Stellar (2002)

stellar text

This rivals A ROOMFUL OF SEXINESS for the worst drum sound I ever recorded. My drummer took it upon himself to school me in the art of microphone placement halfway through the recording of GOOD LUCK IN THE NEXT LIFE, and the results were a mixed bag. I was able to get the sound to work well enough on the back half of that album, even if the snare and toms lost a bit of presence. Here I was forced to EQ the hell out of the kick drum in an attempt to get rid of the mud created by the new setup, and nothing brought back the attack the snare lost.

The sound does improve a bit around the halfway point due to Tyson’s more aggressive playing. Maybe the presence of his Iron Cobra double bass pedal muddied the waters too. He said he was more comfortable playing double bass as a rule, but this was the only CD of ours to feature that pedal.

While I could probably clean things up a little if I remixed the album now, there’s not much I’d be able to do to help the drums. And on some level, I think the muddy sound suits the material. This isn’t happy music. It makes the two albums that came before it sound pretty warm and fuzzy by comparison. I was angry back then, but there was some grudging optimism and humour swimming in the soup. Now…not so much.

The job I found kind of fun when it was new had become a mind-numbing, soul-sucking black hole that made me feel like killing myself just so I wouldn’t have to go in to work. Talking to hundreds of strangers who hate you every day will do that to you. The doomed long-distance relationship I’d been mining for inspiration since SUBLIMINAL BILE was sounding its death rattle, and it was for real this time. I was beginning to realize some of the people I thought were my friends didn’t really care about me.

More than anything, I wanted to feel a connection with someone. Some kind of intimacy. But it seemed like most people were inaccessible or closed-off in one way or another, or else they had no interest in connecting with me. I kept reaching out just to grab air. Didn’t see much point in caring about anything anymore.

Things would get even messier and I would grow even more disillusioned by the time the band was imploding and I was recording BEAUTIFULLY STUPID on my own, but that was still a few months away. The angry sexual imagery that was so prevalent on SUBLIMINAL BILE is mostly absent here, with a new “maturity” in a lot of the lyrics, though the explosion of sex and rage on I Feel Great goes some way toward counteracting that.

I’m not sure how to explain it, but where SUBLIMINAL BILE and GOOD LUCK IN THE NEXT LIFE feel like they’re both coming from a similar place, this album seems to be coming from somewhere else. There’s a lot less searching going on. It’s as if we started out deconstructing what a three-piece “rock band” was supposed to be, subverting things and stretching them out until songs ceased to be conventional songs at all and became something “other”, and then we grew in a somewhat more conventional direction, shortening the songs, introducing more shape, bringing things back down to earth somewhat — all without ever having any conscious thoughts about these changes we were going through.

And yet this music isn’t normal, and it isn’t polished. If anything, there are more mistakes here than there were on either of the “freer” albums that kicked off the last phase of our life as a band. My anger and self-loathing stops simmering and explodes into something much deeper and more aggressive, with vocal performances to match. Even on something like Rancid Popcorn, which might have been a nice mellow song on the last album, the singing is full of bitterness and warps the music into something a lot stranger than it seems poised to be.

We’re out of Tuna is the token extended track. It’s one of the strangest things we ever did. There’s an off-kilter, insistent riff, some pretty unhinged, vocal-range-testing singing from me with barely any actual words (though most of what words there are really do mean something, believe it or not), some unhinged laughter from Tyson, some backwards beer bottle slide bass from Gord, one section that sounds something like a lo-fi elephant stampede on peyote, and an ending that almost never ends.

Gord always wanted to play that one live. He thought it would blow people away. We never got the chance to try, but I think it would have been pretty wild.

