SONG OF THE WEEK #8: SPACE ODDITY (COVER)

Space Oddity by David Bowie by smallsins

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.

You can watch the original here.

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SONG OF THE WEEK #7: YOU WILL LIE

Earlier this week, we released a video for this song, thus I feel prompted to also make it my ‘Song Of The Week’ and say a few words about the experience.

I have a bad relationship with making videos. They never turn out how I want them to, and although I don’t hate the ones I’ve done in the past, I certainly don’t love them either. There are always budget concerns, and it seems like that really sweet idea never quite comes. It’s like I want every video I do to be Michel Gondry or OK GO! or something, but never find the budget or the inspiration. I am a musician, not a filmmaker. Even when we have been given the budget for certain videos in the past, the finished product is never what I imagined it would be. Much of this is my fault as I never supply that perfect idea. Turns out that my only video that I really love was for an old Carnations song called ‘Kick It Out’, which is just us hanging out on a beach being shot in Super 8. No budget, just us. So perhaps simplicity was the answer, and I just needed to get my expectations in check.

So for ‘You Will Lie’, I took my expectations off the table. The song has the sort of tone that can afford not to have the flashy concept, and a pure performance seemed appropriate. ‘You Will Lie’ is a straightforward and honest song, probably the most honest and heartbreaking song I’ve written for a long long time, so it needed the same in terms of a treatment. Since we had no money, it had to be our choice. It could afford this treatment, and this treatment is what we could afford: nothing. That in conjunction with the fact that I didn’t really want a concept to take away from the message in the lyrics: the fragility of relationships and the human inability to trust fully.

And when I say no money, I mean NO money, but thank god we have friends who like to help us. We shot this in my living room (the same living room you see in the press shot with all of us by the piano) and it took about three hours in total to finish. I called my very good friend Frank Guidoccio to direct, and he in turn called his good friend Micha Dahan to do the camera work, as well as supply us with some equipment. It was a stressless experience, casual and carefree. Probably the easiest video experience I’ve ever had, and wouldn’t you know it? It looks pretty damn good in the end. I had zero expectations, and just let these talented guys do what they do, and what they did was wonderful. All of the effects were done ‘in camera’, thus everything looks natural and real.

And I was so happy with this video that we’ve decided to all do another one together. We filmed Deja Vu yesterday, and I think it’s going to look even better. Look forward to that, and I’m sure you will see it soon after I do. I hope that Frank and Micha make a million dollars doing this some day. They are a great team that compliments each others’ skills perfectly. They should be nicknamed Yin and Yang, and like I said before, thank god for them.

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Canadian Tour Dates Announced

Thurs. Nov. 11th – Ottawa – Zaphods
Fri. Nov. 12th – Toronto – The Piston
Sat. Nov. 13th – Toronto – The Piston
Mon. Nov. 15th – Hamilton – The Casbah
Thurs. Nov. 18th – Winnipeg – The Albert
Fri. Nov. 19th – Regina – The Exchange w/ Rah Rah
Sat. Nov. 20th – Saskatoon – Amigo’s w/ Rah Rah
Sun. Nov. 21st – Edmonton – Pawnshop
Mon. Nov. 22nd – Calgary – Broken City
Tues. Nov. 23rd – TBC
Thurs. Nov. 25th – Vancouver – Media Club

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SONG OF THE WEEK #6 – DEJA VU

DEJA VU by smallsins

It’s release week! Our new record comes out on Tuesday Sept. 28th, and I am very excited. The album will be available on iTunes now, with a physical release in stores soon. Deja Vu is the first single and we’ve been getting some great write-ups, so instead of a long winded story about this song, I figured I would just link you guys to some various things. Sorry if you’ve seen it all on facebook or something already. Check it out:

Four stars from NOW:

Four stars from EYE

Spinner Feature

Pink Mafia Feature

MTV Drops: Streaming Album

NPR’s New Music Preview

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Song of the Week #5 – Something’s Going Down

Something’s Going Down by smallsins

Sometimes I have to consider myself fragile, and sometimes I have to consider myself paranoid. I feel like I can have such confidence in a personal relationship, but in an instant the house of cards could come crumbling down. Friends I’ve had for years can make one loaded remark, and I will wonder if they were ever my friends at all; my girlfriend can shoot me one stare and I’ll assume for a moment that she’s never loved me. So: fragile and paranoid, and I think sometimes I should add illogical to that list.

