this post. They’re all full to the brim, recorded in one-hour SP mode for the best quality. Take away everything that isn’t music-related, and that’s at least twenty hours of ideas, almost all of them recorded between 2007 and 2009, many of them things I have no memory of ever coming up with. So many sketches that never turned into finished songs. So many finished songs that were left unrecorded. So many unused alternate sections for songs that did show up on official albums.

If there’s anyone out there who still thinks I throw every idea I ever come up with on my albums, I’d kind of like to sit them down with these tapes for a day. I knew I was going through something of a creative purple patch at the time, but I don’t think it ever hit me just how much I threw away. It’s going to be fun to dig back into these ideas and work out which ones deserve a fresh look.

And there have been some surprises along the way. There’s an acoustic version of “Last of the Two-Finger Typists” filmed in 2003, minutes after I finished writing it. I recorded a song called “Electric Teeth” three times in 2007, from three different angles, almost like I was anticipating someday being able to edit the best bits together. There are some brainstorming sessions where I took the time to make sure my face and my hands were both visible, when framing was usually an afterthought. And those video diaries are surreal to experience now. It’s me talking, but I’m not the same person.

I might not have been able to stick the landing, but I wasn’t without ambition. The plan with the short-lived video diary was to break up the rants with songs and song ideas. I started throwing in an absurd comedy sketch called Grandpa the Russian Jew. An old man who sounded half-Russian, half-Jewish (you weren’t expecting that, were you?), played by me, would go on a short tirade about something ridiculous. He would always begin by saying, “You know, when I was your age…” and he would always end with, “…and that is the story of my life,” before passing out snoring. Only instead of talking about technological advances or respecting your elders, he’d insult Julia Roberts in some nonsensical way or muse about having sexual intercourse with a ceiling fan.

In a way, I’ve made good on a lot of what I was trying to do there with the video progress reports, and now on a deeper level with the semi-documentary-thing I’m piecing together about the last few years of musical insanity. I’m still talking to the camera about what’s on my mind, and if it’s a little less personal than the video diaries of yore, well…there is such a thing as over-sharing. The talking is broken up with musical segments and absurd bits featuring stuffed animals and re-contextualized public domain films. And when I started filming entire songs being recorded piece by piece, I discovered it wasn’t so difficult to stitch all the elements together after all, with a little help from some video editing software I didn’t have access to in the beginning.

So maybe I didn’t fail at it after all. I was just a slow starter. And there are things on these tapes I’m realizing I can slip into the larger video I’m making.

Though I might not have any actual recording footage from the house before this one, I have some good shots of my studio space in that house before I dismantled it. I have footage of my current studio space in complete chaos after moving in, and footage of it slowly starting to come together. I filmed myself recording the banjo part for “Blue Cheese Necklace” and then for some reason I’ll never understand didn’t film any other elements of the song being recorded (I want to kick myself now). I can take footage of a song being played at its inception to get the music and vocal melodies down, and segue into a piece of the finished recording. I can even slip in some video diary moments where they make sense, breaking up footage of myself with older footage of myself.

Which brings me to this.

In January of 2008, at exactly the halfway point of the Papa Ghostface hiatus that lasted twelve years, Gord came over and we recorded a song that’s never seen any release outside of an MP3 that’s long since sunk deep into the archives. This was one of the few times I went to the trouble of filming a recording session during the Handycam days. I didn’t have any way to get the raw footage on the computer back then. Now, nine years later, I’m able to do that and edit it into something a little more concise.

The song lives in its own little space, separate from the work we did before and the work we would go on to do later. At the time it felt like a potential first step toward making a new album. It was really a one-off, and it would be another six years before we started working toward a shared goal again with some real commitment.

It’s more a mood in search of a song, though there are moments I’ve always liked. I think “Speed the Truth”, the first track on STEW, is a good measuring stick. Both are dreamy things grounded in the key of A minor, but “Speed the Truth” is a layered soundscape that’s very sure of its identity. This one’s more half-baked. For every interesting turn of phrase (“You’re looking through one bloodshot tier” is one — sounds like “tear”, but it’s not) there are two that either make no sense or are little more than random nothingness (“Anomanomahee…hatred, smoke and…” won’t be showing up in a discussion of my best moments as a lyricist anytime soon).

