1. [161013.1110]

    This track started as a set of lyrics. It’s about leaving a city that’s full of anger and oppression, and wound up with bad memories. It’s also about being a musical nomad - here “ghost” means a few different things. The original intention was to do The Ghost Districts as a full album, and there’d be a few songs involving the ghost theme.

    I hadn’t heard it at the time, but Okkervil River has a lyric:

    Shivering from the late fall cold / I felt like a solid ghost.

    I was going along those lines for this I think, although their song thematically is much more about the literal death of someone close at a young age. This song is more about a gradual burnout. The first images I had were to set it in Montreal as a piece about that city but it quickly became about Toronto and struggling at music there.

    "When people hear it they will understand / But no one will ever know 90% of the screams of the crash"

    There’s just too much good music out there.

    The song proceeds as an imagined apology to everyone I left behind, although it’s obviously really done up like crazy. The end is just pure, old-school angst like from my days in Hester.

    Musically the song is hard to pin down for me. I know that the main section was mostly written as an experiment in changing keys mid-song, again inspired by David Bowie. I might have hit a little close to target though, because I’ve been asked casually before if I was playing a Bowie cover when I was rehearsing this at someone’s house. It does combine the circular key changes with the descending patterns of the early Bowie era, and it didn’t help that I went ahead and did a really arpeggiated bassline and ran my guitar through distortion and wah à la Mick Ronson/Earl Slick. Ah well, it works.

    The intro was supposed to be kind of bubblegummy 50’s stuff. Think The River (even though it wasn’t really a conscious influence). The outro was originally envisioned as getting louder and more intense with some hardcore drumming and squelchy guitar. I ditched that though, I think dropping to a really stripped down arrangement for the ending and letting the vocals carry the anger fits better now.

    Listen/download: Ghostlife by Charles Valois

  2. [091013.1437]

    1. This song passed through a million different variations to get to where it is now.

      It originated around the time I was playing live shows and working on Nightmares. It was in A minor and had a different chorus and a rap midway through. The lyrics were completely different. I remember one night I was not in a great mood and decided to debut it at Supermarket. It went over horribly, just sort of that moment of silence and slow trickle clapping. I was sitting at a table with Elissa Mielke of all people too - of course this would happen with a cool musician I like in attendance!

      Anyways, the embarrassment of that original version meant that I more or less scrapped it, but the basic idea of the chords I revived a bit when I was working on Girls. I changed the key, and fleshed out the time signature in the verse (a bar of 5/4, then 6/4, then 2 of 4/4). I could not play or program a drum pattern that would work, so I gave up, but the parts for bass and keys from that version were recycled.

      After Girls was released I started really focussing on chord progressions, and retooled a lot of my song ideas to feature more variety. This is when I changed the outro chords to feature an Am chord, rather than staying in the same mode as the rest of the song. The lyrics were penned sometime around Girls, but I was a bit shy to play it for anyone given what it deals with.

      When I was working on it for The Ghost Districts I didn’t expect much, but once I started working on it the elements really slid into place perfectly. The guitar solo was done in one take which is crazy because it’s not really my playing style. For the first time the song had the right atmosphere to be as bombastic and at times refined as it needed to be to work emotionally. I’m really proud of this recording, especially my bass playing. 

      For some reason though, it took me forever to play the keyboard part in rhythm (the really simple electric piano type thing). I don’t know what it was, but many nights during the Ghost Districts sessions I could barely hold down a simple two handed part. This is NOT the norm since I’m usually such a synth brat. Luckily having no one to record with in Ottawa meant having to force myself to play properly.

  3. [081013.1210]

    I sent this song to a friend of mine who writes for Vice and he told me “this is like Gentrification: the song”.  That’s more or less it.

