It was about time things got really sprawling again, after the last two albums before this one clocked in at just over an hour apiece. An hour is a pretty short album for me in these post-CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN times. Here you get two CDs and more than two hours of music. That’s more like it.
This album had a bit of an odd genesis. As the halfway point of 2010 was approaching, I hadn’t been slacking off, but I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do next. There were a number of projected albums kicking around, most of them still at the brainstorming stage, and I wasn’t sure which storm to bring outside the realm of the mind.
I did what any sane person would do and decided it was time to buckle down and put some serious effort into finishing the years-in-the-making elephant that was THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE before it got too unwieldy.
I figured that would be enough to keep me busy all on its own, given the amount of material involved and the pile of songs waiting to see some action. It was all going well for a week or two, until I found myself recording some brand new songs that had nothing to do with ANGLE. These things wouldn’t fit on that album, and I didn’t want them to get lost in the shuffle. So I thought I’d work on both albums at once.
Simple enough. I’ve done that sort of thing before.
“Not so fast,” said my brain, and it started splitting off in all kinds of unanticipated directions. I ended up recording some really catchy songs, and some extended improvised experimental things. I started thinking about trying to put the first Mackenzie Hall show together in some sort of CD/DVD set for the people who weren’t there. I went to work making cover art and designing inserts for more than two dozen different albums from the back catalogue, none of which had ever been given any proper packaging before. I thought about remixing some of those older CDs where I felt I could improve the overall sound quality enough to justify the work involved. And I was writing new songs faster than I could keep up with them, and still trying to pick away at ANGLE all the while.
There went my brain.
Well, not really. But that goes beyond multi-tasking and slouches into the land of “biting off so much, you have to swallow without chewing first if you want to have any hope of making progress”. That’s how choking happens.
This thing here, once it started to look like it might turn into something significant, was first envisioned as two separate single-disc albums. One would be made up of the catchier, more “normal” songs. The other would consist of all the longer, stranger ones. I had album titles, artwork, design templates and everything all ready to go for both of them, before either album was anywhere near being finished.
Then I stepped back a bit and realized the absurdity of the whole thing.
Even after I put the Mackenzie Hall thing on ice (because something had to give somewhere, and it wasn’t like the show was professionally recorded anyway), I was aiming to release three different albums at once. It would have probably amounted to about seven hours of music, all told. I was also trying to line up the “reissuing” of the older CDs so all of those would be available at about the same time the three new albums were finished.
Here’s what actually happened:
THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE got thrown on the back burner when this album started to grow some serious legs, and continued to haunt and heckle me for another near-decade (it’s still shouting abuse at me right now, if you want the truth).
The invisible reissue campaign worked out pretty well. I did manage to line up the timing so I had just about all of the albums I really cared about looking presentable at the same time HELLHOUND was ready to go, even if I didn’t do much to call attention to them (that was very much a “for fun, for myself” kind of project).
I decided I was too lazy to remix any of those old albums, except for one that felt like it could really benefit from a fresh set of ears.
And Uncle Kanye lived to fight another day.
I came to the decision pretty early on that a short, sharp album made up of some pretty accessible material, with little in the way of weirdness or stylistic curve balls, was the last thing I wanted to put together. It’s the kind of album some people have told me I could — and should — make at one time or another, as if getting rid of some of the weirdness would suddenly make me a viable commercial force or something. When I hear things like that, my impulse is always to do the exact opposite of what anyone tells me I should do.
Still, almost in spite of myself, I kept writing all these songs that were really catchy, and I liked them, and didn’t feel a need to mess with most of them. But I couldn’t make an album that had nothing but that one type of song on it. That would be pretty boring.
So I thought I would toss out the catchy album/weird album division and just let everything bleed together.
As a result, on this album you’ve got some of the more “normal” songs I’ve written in recent years sitting right next to some things that are pretty out-there. I’m a Witness, Not Your Waitress almost sounds like a song I could have feasibly released as a single, while something like Fade doesn’t sound much like a song at all in any traditional sense. There’s the odd track like Facts and Figures that’s just there as a little joke or segue, but for all the music here, there’s not one thing that has ever felt like filler to me.
