Not much has changed around here. I remain luckier than most when it comes to navigating these post-coronavirus times. Music continues to be made, hair continues to be grown, and profanity continues to be profane. But there was something I was looking forward to that had to be scrapped because of this strange, surreal semi-dystopic world we’re living in right now.
Dave Konstantino has been hosting a great show on CJAM called Revolution Rock for more than a decade now. I went to high school with Adam Peltier. He once hosted a great show of his own called Fear of Music. Now he co-hosts Revolution Rock with Dave. These guys have been two of my staunchest supporters, so it seems poetic that it would work out this way. I think Dave has been playing my music on CJAM for as long as he’s had his show. As for Adam, he was the first person to give me any kind of airplay at all, traumatizing unsuspecting listeners with my X-rated Christmas album twenty years ago.
Earlier this year, Dave and Adam and I were plotting an on-air interview and live performance to coincide with the release of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. We thought we had plenty of time to make it happen. Then everything changed, and playing live anywhere — even in an intimate setting with only a few people present — became impossible.
That was the end of that, or so I thought.
Dave got in touch a few months ago and asked if I would be up for doing an interview through email or Skype instead. My MacBook has a built-in webcam, but I don’t think it’s capable of producing a level of video or sound quality I’d be happy with, and I tend to feel like less of an inarticulate blob when I have a chance to sit with someone’s questions for a little while and work out how I want to respond to them. I opted for the email interview and offered to film myself performing some songs in my studio as a substitute for a live performance.
You can check out the results over here. Dave wrote a really kind, thoughtful review of the album, and he and Adam put together some surprising and thought-provoking questions. For once my answers were unedited and presented in their entirety. Take that, other people who interviewed me and whittled down my words without giving me an opportunity to edit them myself.
They also dedicated the entirety of the most recent episode of Revolution Rock to me and my music. Here’s the whole thing (Dave was kind enough to share the file with me).
I was kind of gobsmacked. I expected them to play a few songs off of the new album and talk a bit about the interview and video performance. No way was I expecting something like this. I think they ended up playing close to thirty songs, including some things I never thought I’d hear on the radio. There’s even a song from the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP in there!
I think it works as a pretty great encapsulation of what I’ve been up to over the last decade and change. And it has to be one of the best compliments anyone’s given me in recent memory. Huge thanks to Dave and Adam for the incredibly kind words, the airplay, the interview, and for supporting me and what I do for all these years.
A few words about the video performance:
I thought I’d bang it out in an afternoon. It took me the better part of a week to get what I wanted on video and digital tape. Deciding on just a handful of things to play was a serious challenge. I was able to get it down to a shortlist of twenty-seven songs. That was the best I could do. From there, I started trying different things to see what worked and what didn’t. I settled on two songs from YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, two that are slated for inclusion on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE whenever I finish that thing, one that hasn’t found a home anywhere, and an improvised instrumental piano piece that just sort of toppled out along the way.
Filming myself was pretty straightforward. By now I have a pretty good handle on where to put the camera and how to work with manual focus instead of relying on the autofocus and hoping it doesn’t do any obvious hunting in the middle of a performance. Having some decent lighting in the studio has been a revelation. I’m never going to produce a super slick-looking video. That isn’t what I’m after. But the difference between this stuff and the footage I used to grab with those Flip cameras in crummy lighting…it’s pretty striking.
Also striking is the absence of the chunky wildebeest seen throughout Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories). I’ve morphed back into something resembling the svelte Johnny of old. I think it says something about my current state of physical and mental health that after discovering two songs were filmed at an angle that created the illusion of a receding hairline, instead of being embarrassed or feeling a pressing need to re-record those songs, I kept the footage and treated it as an excuse to throw in a silly little gag. A year or two ago? Never would have happened.
Back when my mic cabinet consisted of little more than a Shure SM58 and two SM57s, recording acoustic guitar and vocals at the same time was a piece of cake. Those microphones were directional enough that I didn’t have to worry about any significant bleed or phase issues. Recording with the sensitive condenser mics I have now is a different story. I thought I’d save myself some trouble and play electric guitar instead of acoustic. Recording QUIET BEASTS with Yessica Woahneil taught me how much good energy the bleed from the Pearlman TM-1 can add to an electric guitar recording when it doesn’t get too out of control. I went for a similar thing here, with an SM57 and a Sennheiser 421 pointed at the old Paul tube amp. I think it worked out well.
The problems started when I tried to record the piano and my voice at the same time. It didn’t matter what I used for a vocal mic. The Neumann KM 184s I use to record the piano would pick up the sound of a dog scratching itself three miles away. There was no way to control the vocal bleed.
I moved over to the Wurlitzer electric piano. The timing couldn’t have been better. We were experiencing the tail end of a nice little Indian summer before the cold finally settled in once and for all last week. In the fourteen years I’ve had the Wurlitzer, its tuning has never once wavered, but I’ve noticed the action gets a little sluggish once winter kicks in. Some of the keys turn heel for a while. They don’t like to produce any sound unless you really lay into them. When I was filming this stuff, I caught the Wurly at its most agreeable.
I’ve recorded this electric piano a few different ways over the years. I’ve never plugged it into an external amplifier. There’s something wrong with the output. It emits a horrible buzzing sound that renders the signal it produces unusable. I chalk it up to the shoddy work of the now-defunct Speakeasy Vintage Music. I could write a few thousand words about the ridiculous experience I had with those jokers. I got my Wurlitzer in the end, and it’s served me well, so I’ll tell that tale some other time.
The shittiness of the output has never troubled me. I like the earthy sound I get from sticking a microphone in front of one of the internal speakers. For whatever reason, I’ve always gone with the left speaker instead of the right one. I’ve never tried recording the Wurlitzer in stereo, though I’ve double-tracked it more often than not.
I started out using a Neumann KM 184. This is one of the first recordings I ever made of the Wurlitzer, way back in October of 2006.
I’d share “Wurly Test #1”, but I can’t find the CD I stashed it on, and I don’t have the patience to search for it right now.
When I was recording LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I switched over to a Pearlman TM-LE. That’s the mic I’ve used on the Wurlitzer ever since. It wasn’t working for me when I was recording this video, though. Again I couldn’t control the bleed. So I replaced it with an SM57. It shouldn’t have surprised me how much I liked the sound. I’ve been recording guitar amps with SM57s forever. What I really wasn’t expecting was the amount of body I got from just that one mic. I had to use a high pass filter to tame the low end a bit.
I wanted to try using something different for a vocal mic here, and I was too lazy to move the TM-1 over to the Wurlitzer and mess with the mic stand, so I dusted off an Audio-Technica 4047 I’ve been babysitting since 2009. I used it on a few songs on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, liked it, and then never used it on anything again. This mic grabs a lot of low frequency information, but in this situation it was an asset. I was able to keep the mic a fair distance away from my face, eliminating the need for a pop filter and allowing myself to concentrate on my performance without thinking, “I need to eat the microphone to make this work.”
Everything is presented as it was tracked, with one exception: I punched in a few vocal bits on one of the Wurlitzer songs. I know that’s cheating. I couldn’t resist. And you know what Lyle Lovett had to say on the subject.
So if you notice a few moments in “Brighter Than the Deepest Dark” where it sounds like the vocal is double-tracked in a subtle, distant way, now you know why. The small bits of the vocal track I replaced are butting up against remnants of the original performance that bled through the SM57. I kind of like the unintentional idiosyncrasy it created in the recording.
Maybe it’s a little strange to end with a song as acidic as “Popular Music Has Made Us Complacent”, but it felt right. I had to work some dirty words in there somewhere, didn’t I?
Things have been downright tumultuous around here.
I wanted to get in the habit of blogging more often so I could hold myself accountable on the recording side of things. I haven’t managed to do that. I havebeen making good progress with the album. I’ve also had to accept this sad truth: there’s no way to get it finished in time for the show. It’s turned into too tight a race. I can get it close, but not all the way there.
This is a handbill the wonderful Katie Schram designed for me.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
It would be great if I could print a bunch of these and start handing them out to people. I can’t. For the first time in my life I have promotional material I can’t use, because the show it’s supposed to promote isn’t going to happen.
First my trombonist pulled out after committing to the show. Then my cellist stopped talking to me with no explanation. Before long my drummer was out of commission and unreachable, the only person I could get to agree to show up for a rehearsal was the bassist, and many of the most important musicians either wouldn’t acknowledge me at all or were pretty vague about when and if they might grace me with their presence.
Sounds a bit like a lame comedy sketch.
You might say, “Well, the musicians involved in this are talented enough that they don’t need much preparation. They could turn up the night of the show with a single rehearsal under their belt and fake their way through it just fine.”
