a couple weeks ago joshua van tassel put together a group of hot lickin’ ambient and understated musicians to perform a couple songs from his beautiful self-titled album. we did this in his living room one morning after he’d prepared us all some delicious breakfast sandwiches and coffee and in front of a camera . it was a for a website called southern souls that shoots bands performing live in non-traditional venues like well, living rooms, bridges, balconies and bookstores.
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I was in Essex County this past weekend visiting my family. Kari and I decided to do a little vintage browsing in the Walkerville area of Windsor. Jones & Co. is a staple stop-in for clothing and odds and ends but we also discovered a couple new places better for furniture.
In the first shop we didn’t have much luck other than a platter and a record of Ukrainian folk songs bought by Kari. The owner told us about a new shop called Hodge Podge she said would appeal to us and that had opened a couple days earlier. When we arrived I was surprised to be greeted by my local musical acquaintance Pat Robitaille and his partner Brittany operating their new business venture. They were enthusiastic and with a fair bit of inventory considering it softly opened only days earlier. We were happy to see some teak and other nice wood items from the 60s and 70s as well as a few musical instruments including a couple old guitars and a Rhodes electric piano for a more-than-fair price. Kari spotted a cozy kermit-the-frog coloured chair which ended up in the back of our vehicle in no time. She had been eyeing the chair while I was noodling around on an old Silvertone acoustic guitar that I found leaning up against some 50s car furniture in a small room off to the side. I didn’t think too much of the guitar at the time other than it was a fun way to pass some time while Kari browsed.
I just found this fun ad for the store.
When I got back to my mom’s house in Tecumseh I did a bit of googling of the instrument purely out of curiosity. I found out the guitar was a Silvertone 658 – a black-painted archtop acoustic made between 1962 and 1965 for Sears. They sold for $24.95 at the time and were probably a entry-level guitar intended for kids. But the more I found out about it the more my crush grew and the more I romanticized our introduction. Cupid must have struck because the next day it was in the back of the Subaru next to the green chair.
It is an old instrument and in the shop was not easy to play. It was tuned down low – maybe down to a C with a full sound and responding in an interesting way. Its strings were black from the years, likely the same strings that were on it in the sixties but they felt like they had history. It’s condition was pretty remarkable with only minor belt-buckle scratches on the back and a fret or two with a bit of chipping.
Sunday night when we arrived back in Toronto I spent a bit of time dusting it off, lubricating the tuners, adding graphite to the nut slots for smoother tuning and most importantly – changing the strings. I felt like an archeologist with those crusty wires. They were difficult to remove and required tools, determination and some patience. I don’t really like the sound of the new strings but once they mellow out they should be good. Being that there is no truss rod on this guitar (it has a steel reinforced neck apparently), intonation could be a little tricky. With some playing around with moving the bridge I was able to get it reasonably in tune up and down the fretboard. I decided to keep it tuned down low as I’m apprehensive at the amount of string tension this thing can handle plus I think that’s where I want to musically start my relationship with it.
Today Marc Ribot was my inspiration as the guitar reverberated beautifully in my dad’s newly-renovated sunroom overlooking the park in Kingsville. Interested to see where this goes.
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A couple weeks ago Royal Wood and the band teamed up with Canadian rock icon and former Guess Who founder Randy Bachman for a a new CBC Radio 2 segment called Reworking Randy. The idea behind the segment is that Randy chooses and artist he likes and joins in on one of their songs. That artist in turn “reworks” one of Randy’s classic songs – in our case it was the Guess Who’s Undun.
In rehearsal (without Randy) we’d spent a couple hours exploring different approaches. We got the obvious loungy jazz version out of the way early in the process before entertaining several other ideas. Eventually we got to a minimalist version reminiscent of Portisehead. We spent some time refining our individual parts and working out any structural changes. It ended up being interesting but not necessarily exciting, but that’s all we had. As we were packing up from the rehearsal Royal started noodling around on the piano in a bright 6/8 feel and one by one we all joined in thinking we were just having a bit of fun. After the run-through was done we all agreed it was the best version yet and that’s the one we played for Randy and he joined in on.
Royal Wood and Randy Bachman record ‘Undun’
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i’m a little behind the game in the year-in-review blogging this year but the first day of 2012 doesn’t seem too bad to take stock of all things musical i got to do last year.
