Sunday, August 09, 2015

46

A beautiful Aphex Twin track plays. I listen to it, and think of how pretty it is. I remember discovering this album a lifetime ago, in all its mysterious wonder.

I look out the window at the dry grasses rippling in the wind. Beyond them, the waves undulate and crash. A wall of clouds and fog transition the horizon from sea to sky.

I feel the sun through the windows, warming my feet. I sip some water and breathe deeply. I turned 46 a little over 3 weeks ago.

The past few years, I've spent the night before my birthday re-reading the previous years' blog posts. I've been writing them almost as long as this blog. The quality varies, but it's always interesting to see where I was a year ago. Or 8. Life was rather challenging a year ago. Things have a way of working out, though.

***

At the moment, I try to think of life like this:

Every day, you get dealt a hand of cards. Some days, it's a great hand. Some days, it's a terrible hand. You play it the best you can.

Whether you win or lose one hand isn't important, and you shouldn't get too hung up on it either way. You keep playing. You'll probably get a better or worse hand soon. Things may be different tomorrow, next week, next year.

Or this:
Life is struggle. I don't mean that in a bad way. To quote someone else [emphasis added]:

You never really want an object, you only want the wanting, which means the solution is to set your sights on an impossible ideal and work hard to reach it. You won't. That's not just okay, that's the point.

Part of becoming a mature adult means fully assuming your own personal freedom. Not just the freedom to abide by an ideal, but the freedom to create one by which to abide. The way to create such an ideal is to set your sights on the impossible.

When you live your life this way, regardless of the doubts you may feel in the moment (and especially how you doubt your own motives), if you're ultimately able to make those doubts a part of your overall creative project, to fully assume control over your own life and live it in real-time, you will realize at the end that it was all worth it.


But not before that, because to be alive means, at the deepest level, to struggle in this very fashion.

There are countless obstacles. You already know how life ends. Trying to be better or to make things better for others is the point. Not even whether you succeed, or how much you succeed. It's the trying. 

***

I spent the first 15 years of my life learning I was different from everyone else.
I spent the next 15 years of my life struggling because I was so different from everyone else.
The last 15 years of my life, I've wondered whether I really am different from everyone else.
For the upcoming years, I hope to not worry about it so much.

***

I had a nice party not long ago. Low key. I hadn't really expected people to show up, and in the first hour, it looked like it was going to be tiny. But before long, my home was filled with wonderful people, and I realized somehow I had ended up with all of these special friends in my life.

I started a new job a month ago, and I still can't believe my good fortune. I haven't felt this excited about work in a long time. Maybe since the original Rhapsody...and that was over 10 years ago. I'm learning new things, meeting new people, and look forward to going to work every day.

I still have challenges. My arm is still not 100%, though I think it is finally starting to get better. I hope. That problem has led to some of the weight I've lost creeping back (well, that, and letting myself off the strict diet leash).

But in general it feels like I've attained a level of ease and peace in my life that feels different and new. I'm a little mistrustful of it, sometimes wishing for more of the burning anxiety that drove me so hard when I was younger (but did it really help?). I still struggle with myself and music and ambition and life and countless other things. Now I am starting to grasp that this isn't the prelude, this is the theme.

I may even be starting to enjoy it.

Outside, the grass ripples, and the waves crash, 

Saturday, August 08, 2015

LA History: Anu Kirk

A tale in 3 songs.

Act 1: Eden (1991)

You said this is the land of dreams
Well take a look around
Intoxicated by the new and strange
I liked what I thought I'd found

But the truth has started calling, calling
and though I struggle to get away
I can't escape this awful feeling
This is not the place

Is this Eden?
Is this Heaven?
Is this the Promised Land?

In the desert one imagines water
When it's not really there
Think I wanted this so badly
I pretended it was here

But the truth has started calling, warning
Stronger every day
Now I've got just what I wanted
Has what I wanted changed?

Is this Eden?
Is this Heaven?
Is this the Promised Land?

Act 2: Burned Out (1997)

Guess I drove myself too hard
Guess I drove you all away
Guessed that I could do it
Guess that I was wrong
Guess that's all there is to say

Burned out
and wasted away

It's funny how things change
Never thought it would end this way
I awoke from beautiful dreams
With the taste of ashes in my mouth

Burned out
and wasted away

I'm waiting for tomorrow
I'm all through with today

Act 3: I Remember L.A. (2009)

I remember sunshine
I remember you
I remember laughing
Do you remember
"I do"

I remember driving
I remember the night
I remember drinking
Do you remember
"I might"

Concrete and the palm trees
Hazy in the heat
Traffic on the freeways
No one on the streets

Lying on the sofa
In the setting sun
Waking in the darkness
Waking on my own

All of it is done now
They've all gone away
I remember leaving
I remember L.A.

Outrage, Social Media, and Empathy

Hey Did You Hear?

The Internet is finally settling down about Cecil The Lion and the Guy Who Killed Him. News story begat Facebook post, which trained the Internet Shame Cannon on the dentist, destroying his life and sending him into hiding, perhaps indefinitely. Maybe he'll write a book, or go on a talk show.

The first-order effects over, the story was followed by the predictable escalation of arguments:

This guy killed a lion. How terrible! SMH
Why are we talking about this one lion when we should be talking about all lions?
Forget about lions, have you heard about the elephants?
You guys, all the animals in Africa are in trouble
What about the starving kids and child soldiers?
Stop thinking that Africa can't take care of itself, it's patronizing and racist
Western colonial attitudes are to blame, we should send money 
Typical: People care more about the lives of animals than black people. 
Why aren't we talking about the police shootings?
Why does America care more about one dead lion in some other country than hundreds of gun deaths in its own backyard?
What about Sandra Bland? Black women have it worse than men.
Forget gun deaths, what about cars? They're killing the planet and cause more deaths than guns!
Global warming will kill everything

The noise is deafening. It becomes nearly impossible to talk about any issue. Hyperbole blows it out of all proportion. If you can get past that, the "personalization" of the issue brings inappropriate focus. It's Stalin's Epigram, the other way: A million deaths is a statistic, a single death is a tragedy.

Lots of lions get poached by "people", and hardly anyone cares or has cared despite this happening for decades. Tell a story of a single, named lion getting poached by a single, named American rich white guy (those details are part of why this blew up), and suddenly it's go time.

But once a specific thing is (briefly) highlighted, everybody else wants their specific thing in the spotlight, and whatever merits the previous thing had are used only to underscore that point.

Highlighting or discussing this often gets met with a kind of childish "naa-naa, boo-boo" argument of "well, you're just being outraged about being outraged". No. It's not outrage, sir. It is critique, and there is a difference. I'm not demanding anger, or complaining that you're not angry. I am asking you to think.

Anti Social Media

The sad and inconsequential story of Cecil's killing had one effect on me: it made me suddenly aware of the social media din. I'm not the only person who hit a kind of tipping point here, and some people can make these points far more eloquently than I can.

Perhaps this is simply a passing moment where too many terrible stories passed through our feeds and consciousness in too short a period. Between the various shootings and people being awful, it becomes difficult to feel good about anything. But perhaps it's more fundamental.

Social media, like many products of big corporations, is the opposite of the terms used to market it. It's really about self-validation. "Me", not "We". It's a giant, scrolling mirror, in which one may gaze upon one's own reflection, and hear the faint applause of others. LIKE. Comment.

We read the coverage. Then we read the meta-coverage. We like, we comment, we change our avatar's color or photo.

Even if you don't feel strongly about an issue, you feel like perhaps you should make these little changes simply because they're so easy, and if you don't, will people think you actually don't support the cause?

