Demons, Volume 2 – The Nomad Series

Track Listing
  1. Wrong Piano
  2. Flirted With You All My Life
  3. See You Around
  4. Betty Lonely
  5. Square Room
  6. Ladle
  7. Supernatural
  8. West Of Rome
  9. Strange Language
  10. We Hovered With Short Wings
  11. When The Bottom Fell Out

All Songs written by Vic Chesnutt.

Cowboy Junkies Are:
Margo Timmins (vocals); Michael Timmins (guitar and background vocals); Peter Timmins (drums and percussion); Alan Anton (bass)

Musical Guests:
Joby Baker: piano, organ and Wurlitzer and horn arrangement on Strange Language and When The Bottom Fell Out.
Jeff Bird: mandolin
Dave Henry: cello
Tania Elizabeth: fiddle
Aaron Goldstein: lead guitar on Flirted With You All My Life
Henry Kucharzyk: woodwind arrangement on We Hovered With Short Wings
Alfons Fear, Nick La Riviere, Roy Styffe: horns on Strange Language and When The Bottom Fell Out
Bob Stevenson: clarinets on We Hovered With Short Wings
Andy Maize: vocals on When the Bottom Fell out and Strange Language

Produced and engineered by Michael Timmins. Recorded at The Clubhouse in Toronto, Ontario. Additional recording by Joby Baker at Baker Studios in Victoria BC and by Dave Henry at Truetone Recording in Nashville, Tennessee . Mixed by Michael Timmins except for tracks 2, 5 and 9 which were mixed by Joby Baker. Mastered by Peter J Moore at the E Room.

All songs published by Ghetto Bells Music

Graphic Design by Alice Phieu (alicephieu.com) assisted by Peter Timmins; Cover images by Enrique Martinez Celaya (whaleandstar.com)

Demons, volume 2 – an Introduction

Our brief journey with Vic began in the mid-1990’s when we stumbled upon his album, West Of Rome. We had just begun work on the collection of songs that would become Lay It Down and we decided to throw the title track of Vic’s album into the mix. We worked on the song for weeks but were never able to match its wistfulness, its forlornness, its honesty; we were never able to replicate the way the song just simply and effortlessly existed. It sounded so unlike a studied recording and so much like a man sitting in a motel room just east of the border, his life evaporating before him. Vic and this album were one of the reasons that we decided to venture down to Athens, Georgia (his home town) to record Lay It Down. Several months later when our album was released we invited Vic to join us on a leg of our North American tour. The first date and our first meeting was in Ottawa at a club called Barrymores. Vic arrived in his wheelchair and was greeted by a flight of about thirty stairs which were the only way in to  the second floor club. I was more upset about it than he was, he just shrugged his shoulders and asked the two strongest people that he could corral to carry him and his chair up the stairs. No big deal…just another surmountable obstacle in the life of someone who spent the better part of the last two decades on the road. Throughout that tour we watch Vic every night as he, stymied, infuriated, intentionally pissed-off and then subtly disarmed and won over audiences across the US and Canada. There was no secret to his game, just him, his guitar, and his uncanny voice, which could be grating and beautiful in the same breath, and the flat out honesty of his songs. After that tour we would cross paths occasionally out on the road, or when he came through Toronto, but mainly we kept touch through his music. After West of Rome he seemed to release an album of new material every year (including the stunning collection Is The Actor Happy) all the while keeping up a hectic tour schedule. We hooked up again in the early 2000’s when we did a tour of the UK with him. I have two treasured memories of him from that tour. The first is from our first gig in Leeds where Vic arrived with his bass player and drummer in tow. The trio had spent the past few weeks rehearsing several albums worth of material. In the car ride over to the gig Vic had told them that the drummer would now be playing bass and the bass player would be playing drums. Neither of them had any practical experience on the others instrument but Vic wanted to keep the material fresh and edgy. They both had the look of freshly caught fish. My other memory from that tour is a show in Brighton which took place in a beautiful wood and glass pavilion that had the most delicate acoustics. Vic played to the room. The instruments all but disappeared; Vic songs took flight on the wings of his falsetto and floated, soared and swoop around the space. In my declining years I’ll swear that he did the entire set a cappella, because that is what it felt like. We like to say that music can transport one’s being, one’s essence, from one plane to another, but who can say that they have ever been truly transported….I can, thanks to Vic. Our last get together with Vic was in 2007 when he came up to Toronto to help us with our Trinity Revisited project. The consummate professional, Vic was prepared and patient and willing to work, no muss, no fuss. My favourite moment of our two days together was when Vic and I played the song Postcard Blues together for the first time. Vic singing and playing guitar in his inimitable fashion and me parrying with my guitar, his voice and our instruments ringing throughout magical Trinity church. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it was just a rehearsal and it wasn’t recorded. During the taping and recording of Trinity we had an opportunity to do a bit of playing together while the film crew adjusted lights and did those time consuming things that film crews do. It was during one of those breaks that we came up with the idea of doing a Chesnutt/Junkies album. It would be his songs and we’d be the band. We talked about it through email and on the phone and tried to block some time in each of our schedules. The last time that we talked he said that he was working on a song cycle centered around his childhood in Georgia and maybe this would be the album that we would record together. I was on a cell phone in a parking lot outside a gig in Maine and he was in a van driving on the QEW heading to a gig in Toronto. And that was all.