This is not a problem I talk about much. It’s nobody’s fault but my own; at least my fault in so far as it’s related to the way that I tend to perceive things. I think it stems from the underlying feeling that everything in life is destined for destruction. I love apocalypse movies. Zombie movies are amazing. Give me a quarantine scenario, or a shitty movie like 2012, and I will be glued to the screen for hours. This is probably because some part of me thinks that these scenarios could become reality at the tip of a hat. I’m not saying I believe that I will wake up tomorrow to a city full of Zombies, but there is a deep dark feeling that at least my comfortable world is always in danger of a collapse.

I am a lucky person with a good life: Supportive parents. Very little death around me. Comfortable financially. Loving girlfriend. An education. Never hungry. But do I deserve these things? No. I am lucky to have been born into them. I did not earn this, thus part of me thinks I do not deserve it. So, if you have something that you know you did not earn, should there not always be a fear of having it taken away? Say the ATM tells you there is more money in your account than you know you have. You’re happy because the error worked in your favour, but you can’t start spending that money because you know that when the bank figures out the mistake, the money – not rightfully yours to begin with – will eventually be taken back.

So, is this paranoia unfounded? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Perhaps the thought needs to be cross-referenced with a certain brand of insecurity that I also possess. ‘Where There’s Gold’ (Pot Calls Kettle Black track seven) touches on the subject as well. It’s about living a life you don’t feel you deserve, that someone else earned: ‘We live on the broken backs of our fathers’ enemies.’ And it’s true. Our ancestors died so that we could live the lives that we do now. ‘Something’s Going Down’ is more about the fragility of relationships, but it begs the same question: Is my paranoia legitimate? When I was a teenager I always loved the Cobain line, ‘Just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not watching you.’ Are my friends really my friends? Probably, but there is always a sliver of doubt deep inside that I don’t know if I’ll ever shake. The love is there, and it’s my problem if I don’t know how to accept it.

Life is not perfect by any stretch, but overall if you take a step back, things are pretty good. It’s easy to feel like a brat complaining about the little things that don’t really matter. But how can we not all feel a sense of uncertainty? It always feels like the quiet before the storm, like something is about to ‘go down.’ We will probably wake up tomorrow and it will just be another day, but this uneasy feeling that something bad is about to happen will always be present inside of me. But if bad things do happen, will they just be the product of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Will I unconsciously be seeking the worst in everything? If I convince myself everything will be OK, then will that actually make everything OK?

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SONG OF THE WEEK #4: No Complaints

No Complaints by smallsins

I suppose the most common interview question I’m going to get, and have already started getting, is: ‘Where have you been for the last two years?’ And rightly so, especially since I had been so prolific up to that point. In the first two years of Small Sins, I recorded two albums, two EPs, did countless remixes, played in other people’s bands, and toured both Canada and the U.S. several times… Then nothing.

There are several reasons for this ‘Dark Period.’ We had just been dropped from our first-ever major label deal and that felt bad. Music I made had been rejected for various films and advertisements, and that felt bad too. Various individuals in the band became busy with other projects, and the money wasn’t coming in to grease the wheels anymore. I didn’t stop recording, but I certainly slowed down. Even in this slow state, I actually made a whole new record, but something about it didn’t feel right, so I never released it. That’s one of the reasons it’s easy to give you all these exclusive ‘songs of the week.’ There’s an overflow of old material that was never released, but that I still think people should hear.