With most of the albums I’ve made from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN forward, I get to a point where I realize I’ve got enough recorded material to make a pretty packed single CD, and if I keep going, I’m going to have to start thinking about making a double CD. That’s usually about where I set the cutoff point, though a few times I’ve just been able to fit everything onto a single disc after deciding on a final running order.
This time I didn’t want to stop myself. When I had about an hour of music mixed and CD-ready, I felt like I was only halfway through and there was a lot left to say. So I kept going, until I got to a place where I thought, “This is going to turn into a triple CD pretty soon. Maybe it’s a good time to pack it in.”
In the end, the album feels like it’s just about the right length for me. It takes its time, but I don’t think it overstays its welcome. It just gives you about twice as much music as your average modern day Johnny West album.
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Redefine Success is maybe the most absurdly happy-sounding song to ever kick off an album of mine. It’s made up of six words, three chords, and that’s about it.
There was no big idea behind it. It was a riff that toppled out while I was working on a different song. I thought I’d record it as a sketch and write lyrics later. Then I started singing, “I’ve been failin’ left and right,” over again, and it felt like it might work better without any more words after all. The moment I mixed the song, I knew I couldn’t put it on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. It would get buried on a four-hour album. It needed to belong to something else, and it had to be the first song.
While it isn’t really indicative of the sound of the album as a whole (not that I think any given song on the album is), it was the one that set the whole thing in motion.
Slow Dancing in the Small Intestine of a Rather Large Animal is another one to add to the list of “strangest love songs I’ve written for someone who doesn’t exist” (a list that would include songs like “Peculiar Love”, “The Danger of All Things Adhesive”, “Love Song for the Human Race”, and “Generic Love Song to Play at Your Wedding”). I’m pretty sure it’s the only time I’ve ever written a song from the point of view of someone who’s in the process of being digested.
In another life I might have pitched it to Frank Sinatra’s people and been brutally rejected. Then again, you never know. Maybe, if Frank heard it after someone dosed his coffee with acid…
Raccoon Eyes is a fuller flowering of the dreamy, shoegazey sound “It’s Only a Chocolate Cigarette” on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS flirted with a little. It was a total accident. I thought I would improvise an ambient musical bed to sing the lyrics I’d written on top of, with no real structure to it. Then I got the idea of laying down the drums before anything else and building the song around them, and maybe getting rid of the percussion later on, just to see how that might impact the shape of the thing.
I don’t ever work that way. I don’t record “bed tracks” the way most people do. I start with whatever instrument the song was written on (guitar, piano, ukulele, what have you). Then I usually do the vocals, and after that, it’s whatever I feel like doing next. A few times the bass has come first, and sometimes I’ll start off with a drum loop, but I never get behind the drums and work something out there before anything else happens.
This time I did. Then I pulled out an old mid-level Lexicon effects processor I hadn’t used in a long time, saturated the crap out of the reverb, plugged it into a mic preamp with no amplifier in the signal path, and picked up a neglected Fender Strat. I used the tremolo arm in a way I never had before, pushing down on it before almost every strum and then releasing it as the notes rang out, causing the chords to swell in an odd way as they went from being out of tune to being in tune within the space of about half a second.
I did that twice for a stereo spread, recorded another two guitars on top of that — this time with the Lexicon fed into a guitar amp to give it a bit more hair — recorded some vocals, added bass and a little bit of synth and organ, and it was done. I also used a distant mic on the drums in addition to the typical stereo ribbon mic setup, to get a bit more room in the sound.
The end result is more of an extended mood piece than a normal song, with the drums dropping out at odd moments and the reverb cranked up to eleven. Without meaning to, I took the sound I first played with in a half-assed way on the improvised sketch that was “Chocolate Cigarette” and exploded it into something a lot deeper and more interesting. Though it sounds nothing like my initial idea, I think it turned into one of my favourite things on the album. I like how the music and the lyrics unfold like a dream, making a strange kind of sense in the moment even though they don’t move in any linear or predictable way.