    The condo boom has succeeded in driving up the cost of living in Toronto. Who can afford street level businesses in condos? I have no idea but if my eyes didn’t deceive me it was usually Starbuck’s. Concentrating the wealth in “growing” neighborhoods just seems to intensify the gap between rich and poor in the city. There’s also a sinister effect on the city’s cultural landscape - high cost of living lends itself to big chain businesses which can afford to put up the money to actually set up shop when local businesses can’t survive. The money doesn’t trickle down, of course, because the leverage belongs to the multinationals who come in to scoop up property - once anything resembling a monopoly is established they pay the wages and set the prices and control the rent. It becomes more expensive to live downtown, and yet more and more people are making wal mart wages. So people get concentrated where property values are cheaper, or rent out tiny rooms in boarding houses at prices that could net them a one bedroom apartment somewhere else. We get an intensifying class chasm where the people on one end are too rich to fail and the other end is too poor to succeed. Of course, the proponents of putting a wal-mart near Kensington say it will lower prices. It probably will for as long as it can to starve out any local competition that can’t afford to sell below value. This is the triumph of so-called liberalism. This is where a free market has to end up. The whole song is basically a shot at the Rob Ford way of doing things because its proponents are naive enough to not realize this, or just don’t care.

    I also recalled an article about a locally owned jerk chicken (The Real Jerk) place getting run out of town by the condo it was stuck renting from. The complaints involved noise and rowdiness - but the place was not licensed and wasn’t open late. If it looks and sounds like racism, it’s most definitely racism. A pub got put in it’s place, and I’m too lazy to check but it’s probably one of those BLANK AND FIRKIN pubs that seem to be in every condo. (As an aside I can’t attest to the Real Jerk’s quality either way because I haven’t been, but I can vouch for Tropical Palms on Weston.)

    Repeating “The TTC is closed” is another shot at neo-liberalism. It’s obviously not going to happen any time soon, but with so many public services being slashed or sold off, why not? There’s perfectly good car roads*.


    Musically, this was new territory for me in some ways. It’s got a sort of Springsteen-y pounding drums and synth riff, and it’s got a jangly acoustic guitar like in some of Bowie’s singles. I played a semi-hollow for the really feedbacky guitar lines, and for contrast played a really angular line on a strat. Funny enough, the two strat sounds that are layered together are the same guitar before and after replacing the pickups. The end is not a sax but a Xaphoon - a sort of short plastic sax that I got because it was cheaper. It turned out I couldn’t play it at all, and I thought it would be funny to just do an awful “sax section” with it to end the song kind of mockingly. It’s also doubling the guitar and synth riffs. My vocals were recorded with a forty dollar kick mic.

    I set out wanting to have kind of a specific pallette with the album, hence using an FM synth on a few songs that has sort of a cheesier 80’s sound, having a uniform drum and bass sound between tracks, having similar style guitar playing, distorting my vocals, and whatnot between tracks.

  4. [071013.1456]

    This song was written one evening in my basement apartment in Mount Dennis, Toronto. Mount Dennis is up a big hill and my block’s southern terminus was the intersection of Eglinton and Weston. Looking out along Eglinton street in either direction there are tall concrete buildings lining a four lane road that runs up and down the hills of North Toronto. At night the aging concrete infrastructure fades to shadows beneath the glare of distant lights. Each top of the hill gleams with city lights, stretches of near total darkness in between. It gives the impression of a network of cold, distant city structures, spaced out like satellites across the topography.

    Hence the opening lines;

    There is a tendency to fall into a trap of admiring urban decay without questioning the conditions of which it is symptomatic. This song is about that, and about the detached ignorance that people in “better” areas can tend to harbor. I had heard so many ghetto jokes, and so many gang jokes and it all didn’t seem very funny when someone really got shot outside my block. The elitism of a world city is such that even well populated districts can feel totally irrelevant compared to the marquee neighborhoods that attract so many students and young professionals. Hence the name of the song.

    The truth is that life was for the most part fairly mundane and people were quite friendly - everyone was just stuck in a space that was not designed with quality of life in mind. The arrangement of a space can be oppressive, and unbridled market forces have a punitive effect on those lower on the economic chain. I was insulated from the real structural challenges facing the neighborhood, of course.

    The song is also about the suburbs. “Where bowling alleys still seem like fun”. Bowling alleys are fun - so are long nights in a friend of a friend’s basement. We lose those things in a city centre that encourages consumption as a substitute for human interaction. We former suburbanites can forget the make-your-own-fun desperation of where our lives first played out.

    So that’s two types of city elitism right there, and I guess that’s the thrust of the song, but a large part of it is just describing the spaces. I’m fascinated with space outside the city centre, and of course this song is very much about exploring the physical space while trying to take stock of what it means beyond aesthetics.

    Oh and why do the former boarding houses of Parkdale shudder/shutter when the gentry draws near? Gentrification is not a process of enriching a neighborhood, it is a process of driving out one caste to make room for a higher one. It is a classist and anti-art process, and it drives us further and further to the fringes.

