Since I’ve been home these last couple of weeks, I’ve been totally bored and lazy. I sleep too much, and accomplish very little with my days. I’ve barely left the house, but when I do, I am inundated with Christmas music wherever I go. Every store is playing it in the background, and I might find this annoying except that I think I’m pretty good at blocking it out. It all becomes white noise in the end. No harm, no foul. I’m sure many of us have the same experience.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes I let my guard down for just a moment and listen to what’s playing, and when I do, I am instantly annoyed. Yet, as annoying as the whole genre is, for some reason I still feel the need to add to it.
Here is a rendition of ‘Deck The Halls’, but on a Devo tip. The great thing about having recorded this is that if I do happen to accidentally open my ears – in the case of this song at least – I am reminded of how fun this version is instead of how un-fun the version I am actually hearing is. Perhaps it can serve the same purpose for you. Sort of a ‘serenity now’ avoidance strategy against the whole thing, allowing you to do your shopping in peace.
In November of 2010, after a Canadian tour, I was left in charge of getting our van and its contents back to Toronto from Vancouver in one piece. This was an incredibly long drive, but with Steve as my navigator – he doesn’t have a drivers license – we made the fifty hours of drive time in four days. And what better thing to do on a boring drive for such a long time than record stop motion videos along the way. We filmed all of these clips using our iPhones, capturing the drives through the B.C. mountains, over the prairies, down through North Dakota, through Chicago and home to Toronto. It felt like the images would go well with the most ‘ambient’ song on the record, so now I suppose ‘Everything You Need’ is the retroactive soundtrack for our journey.
‘Keep track of yellow lines, you check your watch too much.’ This is another gem from ‘The Mellow EP,’ and I think the only song of mine that references driving, and I’ve been doing a whole lot of that this week. I drove the van home, from Vancouver to Toronto, with Steve as the navigator. The rest of the band had gone their separate ways after the last show of the tour, and that left me to get the equipment back home safely. Approximately fifty hours of driving time altogether, with a nineteen-hour shift to finish off the home stretch. This is probably the longest drive I have ever done or will ever do by myself, but it was ok. I had known for months that I would be doing it, thus was emotionally prepared.
So while Kevin went off to the Grey Cup, and Brent was dropped off at his home in Vancouver, Steve and I had to kill a whole lot of time in the van. We listened to a couple of audio books (Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and the new Stephen Hawking book – which, I was disappointed to learn, is not narrated by the man himself). We made stop-motion videos of much of the drive, which I think will be stitched together eventually to make another video, maybe for ‘Everything You Need.’ We stopped in Regina for dinner at one of our favourite restaurants (La Bodega), I wrote songs in my head when we weren’t listening to music, and got super into it when we were. But mostly, we drove. And drove. And drove.
But like I said, I was prepared for it. When you have an experience in life, its classification as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is often buried in the context of what your expectation was prior to the event. You know when everyone tells you how amazing some new movie is? You get hyped to see it, and it seems mediocre because the reviews have made your expectation of it too high. I found this with ‘The Hangover.’ Everyone said it was the funniest movie they had ever seen, and it was pretty good, but no matter how funny it ended up being, it could never meet the impossible expectations that had been established in my head. The same can work in reverse. A moderately good thing might seem ‘extra good’ because of the context that you as the viewer bring to it.
So, knowing for months in advance that I would be making an impossibly long drive made the actual experience not too big of a deal. The same can be applied to my rating of the tour we just finished. I feel like I brought my expectations to every city, and they either were or were not met from night to night. We expected to play to a good crowd in Ottawa. When the crowd was light, it fell short of an expectation and thus made the show a failure in our minds. At the same time, we expected to play to no one in Calgary: It was cold as hell (just outside of town was the coldest place on earth that night – beat out Antarctica with a temperature of -65 degrees without the windchill), it was a Monday night, and odds were against us, but people still showed up! Not the most I’ve ever played to, but I still considered it a full on victory.
And of course a show’s ‘goodness’ is not totally dependent on the audience. That has a lot to do with it, but we’ve had bad shows to great audiences and good shows to horrible audiences in the past. Still, the size of a crowd can often dictate your mood going into it. We had good shows on this tour, and we had bad ones, but that is all according to my expectations of what they would be. My fault, really. What’s important is that you keep moving, and stay positive for the next thing, which we did and we will. The good life is near.
