The first Papa Ghostface album that really works from end to end as a cohesive artistic statement.
I learned an important lesson from SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN — if you’re going to write lyrics with the intention of singing them instead of just letting them pile up in folders of unrecorded songs, let them be as twisted as they want to be, and make sure the music you’re singing them to compliments those words. Where the improvisation/premeditation mixture often made for an awkward fit on DEAD SKIN, here things were dramatically different when only a few weeks had passed.
One big change was allowing the music to lean much harder in the direction of improvisation, to the point that a “written” song would often find itself derailed by a random impulse. One of the best examples of this is The Happy Dentist. It begins as a pretty straightforward — if unsettling — spoken word piece, with music that sounds a little like an acoustic trip-hop variation on “Horsemouth”, only to end in several minutes of complete sonic psychosis, capped off with the sound of me spitting a piece of gum into the microphone and dropping the loudest F-bomb of my life.
But the real game-changer was a lack of sleep, of all things.
I fell into a routine of staying up pretty late on weeknights, to the point that it was unusual for me to get a good night’s rest. Most school days followed the same pattern. First I was disoriented, everything seemed funny, and some people thought I was high, or else I was too drained to be amused by anything and had to fight not to fall asleep in the middle of class. Sometimes it was a little bit of both. Around lunchtime I’d start to lose steam. Then I would eat and get a much-needed shot of energy. I’d feel pretty normal until around 2:00 in the afternoon, when all the colour would drain out of the world during last period French class and it felt like every last bit of energy I ever had in my life came oozing right out of my ears. I’m convinced I could have fallen asleep standing up if no one was around and I had nothing to sit on.
It wasn’t healthy, but it did some interesting things to my writing. I filled spiral notebooks and countless sheets of loose-leaf paper with lyrics that were getting more twisted all the time. It felt like all the internal editing systems had been short-circuited. Without realizing it was happening, I started to make music that grew out of the way my day-to-day life had taken on an otherworldly, almost hallucinogenic hue — music soaked with a feeling of having stayed up for several days straight and, instead of crashing, tapping into some strange, jittery place not quite awake or asleep.
It all crystallized with the very first thing we recorded for the album — Rippin’. It was written as a jovial-sounding country song, if you can believe that. By the time I was recording it with Gord three days after I’d written the words, it was transformed into an almost-fourteen-minute-long monolith that sounded like a perverted nursery rhyme screaming in the belly of a nightmare.
Gord’s electric guitar playing is at a whole new level right from the jump. He tosses out jagged lines left and right, soloing at will, and somehow it works even when I’m singing at the same time he’s tearing it up. An insistent drum-and-fake-strings loop runs through the whole thing. At one point I get a mandolin-like sound out of my acoustic guitar by pressing the strings against the microphone, using the grille as a crude slide, and we both add some dissonant Arp Omni-2 stabs at odd moments.
Gord makes some pretty bizarre sounds at the end with a bottle of blue Powerade (Gatorade’s cousin). I always thought what he did there sounded like some sort of alien reptile grunting with fear after being ripped from its natural habitat.
Rippin’ was more ambitious on a sonic level than anything I’d ever done before, and its epic insanity set the tone for the rest of the album.
Gord does a lot of singing that helps the cause throughout — probably the most he ever did on one of our albums. It says something that the weakest track here is the most accessible by far (We’re All Gonna Go), and one of the few that doesn’t have Gord’s voice on it somewhere. Everything else is pretty out-there, and this might be the most consistently “druggy”-sounding album I’ve ever made, though I only ever got to listen to it once while under the influence of anything (phooey).
Spandex resurrects one of the first musical ideas Gord and I ever conjured from the ether, from the same night “Pacing the Cage” was recorded on cassette tape in the autumn of 1998, and twists what was a fiery improvisation into an operatic exploration of…well…spandex. That and my contempt for geography class. Gord’s acoustic guitar overloads the microphone and threatens to blow up the world while I mess around with different keyboard sounds and overdub myself into a mini-choir of spandex-worshipers.
This song almost melted one high school friend’s brain. But that’s a tale for another time.
Nothing from Nothing is one of my favourite spoken word things we ever did, in spite of a few flubs on my part (that’ll happen sometimes when you’re improvising an involved narrative without a safety net). There’s some delicious, downright evil-sounding electric guitar from Gord that almost takes us into the realm of industrial music. The first time Johnny Smith heard the song, he was driving around during one of my last piano lessons. He started to feel like he had no idea where he was, or where he was supposed to be going. All at once, nothing seemed familiar, and he felt like he was experiencing a horrible acid trip.
I took that as a huge compliment when he came to pick me up and told me about it. I had no idea anything I recorded could exert that kind of power.
Speaking of piano lessons, I expected Dustin to find much more of interest here than he did with the last CD and duly gave him a copy. He surprised me by not having anything to say. Maybe Piss on Me struck a nerve. Who knows?
The subject matter is all over the map here, but it’s pretty seedy throughout, touching on extramarital affairs via bestiality, love via urination, a depraved dentist who finally gets what he deserves, the effects of a protracted lack of cable TV on a teenage male libido, and smoking pot in the park at lunchtime — which I’d never done, so I didn’t realize how many of our high school brethren it spoke to at the time when I sang about it on Fatties, the closest thing to a ballad on the album.
