Sunday
Nov272011

« Stop Playin' Those Damned Drums! »

You know how people talk about the seeds of opportunity packed within a crisis? This is a little like that. But you have to get into my 18 year old's mind to really get this bit of historical narrative. I suppose the word "crisis" is a bit much to describe the upset but there was an interesting opportunity that lurked in the experience and that it's fair to say, changed my life.

The first pic of my return to drumming, fall 1989I started taking drum lessons in the fall of 1983, though only half-willingly. In early 1985 I got a new drum set which was a prize for that effort. And not very long later, I fell out of interest with it all and was off to something that would get me more chicks—building plastic models of cars first, and then developing one of my first acute obsessive fixations on US naval aircraft, with a specialty in jet fighter planes, and ultimately moving to some armor kits. The thing about girls really never crossed my mind, actually. So I indulged the plastic model thing for about four years from 1985-1989 when I rediscovered the drums. I went from a damned quiet hobby that involved some filing and sanding and air compressor work for airbrushing, to the most obscenely loud hobby a 15 year old can engage in! And there was no hiding it from my neighbor, an old timer named Ray Merritt.

Prom dayThe room I played in was immediately adjacent to the driveway he parked his Econoline van in. He sat in that van for hours and hours. It was his mobile clubhouse. I think he had it decked out in some carpeted interior too. A good thing, because back in his house, his ultra-conservative Jehovah's Witness wife Fern ruled the roost. He'd sit out there in the driveway, listening to his radio, having his can of Coors, and blissing out. Oh, he did other work too, around the yard and garage, but this van time is a point of concern to this story.

Since my old man fancied my drumming as nothing more than a hobby (and seemed determined to keep it that way by not lending support to amount to much), there was really never any talk to find an appropriate way to contain the high sound pressure levels of the drums. No talk about how to seriously build anything to do the job. Willy himself was able to bear with it as he did his work or watched TV (he was known for making a ruckus too with his metalworking tools—all the grinders, drills, welding and cutting equipment was his life and he found happiness in industrial work that was pretty loud). But in either of the bedrooms I kept the drums in, both right next to Ray's yard, the most I could do to dampen the sound was to stuff giant thick pads of foam into the window spaces (single pane, wrong stuff for isolation) and to wrap towels around the large louvered windows, and to drape several blankets and comforters over the window. But drums are so loud anyway that no house walls really do much.

Within the first year of my playing, my old man already got sued by an upstairs tenant we rented to, but that was pretty clearly the case of my experimenting one day by setting up in the garage. This guy was whining because he was kept awake in the middle of the day. The old man donated a pair of earplugs, which the tenant found not so funny, and then decided to sue. Ray Merritt himself periodically could be heard at the end of some big cadential cymbal crashes, hollering "Stop playing those DAMNED drums!" Combined, they were the voices that started to change my old man's mind about whether I could play at the house. In 1990, as a 16 year old without a car, I tried the option of taking my kit down to a paid rehearsal facility but that was way more effort than I wanted to engage in. It required paying for the privilege of getting my family to drive me several miles, moving my gear so I could play in an empty room for two hours. It was doomed to failure. I think I've written this story a time or two here...

So by the end of 1991—in fact, this very day twenty years ago now—I was already getting to be a percussive pariah in my own house. And what emerged was almost a Candid Camera style joke played upon me. But as I said above, the crisis of this 18 year old did give way to something that resonates even today in some ways. Enter Matt Zuniga and the unlikely start of my recording artist career. (I'm gonna borrow what I wrote for the Subway, Center of the Universe entry earlier this year. References to work relate to our job at Subway, about equidistant from our houses. I was hired in late August and he in late October.)

