at the intersection of riverside drive and devonshire road stands a four storey building that’s been there for almost a century. it looks like something that grew up out of the earth and now the earth wants it back. its brick is overrun with vines and ivy that goes from green to red to green again, and in some places where windows were broken by people who find value in breaking things without purpose, the colour has curled its way inside.
everyone and their brother and me has been calling this place the old peabody building as long as i can remember. but that isn’t what it is. the peabody building stood just to the west of this one, beside the peabody bridge, which was used for shipping and receiving and lasted until the 1990s when the rail lines were removed from the riverfront. the peabody building itself lasted almost as long. it was bombed during the first world war by nazi sympathizers, survived, and went on to become the base of operations for various engineering and pharmaceutical companies before it was demolished by the city in 1985.
there’s a mystery tied in with this part of the city.
in the summer of 1854, fifty seven norwegian immigrants died of cholera after getting here by train, packed into windowless freight cars. they were on their way to chicago via detroit. they didn’t make it across the border.
today our population is well over two hundred thousand. in 1854 it wasn’t even eight hundred. there was no hospital, and only one doctor. he did what he could, but he couldn’t save those people.
the railway promised to pay for coffins and the burial of the immigrants. then they broke their promise and didn’t pay for anything. they gave the doctor a gold watch.
we didn’t have a cemetery or a church then. no one knows what was done with the bodies. none of the names of the dead are on record. some people believe they were buried beneath the peabody bridge before the bridge was there, but no amount of digging has ever turned up anything definitive.
the building that still stands — the one we call the peabody building without knowing we’re naming a ghost — is the walker power building. it seems to have been designed in 1911 by three architects whose names read like a law firm and built in 1923 by albert kahn.
i was never able to exhume much of any reliable history. from what little i’ve been able to piece together, it started out doubling as industrial space and a power source for the buildings hiram walker owned, later became office space, and then slipped into its most interesting and varied life around the turn of the century, when the ivy was already taking over.
what i’m left with, then, is my own personal history with the building. that only stretches from 2001 to 2002, with one little blip four years later that almost doesn’t count. still, there are some vivid snapshots.
first there was recording gord and tyson’s metal band.
it seemed like half the bands in the city were renting a room at the neon shop when i was just getting out of high school. that was another name people called the walker power building, because on one floor there was a business that sold neon signs. there were stairs, and there was an old freight elevator. you had to pull a rope to close it, and you had to check the floor to make sure it was level before you pressed a button to take you where you were going, because if it wasn’t level you were going to get stuck between floors.
i trusted that elevator with most of the equipment i had at the time and recorded the only album that metal band ever made over two days in november, in 2001. i monitored with headphones and some tiny powered speakers tyson brought for me to use. i was wearing leather pants and a blue dress shirt.
their space was littered with empties and trash. brandon’s drum kit was so decrepit the snare drum’s top skin was falling off. but damned if that kit didn’t sound good with a few microphones on it.
for only getting paid twenty bucks and working in a genre of music i’d never recorded before, i think i did a pretty solid job. it still surprises me how good the album sounds for what i had to work with. i was used to recording things live off the floor in band situations, but we built the songs up piecemeal for better separation, and those guys were tight enough that we could record the drums first with no one else playing and drop the guitar and bass tracks on top after the fact, and you’d never guess it wasn’t done live. tyson overdubbed guitar harmonies for one track while his father grinned with whiskey and weed in his eyes and said, “it’s like an orchestra!”
then there were keg parties i didn’t go to. some of them got so out of control the cops showed up. there were punk and metal shows. i saw video footage of one of them. i remember a guy who kept breaking empty forties of olde english over his head until he started bleeding from a cut on the bridge of his nose. then he dipped one of his fingers in the blood and flicked it at the camera.
one of these parties got gord, tyson, and the rest of the band locked out of the room they were renting. they spent the better part of an afternoon taking turns trying to convince me over the phone to rent out a new room in my name so they could get back in there.
the idea was for me to move in my equipment. then i could record them whenever they wanted, and everyone’s gear would be accessible to everyone else.
“brandon loves pearl jam,” tyson said. “i’m sure he’d love to jam with us.”
our music sounded nothing like pearl jam.
it might have seemed like a decent plan if i cut my head open, plucked out my brain with some heavy duty salad tongs, and chucked it in the river. but with my name on the books, if there was any trouble at all, i’d be the one on the hook for it. and i had a great recording space at home. setting up shop somewhere else made no sense at all.
i said no, and nothing happened there.
there was the night an adam whose last named rhymed with hustle passed out drunk and pissed himself on tyson’s brother rick’s couch. they were renting a different room by then. when adam was sober enough to stand they threw him out. somewhere there’s a videotape of him demanding to be let back in, screaming, “i’ll pull a pesci on you! i’ll kill you all!” until rick walks up and punches him in the face to shut him up, and punches him again, and again, and again.
“he looked like the elephant man for about a week after that,” gord told me not long after it happened. “rick fucked him up.”
there was the time i jammed with gord in the new room and he told me to be careful where i sat on the couch, because that was the one, that was the famous couch, and even though it had dried months ago, well, you never can be too sure with piss stains.
he had long hair then. he has short hair now. we’re still friends.
and there was the time i got a call from a friend because she knew i was looking for work. she told me she was working on the fourth floor of the walker power building with a few other people, and there was one position still available if i was interested. it was light assembly work.
the imagination factory. that was the name of the business. that was may 2002.
i went in for an interview that wasn’t really an interview. kate was the name of the boss. she had blonde hair that was turning grey and looked like it was grey hair turning blonde. she explained what the job was. it was putting together these kits that would be sold in stores — replicas of some of leonardo da vinci’s inventions. we were putting together something for someone else to put together. i liked the loopiness of that.
she asked me a few questions, and then she told me i had the job, and then i did the job for as long as the job was there.
it was one of the more enjoyable jobs i’ve had. we listened to WDET, back when WDET still played music. i got to listen to nick drake and jazz and iggy and the stooges while i was making boxes and counting out parts and talking to the other people working there.
there was ken. ken had a ponytail. ken told me about steve’s music in toronto and talked to me about tony iommi. there was kate. she was a little testy sometimes, but mostly nice. and there was another woman. i remember her face but not her name. she told me when she was a little older than me she had a brief, doomed romance with someone who looked just like me, only he had blonde hair. he was a heroin addict on a methadone program, trying to put his life back together after his child had fallen out of the crib and died while he and his girlfriend were high.
one day, on our last break, i went outside with the friend who got me the job. we took the elevator down and sat together in the tall grass. after a while she laid herself down on her back, so i did the same. we lay together there. i thought about kissing her pretty face, didn’t think she’d want me to, didn’t do it. i wouldn’t have known how if i tried. she pulled a leaf out of my hair when we were back inside and smiled at me.
she had long hair then. she has short hair now. we’re not friends anymore.
the job only lasted about a month. that was all the work there was. but i got a call from kate inviting me and my dad over for a barbecue at her place on the fourth of july that year. kate’s common-law husband was there too.
they had a funny dynamic, those two. they would jab and prod at each another, but you could tell they were having fun with it. that was just their way. you could almost see the history of their whole relationship in one of those little spats they had.
they were comfortable. they were lived-in. they were them. it was nice.
later we watched the fireworks from the roof of the building we’d worked in. a ladder got you up there. it was the perfect place to be.
more people showed up. one of them was someone i’d worked with at a different summer job three years before. she was a little older than me. she was wispy, with a deeper voice than you expected when you first met her. she had perfect long brown hair, straight as any i’d ever seen. i had a crush on her but figured i was too young, she was too cool, nothing was ever going to happen there.
as she was leaving, she went to kiss me without telling me a kiss was coming.
it would have been the first kiss of my life. it would have been just right, except she was so drunk she could barely walk, so it happened like this. she leaned in to kiss me. i tried to prepare for whatever i was supposed to do. the wind from our leaning blew my hair and her hair in our faces.
that was what we kissed. hair. there were no lips. there was no spit. there was no me into you and you into me, and she was so far gone she couldn’t even tell hair was all we got, and i didn’t have the guts to tell her. by the next day i knew she would forget all about how we almost kissed, and how she’d been the one to almost make us kiss.
as missed opportunities go, that one was a real asshole.
then there wasn’t much of anything, until i dropped in on josh and mark a few years later. i didn’t trust the elevator anymore. i took the stairs. gord wasn’t there that night, but he was in their band.
their jam space was a lot nicer than the other ones there’d been. neater. pretty spacious. i dropped off some music, hung out for a while, and left.
that was the last time i was inside.
a year after that, whoever owned the building (maybe a new owner…i’m not sure) got the idea to kill whatever made it what it was and carve it into condos he could sell. when he found out how much money it was going to cost him to get the place up to code with the fire department, to get the zoning he needed, and to get the polychlorinated biphenyls out of the ground, he decided it wasn’t worth it and just evicted everyone and walked away, leaving the building to be condemned.
local band yellow wood elbowed their way inside to shoot a music video for a song off of their final album, 2009’s son of the oppressor. and it remained a popular spot for photographers, whether someone wanted some interesting wedding pictures or they just wanted to grab some compelling images of a sleeping structure.
bands were born there. artists had lofts there. small businesses got their start there. there was a vintage bicycle shop. there were print shops. there was a sheet metal fabrication shop. raves were held there.
this building could be a place for artists and small business owners to thrive. just like it was in those last years before it went dormant. you want to stimulate a city with an economy that’s bottoming out? there’s a place to start.
for a long time it just sat there and went on becoming more evergreen than brick. someone bought it last year, but no one thought anything would come of it. now comes news that it’s being renovated and redeveloped into a business hub. there’s an artist’s rendering of what the redesign is supposed to look like. it’s so sterile and depressing, i can’t bring myself to put it here.
the shape of the building will remain more or less the same, but they’re going to strip it of all its quirks and transform it into just another faceless husk, no different from any other commercial building, ignoring how it grew into something much more than that. then they’re going to sell whatever might be left of its soul to the highest bidders.
there’s talk of putting a starbucks in there, not thirty paces from taloola, where they serve you real coffee and tea, and not the fast food equivalent. what i guess you’d call the new owner’s statement of intent calls this part of the city “trendy”. that probably tells you everything you need to know about where their heart is.
