Ricky Jay passed away a week ago. He was seventy-two.
You probably know him as Burt Reynolds’ right hand man in Boogie Nights. He had a number of memorable supporting roles in films like House of Games, The Prestige, and Magnolia. One of my favourite bits of acting he did was as cardsharp Eddie Sawyer, a recurring character through the first season of Deadwood.
Ricky was much more than a character actor. He wrote the wonderful Deadwood episode “Jewel’s Boot Is Made for Walking”. He was an incredible, charismatic sleight of hand artist. He lectured and wrote books about magic, and served as a consultant on a number of Hollywood films.
The above performance is Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, written by Ricky and filmed by David Mamet in 1996. It’s well worth an hour of your time whether you’re into card tricks or not (I’m not, and I still found it riveting). The man was a born performer — a poet with a deck of cards and a historian in love with his craft. We won’t see his like again.
Leo Kottke once described his singing voice as sounding “like geese farts on a muggy day”.
I think he deserves immortality for that alone, but he’s much more than a self-deprecating part-time vocalist. He’s a great storyteller and a brilliant guitarist. Throughout a fifty-year career he’s traversed a long and sinuous musical road. It’s almost impossible to believe the mind-bending syncopation and speed heard on 6- and 12-String Guitar and the spacious, meditative pieces on A Shout Toward Noon are the work of the same person. And yet they are. And those are just two of the many varied and eclectic albums in his discography.
He’s worked with high-profile artists as disparate as Lyle Lovett, Rickie Lee Jones, and Phish, without ever seeming to catch the spotlight himself. Something tells me he prefers the artistic freedom a low profile affords him. Though he hasn’t made an album in well over a decade, he continues to play live into his seventies. The man probably won’t put down the guitar until he doesn’t have the strength to hold it anymore.
In a recent interview with the Times Colonist, he said: “I’ve been trained to think — we all have — that when you get old, everything gets old. But it’s exactly the opposite. If you have something, one little handle of some kind — writing, playing — I think everything does continue, and it is a work in progress. If that isn’t happening, what’s the alternative?”
My introduction to Leo’s music came in late 1997 care of the Sessions at West 54th TV program — something of a short-lived sister to Austin City Limits. I was channel-surfing with Johnny Smith late on a Saturday night. We came across Leo and stuck around to hear him do his thing.
For twenty-one years one specific song from that show has haunted the back of my brain. Last night I was able to give the song a name. It’s called “Across the Street”. I thought I’d search for it on YouTube, not expecting much. And there it was.
The finer details were lost to me over time. I remembered the story being about a father and his son. Not quite. But the sense of loss and the sombre quality of the music…that wasn’t a twisted or faulty memory.
To begin with, it’s a haunting story. But the way Leo tells it, it doesn’t feel like an introduction to a song. It feels like the music takes over mid-thought, filling the space between what isn’t said and what can only be imagined.
It may be the simplest piece of music he’s ever written. I think it’s also the most powerful. This must be the definitive performance, stripped of the strange reverb tails that threaten to overwhelm the sound of the guitar on the studio version from the 1997 album Standing in My Shoes.
At the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1995, Leo told a longer version of the tale behind “Across the Street”. I’ve made just a few light edits for grammar and readability. I think it makes for a compelling short story in its own right.
I have a friend in Ljubljana who I’ve been unable to find recently named Seka Tavčar. I met her when I first did a tour in the old Yugoslavia with Paco de Lucia, who started in Ljubljana and went to places like Spit and Una and a couple of others I don’t remember. I came back every year for about four years and did this same little tour.
On our fist stop, we were introduced to Seka Tavčar and a mountain climber, a heart surgeon, a physicist, and some other people the government at the time trotted out to meet everybody. Nobody wanted to be there. We tried to be polite to one another and admit it was something that had to be done. We were forced to have dinner together after the show.
By that time we were enjoying ourselves naturally and I asked Seka, since I didn’t know yet, what she did. She was the token artist in the group. She was a lithographer.
I said, “Oh, lithographer from Ljubljana,” and she did not smile.
I gave up on limericks and asked, “Could I see your lithographs?”
She said, “No, you can’t.”
So I said, “Sorry.”
And she said, “No…I’ve only made TEN of them.”
I couldn’t figure that out. I asked her why, and she said, “I break the stone.”
Usually, as I understand it, you make a lithograph. You run off three to five hundred copies of this lithograph. Then you smooth the stone and make another one. Otherwise it’s like Sisyphus or somebody, to break the stone. It sounded nuts. So now it was a lunatic lithographer from Ljubljana.
I asked her why she did that.
She said, “It’s none of your business.”
I saw her again the next year and she said, “I can’t stay for the show. My father found his way home. He’s sick. I’d better go back and take care of him.”
The year after that she came to the show and I asked, “How is your father?” picking up the conversation where we left it off.
She said, “He died.”
I said, “Oh.”
She said, “Would you like to see some of the things he did?”
The next day she took me to downtown Ljubljana and showed me, among other things — he was an engineer and an architect — a bridge he had built. And while she was showing me this, she said he had been arrested when she was three years old and imprisoned. And I asked why. Which is a question you wouldn’t have to ask, I guess, if you’d lived there. She ignored me and showed me the bridge, which was a beautiful bridge, starting on one side of the river with three roads, which in the course of the bridge merged into one road on the other side of the river. So I had an idea why he’d been arrested.
It was a beautiful bridge. And as I looked at this thing, she told me what had happened. She said he was imprisoned for twenty-six years.
“We were never told,” she said, “where he was imprisoned, why he was imprisoned, or for how long he would be in prison. What we were told, once a year at some indeterminate time, was that he was still alive. That’s all we ever knew.”
When he got sick, they let him out after twenty-six years.
“That’s,” she said, “when I found out he’d been imprisoned across the street. And for twenty-six years, he’d been able to look up through a gun slit window in his cell and see my sister and I grow up playing on the balcony of our apartment.”
And then she said, “That is why I break the stone.”
It’s a little awkward trying to wrap your head around the realization that something you’ve made isn’t as good as you thought it was when you were making it.
I’ve done my best to avoid this very personal kind of disappointment over the years. As slapdash as some of my albums may sound on the surface, for a long time now a lot of thought has gone into determining what shape each collection of songs wants to take. I don’t put something out there unless I believe in it and feel it’s an honest representation of where my head and heart are at in that moment.
I think as long as you work this way it’s difficult to be embarrassed by what you’ve done. My ambition has never been to make a Masterwork That Stands the Test of Time, but rather to document the entirety of my musical life, warts, growing pains, nose hair and all. While it might not all be top-shelf material when we look back at the whole discography in 2079 as I’m wheezing my last digital breaths here, at least I can say I always gave it everything I had and never compromised my artistic vision, even when that vision was murky.
By and large, I’m proud of the work I’ve done up to this point. But every once in a while I’ve found my feelings for an album souring once the honeymoon period wears off.
(The internet tells me a traditional honeymoon period lasts between six months and a year. For me it’s more like two weeks.)
As much fun as it was to make the second Papa Ghostface album, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it rambled a little too much over its two and-a-half hour running time. There was no focus. The first disc was pretty strong, and then everything degenerated into a massive improvised free-for-all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about massive improvised free-for-alls. But I started thinking PG album number three might benefit from a more considered approach. I wrote a bunch of lyrics — most of them while pretending to pay attention in grade eleven math class — grabbed what I thought were the eight strongest selections (leaving space for two improvised instrumentals), and declared, “This will be our next album.”
My thinking went something like this: Given how well Gord and I play off of each other and how often our improvisations seem to produce good moments, if I’ve already got the lyrics sorted out before we start recording and I don’t have to make all the words up as I go, I’ll be able to channel all my energy into the music. That’s going to make everything better. When the dust clears we’ll have a great album.
For at least the first week or two after SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was finished, I thought we did have something brilliant on our hands. I even went to the trouble of making more than two copies of the CD, which was unheard of at the time. I gave one to a classmate I wanted to impress, one to my drama teacher, and another to my piano teacher. I wanted everyone to hear this stuff. It felt like some of the best work I’d ever done.
Once the initial excitement wore off and something closer to objectivity set in, it hit me that the album was no masterpiece. It was a mess. The weirdness that had been such an integral part of our music from day one was barely there. I came off less like the live wire I was used being on record and more like an impotent firecracker with a faulty fuse. Trying to force the improvised music to fit the shape of the written lyrics led to songs that sounded unsure of their identity. Aside from “Compassion to Deceive — a rare example of music and lyrics merging as if they’d been born wrapped up in each other’s arms — the songs were just sort of there, not daring to do anything very interesting. Worse, almost none of the lyrics I wrote were about anything. There was some fun wordplay, but it didn’t add up to much.
It didn’t help that the sound quality was pretty awful throughout, with some serious clipping whenever I came close to screaming and a lot of mud in the low end. I had no outboard mic preamps, no outboard anything aside from a guitar effects processor, and though my mixer offered built-in EQ and compression that could have helped the cause, I had no idea how to use those tools. I thought I would screw things up even worse if I messed around with them, so I didn’t try. The results weren’t pretty.
Aside from OH YOU THIS, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such a quick turnaround from thinking an album was great to deciding it was a total piece of crap.
I was determined to make up for my error in judgment with the next Papa Ghostface album. I kept writing lyrics in class — I couldn’t stop doing that if I tried — but allowed the words to grow much more depraved. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep at the time. Some of that was my fault for embracing my night owl tendencies. My almost-stepsister’s bedroom was right next to mine, and she had a habit of watching TV late at night with the sound turned up past any sane level. She wasn’t a big fan of closing her door. That was another factor.
There came a day when all the sleep-deprivation caught up with me. I staggered home a little after 2:00 in the afternoon — I had a fourth period spare that semester — and fell into bed. It wasn’t unusual for me to nap for an hour after school to give myself an extra shot of energy. This time I was so exhausted I woke up in the dark five hours later. I got up, ate some chicken stir-fry, listened to a bit of music, and went to bed around 11:00. I had no trouble getting back to sleep. By the time I got up to eat breakfast I was operating on no less than thirteen hours of sleep, when I was used to getting less than a third of that.
I felt an almost disturbing sense of mental clarity all day. Every part of my body felt like it had been replaced with an upgraded version of itself. I was Super Johnny the Full-of-Energy Man.
It was a fluke. I didn’t get another sleep like that on a weeknight for the rest of my high school existence. The very next day I was back to alternating between being tired all the time and oversleeping on the weekends to balance things out. But I saw an opportunity to use the mental fatigue to my advantage. When I was tired enough, my brain got to a place where all the usual inhibitions sloughed off and anything at all might come out of my mouth (or pen). It made for some interesting lyric-writing sessions.
The first thing I wrote with the fourth Papa Ghostface album in mind was something called “19 to Go”. We tried recording it. I’ve got a dub of a rough mix on a cassette tape somewhere. It isn’t worth digging up. I made the mistake again of marrying written words to improvised music that wasn’t given enough time or space to figure out what it wanted to be.
The lyrics didn’t go anywhere interesting anyway. “Your nudity inspires me to reach heights that were previously unattainable,” went the first line. I went on to list all the other positive and negative things this imaginary person’s naked form inspired me to do, from “[standing] tall in the face of all things malignant” to destroying valuable antiques.
Not some of my best work.
Separate from that failure of a song, I had some music in my head I couldn’t seem to find the right words for. I heard this dark, swirling soundscape, inspired in part by the Pulp song “This Is Hardcore”.
How was I supposed to build anything even half that dense and compelling with only six tracks to work with on my eight-track mixer? I had no idea. After one abandoned attempt at writing lyrics that matched the imagined musical mood, I wrote in my spiral notebook:
I was trying to write something dark to accompany the stark musical landscape within my mind but found myself to be an utter failure. I know there is darkness left inside of me! There has to be!
There was. I only needed to wait another twelve hours to find it.
The next morning in math class I wrote a set of lyrics about a guy who catches his wife cheating on him with a horse. The horse turns out to be both kinky and immortal — repeated gunshots kill him, but he rises again after each apparent death. The desperate cuckold sleeps with the horse’s wife to get back at him. She indulges his foot fetish but otherwise isn’t the most sympathetic partner. His wife returns and tries to make amends with an offering of cornbread pancakes. When the dude scarfs them all down like a thoughtless pig, she grabs his gun and he makes a run for it. There’s at least a happy ending when he finds someone who accepts him for who he is, human-sized genitalia and all.
(What the hell went on in my sixteen-year-old brain? I couldn’t tell you. Writing accessible pop music clearly wasn’t on my radar.)
I started laughing at the ridiculousness of the lyrics and the crude illustrations I added. Kevin Heffernan — not the actor, but a guy who sat in front of me in math class — turned around and said, “Did you smoke up before class, John?”
“No,” I said, giggling. “I’m just tired.”
Kevin wasn’t buying it. “He’s ripped,” he said to a friend sitting next to him.
I was stuck for a title. Now I wrote Rippin’ at the top of my two-page saga. Thanks, Kev.
I envisioned it as a jaunty country song in a major key. Though it was never recorded in that form, I remember how it was supposed to go. Here’s a brand new GarageBand demo to give you an idea.
Gord came over to record again a few days later. I threw out the country song business and made up my mind to build an approximation of the ominous sound world I’d been carrying around in my head for a few days straight.
