Last week at the Latent Lounge a number of Latent artists covered songs off of The Trinity Session. Pete and Mike sat in on a few of the songs, it was an amazing night. We have been and will continue to be posting songs from all four Latent Lounges so make sure to subscribe to the Latent Recordings YouTube channel.
The Trinity Session
(I'll be posting a series of blogs over the coming days all about the making of The Trinity Session. Check out our Facebook page to see rare photos and anecdotes from me and Margo.)
November 27, 1987
The pews and all seating had previously been removed so we had a choice of where to set up our equipment and recording gear, but since Peter had done some recording in the church he had a general idea of where he felt was the most acoustically sound spot. This was at the far end of the church hall away from the altar which would act as an enormous bass trap if we got too close to it.
The first order of the day was to set up all the gear and try and get a balance between the four of us, that would be the ultimate key to the recording. Once we were balanced properly the other instruments could be layered on top with a lot more ease. Peter set up the mic and we set up as we had for the Whites session in our garage with drums on one side facing the bass and guitar off to the side. As fate would have it we had a great stroke of luck that day. Whoever had been using the church before us had had the need of a PA system which they had left behind. It was head and shoulders above the one that we had brought from our rehearsal space and meant a huge difference in the final recording. Margo's vocals, like during the Whites session, had to be run through a PA speaker and some guardian angel had seen fit to leave us a high quality system. The "vocal" or speaker was placed on top of the bass cabinet, Margo then stood about six feet outside the circle and sang through a separate mic.
It took us about six hours of fussing to finally capture a sound that we were all happy with. This time was spent readjusting the microphone, moving an instrument five inches closer and then another instrument five inches further, turning one thing up and another down etc.. The process was far from simple and for a while it looked like we weren't going to be able to reign in the acoustics of the church. The natural reverb of the hall was overpowering our instruments. Finally after a few more adjustments we ran through a version of a song and adjourned to the small office (maybe it was one of the confessionals) where Peter had his playback equipment set up. The playback revealed Petes drums simmering softly in the background, Alan's bass rumbling underneath, my guitar airily chiming and Margo's voice floating easily above it all. We had found our sound.
While we had been looking for our sound the rest of the musicians had shown up. They were asked to go amuse themselves in the mall or find a place in the church and be very still. At one point Jaro arrived fresh from an overnight trip from Montreal, not having slept in two days. He quietly found a place somewhere near the sacristy, curled up and fell asleep. To this day he tells the story of the first time he was lulled to sleep by the sound of Cowboy Junkies music echoing dreamily in the distance.
The next couple of hours were spent recording the songs that involved only the four of us. Sweet Jane, Blue Moon and Dreaming My Dreams were all recorded within a few takes. The sound was holding together and as the music began to unfold the tension of the mornings efforts began to fade away. We then moved on to the simpler pieces which called for only one extra musician. Postcard Blues with Steves piercing harp solo, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry with Kims haunting steel playing, Working On A Building with Johns distinctive guitar work. After that we built the band up a bit more adding two players and recorded 200 More Miles and I Don't Get It. Every time we changed configurations it called for Peter to subtly shift the wave pattern on the microphone and to precisely place the added musician in a specific spot on the floor. This was the way the recorded sound was mixed – physically moving the instrument. If someone had a solo section they were asked to play a little louder during it (in the case of an electric guitar) or move physically closer to the mic (in the case of something like a mandolin). By the time we were arranged around the mic we were in a circle which measured about twelve feet in diameter. Standing and sitting side by side cueing off of each others playing or the nod of a head, listening and reacting.
As the day progressed the occasional invited guest would drop by. Peter's wife Caroline dropped by with a couple of pizzas at one point knowing, otherwise, we wouldn't eat. Alan's wife Melanie stopped by with a friend and our friend Noel Archambault came by with his camera to visually record the proceedings. We also had a few uninvited guests throughout the day. One condition on renting the church was that we weren't allowed to close it, it had to be open to the public to wander through. A few takes were ruined by tourists stumbling through the front door admiring the faux gothic ceiling and almost bumping into Pete's drums in the process. I distinctly remember one young couple walking into the church and sitting down at the far end of hall and hanging out and listening for about thirty minutes. Years later I was having some work done on my house and one of the labourers doing the work told me about the day that he and his girlfriend had walked into Trinity church to take in the peace and quiet and had discovered a band playing inside.
