someone else's story

I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway.

Damn it, man. First Mark Hollis, and now this? The year is already gunning for a failing grade in its stunning lack of preservation of the artists who have been mainstays on the soundtrack of my life.

If you want to know a bit about what Scott Walker’s music did for me (and to me), I wrote about that once over here. If his album Tilt hadn’t blown my brain apart when I was fourteen, I’m convinced my musical vocabulary would be very different. Maybe another album would have performed a similar mind-expanding role for me, but the experience and its aftershocks wouldn’t have been the same. Tilt upended all of my ideas about what a song could be, and after wrestling with that music to the point that I was able to understand and appreciate it, nothing ever sounded inaccessible again, no matter how far-out it went.

And then there’s that voice. There’s never been another quite like it.

Scott’s four self-titled albums from the late 1960s are chamber pop of the highest order, approachable without surrendering their twisted sense of humour and pessimistic worldview. His work from 1978’s Bizarro World Walker Brothers reunion album Nite Flights forward, on the other hand, is not for everyone. It makes for a musical journey into some pretty dark places (including the mind of Mussolini’s mistress as she faces her execution). The man seemed to delight in setting fire to his former pop persona and poking around inside of its charred husk to see what kind of reverb chamber it made. Some have found the results pretentious. I find a lot of the music thrilling. Even his obligatory “80s-sounding album” Climate of Hunter, with its period-correct drum sound and fretless bass groans, is like nothing else anyone released in the 1980s, with the weirdest Billy Ocean cameo of all time.

The whole idea of the maverick artist seems to be slowly turning into just that — an idea. It doesn’t help that we just lost two of the greats in the space of a month.

An effigy blessed.

It’s an odd feeling when you get old enough that the deaths of your musical heroes are no longer isolated events.

I’ve loved a lot of music over the years, but I can’t say there are many artists who have had a profound impact on what I do. Mark Hollis belongs on the short list of those who have. As the main songwriter and voice of Talk Talk he helped to create some of the most glorious pop music of the 1980s. Then, at the peak of his success, he turned around and committed commercial suicide with music that played a large role in paving the way for what we now call post-rock, as his lyrics took on a new depth and left things like rhyming and conventional metric ideas in the dust.

I mean, how do you get from this (pre-Talk Talk, with a short-lived band called The Reaction)…

…to this…

…to this?

They’re all great songs, but all three of them live on different planets. Few musicians are open to allowing this kind of artistic evolution to happen, let alone capable of pulling it off in a way that feels not only natural, but inevitable.

Random thing: “New Grass” features what may be my all-time favourite recording of an electric guitar. There’s something so beautiful and pure about it — a sound in constant bloom.

There’s also evidence that Mark had this kind of music in him before Talk Talk existed. Maybe he needed the right people and resources to do justice to the sound in his head, and he was biding his time until everything lined up the way he wanted.

Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are albums that create an endlessly evolving world of sound for you to get lost in. They achieve this not with synthesizers or sonic trickery, but with real instruments recorded in the most organic, dynamic way possible, and with silence treated as an instrument in itself. Weaving in and out of the sounds and the spaces between them is Mark’s voice — one of the most unique in all of “pop/rock”. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand much of what he’s singing in a given song without looking at the lyric sheet. It doesn’t matter. It’s a voice that can move you even if you don’t know what it’s saying.

Those last two Talk Talk albums, along with Mark’s lone self-titled solo album, form a triptych of uncommon power. Each one grows quieter and more minimal, until there’s silence and nothing else. Few bodies of work have trailed off with such grace.

This music has taken me places little else has, moving me near to tears one minute only to scare the bejesus out of me the next. Years ago I was listening to Mark Hollis late at night. During one of the more turbulent instrumental passages I noticed a tree branch flailing against my bedroom window as if it was having a visceral reaction to something only I could hear. The song sounded like a storm, and here it was storming outside, the wind shaking that tree’s arm with almost enough force to pry it loose.

“This is music that knows the world,” I thought.

Then I wrote the thought down, because I don’t often think things that sound so poetic.

I think Mark felt he’d said all he had to say after his solo album was finished. It’s difficult to fathom where else he might have gone after those half-whispered tone poems. What was there left to strip away? He even explained his vanishing act in the songs themselves, singing about his family and the joy it gave him. He wanted to step away from the music industry and dedicate himself to being a good father and husband, making his life his art instead of the other way around. There’s a great nobility in that.

The one bit of new material to surface in recent years was a brief instrumental piece heard over the end credits of an episode of Boss. It sounded like the soundtrack to a made-for-TV horror film that had been disassembled and reinterpreted by curious robots. Whether it was the beginning of a beguiling new direction or just a one-off, we’ll probably never know. Maybe it was only a wink meant to say, “I’m still here.”

Now the man who fell off the face of the earth is gone for good. I doubt we’ll get the usual deluge of reissues and biographies to cash in on the renewed interest in his work, and that’s as it should be. In a strange way, the permanence of his absence feels like it’s brought him closer. When he sang he sounded like a fallen angel, but it turns out he was one of us after all.

My introduction to Mark Hollis and Talk Talk came in 1994. MuchMusic played the music video for “Life’s What You Make It” one Saturday morning. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen or heard before. I picked out the song’s insistent piano line on a rented keyboard, feeling proud of myself for being able to figure it out at a time when getting my fingers to play anything that sounded like music was a challenge.

You might think I’m going to start bragging about how I was hip to The Colour of Spring and Spirit of Eden when I was ten or eleven years old. I’m not. Because I wasn’t. I didn’t even catch the name of the band on the TV screen that day. I would read about Talk Talk a little later on when I found the book that would become my musical Bible for a while. It still took me much longer than it should have to go out and buy one of their albums. I didn’t get my hands on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock until I was in my early twenties. The first time I heard “The Rainbow” and that overdriven harmonica solo kicked in, I wanted to scream with happiness.

If there’s such a thing as perfect music, I think this stuff is about as close as it gets, but I’ve rarely tried to emulate it in any direct way. I think that would be a mistake. From the time I started banging on a tape case with a drum stick and singing in the absence of an instrument to play, my goal was always to develop my own voice without taking cues from anyone else. Besides, to take a real, honest stab at tapping into the specific magic of late-period Talk Talk would be…difficult. In a number of articles and interviews that are available online, you can read about how a lot of the songs started as nothing but a man-made click track of light percussion or a drum pattern and were then built piecemeal over a painstaking period of time. While the songs sound like continuous performances with all the musicians playing together in one space, that’s an illusion created through a lot of creative editing. A trumpet player might come into the studio to record ten improvised takes only to find what was used in the final mix was two seconds of them clearing their spit valve. Or a performance meant to sit in a certain space might find itself moved out of context to a different part of the song.

In a lot of ways it’s music as meticulous collage. That it sounds so spontaneous and untethered from time is a testament to the brilliance of all involved. The contributions of producer/co-writer Tim Friese-Green and recording engineer Phill Brown can’t be overstated here.

It might have taken me five years to finish an album I’m still not quite finished yet, and I might build things a piece at a time out of necessity (and a lack of Johnny clones), but I don’t have the patience or the technology to work the way those guys did in the studio. I don’t think I’d want to even if I could.