We are trying to approach Demons with the same sense of adventure that Vic undertook all of his projects (or at least that is the way his recordings sound). We are letting happy accidents happen, we are trying to invest his songs with the same spirit and the adventure in which they were written, but at the same time we are trying to invest them with our own Northern spin. We have thrown about twenty of his songs into the proverbial pot and we will let the process decide which songs find their way on to the finished album. Exploring his songs and delving deeper and deeper into them, as one must do in order to do justice to any cover song, has been an intense, moving and joyous experience. I don’t think Vic would have wanted it any other way.

Here is our version of Wrong Piano. I don’t think I have ever heard Margo sing so well in the studio and, man, I love my new Fairfield Circuitry pedal…and…oh ya…if you have a freak flag its time to fly it…our aim is to have the album in your hands by mid-November.

Demons, volume 2 – Synchronicity part 1 (West Of Rome)

The album that introduced all of us in the band to Vic’s work was West Of Rome. Margo’s husband had come across it and passed it on to us knowing that it would make an impression. It did. The album had some the most off-kilter, heavy-as-shit writing that I had come across in many years. Some of the writing was definitely outside, using personal references, in-jokes and colloquialisms that cast a bit of a shadow over the meaning of some of the songs. But the emotion was always clear and the sound of the album, beautifully produced by Michael Stipe, had a really intriguing texture.

The song that sucked me right in and remains one of my favourite songs was the title track, West Of Rome. The sense of “place” in that song, both physical and mental, is astounding. In the liner notes of the album, underneath the lyrics for the song, was a note from Vic saying that the song was written immediately after finishing John Fante’s book of the same name. So I put the title on my list of books to hunt down in my travels: over the next fifteen or so years I never stumbled upon it. And then, one week after starting to record Demons, I walked into a used book store in Great Barrington, Massachusetts along with our stage tech Tim. A few minutes after being in the store Tim comes walking up to me with a pristine copy of a Black Sparrow Press edition of West Of Rome in his hands and says, “Mike, you’ve got to buy this book….”. Mysterious ways, mysterious ways, heaven and earth and mysterious ways.