That's how hollow it's become: it's not about what you actually do (volunteer, give money, take action), it's about the most superficial public symbolism and what other people think about who you are.

Somewhere between the fatigue of outrage and taking these trivial actions, we feel tired and that we have "done something". And we can scroll on.

You can see the lives of others, at a remove, and silently judge and compare. But it's always in relation to one's self. It's all about you, the lives of those around you transformed into your own personal magazine, designed to induce craving and or coping behaviors.

It puts us all in the judge's seat. Do we "like"? Do we say something snarky? Do we respond with a passive-aggressive comment that makes it all about us? ("Mommyjacking", for example).


Even as I write this, I post a photo of my morning view, on a small getaway. It's a combination of bragging (look how great this is!) and begging (Look at me! Please validate my taste!). A picture is worth a thousand words, and while I'd never boast about how much money I make, or how much a vacation costs, arguably this photo does all that for me, and communicates directly with "the right people" who can understand all of that instantly.

Does anyone really care where I am or what I'm doing this weekend? When you ask your co-workers on Monday "How was your weekend?", do you really want to know? Or are you just hoping they'll ask you about yours?

When we fire up the outrage machine on social media, we're really doing the same thing as posting a photo: Look at me. Look how righteously angry I am about the correct things!

The current flavor and fashion of outrage via social media is largely a signal of superiority. It says "I am so highly evolved and informed, I know to be upset about this!"

When we are "outragier than thou", we are really saying "I am better than you are" in one of the few socially acceptable ways available in the current cultural climate. (Throwing out "privilege checks" and claiming membership in various tribes is another way to announce status.)

Empathy

If all of that is a problem, what are solutions? I have some thoughts.

Actions speak louder than words and photos. If you are really upset about something, do something about it. Even if it's "only" giving money to a cause. This makes your caring tangible, and forces you to think about what really matters to you, and how much it matters to you (you can't really give money away in consequential amounts to everybody).

Or volunteer. One could argue the impact of your actions is largely proportional to the effort and inconvenience required of you. If what you're doing is trivial, it's probably having zero impact.

I read an article this morning about income inequality, and one author posited the root of our rapidly-increasing inequality was simple: "We stopped caring about other people's kids, and only cared about our own kids."

That lack of empathy, or lack of considering the effect of your own personal actions on those around you, is what drives most of our truly difficult problems today. It's very difficult to get humans to look beyond themselves and their tribe, both in terms of geography and chronology. I suspect there are some evolutionary reasons why.

If you want to make the world a better place, start with your neighborhood. Start with the people near you. Start with the person right next to you.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Trump Cards and Clown Shows

The Short Version

If you really want to know why everyone is freaking out and un-democratically demanding that a perfectly valid, qualified candidate (and being an offensive moron is obviously not a disqualifier -- see the rest of the field) drop out of the race, read this fake Donald Trump Op-Ed from The Onion. 

The reason is simple: we (the media, the people, the government) have so totally fucked up our politics, culture, and coverage of all of the above that we (the media, the people, the government) can't stop watching and commenting.

And that terrifies the establishment used to stage-managing these events. It's all finally out of their control, They don't like what that means, and don't want to reckon with the consequences.

Old Media, Outrage

The Des Moines Register managed to make itself briefly newsworthy by running a misguided and bizarre Op Ed demanding that GOP/Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump drop out of the race. The DMR is using Trump's remarks about John McCain as a flimsy justification for demanding his exit.

Hmm. Nasty comments about a war hero? Hey media? Remember when you ran unsubstantiated and debunked lies about an actual war hero who was even running for President? Against a guy who dodged combat himself and had a draft-dodger for a running mate? Where was your collective outrage then?

The Des Moines Register implies that Trump is electable but not qualified. And they're half-right. Trump is qualified, per the Constitution:
Age and Citizenship requirements - US Constitution, Article II, Section 1
No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States. 
Term limit amendment - US Constitution, Amendment XXII, Section 1 - ratified February 27, 1951
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.
Trump's a "natural born citizen" of the United states, and he's over 35, and been a resident long enough. And (mercifully) he hasn't been president twice before. So technically, he's qualified.

In fact, he's as qualified as any of the other 14 15 goofballs aligned with the GOP and currently running for President.

The sins of Donald Trump stain all of the candidates, if you ask me. The Des Moines Register says of Trump:
"...more focused on promoting himself and his brand than addressing the problems facing the nation". 
That's every candidate out there, son. You're telling me any of the other 15 are really "addressing the problems" and not just promoting themselves? Besides, the Donald, in his clumsy and awful way, is talking about The Issues That Matter to some people: The economy. Immigration. National security.

Is he talking smack about other people? Which candidates aren't?
"[offensive and disgraceful comments] that...threaten to derail not just his campaign, but the manner in which we choose our nominees for president. By using his considerable wealth, his celebrity status, and his mouth to draw attention to himself, rather than to raise awareness of the issues facing America, he has coarsened our political dialogue and cheapened the electoral process."
I'm tempted to just leave that there and let it speak for itself, but c'mon. You're going to pick on Trump for that, and not, I don't know, anyone who ran in the last 10 elections? Newt Gingrich? You don't even have to look too hard to find outrageous statements by other people farther along in the current race and less "qualified" who didn't merit this kind of editorializing. (subject of outrage and former presidential candidate McCain himself is hardly an angel here, by the way).

And let's point out that this is just for some stuff Trump said. It's not like he sneakily passed a law dismantling protections for unions, or petulantly disrupted traffic, or acted to preserve discrimination.

Then again, if we just want to go by words, there are plenty of other awful things other candidates have said. Where's your Op-Ed yellow card for these people?

Hell, Trump himself said awful things just a few weeks ago. But you didn't freak out then. You ran the story. You fed it. You told everyone to pay attention.

There's something un-democratic about demanding any particular candidate not run, and something bizarre about using a large media platform to talk about how a candidate isn't serious enough to talk about, and could he please just go away so they could stop talking about him without having to transparently show that the media and establishment make arbitrary decisions about who is worth talking about "seriously" and who isn't.

Perhaps the most laughable part of the Des Moines Register's outrage is claiming that these "hard-fought campaigns...involve staggering personal and financial sacrifices." Yeah, let's talk about that.

Money

The 16-strong roster of current candidates is already being sorted and ranked by the only metric that really matters in America anymore: How much money they have.

Current campaign finance "law" effectively encourages and allows candidates to raise massive sums of money in unaccountable ways via SuperPACs, and it's all above-board as long as the candidate takes care of all of this before formally declaring they're running for president. it's a hilarious and sad bit of Kabuki theatre.

This results in things like the charade of Jeb Bush hemming and hawing and pretending like he hasn't already decided to run, and then coming out of the gate with $100 million in backing.

That's money that's just going to get burned up on awful advertisements and leaflets and flying and driving and creating nothing beyond making sure people know that Jeb is running for president, and here's sort of what he believes (but not really).

Since the media and those who read it are lazy, we now have a convenient score for each of the candidates: How much money they have, which now becomes a proxy for how "electable" they are, with the thin justification that "money is what wins elections".

This further reinforces that money isn't just speech, it's the only speech that matters.

This kind of thinking is an accelerating, self-reinforcing loop. Nobody wants to back a loser, so new money clusters to where the money already is. "See? Money is what matters." Followed by "it takes so much money to win (not run, not participate in) elections now, please give more or your guy won't make it!"

This approach in the media (encouraged by the candidates and their plutocrat "backers") turns the election into something like Fantasy Football -- it's not even a real sport with individual effort, it's just numbers, abstracted from any actual achievement.