Even if that’s true, the whole “rehearse very little and pray for a miracle” approach doesn’t work for me. It never has. It would be one thing if we were a band with some history. We’re not. I’ve only worked with these people one-on-one in a recording situation. Playing live as a group is a very different beast. You need time to build chemistry and work out arrangements.
I’ve played as a supporting musician in bands that half-assed everything and hoped for the music to glue itself together in the ninth hour. None of those performances were anything to write home about, and I was always a nervous wreck onstage. Why would I want to put myself through that when the music is my own?
The last time I played at Mackenzie Hall I had a three-piece band. We only had six or seven songs we needed to learn as a group. The rest of the show was made up of me doing solo pieces. We must have rehearsed a dozen times over a period of three months. The idea was to get to a place where we were comfortable enough with one another to take off on an improvised tangent in the middle of a song and navigate whatever twists and turns it took with confidence — to be able to pick up on tiny physical cues and execute pin-point dynamic shifts.
We put the work in to toughen ourselves up until we were a real band, and it paid off big time at the show.
That isn’t going to happen this time. Even if every necessary piece of the musical puzzle showed up to rehearse for every Saturday that’s left between now and August 17th, I don’t think there would be enough time for us to get good. At best we would be okay. And that’s not going to cut it.
I may go out of my way to leave mistakes and human moments in my recordings, but I care a great deal about what I do. I’m not going to half-ass my first serious live performance in eight years and the biggest show of my life to accommodate the absent asses of others. If people can’t be bothered to show up and put in the work, there’s no point in losing my mind trying to salvage something out of the chaos. I won’t march into a public humiliation out of some misguided sense of duty, and I didn’t work to get that grant so I could pay people for being a bunch of fucking deadbeats.
I wouldn’t be able to rehearse now anyway. All the stress has caught up with me and made me sick. Ain’t that a kick in the nuts?
I already had my mind pretty much made up about cancelling the show before I got sick, but I took some time to think it over. During my thinking-it-over time, the ghostly cellist popped up to say she’d be available to rehearse about three weeks before the show. As if that would somehow be enough time to get up to speed when she’s never played any of these songs before. The person who was supposed to be my main backup vocalist and a fill-in lead singer for other absent vocalists said she wouldn’t have any time to rehearse with me until the end of July — this after telling me she’d be available to start getting together in early June. Better yet, after letting me believe for months that she was going to be an integral part of the show and one of the main performers, she changed her mind. Now I could only choose three songs I really wanted her to sing on. That was all the material she felt like learning.
There’s no putting a good face on this — she lied to me. She misled me about the role she was prepared to play and how much time she was willing to set aside for me. She’s second-billed on that handbill up there. Someone who’s a glorified walk-on guest doesn’t deserve to be second-billed. And I don’t care how busy you are. If you’re not going to be honest with me, I don’t want to know you.
Any doubts I had about cancelling the show died a violent death right there.
The singer who didn’t want to do much singing wasn’t the only person who was full of shit. Not by a long shot. It’s as if some of these people believed the simple act of attaching their names to my show should have been satisfaction enough for me, and whatever near-nonexistent amount of effort I could get out of them beyond that was supposed to be a bonus.
Someone told me, “You have to understand…most musicians don’t operate the way you do. They have their heads perpetually stuck up their own asses, and their main concern is themselves. That’s just the way they are. You can’t take it personally. It isn’t about you.”
How am I not supposed to take it personally? What other way is there to take it? “Laziness” is not a valid excuse to me. You don’t get to treat your so-called friends like dirt just because you’re talented.
Actually, let me correct that: in most cases you do get to treat your so-called friends like dirt. A lot of people get away with being pretty awful human beings because they have some amount of talent — or at least the ability to convince others they do — and they can be charming and ingratiating when they feel like it. I don’t swim in that ditch. A talented piece of shit is still a piece of shit.
You can make all the excuses you want. My music is who I am. You blow that off and you’re blowing me off. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.
I understand now that I made the tactical error of devising a show that relied on a large supporting cast of characters in order to succeed. Many of the most important players let me down. My dream was to give a multi-faceted gift to the community through music and visual art. The indifference of my peers has decimated that dream.
So I’ve cancelled the dates at Mackenzie Hall (dress rehearsal and performance), and a week ago I gave the grant money back to the city. I refuse to compromise my vision to the point that the show no longer resembles what it was supposed to be. This was going to be something special. It was the culmination of more than five years of work. I put it together a specific way and worked my ass off to make it a reality. Limping into Mackenzie Hall with some half-formed version of what could have been would feel even more like defeat than pulling the plug and walking away.
Could I have done something with just a rhythm section? Sure. Could I have done a one-man show? Yeah. But I’ve already done both of those things at Mackenzie Hall (and I think I did them pretty well). I have no desire to repeat myself.
Most of the people who were going to be my “special guests” were great at communicating with me. I didn’t have to chase them. I’m grateful for that. Darryl and Christy Litster, Ron Leary, Jess O’Neil, Jim Meloche, Dave Dubois, Natalie Westfall — all these folks have been wonderful every step of the way.
In the end, it just wasn’t enough. I felt like I had one big show left in me. This was it. Now it’s dead.
Lesson learned — I won’t try to do anything like this again. And if anyone accuses me of being a weirdo recluse who doesn’t play well with others after this, I will bite their head off and spit it back into their jagged blood-spurting neck hole.
You might think this is an extreme overreaction to a situation that wasn’t beyond help. Unless you’ve been through it, you have no idea what it’s like to put your heart and soul into something like this only to watch it collapse in slow-motion. You can’t force people to show up. You can’t force them to care.
I’m told I’m the first person in the history of the ACHF to refund their grant money. It felt like the right thing to do. The event as I pitched it to the jury ceased to exist, and I didn’t want to abuse the system. I know there are people who do that and get away with it. I would rather be honest.
Maybe someone else with better luck will be able to use the money to realize a dream that’s more realistic than mine was. I hope so.
I’m not as disheartened as all of this might make me sound. I’ve gone through the grieving process and more or less made my peace with things not working out. As a wise woman once said, “[You] can’t hug every cat.” I won’t pretend it isn’t disappointing, though. I was pretty proud of the set list and supporting cast I put together. I think it could have been a night to remember.
We’ll never know now.
On a lighter note, the J, K, and L keys on my MacBook stopped working a few weeks ago. Every once in a while I could mash the other keys around them and trick them into cooperating with me for a little bit. After a few days my subterfuge no longer did any good. I was hoping it was just some dirt on one of the contacts. Nope. Had to get the whole keyboard replaced. That was a $200 expense I could have done without. At least the people at Experimax were great to deal with and they fixed it the same day I brought it in.
You don’t notice how much you rely on certain letters until they’re no longer accessible to you. The S key on my crusty old video-editing laptop died years ago, but it’s easy to work around. All I have to do is copy an S from an existing document or file and paste it whenever I need it. When you have to do that with three different letters it becomes much more frustrating and time-consuming, turning what should be a two-minute email into fifteen minutes of tediousness. It’s nice to be able to type freely again.
It hasn’t all been janky laptop keys and crumbling dreams of ambitious live shows over here.
For the better part of twenty years I’ve been trying to track down video footage of my March 2000 performance at the Air Jam (Walkerville’s quirky name for a talent show). I’ve mentioned this a few times before.
I knew of two tapes — the one Gord’s high school girlfriend Amanda filmed, and the one the school filmed. I saw both of them in the summer of 2000. Then I never saw anything that was on either tape again.
I started trying to talk Amanda into letting me borrow her tape so I could make myself a copy when we were still in school. I kept trying after we graduated. Nothing happened. When Facebook came into our lives I started pestering her over there. I tried to get Gord to help. After a lot of false starts, in 2010 Amanda said she had the tape I was after. I rejoiced.
My rejoicing didn’t last long. I spent a month or two trying to arrange to get that tape from her. I offered to pay her just for showing up. It didn’t do any good. She was either noncommittal in her responses to my messages or she ignored me. She wouldn’t give me her phone number or her address, so I couldn’t go to her. I was stuck in limbo.
I nudged Gord into sending her some messages in 2014 and 2015 when we were working on STEW. He said he thought there might be some kinky business on the tape, explaining Amanda’s apparent reluctance to share it with either one of us. I told him to tell her I would give her the money to have a video place transfer the tape into a digital format herself, allowing her to snip out anything she didn’t want me to see. That didn’t do the trick either.
In 2017 I sent Amanda one last heartfelt message. I told her this was a piece of my musical history I felt incomplete without. I explained how much it would mean to me if I could somehow see it again. I also wanted to try and incorporate whatever archival material I could into the DIY documentary I was — and still am — making about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. This stuff was the Holy Grail of archival material.
