This is synth-based in the same way NUDGE YOU ALIVE was, but it’s a very different creature.
One of the big differences is the first appearance of the Korg Triton LE. I was never able to make sounds or loops like this before with a synth. The drum loop that runs through Skeleton Blues is still one of my favourite things of its kind I’ve ever constructed. And really, this one is less about trying to delve into the world of electronica-with-vocals, and more about just using a synthesizer to write the kind of songs I wanted to write instead of a guitar or a piano.
There are three songs with some electric guitar in them, there’s one brief appearance from a real bass, and there’s a Fender Rhodes cameo on the penultimate track. The rest is all synth and voice. If NUDGE YOU ALIVE was the Yamaha W-5’s revenge, this was the Triton’s coming out party.
The recording sessions for this and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE overlapped, but outside of the almost violent avoidance of verse/chorus song structures and production that’s often unadorned to the point of being skeletal, they don’t have a whole lot in common. Instead of building a song around the instrument it was written on, here I almost always started with a drum loop, which seemed to get my mind working in a different way. There was a lot more improvisation involved in both the music and the lyrics.
At twenty songs, I thought the album was in danger of becoming a bit bloated. Little did I know a few years down the road I’d be stuffing even more songs onto CDs. I put a lot of thought into sequencing the tracks in a way that made sense, throwing out more than a few things that seemed inessential, and it’s always felt like it’s got a good flow to it. I was starting to really enjoy sequencing as a way of shaping an album’s soul.
I was also a long way from the days of improvising twenty-minute-long songs while recording. I think there’s only one song here that’s longer than four minutes (Don’t Set Fire to the House You Grew up in). The rest tend to shut up once they’ve said what they have to say.
While I was making this album I resurrected my social life without meaning to, after murdering it in cold blood during the time of OH YOU THIS. The plan was to go out drinking alone on Friday nights so I could write and think (and, of course, drink). That lasted for all of a few weeks. I ended up falling in with a whole new circle of people, and before I knew what was happening, I had a place to go and people to see there every Friday. It was kind of nice.
I brought a pen and a little pad of paper that fit in my coat pocket with me most nights, writing quite a few of the lyrics that would end up on this album while in various states of half-drunkenness. Sometimes I would record the vocals the next day when I was a little hung-over. I was still a fan of the ragged “morning after” sound I first discovered at the time of BEAUTIFULLY STUPID, but I had a much better idea of what my limit was by this time, and I wasn’t so interested in drinking to excess anymore. I also cared a bit more about doing a good job with the singing side of things this time around. It was more about using the roughness to my advantage while singing in-tune than having an excuse to sound like hot garbage.
Who knew not being morbidly depressed could help with that?
It was a strange time. I met a girl one Friday night and ended up hanging out with her and some of her friends. I got the impression she was interested in me. I started thinking romance might be in the cards and wondered what that would do to my music.
Romance was not in the cards. At all. She made it clear she wasn’t interested in me the way I thought she was. I think her exact words were, “I’m in love with you, but I don’t want to date you.” So we became friends. And that was all kinds of fun. Turned out she enjoyed messing with my head, teasing me with the idea of what it might be like to have her as a girlfriend and then stomping on that idea just to laugh at the look on my face. I liked being around her, and I had some gooey feelings, so I tried to hang in there and make a platonic friendship work no matter how painful it was.
This is how you get something like Skeleton Blues, which is more or less a love song for her. It’s an oddity in that it’s one of the only songs I’ve written about a real person that isn’t shot through with any amount of venom. The only other songs like this that come to mind are “Nightside” (at least until the spoken coda) and “Stupid Borderline Love Song I Wrote for Someone Who Didn’t Deserve It”, both of which show up on GIFT FOR A SPIDER.
You can only stay friends with someone who gets off on frying your brain and stabbing you in the heart-thing for so long. So you also get some songs here that aren’t as nice.
What’s interesting to me about all of this is how I dealt with it. A few years earlier I would have churned out a set of angry, self-hating songs, full of screaming, profanity, and sex talk, the same way I did back in the GWD days.
There was some pain and anger in these new songs, but they were catchy and almost…danceable. The sex talk was an immature teenage thing I put to bed. A phase I grew out of. And by now I was attracted to the idea of doing something more interesting with words than just screaming, “Fuck you! Fuck me! Fuck the world!”
Don’t get me wrong. The dirty word that rhymes with “truck” is a great tool in all of its various permutations, and my affection for it has never wavered. But I wanted to be a little more subtle about telling someone I thought they were flaky and careless, so I went about it in a different way here. She heard this album. I don’t think she knew any of it was about her, even if some things should have been pretty obvious.
