Ten years ago, when I was in the middle of working on the album that would become AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, I was paying for some CDs and used records at Dr. Disc when Liam handed me this little orange thing that looked like a dictaphone.
“Have you ever used one of these before?” he asked me.
“No,” I said. “I don’t even know what it is.”
“Take it,” he said. “Maybe you can have some fun with it.”
I figured it was something an electronics-savvy friend made for him and assumed the letters “FM” on the front were a reference to frequency modulation synthesis. A volume knob doubled as an on/off switch. A button toggled through a dozen or so weird little lo-fi loops. I used it on the song “Roof Rats”, holding the internal speaker up to a microphone, messing with the mixer’s recording speed to bend the sounds even more out of shape.
Then I noticed there was a headphone jack I could have used as an output for cleaner sound. D’oh.
I more or less forgot I had this strange little orange noise-generator until I was working on a really psychedelic-sounding song for the soon-to-be-finished Papa Ghostface album. I thought one of its drones might make a perfect little five-second ambient intro. I used it on one more song after that (more of an immersive semi-electronic thing), and then I thought to flip it over for the first time in ten years and look at its bottom.
All the information I wanted was right there the whole time, if only I would have known where to look for it.
This little orange thing has a proper name after all. It’s called the FM3 Buddha Machine. It was created by the Beijing-based musical duo Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian. Special editions have been made in collaboration with Throbbing Gristle and Phillip Glass.
I sent an email to Christiaan and Zhang through their website to ask about sample clearance. The two songs I used the Buddha Machine on incorporate its loops as short-lived ambient touches. We’re pretty far away from a “Bitter Sweet Symphony” situation here. Even so, I wanted to make sure I did right by them. I sent links to MP3s for both songs so they could hear which loops I made use of and how I used them, and asked if there was a clearance fee.
It’s been at least a good month now and I’ve yet to hear back. I’m starting to get the feeling I’m never going to get a response. With a limited amount of time left in this house (long story), there’s no way I’m holding off on releasing an album that’s weeks away from being CD-ready until I hear back from a few guys who probably have much more pressing things to attend to.
Here’s what I’m thinking. This album is going to sell zero copies, because it isn’t going to be for sale anywhere. So I won’t be making any money off of it. There will only be forty or fifty copies made, tops, and those are all going to friends. There’s only one radio station on the planet that might give the music some airplay, and that’s CJAM. The Buddha Machine loops I’ve dropped into two of the songs have been used in a transformative way. I didn’t use them as building blocks to write the songs around the way some producers do. I stitched them into original music of my own. And I’ll make sure to credit the Buddha Machine, its creators, and the specific loops used in the CD booklet.
I think I’m in the clear here. I tried to do the right thing the right way, and it’s not as if I’m sampling something uncredited and trying to pass it off as my own work.
One thing I have to say: hearing pristine recordings of the Buddha Machine over here is almost freakish. I didn’t realize just how gritty-sounding my FM3 had become. It’s been living off of the same two AA batteries since 2008. In that time, the pitch has dropped at least half a step and some distortion has crept into the sound. I kind of like it that way.
Ric was over here tuning the piano on Valentine’s Day. My Yamaha U1 has the Piano Life Saver System installed, pulling double duty as an internal humidifier and dehumidifier. It’s helped a lot during those times when the air has been less than kind to instruments that crave moisture. Even so, Ric said it might not be a bad idea to pick up a hygrometer and a room humidifier, to guard against the damage the cold months can do and keep the piano happy.
Enter this little guy:
And his co-conspirator:
The humidity in the studio is now hovering between 30 and 40% all the time. Not quite ideal, but a marked improvement over the horrifying 16% the hygrometer was reading before the new humidifier started doing its thing. It should help pick up some of the slack so the Life Saver System doesn’t have to work so hard.
It’s funny what a difference it can make when you’ve got something to counteract the way your furnace sucks all the moisture out of a room. Breathing the air in there even feels better now.
I thought I’d take the opportunity to perform a little humidity treatment on a 1939 Kalamazoo mandola. I have a habit of leaving this instrument out of its case for long stretches of time (not smart, I know), and when winter shows up it lets me know it isn’t happy. It’s about as upset with me right now as it’s ever been.
The other day I shoved a Dampit inside of each F-hole and stuck the mandola on top of the Ace Tone combo organ, as close as I could get it to the humidifier without putting it somewhere I might forget about it and knock it over. Already we’re down from four or five dead frets to just one that’s a little bit buzzy. Talk about a fast turnaround. If I promise to make sure the mandola gets the moisture it needs from now on, maybe it’ll find it in its headstock to forgive me.
The dying gasp of that residual coughing crap is still hanging on, but my voice seems to be fine. Time to get back down to business and regain some of the momentum I had going at the end of 2017 before stupid germs stole it from me. To paraphrase the great Dolph Lundgren: “If I cough, I cough.”
I wanted to post a song to make up for the relative scarcity of blog updates so far this year. Of course, instead of working on something new, my brain made a direct beeline for the past. I had to go along for the ride. You really don’t have a choice in a situation like that, unless you want to experience spontaneous psychic decapitation.
If you were around during the infancy of this blog, you might remember a little sketch I posted in July of 2009. Here it is again. Blast from the past!
(Washed-out image care of the Flip camera’s protective adhesive plastic lens cover, which I didn’t realize you were supposed to remove until a day or two later.)
It took a while for the sketch to turn into a finished song. The music was easy. That came right away. The words were the tricky part. I got a verse or two right off the bat, and then nothing for a few months, until the rest of the words decided to show up one day without any fanfare.
Over the back half of 2009, Mark Plancke (owner and operator of Sharktank Productions, a long-running Windsor recording studio) reached out to just about every music-making life form in the city and invited them to be a part of a compilation he was putting together called From the Tank. I was one of those life forms.
The idea behind the compilation was this: he would record as many artists and bands operating in as many different genres as possible. The end result would be a convenient musical business card he could use to advertise his services. In return, the musicians involved would get to record a song in a professional studio environment.
Sounded interesting in theory. I’ve written before about how some part of me will always wonder what would happen if, as an experiment, I tried recording in someone else’s studio and let an outside producer have their way with my music. With the passage of time that part of me has shrunk down to almost nothing, but I think some vague echo of it will always be there.
When I was mulling it over, the first and only song that came to mind was this one. It was a very clear, immediate thought: “If I decide to go through with it, this is the song I want to record.”
I was curious to see how the other half lived — how people did things in a “proper” studio. And Mark had an impressive list of gear. But I had some good gear of my own. A lot of money and time and effort went into accumulating those tools and teaching myself how to use them. For someone who’s spent a lifetime working in untreated rooms, I’ve had a ridiculous amount of luck, never finding myself saddled with a space that’s posed any serious acoustic problems. I was happy with my room and the recordings I was making in it.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get involved or not. What knocked me off the fence was the discovery that the Tank, like most other local studios, didn’t have a real acoustic piano. Once I got my upright, there was no going back, and no amount of expensive processing was going to make a digital piano sound like the real deal.
I recorded the song myself in the summer of 2010 while working on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, knowing it was destined for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE if it ended up anywhere at all. The whole thing was built around a nice Larrivée acoustic guitar I was trying to make a point of playing more after neglecting it for a while. I spent one afternoon in June working on it and then left it unmixed for over a year.
In late 2011, after getting GIFT FOR A SPIDER out of my system, I gave it a fresh listen, added some combo organ and a bit of melodica, and mixed it. Around this time, someone told me they thought the snare drum didn’t come through in my mixes as much as it should. That got stuck in my head for a while, and I ended up making some mixes that were far too drum-heavy in an effort to make up for that supposed oversight.
Good sense prevailed before too long, and I decided the drums were right where I wanted them to be. But the original mix of this song is one that came out of that short-lived Jack up the Drums period of uncertainty. For more than six years I’ve been meaning to revisit it and give it a new mix. Today seemed like a good day to get it done.
I didn’t change much. All the HELLHOUND-period effects — the medium delay I was favouring on my vocal tracks at the time, the reverb on the organ, the ping-pong delay on the piano — were left intact. The drums got pulled down quite a bit, but not so much that they disappeared. They sit in the pocket better now, driving the music without getting too vocal about it. The electric guitar came up a titch, and I snipped out a few lip smacks and unwanted ambient noises I was too lazy to get rid of the first time. Other than that, I left it alone.
I like how the bridge section feels kind of aimless, with the singing sounding unsure of what melodic logic it wants to follow, and then everything kicks back in after the first of two false endings with a renewed sense of purpose. The piano and electric guitar are both first-take scratch tracks I meant to either re-record or get rid of. I improvised them without knowing what I was doing. All this time later, I like the way they provide a bit of colour without ever settling down into conventional or studied “parts”, and the way the piano drifts into jazzy dissonance now and then to keep things a little off-balance. So they get to stay, unedited.
The little lead melody during the instrumental break was supposed to be a guitar solo. For whatever reason, it seemed more compelling to me when I played it on the combo organ and then doubled it with melodica. Take that, intended guitar solo!
The piano line at the beginning might sound familiar if you’ve listened to a fair amount of my music. When I wasn’t sure if this song was album material, I took that little musical idea and repurposed it, sticking it in the middle of the instrumental bridge section in “No Better Than Before”, the opening track on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC. Most of the time I try to avoid recycling melodies and riffs with about as much force as I try to avoid being subjected to the musical halitosis of my old pal the Paddle Pop Lion, but every once in a great while you come across an idea that wants to get out and make some friends. To clip its wings would just be cruel.
The title can be read as either one fish shaking another, or sound frequencies causing the salmon to vibrate. If you want to get absurd, it can even be an action performed by a bass guitar with a mind and a will of its own. I still haven’t decided which reading I prefer, and none of them have anything to do with what the lyrics have to say.
You can look at it as a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of thing.
For some weird, logic-defying reason it’s one of my favourite ANGLE songs. It’s more of a lazy lope of a deep album cut than anything, showing up well past the halfway mark on the first disc of my failed attempt at sequencing and finishing the album back in 2012. I can’t explain what it is. There’s just something about the song I’ve always really liked.
Today I kind of wish I could say I went ahead and tried recording it at the Sharktank around the same time I was recording my own version at home. It would be fun to be able to compare two very different recordings of the same source material, interpreted by two producers with profoundly different philosophies and methodologies. I can only guess at how the recorded-by-someone-else version of this song would have sounded. The drums probably would have come out sounding a lot more “produced”, with more microphones on the kit. You’d have Wurlitzer in place of the piano part and Hammond organ in place of the Ace Tone. The melodica-and-organ solo would probably be the more conventional guitar solo it started out as in my head. The mics and their placement, effects, and mixing choices would all be very different.
It would have been interesting. But I’m not sure it would have really sounded or felt like me. So maybe it all worked out the way it was supposed to.
Speaking of the quadruple CD that almost was…
In 2012, THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE had my undivided attention. I was convinced I would be able to shape that years-in-the-making mess into something that made sense as a self-contained album. I was so sure of myself, I went ahead and sequenced the first two discs of an intended four-disc set, paid to have inserts printed, copied a large batch of CDs, and gave everything a copyright date of 2012.
The plan was to put a different picture I’d taken on the cover of each individual CD. Then those pictures and others would form a collage that would serve as the “master cover”, and all the CDs would be housed in a fancy slipcase. All I had to do was finish the other two discs, get a huge lyric booklet printed, and work out how and where to get a slipcase made.
I thought it was a smart move. It turned out to be a serious tactical error. By dating the back of those first two CDs, I gave myself a limited amount of time to tie up all the loose ends. I took my best shot at it, recording a lot of new songs, mixing and remixing a lot of old ones, but I just couldn’t get it done in time. 2012 gave way to 2013, I started feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing, and before too long I’d kicked it to the side and given up on it — not for the first or last time.
I was at least able to repurpose the CD jewel cases for other albums. The hundreds of inserts I had printed became useless, along with the hundreds of CDs I spent hours copying and printing myself. I had to eat those expenses.
