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.


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.

1 comment:

Justina Krakowski said...

Those were amazing times. Miss that infinite flow that seems to simply gush from you all. Yes, John is missed.