A Snapshot of My Former Self: Revisiting Too Commercial

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Let me start off the story of how I made my 1997 debut album Too Commercial by saying this: I was broke. Really broke. I had no job. The only money I ever made was through gigging, and in 1996 I wasn’t doing a whole lot of that in Halifax. I had no motivation to do anything but play my original tunes, and obviously no one was about to pay me any serious money to do that. My brother tried to get me a job at his work, but his boss said I needed to cut my hair. I had one job interview, at a record shop called Music World. They made one call to the Music World in St. John’s (my last employer) only to be informed that my habit of skipping shifts was fairly notorious. Needless to say, they went with a more suitable candidate. I’m not proud of any of this. I’m just stating the ugly facts. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I need to backtrack a bit.

In November of 1994, in the midst of a seriously dysfunctional relationship in St. John’s that almost put me in the mental hospital, I hitched a ride to the mainland with my uncle Doug who was driving a car to New Brunswick for a friend. I didn’t tell my girlfriend. I just left town. Packed up my stuff in the night (which consisted of two guitars, a suitcase of clothes, and a box of books) and took off into a sleet storm the next morning. We were driving a Honda Prelude with all-season tires, which made for a nerve-wracking 11-hour drive to the ferry in Port Aux Basques. Three days later, after driving to Moncton first and contracting a serious bout of the stomach flu, I arrived in Hammonds Plains, a rural subdivision of Halifax where my parents had just bought a house after living in Ottawa for several years.

St. John’s was a dead-end road for me at the time. I had been living in the Battery with three other roommates, barely able to pay the rent, and generally depressed day in and day out. I was playing George Street for $75 a night, which kept me in cigarettes and bologna. I actually chewed out the boyfriend of one of my roommates for stealing a piece of my cheese from the fridge. Yes, times were that tough. (To this day I abhor the thought of the whole “what’s yours, what’s mine” fridge arrangement of living with strangers.) Basically I needed to press the reset button on my life. So I went to where my parents lived. At the time I had to swallow a lot of pride, but in hindsight it’s a pretty typical move for a 23-year-old down on his luck. I hadn’t lived at home since I was 19, so I figured I wouldn’t be too much of an imposition. I was a bit off on that estimation, taking into account I was about to be an extra mouth to feed for at least two years.

St. John's. April, 1994. Photo by Gary Dimmock.

St. John’s. April, 1994. Photo by Gary Dimmock.

Around the time of my move to Halifax I’d been writing songs like a savage. I’d spent a few weeks crashing in the loft of Ron Hynes’ house on Gower Street in early ’94, where I’d bounce song ideas off him. Ron tolerated me being around, but he was so preoccupied with whatever crazy thoughts were ripping through his own brain that my neurotic presence must have been more a pain in the ass than anything. I didn’t overstay my welcome. But I do have to credit Ron for instilling in me the pride of being a songwriter. Ron was cool. He was a total asshole in all the right ways. I learned a thing or two from him that way, and of course it didn’t win me any friends. Whatever. I was young and too stupid to realize that everything I did and said would affect my music career (if you could call it that) for years to come.

I landed in Halifax with no money or prospects except a bunch of songs and a desire to play them. I spent the first few months hanging out with my brothers and doing shag-all. Through a connection with Ron’s then-manager Sheri Jones I eventually got a regular gig at a place called the Left Bank, which had a good roster of writers and a celebrity clientele. There I met pretty much everyone in the Atlantic Canadian music scene. Most importantly I met Lennie Gallant there and we forged both a friendship and a songwriting partnership. We wrote a chunk of material that we utilized on both of our subsequent records. Another important guy I met around this time was Kenny MacDonald, a CBC sound engineer with a keen affinity for both rock music and dark rum. We instantly hit it off. He told me that he had a recording studio on Hollis Street, and after playing him some of my stuff he insisted that we start in on making a record right away. I told him I had no money. He didn’t give a shit about that. So we made plans.

Kenny in the studio, 2011, with his son Darien.

Kenny in the studio, 2011, with his son Darien.

One of our favourite watering holes was the Diamond on Argyle Street. They had a jukebox there with a lot of East Coast albums in it, one of which was by a Halifax band called Cool Blue Halo. Their single “Too Much Kathleen” was getting heavy rotation on Q104 and I loved the tune. I suggested to Kenny that we get the rhythm section of this band for my album. He agreed, and it wasn’t much trouble organizing this because the guys from the band hung out at the Diamond as well. We approached the guitarist Paul Boudreau (whom I thought was the bass player) and he liked the idea. He secured their drummer Glen MacCulloch and we set a date to do the bed tracks. (Paul didn’t tell me until after we finished the tracks that he wasn’t actually the bass player for Cool Blue Halo, but the guitarist. It didn’t matter. I loved the way he played bass.) I told the guys I could afford $150 each for a two-hour rehearsal and an evening’s worth of recording. They agreed, and we went into the Cool Blue Halo rehearsal room off Gottingen Street to go over each song a few times before loading into the studio at suppertime to do the rhythm tracks. We started tracking at 7pm, and by 11pm we had the bed tracks for the entire album done. The boys packed up, and that was it. The rest of the sessions would consist of guitar, vocal, and piano overdubs.