One afternoon, October 20th or so, I was at the shop eating my Spicy Italian and this spikey haired, tattooed, earring-, torn jeans-, and Doc Marten wearing guy came in and asked for Steve. He looked a bit older than me, closer to Steve's ripe age of 27. He was actually 20, and was looking for work. Maybe he already had filled out his application. A week later I saw him donning a red Subway shirt and training behind Darius, a huge black dude who looked intimidating but was a pretty cool figure. His name was Matt Zuniga. I didn't know it then but I had just met the guy who helped shape my next several years and who was an unwitting impetus that led to my "recording career." I never would have guessed that his rather grungy looking self and my rather uptight and nerdy self would have interacted. But we found ourselves in our own respective states of exile with regards to family and society, and found that drums led us to help each other out.

It was quite well timed that I would meet him at the end of October. We worked together a couple times and eventually the topic of drums came up. He said he liked drums. And that he didn't have a set. The situation was becoming that my house was drying up as a viable place to play. Having heard about this, Matt promptly said I could set up at his house, and that he could keep them set up, all no problem if I'd go for it and let him play the kid. I was intrigued but really cagey about it. Who was this guy? He dressed like a punk or something. He was kinda unreliable at work. I barely met him a few weeks ago! 

Matt brought the drums over to his studio apartment on the day before Thanksgiving [20 years ago today]. With a lot of concern of my own and some urging from the old man, I wrote up a contract with a detailed list of the equipment and the terms involved if I were to do this. Matt kind of laughed it off but went with my uptight contract idea. He signed it the day after Thanksgiving. While I might have been to his place a time or three before that, this clearly made me interested in getting over there more so I could get the use of my own stuff. His apartment was a rather mediocre place that tended toward mid 70s decor and was made darker still by his inclination to cover the windows with heavy curtains (or maybe that was just to help dampen the drums). The drum arrangement brought us together to kill time and talk music. I found he was into some really extreme music. Grindcore? WTF did I know about that? I was just in my big Tull and Rush period, and at least he gave Tull a try. (He favored the harder stuff from the earlier albums. Anything that smacked of gritty Black Sabbath minor chord stuff, basically.) What we did find was a pretty immediate affinity for Rush. Matt was open about his love of porn so it was almost no time before he and I were hanging out and he decided to put some on while having dinner after work (which would have been about midnight or so). Hanging out with Matt was for a long time akin to eating forbidden fruit. Even working late was odd, so going to his place at midnight and coming home at almost 3 am was truly a new adventure. 

Matt's offer, scary as it was at the time, was just the thing that let me get drums out of my house, but also with access that didn't involve paying for studio space. He did more or less respect my gear, cobbled together as it was. It was his personality that was most jarring. 

The bridge in Mission Valley where DWA was bornOur little arrangement at his grandmother's house worked out for about five weeks before she responded the same way as I was already accustomed to. After that we found ourselves exiled together and in our frustrations, we settled for anything that didn't require payment for studio time. We took our show on the road. And that's no exaggeration. Sometimes we actually did set up roadside. Or in parking lots. Or parking garages (our favorites). The fact that we both wanted to play led us to do some odd stuff as we waited for the other to finish playing for 15 minutes or so at a time. The places we targeted suggested many opportunities for mischief. The random screaming and glass breakage eventually got recorded one day early in 1992 and, even considering how juvenile it all was, it was a fun record of our Sunday's "playing" and blowing off steam. I jokingly called our little project "Drummers With Attitudes" (DWA—yeah, after NWA, the irony was quite intentional that some suburban white guys were so worked up!) I created the first of a series of recordings with Matt that went on for the next year and a half or so, and which got me conditioned to think in terms of recording, which influenced an interest in songwriting along the way.

Alright, crisis was bit strong a word, but when you're used to playing drums "in private" in your bedroom, the thought of not doing so did loom frightfully. And I guess the answers come in the oddest packages. Who knew that such a thing would ultimately lead me to all the things I've done since? Even my JEM podcast work now is pretty much an heir to all this. I still record things and still package and create the supporting notes and information. 

Additional notes on this period (for the gluttonous or masochistic among you) can be found with images in the Sundry Music gallery.

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