for a long time i wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy.
my first electric guitar came with an amp i still use today. on early CDs, if i wasn’t plugged into that, i was using a guitar effects processor or a built-in mixer effect to simulate an amp, or else i was going direct into the mixer with no effects at all. sometime around 2000 or 2001 i got a vox wah pedal. not long after that i picked up a boss DS-1 distortion pedal.
while the vox got some use here and there, the boss sat around wondering what its purpose in life was supposed to be. in theory it seemed to be a good buy. once i had it, there was never a time when i felt compelled to reach for it over the tones i was getting out of the POD or from natural tube amp breakup.
the third pedal i got, and the last one i thought i would ever get, was a voodoo labs tremolo pedal. it was meant to make up for the tremolo circuit i was no longer able to access in my fender twin reverb once the foot switch that triggered it went missing.
i never used any of these pedals enough to justify keeping them around, so when money was scarce a few years back i dusted off the tremolo and distortion pedals and sold them both for some extra pistachios. the wah pedal got to stay. why? well, because you never know when you might need a little wah in your life.
after that i was pretty content either plugging straight into an amp with no effects, the way i started out, or using the POD for effects after disabling the amp simulation settings. i bought a little big muff and a yamaha FX500 when i wanted to make some shoegazey sounds i couldn’t seem to get with what i had, and i thought that would be about as far as it went.
then i got to thinking, and the thinking sounded like this: “with the few pedals i bought before, i never really put much thought into what i was getting or why. now that i have a better handle on what i’m doing and what tones i’m after, maye i can build a small collection of things i’ll actually want to use on a semi-regular basis.”
i found out about strymon pedals and fell in love with the smooth, sweet sounds they made. i picked up an el capistan and in a matter of minutes was pretty sure it was the only delay pedal i would ever need. then i grabbed a walrus audio iron horse — a distortion pedal that packs a serious punch and has a more interesting personality (at least to my ears) than the DS-1.
i wanted some reverb. the strymon big sky was beautiful, but more money than i wanted to spend, and i couldn’t find another pedal that nailed the tone i was after. i wanted something lush and kind of modulated that could work just as well as a textural thing or an overpowering wash of sound.
the mr. black supermoon, the red panda context, and the wet reverb were all contenders. i just wasn’t sure they were quite what i was looking for. the boss RV-5 was another consideration, but i find all of the sounds that thing produces outside of the modulated ‘verb to be pretty uninspiring, and its buffer is a notorious tone-killer.
when i heard the ’80s reverb setting on the strymon flint, i knew that was it. that was the sound i wanted. turns out the other reverb options are perfectly usable too — the spring reverb can double for the fender twin’s in a pinch without bringing with it the extra hum the amp does when its reverb is engaged — and the tremolo does a nice job of filling in for the absent voodoo labs pedal.
after adding the magic box that is the montreal assembly count to five to the crew, i wanted one more pedal. i had no idea what it should be. i got some good advice from a few different knowledgable folks, but as hard as i tried, i couldn’t get into the idea of a compressor or a volume pedal (i’m way too accustomed to manipulating a volume knob with my fingers by now). i found a great deal on a chase bliss warped vinyl only to have it fall through. i kept coming back to quirky reverb and delay pedals, even though my bases were already covered there.
in the end i settled on hungry robot’s the wash. there was something about it that grabbed me…maybe the way it gets into some really cool self-oscillation at more extreme settings, almost making it sound like whatever amp you’re plugged into is about to explode in the prettiest way.
somewhere in there, it started to seem like a good idea to get a board to put all these pedals on — my first-ever pedal board. i haven’t done any significant gigging in a long time and that isn’t likely to change, outside of the occasional show backing up a friend or a possible once-every-decade-or-so show of my own to remind the small group of people who still care that i’ve gone on existing and making music. so i didn’t need it for that. i just thought it made good sense and would keep things from getting too messy on the studio floor, where it’s a challenge to keep microphone and instrument cords from getting tangled and turning into tripping hazards at the best of times.
i didn’t want one of those massive boards that holds six million pedals. i wanted to keep things simple. you only need to see how many guitars i have to know what happens when temptation and a surplus of physical space meet up in my world.
half a dozen pedals was my cutoff point. i wanted a board that wouldn’t allow me any room for expansion beyond that. something like a pedaltrain nano looked like it would do the job, but it was kind of bland-looking to me. i needed something with character.
if i float around on the internet long enough, i always seem to luck into finding something interesting, whether i’m looking for it or not. i came across the website for tone snob pedal boards this way. i fired off an email to donny, who’s one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to buy a pedal board from, and told him what i was after. he suggested a 12×18 wedge style board so i could mount the power supply on the bottom, keeping the wires out of the way. he said he had some nice tweed to work with, too.
i gave him the go-ahead, and he built me this beautiful thing:
i made one big mistake, and it wasn’t failing to think, “i should take a picture of this pedal board on a darker surface so it stands out more.” my mistake was not factoring in how expensive a good power supply would be. a little less than two years after my board showed up, i’ve yet to get it up and running for that reason alone.
a few weeks back i decided to sell it. right now i could use the extra money more than something cool that’s been spending all its time covered up in a closet wondering like that old boss distortion pedal before it when the meaningful portion of its life is going to start.
i took a few pictures to use in a kijiji ad. thought it made sense to put all my pedals on the board and take a picture of that too, to give a potential buyer a sense of what it would look like in action.
i took a good look and thought, “man…it’s a shame to sell this. it really is the perfect board for me.”
so i decided not to sell it after all. a few months from now, spending a bit of money on an appropriate power supply might not seem like the dumbest financial decision i could make anymore. besides, it looks too nice to give it to someone else.
i’m not sure this is the exact order these pedals will end up in. one thing’s certain, though: the distortion will be after the reverb. i know it’s not the way most people set up their signal chain. i just really like the smeared sound you get out of flipping the tried and true on its head there.
my friend little big muffy probably won’t make it onto the board when the day of reckoning comes. i can get close to fuzz territory with the iron horse if i crank the gain, so it’s a little redundant now, and i don’t find myself feeling a need for super fuzzed-out guitar tones all that often.
i’m not sure what i would put in its place. the wah pedal is too much of a tone-hound to go there. i’ll figure something out, i guess. maybe get a chromatic tuner to put at the beginning of everything. maybe discover something totally weird and random and convince myself i can’t live without it.
oh hey — AFTERTHOUGHTS turned one year old a few days ago. no way does it feel like a year since that album was released, but the time, she don’t lie.
you know what else doesn’t lie? this bust of jennifer connelly’s face.
a final note about this whole remastering thing, as i make the last few tweaks and double-check my work:
part of the reason it’s taken me so long to finish is an inability to master in any conventional way, due to the nature of my equipment. i think when most people tackle this stuff, they have all the songs gathered together in one place. usually their setup is at least somewhat computer-based, so they’ll have the whole album in a pro tools session or something. this way they can compare any songs they want with ease, right down to split-second sections of music, and work to achieve something approaching sonic continuity.
i can’t do that. i don’t work with a computer when it comes to music. outside of recording garageband demos on my laptop, everything i do happens inside the same roland VS-1680 i’ve been using for almost twenty years now. technically you could say the mixer itself is a computer, sort of, but it’s a very limited one, and the only one i use.
back when i didn’t routinely max out all the tracks i had to work with, recording all the songs on one file and keeping them together was an option, even if it didn’t allow for much creativity when it came to sequencing the songs. a lot of the guys with dicks albums were recorded this way, with the songs transferred to CD in one shot, left in the order they were recorded, separated by track markers but with no spaces between them.
that’s not an option anymore. now i have to work on one song at a time.
as you can imagine, level-matching after the fact often turns into a huge pain in the posterior. i try to make life as easy as possible by mastering all the songs at several different volumes, making microscopic adjustments, so i’ve got a lot of play when it comes time to put all the pieces together. achieving a good balance by guessing and hoping is just about impossible, though i did manage to pull it off sometimes on much older albums when i had a pretty solid, if crude, template for how i recorded and mixed everything.
still, no matter how much legwork i do, after settling on a good overall master volume i always have to go back and revisit at least a few songs to make them a little quieter or a little louder so they fit in with all the rest.
so when i say doing this involved remastering 188 songs, i mean that in the most literal sense. it was very much a drawn-out, one-song-at-a-time process.
i thought i was finished before i really was. all the hard, time-consuming work was done, but the final step of getting everything to live in a pretty consistent volume range remained. this is the “smallest” job of all, and also the most important.
the goal, at least for me, is to be able to set your volume — whatever device you’re listening on — in one place that’s comfortable, and then not have to make any adjustments from the beginning of an album to the end. there are going to be quieter and louder passages. you want those dynamic moments to be there. but as long as the loudest moments in those songs all live close to the same place, hitting a similar apex, the ears will adapt to the ebbs and flows of the album, the same way your eyes adapt to changes in light. if i’ve done my job right, those ears will still be feeling pretty fresh when the headphones come off or the speakers stop singing, and they’ll have gone on a bit of a sonic and emotional journey along with the rest of the body and brain.
i wasn’t always great at this. i think i’m getting pretty good at it now.
i thought both of those things. i was wrong on both counts.
i got MEDIUM-FI MUSIC almost all the way there on the first pass. i couldn’t believe it. a few small changes and it was right where i wanted it to be. even a song like “i love you”, which was always tricky because of the harshness of its vocal sound blurring the line between perceived and actual volume, was sitting in just about the best place it could hope to be.
NIHILISTS has taken at least half a dozen tries. i knew it was a dynamic album. i didn’t realize it had this much dynamic range until the clipping was gone and i could hear everything that was going on with more clarity. in terms of the way so many songs move from near-silence to huge, sometimes violent crescendos, it might be the most extreme album i’ve ever made.
i think i’ve got it about as good as it’s ever going to get now, and i’ve accepted that this is one album where there’s no avoiding the need to manipulate the volume control a little while listening to it, unless your ears can handle the extreme soft/loud dynamics (and maybe they can…i know mine are more sensitive than most).
AN ABSENCE OF SWAY is the last one i need to do this final precision work on. it should take a day or two. then this will all be finished, and i will never have a need to remaster anything else again if i can help it.
you make a thing. you decide how you feel about the thing. sometimes you know while you’re making it. sometimes it takes a while before you know. sometimes you think you know, and then your feelings shift.
i like to say it takes me a year or two before i can stand back and really see where an album fits into the bigger picture. that isn’t always so. there have been albums that felt like some of my best work when i was recording them and still feel that way today, albums i thought were shaping up to be great only to find they sounded like garbage to me not long after they were finished, and albums that felt kind of slight or sub-par at first but have grown on me over the years — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
since the world didn’t end the other day, in spite of all those doomsday theorists doing their best to convince us all that this time they were right and everything was gonna go kaboomy-bye, i thought it was time to revisit that album. plus, i was doing some final level-matching tweaks as part of the remastering process and had to listen to the album from start to finish to make sure i got it right anyway.
i was never sure how i felt about this one. i was waist-deep in the making of another (still unreleased) album when the need to do something different bubbled up because i found myself with some serious butterflies in my stomach about someone when i didn’t think butterflies were something i would feel again after some of the soul-destroying romantic adventures of yore. i got all of three or four warm and fuzzy songs written before it all went to hell, and suddenly instead of making my first true album of love songs for a living, breathing human, i was making a breakup album when i didn’t think i’d ever have a reason to make one of those again.
there’s no clearer illustration of the jarring shift in tone than “nightside”, where you get to hear the change happen in the space of one three-minute song.
the words and music were written when i thought the burgeoning relationship had a great future ahead of it. i’d just finished spending the better part of a weekend with the person i was pretty sure was my new girlfriend, and it felt like i was gliding with my feet a few inches off of the floor when i walked. she really did jump sideways on the bed to get to me. it was a fun moment. the spoken addendum was improvised later, after things fell apart, trading in sunny-eyed optimism for foul-mouthed venom.
i liked the songs but couldn’t tell how well they played together as a larger piece of work. a lot of them were coming less from craftsmanship than a need for catharsis. i had such a difficult time sequencing everything in a way that felt like it made sense, i got a headache trying to suss out the order of the songs.
in all the years i’ve been making music, i can’t say any other album i’ve worked on has ever done that to me. and i’ve made double and triple CDs that have been packed with as much music as the media could handle.
when it was done, it just felt too raw to hang out with for any length of time. it wasn’t one of those cloying, maudlin breakup albums full of self-indulgent exercises in self-pity. it had sharp teeth. it had a goofy rap song and some insane slowed-down scream-coughing in-between songs of love and post-love. it was pretty eclectic, both sonically and emotionally. but it took a lot out of me, taking all the mixed feelings i had in the aftermath of that intense, ill-fated, whirlwind relationship and shaping them into songs. it isn’t a coincidence that i haven’t made a solo album since (though that’ll change soon enough).
i listened to it once or twice to make sure everything felt like it flowed okay. i played some of the songs live at the second mackenzie hall show (though not very many of them, which is pretty funny in hindsight, since that was the only proper “album release show” of my own i’ve ever played). after that, i kind of wanted to keep my distance. the last time i gave it a listen all the way through was about five years ago at kevin kavanaugh’s studio space, when i was knocked out by how good it sounded on his mega hi-fi system, even with my too-hot mastering job. those speakers of his meant serious business.
listening to the album now, it’s not so raw anymore. it’s amazing what some moisturizer and half a decade away from something can do for you. and i’ve gained enough emotional distance from what inspired the songs to realize something: i like this album.
