Making art and trying to involve other people can lead you down some pretty circuitous roads.
I sent Lianne Harway a Facebook message three years ago when my search for local woodwind players led me to her. She never saw it. As I’ve learned, if you send a message to someone you’re not already Facebook friends with, said message almost always gets stuffed into a secret spam folder somewhere deep in the ass crack of cyberspace.
A few months ago I asked Tara Watts if she’d be interested in singing on something. She responded with an enthusiastic yes, so I wrote something with her in mind. The more I sat with the song, the more it started to feel like second-tier material. And she deserved my best.
I wrote at least half a dozen subsequent songs, hoping to find one that shouted its rightness at me. None of them did. I thought I had a good idea for a potential duet one night when I was cooking some green beans. That didn’t go anywhere interesting either.
Then a song came out of nowhere when I wasn’t trying to make anything happen, and I thought, “This would be a good one to have Tara sing harmony on.” A lot of my songs are directed at one “you” or another, though I’m not often singing to a real person anymore. I liked how this one took a turn away from implied specificity, limiting itself to images and statements. There was no “you” at all.
I recorded the thing and sang placeholder harmonies of my own. Then I started to grow attached to those harmonies. Pretty soon I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone else singing them after all — even someone with a voice as great as Tara’s.
What I really wanted was to showcase her voice in more than a supporting role. I just couldn’t seem to write something that felt like an appropriate vehicle.
As soon as I gave up on the idea of writing a song Tara might have some fun singing lead on, the right song all but wrote itself. Ain’t that the way it always goes?
I have a thing for slinky, jazzy, sensual songs with musical backdrops that are either semi-electronic or full-on trip-hop/downtempo. I’ve wanted to try doing something like that with a female singer for a long time, with no success. Whenever I reach out to a singer who lives in or near Windsor and has a voice that seems appropriate for that sort of thing, they either ignore me or feign interest before disappearing.
This time I was lucky enough to have a singer lined up and waiting in the wings. And I guess the subconscious part of my songwriting brain said, “You know that thing you keep wanting to do? Here’s an opportunity to do it. NOW DO IT.” I recorded all the music, got down a guide vocal, and sent a rough mix off to Tara. She liked that it was something a little outside of her usual musical wheelhouse. We made plans to get together so she could take a stab at singing it.
Yesterday those plans came to fruition. I felt a little awkward taking pictures while we were recording, but Tara was kind enough to pretend to sing for me in hilariously exaggerated fashion after we were finished, allowing me to capture an image that’s sure to become iconic in the years ahead.
This is not that picture. The world isn’t ready for that kind of visual intensity. Instead, this is an “accidental” shot that I thought turned out pretty nice.
Sometimes when I ask someone to play or sing on one of my songs they’ll show up having spent no time preparing, and before we can get anything useful recorded I have to teach them the song they’ve had weeks or months to sit with. It doesn’t bother me, and it’s never stopped me from getting a good performance out of anyone. It’s just a thing that happens.
It didn’t happen with Tara. She did her homework. I didn’t even have to play her my guide vocal before we started recording. She slipped right in there like she owned the song. My only regret is maxing out every track on the mixer but one (reserved for the lead vocal), because she told me she heard some potential harmony lines in there. Maybe I’ll have to write something else with her in mind and leave some space so she can harmonize all over the place. I don’t think anything bad could come of it. Tara’s a master when it comes to vocal harmony.
That other song — the one I thought I was going to ask Tara to harmonize on before I decided I liked my own harmonies enough to keep them around — had an instrumental chorus/refrain. There was almost a Celtic feeling to it, I thought. It needed to be played on a flute to really put it over the top.
I asked Facebook if anyone knew someone who played flute and might be interested in doing some session work. I didn’t expect the question to even be acknowledged. As proof that social media is about as unpredictable as a naked meteorologist, recommendations came pouring in. One Facebook friend tagged Lianne, and she said she was interested.
Three years after I sent her a message that was never seen, I sent a friend request and a new message that didn’t end up in limbo. That was a few weeks ago. This past Thursday Lianne was over at the house, replacing my wordless vocal melody with flute-shaped goodness.
I moved the Pearlman TM-1 in front of her, put it in omni, and was reminded for about the seven-hundredth time how ridiculously versatile this microphone is. You’d think a high-register wind instrument like a flute would need some EQ to tame it, but no. A little kiss of reverb and it sounded just right — bright and lively without being harsh.
Like Tara, Lianne came prepared. There were three sections of the song that wanted flute, with the first iteration of the melody subtly different from the final two. Within fifteen minutes of putting on headphones and getting the microphone in place, we were done. It would have been foolish to ask her for another take. She nailed it every time, and though the melody was already written, the way she played it glued the whole song together.
Sometimes persistence rewards you, even if you have no idea where you’re going until you get there.
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.
Last summer we got hit with what I believe was the residue of Hurricane Harvey. It has to stand as one of the worst floods in Windsor’s history.
I was asleep when it happened.
Earlier this year I stumbled onto a sleep schedule that works. It nods to my body’s strange desire to turn me into a vampire while affording me enough daylight to mingle with the other daywalkers, allowing me to pass for one of them without too much effort. After two decades of struggling with chronic sleep problems that progressed from “kind of irritating” to “near-debilitating”, you can imagine what a nice change that’s been.
I’d like to tell you I discovered some big shiny secret to better sleep health. The truth is I got lucky. I did the same thing I’ve been doing for years whenever my sleep gets messed up enough that I’m waking up in the dark and going to bed at noon or later, with any semblance of a normal day lost in a haze of fatigue and brain rot — I went a night without sleep, crashed around 8:00 the next night, and reset my sleep clock to get back on “normal” hours. That lasted for all of a week before my sleep started to shift, as it always does.
And then it just…stopped shifting. Since sometime in February I’ve had a pretty consistent sleep schedule. I think I’d have to go back to 2005 to find the last time I was in a similar position for any appreciable length of time. It isn’t perfect, and eating a normal breakfast is now a distant memory, but my body and brain both seem to have accepted the new programming without any serious complaints. I’ve almost forgotten what it was like to wake up most days (or nights) feeling like my brain was gummed up with motor oil.
“Relief” isn’t a strong enough word.
The day the flood hit, my sleep was a mess and I had no reason to believe it would ever stop being a mess for more than six or seven days at a time. I went to bed early in the afternoon. I had a dream I was catching up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. He was making it his mission to remind me why I was in no hurry to see him again. He made a big deal out of wanting me to walk with him through my backyard. It was muddy back there from a heavy rain. I wasn’t interested in getting my shoes dirty for no good reason. He was livid.
I swear people get mad at you for the stupidest reasons in dreams.
Other amusing/random dream things happened, and then the scene changed. I found myself alone, swimming through a flooded city. The sky was raining spasmodic scrap metal. Every once in a while a piece would fall and threaten to cave my head in. I always managed to get out of the way, but there were some close calls.
I thought I could sense the homes of a few friends nearby. It was impossible to find them. Every recognizable thing was submerged. I might as well have been paddling through the Detroit River at the end of the world. It wasn’t quite a nightmare, though it kept threatening to turn into one.
I came to a place where it looked like a few people had set up camp after finding a bit of dry land. Maybe it was a dock, or a bridge. It jutted up above the lip of the water just enough to separate itself.
There was one person in a tent. A woman. I asked her to help me.
She agreed to give me shelter on one condition. I had to convince her I was her female best friend inhabiting the body of an unfamiliar man. She asked me two questions only her friend would know. One was about an unpublished book she wrote. The other was about the one song she always screwed up when she played bass.
Somehow I got both answers right. Then she handed me a piece of paper that had a second set of questions on it.
Before I could try to bluff my way through this “test”, I woke up to a city that really was flooded, with streets turned to rivers, cars abandoned, homes destroyed. I saw pictures of washing machines floating in flooded basements like stranded rescue boats, and videos of people struggling to drive through water deep enough to wash them away.
I didn’t even know it was raining while I was sleeping. It was a mild, sunny day when I looked out the window before I turned in.
If you know me, you probably know about my lifelong fascination with dreams. I keep a dream journal, though I’ve been slacking off for a while now, getting down little more than the essential outlines of dreams most days instead of writing them out in exacting detail the way I used to. It never fails to amaze me what the sleeping mind can create, from fleshed-out songs that didn’t exist before a dreamworld-dwelling music supervisor planted them on the soundtrack, to outlandish erotica, to interactive psychological horror films.
I’ve had the odd dream over the years that’s told me something I needed to know. Most of the time it’s been emotional stuff. Things like, “This relationship was never going to work,” or, “These pants are not slimming.” But I’m not someone who has prophetic dreams. The closest I ever came was dreaming once that a lightbulb in my bedroom burned out, only to have it die on me in the waking world a few days later. You can chalk a thing like that up to coincidence without breaking a sweat.
This dream was different. It freaked me out a little.
There’s a bit of a twisted cosmic joke in here.
We rent the house we live in. Our landlord lives just down the street. His name is Jerry. Eleven years ago, when we first moved in, he lied about the house having central air on every floor. There’s no air movement upstairs at all — the side effect of an ancient half-assed ducting job. My bedroom just happens to be up there.
When confronted, Jerry said the previous tenants had children who must have stuck their toys in the vents. After he was presented with a professional assessment that noted an incompetent and toy-free ducting job, he made it clear he was never going to spend the money necessary to fix the problem. When he was pressed to do something, his solution was to have a friend who would work for free or next to nothing cut a vent in my bedroom wall so it would blow air into my closet.
It’s great if you sleep on the floor, inside your closet. I sleep in a bed. So that vent does nothing for me.
Jerry waited about five years to fix a leaky roof, letting rain eat through the ceiling and walls in four or five different places. In one part of the house you can look up and see the wooden beams that support the roof. He’s never going to fix the internal damage as long as we live here. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t have to look at it.
Every once in a while he’ll trim our hedges or rip some plants he doesn’t like the look of out of the ground and leave the mess behind. When the furnace crapped out one winter, he said, “Open up the oven and turn on a fan. That’ll keep you warm.” Only after we’d been here for more than a decade did he have the ancient knob and tube wiring updated and go to the trouble of fixing a persistent leak in the basement.
The maximum amount a landlord is allowed to raise the rent for any property they own in 2018 is 1.8%. That’s it. That’s the law. Because we wouldn’t allow Jerry to break that law (and he went ahead and broke it anyway), and because we wouldn’t agree to buy this house for $100,000 more than it’s worth, he’s kicking us out. We’ll probably be gone next spring.
That’s extortion. Not that it matters. People who do this sort of thing almost never get hit with any form of serious punishment. They fuck up your life and live to torment someone else another day, laughing all the way to the bank. It’s the way of the world.
Here’s the cosmic joke. It’s a good one.
Jerry paid someone to flood-proof his house a few years back. He didn’t extend the same courtesy to us. No surprise there.
When the flood did its business last summer, we got the least of it. There was maybe an inch of water in our basement. Nothing important was damaged. Nothing precious was lost. There was only a mess to clean up. A lot of ruined carpet had to be torn up and thrown out.
“You don’t need carpet anyway,” Jerry said when he thought he might be expected to replace it.
A lot of people got hit much harder. We were lucky.
As for Jerry and his flood-proof house? He got seven inches of water in his basement.
Sometimes I think karma is real, even if it tends to dish out a slap on the wrist when a kick to the nuts is what’s called for.
The city took its time cleaning things up in the aftermath of the flood. For weeks, if not months, one front lawn after another was littered with belongings that were water-damaged beyond repair — chairs, couches, tables, dressers, trinkets, and other things. Some people lost a lot. Some lost everything.
All that abandoned furniture and all those garbage bags full of things that were never meant to be thrown out created a solemn, powerful visual poetry. Taking pictures would have felt too much like I was stepping on someone else’s private pain. Still, the imagery wouldn’t leave me alone.
Out of all those thoughts came a potential album title: Things We Lost in the Flood.
I knew there was nothing groundbreaking about it. Things We Lost in the Fire was already a film, and a song, and who knows what else. Still, there was something magnetic in those words. I’ve always been drawn to elemental imagery — earth, water, fire, air — and I find myself returning to it again and again in my writing. Might as well embrace it instead of trying to run from it.
The first problem was working out which album to give this title. I had a few on the go, and a few more hanging out at the brainstorming stage. The second problem was finding someone to illustrate it.
I thought I’d come at it backwards and find an artist first. It never hurts to have cover art taken care of long before an album is finished.
I tried contacting people outside of Windsor. A lot of artists make a point of telling you on their websites that they do freelance work and they’d love for you to get in touch with them, no matter the size or scope of your project. Most of them are full of shit. They’re only interested in high-profile jobs that will help them build their brand. A small potato like me isn’t worth considering even if I do have the money to pay them what they want.
Then I started thinking local, and Alain Rocha came to mind. His art is like nothing else I’ve seen. I don’t know how to begin to describe it. Maybe it’s best if I let him do that. On his website, he says his work “focuses heavily on characters and organics, exploring the human body and its deep connection and harmony with plant life. Utilizing candy-like colours and bold line work, all of these elements intertwine to create eccentric and singular imagery.”
I shot him an email. He responded with an enthusiasm that surprised me. My idea was to give him the album title, send him some music, and let him interpret it however he saw fit. Actually, I gave him a few potential album titles in case something else stirred up some ideas. Flood just happened to be the one I hoped would stand out for him, and it did.
He sent me a sketch to see if I liked where he was thinking of going with it, we worked out the payment side of things, and then he sent regular emails to keep me posted on his progress. I was able to see the piece develop one step at a time over a period of weeks, from a rough monochrome drawing to the finished product. No visual artist has ever given me this kind of insight into their process before. It was fascinating.
I got to watch this…
…turn into this.
Alain was going to add some lettering. I asked him not to. I’ve come to feel that some album cover art is more effective when it’s left text-free, and I thought the imagery he created deserved to stand on its own.
He misquoted the title as WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD when he shared the image on Instagram. Instead of correcting him, I thought, “You know what…I like it better that way. What instead of things. It sounds deeper. More all-encompassing.”
By then, I knew what I wanted to do with it.
I ran the idea by Gord, filling in the backstory. I told him about my dream and explained why I thought it was an appropriate album title for the follow-up to STEW. Given the subject matter in a lot of the songs we were working on, it made perfect sense. There was even a song called “Flood and Fists”, for rice’s sake. Second Stew was a fun working title in the early going, but this collection of music deserved a less jokey calling card.
Gord looked at me like I was speaking another language. He did at least like the cover art when I showed it to him. That was a start.
Recording had picked back up in January of 2016, a few months after STEW was finished. I knew I wanted to do something farther-reaching and less immediate for the tenth official Papa Ghostface album. Beyond that, there was no clear vision or endgame. By the time I had an album title and the art to go with it, work in the studio had slowed to a crawl and we were still nowhere near finished.
I started seeing a lot less of Gord. It was a gradual thing. His work hours and my sleep schedule became more difficult to coordinate. Somewhere along the line I came to realize we weren’t on the same page anymore. We weren’t even reading the same book.
I think a little friction can be healthy. This was more than that. When two people have very different goals, it can be difficult to sustain a creative relationship without feeling like a serious amount of compromise is involved. “Compromise” is a dirty word for me when it comes to music. It gets dirtier when I’m the one who’s expected to do all the bending.
That’s the diplomatic way of putting it. The whole truth is a little uglier, and it led to the death of a twenty-year friendship.
Even before things fell apart, I knew this album was only ever going to get done if I rolled up my sleeves and finished it by myself. It just took Gord being out of the picture for me to feel I had the freedom to do that. The first stumbling block was my desire to include him in the process as much as possible. You don’t get a lot done when the person you’re trying to include is turning into a ghost. Then I grew reluctant to work on my own because of some of the feedback I was getting when I did go ahead and finish things without him.
A few years ago Gord started trying to sell me on the idea of bringing a third member into the group. He felt my drumming was the weak link in our music. He was convinced a “real” drummer would catapult us to the next level (whatever that was).
For twenty years Papa Ghostface was a duo. The guests on STEW were only passing through, as brilliant and valued as their contributions were. The last time we added a dedicated drummer to the equation we stopped being Papa Ghostface and became a different band altogether. And while that was a great adventure for as long as it lasted, it was a one-time thing. Drummers as intuitive and open-minded as Tyson are hard to come by. I doubt a three-piece band would be enough to pull off what I want to do these days anyway.
The drummer Gord wanted to bring in was all flash. That was another thing.
I’m not a virtuosic drummer by any means. I’ve simplified my playing a lot over the years because of the way I choose to record the drums now, but even as a busier player with more mics on the kit I was never going to be John Bonham. At the same time, no one has ever said to me, “Hey, [insert album of your choice] was great, but it would have been better if you had a show-off drummer playing busy fills all over the place.” I’ve developed my own style, if you can call it that, and I think I know how to adapt my playing to suit whatever music I’m recording. There’s something to be said for subtlety and knowing when to lay back. As a rule, you don’t make a song better by using it as an excuse to show off.
(This is something I put into serious practice with the Ron Leary album I hope people get to hear soon. I had a few opportunities to go off on the piano during instrumental breaks. I chose not to. My piano work on that album is some of the simplest and sparsest I’ve ever committed to record, and I wouldn’t change a note of it. Just because you can play a flashy solo doesn’t mean you should.)
Every time Gord fell into one of his “we need a ‘real’ drummer” reveries, I would listen to what he had to say. Then I would explain how I’d need to mic up the drums in a completely different way for another player, leaving us with less tracks to work with and wreaking havoc with sonic continuity. He would drop it for a while…until it came up again a month or two later.
We were working on a song called “Rook” the last time this happened. It’s the one thing on the album that’s Gord’s work for the most part, though I revised the lyrics a little and contributed some musical ideas.
I got down a rough drum track. After listening to it, Gord said, “I like what you’re trying to do, but…” and he was off to the races. This time there was no mistaking the message.
You’re a shitty drummer and you’re holding our music back.
After that, I came up short every time I sat down and tried to record a keeper drum track. I could never get it right no matter what I did. Gord’s criticisms gnawed at me even when he wasn’t in the room. I started thinking maybe he was right. Maybe I was a shitty drummer.
Once I closed the door on our friendship for reasons that had nothing to do with him denigrating my drumming, I sat down and tried again. There was nothing in my head but the music.
I got what I wanted — and what the song needed — in one take.
Endings to creative partnerships are often as messy as any other breakup. Once in a while you get a situation like the one captured in the Pattern Is Movement episode of Shaking Through, where two people acknowledge they’ve reached the end of what they can do together and choose to part on good terms, creating one last great thing as a tribute to the body of work they’ve built. I had an opportunity to document a much more contentious goodbye the night of the final GWD jam session in 2002. I could have captured all the tension in the room and twisted it into what might have been one of the more interesting and intense songs we improvised together, but it never occurred to me to hit the record button.
Here it was a much more protracted thing. There were really two endings when one should have done the job.
The first ending came in 2004. I wasn’t seeing a lot of Gord anymore by that time. We were in pretty different places as musicians and people. The rot started to set in when GWD broke up in 2002. I wanted to keep evolving and pushing myself as an artist. Gord wanted to get another drummer and keep playing the same songs we’d already captured the definitive versions of. After a few bizarre auditions with musicians who were more interested in waving their dicks around than making music, I assumed we’d get back to the Papa Ghostface ways of old. Gord wasn’t interested.
My efforts to keep our friendship afloat outside of music didn’t go much better. For a while all Gord wanted to do was get wasted on my dime. When that got old and I wasn’t into smoking pot or drinking to excess anymore, he started standing me up or blowing me off whenever we made plans to do something.
He did try to get me involved in a new band he started putting together once he gave up on the second coming of GWD. I gave it an honest shot, but I couldn’t get into the idea of being second banana in someone else’s band. I had my own music to make, and these guys — no disrespect intended to them — weren’t the musicians to do it justice.
I kept trying to get together with Gord, kept trying to spark some meaningful collaboration, kept hoping the guy I made all that crazy music with once upon a time would come back. It was all for nothing. That guy was gone. Taking a drunken piss in a stranger’s mailbox and lighting gunpowder off of a passed-out bandmate was now more appealing than spending time with me.
