MIKE O’NEILL at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Tuesday (March 20), 11 pm. Free. The Inbreds at Sonic Boom (782 Bathurst), Friday (March 23), 1 to 9 pm, free; and at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West) as part of CMW, Saturday (March 24), doors 8:30 pm. $17.50 or festival pass $35-$150. cmw.net. See listing.
Halifax-based songwriter/composer/sound recordist/scriptwriter Mike O'Neill can't fully shake the 90s, and nor would he want to. He's still proud of what he created with Dave Ullrich as one half of fuzzy bass and drum "weirdos" the Inbreds. But that, he says, is history. (The Inbreds play a reunion show Saturday at Lee's as part of CMW, and a Friday in-store at Sonic Boom).
O'Neill's carefully crafted third solo album, Wild Lines, comes after a long hiatus during which he was busy with film and television work. This time around, he got by with a little help from his friends, enlisting Trailer Park Boys creator Mike Clattenburg on drums, Charles Austin on guitar, and piano players Laura Peek and Mike Evin.
Here's what O'Neill has to say about being a vocal perfectionist, recording sound and getting over his fear of playing live.
You started working on Wild Lines in 2007, which was three years after the release of your sophomore solo album, The Owl. Why was there a long pause between starting work on the new album and finishing it?
It's simply because in early 2008 I started recording sound for this cooking show and that had me travelling around the world on and off for six months. It took me right out of the picture. Then there were a series of films made in Halifax that I was on the sound team for. At first I was ambitious and thought I could come home on my days off and work on my record. But anyone who works in the film business can confirm that the hours are just ridiculous. Fourteen to 16 hours a day if you factor in your transportation time. And then when you get your two days off, you're recovering. So it just wasn't possible for me to get back to the record. Another thing about film is that when it rains it pours. If you have another job available you kind of jump in cause you're never sure if it's going to dry up and there's not going to be work.
I didn't get time to finish things up until the spring of this year. Up until that point I had about half the record sung and the other half I didn't have the lyrics for or those performances. [He finished recording around Christmas.] I couldn't really give it the attention that I wanted to give it. The initial recording, the bed tracks [with Mike Clattenburg on drums and Charles Austin on guitar] sounded so good that I wanted to make sure everything sounded that good. It helped me envision how good the record could be and I wanted to wait until I could get everything to that level.
The big difference between the Owl and this one is that I brought help in. I am a multi-instrumentalist, but I'm more a utility person - I can play the chords and get through it - but I prefer the personalities of Mike [Clattenburg] and Charles [Austin] and Laura Peek and Mike Evin.
Ancient history, I know, but what made you and Dave Ullrich decide to go guitar-less as the Inbreds?
Dave was playing in a band and had all these instruments sitting around. I was a guitar player so I picked up the bass and plugged it into a distortion pedal and we just kind of jammed. I made up about five or six different songs and we were off to the races and never looked back. It was kind of random. I think if I had picked up a guitar it would have sounded like we were missing something. When I played with the bass it sounded louder and, in a way, richer and fuller. It wasn't a conscious decision. Dave's brother said, "you could make a band just having those two elements and it would work." We recorded the songs that I had made up on the spot and the rest was history.
But when you started on your solo work you switched to a more traditional format. Why?
I made four records with bass as the primary instrument, playing that chorded bass style. But all of the music I was listening to and enjoying featured people playing guitar or piano or some fuller instrument. I felt that I had dedicated enough time to exploring that [bass] style. A lot of the writing I was doing [in the Inbreds] was on guitar and then figuring out how to translate it through a bass. I thought that was an unnecessary step. It got the song across but I was missing what I really enjoyed about the song on guitar. By going into a more traditional lineup I realize I was throwing away the novelty of having this original lineup of just bass and drums but it seemed worth it to be more faithful to the original compositions I was making up on guitar.
You sang 80 per cent of the Inbreds backup vox and all the backups on Wild Lines with the exception of Say You Don't Mean It, sung by you and Laura Peek. What's the appeal of singing your own backup vocals?
I've always done it. When it comes to doing vocals I'm insanely picky about stuff and I don't think I could put someone through the process of how many takes I would want to do before I would be happy. I don't think anybody could stand it. I think they would think I was out of my mind and maybe they would be right. When I do those takes I'm so critical of pitch and breath and all that stuff so it takes me a long time to do.
But I wish ideally I had my own voice and then another voice that sounded like my brother, so I could sound like the Everly Brothers or the Beach Boys. I have experimented with slightly changing my voice to see if it would blend better but that's kinda weird. I probably should just find somebody who I really like and who understands my process and wouldn't be opposed to going through a bunch of takes.
One person that gave me the green light is Harry Nilsson because he does layers and layers of his voice and you never get sick of it. There's a precedent for doing it, but in the beginning I did it because I have good pitch and had lots of harmony ideas. I'm a big fan of finding a harmony that hits the spot but is not the obvious one. I really don't like harmony when it's just sitting there and not adding anything. I just feel when it's right and try to make it as succinct as possible. There's a couple of songs on this record where I got into this mode where I was trying to write Everly twin leads that harmonize with each other - Old Forest and Don't Forget To Breathe. I could sing either part and it would sound like a lead vocal but together they make this harmony that runs throughout. I love the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel.
