random stuff

In sickness and in stealth.

There’s a good chance the Papa Ghostface album I’ve been working on would be finished by now if not for this one thing: I got hit with a stupid cold/sinus infection. Again. It must be about the tenth time it’s happened in the history of this blog just as I’ve been gearing up to finish something.

I thought the ridiculously clingy cold I got at the beginning of the year — one of the worst I’ve ever had — would satisfy the Germ Gods and they’d leave me alone for at least a year or two. I guess I was wrong about that. I almost never get sick twice in the same orbital cycle. 2018 must be my lucky year.

It’s the same thing every time. One day I wake up with a raw throat no amount of water will soothe. That’s the tipoff. I know the next day I wake up I’m going to feel like hot garbage. I always hope the garbage won’t move up into my head so I can at least work on mixing things even if I can’t sing for a while. That hope is always in vain.

This time there were a few new wrinkles. A good chunk of my vocal range disappeared for a while. I’m used to sounding like a bullfrog for a few days when the cold first comes on, but once that passes I usually have access to just about my full normal range, no matter how congested I am or how much I’m coughing. I’ve written a lot of songs over the years when I’ve been sick and made rough recordings to preserve vocal melodies and the like. That wasn’t happening this time. For a while there I sounded like someone who was paying the price for spending the better part of a day screaming at a protest without a megaphone.

It was a little disconcerting. I’m not used to my voice being just about gone and not knowing when it’s going to come back.

To my great relief, it was a temporary thing, and now my voice is back to its old spry self. But I’m past the two week mark now, and still coughing. I don’t know if my immune system has decided to start slacking off, or if whatever bugs have been floating around over the last year or so have been stronger than usual, or what. I’m just frustrated to have lost a good chunk of recording time.

Even my ears haven’t behaved the way they normally do. Instead of everything getting muffled for a while in both ears, only the left one was affected by the congestion. It wasn’t even that awful. Things were just off enough to make listening to anything on headphones more maddening than enjoyable, because the stereo balance was never quite right.

I seem to have turned the corner at last. The cough is finally starting to lose some of its authority, and the other day I contorted my jaw in a strange way while brushing my teeth and the normal range of hearing in my left ear returned in an instant. At least I can get back to work on mixing songs that need some work in that department, even if any amount of serious singing is still probably a recipe for a coughing fit.

I know I’m lucky in the grand scheme of things. Aside from the occasional stupid cold like this that takes its sweet time going away, I have no health issues to speak of. A lot of people have it much worse. It’s just a pain in the ass when you’re this close to finishing something and some bug comes along and says, “Nope. This is as far as you go for now. Have fun waking up tomorrow with the pain from your throat radiating into your ears with such force that you feel like your head is a demonic furnace. Enjoy being a baritone for a while.”

I always mean to take advantage of the downtime when I’m sick by getting back into a good reading rhythm, unplugging the laptop and digging into some of the books I’ve got piled up around here. In January I set a goal on Goodreads for how many books I wanted to read this year. I’m twenty-five books behind schedule right now.

I made no progress at all on that front. But I did gorge myself on Cyanide & Happiness animated shorts. So it wasn’t a total loss.

I also discovered my new favourite comedian: Joe Pera.

I have no idea if his deliberate way of speaking is his actual voice or just a persona he puts on. It doesn’t matter. At a time when most comedians feel a need to scream at you about their sex lives or some narrow-minded take on the politics of relationships, Joe whispers soft truths and gently skewed observations. It’s the sort of stuff you chuckle about under your breath instead of busting a gut over. I like profanity and insanity as much as the next person, but it’s kind of wonderful to come across someone whose brand of comedy is so…wholesome.

Current favourite blues song:

Current favourite non-blues song:

I’ll try to put up an out-take from the PG album or some such thing sometime soon. Gotta get things back on track, even if I’m still coughing and cantankerous.

I know when to go out. I know when to stay in. To get things done.

So said David Bowie. And while I don’t claim to possess his powers of knowing what to do and when, I do seem to have rediscovered my ability to get things done.