Best of all, it takes all the unpleasant cognition out of the picture -- nobody has to think about what any of these clowns are actually saying, or what they've done, or what they're proposing to do. It's just a number: What's their score? Are they up or down? Are they rich?

This is part of what ultimately stunned Romney and co.: "But we had so much money!"

Oh, and these days, the only candidates that walk out of a campaign in poor financial shape are idiots who don't know how to work the system. Seriously.

The Fear

Many of the accusations being fired off against Mr. T could just as easily be levied at a number of the other 16 players. And certainly should have been called out against previous candidates. So why, suddenly, is the media rising up against a candidate? Why Trump?

Well, Trump has his own money (more than Ross Perot). They can't just knock him out of their bracket now. Trump has no mysterious backers or Koch brothers pulling strings. If Trump is fer or agin' Big Oil, it isn't because they are writing him big checks (yet).

Also, Trump doesn't have to take any of it seriously...and that's also terrifying for people who keep insisting to themselves and us that all of this Very Serious.

Perhaps all of this is just a game for Trump -- his "worst" outcome is arguably that he wins, and then actually has to govern for 4 years, and his second "worst" outcome is that he drops out at a time of his choosing, with a bulletproof narrative about how he spoke truth, was threatened by the establishment, and stood up to everyone and did what he wanted on his own terms.

And then Trump cashes in on all of that and goes back to being another rich doof who occasionally threatens to run again. You know, like Mitt Romney.

But that's the least of why people are freaking out. What really worries all of them in the short term -- the media, the candidates, the puppet-backers -- is not what Trump is saying. It's that they will all be asked what they think about what Trump is saying, and have to respond to it.

One could already point to media coverage and note that it's already focused on the furor around Trump's remarks, and not the remarks themselves. And the difference from the other guys and their ridiculous and offensive statements is that there was less furor around the remarks (though many times, as noted above, they were just as awful in different ways).

The problem for the other candidates is not what Trump is saying. Because what Trump is saying is not substantively different from what they're saying. It's just that The Donald is saying it loud, proud, and uncouth. He's not dog-whistling properly. He's blowing their cover.

This leaves them in an uncomfortable position. Do they flat-out disagree with Trump, and get kicked out of the race, the party, and their offices? Do they agree with him, stripped of the cover of euphemism, winking, and nudging and be revealed for the awful people they actually are (albeit awful people with, apparently, big electorate support)? Or do they try to walk between those things, and come across as overly political and without conviction?

Clown Show

There are already plans to whittle down the current crop of 16 bozos to 10 for the "first GOP debate". This is less picking winners than culling what the media and powers that be have determined to be people who, if not exactly losers, will make the designated winners look uncomfortable, hypocritical, or just less special.

10 is still far too many for people to keep track of, and nothing substantive will come of the "debate". Since the candidates won't get to say much, every word will be scrutinized. And how they say it -- how they look, sound, dress -- will get as much or more coverage than what they actually say, which, given time constraints and management, will be vague, platitudinous, and platform-calculated.

Look at the 24(!) faces below. Some of them we can immediately DQ because they've already dropped out (Romney, thank god) or are clearly non-starters or are likely to not get far due to past failures (Rick Perry, those glasses aren't fooling anyone. Mike Huckabee, doubling down on "awful" is the wrong approach. Rick Santorum, look around you. Leave now and keep some dignity.).

They'll probably leave Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina in for a while, but those two have got to realize which party they're running for, and what that means for them.

Who are they kidding? It's going to be Jeb. 
The debate producers must be in agony. Trump = ratings, and no Trump = "who are these boring people?" (can you even name all of the other 15 candidates?) But the longer they keep Trump in, the more the GOP's tent turns into a circus, the more the thin veneer of credibility buckles and peels.

I'd actually love to see Trump on that debate stage, eyes twinkling smugly, firing off non-sequiturs, insults, and accusations at the others.

In Trump's mind, he's already won.

Losers

If Trump is the winner, we're the losers. Because what I'm worried about -- and what I think the Des Moines Register is afraid to admit or acknowledge -- is that Trump personifies the axiom about "getting the candidates that we deserve." Remember, polls are just asking people who they want to vote for.

Trump is famous for being rich and rude, and he can be the latter because of the former. And in America, people mistake (or are encouraged by the media to mistake) boorish rudeness for bold honesty. Trump's awful trifecta (famous, rich, and rude) is arguably the American dream of the moment, for at least some of the population.

Trump is a mirror, reflecting how some of America sees themselves as they are or long to be.

To be clear, I think Donald Trump is an awful person and would make an awful president. Trump has terrible ideas, a terrible reputation, and no real experience. And he's the GOP's current leading candidate.

Yet Trump says terrible things and his lead increases.

If that's what the American voters want, what does that say about Des Moines? And Iowa? And the GOP? And all of us?


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

LA History: The Sad Story of Don Knotts Overdrive

Welcome to the Light Show, We're Glad You Came

Once upon a time (1994), there was a band in Los Angeles called "Don Knotts Overdrive". A typical early 90s goof-rock band, they wrote songs about alien abductions and TV shows, and their lead singer (and sometimes the rest of the band) would get naked on stage. I didn't think they were very good, but they had more hooks than the average L.A. band, a cute keyboard player (after L.A. fixture Bobby Hecksher left to start Magic Pacer), and an aesthetic and vision.



Initially, their guitar player was Dan Meyer, who soon quit to join a band called Dashboard Prophets. (Dashboard Prophets would go on to have a song in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and I would eventually join the short-lived-but-great Dan Meyer Project as bass player).

This line-up, founded and masterminded by Taylor Stacy and fronted by Howard Hallis, released an indie CD called "Juggernaut" that my brother Ryan played on and did artwork.

We're Farther Out Than All Of You

Cover artwork for Don Knotts Overdrive demo release
"The Giants of Rock Science"
After Dan left, Ryan joined DKO as their new full-time guitar player. The band quickly reconfigured, ditching their entire original line-up -- including the singer, drummer, and keyboard player -- everyone except bass player/founder Taylor, who had ambitions of pop stardom. My brother became the frontman and guitar player. They picked up a better, harder new drummer and the former bassist in MY band (John Vurpillat) as their keyboard player.

DKO were part of the L.A. "Silverlake" scene at the time, and they were fucking great. They were like a 90s version of Devo, with elements of The Cars, Black Sabbath, and early Pink Floyd thrown in. Taylor and Ryan would probably add a long list of other influences to that list, backing it up with detailed notes and laughing the entire time.

If you saw Don Knotts Overdrive on the right night with the right amount of booze in you and them, they were the best band in the world for a good 15 minutes or so. I have many fond memories of being in the audience or behind the light board or sound board watching them play at key L.A. venues including Spaceland, Mogul's, and The Opium Den.

When they were good, they were amazing, able to play well and entertain the audience at a level that screamed "big time". I particularly liked how they were just as likely to finish their song as they were to segue into a surprising cover, like Falco's "Der Komissar", complete with mock-German rapping and note-perfect musicianship on the backing.

They wrote clever, catchy songs that rocked and started and stopped on a dime. Seemingly about trivial things, like old videogames or a day at the beach, there was usually some of what Nile Rodgers calls "Deep Hidden Meaning".

Between songs they would joke with the audience, and seemed to have an easy stage presence -- a welcome change from the flop-sweat desperation and "look at meee!" or outright hostility that most other bands seemed to project.

Attention quickly followed. They were on some local compilations, including one curated by Exene Cervenka. They even got an original song in a Trey Parker/Matt Stone movie. Not their best work, but gimmicky and silly and catchy.




