Sorting Things Out

It’s always something.

There are two reasons my DIY documentary hasn’t gone live on the blog yet. The first is pretty innocuous. I underestimated how long it would take me to put together the giant blog post that’s supposed to accompany the video content. I’m still working on it here and there. The second reason is a good deal more frustrating, and part of the reason I haven’t finished the blog post yet. Distractions: they’re what’s for brunch.

I started using Vimeo to host some of my videos a few years ago. The maximum file size I’m allowed to upload here is about one gigabyte, which is a little strange since I’m paying for 38 GB of storage space. I’ve been able to work around this for the most part, but back when I still hung around Facebook there were times when I wanted to embed a video over there without having to link to a blog post. Vimeo allowed me to do that. When they removed the functionality of the embeddable video player for users with basic accounts, I upgraded to a Plus account and got on with my business. Then Facebook stopped supporting Vimeo’s player and I couldn’t embed anything there anymore.

It didn’t bother me a whole lot. I grew to like Vimeo. It was fast, it was easy, and it didn’t blink at files the WordPress server didn’t want to play ball with. The weekly 5 GB upload limit wasn’t very generous, but it was far more than I would ever need. Even the re-encoding process was pretty invisible.

My feelings for Vimeo have soured over the last week or two. It’s not me. It’s them. I’ve been trying and failing to upload a version of this documentary that isn’t glitchy. If I upload a shorter segment, everything’s fine. When I upload the whole thing, the video and sound stutter in some places. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to happen if your internet connection wasn’t able to handle the video you were trying to watch and it kept buffering. But buffering isn’t the issue here.

I re-edited a segment or two where the stuttering was really noticeable, thinking maybe there was too much visual information in those parts for Vimeo to handle. It didn’t make any difference. I updated my MacBook’s operating system — something I’ve resisted doing for years — and made sure my browser was up to date. I made sure no other programs were open during the uploading process and there was nothing else hogging any of the browser’s resources. I must have tried uploading the same video seven or eight different times. It kept stuttering in the same places. It didn’t help that I could only do this so many times in a week, since you’re only allowed to replace an existing video with a new file once or twice before it starts to count toward your weekly limit.

The size of the file I’m working with is a hair over 3 GB. It takes almost twelve hours to upload. I can’t close my browser or allow my computer to slip into sleep mode at any point throughout that twelve-hour period. A whole day disappears every time I try to fix a problem I didn’t create. As a point of comparison, it took me about four hours to back up more than 450 GB of stuff from my MacBook’s hard drive when I updated my macOS to High Sierra (and that’s as far as I’m willing to go, because too many programs I rely on are no longer supported by Mojave).

I couldn’t figure it out. I’ve asked Vimeo to deal with a ton of WMV files before this. I never had a problem with any of them. One of those files was about half the size of this one. It took six or seven hours to upload (oh, the joys of having a slow internet connection), but there was none of this stuttering junk when it was done. My original file plays all the way through without any issues on a 2009 Acer laptop that runs like a slug and should be dead by now. It’s also glitch-free on my MacBook, which is no spring chicken itself. It isn’t 4K or HD. It’s not a huge or complex file. And yet Vimeo can’t seem to handle it.

I had to pester Vimeo Support to get them to acknowledge me, and what I got was little more than a brush off. I was told the issue was a timestamp overlap, which I assume was created at the re-encoding stage. I was told to try uploading an MP4 file instead. And that was it. I don’t know what causes a timestamp overlap or how you fix it, but I know I didn’t create it, and when you pay for the privilege of receiving assistance in a situation like this only to get a curt “change your file format and stop wasting my time” when you ask for help, well…let’s just say I won’t be recommending you to any of my friends after this, Vimeo.

I tried appealing to WordPress. I explained the situation. I’ve never needed to upload a file this large before. I’ll never need to do it again. All I want is to be able to host this file somewhere so I can embed it in a blog post. I told them I would be willing to pay for some temporary WordPress superpowers that would allow me to upload a larger file. After paying for this blog’s server space for twelve years running, I thought I might have built up enough goodwill for them to give me a pass this one time.

The response I got was a little more detailed than what I was able to squeeze out of Vimeo, but it wasn’t any more helpful. The guy who wrote back told me there was no way to get around the maximum upload file size. He said WMV wasn’t a great format anyway and I should consider re-encoding my video as an MP4 file and splitting it into two or three parts.

Here’s the problem with that. I tried making MP4 files when I was editing this film. Sony Vegas crashed on me every time. The only format I could get it to spit out with any reliability was WMV. Could I take my WMV file and re-encode it as an MP4? Sure, if I wanted it to look like it was filmed with a piece of charcoal. The quality wouldn’t just take one hit — it would be degraded a second time when whatever hosting service I uploaded it to re-encoded it again. It isn’t a slick, professional film, but I’m not prepared to live with that level of visual atrophy.

Nothing connected to this album can be straightforward. It’s almost comical.

I found a website called Wistia that allowed me to upload my file for free. It took another twelve hours, but I thought I might fare better over there. No dice. There must be something in the file that doesn’t respond well to being reprocessed as an MP4 (which is what every video hosting site on the planet does no matter what kind of file you give them). I don’t know what it is. The stuttering didn’t seem quite as bad over there, and there are things about Wistia that appeal to me. The quality of their 360p streaming video is as good or better than Vimeo’s 480p. You’re allowed to get into quite a bit of customization, too. You can insert chapter markers into your video, for example — something Vimeo doesn’t allow you to do unless you pony up the dough for a Pro account.

I sent them a message asking if they could do anything to compensate for the timestamp overlaps on their end. I told them I was prepared to migrate over to Wistia and sign up for a paid account if they were willing to help me out. We’ll see what kind of response I get.

Don’t think the absurdity of all of this is lost on me. I know I’ve put a lot of time and energy into trying to solve a problem no one else would care about. The stuttering hasn’t bothered the small group of people I’ve shared the video with so far, and I’ve been getting some pretty incredible feedback. But it isn’t about how small the issue is. I put a lot of work into this thing. I’m not okay with the idea of presenting it in a compromised form. I want it to play from beginning to end without getting buggy.

Spending a few hundred dollars a month for a video hosting service that’s geared toward commercial businesses isn’t an option. YouTube isn’t an option either. They’ll hammer the video quality into oblivion. Dailymotion won’t let me sign up for an account because of some glitch in their website. There are other sites out there like Vidyard, but I doubt their server would handle my file any better than Vimeo’s has, and I’d have to pay for a year’s subscription if I wanted to give them a try.

With all the advances that have been made in computer technology, you’d think by now it would be the easiest thing in the world to upload uncompressed video to the internet and stream it at the speed of light, regardless of the format. But no. That would be too simple.

Whatever response I get from Wistia, I might have found a solution. And you’re going to laugh. Because all of the sudden, for no apparent reason, Vegas is letting me render MP4 files. I don’t know what changed. Maybe clearing some debris off of the Acer laptop’s hard drive shook something loose. I’ve had to break one or two of the individual segments into even smaller pieces in order to get them to render, but there are enough existing transitions in the film for me to do that pretty seamlessly, and MPEG StreamClip should allow me to glue all those pieces together without any transcoding.

If that works, and if the gaps between the joined files are as nonexistent as they were when I did the same thing with Steeper, I might be in business. Logic would dictate that Vimeo shouldn’t introduce any stuttering into a file that’s already in their preferred format.

So far I’ve been able to render about two-thirds of the segments I need without any serious trouble. There doesn’t appear to be any discernible difference in quality from the WMV files I was working with before, and the file sizes are about the same. It’s probably going to take me the better part of tomorrow to finish all of this, and then it’ll take another day to upload the results, but with a little luck I just might have a version of this video I can share without gritting my teeth by the end of the week.

