In the middle of working on the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP and THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET, I somehow got this idea in my head that I needed to completely revamp the studio. I was convinced if I upgraded my mics and mic preamps again, it would take my music to a whole new level (Gear Acquisition Syndrome — GAS — is real, man). It also felt like it was time to make a big, ambitious artistic statement that redefined what I did and how I did it. I thought that feeling conflated in a nice way with all the new gear I was starting to piece together.
I was writing like mad, but instead of recording the things I was writing I started stockpiling them, biding my time until I had everything just the way I wanted it. This was the beginning of what would become THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, though I had no idea it was going to take me anywhere near as long as it did to pull all the disparate strands of the thing together (as of 2017 that album still isn’t done).
Just when I thought I had everything I needed and the revamping was good and vamped, three guys moved in next door at the old duplex and started running a crack den. They also started throwing parties every day and night. The music was so loud, it shook the walls of our house.
For seven months we lived like this. My sleep was ruined over and over again, to the point that I still struggle with sleep issues a decade later. More frustrating than never being able to sleep at any sane time or relax in my own house was this cherry on top: the nonstop noise destroyed my ability to get any meaningful recording done.
I was limited to capturing occasional stripped-down, rapid-fire “tiny songs”, usually a minute long or less. That was all I was able to squeeze into the small pockets of relative peace the drug dealers let me have once in a while.
We called the cops on those guys nineteen times. It didn’t do any good. When it became clear no one was going to do anything — not the police, not the Drug Squad, not Crime Stoppers, not the Mayor’s office, nobody — we found another place to live. By then, the pile of unrecorded songs and ideas had grown into something so intimidating, it didn’t feel like I could ever get anywhere near caught up. Moving and taking all my equipment apart just to set it up again in an unfamiliar room was exhausting and demoralizing. Even when I had things up and running again, with more studio space than ever before, there was little motivation to record anything.
I didn’t release a thing in the year 2007. Given how prolific I’d been in the past even when I was in pretty rough emotional shape, that was kind of unsettling. I started thinking maybe I’d lost the spark. I kept writing new songs all the time but no longer saw any point in finishing or sharing anything. The creative explosion I’d been building toward had been stolen from me, and I didn’t know how to move past that. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to try.
You could say I was in a bit of a funk.
I started this blog in early 2008 thinking it might be a good way to guilt myself into getting things going again. There were times when it worked. I’d make a little bit of progress, get a few things recorded, and talk about it here. Then I’d get discouraged all over again by all the piles of accumulated music, and whatever momentum I managed to build up would scatter and blow away.
One day I found myself at a vintage guitar shop in Guelph, playing a Regal parlour guitar old enough to be my grandfather. I had no interest in older guitars at the time. When it came to musical instruments, I was pretty shallow. If they didn’t look pretty to me (i.e. shiny and new), I didn’t want to give them the time of day.
This old thing spoke to me. I picked it up and started playing ancient-sounding bluesy licks that weren’t like anything I’d ever thought to play on a guitar before. I noticed a dirt-cheap 1960s Japanese-made Teisco of indeterminate origin, with only one working pickup. That guitar spoke to me too.
I took both of them home with me, and a funny thing happened. The Regal, the Teisco, a six-string banjo, a Wurlitzer electric piano (I had a real one now), and a cheap melodica all combined to form a whole new creative and sonic voice. I put THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE to bed for a while and THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE came pouring out instead.
This was a watershed album for me. It was the one that seemed to put me “on the map”, at least in Windsor. I watched as my audience multiplied more or less overnight and then multiplied some more. After years of not many people having much interest in what I was doing, it was bewildering.
There’s a rootsy, rustic atmosphere to this music that wasn’t hinted at by much of anything I’d done before. I’m still not sure where that came from. I love a lot of old blues music and field recordings, but I never consciously thought to try and tap into that spirit, and I wasn’t listening to anything like it when I was recording this stuff.