Cool Blue Halo. Paul Boudreau, Left; Glenn MacCullough, second from right.

Cool Blue Halo. Paul Boudreau, Left; Glen MacCulloch, second from right.

This was December of 1996. In February of that year I’d showcased at the ECMA in Charlottetown and met a girl over there whom I ended up dating for most of the year. It turned out I wasn’t the only one she was dating, so needless to say the song material was abundant. Over half the songs on Too Commercial were about this experience, which was even more harrowing than the last romantic tryst in St. John’s a few years earlier (which inspired the other half of the songs, such as aptly-titled “Gettin’ Outta Here”). You tend to attract this type of drama when you’re messed up like I was at the time. One of the tunes on the album, “What’s Wrong, Arthur John,” was written directly from something that happened while I was doing a 13-night solo gig run in St. Pierre that year and had called her house in PEI to say hi. She was out with an ex named “A.J.”, and the convoluted story she later told me about what happened turned into the plot of the song. Various other events turned me into a paranoid freak, and songs such as “Not Anymore” and the previously unreleased “You Were a Cain” were a direct result of my state of mind in this relationship. That December we officially called it off, and I remember being in the studio laying down the bed tracks with my stomach twisted in a knot of romantic turmoil. It was the perfect record-making emotional climate.

Throughout the winter of 1997 Kenny and I continued to plug away at guitar tracks and drink our faces off at the Diamond. The studio was less than a block away, so many times we’d go in there at 2am and just blast what we were working on or even lay down tracks. One night I did the vocal track for “You Know it Feels Good” in an inebriated state. At the time I inexplicably thought it would be cool to have a drunk vocal on the record, so we used it. Slurs and all. It’s on the record. Lori Cooper also came up from St. John’s during this time to play piano and sing on the album. She was privy to all this madness and still teases me for making her sing her parts hungover.

Greg Keelor, one of my musical mentors.

Greg Keelor, one of my musical mentors.

During one of these nights at the Diamond I ran into Greg Keelor from Blue Rodeo who was in town promoting his debut solo album. I’d first met Greg years earlier after opening for them in Newfoundland. I told him I was recording my debut album, and I joked that he should come sing on it. To my astonishment he agreed, and the next day there we were in the studio, singing harmonies together on the same microphone. He liked the songs, so he kept suggesting he sing more and more. I wasn’t arguing. He spent the afternoon with Kenny and me, singing back-ups on “Comin’ Back to Earth,” “Sweet Bronwen,” and “Crackin’ the Foundation.” It was one of the highlights of my life to have Greg, a big influence on my music, there in the studio singing on my stuff. Kenny and I were also convinced that this was our big break, and that with Greg’s stamp of approval I’d get a record deal. That was wishful thinking, needless to say.

Rejection letter from Polygram.

Rejection letter from Polygram.

Rejscted from A&M.

Rejection letter from A&M.

One of many rejection letters for Too Commercial.

Rejection letter from Universal.

Back in the ’90s the major record labels still ruled the roost. Everybody was trying to get signed. That was what you did. Everything you did was working toward that elusive but possible record deal which would save the day and secure your future as a musician. We know now that it was all an illusion, but at the time it was a very real pursuit. I was convinced that one of the major labels, upon hearing my album, would sign me and pour a bunch of money into my career. I’d become a star, and life would be one big party to the death. That’s one of the benefits of being in your 20s. The dreams are so vivid and big. The world stands before you. The possibilities are endless. While making Too Commercial, I was ten feet tall. After I received rejection letters from virtually every major label, those mental heights stooped quite a bit. The only label that did not reject me outright was EMI, and after several phone conversations with label exec Ann Forbes it looked like something might materialize. But ultimately it did not.

I released the album independently in the fall of 1997 with the financial aid of about 100 supporters who bought the CD in advance (including the whole cast and crew of 22 Minutes, as a result of me crashing their rehearsal with my solicitations). Thankfully, it received positive reviews. The newspapers were very kind. I credit the notoriously tough critic Ron Foley MacDonald from the Halifax Daily News for keeping my self-esteem intact that fall and winter with his ecstatic review. I first read MacDonald’s review in Canso while driving back to Newfoundland in an old van with drummer Rich Spurrell (who had picked me up on his way back from Alberta). We had stopped at the Irving near the Causeway in the middle of the night. I bought a copy of the Daily News and read the review in the passenger seat of the van. I almost cried. No one had ever spoken about my music with such enthusiasm. It was vindicating.