Let’s do a repeat this time around of good old #6… I want you guys to see the video:
And the description I wrote for it on the YouTube:
This video is a prime example of utilizing what resources you have available to you in order to create a concept. We had no idea what this video was going to look like when we all met up three days before. We didn’t even know where we were going to shoot it. Micha Dahan (DP), Frank Guidoccio (Director/Editor), Steve and I got together for drinks at The Piston to talk about it, and thought, ‘Why not just see if we can use this space?’ The bartender said yes. Next I remembered that Sloan had offered to loan us their old lighting rig if we ever needed. One phone call and that was confirmed. Micha mentioned he some dolly track, so we had to use that somehow, and a few drinks later we found ourselves wondering, ‘what video could you possibly make with the confined space we have, the lights, the dolly, and the non-existent budget?’ It was like the haiku of video making. This is what we came up with. Our old drummer Shayne Cox is on the kit as Brent couldn’t make it, K-OS was green screened in later, my friend Sonya did our makeup, our old friend Simon Head assisted us all day. And of course Frank really outdid himself on the editing front. Bam.
Bands need to sell themselves. That’s just part of the gig, I suppose. You’re meant to present a positive image of yourself, and hopefully that will entice potential fans to buy your records or come to your shows. Never do you hear some young indie rocker saying, ‘This record we just put out is not really as good as the last’, or, ‘Our tour isn’t really going that well right now.’ Those young indie rockers are forced to bullshit their way through the rough spots in hopes of building a smooth road. I understand that, and have been guilty of it in the past as well. Whatever.
I had a long conversation about this tendency in an interview this week for a paper in Thunder Bay, and I think our friend Angie (who was conducting said interview) took that same rant (in extended form) as a bout of negativity on my part. Later in the week, I had another conversation with a super fan (Aaron, was it?) who thought I was being negative on this blog, and maybe he’s right. I would prefer to classify it simply as honesty.
Sometimes we play shows that are amazing, and I couldn’t image being anywhere else. On the other hand, we sometimes play shows that nobody shows up for. These can be fun too, although usually more depressing than anything else. There is a huge arc to our success and failure that can dip or rise on a daily basis in such an extreme way. Every day is a new day, and you never know whether it’s going to be a good one or a bad one. But I knew what I was signing up for. You take the good with the bad, and in exchange for that long shitty drive there is a great show at the end of the road. Or you trade that mediocre review for the amazing one. Whatever it may be, there are always going to be hard roads, and I’m more than happy to endure the bad times in order to find the good ones.
Is this really negativity? ‘Pot Calls Kettle Black’ is an amazing record; ‘Mood Swings’ was a flop. We’ve been signed and we’ve been dropped. We’ve played shows to empty rooms – I’m looking at you, Ottawa – and we’ve sold out others. I’ve been healthy, and I’ve been sick, but everything evens out in the end, and I keep going. And when I talk about it, it’s not negativity, it’s realism. I want this blog to be honest, and I don’t want to be afraid to reveal the negative side. If it’s happening, let’s talk about it. I don’t need to lie to you.
One of my favourite Chuck Klosterman articles is about how much he loves to interview aging rockers. I think he was speaking to Keith Richards or someone like that. Those guys are no longer concerned with selling themselves. They’re past putting on a mask for the interviewer, and that makes all of their stories better. When covering an artist, should we not strive for their truths instead of some regurgitated quote from the bio? I want to hear about both sides, and I the last thing I need is to feel like someone is censoring themselves. I am still a young man, but I want to strive for that kind of honesty now.
This song is about positivity. It’s about getting over those bad times to try and find the good ones. Although already released, this is probably the best Small Sins song that Small Sins fans have never heard. It came out on something called ‘The Mellow EP’, which was a free promo that was floating around in the U.S. when Astralwerks released ‘Mood Swings’. I always wished that EP had a real release, which I guess is yet another example of the positive coexisting with the negative. I felt it was just as good if not better than ‘Mood Swings’, and songs like this one were some of the most honest I wrote in that period. I wish more people could have been exposed to it. We have maybe twenty copies left still that we will be selling on the road, and some on the KillThe8 store, then it will be done.
