You’re a Nation (1999)

The full flowering of fucked-up shit makes for the first Papa Ghostface album that really works from end to end. This is where it all finally comes together.

It needs to be said: the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. I didn’t back any of the songs up on the mixer (stupid, stupid, stupid), so I’ve never been able to give the music the remixed treatment it deserves. Maybe someday when I’ve got some extra cash I’ll see what a good mastering engineer might be able to do with this stuff, but I’m not optimistic.

Even with all the unfortunate low end mud and ugly digital clipping, this will always retain “classic” status for me until the day I die, no matter what else I go on to do. I love this twisted lo-fi album. Always have.

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 on top of compliments the words. Where the improvisation/premeditation mixture often made for an awkward fit on that album, here things were dramatically different just a few weeks later.

One big difference 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 chaotic psychosis and faux-Japanese gibberish, capped off with the sound of me spitting a piece of gum into the microphone.

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 was amusing, 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. At that point I’m convinced I could have fallen asleep standing up.

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 a strange, jittery place that wasn’t quite awake or asleep.

It all crystallized with the very first thing we recorded for the album — Rippin’. It was written as a country song, if you can believe that. By the time I was recording it with Gord three days after I’d written the words, we’d transformed it into a metronomic monolith that sounded like a perverted nursery rhyme screaming in the belly of a nightmare.

It was more ambitious on a sonic level than anything we’d ever done before, and its almost fourteen minutes of insanity set the tone for the rest of the album.

Gord’s electric guitar-playing is at a whole new level on this track. 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 going off. An insistent drum-and-fake-strings loop runs through the whole thing. I get a mandolin-like sound out of my acoustic guitar by pressing the strings against the microphone, using the grille like 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.

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.

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 1998, and twists what was originally a ninety second improvisation into an operatic exploration of…well…spandex. Spandex, and my contempt for geography class. Gord’s bass-heavy acoustic guitar threatens to blow up the world while I mess around with different keyboard sounds and overdub myself into a mini-choir of spandex-worshipers.

That 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, with some delicious, evil guitar-playing from Gord that almost takes us into the realm of industrial music. The first time my dad 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.

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 much to say. Maybe Piss on Me struck a nerve. Who can say?

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 perverted dentist who finally gets what he deserves, the effects of a protracted lack of cable TV on a 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 sing-along. 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).

That guitar 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 humbucking pickup. That bugged me a little. I was going to rip the unwanted sixth string back off, but 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 remember gord staring at the guitar effects box and looking mesmerized by the sounds he was making. My speaker-blowing howl at the end of the song (“So piss on…MEEEEEE!”) is one of the album’s definitive moments, along with the improvised 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 all the other Papa Ghostface CDs is all the between-song bits. There are several fragments that show up at the beginning or end of songs that 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 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. Somehow it feels like it’s the only appropriate ending there ever could have been.


She’s Awfully Lovely
We’re All Gonna Go
Piss on Me
The Happy Dentist
Nothing from Nothing



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