Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 In Review

Buzz...buzz...



A muscle in my left leg contracts, and my leg rotates. Not painful, but not pleasant. It's like an electrode has been applied. My nervous system engages.



I am awake.

This happens sometimes. I glace at the clock. The small hours. I listen to the rain hammering the roof, and briefly worry about leaks.

I try to relax. This has been a challenging year.

My leg pulses again. I slowly, quietly shift in bed, seeking a position that will ease whatever nerve pressure is causing this, trying not to disturb my wife.

2012 started off with a death in the family and a new job. The job has been extremely difficult for all the wrong reasons and problems, and all of the things I've enjoyed about it (aside from my co-workers) have been peripheral.

My own attitude and approach are as likely to blame as anything. I continue to make the mistake of assuming the new thing will be just like the old thing. It never is. I let my emotions get the best of me at times. Perhaps I can't solve all of the problems at work, but that doesn't mean I should let it affect the rest of my life, or even my core sense of self and well-being while at work.

I need to stay mindful, and be less uptight. Care without caring.

But the job's challenge cannot be understated. In the 11 months I was there, I was on the road for more than 2 of them. Tokyo 5 times. London 3. Los Angeles more than I can count. Even Austin. It was grueling and exhausting. I think of the small pleasures of business class, the brain damaged feeling of jet lag, and remember writhing in agony all night with a kidney stone in Tokyo.

Work and its associated stresses contributed to my not completing an RPM album this year, a personal disappointment. I also wrote less than I'd hoped this year, but I take some consolation in believing that some of those writings were my best yet, or at least more widely read and circulated.

On the plus side, I received an award from TIP. "Reflection" finally saw full release, complete with beautiful book courtesy of Iran and James. My friend Sid Luscious played a few really great shows, including opening for Modern English at Cafe Du Nord.

The year concludes with a string of wonderfully calm days at home, allowing me to play games, read, sit in front of a fire, and regain a sense of humor and balance. I am shocked at how long it takes me to laugh again.

All in all, not a bad year. A minimum of drama, and the sort of problems I suspect most people would be happy to have.

I tell myself there's what I can control: myself. My leg twitches, reminding me that even my aging body is no longer subject to my brain, and has decided to push back after years of being pushed.

I can keep practicing my instruments and writing music. I have so many ideas for albums, and it seems so little time or drive to complete them. I got better at fretless bass this year, for sure. Even played a few songs at home with my lovely wife.

More importantly, there's what I can't control - everything else. I need to focus on me a bit. Take a deep breath. Think, but not too much. Everything, but not too much. I'm probably past the halfway mark. There's so much to do and experience.

The rain pounds. I try to appreciate the sound, find it soothing instead of troubling. It doesn't rain in San Francisco very much, and certainly not like this. I reach for the beauty of this moment and hold it close. Sleep eventually carries me to the gray dawn a few hours away.


2012 in Music

Album of the Year (tie)

Lana Del Rey "Born To Die"

This record surprised me.

I try to listen to all of the "noteworthy" new albums that come out each year. I read several music blogs daily, and search all the different music services to hear what people are writing about. Most of them I don't much care for.

I expected to not like this album at all. Instead, I heard something fresh, catchy, and perhaps most importantly, different.

The album features lush strings, muted beats with a vague hip-pop flavor (courtesy of a big hip-pop producer), and Del Rey's voice. It's as carefully artificial as a Douglas Sirk movie, but that doesn't mean it isn't effective.

Nothing else sounds like this, and at the same time, I can hear why this album came out this year, and expect other records to cop several of its tricks in the coming years.

The controversy around Lana Del Rey is silly enough that I wonder if the whole thing wasn't part of a carefully orchestrated press plan. She made up her name. She's not "authentic". She had some bad live shows. Well, the same is true of nearly every artist and act on everybody else's list.

What matters to me is the record made me feel something every time I heard it, and I enjoyed listening to nearly every track on it. Not every song works for me, but the ones that do remind me of growing up in the Washington suburbs in the 80s, Bret Easton Ellis novels, and other teenage melodrama. And that's a good thing.

She released a follow-up EP towards the end of the year that moved away from the pop and hip-hop elements. I think this was a mistake, as that friction and mix was part of what made her so engaging. It's too early to tell whether Lana Del Rey is a serious artist or not, but "Born To Die" is a great pop record.


Scott Walker "Bish Bosch"

How can I have listened to a record so little and still like it so much?

Simple. It's one of the most exciting and extreme things I've heard not just this year, but any year.

I'm an admirer of Scott Walker. His last new album "The Drift", was my top album of 2006. The new album is simultaneously more accessible and more extreme.

It's not an album of hook-filled pop songs, though there are elements that, like it or not, are repeated enough to stick in your brain. Earworms, in the creepiest and most disturbing sense.

There's one piece 20 minutes long, filled with silence and insults. Another piece uses fart noises. The CD packaging is beautiful. The lyrics and music have the same depth (and pretension, I suppose) as "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot.

This is a work of Art. Unlike a lot of albums described with adjectives like "noisy" or "experimental", Walker is not just messing around in the studio. You get the impression he knows exactly what he wants to do and how he wants to do it.

I do enjoy this partially because it is so difficult, esoteric, and extreme. But unlike, say, black metal, "Bish Bosch" is truly difficult, esoteric, and extreme. Nobody else makes music like this.

The reclusive Walker did quite a bit of press for the album, and much of the focus has been on his unconventional studio techniques and sounds. Pay less attention to the "how" and "what", and more to the "why".

This is an album you should absolutely hear at least once. Like "Eraserhead" or the paintings of Francis Bacon, you may never want to experience it again, but your life will be richer nonetheless.

Scott Walker's work remains inspiring and breath-taking. I hope to be as brave and interesting when I am 70. I'm still not sure if I actually like it, but I do know I love it. Perhaps the best "art" I experienced this year.

Most-Played

Steve Hauschildt "Tragedy and Geometry"

This record actually came out in late 2011, but I didn't find out about it until the Pitchfork review in early January of 2012.

I listened to this walking to work. At work. On planes. At home. An album of arpeggiated and washing synthesizers, seemingly informed by Tangerine Dream's compositions for the "Risky Business" soundtrack.

I always skipped the out-of-place single "Batteries May Drain" - its drum machine and harsher textures completely at odds with the rest of the album.

I thought this was a well-executed record, start-to-finish. Simple, concise, and solid. His follow-up this year, "Sequitur", wasn't nearly as good or as fresh, leaning too hard on krautrock and Jarre influences.

I'd like to make a record like this.

Honorable Mention

Daughn Gibson "All Hell"

Chris Isaak meets Scott Walker. They go for a ride on David Lynch's "Lost Highway" while listening to Marty Robbins on the stereo.

Creepy, catchy, cheesy, and compelling. A solid, tight, complete work of art.

Like many of the records I like, this is a record with good songs, not too long, slightly out of the mainstream.

It was completely unexpected, and almost everything about the record (including how it was made) and the guy who made it surprised me. A real treat.

Here's a track.

Disappointments

Many records this year disappointed me by being utterly predictable. I read reviews. I listened. I heard exactly what I expected to, no more, no less, and all lacking the magic that makes music compelling.

Alabama Shakes "Boys and Girls" - Proof that rockism is alive and well, or that rock is dead, embalmed, and under glass. Or both. They play pretty well, but there's absolutely no reason to listen to this album in favor of any of their influences. Songs are just OK.

Frank Ocean "Channel Orange" - I really wanted to like this record, and wanted it to be as good as the things it was compared to (Stevie Wonder, Prince, others). It wasn't. Too long by at least a few songs, and most of the songs featured airless production and a lack of hooks. That said, Frank Ocean's performance of "Thinkin' Bout You"on Saturday Night Live was amazing, and demonstrated what the record could have been. He is undeniably talented, but his record was boring.



Dalis Car "InGladAloneness" - Mick Karn died last year. Before he did, he and Peter Murphy had started working on a follow-up to their 1984 collaboration as Dalis Car, "The Waking Hour". That record was strange and beautiful. Much as I hoped to love this all-too-short record, it seemed underdone. The songs felt half-finished (understandably so). The high point is the half-cover of Jacques Brel's "If You Go Away", but it features no fretless bass and while Rod McKuen's english lyrics may be more appropriate to the recently-passed Karn, they are a pale shadow of Brel's heartbreaking perfection.

