I set a low-key goal to have a rough assembly of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK on CD by the end of this week, if only for my own peace of mind. There were two mixes that needed some last-minute tweaks and two songs that required a little more in the way of clothing before I could mix them. If I could get all of that taken care of and the sequencing felt right, I’d be able to focus on finalizing the layout of the lyric/art booklet.
I didn’t do myself any favours by leaving some of the most difficult work for last. These are four of the most ambitious songs on the album, with an average track count of twenty-five. Two of them are more than eight minutes long.
For those who work out of a commercial recording studio — and even for most home recordists — twenty-five tracks is nothing. For me and my humble sixteen-track mixer, it’s a lot.
The mixing process has developed all kinds of new and interesting wrinkles. Mixing a song was once almost a set-it-and-forget-it thing for me, because there were so few tracks to work with. Now it’s become a musical performance in itself, with countless pinpoint changes in panning, volume, and effects.
Early in the week, I tackled one of the songs that still needed some work at the recording stage. It was in a very unfinished state. I had an acoustic guitar track, bass, some rough piano, a scratch vocal, and multi-tracked trombone and cello.
I was never happy with the acoustic guitar sound I captured for this song. I used my Martin 000-15. I love that guitar, and it’s really opened up in the eight or so years I’ve had it, but I’ve come to rely on it more for accents and secondary parts. It can sound a little thin when you try to build a whole song around it. I prefer the warmer, richer-sound of the 1945 Martin 00-17 or the 1951 Gibson LG-2 for that sort of thing.
When I revisited the basic tracks the acoustic guitar part wasn’t doing it for me at all. It wasn’t just the sound that bothered me. It was flat and lifeless. It sounded more like I was trying to avoid hitting an ugly note than really letting go and expressing something through the instrument. So I junked it, plugged in the Telecaster, and rebuilt the whole arrangement around electric guitar instead. Everything started to feel more dynamic right away. The bass was good enough to keep. I ditched the piano in the body of the song and recorded some Fender Rhodes in its place, recorded some drums, added some of the crummy twelve-string acoustic that’s become an occasional secret weapon, nailed down some keeper vocal tracks (the vocals are layered at the beginning before collapsing down to a single, unembellished performance), bounced the trombone down to a stereo submix to make my life a little easier, threw in a bit of lap steel, and braced myself for a mixing nightmare.
This is one of those songs that goes out of its way to subvert anything resembling a traditional verse/chorus structure. I tend to do that anyway, rarely writing a chorus even when sections of music in a song repeat, but it’s often a subtler thing (at least compared to the violent refracting of song forms that drove albums like BRAND NEW SHINY LIE and GROWING SIDEWAYS). Here it’s not subtle. There are four distinct movements, and none of them recur once they’ve run their course. The instrumentation shifts a fair bit as well, with different elements coming and going. The only straightforward part from a mixing standpoint is the final section, which is kind of striking in its starkness compared to the rest of the song — just piano and cello.
I almost fainted when I listened to the first mix in a few different settings and it hit me that I only needed to make a few small adjustments. That doesn’t happen with songs like this. It almost always takes me at least a few mixes to get things right, or at least as right as I’m going to get them.
The second mix, which isn’t much different from the rough pass, became the final mix. It might be one of my better mixes on the album. It’s ridiculous.
Luck? A fluke? I don’t know. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.
Full of self-belief, I jumped right into the other song that still needed some work, thought I might get it done in a day, and smacked face-first into a glass door. Proverbially speaking.
This one also has four movements, but they’re much more disparate, almost as if four different songs have been fused together. There are layers of vocals, saxophone, violin, many guitars (some acoustic, some electric, some backwards), bass, drums, and by the time I’m finished adding Wurlitzer and a few more atmospheric touches it’ll top out somewhere near thirty tracks. Not all of these elements are in play at the same time, which is part of what makes it such a delicate dance to pull all the threads together.
I added some new vocal tracks to the last section. Then I tried re-recording the vocal tracks for two other sections before deciding I liked the existing takes better. They may be imperfect, but there’s an energy there that feels right. I recorded some acoustic twelve-string guitar over the most propulsive part to thicken things up a little (using my own axe this time) and started forming some ideas about just how I’m going to mix this monstrous thing. I still need to replace some of the sax stabs with vocal harmonies and take another pass at the drum part.
It’s taking a little longer than I hoped, but given how complicated the thing is, it was probably unrealistic to think I could blow through it in an afternoon. Better to let it take its time. If that means another few days of experimenting before I figure out all the final touches the song needs, and if the two mixes I still need to fine-tune end up getting impatient and rolling their eyes at me, so be it.
Since the beginning of time, every year or two the cord for my Sennheiser HD265s craps out on me — though I seem to have solved this problem at long last by using separate cords upstairs and downstairs, cutting down on wear and tear. If I’m not accidentally sitting on a pair and destroying them (sorry, Direct Sound EX29s), I’m swearing when one of the drivers stops working and I’m left with sound in only one ear (I’m looking at you, Vic Firth isolation headphones).
The most frustrating of them all might be my Denon AH-D7000s — and not for any of the reasons you’d expect.
I bought them ten years ago, right in the middle of recording LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS. They ran me about a thousand bucks. I was reluctant to spend that much money on a pair of headphones, but these were worth it. Some headphones will lie to you and make poorly-recorded music sound okay. Not these guys. Bad recordings and bad mixes are revealed in all their awful, glorious mediocrity. At the other end of the spectrum, when something is recorded and mixed well, it sounds otherworldly on these headphones. They’re a little on the bright side, but that allows me to hone in on and eliminate lip smacks, tongue clicks, and other unwanted incidental sounds that might otherwise slip through the cracks.
I’m sure something like the Stax SR-009s would blow the AH-D7000s away. I’m going to go out on a limb and say even if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t begin to consider spending $10,000 on those headphones and the amp needed to drive them. The AH-D7000s do the job just fine for me.
They’ve become an indispensable mixing tool. If I can get a song to sound good on my monitors, the darker (and somewhat more flattering) Sennheiser headphones, and these Denon headphones, I know it’s going to translate just about anywhere, whether it’s a full-range hi-fi setup or tiny laptop speakers.
All was well until three or four years ago, when something strange started to happen. Every once in a while I would leave one of my spiral notebooks lying around in the studio and a small splotch would appear somewhere on whatever page the book was flipped open to. I don’t have oily fingers, so it was a bit of a mystery to me. I started to think maybe there was a friendly ghost wandering around in our house and he/she enjoyed reading my lyrics. Nothing else made much sense.
Then I noticed I kept leaving the Denon AH-D7000s on top of whatever notebook I was using. It wasn’t greasy ghost fingers making those splotches. It was the ear pads on the headphones.
I’ve never been rough with the AH-D7000s — I take care of my stuff — but they’ve been very well-used in the time I’ve had them. When one of the structural screws popped out, forcing Steve Chapman to turn into MacGyver and save the day, it was shoddy craftsmanship on Denon’s part that led to the problem, not headphone abuse on my part.
Now it’s the same thing again. Here’s a company that charges a lot of money for high-end headphones, and they can’t be bothered to use a PVC solution that won’t completely break down over time.
It’s been getting worse over the last little while. Now both the headband and the ear pads are degrading, and some days I’m finding bits of pleather in my hair and on my face.
Laurette, the owner and alterationist at Seams to Fit, has done a fair bit of mending for us over the years. Seventeen years ago, Johnny Smith brought Jiffy — a stuffed giraffe I’ve had since I was a baby — to her for some surgical intervention. Too many trips to the washing machine in my childhood left him with some awful scoliosis, and he couldn’t even raise his head anymore. Thanks to Laurette, Jiffy got his swagger (and his posture) back, and he’s still going strong today at the age of thirty-six.
If anyone was going to be able to do something to salvage these headphones, I thought it might be Laurette.
I asked her what she thought about sewing a fabric over the headband to cover the decrepit pleather so it wouldn’t break off in my hair anymore. Without batting an eye, she said, “What about vinyl?” She had an extra piece squirreled away that looked like it was just the right size. It was black, and it looked and felt very similar to the material the existing headband was made out of. She said she could rig something up with velcro so it would be removable, in case I ever wanted to clean it.
Two days later it was ready. She charged me all of five bucks. From a distance, you wouldn’t even guess the headphones have been altered in any way.
The ear pads are another story.
A lot of third party companies sell replacement pads that cost anywhere from thirty to sixty dollars. That sounds semi-reasonable, but there’s a serious drawback. Because none of these ear pads are manufactured from the original materials Denon used, they all change the way the headphones sound. That wasn’t going to work for me.
You’d think I could just buy replacement ear pads from Denon themselves. Nope. They used to sell replacement parts, but they’ve discontinued most of the headphones they used to make, and though the new AH-D7200s look almost identical to the AH-D7000s, you can’t even buy replacement ear pads for them. Talk about not standing behind your products.
After doing some research, I discovered Fostex is the only reputable company making replacement ear pads that are more or less interchangeable with the original AH-D7000 pads, and they won’t alter the sonic signature of the headphones too much. After shipping, they would run me well over a hundred dollars. For ear pads. Made of the same material that will someday degrade and flake off on my face all over again.
“Nuts to that,” says I.
I’m sticking with the decaying ear pads I’ve got. I don’t mind picking the occasional tiny bit of pleather off of the side of my face. At least I don’t have to worry about it getting stuck in my hair anymore. That’s progress.
My interest in sampling should have started with the Casio SK-10 I had as a kid. Here I had the ability to record and warp short bursts of any sound I could think of, and the best idea I could come up with was getting the built-in demonstration songs to play symphonies of armpit farts. I sampled the TV a few times, but that was as creative as I got.
In the mid-2000s I heard a Bjork song in a restaurant. I think it was right before I really got into her music. I’ve never been able to figure out which song it was, but I remember there was this sound swimming through the whole thing — something like a field of wind chimes being upended by a swarm of locusts.
“Sampling!” I thought. “Yes! I must get a sampler! I must make sounds like this! No more farting with my arms! I’m a grownup now!”
I could have had a lot of fun with the SK-10 right about then, but it was collecting dust in a house full of people I never wanted to see again. So much for an emotional, armpit fart-free reunion.
The Roland V-Synth looked like an attractive option for a while. Then I discovered I already had a synthesizer with sampling capabilities — a Korg Triton LE. For a fraction of the cost of a V-Synth I could get an EXB-SMPL sampling board, slip it into the guts of the Triton, and go nuts.
I can’t remember if the sampling board came with instructions. If it did, they weren’t very helpful. Johnny Smith helped me wedge the thing inside of the Triton, but we had no idea what we were doing. We couldn’t get it to work. One of the high A# keys stopped functioning not long after that, and I’ve always wondered if it had anything to do with my little sampling misadventure.
A few days ago we opened the Triton up for the first time in close to fifteen years. I thought it was about time I got some use out of the EXB-SMPL. Thanks to a helpful YouTube tutorial, it wasn’t going to be so difficult to set up this time.