One of the few times I was able to get him to talk about our music, Gord told me he thought we should reinvent ourselves as a cover band. “That’s where the money is,” he said.
My testicles cowered in fear.
Even if I wasn’t a part of it anymore, I wanted to support what he was doing. In October and November of 2004 I caught a few of the first shows his new band played. They were calling themselves the Shed Ninjas.
Gord’s friend Josh stepped into my old role as his best pal and main musical foil. The transition was pretty seamless. Josh was the nominal bandleader and did most of the singing. In the middle of a show at Changez by Nite, he introduced a new Shed Ninjas song called “Black Donnelly”. Only it wasn’t a Shed Ninjas song. It was an old Papa Ghostface song off of SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN called “I Got My Hair Cut and I Thought About You”. It was simplified, gutted of my contributions, and given a new name, but it was a Papa Ghostface song all the same.
I felt numb. I drank until I threw up and wondered how someone I once thought of as my musical soulmate could do something like that to me.
At another show, right around the time they changed their name to Surdaster, I heard the band play a few more recent song ideas Gord and I would mess around with whenever we saw each other. None of them were crafted into finished pieces. None of them had any words. As with “Hair Cut”, the parts I came up with — which constituted most of what made the sketches sound like they had some structure and movement — were removed. The “songs” became nothing more than unchanging riffs.
I’m convinced the only reason the audience didn’t throw beer bottles at the stage was because most of the people at those early shows were friends and family who would have cheered for anything.
I brought up the “Hair Cut” incident one night and asked Gord, half-joking, if there were any other songs of ours he decided to pass off as Surdaster tunes.
“Well, I tried with a couple,” he said, “but they didn’t work out as well, so we haven’t played them. I guess they were too complicated for everyone to learn.”
I couldn’t believe it. He came right out and admitted he was trying to repurpose songs we wrote together instead of going to the trouble of writing enough original material to fill out a live set with his new band. He never asked if I was okay with it. He just went ahead and did it.
Josh could tell I was angry. To his credit, he told me they wouldn’t play any songs I had a hand in creating at future shows. I have no reason to believe he didn’t keep that promise. But Gord couldn’t understand why I was so bothered by the idea of him prostituting our music for his own benefit. He didn’t see what the big deal was. He didn’t even consider the songs we recorded together real songs anymore. Now he was calling them ideas.
The Papa Ghostface and GWDpages on the sidebar of this blog suggest they were a little more than that.
When someone does something to mess with my music, that’s usually the end of whatever relationship we might have had. And what Gord did was about as bad as it gets. But it’s complicated when you have a lot of history with someone. You don’t want to believe they would disrespect you in such a repulsive way and not even try to apologize for it. You want to believe they’re better than that.
It was a wake up call, at least. Now I knew I couldn’t trust Gord. I turned down a number of opportunities to record the first Surdaster album in exchange for a case of beer, when in the past I would have jumped at the chance to help. I didn’t disappear all at once, but I started putting less of an effort into getting together with Gord. Since I was the only one who was putting in any effort at all, it wasn’t long before we stopped hanging out altogether.
We did touch base once in a while. Every few years we’d get together to play a little music for old time’s sake. It felt like blowing a few inches of dust off of a long-dormant alliance only to find more dust underneath. The one time we recorded something slouching toward a new song, Gord made it clear he was more interested in reworking old material, and that was the end of that.
Given all of this, what happened a few years ago was almost incomprehensible. Against all the odds, it felt like we were on the same wavelength again. I got so excited about the unexpected second life of Papa Ghostface, I gave Gord an undeserved coproduction credit on STEW.
He was excited for different reasons. He heard commercial potential in this music that didn’t exist in anything we’d done before. He was convinced we could be stars if the right people heard these songs. He thought I was nuts for giving the album away for free and not doing anything to promote it. There were even hints that he wasn’t happy with my recording abilities. More than once he mentioned how the backing of a record label would allow us to re-record the whole album from scratch in a professional studio (and we would want to do that…why?).
I explained my whole philosophy about music — how it’s something I need to create for myself, and how charging money for this stuff that’s quarried from my head and heart and guts would feel like asking to be paid for breathing. Instead of accepting it, he tried to convince me to change my ways, not hearing or not wanting to hear what I was saying. It was a conversation we would have over and over again, and another way he felt I was holding us back.
I’ll admit I got excited in early 2000 when I finally bought OK Computer and heard a band that was making such ambitious, unpredictable music while signed to a major label. “They remind me of us!” I told Gord. I didn’t think we were going to be the next Radiohead or anything, but hearing that album for the first time made my heart swell with a feeling of kinship. Knowing there were other people out there who were nuts enough to make music that didn’t sit still and aspired to communicate something beyond the same old platitudes everyone else was peddling…it made me feel less alone in what I was doing.
“Climbing up the Walls” was just like something we would have done if we had access to more equipment and a real drum set. I wasn’t pissed off about them getting there first. I was ecstatic anyone would think to go there at all.
Any aspirations I had of being a star withered and died a long time ago. And here I had a bandmate who was convinced — for reasons only he understood — that we could take over the world if I would just swallow my pride and let it happen.
I tried to sweep this weirdness under the rug, along with some other things I won’t get into, for as long as I could. I’ve been guilty of avoiding confrontation more than a few times in my life, and I know it isn’t the best way to handle things…but how do you have a serious conversation about the state of your relationship with someone who’s made it pretty clear they have little respect for what you think or feel?
Fate and Facebook intervened and made it easy for me. I caught Gord taking credit for something he didn’t do, just like he did all those years ago with the Shed Ninjas song that was a Papa Ghostface song. This was worse. He took a public dump on two decades of friendship so he could make himself look good on the internet for a few minutes.
I told him what I thought of him, and then I was done. That was the second ending. There won’t be a third.
When we were still working together, the old “Hair Cut” riff came up as an idea worth pursuing. We took the best bits from the original jam, added some new sections (most of which were my work), and rebuilt it into more of a structured song.
We didn’t get around to recording it together, so I recorded it by myself and gave it a new name. It isn’t a coincidence that the opening riff is the same “idea” I heard being played as an act of stomach-churning musical betrayal fourteen years ago after walking into a bar that became a safe haven for underage drinkers and hardcore bands.
The song isn’t on the album. As much as it appealed to me as a bit of delayed musical justice, in the end it felt like old news. At least you know the thought was there.
This may seem like a lot of score-settling that has nothing to do with the music. Believe me when I tell you I’ve left out the worst of it. And all of these things did have an impact on the music. I couldn’t have made the album I wanted to make if business went on as usual. We would have ended up with something more like Stew 2: the Reheating. STEW might be the closest we ever came to making a “perfect” PG album — something pretty easy to digest that doesn’t sacrifice experimentation in favour of accessibility — but I’ve never had any interest in recycling a successful formula. That way creative death lies.
I don’t think it would have been a bad album if Gord stuck around for the whole thing. At the same time, I think it became a much stronger and more varied piece of work thanks to his relative absence. I was free to do whatever I wanted without having to worry about a lack of enthusiasm on his end, and I didn’t have to invent things for him to do in musical situations where he was uninterested and I had a clear idea of how I wanted all the pieces to fit together.
I used to believe I couldn’t make Papa Ghostface music without him. First it was more of a nostalgic thing. I thought about giving a solo PG album a try in 2008 before CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN happened, but it didn’t seem right. Later it had more to do with self-doubt, as some of the things he said to undermine my drumming and mixing abilities got in my head and I started to almost minimize my own role in creating the music.
For years I always tried to err on the side of being democratic and inclusive when it came to crediting other musicians for their work, sometimes giving someone a writing credit just for playing on a song when they were barely doing anything at all. That extends to Gord as well.
When you break it down, I could have — and would have — made almost all of the music that constitutes the Papa Ghostface catalogue without him. Some of the songs would sound a little different without his musical contributions, but most of them would exist in something very close to their present form. Remove me from the picture and it’s a different story. You’d be left with about five mostly-finished songs, some good guitar riffs and bass lines, and not much else.
Put another way: I recorded the better part of a Papa Ghostface album on my own. Gord plays on nine of the twenty-two songs on WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD and only has an argument for being involved in the composition of five of them. There’s no loss of continuity when he fades from view.
I think that tells you something.
I probably sound like a musical megalomaniac when that isn’t what I’m going for. I’m just not sure there’s any way to say any of this without sounding self-important, and I think I’ve earned the right to say it. Maybe there’s no need. I can count the number of people who’ve heard a significant amount of the music we made on one hand. For all I know, they always assumed I was the driving force behind Papa Ghostface without being told. It doesn’t matter. Having a chance to set things straight with this album still feels like reclaiming a piece of my musical identity.
So how is it not a solo album if it’s mostly my work? I’m not sure. I thought about calling it a Johnny West album, or even releasing it as Papa Westface. Didn’t feel right.
In the early days, whatever I improvised when Gord was in the room was Papa Ghostface. Whatever I improvised on my own was solo music. With PAPER CHEST HAIR, when I started writing a fair bit of the words and music on my own in a more conventional, premeditated way, it became more about feeling. Some songs felt like they belonged on a PG album. Some songs felt like things I should keep to myself.
A lot of songs on STEW were created the “usual” way, where I was responsible for the lyrics and we both contributed to the music. In a few cases Gord cowrote the lyrics with me (“Situations”, “Fly’s Hive”, “A Question, a Thought, a Confession”), and the words for “Samhain” were his alone.
“The Devil Wants His Car Back” and “In the Name of the Impostor” were both solo pieces. I wrote them for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. Likewise with “Movin’ on Loon”. That one was an idea I’d been kicking around for a long time without knowing what to do with it. I always meant to write some lyrics. It ended up working better as an instrumental segue than it ever would have as a conventional song with words.
Gord played on all three of those songs, but their shape was determined without him. And still, by the time I was recording them, I knew they were Papa Ghostface songs…even if I didn’t know that when I was writing them. Time has done nothing to dispel that feeling.
With FLOOD it was different. When the “split” happened I knew we had close to an album’s worth of material recorded. I figured I could throw a few coats of paint on what was already there, add a few more songs, and call it a day. In revisiting those songs, I discovered a lot of them were undercooked, and some of them weren’t even worth slapping on the grill. At best there was enough good stuff for a short EP.
I wasn’t about to close the book on Papa Ghostface without making one last substantial, sprawling musical statement. All at once I saw a very clear picture of what I wanted the album to be, and I took matters into my own hands, stitching the best of the work I’d done with Gord into a larger quilt of solo pieces.
I don’t think Gord would be a big fan of the album I ended up creating, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over that. I guess in a way that makes this a breakup album. It’s the sound of Papa Ghostface ceasing to be a duo and me taking back what’s mine, snarling and kicking all the while.
Short of a posthumous out-takes collection (which I’m already working on in my head), there won’t be any more albums released under the PG banner. I think separating PG material from JW material would threaten to become an exercise in unintentional self-parody as I tried to distinguish me from myself. This feels like a good way to bow out. It may not be the longest Papa Ghostface album of all time, but it’s the densest and most wide-ranging of them all by some distance, and it demands more of the listener than anything I’ve done since at least MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS. I like that. Letting STEW stand as the last word on Papa Ghostface would have been way too easy.
Anyway. Enough about all that. Onto the music.
I’ve always looked at the first track on a Papa Ghostface album as an excuse to create something for the listener to get lost in. “She’s My Girl”, “Horsemouth (part one)”, “Yogamo”, “Rippin'”, “Don’t Go”, “Kissing the Bald Spot” — all of these songs take their time establishing a mood, exploring it, and sometimes turning it inside-out. They also each act as something of a litmus test. How you respond to them says a lot about how much you will or won’t like the albums they live on.
After STEW got an opener that was more of an appetizer than a main course, “Flood and Fists” serves as a triumphant return to the good old-fashioned album-opening epic, clocking in at just over nine minutes.
It began the way so many other PG songs were born over the years, with the two of us improvising to a synthesized rhythm track. Instead of relying on the Yamaha W-5 for extra nostalgia points, I triggered a beat on the Maestro Rhythm King — a vintage analog drum machine best known for its use on the Sly and the Family Stone masterpiece There’s a Riot Goin’ on. I ran my electric guitar into both the Montreal Assembly Count to Five pedal and the crusty old Digitech GSP-21 for some of the richest-sounding ambient racket I’ve ever recorded. Just bouncing a pen on a string or two created a huge wash of cascading sound. Playing actual riffs and volume swells made it sound like there was some strange synthesizer supporting the syncopated echoes of the guitar. Gord followed along on bass.
I cut it off when the ideas ran out and improvised some piano on top of the whole thing. The next day I recorded real drums, leaving only a small introductory drum machine bit behind. I need to start making more use of the Rhythm King someday soon. There’s a warmth and a real archaic charm to its voice. Running it through some effects pedals could get interesting.
After adding some shaker, I grabbed some lyrics that were meant for a warped torch ballad I never got around to writing music for, improvised a new first verse, threw out a few lines that didn’t work, and recorded a rough vocal track. My working title was “The Soft Slow Beating of an Underwater Heart”.
This bit came from a dream:
I only want to watch a dream
after midnight air
with my flood
and my fists.
Like dream music, dream dialogue is almost always a little off-balance, and not always in an obvious way. Sometimes there’s a strange poetry to it. I had no idea what that particular phrase was supposed to mean, but I remembered it after waking up, wrote it down, and found a place for it. It even gave me the final title for the song when something simpler felt more appropriate.
It sat for a little while in not-quite-finished form. Then Brent Lee came over and played some soprano sax. He’d never heard the song before, so he was coming in cold. It was almost as if he was in the room when the initial improvisation took place.
I think this was filmed somewhere around the third take.
There’s nothing wrong with that performance at all. I would have been happy to keep it.
Right after I stopped filming Brent looked at me, smiled, and said, “I think the next take is going to be the one.”
SWEET BADGERS FROM NEW BRUNSWICK, THE MAN WAS RIGHT. I hit the record button, he locked in, and for more than three minutes he developed one compelling melodic idea after another. Any hesitations there might have been in some of the earlier takes disappeared. It was “the one” and then some. His playing even inspired me to record a better, more committed vocal take.
I kept meaning to overdub some wild, discordant guitar stabs to punctuate certain moments. I thought that would be the finishing touch. When I did sit down to finish the song off, almost everything I tried felt unnecessary. Some simple acoustic twelve-string guitar strums helped to thicken the atmosphere. Other than that, I left it alone.
Mixing it was a challenge. There’s almost always one specific song on each album that gives me some grief, and I had a feeling this one was going to be the thorn in my side this time. The arrangement was what made it difficult. My electric guitar takes up a huge amount of sonic real estate, but it’s more of an atmospheric wash than a conventional guitar part. It has no percussive properties. The groove is what holds the whole thing together. Every time I thought the drums were a little too prominent, bringing them down in the mix took away too much punch. It was tough to get the balance right.
I mixed it nine or ten times. That has to be a record for me. It wasn’t as dramatic as that makes it sound. Most of the time I was making small adjustments. I had to walk away at some point and say, “This is as good as I’m going to get it.”
The intro was something I came up with when I was messing around with sampling. I found an old vinyl record of string quartet performances — I can’t remember offhand who the composer was — and ran a few bits through the Count to Five pedal, chopping them up, slowing them down, and reversing them. I got some pretty evil sound clusters happening.
I was going to end the song with those string samples. That idea got chucked out the window in the ninth hour because (a) even though the compositions I sampled are probably in the public domain by now, I’m not sure if this specific recording of them is, (b) it was a fun curve ball but made it impossible to create a clean segue right into “Rook” the way I wanted to, and (c) it broke the spell in a way that almost felt disrespectful to the song itself. There are plenty of other ambient interludes on the album, and I created all of those myself, without help from any prerecorded material. So I wasn’t too sad about losing one I “cheated” a little to make.
The same night I was messing with string samples, I sampled my own electric guitar and chopped it up. Over the next few days I added sampled vocals via the Yamaha VSS-30, bass, drums, a bit of unprocessed electric guitar, some strange public domain-dwelling vaudeville recording from 1923 I’m unable to find any information about now (this is where the disembodied trumpet sound comes from), and I got Gord to strum a few strange chords on acoustic guitar. Later on I got rid of his guitar track. He played with a pick, and the sound was too thin and bright for me. It didn’t fit into the massive murky mess I wanted to create. I replaced it with some chunky six-string banjo of my own, playing different chords, recorded a new drum track, and played some piano into a distant mic plugged into the Digitech. At the end of all that, there was less than a minute of the sort of music you might expect to hear at a jazz club in hell.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done something so demented to start an album. As much as I like throwing people off, it felt like a natural prelude to me.
“Rook” could be the best song Gord ever brought to the table, and it’s on the PG album he had the least to do with by far. He carried it around with him for at least a decade before we recorded it, and it changed a lot during that time. At some point he threw away his first verse and made the pre-chorus hooks the verses instead, shifting everything forward.
I don’t get the feeling Gord did much research before he wrote the words. There don’t seem to be any allusions to the true value or use of a rook in a game of chess. I’m guessing he liked the word, figured it wasn’t much different from a pawn, and chose to use a chess piece’s lack of autonomy as a metaphor for some larger thoughts about fatalism. Either way, it works.
Instead of playing guitar with him, I had Gord record the acoustic parts by himself. He played the Futuramic archtop that got a good workout on STEW. Then I asked him to lay down a guide vocal so I could write down the words. I made a few changes without altering their fundamental shape or meaning.
For every repetition of, “You alone and no one else can find out what it means to be a rook,”find out became fathom.I thought that was a little more elegant.
At the end of the first verse Gord sang, “With every branch the tree will spread unto,” and kept repeating “unto” over and over again. There probably weren’t any real words there, or maybe he forgot them. I fleshed that part out and it became this: “With every branch the tree will spread its roots anew. Soul’s brew. That’s you.”
I left the first chorus and the second verse as they were, with the exception of “every vision that you sent”, which I changed to “with every vision that they send” for extra mythology-building points.
In the second chorus, “taste it” became “waste it” and “walls at home” became “hallowed home”. The last verse mirrored the first, and to create a bit of contrast I tweaked, “With every breath you seek your death,” making it a fencing match: “With every step you parry death.”
Nothing too dramatic, then. I just wanted to punch it up a little and iron out a few clunky bits. Gord approved of the changes I made with an eagerness that caught me off guard, but again he had no interest in singing a song that was really his baby. I have no idea what that was about.
Gord’s clean electric guitar playing here (using my Telecaster) is a good example of the kind of unique shading he was capable of adding to a song. He alternates between emphasizing the chords and playing borderline lead lines without ever stepping on the vocal melody, generating all kinds of harmonic interest inside of a pretty standard chord progression.
His guitar solo was recorded with one mic. I prefer to use two unless I run out of extra tracks. He was doing a dry run without having prepared at all, and I didn’t think it was necessary to set up a second mic. Neither one of us expected the first pass to be as good as it was. It would have been foolish to ask him to do it again. I reinforced his solo by playing an identical solo myself an octave lower and then double-tracking it.
I don’t think I’ve ever doubled someone else’s guitar solo before. It was a neat little assignment, figuring out what he was doing and matching all the little nuances.
I tried overdubbing some piano with Gord present. He liked what I was doing, but it was too much clutter for me. I tried some Wurlitzer and Omnichord flourishes before settling on the Ace Tone combo organ. When it’s used the right way in the right song, that funky old thing seems to impart a certain ghostly quality.
“Conscience of the Everyman” holds the distinction of showing up earlier on an album than any other spoken word piece I’ve ever done. Gord’s fascination with the telephone microphone a former friend made for me was the catalyst. He managed to get its erratic patch cord to work for a while, and he thought it would be fun to record a song in which we simulated the sound of a phone conversation by using an actual phone.
I had two ideas for where to take this. One was a monologue given by an inmate to his significant other through soundproof prison glass. The other was a story about an unexceptional person getting a disturbing phone call from the physical manifestation of their conscience in the middle of the night — inspired in part by this brutal takedown of a comedian by Jamie Foxx.
