Twenty years ago, after recording a lot of music on cassette tape, I started thinking the ability to overdub the odd vocal harmony or a bit of percussion might be fun. Dustin — the mysterious vanishing piano teacher of yore — told me I ought to get myself a Tascam Portastudio. I went to Long & McQuade with Johnny Smith to ask if I could rent or buy one of those things and the salesperson said, “Pfffft. You don’t want another tape recorder. Digital recording is where it’s at now! You want one of these!” He showed us a Roland VS-880 and talked us into taking it home.
I didn’t know where to begin with such a complicated piece of equipment, but I got a kick out of playing with the built-in effects, making myself sound like Barry White or a slick radio DJ. I had to order the CD burner through some strange back channel. It took forever to show up, and it was ridiculously expensive. I remember it being somewhere in the neighbourhood of a thousand bucks. When I finally got it after months of waiting, I learned it wasn’t even compatible with the VS-880. I needed the next step up — a VS-880 EX.
I still remember the name of the guy who sold me the CD burner and assured me it would work with my specific mixer. Fred Carver. That name will never leave my brain.
I traded in the VS-880 for an 880 EX. By now I had a few dynamic mics, a few good keyboards, a crummy acoustic guitar, and a crummy electric guitar. I was in heaven. I thought I had the world at my fingertips. That mixer was a great friend to have as I slowly learned about digital recording through trial and error. Within a year or two I was recording things that were actually starting to sound pretty good.
In the summer of 2000 I upgraded to a VS-1680 and my brain almost exploded. The sonic possibilities seemed almost endless now. It would be a long time before I came close to maxing out all sixteen tracks. Anything beyond half of that seemed a little nutty to me. I was excited enough about not being limited to six tracks anymore, now that I could use something called the Mastering Room and didn’t need to keep the last two tracks open so I had somewhere to send my final mixdown.
The VS-1680 has been the crux of my home studio ever since. Everything around it has changed over the years as I’ve accumulated outboard mic preamps, EQ, compression, more microphones, and more musical instruments — starting with really low-end stuff and gradually working my way up — but once a sound is recorded on the 1680 it stays there. I still mix and master in the box, still burn things onto CD through the SCSI drive, and still back everything up on CD-R. You don’t want to know how many backup CDs I’ve accumulated after almost two decades of near-constant recording.
I understand why most people have either left archaic hard drive recorders like these in the dust or now use them as a front end for computer-based recording. I’ve been tempted to switch over a time or two myself. For whatever reason, this machine just works for me. I’m comfortable with it, I know its quirks, and I like being limited to sixteen tracks. It forces me to think about arrangements and what I want the sonics of a song to say without allowing me to get into turd-polishing territory by layering a mediocre song with endless overdubs. With good mics and preamps I find I’m able to get the sounds I want without much trouble. I’ve spent enough time tinkering with the mastering effects templates to figure out settings that work for me and tighten things up without sounding like they’re doing much of anything at all. Even with good outboard effects at my disposal, I still find some of the VS-1680’s built-in effects very useful. I’ve always been a fan of TapeEcho201 for an instant John Lennon slap-back echo vocal sound, and some of the modulation effects are nice and lush. Input eight stopped working years ago, but that’s easy to work around by recording through a different input and routing it to that track. I can’t remember the last time I needed or wanted to record eight tracks at once, so I don’t see it ever posing a serious problem.
I know it’s beyond obsolete. Back when I got my 1680 new it cost more than $4,000. I think you can find them used and in good condition on eBay for about $200 now. I had a recording engineer “friend” who used to throw all kinds of condescending snark my way about it. I don’t know how many times I heard, “I can’t believe you run those beautiful mics and pres into that hunk of junk and its outdated converters,” or some variation on the theme.
That hunk of junk allows me to do everything I want to do. I have no complaints. Neither do any of the people who have hired me to record them. It still bewilders me a little that anyone would want me to record their music in the first place, and it isn’t a service I advertise or treat as a conventional job (it’s much more a once in a while, word of mouth kind of thing), but I seem to attract artists who like things a little rough around the edges, the same way I do. I always walk away having learned something new or honed an existing skill into a sharper tool. I’ve yet to have anyone decide they’d rather record elsewhere because my DAW is outdated.
I’m not bragging. I made a lot of awful-sounding recordings on the way to teaching myself how to do all of this stuff. It’s taken me this long to get to a point where I can honestly say I feel I’m pretty good at it. I look at it as a lifelong learning process. I still do a lot of things the wrong way, but I think I’ve developed a sound that’s unique to me. I’d still be doing this even if I never graduated beyond that first little Sony tape recorder. I’ve just been lucky enough to gather some equipment over the years that’s allowed me to document things with more clarity as the music itself has grown more vivid and complex.
It hasn’t been a drama-free adventure. There have been a few “crashes”. I was in the middle of working on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN when something went wrong and I had to run a drive check for the first time. There were errors. I was told I was going to lose some data. All I lost was the bass part for “Creepy Crawly Things”. I rerecorded it in about two minutes and all was well in the world. Six years later everything locked up on me in a much more disconcerting way. A drive check cleared that up once I found a way to trick the mixer into running one. A few years after that I found I couldn’t recover anything I’d backed up on a CD anymore. Guess what fixed the problem? Another drive check.
I was beginning to think this VS-1680 was invincible. Every time I thought it was dying on me it would turn around and repair itself.
Then I had to go and spill coffee on it.
I have this massive steel desk Johnny Smith got for me twenty-some-odd years ago when an office building was closing up shop and auctioning off all their equipment and furniture for next to nothing. It’s built like a tank, and there’s an incredible amount of storage space in its many drawers. There are things I put in there back in 1996 that are still there. You couldn’t ask for a better desk.
Once upon a time I used to sit here and do my homework. Now it’s my studio desk. The 1680 sits in the middle, and all around it are pieces of outboard gear. I can lean in and lose myself in the music, with any adjustment I need to make a quick turn of the wrist or a slight reach of the arm away.
I make a habit of never drinking anything but bottled water when I’m working in this area.
Even if I knock it over, the bottle is always capped. Nothing happens. It’s the smart way to go.
The one time Gord offered me a beer and I decided to live dangerously and put it on the desk, I ended up knocking it over. The mixer and a whole lot of other stuff got pretty beery, but nothing was damaged. I cleaned up. I told myself I was lucky and I wouldn’t do that again.
Apparently a good cup of coffee can short-circuit good sense. Last night I was drinking a nice cup of decaf. I thought I’d set it down on the desk. I wanted to sip at it while I was working on something.
You know what’s coming.
Within five minutes I found a way to send the mug flying. A bit of coffee landed on the mixer right around where the play and record buttons are. I scrambled to grab some paper towels before the river of Nabob could get too unwieldy and was doing my best to mop up the mess when I noticed the 1680 was going haywire. In hindsight I wish I’d thought to film it for posterity, because I’ve never seen anything like this. It was as if half a dozen invisible children were pressing every random button they could over and over again. Track indicators would light up at random, six or ten or more at a time, blinking wildly. Every half-second the LCD screen would switch to a different mode. Ten seconds or so of the song I was working on would play and then stop with no provocation. All of this was happening at once. Almost none of the buttons did anything. The time wheel seemed to still be functioning, but that was no help. The 1680 was losing its mind, indifferent to my efforts to calm it down.
The worst part — the song I was working on was just some silly little instrumental thing I was recording as a bit of a joke. It wasn’t even a song I cared much about (though sampling an aluminum foil pan with the Yamaha VSS-30 and building a percussion track out of it was pretty amusing).
I figured I must have fried the circuit board or something. Some coffee must have trickled inside. Twenty or thirty times I manually powered down and back up again. The startup screen did its usual business, the mixer recognized the CD burner, and everything was fine until the song loaded. Then it was random chaos all over again. Sometimes in the middle of one of the mixer’s spastic fits I would press one of the track buttons that was lit up and it would send things into an even more intense tailspin. Sometimes I would hit play and the music would stop. The stop button didn’t do a thing. Then I’d get stuck in EZ Routing mode or somewhere else, everything would become unresponsive, and all I could do was force another restart. I tried all the tricks to force a drive check or a drive reformat. Nothing.
All this because I wasn’t smart enough to leave my coffee on the table where it belonged, a short walk away from the desk.
At least I had the foresight to buy a backup 1680 about ten years ago. Worst case scenario, I could pop the effects cards out of this one, transfer them into the alternate 1680, and start fresh. But I was going to lose a few songs I really liked that I didn’t have a chance to back up. That stung.
I kept wrestling with the angry thing. Power off. Power on. Insane 1680 tantrum. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Finally the shift key started to function again. I could get to the screen I needed to run a drive check, but I couldn’t activate it. The stupid song would start playing every time I tried to get in, blocking my access. I hit play and F5 at the same time and got the music to stop long enough to get where I needed to go. The drive check told me there were nine hundred and ninety-nine errors, but all the songs were fine.
I think what “999 ERR” really means is, “There’s so much wrong right now I’m going to max out the numbers as a way of telling you you’re in deep shit.”
So that did nothing. But now I was able to access both partitions of the drive. That was progress. I switched over to the second partition. The song that loaded started playing on its own, which still wasn’t good. It played all the way through this time, though. I got it to stop and ran another drive check. This time there were no errors. I popped a CD into the drive and tried backing up the songs I thought I might lose. No issues there. At least I knew my data was intact and salvageable, even if that first partition was toast. My heart started to pound out something closer to a sane rhythm again.
And then the 1680 stopped acting up. Just like that. I noticed the song that was loaded didn’t start playing on its own a second time once the backup CD popped out. The play button did what it was supposed to. So did the stop button. I messed around with the settings for a few individual tracks without any trouble. Switched back to the first partition where everything went crazy, and again all was well. I didn’t even lose the silly little instrumental song.
I don’t know if the coffee that got inside the mixer dried up after a while, if the 1680 decided to assimilate it after its initial violent protests, or if I just jostled the mixer in a way it didn’t like when I was in Horrified Damage Control mode and the coffee was never the issue at all. I have no idea what happened there. But now I think whoever designed these VS recorders was a genius. Eighteen years of continuous use, a few serious scares, half a cup of coffee, and STILL the thing refuses to die. It keeps on healing itself and saying, “Is that all you got?”
So I raise my glass to the mind-boggling resilience of the Roland VS-1680 — in another room, on another floor of the house, just to be safe.
It’s a little awkward trying to wrap your head around the realization that something you’ve made isn’t as good as you thought it was when you were making it.
I’ve done my best to avoid this very personal kind of disappointment over the years. As slapdash as some of my albums may sound on the surface, for a long time now a lot of thought has gone into determining what shape each collection of songs wants to take. I don’t put something out there unless I believe in it and feel it’s an honest representation of where my head and heart are at in that moment.
I think as long as you work this way it’s difficult to be embarrassed by what you’ve done. My ambition has never been to make a Masterwork That Stands the Test of Time, but rather to document the entirety of my musical life, warts, growing pains, nose hair and all. While it might not all be top-shelf material when we look back at the whole discography in 2079 as I’m wheezing my last digital breaths here, at least I can say I always gave it everything I had and never compromised my artistic vision, even when that vision was murky.
By and large, I’m proud of the work I’ve done up to this point. But every once in a while I’ve found my feelings for an album souring once the honeymoon period wears off.
(The internet tells me a traditional honeymoon period lasts between six months and a year. For me it’s more like two weeks.)
As much fun as it was to make the second Papa Ghostface album, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it rambled a little too much over its two and-a-half hour running time. There was no focus. The first disc was pretty strong, and then everything degenerated into a massive improvised free-for-all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about massive improvised free-for-alls. But I started thinking PG album number three might benefit from a more considered approach. I wrote a bunch of lyrics — most of them while pretending to pay attention in grade eleven math class — grabbed what I thought were the eight strongest selections (leaving space for two improvised instrumentals), and declared, “This will be our next album.”
My thinking went something like this: Given how well Gord and I play off of each other and how often our improvisations seem to produce good moments, if I’ve already got the lyrics sorted out before we start recording and I don’t have to make all the words up as I go, I’ll be able to channel all my energy into the music. That’s going to make everything better. When the dust clears we’ll have a great album.
For at least the first week or two after SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was finished, I thought we did have something brilliant on our hands. I even went to the trouble of making more than two copies of the CD, which was unheard of at the time. I gave one to a classmate I wanted to impress, one to my drama teacher, and another to my piano teacher. I wanted everyone to hear this stuff. It felt like some of the best work I’d ever done.
Once the initial excitement wore off and something closer to objectivity set in, it hit me that the album was no masterpiece. It was a mess. The weirdness that had been such an integral part of our music from day one was barely there. I came off less like the live wire I was used being on record and more like an impotent firecracker with a faulty fuse. Trying to force the improvised music to fit the shape of the written lyrics led to songs that sounded unsure of their identity. Aside from “Compassion to Deceive — a rare example of music and lyrics merging as if they’d been born wrapped up in each other’s arms — the songs were just sort of there, not daring to do anything very interesting. Worse, almost none of the lyrics I wrote were about anything. There was some fun wordplay, but it didn’t add up to much.
It didn’t help that the sound quality was pretty awful throughout, with some serious clipping whenever I came close to screaming and a lot of mud in the low end. I had no outboard mic preamps, no outboard anything aside from a guitar effects processor, and though my mixer offered built-in EQ and compression that could have helped the cause, I had no idea how to use those tools. I thought I would screw things up even worse if I messed around with them, so I didn’t try. The results weren’t pretty.
Aside from OH YOU THIS, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such a quick turnaround from thinking an album was great to deciding it was a total piece of crap.
I was determined to make up for my error in judgment with the next Papa Ghostface album. I kept writing lyrics in class — I couldn’t stop doing that if I tried — but allowed the words to grow much more depraved. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep at the time. Some of that was my fault for embracing my night owl tendencies. My almost-stepsister’s bedroom was right next to mine, and she had a habit of watching TV late at night with the sound turned up past any sane level. She wasn’t a big fan of closing her door. That was another factor.
There came a day when all the sleep-deprivation caught up with me. I staggered home a little after 2:00 in the afternoon — I had a fourth period spare that semester — and fell into bed. It wasn’t unusual for me to nap for an hour after school to give myself an extra shot of energy. This time I was so exhausted I woke up in the dark five hours later. I got up, ate some chicken stir-fry, listened to a bit of music, and went to bed around 11:00. I had no trouble getting back to sleep. By the time I got up to eat breakfast I was operating on no less than thirteen hours of sleep, when I was used to getting less than a third of that.
I felt an almost disturbing sense of mental clarity all day. Every part of my body felt like it had been replaced with an upgraded version of itself. I was Super Johnny the Full-of-Energy Man.
It was a fluke. I didn’t get another sleep like that on a weeknight for the rest of my high school existence. The very next day I was back to alternating between being tired all the time and oversleeping on the weekends to balance things out. But I saw an opportunity to use the mental fatigue to my advantage. When I was tired enough, my brain got to a place where all the usual inhibitions sloughed off and anything at all might come out of my mouth (or pen). It made for some interesting lyric-writing sessions.
