Ten years ago, when I was in the middle of working on the album that would become AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, I was paying for some CDs and used records at Dr. Disc when Liam handed me this little orange thing that looked like a dictaphone.
“Have you ever used one of these before?” he asked me.
“No,” I said. “I don’t even know what it is.”
“Take it,” he said. “Maybe you can have some fun with it.”
I figured it was something an electronics-savvy friend made for him and assumed the letters “FM” on the front were a reference to frequency modulation synthesis. A volume knob doubled as an on/off switch. A button toggled through a dozen or so weird little lo-fi loops. I used it on the song “Roof Rats”, holding the internal speaker up to a microphone, messing with the mixer’s recording speed to bend the sounds even more out of shape.
Then I noticed there was a headphone jack I could have used as an output for cleaner sound. D’oh.
I more or less forgot I had this strange little orange noise-generator until I was working on a really psychedelic-sounding song for the soon-to-be-finished Papa Ghostface album. I thought one of its drones might make a perfect little five-second ambient intro. I used it on one more song after that (more of an immersive semi-electronic thing), and then I thought to flip it over for the first time in ten years and look at its bottom.
All the information I wanted was right there the whole time, if only I would have known where to look for it.
This little orange thing has a proper name after all. It’s called the FM3 Buddha Machine. It was created by the Beijing-based musical duo Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian. Special editions have been made in collaboration with Throbbing Gristle and Phillip Glass.
I sent an email to Christiaan and Zhang through their website to ask about sample clearance. The two songs I used the Buddha Machine on incorporate its loops as short-lived ambient touches. We’re pretty far away from a “Bitter Sweet Symphony” situation here. Even so, I wanted to make sure I did right by them. I sent links to MP3s for both songs so they could hear which loops I made use of and how I used them, and asked if there was a clearance fee.
It’s been at least a good month now and I’ve yet to hear back. I’m starting to get the feeling I’m never going to get a response. With a limited amount of time left in this house (long story), there’s no way I’m holding off on releasing an album that’s weeks away from being CD-ready until I hear back from a few guys who probably have much more pressing things to attend to.
Here’s what I’m thinking. This album is going to sell zero copies, because it isn’t going to be for sale anywhere. So I won’t be making any money off of it. There will only be forty or fifty copies made, tops, and those are all going to friends. There’s only one radio station on the planet that might give the music some airplay, and that’s CJAM. The Buddha Machine loops I’ve dropped into two of the songs have been used in a transformative way. I didn’t use them as building blocks to write the songs around the way some producers do. I stitched them into original music of my own. And I’ll make sure to credit the Buddha Machine, its creators, and the specific loops used in the CD booklet.
I think I’m in the clear here. I tried to do the right thing the right way, and it’s not as if I’m sampling something uncredited and trying to pass it off as my own work.
One thing I have to say: hearing pristine recordings of the Buddha Machine over here is almost freakish. I didn’t realize just how gritty-sounding my FM3 had become. It’s been living off of the same two AA batteries since 2008. In that time, the pitch has dropped at least half a step and some distortion has crept into the sound. I kind of like it that way.
Leo Kottke once described his singing voice as sounding “like geese farts on a muggy day”.
I think he deserves immortality for that alone, but he’s much more than a self-deprecating part-time vocalist. He’s a great storyteller and a brilliant guitarist. Throughout a fifty-year career he’s traversed a long and sinuous musical road. It’s almost impossible to believe the mind-bending syncopation and speed heard on 6- and 12-String Guitar and the spacious, meditative pieces on A Shout Toward Noon are the work of the same person. And yet they are. And those are just two of the many varied and eclectic albums in his discography.
He’s worked with high-profile artists as disparate as Lyle Lovett, Rickie Lee Jones, and Phish, without ever seeming to catch the spotlight himself. Something tells me he prefers the artistic freedom a low profile affords him. Though he hasn’t made an album in well over a decade, he continues to play live into his seventies. The man probably won’t put down the guitar until he doesn’t have the strength to hold it anymore.
In a recent interview with the Times Colonist, he said: “I’ve been trained to think — we all have — that when you get old, everything gets old. But it’s exactly the opposite. If you have something, one little handle of some kind — writing, playing — I think everything does continue, and it is a work in progress. If that isn’t happening, what’s the alternative?”
My introduction to Leo’s music came in late 1997 care of the Sessions at West 54th TV program — something of a short-lived sister to Austin City Limits. I was channel-surfing with Johnny Smith late on a Saturday night. We came across Leo and stuck around to hear him do his thing.
For twenty-one years one specific song from that show has haunted the back of my brain. Last night I was able to give the song a name. It’s called “Across the Street”. I thought I’d search for it on YouTube, not expecting much. And there it was.
The finer details were lost to me over time. I remembered the story being about a father and his son. Not quite. But the sense of loss and the sombre quality of the music…that wasn’t a twisted or faulty memory.
To begin with, it’s a haunting story. But the way Leo tells it, it doesn’t feel like an introduction to a song. It feels like the music takes over mid-thought, filling the space between what isn’t said and what can only be imagined.
It may be the simplest piece of music he’s ever written. I think it’s also the most powerful. This must be the definitive performance, stripped of the strange reverb tails that threaten to overwhelm the sound of the guitar on the studio version from the 1997 album Standing in My Shoes.
At the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1995, Leo told a longer version of the tale behind “Across the Street”. I’ve made just a few light edits for grammar and readability. I think it makes for a compelling short story in its own right.
I have a friend in Ljubljana who I’ve been unable to find recently named Seka Tavčar. I met her when I first did a tour in the old Yugoslavia with Paco de Lucia, who started in Ljubljana and went to places like Spit and Una and a couple of others I don’t remember. I came back every year for about four years and did this same little tour.
On our fist stop, we were introduced to Seka Tavčar and a mountain climber, a heart surgeon, a physicist, and some other people the government at the time trotted out to meet everybody. Nobody wanted to be there. We tried to be polite to one another and admit it was something that had to be done. We were forced to have dinner together after the show.
By that time we were enjoying ourselves naturally and I asked Seka, since I didn’t know yet, what she did. She was the token artist in the group. She was a lithographer.
I said, “Oh, lithographer from Ljubljana,” and she did not smile.
I gave up on limericks and asked, “Could I see your lithographs?”
She said, “No, you can’t.”
So I said, “Sorry.”
And she said, “No…I’ve only made TEN of them.”
I couldn’t figure that out. I asked her why, and she said, “I break the stone.”
Usually, as I understand it, you make a lithograph. You run off three to five hundred copies of this lithograph. Then you smooth the stone and make another one. Otherwise it’s like Sisyphus or somebody, to break the stone. It sounded nuts. So now it was a lunatic lithographer from Ljubljana.
I asked her why she did that.
She said, “It’s none of your business.”
I saw her again the next year and she said, “I can’t stay for the show. My father found his way home. He’s sick. I’d better go back and take care of him.”
The year after that she came to the show and I asked, “How is your father?” picking up the conversation where we left it off.
She said, “He died.”
I said, “Oh.”
She said, “Would you like to see some of the things he did?”
The next day she took me to downtown Ljubljana and showed me, among other things — he was an engineer and an architect — a bridge he had built. And while she was showing me this, she said he had been arrested when she was three years old and imprisoned. And I asked why. Which is a question you wouldn’t have to ask, I guess, if you’d lived there. She ignored me and showed me the bridge, which was a beautiful bridge, starting on one side of the river with three roads, which in the course of the bridge merged into one road on the other side of the river. So I had an idea why he’d been arrested.
It was a beautiful bridge. And as I looked at this thing, she told me what had happened. She said he was imprisoned for twenty-six years.
“We were never told,” she said, “where he was imprisoned, why he was imprisoned, or for how long he would be in prison. What we were told, once a year at some indeterminate time, was that he was still alive. That’s all we ever knew.”
When he got sick, they let him out after twenty-six years.
“That’s,” she said, “when I found out he’d been imprisoned across the street. And for twenty-six years, he’d been able to look up through a gun slit window in his cell and see my sister and I grow up playing on the balcony of our apartment.”
And then she said, “That is why I break the stone.”
Jess’s album QUIET BEASTS is officially out in the world as part of a split cassette (!) with the Shhh album 32 Original Drawings on the flip side. It’s also available as a standalone digital release. This is the first thing I’ve recorded that’s landed on a cassette tape in many a moon. It’s also one of the few times I’ve named someone else’s album without really meaning to.
In the middle of work on the first Tire Swing Co. album, Steven was looking for another word for a romantic partner or an object of desire. I mentioned INAMORATA, and the rest is rigatoni. I wasn’t expecting it to become the album title, but it played really well off of Greg’s cover art and a lot of the subject matter of the songs themselves.
This time, when I was working on final mixes and adding metadata to the songs so they’d show up as themselves in a media player, I felt funny leaving the album title field blank. So I called it QUIET BEASTS, lifting a phrase from one of the songs (“Quiet beasts don’t seek acceptance,” goes the full line in “Was Asking for Everything”).
I said, “I just wanted to give it a temporary title…feel free to throw it away and call it whatever you wish.”
Jess said, “I like it! I’m keeping it!”
And so it was kept.
Jess is one of my very favourite people I’ve met through music in recent years, and it’s great to see people responding to this album — which was great fun to record — with such enthusiasm. It just spent two weeks in a row at #1 on the CHRW charts and has already garnered some nice bits of press here and here.
It’s a little awkward trying to wrap your head around the realization that something you’ve made isn’t as good as you thought it was when you were making it.
I’ve done my best to avoid this very personal kind of disappointment over the years. As slapdash as some of my albums may sound on the surface, for a long time now a lot of thought has gone into determining what shape each collection of songs wants to take. I don’t put something out there unless I believe in it and feel it’s an honest representation of where my head and heart are at in that moment.
I think as long as you work this way it’s difficult to be embarrassed by what you’ve done. My ambition has never been to make a Masterwork That Stands the Test of Time, but rather to document the entirety of my musical life, warts, growing pains, nose hair and all. While it might not all be top-shelf material when we look back at the whole discography in 2079 as I’m wheezing my last digital breaths here, at least I can say I always gave it everything I had and never compromised my artistic vision, even when that vision was murky.
By and large, I’m proud of the work I’ve done up to this point. But every once in a while I’ve found my feelings for an album souring once the honeymoon period wears off.
(The internet tells me a traditional honeymoon period lasts between six months and a year. For me it’s more like two weeks.)
As much fun as it was to make the second Papa Ghostface album, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it rambled a little too much over its two and-a-half hour running time. There was no focus. The first disc was pretty strong, and then everything degenerated into a massive improvised free-for-all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about massive improvised free-for-alls. But I started thinking PG album number three might benefit from a more considered approach. I wrote a bunch of lyrics — most of them while pretending to pay attention in grade eleven math class — grabbed what I thought were the eight strongest selections (leaving space for two improvised instrumentals), and declared, “This will be our next album.”
My thinking went something like this: Given how well Gord and I play off of each other and how often our improvisations seem to produce good moments, if I’ve already got the lyrics sorted out before we start recording and I don’t have to make all the words up as I go, I’ll be able to channel all my energy into the music. That’s going to make everything better. When the dust clears we’ll have a great album.
For at least the first week or two after SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was finished, I thought we did have something brilliant on our hands. I even went to the trouble of making more than two copies of the CD, which was unheard of at the time. I gave one to a classmate I wanted to impress, one to my drama teacher, and another to my piano teacher. I wanted everyone to hear this stuff. It felt like some of the best work I’d ever done.