There are a few things to unpack here.
It came out later that this guy took some shots at Jamie Foxx before the roast they were both involved in, blowing off a genuine offer to help him with his material and acting like he was the future of comedy and Jamie was roadkill stuck to the bottom of someone’s boot.
Even if you happen to be a brilliant comedian on your way up, you don’t do that. You’re asking for trouble.
When his moment in the spotlight came, he got off to a decent start, but after getting a few laughs his jokes started to tank. It sounded like a desperate bid to get something going when he fired another shot at Jamie, downplaying his success as an actor and saying, “Thank God you got Ali.”
What you have right there is one of the most idiotic extemporaneous insults to ever come out of someone’s mouth. Ali was built around Will Smith’s starring role. It got some good reviews but didn’t do well enough at the box office to be considered a hit. No one remembers Jamie Foxx from that movie. Most people don’t even remember the movie itself. This roast took place in 2006. By that time Jamie had proven himself as a dramatic actor, first in a memorable supporting role in Any Given Sunday, then with a much larger role in Collateral (an underrated duet with a playing-against-type Tom Cruise), and he followed that up by winning every award in existence for his portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray.
I’m not even a fan, and I know this stuff. If you’re going to go after the guy and try to get a laugh at a roast, at least deliver an insult that makes sense and has some basis in reality.
You can see at that moment Jamie, who was content to let this guy bomb without getting involved, decides he’s going to mess him up. What follows is either an amusing example of someone getting their comeuppance, or a star with a dented ego going way too far, depending on your perspective.
Now imagine this. Instead of soldiering on and trying to finish his unfunny act while a real comedian ripped him to shreds, what if the guy rolled with it, threw away whatever jokes he’d prepared, and started having a dialogue with Jamie as his conscience? It might have made for a transcendent moment of bizarre improv, and he might have managed to redeem himself in the eyes of both the audience and the sleeping giant he pissed on long enough to stir from his slumber.
He didn’t have that kind of spontaneous invention in him, so what we’re left with is little more than one comedian heckling another.
Back to the song. I went with my second idea when the first one wasn’t going anywhere (what was I going to talk about — prison food?). The plan was to have Gord scream his head off in the role of The Conscience, but he was long gone by the time I started recording this song, so I handled that myself. Instead of using the telephone microphone I put some distortion on my voice as a bit of a callback to spoken word pieces of the past like “Nothing from Nothing”, “Something Pink”, and “The Old House”, adding a second voice with the pitch shifted down to make the one-way phone conversation a little more menacing.
The music started with the bass. I plugged into a Strymon Flint pedal for a little extra ambience. The drums were recorded the usual way, with an AEA R88 stereo microphone, plus a distant mic I ran through some distortion and phaser — the Digitech again. It felt appropriate to make liberal use of that old friend, since it was one of my main sound-sculpting tools on a lot of the “classic” Papa Ghostface albums.
I’ve grown so used to using the guitar as an initial building block, I don’t often treat it as a free-floating thing anymore like I did back when I had a proper band. It was fun to return to that approach here. I improvised two different parts and played through the Fairfield Circuitry Shallow Water, which is a really unique modulation pedal. It’s too subtle for some people, from what I’ve read. They must not have spent much time with it, because I was able to dial in some pretty extreme settings without much work. Of course, you can get some nice, mellow chorus sounds out of it. I opted for something that sounded more like the guitar was being played back on a cassette tape that kept eating itself but refused to grind to a halt.
Some jazzy piano and a backwards VSS-30 vocal sample added some nice texture, but something was still missing. I thought a guest musician might be able to help. When Austin Di Pietro was over here to record a half-written part on a bossa nova-tinged song for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, I asked if he’d be up for improvising on top of this one. I rerouted the mic he was playing into so it passed through the Digitech and punched in my all-time favourite setting. It’s called “Like a Synth”. A more appropriate name might be “Ambient Chaos”.
A musician can react one of two ways when you hit them with such an extreme effect. They’ll either find it a little overwhelming, or they’ll enjoy exploring the options it opens up. Austin had a blast creating weird chords and massive washes of sound. As Brent did before him, he added a little extra magic dust to a song that needed it. Not only that, but I was able to take about a minute of him fooling around with some a cappella trumpet and move it to the beginning of the song, giving it a film-noir-on-hallucinogens intro that leaves the listener wondering what to expect.
A few bits of sampled Wurlitzer from the VSS-30 and some dissonant stabs from a Korg Monotron Delay later, the sound world was complete.
Not all of my spoken word tracks are created equal, but I’m really fond of this one. The story strikes a nice balance between slow-growing dread and lunacy, and I think the musical backdrop might be the best any of my talkies has ever had.
No Papa Ghostface album has been home to a larger or more diverse group of instrumental pieces than this one. On STEW most of the instrumentals served as little segues. Here they’re a much more meaningful part of the fabric of the album.
One night Gord brought over this bulky flute. He said he bought it from a guy who made them by hand. He got it for a good price because it wasn’t quite in tune with anything else in the world, living in some no man’s land between the keys of F# and G. In spite of that unfortunate quirk, it allowed him to play two notes at once, with a single drone note offset by any of about half a dozen notes spanning the next octave up.
I think the proper name for one of these things is a drone flute. I called it a wooden flute in the CD booklet, not knowing any better at the time. Don’t hate me, Flute Gods.
Even if the intonation was dodgy, it created an eerie, exotic sound. I recorded a few minutes of Gord playing a little motif he came up with and got him to double-track it. Then I sampled my voice with the VSS-30, singing in a few different octaves, almost delving into throat-singing territory with the low notes, and recorded a single track of that to create some harmonic movement, playing chords and countermelodies.
That’s “Peruvian Mountain Song” right there. I mean, that’sthe whole thing. Three tracks. Proof you don’t always need a lot of layers to build a solid soundscape.
The hazy sound at the end is the same vocal sample that runs through the body of the song, but with the “fuzz” button engaged on the VSS-30. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: that little sampling keyboard is one powerful secret weapon. I’m not sure how I ever did without it. I know I could do more with a “proper” sampler or the right computer software, but I love the simplicity and immediacy of being able to take any sound at all, mess with it, and make it musical with the touch of a few buttons.
“Just Can’t Seem to Get It Right” came out of goofing off at the piano. The first half of the first verse came to me right away. The second half was a little different to begin with.
Give me lozenges or give me halitosis, mama.
What the crap kind of crap is that crap? I’m pretty glad I rewrote that part and sang about a clever little torso dance instead. I recorded a bunch of vocal tracks with the microphone halfway across the room and then added a single close-mic’d vocal to play against the roominess.
I like to do this thing sometimes where I take one of the catchiest songs on an album and make it so short it’s sure to infuriate at least a few people. As such, this song is only sixty-seven seconds long. It felt like it said all it needed to say anyway, and I think extending it would have killed its charm.
This album might be home to some of my more adventurous electric guitar playing in a while, from strange textural touches to unhinged solos. Even on a song like this, there are discordant stabs of guitar slobbering all over the verse. A little saliva never hurt anybody, did it?
“The Evil Angel on Your Shoulder” is discussed at length in this blog post over here. It had an interesting journey, starting out as a song that felt destined for the out-takes bin only to become one of my favourite deep cuts on the album.
“Every Angry Element” was a sound before it was a song. I was mixing something that might end up on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK when I put a big chewy chorus effect on an acoustic guitar track just for something to do. Right away I knew it wasn’t the least bit right for that song. I also knew it was a sound I wanted to do something with.
I don’t tend to play a lot of conventional chord voicings on guitar. Because of the way I play and the tunings I use, what comes out is almost always at least a little bit different — and sometimes very different — from what you’d get in standard tuning with traditional fingerings, even when I’m playing “closed” major or minor chords.
As soon as I had the chorus-drenched acoustic guitar sound going and a blank slate to apply it to, I wanted to get away from anything that was at all familiar to me on the fretboard. A few unresolved chords arranged a certain way shook loose a vocal melody unlike anything I would normally think to sing. I scratched out a few lines of lyrics and recorded acoustic and electric guitar, vocals, bass, and drums. Everything was smothered in chorus or vibrato except for the bass.
Even after I added two quick fragments of drones from the FM3 Buddha Machine it still didn’t feel cooked all the way through. The next time Gord was over, I asked him to contribute some “noise guitar” without giving him a chance to get his bearings. I plugged him into the Count to Five and the Digitech. Soon there were a few huge swathes of semi-dissonant sound bouncing around. No more pink in the middle.
The idea here wasn’t to get a whole lot of definition in the mix, but to smear everything together so it feels like every sound is fighting to break through a thick haze. It’s fun to do the opposite of everything your musical instincts tell you to do every once in a while.
The little instrumental coda after my backwards electric guitar drops out was recorded during the STEW sessions. When we were working on “Fly’s Hive” I held my Casio SK-1 up to the amplifier while Gord was playing guitar and sampled a random snippet of what he was doing. I recorded two different pieces that involved me “playing” the sampled guitar on the keyboard. The mutilated lo-fi sounds were unrecognizable as anything that had once been generated by a stringed instrument. Gord said he thought what I came up with sounded like a dinosaur orgy.
I added some Omnichord to the first piece and made it a solo track. I wasn’t sure what to do with the second one. It struck me as something that would make a nice unexpected fake-out at the end of a song, followed by a slow fade. I dropped it in here and it worked better than I thought it would.
And so the most psychedelic-sounding thing I’ve ever done ends with a muted dinosaur orgy.
I meant to grab more in-studio video footage for this album than I did for STEW. I ended up filming nothing of any consequence. Phooey. Determined to make at least one DIY music video, I lucked into matching Walter Ruttmann’s Opus III with a song that’s almost the same length. Only a few small edits were necessary to get the music and images to play nice together.
“Stepping Stone on the Way to Better Things” kind of fell out of the air. Gord was messing around on my mandola when he hit on a riff I thought had potential. I recorded about a minute of him playing it, got him to double-track it, and wrote some words. It was a long time before I sat down and recorded the vocal track and everything else. When I did get around to doing that, it was fun to have an excuse to pull out some instruments that haven’t been getting a lot of use in recent years, like the melodica and the glockenspiel.
“Cessna 172 Skyhawk, Stranded” began as some music and a vocal melody. I was revisiting my long-neglected Simon & Patrick acoustic guitar at the time, and a lot of new ideas came toppling out. This was one of them.
The lyrics didn’t take too long to show up. They included a verse I didn’t use that found its way into a song called “Boy See” (another one slated for inclusion on SLEEPWALK).
I’m not sure why I ended up with the Cessna 172 as my plane. I must have been reading about small aircrafts. I was less interested in the specs than I was in conjuring a dazed amateur pilot’s fragmented thoughts after running out of fuel, making an emergency landing in some unfamiliar, unpopulated place, and going a long time without food or water.
My main electric guitar throughout the album was a Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster. That axe has become my favourite electric guitar over the last year or two, and I haven’t swapped out the stock pickups or even given it a proper setup. Playing it just feels good. Here I gave the neglected Epiphone Casino some love and saved the Jazzmaster for the fiddly bits.
For most people it’ll probably be a mid-album mood piece that doesn’t call much attention to itself, but I really like the way this one turned out. Maybe it’s all those layers of guitar and wordless vocals. Or maybe it’s the surreal lyrics like, “If you want a man like me, just climb up the dead man tree.” I don’t know. There’s something kind of hypnotic about it to my ears.
“Meet Me in the Middle of the Ocean”…now that one came right out of left field.
When I was sifting through the things Gord and I recorded together before everything ground to a halt, I couldn’t believe how much garbage there was. Things that seemed like a good idea at the time now sounded uninspiring. Songs I remembered being somewhat fleshed out were barely there at all. This was another one I was expecting to be a disappointment. I remembered taking a few stabs at recording an instrumental improvisation, playing piano while Gord experimented with my hammered dulcimer. I didn’t think we came up with anything great, but I wanted give it a look-in for the sake of being thorough.
Revisiting the recording, I found not only was the final take a lot better than I thought at the time, but it was followed by a half-finished electronic workout that supplemented the piano and dulcimer with synth bass, a synthesized drum pattern, and some more weirdness from the FM3 Buddha Machine.
It had some serious potential. With a little creative editing and some overdubs, I was convinced I could make something pretty cool out of what was there.
The first thing I did was snip out a bit of aimlessness so the piano-and-dulcimer bit would transition into the beat-driven section in a less jarring way. Then I went to work adding things. The beat I used on the Alesis Micron sounded pretty bland. I dialled in some distortion and it came alive, with the extra grit emphasizing little accents that were buried before. I ditched Gord’s dulcimer in this part of the song — not out of spite, but because it drifted in and out of tempo. In its place I recorded lap steel and got some nice analog-sounding tones out of the VSS-30’s stock strings sound after tweaking the attack and release settings.
The industrial-sounding blasts of electric guitar are samples. I strummed a guitar with one hand and held the keyboard up to the amp with the other, somehow timing it just right so the sound I triggered was in rhythm with the song. There’s also a mangled vocal sample in there near the end, and I doubled back to add a different vocal sample to the first section.
At the end of everything I found a random piano idea I’d recorded so I wouldn’t forget it. It became the perfect ending to something that I think evolved into one of the most interesting PG instrumental tracks on any album. There’s something almost disquieting about it that really appeals to me.
“Blinded by the Evening Sun” was a little piano idea I had. Instead of developing it into something longer I thought I’d let it stay small. The second I recorded it, I knew I wanted it to lead straight into “Prayer for Redemption” (which is discussed in some depth over here). In some cases I can give you a sensible explanation for why one song follows another. Here it was something beyond logic. I felt it, and it needed to happen, and that was as far as it went.
Aside from “Rook”, “Prayer” is the only other song on the album that has a conventional chorus. I try to stay away from those, but every once in a while a song will decide it wants to walk down a more conventional path and there’s nothing to be done. I take some comfort from knowing both songs have a second chorus that shifts the meaning of the first one through a subtle word change or two.
“Crawlspace Waltz” was recorded on a night when Gord was telling me about a claustrophobic experience he had working on someone’s plumbing earlier in the day. He brought his own electric guitar over for a change (I can’t remember what kind it was), and I plugged him into this Hungry Robot pedal:
He started playing a melody that sounded like the perfect soundtrack for his crawlspace adventure. I played bass, picking out some counter-melodies. We worked out some structure for the thing, with the verses in 6/8 and a “chorus” section in 4/4. What kept the verses a little on-edge was the lack of a typical four-bar turnaround (each repetition of the melody ran for three and-a-half bars).
Then we forgot all about it.
This was another one I was expecting to be pretty useless. I remembered my bass playing being kind of lame. When I dumped the guitar-and-bass recording back onto the mixer I couldn’t believe how tight it sounded. All it needed was some additional instrumentation.
I made a bed of acoustic and electric guitars for Gord’s melody to float on top of and threw in some distorted ambient guitar swells for good measure. I recorded two different drum tracks, with the snare close-mic’d to emphasize the brush work during the first verse and the typical ribbon mic setup for some harder-hitting playing on the chorus, and then combined the two in the latter half of the song. On my birthday I recorded some bugle.
If there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s this: you can only go so long without making drunken elephant sounds with a horn you don’t really know how to play.
“Pop Song #82” gives me some pretty strong ABSENCE OF SWAY vibes. Maybe it’s just me. The demo didn’t offer much indication that it would turn into anything.
After it was a fleshed-out song, recording it was pretty straightforward, but I found myself again searching for the right sound to tie everything together. I tried recording electric guitar, organ, and electric piano, all to no avail.
I have no problem leaving a song alone and ignoring leftover tracks on the mixer when it feels right. Some things cry out for a little extra seasoning, that’s all. When that happens, I make it my mission to keep throwing things at the wall until something sticks.
As it has so many times before, the upright piano came to the rescue and gave me the salt and pepper I needed.
(My “ouch!” at the end is a direct response to playing Gord’s malnourished twelve-string that now seems to be my guitar. It may offer just the sound a song needs sometimes, but it’s the most uncomfortable hunk of junk I’ve ever played in my life.)
“Lean Years” gave birth to itself, strange as that sounds.
I had some lyrics I liked and a working title of “Chaos and Sedition”. There wasn’t any music in my head to go with the words, and that’s pretty unusual, but I thought it would be fun to build an abstract ambient ballad without knowing where I was going. The idea was to record some free-floating electric guitar with the tremolo cranked all the way up, negating the guitar’s natural attack. Then I would throw some random things on top of that and find a way to slip the lyrics in there somewhere.
Several guitar tracks later, I realized what I had on my hands was not an abstract ambient ballad at all, but more of a shoegaze folk song. This is what I mean when I say some songs have minds of their own. I had a very clear idea in my head when I sat down, even if I didn’t have a whole song yet. The song-to-be said, “Nope. Not gonna happen. This is what I want to be.” The unexpected direction the music took forced me to write a whole new set of lyrics, and the small amount of space I had to work with kept me from getting too ambitious with them.
It’s a song about a couple of fugitives (or a fugitive couple, if you prefer), like “Zebra Stripes” on AFTERTHOUGHTS. Where that song is overflowing with details, here the guts of the story have been sucked right out. It’s a fun way of turning a narrative piece on its head, offering a few blurry snapshots without any context or plot to ground them.
As with the direction the song itself took, the guitar solo at the end wasn’t planned. I had some room to do something there and thought I’d get a little noisy and spastic with distortion and some pitch-shifted delay from the Count to Five. I ate up so many tracks layering different guitar parts, I had to record the solo on the same track as the lead vocal. I did it twice, with a different vocal to go with each solo. The second time I sang an octave higher and used a different, more distant microphone on the guitar amp.
Though the more subdued vocal felt a little more appropriate, I’m sure the unused take will show up on a misfits collection one of these days. I’ve got half a mind to go all-in and make an alternate mix that emphasizes the clean guitars and uses an earlier drum take I recorded with the snare strainer thrown off for a more muted sound.
In the months that followed the dissolution of GWD in mid-2002, Gord and I didn’t record anything of substance. We did play a lot of acoustic guitar together for a while, usually at his place. This is when we polished the music for the songs that would become “Samhain” and “Hiraeth”. Gord would come up with a riff or two and I would fill in the rest. We developed a way of playing that was so interconnected, after a while it was difficult to pick out who was playing what.
Even if no new music came out of our brief reunion, it would have been worthwhile just to have the chance to document a bit of that kind of playing we got down to a fine art when no recording equipment was around. You can hear some of it on STEW, on songs like the aforementioned two, “A Question, a Thought, a Confession”, and “The Same Starless Sky”, but the single best distillation of it might be found on this album’s “Blue Rose”.
We started improvising together and the song pretty much wrote itself. We layered a number of tracks, both of us playing at the same time, and then I did the last looped-sounding bit by myself, double-tracking something like four or five different parts to build up the harmonies I wanted.
Gord wanted to accent this classical-flavoured instrumental ballad with — you guessed it — the harsh sound of a bullwhip cracking. I told him I didn’t think we’d be able to find anyone willing to lend us a whip, and even if we did, trying to record it would be a good way to destroy some expensive equipment or lose an eye. He said we could always just hit the floor with a belt.
I’m going to let that hang there for a second.
You know you’re living in different worlds when your collaborator thinks destroying the hardwood floor with a belt is somehow a valid musical idea. I’m all for experimenting, and I’ve made it my life’s work to carve out an idiosyncratic musical path, but…no. No to the no-ing-est degree of no-ness.
There were three tracks left on the mixer after all the acoustic guitars we recorded. I got down a bass track, thought about recording some piano, and then got rid of the bass and stripped it back to just the guitars. Some things you need to leave as they are.
The electronic-sounding outro is the VSS-30 again. I sampled Gord playing mandolin and played around with it until I had something that resembled an icy synth patch.
“Actuator” is the quirkiest of all the instrumentals, and probably the best example on the album of the VSS-30 kicking ass and taking names.
I was throwing an aluminum foil pan in the sink after eating lunch when I noticed it had a nice resonance to it. I brought the VSS-30 into the kitchen and sampled myself tapping out a rhythm on the bottom of the pan. I lucked out and the pattern I played was the exact length of the keyboard’s sampling time, allowing me to create the impression of a looped rhythm by pressing down on the same key every second or two to trigger the sound again as soon as it stopped playing.