But regardless of any contributing external influences to this slowdown, the central one was a lack of inspiration. I just didn’t feel like writing anymore. In hindsight I should have stopped altogether for a little while, but all of the structure in my life sort of depends on the work that I do in my studio, so I kept going. There are songs that I think are great from that period, but there was a lot of crap too.

I think the heart of the problem was in the lyrics. I just didn’t have much to write about at the time, which is pretty much the worst fear of any songwriter. So what do you do when you have nothing to write about but you want to record all the time? You start writing about nothing. Coldplay has a whole career based on writing about nothing. I think in their case, being unspecific lets teenagers relate their problems to the music, rather than imposing a specific theme that people may not to be able to apply to their ‘do your homework!’, and ‘why don’t girls like me?’, real-life type problems. Sorry, teenagers – I know there is a chance your problems might be more serious than that. I’ve seen Degrassi.

Anyway, this song was sort of my attempt at writing without anything to write about. “Having nothing to complain about, well that’s what’s got you [me] down and out.” That’s me saying: ‘I have nothing to say right now, and it’s really pissing me off because I want to record a new song every day if I can.’ I thought that maybe writing a song like this might help to break the slump. It didn’t. I would go on to spend another year writing uninspired songs. Unfortunately teenagers wouldn’t relate to the song either because they do have things to complain about, even if it is all about homework and curfews.

But still, I like this song. It’s a heavy riff. If it were going to be an ‘album’ track, I probably would have recorded real drums, and real strings, and that sort of thing, to make it really amazing, but that seemed like a waste of time for a song about nothing. And luckily the slump was broken eventually, and out of that came ‘Pot Calls Kettle Black,’ which is the best Small Sins album to date.

This time I plan to take a bit of time off. Making the newest record was an intense time in which I worked very hard. I promised myself that as soon as I got it all out of me, I would take a real break and wait to be inspired again. I don’t have to write a masterpiece every day, and quality has to come before quantity. So now I watch shows like Degrassi because I like them, not because I’m avoiding the studio and the reality that there is nothing for me to do there. And of course, little ideas pop up here and there which are sure to make it to the studio some day… when I feel like it.

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SONG OF THE WEEK #3 – I Took Her Love For Granted

I Took Her Love For Granted by smallsins

I have so many good memories of Hefner in my life, and there are so many good reasons why it made perfect sense for me to cover this song, but let’s lump them into two categories: emotional and musical.

One of the first really exciting Horseshoe Toronto gigs that The Carnations – my old band – ever got was opening for Hefner the first time they ever came to Canada. We actually ended up playing after them instead of before, and half the audience left before we started, but still, I was so excited to be there at all. I think I must have been nineteen or twenty at the time. Ten years later I can vividly remember most of their set, and I was forever more a fan. Both of my real ‘girlfriends’ in life would also be obsessive Hefner fans. Not all that huge of a coincidence I suppose, but in my mind – and this might make me sound crazy – if someone I wanted to love didn’t like this band, then on some level I wouldn’t ever quite understand her; and then how could a relationship not be futile?

After that first gig, that record (The Fidelity Wars, Too Pure, 1999) would become a regular part of life at the house I lived in. I shared a huge house in Little Italy with six other people, and Hefner seemed to be on the stereo constantly. I think my one roommate Dave must have had a similar love for the band, because some of his best songs started sounding like Hefner. I would later cover one of Dave’s songs – albeit one that doesn’t sound like Hefner at all – and use it as the last track on Mood Swings: ‘Bullet’. I don’t think songs I wrote at the time started sounding like Hefner, but that would change.

