recording

getting in tune.

the first musical instrument i was able to call my own was a casio SK-10. i had a lot of laughs playing the demonstration songs and selecting a sampled sound instead of an existing preset. my finest moment was probably warping “heigh ho” so every instrumental part was replaced by a chorus of sampled voices saying “bum hair”.

i can still hear the intro in my head:

bum
bum hair
bum hair
bum hair

bum
bum hair
bum hair
bum hair

i got some interesting sounds out of sampling the television, and “wrote” my first real song on that keyboard — little more than a C major scale played forward with one finger and backward with the other, using a clarinet sound.

when i started to get more serious about making music and needed something with more than thirty three keys, we rented larger keyboards. through the back half of 1994 there was a new one every month, thanks to johnny smith. first there was a roland EP-9. then a kawai X40-D. then a few yamahas — a PSS-190 and a YPR-20.

(you don’t even want to know what kind of detective work was involved in figuring out what the model names were for all these keyboards more than two decades after the fact when i never made a note of any of them at the time.)

the first musical instrument i ever fell in love with was that kawai X40-D.

its “super 3D” speakers put out a huge sound, and the ad-lib function allowed me to press one key and trigger a bunch of flashy runs that made me sound like a virtuoso musician. better still, there were song “styles” built in with all kinds of different quirky personalities. while i was faking flash with my right hand, one finger on my left would lead the invisible band in auto-accompaniment mode, with buttons to trigger intros, outros, and fills.

without the manual or any music theory knowledge, i didn’t know anything about getting minor or diminished chords out of the single-finger auto-accompaniment, so everything was always in a major key. most of the songs i recorded during this period have me walking one finger up the keyboard without direction, getting a little carried away with the “fill” button, and not doing a whole lot of singing.

the song titles tend to outstrip the songs themselves for creativity. a few favourites: “kiss me honey, don’t sting me”, “the underwater jellyfish (they jump more than you think)”, and “beyond modern temptation”.

the other rented keyboards didn’t have any auto-accompaniment functions. they forced me to get a little better at playing without help. at the end of the year we stopped renting and i got my very first “serious” keyboard as a christmas present — a yamaha PSR-210.

a huge part of my musical education happened with this keyboard at my side (or in front of me, resting on the dinner table). for a full year i recorded with it almost nonstop, both with and without johnny smith as my musical other half. little by little i figured out how to make music that felt like an extension of myself without relying on the instrument’s artificial intelligence to fake it for me.

early in 1996 we got a clavinova CVP-59S. the week it took to show up after it was ordered was maybe the longest week of my life. there are few things i’ve looked forward to with such all-consuming fury. i have a vivid memory of taking time out from a grade school field trip at an ice skating rink — i couldn’t stand on ice skates anyway, never mind skate — to buy some nachos. i sat, and ate those cheesy chips, and all i could think was, “clavinova. clavinova. clavinova.”

the PSR-210 was a great companion, with enough interesting sounds under the hood to let me go a lot of different places. but the clavinova felt like a huge leap forward. i couldn’t believe how much richer and more realistic the drum sounds were. the piano sounds were meaty and robust. and it just felt good to play — like a real piano, only better (or so i thought).

a few synthesizers would join the fray later. the clavinova would be my main instrument for quite a while. even when i started to gain access to dedicated “studio” spaces (aka “rooms in houses”) and picked up more instruments, it remained an important tool.

for a long time i thought, “what would i ever need a real acoustic piano for? i’ve got the clavinova. it doesn’t need any maintenance.” it was always in tune. when i wanted to record, i didn’t need to worry about mic placement. all i had to do was plug it in. and it allowed me to record on its internal memory when i had an idea i wanted to get down fast.

here’s a small piece of “the things you love (are always the first to leave)”, a good two years before it became part of the finished song that showed up on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.

when i was working on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, the clavinova started to sound a little one-dimensional to me next to the other, more organic sounds i was recording. i worked around it by using either a wurlitzer or a fender rhodes in all the places i wanted the piano to go.

then i fell in love with a yamaha C5 grand at ouellette’s. i’d played acoustic pianos before. usually they were mediocre uprights or grands that weren’t very well cared for. this piano was different. it inspired me. it sang. for the very first time, i understood why you’d want to have the real thing around.

for about five days i was determined to own that piano, until it sunk in that it was prohibitively expensive, and there was no way we would ever be able to make room for it in this house. you’d have to climb on top of it just to get into the kitchen.

i was a little disappointed to have to shrink my dream. but i thought there had to be a vertical piano somewhere out there that would be good enough to give me at least a few gooey feelings, if not the full body orgasm i got from playing the C5.

in the late summer of 2008, operation “find a good upright instead” was set in motion. i played a whole slew of upright pianos in the store. the one i liked best was a YUS series yamaha. the price was a whole lot less insane than what the grand was going for, and it was a world away from the poorly maintained institutional uprights i was used to playing in classrooms and living rooms. the pearl river pianos were alright, but they sounded kind of cheap and tinny. this one had class.

when i told bob i was interested, he said, “can i give you some advice? wait about a week. i’ve got some new yamaha U1s coming in. that’s a nice piano, but if you like that one, you’re going to love the U1.”

i’ve never been the most patient person. when i want something, especially if it has anything to do with music, i want it last year. bob convinced me to sit tight.

that week was nothing like the the week twelve years before when i waited for my clavinova to come in. i was looking forward to trying out some pianos. i wasn’t expecting to hear anything that knocked my socks off.

when the day came, there were two U1s for me to try. i must have spent close to two hours moving from one to the other, trying to decide which one felt and sounded better. there were subtle differences. hard stuff to put into words.

the upright i was going to buy before bob told me to wait a little while was a nice piano. for not much more money, these were on another level. he was right. holding off was the right move.

after a lot of waffling, i settled on the U1 i wanted. my grandfather had just passed away, and after telling me he was writing me out of his will i was shocked to discover he either didn’t get around to making good on the threat or he’d been bluffing all along. i inherited enough to pay for that piano, almost down to the cent. it was surreal.

my U1 was delivered to the house a day or two later. somehow it sounded even better at home than it did in the wide open store. it was a game-changer for me, giving me a whole new appreciation for the first instrument i developed any kind of proficiency on. it isn’t an accident that the first album i recorded with this piano features it on sixteen of its twenty two songs.

that was the beginning of the end of my ability to play a digital piano, live or in any other setting, without feeling like too much soul was getting lost. if you grow up playing keyboards, i don’t think you can appreciate what a real piano gives you until you get the chance to play a good one. just playing a chord and holding the sustain pedal down with your foot or letting a few simple notes ring out is an almost otherworldly experience. there’s so much more living inside the sound than you could imagine. a real piano sounds alive in a way even the best digital pianos haven’t yet found a way to emulate.

nine years later, i’m still in love with this piano. it’s never felt like a compromise. as much as i lusted after that C5, my U1 has always felt like the piano i was meant to end up with. it’s added depth to my recordings that couldn’t have existed otherwise and been a great ally and songwriting tool.

ric was over here about a week ago, tuning it for the forty seventh time in its life. i snuck a picture as he was finishing up. even its guts look like art.

when i told him i still sometimes feel like i’m on my honeymoon with the piano, and it’s been fascinating to hear the tone mature over the years, ric said, “it’s at its peak. it’ll probably never sound better than it does right now.”

that got me thinking about the first song i recorded with the U1 — not the first song i wrote on it, but the first one i wrote specifically for it.

when i knew i was days away from getting my black and white beast, i wrote one last song on the clavinova so i’d have something to tackle as soon as the real deal showed up.

(i wasn’t kidding when i said i never put much thought into whether or not my face and hands were visible when i was using the camcorder to capture ideas and songs in the process of being written.)

the difference in sound when i was able to play the chords on a real piano for the first time almost knocked me over.

you know that thing i said about being impatient? i couldn’t even wait to get the piano tuned before i started recording with it. the factory tuning held up well enough that i didn’t mind a bit of drift. i propped the lid open, moved two neumann KM184s around until things sounded right, and that was it. i’ve been recording the piano the same way with the same mics ever since.

technically this was the first song recorded for AN ABSENCE OF WAY, though it didn’t end up on the album. i made at least four different mixes in rapid succession. i almost never do that. most of the time i’ll do a rough mix, take a look at what needs tweaking, do another mix or two for fine-tuning, and then move on.

in this case every mix was different. the first one had everything in it, the second had less glockenspiel, the third stripped away almost everything but piano and vocals, and the fourth featured most of the instruments minus electric guitar. none of them felt definitive. they all had elements i liked and didn’t like.

three years later i took another crack at it. i always felt the drums were a little weak, both sound-wise and performance-wise. i was expecting to mess with a lot of things, but adding a new, meatier drum track seemed to be all the song needed. i thought i was done.

about a month later, i listened again. all at once, everything sounded wrong. the drumming was too aggressive. i went back and tried it a lot of different ways. something more intricate with brushes. something more subdued with mallets. something more skeletal with sticks.

nothing worked.

i thought about ditching the bass part and replacing it with some deep sustained organ notes. i tried recording some metallic bell-like synth sounds. i thought about ditching the triple-tracked vocals. i didn’t know what to do to get this song where it needed to be. the more i tried to change, the less sure i was of where i was supposed to go.

the thing that finally glued it all together was plugging in the alesis micron, playing some simple synth chords to shade what the piano was doing right at the point where the drums came in. i got rid of a lot of the electric guitar, threw out the drums altogether, kept the vocals and the original bass track, got rid of some wordless vocal harmonies near the end, and chopped out a little instrumental electric guitar/bass harmonics bit (i always liked it, but now it sounded a little superfluous).

after three years and far too many different mixes, at long last, the song felt just right.

someday our children will give us names

it’ll probably end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. i’ve been picking away at that album here and there for ten years now. that’s a scary thought, but one of the benefits of taking such a long time to finish a gargantuan album is giving a song like this the time to find the clothes it wants to wear.

you say you got a need for a celebratory season.

work continues on the next papa ghostface album, though my sleep issues and gord’s rotating work hours have slowed things down a little.

yesterday was our first session in a while. the last time we got together before this, we had plans to work on a specific song. then i started playing a random unrelated thing on an acoustic guitar, gord joined in, i started singing the lyrics for “be sorry” from SHOEBOX PARADISE, and our plans got chucked straight into the trash.