The first thing I wrote with the fourth Papa Ghostface album in mind was something called “19 to Go”. We tried recording it. I’ve got a dub of a rough mix on a cassette tape somewhere. It isn’t worth digging up. I made the mistake again of marrying written words to improvised music that wasn’t given enough time or space to figure out what it wanted to be.
The lyrics didn’t go anywhere interesting anyway. “Your nudity inspires me to reach heights that were previously unattainable,” went the first line. I went on to list all the other positive and negative things this imaginary person’s naked form inspired me to do, from “[standing] tall in the face of all things malignant” to destroying valuable antiques.
Not some of my best work.
Separate from that failure of a song, I had some music in my head I couldn’t seem to find the right words for. I heard this dark, swirling soundscape, inspired in part by the Pulp song “This Is Hardcore”.
How was I supposed to build anything even half that dense and compelling with only six tracks to work with on my eight-track mixer? I had no idea. After one abandoned attempt at writing lyrics that matched the imagined musical mood, I wrote in my spiral notebook:
I was trying to write something dark to accompany the stark musical landscape within my mind but found myself to be an utter failure. I know there is darkness left inside of me! There has to be!
There was. I only needed to wait another twelve hours to find it.
The next morning in math class I wrote a set of lyrics about a guy who catches his wife cheating on him with a horse. The horse turns out to be both kinky and immortal — repeated gunshots kill him, but he rises again after each apparent death. The desperate cuckold sleeps with the horse’s wife to get back at him. She indulges his foot fetish but otherwise isn’t the most sympathetic partner. His wife returns and tries to make amends with an offering of cornbread pancakes. When the dude scarfs them all down like a thoughtless pig, she grabs his gun and he makes a run for it. There’s at least a happy ending when he finds someone who accepts him for who he is, human-sized genitalia and all.
(What the hell went on in my sixteen-year-old brain? I couldn’t tell you. Writing accessible pop music clearly wasn’t on my radar.)
I started laughing at the ridiculousness of the lyrics and the crude illustrations I added. Kevin Heffernan — not the actor, but a guy who sat in front of me in math class — turned around and said, “Did you smoke up before class, John?”
“No,” I said, giggling. “I’m just tired.”
Kevin wasn’t buying it. “He’s ripped,” he said to a friend sitting next to him.
I was stuck for a title. Now I wrote Rippin’ at the top of my two-page saga. Thanks, Kev.
I envisioned it as a jaunty country song in a major key. Though it was never recorded in that form, I remember how it was supposed to go. Here’s a brand new GarageBand demo to give you an idea.
Gord came over to record again a few days later. I threw out the country song business and made up my mind to build an approximation of the ominous sound world I’d been carrying around in my head for a few days straight.
When you don’t have a lot of tracks to work with, you learn how to create the illusion of layers through a bit of trickery. I made a drum loop on the Yamaha W-5 synth and messed around with built-in distortion and reverb effects until each snare hit sounded like it was ricocheting off of itself. Making use of the synthesizer’s sixteen-track sequencer — something I almost never thought to do — I played some fifths in time with the drum beat on a second track, using a synth cello patch, and made that a part of the loop. Then I set it up to record on a single mono track on the mixer.
I started the loop without the string part, faded it in, decided it was too loud, and pulled it back a little to where it felt just about right. I grabbed those twisted lyrics I wrote with a country song in my head and stood them up on my music stand, playing my hunk of junk Vantage acoustic guitar and singing while Gord played his white B.C. Rich Virgin. I had only one amp at the time and was years away from recognizing how useful it was, so Gord played straight into the Digitech GSP-21 effects processor, using the foot controller to switch between clean and distorted tones.
When it felt like the song had pretty much run its course, Gord encouraged me off-mic to get into some primal screaming. I didn’t have it in me, and it didn’t feel right for the song. It was starting to occur to me that there were other ways of conveying madness through sound. As a way of getting my point across without verbalizing it, I pressed the microphone grill against the strings of my guitar and used it as a slide, making harsh, atonal sounds. After a bit of that I put the guitar down, walked over to the W-5, and faded the drums out of the loop, playing some synth string improv on top of the looped fifths.
We overdubbed a few splashes of Arp Omni-2, both of us playing at the same time. I was trying to play things that made some melodic sense. Gord was hitting random notes. It made for some fun dissonance. I messed with the resonance and VCF to give it a little extra character.
“You want to add some bass?” I asked Gord.
“You should play bass, man,” he said.
I did that, alternating between holding down the low end and playing improvised melodies and runs higher up on the neck. Gord contributed a little audio postscript of his own with a bottle of blue Powerade he was drinking, using his mouth and the liquid in it to make some strange, guttural sounds.
The next day I added a few bits of vocal harmony to some unused portions of the Arp Omni-2 track and mixed the song to the best of my ability. I had some fun with the intro, swamping the drum loop in reverb for a second and then taking it away, adding a rotary speaker effect to the loop for a bit, then adding it to Gord’s guitar for a few bars, and much later in the song using it to process my voice.
Just six tracks, and there was the most sonically ambitious thing I’d ever done. For some reason it never seemed to drag over its thirteen and-a-half minutes the way some of our other extended pieces did. It wasn’t identical to the half-formed musical idea that wouldn’t leave my brain alone, but it was close enough, and maybe better.
Of the nine songs that would end up on the album, six feature words that were written beforehand. Only two of those six songs aren’t warped by additional improvised lyrics and music that’s unafraid to flirt with chaos. “She’s Awfully Lovely” ends with an unrehearsed hook topped off with distorted screams, and then there’s a little a cappella addendum that has nothing at all to do with anything that came before. “Piss on Me” sheds its established structure like an exoskeleton around the halfway point for a long post-bridge section that’s all improv. “The Happy Dentist” begins with a spontaneous Neil Young piss-take and ends with several minutes of uncompromising sonic mayhem. “Spandex” is a self-immolating piñata that keeps beating itself until interesting surprises start to leak from its broken skin.
Instead of forcing the music to do the lyrics’ bidding, the written words were treated as a rough guide and nothing more.
“She’s Awfully Lovely” was the first thing we recorded at our next session a week later. The title came from Gord. He suggested Awfully Lovely as an album title. I liked it but wasn’t sure it was right for the material.
I was renting a Les Paul to supplement my cheap Strat copy. It was the first “good” guitar I ever played. It had a sparkle finish. I want to say it was green. It looks green in my memory. I loved that thing. The cloth that lined the hardshell case smelled like heaven.
The Strat copy, which doesn’t appear on the album at all, became a five-string — and stayed that way for a long time — when I broke a string on the Les Paul and didn’t have an extra pack of strings on hand. I recorded a bit of Gord tuning up after making the transfer because I thought it sounded cool. Then he handed the guitar back to me.
This song is probably home to my best guitar-playing on the whole album. There’s even some volume swell stuff in there. It’s nowhere near the atmospheric textures I’m capable of creating today, but it works. I don’t think I’d ever tried doing that before. I was growing in confidence, unrefined as my playing was.
The lyrics are about a “fake aunt” (my stepfather’s sister) and her impending motherhood. She always said she never wanted children. Now she was married and pregnant, and I was convinced her impending bundle of joy was in for a rough ride. She was a horrible, emotionally abusive person, and that’s the kindest thing I can think of to say about her.
Hey, hey, she’s pregnant.
What’s she gonna do to that kid? Is she gonna torture him? Is she gonna make him feel inadequate? Is she gonna raise him up — raise him up to the sky? Is she gonna fill his head with all of her lies?
Pretty serious personal business there. Not the sort of thing I was used to singing about. Of course, I married those lyrics to some chunky power chords and got Gord to scream with me into a mic that was plugged into the Digitech guitar box, just to throw a wrench in the works. Then we tacked on the improvised singalong about someone with magical breasts.
“Spandex” was recorded next. I must have mixed it out of sequence, because it shows up before “She’s Awfully Lovely” on the album. Or I might have decided the album would work better if I flipped the order of those two songs. I can’t remember what happened there. It’s unusual either way, because these were the days of dumping songs on CD in the order they were recorded and giving no thought to the ebb and flow of things.
When Gord and I first met up outside of school in 1998, it was to work on writing a song for a grade ten English assignment. He played me a pretty, melancholy piece of music he was messing around with on guitar, I worked out some things to play on piano that complimented what he was doing, and within about three minutes we had our song. All I had to do was write some lyrics the next day and we’d be finished a week ahead of schedule.
Problem was, the lyrics I wrote didn’t suit the music at all. I could find a way to sing them that would work, but the whole thing was going to feel way too maudlin.
When we got together a second time three days later, Gord brought his girlfriend Amanda with him. She sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor of my tiny basement studio as we hammered out some new music much better suited to the defiant nature of my lyrics. The song was called “Pacing the Cage”.
After jamming on pieces of a bunch of classic rock songs and running through our own song a few times, Gord started playing a single-string variation on the main riff that ran through the verses of “Pacing the Cage”. I played along, started singing about Kermit the frog wearing spandex, and this happened.
I’d kill to have video footage of something like this. At least I had the foresight to record our first jam sessions on cassette tape, using a single RadioShack mic plugged into a Magnasonic boombox from the 1980s (my main method of recording at the time, and an upgrade over the Sony boombox I’d been recording everything on since 1994).
“Pacing the Cage” may be the first thing we created together, but “Spandex”marks the true birth of Papa Ghostface. It was the first time we conjured something out of thin air in a communal act. You can hear the excitement in the room as it starts to dawn on us that we could have the seed of something interesting here.
A little over a year later, that fiery two-minute improvisation was still on my mind. You could call the version we committed to CD a “re-improvisation”. After a partial reconstruction of the original fragment, the song fanned out and became something much more expansive and dramatic. I rifled through different keyboard sounds and effects. Gord strummed my acoustic guitar with such force he managed to overload an SM57 — no mean feat. We both added overdubs: demented harmonies from me, African drums and a distorted mid-song howl from Gord.
Spandex for you. Spandex for me. It felt almost operatic. It was ridiculous, outlandish, fun, and everything that had been missing from SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.
“We’re All Gonna Go” was the only song on the album that set out to do one thing and didn’t stray from the path. For years I thought it was the least interesting track by some distance. Now I view it as a necessary break from the madness that surrounds it.
It’s all about the idea of an afterlife in hell being inevitable — how in spite of our best efforts to fight the good fight, some unseen force is lurking just out of sight, waiting to drag us down to a place where “sometimes, on special occasions, you don’t even perspire”. I didn’t really believe that then, and I don’t believe it now, but I enjoyed flipping the conventional wisdom on its head, imagining hell as a picturesque resort where serene family reunions take place.As opening lines go, “Down where the drunkards collide,” is pretty evocative, I think, though it didn’t stand out to me at the time.
The music I first wrote to accompany the lyrics was nothing like what ended up on the album. It was this sweeping orchestral thing, or as sweeping and orchestral as something played on a keyboard’s synth strings setting could hope to get. I don’t remember if I worked out music for the bridge section. I do at least remember how the verses went.
I’m not sure what inspired me to give those words a different musical backdrop at the last minute. The memory is fuzzy here. I either picked up my acoustic guitar before Gord came over, started playing a few chords that sounded good to me, and thought, “I wonder what ‘We’re All Gonna Go’ would sound like if I sang the words to this,” or it happened when he was present and the evening was winding down.
In any case, it made for a much catchier tune. It became almost uplifting in a warped way, ending with the comforting thought, “All’s well that ends in hell.”
You can hear me saying, “One more and then we’re done,” to an inquisitive Johnny Smith before the music kicks in. It was about time to call it a night. We rehearsed for all of thirty seconds. I tried to show Gord a change I worked out on the fly, but he didn’t really grasp what I was doing. When I called out a chord change in the middle of the recording, he just kept doing what he was doing, oblivious. Some interesting accidental harmonic interplay came out of it.
Here I used a drum pattern built into the Clavinova instead of creating one myself on the W-5, setting it up so the damper and sustain pedals would let me trigger fills and transitions with my feet at the same time I was playing and singing. I added some vocal harmonies the next day and a pair of rudimentary guitar solos, one in each stereo channel. Gord surprised me by telling me he liked them.
Our next session produced another three songs. This time we were alone in the house. I’m not sure where everyone else was.
Before we got started, Gord asked if I wanted to smoke a joint with him. I’d never been high in my life. I said sure.
We ducked into an alley. I felt a little uneasy. I still remember the long-sleeved white shirt I was wearing (hell, I still have that shirt). I had no idea how to inhale the right way. I think Gord assumed I’d done this before. I was too embarrassed to tell him I was a rookie. I did my best to fake it.
I didn’t get high at all. It would be another two years before that would happen for the first time.
Back inside, I did feel…something. Must have been a contact buzz. It was a very low-level thing, almost subliminal, but it was there. We plugged in, put on headphones, and recorded “Piss on Me”. I don’t think I even showed Gord what chords I was playing. He ran through different effects on the Digitech in search of something trippy and blissed out. I cranked up the reverb on my voice for extra dreaminess, ran another Clavinova drum pattern through a bit of a chorus effect on the mixer (an Ace of Base-style Euro reggae beat, of all things), and shook a homemade Mason jar percussion instrument into my vocal mic for a few seconds before getting down to business.
Subtitled “a love song in the key of Sinatra” on my lyric sheet, the song wasn’t really a paean to golden showers. It was more of a celebration of meaninglessness. “What does it matter if we defile one another if nothing matters?” More of a figurative pissing than the literal act of taking a leak. Although, “Piss on me before it starts to rain,” is pretty literal (and sensible).
At the same time, there was room for lines like this:
Rotting fish within the threshold of man.
Bamboo cartilage dropped by five degrees.
If you have any idea what that means, let me know. I’ve still got no idea almost two decades later, and I’m the guy who wrote it.
There’s also one of my favourite nonsense rhymes on the album:
It is only this that grows
through an affidavit’s nose.
We kept going for another six minutes after I ran out of written lyrics. “Tie me at the crossroads with a metal bow,” I sang. “I’ll always be yours when the seedless garden grows.” That became a mantra. Tie me at the crossroads. It felt poignant somehow, and more poetic than “tie me to the train tracks”, even if it made less literal sense. Gord played some inspired guitar throughout, from a few licks that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a death metal song to some beautiful extended lead lines. I let loose with some wild runs on a simulated Wurlitzer electric piano patch on the W-5, and it all came to a head with a speaker-blowing cry of, “So piss on…..MEEEEEEEEE!”
I’ve always been glad I captured Gord asking if we were recording at the very end. One of those neat little slices of life. And I still remember the look on his face. It said, “Please, for the love of God, tell me you got that!”
There’s something joyous about letting a song unfurl like this, with only a torn scrap of some strange map and no certain destination. I was lucky enough to have a lot of those moments with Gord. I might have been the voice and the main creative engine behind the music, but there was a fearlessness in his playing that made him an ideal companion when I was navigating creative dirt roads that might lead anywhere or nowhere. He wasn’t afraid to make a mistake in pursuit of something great.