What we found was…well, this:
What you see there is an empty space where the sampling card is supposed to be. We must have taken it out when it didn’t work and chucked it back in the box. I guess that high A# stopped working all on its own.
Maybe I was never meant to sample anything with this synth. The way it worked out, I found other solutions.
In early 2014, a few months before work began on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, I bought a circuit-bent Casio SK-1 off of eBay. An unbent Yamaha VSS-30 followed a little while later. For the last five years, I’ve been having a blast sampling all kinds of things. As great as the SK-1 is — and most of the time I’m not even engaging the bends — it’s the VSS-30 that’s become an indispensable sonic weapon. From here on out, I can’t imagine making an album that doesn’t feature it in a pretty integral role.
There’s one specific sound that’s always appealed to me. It’s what happens when a human voice gets chopped up and bent out of shape. You hear a lot of this in different strains of electronica-driven modern pop music.
A few examples:
That’s right. I just posted a song featuring Justin Bieber, and not in an ironic way. Be afraid. The high-pitched distorted synthesizer-sounding thing you hear during the instrumental choruses is the Biebernator’s voice, believe it or not. That’s what sampling and mangling can do.
Now, if I had access to something like this, I would be in heaven:
Disembodied voices, all primed and ready to be manipulated? Sign me up.
Alas, I don’t use a computer to record, so software like this isn’t an option for me. If I want to get sounds that live in that world, I have to create them myself.
(I know I said I was done sharing excerpts from the SLEEPWALK documentary thing. I lied. Jesus, look at all that grey hair.)
I’m loving the Zoom H1 for voice-capturing purposes when I’m recording video and my face needs to be on the screen. It’s easy to put on a mini-stand and point in my general direction, allowing me to speak freely regardless of where the camera is. Whenever I was using one of the Flip cameras, I always had to try and get my face as close as possible to the camera if I wanted to get something resembling clean, present sound out of the built-in microphone. Now it’s not an issue. Even when I point the H1 at the monitors so the playback takes precedence over my voice, what I’m saying still comes through loud and clear.
Compare the above video to something like this and I think you’ll hear what I mean. You might notice a bit of a difference in the visual quality as well. Three cheers for the Canon T5i (and for opening the blinds to let in some natural light).
Sort of related, a little bit, maybe:
For years I had this itch in the back of my brain. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what would happen if someone else produced/recorded my music. I was pretty sure I would try handing the reigns over to someone else someday, if only for a song or a quick EP, so I could satisfy that curiosity.
It’s not something I wonder about anymore.
For better or worse, I’ve developed a recording aesthetic that’s very specific to me and what I do. By now it’s as much a part of my music as my voice or the way I play piano. Strip that away, put someone else in charge of dialling in the sounds they believe are appropriate and keeping the performances they like best, and I don’t think the results would sound a whole lot like me anymore.
Very few of the sounds coming out of professional recording studios right now do anything to move or inspire me. That’s just my own personal taste. The few producers I would have an interest in working with are nowhere near Windsor, and they charge such a disgusting amount of money for their services, I’d maybe be able to afford five seconds of studio time with them. Even if I won the lottery, after all the time and work and money that’s gone into building my studio into what it is today, it would make no sense to pay someone else to bark orders at me and spend two hours getting a drum sound they’re only going to obliterate later on with samples they bought in a bundle from Waves Audio.
I want to make it clear that I’m not dumping on this way of working. I’m only saying it isn’t what I’m after as a producer. I think any way of working is valid if it gets you the results you’re after.
Earlier this year, Ryan Lewis (owner/operator of RadSouls Studio) came over to record some piano and vocal tracks. When he told me to do whatever I wanted with the basic tracks, I saw it as a unique opportunity to compare my work to another producer’s. Though the song wasn’t my own, this was the closest I was ever likely to get to hearing what someone else would do with my music. We both started with the same source material and took it in very different directions.
As dissimilar as our mixes are in terms of instrumentation and arrangement, what really stands out to me is the use of compression. In my mix the piano is allowed to breathe in a natural way and the snapping is treated as just another sound. In Ryan’s mix the snapping is emphasized, the piano is pumped up with a ton of compression, and everything is a lot louder.
I’m not sure I could come up with a much better demonstration of what I mean when I say my sensibilities are almost violently out-of-sync with what most other producers seem to want to achieve. It’s right there in black and white.
Here’s a bit of a breakdown of some of the elements I added to my take on the song, showcasing some of what the VSS-30 can do when you take the time to create your own samples.
Ever since I acquired the ability to record overdubs twenty years ago, I’ve always enjoyed layering vocal harmonies. It’s come to feel like a pretty personal thing. Even with all the vocalists I’ve managed to involve in YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, most of their work has been limited to singing lead parts or contributing to group vocals.
I did try to get other people to sing harmony on a handful of songs, just to see what would happen. Only two of those people bothered to show up. One of them was Kaitlyn Kelly, who made time for me when she was in town for the holidays a few years ago and did some beautiful singing on a song that’s going on the album. The other was Leanna, who also sang a lead part on one of the “musical dialogues” I wrote.
The first session with Leanna was great. She came in and sang that part like she owned it. She said the song brought something special out of her. The second session was…not so great.
Five times we made plans. Five times she stood me up. The sixth time she managed to make it here. I was still doing my musical barter thing at the time. I offered to record a song of hers to thank her for singing on one of mine. She brought along her then-boyfriend, who I’ll call Chocolate Bar (his stage name is something pretty close to that), and an additional guitarist I wasn’t told was coming.
We attacked the harmony part on my song first. It was slow going. She hadn’t bothered to learn the song and didn’t seem to be nearly as into it as she was the first time. We recorded it piecemeal. I would sing her a line. She would sing it back until it was good enough to move on to the next line. After about an hour we were done.
The second guitarist asked to use the bathroom. After waiting a few minutes and not hearing a flush, I took a look to see if he was dropping off some kids or something. He never set foot in the bathroom. He was hiding around the corner, taking pictures of my gear with his phone.
If you’re over here working with me and you ask to take a picture of yourself singing into a microphone, playing an instrument, or giving me bunny ears, I have no problem with that. But to lie about having to take a piss so you can catalogue my equipment without my permission…that’s some sketchy shit. It makes me think you’re casing the place so you can decide whether or not it’s worth your while to try and break in at a later date.
Johnny Smith happened to be here when this was happening. When he saw what I saw, he told the budding photographer he could delete those pictures from his phone and sit where we could see him, or he could get the hell out of the house. He did as he was told, but he seemed to find the whole thing funny.
I recorded a song Leanna and Chocolate Bar took turns singing lead on. I let Chocolate Bar play my 1951 Gibson LG-2. He hammered on the guitar like he was trying to break all the strings. It was his passive-aggressive way of shoving a middle finger in my face.
I never mixed that song.
Leanna later apologized for what happened. As for Chocolate Bar, not too long after that he had a short-lived stint as a cashier at Remark Farms. One day he had to check us out and bag our groceries. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone look more uncomfortable. Funny how people who have no problem disrespecting you in private turn into cowards when you see them in a public place. I’ve seen it happen a number of times now. All their arrogance vanishes, they try to avoid making eye contact, and they look like they want to run away.
I enjoy those moments.
A year or so ago, Chocolate Bar sent me a Facebook friend request. I ignored it. I mean, are you kidding me?
Anyway. I had a lot of trouble working out the arrangement for my own song. I couldn’t quite duplicate what I liked about the demo’s piano part. I tried some soft brushed snare, Wurlitzer, and lap steel with a backwards delay effect. None of it felt right.
In late 2016 I took another crack at it. I got rid of everything aside from my acoustic guitar and the vocal tracks, added a bit of third-part harmony, recorded brand new lap steel and piano tracks, and started to like it a bit more. I made a rough mix of what I’d done.
It still didn’t feel finished, but I didn’t know what else to do with it.
A few days ago I thought it would be fun to give it another look. I dumped it back on the mixer, only to discover I erased most of the tracks without thinking. My only option was to use an earlier backup. Hearing those original lap steel and Wurlitzer parts again, I found myself liking them more than I thought I would. I ditched the acoustic piano, didn’t bother to sing the third-part harmony again, recorded a new drum track, and added electric and acoustic twelve-string guitar.
All at once, it felt like the whole thing came to life.
I almost never use a high-pass filter on anything unless I’ve got a vocal track with some plosive sounds that are a little too powerful. Here I broke with that tradition. There was some irritating mud in the lap steel and Wurlitzer tracks. A little filtering did a nice job of cleaning it up.
I haven’t decided if this one’s an outtake or not. I like it well enough. I just don’t know if there’s a place for it on the album. If nothing else, it’s another example of the crappy twelve-string I inherited working its strange magic. That guitar may be a hunk of junk, but every once in a while it’s exactly what a song needs.
The stop button on my mixer hasn’t been working so well over the last little while. It still functions, but I have to wrestle with it now. When you’re doing vocal punch-ins or any kind of recording that requires some precise stop/start points, a sticky stop button is a huge pain in the posterior.
It got to be a little too frustrating after a while. So I dug out this foot switch I’ve probably had for close to twenty years but never used — the tank that calls itself my desk holds many forgotten and semi-hidden treasures — and plugged it into the back of the mixer. Any attached foot switch just happens to default to controlling play and stop functions, so I didn’t even have to tweak any settings on the mixer to get it to work.
I even got to make use of one of the crummy little patch cords I got when I was thinking about putting that pedal board together. I grabbed a bunch of them from Long & Delayed because they were dirt cheap, only to discover not all patch cords are created equal. I’ve accumulated a ridiculous amount of cabling over the years, and it runs the gamut from cheap no-name stuff from the mid-90s (all of which still works!) to pricey Mogami cables. I’ve never heard any difference in sound quality in any of them. That all changed when I bought these cheap Fender-branded pedal board cables. I tried them out when I got home and heard a marked loss of high frequency information. It wasn’t a pleasing warmth. It was a disconcerting dullness.
I spent quite a bit more money on some short patch cords made with Mogami 2524 cable. All those lost highs came back with a vengeance. But I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been shafted, regardless of how little I paid for those unusable Fender patch cords.
When you’re dealing with a foot switch that’s only performing mechanical duties, tone isn’t an issue. So there’s a bit of unexpected vindication for a little cable that didn’t really deserve it.
What else is new?
I’ve deactivated Facebook for the first time in years. The goal is to cut out some distractions and get into Merciless Album-Finishing Mode again. It seems to be helping at least a little bit. I’m still having some trouble working out the sequencing of the second disc. It’s tricky, because it needs to work as both a continuation of the first disc and a standalone musical statement.
I’ll figure it out at some point. I think. I hope.
More than half the songs now exist as mixes I like enough to call “final”. Come to think of it, almost all of the work I have left to do is mixing-related. There are only about half a dozen songs that need a bit of additional work at the recording stage. Sequencing issues aside, that’s a definite step in the right direction.
