something to viddy

Take me on.

Almost everyone can remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard A-ha’s breathless pop classic “Take on Me”.

Post Malone was in his parents’ basement, tattooing a portrait of Louis Althusser on his left ass cheek with the aid of a stolen compact mirror. Willie Nelson was alone in the back of his tour bus, trying to smoke a breadstick after burning through his entire stash of pot. Britney Spears was giving her sister’s Barbie Doll the evil eye and contemplating drowning it in the bathtub.

Someone you might not expect to be a fan is Gordon Lightfoot. In a little-known interview with Canadian Tire Magazine, Gordon once opined, “It really is the quintessential love song. It grabs you by the throat and forces you to eat a pile of hummus, whether you’re hungry or not.”

Dive deep enough into the Dark Web, past the secret Fifth Harmony porn films and the failed standup comedy of Donald Trump, and you’ll find a bootleg recording of an intimate show Gordon played for a small but appreciative audience in the mid-1990s, backed only by a pianist. For the only time in the great man’s long and storied career, he chose to put his stamp on a number of obscure covers, from Sepultura’s “Ratamahatta” to Swing Out Sister’s “Breakout”. Tucked away at the very beginning of the show like a quiet prayer is a song that has touched the lives of so many, written by some very photogenic Norwegian dudes.

Here’s Gordon Lightfoot singing “Take on Me”.

Take on Me (live)

Dancing in a Dark Room.

Zara’s new album has gone out into the world.

Most of this one was recorded over two days in April. Zara played my Gibson LG-2 for the first time since her first album and brought along her own ukulele. I tried recording her playing and singing at the same time for a song or two, but that approach was abandoned pretty fast. There was too much bleed. I still haven’t found a way to record someone playing acoustic guitar and singing live off the floor that satisfies me. The microphones I use now are too sensitive to get enough separation, and the dynamic mics I used to pull out for live guitar/vocal recordings sound a little too thin now that they’re not plugged into a low-end mic preamp.

Funny how that works.

There was a lot of laughter and joking around between the songs. I mixed one of the silly moments and included it in the WAV files I sent Zara just for fun. I had no idea she was going to keep it on the album, but I’m glad she did.

I also captured her playing a bit of an idea that wasn’t yet a proper song. There were a few ukulele chords, there was an improvised vocal melody, and that was it. Something about that little sixty-second sketch really grabbed me. I thought it was kind of perfect just as it was. I sent that one along too, and it’s also on the album.

I’ve grown so used to people stamping out anything that resembles a human or random moment in their music, it’s almost a shock when someone wants to hold onto these things as much as I do. It’s a good kind of shock, though. Like waking up to discover they’ve started making Choclairs chocolate bars again.

Damn you for discontinuing those sticks of deliciousness, Neilson.

At the top of this post is a video for one of the songs on the album. My plan was to open the blinds and flood the room with some nice natural light, but every time Zara came over it was a grey, rainy day, so it wouldn’t have done much good. Even in a less than ideal lighting situation, I’m enjoying how much better this camera makes everything look. There’s a lot less grain than I was getting with the Flip cameras, and everything feels more vivid and real somehow.

Imagine what I could do if I got some decent lighting happening in that room for a change…

Mixing these songs was a bit of a challenge, just because of how dynamic the performances were. I had to get creative with compression settings and riding some faders to control things without squashing them. I think I found the right balance in the end.

Who wants a “set it and forget it” mixing job anyway? That stuff’s no fun.

The good, the bad, and the bizarre.

Things have been downright tumultuous around here.

I wanted to get in the habit of blogging more often so I could hold myself accountable on the recording side of things. I haven’t managed to do that. I have been making good progress with the album. I’ve also had to accept this sad truth: there’s no way to get it finished in time for the show. It’s turned into too tight a race. I can get it close, but not all the way there.

This is a handbill the wonderful Katie Schram designed for me.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

It would be great if I could print a bunch of these and start handing them out to people. I can’t. For the first time in my life I have promotional material I can’t use, because the show it’s supposed to promote isn’t going to happen.

Here’s why.

First my trombonist pulled out after committing to the show. Then my cellist stopped talking to me with no explanation. Before long my drummer was out of commission and unreachable, the only person I could get to agree to show up for a rehearsal was the bassist, and many of the most important musicians either wouldn’t acknowledge me at all or were pretty vague about when and if they might grace me with their presence.

Sounds a bit like a lame comedy sketch.

You might say, “Well, the musicians involved in this are talented enough that they don’t need much preparation. They could turn up the night of the show with a single rehearsal under their belt and fake their way through it just fine.”

Even if that’s true, the whole “rehearse very little and pray for a miracle” approach doesn’t work for me. It never has. It would be one thing if we were a band with some history. We’re not. I’ve only worked with these people one-on-one in a recording situation. Playing live as a group is a very different beast. You need time to build chemistry and work out arrangements.

I’ve played as a supporting musician in bands that half-assed everything and hoped for the music to glue itself together in the ninth hour. None of those performances were anything to write home about, and I was always a nervous wreck onstage. Why would I want to put myself through that when the music is my own?

The last time I played at Mackenzie Hall I had a three-piece band. We only had six or seven songs we needed to learn as a group. The rest of the show was made up of me doing solo pieces. We must have rehearsed a dozen times over a period of three months. The idea was to get to a place where we were comfortable enough with one another to take off on an improvised tangent in the middle of a song and navigate whatever twists and turns it took with confidence — to be able to pick up on tiny physical cues and execute pin-point dynamic shifts.

We put the work in to toughen ourselves up until we were a real band, and it paid off big time at the show.

That isn’t going to happen this time. Even if every necessary piece of the musical puzzle showed up to rehearse for every Saturday that’s left between now and August 17th, I don’t think there would be enough time for us to get good. At best we would be okay. And that’s not going to cut it.

I may go out of my way to leave mistakes and human moments in my recordings, but I care a great deal about what I do. I’m not going to half-ass my first serious live performance in eight years and the biggest show of my life to accommodate the absent asses of others. If people can’t be bothered to show up and put in the work, there’s no point in losing my mind trying to salvage something out of the chaos. I won’t march into a public humiliation out of some misguided sense of duty, and I didn’t work to get that grant so I could pay people for being a bunch of fucking deadbeats.

I wouldn’t be able to rehearse now anyway. All the stress has caught up with me and made me sick. Ain’t that a kick in the nuts?

I already had my mind pretty much made up about cancelling the show before I got sick, but I took some time to think it over. During my thinking-it-over time, the ghostly cellist popped up to say she’d be available to rehearse about three weeks before the show. As if that would somehow be enough time to get up to speed when she’s never played any of these songs before. The person who was supposed to be my main backup vocalist and a fill-in lead singer for other absent vocalists said she wouldn’t have any time to rehearse with me until the end of July — this after telling me she’d be available to start getting together in early June. Better yet, after letting me believe for months that she was going to be an integral part of the show and one of the main performers, she changed her mind. Now I could only choose three songs I really wanted her to sing on. That was all the material she felt like learning.

There’s no putting a good face on this — she lied to me. She misled me about the role she was prepared to play and how much time she was willing to set aside for me. She’s second-billed on that handbill up there. Someone who’s a glorified walk-on guest doesn’t deserve to be second-billed. And I don’t care how busy you are. If you’re not going to be honest with me, I don’t want to know you.

Any doubts I had about cancelling the show died a violent death right there.

The singer who didn’t want to do much singing wasn’t the only person who was full of shit. Not by a long shot. It’s as if some of these people believed the simple act of attaching their names to my show should have been satisfaction enough for me, and whatever near-nonexistent amount of effort I could get out of them beyond that was supposed to be a bonus.

Someone told me, “You have to understand…most musicians don’t operate the way you do. They have their heads perpetually stuck up their own asses, and their main concern is themselves. That’s just the way they are. You can’t take it personally. It isn’t about you.”

How am I not supposed to take it personally? What other way is there to take it? “Laziness” is not a valid excuse to me. You don’t get to treat your so-called friends like dirt just because you’re talented.

Actually, let me correct that: in most cases you do get to treat your so-called friends like dirt. A lot of people get away with being pretty awful human beings because they have some amount of talent — or at least the ability to convince others they do — and they can be charming and ingratiating when they feel like it. I don’t swim in that ditch. A talented piece of shit is still a piece of shit.

You can make all the excuses you want. My music is who I am. You blow that off and you’re blowing me off. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.

I understand now that I made the tactical error of devising a show that relied on a large supporting cast of characters in order to succeed. Many of the most important players let me down. My dream was to give a multi-faceted gift to the community through music and visual art. The indifference of my peers has decimated that dream.