“some things are better left buried” felt a bit like filler at the time. it doesn’t anymore, especially now that all the stupid distorted vocal peaks are gone. i really enjoy the way some of the catchiest, most uptempo music on the album is juxtaposed against some pretty morbid lyrics. i liked “a puppet playing possum” fine back then. now it’s one of my favourite songs i’ve ever written. “light sleeper” remains the bruised heart of the album for me. i can still feel the hope and uncertainty that went into that one.
part of me still wishes the last section of “different degrees of wrong” wasn’t such a tease. the segue from a rare venom-free love song into the violent lunacy of “surrender to thee” will probably always crack me up. and a fresh, saner mastering job allows me to hear that i did a pretty solid job with the recording and mixing side of things, when i wasn’t so sure at the time.
the album title was one i had kicking around for years before i knew what to do with it. at the house before this one, for a while there was a spider that spent a lot of time upstairs in my bedroom and the bathroom. i started to think of him as something close to a pet. i wondered what to get him for christmas, if he stuck around that long.
he didn’t. he came out of nowhere and bit me on the back of the leg while i was sitting on the toilet one night. i don’t like to kill any living thing if i can help it, aside from mosquitos (fuck those guys), but biting me when i’m dropping off some kids at the pool…that ain’t right.
i’m sad to say i didn’t develop any spiderman-like super powers.
there’s also the whole “partner as a spider trapping you in their web” thing i lucked into as a useful accidental metaphor for a breakup album.
finding cover art to play off of the title was always going to be tricky. but around the time of MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, johnny smith hired bree gaudette for a photo shoot and she captured a bunch of evocative images out in the county. i kept coming back to a few shots of a dilapidated barn. they just happened to feature a pretty prominent spiderweb.
as much as i liked the original colour version of the picture that became the cover image (seen above), there was something about the black and white edit i couldn’t shake. something in there felt right.
there’s another accidental meaning behind the album title — something i never knew it meant until just recently.
there’s something called a nuptial gift. “food items or inedible tokens that are transferred to females by males during courtship or copulation,” trusty old wikipedia says.
it isn’t specific to insects by any means, but in certain species of spiders the male will offer the female a gift wrapped in silk as a way of enticing them to mate. as a rule, what’s being offered is prey caught by the male. if the female accepts the gift, she eats it while the male hops on and does his little sex dance.
some spiders are crafty little guys. because of their ability to wrap and obscure the gift they’re offering, the female has no way of knowing what’s inside until she removes the proverbial wrapping paper. two specific species have been known to wrap plant seeds and insect exoskeletons devoid of any edible parts. by the time the female figures out what she’s been given and realizes how useless it is, the male has already done his business.
that an insect with a brain the size of a poppy seed would think to do something so duplicitous is kind of amazing. i wish i could say i knew about this and it was in my head when i was deciding to dust off that old title for this group of songs, but i had no idea.
what’s strange about relationships as doomed and damaging as the one that fed into this album is the way the passage of time seems to dull some of the bad feelings while shining a light on the little pockets of happiness.
one unexpected bit of common ground i shared with the person a lot of these songs are about was a still-strong affection for the animated disney films we loved as kids. we watched oliver & company and the aristocats while she leaned back on me and ashed her cigarette in a coffee mug. i felt like i was five years old again, only now i was a five-year-old in a grownup body with my hands cupping someone’s breasts through the thin fabric of a thing they called a shirt.
all five-year-olds in grownup bodies should be so lucky.
the suits at disney have marketing down to a fine art. they take these classic movies everyone loves, the ones that helped shape your childhood, and they deny you access to them for years. decades, even. then they make a big show of releasing one of them on home media, letting you know it’s only going to be a limited release before the movie goes “back in the vault”.
it allows them to charge a ridiculous amount of money for something people will be glad to shell out for, given its scarcity and sentimental value. and if the movie you’re after is out of print by the time you show up, well, you can always find someone generous enough to sell you their used copy on the internet for a week’s pay.
the one she wanted most but couldn’t find was the lion king. disney had put it back in the vault. i wanted to surprise her. i found someone selling it on DVD for a pretty decent price and bought it.
with a perverse sense of timing the best fiction couldn’t invent, it showed up in my mailbox the day after we broke up. i chucked it in a dresser drawer and made myself forget about it.
six years later, i’m doing some long-overdue cleaning and reorganizing when i dig the lion king out of the bottom of its wooden tomb, still in the bubble bag that has my address written on the front. now it’s nothing but a relic from a few weeks spent trying to pry love or something like love from the mouth of indifferent animal instinct. now it’s a little bit funny.
it’s good when you get to a place where you can laugh about the things that used to sting.
the music video as an art form is far from dead. there are plenty of people out there creating compelling things full of imagery that encourages thought and stirs the emotions. but these are sad days for television as a medium for the transmission of music videos.
MTV was where it all began, and they stopped showing videos eons ago. MTV2 followed suit not long after. that was a real shame, because they made a habit of dusting off some cool things you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. BET doesn’t show music videos anymore unless you pay to subscribe to some of their sister channels. otherwise their programming now consists of 80% tyler perry shows, 5% late night televangelist mind control, and 15% censored movies.
muchmoremusic phased out a lot of their more interesting programming — spotlight programs that played half-hour blocks of music videos broken up with interview snippets, semi-obscure videos popping up in the wee hours, a weekly show that took a look at artists from other countries who weren’t always well represented in north america — before dissolving into nothing a year ago and being replaced by a cooking channel. even bravo used to show some interesting music videos sometimes. now their programming seems to be made up of hallmark movies and crime procedurals that are little more than CSI retreads, and nothing else.
there are a handful of specialty channels you can pay for if you want access to music videos on your TV. so that’s a thing. but if you’ve got any kind of sane or semi-affordable cable package, chances are all you have left now is much (or, as we used to call it, muchmusic). and if you’re not a fan of mainstream top forty music and the creatively bankrupt music videos made to accompany most of the sounds living in that world, about all much has to recommend itself to you now is an afternoon block of videos from the 80s and 90s called much retro lunch and the occasional near-naked nicki minaj.
even here, music programming is falling by the wayside. a few weeks ago much retro lunch was running for three hours every weekday. now it’s only a one-hour segment. in place of all the music videos they used to air in the early evenings we’ve got anger management and TMZ. a one-hour-a-week “alternative” block that resembled the decaying corpse of what the wedge used to be has gone the way of the dinosaur and elton john’s falsetto. i imagine somewhere in the not-too-distant future much will stop showing music videos altogether, just like the rest of the pack.
CMT is dead too. oh, it’s still calling itself by the same name. it still lives in the same place on your digital cable box. but the only thing left on the schedule that has anything at all to do with what was once “country music television” is reba mcentire’s mid-2000s sitcom reba.
when the CRTC licensed a series of new canadian specialty television channels in 1994, one of those channels was the country network. this was the beginning of CMT as we knew it in canada. in the US it had been around in one form or another for ten years by then. the canadian version got its official launch in 1995 as NCN (new country network) and was relaunched in 1996 as CMT.
almost all of CMT’s programming — 90% of it — was made up of country music videos. that was part of the deal with the CRTC. it dropped to 70% in 2001, and then to 50% in 2006, with nashville, live music programs, and the occasional sitcom making up the balance.
last year the CRTC decided CMT were no longer obligated to play any music videos at all, as long as they invested 11% of their annual profits into the funding of canadian music videos (they didn’t have to be country music videos). even then, there were still blocks of music videos aired in the early mornings and afternoons, along with the long-running weekly chevy top 20 countdown.
a week ago, all music video broadcasting on the channel ceased, and a major platform for country music artists went up in smoke. their official website and facebook page both neglect to tell you anything about this total overhaul, but CMT’s programming now consists of nothing but moronic reality shows and sitcoms. fridays and saturdays are twenty-four-hour everybody loves raymond marathons.
for some of us, this is what hell looks like.
maybe it’s a little strange that i would mourn the loss of this channel when i’ve never been all that into country music.
well, that’s not quite right. the truer thing to say would be that i didn’t think i was into country music until i heard some of the artists who helped define what country music is, and some others who made a habit of colouring outside the lines — folks like johnny cash, kris kristofferson, emmylou harris, gram parsons, glen campbell, patsy cline, waylon jennings, hank williams, the louvin brothers, rodney crowell, and too many more to mention.
in some ways CMT was the road that got me there, beyond the homogeneity of most modern mainstream country music, which at this point is just pop music with pedal steel guitar as far as i’m concerned.
i can’t claim i started watching with pure intentions. the long and short of it is this: i was going through puberty, and i thought a fair few country singers were nice to look at. leann rimes, faith hill, patty loveless, and beverley mahood were especially pretty to my thirteen-year-old eyes.
but here’s the thing. in the mid and late 1990s, whoever was responsible for programming the videos would sometimes slip in some interesting songs that didn’t always fit under the country umbrella.
bruce cockburn’s “night train” showed up more than a few mornings when i was waking up my brain before heading off to school. once in a while i’d catch springsteen’s “i’m on fire” and lennie gallant’s “meet me at the oasis” (a sweet, atmospheric ballad that deserved more love than it got). and every so often i’d run into someone who was a country artist on the surface but much more complex and compelling than they seemed at first blush.
matraca berg was one of those. her songs were huge hits for trisha yearwood and deana carter. her solo work only saw moderate commercial success, with no single she released ever cracking the top thirty. she had the looks, and the voice, and real depth as a writer. how she never became a huge star in her own right is a bit of a mystery.
my best guess is it’s another example of the catch-22 harry nilsson and laura nyro got stuck in before her, where in someone else’s hands your songs become palatable enough to appeal to the masses, but your own superior and more emotionally three-dimensional readings of the same material are a little too idiosyncratic and real for the people who want wallpaper instead of art.
i will argue until my voice gives out that matraca’s “back when we were beautiful” is one of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written. i almost can’t get through it, and there are only a few songs that have ever had that kind of emotional impact on me. it was released as the second single from her 1997 album sunday morning to saturday night. it didn’t even chart.
one of the biggest country singles that year was “how do i live”, sung by both trisha yearwood and leann rimes. trisha’s version sold three million copies and netted a grammy nomination. next to “back when we were beautiful” it sounds like a bunch of half-baked manipulative treacle.
but don’t take my word for it. have a listen.
we live in a world where taylor swift is a celebrated crossover artist who’s considered a great songwriter and a feminist icon when (a) she doesn’t even write her own songs anymore, or at least not without a whole lot of help (these days it isn’t uncommon to see half a dozen different writers credited for any given song on one of her albums), (b) her whole career is now seemingly built around a two-pronged attack of getting involved in short-lived romantic relationships that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame the other party in her music once the relationship ends without ever taking any responsibility for her own failings, and getting involved in short-lived platonic friendships with women that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame most of those women through her music when they dare to criticize her in any way or expose some of her blatant hypocrisies, bending one narrative after another to suit her own purposes, manufacturing feuds to sell more albums, almost always making sure to paint herself as the victim rising from the ashes, (c) her lyrics are so juvenile and devoid of anything resembling insight or real human feeling, it’s kind of hilarious, (d) she thinks nothing of stealing other people’s work and profiting off of it without giving any credit to the originator of the material, and (e) she once made a music video in which she played a silver guitar with so much glitter applied to it, the universe itself was made to squint and cry out in pain.
so maybe, when you get right down to it, it’s no big surprise that someone like matraca berg never became a household name. i just think it’s sad, the way we go on rewarding artifice and empty double-dealing while ignoring a lot of the people who actually have something to say.
the same applies to song interpreters. nothing against reba and trisha and faith, but dawn sears blew them all away. there was a mixture of power and emotional purity in her voice that was startling. she could take a mediocre song and make it sound like a classic.
chances are you’ve never heard of dawn sears even if you’re a country music fan. i rest my case.
but i digress. sort of. maybe.
in recent years, CMT’s programming skewed more toward the mainstream than ever before. but you’d still get the occasional moment of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty like this, even if most of those moments were limited to the more freeform wide open country program.
there at least, for an hour a day, you could hear the likes of corb lund, lindi ortega, brandi carlile, jerry leger, and serena pryne — people who are making music that nods to country but refuses to be governed by genre. bruce still made the odd appearance too, whether it was with “i’m on fire” or something more recent like “devils and dust”.
there’s also this: without CMT, at least one of the songs i’ve written wouldn’t exist. it just happens to be the closest thing to a “hit” i’ve ever had, though quantifying that sort of thing is a little difficult when you don’t release singles.
when i played “a well-thought-out escape” live for the first time and told the audience it was inspired by ashley kranz (an on-air host at CMT for about a year), everyone thought i was joking. i wasn’t.
for years now i’ve been writing a lot of songs on stringed instruments in bed. sometimes the TV’s on when ideas are born. here’s some video of the genesis of what became “a well-thought-out escape”, right at its inception, with a little bit of what would later become “everything he asked you” mixed in.
i came up with this little cyclical chord progression i liked and kept playing it over and over again, trying to work out a vocal melody and some words. the words weren’t in any hurry to show up, so i sang random gibberish for the most part. i had CMT on in the background while i was playing the six-string banjo. ashley kranz showed up to introduce a video while i was trying to form this new idea into something tangible, so i sang her name to fill up some space.
later on the words would arrive, beginning with the idea of someone selling their love at a yard sale for so little money they might as well have been giving it away (don’t ask me where these ideas come from…i have no idea). and still, ashley stuck around. it would have felt wrong to get rid of her. she was there from the start, after all. instead of an incidental detail, her name became the climax of the whole song, a half-shouted mantra that broke the whole thing open.