I eventually started to bite a bit of Hefner, and here’s where we get to the musical reasons for covering this song. You see, the band was originally this very loose kind of rock/folk band. Totally pop-based, but the recordings weren’t that great, and the players were debatably talented. It was all about the song, and ‘I Took Her Love For Granted’ was one of their better ones. Later on they started to take on an a sort of electronic feel, and here’s where the influence really started kicking in. There is one song in particular from those later years called ‘When The Angels Play Their Drum Machines’ (Dead Media, Too Pure, 2001) that I listened to on repeat for months. It’s all synths and drum machines, in support of what I felt was a perfectly simple pop song. I think a lot of the ‘Small Sins’ sound was based solely on that song. It came along when I was already fiddling with similar sounds at home, unbeknownst to my Carnations bandmates at the time. I don’t want to say I stole anything, but it definitely justified my direction. I think I was close enough to it that I felt like I actually wrote the song. Yeah. Small Sins has Hefner to thank.

But why cover music that is perfect? That would be a waste of time. So I took a song from that loose, early period, and applied a treatment that I thought they might have applied in that later electronic period. A fun exercise that illustrates what it might have sounded like had the song been written at a slightly later phase in the Hefner catalogue. So that’s what this cover attempts to be. I recorded it years after the fact in the basement of my house, which is pretty much the most cramped environment I’ve ever worked in. Steve put those fancy guitars on at the end, as well as helping with some of the delay effects, and voilà. The whole thing came together within a couple of hours, John McEntire would mix it about a year later, and then I would sit on it for another year before playing it for you today. And today is a good day for me too, because in writing this ‘song of the week’ and looking around at some links, I just found that there is a whole new solo album from Darren Hayman – the singer of Hefner – and now I have something to listen to as well. Something for everyone, I guess.

Here is a link to the original if you care to compare:

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Song of the week #2 – North Train

North Train by Todor Kobakov Remix by Small Sins

I don’t want to get too mushy here, because it’s not like I’ll never see Todor again, but the time has come that he is no longer in the band and has been replaced by another tall good-looking Eastern European guy, Jaan Kittask. So, let’s make this Song Of The Week a little love letter, shall we?

When I first met Todor, I immediately knew that I wanted to work with him. We met on the patio of The Diplomatico in Little Italy through mutual friends Dave Ogilvie (a great producer and former member of Skinny Puppy) and Lindy Vopnfjord (a great singer, and the tallest person I know). I think the two of them wanted to impress Dave for one reason or another, so we went back to Todor’s place around the corner to listen to the first tracks of what would later become Major Maker – a band for which I would later become the bass player. We listened loud while Lindy kept yelling, ‘Turn it up! Turn it up!’ And it sounded incredible, and impressed we were.

At the time, Todor had an extremely stripped-down studio set-up in his apartment. It was a very old version of Pro-Tools, with no outboard gear to speak of and maybe just a Shure SM58 as the only mic selection; yet, it sounded amazing. I couldn’t believe how much they were able to achieve sonically with almost no gear. For all you kids out there thinking that some piece of equipment is what’s standing between you and making good music: realize that you are delusional. The sound was achieved by raw talent and good ears, and that’s it. Just listen to that record.

We immediately got together again and recorded ‘She’s The Source’: to this day one of the strongest songs I think I’ve written. A short time after that, I asked Todor if he would join the band. Right off the bat he made it clear that he was happy to help until he became too busy, perhaps for a month or two – but wouldn’t you know it? We got signed to Astralwerks after the first show he ever played with us, and ended up touring for the next three years, literally playing hundreds of shows together.

Small Sins was formed on an album for which I played all the parts, and I would continue to be, for the most part, this ‘one-man band’ kind of guy for recordings. At the beginning I sort of expected that there would be a revolving cast of players, but it didn’t work out that way. The band that played that first show with Todor (incidentally also Brent’s first show) would maintain the same line-up until this day. We became very close, and I am still impressed by the level of commitment of every member of Small Sins. It’s a gig for which Todor was ridiculously over-qualified (did I mention that he also turned out to be the best piano player I’ve ever heard?), but he just kept going nonetheless, like everyone in the band, playing my childish little synth lines with conviction, and class.

