Kind Words from Johnny West

I thought about writing some things about my upcoming album; you know, general thoughts, the studio experience, all that stuff.  And some day soon, I probably will (when I don’t have to write a thesis for school and detailed team previews for MLB.com).  But I went to Johnny’s site and found that he had some very nice things to say and I’m not sure I can do better at the moment, so here it is.  Johnny’s take on working with me on Outside the Factory Gates, which is also posted on his website.

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me as a quasi-producer guy, recording someone else’s music? well, yeah.

it’s not something i saw happening ever again, because i assumed that my methods had become too insular to be applied to anyone else’s songs. i recorded some friends’ bands years ago, sure, but those were generally one-day quickie things so they could have a “demo” to schlep around, and i was rarely involved in any creative/musical form. more recently i performed on a few fairly high profile local albums as a “session musician”, but while i was given free reign to come up with my own parts, it was always a part of someone else’s creative vision, and i never really got to let loose and show what i can really do, whatever that may be. i did record some of anna’s songs (she who injected “the sun is a red ball of lies tonight” with viola magic) around the time of AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, which was a lot of fun and allowed me to get my hands dirtier, but we never finished what we started, and the last work we did was probably about a year ago. so the album that was planned has yet to come to fruition, and probably never will. i didn’t think anyone would want me to record their stuff in general anyway. i’m not operating out of anything like a proper studio, you’re not going to get something from me that sounds like it was recorded at one of those places, and i’m so far from being a perfectionist or proper producer, it’s a little funny. i’m not one of those guys who is going to push you until excellence oozes from your pores and demand twenty vocal takes so i can comp the crap out of them; if the first take is good, i see no reason to take a second pass, and it’s easy enough to punch-in if a few little things need some fixing. i want to get something that’s interesting and honest, as opposed to something that’s technically “better” but not as compelling. but i digress.

travis and i met right around the time of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, when my stock in the local scene suddenly and strangely rose from “who the hell is he?” to “i have one of his cds, and i hear he’s crazy”. travis had just recently finished work on bluebeard, from which i had heard a track or two from eric welton—eric and i kept emailing back and forth and trying to get together while the fates seemed to conspire against us all the while, and we wouldn’t manage to finally meet in the flesh for a while longer (when we finally did, romantic music was playing on the soundtrack and we embraced in slow motion). after hearing more of bluebeard, i sent travis a message on spyspace telling him i liked what i’d heard of his music…the lyrics in particular stood out for me as being especially articulate, interesting, and worth paying attention to. and there aren’t many people making music right now whose lyrics make my brain say, “yeah! i can turn the lights on! alright!”

to my amazement, my message got a response (i can’t tell you how many times i’ve tried to connect with fellow musicians to no avail…that’s a story for another time), and we got together for coffee and gab at the sadly-now-defunct sanctuary coffee lounge. we exchanged cds and i had a good long conversation with travis and derek harrison, which yielded a phrase that i will someday either use as a song title, or insert into a song some other way: “damned ice women—always melting just as you’re getting to know them.” it’s funny because it’s true. even more amazing, we kept in touch and got together from time to time to play music, or just to hang out. moments before the two crackheads broke into my house near the end of 2008 and said, “hi, we’re going to kill you now,” i was in the middle of typing an email to send to travis. we threw around the idea of working on something together, and i ended up recording some piano and banjo parts for a handful of songs on holes & tones (the intended follow-up to bluebeard), but that album ended up being indefinitely held back for reasons that surprisingly enough have nothing to do with kanye west being a grandstanding gopher boy. hopefully it’ll see release at some point, in some form, because i think there are some really good songs there, even if my contributions are a little noodle-y and i probably should have spent a bit more time trying to figure out what to play beforehand, instead of just hitting record and winging it.