Another mark against SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was the absence of a spoken word detour. Having at least one spoken word piece show up on each album was a Papa Ghostface tradition from the beginning.
This album features two of them, back to back, almost like an act of penance.
“The Happy Dentist” is pretty self-explanatory. A perverted dentist with a sweet tooth gets a character sketch, and then he gets what’s coming to him. Gord managed to make it sound like he was playing both bass and electric guitar at the same time by sticking a slide on his pinky finger, throwing in creepy little glissandos here and there. I kept accidentally whacking my guitar mic with my own slide and felt like my guitar-playing was the shittiest shit in the universe. I was limited to bits of open chords, single-note runs, and some discordant slide guitar, when I wanted to be able to do some interesting harmonic things and treat the instrument an extension of myself. It was frustrating.
I would get there. It was just going to take a while. But man, I’ll never forget that feeling of wanting to do more than I was capable of in the moment and running face-first into a brick wall. All my limitations on the instrument were thrown into stark relief all at once.
Listening now, I have to say my guitar-playing did the job just fine, in spite of my feelings of musical uselessness in the moment. The song didn’t need anything flashy. And I’ve always loved the singalong chorus, with Gord sing-shouting, “The happy dentiiiiiiist!” at the top of his lungs. We did two or three tracks with both of us singing into the same SM58. Just like Springsteen and Little Steven.
This time I used a drum loop already programmed into the W-5. These loops were triggered by pressing a key on the keyboard, but as soon as you removed your finger the loop would stop. You couldn’t lock it into continuous-play mode. The only way I ever found to get around this was by using a sustain pedal to trick the loop into thinking the key was still pressed down. Gord is credited with “foot” in the liner notes for some of our albums from this period because he would always volunteer to take care of that side of things so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.
There was an odd quirk to some of these loops. Using the modulation wheel, you could sometimes uncover another layer of synthesized percussion. A lot of these hidden accents had a habit of slowly going out of tempo. The longer you kept the loop going, the worse it would get. You can hear this happen in real-time on the SHOEBOX PARADISE song “Partners in Crime”.
Halfway through “The Happy Dentist” I did the little modulation wheel trick and found the sub-loop was so unsynchronized with the main loop it threw everything off, destroying all sense of rhythm.
You’ve got two choices when a thing like this happens. You can either kill the song, or you can embrace the chaos.
With Gord’s foot still on the sustain pedal, I hit a number of keys low on the synth to trigger even more arrhythmic loops, creating a giant mess. Then I sat back down with my acoustic guitar, went nuts with the slide, and started singing faux-Japanese gibberish.
This was too far from home for Gord. He went along with it, but in later years he told me he thought it ruined the whole song. He wanted a coup de grâce, and here I was prolonging the suffering. For me it’s always been one of the album’s defining moments. I love how everything falls apart in such an absurd, exaggerated way. It’s a great example of something that never would have been allowed to happen on SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.
For the record, there was no racist intention behind what I sang as all hell broke loose. It was little more than some silliness that came to me in the moment.
Cha chaka chee cha, chicka chee cho. Two dogs fuckin’ in the sand.
To this day I can’t make it to the end without collapsing into a laughing fit. If I do manage to get most of the way through, the part that kills me is, “Suck my dick ’til my ass falls down.”
You gotta have fun, even if it’s not always in great taste. Besides, who on earth could take the idea of someone’s ass falling off at the moment of climax seriously in the first place?
I ended the song by spitting the gum I was chewing into my vocal mic, screaming a deluge of profanity through a kazoo, and dropping the loudest F-bomb of my life.
If you ever wondered who the wildcard was in Papa Ghostface, I guess now you know.
With “Nothing from Nothing”, for the first time I had no written lyrics to work with. The tale of a secret society of damaged people hellbent on self-annihilation almost seemed to construct itself. I made one giant boner of a grammatical error at a climactic moment and went from addressing the Charlie character as an established member of the group to making him sound like more of a novice without seeming to notice — such is the danger of improvising for almost thirteen minutes and trying to keep your story straight — but that didn’t stop it from becoming one the most effective things of its kind in the whole PG catalogue. Gord made the unusual (for him) decision to play a few bit parts, contributing some great moments and giving me something to play off of.
Even the things that didn’t work seemed to work. We were able to incorporate the drum loop’s initial skittishness into the narrative without missing a beat. Gord played some evil-sounding electric guitar, setting the perfect tone, and I managed to hold things down on bass without getting distracted from the scene I was trying to paint. I overdubbed a bit of W-5 electric piano but it felt a little superfluous, so I kept it brief.
I owe a huge creative debt to John Cale and Tom Waits. Those two brilliant madmen taught me it was possible to make compelling “talkies” without being pretentious. I’d listen to “The Jeweller” or “9th & Hennepin” and sit spellbound, hanging on every word, wanting to know how the story was going to end. They were little movies in sound form.
I didn’t have that kind of poetry in me. Not yet. But their work gave me something to aspire to without trying to mimic or recreate what they’d already done.
(The pinnacle of my work in the spoken word department might be a song called “Average Jim” that’ll show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE one of these days. It’s a good one. The one that’s going on the next Papa Ghostface album is no slouch either.)
We couldn’t end the album on such a dark note. We got together one more time and recorded “Fatties”. Jesse, the classmate I wanted to impress (more on him in a bit), was working with me by then — or I should say I was working for him without getting paid anything — and he came over for a bit before Gord did, leaving his acoustic guitar behind. He didn’t feel like lugging it home. I was tasked with bringing it to school for him the next day.
It was serendipitous. Gord picked up Jesse’s acoustic, I reached for my own, and we were recording before we knew what we were doing.
“Fatties” is really two different improvised songs grafted together. The first is about smoking pot in Willistead Park — something I’d never done, but I knew a lot of students who did — and the effects of a month or so without cable TV on a teenage male libido — something I was all too familiar with. Whatever my guitar-related shortcomings were on “The Happy Dentist”, I made up for them here with a nice little slide solo and some walking bass lines, my unresolved chords playing off of Gord’s closed majors and minors. (My guitar is in the right stereo channel. Gord’s in the left.)
Apropos of nothing, my grade ten geography teacher Mr. Kuszowski worms his way in there — as a narc or a pothead, it isn’t made clear. All three of his favourite catchphrases appear, one after the other:
“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
— Said to discourage us from asking him anything about what he was teaching us.
“You got the answer? Shut your mouth.”
— Said when someone raised their hand to answer a question he asked the class.
“You want a week or a month?”
— Said when he was threatening someone with detention.
“What have you,” was a verbal tic my grade nine science teacher would often use to end a sentence. I threw that in there too.
I don’t know why I did that. But the overlapping Mr. Kuszowskis admonishing the listener not to ask stupid questions while a frenetic modulated synth-sitar line is introduced never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
Once that felt like it had gone as far as we could take it, we stopped recording and I got a drum loop going. It was the same one used on “The Happy Dentist”, only a little slower and deeper this time. I introduced a new chord progression in a different key and Gord picked out some lead lines when he wasn’t shadowing what I was doing.
There was a marked change in the lyrics now, with the silly sex talk and drug references forgotten.
Light in the east, in the west, in the south. From the north, to the underground, to my home room, to my hometown.
(I always liked that “home room” / “hometown” bit.)
After the impressionism fades, this section reveals itself to be a wistful look back at a failed relationship. I’d never had a girlfriend and didn’t think I ever would. I wasn’t about to let a thing like that stop me from delving into matters of the heart (and genitals).
I used Gord’s voice in a way I never had before and never would again, feeding him lines, making both of us supporting players to my lead narrator. I got a huge kick out of directing him. There’s nothing quite like this tapestry of our voices in anything else we did together, and it’s somehow fitting that the backdrop is by far the prettiest music on the whole album.
After some fun duelling guitar action, Gord took his foot off the sustain pedal and started strumming a D major chord without warning when I was still playing a C. I switched to playing lead, sang, “That’s all the naked parakeet wrote,” repeated the line in a near-scream, and everything ended with a neat little callback to “Spandex” from Gord.
I didn’t like the way my last almost-screamed line came off, so I replaced most of it by saying, “And that, my friends, is the story of the penis farmer from Brazil.” You can still hear my wailing bleeding into the guitar mics. When I was doing the harmonies and faux-baritone bit (how I got that low back then, I have no idea), Gord added a little overdub right at the beginning of the second section, rubbing a metal slide against a mic that had some heavy distortion on it and singing a falsetto melody before my singing came in. I let out a little shout of affirmation in the background.
As for me swearing at my headphones and telling them to stay on my face after dedicating the song to Priscilla Presley — I was just starting to grow out my hair for the first time, and I liked the way it looked. I was so particular about keeping it in place, I would wear headphones upside down with the headband beneath my chin. It was a short-lived arrangement.
“Fatties” felt like a fine ending, but I still had a tiny bit of space left to work with on the CD. In those days before reliable eighty-minute CDs were available I liked to squeeze every millisecond I could out of the seventy-four minutes I had to work with. Gord took off for the night, and I recorded the unlisted final song by myself with every track running through the Digitech. I held a mic in front of the bass and smacked it with my fist, overdubbing myself singing about the song I was singing:
This little song — it isn’t very long. There isn’t lots of time left, so I have to make it short.
It went on for a while longer like that. Felt like it lost steam pretty quick. I recorded over what I’d done as soon as that first “verse” ended, beat-boxing and screaming about a grasshopper. I cut that off to play a few seconds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Clavinova, also plugged into the Digitech to give it some extra hair. Then I mashed the keys and found the last few seconds of the beat-boxing section worked well enough as an outro.
The funny thing is I usually had to chop up a hidden track in order to make it fit on a CD, and I almost always ended up losing moments I was fond of. This time I went out of my way to chop the song up, only to discover there was just enough space left to accommodate it.
It’s less than thirty seconds long, and it’s probably my favourite unlisted track I’ve ever committed to a piece of spinning plastic. Its unbridled lunacy feels like the perfect ending to an album full of unhinged moments.
Awfully Lovely didn’t sit right with me as an album title now that I had all the pieces in front of me. I reached for one of my playing-with-words titles and called it YOU’RE A NATION. Seemed appropriate. The “Piss on Me”/urination connection never entered my mind.
The moment it was finished, I knew this album destroyed SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN. I could feel it in my bones. This time my feelings didn’t change after the honeymoon period passed. In a lot of ways it was the first Papa Ghostface album that felt like an album instead of a group of songs sharing the same space.
The sound quality…that was the trouble. I still couldn’t quite get things where I wanted them to be. I tried to get around the clipping issue by riding the fader and bringing down the volume of my singing during some of the more intense passages. There was a little less distortion in places, but there were moments when my voice all but disappeared (“Spandex” is a good example). About halfway through the album I gave up on that altogether and let things go into the red.
Today I know how to ride a fader if I need to, making minute adjustments that don’t call attention to themselves. Nineteen years ago…not so much.
Another thing I didn’t know much about was mic placement. I had two Shure SM57s and an SM58. That was my whole mic cabinet. No condensers. No ribbons. Those SM57s got pretty close to the sound hole of whatever acoustic instrument they were tasked with recording. I could have countered the mud by cutting some lows, but EQ was a foreign concept to me. I lived with the mud. I couldn’t even hear some of the mud — I was still monitoring on that old Magnasonic boombox.
My recordings of the bass guitar itself were a mixed bag. On some tracks, like “Rippin'” and “We’re All Gonna Go”, it was at least running through the Digitech and somewhat controlled by some built-in compression. On most of the other songs Gord or I plugged straight into the mixer with no compression. The dynamics were all over the place. For some reason I’ll never understand, I added a low boost effect to my bass on “Nothing from Nothing” and introduced even more mud.
To be fair, I was only a few months removed from starting serious work with this mixer. Digital recording was still brand new to me. I had to figure out everything on the fly, learning through trial and error. And my “monitors” weren’t giving me the most accurate imaging or frequency response. But it wasn’t my finest moment as an engineer.
I made a copy of the album for myself and a copy for Gord. My own CD travelled with me through all my classes the next day, and a few students asked to hear what I was listening to on my DiscMan. There was a lot of giggling whenever “Fatties” was played. One guy who was always a bit of a dick to me was obsessed with the hidden track. That was funny. Nothing crazy happened, though. I didn’t put any effort into spreading the music around. I was years away from even thinking to do that sort of thing, and it would be another month or two before MERRY FUCKIN’ CHRISTMAS became a weird little high school sensation behind my back.
You’d be surprised what kind of legacy an album can have when only about eight people in the known universe have heard it. For instance, YOU’RE A NATION once helped endear Gord to some police officers who might have been looking to make an example out of him.
He was hanging out with Amanda in a city park not long after I gave him his copy of the album on CD when some cops who were canvassing the area saw them, grew suspicious of the two teenagers who looked like they walked straight out of the Woodstock film, and started asking questions.
They found some roaches and a small amount of pot on Gord. He found himself in the back of a police car, scared shitless. He was going to jail for only having enough marijuana in his pocket to roll one joint. He was sixteen.
Amanda was crafty. Gord might have been too terrified to speak, but she was friendly with the cops. She talked to them. She told them her boyfriend was a musician. Told them he was making all this crazy music with his friend. Told them she just happened to have their new album right here in her purse. Did they want to see it?
Those two cops looked at our song titles and my goofy drawings of us showing our asses to the world and thought it was pretty cool. They warmed up to Gord. They let him go with a warning: keep your drugs at home.
Talk about a weird album to save someone’s ass.
Jesse (I told you we’d come back to him) had a more troubled relationship with this music. As soon as he heard SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN he saw an opportunity, and he was on that shit faster than a dog on a shiny new fire hydrant. Today anyone can record an album on their laptop for little or no money. In 1999 things were a little different. Having the ability to record music at home and put it on a CD when you were a teenager…that wasn’t normal.
Halfway through the recording sessions for YOU’RE A NATION, Jesse was over at my house for the first of what would be many recording sessions. I was excited to work with another singer and songwriter my age. Gord was a great musical companion, but he wasn’t a writer. Aside from the odd thing like “Rotten Fruit”, he would never show up and say, “Check out this song I just wrote.”
I saw the potential for a unique creative partnership with Jesse. Not only did he and I both write our own material, but we had different influences and ideas. That could be exciting. We could push each other into uncharted territory by writing together.
My vision of our future was only half right. Jesse saw potential too, but it involved getting free recording time and absorbing my musical ideas to improve his own songs. And that was pretty much what our relationship was all about for the next few years, until he no longer saw any use for me and stopped hanging out with me. I was there to make him sound better and to listen to him spew hot air about how great he was and how lame everyone else was. When I asked him for a little bit of money after years of thankless work, he bolted.
I put up with this for as long as I did because I didn’t have a lot of confidence in those days. And to be honest, for a while I kind of looked up to the guy, before I realized he was a bit of an ass. He had charisma. That stuff can be pretty powerful.