All of the sudden, fourteen songs slated for inclusion on the PG album are either CD-ready or the mixes just need a few adjustments. That leaves six or eight more songs to work on, depending on what I decide to do with the two I’m starting to feel iffy about.

Trying to guess at a release date is always a good way to jinx myself, so I won’t do that. I will say this: the finish line just got a whole lot closer. It’s a good feeling.

On the subject of things that aren’t too far away from being released, Ron snuck a song off of his forthcoming album onto his website. You can head over HERE if you’d like, scroll down a little bit, and click on “Sweet Solitude” to get a sneak peak at what’s around the corner.

What else is new? I keep feeling a strange urge to start an Instagram as an excuse to motivate myself to take more pictures, and to have a place to put some of the images I can’t share here unless I want to turn this into a glorified photoblog. The trouble is, Instagram is owned by Facebook, Facebook has some pretty troubling ideas about who owns your intellectual property, and it can lead to people like this giant dildo who calls himself an “artist” profiting off of your work without permission or ascription.

I realize it’s unlikely anyone would ever want to steal one of my pictures. I’m not a professional photographer. Then again, someone once stole the cover art for one of my albums that didn’t even feature proper cover art. I’ve learned if it isn’t nailed down some lazy person is bound to convince someone else to pick it up for them only to rip it out of their arms and say, “Mine!”

Maybe it’s best not to go down that road.

Current bed situation.

Maybe “current” is a bit of a stretch. This isn’t my bed situation at this very moment. Right now it’s going through one of its rare debris-free periods. But this was my bed situation a few days ago.

I made a fun little discovery about the Omnichord while it was hanging out in bed with me. Unlike the autoharp — its acoustic counterpart — it doesn’t have actual strings, so when you transition from one chord button to another there’s a split-second where the sound cuts out. It’s almost impossible to avoid unless you’re somehow able to keep a finger on a chord button at all times. Even then, you’re settling for something that either feels or sounds a little awkward.

Because of this, I felt I was pretty limited in what I could do with the instrument. I could turn off the chording function and use the synthetic strings on their own as a textural thing, but that was about it. It was enough to make me happy.

Lo and behold, the makers of the Omnichord decided to hide something helpful in plain sight. Or at least they did when they were designing the model I have, the System Two OM84. Instead of giving it a straightforward name like “sustain”, they called it a “chord memory interface”. You turn it on and suddenly chords start sustaining for as long as you’d like, with no need to keep your fingers glued to the relevant buttons after pressing down on them.

I feel a little goofy for only discovering this now. It opens up a whole new world of possibilities and makes writing songs on the Omnichord a less maddening prospect. Ron has invited me to be a guest on his Travelling Salesman show on CJAM on June 25th. My goal now is to perform at least one song on the Omnichord, whether it’s something brand new or a drastic rearrangement of an existing song.

It’ll be my first time playing live on the radio since 2004. Should be fun. Ron was one of the very first people at CJAM to ever invite me onto his show, a decade and-a-half ago. It didn’t pan out at the time, mostly because of a bit of skittishness on my end, so this will be a bit of long overdue penance on my part.

Something else that was long overdue: getting some new headphone extension cables.

The ones at Long & McQuade are ridiculously overpriced, like almost everything else they sell there. This is one of the many reasons I will never do business with that place again. In the past I was able to find extension cables online for a more reasonable price, but no matter what brand I bought, they stopped working after a year or two. I’m now convinced they manufacture these things to break down so you’ll have to come back for replacements.

I like to have four headphone extension cables at my disposal to take care of each output on my headphone amp. You never know when you might want to record some group vocals, and in those situations it helps to give everyone as much mobility as possible. As it happens, I’ve got a group vocal session coming up next week…and until a few days ago, I had only one headphone extension cable that was still functioning.

Everything I looked at this time was either cheap-looking or more money than I wanted to spend. Johnny Smith came to the rescue once again and found what I needed. These ones don’t seem to have a brand name, but all the reviews I’ve read comment on how robust they are — an unusual attribute for a headphone extension cable. Most of the time these things are pretty flimsy.

