Creative Nightmares (2009)

I told myself it was time for a change after the previous three albums seemed to form something of a loose/unintentional trilogy, and this was a bit of a change. It just wasn’t quite the change I was expecting.

I wasn’t sure how i felt about this album at first. I went into it meaning to do something very strange, disjointed, and synth-heavy. I ended up with a much more eclectic album than I was anticipating, and it felt like some of the more accessible work I’d done in a while. It was also the first time I ever decided to go to the trouble of printing the lyrics with an album (I later doubled back to reissue a handful of earlier albums so they too could benefit from the lyric booklet treatment). I wasn’t sure how I felt about that either.

Over time I’ve learned I really like printing the lyrics, in spite of my initial misgivings, to the point that I now can’t imagine ever making an album that doesn’t come with a lyric booklet. It’s also become clear that this was a pretty important album for me. If CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN was a “shaking myself out of a funk and getting my ass back in gear” album, this one marked the beginning of a deeper interest in the production side of things.

With almost every album I made before this, I would rarely spend more than thirty minutes or an hour on the recording and mixing of any given song. I would get down the bare essentials of what I thought the music needed and then move on to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. Here I started treating each song as a sonic entity unto itself, exploring more of the scenery. I didn’t really think to do it. It just happened.

Every album since this one has grown a little more ambitious in that department and, I think, more interesting on a sonic level.

It’s somewhat atypical of my post-CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN solo albums in the sense that there are only thirteen songs, and none of them are “tiny”. That makes for a shorter album that feels a little more self-contained than usual. But there’s still a lot going on here.

Pre-Prom Plastic Surgery goes somewhere different from anything that was on the last album right away, coming off like some sort of skeletal dub-tinged electronic jazz-funk workout. The catalyst for the track was something as simple as accidentally setting a delay effect too long and thick while messing around during a ragtag rehearsal for the Field Assembly debut CD release show.

At about two in the morning, long after everyone else was gone, I thought I’d run some synth drums through the accidental new effect, play a rhythm with my fingers in real-time with no music to work off of, and see what happened. I went back and added some synth bass on top of that. The next day I added a bit of singing, some electric guitar, and improvised some jazzy piano.

And there was the song. It was fun trying to wring as much as I could out of a bass line that never strayed from one key. Sometimes it’s good to set yourself that sort of musical challenge just to see what solutions your brain and fingers will come up with.

the alesis micron, with complimentary hands (photo by bree gaudette)

A new toy was responsible for some of the songs and a lot of inspiration. Some of the more interesting sounds here were generated by an Alesis Micron, which packs a mighty punch for something so small and inexpensive. That thing tends to show up in some form on almost every song, even when it isn’t the driving force.

It’s kind of Eric Welton’s fault for lending me his Alesis Ion (the Micron’s big brother) for a few days in May of 2009, sparking my interest in the similar-but-less-expensive micron.

I recorded Weird Sex Dream #72 while I had the Ion over here. That song was the first thing I’d ever done with a vocoder. It was interesting trying to use such a universally cheesy sound in a way that was a little off-kilter and not dripping with cheese. The resulting song is some sort of weird abstract electronic ballad — and one of my favourite things on the album.

This is where I began to move away from the ubiquitous triple-tracked lead vocal approach that settled in on the last few albums, letting my voice stand on its own again sometimes.

It took me a while to realize it, but this is some pretty dark stuff for a summer album. There are references in the lyrics to being tortured and drowned, the loss of identity/individuality, frozen fish(es) thawing and being revived only to die on dry land in short order, broken relationships, the protagonist failing while the villain prevails, using selective memory to make the past seem sunnier than it really was, broken bones, physical mutilation, and violent inflammatory pyogenic bacterial infections.

The Danger of All Things Adhesive is, if you take it literally, a love song delivered to an urn of someone’s ashes after they’ve been cremated, with the narrator unable to let go of the person who used to be there (dig the elongated wordless backup vocals, and the way the melodica somehow carves out a pretty prominent role in a synth-dominated song). The Penultimate Kiss stands as maybe the most defeated piano ballad I’ve ever written, concluding that no physical affection is worth the emotional fallout that tends to follow when things fall apart. Ask me about that on another day and I may claim a different position, but never you mind.

Generic Love Song to Play at Your Wedding sticks out as something happy and goofy, but it’s sung to a hypothetical person who doesn’t exist, so it ends up getting skewed too, with lyrics like, “Let me stroke your reptilian vanilla spine / Let me drink your saltwater tooth brine”.