The creative friction between us was interesting, even if he was the only one benefitting from it. Here was someone who wanted to take over the world, and he was convinced he was only a few steps away from his goal. I was the audience for a number of monologues in which he detailed his aspirations. He was going to The Top. He was taking me with him to The Top, whether I wanted to come along for the ride or not. He didn’t care who he had to step over or betray on his way to The Top. He knew he had the goods, and to hear him tell it, he was one of the only people on the planet worthy of this kind of success.
As someone who had no grand ambitions to conquer anything and was content to make music that didn’t fit into any particular box, his ego bewildered me. Meanwhile, I think I seemed like some sort of alien to him. The few times he did try to write with me, it was never about meeting me on my wavelength. It was about trying to get me to write the way he did. And that wasn’t gonna happen.
I’ll never forget him saying to me once, after listening to some songs that would end up on SHOEBOX PARADISE, “You’ve got so much talent it makes me fucking sick. You know, these could actually be good, commercial songs if you got rid of all the weird shit. I don’t know why you’re just throwing your talent away.”
There was contempt in his voice. He looked like an angry parent chastising a misbehaving child.
The “weird shit” was the whole point for me. I was a weird teenager with a twisted sense of humour and a wide range of interests. I wanted the music I made to reflect that. More than that, I wanted my music to sound like me. Not something somebody else had already done. It didn’t matter if no one else liked it. What mattered was I enjoyed creating it, it came from a place that was real, and I could enjoy listening to it.
I was art. He was commerce. It was that black and white.
Here’s an illustration of the war we waged:
That first time we met up outside of school in mid-October, I had a chance to play Jesse some music and watch him react to it. Giving my work a look-in was nothing more than an afterthought after we’d spent hours honing and recording a number of his songs, but I still wanted to share some of what I was working on.
The synthesizer stabs on “Rippin'” were “science fiction movie shit”. Jesse made it through three or four minutes of the song before he told me to play him something else. He made it all the way through “Spandex” but liked it even less. He told me Gord’s distorted screaming and a lot of my own singing was horrible, and the only way I could salvage the song was if I got rid of all that garbage.
I played “She’s Awfully Lovely” next.
“It sounds like you recorded this in your garage,” he said. It wasn’t a compliment.
I didn’t bother playing him “We’re All Gonna Go”. Having my work denigrated after I gave his soulless, brain-dead, emotionally vacant love songs a fair shake wasn’t my idea of a good time.
Two days later Jesse was over at the house again to work on some more of his music. He brought his friend Steph with him to sing some harmonies. Before we got started he said, “Play ‘Spandex’ for her.”
It was strange to me that he’d want anyone else to hear a song he had so little affection for, but I gave Jesse and Steph the two pairs of headphones I had and listened to the bleed I was able to pick up from across the room.
Steph laughed a few times. It wasn’t the laughter of someone who was put off by my lyrics about lycra-clad frogs, breasts from Montana, and my distaste for geography class. She was enjoying the song. For his part, Jesse had a look on his face like he was staring at something horrifying and couldn’t quite make himself turn away. It was hilarious.
Gord screamed, “Spandex for MEEEEEEEE!”
Jesse shook his head. “I told you to get rid of that shit. You left it in, huh?”
I smiled and shrugged.
“What do you think?” Jesse asked Steph once the song ended.
She told me she thought it was fun and she liked my vocal harmonies. That felt good.
“We need to get Johnny here to start writing normal songs,” Jesse said.
Here was the real tragedy of that night. I wrote two songs at school earlier in the day with the idea of asking Jesse and Steph to sing harmonies on them. One was a piano ballad. The other was a more uptempo thing. Both featured lyrics that were about as “normal” as I could stand to let myself get without lapsing into uninspired cliché territory (that was Jesse’s bread and butter, not mine). There was nothing weird about them. They were good, straightforward songs.
I had the music all worked out. I was ready to prove I could hang with Jesse as a songwriter — ready to assert myself and bend this into a true collaborative situation. I was convinced I would win his respect. And the thought of us singing three-part harmonies on my songs…that was thrilling.
I never got to hear it happen. Didn’t get to play even half a verse of one of those songs for my guests. As soon as “Spandex” was out of the way, Jesse made the night all about him. He had no interest in anything I had to say, musically or otherwise. He acted like it was his house, his equipment, his time. By the time he was trying to coach me into giving him the vocal tone he wanted for a third part harmony I was adding to one of his songs, bitching at me for not getting breathy enough, I was ready to tell him to get the hell out of my house.
I should have done that. I wish I wasn’t so gutless for so long when confronted with people whose unchecked arrogance sucked all the fun out of making music. It’s a serious regret.
At least I did one thing right. After he went home I annihilated the song he had us working on with one grotesque, ill-fitting overdub after another, taking everything he hated about my music and injecting it into his.
As passive-aggressive revenge scenarios go, that one was pretty satisfying.
I ran into Jesse at lunchtime one day in early November. By now I’d recorded almost a whole album for him between Papa Ghostface sessions and work on my own foul-mouthed Christmas album. He noticed I had the just-finished YOU’RE A NATION in my hand. He invited me to eat lunch with him in the music room. I didn’t have anything better to do.
He asked to see the album after we sat down. I handed it over. As soon as he saw “Spandex” written on the back insert his face lit up.
“You have to hear this song Johnny made,” he said to the six or seven other people in the room. “Check this out.”
He fired up Mr. Ross’s hi-fi system, slid the CD into the disc tray, hit play, and cranked up the volume.
No one seemed to know what to make of it. A girl named Katie Goertzen looked mortified. Jesse was smiling. I couldn’t believe it.
Just as Gord’s acoustic guitar was threatening to blow up the world, Mr. Ross appeared and killed the sound. He popped out the CD and asked who it belonged to. I reached out my hand and took it. He gave me a dirty look but didn’t say anything more.
“That’s fucking bullshit,” Jesse said. He was pissed.
Two weeks earlier, when he first heard “Spandex”, he was disgusted by it. Now he wanted everyone to hear it.
He never did come around to my way of looking at music as an art instead of a business. But I think that song broke his brain a little.
The best moment of all came when I was walking with Gord and Amanda in the park, probably a few more weeks down the road.
“I’ve had this song stuck in my head forever,” Amanda said. “Who does the song that goes, ‘We’re all gonna go down slowly’?”
“That’s one of John’s songs,” Gord said, laughing.
I sang a bit of it for her. Gord sang along on the chorus.
“That’s the song! I love that song!”
When you’re in high school and a beautiful girl has a song you wrote stuck in her head…it doesn’t get much better than that.
Over the years YOU’RE A NATION has remained one of my favourite Papa Ghostface albums. It’s foul-mouthed, idiosyncratic to the core, full of mistakes and human moments, and the music makes no concessions to the listener. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of what PG meant to me, and it paved the way for albums like SHOEBOX PARADISE and PAPER CHEST HAIR.
The thing that’s always killed me is the sound quality. It’s not an album I think a lot of people would enjoy or “get”, and to those who’ve only heard the music I’ve made over the last decade or so it would probably be a shock, but I’ve been reluctant to share it with anyone at all for a long time because of all that clipping and low end mud.
Too self-conscious to share an album you’re proud of. That’s a funny place to be.
Remixing it has never been an option. I have a very clear memory of staring at the mixer nineteen years ago and making the decision to erase every single YOU’RE A NATION track without backing any of them up. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t think I was ever going to get very good at this whole recording thing, and there wasn’t any reason to believe returning to this material in a year or two with fresh ears would make any difference.
My only recourse was to find a mastering engineer willing to take a crack at it. I started giving that some serious thought around the time the album turned ten years old.
In 2009, when I was beginning work on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I sent an email to a mastering engineer I won’t name. I felt it was time to give the professional mastering thing another shot, and that album felt like it was going to be especially dynamic and worthy of a master’s touch (ooh, a pun).
At the time, this guy was willing to master a single song for free to give potential clients an idea of what he could do. I sent him “Knee-Jerk Howl”. He told me his free samples were done on a “first come, first served” basis, so it could take a few weeks, but he would get to it when he could.
Nine years later, I’m still waiting to hear back from him.
In 2011 I emailed another mastering engineer I won’t name. This time I cut right to the chase. I told him about YOU’RE A NATION, detailed the album’s issues, and sent along a sample track to give him an idea of what he’d have to work with. I asked how much he would charge for a project like this and what the turnaround time would be.
I’m still waiting for a response.
It was just like the demoralizing weirdness I went through when I was trying to make friends with fellow musicians and get gigs in Windsor in the days before CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN made me “cool” overnight, only now it was mastering engineers who decided I was so insignificant they didn’t even want to take my money.
The YOU’RE A NATION Reclamation Project became a bucket list item for me. Something I hoped to get done someday, assuming I could ever find a mastering engineer who would give me the time of day. I wasn’t optimistic. I put it on the back burner and went about my business.
A lot of mastering engineers charge an awful lot of money. I understand why. You put a lot of time, money, and work into building a studio that’s acoustically treated just right and you hone your craft. Your ears and your gear are valuable — often indispensable. You provide an important service. You need to make a living.
But with the Loudness War showing no signs of fading, it’s become difficult to asses the kind of work some professionals are capable of when maximum loudness isn’t a consideration. I’ve heard $3,000 and $5,000 mastering jobs that sound like something a dead squirrel could have done with a stolen plug-in. And I know this isn’t even always the mastering. Some mastering engineers are given awful mixes by recording and mixing engineers — mixes that are intentionally distorted and devoid of headroom so they won’t be “tampered with” — putting them in an impossible situation. The issue still stands. When so much music is crushed beyond the point of no return and almost no one offers free samples anymore, how are you supposed to even guess at what someone might do to your music if your priorities are dynamics and musicality?
This is why I’ve been doing it myself for a good long while now. It keeps things simple.
Still, a few years back I got to thinking it might be worth one more try. One name I kept coming across on the internet was Scott Craggs. His rates were incredibly reasonable. What’s more, every shred of evidence I could find told me he did great work and was a pleasure to deal with. I listened to some music he mastered. It wasn’t squashed. It sounded good. I read some things he wrote. He was funny. He was articulate. He was against the Loudness War. I liked this guy already.
I sent Scott an email. He wrote back the same day. I almost had him master STEW. It was a shorter-than-usual album for me, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to find out what a real mastering engineer could do with my stuff now that I knew a lot more about the whole recording thing.
About five seconds after that email exchange, money-related things went straight into the toilet and paying a mastering engineer was no longer an option for me. So much for that.
These days things are better. And after losing most of September to that stupid cold and some subsequent bronchitis (boo), I felt the time was right for YOU’RE A NATION. There was never going to be a more opportune moment to cross it off my bucket list.
I sent Scott “Spandex”, explained what I was hoping to do, and asked if he thought it was a worthwhile project. He said he’d be glad to take a stab at it. He thought it would be fun. He also said the song made him think of a cross between Tago Mago-period Can and teenage silliness.
I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to high-five someone through a computer screen as much as I did right then.
At the time this music was being made, Can was one of many bands on my list of “music to check out”. I read about them and wanted to dig into their catalogue, but I didn’t end up picking up any of their albums until well over a decade later. And then, of course, I thought, “What took me so long?! This is great!”
What was I listening to in late 1999? There would have been a lot of Tom Waits, David Sylvian, and Roxy Music on the menu. Big Star. Kate Bush. Robyn Hitchcock. John Cale. Lou Reed. There wouldn’t have been any jazz, blues, or electronica yet.
I don’t know if much of that seeped into YOU’RE A NATION. But I know if anyone had dropped Can as a reference point in 1999, I would have flipped out. Might have asked them to marry me if I was feeling bold.
I wanted to make Scott’s work as painless as possible, so I experimented with the “Clip Fix” tool in Audacity. According to the manual, it “attempts to reconstruct clipped regions by interpolating the lost signal. It is only likely to be effective for repairing lightly clipped audio.”
It was a good deal more effective than that. Some of these songs were a mess of clipping all the way through. I was able to undo almost all of that junk. As I’ve said before, I know it isn’t technically possible to replace information that’s been lost through digital clipping. An algorithm like this can only “guess” at the way things might have sounded before the clipping occurred.
I applied it to whole songs, and it wiped out nineteen years of frustration in one fell swoop. It was unreal. The only sounds I couldn’t repair were those where distortion was burned in, either from a vocal effect being hit too hard at the source (“The Happy Dentist”) or a microphone overloading (“Spandex”). I expected as much. What I wasn’t counting on was being able to give Scott WAV files that had some actual headroom and lots of dynamics.
Score a major coup for Audacity’s guesswork.
In a way, I think something like this is the ultimate test of a mastering engineer’s skills. It’s one thing to work on an album that’s been well-recorded and well-mixed. When that isn’t the case and there are giant, gaping flaws that need to be addressed, you get to find out what an audio surgeon is really capable of.
I tried to keep my expectations low, given the source material. When Scott sent me the remastered songs, I burned them onto a CD, put on the same Sennheiser headphones I used when I was recording and mixing the album in 1999 (headband up this time), and braced myself.
If I hadn’t been listening in bed, “Rippin'” would have knocked me over. It had a punch to it I’d never heard before. The first W-5 drum hits smacked me right in the chest. For the first time I could hear everything my acoustic guitar was doing in the left stereo channel, and all my weird little bass runs, when those tracks used to be twin layers of mud. The Arp Omni-2 bits came alive in a whole new way. It was like a thick blanket had been lifted from the sound to reveal hidden abdominal muscles and a tasteful nipple ring.
Gord’s acoustic guitar overload on “Spandex” was now a cool lo-fi sound that didn’t bring way too much low end energy with it. On “She’s Awfully Lovely”, “Piss on Me”, and “Nothing from Nothing”, out-of-control bass tracks were reigned in until they sat right in the pocket. Hearing the songs like this was almost like hearing them for the very first time. The drum loops all had a whole new depth to them. The keyboard drums on “We’re All Gonna Go” almost sounded like real drums, they were so dynamic and full. My acoustic guitar sounded like it had been recorded by someone who knew what they were doing, and not a clueless teenager shoving an SM57 too close for comfort. Even my beat-boxing on the unlisted track had a new depth to it.
It was everything I didn’t dare to hope for and more. An album I thought was destined to have a saggy bum forever now had a tight, powerful bottom end. And the mud! Did I mention the mud? It was gone! Dead! Kaput! On some songs Scott had to contend with both acoustic guitar-generated mud and electric bass-generated mud. He killed them both without ever sacrificing the body of the sounds.
I asked him how he managed to do a thing like that. It was pretty amazing to me. Some people would scoff at this kind of question and say, “I’m not telling you how I work.” Not Scott.
Here’s some of what he told me:
From memory, it was basically something like this: De-esser on most songs, around 4-5k. EQ was a high pass filter around 25-30, usually a cut somewhere between 100-200, maybe another cut between 200-400. I added some high end on one or two of them. Nothing drastic, 1-2db at most. Couple songs might have had a dynamic EQ doing a bit of low end control as well. Then there was a compressor in M/S, just working on the M. I was trying to reign in the vocals a bit. So, high ratio, hard-ish knee, mostly just working to grab the louder vocal stuff. Then a regular broadband compressor, low ratio/soft knee, slow attack/fastish release, just tapping along doing a db or so. A little saturation, a tape sim, and a limiter….again, all of those just tapping a lil bit each. A couple of the really loud vocal bits I just went in and turned down manually.
