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23 years

Filed under: General,Music — Thomas @ 8:52 pm

2014-11-30
8:52 pm

(This post is only about music – for people not from Belgium, Luc de Vos, singer of Gorki, passed away yesterday at 52)

I am 15. I hear a song on the radio, and I don’t understand the lyrics. Why would you ask a piranha to devour you? Still, I’m intrigued. I’d only really gotten into music little by little. My earliest musical memory is hearing my parents’ record player playing ‘I want you’ by Bob Dylan. After that, it was my inexplicable arousal at seeing the Hey You the Rock Steady Crewvideo in 1983 when I was 7, getting the Top Gun soundtrack on cassette (my first ever music purchase) in 1986, and watching the video for ‘I want your sex’ by George Michael in 1987 over and over on my recording of Veronica’s “Countdown”. At my confirmation (12 years old), when kids typically get some kind of bigger gift they’ve been dreaming of for a long time, I still chose a computer instead of a stereo.

I am 16, I just had my birthday. I am doing a summer job at my family’s company (which processes animal fat) and I am staying with my grandparents in Bavegem. With the money from my birthday I bought a portable stereo CD/cassette player for the incredible amount of 6000 BEF (or 150 euro as the kids would call it these days). . I listen to nothing else for weeks on end. I can still hum the amazingly beautiful piano part that closes Mia from memory. It’s been my favorite song ever since.

I am 17, and learning the guitar. It turns out that Mia is quite complicated to get right, because of that perfect 3/4-5/4 tempo, or whatever you’d call it if you knew anything about music. It doesn’t help that I’m left-handed playing on a right-handed guitar, but I make the song my own. To this day though, I can still not play and sing it at the same time. There is something about the timing of how that third line starts before the music starts, where he signs ‘Mensen als ik’, that I just can’t figure out. It’s magic – it makes this song all the better.

I am 17, and Gorky is now Gorki, with completely new band members. I see them live for the first time, at ‘De Kring’ in Merelbeke, with my best friend Jeremy. I wish I had bought all the t-shirts that night – they had a different one for each of the new songs. The album sounds so different – parts of it recorded in Africa. I don’t listen to that album enough, but I still love playing Berejager on guitar, such a beautiful intro.

I am 17, and it’s my last year of boy scout before becoming a leader. I have a mini-JIN camp called JINTRO during the year, that ends with a party. I dance with a girl to Mia, and one minute into the dance she says, ‘no no, we’re not going to do a one-tile-dance for the rest of the night. Here’s how you do it’ and she teaches me two basic moves to make a slow dance more interesting. Thank you, Karlien, for changing my life.

I am 18, and we travel through Catalunya with the boy and girl scouts group I’m in, and a local Catalan group. This is one of the CD’s we brought with us as a sample of our own culture. The Catalans love it – they say it sounds like Bruce Springsteen. I can see where they’re coming from. At the end of the two weeks, he guitar player of their group nails down a really good version of Mia (without the words of course)

I am 18, and have my first serious girlfriend. Mia is a song that runs through our history together – we must have danced to it at every party that played it (she messaged me yesterday that she immediately thought of me when she heard the news… just like I did of her). Back then, parties still had blocks of 3 slow songs every one or two hours. I miss that tradition… The moves that Karlien taught me put me well ahead of the pack of my fellow young adult males, and that paid off generously in the young adult females agreeing to dance with me at every party. (The theory of compounded interest clearly put in practice, now that I think of it)

I am 19, and one of my fellow boy scout leaders gives me an old demo cassette of Gorky. Among other things, it contains a cover of the Pixies’ “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, some of their songs that didn’t make their debut (but appeared on Boterhammen, like ‘Ik word oud’, or were turned into a b-side). It also contains the original version of Mia, as a fast-paced slurred-sung rocker. They made the right call slowing it down.

I am 21, and I have a radio show at a student radio I helped start up. I am too young to know how the world really works and just send out interview requests to managers and record labels for bands that I like. In those days, I got to interview my favorite band, The Afghan Whigs, as well as other bands like Everclear and The Sheila Divine. But we also managed to get Luc De Vos as a guest on our radio show, and Jeremy and I interviewed him inbetween songs for an hour. (That tape is at my parents’ place. I have an Excel sheet that tells me exactly which box it’s in, and I hope I can recover it next time I go to Belgium.) I tell him about that demo tape that I have, and he asks for a copy. A little after that, I bring him a copy of that practice tape, I put ‘Congregation’ by The Afghan Whigs on the other side (because I want one of my favorite bands to know another one of my favorite bands), and I go past his house to drop it off. (From the news report this weekend I hear he still lived in the same street, so I can only assume he was still living in the same house he’s lived for the last 17 years).

