I know a man who was born with his heart on the outside
So, as I’ve been revisiting and reevaluating my catalogue, I’ve been listening to each album - in chronological order - for the first time in a long time. Call me crazy but I think that in making the move from analog to digital for Square, the album loses something! As I mentioned in the previous post, all of my albums up to and including Man Overboard were recorded on a 4-track (cassette tapes). Square was recorded on a digital 8-track (mini-disks!). Could it be that my early output benefitted from the tape hiss and gunk and grime of the 4-track? I’m thinking maybe. The first album I made that was properly mixed and mastered was Talkin’ Honky Blues. The 4-track albums probably benefitted from a bit of the natural compression that comes with recording on tape. Square somehow sounds both fatter and thinner than any of the albums that came before it. Weird. But since when have I been concerned with audio fidelity?
What stands out in my memory of making Square is that I mapped the album out meticulously. It is the fourth album of the Language Arts series (hence the title). The goal was to have those albums flow like mixtapes. I think Square has the best flow of all of them. A lot of planning when into it. I still have all the notes in an envelope somewhere.
Let me tell you about a moment that changed everything. Sometime in 1998 or ’99, my Sebutone brother Sixtoo recorded a song with P.E.A.C.E. from Freestyle Fellowship. When he played it for me, my mind was blown. The best way I can describe it is that it had a cowboy feel about it. It was one of the best combinations of samples and live instrumentation that I had ever heard. A guy named Charles Austin played guitar on the song. I kinda knew him from bands he played in in our home town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was impressed by how tasteful his playing was on Sixtoo’s song and wanted to get in on the action. After a discussion or two, Charles agreed to help me out on a song called “Pack Animal” that I recorded for a Japanese compilation album called Tags Of The Times. It was fun working with Charles so I enlisted his help for a handful of parts on the Square album. It was the beginning of a long-standing working relationship. Although I returned to an almost-completely sample-based approach on the King Of Drums album, he did provide some instrumentation on “Part 21”.
There was another key collaborator on the Square album - DJ Signify. He and I met at Scribble Jam in Cincinnati in 1999, I think. Possibly ’98. We hit it off right away. We became close friends. Back in those days we’d talk on the phone for hours at a time. He made four or five of the beats on the Square album. His tastes and mine we pretty much perfectly aligned.
Side note: I feel a little bit bad for anyone who was into underground hip hop in the late 90s but didn’t have a chance to attend Scribble Jam in its first three or four years of existence. Holy crap, it was incredible. It was beautiful. It was legendary! The best of all four elements of hip hop culture was on full display. The waters came to a vigorous boil. Those first few Scribble Jams were some of the best times of my life. It felt like the World Series or something.
When I recorded Square, I was living in a house on Maynard Street in Halifax. It was probably the nicest house I ever lived in. Pure luck. Some of the craziest shit of my life happened in that house. Stories for another day. My roommate was Graeme. Graymatter. Audio wizard. He helped out with the recording of Square too - both on the technical and production sides of things. Good ol’ Graeme. After Square, he and I worked together for many years. He still helps me with technical things sometimes. I always feel like I’m annoying him when I send him a sample and ask him to remove some vinyl crackle or hum.
There are a few standout songs on the Square album. Several of the songs followed me around for the rest of my career. One of those songs reared its head a few years ago and a very strange story unfolded. It’s a story that warrants its own post. Maybe I’ll get into it in the next one.
Square is the first album that came out after I signed my record deal with Warner. It wasn’t part of my Warner deal though because I recorded it before signing the contract. And because it was wrapped up in that whole saga, there was a lengthy delay before it was released. I recorded the album in late 1999 and it came out in 2002. In the time in between I was feeling restless and recorded an album called Synesthesia, which came out in the late summer of 2001. That will be the next album I unpack for you.
So. Square. For the first time, I let go of the reigns a little bit. I worked with some good and very talented people. Charles is one of my all-time favorite humans. He’s one of the funniest people in the world. Graeme is like a brother. I miss DJ Signify terribly. We lost touch years ago. I can’t find him. None of our old mutual friends can find him. I really want him to hear the King Of Drums album. I think he’d like it. I definitely can’t say I have any regrets over working with other musicians on my albums. But sometimes I wonder where the road may have taken me if I had continued working alone as I did on all my previous albums. King Of Drums is the first album I made all by myself (with the exception of “Part 21”) in over 20 years and I must say, the response to it has been stronger than anything I’ve done since Vertex, probably. That’s cool. Maybe I’m at my best when I’m on my own. I don’t know.
Note on the beat attached above: I whipped up something, real quick, using the same drums I used for the food song (on Square) to demonstrate a weird little thing I’ve always loved. It’s just a half-bar loop and at the end of it - right at the loop point - there’s a noise that sounds like a person’s voice saying “ba-“, or something like that. But it’s not a voice at all. It’s the percussive beginning of a note being played on a guitar. I let it play out at the end of the beat so you can hear it. I’m probably the only person alive who thinks that’s at all interesting.
Okay. Crazy story about one of the songs from Square next and then we’ll get into Synesthesia. Until then…
PS - I recently found a cassette with a full instrumental version of Square on it. I ripped it and posted it on Bandcamp for you to check out, if you so desire.