There was a lot of jazz and Autechre on my menu at the time, which is about as far away from the sound of this album as you can get. I would listen to things like Blue Cheese Necklace and A Well-Thought-Out Escape over and over again after I mixed them, at once puzzled and excited by the way the songs were crawling toward this skewed take on something resembling alt-country without me doing anything to steer them in that direction.
A lot of the songs here follow some pretty repetitive structures. That was another thing I didn’t plan, and something I was thinking I might avoid for the rest of my life. Turns out some things just feel too good to play for only half a minute and then never revisit again.
This is probably going to sound a little ridiculous, but after going so long without writing a conventionally-structured song with lyrics that rhymed, dipping back into it was like this exciting new musical direction, as if it was something I’d never done before. A song like A Well-Thought-Out Escape is just the same three chords played over and over again, and yet I think it stands as one of my greatest “hits” in terms of audience response and radio airplay, and it’s still one of my favourite songs I’ve written from any period.
I guess I spent enough time avoiding repetition and rhyming to gain a new appreciation for them, and I came to understand they’re only bad things when they fall into the wrong hands.
There was an odd sense of purpose with this album. I felt I was working toward something concrete pretty much from the start, when most of the time I don’t know quite what an album will sound like until it’s finished, even if I think I’ve got it all mapped out beforehand. Aside from two or three tracks that were recorded in the spring of 2008 before I figured out what to focus my energy on, this CD was recorded over a period of three weeks as June bled into July.
A lot of times I was feeling pretty lethargic. I’d tell myself I was just going to track some banjo or acoustic guitar, that way I could say I at least did a bit of work on something and make myself look productive to the handful of people who were reading my blog. Half an hour later a whole song would be finished. Then I’d go on to do the same thing three more times in the next hour or two.
After feeling adrift and indifferent for so long, now it was more like I was possessed.
I mixed a lot of the songs minutes after their final elements were recorded. In some cases a bit of time and distance probably would have helped a little. But even if most of these mixes are somewhat erratic, with the drums often leaning pretty far to the left, I liked the energy they had. So I left ’em alone, and rough mixes became final mixes more often than not.
I’m never going to find the “perfect” mix or put out something that sounds like it was engineered by someone in the big leagues anyway. I didn’t see the point in trying to polish things too much when the end result wasn’t going to be much different from what I started with — though I’m happy to say my production skills, to the extent that I have any, would go on to improve quite a bit over the course of the next several albums, and I think I’m still learning and improving today.
The point is, during the making of this album I shook off the GAS that took over while I was revamping things at the old house, stopped thinking about what I would or could do if I had some specific expensive piece of equipment, and reacquainted myself with the art of flying by the seat of my pants, making music with whatever was at hand.
I like inhabiting that space. I think it’s where I’ve always been at my best. It was nice to be back there again after drifting for a while.
Somewhere along the way I developed a thing for multi-tracking my voice all over the place. I think “Fidget” back on the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP might have been the beginning of that, when I triple-tracked the lead vocal on a whim and realized I liked the sound a lot more than just double-tracking (which wasn’t something I’d done much of as it was). There are only a few songs here without omnipresent vocal overdubs of one kind or another, and I’d never pushed my voice up so high in the mix or left it so untreated.
I don’t know what it was. I guess I just liked the sound. For a while after this, I would rarely record something without feeling the urge to triple-track the lead vocal.
Maybe it was part of a subconscious effort to build up a somewhat communal sound in the absence of other musicians/voices to join me. Or maybe my odd relationship with my voice just went through another mutation. I think it’s funny. Over the years I went from burying my voice in the mix, slathering it in slapback echo, and almost needing to have my arm twisted by someone else to record more than the occasional vocal harmony, to getting rid of the effects, bringing the voice to the forefront, and harmonizing with myself all over the place.
I think I made my peace with my voice as my primary instrument back on BRAND NEW SHINY LIE and settled into singing as myself most of the time, instead of trying on different voices and roles in every song the way I did back in the old days. Here it felt like it went deeper. Kind of like what happened with returning to more conventional song structures and letting some of the lyrics rhyme again after avoiding all of that for so long. I felt more comfortable in my own skin. Instead of going out of my way to be weird for the sake of weirdness, I let my stranger creative impulses become an organic part of what I was doing in a more relaxed way.