Santigold "Master Of My Make-Believe" - Santigold's last record was one of my top picks in 2008, full of tight, catchy pop songs with a fresh voice. Her new album failed to grab me at all, despite repeated listenings. It was a lot like the 2nd M.I.A. album, including busy production and a sprawling aesthetic, but lacking any memorable songs.

Jack White "Blunderbuss" and ZZ Top "La Futura" - Both of these records were predictable and boring. The ZZ Top record had potential - the lead-off track is exactly what you hope a collaboration between ZZ Top and producer Rick Rubin should be...but the rest of the crushed, compressed album grinds away lacking any lightness, innovation, or hooks.

The Jack White album is more of the same from Jack White. He's good at what he does, but this album is less interesting than the marketing gimmicks he conceived of in this past year to promote it.

Some Things I Bought

Brian Eno "Lux" - Eno makes a "return to form" ambient record. It's OK, and certainly better than his previous few albums.

Big Pink "Future This" - Great pop songs with overly noisy production. Fine for the gym.

Burial "Kindred", "Street Halo" EPs - Burial's rainswept dubstep gets more cinematic and proggy.

Chromatics "Kill For Love" and "Night Drive" (Deluxe Edition) - I initially dismissed Chromatics as bland 80s rip-offs, similar to some other bands I know. In reality, Johnny Jewel uses the Miami Vice palette to create haunting, sleepy mood pieces, best captured by the movie "Drive". He's prolific to a fault (maybe use the trash can as much as the synthesizer next time?), but he has a vision. "Kill For Love" wasn't as good as 2008's "Night Drive", but featured more guitar and a few great tracks.

Local H "Hallelujah I'm A Bum" - My favorite noisy Chicago grunge rockers' latest double album is more overtly political, and their anger justified. Worth it just for titles like "They Saved Reagan's Brain" and "Here Come Ol' Laptop".

Harold Budd "Bandits of Stature" - Ambient. Budd does string quartets. Not my favorite thing (like him, I find them shrieky), but a nice record all the same, and I remain committed to supporting Mr. Budd's art.

John Foxx and The Maths "The Shape of Things" (vinyl) and "Evidence" - John Foxx and Benge have been on a tear since last year's "Interplay". I was initially disappointed by "The Shape of Things", hoping for more tight synth pop like "Interplay". What I got instead was an album-length series of Ballard-ish vignettes and songs. But it grew on me, and I respect the album-sized vision. "Evidence" came out a few months later, with a similar aesthetic (a handful of songs woven together with brief instrumentals). My next album will probably sound similar to this.

I bought 4 albums on vinyl this year, after refurbishing my turntable. Vinyl is fun to hold and look at, but I still find it inferior to CDs!

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Balancing Act


I've been thinking a lot about what is called "work/life balance" lately. Notice which word gets top billing?

Dad

I can still remember the day I realized my father didn't get summers off. That unlike the school year, the business year didn't have a break. It seemed unfair, and I wondered how he and every other adult could possibly deal with that - it was like going to school year-round!

Except that in my Dad's case, he also left not long after I did for school but arrived home several hours later. And for much of my childhood, he worked at least a half-day on Saturdays. My father co-founded a company which later went public, and its success had something to do with the extra hours that he and his co-workers put in.

But I also remember that Dad played squash regularly, stepping out of the office for a few hours each week. And he took regular, long vacations. Every few years we'd pack up the whole family and leave the country for a month or more, heading to exotic locations and adventure. And if we weren't doing that, it was off to sit on a beach for a week over the winter holidays.

Back in those days, there wasn't an internet or mobile phones. Even if there were, it's unlikely they'd have been available where we were going. We were truly disconnected.

The Start-Up

I recently talked with the CEO of a start-up who proudly told me he and his team regularly worked until 8:00 or even 10:00 PM. He said his team was really dedicated, and passionate about what they were working on.

He asked me what I thought of that. I told him I thought it was borderline exploitative, and it sounded like his team was under-resourced. I pointed out that most contemporary research demonstrates that worker productivity tails off dramatically after 6 hours.

In the case of tech jobs, it's a big deal. Bad, sloppy, or buggy work impacts far more people than just the person doing the initial work. Overwork makes more waste than haste.

In my experience, long hours just burn people out. Especially if they're working on something they care about and are good at what they do. You'll end up watching them all walk out the door sooner than you'd like.

Throwing more hours at something isn't much better than just throwing more money at it. But you can always get more money. And you can't get any more time.

The Sprinters

One of the founders of 37Signals, a successful company, recently noted in an interview that in the summer, his staff only works 4 days a week. When asked if people could work more days if they wanted, he said yes, but the company actively discouraged it.

He said it was important for his employees to enjoy life, and to be in a place where they wanted to come to the office and do a great job while they were there. His company had found the limited hours made the employees both more productive and happier.

He is one of the authors of "Rework", a book which both reflected and affected my own thoughts about work. Since I first read it, I buy a copy for every office I work in, and gave a copy to each person on my current team.

Ultimately, it is a book that suggests you work smarter, not harder, as the saying goes. Focus on the parts of your job where you add the most value, and simply ignore the rest.

This type of thinking, contrary to typical business logic, is usually written about with the print equivalent of an arched eyebrow and slightly mocking tone. "Isn't this wacky and unusual?"

That type of hype, or at least aspiration, has also driven the success of Tim Ferriss, whose "4 Hour Work Week" takes things to an extreme. Ferriss is unusual, and his main industry and success seem to be marketing himself and his books, but I give him credit for being a bold and unusual role model in a society that still thinks the people who get up at 5:00 am and don't get home until after 9:00 pm are not only "smart" but something to emulate.

The Colleague

One of the people I work with recently resigned, after working hard for years. This person was a major asset for the company I'm working for, and their loss is disruptive in the short term and will result in additional long-term challenge for our organization. They're leaving because they're tired of working. Burnt.

Another former colleague has this life pattern: he takes a great job, works like a maniac for a couple years, does amazing things, and then snaps and quits. He cites burnout and lack of a life and relationship. He takes a few months off. Then he starts the exact same cycle over again.

I think of how much companies invested in these people, these human resources. The hiring was difficult enough. But after even a few years, even a merely good employee is incredibly valuable to an organization because they're trained, they have domain knowledge, they know how to get things done. The stakes only rise as the years pass.

A Gloved Hand Typing On An iPhone, Forever

If you're reading this, you probably work in a "modern" office. Which means you have a smartphone and at least one computer. Both are likely issued and/or paid for by your employer, with the agreement (explicit or tacit) that you will be available electronically almost all the time.

Like me, you probably start reading and responding to email over your morning coffee. Maybe that's 5 am. Maybe it's 7 am. You might work through lunch, reading email or meeting with someone. You might have a business dinner. You probably look at email before you go to sleep, whenever that is.

And you probably have a commute at some point in your day, even if it's not rush hour, or even if it's on some sort of employer-sponsored bus.

If you figure that all that stuff is actually "work", your work day has probably stretched out to 10-12 hours easily. In my own case, it's not uncommon to send my first email at 5:30 am and my last at 11:30 pm. Don't even get me started on business travel.

My company is global. It never sleeps. I can clear my inbox and within 4 hours, I will have 50 new emails. Doesn't matter if it's 11 pm or 11 am, or what time zone I'm in.

Yeah, we can look at Facebook or order something from Amazon "on the clock", but really, when else are we going to do that?

In some sense, we're always working. The lines between our personal and professional lives grow ever blurrier, and telecommuting (driven by our petroleum-challenged future) is blurring the lines between our personal and professional spaces as well. I expect this trend to continue, and for those lines to nearly vanish for the next generation.

That is a significant change, and one that has occurred during my relatively short working career.