Once the initial excitement wore off and something closer to objectivity set in, it hit me that the album was no masterpiece. It was a mess. The weirdness that had been such an integral part of our music from day one was barely there. I came off less like the live wire I was used being on record and more like an impotent firecracker with a faulty fuse. Trying to force the improvised music to fit the shape of the written lyrics led to songs that sounded unsure of their identity. Aside from “Compassion to Deceive — a rare example of music and lyrics merging as if they’d been born wrapped up in each other’s arms — the songs were just sort of there, not daring to do anything very interesting. Worse, almost none of the lyrics I wrote were about anything. There was some fun wordplay, but it didn’t add up to much.
It didn’t help that the sound quality was pretty awful throughout, with some serious clipping whenever I came close to screaming and a lot of mud in the low end. I had no outboard mic preamps, no outboard anything aside from a guitar effects processor, and though my mixer offered built-in EQ and compression that could have helped the cause, I had no idea how to use those tools. I thought I would screw things up even worse if I messed around with them, so I didn’t try. The results weren’t pretty.
Aside from OH YOU THIS, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such a quick turnaround from thinking an album was great to deciding it was a total piece of crap.
I was determined to make up for my error in judgment with the next Papa Ghostface album. I kept writing lyrics in class — I couldn’t stop doing that if I tried — but allowed the words to grow much more depraved. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep at the time. Some of that was my fault for embracing my night owl tendencies. My almost-stepsister’s bedroom was right next to mine, and she had a habit of watching TV late at night with the sound turned up past any sane level. She wasn’t a big fan of closing her door. That was another factor.
There came a day when all the sleep-deprivation caught up with me. I staggered home a little after 2:00 in the afternoon — I had a fourth period spare that semester — and fell into bed. It wasn’t unusual for me to nap for an hour after school to give myself an extra shot of energy. This time I was so exhausted I woke up in the dark five hours later. I got up, ate some chicken stir-fry, listened to a bit of music, and went to bed around 11:00. I had no trouble getting back to sleep. By the time I got up to eat breakfast I was operating on no less than thirteen hours of sleep, when I was used to getting less than a third of that.
I felt an almost disturbing sense of mental clarity all day. Every part of my body felt like it had been replaced with an upgraded version of itself. I was Super Johnny the Full-of-Energy Man.
It was a fluke. I didn’t get another sleep like that on a weeknight for the rest of my high school existence. The very next day I was back to alternating between being tired all the time and oversleeping on the weekends to balance things out. But I saw an opportunity to use the mental fatigue to my advantage. When I was tired enough, my brain got to a place where all the usual inhibitions sloughed off and anything at all might come out of my mouth (or pen). It made for some interesting lyric-writing sessions.
The first thing I wrote with the fourth Papa Ghostface album in mind was something called “19 to Go”. We tried recording it. I’ve got a dub of a rough mix on a cassette tape somewhere. It isn’t worth digging up. I made the mistake again of marrying written words to improvised music that wasn’t given enough time or space to figure out what it wanted to be.
The lyrics didn’t go anywhere interesting anyway. “Your nudity inspires me to reach heights that were previously unattainable,” went the first line. I went on to list all the other positive and negative things this imaginary person’s naked form inspired me to do, from “[standing] tall in the face of all things malignant” to destroying valuable antiques.
Not some of my best work.
Separate from that failure of a song, I had some music in my head I couldn’t seem to find the right words for. I heard this dark, swirling soundscape, inspired in part by the Pulp song “This Is Hardcore”.
How was I supposed to build anything even half that dense and compelling with only six tracks to work with on my eight-track mixer? I had no idea. After one abandoned attempt at writing lyrics that matched the imagined musical mood, I wrote in my spiral notebook:
I was trying to write something dark to accompany the stark musical landscape within my mind but found myself to be an utter failure. I know there is darkness left inside of me! There has to be!
There was. I only needed to wait another twelve hours to find it.
The next morning in math class I wrote a set of lyrics about a guy who catches his wife cheating on him with a horse. The horse turns out to be both kinky and immortal — repeated gunshots kill him, but he rises again after each apparent death. The desperate cuckold sleeps with the horse’s wife to get back at him. She indulges his foot fetish but otherwise isn’t the most sympathetic partner. His wife returns and tries to make amends with an offering of cornbread pancakes. When the dude scarfs them all down like a thoughtless pig, she grabs his gun and he makes a run for it. There’s at least a happy ending when he finds someone who accepts him for who he is, human-sized genitalia and all.
(What the hell went on in my sixteen-year-old brain? I couldn’t tell you. Writing accessible pop music clearly wasn’t on my radar.)
I started laughing at the ridiculousness of the lyrics and the crude illustrations I added. Kevin Heffernan — not the actor, but a guy who sat in front of me in math class — turned around and said, “Did you smoke up before class, John?”
“No,” I said, giggling. “I’m just tired.”
Kevin wasn’t buying it. “He’s ripped,” he said to a friend sitting next to him.
I was stuck for a title. Now I wrote Rippin’ at the top of my two-page saga. Thanks, Kev.
I envisioned it as a jaunty country song in a major key. Though it was never recorded in that form, I remember how it was supposed to go. Here’s a brand new GarageBand demo to give you an idea.
Gord came over to record again a few days later. I threw out the country song business and made up my mind to build an approximation of the ominous sound world I’d been carrying around in my head for a few days straight.
When you don’t have a lot of tracks to work with, you learn how to create the illusion of layers through a bit of trickery. I made a drum loop on the Yamaha W-5 synth and messed around with built-in distortion and reverb effects until each snare hit sounded like it was ricocheting off of itself. Making use of the synthesizer’s sixteen-track sequencer — something I almost never thought to do — I played some fifths in time with the drum beat on a second track, using a synth cello patch, and made that a part of the loop. Then I set it up to record on a single mono track on the mixer.
I started the loop without the string part, faded it in, decided it was too loud, and pulled it back a little to where it felt just about right. I grabbed those twisted lyrics I wrote with a country song in my head and stood them up on my music stand, playing my hunk of junk Vantage acoustic guitar and singing while Gord played his white B.C. Rich Virgin. I had only one amp at the time and was years away from recognizing how useful it was, so Gord played straight into the Digitech GSP-21 effects processor, using the foot controller to switch between clean and distorted tones.
When it felt like the song had pretty much run its course, Gord encouraged me off-mic to get into some primal screaming. I didn’t have it in me, and it didn’t feel right for the song. It was starting to occur to me that there were other ways of conveying madness through sound. As a way of getting my point across without verbalizing it, I pressed the microphone grill against the strings of my guitar and used it as a slide, making harsh, atonal sounds. After a bit of that I put the guitar down, walked over to the W-5, and faded the drums out of the loop, playing some synth string improv on top of the looped fifths.
We overdubbed a few splashes of Arp Omni-2, both of us playing at the same time. I was trying to play things that made some melodic sense. Gord was hitting random notes. It made for some fun dissonance. I messed with the resonance and VCF to give it a little extra character.
“You want to add some bass?” I asked Gord.
“You should play bass, man,” he said.
I did that, alternating between holding down the low end and playing improvised melodies and runs higher up on the neck. Gord contributed a little audio postscript of his own with a bottle of blue Powerade he was drinking, using his mouth and the liquid in it to make some strange, guttural sounds.
The next day I added a few bits of vocal harmony to some unused portions of the Arp Omni-2 track and mixed the song to the best of my ability. I had some fun with the intro, swamping the drum loop in reverb for a second and then taking it away, adding a rotary speaker effect to the loop for a bit, then adding it to Gord’s guitar for a few bars, and much later in the song using it to process my voice.
Just six tracks, and there was the most sonically ambitious thing I’d ever done. For some reason it never seemed to drag over its thirteen and-a-half minutes the way some of our other extended pieces did. It wasn’t identical to the half-formed musical idea that wouldn’t leave my brain alone, but it was close enough, and maybe better.
Of the nine songs that would end up on the album, six feature words that were written beforehand. Only two of those six songs aren’t warped by additional improvised lyrics and music that’s unafraid to flirt with chaos. “She’s Awfully Lovely” ends with an unrehearsed hook topped off with distorted screams, and then there’s a little a cappella addendum that has nothing at all to do with anything that came before. “Piss on Me” sheds its established structure like an exoskeleton around the halfway point for a long post-bridge section that’s all improv. “The Happy Dentist” begins with a spontaneous Neil Young piss-take and ends with several minutes of uncompromising sonic mayhem. “Spandex” is a self-immolating piñata that keeps beating itself until interesting surprises start to leak from its broken skin.
Instead of forcing the music to do the lyrics’ bidding, the written words were treated as a rough guide and nothing more.
“She’s Awfully Lovely” was the first thing we recorded at our next session a week later. The title came from Gord. He suggested Awfully Lovely as an album title. I liked it but wasn’t sure it was right for the material.
I was renting a Les Paul to supplement my cheap Strat copy. It was the first “good” guitar I ever played. It had a sparkle finish. I want to say it was green. It looks green in my memory. I loved that thing. The cloth that lined the hardshell case smelled like heaven.
The Strat copy, which doesn’t appear on the album at all, became a five-string — and stayed that way for a long time — when I broke a string on the Les Paul and didn’t have an extra pack of strings on hand. I recorded a bit of Gord tuning up after making the transfer because I thought it sounded cool. Then he handed the guitar back to me.
This song is probably home to my best guitar-playing on the whole album. There’s even some volume swell stuff in there. It’s nowhere near the atmospheric textures I’m capable of creating today, but it works. I don’t think I’d ever tried doing that before. I was growing in confidence, unrefined as my playing was.
The lyrics are about a “fake aunt” (my stepfather’s sister) and her impending motherhood. She always said she never wanted children. Now she was married and pregnant, and I was convinced her impending bundle of joy was in for a rough ride. She was a horrible, emotionally abusive person, and that’s the kindest thing I can think of to say about her.
Hey, hey, she’s pregnant.
What’s she gonna do to that kid? Is she gonna torture him? Is she gonna make him feel inadequate? Is she gonna raise him up — raise him up to the sky? Is she gonna fill his head with all of her lies?
Pretty serious personal business there. Not the sort of thing I was used to singing about. Of course, I married those lyrics to some chunky power chords and got Gord to scream with me into a mic that was plugged into the Digitech guitar box, just to throw a wrench in the works. Then we tacked on the improvised singalong about someone with magical breasts.
“Spandex” was recorded next. I must have mixed it out of sequence, because it shows up before “She’s Awfully Lovely” on the album. Or I might have decided the album would work better if I flipped the order of those two songs. I can’t remember what happened there. It’s unusual either way, because these were the days of dumping songs on CD in the order they were recorded and giving no thought to the ebb and flow of things.
When Gord and I first met up outside of school in 1998, it was to work on writing a song for a grade ten English assignment. He played me a pretty, melancholy piece of music he was messing around with on guitar, I worked out some things to play on piano that complimented what he was doing, and within about three minutes we had our song. All I had to do was write some lyrics the next day and we’d be finished a week ahead of schedule.
Problem was, the lyrics I wrote didn’t suit the music at all. I could find a way to sing them that would work, but the whole thing was going to feel way too maudlin.
When we got together a second time three days later, Gord brought his girlfriend Amanda with him. She sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor of my tiny basement studio as we hammered out some new music much better suited to the defiant nature of my lyrics. The song was called “Pacing the Cage”.
After jamming on pieces of a bunch of classic rock songs and running through our own song a few times, Gord started playing a single-string variation on the main riff that ran through the verses of “Pacing the Cage”. I played along, started singing about Kermit the Frog wearing spandex, and this happened.
