amanda dug up another four tapes. after spending more than two hundred bucks having her whole collection transferred, i’m no closer to having that papa ghostface footage i’ve been chasing than i was a little less than twenty years ago when i started chasing it. i would bet anything it isn’t lost or dead, but buried somewhere in a garage or at the bottom of a box of random things, waiting to be rediscovered in the next century when human cloning is all the rage and no one knows which generation of themselves they are anymore.
there is one last hope. it’s the longest of long shots, but i know a second video recording exists — or used to exist — of the same live performance i thought we’d unearth somewhere on one of amanda’s tapes. i know because i sat in a classroom a month or two after it was filmed and watched it. i just don’t know who made the tape.
i do know who might be able to answer that question. as unlikely as it is that they would remember who was manning the camera seventeen years ago, and as even-more-unlikely as it is that the tape is sitting around waiting for me to find it with its head crowned by a halo of heavenly light, it’s worth a try.
i have a realistic view of the situation. i’m pretty sure all of this has been for nothing. i just don’t want to give up until i’ve exhausted every possibility.
like i said before, i did end up getting my hands on some great archival material. so it hasn’t really been a pointless effort. it’s just that the footage i want most of all continues to elude me, like the whole thing is a sick little cosmic joke designed to make me swear even more than i usually do.
what else is new? the remastering thing keeps moving along, sort of. 121 songs done now. 67 left to do. if i really dig in, i can probably have it all done inside of a few weeks. it’d be nice to get that taken care of so i can devote all my brainpower to this album i’m supposed to be finishing.
here, for no real reason, is a little song that was filmed ten years ago at the old house and then never recorded or revisited. i miss that shirt. it kept getting rattier and rattier, until by 2011 i don’t think the sleeves existed anymore. check out my dresser mirror reflecting all those empty water bottles lined up like soldiers on a bookshelf.
sometimes, after chasing something for a very long time, you think you’ve managed to catch up to it and dig your fingers into its shoulder blades. then you press down a little harder and notice what you thought were shoulders are your own kneecaps, and you’re not wearing any pants.
this is one of those times.
pretty much nothing i thought was going to be on that stack of 8mm tapes was there. that’s both good and bad.
as i was expecting, there’s footage here i never knew existed. what i thought was going to be a party at gord’s from 2002 is instead a triple-header of a house show from late 2001, with a set from punk band kanada sitting right in the middle of the musical sandwich. it always felt like they were kind of given short shrift in the music scene, so it was a great surprise to stumble onto some video of them doing their thing back when we were all skinny teenagers.
a tape i thought was going to have random high school footage on it instead has some moments from the night of our graduation. another tape i was positive would be a recording of a bar show is instead a ton of footage of SEED OF HATE being recorded at the old walker power building. i remember a camera being there, but i only ever saw about two minutes of video and assumed not much more than that was filmed.
there’s enough raw footage to put together a grimy documentary about the making of the album from start to finish, if i wanted to do a thing like that. there are a lot of fun moments in there, including the revelation that recording the guitar and bass tracks direct instead of mic’ing up the amps wasn’t the plan all along. i’ve been remembering that wrong all these years. instead, it was a last-minute move made to counteract too much bleed and not enough microphones. and the band didn’t record piecemeal, but together as a unit, live-off-the floor, with the exception of the vocals and some guitar overdubs that were added later. i’ve been remembering that wrong too.
but then there’s this: none of those papa ghostface performances are included in any of the eight hours of footage culled from these tapes. there are some pretty amusing bits from me, with some non-sequiturs i don’t remember ever dishing out, but there’s almost no footage of me playing music in any capacity. for the most part i’m only recording it, or sitting in the audience watching it happen.
i say “almost” because one of the surprise finds on these tapes is a casual little jam session with me and tyson running through bits and pieces of about half a dozen different GWD songs. it isn’t true band footage, because gord is filming instead of playing bass, and what little singing i do is not trying very hard to be serious. still, i was pretty sure this stuff was filmed on tyson’s camera and i’d never get to see it again. i’m happy to be proven wrong, and ecstatic to have another small piece of video documentation from that musical period fall into my lap.
after the fifteen-year chase and the money i spent having the tapes transferred, finding out the things i most wanted to see weren’t there was a bit of a kick in the teeth. don’t get me wrong. i’m grateful for what i’ve got here. there’s some great archival material i never thought i’d get my hands on, a lot of it looks and sounds better than i thought it would, and i’ll be able to do some fun things with it. but it’s hard not to be a little disappointed.
to amanda’s credit, she’s said she’ll take another look at her collection of tapes and see if there are any others she thinks i might be on. so it isn’t an “all hope is lost” situation yet. there’s still a chance.
whatever happens, i can’t thank her enough for opening up the archives and allowing me to travel back in time about sixteen years. thank jack russell terriers she was either around for these adventures or willing to let someone borrow her camera so they could be documented. some of this stuff is absolute gold.
