and so, guys with dicks became a proper four-piece group on A ROOMFUL OF SEXINESS, only for things to shift once again when andrew moved to another city at the end of the school year. all at once, we were whittled back down to a three-piece.
i thought that might be the end for us. instead, something clicked in a way it never had before, and we became a whole new band.
it didn’t hurt that i was in the middle of a tumultuous long-distance “relationship”, which looked like it was just ending after threatening to turn into something tangible, and working as a telemarketer — at the same time. i’d only been doing the job for a few weeks, and it was my first paying gig out of high school, so it was still sort of exciting in a weird way. brain rot hadn’t set in yet. it was a little like entering a bizarro universe for eight hours every day.
those two things (the dead relationship and the new job) informed the lyrics i was improvising to such an extent that my working title for this album was “sex and telemarketing”. i’m happy to say good taste prevailed and i came up with something a little more appropriate.
the actual title (SUBLIMINAL BILE) is a response to — and acknowledgement of — some things tyson said. we had a lot of long conversations about all kinds of things at the time. a sort of getting-to-know-each-other-more-intimately process of philosophizing and throwing ideas around as we were becoming closer friends and more of a real band. a lot of those conversations took place on my side porch while tyson was smoking a cigarette.
when i confided that this was some of the most intense music i’d ever made, he thought that was a little funny. for him our songs were relaxing. i guess next to the brutal sonic assault of the music he was making with fetal pulp and ADHD, it would be. but for me, there wasn’t anything relaxing about it.
i explained that it was emotional intensity i was talking about — what i was singing about, and where it was coming from. this was the most desperate, most honest music i’d ever made up to this point. i’d never allowed myself to be this unguarded before.
so the album title nods to the idea that, while what’s feeding the songs may be unpleasant and autobiographical for me, it doesn’t mean anyone else is going to pick up on it.
i wasn’t in a great place at the time. i decided to stop role-playing and start singing about what i was really feeling and thinking — not something i was doing much of in the music i’d been making over the past few years. instead of trying on different characters and voices, i was singing as myself for the first time in a long time, and doing it in a way i never had before.
i started using the guitar and the voice as cathartic tools, instead of trying to make pleasing or interesting sounds. i wanted to make the music feel my pain. at the end of voyeur, i just took out all of my anger on the guitar without any thought given to what i was playing. i felt a little like i was possessed. it felt unnerving, exciting, necessary.
while i was working out the anger and bitterness, a whole lot of sex talk came falling out too. what was little more than silliness on A ROOMFUL OF SEXINESS, where i was trying on the clothes just to see how they fit, now had more of an edge to it. some of it doesn’t sound far off from misogyny, though i’ve never come anywhere near being a misogynist even in my angriest moments.
this was just how my frustration found expression. i was pretty sure i would never get to experience sex or any kind of intimacy with a woman without having to pay someone a few hundred bucks for it. i figured if i couldn’t have what all the other guys i knew seemed to be getting, at least i could sing about it. as a sexually frustrated teenager in a group of slightly less sexually frustrated teenagers, i didn’t see the point in editing myself. there were some darker thoughts at play too (made most explicit in dance on my brain), but it would take a few more albums before they really came to a boil.
a few of these songs were meant for a projected solo album, even if they were little more than sketches (voyeur and nicotine & beer only had about a verse apiece). i would have got around to recording them on my own at some point, i’m sure. but when it became clear how well we were playing off of one another, i stopped thinking about recording the stuff by myself, and just hit the record button and improvised those songs into a state of completion with gord and tyson.
the three of us only played together once in the five months before we started working on this album. there was one very casual jam session in the summer when we tried messing around as a trio for the first time in a long while, and that was it. but it didn’t feel like it. it felt like we’d somehow been wood-shedding the whole time.
we were never anywhere near this tight before. maybe breaking things down to the bare bones forced us to realize our true potential as a band. it felt like we were somehow stronger now that we were less than we’d been before — like there was more space for all of us to work with, and out of that space came clear roles for everyone for the first time.
tyson’s drumming became a lot more creative and unpredictable, full of dynamic shifts and unexpected fills. gord’s bass-playing was all over the place, at once providing low end and throwing in melodic jabs. for my part, i played guitar better than i ever had in my life. and the singing was some of my most committed vocal work in a long time.
none of us could really believe this stuff was coming out of us. after we finished recording dance on my brain at the end of the album’s first recording session, tyson had a look on his face like he’d just emerged from a near-death experience.