The inspiration I’ve taken from these albums lives somewhere deeper than the desire for mimicry, though I’m sure the way Phill Brown recorded Lee Harris’s drums on Laughing Stock — a great example of the “drums in a room being played by a human” sound we don’t hear too much of anymore — had as much to do with my decision to start recording my own drum kit in a more minimal way as laziness did.

A confession: there was this one time, in early 2008, when I did go out of my way to do something that sounded like a poor man’s version of a song that might have been recorded for Laughing Stock, just to see if I could pull it off. I played some unresolved chords on an electric guitar and gave them a lot of room to linger, without using a click track. I added a second guitar part, bouncing a pencil on the strings before playing in a more conventional way. Bass and drums followed. The vocals came last. Each part was improvised and recorded in one take without any preparation. I sang without knowing what the vocal melody was supposed to be, feeling it out along the way.

I didn’t have the assortment of instruments or the musician friends I do now. I couldn’t add piano because I didn’t yet have a real one, and it was clear something digital wasn’t going to cut it. I thought about buying a violin and trying to get something out of it before finding a cheap melodica at Belle Air Music. The melodica was the secret sauce I was looking for, and it felt like it tied everything together.

The freakout section a little over two minutes into the song is more me than Talk Talk. And I didn’t begin to try and sound like Mark Hollis. No one else can sing like that. But as homages go, I felt it was pretty successful. Eleven years later I still like it and believe there’s a place for it on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. Given the circumstances, it seems appropriate to share it here.

The Trance Lethargic

Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Ricky Jay passed away a week ago. He was seventy-two.

You probably know him as Burt Reynolds’ right hand man in Boogie Nights. He had a number of memorable supporting roles in films like House of Games, The Prestige, and Magnolia. One of my favourite bits of acting he did was as cardsharp Eddie Sawyer, a recurring character through the first season of Deadwood.

Ricky was much more than a character actor. He wrote the wonderful Deadwood episode “Jewel’s Boot Is Made for Walking”. He was an incredible, charismatic sleight of hand artist. He lectured and wrote books about magic, and served as a consultant on a number of Hollywood films.

The above performance is Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, written by Ricky and filmed by David Mamet in 1996. It’s well worth an hour of your time whether you’re into card tricks or not (I’m not, and I still found it riveting). The man was a born performer — a poet with a deck of cards and a historian in love with his craft. We won’t see his like again.

Watching you without me.

Leo Kottke once described his singing voice as sounding “like geese farts on a muggy day”.

I think he deserves immortality for that alone, but he’s much more than a self-deprecating part-time vocalist. He’s a great storyteller and a brilliant guitarist. Throughout a fifty-year career he’s traversed a long and sinuous musical road. It’s almost impossible to believe the mind-bending syncopation and speed heard on 6- and 12-String Guitar and the spacious, meditative pieces on A Shout Toward Noon are the work of the same person. And yet they are. And those are just two of the many varied and eclectic albums in his discography.

He’s worked with high-profile artists as disparate as Lyle Lovett, Rickie Lee Jones, and Phish, without ever seeming to catch the spotlight himself. Something tells me he prefers the artistic freedom a low profile affords him. Though he hasn’t made an album in well over a decade, he continues to play live into his seventies. The man probably won’t put down the guitar until he doesn’t have the strength to hold it anymore.

In a recent interview with the Times Colonist, he said: “I’ve been trained to think — we all have — that when you get old, everything gets old. But it’s exactly the opposite. If you have something, one little handle of some kind — writing, playing — I think everything does continue, and it is a work in progress. If that isn’t happening, what’s the alternative?”

My introduction to Leo’s music came in late 1997 care of the Sessions at West 54th TV program — something of a short-lived sister to Austin City Limits. I was channel-surfing with Johnny Smith late on a Saturday night. We came across Leo and stuck around to hear him do his thing.

For twenty-one years one specific song from that show has haunted the back of my brain. Last night I was able to give the song a name. It’s called “Across the Street”. I thought I’d search for it on YouTube, not expecting much. And there it was.

The finer details were lost to me over time. I remembered the story being about a father and his son. Not quite. But the sense of loss and the sombre quality of the music…that wasn’t a twisted or faulty memory.

To begin with, it’s a haunting story. But the way Leo tells it, it doesn’t feel like an introduction to a song. It feels like the music takes over mid-thought, filling the space between what isn’t said and what can only be imagined.

It may be the simplest piece of music he’s ever written. I think it’s also the most powerful. This must be the definitive performance, stripped of the strange reverb tails that threaten to overwhelm the sound of the guitar on the studio version from the 1997 album Standing in My Shoes.

At the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1995, Leo told a longer version of the tale behind “Across the Street”. I’ve made just a few light edits for grammar and readability. I think it makes for a compelling short story in its own right.

I have a friend in Ljubljana who I’ve been unable to find recently named Seka Tavčar. I met her when I first did a tour in the old Yugoslavia with Paco de Lucia, who started in Ljubljana and went to places like Spit and Una and a couple of others I don’t remember. I came back every year for about four years and did this same little tour.

On our fist stop, we were introduced to Seka Tavčar and a mountain climber, a heart surgeon, a physicist, and some other people the government at the time trotted out to meet everybody. Nobody wanted to be there. We tried to be polite to one another and admit it was something that had to be done. We were forced to have dinner together after the show.

By that time we were enjoying ourselves naturally and I asked Seka, since I didn’t know yet, what she did. She was the token artist in the group. She was a lithographer.

I said, “Oh, lithographer from Ljubljana,” and she did not smile.

I gave up on limericks and asked, “Could I see your lithographs?”

She said, “No, you can’t.”

So I said, “Sorry.”

And she said, “No…I’ve only made TEN of them.”

I couldn’t figure that out. I asked her why, and she said, “I break the stone.”

Usually, as I understand it, you make a lithograph. You run off three to five hundred copies of this lithograph. Then you smooth the stone and make another one. Otherwise it’s like Sisyphus or somebody, to break the stone. It sounded nuts. So now it was a lunatic lithographer from Ljubljana.

I asked her why she did that.

She said, “It’s none of your business.”

I saw her again the next year and she said, “I can’t stay for the show. My father found his way home. He’s sick. I’d better go back and take care of him.”

The year after that she came to the show and I asked, “How is your father?” picking up the conversation where we left it off.

She said, “He died.”

I said, “Oh.”

She said, “Would you like to see some of the things he did?”

The next day she took me to downtown Ljubljana and showed me, among other things — he was an engineer and an architect — a bridge he had built. And while she was showing me this, she said he had been arrested when she was three years old and imprisoned. And I asked why. Which is a question you wouldn’t have to ask, I guess, if you’d lived there. She ignored me and showed me the bridge, which was a beautiful bridge, starting on one side of the river with three roads, which in the course of the bridge merged into one road on the other side of the river. So I had an idea why he’d been arrested.

It was a beautiful bridge. And as I looked at this thing, she told me what had happened. She said he was imprisoned for twenty-six years.

“We were never told,” she said, “where he was imprisoned, why he was imprisoned, or for how long he would be in prison. What we were told, once a year at some indeterminate time, was that he was still alive. That’s all we ever knew.”