everything about it is wrongheaded.
people will call this a useful advance. a rebirth, even.
it’s not. once the renovations are finished, what was once the walker power building will be as dead as the building that owned the name we borrowed when we didn’t know what this one was called, that died two years after i was born. and though its bones will still stand, its face will be a garish mask it never asked to wear.
and another piece of history will be gone. not just the city’s history. mine too.
i wanted to get some pictures of it today while it still looked like itself. they’ve already knocked out some of the windows, and by the time the ivy springs to life and lets it colours loose again, they’ll have ripped all that out and thrown it in the trash. at least you get some small idea of its crumbled majesty.
a lot of the pictures here aren’t mine, but these last four are, along with the one of the grass and the very first image. click on the second one in this group to enlarge it and you’ll see some wall graffiti, with a season misspelled. some folks must have been squatting there for a short time when things were in limbo.
here’s how i’m going to remember the walker power building — as a living work of art, knowing it will never look anything like this again.
a few weeks ago this blog turned nine years old. kind of nuts to think next year it’s gonna be ten. WHERE DID ALL THAT TIME GO? WHERE?
i don’t know if there will ever be another year like the first few, when i posted pretty much every other day. those were crazy times. but you never know. i’m just glad i got through those few middle years of being kind of “meh” about the blog and have once again committed to using this as a place to talk to myself. and motivate myself. and dance with myself.
these days i don’t like to go weeks without saying anything here if i can help it. but i had a valid excuse this time, i swear! i was sick.
it never fails. i’ll be ramping up work on something, getting ready to head into the home stretch, and then out of nowhere a mega-cold will knock me out for at least a week or two and mess up my ears for a while, so even doing any significant mixing work is pretty much impossible.
i don’t get sick often (knock on laptop screen). maybe once every year or two. but when i get sick, i get sick. in italics. i’d say about every third album i make, the coughing and sneezing and muffled hearing is bound to come calling before i’m finished, disrupting my momentum.
maybe it’s just my body’s way of giving me a break when i won’t take one on my own. i don’t know.
whatever the case, it’s awfully nice to have my ears back now, and to be able to sing without hacking up a lung. i wish this one time my ears had been given a free pass, because i could have put a huge dent in all that remastering work while recording was out of the question. what can you do?
a couple o’ things that may be interesting:
a day or two before that cold showed up, i was almost finished remastering CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. one of the few songs left to revisit was “95 streets to the right (is where i will find the heart of you)”. and i couldn’t find that song anywhere. the title wasn’t scrawled on any of my backup CDs.
i knew there was no way i didn’t back the song up. it had to be somewhere. for more than a decade now i’ve been backing up everything, whether it’s worth keeping or not. on one backup CD there was something called “dream songs”. when i saw that, i was pretty sure i remembered recording fragments of a few bits of music i remembered from dreams and then, instead of making a new song, just recording “95 streets” there too.
i’ve gone through a lot of different brands of recordable CDs over the years — maxell, TDK, sony, verbatim, ridata, and a host of others i don’t remember offhand. most of them have held up. whether it’s got audio or data on it, i can grab a CD that’s almost twenty years old and know it’ll still work without any issues.
before i started getting taiyo yuden CDs for the most important stuff (and TDK for the slightly less important stuff), i liked verbatim. around 2007 or 2008 they changed the way they made their recordable CDs, and they became pretty glitchy and useless. maybe the printable ones are better. i don’t know. i just know the “regular” kind degraded so much, they were only useful for making rough mixes, and even then i couldn’t play them on most systems because they were more or less defective. i don’t buy those anymore.
you know what’s coming.
for some reason i’ll never understand, i used one of those CDs to back up “95 streets”. as you’d expect, it was toast. it would get halfway through transferring the data back onto the mixer, and then it would freeze up.
i dug through another box of backup CDs and found an alternate, backed up to a different brand. that one worked just fine. right about then i was pretty happy i always back up everything at least twice, just in case one CD goes janky on me.
and hey, i’m getting a new camera tomorrow. that calls for more dancing.
the cheap pentax point-and-shoot and the little flip video cameras have served me well, but it feels like it’s time to step things up a bit.
i almost did this a year ago. i was getting frustrated with how grainy the video i shot with the flip cameras would get in low light situations. more than that, every time i filmed myself talking to the camera i would have to get it very close to my face to get the best, most present sound possible out of the tiny built-in microphone. without a flip screen to show me what the framing was like, i would usually end up cutting off part of the top of my head (sometimes creating the illusion of a receding hairline) or the bottom of my face (leaving my chin feeling shunned). and that drove me nuts, though i learned to live with it.
i did a lot of research, trying to find better cameras that would do better in low light but wouldn’t break the bank. you can spend a ton of money on a great camera. i’m never going to be a real filmmaker. something that costs thousands of dollars would be wasted on someone like me. so i was looking for the best bang for the buck possible.
i found some videos made by ray ortega and was impressed not only by their quality, but by his willingness to share information with viewers. i sent him an email, outlining what i was trying to do and what i was looking for. i didn’t expect to hear back. he wrote a long email in response, making suggestions and giving some very thoughtful advice. (huge thanks go out to him for being so kind and eager to help a stranger.)
then i decided it wasn’t the right time to spend the money. and maybe i wouldn’t know what to do with a better camera anyway. maybe i was fishing outside of my pond. so i sat on it.
with YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK inching closer to the finish line now, i started thinking again about how frustrating it was going to be to try and get the framing right for my narration bits, which will end up forming a pretty large part of the album’s video companion piece. with the few segments i’ve filmed of myself talking so far, sometimes i’ve had to go back and do it again four or five times before i get a take where i’m not cutting some part of my head off or moving out of the frame without meaning to. even using a small mirror to try and see what the camera sees only helps so much.
one suggestion ray made in his email was to use a better camera to film the bits of me talking and any interviews there might be with the other people involved in the making of the album, bumping up the quality of those parts and making for an interesting visual contrast with the older recording footage shot on the flip cameras. the more i thought about that, the more it seemed like a really good idea.
after a lot of mulling it over, i decided a canon T5i was the way to go. it has its fans and its detractors, but for the price and the ability it will give me to take pictures and shoot video at a level of quality far above anything i’ve ever done before, i look at it as a bargain, and almost a no-brainer. plus it’s new. i gave some serious thought to a used canon T3i, but it’s always nice to have a warranty. because you never know.
when it comes to video, i won’t be relying on a built-in camera microphone anymore, either. i grabbed one of these over the weekend.
it’s a zoom H1 microphone/recorder. for such a cheap little thing, the sound quality the H1 captures is pretty outstanding. it’ll be worth the minor inconvenience of mounting it somewhere nearby but out of the camera’s field of vision, dumping the audio on the computer, and syncing it up with the video. another option would be recording my voice in the “studio”, mixing it all proper-like, and using that as the audio. but this will be much simpler and less time-consuming, and still a huge upgrade in sound quality.
so if you notice a marked improvement in the clarity of the self-shot pictures and videos that show up here from time to time, that’s why.
i expect there to be a bit of a learning curve, but i’m looking forward to figuring out how to get the most out of that new camera. and it’s not like the little flip fellas are going anywhere. when i’m shooting in-studio footage they’re still probably going to be the best choice. they’re small enough to position in odd places, i don’t have to worry about knocking them over (it’s happened before, and they don’t seem to care one bit), and it’s easy to forget they’re even there, which hopefully makes other singers and musicians feel a little less self-conscious about being filmed.
the piano shows up in the things i’m recording all the time in a textural role, but it’s been a long while since it operated as any kind of consistent musical driving force. i think you might have to go back to MEDIUM-FI MUSIC to find the last album where the piano provided the guts for more than a song or two.
i’m not sure it’s as simple as not being able to bring the upright upstairs where a lot of ideas are born. for some reason i just don’t seem to sit down at the piano and wander as much as i used to. i don’t know why. there’s really no excuse for that. it’s not as if i don’t keep the beast in-tune.
i thought it was about time something changed there. so i’ve been making a point of recording more piano songs lately. here’s one of ’em.
even if it ends up on an album, i don’t think sharing this one is giving much away. a naked tiny song is all it is. but sometimes i like those naked little tunes. and sometimes the heat comes on near the end of one such tune, a clicking sound is made, and the piano mics pick it up, but you like the performance enough to live with the click. this is one of those times.
the first verse is about mockingbirds. did you know some of them lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and then their offspring bully any other young occupants out of the nest and steal their food, leaving the adults with no choice but to raise them as their own? i find that fascinating, and kind of horrifying.
the second verse is about being a self-aware organic compound derived from sugar. a state of being we all think about from time to time, yes?
i’ve been slowly getting back into that remastering thing. i think i’ve got about 30 songs done now, with another 140 or so to go. yikes.
one of the most interesting things about doing this has been uncovering little bits of things i had no memory of — ideas and false starts hidden between the keeper tracks. did you know “purgatory waltz” on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC was once meant to begin with an insane discordant a cappella waltz? me neither! i don’t remember recording that at all. but it’s right there, mixed down and everything. makes me wonder what else is hiding between the cracks.
those surprises have carried over to non-solo music. i thought i’d dump a few of the ideas steve and i came up with during the AFTERTHOUGHTS sessions onto a CD — things we didn’t develop beyond initial rough recordings — just to have them all in one place. i knew there were at least a few of them.
combined with a few garageband demos i made of songs that did get fleshed out but didn’t make the cut for one reason or another, those ideas take up almost an hour of CD time. that’s bonkers. squirreled away on various backup CDs are a dozen or so sketches i can’t even remember us recording. what’s more, i think almost all of them are really good, and well worth returning to.
never have i been happier about the impulse to throw a microphone up in the middle of the room every time one of us comes up with a random riff that feels like it might someday have the potential to turn into something. if i didn’t make a habit of doing that, almost all of these ideas would be lost. instead, we’ve probably got a decent chunk of a new album here in embryonic form.
the lesson is simple: donald trump’s hair will one day become self-aware and autonomous. and then we’re all in trouble.
one more thing that isn’t as much of a surprise, though i guess it can go here too: i think i’ve probably mentioned before that i feel like it takes me at least a good year after an album is finished before i can unplug from it enough to hear it semi-objectively and form some idea of where it fits into the bigger picture. it’s still as true as it ever was.