It’s a long walk to make for some peace of mind, but I’ve come this far. I’m far too stubborn to give up now. And hey, this debacle got me to update my operating system to something a little less archaic. Everything seems to run a little smoother now. Microsoft Word doesn’t freeze up on me anymore! Getting the computer out of sleep mode in the morning takes ten seconds instead of ten minutes! Rejoice!

A few other quick things that have nothing to do with any of this:

YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is at #7 on the CJAM charts right now. It’s lived inside the top twenty for eleven weeks in a row now, and in that time it’s hit #1 more than once. CJAM has been very good to me for a very long time, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one of my albums get this kind of extended consistent airplay. It’s nuts. Thanks, as always, to everyone who’s playing my noise, whoever you might be.

You’ll be shocked — shocked! — to learn none of the DJs I sent the album to outside of Windsor have acknowledged the gesture in any way. At least I only wasted three copies. That’s better than wasting thirty, right?

You’re just filler, ’til the real thing comes along.

If you get a copy of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK (which has now been officially “released”, to the extent that I release anything anymore), you might notice a link in the liner notes to the album’s video companion.

My goal was to have a DIY documentary-like thing edited before the album was finished so both could go live at the same time. If I had two brains I might have been able to pull it off. As it stands, some segments have been edited, but there’s still a bit of work left to do. I need to record some more voiceover material, film a few more things, make a few more choices about what to use and how to use it (I’m working with something like sixty hours of raw footage), and try to get Bono to sit down for an interview so I can pour a pint of Guinness on his head.

I should have everything finished in a week or two. In the meantime, here’s a little teaser/placeholder video so the URL will actually link to something.

Proof of concept.

I hold in my hands a proof.

Okay, so I’m holding it in one hand between my thumb and a few fingers. And I’m not holding it right now. But I was holding it when I took this picture with my free hand.

I’ve been designing my own CD inserts and booklets for seventeen years. While I wouldn’t call myself a professional graphic designer, by now I have a pretty good handle on how to get the most out of the format. I’ve even taken care of the layout side of things for a few of the albums I’ve recorded for other people (Ron’s album is the most recent example). You only need to look at the first-issued versions of OH YOU THIS and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE to understand how unlikely it was that anyone else would ever trust me to do this for them. I have no idea how I got here.

I enjoy this stuff. I enjoyed it even before I knew what I was doing. I know a lot of people don’t bother to read album liner notes or lyric booklets anymore. I know sometimes you just want to let the music wash over you with your eyes closed in the dark, shutting out the rest of the world. But having something visual to explore can add another layer to the listening experience. A lot of my favourite music was first absorbed while reading the lyrics so my eyes could follow along with what I was hearing. I’m not sure if the music would have had the same impact on me if I’d listened to it in a different way.

This is one of the reasons the whole digital distribution thing doesn’t cut it for me. Bandcamp allows you to include collapsible lyrics for each song you upload, but it isn’t the same as holding a physical album in your hands and digging into its guts for whatever secrets it might contain. I have no idea how many listeners bother to read my lyric booklets. Maybe no one does. It doesn’t really matter. I like making them for selfish reasons.

I can’t say I’ve ever made a lyric booklet quite like this one. It’s full of art that plays off of the words. Putting it together was a real challenge. I had to find a way to fit all the words and images into a booklet that wouldn’t be too thick to get inside of a jewel case. The number of pages had to be divisible by four. My first finished draft ran thirty-two pages. With a little massaging, I was able to get it down to twenty-eight. The text couldn’t be too large, but it had to be easy enough to read. Some images needed to bleed right through to the edges of the page, with no white space around them. There needed to be musician credits after each song. I used one font for the outer layer and another for the body text in the booklet. Those two fonts needed to be able to play off of each other. I had to get creative with the spacing to make everything work.

You can make something look good on a computer screen, but you never know how it’s going to translate until you see it on a bunch of pages stapled together. I was a little worried this one would come out looking like a lumpy mess until Joe (who has become my main man at Herald Press) called on Thursday to tell me the proof was ready.

“How does it look?” I asked him. “Do you think I laid everything out okay?”

“I think it looks pretty damn good,” he said.

He was right. It’s pretty powerful to see everything put together. This is going to sound strange, but reading the booklet hammers home for me just how much time and care went into making this thing in a way listening to it doesn’t. It isn’t just a bunch of music and words. It’s something more than that.

I made some boneheaded typos. My brain has this habit of compensating for the odd missing word, and sometimes it causes me to miss what’s missing. I wish there was a switch I could flip to turn that off. It’s a convenient cerebral function when you’re reading someone else’s words. Not so much when you want to make sure your own work is solid. More than once I’ve had to pay for a booklet to be printed twice when I failed to catch a mistake until it was too late. I’m hoping to avoid that this time.

One of the nice things about having a proof is getting another chance to catch what’s amiss. I might have been able to live with giving myself credit for playing tambourine on a song that doesn’t feature any tambourine in the final mix or forgetting to credit myself with playing shaker on a song that does feature the instrument, but it would have been pretty embarrassing if I never noticed how I somehow managed to list two songs on the back insert in reverse order.

As impatient as I am, I’d rather have things put together a day or two later than planned instead of rushing the process and letting these mistakes slip through the cracks. I have to say I’m usually a lot better at catching most of these stragglers before a proof is even made. Then again, I’ve rarely dealt with anything close to this amount of text in a lyric booklet. It’s beyond tedious to go through each page over and over again at a snail’s pace, but it’ll all be worth it when I’ve got a stack of error-free booklets and inserts in front of me a week or so from now.

A brand new thing dressed as a memory.

Two months shy of six years after I first started work on it, YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is finished. Over the next few days I’m going to proofread my art files for the booklets and inserts until my eyeballs liquefy. Then I’m getting them printed and bringing this baby home while it screams at me and throws up on my shoulder.

It usually takes me at least a few months after the completion of an album before I’m able to listen to it in something approaching an impartial state. I get the feeling it’s going to take a little longer with this one. I feel good about the sequence I settled on. I think it strikes a nice balance between unpredictability and plotting out a clear sonic and emotional arc. But it’s very strange to hear all of these songs together in one place after all this time, and it’s beyond strange to think of the album as a finished thing. I don’t think the reality of it is going to sink in until I’m holding the first official artwork-enhanced copy in my hands.

There’s always some minor snag or curve ball that comes along to slow me down when I’m gearing up to finish an album. Sometimes an essential piece of equipment dies on me right when I need it the most. Sometimes my immune system says, “Oh, you wanted to accomplish something? Here’s some sickness! Good luck hearing through six layers of snot!” Sometimes a pony gets the blues.

This time I couldn’t seem to make a master copy of the album that didn’t have a few glitches in it somewhere. The external CD burner I’m using has never let me down before, but it’s eleven years old now. It makes sense that it would start to break down after how hard I’ve worked it in that time.

I went out and bought a new external burner. It worked like a charm. I burned a disc, gave it a listen, and didn’t hear any glitches, but it sounded…off somehow. The high frequencies seemed to be exaggerated in an almost imperceptable way.

I was reminded of the time I tried about five different brands of recordable CDs when I was making copies of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN and every one of them sounded different to me. For all I know, my brain convinced my ears I was hearing something that wasn’t there at all. And maybe that’s what happened again with this CD burner. It doesn’t make any sense that two copies of the exact same recordable media would sound different just because they came out of two different optical drives.

It’s a subtle difference. It might be an imaginary difference. But if I went ahead and made a bunch of copies of the album with that perceived change in sound and then shared them with other people, it would bother me for the rest of my life.

One thing led to another, and I discovered my crusty old CD burner wasn’t the problem at all. It was the CDs themselves. I’ve been lucky over the years and haven’t had to deal with too many “coasters” (a common slang term for defective discs), but I finally ended up with some duds at the bottom of a spindle.