(side note: i always thought it was a shame they didn’t keep ashley around longer. she had a fun personality. “endearing” is the word that comes to mind.)
i don’t know if the bits of country music i heard in my channel-surfing travels had anything to do with the rootsy sound of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. it’s possible some of those sensibilities snuck into my brain when i wasn’t paying attention. it’s also possible the album only came out sounding the way it did because of the instruments i lucked into finding at the right time and the qualities they possessed — the twang of the dirt cheap teisco that was the only electric guitar i used for the whole album, the earthiness of the regal parlour guitar, and the…uh…banjo-ness of the six-string banjo.
i do know without ashley kranz on my television screen “a well-thought-out escape” probably never would have progressed beyond a half-formed sketch. i’ve always been tempted to send the song her way as a strange little thank-you, but i think it’s the sort of thing that has the potential to weird a person out. so maybe it’s best to leave it be.
fare thee well, CMT. i’ll never watch you again, knowing what you’ve become, but i’ll always have the memories of what you once were.
i’ve rambled a bit before about this thing called the loudness war.
(unintentional rhyme! score!)
in a nutshell, at some point in the early or mid-1990s, someone involved in the music industry — no one’s clear on who — thought it was time to start pushing the limits of how much overall volume CDs could handle. the idea caught fire, everyone started trying to outdo everyone else, and it all got a bit out of control by the time we were in the mid-2000s. some vinyl singles were cut hot back in the 1960s so they would jump out of a jukebox and demand your attention, but this was a whole new beast.
there are a lot of high profile albums that have been damaged, if not ruined, by mastering engineers pushing the levels far past any sane place. i defy anyone to listen to metallica’s death magnetic,iggy pop’s 1997 remixed and remastered version of raw power, or the first version of rush’s vapor trails without getting a headache, an earache, and a brain-ache, in that order. regina spektor’s begin to hope and bruce springsteen’s magic are a little better but still pretty harsh and fatiguing to listen to on headphones for any length of time. i’ve even heard local albums that have been compressed to smithereens to get them as loud as everything else.
on the whole, it’s not quite as bad now as it used to be. the remastering of an album once meant little more than making it as loud as possible and beefing up the bass, whatever the cost to the integrity of the original recordings. check out the awful slowdive remasters from about a decade ago for just one example. there’s so much unnecessary compression added to the brilliant pygmalion, the soft brushed drums on “blue skied an’ clear” take on a dead, gated sound. i’m happy to say a number of recent remastering campaigns have gone in the opposite direction and opted for dynamics and richness over maximum volume. the “legacy edition” of dennis wilson’s pacific ocean blue, the mono and stereo beatles remasters (but not the remixed/remastered version of sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band george martin’s son slammed to death), and the remastering of the classic albums by sly and the family stone come to mind. you even get the odd new album that’s got a surprising amount of dynamic range to it.
but the sad truth is a lot of albums both in and out of the mainstream are still mastered far hotter than they need to be, and television and radio commercials continue to be over-compressed to make them six million times louder than everything that surrounds them.
note to the people who first thought it was a good idea to do this second thing, and to those who keep the legacy alive: it doesn’t make anyone want to buy what you’re selling. it makes them mute the sound or change the channel/station until what they were watching/listening to comes back on.
it’s not attention-grabbing. it’s obnoxious.
one of the problems is how easy it can be to buy into the whole “louder is better” myth, either because your brain perceives sounds that are louder as having more energy, or because you get a little self-conscious about your own music maybe not being as loud as you’ve been conditioned to believe it should be.
it happened to me.
when i was first able to experiment with digital recording in 1999 after years of recording everything on cassette tape, i didn’t know a thing about gain staging. there’s a fair bit of clipping on the early CDs i recorded while i was trying to figure it all out.
by the middle of 2000 i had a much better handle on things. it seemed to me the most sensible approach was to do the best recording and mixing job i could with the equipment and skills i had at any given time, and then get out of the way and not do anything to mess with the results. i didn’t see the point in trying to make anything loud just for the sake of being loud. i could always turn the music up after the fact on a CD player or computer.
this means you get a lot of CDs over a period of half a dozen years that are pretty quiet, without any clipping at all, because they’re not even coming close to eating up all the available headroom. i did get a kick out of the way GROWING SIDEWAYS gained a little extra volume and booty when i paid someone to master it professionally, but i never would have signed off on it if it didn’t sound good. the music still has a pretty healthy dynamic range, with only a few moments where you can really hear some compression happening (the loudest section of “oven head” comes to mind), and there’s no clipping anywhere.
i thought it was going to be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with that mastering house. it wasn’t. the follow-up album was more or less left to master itself while we ate lunch. really. compression and limiting were used in such a strange way, the quieter passages in the middle of some songs disappeared.
i don’t know how you even make that happen.
my efforts to get a master that didn’t sound like garbage were met with some pretty thick condescension from the guy who ran the studio. i got two “makeup” masters that weren’t much better than the initial train-wreck i paid for. in some ways they might have been worse. after that, i was told i’d have to cough up more money if i wanted any additional work done.
i chalked it up to an expensive learning experience and went back to handling the mastering myself, keeping things quiet and dynamic. that was the last time i paid someone else to master anything i recorded. barring a winning lottery ticket or a future vinyl release — which isn’t likely to happen without a winning lottery ticket — it’ll probably stay that way.
(the mastering engineer did send me a final revision sometime later, out of nowhere, long after my relationship with the studio had been severed. it was his way of trying to apologize and make up for what happened. by then my self-mastered version of the album had been pressed and out in the world for a while. it was a nice gesture, i guess, though a belated refund would have been nice too.)
with the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP and THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET, i learned almost by accident that i could push the volume a little without anything getting too hairy. things got a little bit louder there. then i retooled the studio and figured i might as well try pushing it even more, to see if i could get closer to the general volume of the new albums i was buying in record stores and online. they all seemed to hover around a built-in volume much higher than anything i was doing.
i don’t know why i started thinking in this direction. it wasn’t as if i thought more than three people would ever hear my music. but THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE was by far the loudest thing i’d ever done, and for the first time in eight years there was some noticeable clipping.
i guess i did it to see if i could. i told myself it wasn’t a big deal. i wasn’t using an insane amount of compression. i was just turning everything up so someone else wouldn’t have to. some occasional digital distortion didn’t feel like it hurt the music, and i told myself it was okay if it was a little lo-fi.
then a lot more than three people heard that album.
no one complained about it being mastered too hot. i kept pushing the volume with the next few albums. it took me three or four years to realize what i’d done and how destructive it was.
one day i asked myself: do i really want part of my imaginary musical legacy to be that some of my most widely-heard (and some would say best) albums are marred by pointless, annoying distortion i introduced after the mixing stage just because i started feeling weird about everyone needing to turn my CDs up a little louder than most of the other music in their collection?
no. i don’t want that at all.
around the time of LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS i started pulling back a little. but i would still sometimes trade in a bit of sound quality for some extra volume. “animal altruism” and “bent bird, broken wing” were allowed to clip for this reason, which is no good reason at all.
it wasn’t until a failed attempt at finishing THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE in 2012 and the recording of steven’s album INAMORATA in 2013 that i said to myself, “you know what, self…this is stupid. so what if everyone has to turn it up a little? i want this music to sound as good as i can get it. period. i want people to be able to enjoy listening to the things i’ve recorded without their ears starting to yell at them halfway through. i don’t want to wince every time i hear something clip, and i don’t want to have to find a way to justify to myself why i allowed it to happen.”
i promised myself i wouldn’t dance that dance anymore. i’d get an album to the best general volume i could within reason, and then i’d leave it alone. if anything started to get even a little nasty, i wouldn’t bring the volume of everything around it up to compensate. i’d make everything quieter to kill the nastiness. i wouldn’t do anything to damage the work i did when i was recording and mixing the stuff. i’d just get out of the way, like i used to.
so that’s what i’ve been doing.
for years i’ve wanted to go back and remaster some of those albums that got hit the worst. when AFTERTHOUGHTS was finished and the city decided to mess with my ability to record during the most useful hours of the day by installing a new water mains no one asked for or needed, turning a job that should have taken a month into a clusterfuck that dragged on for more than half a year, i thought maybe it was a good time to stop thinking about it and start making it happen.
here’s what the too-hot 2008 master looks like as a waveform.
with more than a few songs that have been released commercially in the last two decades, you’d see pretty much nothing but blue. this isn’t that horrific. it still has dynamics. but as you can see, all those peaks are clipping. they’re so loud, they have nowhere to go.
here’s what the new, quieter master looks like.
bit of a difference, right? nothing is smacking its head on the ceiling anymore. and believe me, i know how it feels to crack your head like that. it’s not a whole lot of fun.
several songs on the first MISFITS collection were pushed way too hard as well. i’m not sure i’ll ever get to those. after remastering 188 songs, i’ve had pretty much all the remastering i can handle for now. i have other things i need to work on. i think the second misfits collection is going to be more interesting than the first one was anyway.
IF I HAD A QUARTER needed the most medical attention out of anything. the original master had clipping in almost every song. today i’m a little embarrassed i ever let that happen. listening to it now in its kinder-to-the-ears form, the way it always should have sounded, i’m realizing i like the album more than i thought i did. it’s not as much of a haphazard mess as i thought it was when i was making it.
along the way, i took the opportunity to remix a few songs i never quite felt i got right. most of the changes i made were pretty minimal. and we’re talking about a whopping total of nine songs here:
“please remember to forget me” (got rid of the sound of the dust cover being slipped back onto the ribbon mic at the end so i could give the song a proper fade that didn’t feel rushed, and fixed the weird drum panning that was at odds with all the other songs on the album)
“your sweaty golden mouth” (the drums were a little too low and the vocals a little too overpowering, and that always bugged me but i was too lazy to fix it until now)
“getting into character” (more compression was used on the drums here than on almost every other song on the album, and i wanted to correct that)
“once more, without feeling” (same thing)
“i must be your prey” (the vocal tracks fluctuated in volume to an insane degree and i should have done something about it the first time around)
“cinders” (i wanted to get the mid-song dissonant bugle blasts at a volume that was a little less ridiculous and better-integrated into the music)
“how these things tend to go” (same thing as “getting into character”, plus the harmonica at the end was a little too loud and strident)
“zombies on parade” (the vocals were a little too loud here, making for an off-balance mix; so was the scrap metal during the intro)
“bent bird, broken wing” (same story here, minus the scrap metal)
it was an interesting challenge. if i mixed these songs based on my current sensibilities, they would sound more than a little out of place on their respective albums. i had to try and find a balance between fixing some issues and keeping enough of the spirit of the original mixes that it wouldn’t sound like much had changed at all.
i think i was able to find the sweet spot.
i’ve been working with backup CDs that are getting up there in age. some of them are almost a decade old now. for the most part they’ve held up just fine over the years. there were a few scares along the way, but i was always able to find a different source when one CD went funny on me, until deep in the homestretch, when it all got a little more complicated.
“hostages” was backed up on two different CDs. both of them were toast. unable to remaster the song any conventional way, i had to use the “clip restore” tool in audacity and hope for the best.
i know it’s technically impossible to “fix” clipping this way. you’re trying to replace information that’s been lost. but whatever sonic trickery was performed — by a free program, no less — i can’t find too much fault in it. the distorted peaks are gone. maybe there’s a little less “air” in the sound of the song now compared to the others, but its a tradeoff i’m willing to accept.