I feel good about where we’re at right now. What we’re doing means something to me, and I couldn’t be more enthused about going on this tour out West. I know we’re going to have great shows and a great time. I also know there will be a couple of stinkers in there. And this seems to be the way most things are in life. Everything will balance itself out. That’s just the way it is, and I consider that to be neither positive or negative. Just real.
We’re going back a few years here, but this track is a perfect candidate for the Song of the Week. There are some songs that I’ve posted that maybe I didn’t think were good enough for an album, but there is a whole other pool of material that just didn’t fit into an album for genre reasons. It’s fun to have lots of little projects here and there, and once in awhile an idea might hit you and maybe you just think it would be really fun to record it, even if you know full well that what you’re working on probably won’t ever have a home on a commercial release. And when you know you’re not trying to prove anything, music starts to become really fun. It’s not something you’re trying to sell, or use to represent yourself. You don’t have to think it’s ‘cool’ like it’s high school or anything. You know you’re doing something purely for yourself, and only for the fun of it.
Doing a remix of ‘Threw it All Away’ and putting a rapper on there? Perfect example.
Originally we met Les (More or Les) at a show we did in Kensington market ages ago. Without any planning, we summoned him on to the stage to freestyle over ‘It’s Easy’ for our encore, and there was something so funny about the whole thing that we figured we needed to do something with him. I came up with the crazy idea that a rap could fit in on a remix of this song and got to work. A couple of weeks later he was in my studio writing words. Done and fun.
The idea of having a rapper on something seemed tongue in cheek. I never would have guessed that we would have Kev (K-OS) rapping on an actual release years later. In fact while talking about this record over the past couple of months, and fielding all the obvious, ‘How did you get k-os on your album?’ inquiries, I forgot that it wasn’t even the first time I’ve done it.
In rehearsing for the upcoming tour, I’ve been trying to dust off a few of the old songs we haven’t played in a while. With the first shows after the hiatus over the past few months, it was more about rejuvenating the staples of the set, but I thought it would be nice to bring back some of the old stuff as well. ‘Threw It All Away’ is one of the ones we started to rehearse this week, and at some point this version popped into my head. Went home, dug it up off an old hard drive and now I’m talking about it.
Anyway, sometimes when music is your job, it’s hard to remember that it’s supposed to be fun. It’s fun to go to the rehearsal space drunk and ‘jam’, or sing your heart out alone in your basement. It can all get confusing when you have to do it so often, and you have to do it on command in front of an audience, or within the time confines of your recording budget. I’m not saying those parts aren’t fun, because they are, but music is still my ‘job’. Once in awhile you have to create things that are just for you. Private little satisfying moments that might not be so private in the end if you start writing something called ‘Song Of The Week’ every week.
I guess I have to start out this week by apologizing for skipping the last one. I’ve been on the road, and although I managed to find time to do the first couple in spite of my travels, number three came up right when I got sick. Touring is difficult enough as it is. Actually, I shouldn’t say difficult: Something that is so much fun and provides so much satisfaction shouldn’t be described with a negative adjective. But it’s ‘tiring,’ at least. So if you’re already exhausted, and then you get sick on top of that, life starts to actually get hard. And of course it’s impossible to get better on a tour bus. Once you’re sick, you stay that way, and that prevents someone like me from maintaining his blog-esque duties.
I’m a bit better now, although being back at home for a week is starting to seem like harder work than the road. I have a long list of errands to run and rehearsals in preparation for the next tour. Lately, I’ve been juggling my duties with K-OS and Small Sins with very little rest in between. Steve and I had been doing K-OS rehearsals on Small Sins press days in September, mixed in with Small Sins shows, and then we immediately started back with K-OS again without a day off. We threw in a video shoot somewhere, left for a month, came back; now we’re doing another video, having more rehearsals, then leaving in a few days for a November cross-Canada Small Sins tour. And as soon as that’s over, we’re right back into K-OS land again, not to mention my other life duties that don’t involve music. My schedule feels hectic, but in a good way. I love to be busy.