in the meantime, please enjoy kanada testing the limits of how much volume a camcorder’s built-in microphone is capable of handling while raising your glass of ginger ale to my clean-shaven bandana-wearing cameo and a black-haired, near-unrecognizable joey desroches on drums.
wherever you are now, christine kowala, i want you to know i still love you and your batman shirt.
another bittersweet hindsight moment here: everyone who was in my band at the time was at this show. we wrapped up the last full band recording session for GOOD LUCK IN THE NEXT LIFE earlier that same day. we could have easily played a set and made the house show a quadruple-header.
while our music might not have fit in with the punk, metal, and hardcore grind, i’m pretty sure the people we were hanging out with would have been open-minded enough to give what we were doing a fair shake. and then we’d have a full GWD live set on video, with me doing more than just reacting to some guitar feedback during someone else’s soundcheck.
failing that, i could have at least recorded some of these shows. my rig was pretty portable in those days and more than adequate for capturing loud live music. then i’d be able to sync this video, and others like it, with some high quality audio.
the idea never entered my mind.
i’ve had about all the smelly not-to-be potpourri i can handle lately. i need a time machine already, so i can confront some of these oversights, punch ’em in the mouth, and give ’em overbites.
since my brain moves in strange ways, when i was navigating the initial disappointment of realizing the footage i most wanted to see wasn’t on these tapes, i thought i’d really wallow in it by revisiting some past disappointment. double your displeasure, double your pun.
in the late summer of 2011 i played a set at the shores of erie wine festival. to date, it’s the last time i’ve played a solo show. it was such a horrible experience it kind of made me never want to do it again.
everything that could have gone wrong that day didgo wrong. i found out the sustain pedal for my rented keyboard was dead minutes before my set started. the one person i knew who had a sustain pedal i might be able to borrow was also playing that day, but she’d just made it pretty clear she didn’t care about me at all when i thought we’d spent the better part of that summer becoming close friends.
you could say there was some tension there. and i wasn’t about to try and break it by asking for a favour.
if that wasn’t enough to set an ominous tone, i wasn’t used to playing on a stage that big, cut off from the audience to the point that it barely felt like they were there. i couldn’t hear any of their applause. it didn’t feel like i could interact with them. not that there were many people to interact with anyway. there wasn’t much of a turnout that early in the day. but losing that feeling of intimacy threw me off.
add to that the people shovelling mulch in front of the stage while we played (i thought it was manure at first) and the feeling that it was too early for my voice or my fingers to be awake enough to cooperate with me, and it was a recipe for a bad time all the way around.
the worst part was having to perform without a sustain pedal. i had no idea how integral that little thing was to the way i played piano until it wasn’t there anymore. as it was, playing a digital piano live when i’d been spoiled by the grand piano at mackenzie hall and my upright at home was a little uninspiring, with all the sensitivity i was losing. but i could have dealt with that just fine if i had a working sustain pedal. without it, i had to rethink every song on the fly, everything i’d rehearsed went out the window, and my piano-playing became more of a reluctant intellectual exercise than anything, testing what i could and couldn’t do with no margin for error.
it was one of those shows where nothing feels like it’s working, you don’t enjoy being up there, and when it’s over you’re glad you forgot to tell the audience what your name was, because it would be embarrassing if anyone thought what they heard was an accurate representation of what you sound like when things are going well.
there’s video of the whole performance. i ignored it for years, not wanting to relive the experience. almost six years later, when i was feeling low about the lack of 8mm papa ghostface glory, i decided to subject myself to it for the first time.
i listened to the audio on its own so i wouldn’t have to see the mulch flying around. i didn’t cringe. in some places, against all the odds, i found myself thinking, “for feeling on the day like my singing and playing was garbage, this isn’t all that bad.”
i can’t believe i’m about to type this, but after being pretty positive the mackenzie hall performance of “a fine line between friendship and baked goods” from earlier the same summer was always going to be the definitive version of the song, i think this one might give it a run for its money.
it’s a little more far-reaching, with bits of “here comes the rain again”, “out of touch”, and “state trooper” getting tossed into the blender, along with a brief callback to the “i put a spell on you” section first improvised at mackenzie hall (only the first of these musical inserts was rehearsed; the rest were spontaneous). some of the melodic ideas from the long improv section in that version are revisited here, including another quote from “rondo alla turca”. there’s also a whole lot of improvised stuff unique to this performance that i don’t remember ever playing. and the line i forgot to sing in the first verse at mack hall doesn’t get dropped this time.
all i know is, i’m liking it, when i never thought i would — never thought i’d even want to hear it again. if for whatever reason i don’t end up ever playing another solo gig, i don’t think this was such a bad note to end on after all.
out of great disappointment a mound of focaccia bread sometimes rises, i guess is what i’m trying to say here.
i imagine most people who owned tape-based camcorders during their heyday filmed things like family get-togethers, live music, home movies, class projects, and documentaries.
i used mine to record demos, and almost nothing else.