When he got sick, they let him out after twenty-six years.

“That’s,” she said, “when I found out he’d been imprisoned across the street. And for twenty-six years, he’d been able to look up through a gun slit window in his cell and see my sister and I grow up playing on the balcony of our apartment.”

And then she said, “That is why I break the stone.”

What good does the night do me?

I came to the music of Shudder to Think in a pretty backwards way. My introduction to the band was their soundtrack for Lisa Cholodenko’s underrated 1998 film High Art.

Every poster, DVD cover, and promotional image makes this movie look like a steamy soft porn flick. It’s a universe away from that. The story goes much deeper than “pretty people getting naked”. There’s some sex in the film, but it grows out of the characters and their interactions in an organic way. It isn’t there to titillate. When it happens, it means something. Ally Sheedy gives what might be the performance of her life in the role of a talented but troubled photographer, and the always excellent Patricia Clarkson is terrifying as a drug casualty who’s much more intelligent and manipulative than she lets on.

As good as the film is, the music was what stayed with me. When “She Might Be Waking up” played over the end credits, it was a hard kick to the chest that made a devastating ending hit even harder, and I knew I needed to own the soundtrack album.

I ordered it online. There was no way I was ever going to find it in a record store anywhere. When the CD showed up in the mail, the packaging was just as it was supposed to be, but the music on the disc wasn’t the High Art soundtrack. It was live jazz. The first track was “All Blues”. Given the crisp drum sound and the large band, I assumed it was a single-disc distillation of highlights from Miles Davis’s 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival performance.

I loved Miles even back then, but I didn’t listen beyond the first song. This wasn’t what I paid for, and I was a little pissed. I ordered another copy of the CD, got the music that was supposed to be on it in the first place, and tossed the “defective” copy aside. I forgot all about it.

A week or two ago, that mysterious jazz album popped back into my head. I was pretty sure I still had it somewhere. It took a while to dig it out of my CD collection, but I found it hidden away in one of the dustier corners. I was long overdue to give it a real listen and figure out just what I had here.

Two songs in, someone started singing, and I knew straight away it wasn’t Miles. It was Chet Baker. There’s no mistaking that voice for anyone else’s.

What I got, on what was supposed to be my first copy of the High Art soundtrack, was My Favourite Songs: the Last Great Concert, recorded in April 1988, two weeks before Chet died. It only took me close to twenty years to realize it.

The story behind the album goes something like this: some German fans who were involved in the music business wanted to honour Chet. They probably knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer. They said, “Chet, here’s the deal. You tell us what your favourite songs are. We’ll take care of the charts and put a big band and an orchestra together, and we’ll record the show. All you have to do is show up and play.”

Chet took that a little too literally. He didn’t bother to materialize for rehearsals. He walked into the concert hall for the first time the day of the show. You’d never know it to listen to the recording. It isn’t late-period Chet at his absolute best (for some of that, check out 1979’s Broken Wing and then Chet Baker in Tokyo from nine years later), but it’s still great stuff.

Watching video footage from the last years of Chet’s life is like eavesdropping on a ghost. He looks far older than his fifty-something years, with the crumbled majesty of his once beautiful face serving as hard-won proof that heroin can turn James Dean into the Grim Reaper. Then he raises the trumpet to his lips and is transformed, playing with a level of grace and invention someone in his condition shouldn’t be capable of.

One of the great twisted tragedies of the Chet Baker story is that he made some of his best music while he was slowly killing himself. He bragged about never needing to practice, but in his later years he played more than he ever had before, taking every gig he could get. He needed the money for drugs. The more shows he played, the better and deeper his playing became.

Rarely has such beautiful music been made under such sordid circumstances.

The mystery for me is how what might be the last recording Chet ever made ended up packaged as a Shudder to Think soundtrack CD. Every issue and subsequent reissue of My Favourite Songs is on the German label Enja. The High Art soundtrack was issued on Velvel Records, an offshoot of Koch. As fas as I can tell, the two were never affiliated in any way. The only thing I can think of is maybe both labels used the same media broker at some point in the late ’90s and someone fell asleep at the wheel.

At least there’s an easy way for me to differentiate between the two CDs with identical packaging.

As for Shudder to Think, taking in the rest of their discography after only hearing the music they made for High Art was a bit of a shock, the same way I imagine the soundtrack startled fans of their earlier work.

This is my favourite kind of band — the unclassifiable kind. To try and squeeze them into a genre is to drive yourself insane. They were labelled “post-hardcore”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and on some of their early albums on the Dischord label you can hear traces of Hüsker Dü. By the time you get to an album like Get Your Goat, they sound like no one else.

The tricky time signatures, unorthodox guitar riffs that balance melody and dissonance on a knife edge, and pinpoint dynamic shifts might have slid them into an uneasy position somewhere in the realm of math rock if they were an instrumental band. But then Craig Wedren’s unique, elastic, theatrical voice (once described as sounding like “Michael Stipe’s psychotic uncle on LSD”) bends everything in a different direction. It’s at once the last voice you would ever expect to hear singing this music and the only voice that makes sense. Imagine Jeff Buckley singing with Stone Temple Pilots after being held hostage for years by The Dillinger Escape Plan and developing some serious Stockholm Syndrome, and you’re still only halfway there.

When they signed with Epic Records in the mid-’90s, a lot of fans cried “sell-out”. And yet the first album they delivered to their new label, Pony Express Record, is probably their finest moment. It sounds like a distillation of everything the albums that came before were working toward.

From the hard rock deconstruction of “Hit Liquor”, to the power ballad from another planet that is “Earthquakes Come Home”, to the eerie beauty of “No Rm. 9, Kentucky”, it’s a funhouse mirror album of elements that shouldn’t work together finding a way to coil themselves into something harmonious and wonderfully strange. No list of the least commercial albums ever released by a major label is complete without it.

The lone cover song is a deranged take on Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You”, exposing the latent creepiness buried beneath the soft rock sheen of the original.

Random confession time. When I first heard the ARS version on the radio as a twelve-year-old, I thought the opening line was:

When you walked into the room, there was doo-doo in the vase.

Not quite the romantic sentiment of “voodoo in the vibes”. But if a whirlwind attraction can survive the smell of random crap, surely it’s built to last, no?

The next Shudder to Think album, 50,000 BC, was seen by some as a betrayal of everything the band was about. One angry fan called it “art rock for losers”. It didn’t help that an Epic press release hailed it as “a totally commercially accessible album that includes pure alternative rock ‘n’ roll songs and simple ballads” — in other words, the opposite of everything Shudder to Think had ever done.

I can’t help feeling this album got a little more hate than it deserved. It does feel like a bit of a step back, and if there was some record label pressure to make music that was more accessible to the masses, well…it sounds like it. The confrontational energy of Pony Express Record is gone. But this band was incapable of making boring music.

Listen to the opening track, “Call of the Playground”, with its stop-start rhythm and some sweetly-sung lyrics that read like a confusing childhood nightmare. It sounds more like a demented parody of an alternative rock hit than anything anyone ever could have believed stood a chance of garnering significant airplay on mainstream radio. And “Red House” is a glorious song by any measure, even if it was first recorded for 1991’s Funeral at the Movies, recorded another three times after that, and loses a bit of its punch in this final, more polished incarnation.