Lesson learned: don’t package your album before it’s finished.
I have no idea what the sequencing of ANGLE is going to look like when it’s finished, but I know it won’t even begin to resemble what I put together in 2012. Half the songs that made it onto those two discs back then might not even make the final cut. Whatever album it might have been had I managed to pull it together six years ago, I’m convinced it’ll be a much stronger piece of work when it finally sees the light of day in 2089.
In the early summer of 2008 I still had a Myspace page. Once in a while I used it as a place to post a song or two from whatever album I was working on at any given time. One day I was floating around to see what I could scrounge up when I came across a music page for this guy named Joshua Jesty.
I had no idea what to expect. Thought I’d hit the little play button just for fun. I listened to one of the songs on his playlist.
“I like this,” I thought. “This is catchy. The kind of catchy where you want to get it stuck in your head. This is good.”
I listened to another song, and then another. The more I listened, the more I liked what I was hearing. I checked out his website, which was rich with information about all the different music he’d made over the years. His writing was like his songs — smart, funny, and full of life.
I wrote him a long, rambling email telling him how much I dug his songs and sharing a few of mine. I also told him I was his long-lost twin brother who looked nothing like him, and though he’d never been told of my existence, I’d been watching him with pride from a distance for all these years. As you do.
I have a long history of being ignored by most of the artists I try to start a dialogue with, whether they’re local or a thousand miles away. In those pre-CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN times it was about as one-sided as it ever got. I kept trying to connect with people, and nothing would come back. It felt like I was screaming into a void. So when Josh responded to my goofy email, I almost fell out of my chair and broke my collarbone.
We started firing emails back and forth. We sent CDs to each other in the mail. Nine years later, we’re still sending emails and sharing music. We’ve had a lot of laughs, shouted about our triumphs, wept hot, salty digital tears when life has knocked us on our asses, and though we’ve only met in person once, Josh has become one of my favourite people and one of my most trusted friends. In a way he’s like the wise big brother I didn’t have growing up.
The outlines of our respective musical lives are almost mirror images. We both made a lot of wild and silly music when we were younger, on our way to finding our voices as songwriters. We both fronted bands that sometimes made pretty aggressive music and tested our vocal cords with the kind of screaming we’d probably be a little afraid to attempt now. We both turned to recording on our own at home and playing all the instruments ourselves when those bands broke up, making some of the most ambitious music of our lives when no one was looking.
Even now, we’ve both started bringing other singers and musicians into our solo music to introduce new textures, and we’ll both take on the occasional gig producing someone else when we really like them and their music.
We also both enjoy making videos that incorporate hand puppets.
Josh once told me if we traced our family trees back far enough we’d probably discover we’re related somehow. I believe it.
We have different approaches when it comes to live performance (he’s toured and played a lot of different places; I tend to play live about as often as it rains shrieking badgers from the sky) and distribution (he’s embraced the online tools at his disposal, while I’m too stubborn and set in my ways to let go of my physical-albums-only philosophy). But even twins who look completely different and were born on different days, in different months and years, and on different sides of the Canada/US border are going to have different philosophies now and then.
One other thing we have in common: we’ve both made a whole lot of albums. Visit the Joshua Jesty Bandcamp page and you’ll find a bewildering selection of music that touches on many different sounds and emotional states. All of it is well worth exploring, but the best starting points for my money are 2009’s Girl and 2011’s Portugal— self-described “big” albums that take in everything from power pop, to folk, to ambient interludes, to acoustic guitar-driven salsa, all without ever losing the feeling of being self-contained artistic statements pulsing with deep personal meaning. Girl remains one of my favourite albums by anyone.
Both These Violent Young Lovers albums are great fun. All four of the “Like Rabbits” EPs are full of beautiful songs. And the stripped-to-the-bone Skeleton makes for a harrowing but rewarding listen.
What I’m saying here is you should listen to everything he’s done, pretty much. In an ideal world, the man would be a household name.
The two of us have been talking for years now about making some sort of long-distance collaborative album. Life and other musical commitments keep getting in the way, but I’m pretty confident it’ll happen one of these days. We’ve at least taken care of some of the preliminary world-building, working out the kind of album we want to make and how best to approach it.
If/when that album comes to fruition, if someone writes a review they’ll probably tell you there’s a sort of Lennon-McCartney dynamic at work, with Josh more of the thoughtful craftsman and me more of the anarchist. I’m not sure that’s true, though. We can both get pretty demented when the moon is right. For every “How We Float When We Shit” and “Mary Anne Says Grace” in my catalogue, there’s a “Freaky Sexy Clown Jam” and “Dirty Talk” in Josh’s. And while I think he tends to be more open-hearted in his songwriting and I tend to get pretty cynical in mine, we’re both serious fans of a good old-fashioned BSME (Big Sprawling Musical Explosion).
The first Joshua Jesty song to dig its fingernails into my ribs way back when was “From Invincible to Invisible”. The juxtaposition of sounds that might have been awkward in someone else’s hands — DI’d electric guitar set against a looped disco beat, weird underwater-sounding synth during the instrumental bridge, a lot of chord changes over an unchanging bass line — felt like the only arrangement that ever could have made sense, and there was something quietly devastating about the whole thing. It was like a naked admission of defeat made alone in the dark, with synthesized handclaps.
Late one night when I had a horrible sinus infection and Girl wasn’t finished yet and was calling itself Finally, Joshua Jesty is making a record with a short title, and the title of the record is “Girl”, I spent more time than most people would want to admit syncing up the music video with the rough mix of this song Josh posted on myspace, just so I could hear it in stereo on headphones while I watched. When I finally managed to time it just right, I forgot about being sick for a few minutes and lost myself in the music.
That music video proves you don’t need a big budget, a fancy setting, or a fifty thousand dollar camera to make something great. All you need is any kind of camera that shoots video, some open-minded friends, and your imagination. I keep holding out hope an HD version will sneak out into the world someday, with the mastered album version of the song on the audio track.
Though the final mix tightened things up and got a new vocal track, I’ve always been glad the soul of that rougher version I first fell in love with stuck around.
A few years back, when our projected Jesty Westy album came up again in conversation, Josh floated the idea of covering a few of each other’s songs. I reached for this one right away. In turn, he recorded a surprising, beautifully nuanced take on “Is You My Lover Still?” from IF I HAD A QUARTER.
I’ve wanted to return to my cover and give it a fresh mix for a while now. Today felt like a good day to give it a shot.
At the time I recorded this, I was going through a bit of a weird piano mic’ing period. I couldn’t seem to get things to sound right no matter what I did, when getting a good piano sound had never been a problem for me before.
Turned out the placement of the Neumann KM184s I use as piano mics was off in an almost microscopic way, just enough to throw things out of whack a little. You’ve got your sensitive microphones, and then you’ve got those guys.
It took me a while to figure out what I was doing wrong and set it right. At the same time, I was driving the mic preamp those mics were plugged into more than usual, hitting the transformers a little harder, again without realizing it.
Those two slight changes were responsible for a piano sound that was a little more bottom-heavy and compressed-sounding than usual.
The first thing I did today was strip away almost all of the effects. A few years ago I had a thing for using rhythmic delays all over the place. Here I had some pretty audible delay on most of the guitars and the drums, and it made things muddier than they needed to be. I got rid of the reverb on my voice too. Everything started to sound more intimate and better-defined.
The strangest thing was the piano. I was prepared to re-record it from scratch, but when I was working on making a new mix the existing piano track sounded better than I remembered. Maybe not quite as open as I might have wanted it, but more than good enough to do the job.
I wasn’t expecting that. Maybe the excessive delay was pranking my ears all this time.
The spastic-sounding piano-thing that kicks in during the instrumental bits is one of the first recorded appearances of my friend the Casio SK-1. I sampled myself playing a few notes at the piano, sped it up to an insane degree (before slowing it down at the very end), double-tracked it, and for some odd reason it felt appropriate. I wanted to respect the original spirit of the song, but I also wanted to put my own spin on it.
When I was finished I noticed some extra tracks that weren’t in use, so I gave them a listen. There were a few takes I tried behind the drums with sticks before deciding on brushes. I also messed around with the flute sound on the SK-1 over the bridge before hitting on the idea of the piano sample, and recorded some clean electric guitar through the whole song that was later replaced with the acoustic guitar that shadows the piano and a bit of backwards electric guitar that comes in later.
I have no memory of recording any of these things. And I don’t forget a whole lot of musical details. So it was a fun little surprise to stumble across these unused elements.
I think the sounds I chose to use in the end were the right ones. At the same time, I think it’s interesting to hear the different direction things might have gone. If I’d forsaken the acoustic guitar for electric and the brushes for sticks, everything would have felt a little dreamier.
No regrets. But man, I have to say I kind of like that different slant on it. Maybe I’ll make an alternate mix along those lines so they’ve got something to tack on as a bonus track when the after-we’re-gone reissue starts making the rounds.
I don’t know if this is still my favourite Joshua Jesty song. There are a lot of contenders vying for the top spot. But it’s probably still the one that speaks to me the loudest.
This is a Takeharu WTK-65H twelve-string acoustic guitar. It was built in Japan in 1977.
Gord found it at Value Village seventeen years ago. He left it at my house not long after getting it, for at least a day or two, so I could try it out. I remember putting it in an open tuning and strumming the chords to “The Ballad of El Goodo” and John Lennon’s version of “Be My Baby”, feeling the sound fill up the room. It wasn’t anything fancy as guitars go, but it had soul, and it showed up on a handful of Papa Ghostface and early Guys with Dicks songs.
If it came with a case, I don’t think Gord ever used it. He left the guitar leaning against a wall wherever he was living at any given time for anyone to play. Some drunk person would always pick it up and break a string.
It became a running joke: the twelve-string that never lived up to its name. Sometimes it was an eleven-string. Sometimes a ten-string.
For Gord’s nineteenth birthday I bought him a new set of strings, and for a moment the guitar was whole again. That lasted about a week before someone got drunk and careless and broke another string.
At some point in its life it either fell or was thrown into the Detroit river. I’m pretty sure it also caught some embers from a bonfire one night.
When Gord brought it over a few weeks ago for a long overdue visit, he left it here for me to borrow again. I think he just couldn’t get much use out of it anymore and thought maybe I’d be able to pull something out of its dust-covered guts because of the way I play. A thumb that’s spent years dancing across fretboards might be more forgiving than the other fingers.
The pickguard was hanging on through sheer force of will, the glue or adhesive solution having lost most of its hold a long time ago. It was so sucked-in it made the whole guitar look warped. The action was so high, about all you could do was play with a slide. Fretting a chord was almost impossible. When I tried, it felt like I was going to break my thumb off. The intonation up the neck was about the worst I’ve ever heard on a stringed instrument. Two strings and a bridge pin were missing. There were cobwebs inside the soundhole.
There’s neglecting a guitar, and then there’s this.
I brought it to Stephen Chapman, because he’s the guy I bring guitars to when they need work.
“Who gave you this guitar?” he asked.
“A friend,” I said.
“This is not a good friend. Give it back.”
You know it’s bad when someone who can find a way to fix a broken pair of studio headphones tells you a derelict guitar is a lost cause. He lowered the action as much as he could and said that was all he could do. “Don’t even try to tune it,” he told me. “You’ll just start snapping strings. Take it out back and shoot it.”
I’m nothing if not stubborn. Back at home I lowered the tuning so there’d be less stress on the neck and the messed-up bridge. I took it slow. None of the strings broke. It was pretty comfortable to play now, but one string was buzzing something awful. We raised the action back up just enough to get rid of the buzz. I found some extra bridge pins I had sitting around and replaced the one that was missing.
I have three almost-complete sets of strings for acoustic twelve-string guitars. They’re all incomplete because every time I’ve broken a string on my own twelve-string, it’s always one of the high E strings that goes. It never fails. And I never feel like restringing the whole thing.
Wouldn’t you know it — one of the missing strings on Mr. Takeharu was a high E. I had none of those left.