until i got my macbook in late 2013 and thought to give garageband a try, i didn’t record “normal” demos of anything. i either recorded for keeps or i didn’t record at all. the little sony handycam i had — and later, the two flip mino cameras that would usurp it — became a useful way to get down ideas when they were fresh so i wouldn’t forget them.
we got this camera in 2003. it felt like it was time. i was frustrated that there was a good amount of video different people had shot of me over the years, sometimes playing music, sometimes acting in plays, sometimes just being a goofball, and it was almost all inaccessible to me.
a shopping list, on the off chance some filmmaker discovers my music after i die and wants to make a documentary about me in which people who never knew me pretend they understand me since i’m no longer around to speak for myself or shut them down:
a few grade school plays were filmed, and i’m pretty sure the tapes still exist
my not-aunt’s wedding tape features me singing a half-improvised a cappella song about love in 1997
andrew deane shot what i guess you could call “test footage” of me walking around in 1999 for a music video he never ended up making, documenting some of the best hair days of my life when i was just starting to grow it out
unused b-roll from the 1999 student documentary fish out of water, including some silliness with me doing my best impression of a canine rapper while libby salonen looks on
papa ghostface playing “pacing the cage” and “the ballad of bob and marie” at the air jam in march of 2000
gord and i playing “bob and marie” in the hall during lunch recess a few months before the air jam
a few bits of random footage evan hansen and tyson taylor shot of me at walkerville in 2001 (i popped up in one video where tyson was filming a fight as it broke out, playing the role of “sleep-deprived non-observer”, wearing a short-sleeved black shirt i always liked)
papa ghostface playing “be sorry” as a full band at the air jam in the summer of 2001 (i think amy mifsud filmed this…i saw the tape once when she let tyson borrow it)
a lot of footage tyson shot of GWD recording and hanging out in 2001 and 2002, which may or may not still exist
one or two piano recitals i was told were filmed in the mid/late 1990s
i have the video of my first birthday party (at least i think i still do), i recorded the appearance my grade twelve drama class made on the new WI on my VCR, and i’ve got the tape of the two live GWD songs from 2002 that were posted here long ago. that’s about it for things that were filmed before 2003. whatever else survives, i don’t have it.
we probably should have picked up a video camera a little sooner than we did. if i had access to one even a year or two earlier, i would have been the one to film all that teenage band footage, and i’d be able to incorporate the best bits here, instead of wondering if i’ll ever get to see those tapes again (i’m pretty sure i won’t, because there’s a good chance they’ve all been lost or recorded over). i think i remember any kind of decent video camera being prohibitively expensive for amateur home use for quite a while. these were the days before you could shoot video on your cell phone, and before the advent of cheap digital video recorders small enough to fit in your pocket.
by the time we went looking for something, the prices had come down a bit, and we were able to buy a sony DCR-TRV19 without having to rob a bank. i didn’t know anything about cameras. we just grabbed the one that looked nice and was affordable.
turns out 2003 was the last year sony made MiniDV camcorders with a 1/4-inch image sensor. this is one of the last models they produced with such good low light sensitivity, headphone and external microphone connections, and a hotshoe adapter for a light or mic, before they started cheaping out.
talk about having good timing.
i’d like to say once i had a camera of my own i made it count. i did have ideas. i thought about making a DIY documentary following the making of an album, filming myself recording different elements of songs, talking to the camera about the music, breaking things up with random puppet shows and stuffed animal interludes.
i talked myself out of it before i got started. i told myself i wouldn’t be able to make it visually interesting enough to appeal to anyone. watching one guy do everything on his own would get boring after a while. and how was i going to edit the raw footage — by dumping it onto VHS?
after filming a few random things i leant out the camera in 2005, and didn’t think to ask for it back until the summer of 2007. by then i had a different idea. i would start making a video diary. the crackheads had established themselves in the other half of the duplex we were living in, i couldn’t record any music or sleep in my own home thanks to their 24-hour wall-shaking rap ‘n’ crack parties, and i was bitter about romance and the almost violent indifference i was coming up against while trying to get gigs and get my music heard.
i had a bit to say. talking to the camera seemed as viable a form of self-expression as anything else. it was therapeutic for a while. and it wasn’t all me spitting a nonstop litany of complaints. i talked about orson welles and keith urban and the rocky movies too.
then we moved and my motivation went missing. moving into a new house when it’s something you want to do and you’ve found the perfect place can be exciting — even energizing. doing it out of necessity, when calling the police nineteen times and documenting more than forty pages of noise complaints and drug buys won’t get anyone to do anything because it isn’t happening next door to any of the cops or politicians or people working at crime-stoppers or “writers” for the windsor star, so they don’t care, and finding out your box spring won’t fit up the stairs at the new place, and the landlord neglected to tell you the central air only works on the bottom two floors, and the furnace is dead…that’s demoralizing.
i kept using the camera, but i stopped talking to it. now it became my idea-capturing device.