That might not mean much to you if you’re not into recording and audio, but to me it’s riveting. So many different things, all doing small amounts of work that add up to a profound sonic difference. It’s a good lesson to me, too, about how less is often more even in situations where you’d assume otherwise. I thought an album like this would need huge EQ moves and a lot of compression to get it to sound right, or as close to “right” as it could get.
You know what else? It’s dynamic. It breathes. The volume is right in line with the ballpark range I try to shoot for these days when I’m mastering one of my own albums. The jarring moments like my scream of “Oh Jesus!” in “The Happy Dentist” are still jarring, as they were meant to be. They just won’t destroy your listening equipment or your ears now.
I mean, take a look at this beautiful waveform:
That’s how you do it. That’s how the game is won.
If I had the opportunity to remix these songs today, I could clean them up something fierce. I think that would be a mistake. Scott understood that without me even telling him. Instead of trying to make the album something it wasn’t, he respected the funkiness of the original recording and kept it intact, concentrating on making it the best possible version of itself.
It’s still a lo-fi beast. But now it’s got some shiny fur, some sharp teeth, and I’m no longer embarrassed to share it with anyone who’s brave enough to dive into the insanity. The best part is I can enjoy listening all the way through without any reservations for maybe the first time in my life. I used to almost want to weep when I heard how much out-of-control low end there was on a song like “Nothing from Nothing” or “Piss on Me”. It ruined the songs for me. That’s all gone now. It’s a little shocking to find myself thinking, “That’s a pretty cool bass sound,” when the only bass sound I thought this album would ever have was “shit”.
Huge thanks go out to Scott for making this stuff sound better than I ever dreamed possible, and for being so open and easy to work with. Fellow recording adventurers: if you ever find yourself in need of a mastering engineer who’s going to approach your music with an open mind, is responsive, has a quick turnaround time, won’t charge an arm, a leg, and a lung, and just does great work, Scott gets my strongest recommendation. You won’t find a nicer person or a better set of ears. I know who I’m going to now if I ever feel like an album needs an extra little something and it’s in the budget. The man is a sorcerer of the highest order.
You’d think this would be the end of our tale, but no. Now I had to think about cover art.
The first time YOU’RE A NATION was issued on CD with proper cover art I had no idea what to do. I went with a picture of the room the music was recorded in, more out of desperation than anything.
This picture was taken at the door. The room doesn’t look smaller than it is. It really was that cramped. I think it was ten feet by ten feet, if that. I spent a lot of time in that big chair, sometimes wheeling it over here when I wanted to play things with keys:
This would have been about a month before sessions for the album began. The rented acoustic bass is a dead giveaway.
I felt the first picture worked well enough as a cover image in a “you are there” way. Now I think it’s a little too bland for an album this nutty.
I didn’t feel up to commissioning an artist to draw something for me. I thought I’d see if I could scare up any interesting public domain images on the internet. I found a striking drawing Georges Méliès made during the production of his 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans le Lune (A Voyage to the Moon). I know an astronomical body and a stable community of people are two different things, but check out how cool this thing is.
The film itself is well worth viewing. It’s almost eerie to watch something that was made over a hundred years ago, knowing not a single person who was involved in front of or behind the camera is still living.
But maybe that was too classy for an album like YOU’RE A NATION. I wasn’t sure Georges would approve of a song like “Piss on Me”.
I looked at all kinds of abstract art in the public domain, from scrolls made in the 1300s to modern day digital drawings. A few things caught my eye.
Arthur Dove’s “Foghorns” from 1929:
And Georgia O’Keefe’s “Sunrise”, from the 1930s:
These were just too pretty for an album that worked so hard to avoid prettiness.
I was about to give up when I typed “public domain melting face” into a Google image search and this came up:
It was a sticker someone created and left on a website for anyone to use in any way they wanted. I downloaded it, reversed the polarity so it became white on a black background, and bingo. There it was. Something simple and off-kilter enough to feel like an accurate representation of what’s under the hood.
The plan is to go to Minuteman Press sometime next week and have a small amount of inserts made. I can’t wait to see that creepy smiley face on an album cover. It feels right. Almost iconic.
One thing I have to say: revisiting this album at the same time I’m wrapping up work on the last Papa Ghostface album there’s ever going to be has made for some interesting symmetry. In spite of all that’s changed, I’m proud to say the spirit of experimentation and anything-goes-ness is still alive and well. I think you’d have to kill me to get rid of it. Sorry, Jesse old pal. I just wasn’t made for the mainstream.
As I’ve said a few times before, this blog began as a half-assed stab at bullying myself back into being productive after falling into a shiftless state. If you dig into the archives, you can trace my progress from not knowing what to work on and settling for recording the occasional stripped-to-the-bone tiny song, to starting to regain some momentum, to finally kicking open the floodgates and recording eight very long full-length albums inside of three years before drifting into another less fruitful period.
CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN was the beginning of that whole creative resurgence. I knew it was an important album for me when I was making it. I knew I was proud of it when it was finished. I didn’t expect more than two or three other people in the world would have any interest in listening to it.
For years I tried to get gigs, tried to network and exchange music with other artists, tried to make friends, tried to play the game — everything you’re “supposed” to do, and everything I don’t do now. No one would give me a show. With a few fleeting exceptions, no one would talk to me. No one was willing to take the time to listen to my music to work out whether or not they even thought it was any good.
I didn’t know the right people. I wasn’t considered cool enough to be worthy of a seat at the table. It was made very clear to me, in a myriad of ways, that I wasn’t wanted.
One guy started telling me he was going to make it his mission to get me signed to a record label. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but it was a nice feeling to have a fan who claimed to have some industry connections and seemed willing to try and help me out. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him so we could talk about putting a game plan together.
The number he gave me was out of service. All he ever did for me was blow a bunch of hot air in my face.
That’s a good example of the sort of thing networking got me in those days.
I was able to get a show early in 2005. The bassist in the band that opened for me was one of the many people I tried and failed to connect with when no one was interested in anything I had to say. Now the landscape was a little different and he tried to paint himself as an ally who’d been in my corner all along. He said he would get me some more gigs around the city, helping to find bills I would make some amount of musical sense on. He was my new best friend right up until the moment I started playing my set.
I opened with an instrumental ambient electric guitar piece. He stood stock-still and glared at me. Maybe he didn’t think I was supposed to be able to get up on a stage and make that kind of atmospheric racket on a guitar with no amp and no effects outside of a cheap, obsolete-even-then Digitech GSP-21. Maybe he wasn’t expecting me to be any good and it bothered him that I wasn’t embarrassing myself, robbing him of an opportunity to pat himself on the back and say, “See? This is why no one would give you the time of day or listen to your music. I knew it all along.”
I’m not sure what his deal was. But he stood there and stared at me for a while with contempt sucking the warmth out of his face. Then he walked out before I was finished my first song. He didn’t come back.
He didn’t help me get any gigs. He never talked to me again.
It wasn’t like I was the talk of the town or anything. But now that some people who were considered cool decided I was good enough to pay attention to after all, the general attitude of the city’s music scene seemed to shift from, “Fuck off, freak,” to, “You’re okay, I guess. Come on in and hang out with us if you want.” Almost everyone I came in contact with was all talk. When it came time to turn thought into action, they would never show up so we could do anything together, or else they would stop talking to me after a while with no explanation, and then they would never acknowledge me again.
That put a pretty bad taste in my mouth. I washed it down by not playing any more shows and shoving myself off the face of the earth, killing whatever small-scale hype there was before it had a chance to hit puberty. The way I looked at it, if I wasn’t good enough before, no way was I good enough now that a few of the cool kids wanted to hang out with me. They didn’t get to have it both ways. And I’ve always had contempt for people who let their mouths write cheques their asses can’t cash.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t develop a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the whole thing. But I think it was justified. And sometimes you don’t have any popcorn to munch on when you’re watching a movie. A random chip or two can be useful in a situation like that.
I got on with trying to make the best and most honest music I could, keeping it to myself for the most part. I did manage to make a handful of friends through music, but they were few and far between. That was fine with me. I was content to hang out in the shadows, away from all the empty talk and double-dealing.
By the time CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN came along, I was a few years removed from that one post-high school live show. I tried doing the sideman thing for a while, backing up a few friends at Phog or the Room or the FM Lounge when they asked me to. That was as far as it went. Playing my own songs live wasn’t a consideration anymore.
I was excited to share this album with some friends and a few people at CJAM, but I didn’t expect anyone to like it much. As happy as I was with it, and as much as I felt like it marked something of a creative rebirth for me, it was pretty freewheeling stuff even by my standards, with a lot of very short songs and some pretty bizarre subject matter.
I gave a few copies to Liam at Dr. Disc and Tom at Phog and said, “I don’t think anyone will be interested in this. But if anyone wants a CD, they’re free for whoever wants to take them.”
A week or two later, I took a look at the CJAM website. My album was at #2 on the “general” chart and #1 on the folk/roots/blues chart. I did a mental double-take. I wasn’t listening to the radio at all at the time. I wasn’t expecting this music to get any airplay. I started digging into the MP3 archives and heard one DJ after another playing CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN songs and talking about the album with what sounded like real excitement.
A lot of people said some very kind things, but the most surprising and meaningful on-air moment I was privy to was this one.
The quality is pretty fuzzy. Something strange was going on with the MP3 archives in the late summer of 2008, and for a while anything you downloaded from the site was pitched down about half an octave and swimming with white noise.
(Side note: this was how I first heard the David Gray song “Knowhere”. To this day I can’t listen to it at its intended speed. It doesn’t sound right to me if it isn’t slowed down.)
I was able to restore this bit to the proper pitch and speed, but too much clarity got lost when I tried to remove the noise. So it’s very lo-fi.
Angela was one of the first people at CJAM to really champion my music. She got the music director to take notice and move my albums over to the on-air library for the first time so they were eligible to chart. She was the main reason I got that show back in 2005. Unlike the aforementioned Mr. Hot Air, she even solicited some record labels on my behalf in an effort to get them to acknowledge me.
We’re not friends anymore. It’s complicated. But there’s a part of me that will always love her for what she said about me on her show ten years ago when this album was new. The first time I listened, it made me feel like crying.
I got a call from Liam not long after that. “The album is awesome,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to sell it? All the copies you gave me are gone. Everyone who hears it wants one.”
I had to start giving Liam and Tom small boxes to hold free copies of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. I couldn’t seem to keep them stocked longer than a week at a time. The attention my music stirred up back in 2004 and 2005 for a short spell was nothing compared to this. I got blog comments and emails from people in different countries asking how they could get a copy of the album. And with an almost rabid enthusiasm, I was hurled into a music scene that had once treated me like a leper.
The strangeness of it all is difficult to put into words now.
My twenty or thirty minutes of local fame/infamy aren’t worth getting into in any great detail. A lot of that story is already preserved here in old blog posts. I made friends — some of whom later revealed themselves not to be friends at all — and enemies, had some interesting adventures, watched as the whole free public distribution thing stirred up all kinds of mixed reactions, became the subject of some pretty outlandish speculation, and came to understand this wasn’t a world I wanted any part of.
Once I got what I thought I wanted, I saw it wasn’t at all what I built it up to be in my head. I consider my time spent as a semi-present member of this city’s music scene to be a worthwhile experiment, but after a while the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze anymore. There was too much pulp for my taste. So I backed away and scaled things down until I was pretty much back where I started. The group of people who had some genuine interest in what I was doing was a little larger than before, but otherwise I was still chiseling away at random rock formations from the comfort of my cave.
Without CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, whatever’s left of that audience today probably wouldn’t exist. It remains the album I’ve made with the most reach and the largest, most diverse fan base. It’s also one of my own personal favourites when I look at all the work I’ve done. For all the weirdness I thought people would find off-putting, the songs still stand up and feel like some of the best I’ve written — especially in their remastered form, without the digital clipping some of them were marred by the first time around.
Not long ago, Ron Leary’s album theroadinbetween turned ten years old. He played a handful of live shows that featured the whole album performed front to back. My “breakthrough” album hasn’t had anything close to the impact his debut full-length did, and it hasn’t reached half as many ears over the years, but I got to thinking it might be worthwhile to try doing something similar. After all, you don’t often get the chance to mark meaningful musical milestones like this.
I could try putting a band together to play the whole album. That would be kind of crazy, teaching a group of people more than thirty songs. I could go it alone. That would be almost as crazy, and it might be a little less interesting for an audience to listen to so many songs with a more limited palette of sounds to support them. I did sit down one afternoon to try playing a bunch of the songs at the piano as an experiment. It opened them up in an interesting way and gave me a new appreciation for some of them.
But I’ve also been stewing on an idea to put on a big show at Mackenzie Hall when YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is finished with as many of the people who’ve contributed to that album as I can get on board. I feel like I’ve got one big show left in me, and that’s it.
As appealing as a ten-year anniversary CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN extravaganza is in theory, between trying to finish two different albums and some other business that hasn’t yet been written about here, I think the timing isn’t quite right. Don’t be too surprised if there’s a show sometime next year, though. If it’s the last thing I do in a live setting with my own music — and it might be — I’m going out with a bang.
Ron’s album is officially finished. The final mixes and master have been approved. Brand new dances have been invented and danced with gusto. Now it’s just a matter of Ron taking care of the packaging and duplication side of things. I can’t give you an exact release date, but my hope is that it sneaks out into the world before the end of the year.
It was strange coming to terms with it all being over. I don’t think this sort of thing used to register at all, but these days a lot more time, thought, and effort is involved in making an album for me, whether it’s my music I’m recording or someone else’s. There’s almost always some sort of emotional investment that happens along the way, and when the album is finished it feels like the end of a relationship. In a way I guess it is. Sometimes you get to play some of the songs live and have a nostalgic roll in the hay after the fact. Most of the time you just move on to the next one.
Now I find myself with nothing but my own music to focus on, for the first time in four or five years. When I channelled all of my energy into finishing Ron’s album, I got pretty ruthless about it. It was good to be reminded how efficient I can be when I’m dialled in and working toward a well-defined goal.
With that album complete, I’ve done my best to take the energy I tapped into near the end and redirect it into my own music. So far, so good. As before, I’m working on finishing that Papa Ghostface album first, so I can then focus on that other big thing without any distractions. Right now there are twenty-two keeper tracks. Whether or not they all end being kept is a matter for time to decide. Six of them have mixes that feel good enough to be left alone. Eight only need a small amount of work — either a better mix or a few final touches. Another eight need some serious surgery.
I’d say things are moving along pretty well. If I can manage to get at least one song somewhere near the final mix stage every day or two, I’ll be in good shape.
