Dean Drouillard

Justin Rutledge “Daredevil” (Part 1)

daredevil e1398127537898 1024x1024  Justin Rutledge “Daredevil” (Part 1)

 

Almost exactly one year ago Justin Rutledge assembled a group of musicians for a mysterious project. I was one of those musicians. We were invited to a Dropbox folder containing dozens of songs by The Tragically Hip then were to meet at a downtown rehearsal space for some casual playing – not to rehearse for a show or a record specifically but out of Justin’s curiosity. Others that were invited out were Sly Juhas, Brian Kobayakawa, Robbie Grunwald, Christine Bougie and Joshua Van Tassel.

Ultimately Justin wanted to record these songs, apparently an idea that had haunted him for years. But first he wanted to see how things might transpire. I didn’t have much of an opinion at first. Or maybe more accurately, I was of two opinions. On one hand it seemed that an album of covers, especially of a somewhat polarizing Canadian iconic rock band might alienate Justin’s fans while also unsettling some die-hard “Hip heads”. And the material and Justin’s style might not ultimately work together. On the other hand, it was a unique idea and Gord Downie’s lyrics set against a wider sonic palate of a backdrop could be a really interesting challenge.

We had two days in the rehearsal space to play the tunes. The studiousness of us side-musicians was instantly evident. Justin obviously knew the songs inside out and was leading from pure instinct while the rest of us had made our own collection of charts to follow. Our idiosyncratic maps may have been accurate to a fault. Harmonically there was not much going on with the music as our first run-throughs were more or less mellow versions of the original recordings. Many of the songs didn’t really have chord changes and were more often based off simple riffs. Quickly we realized that the vocals and lyrics are what lead the music. We would have been better served to print lyric sheets with notes pertaining to the music within than to be counting bars and beats. Some players were getting bored with static parts and chords that never seemed to change and there were discussions and attempts at reharmonizing, changing the feel, subtracting sections, creating new musical parts, removing lyrics, etc. There was an unspoken dissatisfaction amongst the group of musicians, none of which were all that familiar with the Hip’s music to begin with. But through all of this shared musical frustration there was a beauty I latched onto immediately.

Each one of us brought in our individual style. We hadn’t been instructed to sound like The Tragically Hip or even necessarily like Justin Rutledge. JR’s simple mandate to us was to make the music “mellow, musical, manly”. The beauty resulted from the fact that we each had our own way of interpreting this. We weren’t necessarily trying to work with each other or trying to find where we belonged in the musical soup we were dishing up. Instead we just did our own thing and it provided a chaotically organized but dreamily pleasant sound collage. At times, it could get a bit much but as I sat in my chair playing my guitar between Bougie and JR I could single out different players parts in my head and imagine how an approach for a song could be built upon what they might have been playing, or be emotionally drawn in from the intertwining of two musician’s repeating lines. To some it may have seemed that what we were doing was lacking focus but for me that’s where the wonder and potential was.

New Royal Wood album – The Burning Bright

photo 1024x1024  New Royal Wood album – The Burning Bright

In summer of 2013 Royal Wood and I set out to make another record together. Though we’ve worked together on several of his past recordings as co-producers (We Were Born To Glory, The Waiting, Covers Sessions EP, The Lost and Found EP), this time he handed me the keys and split, literally. While I worked on the production of 10 new Royal songs, Royal simultaneously was recording many songs in Los Angeles with producer Bill Lefler. He wanted to do something different; he wanted to be surprised. So for the first time Royal took his hands off the console and let us try to surprise him. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy thing to do having always had a major hand (sometimes the only hand) in the artistic outcome of his recordings. However, regardless of the producer he is the songwriter/singer/artist and played many instruments on all of these tracks. No matter what Bill or I would do it would ultimately still sound like Royal.

Over the years I have learned that Royal has a very clear idea when he is writing what he envisions his music ultimately sounding like. During the past several recordings it has been my role to both interpret and assist in bringing his vision to life as well as to add another sonic dimension, or simply ideas from an alternate perspective, whether they be about instrumentation, arrangement, tempo/key, approach etc. This is generally how the artist/producer relationship is understood in the studio. That doesn’t mean conflicts won’t ever arise however. If we were to always be on exactly the same page at all times there would be no point in having an additional producer around. But we have to be sensitive to hear each other out, recognize each other’s strengths and know when it’s important to stick to our guns. If anything Royal and my main fault might be that we can be too sensitive to each other.