about a week ago i threw STEW on and listened to it all the way through for probably the first time in six months or so. i knew i was proud of that album before, but i think this was the first time i was able to hear it as more of an impartial listener, and not so much as “the guy who recorded it and is always on some level listening for things he could have done better”. and man…i think we did good.
one of the great things about there being such a long break between KISSING THE BALD SPOT and the work we’re doing now is the way it throws into very sharp relief just how much we’ve grown. with my own work, especially when i’m in the middle of one of those “putting out several albums a year” phases (which hasn’t happened in a while, but i have a feeling another one is around the corner), you tend to hear things shift in a more incremental way. here it’s like going from beat-up old VHS tapes to blurays in one shot.
i feel like STEW is going to be hard to top. when all the dust has cleared, that one might go down as the best papa ghostface album there ever was. but i dig where the next one is heading too. with greg on board to make the cover art again, at the very least it’s guaranteed to be visually striking. i really like the idea of making his art a running theme with this grownup papa ghostface music.
i guess 2016 couldn’t leave without killing off at least one more talented person. two-thirds of emerson, lake & palmer are gone now, with greg lake joining keith emerson on the massive concert hall in the sky.
these guys gave me a lot of joy when i was a young ‘un, both with the epic prog workouts and smaller-scale gems like this.
greg lake was also the voice and bass behind some of the first music i heard that really challenged me, though it took a while before i figured out it was him. when i was seven or eight years old i came across in the court of the crimson king on cassette. the album cover scared the shit out of me. the music kind of unnerved me too, but at the same time there was something exciting happening there.
i grew up in the eighties listening to the radio. this wasn’t like anything they played on the radio. it wasn’t like anything i’d ever heard before anywhere.
try jamming on some brain salad surgery tunes if you run into keith up there, greg-man.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
from 2004 to date, every non-compilation album i’ve ever been involved in — from solo albums, to collaborative albums, to things that were recorded/produced for others, even to albums i played on as a sideman without handling any aspect of the recording — has charted on CJAM at some point, without fail…until now.
the O-L west album hasn’t dented the charts at all. from what i’ve read, a new album stays in a radio station’s on-air library for a maximum of eight weeks. it’s been at least five since i dropped off copies of this one at the station. i think the safe money is on it not making any violent ripples in the pond at this late stage.
it was a good run while it lasted. i’m astonished i got the kind of airplay i did for as long as i did. twelve years of consistent charting is pretty crazy any way you slice it. a lot of people at CJAM gave my music an incredible amount of support over the years. many of those people aren’t in windsor or at the station anymore, but i’ll always remember our late-night trysts.
and by “late-night trysts” i mean “bizarre dreams in which they appeared that i will never tell them about for fear of causing them to fall in confused half-love with me”.
maybe this is some long overdue karmic makeup for THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET — one of my least interesting albums of all time, fantastic cover art from maya notwithstanding — inexplicably hitting #1 on the CJAM charts a decade ago. but it’s probably just that my time has passed.
whatever the case, thanks to everyone who gave anything i did or had something to do with some airplay at some point. it was always appreciated.
after an easy birth, a pretty happy childhood, and an interminable adolescence, the debut O-L west album has grown up and gone out into the world to fend for itself.
it’s called AFTERTHOUGHTS. it exists only as a physical album. you can’t buy it anywhere, because it isn’t for sale — though if you’re reading this, you probably knew that part already.
it’s the first thing i’ve ever been a part of where there are two distinct dominant voices throughout. things are split pretty much down the middle between songs i sing lead on and songs steven sings lead on. on some level, an album where we both share the writing and lead singing duties feels like a natural outgrowth of the work we were doing with steven’s tire swing co. songs. it was probably only a matter of time before we started writing together.
the thing is, you can never predict how — or even if — that’s going to work. you really don’t know until you sit down with someone and start bouncing ideas and creative energy around. sometimes the energy is right. sometimes it isn’t. i’ve had both experiences. with some people collaborating has been effortless, and with others it’s been about as easy as plucking out a polar bear’s ass hair with chopsticks.
with steven, it’s as natural as breathing. we just click, in a way i’ve only ever clicked with a few people. it’s a joy making music with someone when that happens.
if you’re a friend and/or someone who contributed to the album, you probably already have a CD, or else one is on its way to you from one of us right now. if you’re not on my “mailing list”, or if we don’t know you but you’d like a copy, feel free to get in touch with me or steven and we’ll do our best to get one to you.
each polaroid that makes up the collage on the album cover is related to one of the songs. here’s what that’s all about, along with some of the stories behind the music — including most of the existing relevant demos, in case you want to compare some of those to the definitive versions and ruminate on what changed, what didn’t change, and which spontaneous late night arrangement ideas had staying power.
i suggest not listening to too many of these demos until after you’ve heard the full album, to avoid spoiling too many surprises, but hey…i’m not here to tell you how to live your life.
paint as you like and die happy
along with trespassing, this was the true beginning of the O-L west. we jammed out the music one night in the fall of 2014 — steven playing acoustic guitar, me on lap steel — and made a quick recording to preserve the idea.
steven came back with some great lyrics the next time we met up. we got down his acoustic guitar and lead vocal, and then i added the bass and lap steel.
that felt like almost enough. but it needed a little more.
on a musical level, the song is all about drift, with long instrumental passages leading into and out of the verses and choruses — which aren’t really choruses, because the words are different each time. any kind of extended solo or conventional drum part was going to chip away at the almost dream-like quality of the thing. what i needed to do was find the right accents.
one of my favourite things about working with steven is the uniqueness of his voice, and getting to play off of it with my own voice. here i threw in some high whispered background vocals on the chorus sections. also added some piano to the second half of the song.
on a different kind of tune i’d float around and improvise a lot more. in this case, the simpler and sparser i kept my playing, the better it seemed to work. sometimes just a few notes played on a piano can contribute an incredible amount of depth to a song. it’s a little nuts.
(digital pianos need not apply.)
the little synth-sounding melody that runs through the second verse, never to recur, is the casio SK-1 set on the flute sound with some subtle effects added. even if it didn’t allow you to sample anything, the SK-1 would be worth the cost of doing business just for that flute patch. though it sounds very little like a real flute, it’s got a great soul to it. it’s a sound that works in places you’d never expect it to.
here’s the SK-1 on top of a small pile of things, staring at you all stiff-upper-lip-like, as photographed by joey acott.
the other synthy wash of sound that’s more of a background colour and doesn’t go away once it’s introduced isn’t a synth at all. it’s another lap steel track. i plugged the steel into the old digitech guitar effects processor that’s been making a bit of a comeback lately, found an ambient-sounding patch i’ve always liked, and played around with harmonics and volume swells.
the problem with this patch is it can sometimes introduce some hiss when you’re feeding it a low-output instrument. it did that here. you probably wouldn’t notice unless you listened on good headphones or a nice hi-fi. even so, as much as i like my rough edges, something like unintentional-but-audible hiss drives me batty. if i didn’t do something to cover it up, it was going to bug me for the rest of my life.
i recorded a soft brushed snare part to act as another little sonic accent, since nothing else seemed like a viable hiss-hiding solution, and hoped for the best.
these days i almost always record drums in one very specific way, with a stereo ribbon microphone set up in the middle of the room. it gets a slight boost from a tube EQ to counteract the high frequency roll-off inherent in most ribbon mics, a bit of compression, and that’s it. no close mics. no other ambient mics. i did throw in a distant room mic a few times on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART so i could slap a gated reverb or some delay on it for a bit of additional texture, but that’s not the norm for me.
there are three reasons behind this:
(i) i’ve grown to like the natural, unhyped, “drums in a room being played by a person” sound this approach imparts a lot more than the “close-mic’d up the wazoo, sound-replaced, and smashed to hell with compression until it doesn’t sound anything like a real drum kit anymore” sound i hear coming out of most modern recording studios. if i want drums that don’t sound a whole lot like acoustic drums, i’ll use a synth or a drum machine. if i’m playing a drum set, i want it to sound like a drum set. that’s just my own personal taste.
(ii) with only sixteen tracks on my mixer and more ambitious arrangement ideas than i used to have, every track counts now.
(iii) i spent years messing around with different drum-mic’ing configurations. i don’t have the patience for that anymore, unless someone’s paying me to record them and they want something other than my typical homegrown drum sound.
by the time i started thinking about drums in the context of this song, i didn’t have two leftover tracks to work with. i only had one. i sort of close-mic’d the snare with a pearlman TM-LE, since it was the only part of the kit i planned on playing anyway, and left it at that.
the sound lived in just the right frequency to mask the hiss. it even added a little bit of extra glue to the drift.
don’t you find your drift needs some extra glue sometimes? no? just me?
there’s one last thing to tell you about, and that’s the weird trembling sound that comes in for the last chorus. you’ll never guess what it is.
it’s a ukulele pitch pipe.
late one night, i got the idea to try sampling that little thing with the SK-1. for some weird reason it worked really well. the way the sampled sound took the natural vibrato created by the way i blew into the pitch pipe and altered the speed of it based on what notes were being played, generating a sound much more complex than its humble origins would ever suggest, was a total happy accident.
i like how this song sounds like it’s going to stay a stripped-down thing for the first few minutes, and then out of nowhere it fans out into a much wider, deeper soundscape. i think we both knew it needed to be the opening track pretty early on. sometimes you gotta kick things off with a more immersive track the listener can get lost in for a while, instead of something quick and punchy.
as for the picture, that’s steven sitting on my front steps, holding the actual photograph he’s singing about in the first verse. pretty nifty, eh?
this song is about a mysterious russian shortwave radio station no one has been able to explain for three decades, with the second verse made up of snippets of cryptic dialogue listeners have picked up over the years. it’s probably the closest the album gets to “moody rock”, afterthought no. 3 notwithstanding.
it didn’t start out sounding like that. the rough jam that planted the seed of the song was acoustic guitar-driven.
and i thought the non-demo version would keep it that way. many of these songs were born while the two of us were playing acoustic guitar. it made sense to use that as a starting point and build from there. but after a while, i got to thinking it might be a nice bit of contrast to have one or two songs not lean on acoustic stringed things at all, and i started to wonder what this one would sound like electrified.