Once all of the sound bugs had been ironed out the day progressed magically. No song took more than three or four takes to capture and every musician seemed to be connecting with each other on a very subconscious plain. We were all having one of those magical moments that musicians rarely find themselves in, when the music takes over and you feel like you aren't really responsible for what you are doing – you are just the channeler. It rarely happens to an individual and it is even rarer for it to happen to a group of players and it is even rarer for it to happen with the tape rolling. I remember sitting in the confessional during a break and listening to the playback of I'm So Lonesome I could Cry. Jeff Bird was there standing over my shoulder, this was only the second or third time that I had met Jeff. The song ended and Jeff looked at me and said, to no one in particular, "it's a beautiful thing…." And indeed it was.
The biggest challenge of the day was going to be the songs involving seven or more musicians. There were three potential problems: the first was that we were running out of time. We had only booked the church for twelve hours. This problem was easily solved by Peter slipping the security guard twenty five dollars to let us stay another two hours. A more serious problem was that the more musicians involved the more difficult it became for Peter to properly place them around the mic. The other potential problem was that the bigger the group got the more complex the arrangements of the song got. These large arrangements we had never practiced so the potential for a complete cacophony when we started up was very real. As we ran through the arrangements for Misguided Angel, Peter fussed and fretted over the sound problem. By the time we were ready to begin Peter was too. Four minutes and thirty seven seconds later we had recorded Misguided Angel and it was time to move on. It was just one of those occasions when you perform a song and after it is over everyone looks at one another and you all know that you got it, there is no need to do it again. The miraculous thing was that it was the first time we had all played that song together and that is exactly what you hear on the album. To Love Is To Bury was next and it went just as smoothly. I distinctly remember playing the song that day and being swept up in swirl of sound that the steel, fiddle and accordion created when they started to breathe as one.
The final number to be recorded was the big jam numberWalking After Midnight. We had purposely left the details of this song vague. All we knew was that we wanted all nine musicians to play on it. We quickly assigned who would soloin what spot told Peter to hit the record button and away we went. It is probably my favourite number on the album, because it is so impossibly loose and ragged just like music is suppose to be. It is the sound of a group of people tired, yet satisfied, celebrating the end of a long, but extremely succesful day.
One little fact about the session that few people know is that it was not all recorded in one day. Later that night as we were winding down at the bar we realized that we had forgotten to record Mining For Gold. We had kept putting it off to deal with the more complex songs, thinking that we would do it at the end of the day and then had just forgotten. A few days later Peter was back in the church recording the Toronto Symphony and on their lunch break he called Margo to come on down to the church. There in front of the entire TSO munching on sandwiches and sipping from thermoses, Margo ran through a couple of versions of Mining For Gold. The album was truly finished.
The beauty of the Trinity Session is that what you are hearing is exactly what went on in the church that day. Nine people communicating openly and honestly with one another through their musical instruments. It is a rare thing to come across in this day and age of hard sell and celebrity. The day following the session I went over to Margo's house with some cassette copies of the session. Coincidentally our mother was there. She had dropped in after doing an errand downtown. We put on the tape and listened in silence. After it was all over we sat there a little overwhelmed by what we had heard. Two days earlier this had not existed, now it was here and it was ours forever. My mother, clearly moved by what she had just heard, said, "my god, it's like you've just given birth to a baby". I suppose we had.
(I'll be posting a series of blogs over the coming days all about the making of The Trinity Session. Check out our Facebook page to see rare photos and anecdotes from me and Margo.)
We worked on the songs for our next album all through that summer. I had been inspired by the music that we had been listening to and began to write lyrics again for the first time in six years. Margo was also bitten by the bug and began to come to rehearsal with some lyrical ideas. As the songs began to take shape so did the overall form of the album. Not only were a lot of the songs reflecting our new found love of country and our experiences of the past year, but also each song seemed to be taking on classic American songwriting themes.