The Joke

One of my mentors once told me a work joke I repeat quite frequently.
A young lumberjack watches an older lumberjack who seems to stand around a lot and doesn't appear to work very hard. Irritated by the old man's laziness, the young man challenges him to a tree-felling contest. The old man laughs and agrees. 
The next day, they start at the appointed time. The young man and old man begin sawing away. After about 45 minutes, the young man sees the old man stop and walk away. 15 minutes later the old man returns. The young man shakes his head and keeps working. 
Throughout the day, the young man watches the old man through sweat-blurred eyes, and unbelievably, sees the old codger has to stop every 45 minutes to rest! The young man is sure he's got this in the bag. 
But at the end of the day, when the trees are counted, the old man has beaten the young man by a sizeable margin.  
The young man, thrashed and tired, says "Grampa, I gotta know - how did you manage to take a break every 45 minutes and still beat me?" 
The old man smiles and says "I wasn't taking a BREAK. I was sharpening my saw!"

In many ways, this story describes my desired approach to work. It's not the hours that you put in - it's the results. And sometimes the best results come from stepping away for a while. Exercising or reading or taking a walk or getting a coffee with someone. Then returning with a fresh perspective - a sharpened saw.

Working Hard to Not Work Hard

When people ask me about my own work ethic, I say "I work very hard to make sure I don't have to work very hard." Like a talented musician, I put in a lot of effort behind the scenes to make it look easy on stage.

I look at regular long hours as a failure. I didn't anticipate something. I didn't manage a project correctly. I messed up. Or I simply have too much work to be effective at all of it.

I spend a lot of time measuring and thinking before cutting and executing. Execution matters for a lot (if not everything) in business, and without a good plan, one cannot execute.

I work hard on not wasting time, mine or anyone else's.

I try hard to keep my saw sharp, to leave work at work, and to take regular vacations where possible, even if just for a few days. I try not to look at email all the time, all weekend long.

I even try to get out of the office for a reasonable sit-down lunch with friends and colleagues at least once a week.

Really, I don't want to put in that many hours at the office or anywhere. I have other interests outside of work. Those interests and that time to think are some of the very things that I think make me good at the work I do.

And when something truly important comes up I want to make sure I have the energy and passion in reserve to devote to it.

I've also learned - several times, the hard way - there are things far more important than work. There's always going to be more work. There isn't always going to be more LIFE.


A Cyborg Future

There are those who argue that we have no choice. The only way to keep a job and stay competitive is to go all in, and perhaps beyond human limits. Needless to say, the prospect is not entirely appealing to me.

How do you balance your work and your life? Do you?


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Music! Old New, New Old Music

I actually look forward to some of my intercontinental flights. Trapped for 10 hours in a seat with no internet and few outlets, one has ample time to listen to music.

Recently I had a chance to check out 4 new albums: "Sunken Condos" by Donald Fagen, "Beautiful Friction" by The Fixx, "Battle Born" by The Killers, and "Clockwork Angels" by Rush. All of these bands have been around for a while. (The Killers are the "baby" of the bunch, having formed "only" 11 years ago, in 2001.)

Donald Fagen "Sunken Condos"
Like many records I've listened to lately (Alabama Shakes, Jack White, the Rick Rubin-produced ZZ Top album), Donald Fagen's album sounded exactly like I expected it would, and is entertaining, but hardly essential.

Fagen is considered to be the "important half" of Steely Dan, and like many other "important halves", he seems to be missing something in his solo work, even though it sounds about as close to his band as anyone could.

Fagen releases records rarely. This is only his 4th solo album over 20 years. 9 songs. It's...good. It sounds like Steely Dan. It's polished, sort of jazzy, and grooves in its old white guy way.

Lyrically, he's also covering the ground you'd expect him to - there's a song about being replaced by that new IT guy that upgrades all your stuff, for example. But unlike the best of Steely Dan's stuff, there's nothing particularly subversive or creepy. Fagen sounds like a successful and moderately cranky old man, which I suppose he is.

Fagen's record was completely unsurprising, right down to the "well that was nice, but I don't need to hear that again, ever" feeling.

The Fixx "Beautiful Friction"
The Fixx's album is their first new record in quite a while as well, and comes after a recent reunion stint, playing all their old hits. The Fixx made some of my favorite records when I was a kid ("Shuttered Room", "Reach The Beach", and "Phantoms", in particular) before more or less running out of gas and ideas and disappearing 3 or 4 albums after that.

Unlike "new" records by The Cars, Al Green, and other reformed bands aiming for their old sound, The Fixx refuses to shamelessly ape their old hits and sounds, aiming instead for something that is aware of their "classic" sounds, synthesizing and incorporating the best of their past ideas while trying to update it in a few ways. It's similar to U2's approach circa "All That You Can't Leave Behind".

I expected not to like it very much, as the first track and lead-off single struck me as unremarkable. However, as an album it was quite listenable. Still nowhere near the level of their first 3 albums, but it sounds like, and more importantly feels like The Fixx without being self-conscious.

There's texture and mystery, songs that don't outstay their welcome, and a nice vibe throughout. It's not embarrassing, it's not a "HEY WE CAN STILL RAAAAWK", it's solid. I'm listening to it for a second time as I write this.

The Killers "Battle Born"
Perhaps most surprising was "Battle Born" by The Killers. Lead singer and primary songwriter Brandon Flowers is an avowed fan of Bruce Springsteen. The band's second album was criticized for too-closely aping The Boss.

To my ears, this new album is clearly the work of a Springsteen admirer. If the cover doesn't tip you off, the first few songs put any doubts to rest. Flowers sings in a higher register and the band prefers modern synth gloss, but the melodies could easily have come from Bruce, and it's easy to hear his voice and the E Street band stomping through these songs and their imagery.

Specifically, these songs reference Springsteen's earlier, more hopeful and joyous albums, before both the grim situations of his stories and his own success and self-importance made Springsteen so difficult to enjoy.

It's also just...good. Flowers can "do" Springsteen really well, but his homages never really take flight or hook you in quite the way that Springsteen's best work does. His vocals are polished while retaining a little of his own quavering tone, but the performances lack the sweaty soul-informed intensity of Springsteen's most inspired singing, and the overall musical effect is far tamer than any of Springsteen's early records, which at their best shine and swell and nearly explode.

Then again, Springsteen hasn't exactly been nailing it lately either. My friend Sid Luscious would say when your best record in the last 20 years consists of the stuff you didn't think was good enough to release 30 years ago, it's probably time to hang it up.

Still, it's surprising and refreshing to hear someone who is still obviously such a FAN of music (and of a specific, slightly unfashionable artist) so unafraid to emulate his heroes with so few concessions to modern tastes. "Battle Born" is unlikely to win The Killers any new fans, but much like Donald Fagen and The Fixx, they've either decided they have nothing left to prove to anyone, or they already know they're unlikely to bring in any new fans in today's music business anyhow.

Rush "Clockwork Angels"
It's challenging being an old artist in a new world. Rush continues to plow ahead, and their "Clockwork Angels" has them sounding as vibrant and mighty as they ever have.

They hinted at this vigor a few years ago on a surprising all-covers album that featured a scorching, ripping take on "Summertime Blues", of all things.

Rush is still unlikely to appeal to anyone other than the same teenagers they always have (though many of the original teens are well into middle age now), but there's something wonderful and admirable about their continuing to do exactly what they've always done, with a passion, open-heartedness, and lack of calculation sadly missing from most of the "old new/new old" albums one might hear these days.

That said, like a lot of old rock bands lately (Mission of Burma, Fleetwood Mac, Wire...), they seem to revel a bit too much in just playing loud and simple. While Rush has frequently had loud albums, they've also always been intricate and detailed. I know I'm in the minority, but I actually liked it when they got all proggy and threw some keyboards in the mix.

There are hints of that stuff here, but a lot of this record blurs into slabs of distorted guitar, some tricky drumming, and Geddy Lee not quite soaring above the way he used to.

All of these records also suffer from a few modern curses. For one thing, they're all at least a few songs too long. I'd have thought much more highly of The Fixx and The Killers' efforts if they'd been 2-4 songs shorter. The Rush album is nearly twice as long as it should be.

They also suffer from a lack of range. That is both dynamic range - they're all thick and loud records, more or less unrelentingly (even Fagen's, in his own way) as is the current fashion - and in range of tempo and emotion.

These records didn't really have bits where the singer is more naked and ballading, or where there are instrumental highlights. Once you hear the first track on these albums, you pretty much know what the rest of the album is going to sound like. They'd all benefit from a few peaks and valleys. You might get a bare intro or a tiny breakdown, but that's it.