I ordered three extension cables for not much more than ten bucks a pop, and when they showed up I learned just how well-made they were. These things look and feel like they can take a beating. They feel meaningful in the hand. They need a 1/4-inch adapter to plug into a headphone amp, but that’s a small price to pay.

They make a nifty hair accessory as well, for those days when you’re in a vaguely cyberpunk mood.

Completely unrelated to music:

I had an urge to pull out the old NES system for a bit of nostalgic fun. I wanted to see if I could beat a few games that have always given me trouble. The jury’s still out on whether or not I can finish Ninja Gaiden without throwing my television out the window, but I did manage to finish the Second Quest in The Legend of Zelda.

I’d made it through the First Quest before. This time I was able to do it without losing a single life. I was pretty proud of myself, until I started the Second Quest and realized how much more difficult it was. I ended up dying seven times. But I made it to the end, even after one of those stupid Like Likes (enemies that look like walking stacks of pancakes) stole my magic shield in the final dungeon. At least I’m not alone in despising these little pests — Sam Greenspan mentions them in his 11 Biggest A-Holes in The Legend of Zelda countdown.

That dusty old radio.

A little less than a week ago, this blog turned ten years old. Every single other personal website or blog-ish thing I once maintained has long since turned to digital dust. Still this one persists. It defies explanation.

I wanted to do something special to commemorate a decade of bloggage. Maybe make a silly video or something. But the only thing my creative energy seems to want to fling itself into right now is music. As luck would have it, I was able to find a video made by someone else that carries with it a suitable feeling of triumph. If this doesn’t get your pulse racing, I’m not sure what will.

All the bed tracks for Ron’s album have now been recorded and tucked in, and I’ve already started working on the arrangements. I have a feeling the “production” side of things isn’t going to take too long there. Every time I sit down with one of his songs I seem to find myself maxing out the mixer in an afternoon. Rough mixes for Jess’s album have been delivered and approved, so all I need to do there is some fine-tuning to arrive at what will hopefully be final mixes. The followup to STEW has ground to a halt for the moment, but work on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is starting to pick up again.

All in all, I’d say things are just about back on track.

Replace yourself, don’t erase yourself.

For my first semi-noble deed of 2018, I snuck into the CJAM music library — okay, so Brady saw me, but I still say I was as stealthy as a stick of celery — and swapped out some of my CDs for quieter, better-sounding remastered versions. Almost everything I’ve done from OH YOU THIS forward was present and accounted for. The only things missing were CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN and the MISFITS compilation. I’m not sure if someone stole those (again) or if they just got misplaced. Even without them, there are still a good fifteen albums on the shelf that have my name on the spine.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “A bunch of radio DJs discovering one specific artist’s albums are suddenly a little quieter without any explanation, but otherwise unaltered…that’s a great premise for the next Hollywood blockbuster horror film.”

You could call it The Remastered. It almost sells itself!

Boo.

Happy Halloween from this unmasked ninja and his gallant posse.

I want to say this picture was taken in 1991? Maybe? A lot of pictures of me from the pre-teen years are hard to date, because in most of them I look older than my actual age. I was one of those kids who never seemed to stop growing.

I remember this party, but I have no idea who any of the other kids are or what they might be up to now. The main thing is, all these years later I still have my plastic ninja sword, safely sheathed in the garage, just in case there’s ever a need to use it.

If you were a child of the ’80s, you might remember this cassette tape.

It was the soundtrack to every Halloween at my house growing up. Whether I was handing out candy with the tape blaring from stereo speakers inside the house or coming back from trick-or-treating to hear it moaning in the distance, it never failed to creep me out.

That tape popped back into my head today for the first time in years. I had no memory of what it was called, so I did a search for “Halloween cassette tape” and hoped for the best. The very first result was the exact tape I was looking for. Its familiar orange face all on its own is still almost enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Listening to it now is total nostalgia overload. Even if it’s mostly made up of bootleg recordings lifted from other sources, there’s still something unnerving about its lo-fi ambience.