when the first little flip camera came along and transferring videos onto the computer became as easy as flipping out a built-in USB connector and plugging it in, my old camcorder friend and all the tapes i’d filmed with it got shoved into a dresser drawer and more or less forgotten about. aside from picking up some slack at the first mackenzie hall show i played in 2010 when the flip camera ran out of recording time, it wasn’t used again.
i dug it out of the dresser a year or two later to have another listen to some of those old musical ideas i recorded. there were lines through the image when i tried to play a tape and the sound was distorted. i tried again some months down the road and didn’t even get the distorted sound. there was no sound at all, and the screen showed nothing but an impenetrable blue square.
i tried different tapes. it wasn’t a tape issue. i tried slamming the camera on a tabletop repeatedly to intimidate it into working (i never claimed to make good decisions all the time). no joy.
i assumed the camera was dead, tossed it back in the dresser drawer of lost souls, and got on with recording my not-quite-demos with the flip fellas.
lately i’ve been thinking it would be kind of nice to have access to those ideas again. maybe i could figure out a way to get all the tapes onto the computer. worst case scenario, if the camera really was toast, i could buy another DCR-TRV19 for a hundred bucks or less on eBay.
i did some research and learned imovie has a spotty record when it comes to importing camcorder footage. i’ve never been a big fan of that program. i almost never use it for anything. it gobbles up resources on my macbook, turns it into an oven, and either freezes up for ten minutes at a time or is so sluggish it’s impossible to get much done. reading about some of the problems people have had with audio and video coming out unsynchronized was all i needed to dissuade me from trying to tame the savage beast.
i’m pretty sure the old acer laptop i use for video editing has firewire ports, but even though it’s been a lot friendlier to me since a nice dude at PC outfitters blew an ocean of dust out of its cooling fans, i’d rather not push my luck with that aging computer. it’s still slower than mud. at this point, asking it to do anything more strenuous than running sony vegas and a few other programs is probably a nightmare waiting to happen.
my internet travels led me to a program called lifeflix. it was created with the sole purpose of transferring MiniDV tapes onto a computer or an external hard drive. the more i read about it, the more it seemed like the smart way to go. i bought it, bought a firewire cable and a firewire-to-thunderbolt adapter, bought a cleaning tape for my camcorder, and hoped for the best.
the cleaning tape worked brilliantly. i let it play for all of ten seconds and went from the blue screen of death to being able to play all my old tapes again. no artifacts, no lines through the screen, nothing. i was almost expecting at least a bit of that to stick around, because this camera is fourteen years old now. nope.
best twenty five bucks i’ve spent in recent memory.
the firewire-to-thunderbolt connector apple makes is stupidly expensive, and there are no real alternatives, but it works. lifeflix recognized the camera right away and went to work importing video. it works in realtime, so an hour-long tape will take an hour to digitize (at least in theory…more on this in a minute).
the program does a great job of breaking up video into scenes based on where the recording originally stopped and started, saving you the hassle of separating things into individual clips later. the user interface is simple but intuitive. getting files onto your computer after they’ve finished importing is as easy as two clicks of the mouse or trackpad. if you want to trim a little dead space out of the beginning or end of any given clip, you can do that too.
the video compression lifeflix uses is all but invisible. i can’t detect any loss of visual or audio quality compared to the uncompressed video. not that this footage was pristine or pro-shot to begin with, but i’m pretty picky when it comes to these things. being able to keep the file sizes reasonable is a nice bonus when you’re dealing with a lot of footage.
that’s all the good stuff. now for the things that are a little irritating.
i don’t know if it’s just me and my computer, but the “combine clips” function has been hit or miss. it works about half the time. the rest of the time the progress bar will stop moving around the halfway point, assuming it starts moving in the first place, and then it’ll hang there forever, not frozen but with all functions locked up. the only option when that happens is to force the program to quit.
the good news is i haven’t lost anything doing this. lifeflix saves all the work you’ve done no matter how it shuts down. clips don’t disappear unless you delete them yourself. but when a certain group of clips decide they don’t want to be combined, you’ll never be able to join them together. doesn’t matter how many times you try. doesn’t matter how many mean names you call the computer. and these are not long clips i’ve been working with. in most cases i’m trying to combine two or three snippets that are each a minute long or less.
another thing i’ve noticed: i can’t set the program up to import a tape and leave it to do its business. i need to stay at the computer the whole time, because the best i’ve been able to get is five or ten minutes of uninterrupted importing. at some point a clip will freeze up within the program, or there will be a glitch, and while the camera itself will be playing just fine, when that happens i have to stop the importing process, rewind the tape to the beginning of the last clip, and start again. otherwise i’ll get flawed video on the computer.
sometimes i can get another five or ten minutes before i have to do it all again. sometimes i need to keep going back to the same spot a few times before it manages to import without any issues, and i’m lucky to get one or two clips at a time. with the tape i’m working on right now, it’s taken me more than forty tries just to get eleven short clips totalling about fifteen minutes of footage to import glitch-free.