“be sorry” was one of our more accessible songs back in the day. it had a recognizable verse/chorus structure, the lyrics were pretty straightforward, and with a little more polish it might have sounded like something that could have made sense on college radio. it was also one of the songs we always liked best in our own catalogue of work.

whatever high school class i was pretending to pay attention in when i wrote the words, i had joe cocker’s version of “feelin’ alright” in my head. i thought we might do something with a similar good-time bluesy energy when it came time to set the words to music.

but songs have minds of their own, and they were trying to teach me that lesson even back then. the day i pulled out those lyrics in my little music room at the house on kildare, i started playing a descending chord progression on an electric guitar that was more indebted to “all along the watchtower” than joe cocker. gord came up with some inspired lead lines, playing through this cool little zoom pedal he had that’s sadly missing in action now, i found an appropriate drum pattern on the clavinova, and we got down to business.

i ditched a twisted bridge section mid-song because the lunacy no longer seemed to fit:

popsicle head
in a european convict’s mind
you don’t pay attention
blood red blush
in a rush of amputated loveless fear
you don’t pay attention
so kiss my head
my hairless head
kiss my head
or i’ll make you pay
kiss my head
kiss my head
number five
your creation is terminated

what that randomness was supposed to mean is beyond me. i sang the first verse a second time at the end instead of trying to pancake those words into music that didn’t suit them, and then we improvised a long instrumental coda with some fun duelling guitar business.

slowing the song down and playing it in a different key seventeen years later wasn’t planned. it was just one of those happy accidents. the new music felt like it gave a little more depth to some of the simplest words i ever wrote. defiance turned to something weary and maybe a little wiser.

we got down the acoustic guitars. i added some bass. then we left it alone. i meant to record some singing and experiment with other sounds. i still haven’t done that.

when gord came over yesterday, he brought his old twelve-string with him. the idea was for both of us to play twelve-strings and see what happened. there was one problem: his axe is in rougher shape than i thought. the intonation is a mess, and the action is pretty stiff.

my own twelve-string has held up a lot better over the years. i gave it to gord, he slipped it into a tuning a little kinder to fingers that play the conventional way, and we tried adding it to this new version of “be sorry” in a few different places.

i’m not sure any of what we recorded is going to end up in the final mix when all is played and sung. still, it was nice to be reminded again that while this cheap washburn twelve-string might not be anything fancy, it sounds pretty nice when you stick a good mic in front of it. all i did here was aim a single pearlman TM-250 at the guitar and put it in omni.

i still need to mess with some video settings on the T5i and figure out how to get the best results in different lighting situations. this was shot in auto mode, with autofocus on, in a room that isn’t all that well-lit most of the time. i think the ISO got bumped up a bit to compensate. so it came out a little grainy.

but i have to say i’m enjoying this camera a lot. the autofocus seems to do a solid job of keeping the important things in focus. there’s no way i could ever shoot handheld with either of the flip cameras and get movement this smooth, either.

until the sun blows up, i’m never gonna let you down.

all through high school, i wrote songs for assignments every chance i got. it made life more fun and kept me on my toes. i had the most success doing this when mrs. gilham — one of the few great high school teachers i had — was teaching english or french, finding endless ways to contort what were meant to be essays or oral presentations into musical shapes.

one time i stood in front of the class and strummed a mandolin while singing in french about celebrity endorsements. the song was called “les atheletes qui chante”. “je suis michael jordan,” went one bit. “j’aime les ball park franks.” another time, for a group assignment, i played the part of bill clinton. i was very attached to my pet pig, oinky, played by matt strukelj. when oinky died, i hit the play button on a CD player and moaned along to some insane instrumental music i recorded at home the night before.

i liked to think it kept things interesting, not just for me, but for the other students too.

in grade eleven one of the books my english class dug into was the catcher in the rye. we were supposed to write something while inhabiting the psyche of one of the characters in the story. i asked if i could write a song from the perspective of holden caulfield. mrs. gilham gave me the go-ahead.

i wrote a song called “holden on”, because bad puns are the best thing ever. it was a good excuse to mess around in a strange guitar tuning and to write in a voice that was a little different from whatever my typical songwriting voice was in those days.

i brought my crummy vantage acoustic guitar to school with me the next day, sat on top of an unattended desk in my first period english class, and sang my song. it went over well enough that some of my classmates asked if i could play it again at the end of the period. that blew my mind a little. i went through it a second time, put a little more energy into the vocal performance now that i was warmed up, and threw in a bit of “henry the horny hamster” from my x-rated christmas album before mrs. gilham shot me a look that said, “that’s as far as you go, pilgrim.”

the guitar came with me to my second period society class. sean lauria was one of the guys i shared that class with. he asked me what the deal was with the axe. i told him about my english assignment and “holden on”. he asked if he could hear it. i told him i’d already played it twice and wasn’t really up for playing it again.

he stuffed thirty or forty bucks into the front pocket of my shirt to try and convince me. i almost fell over. i handed the money back to him, laughing in disbelief. he wasn’t giving up, though. he talked ms. davis into letting me play the song for the class. so i sat on another desk that wasn’t taken and played it a third time, without quite the same intensity as before.

i only knew of one other person who ever talked their way into substituting a song for a writing assignment, and that was gord. it seemed almost poetic, since that was how we hooked up and became friends in the first place. the same year my english class was analyzing the catcher in the rye, his was reading animal farm. he wrote a song in the voice of boxer the horse — the most tragic character in the book.

for a while i only heard bits and pieces of the song. brodie johnston, who was in gord’s class when he debuted his ode to boxer, sang a few lines for me, substituting lyrics about his favourite running back for the parts he couldn’t remember. gord played part of it for me outside of school. but i didn’t hear anything close to the full thing for at least a few years.

most of the songs i wrote for school-related purposes were recorded in one form or another, but outside of a truncated instrumental reprise on WATER ONLY HATES ITSELF SILLY, “holden on” was never documented in any meaningful way. gord’s boxer song was another story.

in late 1999 amanda filmed a performance with her then-new 8mm camcorder. it has to be the first existing recording of the song, made just days before or after gord played the PG-rated version at school.

three years later i asked gord if he wanted to revisit it and give it a proper recording. he wrote out what he remembered of the words, changing some of them in the process. we got down a rough demo just to run through it, both of us playing electric guitar, gord singing through a cold that made him a temporary baritone.

and then we didn’t do anything more with it for fourteen years.

when we were bouncing ideas around for the followup to STEW, the boxer song came up. i learned gord never quite settled on a version he was satisfied with.

i finally got around to mixing the 2002 demo so we could both hear it again, muting my guitar part, since i didn’t think it added much.

ode to boxer (2002 demo)

we both felt this was the version to build on. it lost the anger and desperation that was there in the beginning and took on a more defeated, mournful quality, with gord improvising some words at the end about “sugarcane mountain” that sounded to me like the doomed horse’s dying dream.

we sat down and tried to work out where we could tighten things up without doing too much to alter the soul of the song, and i recorded a late night demo on my own that reflected the changes we made.

ode to boxer (2016 demo)

gord first had benjamin the donkey predicting boxer’s fate. a quick look at the source text revealed it was really wise pig old major who warned him he would be expendable once he’d given the last of his great strength. i tweaked that and a few other lines, but left most of the lyrics untouched.

we picked at it some more, experimenting with the length and placement of different sections until it felt right. an instrumental bit that had been forgotten for well over a decade was reinstated. brand new music was written for the “sugarcane mountain” coda.

recording it was pretty straightforward. we got down the acoustic guitars and then the rest fell into place pretty quick. there’s a bit of a different dynamic driving what we do now, though. in the past we never talked much about what we were doing. we just did it. now there’s much more of a dialogue happening, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions to each other.

when gord plays bass, he tends to throw in these great little jabs of unexpected melody. “situations” on STEW is a good example. the bass doesn’t just hold down the low end. it dances.

with this song, i thought the bass might be more effective during the 3/4 sugarcane mountain section if it wasn’t so busy. i asked gord to try a simple walking bass line without throwing in any fiddly bits. as for me, after i recorded a rough drum track gord said he felt playing with sticks didn’t really suit the song. i tried playing with brushes and everything started to feel a lot more open and dynamic.

we were both right.

it’s nice to be able to voice an idea or ask someone to try something a different way without having to worry about any egos getting bruised, because you know everything is being done in service of the music.

a great example of this philosophy in action: i assumed gord would want to handle the vocals here, since the song is really his baby and has been for a long time. he asked me to sing it instead. i did twist his arm into singing a bit of backup for the final “never gonna let you down” bit, but aside from that all the singing is me.

i really liked the acoustic guitar countermelodies i came up with for my demo. when it came right down to it, throwing those in the final recording would have made everything feel a little too cluttered. so that fell by the wayside. but there was still room for banjo and piano. as for the lap steel, that’s the 1950s “mother of toilet seat” magnatone first heard on AFTERTHOUGHTS. this might be that old beast’s best moment on record so far.

i thought it was about time i performed a bit of surgery on the rough mix that’s been sitting around for a while, because i’ve been wanting to make a little music video to go with the song. the moving pictures this time come to you from john halas and joy batchelor’s animated film version of animal farm from 1954 — secretly funded by the CIA! the last time i saw it was when my own english class read the book in 2000 or 2001, so i couldn’t remember how much of boxer was in there. as it turned out, there was more than enough material for what i wanted to do, including some moments that were more evocative than i was expecting them to be.

and there you have the near-twenty-year-long journey of a song that began life as a high school english assignment, from raw teenage howl to refined alt-folk, or whatever it wants to call itself now.

snag you.

i don’t really fancy myself a mastering engineer of other people’s music. so it was a bit of a surprise when i got the call to master the first two shimmer demolition albums. adam is one of my very best friends, and i had a lot of fun working with his songs, trying to give them the extra volume and punch he was after without going too crazy.

for his third album he decided to go it alone on the mastering front. it’s been a long time coming, but i think the album is only a few weeks away from being released now.

a little over three years ago adam emailed me an MP3 of a song he’d just finished recording — the song that now serves as the album’s first single. as soon as its infectious wordless chorus kicked in and i started singing along, i knew i had to try to talk him into letting me sing on it.

his process is about as insular as mine is. he’s got his creative vision, and he knows how to get the sounds he’s after without anyone else’s help. i get that. but i heard a vocal harmony in my head, and i knew it would work if i got the chance to try it.