“kings” was only backed up on one CD in finished form, and it just happened to be one of those verbatim CDs i stopped using a long time ago thanks to how glitchy and unreliable they became. that one was dead too. for some reason i thought to back up an unmixed version of the song, when that wasn’t something i did much at the time. that CD wasn’t dead. talk about getting lucky.
i tried to reconstruct the original mix on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS to the best of my ability. i don’t think you can hear too many differences between the two. a few of the reverb swells early in the song are a little different in the new mix, because it’s almost impossible to dial that sort of thing in the same way twice. otherwise it’s about the same as before.
all the other mixes were left alone.
i don’t really believe in revisionist mixing. give a listen to harry maslin’s soul-destroying sound-replaced 2010 mix of david bowie’s station to station if you want to hear just how wrong that whole thing can go. seriously, what was the dude thinking trying to make a classic bowie album from the 1970s sound like homogenous modern rock?
could i do a better job today than i did back then? sure. an album like CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN would sound better if i remixed the whole thing with the benefit of nine years of hindsight and additional mixing experience. for a while i had a habit of pushing my voice up a lot higher in the mix than i needed to, and the panning of some elements could get kind of off-kilter. i was still getting used to the sounds coming out of the new mics and preamps i was working with. it took a while before i was as comfortable with those tools as i was with the ones i’d grown close to before.
it also took me an album or two to figure out the drums leaned pretty far to the left of the stereo field when i kept the two outputs of the stereo ribbon mic i was now using as an all-in-one drum-mic’ing solution at the same level on the mixing board and didn’t make any panning adjustments, given where the drums and the mic were placed in the room.
but better isn’t always right. these are the mixes i made at the time, for better or worse. a small handful of minor changes aside — changes i felt i would have been foolish not to make — i’m sticking with them.
there were a few changes that didn’t involve remixing anything:
“water to town” used to have a very abrupt fade-out so you wouldn’t hear me swearing at myself after hitting a wrong note. now it plays all the way through to the end, dirty word and all. i think it feels more natural this way. also, there’s always been a very audible click in the first verse. it was something my mouth did mid-phrase when i was singing “while the heat sleeps lightly on every rooftop”. i didn’t notice it until it was too late to go back and do a little split-second vocal replacement surgery. there was no way to fix it in the mix, so i just lived with it. i thought i’d give audacity another try here, honing in on the offensive sound with the “click removal” tool. it did nothing. i gave brian davies’ clickrepair program a shot, and that did the trick. no more click.
a little bit of random banter was restored to the beginning of “abandoned house burning down”. the only reason i snipped it out in the first place was because i knew i was pushing the limits of what i could fit on one CD, and i thought a few extra seconds of space here and there might come in handy down the stretch.
i always wanted the last bit of the reverb tail on the organ at the end of “revenge is sweet” to cut straight to the beginning of “new ways of saying old things” on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, but i didn’t have a CD burning program that would let me make that happen at the time. now there isn’t any dead space between those two songs and they’re heard as one unbroken thing, as intended.
“bring rain in case of fire” has a slightly longer fade at the end now, with a few extra seconds of backwards combo organ.
the slide guitar at the end of “kamikaze daybreak” used to be a fair bit louder than the rest of the song. it was kind of jarring. i brought the volume of that section down to integrate it a little better and make up for the oversight.
likewise with the instrumental jig at the end of “laugh like a god of death”.
“oh, you pretty little narcissist” now has a clean ending instead of an abrupt, somewhat unnatural-sounding fade.
“flatten the learning curve” used to suffer from a split-second glitch in the middle of the song, thanks my mixer-specific CD burner being on its last legs. that CD burner has since been replaced two times over, and the glitch is gone.
most fades at the end of songs have been made to match the original mixer moves as closely as possible. in a few cases a song fades out a little sooner or later than before. we’re getting into hair-splitting territory here, though. even if you know these albums very well, you probably won’t notice much (if any) difference.
i did play with the spaces between songs in a few other places when i wasn’t expecting to. the end of “skull jugglers” never used to smash-cut to the beginning of “jesus don’t know my name”. as soon as i tried that, i thought, “why didn’t i do this the first time?” likewise with the end of “molly, go home” cutting right to the start of “the penultimate kiss”. it felt right.
in most cases i took great care to match the exact length of pauses between tracks present on the original CDs. but when i saw a few opportunities to improve the rhythm of the listening experience a little or make it more interesting, i took them.
track spacing is a whole art unto itself. no one seems to talk much about it in the context of making an album. i think it’s a lot more important than most people realize. a few seconds here and there can make a world of difference in the way the songs flow into and out of one another.
this all took a lot longer than i ever thought it would when i started the remastering process. i thought i’d be finished sometime in the spring at the latest. here i am only wrapping up now, deep in the heart of summer. i think it was worth the effort, though, because now you get to hear the music the way it should have been presented in the first place.
as for me, i no longer need to brace myself every time i know things are about to distort in the middle of a song. those moments of distortion that used to almost cause me physical pain no longer exist. they’re dead. every one of them. and they’re never coming back to life.
getting to hear some of these songs in unblemished form for the first time in years has been a revelation. and the surprises i’ve uncovered along the way have been a lot of fun to experience. even though i wasn’t touching most of the mixes, i took a quick look at them anyway.
when it comes to music — especially my own — my brain is a serious hoarder. i don’t tend to forget many things. so it was surreal to hear countless alternate vocal and drum takes, guitar and piano parts that didn’t make it into final mixes, unused intros and outros, and even sketches that were never developed, stashed between songs like invisible little bookmarks. i have almost no memory of recording any of this stuff.
even when you don’t count any of the between-song sketches, out of these 188 songs, at least 100 of them have recorded elements that weren’t used, ranging from subtle little things, to “holy crap, this would have changed the feeling of the whole song if i kept it in the mix” things.
i’ve got a plan for some of this “lost” material. i’ll tell you more once it gets past the brainstorming stage.
the first musical instrument i was able to call my own was a casio SK-10. i had a lot of laughs playing the demonstration songs and selecting a sampled sound instead of an existing preset. my finest moment was probably warping “heigh ho” so every instrumental part was replaced by a chorus of sampled voices saying “bum hair”.
i can still hear the intro in my head:
i got some interesting sounds out of sampling the television, and “wrote” my first real song on that keyboard — little more than a C major scale played forward with one finger and backward with the other, using a clarinet sound.
when i started to get more serious about making music and needed something with more than thirty three keys, we rented larger keyboards. through the back half of 1994 there was a new one every month, thanks to johnny smith. first there was a roland EP-9. then a kawai X40-D. then a few yamahas — a PSS-190 and a YPR-20.
(you don’t even want to know what kind of detective work was involved in figuring out what the model names were for all these keyboards more than two decades after the fact when i never made a note of any of them at the time.)
the first musical instrument i ever fell in love with was that kawai X40-D.
its “super 3D” speakers put out a huge sound, and the ad-lib function allowed me to press one key and trigger a bunch of flashy runs that made me sound like a virtuoso musician. better still, there were song “styles” built in with all kinds of different quirky personalities. while i was faking flash with my right hand, one finger on my left would lead the invisible band in auto-accompaniment mode, with buttons to trigger intros, outros, and fills.
without the manual or any music theory knowledge, i didn’t know anything about getting minor or diminished chords out of the single-finger auto-accompaniment, so everything was always in a major key. most of the songs i recorded during this period have me walking one finger up the keyboard without direction, getting a little carried away with the “fill” button, and not doing a whole lot of singing.
the song titles tend to outstrip the songs themselves for creativity. a few favourites: “kiss me honey, don’t sting me”, “the underwater jellyfish (they jump more than you think)”, and “beyond modern temptation”.
the other rented keyboards didn’t have any auto-accompaniment functions. they forced me to get a little better at playing without help. at the end of the year we stopped renting and i got my very first “serious” keyboard as a christmas present — a yamaha PSR-210.
a huge part of my musical education happened with this keyboard at my side (or in front of me, resting on the dinner table). for a full year i recorded with it almost nonstop, both with and without johnny smith as my musical other half. little by little i figured out how to make music that felt like an extension of myself without relying on the instrument’s artificial intelligence to fake it for me.
early in 1996 we got a clavinova CVP-59S. the week it took to show up after it was ordered was maybe the longest week of my life. there are few things i’ve looked forward to with such all-consuming fury. i have a vivid memory of taking time out from a grade school field trip at an ice skating rink — i couldn’t stand on ice skates anyway, never mind skate — to buy some nachos. i sat, and ate those cheesy chips, and all i could think was, “clavinova. clavinova. clavinova.”
the PSR-210 was a great companion, with enough interesting sounds under the hood to let me go a lot of different places. but the clavinova felt like a huge leap forward. i couldn’t believe how much richer and more realistic the drum sounds were. the piano sounds were meaty and robust. and it just felt good to play — like a real piano, only better (or so i thought).
a few synthesizers would join the fray later. the clavinova would be my main instrument for quite a while. even when i started to gain access to dedicated “studio” spaces (aka “rooms in houses”) and picked up more instruments, it remained an important tool.
for a long time i thought, “what would i ever need a real acoustic piano for? i’ve got the clavinova. it doesn’t need any maintenance.” it was always in tune. when i wanted to record, i didn’t need to worry about mic placement. all i had to do was plug it in. and it allowed me to record on its internal memory when i had an idea i wanted to get down fast.
here’s a small piece of “the things you love (are always the first to leave)”, a good two years before it became part of the finished song that showed up on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.
when i was working on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, the clavinova started to sound a little one-dimensional to me next to the other, more organic sounds i was recording. i worked around it by using either a wurlitzer or a fender rhodes in all the places i wanted the piano to go.
then i fell in love with a yamaha C5 grand at ouellette’s. i’d played acoustic pianos before. usually they were mediocre uprights or grands that weren’t very well cared for. this piano was different. it inspired me. it sang. for the very first time, i understood why you’d want to have the real thing around.
for about five days i was determined to own that piano, until it sunk in that it was prohibitively expensive, and there was no way we would ever be able to make room for it in this house. you’d have to climb on top of it just to get into the kitchen.
i was a little disappointed to have to shrink my dream. but i thought there had to be a vertical piano somewhere out there that would be good enough to give me at least a few gooey feelings, if not the full body orgasm i got from playing the C5.
in the late summer of 2008, operation “find a good upright instead” was set in motion. i played a whole slew of upright pianos in the store. the one i liked best was a YUS series yamaha. the price was a whole lot less insane than what the grand was going for, and it was a world away from the poorly maintained institutional uprights i was used to playing in classrooms and living rooms. the pearl river pianos were alright, but they sounded kind of cheap and tinny. this one had class.
when i told bob i was interested, he said, “can i give you some advice? wait about a week. i’ve got some new yamaha U1s coming in. that’s a nice piano, but if you like that one, you’re going to love the U1.”
i’ve never been the most patient person. when i want something, especially if it has anything to do with music, i want it last year. bob convinced me to sit tight.
that week was nothing like the the week twelve years before when i waited for my clavinova to come in. i was looking forward to trying out some pianos. i wasn’t expecting to hear anything that knocked my socks off.
when the day came, there were two U1s for me to try. i must have spent close to two hours moving from one to the other, trying to decide which one felt and sounded better. there were subtle differences. hard stuff to put into words.
the upright i was going to buy before bob told me to wait a little while was a nice piano. for not much more money, these were on another level. he was right. holding off was the right move.
after a lot of waffling, i settled on the U1 i wanted. my grandfather had just passed away, and after telling me he was writing me out of his will i was shocked to discover he either didn’t get around to making good on the threat or he’d been bluffing all along. i inherited enough to pay for that piano, almost down to the cent. it was surreal.
my U1 was delivered to the house a day or two later. somehow it sounded even better at home than it did in the wide open store. it was a game-changer for me, giving me a whole new appreciation for the first instrument i developed any kind of proficiency on. it isn’t an accident that the first album i recorded with this piano features it on sixteen of its twenty two songs.
that was the beginning of the end of my ability to play a digital piano, live or in any other setting, without feeling like too much soul was getting lost. if you grow up playing keyboards, i don’t think you can appreciate what a real piano gives you until you get the chance to play a good one. just playing a chord and holding the sustain pedal down with your foot or letting a few simple notes ring out is an almost otherworldly experience. there’s so much more living inside the sound than you could imagine. a real piano sounds alive in a way even the best digital pianos haven’t yet found a way to emulate.
nine years later, i’m still in love with this piano. it’s never felt like a compromise. as much as i lusted after that C5, my U1 has always felt like the piano i was meant to end up with. it’s added depth to my recordings that couldn’t have existed otherwise and been a great ally and songwriting tool.
ric was over here about a week ago, tuning it for the forty seventh time in its life. i snuck a picture as he was finishing up. even its guts look like art.
when i told him i still sometimes feel like i’m on my honeymoon with the piano, and it’s been fascinating to hear the tone mature over the years, ric said, “it’s at its peak. it’ll probably never sound better than it does right now.”
that got me thinking about the first song i recorded with the U1 — not the first song i wrote on it, but the first one i wrote specifically for it.
when i knew i was days away from getting my black and white beast, i wrote one last song on the clavinova so i’d have something to tackle as soon as the real deal showed up.
