Monday, April 15, 2019

A little south of Nowhere's-Ville, there is a tiny cottage that houses a weird black lab and an even weirder composer. If you were to walk along the meandering creek that runs fast around the place you would hear strange music emanating from the cottage, music that moves among areas of angular dissonance, textural soundscapes and full blown shredding.

Right now I am re-designing my pedal board for the current iteration of the band. I vacillate among several states; having no pedals at all (usual state), to incorporating a few, then to having a HUGE pedal board. During that sequence of events there are many tearing sounds as velcro-ed pedals get torn off and re-positioned and minute details like having a buffer before a wah, or after, or between a wah and a fuzz are posited, researched (You-tube time) and experimented upon.

It is hard to achieve a perfect balance between sonic variation and onstage usability, especially on the budgets I work with (read NO budgets at all). Nevertheless, I am close to having a pedal board that works well. It is by no means finished, but the basic infrastructure is there. Let me detail the set-up.
To begin with, one of the biggest problems with guitar effects, especially those that have a lot of knobs and tones, is tweakability. On the test-bench there is no problem, but onstage it becomes a major one. Say that you use an analog delay pedal and you want to alter the knobs in real time to create a wee bit of sonic mayhem. If the pedal is on the floor, then you need to crouch down, squint (at least I do) and spend an inordinate amount of onstage time hunched over your pedal board. Not only does it look weird, it also irks me that thousands of dollars of pedals are put on the floor getting dusty and trod upon (I guess they come by the nick-name "stomp box" honestly).

There are options of course; mostly expensive and mostly for digital pedals where different parameters can be controlled by OTHER pedals attached to the main one. You can use an expression pedal to control a set parameter, or use another pedal to switch between several pre-programmed states. These options do work, but they never are as powerful as twisting knobs and, in the case of the analog delay mentioned earlier, there really is no alternative but to bend over and tweak onstage. It seems silly. The other option is to have one pedal for one sound only and get yet another one for any other tonal variation. That seems sillier still but explains why so many pedal boards get HUGE quickly.

Over the years I have migrated pedals from the floor up onto a platform (a music stand) that allows me to tweak the knobs by hand. It is so much easier to adjust a delay parameter in real time while playing, than to plod about looking for the expression pedal on a dark stage, and hoping it is still connected to the parameter you actually want to adjust.

In order to do that though, I have had to populate my pedal boards with a lot of boxes that don't anything other than turn things on and off. I will explain my signal path and you can see what I mean.



From the guitar I go into the tiny floor pedal board.

That is "Effect Chain One". In it is a wah pedal (a Morley Wah-volume which is probably the pedal I have used most over the years, having bought my first one way back in 1977; in fact I think it is the very first effect pedal I ever bought.) Then to a boss tuner, then to a MXR overdrive-boost pedal (which given its associations to a snake-referred purchase has, through no fault of its own, a VERY negative connotation and is destined to be swapped out soon). That chain can be bypassed by a quick stomp on a Road Rage loop pedal. The beauty of this set-up is I can have my wah pedal cocked to a position I like going into my distortion and turn them both on at one go. The pedal order is the result of MUCH experimenting and I find it gives me the best sound.

On the floor board is also a Gig Rig Remote Loopy II, which turns on two other loops remotely. They are "Effect Chain Two" and "Effect Chain Three".

In "Effect Chain Two" is a EHX Ring Thing and an EHX Small Stone Phaser. The Ring Thing has an expression pedal plugged in so that I might control seperate parameters on a patch by patch basis (the Ring Thing has 9 presets and one WYSIWYG setting). It is fundamentally a ring modulater, but is equally a trem pedal and harmoniser. It does all of these things splendidly. The phaser is a pretty standard thing and used seldomly but is fun to set to crazy settings and does offer a lot of tonal variation. The fact they are both on the music stand means I can reach over and tweak any control easily and in real time.

In "Effect Chain Three" is a TC Electronics Echo Brain analog delay and a Hall of Fame 2 digital reverb. They both have a lot of knobs that get tweaked a lot. I can get any number of sounds from them with ever having to run through presets (the delay has no presets but the reverb has 11). It is so much easier to adjust the delay setting to tempo with a quick twist of the wrist than to tap it on a excruciatingly small tap tempo stomp box. Of course the analog delay doesn't even allow that anyway so...