Twenty years ago today, the mother person asked me if I could record some eerie background music so we’d have something different to play on Halloween. It caught me off guard. She never did much to support my interest in music — it was the opposite, really. But I was game.

I wrote down the name of every sinister-sounding patch I could find on my Yamaha W-5 synthesizer, soaked the Clavinova in built-in effects (piano with reverb and a Leslie speaker approximation seemed to be the most unnerving combination), switched to a pipe organ sound every once in a while, and improvised for about half an hour, trying to come up with the spookiest and most discordant sounds I could. I called the finished product Walking Down Fear Street. In every way it was my attempt at making something similar in spirit to Horror Sounds of the Night.

I don’t think she was a big fan of what I came up with. And the hi-fi system threw the limitations of the recording into stark relief, captured as it was on the little Sony stereo/tape recorder of yore with its tiny built-in microphone. None of that ever bothered me much. I had fun trying something different, and it’s pretty amusing to listen to today.

Join me, if you will, in laughing at my fourteen-year-old self trying to scare trick-or-treaters. It’s tough to work out what some of the individual songs are now without the use of a stopwatch, since everything was recorded as one continuous performance. I think this is part of a track called “Time Stands Still”, and all or most of “Sour Grapes”. While it’s only a small segment (I’m not about to subject you to the whole thing!), it gives you a pretty decent idea of the atmosphere I was aiming for.

“Walking Down Fear Street” excerpt (1997)

Pedal board blues.

For a long time I wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy.

My first electric guitar came with an amp I still use today. On early CDs, if I wasn’t plugged into that, I was using a guitar effects processor or a built-in mixer effect to simulate an amp, or else I was going direct into the mixer with no effects at all. Sometime around 2000 or 2001 I got a Vox wah pedal. Not long after that I picked up a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal.

While the Vox got some use here and there, the Boss sat around wondering what its purpose in life was supposed to be. In theory it seemed to be a good buy. Once I had it, there was never a time when I felt compelled to reach for it over the tones I was getting out of the POD or from natural tube amp breakup.

The third pedal I got, and the last one I thought I would ever get, was a Voodoo Labs tremolo pedal. It was meant to make up for the tremolo circuit I was no longer able to access in my Fender Twin Reverb once the foot switch that triggered it went missing.

I never used any of these pedals enough to justify keeping them around, so when money was scarce a few years back I dusted off the tremolo and distortion pedals and sold them both for some extra pistachios. The wah pedal got to stay. Why? Well, because you never know when you might need a little wah in your life.

After that, I was pretty content either plugging straight into an amp with no effects, the way I started out, or using the POD for effects after disabling the amp simulation settings. I bought a Little Big Muff and a Yamaha FX500 when I wanted to make some shoegazey sounds I couldn’t seem to get with what I had, and I thought that would be about as far as it went.

Then I got to thinking, and the thinking sounded like this:

With the few pedals I bought before, I never really put much thought into what I was getting or why. Now that I have a better handle on what I’m doing and what tones I’m after, maybe I can build a small collection of things I’ll actually want to use on a semi-regular basis.

I found out about Strymon pedals and fell in love with the smooth, sweet sounds they made. I picked up an El Capistan and in a matter of minutes was pretty sure it was the only delay pedal I would ever need. Then I grabbed a Walrus Audio Iron Horse — a distortion pedal that packs a serious punch and has a more interesting personality (at least to my ears) than the DS-1.

I wanted some reverb. The Strymon Big Sky was beautiful, but more money than I wanted to spend, and I couldn’t find another pedal that nailed the tone I was after. I wanted something lush and kind of modulated that could work just as well as a textural thing or an overpowering wash of sound.

The Mr. Black Supermoon, the Red Panda Context, and the Wet reverb were all contenders. I just wasn’t sure they were quite what I was looking for. The Boss RV-5 was another consideration, but I find all of the sounds that thing produces outside of the modulated ‘verb to be pretty uninspiring, and its buffer is a notorious tone-killer.

When I heard the ’80s reverb setting on the Strymon Flint, I knew that was it. That was the sound I wanted. Turns out the other reverb options are perfectly usable too — the spring reverb can double for the Fender Twin’s in a pinch without bringing with it the extra hum the amp does when its reverb is engaged — and the tremolo does a nice job of filling in for the absent Voodoo Labs pedal.