I recorded that and then added sped-up and slowed-down versions of the same pattern played higher and lower on the keyboard, creating some fun polyrhythms. Next came an improvised melody played on one of the VSS-30’s unaltered stock sounds, and then some synth bass and strings from the Micron.
I wanted to see what other unexpected sources I could get useful sounds out of. I sampled the can-opener and layered some of that over a little bridge section. I drummed on a soup pot with my fingers and created new polyrhythms over the last chunk of the song when the extra aluminum foil pan tracks dropped out.
A bit of a funky way to build an instrumental song that’s all of ninety seconds long, I know. But I always enjoy starting from an unexpected place. You almost always end up somewhere you haven’t been before. In this case, I like how it all came out sounding like an electronic junkyard marching band strutting its stuff.
“Rivulets” was one that took a while to come together. The words lived for a long time without music. I thought someday I’d get around to sampling some glockenspiel or wind chimes, record a few layers of that, and get a female vocalist to sing the words. Never happened.
One afternoon I sat down at the piano, started playing some chords, tried singing these lyrics, and everything clicked.
The final recording was an exercise in trying a million different things only to pull back and simplify the mix in order to arrive at the treatment the song needed. All that’s going on there is piano, vocals, some clean electric guitar, bass, brushed snare, and sampled Wurlitzer processed by the VSS-30, but it still feels pretty lush even with all the sounds I didn’t end up using.
For a long time I was convinced piano ballads were off-limits when it came to Papa Ghostface albums. One of the few times I took a shot at recording one with Gord was during the SHOEBOX PARADISE sessions in early 2000, and the results were pretty half-baked.
“Rivulets” offers proof that a more subdued piano-led song can still possess an edge. Maybe I just needed to grow into a more interesting lyricist and get my hands on a real acoustic piano before I could write a proper PG piano ballad.
Gord would have shot it down without a second thought, edge or no edge. A few years ago we set up a Dropbox so we could send ideas back and forth. I must have sent him twenty demos of songs I thought might work as PG tunes. He never listened to any of them.
I listened to the handful of things he sent my way. There was one song I liked a lot. I brought it up once. He said we couldn’t record it because it was something he used to play with Surdaster and he thought the other guys would be upset if they found out he was recording it with me, even though they’d never done anything with it.
If ever there was a perfect moment to quote Justine Bateman’s character from the great and unjustly forgotten 2003 Showtime miniseries Out of Orderand tell Gord he had the most convenient morals of anyone I’d ever known, that was it.
I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. With the exception of a few of the more aggressive songs on BEAUTIFULLY STUPID, he never paid much attention to my solo work. Given the volume of music I’ve made on my own over the years and how many different places it’s gone, you’d think there would be something in there that would appeal to him. And maybe it would…but he’d have to hear it first. Just the thought of listening to an album I made without him always seemed like some vile task he didn’t want to bother with.
I never dwelled on it. But when you really think about it, it’s pretty messed up to make so much music with someone who for twenty years has zero interest in any of the work you’ve done that doesn’t involve them. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand what that was all about.
“Winter Holds No Love” was one of the few demos he did listen to and express some affection for, even if I had to send it a second time in a Facebook message in order to get it heard at all. I thought he could play the second guitar part. Teaching it to him didn’t take, so I went ahead and recorded the whole thing on my own.
The vocal melody was meant to be played by a wind instrument. I was hoping to get someone to come in and play flute. Every flautist I was able to find in the area ignored me, leaving me with no choice but to stick to the wordless singing, since no other instrument did as fluid a job of navigating those twists and turns as my voice.
It was probably supposed to turn out this way, but being ignored by people who claim to do freelance session work when I’m offering them a pretty simple gig is getting old. And this is nothing. Just wait until I tell you about my YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK adventures! Talk about an object lesson in the flakiness and apathy of (some) musicians.
It doesn’t happen much, but every once in a while I’m moved to record a song twice. Sometimes, with a song like “The Evil Angel on Your Shoulder”, it’s a matter of having mixed feelings about the first version and finding something more satisfying in a wholesale reinvention. Other times — and this is rarer still — I’ll abandon a song halfway through recording it because I can tell I’m not getting what I want. Either the performance isn’t there or the feeling isn’t right. Starting again from scratch gives me a psychological tabula rasa.
I recorded four different versions of “Born Free, Died Expensively”. I’ve never done that before, and I don’t expect I ever will again. The instrumental bridge section changed each time. I’d record the piano and a vocal track, and then I’d listen and feel no inspiration to add anything more. It wasn’t that the song wanted to be left naked. The performance felt flat.
I’d all but given up on it when I found myself recording a lot of piano songs at once and decided it was worth one last try. There was a false start or two when I hit a bad note, and then I got a take that felt pretty solid. I tried singing on top of it. That felt solid too. At last I had the right foundation to build on. All it took was getting to a place where I had no expectations because I thought the song was doomed.
Funny thing about this one — it felt much longer when I was recording it. It was a bit of shock to learn it didn’t even crack the four-minute mark.
I gave some serious thought to bringing in a horn player to play a ruminative solo over the bridge. Then I got on a roll when I was dressing up the basic tracks and forgot about it, letting my own lap steel playing serve as a glorified lead voice.
For the climactic guitar solo at the end I plugged into the Count to Five pedal again, this time using a crazy pitch-shifted delay some people refer to as the “birds” setting. You play a single note and get a cascade of singing sounds. Play a sequence of notes and you get some wonderful chaos.
This was another song that was tricky to mix. Some tracks were pulling double duty and I had to make a lot of split-second adjustments in order to get the last section to sound right. Unlike “Flood and Fists”, it only took me a few passes to get things where I wanted them to be. That was a relief and a half.
The last few songs as a group offer a good illustration of how this album is structured to work in a cumulative way.
STEW ends in pretty grand fashion with a song called “In the Name of the Impostor”. The instrumental coda is me on my own, playing all the instruments without any input from Gord (he played a bit of additional acoustic guitar and contributed a few cymbal swells to the body of the song). In hindsight you could say it was the sound of me moving beyond the confines of our collaborative relationship right at the end of our happy reunion…but that’s stretching it. The real reason Gord isn’t playing on that last bit is because he said he felt anything he added would take away from what I’d already done.
“Born Free, Died Expensively” was meant to be the big album-ending moment this time around. When the song came out a good deal shorter than I was expecting it to be, I saw an opportunity to do something different, ending the album in stages instead of with one big bang. So “The Mind Is Not a Tapeworm” functions as something of a comedown after the violent ending of “Born Free”, and the brief ambient mood piece that follows offers a comedown after the comedown.
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t hear a lot of people talk about album sequencing. Most of the articles you’ll find online that address the subject have to do with putting your most commercial foot forward, front-loading your album so it stands a better chance of getting noticed by radio station music directors and record label executives. This has nothing to do with crafting an album as a work of art, and it’s horrible advice for anyone who takes their craft seriously.
There are endless different potential albums to be made out of a given group of songs. Move just one song to a different place, or get rid of one, or add another, and the whole axis shifts. The more songs you’re dealing with, the stickier it gets.
For me it always comes down to two things: what do I want to convey with this album, and how do I get that across while creating an emotional and dynamic journey that feels right to me? What you’re doing every time you make an album, in a sense, is making a film for the ears. Some of my scene selections might seem strange or abstract, but I promise you there’s a point behind every one of those choices and a great deal of thought has gone into them.
What I never hear anyone talk about is how much silence you should leave between each song. How you transition from one scene to the next can have a huge impact on the way your album flows. It might not be as big a deal when you’re making an EP or a shorter album, but when a lot of songs are involved I think it becomes much more important. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, the spaces between the music help to create the rhythm of your album.
I used to chuck songs onto an album in the order I recorded them. Sometimes it worked out better than it should have. I think when you make enough albums that way, you start to think at least a little bit about the bigger picture, even if it’s only a subconscious consideration.
These days it’s different. I spend so much time thinking about sequencing, sketching out rough track lists and then making adjustments as an album gains shape, by the time I’m ready to commit all the songs to CD whatever I’ve worked out on paper almost always ends up being my final sequence. Even if something feels off, I don’t find myself making many major adjustments, because I’ve already made dozens of them on the way to working everything out.
What I don’t always get right the first time, and what I sometimes have to take a few cracks at, is the spacing between the songs.
There’s a world of difference between two seconds, four or five seconds, and no seconds at all. Two seconds is the default gap left between songs on a CD. It’s a pretty quick turnaround, but it feels natural enough because you’ve experienced it a million times. A gap of four or five seconds gives you a microspace in which to process what you’ve just heard. You’re alone in the dark for a moment. Then there’s the gapless transition, where the ending of one song smash cuts to the beginning of another without giving you any time to prepare for what’s coming.
Most of the time I’m dealing with spaces in the range of two to four seconds — sometimes a little more if a song is especially important to me and I want to try and make it hit a little harder than some of the others. The smash cut is something I only pull out when I want to get a little showy, when I want to mess with the listener, or when it feels so right there’s no denying it. In this case, jumping straight from the end of “Flood and Fists” to the beginning of “Rook” made perfect sense to me on both emotional and sonic levels, whereas cutting from the detritus of my guitar solo at the end of “Born Free” to the beginning of “The Mind Is Not a Tapeworm” was a more practical consideration. With “Born Free” flaming out in such an abrupt way, leaving any appreciable silence after it would feel clumsy.
Speaking of “The Mind Is Not a Tapeworm”, it’s the only song on the album to address the end of Papa Ghostface in any direct way. At the heart of the song is a simple message: when time has ravaged our bodies and undone our minds, I’ll still remember the good times. It’s easy to miss that bit of warmth with all the talk of putrefaction, but it’s in there.
Of all the songs that took some work to get the arrangement to a place where it felt just right, this was the one that almost drove me insane. I could make a number of alternate mixes using the elements I recorded and then abandoned — organ, backwards piano, different electric guitar ideas, and a whole lot more. I thought about writing a string arrangement, but nothing I came up with was any good. Beyond the acoustic twelve-string guitar (my own Washburn this time), the six-string accents, the bass, and the vocal tracks, I was stumped.
I tried to forget about it for a while. It wasn’t easy to do, knowing this was going to be the last proper song on the album. I had to find a way to nail it. When I came back to it for another go-round, I recorded some backwards electric guitar and a simple little piano line, and then I knew I had what I needed.
The only thing troubling me was getting the piano to sit where I wanted it in the mix. It sounded a little cold. Maybe I didn’t have the mics positioned where they should have been on the day. Or maybe it sounded off because it was one of the few unprocessed sounds vying for attention while the acoustic guitars had some flanger tickling them and the backwards electric guitar was swimming in chorus. Something as simple as running the piano track through a Leslie speaker effect took care of everything, adding some warmth and situating the sound right where it was supposed to be — in the background without being hidden.
The album ends as it began, with ambient sample-based weirdness. “Stars in the Shotgun Night” is nothing but my voice looped and bent out of shape by the VSS-30. Brief as it is, I think there’s something both open-ended and decisive about it.
The title is a quote from a Jim Morrison poem. I’ve been meaning to use that phrase somewhere for probably about half as long as I’ve been alive. At long last, it’s found a home. It comes from one of the last poems Jim wrote in Paris before his mysterious death. Another bit I’ve always liked, from the same poem:
Naked we come
& bruised we go
for the soft slow worms
Say what you will about Jim’s poetry — I’ve always been a fan. At its best there’s a music that pulses through it, and a line like, “I had a splitting headache from which the future’s made,” seems pretty prophetic now.
I don’t imagine WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD will appeal to as many people as STEW did. It’s a very different kind of album. Then again, I’ve been surprised before. Whatever anyone else makes of it, I think I feel pretty good about it. As proud as I was (and still am) of STEW, this one feels like it’s much more in keeping with what Papa Ghostface was all about. It’s a more dynamic affair, too.
A quick note about that.
Some months ago I discovered the online Dynamic Range Database. There’s no better illustration of just how many albums have been victims of the asinine Loudness War and how much music continues to be compressed and limited to death for no good reason. It’s a great resource if you’re trying to figure out whether or not a remastered version of an album you love is worth buying. It’s also a little depressing to realize there are bands I genuinely like who have never released a single album with a decent amount of dynamic range.
Through this, I found a tool that allowed me to measure the dynamic range of my own music. You can add this to the list of things only I would be crazy enough to do: I built a dynamic range database of everything I’ve ever recorded (minus the many cassette tapes). It was an eye and ear-opening experience.
Some of the results were no surprise at all. I knew my earliest CDs would have a lot of dynamic range — too much, in some cases. And I knew the group of albums I remastered last year would be somewhat compromised in their first-issued forms. But I wasn’t prepared for some of what I saw.
Want to take a guess at what the most dynamic album I recorded was once I started to figure out what I was doing?
It’s got an average DR rating of 15. That’s almost unheard of outside the realm of classical music. Even vinyl records, which are given a lighter touch at the mastering stage because of the different format, rarely approach that amount of dynamic range.
It’s FOUR SONGS IN JULY, from 2000. That EP has an abysmal DR rating of 6. Nothing else I’ve ever recorded comes close to being that bad. And yet, in spite of the massive amounts of compression I used at the mastering stage to get it loud, there’s no audible clipping, and those songs sound pretty good to me.
The revelations don’t end there.
The late-period GWD albums and my three post-band solo albums from 2002 all have a ridiculous amount of headroom. You’d think their dynamics would be off the charts. They all live in the 9 to 11 DR range. Not bad by any means, and far better than most commercial CDs, where anything above an average rating of 4 or 5 is almost shocking these days. Still, that’s nowhere near what I was expecting.
What this tells me is the equipment I was using at the time — the cheap ART preamps and the Aphex opto compressor in particular — muddied the water to some degree.
Fast forward a year or two to albums like NUDGE YOU ALIVE and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, and everything is DR13, DR16, DR17. The DBX mic preamps and compressor I was using then may be maligned by every recording engineer on the planet, but it’s pretty clear they let the music breathe a lot better.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. You know those eight albums I pushed too hard the first time around at the mastering stage? The worst of them is only DR8. The best is DR10. I was expecting much worse. Of course, the remastered versions are miles better, all coming in at DR12 or DR13, with no clipping anywhere.
To give you a frame of reference, Cat Power’s Sun, which is pretty fatiguing and horribly-mastered, weighs in at DR6. Codename: Dustsucker — a great Bark Psychosis album, and one I would use as an audiophile reference any day — is only two notches better at DR8. The gulf between them in terms of sound quality and perceived dynamics is monumental. How can they be so close in actual measured dynamic range? David Bowie’s Blackstar is worse than either one of those at DR5 but sounds much better and less choked than Sun.
It just goes to show there are different ways of arriving at a loud master, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story, and not all methods of compressing or limiting dynamic range are as hard on the ears as others.
With albums like STEW and AFTERTHOUGHTS I was no longer trying to make anything loud for the sake of loudness. I felt those were pretty dynamic albums.
They both have an overall DR rating of 9. Again, compared to most modern albums, that’s excellent. It’s more dynamic than the Bark Psychosis album. But I was disappointed when I saw that number. It told me I could still stand to back off a bit more.
When I added up the DR ratings for each song on FLOOD and worked out the average, I was a lot happier with what I got: DR11. That’s more like it.
I know numbers aren’t everything, and this is only one measurement. It doesn’t take into account LUFS, RMS, and whatever others there are. How things sound is much more important than anything a meter or reading can tell you. Still, it helps to have a visual reference for what you are or aren’t hearing. I’m glad to have something I can use as a guide to keep myself in check from now on.
As far as the graphic design side of things is concerned, I had some fun with this album, finding a family of fonts that played off of Alain’s cover art. A few years ago I went through a period of combing MyFonts for anything that looked like it might someday be useful. I bought a stupid amount of fonts. Some of them I look at now and think, “What was I seeing? I’ll never use this.” Others, like the vintage Swiss typewriter font used for AFTERTHOUGHTS, have come in handy.
This time around I used a group of fonts called Goodlife, designed by Hannes Von Döhren. Something about the combination of Goodlife Brush for the song titles and Goodlife Sans for the body text appealed to me. There was a nice amount of character without sacrificing legibility.
For the first time in a very long time I was going to break down musician credits for each individual song in the lyric booklet. I’ve figured out a way to include song-by-song credits for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK that doesn’t look clunky. I didn’t have as much luck with FLOOD. Given the fonts I was using, there was no way to add credits before or after the lyrics for a song without throwing everything off.
I settled for specifying who contributed to the album and what they did on the final page of the booklet, making it clear I was responsible for everything else. Good enough.
This is all probably more than anyone would ever want to know about an album only thirty or so people in the world will hear, but WordPress told me this was going to be my six hundredth post. I wanted to make it count. Plus, I’ve come to enjoy putting these longer missives together to make up for extended periods of blog inactivity.
I’m going to take a wild guess and say this is my longest blog post of all time. I didn’t plan it that way. Honest. There was just a lot to say.
Something else I wasn’t planning: I didn’t think I would get my booklets and inserts from Minuteman Press before the end of the week. They came through on Friday, so I’ve been able to start putting CDs together. An album never feels real to me until all the pieces are assembled. This one’s real now, and I can officially “release” it.
I gotta say this: I started working with Minuteman Press in 2003. They printed part of the OH YOU THIS insert. I had no idea what I was doing. Neither did they. They’d never made CD inserts before, and I’d never designed them.
Since then, I’ve had them print booklets and inserts for dozens of albums. I don’t even know what the number is. Probably close to fifty if you count all the 2010 “reissues”. Over time I started to figure out how to make things look less amateurish, and they got a handle on how to cut and print the materials. There were always small issues. If my inserts had a black background, chances were the scoring would be done in such a way that bending back the tabs would cause the material to crack or split a little. I hated that eyesore. I had to buy a cutting board because the back inserts were usually too large, even though I always gave them a jewel case to use as a size reference. I had to trim the top or bottom of almost every insert I got, effectively doing part of their job for them.
They were easy to deal with and the prices were reasonable, so I didn’t make a fuss.
In the time that’s passed since I redesigned the packaging for LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS and had it reprinted, new owners have taken over. No one I know is there anymore.
I was a little worried at first. There were a few people I always knew I could count on to understand what I was after. We developed a shorthand. I had no idea how these new folks would do with the kind of printing jobs I need done, and I didn’t get the impression they’d done any work like this before.
You could say the inserts I had made for the remastered version of YOU’RE A NATION were a way of testing the water. I didn’t need to trim anything, and when I folded the tabs over (on a black background) there were no ill effects. FLOOD was a much more complicated job. They knocked it out of the park again.
I think the prices are cheaper now than they were before, and the quality of work is better. Who saw that coming?
For those of you who are used to getting mail from me when I have a new album to share, I can’t promise when this one will show up. Canada Post is in the middle of a rotating strike right now. They’ve got such a backlog of packages, there’s no guarantee anything will get where it’s supposed to go anytime soon. That’s not going to work for me. I’ll do my best to work out an alternate plan of attack with UPS or the Cosmic Carrier Pigeon Service or something.
I wonder how often this happens to other songwriters. You write a song, you think it’s finished, you let it sit for a while, and then it doesn’t evolve so much as grow a vestigial head that pops off one day to reveal a fully-developed body of its own. It’s not a twin, but a sibling, sometimes so unlike its older brother or sister it’s hard to believe they’re related.
Over the space of seven or eight months in 2002, a song called “You Could Never Be” mutated from a rough, venomous band vehicle:
In both cases the words stay the same (a few ad-libs notwithstanding) while the music goes through some serious changes. The final version of “You Could Never Be” is almost unrecognizable from the first unrehearsed stab I took at it with Gord and Tyson the night of an unused recording session for the album STELLAR. Some months after the band broke up I dropped those lyrics on top of new music (played in standard tuning, no less) and found they worked better than they had any right to. What felt before like an attitude in search of a song now felt complete.