The fans that didn’t jump ship after hearing 50,000 BC were probably baffled by the mood pieces that made up the soundtrack to High Art. Recorded for the most part in Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson’s respective apartments, this music is more about creating atmospheres and soundscapes than constructing or deconstructing conventional song shapes. Only “Battle Soaked (Amnesian Mix)” features the sound of Craig’s voice, multi-tracked and mostly wordless, adding splashes of colour to a funky electronic workout.

The one song with a full set of lyrics just happens to be one of the best songs you’ve probably never heard, and it’s proof that Craig wasn’t the only great singer in the band. Guitarist Nathan Larson takes the lead for “She Might Be Waking up”, revealing a voice capable of moving from a broken, half-whispered croon to a soaring falsetto. In a way, this is a dress rehearsal for the songs Nathan would go on to write for Jealous God, his first solo album. It’s also better than anything on that album — darker, deeper, and with the lo-fi production lending it more character.

There was more soundtrack work ahead, with the band contributing a few songs to Velvet Goldmine and then a whole pile of tunes to First Love, Last Rites — a classic example of the soundtrack being a lot better than the movie it’s attached to.

This last one is a bit of a mixed bag of genre exercises, but the idea to write songs for a lot of different singers and then play the whole thing off as a series of radio broadcasts throughout the film was kind of brilliant, and there are some real gems knocking elbows with the near-misses. You could make a pretty wonderful EP out of “I Want Someone Badly” (sung by Jeff Buckley), “Appalachian Lullaby” (sung by Nina Persson), “Speed of Love” (sung by John Doe), and “Day Ditty” (sung by Angela McCluskey).

And then the band very quietly called it quits.

Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson have both gone on to have successful film scoring careers punctuated by the occasional solo album. There have been a few reunions here and there and a live album or two, but there hasn’t been a new collection of Shudder to Think songs in twenty years now.

Elsewhere in the abandoned old bowling alley of life, Dale Jacobs asked me a few weeks back if I would be willing to be an interview subject for a class he’s teaching at the University of Windsor called Writing about Music.

I’ve unofficially “retired” from granting interviews to anyone, for any reason. I think the last one happened back in 2011, and it might not even exist on the internet anymore. I had a few good experiences during my thirty-eight minutes of local fame/infamy, but after too many run-ins with agenda-humping writers who had no interest in learning anything about who I am, what I do, or why I do it the way I do, I decided it was better to let the music speak for itself. Besides, there’s already more information about me and what I do available here than anyone could ever want to know.

Maybe that sounds a little harsh, but I’m not talking about something as simple as not being a fan of someone’s writing style or not liking the way I was presented in a certain piece. I’m talking about shit like this:

I once spent an hour or two talking to a writer, giving him a ton of material to work with, and when the article he wrote was printed, I learned he didn’t use a single thing I said. Not one word. Instead, he lifted uncredited quotes from my blog, defeating the whole purpose of meeting with him.

This is someone who began the interview by complaining about other people plagiarizing his work. Then he turned around and did the same thing to me.

Smooth move.

Another writer invented quotes I never said in an effort to bend me to his purpose, because I wouldn’t say what he wanted to hear. He thought he could bully me into submission by painting me into a corner. When that didn’t work, he took every opportunity he could to denigrate me in print and deliberately misrepresented the nature of a show I was playing to try and perform some small, impotent act of subterfuge. When that didn’t work, he settled for trying to drag my name through the mud whenever I came up in the course of a conversation he happened to be privy to.

I’ve been told by a number of people this is something he still does from time to time. How do you respond to that kind of absurdity? I don’t know if it’s funny or sad. Maybe a bit of both. I guess a half-hearted laugh-shrug is appropriate.

My point is, you have enough experiences with people like that, and you don’t feel much like giving an interview to anyone anymore.

This was a little different. Dale has been supporting my music for years. He was one of the people who gave CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN some serious airplay on CJAM during the surreal summer of 2008, back when he was still hosting Steel-Belted Radio. And when he told me the other local interview subjects were going to be members of Diane Motel, I thought, “I might be able to offer an interesting contrast to that interview.”

So I said sure. Why not?

Earlier this week, four students from Dale’s class — half of a group called The Sound Collective — came over to the house and interviewed me. I went into it with an open mind while bracing myself for the usual one-size-fits-all questions.

My least favourite, and one that’s come up in almost every interview I’ve ever done: “What are your influences?”

I hate this question. I hate it because it implies the person asking it couldn’t be bothered to listen to any of my music to work out for themselves what they think they might hear in it. It also says to me, “What you do can be boiled down to a sentence and a musical reference or two.”

I’m not sure that’s true of anyone. I know it isn’t true in my case. I’ve always thought the whole point was to discover and develop your own voice — not to see how much mimicry you can get away with without being called a ripoff artist.

There are two ways I can answer this stupid question.

I can tell you my music has always been more influenced by my personal life, where I am emotionally at any given time, and the people I interact with. It’s the truth, but it sounds pretty pretentious.

Or I can name some of the bands and artists who have had a serious impact on me. But if I do that, I want to explain why their work grabbed me and how it spoke to me. I want to tell you how certain singers turned me on to the idea of using the voice not just as a vehicle to deliver the lyrics, but as an instrument in its own right. How hearing a specific album at a specific time in my life short-circuited my brain and forced me to recalibrate all my ideas about what a song could be. How pianists as disparate as Thelonious Monk, John Cale, and Nicky Hopkins changed the way I approached playing the piano.

Most writers don’t want to hear all that, because they’re not really writers at all. They don’t want a story. They want a soundbite.

The other night, that question I hate wasn’t asked. In its place was this: “Is there anything you’re listening to right now that you find is influencing you or inspiring you in some way?”

A very different, much more thought-provoking question, this one. And it opens the door for a story to sneak through.

Every question they asked me was unexpected, and intelligent, and forced me to give some serious thought to how I wanted to respond. They did some actual research beforehand, which is more than I can say for most of the folks who interviewed me in the past. What’s more, they all seemed genuinely engaged and enthusiastic to be talking to me.

It was the most enjoyable, surprising, and stimulating interview I’ve ever been involved in. Kind of restored my faith in the whole process.

Thanks to Brittany, Iovan, Aria, and Shannon for a really positive, memorable experience, and thanks to Dale for asking me to be a part of the project. It’s the first time in years I can say I’m looking forward to reading something that’s being written about me instead of dreading it. I’ll link to the piece here when it goes live on the Sound Collective blog.

Yes? Woah.

I’m always surprised by the people who want to come and record music in my humble little laboratory. Nothing that walks out of here is ever going to sound super slick or mainstream radio-ready, but maybe some artists are after something more human, without all the character airbrushed out of the frame, and maybe in some of those situations I’m not the most off-the-wall choice out there. Just the second or third most off-the-wall choice.

The most recent visitor was this talented human here. She came over on Friday and we recorded a whole album live off the floor in an afternoon, except for one ukulele song that wasn’t quite live.