I’d kill to have video footage of something like this. At least I had the foresight to record our first jam sessions on cassette tape, using a single RadioShack mic plugged into a Magnasonic boombox from the 1980s (my main method of recording at the time, and an upgrade over the Sony boombox I’d been recording everything on since 1994).
“Pacing the Cage” may be the first thing we created together, but “Spandex”marks the true birth of Papa Ghostface. It was the first time we conjured something out of thin air in a communal act. You can hear the excitement in the room as it starts to dawn on us that we could have the seed of something interesting here.
A little over a year later, that fiery two-minute improvisation was still on my mind. You could call the version we committed to CD a “re-improvisation”. After a partial reconstruction of the original fragment, the song fanned out and became something much more expansive and dramatic. I rifled through different keyboard sounds and effects. Gord strummed my acoustic guitar with such force he managed to overload an SM57 — no mean feat. We both added overdubs: demented harmonies from me, African drums and a distorted mid-song howl from Gord.
Spandex for you. Spandex for me. It felt almost operatic. It was ridiculous, outlandish, fun, and everything that had been missing from SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.
“We’re All Gonna Go” was the only song on the album that set out to do one thing and didn’t stray from the path. For years I thought it was the least interesting track by some distance. Now I view it as a necessary break from the madness that surrounds it.
It’s all about the idea of an afterlife in hell being inevitable — how in spite of our best efforts to fight the good fight, some unseen force is lurking just out of sight, waiting to drag us down to a place where “sometimes, on special occasions, you don’t even perspire”. I didn’t really believe that then, and I don’t believe it now, but I enjoyed flipping the conventional wisdom on its head, imagining hell as a picturesque resort where serene family reunions take place.As opening lines go, “Down where the drunkards collide,” is pretty evocative, I think, though it didn’t stand out to me at the time.
The music I first wrote to accompany the lyrics was nothing like what ended up on the album. It was this sweeping orchestral thing, or as sweeping and orchestral as something played on a keyboard’s synth strings setting could hope to get. I don’t remember if I worked out music for the bridge section. I do at least remember how the verses went.
I’m not sure what inspired me to give those words a different musical backdrop at the last minute. The memory is fuzzy here. I either picked up my acoustic guitar before Gord came over, started playing a few chords that sounded good to me, and thought, “I wonder what ‘We’re All Gonna Go’ would sound like if I sang the words to this,” or it happened when he was present and the evening was winding down.
In any case, it made for a much catchier tune. It became almost uplifting in a warped way, ending with the comforting thought, “All’s well that ends in hell.”
You can hear me saying, “One more and then we’re done,” to an inquisitive Johnny Smith before the music kicks in. It was about time to call it a night. We rehearsed for all of thirty seconds. I tried to show Gord a change I worked out on the fly, but he didn’t really grasp what I was doing. When I called out a chord change in the middle of the recording, he just kept doing what he was doing, oblivious. Some interesting accidental harmonic interplay came out of it.
Here I used a drum pattern built into the Clavinova instead of creating one myself on the W-5, setting it up so the damper and sustain pedals would let me trigger fills and transitions with my feet at the same time I was playing and singing. I added some vocal harmonies the next day and a pair of rudimentary guitar solos, one in each stereo channel. Gord surprised me by telling me he liked them.
Our next session produced another three songs. This time we were alone in the house. I’m not sure where everyone else was.
Before we got started, Gord asked if I wanted to smoke a joint with him. I’d never been high in my life. I said sure.
We ducked into an alley. I felt a little uneasy. I still remember the long-sleeved white shirt I was wearing (hell, I still have that shirt). I had no idea how to inhale the right way. I think Gord assumed I’d done this before. I was too embarrassed to tell him I was a rookie. I did my best to fake it.
I didn’t get high at all. It would be another two years before that would happen for the first time.
Back inside, I did feel…something. Must have been a contact buzz. It was a very low-level thing, almost subliminal, but it was there. We plugged in, put on headphones, and recorded “Piss on Me”. I don’t think I even showed Gord what chords I was playing. He ran through different effects on the Digitech in search of something trippy and blissed out. I cranked up the reverb on my voice for extra dreaminess, ran another Clavinova drum pattern through a bit of a chorus effect on the mixer (an Ace of Base-style Euro reggae beat, of all things), and shook a homemade Mason jar percussion instrument into my vocal mic for a few seconds before getting down to business.
Subtitled “a love song in the key of Sinatra” on my lyric sheet, the song wasn’t really a paean to golden showers. It was more of a celebration of meaninglessness. “What does it matter if we defile one another if nothing matters?” More of a figurative pissing than the literal act of taking a leak. Although, “Piss on me before it starts to rain,” is pretty literal (and sensible).
At the same time, there was room for lines like this:
Rotting fish within the threshold of man.
Bamboo cartilage dropped by five degrees.
If you have any idea what that means, let me know. I still don’t know almost two decades later, and I’m the guy who wrote it.
There’s also one of my favourite nonsense rhymes on the album:
It is only this that grows
through an affidavit’s nose.
We kept going for another six minutes after I ran out of written lyrics. “Tie me at the crossroads with a metal bow,” I sang. “I’ll always be yours when the seedless garden grows.” That became a mantra. Tie me at the crossroads. It felt poignant somehow, and more poetic than “tie me to the train tracks”, even if it made less literal sense. Gord played some inspired guitar throughout, from a few licks that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a death metal song to some beautiful extended lead lines. I let loose with some wild runs on a simulated Wurlitzer electric piano patch on the W-5, and it all came to a head with a speaker-blowing cry of, “So piss on…..MEEEEEEEEE!”
I’ve always been glad I captured Gord asking if we were recording at the very end. One of those neat little slices of life. And I still remember the look on his face. It said, “Please, for the love of God, tell me you got that!”
There’s something joyous about letting a song unfurl like this, with only a torn scrap of some strange map and no certain destination. I was lucky enough to have a lot of those moments with Gord. I might have been the voice and the main creative engine behind the music, but there was a fearlessness in his playing that made him an ideal companion when I was navigating creative dirt roads that might lead anywhere or nowhere. He wasn’t afraid to make a mistake in pursuit of something great.
Another mark against SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was the absence of a spoken word detour. Having at least one spoken word piece show up on each album was a Papa Ghostface tradition from the beginning.
This album features two of them, back to back, almost like an act of penance.
“The Happy Dentist” is pretty self-explanatory. A perverted dentist with a sweet tooth gets a character sketch, and then he gets what’s coming to him. Gord managed to make it sound like he was playing both bass and electric guitar at the same time by sticking a slide on his pinky finger, throwing in creepy little glissandos here and there. I kept accidentally whacking my guitar mic with my own slide and felt like my guitar-playing was the shittiest shit in the universe. I was limited to bits of open chords, single-note runs, and some discordant slide guitar, when I wanted to be able to do some interesting harmonic things and treat the instrument an extension of myself. It was frustrating.
I would get there. It was just going to take a while. But man, I’ll never forget that feeling of wanting to do more than I was capable of in the moment and running face-first into a brick wall. All my limitations on the instrument were thrown into stark relief at once.
Listening now, I have to say my guitar-playing did the job just fine, in spite of my feelings of musical uselessness in the moment. The song didn’t need anything flashy. And I’ve always loved the singalong chorus, with Gord sing-shouting, “The happy dentiiiiiiist!” at the top of his lungs. We did two or three tracks with both of us singing into the same SM58. Just like Springsteen and Little Steven.
This time I used a drum loop already programmed into the W-5. These loops were triggered by pressing a key on the keyboard, but as soon as you removed your finger the loop would stop. You couldn’t lock it into continuous-play mode. The only way I ever found to get around this was by using a sustain pedal to trick the loop into thinking the key was still pressed down. Gord is credited with “foot” in the liner notes for some of our albums from this period because he would always volunteer to take care of that side of things so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.
There was an odd quirk to some of these loops. Using the modulation wheel, you could sometimes uncover another layer of synthesized percussion. A lot of these hidden accents had a habit of slowly going out of tempo. The longer you kept the loop going, the worse it would get. You can hear this happen in real-time on the SHOEBOX PARADISE song “Partners in Crime”.
Halfway through “The Happy Dentist” I did the little modulation wheel trick and found the sub-loop was so unsynchronized with the main loop it threw everything off, destroying all sense of rhythm.
You’ve got two choices when a thing like this happens. You can either kill the song, or you can embrace the chaos.
With Gord’s foot still on the sustain pedal, I hit a number of keys low on the synth to trigger even more arrhythmic loops, creating a giant mess. Then I sat back down with my acoustic guitar, went nuts with the slide, and started singing faux-Japanese gibberish.
This was too far from home for Gord. He went along with it, but in later years he told me he thought it ruined the whole song. He wanted a coup de grâce, and here I was prolonging the suffering. For me it’s always been one of the album’s defining moments. I love how everything falls apart in such an absurd, exaggerated way. It’s a great example of something that never would have been allowed to happen on SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.
For the record, there was no racist intention behind what I sang as all hell broke loose. It was little more than some silliness that came to me in the moment.
Cha chaka chee cha, chicka chee cho. Two dogs fuckin’ in the sand.
To this day I can’t make it to the end without collapsing into a laughing fit. If I do manage to get most of the way through, the part that kills me is, “Suck my dick ’til my ass falls down.”
You gotta have fun, even if it’s not always in great taste. Besides, who on earth could take the idea of someone’s ass falling off at the moment of climax seriously in the first place?
I ended the song by spitting the gum I was chewing into my vocal mic, screaming a deluge of profanity through a kazoo, and dropping the loudest F-bomb of my life.
If you ever wondered who the wildcard was in Papa Ghostface, I guess now you know.
With “Nothing from Nothing”, for the first time I had no written lyrics to work with. The tale of a secret society of damaged people hellbent on self-annihilation almost seemed to construct itself. I made one giant boner of a grammatical error at a climactic moment and went from addressing the Charlie character as an established member of the group to making him sound like more of a novice without seeming to notice — such is the danger of improvising for almost thirteen minutes and trying to keep your story straight — but that didn’t stop it from becoming one the most effective things of its kind in the whole PG catalogue. Gord made the unusual (for him) decision to play a few bit parts, contributing some great moments and giving me something to play off of.
Even the things that didn’t work seemed to work. We were able to incorporate the drum loop’s initial skittishness into the narrative without missing a beat. Gord played some evil-sounding electric guitar, setting the perfect tone, and I managed to hold things down on bass without getting distracted from the scene I was trying to paint. I overdubbed a bit of W-5 electric piano but it felt a little superfluous, so I kept it brief.
I owe a huge creative debt to John Cale and Tom Waits. Those two brilliant madmen taught me it was possible to make compelling “talkies” without being pretentious. I’d listen to “The Jeweller” or “9th & Hennepin” and sit spellbound, hanging on every word, wanting to know how the story was going to end. They were little movies in sound form.
I didn’t have that kind of poetry in me. Not yet. But their work gave me something to aspire to without trying to mimic or recreate what they’d already done.
(The pinnacle of my work in the spoken word department might be a song called “Average Jim” that’ll show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE one of these days. It’s a good one. The one that’s going on the next Papa Ghostface album is no slouch either.)
We couldn’t end the album on such a dark note. We got together one more time and recorded “Fatties”. Jesse, the classmate I wanted to impress (more on him in a bit), was working with me by then — or I should say I was working for him without getting paid anything — and he came over for a bit before Gord did, leaving his acoustic guitar behind. He didn’t feel like lugging it home. I was tasked with bringing it to school for him the next day.