I am 22, and Luc De Vos plays solo at the university somewhere, in an auditorium. I think it was one of the first times he ever did that. He probably already read out a column he wrote. But I remember how amazing he was by himself, what beautiful versions of these songs that I knew so well he played, songs that usually they didn’t play live because they were the slower ones. ‘Arme Jongen’, I remember him playing it there like it was yesterday.

I am 26, and I see him at various festivals, always there to either play or enjoy the music. I see him backstage with his son, recently born. He is walking around with some kind of elastic band tied around his waist that keeps his kid from running away more than ten meters from him, and it is hilarious to see in the backstage area.

Time starts moving quicker as I grow up, become an adult, and graduate from college. More and more albums. Every album still contained at least one killer song. ‘Leve de Lente’ still gives me goosebumps when those guitars crash in. ‘Vaarwel Lieveling’ is possibly his most underrated song – I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one played live. ‘Ode an die freude’, ‘We zijn zo jong’, ‘Duitsland wint altijd’ – I love the sound of resignment he has in his voice, like a deep sigh put too music. That album came with a floppy disk (!) with the lyrics. ‘Het voorspel was moordend’, ‘Tijdbom’ – while the music came back to being a bit more convential, the lyrics got more hermetically sealed. I must admit that I slowly lost track – having moved to Barcelona at some point, it was much harder to catch them live of course. I know their first five albums the best, and while I still bought the others (having missed only one), none of them had the luxury of not having any other album in my collection to compete with like their debut album had. But there is no denying that when they were great, they were still amazing. A song like ‘Veronica komt naar je toe’ managed to pull together so many different things. The title was a recurring slogan of a Dutch channel that was popular among young people in Belgium, for lack of a Belgian alternative. Here’s a great song, with a great chorus, and his ability to sample just this one sentence to evoke a memory of youth every one of my generation remembers (while it evoked at the same time my personal memory of seeing ‘I want your sex’ on Veronica). And then he manages to evoke such a common feeling everyone has, where you are trying to grab that fleeting thing you were thinking just a second ago, straddling typically complicated-to-phrase words in Dutch with effortless ease – ‘Wat was het nu ook alweer/dat ik wou doen/het was iets belangrijks’ (or ‘What was it again/I wanted to do/it was something important). In the beginning, his lyrics were quirky in ideas, but fairly straightforward in their phrasing. Further on in their career, they experimented quite a bit musically, but especially the lyrics could get complicated, and with exceptional and inventive phrasing.

I’m 31, and I live in Barcelona, but I travel back to Belgium because Gorki is playing their debut album, Gorky. I wrote about that concert back then, but that memory is still strong. I can’t believe that was 7 years ago…

I always enjoyed reading his columns in Zone 09 whenever I was in my hometown, I thought he had a great gift for writing. I noticed just now he left behind quite a few more books than I had, so I started tracking those down. So many of my memories have his music attached to it. His was the first band that opened me up to a wider range of music, away from the mainstream (not everybody would agree I guess, but I never considered them mainstream. Their debut album certainly was different enough from whatever was considered mainstream at the time, and as often happens this debut was only widely recognized several albums into their career later, while at the same time those later albums never really got the same kind of traction.)

I loved his way of looking at the world, the way he described it in music, lyrics, writing, and interviews. Always with that cheeky look. Like, surprisingly it now turns out, so many of my generation, his music was intertwined with my growing up. Here’s a man I was hoping to live long and make much more music, and grow old playing hundreds of songs in bars and clubs, but it wasn’t to be. He set out to be a successful rock singer, whether that was tongue-in-cheek or not, and by all accounts he achieved what he set out to do. And everything he did, he did it for the best of reasons. He did it for ‘a fistful of bonnekes’

I think it’s better to look odd than to look normal

Filed under: Life,Music,New York,Places — Thomas @ 3:54 am

2014-10-3
3:54 am

In the fall of ’98 I had a thing for a girl I didn’t want to have a thing for. I had also just seen one of my favorite movies, Much Ado About Nothing (the original Brannagh movie, not the Josh Whedon one that I didn’t know about until recently and have yet to see).