So I’ve cancelled the dates at Mackenzie Hall (dress rehearsal and performance), and a week ago I gave the grant money back to the city. I refuse to compromise my vision to the point that the show no longer resembles what it was supposed to be. This was going to be something special. It was the culmination of more than five years of work. I put it together a specific way and worked my ass off to make it a reality. Limping into Mackenzie Hall with some half-formed version of what could have been would feel even more like defeat than pulling the plug and walking away.

Could I have done something with just a rhythm section? Sure. Could I have done a one-man show? Yeah. But I’ve already done both of those things at Mackenzie Hall (and I think I did them pretty well). I have no desire to repeat myself.

Most of the people who were going to be my “special guests” were great at communicating with me. I didn’t have to chase them. I’m grateful for that. Darryl and Christy Litster, Ron Leary, Jess O’Neil, Jim Meloche, Dave Dubois, Natalie Westfall — all these folks have been wonderful every step of the way.

In the end, it just wasn’t enough. I felt like I had one big show left in me. This was it. Now it’s dead.

I should have opted for that CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN ten-year anniversary show after all, eh?

Lesson learned — I won’t try to do anything like this again. And if anyone accuses me of being a weirdo recluse who doesn’t play well with others after this, I will bite their head off and spit it back into their jagged blood-spurting neck hole.

You might think this is an extreme overreaction to a situation that wasn’t beyond help. Unless you’ve been through it, you have no idea what it’s like to put your heart and soul into something like this only to watch it collapse in slow-motion. You can’t force people to show up. You can’t force them to care.

I’m told I’m the first person in the history of the ACHF to refund their grant money. It felt like the right thing to do. The event as I pitched it to the jury ceased to exist, and I didn’t want to abuse the system. I know there are people who do that and get away with it. I would rather be honest.

Maybe someone else with better luck will be able to use the money to realize a dream that’s more realistic than mine was. I hope so.

I’m not as disheartened as all of this might make me sound. I’ve gone through the grieving process and more or less made my peace with things not working out. As a wise woman once said, “[You] can’t hug every cat.” I won’t pretend it isn’t disappointing, though. I was pretty proud of the set list and supporting cast I put together. I think it could have been a night to remember.

We’ll never know now.

On a lighter note, the J, K, and L keys on my MacBook stopped working a few weeks ago. Every once in a while I could mash the other keys around them and trick them into cooperating with me for a little bit. After a few days my subterfuge no longer did any good. I was hoping it was just some dirt on one of the contacts. Nope. Had to get the whole keyboard replaced. That was a $200 expense I could have done without. At least the people at Experimax were great to deal with and they fixed it the same day I brought it in.

You don’t notice how much you rely on certain letters until they’re no longer accessible to you. The S key on my crusty old video-editing laptop died years ago, but it’s easy to work around. All I have to do is copy an S from an existing document or file and paste it whenever I need it. When you have to do that with three different letters it becomes much more frustrating and time-consuming, turning what should be a two-minute email into fifteen minutes of tediousness. It’s nice to be able to type freely again.

It hasn’t all been janky laptop keys and crumbling dreams of ambitious live shows over here.

For the better part of twenty years I’ve been trying to track down video footage of my March 2000 performance at the Air Jam (Walkerville’s quirky name for a talent show). I’ve mentioned this a few times before.

I knew of two tapes — the one Gord’s high school girlfriend Amanda filmed, and the one the school filmed. I saw both of them in the summer of 2000. Then I never saw anything that was on either tape again.

I started trying to talk Amanda into letting me borrow her tape so I could make myself a copy when we were still in school. I kept trying after we graduated. Nothing happened. When Facebook came into our lives I started pestering her over there. I tried to get Gord to help. After a lot of false starts, in 2010 Amanda said she had the tape I was after. I rejoiced.

My rejoicing didn’t last long. I spent a month or two trying to arrange to get that tape from her. I offered to pay her just for showing up. It didn’t do any good. She was either noncommittal in her responses to my messages or she ignored me. She wouldn’t give me her phone number or her address, so I couldn’t go to her. I was stuck in limbo.

I nudged Gord into sending her some messages in 2014 and 2015 when we were working on STEW. He said he thought there might be some kinky business on the tape, explaining Amanda’s apparent reluctance to share it with either one of us. I told him to tell her I would give her the money to have a video place transfer the tape into a digital format herself, allowing her to snip out anything she didn’t want me to see. That didn’t do the trick either.

In 2017 I sent Amanda one last heartfelt message. I told her this was a piece of my musical history I felt incomplete without. I explained how much it would mean to me if I could somehow see it again. I also wanted to try and incorporate whatever archival material I could into the DIY documentary I was — and still am — making about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. This stuff was the Holy Grail of archival material.

She wrote back and apologized for the long silence. She said she wasn’t sure what tapes I was on, but she was able to narrow it down to seven possibilities. Years ago she bought some equipment so she could transfer the tapes at home. Then her camera stopped working and she gave up. If I was willing to transfer the tapes myself, I could have all of them. All she asked for in return was that I make her copies of the digital files.

Gord was supposed to swing by her place and grab the tapes before bringing them to me. He couldn’t do a thing with them, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to help pay to have them transferred. He was just another barrier between them and me. It would have made a lot more sense for me to pick them up myself. I couldn’t do that. Amanda still wouldn’t give me her address or phone number.

I don’t like relying on other people for things like this, but I left it in Gord’s hands. He rewarded my trust by almost ruining what looked like my one real shot at a happy ending. The night he was supposed to pick up the tapes, he blew it off.

This is a guy who’s known me since I was fifteen years old. He knew how long I’d been trying to gain access to this material. He knew what it meant to me. And he couldn’t even take five minutes out of his beer-drinking time to make good on what he told me he was going to do. He didn’t care. It didn’t mean anything to him.

I was ready to end our friendship right there. Lucky for him, Amanda took time out of packing for a vacation to bring the tapes to his door, and he was forced to pass them on to me.

Victory at last? No. Not quite.

I paid Unique Video Systems to convert all those 8mm tapes into MP4 files. I found some great footage I didn’t know existed — some of it featuring a skinny, beardless teenage version of me. But the Air Jam footage wasn’t there.

I told Amanda. She dug up some more tapes. This time I wasn’t on any of them.

I was discouraged but not defeated. There was still the matter of the second tape — the one filmed by the school.

I emailed John Vacratsis. He was a teacher involved in all kinds of art and media-related things at Walkerville during my time there. If anyone was going to know anything about the tape or its whereabouts, it was probably going to be him.

This was the crappiest of crapshoots. I didn’t have a great relationship with Vacratsis when I was a student. He seemed to resent me for not taking any of the music classes he taught, going my own way instead of letting him develop me into another talent Walkerville could be proud of, and he once chewed me out for some material he found offensive on a collage I made for grade twelve English class.

(That our English teacher, who was really a transplanted drama teacher, would have us making collages like children and answering questions about movies untethered to anything in the curriculum so he would have something to base our grades on without having to teach anything that resembled an English class — that was the more alarming issue to me than some goofy thing I put on a collage. But never mind.)

I expected Mr. V to remember me as a troublemaker if he remembered me at all. It didn’t matter. I would play nice in an email and see if it got me anywhere.

To my amazement, it did. He sent me a very kind response and tried to help as much as he could. He gave me the names of media students who might have been operating cameras on that day, he gave me the name of a media teacher who was still teaching at Walkerville, and he wished me luck in my epic quest.

I felt a renewed sense of purpose. Now I had something solid to work with.

One film student said he remembered my performance but didn’t know where the tape might be. The others ignored me. I wrote a letter to the media teacher outlining my plight, with a few albums included as thanks, and left it for him at the front desk.

Stepping inside my high school for the first time in almost nineteen years was a bizarre experience. I was happy to see they now had an upright piano in the hall and anyone was welcome to play it. I sat down and noodled a little. There wasn’t much volume or tone there, but hey, a real piano is a real piano.

Something about being there made me angry. No one was unpleasant. No one ogled at the long-haired bearded guy who was way too old to be a student. I don’t even have that many bad memories from high school, so it wasn’t a matter of old hurts coming back to haunt me. Believe it or not, I wasn’t an outcast or a loner. I was one of those odd students who managed to become popular and well-liked by refusing to be anything other than myself.

Maybe it was just one of those days.

Mr. Allison — the media teacher — sent a very thoughtful email in response to my letter. A lot of people probably would have blown me off, but he did some detective work on my behalf. What he found out wasn’t encouraging. In the days before they had digital video equipment, the school would routinely reuse and record over existing tapes instead of buying new stock. Everything pointed to the Air Jam tape being one of many victims of this recycling program.