She wrote back and apologized for the long silence. She said she wasn’t sure what tapes I was on, but she was able to narrow it down to seven possibilities. Years ago she bought some equipment so she could transfer the tapes at home. Then her camera stopped working and she gave up. If I was willing to transfer the tapes myself, I could have all of them. All she asked for in return was that I make her copies of the digital files.
Gord was supposed to swing by her place and grab the tapes before bringing them to me. He couldn’t do a thing with them, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to help pay to have them transferred. He was just another barrier between them and me. It would have made a lot more sense for me to pick them up myself. I couldn’t do that. Amanda still wouldn’t give me her address or phone number.
I don’t like relying on other people for things like this, but I left it in Gord’s hands. He rewarded my trust by almost ruining what looked like my one real shot at a happy ending. The night he was supposed to pick up the tapes, he blew it off.
This is a guy who’s known me since I was fifteen years old. He knew how long I’d been trying to gain access to this material. He knew what it meant to me. And he couldn’t even take five minutes out of his beer-drinking time to make good on what he told me he was going to do. He didn’t care. It didn’t mean anything to him.
I was ready to end our friendship right there. Lucky for him, Amanda took time out of packing for a vacation to bring the tapes to his door, and he was forced to pass them on to me.
Victory at last? No. Not quite.
I paid Unique Video Systems to convert all those 8mm tapes into MP4 files. I found some great footage I didn’t know existed — some of it featuring a skinny, beardless teenage version of me. But the Air Jam footage wasn’t there.
I told Amanda. She dug up some more tapes. This time I wasn’t on any of them.
I was discouraged but not defeated. There was still the matter of the second tape — the one filmed by the school.
I emailed John Vacratsis. He was a teacher involved in all kinds of art and media-related things at Walkerville during my time there. If anyone was going to know anything about the tape or its whereabouts, it was probably going to be him.
This was the crappiest of crapshoots. I didn’t have a great relationship with Vacratsis when I was a student. He seemed to resent me for not taking any of the music classes he taught, going my own way instead of letting him develop me into another talent Walkerville could be proud of, and he once chewed me out for some material he found offensive on a collage I made for grade twelve English class.
(That our English teacher, who was really a transplanted drama teacher, would have us making collages like children and answering questions about movies untethered to anything in the curriculum so he would have something to base our grades on without having to teach anything that resembled an English class — that was the more alarming issue to me than some goofy thing I put on a collage. But never mind.)
I expected Mr. V to remember me as a troublemaker if he remembered me at all. It didn’t matter. I would play nice in an email and see if it got me anywhere.
To my amazement, it did. He sent me a very kind response and tried to help as much as he could. He gave me the names of media students who might have been operating cameras on that day, he gave me the name of a media teacher who was still teaching at Walkerville, and he wished me luck in my epic quest.
I felt a renewed sense of purpose. Now I had something solid to work with.
One film student said he remembered my performance but didn’t know where the tape might be. The others ignored me. I wrote a letter to the media teacher outlining my plight, with a few albums included as thanks, and left it for him at the front desk.
Stepping inside my high school for the first time in almost nineteen years was a bizarre experience. I was happy to see they now had an upright piano in the hall and anyone was welcome to play it. I sat down and noodled a little. There wasn’t much volume or tone there, but hey, a real piano is a real piano.
Something about being there made me angry. No one was unpleasant. No one ogled at the long-haired bearded guy who was way too old to be a student. I don’t even have that many bad memories from high school, so it wasn’t a matter of old hurts coming back to haunt me. Believe it or not, I wasn’t an outcast or a loner. I was one of those odd students who managed to become popular and well-liked by refusing to be anything other than myself.
Maybe it was just one of those days.
Mr. Allison — the media teacher — sent a very thoughtful email in response to my letter. A lot of people probably would have blown me off, but he did some detective work on my behalf. What he found out wasn’t encouraging. In the days before they had digital video equipment, the school would routinely reuse and record over existing tapes instead of buying new stock. Everything pointed to the Air Jam tape being one of many victims of this recycling program.
This was it. The end of the road. There was no one left to talk to, no lead left to follow, and there were no tapes left to digitize. I was a few hundred bucks poorer and no closer to that Holy Grail footage. There was no reason left to believe it still existed. I had to accept that maybe I just wasn’t meant to ever see it again. Maybe all my efforts had been for nothing.
A few weeks ago I got a message from Amanda. She told me some things that did a lot to explain her apparent standoffishness over the years (I always assumed she never liked me; turns out it had nothing to do with me). She also told me she found three more tapes while going through some things in her basement. She didn’t know what was on them, and she thought it was mostly personal stuff, but she figured it was worth sharing them with me just in case.
I brought those tapes to Unique Video Systems and got my MP4 files. I went through them at home. The first tape had footage from Amanda’s trip to visit a post-high school boyfriend in 2002. The second tape was full of video messages she made for that same boyfriend and some bits of her hanging out with a few friends. I took a look at what was on the third tape and braced myself for more disappointment.
I saw some chunks of what looked like high school performances. I jumped to a random place in the video and landed on an image of myself seated at a digital piano, wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans, and I knew at once what this was.
The 2000 Air Jam. The Holy Grail.
This is what I’ve been chasing for my entire adult life. There was no reason to believe I would ever find it. Now I have it on my hard drive. The absurdity of it all is still sinking in.
I’d chalk that up to the best $61 I’ve ever spent.
Some backstory might help explain why this footage means so much to me, and why unearthing it feels a bit like winning the lottery.
Gord and I tried out for the Air Jam for the first time when we were in grade ten. The “brain” of my very tiny home studio was a Roland VS-880 digital mixer/hard disk recorder. I didn’t have a CD burner that was compatible with the mixer. We recorded a few passes at John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and I dubbed the best takes onto a cassette tape. A friend’s sister was part of the group of students organizing the show. I gave the tape to him to give to her.
We didn’t get in.
Later that same school year, a few other students announced they were putting together something they called an Arts Night. It was really just an after-hours Air Jam. Gord and I auditioned in the music room. We did a rowdy version of “Sweet Jane” (the original Velvet Underground arrangement, not the Cowboy Junkies remake) and I did John Cale’s “Paris 1919” alone at the upright piano.
In those days I had this idea that playing cover songs was a better bet than playing my own material live. I’m not sure why. At least I had good taste in covers (I think). Before settling on those two songs, the Talking Heads track “Drugs” was another consideration.
We passed the audition with flying colours, but the students in charge didn’t feel like putting in the necessary work to make the show happen (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). It died before it even got off the ground.
In grade eleven, Christian Masotti was one of the head organizers of the Air Jam. We were good friends. We respected each other as musicians. This time I knew I would make the cut. Auditioning would be little more than a formality.
My idea was to flesh Papa Ghostface out with another member or two. I had some classes with a guy named Isaac Osmer. I got the chance to jam with him a little when I played another John Cale song in the music room one day before the morning bell. Mr. Ross kicked me out before the song could really get going, but Isaac seemed like a solid drummer and a nice person. When I suggested we do something together sometime, he said he was into it.
Then Christian and my pal Jesse almost sabotaged the whole thing.
Jesse wanted to put a band of his own together for the Air Jam. He wanted Adam Cohen on drums, Max Marshall on lead guitar, and me on bass. He had a song about a young boy losing his mind called “Something in the Attic”. After recording a whole slew of songs with Jesse that didn’t stray far from acoustic love song territory, I was kind of looking forward to being his bassist and rocking out a little on something dark and moody.
Jesse wanted more time to prepare. He had friends on Agora — Walkerville’s student council, named for the public square built in Athens in 500 BC. He pulled some strings and convinced Christian and the other Air Jam organizers to put on two shows instead of one. He claimed he needed the extra time to study and get some of his grades up.
No one believed that story for a second, but he got what he wanted.
Two shows didn’t sound like such a bad idea at first. Christian told me the plan was to have the first show at the end of March. The focus would be on solo performers — students strumming acoustic guitars and wailing cover songs, Faith Hill clones singing to pre-recorded country music on cassette tape, and the like. Two months down the road, the second show would be for full bands and performers who wrote original material. This way everyone would have a chance to shine.
With that kind of structure, it seemed to me the first show would be boring beyond belief and all the good stuff would land in the second one. I told Christian I was putting a band together and had no problem pulling double duty in the second show, backing Jesse up in his band before stepping into the spotlight with mine. Even if we didn’t get anyone aside from Isaac to play with us, Gord could move over to bass and I could play guitar or keyboard. I thought a drummer would give our music a whole new punch.