You’re probably wondering who’s playing trumpet in that picture up there at the top of the post. That would be Austin Di Pietro. He was over here last week scattering magical music dust all over the place.
I’ve had pretty rotten luck with horn players throughout this whole YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK adventure. For every Anthony Giglio and Michael Stone — great guys who played some great flugelhorn and trombone, respectively, on songs you’ll hopefully get to hear soon — there have been something like a dozen trumpet players who have either ignored every effort I’ve made to start a dialogue with them or expressed an interest in playing on something only to turn around and stop acknowledging me for no apparent reason.
You don’t want to know how many musicians in general have done that to me. It’s getting a little scary. I’ve learned a lot through this whole lumpy process. Some of it’s been about me and how I’m a more capable and adaptable producer than I thought I was (yay for me!). A lot of it’s been about our city’s music scene. It isn’t quite as inclusive as it wants you to believe it is. There are some very talented people in Windsor’s artistic community who also happen to be open-minded and generous with their time. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with several of them. There are also some self-important douche canoes who have no interest in interacting with anyone outside of their established circle of collaborators and hangers-on. And some people mean well but are just giant flakes.
To that end, I was in touch with a trumpet player who seemed enthusiastic about doing something right up until the moment I figured out what I wanted him to play on. I sent him a rough mix of the song and never heard from him again. Austin ended up taking that person’s place and playing on a second song as well.
I have Amanda Hanson to thank for this. She was another horn player I talked to, and when I finally got around to sending her a message with a few songs I wanted to run by her, instead of ignoring me she levelled with me and said her improv chops weren’t where she wanted them to be. She was concerned she wouldn’t be able to give me what I was after. She did know a few people she could recommend to take her place. At the top of her list was Austin.
One thing I’ve discovered about myself while working with so many different singers and musicians over the last few years: I can usually coax a good performance out of someone if they need some coaxing, regardless of their skill or comfort level. And that’s rewarding work. But when you get someone in the studio who’s such a good musician they don’t need any significant direction and you can just stand back and let them do their thing…those are fun moments.
Austin is one of those people. The first song he played on was a laid-back bossa nova-inspired thing. We got a few takes down with him playing trumpet, and I would have been happy to live with one of them, but then he switched to flugelhorn and nailed it in a single take. Something about the mellower tone of that horn and the way he played it felt like it completed the song. As usual, I stuck the trusty old Pearlman TM-1 in the middle of the room, put it in omni, and all was well in the world.
To mix things up, I asked Austin to play on a twisted spoken word piece that lived on a different planet from the bossa nova tune. For the first song I had a written melody (or “head”, if you like), and then there was room for a bit of improv. Here there was nothing mapped out at all. It was wide open for him to do anything he wanted. I ran his trumpet through my old Digitech guitar effects processor friend, using my favourite ambient effect. Instead of being put off by the weirdness of all the cascading delays smearing the sound of his horn, he seemed to enjoy the opportunity to go a little crazy, using the effect to build up dissonant chord clusters. Again, it was just what the song needed.
I grabbed some video footage while he was here, but I don’t want to give too many more surprises away before these albums are done, so I think I’ll sit on that for now. Good things are coming, though. Believe you me.
Ron’s album is at the mixing and mastering stage now. I’ve been plugging away at that over the last little while. The goal is always to get things to sound as good as I can, but every once in a while I’ll get an amusing reminder that it’s best not to over-think it.
There are people out there who spend more time mixing a single song than they would working an eight-hour shift. They won’t rest until they’ve found a way to get every sound to live in its own perfectly defined little sonic space.
It’s a valid way of doing things, and it can lead to some incredible-sounding and immersive mixes, but I can’t work that way. My mind and my ears won’t work that way. I’m pretty sure if I spent that much time focused on just one song, I would lose the plot and end up with a mix that felt flat.
For me, mixing is more about energy than anything else. I try to get the sounds I want at the recording stage to make life a little easier later on. I usually dial in whatever compression and EQ I want on the way in. A lot of people will tell you this is something you should never do, because it limits your options later on, but I tend to use compression more for taming peaks than for character. As for EQ, my mindset there is pretty much the same as it was a decade ago. I’ll add a bit of a high boost to the stereo ribbon mic I use to record drums, to compensate for that mic’s high end roll-off. I’ll cut out some lows on acoustic guitars because I like to get the mics pretty close to pick up as much nuance as I can, and nuance can bring some mud with it. Other than that, I almost never EQ anything, and I don’t believe in applying a high-pass filter to 80% of your tracks to get them to sit better in the mix. I think I’ve used a high-pass filter exactly three times in my life.
If I’m honest, a lot of modern music sounds way too processed to me. It isn’t subtle. You get to a point where you have no idea what the song sounded like as a somewhat human performance, if it ever was one before someone added six hundred plug-ins to it, tuned the lead vocal to fix all the flat or sharp bits, and replaced all the drum hits with samples that sound nothing like any drums you’ve ever heard played by a person with hands.
Again, this is a legitimate way of working. It’s a sound that sells records and gets you on the radio, if nothing else. But most of the time it does nothing for me. It doesn’t move me at all. Even with some of the music I enjoy, I’ll sometimes find myself listening to an album and wishing there’d been a different cook in the kitchen.
When all other considerations are swept aside, I think this is the main reason I probably won’t ever be comfortable paying someone else to record my music. I don’t want to make something that sounds like it belongs on mainstream radio. I don’t want a sound that blends in. I want to make music that doesn’t blend in with everything else, that isn’t processed to death, that retains some semblance of realism and won’t sound dated in five or ten years when recording technology experiences another paradigm shift.
I’m not saying all the music being made now is trash and all the people recording and producing it are lazy. Plug-ins can even be great creative tools when they’re used by someone with an adventurous spirit. And not all processing stomps the life out of music. It can be used to create some truly special and unique soundscapes.
But that’s the exception rather than the rule. I see which way the wind is blowing, and I’m going to keep sprinting as hard as I can in the other direction. If I’m recording drums, I want them to sound the way my drum kit sounds in my room. If I’m recording piano, I want it to sound the way my piano sounds in my room. If I’m recording a vocal performance, I want to get the closest thing I can to a continuous, uninterrupted take. If there are mistakes or hesitations that crop up along the way, GOOD. Let them serve as reminders that the music is being played and sung by a person, not a software component.
Still, doubts crop up sometimes when I’m recording someone else’s music. The ethos I’ve developed over time has a sound that comes with it, and it isn’t going to be a sound everyone wants to hear. Lucky for me, most of the people I’ve recorded up to this point seem to share at least some of my sensibilities, and I haven’t yet had someone say to me, “You ruined my music.”
Ron and I have been on the same page from the beginning, and he’s been all for preserving the integrity of interesting performances, right down to leaving in some between-song banter (which I always love). I think we’ve got a pretty special album here, and it’s not just because of the songs, though that’s a big part of it. It feels alive. You can close your eyes and imagine being in the room where the music was created without much trouble. It may have been built up a piece at a time with a cast of just two main players and two guests, but instead of creating an artificial sound world I think we documented a real, naturally evolving one. That’s something I’m proud of.
When it comes to the mixing process, no matter what I’m working on, I try to achieve the best balance I can. But it always comes back to energy. If the energy feels right, that’s the mix I’ll go with almost every time instead of something slicker that has no life in it. As with every other step along the way, I don’t want the human quality to get lost.
That humanness has been there from the very beginning, though it didn’t always equate to good-sounding albums. In 1999, when I was recording YOU’RE A NATION with Gord, he invited me to hang out at his girlfriend Amanda’s house for Halloween. We’d just recorded a song called “Nothing from Nothing”. It was this creepy Tom Waits-inspired improvised spoken word piece that felt like a perfect Halloween song. I wanted to play it for everyone that night, but I couldn’t get it onto a CD in time to bring it with me.
Amanda had one of those CD players that held five or six discs at a time. She loaded up the disc changer with Soup by Blind Melon, A Saucerful of Secrets by Pink Floyd, some Marilyn Manson, some Pearl Jam, and — to my amazement — Papa Ghostface. Both SCREAMING NIPPLES and the first half of the double-CD HORSEMOUTH (AND OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) made the cut somehow. Then she hit the “random” button and let the playlist program itself all night.
I think it was the first time I heard any of my own music in a public setting. It was weirdly humiliating. Here were all these professionally-recorded songs that had everything balanced just right, and then out of nowhere you’d get one of our songs torturing the speakers with a lot of unpleasant clipping and way too much bass.
When one of the girls who was there found out Gord and I were responsible for that lo-fi noise, I tried to tell her the new music we were working on sounded better than any of this stuff.
“Hey, I’ve definitely heard worse,” she said, looking sympathetic.
There are a lot of things you’d like to hear someone say while they’re listening to your music for the very first time. That’s not one of them.
I was sixteen years old and just starting to teach myself the rudiments of digital recording after years of recording everything live in one shot on a boombox with a built-in microphone. It was more than a little unrealistic to expect to start pumping out brilliant recordings right away. But that night I felt like the most inept, talentless piece of shit who ever lived.
I vowed never to let myself be embarrassed like that again. I would get better. A lot better. I had no training and didn’t know what I was doing with any of the equipment I was cobbling together. I had no home computer, no regular internet access, and no one to guide me. It didn’t matter. I was determined to find a way to learn what I needed to know to get good at this recording thing.
When I was a guest on Ron’s CJAM show a month ago, he played a brand new song I gave him on a CD. It was my first time hearing it in the CJAM studio. It came roaring out of the speakers with a force that almost took my head off. It sounded huge. And this isn’t a song that has a lot going on arrangement-wise. It’s pretty stripped-down.
When I’m mixing something, I do everything I can to make sure it translates in as many different settings as possible. In spite of my best efforts, there’s only so much I can account for. My main priority is to get a song sounding good on a full-range system — not to get the best sound on earbuds or laptop speakers, where you’re losing a lot of information no matter what you do.
To hear something that didn’t just hang with a bunch of songs recorded in professional studios without embarrassing itself but stood out as being more open and dynamic-sounding than most of them, and then to realize it was my work…that was a pretty cool feeling.
It was the opposite of everything I felt almost two decades ago at Amanda’s house. I was proud. It made me feel like I was pretty good at this whole thing.
This doesn’t mean I’m suddenly some mixing genius. Not even close. I don’t think a “perfect” mix is ever going to be within my reach. But I think it’s fair to say I’ve learned a lot in the intervening years, and I look at each album I work on as an opportunity to keep learning and honing whatever skills I’ve developed.
With Ron’s album, the mixing process has been pretty straightforward. There are ten songs (one got pushed aside), and as of last night I felt good about the mixes for nine of them. There was just one song giving me a bit of trouble.
It’s always one specific song that decides it wants to be a thorn in my side. It never fails.
This one was the very first thing we recorded, before we had any idea we were making an album. For every other song, I recorded Ron’s acoustic guitar the same way I always record a solo acoustic performance, with two Neumann KM184s. Here, instead of SDCs I thought I’d use two LDCs for a different stereo sound — in this case a Pearlman TM-LE and a TM-250. Ron’s parts were recorded in 2014, and I added the rest in early 2015.
Now that we’re dealing with a full album and all the other songs have been fleshed out, the difference in acoustic guitar sound doesn’t stand out as much as I thought it would. The electric guitar is a different story. This is one of the few tracks I used the Telecaster on, and the sound is brighter than anything I captured on any of the other songs.
I thought if I re-recorded my guitar part and got a darker sound it would fit in better. It was easy enough to play, but I couldn’t recapture the spirit of the original take. Figures. I decided to leave it alone and focus on trying to dial in a mix that would fit in with the others. The more I worked on it, the farther away I got from where I wanted to be.
Today I went back to the original rough mix I made in 2015. It wasn’t perfect, but it had the energy I wanted. In that respect it destroyed every one of the new mixes I’d been messing around with over the last few days. I used the rough mix as a guide, made a few small adjustments, and decided that was as good as it was going to get. It wasn’t a cop-out. It was a moment of accepting that sometimes you do (almost) get it right the first time, regardless of what your brain might want you to believe.
As Kenny Rogers sang, you gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when a mix is fine the way it is.
When I first made the switch from cassette tapes to digital recording — a transition fraught with both growing pains and excitement — I never imagined I would someday be operating as my own DIY record label. The thought of making more than a single copy of a given album and sharing the music with anyone outside of my home was still a foreign concept to me.
The second proper song I recorded on my spiffy new eight-track mixer in the summer of 1999 was a twelve-minute improvised piece about the hypothetical death and unwanted resurrection of a bully I would pretend to kill off in a few more songs down the road. This was their first imagined death. Things were going well until a little past the nine minute mark, when I threw in a little spoken word passage.
“From the corner of the swing set, someone was watching,” I said in a faux-British accent. “Someone was watching very closely. What they were watching was unclear, but it was indeed something.”
What I wanted to say next was, “What it was, no one would ever know. And what no one would ever know was what it was.”
Instead, I tripped over my self-made tongue twister, and what came out was this: “What it was, no one would ever know. And what no one would ever know what was it was. That was was t’was tos tosteestostas. Teestostas. Tosteestostas.”
I have no idea how the song would have ended if I didn’t accidentally reverse the order of “was” and “what”, turning my mistake into an excuse to do away with intelligible words altogether. There’s no way to know. There’s only what happened in the moment, and it’s preserved on CD for as long as CDs continue to function. Over my best synthesized impression of a string section, I repeated this nonsense word “tosteestostas” dozens of times, wailing it, screaming it, moaning it, turning it into the climax (and unexpected title) of the song.
When I was finished recording it, I thought, “That’s it. There’s my imaginary publishing company and record label wrapped up in a neat little bow. Tosteestostas Music.” I can’t explain why it felt so right. I think it was the absurdity of it that appealed to me. I could have spent months trying to come up with something meaningful, and I never would have found a phrase that grabbed me as much as this one word that wasn’t a word at all, that came out of a moment of tongue-tied silliness.
Even before I knew anything about album packaging, when my idea of liner notes was turning whatever inserts came with a CD-R inside-out and writing whatever information I could fit in the available space, copyright information was always attributed to Tosteestostas Music. Once I figured out I could have proper inserts printed without too much trouble, it started appearing on album spines along with the name of the album and the catalogue number.
Somewhere along the line Tosteestostas became something like a real record label, albeit a very low-key one. If you really think about it, I do everything a label would do for me if we lived in an alternate universe in which I sold my music and some A&R person was insane enough to want to sign me, from the recording and production of an album, to working out cover art and designing the packaging, to getting inserts and booklets printed, to duplicating the CDs myself, to “distributing” them (which now involves little more than giving them to a handful of friends, but used to be a much more involved process) and “promoting” them (which I don’t do at all anymore aside from writing about what I’m working on here, but again, promotion used to be a thing I flirted with, sometimes, sort of). I even make my own music videos, if you can call them that, and book my own shows when I play live every century or two.
So what began as a made-up thing isn’t so made-up at all anymore.
I came within a cough and a sneeze of registering it as an official business the other day. The nudge to do that came from the strangest place.