That is the basic rig, but I am currently awaiting a few more pedals to include into the fray.
In EC1, I will swap out the MXR for a Rat2 (I LOVE Rat pedals and wished I had never sold my 1985 Rat) and add a EHX Nano Looper 360 at the end of that chain.  In EC2 I will add an EHX Mono Synth pedal (it will be the first in the chain) and a Tube Screamer clone (probably a...Behringer clone!) between the Ring Thing and the Small Stone. In EC3 I will add another looper (TC Electronic's Ditto) at the very end of the whole path and it will reside on the floor. I would also like to add an EHX Attack-Decay and a Grand Canyon into Chain 3 but space and budget are a problem there.

With the EHX looper at the end of chain one, I can basically get it to act like a step sequencer into the Mono Synth and Ring Thing, allowing me a pretty cool modular synth type set-up. With a Ditto at the very end of the entire path, I can record an effected step sequence (say a guitar figure looped by the nano, sent into the Mono Synth and Ring Thing and tweaked in real time) and then play over it. I am hardly a fan of solo artists building up layered loops one by one, but given the nature of the current line-up and our analog synth paradigm, this seems a cool way to incorporate synth sequences and arpeggiated patterns into a guitar-based "synth" set-up.

So that is basically it.

To sign-off I will include a picture of the weird black lab I mentioned earlier.




Sunday, March 24, 2019


"Work, work, work...work, work, work...work, work, work...hello boys; have a good nights rest?"  Lot's of work going on over here...not so much hanging with the "boys" but hanging with the lads is good too.

The album is getting put together slowly but surely with well over half the music written and solidified. Andrew has brought in a large piece as has Alex. We are going for a Diagramma-ish vibe here, using a lot of analog synthesizers and fewer traditional prog nuances (read mellotron and organ). We have been compared to Porcupine Tree before and that is probably a reference that will be used again.

Alex's piece is probably the strongest foray into that aesthetic and is quite exciting. He has written a nice guitar part too...very idiomatic with some nice natural harmonic melodies. Andrew has written an odd-metered latin-ish piece that is proving to be quite challenging to play. For my part I have brought several pieces in that use the simple machine motifs, but are all over the map stylistically. As we produce this stuff up I know there will be a consistent aural vibe that will unify some of these seemingly disparate elements.

So last night I had a bit of a disaster. I have a new studio buddy: WallyDog. He is a Black lab and very, very boisterous. Last night I put my guitar down on the couch and as he walked by his collar snagged one of the tuning pegs. He panicked and took off running, twisting the collar firmly around the peg. He scrambled out of the studio, into the kitchen and off up the stairs, dragging my guitar with him all the way. It is my favorite guitar; a Howard Roberts Fusion III. The guitar is a semi-hollow body and I was terrified the hollow body part would shatter on its wild ride through my house. It didn't. But it got LOTS of scrapes and dings. Two of the tone-volume knobs were broken off and two of the very cool finger style tailpiece thumbscrews were sheered off. The neck was unscathed (which was another worry) and for the most part disaster was averted. Wally was scared for hours (my shouting didn't help) but now, twelve hours later peace has been restored to the studio and my guitar, much the worse for wear is again being used for recording.  






Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The new band.


Well well well. Despite the lurid "Year Of The Snake" 2018 proved to be (as well the lurching spill-over into the current calendar) at least 2019 is off to a great start band-wise. The new line-up has been rehearsing for our upcoming shows and I am delighted to say that it is shaping up very well. There is a new energy in the unit and the two new members are doing an amazing job. The lads have been doing their home-work and the thorny odd meter stuff the band is known for, is being played with aplomb. It is all very exciting.

It makes sense then to use this opportunity to introduce the new members of the band. I will go alphabetically starting with....


Andrew Burns-bass, vocals, keyboards. 

Andrew is part of the new incarnation of the band, but actually has been the Rebel Wheel bassist since 2012. He brings a calm air of quiet virtuosity into the band. Although his main instrument in the band is electric and upright bass, he is a multi-instrumentalist who is equally adept at keyboards, vocals, guitar, banjo and mandolin. David and he met at an early PepTide's rehearsal back in 2010 and have kept a strong working relationship ever since. A full-time musician, Andrew plays with a whack of artists (The Rebel Wheel, The PepTides, The Powergoats, Al Tambay, Ty Hall, DeeDee Butters) as well as releases his own music. He also runs a studio and music school (Living Music Studios).