i grabbed the kay thin twin and gave it a try. natalie reminded me what a great friend that axe was when she played it for a few songs on CAT & CORMORANTafter i’d been neglecting it for a while. the two interlocking main guitar parts were played on the kay. the other guitar accents and the distorted not-quite-lead guitar that comes in for the instrumental end section were all played on a telecaster. the little harmonica bits from the demo carried over, along with the hazy wordless vocal stuff near the end.
it took me a while to get the lead vocal right once i wasn’t singing it cross-legged on my bed into a tiny laptop microphone i couldn’t see. too much force and the pensive mood would be broken. not enough and it would sound like i was sleepwalking through the song.
i think i found the right balance in the end.
i wanted to wedge a small shortwave radio inside of a tree with a hole large enough to accommodate it and small enough to hold it in place, and then take a picture of that. it wasn’t to be. i couldn’t find the little shortwave feller i’ve got kicking around somewhere in the basement (or the garage, or switzerland…who knows where that thing is), and i was going to have a tough time finding a tree sympathetic to my plight.
took a picture of this big old tube-driven character with shortwave capabilities instead. it was the first picture i shot with theimpossible project’s temperamental black and white polaroid film that didn’t come out overexposed to the point of being unusable. the framing is a little askew, and now i kind of wish i took another run at it, but it works well enough in the context of the collage. and in these troubled times, collage context is really all that matters, isn’t it?
this one is discussed in detail, complete with all the demos, over HERE. it’s a musical dialogue, with natalie’s singing on the choruses-that-aren’t-really-choruses adding something special. the way the story unfolds, i think it almost feels more like a short film than a song.
by the time we were thinking about images to accompany the songs, the house that inspired steven’s initial concept for this one wasn’t looking so abandoned and evocative anymore. i always had the walker power building (aka “the old peabody building”) in my head. some of the imagery in the first verse came from thinking about that place.
a picture of the whole building felt too distant, in every sense of the word. then i got closer and lucked into seeing the “no trespassing” sign.
maybe that’s a little on-the-nose. but when it’s right, it’s right.
i kind of hijacked this one, similar to what happened with trespassing.
it started as a jam. steven had the verse chords and a vocal melody, but there weren’t words yet. i heard him singing what sounded like “and i know” a couple times. it got stuck in my head and wouldn’t leave. the same night of the initial jam i added some more music, wrote a bunch of lyrics, and sent along a demo of the finished thing at about one in the morning.
there was no concept in my head when i was writing these words. they were just the words that came out. but it was fun to find a way to work some boxing-related imagery in there, and now i’m pretty sure the bridge section has to do with faculty-dulling substances and the recklessness of darker days.
there isn’t a single proper guitar solo in any of the other songs on the album. so it stands to reason that the one song to buck the trend would have not one, but two solos.
getting down the solo at the end was pretty straightforward. the first one was a different story. i recorded a bunch of takes of a totally different, flashier solo without ever quite nailing it to my satisfaction. then i threw it out and tried something simpler and more melodic. that worked a whole lot better.
the arrangement for this one vexed me a little. it was the last song left that needed some work before i could focus on final mixes. it got almost all the way there, but it was missing one last bit of sonic wallpaper. it needed something to give that long bridge section a bit of a different feeling.
tried lots of things — backwards piano, additional electric guitar, lap steel, synth. whatever i was after, i couldn’t hit it. so i sat down with steven, and we knocked our heads together to try and figure it out.
i played him a rough wordless ambient vocal thing i threw in as an idea when i was trying out anything i could think of. he liked it. he suggested building on it and then taking out the drums for almost the whole bridge section.
that did the trick.
(there’s a video over here that says pretty much everything i just said about the arrangement and the guitar solos, only with actual audio examples.)
the intro…now that was a bit of a surprise. i thought a dreamy little ambient piece might act as a nice segue into the song proper, to shake things up a little. a few different ideas toppled out in one night, but the one thing that felt like it could work in the context of this song wasn’t so dreamy after all. it was this evolving loop i made using the strymon el capistan’s sound-on-sound function. i can’t remember if i ran the el capistan into the yamaha FX500 or if it was the other way around, but i know the FX500 was in the signal path, adding a little extra ambience.
you can do some interesting things with the el capistan’s tape emulation settings, forcing a loop to keep degrading until the source sound is unrecognizable. every sound in this loop was made with a guitar, and it’s just one track, but there’s something weirdly menacing about it, in a muted sort of way. i like how it smash cuts to the start of a song that’s a lot catchier than the intro sets the listener up to expect.
the clean electric guitar lines that run through the body of the song also got some help from that pedal. there it’s more of a background effect, adding a bit of shimmer that doesn’t call much attention to itself but would be missed if it was gone.
for a long time i wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy. i’ve turned around on that over the last little while, building up a small group of pedals that might someday live on a board (if i ever get a power supply to run them all at once). the el cap is a versatile beast that does pretty much everything i think i’d ever want a delay pedal to do, and i haven’t found a way to make it sound bad yet.
so, all else aside, this song is a bit of a showcase for a few of the tricks the el capistan has up its sleeve.
the “gospel” vocal wailing in the background near the end, before the final section really kicks into high gear, was just me being silly, singing from behind the drums to kill time until i had to start hitting them again. i never dreamed it would end up in the final mix. but i grew to like it as a little bit of unexpected oddball character, and steven was into it too, so it got to stay.
i had no idea what to do for a picture for this one. all i knew was, i wanted an image of something eaten by time. wasn’t sure what the eaten thing should be. it wasn’t a bust of jennifer connelly’s face with a wounded nose, though i gave it an honest try.
one afternoon, hunting for things to photograph around the city, i snapped a picture of a heap of scrap metal. it came out a little overexposed and ancient-looking, in a good way.
you could build a pretty convincing argument for this song being inspired by william kotzwinkle’s swimmer in the secret sea. it wouldn’t be true, but it would be an easy untruth to sell.
i haven’t read that book. i didn’t know it existed until after the song was written. i’m going to guess steven hasn’t read it either.
what happened here was, we’d written all the songs we wanted to put on the album. we were kind of holding back from letting ourselves write any more, because there’s this thing that happens when the two of us sit down with a few guitars: we can’t seem to avoid coming up with song ideas. even if we’re going out of our way not towrite, we’re probably going to end up writing something anyway. it can’t be helped.
this one wanted to come out. it didn’t care what we wanted. i set up a microphone or two in the room as really rough audio floodlights, not even trying to place them sensibly or get good sounds — just trying to capture enough of what was happening to make a useful documentation of what we were doing — and we played for a while.
i listened to it later that night and was struck by how well the improvised lyrics worked. i tweaked a few lines and added a few new ones to introduce a little more shape, but left the bulk of it alone. the end result is about a 70/30 split, with what steven improvised making up the larger portion of what’s there.
only when the song was finished did it hit me that it seemed to be telling the story of a couple struggling to hold themselves together in the aftermath of the unexplained death of their young child. none of that was in steven’s head when he was winging it, or in mine when i was transcribing and tidying up what he winged. the song decided for itself what it was going to be about.
these are almost always the most interesting songs for me — the ones that tug you somewhere you’re not expecting to go and construct their own hearts out of materials you didn’t know they had access to.
there was a sleepy quality to steven’s singing in the demo we both came to really like, and he was able to tap back into that without any trouble. for my part, instead of singing straight harmony i messed around with wordless backup vocals over the “chorus” sections, stacking one line on top of another until there was a blanket of four-part harmony.
this is the only song where i thought to grab video footage of the whole recording process so i could edit it into something like a music video later on. i meant to put an effort into documenting more of what we were doing, but it kept slipping my mind. what can you do?
the picture fell into my lap the same day i snapped the pic for trespassing. getting a shot of a little raincoat wasn’t happening, but there on the grass, feet away from the “no trespassing” sign, was a broken child’s umbrella. less literal. more atmospheric. even better.
we played this one live once as a three-piece O-L west/teenage geese hybrid. my wave of four-part vocal harmonies over the long coda was impossible to reproduce. our workaround was layering a live three-part harmony one voice at a time. steven started it, then i came in above him, and then natalie came in on top of both of us.
hearing a thing like that happen live made the hair on the back of my brain stand up.
afterthought no. 3 (shining a light, making a scar)
as a rule, i don’t go into a solo album with all or even most of the songs that are going to end up on the album already written. usually i’ve got a couple i think i might want to group together, or maybe just one idea i want to develop, and i start recording. then i write more, record more, maybe pull a few things from the giant pile of songs that have been hanging around waiting to find a home, get rid of some things that don’t feel like they fit anymore once more pieces are in place, and figure out what the album wants to shape itself into along the way, making adjustments as needed, improvising, experimenting, seeing what happens.
over the years a few people have labelled me a “reluctant editor” of my own work. i think the assumption goes something like this: i make long albums. some of those albums have a lot of songs on them, and some of those songs are weird and/or very short. therefore, i must never throw anything out, and i must have a pretty murky concept of the dividing line between what constitutes album material and what belongs in the out-takes bin. otherwise, i would make compact ten-song albums like a normal person.
that couldn’t be more wrong.
the amount of written and recorded material that doesn’t make the cut on any given album sometimes outweighs what’s allowed to see the light of day. you don’t want to know how many things i’ve got slated for inclusion on the followup to the first volume of OUT-TAKES, MISFITS, AND OTHER THINGS. and you would either think i was lying or you’d want to punch me if i told you how many songs i’ve written just in the past two years or so for the still-in-progress “solo album with many guests” that’s calling itself YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
i write a lot. i record a lot. i don’t release everything i write and record. not even close.
a lot of time and thought goes into discovering what each album wants to be and what makes emotional and sonic sense taking up space on it. album sequencing alone involves a great deal of consideration. i never put anything out there just for the sake of putting it out there, and i don’t believe in “filler” tracks. even the most random-seeming segue has a purpose, and some of my favourite things end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. that’s just the way it goes.
the point is, i make long, unwieldy albums by design. and while i value imperfection and make a point of retaining and sometimes emphasizing it, it doesn’t mean i don’t put a lot of work into what i do. the absence of excessive gloss isn’t a manifestation of laziness, and it isn’t an accident. it’s a deliberate choice.
