This was my first time recording music that wasn’t my own in a long time, one little blip notwithstanding.
It wasn’t something I thought was going to happen again. I kind of assumed my way of doing things had become a little too insular to be applied to anyone else’s songs. I recorded some bands my high school friends had back in the day, but a lot of those albums were one-day quickie things so they could have a “demo” to schlep around, and I was rarely involved on any creative/musical level. I played on a few pretty high profile local albums as a “session musician” in 2009, but while I was given free reign to come up with my own parts, I rarely got to cut loose and show what I could really do, and half the time I didn’t even get credit for all of my work.
I did do some recording work for someone I’d been friends with for more than a decade — the “blip” I mentioned. That happened in early 2009. It was fun, and it allowed me to get my hands a bit dirtier, but we never finished what we started. It’s a long story. The short version goes a little like this: she turned out not to be my friend at all. The end.
Anyway, I didn’t think anyone would even want me to record their music now that the high school days were gone. I’m not operating out of anything like a conventional studio, you’re not going to get something from me that sounds like it was recorded at one of those places, and I’m so far away from being a perfectionist or a proper producer it’s a little bit funny.
Sing that last part like Elton John.
I’m not one of those people who’s going to push you until excellence oozes from your pores or demand twenty vocal takes so I can comp them to death. I want to get at something interesting and honest, as opposed to something that’s technically “better” but not as compelling. That kind of flies in the face of what a lot of people are after when it comes to recording an album.
Travis and I met right around the time of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, when my stock in the local music scene rose overnight from, “Who the hell is Johnny West?” to, “I have one of his CDs, and I hear he’s crazy.” Travis had just put out an album called Bluebeard. I sent him a message on Myspace back when people still communicated through Myspace sometimes, telling him I really liked what I’d heard of his music. The lyrics stood out for me as being articulate, interesting, and worth paying attention to.
My message got a response, which kind of stunned me. I can’t tell you how many times I tried back then to connect with other local artists only to get a whole lot of deafening indifference back. We got together for coffee and gab at the sadly-now-defunct Sanctuary Coffee Lounge and exchanged CDs. We kept in touch, became friends, and started getting together once in a while to play music or just to hang out. Moments before two crackheads broke into my house near the end of 2008 and said, “Hi, we’re going to rape and kill you now,” I was in the middle of responding to an email from Travis suggesting I play a show at Sanctuary.
We batted around the idea of working on something together for a while. The first tangible expression of that came when I recorded some piano and banjo parts for a handful of songs meant to live on an album called Holes & Tones, the projected follow-up to Bluebeard.
The album was never finished or released.
After talking about potentially working together some more, we took a crack at recording one of Travis’s songs from the ground up just for fun, as sort of an experiment, on Halloween Night in 2009. Not a single trick-or-treater interrupted, if you can believe it.
A few hours and a maxed-out mixer later, the song was finished and probably more layered than anything I’d ever recorded before.
Mixing it was a challenge, with seven different guitar parts (some acoustic, some amplified), several vocal tracks, Wurlitzer electric piano, bass, drums, and organ all fighting for attention. I’d never been up against that much stuff before at mixing time. But it was a great thing — to be shaken out of my comfort zone and forced to wrestle with something unfamiliar. That’s what makes you better at what you do.
The next thing I knew, we were recording a whole album. And about two months later, after eight or so recording sessions spread out over November and December, it was finished. The result was the first full-length album I recorded/produced not made up of my own material since 2002, and it was much more fleshed-out than any of the things I was recording for anyone else — or myself — back then.
I didn’t write any of the songs, but the whole thing was a liberating experience for me. It was a true collaborative effort — outside of the songwriting, which was all Travis — with both of us playing a lot of different instruments, contributing ideas, and throwing different things up in the air to see what landed where. I finally got to do more than just play piano or banjo parts on someone else’s songs. A lot more.
I guess my sonic fingerprints are in there, though some of those things — like the unpolished, roomy drum sound I started favouring around the time of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN — come down to me being lazy with mic placement and, again, not really much of a producer.
If you strip things down, it’s an alt-folk album at heart, or “full-fledged protest alt-folk” as Travis called it, with quite a bit of Windsor-specific imagery in the lyrics. But it wanders away from that template. We took Travis’s acoustic guitar and voice as a starting point, and then we went to work building things up around them that had nothing to do with any set game plan or genre.
What we came up with varies quite a bit, from Factory Gates, which is like some sort of deconstructed gospel/folk-rock hybrid that keeps teetering on the edge of falling apart for its entire run-time only to keep pulling itself back together, to the ambient piano interlude of 73 Degrees Fahrenheit (which kind of makes me think of some of the work Brian Eno did with Harold Budd, right down to the division between one person playing piano and the other providing reverb “treatments”), to the frenetic bluegrass stomp of Union Buryin’ Ground, to the jig-without-typical-Celtic-instruments detour that is Renée’s Song (instead of banjo and mandolin, you’ve got Wurlitzer and lead glockenspiel).
Beggars features some of the most inspired and — if I’m allowed to say this about my own musicianship — lyrical piano work I’ve ever contributed to someone else’s song. Good things other people have written seem to coax that kind of playing out of me sometimes.
