Starving Artists

BUSY DOING NOTHING (1999)

one of the more interesting curios few people have heard, this is music from a two-man band i had going for a while with peter wenzler. pete is my oldest, best friend — we went to grade school together and have been friends since the second grade — and for a time we also made music together.

pete didn’t always take the whole recording thing as seriously as i did, which i found frustrating at times. but he always had a strange way of inspiring me. he didn’t even have to do anything. just his presence in the room would get my creative juices flowing in ways they rarely did otherwise. if only i hadn’t lost the improvised song cycle we recorded in early 1999 about barney the dinosaur and bill clinton’s sexual escapades, complete with pete’s impassioned cries of, “give it to him, monica!” but anyway.

the day before “tosteestostas” was recorded for my first solo CD, i was hanging out with pete and we were throwing ideas around for a follow-up to the double-cassette album we recorded in one marathon session back in 1998 on his four-track (that’s warts & all, for all you starving artists aficionados, featuring tracks like “doontoon”, “hanky’s christmas blues”, and the piano ballad version of “cum on feel the noize” that made us stars).

he had an idea for something involving the phrase “bloody chicago”. i can’t remember what his concept was (i think it had something to do with murder and mystery), but it inspired me. while i was emptying my bladder in the downstairs bathroom some music popped into my head and i started singing, “chicago, chicago, oh bloody chicago.”

excited, i started to convey my idea of sort of a major key blues piece to pete. he seemed less than thrilled, but went along with it, though i had some trouble getting him to play in time with me, as you can hear with the song breaking down several times at the beginning. what develops is pretty simple (the body of the song is just two major chords) and doesn’t contain much in the way of lyrics, but i was more interested in conjuring an ominous, somewhat sinister atmosphere, with spooky slide guitar soaked in reverb and vague asides like, “death is all around…in chicago”.

i’m not sure what possessed me to scream at the end when pete’s guitar dropped out. whatever it was, those are still two of my favourite screams in my entire discography. they used to scare the shit out of me when i was mixing the song, because i would get drawn into the oppressive calm of the music and forget they were coming. maybe it was my way of expressing all of the danger and menace buried in the lyrics through the voice. or maybe it was a bit of the john cale influence coming out again.

my guitar skills were still very rudimentary at this point, but what’s odd is that i was a hundred times better at playing slide guitar back then than i was without a slide. the idea was for bloody chicago (morning) to be the opening piece, with a play on morning/mourning, and the closing song on the album would be “bloody chicago (evening)”, reprising the theme. i had a guitar riff i liked worked out for the reprise, but we never got around to recording it.

big mulls was recorded later on that day. i screwed up and forgot to record pete’s guitar track, and without the instrumental interplay between the two of us the song was rendered a dud, hence its being demoted to a pile of out-takes for years and only available on the SICK SHIT EP. years after the fact i thought i might as well toss it in here, if only for the sake of being thorough.

a few weeks after that first session we reconvened to record time ticking away, and this was where it started to become clear that pete and i were approaching this stuff from different places. he wanted to joke around and have fun, while i wanted to make serious music. the first botched take of the song was very different from what ended up on CD, with pete singing about “the dolphin boy” and me angrily ending with, “let’s go back to the mother ship,” when i wanted to turn the last two words into something a bit dirtier.

the second take turned into what’s on the album. pete’s still goofing around, and halfway through he lets out an insane and hilarious falsetto approximation of an overwrought guitar solo, which i muted to save the song — though if you listen closely, you can still hear a tiny bit of it leaking into my mic and me making a noise that sounds like a cross between a frustrated sigh and a stifled laugh.

this song remains one of the weirdest ballads i’ve ever recorded. it’s mostly a spoken word song about a girl’s rite of passage/coming of age and some improvised meditations on life (the opening line is still kind of jaw-dropping in its audacity), while pete mutters “time tickin’ away” in the background and throws in a few nice bits of singing where we sort of harmonize with each another without meaning to. my piano playing and singing again show that heavy john cale influence.

it all sounds a little silly now. but at the time i was dead serious and thought i was being daring and insightful, while pete joked about the lack of “respectable material”. it was different subject matter for me to tackle at the time, and a change from the normal fucked up shit (sex, killing family members, having sex with family members after killing them, and so on).

pete got into it a bit more when i decided to overdub some acoustic guitar during a brief instrumental section, and i ended up recording three of them. he seemed to like those guitar harmonies. i was frustrated by his joking around and the fact that we were only able to get one song out of the session, in stark contrast to how productive sessions with gord usually were. but i also was really taken with the song and realized it wasn’t like anything i ever would have come up with while working with gord, due in no small part to pete’s presence and the odd effect he had on those creative parts of my brain.

when my dad drove us back to pete’s house to drop him off, we stood outside and took a long time saying goodbye. he shook my hand like he meant it and got this intense look on his face that seemed to say, “i was just messing around, and i really respect you and what you do even if it didn’t seem like it back there.” he didn’t have to say a word, and all my frustration faded away. that pete.

then again, if he hadn’t been interested in goofing off, we never would have recorded a take off on “rainy day women” with bob dylan and james brown trading lines (outnumbered by wet women). my harmonica solo in the middle of the song doesn’t really come off, because i kept laughing hysterically at the absurdity of the whole thing every time i tried to play and had a hard time keeping it together long enough to even get close to the microphone. i like pete’s bit at the end, where we’re still in character as bob and james, i say i got carried away, and then he says, “hey…what happened there?” like a man just coming out of a coma.