For Those Who Talk Shit and Spread Disinformation is a pretty blunt shot at a few naysayers and detractors. I thought twice about including it, thinking it might come off as confusing or petty to most people. Then I decided it amused me too much to exclude, and I liked being able to call out a few of the folks who were talking shit about me behind my back while acting all buddy-buddy to my face. Maybe it’s not the sort of thing you’re supposed to say out loud, but by now I was pretty tired of biting my tongue. It’s a pretty catchy song, too, until the gloves come off at the end.
Most of the venom is directed at one specific person. That’s a long and torrid tale. Here’s all you need to know: we had a little war that started when he tried to bully me into letting him ride my coattails and I let him know I wasn’t having it. We both got our shots in, and then it fizzled out with no great bloody battle, though I hear he still likes to insult me if the opportunity presents itself and will try to dissuade people from working with me when my name comes up (which tells me he’s still upset he didn’t “win” and couldn’t bend me to his purpose).
Sometimes all you can do is laugh.
Anyway. There’s a lot of different stuff going on here. There are songs like Can’t Get but Been Got and Ass Dildos, which are about as close as I’m ever going to get to indie rock territory, but shot through with enough weirdness to keep them from settling down. I took a perverse kind of pleasure in giving one of the catchier things on the album a potentially offensive title — even though it was meant as an insult directed at crummy people, and not as a sexual thing at all — and turning another one on its head with lyrics about impotence.
I love doing that sort of thing. You gotta have fun. Otherwise what’s the point?
There are extended workouts like Lovely and Dirty and Eating the City that pass through several scenes on their way to wherever it is they’re going. There are a few piano ballads, a few instrumental tracks, the odd tiny song, and some lyrics that are pretty out of character for me — or at least they were at the time.
Everyone You Love Is Dead and Murder Dressed as Mercy are two things I wasn’t at all expecting to write. I mean, a song about the mystery of what happens after we die, played straight, with no silliness? And a song delivered from the point of view of a man whose partner more or less commits suicide after the atrocities he witnesses fighting in what may or may not be the Iraq War? From me? The guy who brought you “Piece of Crap in Your Shoe” and “Santa Claus Is Horny for Clowns”?
There’s also Those Who Hunted Passenger Pigeons Are Now Burning in Hell, sung from the perspective of one of the birds. It’s about the brutal things hunters would do to trap and kill them, ultimately leading to the extinction of the entire species. It might be one of the angriest songs I’ve ever written in its own strange, quiet way. And there’s Motivation Behind the Method, which is about the cycle of learned violence and how it destroys lives, sometimes literally.
I didn’t plan to get into heavier themes here. These were just a few of the things that came out of my brain, of their own volition, as is usually the case.
Though the Sea Is Frozen, It Still Finds the Time to Laugh at Me is as close as I’m ever likely to get to straight-ahead gospel music. Again, it wasn’t planned that way. I wrote the song with the idea of making it an a cappella thing. I thought maybe I’d throw in some drums, but for the most part it would just be voices on top of more voices.
After recording a few vocal tracks, I didn’t feel motivated enough to lay down another dozen parts to get the layered effect I wanted. I thought I’d try playing some gospel-inspired piano as a joke. I ended up liking it so much, it changed the shape and feeling of the whole song. So instead of layers of vocals, you get stripped-down harmonies, piano, and some handclaps and tambourine.
Some of my favourite songs are the longer (and often stranger) ones. A Gangster’s Moll Only Dances to Songs She’s Never Heard Before is another one of my attempts at making something like IDM. I like the twitchy, ominous atmosphere it creates. It was recorded at about 4:00 in the morning when my sleep was a complete mess. Some of my most interesting electronic moments seem to come late at night or early in the morning when I’m on the vampire sleep schedule.
It almost sounds a little to me like there’s an Autechre influence there, though everything was played in real-time with my fingers, with no computer programming, sampling, or looping anywhere, and it was improvised as it was recorded. So there’s an odd humanizing element, where everything isn’t always in perfect rhythmic step.