With “Skinny Ditch” the structure is the same in both versions — at least until the words run out and both instrumental end sections develop minds of their own — but the change in instrumentation alters the mood in a pretty profound way. On WHO YOU ARE NOW IS NOT WHAT YOU WERE BEFORE it’s practically a synth-pop song, even in the absence of anything resembling a conventional verse/chorus structure. On the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP it becomes a dreamy guitar-based piece that’s much more open-ended.
I’ve always felt the singing was better and more committed in the first version, but the “redux” take on the song has an atmosphere all its own. It also offers one last chance to hear the more frenetic kind of drumming I would slip into when I used more microphones on the kit, before simplifying things with the stereo ribbon mic forced me to change my approach in order to get the sounds I wanted.
More examples abound. “Hiraeth” existed for twelve or thirteen years as a simple acoustic guitar duet before it grew some unexpected psychedelic appendages when it was recorded for STEW. “Psychotic Romantic”, one of the highlights of the Mr. Sinister album, was written as caustic piano rock — a universe away from the blackhearted ballad it became. “In My Time of Weakness” was written as a pretty straight waltz and sounded nothing like the spacious album-ending track it became until a last-minute impulse forced me to rethink the whole thing.
Here’s a much more recent example.
It began as one of the many things written for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. I was messing around with synthesized rhythms on the Alesis Micron when I found a groove I liked. I recorded it while manipulating it in real-time and tried out a few different melodic things to layer on top before hitting on a moody little organ lick. I wrote lyrics for it, which led to a title (“The Evil Angel on Your Shoulder”), and meant to flesh out the recording…only to turn around and decide it was too slight to be album material, so there was no point in doing anything more with it.
Long after that song was forgotten, I reminded Gord of an old riff we messed around with once:
This was recorded in November of 2002 at the house on Chilver. My guitar is in the right stereo channel. Gord’s is in the left. There wasn’t even the shell of a song there, but I thought the interlocking guitar bit at the beginning had some serious potential. Once Gord faded from view I toyed with the idea of recording it as a solo piece for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. My friend Maya has the word “bee” in her email address. I must have had that and one of Luke Chueh’s evil rabbit drawings in my head at the same time, because the only words I could come up with were, “Maya is a demon bee / Maya is a demon bunny,” sung to the melody of my guitar part.
Fourteen years later, with Gord back in the picture, the fragment developed into something that sounded like a finished song in a matter of minutes. Maybe it was eager to prove it could amount to something after all those years in the wilderness. The most meaningful addition ended up being the simplest chord progression you could imagine — C, G, F — but it was clear they were the right chords.
When the structure was more or less hashed out, we recorded it with Gord playing the Futuramic archtop he favoured on STEW and me playing the same Simon & Patrick I used on the original demo. I went with the same setup I used on the last PG album for the songs where we both wanted to play acoustic guitar at the same time — the Pearlman TM-250 on Gord, the Pearlman TM-LE on me — and then we double-tracked it for a four-guitar spread with some nice bleed to glue everything together.
Right away I thought of the lyrics I wrote for the abandoned synth-based song called “The Evil Angel on Your Shoulder”. They were a perfect fit for the first section of music. After that I had no more words to sing, and there was a lot of music left that wasn’t meant to be instrumental. I wrote an additional rambling verse without bothering to figure out how many measures I had to work with, overshooting the mark quite a bit. In one of those “you can’t make this up” moments of hilarity, it became a much better set of lyrics once I had to chop out a few lines in order to get everything to fit.
I thought it would make for an interesting contrast if I let my voice stand on its own for the first bit and then switched to the well-worn triple-tracked vocal sound for the body of the song. I added bass on my own, along with drums and more acoustic guitar. That could have been enough. The gut said it wasn’t there yet. It still needed to marinate.
I came back to it with a fresh sense of purpose once I knew this Papa Ghostface album was going to be a solo mission the rest of the way, getting down clean electric guitar, lap steel, a new drum track, some more vocal harmonies, and a mangled piano sample care of the Yamaha VSS-30. I mixed it, but something felt off.
About a week ago I tried re-recording the drums for just the first part of the song. Instead of hitting the snare on the second and fourth beats, I chopped the tempo in half and came down on the snare every third beat. A change that simple, and everything opened up. It was ridiculous. I went from treating it as an outtake to being certain it was going on WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD (the name of the Papa Ghostface album that’s inching closer to the finish line by the day).
Over the weekend I revisited the unfinished first version. There was less there than I remembered — only the beat and a bit of organ so I wouldn’t forget the melody. I recorded a proper organ part and some synth sub bass. Tried adding colour with a lot of different synth sounds but couldn’t come up with anything I liked. Wednesday I finished it off, adding vocals, electric guitar, and another mangled piano sample care of the Yamaha VSS-30. It’s pretty close to the stripped-down bluesy electro-funk I heard in my head before I abandoned it, if a little less synth-heavy than it would have been if I finished it in 2014 like I should have. Still probably not album material, but a fun misfit.
Aside from sharing some lyrics and a rhythmic vocal delivery imposed by those lyrics, they have almost nothing else in common. The first version has no real structure to it. The bass line that’s introduced at the beginning never changes. It’s more of an exercise in creating movement or the illusion of it through the addition and subtraction of sounds.
(The synth bass probably won’t register unless you’re listening on a full-range system or some good headphones. All the other important stuff should come through.)
The second version sprints in the other direction. It’s all about movement. Even the instrumental bit that acts as a link between the two main sections of the song isn’t the same when it returns near the end to serve as a backdrop for the final few lines.
The VSS-30 piano samples also serve two different purposes. The first time around the idea is to throw things off-balance a little and introduce a sense of unease. In the final version of the song it’s more of an ambient textural thing, at least until it becomes the unexpected star of the show during the instrumental coda.
That little keyboard has become a great friend. Now when a song feels like it’s missing something and I can’t put my finger on what it is, I’ll try sampling something random — wind chimes, Wurlitzer, my voice, a soup pot, a pop can tab — and experiment with how and where I can incorporate it. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it can lead to an absorbing arrangement of organic and manipulated sounds with varying levels of fidelity.
It’s amazing to me how much character a touch of lo-fi weirdness can bring to an otherwise well-recorded song. But the VSS-30 isn’t a one-trick pony by any means. I’ve used it to generate entire soundscapes all on its own, and some of the sounds it’s capable of creating have a real old-school analog synth vibe to them. With all the onboard effects and the ability to oversample, it’s a much more powerful tool than you’d ever expect a glorified toy keyboard to be. There’s going to be a whole lot of it on both FLOOD and YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
It’s a little awkward trying to wrap your head around the realization that something you’ve made isn’t as good as you thought it was when you were making it.
I’ve done my best to avoid this very personal kind of disappointment over the years. As slapdash as some of my albums may sound on the surface, for a long time now a lot of thought has gone into determining what shape each collection of songs wants to take. I don’t put something out there unless I believe in it and feel it’s an honest representation of where my head and heart are at in that moment.
I think as long as you work this way it’s difficult to be embarrassed by what you’ve done. My ambition has never been to make a Masterwork That Stands the Test of Time, but rather to document the entirety of my musical life, warts, growing pains, nose hair and all. While it might not all be top-shelf material when we look back at the whole discography in 2079 as I’m wheezing my last digital breaths here, at least I can say I always gave it everything I had and never compromised my artistic vision, even when that vision was murky.
By and large, I’m proud of the work I’ve done up to this point. But every once in a while I’ve found my feelings for an album souring once the honeymoon period wears off.
(The internet tells me a traditional honeymoon period lasts between six months and a year. For me it’s more like two weeks.)
As much fun as it was to make the second Papa Ghostface album, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it rambled a little too much over its two and-a-half hour running time. There was no focus. The first disc was pretty strong, and then everything degenerated into a massive improvised free-for-all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about massive improvised free-for-alls. But I started thinking PG album number three might benefit from a more considered approach. I wrote a bunch of lyrics — most of them while pretending to pay attention in grade eleven math class — grabbed what I thought were the eight strongest selections (leaving space for two improvised instrumentals), and declared, “This will be our next album.”
My thinking went something like this: Given how well Gord and I play off of each other and how often our improvisations seem to produce good moments, if I’ve already got the lyrics sorted out before we start recording and I don’t have to make all the words up as I go, I’ll be able to channel all my energy into the music. That’s going to make everything better. When the dust clears we’ll have a great album.
For at least the first week or two after SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was finished, I thought we did have something brilliant on our hands. I even went to the trouble of making more than two copies of the CD, which was unheard of at the time. I gave one to a classmate I wanted to impress, one to my drama teacher, and another to my piano teacher. I wanted everyone to hear this stuff. It felt like some of the best work I’d ever done.
Once the initial excitement wore off and something closer to objectivity set in, it hit me that the album was no masterpiece. It was a mess. The weirdness that had been such an integral part of our music from day one was barely there. I came off less like the live wire I was used being on record and more like an impotent firecracker with a faulty fuse. Trying to force the improvised music to fit the shape of the written lyrics led to songs that sounded unsure of their identity. Aside from “Compassion to Deceive — a rare example of music and lyrics merging as if they’d been born wrapped up in each other’s arms — the songs were just sort of there, not daring to do anything very interesting. Worse, almost none of the lyrics I wrote were about anything. There was some fun wordplay, but it didn’t add up to much.
It didn’t help that the sound quality was pretty awful throughout, with some serious clipping whenever I came close to screaming and a lot of mud in the low end. I had no outboard mic preamps, no outboard anything aside from a guitar effects processor, and though my mixer offered built-in EQ and compression that could have helped the cause, I had no idea how to use those tools. I thought I would screw things up even worse if I messed around with them, so I didn’t try. The results weren’t pretty.
Aside from OH YOU THIS, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such a quick turnaround from thinking an album was great to deciding it was a total piece of crap.
I was determined to make up for my error in judgment with the next Papa Ghostface album. I kept writing lyrics in class — I couldn’t stop doing that if I tried — but allowed the words to grow much more depraved. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep at the time. Some of that was my fault for embracing my night owl tendencies. My almost-stepsister’s bedroom was right next to mine, and she had a habit of watching TV late at night with the sound turned up past any sane level. She wasn’t a big fan of closing her door. That was another factor.
There came a day when all the sleep-deprivation caught up with me. I staggered home a little after 2:00 in the afternoon — I had a fourth period spare that semester — and fell into bed. It wasn’t unusual for me to nap for an hour after school to give myself an extra shot of energy. This time I was so exhausted I woke up in the dark five hours later. I got up, ate some chicken stir-fry, listened to a bit of music, and went to bed around 11:00. I had no trouble getting back to sleep. By the time I got up to eat breakfast I was operating on no less than thirteen hours of sleep, when I was used to getting less than a third of that.
I felt an almost disturbing sense of mental clarity all day. Every part of my body felt like it had been replaced with an upgraded version of itself. I was Super Johnny the Full-of-Energy Man.
It was a fluke. I didn’t get another sleep like that on a weeknight for the rest of my high school existence. The very next day I was back to alternating between being tired all the time and oversleeping on the weekends to balance things out. But I saw an opportunity to use the mental fatigue to my advantage. When I was tired enough, my brain got to a place where all the usual inhibitions sloughed off and anything at all might come out of my mouth (or pen). It made for some interesting lyric-writing sessions.
The first thing I wrote with the fourth Papa Ghostface album in mind was something called “19 to Go”. We tried recording it. I’ve got a dub of a rough mix on a cassette tape somewhere. It isn’t worth digging up. I made the mistake again of marrying written words to improvised music that wasn’t given enough time or space to figure out what it wanted to be.
The lyrics didn’t go anywhere interesting anyway. “Your nudity inspires me to reach heights that were previously unattainable,” went the first line. I went on to list all the other positive and negative things this imaginary person’s naked form inspired me to do, from “[standing] tall in the face of all things malignant” to destroying valuable antiques.
Not some of my best work.
Separate from that failure of a song, I had some music in my head I couldn’t seem to find the right words for. I heard this dark, swirling soundscape, inspired in part by the Pulp song “This Is Hardcore”.
How was I supposed to build anything even half that dense and compelling with only six tracks to work with on my eight-track mixer? I had no idea. After one abandoned attempt at writing lyrics that matched the imagined musical mood, I wrote in my spiral notebook:
I was trying to write something dark to accompany the stark musical landscape within my mind but found myself to be an utter failure. I know there is darkness left inside of me! There has to be!
There was. I only needed to wait another twelve hours to find it.
The next morning in math class I wrote a set of lyrics about a guy who catches his wife cheating on him with a horse. The horse turns out to be both kinky and immortal — repeated gunshots kill him, but he rises again after each apparent death. The desperate cuckold sleeps with the horse’s wife to get back at him. She indulges his foot fetish but otherwise isn’t the most sympathetic partner. His wife returns and tries to make amends with an offering of cornbread pancakes. When the dude scarfs them all down like a thoughtless pig, she grabs his gun and he makes a run for it. There’s at least a happy ending when he finds someone who accepts him for who he is, human-sized genitalia and all.
(What the hell went on in my sixteen-year-old brain? I couldn’t tell you. Writing accessible pop music clearly wasn’t on my radar.)
I started laughing at the ridiculousness of the lyrics and the crude illustrations I added. Kevin Heffernan — not the actor, but a guy who sat in front of me in math class — turned around and said, “Did you smoke up before class, John?”
“No,” I said, giggling. “I’m just tired.”
Kevin wasn’t buying it. “He’s ripped,” he said to a friend sitting next to him.
I was stuck for a title. Now I wrote Rippin’ at the top of my two-page saga. Thanks, Kev.
I envisioned it as a jaunty country song in a major key. Though it was never recorded in that form, I remember how it was supposed to go. Here’s a brand new GarageBand demo to give you an idea.
Gord came over to record again a few days later. I threw out the country song business and made up my mind to build an approximation of the ominous sound world I’d been carrying around in my head for a few days straight.
When you don’t have a lot of tracks to work with, you learn how to create the illusion of layers through a bit of trickery. I made a drum loop on the Yamaha W-5 synth and messed around with built-in distortion and reverb effects until each snare hit sounded like it was ricocheting off of itself. Making use of the synthesizer’s sixteen-track sequencer — something I almost never thought to do — I played some fifths in time with the drum beat on a second track, using a synth cello patch, and made that a part of the loop. Then I set it up to record on a single mono track on the mixer.
I started the loop without the string part, faded it in, decided it was too loud, and pulled it back a little to where it felt just about right. I grabbed those twisted lyrics I wrote with a country song in my head and stood them up on my music stand, playing my hunk of junk Vantage acoustic guitar and singing while Gord played his white B.C. Rich Virgin. I had only one amp at the time and was years away from recognizing how useful it was, so Gord played straight into the Digitech GSP-21 effects processor, using the foot controller to switch between clean and distorted tones.
When it felt like the song had pretty much run its course, Gord encouraged me off-mic to get into some primal screaming. I didn’t have it in me, and it didn’t feel right for the song. It was starting to occur to me that there were other ways of conveying madness through sound. As a way of getting my point across without verbalizing it, I pressed the microphone grill against the strings of my guitar and used it as a slide, making harsh, atonal sounds. After a bit of that I put the guitar down, walked over to the W-5, and faded the drums out of the loop, playing some synth string improv on top of the looped fifths.
We overdubbed a few splashes of Arp Omni-2, both of us playing at the same time. I was trying to play things that made some melodic sense. Gord was hitting random notes. It made for some fun dissonance. I messed with the resonance and VCF to give it a little extra character.
“You want to add some bass?” I asked Gord.
“You should play bass, man,” he said.
I did that, alternating between holding down the low end and playing improvised melodies and runs higher up on the neck. Gord contributed a little audio postscript of his own with a bottle of blue Powerade he was drinking, using his mouth and the liquid in it to make some strange, guttural sounds.
The next day I added a few bits of vocal harmony to some unused portions of the Arp Omni-2 track and mixed the song to the best of my ability. I had some fun with the intro, swamping the drum loop in reverb for a second and then taking it away, adding a rotary speaker effect to the loop for a bit, then adding it to Gord’s guitar for a few bars, and much later in the song using it to process my voice.
Just six tracks, and there was the most sonically ambitious thing I’d ever done. For some reason it never seemed to drag over its thirteen and-a-half minutes the way some of our other extended pieces did. It wasn’t identical to the half-formed musical idea that wouldn’t leave my brain alone, but it was close enough, and maybe better.
Of the nine songs that would end up on the album, six feature words that were written beforehand. Only two of those six songs aren’t warped by additional improvised lyrics and music that’s unafraid to flirt with chaos. “She’s Awfully Lovely” ends with an unrehearsed hook topped off with distorted screams, and then there’s a little a cappella addendum that has nothing at all to do with anything that came before. “Piss on Me” sheds its established structure like an exoskeleton around the halfway point for a long post-bridge section that’s all improv. “The Happy Dentist” begins with a spontaneous Neil Young piss-take and ends with several minutes of uncompromising sonic mayhem. “Spandex” is a self-immolating piñata that keeps beating itself until interesting surprises start to leak from its broken skin.
Instead of forcing the music to do the lyrics’ bidding, the written words were treated as a rough guide and nothing more.
“She’s Awfully Lovely” was the first thing we recorded at our next session a week later. The title came from Gord. He suggested Awfully Lovely as an album title. I liked it but wasn’t sure it was right for the material.
I was renting a Les Paul to supplement my cheap Strat copy. It was the first “good” guitar I ever played. It had a sparkle finish. I want to say it was green. It looks green in my memory. I loved that thing. The cloth that lined the hardshell case smelled like heaven.
The Strat copy, which doesn’t appear on the album at all, became a five-string — and stayed that way for a long time — when I broke a string on the Les Paul and didn’t have an extra pack of strings on hand. I recorded a bit of Gord tuning up after making the transfer because I thought it sounded cool. Then he handed the guitar back to me.
This song is probably home to my best guitar-playing on the whole album. There’s even some volume swell stuff in there. It’s nowhere near the atmospheric textures I’m capable of creating today, but it works. I don’t think I’d ever tried doing that before. I was growing in confidence, unrefined as my playing was.
The lyrics are about a “fake aunt” (my stepfather’s sister) and her impending motherhood. She always said she never wanted children. Now she was married and pregnant, and I was convinced her impending bundle of joy was in for a rough ride. She was a horrible, emotionally abusive person, and that’s the kindest thing I can think of to say about her.
Hey, hey, she’s pregnant.
What’s she gonna do to that kid? Is she gonna torture him? Is she gonna make him feel inadequate? Is she gonna raise him up — raise him up to the sky? Is she gonna fill his head with all of her lies?
Pretty serious personal business there. Not the sort of thing I was used to singing about. Of course, I married those lyrics to some chunky power chords and got Gord to scream with me into a mic that was plugged into the Digitech guitar box, just to throw a wrench in the works. Then we tacked on the improvised singalong about someone with magical breasts.
“Spandex” was recorded next. I must have mixed it out of sequence, because it shows up before “She’s Awfully Lovely” on the album. Or I might have decided the album would work better if I flipped the order of those two songs. I can’t remember what happened there. It’s unusual either way, because these were the days of dumping songs on CD in the order they were recorded and giving no thought to the ebb and flow of things.
When Gord and I first met up outside of school in 1998, it was to work on writing a song for a grade ten English assignment. He played me a pretty, melancholy piece of music he was messing around with on guitar, I worked out some things to play on piano that complimented what he was doing, and within about three minutes we had our song. All I had to do was write some lyrics the next day and we’d be finished a week ahead of schedule.
Problem was, the lyrics I wrote didn’t suit the music at all. I could find a way to sing them that would work, but the whole thing was going to feel way too maudlin.
When we got together a second time three days later, Gord brought his girlfriend Amanda with him. She sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor of my tiny basement studio as we hammered out some new music much better suited to the defiant nature of my lyrics. The song was called “Pacing the Cage”.
After jamming on pieces of a bunch of classic rock songs and running through our own song a few times, Gord started playing a single-string variation on the main riff that ran through the verses of “Pacing the Cage”. I played along, started singing about Kermit the Frog wearing spandex, and this happened.