As a rule I like to record vocal tracks as an isolated thing, separate from whatever instruments are being played. It wasn’t always like this. I used to be all about keeping everything live and unembellished. Then I got better, more sensitive microphones, and I found there was a world of difference between recording acoustic guitar and vocals at the same time with, say, a Shure SM57 and an SM58, and some hyper-sensitive condenser microphones that will pick up the sound of a squirrel throwing a tantrum six miles away. Once I wasn’t using dynamic mics on acoustic instruments anymore, when I did try to record guitar and vocals in one shot I found the bleed too difficult to control, phase issues too tricky to avoid, and centipede visitors not prevalent enough during daylight hours.

Jess writes songs that blur the lines between folk, indie rock, soul, and punk. They’re wonderfully dynamic, with a lot of unpredictable shifts in tempo and intensity and some great, evocative lyrics.

Not exactly the sort of thing that lends itself to piecemeal recording. We tried, but it was clear from the start it was going to feel pretty awkward for her if we tried to separate guitar and voice. You can do all the takes you want, but in the end the best performances are going to come when the artist is relaxed. Sometimes that’s only going to happen if they can play and sing at the same time.

I thought I’d slide the Shure SM7B in there as a vocal mic and we’d be set. I should have accounted for the way my SM7B seems to pick and choose when it wants to cooperate with me. Friday was one of its testy days. No matter what preamp/compressor configuration I plugged it into, the thing wouldn’t pass sound. Even after I routed it in what I thought was a pretty foolproof way, I still wasn’t getting any signal. It got to the point where my face was covered in sweat and I was starting to think whatever recording knowledge I once possessed had been stolen from me while I slept, sucked out of my brain through one of those plastic syringes they give you to fill with water so you can keep the inside of your mouth clean after wisdom teeth removal surgery.

Right about then, I noticed the compressor I was using as the last piece in the signal chain wasn’t turned on.

After wiping off my face, I told the SM7B to go to hell in the nicest way I could and swapped it out for my trusty Pearlman TM-1.

I know everyone and their Chia Pet will tell you it’s important to audition different microphones on a singer, especially when you’re dealing with a voice you haven’t recorded before. You never know how a given mic’s frequency response is going to respond to something as varied as the human voice. And that’s sound advice. But I’ve lost count now of how many different singers I’ve stuck in front of the TM-1, and it’s never been the wrong choice. Not even once. It always sounds like the truest representation of that person’s voice I could hope to capture, whether they’re screaming their head off or barely breaking a whisper.

It was the right choice again on Friday. Because I was able to mic up the guitar amp with dynamic mics that are much more directional than those insane Neumann small-diaphragm condenser fellas I would have been using on an acoustic guitar, the only bleed I had to worry about was what the vocal mic picked up from the amp. And while there was no way to avoid it, in a strange way I think it helped, making everything a little bolder and more exciting, capturing some room sound where the SM7B would have been maybe too dry.

There’s good bleed, and there’s bad bleed. My ears told me this wasn’t bad bleed at all. It was bleed you’d be glad to take out for a night on the town.

Jess brought her very cool Danelectro electric guitar with her (it looks like a U1, but I’m not sure). She plugged into my Fender Twin and I invited her to adjust anything on the amp she wanted. She did something to the bass and mids that was subtle, but it made an immediate difference for the better. I think I’m going to leave the EQ just the way she set it until the end of time.

She also dialled in a bit of reverb. The problem I’ve always had with the spring reverb in this amp is the hum it introduces the second you turn it on. The more reverb you want, the louder the hum gets. At a lower volume it wasn’t awful. Still, I thought we might later find ourselves cursing the hum when it called attention to itself during some of the quieter moments in her songs. I turned off the reverb on the amp and stuck the Strymon Flint in the signal path. It just happens to have a spring reverb setting that sounded to us like a dead ringer for the real thing in the Fender Twin, minus the extraneous noise.

With just the TM-1 on her voice, and an SM57 and 421 on the amp, I think we got a good three-dimensional representation of the way things sounded in the room. Recording the guitar and vocals separately might have given me a little more control come mixing time, but I don’t think it would have sounded better. And this should still be pretty straightforward to mix.

Technical stuff aside, it was a great afternoon full of clementines, tea, and good music. Jess is one of those people who fills up a room with positive energy. She makes this sort of thing feel less like a job and more like you’re just hanging out with someone who happens to be playing some music. I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun recording someone other than myself.

Hopefully I can take some of those good feelings and carry them over to my own work, which has been feeling a little neglected and unsure of itself lately.

Talking on the phone like an unsure bride.

In the early summer of 2008 I still had a Myspace page. Once in a while I used it as a place to post a song or two from whatever album I was working on at any given time. One day I was floating around to see what I could scrounge up when I came across a music page for this guy named Joshua Jesty.

I had no idea what to expect. Thought I’d hit the little play button just for fun. I listened to one of the songs on his playlist.

“I like this,” I thought. “This is catchy. The kind of catchy where you want to get it stuck in your head. This is good.”

I listened to another song, and then another. The more I listened, the more I liked what I was hearing. I checked out his website, which was rich with information about all the different music he’d made over the years. His writing was like his songs — smart, funny, and full of life.

I wrote him a long, rambling email telling him how much I dug his songs and sharing a few of mine. I also told him I was his long-lost twin brother who looked nothing like him, and though he’d never been told of my existence, I’d been watching him with pride from a distance for all these years. As you do.

I have a long history of being ignored by most of the artists I try to start a dialogue with, whether they’re local or a thousand miles away. In those pre-CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN times it was about as one-sided as it ever got. I kept trying to connect with people, and nothing would come back. It felt like I was screaming into a void. So when Josh responded to my goofy email, I almost fell out of my chair and broke my collarbone.

We started firing emails back and forth. We sent CDs to each other in the mail. Nine years later, we’re still sending emails and sharing music. We’ve had a lot of laughs, shouted about our triumphs, wept hot, salty digital tears when life has knocked us on our asses, and though we’ve only met in person once, Josh has become one of my favourite people and one of my most trusted friends. In a way he’s like the wise big brother I didn’t have growing up.

The outlines of our respective musical lives are almost mirror images. We both made a lot of wild and silly music when we were younger, on our way to finding our voices as songwriters. We both fronted bands that sometimes made pretty aggressive music and tested our vocal cords with the kind of screaming we’d probably be a little afraid to attempt now. We both turned to recording on our own at home and playing all the instruments ourselves when those bands broke up, making some of the most ambitious music of our lives when no one was looking.

Even now, we’ve both started bringing other singers and musicians into our solo music to introduce new textures, and we’ll both take on the occasional gig producing someone else when we really like them and their music.

We also both enjoy making videos that incorporate hand puppets.

Josh once told me if we traced our family trees back far enough we’d probably discover we’re related somehow. I believe it.

We have different approaches when it comes to live performance (he’s toured and played a lot of different places; I tend to play live about as often as it rains shrieking badgers from the sky) and distribution (he’s embraced the online tools at his disposal, while I’m too stubborn and set in my ways to let go of my physical-albums-only philosophy). But even twins who look completely different and were born on different days, in different months and years, and on different sides of the Canada/US border are going to have different philosophies now and then.

