Photo by Kevin Coffey
It’s pretty weird to look forward to February, but ever since 2008 we get excited at the thought that people across the province are hard at work in their basements, kitchens, or wherever their makeshift recording studios are, trying to come up with 10 songs or 35 minutes of original material for the RPM Challenge—Record Production Month.
Then, once March 1 rolls around, our mailbox key starts to get itchy.
In our first year as a regional hub for the international challenge, we received 22 albums of local music. Last year that number jumped to 70.
This year we received 86 albums of original music. That’s a lot of music. In fact, if you were to listen to it all in one shot, it would be two whole days of listening.
It’s not a contest—there are no winners, no losers. It’s just a challenge to get people working on their music. We can’t think of a more worthwhile thing to do in the coldest, crappiest month of the year.
Arranged by Elling Lien and Sarah Smellie
Photo by Kevin Coffey
USE WHAT YOU GOT
When you have a cruel, cruel deadline staring you in the face, suddenly not having access to things like good equipment or instruments actually matter. This is the zen art of the RPM Challenge. Once you come to realize that this is supposed to be fun, you’re liberated. You’re free to concentrate on the music.
Crash Jones, who recorded a solo album, for instance, may not have a recording studio, but he does have an iPhone.
“I wanted to use the recordSTUDIO application (a 4-track) and try to build the songs around the original take,” he says. What came out was an intimate, raw album of music.
Bands The Coffee Dates and Friends Of both used microphones from the Rock Band video game for their records.
“When we initially started recording some takes came out super distorted and robot-like, we thought the Rock Band mics wouldn’t handle it after all,” says Friends Of. “But luckily they came out pretty good, all considered.”
Lo-fi is the name of the game for Bart Pierson, who recorded his sludgy, psychedelic album on a “shitty computer mic.”
Allan Locke’s solo pop disc may sound like a full band is playing, but it’s all just him, live.
“I recorded it all directly through my guitar effects pedal, which has a record/overdub/looper function and two inputs,” he says. “I hooked up a guitar and a microphone to the pedal and made a layered album in real-time, whereby I recorded percussion through the mic, for example, which the pedal would then playback as a loop, and then as the pedal played the loop I could overdub a guitar riff to be looped on top of the percussion.”
It’s the first year we received submissions from kids.
12-year old Naomi Russell’s folk/pop album Who I Am was the product of lots of work after school in the music room with her family—which includes Newfoundland fiddler and multi-instrumentalist Kelly Russell, her father.
“When we finished recording the album …my family was overjoyed,” she says. “It made me feel so proud while we sat in the living room listening to it.”
10-year old Nicolas Trnka’s “funny and weird” album, made up of 10 short songs about going to the comic store, aliens, jumping on a trampoline, and other stuff, is, like tigers, “just plain awesome.”
Ten years old may seem young, but it’s not the youngest participant of the bunch. We received an entire solo album by 12-month old “EGo” strumming on a guitar and plunking on a keyboard—“Avant garde experimentation for the toddler set.”
One of Ritche Perez’s favourite moments recording Wizards of Kaos’ psychedelic rock/metal opus was having his daughter lay down a few vocal tracks.
This is also the first year we’ve received spoken word submissions, including an album by The Last Starfighter and the stand-up comedy troupe Shawn Walsh’s Mustache.
ON THE MOVE
Moving was a theme for some RPMers this year, whether it was across the country or across the city.
Moving to a new place in the middle of the month was tough for Brian Downton of Schizophrenic Bi-Polar Bear but he managed to complete the album days ahead of the deadline. “So it wasn’t that bad,” he says. “And the new place is awesome!”
Moving slightly farther afield was the cast of
Artistic Fraud’s Theatre Newfoundland Labrador’s Tempting Providence, who were touring the Canadian North as they worked on their “headphone road album” under the name Crystal City Printing Press.
Half of digital duo Robot Scout had to travel the province for a theatre show as well, so the majority of the tracks were mixed on the road.
