Journey of Symphonic Creation
No sheet music was used in the making of this symphony. I’m from the punk/folk tradition of music where instead of having lessons, one picks up an instrument and mucks around with it til you’ve worked out how to make the sounds that reflect how you feel. Then you instruct the musicians around you as to what sort of thing you’d like them to do...and away you go. I don’t know a lot about classical music but I know what I like and what I wanted this symphony to be – bombastic multi-layered melodies with tripped out ambience.
Making it did take time though. A lot of time. I spent six years experimenting with different techniques of production and creation, developing hours and hours of sonic pastures (70 in total!) until at last I’d worked out ways of melding my bandmates with custom programmed digital orchestras to create the sound I could imagine in my mind - a merging of Wagnerian bombast, Eno-y ambience, soaring Morricone strings, the flutterings of Spacemen 3, and the feedback squalls of the Jesus & Mary Chain, all with the reverb-maxed vocals of an opera soprano threading it together. I was pushing all the software to the max, knowing that in no previous era has an untrained person like me been able to create such a record as this.
Music’s a bit different for me than it is for others. I was born with an odd form of multi-sensory perception called synesthesia. I experience all sounds as visual sights in a layer of abstract images that my mind’s eye projects all around me. So with this symphony, I wanted to create a grand epic visual - a great album length abstract movie, combining the spectacularly beauteous shapes I see in classical pieces with some of the most dazzling sights I’ve found in the more experimental edges of indie rock and electronic music.
Bringing this symphony to life is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I quit it a good few times. But something always brought me back to it. Once it was a rebel army in Papua New Guinea sparing me to go make music after I’d played a ukulele to prove I was a musician not a spy – “I must finish my symphony!,” I felt the next day. Another time, I’d contemplatively motorcycled around a volcanic island in Nicaragua, deciding firmly to abandon music making altogether – only to come home to my rock’n’roll hero Lou Reed praising a bunch of Flowers Of Hell recordings on what became his final BBC radio show.
I was bolstered by Lou, but daunted by the task of trimming down the 70 hours of music I’d amassed and the need to shape it into a coherent flow. A lot of it was me solo (needing overdubs to be finished), some of it was me with the band, and other bits were fully produced to the extent of having 150 layers of sounds going on simultaneously. So I booked myself to cross the ocean on a working cargo freighter, figuring I’d have few distractions mixing at sea for a fortnight.
Somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, aboard the Fort Saint Louis with 30 sailors and 800 cargo containers cresting swells, I realized it wasn’t going to work. Perched in the ship’s bow staring out at endless ocean in all directions listening to the works in progress, I realized it needed a thread to connect it all together. It needed an opera soprano. And so I downed tools for the rest of the voyage and drank rum with the sailors, playing Pogues tunes and sea shanties for each other on the ship’s guitar.
Upon my return to Toronto I tracked down Danie Friesen, a young opera soprano I’d met in a cafe round the corner. On I spent another year developing things further, exploring what all a soprano voice can do, creating and recrafting bits of the unfinished symphony, living in a self-imposed seclusion bar Danie’s weekly visits, all in a mad attempt to at last be done, to at last have rendered the symphony album I was striving for.
Then there came a day where I sent it all off to Scotland for my longtime Flowers Of Hell collaborator Abi Fry to add some layers of viola. She wrote me back saying that she’d slip in a bit here and there, but that largely the symphony sounded done to her. I listened to it afresh and much to my joy, I realized she was right. The symphony was complete...and here you have it.