A closing thought for all the bands mentioned here and any other artists: I don't think anyone can write a clever song about global warming. Yet all of these albums try, with pretty much exactly the same results: songs "about global warming". Boring, hectoring, vague, and inessential. Clunky and collegiate at best, and nothing that's going to change anyone's mind.

I had at least hoped Fagen would have pulled something out about how great global warming was, because the young girls were wearing skimpy clothing all the time, and his real estate values had gone up, and so forth, but no dice.

Instead, we're left with a poor metaphor name-checking "Mr. Gore". The Killers turn in the "nobody can escape the rising tide" side of things, and The Fixx continues the handwringing they started back on "Driven Out" to lesser effect on some of their tracks.

The end result so far is only The Fixx's record is meriting a second intentional listen. I'd check out Fagen's record again, but I doubt it would make much of an impression. I'd listen to the first 3-5 songs of the Killers' album again for sure. The Rush album is not one I'd look forward to again.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Why Products Really Suck, Part 3

I've written a bit about Why Products Suck. I wrote about how your own team might be wrecking your product. I even wrote about how Steve Jobs may have wrecked your product (and your CEO).

But there's one party more likely to do damage to your product than anyone else: You.

That's right, the person most likely to mess up is you: the product manager/designer. You're the one in charge. You're the one with the vision, the master plan. You're the one in charge of design and guiding the team.

Unlike the developers, QA, and schedule wranglers (who all have relatively defined and tangible jobs), your work has to mostly be done in advance of the sprint. You create the plan which never survives first contact with the enemy, and then have to constantly revise it and adjust it.

You're also a human, and probably working on multiple projects. You're probably going to make mistakes, and you are most likely to result in the product going bad.

Even if you don't actually wreck it, you're the "single neck to wring", and in any decent company, you'll be held accountable.

Here's a few tips on how to avoid ruining your own thing:
  • Have a vision. By that, I don't mean some airy, vague notion of what you're doing, I mean have concrete goals. Why are you building this thing? What problem is it really solving? How is it differentiated from other products in your space?

    Write down what your product is supposed to do for users and put that written vision or motto someplace where you can see it every day. Make sure everyone else knows what it is, too.
  • ...But don't be a slave to your plan. Things change. The world changes. Adapt your plan as needed. There's no point in launching a product behind the curve, or refusing to acknowledge new information
  • Collect data, but don't design by committee. You need to be aware of what your stakeholders and customers want...but great designers have a way of both understanding the real/underlying need driving most feature requests (whether from customers or management) and then synthesizing a product that solves problems while still feeling cohesive, unified, and compelling.
  • Don't blindly copy. Copy with understanding and intent! You should be looking at other products, and you should not be afraid to lift or emulate models that work. If there are "standard" ways of presenting certain UI elements or tasks, you should probably use them. But you should do this with a deep understanding of how and why those elements were originally included. It is true that a valid approach is to simply "copy the market leader" (see Rdio and Spotify, Spotify and iTunes), but without understanding how the original works, you're just doing cargo cult design.
  • Kill your ego. Good product managers are empathetic and are able to look past their own biases and opinions. Understand how users will perceive and use your product. You're just one user, and you almost certainly aren't paying for your product. Even if you are representative of the target demographic, your objective is to think beyond your own personal whims, preferences, and biases.
     
  • Value your team. Unless you're a one-man shop, "your" product is actually "your team's product". And if you're like most product managers, you're not coding, you're not creating graphics. Collect input from the team members, and recognize how important they are to your success.
  • Manage! Building consensus and keeping people involved does not mean letting them do whatever they want. Your job is to make hard choices with intent and meaning.
Ultimately, the product - and its success or failure - is your responsibility. You get dealt a particular hand, and you have to play it as best as you possibly can.

Make sure you're not the one who wrecks it!

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Reverse Job Interview

Recently, a friend asked me what sort of things they should ask prospective employers when considering the increasingly rare job offer. Here's what I suggested: (While these are aimed primarily at start-ups, they are useful for nearly any tech job opportunity)

Standard Financial Stuff for Start-Ups
  • How much cash do you have in the bank?
  • What is your burn rate?
  • How much cash have you spent so far?
  • How much cash have your investors committed in total? What's left to draw down?
  • How many rounds of funding have been accepted?
  • What's the current equity structure of the company?
  • Are you profitable, and if not, what is the path/time to profitability?
  • What is the current, post-money valuation of the company?
VC
  • Who are the primary VCs or investors?
  • How active are they in managing their investment, and how does that activity manifest? (regular board meetings? daily phone calls? quarterly reviews? person on-site? etc.)
  • What is the expected exit strategy?
  • Timeline for exit?
  • Why did the VCs invest in you?
  • Why will they continue to invest?
  • What do the VCs see as the primary assets of the company?
Business
  • What is your business model?
  • Who do you think your competitors are?
  • What advantages do you have over other competitors in the space? (and vice versa)
  • Why do you think that advantage or business is defensible from existing or new competitors?
  • What are the company's success metrics? How do you know you are succeeding or failing?
  • What's the plan for this week? What about next month? In 6 months?
Management
  • What previous experience do the senior management team (CXO-level folks or other "person in charge of stuff" roles) have?
  • How do they know each other? How long have they been working together?
  • Have any of them ever shipped/launched anything?
  • What previous exit experience do they have? Did they sell a company before?
  • Who's in charge, and how do they communicate their vision to the team?
Product
  • What's missing from the product today?
  • Why is or isn't it already successful?
  • You have made a very big bet on ___. What will you do if ___ changes?
  • Describe how your product is made. Are you using Agile or Scrum or a similar process?
Other
  • How many employees do you have, in how many offices, in how many locations?
  • Are you hiring right now? How much growth has the company had in the last 3-6 months, and how much do they anticipate in the next 3-6 months?
  • What are typical office hours? 
  • If longer than typical Bay Area 9a-6p, why, and how frequently?
  • How do you evaluate whether or not I am doing a good job? 
Details
  • Job Title
  • Responsibilities (in general)
  • Expected daily/weekly tasks
  • Who do I report to? Where does this job sit in the org structure?
  • Salary
  • Benefits
  • Vacation time
Finally...
What do you expect me to do?
  • What tasks will I have on day 1?
  • Why do you want to hire me instead of someone else?
  • What do you think I will add to the company to improve chances of success?
Companies may not be willing to answer all of these, but what they answer and how they answer should help you get a feel for things there.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Elaine, Krugman, Cassandra, and Me

"Come on, Anu, you can do it!" 

My cheerful demon trainer Elaine offers encouragement as I perform what appears to be a simple exercise, but is quite difficult for me.

I was not a particularly coordinated kid, and I wouldn't say I was "good" at sports. But I always used to be able to just push my way through, using willpower or determination or the vigor of youth.

As Elaine speaks, I wonder (not for the first time), if perhaps I actually cannot do it.

Various parts of my body bark pain signals at me, reminding me of accumulated wear and tear. My heart pounds.

I used to work out and run because I wanted to be strong. Or because I wanted to look good clothed and naked. Today, the primary reason is damage control, and aiming to prevent future decrepitude.

Aging has taught me 2 things: The world is complex and nuanced, and I understand very little of it. I think about this as I sweat.

Perhaps another way of thinking of this is that I've had 43 years of making mistakes, and every day and year I discover new and innovative ways to do something wrong. I think there's a reason they say that something painful "smarts".

Paul Krugman is a smart guy. I was more than a little surprised to read this post he wrote:
A starting point: It is a truth not universally acknowledged that it’s possible to be a highly successful academic and still have a somewhat fragile sense of self-worth. You get your papers published, you get tenure, maybe you win some prizes; all this says that your colleagues believe that your stuff is right, that you really do know something about your subject. But do you really? Or are you just good at self-marketing? 
Some, maybe many, academics don’t care; they’ve carved out a nice career and life, so it’s all good. But if you are truly serious about your work as opposed to your career, the question of whether your knowledge is real is always with you. 
As you’ve already guessed, I’m talking to some extent about myself. I’ve always been very serious about my work, I’ve always tried to be more than a mere careerist. I’ve had a wonderful career, getting all the major gongs, yet as late as 2008 it was still possible for that small self-doubting voice in my head to whisper that being a facile modeler and a pretty good writer might not mean that I really knew how the world works.
As one friend said when I shared this, "Amen."