“i think we just became better musicians while we were playing that,” he said, mesmerized.
for the first few minutes of the song, it hadn’t felt like it was going anywhere. but nineteen minutes later we’d reached the end of an intense, unexpected musical journey, and there was a visceral energy in the air.
the morning after that first session (from which half the songs were drawn), i ran into tyson at the bus stop on my way to work and his way to school. we agreed the night before had been the backdrop for some of the best music either one of us had ever been a part of. a quiet moment passed between us as we both acknowledged we were a little in awe of what was happening. we didn’t know we could be this good together, and we didn’t even put in any rehearsal time to make it happen. it came out of nowhere.
after that, tyson was interested in getting together a lot more often and started to think of what we were doing as more than just a fun side-project. for me, it was a strange time. at the same time i was striking out with the opposite sex and longing for what it seemed i could never have, i had a real band to call my own that had finally figured out what it wanted to be. it was one of the great musical adventures of my life, and much-needed therapy. i even managed to get stoned on pot for the first time in the middle of it all. tyson filmed me doing a giddy dance in the middle of the street after dark, celebrating my first real high.
i threw out the “no overdubs” credo i’d been maintaining through all the GWD CDs for just about the first time when i overdubbed vocal harmonies for the “chorus” of voyeur. i wasn’t planning on keeping them, but once tyson heard what i did he was adamant that the harmonies stay. he said they reminded him of steely dan, which always mystified me.
he took it upon himself to talk me into adding harmonies to a few more songs. i wasn’t sure they were a good idea at the end of ring around me, thinking they might take away from the nastiness of what i was saying (now i think they make for a nice little unexpected touch). on charlatan shuffle i really wasn’t feeling it at all, so i gave the microphone to tyson and he overdubbed some great falsetto wailing of his own.
so vocal overdubs were allowed now. but that was about it. the music would otherwise remain a live, unfiltered representation of exactly what we sounded like while playing together in the little music room that called itself a studio. there would be no instrumental parts added after the fact (the one exception was a brief drum overdub at the beginning of nicotine & beer). guitar solos would be limited to what i improvised in the moment, mistakes and all.
gord told me redound changed the way he played bass. it might have changed the way i played electric guitar, too. it was easily the best guitar-playing i’d managed up to that point. i’m not sure where it came from. we were all just improvising as usual, and i wasn’t working from any preconceived melodic ideas. even gord and tyson were impressed, miming and saying, “how do you play that with your thumb?”
i was more surprised than they were. i thought they were both still far better guitarists than i was. i never expected to become the only guitarist in a band with anyone. and yet here i was.
having to fill in all that space with only a rhythm section to fall back on was a brand new thing for me. it forced me to become a better guitarist pretty much overnight. for some reason, i never found it awkward to have to carry lead and rhythm duties with no guitar overdubs to help me out. i kind of got off on the challenge.
dance on my brain and vicodin are the album’s epic centerpieces. it’s always felt to me like everything pivots around those two tracks, adding up to more than half an hour of music just between the two of them.
like i said, dance on my brain got off to a slow start, and i didn’t think it would amount to much. then i started talking about my new job, and talking about the girl my head was messed up about — just working out some thoughts instead of attempting to sing a song. as i dug deeper, the whole thing kept growing in intensity until i was snarling into the microphone in a more nakedly angry voice than anything i’d ever dared to do on record before. gord and tyson were with me every step of the way, shifting from one end of the dynamic spectrum to the other, and when it was finally over after almost twenty minutes and i was muttering, “that was fucked up”, tyson had that awed look in his eyes that spoke for all of us. in the space of that one song we more or less discovered a whole new musical language for ourselves without even meaning to.