With a little elbow grease, I might get this album done before I turn to dust after all.
Most of this one was recorded over two days in April. Zara played my Gibson LG-2 for the first time since her first album and brought along her own ukulele. I tried recording her playing and singing at the same time for a song or two, but that approach was abandoned pretty fast. There was too much bleed. I still haven’t found a way to record someone playing acoustic guitar and singing live off the floor that satisfies me. The microphones I use now are too sensitive to get enough separation, and the dynamic mics I used to pull out for live guitar/vocal recordings sound a little too thin now that they’re not plugged into a low-end mic preamp.
Funny how that works.
There was a lot of laughter and joking around between the songs. I mixed one of the silly moments and included it in the WAV files I sent Zara just for fun. I had no idea she was going to keep it on the album, but I’m glad she did.
I also captured her playing a bit of an idea that wasn’t yet a proper song. There were a few ukulele chords, there was an improvised vocal melody, and that was it. Something about that little sixty-second sketch really grabbed me. I thought it was kind of perfect just as it was. I sent that one along too, and it’s also on the album.
I’ve grown so used to people stamping out anything that resembles a human or random moment in their music, it’s almost a shock when someone wants to hold onto these things as much as I do. It’s a good kind of shock, though. Like waking up to discover they’ve started making Choclairs chocolate bars again.
Damn you for discontinuing those sticks of deliciousness, Neilson.
At the top of this post is a video for one of the songs on the album. My plan was to open the blinds and flood the room with some nice natural light, but every time Zara came over it was a grey, rainy day, so it wouldn’t have done much good. Even in a less than ideal lighting situation, I’m enjoying how much better this camera makes everything look. There’s a lot less grain than I was getting with the Flip cameras, and everything feels more vivid and real somehow.
Imagine what I could do if I got some decent lighting happening in that room for a change…
Mixing these songs was a bit of a challenge, just because of how dynamic the performances were. I had to get creative with compression settings and riding some faders to control things without squashing them. I think I found the right balance in the end.
Who wants a “set it and forget it” mixing job anyway? That stuff’s no fun.
Things have been downright tumultuous around here.
I wanted to get in the habit of blogging more often so I could hold myself accountable on the recording side of things. I haven’t managed to do that. I havebeen making good progress with the album. I’ve also had to accept this sad truth: there’s no way to get it finished in time for the show. It’s turned into too tight a race. I can get it close, but not all the way there.
This is a handbill the wonderful Katie Schram designed for me.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
It would be great if I could print a bunch of these and start handing them out to people. I can’t. For the first time in my life I have promotional material I can’t use, because the show it’s supposed to promote isn’t going to happen.
First my trombonist pulled out after committing to the show. Then my cellist stopped talking to me with no explanation. Before long my drummer was out of commission and unreachable, the only person I could get to agree to show up for a rehearsal was the bassist, and many of the most important musicians either wouldn’t acknowledge me at all or were pretty vague about when and if they might grace me with their presence.
Sounds a bit like a lame comedy sketch.
You might say, “Well, the musicians involved in this are talented enough that they don’t need much preparation. They could turn up the night of the show with a single rehearsal under their belt and fake their way through it just fine.”
Even if that’s true, the whole “rehearse very little and pray for a miracle” approach doesn’t work for me. It never has. It would be one thing if we were a band with some history. We’re not. I’ve only worked with these people one-on-one in a recording situation. Playing live as a group is a very different beast. You need time to build chemistry and work out arrangements.
I’ve played as a supporting musician in bands that half-assed everything and hoped for the music to glue itself together in the ninth hour. None of those performances were anything to write home about, and I was always a nervous wreck onstage. Why would I want to put myself through that when the music is my own?
The last time I played at Mackenzie Hall I had a three-piece band. We only had six or seven songs we needed to learn as a group. The rest of the show was made up of me doing solo pieces. We must have rehearsed a dozen times over a period of three months. The idea was to get to a place where we were comfortable enough with one another to take off on an improvised tangent in the middle of a song and navigate whatever twists and turns it took with confidence — to be able to pick up on tiny physical cues and execute pin-point dynamic shifts.
We put the work in to toughen ourselves up until we were a real band, and it paid off big time at the show.
That isn’t going to happen this time. Even if every necessary piece of the musical puzzle showed up to rehearse for every Saturday that’s left between now and August 17th, I don’t think there would be enough time for us to get good. At best we would be okay. And that’s not going to cut it.
I may go out of my way to leave mistakes and human moments in my recordings, but I care a great deal about what I do. I’m not going to half-ass my first serious live performance in eight years and the biggest show of my life to accommodate the absent asses of others. If people can’t be bothered to show up and put in the work, there’s no point in losing my mind trying to salvage something out of the chaos. I won’t march into a public humiliation out of some misguided sense of duty, and I didn’t work to get that grant so I could pay people for being a bunch of fucking deadbeats.
I wouldn’t be able to rehearse now anyway. All the stress has caught up with me and made me sick. Ain’t that a kick in the nuts?
I already had my mind pretty much made up about cancelling the show before I got sick, but I took some time to think it over. During my thinking-it-over time, the ghostly cellist popped up to say she’d be available to rehearse about three weeks before the show. As if that would somehow be enough time to get up to speed when she’s never played any of these songs before. The person who was supposed to be my main backup vocalist and a fill-in lead singer for other absent vocalists said she wouldn’t have any time to rehearse with me until the end of July — this after telling me she’d be available to start getting together in early June. Better yet, after letting me believe for months that she was going to be an integral part of the show and one of the main performers, she changed her mind. Now I could only choose three songs I really wanted her to sing on. That was all the material she felt like learning.
There’s no putting a good face on this — she lied to me. She misled me about the role she was prepared to play and how much time she was willing to set aside for me. She’s second-billed on that handbill up there. Someone who’s a glorified walk-on guest doesn’t deserve to be second-billed. And I don’t care how busy you are. If you’re not going to be honest with me, I don’t want to know you.
Any doubts I had about cancelling the show died a violent death right there.
The singer who didn’t want to do much singing wasn’t the only person who was full of shit. Not by a long shot. It’s as if some of these people believed the simple act of attaching their names to my show should have been satisfaction enough for me, and whatever near-nonexistent amount of effort I could get out of them beyond that was supposed to be a bonus.
Someone told me, “You have to understand…most musicians don’t operate the way you do. They have their heads perpetually stuck up their own asses, and their main concern is themselves. That’s just the way they are. You can’t take it personally. It isn’t about you.”
How am I not supposed to take it personally? What other way is there to take it? “Laziness” is not a valid excuse to me. You don’t get to treat your so-called friends like dirt just because you’re talented.
Actually, let me correct that: in most cases you do get to treat your so-called friends like dirt. A lot of people get away with being pretty awful human beings because they have some amount of talent — or at least the ability to convince others they do — and they can be charming and ingratiating when they feel like it. I don’t swim in that ditch. A talented piece of shit is still a piece of shit.
You can make all the excuses you want. My music is who I am. You blow that off and you’re blowing me off. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.
I understand now that I made the tactical error of devising a show that relied on a large supporting cast of characters in order to succeed. Many of the most important players let me down. My dream was to give a multi-faceted gift to the community through music and visual art. The indifference of my peers has decimated that dream.
So I’ve cancelled the dates at Mackenzie Hall (dress rehearsal and performance), and a week ago I gave the grant money back to the city. I refuse to compromise my vision to the point that the show no longer resembles what it was supposed to be. This was going to be something special. It was the culmination of more than five years of work. I put it together a specific way and worked my ass off to make it a reality. Limping into Mackenzie Hall with some half-formed version of what could have been would feel even more like defeat than pulling the plug and walking away.
Could I have done something with just a rhythm section? Sure. Could I have done a one-man show? Yeah. But I’ve already done both of those things at Mackenzie Hall (and I think I did them pretty well). I have no desire to repeat myself.
Most of the people who were going to be my “special guests” were great at communicating with me. I didn’t have to chase them. I’m grateful for that. Darryl and Christy Litster, Ron Leary, Jess O’Neil, Jim Meloche, Dave Dubois, Natalie Westfall — all these folks have been wonderful every step of the way.
In the end, it just wasn’t enough. I felt like I had one big show left in me. This was it. Now it’s dead.
Lesson learned — I won’t try to do anything like this again. And if anyone accuses me of being a weirdo recluse who doesn’t play well with others after this, I will bite their head off and spit it back into their jagged blood-spurting neck hole.
You might think this is an extreme overreaction to a situation that wasn’t beyond help. Unless you’ve been through it, you have no idea what it’s like to put your heart and soul into something like this only to watch it collapse in slow-motion. You can’t force people to show up. You can’t force them to care.
I’m told I’m the first person in the history of the ACHF to refund their grant money. It felt like the right thing to do. The event as I pitched it to the jury ceased to exist, and I didn’t want to abuse the system. I know there are people who do that and get away with it. I would rather be honest.
Maybe someone else with better luck will be able to use the money to realize a dream that’s more realistic than mine was. I hope so.
I’m not as disheartened as all of this might make me sound. I’ve gone through the grieving process and more or less made my peace with things not working out. As a wise woman once said, “[You] can’t hug every cat.” I won’t pretend it isn’t disappointing, though. I was pretty proud of the set list and supporting cast I put together. I think it could have been a night to remember.
We’ll never know now.
On a lighter note, the J, K, and L keys on my MacBook stopped working a few weeks ago. Every once in a while I could mash the other keys around them and trick them into cooperating with me for a little bit. After a few days my subterfuge no longer did any good. I was hoping it was just some dirt on one of the contacts. Nope. Had to get the whole keyboard replaced. That was a $200 expense I could have done without. At least the people at Experimax were great to deal with and they fixed it the same day I brought it in.
You don’t notice how much you rely on certain letters until they’re no longer accessible to you. The S key on my crusty old video-editing laptop died years ago, but it’s easy to work around. All I have to do is copy an S from an existing document or file and paste it whenever I need it. When you have to do that with three different letters it becomes much more frustrating and time-consuming, turning what should be a two-minute email into fifteen minutes of tediousness. It’s nice to be able to type freely again.
It hasn’t all been janky laptop keys and crumbling dreams of ambitious live shows over here.
For the better part of twenty years I’ve been trying to track down video footage of my March 2000 performance at the Air Jam (Walkerville’s quirky name for a talent show). I’ve mentioned this a few times before.
I knew of two tapes — the one Gord’s high school girlfriend Amanda filmed, and the one the school filmed. I saw both of them in the summer of 2000. Then I never saw anything that was on either tape again.
I started trying to talk Amanda into letting me borrow her tape so I could make myself a copy when we were still in school. I kept trying after we graduated. Nothing happened. When Facebook came into our lives I started pestering her over there. I tried to get Gord to help. After a lot of false starts, in 2010 Amanda said she had the tape I was after. I rejoiced.