When the lineups for both shows were posted on the bulletin board in the hall, I did a mental double-take. It wasn’t at all what Christian told me to expect. Neither show had any real theme or focus. Bands, karaoke singers, and solo acoustic performers were thrown together with no apparent thought given to who went where.
Jesse was in the second show. I got bumped to the first one against my will. I didn’t have Jesse’s connections. There were no strings for me to pull. And it was March already, so there would be no time to get tight with Isaac now.
Hot on the heels of that foul-smelling revelation, I learned I wasn’t going to be playing bass with Jesse anymore. Max never showed up for rehearsals. Instead of moving forward with a three-piece band, Jesse decided he would go it alone with an acoustic guitar.
My first impulse was to drop out of the Air Jam as an act of protest. Between Jesse’s machinations and Christian’s shitty organizational skills, I felt like I’d been painted into a corner for no good reason. Then I got a better idea. I would repurpose my frustration and blow it out of my system during our performance. Maybe it would just be the two of us on the stage, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t pull out all the stops.
“Fuck ‘em,” I said to Gord. “If they’re going to screw up our plans, we’ll give them something to remember us by.”
The song we chose to perform was “Pacing the Cage”. It was the first song Gord and I ever wrote together. We ran through it once and knew we wouldn’t have to run through it again. It was in our blood.
There was one mini-rehearsal at school. Everyone played truncated versions of the songs they were going to play at the show. They cut us off halfway through “Pacing the Cage”, just as I was starting to ramp up my voice.
The day of the first Air Jam show, Gord and I slipped into the auditorium after lunch to see how things were going. There was only one mic stand on the stage. I asked Christian if they had any more. He said no. That wasn’t going to work with Gord playing acoustic guitar and me singing at the same time, and I was pretty sure there were other performers who would need more than one mic stand. I walked home and grabbed a few SM57s and mic stands of my own to lend to the cause. It was one of the many times living a two-minute walk away from school came in handy. I also grabbed my acoustic guitar, my harmonica, and my harmonica holder, though I had no idea what I might need them for.
There was no keyboard on the stage. Christian told me I would probably be able to borrow one from one of the music classes. A few teachers turned me away before someone told me I could use one of the two keyboards collecting dust in the back of their classroom. Jesse saw me and wished me luck in the show. Then he asked me what I was doing in his class. I told him I needed a digital piano for my performance.
“One of those is no good,” he said. “It’s got sticky keys.”
I thought I’d try them both. Neither keyboard had any internal speakers, so Jesse grabbed one, I grabbed the other, and we carried them to the auditorium along with a keyboard stand.
The one with sticky keys wouldn’t make a sound. The other one worked, but it only had sixty-one keys. It felt like a toy. The piano sound was thin and one-dimensional.
I tried to set it at a good volume so I wouldn’t have to mess with it later. Jesse climbed up on the stage, sat down at a drum kit that was set up behind me, and started playing. He noticed my harmonica.
“Can you play that thing?”
“Sort of,” I said. “I just play chords on it most of the time.”
“Play something, man!”
I blew a few chords into a microphone. Jesse laughed. “Is that all you can play?”
“It makes more sense when I’m playing the guitar or the piano at the same time.”
“Is it just you and Gord playing?” he asked me.
“Yeah, just the two of us. We were gonna get a drummer to play with us, but we were moved from the second show to the first. That threw things off a little.”
“I could have played drums for you. Why didn’t you ask me?”
“I never even thought to ask.”
“What’s your song like?”
I played a bit of “Pacing the Cage” for him. He hammered out a steady 4/4 rhythm. It was all wrong for the song. I tried to explain how I needed something more along the lines of a polyrhythmic funk beat, where the snare didn’t fall on the two and the four. He asked me to give him an example. I took his place behind the drums for a minute and showed him what I meant.
I moved back over to the keyboard. Jesse started playing the same 4/4 beat again.
“The song’s okay without drums,” I said. “It’s way too late to figure it out now anyway, and it wouldn’t sound right without bass. But thanks for the offer.”
When it was time for the show to start, I met up with Gord in a hallway that led to the stage wings. It dawned on me that I left my leather jacket on one of the chairs in the front row of the auditorium. I waited until Cerah Steele’s band finished their three-song set and made my move during the brief lull between acts.
Then this happened.
I’m almost positive that’s Matt Strukelj screaming, “John West!”
What you don’t see, because the camera didn’t catch it, is me approaching a guy who was sitting on my jacket and asking him if he could stand up for a second so I could grab it. He didn’t move. I asked him again. He looked at me like he didn’t know what words were. The people around him had to liberate it from beneath his uncomprehending body.
Back out in the hall, Christian was trying to get a handle on the chaos swirling around him. No one knew when they were going to get their turn to perform. A tentative list was taped to the door, but it was incomplete and subject to revision. First we were supposed to be the third-last act. Then we got pushed to second-last. We would have been dead last, but Steve Mitchell was slated to close the show.
All along we were told to prepare one song. Now Christian was telling me we might have five minutes, and we might have ten. He couldn’t offer a definitive answer one way or another.
“Pacing the Cage” was good for four or five minutes. There was no way to stretch it out to ten. Gord and I took our acoustic guitars to the outside of the front entrance of the auditorium where things were quieter, tuned up, and tried to figure something out. We had four full-length Papa Ghostface albums to draw from by now, plus the in-progress SHOEBOX PARADISE, but a lot of our songs were improvisations that were never revisited after we recorded them, and nothing jumped out at me as being appropriate for a school performance. What could we pull off with no time to practice?
We could do “Fatties”. That would be a hit with all the pot-smokers. But the vicious impressions of a few well-known teachers wouldn’t go over so well, nor would the sex talk. We’d be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
There was “Ballad of Bob and Marie”. It was simple enough. Just a few chords. I wasn’t sure how many students would appreciate a song that was little more than a vehicle for my Bob Dylan impression, but I thought I remembered most of the words from the initial improvisation.
We recorded this song for the double-CD HORSEMOUTH (AND OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) on August 17, 1999. It was the day after my sixteenth birthday, and twenty years to the day before the doomed Mackenzie Hall show was supposed to happen. We started out with a little live instrumental improv. I got a drum loop going on the Yamaha W-5, ran it through a distortion effect built into the synth, and played synth bass with my left hand and an atmospheric synth pad with my right. Gord made barking dog sounds with his electric guitar and a wah pedal. He brought over an old harmonica he had in the key of C, so I strapped it on and blew into it a little.
My grandfather was supposed to call me to wish me a happy belated birthday. I kept thinking I heard the phone ringing, so we would stop recording mid-improv only for me to discover it was the sound of the harmonica’s wheeze tricking my ears. After the third or fourth fake-out he really did call. Once our conversation was over, I thought it would be fun to treat the little instrumental jam as an intro and cut straight to a song that had nothing to do with it. I swapped out Gord’s harmonica for my own and did my best shouty young Bob Dylan impression. After we got down a live performance with me on acoustic guitar and Gord on electric, I overdubbed some shaker and shouted some distant backup vocals. Gord overdubbed acoustic bass.
I remixed this song about a week ago, just before I got sick. It had some serious issues, and if I was going to post it here I wanted it to sound as good as possible. Twenty years ago I knew almost nothing about mic placement, and I knew less than nothing about things like EQ and compression. I would stick an SM57 in front of anything with strings and hope for the best. No surprise then that the acoustic guitar and acoustic bass tracks were muddier than mud, and my vocal track got pretty out of control during some of the more forceful passages with nothing to tame it.
It’s pretty amazing what you can do with a VS-1680 to fix up a mediocre recording. “Ballad of Bob and Marie” was recorded on a VS-880-EX before I upgraded to the sixteen-track machine, so I had to import it into the 1680. Everything past that was smooth sailing. I was able to carve out all the low end mud with EQ. Some limiting got the acoustic guitar and bass sounding pretty crisp and controlled. A little EQ and compression on the vocal and it was sitting right in the pocket.
Everything was done “in the box”, and I left all the original effects intact. The chorus and delay on the lead vocal felt essential. I didn’t want to do anything to alter the spirit or soul of the song. I just wanted to undo some old mistakes.
I can hardly believe how good I was able to make the acoustic guitar sound. It was a crappy instrument to begin with, even before my half-assed recording job. But the real shocker for me is the electric guitar. That’s not a real amp you’re hearing, and this was before the Digitech guitar effects box came into the picture. I plugged Gord’s B.C. Rich Virgin straight into the mixer and used one of the 1680’s built-in guitar amp modelling effects called “Vin.Tweed” (it’s supposed to emulate an overdriven 1950s tube amp). Everyone will tell you Roland’s speaker-modelling technology is beyond outdated now, but to me it sounds a lot more realistic than anything I ever got out of a POD.