After adding the magic box that is the Montreal Assembly Count to Five to the crew, I wanted one more pedal. I had no idea what it should be. I got some good advice from a few different knowledgable folks, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t get into the idea of a compressor or a volume pedal (I’m way too accustomed to manipulating a volume knob with my fingers by now). I found a great deal on a Chase Bliss Warped Vinyl only to have it fall through. I kept coming back to quirky reverb and delay pedals, even though my bases were already covered there.

In the end I settled on Hungry Robot’s The Wash. There was something about it that grabbed me…maybe the way it gets into some really cool self-oscillation at more extreme settings, almost making it sound like whatever amp you’re plugged into is about to explode in the prettiest way.

Somewhere in there, it started to seem like a good idea to get a board to put all these pedals on — my first-ever pedal board. I haven’t done any significant gigging in a long time and that isn’t likely to change, outside of the occasional show backing up a friend or a possible once-every-decade-or-so show of my own to remind the small group of people who still care that I’ve gone on existing and making music. So I didn’t need it for that. I just thought it made good sense and would keep things from getting too messy on the studio floor, where it’s a challenge to keep microphone and instrument cords from getting tangled and turning into tripping hazards at the best of times.

I didn’t want one of those massive boards that holds six million pedals. I wanted to keep things simple. You only need to see how many guitars I have to know what happens when temptation and a surplus of physical space meet up in my world.

Half a dozen pedals was my cutoff point. I wanted a board that wouldn’t allow me any room for expansion beyond that. Something like a Pedaltrain Nano looked like it would do the job, but it was kind of bland-looking to me. I needed something with character.

If I float around on the internet long enough, I always seem to luck into finding something interesting, whether I’m looking for it or not. I came across the website for Tone Snob pedal boards this way. I fired off an email to Donny, who’s one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to buy a pedal board from, and told him what I was after. He suggested a 12×18 wedge style board so I could mount the power supply on the bottom, keeping the wires out of the way. He said he had some nice tweed to work with.

I gave him the go-ahead, and he built me this beautiful thing:

I made one big mistake. And it wasn’t failing to think, “I should take a picture of this pedal board on a darker surface so it stands out more.” My mistake was not factoring in how expensive a good power supply would be. A little less than two years after my board showed up, I’ve yet to get it up and running for that reason alone.

A few weeks back I decided to sell it. Right now I could use the extra money more than something cool that’s been spending all its time covered up in a closet wondering like that old Boss distortion pedal before it when the meaningful portion of its life is going to start.

I took a few pictures to use in a Kijiji ad. Thought it made sense to put all my pedals on the board and take a picture of that too, to give a potential buyer a sense of what it would look like in action.

I took a good look and thought, “Man…it’s a shame to sell this. It really is the perfect board for me.”

So I decided not to sell it after all. a few months from now, spending a bit of money on an appropriate power supply might not seem like the dumbest financial decision I could make anymore. Besides, it looks too nice to give it to someone else.

I’m not sure this is the exact order these pedals will end up in. One thing’s certain, though: the distortion will be after the reverb. I know it’s not the way most people set up their signal chain. I just really like the smeared sound you get out of flipping the tried and true on its head there.

My friend Little Big Muffy probably won’t make it onto the board when the day of reckoning comes. I can get close to fuzz territory with the Iron Horse if I crank the gain, so it’s a little redundant now, and I don’t find myself feeling a need for super fuzzed-out guitar tones all that often.

I’m not sure what I would put in its place. The wah pedal is too much of a tone-hound to go there. I’ll figure something out, I guess. Maybe get a chromatic tuner to put at the beginning of everything. Maybe discover something totally weird and random and convince myself I can’t live without it.

Oh hey — AFTERTHOUGHTS turned one year old a few days ago. No way does it feel like a year since that album was released, but the time, she don’t lie.

You know what else doesn’t lie? This bust of Jennifer Connelly’s face.