The songs being recorded in L.A. were to be for an album and the ten songs I was working on in Toronto for an alternate album. We weren’t really concerning ourselves with the how/why/where/when of the release of these tunes but I felt when I heard Royal’s demos that these songs needed to be recorded immediately as they had a potency I worried might fade if they sat for too long. As for the approach of their presentation, I didn’t want to hear the music that was being recorded in L.A. and I believe Bill felt the same way. We wouldn’t want to be influenced by each other’s work as these were to be two separate projects.

Royal and I spent a few days together at The Rogue in Toronto and Catherine North in Hamilton getting his guitars, piano, vocals down to serve as the bed tracks for me to work with before he departed for L.A.  So while Royal worked in the studio on the west coast, playing the majority of the instruments himself, I jumped from studio to studio recording horns, strings, percussion and background vocals while adding my own instrumentation in my home studio. After everything was recorded I mixed the tunes and sent them as they were near to completion to Royal for his thoughts. I have to admit, it was both exciting and nerve-racking to put my love and attention into these beautifully heart-breaking songs and then present them to him upon for critique. What if he hated it? He’d had no idea what treatment I was going to give to them and it was quite possible I could have gone in a direction he didn’t like. Fortunately the surprise was also pleasant.

The majority of these songs are sitting patiently for an audiences ears to be released sometime in the hopefully-not-to-distant future. But four of them are presented on Royal’s brand new record “The Burning Bright” (released March 18). City Lights, I Wish You Well, It’s Only Love and I’m Afraid which were recorded in Toronto receive an alternate mix from producer/mixer Tim Abraham (who also mixed the L.A. songs) in order to present the album with some cohesion. I’m happy these songs are presented here amongst some of Royal’s finest songs and recordings to date.

Here is a video of a performance of It’s Only Love we did with the band at the CBC studios recently. You can watch the rest of the performances here.

 

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Royal Wood Tour – Epiphone Casino

We are on day 16 of this western Canada tour with Royal Wood and playing our 9th show tonight in Whistler B.C.  There have been more days off on this run than I’d prefer but we’ve found ways to entertain ourselves like movies and exercise and exploring. The shows have been well attended and the band is getting better and better with each performance. We have a couple new fellas on the team as well helping to keep things interesting. From Montreal, Felix Desrochers’ light design has been giving the shows extra dramatic punch. And my hometown pal and the hardest working tech I’ve known – Ryan Fields is mixing front-of-house sound as well as stage tech’ing. Jose Martins is usually in the lobby as merch ambassador.

Last night we played to a warm audience at Capilano University in North Vancouver. After the show a gentleman approached me in the lobby I’d spoken with the night before at our show in Burnaby. The Burnaby show was a good one as well and it was really interesting to hear reports from audience members who have seen more than one show of the tour. Even though we play the same songs in the same order the performances are still living, breathing organisms that change day to day – often more or less than we perceive from the stage. The man had mentioned he’d been here at the website and noticed a lack of information about my guitars. Hmm, interesting. I’ve posted a few pieces about gear here but have tried to break up the subject matter of the blog so it doesn’t become a place for me to nerd out about my equipment. That being said, the posts I’ve written about my YC20 combo organ or the Empress Super Delay have been popular – I’m assuming for people researching their own purchases. Maybe a little nerding out isn’t all that bad.

So here’s a little bit about an instrument on this tour…

Our first show was in Banff at the Banff Centre. Too far and too dangerous to drive to from Toronto. So we flew to Calgary and rented some backline gear from Canada’s trusty Long & McQuade. Backline gear is rented or provided equipment to accompany our own instruments. It can include drum kits, amplifiers, stands, etc. L&M, as it is also known is super convenient for travelling musicians as there are locations in most major Canadian cities and you can rent gear at one and drop it off at another.

As usual, I picked up a generally reliable and predictable Fender Deluxe Reverb amplifier for this tour as well as an additional guitar – an Epiphone Casino EB. I believe the “EB” simply denotes the ebony colour. I’d never rented a guitar before but it was going to be cost and convenience prohibitive to fly with a third guitar. We rented this guitar for use on one song – I’ll Be Gone. The tune is in Eb minor and on the recording (on We Were Born To Glory) I tuned the whole guitar down a half step. In order to not have to wait a couple minutes each night for me to do this tuning before and after the song (and wait for the tuning to settle in) we decided it’d be more convenient to have another guitar on hand. The L&M in Calgary wasn’t super keen to rent out an expensive instrument so a Gibson 335 was out of the question.