    The song was originally recorded as an arrangement with synths and guitar and vocals only - a slow building piece. I always wanted to try it as a rock song, and kept most of the arrangement for the album version but added drums and electric guitar riffs. The scattered references to parts of the city and city life are intended to lead into an EP that’s very much about the city - a sort of thematic overture.

  5. [160713.1452]

    Thoughts on Jay-Z and Kanye West in the liberal blogosphere

    Lately I’ve seen a lot of rhetoric surrounding Kanye West and Jay-z as being fake revolutionaries; calling for revolution in one song while rapping about watches in another. There is a piece in Gawker, in particular. What is ironic to me isn’t the fact that Watch The Throne is politically contradictory. What’s ironic to me is that the supposedly progressive press is so eager to dismiss the two artists writing some of the most pointed political music in the mainstream. The struggle between the broken capitalist system in which an artists prevails and their desire affect social change is not, as sites like Gawker would have you believe, a modern black phenomenon. We have seen the likes of Bruce Springsteen - the undisputed voice of the working american - write songs about killing bankers while openly endorsing Barack Obama’s oppressive (and very bank friendly) regime.  We have the Clash producing political music while reaping the rewards of mainstream hits. We have Bono of U2 (perhaps the only white classic rocker who gets called out) routinely made fun of for his own political advocacy work from the same media that ask why political artists don’t get involved?

    Make no mistake, these musicians are not revolutionaries in the political sense. Kanye West is not engaging in Maoist adventurism anymore than Bruce Springsteen is starting a non-hierarchal commune on an occupied Asbury Park. Anyone who expected as much was bound to be disappointed when the release of Yeezus didn’t spark a sudden shift to post-capitalist utopia. Mainstream musicians don’t need to be discredited as revolutionaries, because the very concept of mainstream music under capitalism is incompatible with revolution. The music industry is subject to the same economic rules as other art industries under capitalism. Any art created and promoted through such an industry could not threaten its own mode of production. As such, music that is produced and promoted through the industry, regardless of content, is purposed to provoke an emotional response in its listeners rather than an intellectual response. I would argue that Kanye has moved away from this model somewhat with songs like New Slaves being much more Brechtian, but New Slaves is not single material. No Church In The Wild is ferocious, but makes no obvious political statement. Perfect single. Murder To Excellence is political and thoughtful but not intellectually forceful. You can dance to it without engaging with its message. It does not provoke you to understand, it offers a message to those already receptive. Even so, it was not a single.

    If I don’t believe the music to be truly revolutionary in form, why does this bother me? For one, expecting music to live up to a complete political program sets it up for failure. Kanye West has never written a guide to overthrowing a capitalist system nor would he necessarily want to. Yet a song that frames itself with the question Is it genocide? and features lines like No shop class/but half the school’s got a tool doesn’t need to have a perfect revolutionary program to provide powerful descriptions of systemic oppression. The fact that these artists cannot, under capitalism, create totally revolutionary art is being laid at the feet of the artists and used to discredit whatever political content may remain. Gawker criticizes these two men as fake revolutionaries, at the same time ignoring the fact that becoming successful under capitalism was never bound to create revolutionaries. 

    This is the choice facing young people of color in the liberal media. You either remain unsuccessful in the capitalist system in which case you’re unlikely to get a write-up in Slate, Gawker, Jezebel et. al or you become successful enough that your work is immediately discredited. No matter that Gawker does not, obviously, exist in a magical press bubble outside of North American capitalism. No matter that this absolutist view suggests that having achieved success in a racist system means that these artists must support racism. No matter that comparing Kanye West and Jay-Z to the likes of Martin Luther King or Angela Davis sets up a criteria so rigid that literally no recording artist could be taken seriously if that’s what they had to compete with. Needless to say, I’ve never seen someone demand that Peter Gabriel act more like Fred Hampton.

    There seems to be a bit of a push in particular to discredit Kanye West. He is both the more flamboyant of the two and the more politically extreme, so perhaps this is inevitable. The amount of reviews that have shamed West for using a sample of Strange Fruit in Blood on the Leaves without even considering the possibility that the juxtaposition of that sample with those lyrics might signal a deeper meaning attests to this. Then there’s the Allmusic review that casually refers to the same track as being about date rape drugs - something that is most certainly not an actual feature of the lyrics. There’s even a multitude of reviews that took the all you blacks want all the same things line from New Slaves out of context as if West was hypocritically trying to shame rappers - even though in the context of the song he is impersonating a racist shop owner. Kanye West is treated like an idiot in the press; a responsible reading of his lyrics reveals a lot of his boasting to be self-conscious and a lot of his political content to be well-reasoned.