all these years later, vicodin is still one of my favourite things we ever did as a band. everything comes full circle and all of the album’s themes meet head-on for one last psychotic hurrah. i somehow manage to work my entire telemarketing spiel into the song (in somewhat mutilated form), along with a pretty cruel dissection of an email and a whole bunch of other twisted shit. the sex talk is there as well, but it’s bent in a darker, stranger direction. there’s even a carpenters reference in there, of all things.
i once explained the meaning of the “ketchup/catch up” line to tyson (while it doesn’t announce itself as having any meaning, it’s referring to about three different things at once), and he looked kind of surprised that there were so many ideas behind such a small, seemingly throwaway line. “there’s a lot of stuff that goes on in your brain,” he said. i guess he was right.
what’s funny is, he wanted to record a ballad to end the album, to mix things up. i wanted to explore this evil, semi-dissonant arpeggio i had on the guitar instead. i can’t imagine what would have happened if i yielded and tried to come up with something tender (actually, i can — it became the opening track of the very next album). all i know is, i’m glad we got this instead of a ballad.
i love the screams and random noise gord and tyson contribute throughout the song, and there are some uncanny moments of rhythm section telepathy between the two of them. one of my very favourite bits is the “argument” between me and gord, with him screaming into a kazoo while i act out the part of a typical womanizing guy trying to pick up a woman. it’s music as performance art, sort of, and at the same time it’s just one small part of the insanity going on around it.
nicotine & beer was one song i wasn’t so sure about. i wanted to keep it for the soon-to-be abandoned solo CD. it seemed too upbeat to fit in with the rest of the songs here. but once i played part of it for gord and tyson, they wouldn’t let it back in the bag. it’s probably the closest thing to a radio-friendly song on the album, references to sex and vomiting notwithstanding.
the sound on this album, and the GWD albums that followed, is a pretty serious shift from anything i’d done before. on most of the songs i slathered my voice in slapback echo and left myself somewhat buried in the mix, treating the voice like it was just another instrument, no more or less important than anything else. some of the inspiration for that came from john lennon’s plastic ono band — still one of my favourite albums ever made by anyone. i loved that vocal sound, and the sound of the album in general, so raw and stripped-down, but massive and powerful in its nakedness. it was probably the least spector-esque thing phil spector ever produced (accounts vary; some say he never showed up to produce at all), but i can’t imagine it sounding any other way.
i wasn’t much of a producer at the time, though. so instead of spending a lot of time trying to get a specific drum sound, or a specific anything-sound, i set things up in a way that seemed to make sense with the equipment i had, and off we went. to be honest, the main reason i mixed my voice so low was because half the time i didn’t really like my voice all that much.
the drum sound was a definite improvement over A ROOMFUL OF SEXINESS, with two mics on the kit this time instead of one. the kick drum mic picked up some of the snap from the snare, and the lone overhead mic was aimed at tyson’s crotch. that seemed to be the sweet spot. those two SM57s were all i would use to record drums for the next eight or so albums i made. in hindsight i wish i had the good sense to use a real guitar amp for all of this stuff instead of a POD. but it made the recording process easier, and it did the job well enough.
i have a lot of memories and stories from the band days. it’s one of those things where i could write a huge book that no one would ever want to read. one of the most vivid memories comes from this album. we were in the middle of recording charlatan shuffle (the one thing that’s always felt a little like filler to me), and it got to the part where the groove gets really deep and i’m singing “shake it loose” and kind of half-scatting.
i looked up at tyson. we made eye contact. he had this huge smile on his face. i looked over at gord, and we made eye contact too, and he was smiling. so was i.
i had one of those “wow” moments, where it hit me that here i was in a little room between the kitchen and the living room of my house, with two of my best friends, each of us just a few feet away from one another, and we were improvising this music out of nothing and having the time of our lives doing it. i could tell that we were all thinking and feeling the same thing. i could see it in their eyes. it transcended the bitterness i was pouring into the song. i felt this strong connection, a feeling of being a part of something much larger than myself, and it was powerful…almost spiritual, in a way.
this strange three-way bond we’d built wouldn’t last long. but it was exciting while it did.
ring around me
until you lose
dance on my brain
nicotine & beer