these are minor complaints. this is taking a little longer than it would if there were no glitches, and there have been a few frustrating moments, but all things considered it’s been pretty easy and pain-free. in the space of a few days i’ve managed to get the full contents of almost half of those tapes onto the computer. who knows how long i’d be waiting and how much i’d have to pay if i got someone else to transfer the tapes for me.
with my luck, they’d all get lost, or some freak accident would send them off to MiniDV tape heaven.
now for the part that made me swear so much i had to start wearing a parental advisory sticker on my face.
i’ve been using sony vegas as my video editing program for years now. the learning curve was a little weird at first, but once i got past the initial feelings of bewilderment after the dead-simple windows movie maker spoiled me a little, i grew to really enjoy using it.
sony vegas has been fine with MOV files over the years, until now. it doesn’t like the ones lifeflix makes. whether they’re compressed or not, all that shows up when i import one of these clips is the audio. there’s no video. any media player on the planet will play them no problem, so the issue isn’t with the clips themselves. it’s vegas being a douchebag.
if i wanted to have any control over assembling individual clips into something more meaningful, i was going to have to find a way to convert the MOV files into something vegas was less prejudiced against without the quality taking too much of a hit in the process.
rewrapping them as MP4 files would be the ideal thing. but no way was i spending more money on yet another program to do that.
i tried downloading a few free programs that claimed to offer video rewrapping, only to find all the relevant functions were disabled and if i wanted to do more than open and close files i was going to have to pay for the privilege. i found something called FFmpeg that was supposed to make rewrapping easy, but i’m not all that tech-savvy, i don’t know anything about unix or linux, and i haven’t for the life of me been able to figure out how to use the program. it doesn’t help that every online tutorial seems to assume you already know what you’re doing. i tried using the VLC media player to save the videos in a different container. that worked, but vegas still wouldn’t budge.
this is the workaround i’ve come up with:
first i go back and import the specific clips i want to edit again, this time with the compression turned off. then i use a free program called MPEG streamclip to rebrand the uncompressed MOV files as MP4s. there has to be some re-encoding happening, because the conversion takes a lot longer than straight rewrapping does, but if the quality is taking a hit it’s so subtle my eyes and ears can’t tell.
any given MP4 file is about ten times the size of the MOV file it started out as. i save as many of these as i can fit onto a flash drive. from there, i transfer them onto the external hard drive i use with the laptop that has sony vegas on it (my mac external hard drive isn’t recognized by that computer, while the external hard drive i use for that one becomes read-only once it’s plugged into the macbook). then i go back and do it all again, and again, and again, until i’ve got all the files i need on the external hard drive. then i import them into vegas, and at last i can start editing.
it’s a pain in the ass, but it works.
it’s been an interesting, schizophrenic emotional experience sifting through all this old footage.
there’s regret. i wish i could say i’ve been sitting on a treasure trove of footage from the time of BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. i had my chance to film elements of those songs being recorded and to talk to the camera about the thought process behind trying to short-circuit my own musical language and writing impulses in an effort to get somewhere i’d never been before, and i let it blow by. even past that, i went to the trouble of testing out different camera angles in the studio when i was recording CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, and then did nothing with what i learned from it. i didn’t start to think documenting some of these things in the process of happening was worthwhile until much later.
hard not to feel like there were some missed opportunities.
there’s the strangeness of seeing in black and white just how much was here the whole time. there were twenty MiniDV tapes in that dresser drawer. i found another two in a different dresser drawer after i took the picture at the top of this post. they’re all full to the brim, recorded in one-hour SP mode for the best quality. take away everything that isn’t music-related, and that’s at least twenty hours of ideas, almost all of them recorded between 2007 and 2009, many of them things i have no memory of ever coming up with. so many sketches that never turned into finished songs. so many finished songs that were left unrecorded. so many unused alternate sections for songs that did end up on official albums.
if there’s anyone out there who still thinks i throw every idea i ever come up with on my albums, i’d kind of like to sit them down with these tapes for a day. i knew i was going through something of a creative purple patch at the time, but i don’t think it ever hit me just how much i threw away. it’s going to be fun to dig back into these ideas and work out which ones deserve a fresh look.
and there have been some surprises along the way. there’s an acoustic version of “last of the two-finger typists” filmed in 2003, minutes after i finished writing it. i recorded a song called “electric teeth” three times in 2007, from three different angles, almost like i was anticipating someday being able to edit the best bits together. there are some brainstorming sessions where i took the time to make sure my face and my hands wereboth visible, when framing was usually an afterthought. and those video diaries are surreal to experience now. it’s me talking, but i’m not the same person.
i might not have been able to stick the landing, but i wasn’t without ambition. the plan with the short-lived video diary was to break up the rants with songs and song ideas. i started throwing in an absurd comedy sketch called grandpa the russian jew. an old man who sounded half-russian, half-jewish (you weren’t expecting that, were you?), played by me, would go on a short tirade about something ridiculous. he would always begin by saying, “you know, when i was your age…” and he would always end with, “…and that is the story of my life,” before passing out snoring. only instead of talking about technological advances or respecting your elders, he’d insult julia roberts in some nonsensical way or muse about having sexual intercourse with a ceiling fan.
