In 1998, it somehow happened that my band agreed to write some music – on a volunteer, we can’t pay you for this basis – for a movie that was being directed by a friend of a friend. In truth, I do remember how this arrangement came to pass, but the story is boring, pointless and convoluted and involves far too many ridiculous characters. In one of life’s clever little ironies, it so happens that one might say exactly the same thing about the script for the movie in question. (Dammit, Joel Siegel, this game is easy!) It’s more fun, therefore, if I decline to tell you the truth about how this composing engagement came to pass and simply tell you instead that Heroes in Rehab won this opportunity as a prize for placing sixth in a sack race at the Directors Guild of Canada annual summer picnic. That is saying something, because even this last explanation is roughly as much fun as gum disease.
But I digress.
My point is that we had this job to do and people were depending on us. Those of you in the working world will understand these concepts and identify them as something known as “responsibility”. It is something that is entirely foreign to musicians, serious artists and other more highly evolved and important life forms. Being a musician is not about producing things on time (except for musicians who actually get paid to do what they do because they’re good at it); when you are a Serious Artist (please read: “unemployed”) working on a Weighty Piece of Art, you cannot be rushed, especially when you haven’t got a fucking clue what you’re doing or why (which is most of the time). The full explanation for this principle is complicated and top-secret (you have to be in the Union to get the complete spiel on this one) but I can tell you that what it boils down to is that as soon as any musician agrees to produce a certain quantity of music, he will immediately cease to produce any music whatsoever and instead spend a lot of time down at the pub. This is mostly because it’s noisy and they have beer there, both of which are excellent accessories for the gentleman musician who is assiduously avoiding the nagging feeling that he’s falling well behind schedule, productivity-wise, and is thereby “letting the home side down”, also known as “spectacularly failing to achieve even a laughably modest amount of success in an oh-too-public fashion”.
I will spare you the hyperbole about my angst-ridden and lonely excursions through agonizing evening “writing sessions”, alone in my apartment and filled with self-doubt, plunking away on an uncooperative guitar that – for the most part – refused to offer up the masterpiece of musical beauty that would transform a lousy movie into a piece of art. (Okay, so I lied, I won’t spare you all of the hyperbole about that. Sue me.)
Eventually, through a confidential commercial transaction that I am not fully at liberty to discuss, certain nefarious underworld forces delivered to me, as consideration for some (somewhat damaged) spiritual merchandise I offered for sale, a tune or two that could be worked into something approaching an interesting musical idea. My bandmates and I headed into our expansive private studio of the day – of which more will be said in a moment – to work on the idea as a band, to settle on an arrangement, to rehearse the completed composition and ultimately, to record a demo of the song to play for the film’s production braintrust.
At the time that these events came to pass, in late 1998, our “expansive private studio” consisted of the second floor of a very small and extremely run-down house in eastern Toronto. The house was owned by another friend of ours, a fellow who physically resembled Wavy Gravy of Woodstock fame, and we only ever referred to him as Wavy Gravy. I have forgotten the man’s real name. We’d done some work for Wavy Gravy but he had been unable to pay us for that work in any recognized medium of exchange, such as money. You get used to that sort of thing as a musician, particularly when you are not an especially skilled musician. There was a tenant on the first floor of the Wavy Gravy house, which was in an exceptionally dodgy neighbourhood. I cannot imagine the horrors he endured during the few hours that we were not actively and aggressively attempting to destory his typmanic membranes from above. The entire Wavy Gravy house was overrun with what I am going to continue to tell myself were particularly large mice with unusually long tails and larger than average teeth. Its many charms included an apparently improperly grounded electrical system that delivered an astonishingly powerful shock to singers and other stupid people who happened to let their lips come into contact with a live microphone, a broken-down refrigerator literally filled with rotten stinking meat of indeterminate origin, and a “ventilation” system that furnished air thoroughly infused with the overpowering stench of urine throughout every square inch of the approximately sixty-four square feet of available floorspace.