SUPERGOD!! aka Patrick Canning, also moved in the month of February. “I only had three weeks to do anything this year since I was in the midst of moving to a different province,” he says. “But I was still able to get 15 tracks done. Not knowing anybody in a new town helps the creative process a lot. Having a supportive girlfriend and neighbours who don’t mind loud guitars in the afternoon are both good things.”
After 28 days of concentrating on the music and letting real life fall to the wayside, March 1st rolls around.
How do you feel, now that it’s over?
Jason Earle: “Relieved, but at the same time kinda bored.”
People on Pause: “Kinda sad, it was an exciting time and the whole thing was going so smoothly. Can we stick another month of February in the summer or something?”
epo: “It took a few days after it ended to realize that it was all over and to get used to not thinking about it all the time.”
Jack E. Tar: “I’m ready to make another album… a bit mad at myself I waited this long to make a record actually.”
Mythical Man Month: “Safer—I’m not tripping over cables and maneuvering around gear. And a little lost on Monday, like when any big project ends and a void is created. No worries though, work filled the void real quick.”
Brett Vey: “With everyone’s busy day to day lives it is very challenging to focus purely on the music. Now that it is over, I have to wait till next year before I can commit this much consecutive time to writing and recording.”
Magnus Svensons: “Void.”
The Blossoms: “I want to do it again! I feel like I want to keep writing and keep the high you get from the creative process, but it’s hard after a month straight.”
18 Hertz/The Composers: “I wonder what else I could have written if I would of had more time to do more songs.”
Ice Cream Headaches: “Sticky.”
Action Hotdog: “Feeling empty again, purposeless.”
Counter Destroyer: “…everything I do is void of meaning or purpose. I feel alone in this world, and cold, so very cold.”
Sometimes you don’t know what you’re capable of. Below are a few examples of people who tried and succeeded at something they hadn’t ever attempted before.
Jack Betty (aka Boobie Browne) realized he “could probably have a decent schmaltzy jazz career if [he] wanted.”
Repeat duo Other People found a backup singer: “My friend Debi came in to record some backup vocals for us,” says Amy Joy. “She’s a friend of mine, i grew up with her in Bonavista. She’s like a little hidden gem with this magical voice, she can pretty much harmonize anything, but she’s never recorded anything before. So it was so great to hear her belt out harmonies for a few of the songs, it almost seemed effortless to her … Then to see her face when it played back was the best feeling ever.”
Something about writing an album about Friday the 13th Part II helps people release their inner metalhead. If you ever wondered what the Idlers sounded like without the niceness and the reggae, you should hear the album by The 6 Fort Waldegrave.
The Subtitles’ Rebecca Cohoe teamed up with Exit Party’s Ian Murphy for the second year in a row for Pet Legs: “For some reason doing RPM liberates us to make the kind of pop music we love listening to, but don’t really do in our other
bands,” says Murphy.
NEW ON THE SCENE
Some bands and musicians used the opportunity to hammer themselves into shape or come up with material. If you haven’t already seen them perform in town, you may see them soon…
Parliament of Owls: “The members of the Parliament of Owls are now working out details of a performance in the near future.”
Nightmen: “We used the RPM to force us to get together to get a band started and get some material ready to play shows. It was sink or swim and I’m glad to say we stayed above water. We already have played a show and will be looking to many more in the next year.”
Barbeau: “It was a great adventure and it really put my creativity to the test. After years of helping other people finish their songs it was very satisfying to actually complete my own… I’m going to re-record these songs and I plan on turning this into a CD release. Also, I can’t wait for next year’s challenge.”
Stephen Green: “I feel like I want to keep writing and keep this moving forward, and to start performing these songs live.”
Back to Copenhagen: “RPM rolling around seemed like a great opportunity to christen the band… We learned a great deal about the many angles of music creation. Now that we don’t have a deadline we can improve some of our RPM songs as necessary and we’re free to begin creating a whole new set of songs that we hope to debut in the coming months.”
4 Fold Aprons, who describes his music as “a drunk DJ in limbo” says he is already starting another album. “Bigger and better. Keep the ears tuned.”