She’s Awfully Lovely brings my infamous fake aunt back to life long enough to shudder at her impending motherhood, before segueing into a bouncy distorted a cappella singalong. It also marks the moment my shitty red Strat copy became a five-string guitar, when one of the strings was removed to replace a broken string on a sparkly Les Paul I was renting at the time. You can hear Gord tuning it up at the beginning of the song before handing the guitar back to me (I didn’t know a thing about stringing up a guitar at the time).
The Strat copy stayed a five-string for at least four years and served me well in that form, surviving various odd tunings, dead frets and all, until someone at Long & Mcquade threw on a sixth string when I had them replace the dying humbucker. That bothered me a little. I was going to rip the unwanted sixth string off, but then I thought I might see how the guitar liked having all of its strings for a while. It won me over in the end, and it’s stayed that way ever since, even if it doesn’t see much action these days.
Piss on Me, The Happy Dentist, and Nothing from Nothing — three of the most warped songs on the album — were all recorded in one night. We had the house to ourselves for a while, so Gord and I snuck out into an alley and smoked a joint in darkness. Back then I had no idea how to inhale, so I didn’t get high at all, but I felt a vague sort of something. Must have been a bit of a contact buzz. Instead of leading to a coughing fit, smoking without knowing what I was doing seemed to open up my vocal cords in an odd way, allowing for some higher-than-usual sans-falsetto singing on Piss on Me.
I’ll never forget Gord staring at the guitar effects box, mesmerized by the sounds he was making. My full-voiced howl at the end of the song (“So piss on…MEEEEEE!”) is one of the album’s definitive moments, along with the improvised post-bridge section that’s almost romantic in a weird, bittersweet way. It cracks me up right at the end when Gord realizes the song is over and asks if we were recording it. You can hear the excitement in our voices. Or maybe you can’t. But I can, and it takes me right back to that night.
One thing that distinguishes this from other Papa Ghostface albums is all the between-song bits. There are several fragments that show up as intros or outros and don’t really have anything at all to do with the songs themselves but manage to make a weird sort of sense. The “Neil Young on crack” intro to The Happy Dentist has always been a favourite of mine.
This album is also home to what has to be one of the best hidden tracks I’ve ever concocted, even if I again had to cut out pieces of it in order to make it fit on the CD. It’s really just me punching my bass (literally) while using a distant microphone to distort it through the guitar effects box, and then overdubbing some distorted singing and screaming on top, and it lasts all of twenty-six seconds. Somehow it feels like the only appropriate ending there ever could have been to such a demented album.
A technical note: I’m not normally one to tweak my albums after the fact. With something like WITHOUT DICKS I was able to justify the work, and the new mix was a pretty dramatic improvement over the flat-sounding original, but my attempted remix of SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN in 2002 taught me the revisionist approach can backfire just as often as it pays off. When you’re attempting to iron out the kinks in a flawed recording you sometimes do more harm than good and end up robbing it of a lot of its charm. I’ve always taken more of a documentary approach anyway, where each album is a record of where I’m at and what I’m capable of in that specific pocket of time — including my recording abilities (or lack thereof).
Having said that, this is one album I always wished I could have had another crack at on the mixing side. It was recorded with no outboard mic preamps and no use of EQ or compression, at a time when I knew next to nothing about gain staging. The same is true of almost every song on SHOEBOX PARADISE, but you wouldn’t know it, because I waited to mix that album until I had a better handle on what I was doing.
Here I made the tactical error of erasing all the songs from my mixer without backing any of them up. My logic was, “I’m never going to get much better at this recording thing, so there’s no sense in saving this stuff in a form that would allow me to revisit and remix it later on. It’s not as if I’ll be able to improve it in any significant way.”
There went any chance I would ever have to get rid of all the ugly clipping and mitigate the low end mud created by close-mic’d acoustic guitars and uncompressed bass tracks, or so I thought.
Around 2011 I started thinking about asking a professional mastering engineer to try cleaning things up a bit. It seemed destined to remain little more than a “what if?” scenario, but in 2018 I was able to undo most of the clipping myself, restoring the waveforms to something less horrifying with the help of Audacity, and I found the ideal mastering dance partner in Scott Craggs (more about all of this over HERE).
Scott was somehow able to eliminate the mud without sacrificing bottom or punch, while adding a clarity I didn’t know these songs could possess. At the same time, he didn’t try to turn the music into something it wasn’t. He left its original character intact. He just made it a lot more pleasant to listen to, bringing out its inherent positive qualities and minimizing the gnarly stuff.
And so, nineteen years after it was recorded, I’ve finally got a version of YOU’RE A NATION I can share without being embarrassed by the sound quality. It can stand shoulder to shoulder with the other high points in the Papa Ghostface discography without worrying about how its breath smells. Huzzah.
She’s Awfully Lovely
We’re All Gonna Go
Piss on Me
The Happy Dentist
Nothing from Nothing