Tyson has a moment of spontaneous vocal interjection that doesn’t quite come off on Beauty Breeds Confusion, and even adding vocal harmonies of my own after the fact couldn’t cover it up. He had a thing for singing sometimes when he really felt it in the middle of a song. Usually it worked. On “It’s All Coming Back” (from A ROOMFUL OF SEXINESS) we got into some fun call-and-response business. On SUBLIMINAL BILE highlight “Redound” there’s this weird melodic sound that fades in and out near the end when I’m singing some high falsetto notes, adding a certain eerie, atmospheric something. It took me months to figure out it was Tyson singing into his overhead drum mic and not some strange cosmic microphone feedback. And on this album he contributes some nice high falsetto singing for a bit in the middle of Barbiturates.

But it bugged me a little when we’d be listening to Beauty Breeds Confusion and he’d needle me about that one part being off-key. It wasn’t me who was off. It was him.

Some of my best rhythm/lead guitar-playing from the GWD days is here on the likes of Mean It and Beauty Breeds Confusion. On the latter track I still can’t believe I was able to squeeze all those ideas into one live take, playing and singing at the same time while improvising the lyrics. Today I would probably use at least two different guitar tracks to get all that information across. I don’t solo as much as before, picking my spots more carefully. When I do take a guitar solo it’s a lot denser and more compact, with a lot of ideas squeezed into short bursts of time.

This isn’t a one-man show by any means, though. There are a lot of great moments from the other guys. Tyson’s drumming is ridiculously inventive throughout, from the dance-influenced beats and crisp fills he hammers out on Mean It (the best balance we ever struck between accessibility and raw feeling) to the grungy throb of Electricity, the jazzy solo fill at the beginning of Rancid Popcorn, and the almost tribal rhythms that break out in parts of We’re out of Tuna. For his part, Gord throws in all kinds of great unexpected countermelodies, and on It’s Only a Game he unleashes some gorgeous, mind-boggling bass-playing that ends up driving the whole song. I don’t think he was ever able to duplicate what he played there. It was one of those magic moments.

Tyson talked me into adding a long vocal harmony section to the middle of that song, elevating it to an emotional place it wouldn’t have been able to get to otherwise. I finally came around to realizing he was usually right about where there should be harmonies — so much so that we had a stoned session devoted only to vocal overdubs. But that’s a long story.

The point is, without him the song would have a gaping hole in its heart, because those harmonies wouldn’t exist. It’s one of the few true GWD ballads, and maybe the best one of them all — an honest-to-whatever-deity-you-worship love song, admitting the situation is hopeless but choosing to wonder and hope in the face of certain defeat.

I Feel Great sprints in the opposite direction. It’s pretty brutal, with what has to be some of my most intense and uninhibited singing of all time. In the past I was always the one who would keep songs going past their natural cut-off points, sometimes to Tyson’s frustration. Here he was the one who urged me to kick into a final verse when I was ready to stop, telling me to keep going with a crazed look in his eyes. I love his outburst at the end of the song, even if the final hard consonant gets cut off when I stop recording a moment too soon.

There isn’t really anything here I’ve ever thought of as filler, maybe because the album is only an hour long. That was a little on the short side by our usual standards, so there wasn’t as much room for messing around. Even Molest the Sky, which is kind of slight compared to most of the other songs, is an almost joyous end to an album lacking in the silliness department. My little rant at the end about the formation of a halfway house for emotionally damaged animals is one of the few playful bits on the CD, and a bit of a callback to the goofier days of old.

The album title was another one of Tyson’s ideas. I think he was making fun of someone and said the word in an effeminate voice. Something about it appealed to me. It doesn’t make a lot of sense as a title, given what the songs are about, but it felt right. I thought it was a stellar album.

None of us had any idea this would be the last full-length album the three of us would ever record together. Had I known, I probably would have paid to have Steve Albini record us at Electrical Audio, and that dodgy drum sound wouldn’t even be an issue. But what can you do?

As I like to say, hindsight is a psychotic squirrel with too much makeup on.


Happy, Happier
Mean It
Beauty Breeds Confusion
We’re out of Tuna
It’s Only a Game
I Feel Great
Rancid Popcorn
Pigeon Shit
Molest the Sky


Mean It

We’re out of Tuna

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