(i wasn’t kidding when i said i never put much thought into whether or not my face and hands were visible when i was using the camcorder to capture ideas and songs in the process of being written.)
the difference in sound when i was able to play the chords on a real piano for the first time almost knocked me over.
you know that thing i said about being impatient? i couldn’t even wait to get the piano tuned before i started recording with it. the factory tuning held up well enough that i didn’t mind a bit of drift. i propped the lid open, moved two neumann KM184s around until things sounded right, and that was it. i’ve been recording the piano the same way with the same mics ever since.
technically this was the first song recorded for AN ABSENCE OF WAY, though it didn’t end up on the album. i made at least four different mixes in rapid succession. i almost never do that. most of the time i’ll do a rough mix, take a look at what needs tweaking, do another mix or two for fine-tuning, and then move on.
in this case every mix was different. the first one had everything in it, the second had less glockenspiel, the third stripped away almost everything but piano and vocals, and the fourth featured most of the instruments minus electric guitar. none of them felt definitive. they all had elements i liked and didn’t like.
three years later i took another crack at it. i always felt the drums were a little weak, both sound-wise and performance-wise. i was expecting to mess with a lot of things, but adding a new, meatier drum track seemed to be all the song needed. i thought i was done.
about a month later, i listened again. all at once, everything sounded wrong. the drumming was too aggressive. i went back and tried it a lot of different ways. something more intricate with brushes. something more subdued with mallets. something more skeletal with sticks.
i thought about ditching the bass part and replacing it with some deep sustained organ notes. i tried recording some metallic bell-like synth sounds. i thought about ditching the triple-tracked vocals. i didn’t know what to do to get this song where it needed to be. the more i tried to change, the less sure i was of where i was supposed to go.
the thing that finally glued it all together was plugging in the alesis micron, playing some simple synth chords to shade what the piano was doing right at the point where the drums came in. i got rid of a lot of the electric guitar, threw out the drums altogether, kept the vocals and the original bass track, got rid of some wordless vocal harmonies near the end, and chopped out a little instrumental electric guitar/bass harmonics bit (i always liked it, but now it sounded a little superfluous).
after three years and far too many different mixes, at long last, the song felt just right.
it’ll probably end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. i’ve been picking away at that album here and there for ten years now. that’s a scary thought, but one of the benefits of taking such a long time to finish a gargantuan album is giving a song like this the time to find the clothes it wants to wear.
sometimes, after chasing something for a very long time, you think you’ve managed to catch up to it and dig your fingers into its shoulder blades. then you press down a little harder and notice what you thought were shoulders are your own kneecaps, and you’re not wearing any pants.
this is one of those times.
pretty much nothing i thought was going to be on that stack of 8mm tapes was there. that’s both good and bad.
as i was expecting, there’s footage here i never knew existed. what i thought was going to be a party at gord’s from 2002 is instead a triple-header of a house show from late 2001, with a set from punk band kanada sitting right in the middle of the musical sandwich. it always felt like they were kind of given short shrift in the music scene, so it was a great surprise to stumble onto some video of them doing their thing back when we were all skinny teenagers.
a tape i thought was going to have random high school footage on it instead has some moments from the night of our graduation. another tape i was positive would be a recording of a bar show is instead a ton of footage of SEED OF HATE being recorded at the old walker power building. i remember a camera being there, but i only ever saw about two minutes of video and assumed not much more than that was filmed.
there’s enough raw footage to put together a grimy documentary about the making of the album from start to finish, if i wanted to do a thing like that. there are a lot of fun moments in there, including the revelation that recording the guitar and bass tracks direct instead of mic’ing up the amps wasn’t the plan all along. i’ve been remembering that wrong all these years. instead, it was a last-minute move made to counteract too much bleed and not enough microphones. and the band didn’t record piecemeal, but together as a unit, live-off-the floor, with the exception of the vocals and some guitar overdubs that were added later. i’ve been remembering that wrong too.
but then there’s this: none of those papa ghostface performances are included in any of the eight hours of footage culled from these tapes. there are some pretty amusing bits from me, with some non-sequiturs i don’t remember ever dishing out, but there’s almost no footage of me playing music in any capacity. for the most part i’m only recording it, or sitting in the audience watching it happen.
i say “almost” because one of the surprise finds on these tapes is a casual little jam session with me and tyson running through bits and pieces of about half a dozen different GWD songs. it isn’t true band footage, because gord is filming instead of playing bass, and what little singing i do is not trying very hard to be serious. still, i was pretty sure this stuff was filmed on tyson’s camera and i’d never get to see it again. i’m happy to be proven wrong, and ecstatic to have another small piece of video documentation from that musical period fall into my lap.
after the fifteen-year chase and the money i spent having the tapes transferred, finding out the things i most wanted to see weren’t there was a bit of a kick in the teeth. don’t get me wrong. i’m grateful for what i’ve got here. there’s some great archival material i never thought i’d get my hands on, a lot of it looks and sounds better than i thought it would, and i’ll be able to do some fun things with it. but it’s hard not to be a little disappointed.
to amanda’s credit, she’s said she’ll take another look at her collection of tapes and see if there are any others she thinks i might be on. so it isn’t an “all hope is lost” situation yet. there’s still a chance.
whatever happens, i can’t thank her enough for opening up the archives and allowing me to travel back in time about sixteen years. thank jack russell terriers she was either around for these adventures or willing to let someone borrow her camera so they could be documented. some of this stuff is absolute gold.
in the meantime, please enjoy kanada testing the limits of how much volume a camcorder’s built-in microphone is capable of handling while raising your glass of ginger ale to my clean-shaven bandana-wearing cameo and a black-haired, near-unrecognizable joey desroches on drums.
wherever you are now, christine kowala, i want you to know i still love you and your batman shirt.
another bittersweet hindsight moment here: everyone who was in my band at the time was at this show. we wrapped up the last full band recording session for GOOD LUCK IN THE NEXT LIFE earlier that same day. we could have easily played a set and made the house show a quadruple-header.
while our music might not have fit in with the punk, metal, and hardcore grind, i’m pretty sure the people we were hanging out with would have been open-minded enough to give what we were doing a fair shake. and then we’d have a full GWD live set on video, with me doing more than just reacting to some guitar feedback during someone else’s soundcheck.
failing that, i could have at least recorded some of these shows. my rig was pretty portable in those days and more than adequate for capturing loud live music. then i’d be able to sync this video, and others like it, with some high quality audio.
the idea never entered my mind.
i’ve had about all the smelly not-to-be potpourri i can handle lately. i need a time machine already, so i can confront some of these oversights, punch ’em in the mouth, and give ’em overbites.
since my brain moves in strange ways, when i was navigating the initial disappointment of realizing the footage i most wanted to see wasn’t on these tapes, i thought i’d really wallow in it by revisiting some past disappointment. double your displeasure, double your pun.
in the late summer of 2011 i played a set at the shores of erie wine festival. to date, it’s the last time i’ve played a solo show. it was such a horrible experience it kind of made me never want to do it again.
everything that could have gone wrong that day didgo wrong. i found out the sustain pedal for my rented keyboard was dead minutes before my set started. the one person i knew who had a sustain pedal i might be able to borrow was also playing that day, but she’d just made it pretty clear she didn’t care about me at all when i thought we’d spent the better part of that summer becoming close friends.
you could say there was some tension there. and i wasn’t about to try and break it by asking for a favour.
if that wasn’t enough to set an ominous tone, i wasn’t used to playing on a stage that big, cut off from the audience to the point that it barely felt like they were there. i couldn’t hear any of their applause. it didn’t feel like i could interact with them. not that there were many people to interact with anyway. there wasn’t much of a turnout that early in the day. but losing that feeling of intimacy threw me off.
add to that the people shovelling mulch in front of the stage while we played (i thought it was manure at first) and the feeling that it was too early for my voice or my fingers to be awake enough to cooperate with me, and it was a recipe for a bad time all the way around.
the worst part was having to perform without a sustain pedal. i had no idea how integral that little thing was to the way i played piano until it wasn’t there anymore. as it was, playing a digital piano live when i’d been spoiled by the grand piano at mackenzie hall and my upright at home was a little uninspiring, with all the sensitivity i was losing. but i could have dealt with that just fine if i had a working sustain pedal. without it, i had to rethink every song on the fly, everything i’d rehearsed went out the window, and my piano-playing became more of a reluctant intellectual exercise than anything, testing what i could and couldn’t do with no margin for error.
it was one of those shows where nothing feels like it’s working, you don’t enjoy being up there, and when it’s over you’re glad you forgot to tell the audience what your name was, because it would be embarrassing if anyone thought what they heard was an accurate representation of what you sound like when things are going well.
there’s video of the whole performance. i ignored it for years, not wanting to relive the experience. almost six years later, when i was feeling low about the lack of 8mm papa ghostface glory, i decided to subject myself to it for the first time.
i listened to the audio on its own so i wouldn’t have to see the mulch flying around. i didn’t cringe. in some places, against all the odds, i found myself thinking, “for feeling on the day like my singing and playing was garbage, this isn’t all that bad.”
i can’t believe i’m about to type this, but after being pretty positive the mackenzie hall performance of “a fine line between friendship and baked goods” from earlier the same summer was always going to be the definitive version of the song, i think this one might give it a run for its money.
it’s a little more far-reaching, with bits of “here comes the rain again”, “out of touch”, and “state trooper” getting tossed into the blender, along with a brief callback to the “i put a spell on you” section first improvised at mackenzie hall (only the first of these musical inserts was rehearsed; the rest were spontaneous). some of the melodic ideas from the long improv section in that version are revisited here, including another quote from “rondo alla turca”. there’s also a whole lot of improvised stuff unique to this performance that i don’t remember ever playing. and the line i forgot to sing in the first verse at mack hall doesn’t get dropped this time.
all i know is, i’m liking it, when i never thought i would — never thought i’d even want to hear it again. if for whatever reason i don’t end up ever playing another solo gig, i don’t think this was such a bad note to end on after all.
out of great disappointment a mound of focaccia bread sometimes rises, i guess is what i’m trying to say here.
when someone finds out i went to a catholic grade school, they tend to think of uniforms, jesus overload, and outstretched hands stung red by rulers.
it wasn’t really anything like that.
there were no uniforms. the christianity was there, but it wasn’t force-fed to us. we went to church sometimes. we read the bible. we were also respected as individuals and left to work out what we thought of it all for ourselves.
instead of berating us for not being better christians or trying to scare us with stories about the horrors of hell, our priest told us god wanted us to be happy and enjoy our lives. he sang harmonies to hymns instead of singing the melodies straight. he was a baritone. “lamb of god,” we would sing, “you take away the sins of the world,” and while he was tracing out a countermelody, my best friend pete would be sing-shouting the words like the hymn was a metallica song, screwing his face up into a look of exaggerated intensity that was so funny i thought i might die from trying to laugh in church without making a sound.
pete would probably still sing “agnus dei” just like that. it’s part of what makes him pete. this is a guy who slow-danced with his mother to lynyrd skynyrd’s “simple man” at his wedding, and it was one of those perfect moments you get lucky enough to witness every so often, because it was so him.
my high school was walkerville — walkerville collegiate institute, if you want to call it by its big boy name. walkerville had (and still has, as far as i know) a celebrated arts program. for eons it’s been touted as a place for musicians, actors, writers, and artists in any medium to thrive.
it had nothing on st. william catholic elementary school, where i was taught to be myself, to be inventive, to think outside the box. at walkerville i was expected to live in the box, with nothing but a few ragged holes for air and the odd muffled sound of someone walking by to remind me there was life outside the cardboard, until i got fed up and started tearing through it with my teeth. i was not a rebel by nature. high school warped me into one through the sheer force of its bullshit and my resistance to it, which was more instinct than anything.
in the fourth grade, mr. janisse told us about the family allowance — more commonly known as the “baby bonus”. he explained its history and purpose, explained how brian mulroney’s government wanted to abolish it, and then opened up the floor for all of us to weigh in with our thoughts. i don’t remember what i said, but i got pretty fired up about it, railing against mulroney’s shortsightedness.
think about that for a second. we had a political discussion in grade four,and all of the students were treated as intellectual equals. find me a catholic school — or any elementary school at all — where that happens now, and i will eat my own chin.