This was it. The end of the road. There was no one left to talk to, no lead left to follow, and there were no tapes left to digitize. I was a few hundred bucks poorer and no closer to that Holy Grail footage. There was no reason left to believe it still existed. I had to accept that maybe I just wasn’t meant to ever see it again. Maybe all my efforts had been for nothing.

A few weeks ago I got a message from Amanda. She told me some things that did a lot to explain her apparent standoffishness over the years (I always assumed she never liked me; turns out it had nothing to do with me). She also told me she found three more tapes while going through some things in her basement. She didn’t know what was on them, and she thought it was mostly personal stuff, but she figured it was worth sharing them with me just in case.

I brought those tapes to Unique Video Systems and got my MP4 files. I went through them at home. The first tape had footage from Amanda’s trip to visit a post-high school boyfriend in 2002. The second tape was full of video messages she made for that same boyfriend and some bits of her hanging out with a few friends. I took a look at what was on the third tape and braced myself for more disappointment.

I saw some chunks of what looked like high school performances. I jumped to a random place in the video and landed on an image of myself seated at a digital piano, wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans, and I knew at once what this was.

The 2000 Air Jam. The Holy Grail.

This is what I’ve been chasing for my entire adult life. There was no reason to believe I would ever find it. Now I have it on my hard drive. The absurdity of it all is still sinking in.

I’d chalk that up to the best $61 I’ve ever spent.

Some backstory might help explain why this footage means so much to me, and why unearthing it feels a bit like winning the lottery.

Gord and I tried out for the Air Jam for the first time when we were in grade ten. The “brain” of my very tiny home studio was a Roland VS-880 digital mixer/hard disk recorder. I didn’t have a CD burner that was compatible with the mixer. We recorded a few passes at John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and I dubbed the best takes onto a cassette tape. A friend’s sister was part of the group of students organizing the show. I gave the tape to him to give to her.

We didn’t get in.

Later that same school year, a few other students announced they were putting together something they called an Arts Night. It was really just an after-hours Air Jam. Gord and I auditioned in the music room. We did a rowdy version of “Sweet Jane” (the original Velvet Underground arrangement, not the Cowboy Junkies remake) and I did John Cale’s “Paris 1919” alone at the upright piano.

In those days I had this idea that playing cover songs was a better bet than playing my own material live. I’m not sure why. At least I had good taste in covers (I think). Before settling on those two songs, the Talking Heads track “Drugs” was another consideration.

We passed the audition with flying colours, but the students in charge didn’t feel like putting in the necessary work to make the show happen (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). It died before it even got off the ground.

In grade eleven, Christian Masotti was one of the head organizers of the Air Jam. We were good friends. We respected each other as musicians. This time I knew I would make the cut. Auditioning would be little more than a formality.

My idea was to flesh Papa Ghostface out with another member or two. I had some classes with a guy named Isaac Osmer. I got the chance to jam with him a little when I played another John Cale song in the music room one day before the morning bell. Mr. Ross kicked me out before the song could really get going, but Isaac seemed like a solid drummer and a nice person. When I suggested we do something together sometime, he said he was into it.

Then Christian and my pal Jesse almost sabotaged the whole thing.

Jesse wanted to put a band of his own together for the Air Jam. He wanted Adam Cohen on drums, Max Marshall on lead guitar, and me on bass. He had a song about a young boy losing his mind called “Something in the Attic”. After recording a whole slew of songs with Jesse that didn’t stray far from acoustic love song territory, I was kind of looking forward to being his bassist and rocking out a little on something dark and moody.

Jesse wanted more time to prepare. He had friends on Agora — Walkerville’s student council, named for the public square built in Athens in 500 BC. He pulled some strings and convinced Christian and the other Air Jam organizers to put on two shows instead of one. He claimed he needed the extra time to study and get some of his grades up.

No one believed that story for a second, but he got what he wanted.

Two shows didn’t sound like such a bad idea at first. Christian told me the plan was to have the first show at the end of March. The focus would be on solo performers — students strumming acoustic guitars and wailing cover songs, Faith Hill clones singing to pre-recorded country music on cassette tape, and the like. Two months down the road, the second show would be for full bands and performers who wrote original material. This way everyone would have a chance to shine.

With that kind of structure, it seemed to me the first show would be boring beyond belief and all the good stuff would land in the second one. I told Christian I was putting a band together and had no problem pulling double duty in the second show, backing Jesse up in his band before stepping into the spotlight with mine. Even if we didn’t get anyone aside from Isaac to play with us, Gord could move over to bass and I could play guitar or keyboard. I thought a drummer would give our music a whole new punch.

When the lineups for both shows were posted on the bulletin board in the hall, I did a mental double-take. It wasn’t at all what Christian told me to expect. Neither show had any real theme or focus. Bands, karaoke singers, and solo acoustic performers were thrown together with no apparent thought given to who went where.

Jesse was in the second show. I got bumped to the first one against my will. I didn’t have Jesse’s connections. There were no strings for me to pull. And it was March already, so there would be no time to get tight with Isaac now.

Hot on the heels of that foul-smelling revelation, I learned I wasn’t going to be playing bass with Jesse anymore. Max never showed up for rehearsals. Instead of moving forward with a three-piece band, Jesse decided he would go it alone with an acoustic guitar.

My first impulse was to drop out of the Air Jam as an act of protest. Between Jesse’s machinations and Christian’s shitty organizational skills, I felt like I’d been painted into a corner for no good reason. Then I got a better idea. I would repurpose my frustration and blow it out of my system during our performance. Maybe it would just be the two of us on the stage, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t pull out all the stops.

“Fuck ‘em,” I said to Gord. “If they’re going to screw up our plans, we’ll give them something to remember us by.”

The song we chose to perform was “Pacing the Cage”. It was the first song Gord and I ever wrote together. We ran through it once and knew we wouldn’t have to run through it again. It was in our blood.

There was one mini-rehearsal at school. Everyone played truncated versions of the songs they were going to play at the show. They cut us off halfway through “Pacing the Cage”, just as I was starting to ramp up my voice.

The day of the first Air Jam show, Gord and I slipped into the auditorium after lunch to see how things were going. There was only one mic stand on the stage. I asked Christian if they had any more. He said no. That wasn’t going to work with Gord playing acoustic guitar and me singing at the same time, and I was pretty sure there were other performers who would need more than one mic stand. I walked home and grabbed a few SM57s and mic stands of my own to lend to the cause. It was one of the many times living a two-minute walk away from school came in handy. I also grabbed my acoustic guitar, my harmonica, and my harmonica holder, though I had no idea what I might need them for.

There was no keyboard on the stage. Christian told me I would probably be able to borrow one from one of the music classes. A few teachers turned me away before someone told me I could use one of the two keyboards collecting dust in the back of their classroom. Jesse saw me and wished me luck in the show. Then he asked me what I was doing in his class. I told him I needed a digital piano for my performance.

“One of those is no good,” he said. “It’s got sticky keys.”

I thought I’d try them both. Neither keyboard had any internal speakers, so Jesse grabbed one, I grabbed the other, and we carried them to the auditorium along with a keyboard stand.

The one with sticky keys wouldn’t make a sound. The other one worked, but it only had sixty-one keys. It felt like a toy. The piano sound was thin and one-dimensional.

I tried to set it at a good volume so I wouldn’t have to mess with it later. Jesse climbed up on the stage, sat down at a drum kit that was set up behind me, and started playing. He noticed my harmonica.

“Can you play that thing?”

“Sort of,” I said. “I just play chords on it most of the time.”

“Play something, man!”

I blew a few chords into a microphone. Jesse laughed. “Is that all you can play?”

“It makes more sense when I’m playing the guitar or the piano at the same time.”

“Is it just you and Gord playing?” he asked me.

“Yeah, just the two of us. We were gonna get a drummer to play with us, but we were moved from the second show to the first. That threw things off a little.”

“I could have played drums for you. Why didn’t you ask me?”

“I never even thought to ask.”

“What’s your song like?”

I played a bit of “Pacing the Cage” for him. He hammered out a steady 4/4 rhythm. It was all wrong for the song. I tried to explain how I needed something more along the lines of a polyrhythmic funk beat, where the snare didn’t fall on the two and the four. He asked me to give him an example. I took his place behind the drums for a minute and showed him what I meant.

I moved back over to the keyboard. Jesse started playing the same 4/4 beat again.

