Beautifully Stupid (2002)

This is where Guys with Dicks disintegrated and I tried to do the same.

More than half these songs were recorded when the band still existed, either during or right after the sessions for the CASTRATED EP. I got tired of being marginalized in my own band and stopped saving things and waiting for that day once a month when I was allowed to premiere a new song.

I started recording on my own in April. At first it was only so I could play new ideas and finished songs for Gord and Tyson, which we could then re-record as a group. I kept holding out hope that the band dynamic we once had would sputter back to life.

Then I decided to have a little fun with What She Wants, overdubbing bass, drums, multiple vocal tracks, and a second guitar part. Listening back to what I’d done, it struck me for the first time that I didn’t need to keep waiting around for a drummer who now seemed more interested in power-tripping and shutting me down creatively than making music with me. I could record all these songs I was writing on my own and play all the parts myself.

Pretty soon I didn’t have any good reason not to. One day in the beginning of May I got a phone call from Gord telling me he and the other members of Fetal Pulp had been offered a recording contract. Aside from being tens of thousands of dollars in debt to the record company right off the bat and having most of whatever money they might generate making a beeline for the pockets of other people without even denting their recoupable debt, one of the stipulations of the contract was this: none of the band members could be involved in any other projects once they signed.

It was an abysmal deal. But it looked like everyone was going to jump at the chance to get signed. And that meant I would soon be out of a band one way or another.

Even without the death knell sounding, it felt like it was about time for me to record another solo album, after a two-year break from the format.

What I ended up with was a more varied and fleshed-out piece of work than anything I’d done with the band. Up to this point, improvisation had been the main means by which my music lived or died. Some songs featured lyrics that were written beforehand, and sometimes there was even a degree of rehearsal involved, but the majority of the music I made — with and without other musicians — was almost always improvised from the ground up.

I wrote a lot of songs down on paper, but those things sat for the most part unrecorded, piling up on a shelf lined with folders full of unused lyrics. I was always more interested in the danger of recording without a safety net, being in the moment, trying to spin something out of nothing.

Here I decided to start writing more of the lyrics and actually using them, instead of tossing them in another folder, and I put an effort into giving my songs a bit more recognizable structure.

The last work I did with the band leading up to this was pretty intense. It all kind of came to a head here. I was in a pretty bad place at the time. The grisly details are best left to an invisible autobiography, but I can tell you a lot of the subject matter was coloured by a number of short-lived adventures with girls packed into a short period of time, all of which ended badly after stirring up a bit of false hope.

One thing I’d like to get straight here: I’m not going to moan about being stuck in “the friend zone”. The friend zone doesn’t exist. That’s a thing disguised misogynists invented to paint themselves as sensitive, misunderstood souls. I just got treated like crap by a lot of people when I was a teenager ambling around in search of some sort of emotional intimacy, some of those people happened to not be guys, and I chose to deal with it by making music that was not warm and fuzzy. You can only be rejected so many times before you start to feel like there’s something wrong with you on a fundamental human level.

Throw drugs, a band in the process of splintering, some childhood issues coming to a boil, and a healthy amount of self-loathing and depression into the mix, stir to taste, and you’ve got a recipe for a shiny pop album. Ha!

For such a miserable collection of songs, it’s kind of funny how catchy a lot of it is and how many more people it appealed to than anything I’d done before. A lot of tracks feature actual choruses that appear more than once, though there’s little rhyming to be found throughout.

There are also probably more ugly mistakes here than on any other post-band solo CD of mine. Most of them happened when I was seated behind the drums. I’d only been hitting them occasionally since I bought them in July of 2000, and while I’d improved as a drummer since then, I didn’t do myself any favours by recording most of the drum tracks in one take without any rehearsal.

In a way, I sort of became a real drummer for the first time when I was recording this album. Since I was still in the habit of just putting things on a CD in the order they were recorded, you can hear me improve in real-time. By the time we get to You, Then Asia, I’ve reached a level of fluidity and dexterity I couldn’t have dreamed of at the beginning of the album.

The singing is some of my worst ever from a technical standpoint. I really didn’t care about giving a good performance. Being hung-over a lot of the time didn’t help. But hey, they’re honest vocal performances.