my sixth grade class wrote our own play about decision-making. mr. giannetti suggested a riff on the twilight zone. six or eight of us who were up for the challenge committed to it, and we created our own characters and wrote our own dialogue, workshopping out in the hall, bouncing off of one another, improvising, testing things out. i don’t know what was running through anyone else’s head. i thought it was thrilling.
mr. giannetti offered advice and ideas when we got stuck, but he left us to determine the final shape of the thing. he did make the suggestion that i could be a rod serling type character, framing the story, offering exposition, and part of my shtick could be an oral fixation. there i’d be, looking suave, clutching a lollipop.
my suit was a loaner from an adult. i was going through a growth spurt that didn’t seem like it was ever going to end, so it just about fit. the sunglasses were my own. the lollipop was a red tootsie pop.
i still don’t know how many licks it takes to get to the motherlode of chewy goodness inside.
what we came up with was a morality tale called the decision zone. there were two performances. one was during the day for the rest of the school to see. the other was an evening show for our parents.
at the late show we stretched things out, took more chances, improvised more of the dialogue, and got a little more “adult”. somewhere someone has a decaying VHS tape of that performance, with my closing narration making room for a spontaneous rant about taking my kids to the lollipop factory only to leave appalled by the mediocrity of the modern lollipop and its desecration at the hands of soulless capitalists.
the body of the story followed a court case. the finer details left my memory a long time ago. i think kyle jaques might have been a court clerk? i know ashley coulter was the judge. i’ll never forget pete walking into the “courtroom”, hiking up his pants past any sane place, presenting her with a bouquet of flowers, and slipping into a high-pitched, nasal voice to announce, “beautiful flowers for a beautiful lady!”
it took everything we had not to crack up onstage along with the audience.
in grade seven i got to be the bad guy in a christmas play called the villain and the toy shop. my character’s name was mr. glowerpuss. now there’s a name you can sink your teeth into. i borrowed someone’s cane, put on a fake moustache and a black fedora, and someone came up with the idea of massaging baby powder into my hair to make it look grey.
i acted in a lot of grade school plays. it kind of became my thing. one time i was a jamaican guru who helped a group of stranded explorers. that play ended with everyone singing rod stewart’s “sailing”. i owe ms. george a lifelong debt of gratitude for introducing me to the greatness of “i’ll take you there” by the staple singers, which served as our musical introduction if i remember right.
in another play we wrote ourselves, i did my best impersonation of mr. giannetti. jeremy head electrocuted me with jumper cables when i started choking on hard candy, shouting, “he’s blowing chunks!” as the curtain came down to end the first act. gary collins inhabited a low-rent james bond-type character named dan ger, with a soft g (“the name’s ger…dan ger”).
over the years i got to be everything from a solemn offstage narrator to the high-strung southern father of a fugitive played by matt brown. but playing the main antagonist in that one christmas play was my proudest moment. i got to chew scenery and cackle the most evil, maniacal laugh i could come up with. i loved it.
when you’re a kid you tend to look forward to your time away from school. for me, school was the escape. i wasn’t living with the father person yet. things at home were…well, i’ll just tell you i was breaking out in hives and developing the beginning of an ulcer when i was thirteen because of the emotional strain, and let you fill in the blanks.
on the days i didn’t get to see my padre and musical other half, school let me forget about what i was afraid to go home to for a little while. it gave me a place where i could be as weird as i wanted to be without being made to feel like there was something wrong with me.
in grade eight i showed up for school every day dressed like a stockbroker. by then the way i looked was the only thing in my life i felt i had any control over. i liked to dress up. it made me feel good about myself. that my self-imposed dress code and emphasis on immaculate grooming would somehow become an act of rebellion tells you all you need to know about the absurd atmosphere i was living in.
some days i walked around with a bulky old cassette recorder, documenting snatches of conversation, amusing moments from other students, and song ideas. no one ever told me to put it away. no one at school made fun of me for the way i dressed. about the only thing i ever heard about it was, “you look nice today, john.”
brandi rivait wrote in my yearbook, “johnny, don’t wear dress pants and a suit in ninety degree weather! please! you’ll get sunstroke!” but i think she was only looking out for me.
i showed up dressed the same way for my first day at walkerville. before the end of lunch recess someone outside my field of vision whipped a glass bottle at me that just missed my head and screamed, “FUCKING FAG!”
welcome to your new liberal arts school.
i went into high school thinking it wouldn’t be too much different from grade school, where in the sixth grade we listened to the o.j. simpson verdict being read live on the radio and talked about it after, where i made great friends and scared one of the few borderline bullies stupid when i slammed his head against a brick wall after he stole my winter hat one time too many, where i learned how to snap my fingers but not how to whistle, where i cheated on a test just once and the look of disappointment on my french teacher’s face when she caught me was all the punishment i needed (i never thought about cheating again), where i learned CPR only to forget most of the salient bits in a matter of days, where i said something dirty to a girl who was going through a mean phase in front of my entire class and won the student of the month award for politeness a week or two later, where we were educated about grammar, racism, sex, and everything in-between.
in stark contrast to that, high school taught me only one real thing, and i don’t think it was the intended lesson: there’s a lot of stupidity and hypocrisy in the world, and if you choose not to buy into it, you become an insurgent in spite of yourself.
all of my st. william brethren moved on to st. anne’s after graduation. i went from knowing every soul in my school in the eighth grade to knowing no one my freshman year of high school. it was disconcerting, and a little lonely. i settled in and made friends after a while, and i had some twisted adventures, but out of the forty or so different teachers i must have had at walkerville, i can count the good ones on one hand. a few were wonderful. most of them were just kind of there. a few were incompetent, abusive, and so negligent i was amazed they managed to hold onto their jobs.
at st. william it was different. i don’t know if the teachers had a tacit agreement with the principal, or if they were all just left to do their own thing, but i don’t think more than one or two of them paid too much attention to whatever the curriculum was supposed to be, or else they created it themselves. they seemed to tailor their lessons to us. almost every one of them felt like a friend, and the feeling hung around long after they’d stopped teaching me. the few times i came back to visit after graduating, it felt like coming home.
our teachers were interested in who we were and who we were going to be. they wanted to do what they could to help us grow in whatever direction we wanted to grow. i don’t remember ever being condescended to, or anyone telling me, “you know, this passion you have for music isn’t all that realistic.”
walkerville even managed to kill my love of acting. it was a ninth grade production of peter pan that did it. during rehearsals a lot of the actors and dancers would talk and joke around with me. sometimes when nothing was going on a group of us would walk to tim hortons to get some coffee or something to eat. i felt there was something there to grab onto.
when we were finished with the play, all the camaraderie evaporated. i would see one of the dancers or one of my acting buddies in the hall, i would say hello to them, and they would look at me for a moment like i was a door-to-door salesman with some awful, disfiguring infectious disease. after registering their disgust, they would ignore me.
the message was clear: i wasn’t cool enough for them to acknowledge once they were no longer obligated to.
a little later, when i started sharing my CDs and performing music at assemblies, all those people decided i was cool enough to talk to after all. funny how that works.
i guess you could say grade school showed me what people were capable of when they were committed to being the best versions of themselves, and then high school tore all that down and introduced me to the fickleness and mixed messages i would have to navigate throughout my adult life.
instructive? yeah, sort of. fun? not so much.
this isn’t really about all that, though. i have too many stories to tell, and you have a finite amount of time left in your life. this is about one afternoon in grade eight when i felt i knew, if only for an instant, what it was like to be one of the beatles during the crazed height of their fame.
for a long time i pretty much kept my music to myself. i think there were two things behind that. the first thing was not giving a whole lot of thought to sharing it. i made it because there was something inside that needed to be expressed, and because it gave me joy. using it as a means of generating attention was never a consideration. the second thing was maybe being a little shy about it, not thinking i was good enough to get anyone interested in what i was doing even if i wanted to try.
i almost went out for the talent show in grade seven, but playing a song out of a book didn’t hold much appeal, and i was still in the early stages of the on/off piano lessons that would do little more than force me to get a lot better at picking things up by ear to make up for my lack of facility when it came to trying to make sense of all those dots and dashes and squiggles on the page. so whatever i might have done had i gathered up the courage to go through with it, it wouldn’t have been too impressive. and it wouldn’t have really been me.
in grade eight the urgency of the moment convinced me to swallow my nerves and grab the mechanical bull by the plastic junk. high school and the unknown were right around the corner. i wasn’t going to get many more chances to perform in front of all these people i’d grown up with — to share this part of myself with them.
the music i was making had grown a little more refined and conventional by now. maybe in hindsight it was sometimes, in some ways, a little less compelling than what i was doing back when i was still trying to suss out things like harmony and structure, stumbling onto unorthodox chord voicings, twisting my limitations into idiosyncratic strengths without having any idea what i was doing most of the time.
the music would get consistently weird again soon enough. in the meantime, i had more confidence now that i felt i knew my way around the piano better. that made all the difference.
the culmination of this surge in confidence was bringing a pile of home-recorded tapes with me on our week-long grade eight year-end field trip that took us to ottawa and toronto. i’d be playing one of those tapes with johnny smith himself sitting next to me on the bus (a handful of parents acted as chaperones/group leaders), someone would ask what i was listening to, they’d perk up when i told them it was me, and the walkman would get passed around all over the place.
the most memorable moment came when the headphones made their way to victoria gunn. i asked what song she was listening to. “all i know,” she said, “is your dad’s singing something about a t-rex.”
(that would have been “no luck”, a deep album cut on return to innocence.)
but before the field trip, there was the talent show. mrs. howell was running the thing. i auditioned for her in a room with a dozen other students, playing the school’s old upright piano, belting out “evil woman”. i was a bit of an electric light orchestra nut at the time.
i asked if it would be alright if i played two songs at the show. she said that was fine. only about half as many kids had come out to audition as the year before, so there was some room to play with.
my second song would be an original, and the one i chose to play was something called “duty-free”, which was…not very representative of the music johnny smith and i were making as the west team. almost all our songs were improvised as they were recorded. “duty-free” was something i wrote, with the words on paper and the music mapped out and hammered down. i can’t remember why i went for that tune. maybe it was a simple case of recognizing that it had some pep and was fun to play.
agnes wnek provided the initial spark. i had a crush on her the size of a small country. one day she said to me, “we should write a song together. i’ve got some words for you.”
they went like this:
i’m duty-free they can’t sell me alky i’m underage and besides, i can’t afford it i’m on minimum wage
i took the first line and ran with it, treating it as a punchline before the joke and an excuse for some wordplay over a pretty simple bluesy vamp. while the result wasn’t a masterpiece by any means, following up “temptation overcomes common sense” with a line about michigan’s public spitting laws is the kind of oddball turn that still appeals to me today. and all the talk of one-night stands is sort of hilarious, coming from someone who didn’t even know what first base was.
it says something that i never gave “duty-free” another serious thought after its one live performance, and it only got something close to a proper recording when “dust in the wind” (the on/off piano teacher) wanted to record me playing one of my songs with his DAT machine as an experiment and i thought it would be fun to revisit it. it was more of a novelty song to me than a meaningful piece of music.
i think you need to hear a little bit of what constituted “serious” music for me at the time to understand what i mean. so here are two songs that were recorded a few weeks before the talent show, from an album called kaput.
our west team songs were an unpredictable stew that mixed up events and characters from our lives, toilet humour, philosophy, and pure fiction. though there were some solo pieces here and there, most of what we did involved a tag-team dynamic. one of us would start singing, setting the scene, and then we’d take turns filling in the finer details. i’ve said this before, and it’s worth repeating: the thing that never stops being surprising to me every time i pull out an old tape, even just to hear a song or two, is how varied this music is. the songs go a lot of different places.
my favourite go-to song shape in those days was the dark psychodrama. there’s some pitch black music on these tapes that wrestles with madness, isolation, and broken relationships, at a time when you’d probably expect to hear me singing about crushes on girls and hating homework. there is a little bit of that in the odd song like “my dad ate my homework”, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
some of our best songs were the ballads, and very few of them were typical love songs.
here’s the thing: pubescent me did not like to play it straight when hanging out in ballad territory. at all. in any given song you’d get johnny smith singing something tender and sweet, and then i’d come in and start wailing about dirty bras in laundry baskets (“julie, are you listening?”), the lonesome plight of a vacuum cleaner salesman (“just a dream”), or escaping the pain of a failed romance through prostitution (“caroline”).
there were plenty of songs that didn’t take themselves too seriously to begin with. take the third track on the kaput cassette, for example:
early in 1997 i discovered the auto-accompaniment built into the clavinova keyboard that served as my main creative workstation at the time. before that, if i wanted drums in a song, i would set up a split mode and have piano or whatever keyboard sound i wanted on the right side and bass or strings on the left to fill in the low end. then i would trigger a drum pattern and go to town.
with the auto-accompaniment engaged, i could play chords with my left hand and lead an invisible band. those drum patterns i thought i knew so well developed all kinds of new wrinkles, and all at once i had access to musical backdrops that were much more fleshed-out.
it got a little stale once i’d gone through every available style and all its variations. eventually i started stripping away most of the extra sounds aside from bass and put the keyboard in a different mode that would allow me to play without using a split, the invisible bassist following me wherever i went, freeing up both of my hands to do whatever they wanted. but for a good few months there i revelled in all the new sounds.
here i went for an imaginary dixieland jazz band, alternating between playing what was supposed to sound like a clean, tremolo-kissed electric guitar with the right hand and messing with the new (to me, at the time) arp omni-2 that was sitting on top of the clavinova.
on songs like this we could both let loose with whatever random weirdness popped into our heads. when it came to the ballads, things were a little different. johnny smith became the resident straight man, and i became more of the resident basket case.
there were exceptions. one of them came near the end of the first side of the same tape. i came up with an idea using another sound that was meant to emulate a guitar. this time it was supposed to be a steel-string acoustic.