perfection, especially when it’s achieved through artificial means, bores the shit out of me. i’m more interested in getting at something that’s got some character, that has something emotionally interesting crawling around in its guts. give me that over technical precision without feeling any day.
even when i have a pretty clear picture of where i think i’m going, i almost never end up with an album that’s much like the one i thought i was going to make when i started. that’s not because i need an outside producer to reign me in or focus me. it’s because i let the album tell me what it wants to be.
going about it this way keeps the process fresh and engaging. i don’t think creative energy is something to be bent or bullied where you or someone else thinks it’s supposed to go. i think it’s best served by letting it find its own way, and letting yourself be surprised.
the day the music ceases to surprise me, there won’t be any point in making it anymore.
i say all of that because this one — even though it isn’t a solo album — is pretty long. it’s also one of the more crafted things i’ve been involved in. steven and i went on such a songwriting tear together, very early in the recording process we already had a group of about a dozen songs we knew we wanted to make up the framework of the album. and almost all of those songs are here. but new ideas kept falling out anyway. and in spite of our best efforts to hold them back, we liked a few of them far too much to keep a lid on them. so we let the most convincing of them squeak through, while keeping the quality control pretty unforgiving.
we decided to call the songs that came a little later and didn’t want to be denied “afterthoughts”. another turn was an exception, and the one late addition to get a proper title.
we wanted the album cover to be a collage of pictures that commented on each of the songs in one way or another (that was steven’s idea, and man, was it a good one). the more songs there were, the more difficult it was going to be to come up with an appropriate image for each of them and then create a collage that made some amount of visual sense. elbowing a few songs into a different category did a neat job of getting rid of that potential stumbling block.
it was also a nice way to play off of the album title. we called it AFTERTHOUGHTS, in part because it began as a very casual thing, sort of an unassuming detour, before exploding into something that obliterated whatever our expectations were. TIME AWAY probably would have been a full-length album if this one didn’t strong-arm its way in there and demand our attention.
at the same time, a lot of the reasoning behind the name has nothing to do with the “tossed-off” connotation the word sometimes carries. this album is a lot of things, but tossed-off it ain’t — it took two years of intermittent work to finish it. it has more to do with things that are thought of, said, or felt after a bit of distance has grown between you and whatever you’re commenting on or turning over in your head. because there’s a lot of that going on in these songs.
the first afterthought we wrote and recorded didn’t make the cut. as with several other songs, we liked it, but it didn’t belong here. it was that emotional thing. the other three were sequenced according to feel rather than strict chronology.
this is why you don’t see an “afterthought no. 1” anywhere, and why the first one to appear is the third to be written.
this afterthought is one of the shorter, sharper, catchier things on the album. when it was just starting to hatch, it sounded like this:
it cracks me up to hear us talking about me hijacking it over the next few days, and steven predicting it won’t even take that long for it to turn into a fleshed-out song. he was right. later that night i recorded this:
on the demo, all the singing is me, and i carried over that little seesawing guitar riff of his (which didn’t make it into the final recording). on the album, it’s him singing lead for the first two verses with me backing him up. then i take the wheel for the big chorus that not only never comes back, but ends the song just as it’s picking up steam, letting the bottom drop right out.
i love doing that sort of thing.
i snapped into “let’s make a rock song” mode here and tried building everything around some pretty distorted electric guitar. it sounded a little too obvious. letting acoustic guitar drive it instead, and using the electric guitar to play off of that, seemed to get everything breathing a little better. the drums were getting lost a little in the last section when more electric guitar came in, so i overdubbed an additional drum part with a single room mic to give it a little extra excitement.
this is one of the few places on the album where the “textural ambient guitar” thing i mess around with sometimes comes to the forefront. i try not to overuse it, but it’s something i really enjoy doing when a song is agreeable. i blame the great john berry.
west coast blues
another one that came out of a jam early on, though it was really steven’s song from the get-go. the words he improvised when we recorded the rough demo were so good, he was able to keep most of them when he was putting the final lyric sheet together.
the above is another pretty lo-fi sketch, recorded with a few distant mics and the preamps saturated like crazy, just to see what would happen.
post-demo, we recorded some group backup vocals with jim meloche, and i added more harmonies on my own a little later. jim’s voice brings something to the song that’s difficult to put into words. you don’t always hear him that well, because there’s no separation between our voices, but you feel him there. if you’ve only ever heard the great fire he forces from his lungs when he’s singing with orphan choir or worry, you might be a little surprised by what he does here.
there’s an even bigger jim-shaped surprise at the end of the album. but more about that when we get there.
when we all come in together, i always picture us huddled around a piano in a saloon, half-drunk, sad about something but smiling through the pain. i can’t explain it. there’s just something evocative there, and it wouldn’t exist without jim.
thought about adding drums and electric guitar and some other things. in the end, the feeling of the stripped-down demo felt too good to deviate from much. so this one stayed percussion-free, and i held back a little when it came time to play piano over the instrumental passages. it didn’t feel appropriate to go too crazy there. i did add a little bit of bluesy harmonica, though.
this is the one place where the acoustic guitar steven’s playing isn’t my old gibson LG-2. he brought in his martin (the one mentioned over here — i’m going to guess it’s a D35), and it added all kinds of tasty glue, playing really well off of the sound of my own double-tracked 000-15.
for the picture, we wanted to capture someone sitting on stairs, looking forlorn. finding a model wasn’t going so well. steven asked his fair lady danielle if she’d be willing to help us out, and she saved the day. it seems fitting somehow that hers — and not either one of ours — is the only face to appear on the cover.
you know what i always say: “if you’re only going to have one person’s face on your album cover, and it isn’t going to be your own, make it the face of a beautiful woman.”
the yuan dynasty
i was feeling a little guilty about some of my hijacking tendencies. thought it was steven’s turn to get in on some of that action. i sent him some sketches i had that kind of stalled before they could become finished songs and asked if he had any ideas for lyrics. this was one of those.
he came up with the story of a fleeting connection on a train, retaining my refrain from the demo (some of the only coherent words i threw in there), making for one of the more “up” moments on an album that’s pretty dark stuff for the most part.
not that i’d have it any other way. you know me. i like those shadows and dark corners.
true story: that’s steven hitting the gongs at the beginning of the song.
in one of those “you can’t make this stuff up” moments, we found out he had a period-correct vase that played right into the whole chinese history theme. trouble was, it was impossible to get a picture that captured its personality and did it justice.
i took a picture of some train tracks instead. as with the image for time erodes, it came out looking like something very old that got dug out of an attic-dwelling shoebox.
sometimes you get lucky with these things.
i wrote this thinking it would be fun to have a song where we both kept trading off on singing lead — something where our voices would give the “A” and “B” sections very different personalities. did my best “poor man’s matt berninger” for the verses when i demoed it.
then steven did his best “rich man’s steven” when we were recording it for real.
before it had drums, he played some djembe. it was a nice touch, but once the drums were in there it wasn’t working anymore. someday after we’re both gone someone will restore that lost djembe part for an “alternate mix” and they’ll make it a bonus track on an unauthorized reissue released in an effort to give their fledgling record label some added credibility, selling something that wasn’t made for money and was never meant to be sold, and pitchfork will hail it as “the best obscure reissue we’ve heard since last week’s re-release of wilford brimley’s long-lost prog-metal/rap album from 1982”.
just you wait and see.
i played a lot of harmonica on this album. i think it’s the most harmonica i’ve played on any album in my life. it was one of those things that happened without any real thought going into it. on this song it gets a little more impressionistic.
that i’ve reached a point where “impressionistic harmonica” is even a feasible thing i can do is kind of surreal to me. i have no idea how that happened.
the thing that comes in during the last chorus-that-isn’t-a-chorus and sounds a little like a wheezing carousel organ is sampled recorder, courtesy of the yamaha VSS-30. that thing and the SK-1 play very well together.
the stop-start drumming was really the only approach that made sense here. i tried a more conventional drum pattern first, just to see what would happen. all it did was lay there like a dead thing. filling up the spaces between guitar strums with a more unpredictable rhythm gave the whole thing a much more interesting pulse.
getting a picture for this one was tricky. the lyrics are more imagery than story. you would think that would help, but it was maddening trying to find an image to pluck from the song. tried barred-up windows. didn’t turn out. tried to find a diagram of a hand’s inner workings in an old medical journal. couldn’t find an old medical journal to save my life. tried to get someone to eat an apple so i could snap a picture of them mid-chew (you know, to tie in with the whole “original sin”, apple-in-the-garden-of-eden thing). that didn’t work out either.
then i thought, “what if i stop trying to come up with an image that’s related to the lyrics? the song has a pretty prominent harmonica part. i’ve got this cool-looking big-ass old harmonica. maybe i should throw it on top of my battered snare drum, take a picture, and see how it turns out.”
it came out looking better than i thought it would. and that was the end of that.
afterthought no. 4 (waiting for armageddon)
the most non-afterthought-like afterthought of them all.
there are more than a few places on this album where i’m singing words steven wrote, or he’s singing words i wrote, or one of us is singing words we both wrote together. there are some things that are more or less solo pieces one of us wrote on our own, but for the most part who wrote what is all over the place.
this is the only song where we’re both singing lead and whoever’s taking the lead at any given time is singing their own words. it starts with steven backing me up and ends with me backing him up, though our voices blend together to the point that it can be difficult to differentiate.
we each wrote lyrics without having any idea what the other was writing. there wasn’t even a basic concept discussed beforehand. when we got together to compare notes, it was surreal how well my two verses and steven’s one long verse worked together. each part completed the other.
you know you’re pretty in sync with someone when you can write pieces of a song separately and have them fuse in such an organic way, no one would ever guess you didn’t write the whole thing together in the same room, in one sitting.
this is a demo i made for the first chunk of the song before there were really any words at all from either one of us. i can’t help hearing “it’s salami” instead of “it’s alarming”. happens every time.
tried a lot of different things when the words were there and it was serious recording time. i got the arrangement just about right, but something was missing. what ended up pulling the whole thing together was some delay-drenched omnichord.
the omnichord is another one of those funky little tools that rewards you for sneaking it into places no sane person would think to put it. i love the uniqueness of its voice. once you turn off the auto-chording function, it starts sounding like some sort of ghostly synthesized harp.