My rejoicing didn’t last long. I spent a month or two trying to arrange to get that tape from her. I offered to pay her just for showing up. It didn’t do any good. She was either noncommittal in her responses to my messages or she ignored me. She wouldn’t give me her phone number or her address, so I couldn’t go to her. I was stuck in limbo.
I nudged Gord into sending her some messages in 2014 and 2015 when we were working on STEW. He said he thought there might be some kinky business on the tape, explaining Amanda’s apparent reluctance to share it with either one of us. I told him to tell her I would give her the money to have a video place transfer the tape into a digital format herself, allowing her to snip out anything she didn’t want me to see. That didn’t do the trick either.
In 2017 I sent Amanda one last heartfelt message. I told her this was a piece of my musical history I felt incomplete without. I explained how much it would mean to me if I could somehow see it again. I also wanted to try and incorporate whatever archival material I could into the DIY documentary I was — and still am — making about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. This stuff was the Holy Grail of archival material.
She wrote back and apologized for the long silence. She said she wasn’t sure what tapes I was on, but she was able to narrow it down to seven possibilities. Years ago she bought some equipment so she could transfer the tapes at home. Then her camera stopped working and she gave up. If I was willing to transfer the tapes myself, I could have all of them. All she asked for in return was that I make her copies of the digital files.
Gord was supposed to swing by her place and grab the tapes before bringing them to me. He couldn’t do a thing with them, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to help pay to have them transferred. He was just another barrier between them and me. It would have made a lot more sense for me to pick them up myself. I couldn’t do that. Amanda still wouldn’t give me her address or phone number.
I don’t like relying on other people for things like this, but I left it in Gord’s hands. He rewarded my trust by almost ruining what looked like my one real shot at a happy ending. The night he was supposed to pick up the tapes, he blew it off.
This is a guy who’s known me since I was fifteen years old. He knew how long I’d been trying to gain access to this material. He knew what it meant to me. And he couldn’t even take five minutes out of his beer-drinking time to make good on what he told me he was going to do. He didn’t care. It didn’t mean anything to him.
I was ready to end our friendship right there. Lucky for him, Amanda took time out of packing for a vacation to bring the tapes to his door, and he was forced to pass them on to me.
Victory at last? No. Not quite.
I paid Unique Video Systems to convert all those 8mm tapes into MP4 files. I found some great footage I didn’t know existed — some of it featuring a skinny, beardless teenage version of me. But the Air Jam footage wasn’t there.
I told Amanda. She dug up some more tapes. This time I wasn’t on any of them.
I was discouraged but not defeated. There was still the matter of the second tape — the one filmed by the school.
I emailed John Vacratsis. He was a teacher involved in all kinds of art and media-related things at Walkerville during my time there. If anyone was going to know anything about the tape or its whereabouts, it was probably going to be him.
This was the crappiest of crapshoots. I didn’t have a great relationship with Vacratsis when I was a student. He seemed to resent me for not taking any of the music classes he taught, going my own way instead of letting him develop me into another talent Walkerville could be proud of, and he once chewed me out for some material he found offensive on a collage I made for grade twelve English class.
(That our English teacher, who was really a transplanted drama teacher, would have us making collages like children and answering questions about movies untethered to anything in the curriculum so he would have something to base our grades on without having to teach anything that resembled an English class — that was the more alarming issue to me than some goofy thing I put on a collage. But never mind.)
I expected Mr. V to remember me as a troublemaker if he remembered me at all. It didn’t matter. I would play nice in an email and see if it got me anywhere.
To my amazement, it did. He sent me a very kind response and tried to help as much as he could. He gave me the names of media students who might have been operating cameras on that day, he gave me the name of a media teacher who was still teaching at Walkerville, and he wished me luck in my epic quest.
I felt a renewed sense of purpose. Now I had something solid to work with.
One film student said he remembered my performance but didn’t know where the tape might be. The others ignored me. I wrote a letter to the media teacher outlining my plight, with a few albums included as thanks, and left it for him at the front desk.
Stepping inside my high school for the first time in almost nineteen years was a bizarre experience. I was happy to see they now had an upright piano in the hall and anyone was welcome to play it. I sat down and noodled a little. There wasn’t much volume or tone there, but hey, a real piano is a real piano.
Something about being there made me angry. No one was unpleasant. No one ogled at the long-haired bearded guy who was way too old to be a student. I don’t even have that many bad memories from high school, so it wasn’t a matter of old hurts coming back to haunt me. Believe it or not, I wasn’t an outcast or a loner. I was one of those odd students who managed to become popular and well-liked by refusing to be anything other than myself.
Maybe it was just one of those days.
Mr. Allison — the media teacher — sent a very thoughtful email in response to my letter. A lot of people probably would have blown me off, but he did some detective work on my behalf. What he found out wasn’t encouraging. In the days before they had digital video equipment, the school would routinely reuse and record over existing tapes instead of buying new stock. Everything pointed to the Air Jam tape being one of many victims of this recycling program.
This was it. The end of the road. There was no one left to talk to, no lead left to follow, and there were no tapes left to digitize. I was a few hundred bucks poorer and no closer to that Holy Grail footage. There was no reason left to believe it still existed. I had to accept that maybe I just wasn’t meant to ever see it again. Maybe all my efforts had been for nothing.
A few weeks ago I got a message from Amanda. She told me some things that did a lot to explain her apparent standoffishness over the years (I always assumed she never liked me; turns out it had nothing to do with me). She also told me she found three more tapes while going through some things in her basement. She didn’t know what was on them, and she thought it was mostly personal stuff, but she figured it was worth sharing them with me just in case.
I brought those tapes to Unique Video Systems and got my MP4 files. I went through them at home. The first tape had footage from Amanda’s trip to visit a post-high school boyfriend in 2002. The second tape was full of video messages she made for that same boyfriend and some bits of her hanging out with a few friends. I took a look at what was on the third tape and braced myself for more disappointment.
I saw some chunks of what looked like high school performances. I jumped to a random place in the video and landed on an image of myself seated at a digital piano, wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans, and I knew at once what this was.
The 2000 Air Jam. The Holy Grail.
This is what I’ve been chasing for my entire adult life. There was no reason to believe I would ever find it. Now I have it on my hard drive. The absurdity of it all is still sinking in.
I’d chalk that up to the best $61 I’ve ever spent.
Some backstory might help explain why this footage means so much to me, and why unearthing it feels a bit like winning the lottery.
Gord and I tried out for the Air Jam for the first time when we were in grade ten. The “brain” of my very tiny home studio was a Roland VS-880 digital mixer/hard disk recorder. I didn’t have a CD burner that was compatible with the mixer. We recorded a few passes at John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and I dubbed the best takes onto a cassette tape. A friend’s sister was part of the group of students organizing the show. I gave the tape to him to give to her.
We didn’t get in.
Later that same school year, a few other students announced they were putting together something they called an Arts Night. It was really just an after-hours Air Jam. Gord and I auditioned in the music room. We did a rowdy version of “Sweet Jane” (the original Velvet Underground arrangement, not the Cowboy Junkies remake) and I did John Cale’s “Paris 1919” alone at the upright piano.
In those days I had this idea that playing cover songs was a better bet than playing my own material live. I’m not sure why. At least I had good taste in covers (I think). Before settling on those two songs, the Talking Heads track “Drugs” was another consideration.
We passed the audition with flying colours, but the students in charge didn’t feel like putting in the necessary work to make the show happen (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). It died before it even got off the ground.
In grade eleven, Christian Masotti was one of the head organizers of the Air Jam. We were good friends. We respected each other as musicians. This time I knew I would make the cut. Auditioning would be little more than a formality.
My idea was to flesh Papa Ghostface out with another member or two. I had some classes with a guy named Isaac Osmer. I got the chance to jam with him a little when I played another John Cale song in the music room one day before the morning bell. Mr. Ross kicked me out before the song could really get going, but Isaac seemed like a solid drummer and a nice person. When I suggested we do something together sometime, he said he was into it.
Then Christian and my pal Jesse almost sabotaged the whole thing.
Jesse wanted to put a band of his own together for the Air Jam. He wanted Adam Cohen on drums, Max Marshall on lead guitar, and me on bass. He had a song about a young boy losing his mind called “Something in the Attic”. After recording a whole slew of songs with Jesse that didn’t stray far from acoustic love song territory, I was kind of looking forward to being his bassist and rocking out a little on something dark and moody.
Jesse wanted more time to prepare. He had friends on Agora — Walkerville’s student council, named for the public square built in Athens in 500 BC. He pulled some strings and convinced Christian and the other Air Jam organizers to put on two shows instead of one. He claimed he needed the extra time to study and get some of his grades up.
No one believed that story for a second, but he got what he wanted.
Two shows didn’t sound like such a bad idea at first. Christian told me the plan was to have the first show at the end of March. The focus would be on solo performers — students strumming acoustic guitars and wailing cover songs, Faith Hill clones singing to pre-recorded country music on cassette tape, and the like. Two months down the road, the second show would be for full bands and performers who wrote original material. This way everyone would have a chance to shine.
With that kind of structure, it seemed to me the first show would be boring beyond belief and all the good stuff would land in the second one. I told Christian I was putting a band together and had no problem pulling double duty in the second show, backing Jesse up in his band before stepping into the spotlight with mine. Even if we didn’t get anyone aside from Isaac to play with us, Gord could move over to bass and I could play guitar or keyboard. I thought a drummer would give our music a whole new punch.
When the lineups for both shows were posted on the bulletin board in the hall, I did a mental double-take. It wasn’t at all what Christian told me to expect. Neither show had any real theme or focus. Bands, karaoke singers, and solo acoustic performers were thrown together with no apparent thought given to who went where.
Jesse was in the second show. I got bumped to the first one against my will. I didn’t have Jesse’s connections. There were no strings for me to pull. And it was March already, so there would be no time to get tight with Isaac now.
Hot on the heels of that foul-smelling revelation, I learned I wasn’t going to be playing bass with Jesse anymore. Max never showed up for rehearsals. Instead of moving forward with a three-piece band, Jesse decided he would go it alone with an acoustic guitar.
My first impulse was to drop out of the Air Jam as an act of protest. Between Jesse’s machinations and Christian’s shitty organizational skills, I felt like I’d been painted into a corner for no good reason. Then I got a better idea. I would repurpose my frustration and blow it out of my system during our performance. Maybe it would just be the two of us on the stage, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t pull out all the stops.
“Fuck ‘em,” I said to Gord. “If they’re going to screw up our plans, we’ll give them something to remember us by.”
The song we chose to perform was “Pacing the Cage”. It was the first song Gord and I ever wrote together. We ran through it once and knew we wouldn’t have to run through it again. It was in our blood.
There was one mini-rehearsal at school. Everyone played truncated versions of the songs they were going to play at the show. They cut us off halfway through “Pacing the Cage”, just as I was starting to ramp up my voice.