he was reluctant at first. i got him to give me a shot by promising if he didn’t like what i did he didn’t have to use it, and i wouldn’t be offended. we sat together in his basement and i sang into a microphone held together with duct tape.

i couldn’t hear myself in my headphones. you’d think that would help my pitch, but i didn’t sing all that well the first time through. the confidence wasn’t there.

i asked adam if he could mute his own vocal tracks. i gave it another shot and pretty much got what i was after. we doubled that. then i threw in a high third-part harmony at the end. we doubled that too. i could feel adam making a slow transition from thinking, “i’m not so sure about this,” to, “maybe it was a good idea after all.”

he made a rough mix and we listened to it upstairs five times before ordering pizza. i did sitting arm pushups with his cat nemo on my lap, and nemo winked at me because he liked the song and my singing on it. at least that’s what i told myself then, and it’s the story i’m sticking with now.

the third-part harmony that came in on the last chorus made me visualize a music video that ended with us dressed up in suits and ties, adam ahead of me, standing outside the bedroom window of the object of his affection, singing to her without words because there weren’t any right ones for the feeling being expressed and “ah” was the only one that would do, so we both opened wide and sang it out.

it was a good enough mental music video for me to put in regular rotation for a while. i realized it was a cliché — the whole “singing at your star-crossed lover’s window” thing. but the music took it somewhere sweet and heavy, almost making it new again.

eight years ago i sang a bit of harmony on a song that ended up on an album the artist now likes to pretend never existed. that was very much a spur of the moment thing. this was different. i had an idea, and thanks to adam i got to run with it, and got to be a small part of what i think is one of the best songs he’s written. of the few vocal cameos i’ve had on the albums of others so far, this is my favourite one.

remastering update #2.

hark! i hath passed the halfway mark!

98 songs down. 90 still to go.

more surprises and mostly-forgotten little audio relics:

  • an unused kick drum part to bolster the stomping and tambourine-shaking on “everything he asked you”
  • drums recorded for “creepy crawly things” but left out of the final mix
  • the rain at the beginning of “wait all morning” fades out just before i get into an argument with the sky, asking for (and not receiving) thunder
  • as with “raccoon eyes”, “everything matters, everyone cares” started out as some improv behind the drums recorded with the idea of building some music around it after the fact; unlike what happened with “raccoon eyes”, i ended up casting out the initial drum part once it became clear it didn’t play well with the music it inspired
  • some out-of-tune piano over the bridge section on “what i would do for you” that was junked at the mixing stage
  • the tenor banjo at the end of “i love you” goes on quite a bit longer than the CD mix would have you believe (and longer than i remembered), growing even more crazed and dissonant
  • an unused bass harmonics overdub in the middle of “95 streets (is where i will find the heart of you)”
  • an alternate lead vocal for “fat mouth” that does some pretty serious attempted springsteen-channeling circa darkness on the edge of town
  • some acoustic guitar accents recorded for “absence makes the heart grow fondue” right where the drums kick in, but abandoned after about thirty seconds and not present in the final mix
  • several foul-mouthed arguments with an interrupting phone and/or fax machine
  • more forgotten riffs and licks sandwiched between proper songs

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

ain’t got time to work out a place to be.

crumb-patton

this whole remastering thing is a slow slog. but man, is it ever worth the tediousness.

if you’ve heard THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, you probably know this song. it’s one of several that’s got quite a bit of clipping going on.

weak bladder blues (original 2008 master)

here’s what it sounds like now, and what it always should have sounded like.

weak bladder blues (2017 remaster)

to say the song is easier on the ears in this quieter form goes beyond being an understatement, and flirts with chuck norris levels of truthiness. i can’t believe i ever found a way to justify letting all that clipping happen just for a little extra loudness. nothing like that will ever happen again on my watch.

for anyone who might be mastering their own music at home and wrestling with the question of whether or not they should over-compress it or introduce unnatural digital distortion in exchange for some additional volume, i offer the above as an audio add-on to my strongest recommendation that you stay away from that slippery slope altogether. concentrate on getting things to sound as good and dynamic as you can, without any consideration given to loudness at all. if anyone is miffed that they have to turn your music up a little louder than some of the other albums in their collection or they don’t want to listen to your stuff if it means they have to spend two seconds making a slight volume adjustment, well…you don’t really want people who are that goofy listening to your music anyway, do you?

as for the picture there, that’s a colourized panel from robert crumb’s patton — a retelling of the life of delta blues legend charley patton. a few historical inaccuracies aside, it must be one of the best comic strips crumb’s ever created. it’s difficult to find in printed form for anything like a reasonable price, but you can read it over here.

zara doing zara things (continued).

here’s that video action i mentioned a little while back.

zara says, “watch me awkwardly sway to my music as i make one of the happiest instruments possible sad.” (really. that’s what she said.)

johnny says, “lots of clichés have been peddled over the years about vocal power, but zara’s voice is so powerful it makes microphones shake — literally!”

the tasmanian devil says, “i like my new perch. i get to see and hear stuff.”

something i discovered in the course of editing this video: it’s easier to edit something when you have a lot of different elements to stitch together. more time-consuming, sure. but easier. when you’re only cutting back and forth between two different things, it becomes a little trickier to create movement without disjointedness. camera movement would probably help there, but i can’t move the camera around and concentrate on recording at the same time, unless i grow another set of eyes and hands.

you never know. it could happen.

my way of working around that was not making too many quick cuts, and deviating a little from the “show the person singing when they’re singing and show something else when they’re not singing” approach every once in a while, to keep it interesting.

didn’t feel right adding any additional instruments to this one, because it’s a really personal song, and also because i wanted the video to be a showcase for zara. it would be a little less of a showcase if every once in a while you got “random bearded person who isn’t zara doing things”.

it’s just you and me now, clovis.

sleepwalkers

it has just come to my attention that sleepwalkers is the best horror movie of all time. BECAUSE CATS.

(actually, it’s one of those “insanely bad but entertaining because it’s insanely bad” movies. watching it, you wonder if someone was drugging stephen king’s toothpaste when he wrote the screenplay. but still. cats.)

in the real world, where madchen amick doth not caress a cat while whispering my true feline name, the unnecessary construction crap continues, and continues, and continues. if i spend too much time thinking about how, if not for all the noise killing by ability to record for all of the most useful portions of almost every day, i would probably be almost finished that ambitious solo album there, it makes me want to murder things. i’m all for decompressing a little between albums, but not being able to do much of any meaningful work for almost two months now is getting ridiculous.

at this rate, i expect them to still be beeping and banging and alternating between working and pretending to work when next summer rolls around, and for our street to still not be repaired. hell, they should move in. why not? it already feels like they’ve been here forever and are never going to leave. might as well make it official.

the whole remastering thing has fallen by the wayside a little. instead of focusing on that the way i planned to, i’ve been dipping my toes back into the cassette archives.

i’m not sure what got my brain drifting back in that direction. i think it might have been one or two specific songs i wanted to hear. before i knew what was happening, i was listening to my ten-year-old self banging on a keyboard and singing about how endless matters are all that matter, and reading handwritten album notes from 1994 in which i thanked my wife and daughter.

you heard it here first — i was married and a father when i was ten years old. hey, i’m as surprised as you are.

then it hit me that i didn’t have access to a working tape recorder anymore. and that needed to change.

from 1994 (and maybe earlier) to the summer of 1998, this was what i recorded with:

my-old-friend

that’s a sony CFS-W305 cassette-corder. dig the “space sound”.

sometime in late 1997 it started getting finicky. sometimes it wouldn’t start recording right away. a few times it stopped recording at a random moment in the middle of a song. it still did the job most of the time, but when you’re constantly making music, you want something you can rely on.

around the time our sony friend was developing some issues, johnny smith bought a magnasonic CPS-912 boombox from a coworker. it didn’t have a built-in mic, but it had some nice speakers on it, so i started using it for listening and dubbing purposes.

then the CFS-W305 got even more temperamental and started chewing up tapes. that wasn’t going to stand. in the summer of ’98 i bought a cheap genexxa mic from radio shack that was sort of a poor man’s shure SM58, plugged it into the magnasonic, set it up as a room mic, and couldn’t believe how much fuller things sounded.

i’d put up a picture of the magnasonic here, but it’s packed away somewhere. and you can’t find a picture of it online. with the sony guy there, you can find the service manual without even trying, which is pretty neat. with the CPS-912, there’s no evidence anywhere on the internet that the thing ever existed at all.

it’s big and red. i can tell you that much. even after i wasn’t recording on tape anymore, i used its speakers as my monitors for a while before it got packed away.

there was another tape recorder in there for a bit. it wasn’t used to record a whole lot of music, but when i was in grade eight i would carry it around with me and make goofy field recordings. i loved that thing. i remember dropping it or damaging it somehow, and then it either got lost in a move or unloaded at a yard sale.

i don’t know what brand it was. in my memory it looks like a realistic CTR-70. kind of like this, only…more beige.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

it goes without saying that they don’t make a whole lot of cassette recorders anymore. not too many people are looking to record anything on cassette tape — not when you can buy digital sound recorders with stereo microphones that will probably fit in your pocket for not a whole lot of money. for me there’s just something appealing about cassette tapes and mono that never really went away. i grew up with tapes. a huge chunk of my musical life was recorded on that medium, live in one shot.

i know i posted a picture here a long time ago. here’s a new one that came out blurry for no apparent reason.

blurry-cassette-archives

aside from a handful of “greatest hits” and out-takes collections, all of that is original material, and they’re all full-length albums, most of them 90-minute or 120-minute cassettes. if you thought i was prolific about half a dozen years ago when i was putting out a few albums a year, you don’t want to know how productive i was when i was going through puberty. i was on a mission. it never occurred to me to play any of the stuff for anyone else. i just knew i needed to make it, and i wore the reluctant smithster down over a year or two until he became a vital collaborator.