So for this short stay at home, I thought we might have a listen to ‘Til I Go Home,’ an album track. And what’s it about? Yes – the obvious.. Coming home from tour, missing your lady, toughing it out on the road, blah blah blah. If you’re listening, you get it.
Juggling between the two acts seems tough sometimes, but I’ve always felt it was important to keep at least two gigs in my life. Before K-OS, it was Major Maker. Before that it was the I-Spies who used me as their bass player when Small Sins was still called ‘The Ladies and Gentlemen.’ When The Carnations was my band, it was ‘Another Blue Door’ who borrowed me, and before that even, it was ‘All Systems Go!’ that leased my schedule from time to time.
Small Sins is my child. I am expected to steer the ship. They’re my songs, and it’s my band. I’m not saying that the other guys have no say, because they do, but at the end of the day I have to make final decisions and generally be the man in charge. I don’t mind that responsibility – in fact, I think my personality is attracted to a leadership role for better or worse – but there is something to be said for being a sideman from time to time. I always want to have a gig where my role is to feel what it’s like to be a team player. Everything I do in K-OS as the lowly bass player is to complement Kheaven’s show. I am happy to take Kheaven’s input and try to translate it live for him as best I can. I learn parts that I wouldn’t otherwise have, practice in alternate styles (especially in a band like K-OS where we really do incorporate about a million different styles) and learn my trade better than I would have if I were just sitting around the house. Essentially, it opens me up to new experiences that I never would have had otherwise. And having always been the singer first and bass player second in my bands, it’s been important to find roles that help me work on the neglected half. Playing bass and not signing in a band allows me to focus on being a better bass player, which always helps by the time I’m back with SS.
And from working under the leadership of another, I am always learning new lessons about how to be a leader in my own band. Whether it be good treatment or bad, experiencing what it is like to be in someone else’s band always makes you think how you should treat those in your own band. How to manage personalities, and respect the people that support you. There are constant reminders that I think ensure that I’m always aware that there are two sides of the table. Learning to be both master and servant will keep you balanced.
This is one of those songs that I feel other people won’t enjoy nearly as much as I do. The lyrics don’t have a clear message and there’s no big hook. It’s not a flashy upbeat pop song, nor is it a meaningful ballad. Instead, it just kind of rolls in that mid-tempo groove: it moves along at that relaxing pace that some might call boring, but that I tend to get a real kick out of. It’s the kind of song you place at track nine on the album. Too much of this kind of song and you run the risk of a record that doesn’t really go anywhere. So I chose to keep it off of ‘Pot Calls Kettle Black‘ and use ‘My Dear‘ for that role instead.
But like all the songs I’ve been putting up here, I still feel like it needs to get out there one way or another, so here we are again. Steve and I recorded this one together using Roland V-drums for all the drum sounds. You can do a drum take like this in the time it takes to play through the song, and quantize all of the beats in three mouse clicks. Midi can give you that instant gratification, but is that really a good thing? This is obviously a demo of this song but there was a time when I was trying to get away with doing things the easy way for what I wanted to be the finished product. I think part of the mentality spawned from doing advertising spots, for which I just had to have something of TV quality to present within a few hours. Music shouldn’t be made with a deadline, though, and efficiency should be the last thing on my mind for my own material. Eventually I sent the V-drums back to the store in an effort to force myself not to use them ever again. The same reason recovering alcoholics don’t hang around bars.
This seems to be the general problem with people making music in their home studios. On one hand, everyone now has access to the tools that can take their music to the 90% quality level. This is great in that everyone now has a chance to record some kind of music. The more the merrier, I suppose, and it’s not like you don’t need talent anymore. You can take all the steroids in the world, and you still won’t be able to hit home runs like Mark McGwire. He may have been ‘cheating’, but he still had to work his whole life to hone his remarkable talents.