When you don’t have a lot of tracks to work with, you learn how to create the illusion of layers through a bit of trickery. I made a drum loop on the Yamaha W-5 synth and messed around with built-in distortion and reverb effects until each snare hit sounded like it was ricocheting off of itself. Making use of the synthesizer’s sixteen-track sequencer — something I almost never thought to do — I played some fifths in time with the drum beat on a second track, using a synth cello patch, and made that a part of the loop. Then I set it up to record on a single mono track on the mixer.
I started the loop without the string part, faded it in, decided it was too loud, and pulled it back a little to where it felt just about right. I grabbed those twisted lyrics I wrote with a country song in my head and stood them up on my music stand, playing my hunk of junk Vantage acoustic guitar and singing while Gord played his white B.C. Rich Virgin. I had only one amp at the time and was years away from recognizing how useful it was, so Gord played straight into the Digitech GSP-21 effects processor, using the foot controller to switch between clean and distorted tones.
When it felt like the song had pretty much run its course, Gord encouraged me off-mic to get into some primal screaming. I didn’t have it in me, and it didn’t feel right for the song. It was starting to occur to me that there were other ways of conveying madness through sound. As a way of getting my point across without verbalizing it, I pressed the microphone grill against the strings of my guitar and used it as a slide, making harsh, atonal sounds. After a bit of that I put the guitar down, walked over to the W-5, and faded the drums out of the loop, playing some synth string improv on top of the looped fifths.
We overdubbed a few splashes of Arp Omni-2, both of us playing at the same time. I was trying to play things that made some melodic sense. Gord was hitting random notes. It made for some fun dissonance. I messed with the resonance and VCF to give it a little extra character.
“You want to add some bass?” I asked Gord.
“You should play bass, man,” he said.
I did that, alternating between holding down the low end and playing improvised melodies and runs higher up on the neck. Gord contributed a little audio postscript of his own with a bottle of blue Powerade he was drinking, using his mouth and the liquid in it to make some strange, guttural sounds.
The next day I added a few bits of vocal harmony to some unused portions of the Arp Omni-2 track and mixed the song to the best of my ability. I had some fun with the intro, swamping the drum loop in reverb for a second and then taking it away, adding a rotary speaker effect to the loop for a bit, then adding it to Gord’s guitar for a few bars, and much later in the song using it to process my voice.
Just six tracks, and there was the most sonically ambitious thing I’d ever done. For some reason it never seemed to drag over its thirteen and-a-half minutes the way some of our other extended pieces did. It wasn’t identical to the half-formed musical idea that wouldn’t leave my brain alone, but it was close enough, and maybe better.
Of the nine songs that would end up on the album, six feature words that were written beforehand. Only two of those six songs aren’t warped by additional improvised lyrics and music that’s unafraid to flirt with chaos. “She’s Awfully Lovely” ends with an unrehearsed hook topped off with distorted screams, and then there’s a little a cappella addendum that has nothing at all to do with anything that came before. “Piss on Me” sheds its established structure like an exoskeleton around the halfway point for a long post-bridge section that’s all improv. “The Happy Dentist” begins with a spontaneous Neil Young piss-take and ends with several minutes of uncompromising sonic mayhem. “Spandex” is a self-immolating piñata that keeps beating itself until interesting surprises start to leak from its broken skin.
Instead of forcing the music to do the lyrics’ bidding, the written words were treated as a rough guide and nothing more.
“She’s Awfully Lovely” was the first thing we recorded at our next session a week later. The title came from Gord. He suggested Awfully Lovely as an album title. I liked it but wasn’t sure it was right for the material.
I was renting a Les Paul to supplement my cheap Strat copy. It was the first “good” guitar I ever played. It had a sparkle finish. I want to say it was green. It looks green in my memory. I loved that thing. The cloth that lined the hardshell case smelled like heaven.
The Strat copy, which doesn’t appear on the album at all, became a five-string — and stayed that way for a long time — when I broke a string on the Les Paul and didn’t have an extra pack of strings on hand. I recorded a bit of Gord tuning up after making the transfer because I thought it sounded cool. Then he handed the guitar back to me.
This song is probably home to my best guitar-playing on the whole album. There’s even some volume swell stuff in there. It’s nowhere near the atmospheric textures I’m capable of creating today, but it works. I don’t think I’d ever tried doing that before. I was growing in confidence, unrefined as my playing was.
The lyrics are about a “fake aunt” (my stepfather’s sister) and her impending motherhood. She always said she never wanted children. Now she was married and pregnant, and I was convinced her impending bundle of joy was in for a rough ride. She was a horrible, emotionally abusive person, and that’s the kindest thing I can think of to say about her.
Hey, hey, she’s pregnant.
What’s she gonna do to that kid? Is she gonna torture him? Is she gonna make him feel inadequate? Is she gonna raise him up — raise him up to the sky? Is she gonna fill his head with all of her lies?
Pretty serious personal business there. Not the sort of thing I was used to singing about. Of course, I married those lyrics to some chunky power chords and got Gord to scream with me into a mic that was plugged into the Digitech guitar box, just to throw a wrench in the works. Then we tacked on the improvised singalong about someone with magical breasts.
“Spandex” was recorded next. I must have mixed it out of sequence, because it shows up before “She’s Awfully Lovely” on the album. Or I might have decided the album would work better if I flipped the order of those two songs. I can’t remember what happened there. It’s unusual either way, because these were the days of dumping songs on CD in the order they were recorded and giving no thought to the ebb and flow of things.
When Gord and I first met up outside of school in 1998, it was to work on writing a song for a grade ten English assignment. He played me a pretty, melancholy piece of music he was messing around with on guitar, I worked out some things to play on piano that complimented what he was doing, and within about three minutes we had our song. All I had to do was write some lyrics the next day and we’d be finished a week ahead of schedule.
Problem was, the lyrics I wrote didn’t suit the music at all. I could find a way to sing them that would work, but the whole thing was going to feel way too maudlin.
When we got together a second time three days later, Gord brought his girlfriend Amanda with him. She sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor of my tiny basement studio as we hammered out some new music much better suited to the defiant nature of my lyrics. The song was called “Pacing the Cage”.
After jamming on pieces of a bunch of classic rock songs and running through our own song a few times, Gord started playing a single-string variation on the main riff that ran through the verses of “Pacing the Cage”. I played along, started singing about Kermit the frog wearing spandex, and this happened.
I’d kill to have video footage of something like this. At least I had the foresight to record our first jam sessions on cassette tape, using a single RadioShack mic plugged into a Magnasonic boombox from the 1980s (my main method of recording at the time, and an upgrade over the Sony boombox I’d been recording everything on since 1994).
“Pacing the Cage” may be the first thing we created together, but “Spandex”marks the true birth of Papa Ghostface. It was the first time we conjured something out of thin air in a communal act. You can hear the excitement in the room as it starts to dawn on us that we could have the seed of something interesting here.
A little over a year later, that fiery two-minute improvisation was still on my mind. You could call the version we committed to CD a “re-improvisation”. After a partial reconstruction of the original fragment, the song fanned out and became something much more expansive and dramatic. I rifled through different keyboard sounds and effects. Gord strummed my acoustic guitar with such force he managed to overload an SM57 — no mean feat. We both added overdubs: demented harmonies from me, African drums and a distorted mid-song howl from Gord.
Spandex for you. Spandex for me. It felt almost operatic. It was ridiculous, outlandish, fun, and everything that had been missing from SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.
“We’re All Gonna Go” was the only song on the album that set out to do one thing and didn’t stray from the path. For years I thought it was the least interesting track by some distance. Now I view it as a necessary break from the madness that surrounds it.
It’s all about the idea of an afterlife in hell being inevitable — how in spite of our best efforts to fight the good fight, some unseen force is lurking just out of sight, waiting to drag us down to a place where “sometimes, on special occasions, you don’t even perspire”. I didn’t really believe that then, and I don’t believe it now, but I enjoyed flipping the conventional wisdom on its head, imagining hell as a picturesque resort where serene family reunions take place.As opening lines go, “Down where the drunkards collide,” is pretty evocative, I think, though it didn’t stand out to me at the time.
The music I first wrote to accompany the lyrics was nothing like what ended up on the album. It was this sweeping orchestral thing, or as sweeping and orchestral as something played on a keyboard’s synth strings setting could hope to get. I don’t remember if I worked out music for the bridge section. I do at least remember how the verses went.
I’m not sure what inspired me to give those words a different musical backdrop at the last minute. The memory is fuzzy here. I either picked up my acoustic guitar before Gord came over, started playing a few chords that sounded good to me, and thought, “I wonder what ‘We’re All Gonna Go’ would sound like if I sang the words to this,” or it happened when he was present and the evening was winding down.
In any case, it made for a much catchier tune. It became almost uplifting in a warped way, ending with the comforting thought, “All’s well that ends in hell.”
You can hear me saying, “One more and then we’re done,” to an inquisitive Johnny Smith before the music kicks in. It was about time to call it a night. We rehearsed for all of thirty seconds. I tried to show Gord a change I worked out on the fly, but he didn’t really grasp what I was doing. When I called out a chord change in the middle of the recording, he just kept doing what he was doing, oblivious. Some interesting accidental harmonic interplay came out of it.
Here I used a drum pattern built into the Clavinova instead of creating one myself on the W-5, setting it up so the damper and sustain pedals would let me trigger fills and transitions with my feet at the same time I was playing and singing. I added some vocal harmonies the next day and a pair of rudimentary guitar solos, one in each stereo channel. Gord surprised me by telling me he liked them.
Our next session produced another three songs. This time we were alone in the house. I’m not sure where everyone else was.
Before we got started, Gord asked if I wanted to smoke a joint with him. I’d never been high in my life. I said sure.
We ducked into an alley. I felt a little uneasy. I still remember the long-sleeved white shirt I was wearing (hell, I still have that shirt). I had no idea how to inhale the right way. I think Gord assumed I’d done this before. I was too embarrassed to tell him I was a rookie. I did my best to fake it.
I didn’t get high at all. It would be another two years before that would happen for the first time.
Back inside, I did feel…something. Must have been a contact buzz. It was a very low-level thing, almost subliminal, but it was there. We plugged in, put on headphones, and recorded “Piss on Me”. I don’t think I even showed Gord what chords I was playing. He ran through different effects on the Digitech in search of something trippy and blissed out. I cranked up the reverb on my voice for extra dreaminess, ran another Clavinova drum pattern through a bit of a chorus effect on the mixer (an Ace of Base-style Euro reggae beat, of all things), and shook a homemade Mason jar percussion instrument into my vocal mic for a few seconds before getting down to business.
Subtitled “a love song in the key of Sinatra” on my lyric sheet, the song wasn’t really a paean to golden showers. It was more of a celebration of meaninglessness. “What does it matter if we defile one another if nothing matters?” More of a figurative pissing than the literal act of taking a leak. Although, “Piss on me before it starts to rain,” is pretty literal (and sensible).
At the same time, there was room for lines like this:
Rotting fish within the threshold of man.
Bamboo cartilage dropped by five degrees.
If you have any idea what that means, let me know. I’ve still got no idea almost two decades later, and I’m the guy who wrote it.
There’s also one of my favourite nonsense rhymes on the album:
It is only this that grows
through an affidavit’s nose.
We kept going for another six minutes after I ran out of written lyrics. “Tie me at the crossroads with a metal bow,” I sang. “I’ll always be yours when the seedless garden grows.” That became a mantra. Tie me at the crossroads. It felt poignant somehow, and more poetic than “tie me to the train tracks”, even if it made less literal sense. Gord played some inspired guitar throughout, from a few licks that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a death metal song to some beautiful extended lead lines. I let loose with some wild runs on a simulated Wurlitzer electric piano patch on the W-5, and it all came to a head with a speaker-blowing cry of, “So piss on…..MEEEEEEEEE!”
I’ve always been glad I captured Gord asking if we were recording at the very end. One of those neat little slices of life. And I still remember the look on his face. It said, “Please, for the love of God, tell me you got that!”
There’s something joyous about letting a song unfurl like this, with only a torn scrap of some strange map and no certain destination. I was lucky enough to have a lot of those moments with Gord. I might have been the voice and the main creative engine behind the music, but there was a fearlessness in his playing that made him an ideal companion when I was navigating creative dirt roads that might lead anywhere or nowhere. He wasn’t afraid to make a mistake in pursuit of something great.
Another mark against SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was the absence of a spoken word detour. Having at least one spoken word piece show up on each album was a Papa Ghostface tradition from the beginning.
This album features two of them, back to back, almost like an act of penance.
“The Happy Dentist” is pretty self-explanatory. A perverted dentist with a sweet tooth gets a character sketch, and then he gets what’s coming to him. Gord managed to make it sound like he was playing both bass and electric guitar at the same time by sticking a slide on his pinky finger, throwing in creepy little glissandos here and there. I kept accidentally whacking my guitar mic with my own slide and felt like my guitar-playing was the shittiest shit in the universe. I was limited to bits of open chords, single-note runs, and some discordant slide guitar, when I wanted to be able to do some interesting harmonic things and treat the instrument an extension of myself. It was frustrating.
I would get there. It was just going to take a while. But man, I’ll never forget that feeling of wanting to do more than I was capable of in the moment and running face-first into a brick wall. All my limitations on the instrument were thrown into stark relief all at once.
