Here begins the tale of Papa Ghostface.
In September of 1998 my grade ten English class was given an open-ended assignment that gave us about a dozen different choices in how to approach the thing. One option was to write a song, poem, or mock radio announcement about a crime. I decided I’d exploit that and see if I could get a grade out of a song.
Isn’t that every musician’s dream when they’re in school? No? Just me?
I told the teacher I’d bring in a guitar or keyboard and perform live for the class. She told me I could pop a tape in her cassette deck and sing or talk over it. What we had here was…failure to communicate. I kept trying to explain to her that I thrived on the energy of live performance (those were the days), and crude karaoke wasn’t going to cut it. She wasn’t listening, and I was getting more and more frustrated.
Right when I was about ready to lose it, a long-haired stranger who was sitting in front of me turned around and said, “Hey man — I play guitar.”
His name was Gord. We’d never talked before.
We got together the next night after school, jamming and getting to know each another a little. It was nice to have someone playing my shitty acoustic guitar who knew how to get some pleasing-to-the-ear sounds out of it for a change. Gord had an idea he’d been playing around with — a melancholy thing in a minor key. Within a few minutes we fashioned it into a finished-sounding song. All I had to do was write lyrics the next day at school, and we’d be set.
I did write lyrics. But I knew as soon as they were finished they weren’t going to work with the music we’d cooked up, as much as I liked it.
A few nights later we got together again. With an audience of one (Gord’s girlfriend Amanda sat on the floor), the song was re-born as something more intense. Now it had a name. It was called “Pacing the Cage”.
It evolved over three takes and became tougher-sounding each time through until we arrived at the definitive version, with Gord getting into it and letting out some spontaneous screams near the end, which inspired me to scream, which made Amanda laugh. The whole thing was captured on cassette tape, via a strategically placed microphone I got from RadioShack.
Since Gord wasn’t sure where some of the musical transitions were supposed to happen — rewriting a song from scratch will do that — I turned my signals to him into an odd sort of scat-singing, chanting “middle eight” and “back to normal now” between verses to steer him in the right direction. In-between those three takes of “Pacing the Cage” we played pieces of a lot of classic rock songs, and I improvised a silly song about Jesus.
It was a fun night. It was only the second time I’d ever played music with someone my own age. Amanda told me I sounded like Eddie Vedder, which I took as a compliment even though I don’t think I’d ever heard a Pearl Jam song at that point in my life. So I wasn’t sure what she thought I sounded like until a little later.
The other students in our class seemed to like the song when we played it for them on tape the next day. We got a mark of 19 out of 20 — one mark deducted because the teacher thought my lyrics weren’t “clear enough”. That always smelled like a bit of microwaved bullshit to me. If she wanted more clarity she could have, I don’t know, ALLOWED US TO PERFORM THE SONG LIVE FOR THE REST OF THE CLASS.
Anyway. Gord and I became fast friends. We started eating lunch together and getting together to jam some more outside of school.
When spring rolled around and it was 1999, I got a Roland VS-880 mixer/digital workstation. It was my first time working with something that wasn’t a dead-simple tape recorder. A whole new world of sonic possibilities opened up. I toyed with the idea of making something of a twisted blues album with both of us playing guitar, though my skills on the instrument were still barely there. Somehow when I played with Gord it felt like I wasn’t such an awful guitarist after all. The musical chemistry was there from the start.
I found out after the fact that the CD burner I picked up wouldn’t work with this mixer, so the songs I recorded with Gord in March of 1999 were stuck in limbo. I recorded rough mixes onto cassette tape and dubbed the collection Suck on my Arse.
This was the first real Papa Ghostface album, though we didn’t have a band name yet and most of what we recorded was just a lot of fooling around between stabs at John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” and the Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, both of which we recorded to submit to the people who were putting on sort of a school talent show thing that was calling itself the Air Jam.
We didn’t make the cut that year. It’s kind of a long story. But we recorded some messed-up things and had fun. And as it turned out, our original material wasn’t anything you could call the blues.
The two best songs on the tape are probably the first and last. “Frog Song” starts out as random silliness before evolving into a little ditty about a boy who develops an odd symbiotic relationship with a frog he swallows at the age of three. The frog only makes his life more complicated than it needs to be. The boy runs away and joins the circus, only to have the frog follow him, and a botched suicide attempt leads to a hallucinogenic journey of self-discovery that reaches its crescendo during an unsettling encounter with Tom Waits. It all has a happy ending, of course. “Bandoni Boodana” is an epic ballad that begins as a story about a homeless man before spreading its wings and making room for the Muppets, Bill Clinton, and Barney the Dinosaur.
Other highlights include “Another Dick in the Hall”, which is a long, atmospheric instrumental; a piss-take of the Barney & Friends theme song, complete with a Baby Bop cameo; and another instrumental track in the shape of the sort-of-jazzy “Uncoiled”.