Such is the danger of improvised lyrics. Sometimes you hit. Sometimes you miss.

Of course, I didn’t think to film myself recording the vocal and guitar tracks. I went through a rough mix on-camera instead. And because I only had the one camera, without even a tripod to screw it into, it was tough to get good shots of the two of us together. There’s a bit where I’m playing chords on the Arp-Omni 2 with one hand and synth drums on the Yamaha W-5 with the other, and because of the crummy framing, you’ve got Gord in the foreground and you can’t see a thing my hands are doing.

I gotta be honest about my 2008 mix, too. It’s not very good. The vocals are way too upfront, everything is swimming in about 600% more reverb than necessary, and I was going through that lame “clipping is okay because it means I can make things louder” stage when it came to the mastering process.

What I’m playing on the monitors is an unmastered rough mix, so the occasional moments of distortion in the video have nothing to do with mastering. They’re present in the original soundtrack, burned into the video, impossible to repair now. The Sony camcorder’s built-in mic is really good for what it is, but I found out the hard way it wasn’t built to handle volume past a certain point.

The instrumental fragment that ends the video, meanwhile, is a mix I did just the other day, stripping away the vocals, dialling down the reverb, and tightening everything up a little. It’s got me thinking about remixing the whole thing just for fun.

This segment will get trimmed down quite a bit when it appears in the epic video of stuff. Here I let it run a little longer. And I still left some things out. I filmed about twenty minutes of us jamming on acoustic guitars, playing pieces of old songs and riffing on new ideas during a break in recording. The first half of the jam felt pretty aimless, so I recorded over it a week or two later.

A funny thing happened there. A few snippets survived between the song ideas I replaced the bulk of the footage with, all of them about three seconds long. It felt like they worked well as random little bits thrown in without warning between the “On Your Life” footage, so I chucked a few of them into the mix.

The last ten minutes of the acoustic jam are still on tape. None of that made much sense in the context of this video, but I’m sure I’ll find a place for it one of these days.

Completely unrelated: Zara just released her new album. If you liked UNCERTAIN ASSERTIONS, there’s a good chance you’ll like this one too.

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 mixes once I knew a little bit more about what I was doing so I could 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 was thinking about this. It’s a pain in the ass to have to dig through boxes of CDs 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?

Now seemed as good a time as any other.

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 twelve-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 it, 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”. Maybe “Feckless”.

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 twelve-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 twelve-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 some 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 still existed. Beef be braised.

I Know You Are, but Why?

Making the wrong mistakes.

Still haven’t quite got my momentum back blog-wise. I am, however, in the process of capturing the recording of a song on video so I can put it up here. Finally. I thought I should make good on the threat at some point before the world ends, since they say that’s going to happen in a little less than two months now. Look out for that in a day or three, hopefully, maybe.

In the meantime, here is a random song. This one was an out-take recorded during the LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS sessions. It’s really just a casual improvisation around a few chords. More of a mood than a song. And while I like the mood well enough, it never felt like album material. It’ll probably end up on another out-takes compilation at some point.

Still, I pulled it out for a listen a few days ago for the first time in a long while, and I think I like it more now than I did at the time it was recorded. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but maybe not all songs need to have clear destinations. I like that there’s no set rhythm to the thing and the drums just shuffle around and whisper in the background. The electric guitar was recorded with a very distant mic for a change. Not that you can tell with all the reverb it’s swimming in.

It might not have hurt to play around with layering more sounds to make things more interesting on a sonic level. Alas, I think that ship has sailed. I’d feel funny messing with the song this late in the game.

More soon.

Making the Wrong Mistakes

A hunk of burning love.

I got a proof. The proof looks good. I just need to fix a mistake I made in the booklet, and if all goes according to plan I should have some advance copies of the new CD to share with CJAM and a few special people by Friday.

In the meantime, here are two more out-takes. I ended up having to throw out a few more songs at the last minute before the thing felt like it finally had a good flow to it. There’s a song I posted here a little while back called “Held Is Not Holding” that almost made it but just didn’t feel like it belonged anymore when the dust settled. It’s funny that it wouldn’t make the cut, because it sounds more like a breakup song than some of the actual breakup songs on the album do, even though it was written and recorded pre-breakup.