in a way, i’ve made good on a lot of what i was trying to do there with the video progress reports, and now on a deeper level with the semi-documentary-thing i’m piecing together about the last few years of musical insanity. i’m still talking to the camera about what’s on my mind, and if it’s a little less personal than the video diaries of yore, well…there is such a thing as over-sharing. the talking is broken up with musical segments and absurd bits featuring stuffed animals and re-contextualized public domain films. and when i started filming entire songs being recorded piece by piece, i discovered it wasn’t so difficult to stitch all the elements together after all, with a little help from video editing software i didn’t have access to in the beginning.
so maybe i didn’t fail at it after all. i was just a slow starter. and there are things on these tapes i’m realizing i can slip into the larger video i’m making.
though i might not have any actual recording footage from the house before this one, i have some good shots of my studio space in that house before i dismantled it. i have footage of my current studio space in complete chaos after moving in, and footage of it slowly starting to come together. i filmed myself recording the banjo part for “blue cheese necklace” and then for some reason i’ll never understand didn’t film any other elements of the song being recorded (i want to kick myself now). i can take footage of a song being played at its inception to get the music and vocal melodies down, and segue into a piece of the finished recording. i can even slip in some video diary moments where they make sense, breaking up footage of myself with older footage of myself.
which brings me to this.
in january of 2008, at exactly the halfway point of the papa ghostface hiatus that lasted twelve years, gord came over and we recorded a song that’s never seen any release outside of an MP3 posted here that’s long since sunk deep into the archives. this was one of the few times i went to the trouble of filming a recording session during the handycam days. i didn’t have any way to get the raw footage on the computer back then. now, nine years later, i’m able to do that and edit it into something a little more concise.
the song lives in its own little space, separate from the work we did before and the work we would go on to do later. at the time it felt like a potential first step toward making a new album. it was really a one-off, and it would be another six years before we started working toward a shared goal again with some real commitment.
it’s more a mood in search of a song, though there are moments i’ve always liked. i think “speed the truth”, the first track on STEW, is a good measuring stick. both are dreamy things grounded in the key of A minor, but “speed the truth” is a layered soundscape that’s very sure of its identity. this one’s more half-baked. for every interesting turn of phrase (“you’re looking through one bloodshot tier” is one — sounds like “tear”, but it’s not) there are two that either make no sense or are little more than random nothingness (“anomanomahee…hatred, smoke and…” won’t be showing up in a discussion of my best moments as a lyricist anytime soon).
such is the danger of improvised lyrics. sometimes you hit. sometimes you miss.
of course, i didn’t think to film myself recording the vocal and guitar tracks. i went through a rough mix on-camera instead. and because i only had the one camera, without even a tripod to screw it into, it was tough to get good shots of the two of us together. there’s a bit where i’m playing chords on the arp-omni 2 with one hand and drums on the yamaha W-5 with the other, and because of the crummy framing, you’ve got gord in the foreground and you can’t see a thing my hands are doing.
i gotta be honest about my 2008 mix, too. it’s not very good. the vocals are way too upfront, everything is swimming in about 600% more reverb than necessary, and i was going through that lame “clipping is okay because it means i can make things louder” stage when it came to the mastering process.
what i’m playing on the monitors is an unmastered rough mix, so the occasional moments of distortion in the video have nothing to do with mastering. they’re present in the original soundtrack, burned into the video, impossible to repair now. the sony camcorder’s built-in mic is really good for what it is, but i found out the hard way it wasn’t built to handle volume past a certain point.
the instrumental fragment that ends the video, meanwhile, is a mix i did just the other day, stripping away the vocals, dialling down the reverb, and tightening everything up a little. it’s got me thinking about remixing the whole thing just for fun.
this segment will get trimmed down quite a bit when it appears in the epic video of stuff. here i let it run a little longer. and i still left some things out. i filmed about twenty minutes of us jamming on acoustic guitars, playing pieces of old songs and riffing on new ideas during a break in recording. the first half of the jam felt pretty aimless, so i recorded over it a week or two later.
a funny thing happened there. a few snippets survived between the song ideas i replaced the bulk of the footage with, all of them about three seconds long. it felt like they worked well as random little bits thrown in without warning between the “on your life” footage, so i chucked a few of them into the mix.
the last ten minutes of the acoustic jam are still on tape. none of that made much sense in the context of this video, but i’m sure i’ll find a place for it one of these days.
completely unrelated: zara just released her new album. if you liked UNCERTAIN ASSERTIONS, there’s a good chance you’ll like this one too.
for a year now i’ve had somewhere around half an hour of raw footage collecting digital dust on a hard drive from the day ron and dean came over to record the piano part for ron’s song “tattooed lady”. i figured it was time i got around to editing it.