I improvised. I stole a high E from a spare set of strings for a six-string guitar. The gauge looked about right. It worked. Then I replaced the other missing string with one that was meant to live in that place. You wouldn’t think two strings would make much difference on a guitar that’s got twelve of them, but the change was striking and immediate. The sound went from just sort of being there to filling up the room again.
Johnny Smith peeled off the dying pickguard and tried to scrub away the ugly scar the glue on its underside left behind. It was slow going. We decided it made more sense to get a replacement pickguard and cover up the ugliness. But it turns out Hummingbird style pickguards are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. The new one I ordered was too small.
It was too bad. I liked the look of it.
I got rid of the cobwebs, rescued a blue pick with a skull on it that had been living inside the guitar for who knows how long, and we picked up some of this stuff.
That crazy tape gave the old pickguard a new lease on life.
Now it’s almost unrecognizable from the mess of a guitar it was when it landed here.
Somewhere along the line I realized I was in a tuning not far off from the one I used seventeen years ago when I first met this guitar. I started playing “The Ballad of El Goodo” again. It felt like making a full turn. Then I played some other things.
On a technical level, it’s still not a great guitar. I’m not sure it ever was, even forty years ago when it was brand new. But it’s got its soul back. All it needed was a little bit of affection and double-sided tape.
After an easy birth, a pretty happy childhood, and an interminable adolescence, the debut O-L West album has grown up and gone out into the world to fend for itself.
It’s called AFTERTHOUGHTS. It exists only as a physical album. You can’t buy it anywhere, because it isn’t for sale — though if you’re reading this, you probably knew that part already.
It’s the first thing I’ve ever been a part of where there are two distinct dominant voices throughout. Things are split pretty much down the middle between songs I sing lead on and songs Steven sings lead on. On some level, an album where we both share the writing and lead singing duties feels like a natural outgrowth of the work we were doing with Steven’s Tire Swing Co. songs. It was probably only a matter of time before we started writing together.
The thing is, you can never predict how — or even if — that’s going to work. You really don’t know until you sit down with someone and start bouncing ideas and creative energy around. Sometimes the energy is right. Sometimes it isn’t. I’ve had both experiences. With some people collaborating has been effortless, and with others it’s been about as easy as plucking out a polar bear’s ass hair with chopsticks.
With Steven, it’s as natural as breathing. We just click, in a way I’ve only ever clicked with a few people. It’s a joy making music with someone when that happens.
If you’re a friend and/or someone who contributed to the album, you probably already have a CD, or else one is on its way to you from one of us right now. If you’re not on my “mailing list”, or if we don’t know you but you’d like a copy, feel free to get in touch with me or Steven and we’ll do our best to get one to you.
Each Polaroid that makes up the collage on the album cover is related to one of the songs. Here’s what that’s all about, along with some of the stories behind the music — including most of the existing relevant demos, in case you want to compare some of those to the definitive versions and ruminate on what changed, what didn’t change, and which spontaneous late night arrangement ideas had staying power.
I suggest not listening to too many of these demos until after you’ve heard the full album. You don’t want to spoil too many surprises. But hey…I’m not here to tell you how to live your life.
Paint as You Like and Die Happy
Along with Trespassing, this was the true beginning of the O-L West. We jammed out the music one night in the fall of 2014 — Steven playing acoustic guitar, me on lap steel — and made a quick recording to preserve the idea.
Steven came back with some great lyrics the next time we met up. We got down his acoustic guitar and lead vocal, and then I added the bass and lap steel.
That felt like almost enough. But it needed a little more.
On a musical level, the song is all about drift, with long instrumental passages leading into and out of the verses and choruses — which aren’t really choruses, because the words are different each time. Any kind of extended solo or conventional drum part was going to chip away at the almost dream-like quality of the thing. What I needed to do was find the right accents.
One of my favourite things about working with Steven is the uniqueness of his voice, and getting to play off of it with my own voice. Here I threw in some high whispered background vocals on the chorus sections. Also added some piano to the second half of the song.
On a different kind of tune I’d float around and improvise a lot more. In this case, the simpler and sparser I kept my playing, the better it seemed to work. Sometimes just a few notes played on a piano can contribute an incredible amount of depth to a song. It’s a little nuts.
(Digital pianos need not apply.)
The little synth-sounding melody that runs through the second verse, never to recur, is the Casio SK-1 set on the flute sound with some subtle effects added. Even if it didn’t allow you to sample anything, the SK-1 would be worth the cost of doing business just for that flute patch. Though it sounds very little like a real flute, it’s got a great soul to it. It’s a sound that works in places you’d never expect it to.
Here’s the SK-1 on top of a small pile of things, staring at you all stiff-upper-lip-like, as photographed by Joey Acott.
The other synthy wash of sound that’s more of a background colour and doesn’t go away once it’s introduced isn’t a synth at all. It’s another lap steel track. I plugged the steel into the old Digitech guitar effects processor that’s been making a bit of a comeback lately, found an ambient-sounding patch I’ve always liked, and played around with harmonics and volume swells.
The problem with this patch is it can sometimes introduce some hiss when you’re feeding it a low-output instrument. It did that here. You probably wouldn’t notice unless you listened on good headphones or a nice hi-fi. Even so, as much as I like my rough edges, something like unintentional-but-audible hiss drives me batty. If I didn’t do something to cover it up, it was going to bug me for the rest of my life.
I recorded a soft brushed snare part to act as another little sonic accent, since nothing else seemed like a viable hiss-hiding solution, and hoped for the best.
These days I almost always record drums in one very specific way, with a stereo ribbon microphone set up in the middle of the room. It gets a slight boost from a tube EQ to counteract the high frequency roll-off inherent in most ribbon mics, a bit of compression, and that’s it. No close mics. No other ambient mics. I did throw in a distant room mic a few times on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART so I could slap a gated reverb or some delay on it for a bit of additional texture, but that’s not the norm for me.
There are three reasons behind this:
(1) I’ve grown to like the natural, unhyped, “drums in a room being played by a person” sound this approach imparts a lot more than the “close-mic’d up the wazoo, sound-replaced, and smashed to hell with compression until it doesn’t sound anything like a real drum kit anymore” sound I hear coming out of most modern recording studios. If I want drums that don’t sound a whole lot like acoustic drums, I’ll use a synth or a drum machine. If I’m playing a drum set, I want it to sound like a drum set. That’s just my own personal taste.
(2) With only sixteen tracks on my mixer and more ambitious arrangement ideas than I used to have, every track counts now.
(3) I spent years messing around with different drum-mic’ing configurations. I don’t have the patience for that anymore, unless someone’s paying me to record them and they want something other than my typical homegrown drum sound.
By the time I started thinking about drums in the context of this song, I didn’t have two leftover tracks to work with anymore. I only had one. I sort of close-mic’d the snare with a Pearlman TM-LE since it was the only part of the kit I planned on playing anyway, and left it at that.
The sound lived in just the right frequency to mask the hiss. It even added a little bit of extra glue to the drift.
Don’t you find your drift needs some extra glue sometimes? No? Just me?
There’s one last thing to tell you about this song, and that’s the weird trembling sound that comes in for the last chorus. You’ll never guess what it is.
It’s a ukulele pitch pipe.
Late one night, I got the idea to try sampling that little thing with the SK-1. For some weird reason it worked really well. The way the sampled sound took the natural vibrato created by the way I blew into the pitch pipe and altered the speed of it based on what notes were being played, generating a sound much more complex than its humble origins would ever suggest, was a total happy accident.
I like how this song sounds like it’s going to stay a stripped-down thing for the first few minutes, and then out of nowhere it fans out into a much wider, deeper soundscape. I think we both knew it needed to be the opening track pretty early on. Sometimes you gotta kick things off with something quick and punchy. Sometimes it needs to be a more immersive track the listener can get lost in for a while.
As for the picture, that’s Steven sitting on my front steps holding the actual photograph he’s singing about in the first verse. Pretty nifty, eh?
This song is about a mysterious Russian shortwave radio station no one has been able to explain for three decades, with the second verse made up of snippets of cryptic dialogue listeners have picked up over the years. It’s probably the closest the album gets to “moody rock”, Afterthought No. 3 notwithstanding.
It didn’t start out sounding like that. The rough jam that planted the seed of the song was acoustic guitar-driven.
And I thought the non-demo version would keep it that way. Many of these songs were born while the two of us were playing acoustic guitars. It made sense to use that as a starting point and build from there. But after a while, I got to thinking it might be a nice bit of contrast to have one or two songs not lean on acoustic stringed things at all, and I started to wonder what this one would sound like electrified.
I grabbed the Kay Thin Twin and gave it a try. Natalie reminded me what a great friend that guitar was when she played it for a few songs on CAT & CORMORANTafter I’d been neglecting it for a while. The two interlocking main guitar parts were played on the Kay. The other guitar accents and the distorted not-quite-lead guitar that comes in for the instrumental end section were all played on a Telecaster. The little harmonica bits from the demo carried over, along with the hazy wordless vocal stuff near the end.
It took me a while to get the lead vocal right once I wasn’t singing it cross-legged on my bed into a tiny laptop microphone I couldn’t see. Too much force and the meditative mood would be broken. Not enough and it would sound like I was sleepwalking through the song.
I think I found the right balance in the end.
I wanted to wedge a small shortwave radio inside of a tree with a hole large enough to accommodate it and small enough to hold it in place, and then take a picture of that. It wasn’t to be. I couldn’t find the little shortwave feller I’ve got kicking around somewhere in the basement (or the garage, or Switzerland…who knows where that thing is), and I was going to have a tough time finding a tree sympathetic to my plight.
Took a picture of this big old tube-driven character with shortwave capabilities instead. It was the first picture I shot with TheImpossible Project’s temperamental black and white Polaroid film that didn’t come out overexposed to the point of being unusable. The framing is a little askew, and now I kind of wish I took another run at it, but it works well enough in the context of the collage. And in these troubled times, collage context is more important than ever, isn’t it?
This one is discussed in detail, complete with all the demos, over HERE. It’s a musical dialogue, with Natalie’s singing on the choruses-that-aren’t-really-choruses adding something special. The way the story unfolds, I think it almost feels more like a short film than a song.
By the time we were thinking about images to accompany the songs, the house that inspired Steven’s initial concept for this one wasn’t looking so abandoned and evocative anymore. I always had the Walker Power Building (aka “the Old Peabody Building”) in my head. Some of the imagery in the first verse came from thinking about that place.
A picture of the whole building felt too distant, in every sense of the word. Then I got closer and lucked into seeing the No Trespassing sign.
Maybe that’s a little on-the-nose. But when it’s right, it’s right.
I kind of hijacked this one, similar to what happened with Trespassing.
It started as a jam. Steven had the verse chords and a vocal melody, but there weren’t words yet. I heard him singing what sounded like “and I know” a couple times. It got stuck in my head and wouldn’t leave. The same night of the initial jam I added some more music, wrote a bunch of lyrics, and sent along a demo of the finished thing at about one in the morning.
There was no concept in my head when I was writing these words. They were just the words that came out in the moment. But it was fun to find a way to work some boxing-related imagery in there, and now I’m pretty sure the bridge section has to do with faculty-dulling substances and the recklessness of darker days.
There isn’t a single proper guitar solo in any of the other songs on the album. So it stands to reason that the one song to buck the trend would have not one, but two solos.
Getting down the solo at the end was pretty straightforward. The first one was a different story. I recorded a bunch of takes of a totally different, flashier solo without ever quite nailing it to my satisfaction. Then I threw it out and tried something simpler and more melodic. That worked a whole lot better.
The arrangement for this one vexed me a little. It was the last song left that needed some work before I could focus on final mixes. It got almost all the way there, but it was missing one last bit of sonic wallpaper. It needed something to give that long bridge section a bit of a different feeling.
I tried lots of things — backwards piano, additional electric guitar, lap steel, synth. Not one proverbial coat of paint I threw on felt like it was the right colour.