Listening now, I have to say my guitar-playing did the job just fine, in spite of my feelings of musical uselessness in the moment. The song didn’t need anything flashy. And I’ve always loved the singalong chorus, with Gord sing-shouting, “The happy dentiiiiiiist!” at the top of his lungs. We did two or three tracks with both of us singing into the same SM58. Just like Springsteen and Little Steven.
This time I used a drum loop already programmed into the W-5. These loops were triggered by pressing a key on the keyboard, but as soon as you removed your finger the loop would stop. You couldn’t lock it into continuous-play mode. The only way I ever found to get around this was by using a sustain pedal to trick the loop into thinking the key was still pressed down. Gord is credited with “foot” in the liner notes for some of our albums from this period because he would always volunteer to take care of that side of things so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.
There was an odd quirk to some of these loops. Using the modulation wheel, you could sometimes uncover another layer of synthesized percussion. A lot of these hidden accents had a habit of slowly going out of tempo. The longer you kept the loop going, the worse it would get. You can hear this happen in real-time on the SHOEBOX PARADISE song “Partners in Crime”.
Halfway through “The Happy Dentist” I did the little modulation wheel trick and found the sub-loop was so unsynchronized with the main loop it threw everything off, destroying all sense of rhythm.
You’ve got two choices when a thing like this happens. You can either kill the song, or you can embrace the chaos.
With Gord’s foot still on the sustain pedal, I hit a number of keys low on the synth to trigger even more arrhythmic loops, creating a giant mess. Then I sat back down with my acoustic guitar, went nuts with the slide, and started singing faux-Japanese gibberish.
This was too far from home for Gord. He went along with it, but in later years he told me he thought it ruined the whole song. He wanted a coup de grâce, and here I was prolonging the suffering. For me it’s always been one of the album’s defining moments. I love how everything falls apart in such an absurd, exaggerated way. It’s a great example of something that never would have been allowed to happen on SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.
For the record, there was no racist intention behind what I sang as all hell broke loose. It was little more than some silliness that came to me in the moment.
Cha chaka chee cha, chicka chee cho. Two dogs fuckin’ in the sand.
To this day I can’t make it to the end without collapsing into a laughing fit. If I do manage to get most of the way through, the part that kills me is, “Suck my dick ’til my ass falls down.”
You gotta have fun, even if it’s not always in great taste. Besides, who on earth could take the idea of someone’s ass falling off at the moment of climax seriously in the first place?
I ended the song by spitting the gum I was chewing into my vocal mic, screaming a deluge of profanity through a kazoo, and dropping the loudest F-bomb of my life.
If you ever wondered who the wildcard was in Papa Ghostface, I guess now you know.
With “Nothing from Nothing”, for the first time I had no written lyrics to work with. The tale of a secret society of damaged people hellbent on self-annihilation almost seemed to construct itself. I made one giant boner of a grammatical error at a climactic moment and went from addressing the Charlie character as an established member of the group to making him sound like more of a novice without seeming to notice — such is the danger of improvising for almost thirteen minutes and trying to keep your story straight — but that didn’t stop it from becoming one the most effective things of its kind in the whole PG catalogue. Gord made the unusual (for him) decision to play a few bit parts, contributing some great moments and giving me something to play off of.
Even the things that didn’t work seemed to work. We were able to incorporate the drum loop’s initial skittishness into the narrative without missing a beat. Gord played some evil-sounding electric guitar, setting the perfect tone, and I managed to hold things down on bass without getting distracted from the scene I was trying to paint. I overdubbed a bit of W-5 electric piano but it felt a little superfluous, so I kept it brief.
I owe a huge creative debt to John Cale and Tom Waits. Those two brilliant madmen taught me it was possible to make compelling “talkies” without being pretentious. I’d listen to “The Jeweller” or “9th & Hennepin” and sit spellbound, hanging on every word, wanting to know how the story was going to end. They were little movies in sound form.
I didn’t have that kind of poetry in me. Not yet. But their work gave me something to aspire to without trying to mimic or recreate what they’d already done.
(The pinnacle of my work in the spoken word department might be a song called “Average Jim” that’ll show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE one of these days. It’s a good one. The one that’s going on the next Papa Ghostface album is no slouch either.)
We couldn’t end the album on such a dark note. We got together one more time and recorded “Fatties”. Jesse, the classmate I wanted to impress (more on him in a bit), was working with me by then — or I should say I was working for him without getting paid anything — and he came over for a bit before Gord did, leaving his acoustic guitar behind. He didn’t feel like lugging it home. I was tasked with bringing it to school for him the next day.
It was serendipitous. Gord picked up Jesse’s acoustic, I reached for my own, and we were recording before we knew what we were doing.
“Fatties” is really two different improvised songs grafted together. The first is about smoking pot in Willistead Park — something I’d never done, but I knew a lot of students who did — and the effects of a month or so without cable TV on a teenage male libido — something I was all too familiar with. Whatever my guitar-related shortcomings were on “The Happy Dentist”, I made up for them here with a nice little slide solo and some walking bass lines, my unresolved chords playing off of Gord’s closed majors and minors. (My guitar is in the right stereo channel. Gord’s in the left.)
Apropos of nothing, my grade ten geography teacher Mr. Kuszowski worms his way in there — as a narc or a pothead, it isn’t made clear. All three of his favourite catchphrases appear, one after the other:
“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
— Said to discourage us from asking him anything about what he was teaching us.
“You got the answer? Shut your mouth.”
— Said when someone raised their hand to answer a question he asked the class.
“You want a week or a month?”
— Said when he was threatening someone with detention.
“What have you,” was a verbal tic my grade nine science teacher would often use to end a sentence. I threw that in there too.
I don’t know why I did that. But the overlapping Mr. Kuszowskis admonishing the listener not to ask stupid questions while a frenetic modulated synth-sitar line is introduced never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
Once that felt like it had gone as far as we could take it, we stopped recording and I got a drum loop going. It was the same one used on “The Happy Dentist”, only a little slower and deeper this time. I introduced a new chord progression in a different key and Gord picked out some lead lines when he wasn’t shadowing what I was doing.
There was a marked change in the lyrics now, with the silly sex talk and drug references forgotten.
Light in the east, in the west, in the south. From the north, to the underground, to my home room, to my hometown.
(I always liked that “home room” / “hometown” bit.)
After the impressionism fades, this section reveals itself to be a wistful look back at a failed relationship. I’d never had a girlfriend and didn’t think I ever would. I wasn’t about to let a thing like that stop me from delving into matters of the heart (and genitals).
I used Gord’s voice in a way I never had before and never would again, feeding him lines, making both of us supporting players to my lead narrator. I got a huge kick out of directing him. There’s nothing quite like this tapestry of our voices in anything else we did together, and it’s somehow fitting that the backdrop is by far the prettiest music on the whole album.
After some fun duelling guitar action, Gord took his foot off the sustain pedal and started strumming a D major chord without warning when I was still playing a C. I switched to playing lead, sang, “That’s all the naked parakeet wrote,” repeated the line in a near-scream, and everything ended with a neat little callback to “Spandex” from Gord.
I didn’t like the way my last almost-screamed line came off, so I replaced most of it by saying, “And that, my friends, is the story of the penis farmer from Brazil.” You can still hear my wailing bleeding into the guitar mics. When I was doing the harmonies and faux-baritone bit (how I got that low back then, I have no idea), Gord added a little overdub right at the beginning of the second section, rubbing a metal slide against a mic that had some heavy distortion on it and singing a falsetto melody before my singing came in. I let out a little shout of affirmation in the background.
As for me swearing at my headphones and telling them to stay on my face after dedicating the song to Priscilla Presley — I was just starting to grow out my hair for the first time, and I liked the way it looked. I was so particular about keeping it in place, I would wear headphones upside down with the headband beneath my chin. It was a short-lived arrangement.
“Fatties” felt like a fine ending, but I still had a tiny bit of space left to work with on the CD. In those days before reliable eighty-minute CDs were available I liked to squeeze every millisecond I could out of the seventy-four minutes I had to work with. Gord took off for the night, and I recorded the unlisted final song by myself with every track running through the Digitech. I held a mic in front of the bass and smacked it with my fist, overdubbing myself singing about the song I was singing:
This little song — it isn’t very long. There isn’t lots of time left, so I have to make it short.
It went on for a while longer like that. Felt like it lost steam pretty quick. I recorded over what I’d done as soon as that first “verse” ended, beat-boxing and screaming about a grasshopper. I cut that off to play a few seconds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Clavinova, also plugged into the Digitech to give it some extra hair. Then I mashed the keys and found the last few seconds of the beat-boxing section worked well enough as an outro.
The funny thing is I usually had to chop up a hidden track in order to make it fit on a CD, and I almost always ended up losing moments I was fond of. This time I went out of my way to chop the song up, only to discover there was just enough space left to accommodate it.
It’s less than thirty seconds long, and it’s probably my favourite unlisted track I’ve ever committed to a piece of spinning plastic. Its unbridled lunacy feels like the perfect ending to an album full of unhinged moments.
Awfully Lovely didn’t sit right with me as an album title now that I had all the pieces in front of me. I reached for one of my playing-with-words titles and called it YOU’RE A NATION. Seemed appropriate. The “Piss on Me”/urination connection never entered my mind.
The moment it was finished, I knew this album destroyed SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN. I could feel it in my bones. This time my feelings didn’t change after the honeymoon period passed. In a lot of ways it was the first Papa Ghostface album that felt like an album instead of a group of songs sharing the same space.
The sound quality…that was the trouble. I still couldn’t quite get things where I wanted them to be. I tried to get around the clipping issue by riding the fader and bringing down the volume of my singing during some of the more intense passages. There was a little less distortion in places, but there were moments when my voice all but disappeared (“Spandex” is a good example). About halfway through the album I gave up on that altogether and let things go into the red.
Today I know how to ride a fader if I need to, making minute adjustments that don’t call attention to themselves. Nineteen years ago…not so much.
Another thing I didn’t know much about was mic placement. I had two Shure SM57s and an SM58. That was my whole mic cabinet. No condensers. No ribbons. Those SM57s got pretty close to the sound hole of whatever acoustic instrument they were tasked with recording. I could have countered the mud by cutting some lows, but EQ was a foreign concept to me. I lived with the mud. I couldn’t even hear some of the mud — I was still monitoring on that old Magnasonic boombox.
My recordings of the bass guitar itself were a mixed bag. On some tracks, like “Rippin'” and “We’re All Gonna Go”, it was at least running through the Digitech and somewhat controlled by some built-in compression. On most of the other songs Gord or I plugged straight into the mixer with no compression. The dynamics were all over the place. For some reason I’ll never understand, I added a low boost effect to my bass on “Nothing from Nothing” and introduced even more mud.
To be fair, I was only a few months removed from starting serious work with this mixer. Digital recording was still brand new to me. I had to figure out everything on the fly, learning through trial and error. And my “monitors” weren’t giving me the most accurate imaging or frequency response. But it wasn’t my finest moment as an engineer.
I made a copy of the album for myself and a copy for Gord. My own CD travelled with me through all my classes the next day, and a few students asked to hear what I was listening to on my DiscMan. There was a lot of giggling whenever “Fatties” was played. One guy who was always a bit of a dick to me was obsessed with the hidden track. That was funny. Nothing crazy happened, though. I didn’t put any effort into spreading the music around. I was years away from even thinking to do that sort of thing, and it would be another month or two before MERRY FUCKIN’ CHRISTMAS became a weird little high school sensation behind my back.
You’d be surprised what kind of legacy an album can have when only about eight people in the known universe have heard it. For instance, YOU’RE A NATION once helped endear Gord to some police officers who might have been looking to make an example out of him.
He was hanging out with Amanda in a city park not long after I gave him his copy of the album on CD when some cops who were canvassing the area saw them, grew suspicious of the two teenagers who looked like they walked straight out of the Woodstock film, and started asking questions.
They found some roaches and a small amount of pot on Gord. He found himself in the back of a police car, scared shitless. He was going to jail for only having enough marijuana in his pocket to roll one joint. He was sixteen.
Amanda was crafty. Gord might have been too terrified to speak, but she was friendly with the cops. She talked to them. She told them her boyfriend was a musician. Told them he was making all this crazy music with his friend. Told them she just happened to have their new album right here in her purse. Did they want to see it?
Those two cops looked at our song titles and my goofy drawings of us showing our asses to the world and thought it was pretty cool. They warmed up to Gord. They let him go with a warning: keep your drugs at home.
Talk about a weird album to save someone’s ass.
Jesse (I told you we’d come back to him) had a more troubled relationship with this music. As soon as he heard SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN he saw an opportunity, and he was on that shit faster than a dog on a shiny new fire hydrant. Today anyone can record an album on their laptop for little or no money. In 1999 things were a little different. Having the ability to record music at home and put it on a CD when you were a teenager…that wasn’t normal.
Halfway through the recording sessions for YOU’RE A NATION, Jesse was over at my house for the first of what would be many recording sessions. I was excited to work with another singer and songwriter my age. Gord was a great musical companion, but he wasn’t a writer. Aside from the odd thing like “Rotten Fruit”, he would never show up and say, “Check out this song I just wrote.”
I saw the potential for a unique creative partnership with Jesse. Not only did he and I both write our own material, but we had different influences and ideas. That could be exciting. We could push each other into uncharted territory by writing together.
