Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 3, Episode 8: Stages of Sleep

Last night, I guided listeners through the four stages of sleep, with music to match each one. I daresay it went very well, and I was glad to be able to play some of the deeply weird instrumental music I haven't had cause to play on the 'Hour for awhile. If you were daydreaming when I named the artists, here's the playlist:

Frank Pahl - Lost Cork
Nina Simone - Lilac Wine
Moondog - Symphonique #3 (Ode to Venus)
Beat Circus - The Sound and the Fury
Islaja - Vaeltajan Iaulu 
Kaada - All the Things that Grow Old and Pass Away
Tin Hat - The Land of Perpetual Sleep
Hans Reichel - Could Be Nice Too
Eluvium - Requiem on Frankport Ave.
Carl Stalling - Anxiety Montage
Sun City Girls - Flesh Balloons of Tibet
Captain Beefheart - Old Fart at Play
The Books - Group Autogenics II
Roy Orbison - In Dreams

Note that on the recording I mistakenly called the track from Kaada's Junkyard Nostalgias "All the Things that Grow Old and Die," when in fact it has the much nicer title, "All the Things that Grow Old and Pass Away." I thought the former seemed a little blunt - sorry, Kaada.

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Season 3, Episode 8

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 3, Episode 7: Weill-O-Rama, the B-Sides

Kurt Weill
Last week I claimed I could've taken the exact same playlist, but subbed in different interpretations. Turns out it was absolutely true - for every song, I usually had my pick from a dozen or more different versions. Compare these ones with last week's, and pick and choose your favorites for the ultimate Kurt Weill experience:

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Mack the Knife
Die Dreigroschenoper - Kanonen-Song
Marianne Faithfull - Pirate Jenny
Mirah & the Black Cat Orchestra - What Keeps Mankind Alive
The Doors - Alabama Song
Maurice Levine & His Orchestra - Moon Faced, Starry Eyed
Les Baxter - Speak Low
Morgana King - Here I'll Stay
Lotte Lenya and the Philharmonic Symphony of London - Der Kleine Leutnant Des Lieben Gottes
Rahsaan Roland Kirk - My Ship
Fishtank Ensemble - Youkali
Mark Bingham - O Heavenly Salvation
Kurt Weill - Speak Low

That's right, the man himself closed the show. If you're interested, there's also a version of Mack the Knife performed by Bertolt Brecht. Now go and see if you can't make up this playlist a third time by yourself.

By the way, I did it here too - pronounced "Weill" with a W instead of a V. Cheesy Canadianization of the name aside, the episode stands.

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Season 3, Episode 7

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 3, Episode 6: Weill-O-Rama

Kurt Weill
Anyone who's ever listened to music from the 20th century owes Kurt Weill a thank you. With a CV like Weill's, that's hardly even hyperbole. From the pop charts to the jazz clubs, he's welcome anywhere. I'm fairly confident about that because this is one of the best-researched episodes of the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour ever. Check out what these artists have done with Weill's music:

Sting - The Ballad of Mack the Knife
The Fowler Brothers and Stan Ridgway - The Cannon Song
Judy Collins - Pirate Jenny
Tom Waits - What Keeps Mankind Alive
Lotte Lenya - Alabama Song
Johnny Mercer - Moon Faced, Starry Eyed
Billie Holiday - Speak Low
Dean Martin - Here I'll Stay
John Zorn - Der Kleine Leutnant Des Lieben Gottes
Miles Davis - My Ship
Rob Burger - Youkali
The Silver Hearts - O Heavenly Salvation
Elvis Costello - Lost in the Stars

What made this episode so exciting is that I could've done it with the exact same songs, by different performers. Who knows, maybe I will; I'm pretty in love with this music. Find out in the next exciting installment!

One note: "Weill" is pronounced with a V. I know that now. A listener with a better ear for German set me straight. Sorry to everyone who cringes a little each time I say the man's name!

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Season 3, Episode 6

Saturday 11 February 2012

Building a Soapbox Banjo, Part III

(If you haven't read Parts I and II of this series yet, check 'em out here and here)

The soapbox banjo is done - it's sitting on my living room table, waiting for me to find it a permanent home. In this installment I'll describe the finishing touches it needed to get there.

As I said in Part II, the last significant bit of woodworking I did was cut a moon and star motif into the soundboard. Unsatisfied with its elegance and simplicity, I elicited a number of ideas from my family on how I might make the soundboard busy and overwrought. In hindsight, at least, that's what I was doing - at the time, I was only dreaming of ways to make the banjo visually striking, and to prolong a process I'd enjoyed.