(don’t ask me why i named him johnny smith but called us “the west team”. i’ve never understood what my logic was there.)

i’ve only revisited a few select songs here and there. i want to wait to really dig in until i can do it in a straight chronological line, and to be able to do that there are a few unlabelled tapes i need to go through to see what’s on them, and a little detective work i need to do to try and figure out when certain things were recorded early on.

the thing i’m realizing from the little bit of listening i have done — there’s very little music here that embarrasses me. even with the recordings where it’s obvious i didn’t know my way around a keyboard yet, there’s an almost violent creative energy there that’s a lot of fun to listen to all this distance on the other side of it.

i mean, i improvised a concept album when i was eleven years old. with shifts in perspective. and recurring narrative and melodic motifs. and i could barely even string a few chords together back then. that’s insane.

i’m not bragging. i just can’t believe i had the audacity to try something like that, and that i was confident enough to pull it off.

there’s a scary amount of music on those albums, taking in a lot of different sounds and subjects. i’m not going to put any of those songs up here, though. what’s going here is something i never thought i’d let anyone in the world hear, and one of the few things hidden in the spaces between all those audio photo albums that does embarrass me.

this is an out-take that didn’t end up on any proper album. it was recorded on july 2, 1997, the day i bought my first acoustic guitar.

by this point we’d recorded a lot of music and i was pretty comfortable at the keyboard. i felt i had a pretty good grasp of harmony and structure, even with my music theory-resistant brain. i thought i could pick up the guitar without having ever held one in my hands before, and just…play. i’ve written a bit about this before.

when i sat down with my shiny new piece of crap vantage acoustic, hit the record button on the sony CFS-W305, and started improvising, i had what you earth people call a rude awakening. i could not, as it turned out, just pick up a guitar and play. at all.

i think i was somewhere near standard tuning. i’m not sure. it wasn’t like i knew how to tune the thing.

here’s a little excerpt from that song, from that day when i was thirteen years old and feeling pretty demoralized all at once about not being able to make instant magic with six strings. the whole thing is more than six minutes long, and while it’s not quite as soul-destroying as i remembered it being, i’m not about to make you sit through all of that.

i don’t know what to do (excerpt)

and here’s a little song idea that was recorded a few days ago using my new tape recorder friend, also played on an acoustic guitar.

sunny day (fragment)

there’s nothing very intricate at all going on there. it’s just a dead-simple outline that may or may not someday turn into a fleshed-out song. but man, what a difference some years can make when it comes to things like knowing how to play an instrument.

i mentioned a new tape recorder friend. that would be this guy.

tapey-mctaperson-2

it’s a panasonic RQ-2102. new, these things go for outrageous prices. there are a bunch of people selling used ones in great condition on ebay for next to nothing. so i went there, and paid my next-to-nothing, and got one that might as well be new. i really miss that little tape recorder i remember being beige, and this is the closest-looking thing that seems to exist now.

i have to say i’m pretty impressed with the clarity of the tiny built-in microphone. of course it’s going to be lo-fi, but it’s the kind of lo-fi that brings back all kinds of good memories for me. while i’m not about to start recording full albums on cassette again, i’m looking forward to using this thing as both a way to capture random ideas at the embryonic stage (which is what happened here) and a field recording tool.

there are times when you just don’t feel comfortable standing on your porch with a microphone in your hand and headphones on. it’s a lot easier to play it cool with a little tape recorder under your arm. the added portability is an asset too.

zara doing zara things.

zara-uke-blurred

we’re working on zara’s second album right now. her voice is just as full of magic as ever, but this time there are ukulele songs too. you can see how much the tasmanian devil approves in this grainy video still.

(video still = indication of forthcoming video action. i’ve decided from now on, whenever i’m recording someone else’s music, i’m going to ask if they’d like a DIY in-studio music video. and if they say yes, i’m going to make ’em one. because making things is fun.)

everything you maybe didn’t want to know about an album you probably haven’t heard yet.

AFTERTHOUGHTS (2016)

after an easy birth, a pretty happy childhood, and an interminable adolescence, the debut O-L west album has grown up and gone out into the world to fend for itself.

it’s called AFTERTHOUGHTS. it exists only as a physical album. you can’t buy it anywhere, because it isn’t for sale — though if you’re reading this, you probably knew that part already.

it’s the first thing i’ve ever been a part of where there are two distinct dominant voices throughout. things are split pretty much down the middle between songs i sing lead on and songs steven sings lead on. on some level, an album where we both share the writing and lead singing duties feels like a natural outgrowth of the work we were doing with steven’s tire swing co. songs. it was probably only a matter of time before we started writing together.

the thing is, you can never predict how — or even if — that’s going to work. you really don’t know until you sit down with someone and start bouncing ideas and creative energy around. sometimes the energy is right. sometimes it isn’t. i’ve had both experiences. with some people collaborating has been effortless, and with others it’s been about as easy as plucking out a polar bear’s ass hair with chopsticks.

with steven, it’s as natural as breathing. we just click, in a way i’ve only ever clicked with a few people. it’s a joy making music with someone when that happens.

if you’re a friend and/or someone who contributed to the album, you probably already have a CD, or else one is on its way to you from one of us right now. if you’re not on my “mailing list”, or if we don’t know you but you’d like a copy, feel free to get in touch with me or steven and we’ll do our best to get one to you.

each polaroid that makes up the collage on the album cover is related to one of the songs. here’s what that’s all about, along with some of the stories behind the music — including most of the existing relevant demos, in case you want to compare some of those to the definitive versions and ruminate on what changed, what didn’t change, and which spontaneous late night arrangement ideas had staying power.

i suggest not listening to too many of these demos until after you’ve heard the full album, to avoid spoiling too many surprises, but hey…i’m not here to tell you how to live your life.

paint as you like and die happy

paint as you like sharpened

along with trespassing, this was the true beginning of the O-L west. we jammed out the music one night in the fall of 2014 — steven playing acoustic guitar, me on lap steel — and made a quick recording to preserve the idea.

paint as you like and die happy (demo)

steven came back with some great lyrics the next time we met up. we got down his acoustic guitar and lead vocal, and then i added the bass and lap steel.

that felt like almost enough. but it needed a little more.

on a musical level, the song is all about drift, with long instrumental passages leading into and out of the verses and choruses — which aren’t really choruses, because the words are different each time. any kind of extended solo or conventional drum part was going to chip away at the almost dream-like quality of the thing. what i needed to do was find the right accents.

one of my favourite things about working with steven is the uniqueness of his voice, and getting to play off of it with my own voice. here i threw in some high whispered background vocals on the chorus sections. also added some piano to the second half of the song.

on a different kind of tune i’d float around and improvise a lot more. in this case, the simpler and sparser i kept my playing, the better it seemed to work. sometimes just a few notes played on a piano can contribute an incredible amount of depth to a song. it’s a little nuts.

(digital pianos need not apply.)

the little synth-sounding melody that runs through the second verse, never to recur, is the casio SK-1 set on the flute sound with some subtle effects added. even if it didn’t allow you to sample anything, the SK-1 would be worth the cost of doing business just for that flute patch. though it sounds very little like a real flute, it’s got a great soul to it. it’s a sound that works in places you’d never expect it to.

here’s the SK-1 on top of a small pile of things, staring at you all stiff-upper-lip-like, as photographed by joey acott.

the-tower-of-preamps-compression-and-keys

the other synthy wash of sound that’s more of a background colour and doesn’t go away once it’s introduced isn’t a synth at all. it’s another lap steel track. i plugged the steel into the old digitech guitar effects processor that’s been making a bit of a comeback lately, found an ambient-sounding patch i’ve always liked, and played around with harmonics and volume swells.

the problem with this patch is it can sometimes introduce some hiss when you’re feeding it a low-output instrument. it did that here. you probably wouldn’t notice unless you listened on good headphones or a nice hi-fi. even so, as much as i like my rough edges, something like unintentional-but-audible hiss drives me batty. if i didn’t do something to cover it up, it was going to bug me for the rest of my life.

i recorded a soft brushed snare part to act as another little sonic accent, since nothing else seemed like a viable hiss-hiding solution, and hoped for the best.

these days i almost always record drums in one very specific way, with a stereo ribbon microphone set up in the middle of the room. it gets a slight boost from a tube EQ to counteract the high frequency roll-off inherent in most ribbon mics, a bit of compression, and that’s it. no close mics. no other ambient mics. i did throw in a distant room mic a few times on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART so i could slap a gated reverb or some delay on it for a bit of additional texture, but that’s not the norm for me.

there are three reasons behind this:

(i) i’ve grown to like the natural, unhyped, “drums in a room being played by a person” sound this approach imparts a lot more than the “close-mic’d up the wazoo, sound-replaced, and smashed to hell with compression until it doesn’t sound anything like a real drum kit anymore” sound i hear coming out of most modern recording studios. if i want drums that don’t sound a whole lot like acoustic drums, i’ll use a synth or a drum machine. if i’m playing a drum set, i want it to sound like a drum set. that’s just my own personal taste.

(ii) with only sixteen tracks on my mixer and more ambitious arrangement ideas than i used to have, every track counts now.

(iii) i spent years messing around with different drum-mic’ing configurations. i don’t have the patience for that anymore, unless someone’s paying me to record them and they want something other than my typical homegrown drum sound.

by the time i started thinking about drums in the context of this song, i didn’t have two leftover tracks to work with. i only had one. i sort of close-mic’d the snare with a pearlman TM-LE, since it was the only part of the kit i planned on playing anyway, and left it at that.

the sound lived in just the right frequency to mask the hiss. it even added a little bit of extra glue to the drift.

don’t you find your drift needs some extra glue sometimes? no? just me?

paint as you like early draft

there’s one last thing to tell you about, and that’s the weird trembling sound that comes in for the last chorus. you’ll never guess what it is.

it’s a ukulele pitch pipe.

late one night, i got the idea to try sampling that little thing with the SK-1. for some weird reason it worked really well. the way the sampled sound took the natural vibrato created by the way i blew into the pitch pipe and altered the speed of it based on what notes were being played, generating a sound much more complex than its humble origins would ever suggest, was a total happy accident.

i like how this song sounds like it’s going to stay a stripped-down thing for the first few minutes, and then out of nowhere it fans out into a much wider, deeper soundscape. i think we both knew it needed to be the opening track pretty early on. sometimes you gotta kick things off with a more immersive track the listener can get lost in for a while, instead of something quick and punchy.

as for the picture, that’s steven sitting on my front steps, holding the actual photograph he’s singing about in the first verse. pretty nifty, eh?

UVB-76

radio cropped

this song is about a mysterious russian shortwave radio station no one has been able to explain for three decades, with the second verse made up of snippets of cryptic dialogue listeners have picked up over the years. it’s probably the closest the album gets to “moody rock”, afterthought no. 3 notwithstanding.

it didn’t start out sounding like that. the rough jam that planted the seed of the song was acoustic guitar-driven.

UVB-76 (rough jam)

so was the demo that followed.