It was serendipitous. Gord picked up Jesse’s acoustic, I reached for my own, and we were recording before we knew what we were doing.
“Fatties” is really two different improvised songs grafted together. The first is about smoking pot in Willistead Park — something I’d never done, but I knew a lot of students who did — and the effects of a month or so without cable TV on a teenage male libido — something I was all too familiar with. Whatever my guitar-related shortcomings were on “The Happy Dentist”, I made up for them here with a nice little slide solo and some walking bass lines, my unresolved chords playing off of Gord’s closed majors and minors. (My guitar is in the right stereo channel. Gord’s in the left.)
Apropos of nothing, my grade ten geography teacher Mr. Kuszowski worms his way in there — as a narc or a pothead, it isn’t made clear. All three of his favourite catchphrases appear, one after the other:
“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
— Said to discourage us from asking him anything about what he was teaching us.
“You got the answer? Shut your mouth.”
— Said when someone raised their hand to answer a question he asked the class.
“You want a week or a month?”
— Said when he was threatening someone with detention.
“What have you,” was a verbal tic my grade nine science teacher would often use to end a sentence. I threw that in there too.
I don’t know why I did that. But the overlapping Mr. Kuszowskis admonishing the listener not to ask stupid questions while a frenetic modulated synth-sitar line is introduced never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
Once that felt like it had gone as far as we could take it, we stopped recording and I got a drum loop going. It was the same one used on “The Happy Dentist”, only a little slower and deeper this time. I introduced a new chord progression in a different key and Gord picked out some lead lines when he wasn’t shadowing what I was doing.
There was a marked change in the lyrics now, with the silly sex talk and drug references forgotten.
Light in the east, in the west, in the south. From the north, to the underground, to my home room, to my hometown.
(I always liked that “home room” / “hometown” bit.)
After the impressionism fades, this section reveals itself to be a wistful look back at a failed relationship. I’d never had a girlfriend and didn’t think I ever would. I wasn’t about to let a thing like that stop me from delving into matters of the heart (and genitals).
I used Gord’s voice in a way I never had before and never would again, feeding him lines, making both of us supporting players to my lead narrator. I got a huge kick out of directing him. There’s nothing quite like this tapestry of our voices in anything else we did together, and it’s somehow fitting that the backdrop is by far the prettiest music on the whole album.
After some fun duelling guitar action, Gord took his foot off the sustain pedal and started strumming a D major chord without warning when I was still playing a C. I switched to playing lead, sang, “That’s all the naked parakeet wrote,” repeated the line in a near-scream, and everything ended with a neat little callback to “Spandex” from Gord.
I didn’t like the way my last almost-screamed line came off, so I replaced most of it by saying, “And that, my friends, is the story of the penis farmer from Brazil.” You can still hear my wailing bleeding into the guitar mics. When I was doing the harmonies and faux-baritone bit (how I got that low back then, I have no idea), Gord added a little overdub right at the beginning of the second section, rubbing a metal slide against a mic that had some heavy distortion on it and singing a falsetto melody before my singing came in. I let out a little shout of affirmation in the background.
As for me swearing at my headphones and telling them to stay on my face after dedicating the song to Priscilla Presley — I was just starting to grow out my hair for the first time, and I liked the way it looked. I was so particular about keeping it in place, I would wear headphones upside down with the headband beneath my chin. It was a short-lived arrangement.
“Fatties” felt like a fine ending, but I still had a tiny bit of space left to work with on the CD. In those days before reliable eighty-minute CDs were available I liked to squeeze every millisecond I could out of the seventy-four minutes I had to work with. Gord took off for the night, and I recorded the unlisted final song by myself with every track running through the Digitech. I held a mic in front of the bass and smacked it with my fist, overdubbing myself singing about the song I was singing:
This little song — it isn’t very long. There isn’t lots of time left, so I have to make it short.
It went on for a while longer like that. Felt like it lost steam pretty quick. I recorded over what I’d done as soon as that first “verse” ended, beat-boxing and screaming about a grasshopper. I cut that off to play a few seconds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Clavinova, also plugged into the Digitech to give it some extra hair. Then I mashed the keys and found the last few seconds of the beat-boxing section worked well enough as an outro.
The funny thing is I usually had to chop up a hidden track in order to make it fit on a CD, and I almost always ended up losing moments I was fond of. This time I went out of my way to chop the song up, only to discover there was just enough space left to accommodate it.
It’s less than thirty seconds long, and it’s probably my favourite unlisted track I’ve ever committed to a piece of spinning plastic. Its unbridled lunacy feels like the perfect ending to an album full of unhinged moments.
Awfully Lovely didn’t sit right with me as an album title now that I had all the pieces in front of me. I reached for one of my playing-with-words titles and called it YOU’RE A NATION. Seemed appropriate. The “Piss on Me”/urination connection never entered my mind.
The moment it was finished, I knew this album destroyed SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN. I could feel it in my bones. This time my feelings didn’t change after the honeymoon period passed. In a lot of ways it was the first Papa Ghostface album that felt like an album instead of a group of songs sharing the same space.
The sound quality…that was the trouble. I still couldn’t quite get things where I wanted them to be. I tried to get around the clipping issue by riding the fader and bringing down the volume of my singing during some of the more intense passages. There was a little less distortion in places, but there were moments when my voice all but disappeared (“Spandex” is a good example). About halfway through the album I gave up on that altogether and let things go into the red.
Today I know how to ride a fader if I need to, making minute adjustments that don’t call attention to themselves. Nineteen years ago…not so much.
Another thing I didn’t know much about was mic placement. I had two Shure SM57s and an SM58. That was my whole mic cabinet. No condensers. No ribbons. Those SM57s got pretty close to the sound hole of whatever acoustic instrument they were tasked with recording. I could have countered the mud by cutting some lows, but EQ was a foreign concept to me. I lived with the mud. I couldn’t even hear some of the mud — I was still monitoring on that old Magnasonic boombox.
My recordings of the bass guitar itself were a mixed bag. On some tracks, like “Rippin'” and “We’re All Gonna Go”, it was at least running through the Digitech and somewhat controlled by some built-in compression. On most of the other songs Gord or I plugged straight into the mixer with no compression. The dynamics were all over the place. For some reason I’ll never understand, I added a low boost effect to my bass on “Nothing from Nothing” and introduced even more mud.
To be fair, I was only a few months removed from starting serious work with this mixer. Digital recording was still brand new to me. I had to figure out everything on the fly, learning through trial and error. And my “monitors” weren’t giving me the most accurate imaging or frequency response. But it wasn’t my finest moment as an engineer.
I made a copy of the album for myself and a copy for Gord. My own CD travelled with me through all my classes the next day, and a few students asked to hear what I was listening to on my DiscMan. There was a lot of giggling whenever “Fatties” was played. One guy who was always a bit of a dick to me was obsessed with the hidden track. That was funny. Nothing crazy happened, though. I didn’t put any effort into spreading the music around. I was years away from even thinking to do that sort of thing, and it would be another month or two before MERRY FUCKIN’ CHRISTMAS became a weird little high school sensation behind my back.
You’d be surprised what kind of legacy an album can have when only about eight people in the known universe have heard it. For instance, YOU’RE A NATION once helped endear Gord to some police officers who might have been looking to make an example out of him.
He was hanging out with Amanda in a city park not long after I gave him his copy of the album on CD when some cops who were canvassing the area saw them, grew suspicious of the two teenagers who looked like they walked straight out of the Woodstock film, and started asking questions.
They found some roaches and a small amount of pot on Gord. He found himself in the back of a police car, scared shitless. He was going to jail for only having enough marijuana in his pocket to roll one joint. He was sixteen.
Amanda was crafty. Gord might have been too terrified to speak, but she was friendly with the cops. She talked to them. She told them her boyfriend was a musician. Told them he was making all this crazy music with his friend. Told them she just happened to have their new album right here in her purse. Did they want to see it?
Those two cops looked at our song titles and my goofy drawings of us showing our asses to the world and thought it was pretty cool. They warmed up to Gord. They let him go with a warning: keep your drugs at home.
Talk about a weird album to save someone’s ass.
Jesse (I told you we’d come back to him) had a more troubled relationship with this music. As soon as he heard SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN he saw an opportunity, and he was on that shit faster than a dog on a shiny new fire hydrant. Today anyone can record an album on their laptop for little or no money. In 1999 things were a little different. Having the ability to record music at home and put it on a CD when you were a teenager…that wasn’t normal.
Halfway through the recording sessions for YOU’RE A NATION, Jesse was over at my house for the first of what would be many recording sessions. I was excited to work with another singer and songwriter my age. Gord was a great musical companion, but he wasn’t a writer. Aside from the odd thing like “Rotten Fruit”, he would never show up and say, “Check out this song I just wrote.”
I saw the potential for a unique creative partnership with Jesse. Not only did he and I both write our own material, but we had different influences and ideas. That could be exciting. We could push each other into uncharted territory by writing together.
My vision of our future was only half right. Jesse saw potential too, but it involved getting free recording time and absorbing my musical ideas to improve his own songs. And that was pretty much what our relationship was all about for the next few years, until he no longer saw any use for me and stopped hanging out with me. I was there to make him sound better and to listen to him spew hot air about how great he was and how lame everyone else was. When I asked him for a little bit of money after years of thankless work, he bolted.
I put up with this for as long as I did because I didn’t have a lot of confidence in those days. And to be honest, for a while I kind of looked up to the guy, before I realized he was a bit of an ass. He had charisma. That stuff can be pretty powerful.
The creative friction between us was interesting, even if he was the only one benefitting from it. Here was someone who wanted to take over the world, and he was convinced he was only a few steps away from his goal. I was the audience for a number of monologues in which he detailed his aspirations. He was going to The Top. He was taking me with him to The Top, whether I wanted to come along for the ride or not. He didn’t care who he had to step over or betray on his way to The Top. He knew he had the goods, and to hear him tell it, he was one of the only people on the planet worthy of this kind of success.
As someone who had no grand ambitions to conquer anything and was content to make music that didn’t fit into any particular box, his ego bewildered me. Meanwhile, I think I seemed like some sort of alien to him. The few times he did try to write with me, it was never about meeting me on my wavelength. It was about trying to get me to write the way he did. And that wasn’t gonna happen.
I’ll never forget him saying to me once, after listening to some songs that would end up on SHOEBOX PARADISE, “You’ve got so much talent it makes me fucking sick. You know, these could actually be good, commercial songs if you got rid of all the weird shit. I don’t know why you’re just throwing your talent away.”
There was contempt in his voice. He looked like an angry parent chastising a misbehaving child.
The “weird shit” was the whole point for me. I was a weird teenager with a twisted sense of humour and a wide range of interests. I wanted the music I made to reflect that. More than that, I wanted my music to sound like me. Not something somebody else had already done. It didn’t matter if no one else liked it. What mattered was I enjoyed creating it, it came from a place that was real, and I could enjoy listening to it.
I was art. He was commerce. It was that black and white.
Here’s an illustration of the war we waged:
That first time we met up outside of school in mid-October, I had a chance to play Jesse some music and watch him react to it. Giving my work a look-in was nothing more than an afterthought after we’d spent hours honing and recording a number of his songs, but I still wanted to share some of what I was working on.
The synthesizer stabs on “Rippin'” were “science fiction movie shit”. Jesse made it through three or four minutes of the song before he told me to play him something else. He made it all the way through “Spandex” but liked it even less. He told me Gord’s distorted screaming and a lot of my own singing was horrible, and the only way I could salvage the song was if I got rid of all that garbage.
I played “She’s Awfully Lovely” next.