I decided to exorcise my feelings into a good old-fashioned mix cd (well, I guess that wasn’t old fashioned back in ’98). I cut up the movie dialogue into pieces, and interspersed them inbetween a song selection aiming to match the flow of the movie lyric-wise and, in places, matching them sound-wise too to the movie snippets. It ended up being two cd’s, and a bunch of my friends liked it as well so I think I ended up making about 30 copies of the thing.

Today I needed to recreate those two CD’s plus its original packaging. That means I had to actually buy CD-R’s (didn’t have any anymore after the move to the US), buy jewelcases (can you believe that I actually have actual boxes with actual empty jewelcases that I *kept* in storage in Belgium? These days if you want to buy them they’re a little harder to find than they used to be, even though I’m sure there must be landfills full of them all over the world), and go to a print shop to print the front and back covers.

Being the obsessive backupper that I am, it was easy to find the sound files back (actually, I took a morituri rip that I made at my best friend’s house, who has the CD’s, last time I was there – so that I would have a perfect .cue sheet that would stitch the tracks together). I knew I had the files for the fronts and backs somewhere as well, but they were a little harder to find because I couldn’t remember their names. But I trusted my OCD self that I had backups from fifteen years ago somewhere here with me in NY, and I started looking for files from the same timeframe, until I came across the files I was looking for hidden in a subdirectory.

But then when you find them, what do you do with .cdr CorelDraw files from 1998? I tried inkscape, which uses uniconvertor, which on my F-19 machine failed with a constructor with wrong arguments in Python, which seems like a silly bug. I rebuilt the F-21 version, which gets past that bug, but then doesn’t actually convert anything. I tried an online converter, and it only picked up on the images and none of the text.

So I went the illegal route – I downloaded CorelDraw 11 from the internet, installed it in wine (which was surprisingly easy, it just worked), and I could open the files. Except that it was missing fonts and so the layout was all wrong. Sigh. Hunt random font sites for the missing fonts, install them for wine, open again, rinse, repeat. Eventually the files opened with the right fonts, except that one of the titles was too big to fit on the CD inlay. Oh well, adjust them all manually, make it a little smaller, export to eps, load in gimp, adjust the page as it was perfectly measured for A4 printing but I’m in the US now and the US uses letter which is slightly different, export to pdf so I could go to any random print shop in New York and get it printed.

CD burnt, on to the print shop, fiddle with the printer as nobody in the store can figure out which tray number the tray is where they loaded the card stock paper, and it’s not like the driver on the windows machine knows either – I had to do 5 failed prints to different printers before we even knew which printer was the right one. Cut up the paper by hand with scissors (which I suck at), put it all together, and be on my way.

All this just to say that, while I can be as good about backups as I want to be to bring back to life something I did fifteen years ago, there is still a whole lot of real-world technology fails getting in the way, like outdated proprietary file formats, not having good interchange formats, missing fonts, paper sizes and general Imperial/metric nonsense, ages-old printer crap and just simple manual tasks, which we as humans will probably inflict upon ourselves for forever. I mean, I’d sure like to believe that in the future it will be as simple as pressing a button and getting this 15 year old CD project 3D-printed all at once, but experience has taught me that most likely I will be fiddling just as much with getting 2040’s 3D printer to work with 2025’s data files.

And so it is that I arrive just after 6 at Barnes and Noble in Tribeca, queue up in front of eight registers with only one open, buy a book, get a wristband, go to the back where Emma Thompson is reading from her Peter Rabbit book, in her perfectly English and genuinely funny way, queue after the reading, and hear her say “I think it’s better to look odd than to look normal” to the seven year old twin girls in front of me. I wholeheartedly agree with her. I hand her my copy to sign, give her my two cd’s and tell her what they are and say that I thought this was a good opportunity to give them to her, and she smiles and seems genuinely surprised and pleased.

I think my dad would be genuinely jealous at this point – he always seemed to appreciate seeing her on the screen, and after today I can’t say I blame him. I hope she enjoys the CD’s, and if someone can recommend a good website where I can put these online for others to listen to, that would be great!

morituri and Hidden Track One Audio

Filed under: morituri,Music,Python — Thomas @ 9:08 pm

2013-5-10
9:08 pm

I have tomorrow (saturday) blocked out for a whole day of morituri hacking as I will be home alone.