I wish I’d thought to start backing up whole albums earlier in the game. I could give some of the early solo and Papa Ghostface CDs a whole new lease on life with just a little tasteful remixing. I did at least back up a few other songs from HORSEMOUTH. Though some of them are things I considered borderline filler at the time, it might be fun to revisit them and see if I can clean them up in a similar way.
I digress. We decided “Ballad of Bob and Marie” would be our second song if we needed one. Just in time, too, because few minutes later Christian told me we were up next. We walked through the wings. Christian asked if we had enough material for ten minutes. I told him we did. We made our way onto the stage. I laid my guitar on the floor and sat down at the crummy keyboard I was stuck with. Gord sat down beside me. Christian helped us both set up our microphones. After making sure my vocal mic was working, I went off.
“All right!” I screamed. The audience screamed back. I felt like a psychotic low-rent preacher.
“I’d like to tell you something before we start,” I said. “Originally we wanted to put a band together, but because of time constraints and being shifted around and shifted around, we weren’t able to do so. That makes me angry! But maybe I’m not the only person in here who’s angry right now. Maybe some of you are angry. Maybe your boyfriend left you. Maybe your girlfriend left you. Maybe things aren’t going too well for you in general, ’cause ain’t life stink? And so, I want you to scream when I tell you to let it out at the end of this song. All right?”
We launched into a version of “Pacing the Cage” that made the original recording sound like a lullaby. I slipped into the skin of the character narrating the song — an unrepentant killer who murders his unfaithful wife and her lover, relating the tale from prison not with pride or remorse, but with the belief that he was hardwired from birth to do something horrible and in committing these crimes he found his true purpose in life. My hands were shaking. Every time I hit a bad note, I mashed the keys and went out of my way to hit every bad note I could. I twisted my voice into a guttural groan when I wasn’t screaming, pounding on the keyboard I hated until I was punching it more than I was playing it. In the absence of a music stand I balanced my lyric sheet on top of the keyboard. All the turbulence sent it flying to the floor.
When the lyrics ran out I addressed the audience again. “LET IT OUT!” I screamed, and a sea of voices screamed back at me. The song dissolved into dissonance and everyone went nuts. We got a standing ovation.
The Bob Dylan piss-take was a little anticlimactic after that, but I felt invincible even with my voice half-shot from the vocal cord brutality of the first song. If anything, the diminished vocal range probably helped my Dylan impression. I lost my pick inside the sound hole of my guitar mid-song and kept going, improvising new lyrics when the adrenaline wiped my brain clean. We got another standing ovation (well, half of one this time) and left the stage to thunderous applause.
Jesse appeared in the wings with a look of bewilderment on his face.
“THAT WAS FUCKING AMAZING!” he shouted at me, giving me a bear hug, my harmonica holder coming between our chests. “I love the way you play guitar! I love it!”
This was almost as shocking as the audience’s response to our performance, coming from someone who just a few months earlier was belittling my “fucking lap guitar” playing as if it was the lowest form of musical expression. For all of our musical differences and the tug-of-war we waged as collaborators (with Jesse trying to get me to write more conventional songs like him, and me trying to get him to let go and get a little weird), it felt like he finally got what I was doing and I managed to bring him over to the dark side, even if it was only for an afternoon.
“I gotta go,” Jesse said. “I just wanted to come back here and see you guys. Fuckin’ amazing.”
Then he was gone, and I was left with a buzz that wouldn’t go away. The afterglow seemed to extend throughout the entire school. Even Steve Mitchell got on board. He closed the show with Steph Sarafianos backing him up on guitar for a version of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” that was rewritten as “Blue-Eyed Girl” in Steph’s honour.
The first thing he said when he got onstage was, “How about that John West?” and everyone went crazy all over again.
The rest of that day is a bit of a blur to me now. I remember jumping up and down like a manic kangaroo in the hallway with Max and Paul Clairmont (at least I think it was them), feeling a natural high I didn’t know what to do with. I remember walking back to my house with Gord and talking for a minute to Amber Hughes, who was sitting cross-legged on the grass. I remember Gord saying, “She digs you, man.” I don’t think she did. She was just friendly.
That’s about it. The rest is gone, including the weekend that followed.
I wasn’t unpopular before that performance, but it seemed to catapult me once and for all into the realm of “those who are considered cool”. The thing that strikes me now is what an out-there performance it was. There’s no guarantee an audience is going to stick with you when you do something that confrontational and unconventional. It wasn’t even a great musical display from a technical standpoint. It was more about the energy. And to the great credit of that group of students, they were with me every step of the way. I could feel it. Maybe I tapped into some universal angst pretty much everyone feels at that age. I don’t know.
Even some of the teachers got into it. On the Monday after the show, Mr. Zawadski — my math teacher in grades nine and ten — pulled me aside on my way to society class and said, “I have to tell you, John, I really enjoyed your performance. There’s a market for that, you know. It’s avant-garde!”
Along with the grade eight talent show, it was one of the formative musical events of my life. To play your own material live, to do nothing to compromise it or make it more palatable for an audience, and to have a bunch of teenagers — in some ways the most difficult age group to impress — respond like that…there’s nothing quite like it.
I see now that everything going wrong was a blessing in disguise. If things had gone my way and we’d been able to put a larger band together, I’m sure we would have given a good performance. But it probably wouldn’t have turned into interactive musical theatre. It took a perfect storm of inconveniences and injustices to get me pissed off enough to take command of the room the way I did. People still remember that Air Jam performance to this day, which is insane to me.
The second Air Jam show in May was a complete disaster. Half the scheduled performers skipped out on the event, forcing the few who did show up to stretch themselves pretty thin as the emcees improvised lame banter to fill up time. It made the March show look like the best-organized event in the universe. The audience got bored, with a lot of students shuffling out of the auditorium while the show was still going on. Best of all, Jesse — the guy who pressured the organizers into putting on a second show in the first place — didn’t even show up.
I was able to put a full band together for the 2001 Air Jam. But that’s another story for another time.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “If you can see the value of turning adversity to your advantage in a situation like that, why didn’t you do the same thing with the Mackenzie Hall show?”
I’m not the same person I was in March of 2000. I watch that footage now and the raw energy on the screen almost scares me. I had a lot of anger taking up space inside of me, most of which stemmed from hearing what a piece of shit I was all the time from certain family members who have been dead to me for a number of years now. I used it as creative fuel on a regular basis. And I was fearless on a stage. You could have chopped off one of my fingers and I would have kept on going and incorporated it into the performance.
I don’t have that wellspring of boundless energy anymore. I also feel like I’ve been fighting against one form of bullshit or another in this city’s music scene ever since I got out of high school, from complete indifference, to being treated as a novelty, to being misrepresented, misunderstood, and lied about by talentless coattail-riding douchebags with agendas.
Even this album I’ve been working on forever has had its share of setbacks. Sure, it’s been a grand adventure. It’s also been another thing: a profound test of my patience, my resilience, and my ability to absorb one rejection after another. You know how many people in this city ignored me, blew me off, flaked out on me, or stood me up on my way to getting almost thirty singers/musicians and a dozen visual artists to contribute to the album?
Many of those eighty-two people claim to have an immense amount of respect for me and what I do. And that’s just Windsor people. I tried to bend my own self-imposed rule and involve some talented folks from Detroit and other not-so-far-flung places, with disastrous results.
For every singer I got to show up and sing on something, another ten either never acknowledged me or made a commitment to work with me only to come up with some bogus excuse to use as a last-minute escape clause. My favourite, though it’s hard to choose, is probably the singer who spent more than half a year sitting with a song and telling me it was right in her wheelhouse, only to claim she forgot her own vocal range the day we were supposed to record. It takes a special kind of idiot to come up with a story like that. It must have taken me twenty horn players to find two or three who would talk to me. And I lost count of how many visual artists said they were enthusiastic about contributing to the lyric booklet and then never spoke to me again no matter how many times I tried to follow up with them.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that for all the guests appearing on the album, more than half the songs still feature me doing everything on my own. If I’d been crazy enough to put an actual band together to play on every song, there wouldn’t be an album. You can’t work with people who won’t show up.
I’m proud of the songs I’ve written and the performances I’ve been able to get out of a colourful cast of characters. It might end up being one of my best albums when all is played and sung. And I won’t ever do anything like it again. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to banging out a guest-free album inside of a few months, the way I used to do it, once this thing is out of the way.
Really, it comes down to a very simple thing — I’m tired. Tired of fighting an uphill battle against a music community that, for the most part, never wanted me around in the first place. Tired of eating shit. Tired of a lifetime of rejection from people who are too apathetic or self-important to have a conversation with someone who isn’t already a part of their selective inner circle.