Optimistic Intro

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. It was going to be the first thing on the album — an instrumental segue leading into “I’m Optimistic”, with the two fused together — until I realized the opening track had a lot more punch to it without a wafting instrumental intro.

Sadly Mistaken

One track where the melodica really got a spotlit moment, and now it finds itself sitting on the out-takes heap as well. Felt like one downcast song too many. But I do like that big melodica-driven climax.

Someday there will be another misfits/out-takes album, and all these things will have a place to call home.

Getting there.

At this point I’m closing in on the finish line. With the album I’m working on right now, I mean. All of the twenty-five songs slated for inclusion have been recorded. Three need a bit of work,six6 need to be mixed or remixed, and the rest are CD-ready. If the sequence I’ve decided on in my head works outside of my head, there’s a good chance the whole thing will be finished by the end of the week, and then the packaging and post-production fun can begin.

The “lost album” of material that found itself pushed aside when all these new songs came pouring out is almost as substantial — twenty-one songs by my count, all of which have been recorded in some form, though not all of them are finished. I’m pretty sure most of them will turn up somewhere eventually. Maybe even on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE when I get around to finishing that beast.

Here are a few of those stragglers, just for fun.

Phoenix Descending

Ain’t No Friend

Upright

Phoenix Descending was the Guild D40’s final recorded hurrah before I parted with that guitar in favour of the more worldly 1951 Gibson LG-2. I like how there’s three-part vocal harmony more or less running through the entire song, and the piece of shit classical guitar that played a surprisingly prominent role on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS shows up near the end to provide some nice ambient glue.

I should probably take another pass at the mix at some point. The vocals seem a bit louder than they need to be. I like the song well enough. Just feels a little too bouncy to have a place on an album this specific and bitter. But don’t you tell me there’s no place for a silly rap song, or you’ll have a fight on your hands.

The recording of Ain’t No Friend was captured on video over HERE a little while back. This song is hard-edged enough in the lyrics department to fit right in, but it’s about a different person than the one who ended up inspiring the new album. It also has a certain bounce to it that I decided to sort of mimic for another song that will be on the CD called “Emotional Blackmail”.

A few years ago (I’ve been maintaining this blog for that long now?), I posted an ABSENCE OF SWAY out-take called “I’ll Make a Mockery of You Yet, My Dear” that ended up acting as something of a “study” for the vastly superior “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondue”. I didn’t consider the first song to be a complete success, but there were elements of it I liked, so I took the approach I used behind the drums along with the idea of setting percussive ukulele-strumming against piano, and used that as the backdrop for something a lot more interesting. A similar thing happened here, albeit on a smaller scale and with very different results.

In this case, I think Ain’t No Friend is a much stronger song than “Mockery”, and it probably is album material. It just doesn’t belong on this specific album.

Upright has yet to feel at home on any album. feels to me like it either needs to be a beginning or an ending, but to what, I’m not sure.

Maybe part of that has to do with the odd way in which it came to be a song. Way back when Max and I were recording some jazzy improvisations together, there was one little bit of noodling I always liked. It was only about minute long and never turned into anything. More of a between-song riff.

A year or so after the fact, I decided I felt like playing around with it a little. I added some drums and vocals on top of the existing upright bass and piano duet, improvising the words while recording, and then grafted on a whole new second section with my own bass-playing taking over for Max’s, somehow managing to make the new piano track sound like it grew organically out of the old one.

The electric guitar went through a 1955 Mason Model 6, of all things, which looks like this.

It really is as tiny as it looks there. Maybe even tinier. It sits on top of my Fender Twin, looking a bit like a figurative kitten resting on a very large person. It’s only got six watts to it, but the thing sounds great when you crank it and it starts to break up. Someday, if I ever find myself recording a harmonica player who can actually play, I’d like to try the amp in that application. I think it could do a great job getting a bluesy, overdriven harmonica sound.

These might not be the most interesting cast-offs, but then I can’t be giving away all my best secrets too soon, can I?