“The song’s okay without drums,” I said. “It’s way too late to figure it out now anyway, and it wouldn’t sound right without bass. But thanks for the offer.”

When it was time for the show to start, I met up with Gord in a hallway that led to the stage wings. It dawned on me that I left my leather jacket on one of the chairs in the front row of the auditorium. I waited until Cerah Steele’s band finished their three-song set and made my move during the brief lull between acts.

Then this happened.

I’m almost positive that’s Matt Strukelj screaming, “John West!”

What you don’t see, because the camera didn’t catch it, is me approaching a guy who was sitting on my jacket and asking him if he could stand up for a second so I could grab it. He didn’t move. I asked him again. He looked at me like he didn’t know what words were. The people around him had to liberate it from beneath his uncomprehending body.

Back out in the hall, Christian was trying to get a handle on the chaos swirling around him. No one knew when they were going to get their turn to perform. A tentative list was taped to the door, but it was incomplete and subject to revision. First we were supposed to be the third-last act. Then we got pushed to second-last. We would have been dead last, but Steve Mitchell was slated to close the show.

All along we were told to prepare one song. Now Christian was telling me we might have five minutes, and we might have ten. He couldn’t offer a definitive answer one way or another.

“Pacing the Cage” was good for four or five minutes. There was no way to stretch it out to ten. Gord and I took our acoustic guitars to the outside of the front entrance of the auditorium where things were quieter, tuned up, and tried to figure something out. We had four full-length Papa Ghostface albums to draw from by now, plus the in-progress SHOEBOX PARADISE, but a lot of our songs were improvisations that were never revisited after we recorded them, and nothing jumped out at me as being appropriate for a school performance. What could we pull off with no time to practice?

We could do “Fatties”. That would be a hit with all the pot-smokers. But the vicious impressions of a few well-known teachers wouldn’t go over so well, nor would the sex talk. We’d be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

There was “Ballad of Bob and Marie”. It was simple enough. Just a few chords. I wasn’t sure how many students would appreciate a song that was little more than a vehicle for my Bob Dylan impression, but I thought I remembered most of the words from the initial improvisation.

Ballad of Bob and Marie (1999)

We recorded this song for the double-CD HORSEMOUTH (AND OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) on August 17, 1999. It was the day after my sixteenth birthday, and twenty years to the day before the doomed Mackenzie Hall show was supposed to happen. We started out with a little live instrumental improv. I got a drum loop going on the Yamaha W-5, ran it through a distortion effect built into the synth, and played synth bass with my left hand and an atmospheric synth pad with my right. Gord made barking dog sounds with his electric guitar and a wah pedal. He brought over an old harmonica he had in the key of C, so I strapped it on and blew into it a little.

My grandfather was supposed to call me to wish me a happy belated birthday. I kept thinking I heard the phone ringing, so we would stop recording mid-improv only for me to discover it was the sound of the harmonica’s wheeze tricking my ears. After the third or fourth fake-out he really did call. Once our conversation was over, I thought it would be fun to treat the little instrumental jam as an intro and cut straight to a song that had nothing to do with it. I swapped out Gord’s harmonica for my own and did my best shouty young Bob Dylan impression. After we got down a live performance with me on acoustic guitar and Gord on electric, I overdubbed some shaker and shouted some distant backup vocals. Gord overdubbed acoustic bass.

I remixed this song about a week ago, just before I got sick. It had some serious issues, and if I was going to post it here I wanted it to sound as good as possible. Twenty years ago I knew almost nothing about mic placement, and I knew less than nothing about things like EQ and compression. I would stick an SM57 in front of anything with strings and hope for the best. No surprise then that the acoustic guitar and acoustic bass tracks were muddier than mud, and my vocal track got pretty out of control during some of the more forceful passages with nothing to tame it.

It’s pretty amazing what you can do with a VS-1680 to fix up a mediocre recording. “Ballad of Bob and Marie” was recorded on a VS-880-EX before I upgraded to the sixteen-track machine, so I had to import it into the 1680. Everything past that was smooth sailing. I was able to carve out all the low end mud with EQ. Some limiting got the acoustic guitar and bass sounding pretty crisp and controlled. A little EQ and compression on the vocal and it was sitting right in the pocket.

Everything was done “in the box”, and I left all the original effects intact. The chorus and delay on the lead vocal felt essential. I didn’t want to do anything to alter the spirit or soul of the song. I just wanted to undo some old mistakes.

I can hardly believe how good I was able to make the acoustic guitar sound. It was a crappy instrument to begin with, even before my half-assed recording job. But the real shocker for me is the electric guitar. That’s not a real amp you’re hearing, and this was before the Digitech guitar effects box came into the picture. I plugged Gord’s B.C. Rich Virgin straight into the mixer and used one of the 1680’s built-in guitar amp modelling effects called “Vin.Tweed” (it’s supposed to emulate an overdriven 1950s tube amp). Everyone will tell you Roland’s speaker-modelling technology is beyond outdated now, but to me it sounds a lot more realistic than anything I ever got out of a POD.

I wish I’d thought to start backing up whole albums earlier in the game. I could give some of the early solo and Papa Ghostface CDs a whole new lease on life with just a little tasteful remixing. I did at least back up a few other songs from HORSEMOUTH. Though some of them are things I considered borderline filler at the time, it might be fun to revisit them and see if I can clean them up in a similar way.

I digress. We decided “Ballad of Bob and Marie” would be our second song if we needed one. Just in time, too, because few minutes later Christian told me we were up next. We walked through the wings. Christian asked if we had enough material for ten minutes. I told him we did. We made our way onto the stage. I laid my guitar on the floor and sat down at the crummy keyboard I was stuck with. Gord sat down beside me. Christian helped us both set up our microphones. After making sure my vocal mic was working, I went off.

“All right!” I screamed. The audience screamed back. I felt like a psychotic low-rent preacher.

“I’d like to tell you something before we start,” I said. “Originally we wanted to put a band together, but because of time constraints and being shifted around and shifted around, we weren’t able to do so. That makes me angry! But maybe I’m not the only person in here who’s angry right now. Maybe some of you are angry. Maybe your boyfriend left you. Maybe your girlfriend left you. Maybe things aren’t going too well for you in general, ’cause ain’t life stink? And so, I want you to scream when I tell you to let it out at the end of this song. All right?”

We launched into a version of “Pacing the Cage” that made the original recording sound like a lullaby. I slipped into the skin of the character narrating the song — an unrepentant killer who murders his unfaithful wife and her lover, relating the tale from prison not with pride or remorse, but with the belief that he was hardwired from birth to do something horrible and in committing these crimes he found his true purpose in life. My hands were shaking. Every time I hit a bad note, I mashed the keys and went out of my way to hit every bad note I could. I twisted my voice into a guttural groan when I wasn’t screaming, pounding on the keyboard I hated until I was punching it more than I was playing it. In the absence of a music stand I balanced my lyric sheet on top of the keyboard. All the turbulence sent it flying to the floor.

When the lyrics ran out I addressed the audience again. “LET IT OUT!” I screamed, and a sea of voices screamed back at me. The song dissolved into dissonance and everyone went nuts. We got a standing ovation.

The Bob Dylan piss-take was a little anticlimactic after that, but I felt invincible even with my voice half-shot from the vocal cord brutality of the first song. If anything, the diminished vocal range probably helped my Dylan impression. I lost my pick inside the sound hole of my guitar mid-song and kept going, improvising new lyrics when the adrenaline wiped my brain clean. We got another standing ovation (well, half of one this time) and left the stage to thunderous applause.

Jesse appeared in the wings with a look of bewilderment on his face.

“THAT WAS FUCKING AMAZING!” he shouted at me, giving me a bear hug, my harmonica holder coming between our chests. “I love the way you play guitar! I love it!”

This was almost as shocking as the audience’s response to our performance, coming from someone who just a few months earlier was belittling my “fucking lap guitar” playing as if it was the lowest form of musical expression. For all of our musical differences and the tug-of-war we waged as collaborators (with Jesse trying to get me to write more conventional songs like him, and me trying to get him to let go and get a little weird), it felt like he finally got what I was doing and I managed to bring him over to the dark side, even if it was only for an afternoon.

“I gotta go,” Jesse said. “I just wanted to come back here and see you guys. Fuckin’ amazing.”

Then he was gone, and I was left with a buzz that wouldn’t go away. The afterglow seemed to extend throughout the entire school. Even Steve Mitchell got on board. He closed the show with Steph Sarafianos backing him up on guitar for a version of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” that was rewritten as “Blue-Eyed Girl” in Steph’s honour.