“It sounds like you recorded this in your garage,” he said. It wasn’t a compliment.
I didn’t bother playing him “We’re All Gonna Go”. Having my work denigrated after I gave his soulless, brain-dead, emotionally vacant love songs a fair shake wasn’t my idea of a good time.
Two days later Jesse was over at the house again to work on some more of his music. He brought his friend Steph with him to sing some harmonies. Before we got started he said, “Play ‘Spandex’ for her.”
It was strange to me that he’d want anyone else to hear a song he had so little affection for, but I gave Jesse and Steph the two pairs of headphones I had and listened to the bleed I was able to pick up from across the room.
Steph laughed a few times. It wasn’t the laughter of someone who was put off by my lyrics about lycra-clad frogs, breasts from Montana, and my distaste for geography class. She was enjoying the song. For his part, Jesse had a look on his face like he was staring at something horrifying and couldn’t quite make himself turn away. It was hilarious.
Gord screamed, “Spandex for MEEEEEEEE!”
Jesse shook his head. “I told you to get rid of that shit. You left it in, huh?”
I smiled and shrugged.
“What do you think?” Jesse asked Steph once the song ended.
She told me she thought it was fun and she liked my vocal harmonies. That felt good.
“We need to get Johnny here to start writing normal songs,” Jesse said.
Here was the real tragedy of that night. I wrote two songs at school earlier in the day with the idea of asking Jesse and Steph to sing harmonies on them. One was a piano ballad. The other was a more uptempo thing. Both featured lyrics that were about as “normal” as I could stand to let myself get without lapsing into uninspired cliché territory (that was Jesse’s bread and butter, not mine). There was nothing weird about them. They were good, straightforward songs.
I had the music all worked out. I was ready to prove I could hang with Jesse as a songwriter — ready to assert myself and bend this into a true collaborative situation. I was convinced I would win his respect. And the thought of us singing three-part harmonies on my songs…that was thrilling.
I never got to hear it happen. Didn’t get to play even half a verse of one of those songs for my guests. As soon as “Spandex” was out of the way, Jesse made the night all about him. He had no interest in anything I had to say, musically or otherwise. He acted like it was his home, his equipment, his time. By the time he was trying to coach me into giving him the vocal tone he wanted for a third part harmony I was adding to one of his songs, bitching at me for not getting breathy enough, I was ready to tell him to get the hell out of my house.
I should have done that. I wish I wasn’t so gutless for so long when confronted with people whose unchecked arrogance sucked all the fun out of making music. It’s a serious regret.
At least I did one thing right. After he went home I annihilated the song he had us working on with one grotesque, ill-fitting overdub after another, taking everything he hated about my music and injecting it into his.
As passive-aggressive revenge scenarios go, that one was pretty satisfying.
I ran into Jesse at lunchtime one day in early November. By now I’d recorded almost a whole album for him between Papa Ghostface sessions and work on my own foul-mouthed Christmas album. He noticed I had the just-finished YOU’RE A NATION in my hand. He invited me to eat lunch with him in the school’s music room. I didn’t have anything better to do.
He asked to see the album after we sat down. I handed it over. As soon as he saw “Spandex” written on the back insert his face lit up.
“You have to hear this song Johnny made,” he said to the six or seven other people in the room. “Check this out.”
He fired up Mr. Ross’s hi-fi system, slid the CD into the disc tray, hit play, and cranked up the volume.
No one seemed to know what to make of it. A girl named Katie Goertzen looked mortified. Jesse was smiling. I couldn’t believe it.
Just as Gord’s acoustic guitar was threatening to blow up the world, Mr. Ross appeared and killed the sound. He popped out the CD and asked who it belonged to. I reached out my hand and took it. He gave me a dirty look but didn’t say anything.
“That’s fucking bullshit,” Jesse said. He was pissed.
Two weeks earlier, when he first heard “Spandex”, he was disgusted by it. Now he wanted everyone to hear it.
He never did come around to my way of looking at music as an art instead of a business. But I think that song broke his brain a little.
The best moment of all came when I was walking with Gord and Amanda in the park, probably a few more weeks down the road.
“I’ve had this song stuck in my head forever,” Amanda said. “Who sings the song that goes, ‘We’re all gonna go down slowly’?”
“That’s one of John’s songs,” Gord said, laughing.
I sang a bit of it for her. Gord sang along on the chorus.
“That’s the song! I love that song!”
When you’re in high school and a beautiful girl has a song you wrote stuck in her head…it doesn’t get much better than that.
Over the years YOU’RE A NATION has remained one of my favourite Papa Ghostface albums. It’s foul-mouthed, idiosyncratic to the core, full of mistakes and human moments, and the music makes no concessions to the listener. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of what PG meant to me, and it paved the way for albums like SHOEBOX PARADISE and PAPER CHEST HAIR.
The thing that’s always killed me is the sound quality. It’s not an album I think a lot of people would enjoy or “get”, and to those who’ve only heard the music I’ve made over the last decade or so it would probably be a shock, but I’ve been reluctant to share it with anyone at all for a long time because of all that clipping and low end mud.
Too self-conscious to share an album you’re proud of. That’s a funny place to be.
Remixing it has never been an option. I have a very clear memory of staring at the mixer nineteen years ago and making the decision to erase every single YOU’RE A NATION track without backing any of them up. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t think I was ever going to get very good at this whole recording thing, and there wasn’t any reason to believe returning to this material in a year or two with fresh ears would make any difference.
My only recourse was to find a mastering engineer willing to take a crack at it. I started giving that some serious thought around the time the album turned ten years old.
In 2009, when I was beginning work on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I sent an email to a mastering engineer I won’t name. I felt it was time to give the professional mastering thing another shot, and that album felt like it was going to be especially dynamic and worthy of a master’s touch (ooh, a pun).
At the time, this guy was willing to master a single song for free to give potential clients an idea of what he could do. I sent him “Knee-Jerk Howl”. He told me his free samples were done on a “first come, first served” basis, so it could take a few weeks, but he would get to it when he could.
Nine years later, I’m still waiting to hear back from him.
In 2011 I emailed another mastering engineer I won’t name. This time I cut right to the chase. I told him about YOU’RE A NATION, detailed the album’s issues, and sent along a sample track to give him an idea of what he’d have to work with. I asked how much he would charge for a project like this and what the turnaround time would be.
I’m still waiting for a response.
It was just like the demoralizing weirdness I went through when I was trying to make friends with fellow musicians and get gigs in Windsor in the days before CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN made me “cool” overnight, only now it was mastering engineers who decided I was so insignificant they didn’t even want to take my money.
The YOU’RE A NATION Reclamation Project became a bucket list item for me. Something I hoped to get done someday, assuming I could ever find a mastering engineer who would give me the time of day. I wasn’t optimistic. I put it on the back burner and went about my business.
A lot of mastering engineers charge an awful lot of money. I understand why. You put a lot of time, money, and work into building a studio that’s acoustically treated just right and you hone your craft. Your ears and your gear are valuable — often indispensable. You provide an important service. You need to make a living.
But with the Loudness War showing no signs of fading, it’s become difficult to asses the kind of work some professionals are capable of when maximum loudness isn’t a consideration. I’ve heard $3,000 and $5,000 mastering jobs that sound like something a dead squirrel could have done with a stolen plug-in. And I know this isn’t even always the mastering. Some mastering engineers are given awful mixes by recording and mixing engineers — mixes that are intentionally distorted and devoid of headroom so they won’t be “tampered with” — putting them in an impossible situation. The issue still stands. When so much music is crushed beyond the point of no return and almost no one offers free samples anymore, how are you supposed to even guess at what someone might do to your music if your priorities are dynamics and musicality?
This is why I’ve been doing it myself for a good long while now. It keeps things simple.
Still, a few years back I got to thinking it might be worth one more try. One name I kept coming across on the internet was Scott Craggs. His rates were incredibly reasonable. What’s more, every shred of evidence I could find told me he did great work and was a pleasure to deal with. I listened to some music he mastered. It wasn’t squashed. It sounded good. I read some things he wrote. He was funny. He was articulate. He was against the Loudness War. I liked this guy already.
I sent Scott an email. He wrote back the same day. I almost had him master STEW. It was a shorter-than-usual album for me, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to find out what a real mastering engineer could do with my stuff now that I knew a lot more about the whole recording thing.
About five seconds after that email exchange, money-related things went straight into the toilet and paying a mastering engineer was no longer an option for me. So much for that.
These days things are better. And after losing most of September to that stupid cold and some subsequent bronchitis (boo), I felt the time was right for YOU’RE A NATION. There was never going to be a more opportune moment to cross it off my bucket list.
I sent Scott “Spandex”, explained what I was hoping to do, and asked if he thought it was a worthwhile project. He said he’d be glad to take a stab at it. He thought it would be fun. He also said the song made him think of a cross between Tago Mago-period Can and teenage silliness.
I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to high-five someone through a computer screen as much as I did right then.
At the time this music was being made, Can was one of many bands on my list of “music to check out”. I read about them and wanted to dig into their catalogue, but I didn’t end up picking up any of their albums until well over a decade later. And then, of course, I thought, “What took me so long?! This is great!”
What was I listening to in late 1999? There would have been a lot of Tom Waits, David Sylvian, and Roxy Music on the menu. Big Star. Kate Bush. Robyn Hitchcock. John Cale. Lou Reed. There wouldn’t have been any jazz, blues, or electronica yet.
I don’t know if much of that seeped into YOU’RE A NATION. But I know if anyone had dropped Can as a reference point in 1999, I would have flipped out. Might have asked them to marry me if I was feeling bold.
I wanted to make Scott’s work as painless as possible, so I experimented with the “Clip Fix” tool in Audacity. According to the manual, it “attempts to reconstruct clipped regions by interpolating the lost signal. It is only likely to be effective for repairing lightly clipped audio.”
It was a good deal more effective than that. Some of these songs were a mess of clipping all the way through. I was able to undo almost all of that junk. As I’ve said before, I know it isn’t technically possible to replace information that’s been lost through digital clipping. An algorithm like this can only “guess” at the way things might have sounded before the clipping occurred.
I applied it to whole songs, and it wiped out nineteen years of frustration in one fell swoop. It was unreal. The only sounds I couldn’t repair were those where distortion was burned in, either from a vocal effect being hit too hard at the source (“The Happy Dentist”) or a microphone overloading (“Spandex”). I expected as much. What I wasn’t counting on was being able to give Scott WAV files that had some actual headroom and lots of dynamics.
Score a major coup for Audacity’s guesswork.
In a way, I think something like this is the ultimate test of a mastering engineer’s skills. It’s one thing to work on an album that’s been well-recorded and well-mixed. When that isn’t the case and there are giant, gaping flaws that need to be addressed, you get to find out what an audio surgeon is really capable of.
I tried to keep my expectations low, given the source material. When Scott sent me the remastered songs, I burned them onto a CD, put on the same Sennheiser headphones I used when I was recording and mixing the album in 1999 (headband up this time), and braced myself.
If I hadn’t been listening in bed, “Rippin'” would have knocked me over. It had a punch to it I’d never heard before. The first W-5 drum hits smacked me right in the chest. For the first time I could hear everything my acoustic guitar was doing in the left stereo channel, and all my weird little bass runs, when those tracks used to be twin layers of mud. The Arp Omni-2 bits came alive in a whole new way. It was like a thick blanket had been lifted from the sound to reveal hidden abdominal muscles and a tasteful nipple ring.