In other relevant news, I’ve decided to make next month’s Mackenzie Hall show a proper CD release show after all. Though I don’t like sitting on new music, I’ll only really be holding it back for a week or two at the most, and it’s possible this will be the only time in my life a live show and the release of a new album will line up just right. Might as well have some fun with that and make it count.

The album is still free, and after the show it’ll be available in the usual places. But until a week or so after the show, when I’ve recovered from all the nude dancing and Simple Plan cover songs and built up more stock to spread around, the only place you’ll be able to get the album is by coming to the show.

I plan on giving some copies to CJAM like I normally do, so you’ll be able to hear some of it before its “official” release, assuming you listen to CJAM. And if you don’t, hey…it’s never too late to start. What better reason to tune in than some hairy guy releasing an album full of dirty words and romance-bashing?

The Guild, she is gone.

In the last video progress report, I talked a bit about a Guild guitar I had and how I ended up trading it in toward a 1951 Gibson LG-2. It was kind of surreal getting rid of a guitar in the first place, and then seeing it for sale on the website for the store where about 80% of the guitars I own have come from at this point. Not surreal in a bad way. It was kind of cool, really. Just not a feeling I’ve had before. I don’t tend to get rid of instruments, or anything music-related, ever.

Today I saw the guitar’s status on the Folkway site changed to “sold”, so someone bought the thing. I didn’t expect it would be gone so quick. I hope they have fun with it, whoever they are. I considered writing a little note and sticking it inside the case (something along the lines of, “This guitar served me well, but I have too many guitars to justify keeping it around, and I hope it serves you well too,”) but thought that might seem a bit strange to whoever ended up buying it.

I can’t say I’m sad to see that axe go. I have other guitars that do more or less the same thing it does with a little more personality, and for my ears and fingers the Gibson LG-2 blows it away on every level. Still, the parting is a little bittersweet. We did have some good times together, at least until Max decided to be an idiot and break a string on purpose. It threw the whole thing out of whack, and I never liked the guitar much again after that, even after a setup.

“Mismatched Socks” on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN probably never would have been written without that guitar, and I like that song. There are several other things I wrote and recorded with the Guild, most of which will probably be showing up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE whenever I get around to finishing that magnum grope-us.

Here’s one that’s always been a favourite of mine. It was the very first thing written on the Guild the day I took it home. It was also the first song I’d written with a proper chorus in a good four or five years. I made a solemn vow to end my life if I ever returned to the land of conventional song forms, but in this case the song really wanted to have a “refrain” and it didn’t feel right any other way.

Though it was written and recorded during the crack house duplex adventure of 2007, in some ways this was a significant step in the direction of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, and I seriously considered throwing it on the album right up until the very last minute, regardless of the fact that it was recorded more than a year before the rest of the songs, in a very different setting.

Row Ashore

A lifetime serving one machine is ten times worse than prison.

joe strummer

On some level I think of Joe Strummer not unlike the way I think of John Lennon — as a bundle of contradictions who found himself the “spokesman for a generation” and grew from an angry, confused kid into an intelligent, articulate, thoughtful artist. He was flawed. He was human. He didn’t try to pretend he was anything more or less than that. But he did try to use his influence to wake up the world a little, and he made some great music while he was here.

My first Clash album was Combat Rock. Maybe not the best place to start. Almost everyone would tell you to grab London Calling first, and I’d say just as strong a case could be made for the sprawling madness of Sandinista. But it did the job as well as any gateway drug and made me a fan when I was thirteen.

I’m not about to try and write some ambitious piece about Joe’s life and the music he made with and without the Clash. There’s a lot of information on the internet for anyone who’s interested. There are a handful of well-made documentaries out there too. There was one moment in one of those films that really resonated with me, though, and it still does.

I was watching Westway to the World on TV ten years ago when they were showing it on MuchMoreMusic, back when they would play Roxy Music videos at two in the morning and had a bit more credibility than MuchMusic. A lot of people have been critical of the way the film doesn’t fill in all the blanks and assumes the audience knows a bit about the band and the time in which they existed. I enjoyed it. I liked that there was a lot of great music and vintage performance footage, and I liked that the band members were onscreen telling their own story.