In the Company of Plastic Men Who Can't Decide

DKO got a manager. Made demos. Played a lot. Got a new drummer (Sean Furlong of Prick). Their keyboard player (my former bass player) was replaced with my former drummer/keyboard player (Chris Fudurich, a noted producer/engineer). This line-up jumped at the first deal they were offered, with a small indie label in Los Angeles.

They had to rename themselves "Head Set" since Don Knotts' lawyers were calling. They got a modest advance which they spent recording an album they didn't like -- despite Chris being a pro producer and engineer, the label wanted to use someone else.

The band refused to tour behind the album. The label sued them. The label won. The band broke up.

That was 15 years ago.

I still listen to their last 2 demos a lot. My brother and Taylor were both great pop songwriters, and their weird competition/friendship pushed them both to constantly write better and better tunes.

I love how effortlessly they blended 30+ years of pop/rock sugar-rush riffs, melodic hooks, and wordplay, frequently with a hidden emotional core. My brother has never been a guy to write songs that are "about feelings" - it's nearly always buried, but peeking through sometimes.

This song, "Passenger", was typical of their high quality and high energy, and, well, being high. For whatever reason, this track didn't make the final album. This demo, like the rest of "New Math", was recorded at my studio in 1998. (Note that I didn't do much on the record, other than showing my brother how to program drums and making a few production suggestions).



Epilogue

After DKO, Ryan played in space-rock band Farflung, writing, producing, and even directing this video (watch it, it is amazing!).

T

Ryan and Tommy GreƱas (the lead singer of Farflung) were also in Anubian Lights together with famed singer Adele Bertei:



...and also played with former Can frontman Damo Suzuki as part of the Damo Suzuki Network, and recorded 2001's "Metaphysical Transfer":

Ryan hasn't really made music since, save a few projects-for-hire and an instrumental dub EP. It's a shame, because I think he's a way better musician than I am.

As noted previously, Chris Fudurich is a successful producer and engineer, and has recently become involved in local Los Angeles politics. John lives in Texas.

Sean Furlong lives in Cleveland, where he occasionally plays in cover bands.

Taylor, the engine that drove DKO, recorded an album with James Ambrose called "Electromagnetic" (2003). In 2008, Taylor played bass with The Voice finalist Erin Martin, returning to the Whisky a Go-Go for a sold-out show. He still lives in Southern California, where he is a graduate student. His kids are starting to play music.

Don Knotts Overdrive, in their "Head Set" promotional photo.
L-R: Taylor Stacy, Sean Furlong, Ryan Kirk, John (Vurpillat) Kaizen

[Special thanks to Taylor Stacy for providing the press photograph and fact-checking]


Melody Fades/A Personal Note

While I never worked with DKO beyond the occasional "hey, can you run sound and/or lights for us?", I include them in this series because they appropriated half of my band, my brother was involved, and because they used my home studio The Hive to record their "New Math" demo, which led to their signing. They were the hub around which my L.A. history revolved. And I would have worked with them in a minute, if they'd ever asked.

Thinking about DKO and the other bands here is always bittersweet. DKO's lifespan and story more or less mirror my own arc in L.A. But my bands never got a deal and were never the talk of the town. DKO were so good, but made so many predictable and avoidable mistakes before imploding at the cost of numerous friendships and leaving a kind of radioactive crater behind. It was hard to not be jealous at the missed opportunity.

I'm heart-heavy for both Ryan and Taylor, who were really good musicians -- and good friends -- who have both just stopped playing. And talking. Their story is not uncommon. In some sense, they got off easy. Some of our friends ended off much worse, and a small few much better.

I consider all of these stories with more than a little melancholy. For the youth and days gone by. For what might have been, for them and me.

End the dream
Left the scene
Darkened screen
Nothing left to remind me
The emptiness remains
Melody turned away
Memories fade away
Melody stayed restrained another day
  
"Melody Fades", Don Knotts Overdrive

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

LA History: An Observer

And So The Story Goes

My brother Ryan is a great musician. He moved to L.A. in 1994, after graduating from art school, intent on making it in the music business. Arguably, he did. His band eventually got signed, he got a song in a movie, and was the talk of the town for a good 5 minutes or so. More about them tomorrow.

He also helped several other artists and bands out by placing their songs in movies when he was a music supervisor. If you've been reading this whole series, you can see that he was a central part of this scene in many ways, and connected me or was connected to almost every one of the people mentioned here.

Towards the end of my time in L.A, my brother asked me about working together on his new album. His concept was to be faceless and anonymous. I was thrilled at the chance to work with him. I've been impressed and envious of his skills literally since the first day he picked up a guitar and started writing and recording.

For the "An Observer" self-titled album, he wrote all the songs, sang, and played guitar. I did pretty much everything else. He'd bring over clips of things on floppy disc, some built in FruityLoops, and we'd rebuild them in Cubase.

He'd come over on weekends and weeknights. We finished the whole thing in less than a month, and posted it to a website he built, now long gone. It was mostly easy and fun. I remember leaving the door to the studio open and letting the sunny days and beautiful L.A. nights in while we were working.

This remains some of my favorite work from my late-90s Los Angeles period. Our influences are proudly on display (Tiger Mountain-era Eno, the 80s, krautrock, The Residents, Star Trek, Kraftwerk, Massive Attack, Pink Floyd, The Beatles...to name just a few). The songs are neat.

I think the record sounds really good, especially for being recorded in a garage in the Valley and not mastered.

Mostly I love it because it is the only time to date I was able to collaborate with my incredibly talented brother.

This Life Is Such A Small Affair

"Brown Study" is a kind of Buddhist pop song, and kicks off the album. It's remained a favorite of mine and several of my friends. Ryan and I made the wah-wah guitar by running an ordinary guitar track through a Moog rack EQ and manually sweeping the band while re-recording it. Chris Fudurich triggered drum samples using an electronic kit on top of the programmed beats.



"She Lost Her Mind" is perhaps the best overall song on the album (though my personal favorite remains "By Degrees"). It is tightly written, shows off all our influences well, and deploys all of its hooks to great advantage. I particularly like the Eno/Bowie whammy guitars, the Eno one-note piano hammering, and the Eno "oh-oh-oh-ohs".



Unlike many of the other projects I've written about, Ryan and I actually finished this album. It's solid all the way through. And here it is, in total, free. Our gift to you. If you like either of these tracks, you'll like the album.

Ryan also created the artwork for this album cover himself. He is a great visual artist, and did the covers for many other albums -- My Captain Kirk "The Shape Of The Universe" album (including the trading cards), My Anu album "Songs for the Last Man on Earth" (including individual art for every song on the album), ALL of DKO's albums and demos (including the Head Set album), and Farflung's "A Wound In Eternity".

In some ways, this is a record ahead of its time -- a home studio creation of high quality, but not "studio grade", lost in a sea of music, never to be heard or spotlighted, but no less beautiful or great for that. Many records are made like that now, though sadly, not by my brother, and only occasionally by me.

Just Let It Go

This was more or less my ultimate L.A. record. It's hard for me to imagine topping this with the skills or ideas I had at the time. I'm proud of everything this record represents.

Yet when it was done, it was hard to see what could follow. That the record was somewhat designed to be lost also made everything about its creation -- and, perhaps, my time in Los Angeles -- seem like a Buddhist sand mandala: Arguably a pointless exercise, but for those who understand, for those who have ever done it, beautiful in its construction, discipline, transience, and memory.

Monday, July 13, 2015

LA History: Chris Fudurich

The Menagerie
L-R: John Vurpillat, Chris Fudurich, Josh Martin
Chris Fudurich and John Vurpillat were roommates. I met them at someone's party or BBQ (according to Chris...I actually can't remember!).