One of the things a lot of morituri users are puzzled by is its relentless drive to extract every single sample of audio from the CD. Currently, even if it’s a really short pre-gap, and most likely just an inaccurate master or burn, with no useful audio in it.

For me, that was a design goal of morituri – I want to be able to exactly reproduce a CD as is. That is to say, ripping a CD should extract *all* audio from the CD, and it should be possible to make a copy of that CD and then rip that copy, and end up with exactly the same result as from the original CD. (I’m sure there’s a fancy scientific term for that that I can’t remember right now)

To a lot of other people, it seems to be annoying and they don’t like having those small almost empty files lying around.

So I thought I’d do something about that, and that it might be useful as well to analyze my current collection of tracks and figure out what’s in there. Maybe I can find some hidden gems that I hadn’t noticed before?

So I added a quick task to morituri that calculates the maximum sample value (I didn’t want to use my own level element in GStreamer for this as I wanted to make sure it was actual digital zero; this should be done in an element instead though, but I preferred the five minute hack for this one).

And then I ran:

rip debug maxsample /mnt/nas/media/audio/rip/morituri/own/album/*/00*flac

Sadly, that turned up 0 as the biggest sample for all these tracks!

Wait, what? I spent all that time on getting those secret tracks ripped just to get none? That’s not possible! I know some of those tracks!

Maybe the algorithm is wrong. Nope, it works fine on all the regular tracks.

Oh, crap. Maybe morituri has been ripping silence all this time because my CD drive can’t get that data off. Yikes, that would be a bit of egg on my face.

No, it works if I check that Bloc Party track I know about.

Ten minutes of staring at the screen to realize that, while I was outputting names from a variable from the for loop over my arguments, the track I was actually passing to the task was always the first one. Duh. Problem solved.

As for what I found in my collection:

  • a cute radio jingle that brought back memories from a live bootleg I had made myself of Bloem. That’s from over ten years ago, but that must have been around the time I learned about the existence of HTOA and wanted to get one in
  • found unknown HTOA tracks on Art Brut’s Bang Bang Rock & Roll, Mew’s Half the world is watching me; not their best stuff
  • soundscapey or stagesetting tracks on QOTSA’s Songs for the Deaf, Motorpsycho’s Angels and Daemons at play And Blissard; not that worth it (the Blissard track was ok, but really quiet)
  • Pulp hid a single piano chord in a 2 second pre-gap on This is Hardcore; very curious. It’s not an intro to the first track, because it doesn’t fit with the sound at all.
  • Damien Rice hid a demo version of 9 Crimes (the first track) in the pregap; instead of piano and female vocals, he plays guitar and sings all the parts.
  • Got reacquainted with my favourite HTOA tracks: the orchestral quasi-wordless medley on the Luke Haines/Das Capital disc; the first Bloc Party album with a beautiful instrumental (up there with the hidden track at the end of Placebo’s first album; both bands delivering an atypical but stunning moodscape; the beautiful cover of Ben Kenobi’s Theme by Arab Strap on the Cherubs EP (no idea why that landed in my album dir, that needs to be fixed); the silly Soulwax skit for their second album.

Of course, Wikipedia has the last word on everything

I note that they think Pulp recorded a cymbal, not a piano. And now that I see the title of the QOTSA hidden track, I get the joke I think.

In total, on my album collection of 1564 full CD’s, I have 171 HTOA’s ripped, 138 tracks of pure digital silence, and only about 11 are actually useful tracks.

I expected to find more gems in my collection. I’ll go through ep’s, singles and compilations next just to be sure.

But with this code in hand, maybe it’s time to add something to morituri to save the silent HTOA tracks as pure .cue information.

dEUS week

Filed under: Music — Thomas @ 4:08 pm

2012-12-6
4:08 pm

For some reason this week turned out dEUS week at home in Barcelona. Ripping the deluxe edition of Worst Case Scenario that came with the DVD, I finally watched the ‘Time is the state of my jeans’ documentary about the album.

So I thought, why not go the whole hog, and use some dangerous pirate site to download the Belpop special about dEUS, and get through all of it.

The contrast between these two documentaries was very revealing.