“we should start recording this,” johnny smith said. “don’t change a thing,” he added, knowing i had a hard-on for those auto-accompaniment sounds, knowing too that the virtual band wasn’t needed here.
“no strings attached,” i said, and we had a title before we had a song. he hit the record button while i was still playing. then this happened.
what you have here is an example of something i listen to now, after not hearing it for twenty years, and think, “how on earth did we improvise that?” this was at a time in my life when i thought lyrics were always supposed to rhyme. so there’s that. but the song tells the story of a life seen in snapshots through someone else’s eyes. the music moves through different sections and shifts in intensity.
none of it was written. i had the little lick that introduces the song and recurs through the verses, and that was it. beyond that, it was all made up on the spot, like almost all of our music was. we took turns picking up the thread of the narrative as we were both discovering what it was.
we were both excited about what we came up with when we were finished recording it. it was one of a number of songs that felt like catching lightning in a bottle. but time and distance have a way of making some things seem better than they really were. you return to something like this hoping the music lives up to your memory of it, not knowing how reliable that memory is given all the dust caked into its face.
i was not expecting to be as affected by this one as i am two decades after the fact. there are well over a thousand west team songs on tape, and not too many outright stinkers in my opinion, but songs like this are special. i mean, if someone wanted to play this at my funeral, my well-dressed ghost would not object — though i think just as strong a case could be made for “the sack of symphony”.
(and if you’re wondering, yes, the sack in question is a scrotum.)
see, this is why i’ve resisted listening to too much of this stuff until i commit to digitizing every tape we ever made. there’s so much there, most of it is music i haven’t heard since it was recorded, and a lot of it has the capacity to surprise me and move me and crack my shit up even now. if i step too far into the musical past, i might get lost in there and not want to come back to work on all the things i’m excited about in the present.
anyway, back to the talent show.
i don’t know why i didn’t play the old upright like everyone else who played piano did that day. we rented a fancy yamaha keyboard from ouellette’s and i played that thing instead. i would give half the hair on my legs and maybe a toe or two in exchange for some video footage i could share here now. i don’t think any exists. i don’t remember seeing anyone in the audience, parent or teacher, with a video camera.
there was someone taking photographs. here’s one that ended up in the yearbook.
if the school had a mic stand, it was either missing in action that day or i couldn’t get it positioned right. michael greff stood in front of the rented keyboard and held a microphone in the place a stand would have kept it fixed in an ideal world. if you’re out there somewhere, mike, i owe you one for going beyond the call of duty and doing it with a smile on your face.
i at least had the foresight to ask johnny smith to bring that bulky old tape recorder with him (different from the one we used to record our albums). he sat in the gym with the other parents and captured the whole show on cassette, dance numbers, announcements and all.
it needs to be said: the recording is very lo-fi. it makes our albums from the same period — themselves captured using the invisible microphone built into a consumer-grade tape recorder — sound like million dollar studio productionsin comparison. the mic i was singing into was patched into the PA system. for some reason the keyboard didn’t get the same treatment, left to sink or swim on the strength of its built-in speakers. so my singing is a lot louder than my playing, and it’s not one of the more pristine audience recordings you’ll ever hear by a long shot.
still, i’m grateful to have an audio record of that day.
i played my first song pretty early in the show. i was sitting on the floor at the back of the gym with my classmates, trying to ignore the butterflies eating at the inside of my stomach, when mrs. howell said this and i did a mental double-take.
the first thing that stunned me was the way she was talking about me. this was not someone given to doling out praise. i had no idea she had that kind of respect for me as a musician. it really threw me.
the second thing that stunned me was the way everyone went nuts as soon as she said my name. she had to shush them to finish introducing me.
i went up there, played “evil woman”, got the whole school to sing along, and when i was finished the applause was so loud, i’m convinced it would have parted my hair if i hadn’t put enough gel in it that morning to keep it frozen in place through a hurricane. it was insane.
i came back later to close out the “talent” portion of the show before mrs. hale got up onstage with her praise group to sing catchy songs about jesus and stuff. hey man, don’t knock “glory to god” until you’ve heard it. that stuff gets stuck in your head.
i grafted my little intro/interview with johnny smith to the beginning of the song, even though that bit was recorded before any of the talent show performances happened, because i’m weird. dig the faux-british accent that develops and then disappears with no fanfare. and then dig the sound of everyone going apeshit. you can’t even hear the end of the song. it gets swallowed up by the screaming, and then the tape cuts out, almost making it seem like the audience went on making that sound forever.
i’ve had a few surreal moments playing live in the years since then. i’ve given better performances of better songs. but i’ve never felt anything like the collective explosion of sound that room packed with about four hundred people made twenty years ago when i was thirteen years old.
i think it’s kind of like your first kiss. if everything falls into place just right and you get the meeting of lips you deserve, the first one sears itself into your brain and never really leaves, and all the others that come after are judged against it.
i haven’t had a better kiss yet. i’m not sure i ever will.
i imagine most people who owned tape-based camcorders during their heyday filmed things like family get-togethers, live music, home movies, class projects, and documentaries.
i used mine to record demos, and almost nothing else.
until i got my macbook in late 2013 and thought to give garageband a try, i didn’t record “normal” demos of anything. i either recorded for keeps or i didn’t record at all. the little sony handycam i had — and later, the two flip mino cameras that would usurp it — became a useful way to get down ideas when they were fresh so i wouldn’t forget them.
we got this camera in 2003. it felt like it was time. i was frustrated that there was a good amount of video different people had shot of me over the years, sometimes playing music, sometimes acting in plays, sometimes just being a goofball, and it was almost all inaccessible to me.
a shopping list, on the off chance some filmmaker discovers my music after i die and wants to make a documentary about me in which people who never knew me pretend they understand me since i’m no longer around to speak for myself or shut them down:
a few grade school plays were filmed, and i’m pretty sure the tapes still exist
my not-aunt’s wedding tape features me singing a half-improvised a cappella song about love in 1997
andrew deane shot what i guess you could call “test footage” of me walking around in 1999 for a music video he never ended up making, documenting some of the best hair days of my life when i was just starting to grow it out
unused b-roll from the 1999 student documentary fish out of water, including some silliness with me doing my best impression of a canine rapper while libby salonen looks on
papa ghostface playing “pacing the cage” and “the ballad of bob and marie” at the air jam in march of 2000
gord and i playing “bob and marie” in the hall during lunch recess a few months before the air jam
a few bits of random footage evan hansen and tyson taylor shot of me at walkerville in 2001 (i popped up in one video where tyson was filming a fight as it broke out, playing the role of “sleep-deprived non-observer”, wearing a short-sleeved black shirt i always liked)
papa ghostface playing “be sorry” as a full band at the air jam in the summer of 2001 (i think amy mifsud filmed this…i saw the tape once when she let tyson borrow it)
a lot of footage tyson shot of GWD recording and hanging out in 2001 and 2002, which may or may not still exist
one or two piano recitals i was told were filmed in the mid/late 1990s
i have the video of my first birthday party (at least i think i still do), i recorded the appearance my grade twelve drama class made on the new WI on my VCR, and i’ve got the tape of the two live GWD songs from 2002 that were posted here long ago. that’s about it for things that were filmed before 2003. whatever else survives, i don’t have it.
we probably should have picked up a video camera a little sooner than we did. if i had access to one even a year or two earlier, i would have been the one to film all that teenage band footage, and i’d be able to incorporate the best bits here, instead of wondering if i’ll ever get to see those tapes again (i’m pretty sure i won’t, because there’s a good chance they’ve all been lost or recorded over). i think i remember any kind of decent video camera being prohibitively expensive for amateur home use for quite a while. these were the days before you could shoot video on your cell phone, and before the advent of cheap digital video recorders small enough to fit in your pocket.
by the time we went looking for something, the prices had come down a bit, and we were able to buy a sony DCR-TRV19 without having to rob a bank. i didn’t know anything about cameras. we just grabbed the one that looked nice and was affordable.
turns out 2003 was the last year sony made MiniDV camcorders with a 1/4-inch image sensor. this is one of the last models they produced with such good low light sensitivity, headphone and external microphone connections, and a hotshoe adapter for a light or mic, before they started cheaping out.
talk about having good timing.
i’d like to say once i had a camera of my own i made it count. i did have ideas. i thought about making a DIY documentary following the making of an album, filming myself recording different elements of songs, talking to the camera about the music, breaking things up with random puppet shows and stuffed animal interludes.
i talked myself out of it before i got started. i told myself i wouldn’t be able to make it visually interesting enough to appeal to anyone. watching one guy do everything on his own would get boring after a while. and how was i going to edit the raw footage — by dumping it onto VHS?
after filming a few random things i leant out the camera in 2005, and didn’t think to ask for it back until the summer of 2007. by then i had a different idea. i would start making a video diary. the crackheads had established themselves in the other half of the duplex we were living in, i couldn’t record any music or sleep in my own home thanks to their 24-hour wall-shaking rap ‘n’ crack parties, and i was bitter about romance and the almost violent indifference i was coming up against while trying to get gigs and get my music heard.
i had a bit to say. talking to the camera seemed as viable a form of self-expression as anything else. it was therapeutic for a while. and it wasn’t all me spitting a nonstop litany of complaints. i talked about orson welles and keith urban and the rocky movies too.
then we moved and my motivation went missing. moving into a new house when it’s something you want to do and you’ve found the perfect place can be exciting — even energizing. doing it out of necessity, when calling the police nineteen times and documenting more than forty pages of noise complaints and drug buys won’t get anyone to do anything because it isn’t happening next door to any of the cops or politicians or people working at crime-stoppers or “writers” for the windsor star, so they don’t care, and finding out your box spring won’t fit up the stairs at the new place, and the landlord neglected to tell you the central air only works on the bottom two floors, and the furnace is dead…that’s demoralizing.
i kept using the camera, but i stopped talking to it. now it became my idea-capturing device.
when the first little flip camera came along and transferring videos onto the computer became as easy as flipping out a built-in USB connector and plugging it in, my old camcorder friend and all the tapes i’d filmed with it got shoved into a dresser drawer and more or less forgotten about. aside from picking up some slack at the first mackenzie hall show i played in 2010 when the flip camera ran out of recording time, it wasn’t used again.
i dug it out of the dresser a year or two later to have another listen to some of those old musical ideas i recorded. there were lines through the image when i tried to play a tape and the sound was distorted. i tried again some months down the road and didn’t even get the distorted sound. there was no sound at all, and the screen showed nothing but an impenetrable blue square.
i tried different tapes. it wasn’t a tape issue. i tried slamming the camera on a tabletop repeatedly to intimidate it into working (i never claimed to make good decisions all the time). no joy.
i assumed the camera was dead, tossed it back in the dresser drawer of lost souls, and got on with recording my not-quite-demos with the flip fellas.
lately i’ve been thinking it would be kind of nice to have access to those ideas again. maybe i could figure out a way to get all the tapes onto the computer. worst case scenario, if the camera really was toast, i could buy another DCR-TRV19 for a hundred bucks or less on eBay.
i did some research and learned imovie has a spotty record when it comes to importing camcorder footage. i’ve never been a big fan of that program. i almost never use it for anything. it gobbles up resources on my macbook, turns it into an oven, and either freezes up for ten minutes at a time or is so sluggish it’s impossible to get much done. reading about some of the problems people have had with audio and video coming out unsynchronized was all i needed to dissuade me from trying to tame the savage beast.
i’m pretty sure the old acer laptop i use for video editing has firewire ports, but even though it’s been a lot friendlier to me since a nice dude at PC outfitters blew an ocean of dust out of its cooling fans, i’d rather not push my luck with that aging computer. it’s still slower than mud. at this point, asking it to do anything more strenuous than running sony vegas and a few other programs is probably a nightmare waiting to happen.