Aborted decoupage fish-man
One of the techniques my mom suggested was decoupage, which she assured me was a time-honoured tradition dating back to the eighteenth century. My dad rushed to the bookshelf and brought back his copy of Curious and Fantastic Creatures, which he had been saving for just such an occasion. The book compiles a number of drawings based on the work of Fran├žois Rabelais, sixteen century master of filthy comedy. Every page of the book was filled with the kind of grotesque, deviant imagery that turns my crank. The book fell open to page eleven, showing a fish-man with a long mustache holding a dirk. In my eagerness to free associate with my great-grandfather's shipping adventures, I immediately took this as a sign that the decoration should have a nautical theme. I borrowed the book and brought it home to start decoupaging.

I photocopied my fish-man, painstakingly cut him out and lovingly painted him. The end result was a garish mess. Time-honoured techniques or not, the bright colours looked too modern and worse yet, the fine lines would resolve into one blotch when seen from across the room. I realized it would be all too easy to spoil the mysterious power of a handmade instrument with an obvious admission of dorkiness.

Aborted cornball iconography
I relegated the fish-man to the garbage and struck out anew. I decided instead I would hand paint some symbols, and made a handful of stencils. I decided I could put a small symbol in each corner, connected by vines across two sides of the box. Wary about committing to an idea after seeing how the fish-man might've turned out, I decided to practice on the underside of the board until I was sure I liked what I saw. I spent a very pleasant afternoon painting and listening to records, but the final product turned out corny again. I had chosen a leaf, a crow, and an anchor as my motifs, and although I painted them reasonably well, I felt I would ultimately regret the hodgepodge of imagery like a teenage tattoo.

I flipped the soundboard over to its blank side and stained it, and found that the grain of the wood spoke for itself. I gave it two or three coats of shellac, and finally I was satisfied. I sealed my artistic missteps facedown into the box with wood glue, and attached the neck to the dowel with glue and screws. I clamped it all together as evenly as I could with a half a dozen clamps and left it overnight to dry. With all that gear attached my contraption looked like a monstrous mechanical spider.

Clamped overnight

In the morning I pulled it delicately apart and the glue held. The banjo was ready to be strung and played. Unfortunately, the special strings I had ordered must've been held up at the border, because they hadn't arrived yet. Most players these days use metal strings for their volume and tone, but my soapbox banjo demanded nylgut, a synthetic alternative to catgut, not just for historical authenticity but because it could not support the added tension of metal strings. Impatient, I decided to see if a light gauge of metal string would hold. The main issue was getting the tension pegs to stay in one place. Unlike geared tuners, tension pegs rely on their own friction to keep them in tune, and they wouldn't stay fast. At least this gave me a practical lesson in some things I had only understood academically. "Minstrel C" tuning was standard in the early days of the banjo, although open G is now much more popular. My guess is that banjo players developed minstrel C because it allows them to keep the fourth string, which is the fattest and therefore the hardest to keep in tune, at a slightly lower tension. I have also heard that some players would slack their strings before putting their banjo away, and it's easier to see why after wrestling a bit with my own fickle instrument.

I played a few sludgy, slack-tuned numbers with the metal strings, until the leather thong I had used to secure the tailpiece snapped with a horrible noise that sent the bridge sailing across the room. Luckily the bridge survived unharmed, but when the nylgut strings arrived I replaced it anyway with a lower one. When I had taken my regular banjo to Luke Mercier (a real luthier - read about him here), he suggested that it would prefer a taller bridge, especially if I intended to play clawhammer style. I had a few on hand, so at first I had installed the second tallest on my soapbox banjo, mainly because a taller bridge is supposed to make a banjo louder. Unfortunately, my creation already had wickedly high action (the space between the strings and the neck), so I downgraded it to my stumpiest bridge. I reattached the tailpiece with an old guitar string, which I padded a little so it wouldn't gnaw through the soundboard over time.