The first one focuses only on the album, with interviews of the band members together, and they turn out very different than in the second where people were interviewed separately. In the joint interviews, you can see how Tom’s controlling side comes out and talks over the other people; maybe I’m reading too much into it, but you even see some of the band members bite their tongue and being reminded of why they left the band in the first place. It doesn’t paint as nice a picture of Tom.

The second documentary makes him look a lot nicer. They seem to actually show bits of the other interviews to each member, so they can still react, and usually it ends up with loud laughter. The stories are better too, the second documentary goes more in-depth. The international stars make a comeback experience, which I guess is unavoidable.

It’s fun to see the history from before the first album, and it reminded me of the first time I saw them – a little festival 20 km from my house in the sports room of a school, where they were the last band before headliner Nemo (who had just released their debut). dEUS in its early days was sloppy but dangerous – when you see the live recordings of that period of Suds & Soda for example, they mess up one of the two notes in the riff, mess up the rhythm and the phrasing, and so on.

The second documentary is full of funny moments. My favorite is when Rudy Trouvé talks about the EP after the debut:
“Tommy thinks that my sister = my clock really (long pause) made sure that a part of the audience tuned out. I think so too (starts giggling evily)”.

The Belpop documentary is definitely the better one of the two.

The bonus disc for the WCS deluxe edition is a nice collection of stuff I painstakingly collected at the time, just in time for our current music consumption culture. Kinderballade, their only dutch-spoken song (and one of my favourite tracks they ever did) was on a hard-to-find tribute album, probably made around my sister = my clock because the sounds are so similar, but beautifully done. Their b-sides from that album are plentiful and excellent.

The one answer neither documentary answers is the question I’ve always had about the debut album – why did the English version have a different tracklist ? For me, Via will always be followed by Let Go. Yeah, maybe Right as Rain is a better song, but it’s not right in the flow of the album. Same for Great American Nude – an amazing song, but after the 50 second splinter bomb of shake your hip (the real ending of the album to me), the only thing that fits is the completely atypical dive bomb djingle. Great American Nude brings the energy back up instead of doing something out of character to go back to the opening track. I just have no idea what was wrong with the original release.

I hope to get off planet dEUS by next week, but an album like this that hit when I turned 18 is going to be in my head forever. They were, and still are, an excellent band.

Here’s hoping that two years from now the WCS gang gets together again to play the album together. Come on Rudy and Klaas, give it a think.

After so many years, I also finally appreciate a track like WCS (First Draft). I used to hate that song, but today it’s one of my favorites. Time is the state of my jeans is as good a definition of time as time is what turns kitten into cats.

Work weekend

Filed under: couchdb,DAD,GStreamer,Hacking,Music — Thomas @ 10:18 am

2011-1-31
10:18 am

Since we are doing our yearly business planning weekend later this week, I had reserved the weekend to do work – mainly, put together eight (strike that, nine, our CEO added one at the 11th hour Sunday evening) presentations. But I wasn’t getting into the groove of things, and procrastination hit.

So I wondered, what’s the single most important thing that’s been on my mind and that I’d do right now if I didn’t have anybody else to answer to ?

And the answer was simple – I started another rewrite of DAD (Digital Audio Database) last year, this time based on CouchDB. I was in the middle of splitting up into a core (defining all base classes and simple implementations without any dependencies; for example, a pickle-based storage of the mixing data), a dadgst module (for a GStreamer-based player, since I will also have a pure web-based player), and a dadcouch module (for a CouchDB storage backend).

Before the split-up it was mostly a hardcoded GStreamer player playing from the pickle file, and a bunch of scripts to analyze files and put them into the pickle. I had not properly finished the CouchDB conversion – mostly, a bunch of methods that previously were synchronous now had to be made asynchronous with deferreds, and that was causing some conceptual issues (like, how to a lot of deferreds together – when chaining doesn’t work, and parallellizing brings down your computer).

So, that’s what I wanted to do this weekend first – get the couchdb backend to a state where it can select tracks slicing the audiofiles and providing the mixing information, and use the data from the old DAD database of now seven years ago. I want to hear those old songs again, according to my preference, and properly mixed. And with that in place, after a few hours of hacking, I could focus myself completely on the presentation preparing.

Well, completely except for the baby visits, the family lunching, and the pregnant friend visiting.

If you like looking at not-completely-finished-code that probably only I can get running usefully anyway, start here.

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