However, this didn’t seem to help me too much in the ECMA department. I was passed over completely for nominations. Lennie Gallant, who’d helped fund the record and also sang on it, was astonished that I’d been completely shut out. At the time I was puzzled as well, but looking back on it now I realized that I wasn’t a game-player in the networking sense. And I had no manager to handle this stuff. I was a train wreck socially with music business people. I could only relate to other musicians, not people who sold music. They always seemed to have a completely different agenda from mine, which they did. Understandably. Still, I couldn’t play the game. So the ECMA was not in the cards for me that year with regard to nominations, even though the Daily News ironically featured a cover story on me during the 1998 ECMA weekend in Halifax.

The R.F. MacDonald review, which kept my spirits up through the hard times.

The R.F. MacDonald review, which kept my spirits up through the hard times.

I moved back to Newfoundland in late 1997, pissed off with Halifax. I’d had some great experiences, but didn’t like the business side of things and basically wanted to retreat. This was not the best move for my career (if you could call it that). After some initial album promo I fell back into making a living playing covers in the bars across the island. Like many before me, I’d made an album and it had tanked commercially. Still, I hung onto the fact that both my musical peers and the critics held it in high regard. That meant the most to me anyway.

I pressed about 750 copies, 200 of which “disappeared” when Tidemark Distribution closed its doors in the late ’90s. So by 2001 or so the album was deleted and basically unavailable. All copies were out there somewhere. I didn’t even own one. And as the new Millennium unfolded, the album faded from people’s minds – even my own. Every now and then someone would mention it in passing. I’d listen to it about once a year and cringe at all the imperfections in the playing. Being a big Dylan fan in my 20s, I loved the spontaneous nature of single takes with the flubs and all left in. In my 30s, however, I was much more musically discerning; it bothered me more and more to listen to the roughness.

Cover of the Arts Section in the Daily News during Halifax ECMA weekend, 1998.

Cover of the Arts Section in the Daily News during Halifax ECMA weekend, 1998.

Recently, with the distance of about 16 years between the release of that album as a 26-year-old punk and me now as a 42-year-old father, I began to consider this album in a different light. Less a commercial failure, it became more of a personal document of a younger, idealistic “me.” All those imperfections mirrored themselves in who I was then – a very imperfect person, learning as I went. I was doing my best to navigate what is perhaps the hardest decade of human life. The 20s were a bitch of a time for me financially and personally, but they were also a time for big dreams and fun adventures. I did so many things back then I’d never do now. I hitchhiked from Halifax to Charlottetown numerous times, slept on strangers’ floors for weeks, survived on peanut butter and jam for months, and lived in a closet in Toronto with nothing but a mattress and a window.

Halifax Daily News, Top Ten Atlantic Canadian albums of 1997. Too Commercial listed at number seven.

Halifax Daily News, Top Ten Atlantic Canadian albums of 1997. Too Commercial listed at number seven.

About a month ago I decided to dig up this time capsule of an album, blow the dust off the master tapes, and clean it up sonically. With the help of talented musician/engineer Jason Whelan, the album has been remastered to maximum sonic quality while leaving in all those quirky flubs and mistakes that have now become part of why I like to listen to it again. There was no auto-tune in 1997. You just sang until you thought it sounded right. So if my vocals are a bit off here and there, that’s life. I was a bit off here and there back then as well. So be it. Life’s not meant to be perfect, and either is music. I lived every lyric on this record, for better for worse. Nothing is fabricated. I’m just happy knowing that I can make it available again, thanks to the advent of iTunes which has essentially negated the usefulness of the major record labels. As a musician who was turned away by the major labels in the ’90s, it feels pretty liberating to re-release this “rejected” record on the very platform that annihilated the recording industry as we know it. I guess I’ve still got a bit of that rebel asshole left in me. Thankfully.

Link to remastered album here:

https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/too-commercial-remastered/id645817367

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “A Snapshot of My Former Self: Revisiting Too Commercial

  1. hbstudios@shaw.ca

    Great story bud kept me captivated and I know what its like to go through that stuff. u r a great writer and I read all your stuff thanks for a look inside your soul cheers Tom.
    Sent from my BlackBerry® powered by Virgin Mobile.

  2. Thanks for sharing this story Chris. I am happy to say that I have one of the 750 original copies. “Arthur John” has always been one of my favourites. I dug this album out about a year ago when a co-worker asked if I knew the song “Your Voice”. I passed along the Brothers CD and Too Commercial, recommending she listen to the complete records (note to self: ask for them back). Nice to hear Brothers have a new single (just downloaded it). Hope to catch a show if you make it back to Halifax. Cheers – Martin

    • Hey Martin,

      Thanks for reading! I appreciate the long-standing support. We will be releasing an EP in the summer, so I look forward to hearing what you think of that. Cheers to you!

