Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Week in The Big Easy, Part One

Time to share a secret. While juggling the writing of multiple songs was part of it, the other reason for this month's slide in schedule was also due to the fact that I've just spent the past week on vacation in New Orleans (while I realize the vast majority of people who read this blog are close friends and we had someone house-sitting for us, the security nut in me isn't a fan of letting it be known on a publicly-accessible site that I'm going out of town).

Spending time in one of the greatest musical cities in the world definitely warrants coverage on this blog. I could strictly stick to the music I experienced there, but I'd be doing a disservice to this place if I didn't share my thoughts on everything that makes it the wonder that it is, especially since it undeniably has an impact on the sounds coming out of New Orleans.

There's plenty to talk about, so let's get started:

Day 1:
We arrived at our bed and breakfast late in the evening, which was a few blocks North of the French Quarter in the neighbourhood called Treme. Treme is one of the cities oldest neighbourhoods and has gained some recent notoriety with an HBO series of the same name. The proprietor, Cindy, was kind enough to let us know where the few places were where we could still get a nice meal this time of night, several of which were on Frenchman Street in the Faubourg/Marigny neighbourhood.

While Bourbon Street gets much of the attention for being the hotspot of the French Quarter and the location of the famed Preservation Hall, the real musical epicenter of New Orleans is the two-block stretch of Frenchmen Street that contains the best music establishments in the city.  Blue Nile, Three Muses, d.b.a., Snug Harbor, The Spotted Cat... these are just a few of the clubs that host the city's finest musicians.

After a nice dinner at The Praline Connection, where my wife and I enjoyed Jambalaya, Crawfish Etoufee, and our first taste of Sweet Potato Pie, we found ourselves in Cafe Negril listening to an excellent reggae band called Higher Heights.  From what I understand their lineup has shuffled quite a bit since Katrina, but the current roster performed a fantastic set. We then decided to pack it in after a long day of travel.

Day 2:
After a delicious breakfast at the B&B, we met up with a couple friends of ours who we discovered a few weeks before would be in New Orleans for a couple days at the same time as we were before departing on a cruise. We spent the morning and early afternoon on the St. Charles streetcar and touring the Garden District, taking in the architecture of the neighbourhood's homes, businesses and institutions. During this walk we discovered Jim Russel's Records, a store packed wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, with vinyl (as well as some CDs, cassettes, and video games). We would return later in the week, but I regret not picking up a Jimi Hendrix record which happened to be one of the first albums I ever purchased on cassette and was already gone by that time. Lesson learned.

Back in the French Quarter, we visited a local brewpub, Crescent City Brewhouse, to sample some oysters, both cold and hot. I had never tried oysters before (unless I'm mistaken, I'm not sure any of us at the table had) and I very much enjoyed them. The brewpub's beer was also quite good. While mainstream American beers may deserve the disdain we Canadians give them, brewpubs and microbreweries south of the border know what they're doing. The 5-beer sampler I had was excellent, the weissbierr topping the set.

In the evening we got our first taste of Bourbon Street. While Frenchmen Street is the place for music, Bourbon Street is the place for partying. That's not to say there's no good music to be had; plenty of the bars emanated blues and rock covers from talented cover bands, and Preservation Hall is just around the corner on St. Peter. But Bourbon Street is clearly rooted in the booze, beads, and breasts experience of Mardi Gras. We treated ourselves to some large, alcohol-heavy iced drinks, then started looking for a place to eat.

It's really hard to do wrong when it comes to cuisine in The Big Easy, and Storyville Restaurant is proof of that. Though at a glance it may look like a simple drinking hole (with two mini bowling lanes) that would offer mediocre pub fare, we had some of the finest crawfish and soft-shell crab po' boy sandwiches of the entire trip there.

After a long day of walking the city, we decided a walk out to Frenchmen Street wasn't in the cards, but it's not as if the day was devoid of music. Every cafe, restaurant, and bar in the city plays the finest jazz and blues. Walking down the street I heard Robben Ford's rendition of "Chevrolet" from the stereo of a passing car. No matter where you are in New Orleans, you can't escape the music.

Alright, enough for now, time to get to some songwriting, recording, and general guitar antics. More on the rest of the trip later.