the finished segment came out shorter and snappier than i expected, but i think it works as a little slice of studio life. what kept me from making it longer was the lack of visual movement. i didn’t set up a second camera to grab ron and dean, so while there’s a good bit of dialogue between the three of us, you would only see my headless torso no matter who was talking at any given time. that would get old pretty fast.
better to keep it brief. in a minute and-a-half you still get a bit of banter, a pretty decent idea of the feel of the song and what i played on it, and a few moments from takes that weren’t used in the final mix (as far as i can tell, what’s on the album is about 80% of my penultimate take, with the rest flown in from the very last take we did right after the camera ran out of recording time).
i’m trying not to share too many more video-related things before the big beefy “this has been the last few years of my musical life” video is finished, but i don’t think this little bit is giving anything away, and i kind of like the way it turned out.
a few weeks ago this blog turned nine years old. kind of nuts to think next year it’s gonna be ten. WHERE DID ALL THAT TIME GO? WHERE?
i don’t know if there will ever be another year like the first few, when i posted pretty much every other day. those were crazy times. but you never know. i’m just glad i got through those few middle years of being kind of “meh” about the blog and have once again committed to using this as a place to talk to myself. and motivate myself. and dance with myself.
these days i don’t like to go weeks without saying anything here if i can help it. but i had a valid excuse this time, i swear! i was sick.
it never fails. i’ll be ramping up work on something, getting ready to head into the home stretch, and then out of nowhere a mega-cold will knock me out for at least a week or two and mess up my ears for a while, so even doing any significant mixing work is pretty much impossible.
i don’t get sick often (knock on laptop screen). maybe once every year or two. but when i get sick, i get sick. in italics. i’d say about every third album i make, the coughing and sneezing and muffled hearing is bound to come calling before i’m finished, disrupting my momentum.
maybe it’s just my body’s way of giving me a break when i won’t take one on my own. i don’t know.
whatever the case, it’s awfully nice to have my ears back now, and to be able to sing without hacking up a lung. i wish this one time my ears had been given a free pass, because i could have put a huge dent in all that remastering work while recording was out of the question. what can you do?
a couple o’ things that may be interesting:
a day or two before that cold showed up, i was almost finished remastering CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. one of the few songs left to revisit was “95 streets to the right (is where i will find the heart of you)”. and i couldn’t find that song anywhere. the title wasn’t scrawled on any of my backup CDs.
i knew there was no way i didn’t back the song up. it had to be somewhere. for more than a decade now i’ve been backing up everything, whether it’s worth keeping or not. on one backup CD there was something called “dream songs”. when i saw that, i was pretty sure i remembered recording fragments of a few bits of music i remembered from dreams and then, instead of making a new song file, just recording “95 streets” there too.
i’ve gone through a lot of different brands of recordable CDs over the years — maxell, TDK, sony, verbatim, ridata, and a host of others i don’t remember offhand. most of them have held up. whether it’s got audio or data on it, i can grab a CD that’s almost twenty years old and know it’ll still work without any issues.
before i started getting taiyo yuden CDs for the most important stuff (and TDK for the slightly less important stuff), i liked verbatim. around 2007 or 2008 they changed the way they made their recordable CDs, and they became pretty glitchy and useless. maybe the printable ones are better. i don’t know. i just know the “regular” kind degraded so much, they were only useful for making rough mixes, and even then i couldn’t play them on most systems because they were more or less defective. i don’t buy those anymore.
you know what’s coming.
for some reason i’ll never understand, i used one of those CDs to back up “95 streets”. as you’d expect, it was toast. it would get halfway through transferring the data back onto the mixer, and then it would freeze up.
i dug through another box of backup CDs and found an alternate, backed up to a different brand. that one worked just fine. right about then i was pretty happy i always back up everything at least twice, just in case one CD goes janky on me.
and hey, i’m getting a new camera tomorrow. that calls for more dancing.
the cheap pentax point-and-shoot and the little flip video cameras have served me well, but it feels like it’s time to step things up a bit.
i almost did this a year ago. i was getting frustrated with how grainy the video i shot with the flip cameras would get in low light situations. more than that, every time i filmed myself talking to the camera i would have to get it very close to my face to get the best, most present sound possible out of the tiny built-in microphone. without a flip screen to show me what the framing was like, i would usually end up cutting off part of the top of my head (sometimes creating the illusion of a receding hairline) or the bottom of my face (leaving my chin feeling shunned). and that drove me nuts, though i learned to live with it.
i did a lot of research, trying to find cameras that would hold up better in low light but wouldn’t break the bank. you can spend a ton of money on a great camera. i’m never going to be a real filmmaker. something that costs thousands of dollars would be wasted on someone like me. so i was looking for the best bang for the buck possible.
i found some videos made by ray ortega and was impressed not only by their quality, but by his willingness to share information with viewers. i sent him an email, outlining what i was trying to do and what i was looking for. i didn’t expect to hear back. he wrote a long email in response, making suggestions and giving some very thoughtful advice. (huge thanks go out to him for being so kind and eager to help a stranger.)