Aging has also taught me "the only constant is change". This is particularly diabolical, as it means I must constantly weigh what I know was true (based on my past experiences and accumulated knowledge) against what I expect will be true (based on my past experiences and accumulated knowledge).

The world changes. People change. 2012's expectations around business or product or life are substantially different from 1982's, 1992's, and 2002's. Deep awareness of that is perhaps the most important bit of knowledge I've gained.

You can't roll dice one time, look at the number and say "I know what happens when I roll dice". After decades of dice rolling, the best you can do is understand the range of possibilities. That still doesn't give you the ability to predict what will happen when you roll them the next time. And then the number of dice change. And the rules of the game.

Yahtzee!

All this wisdom comes with a sting, because the main thing it teaches is that you can't really be sure of anything for too long. And the older I get and the more I feel I know, the less I feel I know for sure.

I do know what I am personally capable of, though. I have been tested and self-tested. I have scores of scores, in one form or another.

I can make stuff, I can write - songs, essays, specifications. I can present, perform, speak. I may not be the best at any of those things, but I know I am better than most people at them, and better than some people who consider themselves to be very good.

But aging has also helped me find my limits. As a younger man, there didn't seem to be any. A few decades in, I can see some of those limits off in the distance, and some I run into more frequently. I know more often what I am not personally capable of, as well.

Perhaps I'm just more aware of the consequences. When you're 20, you don't really think much about running long and hard, even if it hurts. When you're 40, you know someone your age who had a heart attack doing just that.

The price of any knowledge is loss of innocence. In the case of self-knowledge, stripping away  illusions and delusions can be painful.

It's also painful to watch other people on track to make the same or worse mistakes, despite your efforts to help.

Krugman again:
So that’s great – except that it turns out that one form of anxiety has just been replaced with another. It’s great to have confirmation that you weren’t just playing career games; it is, however, not just frustrating but terrifying to watch decision-makers ignore all the hard-won evidence and knowledge, and repeat the mistakes of the 1930s. The good news is that I’m not Sammy Glick; the bad news is that I’m Cassandra.
Did you know Cassandra was also known as Alexandra?

I finish my set. Elaine looks at me.

"Sorry Elaine, my head wasn't in the game on that one. Let me give you a good set with effort this time."

Elaine smiles. I start over.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

9353, Jesus Wept, and Lasting Influence [updated]

photo of Vance Bockis by Steven Biver

9353: Famous Last Words 

Vance Bockis died on September 1, 2012. He was 51 years old. A figure in the DC music scene. Most people will know him as the front man of The Factory.

I knew him as the bass player for 9353.

The official cause of death is still pending, but the belief is his recent rotator cuff surgery, coupled with factors including high blood pressure and the toll a long, serious heroin problem in his past had taken on his health (clean for more than 6 years), led to a fatal blood clot.

I didn't know Vance personally. I may have introduced myself to him at one of the shows I saw. Probably not. He scared me back in those days (the whole band did), and it was hard enough for me to even get to and in the clubs, much less approach the bands.

But I knew Vance through his music. 9353 was an important band to me as a kid, for what they did, what they meant, and who they inspired.

I always rocked out exclusively to evil teen disco 
and I might not ever get well 

I don't know what I fought so hard to show 
I will always rock out exclusively to evil teen disco 
I'm just a fucked-up kid 
It's so easy for them to say that to you 
'cause they have never ever been through 
what it's like to fall hard in the face of the yard 
Don't let them make choices for you 
It'll only increase your chances of being a fucked up kid 
and they could care less when you die 
No lie
-- 9353, "Evil Teen Facility Yard" 

I was a new kid at a new school and as usual, trying to make friends through music. This was Langley High School, located almost literally in the CIA's backyard, in the mid-80s.

One of my classmates Greg Cullen gave me a tape one day. I remember, he said "Here, you might like this stuff. It's cool." One side of the tape had "Five Minutes", by Bonzo Goes To Washington, "La Di Da Di" and "The Show" by Slick Rick, and a few other things I can't recall.

The other side of the tape had "We Are Absolutely Sure There's No God" by 9353.

Front of "We Are Absolutely Sure There's No God"
The record starts easily enough with a chiming guitar part and drum beat that could have easily been on an R.E.M. album. But then suddenly the song cuts to a nervously strummed, almost funk guitar.

And then the singing starts. The song is called "Spooky Room". The lyrics are simultaneously self-explanatory and mysterious.

The singer seems to change voices every few words or notes. Lots of singers have slightly different voices in each register, and frequently will use different sounds for very low and very high notes.

Bruce Miles Hellington, 9353's vocalist (then known as Bruce Merkle), sang like he had out-of-control multiple personality disorder.

He wasn't crazy - this was obviously an artistic choice, and one executed with skill and intent. His lyrics were fantastic, simultaneously dark, depressing, and hilarious.

The rest of the songs on the album were even more catchy and unsettling. Whether seemingly describing the heartless institutions like public schools or juvenile halls in "Evil Teen Facility Yard" or a damaged kid bent on revenging himself upon his entire high school graduating class in "Americana Schitzo", 9353 spoke to me in a way that was familiar and alien, serious and jokey, angry and melancholy.

Look at the yearbooks, where are they all now
And why they wandered where they did if they're not around
I will look and look and track them all down
And maybe I'll feel better when the last one is found
3000 names on a hit list
Schools are bigger these days, there's so much more to accomplish
It's not a small town 1950's thing
There's more than 39 people's whereabouts to obtain
And I can't compensate for what is real
You are all responsible for the way that I feel
The after-effects were never part of the deal
The more I look back at them the worse I feel
-- 9353, "Americana Schitzo" 

Langley High School: We Used To Be Such Nice Children

Apparently they spoke to Greg Cullen, too. And Christopher Davidson, John Hong, Will Gavin, Jim Chandler, Darow Han, and Howard Olsen - all students at Langley. In the 1985-1986 school year, I was a Junior. I had some classes with Christopher, John, and Darow, and through them met the other guys.

I remember Christopher Davidson as a painfully shy, skinny kid who didn't seem to want to look you in the eye. But he was insightful and poetic. I remember in English class we were reading one of the classics that wasn't making an impact on me. Christopher made a comment about the atmosphere of the story and suddenly I understood the book it in a different, darker way that made it far more interesting.

John Hong was a striking-looking Korean kid. When I met him, his hair was close-cropped on the sides, but stood straight up several inches on top, where it transitioned from jet black to orange to bleached blonde, with a pointy forelock. Incredibly cool. He had a magnetic, mercurial intensity. And he knew music incredibly well, playing saxaphone and piano, and able to write the music he heard in his head or on the radio down on staff paper effortlessly. [Update: Apparently, John was a champion classical piano player. His mother ran the church choir. John had obvious natural talents which were nurtured by many teachers including George Horan, Bob Read, and Peter Prince. John was playing alto saxophone by age 13 as well.]

Darow Han was a bit more enigmatic. When he spoke, he sometimes sounded half-asleep, as though he were barely paying attention. The fact that he showed up for school one day wearing his bathrobe only added to his image of indifference. But he too was obviously much smarter than he let on.

Will Gavin I knew the least-well, but he was friendly and passionate about music. We didn't share any classes, but he introduced me to lots of people and was always interested in working on art projects - videos, music, you name it.

As I got to know them and some of their friends, it came out that they had a band. Or bands. It was sort of hard for me to understand the history and configurations of the various projects. I never heard The Suckies or Baby On Board, but it began to dawn on me that some combination of these guys were actually making music. Original music.

As if that wasn't exciting enough, one day in early 1986 John Hong said he and some of his friends had made an album.  I could buy a copy for $5. On cassette. I scrounged up the cash and was given a 60-minute Fuji tape. The cover was a photocopied photograph of a headless statue lying amongst its own ruins.

Jesus Wept

The spine simply said "Jesus Wept."

Jesus Wept
Inside, there was a photocopied strip of paper with song titles and another that listed recording information, credits, and the admonition to "play with dolby on and the lights off". It was one of the coolest things I had ever seen.

To be honest, I didn't like it all that much. There were a few songs I thought were compelling or catchy, but much it was the sort of scattershot creative mess that one would expect from some 16 year old kids with instruments. Some jokey songs, like a piano ballad called "Nice" that sings about bunny rabbits and sunflowers and black licorice sticks before ending by reminding the listener that "the world we live in is so goddamn nice."