For a good year or so, I thought this was the best album I was ever going to make. The marriage between blunt honesty in the lyrics and performances and more-thoughtful-than-usual song-craft felt like a huge leap forward. I wasn’t convinced I’d be able to do anything that surpassed it. It was a little disheartening.

I’m happy to say I was very wrong about that. Who peaks at the age of eighteen anyway? But this is an album I’ll always feel a connection to, and it will probably always stand as the most emotionally naked set of songs I’ve scraped together, providing a vivid snapshot of what I was feeling at the time (for better or worse).

It’s interesting to me to hear what changed in the absence of Gord and Tyson. For one thing, I stopped screaming. Which is kind of strange, because I was even more of a mess when I was recording this than I was when I was trying to rip my vocal cords apart with the band a month or two earlier, and I hadn’t yet learned enough about singing to care about treating my voice with much consideration.

I curbed a lot of the weirdness in my singing and the lyrics, and mostly stuck to spitting out what I felt. I kept the songs short, sharp, and direct, killing them once it felt like they made their point. I pretty much stopped playing guitar solos altogether — also strange, because attacking the fretboard had proven to be an effective form of musical therapy.

I allowed myself to overdub more than one guitar part for almost every song, which was something I’d never done with the band, preferring to keep things live and raw with the exception of the odd harmony vocal moment. For some of these songs, I recorded the vocals after some or all of the instrumental tracks had been laid down, where in the past I would almost always sing live while playing guitar or piano. And I found myself overdubbing vocal harmonies on most of the songs instead of just tossing in a few brief moments of harmony here and there. I no longer needed someone else to talk me into doing that.

It felt like the culmination of what I’d been working toward with the band and also a departure from it, if that makes any sense.

I’m not sure what to say about individual songs without writing a book. Some of the sludgier, grungier things I’ve done are here (Scaring Boys, Freon) alongside piano ballads (Alcohol on an Open Wound, Make It Better) and one of my catchiest shots at the ex-family (Absolutely Manhole Blues, which seemed to get them out of my system once and for all). Something Like… is a sort of a cross between a foul-mouthed seminar, a play, a hallucinogenic chant, and a perverted barbershop quartet performance, making for one of the few lighter moments on the album.

Dopamine has always been one of my favourite tracks. It was something I improvised live after sticking the guitar Jesse kept leaving over at my house in a weird tuning. In a way it might be the most honest thing on the album. I’m singing about drugs, and wanting to obliterate myself, and delivering the words to some girl, or someone who doesn’t exist and never will. Even now, the end of the song makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It brings me back to that time and what I was feeling more than any of those psychotic screaming GWD songs. And it remains home to what’s still maybe my favourite acoustic guitar sound I’ve ever recorded, which makes no sense at all, because I was only using one microphone on the guitar, and it was an SM57. I guess there was something special about Betsy II (the name Jesse gave that guitar). I was sad to see her go when he remembered she was his and took her home a month or two later. At least I was able to use her on two recorded songs — the other was Raze — and as a songwriting tool for some others I would record later on.

The drum sound here is one of my favourites as well — a continuation of the two-mic approach used on the final GWD tracks, but somehow a little meatier-sounding. It’s not a technically “great” or refined sound, but it works. I’m not sure the two-SM57s-on-the-drums setup ever sounded better than this.

One thing that’s funny about this album: I played a lot of the songs for Gord and Tyson before recording them. With a few exceptions, neither one of them expressed an interest in turning any of them into GWD songs. They didn’t even raise an eyebrow.

Once I played them the finished versions with me playing all the instruments, they seemed to think the results were better than anything we’d done as a band. It made no sense.

It was a strange time. It was also a very fertile time, and the next two albums would feature a lot of songs that were written or brainstormed during this period.

GIFT FOR A SPIDER offers an interesting look at what a “mature” breakup album from me sounds like, nine years after this one was recorded, a universe and-a-half away from the days of suicidal debauchery. I should try listening to both of them back to back one of these days. I think they’d make pretty interesting companion pieces.

TRACKS:

Raze
What She Wants
I Make Myself Sick
Dopamine
Alcohol on an Open Wound
Cottonmouth
Scaring Boys
Dance Yourself to Sleep
The Elastic Promise
Freon
You, Then Asia
Absolutely Manhole Blues
Make It Better
Something Like…

LISTEN:

Cottonmouth

Scaring Boys

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