then i decided it wasn’t the right time to spend the money. and maybe i wouldn’t know what to do with a better camera anyway. maybe i was fishing outside of my pond. so i sat on it.
with YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK inching closer to the finish line now, i started thinking again about how frustrating it was going to be to try and get the framing right for my narration bits, which will end up forming a pretty large part of the album’s video companion piece. with the few segments i’ve filmed of myself talking so far, sometimes i’ve had to go back and do it again four or five times before i get a take where i’m not cutting some part of my head off or moving out of the frame without meaning to. even using a small mirror to try and see what the camera sees only helps so much.
one suggestion ray made in his email was to use a better camera to film the bits of me talking and any interviews there might be with the other people involved in the making of the album, bumping up the quality of those parts and making for an interesting visual contrast with the older recording footage shot on the flip cameras. the more i thought about that, the more it seemed like a really good idea.
after a lot of mulling it over, i decided a canon T5i was the way to go. it has its fans and its detractors, but for the price and the ability it will give me to take pictures and shoot video at a level of quality far above anything i’ve ever done before, i look at it as a bargain, and almost a no-brainer. plus it’s new. i gave some serious thought to a used canon T3i, but it’s always nice to have a warranty. because you never know.
when it comes to video, i won’t be relying on a built-in camera microphone anymore, either. i grabbed one of these over the weekend.
it’s a zoom H1 microphone/recorder. for such a cheap little thing, the sound quality the H1 captures is pretty outstanding. it’ll be worth the minor inconvenience of mounting it somewhere nearby but out of the camera’s field of vision, dumping the audio on the computer, and syncing it up with the video. another option would be recording my voice in the “studio”, mixing it all proper-like, and using that as the audio. but this will be much simpler and less time-consuming, and still a huge upgrade in sound quality.
so if you notice a marked improvement in the clarity of the self-shot pictures and videos that show up here from time to time, that’s why.
i expect there to be a bit of a learning curve, but i’m looking forward to figuring out how to get the most out of that new camera. and it’s not like the little flip fellas are going anywhere. when i’m shooting in-studio footage they’re still probably going to be the best choice. they’re small enough to position in odd places, i don’t have to worry about knocking them over (it’s happened before, and they don’t seem to care one bit), and it’s easy to forget they’re even there, which hopefully makes other singers and musicians feel a little less self-conscious about being filmed.
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”.
musical compliments don’t come much better than ron leary asking you to be a part of one of his albums.
ron’s new album tobacco fields doesn’t get its official release until the end of the month, but those who contributed to the kickstarter campaign have been getting their copies a few weeks early. i just got mine yesterday. there are lots of talented people on this one — my old folkway friend rich burnett on lap steel, john showman on violin, and our man kelly hoppe on harmonica and sax, to name a few. andy magoffin recorded it at the house of miracles. as for me, i played piano on “tattooed lady” and wrote the string part for “to living”.
for the first time ever, i actually got credit for the use of my own acoustic piano in my own recording space. yes! vindication! and you can add “writing a string part for someone else’s song and having the dude from new country rehab play it beautifully” to the list of things i never in a million years thought would happen. seeing string arrangement by johnny west in the lyric booklet is the most surreal album liner note credit of my life.
as someone who still can’t read music at all, to be asked to write that string part, to be able to come up with a two-part arrangement that feels like it really adds something to the song, to find a way to write it down on paper, and then to hear it played note-for-note by a master musician, with the final violin notes standing as the last sound on the album, singing the song and its siblings to sleep…that’s nuts.
i’ve been writing string and horn parts for my own songs for a year or two now and loving it, but something about being commissioned to do it for someone else feels different. kind of makes it feel like maybe i know what i’m doing with that stuff, somehow.
huge thanks to ron for involving me. it’s a great album, and one i’m proud to have had the chance to contribute to. i don’t think ron’s got a bad album or even a bad song in him, but this one feels like it’s got some real joy coursing through its veins — the “defiant spit in the eye of despair” kind. when he sings “through music, i come alive” in the very first song, you believe it.
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
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.
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 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?
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?
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.
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 & CORMORANTafter 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.
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 theimpossible 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 towrite, 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.
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.
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.
this afterthought is one of the shorter, sharper, catchier things on the album. when it was just starting to hatch, it sounded like this:
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:
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
(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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
delays are frustrating. should have had the O-L west album all together and starting to circulate last week. now it’s looking like it’ll be the middle of this week, thanks to some unforeseen circumstances.
i think that might be the single most irritating phrase in the english language. “unforeseen circumstances”. this particular set of circumstances can go stuff themselves with rotten stalks of celery.
in the meantime, have some pretty music by karla schickele.
here are a few elements of the mix of that O-L west song i was talking about, including some stuff that didn’t end up making the cut. i didn’t feel like taking the time to set up two cameras so you could see both my face and my hands, so you get my hands and the back/side of my head.