this one crept up on us and became one of our favourite tracks on the album. it feels like a perfect fusion of our sensibilities, with elements of INAMORATA, TIME AWAY, and my post-GIFT FOR A SPIDER solo work all coagulating in the same pot. if a musical scientist stitched together a tire swing co./johnny west frankenstein creature, this is what it would come out looking and grumbling like in an ideal world.
dying to be born
the first dedicated O-L west writing session produced three song ideas and three demo recordings to go with them. the first was what became paint as you like and die happy. the second was a song we didn’t revisit. the third was this one.
i love the little accents and fiddly bits steven improvised while i was playing the main fingerpicked part.
when i finally sat down and wrote some lyrics, there was a clear idea behind them: aging in reverse, literally, the curious case of benjamin button-style. but you know what? in his own way, john cassavetes brought the seed of f. scott fitzgerald’s short story to the screen long before david fincher did.
there’s a movie called she’s so lovely that came out about twenty years ago.it’s based on an unproduced script john wrote, given posthumous direction by his son nick. you know nick as the director of the notebook and my sister’s keeper — sentimental hollywood movies that are pretty much the embodiment of everything his father spent his life fighting against and offering a jarring antidote to in the fiercely uncompromising films he wrote, directed, and usually paid for out of his own pocket.
john tried to make she’s so lovely when he knew he was dying. back then it was called she’s delovely. sean penn was supposed to star in it. but sean wanted to draw up contracts and have all the details hammered out in advance with lawyers, and that wasn’t the way john worked.
there was another problem. sean was married to madonna. he wanted her to play the other lead role opposite him. that wasn’t happening on john’s watch. “i’ve worked with lots of non-professionals,” he said, “but i have to draw the line somewhere!”
the two had a falling out when sean went off to act in casualties of war without explanation after balking at john’s insistence that his friend peter bogdanovich serve as “backup director” in case his health broke down in the middle of filming. john put a solid year into trying to get the production going, but passed away before he could get the script off the ground.
as it exists now, it isn’t really a john cassavetes movie. it’s not even really a john cassavetes script. nick admitted he got rid of whole chunks of the text that didn’t make sense to him and rewrote a lot of what he didn’t throw away because he felt it needed to be “simplified” for the actors. he pumped up the drama and filed down the heart, missing the whole point of his father’s work.
so the “written by john cassavetes” credit is somewhat disingenuous.
john said he liked to make movies that didn’t “go”. the thing about she’s so lovely is it goes too much. jonathan rosenbaum did a neat job of summing this up when he wrote in his contemporary review that the film offered “a fascinating glimpse at what cassavetes was from the vantage point of what he wasn’t”.
if you know the man’s films, watching this one is a bit of a disorienting experience, even after you accept that of course it’s going to feel a little different, because he’s not behind the camera this time. to offer just one quick illustration of how wrong it goes, there’s a scene where eddie (sean penn’s character) talks on the phone with maureen (robin wright’s character). she was his wife. they were in love. by the time they’re having this conversation, they haven’t spoken or seen each other in ten years.
as nick directs it, the scene is loaded with feeling. but he doesn’t respect the audience enough to let them figure that out for themselves. he beats you over the head with it. there’s melancholy music on the soundtrack while the characters are talking, high in the mix, all but screaming at you, “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO FEEL. NOW FEEL IT, YOU MINDLESS IDIOT.”
i can’t stand that stuff. it’s the kind of simplistic cinematic shortcut john never settled for. bo harwood’s music is an important part of several of his movies, but it’s music that’s rough and human in all the right ways — not at all typical “movie music”. it’s an extension of the art, sometimes co-written by john himself. it’s never used to cheapen or simplify a scene, or to tell the audience what to feel. it doesn’t cheat.
nick cheats. he embraces that shortcut, dry-humps it, and whispers something dirty in its ear for good measure.
which is fine. that’s his thing. it works for him. it’s made him rich and successful. i enjoy alpha dog in an “unplug your brain and let yourself be entertained” kind of way. i can admit that without any shame. i think it’s good for what it is. not everything has to be great, meaningful art all the time. and there’s a moment near the end that redeems the whole movie. sharon stone’s character is talking about the death of her son, when behind an unnecessary and not-entirely-convincing fat suit her eyes go to some dead place for a few seconds as she taps into a kind of horrifying primal grief — a pain beyond pain, where laughing and weeping are the same thing. it’s so real, it makes me flinch every time i see it.
but — sharon’s unexpected grace notes aside — if that’s who you are as an auteur, save it for your own scripts, or the ones you commission from other living writers. don’t turn good writing into swiss cheese and dumb it down so it can walk around in hollywood without getting thrown in jail. and for god’s sake, don’t do it to a guy who risked everything every time he made a movie, who was always digging at some deeper truth, resisting easy answers. you don’t strong-arm his work into somehow being cute. you don’t do that to him after he’s dead and he can’t do a thing about it.
as much as the original vision has been gutted and diluted in she’s so lovely, there’s still some of the father in there that the son can’t kill — enough to make it interesting and throw things off-balance sometimes. there are moments and bits of dialogue you can tell weren’t tampered with. a little bit of john’s soul is buried in that movie. you just have to squint pretty hard to see it.
there’s a small scene about halfway through that’s pure daddy cassavetes. eddie’s been committed to a psychiatric hospital. this is the last time he’ll see maureen for a decade, though he doesn’t know it. he’s in a straitjacket. and this is what he says to her.
there might be more going on emotionally in this minute-and-change than there is in the entirety of the borderline forrest gump retread much of fincher’s benjamin button comes out feeling like it is while telling the same story sean penn summarizes here. and hey, sean still got his leading lady of the time to be his leading lady in the movie. he was just with a more capable actress by the late 1990s.
no disrespect to madonna louise ciccone.
what could have been with john directing his original script (impossible dream cast: transplant it to the 1970s, before it was actually written, and have cassavetes himself play eddie, slide peter falk into the role john travolta ended up playing, and substitute gena rowlands for robin wright)…well, that’s one of the great cinematic what-ifs.
but anyway. what was i saying? the lyrics. right.
when i looked at them later on, it felt like they could also be read as a meditation on how aging in a linear fashion mirrors childhood. as my bubi used to say, you’re a baby twice in your life — when you’re born, and then again when you die.
it works both ways. however you choose to interpret it, it’s not exactly the stuff of summer pop songs. but this is one of the side effects of a protracted, hopefully perpetual self-imposed exile from anything resembling a romantic relationship. it forces me to draw inspiration from other places and write about different things. i have to use my heart and my brain.
i don’t know what it is about this one, but it makes me think of a lullaby. maybe it’s that delicate little guitar figure that drives the verses. it stayed a stripped-down acoustic thing for a long time, and then it got a little more layered and interesting all at once, with several interlocking guitar parts, lap steel, and some of my more effective harmonica-playing added to the mix.
i have no idea what pickup is in the magnatone. it’s embedded in the guitar, hidden beneath the mother of toilet seat (MOTS) finish. it’s a magnet-based pickup — that much i know — and it’s a lot brighter than the gibson P13 in the silvertone. it’s not bright in a bad way, but i find myself rolling off a fair bit of tone to get it where i want it. that’s pretty unusual for me. i almost always play electric stringed things with the volume and tone wide open, altering my playing if i want a brighter or darker sound.
those lap steels both have their own personalities. they’re both good friends to have.
we had a tough time getting a picture here. it felt all kinds of wrong asking someone if we could take a picture of their child, or a grandparent near the end of their life, or both, as powerful as the image might have been if it was done right.
i got the idea to have a makeup artist make the two of us up to look like old men and have someone take a polaroid of us sitting on a park bench, creating the feeling of decades of shared history between us. thought it might be a pretty unique experience to be able to see ourselves age half a lifetime or more in a day, and then wash the makeup off and become ourselves again.
when that didn’t work out, steven got the idea to do something with ashes. i took a few pictures of him blowing a handful of them on my front lawn with danielle egging us on. didn’t realize until later i had the camera’s exposure set too bright for the amount of natural light we had to work with, so none of the shots came out looking so hot.
i grabbed the best one and found it had a certain washed-out quality to it that worked. the sweater comes through with more clarity than the ashes. maybe it’s supposed to be that way.
this is another one steven hijacked. one afternoon he went on a tear, writing great lyrics for three or four half-formed musical ideas i sent him in one shot. dude was a machine.
and the lyrics he wrote for it caught me off guard. the last thing i was expecting was a meditation on anne frank and the difficulty of believing in a god who allows unspeakable things to happen to innocent people.
i demoed the finished thing on acoustic guitar, because it’s hard to haul an upright piano up the stairs to your bedroom, and there’s something to be said for not always having to think about mic placement. it still surprises me how well that microscopic microphone built into my laptop acquits itself when i’m playing and singing into it at the same time on one live track (i never record vocals and guitar separately when i’m demoing things with garageband).