What were you thinking about when you wrote Don't Forget To Breathe?
It began with, "This is the sound of being there. This is the sound of pushing up the chairs," and, "Don't forget to breathe." I wrote it while I was working as a sound recordist in Greece and I had a little travel guitar but I wasn't using it because I was so exhausted at the end of the day. I was on this island called Karpathos. I went to this beach at night, and no one was there but me. I sat on the sand and started playing this song and I had a little recorder and I started singing.
Then about three years later I was home with my mom and I was watching this movie called Spirit Of St. Louis about Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic that he made in 1927. I loved the film. By that point I would have had all these instrumentals for the song but I didn't have the lyrics. So when I was watching the film, I thought, "Oh man, this song could be about flying. This could be a song about flight." Which is something I had done before [on the Inbreds' Amelia Earhart].
I started doing research about Charles Lindbergh. I read about him and quotes that he had said. The line "Ice is forming on my wings" is like, literally ice formed on his wings when he was flying across the Atlantic and he had to shake the plane to get the ice off the wings because he was going to go right into the ocean. But when I sing it in my song it's about the flight but also about people getting dragged down by stuff in life. It's sort of universal. The end of
the song is a straight Charles Lindbergh quote: "And for an hour I was free of it. I saw the world and I was free of it." It's about him being above the world and being disconnected from all of his earthly concerns and just sort of the feeling of flight.
Was this the first time that you brought in recorded sounds and used them on an album?
I haven't done it in a long time but I used a hand-held recorder on the Inbreds' second record, Kombinator. Some of the samples on that disc are a co-worker of mine who says some ridiculous random stuff that I recorded from the passenger seat [before Round 12]. And there's a fog horn on there that I got right off of a sound effects record. I mean, I wasn't really paying attention to copyright laws back then. When that record came out, people said the foghorn scared the crap out of them but that wasn't my intention. I loved sound effects records and I loved radio and I was interested in coming up with transitions between songs that would bring you back to life.
I kind of revived that for this record. There are recordings all over this record. They are in songs. I have birdcalls all over the record that are real. At the end of Say You Don't Mean It one person said they heard what sounded like many people moaning in distress. What it actually is is the Natal Day parade in Halifax. I just turned the mic toward the window because it was so loud. That was one of the days I was doing vocals forever. Some people say that the doorbell sound on She's Good makes their dogs freak out. That doorbell is in the same key of the song, and has the same two-note signature. Total coincidence.
What role do these sounds play in the overall album?
I have to borrow this from somebody who wrote about it already: it takes the album out of the recording studio. It takes the record places, in a way, and makes it bigger. Twelve songs of me singing lead - who could possibly be interested in that without intermissions of some sort? Like the lion-call sound effect. It's funny because the
guy does a lion call and it doesn't sound like anything you would expect. But it also has my voice in it interviewing a person and doing my job. For a moment you're in Botswana and you can hear the sound of insects in Botswana. That's good value for your purchase instead of being in the studio with some sweaty people for 40 minutes.
How do you find time these days for your music? For writing and performing?
I'm not somebody who plays live much at all but I love making records. My favourite artists I could only enjoy as recording artists - for example, the Beatles. Their records were my only insight into their creations. So I've always strived to make recordings that transcend time and that people can enjoy. It's the lack of control of playing live that scares me - that I can't get my perfect vocal take. When I made my last record, The Owl, I didn't even play a release show. No one knew I released it at all. I'm getting more press for it now than I did when I released it. I just quietly put it on Zunior and there was no publicity. No live support. I thought no one cared, but I didn't care. I didn't push it at all.
For this album, I decided to do everything I can do to put it out there and play at every opportunity. Fortunately my day job at this time is writing scripts with my friend and fellow musician Mike Clattenburg, which has given me more flexibility. Every live show that I've played there have been people getting in touch. The results have been wonderful and instant. It's no surprise. It's just the best way of promoting yourself. The number-one way.
That was a great in-store at Soundscapes last week with the Pinecones backing you up.
I like the Pinecones very much. I'm not ruling these guys with an iron fist. Paul [Linklater]'s an amazing guitar player. I let him do his thing. And Brent [Randall] never makes a mistake. The thing about [drummer] Marshall [Bureau] is I'm doing stuff from all three of my solo albums, which feature three different drummers. He can do all of them. He's got his own style plus he can represent Don Kerr.
Will there be any new Inbreds songs or are Inbreds shows strictly reunions?
I have no intention of writing another Inbreds song so I think they are just reunion shows. Dave and I started playing music because we liked music and we enjoyed playing together and that hasn't changed at all. We hang out and watch rock documentaries. Our lives are very different - he's a family man. He has two wonderful little girls. He's doing well with his work and I'm doing well with mine. We've gone in pretty different directions but when I play with him we're instantly back where we were and it feels really comfortable and good.