My vision of our future was only half right. Jesse saw potential too, but it involved getting free recording time and absorbing my musical ideas to improve his own songs. And that was pretty much what our relationship was all about for the next few years, until he no longer saw any use for me and stopped hanging out with me. I was there to make him sound better and to listen to him spew hot air about how great he was and how lame everyone else was. When I asked him for a little bit of money after years of thankless work, he bolted.
I put up with this for as long as I did because I didn’t have a lot of confidence in those days. And to be honest, for a while I kind of looked up to the guy, before I realized he was a bit of an ass. He had charisma. That stuff can be pretty powerful.
The creative friction between us was interesting, even if he was the only one benefitting from it. Here was someone who wanted to take over the world, and he was convinced he was only a few steps away from his goal. I was the audience for a number of monologues in which he detailed his aspirations. He was going to The Top. He was taking me with him to The Top, whether I wanted to come along for the ride or not. He didn’t care who he had to step over or betray on his way to The Top. He knew he had the goods, and to hear him tell it, he was one of the only people on the planet worthy of this kind of success.
As someone who had no grand ambitions to conquer anything and was content to make music that didn’t fit into any particular box, his ego bewildered me. Meanwhile, I think I seemed like some sort of alien to him. The few times he did try to write with me, it was never about meeting me on my wavelength. It was about trying to get me to write the way he did. And that wasn’t gonna happen.
I’ll never forget him saying to me once, after listening to some songs that would end up on SHOEBOX PARADISE, “You’ve got so much talent it makes me fucking sick. You know, these could actually be good, commercial songs if you got rid of all the weird shit. I don’t know why you’re just throwing your talent away.”
There was contempt in his voice. He looked like an angry parent chastising a misbehaving child.
The “weird shit” was the whole point for me. I was a weird teenager with a twisted sense of humour and a wide range of interests. I wanted the music I made to reflect that. More than that, I wanted my music to sound like me. Not something somebody else had already done. It didn’t matter if no one else liked it. What mattered was I enjoyed creating it, it came from a place that was real, and I could enjoy listening to it.
I was art. He was commerce. It was that black and white.
Here’s an illustration of the war we waged:
That first time we met up outside of school in mid-October, I had a chance to play Jesse some music and watch him react to it. Giving my work a look-in was nothing more than an afterthought after we’d spent hours honing and recording a number of his songs, but I still wanted to share some of what I was working on.
The synthesizer stabs on “Rippin'” were “science fiction movie shit”. Jesse made it through three or four minutes of the song before he told me to play him something else. He made it all the way through “Spandex” but liked it even less. He told me Gord’s distorted screaming and a lot of my own singing was horrible, and the only way I could salvage the song was if I got rid of all that garbage.
I played “She’s Awfully Lovely” next.
“It sounds like you recorded this in your garage,” he said. It wasn’t a compliment.
I didn’t bother playing him “We’re All Gonna Go”. Having my work denigrated after I gave his soulless, brain-dead, emotionally vacant love songs a fair shake wasn’t my idea of a good time.
Two days later Jesse was over at the house again to work on some more of his music. He brought his friend Steph with him to sing some harmonies. Before we got started he said, “Play ‘Spandex’ for her.”
It was strange to me that he’d want anyone else to hear a song he had so little affection for, but I gave Jesse and Steph the two pairs of headphones I had and listened to the bleed I was able to pick up from across the room.
Steph laughed a few times. It wasn’t the laughter of someone who was put off by my lyrics about lycra-clad frogs, breasts from Montana, and my distaste for geography class. She was enjoying the song. For his part, Jesse had a look on his face like he was staring at something horrifying and couldn’t quite make himself turn away. It was hilarious.
Gord screamed, “Spandex for MEEEEEEEE!”
Jesse shook his head. “I told you to get rid of that shit. You left it in, huh?”
I smiled and shrugged.
“What do you think?” Jesse asked Steph once the song ended.
She told me she thought it was fun and she liked my vocal harmonies. That felt good.
“We need to get Johnny here to start writing normal songs,” Jesse said.
Here was the real tragedy of that night. I wrote two songs at school earlier in the day with the idea of asking Jesse and Steph to sing harmonies on them. One was a piano ballad. The other was a more uptempo thing. Both featured lyrics that were about as “normal” as I could stand to let myself get without lapsing into uninspired cliché territory (that was Jesse’s bread and butter, not mine). There was nothing weird about them. They were good, straightforward songs.
I had the music all worked out. I was ready to prove I could hang with Jesse as a songwriter — ready to assert myself and bend this into a true collaborative situation. I was convinced I would win his respect. And the thought of us singing three-part harmonies on my songs…that was thrilling.
I never got to hear it happen. Didn’t get to play even half a verse of one of those songs for my guests. As soon as “Spandex” was out of the way, Jesse made the night all about him. He had no interest in anything I had to say, musically or otherwise. He acted like it was his house, his equipment, his time. By the time he was trying to coach me into giving him the vocal tone he wanted for a third part harmony I was adding to one of his songs, bitching at me for not getting breathy enough, I was ready to tell him to get the hell out of my house.
I should have done that. I wish I wasn’t so gutless for so long when confronted with people whose unchecked arrogance sucked all the fun out of making music. It’s a serious regret.
At least I did one thing right. After he went home I annihilated the song he had us working on with one grotesque, ill-fitting overdub after another, taking everything he hated about my music and injecting it into his.
As passive-aggressive revenge scenarios go, that one was pretty satisfying.
I ran into Jesse at lunchtime one day in early November. By now I’d recorded almost a whole album for him between Papa Ghostface sessions and work on my own foul-mouthed Christmas album. He noticed I had the just-finished YOU’RE A NATION in my hand. He invited me to eat lunch with him in the music room. I didn’t have anything better to do.
He asked to see the album after we sat down. I handed it over. As soon as he saw “Spandex” written on the back insert his face lit up.
“You have to hear this song Johnny made,” he said to the six or seven other people in the room. “Check this out.”
He fired up Mr. Ross’s hi-fi system, slid the CD into the disc tray, hit play, and cranked up the volume.
No one seemed to know what to make of it. A girl named Katie Goertzen looked mortified. Jesse was smiling. I couldn’t believe it.
Just as Gord’s acoustic guitar was threatening to blow up the world, Mr. Ross appeared and killed the sound. He popped out the CD and asked who it belonged to. I reached out my hand and took it. He gave me a dirty look but didn’t say anything more.
“That’s fucking bullshit,” Jesse said. He was pissed.
Two weeks earlier, when he first heard “Spandex”, he was disgusted by it. Now he wanted everyone to hear it.
He never did come around to my way of looking at music as an art instead of a business. But I think that song broke his brain a little.
The best moment of all came when I was walking with Gord and Amanda in the park, probably a few more weeks down the road.
“I’ve had this song stuck in my head forever,” Amanda said. “Who does the song that goes, ‘We’re all gonna go down slowly’?”
“That’s one of John’s songs,” Gord said, laughing.
I sang a bit of it for her. Gord sang along on the chorus.
“That’s the song! I love that song!”
When you’re in high school and a beautiful girl has a song you wrote stuck in her head…it doesn’t get much better than that.
Over the years YOU’RE A NATION has remained one of my favourite Papa Ghostface albums. It’s foul-mouthed, idiosyncratic to the core, full of mistakes and human moments, and the music makes no concessions to the listener. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of what PG meant to me, and it paved the way for albums like SHOEBOX PARADISE and PAPER CHEST HAIR.
The thing that’s always killed me is the sound quality. It’s not an album I think a lot of people would enjoy or “get”, and to those who’ve only heard the music I’ve made over the last decade or so it would probably be a shock, but I’ve been reluctant to share it with anyone at all for a long time because of all that clipping and low end mud.
Too self-conscious to share an album you’re proud of. That’s a funny place to be.
Remixing it has never been an option. I have a very clear memory of staring at the mixer nineteen years ago and making the decision to erase every single YOU’RE A NATION track without backing any of them up. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t think I was ever going to get very good at this whole recording thing, and there wasn’t any reason to believe returning to this material in a year or two with fresh ears would make any difference.
My only recourse was to find a mastering engineer willing to take a crack at it. I started giving that some serious thought around the time the album turned ten years old.
In 2009, when I was beginning work on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I sent an email to a mastering engineer I won’t name. I felt it was time to give the professional mastering thing another shot, and that album felt like it was going to be especially dynamic and worthy of a master’s touch (ooh, a pun).
At the time, this guy was willing to master a single song for free to give potential clients an idea of what he could do. I sent him “Knee-Jerk Howl”. He told me his free samples were done on a “first come, first served” basis, so it could take a few weeks, but he would get to it when he could.
Nine years later, I’m still waiting to hear back from him.
In 2011 I emailed another mastering engineer I won’t name. This time I cut right to the chase. I told him about YOU’RE A NATION, detailed the album’s issues, and sent along a sample track to give him an idea of what he’d have to work with. I asked how much he would charge for a project like this and what the turnaround time would be.
I’m still waiting for a response.
It was just like the demoralizing weirdness I went through when I was trying to make friends with fellow musicians and get gigs in Windsor in the days before CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN made me “cool” overnight, only now it was mastering engineers who decided I was so insignificant they didn’t even want to take my money.
The YOU’RE A NATION Reclamation Project became a bucket list item for me. Something I hoped to get done someday, assuming I could ever find a mastering engineer who would give me the time of day. I wasn’t optimistic. I put it on the back burner and went about my business.
A lot of mastering engineers charge an awful lot of money. I understand why. You put a lot of time, money, and work into building a studio that’s acoustically treated just right and you hone your craft. Your ears and your gear are valuable — often indispensable. You provide an important service. You need to make a living.
But with the Loudness War showing no signs of fading, it’s become difficult to asses the kind of work some professionals are capable of when maximum loudness isn’t a consideration. I’ve heard $3,000 and $5,000 mastering jobs that sound like something a dead squirrel could have done with a stolen plug-in. And I know this isn’t even always the mastering. Some mastering engineers are given awful mixes by recording and mixing engineers — mixes that are intentionally distorted and devoid of headroom so they won’t be “tampered with” — putting them in an impossible situation. The issue still stands. When so much music is crushed beyond the point of no return and almost no one offers free samples anymore, how are you supposed to even guess at what someone might do to your music if your priorities are dynamics and musicality?
This is why I’ve been doing it myself for a good long while now. It keeps things simple.
Still, a few years back I got to thinking it might be worth one more try. One name I kept coming across on the internet was Scott Craggs. His rates were incredibly reasonable. What’s more, every shred of evidence I could find told me he did great work and was a pleasure to deal with. I listened to some music he mastered. It wasn’t squashed. It sounded good. I read some things he wrote. He was funny. He was articulate. He was against the Loudness War. I liked this guy already.
I sent Scott an email. He wrote back the same day. I almost had him master STEW. It was a shorter-than-usual album for me, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to find out what a real mastering engineer could do with my stuff now that I knew a lot more about the whole recording thing.
About five seconds after that email exchange, money-related things went straight into the toilet and paying a mastering engineer was no longer an option for me. So much for that.
These days things are better. And after losing most of September to that stupid cold and some subsequent bronchitis (boo), I felt the time was right for YOU’RE A NATION. There was never going to be a more opportune moment to cross it off my bucket list.
I sent Scott “Spandex”, explained what I was hoping to do, and asked if he thought it was a worthwhile project. He said he’d be glad to take a stab at it. He thought it would be fun. He also said the song made him think of a cross between Tago Mago-period Can and teenage silliness.
I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to high-five someone through a computer screen as much as I did right then.
At the time this music was being made, Can was one of many bands on my list of “music to check out”. I read about them and wanted to dig into their catalogue, but I didn’t end up picking up any of their albums until well over a decade later. And then, of course, I thought, “What took me so long?! This is great!”
What was I listening to in late 1999? There would have been a lot of Tom Waits, David Sylvian, and Roxy Music on the menu. Big Star. Kate Bush. Robyn Hitchcock. John Cale. Lou Reed. There wouldn’t have been any jazz, blues, or electronica yet.
I don’t know if much of that seeped into YOU’RE A NATION. But I know if anyone had dropped Can as a reference point in 1999, I would have flipped out. Might have asked them to marry me if I was feeling bold.
I wanted to make Scott’s work as painless as possible, so I experimented with the “Clip Fix” tool in Audacity. According to the manual, it “attempts to reconstruct clipped regions by interpolating the lost signal. It is only likely to be effective for repairing lightly clipped audio.”
It was a good deal more effective than that. Some of these songs were a mess of clipping all the way through. I was able to undo almost all of that junk. As I’ve said before, I know it isn’t technically possible to replace information that’s been lost through digital clipping. An algorithm like this can only “guess” at the way things might have sounded before the clipping occurred.
I applied it to whole songs, and it wiped out nineteen years of frustration in one fell swoop. It was unreal. The only sounds I couldn’t repair were those where distortion was burned in, either from a vocal effect being hit too hard at the source (“The Happy Dentist”) or a microphone overloading (“Spandex”). I expected as much. What I wasn’t counting on was being able to give Scott WAV files that had some actual headroom and lots of dynamics.
Score a major coup for Audacity’s guesswork.