Instrumentals. Lots of sloppy tracks ending with screaming. Some teenage pretension. I listened to it over and over, discovering a creepy unlisted monologue at the end.

One piece was called "Urban Psychosis", a title taken from the Washington Post's review of 9353's "We Are Absolutely Sure There's No God".

Imperfect, to be sure. But it was rather well-recorded. On a 4 track in John's basement. I'd heard some "real" records that didn't sound as good. And across its various tracks, it captured something about what it was like to be us. Maybe these kids hadn't quite got hold of something yet, but they were obviously getting close.

Most importantly, it made me start to think "Maybe I could do that, too."

I got to know John a bit more - we had classes in chemistry and math together. I got to see his fabled "turquoise room" recording studio, which was in fact a dark room in his basement, painted turquoise. [Per Will Gavin, John's father was an architect and "helped turn an indoor/outdoor cellar into the fabled Turquoise Room...which was a deep violet/blacklight purple color on the walls with turquoise windows and trim."].

It was a beautiful aesthetic space in which to work, clean and spare. John had a rare and precious 4-track cassette recorder. A piano and saxaphone. A delay unit. Microphones. A Korg Poly-800 synthesizer and a Roland TR-707 drum machine.

I began to realize that he, and perhaps his friends, were operating at a level I hadn't even suspected existed. I realized I wanted to be a part of it somehow.

Rudenotse Wake II

Just a few months later, they had another cassette done. They'd tightened up their line-up, with Will on electric bass, John on keyboards, Christopher singing and playing guitar, and the mysterious Erik on drums.
Jesus Wept - Rudenotse (Wake 2) cassette, with corrections
It's a world away from the previous one. It's got live drums, for one thing. The songs are all sung by Christopher Davidson, who has a surprisingly deep voice. The guitar and keyboard sounds are great. The songs are rich, deep, and complete. The style still wanders from Joy Division-y goth rock to tracks featuring saxophone and DX21 electric piano, but it sounds like one band.

This album is also ahead of its time in that there appear to be at least 2 different versions floating around, complete with different track lists. And even the names of the tracks differ from album to album. Is the first song "Telecast" or "Telecaster"? "Autophel" or "Astrophel"? There's another unnamed instrumental hidden at the end of the first side. [Will Gavin notes there are actually 3 different versions of this album, each with a different cover. I had the rarest version, including a live track called "This Empty Feeling", notably featuring Jim Chandler on bass.]

There's one silly track, but it's there just to set up the final song even better. A woman's voice, on the phone, recorded from some call-in talk show. She says "real love...is imperfect, but plentiful...and if we can accept that...it is as common as the air, and just as precious." And then Christopher sings about fire escapes in flames.

I couldn't believe a bunch of kids my age - who could barely drive - could make a record this good, this interesting, and this powerful. I played it over and over.

One day they told me they were doing a show. Playing in someone's basement at a party. I went. The lights were off. Kids were drinking and smoking. I recognized most of them. At some point, the band set up in the middle of the basement and started to play. It was loud and sloppy. And beautiful and perfect. It was full of distortion and hurt my ears and I loved it. It was an incredibly cool experience.

And after they were done, I thought "maybe I could do that".

Brian Johnston and The Panther Moderns

Not long after, I had a synthesizer of my own, and was slowly recording my own terrible efforts, bouncing one track back and forth between a cassette and a reel-to-reel recorder.

I spent the summer between my junior and senior years working in a hair salon so I could buy a drum machine.

At that fall's school talent show, I auditioned with a friend, Brian Johnston, as "The Panther Moderns". Together we covered Faith No More's "We Care A Lot". This was back before they were on a major label, before Mike Patton was their singer. Anyhow, it was my first time on stage "singing" (really, somewhere between yelling and rapping and singing) and performing. I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it. And I knew I wanted more.

Here's to "Friends"

Early into my senior year, Darow Han and Howard Olsen (who had previously played in a band with Will) asked me to join a band they were starting. We cycled through a few friends before settling on a line-up that has me on keyboards, Darow on drums, Howard Olsen on bass, Max Friedenberg on vocals, and Spencer Lamb (a college friend of Max's) on guitar. First known as "Friends", for some reason, eventually we settled on the name "The Bridge".

We learned covers, including "With All Respect" by 9353. We wrote original songs. We hung out. We joked. We fought. We rehearsed. I stared at the clock in school, counting the hours until we would play again. 

We played shows together at house parties, usually when parents weren't home. Jesus Wept played in DC clubs, like DC Space. We played college parties and school dances.

I never think we are as good as Jesus Wept. But eventually I appreciate that we are at least different, and perhaps OK in our own way. 

Meanwhile we're all swapping cassettes and listening to music and talking about bands. Joy Division and New Order. Echo and The Bunnymen. Chameleons UK. 9353.

Langley High School is not a particularly nice place. It's a big, square 2 story institution, built in a kind of un-ornamented style that strives for a classic 50s modernism but only achieves grim purposefulness. It has a hollow center occupied by a seldom-used yard. Sort of like a prison, and supposedly designed by a prison architect. It is surrounded by chain-link fences and topped with concertina wire. While the administrators claim it is designed to keep "bad people" out, we're all aware the wire is pointing the wrong way. It's there to keep us in.

It some ways it is just like a John Hughes movie. There really are kids who drive to school in red Ferraris. There are incredibly rich kids. My next-door neighbor was "Scooter" Libby. Many of my classmates were the sons and daughters of congressmen and senators.

Some of them are under pressure to succeed in the hardest gifted and talented classes. Some are under pressure because they don't make the cut for those classes and have to deal with the consequences. Some have really strict religious parents. Some have to deal with parents in the public eye. Some have Korean parents. Most think we're all wasting our time and should be studying or working on "real" music.

There's a lot of stress, self-imposed or external. We don't know it yet, but not all of us will make it through this. 

Still, creativity abounds. One day I note someone (probably one of my friends) has written "Evil Teen Facility Yard" on one of the doors to the seldom-used center yard. It's still there months later when the band I'm in loads our gear through it to set up for a rare show after school.
L-R: Chris Wassell, John Hong, Christopher Davidson, Will Gavin, Brian Johnston
(1986, at Langley High School)

Starball Contribution

Even as Darow and I are hashing through our first awkward practices and awful songs and thinking about how we could record a single, Jesus Wept pushes on. They release a 3rd cassette, with an eerie woodblock print. It's called "Starball Contribution", which I will learn is a particular kind of firework.

"Starball Contribution" by Jesus Wept
This album is really impressive. Chris Wassell has joined on drums. His beats are interesting and his timing is rock-solid. The songs themselves finally sound like they all belong on the same album. John's switched to guitar full-time, and moves between grinding buzz-saw tones, fluid lead lines, and delicate clean parts.

Brian joins the band and adds the amazing sounds of his Mirage sampler, notably the Mirage's alien, ethereal choir sounds, other acoustic instruments, and of course its ability to sample and manipulate other recordings.

Will's bass playing has evolved, and effortlessly incorporates his diverse influences. I hear a lot of early Simple Minds, Joy Division, Chameleons UK, and of course, 9353. The stuff we're all listening to, and other things I've never heard.

Christopher's singing is even better and his lyrics are getting weirder.

The first time I hear most of these songs is a live show before the album is done, and it's amazing. John has me record the show on my reel-to-reel, and he sets up 2 microphones in what I will learn is a coincident X-Y pair. How does he know all this stuff?

When the band starts, the needles on my recorder slam into red, and I dive for the controls. They're loud and powerful and tight. They sound great live, whether playing in a club or in someone's basement. I feel lucky to see them, lucky to know them.

I wished my own band was this good. Jesus Wept was so great, it was almost depressing. How will I ever be this good? Why should I even try? This won't be the last time in my life this kind of...jealousy? desire? hunger? appreciation? whatever it is bites me, but this is deep, painful, and sublime.

"Animus" by John Hong
And if all of that wasn't enough, they started producing their own solo material, hinting at the directions they would later explore post-Wept.

John put out 2 cassettes of instrumental music. Piano, sax, synthesizer, drum machine, guitar. Strong jazz influences. They are beautiful, shockingly so. And very different from Jesus Wept.