There’s this thing called the Canadian Private Copying Collective (CPCC, if you like acronyms). In the interest of education, here’s some of the information they offer on their website:
Established in 1999, the CPCC is a non-profit umbrella organization whose member collectives represent songwriters, composers, music publishers, recording artists, musicians, and record companies. It is responsible for collecting and distributing private copying levies.
A “private copy” is a copy of a recorded track of music, or of a substantial part of such a track, that is made by an individual for his or her own personal use. A personal compilation of favourite tracks is a good example of how people typically create private copies.
Part VIII of the Copyright Act allows consumers to copy recorded music for their own personal use. In exchange, the private copying levy was created to compensate music rights holders for private copies made of their music. Similar levies are collected in over forty countries around the world. Copies of music have value — if they didn’t, people wouldn’t make them. In a public opinion poll conducted by Praxicus Public Strategies Inc., 67% responded that music rights holders should be paid when copies are made of their music.
The private copying levy is a royalty that exists to provide compensation to songwriters, composers, music publishers, recording artists, musicians, and record companies for private copies made of their music. It is applied to the kinds of media that are ordinarily used for private copying. The media that the levy applies to and the rates that are charged are determined by the Copyright Board of Canada, based upon evidence presented in a formal hearing.
The private copying levy is not a tax. It is a royalty paid to music rights holders. Unlike a tax, which is collected by the government, the private copying levy is collected by the CPCC to provide remuneration to rights holders for private copying. The private copying levy is earned income for rights holders and helps them to continue to create music.
Private copying royalties are distributed to music authors, music publishers, recording artists, and record companies through the CPCC’s member collectives. While music authors and publishers may qualify regardless of their nationality, only Canadian performers and Canadian record companies qualify to receive the private copying levy.
I first noticed this levy around 2012 or 2013 when I ordered some recordable CDs and the price was higher than usual. I paid the levy and didn’t think much of it. I went on paying every time I had to stock up on CDs.
Long before that, when I got serious about taking care of the duplication side of things myself, I tried a lot of different brands of so-called high-end recordable media, settling on inkjet printer-friendly Taiyo Yuden CDs after a whole lot of over-thinking and hair-splitting. These were touted as being just about the best CD-Rs money could buy, and it turned out the touting was justified. In all my years of buying recordable CDs, these have by far been the most reliable for both archival and musical purposes.
At some point JVC took over production. The quality stayed pretty much the same. Then JVC/Taiyo Yuden announced they would be ceasing production of all optical media at the end of 2015. A company called CMC Pro bought all the necessary rights and dyes to continue producing the very same CDs, just under a different name. But things haven’t been the same at all.
In spite of their stated commitment to uphold the same standards of quality set by Taiyo Yuden, once CMC Pro took over the failure rate of their CDs jumped from almost nonexistent to somewhere around 30%. That’s atrocious. I’ve probably gone through a few thousand of the JVC-branded TY CDs over the years, and in that time I think maybe there have been two discs that failed on me.
Word on the street is CMC Pro have finally sorted things out and are now producing CDs more or less on par with the Taiyo Yuden media of old. But to go on making and distributing a product they knew was defective for years before deciding to do something about it…that’s not great business acumen. I’d rather not take a chance when everything I’ve read screams at me to run far away from what these once-great CDs have become.
My workaround was to buy up as much of the leftover JVC stock as I could. Sadly, eBay was the only place I had any luck, and I was only able to buy a few stacks of a hundred before they all seemed to disappear. I’ve only got a little more than a hundred of those trusted TY CDs left now.
Time to switch to another brand, then. Looks like some people in my position have had good results with Falcon Media CDs. From all the information I can gather, they seem to be a solid choice.
I was about to pull the trigger on a hundred of these discs when I noticed that pesky levy again. I don’t know if it’s increased over the last few years, but it effectively doubled the price, and I don’t remember that being the case before.
This got me to read up about just what this levy was designed to do. And it pissed me off a little.
I am a songwriter, a musician, a recording artist, and a record company. This “royalty” is supposed to reimburse me for others privately copying my music without my knowledge. And yet I get nothing. It isn’t a royalty at all. It is a tax, and I’m the one paying it. As an independent artist, I’m being penalized for something I don’t do, when I only use any of this recordable media to make sound recordings of my own music — which I own the rights to and choose to distribute for free — and to back up data that pertains to…you guessed it…my music.
It’s pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but I still think it’s ridiculous. I mean, technically, the CPCC owes me money. I’ve been paying for a few years now for something I’ve never done.
The only way around this stupidity is to apply through the CPCC to have the levy waived. In order to do this, I either need to be a member of a recognized musician’s organization (no thanks), or I need to be the owner of a registered business. Registering my record company as a business made the most sense here, as far as I could see…until I read a sample of one of the CPCC’s application forms and learned I would need to keep meticulous books documenting how many recordable CDs I bought, where I bought them from, and what each disc was used for. I would have to agree to make myself available for an audit if the CPCC ever decided they wanted to check up on me. And I would need to pay a $60 application fee (plus tax), on top of the separate $60 fee to register my business, plus whatever “administrative fees” they decided to add on top. And then every year I would need to pay to renew my “membership”, if you can call it that.
I can understand this kind of policing when you’re dealing with distributors who buy and sell hundreds of thousands of recordable CDs and DVDs. Plenty of people in those positions have tried to screw the system, and there are court decisions documenting their startling lack of ingenuity. But by assuming everyone is using recordable media for the same thing, we all end up paying for something only a select group of people do. Does anyone even make “mix CDs” anymore when you can make a playlist on the internet much easier and full albums are made available to listen to for free on YouTube the moment they’re released?
Besides, do you know how many recordable CDs I buy in a year? Two, maybe three hundred. At the peak of my infamy, when I was making my albums as accessible to the public as I could, I probably went through a few hundred more. Even then, I doubt I ever bought more than five hundred CDs in a year, and every one of those discs was either used for backup purposes, for rough mixes, or to facilitate the free, independent distribution of my own music.
It’s outrageous that these people would have the right to audit me. Not that they’d find anything incriminating. I have very little to gain by cheating, and I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to try. The whole thing is just goofy to me.
In the end, I decided it’s simpler to pay this absurd levy that again claims to be designed to benefit me when it does no such thing, eat the small bowl of liquid shit being served to me by the CPCC while they claim to have my best interests in mind, and live with it. It’s a little irritating to have to spend an extra $30 every time I want to buy a hundred CDs, but at least I don’t need to jump through hoops to satisfy an organization that couldn’t care less about someone like me.
On a happier note, here’s a song off the forthcoming final Papa Ghostface album. I’m not sure if this is a final mix, but it feels pretty good at the moment.
Maybe call it a sneak peak instead of an advance single. I think singles tend to either be about putting your poppiest foot forward or offering a pretty clear idea of what the rest of the album sounds like in microcosm, and this does neither of those things (though the dark alt-folky flavour is an indication that some of the songs do have that taste to them). It isn’t any bold musical statement, it doesn’t begin to hint at some of the weirdness that transpires elsewhere on the album, and it’ll probably show up somewhere around the halfway mark. So it’s pretty much the definition of a “deep album cut”.
I think I just felt like sharing it because I was working on tidying up the mix and thought it was a neat little song.
All the electric guitar tracks were amplified care of this old friend:
Most of the time I use this amp for grittier moments when I want some natural tube breakup. Lately I’ve been trying something different, turning it down just past the point of being turned on — there’s very little headroom, which has always been part of the amp’s charm — and getting some nice clean sounds. There’s still a throaty quality that sets it apart from the Fender Twin, but I’ve been surprised by the depth and richness of some of the tones I’ve been getting.
Not bad for an amp I got for free as an add-on when I bought my first electric guitar many moons ago.
All the guitar tracks were mic’d in stereo with an SM57 and a Sennheiser 421. The initial rhythm part was played on the Telecaster I’ve been neglecting for a while. I added a bunch of fiddly bits on acoustic guitar, but it didn’t quite feel right, so I replaced all those parts with more electric guitar, this time playing the newer Jazzmaster that’s become one of my go-to guitars. It’s got this nice chiming thing going on in the middle pickup position, and that seemed to play well off of the Telecaster’s rounder sound.
Recording the leg slaps was, as usual, pretty tedious. When you want to create the illusion of a bunch of people smacking their thighs and it’s just you in front of the microphone, it takes a while to build up a decent bed of body percussion. I did six or eight tracks and then made a stereo sub-mix to free up most of those tracks for other things. Thought about adding drums, but I liked the feeling the song had with just the leg slaps.
I seem to gravitate toward this sound over handclaps a lot of the time. There’s a softness to it I like. Clapping is a more confrontational sound, and it doesn’t always work in a mix.
The last thing I added was the six-string banjo. I could feel something was missing, but I had no idea what it was. Since the main guitar riff almost felt like something I should have played on a banjo in the first place, it was the sensible thing to try, and once I worked out a few little counter-melodies it felt like the void had been filled. It’s funny how you can introduce a single acoustic instrument into a mix that’s swimming with electric guitars, and all at once everything opens up in a subtle way.
Technically this is a solo song, but Gord expressed some enthusiasm when I played him the music before it had any words to go with it, so there’s a good chance it would have ended up on the album even if things didn’t fall apart, and I probably would have ended up playing most or all of the instruments anyway. I guess the main difference, now that I’m going it alone the rest of the way, is the freedom to include whatever songs I want and arrange them however I like without being second-guessed, which is always nice.
I’m going to try and get this album finished — mixed, mastered, packaged, and everything — in the next month or two. Not sure I can pull it off, but I’m going to give it my best shot. When STEW was about as close to being finished as this one is now, I had a lot more on my plate and started doubting my ability to mix the songs to my satisfaction. Too much time was spent thinking about the work I needed to do instead of sitting down and doing it. I don’t want to let that happen again.
I know I’ve said this sort of thing in recent years and then failed to stick with it. I’ve been better over the past six or seven months — still prone to the occasional crummy lethargy lapse, but a lot more productive. Finishing things continues to be my achilles’ heel, when it used to be one of my strengths. Hopefully some sort of regression to the mean will happen one of these days and I’ll revert to my old routine of putting out at least a few albums a year.
Without knowing I was doing it, I reminded Ron of a song he meant to record that kind of got lost in the shuffle, and he decided it would make a perfect closing track.
Last week he came over so we could get down the bed tracks. Recording the guitar was quick and easy, as usual. Recording the lead vocal was another story.
I’ve talked before about how my Pearlman TM-1 has become a magic bullet when it comes to tracking vocals. At this point there must be somewhere near twenty different singers I’ve put in front of it, with vocal ranges and timbres that are all over the map, and it’s never once been the wrong choice. Even when I’ve auditioned a different mic for fun, I always come back to the TM-1. It’s the mic I’ve used to record Ron’s voice and all the vocal harmonies I’ve added from day one.
This night, for the first time, it didn’t work.
The song we were recording might feature the most dynamic vocal performance of any song Ron’s written. He starts out right at the bottom of his vocal range, just above a whisper, and then in a matter of seconds he’s belting it out with a lot of force at the very top of his range.
I’ve never had any trouble smoothing out this sort of thing before. Usually mic placement and a bit of compression will do the trick. This time the difference in volume between the quiet parts and the loud parts was astronomical, and there was no way to get the two to coexist in a way that sounded natural. I tried putting the mic in omni to cancel out the proximity effect. That helped a little, but not enough.
At times like these I’m glad I invested in so many different microphones over the years, whether I needed them at the time or not.
My first thought was to try switching to a dynamic mic. Maybe the relative lack of sensitivity there would have a narrowing effect. The SM7B that decided to be a dickface when Jess was here was in a kinder mood this time around and worked without any issues. The volume discrepancy wasn’t as bad, but way too much of the detail in Ron’s voice was getting lost.
When that didn’t cut it, I figured the Pearlman TM-250 I’ve come to love on violin, cello, and certain acoustic guitar tracks was worth a shot. I don’t know what’s going on in this mic’s guts, but somehow it smoothed things out to the point that the fader-riding I was expecting to have to do even in a best-case scenario was no longer necessary. It was nuts. A little kiss of compression and it sounded just right. The dynamics were still there, but now they lived in a comfortable, sane range.
It’s fun having to problem-solve like this on the fly sometimes. Almost makes me feel like I’ll be a real recording engineer someday, Pinocchio-style.
Oh yeah — at long last, I found someone selling a pair of Sennheiser HD 265 headphones on eBay for a not-stupid price. Score! This is an expense I can justify, because these are my utility headphones. Used pairs in any sort of decent condition are almost impossible to come by now that they’ve been discontinued for so long, and if anything ever happened to my grizzled old pair, I’d be in a bit of a bind. I feel better having a backup pair around.
They’re in near-mint condition. There are only one or two little scuffs. Next to the pair I’ve been using for pretty much everything for twenty years now, they almost look like a different species.
That’s just messed up.
The physical degradation of my long-suffering pair of HD 265s has been such a gradual process, I didn’t notice the sound was changing along with the appearance. As the headband has lost most of its shape and the faux-leather ear pads have exploded, allowing the cloth and foam inside to escape, it’s turned these cans into something closer to a closed/open hybrid. The ear pads, or what’s left of them, sit on the ear more than they wrap around it. All of these factors have combined to create — for me, at least — the ideal headphones.
No wonder I didn’t understand why most of the old reviews I read online had people complaining about how bass-heavy these headphones were. The ones I’ve been using scarcely sound like themselves anymore. They’re much more open and balanced, with a great, deep soundstage.
Who knew something could evolve into a better version of itself while falling apart?
Putting on a pair that might as well have come straight out of the box was a strange experience. I’d forgotten how well these things isolate sound with a headband that hasn’t lost most of its grab. And holy hell, there is a lot of bass when the ear pads cup your ears the way they’re supposed to. Too much for my taste.
It’s going to take a while to break these guys in, but I’m confident someday they can look as dilapidated and sound as good as their brethren.
I just can’t do it. I can’t finish putting my long-gestating pedal board together.
I put a lot of thought into the final pedal I was adding to the group. I had room for one more. I came close to pulling the trigger on a Walrus Audio Julia and then an Earthquaker Devices Transmisser. The Julia is a really pretty-sounding chorus/vibrato pedal, but the Count to Five can get me some similar sounds, the POD (which I only use for effects now, and never for its amp-modelling) can fill in most of the rest, and I can’t see myself wanting to use chorus all that often. The Transmisser only does one thing, and while it does it in a way that sounds like nothing else, after falling in love with it I realized I wouldn’t be able to use it too often without it becoming something of a cliché.
If I was going to get anything, it was going to have to be a pedal that was a real wildcard — something unique and versatile.
I knew I’d found what I was looking for when I saw this.
The Shallow Water isn’t quite chorus or vibrato, though it can create sounds that live in both of those worlds. It calls itself a K-Field Modulator. There are two things that set it apart from your average modulation pedal.