UVB-76 (demo)

and i thought the non-demo version would keep it that way. many of these songs were born while the two of us were playing acoustic guitar. it made sense to use that as a starting point and build from there. but after a while, i got to thinking it might be a nice bit of contrast to have one or two songs not lean on acoustic stringed things at all, and i started to wonder what this one would sound like electrified.

i grabbed the kay thin twin and gave it a try. natalie reminded me what a great friend that axe was when she played it for a few songs on CAT & CORMORANT after i’d been neglecting it for a while. the two interlocking main guitar parts were played on the kay. the other guitar accents and the distorted not-quite-lead guitar that comes in for the instrumental end section were all played on a telecaster. the little harmonica bits from the demo carried over, along with the hazy wordless vocal stuff near the end.

UVB-76

it took me a while to get the lead vocal right once i wasn’t singing it cross-legged on my bed into a tiny laptop microphone i couldn’t see. too much force and the pensive mood would be broken. not enough and it would sound like i was sleepwalking through the song.

i think i found the right balance in the end.

i wanted to wedge a small shortwave radio inside of a tree with a hole large enough to accommodate it and small enough to hold it in place, and then take a picture of that. it wasn’t to be. i couldn’t find the little shortwave feller i’ve got kicking around somewhere in the basement (or the garage, or switzerland…who knows where that thing is), and i was going to have a tough time finding a tree sympathetic to my plight.

took a picture of this big old tube-driven character with shortwave capabilities instead. it was the first picture i shot with the impossible project’s temperamental black and white polaroid film that didn’t come out overexposed to the point of being unusable. the framing is a little askew, and now i kind of wish i took another run at it, but it works well enough in the context of the collage. and in these troubled times, collage context is really all that matters, isn’t it?

trespassing

trespassing cropped

this one is discussed in detail, complete with all the demos, over HERE. it’s a musical dialogue, with natalie’s singing on the choruses-that-aren’t-really-choruses adding something special. the way the story unfolds, i think it almost feels more like a short film than a song.

by the time we were thinking about images to accompany the songs, the house that inspired steven’s initial concept for this one wasn’t looking so abandoned and evocative anymore. i always had the walker power building (aka “the old peabody building”) in my head. some of the imagery in the first verse came from thinking about that place.

trespassing 1

trespassing 2

a picture of the whole building felt too distant, in every sense of the word. then i got closer and lucked into seeing the “no trespassing” sign.

maybe that’s a little on-the-nose. but when it’s right, it’s right.

time erodes

scrap metal brighter

i kind of hijacked this one, similar to what happened with trespassing.

it started as a jam. steven had the verse chords and a vocal melody, but there weren’t words yet. i heard him singing what sounded like “and i know” a couple times. it got stuck in my head and wouldn’t leave. the same night of the initial jam i added some more music, wrote a bunch of lyrics, and sent along a demo of the finished thing at about one in the morning.

time erodes (demo)

there was no concept in my head when i was writing these words. they were just the words that came out. but it was fun to find a way to work some boxing-related imagery in there, and now i’m pretty sure the bridge section has to do with faculty-dulling substances and the recklessness of darker days.

time erodes 1

time erodes 2

there isn’t a single proper guitar solo in any of the other songs on the album. so it stands to reason that the one song to buck the trend would have not one, but two solos.

getting down the solo at the end was pretty straightforward. the first one was a different story. i recorded a bunch of takes of a totally different, flashier solo without ever quite nailing it to my satisfaction. then i threw it out and tried something simpler and more melodic. that worked a whole lot better.

the arrangement for this one vexed me a little. it was the last song left that needed some work before i could focus on final mixes. it got almost all the way there, but it was missing one last bit of sonic wallpaper. it needed something to give that long bridge section a bit of a different feeling.

tried lots of things — backwards piano, additional electric guitar, lap steel, synth. whatever i was after, i couldn’t hit it. so i sat down with steven, and we knocked our heads together to try and figure it out.

i played him a rough wordless ambient vocal thing i threw in as an idea when i was trying out anything i could think of. he liked it. he suggested building on it and then taking out the drums for almost the whole bridge section.

that did the trick.

(there’s a video over here that says pretty much everything i just said about the arrangement and the guitar solos, only with actual audio examples.)

the intro…now that was a bit of a surprise. i thought a dreamy little ambient piece might act as a nice segue into the song proper, to shake things up a little. a few different ideas toppled out in one night, but the one thing that felt like it could work in the context of this song wasn’t so dreamy after all. it was this evolving loop i made using the strymon el capistan’s sound-on-sound function. i can’t remember if i ran the el capistan into the yamaha FX500 or if it was the other way around, but i know the FX500 was in the signal path, adding a little extra ambience.

you can do some interesting things with the el capistan’s tape emulation settings, forcing a loop to keep degrading until the source sound is unrecognizable. every sound in this loop was made with a guitar, and it’s just one track, but there’s something weirdly menacing about it, in a muted sort of way. i like how it smash cuts to the start of a song that’s a lot catchier than the intro sets the listener up to expect.

the clean electric guitar lines that run through the body of the song also got some help from that pedal. there it’s more of a background effect, adding a bit of shimmer that doesn’t call much attention to itself but would be missed if it was gone.

for a long time i wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy. i’ve turned around on that over the last little while, building up a small group of pedals that might someday live on a board (if i ever get a power supply to run them all at once). the el cap is a versatile beast that does pretty much everything i think i’d ever want a delay pedal to do, and i haven’t found a way to make it sound bad yet.

so, all else aside, this song is a bit of a showcase for a few of the tricks the el capistan has up its sleeve.

the “gospel” vocal wailing in the background near the end, before the final section really kicks into high gear, was just me being silly, singing from behind the drums to kill time until i had to start hitting them again. i never dreamed it would end up in the final mix. but i grew to like it as a little bit of unexpected oddball character, and steven was into it too, so it got to stay.

i had no idea what to do for a picture for this one. all i knew was, i wanted an image of something eaten by time. wasn’t sure what the eaten thing should be. it wasn’t a bust of jennifer connelly’s face with a wounded nose, though i gave it an honest try.

i’m serious.

one afternoon, hunting for things to photograph around the city, i snapped a picture of a heap of scrap metal. it came out a little overexposed and ancient-looking, in a good way.

problem solved.

another turn

broken umbrella crop brightened

you could build a pretty convincing argument for this song being inspired by william kotzwinkle’s swimmer in the secret sea. it wouldn’t be true, but it would be an easy untruth to sell.

i haven’t read that book. i didn’t know it existed until after the song was written. i’m going to guess steven hasn’t read it either.

what happened here was, we’d written all the songs we wanted to put on the album. we were kind of holding back from letting ourselves write any more, because there’s this thing that happens when the two of us sit down with a few guitars: we can’t seem to avoid coming up with song ideas. even if we’re going out of our way not to write, we’re probably going to end up writing something anyway. it can’t be helped.

this one wanted to come out. it didn’t care what we wanted. i set up a microphone or two in the room as really rough audio floodlights, not even trying to place them sensibly or get good sounds — just trying to capture enough of what was happening to make a useful documentation of what we were doing — and we played for a while.

another turn (demo)

i listened to it later that night and was struck by how well the improvised lyrics worked. i tweaked a few lines and added a few new ones to introduce a little more shape, but left the bulk of it alone. the end result is about a 70/30 split, with what steven improvised making up the larger portion of what’s there.

another turn

only when the song was finished did it hit me that it seemed to be telling the story of a couple struggling to hold themselves together in the aftermath of the unexplained death of their young child. none of that was in steven’s head when he was winging it, or in mine when i was transcribing and tidying up what he winged. the song decided for itself what it was going to be about.

these are almost always the most interesting songs for me — the ones that tug you somewhere you’re not expecting to go and construct their own hearts out of materials you didn’t know they had access to.

there was a sleepy quality to steven’s singing in the demo we both came to really like, and he was able to tap back into that without any trouble. for my part, instead of singing straight harmony i messed around with wordless backup vocals over the “chorus” sections, stacking one line on top of another until there was a blanket of four-part harmony.

this is the only song where i thought to grab video footage of the whole recording process so i could edit it into something like a music video later on. i meant to put an effort into documenting more of what we were doing, but it kept slipping my mind. what can you do?

the picture fell into my lap the same day i snapped the pic for trespassing. getting a shot of a little raincoat wasn’t happening, but there on the grass, feet away from the “no trespassing” sign, was a broken child’s umbrella. less literal. more atmospheric. even better.

we played this one live once as a three-piece O-L west/teenage geese hybrid. my wave of four-part vocal harmonies over the long coda was impossible to reproduce. our workaround was layering a live three-part harmony one voice at a time. steven started it, then i came in above him, and then natalie came in on top of both of us.

hearing a thing like that happen live made the hair on the back of my brain stand up.

afterthought no. 3 (shining a light, making a scar)

as a rule, i don’t go into a solo album with all or even most of the songs that are going to end up on the album already written. usually i’ve got a couple i think i might want to group together, or maybe just one idea i want to develop, and i start recording. then i write more, record more, maybe pull a few things from the giant pile of songs that have been hanging around waiting to find a home, get rid of some things that don’t feel like they fit anymore once more pieces are in place, and figure out what the album wants to shape itself into along the way, making adjustments as needed, improvising, experimenting, seeing what happens.

over the years a few people have labelled me a “reluctant editor” of my own work. i think the assumption goes something like this: i make long albums. some of those albums have a lot of songs on them, and some of those songs are weird and/or very short. therefore, i must never throw anything out, and i must have a pretty murky concept of the dividing line between what constitutes album material and what belongs in the out-takes bin. otherwise, i would make compact ten-song albums like a normal person.

that couldn’t be more wrong.

the amount of written and recorded material that doesn’t make the cut on any given album sometimes outweighs what’s allowed to see the light of day. you don’t want to know how many things i’ve got slated for inclusion on the followup to the first volume of OUT-TAKES, MISFITS, AND OTHER THINGS. and you would either think i was lying or you’d want to punch me if i told you how many songs i’ve written just in the past two years or so for the still-in-progress “solo album with many guests” that’s calling itself YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.

i write a lot. i record a lot. i don’t release everything i write and record. not even close.

a lot of time and thought goes into discovering what each album wants to be and what makes emotional and sonic sense taking up space on it. album sequencing alone involves a great deal of consideration. i never put anything out there just for the sake of putting it out there, and i don’t believe in “filler” tracks. even the most random-seeming segue has a purpose, and some of my favourite things end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. that’s just the way it goes.