WAS IT EASIER THE SECOND TIME AROUND?
Pilot to Bombardier: Nope. “From RPMing last year I knew what to expect though it didn’t make much difference. The chords and melodies came together pretty quickly, the lyrics were a struggle—I rarely pay attention to song lyrics but I realize that most of my friends do. I felt I couldn’t get away with random sentence fragments so I consciously fought with/for the words.”
Mike Williams: Yes! “This year was my second year completing the challenge and I went into it with a bit more of a plan than the previous year. That alone took a lot of the pressure off cause I knew what I wanted to accomplish and I had a rough idea of how everything was going to layout right from the start. Last year was more of a learning experience that anything.”
Worker: Yes. “Compared to a year ago, my skills have grown a lot. It was a lot of fun to come up with ideas and fiddle with sounds all month. I think I work better under pressure.”
am/fm dreams: No. “This was by far the hardest year of the three [RPM albums we’ve done]. February was full of a lot of nasty real life things for us. That being said it was nice to have this little project we could immerse ourselves in… and kind of take our minds off things. “
Sluts on Sluts: Yes. Matthew Beverly is confident he has discovered the right sound for his project. “If I was ever in the mood to put together a song in the vein of ‘Sluts On Sluts’, I would have a good idea of what buttons to press and what knobs to tweak.”
Grant Kingston: Yep. “I had a slightly better understanding of my recording equipment than last year so it went a little smoother.”
Barry O: Definitely not! “I thought that having the history of the first one would make this one a little easier – wrong. I again found myself scrambling around, sequestering myself from the “real world”, trying to not only stay within the parameters of the RPM itself, but also trying to avoid repeating my ideas from last year.”
THE TRICKS AND INSPIRATION
Some of the creative techniques people used to gitterdun.
Potholez: “Had to be when I when I was conducting Steve Crewe through the powers of interpretive hand dance.”
J. Alfred: “Some of the lyrics on the album were accomplished through a mental process equivalent to performing my own dentistry by punching myself in the mouth until the right tooth came out.”
WCTU: “Late night writing session fueled by new frontier in tummy aching culinary delights: toaster waffles with peanut butter and simulated breakfast syrup and a bottle of cream soda. Mmmm.”
Sharona Clarke: “It was a live, piano-and-vocal-only collection of songs from my two albums On the Right Track and The Secret… is to Dream. Stripped down to how I play them solo with just the piano.”
Ultramammoth: “I’ve always been inspired by the old home-recording stuff by Beck when he’d record songs in his shed. Therefore, I happily (and unashamedly) use that influence as an excuse to record half-arsed songs in one take.”
Hatch: “One night I had this incredible feeling of creativity coming to me. I usually start songs with a riff, or a little melody that comes to me, however this time I knew there was this entire song coming. I didn’t have any idea how it sounded in my head, but I just sat down with my acoustic and the whole thing just flowed out of me—chords and lyrics. It was almost surreal. It’s now one of the songs I am most proud of.”
Liam Peacock: I wrote eight songs about the eight games of the 1972 Summit Series between the Canadians and the Russians. I pinpointed this theme because it gave me a very rigid framework to work within, which I think is something of a necessity for RPM (especially if you lose a week’s worth of work because of stupid equipment issues).”
Vickee Loo (Victor Lewis): “Happiness is the New Depression is a collection of negative thoughts that I’ve attempted to invert through the use of recycled melodies and bad electronic effects for the purposes of cheap entertainment.”
Osprey Signal: “I had wanted to record the hum of airplanes from behind the airport for a long time. I finally got around to doing that. It was fun and resulted in a lot of ambience that really suited the album.”
St. John’s Ukulele Orchestra: “I don’t think there are words for some of the things we did during [this album’s] creation. If those words existed, they would be used in laws to make those things illegal.”
WORDS OF ADVICE FOR FUTURE PARTICIPANTS
ShedDevils (with their tenth album!): “If I have any advice, it’s always record and write as you go. Don’t write first then record because the direct-from-air-to-system version is hard to beat some times… In short: record it every time and then whittle it down.”