The day of the first Air Jam show, Gord and I slipped into the auditorium after lunch to see how things were going. There was only one mic stand on the stage. I asked Christian if they had any more. He said no. That wasn’t going to work with Gord playing acoustic guitar and me singing at the same time, and I was pretty sure there were other performers who would need more than one mic stand. I walked home and grabbed a few SM57s and mic stands of my own to lend to the cause. It was one of the many times living a two-minute walk away from school came in handy. I also grabbed my acoustic guitar, my harmonica, and my harmonica holder, though I had no idea what I might need them for.
There was no keyboard on the stage. Christian told me I would probably be able to borrow one from one of the music classes. A few teachers turned me away before someone told me I could use one of the two keyboards collecting dust in the back of their classroom. Jesse saw me and wished me luck in the show. Then he asked me what I was doing in his class. I told him I needed a digital piano for my performance.
“One of those is no good,” he said. “It’s got sticky keys.”
I thought I’d try them both. Neither keyboard had any internal speakers, so Jesse grabbed one, I grabbed the other, and we carried them to the auditorium along with a keyboard stand.
The one with sticky keys wouldn’t make a sound. The other one worked, but it only had sixty-one keys. It felt like a toy. The piano sound was thin and one-dimensional.
I tried to set it at a good volume so I wouldn’t have to mess with it later. Jesse climbed up on the stage, sat down at a drum kit that was set up behind me, and started playing. He noticed my harmonica.
“Can you play that thing?”
“Sort of,” I said. “I just play chords on it most of the time.”
“Play something, man!”
I blew a few chords into a microphone. Jesse laughed. “Is that all you can play?”
“It makes more sense when I’m playing the guitar or the piano at the same time.”
“Is it just you and Gord playing?” he asked me.
“Yeah, just the two of us. We were gonna get a drummer to play with us, but we were moved from the second show to the first. That threw things off a little.”
“I could have played drums for you. Why didn’t you ask me?”
“I never even thought to ask.”
“What’s your song like?”
I played a bit of “Pacing the Cage” for him. He hammered out a steady 4/4 rhythm. It was all wrong for the song. I tried to explain how I needed something more along the lines of a polyrhythmic funk beat, where the snare didn’t fall on the two and the four. He asked me to give him an example. I took his place behind the drums for a minute and showed him what I meant.
I moved back over to the keyboard. Jesse started playing the same 4/4 beat again.
“The song’s okay without drums,” I said. “It’s way too late to figure it out now anyway, and it wouldn’t sound right without bass. But thanks for the offer.”
When it was time for the show to start, I met up with Gord in a hallway that led to the stage wings. It dawned on me that I left my leather jacket on one of the chairs in the front row of the auditorium. I waited until Cerah Steele’s band finished their three-song set and made my move during the brief lull between acts.
Then this happened.
I’m almost positive that’s Matt Strukelj screaming, “John West!”
What you don’t see, because the camera didn’t catch it, is me approaching a guy who was sitting on my jacket and asking him if he could stand up for a second so I could grab it. He didn’t move. I asked him again. He looked at me like he didn’t know what words were. The people around him had to liberate it from beneath his uncomprehending body.
Back out in the hall, Christian was trying to get a handle on the chaos swirling around him. No one knew when they were going to get their turn to perform. A tentative list was taped to the door, but it was incomplete and subject to revision. First we were supposed to be the third-last act. Then we got pushed to second-last. We would have been dead last, but Steve Mitchell was slated to close the show.
All along we were told to prepare one song. Now Christian was telling me we might have five minutes, and we might have ten. He couldn’t offer a definitive answer one way or another.
“Pacing the Cage” was good for four or five minutes. There was no way to stretch it out to ten. Gord and I took our acoustic guitars to the outside of the front entrance of the auditorium where things were quieter, tuned up, and tried to figure something out. We had four full-length Papa Ghostface albums to draw from by now, plus the in-progress SHOEBOX PARADISE, but a lot of our songs were improvisations that were never revisited after we recorded them, and nothing jumped out at me as being appropriate for a school performance. What could we pull off with no time to practice?
We could do “Fatties”. That would be a hit with all the pot-smokers. But the vicious impressions of a few well-known teachers wouldn’t go over so well, nor would the sex talk. We’d be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
There was “Ballad of Bob and Marie”. It was simple enough. Just a few chords. I wasn’t sure how many students would appreciate a song that was little more than a vehicle for my Bob Dylan impression, but I thought I remembered most of the words from the initial improvisation.
We recorded this song for the double-CD HORSEMOUTH (AND OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) on August 17, 1999. It was the day after my sixteenth birthday, and twenty years to the day before the doomed Mackenzie Hall show was supposed to happen. We started out with a little live instrumental improv. I got a drum loop going on the Yamaha W-5, ran it through a distortion effect built into the synth, and played synth bass with my left hand and an atmospheric synth pad with my right. Gord made barking dog sounds with his electric guitar and a wah pedal. He brought over an old harmonica he had in the key of C, so I strapped it on and blew into it a little.
My grandfather was supposed to call me to wish me a happy belated birthday. I kept thinking I heard the phone ringing, so we would stop recording mid-improv only for me to discover it was the sound of the harmonica’s wheeze tricking my ears. After the third or fourth fake-out he really did call. Once our conversation was over, I thought it would be fun to treat the little instrumental jam as an intro and cut straight to a song that had nothing to do with it. I swapped out Gord’s harmonica for my own and did my best shouty young Bob Dylan impression. After we got down a live performance with me on acoustic guitar and Gord on electric, I overdubbed some shaker and shouted some distant backup vocals. Gord overdubbed acoustic bass.
I remixed this song about a week ago, just before I got sick. It had some serious issues, and if I was going to post it here I wanted it to sound as good as possible. Twenty years ago I knew almost nothing about mic placement, and I knew less than nothing about things like EQ and compression. I would stick an SM57 in front of anything with strings and hope for the best. No surprise then that the acoustic guitar and acoustic bass tracks were muddier than mud, and my vocal track got pretty out of control during some of the more forceful passages with nothing to tame it.
It’s pretty amazing what you can do with a VS-1680 to fix up a mediocre recording. “Ballad of Bob and Marie” was recorded on a VS-880-EX before I upgraded to the sixteen-track machine, so I had to import it into the 1680. Everything past that was smooth sailing. I was able to carve out all the low end mud with EQ. Some limiting got the acoustic guitar and bass sounding pretty crisp and controlled. A little EQ and compression on the vocal and it was sitting right in the pocket.
Everything was done “in the box”, and I left all the original effects intact. The chorus and delay on the lead vocal felt essential. I didn’t want to do anything to alter the spirit or soul of the song. I just wanted to undo some old mistakes.
I can hardly believe how good I was able to make the acoustic guitar sound. It was a crappy instrument to begin with, even before my half-assed recording job. But the real shocker for me is the electric guitar. That’s not a real amp you’re hearing, and this was before the Digitech guitar effects box came into the picture. I plugged Gord’s B.C. Rich Virgin straight into the mixer and used one of the 1680’s built-in guitar amp modelling effects called “Vin.Tweed” (it’s supposed to emulate an overdriven 1950s tube amp). Everyone will tell you Roland’s speaker-modelling technology is beyond outdated now, but to me it sounds a lot more realistic than anything I ever got out of a POD.
I wish I’d thought to start backing up whole albums earlier in the game. I could give some of the early solo and Papa Ghostface CDs a whole new lease on life with just a little tasteful remixing. I did at least back up a few other songs from HORSEMOUTH. Though some of them are things I considered borderline filler at the time, it might be fun to revisit them and see if I can clean them up in a similar way.
I digress. We decided “Ballad of Bob and Marie” would be our second song if we needed one. Just in time, too, because few minutes later Christian told me we were up next. We walked through the wings. Christian asked if we had enough material for ten minutes. I told him we did. We made our way onto the stage. I laid my guitar on the floor and sat down at the crummy keyboard I was stuck with. Gord sat down beside me. Christian helped us both set up our microphones. After making sure my vocal mic was working, I went off.
“All right!” I screamed. The audience screamed back. I felt like a psychotic low-rent preacher.
“I’d like to tell you something before we start,” I said. “Originally we wanted to put a band together, but because of time constraints and being shifted around and shifted around, we weren’t able to do so. That makes me angry! But maybe I’m not the only person in here who’s angry right now. Maybe some of you are angry. Maybe your boyfriend left you. Maybe your girlfriend left you. Maybe things aren’t going too well for you in general, ’cause ain’t life stink? And so, I want you to scream when I tell you to let it out at the end of this song. All right?”
We launched into a version of “Pacing the Cage” that made the original recording sound like a lullaby. I slipped into the skin of the character narrating the song — an unrepentant killer who murders his unfaithful wife and her lover, relating the tale from prison not with pride or remorse, but with the belief that he was hardwired from birth to do something horrible and in committing these crimes he found his true purpose in life. My hands were shaking. Every time I hit a bad note, I mashed the keys and went out of my way to hit every bad note I could. I twisted my voice into a guttural groan when I wasn’t screaming, pounding on the keyboard I hated until I was punching it more than I was playing it. In the absence of a music stand I balanced my lyric sheet on top of the keyboard. All the turbulence sent it flying to the floor.
When the lyrics ran out I addressed the audience again. “LET IT OUT!” I screamed, and a sea of voices screamed back at me. The song dissolved into dissonance and everyone went nuts. We got a standing ovation.
The Bob Dylan piss-take was a little anticlimactic after that, but I felt invincible even with my voice half-shot from the vocal cord brutality of the first song. If anything, the diminished vocal range probably helped my Dylan impression. I lost my pick inside the sound hole of my guitar mid-song and kept going, improvising new lyrics when the adrenaline wiped my brain clean. We got another standing ovation (well, half of one this time) and left the stage to thunderous applause.
Jesse appeared in the wings with a look of bewilderment on his face.
“THAT WAS FUCKING AMAZING!” he shouted at me, giving me a bear hug, my harmonica holder coming between our chests. “I love the way you play guitar! I love it!”
This was almost as shocking as the audience’s response to our performance, coming from someone who just a few months earlier was belittling my “fucking lap guitar” playing as if it was the lowest form of musical expression. For all of our musical differences and the tug-of-war we waged as collaborators (with Jesse trying to get me to write more conventional songs like him, and me trying to get him to let go and get a little weird), it felt like he finally got what I was doing and I managed to bring him over to the dark side, even if it was only for an afternoon.
“I gotta go,” Jesse said. “I just wanted to come back here and see you guys. Fuckin’ amazing.”
Then he was gone, and I was left with a buzz that wouldn’t go away. The afterglow seemed to extend throughout the entire school. Even Steve Mitchell got on board. He closed the show with Steph Sarafianos backing him up on guitar for a version of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” that was rewritten as “Blue-Eyed Girl” in Steph’s honour.
The first thing he said when he got onstage was, “How about that John West?” and everyone went crazy all over again.