Alex Wickham-drums, vocals, keyboards.

Alex and David met towards the end of David's five year residency with The PepTides. Together with Andrew they played to a crowd of 14,000 at Ottawa's Westfest (among a few dozen other festivals and gigs) and formed a solid working relationship. David drafted Alex for his folk-rock act The Rapids and then for the precursor to the latest iteration of The Rebel Wheel, The Bag of Snakes. Alex enjoys complex odd-metered material so gave his hearty assent when asked to be a fellow Wheel. He has chops galore and a strong work ethic and all in all is a joy to work with (as artists like The PepTides, Junkyard Symphony, Bradley Scott, Caveman Techno, Chantal Hackette etc. will attest).


Both players have at a high level of craft and professionalism and are making The Rebel Wheel V8 a really unique and overwhelmingly fun project to be involved with. Our first gig will be in four weeks time (as The Rebel Wheel, we have close to a hundred gigs playing together in other units) and we are very excited about it.

Here is a brief excerpt of our latest rehearsal recorded on my i-phone:








Tuesday, January 8, 2019

This will be the last post about snakes. I promise. Well...I expect. 

So 2018 is over and the lurid details of The East Coast Percussion Syndrome have been already been mentioned. This post is about another snake I met in 2018 and is closely related to some other similar snakes I have met in the past, (poor snakes; they get such a bad rep when people like those I will detail are compared to them).

 Way back in 1991 or so, I was in a band called the Barbara Lynch Band. We were all full-time musicians with a pretty good management contract so we were able to rehearse daily and hone the band's sound and stage show pretty well. We did a ton of show-cases, and like any band who works hard and has even moderately good players and material, we were able to attract a fairly large following and generate a lot of buzz. Eventually we came to the notice of the Toronto press and for about a year or two, were the darlings of the King Street scene. We won a ton of press accolades (like best band in Toronto etc.) and were featured on Much Music's The New Music (along with Keith Richards) and on CITY-TV's music shows. In fact, I think there are some very bad copies of  a few of our performances at CITY-TV on Youtube.

The band eventually started to be wooed by labels and booking agents. We were offered quite a few tours overseas, and several pretty good deals with small independent labels. Our manager refused them all and was waiting for interest from the American majors. Given that he had just signed two of his acts to similar deals it made sense to follow his advice. The only problem was that we weren't really all that fashionable as far as commercial music went. We were more like Sword-Fish Trombone era Tom Waits meets Weather Report. Nevertheless a parade of deals crossed the table.

Quite a few producers offered us demo deals and we ended up in quite a few major studios in Toronto. Eventually we settled with Metalworks studio and recorded an EP with Roxy Music producer John Punter and Rush engineer Rick Andersen. It was a delightful time and something which I will detail in a a post about amazingly good experiences. This post is about the opposite.

So. Before we ended up at Metalworks with the amazing aforementioned production team, we did quite a bit of demo recording with other producers. One of them took us to a great facility. Back then it was all SSL boards and 24 track Studers coupled up via Adam-Smith synch units. It was all very impressive so we were awe-struck to be in the studio recording with this one producer. He was super friendly and kept telling us how great we were and how unique. All he wanted to do he said, was choose the best two songs we had and produce them up for a more radio friendly sound. We had a song that had this very cool drum intro we loved (think of I Mother Earth's Used To Be Alright, a wholly appropriate choice given that we shared management and a ton of stages...in fact I am sure that intro to their song was inspired by ours).

Anyway....the song chosen was one of our stronger pieces so we totally understood why the producer wanted to start with it. So we started tracking. We got about 40 seconds in and the producer called us to a halt. He wanted to iron out something in the drums he said. So we went over the intro with a fine tooth comb. Maybe not so many clicky rim sounds was the first directive, so Jim Casson the drummer began voicing the pattern on just the heads. None of us liked it as much, but we were doing our best to be professional and follow the producer. We started recording again. Forty seconds later we stopped again. Hmmm, maybe a snare hit on three would be better, was the next directive. Ok. Snare hit on three it was. On with the tune. Ten seconds later we stopped again. Maybe the snare should hit on 2 and 4 instead. Ok.