the point is, i make long, unwieldy albums by design. and while i value imperfection and make a point of retaining and sometimes emphasizing it, it doesn’t mean i don’t put a lot of work into what i do. the absence of excessive gloss isn’t a manifestation of laziness, and it isn’t an accident. it’s a deliberate choice.

perfection, especially when it’s achieved through artificial means, bores the shit out of me. i’m more interested in getting at something that’s got some character, that has something emotionally interesting crawling around in its guts. give me that over technical precision without feeling any day.

even when i have a pretty clear picture of where i think i’m going, i almost never end up with an album that’s much like the one i thought i was going to make when i started. that’s not because i need an outside producer to reign me in or focus me. it’s because i let the album tell me what it wants to be.

going about it this way keeps the process fresh and engaging. i don’t think creative energy is something to be bent or bullied where you or someone else thinks it’s supposed to go. i think it’s best served by letting it find its own way, and letting yourself be surprised.

the day the music ceases to surprise me, there won’t be any point in making it anymore.

i say all of that because this one — even though it isn’t a solo album — is pretty long. it’s also one of the more crafted things i’ve been involved in. steven and i went on such a songwriting tear together, very early in the recording process we already had a group of about a dozen songs we knew we wanted to make up the framework of the album. and almost all of those songs are here. but new ideas kept falling out anyway. and in spite of our best efforts to hold them back, we liked a few of them far too much to keep a lid on them. so we let the most convincing of them squeak through, while keeping the quality control pretty unforgiving.

we decided to call the songs that came a little later and didn’t want to be denied “afterthoughts”. another turn was an exception, and the one late addition to get a proper title.

we wanted the album cover to be a collage of pictures that commented on each of the songs in one way or another (that was steven’s idea, and man, was it a good one). the more songs there were, the more difficult it was going to be to come up with an appropriate image for each of them and then create a collage that made some amount of visual sense. elbowing a few songs into a different category did a neat job of getting rid of that potential stumbling block.

it was also a nice way to play off of the album title. we called it AFTERTHOUGHTS, in part because it began as a very casual thing, sort of an unassuming detour, before exploding into something that obliterated whatever our expectations were. TIME AWAY probably would have been a full-length album if this one didn’t strong-arm its way in there and demand our attention.

at the same time, a lot of the reasoning behind the name has nothing to do with the “tossed-off” connotation the word sometimes carries. this album is a lot of things, but tossed-off it ain’t — it took two years of intermittent work to finish it. it has more to do with things that are thought of, said, or felt after a bit of distance has grown between you and whatever you’re commenting on or turning over in your head. because there’s a lot of that going on in these songs.

the first afterthought we wrote and recorded didn’t make the cut. as with several other songs, we liked it, but it didn’t belong here. it was that emotional thing. the other three were sequenced according to feel rather than strict chronology.

this is why you don’t see an “afterthought no. 1” anywhere, and why the first one to appear is the third to be written.

afterthought no. 3

this afterthought is one of the shorter, sharper, catchier things on the album. when it was just starting to hatch, it sounded like this:

afterthought no. 3 (genesis)

it cracks me up to hear us talking about me hijacking it over the next few days, and steven predicting it won’t even take that long for it to turn into a fleshed-out song. he was right. later that night i recorded this:

afterthought no. 3 (full demo)

on the demo, all the singing is me, and i carried over that little seesawing guitar riff of his (which didn’t make it into the final recording). on the album, it’s him singing lead for the first two verses with me backing him up. then i take the wheel for the big chorus that not only never comes back, but ends the song just as it’s picking up steam, letting the bottom drop right out.

i love doing that sort of thing.

i snapped into “let’s make a rock song” mode here and tried building everything around some pretty distorted electric guitar. it sounded a little too obvious. letting acoustic guitar drive it instead, and using the electric guitar to play off of that, seemed to get everything breathing a little better. the drums were getting lost a little in the last section when more electric guitar came in, so i overdubbed an additional drum part with a single room mic to give it a little extra excitement.

this is one of the few places on the album where the “textural ambient guitar” thing i mess around with sometimes comes to the forefront. i try not to overuse it, but it’s something i really enjoy doing when a song is agreeable. i blame the great john berry.

west coast blues

danielle blurred

another one that came out of a jam early on, though it was really steven’s song from the get-go. the words he improvised when we recorded the rough demo were so good, he was able to keep most of them when he was putting the final lyric sheet together.

west coast blues (demo)

the above is another pretty lo-fi sketch, recorded with a few distant mics and the preamps saturated like crazy, just to see what would happen.

post-demo, we recorded some group backup vocals with jim meloche, and i added more harmonies on my own a little later. jim’s voice brings something to the song that’s difficult to put into words. you don’t always hear him that well, because there’s no separation between our voices, but you feel him there. if you’ve only ever heard the great fire he forces from his lungs when he’s singing with orphan choir or worry, you might be a little surprised by what he does here.

there’s an even bigger jim-shaped surprise at the end of the album. but more about that when we get there.

when we all come in together, i always picture us huddled around a piano in a saloon, half-drunk, sad about something but smiling through the pain. i can’t explain it. there’s just something evocative there, and it wouldn’t exist without jim.

west coast blues 1

west coast blues 2

thought about adding drums and electric guitar and some other things. in the end, the feeling of the stripped-down demo felt too good to deviate from much. so this one stayed percussion-free, and i held back a little when it came time to play piano over the instrumental passages. it didn’t feel appropriate to go too crazy there. i did add a little bit of bluesy harmonica, though.

this is the one place where the acoustic guitar steven’s playing isn’t my old gibson LG-2. he brought in his martin (the one mentioned over here — i’m going to guess it’s a D35), and it added all kinds of tasty glue, playing really well off of the sound of my own double-tracked 000-15.

for the picture, we wanted to capture someone sitting on stairs, looking forlorn. finding a model wasn’t going so well. steven asked his fair lady danielle if she’d be willing to help us out, and she saved the day. it seems fitting somehow that hers — and not either one of ours — is the only face to appear on the cover.

you know what i always say: “if you’re only going to have one person’s face on your album cover, and it isn’t going to be your own, make it the face of a beautiful woman.”

the yuan dynasty

yuan dynasty new

i was feeling a little guilty about some of my hijacking tendencies. thought it was steven’s turn to get in on some of that action. i sent him some sketches i had that kind of stalled before they could become finished songs and asked if he had any ideas for lyrics. this was one of those.

who did you say you were? (demo)

he came up with the story of a fleeting connection on a train, retaining my refrain from the demo (some of the only coherent words i threw in there), making for one of the more “up” moments on an album that’s pretty dark stuff for the most part.

not that i’d have it any other way. you know me. i like those shadows and dark corners.

the yuan dynasty

true story: that’s steven hitting the gongs at the beginning of the song.

in one of those “you can’t make this stuff up” moments, we found out he had a period-correct vase that played right into the whole chinese history theme. trouble was, it was impossible to get a picture that captured its personality and did it justice.

i took a picture of some train tracks instead. as with the image for time erodes, it came out looking like something very old that got dug out of an attic-dwelling shoebox.

sometimes you get lucky with these things.

dorsal venous

ol drum brightened

i wrote this thinking it would be fun to have a song where we both kept trading off on singing lead — something where our voices would give the “A” and “B” sections very different personalities. did my best “poor man’s matt berninger” for the verses when i demoed it.

dorsal venous (demo)

then steven did his best “rich man’s steven” when we were recording it for real.

before it had drums, he played some djembe. it was a nice touch, but once the drums were in there it wasn’t working anymore. someday after we’re both gone someone will restore that lost djembe part for an “alternate mix” and they’ll make it a bonus track on an unauthorized reissue released in an effort to give their fledgling record label some added credibility, selling something that wasn’t made for money and was never meant to be sold, and pitchfork will hail it as “the best obscure reissue we’ve heard since last week’s re-release of wilford brimley’s long-lost prog-metal/rap album from 1982”.

just you wait and see.

dorsal venous

i played a lot of harmonica on this album. i think it’s the most harmonica i’ve played on any album in my life. it was one of those things that happened without any real thought going into it. on this song it gets a little more impressionistic.

that i’ve reached a point where “impressionistic harmonica” is even a feasible thing i can do is kind of surreal to me. i have no idea how that happened.

the thing that comes in during the last chorus-that-isn’t-a-chorus and sounds a little like a wheezing carousel organ is sampled recorder, courtesy of the yamaha VSS-30. that thing and the SK-1 play very well together.

the stop-start drumming was really the only approach that made sense here. i tried a more conventional drum pattern first, just to see what would happen. all it did was lay there like a dead thing. filling up the spaces between guitar strums with a more unpredictable rhythm gave the whole thing a much more interesting pulse.

getting a picture for this one was tricky. the lyrics are more imagery than story. you would think that would help, but it was maddening trying to find an image to pluck from the song. tried barred-up windows. didn’t turn out. tried to find a diagram of a hand’s inner workings in an old medical journal. couldn’t find an old medical journal to save my life. tried to get someone to eat an apple so i could snap a picture of them mid-chew (you know, to tie in with the whole “original sin”, apple-in-the-garden-of-eden thing). that didn’t work out either.

then i thought, “what if i stop trying to come up with an image that’s related to the lyrics? the song has a pretty prominent harmonica part. i’ve got this cool-looking big-ass old harmonica. maybe i should throw it on top of my battered snare drum, take a picture, and see how it turns out.”

it came out looking better than i thought it would. and that was the end of that.

afterthought no. 4 (waiting for armageddon)

the most non-afterthought-like afterthought of them all.

there are more than a few places on this album where i’m singing words steven wrote, or he’s singing words i wrote, or one of us is singing words we both wrote together. there are some things that are more or less solo pieces one of us wrote on our own, but for the most part who wrote what is all over the place.

this is the only song where we’re both singing lead and whoever’s taking the lead at any given time is singing their own words. it starts with steven backing me up and ends with me backing him up, though our voices blend together to the point that it can be difficult to differentiate.

we each wrote lyrics without having any idea what the other was writing. there wasn’t even a basic concept discussed beforehand. when we got together to compare notes, it was surreal how well my two verses and steven’s one long verse worked together. each part completed the other.

you know you’re pretty in sync with someone when you can write pieces of a song separately and have them fuse in such an organic way, no one would ever guess you didn’t write the whole thing together in the same room, in one sitting.