The first thing he said when got onstage was, “How about that John West?” and everyone went crazy all over again.

The rest of that day is a bit of a blur to me now. I remember jumping up and down like a manic kangaroo in the hallway with Max and Paul Clairmont (at least I think it was them), feeling a natural high I didn’t know what to do with. I remember walking back to my house with Gord and talking for a minute to Amber Hughes, who was sitting cross-legged on the grass. I remember Gord saying, “She digs you, man.” I don’t think she did. She was just friendly.

That’s about it. The rest is gone, including the weekend that followed.

I wasn’t unpopular before that performance, but it seemed to catapult me once and for all into the realm of “those who are considered cool”. The thing that strikes me now is what an out-there performance it was. There’s no guarantee an audience is going to stick with you when you do something that confrontational and unconventional. It wasn’t even a great musical display from a technical standpoint. It was more about the energy. And to the great credit of that group of students, they were with me every step of the way. I could feel it. Maybe I tapped into some universal angst pretty much everyone feels at that age. I don’t know.

Even some of the teachers got into it. On the Monday after the show, Mr. Zawadski — my math teacher in grades nine and ten — pulled me aside on my way to society class and said, “I have to tell you, John, I really enjoyed your performance. There’s a market for that, you know. It’s avant-garde!”

Along with the grade eight talent show, it was one of the formative musical events of my life. To play your own material live, to do nothing to compromise it or make it more palatable for an audience, and to have a bunch of teenagers — in some ways the most difficult age group to impress — respond like that…there’s nothing quite like it.

I see now that everything going wrong was a blessing in disguise. If things had gone my way and we’d been able to put a larger band together, I’m sure we would have given a good performance. But it probably wouldn’t have turned into interactive musical theatre. It took a perfect storm of inconveniences and injustices to get me pissed off enough to take command of the room the way I did. People still remember that Air Jam performance to this day, which is insane to me.

The second Air Jam show in May was a complete disaster. Half the scheduled performers skipped out on the event, forcing the few who did show up to stretch themselves pretty thin as the emcees improvised lame banter to fill up time. It made the March show look like the best-organized event in the universe. The audience got bored, with a lot of students shuffling out of the auditorium while the show was still going on. Best of all, Jesse — the guy who pressured the organizers into putting on a second show in the first place — didn’t even show up.

I was able to put a full band together for the 2001 Air Jam, but that’s another story for another time.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “If you can see the value of turning adversity to your advantage in a situation like that, why didn’t you do the same thing with the Mackenzie Hall show?”

I’m not the same person I was in March of 2000. I watch that footage now and the raw energy on the screen almost scares me. I had a lot of anger taking up space inside of me, most of which stemmed from hearing what a piece of shit I was all the time from certain family members who have been dead to me for a number of years now. I used it as creative fuel on a regular basis. And I was fearless on a stage. You could have chopped off one of my fingers and I would have kept on going and incorporated it into the performance.

I don’t have that wellspring of boundless energy anymore. I also feel like I’ve been fighting against one form of bullshit or another in this city’s music scene ever since I got out of high school, from complete indifference, to being treated as a novelty, to being misrepresented, misunderstood, and lied about by talentless coattail-riding douchebags with agendas.

Even this album I’ve been working on forever has had its share of setbacks. Sure, it’s been a grand adventure. It’s also been another thing: a profound test of my patience, my resilience, and my ability to absorb one rejection after another. You know how many people in this city ignored me, blew me off, flaked out on me, or stood me up on my way to getting almost thirty singers/musicians and a dozen visual artists to contribute to the album?

EIGHTY-TWO.

Many of those eighty-two people claim to have an immense amount of respect for me and what I do. And that’s just Windsor people. I tried to bend my own self-imposed rule and involve some talented folks from Detroit and other not-so-far-flung places, with disastrous results.

For every singer I got to show up and sing on something, another ten either never acknowledged me or made a commitment to work with me only to come up with some bogus excuse to use as a last-minute escape clause. My favourite, though it’s hard to choose, is probably the singer who spent more than half a year sitting with a song and telling me it was right in her wheelhouse, only to claim she forgot her own vocal range the day we were supposed to record. It takes a special kind of idiot to come up with a story like that. It must have taken me twenty horn players to find two or three who would talk to me. And I lost count of how many visual artists said they were enthusiastic about contributing to the lyric booklet and then never spoke to me again no matter how many times I tried to follow up with them.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that for all the guests appearing on the album, more than half the songs still feature me doing everything on my own. If I’d been crazy enough to put an actual band together to play on every song, there wouldn’t be an album. You can’t work with people who won’t show up.

I’m proud of the songs I’ve written and the performances I’ve been able to get out of a colourful cast of characters. It might end up being one of my best albums when all is played and sung. And I won’t ever do anything like it again. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to banging out a guest-free album inside of a few months, the way I used to do it, once this thing is out of the way.

Really, it comes down to a very simple thing — I’m tired. Tired of fighting an uphill battle against a music community that, for the most part, never wanted me around in the first place. Tired of eating shit. Tired of a lifetime of rejection from people who are too apathetic or self-important to have a conversation with someone who isn’t already a part of their selective inner circle.

I want to make music and live my life. That’s it. I don’t have any energy left for the other garbage.

I hope cancelling the show sends a message to the musicians who forced my hand. I take this stuff seriously. I always have. I always will. If you can’t come to the table with at least some degree of reverence, you have no business pulling up a chair.

Note: if you’re wondering why I didn’t post the Air Jam footage, it’s because I feel I’ve already shared more bits than I should have from the SLEEPWALK documentary thing and I’d like to keep at least a few surprises up my sleeve. I’ll probably come back and put it up here once that’s done.

A comedy of terrors.

Here’s the song Tara came by to lend her vocal magic to. I’ve spent the last few mornings picking away at editing the recording footage I grabbed along the way, and as much as I’m trying to keep things under wraps until the album is finished, I can’t resist putting this one out there as something resembling an advance single.

The thing I can’t get over is how catchy it is. I didn’t go out of my way to make that happen…it just happened. Must be the groove. I blame the djembe and the shaker that almost looks like an edible pepper. They’re always up to no good.

Editing this was a bit of a pain in the posterior, with everything I had to find a way to fit in there. It was rewarding to see it all come together, though, and I think it’s one of the better editing jobs I’ve done along these lines. It’s always fun when your cuts move in rhythm with the music. It’s a subtle thing, but I find it makes for a video that feels like it breathes a little better.

Also, dig those pyjama pants. Lately I find myself doing a fair bit of recording in the morning, before I’ve put on normal people clothes for the day. When you’re recording drums at 9:43 a.m. the last thing on your mind is throwing on some jeans. Me wearing boxer pants in a video is nothing new, but I don’t think any pair has ever been given quite this much screen time. Maybe these ones are special.

While I’m proud of all the elements that make up the thick soup of this song’s sound, the real secret sauce is the Yamaha VSS-30. I swear it keeps finding new ways to sneak its way into a song and add the texture that’s needed. It’s ridiculous how useful and versatile a little “toy” keyboard from the 1980s can be. You can get so many different sounds just out of sampling a bit of Wurlitzer and warping it (which is what I did here).

In less pleasant news, here are some words I never thought I would type, say, or even think: I won’t ever do business with Minuteman Press again. I won’t even recommend them for the simplest of jobs. If you’re in Windsor and you have any printing needs beyond what you can do yourself at home, I urge you to go somewhere — anywhere — else.

Here’s the deal. In early 2003, when I first thought it would be worthwhile to try giving my CDs a somewhat professional appearance, Johnny Smith said, “I’ll take you to Minuteman Press. That’s where I get my business cards done. I bet they’ll be able to help.” And they did help, printing a two-sided insert I slipped like an embarrassed apology into the abomination that was the initial album art for OH YOU THIS.

In short order, Minuteman Press became my go-to place for all things related to album packaging. Over a period of sixteen years they printed the booklets and inserts for fifty different albums (that’s not a typo), along with two posters and a handful of redesigns when I decided I wanted to “reissue” something or print the lyrics for an album that got slighted the first time around.

In the beginning it was pretty clear they’d never done this kind of work before. The initial inserts (or “tray cards”, if you like) for NUDGE YOU ALIVE had only one tab with the album’s name on the spine instead of the traditional two, leaving one side of the CD jewel case bereft. For my part, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to arranging text and images. We both got better in a hurry. They started producing more professional-looking results with more experience, and I taught myself how to handle the layout side of things.