I want to make music and live my life. That’s it. I don’t have any energy left for the other garbage.
I hope cancelling the show sends a message to the musicians who forced my hand. I take this stuff seriously. I always have. I always will. If you can’t come to the table with at least some degree of reverence, you have no business pulling up a chair.
I’m proud and a little bewildered to share this bit of news: I’ve received a generous Arts, Culture, and Heritage Fund grant from the City of Windsor to help fund the production of an ambitious live show featuring many of the artists I’ve been fortunate enough to work with in recent years.
Ever since YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK became something more than a vague idea, I’ve had this crazy dream to release the album at a Mackenzie Hall show inspired by The Band’s Last Waltz. The idea was to have a pretty large core band in place. We would play some of my songs. At some point a guest would come up and take the spotlight for a song on the album that featured them. Maybe they would also perform a few of their own songs with me backing them up. Then someone else would come up, the same thing would happen again, and it would go on happening until everyone — or almost everyone — was sharing the performance space at the same time and making a huge communal racket.
I thought it was a pipe dream at best. I knew it would be expensive to make the show what I wanted it to be. I’d have to find someone to film it. And my chances of getting all the musicians I wanted on board were pretty slim. Still, it was fun to toy with the possibilities, and whenever I mentioned the idea to anyone they seemed excited about it.
In January I had a little unexpected brain drizzle. Ron got an ACHF grant to support the recording of his soon-to-be-released new album (the one I produced and played a bunch of stuff on). I started thinking maybe I had a shot at getting a grant to cover some of the costs involved in putting on this hypothetical show. The financial assistance would allow me to pay the musicians something fair without killing myself. It would give me a budget to get the thing filmed at a level of professionalism that would otherwise be beyond my reach. It would even help to offset some promotional expenses, like getting posters printed and planting demonic messages in the cell phone ring tones of strangers.
I only had a few weeks to work with before the deadline, so I threw myself into the process of applying for a grant for the first time in my life. I made a curriculum vitae. That was a strange experience. I dug up and scanned old newspaper articles from that brief time when The Windsor Star deemed me important enough to pay attention to. When I learned it wasn’t possible to submit any physical materials, I made a whole mini-website from scratch to serve as a preview of both the album and the show. I wrote and rewrote my proposal until it felt like it was tight as a drum. And I solicited letters of support — something the ACHF requires you to do when you’re not a corporation.
I thought I’d try to cover as many bases as I could. I asked Dale Jacobs (professor and published author), Brady Holek (CJAM station manager), Kelly Hoppe (one of the higher-profile musicians I’ve worked with), and Dan MacDonald (AM 800 and The River DJ/radio personality) if they would be willing to write letters for me. All of them said yes without any hesitation.
I was expecting to get a paragraph or two of generic back-slapping. Those expectations were obliterated. Some of the things these people wrote made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The passion and respect they expressed for me and what I do was kind of overwhelming.
Really, the outpouring of support from everyone I asked for any kind of help was pretty incredible. Rob Fraser and Johnny Smith wrote letters clarifying their roles in helping to make the show a reality (Rob is handling the audio recording side of things, and the Smithster is doing a little bit of everything). Rob, Ron, and Greg Maxwell all offered great advice that helped me to shape my proposal. Cathy Masterson, my Cultural Affairs contact, was patient and helpful beyond all reason. Merry Ellen Scully and Joey Ouellette were wonderful to deal with at Mackenzie Hall, as they always are. And I owe an immense amount of gratitude to Michelle Soullière. I asked if she had any advice to offer, knowing she had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. My proposal wouldn’t have been half as strong as it was without her help.
I had a good feeling about this from the moment I submitted all my materials online. That isn’t like me. I tried to temper the optimism with some more realistic ideas about my chances, but the good feeling would not be defeated. It didn’t make it any less surprising when I got an email telling me I got the grant. It’s a pretty cool feeling when a jury that has no vested interest in you at all determines you’re worthy of their support.
The craziest thing of all is the people I’ve managed to snag for the show. I swung for the fences and asked the musicians and singers in Windsor I would want playing and singing with me if my life was on the line. I didn’t expect everyone to say yes.
Everyone said yes.
My trombonist backed out when I sent a message to re-confirm his involvement, so my dream of a three-piece horn section is no more. But it’s no big thing. I mean, check out this lineup.
(This is a placeholder poster I made myself. I’m hoping to have a Greg Maxwell Special to spread around in the next month or two so I won’t have to use this one. Still, it’ll give you an idea of what’s going down.)
I didn’t want to put a conventional band together and try to recreate album arrangements in a live setting. That would be boring. What I wanted to do was get some of my favourite people and players together in one place, and then see what kind of energy there would be. We haven’t had our first proper rehearsal yet, but I think there’s the potential for some pretty fascinating textural things to happen with two horns, violin, cello, and everything else going on there.
That’s not all. The artwork created for the album booklet will be displayed, and then the prints will be donated back to the artists who created the imagery that adorns them. It’s the least I can do to thank those people for donating their talents to the cause. Free copies of the album will be available for whoever wants them. There will be free non-alcoholic things to drink and munch on. No vodka-infused crackers, I’m sorry to say.
Free handshakes and hugs will have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. I tend to be pretty generous with that stuff. As long as you don’t try to grab my flounder fish, we shouldn’t have a problem.
Though I think this part goes without saying by now, it’s going to be a free, all-ages show. It’s happening at Mackenzie Hall on Saturday, August 17 — the day after my birthday. It felt too poetic not to snag that date.
I need to do everything I can to keep things in check now that I’ve somehow managed to convert my sleep schedule to that of a normal human being, so it’ll be a pretty early show for a Saturday evening thing. The music will start at 7:00 p.m. and we’ll probably wrap up around 9:00 at the latest. If there’s anything else you’d like to do with your Saturday night, you’ll have time leftover to make it happen. Want to go pretzel-bowling with your friends? You can still do that!
One thing I can’t stress enough: when I say the music starts at 7:00, I mean it really starts at 7:00. Not 7:30. Not 8:00. I know a lot of people are incapable of showing up on time for anything. A lot of live shows start late to account for all the latecomers. I hate that crap, and I refuse to participate in it. I can understand extreme situations, but being “fashionably late” isn’t cool anymore.
I might wait until ten or fifteen minutes past the hour to accommodate a few stragglers. That’s as far as my goodwill is going to stretch. Show up an hour late at your own peril, knowing if you do you’ll miss half the show and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.
Anyway. If a wild musical extravaganza with me acting as the ringleader is something you think you’d enjoy, you might want to save the date.
Natalie is having her CD release show next saturday at the Windsor Beer Exchange. She’s dubbed her music “flock and roll”, which is almost too perfect. Greg Maxwell made the poster. That guy is one talented beast.
I’ll write more about the album once it’s out there in the world. For now I’ll just say this: along with the Tire Swing Co. albums, it’s the best, most rewarding work I’ve ever done as a pretending-to-be-a-producer person. If you’re going to record and play on songs that aren’t your own, Steven and Natalie are the people you want to do it with.
A couple weeks back, Steve asked if i could send him a WAV file of “I’d Name You Aubrey” from TIME AWAY because someone over at Ride the Tempo wanted to make it a featured track. I did that, kind of forgot about it, and then woke up a few days ago to discover the song made it all the way onto a compilation album called Weirdest Tuesday.
I feel like I’m trying to set a record for how many links I can drop into one paragraph. Look at me drop! Tremble in the presence of my dropping prowess!
I’ve had something I’ve recorded show up on a compilation exactly once in my life. That was about eleven years ago, and it was not a good experience. At all.
(Here comes the flashback sequence…)
This is going back to my days of being a semi-regular poster on a message board for a band I really liked. Another semi-regular poster who was also running a fan site got the idea to put together a compilation album sort of dedicated to and inspired by the band we were all fans of. Almost all of us who wrote there were musicians with access to recording equipment, so it made sense.
I sent along unmastered versions of a few tracks I thought might fit, along with a rough self-mastered version of each, just to give the mastering engineer an idea of what I was aiming for — dynamic, not super loud, not too different from the raw mix.
I was told which song of mine made the cut, and it turned out to be the one i liked best anyway. I was also told the guy who was mastering the collection said my song was the best-sounding thing that had been submitted, and he was using it as a reference for mastering all the other tracks. That felt pretty good, coming at a time when I didn’t have anything like the equipment I have now.