    Why does this matter? Does the revolution need tracks like Murder to Excellence or New Slaves? Not really - but I enjoy listening to them and having some strong music that compliments my politics. They may inspire listeners who are not as bothered by contradictions to seek out some political material. Music is not a political force in and of itself but it can certainly add to discourse. Still, content wise this obviously isn’t like Das Kapital getting banned.

    What matters is that this is an example of the racist and counter-revolutionary bent in our media. After all, Kanye West and Jay-Z are perhaps two of the biggest recording artists in the world right now - if the press chooses to attack them as counter-revolutionaries, then whereare the true revolutionaries in music? Why have I never read the same argument that Gawker presents against West and Jay-Z presented for the likes of Rage Against The Machine or Radiohead or System of a Down - all political artists who found success in the same system? What kind of message does this send to artists who wish to spread a political message in their music other than that if you’re black and successful you won’t be taken seriously?

    It is that which is disturbing to me, far more disturbing than a few jokes about rolexes and boasts about cars.

  6. [030313.1151]

    This song debuted years and years and years ago. Back then I was in a band called Hester. This version came after I listened to the old Hester demos and realized that instrumentally this song was pretty cool, it just suffered from my high school “say stuff that sounds cool” approach to lyrics.

    I used a drum loop that had been kicking around since the Girls sessions and recreated the key line with a computer. The bass line (this was the Hester song I played bass on live) I rerecorded with Alex’s bass - funny enough I could still play it more or less exactly as I used to which I guess is a testament to muscle memory. The guitar solo I have to give my old bandmate Geoff Dignam some credit for - I played it in the same mode as his old solo which is still one of the coolest things ever and that mode has a neat jarring sort of effect.

    Lyrically this is adapted from a piece of poetry I wrote while sitting in pho place. It’s about the city, kind of the same way Ghost Districts is. It’s also about interpersonal relationships, and kind of casts them as a form of escapism against an oppressive existence. At the time I was very anxious over a number of close calls with bad drivers, and I’d also just met someone. Hence “A never-ending accident that brought us together and now threatens to tear us apart”… I guess this whole single is about detachment from the harsh realities of city life, eh?

    I am idle;  I am no more

    Get it? It’s an inversion of idle no more.

    This song’s really bleak.

  7. [020313.1505]

    The Ghost Districts is a song I wrote last September when I moved back to Toronto. I had taken an interest in the inner suburbs; that is parts of the city that are not strictly considered to be downtown but have become encapsulated by its outward expansion.

    Many of the areas have interesting histories. Parkdale was cut off from the waterfront by the Gardiner expressway, and later on when the government started releasing patients from mental hospitals they were settled in Parkdale’s Victorian houses. This is where the second verse comes from.

    Other areas seem to be oppressive spaces - inner city pockets that are cut off from reliable transit, with a lack of public services. These areas are often entirely ignored in discussion even though they’re undeniably part of the city…

    Let’s stay detached and disappear/forget that our lives played out here

    That detachment is probably the somewhat ironic detachment a certain set has, seeing urban decay as beautiful. Of course, it is. I always felt that way. Having now lived in a “rough” neighborhood, I have a bit of a more nuanced perspective, but I can still stare out at Eglinton stretching off to distantly lit apartment blocks and feel that raw energy - like my first image of Toronto staring across the lights on the Gardiner. Nonetheless, it’s a viewpoint that treats the city as little more than a light show - we become disconnected from the reality of our interaction with public space; we forget that our lives play out here.

    I can’t believe/The look of the city tonight/I could ride for hours/and still be chased by the skyline

    The actual suburbs are another story, but they’re in here too. Hanging out at bowling alleys, in friend’s basements. Living downtown, these memories are just ghosts, and you’re still just as alone no matter what the population density.

    I think I’ll explain some of the music side of things when I do my post on the demo since that pretty well covers the lyrics. 