(for the record, the “steve” referred to in the first verse is stephen hawking, not our steven with a v.)
then it was back to the piano for the recording that would end up on the album.
i had an idea for a little string part. it was pretty disappointing when i tried it out with synth strings to get a feel for what it would sound like and it felt clunky.matter of fact, each time i tried to dress the song up beyond the piano/bass/acoustic guitar bed tracks, everything felt clunky. it didn’t help that i couldn’t seem to get my singing right.
this album is home to some of the most restrained (read: quietest) singing i’ve ever committed to digital tape. while i’m not that much of a belter these days as a rule, some of the hardest songs to sing are the ones where your range isn’t being tested, but you’re not pushing out a lot of air, and you’re trying to find a good middle ground between delicacy and strength. especially when you’re singing about serious stuff like this. wordless vocal weirdness wouldn’t cut it here.
what set me free was returning to the triple-tracked lead vocal approach that became a bit of a signature sound with CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN but hasn’t seen a whole lot of action in recent years. after that, the arrangement fell into place. keeping it simple turned out to be the best approach. just some clean electric guitar, lap steel, and simple brushed drums — mostly floor tom and snare — on top of the bed that was there already.
here i wanted a picture of a broken-down old bookshelf that looked like it had been through hell. finding something scarred enough to fit the bill proved impossible. i got lucky with this old church (suggested by johnny smith), figuring it would play off of the whole “loss of faith” theme.
the picture came out overexposed in a way that makes it look a hundred years old. just what the song wanted.
afterthought no. 2 (black hole)
within a day or two of getting my hands on that yamaha VSS-30, i was showing steven how you can sample your voice and manipulate it with the effects built into the keyboard to create a really cool, eerie sound. he surprised me and said, “we should do something with that.”
i sang into the VSS-30, did a little mangling, and improvised around the ghostly sampled vocal sounds. steven grabbed the telecaster (it was in a nonstandard tuning, plugged into the FX500) and did some improvising of his own. then i added some distorted harmonica and we both gave a little mutual yell.
there’s no demo for this one. it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, done and dusted before a demo could be made.
i experimented a little with adding other sounds later on. it felt like the more fleshed-out the music got, the more power it lost. there was something a little unsettling about it as a weightless thing. when the yell came in, it sounded like a desolate cry echoing through the ruins of a dying world. after the song had some bottom end and more bells and whistles, it just sounded like a yell.
we left it half-naked, out of respect for that yell. it was the only sensible thing to do.
we started writing this one by throwing lines and ideas back and forth. steven had most of the music already worked out. he hit on the image of an old italian rug as a lead-in to a bonnie and clyde-type story, and we went from there. later on i added some more lyrics to fill in a few blanks.
getting into the crimes themselves felt like the easy way out. we attacked it from a different angle, giving more attention to the little details hiding in the margins of the story.
on a random note, “green side-gabled bungalow” is a phrase that rolls off the tongue a lot easier than you might think.
i handled the singing on the demo. you can hear there’s a verse missing that hadn’t been written yet (it showed up about ten minutes after the demo was recorded), along with a line or two that changed later on.
on the CD it’s steven singing lead, with me backing him up. i think it’s got a good bit more gravitas in that form. some of those low notes are tough for me to hit. steven just sings ’em good and true every time. plus, it’s cool to hear him inhabiting a darker character like this. he also sings the words in a much more unpredictable way rhythmically, which made adding harmonies a little tricky. but i enjoyed the challenge, and i think it makes the song that much more interesting. it feels less like you’re being sung to, and more like you’re being told a tale.
my idea of a working title was “and of course in the end hope is just another wrong turn”. steven came up with the much better, more concise zebra stripes. the song’s narrator/central character takes an honest shot at living the straight life, but he can’t escape who he is or who his partner wants him to be. that stuff won’t wash off.
the ghost of the main guitar figure that runs through the yuan dynasty returns here in the form of a very similar banjo part. once i realized that was happening, i liked the little bit of unexpected continuity. in a way, you could look at this song as a follow-up to that one — one idea of what might have happened if the flirtation snowballed into a full-blown relationship once those two people stepped off the train, and then everything went a little sideways.
the instrumental coda came about because it felt like there needed to be some sort of palate cleanser before the final track. it couldn’t just jump straight from those last banjo notes hanging in the air to the beginning of pave over it all. besides, it’s fun to keep things a little unpredictable. every sound there is coming from the VSS-30. it’s all samples — electric guitar, harmonica, and piano.
the first time natalie heard this song, she said she thought the lyrics were leonard cohen-esque. given the towering giant of song master leonard is, it was impossible to take that as anything other than a mighty compliment.
and then there’s the picture. there’s a line in here that goes, “couldn’t say if they were tears of joy, or the runoff of ambivalence cooked by crooked power lines.” sometimes you see exactly what you need to see when you’ve got your polaroid pal in the back seat. that’s what happened when i noticed these power lines on one of those “driving around looking for inspiration” jaunts.
if i’ve taken one good polaroid picture with my spectra 2 and this sometimes-maddening black and white film, it’s this one.
pave over it all
this must be one of the best songs i’ve ever had a hand in writing. it’s also one of the bleakest. as if the last few songs leading up to it weren’t dark enough!
again it started as a jam. steven had the first two chords and a vocal melody. i added the D major-to-A minor turnaround and the vocal melody that happens there. he wanted to incorporate the image of something being buried, and in the course of the jam i heard him sing something about someone taking a beating, and something about someone’s crooked mouth.
i put all that in my head, let it stew a while, and later that night a song about separated-at-birth conjoined twins who hitchhike out of town after killing their abusive father came pouring out.
steven came up with the great idea to have a rotating cast of singers here — a different voice delivering each verse.
there are nine verses to the song. so we were looking at nine different singers. after accepting that the logistics of getting that many people to show up to sing on one song were a little insane, we downsized a bit. decided two or three verses for everyone might work better. and i thought maybe we could all come in together for the last verse, to bring things full circle as a group.
what we ended up with was a cast of four: me, steven, dave dubois, and jim meloche, all of us taking turns telling the same tale.
dave’s voice was made to sing a song like this. but the real revelation here is jim. it’s a different jim voice than you’re probably used to hearing, and he nails it. when he sings the bit about nothing coming out of billy’s “dry, crooked mouth” and the strings paint a little counter-melody around him, that’s one of my favourite moments on the whole album.
mixing this one was an interesting challenge, because all four of our voices live in slightly different ranges. it was tricky trying to get it sounding consistent, so no voice felt like it commanded more or less of the spotlight than any of the others. when greg maxwell told me it felt to him like the four of us were all the voice of the same character at different ages (seriously, how cool a compliment is that?), i was pretty sure i had the balance right.
almost makes me wish i’d invested a lot of money in a really good camera at some point. almost. but i feel like the whole grainy, DIY, not-really-a-filmmaker thing works for me. besides, the file sizes would kill me with a camera like joey’s. i think a two or three-minute clip would come out to something close to a gigabyte.
there are more people playing and singing on this one song than on all the others combined. in addition to the singers-in-the-round thing, kelly hoppe contributes some of the best harmonica-playing you’ll ever hear, in any genre. i know that sounds like hyperbole, but i’ve had the great fortune to have kelly contribute sax and harp work to a number of different things over the last little while (most of which haven’t been released yet). i don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he’s one of the best living harmonica players. what he does here is some of the best work i’ve ever heard him do. the amount of soulfulness and melodic invention he’s able to pack into a short pocket of time is mind-boggling. there’s a part where he “plays” the rain. seriously. you have to hear it to understand what i mean. and stu kennedy becomes a whole one-man string quartet — and then, briefly, a sextet — playing both violin and viola, acting as a wordless greek chorus, adding another emotional and dynamic layer to everything. i think he might have outdone himself too.
those guys are two of the most talented people i’m lucky enough to call friends, and also two of the most genuine.
when all the elements were in place and i was able to dial up a rough mix of the finished thing for the first time, it hit me so hard i started to tear up a little. no music i’ve been a part of in my life has ever done that to me. and i’ve been making music for more than twenty years now, since before i even knew what an erection was.
for the picture, i was trying to get a good shot of a ditch out in the county. it was a losing game. too much detail was getting lost. right when i was about to give up i saw the “no exit” sign.
accidental existentialism for the win.
we were going to end the album with one more afterthought — the very first one we recorded — closing the book on a somewhat hopeful-sounding note. by the time this song was CD-ready, that wasn’t going to cut it anymore. you can’t follow something like this with a little sixty second burst of sunshine. you just can’t. it would cheapen the journey. the intensity of it needs to linger and be reckoned with.
so that’s the album, and those are the details, about as well as i can give them to you.
one quick technical note before you go (assuming you’ve made it this far and haven’t jumped ship yet): along with STEW, this is the quietest mastering job i’ve done in at least ten years. more and more, the whole “everything must be louder than everything else” mentality seems a little pointless to me, and more than a little destructive. i’d rather get the stuff sounding as good as i can and leave it at that, instead of pushing the volume a little more only to look back in a few years and find myself wishing i’d used a lighter touch — which is exactly what’s happened with a few of the albums made during my short-lived “hey, i can make things competitively loud, so why not?” phase.
i need to kick off a little quieter is better (2008-2009) remastering campaign someday soon, for my own peace of mind. been meaning to do that for a while now.
you can always turn up the volume on your computer/CD player/iPod if you’re listening to something that wasn’t mastered all that hot and you want it louder. with music that’s been hammered at the mastering stage to infuse it with built-in perceived loudness, no amount of turning it down is ever going to make it sound good again, and the more you turn it up, the harsher and more fatiguing it’s going to get, and the less your ears are going to like you.
long story short, you’ll need to turn this one up a little. i think it’s worth the tradeoff. dynamic range is our friend!
all in all, it always takes some time before i can pull back and look at an album objectively. but i think we did good. there’s a lot going on here, both lyrically (not a whole lot of rhyming, quite a bit of variation in subject matter) and texturally (i’m not sure i’ve ever put this much thought into the production of a thing…i think/hope it’s the kind of album that rewards careful listening). on a visual level, the collage turned out better than i ever expected it to, and the same is true of the layout of the lyric booklet, even if some of that comes down to luck, as it always does. on a personal level, steven is a great friend, and recording these songs with him — and getting to involve other great friends like natalie, jim, dave, stu, and kelly — was a deeply rewarding experience.
i have no idea where the music will take us next (EDM, maybe?), but i’m looking forward to the ride.
one of the most criminally neglected bands to ever come out of canada, the wooden stars made four full-length albums of original material and recorded an album with julie doiron. they were sometimes compared to the rheostatics, but sounded nothing like them. i’m thinking these two bands were each used as reference points for the other because would-be music journalists needed something to compare them to, and neither band sounded like anyone else. there are elements of math rock and post-rock in some of their songs, with tricky time signatures and unpredictable dynamic shifts, but the music the wooden stars made resists easy description or categorization. that’s part of what makes it so exciting to listen to.
in 2013, montreal musician and writer malcolm fraser released wooden stars: innocent gears, something of a biography of the band. i say “something of” because it’s a short book, and there isn’t a whole lot of deep probing into the personal lives of individual members. i get the feeling this was a deliberate choice the band and author made, to maintain some amount of personal distance and let the music speak for itself.
i’m still a little shocked the book exists at all, given how few people knew the band existed even while they were active as a touring, semi-regular-album-releasing unit. while there’s a part of me that wishes malcolm found a way to get at a little bit more of what made these people tick as writers, there’s a lot of information in there that was new to me, and i think he did a good job of articulating what’s special about the music, and what a difficult thing that is to put into words.