two songs are remakes of things from that marathon session we recorded on tape in december of 1998. a place for us was a demented ballad the first time around, with me playing piano and reminiscing about people from our grade school days while pete tried to figure out how to play “duelling banjos” on electric guitar. here it becomes a very different song — an uptempo-but-ominous guitar-driven strut about feeling out of place in the big city, eventually segueing into a long instrumental coda with atmospheric synth washes and a booming acoustic bass line from pete.

girl is much more like its original incarnation, but also a lot more subtle and moody, and without the heavy-handed pink floyd quotes and screams that were there the first time around. pete kept playing the same note on acoustic bass for the whole song, forcing me to change my regular line of melodic thinking, and i even managed a few nice little guitar solos.

these three songs were recorded one afternoon when i brought my equipment over to pete’s house for a change and we set up in his basement, only a day or two after i recorded the outdoor tracks on HORSEMOUTH with gord.

time has convinced me girl is one of the best songs on the CD, all slow-burning, muted intensity, with some intentional distortion on the vocals. i like how you can hear me talking to pete off-mic about whether or not i should scream, realizing as we’re playing that the song works a lot better with some restraint.

on my wall, in my mind, the a capella christmas goofing silliness, and it’s not easy to say all come from a session about three months later on.

the first two of these songs were inspired by a girl i was sort of in love with in grade school. it’s a long story, full of moments that make me cringe at my youthful stupidity (not because of her, but because of how lame my attempts at winning her over were). i toyed with the idea of writing a bossa-pop tune in her honour, again inspired by pete, but it never happened. instead, we got on my wall, which didn’t really feel like it came off t the time and was demoted to the HERE COMES TROUBLE EP for years. now i kind of dig it, even if i had no idea what to sing and the mix is a little heavy on the bass. i like the throaty scream halfway through that comes out of nowhere, and the talk of nipples. and i play some nice distorted guitar with a few tasty slide bits thrown in.

then i hit on a different guitar riff and we decided to carry over the theme, leading to the much more developed on my mind. in the intervening three months my guitar playing had improved quite a bit (compare what i play here to what i was doing on a place for us, and it’s pretty funny). i like how the seed of the earlier track is brought back during the brief bridge where the drum loop drops out, and it’s a lot more effective as a dreamy, quiet thing than it was as a distorted stomp. pete harmonizes with me beautifully — it sounds like we rehearsed the moment, but it was improvised like everything else we did together.

the final guitar solo is the best thing i did on the instrument in all of 1999, and it still has a special place in my pants today, even if i still hadn’t figured out how to bend a string yet. other favourite moments: the recurring harmonics section (so much more effective here than it is during its brief re-appearance in the attempt at reusing some of this song’s music that became “pissing on your parade” a few years later on the solo album KEEP YOUR SCARS), and the way the keyboard harmonizes with the guitar, and that moment when i realize it isn’t pete who’s behind the beat but the loop that’s messed itself up, so i change it to a different, more shuffling rhythm. the song may be a bit too long and ramble a bit too much for its own good — it runs for more than 13 minutes, with the drum loop out of sync with itself for probably almost half that long — but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best things on the album.

also falling into the best-on-CD category is it’s not easy to say. i figured that one was an out-take, and i didn’t even mix it for almost eight years. it was meant to be an intro to a longer song we took a stab at improvising before hitting on the idea for in my mind, nut what happened after the intro broke down and was never revisited, and the whole thing sat on a backup CD, half-forgotten, for a long time.

it’s little more than pete playing a few bass notes while i coax some airy chord swells from my guitar, and it’s barely a minute long, but there’s something special about it. it conjures a mood that says all it needs to say without any words. i ended up throwing it on the MISFITS (1999-2007) compilation, because i liked it too much to just let it languish on a CD most people will never hear (though my solo CDs invariably fall into that category as well).

appended to what now must be the definitive version of the CD are two earlier tracks we recorded during the time of the papa ghostface cassette suck on my arse (our first real album, before even SCREAMING NIPPLES), when i couldn’t yet preserve the things i recorded on CD. town full of hookers is sort of a jazzy tom waits-inspired thing, while on the boulevard (inspired in part by the rolling stones song “shattered”) is fuzzy fun, with pete letting loose on guitar in a way he doesn’t on any of the later tracks and me providing some nimble fake bass and keyboard drums.

each of those tunes pass the 10-minute mark. they also sound surprisingly decent for being cassette tape dubs, and cover some musical ground none of the other, better-recorded songs really hint at. i think they’re pretty interesting and worth including, tape hiss and all.

ending with ridiculous a cappella renditions of a few songs i was writing for MERRY FUCKIN’ CHRISTMAS is probably a little weird, but it seemed appropriate for some reason. we laughed as much as we sang, and when i slowed down the playback speed to make us sound like we were satanic molasses-based creatures, we laughed even more.

we had fun recording this stuff, and i still have fun listening to it. though we haven’t tried making music together in years, i have a feeling pete would still inspire me and get the juices flowing just like he used to, even if he was just sitting beside me on the piano bench.

TRACKS:

bloody chicago (morning)
time ticking away
a place for us
outnumbered by wet women
girl
on my wall
in my mind
it’s not easy to say
town full of hookers
on the boulevard
a capella christmas goofing

LISTEN:

bloody chicago (morning)

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