- Posted By: email@example.com
- October 21st, 2014
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cover design by Cory Bobiak
Two years ago I started thinking about making an instrumental “guitar album”. (I have a lengthy list of album concepts I hope to continue chipping away at.) I had made a couple instrumental EPs with the surf/lounge-inspired Dragon 1 and 2 releases. Those had a very specific stylistic anchor that I wanted to explore at the time. This time I wanted the compositions and performances to come naturally and from a more uniquely personal place.
One evening my close friend (producer and multi-instrumentalist) Joshua Van Tassel was over. I told him of my idea to record a guitar-focused album and he expressed interest in producing this project. Josh is a very talented and emerging producer for which I have great respect for, for both his solo and producing work but I had never used another producer for any of my previous releases since I began recording music. I can be bit of a control freak, generally having a clear idea of my intended outcome. But I got thinking it could be a powerful exercise for me, both as an artist and as a producer to loosen my grip on the reins and allow my music to go somewhere unexpected and enjoy being in the artist’s seat.
We agreed to work together and I immediately started fleshing out and demoing some of my ideas I’d collected on my iPhone over the past couple years. The fleshing out was definitely useful but the demoing turned out to be counter-productive. In the demoing I started producing the tracks and getting attached to certain sounds and arrangements, which is interesting because I recorded these demos on my Akai cassette 4-track figuring the technological limitations would prevent this from happening. When I played the demos for Josh and listened to some of his ideas I could feel myself tensing up despite the fact that he had cool and interesting ideas. It didn’t matter – I’d already started producing those tracks. I didn’t want to go into making a record from a place of defensiveness so I decided to leave the songs I had demoed for another time. They were a bit jazzier than what I was hoping to present anyway and maybe better suited for another time. So days later I presented Josh with an entirely new set of demos – these ones being just raw iPhone ideas that hadn’t been worked out yet. I stopped listening to them so I’d be happy to let them go where they’d be directed in the studio.
When we began recording in Josh’s space at the Verge Music Lab in December of 2013 I was still writing the songs. The evening before each session I would finish melodies and add new sections if needed as a lot of these demos were simple riffs, not exactly songs. Some melodies (the B section of Return To The Start) were created while recording.
i recorded a few guitars for this record
Josh was interested in exploring the different sounds my guitars and gear could create. Fortunately I’d brought a few toys including about a dozen guitars, a few amps (two of which we blew up), dozens of pedals, a tape echo, ebow, etc. I think we used pretty much everything, even the baritone ukulele (Iz No. 3). There was very little soloing going on. We turned our attention more toward melodies and textures, using contrasting elements for interest. Performances felt real, unforced and enjoyable. I channeled some of my favourite non-guitar hero guitar heroes such as George Harrison (Beatles), Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead), Nels Cline (Wilco) and Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo). Aside from the many layers of guitars I had fun playing my Hofner bass, a Rhodes electric piano and Korg MS20 synthesizer.
Josh had great ideas and pushed me into places I likely would not end up on my own, like playing with every pedal on my pedal board on simultaneously or manipulating the tape echo live like an instrument or freaking out with an out of control fuzz pedal. I fed off his enthusiasm and inventiveness and ended up making an enjoyable and fulfilling album because of it.
producer Joshua Van Tassel laying down some drums
About six weeks ago I somewhat reluctantly put this ad up on Craigslist. It’s for a very cool guitar amp I’ve had around the lab for several years that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. The amplifier is made by Swart Amps in North Carolina. They are a boutique company of two (Michael Swart and Kelly Holsten) creating high quality amps for tone discerning guitarists. The Space Tone Reverb is a 5-Watt, Class A, hand-wired, point-to-point creation with tube driven spring reverb. I won’t bother with what all that means because it’s likely not all that interesting to you unless you’re a guitarist/gear tech/nerd. I only mention this because it was through Craigslist where I first learned of Swart amplifiers and gained a real awareness of boutique amplifiers.
Though I’d never heard of them before, I came across an ad for another Swart amp that piqued my interest and lead me to their website, where I found the perfect amp for me for my current playing situation. On paper it seemed like a great amp to own – something not too loud, small’ish, fully tube with reverb. I was playing some quieter gigs regularly with my Fender Vibro Champ as my main amp (no slouch of an amp either) but liked the idea of the tube reverb and an amp built by someone I could communicate directly with, which I ultimately did after frying a tube and a capacitor (and diagnosed through emailed photos). There was only one dealer in Canada at the time – Boutique Tone in Montreal. They didn’t have any in stock but the owner agreed to sell me his personal amp. I can’t remember if he knew it or not at the time but upon looking at the inside of the amplifier I noticed the serial number was #001. The first one. I’m not normally one to care about things like that and I’m not sure how many of these amplifiers have been sold but that fact in and of itself has added some weight to the decision of keeping it around.