afterthought no. 4 my part

afterthought no. 4 steve's part

this is a demo i made for the first chunk of the song before there were really any words at all from either one of us. i can’t help hearing “it’s salami” instead of “it’s alarming”. happens every time.

afterthought no. 4 (demo)

tried a lot of different things when the words were there and it was serious recording time. i got the arrangement just about right, but something was missing. what ended up pulling the whole thing together was some delay-drenched omnichord.

the omnichord is another one of those funky little tools that rewards you for sneaking it into places no sane person would think to put it. i love the uniqueness of its voice. once you turn off the auto-chording function, it starts sounding like some sort of ghostly synthesized harp.

this one crept up on us and became one of our favourite tracks on the album. it feels like a perfect fusion of our sensibilities, with elements of INAMORATA, TIME AWAY, and my post-GIFT FOR A SPIDER solo work all coagulating in the same pot. if a musical scientist stitched together a tire swing co./johnny west frankenstein creature, this is what it would come out looking and grumbling like in an ideal world.

dying to be born

ashes

the first dedicated O-L west writing session produced three song ideas and three demo recordings to go with them. the first was what became paint as you like and die happy. the second was a song we didn’t revisit. the third was this one.

dying to be born (demo)

i love the little accents and fiddly bits steven improvised while i was playing the main fingerpicked part.

when i finally sat down and wrote some lyrics, there was a clear idea behind them: aging in reverse, literally, the curious case of benjamin button-style. but you know what? in his own way, john cassavetes brought the seed of f. scott fitzgerald’s short story to the screen long before david fincher did.

there’s a movie called she’s so lovely that came out about twenty years ago. it’s based on an unproduced script john wrote, given posthumous direction by his son nick. you know nick as the director of the notebook and my sister’s keeper — sentimental hollywood movies that are pretty much the embodiment of everything his father spent his life fighting against and offering a jarring antidote to in the fiercely uncompromising films he wrote, directed, and usually paid for out of his own pocket.

john tried to make she’s so lovely when he knew he was dying. back then it was called she’s delovely. sean penn was supposed to star in it. but sean wanted to draw up contracts and have all the details hammered out in advance with lawyers, and that wasn’t the way john worked.

there was another problem. sean was married to madonna. he wanted her to play the other lead role opposite him. that wasn’t happening on john’s watch. “i’ve worked with lots of non-professionals,” he said, “but i have to draw the line somewhere!”

the two had a falling out when sean went off to act in casualties of war without explanation after balking at john’s insistence that his friend peter bogdanovich serve as “backup director” in case his health broke down in the middle of filming. john put a solid year into trying to get the production going, but passed away before he could get the script off the ground.

as it exists now, it isn’t really a john cassavetes movie. it’s not even really a john cassavetes script. nick admitted he got rid of whole chunks of the text that didn’t make sense to him and rewrote a lot of what he didn’t throw away because he felt it needed to be “simplified” for the actors. he pumped up the drama and filed down the heart, missing the whole point of his father’s work.

so the “written by john cassavetes” credit is somewhat disingenuous.

john said he liked to make movies that didn’t “go”. the thing about she’s so lovely is it goes too much. jonathan rosenbaum did a neat job of summing this up when he wrote in his contemporary review that the film offered “a fascinating glimpse at what cassavetes was from the vantage point of what he wasn’t”.

if you know the man’s films, watching this one is a bit of a disorienting experience, even after you accept that of course it’s going to feel a little different, because he’s not behind the camera this time. to offer just one quick illustration of how wrong it goes, there’s a scene where eddie (sean penn’s character) talks on the phone with maureen (robin wright’s character). she was his wife. they were in love. by the time they’re having this conversation, they haven’t spoken or seen each other in ten years.

as nick directs it, the scene is loaded with feeling. but he doesn’t respect the audience enough to let them figure that out for themselves. he beats you over the head with it. there’s melancholy music on the soundtrack while the characters are talking, high in the mix, all but screaming at you, “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO FEEL. NOW FEEL IT, YOU MINDLESS IDIOT.”

i can’t stand that stuff. it’s the kind of simplistic cinematic shortcut john never settled for. bo harwood’s music is an important part of several of his movies, but it’s music that’s rough and human in all the right ways — not at all typical “movie music”. it’s an extension of the art, sometimes co-written by john himself. it’s never used to cheapen or simplify a scene, or to tell the audience what to feel. it doesn’t cheat.

nick cheats. he embraces that shortcut, dry-humps it, and whispers something dirty in its ear for good measure.

which is fine. that’s his thing. it works for him. it’s made him rich and successful. i enjoy alpha dog in an “unplug your brain and let yourself be entertained” kind of way. i can admit that without any shame. i think it’s good for what it is. not everything has to be great, meaningful art all the time. and there’s a moment near the end that redeems the whole movie. sharon stone’s character is talking about the death of her son, when behind an unnecessary and not-entirely-convincing fat suit her eyes go to some dead place for a few seconds as she taps into a kind of horrifying primal grief — a pain beyond pain, where laughing and weeping are the same thing. it’s so real, it makes me flinch every time i see it.

but — sharon’s unexpected grace notes aside — if that’s who you are as an auteur, save it for your own scripts, or the ones you commission from other living writers. don’t turn good writing into swiss cheese and dumb it down so it can walk around in hollywood without getting thrown in jail. and for god’s sake, don’t do it to a guy who risked everything every time he made a movie, who was always digging at some deeper truth, resisting easy answers. you don’t strong-arm his work into somehow being cute. you don’t do that to him after he’s dead and he can’t do a thing about it.

and yet…

as much as the original vision has been gutted and diluted in she’s so lovely, there’s still some of the father in there that the son can’t kill — enough to make it interesting and throw things off-balance sometimes. there are moments and bits of dialogue you can tell weren’t tampered with. a little bit of john’s soul is buried in that movie. you just have to squint pretty hard to see it.

there’s a small scene about halfway through that’s pure daddy cassavetes. eddie’s been committed to a psychiatric hospital. this is the last time he’ll see maureen for a decade, though he doesn’t know it. he’s in a straitjacket. and this is what he says to her.

there might be more going on emotionally in this minute-and-change than there is in the entirety of the borderline forrest gump retread much of fincher’s benjamin button comes out feeling like it is while telling the same story sean penn summarizes here. and hey, sean still got his leading lady of the time to be his leading lady in the movie. he was just with a more capable actress by the late 1990s.

no disrespect to madonna louise ciccone.

what could have been with john directing his original script (impossible dream cast: transplant it to the 1970s, before it was actually written, and have cassavetes himself play eddie, slide peter falk into the role john travolta ended up playing, and substitute gena rowlands for robin wright)…well, that’s one of the great cinematic what-ifs.

but anyway. what was i saying? the lyrics. right.

dying to be born

when i looked at them later on, it felt like they could also be read as a meditation on how aging in a linear fashion mirrors childhood. as my bubi used to say, you’re a baby twice in your life — when you’re born, and then again when you die.

it works both ways. however you choose to interpret it, it’s not exactly the stuff of summer pop songs. but this is one of the side effects of a protracted, hopefully perpetual self-imposed exile from anything resembling a romantic relationship. it forces me to draw inspiration from other places and write about different things. i have to use my heart and my brain.

it’s fun.

i don’t know what it is about this one, but it makes me think of a lullaby. maybe it’s that delicate little guitar figure that drives the verses. it stayed a stripped-down acoustic thing for a long time, and then it got a little more layered and interesting all at once, with several interlocking guitar parts, lap steel, and some of my more effective harmonica-playing added to the mix.

i used two different steels on this album. most of what you’re hearing throughout is kelly hoppe’s 1950s silvertone 1315. here it’s a magnatone, also from the ’50s.

i have no idea what pickup is in the magnatone. it’s embedded in the guitar, hidden beneath the mother of toilet seat (MOTS) finish. it’s a magnet-based pickup — that much i know — and it’s a lot brighter than the gibson P13 in the silvertone. it’s not bright in a bad way, but i find myself rolling off a fair bit of tone to get it where i want it. that’s pretty unusual for me. i almost always play electric stringed things with the volume and tone wide open, altering my playing if i want a brighter or darker sound.

those lap steels both have their own personalities. they’re both good friends to have.

we had a tough time getting a picture here. it felt all kinds of wrong asking someone if we could take a picture of their child, or a grandparent near the end of their life, or both, as powerful as the image might have been if it was done right.

i got the idea to have a makeup artist make the two of us up to look like old men and have someone take a polaroid of us sitting on a park bench, creating the feeling of decades of shared history between us. thought it might be a pretty unique experience to be able to see ourselves age half a lifetime or more in a day, and then wash the makeup off and become ourselves again.

when that didn’t work out, steven got the idea to do something with ashes. i took a few pictures of him blowing a handful of them on my front lawn with danielle egging us on. didn’t realize until later i had the camera’s exposure set too bright for the amount of natural light we had to work with, so none of the shots came out looking so hot.

i grabbed the best one and found it had a certain washed-out quality to it that worked. the sweater comes through with more clarity than the ashes. maybe it’s supposed to be that way.

running wild

running wild crop

this is another one steven hijacked. one afternoon he went on a tear, writing great lyrics for three or four half-formed musical ideas i sent him in one shot. dude was a machine.

i sent him this roughage:

running wild (rougher than rough piano demo)

and the lyrics he wrote for it caught me off guard. the last thing i was expecting was a meditation on anne frank and the difficulty of believing in a god who allows unspeakable things to happen to innocent people.

running wild

i demoed the finished thing on acoustic guitar, because it’s hard to haul an upright piano up the stairs to your bedroom, and there’s something to be said for not always having to think about mic placement. it still surprises me how well that microscopic microphone built into my laptop acquits itself when i’m playing and singing into it at the same time on one live track (i never record vocals and guitar separately when i’m demoing things with garageband).

running wild (guitar demo)

(for the record, the “steve” referred to in the first verse is stephen hawking, not our steven with a v.)

then it was back to the piano for the recording that would end up on the album.

i had an idea for a little string part. it was pretty disappointing when i tried it out with synth strings to get a feel for what it would sound like and it felt clunky. matter of fact, each time i tried to dress the song up beyond the piano/bass/acoustic guitar bed tracks, everything felt clunky. it didn’t help that i couldn’t seem to get my singing right.