In a way, I think something like this is the ultimate test of a mastering engineer’s skills. It’s one thing to work on an album that’s been well-recorded and well-mixed. When that isn’t the case and there are giant, gaping flaws that need to be addressed, you get to find out what an audio surgeon is really capable of.
I tried to keep my expectations low, given the source material. When Scott sent me the remastered songs, I burned them onto a CD, put on the same Sennheiser headphones I used when I was recording and mixing the album in 1999 (headband up this time), and braced myself.
If I hadn’t been listening in bed, “Rippin'” would have knocked me over. It had a punch to it I’d never heard before. The first W-5 drum hits smacked me right in the chest. For the first time I could hear everything my acoustic guitar was doing in the left stereo channel, and all my weird little bass runs, when those tracks used to be twin layers of mud. The Arp Omni-2 bits came alive in a whole new way. It was like a thick blanket had been lifted from the sound to reveal hidden abdominal muscles and a tasteful nipple ring.
Gord’s acoustic guitar overload on “Spandex” was now a cool lo-fi sound that didn’t bring way too much low end energy with it. On “She’s Awfully Lovely”, “Piss on Me”, and “Nothing from Nothing”, out-of-control bass tracks were reigned in until they sat right in the pocket. Hearing the songs like this was almost like hearing them for the very first time. The drum loops all had a whole new depth to them. The keyboard drums on “We’re All Gonna Go” almost sounded like real drums, they were so dynamic and full. My acoustic guitar sounded like it had been recorded by someone who knew what they were doing, and not a clueless teenager shoving an SM57 too close for comfort. Even my beat-boxing on the unlisted track had a new depth to it.
It was everything I didn’t dare to hope for and more. An album I thought was destined to have a saggy bum forever now had a tight, powerful bottom end. And the mud! Did I mention the mud? It was gone! Dead! Kaput! On some songs Scott had to contend with both acoustic guitar-generated mud and electric bass-generated mud. He killed them both without ever sacrificing the body of the sounds.
I asked him how he managed to do a thing like that. It was pretty amazing to me. Some people would scoff at this kind of question and say, “I’m not telling you how I work.” Not Scott.
Here’s some of what he told me:
From memory, it was basically something like this: De-esser on most songs, around 4-5k. EQ was a high pass filter around 25-30, usually a cut somewhere between 100-200, maybe another cut between 200-400. I added some high end on one or two of them. Nothing drastic, 1-2db at most. Couple songs might have had a dynamic EQ doing a bit of low end control as well. Then there was a compressor in M/S, just working on the M. I was trying to reign in the vocals a bit. So, high ratio, hard-ish knee, mostly just working to grab the louder vocal stuff. Then a regular broadband compressor, low ratio/soft knee, slow attack/fastish release, just tapping along doing a db or so. A little saturation, a tape sim, and a limiter….again, all of those just tapping a lil bit each. A couple of the really loud vocal bits I just went in and turned down manually.
That might not mean much to you if you’re not into recording and audio, but to me it’s riveting. So many different things, all doing small amounts of work that add up to a profound sonic difference. It’s a good lesson to me, too, about how less is often more even in situations where you’d assume otherwise. I thought an album like this would need huge EQ moves and a lot of compression to get it to sound right, or as close to “right” as it could get.
You know what else? It’s dynamic. It breathes. The volume is right in line with the ballpark range I try to shoot for these days when I’m mastering one of my own albums. The jarring moments like my scream of “Oh Jesus!” in “The Happy Dentist” are still jarring, as they were meant to be. They just won’t destroy your listening equipment or your ears now.
I mean, take a look at this beautiful waveform:
That’s how you do it. That’s how the game is won.
If I had the opportunity to remix these songs today, I could clean them up something fierce. I think that would be a mistake. Scott understood that without me even telling him. Instead of trying to make the album something it wasn’t, he respected the funkiness of the original recording and kept it intact, concentrating on making it the best possible version of itself.
It’s still a lo-fi beast. But now it’s got some shiny fur, some sharp teeth, and I’m no longer embarrassed to share it with anyone who’s brave enough to dive into the insanity. The best part is I can enjoy listening all the way through without any reservations for maybe the first time in my life. I used to almost want to weep when I heard how much out-of-control low end there was on a song like “Nothing from Nothing” or “Piss on Me”. It ruined the songs for me. That’s all gone now. It’s a little shocking to find myself thinking, “That’s a pretty cool bass sound,” when the only bass sound I thought this album would ever have was “shit”.
Huge thanks go out to Scott for making this stuff sound better than I ever dreamed possible, and for being so open and easy to work with. Fellow recording adventurers: if you ever find yourself in need of a mastering engineer who’s going to approach your music with an open mind, is responsive, has a quick turnaround time, won’t charge an arm, a leg, and a lung, and just does great work, Scott gets my strongest recommendation. You won’t find a nicer person or a better set of ears. I know who I’m going to now if I ever feel like an album needs an extra little something and it’s in the budget. The man is a sorcerer of the highest order.
You’d think this would be the end of our tale, but no. Now I had to think about cover art.
The first time YOU’RE A NATION was issued on CD with proper cover art I had no idea what to do. I went with a picture of the room the music was recorded in, more out of desperation than anything.
This picture was taken at the door. The room doesn’t look smaller than it is. It really was that cramped. I think it was ten feet by ten feet, if that. I spent a lot of time in that big chair, sometimes wheeling it over here when I wanted to play things with keys:
This would have been about a month before sessions for the album began. The rented acoustic bass is a dead giveaway.
I felt the first picture worked well enough as a cover image in a “you are there” way. Now I think it’s a little too bland for an album this nutty.
I didn’t feel up to commissioning an artist to draw something for me. I thought I’d see if I could scare up any interesting public domain images on the internet. I found a striking drawing Georges Méliès made during the production of his 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans le Lune (A Voyage to the Moon). I know an astronomical body and a stable community of people are two different things, but check out how cool this thing is.
The film itself is well worth viewing. It’s almost eerie to watch something that was made over a hundred years ago, knowing not a single person who was involved in front of or behind the camera is still living.
But maybe that was too classy for an album like YOU’RE A NATION. I wasn’t sure Georges would approve of a song like “Piss on Me”.
I looked at all kinds of abstract art in the public domain, from scrolls made in the 1300s to modern day digital drawings. A few things caught my eye.
Arthur Dove’s “Foghorns” from 1929:
And Georgia O’Keefe’s “Sunrise”, from the 1930s:
These were just too pretty for an album that worked so hard to avoid prettiness.
I was about to give up when I typed “public domain melting face” into a Google image search and this came up:
It was a sticker someone created and left on a website for anyone to use in any way they wanted. I downloaded it, reversed the polarity so it became white on a black background, and bingo. There it was. Something simple and off-kilter enough to feel like an accurate representation of what’s under the hood.
The plan is to go to Minuteman Press sometime next week and have a small amount of inserts made. I can’t wait to see that creepy smiley face on an album cover. It feels right. Almost iconic.
One thing I have to say: revisiting this album at the same time I’m wrapping up work on the last Papa Ghostface album there’s ever going to be has made for some interesting symmetry. In spite of all that’s changed, I’m proud to say the spirit of experimentation and anything-goes-ness is still alive and well. I think you’d have to kill me to get rid of it. Sorry, Jesse old pal. I just wasn’t made for the mainstream.
There’s a good chance the Papa Ghostface album I’ve been working on would be finished by now if not for this one thing: I got hit with a stupid cold/sinus infection. Again. It must be about the tenth time it’s happened in the history of this blog just as I’ve been gearing up to finish something.
I thought the ridiculously clingy cold I got at the beginning of the year — one of the worst I’ve ever had — would satisfy the Germ Gods and they’d leave me alone for at least a year or two. I guess I was wrong about that. I almost never get sick twice in the same orbital cycle. 2018 must be my lucky year.
It’s the same thing every time. One day I wake up with a raw throat no amount of water will soothe. That’s the tipoff. I know the next day I wake up I’m going to feel like hot garbage. I always hope the garbage won’t move up into my head so I can at least work on mixing things even if I can’t sing for a while. That hope is always in vain.
This time there were a few new wrinkles. A good chunk of my vocal range disappeared for a while. I’m used to sounding like a bullfrog for a few days when the cold first comes on, but once that passes I usually have access to just about my full normal range, no matter how congested I am or how much I’m coughing. I’ve written a lot of songs over the years when I’ve been sick and made rough recordings to preserve vocal melodies and the like. That wasn’t happening this time. For a while there I sounded like someone who was paying the price for spending the better part of a day screaming at a protest without a megaphone.
It was a little disconcerting. I’m not used to my voice being just about gone and not knowing when it’s going to come back.
To my great relief, it was a temporary thing, and now my voice is back to its old spry self. But I’m past the two week mark now, and still coughing. I don’t know if my immune system has decided to start slacking off, or if whatever bugs have been floating around over the last year or so have been stronger than usual, or what. I’m just frustrated to have lost a good chunk of recording time.
Even my ears haven’t behaved the way they normally do. Instead of everything getting muffled for a while in both ears, only the left one was affected by the congestion. It wasn’t even that awful. Things were just off enough to make listening to anything on headphones more maddening than enjoyable, because the stereo balance was never quite right.
I seem to have turned the corner at last. The cough is finally starting to lose some of its authority, and the other day I contorted my jaw in a strange way while brushing my teeth and the normal range of hearing in my left ear returned in an instant. At least I can get back to work on mixing songs that need some work in that department, even if any amount of serious singing is still probably a recipe for a coughing fit.
I know I’m lucky in the grand scheme of things. Aside from the occasional stupid cold like this that takes its sweet time going away, I have no health issues to speak of. A lot of people have it much worse. It’s just a pain in the ass when you’re this close to finishing something and some bug comes along and says, “Nope. This is as far as you go for now. Have fun waking up tomorrow with the pain from your throat radiating into your ears with such force that you feel like your head is a demonic furnace. Enjoy being a baritone for a while.”
I always mean to take advantage of the downtime when I’m sick by getting back into a good reading rhythm, unplugging the laptop and digging into some of the books I’ve got piled up around here. In January I set a goal on Goodreads for how many books I wanted to read this year. I’m twenty-five books behind schedule right now.
I made no progress at all on that front. But I did gorge myself on Cyanide & Happiness animated shorts. So it wasn’t a total loss.
I also discovered my new favourite comedian: Joe Pera.
I have no idea if his deliberate way of speaking is his actual voice or just a persona he puts on. It doesn’t matter. At a time when most comedians feel a need to scream at you about their sex lives or some narrow-minded take on the politics of relationships, Joe whispers soft truths and gently skewed observations. It’s the sort of stuff you chuckle about under your breath instead of busting a gut over. I like profanity and insanity as much as the next person, but it’s kind of wonderful to come across someone whose brand of comedy is so…wholesome.
Current favourite blues song:
Current favourite non-blues song:
I’ll try to put up an out-take from the PG album or some such thing sometime soon. Gotta get things back on track, even if I’m still coughing and cantankerous.
I just can’t do it. I can’t finish putting my long-gestating pedal board together.
I put a lot of thought into the final pedal I was adding to the group. I had room for one more. I came close to pulling the trigger on a Walrus Audio Julia and then an Earthquaker Devices Transmisser. The Julia is a really pretty-sounding chorus/vibrato pedal, but the Count to Five can get me some similar sounds, the POD (which I only use for effects now, and never for its amp-modelling) can fill in most of the rest, and I can’t see myself wanting to use chorus all that often. The Transmisser only does one thing, and while it does it in a way that sounds like nothing else, after falling in love with it I realized I wouldn’t be able to use it too often without it becoming something of a cliché.
If I was going to get anything, it was going to have to be a pedal that was a real wildcard — something unique and versatile.
I knew I’d found what I was looking for when I saw this.
The Shallow Water isn’t quite chorus or vibrato, though it can create sounds that live in both of those worlds. It calls itself a K-Field Modulator. There are two things that set it apart from your average modulation pedal.
The first thing is the low pass filter, which is incredibly sensitive to dynamics and can go from “subtle”, to “dark and mysterious”, to “the universe is swallowing up my sound source and only faint suggestions of its soul remain”. When the LPF isn’t engaged and you’ve got a full wet mix, you get some noise, but I kind of like that. Sometimes you want things to get a little lo-fi. It can add character.
The second thing is the modulation itself. It’s random. There’s something about modulation that can’t be predicted. A strangely emotional quality. It engages the brain in a different way. You’re listening for a pattern, and there isn’t one.
This thing is deep as hell. It can do lush chorus sounds. It can also make your guitar or synth sound like it’s violently drowning in a small pool of water. Its name is very apt. It’s going to take me a while to learn all the ins and outs and harness everything it can do, but I think we’re going to be friends.
So I bought this pedal, the final one, I put money on the credit card to buy a power supply and the cables I needed, and then I hesitated. And I hesitated some more. And then I noticed a month had gone by since I was supposed to order the stuff, and I still hadn’t done it.
What it comes down to is this: I can’t justify spending more than three hundred dollars on an isolated power supply and a few feet of Mogami cable. I just can’t. To me, that’s outrageous, and borderline offensive. Three hundred dollars can buy an awful lot of food. It can pay a few bills. It can buy a fancy dinner for a medium-large group of reformed miscreants. It can buy a lot of recordable CDs, ink cartridges, jewel cases, and other practical supplies. It can change someone’s life in a small but pivotal way.