Epiphone Casino EB

Epiphone Casino EB

 

I’d never played a Casino before and had always assumed it was a poor man’s version of a 335 (less than a third of the price!). But it looked similar to a 335 so I imagined it would behave similarly. I had no idea that it would be such a different guitar. First thing I noticed was how light it was as opposed to a 335 which has a centre block of wood inside the guitar, making it a “semi-hollow body” guitar.  The Casino is a completely hollow instrument giving it an unamplified louder sound as well as a more “acoustic” or less sustained character than a semi-hollow guitar. For some reason I didn’t plug the guitar in while at the store but when I did at our first sound check I was surprised by the sound. It had a smoother, rounder tone than my 335. Less “rock” or aggressive. The P90 style pickups are single coil rather than humbucker which undoubtedly contributes to this. It is rich and clean.

The function of the guitar in Royal’s song I’ll Be Gone is to create ambience and tension, constantly on the edge of feeding back. In the studio this was accomplished with my 1973 Gretsch Nashville being played while standing next to a very loud Vox AC30 amplifier. In our live show I wouldn’t be able to get my stage volume that loud without nasty looks from everyone in the theatre or on stage. Fortunately the Casino (combined with some overdrive from the Mad Professor Little Green Wonder) feeds back nicely and in a controlled way where I’m able to keep the feedback within the tones and harmonics of the song without taking off.

I’ve really been enjoying playing this guitar each night and I’ve learned something about an instrument I knew little about. Do I have room in my guitar closet for one more?

 

Tape Miner – #1

In 1987 I rented my first 4-track cassette recorder from Long & McQuade in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. I was a teenager with a guitar, a keyboard, an SM57 microphone and a borrowed drum machine and was keenness for exploration. It was probably less unrelated than I’d thought that I  had my heart set on being an astronaut, that is until I found out it was a prerequisite that you needed to be decent at math for a career in space.  I admittedly was slightly jealous when last year Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield received notoriety for both travelling in space and for his music interests. But midway through high school I came to terms with the fact that my explorations going forward would mainly be musical.

TascamPortaOne

The week leading up to the renting of the recorder I’d memorized a few original musical ideas I wanted to capture but mainly I treated the cassette like a blank page. The first thing I believe I recorded was a programmed drum beat with a vaguely funky synth bass line and choppy guitar part. It had some awful name like Edge of Infinity (yes, I just cringed as I typed that) or something. It was the 80s so there was quite a bit of synth and chorus on everything and I was also developing an interest in (gulp) jazz fusion so most of my chords had 7ths and 9ths extending all over the place. But mainly I was, and still am for that matter, trying to create a mood. Not necessarily a nice, pleasant mood, but somewhere different than where you normally are. The pieces were like short soundtracks, to what I might have been reading, a movie I say or just how I may have been feeling as an isolated and awkward suburban teenager.

Recording on 4-track was liberating. As ridiculously simple this is to do nowadays, I loved the ability to layer sounds on top of each other and blend them how I chose when they were all recorded. But it was mostly liberating because the music I made on cassette I never imagined being destined for public consumption. It was my private sketch pad and I didn’t have to worry if it was any good, if I made mistakes or if the sounds were even any good. I just launched myself into the unknown and let inspiration and curiosity share the responsibility.

THE PROJECT

For years I’ve had this idea nagging at me. And since it is still technically the 1st week of 2014 I’ve decided to give myself a challenge and try to do something interesting with this music throughout the year.

I have about 150 cassettes with music I have recorded dating from 1987 until 2013. Most of my recording over the past ten years has been with the computer but I occasionally still do get out the 4-track when I want to play or “sketch”. There is some awful and embarrassing stuff on those tapes and those moments are not going to make it into the world. Someone is going to have to do their own digging after I’m gone to get at those gems.

The music I made early on had some good intentions but I generally found some way to ruin a piece in the end, usually by overdubbing a soaring guitar solo over a an Eno’esque soundscape or something. So my plan is to use moments and sounds I find interesting and create new music using only those sounds that have come from the tapes. Sometimes that may just mean editing out the “bad” parts of a piece. Or it could mean taking bits from multiple recordings and creating an entirely new composition. That is what is both the most interesting and daunting part of this project. Today I completed the laborious tape mining process and it has resulted in 9 hours of music I have to work from!

THE TRACK

The first track is called Fringe. It was recorded in January of 2004 in my Parkdale apartment in Toronto on an Akai 4-track. The title refers to the Fringe theatre festival that was in town at the time. The instrumentation is nylon string guitar and the most restrained and monotonous keyboard part I could imagine playing on a Casio SK1 keyboard. This version, other than a small edit and some EQ is otherwise unchanged.

The project will be updated here.