Here’s the irony of it all: my recordable CDs of choice for twelve years now have been JVC-branded Taiyo Yudens. A different company took over the production of these CDs a few years ago. I read a lot of horror stories about a dramatic drop-off in quality control. So I bought up as much old stock as I could while it was still available. A lot of people consider CDs to be a dying medium, and reliable media is getting more and more difficult to come by. I only ended up with a few batches of the dreaded CMC-branded Taiyo Yuden discs when the one store I found that still had some of the JVC-made ones ran out and sent me the new guys instead.

The dodgy CDs? They were my trusty old TYs. I tried some of the new ones just to see what would happen. The glitches disappeared.

Burn burn, spin spin, oh what a relief it’s been.

I was determined to fit fifty songs onto these two CDs. I almost pulled it off, until two songs found themselves on the cutting room floor very late in the game. Every other song that made it onto the album earned its place there. Losing even one of them would knock over the whole chain of dominoes. These two tracks, though — they could go and I wouldn’t miss them. It was a good thing they were expendable, because once I dropped them I had just enough space to cram everything onto two CDs.

Since they don’t really give away any surprises, here are those two last-minute out-takes.

I’ve talked a bit before about the experience of writing songs for other voices. It isn’t something I plan on doing again after this. I’m pretty sure at least two-thirds of the grey hair now living in my beard is a direct result of being given the long-distance runaround by so many flighty and uninterested singers. Most of the people I had in mind to sing the vocal parts I didn’t want to handle myself aren’t even on the album. Almost all of my first, second, and third choices expressed at least some interest in working with me only to turn to dust when I tried to make concrete plans with them.

I’m not at all disappointed it worked out this way. I was forced to get creative and reach out to people I might not have thought to contact otherwise, and now I can’t imagine anyone else in place of the featured guest vocalists who are on the album. I think the songs were ultimately sung by the singers who were meant to sing them.

Being able to see the positive side doesn’t negate the mind-numbing frustration I had to endure. I’ve got stories galore. Some of them are so bizarre you’d be forgiven for thinking I made them up.

I’ll save all that stuff for a post that digs into the making of the album and all its songs in a week or two. Trust me — it’ll be worth the wait.

I only mention any of this here because the first of these out-takes is one of those things I wrote with someone else’s voice in mind. I was thinking of a singer who sounds a bit like Frazey Ford. I tried to emulate that when I recorded the demo, with mixed results.

The Inverse Is Also True (demo)

I wrote an instrumental section to graft onto the beginning, worked out a horn arrangement both for that part and for the body of the song, and brought in Kelly Hoppe to play it. When I told him my lead vocal was a scratch track and I planned on replacing it with someone else’s voice, he said, “I like your singing on this one. You should keep it.”

After a year of trying and failing to get the singer I was communicating with to commit to anything, I decided Kelly was right and recorded a more serious vocal track of my own.

The Inverse Is Also True

There are a number of things on the album that thumb their noses at the conventional rules of song construction. This song does that too, but it was the one instance in which I felt I could see the seams between the disparate sections a little better than I wanted to.

I like the intro. It was inspired in equal part by the simple, declarative, powerful melodic statements John Coltrane made at the beginning of some of his songs (“Seraphic Light” comes to mind) and the brief, mournful saxophone interlude in the middle of David Bowie’s “Sweet Thing” suite on the album Diamond Dogs. I was trying to capture something of that quality when I wrote the melody Kelly darts around on tenor sax. I like that a lot of the singing is pretty high in my range without dipping much into the falsetto register, at least until the last section. But I can’t shake the feeling that I never quite nailed the lead vocal, and I couldn’t come up with a smooth transition between the final fading sax harmonies and the piano-driven coda.

It just felt a little too thin to me when I held it up against the other songs. And it seems appropriate that I would take what might have been one of the catchier moments on the album and chuck it right out the window.

Here’s a bit of video (from the time of Maximum Beardage, no less) demonstrating the outrageous difference in richness between my initial synth-sax guide track and the real thing.

The other last-minute cast-off is a much simpler affair. It’s not quite a fragment or a full-length song. It lives somewhere in-between those two poles.

A Will to Love (demo)

I went through a few different arrangements for this one before settling on something a little more pared-down. There are handclaps and lap steel tracks that didn’t make it into the final mix, among other things. I thought about getting a few people together for some group vocals at the end, but by this time my patience for being strung along was at a pretty low ebb. I’m still not sure if I should have left in that random drum flourish at the end or cut things off right before it happens.

The main acoustic guitar used here is a 1932 Washburn 5200. It’s not an axe I pull out often — it’s in a somewhat weird C tuning that only works for certain things — but when I do I’m always reminded how well it records. It puts out a lot of sound for such a small-bodied instrument. And it’s got the nicest smell to it. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s sweet without being saccharine. I’ve never experienced a fragrance quite like it with any other guitar I’ve held in my hands.

A Will to Love

Self-portrait in silhouette.

Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh. So said Al Swearengen in the first season of Deadwood. As much truth as there is in that sentiment — and as often as I’ve set goals for myself only to fall short of achieving them — it’s still fun to start a new year on an optimistic note.

These are the things I hope to finish in the year of perfect vision.

Year of the Sleepwalk

This one’s a no-brainer. I have one mix left to work on. Once that’s out of the way and the mastering is taken care of, I can go ahead and get booklets and inserts printed. Everything should be done by the end of this month.

The Angle of Best Distance

A.k.a. “the albatross I’ve been wearing as a necklace since I was in my early twenties”. I can see the appeal of an album that goes on growing without ever being finished — a musical map that traces something approaching a lifetime of artistic development — but I think fourteen years is long enough. It would serve as a nice counterpoint to YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. While that album is the most ambitious thing I’ve done in terms of overall vision and scope, this one covers a longer period of time and doesn’t feature any guests.

It would also be a nice way of bringing this specific chapter of my creative life to a close with a swift two-punch combination. I feel like I’ve said all I have to say for now in the realm of more conventional song forms. Both of these albums are home to some songs that do some pretty radical things with structure and dynamics, and I can count the number of songs with conventional choruses on one hand, but I think it’s time to get back to the way I was writing during the BRAND NEW SHINY LIE period. Not to recycle or repeat what’s already been done, but to challenge myself to sustain that method of song construction over the space of an entire album again.

I’ve said this before and it hasn’t happened. I’ve let the music take me where it wants to go and written whatever kind of songs want to come out. This time it’s different. I feel in my gut that it’s time for a change, and I’ve already starting writing some things that are leaning in this direction. I want to hear what happens when the non-repetitive way of writing gets funnelled through everything I’ve learned about production in the intervening years.

We’ll see if that actually happens.

Out-takes, Misfits, and Other Things (Volume 2)

I’ve amassed such a large collection of misfit songs at this point, it’s getting a little crazy. I learned a lot from the first misfits compilation. That one was pretty haphazard and just kind of thrown together for the sake of giving a bunch of cast-offs a place to call home. A lot of things probably shouldn’t have made the cut. I mean, even out-takes albums should have standards. And discussing the songs in chronological order in the booklet while sequencing them in a completely unrelated way on the actual album is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time but makes no sense to me at all in hindsight.

The second misfits compilation will pick up where the last one left off, covering things that have fallen by the wayside from the time of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN to the present. I think this one will be a much more interesting and illuminating assemblage of music, and it should work better as a continuous listening experience.

A posthumous Papa Ghostface compilation

This would act as a more wizened sibling to KISSING THE BALD SPOT — the out-takes collection I pieced together following the end of the first phase of Papa Ghostface only to discover it worked pretty well as an album in its own right. There are a number of worthwhile things that didn’t make it onto STEW or WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD for one reason or another, along with a few things we never got around to recording that I’d still like to take a crack at. I don’t expect the results to upend FLOOD as the definitive ending to the PG story, but it would be nice to take care of some unfinished business.

The first order of business is polishing off SLEEPWALK. Once that’s done, I’m going to dip my toes back into THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE and see how the water feels. If it starts to get overwhelming, I’ll kick it to the side (again) and get to work on something else. If, on the other hand, I get in a good rhythm and figure out how to sequence the mess of music I need to untangle, I just might manage to tame that savage beast once and for all.