I sat down with Steven and we knocked our heads together to try and figure it out. I played him a rough wordless ambient vocal thing I tossed in as an idea when I was trying out anything I could think of. He liked it. He suggested building on it and then taking out the drums for almost the whole bridge section.
That did the trick.
The intro…now that was a bit of a surprise.
I thought a dreamy little ambient piece might act as a nice segue into the song proper, to shake things up a little. A few different ideas toppled out in one night, but the one thing that felt like it could work in the context of this song wasn’t so dreamy after all. It was this evolving loop I made using the Strymon El Capistan’s sound-on-sound function. I can’t remember if I ran the El Capistan into the Yamaha FX500 or if it was the other way around, but I know the FX500 was in the signal path adding a little extra ambience.
You can do some interesting things with the El Capistan’s tape emulation settings, forcing a loop to keep degrading until the source sound is unrecognizable. Every sound in this loop was made with a guitar, and it’s just one track, but there’s something weirdly menacing about it in a muted sort of way. I like how it smash cuts to the start of a song that’s a lot catchier than the intro sets the listener up to expect.
The clean electric guitar lines that run through the body of the song also got some help from that pedal. There it’s more of a background effect, adding a bit of shimmer that doesn’t call much attention to itself but would be missed if it was gone.
For a long time I wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy. I’ve turned around on that over the last little while, building up a small group of pedals that might someday live on a board (if I ever get a power supply to run them all at once). The El Cap is a versatile beast that does pretty much everything I think I’d ever want a delay pedal to do, and I haven’t found a way to make it sound bad yet.
So, all else aside, this song is a bit of a showcase for a few of the tricks the El Capistan has up its sleeve.
The “gospel” vocal wailing in the background near the end before the final section really kicks into high gear was just me being silly, singing from behind the drums to kill time until I had to start hitting them again. I never dreamed it would end up in the final mix. But I grew to like it as a little bit of unexpected oddball character, and Steven was into it too, so it got to stay.
I had no idea what to do for a picture for this one. All I knew was, I wanted an image of something eaten by time. Wasn’t sure what the eaten thing should be. It wasn’t a bust of Jennifer Connelly’s face with a wounded nose, though I gave it an honest try.
One afternoon, hunting for things to photograph around the city, I snapped a picture of a heap of scrap metal. It came out a little overexposed and ancient-looking.
You could build a pretty convincing argument for this song being inspired by William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in the Secret Sea. It wouldn’t be true, but it would be an easy untruth to sell.
I haven’t read that book. I didn’t know it existed until after the song was written. I’m going to guess Steven hasn’t read it either.
What happened here was, we’d written all the songs we wanted to put on the album. We were kind of holding back from letting ourselves write any more, because there’s this thing that happens when the two of us sit down with a few guitars: we can’t seem to avoid coming up with song ideas. Even if we’re going out of our way not towrite, we’re probably going to end up writing something anyway. It can’t be helped.
This one wanted to come out. It didn’t care what we wanted. I set up a microphone or two in the room as really rough audio floodlights, not even trying to place them sensibly or get good sounds — just trying to capture enough of what was happening to make a useful documentation of what we were doing — and we played for a while.
I listened to it later that night and was struck by how well the improvised lyrics worked. I tweaked a few lines and added a few new ones to introduce a little more shape, but left the bulk of it alone, as you can hear. The end result is about a 70/30 split, with what Steven improvised making up the larger portion of what’s there.
Only when the song was finished did it hit me that it seemed to be telling the story of a couple struggling to hold themselves together in the aftermath of the unexplained death of their young child. None of that was in Steven’s head when he was winging it, or in mine when I was transcribing and tidying up what he winged. The song decided for itself what it was going to be about.
These are almost always the most interesting songs for me — the ones that tug you somewhere you’re not expecting to go and construct their own hearts out of materials you didn’t know they had access to.
There was a sleepy quality to Steven’s singing in the demo we both came to really like, and he was able to tap back into that without any trouble. For my part, instead of singing straight harmony I messed around with wordless backup vocals over the “chorus” sections, stacking one line on top of another until there was a blanket of four-part harmony.
This is the only song where I thought to grab video footage of the whole recording process so I could edit it into something like a music video later on. I meant to put an effort into documenting more of what we were doing, but it kept slipping my mind. What can you do?
The picture fell into my lap the same day I snapped the pic for Trespassing. Getting a shot of a little raincoat wasn’t happening, but there on the grass, feet away from the Walker Power Building, was a broken child’s umbrella. Less literal. More atmospheric. Even better.
We played this live once at Taloola as a three-piece O-L West/Teenage Geese hybrid. My wave of overdubbed four-part vocal harmonies over the long coda were impossible to reproduce, for the obvious reasons. Our workaround was layering live three-part harmonies one voice at a time. Steven started it, then I came in above him, and then Natalie came in on top of both of us.
Hearing a thing like that happen live and being a part of it made the hair on the back of my brain stand up.
Afterthought No. 3
(Shining a Light, Making a Scar)
As a rule, I don’t go into a solo album with all or even most of the songs that are going to end up on the album already written. Usually I’ve got a couple I think I might want to group together, or maybe just one idea I want to develop, and I start recording. Then I write more, record more, maybe pull a few things from the giant pile of songs that have been hanging around waiting to find a home, get rid of some things that don’t feel like they fit anymore once more pieces are in place, and figure out what the album wants to shape itself into along the way, making adjustments as needed, improvising, experimenting, seeing what happens.
Over the years a few people have labelled me a “reluctant editor” of my own work. I think the assumption goes something like this: I make long albums. Some of those albums have a lot of songs on them, and some of those songs are weird and/or very short. Therefore, I must never throw anything out, and I must have a pretty murky concept of the dividing line between what constitutes album material and what belongs in the out-takes bin. Otherwise, I would make compact ten-song albums like a normal person.
That couldn’t be more wrong.
The amount of written and recorded material that doesn’t make the cut on any given album sometimes outweighs what’s allowed to see the light of day. You don’t want to know how many things I’ve got slated for inclusion on the followup to the first volume of OUT-TAKES, MISFITS, AND OTHER THINGS. And you would either think I was lying or you’d want to punch me if I told you how many songs I’ve written just in the past two years or so for the still-in-progress “solo album with many guests” that’s calling itself YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
I write a lot. I record a lot. I don’t release everything I write and record. Not even close.
A lot of time and thought goes into discovering what each album wants to be and what makes emotional and sonic sense taking up space on it. Album sequencing alone involves a great deal of consideration. I never put anything out there just for the sake of putting it out there, and I don’t believe in “filler” tracks. Even the most random-seeming segue has a purpose, and some of my favourite things end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. That’s just the way it goes.
The point is, I make long, unwieldy albums by design. And while I value imperfection and make a point of retaining and sometimes emphasizing it, it doesn’t mean I don’t put a lot of work into what I do. The absence of excessive gloss isn’t a manifestation of laziness, and it isn’t an accident. It’s a deliberate choice.
Perfection, especially when it’s achieved through artificial means, bores the shit out of me. I’m more interested in getting at something that’s got some character, that has something emotionally interesting crawling around in its guts. Give me that over technical precision without feeling any day.
Even when I have a pretty clear picture of where I think I’m going, I almost never end up with an album that’s much like the one I thought I was going to make when I started. That’s not because I need an outside producer to reign me in or focus me, though a stranger showed up here once to make that suggestion. It’s because I let the albums tell me what they want to be.
Going about it this way keeps the process fresh and engaging. I don’t think creative energy is something to be bent or bullied where you or someone else thinks it’s supposed to go. I think it’s best served by letting it find its own way, and letting yourself be surprised.
The day the music ceases to surprise me, there won’t be any point in making it anymore.
I say all of this because this album — even though it isn’t a solo mission — is pretty long. It’s also one of the more crafted things I’ve been involved in. Steven and I went on such a songwriting tear together, very early in the recording process we already had a group of about a dozen songs we knew we wanted to make up the framework of the album. And almost all of those songs are here. But new ideas kept falling out anyway. And in spite of our best efforts to hold them back, we liked a few of them far too much to keep a lid on them. So we let the most convincing of them squeak through while doing our best to keep the quality control pretty unforgiving.
We decided to call the songs that came a little later and didn’t want to be denied “afterthoughts”. Another Turn was an exception, and the one late addition to get a proper title.
We wanted the album cover to be a collage of pictures that commented on each of the songs in one way or another (that was Steven’s idea, and man, was it a good one). The more songs there were, the more difficult it was going to be to come up with an appropriate image for each of them and then create a collage that made some amount of visual sense. Elbowing a few songs into a different category did a neat job of getting rid of that potential stumbling block.
It was also a nice way to play off of the album title. We called it AFTERTHOUGHTS, in part because it began as a very casual thing, sort of an unassuming detour, before exploding into something that obliterated whatever our expectations were. TIME AWAY would have been a full-length album if this one didn’t strong-arm its way in there and demand our attention.
At the same time, a lot of the reasoning behind the name has nothing to do with the “tossed-off” connotation the word sometimes carries. This album is a lot of things, but tossed-off it ain’t — it took two years of intermittent work to finish. It has more to do with things that are thought of, said, or felt after a bit of distance has grown between you and whatever you’re commenting on or turning over in your head. There’s a lot of that going on in these songs.
The first afterthought we wrote and recorded didn’t make the cut. As with several other songs, we liked it but it didn’t belong here. It was that emotional thing. The other three were sequenced according to feel rather than strict chronology.
This is why you don’t see an “Afterthought No. 1” anywhere, and why the first one to appear is the third one we wrote.
This afterthought is one of the shorter, sharper, catchier things on the album. When it was just starting to hatch, it sounded like this.
It cracks me up to hear us talking about me hijacking it over the next few days, and Steven predicting it won’t even take that long for it to turn into a fleshed-out song. He was right. Later that night I recorded this.
On the demo all the singing is me, and I carried over that little seesawing guitar riff of Steven’s (which didn’t make it into the final recording). On the album it’s him singing lead for the first two verses with me backing him up. Then I take the wheel for the big chorus that not only never comes back but ends the song just as it’s picking up steam, letting the bottom drop right out.
I love doing that sort of thing.
I snapped into “let’s make a rock song” mode here and tried building everything around some pretty distorted electric guitar. It sounded a little too obvious. Letting acoustic guitar drive it instead and using the electric guitar to play off of that seemed to get everything breathing a little better. The drums were getting lost a little in the last section when more electric guitar came in, so I overdubbed an additional drum part with a single room mic to give it a little extra excitement.
This is one of the few places on the album where the “textural ambient guitar” thing I mess around with sometimes comes to the forefront. I try not to overuse it, but it’s something I really enjoy doing when a song is agreeable. I blame the great John Berry.
West Coast Blues
Another one that came out of a jam early on, though it was really Steven’s song from the get-go. The words he improvised when we recorded the rough demo were so good, he was able to keep most of them when he was putting the final lyric sheet together.
The above is another pretty lo-fi sketch, recorded with a few distant mics and the preamps saturated like crazy just to see what would happen.
Post-demo, we recorded some group backup vocals with Jim Meloche, all of us standing around a single microphone, and I added more harmonies on my own a little later. Jim’s voice brings something to the song that’s difficult to put into words. You don’t always hear him that well, because there’s no separation between our voices, but you feel him there. If you’ve only ever heard the great fire he forces from his lungs when he’s singing with Orphan Choir or Worry, you might be a little surprised by what he does here.
There’s an even bigger Jim-shaped surprise at the end of the album. But more about that when we get there.
When we all come in together, I always picture us huddled around a piano in a saloon, half-drunk, sad about something but smiling through the pain. I can’t explain it. There’s just something evocative there, and it wouldn’t exist without Jim.
Thought about adding drums and electric guitar and some other things. In the end, the feeling of the stripped-down demo felt too good to deviate from much. So this one stayed percussion-free, and I held back a little when it came time to play piano over the instrumental passages. It didn’t feel appropriate to go too crazy there. I did add a little bit of bluesy harmonica, though.