This went on until the intro had NONE of the flavour it originally had, but instead, sounded like every other drum part from that era. The producer was beaming; "see how much I have improved your sound in so short a time?" was what his face radiated. We spent the next 12 hours trimming off every unique burr we had laboriously inserted over several years of performing, writing and rehearsing. We took a wholly unique band song and trimmed sections off and idiosyncrasies away until we had just another mediocre pop pap piece.

Our manager was delighted: our producer was delighted: we were totally deflated. This was NOT how we envisioned the band. In the end we dropped the producer and convinced the manager to go with John Punter instead and we ended up with the songs the way we had arranged them only with a far superior sonic thumbprint and of course, world class production.

I now know that the demo producer was just another snake. He figured he knew how to make us better when he absolutely no idea what we were. I understand trying to be radio friendly. I understand wanting fame and fortune. What he didn't understand was that we wanted our music to be our music first and foremost. All of us made fairly good livings as musicians already (I was writing for TV's Nature of Things and 5th Estate etc. so was doing VERY well and the other lads were first call session guys) and wanted this project to reflect our musical tastes, not our need to be rich. But there will always be that guy who shows up and starts directing everybody, smilingly telling them how good they are, but all the while forcing their own weak aesthetic into the room. Behind the smile lies a conceit that their mediocre vision of music is real and that the band's is charmingly naive.

Fast forward to 2018 and a band I had been in for several years. We played the folk rock Tara and I had written and produced and were called The Rapids

We had just started doing gigs and in a attempt to incorporate more tunes in our set-list we asked a local top 40 guitar player to join our band. As most of the songs featured two guitars, I was excited about having another player involved. It meant we could perform the album with the same arrangements we had recorded originally, plus we could supplement our set list with some covers. Both Tara and I knew we wanted NOT to be a cover band, so we decided early on that we would approach the covers from a unique point of view.

So in came the local hero. Smiling. Complimentary. Humble. At the first rehearsal he started out quite amiable but by the end was making lots of faces. This went on for a few weeks until about the third rehearsal when he stopped the band and said that something didn't sound right and that he thought we should focus on the drums. So we focused on the drums. How about we play the song VERY slowly so we can put the drummer on the spot? Once we allowed him to do that we had opened the flood gates. How about we excise this whole guitar part so we can make the material more "radio friendly"? Let's lose these tunes from the set-list because they are downers. After half of our songs he played a country riff and laughed saying he thought of that every time he heard "songs like these", without thinking that his association revealed more about his lack of imagination than any real plagiarizing on our part, which was what he was really getting at. We were all good sports and let this guy have his way, but none of us were having any fun anymore and felt like we were being given some kind of "master class" by a moron.

We decided to change gears and just worry about covers instead. So we did a few the way we wanted to. The local hero was quick with his comments; "Oh we can't play "These Boots Were Made For Walking" like that! To begin with, it is a swing type song, sung by a woman, not a head banger sung by a man. And what is with the extended guitar solo? No-one wants to hear that!".

The truth is we had already played that version of the song and it went over like gang-busters. It was good that we had, because for me, my growing suspicions became confirmed. What we really had in our midst, was a conceited, mediocre cover tune musician who had never worked in an original band in his entire life, treating us like we were rank amateurs who needed his expert guidance.

He was able to derail our project for a long time with his antics and his bullshit. The fact he never learned a tune properly (he simply hadn't the chops to actually perform ANY of the guitar parts, preferring instead to strum campfire chords on his expensive 12 string, smirk and generally dis the material) and refused to gig with us (his "professional" top 40 reputation was liable to be sullied by our "amateur hour" take on covers) did him in in the end, but not before he brought us to a grinding halt.

That was a year ago and we are back up again, but just like that other snake on the East Coast mini-tour, not without a bitter taste and certainly not without some other far-reaching and actually gut-wrenching consequences. Just like in the studio 20 years ago and on stage in the spring, one should always be on guard for the people who not only don't understand creativity, but who are also consumed with a smug satisfaction in themselves and what can only be described as their overwhelming mediocrity.
 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Year End Review and the Coast Percusssion Syndrome

2018 was a busy year for the band. At the beginning of the year we were really out gigging as Bag Of Snakes but as we covered more and more material from The Rebel Wheel catalog it became fairly obvious that we were quickly becoming the next iteration of THAT band. My Aunt (who is in hospital right now) told me that "Snakes" is an unpleasant word with bad connotations and my very good friend Rachel actually shuddered when I told her our name. So. Bag Of Snakes is no longer a band, it is instead just another album in the ever-growing Rebel Wheel canon (albeit a more hard-rock "angular garage-band" album than usual).