The vanishing man.

As a rule, the end of a year doesn’t register for me beyond a few thoughts about the perceived acceleration of time and a few minutes spent taking stock of what I did or didn’t accomplish over the preceding twelve months. It’s a little different this time. It isn’t just the end of a year. It’s the end of a whole decade.

This hasn’t been my most productive ten-year period.

In the years that spanned 2000 to 2009, I made sixteen full-length solo albums (plus four EPs and two out-takes collections), nine full-length GWD albums (plus one EP, a few “best-of” compilations, and an out-takes collection), four full-length Papa Ghostface albums, a Mr. Sinister album, a West/Smith album and EP, the long belch that was The Adam Russell Project, the silliness I cooked up with Matt Malanka for grade eleven English class, various other odds and ends, and somewhere in there I found time to record albums for a few friends and appear as an unpaid, sometimes uncredited session musician on a few albums other people were recording.

From 2010 to 2019, I managed only four solo albums (the last of them released in 2011, so I started out on pace to match my output from the previous decade), two Papa Ghostface albums, and an O-L West album. I also did a few quickie mastering jobs, made a few musical cameo appearances, and recorded nine albums for other artists — ten if you count an album that was scrapped after the basic tracks were recorded because I found out the frontman was a piece of human garbage and I didn’t want my name associated with his music (I gave the band their money back). Eleven if you count another album that I don’t think got a proper release.

There have been valid reasons for slowing down so much. As my approach to making an album has grown more considered, it’s taken me longer to finish things. I’ve been getting an unprecedented amount of work recording other people over the last five years, and it’s taken an incredible amount of time away from my own music. YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK and THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE are not a normal albums, whatever constitutes “normal” for me, and they were always going to be long-range projects.

Still. That’s a pretty staggering drop-off in activity.

2019 has been one of the more topsy-turvy years I can remember having. It started out on a serious high. I managed to turn my dream of an ambitious multi-platform live show into a reality, thanks in no small part to a grant I received. Then the show fell apart when almost no one felt like honouring the commitments they made to me, I got sick from the stress, and I gave the grant money back.

That kind of summarizes my year — bouncing from hope and excitement to rejection and indifference on a level unlike anything I’d experienced before. Having that show disintegrate after putting five years of work into making it happen was one of the worst experiences of my life. Then I had to watch as some of the same people who didn’t care enough to show up for me turned around and showed up for the Wards of Windsor Music Project — at the same venue I booked for my show, with promotional material showcasing the same insect that was on my handbills — while the local “journalists” who wouldn’t give me the time of day when I reached out to them fell all over themselves to hype it up.

I don’t begrudge anyone their success. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that the whole thing was designed by the universe just to shove my face in the mud. People will be talking about that show for a long time. No one will ever talk about what I tried to do, or how a group of musicians who are celebrated for their talent and professionalism screwed me over and revealed how pathetic, lazy, and superficial they really are.

I had to eat that and find a way to live with the taste. It didn’t go down easy.

In the seventeen years I’ve spent trying to find a place to plug into this artistic community, I’ve been treated as a novelty, a trouble-maker, an aberration to be ignored, a whimsical distraction, a tool to be used and then discarded once I’ve served my purpose and injected some credibility or unpredictability into someone else’s music, a figure of ridicule, a subject of absurd speculation, and no end of other things. Outside of a handful of people who decided they liked my music based on its own merits, I’ve never been embraced as an artist or seen as a human being. I was never really accepted. I just made so much music for so long, it became impossible for an entire city to go on ignoring me.

My brief time spent as a partially-tolerated guest in The Club made it clear this wasn’t a world I wanted any part of. Even so, I thought I managed to carve out my own place and create my own community in miniature. I thought I paid my dues and then some, putting my heart and soul into what I did regardless of whether or not anyone else was interested in hearing the results, putting my money where my mouth was, seeking out collaborative situations when I didn’t have to, and going out of my way to help other artists in whatever capacity I could. I thought I accrued some amount of stature and respect. I thought I found some people I could count on.

I was wrong on every count. There isn’t a place for me. There never was. There isn’t ever going to be. Nothing I’ve done has meant much of anything to anyone. And in the end, the only person I can count on is myself.

It hasn’t been a fun lesson to learn, but I’ve learned it. Repeatedly. The difference this time is there’s no way to put a positive spin on it, and no way to delude myself into believing I’m a part of something when I’m not. Call it a rude awakening if you like. I call it a violent forced bowel movement of truth. I wish I wasn’t the human toilet bowl in the equation, but hey, you can’t have it all.

You don’t go through a thing like that without doing some serious soul-searching in the aftermath. I’ve done a lot of thinking over the last few months. Here are the conclusions I’ve come to.

I’m not going to stop making music. I couldn’t do that any more than I could stop myself from breathing. What I am going to stop doing, with a few exceptions, is sharing it. Having the stuff heard has never been what gives it value for me. Creating it is what I care about. Putting CDs together by hand and writing letters for people who can’t take five seconds out of their busy lives to acknowledge the effort has caused me too much frustration for too long. There won’t be any more of that.

I’ve deleted the page on this blog that provided contact information (though you can still find my email address if you care to dig a little), and I’m only making a very small number of copies of SLEEPWALK. Just enough to give to a few good friends. Anything beyond that feels like a complete waste of time. I know this is the kind of album you’re supposed to spread far and wide and scream about from the rooftops. Almost forty different people contributed to it, and by the time I’m finished I’ll have spent almost six years putting it together. It’s a massive Artistic Statement, in capital letters.

I’m going to do my best to make sure it sinks like a heavy stone. If anyone wants to swim deep enough to find it, that’s up to them. Even some of the musicians who contributed to the thing won’t be getting a copy. If you’re going to force me to hound you in order to share some music with you, you’re not all that interested in hearing it, are you?

A lot of artists don’t care about any of this stuff. I know that. They farm the majority of the work off to other people, from recording, to mixing, to mastering, to graphic design, to the physical packaging of their albums (assuming they don’t go the online-only route to save some money). If they bother to write their own songs, they’re often concerned with little more than tapping into whatever sound is popular at the moment and hitting on some mindless, heartless, gutless universal platitudes so whoever is listening will be able to stare into the massive ink blob of nothingness and hallucinate some bullshit they believe is applicable to them. The writer has no interest in expressing something or working to develop a voice that’s their own. Their music is a product, with all the emptiness and cynicism that implies. As long as they sell some albums and get a linguistic blowjob from a would-be writer somewhere along the line, they couldn’t care less about creating art or connecting with anyone. Listeners are seen as consumers.

If that’s what you’re all about, knock yourself out. What you do with what you make is no one’s business but your own, and I’ve got no quarrel with anyone who treats music as a job. I’m coming at it from a different angle because I don’t have a choice. Music isn’t something I create for money, or to generate attention, or because I think it’s going to get me laid or make me look cool. It’s something I do because if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t be a healthy person. I’ve spent my life eating, sleeping, and dreaming music — literally. It’s what defines me as a human being. When you get one of my albums, it’s something I’ve put together myself by hand, one piece at a time, with the specific intention of giving it to you. As stupid as this might sound, what I’m offering you is more than just a recording. It’s a piece of myself.

For too long I’ve been sharing these pieces of myself with people who accept them because they’re free and think nothing more of it. The music doesn’t mean anything to them. Well, it means something to me. I would rather share it with no one and at least know it holds some value for the person who created it than go on devaluing it this way.

I thought I found a way around this issue when I stopped distributing the albums in public places and forced anyone who wanted access to the music to communicate with me. It seems to be inescapable. Most of the people who’ve emailed me asking for music don’t respond when I follow up asking for an address or a convenient place to drop off some CDs (which begs the question: why waste your time contacting me in the first place?). The few who do respond almost never let me know when they get what I send them, offer nothing in the way of feedback or gratitude, and never communicate with me again in any form.