The first time I remember really meeting with them was the day OJ had his slow chase down the freeway. It took forever to get to their apartment, which they were sharing with Josh (the singer from their former synth-pop band) and a 4th guy who somewhat awkwardly told me he was on his way to prison.

Chris and John joined the final incarnation of my L.A. band. While the band didn't last too much longer, my friendship with both of them did.

Chris was a multi-instrumentalist, able to play guitar, bass, keys, and drums. About the only thing he didn't do regularly was sing, though he could. Chris was also a solid songwriter and incredibly fast as a recording engineer.

At the beginning of the 90s, Chris was rapidly building a career engineering and producing bands. He'd already had a great resume. By the end of the 90s, he'd be making records with Nada Surf and collaborating with David Baerwald, Fred Maher, and other L.A. stars.

Chris was supportive of my singing and songwriting. He mixed (and fixed) my first real solo album "Songs For The Last Man On Earth", and encouraged me to keep making music. Back then, he was one of the few people that made me feel like I might actually be good at this.

Chris Fudurich (R) showing the author how to make mixes sound better.
My studio in Sherman Oaks, 1996
He showed me the power of computer-based editing. Over a long weekend during a particularly dark time in my life (1996), we recorded 3 songs for a Roger Corman movie. He had the tracks nearly finished on his computer, and brought me in to add some guitar and vocals.

Chris was (at that time) running Digital Performer. I had never seen Performer, Pro Tools or any computer-based MIDI and audio recording up close before, and watching Chris work was a revelation. I realized I was an idiot for not getting into this sooner. I had been struggling with cassette-based multitracks and hardware sequencers with tiny 2-line displays. But with the computer I had in my house, I could be doing so much more.

This track, "Magnetic Fields", is from those sessions. I still find much to love in it, from the lyrics to my singing (hinting at the new, less-yelly direction I'd take moving forward) to the whole vibe of the track (which is all due to Chris).

Not long after this, I had a computer-based sequencing system up and running, synched to a digital tape machine, and within a few years I'd abandon tape completely and be pretty fast on a Digital Audio Workstation myself. All directly the result of Chris.

Chris loaned me lots of gear. Over the course of my time in L.A., my studio housed his Roland Jupiter-6 synthesizer, (used to create the Captain Kirk album "The Shape Of The Universe", among other things), Chroma Polaris synthesizer, Yamaha NS-10 monitors, and pretty much anything he wasn't using.

Chris Fudurich, 2015.
He also sold me gear he didn't need or want, which I did -- my first MIDI interface (which also acted as a sync master for the tape deck), an Oktava microphone, effects units, and more.

He was also generous with his time. When I was having problems with a mix or part, he had an uncanny ability to fix it. Like something out of a movie, he'd walk in, listen for what seemed like less than 30 seconds, make a single adjustment, and it would suddenly sound far better.

Aside from working on my stuff, Chris helped out with many of the projects I've written about, including Joy Ray, Bug, Ian Berky, and An Observer.

Chris also became the keyboard player for my brother's band, Don Knotts Overdrive.

He helped me get work as a musician and technologist, and introduced me to some of the many well-known and well-connected people he knew. His list of credits remains impressive, ranging from the best records by obscure-but-popular bands like VAST and Nada Surf to superstars including Simple Minds and Britney Spears. Hell, he even worked with Blake Luxxury after Blake moved down to L.A.

I learned a lot working with him, and would not be the musician I am today without his support. We're still friends after all these years, and try to meet up when we can.

Chris is still working as a musician, producer, and engineer. Aside from his work for other people, he has a great new project of his own called MODERNS, and is becoming active in Los Angeles politics.


Magnetic Fields
Somewhere, someone is calling me
I hear the mermaids singing
Words of warning
Reminding me
Memories echoing from 
Long ago
I was somewhere else
Long ago
I was someone else

I don't know 
what I was trying to forget...

The sirens are calling me
In my head
I hear them wailing
In the mirror
I see this hole
Empty and gaping
Long ago
There was something there
Long ago
There was someone there
I don't know
I think it mattered to me...

It's a strange place to find yourself
Everything is all too real
A perfect balance of opposing forces
Inside this magnetic field

It's so hard to remember it all
And harder still to feel
And nothing works the way it did
Inside this magnetic field

I'm not sure how I got here
But I fear my fate is sealed
Paralyzed and wasting away
Inside this magnetic field

Friday, July 10, 2015

LA History: John Vurpillat, Super-Deformed Robot, and Outland

Dear John

John Vurpillat, recent photo
John Vurpillat (a.k.a. John Kaizen) was in almost every musical project I played in during my L.A. years.

He was the bass player in the final line-up of my own band. He was in my brother's band Don Knotts overdrive as the keyboard player. He and I were in the Neil Diamond tribute band "The Neilists" with my brother.

Without his encouragement, I'm not sure I would have finished "The Shape of the Universe". We worked together on many music projects. He was a brilliant songwriter. He was my friend.

Born Vurpillat, he chose the stage name of "Kaizen" -- a Japanese word that loosely translates to "continuous improvement" -- and went by that during most of the time I knew him in L.A.

I covered his songs. Most notably "Sun", on 1997's "Songs For The Last Man On Earth. Recording that track was the thing that led me back to writing and recording my own solo songs, following the end of my main band in the early 90s. His "Sun" led me out of a kind of creative darkness and started me on the path to becoming a more mature and developed artist.

John also covered my songs. He worked up his own version of "LEM" for "Super-Deformed Robot", and his neo-country band Twin Six also adapted "LEM", from the same "Last Man" record.

John was prolific -- he had crafted several collections of songs in various styles (industrial, synth-pop, rock, country), doing decent demo recordings on his own. And not only did he write a lot of songs, he wrote a lot of good songs.

Like many of my favorite projects, his writing was extremely catchy (on some days, I think John was the best songwriter of anyone I worked with) but also frequently underlaid with a deep sadness, longing, or other darker emotion.

I can still remember hooks from his songs which I don't even have copies of and haven't heard in 15 years.

John could also play piano/keys and bass pretty well, and was a passable guitar player and singer.

Super-Deformed Robot

In 1998, John approached me about working together on a kind of concept project he had, a story album by "Super-Deformed Robot". He was going to call it "Moon Rock".

"Contact" is the first of 4 or 5 songs we were worked on. After playing me his rough cassette demo, we talked about what we wanted to do and how to do it. We recorded in my garage, working over a few weeks. John brought in MIDI files, melodies, and lyrics, and we started picking sounds, moving things around, and writing additional parts. The basic track came together pretty quickly, because John brought in so much.



The magic came when we chose the right sounds and groove, added more production, and started playing with the basic idea a bit more.

I remember it being tons of fun, with us throwing ideas back and forth and trying them as fast as we could. It never felt like work, even when it was pretty tedious. For example, the robot voice saying "Contact" involved:
  • Going to a website that did speech synthesis
  • Downloading a WAV file of it saying "contact"
  • Copying the WAV file to a floppy disk
  • Walking the floppy from the house (where the internet was) to the studio
  • Loading the floppy into the sampler and loading the sound into memory
  • Chopping the sound into 2 syllables so we could trigger it more on the beat
  • Recording it
...and then laughing at how well it seemed to fit.

I loved working with John -- our sensibilities (musical and otherwise) were very similar and complemented each other nicely.

I really wish we had finished this record, but as was often the case with many of the folks I worked with, he was hot to work for a few days, and then would disappear for weeks or months before wanting to work again. Momentum was hard to maintain.