If after many years you fail, kick something breakable.

Amanda dug up another four tapes. After spending more than two hundred bucks having her whole collection transferred, I’m no closer to having that Papa Ghostface footage I’ve been chasing than I was a little less than twenty years ago when I started chasing it. I would bet anything it isn’t lost or dead, but buried somewhere in a garage or at the bottom of a box of random things, waiting to be rediscovered in the next century when human cloning is all the rage and no one knows which generation of themselves they are anymore.

There is one last hope. It’s the longest of long shots, but I know a second video recording exists — or used to exist — of the same live performance I thought we’d unearth somewhere on one of Amanda’s tapes. I know because I sat in a classroom a month or two after it was filmed and watched it. I just don’t know who made the tape.

I do know who might be able to answer that question. As unlikely as it is that they would remember who was manning the camera seventeen years ago, and as even-more-unlikely as it is that the tape is sitting around waiting for me to find it with its head crowned by a halo of heavenly light, it’s worth a try.

I have a realistic view of the situation. I’m pretty sure all of this has been for nothing. I just don’t want to give up until I’ve exhausted every possibility.

Like I said before, I did end up getting my hands on some great archival material. So it hasn’t really been a pointless effort. It’s just that the footage I want most of all continues to elude me, as if the whole thing is a sick little cosmic joke designed to make me swear even more than I usually do.

What else is new? The remastering thing keeps moving along, sort of. 121 songs done now. 67 left to do. If I really dig in, I can probably have it all done inside of a few weeks. It’d be nice to get that taken care of so I can devote all my brainpower to this album I’m supposed to be finishing.

Here, for no real reason, is a little song that was filmed ten years ago at the old house and then never recorded or revisited. I miss that shirt. It kept getting rattier and rattier, until by 2011 I don’t think the sleeves existed anymore. Check out my dresser mirror reflecting all those empty water bottles lined up like soldiers on a bookshelf.

Someone should write a pulpy, jazzy detective novel called “Trumpet Trouble”.

Just got this little guy back not long ago. Thanks to Kelly for taking good care of Señor Trumpet over the last few years.

I’m lucky enough now to know some people who, unlike me, can actually play brass instruments, and who are open to doing session work. If you’re thinking that might stop me from using the trumpet and the bugle to lob occasional dissonant curveballs at songs that don’t seem to want them, well…I’ll probably keep doing that here and there until the end of time. Ha!

You can never have too many acoustic ballads with random atonal free jazz trumpet solos.

Remastering update #2.

Hark! I hath passed the halfway mark!

98 songs down. 90 still to go.

More surprises and mostly-forgotten little audio relics:

  • An unused kick drum part to bolster the stomping and tambourine-shaking on “Everything He Asked You”
  • Drums recorded for “Creepy Crawly Things” but left out of the final mix
  • The rain at the beginning of “Wait All Morning” fades out just before I get into an argument with the sky, asking for (and not receiving) thunder
  • As with “Raccoon Eyes”, “Everything Matters, Everyone Cares” started out as some improv behind the drums recorded with the idea of building some music around it after the fact; unlike what happened with “Raccoon Eyes”, I ended up casting out the initial drum part once it became clear it didn’t play well with the music it inspired
  • Some out-of-tune piano over the bridge section on “What I Would Do for You” that was junked at the mixing stage
  • The tenor banjo at the end of “I Love You” goes on quite a bit longer than the CD mix would have you believe (and longer than I remembered), growing even more crazed and dissonant
  • An unused bass harmonics overdub in the middle of “95 Streets (Is Where I Will Find the Heart of You)”
  • An alternate lead vocal for “Fat Mouth” that does some pretty serious attempted Springsteen-channeling circa Darkness on the Edge of Town
  • Some acoustic guitar accents recorded for “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondue” right where the drums kick in, but abandoned after about thirty seconds and not present in the final mix
  • Several foul-mouthed arguments with an interrupting phone and/or fax machine
  • More forgotten riffs and licks sandwiched between proper songs

I’m still not as far along as I’d like to be, but I’m beginning to think I might actually finish this pet project someday.