The place also had some less positive features. Chief among these was the community of inveterate thieves that apparently continually surveilled the premises simply waiting for the first available and highly inconvenient opportunity to enter the place and perpetrate assholery. This they did, no doubt, by simply looking askance at the laughably dubious locking mechanism on the main door, and then making off with the only possessions that truly mattered to us at that time – our instruments. These rotten soulless bastards also made off with the only possessions that truly mattered to the nice folks at Long & McQuade Musical Instruments, from whom we had rented a not inconsiderable amount of equipment (luxuries like microphones, speakers and tape recorders) in an effort to make a recording that accomplished the very important principal objective of existing. No problem there, you might assume, it ought to be a simple matter of making a telephone call to the insurance claims agent. The problem with insurance and musicians, however, is that insurance salesmen – unlike musicians – have not yet learned the skill of receiving payment for things (such as insurance coverage) without resorting to the use of actual money. As money is only infrequently found in the vicinity of musicians, there is an inherent structural problem that is rather obvious.
Thus did it come to pass that – thanks to the Great Musical Instrument Theft of Christmas Eve 1998 – our little tribe of Tiny Tims was saddled with an enormous debt to repay, no instruments to play, and no recognizable means of actually accomplishing the writing assignment that we had agreed to complete. Other than that, things were just peachy.
You might conclude, based on a cursory review of the tale recounted above, that my experience with helping create cinema was a negative one. You’d be wrong; before all our gear was stolen, there were some awesome afternoons spent in the Wavy Gravy house of horrors trying to capture our idea on tape. The principal piece of music I’d come up with for the movie was something called “Sebastien’s Theme”, named after one of the eleventy-six principal characters in the film whose name I could remember. I quite liked the general melody I’d come up with, but our lead guitarist and principal engineering nerd Rui really outdid himself on this one, adding an absolutely stunningly beautiful lead line that flowed over the entire piece and turned it into the most beautiful and haunting thing we had ever written. At one point in the recording process, we discovered (quite by accident) that by turning up Rui’s amplifier to a truly Spinal Tap-esque volume level, certain passages of the line Rui had written were actually causing the entire Wavy Gravy house to literally resonate in sympathy with the tone generated, which sympathetic vibrations in turn permitted the strings to themselves vibrate in sympathy, creating an unusual and continuous tone with lots of sustain. In person, while the passages were being recorded, it was rather like standing next to an aircraft engine that was being manipulated to play passages of Bach; I am not exaggerating a single bit when I tell you that, at one point that afternoon I was over half a block away from the Wavy Gravy House and walking down the street to get a re-supply of cigarettes but I could CLEARLY hear the passage being played over the sounds of streetcars rumbling by on Queen Street East. Oh yes, it was loud. On the tape, though, the sound that we captured from Rui’s guitar/aircraft engine – severely attenuated and processed with a few electronics – sounded a lot like some kind of strange woodwind instrument that had the ability to morph from a peaceful round timbre into a strident and passionate wail. The effect we achieved in recording that song was an accident born of equal parts experimentation and blind luck; of all the things we did, it’s one of my favourites.
Half a dozen years later, I was permanently retired from the life of an active and creative musician, but I didn’t know it yet. I was fooling around with some video editing software (taking another gig, it turns out, was the right idea from a “making enough money to feed myself and purchase high tech toys” perspective). I had been screwing around with some nature clips that I’d taken while on a fishing trip and I got the idea to try and slap together a kind of a music video for the tune. I never thought anyone else would see it – this was back in ye olden days of 2003 before the YouTubination of the planet – so it’s got some rough spots (I think it’s fairly obvious that, in a couple of sections, I simply didn’t have any other footage that fit the “subject” requirements. Watching it again for the first time in a couple of years the other day, I would do quite a few things differently if I was putting the piece together again. Still, I enjoyed it enough to talk myself into broadcasting it to the world via YouTube.
Here then, is Sebastien’s Theme. I don’t know if the other guys in the band have even ever seen this; but that’s a story for another day.