I’m done dancing this dance. I’m not going to beg anyone to let me share my music with them after they’ve expressed an interest in it. And if someone doesn’t care enough to fire off a six-word email letting me know they got what I sent them in the mail or delivered to their doorstep, they’re not going to get music from me anymore. I get nothing out of hemorrhaging time and money in order to send CDs to people who as far as I can tell don’t even listen to them.

I’ve gone to great lengths to prove I’m not in this for money. Some people seem to appreciate what I do for some odd reason. So what? That’s not enough for me. I want a dialogue with my listeners. Not some silent, faceless transaction. I know I’m asking for the moon here, but if I can’t have that, I’m not going to waste any more of my life chasing something that will never exist because I’m the only one who cares about cultivating it.

(If you’re reading this and you’re one of the few people who does take the time to acknowledge what I share with you, this doesn’t apply to you. You can expect to keep getting music from me until the end of time.)

You might think this is all sounding kind of negative and self-defeating. I don’t see it that way. What I’m doing isn’t shutting down, though it might sound like I am, and it isn’t an effort to punish anyone for not giving me what I want. I’m simplifying things and refocusing my energy. The happiest times in my life have come when I’ve gone about my business, made my music in a vacuum, pretty much kept it to myself, and paid little or no attention to what anyone else is doing. I think it’s time to get back to that. It’s served me well in the past. Maybe it’s selfish. I think I can live with that. Let the folks who don’t like what I do think they’ve “won” and I’ve stopped making music altogether. Let anyone think whatever they want.

Believe me, the people who won’t be getting CDs from me anymore aren’t going to sit around feeling sad about it. They’re not going to miss my music. They never cared about it to begin with. It was little more than background noise to them. When you think about it, I’m doing them a favour. They won’t have as much junk they need to find a place to stash so they can forget all about it.

I’m helping to fight the battle against clutter so we can all have a brighter tomorrow. I think it’s pretty commendable.

Two of the best things I did this year, meanwhile, had nothing to do with music.

I’ve struggled with my sleep for a long time. The trouble started in high school, with a lot of late nights and groggy mornings. I worked around the loss of sleep by taking naps and sleeping in on the weekends. I was able to keep things from getting out of hand until 2007, when a merry trio of crackheads moved into the other half of the duplex we called home. After seven months of being unable to sleep at any sane time thanks to their nonstop partying, I no longer knew what a healthy schedule looked like. I moved into this house with a broken body clock.

For the next eleven years I fell into a holding pattern. It was impossible for me to get to sleep at a reasonable hour, so I would stay up late and sleep in until I was getting to bed after the sun came up and waking up in the dark. The only effective way I found to turn it around was to go without sleep for thirty hours or so, crash at seven or eight at night, and get up at four in the morning the next day, forcing my sleep clock to reset itself. I would switch over to farmhand hours for a week. Then I’d start to have trouble getting to sleep again, things would shift, and after another week or two I’d be back on vampire hours.

I lost an unfathomable amount of time. I had to cancel plans I made with friends when my sleep got in the way. Hundreds if not thousands of hours of good recording time went to waste. My dream journal took some serious hits when I didn’t have the energy to get down more than vague impressions of what I remembered dreaming some days and nights — and that thing is well over six thousand pages long, so who knows how much more epic it might be by now if my commitment to it never wavered. Even when I managed to get a good amount of sleep, I almost never felt rested. Most of the time I woke up feeling like my head was gummed up with motor oil.

It can take a while for the body to recover from just one all-nighter. The sleep loss messes with your ability to store memories, your brain’s overall performance, your circadian rhythm, and your metabolism. Long-term sleep problems can contribute to the development of diabetes, depression, obesity, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.

On average, I went without sleep to shock things back into shape every three weeks. There are seventeen three-week intervals in a year. That means from 2007 to 2018 I had close to two hundred self-imposed sleepless nights.

No wonder I felt like wet garbage all the time. That’s horrifying.

Kind of casts a new light on the decline in my productivity over the last decade. Viewed through this prism, I’m amazed I got anything done at all in that time, and a little surprised I’m not dead or in a state of complete putrefaction.

It wasn’t a whole lot of fun to live through that. The worst part was feeling powerless to change it. Nothing I did would break the cycle. A sleep clinic wouldn’t have done me any good. I wouldn’t have been able to get any sleep in that environment. Sleeping pills weren’t the answer either. With the leftover anxiety I had from the 2008 home invasion, I probably would have had a meltdown if I couldn’t pull myself out of sleep that felt like it was about to take a bad turn.

I made a bit of progress in 2018. I only had to pull one all-nighter early in the year. My sleep started to shift, as it always did, and then it stopped shifting. I settled into a rhythm of getting to bed at one or two in the morning and getting up at noon. It wasn’t perfect, and it started to drift at the end of the year, but I was able to make it work. I ate at more reasonable times, even if lunch was my first meal of the day and breakfast was a distant memory. I saw some consistent daylight. I felt a little better. I was able to get out of the house more often and get more done.

By the beginning of this year my new schedule wasn’t working so well anymore. It was getting too close to the vampire territory of old. In February I went without sleep to recalibrate things one more time. I told myself having to do this once a year was a serious improvement over having to do it every few weeks.

I don’t think I’ll ever have to do it again.

For the last ten months I’ve been on a healthy, stable sleep schedule. I’m in bed before eight and up around five-thirty. I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I see a whole lot of daylight. I can’t remember the last time I woke up with that motor-oil-in-the-brain feeling. I feel rested and clear-headed every day.

I feel like I got my life back. The last time my sleep was in this kind of shape, I looked like this:

There were a few rough nights early on when I couldn’t get to sleep until around midnight. I didn’t let myself sleep in, and my body and brain got the message. They’ve been programmed so well now, I don’t need to set my alarm anymore. I can trust myself to wake up when I’m supposed to. Having trouble falling asleep is no longer a concern. The sleep demons that dogged me for so long have been decapitated and set on fire.

There are drawbacks, if you can call them that. Late nights aren’t an option for me anymore. There are events I’m not able to attend or participate in. One deviation from the schedule could throw everything off, and I won’t risk it. I’m rigid with the time I go to bed and the time I get up.

There isn’t too much going on around here at night I’d want to be around for anyway. So it’s a small price to pay.

I also lost some weight this year, though the exact amount is a mystery to me (and I think I might leave it a mystery).

For a very long time, I weighed one hundred and forty-five pounds. I was probably underweight. I went through such a protracted growth spurt during my adolescence, I didn’t start to grow into my body until I was in my early twenties. I didn’t exercise much, and I ate like a horse, but my metabolism always kept things in check.

I started putting on a bit of weight around the time we moved into this house. It was such a cumulative process, I didn’t notice it was happening until it became impossible not to notice. If I had to guess, I’d say every year I probably put on another ten pounds. Given how skinny I was for so many years, I figured this was me “filling out”.

Earlier this year I was at the walk-in clinic with a case of bronchitis. I was curious, so I weighed myself. The scale told me I weighed two hundred and sixty-five pounds.

I’m a large person by design. I’m six-foot-three, give or take half an inch, and my frame is not small. I think I carried that weight pretty well. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t starting to bother me. By this time I had a pretty serious gut and more than the suggestion of man boobs. I was down to a rotation of five or six shirts that were loose-fitting enough to hide the excess baggage. I found myself sweating sometimes when I was working on something in the studio, even when it didn’t involve any significant physical activity.

According to the Body Mass Index, I was obese. The BMI is about as reliable as a bunch of Windsor musicians who’ve signed on to play a show with you at Mackenzie Hall. I wasn’t obese. I was overweight, though. I could see it. I could feel it.