Finished product


Hanging out with Stamping Stick

The most important question is "How does it play?" and the most accurate answer is, "It plays." With the action so high it will never be the silkiest of instruments. I'd need to play a fretless banjo made by a pro to gauge whether the tuning is idiosyncratic or whether I'm just unused to the style. But it has enough volume to be called a real instrument, it's holding its tuning, and simple tunes are easy to knock out. Most importantly, it looks like a million bucks, or maybe I should say priceless. I'm surprised how well it matches with what I had imagined, especially since I resisted the urge to overdo the decoration. In that respect I'd say it earns perfect marks. I'm guessing that I'll play one or two tunes on it in live shows as a novelty, or use it to get interesting colours on a recording. It might also find use as a rhythm instrument, strumming it slightly muted. In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed making it. In my self-conception I'm not particularly handy, but I survived with all my fingers intact and came out with a functioning, handsome banjo. I also think it gave me a direct understand of some banjo lore I've only read about.

Mysterious package
Speaking of banjo lore. A day or two before I completed the banjo, a mysterious package arrived in the mail. It was long and narrow; had my invitation to a samurai sleeper cell finally arrived? But it was even better - my friend Tey in Pennsylvania had come into a Back Porch Pick n' Grin One-String Cigar Box Guitar, and knew that I would appreciate it. Although I don't have the maker's name, all credit to him for his tasteful, minimal decoration. And for the quality of the instrument. The one string makes it easy to play fast and rhythmic, and the pick produces a clicking sound on the edge of the soundhole that is surprisingly catchy. The coincidence that this should arrive just as I am building my own banjo is too much - I'm convinced I am meant to care for strange and orphaned instruments. In fact, in one of the photos I've attached you can see an earlier homemade instrument attempt of mine, a morbidly heavy stamping stick.

Amazing gift
And while I'm being superstitious, there is one thing I'm missing before I can truly say my banjo is complete. There is a legend in old-time banjo and fiddle circles that sticking a rattlesnake rattle inside your instrument will enhance its tone in some dark, mystical way. I would never doubt it, even while I admit I've never heard the rattlesnake difference - or if I have I haven't known it consciously. If you're looking for independent proof, try Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark, or Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. But as Frazier writes, "The musical improvement he was seeking would come as likely from the mystic discipline of getting the rattles as from their actual function within the fiddle." That means I can't in good conscience order a rattlesnake rattle off of eBay and expect an exponential improvement in tone and playing ability. All the same, I must have that rattle. I'd consider the discipline mystic enough if I had to drive to somebody's house to get it, so by all means if you've been sitting on a rattlesnake rattle you no longer have a use for, call me anytime day or night.

And so a soapbox banjo is born, may it survive many years of hard use. It would be rude to make you read all this without giving you a chance to hear it, so here are a couple of early samples I recorded. "Rocky Island" has vocals, "Pigtown Fling" is a straight-up fiddle tune. The tuning gets a little sour in places, but I hope you can hear the sweetness of the soapbox shining through. Thanks for reading; now have a listen:

Rocky Island

Pigtown Fling

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 3, Episode 5: Smooth as Butter Part II

Carla Kihlstedt
My four-part series on vocal timbre came to an end last night with a look at smooth-voiced female singers. It's a bit harder to pinpoint a voice as "smooth," at least as compared to a gravelly voice, but whether my research methodology was scientific or not, these ladies sure can sing:

Blind Mamie Forehand - Honey in the Rock
The Dezurik Sisters - Go to Sleep My Darling Baby
The Viennese Seven Singing Sisters - William Tell Overture
The Kossoy Sisters - What Will We Do with the Baby O?
Iris DeMent - Everlasting Arms
Mahalia Jackson - On My Way to Canaan Land
Nina Simone- I Got It Bad (and that Ain't Good)
Joanna Newsom - Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie
Robert Plant & Allison Krauss - Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us
Carla Kihlstedt - Peel
Jolie Holland - Mad Tom of Bedlam
Frazey Ford - I Like You Better
Feist - Secret Heart
The Silver Hearts - Steam Casts a Shadow
Willow Rutherford - Old Men Knitting Sweaters

I was happy to provide a horse dose of second-to-none Can Con in the second half of the show, and this episode also turned up a few entire albums I think I'll be listening to on a regular basis. But as the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour has ventured into more conventional songwriting territory in search of gorgeous voices, next week I'll try and showcase the experimental, instrumental side of the show.

By the way, if you're wondering what happened to the soapbox banjo series, Part III is still on the way. The banjo is finished, and it doesn't seem fair not to post a few sound samples along with the photos. Between this show, hosting the open mic, preparing for a Kurt Weill concert and holding down my day job I haven't found the time yet, but I guarantee I'll get to it on the weekend.

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Listen to this episode:

Season 3, Episode 5