Kevin Woolridge: “A guy on the RPM site made a comment on my blog. He was quoting John Peel’s defense of vinyl, that ‘life has surface noise.’ After that I accepted the hiss and pretended it was just warm vinyl noise. It helped an awful lot.”
Matthew Hare: “You really have to put everything you’ve got into it and the end result is either going to be what you had pictured or it’s going to let you down in some way… If there is anybody out there who is thinking about doing the RPM, do it! It’s worth it in the end and even if you don’t finish all 10 songs then you still might end up with one of the best songs you’ve ever written.”
Jonathon Aubrey: “It’s something that every musician should try. It’s so much fun, and it really makes you think more about your music.”
DJ Frosty: “I don’t think we need an excuse to make an album at all, we should treat every month as RPM month.”
Robin Graves and the Diggers: “I’d love to see more people, especially ‘non-musicians’, make an effort to complete the RPM Challange. Everyone can make music, if they really want to.”
Manny Steiner: “Seriously, who cares if its rough, low-fi or whatever? You don’t need several thousand dollars in equipment and an audio engineering degree to make an album; of course it helps, but resourcefulness is what this thing is all about.”
WE SHALL OVERCOME
These are but a small sample of the myriad problems experienced by our fearless RPMers. And then there was technical failure. Which just sucks.
South Symposium: Worst moment? Trying to find a drummer.
The Cause: “Thinking we recorded three hours only to discover the recorder was on pause the whole time.”
The Dead Ponies: “Finally getting together the equipment we needed, getting a quick tutorial on how to use M-Audio, then realizing right after our tutor left that we had somehow screwed up the settings and could record nothing. I think that was frustration in its purest form.”
Drysdale: “[I was] down to the wire, finishing the CD, and I rushed around to get the cover done and stupidly locked my keys in my car with my CD 30 minutes before the deadline… in the rain.”
Adam Baxter: “The worst moment was at 10:30pm on January 31st when my recording gear completely died on me. I had to go out the next day and purchase new recording hardware. Then I had to figure out how to use it.”
Alex Wells: “I’m not overly a confident singer and some trained ears out there might recognize why. I think for the most part things turned out okay. It wasn’t easy, but I’m sure it made me better in the end!”
Ryan Taylor: “I knew noise complaints would be an issue with everything, so figuring out where to do the singing was also a bit of a challenge. My biggest obstacle was getting past the fact that there were so many obstacles… And in the end, everything worked out (as it always does!)”
Now that it’s all over…
Cara Lee Coleman: “Now that it’s over I feel proud that I’m at a stage in my life where I can churn out something so good, so quick. I’ve learned a lot.”
Andrew Harvey: “With all the terrible things technology does, tearing down the corporate music industry by enabling anyone to record an album might be one of its most positive aspects.”
Terry Rielly: “Thanks to Glenn Tizzard of Distortion for offering to help me get a CD of my songs together! It was nerveracking because I am so technology challenged.”
Dave Walsh: “Everyone says finishing the RPM is their best moment but that’s wrong. The best moments are when you surprise yourself with a note you never thought you could hit or you finally get the correct 3rd of a guitar riff.”
Billy Boland: “Every time I got a song finished, I felt better about the whole experience. Seeing the album and a few songs show up on the livestream a few days after was nice. Feedback and comments as well made it worth while.”
Tim Barnes: “[The worst moment was] realizing what day it was, as in it was the 27th and recording was yet to start.”
OK Potato: “The biggest challenge was finding time. Between figuring out our recording equipment and scheduling ourselves, including Olympic hockey on Feb 28, it was tight.”
Joe Harvey: Worst moment? “Having to watch the Olympic Men’s Hockey championship game on mute while trying to finish recording the album.”
(Honourable mention goes to the nearly-complete participants Ragged Dick, electro-CHAK, and Audrey Cohen. Come to the listening parties to hear some of their music too!)