He’s been too busy for us for ages, but held on. Finally though, everyone agreed that it was time for Todor to move on and do his own thing: soundtracks, string arrangements (oh yeah, he does amazing string arrangements as well; check out his remix of ‘Stay’) and jaw-dropping solo piano records. Yet the thing that impresses me most musically is his respect for pop music. Usually classically trained, ‘real musicians’ are either grumpy or indifferent towards pop music, but not Todor. You need only listen to ‘Roller Coaster’ by Major Maker to know that this is a man that respects the simplicity of pop music. You will hear about him over and over again in the coming years, I’m sure, but luckily we were able to make this latest album together. It couldn’t have happened without him, or all the other members of the band. Then we called it a day.

Here is a remix I did for one of those fabulous solo piano pieces. All of ‘Pop Music’ is so cinematic, I figured I would do a remix that retained that quality, except that this would be the soundtrack for a much weirder movie. Basically I took a few parts, made them backwards and started adding textures. Turned out….. Interestingly.

Anyway, it’s funny: Todor and I have become such good friends, I sort of can’t remember who I drank with before I knew him. Thank you for everything. It couldn’t have happened without you, we will miss you on the road, but I’ll see you at the bar in an hour.

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Song of the Week #1: Talk Talk

Talk Talk by smallsins

I love pop. My earliest memories of music usually involve 1050 CHUM, which was the local oldies radio station here in Toronto up until about a year ago, when it suddenly went off air and turned into an AM news station. There is a certain pleasure in the utter simplicity of oldies top forty music and lyrics, which is, when perfectly executed, somehow enduringly complex. Such is the intention with a lot of my music, I suppose -although I feel like an asshole even trying to compare myself to something so holy to me. ‘Talk Talk’ was one of those songs that was supposed to be pure pop: pure catchy, quick, to the point and fun.

This one began as a 30-second spot I was asked to do for a cell phone commercial. Music for advertising is something I regularly do on the side (although I won’t tell you what you’ve heard by me for fear of embarrassment). Sometimes I have to sell my soul to make ends meet, but that is another subject altogether. In any case, much of the music I do for spots like this never actually gets used. ‘Talk Talk’ was one such case.

Usually I get too far out of my genre when I’m doing ads to make any material useable for Small Sins, but once in a while I hit on something by accident that is just too tempting not to use. ‘On The Run’ from Mood Swings is an example of this. That was originally a song that Todor and I did together for an ad that never aired. It was such a good beginning of an idea that we couldn’t not use it for something real, so we did a full version and put it on the record.

Also, ‘Talk Talk’ was also one of those songs that you just keep coming back to. Months after the first demo had already been finished, the melody kept popping back into my head. The Clapper must have had the same inclination, because after he heard it, he was bugging me for months me to finish it for a Small Sins record. So Steve, Kevin and I got together in my studio one day and worked out as tight an arrangement as we possibly could, and recorded the full-length version. The song is just over three minutes long, yet somehow we managed to fit in multiple choruses, a bridge, a solo, a key change, and a breakdown. Oh – and an intro and an outro, too. That doesn’t happen too often within three minutes.

So: Steve played guitar, we used old drum samples from another session with Brent, and The Clapper clapped. Four out of five Small Sins members on one track? Also kind of unheard of at the time. And there you have it: the pop gem that is ‘Talk Talk’. Not a lot of galloping horse samples in oldies top forty, and I guess not too many synths and programmed drums either, but somehow I feel this song is an homage to that era.

Synths:
Realistic MG1 – bass/arpeggios
Omnichord – organ/swipes
Moog Little Phatty – octaves

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Welcome!

…To the new Small Sins web site. We’re still working out a couple of the kinks, but this looks like its pretty much going to be what it is. Thanks so much to our wonderful guitar player turned web site guy Steve, and our new keyboard player turned graphic design guy Jaan. We will be getting together more and more content over the next couple of weeks, and the song of the week feature should be up and running by August 15th. Oh – and the new record. That will be available soon as well. Looks like September now. Enjoy! TKD

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