This is the one place where the acoustic guitar Steven’s playing isn’t my old Gibson LG-2. He brought in his Martin (the one mentioned over here — I’m going to guess it’s a D35), and it added all kinds of tasty glue, playing really well off of the sound of my own double-tracked 000-15.
For the picture, we wanted to capture someone sitting on some stairs looking forlorn. Finding a model wasn’t going so well. Steven asked his fair lady Danielle if she’d be willing to help us out, and she saved the day. It seems fitting somehow that hers — and not either one of ours — is the only face to appear on the cover.
You know what I always say: “If you’re only going to have one person’s face on your album cover and it isn’t going to be your own, make it the face of a beautiful woman.”
The Yuan Dynasty
I was feeling a little guilty about some of my hijacking tendencies and thought it was Steven’s turn to get in on some of that action. I sent him some sketches I had that kind of stalled before they could become finished songs and asked if he had any ideas for lyrics. This was one of those.
He came up with the story of a fleeting connection on a train, retaining my refrain from the demo (some of the only coherent words I threw in there), making for one of the more playful moments on an album that’s pretty dark stuff for the most part.
Not that I’d have it any other way. You know me. I like those shadows and dark corners.
True story: that’s Steven hitting the gongs at the beginning of the song.
In one of those “you can’t make this stuff up” moments, we found out he had a period-correct vase that played right into the whole Chinese history theme. Trouble was, it was impossible to get a picture that captured its personality and did it justice.
I took a picture of some train tracks instead. As with the image for Time Erodes, it came out looking like something very old that got dug out of an attic-dwelling shoebox.
Sometimes you get lucky with these things.
I wrote this thinking it would be fun to have a song where we both kept trading off on singing lead — something where our voices would give the “A” and “B” sections very different personalities. Did my best “poor man’s Matt Berninger” for the verses when I demoed it.
Then Steven did his best “rich man’s Steven” when we were recording it for real.
Before it had drums, he played some djembe. It was a nice touch, but once the drums were in there it wasn’t working anymore. Someday after we’re both gone someone will restore that lost djembe part for an “alternate mix” and they’ll make it a bonus track on an unauthorized reissue released in an effort to give their fledgling record label some added credibility, selling something that wasn’t made for money and was never meant to be sold, and Pitchfork will hail it as “the best obscure reissue we’ve heard since last week’s re-release of Wilford Brimley’s long-lost prog-metal/rap album from 1982”.
Just you wait and see.
I played a lot of harmonica on this album. I think it’s the most harmonica I’ve played on any album in my life. It was one of those things that happened without any real thought going into it. On this song it gets a little more impressionistic.
That I’ve reached a point where “impressionistic harmonica” is even a feasible thing I can do is kind of mind-boggling to me. I have no idea how that happened.
The thing that comes in during the last chorus-that-isn’t-a-chorus and sounds a little like a wheezing carousel organ is sampled recorder, courtesy of the Yamaha VSS-30. That thing and the SK-1 play very well together.
The stop-start drumming was really the only approach that made sense here. I tried a more conventional drum pattern first. All it did was lay there like a dead thing. Filling up the spaces between guitar strums with a more unpredictable rhythm gave the whole thing a much more interesting pulse.
Getting a picture for this one was tricky. The lyrics are more imagery than story. You would think that would help, but it was maddening trying to find an image to pluck from the song. Tried barred-up windows. Didn’t turn out. Tried to find a diagram of a hand’s inner workings in an old medical journal. Couldn’t find an old medical journal to save my life. Tried to get someone to eat an apple so I could snap a picture of them mid-chew (you know, to tie in with the whole “original sin”, apple-in-the-Garden-of-Eden thing). Couldn’t get anyone to show up and eat an apple.
Then I thought, “What if I stop trying to come up with an image that’s related to the lyrics? The song has a pretty prominent harmonica part. I’ve got this cool-looking big old harmonica. Maybe I should throw it on top of my battered snare drum, take a picture, and see how it turns out.”
It came out looking better than I thought it would. And that was the end of that.
Afterthought No. 4
(Waiting for Armageddon)
The most non-afterthought-like afterthought of them all.
There are more than a few places on this album where I’m singing words Steven wrote, or he’s singing words I wrote, or one of us is singing words we both wrote together. There are some things that are more or less solo pieces one of us wrote on our own, but for the most part who wrote what is all over the place.
This is the only song where we’re both singing lead and whoever’s taking the lead at any given time is singing their own words. It starts with Steven backing me up and ends with me backing him up, though our voices blend together to the point that it can be difficult to differentiate.
We each wrote lyrics without having any idea what the other was writing. There wasn’t even a basic concept discussed beforehand. When we got together to compare notes, it was surreal how well my two verses and Steven’s one long verse worked together. Each part completed the other.
You know you’re pretty in sync with someone when you can write pieces of a song separately and have them fuse in such an organic way no one would ever guess you didn’t write the whole thing together in the same room in one sitting.
This is a demo I made for the first chunk of the song before there were really any words at all from either one of us. I can’t help hearing, “It’s salami,” instead of, “It’s alarming.” Happens every time.
I tried a lot of different things when the words were there and it was serious recording time. I got the arrangement just about right, but again something was missing. What ended up pulling the whole thing together was some delay-drenched Omnichord.
The Omnichord is another one of those funky little tools that rewards you for sneaking it into places no sane person would think to put it. I love the uniqueness of its voice. Once you turn off the auto-chording function it starts to sound like some sort of ghostly synthesized harp.
This one crept up on us and became one of our favourite tracks on the album. It feels like a perfect fusion of our sensibilities, with elements of INAMORATA, TIME AWAY, and my post-GIFT FOR A SPIDER solo work all coagulating in the same pot. If a musical scientist stitched together a Tire Swing Co./Johnny West Frankenstein creature, this is what it would come out looking and grumbling like.
Dying to Be Born
The first dedicated O-L West writing session produced three song ideas and three demo recordings to go with them. The first was what became Paint as You Like and Die Happy. The second was a song we didn’t revisit. The third was this one.
I love the little accents and fiddly bits Steven improvised while I was playing the main fingerpicked part. I did my best to emulate them when I was recording all the guitar parts later on.
When I finally sat down and wrote some lyrics to go with the music, there was a clear idea behind them: aging in reverse, literally, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button-style. But you know what? In his own way, John Cassavetes brought the seed of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to the screen long before David Fincher did.
There’s a movie called She’s so Lovely that came out about twenty years ago.It’s based on an unproduced script John wrote, given posthumous direction by his son Nick. You know Nick as the director of The Notebook and My Sister’s Keeper — sentimental Hollywood movies that are pretty much the embodiment of everything his father spent his life kicking against and offering a jarring antidote to in the fiercely uncompromising films he wrote, directed, and usually paid for out of his own pocket.
John tried to make She’s so Lovely when he knew he was dying. Back then it was called She’s Delovely. Sean Penn was supposed to star in it. But Sean wanted to draw up contracts and have all the details hammered out in advance with lawyers, and that wasn’t the way John worked.
There was another problem. Sean was married to Madonna. He wanted her to play the other lead role opposite him. That wasn’t happening on John’s watch. “I’ve worked with lots of non-professionals,” he said, “but I have to draw the line somewhere!”
The two had a falling out when Sean went off to act in Casualties of War without explanation after balking at John’s insistence that his friend Peter Bogdanovich serve as “backup director” in case his health broke down in the middle of filming. John put a solid year into trying to get the production going, but he passed away before he could get the script off the ground.
As it exists now, it isn’t really a John Cassavetes movie. It’s not even really a John Cassavetes script. Nick admitted to getting rid of whole chunks of the text that didn’t make sense to him and rewriting a lot of what he didn’t throw away because he felt it needed to be “simplified” for the actors. He pumped up the drama and filed down the heart, missing the whole point of his father’s work.
So the “written by John Cassavetes” credit is somewhat disingenuous.
John said he liked to make movies that didn’t “go”. The problem with She’s so Lovely is it goes too much. Jonathan Rosenbaum did a neat job of summing this up when he wrote in his contemporary review that the film offered “a fascinating glimpse at what Cassavetes was from the vantage point of what he wasn’t”.
If you know the man’s films, watching this one is a bit of a disorienting experience, even after you accept that of course it’s going to feel a little different because he’s not behind the camera this time. To offer just one quick illustration of how wrong it goes, there’s a scene where Eddie (Sean Penn’s character) talks on the phone with Maureen (Robin Wright’s character). She was his wife. They were in love. By the time they’re having this conversation, they haven’t spoken or seen each other in ten years.
As Nick directs it, the scene is loaded with feeling. But he doesn’t respect you enough as his audience to let you figure that out for yourself. He beats you over the head with it. There’s melancholy music swelling on the soundtrack while the characters are talking, all but screaming at you, “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO FEEL. NOW FEEL IT, YOU MINDLESS IDIOT.”
I can’t stand that stuff. It’s the kind of simplistic cinematic shortcut John never settled for. Bo Harwood’s music is an important part of several of his movies, but it’s music that’s rough and human in all the right ways — not at all typical “movie music”. It’s an extension of the art, sometimes co-written by John himself. It’s never used to cheapen or simplify a scene, or to tell the audience what to feel. It doesn’t cheat.
Nick cheats. He embraces that shortcut, dry-humps it, and whispers something dirty in its ear for good measure.
Which is fine. That’s his thing. It works for him. It’s made him rich and successful. I enjoy Alpha Dog in an “unplug your brain and let yourself be entertained” kind of way. I can admit that without any shame. I think it’s good for what it is. Not everything has to be great, meaningful art all the time. And there’s a moment near the end that redeems the whole movie. Sharon Stone’s character is talking about the death of her son when her eyes, from behind an unnecessary and not-entirely-convincing fat suit, go to some dead place for a few seconds as she taps into a kind of horrifying primal grief — a pain beyond pain, where laughing and weeping are the same thing. It’s so real, it makes me flinch every time I see it.
But — Sharon’s unexpected grace notes aside — if that’s who you are as an auteur, save it for your own scripts or the ones you commission from other living writers. Don’t turn good writing into Swiss cheese and dumb it down so it can walk around in Hollywood without getting thrown in jail. And for God’s sake, don’t do it to a guy who risked everything every time he made a movie, who was always digging at some deeper truth, resisting easy answers. You don’t strong-arm his work into somehow being cute. You don’t do that to him after he’s dead and he can’t do a thing about it.
As much as the original vision has been gutted and diluted in She’s so Lovely, there’s still some of the father in there that the son can’t kill — enough to make it interesting and throw things off-balance sometimes. There are moments and bits of dialogue you can tell weren’t tampered with. A little bit of John’s soul is buried in that movie. You just have to squint pretty hard to see it.
There’s a small scene about halfway through that’s pure Daddy Cassavetes. Eddie’s been committed to a psychiatric hospital. This is the last time he’ll see Maureen for a decade, though he doesn’t know it. He’s in a straitjacket. And this is what he says to her.
There might be more going on emotionally in this minute-and-change than most films manage in their entire runtimes. And hey, Sean still got his leading lady of the time to be his leading lady in the movie. He was just in a relationship with a more capable actress by the late 1990s.
No disrespect to Madonna Louise Ciccone.
What could have been with John directing his original script (impossible dream cast: transplant it to the 1970s, before it was actually written, and have Cassavetes himself play Eddie, slide Peter Falk into the role John Travolta ended up playing, and substitute Gena Rowlands for Robin Wright)…well, that’s one of the great cinematic what-ifs.
But anyway. What was I saying? The lyrics. Right.
When I looked at them later on, it felt like they could also be read as a meditation on how aging in a linear fashion mirrors childhood. As my Bubi used to say, you’re a baby twice in your life — when you’re born, and then again when you die.
It works both ways. However you choose to interpret it, it’s not exactly the stuff of summer pop songs. But this is one of the side effects of a protracted, hopefully perpetual self-imposed exile from anything resembling a romantic relationship. It forces me to draw inspiration from other places and write about different things. I have to use my heart and my brain.