This was the most fun I’d had making an album in a long time. It felt like coming back home after a long vacation and discovering all the skills I’d been neglecting had somehow sharpened in my absence — as if I’d been wood-shedding the whole time, when I was really just staggering around with no real direction until something random caused a spark and it all came together.
I guess you could say this is one of the “happiest” things I’ve done. Putting it together was a joyous experience, as bizarre as it feels to even type that when so many of the albums I’ve made over the years have come out of some combination of anger, frustration, cynicism, depression, and a need for therapeutic expression.
This was about enjoying making music, plain and simple.
It’s always felt like a pretty cohesive album to me in spite of its length. Even the tiniest songs and the silliest segues are integral to the bigger picture, and there’s more storytelling and character-based writing going on here than there’d been in my music in a long time.
You’ve got a hunter who gets his comeuppance at the hands of a vigilante chicken (He Was Saved By Poultry from the Shadow of Beef), a healer who finds love with a woman of his own creation after cannibalizing the face of his first wife (It Is Decided in Fogos), an a cappella swipe at the music industry and creative laziness (You Don’t Need Ideas When You Have Other People to Steal Them from), a woman who has more honest conversations with her missing, presumed-dead husband in his absence than she did when he was still around (Everything He Asked You), a father tree explaining to his son what the arc of his life will be (Condensed Journey of a Tree), and a whole lot more.
Peculiar Love is a musical run-on sentence that lands near the top of the list of “strangest love songs I’ve ever written for people who don’t exist”. 95 Streets to the Right (Is Where I Will Find the Heart of You) remains one of my favourite song titles I’ve come up with and one of my favourite instrumental things I’ve done. It’s a simple little improvisation with nothing more than Fender Rhodes, bass, and drums to flesh it out, but there’s something evocative there. And I think Heart of Liquid Gold brings everything full circle in a nice way.
If this turned out to be my last album, I would have been pretty happy to end on that note. It’s still one of my favourite closing tracks I’ve come up with. For all the talk of hearts being violated, there’s an odd sort of joy in it.
Of course, there was a lot more music ahead. But it felt like it would have made for an appropriate swan-song at the time if, say, a giant pickle had fallen from the sky and turned me into a human pancake.
Random thing: the line, “And the rest, as they say…” shows up in two different songs. Not sure what that’s about. At least what they say is different each time, so that’s something to be thankful for.
Another reason this was an important album for me — there are a number of sonic shifts here that would go on to become an integral part of whatever production sound/style I have today.
The drum sound changed for something like the tenth time. The only mic I used to record the drums throughout the album was an AEA R88 stereo ribbon microphone, placed four or six feet in front of the kit, around head level. Or at the level of my head, which may or may not be at the same level as your head. We’d have to get together and compare heads to be sure.
There were no close mics on any of the drums or cymbals, and I couldn’t position the ribbon mic exactly where I wanted it because the swivel-mounting clip-thing AEA provided me with was defective and useless. My first plan was to use the ribbon mic on the overheads, throw in a kick mic, maybe a snare mic, and see what happened. I couldn’t do that thanks to the dead mic clip.
I’d never tried a front-of-kit mic before. Now it became my only real option.
I played the drums with brushes most of the time. That seemed to suit a lot of the songs better than sticks. I brought an old brass snare drum back into the fold after ignoring it for five years and found it had matured into exactly the sound a lot of these songs needed.
Throwing another mic or two in there would have made for a tighter and more focused sound, but I’m pretty tired of all the overproduced, squashed, compressor-pumping, hyped drum sounds that are all the rage these days. I wanted to go for the sound of drums in a room being played by a human being. Besides, the unpolished/unprocessed drum sound seemed to be a good fit for the music.
I liked the roomy vibe, and I’ve stuck with it ever since. I’ve futzed around with so many different mic placement strategies over the years, it’s nice just to throw a mic up in the room and leave it at that. I also think it’s more interesting as a musician to have to alter the way I play if I want to get a certain sound instead of relying on mic placement and after-the-fact tweaking to give it to me.