  8. [151012.1756]

    Bike to Death 

    This song came together in the studio the same way Run to Soybomb did, almost exactly the same way. It started with a loop I created of a synth line, and then I just built over that, layering melodies and accompaniments until the song took shape.

    The name has a few meanings to me. Cycling was at the time something I was scared of because of a particular incident, but something I loved. That duality was really on my mind. I didn’t want to get hurt and I didn’t want my friends to get hurt, but I was not willing to give up cycling for that. The more romantic explanation though is this image I have of biking out into the suburbs - sort of biking to the death of the city. Perhaps, as the lights grew further between, and the buildings more sparse, you could bike far enough that there was nothing around at all.

    The track is probably the most classically eno-influenced that I’ve done (aesthetically if not by a similar process process), but I think NIN’s more lush work (think The Fragile) had a real effect on it. I also think the more esoteric electronic stuff I liked when I was younger - UNKLE, Air, that Daft Punk album that was super repetitive, etc. had an impression. The Virgin Suicides soundtrack comes to mind especially.

  9. [141012.1827]

    I’ve got a Heart (and it just won’t quit!) 

    This track was one of the first recorded for this album. Originally it was much more like Nightmares - all programmed, and with a rigid and logical chord progression.

    Connie Wilson sung vocals on this, and she did a fine job. She has a cute, girly voice that did the song better justice than mine would have. The lyrics are inspired by Mother Mother, the music by Phantogram.

    When I revisited this track I decided it needed some drastic change if it was gonna fit in with the rest of the material. I also thought that the original arrangement was too complex for its own good. I added a bassline in the chorus. I brought up the guitar in the mix and simplified the drums. I got rid of the restrictive chord progression of the verse and tried different chord combinations before settling on the one I ended up with.

    The layering of the synth/guitar riff in the second verse is inspired by Memory Pools.

    Conceptually this song is similar to Autumn, but approached differently. It’s very bleak, like Nightmares, still concerned with self-destructiveness.

    For comparison, here’s the original version. That melody at the beginning is from a track I wrote a long time ago. I kid you not, originally it had the lyrics “Oh Canada you’re just too wide/I just can’t get from side to side/I met a girl last saturday/now she’s 100 miles away/from Gatineau’s breathtaking trees/to Sudbury’s sulphur breeze/but Vancouver’s a world away/from the world of Saguenay”. Man I hope I’ve evolved since then.

  10. [101012.0929]

    Autumn (Oh Where are You?)

    This song was originally written and recorded while I was working on Nightmares. If you noticed that the song begins with the synths from ‘Before Waking Up’ then it’s worth mentioning that that song was based on Autumn and not the other way around. For reasons beyond the scope of this post, the Nightmares version of Autumn was weak both in sound and performance. It still almost made the EP but thank god it didn’t. Sometimes, as enthusiastic as you are about a song, it’s just not ready.

    When I went back to work on the song again, I redid the guitar with my twelve string and tried to really attack it. It was the day that I had recorded the acoustic part for University of Toronto. I remember I felt like I was on a roll; I don’t think I even actually tuned between the two songs (don’t try this).

    I still struggled with the vocals and arrangement, until I had an epiphany. I was listening to the song in playback as I moved a hi-hat across the room. I thought to myself that I liked the sound of it crashing arrhythmically over the song. It then occurred to me - why not record it?

    It seems so obvious now, but I was much more conservative for Nightmares. This decision to value sound over traditional musicality opened the floodgates for the Girls album. I added handclaps that followed the melody instead of the beat. I did my vocals in a slurred scream inspired by Bailey’s singing for Andy Sees the Reaper. New synth lines were added. I now loved the track, and this spirit of uncompromising set the tone for the rest of the album (at this point, I had only recorded a demo of Beautiful But Troubled Girls and the final version of University of Toronto).

    The song came to me originally on piano. I had been toying around and came upon the chorus chord progression. I then hit upon the melody, which is sort of a permutation of the La Dolce Vita theme by Nino Rota (I can’t remember if that was intentional). The verses and lyrics came later. The song was in D minor until I played it on a uke to show some friends. I was lazy and played it open (which is like a fifth higher or something). I liked it being higher so I experimented a bit with capo position and transposed the song up a tone and a half all in all. The lyric at the end of “My chemical autumn, oh where are you?” came when I was (legitimately) on heavy migraine meds; There’s a hilarious garageband recording of me - totally zonked out - singing it a cappella.