How did a stopgap EP — with half of its tracks glorified out-takes and the rest cast-offs that didn’t fit in anywhere else — turn into one of the best short-form things I’ve ever done? Your guess is as good as mine.
This wasn’t a CD I meant to make. I wasn’t planning on putting another EP out so soon after the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP, but there were a few songs I’d recorded that I knew weren’t going to fit on any of the full-length albums I was marinating in my brain (several of which never got past the marinating stage, as it turned out). I didn’t want to throw the songs away, so I thought I’d try throwing them together. While I was at it, I thought I’d toss in a few other things I wanted to get out of my system. I thought this thing might serve as sort of a lead-in to the serious change of direction I felt coming. I was saving myself for some new equipment, so I didn’t want to record too much new material or make too much of an emotional investment in an album before I got my hands on all the gear I thought I needed. There’s a part of me that now wishes I’d just gone ahead and let myself make a full-length album, but what can you do?
The kick drum “loop” that runs through Judas Goat was played manually in real-time. I recorded the initial non-percussive synth part to a click track on the mixer. Then I made a drum loop loop on the synth and found out it didn’t sync up with my mixer’s idea of the exact same tempo. So making a loop and dropping it into the mix after the fact was out of the question. I had to play the kick part with one finger all the way through the song. It was pretty funny.
That song is the only synth-based thing on the CD. It feels like a pretty big shift from anything on GROWING SIDEWAYS or WHO YOU ARE NOW. I’m not sure how to explain it. It’s even more stripped-down than some of the songs on those albums, which is saying something. There are moments when almost everything drops out of the mix and my voice is supported by nothing but the synthesized kick drum. At the same time, it’s got a different sort of depth to it. The ending, with layers of backwards electric guitar and processed vocals, is still one of my favourite moments in any song I’ve recorded. It wasn’t quite like anything I’d ever thought to try before.
I don’t often rework my own songs after they’ve been recorded, but in January of 2005 I was putting together a set list for a solo gig — the only one I played between the Guys with Dicks dinner banquet fiasco in 2002 and my first Mackenzie Hall show in 2010 — and I thought it would be interesting to give the synth-based Skinny Ditch a different arrangement for electric guitar. It gave me an opportunity to finally make use of a guitar riff I’d been sitting on for about five years. That idea was supposed to be part of a song called “The Story”. It was written during the time of CHILDREN HAVE NO EYES but I never got around to finishing it. I also worked up a few new songs for the show. One of them was an instrumental guitar piece that was improvised around a few melodic ideas. I called it Ambient Guitar, since I couldn’t think of anything to replace the working title.
I didn’t plan on ever recording either one of these things. But the more I mulled over what I was going to do with songs like Zucchini Chokes and Viverrine, which were recorded during the sessions for WHO YOU ARE NOW IS NOT WHAT YOU WERE BEFORE but never would have fit in on that album in a million years, the more I thought they might not object to rubbing shoulders with some of the other homeless tracks I was working on.
Ambient Guitar sounds pretty much the same as it did when I played it live, though the last section isn’t played as smoothly as I would have liked. I think my fingernails were a little too long for their own good that day. Skinny Ditch Redux is a different story. It’s a wholesale reinvention of the song, far away from the synth-pop version that served as the opening track on WHO YOU ARE NOW. It’s the only thing on the EP that features real acoustic drums , and they sound a lot better than they ever did before. Tyson helped me put new heads on the toms and the kick drum not long before I recorded the song. I’d left the factory heads on since I got my drums in the summer of 2000. It took me a while to figure out the kit had more potential than those shitty Tama heads allowed it to realize. With Evans G2s, the toms had body and sustain like I’d never heard before, and the kick took on a whole new life.
So, of course, I didn’t change those heads after they were worn-in. At all. Ever. Sixteen years later, I’ve still got those same G2s on my drums.
Fidget was a song that snuck up on me. I threw it together in about five minutes after sitting on a few half-written bits for a while. I took the pieces I had and improvised around them while I was recording. I didn’t think of it as much more than filler to pad out the EP. The song had other ideas. I ended up spending more time on it than any of the others. I messed around with different sounds like handclaps and warped synth marimba, neither of which made it into the final mix. I recorded a fake Wurlitzer part on the Korg Triton. Then I had to duplicate it note-for-note on piano when it became clear fake Wurly wasn’t the sound the song wanted.
By the time I was finished triple-tracking most of my vocals, it was starting to sound like one of the best things I’d done in a long while. I never saw it coming. It just kind of took on a life of its own. It was as if the song said, “You think you can just spit me out and forget about me? We’ll see about that.”
It changed my whole view of the EP. It didn’t feel like a tossed-off collection of misfit songs anymore. It felt like it was just what it needed to be. In some strange way, an improvised mantra of, “She gone, she gone, whoa-oh-oh,” felt like the best denouement there ever could have been. I wasn’t even sure who I was singing to, but I felt those words in my guts. She was gone, whoever she was, and she wasn’t coming back. And the vocal triple-tracking soon became something of a signature sound for me (starting over HERE), though I had no idea that was going to happen.
I guess it’s a good thing I made this one count, because it was the last short-form musical statement I would ever make. Lucky for me, the songs knew where they were supposed to end up all along.
Skinny Ditch Redux