I don’t know what it is about this one, but it makes me think of a lullaby. Maybe it’s that delicate little guitar figure that drives the verses. It stayed a stripped-down acoustic thing for a long time, and then it got a little more layered and interesting all at once, with several interlocking guitar parts, lap steel, and some of my more effective harmonica-playing added to the mix.
I have no idea what pickup is in the Magnatone. It’s embedded in the guitar, hidden beneath the mother of toilet seat (MOTS) finish. It’s a magnet-based pickup — that much I know — and it’s a lot brighter than the Gibson P13 in the Silvertone. It’s not bright in a bad way, but I find myself rolling off a fair bit of tone to get it where I want it. That’s pretty unusual for me. I almost always play electric stringed things with the volume and tone wide open, altering my playing if I want a brighter or darker sound.
Those lap steels both have their own personalities. They’re both good friends to have.
We had a tough time getting a picture here. It felt all kinds of wrong asking someone if we could take a picture of their child, or a grandparent near the end of their life, or both, as powerful as the image might have been if it was done right.
I got the idea to have a makeup artist make the two of us up to look like old men and have someone take a Polaroid of us sitting on a park bench, creating the feeling of decades of shared history between us. I thought it might be a pretty unique experience to be able to see ourselves age half a lifetime or more in a day and then wash the makeup off and become ourselves again.
When that didn’t work out thanks to the flakiness of a few makeup artists, Steven suggested doing something with ashes. I took a few pictures of him blowing a handful of them on my front lawn with Danielle egging us on, not realizing until it was too late that I had the camera’s exposure set too bright for the amount of natural light we had to work with. None of those shots came out looking so hot.
I grabbed the best one and found it had a certain washed-out quality to it that worked. The sweater comes through with more clarity than the ashes. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way.
This is another one Steven hijacked. One afternoon he went on a tear, writing great lyrics for three or four half-formed musical ideas I sent him in one shot. Dude was a machine.
The lyrics he wrote for it caught me off guard. The last thing I was expecting was a meditation on Anne Frank and the difficulty of believing in a God who allows unspeakable things to happen to innocent people. It was a pretty far cry from my initial nonsensical improv. Sing it with me, friends: “Back then there was an opening for birds to shit and men to sing.”
I demoed the finished thing on acoustic guitar, because it’s hard to haul an upright piano up the stairs to your bedroom, and there’s something to be said for not always having to think about mic placement. It still surprises me how well that microscopic microphone built into my laptop acquits itself when I’m playing and singing into it at the same time on one live track (I never record vocals and guitar separately when I’m demoing things in GarageBand).
(For the record, the Steve referred to in the first verse is Stephen Hawking, and not our Steven with a v.)
Then it was back to the piano for the recording that would end up on the album.
I had an idea for a little string part. It was pretty disappointing when I tried it out with synth strings to get a feel for what it would sound like and it felt clunky.Matter of fact, each time I tried to dress the song up beyond the piano/bass/acoustic guitar bed tracks, everything felt clunky. It didn’t help that I couldn’t seem to get my singing right.
This album is home to some of the most restrained singing I’ve ever committed to digital tape. While I’m not that much of a belter these days as a rule, some of the hardest songs to sing are the ones where your range isn’t being tested, but you’re not pushing out a lot of air, and you’re trying to find a good middle ground between delicacy and strength. Especially when you’re singing about serious stuff like this. Wordless vocal weirdness wouldn’t cut it here.
What set me free was returning to the triple-tracked lead vocal approach that became a bit of a signature sound on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN but hasn’t seen a whole lot of action in recent years. After that, the arrangement fell into place. Keeping it simple turned out to be the best approach. Just some clean electric guitar, lap steel, and brushed drums — mostly floor tom and snare — on top of the bed that was there already.
Here I wanted a picture of a broken-down old bookshelf that looked like it had been through hell. Finding something scarred enough to fit the bill proved impossible. I got lucky with this old church (suggested by Johnny Smith), figuring it would play off of the whole “loss of faith” theme.
The picture came out overexposed in a way that makes it look a hundred years old. Just what the song wanted.
Afterthought No. 2 (Black Hole)
Within a day or two of getting my hands on that Yamaha VSS-30, I was showing Steven how you can sample your voice and manipulate it with the effects built into the keyboard to create a really cool, eerie sound. He surprised me and said, “We should do something with that.”
I sang into the VSS-30, did a little mangling, and improvised around the ghostly sampled vocal sounds. Steven grabbed my Telecaster (it was in a nonstandard tuning, plugged into the FX500) and did some improvising of his own. Then I added some distorted harmonica and we both gave a little mutual yell.
There’s no demo for this one. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, done and dusted before a demo could be made.
I experimented a little with adding other sounds later on. It felt like the more fleshed-out the music got, the more power it lost. There was something a little unsettling about it as a weightless thing. When the yell came in, it sounded like a desolate cry echoing through the ruins of a dying world. After the song had some bottom end and more bells and whistles, it just sounded like a yell.
We left it half-naked out of respect for that yell. It was the only sensible thing to do.
We started writing this one by throwing lines and ideas back and forth. Steven had most of the music already worked out. He hit on the image of an old Italian rug as a lead-in to a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, and we went from there. Later on I added some more lyrics to fill in a few blanks.
Getting into the crimes themselves felt like the easy way out. We attacked it from a different angle, giving more attention to the little details hiding in the margins of the story.
On a random note, “green side-gabled bungalow” is a phrase that rolls off the tongue a lot easier than you might think.
I handled the singing on the demo. You can hear there’s a verse missing that hadn’t been written yet (it showed up about ten minutes after the demo was recorded), along with a line or two that changed later on.
On the CD it’s Steven singing lead, with me backing him up. I think it’s got a good bit more gravitas in that form. Some of those low notes are tough for me to hit. Steven just sings ’em good and true every time. Plus, it’s cool to hear him inhabiting a darker character like this. He sang the words in a much more rhythmically unpredictable way than I did, which made adding harmonies a little tricky. But I enjoyed the challenge, and I think it makes the song that much more interesting. It feels less like you’re being sung to, and more like you’re being told a tale.
My idea of a working title was “And of Course in the End Hope Is Just Another Wrong Turn”. Steven came up with the much better, more concise Zebra Stripes. The song’s narrator/central character takes an honest shot at living the straight life, but he can’t escape who he is or who his partner wants him to be. That stuff won’t wash off.
The ghost of the main guitar figure that runs through The Yuan Dynasty returns here in the form of a very similar banjo part. Once I realized that was happening, I liked the little bit of unexpected continuity. In a way, you could look at this song as a follow-up to that one — one idea of what might have happened if the flirtation snowballed into a full-blown relationship once those two people stepped off the train and then everything went a little sideways.
The instrumental coda came about when it felt like there needed to be some sort of palate cleanser before the final track. It couldn’t just jump straight from those last banjo notes hanging in the air to the beginning of Pave over It All. Besides, it’s fun to keep things a little unpredictable. Every sound there is coming from the VSS-30. It’s all samples — electric guitar, harmonica, and piano.
The first time Natalie heard this song she said she thought the lyrics were Leonard Cohen-esque. Given the towering giant of song Leonard is, it was impossible to take that as anything other than a mighty compliment.
And then there’s the picture. There’s a line in here that goes, “Couldn’t say if they were tears of joy, or the runoff of ambivalence cooked by crooked power lines.” Sometimes you see exactly what you need to see when you’ve got your Polaroid pal in the back seat. That’s what happened when I noticed these power lines on one of those “driving around looking for inspiration” jaunts.
If I’ve taken one good Polaroid picture with my Spectra 2 and this sometimes-maddening black and white film, it’s this one.
Pave over It All
This must be one of the best songs I’ve ever had a hand in writing. It’s also one of the bleakest. As if the last few songs leading up to it weren’t dark enough!
Again it started as a jam. Steven had the first two chords and a vocal melody. I added the D major-to-A minor turnaround and the vocal melody that happens there. He wanted to incorporate the image of something being buried, and in the course of the jam I heard him sing something about someone taking a beating and something about someone’s crooked mouth.
I put all that in my head, let it stew a while, and later that night a song about separated-at-birth conjoined twins who hitchhike out of town after killing their abusive father came pouring out.
A little later we came up with the little musical tag that bookends the body of the song and I threw in a vocal harmony idea.
Then Steven got the great idea to have a rotating cast of singers — a different voice delivering each verse.
There are nine verses to the song. So we were looking at nine different singers. After accepting that the logistics of getting that many people to show up to sing on one song were a little insane, we downsized a bit. Decided two or three verses for everyone might work better. And I thought maybe we could all come in together for the last verse to bring things full circle as a group.
What we ended up with was a cast of four: me, Steven, Dave Dubois, and Jim Meloche, all of us taking turns telling the same tale.
Dave’s voice was made to sing a song like this. But the real revelation here is Jim. It’s a different Jim voice than you’re probably used to hearing, and he nails it. When he sings the bit about nothing coming out of Billy’s “dry, crooked mouth” and the strings paint a little counter-melody around him, that’s one of my favourite moments on the whole album.
Mixing this one was an interesting challenge, because all four of our voices live in slightly different ranges. It was tricky trying to get it sounding consistent, so no voice felt like it commanded more or less of the spotlight than any of the others. When Greg Maxwell told me it felt to him like the four of us were all the voice of the same character at different ages, I was pretty sure I had the balance right.
Almost makes me wish I’d invested a lot of money in a really good camera at some point. Almost. But I feel like the whole grainy, DIY, not-really-a-filmmaker thing works for me. Besides, the file sizes would kill me with a camera like Joey’s. I think a two or three-minute clip would come out to something close to a gigabyte.
There are more people playing and singing on this one song than on all the others combined. In addition to the singers-in-the-round thing, Kelly Hoppe contributes some of the best harmonica-playing you’ll ever hear in any genre. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I’ve had the great fortune to have Kelly contribute sax and harp work to a number of different things over the last little while (most of which haven’t been released yet). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he’s one of the best living harmonica players.
What he does here is some of the best work I’ve ever heard him do. The amount of soulfulness and melodic invention he’s able to pack into a short amount of time is staggering. There’s a part where he “plays” the rain. Seriously. You have to hear it to believe it.
And Stu Kennedy becomes a whole one-man string quartet — and then, briefly, a sextet — playing both violin and viola, acting as a wordless Greek chorus, adding another emotional and dynamic layer to everything. I think he might have outdone himself too.
Those guys are two of the most talented people I’m lucky enough to call friends, and also two of the most genuine.
When all the elements were in place and I was able to dial up a rough mix of the finished thing for the first time, it hit me so hard I started to tear up a little. No music I’ve been a part of in my life has ever done that to me. And I’ve been making music for more than twenty years now, since before I even knew what armpit hair was.
For the picture, I was trying to get a good shot of a ditch out in the county. It was a losing game. Too much detail was getting lost. Right when I was about to give up I saw the No Exit sign.
Accidental existentialism for the win.
We were going to end the album with one more afterthought — the very first one we recorded — closing the book on a somewhat hopeful-sounding note. By the time this song was CD-ready, that wasn’t going to cut it anymore. You can’t follow something like this with a little sixty second burst of sunshine. You just can’t. It would cheapen the journey. The intensity of it needs to linger and be reckoned with.
So that’s the album, and those are the details, about as well as I can give them to you.
One quick technical note before you go (assuming you’ve made it this far and haven’t jumped ship or fallen asleep yet): this is the quietest mastering job I’ve done in at least ten years. More and more, the whole “everything must be louder than everything else” mentality seems a little pointless to me, and more than a little destructive. I’d rather get the stuff sounding as good as I can and leave it at that, instead of pushing the volume a little more only to look back in a few years and find myself wishing I’d used a lighter touch — which is exactly what’s happened with a few of the albums made during my short-lived “hey, I can make things competitively loud, so why not?” phase.