Christopher Davidson released his own tapes (mostly solo, but one collaboration with Jim Chandler), which quickly veered away from pop songs and headed for hazy distortion, abstraction and mystery. They were fascinating, weird, terrifying, and extremely brave.

Will produced his own sprawling double-album epic, which ranged from bass instrumentals to whispered stories to piano ambience and beats generated by a computer.

John's 2 cassettes, "Animus" and "Resonance", expand my horizons. One kid, making music with this huge range. By himself. Unique and beautiful.

"Climatron Jellosphere Groove"
by Christopher Davidson and Jim Chandler

I keep plugging away, working on songs, trying to borrow recording gear, reading everything I can about how to make better music.

I am driving to a party. It is raining, big fat Virginia raindrops thumping onto my windshield. John's track "Dispersion" is playing, and I realize, I hear...it is ripples. Raindrops in puddles. His simple sax part, little more than 2 notes, overlaid on a few piano notes. But with the rain and the year and what's going on, I am nearly moved to tears by the time I reach the party. I sit in the car for 5 minutes with the lights off and collect myself, the music echoing in my head.

None of us is even 18 yet.

Exit

It is the summer of 1988. We've all been at college for a year. Most of us are back for the summer, and dealing with the conflict between our new college lives and our old high school friends and memories. Between our graduation last year and now, much has happened. 2 of our classmates are dead. Another lost her mother. Reagan's nearly done, and Bush I is on the path to election.

But it's still summer in Virginia, and that time of afternoon when the sun seems to blast sideways. It's hot and moist. I'm standing outside someone's house - Will's, I think. John hands me a cassette of their new album. This one looks professionally duplicated and shrinkwrapped. The insert is on pink paper. The spine reads "Exit". I think this is apt, since we'll all be dispersing soon, this time for good.

"Exit" by Jesus Wept
There are 7 songs. They couldn't be more different from the songs on "Starball Contribution". The structures are more elaborate. The guitar is somewhere between gothy new-wave chime and jazzy twang, and weaves intricate patterns with the bass. There are almost no keyboards on it. The presentation is understated and restrained, rather than the huge blast of "Starball". 

I don't like it. Not at first. It sounds great. But the songs aren't obviously catchy. No big hooky choruses. And somewhat unsurprisingly, it's a rather downbeat album. 

I won't listen to it much this summer. But over the next few years, as I walk across my college's freezing, raining, dark campus, profoundly alone and unhappy, this album will become sublime.

In college, I will study it. I will send copies of it to friends. I will steal a melody for a song when I can't think of one of my own. I will wonder what they're all doing now. 

Years later, in Los Angeles, I will refer to these albums occasionally. I will steal song titles, both deliberately and inadvertently. And as the years go by and my own meager talents begin to evolve, I will appreciate these records all the more, and play them for everyone I know who likes music. 

Even looking back now, it's hard to believe how lucky I was to be surrounded by such talented and creative people. 

As I See It

None of this is to say either 9353 or Jesus Wept were the best groups ever in the history of music. In some sense, 9353 is just another local band that, in the words of singer Bruce...
"...were fucked up on drugs, hating their jobs, breaking up with their girlfriends, and getting kicked out of their places to live constantly. Doing those 2 records in 3 years was kinda the smartest thing we could have [done]."
9353 made 2 records most people never heard and broke up not long after the second one came out. 2 records which cause most people to either say "I don't like it" or shrug and say "I don't get what's so important about this band." Most people know Vance Bockis for the things he did after 9353.

Jesus Wept never even released what most people would consider to be a "real" record. They put out four cassettes and I only saw them play handful of shows, most in people's basements.

From my perspective, they were just way ahead of their time, self-producing (in every sense) top-notch art and distributing it exactly how they wanted. I still listen to their albums regularly and marvel at them. Not just because they're "really good for a bunch of high school kids", but because I think they're really good period.

But like 9353, most people have never heard or heard of them, and those that have don't care for their records.

Great. They don't need to be important to "you", or "everyone".

Art requires a creator and an audience, and they need to have some common areas of culture. More generic culture commonality leads to broad reach but shallow impact. Usually the more specific, unique, and weird something is, the more strongly it will resonate with a small group.

I don't know if I could call the guys in Jesus Wept "friends" - much as I wanted to know them that well, it just never happened. But we walked the same halls, had the same classes, the same pressures, and lived in the same environment and era. I understood what they were saying and why.

Their music resonated with me, inspired me. I knew it was special.

I think most people treat the "Mona Lisa" as special because they're told it's special. Audiences looking at it today cannot see past the cloud of legend and hype that surrounds it, and without all that, it's just an old portrait.

You can't just walk up to art, arms crossed, and mutter "OK, blow me away" and have an art experience. You have to be ready for it, open to it. For some people, that means having your art pre-vetted by someone. For others, it means the right things will just light you up and change you...and other things just won't.

Sometimes not having your guard up is the best thing you can do. Greg Cullen hands you a tape and says "here, you might like this stuff, it's cool". You go to a basement party and your friends unleash something. You hear a song playing while it's raining. You're not expecting anything, and suddenly everything is different.

Bruce again:
"In the end, you become impressed with a lot of people no one notices and unimpressed with a lot of people everyone notices."
9353 was important to a small audience, and that audience was important to me. None of us would have done what we did, or be who we are, had it not been for that connection.

The same could be said for Wept.

Or for my own efforts. It's not for everyone, in all senses of that phrase.

They wrote some songs. We wrote some songs. Some of us are still writing songs. Maybe those songs will be heard by some other kids, and maybe they'll decide to write some songs for other kids.

It doesn't matter how many people hear what you have to say, as long as you enjoy saying it or feel better or worse or satisfied or something for having said it.

And if the right people hear you, if they are truly listening, you can change their lives forever.

Thank you for the music, Vance Bockis.
And Jason and Dan and Bruce.
And Will and John and Christopher and Brian and Chris.
And Darow and Max and Howard and Spencer.

And all of you reading this.

* * *

9353's physical albums are somewhat hard to find, and are not currently available in digital form through legitimate sources.

The music of Wept and John Hong is available at Amazon.

You probably won't like it.

* * *

Postscript: The Children Grow Up and They Go Their Separate Ways

Bruce Merkle legally changed his name to Bruce Miles Hellington 7 years ago. He continues to create music and art, and was working on new 9353 music before Vance's death. (Vance's parts are all recorded).

Jason Carmer of 9353 went on to be a successful producer and recording engineer.

Dan Joseph of 9353 became a composer. His website and biography make no mention of his time in 9353.

Christopher Davidson lives in Oakland, California, less than an hour from me. After Wept, he played in a few more bands, including 45/102 with Will Gavin and Steve Smith, and "Citizen Band" with Greg Lenczycki and Thomas Day. Today, he is a respected mastering engineer, and has continued to make abstract, largely electronic instrumental music, including 4 CDs as "antimatter" and 3 collaborations with Tokyo composer Zbigniew Karkowski. Though I've lived in San Francisco for 12 years, we have yet to meet up.

John Hong is a professional architect of some note. Some years ago he told me he has notebooks filled with compositions. He has been recording with Will recently.

Will Gavin wrote this about Vance Bockis. Will runs XARRIER INFRASTARWERX RECORDINGZ with John, which has remastered and re-released all of the albums mentioned here, plus many of his newer compositions. Will has been a musician non-stop since high school, and continues to write and record today.

Darow Han and I keep missing each other. He lived in San Francisco when I lived in L.A., and now that I'm in San Francisco, he's in L.A. Post-college, Darow had a career as a rapper and released a punk rock record. He works in technology. I don't think he plays music anymore.

Howard Olsen is married and has a child. He is a lawyer and lives a few miles south of San Francisco. We had dinner a few years ago. Howard released an album as The Under Ground in 2002. He was writing songs and playing guitar last I checked, though it's likely parenting duties have curtailed that somewhat.

Max Friedenberg lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he runs Master Switch recording. He is married.

Brian Johnston lives in Frederick, Maryland. He is married and has children.

Chris Wassell lives in San Diego, California. He recently had a child. He spends his artistic time painting.