A few months later I got a box of CDs in the mail (that I had to pay a fair bit of money for, but whatever), popped one in to listen, and learned the mastering engineer had mastered the already-mastered version of the song i gave him instead of the unprocessed mix. Only, “mastering” isn’t the right word for what he did. He destroyed the song. There were no dynamics left. There was no life to the thing. It sounded like shit. And wouldn’t you know, it was the only song on the whole compilation that got hammered with anything close to that amount of compression. Lucky me!
If you’re a mastering engineer and you have any hope of the two of us ever being friends, don’t do that.
Had I known this Tire Swing Co. song was also going to end up on a compilation where someone was mastering it to try and lend some continuity to a lot of tracks recorded and mixed in a lot of different ways, I would have sent an unmastered WAV file instead of the self-mastered one I sent along when I thought it was just going up on the website. But I didn’t get the chance to do that. And I kind of feared for the worst.
I’m happy to say the guy sitting in the mastering booth this time was much less heavy-handed. The version of “Aubrey” on the compilation sounds about as good as you could ever hope for a song that’s technically been mastered twice to sound. It’s a tiny bit louder than the album version, and a little less dynamic, but not in any offensive way. Even when the synth sub bass kicks in, it keeps breathing just fine.
So thank you, Eric Hogg, even though you’ll probably never find yourself on this here blog. Thank you for not squashing the song I recorded. You done good.
In other news, the inaugural O-L West show at Taloola went well. We played nine songs off of the album we’ve been working on, Natalie played two of hers, and I threw in a bluesy song no one’s ever heard that will end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE when I finish that thing around 2089.
Here’s the set list (the bluesy song is missing because it was a bit of a last-minute addition, and “Dorsal Venous” got dropped from the set because it felt like one slow song too many):
A bunch of people who said they were coming didn’t show up, because a lot of people say they’re going to do stuff and then don’t do it, especially on Facebook. But the people who were there were good people. It’s always more comfortable for me to perform for a room of friends than it is to perform in front of a lot of unfamiliar faces. Not that I have anything against faces I haven’t seen before.
I’m in no hurry to play another show, so if you weren’t there, you missed out on hearing me bend a note on the harmonica for the first time ever. You may never get to experience that soul-stirring phenomenon again. I know you’ll be losing some sleep over that one.
About the compilation from way back when with one of my songs on it — you’ll be glad to know I chucked all the copies I bought in the basement and let them sit there for years, until i gutted most of them so I could use the clear jewel cases for my own albums. A handful of buttons have survived the years unscathed, though.
I’ve put out a few albums where I pushed the DIY mastering too far in an effort to get things as loud as I could (not a mistake I’ll make again), but even when some clipping was introduced, at least the dynamics were still there and I didn’t squash everything. This was really the only time I’ve ever been embarrassed to let anyone hear something I was a part of. I’m sure a handful of people did end up hearing the CD, but they didn’t get one from me.
And about the new compilation that inspires no such feelings of embarrassment — you can download it for free over yonder. Or you can stream it right here, if you’d like.
Steven’s album is now all packaged and ready to get physical, Olivia Newton-John style. Here’s the super cool poster Greg Maxwell made for the CD release show on February 7th. I think it’s a Friday. Middle Sister (who are releasing an EP of their own that night) and Leighton Bain will also be playing. There’s a facebook event page HERE. The Tire Swing Co. set will be a full band performance, and some person who looks like me will be making some piano and guitar-related sounds.
If you followed this blog back when I used to update it every few days (I now call that “the maniacal period”), you may remember a dude named Steven leaving a comment on a post in 2010 or 2011 saying some very nice things. Steven and James O-L are brothers. They’re also in a great local band called James O-L and the villains. They’re also two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. They’re also both capable of growing some great beards.
I made a bet with myself to see how many times I could start a sentence with the words “they’re also” before my left eye started twitching. I only made it to three. Shame on me.
Unexpected things have a way of materializing out of nowhere. To wit: I just finished recording an album with Steven, and it should get an official release (and an official CD release show) sometime before the end of the year. Tire Swing Co. is the band name. Steven wrote and sang the songs, James came by to lend some tasty electric guitar and bass to the opening song, Kaitlyn Kelly sang some gorgeous harmonies on two songs, and I did my one-man-band-of-session-musicians thing — something I haven’t done outside of my own music since OUTSIDE THE FACTORY GATES back in 2010.
Steven has a really interesting, unique voice. I like interesting, unique voices. If Nick Cave was more serene and laid-back, and less tremulous, he might sound a little like Steven. On Travis’s album, our vocal ranges are similar enough that if you don’t read the liner notes you might assume he’s singing all the harmonies himself. In this case there’s much more of a contrast, and I had a lot of fun playing with it. Out of the seventeen songs on the album, there’s only one that doesn’t have me singing on it somewhere in the background, and that’s because it’s an instrumental and no one’s singing on it anywhere. Unless you consider a banjo to be a voice.
Hey — some people do.
I’ve really only recorded something other than my own music twice in the last decade. Both were projects that kind of fell into my lap. Whatever is responsible for my musical lap-visitors, it has some good taste. There isn’t one song on the hour-long Tire Swing Co. album that feels like filler to me. This is stuff I would want to listen to even if I didn’t have the chance to play on it. For weeks, I couldn’t even pick a favourite song to pull out for one of those “hey, here’s what I’ve been working on” moments, because seven or eight immediately came to mind and whittling them down was like trying to amputate my legs with plastic child-proof scissors.
What can I tell you without telling too much before the album comes out? Steven played my 1951 Gibson LG-2 throughout, and I was reminded what a fantastic recording guitar that thing is. I played a lot of my newer Martin 000-15. I liked the way the different tones of those two axes played off of each another. The funky old Teisco wormed its way into a few songs. So did my long-neglected Epiphone Casino, which has been getting a little more love these days. I dropped my Kay Thin Twin into standard tuning for James when he was over, and I really like the clean sounds he got out of it. There’s even some ukulele in one song.
I think the whole thing sounds like a unified, organic piece of work, but at the same time there’s a lot of variety, and a lot of different sonic things happening, whether it’s a bit of delay coming in at the end of a piano solo or the African drums gluing a song together in the most unexpected way. That last one was Steven’s idea, and the sound works so well, in the last song I ever would have thought to use it, it’s insane. Sometimes I forget how useful it can be to have so many random noise-makers like that hanging around.
I was given a lot of creative leeway when we were recording. That was both a great compliment and a little unnerving. It’s a great feeling when someone trusts your creative judgement enough to say, “Here’s a song. Do whatever you like with it.” At the same time, you want to contribute whatever ideas you might have without derailing the songs or making it sound like they’re yours, so your musical brain has to pull out some different dance moves than the ones it might normally reach for.
I’m still not sure I could call myself a proper producer, but I had a lot of fun arranging songs that were not my own. I think I only really went off the deep end once. There was one song I had a whole mess of ideas for, so I ran with them, and when I stopped running I looked up and saw that I’d kind of altered the whole shape of the thing. Luckily Steven was happy with what I did, and that song’s on the album.
The song is called “The Maple Tree”, and it’s up there at the top of the post. Anything that sounds like a synthesizer is a Fender Strat played with a lot of reverb and manual volume swells. I couldn’t tell you where that guitar solo at the end came from. It was another one of those things that just happened, without any premeditation. I feel like it’s one of the best guitar solos I’ve played in my life. At the very least, it’s high on the list of my own personal favourite guitar moments. And it wouldn’t exist without the great song Steven wrote inspiring me to find that sequence of notes somewhere in the part of my brain that speaks to my fingers.
As for the video footage, it’s from some public domain silent kids’ film from 1960 called The Sky. I don’t know anything about it, aside from the fact that it was either horribly edited or the version I found is incomplete. There are long stretches of nothing but black screen breaking up the images of actual things. Nothing really happens onscreen, but I thought the imagery of sea and sky and dawn and dusk suited the music. I chopped it up, rearranged it, got rid of the kid (sorry kid), messed with the speed of some bits, and tried to assemble it all in a way that made emotional if not rational sense. There’s a gritty bit at the end of the smokestack footage, and I didn’t catch it until the video had already been rendered, but whaddayagonnado?
In keeping with the recent theme of talking about live shows after they’ve happened instead of before, I should tell you we played a Tire Swing Co. gig at Taloola just a week ago. Here’s the super cool poster Greg Maxwell made.
There was a good turnout, and people seemed to like what they heard. For me, it was fun to get the chance to do something different in a live setting.
Most of the time when I’m doing the sideman thing I’m playing piano, and that’s about it. This time I played no piano at all. It was all lead acoustic guitar, except for a few times when I picked up a ukulele or a banjo or a melodica. I’m probably always going to be a little more comfortable sitting at something that has black and white teeth, but I like the challenge of not having that to fall back on. And I enjoyed how Steven and I were both able to break out our vintage Gibson acoustics and let them chatter at each other like siblings meeting for the first time.