By 2010 we were a well-oiled machine. I started handing in polished image files with proper bleed lines instead of asking them to set things up for me, and Heather and I almost had our own verbal shorthand. She was always great to work with. If I still sometimes got inserts that were a hair too tall to fit into a jewel case and I had to take a little off the top with my own cutting board to compensate, it was a small price to pay for being able to give my albums the visual presentation I wanted on a DIY budget.

Heather left a few years ago. The people who stayed on still did pretty reliable work. Then the ownership changed altogether in late 2017, and every familiar face was gone.

The woman who took over the business was a great surprise. Her attention to detail was incredible, and the packaging for both the long-overdue remaster of YOU’RE A NATION and the Papa Ghostface sign-off WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD came out looking better than I thought possible. It seemed safe to assume I could keep giving Minuteman Press my business forever.

Everything changed when I swung by a few weeks ago to have the booklets and inserts for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC reprinted. The woman with the great attention to detail was gone. Another woman she once referred to as her “colleague” was now running the show. I’ll call her Esmerelda, because it’s a world away from her real name and it sounds a little evil.

There was a disgruntled customer ahead of me in line, and she was giving Esmerelda the business. The conversation went something like this:

CUSTOMER:
I paid a professional designer to put this flyer together. The printing is all wrong. The bleed lines are off, and there’s all this white space.

ESMERELDA:
Yes. It’s like because the format we were like given. We can only like play with it so much.

CUSTOMER:
No…this was done by a professional. There’s nothing wrong with it. Something went wrong with the way it was sized after I gave it to you. You’re the ones who made the mistake.

ESMERELDA:
Yes. Like when you give it to us, like we can do almost nothing. You have to like give it to us in a different format.

CUSTOMER:
My event is a few days away. I can’t use this. This is no good.

ESMERELDA:
If you want to like give it to me in a different format maybe we can like fix it, but the way you gave it to me there’s nothing we can do.

Put that on a loop for about ten minutes and you get the idea. The Smithster and I got tired of waiting after a while and turned to leave.

“No, no,” Esmerelda said.

“We’ll come back tomorrow,” I said.

“No, I can wait on you.”

She slid a smiling man with grey hair into her place and took my order. I gave her my original materials and asked for another thirty copies of each. She said she’d call me in a day or two to come look at a proof, and then she’d print it. Easy as cake.

More than a week went by. There was no phone call. I called and got Esmerelda’s son on the line. He talked to me as if he was the new graphic designer of the operation. He told me my file of sixteen years — once a monster of a thing — was now all but empty, and almost none of the work any of the previous employees had done for me was in there. I would have to give him the art files for these booklets and inserts, and they would have to be printed from scratch.

I dug up the old art files from early 2011, dumped them onto a flash drive, and brought them in. Son of Esmerelda told me he would email me a proof later that day. He did no such thing. The next day I popped in to see my proof. It wasn’t ready.

“Oh, he had some car trouble,” Esmerelda said. “He told me he’s going to send you an email tonight. Like a hundred percent, for sure he’ll do it tonight.”

He did not, like a hundred percent, for sure, email me anything.

I came back the next day.

“I was just going to call you,” Esmerelda lied.

She printed up a proof for me. The insert looked fine. The smiling man stood there staring at the song titles, looking bewildered. I like to think “Taylor Swift Sings Death Metal in My Dreams” gave him a brain cramp.

The booklet wasn’t fine. It was a mess. The image and text on the cover were both too small. Inside, the size of the font increased and decreased five or six points at a time from one page to another. I always make sure to keep the font size consistent through all my image files, so it was a bit of shock to see things looking so out of whack.

Esmerelda’s explanation: “Yes. You gave us JPEG, and like we can do almost nothing. If you give it to me in like a Word document, then I can like size it myself and everything will be like perfect.”

For nine years JPEG files were never an issue. All Son of Esmerelda had to do was drag and drop the image files into whatever program he was using and make sure they were the right size. Instead, he took it upon himself to increase the size of the text on every page that had any appreciable amount of white space. Of course, Esmerelda wasn’t about to admit it, and he wasn’t around to answer for his screw-up.

She said she would email me a proof once I sent her the lyrics in a Word document. I sighed, went home, and put together what she said she needed. I emailed it to her the next morning. She didn’t email me back.

Thursday was the day of reckoning. I showed up to ask what the hell was going on. Son of Esmerelda looked horrified when he saw me walk in the door. He ducked into an office as fast as he could, where I assume he watched videos of dogs slobbering in slow motion while contemplating the nature of existence.

“Our server has been down all day,” Esmerelda said. “We haven’t been able to like do anything. But we almost have it like fixed now. If you come back at 12:30, I’ll have it for you. You don’t need to call. Just come back around 2:00 and it will be ready.”

Not just anyone can make an hour-and-a-half leap like that almost in the middle of a sentence without even acknowledging it. I had to genuflect in respect.

I should pause to tell you Johnny Smith was with me for each of these visits, and he noticed Esmerelda had a habit of looking at him instead of me when we were talking to each other. It was weird.

A little after 2:00, we came back.

“I just printed it,” she said. “I’ll have it for you in a moment.”

In a virtuoso display of lying to someone’s face and assuming they’re too stupid to notice, she walked a few feet to a printer and proceeded to print what she told me was already printed.

She brought the pages over, and I saw my body text in the booklet had morphed from Bookman Old Style into Arial.

“You changed the font,” I said.

“Yes. It’s much clearer now.”

“No,” I said, opening the original booklet to show her. “This is the font I used. See? I used the same font in the Word document I sent you, because that’s the font I want.”

“Yes,” she said. “It was Times New Roman. I changed it to Arial, but I can just like change it back. I just thought it looked better like this.”

“It wasn’t Times New Roman. But you know what…let’s do this. The other part that’s fine — the insert? Let’s go ahead and print that, and forget about the booklet.”

“No,” she said. “I can change the font back.”

“I’d like my original booklet back please, and we’ll just print the one piece that doesn’t have any problems.”

“I’ll just change the font back.”

“No. It’s been one thing after another. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Yes, but I’ll just change the font.”

Right here is where Johnny Smith took it upon himself to break the loop of stupidity, slipping into what I can only call “Punisher Mode”. He told Esmerelda we were done. She tried to come up with some bullshit. He told her to give me back my original booklet and insert. She wouldn’t budge. He had to cut her off at least ten times before it sunk in for her that this was one person she wasn’t going to be able to wear down with smiling condescension. She gave me my booklet and insert back, said, “Well, I’m very sorry to hear it,” and we walked out.

I’ll never set foot in that place again. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re out of business a few months from now. Word spreads fast, and awe-inspiring incompetence is not something most people look for when they need something printed.

It’s a shame. Once upon a time there were some good, honest people working there who did fine work. Not anymore.

We made a list of about half a dozen other local printing businesses to try. I brought the packaging for STEW to A&A Printing so I’d have something to offer as a sample. The manager came out to talk to us and I asked a bunch of questions. He told me they had a lot of experience doing CD-related work. PDF files were the best format for them. They would have a proof for me the same day I brought in my art files, the job would be finished the day after that, and for fifty each of these two pieces of packaging I could expect to pay a little over a hundred bucks.

Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?

He said all the right things. There didn’t seem to be any need to check out any of the other places on our list. On Friday, around noon, I spoke with a woman at the front desk. I asked if I could have a lyric booklet and a separate insert made, and presented her with samples of the original pieces (again for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC) and the relevant PDF files on a flash drive. She told me she would have a proof ready for me in two hours and she would call when it was finished.

Something I’ve learned: when someone tells you they’re going to call you for anything business-related, they’re almost always lying. We came back at 4:00 and a different woman claimed she’d called us to let us know the files I provided didn’t work. When we told her we never received a phone call, she said, “Well, I was trying to call you.” That made for two lies in less than ten seconds, unless in her mind “trying” meant “thinking about maybe doing something and then not actually doing it”.

She invited us into the work area and brought me over to her computer, where she showed me the files wouldn’t work when she tried to open them.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I saved them all as PDF files. That’s what the manager told me to do. He told me that was the best format for you. Everything worked fine on my computer.”

She started laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” Johnny Smith asked her.

“Because the manager told you to do that, and the files don’t work.”

“What about that is funny?”

She didn’t have an answer.

Laughing at your customer’s misfortune isn’t a great way to get their return business. Just throwing that out there.

The woman who took my order earlier in the day tried the flash drive on her computer. She had no problem opening the files. Way to troubleshoot, people! She told us if we could wait five minutes in the other room she would print up a proof.

Half an hour later she had a sheet printed out to show me the paper stock they were going to use for the booklet. She said the binding would take three hours to do and she didn’t realize there were so many pages.