We hadn’t yet mastered the art of improvising songs out of nothing together. There were some rough moments. But when we hit our stride some cool stuff fell out — like gord’s trippy guitar-playing and my keyboard madness on “Another Dick in the Hall”.
In the summer I picked up a different mixer (a VS-880-EX). This one was compatible with my CD burner, and the real fun began. Gord suggested Surdaster as a band name — Latin for the process of becoming deaf. I thought it was a great name, but I didn’t think our music was aggressive enough for it to work.
(Gord would end up finding another home for that name later on.)
The name “Papa Ghostface” was a divine accident, gifted to me by Johnny Smith (another medium-long story). That was the only other idea either one of us had.
I liked it. Gord seemed to like it. The name stuck.
Our first “official” album was recorded over two nights in July of 1999, with the title borrowed from Gord’s friend Andrew Whitelaw, who would later become our band mate in Guys with Dicks for a while. It was something he said about what it felt like when he had his nipples pierced. It always struck me as a fun turn of phrase.
Still Pacing the Cage pales in comparison to the original cassette-recorded version (the one without the “still”), though there are some nice screams at the end. The rest is a pretty good start. By this time we’d spent the better part of a year jamming without the ability to record anything hi-fi enough to share with anyone, so we were getting pretty tight.
Snowflake Learns About Life and Dark Blue Champagne Shuffle are re-workings of “Frog Song” and “Another Dick in the Hall”, and they hand their templates’ testicles to them in a paper bag.
Snowflake is a musical monologue — a guy giving a final talk to his cat before the little critter leaves home to fend for himself out in the mean old world, vacillating between cynicism and tenderness. Both versions of the song are probably worth hearing, but this one is a lot more ambitious in scope, and I do some pretty crazy singing where I can’t believe my head didn’t explode from spitting out so many words without taking a breath. You can just about hear my face turning red from the exertion.
Dark Blue Champagne Shuffle takes what was moody but somewhat aimless jamming the first time around and transforms it into something that sounds like it has real direction and purpose. Back then I wasn’t afraid to play keyboard drums and fake bass at the same time while pretending they were a real rhythm section. The result sounds like a lot more than just two guys messing around live in the “studio” without any overdubs. Fun random moment: in the middle of the song gord tunes his low E string all the way down to death metal territory just for the hell of it.
There are also two tracks here that point toward what was just around the corner, though I didn’t know it at the time.
No Apologies is the first of what would become a staple of future PG CDs and pretty much every other project I was ever involved in as a frontman — a spoken word piece with a musical backdrop. This one’s all about the effects of childhood emotional abuse, with some bouncy-sounding music underpinning the touching narrative. There’s a great moment at the end with the two of us taking turns letting out speaker-destroying screams. Mine is high and throaty. Gord’s is deep and guttural. Contrast!
Then there’s the title track, which is a warped universe unto itself and an early example of the extended descents into weirdness we’d have fun with later on. It’s something of a love song that moves from talk of laughter in the sky and nipples being sucked to “roasting my behind on the dinner table”. I still don’t know where that line came from. I have a very vivid memory of leaning over to sing into the microphone Gord was holding between his knees (I only had one mic stand at the time) to get some distortion on my voice, looking at his ripped blue jeans and shouting nonsense into his crotch.
He adds some nice distorted vocal and instrumental sounds throughout, and I rifle through different synthesizer patches. I had to cut out a few random pieces of the song in order to get it to fit on the CD, because 80-minute CD-Rs weren’t a thing yet. The whole song is so crazy and fragmented in its natural state, I don’t think I can tell anymore where I made any of the cuts.
Falling Apart at the Seams could almost be a ballad, if not for my oddball delivery and the lyrics about testicles and oysters. The voice I used to sing the opening line (“I was hiding in the back of the street”) has always been one of my favourite moments on the whole album. I couldn’t tell you why. At one point I tried to get Gord to play the chords for “Bandoni Boodana” just for another little nod to our earliest work, but it didn’t quite work out. I wish my microphone at least picked up the funny “oh-ooh” singing he was doing at the beginning of the song. I tried to emulate it myself before I started singing actual words, but it wasn’t quite the same.
There are a ton of mistakes throughout, and moments where you can hear us trying to feel our way into a song before we know what it wants to be. But the creative energy carries the day for the most part. I play quite a bit of guitar for someone who didn’t really know how to play the instrument at the time, unleashing a solo halfway through the opening track that’s painfully crude to listen to today but felt like a huge rush of adrenaline at the time.
My very favourite song here has always been True Love in the Springtime. It kind of sums up the romantic adventures I would soon be having and kills off a fake aunt for the last time (to read about her previous deaths, see SINGIN’ THE OESOPHAGUS TO SLEEP and DON’T TALK LIKE A BABY) while building to a bridge section that features Gord screaming into a kazoo and me grunting in harmony with myself.
It was only a warm-up for the musical maelstrom that lay ahead.
She’s My Girl
True Love in the Springtime
Dark Blue Champagne Shuffle
Snowflake Learns About Life
Falling Apart at the Seams
Still Pacing the Cage