The rest of that day is a bit of a blur to me now. I remember jumping up and down like a manic kangaroo in the hallway with Max and Paul Clairmont (at least I think it was them), feeling a natural high I didn’t know what to do with. I remember walking back to my house with Gord and talking for a minute to Amber Hughes, who was sitting cross-legged on the grass. I remember Gord saying, “She digs you, man.” I don’t think she did. She was just friendly.
That’s about it. The rest is gone, including the weekend that followed.
I wasn’t unpopular before that performance, but it seemed to catapult me once and for all into the realm of “those who are considered cool”. The thing that strikes me now is what an out-there performance it was. There’s no guarantee an audience is going to stick with you when you do something that confrontational and unconventional. It wasn’t even a great musical display from a technical standpoint. It was more about the energy. And to the great credit of that group of students, they were with me every step of the way. I could feel it. Maybe I tapped into some universal angst pretty much everyone feels at that age. I don’t know.
Even some of the teachers got into it. On the Monday after the show, Mr. Zawadski — my math teacher in grades nine and ten — pulled me aside on my way to society class and said, “I have to tell you, John, I really enjoyed your performance. There’s a market for that, you know. It’s avant-garde!”
Along with the grade eight talent show, it was one of the formative musical events of my life. To play your own material live, to do nothing to compromise it or make it more palatable for an audience, and to have a bunch of teenagers — in some ways the most difficult age group to impress — respond like that…there’s nothing quite like it.
I see now that everything going wrong was a blessing in disguise. If things had gone my way and we’d been able to put a larger band together, I’m sure we would have given a good performance. But it probably wouldn’t have turned into interactive musical theatre. It took a perfect storm of inconveniences and injustices to get me pissed off enough to take command of the room the way I did. People still remember that Air Jam performance to this day, which is insane to me.
The second Air Jam show in May was a complete disaster. Half the scheduled performers skipped out on the event, forcing the few who did show up to stretch themselves pretty thin as the emcees improvised lame banter to fill up time. It made the March show look like the best-organized event in the universe. The audience got bored, with a lot of students shuffling out of the auditorium while the show was still going on. Best of all, Jesse — the guy who pressured the organizers into putting on a second show in the first place — didn’t even show up.
I was able to put a full band together for the 2001 Air Jam, but that’s another story for another time.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “If you can see the value of turning adversity to your advantage in a situation like that, why didn’t you do the same thing with the Mackenzie Hall show?”
I’m not the same person I was in March of 2000. I watch that footage now and the raw energy on the screen almost scares me. I had a lot of anger taking up space inside of me, most of which stemmed from hearing what a piece of shit I was all the time from certain family members who have been dead to me for a number of years now. I used it as creative fuel on a regular basis. And I was fearless on a stage. You could have chopped off one of my fingers and I would have kept on going and incorporated it into the performance.
I don’t have that wellspring of boundless energy anymore. I also feel like I’ve been fighting against one form of bullshit or another in this city’s music scene ever since I got out of high school, from complete indifference, to being treated as a novelty, to being misrepresented, misunderstood, and lied about by talentless coattail-riding douchebags with agendas.
Even this album I’ve been working on forever has had its share of setbacks. Sure, it’s been a grand adventure. It’s also been another thing: a profound test of my patience, my resilience, and my ability to absorb one rejection after another. You know how many people in this city ignored me, blew me off, flaked out on me, or stood me up on my way to getting almost thirty singers/musicians and a dozen visual artists to contribute to the album?
Many of those eighty-two people claim to have an immense amount of respect for me and what I do. And that’s just Windsor people. I tried to bend my own self-imposed rule and involve some talented folks from Detroit and other not-so-far-flung places, with disastrous results.
For every singer I got to show up and sing on something, another ten either never acknowledged me or made a commitment to work with me only to come up with some bogus excuse to use as a last-minute escape clause. My favourite, though it’s hard to choose, is probably the singer who spent more than half a year sitting with a song and telling me it was right in her wheelhouse, only to claim she forgot her own vocal range the day we were supposed to record. It takes a special kind of idiot to come up with a story like that. It must have taken me twenty horn players to find two or three who would talk to me. And I lost count of how many visual artists said they were enthusiastic about contributing to the lyric booklet and then never spoke to me again no matter how many times I tried to follow up with them.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that for all the guests appearing on the album, more than half the songs still feature me doing everything on my own. If I’d been crazy enough to put an actual band together to play on every song, there wouldn’t be an album. You can’t work with people who won’t show up.
I’m proud of the songs I’ve written and the performances I’ve been able to get out of a colourful cast of characters. It might end up being one of my best albums when all is played and sung. And I won’t ever do anything like it again. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to banging out a guest-free album inside of a few months, the way I used to do it, once this thing is out of the way.
Really, it comes down to a very simple thing — I’m tired. Tired of fighting an uphill battle against a music community that, for the most part, never wanted me around in the first place. Tired of eating shit. Tired of a lifetime of rejection from people who are too apathetic or self-important to have a conversation with someone who isn’t already a part of their selective inner circle.
I want to make music and live my life. That’s it. I don’t have any energy left for the other garbage.
I hope cancelling the show sends a message to the musicians who forced my hand. I take this stuff seriously. I always have. I always will. If you can’t come to the table with at least some degree of reverence, you have no business pulling up a chair.
Note: if you’re wondering why I didn’t post the Air Jam footage, it’s because I feel I’ve already shared more bits than I should have from the SLEEPWALK documentary thing and I’d like to keep at least a few surprises up my sleeve. I’ll probably come back and put it up here once that’s done.
Here’s the song Tara came by to lend her vocal magic to. I’ve spent the last few mornings picking away at editing the recording footage I grabbed along the way, and as much as I’m trying to keep things under wraps until the album is finished, I can’t resist putting this one out there as something resembling an advance single.
The thing I can’t get over is how catchy it is. I didn’t go out of my way to make that happen…it just happened. Must be the groove. I blame the djembe and the shaker that almost looks like an edible pepper. They’re always up to no good.
Editing this was a bit of a pain in the posterior, with everything I had to find a way to fit in there. It was rewarding to see it all come together, though, and I think it’s one of the better editing jobs I’ve done along these lines. It’s always fun when your cuts move in rhythm with the music. It’s a subtle thing, but I find it makes for a video that feels like it breathes a little better.
Also, dig those pyjama pants. Lately I find myself doing a fair bit of recording in the morning, before I’ve put on normal people clothes for the day. When you’re recording drums at 9:43 a.m. the last thing on your mind is throwing on some jeans. Me wearing boxer pants in a video is nothing new, but I don’t think any pair has ever been given quite this much screen time. Maybe these ones are special.
While I’m proud of all the elements that make up the thick soup of this song’s sound, the real secret sauce is the Yamaha VSS-30. I swear it keeps finding new ways to sneak its way into a song and add the texture that’s needed. It’s ridiculous how useful and versatile a little “toy” keyboard from the 1980s can be. You can get so many different sounds just out of sampling a bit of Wurlitzer and warping it (which is what I did here).
In less pleasant news, here are some words I never thought I would type, say, or even think: I won’t ever do business with Minuteman Press again. I won’t even recommend them for the simplest of jobs. If you’re in Windsor and you have any printing needs beyond what you can do yourself at home, I urge you to go somewhere — anywhere — else.
Here’s the deal. In early 2003, when I first thought it would be worthwhile to try giving my CDs a somewhat professional appearance, Johnny Smith said, “I’ll take you to Minuteman Press. That’s where I get my business cards done. I bet they’ll be able to help.” And they did help, printing a two-sided insert I slipped like an embarrassed apology into the abomination that was the initial album art for OH YOU THIS.
In short order, Minuteman Press became my go-to place for all things related to album packaging. Over a period of sixteen years they printed the booklets and inserts for fifty different albums (that’s not a typo), along with two posters and a handful of redesigns when I decided I wanted to “reissue” something or print the lyrics for an album that got slighted the first time around.
In the beginning it was pretty clear they’d never done this kind of work before. The initial inserts (or “tray cards”, if you like) for NUDGE YOU ALIVE had only one tab with the album’s name on the spine instead of the traditional two, leaving one side of the CD jewel case bereft. For my part, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to arranging text and images. We both got better in a hurry. They started producing more professional-looking results with more experience, and I taught myself how to handle the layout side of things.
By 2010 we were a well-oiled machine. I started handing in polished image files with proper bleed lines instead of asking them to set things up for me, and Heather and I almost had our own verbal shorthand. She was always great to work with. If I still sometimes got inserts that were a hair too tall to fit into a jewel case and I had to take a little off the top with my own cutting board to compensate, it was a small price to pay for being able to give my albums the visual presentation I wanted on a DIY budget.
Heather left a few years ago. The people who stayed on still did pretty reliable work. Then the ownership changed altogether in late 2017, and every familiar face was gone.
The woman who took over the business was a great surprise. Her attention to detail was incredible, and the packaging for both the long-overdue remaster of YOU’RE A NATION and the Papa Ghostface sign-off WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD came out looking better than I thought possible. It seemed safe to assume I could keep giving Minuteman Press my business forever.
Everything changed when I swung by a few weeks ago to have the booklets and inserts for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC reprinted. The woman with the great attention to detail was gone. Another woman she once referred to as her “colleague” was now running the show. I’ll call her Esmerelda, because it’s a world away from her real name and it sounds a little evil.
There was a disgruntled customer ahead of me in line, and she was giving Esmerelda the business. The conversation went something like this:
I paid a professional designer to put this flyer together. The printing is all wrong. The bleed lines are off, and there’s all this white space.
Yes. It’s like because the format we were like given. We can only like play with it so much.
No…this was done by a professional. There’s nothing wrong with it. Something went wrong with the way it was sized after I gave it to you. You’re the ones who made the mistake.
Yes. Like when you give it to us, like we can do almost nothing. You have to like give it to us in a different format.
My event is a few days away. I can’t use this. This is no good.
If you want to like give it to me in a different format maybe we can like fix it, but the way you gave it to me there’s nothing we can do.
Put that on a loop for about ten minutes and you get the idea. The Smithster and I got tired of waiting after a while and turned to leave.
“No, no,” Esmerelda said.
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” I said.
“No, I can wait on you.”
She slid a smiling man with grey hair into her place and took my order. I gave her my original materials and asked for another thirty copies of each. She said she’d call me in a day or two to come look at a proof, and then she’d print it. Easy as cake.
More than a week went by. There was no phone call. I called and got Esmerelda’s son on the line. He talked to me as if he was the new graphic designer of the operation. He told me my file of sixteen years — once a monster of a thing — was now all but empty, and almost none of the work any of the previous employees had done for me was in there. I would have to give him the art files for these booklets and inserts, and they would have to be printed from scratch.
I dug up the old art files from early 2011, dumped them onto a flash drive, and brought them in. Son of Esmerelda told me he would email me a proof later that day. He did no such thing. The next day I popped in to see my proof. It wasn’t ready.