Johnny Smith told her we’d just left a printing business after sixteen years because of mishaps and miscommunications like this. She apologized and let loose with a stream of excuses. They had a lot of unexpected cutting work that day. There was more work involved in putting the proof together than she thought there would be. The printer jammed. She thought the booklet was a flyer with no pages in it (the second you touch or even look at the booklet, it becomes clear it isn’t a flyer).

She said she would work on it over the weekend and call us on Monday whether the work was done or not.

Believe it or not, on Monday there was a phone call. We came in to look at the proof with some sneaky feelings of optimism. Those feelings were dispelled soon enough.

The woman who showed me the initial printout wasn’t around. The one who laughed at us was there instead. She showed me a booklet that had the font at the right size throughout, but the print quality left something to be desired. The printout I was shown on Friday made the text look nice and smooth. Now it was bleeding all over the place. The text on both spines of the insert was way out of alignment, and instead of fixing it themselves she and the manager told me it was my job to edit the image file, guessing at where they needed it to be. I’ve been doing this long enough to know where the text is supposed to go. This was their mistake, not mine.

Worst of all was the cost. Because there were a few extra pages in this booklet, the price I was quoted on Thursday tripled.

The woman asked for a 50% deposit. I gave it to her and left feeling defeated. Over the next few minutes my attitude shifted from just wanting to get the booklets and inserts reprinted, to thinking this was more of the same garbage and I didn’t want to stand for it anymore.

We went back. When I brought up the bleeding, the laughing lady said she could try lightening the text to see if that helped. I told her the price was another sticking point. She disappeared into the back of the work area for a while, and when she came back she said the manager was willing to come down almost a hundred bucks. If you can afford to do that, either your profit margin is sickening and you’re cheating people out of their money, or your business isn’t as prosperous as you’d like your customers to believe it is. Either way, it wasn’t good enough.

I asked for my money back and we left. They still have my memory stick and original lyric booklet. I need to get those back sometime this week.

Instead of trying more local printing places I thought I’d contact a business that makes album packaging full-time. I sent an email to someone at Duplium, which is where Ron got Tobacco Fields manufactured. The lyric booklet for that album came out looking great. While I’m waiting to hear back from them, I might email another place in Canada that does similar work. I prefer to be able to go in and see a proof in person, but if I have to go through something like this again on my way to finding someone in Windsor who knows what they’re doing, I think I’m going to tear my own face off.

Hopefully something good shakes loose. I’m running low on booklets and inserts for a good half a dozen albums, and I’d like to be able to get more of them printed somewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer, my friends, is written on a cheque.

Apparently Bob Dylan accepted a big smelly bag of money so Budweiser could use “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a new commercial they debuted during the most boring Super Bowl of all time. Somewhere someone who once believed Bob was the voice of their generation is vomiting up a winter scarf.

I’ve reached a point in my life where I can understand why a young or struggling artist would allow their song to be used in a stupid commercial. If they’re offered a life-altering amount of money, they can tell themselves the payday will enable them to make the art they want to make and get it into the ears of more people. That’s not a bad thing, assuming they’re not making bad music. I’m not going to tell you I wouldn’t at least be a little tempted if a good offer came my way, and I don’t even want my music to reach a lot of ears.

With Bobby, I just don’t get it. You can’t tell me the guy needs the money. If there was any doubt, at least we now know the man doesn’t hold any of his songs sacred.

Let us remember better times.

Worse than this weirdness — far worse — is the news that Disney is releasing a live action remake of Aladdin. Are they really that bereft of ideas? In the right hands it might not have been horrible. Guy Ritchie does not have those hands. His hands are wrong. Very wrong.

From what I can tell, he handed CGI duties over to a blind mouse with a drinking problem. A lot of what’s in the trailer looks less realistic than the animated film did. Hell, this looks more true-to-life than some of the backgrounds in the new movie:

Will Smith is playing the Genie. Nothing against Will, but his character looks like the most hilariously half-assed green screen creation in the history of film. Think “The Fresh Prince in blueface with the body of a random beer-swilling amateur wrestler Photoshopped beneath his head” and you’re most of the way there.

Enough about that.

My grant proposal went off into cyberspace about two weeks ago. It’s in the hands of four strangers now. I should get an answer in a month or two. Fingers, toes, and earlobes crossed.

WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD has finally slipped off of the CJAM charts after nine weeks straight in the top thirty. That has to be a new record for me. I have no idea who was giving it airplay for such an insane length of time, but I bow before them in gratitude.

I’d like to be able to tell you I’ve been recording up a storm since my last post. That would be a lie. It’s been slow going so far in 2019.

I got my little replacement effects-generating red kidney, the piano was tuned for the fifty-third time, I was all set to get back down to business, and then I got sick. Again. At least this time it wasn’t so bad (I started eating zinc and vitamin D the second I knew something was coming, which seemed to cut my usual symptoms in half), but I still lost some time when I don’t have a wealth of it left to work with.

Motivation has been a problem. Even now that I’m not trembling beneath the covers with an upset stomach and angry elbows, it continues to be a problem. But you know what hasn’t been a problem? Writing songs.

The well kind of ran dry for a little bit. Well, that’s not quite right. It only felt like it did. See, I’m used to writing all the time. Musical ideas show up on a daily basis, pretty much, even when I’m asleep. Some of them turn into songs. Some don’t. And then the words show up when they feel like showing up.

For a while nothing much was showing up at all. I didn’t sit down and try to force it. I don’t work that way. Nothing good has ever happened when I’ve tried. It just wasn’t happening, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.

I started to think it was my first real brush with writer’s block. Then I looked at how much writing I was doing in the run-up to the supposed dry spell.

I started writing for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK in March of 2014. Not counting the latest batch of songs, and not taking into account any of the sketches that haven’t yet been fully fleshed-out, in that time I’ve written six songs with Adam (Mr. Shimmer Demolition himself), eleven with Steven, twenty-eight with Gord, and two hundred and thirty-six on my own. A dozen of those two hundred and thirty-six songs were meant for either AFTERTHOUGHTS or FLOOD. The rest were written specifically with SLEEPWALK in mind, even if a few ended up on STEW and a few more ended up on FLOOD because they made sense there.

Two hundred and twenty-four songs written by one person for one album might not seem like a whole lot when it’s spread out over a period of five years. That only averages out to forty-five songs a year. But consider: about a hundred of those songs were written in the last ten months of 2014, and the vast majority of the rest were written in 2015 and 2016. Things slowed down a lot after that. I wouldn’t be surprised if I only finished a dozen new songs last year. By my standards, that’s downright anemic.

What happened was, I went on a real tear for a while there. The sketches and undeveloped ideas from 2014 to 2016 might even outnumber the finished songs. I’ve been pretty prolific for a pretty long time, even if I haven’t released a lot of albums in recent years, but I don’t think I’ve written with a sustained fury like that since I was in high school and had to resort to writing lyrics in the middle of most of my classes to save my brain from atrophy.

When I look at the bigger picture, it makes sense that things would taper off at some point. You can’t keep writing like that without your brain exploding. And I think on some subconscious level the songwriting part of my mind probably said, “Maybe it’s time to take a bit of a break. You’ve got some serious catching up to do in the recording department.”

Still, going too long without writing has never been good for me.

Just as I was starting to get worried, I picked up a guitar and a new song happened. Then I sat down at the piano and wrote another one. And another one. And it snowballed from there. In the past week I’ve written eight new songs. Three of them still need some more words, but other than that they’re done.

There was no feeling of a switch being flicked. Songs just started coming again. You know what they say: visions come to prepared spirits.

I’m not sure how many of these most recent songs will end up on the album. I think at least a few of them are worth tackling. I’ve already recorded piano and a vocal track for one of them.

Baby steps.

You don’t know what you’ve got until it explodes internally.

I didn’t mean to go so long without saying anything here. Things have been busy, and my brain has been dancing to music no one else can hear.

For one thing, I’ve been consumed with putting together a proposal for the City of Windsor’s Arts, Culture & Heritage Fund in the hope of getting a grant that will help cover expenses for a monster of a summer show at Mackenzie Hall.

Bet you never thought you’d read those words on my blog.

Even if I don’t end up getting the grant, the outpouring of support from every single person I’ve asked for any kind of assistance has been overwhelming. If you’re an individual and not an organization (raises hand), you need to submit at least three letters of support with your application. The letters people have written for me…they’re not normal letters. They vibrate with a passion my brain has had a hard time processing.

And don’t even get me started on the musicians. Oh man. Wait until you hear the lineup I’ve got in place for this show.