Misguided Angel was in the vein of the classic good girl meets bad boy scenario, 200 More Miles was our wistful "on the road" song, To Love Is To Bury was along the lines of those traditional black country ballads sung so powerfully by the Louvin Brothers and their peers. As these originals began to take shape we started to think about what songs we should attempt to interpret to compliment them. I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry was obvious. Hank Williams is one of the great American songwriters and this song in particular ranks as one of his best – simple, precise and sharp as a blade. We had to do a song from the Patsy Cline cannon. She had smoothed over so many pot hole filled miles during the previous year. We had seen Dwight Yokum performWalking After Midnight in Tulsa and so we thought we'd put our hand to it. We liked the fact that there might be something a little sinister lurking in the shadows. Dreaming My Dreams With You was chosen because it is also another beautiful, slow country ballad, but we also wanted to tip our hats to Waylon Jennings whose attitude and swagger was so much more Rock n Roll than most of the pretenders out there. Working on A Building is a traditional gospel song, but we were introduced to it by The Carter Family. Choosing this song was nod at the rich gospel roots that infuse country music. Mining For Gold, another traditional song, was chosen by Margo to do as an a cappella, another stylistic nod to the roots of country music.
Into this mix we decided to throw a few non country-influenced originals and covers. The intention was not to make a country album, but an album that dealt, loosely, with the great songwriting traditions, styles and themes that had crept into rock music over the past three decades. So we added a few more originals, I Don't Get It andPostcard Blues, which harkened back to the more Blues influenced material on Whites Off Earth Now!! and added two more covers. Blue Moon Revisited (A Song For Elvis)killed two birds with one stone. It is partly an acknowledgment of the great song writing days of Tin Pan Alley and the great songwriting teams of the era of which Rogers and Hart, who wrote Blue Moon, was one. And it is also our acknowledgment of Elvis Presley who stands alone as a rock music pioneer. Our version of Blue Moon relies heavily on Elvis's interpretation which he recorded for Sun records.
The last piece to this very abstract puzzle was Sweet Jane. The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed embody what we feel rock music should be about – slightly out of step, intelligent, groove orientated and original. They have to be listed as one of the great rock bands ever and Sweet Jane, for better or worse, is one of their most recognized songs. It was and still is the backbone of cover bands all across America. It has been pitilessly slaughtered countless times on countless nights on countless stages around the world. We thought, "lets take it and see if we can breathe new life into this tired old work horse ". We got our inspiration from The Velvets live album entitled 1969. To be honest it is one of our straighter covers, we didn't change it a whole lot. Originally we had tried to record it for the Whites album, but we never got the right feel. For this collection of songs we choseSweet Jane as being "our song- this is what we listened to growing up, this is where our musical tastes come from".
Once we felt that we had the material ready we began to think in terms of how we wanted to arrange it and with what instruments. We had been discussing using more traditional country instruments for this album, but the trick was to find the players. We were pretty firmly located in the Alternative scene in Toronto, it' was not like there were a plethora of accordion players to choose from. So we began our search and one player lead us to the next until we had gathered together a loose mish-mash of instrumentation and musicians from throughout Ontario. Some had met before, a couple had even played briefly with each other, but all were a little curious and probably more than a little suspicious of this band from Toronto with the weird name who had called them to come play on their album.