In some ways this is the most personal album I’d made in a good long while. A lot of songs are about that one specific person and the arc of my relationship with her — wondering about her and imagining what might be (It Isn’t About You Unless You Think It Is), finding out the things I’m imagining and hoping for are never going to happen (People Are Starting to Move in There), falling in love with her in spite of myself (Skeleton Blues), and then getting a mouthful of dirt and dealing with that (To Be Livid, You Go Away, My Funeral Face), ending with the mental burning of a picture that was never taken (Strings, which must be one of my all-time best “bringing everything full-circle” album-ending tracks, brief as it is). The whole bar scene and what I was doing on Friday nights seeped into the lyrics too, and I found myself writing about drinking and what was behind it for me.
Some stuff is just random weirdness — the truth smelling like a cross between cabbage and watermelon, needing another reason to die to make it an even number — but the words aren’t half as cryptic as I thought they were at the time. A lot of it is me being pretty plain about saying what I’m thinking and feeling. I just had a better command of language by this time and put more thought into what was coming out of my mouth, even when I was winging it in front of the microphone.
I never bought drugs from a pre-pubescent vampire, though. That’s a bald-faced lie.
Anyway. Along with BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, this is what I was aiming for but not brave or adept enough to pull off yet on OH YOU THIS — songs that subvert the way songs are supposed to move without getting away from being songs altogether (say “songs” again), avoiding verse/chorus structures like the plague. And still, without much in the way of bass lines, with lyrics that rarely rhyme, with fleshed-out, layered soundscapes few and far between, and without a conventional song form in sight, it was somehow some of the most accessible work I’d done up to this point.
It was one of those weird experiences where what I felt was some of my best work and what other people felt was some of my most approachable music converged and made wet kissing sounds. I have no idea how those things dovetailed, because this is about as unhip as synth-based music gets.
I was so happy with the way this album came out, I decided it was worth it to shell out a little extra cash and get someone else to master my music for the first time. So I made the trek to Toronto and had the CD mastered at Umbrella Sound, leading to a marked increase in volume and low end thump. I didn’t hear a huge difference in sound beyond those two things, but I was happy with the results.
It was a one-time thing. This remains the only time I’ve been at all happy with anyone else’s mastering work on my music. The next time didn’t turn out so well, there was a pretty abysmal experience with a compilation one of my songs ended up on around the same time, and then I got tired of people making my songs sound like crap and went back to doing the mastering myself. I’ve been doing it myself ever since.
As with BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, I threw in a number of short fragments to shake things up a bit. But one of my very favourite moments has always been in Katy, NJ — one of the longer tracks — when, near the end, I hit a bad note on the organ, only to start singing about the mistake I’ve made, with my vocal tracks mocking and responding to one another.
Random weird/funny thing: the drum loop that drives Incidentals has some pretty strong superficial similarities with the beat in the Human League song “Human”. I know I heard that song on the radio here and there when I was a kid, but no way was it anywhere near my mind by the time I was working on this album. One of those moments of childhood influences coming out through reverse osmosis, maybe?
This one seemed to get more people than usual interested in my noise, and it led to more airplay on CJAM than any of my albums ever got before. Which is still a little surprising to me, given how austere it is and how restless a lot of the songs are. It wasn’t anything on the scale of the madness that went down when CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN came out a few years later, but suddenly I was considered cool enough to be worthy of gigs at some of the places that turned me away back when I was trying to play live anywhere I could and no one cared. Now I knew the right people, and some of them were starting to call me “Windsor’s best-kept secret”, so I wasn’t treated like a total leper anymore.
To have people who wouldn’t even listen to a song if I presented them with scientific proof it had penis-enlarging properties turn around and start giving me verbal handjobs, acting like they’d supported me all along, conveniently forgetting all the times they ignored me when I tried to connect — that put a bad taste in my mouth. Instead of running with the momentum this album and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE generated, I went out of my way to neuter it, refusing to play at any of the places that shunned me before I was a “name”. If I wasn’t good enough before, I sure as hell wasn’t good enough now just because a handful of music scene veterans decided I was worthy of being seen in their presence after all. I played a single show to prove I existed before retreating back to the shadows.
A quick thing about the album cover. I asked for something abstract that didn’t incorporate my likeness at all. The artist who painted the cover art said she couldn’t help herself, and my face let her know it wanted to be there. It may not have been in line with the vision I had at the time — I had a very clear idea for a photograph I never got the chance to take — but now I can’t imagine any other image representing the music. Given what an important and personal album this ended up being for me, maybe it’s right that my face is there.
Don’t Set Fire to the House You Grew up in
An Elegant Insult
Protocol Is Protocol
Shadows and Corners
Touch Me to Death
Accidentally Second Place
People Are Starting to Move in There
Nothing’s Ever Gonna Be Alright Again
It Isn’t About You Unless You Think It Is
To Be Livid
You Go Away
My Funeral Face