In music, I find the problem to be that artists these days often don’t think they need to achieve that extra 10% to make music that is truly great. They record things at home, and take them to an ‘acceptable’ level, not a truly great level. This makes it difficult for fans to wade through the mediocrity as the market becomes flooded; at the same time, the true talent always sticks out. An artist should never settle for ‘good enough’. But the worst thing about it is that I am guilty. A lot of the process to get to the album we did in the end involved getting rid of the instinct to be efficient. I can’t suffocate the perfectionist I want to be. ‘Pot Calls Kettle Black’ goes all the way to what in my mind is 100%.
And so why am I letting you hear something that has not been taken to its full potential? Well, if it’s a demo, it’s a demo. If this song had made it to the record, a whole lot more work would have gone into it. It’s about context. Hopefully it is interesting for you to hear something in its starting stages. Perhaps later I will post a demo version of a song that actually made the record, and you can see a bit more of the journey. But for now, let’s enjoy this one. Basically this whole write-up is a disclaimer. I like this song, I enjoy this song, but this song will never actually be completed. It is what it is, so forgive me for my 90% effort. There’s a good song in there somewhere.
One of the questions I’ve been getting in interviews lately is: ‘What were you doing in all that time of not releasing any Small Sins records?’ One of the answers to this question is jingle-writing, so this week I will talk about that.
Doing music for advertising can be both liberating and unbearable. On one hand it can compel you to do things creatively that you would never normally do. This song is a perfect example. I would never think to cover Space Oddity; it’s a song I would consider to be un-coverable. But I was prompted to do so by an ad agency on behalf of a company I am probably not allowed to name. It turned out to be a really fun experience. They asked for the same arrangement, just more modern. When the direction is simple and straightforward, ads are easy to write for – and this one was especially so.
On the other hand, the experience can be hell. I have done work in the past that is painful to complete. This is bad. If you are making music you hate, you just might end up hating music. So I’ve slowed down considerably with these types of gigs. What songs of mine do you know from television, you might ask? I’ll never tell. That work is the one-night stand you are embarrassed to tell your friends about. The other reason for slowing down in the ad world is the rejection. I’ve done dozens of ads that haven’t been picked up. Some of them I think are perfect, and they don’t get used. Some of them are horrible, and they DO get used.
But it’s not just a world of opposites. Good things get used as well, and bad things get rejected as they should. In my mind there is no rhyme or reason to how the clients pick their music. I think a lot of them don’t really know what they are asking for, but want to be involved. Everyone thinks they know something about music, but when that is part of your job – and shouldn’t be – there can be
trouble. It’s competitive like a race, but no one seems to know where the finish line is. And that is incredibly annoying.
But not every experience is like that. As cheesy as some of it is, I have fun making it for the most part. The ones that have been the most fun are the haikus: that is to say, the ones that liberate you with restriction because the client KNOWS what it wants. Sometimes it’s hard to go to my studio and just sit down and write something. Inspiration is not a tap you can turn on and off, and given the limitless possibilities of an empty canvas, it can be hard to think of something to paint. The best ads place heavy restrictions upon the writer, and those restrictions can set you free.
Right off the bat, you are faced with a time restriction: ads are always 15, 30 or 60 seconds, so you know that. You are also provided with a tempo, a genre (or often, a specific artist to emulate), and what you’re doing has to match a picture. Those limits, along with some helpful tips and suggestions, let you know what your job is. So if you’re given a map, and all you need to do is creatively figure out how to get to your destination, it can be really fun in the end.
And if the piece doesn’t get used, you have it on file and can try to sell it to someone else one day, or even use it for yourself. There have been a few ads that eventually turned in to Small Sins songs, as I mentioned a few weeks ago: ‘On The Run’ from Mood Swings, ‘Talk Talk’ from the extended version of Pot Calls Kettle Black. These are songs that wouldn’t have existed if someone hadn’t hired me to write them. Because they never got used, I was free to do with them what I wished. And that’s the case with what you’re listening to right now. Originally I only recorded a 30-second version of this song, but it was so much fun that I decided to do the whole thing the next day and have my good friend James Robertson (now of The Golden Dogs) do a guitar solo. It’s not very Small Sins-esque, I know: more of a rock vibe, but totally satisfying somehow to perform. It’s one of those things that, by the end of the day, we just wanted to listen to on repeat at full volume. Fun.
Oh, and sorry for getting a couple of the chords wrong. Whatever… it’s just an ad.