Outland

The last thing we worked on before I left was what we ended up calling "Outland". John got interested in country music tropes, and that fit nicely with my own experiences in a quasi-country band (The Coyotes) in college. We decided to map those influences onto the synthesizers we loved so much and toss in a dash of the then-happening trip-hop.

Our idea was pretty simple -- country-inflected synth pop/trip-hop. Our friend (and John's roommate for a time) Fred Maher used to call it "Ameritronica".  (I took another pass at some of these concepts in my 2011 album "The Ghost Town").

"High Lonesome" was the first track we did together. Even in a rough mix state, we felt like we had something special. I did the close harmonies, the guitars, the production and engineering, and contributed my usual arrangement ideas and other small elements. 



We did a second track, "Mi Corazon", which was almost as good as the first. And when John brought in Josh, the singer for his old band, to add lush harmonies and backing vocals, the tracks really came alive.

Both tracks were created at my studio in 1998. Another instance of wishing we had finished a whole record. The album would have been called "Throw Me The Idol, I Will Throw You The Whip".

Of all the projects I worked on in L.A., this is the one that should have blown up. It's beautiful and combines all of the ideas, feelings, and technologies I've continued to mine in various forms.

It Gets So Lonely

In the early aughts, John more or less disappeared. He was a complicated guy, and seemed to be struggling with a number of personal demons. He left L.A. somewhat suddenly, and has either blocked everyone he used to know on Facebook, or just doesn't want to talk to us.

According to the Internet, he apparently moved to Texas, got a PhD in history, and is currently teaching at the University of Texas, Austin. He's also married, and seems happy.

No one I know has heard from him in a long, long time.

John, if you are out there reading this, I'd love to catch up. I miss you, buddy.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

LA History: Bug

Life is a joke, so you better start laughing

Tom Murray, in the rehearsal space
where we recorded "One Last Page"
The band I'd been fronting, leading, and focusing my music career on broke up around 1994. I wasn't sure what, if anything, I was going to do next. Maybe quit.

I met Tom Murray at a party in Santa Monica. We got to talking, and he mentioned he was in a punk band, and that he was looking for a new guitar player. He gave me a CD called "Abuse". The band was called "Bug".

Some of it was fairly uninteresting slap-bass Chili Peppers-style silly songs, like "White Ford Bronco". But there were 2 songs that really made me sit up and pay attention. One was called "Rise", featuring acoustic guitars, a slow beat, and yearning vocals. The other was called "Abuse", and had great dynamic shifts and some great stop/starts.

At the first rehearsal, it was clear the current line-up had issues. Tom told me that he'd had problems with the 2 brothers who comprised the rest of the band on drums and guitar -- they'd missed a few shows. As in they didn't show up. My impression wasn't improved by the fact that between the two of them, they killed most of a 12-pack of tallboys before we'd started playing the first song.

Drummer John Montgomery, circa 1996
After the rehearsal was over, I told Tom I'd love to be in his band...but not with those other guys. To my surprise, he called me up a few weeks later. Tom parted ways with the brothers, and added his friend John Montgomery from Bottom 12. Together, the 3 of us were the new Bug, lean and mean.

Look at Me and All My Friends

I worked with Tom on a new batch of songs. He had an interesting personal style, and open, emotional lyrics. Plus, since he was fronting the band, I just had to stand off to the side, play punk rock guitar, and sing backing vocals. I wasn't as technically proficient as the guy I was replacing, but I'd figure out a way to make it work. And John was a great drummer.

We played a few shows, and started talking about doing some recording. I wasn't terribly happy at the time about anything in my life, and was seriously considering giving up music. Those feelings, plus the beginnings of feeling older, plus the rise of Alanis Morrisette and the Sex Pistols selling a song to Mountain Dew added up to a feeling that punk rock was not just ending, it was long dead and rotting.

In 1996, we came up with the idea to record the "last punk rock album". Deliberately raw, lo-fi, and unpolished. We decided to record it mostly live, in my Downtown Rehearsal space. I had a cassette multitrack recorder. I took one of the tapes my old band had used for recording demos and decided to record over it. Symbolism.

My friend (and former bandmate) Chris Fudurich agreed to engineer. John Montgomery brought a giant marching band snare drum. We set up and stared playing through our songs. We recorded the basic tracks for all the songs live, doing multiple takes until we got something we were happy with.

Then Tom overdubbed fresh vocals. Tom and I were furiously scribbling lyrics down to the wire, in between songs. As Tom was recording his vocals for the title track of "One Last Page", I changed the verse, scrawled it on a notepad, and held it up in front of him. On the recording, you can hear him cracking up and laughing as he reads them.



I even let myself sing one song, the Viking punk send-off of "How The Mighty Have Fallen". Not my best vocal take, but I love the F chord on the bridge.


I added backing vocals, and did one guitar overdub on each song. Then we mixed it, down to another used cassette. It turned out more or less how I wanted -- more raw and punk than Bug's previous record, but still hooky and unusual in its own way.

I made the album cover at home. We originally released the album on cassette, and then later on MP3.com (which got a new, improved, less pornographic cover).

Forget About The #1

I got involved in a few other musical projects, but Bug kept playing shows here and there. I practiced guitar a lot, and was starting to get more confident with it. I really enjoyed it, and loved focusing on just playing. Radiohead's "OK Computer" came out, and reminded me that you could make pop music and still make it weird and interesting. I had a Mesa/Boogie Mark IIC combo amp I bought from my brother for a few hundred bucks, and between that and my familiar Roland GP-8 multi-effects unit and Tom Anderson Pro Am was able to produce most of the sounds I wanted to.

I got to a point where I would use different chord voicings in different parts of the song to keep it sonically interesting, and figured out how to play around and support Tom, or have my parts build up. Even in writing songs, I was thinking about how I'd record them, and where I'd overdub or add parts.

In 1997, we went to someone else's home studio to demo 5 new songs that Tom and I had been working up. But we weren't happy with the results.

On local radio station KROQ, the bands all sounded polished and huge. Bush, Green Day, Blink-182, Sum 41, and countless other bands had nice-sounding records. I figured Bug could take its songs and sounds and make something that sounded just as good.

We were aiming for something decidedly big and commercial, but we were going to do it on the cheap. We recorded in my garage, using electronic drums recorded via MIDI to trigger samples, and a Line 6 Pod mixed with my Mesa/Boogie amp for guitar tones.

John Montgomery played drums on half the record, and Nick Lane played drums on the other half.

We played some shows to work up the material, but by this time I was pretty sure I was leaving L.A. sooner rather than later, and Bug was one of a number of projects I was wrapping up. We had the record mastered at Capitol by Evren Goknar, who made it sound perfect. Not bad for $300, which is what Tom paid me for the several weeks we spent working on the record. He also hired Chris Fudurich to do a set of final mixes, but ended up preferring mine.



Tom told me he wanted to call it "Dropping Some Downers". I shot the cover one day at home, with a glass of fizzy water in front of some pills, and a picture frame into which I photoshopped the photograph from our previous album cover. I tossed in some little bug sculptures I had lying around. I laid out all the typography and made it look nice.

The polished record went up on MP3.com. We even attracted some label attention for a minute. I posted the record to MP3.com, and in 2000, after I'd moved to San Francisco, a small label contacted us and was interested in signing us. I flew back to L.A. for a long weekend, met up with Tom and John, and we rehearsed for a day before meeting with the label guy. Unsurprisingly, that ended up not working out.

Epilogue

Afew years after I moved to S.F., Tom moved to Florida, and ended up divorcing his wife of many years. In the mid-aughts, Tom returned to L.A. . He recently started a new band called Chill Magnet.