SARAH HARMER CANADIAN WINTER TOUR
the canadian winter is a bold time to choose to cross our climate-varied country, but the harmer crew (along with gentleman reg and his band) climbed into our home-on-wheels for several weeks of crushing cold. in thunder bay, ontario we had to dig a path through a meter of snow to get our gear from the bus to the venue. oddly, it was actually a great way to end a season of touring with sarah and the band.
FIELD ASSEMBLY RECORDING
over the spring and summer adam fox and i embarked on an ambitious collaboration involving other musicians recording in different parts of the country then mixing it all together in my home studio. as far as i know this recording (entitled narco) is looking for a home to aid in its release.
combining performances with royal wood and sarah harmer i was part of some of the music festivals canada has to offer, including: bloor festival (toronto), home county festival (london), parks canada day (toronto), newfoundland & labrador folk festival (st. john’s), collingwood music festival (collingwood), daniel lanois’ first greenbelt harvest picnic (dundas, on), finishing off festival season close to home at the shores of erie wine festival (amherstburg, on).
ROYAL WOOD SNEAK PEAK TOUR
the sneak peak tour brought the duo of royal and myself (along with opener danielle duval) to intimate and sold-out theatres from british columbia to ontario, the idea being that some of royal’s new material to be recorded for his next record would be workshopped and performed each night in front of audiences.
ROYAL WOOD THE COVERS SESSIONS E.P. RECORDING
this recording co-produced by myself and royal was recorded at the rogue and my studio. it was made available only at live shows on the sneak peak tour. it features five covers ranging from classic soul (“ain’ no sunshine”) to a fresh take on an adele instant classic (“someone like you”).
ROYAL WOOD NEXT ALBUM RECORDING
in the fall royal and i entered into another production arrangement for his forthcoming (2012) full-length album bringing the band back to pierre marchand’s PM studio in montreal to record the bulk of the music. we finished off vocal overdubs at my studio and recorded strings and horns at canada’s new epic studio revolution recording . i don’t want to spoil the anything, but i think royal music lovers will be pleasantly surprised.
all musical endeavours aside, the event that had the biggest and most unpredictable effect on me was the birth of our daughter isobel. a new baby can bring some perspective so i spent less time in 2011 tinkering with my musical toys and more time watching a human grow at an alarming pace.
i’ve got some musical ideas up my sleeve for 2012 – some on my own and some collaborative. i’m planning to collaborate more officially with joshua van tassel (i played a bunch of bass and guitar on his beautiful 2011 eponymous release). royal’s forthcoming album should turn some heads. aside from that i’m excited about having some time this winter to follow some whims with or without purpose.
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at a sandwich secondary dance in lasalle ontario in 1985, my band the system (formerly modern method) opened for the jigsaw affair, a group of older and exceptional musicians from the same windsor suburb. the jigsaw affair consisted of jeff martin on lead vocals and guitar, jeff burrows on drums and his younger brother brad on bass. at the dance they played the new british music i was just becoming more interested in- the smiths, the cure, new order and echo and the bunnymen. the crowd responded like they were superstars. they played and sang exceptionally despite their age. when shortly after i got a surprise call from jeff martin, then fifteen – a year older than me – asking me to join the jigsaw affair, i leapt at the opportunity.
i immediately started practicing saturday afternoons with the band in jeff’s parents’ garage. the first song we played was david bowie’s rebel rebel, followed by girls don’t cry by the cure and everything’s gone green by new order. jeff and i became fast friends and would hang out at least a couple times a week outside of practicing. he would play me tapes he had recorded of the bands’ originals, mostly consisting of a roland tr-606 drum machine, bass, monophonic synthesizer, and vocals and guitars, much of it through a space echo (tape echo/delay machine). the recordings were simple and gritty and had that detached drama of the new wave era i was enamoured with. jeff copied a bunch of his music for me and i listened to it daily. i couldn’t believe i actually knew someone who created this progressive sound, and so well.
jeff made these recordings with ingenuity and a unique stereo cassette player. it had two decks and a line-in jack on the front of the unit where you could plug in an instrument or microphone and add another instrument or sound on top of what was already recorded. to make a typical recording jeff would program a few rhythms on the drum machine and record that onto the cassette in real-time. then he would rewind the cassette, put a microphone in front of his guitar amplifier and plug the cable into the input of the cassette deck and adjust the input level on the cassette deck to get enough sound without overloading the input too much. then he would press play on deck A where the drum machine was recorded and play/record on deck B which would then take the sound from deck A and combine it with the sound of him playing guitar to the drum machine. to add the bass he would swap the cassette from deck B back to deck A to play it with the combined drum machine/guitar while recording the bass plugged directly into the input on the cassette deck and just record over the previous music (now in deck B). he would repeat this process for each instrument to be recorded – swapping tapes deck to deck, adjusting levels, etc. there was no mixing possible during this process. the only adjustment that could be made was between the level of the current instrument and its relation to everything else that was already recorded.