The first thing is the low pass filter, which is incredibly sensitive to dynamics and can go from “subtle”, to “dark and mysterious”, to “the universe is swallowing up my sound source and only faint suggestions of its soul remain”. When the LPF isn’t engaged and you’ve got a full wet mix, you get some noise, but I kind of like that. Sometimes you want things to get a little lo-fi. It can add character.
The second thing is the modulation itself. It’s random. There’s something about modulation that can’t be predicted. A strangely emotional quality. It engages the brain in a different way. You’re listening for a pattern, and there isn’t one.
This thing is deep as hell. It can do lush chorus sounds. It can also make your guitar or synth sound like it’s violently drowning in a small pool of water. Its name is very apt. It’s going to take me a while to learn all the ins and outs and harness everything it can do, but I think we’re going to be friends.
So I bought this pedal, the final one, I put money on the credit card to buy a power supply and the cables I needed, and then I hesitated. And I hesitated some more. And then I noticed a month had gone by since I was supposed to order the stuff, and I still hadn’t done it.
What it comes down to is this: I can’t justify spending more than three hundred dollars on an isolated power supply and a few feet of Mogami cable. I just can’t. To me, that’s outrageous, and borderline offensive. Three hundred dollars can buy an awful lot of food. It can pay a few bills. It can buy a fancy dinner for a medium-large group of reformed miscreants. It can buy a lot of recordable CDs, ink cartridges, jewel cases, and other practical supplies. It can change someone’s life in a small but pivotal way.
Besides, I think the Wurlitzer looks pretty nifty with some of my pedals sitting on top.
So I’ll live with the mess it creates on the floor when I feel a need to have a few pedals running at once, and I’ll clean it up when I’m done. It’s not like I play live, ever. Putting my board together would make things a little more convenient, sure. But convenience isn’t worth that amount of money to me. Not right now. Not in this situation.
Sorry, Captain Convenience. I’ll have to drink from your cup some other time.
I did make good on something else I’ve been meaning to do for a while now. I finallyhad enough mixer space — if only for a moment — and the motivation to make it happen. I’m talking about taking the raw camcorder footage of SEED OF HATE being recorded back in November of 2001 and editing it into something more digestible.
It was more of a pain in the ass than it should have been.
If I wanted to have better quality audio to punch up some of the recording segments, there was only one way to make that happen. I was going to have to go back and remix most of the songs without the vocal tracks. There’s a lot more footage of us getting the music down without Jay than there is of him and Tyson summoning the best screams they had to offer the following day, and what the camcorder’s built-in microphone captured in most of those instances is either drum-heavy to the almost total exclusion of all other musical elements, or little more than headphone bleed (which made syncing up the proper recordings with the camera’s audio a task and a half).
The album was recorded in a single song file on my mixer, separated by track markers, and backed up on two CDs. Those CDs are now sixteen and-a-half years old. With these multiple-CD backup jobs, all it takes is one disc crapping out on me and the whole thing is lost forever. I found that out the hard way when I tried to remix some of the late-period GWD albums about eight years back.
I braced myself for the worst. Both discs dumped their aging guts back onto the mixer without a hitch. Score one for Maxell.
Making instrumental mixes was pretty straightforward. I had no notes to rely on, so I used my ears to dial in mixes that were as close to the originals as I could get them. That seemed to be the smart way to go. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on music this heavy, and treating it with my current sensibilities would probably be a recipe for sonic weirdness. I did bring up Tyson’s guitar a little to highlight how creative his work on the fretboard was. Other than that, I tried to keep things sounding about the same.
A few interesting discoveries were made along the way.
I took the time to type in a name for each track, using the super-tedious “select one letter at a time to make words” function the mixer provides. Things like “L Guitar”, “R Guitar”, and “Bass” show up on the LCD screen when specific tracks are selected. It’s pretty surreal. I don’t remember ever doing that for anything else I recorded back then. I don’t even remember doing it this time. I sure as sugar cookies don’t do it now.
There were even more mics on the drums than I remembered — six. We mic’d up the kick, snare, floor tom, rack toms, set up a general mono overhead to capture the cymbals, and had more of an ambient room mic going as well. How much ambience it added is debatable, since all the mics were SM57s and 58s, but this is the tightest and most conventional drum sound you’ll find on anything I’ve ever recorded. I’m not likely to use that many microphones on a drum kit again.
And I got to solve a small mystery. All the false starts, count-ins, and between-song moments of banter were erased at Tyson’s request, but one brief bit of dialogue survived at the end of the last song. The mics we were using were so directional, and so far away from most of the people talking, I could never make out a thing being said. Now, after cranking the volume on the mixer, I can rest knowing the song I called “Your Friendly Neighourhood Waterbed” in the absence of a proper title ends with Tyson saying, “Yeah! That’s the best we’ve ever played that!” and Brandon muttering, “Not really.”
“That all sounds pretty hassle-free,” you’re thinking. And you’re right. What got me swearing at the sky was the editing process.
I spent chunks of a few days chopping out superfluous crap until I had an eighty-minute assembly I was happy with. It feels like a pretty honest picture of the recording process and the surrounding shenanigans. Really, all I got rid of were things no one needs to see, like Gord filming a light fixture for ten minutes (I exaggerate, but not by much), and a few moments where the burned-in camera effects got kind of maddening.
For example, when we were recording the vocal tracks, Gord hit the “fade to white” button, causing the audio and video to disappear…only to have it come back three seconds later. Then he did it again three or four more times. It broke up the natural rhythm the footage should have had and made synchronizing the audio from the CD impossible. I made a few cuts, lived with whatever choppiness was created, and that problem was solved.
There were times when I wanted to go back in time and tell Gord to stop using every built-in effect the camera had to offer, and just point the thing at what was happening and film it. Close to half of this footage was marred with a negative image or “ghost” effect that looks cool for about ten seconds and then gets old fast. I was able to reverse this by inverting the image a second time, effectively cancelling out the effect. I left a bit of it intact in a few places, but believe me when I tell you most of the scenes I removed it from are much better off without it. You can actually see what’s going on and who’s saying what, for one thing.
The other effects range from the sometimes-effective “double image” to an infuriating and distracting rapid zooming in and out that I can only imagine was designed to simulate motion sickness. There’s nothing I can do to counteract any of those. I can only hope you find them charming or amusing. They drive me nuts.
Gross overuse of effects aside, I have to say Gord did a decent job of capturing what was going on. The one serious exception, and some footage I wish I could have included, is a bit where Tyson talks me through one of the songs while we listen to a rough instrumental mix. He points out different moments, highlighting the abilities of the other musicians in the band, talks about how hearing the music recorded in a more professional way gives him a deeper appreciation for it, and delivers a fascinating monologue that makes it clear just how much thought went into crafting these songs.
The whole time this is happening, the camera is pointed at the wall, nowhere near either one of us. I wanted to weep when I saw it. You might think I should have included it anyway, but five minutes of looking at a wall is pretty hard to take, no matter how good the soundtrack is.
If only I had the ability to create a little animated short to serve as a replacement to the nothingness captured by the camera. But I’m not an animator. At least there are a lot of other fun moments in there, and you get to watch a bunch of teenagers alternate between goofing off and doing some serious recording. And there are a few moments of supreme lunacy from a skinny, beardless version of yours truly. I don’t remember saying any of those demented things I said, but the camera doesn’t lie.
Gord’s spur-of-the-moment decision to record over some of the footage from the second day is a mixed blessing. You lose Tyson trying to talk me into improvising a vocal track on the most melodic Fetal Pulp song, along with most of the sound effects he added in lieu of vocals. There was more of Jay in there too. But what Gord filmed on top of that is some of the only surviving GWD footage, even if it’s just me and Tyson running through a tongue-in-cheek medley of some of our “hits”.
(I’m saving that GWD footage for something else. It wouldn’t have made much sense to include it here, even if it was the way our second day of recording ended.)
I recorded a little voiceover to act as an introduction and a coda to the main course. I’m not sure I’ll be doing that again — it feels more natural talking to a camera when I’m doing this sort of thing — but it was fun to try something different. I think it works well enough, offering a little bit of context and allowing me to make use of a few pieces of music that will probably show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE someday.
Even the rendering process wasn’t the disaster it could have been. The crusty old laptop I use for video editing purposes has experienced something of a rebirth since that nice fella at PC Outfitters blew a mountain of dust from the casing that holds the fans. It’s still slower than mud, but with a new swagger in its step. A slow swagger.
This was a real test for it. An hour and twenty minutes is by far the longest video project I’ve ever asked Sony Vegas to process. I think the meatiest thing I’d done before this was one packed video progress report that touched down around the fifty minute mark, and that was back when the laptop in question was still in its prime.
It took six hours, but the video rendered without the computer once overheating or shutting down. Not so long ago, expecting it to survive for a tenth of that time was pushing it. This gives me hope that when my semi-documentary about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is done, it too will render without the world coming to an end.
The trouble came after the video was finished rendering. I noticed the sound went out of sync around the halfway point. There was no explanation for it. I’ve never had this happen before with any video I’ve edited. Vegas was at least helpful enough to tell me how far things were out of sync, but it wouldn’t tell me the cause. Why I was able to see how much things had shifted was a mystery in itself.
There was only one fix. I painstakingly uncoupled the audio from every single clip past the forty-five-minute mark and inched it forward until everything was synchronized again. I rendered just the second half of the video. Then I discovered the last few minutes were still out of sync, so I fixed those bits and rendered that part. I was left with three separate video files I needed to trim and stitch together.
I assumed I could do this with the ever-handy MMPEG Streamclip without suffering any quality loss through additional compression. I was wrong. The program doesn’t recognize WMV files. The only thing I was able to find that seemed like it might help me was something called Machete. Only the “lite” version was free, but it had all the capabilities I needed. It wasn’t Mac-compatible, though. I had to download it on the sluggish laptop reserved for video editing.
Machete let me trim and join clips to my heart’s content. It left a second or two of ugly blank space where each edit was made, but I was okay with that…until I went to save the file and discovered it was going to take even longer than it did to process the full-length video in Vegas.
You failed me, Machete.
I was left with no choice but to start from scratch and render the whole video file all over again. That meant another five and-a-half hours of waiting, and then an additional four or five hours to upload to Vimeo.
There’s one little wonky editing mistake near the end where Tyson’s smile appears to break the space-time continuum. With all the audio I had to move around, I missed snipping out a split-second piece of footage that repeated itself. After all that frustration, I don’t care enough to go back and fix it. Maybe some other time.
Watching this makes me wish all over again that I could go back in time and buy a video camera of my own long before I started thinking it might be a good idea to get one. I missed out on capturing a whole lot of cool music-related things. At least there were weekends like this one when someone else had the foresight to grab a camera and let it roll. But what I wouldn’t give for some Papa Ghostface recording footage from 1999, or any number of other things…
Viewer discretion is advised: there’s a whole lot of swearing in this video, a bit of onscreen drug use (just a bit of pot being smoked, but still), and while I’m pretty sure Brandon only pretends to expose himself a little past the fifty-five minute mark, I’m not taking any chances with the powers that be at Vimeo. This one gets a “mature” rating.
Not too long ago, I was talking with a friend about recording other people. When someone comes here to record an album or an EP, most of the time they want me to do some amount of playing and arranging. “Just do your thing,” is a wonderful thing to hear. Even so, you want to make sure you don’t bring so much of yourself into someone else’s music that it starts to sound like they’re little more than a singer in your band of evil clones. You want to add layers to their voice without diluting it.
This has always been an enjoyable challenge for me — finding a way to incorporate whatever ideas I have while serving the songs. In my own music, I can throw an intentionally off-key bugle blast or the slowed-down sound of a squirrel screaming in the middle of a ballad and think nothing of it. In someone else’s song, that’s usually not going to fly.
My friend and I were talking about all of this when I sent along a rough mix of a song written and sung by someone else that had me playing most of the instruments. “There’s that familiar Johnny West snare sound,” he said. And I thought, I have a recognizable drum sound? Really? How did that happen?
I imagine this is what most producers are chasing on at least some level. A sound that’s their own. It’s just a little weird when you realize you got there almost by default, while trying to avoid certain sounds.
I do seem to have a drum sound that’s “mine”. The thing is, it only ended up that way because as much fun as it was to hear my drum sound change every few albums when I tried out some new mic placement strategy, I got tired of having to move those mics around all the time and wanted to stick with something simple that ate up less tracks on the mixer. I also wanted to get away from anything that felt like it resembled a conventional “produced” drum sound. Too many homogenous drum recordings heard on mainstream radio stations took their toll on me over the years.
So I stuck a stereo ribbon mic in front of my drum kit, patched it into a nice mic preamp, added a bit of compression and a slight EQ boost to counteract the high frequency roll-off inherent in most ribbon mics, and said, “That sounds about right.” Give or take a few experiments with adding a distant room mic, this is the way I’ve been recording acoustic drums for ten years now. It’s by far the longest I’ve ever stuck with a single approach.
This means my “drum sound” is the sound of my drums in my room, recorded to sound as natural and unaffected as possible. That’s kind of hilarious. An anti-sound became a sound.
I’ve developed ways of recording other instruments that work for me, even if in some cases they might be a little unorthodox. Sometimes recording with other people has opened up alternate approaches I wouldn’t have been able to attempt on my own. The way I like to record acoustic guitars with Gord when we’re working on Papa Ghostface songs, both of us playing at the same time, with the guitars mic’d in such a way that the bleed is emphasized instead of negated, and then doing it a second time and layering the tracks — that’s impossible when I’m recording by myself, for the obvious reasons. I love experimenting and discovering new ways of doing things, but when I’m recording someone else’s songs and they ask me to play a lot of different instruments, I’m going to grab the microphones I know work for me and put them in the places where I tend to get the best sounds.
If someone asked me to throw more mics on the drums, I would. For whatever reason, that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s because every time a drummer is supposed to come in and play on an album I’m recording for someone else, they never show up, and I end up having to do it myself.
It would probably sound like a mess if I tried recording a different drummer the way I record myself. I’ve learned how to get the most out of this setup. I had to change the way I play to make it work. I used to be a much busier drummer, as you can hear on things like the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. These days I prefer a more minimal approach. Something tells me that would have happened anyway, regardless of what microphones were involved.
As with any other studio, if an artist has any thoughts about recording here, I imagine it’s because they like at least some of the sounds I’m getting. I always want to keep an active dialogue going so I know what they want to hear, what their musical vision is, and whether or not what I’m doing feels right to them. But I do have a pretty specific way of doing things, and it isn’t going to be for everyone.
The great thing about not advertising and keeping this whole thing low-key is I end up working with people I already know, or people who have heard enough of my work to know what they’re getting themselves into if they come here. Working with people you like, recording music you can get excited about, and sensing they’re happy with the work you’ve done when it’s all over and they wouldn’t fire you out of a cannon into a vat of bacon grease if given the chance…that’s a pretty great gig.
Now, if someday Vampire Kate Beckinsale hears an album I’ve produced for another artist, without knowing I was involved, and says, “Hey, I know where this was recorded! That’s the Johnny West drum sound!” my life will be complete.
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.