Zombies on Parade might be one of the neatest marriages I’ve managed between a catchy, upbeat tune, and lyrics that kick against the catchiness and bruise its shins. “Leaking pus from every orifice / Warping minds like a psychologist,” is still one of my favourite rhymes I’ve written.

My Good Deed for the Decade has always felt like one of the more single-worthy songs here. It doesn’t have anything that resembles a chorus, and it would have died a shameful death on commercial radio, assuming anyone ever would have been insane enough to play it in the first place. It’s just got that kick to it, I guess.

spastic thumb (photo by bree gaudette)

There’s a whole lot of piano on this album. Even on songs like Learning to Float, Kamikaze Daybreak, and Molly, Go Home, where it isn’t at all one of the main instruments, it was fun to hit the record button and improvise some piano on top of a song. There’s also a lot of electric guitar, but the 1960s Teisco that saw a ton of action on the previous few albums is absent here. This time almost all of the electric guitar parts are provided by either a neglected Fender Strat or a 1950s Kay Thin Twin (that funky thing’s biggest, shiniest moment is probably on Molly, Go Home).

There’s no bugle, almost no melodica or ukulele, and no banjo to be found anywhere. I didn’t set out to avoid those instruments that I’d come to enjoy playing and recording so much over the last few albums. The sounds I was after this time just didn’t seem to involve them. There are still featured spots for things like mandolin and scrap metal, and there’s probably more organ here than there’s been on any other album I’ve made, before or since.

I think this album might also be home to some of my most interesting and inventive electric bass playing, though it took me a while to notice. It isn’t just in the more obvious places where the bass does a lot to drive the song, like the syncopated stuff on A Fine Line Between Friendship and Baked Goods and Anthropomorphism Dance. The bass parts on Zombies on Parade and Kamikaze Daybreak dance all over the place in a more understated way, taking some unexpected turns.

I don’t remember putting any more thought than usual into what I was doing on the bass when I was recording these songs, so I’m not sure what happened there. Your guess is as good as mine.

For me, Molly, Go Home is kind of the centerpiece of the whole album, and also the turning point, after which things get a little stranger and darker. It starts out sounding like something that could have fit on any of the last three albums without much trouble, very much in tune with the whole organic/naturalistic/folksy thing. Then it mushrooms into a medium-sized wall-of-sound ending that wasn’t quite like anything I’d done before.

Two of what I thought were going to be the most radical tracks on the album didn’t even end up making the cut.

First there was a ten-minute juggernaut called “Gun to the Temple of Love”. It was going to be a funk/krautrock-influenced workout, though it would eventually veer off in other directions. It felt like a good vehicle for what was going to be some of the nastiest guitar-playing on any CD of mine in a long time, and an excuse for some fun wordplay.

I stopped working on it before it was anywhere near complete after realizing it would derail the flow of the whole album and probably become a “Revolution 9” (you know, the strange song a lot of people skip past). Years later it would show up on the Papa Ghostface album STEW wearing very different clothes.

Then there was a cheerful tune called “The Only Figure Skater I’ve Ever Been Attracted to Is Now a Meth Dealer”.

That one was going to make the cut, until I changed my mind about it at the last possible minute. It would have been the bleakest thing on the album, and I was going for a bit of a Thom Yorke thing with some of the singing, which felt a little weird. It felt like I needed to warp my voice a bit without relying on effects to get what the song needed. The whole thing was inspired by a blog entry I found that was a somewhat abbreviated version of the song’s title, taking a look at the strange story of Nicole Bobek.

In the end it sounded just a bit too much like I was trying to emulate a twitchy Radiohead electronic track. And as much as I liked how it didn’t sound a whole lot like me, again it seemed like something that would throw the rest of the album off-balance. Once i mixed it, I decided it wasn’t up to par with the other songs anymore.

It was heartbreaking, if only because I ended up losing the most amusing and lengthy song title the album had. But what can you do?

The Penultimate Kiss took a sharp turn in the other direction.

It was first written on an old 1940s parlour guitar while I was watching the 2009 Grammy Awards in bed, hoping against hope that Mickey Rourke would get a taste of victory (he didn’t). It wasn’t written about anyone in particular, but the defeated and cynical feeling it carried was very much in keeping with what I was feeling at the time thanks to the person who inspired a good chunk of IF I HAD A QUARTER.

I sat on it for a bit. I wasn’t sure if the song was worth recording at all. It didn’t get a look-in on the album it was written for. About halfway through the recording of this album, I thought I’d take a stab at turning it into a piano song, halfway winging it while recording, changing some of the chords in the process. I kept the first take, hesitant as it was, because I grew to like the hesitations.