John Montgomery is playing in so many things I can't keep track. He is a full-time, professional musician, with a family.

Technically, Bug never broke up. I still hope we'll reform and play more some day.

The author, having a bad hair day.
Downtown Rehearsal, Los Angeles, around the time of recording "One Last Page" (1996)

Monday, July 06, 2015

LA History: L.A.

Lance Porter was a well-known drummer for a number of projects, including the Ex-Idols (featuring the late Gary Finneran) and Jane Wiedlin's FroSTed. I knew Lance through the by-now familiar and complicated web of L.A. music scene connections (among other things, Lance ended up joining a band called GORDON, featuring two members of Dashboard Prophets).

In 1999, Lance called me up. He'd heard I was recording people and told me he had some songs he wanted to get down. As always, I said "Sure, c'mon over, let's hear what you've got."

It was fun and easy to work with Lance, as he was open to trying anything, and surprisingly competent on a large range of instruments. I did the programming and bass, in addition to recording and producing. Lance did the rest. The results remind me of a nice spring day. We deliberately left the door to the studio open, hoping to capture the sounds and vibe of the beautiful L.A. weather.

Our names -- Lance and Anu -- led us to call the project "L.A.".

We did 3 tracks, all surprisingly poppy and weird, sort of Flaming Lips-y. Lance wanted something unusual, and I was all too happy to oblige. Weird is my favorite!

This was the first song we did, and my favorite. Lance was really excited about having this dispassionate reading from Darwin's "On the Origin of Species".



This is definitely one of the odder things I worked on, and we had no real ambitions of playing live or finishing an album. We mostly just wanted to have fun. Success!

Friday, July 03, 2015

LA History: The Neilists

Gold

The AV Club just wrote up 2(!) posts about Neil Diamond, which reminded me that I hadn't yet talked about one of the weirder projects I played in: The Neilists.

The Neilists were a Neil Diamond tribute band. But not like our-totally-not-rivals Super Diamond or The Hot August Knights. Those bands attempt to create a simulacrum of Neil Diamond, and impersonate his exterior.

The Neilists weren't just about covering. We were about uncovering, recovering, Neil's bizarre rock side.

Hot August Night

John Vurpillat and Ryan Kirk burst into my room, sweaty and hoarse, late one summer evening.

"DUDE. Check this out!" They slapped a cassette into my stereo and pressed play. Ryan's uniquely tuned guitar chimed over the distinctive "Monster Kick" from my Roland R-5 drum machine. And then Ryan started singing...

L.A.'s fine the sun shines most of the time
The feeling is...laid back
The palm trees grow and the rents are low
But you know, I've been thinkin' about makin' my way back...

"Dude, is this Neil Diamond's "I Am, I Said"?" I asked, before the song exploded into distorted guitars and yelling. After it was over, John said "Dude, I did a vocal, too!". His was just as over the top.

I had only one question: "WHY?"

Their answer, in unison: "Because he's fucking awesome!"

Beautiful Noise

I had acquired some vintage Neil vinyl as my parents surrendered their largely-unused record collection. Among other things, it had included the album "Stones", which featured Neil singing Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" and Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going To Rain Today", both of which my father also played on acoustic guitar and which imprinted themselves on my brain at a very early age.

Ryan had been rifling through my records and stumbled across this relic from the 70s, complete with interesting cover design. Working at a record store, he was also able to pillage the used racks for other pre-schmaltz classics-- Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show, Gold, Tap Root Manuscript.

He and John started picking songs from Neil's extensive catalog: "Holly Holy". "Soolaimon". "Desiree". "Cherry, Cherry". And of course, "America".

A few days later, in the studio, I remixed "I Am, I Said" so they both sang lead, trading off lines and singing in unison. They found a live drummer, their friend Paul....and suddenly I was the 2nd guitar player and backup singer.

We were a band.


I'm Glad You're Here With Me Tonight

We took the stage wearing gold lame jumpsuits with long black fringe. I don't know who got them, or where from, but they were very hot and after a few shows, stank to high heaven. A dog ate one of them eventually.

We played LOUD. People loved it. I remember after a house party, an older gentleman approached us and thanked us for reminding him of his teenage years. He was sincere. So were we. I think.

The Neilists played 5 shows and were written about 6 times, including a mention in "People" magazine, in an article about Neil's early-90s resurgence. Chris Isaak brilliantly covered "Solitary Man" (which we also did) on his otherwise disappointing "San Francisco Days" album. Urge Overkill covered Neil in "Pulp Fiction". Johnny Cash was still to come, but the other Neil tribute bands were up and running.

The Neilists followed me even after I left L.A. -- director David Sarich reached out to me and filmed me as part of his 2003 documentary "Feel Neil"

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

LA History: Ian Berky and Beta

Ian

Ian Berky was the boyfriend of my girlfriend's best friend. Lean, compact, and handsome, he looked like a lead singer and dressed and partied like the proverbial rock star. He was also a super-nice guy, and a real friend to me at a time when it didn't feel like I had too many.

When I met him he was fronting a hard alternative rock band originally called something I can't recall, before changing their name to "Purj". Purj was a loud, aggressive band in the then-fashionable mold of Rage Against The Machine, but with stronger melodic sense and less political outrage. Ian and his co-writer (and guitar player) were both from French-speaking Canada. I didn't love their band, but they had a few good songs, always played like it was their last show ever, and would often frequently close their show with a non-ironic, blazing version of Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down Again", which instantly endeared them to me.

Beta

In 1998 I was hired to do some music (source cues) for movies by Roger Corman's studio Concorde/New Horizons.

Often, the low-budget movie industry will ask for people to do something that "sounds like" another track they wanted but could not afford, or didn't want to even try to negotiate for.

In this case, it was "Breathe" by The Prodigy. Because this was one of my, if not the, first film music gigs I had, I really wanted to do a great job.

I listened to the track, identified what I thought were the key elements or signifiers, and started building my own version. At the time, I was really into the first two Underworld records, as well as other electronic acts like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Crystal Method, Orbital...all those bands that broke big at the end of the millennium. The track sounded solid.

But I needed a singer, and I wanted someone who could be convincingly aggressive like the guy from The Prodigy. Ian was the obvious and first choice -- he was friendly, around, and I knew he could deliver convincingly and distinctively.

He came over to the studio one afternoon and wrote the lyrics and melody more or less on the spot.



It turned out I was TOO good at copying the song, and the studio decided not to use it because they felt it was too close to the original.

We did a second track, too. ("Wings"). Listening back to these tracks now, it's clear we should have finished a full album. While the songs are definitely rough, and the melodies and chord structures a little flatter or monotonous that I would normally go for, there's something about the aggression plus late-90s electronics that still sounds fresh to me.

Can't Run

This is perhaps the pinnacle of my L.A. production work, in terms of complexity, elements, effort I put in, and happiness with the final result.

In 1998, Ian came in and played a short acoustic guitar song, not much more than a couple of chords, and put down a basic vocal. It was pretty simple, and took him just a few minutes.

A few days later, I presented him with a nearly-completed version of this piece. I added synths and drum loops. I went back to my classical roots and wrote some fancy string section bits and tried to orchestrate them decently. I added some electric guitar, including a solo that was typical of my lead playing at the time, all Edge-meets-Robert-Smith with other new wave influences in there. Chris Fudurich provided some invaluable mixing help and suggestions (as always).

I had him add some more vocals and we made a few other changes. Is it a bit overblown or grandiose? Too long? Maybe, but I also think it's epic and magnificent. I love the drama. This was one of the first times I really threw everything into a piece, and felt like the ideas all worked.