The bit that got to me was right at the end. Joe, who was animated and charismatic through the whole film, had the last word. His body language changed and his tone shifted to something more resigned. “Whatever a group is,” he said, “it was the chemical mixture of those four people that made the group work. That’s a lesson everyone should learn — don’t mess with it! If it works, just let it. Do whatever you have to do to bring it forward, but don’t mess with it. And we learned that…bitterly.”

They’re simple words, but I felt them in my gut. A few years later, after I had a band with its own peculiar kind of magic and it all fell apart, I understood what he meant in a deeper way. When you have a band or an artistic collective of some kind and it clicks, that’s something special. Something to cherish. The stars don’t align like that too often. It only takes one rift, or one person to turn into a bag of douche or leave the group, and the whole axis shifts.

We’ve seen this happen countless times with bands where the original singer leaves, or the drummer dies, and the band either keeps going or reforms later on with an ill-fitting replacement. I can’t think of one example where it’s worked out well. A lot of money gets made, sure. But the magic is gone, and the music that comes out of it is either embarrassing or underwhelming. Most of the time it’s both of those things.

There’s a point behind bringing up Joe.

Tomorrow is something CJAM has dubbed Joe Strummer Day, when their programming does its best to tie Strummer’s life and work in with reports on homelessness and poverty in the Windsor and Detroit area. I was asked to contribute something. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come up with anything, but after throwing away the idea of a cover of “Straight to Hell” (too obvious) it came to me out of the blue. I knew what I had to do. Shooby-dooby-do.

Back when I was watching Westway to the World in 2000 as a short-haired, clean-shaven Johnny, I liked the song “Bankrobber” a lot — maybe more than anything else I heard in the film. Because of the lack of exposition, I was left to assume the song was on Sandinista, so I went out and bought the album. But “Bankrobber” wasn’t there.

It’s not on any studio album. It only shows up on a few compilations, none of which were readily available at the time. Now, of course, you can find just about any piece of music in crummy compressed form on YouTube, just as long as Sony Music or some other soulless entity hasn’t taken it down so they can keep dancing the corporate bullshit dance.

Today you can find “Bankrobber” on YouTube in a few different forms. The strange thing is when I first heard the song there was something weary and beautiful in it that grabbed me. Now I find I don’t like it half as much as I used to. It’s still a great song, but it’s not something that would get me to run out and buy the album I think it might be on anymore. I’m not sure what happened there.

In most cases I’m not a big fan of artists transposing cover songs into another key when they sing them. If you can’t sing the song in the key in which it was written, in my opinion you have no business singing it at all unless you’re going to do something drastic with the arrangement and really make the song your own. Then I think it can be justified.

I’m not one to cover other people’s songs much anyway. But when I do, I like to try and put my own spin on the song without transposing it at all. This time I thought I would do something different. If you tune in tomorrow, maybe you’ll hear it on CJAM at some point if someone decides to play it. If not, you can hear it right here.

Bankrobber

If it reminds you a little of a song of mine off of AN ABSENCE OF SWAY called “Will Work for Food”, that’s not quite an accident. I was toying around with a different take on that song, playing with the rhythm, shifting it around a bit, and playing it on the Martin 00-17 half a step lower than I did the first time around on the Regal parlour guitar the song was written on. Then I started singing the words to “Bankrobber” and this happened.

I recorded it this afternoon. While I could have done a better mixing job, I don’t have the patience or the space on the mixer to take another crack at it right now. I’ve been recording so much stuff I’ve maxed out everything and need to mix a bunch of things and get them off of there to free up some space. So this is as good as it’s going to get for now. I like the song in its original key and thought about keeping it there, but I also kind of like what happened here when it stepped into a new pair of slippers.

What’s interesting to me is this: when you get rid of the reggae rhythm and the dub effects and concentrate on the lyrics, it becomes clear just what a good folk song is hiding in there. The words are even kind of relevant to the whole poverty/homelessness theme, though it wasn’t planned that way. Just a happy accident.

This is probably the closest thing I’ve done to a CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN-sounding song in a long time, aside from the absence of vocal multi-tracking. I kind of went out of my way to do that just for fun — right down to the skeletal kick drum/tambourine rhythm, which isn’t the kind of drum part I seem to play much anymore.