One other thing we have in common: we’ve both made a whole lot of albums. Visit the Joshua Jesty Bandcamp page and you’ll find a bewildering selection of music that touches on many different sounds and emotional states. All of it is well worth exploring, but the best starting points for my money are 2009’s Girl and 2011’s Portugal — self-described “big” albums that take in everything from power pop, to folk, to ambient interludes, to acoustic guitar-driven salsa, all without ever losing the feeling of being self-contained artistic statements pulsing with deep personal meaning. Girl remains one of my favourite albums by anyone.

Both These Violent Young Lovers albums are great fun. All four of the “Like Rabbits” EPs are full of beautiful songs. And the stripped-to-the-bone Skeleton makes for a harrowing but rewarding listen.

What I’m saying here is you should listen to everything he’s done, pretty much. In an ideal world, the man would be a household name.

The two of us have been talking for years now about making some sort of long-distance collaborative album. Life and other musical commitments keep getting in the way, but I’m pretty confident it’ll happen one of these days. We’ve at least taken care of some of the preliminary world-building, working out the kind of album we want to make and how best to approach it.

If/when that album comes to fruition, if someone writes a review they’ll probably tell you there’s a sort of Lennon-McCartney dynamic at work, with Josh more of the thoughtful craftsman and me more of the anarchist. I’m not sure that’s true, though. We can both get pretty demented when the moon is right. For every “How We Float When We Shit” and “Mary Anne Says Grace” in my catalogue, there’s a “Freaky Sexy Clown Jam” and “Dirty Talk” in Josh’s. And while I think he tends to be more open-hearted in his songwriting and I tend to get pretty cynical in mine, we’re both serious fans of a good old-fashioned BSME (Big Sprawling Musical Explosion).

The first Joshua Jesty song to dig its fingernails into my ribs way back when was “From Invincible to Invisible”. The juxtaposition of sounds that might have been awkward in someone else’s hands — DI’d electric guitar set against a looped disco beat, weird underwater-sounding synth during the instrumental bridge, a lot of chord changes over an unchanging bass line — felt like the only arrangement that ever could have made sense, and there was something quietly devastating about the whole thing. It was like a naked admission of defeat made alone in the dark, with synthesized handclaps.

Late one night when I had a horrible sinus infection and Girl wasn’t finished yet and was calling itself Finally, Joshua Jesty is making a record with a short title, and the title of the record is “Girl”, I spent more time than most people would want to admit syncing up the music video with the rough mix of this song Josh posted on myspace, just so I could hear it in stereo on headphones while I watched. When I finally managed to time it just right, I forgot about being sick for a few minutes and lost myself in the music.

That music video proves you don’t need a big budget, a fancy setting, or a fifty thousand dollar camera to make something great. All you need is any kind of camera that shoots video, some open-minded friends, and your imagination. I keep holding out hope an HD version will sneak out into the world someday, with the mastered album version of the song on the audio track.

Though the final mix tightened things up and got a new vocal track, I’ve always been glad the soul of that rougher version I first fell in love with stuck around.

A few years back, when our projected Jesty Westy album came up again in conversation, Josh floated the idea of covering a few of each other’s songs. I reached for this one right away. In turn, he recorded a surprising, beautifully nuanced take on “Is You My Lover Still?” from IF I HAD A QUARTER.

I’ve wanted to return to my cover and give it a fresh mix for a while now. Today felt like a good day to give it a shot.

At the time I recorded this, I was going through a bit of a weird piano mic’ing period. I couldn’t seem to get things to sound right no matter what I did, when getting a good piano sound had never been a problem for me before.

Turned out the placement of the Neumann KM184s I use as piano mics was off in an almost microscopic way, just enough to throw things out of whack a little. You’ve got your sensitive microphones, and then you’ve got those guys.

It took me a while to figure out what I was doing wrong and set it right. At the same time, I was driving the mic preamp those mics were plugged into more than usual, hitting the transformers a little harder, again without realizing it.

Those two slight changes were responsible for a piano sound that was a little more bottom-heavy and compressed-sounding than usual.

The first thing I did today was strip away almost all of the effects. A few years ago I had a thing for using rhythmic delays all over the place. Here I had some pretty audible delay on most of the guitars and the drums, and it made things muddier than they needed to be. I got rid of the reverb on my voice too. Everything started to sound more intimate and better-defined.

The strangest thing was the piano. I was prepared to re-record it from scratch, but when I was working on making a new mix the existing piano track sounded better than I remembered. Maybe not quite as open as I might have wanted it, but more than good enough to do the job.

I wasn’t expecting that. Maybe the excessive delay was pranking my ears all this time.

The spastic-sounding piano-thing that kicks in during the instrumental bits is one of the first recorded appearances of my friend the Casio SK-1. I sampled myself playing a few notes at the piano, sped it up to an insane degree (before slowing it down at the very end), double-tracked it, and for some odd reason it felt appropriate. I wanted to respect the original spirit of the song, but I also wanted to put my own spin on it.

From Invincible to Invisible

When I was finished I noticed some extra tracks that weren’t in use, so I gave them a listen. There were a few takes I tried behind the drums with sticks before deciding on brushes. I also messed around with the flute sound on the SK-1 over the bridge before hitting on the idea of the piano sample, and recorded some clean electric guitar through the whole song that was later replaced with the acoustic guitar that shadows the piano and a bit of backwards electric guitar that comes in later.

I have no memory of recording any of these things. And I don’t forget a whole lot of musical details. So it was a fun little surprise to stumble across these unused elements.

I think the sounds I chose to use in the end were the right ones. At the same time, I think it’s interesting to hear the different direction things might have gone. If I’d forsaken the acoustic guitar for electric and the brushes for sticks, everything would have felt a little dreamier.

Like this:

From Invincible to Invisible (alternate mix fragment)

No regrets. But man, I have to say I kind of like that different slant on it. Maybe I’ll make an alternate mix along those lines so they’ve got something to tack on as a bonus track when the after-we’re-gone reissue starts making the rounds.

I don’t know if this is still my favourite Joshua Jesty song. There are a lot of contenders vying for the top spot. But it’s probably still the one that speaks to me the loudest.

Know which way to go.

I’ve never owned a Tragically Hip or Gord Downie album. I never considered myself a fan. And yet the music Gord made with and without that band with the name we all wish we’d thought of ourselves has been a vivid part of the soundtrack to my life ever since I started navigating the strangeness of puberty.

I’m thinking now maybe that makes me a fan after all.

The first Hip song I was conscious of hearing was “Poets”. Seemed like that song was everywhere the summer I was about to turn fifteen. At first I thought it was a pretty typical rock song with a singer who didn’t feel like he really fit the music. He didn’t sound like a rock singer to me. He sounded like something new I hadn’t heard before.

Then I started paying attention to the lyrics.

Spring starts when a heartbeat’s pounding,
when the birds can be heard
above the reckoning carts
doing some final accounting.

Who writes words like that to kick off one of the catchiest songs in their catalogue and the leadoff single to their new album? That’s fucking insane. And it’s brilliant.

