Jesse Topliffe – Sessions (2002)

Things were different in 2002.

We were out of high school. Jesse had a guy he said was an “agent” (who wasn’t really an agent, but that’s a long story) acting as something of a mentor, whispering advice in his ear about how best to streamline his plans for world domination. He also had more of his own ideas about the way things should sound. I stuck to recording and mixing for the most part, while he assumed more of a producer’s role. He even played the bass and drum parts himself, somehow managing to get the best sound anyone ever got out of the inferior, altered two-mic drum recording setup heard on STELLAR and the back half of GOOD LUCK IN THE NEXT LIFE.

At this point the equipment I had at my disposal was a bit better than what I had when we were recording GIOVANNI’S GLISSANDO, and I had a much better handle on what I was doing with it. The sound quality takes a pretty huge leap forward. No more boomy acoustic guitars. No more wildly fluctuating vocal levels. My piano work and vocal harmonies were all over the first album, but there’s very little of that here. Where there are harmonies it’s almost always Jesse singing them himself.

My most meaningful contribution beyond engineering was playing a lot of guitar. There’s some pretty prominent axe work from me on about half the tracks. The results remain some of my favourite things I’ve done on a guitar anywhere, as rough as some of the playing is.

Back in 1999 Jesse wasn’t a fan of my guitar-playing, scoffing and dismissing it as “fucking lap guitar”. Now he seemed content to let me play whatever I wanted, acknowledging how much I’d improved without coming out and saying it. I rewarded him by contributing some inspired musical ideas to his songs.

The music for Who Can I Blame? is mine alone. It was written on a four-string acoustic guitar in standard tuning at Gord’s old place one night and then played on Jesse’s preferred acoustic guitar of the time — he named it Roland — with all six strings intact. I’m not sure what I would have done with it if left to my own devices (later on I did drop a bit of it into a piece of shit song on KEEP YOUR SCARS). When Jesse heard me playing it he improvised some lyrics from behind the drums, taking it to a somewhat bluesy place I wouldn’t have thought to go myself. We recorded it live, me on guitar, him playing drums and singing at the same time. Then I overdubbed another guitar track, slashing out harmonics and countermelodies. We left it bass-free.

It was a shame he didn’t recognize it as a little window into what he might have been capable of if he stopped trying to commercialize everything to death for a minute and let go a little. It was one of the most interesting things he’d ever done, and he wanted to bury it at the end of the album and make it a hidden track.

The bewilderment, she is bewildered.

At the same time we were starting to record SESSIONS, I was working on STELLAR and the songs that would end up on the CASTRATED EP. Musical schizophrenia all over again, just like back in 1999. It was pretty strange moving back and forth between the jagged, emotionally naked, suicidal music I was making with the band right before it all fell apart, and Jesse’s music, which made a point of stomping out anything that resembled truth or genuine feeling before the songs could get any big ideas about growing up to mean anything to anyone.

By going out of his way to make things as palatable and inoffensive as possible, he was shooting himself in the foot, stripping his music of the personality that might have made it stand out. In trying to relate to everyone by putting so little of himself into the songs he was writing, he ended up relating to no one, because there was nothing to grab onto.

The first half of STELLAR was recorded one day right after Jesse took off following one of our less productive sessions. I never really played him any of the GWD stuff. Didn’t think he’d be into it. But there was an interesting moment just before that STELLAR session when he asked me to play him the song I’d written that I was most proud of.

I blanked. If he hung around a few hours longer I might have played him “Mean It” after we recorded that one.

I still think the title track here is the best song Jesse ever wrote, even if I kind of helped him write it. It came out of nowhere, out of the two of us improvising. We recorded ourselves winging it. We listened to what we had. Jesse wrote down some of the lyrics he liked from the improv, added some more, and we took a second pass at it. We overdubbed a few things. Subdued electric guitar to play off of mine during the verses, and an acoustic guitar fill and some shaker during the choruses, all played by Jesse. And that’s what’s on the CD.

The chord progression seems pretty standard until you really look at what it’s doing. The way it moves — i-v-III-VI — is just off-kilter enough to keep things interesting. But what elevates the song into something more than the sum of its parts is Jesse’s voice and our guitars. I’m still not sure where those things I played on my cheap Strat copy came from.

The night it was recorded, after he left I listened to Jesse singing, “The heart isn’t enough — I’m sick of this shit,” sounding for once like he really felt what was coming out of his mouth, and I started thinking maybe this was a breakthrough. Maybe he was lacerating his own empty love songs and trying to push through to something deeper. At the end of the song he turned the phrase “figure me out” into a weirdly compelling mantra, pounding the words out over and over again like he knew no one would ever answer the call but he went on hoping someone would try, as if the doomed hope gave meaning to the hopelessness it inhabited.

I almost felt like crying with happiness. After feeling like little more than an undervalued studio grunt who went on recording and contributing musical ideas to songs that did nothing to inspire me, for no emotional or financial reward, for far longer than any sane person ever would have, this — finally — was something I was proud to be a part of. All the respect I had for the guy as a songwriter at the very beginning of our partnership came flooding back. This was the sound of a potential musical rebirth. A way out of the creative coffin he’d built for himself. We could climb out of that shit together.

Jesse’s pride in what we created, so vivid the night we recorded the song, was gone a few days later. He decided it needed some polishing-up. He came back in to re-record his lead vocal, losing the rawness that made it so effective the first time around. He added a vocal harmony that didn’t really need to be there. He told me to pull my lead guitar down in the mix when it was half of what made the song anything at all.

I gave him what he wanted for his copy of the CD. I kept the original mix for mine. The original mix is better. It’s not even close.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Over the next few months he had us take a few stabs at re-recording the whole song from scratch. He seemed to think if we attacked it enough we’d arrive at the perfect take.

We already had that take. He just couldn’t see it.

So we recorded it again, and again, and again, until it lost all feeling and it was just another song. Until it was dead. And we didn’t even finish any of those attempted remakes. None of them so much as got a vocal track, because the inspiration was gone. It was all wasted time.

He ignored or missed the lesson the song was trying to teach him, and he never wrote anything like it again.

Part of me will always wonder what we might have gone on to do if we tried recording together again in later years. I’m a hundred times the producer I was back then, with gear and abilities that weren’t even dreams in my head in 2002.

It wasn’t to be. In the summer of 2002 I asked Jesse for the equivalent of sixty bucks. I’d given him countless hours of free recording time and session work spread out over a period of three years. What I was asking for was a pittance. If you broke down all the work I’d done for him, it amounted to charging about thirty cents an hour.

“I don’t know, man,” he said. “That’s a lot of money. I’ll have to let you know.”

He never called me back. He never came over to record anything again. He never paid me a dime.

That wasn’t quite the end, but it was close enough.


Who Can I Blame?


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