I kind of pushed for that song. I heard it back when it didn’t have any lyrics and was at an embryonic stage. From time to time I would tell Travis how much I liked it and how I hoped we could record it at some point.
After a while he wrote some lyrics and carved it into a finished song, joking that he only did it to get me off his back. He didn’t think a whole lot of it. That changed during the recording process, when it became something both of us felt was one of the high points of the album.
If I’d been in charge of album liner notes, it would probably say, “Produced and arranged by Johnny West and Travis Reitsma,” on the back, instead of just my name for production and both of us for arrangements. Because it definitely felt like a joint production effort. If you break it down song-by-song, it’s almost split right down the middle in terms of who contributed what. I would come up with an idea for a drum part over here. Travis would come up with an idea for an extra guitar part over there. Travis would hit on the idea of adding some organ, while I got the inkling to add some third-part harmony.
There was no such thing as a stupid idea. If something didn’t work, we could always just not use it in the final mix. It was always worth trying at least once, no matter how off-the-wall it seemed. Sometimes something that didn’t seem to make any sense would end up pulling the whole song together. I never would have thought of using the Acetone combo organ on Willistead Park, but Travis suggested giving it a try. I did a rough pass to see what it sounded like, we figured we’d just use a little bit of what I played here and there, and in the end that rough pass wasn’t just kept, but it runs through the entire song, unedited, lending the whole thing an odd, off-balance feeling.
I don’t know if I could pick favourite songs. I can mention some favourite moments: when the vocal harmony comes in on Turret and the song shifts into a ukulele-and-Wurlitzer-led instrumental outro that was supposed to fade out but felt too good to cut short; a piano line that develops on Beggars when travis sings, “And we’ll make our love like beggars when all the wine is gone,” and then recurs soon after; Travis’s full-throttle vocals, the spastic banjo part, and the stark, simple piano line on Union Buryin’ Ground; the brief moment of studio dialogue in the middle of Factory Gates when things are breaking down, with Travis saying, “As long as the tones are there, it doesn’t matter what you say,” and then the buildup to a huge mass of guitars and voices as every line of the lyrics is sung back-to-back for the first time; Willistead Park’s bridge section, which is maybe the juiciest hook on the whole album, hammering the monochrome with splashes of bright colour only to be obscured by clouds again soon after (for some odd reason it makes me think of Pink Floyd). And there are plenty more.
There are lots of first takes and moments of spontaneous inspiration. I think we used a click track for one song before realizing it was more of a hindrance than anything. The music needed to be able to breathe. Lucky for me, Travis has a solid sense of rhythm, so I had no trouble recording drum parts after the fact. The sound of acoustic guitar strings rattling also became something of a recurring accent/motif after a while.
I like that almost none of the electric guitar on the album is really an electric guitar. Aside from one lead-ish part from me on Factory Gates played on a Kay Thin Twin and some EBowed Les Paul from Travis on Neodepression, anything that sounds like an electric guitar is Travis’s Martin D15 plugged into an old tube amp.
It was almost ridiculous how good that guitar sounded electrified. I’ve never heard another acoustic guitar that even comes close. A few times we were stuck for what to add to a song, and as soon as the Martin was plugged in it glued everything together. We tried not to overdo it, but it was nice to know superglue the magic guitar was there to fall back on.
One new technique that got some use in a few places on the album — not new to the world of recording, but new to me at the time — was recording vocal harmonies with both of us standing in front of one microphone and then double-tracking it. So you’d end up with four of us on two tracks, and then I would pan them out pretty wide for a nice stereo spread. I did that to eat up less tracks and leave more room for experimentation, and because I always wanted to try it and see what it sounded like.
The result is a pretty big, organic sound that you can hear most prominently on Factory Gates and Stop Comin’ Round Here. I liked the way it sounded so much I was tempted to use the same tactic on every song, though it’s probably more effective for only showing up in a few places.
The way Travis chose to sequence the songs, it feels like the album is split into two distinct halves, like a vinyl record. There are some pretty long songs and a lot of piano on the first “side”, and then the second “side” has a different feeling to it. Neodepression has always felt like the perfect closing track. It’s a whisper in the dark that keeps threatening to fall apart, does fall apart, pieces itself back together, and then dissolves into nothing. The ghostly backup vocals we added during the second verse constitute another one of my favourite moments on the album, and I think the lead vocal is one of Travis’s best, adding to that feeling of fragility.
Though I wasn’t involved in the writing, this was an album I needed to record at the time. It shook me out of a bit of a funk that had me doing too much thinking and not enough working in the run-up to LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS. I got back into a good recording rhythm that carried over to my own music, and along the way I learned I really could record someone else’s music and do a pretty good job at it beyond the quick-and-dirty jobs of years past.
I would go on to do more refined work as a producer of others as my recording and mixing skills (to the extent that I have any) continued to improve. But without this album, I’m not sure I would have ever had the confidence to attempt any of that other producing work. It’s always felt like a daughter-from-a-different-father to NIHILISTS. Maybe if you listen to both of those albums in one sitting you’ll have some interesting dreams.