after throwing around the idea of recording something together and throwing it around some more, we finally got together to record one of travis’ songs, just for fun, as sort of an experiment…on halloween night. not a single trick-or-treater interrupted, if you can believe it. a few hours and a completely maxed-out mixer later, that song was finished and probably more layered than anything i had ever recorded before. mixing it was a challenge, with seven different guitar parts, several vocal tracks, wurlitzer, bass, drums and organ all fighting for attention…i had never been up against that much stuff before at mixing time. but what a great thing—to be shaken out of your comfort zone and forced to think in different ways. that’s what makes you better at what you do. the next thing i knew, we were recording an album. and about two months later, after eight or so recording sessions spread out over november and december, it was finished. the result is the first thing i’ve seriously recorded/produced that isn’t made up of my own material since early 2002.

i didn’t write any of these songs, but the whole thing was a liberating experience for me, and some of the most fun i’ve ever had recording music with anyone. it was a true collaborative effort all the way, with both of us playing a bunch of different instruments, contributing ideas, throwing different things up in the air to see what landed where. i finally got to do more than just play piano or banjo parts on someone else’s songs, and i’m all over the place playing a whole whack of different things. i guess my sonic fingerprints are there as well, though some of that (like the drum sound i’ve been favouring for a while now) is down to me being lazy with mic placement and, again, not really much of a producer.

if you strip things down, it’s essentially a folk album at heart (with quite a bit of windsor-specific imagery in the lyrics, which i think is a really interesting and nicely-executed touch), but we took travis’ guitar and voice as a starting point, and then went to work building things up around them that had nothing to do with any set game plan or genre, often taking things very far from typical folk territory. what we came up with varies pretty wildly, from factory gates, which is like some sort of deconstructed gospel/folk/rock hybrid that keeps teetering on the edge of falling apart for its entire run-time only to keep pulling itself back together, to the ambient piano interlude of 73 degrees fahrenheit (which kind of makes me think of some of the work brian eno did with harold budd, right down to the division between one person playing piano and the other providing “treatments”), to the breathless bluegrass stomp of union buryin’ ground, to the jig-without-typical-celtic-instruments detour that is renée’s song (instead of banjo and mandolin, we’ve got wurlitzer and lead glockenspiel!), and on and on. the girl from penticton began as something like a country-flecked folk ballad, only to be transformed into something else by the musical bed we created. i kept thinking of daniel lanois for some reason. i’m nowhere near being at that guy’s level and wasn’t going for any particular sound, but something about the guitars and drums acting like some sort of muted, slightly off-kilter blanket for travis’ voice made me think of master daniel. it doesn’t really sound like anything i’ve ever recorded/mixed before. beggars features some of my most inspired and lyrical—yet restrained—piano playing (really good songs that other people have written seem to coax this kind of playing out of me somehow), and i kind of pushed for that song…i heard it back when it didn’t really have any lyrics and was only at an embryonic stage, and from time to time i would tell travis how much i liked it and wished we could record it at some point. ultimately he wrote some lyrics and finished it (he jokingly said he did it to get me off his back), not thinking much of the song, only for it to be transformed during the recording process into something that both of us now hold as one of the high points of the whole album. it’s almost seven minutes long, but i don’t think it drags at all. i like the fact that it takes its time.

if i had been in charge of album liner notes, it would say “produced and arranged by johnny west & travis reitsma” on the back instead of just my name for production and both of us for arrangements, because it definitely felt like a joint production effort (and, incidentally, it’s kind of surreal to see myself credited for so many things, when i generally tend to get short-changed in that department). if you break it down song-by-song, it’s almost perfectly split down the middle in terms of who contributed which ideas. i would come up with an idea for a drum part over here. travis would come up with an idea for an extra guitar part over there. travis would hit on the idea of adding some organ, while i got the inkling to add some third-part harmony. there was no such thing as a stupid idea; if something didn’t work, we could always just not use it in the final mix. it was always worth trying at least once, no matter how off-the-wall an idea seemed. sometimes something that didn’t seem to make any sense would end up pulling the whole song together. i never would have thought of using the combo organ on willistead park, for instance, but travis suggested giving it a try, i did a one-take rough thing to see what it sounded like, we figured we’d just use a little bit of it here and there, and in the end that scratch track was not only kept, but it runs through the entire song. that’s just one example.