“Oh, he had some car trouble,” Esmerelda said. “He told me he’s going to send you an email tonight. Like a hundred percent, for sure he’ll do it tonight.”
He did not, like a hundred percent, for sure, email me anything.
I came back the next day.
“I was just going to call you,” Esmerelda lied.
She printed up a proof for me. The insert looked fine. The smiling man stood there staring at the song titles, looking bewildered. I like to think “Taylor Swift Sings Death Metal in My Dreams” gave him a brain cramp.
The booklet wasn’t fine. It was a mess. The image and text on the cover were both too small. Inside, the size of the font increased and decreased five or six points at a time from one page to another. I always make sure to keep the font size consistent through all my image files, so it was a bit of shock to see things looking so out of whack.
Esmerelda’s explanation: “Yes. You gave us JPEG, and like we can do almost nothing. If you give it to me in like a Word document, then I can like size it myself and everything will be like perfect.”
For nine years JPEG files were never an issue. All Son of Esmerelda had to do was drag and drop the image files into whatever program he was using and make sure they were the right size. Instead, he took it upon himself to increase the size of the text on every page that had any appreciable amount of white space. Of course, Esmerelda wasn’t about to admit it, and he wasn’t around to answer for his screw-up.
She said she would email me a proof once I sent her the lyrics in a Word document. I sighed, went home, and put together what she said she needed. I emailed it to her the next morning. She didn’t email me back.
Thursday was the day of reckoning. I showed up to ask what the hell was going on. Son of Esmerelda looked horrified when he saw me walk in the door. He ducked into an office as fast as he could, where I assume he watched videos of dogs slobbering in slow motion while contemplating the nature of existence.
“Our server has been down all day,” Esmerelda said. “We haven’t been able to like do anything. But we almost have it like fixed now. If you come back at 12:30, I’ll have it for you. You don’t need to call. Just come back around 2:00 and it will be ready.”
Not just anyone can make an hour-and-a-half leap like that almost in the middle of a sentence without even acknowledging it. I had to genuflect in respect.
I should pause to tell you Johnny Smith was with me for each of these visits, and he noticed Esmerelda had a habit of looking at him instead of me when we were talking to each other. It was weird.
A little after 2:00, we came back.
“I just printed it,” she said. “I’ll have it for you in a moment.”
In a virtuoso display of lying to someone’s face and assuming they’re too stupid to notice, she walked a few feet to a printer and proceeded to print what she told me was already printed.
She brought the pages over, and I saw my body text in the booklet had morphed from Bookman Old Style into Arial.
“You changed the font,” I said.
“Yes. It’s much clearer now.”
“No,” I said, opening the original booklet to show her. “This is the font I used. See? I used the same font in the Word document I sent you, because that’s the font I want.”
“Yes,” she said. “It was Times New Roman. I changed it to Arial, but I can just like change it back. I just thought it looked better like this.”
“It wasn’t Times New Roman. But you know what…let’s do this. The other part that’s fine — the insert? Let’s go ahead and print that, and forget about the booklet.”
“No,” she said. “I can change the font back.”
“I’d like my original booklet back please, and we’ll just print the one piece that doesn’t have any problems.”
“I’ll just change the font back.”
“No. It’s been one thing after another. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“Yes, but I’ll just change the font.”
Right here is where Johnny Smith took it upon himself to break the loop of stupidity, slipping into what I can only call “Punisher Mode”. He told Esmerelda we were done. She tried to come up with some bullshit. He told her to give me back my original booklet and insert. She wouldn’t budge. He had to cut her off at least ten times before it sunk in for her that this was one person she wasn’t going to be able to wear down with smiling condescension. She gave me my booklet and insert back, said, “Well, I’m very sorry to hear it,” and we walked out.
I’ll never set foot in that place again. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re out of business a few months from now. Word spreads fast, and awe-inspiring incompetence is not something most people look for when they need something printed.
It’s a shame. Once upon a time there were some good, honest people working there who did fine work. Not anymore.
We made a list of about half a dozen other local printing businesses to try. I brought the packaging for STEW to A&A Printing so I’d have something to offer as a sample. The manager came out to talk to us and I asked a bunch of questions. He told me they had a lot of experience doing CD-related work. PDF files were the best format for them. They would have a proof for me the same day I brought in my art files, the job would be finished the day after that, and for fifty each of these two pieces of packaging I could expect to pay a little over a hundred bucks.
Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?
He said all the right things. There didn’t seem to be any need to check out any of the other places on our list. On Friday, around noon, I spoke with a woman at the front desk. I asked if I could have a lyric booklet and a separate insert made, and presented her with samples of the original pieces (again for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC) and the relevant PDF files on a flash drive. She told me she would have a proof ready for me in two hours and she would call when it was finished.
Something I’ve learned: when someone tells you they’re going to call you for anything business-related, they’re almost always lying. We came back at 4:00 and a different woman claimed she’d called us to let us know the files I provided didn’t work. When we told her we never received a phone call, she said, “Well, I was trying to call you.” That made for two lies in less than ten seconds, unless in her mind “trying” meant “thinking about maybe doing something and then not actually doing it”.
She invited us into the work area and brought me over to her computer, where she showed me the files wouldn’t work when she tried to open them.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I saved them all as PDF files. That’s what the manager told me to do. He told me that was the best format for you. Everything worked fine on my computer.”
She started laughing.
“Why are you laughing?” Johnny Smith asked her.
“Because the manager told you to do that, and the files don’t work.”
“What about that is funny?”
She didn’t have an answer.
Laughing at your customer’s misfortune isn’t a great way to get their return business. Just throwing that out there.
The woman who took my order earlier in the day tried the flash drive on her computer. She had no problem opening the files. Way to troubleshoot, people! She told us if we could wait five minutes in the other room she would print up a proof.
Half an hour later she had a sheet printed out to show me the paper stock they were going to use for the booklet. She said the binding would take three hours to do and she didn’t realize there were so many pages.
Johnny Smith told her we’d just left a printing business after sixteen years because of mishaps and miscommunications like this. She apologized and let loose with a stream of excuses. They had a lot of unexpected cutting work that day. There was more work involved in putting the proof together than she thought there would be. The printer jammed. She thought the booklet was a flyer with no pages in it (the second you touch or even look at the booklet, it becomes clear it isn’t a flyer).
She said she would work on it over the weekend and call us on Monday whether the work was done or not.
Believe it or not, on Monday there was a phone call. We came in to look at the proof with some sneaky feelings of optimism. Those feelings were dispelled soon enough.
The woman who showed me the initial printout wasn’t around. The one who laughed at us was there instead. She showed me a booklet that had the font at the right size throughout, but the print quality left something to be desired. The printout I was shown on Friday made the text look nice and smooth. Now it was bleeding all over the place. The text on both spines of the insert was way out of alignment, and instead of fixing it themselves she and the manager told me it was my job to edit the image file, guessing at where they needed it to be. I’ve been doing this long enough to know where the text is supposed to go. This was their mistake, not mine.
Worst of all was the cost. Because there were a few extra pages in this booklet, the price I was quoted on Thursday tripled.
The woman asked for a 50% deposit. I gave it to her and left feeling defeated. Over the next few minutes my attitude shifted from just wanting to get the booklets and inserts reprinted, to thinking this was more of the same garbage and I didn’t want to stand for it anymore.
We went back. When I brought up the bleeding, the laughing lady said she could try lightening the text to see if that helped. I told her the price was another sticking point. She disappeared into the back of the work area for a while, and when she came back she said the manager was willing to come down almost a hundred bucks. If you can afford to do that, either your profit margin is sickening and you’re cheating people out of their money, or your business isn’t as prosperous as you’d like your customers to believe it is. Either way, it wasn’t good enough.
I asked for my money back and we left. They still have my memory stick and original lyric booklet. I need to get those back sometime this week.
Instead of trying more local printing places I thought I’d contact a business that makes album packaging full-time. I sent an email to someone at Duplium, which is where Ron got Tobacco Fields manufactured. The lyric booklet for that album came out looking great. While I’m waiting to hear back from them, I might email another place in Canada that does similar work. I prefer to be able to go in and see a proof in person, but if I have to go through something like this again on my way to finding someone in Windsor who knows what they’re doing, I think I’m going to tear my own face off.
Hopefully something good shakes loose. I’m running low on booklets and inserts for a good half a dozen albums, and I’d like to be able to get more of them printed somewhere.
Making art and trying to involve other people can lead you down some pretty circuitous roads.
I sent Lianne Harway a Facebook message three years ago when my search for local woodwind players led me to her. She never saw it. As I’ve learned, if you send a message to someone you’re not already Facebook friends with, said message almost always gets stuffed into a secret spam folder somewhere deep in the ass crack of cyberspace.
A few months ago I asked Tara Watts if she’d be interested in singing on something. She responded with an enthusiastic yes, so I wrote something with her in mind. The more I sat with the song, the more it started to feel like second-tier material. And she deserved my best.
I wrote at least half a dozen subsequent songs, hoping to find one that shouted its rightness at me. None of them did. I thought I had a good idea for a potential duet one night when I was cooking some green beans. That didn’t go anywhere interesting either.
Then a song came out of nowhere when I wasn’t trying to make anything happen, and I thought, “This would be a good one to have Tara sing harmony on.” A lot of my songs are directed at one “you” or another, though I’m not often singing to a real person anymore. I liked how this one took a turn away from implied specificity, limiting itself to images and statements. There was no “you” at all.
I recorded the thing and sang placeholder harmonies of my own. Then I started to grow attached to those harmonies. Pretty soon I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone else singing them after all — even someone with a voice as great as Tara’s.
What I really wanted was to showcase her voice in more than a supporting role. I just couldn’t seem to write something that felt like an appropriate vehicle.
As soon as I gave up on the idea of writing a song Tara might have some fun singing lead on, the right song all but wrote itself. Ain’t that the way it always goes?
I have a thing for slinky, jazzy, sensual songs with musical backdrops that are either semi-electronic or full-on trip-hop/downtempo. I’ve wanted to try doing something like that with a female singer for a long time, with no success. Whenever I reach out to a singer who lives in or near Windsor and has a voice that seems appropriate for that sort of thing, they either ignore me or feign interest before disappearing.
This time I was lucky enough to have a singer lined up and waiting in the wings. And I guess the subconscious part of my songwriting brain said, “You know that thing you keep wanting to do? Here’s an opportunity to do it. NOW DO IT.” I recorded all the music, got down a guide vocal, and sent a rough mix off to Tara. She liked that it was something a little outside of her usual musical wheelhouse. We made plans to get together so she could take a stab at singing it.
Yesterday those plans came to fruition. I felt a little awkward taking pictures while we were recording, but Tara was kind enough to pretend to sing for me in hilariously exaggerated fashion after we were finished, allowing me to capture an image that’s sure to become iconic in the years ahead.