Gord’s acoustic guitar overload on “Spandex” was now a cool lo-fi sound that didn’t bring way too much low end energy with it. On “She’s Awfully Lovely”, “Piss on Me”, and “Nothing from Nothing”, out-of-control bass tracks were reigned in until they sat right in the pocket. Hearing the songs like this was almost like hearing them for the very first time. The drum loops all had a whole new depth to them. The keyboard drums on “We’re All Gonna Go” almost sounded like real drums, they were so dynamic and full. My acoustic guitar sounded like it had been recorded by someone who knew what they were doing, and not a clueless teenager shoving an SM57 too close for comfort. Even my beat-boxing on the unlisted track had a new depth to it.
It was everything I didn’t dare to hope for and more. An album I thought was destined to have a saggy bum forever now had a tight, powerful bottom end. And the mud! Did I mention the mud? It was gone! Dead! Kaput! On some songs Scott had to contend with both acoustic guitar-generated mud and electric bass-generated mud. He killed them both without ever sacrificing the body of the sounds.
I asked him how he managed to do a thing like that. It was pretty amazing to me. Some people would scoff at this kind of question and say, “I’m not telling you how I work.” Not Scott.
Here’s some of what he told me:
From memory, it was basically something like this: De-esser on most songs, around 4-5k. EQ was a high pass filter around 25-30, usually a cut somewhere between 100-200, maybe another cut between 200-400. I added some high end on one or two of them. Nothing drastic, 1-2db at most. Couple songs might have had a dynamic EQ doing a bit of low end control as well. Then there was a compressor in M/S, just working on the M. I was trying to reign in the vocals a bit. So, high ratio, hard-ish knee, mostly just working to grab the louder vocal stuff. Then a regular broadband compressor, low ratio/soft knee, slow attack/fastish release, just tapping along doing a db or so. A little saturation, a tape sim, and a limiter….again, all of those just tapping a lil bit each. A couple of the really loud vocal bits I just went in and turned down manually.
That might not mean much to you if you’re not into recording and audio, but to me it’s riveting. So many different things, all doing small amounts of work that add up to a profound sonic difference. It’s a good lesson to me, too, about how less is often more even in situations where you’d assume otherwise. I thought an album like this would need huge EQ moves and a lot of compression to get it to sound right, or as close to “right” as it could get.
You know what else? It’s dynamic. It breathes. The volume is right in line with the ballpark range I try to shoot for these days when I’m mastering one of my own albums. The jarring moments like my scream of “Oh Jesus!” in “The Happy Dentist” are still jarring, as they were meant to be. They just won’t destroy your listening equipment or your ears now.
I mean, take a look at this beautiful waveform:
That’s how you do it. That’s how the game is won.
If I had the opportunity to remix these songs today, I could clean them up something fierce. I think that would be a mistake. Scott understood that without me even telling him. Instead of trying to make the album something it wasn’t, he respected the funkiness of the original recording and kept it intact, concentrating on making it the best possible version of itself.
It’s still a lo-fi beast. But now it’s got some shiny fur, some sharp teeth, and I’m no longer embarrassed to share it with anyone who’s brave enough to dive into the insanity. The best part is I can enjoy listening all the way through without any reservations for maybe the first time in my life. I used to almost want to weep when I heard how much out-of-control low end there was on a song like “Nothing from Nothing” or “Piss on Me”. It ruined the songs for me. That’s all gone now. It’s a little shocking to find myself thinking, “That’s a pretty cool bass sound,” when the only bass sound I thought this album would ever have was “shit”.
Huge thanks go out to Scott for making this stuff sound better than I ever dreamed possible, and for being so open and easy to work with. Fellow recording adventurers: if you ever find yourself in need of a mastering engineer who’s going to approach your music with an open mind, is responsive, has a quick turnaround time, won’t charge an arm, a leg, and a lung, and just does great work, Scott gets my strongest recommendation. You won’t find a nicer person or a better set of ears. I know who I’m going to now if I ever feel like an album needs an extra little something and it’s in the budget. The man is a sorcerer of the highest order.
You’d think this would be the end of our tale, but no. Now I had to think about cover art.
The first time YOU’RE A NATION was issued on CD with proper cover art I had no idea what to do. I went with a picture of the room the music was recorded in, more out of desperation than anything.
This picture was taken at the door. The room doesn’t look smaller than it is. It really was that cramped. I think it was ten feet by ten feet, if that. I spent a lot of time in that big chair, sometimes wheeling it over here when I wanted to play things with keys:
This would have been about a month before sessions for the album began. The rented acoustic bass is a dead giveaway.
I felt the first picture worked well enough as a cover image in a “you are there” way. Now I think it’s a little too bland for an album this nutty.
I didn’t feel up to commissioning an artist to draw something for me. I thought I’d see if I could scare up any interesting public domain images on the internet. I found a striking drawing Georges Méliès made during the production of his 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans le Lune (A Voyage to the Moon). I know an astronomical body and a stable community of people are two different things, but check out how cool this thing is.
The film itself is well worth viewing. It’s almost eerie to watch something that was made over a hundred years ago, knowing not a single person who was involved in front of or behind the camera is still living.
But maybe that was too classy for an album like YOU’RE A NATION. I wasn’t sure Georges would approve of a song like “Piss on Me”.
I looked at all kinds of abstract art in the public domain, from scrolls made in the 1300s to modern day digital drawings. A few things caught my eye.
Arthur Dove’s “Foghorns” from 1929:
And Georgia O’Keefe’s “Sunrise”, from the 1930s:
These were just too pretty for an album that worked so hard to avoid prettiness.
I was about to give up when I typed “public domain melting face” into a Google image search and this came up:
It was a sticker someone created and left on a website for anyone to use in any way they wanted. I downloaded it, reversed the polarity so it became white on a black background, and bingo. There it was. Something simple and off-kilter enough to feel like an accurate representation of what’s under the hood.
The plan is to go to Minuteman Press sometime next week and have a small amount of inserts made. I can’t wait to see that creepy smiley face on an album cover. It feels right. Almost iconic.
One thing I have to say: revisiting this album at the same time I’m wrapping up work on the last Papa Ghostface album there’s ever going to be has made for some interesting symmetry. In spite of all that’s changed, I’m proud to say the spirit of experimentation and anything-goes-ness is still alive and well. I think you’d have to kill me to get rid of it. Sorry, Jesse old pal. I just wasn’t made for the mainstream.
There’s a good chance the Papa Ghostface album I’ve been working on would be finished by now if not for this one thing: I got hit with a stupid cold/sinus infection. Again. It must be about the tenth time it’s happened in the history of this blog just as I’ve been gearing up to finish something.
I thought the ridiculously clingy cold I got at the beginning of the year — one of the worst I’ve ever had — would satisfy the Germ Gods and they’d leave me alone for at least a year or two. I guess I was wrong about that. I almost never get sick twice in the same orbital cycle. 2018 must be my lucky year.
It’s the same thing every time. One day I wake up with a raw throat no amount of water will soothe. That’s the tipoff. I know the next day I wake up I’m going to feel like hot garbage. I always hope the garbage won’t move up into my head so I can at least work on mixing things even if I can’t sing for a while. That hope is always in vain.
This time there were a few new wrinkles. A good chunk of my vocal range disappeared for a while. I’m used to sounding like a bullfrog for a few days when the cold first comes on, but once that passes I usually have access to just about my full normal range, no matter how congested I am or how much I’m coughing. I’ve written a lot of songs over the years when I’ve been sick and made rough recordings to preserve vocal melodies and the like. That wasn’t happening this time. For a while there I sounded like someone who was paying the price for spending the better part of a day screaming at a protest without a megaphone.
It was a little disconcerting. I’m not used to my voice being just about gone and not knowing when it’s going to come back.
To my great relief, it was a temporary thing, and now my voice is back to its old spry self. But I’m past the two week mark now, and still coughing. I don’t know if my immune system has decided to start slacking off, or if whatever bugs have been floating around over the last year or so have been stronger than usual, or what. I’m just frustrated to have lost a good chunk of recording time.
Even my ears haven’t behaved the way they normally do. Instead of everything getting muffled for a while in both ears, only the left one was affected by the congestion. It wasn’t even that awful. Things were just off enough to make listening to anything on headphones more maddening than enjoyable, because the stereo balance was never quite right.
I seem to have turned the corner at last. The cough is finally starting to lose some of its authority, and the other day I contorted my jaw in a strange way while brushing my teeth and the normal range of hearing in my left ear returned in an instant. At least I can get back to work on mixing songs that need some work in that department, even if any amount of serious singing is still probably a recipe for a coughing fit.
I know I’m lucky in the grand scheme of things. Aside from the occasional stupid cold like this that takes its sweet time going away, I have no health issues to speak of. A lot of people have it much worse. It’s just a pain in the ass when you’re this close to finishing something and some bug comes along and says, “Nope. This is as far as you go for now. Have fun waking up tomorrow with the pain from your throat radiating into your ears with such force that you feel like your head is a demonic furnace. Enjoy being a baritone for a while.”
I always mean to take advantage of the downtime when I’m sick by getting back into a good reading rhythm, unplugging the laptop and digging into some of the books I’ve got piled up around here. In January I set a goal on Goodreads for how many books I wanted to read this year. I’m twenty-five books behind schedule right now.
I made no progress at all on that front. But I did gorge myself on Cyanide & Happiness animated shorts. So it wasn’t a total loss.
I also discovered my new favourite comedian: Joe Pera.
I have no idea if his deliberate way of speaking is his actual voice or just a persona he puts on. It doesn’t matter. At a time when most comedians feel a need to scream at you about their sex lives or some narrow-minded take on the politics of relationships, Joe whispers soft truths and gently skewed observations. It’s the sort of stuff you chuckle about under your breath instead of busting a gut over. I like profanity and insanity as much as the next person, but it’s kind of wonderful to come across someone whose brand of comedy is so…wholesome.
Current favourite blues song:
Current favourite non-blues song:
I’ll try to put up an out-take from the PG album or some such thing sometime soon. Gotta get things back on track, even if I’m still coughing and cantankerous.
So said David Bowie. And while I don’t claim to possess his powers of knowing what to do and when, I do seem to have rediscovered my ability to get things done.
All of the sudden, fourteen songs slated for inclusion on the PG album are either CD-ready or the mixes just need a few adjustments. That leaves six or eight more songs to work on, depending on what I decide to do with the two I’m starting to feel iffy about.
Trying to guess at a release date is always a good way to jinx myself, so I won’t do that. I will say this: the finish line just got a whole lot closer. It’s a good feeling.
On the subject of things that aren’t too far away from being released, Ron snuck a song off of his forthcoming album onto his website. You can head over HERE if you’d like, scroll down a little bit, and click on “Sweet Solitude” to get a sneak peak at what’s around the corner.
What else is new? I keep feeling a strange urge to start an Instagram as an excuse to motivate myself to take more pictures, and to have a place to put some of the images I can’t share here unless I want to turn this into a glorified photoblog. The trouble is, Instagram is owned by Facebook, Facebook has some pretty troubling ideas about who owns your intellectual property, and it can lead to people like this giant dildo who calls himself an “artist” profiting off of your work without permission or ascription.
As I’ve said a few times before, this blog began as a half-assed stab at bullying myself back into being productive after falling into a shiftless state. If you dig into the archives, you can trace my progress from not knowing what to work on and settling for recording the occasional stripped-to-the-bone tiny song, to starting to regain some momentum, to finally kicking open the floodgates and recording eight very long full-length albums inside of three years before drifting into another less fruitful period.
CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN was the beginning of that whole creative resurgence. I knew it was an important album for me when I was making it. I knew I was proud of it when it was finished. I didn’t expect more than two or three other people in the world would have any interest in listening to it.