all the albums have their own distinct personalities. the very same is the most freewheeling, an explosion of manic creative energy. it’s a little staggering to consider that it was recorded by a group of musicians who were all still teenagers at the time.
the moon is the most conventionally “pretty” of all their albums, more accessible, and with somewhat more traditional song structures. but it’s not pop music by any means. it’s always felt like a winter album to me. i couldn’t tell you why.
people are different is the closest they ever came to straight-up rock. as of this writing, it looks like it might be the last wooden stars album we’ll get, though the band continues to materialize out of nowhere every once in a while to play the odd canadian music festival.
i’ve always had a hard time telling the voices of guitarists/songwriters mike feuerstack and julien biellard apart. those two guys were made to sing together.
the book has helped with that. the division is most notable on the last two albums, and it’s interesting to hear the way the two influenced each other even as their writing became less collaborative, julien’s songs growing friendlier to easy melody while mike’s grew darker and more literate. “the summer i drank myself to death” remains one of the most gorgeously depressing songs i’ve ever heard. and the way “outlaws” imagines the end of a relationship as something that’s happening on a film set, the intimacy dented by the presence of people who are only interested in capturing the mechanics of the moment, with nothing invested in the people they’ve made their actors…well, here.
one bit goes:
and we lose soft consonants the boom disturbed by every coastal breeze you lean in close “of course i love you” an empty screen a blank apparition and we can’t even really say goodbye here ’cause everyone will move in a little closer
and if that ain’t poetry on the page, then there’s no such thing as poetry on the page.
another thing malcolm’s book did was give me a deeper appreciation for julien’s brother mathieu and what he brought to the band. his bass-playing on the very same is jaw-dropping, and he’s responsible for some of the weirdest, most interesting songs on the first two albums. after reading about why he chose to leave before the moon was recorded and how he’s regretted that decision, and revisiting the albums he was a part of, there’s a new emotional kick to the mathieu-sung “country violins” at the end of mardi gras.
when the music fades back up after a false ending for one last syncopated drum pattern and some tentative guitar arpeggios, there’s no bass heard from that point to the final drum hit. it’s like the sound of mathieu’s absence fully felt, when he hasn’t even left yet, the rest of the band petering out, unsure of where to go without him.
as solid as josh latour was in his absence, i’ve come to really miss mathieu on the last two albums. his unconventional way of playing created a great unpredictable rhythm section dynamic, and once he was gone, andrew mccormack’s drumming lost just a little bit of its spark. there never seemed to be any real friction between him and josh like there was with mathieu, where it sometimes sounded like a fight might break out between their instruments mid-song.
people are different is my least favourite wooden stars album, probably because it’s the slickest and least varied. having said that, i’m proud to say CJAM played the hell out of it when it came out in 2007. and it’s still a great album. in a perfect world, a song like “pretty girl” would have been a hit. an ode to obsession with the word “fuckers” in it and an instrumental bridge section in 10/8 time, on mainstream radio…can you picture it? kanye west would never have been able to let anyone finish anything again. those gorgeous sax harmonies at the end would have moved him to tears.
even if i like some albums more than others, this is a band that’s never made a bad one. the album they made backing julie doiron up is beautiful stuff, too — maybe the best thing julie’s ever done. but i think their 1997 album mardi gras may be their very best. the songs strike a perfect balance between chaos and beauty, the lyrics are cryptic, hilarious, heartfelt, disturbing, and sometimes all of those things at once, and there’s some of the best electric guitar interplay you’ll hear anywhere.
i was lucky enough to hear “cigarette girl” one late weeknight in 1998 on CBC’s bravenewwaves radio program, when patti schmidt was the host. i went out to buy mardi gras the next day and was told i had to order it on import. when it came in at HMV, the jewel case was broken. i liked the music so much, i waited fifteen years to replace the case with one that wasn’t falling apart, out of some sort of nostalgic impulse. had it been a vinyl record, i would have worn it out ten times over by now.
(if you click through to youtube and start to think some of the text in this video’s description reads like i’m lifting it for this blog post, it’s because i’m the person who wrote that description and posted the video…felt like that album deserved at least some representation there.)
so why didn’t these guys gain a larger audience? i think it was a combination of bad luck (almost every album they released failed to get much of a promotional push because the small record labels they were signed to had a habit of going under as soon as a wooden stars record came out), a refusal to compromise their artistic vision, and making most of their music at a time when the internet was nothing like the powerful tool it’s become for independent artists over the last decade.
early on they were offered a deal by sub pop, but turned it down. concessions would have had to be made, and they weren’t prepared to make them. they thought there would be more opportunities that size down the road. there weren’t. some people would say they should have grabbed it when they had the chance. i say maybe the music they made wouldn’t exist as it does if they had, and that would be a huge loss. it seems a shame that they’re still so unknown, but i wouldn’t trade the music for anything.
something tells me if you asked them, they’d say the same thing.
“where i grew up in brooklyn, man, a punk was like a wuss — the guy who ran away from the fight. ‘you’re a punk. you’re a weasel. you’re nothing.’ now it has this connotation of being the tough guy thing. the revolution. are you kidding? so i liked the word and used the term ‘punk music mass’ [on a flyer to advertise a live show in the early 1970s], maybe inadvertently trying to turn it into something else. one day i wake up and there’s the word ‘punk’ all over the place. somebody said that suicide had to be the ultimate punk band, because even the punks hated us.”
alan vega said that.
before it was even a little bit cool to be a synthesizer-based duo, there was suicide. there’s no guitar on their self-titled debut album, no bass, no acoustic drums, and it’s some of the truest punk music you’ll ever hear. it still sounds like nothing and no one else.
it’s hard to believe now, given the depth of the influence they’ve had on electronic, industrial, and post-punk music over the last few decades (and even on bruce springsteen — listen to “state trooper” on nebraska and you’ll hear him channeling alan vega something fierce), but for a long time people HATED these guys. there’s an EP called 23 minutes over brussels, available as part of the two-disc CD reissue of the debut album, and it might be the best aural evidence of just how reviled they were.
it’s a hissy bootleg cassette recording made the night they were opening for elvis costello in 1978. the audience booed. they heckled. they stole the microphone from alan vega in the middle of a song. the set ended after a little more than 20 minutes. elvis came on and played a very short, very angry set of his own to let the crowd know he wasn’t happy with the way they’d treated his opening act. they responded by rioting and breaking alan vega’s nose.
some bands would have been discouraged by a thing like that. alan and musical other half martin rev thrived on the contempt. they used it as fuel. alan would knock a chunk out of a club wall with a motorcycle chain and hurl abuse right back at a hostile audience. it wasn’t for nothing that they gave their two-man band such a polarizing name.
“suicide was always about life,” alan said. “but we couldn’t call it ‘life’. so we called it ‘suicide’, because we wanted to recognize life.”
on that first suicide album, with little more than a farfisa organ and a secondhand drum machine made by a bowling-pin-setting company, martin rev created rhythms that sounded like the steam-driven heartbeats of demon trains and married them to repetitive, hypnotic melodies that buzzed and throbbed. alan vega sang on top of those sounds in a menacing croon, kicking his rockabilly influences down to a hell gene vincent would never have gone near, bending his yelps out of shape with dub-like delay effects, turning every performance into a confrontation.
there’s the odd pretty love song on suicide like “cheree”, and a fun 50s throwback in the shape of “johnny” (hey, that’s me). but even on the more restrained tracks alan sounds wild, unpredictable, electric. “frankie teardrop” is one of the few songs in anyone’s catalogue that terrifies me every time i hear it. over a punishing ten minutes, alan tells the story of a factory worker who can’t keep it together after he loses his job and can’t support his wife and young child anymore. there’s no deep psychoanalysis. no poetry. just the awful, banal facts, until the facts break down and all that’s left is subhuman screaming ripping through a dense sonic nightmare.
every subsequent suicide album is a lot more polished, and the use of actual synthesizers and drum machines NOT made by bowling-pin-setting companies means they can sound a little dated in a way the first album never has and never will. the one exception to the rule is an album’s worth of demos pre-dating the first album, tacked onto the reissue of the second album as extras. there’s something eerie and magnetic in this music, lo-fi and murky as it is.
in what has to be the most bizarre soundtrack decision of all time, one of these demo tracks was used in a 2001 commercial for a dark liqueur that wasn’t kahlua.
i’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.
alan and martin made more albums apart than they did together, and the crown jewel of the bunch — at least in my opinion — is alan’s self-titled first solo album, which somehow manages to capture some of the unsettling, hypnotic quality of suicide with a very different set of sounds. it’s another two-person affair, but this time it’s phil hawk filling in the blanks, playing guitar, bass, and an actual drum kit.
if suicide is minimal electronic proto-punk without much in the way of conventional electronics, alan vega is rockabilly on downers. in a good way.
“this music is long nights and cold sweat,” henry rollins wrote in the liner notes for the infinite zero CD reissue. “[it’s] a closer look at the enigma that is this shadow poet. you think you’re getting closer to him, but you’re only getting deeper into yourself. you’re on your own.”
i hone in on those two albums, and suicide in particular, because it’s desert island music for me. i didn’t have regular internet access or a computer at home until i was eighteen, so a lot of the music i got into as a teenager came to me from magazines, books, and rock and roll encyclopedias. i couldn’t audition anything before i bought it. i read about it, and if it sounded interesting, i went out and tried to find it. the more obscure and divisive it was, the more i wanted to hear it.
as great as i think it is that the internet has done so much to make a lot of music easier to access and put more power in the hands of the music-makers, sometimes i miss those days of uncertainty. i had no idea what i was going to hear, and no idea if i was going to like what i heard, until i sat down to listen to a CD for the first time. it was all blind fumbling.
some things kind of disappointed me. some things i liked, but i found i liked the idea of the music more than the music itself. some things i loved. that first suicide album grabbed me from the moment “ghost rider” came roaring out of my headphones, and it hasn’t let go since.
now the voice that drove that music is gone.
alan vega spent most of his 78 years making uncompromising art in one format or another. so you can’t say he didn’t live a full life. still, 2016 needs to lay off of this whole “shoving great artists off this mortal coil” thing already. it’s getting out of hand now.