This is not that picture. The world isn’t ready for that kind of visual intensity. Instead, this is an “accidental” shot that I thought turned out pretty nice.
Sometimes when I ask someone to play or sing on one of my songs they’ll show up having spent no time preparing, and before we can get anything useful recorded I have to teach them the song they’ve had weeks or months to sit with. It doesn’t bother me, and it’s never stopped me from getting a good performance out of anyone. It’s just a thing that happens.
It didn’t happen with Tara. She did her homework. I didn’t even have to play her my guide vocal before we started recording. She slipped right in there like she owned the song. My only regret is maxing out every track on the mixer but one (reserved for the lead vocal), because she told me she heard some potential harmony lines in there. Maybe I’ll have to write something else with her in mind and leave some space so she can harmonize all over the place. I don’t think anything bad could come of it. Tara’s a master when it comes to vocal harmony.
That other song — the one I thought I was going to ask Tara to harmonize on before I decided I liked my own harmonies enough to keep them around — had an instrumental chorus/refrain. There was almost a Celtic feeling to it, I thought. It needed to be played on a flute to really put it over the top.
I asked Facebook if anyone knew someone who played flute and might be interested in doing some session work. I didn’t expect the question to even be acknowledged. As proof that social media is about as unpredictable as a naked meteorologist, recommendations came pouring in. One Facebook friend tagged Lianne, and she said she was interested.
Three years after I sent her a message that was never seen, I sent a friend request and a new message that didn’t end up in limbo. That was a few weeks ago. This past Thursday Lianne was over at the house, replacing my wordless vocal melody with flute-shaped goodness.
I moved the Pearlman TM-1 in front of her, put it in omni, and was reminded for about the seven-hundredth time how ridiculously versatile this microphone is. You’d think a high-register wind instrument like a flute would need some EQ to tame it, but no. A little kiss of reverb and it sounded just right — bright and lively without being harsh.
Like Tara, Lianne came prepared. There were three sections of the song that wanted flute, with the first iteration of the melody subtly different from the final two. Within fifteen minutes of putting on headphones and getting the microphone in place, we were done. It would have been foolish to ask her for another take. She nailed it every time, and though the melody was already written, the way she played it glued the whole song together.
Sometimes persistence rewards you, even if you have no idea where you’re going until you get there.
I didn’t mean to go so long without saying anything here. Things have been busy, and my brain has been dancing to music no one else can hear.
For one thing, I’ve been consumed with putting together a proposal for the City of Windsor’s Arts, Culture & Heritage Fund in the hope of getting a grant that will help cover expenses for a monster of a summer show at Mackenzie Hall.
Bet you never thought you’d read those words on my blog.
Even if I don’t end up getting the grant, the outpouring of support from every single person I’ve asked for any kind of assistance has been overwhelming. If you’re an individual and not an organization (raises hand), you need to submit at least three letters of support with your application. The letters people have written for me…they’re not normal letters. They vibrate with a passion my brain has had a hard time processing.
And don’t even get me started on the musicians. Oh man. Wait until you hear the lineup I’ve got in place for this show.
I know. I never thought I’d get excited about the idea of playing live again either. I figured I maybe had one show left in me, and I was in no great hurry to make it happen. But here we are. And here I am. And there you are. You’re slicing ham.
More about that when matters clarify. For now, just know something pretty special is brewing.
And hey, guess what’s at #1 on the CJAM charts again after coming in at #2 again last week? I swear every time I release an album I’m pretty sure won’t get much airplay because there’s a lot to take in, the Campus Radio Gods say, “Oh yeah? We’ll show you.” And then CJAM plays it like crazy.
Thanks again to all the DJs who support the noises I make.
There have been some “technical difficulties” in the studio that have stalled my work on this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK behemoth. I could have worked around them, but I’ve been lazy.
See, long ago and far away, Line 6 came out with this amp modelling device they called a POD. And lo! All the recording magazines in the land said, “Give us hollowed-out dildos stuffed with cash and we will write glowing reviews of your product, overflowing with superlatives.” And all was well in the land.
I bought the hype and got a POD in the late summer of 2000. I used it on everything for a long time because it made my life easier. It wasn’t until we moved into this house in 2007 that I thought, “Maybe I should try sticking a microphone in front of an actual amplifier again.” And when I did that, all the tone I’d been missing kicked me right in the nards.
It’s a difficult thing to explain. As amp modelling technology goes, I think the POD does a fine job. I don’t listen to any of the many things I recorded with my guitar plugged into it and cringe. But there’s this three-dimensional quality you don’t notice you’re missing until you’re recording the real thing.
For a while I was a purist reborn. From CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN up to CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, for every electric guitar track I recorded I plugged my guitar straight into the amp with no effects in the signal path. If I wanted some reverb, I added it after the fact when I was mixing. I either used an SM57 on its own or I added a Sennheiser MD421 for a stereo spread, and my ears were happy.
Halfway through work on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I dusted off my POD XT — a supposed upgrade from the original POD. It had many more sounds under the hood, but I always thought the amp simulation was a step backward. So I never really used the thing. Now I started to wonder what would happen if I tried using it as a souped-up stomp box. I switched off the amp simulating effect and plugged it into the Fender Twin.
I didn’t unplug it again for almost nine years. As unhip as it probably is to say anything positive about a POD today, that red kidney-looking thing became an indispensable tool for me. It allowed me to access tremolo, delay, phaser, flanger, distortion, chorus, auto-wah, and other effects with the press of a button, without altering my clean tone in any nefarious way.
This is the main reason I had no interest in guitar pedals for so long. I didn’t feel I needed them. I had everything I could desire right there in the POD XT. And it wasn’t limited to a front end for one of my main amplifiers. If I wanted to record backwards piano, all I had to do was plug a mic into the POD, switch to the reverse delay effect, turn it up until it was 100% wet, plug it into a mic preamp, and I was golden.
Being able to do something like that when you don’t work with a computer program that allows you to reverse any sound you want with a click of your mouse is a godsend.
A few weeks ago the POD started making this awful loud buzzing sound. I messed around with some patch cords and it went away. I was able to record a few guitar tracks. Then the buzzing sound started again, and this time it wouldn’t go away. Everything seemed to be working fine electronically. The trouble was the input didn’t seem to be “hearing” anything anymore. When I turned the tuner on, it wouldn’t even recognize the guitar.
I assumed the 1/4-inch input jack must have worn out after all those years of constant use. I called up Steve Chapman and asked if he’d be willing to take a look at it. He said sure.
A few days after dropping it off, he called me up and gave me the news. Turns out the power switch broke off inside the POD somehow and there was serious heat damage obscuring some of the connections.
“Have you ever seen the inside of one of these things?” Steve said, laughing. “It’s pretty clear they weren’t designed for anyone with hands to ever work on them.”
He asked to hold onto it for a little while longer, because he doesn’t like to give up, but told me the POD was probably toast. If I wanted to replace it, I’d best start looking.
I checked out eBay.ca and found one in good shape for a very reasonable price. Best of all, it was in Canada and would get here within a week. I pulled the trigger on that and it should be showing up not too long after the weekend scurries away.
Funny how you don’t notice how much you lean on something until it’s gone. I thought I’d pull out my old first-generation POD and just use that for a while. None of those sounds are what I’m after anymore, and it doesn’t have any of the effects I need. Sure, I could simulate something close to the multitap delay effect I like to use on atmospheric lap steel tracks if I hooked up about three pedals and set them just right. It still wouldn’t quite be the sound I want.
Honestly, I think it’s been healthy to have this break. I was floundering a little, trying too hard to dig up some motivation to work on things when it wasn’t there. If you’re not feeling it, I’ve found there’s usually a good reason. In this case I think I just needed to recharge the batteries after working on one album or another almost without any significant period of inactivity since early 2008.
Putting things together for this potential grant has re-energized me. It’s allowed me to step back a bit and take a good look at just how much has been accomplished, even though there’s still work to do. I’m looking forward to getting back into it and finishing up this five-years-in-the-making album. As soon as my replacement kidney shows up, the game is afoot.
How about some random album review ramblings without any proper segue?
I’ve been an Iron & Wine fan almost since the beginning. I got on board when Our Endless Numbered Days came out in 2004. It was enthralling to hear Sam Beam start to open up his sound with the Woman King EP and the Calexico collaboration In the Reins before letting loose with the sonic explosion of 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog.
What I loved about that album was the way it layered a multitude of new sounds around Sam’s songs without ever disturbing the delicate quality that made his work so compelling. His musical identity was still intact, but everything was so much more vivid and colourful. It felt at once like a giant leap and a natural progression.
I lost track of his work after that. It wasn’t because I stopped being a fan. I’m not sure what happened. I think I was exploring so much music, it became impossible to keep up with everything. I would read about another album or two that delved into even more sonic experimentation, but felt no great urge to investigate.
A few days ago Iron & Wine popped back into my head. I read there was a relatively new album that was something of a return to the earlier sound, and it was getting good reviews, so I thought I’d check it out. I picked up Beast Epic (the new-ish album) along with a long overdue copy of the very first Iron & Wine album, The Creek Drank the Cradle.
I hate to say it, but I’m finding Beast Epic kind of…well…boring. All the songs seem to blur together. They’re nice enough, but they don’t feel like they really do anything or go anywhere. Very few melodies stand out.
It’s admirable to make a point of getting back to basics, recording an album mostly live off the floor with acoustic instruments in this age of over-processed everything. And Sam still has a way with words. “Jesus and his trophy wives are praying for the suicides and the orphans” is a line that sticks in your mind for a lot of different reasons. For me the songs just aren’t there, and as a result the limited sonic palette starts to grate after a while.
The only thing that stands out so far is “Last Night”, which features some welcome jolts of dissonance and can only be described as acoustic chamber reggae.
The music video was clearly inspired by this one:
(Okay, maybe not. Sam Beam probably isn’t a closet Johnny West fan.)
Maybe the album will grow on me over time. I’d be surprised if it did.
What’s interesting is falling back fifteen years and following Beast Epic with a visit to The Creek Drank the Cradle, where it all began. This is an even more limited album in terms of its sonic makeup. It was recorded on a four-track tape recorder, and the only sounds are Sam Beam’s voice, his acoustic guitar, his banjo, and some muted leg slaps in one song. Where there’s a solo, it’s usually either a simple banjo flourish or some slide guitar.
The difference is this: these songs create a sense of place. Some music is lo-fi in a harsh, confrontational way. This album is lo-fi in a comforting way. All the sharp edges have been flattened out without losing their teeth. Beast Epic is beautifully recorded but bland. The Creek Drank the Cradle is much rougher, and yet it feels alive.
Almost all of the chord progressions are pretty simple. Then the singing starts and your brain says, “Wait…what?” So many of the vocal melodies are not at all what you’re expecting to hear. But they all work beautifully.
I wish I hadn’t waited so long to pick this one up. It’s a great album.