Singin’ the Oesophagus to Sleep (1999)

After years of recording music on cassette tape, this was the first full-length CD I ever made, recorded over a period of five days in July of 1999.

My original title was On-the-Spot Shit, which is still written on the original disc. This was my first experience with overdubbing and having more than one live track at my disposal, leading to the realization that it’s pretty weird attempting to harmonize with yourself when you’ve never done it before.

There are lots of songs here about sex and sex-related things (Yer Boobs, Meetings with Furry Creatures, and Kermit Got Laid, to name a few). I seem to sing almost all of them in a different voice, rarely slipping into anything approaching my real/normal voice, whatever that was at the time.

Case in point: the opener, Tosteestostas, is a mini-rock opera (minus the rock, but with a bit of a jig in the middle) about the death of a fake aunt — the first time she was killed off in song, but not the last — delivered for the most part in a faux-British accent. The title of the song was something I stumbled onto while tripping over my words during a spoken passage near the end. I was trying to say, “And what it was, no one would ever know,” but I botched it, and the gibberish that ensued became a mantra that kept repeating until I was screaming it over a bombastic synthesized orchestral backdrop.

And thus, the name of my record label and invisible publishing company was born. It’s still going strong today.

Yer Boobs marks the first time I ever tried singing vocal harmonies or overdubbing anything on any piece of music. At the time I called it “Lou Reed on hash combined with dog shit”. It was one of the catchiest tunes I’d ever come up with back then — mostly because of the sing-along choruses — and I kept heading back into my little 10 x 12 music room the night it was recorded, listening to it over and over again, trying to get it stuck in my head in case it disappeared during the night through some stroke of bad luck.

It tells you something about how insane I was at the time that I thought a song like this had the potential to be my equivalent of a pop hit and I was afraid the universe would snatch it away as soon as it appeared just to mess with me.

Wisdom Comes in Small Doses is a tribute to some of the great teachers in my life. One of them was the grade nine French teacher I used to engage in friendly conversation with after class, until one day she told me she thought people would think we were having an affair if we kept it up. She was probably in her forties, I was fourteen, and nobody thought anything inappropriate was going on there. There’s also Mr. Damour (a foul-mouthed and memorable grade school substitute teacher) and some of the ex-family, with most of the attention given to my stepfather and some of his more memorable sayings. He shows up again as a high school substitute teacher in the middle of the song, with an exaggerated “this is how non-Canadians think all Canadians speak” accent for some inexplicable reason.

Meetings with Furry Creatures is a Richard Thompson piss-take with some vaguely Celtic-sounding guitar flourishes. It didn’t hit me until eight years later that the music was inspired by “Time to Ring Some Changes”. It’s the only song on the album with lyrics that were written beforehand. The original plan was to record it with my friend Pete for the ill-fated Starving Artists album. In the end I tackled it on my own.

Here’s a fake press release I wrote for this album before it was finished.

Girl from Gatineau is sort of an imagining of what life might have been like if I’d found a way to meet and endear myself to a pretty girl standing on the rocks at the side of the water who waved back at me when I gave a half-asleep wave in her direction on an epic grade eight year-end field trip. I still remember the sweatpants she was wearing, black with white vertical stripes, and her long blonde hair. I don’t really stick to the plot, though, getting into talk of Japanese monkeys and other random silliness.

In an illustration of how time and distance can alter the way you feel about your own work, two of the tracks that felt like uninspired filler to me when they were fresh are now two of very my favourite things on the album.

Foreign Waste is a twisted ballad, with repeated cries of, “Ooh, sa-sa,” and some of my most interesting (and not entirely sexual) improvised lyrics from this period, while the title track might be the best thing on the whole album. At the time I thought it was a pretty uninteresting instrumental. Now it sounds like a very early stab at something approaching rudimentary electronica.

The whole thing was recorded live off-the-floor, sans-overdubs, with the primitive looping achieved by setting up a microphone with a guitar-amp simulator effect that was built into the mixer, allowing me to set a delay in such a way that things kept repeating and building up with no decay. I left the microphone on my desk and jumped back and forth between making noises into it (hand-claps, armpit farts, animal noises, and falsetto shrieking), unplugging it, playing piano, leaning to the right to play the old Arp Omni-2 synth, and then running back over to the desk and plugging the microphone back in to add more layers to the real-time loop. Even the sound of the patch cord making a clunk as it re-entered the microphone became a part of the rhythm.

The crazed ending cracks me up every time.

Was Was Was really is filler, but there’s enough silliness to keep it afloat — most of it thanks to the weird backing vocals — and it’s short enough to disappear before it overstays its welcome. I kind of dig the part where I turn the need to cough into a makeshift rhythm instrument.

Kermit Got Laid brings everything full circle with the tale of Kermit the Frog’s sexual failures and subsequent comeback on the late night talk show circuit. I accidentally erased a long spoken passage in the middle of the song that had Kermit surveying the landscape of his life and coming to terms with his losses, but I think the song works better with the lengthy instrumental bits. I manage to play what might be the first half-decent guitar solo of my life at the end of the song, though it’s still pretty crude. I liked that twelve-string Fender acoustic guitar I rented for a while. It sounded good electrified, even with my middling Dean Markley sound-hole pickup.

Today it surprises me how not-totally-awful this all sounds for being the first serious digital recording I ever made, at a time in my life when I had no experience with any recording equipment beyond a cheap consumer-grade cassette tape recorder. There isn’t much of the ugly digital clipping that shows up on some of my other early CDs. There’s no low end mud from the acoustic guitars, because I didn’t have an extra mic to record guitar yet and was using a pickup. And the lack of EQ and compression doesn’t seem to have much of a negative impact on anything. About the only problem is that the overall volume is very quiet.

Years ago I toyed with the idea of a followup album of similar twisted improvised fare. It was going to be called Feeding the Oesophagus via Intravenous Noodle. It never came together — though I guess it’s still a remote possibility that someday I’ll be moved to sing silly songs about weird sex-related things again. Maybe you should look for it in 2029.

TRACKS:

Tosteestostas
Yer Boobs
Foreign Waste
Meetings with Furry Creatures
Girl From Gatineau
We’ll See
Singin’ the Oesophagus to Sleep
Was Was Was
Wisdom Comes in Small Doses
Kermit Got Laid

LISTEN:

Foreign Waste

Singin’ the Oesophagus to Sleep

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