There’s Hold onto Your Friends, for They Will All Turn to Dust, which is mostly instrumental, and something that somehow progressed from a sketch I was very unenthusiastic about to one of my favourite things on the whole album.
It began as nothing but the electronic percussion and some synthesizer, with a little bit of electric guitar thrown in. I thought it had potential, but I couldn’t be bothered to do anything with it. With the passage of time, it grew less and less interesting to me.
A few months down the road, when I was throwing myself into recording this album in earnest, I thought it might be worth another look. I added piano, drums, more synths, some vocals, the crappy cheap classical guitar that first showed up on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS — and still sounds better than it has any right to for being such a cheap, poorly made guitar — and it turned into a whole new thing, developing a bit of a jazzy bent thanks to the piano and some busier-than-usual drumming. The the little wordless moan that’s heard when I stop flailing away at the drums near the end of the song translates to, “What the hell am I trying to play here?”
(A video progress report that talks about the album a fair bit.)
Eating the City is a noisy, monolithic thing with everything processed, compressed to hell, and recorded the wrong way on purpose. Insomnia Kick is neither long nor strange, but for some reason it’s always been another favourite of mine — sort of a sleepy deep album cut.
I really liked the way that 1983 Martin D35 acoustic guitar sounded with a microphone in front of it. I kind of regret selling it now. But I needed the money, and I did at least replace it with another Martin acoustic a little later on.
An American Dream is another song that turned into a personal album highlight out of nowhere. I liked it fine enough when i wrote it, but after I got the vocals and piano down I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Playing the drums with brushes didn’t seem to work. I couldn’t figure out a rhythm that seemed appropriate. I left the song alone for a while and returned to it late in the game, not feeling very inspired. It was the last song I worked on for the album.
The turning point came when I hit on a drum idea that was the last thing I would ever think to play on what’s essentially a piano ballad. It almost felt a bit like a U2/Achtung Baby thing, with less sonic weirdness going on and more weirdness in the lyrics.
After that drum part was nailed down, the song had some lift and some fire in its belly. Instead of adding guitar, I noodled around with an additional piano part and added some Acetone combo organ, along with a bit of out-of-tune hammered dulcimer during a “bridge” section, played with fingernails instead of hammers. I could have tuned the thing, pain in the ass that it is, but I kind of wanted that dissonance.
One of my favourite moments on the album happens here. It’s the bit of accidental vocal harmony that comes in for a moment on the back half of the line, “What are all your backup dancers doing stretching at a time like this?” I had a distant microphone set up to record the dulcimer, and each time I walked over there to record another track I would sing along with the lead vocal for a few seconds without thinking about what notes I was hitting.
When I played all the tracks back, the absent-minded bits of vocal harmony worked better than I ever expected them to.
One of the more interesting instrumental tracks for me is Water in a Wine Glass. I was just messing around with an electric guitar and a weird octave effect and felt like recording a random improvisation with a shifting rhythm, moving back and forth between 7/4 and 6/8. It was fun recording bass and drums on top of that. I’m not sure how I got the drums down in one take with no rehearsal. Irish luck, maybe?
I’m not Irish. But still.
The sheer amount of music this album coughs up may be a bit overwhelming if you plan on taking it all in during one sitting. I haven’t even touched on every song, and I’ve written a lot of words here. Still, I think it’s a pretty strong album all the way through, with a lot of songs that feel like some of my better work from any period, and one (Everyone You Love Is Dead) that feels like one of the best songs I’ve ever written, full-stop.
You even get a salsa song sung in Italian and then translated into English, with intentionally cheesy fake brass stabs and a chorus that repeats the Italian word for “toaster” as an incantation. How can you lose?
I’ve always thought of this one as my White Album. Not in terms of greatness. I would never compare myself to the Beatles. I mean, come on — they’re the Beatles! I’m just a hairy guy who makes noise. But in terms of its reach and “throwing everything into the pot”-ness, it feels like one of those larger-than-usual musical statements. Some of my all-time favourite albums are the epic ones: The White Album, Exile on Main St., Sandinista!, Bitches Brew, Electric Ladyland, Physical Graffiti, Rain Dogs, and the like.