I need to kick off a little Quieter Is Better (2008 – 2011) remastering campaign someday soon for my own peace of mind. Been meaning to do that for a while now.
You can always turn up the volume on your computer/CD player/iPod if you’re listening to something that wasn’t mastered all that hot and you want it louder. With music that’s been hammered at the mastering stage to infuse it with built-in perceived loudness, no amount of turning it down is ever going to make it sound good again, and the more you turn it up, the harsher and more fatiguing it’s going to get, and the less your ears are going to like you.
Long story short, you’ll need to turn this one up a little. I think it’s worth the tradeoff. Dynamic range is our friend!
All in all, it always takes some time before I can pull back and look at an album with some amount of objectivity, but I think we did good. There’s a lot going on here, both lyrically (not a whole lot of rhyming, quite a bit of variation in subject matter) and texturally (I’m not sure I’ve ever put this much thought into the production of a thing). I think/hope it’s the kind of album that will reward careful listening.
On a visual level, the collage turned out better than I ever expected it to. The same is true of the layout of the lyric booklet, even if some of that comes down to luck, as it always does with me.
On a personal level, Steven is a great friend, and recording these songs with him — and getting to involve other great friends like Natalie, Jim, Dave, Stu, and Kelly — was a deeply rewarding experience.
I have no idea where the music will take us next (EDM, maybe?), but I’m looking forward to the ride.
The first time I heard an Omnichord in a song, I didn’t know it was an Omnichord I was hearing. Which is kind of silly, because the musician credits in the liner notes made it clear two different people were playing the Omnichord, and I’ve always been one of those people who pores over album liner notes, soaking up everything from them I can.
If you know this song, it’s probably because of the Romeo + Juliet movie that’s got Leo DiCaprio making out with Claire Danes (it also features “Talk Show Host”, one of the best Radiohead songs never to make it onto a proper album). The version in the movie is an alternate mix with a different bass line. The album mix rips it to shreds.
It’s always been my favourite Gavin Friday song. It’s got this cool slow-motion futuristic underwater dance club feeling to it, with a spacious mix that rewards careful listening on good headphones, and a vocal performance from Gavin that sounds a bit like Bono’s falsetto circa Achtung Baby bent out of shape and made much stranger.
It might be the single best recorded example of the Omnichord in any genre. It’s high in the mix and driving the whole song. But like I said, for years I had no idea that was what I was hearing. I just assumed it was some strange synthesizer.
The first time Omnichord awareness registered for me (anyone want to make Omnichord Awareness Week an actual thing?) was when I heard this song on Daniel Lanois’ debut solo album.
He makes a point of mentioning in the song-by-song blow-by-blow he provides in the CD booklet that there are only two sounds in this song other than his voice. One is a heavily processed electric guitar. The other is an Omnichord, and that’s what’s doing most of the heavy lifting.
Still, it took hearing his great atmospheric use of the instrument on the Sling Blade soundtrack years later, after not seeing that movie for ages, to get me to start thinking about buying an Omnichord for myself.
Suzuki still makes and sells them, but they call them QChords now. The Omnichord was analog. The QChord is digital, and while it offers a lot more in the way of preset sounds, it’s kind of cheap-sounding in my opinion. I’m not a big fan of the way it looks, either. They took a really cool, quirky instrument, and made it look and sound like a toy.
So I found an original System 2 Omnichord from the 1980s on eBay and bought that instead. And then it took me months before I recorded it for the first time. I kind of forgot I had it for a while.
It’s set up like a synthesized autoharp, but it doesn’t sound like an autoharp, or like anything else in the universe. I think Lanois likes to run his into a guitar amp for extra low end beef. One thing I’ve found: it likes a lot of delay and reverb. For one song, I ran it through a Strymon El Capistan and got all kinds of gooey goodness happening. Here I used my favourite ambient-sounding patch on the old Digitech guitar effects box. Turns out it was pretty much made for the Omnichord.
(There’s more to the song than this, but I gotta keep some things under wraps until the albums they’re going to live on are finished.)
It’s not a sound that’s going to be right for every song, or even most songs. But when it fits, it weaves an atmosphere nothing else can.
Long live the Omnichord, conjuror of ghostly sonic otherness.
You’re hearing only five different sounds (or sound sources) even in the noisiest moments.
The first sound is the Fender Rhodes electric piano. I ran it through the Count to Five pedal and then processed it some more. There are two iterations of this. One is distorted and smeared by a series of delays set to overlap. The other sounds much more like itself, but it’s distant, more of a murmur, heavy with reverb and phaser.
The second sound is Brent’s soprano sax. My first thought was to run him through the Count to Five and maybe something else, but there’s such a beautiful tone to his playing in the open air, it felt like it would be a sin to hide that. So there’s a fair bit of reverb and delay on him, but it’s accenting the naked sound instead of reshaping it.
The third sound is wind chimes. In the past I only ever recorded them straight. This time I sampled them with the Yamaha VSS-30 and messed with the sound a little, reversing it in places, playing lower or higher on the keyboard to create sounds the wind chimes couldn’t ever make on their own.
The fourth sound is the flute patch on the Casio SK-1, not too prominent in the mix, more of a subtle sonic wash than anything.
The fifth sound is Brent’s sax again, fractured and bent out of shape. I was trying to figure out a way to sample him after the fact. I don’t work with a computer or any recording software, so there aren’t a lot of options, and the digital mixer’s routing capabilities as I understand them are limited at best. I’ve worked out a way to run a master out from the mixer into the SK-1, but all the samples I’ve grabbed like this have come out sounding distorted and lo-fi — even for the little Casio.
As a backup plan I thought I’d try cranking the monitors a bit, holding the VSS-30 up to one of them, and soloing the sax track. I didn’t expect it to work.
It did, and it sounded far better than it had any right to.
I sampled a few seconds of sax and processed that a few different ways. A lot of what you’re hearing that sounds like a synth or a hung-over, heavily-treated electric guitar is this, and when the real sax drops out of the mix, everything you hear for the rest of the song — that whole warbly, shoegazey coda — is nothing but the treated sample layered a few times, played a few different ways. There isn’t a second of guitar or conventional synthesizer anywhere in the song.
I toyed with the idea of adding some bass, drums, and acoustic piano to all of this, to ground things a little and introduce some groove, arrhythmic as it would have been. The few bits of work I did in that direction didn’t really inspire me at all. Felt like things were getting too grounded.
I liked it all better when it was swirling and weightless. So swirling and weightless it stayed.
Brent’s sax ends up being the only sound that’s more or less presented as itself, right down to the occasional clicking of his fingers against the keys. It’s the one organic thing fighting to keep its head above water, almost but not quite getting swallowed up by all the ambient sound around it. I didn’t plan it that way. It was just one of those things.
Cole Porter understands.
Public domain footage comes to you care of Walter Ruttmann, an early experimental film pioneer who abandoned architecture and painting after the first world war left him scarred with PTSD. He left the hospital determined to make films and was financially secure enough to work outside of the studio system, creating short films free of any commercial considerations. Most of what you’re seeing here is Lichtspiel: Opus II (1923), with a little bit of Opus I (1921) thrown in at the end.
These must be some of the earliest abstract films, and some of the earliest examples of cinematic kinestasis. The images were created with smudges of oil on panes of plate glass, paper cut-outs, and camera movement. Sometimes you stand back and look at some of the art people were able to make long before you were born, through improvised methods, without any of the advanced tools we take for granted now, and all you can do is shake your head and give a little awed-like grin. And sometimes you slap some music you’ve made on top and it just works.
Granular synthesis fascinates me. I’m not sure I could tell you what it is or how it works in any clear-cut way. I don’t know if I understand it completely myself. I just know it allows some very unique and interesting sounds to happen.
Some months back I was digging around online to see if I could find any way of getting at some of what granular synthesis can do without needing a computer program to take me there. I found a few interesting pedals.
There was this:
Very cool, but impossible to get. Very few have been made. To this day I can’t even find any information online about how much it would cost if I could finagle a way to get one.
There was this:
Also very cool, but not musical enough to my ears to be something I thought I would get much use out of, outside of a select few settings.
(Random/not-random note: you should watch all theKnobs demos, because they are mind-melting in their awesomeness and make most other gear-related demos weep with inarticulate shame. The guy who makes them is kind beyond all reason, too. I sent him an email asking some pedal-related questions just for the halibut, not expecting to get a response, and he wrote back with some very thoughtful advice.)
And then there was this:
And my brain went, “OH MY GOD YES! GET OUT OF MY DREAMS AND INTO MY VOLVO!”
Montreal Assemblyis Scott Monk. As far as I can tell, he liked making DIY pedals and messing with circuits and sounds, and sold very small runs to the people who wanted the things he made. Then the Knobs video for the Count to Five happened, and the interest in that one pedal grew to the point that it’s been the main focus of his operation for the past year-and-a-bit. Every time he does another run he has to make more.
There are two ways to get one.
You wait for a pre-order to open up. The best way to know when this happens is to subscribe to the Montreal Assembly mailing list. You pay a small deposit to reserve a pedal. Then you wait until the next run is built, you pay the balance, and you get your pedal.
The demand for this thing is such that people who’ve opted for Way #1 will turn around and sell their pedal for two or three times what Scott charges. If patience is something you struggle with and money means nothing to you, you can grab one of those off of eBay or Reverb or some such place.
I went with the first option. I suggest you do the same if you have any interest in this pedal, because (a) it feels good to support the independent guys and ladies out there, (b) you’ll save a lot of money, (c) it’s kind of neat to have something to look forward to, and they say waiting builds character, and (d) you might make a greedy douche who’s trying to rip you off cry.
I got in on the last run in September, paid my little deposit, and waited. Near the end of January I got an email saying, “The thing is done, now pay for the thing.” So I did that. It got here yesterday, early in the afternoon.
I didn’t get the chance to play with it right away. My pal Kermit grabbed it as soon as it was unboxed and ran upstairs. I found him in this compromising position:
When I asked what he was doing, all he would tell me was, “I’m counting to five.”
Took me a while before I could pry that blue box of magic out of his green hands.
The Knobs video probably does a better job of explaining what the pedal does than I can. The gist is, there are three modes. Mode 1 is the most insane delay you’ve ever met. It can make your guitar (or whatever you run into it) sound like a beached baritone whale is singing a duet with it, or like it’s being devoured by giddy birds. It can also be a normal delay, a modulated delay, a reverse delay, a pitch-shifted delay, chorus, vibrato, and many other things.
If the CT5 was Mode 1 and nothing more, it would still be an amazing tool worth more than the very reasonable price Scott charges for it. It covers so much ground on that setting alone, it’s eliminated the need for a few other pedals I was thinking about picking up somewhere down the road.
Mode 2 is sort of a slicing looper/sampler. You can record a few seconds of a thing and play it back the way it sounded on the way in, or you can chop it up, rearrange it, slow it down, speed it up, play it backwards, and control how fractured it gets.
Mode 3 is similar, but now when you sample a few seconds of a thing it’s split in three, and while you can’t chop anything up anymore, you can control the speed and direction of all three iterations of the thing. You can also layer additional samples on top of the first one.
That someone had the smarts and the skill to make a “guitar pedal” that can do all of this is unbelievable. And as deep as it goes, it’s very intuitive. I was a little worried that when I got it I wouldn’t know what to do without the online manual. There was no need to worry. Within five seconds of plugging it in I was already getting sounds that inspired me, that weren’t like anything I ever thought I would be able to make a guitar do.
Whatever Scott did to upgrade the circuit for this revision, the mild hiss/white noise you hear in a lot of the demos for earlier runs doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Some people who like noise might be a little miffed about that. But when you plan on doing a lot of recording with the thing (and I do), I think it’s the right move. I feel like he found the right balance between sound quality and not making it so hi-fi that it loses its funky personality and becomes sterile.