Friday, April 15, 2011

What's Brewing

I'm going to break with tradition and not release a song by the end of the month. While this might seem like I'm backsliding already, it's actually quite the opposite. I have three songs on the go at the moment, each one with lyrics and musical arrangements at various stages of completion. Rather than focusing on one and letting the other two sit on the back-burner, I want to try keeping all three moving forward to make sure I don't miss any moments of inspiration, or the chance that one might lend ideas to another. This is certain to make a full recording of any of them impossible by month's end, but I might manage a brief demo or clip. At the very least, I refuse to reach the end of May without releasing a full track.

I won't talk about them all now (gotta save something for later) but I'll give you the scoop on one. The song is a love song written from the perspective of a schizophrenic, making his case to the object of his affection that in spite of - or even because of - his delusions, they'd be great together.

The idea for this tune comes from a couple places. Very often on crime dramas and such, they feature paranoid schizophrenics going on killing sprees, commanded to do so by their delusions. Occasionally the show will remember to point out that not all paranoid schizophrenics are violent, but it's usually followed up shortly with a scene of the individual in that particular show being very, VERY violent. Rarely do you ever see the illness depicted in a less harsh light (A Beautiful Mind is the only example I can think of), and it just doesn't seem fair.

The second source is a man named Ian Chovill. Ian was a guest speaker at a lecture in a sociology elective I took in university. He talked about his experiences with schizophrenia that first appeared at the age of 17, as well as the difficulties and stigma he encountered. He has written several papers and articles on the topic, appeared on CBC Radio discussing mental illness, and developed educational and awareness projects to help those in need. I remember being struck by how vividly and clearly Ian recounted his delusions, how easily they blended for him with reality. They weren't dreams or nightmares, becoming foggy and faded with time and the use of medication; they were memories, as real, permanent and powerful as any moment of our lives. I suppose I knew that the past wouldn't simply disappear, but hearing him describe it drilled home that for all intents and purposes, those experiences were - and still are - as real for him as anything else was.

So, this song is attempt to bring a little fun, joy and levity to an illness that gets an excessively bad rap.  I'm not arguing against medication, and I'm not suggesting that schizophrenia isn't a serious condition.  I just feel like maybe it would be nice to celebrate that having a few screws loose doesn't mean you can't be as warm and loving as anyone else.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hell is NOT other people

So far on this blog I've stuck mostly to talking about songwriting and recording, and sharing various pieces of music with you. But the other side of this project is finding other musicians to play and collaborate with.

Despite the fact that I am really enjoying the stuff I'm creating by myself (this month's songwriting has been a blast so far, by the way, and I'll talk about that soon), I'm always at my happiest when playing with other people. If I thought for a second that the only outcome of this project would be me only performing alone with an acoustic guitar - or even electrified with backing tracks - I'd shut it down right now. That's not to say I wouldn't do that at all; I suspect I may have a hard time finding musicians willing to play the drivel I create here (if for no other reason than it's going to be stylistically varied and licensed in a way they might not agree with). But ultimately I'd like to see an ensemble come out of this in some form.

While I do have friends that are musicians, this doesn't mean I have an instant pool of bandmates. Some of them I greatly enjoy discussing music with and even jamming with occasionally, but differences in our musical tastes make a cohesive act an unlikely scenario. Some are simply geographically inconvenient for trying to regularly meet and collaborate. And others are quite content with noodling at home, already have a musical endeavor of their own (in some cases several), or are professional musicians who I wouldn't want wasting their precious time with an amateur venture such as mine, even if they were willing to do so.

As a result, I've had to find ways to meet more musicians.  I've tried a couple approaches so far, and I'll share how successful I've found each of them.

1) Jams at local bars, pubs

One of my first thoughts was jams. For those not familiar with jams, it involves having a host act - sometimes a full band, sometime just one or two people with guitars - who allow anyone who comes in to either join them or in some cases take over the stage entirely.  You tend to see all sorts come out: singers, guitarists, bassists, drummers, harmonica players, keyboard players... sometimes you'll even get some big band instruments like sax making an appearance.

This actually hasn't been as fruitful as I would've hoped, though admittedly I might have better luck if I headed into Toronto rather than stick to Brampton.  The turnout of people to play with has been meager. Some of the singers would probably also be better served by attending karaoke rather than a jam; that's not to say the didn't have a nice singing voice, but it seemed like they were mostly interested in just pounding back a few drinks and belting out the few tunes they knew without a care in the world.