On pedal steel we found Kim Deschamps. Kim had interviewed me for a CBC radio show the previous year after the release of Whites. He had expressed interest in the music and had mentioned that if we ever needed a pedal steel player that we should give him a call. Hiring a pedal steel player was the furthest thing from my mind at the time, but I took his number. Kim also brought his dobro and lap steel along and his years of experience gigging around Ontario with dozens of country, rock and folk bands. We found our accordion player in Sudbury, Ontario through a recommendation from Kim. Jaro Czerwinec was one of the most eccentric characters that we had run into or have yet to run into, but also is one of the most soulful musicians we have ever had the pleasure of playing with. When we first contacted him he was gigging with legendary Canadian folk icon Daisy DeBolt and also with his home town Ukrainian folk troupe the Black Sea Cossacks. We also had the good luck to stumble into Jeff Bird. Jeff has since established a special relationship with the band appearing on all of our albums since Trinity and joining us on all of our tours. He is one of those gifted musicians who can pick up almost any instrument and caress, coax, squeeze, suck or wrench a sound out of it that seems to fit with whatever other music is going on. We initially called Jeff to play fiddle (an instrument he has had a love/hate relationship with over the years)on the session, but he also brought along his harmonicas and mandolin (one of his favourite instruments). Rounding out the compliment of musicians was Steve Shearer on blues harp and older brother John on guitar. We had met Steve at our very first gig where he had come backstage and introduced himself as, "Honky White Trash – a harmonica player". He said he had come to the gig because he was intrigued by the bands name. We in turn were intrigued by his name and kept in touch. Brother John had left the band in its early incarnation, but we all still had a yearning to do some recording together. I always loved the way he played guitar and we knew that the shared gene pool would allow him to harmonize perfectly with Margo on Misguided Angel.
In the days leading up to the recording most of the rehearsing was done on cassette and over the phone. We didn't have the money to bring everyone into Toronto for full blown rehearsals so we sent them each tapes of our rehearsals and the songs that we wanted them to play on accompanied by some sketchy notes. We were able to get Kim and Jeff to a couple of rehearsals and Kim even sat in on a few shows with us. Steve was living in Toronto at the time (the only one who was) so we were able to work and gig a bit more with him. We never even layed eyes on Jaro until he walked into Trinity church the day of the recording and we felt that our playing days with John would see him through. Basically we were depending on each of their musical skills and instincts and their collective experience gigging as professional musicians.
At the same time that we were getting the material and musicians together we were putting our heads together with Peter Moore about how we wanted to approach our next recording. We were all in agreement that we wanted to use the same recording technique that we had used for Whites. That is one microphone, 2 track, live off the floor. We had all loved the results that we had got with the first album and we saw no reason to change. It also helped that our financial situation hadn't changed much either. Paying for decent studio time was still well out of reach. The question was where to do this recording. Since recording Whites Peter had been doing a lot of one mic recording and experimenting with a few different rooms around the city. His favourite was The Church of the Holy Trinity.
Trinity church is a small historic church located in downtown Toronto in amongst the sprawl that is the Eaton Center. If not for the fact that the church was designated an historic landmark it would have been torn down years ago to make room for another clothing store. But it remains, cloaked in the shadow of one of the largest indoor malls in Canada. Peter had been using the church to record some symphony sessions and some small jazz band sessions and had liked the acoustics of the hall. He hadn't had an electric bass in the place or tried to record a voice in there, but he felt it was worth a shot. He thought that if it worked the natural reverb of the hall wrapped around our sound might make for an interesting aural experience.
Another problem that he faced was the added instrumentation that we wanted to record. It was one thing to record a four piece band gathered around a single mic, but to gather nine musicians around one mic and have the resulting recording sound properly balanced was another thing all together. Added to this problem was that Peter felt that it might be difficult to get the church to agree to rent it to a group called Cowboy Junkies. It was one thing to rent the church to a symphony or a jazz trio it was another to rent it to an obviously crazed bunch of rock musicians. The first problem we solved by he and I sitting for hours and scrupulously sketching out on paper what was going to happen musically with each song. That way Peter had a good idea of what instrument would be playing when and he could then place that musician in relation to the other musicians so that the sound of one instrument would not step on another. These sketches would of course evolve as the session progressed and as each musician brought there own ideas and the particular ideas grew, but at least he had a starting point. The other problem was solved by Peter telling the church officials that the band's name was The Timmins Family Singers and we were recording a few numbers for a CBC radio Christmas special. So armed with our new moniker, an arm full of loosely sketched ideas on paper, minds full of half baked ideas and a van full of musical instruments, we entered The Church of the Holy Trinity on the morning of November 27, 1987.
(coming next: November 27, 1987 and epilogue)