We were such nice children
On Sundays go for a ride in the car
Life is a ride
But who knows for how far?
How can you determine what kind of people we grow up to be?
-- 9353, "10 Witches"

Corrections and Updates

While my memory of the band's music remains sharp, after 25 years, my memory around some facts is a bit blurrier. Additionally, there were many details of which I was not aware. 

This post was updated on Monday, September 17, 2012 to correct some errors and add some additional notes (all updates courtesy of Will Gavin unless otherwise noted):
  • Vance Bockis was 51 at the time of his death. He had completed all the bass parts for a new 9353 album with Bruce. Many people close to Vance wish to emphasize that he had been free from his heroin addiction for more than 6 years, and that medical professionals dispute whether or not his long addiction was a factor in his death.
  • 9353 broke up after their second album was released, not before.
  • Vance Bockis' father was an architect, just like John Hong's father.
  • Christopher Davidson took the statue photograph on the cover of the first record, and it is his handwriting on the spine. There was an alternative cover with a different photo.
  • "Rudenotse Wake II" was recorded in John Hong's garage, with vocals and mixing done inside the Turquoise Room.
  • There are actually 3 different versions of "Rudenotse Wake II", and 2 different covers. Will Gavin says the band kept releasing new versions to reflect the live set. "...As it progressed and songs evolved, we would remaster the album" until the next one was ready.
  • John Hong took the cathedral photograph used for one of the "Rudenotse" covers.
  • Chris Wassell made the woodblock print on the cover of "Starball Contribution", and it is his handwriting that appears on the inside liner notes.
  • Christopher Davidson took the photograph on the cover of "Exit", and it is Will's handwriting on the spine.
  • Will Gavin clarifies that "Exit" was hand-wrapped by the band using shrinkwrap and a hair dryer, and was not mass-duplicated - but they worked to make it look as polished as possible.
  • While many kids at Langley (myself included) came from wealthy families, Will Gavin notes that Jesus wept worked "...at gas stations, grocery stores, shoveling snow, and mowing lawns" to pay for their instruments. Will notes that "none of our parents were poor nor rich...I can only recall 1 [band member] going on a vacation with their folks."
  • I mostly saw Jesus Wept in basements. Will notes that Jesus Wept "did play most major venues in DC at the time (Kazz, Asmara, Safari, DC Space, but notably not the 9:30 club), as well as several in Richmond...the largest...was a gig opening for Psychic TV in front of about 300 people." That was also their last club show, and afterwards only played 2 more shows, concluding with the "Carrier Communication world debut art show at the Henry Street Gallery".
  • "Exit" was actually released in 1988, not 1987, which means it came out the summer after our freshman years in college. The post has been updated to reflect this.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Slaves To The Muse: On Being A Musician

(A letter to an old friend...)

Thanks for writing.

I've got a post I'm working on about how much Wept has meant to me over the years. I suspect you'll be interested in that, and I hope to have that done in another week or so. In the meantime, I wanted to respond to your letter.

"We're supposed to want to grow up to be things like firemen and astronauts" - 9353

Like you, I've been playing music for decades, and feel like my quality of workmanship increases but is almost inversely proportional to the size of audience. That's tough to deal with sometimes.

When I played songs that "meant something", they were frequently to empty rooms, or to friends surreptitiously checking their watches, because it was after midnight on a Wednesday. Nobody cared. I tried to write hits, or at least stuff I thought was good. It probably wasn't, but still...I had to follow the Muse, even if she led me to empty dives. That was what I did.

And when I was doing it, I connected right to that electricity than ran through me every time I saw a really great band play, whether it was in a basement or a club or a stadium. On stage, or hearing that first mix play back, I felt like I was levitating. Time stopped.

When I sang "Hungry Like The Wolf" in shiny silver pants in a cover band, it was to clubs packed with enthusiastic, cheering, dancing people. And I got paid. It was fun (for a while) but it was definitely not the right gig for me at that time. I learned a ton. I still got a hit of that electricity, that levitation. I wasn't professional enough in any respect. But I'm glad I did it.

It was a very different kind of "professional" music than my L.A. days, but just as valid, challenging, frustrating. It ultimately led me back to writing my own stuff, but with the realization that I wasn't an "entertainer", I was an "artist". Or at least, some of both.

I wasn't going to be happy trying to "entertain" with my art...but I also wasn't going to be happy expecting my "art" to entertain! Once I figured that out, things got way easier.

"Days filled with music
Nights filled with music
Music all the time" - The Church

Yeah, it's been a lot of years of playing music. I still don't think I'm very good. I still compare myself to, well, everyone. You. J____. X_____. My brother. Every record I've ever heard. Ridiculous, I know, but...that's what it's like for me sometimes.

I've thought about stopping quite a bit. There's something appealing about it. Selling all that gear. Well, maybe keep one guitar. Officially "retire". Smile and say "I used to do that" when I hear about kids in bands.

When I talk about this, my wife either laughs and says "You've been saying that for years!", or she gets kind of serious and looks me in the eye and says "You have been playing music for your whole life. You are a musician. That's what you do."

It's hard. Every year, the gear gets heavier. My ears get less tolerant of whatever "the kids" are listening to and I find most (but not all!) records really uninteresting. I make music with more aptitude and gear but less urgency.

And yet I still do it. In fact, the last few years have probably seen me more active, creative, and happy as an artist than my entire "pro career" ever did. I have notebooks filled with ideas for songs and albums. I still think about buying gear. Just last night I was playing guitar and got lost in the sound of the instrument and simple surf twang.

And it is easier in some ways, too. 25 years ago, we scrounged for instruments and a cassette 4-track and dreamed of 8 or 16 tracks for overdubs. Time in a studio. Someone who knew how to get a non-terrible drum sound. Now, I have gear, computers, and technology that allow me to make records I never dreamed I could make, and then sell them (or give them away) to everybody in the world.

More importantly, I have skill, discipline, and a kind of patience I lacked when I was younger. A broad history of art and musical knowledge to draw on. And perhaps a relaxation/surrender/freedom that comes from knowing I can do whatever I want, because I have no one to please but myself.

You said "the world barely listens, however loud we play". Truth. But maybe it's not about the whole world, and is instead about those dozens or hundreds you do manage to reach. Every once in a while I get an email or comment about one of my songs. It makes my year.

"And twenty-seven angels from the great beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song" - Leonard Cohen" 

I think about Charles Ives, who spent his life in the insurance business and spent all his free time composing the weird music he wanted to make and that nobody wanted to hear. He lived long enough to see some of his recognition. He had a day job, a family, a life. Yet music still haunted him, almost until the day he died.

I don't pretend to be anywhere near the caliber of Ives. But I can understand what it was like to see the mystified, bemused looks from his friends and family. And you and I know the effort it takes to create while trying to live any kind of life.

I also think about Webern. Died leaving only 31 published pieces, but each one like a diamond turning in candlelight, or a star twinkling in the night sky. I don't pretend to be anywhere near the caliber of Webern. But perhaps I can beat him on quantity instead of quality.

When I taught my music class at Duke, I talked about Webern and tried to get my teenage charges to understand how short life can be, and how important it is to make a difference somehow. To create something and make the most of your time. Reflecting on that message myself led me to my own creative rebirth.

"This is our predicament: To never be content..." - Wept

It's not surprising that you feel differently about music now than you did when you were a kid. You're an adult now, and your perspectives and tastes have changed. Personally, I think they should change, with the wisdom and hindsight of all you've experienced. That's to be expected, hoped for, and valued. But that's just my opinion.

I know this, though: You're talented. You made a big difference in my life. And you're a musician.

Don't give up yet. Maybe do something different for a while. Get some perspective.

Maybe you're not destined for fame and/or fortune. Few musicians are, and even fewer by doing exactly what they want without consideration for the audience, business, etc. Maybe you're the type who will inspire one or a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other people to become musicians. Maybe this doesn't even happen in your lifetime. Maybe that's OK.

Maybe all that matters is that during those few minutes a week you do manage to pick up an instrument that you are transported, levitated, or connected to the Muse. Or even just satisfied or happy on some level, as you feel the wood and metal vibrate and you make some noise. Maybe that's enough.

For me, sometimes it is. What else can we do? We're slaves to our muse.

I never had the chance to say this before, so I guess I should say it now: Thanks for the music.

Sincerely,

Anu