The challenge then became taking a pretty uninteresting (at least to me) piano ballad and messing it up until it was something worth putting on the album. I added some synth and vocoder, but it wasn’t doing it for me, so I left it unfinished. I kind of liked it. I just wasn’t sure if it was really album material.

When I revisited it after some time away, I found myself liking it a lot more. The vocal is a scratch track I came around to liking enough not to replace with a better take. I kind of like that it’s a little uncertain and imperfect, in the same way the piano performance is. You can hear me experiencing a moment of brain freeze after the first line of the second verse, stammering while trying to remember the words without the lyrics in front of me, and then recovering. Getting rid of that moment felt wrong. So I kept it.

Now I had a new plan: to build up layer upon layer of synth, guitar, and vocals, creating something sort of orchestral and bombastic. About ten minutes after forming that plan, I decided I was too lazy to make it happen. So the melody remains intact, unharmed by my half-assed intentions to destroy and bury it.

At first there was a lot more vocoder. Then I decided it was a bit too much and cut out some parts, using it more for emphasis on certain lines. I think it works at least as well on this song as it does on Weird Sex Dream #72, acting more as accompaniment to my unprocessed voice than a standalone thing.

Funny how that track and “Figure Skater” swapped places. The one I thought I liked most ended up losing its appeal. The one I assumed was destined for out-take status ended up making a strong case for itself in the bottom of the ninth inning. For a song I wasn’t going to include, now I can’t imagine the album feeling complete without it.

Some of my favourite things come near the end.

A Fine Line between Friendship and Baked Goods is an unconscious marriage between the synth wankery I first wanted the album to be all about and the triple-tracked lead vocal/organic thing that permeated the preceding three albums. The electric guitar here is another example of an improvised scratch track I felt iffy about, then grew to like enough to keep, and finally grew to like so much, I couldn’t figure out why it ever sounded substandard to me to begin with. I’ve always liked the little four-note lick that uncoils itself right after I sing, “It’s a travesty.”

Kamikaze Daybreak takes a song that might have once been at home on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN and runs it through an electric cheese grater. It also marks the return of the slapback echo effect I used to reach for so often back in the day, though the vehicle it supports this time is a little different from what was happening during the time of Guys with Dicks. It might be the busiest thing on the whole album. Mixing it was a pain in the ass, because I was kind of mixing three different songs at the same time.

It starts out as an ambient sound collage piece, with some pretty out-there electric guitar insanity, segues into the song proper, and then becomes something else altogether at the point where you would expect it to end. The slide guitar coda was something I played for fun and didn’t intend to keep, so it’s not very well-played or recorded, since I wasn’t trying to make anything out of it. But I ended up liking it enough to fly it in so it could become the end of the song.

Anthropomorphism Dance began as nothing more than a metallic percussion loop and stayed that way for a while, just a rhythm in search of a song. One day I started singing on top of it, found a melody I liked, added some bass-playing that was a little frenetic, overdubbed a spastic drum part, added some electric guitar and ukulele, and it became something completely different. It was tough to keep that rhythm going in-tempo behind the drums, with the syncopation of the loop and the bass kind of throwing me off in places, and with the way I had to smack the snare just right to get that distinctive sound out of it. You can hear me start to lose the beat near the end.

The last minute or so of the song felt like a bit of a lull without much direction, as I lost steam behind the drums and the whole thing seemed unsure of where to go. I overdubbed some organ from the Alesis Micron, ran it into a guitar amp for some extra grit, and messed with some envelopes and filters throughout that lull. All at once it sounded more like a lopsided climax than a petering out.

It hurt me a little bit to put that song right at the end where some people might not hear it. But I think in a way it’s the best ending the album could have had. Like a ray of partial sunlight after all the downcast stuff that came before it.

A few technical tidbits:

Dave Pearlman made a new microphone while I was working on this album — the Pearlman TM-LE — and I snapped one up for myself as soon as I was able.

I used it as a vocal mic on two songs (Generic Love Song and kamikaze daybreak) and really enjoyed the different, airier sound it gave me. By now I was set in my ways, though, and Dave’s TM-1 had become my favourite vocal mic on the planet.

Instead of another vocal mic, the TM-LE became a great swiss army knife for me starting with the very next album, most often used on stringed instruments and in front of one of the built-in speakers of a Wurlitzer electric piano. It still serves that purpose today, and I almost never record a song without using it somewhere, on something. It’s a great mic.