I’d kill to have video footage of something like this. At least I had the foresight to record our first jam sessions on cassette tape, using a single RadioShack mic plugged into a Magnasonic boombox from the 1980s (my main method of recording at the time, and an upgrade over the Sony boombox I’d been recording everything on since 1994).
“Pacing the Cage” may be the first thing we created together, but “Spandex”marks the true birth of Papa Ghostface. It was the first time we conjured something out of thin air in a communal act. You can hear the excitement in the room as it starts to dawn on us that we could have the seed of something interesting here.
A little over a year later, that fiery two-minute improvisation was still on my mind. You could call the version we committed to CD a “re-improvisation”. After a partial reconstruction of the original fragment, the song fanned out and became something much more expansive and dramatic. I rifled through different keyboard sounds and effects. Gord strummed my acoustic guitar with such force he managed to overload an SM57 — no mean feat. We both added overdubs: demented harmonies from me, African drums and a distorted mid-song howl from Gord.
Spandex for you. Spandex for me. It felt almost operatic. It was ridiculous, outlandish, fun, and everything that had been missing from SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.
“We’re All Gonna Go” was the only song on the album that set out to do one thing and didn’t stray from the path. For years I thought it was the least interesting track by some distance. Now I view it as a necessary break from the madness that surrounds it.
It’s all about the idea of an afterlife in hell being inevitable — how in spite of our best efforts to fight the good fight, some unseen force is lurking just out of sight, waiting to drag us down to a place where “sometimes, on special occasions, you don’t even perspire”. I didn’t really believe that then, and I don’t believe it now, but I enjoyed flipping the conventional wisdom on its head, imagining hell as a picturesque resort where serene family reunions take place.As opening lines go, “Down where the drunkards collide,” is pretty evocative, I think, though it didn’t stand out to me at the time.
The music I first wrote to accompany the lyrics was nothing like what ended up on the album. It was this sweeping orchestral thing, or as sweeping and orchestral as something played on a keyboard’s synth strings setting could hope to get. I don’t remember if I worked out music for the bridge section. I do at least remember how the verses went.
I’m not sure what inspired me to give those words a different musical backdrop at the last minute. The memory is fuzzy here. I either picked up my acoustic guitar before Gord came over, started playing a few chords that sounded good to me, and thought, “I wonder what ‘We’re All Gonna Go’ would sound like if I sang the words to this,” or it happened when he was present and the evening was winding down.
In any case, it made for a much catchier tune. It became almost uplifting in a warped way, ending with the comforting thought, “All’s well that ends in hell.”
You can hear me saying, “One more and then we’re done,” to an inquisitive Johnny Smith before the music kicks in. It was about time to call it a night. We rehearsed for all of thirty seconds. I tried to show Gord a change I worked out on the fly, but he didn’t really grasp what I was doing. When I called out a chord change in the middle of the recording, he just kept doing what he was doing, oblivious. Some interesting accidental harmonic interplay came out of it.
Here I used a drum pattern built into the Clavinova instead of creating one myself on the W-5, setting it up so the damper and sustain pedals would let me trigger fills and transitions with my feet at the same time I was playing and singing. I added some vocal harmonies the next day and a pair of rudimentary guitar solos, one in each stereo channel. Gord surprised me by telling me he liked them.
Our next session produced another three songs. This time we were alone in the house. I’m not sure where everyone else was.
Before we got started, Gord asked if I wanted to smoke a joint with him. I’d never been high in my life. I said sure.
We ducked into an alley. I felt a little uneasy. I still remember the long-sleeved white shirt I was wearing (hell, I still have that shirt). I had no idea how to inhale the right way. I think Gord assumed I’d done this before. I was too embarrassed to tell him I was a rookie. I did my best to fake it.
I didn’t get high at all. It would be another two years before that would happen for the first time.
Back inside, I did feel…something. Must have been a contact buzz. It was a very low-level thing, almost subliminal, but it was there. We plugged in, put on headphones, and recorded “Piss on Me”. I don’t think I even showed Gord what chords I was playing. He ran through different effects on the Digitech in search of something trippy and blissed out. I cranked up the reverb on my voice for extra dreaminess, ran another Clavinova drum pattern through a bit of a chorus effect on the mixer (an Ace of Base-style Euro reggae beat, of all things), and shook a homemade Mason jar percussion instrument into my vocal mic for a few seconds before getting down to business.
Subtitled “a love song in the key of Sinatra” on my lyric sheet, the song wasn’t really a paean to golden showers. It was more of a celebration of meaninglessness. “What does it matter if we defile one another if nothing matters?” More of a figurative pissing than the literal act of taking a leak. Although, “Piss on me before it starts to rain,” is pretty literal (and sensible).
At the same time, there was room for lines like this:
Rotting fish within the threshold of man.
Bamboo cartilage dropped by five degrees.
If you have any idea what that means, let me know. I 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?
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.
I sang a bit of it for her. Gord sang along on the chorus.
“That’s the song! I love that song!”
When you’re in high school and a beautiful girl has a song you wrote stuck in her head…it doesn’t get much better than that.
Over the years YOU’RE A NATION has remained one of my favourite Papa Ghostface albums. It’s foul-mouthed, idiosyncratic to the core, full of mistakes and human moments, and the music makes no concessions to the listener. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of what PG meant to me, and it paved the way for albums like SHOEBOX PARADISE and PAPER CHEST HAIR.
The thing that’s always killed me is the sound quality. It’s not an album I think a lot of people would enjoy or “get”, and to those who’ve only heard the music I’ve made over the last decade or so it would probably be a shock, but I’ve been reluctant to share it with anyone at all for a long time because of all that clipping and low end mud.
Too self-conscious to share an album you’re proud of. That’s a funny place to be.
Remixing it has never been an option. I have a very clear memory of staring at the mixer nineteen years ago and making the decision to erase every single YOU’RE A NATION track without backing any of them up. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t think I was ever going to get very good at this whole recording thing, and there wasn’t any reason to believe returning to this material in a year or two with fresh ears would make any difference.
My only recourse was to find a mastering engineer willing to take a crack at it. I started giving that some serious thought around the time the album turned ten years old.
In 2009, when I was beginning work on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I sent an email to a mastering engineer I won’t name. I felt it was time to give the professional mastering thing another shot, and that album felt like it was going to be especially dynamic and worthy of a master’s touch (ooh, a pun).
At the time, this guy was willing to master a single song for free to give potential clients an idea of what he could do. I sent him “Knee-Jerk Howl”. He told me his free samples were done on a “first come, first served” basis, so it could take a few weeks, but he would get to it when he could.
Nine years later, I’m still waiting to hear back from him.
In 2011 I emailed another mastering engineer I won’t name. This time I cut right to the chase. I told him about YOU’RE A NATION, detailed the album’s issues, and sent along a sample track to give him an idea of what he’d have to work with. I asked how much he would charge for a project like this and what the turnaround time would be.
I’m still waiting for a response.
It was just like the demoralizing weirdness I went through when I was trying to make friends with fellow musicians and get gigs in Windsor in the days before CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN made me “cool” overnight, only now it was mastering engineers who decided I was so insignificant they didn’t even want to take my money.
The YOU’RE A NATION Reclamation Project became a bucket list item for me. Something I hoped to get done someday, assuming I could ever find a mastering engineer who would give me the time of day. I wasn’t optimistic. I put it on the back burner and went about my business.
A lot of mastering engineers charge an awful lot of money. I understand why. You put a lot of time, money, and work into building a studio that’s acoustically treated just right and you hone your craft. Your ears and your gear are valuable — often indispensable. You provide an important service. You need to make a living.
But with the Loudness War showing no signs of fading, it’s become difficult to asses the kind of work some professionals are capable of when maximum loudness isn’t a consideration. I’ve heard $3,000 and $5,000 mastering jobs that sound like something a dead squirrel could have done with a stolen plug-in. And I know this isn’t even always the mastering. Some mastering engineers are given awful mixes by recording and mixing engineers — mixes that are intentionally distorted and devoid of headroom so they won’t be “tampered with” — putting them in an impossible situation. The issue still stands. When so much music is crushed beyond the point of no return and almost no one offers free samples anymore, how are you supposed to even guess at what someone might do to your music if your priorities are dynamics and musicality?
This is why I’ve been doing it myself for a good long while now. It keeps things simple.
Still, a few years back I got to thinking it might be worth one more try. One name I kept coming across on the internet was Scott Craggs. His rates were incredibly reasonable. What’s more, every shred of evidence I could find told me he did great work and was a pleasure to deal with. I listened to some music he mastered. It wasn’t squashed. It sounded good. I read some things he wrote. He was funny. He was articulate. He was against the Loudness War. I liked this guy already.
I sent Scott an email. He wrote back the same day. I almost had him master STEW. It was a shorter-than-usual album for me, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to find out what a real mastering engineer could do with my stuff now that I knew a lot more about the whole recording thing.
About five seconds after that email exchange, money-related things went straight into the toilet and paying a mastering engineer was no longer an option for me. So much for that.
These days things are better. And after losing most of September to that stupid cold and some subsequent bronchitis (boo), I felt the time was right for YOU’RE A NATION. There was never going to be a more opportune moment to cross it off my bucket list.
I sent Scott “Spandex”, explained what I was hoping to do, and asked if he thought it was a worthwhile project. He said he’d be glad to take a stab at it. He thought it would be fun. He also said the song made him think of a cross between Tago Mago-period Can and teenage silliness.
I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to high-five someone through a computer screen as much as I did right then.
At the time this music was being made, Can was one of many bands on my list of “music to check out”. I read about them and wanted to dig into their catalogue, but I didn’t end up picking up any of their albums until well over a decade later. And then, of course, I thought, “What took me so long?! This is great!”
What was I listening to in late 1999? There would have been a lot of Tom Waits, David Sylvian, and Roxy Music on the menu. Big Star. Kate Bush. Robyn Hitchcock. John Cale. Lou Reed. There wouldn’t have been any jazz, blues, or electronica yet.
I don’t know if much of that seeped into YOU’RE A NATION. But I know if anyone had dropped Can as a reference point in 1999, I would have flipped out. Might have asked them to marry me if I was feeling bold.
I wanted to make Scott’s work as painless as possible, so I experimented with the “Clip Fix” tool in Audacity. According to the manual, it “attempts to reconstruct clipped regions by interpolating the lost signal. It is only likely to be effective for repairing lightly clipped audio.”
It was a good deal more effective than that. Some of these songs were a mess of clipping all the way through. I was able to undo almost all of that junk. As I’ve said before, I know it isn’t technically possible to replace information that’s been lost through digital clipping. An algorithm like this can only “guess” at the way things might have sounded before the clipping occurred.
I applied it to whole songs, and it wiped out nineteen years of frustration in one fell swoop. It was unreal. The only sounds I couldn’t repair were those where distortion was burned in, either from a vocal effect being hit too hard at the source (“The Happy Dentist”) or a microphone overloading (“Spandex”). I expected as much. What I wasn’t counting on was being able to give Scott WAV files that had some actual headroom and lots of dynamics.
Score a major coup for Audacity’s guesswork.
In a way, I think something like this is the ultimate test of a mastering engineer’s skills. It’s one thing to work on an album that’s been well-recorded and well-mixed. When that isn’t the case and there are giant, gaping flaws that need to be addressed, you get to find out what an audio surgeon is really capable of.
I tried to keep my expectations low, given the source material. When Scott sent me the remastered songs, I burned them onto a CD, put on the same Sennheiser headphones I used when I was recording and mixing the album in 1999 (headband up this time), and braced myself.
If I hadn’t been listening in bed, “Rippin'” would have knocked me over. It had a punch to it I’d never heard before. The first W-5 drum hits smacked me right in the chest. For the first time I could hear everything my acoustic guitar was doing in the left stereo channel, and all my weird little bass runs, when those tracks used to be twin layers of mud. The Arp Omni-2 bits came alive in a whole new way. It was like a thick blanket had been lifted from the sound to reveal hidden abdominal muscles and a tasteful nipple ring.
Gord’s acoustic guitar overload on “Spandex” was now a cool lo-fi sound that didn’t bring way too much low end energy with it. On “She’s Awfully Lovely”, “Piss on Me”, and “Nothing from Nothing”, out-of-control bass tracks were reigned in until they sat right in the pocket. Hearing the songs like this was almost like hearing them for the very first time. The drum loops all had a whole new depth to them. The keyboard drums on “We’re All Gonna Go” almost sounded like real drums, they were so dynamic and full. My acoustic guitar sounded like it had been recorded by someone who knew what they were doing, and not a clueless teenager shoving an SM57 too close for comfort. Even my beat-boxing on the unlisted track had a new depth to it.
It was everything I didn’t dare to hope for and more. An album I thought was destined to have a saggy bum forever now had a tight, powerful bottom end. And the mud! Did I mention the mud? It was gone! Dead! Kaput! On some songs Scott had to contend with both acoustic guitar-generated mud and electric bass-generated mud. He killed them both without ever sacrificing the body of the sounds.
I asked him how he managed to do a thing like that. It was pretty amazing to me. Some people would scoff at this kind of question and say, “I’m not telling you how I work.” Not Scott.
Here’s some of what he told me:
From memory, it was basically something like this: De-esser on most songs, around 4-5k. EQ was a high pass filter around 25-30, usually a cut somewhere between 100-200, maybe another cut between 200-400. I added some high end on one or two of them. Nothing drastic, 1-2db at most. Couple songs might have had a dynamic EQ doing a bit of low end control as well. Then there was a compressor in M/S, just working on the M. I was trying to reign in the vocals a bit. So, high ratio, hard-ish knee, mostly just working to grab the louder vocal stuff. Then a regular broadband compressor, low ratio/soft knee, slow attack/fastish release, just tapping along doing a db or so. A little saturation, a tape sim, and a limiter….again, all of those just tapping a lil bit each. A couple of the really loud vocal bits I just went in and turned down manually.
That might not mean much to you if you’re not into recording and audio, but to me it’s riveting. So many different things, all doing small amounts of work that add up to a profound sonic difference. It’s a good lesson to me, too, about how less is often more even in situations where you’d assume otherwise. I thought an album like this would need huge EQ moves and a lot of compression to get it to sound right, or as close to “right” as it could get.
You know what else? It’s dynamic. It breathes. The volume is right in line with the ballpark range I try to shoot for these days when I’m mastering one of my own albums. The jarring moments like my scream of “Oh Jesus!” in “The Happy Dentist” are still jarring, as they were meant to be. They just won’t destroy your listening equipment or your ears now.
I mean, take a look at this beautiful waveform:
That’s how you do it. That’s how the game is won.
If I had the opportunity to remix these songs today, I could clean them up something fierce. I think that would be a mistake. Scott understood that without me even telling him. Instead of trying to make the album something it wasn’t, he respected the funkiness of the original recording and kept it intact, concentrating on making it the best possible version of itself.
It’s still a lo-fi beast. But now it’s got some shiny fur, some sharp teeth, and I’m no longer embarrassed to share it with anyone who’s brave enough to dive into the insanity. The best part is I can enjoy listening all the way through without any reservations for maybe the first time in my life. I used to almost want to weep when I heard how much out-of-control low end there was on a song like “Nothing from Nothing” or “Piss on Me”. It ruined the songs for me. That’s all gone now. It’s a little shocking to find myself thinking, “That’s a pretty cool bass sound,” when the only bass sound I thought this album would ever have was “shit”.
Huge thanks go out to Scott for making this stuff sound better than I ever dreamed possible, and for being so open and easy to work with. Fellow recording adventurers: if you ever find yourself in need of a mastering engineer who’s going to approach your music with an open mind, is responsive, has a quick turnaround time, won’t charge an arm, a leg, and a lung, and just does great work, Scott gets my strongest recommendation. You won’t find a nicer person or a better set of ears. I know who I’m going to now if I ever feel like an album needs an extra little something and it’s in the budget. The man is a sorcerer of the highest order.
You’d think this would be the end of our tale, but no. Now I had to think about cover art.
The first time YOU’RE A NATION was issued on CD with proper cover art I had no idea what to do. I went with a picture of the room the music was recorded in, more out of desperation than anything.
This picture was taken at the door. The room doesn’t look smaller than it is. It really was that cramped. I think it was ten feet by ten feet, if that. I spent a lot of time in that big chair, sometimes wheeling it over here when I wanted to play things with keys:
This would have been about a month before sessions for the album began. The rented acoustic bass is a dead giveaway.
I felt the first picture worked well enough as a cover image in a “you are there” way. Now I think it’s a little too bland for an album this nutty.
I didn’t feel up to commissioning an artist to draw something for me. I thought I’d see if I could scare up any interesting public domain images on the internet. I found a striking drawing Georges Méliès made during the production of his 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans le Lune (A Voyage to the Moon). I know an astronomical body and a stable community of people are two different things, but check out how cool this thing is.
The film itself is well worth viewing. It’s almost eerie to watch something that was made over a hundred years ago, knowing not a single person who was involved in front of or behind the camera is still living.
But maybe that was too classy for an album like YOU’RE A NATION. I wasn’t sure Georges would approve of a song like “Piss on Me”.
I looked at all kinds of abstract art in the public domain, from scrolls made in the 1300s to modern day digital drawings. A few things caught my eye.
Arthur Dove’s “Foghorns” from 1929:
And Georgia O’Keefe’s “Sunrise”, from the 1930s:
These were just too pretty for an album that worked so hard to avoid prettiness.
I was about to give up when I typed “public domain melting face” into a Google image search and this came up:
It was a sticker someone created and left on a website for anyone to use in any way they wanted. I downloaded it, reversed the polarity so it became white on a black background, and bingo. There it was. Something simple and off-kilter enough to feel like an accurate representation of what’s under the hood.
The plan is to go to Minuteman Press sometime next week and have a small amount of inserts made. I can’t wait to see that creepy smiley face on an album cover. It feels right. Almost iconic.
One thing I have to say: revisiting this album at the same time I’m wrapping up work on the last Papa Ghostface album there’s ever going to be has made for some interesting symmetry. In spite of all that’s changed, I’m proud to say the spirit of experimentation and anything-goes-ness is still alive and well. I think you’d have to kill me to get rid of it. Sorry, Jesse old pal. I just wasn’t made for the mainstream.
As I’ve said a few times before, this blog began as a half-assed stab at bullying myself back into being productive after falling into a shiftless state. If you dig into the archives, you can trace my progress from not knowing what to work on and settling for recording the occasional stripped-to-the-bone tiny song, to starting to regain some momentum, to finally kicking open the floodgates and recording eight very long full-length albums inside of three years before drifting into another less fruitful period.
CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN was the beginning of that whole creative resurgence. I knew it was an important album for me when I was making it. I knew I was proud of it when it was finished. I didn’t expect more than two or three other people in the world would have any interest in listening to it.
For years I tried to get gigs, tried to network and exchange music with other artists, tried to make friends, tried to play the game — everything you’re “supposed” to do, and everything I don’t do now. No one would give me a show. With a few fleeting exceptions, no one would talk to me. No one was willing to take the time to listen to my music to work out whether or not they even thought it was any good.
I didn’t know the right people. I wasn’t considered cool enough to be worthy of a seat at the table. It was made very clear to me, in a myriad of ways, that I wasn’t wanted.
One guy started telling me he was going to make it his mission to get me signed to a record label. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but it was a nice feeling to have a fan who claimed to have some industry connections and seemed willing to try and help me out. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him so we could talk about putting a game plan together.
The number he gave me was out of service. All he ever did for me was blow a bunch of hot air in my face.
That’s a good example of the sort of thing networking got me in those days.
I was able to get a show early in 2005. The bassist in the band that opened for me was one of the many people I tried and failed to connect with when no one was interested in anything I had to say. Now the landscape was a little different and he tried to paint himself as an ally who’d been in my corner all along. He said he would get me some more gigs around the city, helping to find bills I would make some amount of musical sense on. He was my new best friend right up until the moment I started playing my set.
I opened with an instrumental ambient electric guitar piece. He stood stock-still and glared at me. Maybe he didn’t think I was supposed to be able to get up on a stage and make that kind of atmospheric racket on a guitar with no amp and no effects outside of a cheap, obsolete-even-then Digitech GSP-21. Maybe he wasn’t expecting me to be any good and it bothered him that I wasn’t embarrassing myself, robbing him of an opportunity to pat himself on the back and say, “See? This is why no one would give you the time of day or listen to your music. I knew it all along.”