I know. I never thought I’d get excited about the idea of playing live again either. I figured I maybe had one show left in me, and I was in no great hurry to make it happen. But here we are. And here I am. And there you are. You’re slicing ham.

More about that when matters clarify. For now, just know something pretty special is brewing.

And hey, guess what’s at #1 on the CJAM charts again after coming in at #2 again last week? I swear every time I release an album I’m pretty sure won’t get much airplay because there’s a lot to take in, the Campus Radio Gods say, “Oh yeah? We’ll show you.” And then CJAM plays it like crazy.

Thanks again to all the DJs who support the noises I make.

There have been some “technical difficulties” in the studio that have stalled my work on this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK behemoth. I could have worked around them, but I’ve been lazy.

See, long ago and far away, Line 6 came out with this amp modelling device they called a POD. And lo! All the recording magazines in the land said, “Give us hollowed-out dildos stuffed with cash and we will write glowing reviews of your product, overflowing with superlatives.” And all was well in the land.

I bought the hype and got a POD in the late summer of 2000. I used it on everything for a long time because it made my life easier. It wasn’t until we moved into this house in 2007 that I thought, “Maybe I should try sticking a microphone in front of an actual amplifier again.” And when I did that, all the tone I’d been missing kicked me right in the nards.

It’s a difficult thing to explain. As amp modelling technology goes, I think the POD does a fine job. I don’t listen to any of the many things I recorded with my guitar plugged into it and cringe. But there’s this three-dimensional quality you don’t notice you’re missing until you’re recording the real thing.

For a while I was a purist reborn. From CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN up to CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, for every electric guitar track I recorded I plugged my guitar straight into the amp with no effects in the signal path. If I wanted some reverb, I added it after the fact when I was mixing. I either used an SM57 on its own or I added a Sennheiser MD421 for a stereo spread, and my ears were happy.

Halfway through work on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I dusted off my POD XT — a supposed upgrade from the original POD. It had many more sounds under the hood, but I always thought the amp simulation was a step backward. So I never really used the thing. Now I started to wonder what would happen if I tried using it as a souped-up stomp box. I switched off the amp simulating effect and plugged it into the Fender Twin.

I didn’t unplug it again for almost nine years. As unhip as it probably is to say anything positive about a POD today, that red kidney-looking thing became an indispensable tool for me. It allowed me to access tremolo, delay, phaser, flanger, distortion, chorus, auto-wah, and other effects with the press of a button, without altering my clean tone in any nefarious way.

This is the main reason I had no interest in guitar pedals for so long. I didn’t feel I needed them. I had everything I could desire right there in the POD XT. And it wasn’t limited to a front end for one of my main amplifiers. If I wanted to record backwards piano, all I had to do was plug a mic into the POD, switch to the reverse delay effect, turn it up until it was 100% wet, plug it into a mic preamp, and I was golden.

Being able to do something like that when you don’t work with a computer program that allows you to reverse any sound you want with a click of your mouse is a godsend.

A few weeks ago the POD started making this awful loud buzzing sound. I messed around with some patch cords and it went away. I was able to record a few guitar tracks. Then the buzzing sound started again, and this time it wouldn’t go away. Everything seemed to be working fine electronically. The trouble was the input didn’t seem to be “hearing” anything anymore. When I turned the tuner on, it wouldn’t even recognize the guitar.

I assumed the 1/4-inch input jack must have worn out after all those years of constant use. I called up Steve Chapman and asked if he’d be willing to take a look at it. He said sure.

A few days after dropping it off, he called me up and gave me the news. Turns out the power switch broke off inside the POD somehow and there was serious heat damage obscuring some of the connections.

“Have you ever seen the inside of one of these things?” Steve said, laughing. “It’s pretty clear they weren’t designed for anyone with hands to ever work on them.”

He asked to hold onto it for a little while longer, because he doesn’t like to give up, but told me the POD was probably toast. If I wanted to replace it, I’d best start looking.

I checked out eBay.ca and found one in good shape for a very reasonable price. Best of all, it was in Canada and would get here within a week. I pulled the trigger on that and it should be showing up not too long after the weekend scurries away.

Funny how you don’t notice how much you lean on something until it’s gone. I thought I’d pull out my old first-generation POD and just use that for a while. None of those sounds are what I’m after anymore, and it doesn’t have any of the effects I need. Sure, I could simulate something close to the multitap delay effect I like to use on atmospheric lap steel tracks if I hooked up about three pedals and set them just right. It still wouldn’t quite be the sound I want.

Honestly, I think it’s been healthy to have this break. I was floundering a little, trying too hard to dig up some motivation to work on things when it wasn’t there. If you’re not feeling it, I’ve found there’s usually a good reason. In this case I think I just needed to recharge the batteries after working on one album or another almost without any significant period of inactivity since early 2008.

Putting things together for this potential grant has re-energized me. It’s allowed me to step back a bit and take a good look at just how much has been accomplished, even though there’s still work to do. I’m looking forward to getting back into it and finishing up this five-years-in-the-making album. As soon as my replacement kidney shows up, the game is afoot.

How about some random album review ramblings without any proper segue?

I’ve been an Iron & Wine fan almost since the beginning. I got on board when Our Endless Numbered Days came out in 2004. It was enthralling to hear Sam Beam start to open up his sound with the Woman King EP and the Calexico collaboration In the Reins before letting loose with the sonic explosion of 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog.

What I loved about that album was the way it layered a multitude of new sounds around Sam’s songs without ever disturbing the delicate quality that made his work so compelling. His musical identity was still intact, but everything was so much more vivid and colourful. It felt at once like a giant leap and a natural progression.

I lost track of his work after that. It wasn’t because I stopped being a fan. I’m not sure what happened. I think I was exploring so much music, it became impossible to keep up with everything. I would read about another album or two that delved into even more sonic experimentation, but felt no great urge to investigate.

A few days ago Iron & Wine popped back into my head. I read there was a relatively new album that was something of a return to the earlier sound, and it was getting good reviews, so I thought I’d check it out. I picked up Beast Epic (the new-ish album) along with a long overdue copy of the very first Iron & Wine album, The Creek Drank the Cradle.

I hate to say it, but I’m finding Beast Epic kind of…well…boring. All the songs seem to blur together. They’re nice enough, but they don’t feel like they really do anything or go anywhere. Very few melodies stand out.

It’s admirable to make a point of getting back to basics, recording an album mostly live off the floor with acoustic instruments in this age of over-processed everything. And Sam still has a way with words. “Jesus and his trophy wives are praying for the suicides and the orphans” is a line that sticks in your mind for a lot of different reasons. For me the songs just aren’t there, and as a result the limited sonic palette starts to grate after a while.

The only thing that stands out so far is “Last Night”, which features some welcome jolts of dissonance and can only be described as acoustic chamber reggae.

The music video was clearly inspired by this one:

(Okay, maybe not. Sam Beam probably isn’t a closet Johnny West fan.)

Maybe the album will grow on me over time. I’d be surprised if it did.

What’s interesting is falling back fifteen years and following Beast Epic with a visit to The Creek Drank the Cradle, where it all began. This is an even more limited album in terms of its sonic makeup. It was recorded on a four-track tape recorder, and the only sounds are Sam Beam’s voice, his acoustic guitar, his banjo, and some muted leg slaps in one song. Where there’s a solo, it’s usually either a simple banjo flourish or some slide guitar.

The difference is this: these songs create a sense of place. Some music is lo-fi in a harsh, confrontational way. This album is lo-fi in a comforting way. All the sharp edges have been flattened out without losing their teeth. Beast Epic is beautifully recorded but bland. The Creek Drank the Cradle is much rougher, and yet it feels alive.

Almost all of the chord progressions are pretty simple. Then the singing starts and your brain says, “Wait…what?” So many of the vocal melodies are not at all what you’re expecting to hear. But they all work beautifully.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long to pick this one up. It’s a great album.

One out of two isn’t that bad, right?

Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

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

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

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

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

Watching you without me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She said, “No, you can’t.”

So I said, “Sorry.”

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

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

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

I asked her why she did that.

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

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

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

She said, “He died.”

I said, “Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all the naked parakeet wrote.

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.

Rippin’ (countrified demo)

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.

Spandex (initial improv, 1998)

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.

Spandex (remastered)

“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.

We’re All Gonna Go (quick comparison)

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 still don’t know 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 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?

They did.

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 home, 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 school’s 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.

“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 sings the song that goes, ‘We’re all gonna go down slowly’?”

“That’s one of John’s songs,” Gord said, laughing.

“Really?”

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.

And yet I backed up all of SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.

Ugh.

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.