For years I tried to get gigs, tried to network and exchange music with other artists, tried to make friends, tried to play the game — everything you’re “supposed” to do, and everything I don’t do now. No one would give me a show. With a few fleeting exceptions, no one would talk to me. No one was willing to take the time to listen to my music to work out whether or not they even thought it was any good.
I didn’t know the right people. I wasn’t considered cool enough to be worthy of a seat at the table. It was made very clear to me, in a myriad of ways, that I wasn’t wanted.
One guy started telling me he was going to make it his mission to get me signed to a record label. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but it was a nice feeling to have a fan who claimed to have some industry connections and seemed willing to try and help me out. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him so we could talk about putting a game plan together.
The number he gave me was out of service. All he ever did for me was blow a bunch of hot air in my face.
That’s a good example of the sort of thing networking got me in those days.
I was able to get a show early in 2005. The bassist in the band that opened for me was one of the many people I tried and failed to connect with when no one was interested in anything I had to say. Now the landscape was a little different and he tried to paint himself as an ally who’d been in my corner all along. He said he would get me some more gigs around the city, helping to find bills I would make some amount of musical sense on. He was my new best friend right up until the moment I started playing my set.
I opened with an instrumental ambient electric guitar piece. He stood stock-still and glared at me. Maybe he didn’t think I was supposed to be able to get up on a stage and make that kind of atmospheric racket on a guitar with no amp and no effects outside of a cheap, obsolete-even-then Digitech GSP-21. Maybe he wasn’t expecting me to be any good and it bothered him that I wasn’t embarrassing myself, robbing him of an opportunity to pat himself on the back and say, “See? This is why no one would give you the time of day or listen to your music. I knew it all along.”
I’m not sure what his deal was. But he stood there and stared at me for a while with contempt sucking the warmth out of his face. Then he walked out before I was finished my first song. He didn’t come back.
He didn’t help me get any gigs. He never talked to me again.
It wasn’t like I was the talk of the town or anything. But now that some people who were considered cool decided I was good enough to pay attention to after all, the general attitude of the city’s music scene seemed to shift from, “Fuck off, freak,” to, “You’re okay, I guess. Come on in and hang out with us if you want.” Almost everyone I came in contact with was all talk. When it came time to turn thought into action, they would never show up so we could do anything together, or else they would stop talking to me after a while with no explanation, and then they would never acknowledge me again.
That put a pretty bad taste in my mouth. I washed it down by not playing any more shows and shoving myself off the face of the earth, killing whatever small-scale hype there was before it had a chance to hit puberty. The way I looked at it, if I wasn’t good enough before, no way was I good enough now that a few of the cool kids wanted to hang out with me. They didn’t get to have it both ways. And I’ve always had contempt for people who let their mouths write cheques their asses can’t cash.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t develop a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the whole thing. But I think it was justified. And sometimes you don’t have any popcorn to munch on when you’re watching a movie. A random chip or two can be useful in a situation like that.
I got on with trying to make the best and most honest music I could, keeping it to myself for the most part. I did manage to make a handful of friends through music, but they were few and far between. That was fine with me. I was content to hang out in the shadows, away from all the empty talk and double-dealing.
By the time CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN came along, I was a few years removed from that one post-high school live show. I tried doing the sideman thing for a while, backing up a few friends at Phog or the Room or the FM Lounge when they asked me to. That was as far as it went. Playing my own songs live wasn’t a consideration anymore.
I was excited to share this album with some friends and a few people at CJAM, but I didn’t expect anyone to like it much. As happy as I was with it, and as much as I felt like it marked something of a creative rebirth for me, it was pretty freewheeling stuff even by my standards, with a lot of very short songs and some pretty bizarre subject matter.
I gave a few copies to Liam at Dr. Disc and Tom at Phog and said, “I don’t think anyone will be interested in this. But if anyone wants a CD, they’re free for whoever wants to take them.”
A week or two later, I took a look at the CJAM website. My album was at #2 on the “general” chart and #1 on the folk/roots/blues chart. I did a mental double-take. I wasn’t listening to the radio at all at the time. I wasn’t expecting this music to get any airplay. I started digging into the MP3 archives and heard one DJ after another playing CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN songs and talking about the album with what sounded like real excitement.
A lot of people said some very kind things, but the most surprising and meaningful on-air moment I was privy to was this one.
The quality is pretty fuzzy. Something strange was going on with the MP3 archives in the late summer of 2008, and for a while anything you downloaded from the site was pitched down about half an octave and swimming with white noise.
(Side note: this was how I first heard the David Gray song “Knowhere”. To this day I can’t listen to it at its intended speed. It doesn’t sound right to me if it isn’t slowed down.)
I was able to restore this bit to the proper pitch and speed, but too much clarity got lost when I tried to remove the noise. So it’s very lo-fi.
Angela was one of the first people at CJAM to really champion my music. She got the music director to take notice and move my albums over to the on-air library for the first time so they were eligible to chart. She was the main reason I got that show back in 2005. Unlike the aforementioned Mr. Hot Air, she even solicited some record labels on my behalf in an effort to get them to acknowledge me.
We’re not friends anymore. It’s complicated. But there’s a part of me that will always love her for what she said about me on her show ten years ago when this album was new. The first time I listened, it made me feel like crying.
I got a call from Liam not long after that. “The album is awesome,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to sell it? All the copies you gave me are gone. Everyone who hears it wants one.”
I had to start giving Liam and Tom small boxes to hold free copies of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. I couldn’t seem to keep them stocked longer than a week at a time. The attention my music stirred up back in 2004 and 2005 for a short spell was nothing compared to this. I got blog comments and emails from people in different countries asking how they could get a copy of the album. And with an almost rabid enthusiasm, I was hurled into a music scene that had once treated me like a leper.
The strangeness of it all is difficult to put into words now.
My twenty or thirty minutes of local fame/infamy aren’t worth getting into in any great detail. A lot of that story is already preserved here in old blog posts. I made friends — some of whom later revealed themselves not to be friends at all — and enemies, had some interesting adventures, watched as the whole free public distribution thing stirred up all kinds of mixed reactions, became the subject of some pretty outlandish speculation, and came to understand this wasn’t a world I wanted any part of.
Once I got what I thought I wanted, I saw it wasn’t at all what I built it up to be in my head. I consider my time spent as a semi-present member of this city’s music scene to be a worthwhile experiment, but after a while the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze anymore. There was too much pulp for my taste. So I backed away and scaled things down until I was pretty much back where I started. The group of people who had some genuine interest in what I was doing was a little larger than before, but otherwise I was still chiseling away at random rock formations from the comfort of my cave.
Without CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, whatever’s left of that audience today probably wouldn’t exist. It remains the album I’ve made with the most reach and the largest, most diverse fan base. It’s also one of my own personal favourites when I look at all the work I’ve done. For all the weirdness I thought people would find off-putting, the songs still stand up and feel like some of the best I’ve written — especially in their remastered form, without the digital clipping some of them were marred by the first time around.
Not long ago, Ron Leary’s album theroadinbetween turned ten years old. He played a handful of live shows that featured the whole album performed front to back. My “breakthrough” album hasn’t had anything close to the impact his debut full-length did, and it hasn’t reached half as many ears over the years, but I got to thinking it might be worthwhile to try doing something similar. After all, you don’t often get the chance to mark meaningful musical milestones like this.
I could try putting a band together to play the whole album. That would be kind of crazy, teaching a group of people more than thirty songs. I could go it alone. That would be almost as crazy, and it might be a little less interesting for an audience to listen to so many songs with a more limited palette of sounds to support them. I did sit down one afternoon to try playing a bunch of the songs at the piano as an experiment. It opened them up in an interesting way and gave me a new appreciation for some of them.
But I’ve also been stewing on an idea to put on a big show at Mackenzie Hall when YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is finished with as many of the people who’ve contributed to that album as I can get on board. I feel like I’ve got one big show left in me, and that’s it.
As appealing as a ten-year anniversary CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN extravaganza is in theory, between trying to finish two different albums and some other business that hasn’t yet been written about here, I think the timing isn’t quite right. Don’t be too surprised if there’s a show sometime next year, though. If it’s the last thing I do in a live setting with my own music — and it might be — I’m going out with a bang.
Ron’s album is officially finished. The final mixes and master have been approved. Brand new dances have been invented and danced with gusto. Now it’s just a matter of Ron taking care of the packaging and duplication side of things. I can’t give you an exact release date, but my hope is that it sneaks out into the world before the end of the year.
It was strange coming to terms with it all being over. I don’t think this sort of thing used to register at all, but these days a lot more time, thought, and effort is involved in making an album for me, whether it’s my music I’m recording or someone else’s. There’s almost always some sort of emotional investment that happens along the way, and when the album is finished it feels like the end of a relationship. In a way I guess it is. Sometimes you get to play some of the songs live and have a nostalgic roll in the hay after the fact. Most of the time you just move on to the next one.
Now I find myself with nothing but my own music to focus on, for the first time in four or five years. When I channelled all of my energy into finishing Ron’s album, I got pretty ruthless about it. It was good to be reminded how efficient I can be when I’m dialled in and working toward a well-defined goal.
With that album complete, I’ve done my best to take the energy I tapped into near the end and redirect it into my own music. So far, so good. As before, I’m working on finishing that Papa Ghostface album first, so I can then focus on that other big thing without any distractions. Right now there are twenty-two keeper tracks. Whether or not they all end being kept is a matter for time to decide. Six of them have mixes that feel good enough to be left alone. Eight only need a small amount of work — either a better mix or a few final touches. Another eight need some serious surgery.
I’d say things are moving along pretty well. If I can manage to get at least one song somewhere near the final mix stage every day or two, I’ll be in good shape.
You’re probably wondering who’s playing trumpet in that picture up there at the top of the post. That would be Austin Di Pietro. He was over here last week scattering magical music dust all over the place.
I’ve had pretty rotten luck with horn players throughout this whole YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK adventure. For every Anthony Giglio and Michael Stone — great guys who played some great flugelhorn and trombone, respectively, on songs you’ll hopefully get to hear soon — there have been something like a dozen trumpet players who have either ignored every effort I’ve made to start a dialogue with them or expressed an interest in playing on something only to turn around and stop acknowledging me for no apparent reason.
You don’t want to know how many musicians in general have done that to me. It’s getting a little scary. I’ve learned a lot through this whole lumpy process. Some of it’s been about me and how I’m a more capable and adaptable producer than I thought I was (yay for me!). A lot of it’s been about our city’s music scene. It isn’t quite as inclusive as it wants you to believe it is. There are some very talented people in Windsor’s artistic community who also happen to be open-minded and generous with their time. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with several of them. There are also some self-important douche canoes who have no interest in interacting with anyone outside of their established circle of collaborators and hangers-on. And some people mean well but are just giant flakes.
To that end, I was in touch with a trumpet player who seemed enthusiastic about doing something right up until the moment I figured out what I wanted him to play on. I sent him a rough mix of the song and never heard from him again. Austin ended up taking that person’s place and playing on a second song as well.
I have Amanda Hanson to thank for this. She was another horn player I talked to, and when I finally got around to sending her a message with a few songs I wanted to run by her, instead of ignoring me she levelled with me and said her improv chops weren’t where she wanted them to be. She was concerned she wouldn’t be able to give me what I was after. She did know a few people she could recommend to take her place. At the top of her list was Austin.