my internet travels led me to a program called lifeflix. it was created with the sole purpose of transferring MiniDV tapes onto a computer or an external hard drive. the more i read about it, the more it seemed like the smart way to go. i bought it, bought a firewire cable and a firewire-to-thunderbolt adapter, bought a cleaning tape for my camcorder, and hoped for the best.
the cleaning tape worked brilliantly. i let it play for all of ten seconds and went from the blue screen of death to being able to play all my old tapes again. no artifacts, no lines through the screen, nothing. i was almost expecting at least a bit of that to stick around, because this camera is fourteen years old now. nope.
best twenty five bucks i’ve spent in recent memory.
the firewire-to-thunderbolt connector apple makes is stupidly expensive, and there are no real alternatives, but it works. lifeflix recognized the camera right away and went to work importing video. it works in realtime, so an hour-long tape will take an hour to digitize (at least in theory…more on this in a minute).
the program does a great job of breaking up video into scenes based on where the recording originally stopped and started, saving you the hassle of separating things into individual clips later. the user interface is simple but intuitive. getting files onto your computer after they’ve finished importing is as easy as two clicks of the mouse or trackpad. if you want to trim a little dead space out of the beginning or end of any given clip, you can do that too.
the video compression lifeflix uses is all but invisible. i can’t detect any loss of visual or audio quality compared to the uncompressed video. not that this footage was pristine or pro-shot to begin with, but i’m pretty picky when it comes to these things. being able to keep the file sizes reasonable is a nice bonus when you’re dealing with a lot of footage.
that’s all the good stuff. now for the things that are a little irritating.
i don’t know if it’s just me and my computer, but the “combine clips” function has been hit or miss. it works about half the time. the rest of the time the progress bar will stop moving around the halfway point, assuming it starts moving in the first place, and then it’ll hang there forever, not frozen but with all functions locked up. the only option when that happens is to force the program to quit.
the good news is i haven’t lost anything doing this. lifeflix saves all the work you’ve done no matter how it shuts down. clips don’t disappear unless you delete them yourself. but when a certain group of clips decide they don’t want to be combined, you’ll never be able to join them together. doesn’t matter how many times you try. doesn’t matter how many mean names you call the computer. and these are not long clips i’ve been working with. in most cases i’m trying to combine two or three snippets that are each a minute long or less.
another thing i’ve noticed: i can’t set the program up to import a tape and leave it to do its business. i need to stay at the computer the whole time, because the best i’ve been able to get is five or ten minutes of uninterrupted importing. at some point a clip will freeze up within the program, or there will be a glitch, and while the camera itself will be playing just fine, when that happens i have to stop the importing process, rewind the tape to the beginning of the last clip, and start again. otherwise i’ll get flawed video on the computer.
sometimes i can get another five or ten minutes before i have to do it all again. sometimes i need to keep going back to the same spot a few times before it manages to import without any issues, and i’m lucky to get one or two clips at a time. with the tape i’m working on right now, it’s taken me more than forty tries just to get eleven short clips totalling about fifteen minutes of footage to import glitch-free.
these are minor complaints. this is taking a little longer than it would if there were no glitches, and there have been a few frustrating moments, but all things considered it’s been pretty easy and pain-free. in the space of a few days i’ve managed to get the full contents of almost half of those tapes onto the computer. who knows how long i’d be waiting and how much i’d have to pay if i got someone else to transfer the tapes for me.
with my luck, they’d all get lost, or some freak accident would send them off to MiniDV tape heaven.
now for the part that made me swear so much i had to start wearing a parental advisory sticker on my face.
i’ve been using sony vegas as my video editing program for years now. the learning curve was a little weird at first, but once i got past the initial feelings of bewilderment after the dead-simple windows movie maker spoiled me a little, i grew to really enjoy using it.
sony vegas has been fine with MOV files over the years, until now. it doesn’t like the ones lifeflix makes. whether they’re compressed or not, all that shows up when i import one of these clips is the audio. there’s no video. any media player on the planet will play them no problem, so the issue isn’t with the clips themselves. it’s vegas being a douchebag.
if i wanted to have any control over assembling individual clips into something more meaningful, i was going to have to find a way to convert the MOV files into something vegas was less prejudiced against without the quality taking too much of a hit in the process.
rewrapping them as MP4 files would be the ideal thing. but no way was i spending more money on yet another program to do that.
i tried downloading a few free programs that claimed to offer video rewrapping, only to find all the relevant functions were disabled and if i wanted to do more than open and close files i was going to have to pay for the privilege. i found something called FFmpeg that was supposed to make rewrapping easy, but i’m not all that tech-savvy, i don’t know anything about unix or linux, and i haven’t for the life of me been able to figure out how to use the program. it doesn’t help that every online tutorial seems to assume you already know what you’re doing. i tried using the VLC media player to save the videos in a different container. that worked, but vegas still wouldn’t budge.
this is the workaround i’ve come up with:
first i go back and import the specific clips i want to edit again, this time with the compression turned off. then i use a free program called MPEG streamclip to rebrand the uncompressed MOV files as MP4s. there has to be some re-encoding happening, because the conversion takes a lot longer than straight rewrapping does, but if the quality is taking a hit it’s so subtle my eyes and ears can’t tell.
any given MP4 file is about ten times the size of the MOV file it started out as. i save as many of these as i can fit onto a flash drive. from there, i transfer them onto the external hard drive i use with the laptop that has sony vegas on it (my mac external hard drive isn’t recognized by that computer, while the external hard drive i use for that one becomes read-only once it’s plugged into the macbook). then i go back and do it all again, and again, and again, until i’ve got all the files i need on the external hard drive. then i import them into vegas, and at last i can start editing.
it’s a pain in the ass, but it works.
it’s been an interesting, schizophrenic emotional experience sifting through all this old footage.
there’s regret. i wish i could say i’ve been sitting on a treasure trove of footage from the time of BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. i had my chance to film elements of those songs being recorded and to talk to the camera about the thought process behind trying to short-circuit my own musical language and writing impulses in an effort to get somewhere i’d never been before, and i let it blow by. even past that, i went to the trouble of testing out different camera angles in the studio when i was recording CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, and then did nothing with what i learned from it. i didn’t start to think documenting some of these things in the process of happening was worthwhile until much later.
hard not to feel like there were some missed opportunities.
there’s the strangeness of seeing in black and white just how much was here the whole time. there were twenty MiniDV tapes in that dresser drawer. i found another two in a different dresser drawer after i took the picture at the top of this post. they’re all full to the brim, recorded in one-hour SP mode for the best quality. take away everything that isn’t music-related, and that’s at least twenty hours of ideas, almost all of them recorded between 2007 and 2009, many of them things i have no memory of ever coming up with. so many sketches that never turned into finished songs. so many finished songs that were left unrecorded. so many unused alternate sections for songs that did end up on official albums.
if there’s anyone out there who still thinks i throw every idea i ever come up with on my albums, i’d kind of like to sit them down with these tapes for a day. i knew i was going through something of a creative purple patch at the time, but i don’t think it ever hit me just how much i threw away. it’s going to be fun to dig back into these ideas and work out which ones deserve a fresh look.
and there have been some surprises along the way. there’s an acoustic version of “last of the two-finger typists” filmed in 2003, minutes after i finished writing it. i recorded a song called “electric teeth” three times in 2007, from three different angles, almost like i was anticipating someday being able to edit the best bits together. there are some brainstorming sessions where i took the time to make sure my face and my hands wereboth visible, when framing was usually an afterthought. and those video diaries are surreal to experience now. it’s me talking, but i’m not the same person.
i might not have been able to stick the landing, but i wasn’t without ambition. the plan with the short-lived video diary was to break up the rants with songs and song ideas. i started throwing in an absurd comedy sketch called grandpa the russian jew. an old man who sounded half-russian, half-jewish (you weren’t expecting that, were you?), played by me, would go on a short tirade about something ridiculous. he would always begin by saying, “you know, when i was your age…” and he would always end with, “…and that is the story of my life,” before passing out snoring. only instead of talking about technological advances or respecting your elders, he’d insult julia roberts in some nonsensical way or muse about having sexual intercourse with a ceiling fan.
in a way, i’ve made good on a lot of what i was trying to do there with the video progress reports, and now on a deeper level with the semi-documentary-thing i’m piecing together about the last few years of musical insanity. i’m still talking to the camera about what’s on my mind, and if it’s a little less personal than the video diaries of yore, well…there is such a thing as over-sharing. the talking is broken up with musical segments and absurd bits featuring stuffed animals and re-contextualized public domain films. and when i started filming entire songs being recorded piece by piece, i discovered it wasn’t so difficult to stitch all the elements together after all, with a little help from video editing software i didn’t have access to in the beginning.
so maybe i didn’t fail at it after all. i was just a slow starter. and there are things on these tapes i’m realizing i can slip into the larger video i’m making.
though i might not have any actual recording footage from the house before this one, i have some good shots of my studio space in that house before i dismantled it. i have footage of my current studio space in complete chaos after moving in, and footage of it slowly starting to come together. i filmed myself recording the banjo part for “blue cheese necklace” and then for some reason i’ll never understand didn’t film any other elements of the song being recorded (i want to kick myself now). i can take footage of a song being played at its inception to get the music and vocal melodies down, and segue into a piece of the finished recording. i can even slip in some video diary moments where they make sense, breaking up footage of myself with older footage of myself.
which brings me to this.
in january of 2008, at exactly the halfway point of the papa ghostface hiatus that lasted twelve years, gord came over and we recorded a song that’s never seen any release outside of an MP3 posted here that’s long since sunk deep into the archives. this was one of the few times i went to the trouble of filming a recording session during the handycam days. i didn’t have any way to get the raw footage on the computer back then. now, nine years later, i’m able to do that and edit it into something a little more concise.
the song lives in its own little space, separate from the work we did before and the work we would go on to do later. at the time it felt like a potential first step toward making a new album. it was really a one-off, and it would be another six years before we started working toward a shared goal again with some real commitment.
it’s more a mood in search of a song, though there are moments i’ve always liked. i think “speed the truth”, the first track on STEW, is a good measuring stick. both are dreamy things grounded in the key of A minor, but “speed the truth” is a layered soundscape that’s very sure of its identity. this one’s more half-baked. for every interesting turn of phrase (“you’re looking through one bloodshot tier” is one — sounds like “tear”, but it’s not) there are two that either make no sense or are little more than random nothingness (“anomanomahee…hatred, smoke and…” won’t be showing up in a discussion of my best moments as a lyricist anytime soon).
such is the danger of improvised lyrics. sometimes you hit. sometimes you miss.
of course, i didn’t think to film myself recording the vocal and guitar tracks. i went through a rough mix on-camera instead. and because i only had the one camera, without even a tripod to screw it into, it was tough to get good shots of the two of us together. there’s a bit where i’m playing chords on the arp-omni 2 with one hand and drums on the yamaha W-5 with the other, and because of the crummy framing, you’ve got gord in the foreground and you can’t see a thing my hands are doing.
i gotta be honest about my 2008 mix, too. it’s not very good. the vocals are way too upfront, everything is swimming in about 600% more reverb than necessary, and i was going through that lame “clipping is okay because it means i can make things louder” stage when it came to the mastering process.
what i’m playing on the monitors is an unmastered rough mix, so the occasional moments of distortion in the video have nothing to do with mastering. they’re present in the original soundtrack, burned into the video, impossible to repair now. the sony camcorder’s built-in mic is really good for what it is, but i found out the hard way it wasn’t built to handle volume past a certain point.
the instrumental fragment that ends the video, meanwhile, is a mix i did just the other day, stripping away the vocals, dialling down the reverb, and tightening everything up a little. it’s got me thinking about remixing the whole thing just for fun.
this segment will get trimmed down quite a bit when it appears in the epic video of stuff. here i let it run a little longer. and i still left some things out. i filmed about twenty minutes of us jamming on acoustic guitars, playing pieces of old songs and riffing on new ideas during a break in recording. the first half of the jam felt pretty aimless, so i recorded over it a week or two later.
a funny thing happened there. a few snippets survived between the song ideas i replaced the bulk of the footage with, all of them about three seconds long. it felt like they worked well as random little bits thrown in without warning between the “on your life” footage, so i chucked a few of them into the mix.
the last ten minutes of the acoustic jam are still on tape. none of that made much sense in the context of this video, but i’m sure i’ll find a place for it one of these days.
completely unrelated: zara just released her new album. if you liked UNCERTAIN ASSERTIONS, there’s a good chance you’ll like this one too.
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 proper “studio” 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. we recorded most of the instrumental tracks live, running the bass and guitars direct to cut down on bleed. 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. some stairs got you up there, and maybe there was a ladder at the end. i can’t remember. but 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.