I’m not sure what his deal was. But he stood there and stared at me for a while with contempt sucking the warmth out of his face. Then he walked out before I was finished my first song. He didn’t come back.
He didn’t help me get any gigs. He never talked to me again.
It wasn’t like I was the talk of the town or anything. But now that some people who were considered cool decided I was good enough to pay attention to after all, the general attitude of the city’s music scene seemed to shift from, “Fuck off, freak,” to, “You’re okay, I guess. Come on in and hang out with us if you want.” Almost everyone I came in contact with was all talk. When it came time to turn thought into action, they would never show up so we could do anything together, or else they would stop talking to me after a while with no explanation, and then they would never acknowledge me again.
That put a pretty bad taste in my mouth. I washed it down by not playing any more shows and shoving myself off the face of the earth, killing whatever small-scale hype there was before it had a chance to hit puberty. The way I looked at it, if I wasn’t good enough before, no way was I good enough now that a few of the cool kids wanted to hang out with me. They didn’t get to have it both ways. And I’ve always had contempt for people who let their mouths write cheques their asses can’t cash.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t develop a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the whole thing. But I think it was justified. And sometimes you don’t have any popcorn to munch on when you’re watching a movie. A random chip or two can be useful in a situation like that.
I got on with trying to make the best and most honest music I could, keeping it to myself for the most part. I did manage to make a handful of friends through music, but they were few and far between. That was fine with me. I was content to hang out in the shadows, away from all the empty talk and double-dealing.
By the time CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN came along, I was a few years removed from that one post-high school live show. I tried doing the sideman thing for a while, backing up a few friends at Phog or the Room or the FM Lounge when they asked me to. That was as far as it went. Playing my own songs live wasn’t a consideration anymore.
I was excited to share this album with some friends and a few people at CJAM, but I didn’t expect anyone to like it much. As happy as I was with it, and as much as I felt like it marked something of a creative rebirth for me, it was pretty freewheeling stuff even by my standards, with a lot of very short songs and some pretty bizarre subject matter.
I gave a few copies to Liam at Dr. Disc and Tom at Phog and said, “I don’t think anyone will be interested in this. But if anyone wants a CD, they’re free for whoever wants to take them.”
A week or two later, I took a look at the CJAM website. My album was at #2 on the “general” chart and #1 on the folk/roots/blues chart. I did a mental double-take. I wasn’t listening to the radio at all at the time. I wasn’t expecting this music to get any airplay. I started digging into the MP3 archives and heard one DJ after another playing CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN songs and talking about the album with what sounded like real excitement.
A lot of people said some very kind things, but the most surprising and meaningful on-air moment I was privy to was this one.
The quality is pretty fuzzy. Something strange was going on with the MP3 archives in the late summer of 2008, and for a while anything you downloaded from the site was pitched down about half an octave and swimming with white noise.
(Side note: this was how I first heard the David Gray song “Knowhere”. To this day I can’t listen to it at its intended speed. It doesn’t sound right to me if it isn’t slowed down.)
I was able to restore this bit to the proper pitch and speed, but too much clarity got lost when I tried to remove the noise. So it’s very lo-fi.
Angela was one of the first people at CJAM to really champion my music. She got the music director to take notice and move my albums over to the on-air library for the first time so they were eligible to chart. She was the main reason I got that show back in 2005. Unlike the aforementioned Mr. Hot Air, she even solicited some record labels on my behalf in an effort to get them to acknowledge me.
We’re not friends anymore. It’s complicated. But there’s a part of me that will always love her for what she said about me on her show ten years ago when this album was new. The first time I listened, it made me feel like crying.
I got a call from Liam not long after that. “The album is awesome,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to sell it? All the copies you gave me are gone. Everyone who hears it wants one.”
I had to start giving Liam and Tom small boxes to hold free copies of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. I couldn’t seem to keep them stocked longer than a week at a time. The attention my music stirred up back in 2004 and 2005 for a short spell was nothing compared to this. I got blog comments and emails from people in different countries asking how they could get a copy of the album. And with an almost rabid enthusiasm, I was hurled into a music scene that had once treated me like a leper.
The strangeness of it all is difficult to put into words now.
My twenty or thirty minutes of local fame/infamy aren’t worth getting into in any great detail. A lot of that story is already preserved here in old blog posts. I made friends — some of whom later revealed themselves not to be friends at all — and enemies, had some interesting adventures, watched as the whole free public distribution thing stirred up all kinds of mixed reactions, became the subject of some pretty outlandish speculation, and came to understand this wasn’t a world I wanted any part of.
Once I got what I thought I wanted, I saw it wasn’t at all what I built it up to be in my head. I consider my time spent as a semi-present member of this city’s music scene to be a worthwhile experiment, but after a while the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze anymore. There was too much pulp for my taste. So I backed away and scaled things down until I was pretty much back where I started. The group of people who had some genuine interest in what I was doing was a little larger than before, but otherwise I was still chiseling away at random rock formations from the comfort of my cave.
Without CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, whatever’s left of that audience today probably wouldn’t exist. It remains the album I’ve made with the most reach and the largest, most diverse fan base. It’s also one of my own personal favourites when I look at all the work I’ve done. For all the weirdness I thought people would find off-putting, the songs still stand up and feel like some of the best I’ve written — especially in their remastered form, without the digital clipping some of them were marred by the first time around.
Not long ago, Ron Leary’s album theroadinbetween turned ten years old. He played a handful of live shows that featured the whole album performed front to back. My “breakthrough” album hasn’t had anything close to the impact his debut full-length did, and it hasn’t reached half as many ears over the years, but I got to thinking it might be worthwhile to try doing something similar. After all, you don’t often get the chance to mark meaningful musical milestones like this.
I could try putting a band together to play the whole album. That would be kind of crazy, teaching a group of people more than thirty songs. I could go it alone. That would be almost as crazy, and it might be a little less interesting for an audience to listen to so many songs with a more limited palette of sounds to support them. I did sit down one afternoon to try playing a bunch of the songs at the piano as an experiment. It opened them up in an interesting way and gave me a new appreciation for some of them.
But I’ve also been stewing on an idea to put on a big show at Mackenzie Hall when YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is finished with as many of the people who’ve contributed to that album as I can get on board. I feel like I’ve got one big show left in me, and that’s it.
As appealing as a ten-year anniversary CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN extravaganza is in theory, between trying to finish two different albums and some other business that hasn’t yet been written about here, I think the timing isn’t quite right. Don’t be too surprised if there’s a show sometime next year, though. If it’s the last thing I do in a live setting with my own music — and it might be — I’m going out with a bang.
Ric was over here tuning the piano on Valentine’s Day. My Yamaha U1 has the Piano Life Saver System installed, pulling double duty as an internal humidifier and dehumidifier. It’s helped a lot during those times when the air has been less than kind to instruments that crave moisture. Even so, Ric said it might not be a bad idea to pick up a hygrometer and a room humidifier, to guard against the damage the cold months can do and keep the piano happy.
Enter this little guy:
And his co-conspirator:
The humidity in the studio is now hovering between 30 and 40% all the time. Not quite ideal, but a marked improvement over the horrifying 16% the hygrometer was reading before the new humidifier started doing its thing. It should help pick up some of the slack so the Life Saver System doesn’t have to work so hard.
It’s funny what a difference it can make when you’ve got something to counteract the way your furnace sucks all the moisture out of a room. Breathing the air in there even feels better now.
I thought I’d take the opportunity to perform a little humidity treatment on a 1939 Kalamazoo mandola. I have a habit of leaving this instrument out of its case for long stretches of time (not smart, I know), and when winter shows up it lets me know it isn’t happy. It’s about as upset with me right now as it’s ever been.
The other day I shoved a Dampit inside of each F-hole and stuck the mandola on top of the Ace Tone combo organ, as close as I could get it to the humidifier without putting it somewhere I might forget about it and knock it over. Already we’re down from four or five dead frets to just one that’s a little bit buzzy. Talk about a fast turnaround. If I promise to make sure the mandola gets the moisture it needs from now on, maybe it’ll find it in its headstock to forgive me.
The dying gasp of that residual coughing crap is still hanging on, but my voice seems to be fine. Time to get back down to business and regain some of the momentum I had going at the end of 2017 before stupid germs stole it from me. To paraphrase the great Dolph Lundgren: “If I cough, I cough.”
I wanted to post a song to make up for the relative scarcity of blog updates so far this year. Of course, instead of working on something new, my brain made a direct beeline for the past. I had to go along for the ride. You really don’t have a choice in a situation like that, unless you want to experience spontaneous psychic decapitation.
If you were around during the infancy of this blog, you might remember a little sketch I posted in July of 2009. Here it is again. Blast from the past!
(Washed-out image care of the Flip camera’s protective adhesive plastic lens cover, which I didn’t realize you were supposed to remove until a day or two later.)
It took a while for the sketch to turn into a finished song. The music was easy. That came right away. The words were the tricky part. I got a verse or two right off the bat, and then nothing for a few months, until the rest of the words decided to show up one day without any fanfare.
Over the back half of 2009, Mark Plancke (owner and operator of Sharktank Productions, a long-running Windsor recording studio) reached out to just about every music-making life form in the city and invited them to be a part of a compilation he was putting together called From the Tank. I was one of those life forms.
The idea behind the compilation was this: he would record as many artists and bands operating in as many different genres as possible. The end result would be a convenient musical business card he could use to advertise his services. In return, the musicians involved would get to record a song in a professional studio environment.
Sounded interesting in theory. I’ve written before about how some part of me will always wonder what would happen if, as an experiment, I tried recording in someone else’s studio and let an outside producer have their way with my music. With the passage of time that part of me has shrunk down to almost nothing, but I think some vague echo of it will always be there.
When I was mulling it over, the first and only song that came to mind was this one. It was a very clear, immediate thought: “If I decide to go through with it, this is the song I want to record.”
I was curious to see how the other half lived — how people did things in a “proper” studio. And Mark had an impressive list of gear. But I had some good gear of my own. A lot of money and time and effort went into accumulating those tools and teaching myself how to use them. For someone who’s spent a lifetime working in untreated rooms, I’ve had a ridiculous amount of luck, never finding myself saddled with a space that’s posed any serious acoustic problems. I was happy with my room and the recordings I was making in it.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get involved or not. What knocked me off the fence was the discovery that the Tank, like most other local studios, didn’t have a real acoustic piano. Once I got my upright, there was no going back, and no amount of expensive processing was going to make a digital piano sound like the real deal.
I recorded the song myself in the summer of 2010 while working on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, knowing it was destined for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE if it ended up anywhere at all. The whole thing was built around a nice Larrivée acoustic guitar I was trying to make a point of playing more after neglecting it for a while. I spent one afternoon in June working on it and then left it unmixed for over a year.
In late 2011, after getting GIFT FOR A SPIDER out of my system, I gave it a fresh listen, added some combo organ and a bit of melodica, and mixed it. Around this time, someone told me they thought the snare drum didn’t come through in my mixes as much as it should. That got stuck in my head for a while, and I ended up making some mixes that were far too drum-heavy in an effort to make up for that supposed oversight.
Good sense prevailed before too long, and I decided the drums were right where I wanted them to be. But the original mix of this song is one that came out of that short-lived Jack up the Drums period of uncertainty. For more than six years I’ve been meaning to revisit it and give it a new mix. Today seemed like a good day to get it done.
I didn’t change much. All the HELLHOUND-period effects — the medium delay I was favouring on my vocal tracks at the time, the reverb on the organ, the ping-pong delay on the piano — were left intact. The drums got pulled down quite a bit, but not so much that they disappeared. They sit in the pocket better now, driving the music without getting too vocal about it. The electric guitar came up a titch, and I snipped out a few lip smacks and unwanted ambient noises I was too lazy to get rid of the first time. Other than that, I left it alone.
I like how the bridge section feels kind of aimless, with the singing sounding unsure of what melodic logic it wants to follow, and then everything kicks back in after the first of two false endings with a renewed sense of purpose. The piano and electric guitar are both first-take scratch tracks I meant to either re-record or get rid of. I improvised them without knowing what I was doing. All this time later, I like the way they provide a bit of colour without ever settling down into conventional or studied “parts”, and the way the piano drifts into jazzy dissonance now and then to keep things a little off-balance. So they get to stay, unedited.
The little lead melody during the instrumental break was supposed to be a guitar solo. For whatever reason, it seemed more compelling to me when I played it on the combo organ and then doubled it with melodica. Take that, intended guitar solo!
The piano line at the beginning might sound familiar if you’ve listened to a fair amount of my music. When I wasn’t sure if this song was album material, I took that little musical idea and repurposed it, sticking it in the middle of the instrumental bridge section in “No Better Than Before”, the opening track on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC. Most of the time I try to avoid recycling melodies and riffs with about as much force as I try to avoid being subjected to the musical halitosis of my old pal the Paddle Pop Lion, but every once in a great while you come across an idea that wants to get out and make some friends. To clip its wings would just be cruel.
The title can be read as either one fish shaking another, or sound frequencies causing the salmon to vibrate. If you want to get absurd, it can even be an action performed by a bass guitar with a mind and a will of its own. I still haven’t decided which reading I prefer, and none of them have anything to do with what the lyrics have to say.
You can look at it as a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of thing.
For some weird, logic-defying reason it’s one of my favourite ANGLE songs. It’s more of a lazy lope of a deep album cut than anything, showing up well past the halfway mark on the first disc of my failed attempt at sequencing and finishing the album back in 2012. I can’t explain what it is. There’s just something about the song I’ve always really liked.
Today I kind of wish I could say I went ahead and tried recording it at the Sharktank around the same time I was recording my own version at home. It would be fun to be able to compare two very different recordings of the same source material, interpreted by two producers with profoundly different philosophies and methodologies. I can only guess at how the recorded-by-someone-else version of this song would have sounded. The drums probably would have come out sounding a lot more “produced”, with more microphones on the kit. You’d have Wurlitzer in place of the piano part and Hammond organ in place of the Ace Tone. The melodica-and-organ solo would probably be the more conventional guitar solo it started out as in my head. The mics and their placement, effects, and mixing choices would all be very different.
It would have been interesting. But I’m not sure it would have really sounded or felt like me. So maybe it all worked out the way it was supposed to.
Speaking of the quadruple CD that almost was…
In 2012, THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE had my undivided attention. I was convinced I would be able to shape that years-in-the-making mess into something that made sense as a self-contained album. I was so sure of myself, I went ahead and sequenced the first two discs of an intended four-disc set, paid to have inserts printed, copied a large batch of CDs, and gave everything a copyright date of 2012.
The plan was to put a different picture I’d taken on the cover of each individual CD. Then those pictures and others would form a collage that would serve as the “master cover”, and all the CDs would be housed in a fancy slipcase. All I had to do was finish the other two discs, get a huge lyric booklet printed, and work out how and where to get a slipcase made.
I thought it was a smart move. It turned out to be a serious tactical error. By dating the back of those first two CDs, I gave myself a limited amount of time to tie up all the loose ends. I took my best shot at it, recording a lot of new songs, mixing and remixing a lot of old ones, but I just couldn’t get it done in time. 2012 gave way to 2013, I started feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing, and before too long I’d kicked it to the side and given up on it — not for the first or last time.
I was at least able to repurpose the CD jewel cases for other albums. The hundreds of inserts I had printed became useless, along with the hundreds of CDs I spent hours copying and printing myself. I had to eat those expenses.
Lesson learned: don’t package your album before it’s finished.
I have no idea what the sequencing of ANGLE is going to look like when it’s finished, but I know it won’t even begin to resemble what I put together in 2012. Half the songs that made it onto those two discs back then might not even make the final cut. Whatever album it might have been had I managed to pull it together six years ago, I’m convinced it’ll be a much stronger piece of work when it finally sees the light of day in 2089.
Ten years ago Sufjan Stevens set this thing in motion called The Great Sufjan Stevens Xmas Song Xchange. The idea: people would submit original Christmas songs. Sufjan would select the song he felt was the best and most original of the bunch. The winner would get the rights to an exclusive Christmas song of Sufjan’s, and he in turn would get the rights to theirs.
I’ve talked before about what I think of most music-related contests. In this case there didn’t seem to be any way for anyone to cheat or turn it into a popularity contest. I didn’t expect or even really want to win, but I thought it might be pretty neat to get one of my songs to Sufjan’s ears even if I would probably never know how he reacted to it. And I liked the idea of challenging myself to write a Christmas song that wasn’t profane and offensive for once. It would be unbroken songwriting ground for me.
So I decided to go for it.
I didn’t have a real piano then. I sat down at the Clavinova and wrote a song that was sung in the voice of a homeless man who tries to get his wife and kids through the Christmas season with some amount of hope intact, struggling to find beauty in the face of adversity. I spent the better part of a day chipping away at it, committed to crafting the lyrics and music into something serious and meaningful.
By the time I sat down to record the song I’d lost all interest in it. It sounded like just the sort of sappy thing that would win this kind of contest, but it didn’t feel authentic.
This was also right about the time it started to sink in that the sound of a digital piano wasn’t cutting it for me in the studio anymore. So that didn’t help. I got down piano and guide vocals, and that was the end of it.
A few weeks later I sat back down at the Clavinova and started writing a new set of lyrics to some very different music that had a lot more energy in it. “The temptress of the ice will swallow us whole and cough us up as we wish to be,” the opening line went. That felt more like me. I plucked a few of the more interesting lines from the first song and tried to incorporate them, but I couldn’t get it to a place where it felt finished.
The day of the deadline for submissions, I threw out all the music to the second song, grafted together a few different ideas I’d been kicking around on the mandolin without knowing what to do with them, took what I liked from the words I’d written, improvised the rest, and recorded and mixed the whole thing in about half an hour. I wanted to add more acoustic guitar, some stomping and clapping, more vocal tracks, maybe some bass, and maybe some Wurlitzer or something, but there wasn’t time for all that.
It wasn’t a perfect performance or mix, and the acoustic guitar dropped out a little early at the end. Even so, I was pretty happy with the way it turned out. Felt like I found a way to write a Christmas song that sidestepped the obvious imagery and well-worn phrases. Aside from a silly little riff on “Frère Jacques” and one line at the very end, there weren’t any overt references to Christmas at all. And the closing verse tempered that with a healthy dose of cynicism.
If you don’t want to read the whole thing, check out this bit:
For I’ve got a secret that no one else can know that keeps my temperament even during times of snow. I’ve got the perfect present, one not wrapped up in a bow. It lifts my spirits high when I’m feeling low. Others long for the holidays, yes indeed they do. But every day is Christmas when I’m with you.
We were told our songs were being judged based on their originality. Here was one trite, clichéd, unoriginal turn of phrase and predictable forced rhyme after another. As for the music, it was a few simple chords that never strayed far from the key of C.
There was no complexity or invention to any part of it. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, there was no there there.
Sufjan had this to say about his decision:
“I fell most in love with one particular song because of its happy simplicity: Alec Duffy’s ‘Every Day Is Christmas.’ It feels, at once, like a classic show tune, the perfect parlour song, a lackadaisical bar ballad, and a church hymn. It is unencumbered with the pejoratives and prophetic exclamations of Christmas, the most complicated of holidays. Oh sure, I continue to indulge in the Christmas blues, the heavy winter dread, the melancholy expectations of the season. And I still marvel at the sacrilege, the subversive satire, and the silly nonsense of Christmas as commodity, patterned with the cartoon characters of Charlie Brown, Santa Claus, and Rudolf. For me, the entertainment of these bipolar fantasies will never quite fade away; they are fundamental to the mysteries of Christmas. But when it came down to it, I just wanted the simple relief of ordinary, everyday love, the love between two people, the kind of love that doesn’t obligate itself to the trumpet fanfares and jingle bells of a holiday spectacle. Alec Duffy’s unfettered song ‘Every Day Is Christmas’ summarizes this simple phenomenon with the most effortless of words and melodies, somehow making perfect sense out of a senseless holiday.”