i don’t know if i could pick favourite songs, because i like ‘em all, but i can mention some favourite moments: when the vocal harmony comes in on turret and suddenly the song shifts into a ukulele-and-wurlitzer-led instrumental outro that was supposed to fade out but felt too good to cut short; a piano line that develops on beggars when travis sings “and we’ll make our love like beggars when all the wine is gone” and then recurs soon after (i improvised that while recording—like most of the piano and drum parts—and that little melody is one of my favourite contributions of mine to the whole album); travis’ full-throttle vocals, the spastic banjo part and the stark, simple piano line on union buryin’ ground; the brief moment of studio dialogue in the middle of factory gates while things are breaking down, and then the buildup to a huge mass of guitars and voices as every line is finally sung back-to-back for the first time; the ace tone combo organ lending an off-balance feeling to willistead park, and the bridge section, which is possibly the juiciest hook on the whole album, suddenly hammering the monochrome with splashes of bright colour, only to be obscured by clouds again soon after (for some odd reason it makes me think of pink floyd)…and there are plenty more. there are lots of first takes and moments of spontaneous/improvised inspiration, and i like that. it’s the sound of two bearded men having a lot of fun and making music that they enjoy, with no thought given to what anyone else will make of it. i think we used a click track for one song before realizing that it was more of a hindrance than anything, and the music needed to be able to ebb and flow naturally. lucky for me, travis has a solid sense of rhythm, so i had no trouble recording drum parts after the fact. the sound of guitar strings rattling also becomes sort of a recurring accent/motif after a while…

i also like the fact that almost none of the electric guitar on the album is actually electric guitar; aside from one lead-ish part from me on factory gates and some e-bowed les paul from travis on neodepression, anything that sounds like electric guitar is travis’ martin D15 plugged into my old paul tube amp. it’s almost absurd how good that guitar sounds electrified. i’ve never heard another acoustic guitar that even comes close.  i mean, my kay sounded pretty good electrified back when i was playing the odd show with tara, but this is something else entirely. a few times we were stuck for what to add to a song, and as soon as the martin was plugged in, it suddenly glued everything together. i suggested that the guitar should be renamed “superglue”.

i like the way travis chose to sequence the songs (it feels like it’s split into two distinct halves, like a vinyl record, with some pretty long songs and a lot of piano on the first side, and a very different feel on the second side), and neodepression is the perfect closing track, as far as i’m concerned. i think of it as a whisper in the dark that keeps threatening to fall apart, does, quickly pieces itself back together, and then dissolves into nothing. the ghostly backup vocals we added during the second verse constitute another one of my favourite moments on the album, and i think the lead vocal is one of travis’ best, adding to that fragile feeling that i like.

all in all, it was a great music-making experience for me. i discovered that i really can record someone else’s music successfully even with my current working methods, producer or no producer. there was absolutely no ego involved on either side; if one of us felt something didn’t work for a song, we would make the necessary change and move forward. if we felt something was missing, we would figure out what it was and add it. i don’t think there was a single session where we didn’t get at least one song finished, from soup-to-nuts. it’s fun working with someone who shares a lot of your artistic sensibilities…we both like albums that don’t sound like typical polished-to-death studio affairs, and we’re moved by a lot of the same things musically, so there was no battle of wills with two different sonic visions struggling for supremacy. a lot of times we would find ourselves thinking the same thing about what a song needed, or what it didn’t need, and there was no pressure to do anything earth-shattering. we just got together, laughed a lot, and made some music that i’m thankful and proud to be a part of.

in other words, i dig it. i hope you dig it too.

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