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VH1: Behind The Music, or, Against the Dying of the Light Liner Notes

October 12, 2010

Now that my EP, Against the Dying of the Light, has been out for a couple of months, I’ve had some time to think about it and muse on the creative process that went into it.  The other day I was reading a blog entry by J-Zone (whose blog is amazing, by the way.  I don’t think he updates it anymore, which is a shame, but I heard via Twitter that he’s compiling it into a book.  Fingers crossed.) and he was talking about how he doesn’t like digital releases because you don’t get a critical piece of the product that the true fan yearns for: the liner notes.  I thought back to all of the tapes and CDs I bought in the past and how much I enjoyed reading the liner notes, seeing who produced what track, who got shout-outs, etc, and realized that I absolutely agreed with him, and that my album was missing this critical component.  So herein lies the story and liner notes behind my album for anybody who is interested.

First, a little bit of back story to the motivation behind this album.  In June 2009 we, the Kwiz Massturrz, had released our album “Talkies Ruined My Life In The Pictures”.  Owel and I had released two albums and a mixtape previously with our former group, B.M.e. (Basementalism Emcees), which consisted of us and our friend Mat, who rapped and produced under the name Eaucean.  The Kwiz Massturrz name started as a joke between Owel and I, a satirical play on hip hop’s propensity to purposely misspell words.  After Mat moved to London to attend Fanshaw for audio engineering, Owel and I played one show under the name “The Kwes & Owel Experience”, but eventually we just settled on the name the Kwiz Massturrz, and a legacy of misspelled press and show bills began.  I will cede to the fact that we did this to ourselves.

At this point we had mostly been working on some loose tracks and mostly solo work, and prior to the dissolution of B.M.e. I had hooked up with James Hancock, who had gone to high school with me and we shared some mutual friends.  I was managing a local CD store and he came in one day with a beat CD which I took home and we immediately clicked.  I worked on some tracks over his beats with Derek Period, local Ottawa legend, and some of those tracks made it on to his EP which I don’t believe saw the light of day.  Hancock and I also started talking about putting together an EP and we laid down maybe 5 tracks for it, Self Worth parts 1 and 2, Thought So, and two short braggadocio tracks whose names escape me at the moment.  Self Worth parts 1 and 2 made it on to a B.M.e. mixtape entitled “Your Mom Likes Our Mixtape”, which ended up being the last B.M.e. release.

Owel and I began working on tracks together with Hancock which was the true birth of the Kwiz Massturrz, however an honest release wasn’t to see the light of day until several years later.  Our initial working title for the album was “The Talk Is Cheap: Blowout Sale”, and somewhere along the way we ended up with “Talkies Ruined My Life In The Pictures”.  I’m not exactly sure how we made that switch or when it happened, but I’m pretty sure it was Owel’s doing.  One person who was initially disappointed with the title change was Rahmin, one of the co-founders of H.S.D.G. (High School Dropout Geniuses), a local crew we are members of.  I still think it’s a great title and who knows, perhaps one day we’ll release something under that name.

So fast forward several years and we had finished and released Talkies, and a few months afterwords Hancock released his solo EP “Cognitive Dissonance” under the moniker Above the Clouds.  At the beginning of 2008 I had moved to Montreal, and just following the release of Talkies, around October, I believe, Owel moved to Toronto.  During the few months following the release of Talkies and Owel moving, we had come up with the idea to write and record our follow-up EP.  The way it was going to work was that Owel and I would write and record our verses to a Madlib instrumental album, “Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6: A Tribute to…(Dil Cosby and Dil Withers Suite)”, I believe, and then Hancock was to build the instrumentals around the songs.  We wanted the album to have a more straight forward hip hop sound to it with that Hancock-twist, with our delivery, flows and cadences inspired by the emcees that inspired us as children.  Several tracks were written, yet none were recorded.  For a group that took a few years to put together a 10 track album, writing and recording an EP in four to five months was an audacious goal.