      Chris

  3. Ronnie

    While the content of Too Commercial is rooted in “personal heartache” ( for lack of a better term Chris ), ironically. everytime I hear any track from this album it brings me back to The Left Bank, simpler times, good friends, old relationships and great memories. I’ll be downloading Too Commercial, not just because it is a lost gem of Atlantic Canada’s music scene in the ’90s, but also to salute the greatest record company exec ever…Steve Jobs. Who knew that in one decade it wouldn’t matter whether you got signed to a ” major label” in order for your music to be accessible to all?

    • Thanks brother! You were there for all this stuff. And yes they were great times.

      I love the freedom of the current music business. Anyone is allowed to participate, which means that the only stuff succeeding is what people want.There’s no longer the gate keeper who’s force-feeding you a roster of crap acts because some A and R guy has to pay his rent. It’s excellent!

      Chris

  4. Bob

    I don’t think you were particularly hypocritical; rather you were working from and inspired by a collection of music which had been very commercially successful, while at the same time being intensely personal. This was the same songbook which has inspired thousands of other aspiring artists. Unfortunately the marketplace and the business had changed wholesale in the intervening period. It had become very difficult to succeed making music like that, because the radio stations, labels and music press which encouraged that kind of music had started to fade away. This is obvious now, but it was a lot more difficult to see then.

    • Yes, Bob, it was hard to see the forest from the tress back then. And everything changed so fast. It took everyone off guard, especially the labels. It was one thing taping off your favourite songs from the radio on a cassette player; it was another sharing files en mass electronically. It had to be a game-changer.

  5. Hey Bob,

    Thanks a lot for taking the time to read the piece….your commentary is very insightful. It certainly is hypocritical for a musician to slag the business yet want a piece of it or to be supported by it. I guess it depends on how much the business wants you or feels it can make off you. When I was making Too Commercial I was driven mostly by the music and attitudes of my heroes. I would read books and listen to albums by Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, etc. and get inspired by the dynamic of just creating your own way and letting the business decide whether it was worthy of pushing or not. I liked the fact that Neil Young did not, for instance, write “Heart of Gold” with the hit parade in mind. Yet it was a smash. I’m not comparing myself to any of these guys talent-wise, but I was driven by the same spirit.

    I remember reading in Mike Scott’s biography that he was looking for an A&R guy he could relate to, someone who didn’t feel “business-like.” He pretty much went through every major label and came up empty. An argument can be made at that point that Scott himself was the problem, but I still like that idea of meeting someone in the business who embraces independence and such in a musician as opposed to a person or company expecting the artist to conform to their every whim or idea. This compromise is a slippery slope for artistic longevity.

    The hard truth of the matter in my case was that I wasn’t a good enough singer, songwriter or guitarist at the time to deliver what could be a sellable product to the record labels. I doubt they even listened; but even if they did, everything was too rough and too raw…and not always in the right ways. I even had reverb banned from the sessions because After the Gold Rush had no reverb. That’s where my mind was at the time. But we all saw what happened at the turn of the millennium anyway. No one was getting signed anymore because Napster was decimating the labels. As I said in the article, Steve Jobs is the biggest record man that ever was because he picked up on something the record companies didn’t: people were utilizing Napster more out of the desire for online accessibility than the fact that the music was free. So Jobs set up a store where people could get the music easily and cheap. As a result, he inadvertently “signed” everyone by levelling the playing field retail-wise. On the internet, “viral” is the new advertising budget. Ironically it’s still very much a lottery, though. In every way. That’s half the fun of it.

    Thanks again for taking the time to express your thoughts here. We were certainly on different ends of the spectrum back in the ’90s, but we both remember the stark differences in the music business between then and now.

    Chris

  6. Bob

    Interesting blog; I was intrigued by your stories about feeling rejected by the machinations of the music business, yet at the same time being utterly uninterested in engaging it on its own terms. That could be a metaphor for the careers of 85% of the musicians I know.

    Many younger musicians believe there is a class of gate-keepers out there who are supporting some talent at the expense of others; more often, the ‘insiders’ are just business people who are extremely adept at analysisng the music market on a given day, and supporting those artists who can respond to it. Those who can make the music people actually want to hear are at a distinct advantage. Those who follow their own muses, blind to the needs and whims of the market place have my admiration and respect, but they would be hard pressed to attract my investment.

    The fact that one isn’t commercially-minded is not by any means a failure; any more then I disrespect the painter of appealing landscapes over the painter of difficult abstracts. It is very hard for a young artists to recognize that it is not the responsibility of the business to remold itself to any individual artists’ tastes. If you chose a rocky and steep artistic path, then one can hardly complain when the masses do not wish to follow you there.

    In retrospect, I would argue that the material on this album actually was rather commercial; it was you who wasn’t, at least at the time. It takes some maturity to recognize that.

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