I’d been on Johnny Smith’s case to start walking for a while. In August, around the time of my birthday, I asked if he thought it might help if I walked with him. He said it would. I thought he could use the motivation and I could use the exercise. We decided on the Devonshire Mall as a convenient weather-proof place to walk. He drew up a schedule and we started walking every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning. I didn’t expect much to come of it.

A few weeks in, it hit me that I was still eating a whole lot of junk. Having that stuff in the house wasn’t going to help the Smithster get healthy. I decided if he was going to give it an honest try, I might as well give it a shot too. The junk food went in the garbage, and I started augmenting our walks with burpees, planks, and crunches twice a day.

I had no idea just how many unnecessary calories I was putting into my body. I used to have a muffin or a bagel with my breakfast every morning. I’d have a bunch of potato chips or Doritos with a sandwich for lunch, a pop or an iced tea to drink, and I’d follow that with a chocolate bar or a plate of cookies. I’d have another high-calorie drink with dinner, and for dessert I’d have a piece of cake, a piece of pie, or a bowl of ice cream. Sometimes I’d make myself a banana split. The meals I was eating were all pretty healthy. The problem was everything around them. Once I started looking at how many calories were in those cookies and chocolate bars and carbonated beverages, it made me want to weep.

I started having an apple with my breakfast instead of a muffin. I substituted a healthier low-calorie iced tea for my usual Snapple iced tea at lunch. Every Snapple product tastes like mud ever since they switched over to plastic bottles, so that was no great loss. I started making myself a small salad to go with my lunch instead of greasy potato chips, using a low-calorie dressing and being a little more judicious in how I applied it. If I wanted a snack, I’d eat a peach or a slice of watermelon. I started drinking water with dinner and following it with another slice of watermelon, or a handful of grapes, or nothing at all.

When we started walking in late August we averaged about thirty minutes. Now we’re averaging more than an hour and a half every walk. We haven’t missed a day. We even walked on Boxing Day. It was a bit of a nightmare, but we made it work.

After trying to stay away from the mall for a number of years, walking there on a regular basis has been an eye-opening experience. I knew a lot of people had been zombified by their cell phones, but I had no idea it was this bad. We see masses of people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities with their eyes glued to their phones, oblivious to their surroundings. Many of them are parents who are ignoring their offspring because whatever is on their phone is more important to them than their children. Some of those parents act more like children than the kids do. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the thirty-something dad in a toque who whined to his young daughter, “We can never like go anywhere because you always have to go to the bathroom!”

(You’ve failed as a parent and as a speaker of words. Good job, dude.)

The androids, as Johnny Smith calls them, will walk right into you if you don’t get out of their way in time. Most parents don’t even hold hands with their children anymore. If they bother to tear themselves away from their cell phones long enough to notice their kid is still present, they shout at them like a disobedient dog. “Come! Come on! Get out of there! Stop that! Catch up!” Then they walk on as the distance between them grows, not looking back at the child, assuming they’ll follow. I’m amazed there isn’t an abduction every five minutes. And I’ve lost track of how many mothers I’ve seen pushing strollers, ignoring the child inside in favour of a texting session.

This is child abuse. Plain and simple. These people are sending the message to their children that an electronic device is more important than they are. They should be thrown in some pit of a prison and kept there until they see the stupidity of their ways.

You know what else I’ve noticed about the cell phone zombies? Whatever games they’re playing or whoever they’re texting, the expressions on their faces are always flat and emotionless. There’s no smiling. No laughter. No grimacing. Nothing. Just one dispassionate dead-eyed stare after another. I wonder if they have any feelings left, or if the totality of their reliance on this soul-deadening technology has sucked all of their emotions out of them like a giant cosmic turkey baster. They’d be more upset about someone stealing their phone than they would if their child got hurt. It’s disturbing.

One image seemed to capture the startling inhumanity of it all. I couldn’t have invented it if I tried. One morning we saw a bicycle flipped upside down so it was supported by the seat. There was an iPhone wedged between the spokes of the front wheel, sucking juice from a wall outlet to recharge its battery.

Back to that weight loss thing for a minute —

I was wearing a 42″ pair of jeans when our walking adventures began. A few weeks in, I noticed they were getting loose. I dug through a closet and saw I’d saved almost every pair of jeans I outgrew over the years. I forgot to get rid of them. I found a pair of 38″ jeans, hung them in my bedroom, wrote GOAL JEANS on a Post-it note, and stuck it on the ass of those pants. I decided if I could somehow get into them by the end of the year, I’d be a very happy guy.

In October I was wearing my goal jeans. I found two more old pairs with a 38″ waist in the same closet. They were much tighter and less forgiving. By November I was wearing those in place of the goal jeans, and I couldn’t use my belt anymore. It was too big for me.

I kind of wish I’d taken some “before” and “after” photos, as embarrassing as they would be. I didn’t think to do that. I’ve never consciously tried to lose weight before, and I didn’t think anything noteworthy was going to happen.

What I can share is this:

Those are my 42″ jeans. That dark cavern is the gulf that’s grown between their waistline and my stomach. That’s…not nothing.

I have no idea how much I weigh now. Again, I’m not sure I want to know. If the number that shows up on the scale isn’t close enough to the number I have in my head, it would be a little discouraging. The number doesn’t even matter. And it doesn’t bother me if no one notices or asks me if I’ve lost weight. What matters is I know I have, and I feel better than I have in years. I also have a whole new wardrobe now. There’s a pile of shirts I had to stop wearing because they were too tight or unflattering. Some of them haven’t seen the outside of the closet in close to a decade. Now I can wash all the dust off and wear them again. It’s pretty neat.

Most diets don’t stick, and most people gain back all or most of the weight they’ve lost within a short period of time. I think this happens because you end up eating things you don’t like when you’re on a health kick, and once you lose some weight you convince yourself the hard work is done and revert to unhealthy eating habits. What I’ve tried to do here is not go on a diet at all. It’s more about making some lasting lifestyle changes. I don’t miss the junk food for a second. I’ve always loved fruits and vegetables. A good peach (when peaches are in season) or some watermelon satisfies my craving for something sweet in a way a chocolate bar never did. I still eat like a horse, but I’m a much healthier horse now. Neigh.

Here’s the secret to my modest success: I love the things I’m eating. I have no desire to go back to the way I was eating before. And instead of dreading walking days, I look forward to them, cell phone zombies and all.

Sure, I could go the extra mile and cut out my morning orange juice and my afternoon iced tea to drop even more calories. I could weigh my portions and count calories. Many people find that an effective approach to getting healthy. It’s not the way for me. Food is one of the great joys of my life. I’m not going to drain all the fun out of it with a scale and a measuring cup, and I’m not going to deny myself the occasional vegan donut or piece of pecan pie as a special treat. I’ve made some healthy changes that are going to be permanent, and they’ve made a world of difference. If I plateau around here and don’t lose much more weight, I’m good with that. I don’t want or need to be as skinny as I used to be. That would be too weird for words.

So that’s my story. I leave the house almost every day (pretty bold for an enigmatic recluse, eh?). I’m out in the world more than I’ve been since I was a teenager. At the same time, I have less to do with people than I ever have. Most of them are full of shit anyway.

Here’s to inhabiting a new level of obscurity in 2020 and learning how to disappear completely.

A grain of rice at the end of the funnel.

I set a low-key goal to have a rough assembly of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK on CD by the end of this week, if only for my own peace of mind. There were two mixes that needed some last-minute tweaks and two songs that required a little more in the way of clothing before I could mix them. If I could get all of that taken care of and the sequencing felt right, I’d be able to focus on finalizing the layout of the lyric/art booklet.

I didn’t do myself any favours by leaving some of the most difficult work for last. These are four of the most ambitious songs on the album, with an average track count of twenty-five. Two of them are more than eight minutes long.

For those who work out of a commercial recording studio — and even for most home recordists — twenty-five tracks is nothing. For me and my humble sixteen-track mixer, it’s a lot.