So that brings us to December (no Tarantino).  I had been going through a bit of a slump creatively, at least in terms of putting together a cohesive album.  I had been in Montreal almost two years and had nothing to show for it.  I had worked on a handful of tracks with Corboe, Owel’s roommate and the other half of the group Dream Jefferson, under the working title Ill O’Reilly.  We created some really good music, in my opinion, however it was a long and drawn out creative process as  Corboe’s time was split between that, working on the official release of his album “Take Off Your Glasses”, Owel’s still-in-progress solo album “Songs for Dames”, and live shows and the soon-to-be-released “Sasquatch Bury Their Dead” with Owel as Dream Jefferson.

Hancock first came up with the idea to do an EP along the same lines of the defunct Kwiz EP (more straightforward hip hop, with our twist) and to streamline the process creatively.  He was going to make several basic loops and send them to me, and I was to write  an album’s worth of lyrics for it.  This was around Christmas, and I had a week and a half off of work.  Usually for Christmas I would go back to Ottawa and spend the week and a half catching up with friends and family, but the only thing I could think about was this project.  I went back for Christmas, spent it with the family, and then headed back to Montreal, knowing I would have the apartment to myself for a week with my girlfriend being in Ottawa visiting her family.  I spent the next week working feverishly on lyrics for the album, with the final touches being put on the lyrics by the end of January.

Fast forward several months to June, and the project had reached a standstill.  I had practiced and touched up the songs for the album non-stop since finishing the initial writing, and Hancock had done some work to the beats, enlisting friend (and one-time Kwiz Massturrz live show guitarist) Chris Hoskins to lay down some guitar and banjo on two of the tracks.  The problem was that we had nowhere to record it.  Financial constraints negated me making the trip back to Ottawa to record it at Hancock’s, and I did not have a set-up that would give us the sound quality we felt the album deserved, so we were stuck.  Luckily, my friend Jeff  had gone back home to upstate New York for the summer and had left me the keys to his apartment.  We decided upon another audacious plan: Hancock was to pack up his equipment, drive it to Montreal for a weekend, and we would record all of the vocals in one session.

It was mid-June when Hancock was able to make it down, however we ended up running into another snag: he would only be able to make it down for one night.  At this point we felt we were in the make-or-break period of this process so we decided to soldier on and try to record the seven tracks in one night.  We would stay up all night if need be, we both agreed.  Hancock makes it into town and gets lost, ends up somewhere close to Montreal Nord (I live in Point St. Charles, for anybody who knows Montreal), which sets us back yet again.  Finally he makes it to my place and we drive up to Jeff’s, which is a few blocks from Concordia.  Snag number 3 sets in, as it is impossible to find parking on a Saturday afternoon in that area.  Eventually we settle on parking in a no parking zone and rush the equipment from Hancock’s pseudo-hatchback to Jeff’s apartment.  As we are doing this, we are approached by a man asking us for money who starts “Look, guys, I don’t want to resort to robbing anybody…”  We don’t give him money.

Eventually we are all set up in Jeff’s two and a half apartment (two rooms and a bathroom, for those who aren’t familiar with Montreal apartment lingo), and we have converted his bedroom into a makeshift recording studio, using his mattress as a sound trap behind me.  We lay down the first two tracks, Self Worth part 3 and Well Jackson, in no time.  At this point our visitors show up, Dan and Eimhin of Danny Deleto and Dave and Richard of We Fled Cairo, who are all in town for some electronic music festival.  We hang out with them for a little bit and then retire to the bedroom-cum-studio to continue on our hectic schedule, leaving our guests to drink beer and watch television in the other room.

Eventually they leave for the festival, and Hancock and I are maybe 4 tracks into the recording process when we decide we need some air and some food.  I think it is worth noting that it was a disgustingly humid day, as it had rained earlier, followed by a thick Montreal-summer heat, and we couldn’t turn on Jeff’s air conditioning as it was in the same room we were recording in.  We walk to the Pizza Pizza around the corner (only the best for us) and take a little stroll.  As we are walking in front of Concordia on St. Catherine, an obviously drunk man approaches us and points at my shirt, demanding “Who is that fucking asshole on your shirt?”  He squints and says “Oh, it’s Tom Waits, I fuckin’ love Tom Waits”, and stumbles off singing what might have been a Tom Waits song, or it might not have been.  The guy looked exactly like Tom Waits did on my shirt.