For a lot of the bedtracks on this album Pete, Al and I got together to work through ideas and approaches for the songs. I would usually put down a vocal (even if the key wasn’t exactly right for my golden pipes) during the recording or directly after to give a sense of whether the musical approach was working. Here is the bedtrack for West of Rome in its rawest form:

And here is the final version with Joby Baker providing some beautiful piano and Tania Elizabeth adding her magical touches on fiddle…as well as, of course, Margo doing her thang…

Demons, volume 2 – Synchronicity part 2 (Marathon)

A few weeks after my synchronistic moment in the book store (see previous blog), I had another one in the Toronto airport. We were flying home from one of our many tours of this past year when a man came up to me while I was standing in the immigration line. He recognised me, which is a rare thing unto itself, and he wanted to tell me that he was returning from the West coast where he had spent the past few weeks with his brother, who had several months earlier been diagnosed with ALS. He told me that the disease had ravaged his brothers body at a stunning rate and that his brother did not have long to live. One of the things that he had brought along on his trip was the Trinity Revisited DVD. And that he and his brother had watched Vic’s performance of Dreaming My Dreams over and over and they had cried together, a lot. The power of Vic.

For some of the Demons recording sessions Margo wasn’t available so we invited our good friend Andy Maize to join us and lay down “ghost” vocals as we worked on the bedtracks. Some of Andy’s vocals were so powerful and on-the-mark that we decided to keep some of them and Margo ended up working with them, creating a duet using the “ghost” vocals as her singing partner. One such song was “Marathon”, a touchingly beautiful lament set at the end of the line. Here is a rough mix of the bedtrack with Andy singing the lead:

Demons, volume 2 – Sad Peter Pan

The best of Vic’s lyrics takes the listener on a journey filled with unfamiliar signposts, during the ride one is never quite sure where one is. There are puns, fictional characters, real characters, humorous asides, cries of anger, bouts of self loathing, joy, despair and, sometimes, resolution. Vic keeps the listener slightly off balance at all times, but more often than not, there is a moment in the song where it all falls together in a line or two that strikes deep into the heart of the matter, that crystalline moment that makes one pause and say, “now I know where I am, because I’ve been here before”.  Sad Peter Pan is such a song. For the first couple of verses you might not be sure of what is being discussed, although you can’t help but smile at a line like, “I’m a reluctant rebel/I just want to be Aaron Neville/with a crown upon my head/and my denim shirt all soaked with sweat”. But when the last verse is delivered: “ I’m just pushing the paint around/on advice from your lying mouth/You touched me and then you ran/and left some Sad Peter Pan/all alone and awkward/but a transformation, I swear it will occur.” That hopeless, empty, lost feeling of The Jilted, the only recourse, the only defence, is that last desperate plea, “I’ll change…”. You look around and you know where you are.

We asked our good friend Henry Kucharzyk to add his sensibility to this track and Henry came up with a clarinet arrangement which dances delicately throughout:

Henry did an arrangement for another song as well, below is the arrangement by itself. Ten points if you can figure out what song it is (no cheating by looking at the song title):

Demons, volume 2 – Old Hotel

There is no doubt about it, Vic was a nomad….a nomad of the spirit and soul and a nomad of the road. He never stopped searching for meaning. His songs, right up to the end, were filled with internal wanderings and a determination to never settle down, to never be complacent, to never be satisfied with whatever meager offerings his journey unearthed. His wanderings in the real world were also well documented in his songs. One of the most common settings in his work are hotel rooms, unfamiliar spaces which he finds himself trapped in and screaming to escape. For anyone who has spent a lot of time on the road his settings are all too recognizable. The brilliance of Vic’s writing is the way he takes these external spaces and uses them to reflect the inner turmoil and sense of alienation that he was forever kicking against.

Here is our version of “Old Hotel” (which will appear on the Bonus Track EP), having just returned from Europe the sentiments expressed in the song strike close to the bone:

There are only a couple of more weeks left for the pre-order bundles….jump on in if you’ve got a bit of Festivus money burning a hole in your pocket.

To view the previous Demons blogs and to listen to some of the music, click away:

Introduction – Wrong Piano

West Of Rome

Marathon

Sad Peter Pan