The only electric guitar used on this album was the 1960s mystery Teisco. The somewhat thin, twangy sound of that guitar was perfect for a lot of the songs. Funny how it came into my life at just the right time, when I wasn’t looking for a guitar that was anything like it.
For whatever reason, I’d never used electric guitar in this way on an album before — as a pure supplementary thing, with none of the songs treating it as a starting point or the main instrument and no proper solos anywhere. It was fun coming up with guitar parts that would work as melodic counterpoints or contrasts without overwhelming the other instruments in the mix, and I ended up double-tracking most of them and giving the tremolo arm a good workout. I didn’t use any pedals. It was guitar straight into an amp and done, with reverb applied after the fact.
It was interesting to take a very different and more austere approach behind the drums than anything I’d tried before, too. In some songs there’s just kick drum and tambourine holding down the fort. It’s not a sound I’ve come back to very often. It always felt like it was very specific to this album, and I didn’t want to overdo it. But I like the way it subverts what you expect to hear and gives some songs a different kind of rhythmic propulsion.
A number of these songs never would have been written without that 1932 Regal acoustic guitar. I’m not much of a slide player, as you can hear. I haven’t really played slide with any consistency since 1999, and lap steel wouldn’t become a thing for me for a while yet. But something like Beneath the Darkening Sky is proof that the instrument is possessed by the spirit of something or someone.
The Regal and the Teisco were the very beginning of my love affair with vintage guitars. Over the next several albums my collection would continue to grow a little at a time until just about nothing new was left.
I now had far better mic preamps than anything I’d ever worked with before (one of the side effects of all that retooling), and they let me know how thin and fizzy some of my cheaper mics really sounded, while breathing new life into others that never impressed me before. Out went the Rode microphones I was so happy with for four or five years. In came a Pearlman TM-1, and it became my new vocal mic of choice. The pair of Neumann KM184s I’d been lukewarm about became my go-to close mics for acoustic guitars and stringed instruments in general. Even the old Shure SM57 got a new lease on life. And I finally fired up my guitar amplifiers again after neglecting them for years in favour of a POD and other guitar amp simulators.
The difference in sound just about knocked me over. This was easily the most organic and interesting-sounding album I’d made up to this point, though it’s pretty stripped-down compared to what was just around the corner.
I’m still not sure why this was the album to lead to such a groundswell of interest in my music. I realized at the time it was an important one for me, and I think it’ll remain one of my prouder moments until the end of my days, but it didn’t strike me as being the kind of album anyone other than me would want to listen to, what with its length, its refusal to sit still even within a pretty well-defined sound world, and how demented it gets in some places.
It’s by far the most popular, most widely-heard thing I’ve done in my life. I imagine that’ll mystify me forever.
I guess you just can’t argue with the Chicken Angel Woman. She’s even wearing high heels while standing on a cloud. That’s class.
Blue Cheese Necklace
Please Remember to Forget Me
He Was Saved By Poultry from the Shadow of Beef
A Question Without a Question Mark
Merry Christmas, Tinseltown
Everything He Asked You
Creepy Crawly Things
Excuse Me, Miss…Where Might I Find a Bandana like Yours?
A Well-Thought-Out Escape
Your Secret Isn’t Safe with Me
Mary Anne Says Grace
Every Man Needs to Paint a Face on His Hand Sometimes
Wait All Morning
You Don’t Need Ideas When You Have Other People to Steal Them from
Thief of Idle Breath
Waterfall of Teeth
Condensed Journey of a Tree
Weak Bladder Blues
Random Confessions of a Failed Lothario
Brooke Ballentyne Claps Her Hands
Never Bring Lined Paper to a Knife Fight
What Will Become of Luke Perry’s Nipples?
It Is Decided in Fogos
Sun Comes Up, It’s a One-Legged Seagull
95 Streets to the Right (Is Where I Will Find the Heart of You)
A Solution Improvised with Yellow Electrical Tape
Beneath the Darkening Sky
Heart of Liquid Gold