There have been lots of high moments this year. It was a delight to watch my friend Tara develop as a seasoned and confidant performer (she was already a strong song-writer but even that aspect of her career has developed too). Watching her become more and more at ease with the stage and allowing me to be part of that growth was a real privilege for me. Local song-writer and leader of The PepTides, Claude Marquis drafted me into his band for his first solo show featuring his "folky" tunes. The show was a great success and we have re-kindled a very strong working relationship.

Another PepTide front-person, Dee Dee Butters, also decided to start her own solo career and I was honoured and delighted to be asked to join her in her jazz gigs. We play as a duo, or sometimes as a a trio with PepTides, Rebel Wheel bassist Andrew Burns.

I also have been doing a lot of solo gigs myself, mostly jazz guitar "chord solos", where I might play any number of standards or originals playing the melody in four part harmony, usually with contrasting motion bass lines. It is a challenge but is immensely fun as well.

But it wasn't all lavender and jazz. I went on perhaps the single worst road-tour of my life in the spring. The much touted "East Coast Mini Tour" was a disaster from the get-go. In retrospect I should never have climbed into the car when the "driving force" of the project arrived an hour early and over-the-top-surly at 5am. We all scurried about in a panic so that when we left (an hour ahead of schedule and grumpily impatient), it ended up I had forgotten my wallet. I noticed about 100 miles in and spoke up, thinking that we still had plenty of time to turn around and fetch it. The driving force bluntly refused so I was looking at a ten day tour with no money of my own. As another friend of mine said, I should have gotten out of the car right then and there, but as I was the "band" for both artists I felt duty-bound to stay.

I am not going to detail each and every abuse I endured along the way, but the gigs were done against a back-drop of escalating tension and many whispered conferences and dirty looks. The driving-force would pull me aside and complain about the other artist as being unprofessional and not worthy, but would also pull the other artist aside and would say the exact thing about me. The irony is the driving-force was perhaps the single most UNPROFESSIONAL person with whom I had ever worked. If there wasn't a transpose key or WIFI, they never would have been able to even get up on stage, having no actual ability to remember a song, nor play in any key but C.

It all came to a crashing end in Halifax, when the driving force showed up at the gig too drunk to set up or even do a sound-check. They were wholly unable to perform but were somehow capable enough to hurl abuse from the floor as I performed. My set with the other artist on tour was pretty good despite the insults being screamed at me from the bar. Apparently I was a "bad father", a "loser" a "bum" a "dime a dozen guitar player" and would be "a total nothing" without their expert guidance. When we finished, the driving force proceeded to insult the other artist to the point where she stormed out, throwing back the car keys at driving force (which had wisely been kept from them but unwisely returned in a dramatic gesture). So now the driving force had the car keys and was going to drive home to Ontario because the band, the bar, indeed, all of Halifax had thrown them under the bus (they were almost beaten up several times at the bar for insulting patrons and trying to encourage them to join in on the abuse hurling). I tried to stop the driving force from leaving with the keys by having a tug of war with the duffle coat in which the keys had been pocketed. After driving force started yelling that I was assaulting them, I let go and off they went into the night. Thankfully the bar owner (who had already demanded her to leave) had called the police so driving force didn't get far. When they were found, they actually tried to have me arrested for assault, but due to the public nature of their melt-down, no-one was having any of that.

So. The East Coast Percussion Syndrome came to a crashing halt, and even now, six months later, the damage done to the other artist's and my relationship hasn't wholly recovered. It was the lowest point in my career; stranded in Halifax with no money, no place to stay and a spurious assault allegation leveled against me. Of course it all worked out but now I know EXACTLY why Rachel shuddered and my aunt warned me when I told them my band was called Bag Of Snakes. When you actually meet a true snake it is a totally disgusting experience.



Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Simple machines. The concept fascinates me. The idea that there are simple physical mechanisms that can use leverage to multiply force is intriguing to me. The actual physics of "mechanical advantage" are more complicated than I care to explain (or could do justice to truthfully), but the product of levers and pulleys multiplying the magnitude of a force by any factor is very revealing of man's ingenuity in transforming his world. The idea that several simple machines in conjunction create a compound machine (think bicycle with its wheels and levers and pulleys) inspired my musical design for the new Rebel Wheel album, "Simple Machines" (that and i just love the sound of the term).

The idea here was to create a series of motives that would operate like simple machines, from which we would build longer form compositions (as opposed to say writing a series of pieces called "Screw" "pulley" "lever" or "wedge" say, all of which tend to evoke sexual connotations for me). Coming up with motives was easy, simply because of the visual aspect of a guitar neck and of how notes look on paper. If you visualize a root, a b5 and a m7th (say C, F# and Bb) as a shape on guitar it kind of looks like a wedge. If you think of a series of tri-tones stacked up (C, F#, C, F#) it looks like an inclined plane both on a guitar neck and on paper. If you take a pattern like C to C8va, to A (down a m3) to Bb (down a ma7) to F (up m6) to F# (up semitone) to C# (down a 4th) to D (up a semitone) and put it in motion, it looks like a screw. You get the idea: the actual note patterns are visual more than aural.

These then became the building blocks for the music (which is still being written) and as is always the case, these motives serve more like spring-boards for further machinations rather than hard and fast musical statements. In other words the simple machine cells can be altered traditionally (with techniques like retrograde, inversion, retrograde inversion, expansion, contraction, transposition etc. etc.) or freely.

This is always the fun part for me: taking small cells and fucking about with them. I myself am a simple machine.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

What a Bag of Snakes (or how The Rebel Wheel was re-born)

It has been a long time since our last blog in this series of Rebel Wheel Broadcasts. Usually when someone starts out with "it's has been a long time" they add, "and a lot has happened". Of course it has. The one thing anyone can count on is stuff happening. The longer the time, the more "a lot" enters into the sentence.

In my case, divorce, a series of deaths in the family, several heart-breaks and a lengthy detour down a folk-rock rabbit hole that started so well and ended so terribly is the bulk of what happened to me. Through it all though The Rebel Wheel kept on ticking, albeit in a kind of off-the-radar way as far as the prog-rock community was concerned.

I was also able to finish my 4th Symphony, my 5th string quartet, a whole series of electro-acoustic compositions, a batch of TV work and some hard rocking proggy stuff. Right now I am finishing my master's and am writing a large scale percussion piece using several techniques derived from my study of Bartok's technique of poly modal-chromaticism.

Since Whore's Breakfast (the band's first all-digital release) I have relied heavily on the splendid "bandcamp" site to distribute my music.It has worked a charm. I released four more albums for the Rebel Wheel in succession, all of which were either albums that had been released under other titles (Filth Therapy, Bag Of Snakes) or compilation albums of released tracks (5 Epics) or unreleased ones (3rd Wheel). These all basically helped me keep my hand in the game (foot in the door, head in the clouds).

Last year I wanted to do some hard rock after a disastrous tour to the East Coast with a certifiable sociopathic, megalomaniacal, loud-mouth, red-neck boor. A year of doing gigs with this person pretty much soured any taste I had for doing any work with posers. I should have known better. No matter. The good part was I immediately jumped into a hard-rock odd-metered aesthetic and after writing and recording for a few weeks came up with a new project called Bag Of Snakes. I released it on bandcamp and Cd Baby and it did well right out of the gates. It was only when a reviewer said that it sounded like Stone Temple Pilots meets Rush, did I realize I had basically written the perfect successor to Whore's Breakfast (the two compilation albums and Filth Therapy notwithstanding).

While touring the album with Alex Wickham and Andrew Burns it occurred to me that I also had a new Rebel Wheel unit on my hands so I very gleefully re-formed the band with them and swallowed The Bag of Snakes into the Rebel Wheel canon. Six months later we are writing, recording and rehearsing new material for the 2019 release of "Simple machines" which will be the 9th Rebel Wheel album and the 8th iteration of the band. Here is the Bag of Snakes unit before we decided we were really The Rebel Wheel