this album is home to some of the most restrained (read: quietest) singing i’ve ever committed to digital tape. while i’m not that much of a belter these days as a rule, some of the hardest songs to sing are the ones where your range isn’t being tested, but you’re not pushing out a lot of air, and you’re trying to find a good middle ground between delicacy and strength. especially when you’re singing about serious stuff like this. wordless vocal weirdness wouldn’t cut it here.

what set me free was returning to the triple-tracked lead vocal approach that became a bit of a signature sound with CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN but hasn’t seen a whole lot of action in recent years. after that, the arrangement fell into place. keeping it simple turned out to be the best approach. just some clean electric guitar, lap steel, and simple brushed drums — mostly floor tom and snare — on top of the bed that was there already.

here i wanted a picture of a broken-down old bookshelf that looked like it had been through hell. finding something scarred enough to fit the bill proved impossible. i got lucky with this old church (suggested by johnny smith), figuring it would play off of the whole “loss of faith” theme.

the picture came out overexposed in a way that makes it look a hundred years old. just what the song wanted.

afterthought no. 2 (black hole)

within a day or two of getting my hands on that yamaha VSS-30, i was showing steven how you can sample your voice and manipulate it with the effects built into the keyboard to create a really cool, eerie sound. he surprised me and said, “we should do something with that.”

i sang into the VSS-30, did a little mangling, and improvised around the ghostly sampled vocal sounds. steven grabbed the telecaster (it was in a nonstandard tuning, plugged into the FX500) and did some improvising of his own. then i added some distorted harmonica and we both gave a little mutual yell.

there’s no demo for this one. it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, done and dusted before a demo could be made.

i experimented a little with adding other sounds later on. it felt like the more fleshed-out the music got, the more power it lost. there was something a little unsettling about it as a weightless thing. when the yell came in, it sounded like a desolate cry echoing through the ruins of a dying world. after the song had some bottom end and more bells and whistles, it just sounded like a yell.

we left it half-naked, out of respect for that yell. it was the only sensible thing to do.

zebra stripes

zebra stripes crop more

we started writing this one by throwing lines and ideas back and forth. steven had most of the music already worked out. he hit on the image of an old italian rug as a lead-in to a bonnie and clyde-type story, and we went from there. later on i added some more lyrics to fill in a few blanks.

getting into the crimes themselves felt like the easy way out. we attacked it from a different angle, giving more attention to the little details hiding in the margins of the story.

on a random note, “green side-gabled bungalow” is a phrase that rolls off the tongue a lot easier than you might think.

i handled the singing on the demo. you can hear there’s a verse missing that hadn’t been written yet (it showed up about ten minutes after the demo was recorded), along with a line or two that changed later on.

zebra stripes (partial demo)

on the CD it’s steven singing lead, with me backing him up. i think it’s got a good bit more gravitas in that form. some of those low notes are tough for me to hit. steven just sings ’em good and true every time. plus, it’s cool to hear him inhabiting a darker character like this. he also sings the words in a much more unpredictable way rhythmically, which made adding harmonies a little tricky. but i enjoyed the challenge, and i think it makes the song that much more interesting. it feels less like you’re being sung to, and more like you’re being told a tale.

my idea of a working title was “and of course in the end hope is just another wrong turn”. steven came up with the much better, more concise zebra stripes. the song’s narrator/central character takes an honest shot at living the straight life, but he can’t escape who he is or who his partner wants him to be. that stuff won’t wash off.

zebra stripes 1

zebra stripes 2

the ghost of the main guitar figure that runs through the yuan dynasty returns here in the form of a very similar banjo part. once i realized that was happening, i liked the little bit of unexpected continuity. in a way, you could look at this song as a follow-up to that one — one idea of what might have happened if the flirtation snowballed into a full-blown relationship once those two people stepped off the train, and then everything went a little sideways.

the instrumental coda came about because it felt like there needed to be some sort of palate cleanser before the final track. it couldn’t just jump straight from those last banjo notes hanging in the air to the beginning of pave over it all. besides, it’s fun to keep things a little unpredictable. every sound there is coming from the VSS-30. it’s all samples — electric guitar, harmonica, and piano.

the first time natalie heard this song, she said she thought the lyrics were leonard cohen-esque. given the towering giant of song master leonard is, it was impossible to take that as anything other than a mighty compliment.

and then there’s the picture. there’s a line in here that goes, “couldn’t say if they were tears of joy, or the runoff of ambivalence cooked by crooked power lines.” sometimes you see exactly what you need to see when you’ve got your polaroid pal in the back seat. that’s what happened when i noticed these power lines on one of those “driving around looking for inspiration” jaunts.

if i’ve taken one good polaroid picture with my spectra 2 and this sometimes-maddening black and white film, it’s this one.

pave over it all

pave over cropped darken

this must be one of the best songs i’ve ever had a hand in writing. it’s also one of the bleakest. as if the last few songs leading up to it weren’t dark enough!

again it started as a jam. steven had the first two chords and a vocal melody. i added the D major-to-A minor turnaround and the vocal melody that happens there. he wanted to incorporate the image of something being buried, and in the course of the jam i heard him sing something about someone taking a beating, and something about someone’s crooked mouth.

i put all that in my head, let it stew a while, and later that night a song about separated-at-birth conjoined twins who hitchhike out of town after killing their abusive father came pouring out.

pave over 1

pave over 2

steven came up with the great idea to have a rotating cast of singers here — a different voice delivering each verse.

there are nine verses to the song. so we were looking at nine different singers. after accepting that the logistics of getting that many people to show up to sing on one song were a little insane, we downsized a bit. decided two or three verses for everyone might work better. and i thought maybe we could all come in together for the last verse, to bring things full circle as a group.

what we ended up with was a cast of four: me, steven, dave dubois, and jim meloche, all of us taking turns telling the same tale.

dave’s voice was made to sing a song like this. but the real revelation here is jim. it’s a different jim voice than you’re probably used to hearing, and he nails it. when he sings the bit about nothing coming out of billy’s “dry, crooked mouth” and the strings paint a little counter-melody around him, that’s one of my favourite moments on the whole album.

mixing this one was an interesting challenge, because all four of our voices live in slightly different ranges. it was tricky trying to get it sounding consistent, so no voice felt like it commanded more or less of the spotlight than any of the others. when greg maxwell told me it felt to him like the four of us were all the voice of the same character at different ages (seriously, how cool a compliment is that?), i was pretty sure i had the balance right.

joey acott (who sat in on a few of our recording sessions and took some great pictures) grabbed a bit of video footage of us laying down the group vocals at the end. the quality his camera produces is so much better than what i’m accustomed to seeing with the stuff i film myself, it’s unbelievable.

almost makes me wish i’d invested a lot of money in a really good camera at some point. almost. but i feel like the whole grainy, DIY, not-really-a-filmmaker thing works for me. besides, the file sizes would kill me with a camera like joey’s. i think a two or three-minute clip would come out to something close to a gigabyte.

there are more people playing and singing on this one song than on all the others combined. in addition to the singers-in-the-round thing, kelly hoppe contributes some of the best harmonica-playing you’ll ever hear, in any genre. i know that sounds like hyperbole, but i’ve had the great fortune to have kelly contribute sax and harp work to a number of different things over the last little while (most of which haven’t been released yet). i don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he’s one of the best living harmonica players. what he does here is some of the best work i’ve ever heard him do. the amount of soulfulness and melodic invention he’s able to pack into a short pocket of time is mind-boggling. there’s a part where he “plays” the rain. seriously. you have to hear it to understand what i mean. and stu kennedy becomes a whole one-man string quartet — and then, briefly, a sextet — playing both violin and viola, acting as a wordless greek chorus, adding another emotional and dynamic layer to everything. i think he might have outdone himself too.

those guys are two of the most talented people i’m lucky enough to call friends, and also two of the most genuine.

when all the elements were in place and i was able to dial up a rough mix of the finished thing for the first time, it hit me so hard i started to tear up a little. no music i’ve been a part of in my life has ever done that to me. and i’ve been making music for more than twenty years now, since before i even knew what an erection was.

for the picture, i was trying to get a good shot of a ditch out in the county. it was a losing game. too much detail was getting lost. right when i was about to give up i saw the “no exit” sign.

accidental existentialism for the win.

we were going to end the album with one more afterthought — the very first one we recorded — closing the book on a somewhat hopeful-sounding note. by the time this song was CD-ready, that wasn’t going to cut it anymore. you can’t follow something like this with a little sixty second burst of sunshine. you just can’t. it would cheapen the journey. the intensity of it needs to linger and be reckoned with.

so that’s the album, and those are the details, about as well as i can give them to you.

one quick technical note before you go (assuming you’ve made it this far and haven’t jumped ship yet): along with STEW, this is the quietest mastering job i’ve done in at least ten years. more and more, the whole “everything must be louder than everything else” mentality seems a little pointless to me, and more than a little destructive. i’d rather get the stuff sounding as good as i can and leave it at that, instead of pushing the volume a little more only to look back in a few years and find myself wishing i’d used a lighter touch — which is exactly what’s happened with a few of the albums made during my short-lived “hey, i can make things competitively loud, so why not?” phase.

i need to kick off a little quieter is better (2008-2009) remastering campaign someday soon, for my own peace of mind. been meaning to do that for a while now.

you can always turn up the volume on your computer/CD player/iPod if you’re listening to something that wasn’t mastered all that hot and you want it louder. with music that’s been hammered at the mastering stage to infuse it with built-in perceived loudness, no amount of turning it down is ever going to make it sound good again, and the more you turn it up, the harsher and more fatiguing it’s going to get, and the less your ears are going to like you.

long story short, you’ll need to turn this one up a little. i think it’s worth the tradeoff. dynamic range is our friend!

all in all, it always takes some time before i can pull back and look at an album objectively. but i think we did good. there’s a lot going on here, both lyrically (not a whole lot of rhyming, quite a bit of variation in subject matter) and texturally (i’m not sure i’ve ever put this much thought into the production of a thing…i think/hope it’s the kind of album that rewards careful listening). on a visual level, the collage turned out better than i ever expected it to, and the same is true of the layout of the lyric booklet, even if some of that comes down to luck, as it always does. on a personal level, steven is a great friend, and recording these songs with him — and getting to involve other great friends like natalie, jim, dave, stu, and kelly — was a deeply rewarding experience.

i have no idea where the music will take us next (EDM, maybe?), but i’m looking forward to the ride.