The mixing process has developed all kinds of new and interesting wrinkles. Mixing a song was once almost a set-it-and-forget-it thing for me, because there were so few tracks to work with. Now it’s become a musical performance in itself, with countless pinpoint changes in panning, volume, and effects.

Early in the week, I tackled one of the songs that still needed some work at the recording stage. It was in a very unfinished state. I had an acoustic guitar track, bass, some rough piano, a scratch vocal, and multi-tracked trombone and cello.

I was never happy with the acoustic guitar sound I captured for this song. I used my Martin 000-15. I love that guitar, and it’s really opened up in the eight or so years I’ve had it, but I’ve come to rely on it more for accents and secondary parts. It can sound a little thin when you try to build a whole song around it. I prefer the warmer, richer-sound of the 1945 Martin 00-17 or the 1951 Gibson LG-2 for that sort of thing.

When I revisited the basic tracks the acoustic guitar part wasn’t doing it for me at all. It wasn’t just the sound that bothered me. It was flat and lifeless. It sounded more like I was trying to avoid hitting an ugly note than really letting go and expressing something through the instrument. So I junked it, plugged in the Telecaster, and rebuilt the whole arrangement around electric guitar instead. Everything started to feel more dynamic right away. The bass was good enough to keep. I ditched the piano in the body of the song and recorded some Fender Rhodes in its place, recorded some drums, added some of the crummy twelve-string acoustic that’s become an occasional secret weapon, nailed down some keeper vocal tracks (the vocals are layered at the beginning before collapsing down to a single, unembellished performance), bounced the trombone down to a stereo submix to make my life a little easier, threw in a bit of lap steel, and braced myself for a mixing nightmare.

This is one of those songs that goes out of its way to subvert anything resembling a traditional verse/chorus structure. I tend to do that anyway, rarely writing a chorus even when sections of music in a song repeat, but it’s often a subtler thing (at least compared to the violent refracting of song forms that drove albums like BRAND NEW SHINY LIE and GROWING SIDEWAYS). Here it’s not subtle. There are four distinct movements, and none of them recur once they’ve run their course. The instrumentation shifts a fair bit as well, with different elements coming and going. The only straightforward part from a mixing standpoint is the final section, which is kind of striking in its starkness compared to the rest of the song — just piano and cello.

I almost fainted when I listened to the first mix in a few different settings and it hit me that I only needed to make a few small adjustments. That doesn’t happen with songs like this. It almost always takes me at least a few mixes to get things right, or at least as right as I’m going to get them.

The second mix, which isn’t much different from the rough pass, became the final mix. It might be one of my better mixes on the album. It’s ridiculous.

Luck? A fluke? I don’t know. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.

Full of self-belief, I jumped right into the other song that still needed some work, thought I might get it done in a day, and smacked face-first into a glass door. Proverbially speaking.

This one also has four movements, but they’re much more disparate, almost as if four different songs have been fused together. There are layers of vocals, saxophone, violin, many guitars (some acoustic, some electric, some backwards), bass, drums, and by the time I’m finished adding Wurlitzer and a few more atmospheric touches it’ll top out somewhere near thirty tracks. Not all of these elements are in play at the same time, which is part of what makes it such a delicate dance to pull all the threads together.

I added some new vocal tracks to the last section. Then I tried re-recording the vocal tracks for two other sections before deciding I liked the existing takes better. They may be imperfect, but there’s an energy there that feels right. I recorded some acoustic twelve-string guitar over the most propulsive part to thicken things up a little (using my own axe this time) and started forming some ideas about just how I’m going to mix this monstrous thing. I still need to replace some of the sax stabs with vocal harmonies and take another pass at the drum part.

It’s taking a little longer than I hoped, but given how complicated the thing is, it was probably unrealistic to think I could blow through it in an afternoon. Better to let it take its time. If that means another few days of experimenting before I figure out all the final touches the song needs, and if the two mixes I still need to fine-tune end up getting impatient and rolling their eyes at me, so be it.

I’m not quite there yet. But I’m close.

Sinus infections are still stupid.

In what’s become a frustrating recurring theme, I once again find myself getting sick when I’m days away from wrapping up the album I’m working on.

I still need to tweak a few mixes, and there’s one vocal performance I want to take another crack at. All of that’s going to have to wait a bit, because my voice and ears are not quite at their best right now (thanks, congestion).

There’s good news, though. For the first time in years, instead of one of those brutal colds that knocks me out for a few weeks, what I’ve been saddled with this time is little more than your average seasonal cold. There’s been no bullfrog voice, no hacking up a lung, and no feeling like my head’s going to explode if I cough or sneeze one more time. I haven’t had to pop a single throat lozenge. I’ve felt a little run-down here and there, but for the most part my energy has been good. I’ve been getting a lot of fresh air and staying just as active as I was before I got sick (which is more active than you might think).

It’s the third time I’ve been sick this year. That’s a little irritating. But I’ll take this mild inconvenience over the alternative any day.

Because of the time I’m losing, I don’t think there’s any way I’m going to be able to get YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK release-ready by the end of the year now. I’m still confident I’ll have a final master of the album by the end of the month, but I doubt I’ll have a chance to work out the packaging side of things before the holidays. And I’m okay with that.

As impatient as I am when it comes to releasing things — especially when I haven’t put out a solo album since 2011 — and as much as I enjoy the perversity of tossing something out there at the tail end of a calendar year, knowing it’s probably going to get buried and ignored, I think this album deserves a little better than that. It’s been a long time since I had an opportunity to come roaring out of the gate with a new album right at the beginning of a brand new year. It would be kind of fun to have that experience again, and to see what impact it has on my momentum through the rest of 2020.

So that’s the new plan. It feels like a good note to start the year on.

Getting closer.

There are three songs that still need a bit of work before I can mix them, four songs I need to fine-tune the mixes for, and then YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is done.

It’s a strange feeling to be this close to the end after spending years feeling like it was a mountain I could never climb. There’s satisfaction, but it’s laced with disbelief. Some part of my brain is having a difficult time processing the idea that I’ve really made it this far.

I’ve saved some of the most intimidating songs for last. A few of them have arrangements that are so ambitious and fluid, mixing one song becomes more like mixing three or four at once. You’d think it would make more sense to get these things out of the way early on, but I feel better tackling them after getting most of the other mixes the way I want them, using the confidence and momentum I’ve accumulated as fuel.

So far I haven’t had to take ten different passes at a mix the way I did with one of the tracks on WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD. So there’s that. A lot of times the rough mixes are pretty good, and the difference between “rough” and “album-ready” is only a few small adjustments. The lead vocal comes up a bit, a secondary guitar part gets nudged down in the mix, and suddenly everything fits together just right.

Every time I tried to guess at a “release date” in the past, it was little more than a prayer-filled shot in the dark. Now I can say with some degree of confidence that there’s no reason I shouldn’t have the album packaged and ready to share sometime in December — probably in time for Christmas.

Attentive readers will notice that the picture above marks the end of Maximum Beardage (2017-2019). I let it go for two years, which has to be a new record for me. It was fun, the hair didn’t get in the way too much when I was eating, and my plan was to hold off on trimming it down until the album was finished.

I looked in the mirror a week or two ago and saw this:

That’s a pretty fine beard if you ask me. I could have tidied up a few scraggly bits and gone about my day. But then I started thinking. I’m a tall guy. Most people who look at me don’t see me at eye level. They get a view that might look more like this:

Scary stuff.

I kind of got tired of all the grey hair in there anyway. So I grabbed the scissors and marvelled at the amount of hair that came off of my face. I still have a significant beard, but it’s much neater now, and birds are less likely to try and nest there for the winter.

Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the veal.

I spent a memorable chunk of the summer of 1996 reading Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison, by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky. I started reading that biography in a movie theatre before the coming attractions. I still had my nose in it during a weekend spent in Toronto with Johnny Smith. I was mesmerized by the train-wreck that was Jim’s life.