One thing I’ve discovered about myself while working with so many different singers and musicians over the last few years: I can usually coax a good performance out of someone if they need some coaxing, regardless of their skill or comfort level. And that’s rewarding work. But when you get someone in the studio who’s such a good musician they don’t need any significant direction and you can just stand back and let them do their thing…those are fun moments.
Austin is one of those people. The first song he played on was a laid-back bossa nova-inspired thing. We got a few takes down with him playing trumpet, and I would have been happy to live with one of them, but then he switched to flugelhorn and nailed it in a single take. Something about the mellower tone of that horn and the way he played it felt like it completed the song. As usual, I stuck the trusty old Pearlman TM-1 in the middle of the room, put it in omni, and all was well in the world.
To mix things up, I asked Austin to play on a twisted spoken word piece that lived on a different planet from the bossa nova tune. For the first song I had a written melody (or “head”, if you like), and then there was room for a bit of improv. Here there was nothing mapped out at all. It was wide open for him to do anything he wanted. I ran his trumpet through my old Digitech guitar effects processor friend, using my favourite ambient effect. Instead of being put off by the weirdness of all the cascading delays smearing the sound of his horn, he seemed to enjoy the opportunity to go a little crazy, using the effect to build up dissonant chord clusters. Again, it was just what the song needed.
I grabbed some video footage while he was here, but I don’t want to give too many more surprises away before these albums are done, so I think I’ll sit on that for now. Good things are coming, though. Believe you me.
Ron’s album is at the mixing and mastering stage now. I’ve been plugging away at that over the last little while. The goal is always to get things to sound as good as I can, but every once in a while I’ll get an amusing reminder that it’s best not to over-think it.
There are people out there who spend more time mixing a single song than they would working an eight-hour shift. They won’t rest until they’ve found a way to get every sound to live in its own perfectly defined little sonic space.
It’s a valid way of doing things, and it can lead to some incredible-sounding and immersive mixes, but I can’t work that way. My mind and my ears won’t work that way. I’m pretty sure if I spent that much time focused on just one song, I would lose the plot and end up with a mix that felt flat.
For me, mixing is more about energy than anything else. I try to get the sounds I want at the recording stage to make life a little easier later on. I usually dial in whatever compression and EQ I want on the way in. A lot of people will tell you this is something you should never do, because it limits your options later on, but I tend to use compression more for taming peaks than for character. As for EQ, my mindset there is pretty much the same as it was a decade ago. I’ll add a bit of a high boost to the stereo ribbon mic I use to record drums, to compensate for that mic’s high end roll-off. I’ll cut out some lows on acoustic guitars because I like to get the mics pretty close to pick up as much nuance as I can, and nuance can bring some mud with it. Other than that, I almost never EQ anything, and I don’t believe in applying a high-pass filter to 80% of your tracks to get them to sit better in the mix. I think I’ve used a high-pass filter exactly three times in my life.
If I’m honest, a lot of modern music sounds way too processed to me. It isn’t subtle. You get to a point where you have no idea what the song sounded like as a somewhat human performance, if it ever was one before someone added six hundred plug-ins to it, tuned the lead vocal to fix all the flat or sharp bits, and replaced all the drum hits with samples that sound nothing like any drums you’ve ever heard played by a person with hands.
Again, this is a legitimate way of working. It’s a sound that sells records and gets you on the radio, if nothing else. But most of the time it does nothing for me. It doesn’t move me at all. Even with some of the music I enjoy, I’ll sometimes find myself listening to an album and wishing there’d been a different cook in the kitchen.
When all other considerations are swept aside, I think this is the main reason I probably won’t ever be comfortable paying someone else to record my music. I don’t want to make something that sounds like it belongs on mainstream radio. I don’t want a sound that blends in. I want to make music that doesn’t blend in with everything else, that isn’t processed to death, that retains some semblance of realism and won’t sound dated in five or ten years when recording technology experiences another paradigm shift.
I’m not saying all the music being made now is trash and all the people recording and producing it are lazy. Plug-ins can even be great creative tools when they’re used by someone with an adventurous spirit. And not all processing stomps the life out of music. It can be used to create some truly special and unique soundscapes.
But that’s the exception rather than the rule. I see which way the wind is blowing, and I’m going to keep sprinting as hard as I can in the other direction. If I’m recording drums, I want them to sound the way my drum kit sounds in my room. If I’m recording piano, I want it to sound the way my piano sounds in my room. If I’m recording a vocal performance, I want to get the closest thing I can to a continuous, uninterrupted take. If there are mistakes or hesitations that crop up along the way, GOOD. Let them serve as reminders that the music is being played and sung by a person, not a software component.
Still, doubts crop up sometimes when I’m recording someone else’s music. The ethos I’ve developed over time has a sound that comes with it, and it isn’t going to be a sound everyone wants to hear. Lucky for me, most of the people I’ve recorded up to this point seem to share at least some of my sensibilities, and I haven’t yet had someone say to me, “You ruined my music.”
Ron and I have been on the same page from the beginning, and he’s been all for preserving the integrity of interesting performances, right down to leaving in some between-song banter (which I always love). I think we’ve got a pretty special album here, and it’s not just because of the songs, though that’s a big part of it. It feels alive. You can close your eyes and imagine being in the room where the music was created without much trouble. It may have been built up a piece at a time with a cast of just two main players and two guests, but instead of creating an artificial sound world I think we documented a real, naturally evolving one. That’s something I’m proud of.
When it comes to the mixing process, no matter what I’m working on, I try to achieve the best balance I can. But it always comes back to energy. If the energy feels right, that’s the mix I’ll go with almost every time instead of something slicker that has no life in it. As with every other step along the way, I don’t want the human quality to get lost.
That humanness has been there from the very beginning, though it didn’t always equate to good-sounding albums. In 1999, when I was recording YOU’RE A NATION with Gord, he invited me to hang out at his girlfriend Amanda’s house for Halloween. We’d just recorded a song called “Nothing from Nothing”. It was this creepy Tom Waits-inspired improvised spoken word piece that felt like a perfect Halloween song. I wanted to play it for everyone that night, but I couldn’t get it onto a CD in time to bring it with me.
Amanda had one of those CD players that held five or six discs at a time. She loaded up the disc changer with Soup by Blind Melon, A Saucerful of Secrets by Pink Floyd, some Marilyn Manson, some Pearl Jam, and — to my amazement — Papa Ghostface. Both SCREAMING NIPPLES and the first half of the double-CD HORSEMOUTH (AND OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) made the cut somehow. Then she hit the “random” button and let the playlist program itself all night.
I think it was the first time I heard any of my own music in a public setting. It was weirdly humiliating. Here were all these professionally-recorded songs that had everything balanced just right, and then out of nowhere you’d get one of our songs torturing the speakers with a lot of unpleasant clipping and way too much bass.
When one of the girls who was there found out Gord and I were responsible for that lo-fi noise, I tried to tell her the new music we were working on sounded better than any of this stuff.
“Hey, I’ve definitely heard worse,” she said, looking sympathetic.
There are a lot of things you’d like to hear someone say while they’re listening to your music for the very first time. That’s not one of them.
I was sixteen years old and just starting to teach myself the rudiments of digital recording after years of recording everything live in one shot on a boombox with a built-in microphone. It was more than a little unrealistic to expect to start pumping out brilliant recordings right away. But that night I felt like the most inept, talentless piece of shit who ever lived.
I vowed never to let myself be embarrassed like that again. I would get better. A lot better. I had no training and didn’t know what I was doing with any of the equipment I was cobbling together. I had no home computer, no regular internet access, and no one to guide me. It didn’t matter. I was determined to find a way to learn what I needed to know to get good at this recording thing.
When I was a guest on Ron’s CJAM show a month ago, he played a brand new song I gave him on a CD. It was my first time hearing it in the CJAM studio. It came roaring out of the speakers with a force that almost took my head off. It sounded huge. And this isn’t a song that has a lot going on arrangement-wise. It’s pretty stripped-down.
When I’m mixing something, I do everything I can to make sure it translates in as many different settings as possible. In spite of my best efforts, there’s only so much I can account for. My main priority is to get a song sounding good on a full-range system — not to get the best sound on earbuds or laptop speakers, where you’re losing a lot of information no matter what you do.
To hear something that didn’t just hang with a bunch of songs recorded in professional studios without embarrassing itself but stood out as being more open and dynamic-sounding than most of them, and then to realize it was my work…that was a pretty cool feeling.
It was the opposite of everything I felt almost two decades ago at Amanda’s house. I was proud. It made me feel like I was pretty good at this whole thing.
This doesn’t mean I’m suddenly some mixing genius. Not even close. I don’t think a “perfect” mix is ever going to be within my reach. But I think it’s fair to say I’ve learned a lot in the intervening years, and I look at each album I work on as an opportunity to keep learning and honing whatever skills I’ve developed.
With Ron’s album, the mixing process has been pretty straightforward. There are ten songs (one got pushed aside), and as of last night I felt good about the mixes for nine of them. There was just one song giving me a bit of trouble.
It’s always one specific song that decides it wants to be a thorn in my side. It never fails.
This one was the very first thing we recorded, before we had any idea we were making an album. For every other song, I recorded Ron’s acoustic guitar the same way I always record a solo acoustic performance, with two Neumann KM184s. Here, instead of SDCs I thought I’d use two LDCs for a different stereo sound — in this case a Pearlman TM-LE and a TM-250. Ron’s parts were recorded in 2014, and I added the rest in early 2015.
Now that we’re dealing with a full album and all the other songs have been fleshed out, the difference in acoustic guitar sound doesn’t stand out as much as I thought it would. The electric guitar is a different story. This is one of the few tracks I used the Telecaster on, and the sound is brighter than anything I captured on any of the other songs.
I thought if I re-recorded my guitar part and got a darker sound it would fit in better. It was easy enough to play, but I couldn’t recapture the spirit of the original take. Figures. I decided to leave it alone and focus on trying to dial in a mix that would fit in with the others. The more I worked on it, the farther away I got from where I wanted to be.
Today I went back to the original rough mix I made in 2015. It wasn’t perfect, but it had the energy I wanted. In that respect it destroyed every one of the new mixes I’d been messing around with over the last few days. I used the rough mix as a guide, made a few small adjustments, and decided that was as good as it was going to get. It wasn’t a cop-out. It was a moment of accepting that sometimes you do (almost) get it right the first time, regardless of what your brain might want you to believe.
As Kenny Rogers sang, you gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when a mix is fine the way it is.
You know how I said the Papa Ghostface album was the closest thing to hitting the finish line out of everything I’m working on right now, and I was going to concentrate on tying up all the loose ends there? I was wrong. Ron’s album was — and is — even closer to being done. So I’ve been giving that one my focus over the last few weeks. Felt like the sensible thing to do. I was doing a pretty good multitasking job, but there’s something refreshing about spitting all your energy into one album for a while as if it’s the only thing in the world demanding your attention. I’d kind of forgotten what that was like.
You’re probably wondering what an album being “almost done” even means with me anymore. In this case, it means it’s so close you could probably see the pores in its face if you looked hard enough. There’s one song left that needs some dressing up. My plan is to get that taken care of tomorrow or Wednesday at the latest. Then it’s just a matter of tidying up some mixes and trying to get them as good as they can be. Those mixes will go on a CD, and if Ron likes what he hears, my job is pretty much done.
It’s a strange feeling to be so near the end. It felt like we were about three quarters of the way there for a long time. Now it’s possible I’ll have an almost-final assembly put together within a week or so. I hear whispers there might be an advance single coming out sometime before the summer’s gone.
Speaking of advance singles, one of the songs Jess recorded over here a little while back just snuck out into the world. Have a listen, if you’re in a listening mood.