That’s definitely not the only reason though. It turns out that this model has gone through several modifications over the years and mine is somewhat unique. Kelly Holsten, who runs the website, customer service and tests the amps wrote to me, “the wood on the first 30-35 amps was accidentally made in Birch without us knowing it. We then moved to our usual pine cabs, which are a bit warmer and somewhat softer sounding. The GOOD thing about those birch cabs is they tended to sound more articulate and precise… The reverb and wiring was changed a bit later along with the addition of the hi/low gain switch. The reverb in those early amps would sometimes be crazy surf style.”
Kelly expressed interest in hearing what that original amp sounds like so I did up this little tune highlighting some of the amplifiers range of tones. Though there is a bit of percussion and a bass track, all of the other instruments are guitars going direct into the STR. The only exception is a fuzzed out Rickenbacker 12-string that achieves a distinctive tone with the addition of the Swart Atomic Boost treble booster pedal.
My ad for the amp includes a road case that I had built thinking I would tour with the amp regularly but ultimately it only went out on one theatre tour I did with Jill Barber several years ago. It also includes a leather cover and extra tubes. I recognize that it is a pretty specific subset of musicians interested in spending this kind of dough on a 5-watt amplifier which is likely why I’ve yet to receive a single inquiry about the amplifier. Oddly, I can’t remember ever not receiving not even one inquiry into a piece of gear I’ve posted to sell. Oh well. For now the amp lives happily with me. After making the audio/slideshow highlighting the amp I realized I’m not really in any hurry to let it go.
Since acquiring my #001 Swart I have owned two more of their amplifiers. My Atomic Space Tone is my main touring amp and has appeared on many recordings.
JR beginning acoustic guitar overdubs at The Rogue.
A couple weeks went by. During this time I’d been listening to our rough rehearsal recordings and imagining what I thought an album of these tunes could sound like. The wandering interaction of our instruments created swirling textures underneath Justin’s voice. I thought if we could expand on this approach we’d have an interesting and dreamy listening experience on our hands. From previous experience in recording sessions I’ve learned that I can have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when I am not producing the recording. As a session musician I don’t really feel my input on the overall direction is appropriate unless it is asked for. Maybe to my detriment, I am not a pushy person when it comes to finding producing work. I generally don’t take on that type of work unless I like the music or feel that it is going to be a worthwhile challenge. But I was feeling strongly about this music so I decided to hook up with JR to share my thoughts on his cool idea for a record. At the end of our chat we were both excited to get recording with the group of musicians we had rehearsed with. We set up dates to get started at The Rogue studio with engineer/owner James Paul.
James Paul in front of the studio for a bass break.
In the studio five of us laid down the bed tracks. Justin sang in a quietly in a corner to avoid track bleed while myself and Robbie Grunwald (keys), Sly Juhas (drums), Steve Zsirai (bass) laid down the track foundations. I prefer not to play in the bed tracks when I am also the producer but I felt it would help inform the direction of the production of the song. Over a few days at the Rogue we explored ideas from rehearsal and threw new ideas into the pot until we felt like we were onto something. Most of what is heard on the album is the live band though the vocals and acoustic guitars were re-recorded. The colourful line of additional vocalists were recorded up in my home studio The Hepbourne Lab. Also recorded up there were a few additional guitars and Christine Bougie’s lap steel. Joshua Van Tassel’s additions were recorded in his Verge Music Lab.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the album process was mixing. With several musicians and singers on each track there was a lot of musical information. There were great performances all over the place but the arrangements needed careful sculpting to reach the potential I’d envisioned. Basically the practice involved muting instruments to find the right combinations of sounds for any particular moment in the tune. Sometimes all of it is just on and it’s loud and crazy like at the end of Courage. I find it really interesting pulling things out and pushing something that seemed like a subtle colour to the forefront of the mix. It can change the perception of a tune so much. Mixing is another chance to discover the music.
We finished up the mixing in November and I started feeling a bit nervous as other than JR, the musicians and singers and myself, no one had really heard any of this recording. It’s always near the end of a project I start both celebrating it and anxiously wondering if I really messed it up. Plus we were dealing with the music of The Tragically Hip here. What were their fans going to think? From the start I figured this recording might piss off some people, possibly including members of the band. But Justin and myself kept focused throughout the making of the record on creating something we’d enjoy listening to if no one else. In the end I’d have to say this was among the most interesting projects I’ve been lucky enough to produce. Justin boldly steps onto a new stage with this music and owns it.
- Posted By: firstname.lastname@example.org
- April 21st, 2014
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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.