I remember confusing a fancy packet of blue hotel room liquid soap with hair gel that weekend. I massaged some of it into my hair and watched it start to froth. Then I wiped the foam away and used enough of my own gel in its place to fashion a small animal into a weapon.

There was a homeless girl sitting outside the lip of a store that afternoon or the next. I can still see her face and her hooded sweatshirt. In a small, frightened-sounding voice, she asked a few people if they had any spare change. No one looked at her. They just kept walking.

I think I had some vague notion of what a homeless person was, but the reality of homelessness didn’t hit me until that moment. I was twelve years old, going on thirteen. This girl didn’t look any older than me. It shook me up a little.

I wish I could tell you I sat down and had a conversation with her, if only to offer a moment of human connection and let her know someone saw her. I didn’t have the courage to do that. I didn’t think I had anything to say that would help her anyway. I was just a kid. What did I know about anything?

I still think about her every once in a while. I wonder what her name was, if she ran away because things were bad at home, if she found a safe place to stay.

All these years later, I thought I’d dust off Break on Through and skim it a little to see how it’s held up. It might still be the definitive Jim Morrison biography. There isn’t as much of the hero worship some of the other books about Jim get bogged down in, and I think this was the first published piece of writing to reveal how he really died. He didn’t have a heart attack in the bathtub at the age of twenty-seven. He got into his girlfriend’s heroin stash and overdosed.

The other day I was reading about the last months of Jim’s life. He thought he might be able to sort himself out in Paris, but he couldn’t stop drinking, and while he never stopped writing poetry, he felt he’d hit a creative wall he couldn’t scale or chisel his way through.

I read this (not Jim’s words, but James and Jerry’s):

“…being an artist for the long haul means more than harnessing sudden and terrible inspirations. It means being able to study and grow in one’s character as well as one’s art. It means overcoming toil and trouble and mastering that enemy of all creative forces — doubt. In the end, the race doesn’t belong to the swift, but to the one who has the tenacity and the belief in himself or in something greater in order to hang in there the longest. When you come right down to it, it’s much easier to be a genius at twenty-two than it is to sustain it at forty-two — or even twenty-seven.”

And it went through me like a bullet.

I have no memory of reading those words twenty-three years ago. I’m sure I read them. I’m just as sure they meant nothing to me at the time. Today they couldn’t be more pertinent.

Reading that passage helped me to see how I’ve been looking at this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK thing the wrong way. I’ve been working on finishing this album more out of a sense of duty than anything when that isn’t the way I operate. Even the most miserable music I’ve made has always been driven by a deep-seated need to express something — not an attitude of, “Well, I guess I need to finish this stuff so I can forget about it and move on to something else.”

I’ve been calling the experience of making the album “one of the great artistic adventures of my life”. I still feel that way, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also a difficult, somewhat soul-destroying experience on a personal level. Finishing it on my own after spending years chasing a lot of my musical guests in order to get them over here has become a more emotionally complicated process after a number of those guests caused the collapse of an event I put an incredible amount of time, thought, and work into constructing.

For the most part I’ve been able to separate my feelings of disappointment from the music. I haven’t gone around erasing the contributions of everyone who let me down. It helps that none of these people contributed to the actual writing of any of the songs they appear on. In many cases I wrote their parts for them and they brought none of their own musical ideas to the table. I’m able to look at them less as human beings who failed me when I was counting on them and more as tools I used to bring my creative vision to life.

I’ve been picking away at this album for more than five years now. I was getting a lot of unanticipated work recording other people for a while there, and it took time away from my own music. It took me years to get some musicians to commit to showing up, and I had a very hard time finding people to fill certain instrumental and vocal roles. Many people ignored me or led me on only to jump ship at the last possible second. I lost huge chunks of recording time thanks to unnecessary construction work that dragged on forever (it didn’t help that the people doing the work were lazy and borderline incompetent) and thoughtless neighbours. I tried to commission a number of filmmakers to make me some sort of artistic music video. I wasn’t a high-profile enough artist for any of them to even consider working with me.

All of this is true. There’s been a lot of unpleasant shit to deal with. But instead of looking at the different ways I’ve managed to absorb it, repurpose it, and transcend it, I’ve been fixated on the stink.

Yes, the album has been half a decade in the making. That’s an eternity for me. But one of the benefits of a long-range process like this is the amount of time everything is given to settle into itself. These songs represent the absolute best work I felt I was capable of doing during this specific period of time. Some of my favourite songs have been written pretty late in the game. They wouldn’t be on the album if I’d finished it a few years earlier, and I think it would be a weaker collection without them.

Yes, it’s been an immense amount of work, between writing, arranging, producing, recording, mixing, and mastering all the songs, curating the supporting cast, writing parts for other musicians or setting up structured frameworks for them to improvise inside of, playing all of the instruments myself on most of the songs, and finding a way to fit some pretty textured arrangements onto the sixteen tracks available on my mixer. But I’ve learned a lot about myself as a producer along the way and stretched myself in ways I never thought I could.

Yes, a staggering amount of people have flaked out on me, lied to me, or rejected me in one way or another. Even some of the people who did show up forced me to pursue them with a determination that bordered on insanity. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that musicians tend to be a pretty flaky bunch. I learned “flaky” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Some of them were a nightmare to deal with. I know that’s not a very diplomatic thing to say, but I’ve never bullshitted here, and I’m not about to start now.

And yet…I got all of these people to sing and play on a Johnny West album:

That’s a substantial accomplishment any way you look at it. Especially for a supposed “enigmatic recluse” like me.

My goal was to cobble together a cast of thirty players and singers. I got as far as twenty-nine. So close. Then I kicked a few folks off the album for being douchebags, bringing the final tally down to twenty-six (twenty-seven if you count me). Even here there’s a silver lining, somehow: I got rid of a song that wasn’t really album material, and another song was made stronger by my own voice replacing a guest’s somewhat listless performance.

I got more than a dozen visual artists to contribute to the lyric booklet, though a few pieces didn’t make the final cut. And I’ve been able to grab a lot of great video footage of the music being created and craft some pretty neat DIY music videos all on my own.

Almost everyone declined my offer of payment, making it clear they were happy just to be a part of the album. I’ll always be grateful for that. One person bucked the trend, though, and he was happy to empty my pockets. All of my post-production costs combined won’t begin to approach the amount of money I had to pay him.

He’s a great musician. I’m happy with the performances he gave me. But I had to fight with myself not to remove them from the album out of spite once I found out he was only in it for the money. This is someone who wouldn’t even speak to me unless he was sure the conversation would lead to another payday. Someone like that has no business being a part of my music.

I guess I can chalk it up to a learning experience. I thought I was making a lot of new friends along the way. I came to find out in a pretty brutal way that I was wrong. I feel like this is a lesson I keep learning over and over again. It’s getting a little old now. I did build a few new friendships that have endured past the honeymoon stage, but I don’t ever want to go through anything like this again. I’ve spent most of my life reaching out. My arms are tired. In the future, if someone wants to work with me they can do the reaching. I’m not a difficult person to find, and I’m through with chasing people. There are more enjoyable ways of getting exercise.

There’s a part of me that would be glad to have those five years back so I could pump out a bunch of pure solo albums in the place of this one, trading all the string and horn parts and guest vocalists for a little less grey in my hair and a better opinion of people. I’m proud of these songs and the performances I’ve captured, and I’ve put everything I have into making this album the strongest musical statement it can be, but in some ways I’ve had to gut it out through stubbornness and determination.

To wit: I have a ninety-eight-page Word document cataloguing all one hundred and one singers and musicians, all forty-five visual artists, and all seventeen filmmakers I tried to involve in one way or another. It’s quite the saga.

I’d like to say I’m able to take the long view and appreciate the ride in spite of all the turbulence. I’m not sure how true that is right now, but I think I’ll get there. I’m working on it.