So now we’ve eaten, we’ve had our fill of fresh air and we return to the apartment to finish off the last three tracks.  At this point the room we are recording in is so hot that we need to turn off the computer between every song so it wouldn’t overheat.  Right before we started to record the last song, Dan, Eimhin, Dave and Richard return to the apartment.  We leave them to watch The Onion Movie and drink their remaining beer as we holed up in the field-studio to lay down the title track, Against the Dying of the Light.  By this point we’re tired, drenched in sweat, and my voice is getting rather raw from spending close to 12 hours recording vocals, overdubs, and choruses for the album.  However, we finish the track, and bring our guests in for a first listen to a few of the raw tracks.

The next day Hancock and I awaken, I having slept on Jeff’s love-seat/pull-out bed (which I didn’t pull-out, for some reason), and we go out to breakfast with our friends, returning to the apartment for one last listen to the raw tracks.  We are quite pleased, and hastily pack up and try to put Jeff’s apartment back in order.  Hancock sets back off to Ottawa, and I worry about him getting into an accident because of all of those commercials that state that driving tired is just as bad as driving under the influence.  I worry because he’s my friend and has two kids, but also selfishly because he is  transporting months worth of work and anticipation with him.  Does that make me a bad person?

Over the next month Hancock works feverishly (I’ve used that twice, but I can’t think of a more apt word to describe the amount of work this guy condensed into realistically less than four weeks) on fleshing out the tracks.  We send a few off to my friend Lao Capone (who also had DJed for Owel and I at a show we performed as “The Kwes & Owel Experience) to lay down cuts on them.  After some back and forth and indecision over what vocal samples to lay down where on the album, Hancock does the final mixes and sends them off to Harris Newman at Greymarket Mastering (who had also mastered Talkies and Crush Buildings’ “Surrender Sleep”).

While the album is being mastered, we send the beginning of the title track off to our friend Brendan, who puts together a promo video using only the beginning of the track and the Robert Fisk audio, spliced over the infamous WikiLeaks video “Collateral Murder”.  Roughly a week and a half later we release the finished product, “Against the Dying of the Light”.

Now that I’ve covered the background in a rather long-winded fashion, I am going to go through each track individually and give a brief background to it.  If you haven’t pulled the chute by now, you might as well see this through to the end.

1. Self Worth p. 3

The introduction to the album.  The verse for this was just one long run on with no chorus and no second verse, and it was essentially unfinished.  I tried but couldn’t come up with a second verse in the same vein as the first, so I left it at that and decided it would act as an introduction as well as the third installment of the “Self Worth” series.  Anybody who was unfamiliar with the first two was probably confused by the “p. 3”, so there’s your explanation.  During the recording of this we realized that I had written the track essentially off-time of how Hancock wanted the track to start, I initially came in four bars early, before the drums.  This gave us a moment of stress as we thought perhaps it was going to recur throughout the recording process that we essentially heard the instrumentals differently, but we lucked out and this was the only snag.  The introductory vocal sample is from Harold and Maude, and the closing vocal sample is from Six Feet Under.

2. Well Jackson

Our semi-punchline track.  This track I actually started writing in Ottawa prior to receiving the loops from Hancock.  I had written the first verse to Metric’s “Gold, Guns and Girls” (which is the reason for the line “Grow up and blow away like George Jung”, a reference to their first album and the protagonist in the film Blow).  It was initially going to be a one-off track for a blog I was co-writing at the time with my friend Brendan (same Brendan who did the promo video and also hipped me to the track itself) by the same name, which was taken from the UK television show Nathan Barley (in one episode he says “It’s going to be well Jackson”).  We got the audio of Nathan Barley saying “well Jackson” and sent it to Lao Capone, who cuts it up over the end of the track.  The electric guitar on the track is provided by Chris Hoskins.