Besides, I think the Wurlitzer looks pretty nifty with some of my pedals sitting on top.
So I’ll live with the mess it creates on the floor when I feel a need to have a few pedals running at once, and I’ll clean it up when I’m done. It’s not like I play live, ever. Putting my board together would make things a little more convenient, sure. But convenience isn’t worth that amount of money to me. Not right now. Not in this situation.
Sorry, Captain Convenience. I’ll have to drink from your cup some other time.
I did make good on something else I’ve been meaning to do for a while now. I finallyhad enough mixer space — if only for a moment — and the motivation to make it happen. I’m talking about taking the raw camcorder footage of SEED OF HATE being recorded back in November of 2001 and editing it into something more digestible.
It was more of a pain in the ass than it should have been.
If I wanted to have better quality audio to punch up some of the recording segments, there was only one way to make that happen. I was going to have to go back and remix most of the songs without the vocal tracks. There’s a lot more footage of us getting the music down without Jay than there is of him and Tyson summoning the best screams they had to offer the following day, and what the camcorder’s built-in microphone captured in most of those instances is either drum-heavy to the almost total exclusion of all other musical elements, or little more than headphone bleed (which made syncing up the proper recordings with the camera’s audio a task and a half).
The album was recorded in a single song file on my mixer, separated by track markers, and backed up on two CDs. Those CDs are now sixteen and-a-half years old. With these multiple-CD backup jobs, all it takes is one disc crapping out on me and the whole thing is lost forever. I found that out the hard way when I tried to remix some of the late-period GWD albums about eight years back.
I braced myself for the worst. Both discs dumped their aging guts back onto the mixer without a hitch. Score one for Maxell.
Making instrumental mixes was pretty straightforward. I had no notes to rely on, so I used my ears to dial in mixes that were as close to the originals as I could get them. That seemed to be the smart way to go. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on music this heavy, and treating it with my current sensibilities would probably be a recipe for sonic weirdness. I did bring up Tyson’s guitar a little to highlight how creative his work on the fretboard was. Other than that, I tried to keep things sounding about the same.
A few interesting discoveries were made along the way.
I took the time to type in a name for each track, using the super-tedious “select one letter at a time to make words” function the mixer provides. Things like “L Guitar”, “R Guitar”, and “Bass” show up on the LCD screen when specific tracks are selected. It’s pretty surreal. I don’t remember ever doing that for anything else I recorded back then. I don’t even remember doing it this time. I sure as sugar cookies don’t do it now.
There were even more mics on the drums than I remembered — six. We mic’d up the kick, snare, floor tom, rack toms, set up a general mono overhead to capture the cymbals, and had more of an ambient room mic going as well. How much ambience it added is debatable, since all the mics were SM57s and 58s, but this is the tightest and most conventional drum sound you’ll find on anything I’ve ever recorded. I’m not likely to use that many microphones on a drum kit again.
And I got to solve a small mystery. All the false starts, count-ins, and between-song moments of banter were erased at Tyson’s request, but one brief bit of dialogue survived at the end of the last song. The mics we were using were so directional, and so far away from most of the people talking, I could never make out a thing being said. Now, after cranking the volume on the mixer, I can rest knowing the song I called “Your Friendly Neighourhood Waterbed” in the absence of a proper title ends with Tyson saying, “Yeah! That’s the best we’ve ever played that!” and Brandon muttering, “Not really.”
“That all sounds pretty hassle-free,” you’re thinking. And you’re right. What got me swearing at the sky was the editing process.
I spent chunks of a few days chopping out superfluous crap until I had an eighty-minute assembly I was happy with. It feels like a pretty honest picture of the recording process and the surrounding shenanigans. Really, all I got rid of were things no one needs to see, like Gord filming a light fixture for ten minutes (I exaggerate, but not by much), and a few moments where the burned-in camera effects got kind of maddening.
For example, when we were recording the vocal tracks, Gord hit the “fade to white” button, causing the audio and video to disappear…only to have it come back three seconds later. Then he did it again three or four more times. It broke up the natural rhythm the footage should have had and made synchronizing the audio from the CD impossible. I made a few cuts, lived with whatever choppiness was created, and that problem was solved.
There were times when I wanted to go back in time and tell Gord to stop using every built-in effect the camera had to offer, and just point the thing at what was happening and film it. Close to half of this footage was marred with a negative image or “ghost” effect that looks cool for about ten seconds and then gets old fast. I was able to reverse this by inverting the image a second time, effectively cancelling out the effect. I left a bit of it intact in a few places, but believe me when I tell you most of the scenes I removed it from are much better off without it. You can actually see what’s going on and who’s saying what, for one thing.
The other effects range from the sometimes-effective “double image” to an infuriating and distracting rapid zooming in and out that I can only imagine was designed to simulate motion sickness. There’s nothing I can do to counteract any of those. I can only hope you find them charming or amusing. They drive me nuts.
Gross overuse of effects aside, I have to say Gord did a decent job of capturing what was going on. The one serious exception, and some footage I wish I could have included, is a bit where Tyson talks me through one of the songs while we listen to a rough instrumental mix. He points out different moments, highlighting the abilities of the other musicians in the band, talks about how hearing the music recorded in a more professional way gives him a deeper appreciation for it, and delivers a fascinating monologue that makes it clear just how much thought went into crafting these songs.
The whole time this is happening, the camera is pointed at the wall, nowhere near either one of us. I wanted to weep when I saw it. You might think I should have included it anyway, but five minutes of looking at a wall is pretty hard to take, no matter how good the soundtrack is.
If only I had the ability to create a little animated short to serve as a replacement to the nothingness captured by the camera. But I’m not an animator. At least there are a lot of other fun moments in there, and you get to watch a bunch of teenagers alternate between goofing off and doing some serious recording. And there are a few moments of supreme lunacy from a skinny, beardless version of yours truly. I don’t remember saying any of those demented things I said, but the camera doesn’t lie.
Gord’s spur-of-the-moment decision to record over some of the footage from the second day is a mixed blessing. You lose Tyson trying to talk me into improvising a vocal track on the most melodic Fetal Pulp song, along with most of the sound effects he added in lieu of vocals. There was more of Jay in there too. But what Gord filmed on top of that is some of the only surviving GWD footage, even if it’s just me and Tyson running through a tongue-in-cheek medley of some of our “hits”.
(I’m saving that GWD footage for something else. It wouldn’t have made much sense to include it here, even if it was the way our second day of recording ended.)
I recorded a little voiceover to act as an introduction and a coda to the main course. I’m not sure I’ll be doing that again — it feels more natural talking to a camera when I’m doing this sort of thing — but it was fun to try something different. I think it works well enough, offering a little bit of context and allowing me to make use of a few pieces of music that will probably show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE someday.
Even the rendering process wasn’t the disaster it could have been. The crusty old laptop I use for video editing purposes has experienced something of a rebirth since that nice fella at PC Outfitters blew a mountain of dust from the casing that holds the fans. It’s still slower than mud, but with a new swagger in its step. A slow swagger.
This was a real test for it. An hour and twenty minutes is by far the longest video project I’ve ever asked Sony Vegas to process. I think the meatiest thing I’d done before this was one packed video progress report that touched down around the fifty minute mark, and that was back when the laptop in question was still in its prime.
It took six hours, but the video rendered without the computer once overheating or shutting down. Not so long ago, expecting it to survive for a tenth of that time was pushing it. This gives me hope that when my semi-documentary about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is done, it too will render without the world coming to an end.
The trouble came after the video was finished rendering. I noticed the sound went out of sync around the halfway point. There was no explanation for it. I’ve never had this happen before with any video I’ve edited. Vegas was at least helpful enough to tell me how far things were out of sync, but it wouldn’t tell me the cause. Why I was able to see how much things had shifted was a mystery in itself.
There was only one fix. I painstakingly uncoupled the audio from every single clip past the forty-five-minute mark and inched it forward until everything was synchronized again. I rendered just the second half of the video. Then I discovered the last few minutes were still out of sync, so I fixed those bits and rendered that part. I was left with three separate video files I needed to trim and stitch together.
I assumed I could do this with the ever-handy MMPEG Streamclip without suffering any quality loss through additional compression. I was wrong. The program doesn’t recognize WMV files. The only thing I was able to find that seemed like it might help me was something called Machete. Only the “lite” version was free, but it had all the capabilities I needed. It wasn’t Mac-compatible, though. I had to download it on the sluggish laptop reserved for video editing.
Machete let me trim and join clips to my heart’s content. It left a second or two of ugly blank space where each edit was made, but I was okay with that…until I went to save the file and discovered it was going to take even longer than it did to process the full-length video in Vegas.
You failed me, Machete.
I was left with no choice but to start from scratch and render the whole video file all over again. That meant another five and-a-half hours of waiting, and then an additional four or five hours to upload to Vimeo.
There’s one little wonky editing mistake near the end where Tyson’s smile appears to break the space-time continuum. With all the audio I had to move around, I missed snipping out a split-second piece of footage that repeated itself. After all that frustration, I don’t care enough to go back and fix it. Maybe some other time.
Watching this makes me wish all over again that I could go back in time and buy a video camera of my own long before I started thinking it might be a good idea to get one. I missed out on capturing a whole lot of cool music-related things. At least there were weekends like this one when someone else had the foresight to grab a camera and let it roll. But what I wouldn’t give for some Papa Ghostface recording footage from 1999, or any number of other things…
Viewer discretion is advised: there’s a whole lot of swearing in this video, a bit of onscreen drug use (just a bit of pot being smoked, but still), and while I’m pretty sure Brandon only pretends to expose himself a little past the fifty-five minute mark, I’m not taking any chances with the powers that be at Vimeo. This one gets a “mature” rating.
Another period of blog neglect. Another lonely tear shed by a forgotten Tonka truck resting at the bottom of a toy chest.
At least I have a good excuse this time: I’ve been busy recording music. While my own album has remained the focus, there’s been the odd pleasant detour. On Thursday Ron’s friend Alison swung by to add some violin to one of his songs.
I like how this video still makes it look like a very inept special effects department took a shot at making Ron look like Evil Microphone Hybrid Man and failed with flying colours.
Before we got together, Ron asked if I had any ideas for songs we might have Alison play on. I picked the song that felt like the last one you’d expect violin to show up in, because these are the things I do.
I’m not sure Alison even heard the song before she played on it, but she gave us some great stuff. The last two takes in particular are full of perfect little countermelodies that add something special to the fabric of the song. Choosing a take or coming up with a composite that grabs the best moments from both is going to be a little tricky. But when you’re working with good material to begin with, you really can’t go wrong.
A few nights before all this, I was watching a bunch of “Steamed Hams” remix videos on YouTube. If you aren’t familiar with them, these involve a memorable scene from “22 Short Films About Springfield” — an episode of The Simpsons from a time when the show was still operating at the height of its powers — being warped and/or re-contextualized in a number of ways. Some of the things people have come up with are pretty great.
A few of my favourite variations on the theme:
At some point, this popped up on the sidebar:
…which led me to this:
And that was it for me and “Steamed Hams”.
I don’t know how many times I watched those last two videos that night, but it was a lot. I also don’t know how you make Tom and Jerry and The Pink Panther seem like the saddest cartoons in the world. Whoever edited these videos found some untapped melancholy I never knew was there, and they bit down on it hard until they drew blood. As much as I appreciated that element of it, it was the voiceI kept coming back to. It was as beautiful as it was unusual.
That voice belongs to someone known only as Shiloh Dynasty. No one knows anything for sure about Shiloh’s gender, location, or age — or if they do, they’re not talking. Even the most cursory biographical details are impossible to come by. The only person to go on record saying they’ve had any contact with Shiloh used the pronoun “she”, so that’s what I’ll stick with until I’m told otherwise.
As far as I can work out, Shiloh posted a slew of videos on Vine and Instagram in 2014 and 2015, doing little to call attention to herself. Most of these were live acoustic guitar/vocal performances. A few were apparent vocal ad-libs over instrumental beats found on the internet. You can find a video on YouTube that features every known surviving Shiloh song fragment stitched together. It makes for hypnotic listening, and inspires more than a few thoughts of, “How on earth do you come up with vocal melodies like this?”
“Fragment” is the key word here. There are no full songs. Most performances are somewhere between six and twenty seconds long. It almost feels like this was done intentionally — to encourage producers to loop and cut up these mini-songs and stretch them out (something a whole host of people did, sharing the results on SoundCloud). It’s possible she was just getting down ideas using the camera in her phone. Whatever the case, there’s more heart, soul, and melodic invention in many of these gesture drawings than there are in most people’s full-length songs.
As Shiloh’s following grew, it seems she was uncomfortable with the rising interest in her music and chose to step back. People were left to speculate. Some minds drifted to dark places, starting rumours that she’d committed suicide.
Last summer, rapper XXXTentation released his debut album, 17. Three of its songs featured Shiloh, albeit in sampled form. Potsu, who produced those songs, had to get in touch with Shiloh at some point to clear those samples. According to people who claim to have spoken to Potsu, he’s said she’s alive and well. She just isn’t interested in having any kind of spotlight shining in her direction.
How someone could manage to remain an absolute mystery in spite of being a featured performer on an album that hit #2 on the Billboard charts and got a ton of publicity…it’s not easy to wrap your head around. But that’s Shiloh: a friendly ghost in the age of information overload. It’s kind of refreshing to know such a thing can still exist.