I read that and thought the dude must have some kind of magic ears capable of turning the sound of a rake scraping across sidewalk into choirs of angels singing. The song sounded like none of those things he said it did. It accomplished nothing he claimed it did. Listening to it again today for the first time in ten years, my feelings haven’t changed. Not every song aspires to be some great, incisive piece of art. Not every song needs to be that. But bad is bad. And I can’t fathom how anyone could listen to that song and hear anything but bad.
As for Sufjan’s song, most of us will die without ever having a chance to hear it.
It came out that the contest-winner was the director of a theater company. He said his plan was to take Sufjan’s song and build a play around it. Fair enough. There was one problem: by forcing people to buy tickets to see a play if they wanted to hear this elusive Sufjan Stevens song, the guy was defeating the explicitly stated purpose of the song exchange. It was supposed to be about sharing music without money being involved, and here he was going to use the spoils of his victory to line his pockets and raise his own profile. Talk about missing the point.
At first I assumed Sufjan just didn’t have very good taste. A few dozen of what must have been hundreds or thousands of submitted songs were put up on a media player on the Asthmatic Kitty website for a while, and every single one of them put the winning song to shame. Then I read something that mentioned Alec and Sufjan worked in the same building at some point, and everything got a whole lot clearer. There was evidence to suggest the two of them knew each other a little bit before the supposed contest was even created, at least in passing. It didn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out the rest.
Hey man. You heard about my Christmas song contest, right? What do you say you whip something up? It doesn’t even have to be any good. I’ll juggle some words to justify why it takes home the prize when there are many more deserving candidates, and in return you’ll work my song into one of your productions and introduce my music to a whole new audience. You make money and get more attention, I expand my reach, a bunch of people get to feel like they had an honest shot at something that was rigged from the start — everybody benefits.
Maybe that wasn’t what happened. But it would have explained a lot.
The play was never produced. I’m not sure why. Instead, the winning songwriter and the music director of his theater company decided to host listening sessions where a handful of people would be allowed to come over to one of their homes and listen to the song while having tea and cookies. Which was great if you were in Brooklyn and they deemed you worthy of a visit, and not so great if you lived anywhere else.
A blog post was written to explain the reasoning behind all of this. It was supposed to be about bringing some of the mystery back to new music in the internet age, bending the act of listening back into a more meaningful experience. And part of me can appreciate that. The loss of mystery is another thing I’ve rambled about before. It’s one of the main reasons I go to great lengths to keep money far away from the music I make and keep it a very low-key thing, only sharing it with a small group of people I know have some genuine interest in it. I like knowing when you get a new album from me you have no idea what you’re going to hear, because there’s no way to stream it beforehand. It’s a physical thing you have to sit down and spend some time with.
Having said that, imagine for a second you found your way to this blog and sent me an email asking how you could get your hands on an album or six, and instead of responding with, “All I need is a mailing address and I’ll send you free CDs wherever you are,” I told you the only way you were ever going to hear any of my music was if you came to my house. If you didn’t live nearby or couldn’t get out this way, you were out of luck. And if you did manage to make it here for a little listening party, all you would have to take with you when you left would be your memory of the music you heard, because I wouldn’t even consider sharing any of my songs with you in any way other than a one-time “fire it into the air and watch it disappear” in-person experience.
I don’t imagine you’d leave that exchange with a lot of good feelings about me. You would probably think I was a pretty arrogant person with an inflated sense of my own importance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned you off enough that you wouldn’t want to hear any of my music anymore in any format.
I mean, if you own the music, what you do with it is your choice. That’s the bottom line. But the endgame here has never made any sense to me. There has to be a better way of keeping that sense of wonder alive than making people jump through flaming hoops to hear one song. I don’t go out of my way to call attention to my music, but if someone in Alaska sends me an email asking for some stuff, I’m going to send them whatever albums they’re interested in even if it costs me a hundred bucks to do it. I don’t care if you live on Mars. I’ll still send you music. Discriminating against the majority of the human race because they don’t live close enough to make things more convenient for you smells pretty self-defeating to me, not to mention elitist and kind of messed up.
(As for how to describe the scent ofself-defeat, well…that’s a discussion for another time.)
About the nicest thing I can say here is I lost a lot of respect for everyone involved. Then again, maybe a lot of it really does come down to Sufjan having crummy taste. He recorded a cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost” a few years back. It’s an insult to the universe. He took a beautiful little open-hearted love song and turned it into shallow-sounding pop pablum with every trace of humanity removed.
I guess just because you’re capable of writing some great songs, it doesn’t mean the intelligence required to do that extends to your interpretation or assessment of anyone else’s work.
Anyway. Back to my Christmas song up there. It was only ever made available on the MISFITS (1999-2007) compilation, and there are probably only a few dozen people in the world who own that reckless, sprawling thing. It also landed on a CLLCT Christmas compilation way back when, but that site has been gone for years now and I’m not sure how many people still have the MP3 hanging out on their hard drives. I thought it was about time to dust the song off again.
Even in its less-layered-than-I-wanted-it-to-be form, it’s a very clear precursor to the CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN sound. The triple-tracked lead vocals, the emphasis on acoustic instruments and organic sounds, a mix that’s more interested in energy than polish — it’s all there already. I even lifted an overlapping vocal bit from “Mismatched Socks”, a song that would later end up on that album (it’s the part that goes, “White, white, white, white snow melts into your braided hair”).
“Mismatched Socks” got its revenge when it came time to record that song. Every time I tried to sing the overlapping vocal harmonies it came out sounding like a mess. I had to reconstruct the vocal melody on the fly and take it to a different, harmony-free place.
I was prepared to give A Home at the End of the Frozen River a fresh mix, but aside from the vocals getting a little quiet in some parts and the glockenspiel being maybe a little too upfront, I don’t hear a whole lot wrong with it. This is one of those rare times I got away with a pretty loud mastering job that didn’t introduce any ugly clipping, and it might be the best I’ve ever heard those Neumann KM184s capture my mandolin. I’m starting to think I should try playing that thing with a pick more often.
If I probably won’t be moved to write another Christmas-themed song at any point in the next fifty years, at least I went out with something I can still share without shame. And that’s half the battle, isn’t it?
Merry Creased Mousse to you and yours. May all your mistletoe find four other toes to complete the rare and precious mistlefoot.
I don’t share many music-related things — or meaningful-to-me things in general — on Facebook anymore.
The last time I linked to a blog post that had some personal content I thought might be interesting to some of my Facebook friends, I think three people “liked” it. Nobody commented. A picture of a salad I made at four in the morning, meanwhile, got something like eighty likes and twenty comments.
This is the nature of the social media beast. Most of your internet friends don’t care about what makes you tick. Recycled memes and pictures of what you just ate or are about to eat are fine. Share something that takes a few minutes to read and you can forget about getting any kind of response or stimulating a little discussion.
This used to bother me. I accept it now. It’s easy enough to avoid the disappointment of being ignored when you feel you have something to say that’s worth hearing. You keep your mouth shut, you talk to yourself when no one else is around, or you talk to yourself in a crowd and laugh about it later.
Facebook is useful as an easy way to keep in touch with a handful of people through private messages. Otherwise I treat it as a panoramic internet scrapbook. You get some stuff that’s compelling, some that’s entertaining, some that’s infuriating, and a whole lot of meaningless crap. You make an emotional investment at your own risk.
I made an exception to the “not sharing meaningful things on Facebook anymore” rule the day Gord Downie died. I recorded a little cover song that felt like a prayer and decided to share it over there. I knew I had some Facebook friends who were Tragically Hip fans. I thought they might find some comfort or something of value in the music. I expected another three likes and no comments.
That didn’t happen. It got dozens of likes, a lot of comments, and a lot of shares. All these people I didn’t know acknowledged the song and connected with it. These days I think I average something like a dozen blog views a day. That day I got a few hundred.
So that was unexpected.
One comment from a stranger stood out. It was the only negative thing anyone had to say. “Well said, to be sure,” a woman wrote, “but the all-lowercase thing is annoying and detracts from your point.”
I responded in all lowercase letters.
The “all-lowercase thing” didn’t start for me until about ten years ago. I’d seen other people stylize their text that way in emails and on personal blogs. I liked the look of it. I gave it a try. It felt natural, so I started typing that way. Then I kept doing it. Figured if it was good enough for E.E. Cummings it was good enough for me.
It wasn’t about laziness. It was a creative choice. Even in a lyric booklet, the words looked more interesting to me when there weren’t any big letters knocking knees with the little guys.
In all the years I was doing this, I got one snarky comment from some random person who landed here. “I find myself missing capital letters,” they wrote. I told them that was a valid emotional response, and there were countless other blogs and websites where those capital letters were leading fulfilling lives.
No one else ever seemed to mind.
And still, that one Facebook comment wouldn’t leave me alone. Yeah, it was a nitpicky, unnecessary thing to say, and as far as I could tell she didn’t even bother listening to the song when the song was the whole point. But it got me to think about this aesthetic choice for the first time in years. Did the absence of proper punctuation give some people an excuse to discount what I was saying? Did it make me look lazy or unprofessional? Was Uncle Kanye having unsettling dreams about me again?
The more I turned it over in my head, the less it mattered to me what anyone else might make of my blog’s lack of case distinction. There was one clear, simple thought I couldn’t shake.
I’ve outgrown this.
Maybe it was time to reintegrate some of those uppercase letters I neglected for so long. Maybe a long post would be a little easier to read if your eyes had some familiar landmarks they could use to better orient themselves within the dense maze of words.
I did what any sensible person would do at the end of that chain of thoughts. I edited every single post and page to capitalize what needed capitalizing. More than nine years of stuff. Well over five hundred posts and almost a hundred pages on the sidebar separate from those posts. More than half a million words — 636,568 of them, if you really want to know — plus most of my responses to comments, though I know I missed a few of those.
It took a while.
I still like the look of all-lowercase writing. It might see some use in future lyric booklets if it feels like the right way to go. Not here, though. Not anymore.
The music video as an art form is far from dead. There are plenty of people out there creating compelling things full of imagery that encourages thought and stirs the emotions. But these are sad days for television as a medium for the transmission of music videos.
MTV was where it all began, and they stopped showing videos eons ago. MTV2 followed suit not long after. That was a real shame, because they made a habit of dusting off some cool things you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. BET doesn’t show music videos anymore unless you pay to subscribe to some of their sister channels. Otherwise their programming now consists of 80% Tyler Perry shows, 5% late night televangelist mind control, and 15% censored movies.
MuchMoreMusic phased out a lot of their more interesting programming — spotlight programs that played half-hour blocks of music videos broken up with interview snippets, semi-obscure videos popping up in the wee hours, a weekly show that took a look at artists from other countries who weren’t always well represented in North America — before dissolving into nothing a year ago and being replaced by a cooking channel. Even Bravo used to show some interesting music videos sometimes. Now their programming seems to be made up of Hallmark movies and crime procedurals that are little more than CSI retreads, and nothing else.
There are a handful of specialty channels you can pay for if you want access to music videos on your TV. So that’s a thing. But if you’ve got any kind of sane or semi-affordable cable package, chances are all you have left now is Much (or, as we used to call it, MuchMusic). And if you’re not a fan of mainstream top forty music and the creatively bankrupt music videos made to accompany most of the sounds living in that world, about all Much has to recommend itself to you now is an afternoon block of videos from the ’80s and ’90s called Much Retro Lunch.
Even here, music programming is falling by the wayside. A few weeks ago Much Retro Lunch was running for three hours every weekday. Now it’s only a one-hour segment. In place of all the music videos they used to air in the early evenings we’ve got Anger Management and TMZ. A one-hour-a-week “alternative” block that resembled the decaying corpse of what The Wedge used to be has gone the way of the dinosaur and Elton John’s falsetto. I imagine somewhere in the not-too-distant future Much will stop showing music videos altogether, just like the rest of the pack.
CMT is dead too. Oh, it’s still calling itself by the same name. It still lives in the same place on your digital cable box. But the only thing left on the schedule that has anything at all to do with what was once “Country Music Television” is Reba McEntire’s mid-2000s sitcom Reba.
When the CRTC licensed a series of new Canadian specialty television channels in 1994, one of those channels was The Country Network. This was the beginning of CMT as we knew it in Canada. In the US it had been around in one form or another for ten years by then. The Canadian version got its official launch in 1995 as NCN (New Country Network) and was relaunched in 1996 as CMT.
Almost all of CMT’s programming — 90% of it — was made up of country music videos. That was part of the deal with the CRTC. It dropped to 70% in 2001, and then to 50% in 2006, with Nashville, live music programs, and the occasional sitcom making up the balance.
Last year the CRTC decided the folks at CMT were no longer obligated to play any music videos at all, as long as they invested 11% of their annual profits into the funding of Canadian music videos (they didn’t have to be country music videos). Even then, there were still blocks of music videos aired in the early mornings and afternoons, along with the long-running weekly Chevy Top 20 Countdown.
A week ago, all music video broadcasting on the channel ceased, and a major platform for country music artists went up in smoke. Their official website and Facebook page both neglect to tell you anything about this total overhaul, but CMT’s programming now consists of nothing but moronic reality shows and sitcoms that run the gamut from “good” to “ugh”. Fridays and Saturdays are twenty-four-hour Everybody Loves Raymond marathons.
For some of us, this is what hell looks like.
Maybe it’s a little strange that I would mourn the loss of this channel when I’ve never been all that into country music.
Well, that’s not quite right. The truer thing to say would be that I didn’t think I was into country music until I heard some of the artists who helped define what country music is, and some others who made a habit of colouring outside the lines — people like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Glen Campbell, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Rodney Crowell, and too many more to mention.
In some ways CMT was the road that got me there, beyond the homogeneity of most modern mainstream country music, which at this point is just pop music with pedal steel guitar as far as I’m concerned (and it’s fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but I always seem to want to hear a little more grit or weirdness or something that isn’t quite there).
I can’t claim I started watching with pure intentions. The long and short of it is this: I was going through puberty, and I thought a fair few country singers were nice to look at. Leann Rimes, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, and Beverley Mahood were especially pretty to my thirteen-year-old eyes.
But here’s the thing. In the mid and late 1990s, whoever was responsible for programming the videos would sometimes slip in some interesting songs that didn’t always fit under the country umbrella.
Bruce Cockburn’s “Night Train” showed up more than a few mornings when I was waking up my brain before heading off to school. Once in a while I’d catch Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and Lennie Gallant’s “Meet Me at the Oasis” (a sweet, atmospheric ballad that deserved more love than it got). And every so often I’d run into someone who was a country artist on the surface but much more complex and compelling than they seemed at first blush.
Matraca Berg was one of those. Her songs were huge hits for Trisha Yearwood and Deana Carter. Her solo work only saw moderate commercial success, with no single she released ever cracking the top thirty. She had the looks, and the voice, and real depth as a writer. How she never became a huge star in her own right is a bit of a mystery.
My best guess is it’s another example of the catch-22 Harry Nilsson and Laura Nyro got stuck in before her, where in someone else’s hands your songs become palatable enough to appeal to the masses, but your own superior and more emotionally three-dimensional readings of the same material are a little too idiosyncratic and real for the people who want wallpaper instead of art.
I will argue until my voice gives out that Matraca’s “Back When We Were Beautiful” is one of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written. I almost can’t get through it, and there are only a few songs that have ever had that kind of emotional impact on me. It was released as the second single from her 1997 album Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. It didn’t even chart.
One of the biggest country singles that year was “How Do I Live”, sung by both Trisha Yearwood and Leann Rimes. Trisha’s version sold three million copies and netted a Grammy nomination. Next to “Back When We Were Beautiful” it sounds like a bunch of half-baked manipulative treacle.
But don’t take my word for it. Have a listen.
We live in a world where Taylor Swift is a celebrated crossover artist who’s considered a great songwriter and a feminist icon when (a) she doesn’t even write her own songs anymore, or at least not without a whole lot of help (these days it isn’t uncommon to see half a dozen different writers credited for any given song on one of her albums), (b) her whole career is now seemingly built around a two-pronged attack of getting involved in short-lived romantic relationships that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame the other party in her music once the relationship ends without ever taking any responsibility for her own failings, and getting involved in short-lived platonic friendships with women that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame most of those women through her music when they dare to criticize her in any way or expose some of her blatant hypocrisies, bending one narrative after another to suit her own purposes, manufacturing feuds to sell more albums, almost always making sure to paint herself as the victim rising from the ashes, (c) her lyrics have grown so juvenile and devoid of anything resembling insight or real human feeling, it’s kind of hilarious, (d) she thinks nothing of stealing other people’s work and profiting off of it without giving any credit to the originator of the material, and (e) she once made a music video in which she played a silver guitar with so much glitter applied to it, the universe itself was made to squint and cry out in pain.
So maybe, when you get right down to it, it’s no big surprise that someone like Matraca Berg never became a household name. I just think it’s sad, the way we go on rewarding artifice and empty double-dealing while ignoring a lot of the people who actually have something to say.
The same applies to song interpreters. Nothing against Reba and Trisha and Faith, but Dawn Sears blew them all away. There was a mixture of power and emotional purity in her voice that was startling. She could take a mediocre song and make it sound like a classic.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Dawn Sears even if you’re a country music fan. I rest my case.
But I digress. Sort of. Maybe.
In recent years, CMT’s programming skewed more toward the mainstream than ever before. But you’d still get the occasional moment of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty like this, even if most of those moments were limited to the more freeform Wide Open Country program.
There at least, for an hour a day, you could hear the likes of Corb Lund, Lindi Ortega, Brandi Carlile, Jerry Leger, and Serena Pryne — people who are making music that nods to country but refuses to be governed by genre. Bruce still made the odd appearance too, whether it was with “I’m on Fire” or something more recent like “Devils and Dust”.
There’s also this: without CMT, at least one of the songs I’ve written wouldn’t exist. It just happens to be the closest thing to a “hit” I’ve ever had, though quantifying that sort of thing is a little difficult when you don’t release singles.
When I played “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” live for the first time and told the audience it was inspired by Ashley Kranz (an on-air host at CMT for about a year), everyone thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
For years now I’ve been writing a lot of songs on stringed instruments in bed. Sometimes the TV’s on when ideas are born. Here’s some video of the genesis of what became “A Well-Thought-Out Escape”, right at its inception, with a little bit of what would later become “Everything He Asked You” mixed in.
I came up with this little cyclical chord progression I liked and kept playing it over and over again, trying to work out a vocal melody and some words. The words weren’t in any hurry to show up, so I sang random gibberish for the most part. I had CMT on in the background while I was playing the six-string banjo. Ashley Kranz showed up to introduce a video while I was trying to form this new idea into something tangible, so I sang her name to fill up some space.
Later on the words would arrive, beginning with the idea of someone selling their love at a yard sale for so little money they might as well be giving it away (don’t ask me where these ideas come from…I have no idea). And still, Ashley stuck around. It would have felt wrong to get rid of her. She was there from the start, after all. Instead of an incidental detail, her name became the climax of the whole song, a half-shouted mantra that broke the whole thing open.
(Side note: I always thought it was a shame they didn’t keep Ashley around longer. She had a fun personality. “Endearing” is the word that comes to mind.)
I don’t know if the bits of country music I heard in my channel-surfing travels had anything to do with the rootsy sound of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. It’s possible some of those sensibilities snuck into my brain when I wasn’t paying attention. It’s also possible the album only came out sounding the way it did because of the instruments I lucked into finding at the right time and the qualities they possessed — the twang of the dirt cheap Teisco that was the only electric guitar I used for the whole album, the earthiness of the Regal parlour guitar, and the…uh…banjo-ness of the six-string banjo.
I do know without Ashley Kranz on my television screen “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” probably never would have progressed beyond a half-formed sketch. I’ve always been tempted to send the song her way as a strange little thank-you, but I think it’s the sort of thing that has the potential to weird a person out. Maybe it’s best to leave it be.
Fare thee well, CMT. I’ll never watch you again, knowing what you’ve become, but I’ll always have the memories of what you once were.