Maybe next time I’ll say something here before a show happens, not after. We’ll see.
More about the album as it inches closer to an official release.
I probably should have said something about the show I was playing with Travis on Friday at Green Bean before it actually happened, but my recent habit of being kind of lax in the blogging department continues. So that didn’t happen. The show did, though. Consider this your notice. Now just travel back in time a handful of days, and everything will even out.
Unlike the last two times we played together at Green Bean, this show featured a full band, with Eryk Myskow on bass and Caleb Farrugia holding it down behind the drums. I stuck to playing what I guess you would call “lead digital piano”. Local singer/songwriter Erin Britton was kind enough to let me use her keyboard, since for all the things with keys I have around here, a portable digital piano isn’t one of them, and taking the upright with me to a gig isn’t exactly practical.
Somehow it came out in print that this was a “Johnny West and Friends” show. Which is bizarre. It clearly said “Travis Reitsma & Johnny West” on all the posters and the Facebook event page, with his name above mine and in a larger font. Also, you’d think anyone who follows my music even a little bit would know I’m not going to be playing my own material live at this point in a venue that isn’t equipped with a real acoustic piano.
That’s not a knock against Green Bean. I really like the place. I should hang out there more often than I do. But I think it’s been established by now, here and elsewhere, that Mackenzie Hall is my place. If I am going to bother playing live in any capacity other than doing the occasional sideman thing, that’s where it’s going to happen.
Or I’ll play a show in someone’s closet. Hey, you’d be surprised how roomy some closets are. You can even fit a piano in some of ’em.
It was a non-issue, because there wasn’t a single person who showed up expecting to hear anything other than Travis’s songs with me playing a supporting role. I just think it’s sad when someone who’s still got a sore ass over not coming out on top in a war of words/music a few years ago will try to hit back at you long after the fact by defiling what little journalistic integrity they might have had left, printing things that aren’t true in an effort to screw something up. Impotence, thy name is…that guy.
The show itself was fun. At the same time, it reminded me why I hadn’t played live at all since September of 2011. There’s way too much anxiety wrapped up in live performance for me to put myself through it on anything more than an occasional basis.
With the exception of my experiences at Mackenzie Hall (and maybe the FM Lounge), anytime I hear my voice coming out of a monitor onstage it sounds wrong to me, I lose confidence in my ability to sing in tune, and I end up giving shitty vocal performances as a result, whether I’m singing lead or harmony. I tend to get a little busier on whatever instrument I’m playing to compensate for that and focus most of my energy in that direction.
I guess this works on some level, because I get people coming up to me after the show telling me how good they thought I was (and they seem to be sincere). Me, I kind of wish I had a large wooden trunk I could crawl into and lock from the inside.
Come to think of it, I think I could count the live performances I’ve come out of with significant good feelings on the fingers of one hand. It’s just not where I’m comfortable, and it hasn’t been for a long time. There was that surreal set at the FM Lounge with Max on upright bass where it felt like I could do no wrong, and there were the two Mackenzie Hall gigs, and then everything else tends to live in different ranges of “this could be worse” and “get me the fuck out of here”, even when it’s going well. That’s just my own personal thing.
Having said that, there was a good turnout, there were several professional dancers who just happened to be at Green Bean and busted out some choreographed moves to Travis’s musical craftsmanship, and I got to chew on a good sandwich. So those were a few definite points in the evening’s favour. One of them is a partial fabrication (it was more “random swaying” than “choreographed dancing”, really), but who’s keeping track?
To whoever was at the show the other day because they wanted to catch my set — sorry about that. If I had to grade my performance and how I felt about it, I think it would come in at around a C-minus.
Nothing about that show really felt right. Walking through mounds of mud…picnic tables smeared with dirt…people shovelling mulch (I first thought it was manure) in front of the stage while we were playing…and the audience being so far away they might as well have not even been there from the performer’s perspective, because between songs you couldn’t hear any applause at all. I was also led to believe I would be playing for hundreds of people. There couldn’t have been much more than twenty people there.
I thought that last thing would help take the pressure off. Instead, it threw me a little. I work off of the energy of an audience a little more than I thought I did. The more I talk, the more comfortable I get, and the looser I get with the performance. When you don’t feel there’s anyone there to talk to you don’t do so much talking, and things feel a little strange and disconnected.
But the thing that really threw me off my game was the sustain pedal for the rented keyboard not working. During soundcheck, when we were setting up, I noticed it was doing this strange thing where it just sustained endlessly whether my foot was on it or not. I tried turning the keyboard off, unplugging the pedal, and plugging it in again before turning the power back on (that tends to take care of any polarity issues). Still the same thing. Even resetting the keyboard and restoring it to the factory settings didn’t clear up the problem. No sustain pedal for me.
It didn’t hit me just how important that little pedal is to the way I play piano and how much i use it until it wasn’t there anymore. I knew I was going to lose a lot of sensitivity without a real piano, but after the sustain was gone too the keyboard felt completely one-dimensional. A song like “Do the Mountain Hop” needs that sustain in order to sound right. When it sounds wrong, everything I do feels wrong.
It was bad enough that it didn’t feel like my voice or my fingers were cooperating with me entirely onstage. Taking away an important tool at the keyboard fucked everything up for me. I had to rethink a lot of my playing on the fly in the middle of each song, because half of what I wanted to do wasn’t possible anymore. I do a lot of floating around the keyboard with both hands, building up chord clusters and letting things sustain, and then sometimes soloing on top. None of that was going to happen without a sustain pedal.
After a while I almost felt like I didn’t really know how to play the piano at all.
Liam and Dan were great as usual, grabbing onto every improvised tangent I threw out there. And the sound guy was great to work with, making sure everyone could hear what was going on without things getting too crazy loud. I just wasn’t happy with my performance at all and didn’t once feel comfortable on that stage. I even tried a scream in the middle of one song in an attempt at firing myself up — something I haven’t done in ten years now — but my vocal cords said to me, “What the hell are you doing, man? We don’t do that anymore, remember?”
After the show I realized I forgot to tell the audience who I was, aside from introducing myself as Avril Lavigne before the first song. I was kind of glad. I wouldn’t want anyone who didn’t know me to think that set was indicative of what I sound like when things are going my way.
The funny thing is, in the immediate aftermath of the last Mackenzie Hall show I didn’t feel that great about my performance either. Now, weighing it against this one, that show was an absolute masterpiece.
If nothing else, I can be thankful for that unexpected bit of perspective.
I guess I learned a few things, anyway. I learned something I didn’t know about the way I play piano. I learned a digital piano absolutely does not cut it for me anymore in any situation. And I learned if I do play live again at some point (and it’s a big “if” given the way I feel at the moment), it needs to be at Mackenzie Hall or a similar space where I can play a real piano with a working sustain pedal and have more control over the atmosphere. Otherwise way too many of the subtleties get lost, I don’t have a good time, and I end up remembering why I started avoiding live performances in the first place.
In happier news, I managed to find a great shelf for not much money through the magic of Kijiji. The shelf I’ve been using to store my vinyl records has pretty much been maxed out, and it was time to give it some assistance. The shelves I could find in stores that would be of any use to me ran several hundred dollars. That seemed absurd to me.
Then I found this shelf someone was selling on Kijiji for thirty bucks that was much more interesting-looking than anything I’d seen anywhere else. It looked pretty sturdy and maybe just the right size to hold records. It turned out to be both of those things. Now it’s hanging out in the sitting room, doing its job with gusto.
Kevin Kavanaugh was kind enough to take some pictures on Saturday. And by “some” I mean “many”.
It was almost like a collaborative dance, in a way…throughout the night he moved around taking pictures, just outside of the performance space. I rarely noticed he was there, because I was absorbed in singing and playing, but he was capturing all of the action as it unfolded from beginning to end. As he said, I ended up collaborating with another artist without even realizing it was happening.
Turns out he’s not just a really nice guy, but he also takes some seriously great pictures. Here are some of my favourites. Between these and the videos you should get a good idea of what the atmosphere was like. Click on any of ’em for a lot more detail. And notice how my hair gets progressively messier throughout the performance until I finally end up looking like the hairy beast I am.
Is it just me, or does Liam have the best beard ever? It can’t just be me.
For video highlights from the show and other relevant ramblings, head over HERE.
Also, GIFT FOR A SPIDER is at #1 on the CJAM charts right now. My albums tend to make it into the top ten at some point, but I don’t remember topping the charts in quite some time. Thanks to all the CJAM faithful for all the support.