Try as I might, I can’t listen to her as a hook placed between someone else’s rapped verses. It feels like a perversion. An intrusion. Her voice needs to stand alone. Like this.
What Potsu did here, for the most part, was just make a beat to play off of Shiloh’s song fragment and then punch up the sound of her original lo-fi phone recording with some well-chosen reverb, compression, and EQ. It’s all about supporting what’s already there. As it should be. Sometimes less really is more.
As usual, I’m late to the party here. I didn’t find out about Shiloh until long after she retreated into the shadows. But listening to her and discovering just how little there was to be discovered about her got me thinking about the odd, two-faced relationship I have with mystery as a general thing.
Unsolved crimes and unexplained disappearances have always intrigued me, as morbid as that might sound. There’s often the feeling that if you could uncover just one crucial piece of information, the whole thing would snap into place and everything would be explained, but nothing ever quite adds up. For every rare case like Lori Ruff — whose real identity was finally revealed without offering much in the way of closure — there are insoluble enigmas like the bizarre case of Tamam Shud and the disappearances of Jean Spangler, Louis Le Prince, Ray Gricar, the Sodder children, and the entire crew of the MV Joyita.
I love reading about this stuff and playing armchair detective. At the same time, there’s a part of me that would almost be disappointed if some of these strange cases were ever solved. When the answer to an unanswerable question feels too mundane to do it justice, you can find yourself thinking it was all a lot more compelling when you didn’t know what to think.
This applies to music as well. I enjoy learning about the artists whose work speaks to me, but I’ve always had an attraction to those who are more obscure. The ones who seem somewhat unknowable. Here again the urge to know everything fights against the excitement of not knowing.
Syd Barrett is a good example.
I remember being twelve or thirteen years old, reading all the available information about Syd, and thinking he was the most interesting person I’d ever heard of. Here was a guy who, even as he was losing his grip on reality and was about to be kicked out of the band he was responsible for creating, still had enough of his wits about him to play a brilliant little practical joke on the rest of Pink Floyd.
One day he brought in a new song to show the band. It was called “Have You Got It Yet?” Syd tried teaching it to Roger Waters, but Roger was having a hell of a time trying to work it out.
After a few run-throughs he figured out what the problem was. Every time he played the song, Syd would change it just enough to make whatever memory remained of the previous version useless. He did it over and over again, always altering the music in some subtle but fundamental way. The one part that stayed the same each time was a call-and-response chorus that had Syd singing, “Have you got it yet?” and the rest of the band shouting, “No, no, no!”
No one else was ever going to be able to get it. Syd made sure of that.
I devoured stories like this one, along with details about unreleased songs like “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream” — songs I thought would be forever inaccessible to me. Then I got a little older, the internet grew some serious legs, and I got to hear those songs. As much as I enjoyed them, on some level I missed having to imagine for myself what they sounded like, creating half-formed songs for my brain to sing to itself in the absence of the real thing.
Maybe more than a “losing the mystery” thing it was a “losing some of the wide-eyed wonder of youth” thing, and Syd got mixed up in it. I’m not sure. But today you can even hear the mythical unreleased solo session Syd cut in 1974 without having to look very hard. It isn’t the “abortion” some witnesses described it as at the time. It sounds like Syd was having a bit of aimless fun jamming on a few rough guitar ideas, overdubbing his own bass tracks and the odd additional guitar part.
It’s nice to be able to hear it, if only to refute the claims of those who’d have you believe Syd was an acid-fried vegetable incapable of stringing anything coherent together on the guitar by the mid-1970s. There are moments that make you wonder what he might have been able to do if he kept showing up at the studio often enough to refine the sketches and record some vocal tracks. It wasn’t to be. After wandering for a while, the music retreats into itself before fading away, much like Syd was about to do himself.
The last time I got wrapped up in a good musical mystery was when an album called L’Amour hit the streets in 2014. It wasn’t a new album. It had been recorded all the way back in 1983, written and performed by a man named Randall Wulff who called himself Lewis.
Jack Fleischer’s liner notes for the Light in the Attic reissue make for some captivating reading. He was able to untangle some of Lewis’s story, but every bit of information he managed to unearth only raised more questions. What kind of person worked as a stockbroker in Calgary in the ’80s, lived in an apartment with all-white furniture, left town after writing a bad cheque to a photographer, and made music that sounded like…this? And why would he then go to such great lengths to fall off the face of the earth?
When L’Amour first gained a wider audience after existing for decades as a self-funded private press LP, some listeners made comparisons to Arthur Russell. I can sort of hear it, maybe, a little, but I think there’s a fundamental difference between the two artists. Arthur sang softly to pull you closer. Lewis sounds more like he’s trying to keep his heart hidden at the same time he’s holding it out for you to see. Most of his lyrics are impossible to decipher. The harder you squint to try and see him, the less sure you are that he’s there at all.
L’Amour is an album out of time. It doesn’t sound much like anything else that was recorded in the 1980s, or in any other decade. You’ve got Lewis playing piano and acoustic guitar and mumbling his lyrics in his strange whisper-croon, and then you’ve got someone named Philip Lees (a mystery himself, and maybe a pseudonym invented to make it look like more than a one-man operation) playing a synthesizer that sounds like it has a malfunctioning pitch wheel. It’s as if one of the background characters in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street stumbled into a recording studio after a little too much cocaine and the microphones captured his dark night of the soul.
“Cool Night in Paris” was the first song I heard. I was transfixed. The bluesy acoustic guitar, the soft, warped synth, and that quivering voice created a sound that was a little unsettling, and impossible to forget.
Now that his album wasn’t just haunting the odd thrift shop anymore, people wanted to know more about this dude who made a point of dedicating one of his songs to model Christie Brinkley for no apparent reason. A second Lewis album — Romantic Times — was discovered and reissued in short order. If it didn’t have quite the same gravity as L’Amour, it had some gorgeous songs and richer soundscapes to recommend it. It wasn’t a simple retread. This time there was wailing saxophone! And a drum machine! And analog synths straight out of the Vangelis Blade Runner playbook.
For a while, the best source of Lewis-related intel was an epic thread on the hipinion message board. I tried to join so I could be a part of the fun, but it turns out you can’t just register and get an account there the way you can at any normal message board. You have to try and get the attention of an existing member who has some amount of clout, assuming you can find a way to contact them outside of the site. After that, maybe they’ll put in a good word for you and you’ll be allowed into the club, if you’re lucky. If not, your account will be “pending approval” forever.
That’s some pretty goofy shit right there. And if you know me, you probably know how I feel about “clubs” and “scene cred” and all that stuff. So you’ll be stunned to learn my account was never approved and is lying dormant somewhere inside the vast anus of cyberspace.
Still, there was some good discussion over there. A few posters even dug up some interesting nuggets. They were able to verify that Lewis used Randy Duke as another alias, recording some music in the late 1980s and early 1990s that got a belated release during the height of Lewismania. Most of it is pretty horrible, with some ham-fisted overdubs that do nothing to serve the music. The alien quality that gave the first two albums much of their power is gone. But that voice is still there, if a little older, harsher, and less concerned with melody.
Light in the Attic, acting on a tip they received from someone who knew Lewis, managed to track him down at one of his favourite coffee chops. He refused to reveal anything of substance about his past, turned down a royalty cheque, and seemed amused and a little surprised by the mystique his music had generated thirty years after it was made. He said he was still making music but had no desire to make any money off of it and no interest in discussing his earlier work.
Of course, he was wearing all white.
As a lover of mystery, you couldn’t hope for a much better ending to the Lewis story. Though there’s some amount of resolution, things are still left open-ended. And yet I can’t help wishing they never found the guy at all. Somehow it would be a better story if he remained an unseen subject of conjecture.
Shiloh knows where it’s at. When you have nothing else to go on, you’re forced to generate everything you think you know about an artist from their art alone. And maybe, sometimes, that’s enough.
Yesterday it was April Fools’ Day and Easter on the very same day. And yet I had nothing ludicrous to report. It’s shameful, I know. In all honesty, this goof right here — which somehow fooled at least two or three people at the time — was always going to be hard to top.
A few kernels of news:
Mixes for Jess’s album have been approved, so that one should be out in the world as soon as she feels the time is right to release it. The video up there will give you a bit of an idea of what to expect. From beginning to end, it’s been a pleasure working with her. She even gave me one of the most challenging (and rewarding) drum assignments of my life. It’s a great surprise to be tested on what you think is one of your weaker instruments, only to come away from the experience thinking, “Hey…I did pretty good!”
I know I said this before, but it’s worth saying again: what a difference it makes working with a camera that’s a little more robust. It’s nice to be able to shoot handheld and move around without everything degenerating into a total shaky mess. Instead of being limited to static shots, it allows me to introduce a bit of movement when I’m not stuck filming myself. It wouldn’t be pretty if I tried to do the same thing with one of the trusty old Flip cameras.
About half of the songs on Ron’s album already exist as rough mixes, so some serious progress is being made there. It’s a very different project from Jess’s album. Where that one was recorded live for the most part, with her doing everything on every song but one, here my job is much more about arranging and fleshing out the songs. It’s fun having that kind of contrast in your work, where every gig is different.
The next Papa Ghostface album now has a title and cover art. One less thing to worry about during crunch time. That one’s been sitting on the back burner for a while, but it’s starting to come into sharper focus. I think we need to record a few more songs, and then all the necessary raw material will be there. Haven’t been filming any of the recording process so far, when my plan was to grab more footage of us working on this one after only documenting a little bit of STEW. Thankfully there’s still time to remedy that.
My oft-mentioned solo album with many guests continues to hum along. I’m not even going to try and work out where I am with that one anymore. I’ll just keep chipping away at it, and eventually it’ll be finished.
If all these things manage to see the light of day in 2018, maybe this will be my real making-up-for-lost-time year. Here’s hoping.
It’s been a very long time since I’ve read anything about myself that weighs more than about half a paragraph. It’s strange at first, trying to calibrate the old brain to the experience. But I have to say, of all the things about me that have appeared online and in print media over the years, this is one of the few — along with Dalson Chen’s Windsor Star article from early 2009 — that will give you some useful information if you aren’t familiar with my work in the field of tonsil upholstery.
The bits about Tara and Jesse made me cackle out loud. Talk about unexpected. Also unexpected: the mention of Tyson’s influence. These folks did some serious digging into the blog’s rarely-explored sidebar to pick that up. But I’m glad it’s there. As much of a miserable teenager as I turned into for a while, that band I had with Gord and Tyson long ago was a great adventure. Even if Tyson and I didn’t always see things the same way, he had some ideas that changed the shape of our music for the better. At a time when I hated the sound of my voice and didn’t ever want to overdub anything, he pushed me to record vocal harmonies, and though I resisted more than I should have, I learned to love doing it in a whole new way once I made some amount of peace with my vocal cords later on. I’m not sure it would have happened the same way without his encouragement.
Having read the Diane Motel piece first, I assumed part of the theme would be working me into the context of the larger Windsor music scene — a scene I’ve had a bit of a checkered relationship with. I was wondering how you stitch someone into the fabric of something they’re not really a part of anymore. Reading what they wrote near the end, it struck me that I’ve worked with a lot of the people in this musical community in some capacity, at one time or another. Maybe there’s a way to be part of a scene while choosing to be more or less invisible. I have a hard time believing anything I’ve done has had a palpable influence on anyone else, but you never know. Maybe some of my fingerprints are in there somewhere even if I don’t think they are.
All else aside, “genre-melding outlier” has to be one of my favourite things anyone has ever said or written about me. I’m keeping that one.
Check out the video interview for Maximum Beardage.
Two takeaways from this video:
1. This was the least awkward I’ve ever felt in an interview situation. I think it shows. I’m not sure if they caught me on a good brain day, or if I’ve just passed the point of caring how I come across to anyone in any situation and it’s freed me up to be more comfortable in my own skin-coloured birthday suit. Either way, for once I can listen to myself speak about something I know a thing or two about and think, “Hey! I sound like I know what I’m talking about! Go me!”
2. I was thinking it was about time to trim the beard. Now I’m having second thoughts. I mean, look at that thing! It’s been at least a few years since I’ve let it go this long without a serious trimming-down. Looking at it in the bathroom mirror every day is one thing. Seeing it like this and getting some idea of how it looks to other people has me considering letting it go a while longer. I kind of like the grey hairs that have snuck in there, too. Makes me look like a low-rent elder statesman in training.
I came to the music of Shudder to Think in a pretty backwards way. My introduction to the band was their soundtrack for Lisa Cholodenko’s underrated 1998 film High Art.
Every poster, DVD cover, and promotional image makes this movie look like a steamy soft porn flick. It’s a universe away from that. The story goes much deeper than “pretty people getting naked”. There’s some sex in the film, but it grows out of the characters and their interactions in an organic way. It isn’t there to titillate. When it happens, it means something. Ally Sheedy gives what might be the performance of her life in the role of a talented but troubled photographer, and the always excellent Patricia Clarkson is terrifying as a drug casualty who’s much more intelligent and manipulative than she lets on.
As good as the film is, the music was what stayed with me. When “She Might Be Waking up” played over the end credits, it was a hard kick to the chest that made a devastating ending hit even harder, and I knew I needed to own the soundtrack album.