I think some artists do their best work when they aren’t limited to ten songs that make thematic or sonic sense together and they allow themselves to paint wild and free on a much larger canvas. The most interesting things are sometimes the doodles in the margins, making the big bold brush strokes all the more striking. I think the same might be true in my case. If this album ended after the first disc, it would still be one of my favourite things I’ve done, but that first disc is only half the story.
I guess it’s kind of strange to end with a song as simple as The Old Blood Tree, but it felt like the right move. There’s even an odd bit of symmetry there, though it wasn’t intentional and I didn’t realize it existed until after the fact. The album begins and ends with acoustic guitar-based songs that feature twinkling piano lines and brushed drums and cut out abruptly.
Dave Pearlman came out with another new mic while I was making this album — the TM-250, based on the Telefunken 250. I couldn’t resist getting one, even though by now I felt like I pretty much had my bases covered when it came to microphones. The same thing that happened when I first got my TM-LE back on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES happened here with the new mic — I experimented with it as a vocal mic. You can hear the TM-250 on all the vocal tracks on Can’t Get but Been Got, Though the Sea Is Frozen, It Still Finds the Time to Laugh at Me, and An American Dream.
As with the TM-LE before it, I liked the sounds I got when I was singing into it, and still I kept gravitating back toward the TM-1 as my vocal mic. The TM-250 has a bigger, richer sound to it, but there’s always been something about that TM-1. It gets a vocal track to sit right where I want it in a mix every time.
When I was making AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, I started recording a lot of things distant mic’d with the TM-1. I liked the way that changed the character of certain sounds, especially when I was adding ukulele or banjo or acoustic guitar to a song that already had some meat on its bones. That carried over to the next album, started to go away on the one after that, and by the time you get to this one there’s very little of it going on (outside of the classical guitar at the beginning and end of Hold onto Your Friends, where the heightened noise floor belies how much I had to crank the mic preamp).
By this point the TM-LE was seeing a lot of action on acoustic stringed instruments and most of the things I would have recorded with the TM-1 before. All those sounds were now being captured in a more intimate way. The TM-250 got a bit of run as an ambient drum room mic on some songs, but it would take that mic a little longer to find its role and settle into it. These days it finds itself picking up some of the same work as the TM-LE on stringed instruments, and it’s become my favourite mic in the universe to record violin and cello with.
On an aesthetic note, I think this might be one of the best-looking albums I’ve made…and I made the cover art myself. How those two things ended up correlating, I have no idea. I like the graphic design job I did here, and I like the little disclaimer I put on the inner tray about what will happen to anyone who tries to sell my music. I like the album title itself, which is a phrase invented by artist Marcy Boles (who was kind enough to let me borrow it).
Really, this probably wouldn’t be a bad choice to give to someone as a one-stop introduction to whatever it is that I do. It feels like almost every facet of my musical language — at least as it stood in 2010 — is well-represented here.
Not that I could ever limit myself to just one album as an introduction for the uninitiated. I’m far too much of a creative maximalist for that. As you see.
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Redefine Success
Can’t Get but Been Got
Hold onto Your Friends, for They Will All Turn to Dust
What Marc Anthony Should Have Sung to J.Lo on Their Wedding Day
Tacked-On Romantic Subplot Ruins Otherwise Promising Film
Kicking the New Corpse
Though the Sea Is Frozen, It Still Finds the Time to Laugh at Me
I’m a Witness, Not Your Waitress
Slow Dancing in the Small Intestine of a Rather Large Animal
Water in a Wine Glass
Shake like You Mean It
Dance of the Gallant Loser
Everyone You Love Is Dead
A Gangster’s Moll Only Dances to Songs She’s Never Heard Before
For Those Who Talk Shit and Spread Disinformation
Those Who Hunted Passenger Pigeons Are Now Burning in Hell
Murder Dressed as Mercy
How to Fall Without Hurting Yourself
Lovely and Dirty
An American Dream
Motivation Behind the Method
Facts and Figures
Brief Syncopated Synth Segue
Eating the City
The Old Blood Tree