The other problem with jams is that sometimes you don't know what you're going to get for a host, and you have no idea what songs they'll know. The last one I made it out to was hosted by two guys with acoustic guitars.  As more of an electric and full band player, it was difficult to find common ground with them. If the host doesn't know any tunes I'm used to playing, I usually take the attitude of "I'm happy to play whatever you feel like, I'll pick it up as I go along", but sometimes the host will choose something convoluted where there's no chance I can see stuff coming if I don't know the song. The end result is it doesn't go well, and you get the sense they'd be happy if you never came back (they'll usually make some polite comment like "hope to see you again", but their tone and body language would suggest otherwise).

I haven't wrote off heading out to jams like this completely, but it certainly hasn't met my hopes so far.

2) Classifieds

There are a number of specialized classifieds for finding musicians to play with, such as Bandmix, but sites like Craigslist and Kijiji also have sections for musicians. I decided to try Kijiji as a first attempt. I did my best to spell out in my ad what I was aiming for: people who were interested in being a "weekend warrior", being in a band where being creative and gelling as a group was taken seriously, but nobody was looking to drop their day job and chase a crazy dream of becoming huge rock stars. I also made sure to give people a sense of the musical styles and musicians I was into.

I received quite a few responses, and as you might expect from Kijiji, quite all over the place. A number of people clearly didn't pick up on my musical tastes and listed influences that were far removed from anything I'd go for (and I'm fairly open-minded). Others didn't quite grasp my goals; some were simply inviting me to come hang out in their basement and play Eagles songs, while others wanted me to come out an audition for their band, making it clear that they expected a definite level commitment for becoming "the next big thing".

Somewhere in amongst the junk, I did get a couple e-mails that have panned out. One guy had decided he wanted to host a bi-weekly jam at his home. I've been going to these jams for over a month now and it's been a lot of fun. The guys who come out to it are a great bunch; they're all talented individuals who are easy to get along with. This may not lead to any sort of performing group, but I'm perfectly happy with it just being a relaxed get together a couple times a month that still forces me to work my musical muscles in a full-band setting.

The second one was a drummer looking to put together a cover band. He does play in an established band already - which he doesn't plan to quit - but he's been somewhat disappointed with the direction his band has taken. Rather than do full night, paying gigs of covers with some original stuff throughout as they used to do, they're moving towards only doing the originals, performing unpaid short sets opening for larger bands in the hopes of making it big. So he's looking to put together a side project for himself that sticks with the full-night-of-mainly-if-not-all covers approach. It's still in its infancy; I met with him over a month ago now, but he's been in the process of moving to a new house with his family, so it's put things on hold. I've kept in touch with him, and hopefully it works out.

So that's where thing are at the moment on the collaboration front.  I still might see about adding to my network of musical associates, but it's a start anyways.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tools of the Trade III

This will be a fairly short one, as there is not to much new here, but I'll go over it nonetheless.  I also suggested I'd talk a bit about the decisions I made composing/recording the tune, but looking back at how much I talked about the style and feel I was trying to achieve, I'm not sure it's really necessary.  If anybody has any specific questions, post in the comments and I'll be sure to answer.  Alright, on to the gear...

For the bass guitar, I once again used the Thunderbird model of the Variax Bass (I can't seem to get away from that T-bird). I ran it directly into the sound interface and used an effects plugin mimicking a tube pre-amp.

For the guitar, I've laid out essentially what the signal chain was below (modeled, of course). My Variax's ES-335 model was run into my Line 6 Pod, which placed a Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face in front of a Fender Bassman - the gain on each cranked to the max - followed by a tape echo before leaving the Pod. The Fuzz Face was only used for the lead guitar track; for the rhythm guitar part, it's just guitar, amp, and echo.

ES-335The Fuzz FaceFender 1959 Bassman (2646-1)Fulltone Tube Tape Echo Edit - Ottawa 01 08

The one new element in my actual gear for this track was that I upgraded from my Pod xt Live to the recently released Pod HD500. I hadn't expected to rely this much on my Pod for recordings, but it's extremely handy to be able to record late at night, or not having to worry about ambient noise getting picked up by a mic. The xt Live is a very nice unit, but the HD500 had some new features of interest and boasted improve signal processing. From the few weeks I spent with it, I've been very pleased with what I've been able to get out of it so far.