I ordered it online. There was no way I was ever going to find it in a record store anywhere. When the CD showed up in the mail, the packaging was just as it was supposed to be, but the music on the disc wasn’t the High Art soundtrack. It was live jazz. The first track was “All Blues”. Given the crisp drum sound and the large band, I assumed it was a single-disc distillation of highlights from Miles Davis’s 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival performance.
I loved Miles even back then, but I didn’t listen beyond the first song. This wasn’t what I paid for, and I was a little pissed. I ordered another copy of the CD, got the music that was supposed to be on it in the first place, and tossed the “defective” copy aside. I forgot all about it.
A week or two ago, that mysterious jazz album popped back into my head. I was pretty sure I still had it somewhere. It took a while to dig it out of my CD collection, but I found it hidden away in one of the dustier corners. I was long overdue to give it a real listen and figure out just what I had here.
Two songs in, someone started singing, and I knew straight away it wasn’t Miles. It was Chet Baker. There’s no mistaking that voice for anyone else’s.
What I got, on what was supposed to be my first copy of the High Art soundtrack, was My Favourite Songs: the Last Great Concert, recorded in April 1988, two weeks before Chet died. It only took me close to twenty years to realize it.
The story behind the album goes something like this: some German fans who were involved in the music business wanted to honour Chet. They probably knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer. They said, “Chet, here’s the deal. You tell us what your favourite songs are. We’ll take care of the charts and put a big band and an orchestra together, and we’ll record the show. All you have to do is show up and play.”
Chet took that a little too literally. He didn’t bother to materialize for rehearsals. He walked into the concert hall for the first time the day of the show. You’d never know it to listen to the recording. It isn’t late-period Chet at his absolute best (for some of that, check out 1979’s Broken Wing and then Chet Baker in Tokyo from nine years later), but it’s still great stuff.
Watching video footage from the last years of Chet’s life is like eavesdropping on a ghost. He looks far older than his fifty-something years, with the crumbled majesty of his once beautiful face serving as hard-won proof that heroin can turn James Dean into the Grim Reaper. Then he raises the trumpet to his lips and is transformed, playing with a level of grace and invention someone in his condition shouldn’t be capable of.
One of the great twisted tragedies of the Chet Baker story is that he made some of his best music while he was slowly killing himself. He bragged about never needing to practice, but in his later years he played more than he ever had before, taking every gig he could get. He needed the money for drugs. The more shows he played, the better and deeper his playing became.
Rarely has such beautiful music been made under such sordid circumstances.
The mystery for me is how what might be the last recording Chet ever made ended up packaged as a Shudder to Think soundtrack CD. Every issue and subsequent reissue of My Favourite Songs is on the German label Enja. The High Art soundtrack was issued on Velvel Records, an offshoot of Koch. As fas as I can tell, the two were never affiliated in any way. The only thing I can think of is maybe both labels used the same media broker at some point in the late ’90s and someone fell asleep at the wheel.
At least there’s an easy way for me to differentiate between the two CDs with identical packaging.
As for Shudder to Think, taking in the rest of their discography after only hearing the music they made for High Art was a bit of a shock, the same way I imagine the soundtrack startled fans of their earlier work.
This is my favourite kind of band — the unclassifiable kind. To try and squeeze them into a genre is to drive yourself insane. They were labelled “post-hardcore”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and on some of their early albums on the Dischord label you can hear traces of Hüsker Dü. By the time you get to an album like Get Your Goat, they sound like no one else.
The tricky time signatures, unorthodox guitar riffs that balance melody and dissonance on a knife edge, and pinpoint dynamic shifts might have slid them into an uneasy position somewhere in the realm of math rock if they were an instrumental band. But then Craig Wedren’s unique, elastic, theatrical voice (once described as sounding like “Michael Stipe’s psychotic uncle on LSD”) bends everything in a different direction. It’s at once the last voice you would ever expect to hear singing this music and the only voice that makes sense. Imagine Jeff Buckley singing with Stone Temple Pilots after being held hostage for years by The Dillinger Escape Plan and developing some serious Stockholm Syndrome, and you’re still only halfway there.
When they signed with Epic Records in the mid-’90s, a lot of fans cried “sell-out”. And yet the first album they delivered to their new label, Pony ExpressRecord,is probably their finest moment. It sounds like a distillation of everything the albums that came before were working toward.
From the hard rock deconstruction of “Hit Liquor”, to the power ballad from another planet that is “Earthquakes Come Home”, to the eerie beauty of “No Rm. 9, Kentucky”, it’s a funhouse mirror album of elements that shouldn’t work together finding a way to coil themselves into something harmonious and wonderfully strange. No list of the least commercial albums ever released by a major label is complete without it.
The lone cover song is a deranged take on Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You”, exposing the latent creepiness buried beneath the soft rock sheen of the original.
Random confession time. When I first heard the ARS version on the radio as a twelve-year-old, I thought the opening line was:
When you walked into the room, there was doo-doo in the vase.
Not quite the romantic sentiment of “voodoo in the vibes”. But if a whirlwind attraction can survive the smell of random crap, surely it’s built to last, no?
The next Shudder to Think album, 50,000 BC, was seen by some as a betrayal of everything the band was about. One angry fan called it “art rock for losers”. It didn’t help that an Epic press release hailed it as “a totally commercially accessible album that includes pure alternative rock ‘n’ roll songs and simple ballads” — in other words, the opposite of everything Shudder to Think had ever done.
I can’t help feeling this album got a little more hate than it deserved. It does feel like a bit of a step back, and if there was some record label pressure to make music that was more accessible to the masses, well…it sounds like it. The confrontational energy of Pony Express Record is gone. But this band was incapable of making boring music.
Listen to the opening track, “Call of the Playground”, with its stop-start rhythm and some sweetly-sung lyrics that read like a confusing childhood nightmare. It sounds more like a demented parody of an alternative rock hit than anything anyone ever could have believed stood a chance of garnering significant airplay on mainstream radio. And “Red House” is a glorious song by any measure, even if it was first recorded for 1991’s Funeral at the Movies, recorded another three times after that, and loses a bit of its punch in this final, more polished incarnation.
The fans that didn’t jump ship after hearing 50,000 BC were probably baffled by the mood pieces that made up the soundtrack to High Art. Recorded for the most part in Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson’s respective apartments, this music is more about creating atmospheres and soundscapes than constructing or deconstructing conventional song shapes. Only “Battle Soaked (Amnesian Mix)” features the sound of Craig’s voice, multi-tracked and mostly wordless, adding splashes of colour to a funky electronic workout.
The one song with a full set of lyrics just happens to be one of the best songs you’ve probably never heard, and it’s proof that Craig wasn’t the only great singer in the band. Guitarist Nathan Larson takes the lead for “She Might Be Waking up”, revealing a voice capable of moving from a broken, half-whispered croon to a soaring falsetto. In a way, this is a dress rehearsal for the songs Nathan would go on to write for Jealous God, his first solo album. It’s also better than anything on that album — darker, deeper, and with the lo-fi production lending it more character.
There was more soundtrack work ahead, with the band contributing a few songs to Velvet Goldmine and then a whole pile of tunes to First Love, Last Rites — a classic example of the soundtrack being a lot better than the movie it’s attached to.
This last one is a bit of a mixed bag of genre exercises, but the idea to write songs for a lot of different singers and then play the whole thing off as a series of radio broadcasts throughout the film was kind of brilliant, and there are some real gems knocking elbows with the near-misses. You could make a pretty wonderful EP out of “I Want Someone Badly” (sung by Jeff Buckley), “Appalachian Lullaby” (sung by Nina Persson), “Speed of Love” (sung by John Doe), and “Day Ditty” (sung by Angela McCluskey).
And then the band very quietly called it quits.
Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson have both gone on to have successful film scoring careers punctuated by the occasional solo album. There have been a few reunions here and there and a live album or two, but there hasn’t been a new collection of Shudder to Think songs in twenty years now.
Elsewhere in the abandoned old bowling alley of life, Dale Jacobs asked me a few weeks back if I would be willing to be an interview subject for a class he’s teaching at the University of Windsor called Writing about Music.
I’ve unofficially “retired” from granting interviews to anyone, for any reason. I think the last one happened back in 2011, and it might not even exist on the internet anymore. I had a few good experiences during my thirty-eight minutes of local fame/infamy, but after too many run-ins with agenda-humping writers who had no interest in learning anything about who I am, what I do, or why I do it the way I do, I decided it was better to let the music speak for itself. Besides, there’s already more information about me and what I do available here than anyone could ever want to know.
Maybe that sounds a little harsh, but I’m not talking about something as simple as not being a fan of someone’s writing style or not liking the way I was presented in a certain piece. I’m talking about shit like this:
I once spent an hour or two talking to a writer, giving him a ton of material to work with, and when the article he wrote was printed, I learned he didn’t use a single thing I said. Not one word. Instead, he lifted uncredited quotes from my blog, defeating the whole purpose of meeting with him.
This is someone who began the interview by complaining about other people plagiarizing his work. Then he turned around and did the same thing to me.
Another writer invented quotes I never said in an effort to bend me to his purpose, because I wouldn’t say what he wanted to hear. He thought he could bully me into submission by painting me into a corner. When that didn’t work, he took every opportunity he could to denigrate me in print and deliberately misrepresented the nature of a show I was playing to try and perform some small, impotent act of subterfuge. When that didn’t work, he settled for trying to drag my name through the mud whenever I came up in the course of a conversation he happened to be privy to.
I’ve been told by a number of people this is something he still does from time to time. How do you respond to that kind of absurdity? I don’t know if it’s funny or sad. Maybe a bit of both. I guess a half-hearted laugh-shrug is appropriate.
My point is, you have enough experiences with people like that, and you don’t feel much like giving an interview to anyone anymore.
This was a little different. Dale has been supporting my music for years. He was one of the people who gave CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN some serious airplay on CJAM during the surreal summer of 2008, back when he was still hosting Steel-Belted Radio. And when he told me the other local interview subjects were going to be members of Diane Motel, I thought, “I might be able to offer an interesting contrast to that interview.”
So I said sure. Why not?
Earlier this week, four students from Dale’s class — half of a group called TheSound Collective — came over to the house and interviewed me. I went into it with an open mind while bracing myself for the usual one-size-fits-all questions.
My least favourite, and one that’s come up in almost every interview I’ve ever done: “What are your influences?”
I hate this question. I hate it because it implies the person asking it couldn’t be bothered to listen to any of my music to work out for themselves what they think they might hear in it. It also says to me, “What you do can be boiled down to a sentence and a musical reference or two.”
I’m not sure that’s true of anyone. I know it isn’t true in my case. I’ve always thought the whole point was to discover and develop your own voice — not to see how much mimicry you can get away with without being called a ripoff artist.
There are two ways I can answer this stupid question.
I can tell you my music has always been more influenced by my personal life, where I am emotionally at any given time, and the people I interact with. It’s the truth, but it sounds pretty pretentious.
Or I can name some of the bands and artists who have had a serious impact on me. But if I do that, I want to explain why their work grabbed me and how it spoke to me. I want to tell you how certain singers turned me on to the idea of using the voice not just as a vehicle to deliver the lyrics, but as an instrument in its own right. How hearing a specific album at a specific time in my life short-circuited my brain and forced me to recalibrate all my ideas about what a song could be. How pianists as disparate as Thelonious Monk, John Cale, and Nicky Hopkins changed the way I approached playing the piano.
Most writers don’t want to hear all that, because they’re not really writers at all. They don’t want a story. They want a soundbite.
The other night, that question I hate wasn’t asked. In its place was this: “Is there anything you’re listening to right now that you find is influencing you or inspiring you in some way?”
A very different, much more thought-provoking question, this one. And it opens the door for a story to sneak through.
Every question they asked me was unexpected, and intelligent, and forced me to give some serious thought to how I wanted to respond. They did some actual research beforehand, which is more than I can say for most of the folks who interviewed me in the past. What’s more, they all seemed genuinely engaged and enthusiastic to be talking to me.
It was the most enjoyable, surprising, and stimulating interview I’ve ever been involved in. Kind of restored my faith in the whole process.
Thanks to Brittany, Iovan, Aria, and Shannon for a really positive, memorable experience, and thanks to Dale for asking me to be a part of the project. It’s the first time in years I can say I’m looking forward to reading something that’s being written about me instead of dreading it. I’ll link to the piece here when it goes live on the Sound Collective blog.
A little less than a week ago, this blog turned ten years old. Every single other personal website or blog-ish thing I once maintained has long since turned to digital dust. Still this one persists. It defies explanation.
I wanted to do something special to commemorate a decade of bloggage. Maybe make a silly video or something. But the only thing my creative energy seems to want to fling itself into right now is music. As luck would have it, I was able to find a video made by someone else that carries with it a suitable feeling of triumph. If this doesn’t get your pulse racing, I’m not sure what will.
All the bed tracks for Ron’s album have now been recorded and tucked in, and I’ve already started working on the arrangements. I have a feeling the “production” side of things isn’t going to take too long there. Every time I sit down with one of his songs I seem to find myself maxing out the mixer in an afternoon. Rough mixes for Jess’s album have been delivered and approved, so all I need to do there is some fine-tuning to arrive at what will hopefully be final mixes. The followup to STEW has ground to a halt for the moment, but work on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is starting to pick up again.
All in all, I’d say things are just about back on track.