Ian and I did one more track together, but between our various personal lives and band machinations, anything beyond that was out of the question.

Recording Details

At this time, my studio work process would involve using the computer just for MIDI sequencing. The sequencer would generate SMPTE timecode, which I would use to synchronize the DA-88 digital multitrack tape machine. I would record all the vocals to DA-88 digital tape, along with any guitars or bass. All the synthesizers would be run "live" into the mixing board, along with the tracks coming off of the DA-88.

When it was time for mixdown, I would then run the mix "live" -- the synthesizers running live off the computer, the vocals and guitars coming off of digital tape, all going through the mixing board with effects. The 2 track output of that would go down on a DAT. And sometimes I would use the DA-88 to do a back-up 2-channel mix if available.

Perhaps a little complicated, but the computer wasn't powerful enough to handle a lot of audio, and I felt that running the synths "live" made them sound better.

Epilogue

Ian left L.A. around the same time I did. For the last several years, he's been running a successful business customizing vintage cars.

Monday, June 29, 2015

LA History: Black Scorpion

Blecch Scorpion

In 1998, I nearly got to score a television show: Roger Corman's TV adaptation of "Black Scorpion". Imagine Batman. But female, scantily clad, low budget...and terrible. Designed primarily to appeal to people who have an abnormal appreciation for girls in revealing outfits fighting.

Getting the gig would have almost certainly changed the direction of my life permanently. I would have had to buy a ton of gear, learn a lot about scoring for TV, and then crank out a large amount of music in a very short period of time. It would have been thrilling, and possibly led to other work.

The show wanted to capitalize on the "electronica wave" that was happening at the time, and rather than the usual canned music, they wanted something contemporary and of the moment.

I created several minutes of all-electronic demos and submitted it. I didn't get the gig. That was OK then (even though I heard the other stuff including the "winner", and thought my bits were way better), and it's even more OK now.

As a kind of consolation prize for not getting the gig scoring the entire show, I got hired to write some "bad rock songs" for the Black Scorpion episode where the evil band "The Bleeding Eardrum" terrorizes the city. Here's a sample of the "action":

I read the script, which included some titles and lyric excerpts. I had a very short period of time to write and record 4 songs, including having the evil villainess actress (played by Shannon Whirry) come over to my, uh, garage to learn the songs and sing them.

My brother and I used Hole as an inspiration and took it in an intentionally worse direction. This is my favorite of the 4 songs that made it onto the show (but not the soundtrack album), though "City Under Seige" [sic] was a close second.



We had a fun time writing lyrics and coming up with riffs. As usual, Ryan demonstrated his effortless creativity with wordplay and was a riff factory. We borrowed the drum sounds from a record we both liked, and orchestrated the music to match the fictional band's line-up of singer/guitarist, drummer, and keyboard player. We had the tracks done in almost no time.

Of course, the guy who wrote the script demanded co-writing credit since he had done the hard work of coming up with the titles and providing small lyric excerpts.

Ms. Whirry was a total pro, and only a little visibly creeped out walking into a slightly sketchy garage studio deep in the San Fernando Valley to yell and scream into a microphone for a few hours. I suppose as an actress she'd done (and would have to do) worse. I was impressed, nonetheless. Aside from being game, she was charming and fun.

I was not properly paid or credited for this work, and it was never properly registered with the copyright office or rights agencies, which is a shame, because I might have actually earned some money!

That's Hollywood, though.



The complete Black Scorpion TV series is available on DVD. You'll be sorry.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

LA History: Dan Meyer

From DKO to Dashboard to DMP

Dan Meyer was the original guitar player for Don Knotts Overdrive, and had also played in local space-rock masters Farflung...both gigs that my brother would replace him in.

Dan left DKO in the late 90s to join Dashboard Prophets, a harder group fronted by Chris Dye. Dashboard Prophets quickly gained a following and got signed. They recorded a strong debut album ("Burning Out The Inside") which had the misfortune of being confused with a Soundgarden album with a similar name, and the good fortune of placing one of their better songs on the TV show "Buffy The Vampire Slayer". The band then settled into the weird limbo of not quite making it yet and waiting to figure out if they got a second album or not.


I had seen Dashboard Prophets several times, including one of the big gigs where all the A&R guys were deciding to sign them. They were great live, very aggressive, with some strong songs.

Dan had a unique guitar style in that he didn't play with a pick - he strummed by flicking his fingers, or picking at the strings directly.

Slow Down

In 1996, Dan called me out of the blue and asked me if I was interested in joining his new project as the bass player.

I can't remember if I had already heard the demos or not, but I can remember that when I did hear them, I was blown away.

Dan wrote great, beautiful, heartfelt songs with strong melodies and hooks. He'd been listening to a lot of Palace Brothers and "Nebraska" by Bruce Springsteen, and the stripped-down, honest quality of his songs reflected that. These were songs about his life, about being alone, about missing his brother, about his self-destructing friends. I instantly loved them.

I also remember what Dan said to me. I asked him why he wanted me in his band, because I wasn't a great bass player. I didn't even own a bass -- I had to borrow one from my girlfriend. In fact, I think this was actually the first band I officially played bass in. He told me "You're not a rock goon. I don't want to play with rock goons. I need real musicians." It was incredibly flattering.

So The Dan Meyer Project was born. Dan on guitar and vocals, me on bass, and Dashboard Prophet's Leo Bocce on drums. We rehearsed several places, including the lockout I had near the 405 and Santa Monica Boulevard.

I played bass with a pick and sang backup. And I loved it. This was the first band I was really and regularly playing in since my own project had died, and it felt great.

We played a bunch of shows, perhaps the most notable being a gig at the Alligator Lounge where Chris Farley showed up...and then passed out, head down on a table while we were playing (he died not long after that). I thought Dan's songs were great, and we had a good vibe.

But after a while, Dan had enough. He was a somewhat shy guy, and I think being a frontman was terrifying and tiring for him, and the constant rejection the L.A. scene forces on you is tough. The live band ended.

Recording

Dan and my brother set about recording Dan's songs in slightly improved form over the demos. I can no longer remember when the original recordings were done, but they were done to just 8 tracks on the DA-88. The original idea was to have everyone from the Silverlake scene and all of Dan's friends contribute to the various tracks.

When I heard the final product, I was a little disappointed. Some of the magic of Dan's demos had been lost, though in general the songs were much tighter (Dan had a penchant for way-out-of-left-field bridges my brother was able to eradicate) and there were some nice touches.

When I finally quit my day job, I made a personal project out of remixing the tracks in my home studio. Part of it was a way to educate and challenge myself about working on acoustic tracks that I neither recorded nor engineered, but part of it was just wanting better mixes of the songs.

Needless to say, I didn't really do that great of a job. I rushed it, for one thing, trying to bang them all out quickly instead of being methodical and patient. I also didn't quite have the skills or gear to match what I wanted to achieve. I haven't heard the original mixes in at least 15 years, but I think my mixes are kind of anemic, washed out, and not all that good.

Still, Dan's terrific songwriting shines through. This track, "Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice", is a little less open-hearted and a little more snarky than some of Dan's work, but it's a good example of what's good about him (and bad about my mixes!)


Epilogue

After not hearing anything from or about Dan for a decade, I reconnected with him in New York City in 2012. He works in IT now, and is married with 2 children.

I was thrilled to hear that Dan had returned to making music, first with the kid-indie-rock Danimal "Volume 1", and just a few weeks ago with a soon-to-be released full-on Dan Meyer album. I've heard the advance tracks, and it's great!