3. The Rumpus

Our party banger.  The lyrics, if you listen, aren’t your typical party lyrics (“Your god is a bitch because he brought up his kids wrong”), but that was essentially the idea of doing a “straightforward hip hop album with a twist”.  The second verse was actually the second-half of another verse I was going to do for a “Songs for Dames” track which never got recorded.  The first part of that verse ended up on a different track which hasn’t been released yet.  The title is taken from 50s gangster slang which the movie Miller’s Crossing hipped me to.  Saying “What’s the rumpus?” is essentially asking “What’s up?” or “What’s the deal?”.  We sampled  several instances of the characters of the film saying that and sent it off to Lao Capone to cut up.  At first we thought it wasn’t going to work, as Lao said that the vocal samples didn’t sound very good when cut.  I think the finished product shows otherwise.

4. Little Boy & Fat Man

Our bomb track.  Literally (well, no, figuratively.  But I guess literally as well).  The first verse is new, but the second was initially going to be for a track on Owel’s “Songs for Dames” which I produced, but then the session was lost and nothing came of it.  The chorus is actually the last 4 bars of the verse I wrote for the second verse, but was 4 bars over the typical 16 bar verse structure and sounded better as a chorus.  The vocal sample at the end is Robert Oppenheimer’s infamous quote from the Trinity test, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds”.  The whistling on the track is provided by Hancock.

5. Pelican Gospel

This song is also not new, and was originally written and recorded two years previously, first over a beat I produced and then remixed by Hancock.  When I first told James of Crush Buildings that we were remaking the song he said something along the lines of “You and Hancock remaking the Mona Lisa”, which was flattering, but hyperbole.  This track almost didn’t make the album because we didn’t know how to flesh the loop out, and Hancock was worried that the sample was going to be too recognizable.

6. Parachute Pants

This track was several months old, initially written and recorded to a beat of Hancock’s which was a few years old.  The idea for the track came from Owel and I watching one of those human interest stories on TLC, about a woman who had elephantiasis of the legs.  When they first introduced the woman, they showed her from the waste up, and then panned down to reveal two massive legs covered by what looked like MC Hammer-esque parachute pants.  As we were watching I drew a cartoon of a woman with literally elephant legs, covered by parachute pants, and a word bubble that said “A’ve got parachute pants for me elephant legs” (the woman was British).  I remember thinking later on that if this woman who had these massively deformed legs could go out in public undaunted by her disease and live a normal life, who is to say that people with decisively lesser flaws or quirks couldn’t go about theirs in a similar fashion.  I feel like this is the closest I’ve come to making a “positive/conscious” track.  The banjo on the track is provided by Chris Hoskins.

7. Against the Dying of the Light

The title track, and probably the track which fits the mold of the rest of the album the least.  Obviously it is an anti-war track, and if you missed that you were asleep by the time this track played, or you had turned the album off.  The first part of the track is an abstract macro-view, and the second half being the abstract-micro view.  War and complacency.  The instrumental is the oldest off of the album, and was initially created as a remix project I had tried to put together for the Well Jackson blog.  I had a sample from an old folk song that I sent to several bands, Crush Buildings, Relief Maps, Dream Jefferson, Danny Deleto and Hancock.  I wanted to release a mixtape where everybody started at the same point and see where they took it.  Hancock was the only person to complete his (bands, right?  Other projects that aren’t internet-only free downloads get in the way.  Oh, the egos!), and I decided it was the best way to end the album.  The opening and closing dialogue is from a Robert Fisk lecture given on his “Age of the Warrior” book tour.  The sound of children over the end of the track is audio of children playing in an Iraqi schoolyard with a plane flying overhead.

Well, there you have it.  Roughly seven months of work condensed into a novella-length blog post.

I hope you found it interesting, and if not, I hope you stopped reading well before this point.

-K.

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