What I’m really excited about, and something I’m surprised I haven’t seen more people experimenting with, is running things other than guitar into it. You should hear the things it can do to a ukulele or some sampled vocals on the VSS-30. You should hear what it can do to a harmonica. I can’t wait to get another singer in here who isn’t a dude and see how many different ways I can warp someone else’s voice. I can’t wait to try it on saxophone. Holy cannoli. The sound possibilities it’s opened up are going to be a lot of fun to explore.
I’ll never part with this new blue friend no matter how much it might net secondhand. Not even Vampire Kate Beckinsale herself could convince me to let it go.
A little while back, Steven bought a new Martin acoustic guitar. It didn’t quite have the magic he was hoping for, so he didn’t play it much. He thought about selling it. Instead, he brought it to a guy who did some setup work and found the magic was there all along — it just needed someone to coax it out. Now it’s one of his favourite guitars.
He wrote a song for the magic-coaxer. A bit of a musical letter. Because that’s the kind of guy Steve is.
The main acoustic guitar he’s playing here is my funky old Gibson LG-2, but his Martin does come in at the moment everything suddenly thickens up a whole lot, lending a bit of support. So when he sings, “Thank you for the bridge mic; it’s what you’re hearing at this moment,” it’s sort of a lie, but you are hearing that guitar. You’re just hearing it in the background, recorded with an LDC instead of its built-in mic.
His is a similar model to my 000-15. It might even be the same model, minus the satin finish…I’m not sure offhand. I haven’t had much of a chance to get to know it yet. It seems to record well. It’s got a nice natural compression to it, and a brightness that plays well off of the somewhat darker sound of the Gibson.
I had some fun with the arrangement. After adding bass and the clean electric guitar, I thought I’d tack on some brushed drums and that would be the end of it. Seemed like a song that didn’t want to be layered too much.
The drums didn’t feel quite right. I tried recording some shaker. That didn’t feel right either. So I got rid of the percussion and started thinking in a different direction.
Two years ago I bought a circuit-bent Casio SK-1 off of eBay. Here’s a picture Joey Acott took of me showing Dave Dubois some of the whacky things it can do.
(Good God, that man takes good pictures.)
My memory is pretty reliable when it comes to music-related things. In this case it had a bit of a hiccup. See, one of the first instruments I ever had as a kid was a Casio SK-10 — a more streamlined version of the SK-1. I had a blast forcing that thing to make music out of sampled armpit farts and television sounds before I had any real musical skill.
My grown-up head got it twisted, and I assumed what I had back then was an SK-1. They’ve grown in popularity in recent years, and after hearing some of the interesting sounds people were making with circuit-bent examples I thought I’d pick one up for myself. I was wise (in the accidental way) to do this when I did, because now the bent ones don’t seem to be around as much as they used to.
When the keyboard showed up without a vibraphone sound, looking a little different than I remembered, I realized the mistake I’d made. Turns out the SK-1 can do a lot more than an SK-10, though. With the bends, I’ve been able to make a cough sound like insane industrial percussion, and I’ve created strange loops and electronic sounds that would be impossible to reproduce with any other equipment. Even without engaging a single bend, I’ve made a ukulele pitch pipe sound like a strange synthesizer and a harmonica sound like an evil underwater flute choir.
The flute patch all on its own is pretty special, and some subtle processing with effects can lead to some very cool mutations of the base sound.
So that’s turned into a not-so-secret weapon. It’s on the last Tire Swing Co. EP, it’s on the new Papa Ghostface album, and it’ll be on the O-L West album and my next solo album when both of those are done.
A while after getting to be good friends with the SK-1, I read about the Yamaha VSS-30. The SK-1 and the VSS-30 have a lot in common. They were both made around the same time (1985 for the Casio, 1987 for the Yamaha). Both have 32 keys, 4-note polyphony, a built-in microphone for sampling, and a sampling depth of 8 bits. Both are much more than the toys most of us thought they were when we were kids.
They’re full of great, unique, lo-fi character. Run either one into a high end mic preamp (my choice has been the Great River MP-2NV, because that’s still my mic pre Swiss Army knife), add a little reverb or delay, and you’d be surprised how good they can sound.
Now, I love the SK-1. It isn’t going anywhere. But the VSS-30 can do things the SK-1 can’t even get within sniffing distance of.
It took me a while to snag one for myself. No one on eBay wanted to take a money order. So a little over a year ago I buckled down and made a PayPal account, just so I could get an archaic little sampling keyboard that’s almost as old as I am.
Here’s one example of what the VSS-30 can do, or what it can be made to do. The grimy low synth-pad-sounding thing that comes in during the instrumental section of this Tire Swing Co. song and sticks around until the end is a sampled Wurlitzer electric piano. I held the VSS-30 in front of one of the Wurlitzer’s built-in speakers with one hand and played an open fifth with the other hand. Then I mangled it with some of the keyboard’s built-in effects.
The only thing touching what’s coming out of the VSS-30 is some reverb. The weird chord that kind of hangs there right before the last instrumental section starts and comes back again at the very end is what happens when you take a sample of a power chord and play it as a major chord so there are three different open fifths grinding up against one another at the same time, making a giant chord you’d need another few hands to create the old-fashioned way.
The amount of sound-warping you can do with this thing is insane. It even allows you to “oversample”, so you can layer as many samples on top of the first one as you want. I’ve made myself sound like a disembodied choir of monks this way.
The VSS-30 gave the song something that felt like it fit and skewed everything a little at the same time. Then I added some piano and some shoegazey electric guitar, and it felt like it was done.
I’ve been playing around lately with running distortion after a reverb pedal instead of the other way around. It creates this smearing effect, almost like the guitar is exploding in slow-motion. It isn’t always going to be the right sound, and I don’t want to overuse it, but when it works it’s a whole lot of fun.
All the electric guitar parts, clean and distorted, are coming from a Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster. I’m done getting any more guitars for the foreseeable future — I’ve got enough already, and not much room left for additions to the family — and I never, ever thought I would have any use for a Squier of all things. But this one is a really nice guitar. It would be a nice guitar with any name on the headstock. At this price point it’s a ridiculous value. And I financed it at Long & McQuade, with payments so low it doesn’t hurt that much.
Having said that, I’ll never so much as buy a set of strings at that place again after the experience I had with them this time. Long story. Not worth telling. Nutshell version: run away. If you can, buy anything you need off the internet instead.
Anyway, back to the guitar — I was surprised how comfortably it played right out of the box. I haven’t brought it to anyone for a setup yet because I haven’t felt a need to. The intonation is solid, and it feels good in the hand. The neck has a nice smoothness to it. Some people don’t like the gold pickguard, but I kind of like the way it looks. A lot of people rip out the stock pickups and replace them with something more authentic and Jazzmaster-ish, but I like the way these stock pups are voiced. They’ve got a nice P90 thing going on.
New guitars aside, the moral of the story is this: if you’re into recording and sonic sorcery, you could do a lot worse than picking up a used SK-1 or VSS-30 if you find one for a good price. Yeah, they’re lo-fi little creatures, and the sampling time you’ve got to work with isn’t a lot (I think the VSS-30 at least gives you a little bit more than the SK-1’s 1.4 seconds). But you can do some very cool things with them, circuit-bent or stock, whether you want to use them in pursuit of sounds that are beautiful, or chaotic, or both.
I vote for both. Because what’s one without a little bit of the other?
One more thing. During that first instrumental section, at about the halfway point there’s this odd sound that’s a little like someone singing semi-off-key in the background for two seconds. I couldn’t figure out what it was at first, until Steven reminded me it was a harmonica.
sometimes when we’re recording his lead vocals I’ll do goofy things during instrumental passages, just for a laugh. This time I picked up a harmonica and tried to bend a note, and it came out sounding like the harmonica was sick.
No way would I ever keep something like that in someone else’s song (in one of my own songs, maybe). When i played a rough unfinished mix for Steven two or three weeks ago, after we finished laughing at the ridiculousness of the groaning harmonica I mentioned I was going to chop it out when I did a real mix. He asked me to leave it in.
This is one of the reasons it’s such great fun recording with him.
A few times over the years I’ve picked up a guitar in a music store, started playing, and had someone say to me, “So you’re a lap steel player, eh?”
If you’ve seen the way I play guitar (and other things with strings), you’ll know it’s a fair assumption for a stranger to make. But I’ve always had to say, “No…I’ve never even tried a lap steel.” Because that was the truth.
I was always attracted to the sound of lap and pedal steel guitars — especially when used outside the context of country music, as an atmospheric thing — but lap steels don’t seem to show up in guitar shops too often, most of the new ones are vastly inferior to vintage steels in the mojo department, and the one time I saw a pedal steel in the flesh I was too intimidated to try it. There’s a whole science to playing those things that’s foreign to me. I played a little bit of slide guitar over the years when I felt a song called for it, but that was about it.
While working on putting a supporting cast together for this solo-album-with-guests, I thought it might be worthwhile to try and get someone over here to play some pedal steel. I’m not sure there’s anyone in the area who plays. If there is, I’m not aware of them. I did find someone a few hours away who seemed willing to travel, but it didn’t pan out. I started to think if I couldn’t find a pedal steel session player, maybe picking up a funky old lap steel wouldn’t be such a bad idea. It would be an interesting new sound to play with, if nothing else.
A few months back, when this was on my mind, I got a call from Mr. Chill. The last time he was here, he noticed my trumpet, asked to play it, and in a few seconds got some of the best sounds out of it anyone ever has. Turns out he used to play. I had no idea!
He found my trumpet’s mouthpiece a lot more comfortable than the mouthpieces of some much more expensive horns. That got the wheels turning, and when the phone rang he was calling to ask how I’d feel about him borrowing the trumpet for a little while so he could mess around and see if he could get his chops back. I told him I just had to make a run to a pawn shop first to check out an old lap steel.
“You need a lap steel?” he said.
I thought he meant, “Do you really need another stringed instrument? Your place is overflowing with them as it is.” Before I could answer that no, I didn’t really need one, but I thought it would be fun to try one out, he said, “I’ve got an old Silvertone. Hold on a second. Let me go make sure it still works.”
He went off to fire it up, I heard it make some noise in the background after being plugged into an amp, and he came back and suggested we borrow-swap — a trumpet for a lap steel. It sounded like a great plan to me, though I couldn’t stop laughing at the way it worked out. He came and gave me his lap steel, and I gave him my trumpet, and we’ve been making friends with each other’s instruments ever since.
The steel doesn’t have a serial number, but through internet sleuthing and a little luck I was able to figure out what it is. It’s a Silvertone 1315, made by Harmony sometime in the early or mid 1950s. It’s got a Gibson P13 in it. That’s something of a forgotten pickup. When Gibson introduced the P90 they sold all their P13s to Harmony.
Some people will rip the P13 out of an old lap steel and Frankenstein it onto an electric guitar. I can understand why. It’s got a really unique, round, warm sound to it. It might be too dark for some people in some applications, but through a Fender Twin the thing sings. I still need to try it through that little old Mason Model 5 (which was made to amplify a lap steel, after all).
I’m not going to pretend I became a virtuoso lap steel player overnight, but after a day or two I felt like I got the hang of it pretty well, and I’ve been comfortable playing it ever since. It probably helped that I was already used to playing guitar on my lap. It’s become an important new sonic weapon, and that lap steel has now shown up somewhere on almost everything I’ve been recording — even music that isn’t mine. I’ve stuck it in a bit of a weird tuning that allows access to major and minor chord shapes without the need for bar slants, and I tend to drench it in delay and reverb, because I like that ambient, ghostly sound. Sometimes backwards lap steel is just the ticket, too.
As for Kelly, I think he’s been having as much fun with my trumpet as I’ve been having with his lap steel. He’s used it at some shows with the Walkervilles, and he even laid down a trumpet part for a Big Sugar song, though it didn’t end up making the final mix. I don’t think either one of us is in a hurry to swap back, and that’s fine by me. I don’t think this lap steel had been given any love in quite a while, and I’ve always got the bugle as my backup horn for those times when drunken elephant sounds are needed.