I have a memory that makes me smile every time it resurfaces, of dancing to that song at the campground in Lambton County and weirding out a girl who was a little younger than me.

“You like this music?” she said, making a face.

I guess I was supposed to be into Limp Bizkit or the Goo Goo Dolls or something. Who knows. I went on dancing and sang at her not to tell me what the poets were doing.

Not long after that, MuchMoreMusic developed a thing for playing the video for “Ahead by a Century” on an almost daily basis. If I timed it just right, my walk home from school would get me inside the house right around the time it started.

I loved that song. There was a hard-won beauty about it I didn’t know how to put into words then. All I knew was I could watch the music video a thousand times and never get tired of the music that drove it. When Gord smiled through his singing, it did something good to my heart.

I kept up with new albums from a bit of a distance, always drawn to the intelligence and surprising turns of Gord’s lyrics, but for some dumb reason never got around to buying a CD. I think I didn’t know where to start, when I should have just started anywhere.

Last year came the revelation that Gord had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. He followed up that jarring news by releasing Secret Path, a collaboration with Jeff Lemire that has to go down as some of the most emotionally lacerating, compelling, commendable work of his life. Just weeks ago came an announcement that another new solo album was on the way. And now comes the news that Gord is gone.

I think we knew this day was coming. We hoped the man’s mental acuity and continuing drive to work were signs pointing to a postponement of the inevitable, but cancer is the ultimate asshole. Too often it takes good people away from us long before they should be going anywhere.

The minute I read the news, I scrawled out the words to what’s been my favourite Tragically Hip song for fifteen years, went downstairs, sat at the piano, and recorded it in one take (the harmonies were added a few minutes later and also done in one take). I wanted to get down an emotional response without over-thinking it. Almost like a prayer. With my next-door neighbour having a whole lot of noisy work done on their house, leaving me with only small pockets of quiet here and there, I didn’t have much choice anyway.

It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken

I’m not one to record musical tributes. But there’s something in this song that’s always grabbed me.

It sounds simple. A few chords and a single long verse and chorus that come back a second time. Then you listen a little closer and notice the second time the verse comes around, there are subtle little changes that shift its meaning, and the second chorus is twice as long as the first, and then a miniature hook comes back and changes its colours too.

Great songwriters can do things like that without calling attention to the sleight of hand. Whether you knew it or not, Gord Downie was a great one.

Romantic machinery.

wooden-stars-1

One of the most criminally neglected bands to ever come out of canada, the Wooden Stars made four full-length albums of original material and recorded an album with Julie Doiron. They were sometimes compared to the Rheostatics but sounded nothing like them. I’m thinking these two bands were each used as reference points for the other because would-be music journalists needed something to compare them to, and neither band sounded like anyone else. There are elements of math rock and post-rock in some of their songs, with tricky time signatures and unpredictable dynamic shifts, but the music the Wooden Stars made resists easy description or categorization. That’s part of what makes it so exciting to listen to.

In 2013, Montreal musician and writer Malcolm Fraser published Wooden Stars: Innocent Gears, something of a biography of the band. I say “something of” because it’s a short book, and there isn’t a whole lot of deep probing into the personal lives of individual members. I get the feeling this was a deliberate choice the band and author made, to maintain some amount of personal distance and let the music speak for itself.

I’m still a little shocked the book exists at all, given how few people knew the band existed even while they were active as a touring, semi-regular-album-releasing unit. While there’s a part of me that wishes Malcolm found a way to get at a little bit more of what made these people tick as songwriters, there’s a lot of information in there that was new to me, and I think he did a good job of articulating what’s special about the music, and what a difficult thing that is to put into words.

All the albums have their own distinct personalities. The Very Same is the most freewheeling, an explosion of manic creative energy. It’s a little staggering to consider that it was recorded by a group of musicians who were all still teenagers at the time.

The Moon is the most conventionally “pretty” of all their albums, more accessible, and with somewhat more traditional song structures. But it’s not pop music by any means. It’s always felt like a winter album to me. I couldn’t tell you why.

People are Different is the closest they ever came to straight-up rock. As of this writing, it looks like it might be the last Wooden Stars album we’ll get, though the band continues to materialize out of nowhere every once in a while to play the odd Canadian music festival.

I’ve always had a hard time telling the voices of guitarists/songwriters Mike Feuerstack and Julien Biellard apart. Those two guys were made to sing together.

The book has helped with that. The division is most notable on the last two albums, and it’s interesting to hear the way the two influenced each other even as their writing became less collaborative, Julien’s songs growing friendlier to easy melody while Mike’s grew darker and more literate. “The Summer I Drank Myself to Death” remains one of the most gorgeously depressing songs I’ve ever heard. And the way “Outlaws” imagines the end of a relationship as something that’s happening on a film set, the intimacy dented by the presence of people who are only interested in capturing the mechanics of the moment, with nothing invested in the people they’ve made their actors…well, here.

One bit goes:

And we lose soft consonants,
the boom disturbed by every coastal breeze. 
You lean in close:
“Of course I love you.” 
An empty screen.
A blank apparition.
And we can’t even really say goodbye here,
’cause everyone will move in a little closer.

If that ain’t poetry on the page, then there’s no such thing as poetry on the page.

Another thing Malcolm’s book did was give me a deeper appreciation for Julien’s brother Mathieu and what he brought to the band. His bass-playing on The Very Same is jaw-dropping, and he’s responsible for some of the weirdest, most interesting songs on the first two albums. After reading about why he chose to leave before The Moon was recorded and how he’s regretted that decision, and revisiting the albums he was a part of, there’s a new emotional kick to the Mathieu-sung “Country Violins” at the end of Mardi Gras.

When the music fades back up after a false ending for one last syncopated drum pattern and some tentative guitar arpeggios, there’s no bass heard from that point to the final drum hit. It’s like the sound of Mathieu’s absence fully felt, when he hasn’t even left yet, the rest of the band petering out, unsure of where to go without him.

wooden-stars-2

As solid as Josh Latour was in his absence, I’ve come to really miss Mathieu on the last two albums. His unconventional way of playing created a great unpredictable rhythm section dynamic, and once he was gone, Andrew McCormack’s drumming lost just a little bit of its spark. There never seemed to be any real friction between him and Josh like there was with Mathieu, where it sometimes sounded like a fight might break out between their instruments mid-song.

People are Different is my least favourite Wooden Stars album, probably because it’s the slickest and least varied. Having said that, I’m proud to say CJAM played the hell out of it when it came out in 2007. And it’s still a great album. In a perfect world, a song like “Pretty Girl” would have been a hit. An ode to obsession with the word “fuckers” in it and an instrumental bridge section in 10/8 time, on mainstream radio…can you picture it? Kanye West would never have been able to let anyone finish anything again. Those gorgeous sax harmonies at the end would have moved him to tears.

Even if I like some albums more than others, this is a band that’s never made a bad one. The album they made backing Julie Doiron up is beautiful stuff, too — maybe the best thing Julie’s ever done. But I think their 1997 album Mardi Gras may be their very best. The songs strike a perfect balance between chaos and beauty, the lyrics are cryptic, hilarious, heartfelt, disturbing, and sometimes all of those things at once, and there’s some of the best electric guitar interplay you’ll hear anywhere.