Also, the end-of-the-month progress report video will be along shortly. There’s a good chance it’ll show up on Christmas day. And that’s just funny.

Makeover.

I thought it was about time for a change around here after more than two years of things looking like Halloween year ’round.

It never really occurred to me before to mess with the theme/layout at all, and I was content with the way things looked. But yesterday I found myself looking through some of the other themes just for kicks and previewing what some of them would look like. I found a few I liked. Lately I’ve found my eyes tend to get tired pretty fast when re-reading something I’ve written here, and it didn’t take much pondering to put it together that the culprit was the odd, dark colour scheme. When things got lighter, suddenly my eyes were a lot happier. In the space of about half an hour I went from just trying out new themes to deciding it was time for a little renovating.

I was torn between about three different themes along these lines. I settled on this one because it gave me more widget power. Things are more or less located where they were before on the sidebar, but everything feels a little neater and sleeker to me. As a nice unexpected side effect, most of my videos now display at a larger size, and I can make pictures larger too.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked the way things looked before, Halloween colours and all. But I think this is an improvement all around, and now I can’t believe it took me so long to think of making a change. It’s kind of silly, but I’m enjoying how so many pages look different now with the new colour scheme, and some of the album cover art/images seem to stand out more than before. My eyes are happy. Hopefully yours are too.

I don’t know how the hell it can be the second-last month of the year already, but somehow it is. That’s messed up.

The album I’m working on (still with the working title of Bitter Bearded Balladeer) continues to take shape and come into focus a little at a time. After some experimenting, I think I’m now settled on the album cover art. I’m not going to promise to have it finished before the end of the year…the last two times I got overconfident about such things, the albums in question didn’t quite make it to the finish line in time. So maybe if I don’t commit to anything, this time it’ll all work out.

Right now it’s shaping up to be one of the more atmospheric and dreamy things I’ve done in a while. But there’s lots of time for that to change. Only time will tell whether or not the sixty-second borderline punk song makes the cut. Things have already started to shift on some level. Up until recently, it seemed to me the album was going to be piano and acoustic-guitar-dominated. Now, maybe not quite as much. Last night I recorded some elements of a song where the lead instrument is an eavestrough elbow. I don’t want to make any bold proclamations, but I’m not sure there are too many songs out there that were written (or, in this case, improvised from a percussive groove) and played on eavestrough.

Add a bit of delay and it’s got a nice metallic thrust to it.

Eavestroughs aside, one thing I’m pretty sure won’t be making the cut is this song right here.

Gift for a Spider

I like the way it turned out. It’s one of those songs that sounds like I spent a decent amount of time crafting it when it came flooding out in no more than ten minutes, and those are always fun. But I don’t think it’s going to fit on the album. I’m also a little perturbed that I used a bit more compression than I would normally want to. I was just getting down “scratch tracks”, not really paying attention to settings, only to find I liked the first takes, but they were a little squashed-sounding and I didn’t feel like re-recording them properly.

It’ll end up somewhere, someday. Because songs about disturbed people who start off intending to murder someone only to end up possibly killing themselves after maybe or maybe not killing someone else are like blankets that warm your heart. I honestly don’t know where that sort of subject matter comes from.

On a random note, the song (if you can call it a song) by Taio Cruz and Ke$ha called “Take a Dirty Picture” is the most creatively bankrupt, moronic piece of stupid shit I’ve heard in a while. It gives “Eenie Meanie Miney Mo Lover” a run for its money. That there are people who get paid good money to create this garbage is just twisted. But hey, a critic from the BBC wrote: “The jarring clash between Taio’s supersmooth soul-gentleman image and Ke$ha’s sloppy drunken nonsense is genuinely fascinating. The song actually transforms from one kind of a thing to another, depending who has their hand on the microphone”.

Yeah. It’s high art alright.

I guess the lesson here is if you send me a picture of your naughty bits to my phone, I’ll jerk off to it and then write a song about the whole ordeal, and maybe I can be famous too.

On a less random note, MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART is somehow back in the CJAM top thirty again. How that’s possible, I don’t know. But there it be.