one song on my tape from jeff was called news like this. it was a good tune, pretty straight up new wave/pop with him playing everything himself. he put two versions of this song on my tape – one regular and another that had no vocals and had a long drum machine intro. i decided i wanted to try to make my own remix of this tune, combining the two versions with my ghetto blaster, which also had two cassette decks, no input though. i would choose the section i wanted and record that onto deck B. then i would have to keep the recording paused while i rewinded or fast-forwarded the master cassette in deck A, until i got to the section of the song i wanted placed next. then, with attempted surgical timing i hit play on deck A and record on deck B until that section was completed. i wanted 8 bars of just the drum machine intro but placed in the middle of the tune. so i would rewind to the beginning of the song on deck A and record that sound. but there were only four bars of the drum machine on the original recording, so i would have to pause, rewind the original tape back to the beginning and record those four bars again to get my total of eight. the remix was probably an afternoon’s work and i’m not sure why i really wanted to do it but it helps me now to understand why i undertake the ridiculous and time-consuming experiments i sometimes get myself into.
it’s amazing to me still that these recordings came out so well despite the numerous limitations of this process, let alone cassette tape as a medium. around that time i was looking for a cassette deck with this feature but was never able to find one. but on at least one occasion jeff and i made a recording like this together.
here is a recording we did of joy division’s love will tear us apart (a tune he and jeff burrows later revived in their successful career with the tea party). i play the lead guitar through a roland space echo on this one. jeff sings and plays the rest of the instruments.
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Tags: cassette, jeff martin, recording
with current technology it has become simple for artists to record from demos to complete albums on their own with a modest investment compared to the financial involvement required as little as fifteen years ago. there are arguments to be made for and against this convenience as it can serve to create an endless sea of sub-par releases fighting for attention, but it also facilitates the existence of some creative approaches and music that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to be heard. there are many musicians, engineers and producers embracing the small studio approach rather than mourning the lost art of the pro analog studio (which fortunately does still exist!). they use unusual spaces, ingenuity, a mix of pro and consumer technology and without the access to all the expensive gear found in a commercial studio they arrive at their own unique results. recordings are now regularly made in ways that were never considered before personal computer recording was available.
i have spent the past several months working on a new record with the windsor ontario project field assembly. the majority of this album was recorded up in my 3rd floor mini-studio much of it was recorded by different players in windsor and vancouver and toronto with their own home recording setups. adam fox recorded his lead vocals and acoustic guitar in a few different places over the past year on his own then shared them with me over the internet with dropbox. we recorded the majority of the overdubs over a couple of his weekend visits to my studio and i added some more sounds in his absence as did he in mine. from vancouver to toronto to windsor, a few drummers contributed tracks then uploaded them to our dropbox.
when working this way there are elements that i as a producer lose control of, for example: mic choices and positioning, preamps, how many mics are used, and the sound of the room the instrument is recorded in. honestly it is a challenging way but an interesting way to work, encouraging inventiveness with parts, placement and context in a mix. through this i’ve learned you that have two choices when it comes to challenges: back down or dive in.
because adam (and others) had control of gear and creative decisions on many of these sessions, we are calling this a co-production. as a sole producer, a normal way for me to record a band would be to be continually present and therefore able to inform recording choices and help with creative direction if needed. i’d also likely record mainly in one location with a collection of recording equipment i am familiar with. but that being a traditional way doesn’t make it the only way. and i’m not really interested in repeating. i’m not really interested in repeating.
assembling sounds from several people’s home studios, living rooms, cottages etc. can be a puzzle when considering how to present it all so it sonically makes sense. but what we hope to end up with is a recording that has its own character and space that no other recording will have. i think unorthodox methods could take a recording which might otherwise sound usual and bring its own distinguishable, unrepeatable character.
on the field assembly recording there is still work to do so it’s difficult to know objectively how this is particular experiment is succeeding. but in about a week i will be delivering first mixes for notes. from there we can assess what changes should be made to fine tune the music’s presentation.
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Tags: field assembly, recording