I also got some dedicated outboard EQ for the first time in my life. Up to this point I’d been adding a high end boost to the stereo ribbon mic I used to record the drums with my digital mixer’s built-in EQ. It did a good enough job counteracting the high frequency roll-off that’s a characteristic of most ribbon mics, but I thought it was about time I stepped up my EQ game.

After mulling it over, I opted for a “character” piece over something surgical. I’ve never been someone who uses much EQ for tone-shaping anyway. I bought an A-Designs Hammer tube EQ.

Aside from an unexpected and short-lived stint as a low-rent mastering engineer for hire, all I’ve ever used the Hammer for is adding some high end to the ribbon mic. You might think spending that kind of money on a serious equalizer and never using it for anything more than that one little specific thing is nuts. You might be right. But I gotta tell you, there’s something magical the Hammer does at 10k. Boosting between 3 and 4 dBs at that frequency opens up the AEA R88 in a way digital EQ never came close to.

Listen to My Good Deed for the Decade, one of the few songs on this album recorded before I got the Hammer. Then listen to something like Molly, Go Home. To my ears the difference is subtle but profound. There’s a whole new depth and three-dimensional quality to the drum sound after the hammer comes into the picture.

Anyway, in some ways this may be a bit of a transitional album, but it continues to grow in my estimation, and now it’s got a solid place on my own list of the best things I’ve done.

TRACKS:

Pre-Prom Plastic Surgery
Zombies on Parade
Weird Sex Dream #72
My Good Deed for the Decade
Learning to Float
Generic Love Song to Play at Your Wedding
Molly, Go Home
The Penultimate Kiss
Organ Smears
A Fine Line Between Friendship and Baked Goods
The Danger of All Things Adhesive
Kamikaze Daybreak
Anthropomorphism Dance

LISTEN:

Weird Sex Dream #72

8 comments

  1. Sorry I failed to materialize on Monday; in order to arose on Marissa’s good side I had to spend all day in the bedroom… painting the walls and ceiling. And no that’s euphemistic.

    I am tremendously excited to hear your new album, this entry has only spurred my elation. The “sponsored links” (when hovering the mouse pointer over an image on this page) are possibly the most enticing and are as follows: Lull, Asides, Dementia, Cremation Urns, Daybreak, Plastic Surgery, Warts, Arm Chair & Hearing Loss.

    I’m waiting with baited ears…

    1. No worries, Stephen…I’m sure we’ll end up creating musical mayhem before long. I meant to tell you that I ended up stealing your Field Assembly song notes accidentally; somehow they ended up in the spiral notebook I used to scribble out the lyrics as far as I could understand them before the big CD release show. Let me know if you need that stuff back.

      I’ve run into a two-day delay with the CD because of an unexpected error in the booklets, but it should be ready to go tomorrow. What would be the best way to get you a copy? I have to say those sponsored links seem pretty fitting…why didn’t I think to write some lyrics about warts? Talk about missed opportunities.

  2. I’m glad you like it…I’m still not sure what I think of it myself, but listening to it at Phog, it suddenly sounded a lot more accessible than I thought it was. If it can work as background music while a guy talks about buckets of lobster, maybe there’s hope for me yet…

    1. Adam! What would be the best way to get you a copy? I still have other CDs i need to give you that I didn’t have with me the night of the Field Assembly CD release. And you still need to come over sometime and play my piano so I can dance around and swoon. I’m excited to hear “Son of the Oppressor” too…

  3. Hi Johnny West,
    I don’t know if you remember visiting myspace.com/leegaulmusic but you sent me a very nice note about my song ‘You are now’. I was also in the Windsor band The Golden Hansds Before God Conducts Incredible Magic Band and the Spirits. I now live in Toronto and I am going to be arriving in Windsor the 23rd only to be whisped away to the Phog for this little show with Adam.
    I am going to be playing at the Phog with Adam Fox. It is an early-ish show. I was hoping that you might come out for this. I want to buy some of your albums.

    If you can’t make it, I hope you end up having a pretty swell Christmas anyhow.

    Cheers!
    Lee Gaul

    1. Lee! I remember you. I met you at The Room when I played there with Adam, way back in…Jesus…April of last year? Has it been that long? Your beard was more impressive than mine even back then.

      Alas, I probably won’t be able to make it out to Phog that night due to Christmas plans and such…but I’ll make sure to pop in there before the 23rd and give some CDs to Tom or Frank to give to you. You can’t buy them, though; they’re free. I mean, everyone needs to have some makeshift coasters and mini-frisbees. You never know when they might come in handy.

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