I was lucky enough to hear “Cigarette Girl” one late weeknight in 1998 on CBC’s Brave New Waves radio program, when Patti Schmidt was the host. I went out to buy Mardi Gras the next day and was told I had to order it on import. When it came in at HMV, the jewel case was broken. I liked the music so much, I waited fifteen years to replace the case with one that wasn’t falling apart out of some sort of nostalgic purism. Had it been a vinyl record, I would have worn it out ten times over by now.

(If you click through to YouTube and start to think some of the text in this video’s description reads like I’m lifting it for this blog post, it’s because I’m the person who wrote that description and posted the video. Felt like that album deserved at least some representation there.) 

So why didn’t these guys gain a larger audience? I think it was a combination of bad luck (almost every album they released failed to get much of a promotional push because the small record labels they were signed to had a habit of going under as soon as a Wooden Stars record came out), a refusal to compromise their artistic vision, and making most of their music at a time when the internet was nothing like the powerful tool it’s become for independent artists over the last decade.

Early on they were offered a deal by Sub Pop but turned it down. Concessions would have had to be made, and they weren’t prepared to make them. They thought there would be more opportunities that size down the road. There weren’t. Some people would say they should have grabbed it when they had the chance. I say maybe the music they made wouldn’t exist as it does if they had, and that would be a huge loss. It seems a shame that they’re still so unknown, but I wouldn’t trade the music for anything.

Something tells me if you asked any one of them, they’d say the same thing.

It’s doomsday, doomsday.

alan

“Where I grew up in Brooklyn, man, a punk was like a wuss — the guy who ran away from the fight. ‘You’re a punk. You’re a weasel. You’re nothing.’ Now it has this connotation of being the tough guy thing. The revolution. Are you kidding? So I liked the word and used the term ‘punk music mass’ [on a flyer to advertise a live show in the early 1970s], maybe inadvertently trying to turn it into something else. One day I wake up and there’s the word ‘punk’ all over the place. Somebody said that Suicide had to be the ultimate punk band, because even the punks hated us.”

Alan Vega said that.

Before it was even a little bit cool to be a synthesizer-based duo, there was Suicide. There’s no guitar on their self-titled debut album, no bass, no acoustic drums, and it’s some of the truest punk music you’ll ever hear. It still sounds like nothing and no one else.

It’s hard to believe now, given the depth of the influence they’ve had on electronic, industrial, and post-punk music over the last few decades (and even on Bruce Springsteen — listen to “State Trooper” on Nebraska and you’ll hear him channeling Alan Vega something fierce), but for a long time people hated these guys. There’s an EP called 23 Minutes Over Brussels, available as part of the two-disc CD reissue of the debut album, and it might be the best aural evidence of just how reviled they were.

It’s a hissy bootleg cassette recording made the night they were opening for Elvis Costello in 1978. The audience booed. They heckled. They stole the microphone from Alan Vega in the middle of a song. The set ended after a little more than twenty minutes. Elvis came on and played a very short, very angry set of his own to let the crowd know he wasn’t happy with the way they’d treated his opening act. They responded by rioting and breaking Alan Vega’s nose.

Some bands would have been discouraged by an experience like that. Alan and musical other half Martin Rev thrived on the contempt. They used it as fuel. Alan would knock a chunk out of a club wall with a motorcycle chain and hurl abuse right back at a hostile audience. It wasn’t for nothing that they gave their two-man band such a polarizing name.

“Suicide was always about life,” Alan said. “But we couldn’t call it Life. So we called it Suicide, because we wanted to recognize life.”

On that first Suicide album, with little more than a Farfisa organ and a secondhand drum machine made by a bowling-pin-setting company, Martin Rev created rhythms that sounded like the steam-driven heartbeats of demon trains and married them to repetitive, hypnotic melodies that buzzed and throbbed. Alan Vega sang on top of those sounds in a menacing croon, kicking his rockabilly influences down to a hell Gene Vincent would never have gone near, bending his yelps out of shape with dub-like delay effects, turning every performance into a confrontation.

There’s the odd pretty love song on Suicide like “Cheree”, and a fun ’50s throwback in the shape of “Johnny” (hey, that’s me). But even on the more restrained tracks Alan sounds wild, unpredictable, electric. “Frankie Teardrop” is one of the few songs in anyone’s catalogue that terrifies me every time I hear it. Over a punishing ten minutes, Alan tells the story of a factory worker who can’t keep it together after he loses his job and can’t support his wife and young child anymore. There’s no deep psychoanalysis. No poetry. Just the awful, banal facts, until the facts break down and all that’s left is subhuman screaming ripping through a dense sonic nightmare.

Every subsequent Suicide album is a lot more polished, and the use of actual synthesizers and drum machines not made by bowling-pin-setting companies means they can sound a little dated in a way the first album never has and never will. The one exception to the rule is an album’s worth of demos pre-dating the first album, tacked onto the reissue of the second album as extras. There’s something eerie and magnetic in this music, lo-fi and murky as it is.

In what has to be the most bizarre soundtrack decision of all time, one of these demo tracks was used in a 2001 commercial for a dark liqueur that wasn’t Kahlua.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.

Alan and Martin made more albums apart than they did together, and the crown jewel of the bunch — at least in my opinion — is Alan’s self-titled first solo album, which somehow manages to capture some of the unsettling, hypnotic quality of Suicide with a very different set of sounds. It’s another two-person affair, but this time it’s Phil Hawk filling in the blanks, playing guitar, bass, and an actual drum kit.

If Suicide is minimal electronic proto-punk without much in the way of conventional electronics, Alan Vega is rockabilly on downers. In a good way.

“This music is long nights and cold sweat,” Henry Rollins wrote in the liner notes for the Infinite Zero CD reissue. “[It’s] a closer look at the enigma that is this shadow poet. You think you’re getting closer to him, but you’re only getting deeper into yourself. You’re on your own.”

I hone in on those two albums, and Suicide in particular, because it’s desert island music for me. I didn’t have regular internet access or a computer at home until I was eighteen, so a lot of the music I got into as a teenager came to me from magazines, books, and rock and roll encyclopedias. I couldn’t audition anything before I bought it. I read about it, and if it sounded interesting, I went out and tried to find it. The more obscure and divisive it was, the more I wanted to hear it.

As great as I think it is that the internet has done so much to make a lot of music easier to access and put more power in the hands of the music-makers, sometimes I miss those days of uncertainty. I had no idea what i was going to hear, and no idea if I was going to like what I heard, until I sat down to listen to a CD for the first time. It was all blind fumbling.

Some things kind of disappointed me. Some things I liked, but I found the idea of the music more compelling than the music itself. Some things I loved. That first Suicide album grabbed me from the moment “Ghost Rider” came roaring out of my headphones, and it hasn’t let go since.

Now the voice that drove that music is gone.

Alan Vega spent most of his seventy eight years making uncompromising art in one format or another. So you can’t say he didn’t live a full life. Still, 2016 needs to lay off of this whole “shoving great artists off this mortal coil” thing already. It’s getting out of hand now.