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The Power Of Bill Ray Compels Me

Required listening while reading this: The Power of Disco Compels You

Sometimes you just never know who will validate you seven years after you wanted or needed it. Artists are always in that bind; who can tell when their work will ever matter to anyone? And of course, it happens often enough that artists get dead before they get famous, or even recognized.

In late 1992, I wrote some silly song lyrics about a guy who had disco fever despite being a gross anachronism, and a first incarnation of the song was recorded by my buddy Matt and me in our drum-vocal duo Rhythmic Catharsis. RC was something that we did so we could get out and play drums and be loud and obnoxious youth. It worked. I never planned for it to be the start of my recording and composing history, but that is what it became.

I reprised that set of lyrics in 1995 when I embarked on another recording project and was looking for some material. This version was marginally better, but not worth writing about here.

Then, in 1997-2000 or so, I spent time re-recording a number of my older and completely irreverent songs and placing them alongside newer ones that were of similar character. The gear I was using was newer and would have been a total wet dream to an earlier version of me, given the various things I could do with it in the recording realm. Light years ahead of my cassette work, the VS 880 was the recorder I used for those years. I once again took advantage of my earlier work and wanted to give it a more refined recording while not losing the spark.

The odd thing about these re-recordings is that during my work as sound man and instrument tech, I happened into a number of professional gigging musicians who somehow were conned into saying they liked my stuff. A few of them came in to record bits, some specifically intended for certain tracks, and some were just off the cuff jams that got turned into something. Drummer Bill Ray is well known in town as a technically proficient and versatile player, and is among the upper crust in town, as far as players go. We had met at the Music Mart store back when it was on Convoy St. in 1990. At different times, we had both worked there. But after some early encounters with Bill, he slipped off the radar for me. Then I happened into him as he was doing this ultra schmaltzy corporate cover band gig with Polyester Express, for whom I sometimes worked as soundman/assistant. So Bill and I got a chance to reconnect and around that time, I was working on a new version of my song, and hitting road bumps. In fact, it was hitting so many road bumps, I was about to totally ditch a version of it which still goes unheard to this day!

I had a tentative drum loop which let me compose the track, lots of ideas for how to record things, but it was all getting real dense on my little eight track recorder. I asked Bill to come in and record some drums so I could get a convincing part in which at least would improve my sense of what needed to stay or go. So, one cold day in the last week of 1998, he came by my then-newish recording shoebox of a studio and proceeded to lay down the drums to this fourth incarnation of my little bit of disco fantasy. He did it with authority. I had what seemed to be a basic sound ready to record, and back in those days, I had no tracks to give to each drum on its own. It went down as stereo, and it was all EQ'ed and compressed as it was going to be printed. So Bill came in, and proving that no two drummers are alike, he played my same kit with my same mixer and EQ settings, and totally sounded unlike anything I ever did. You can hear it now; the snare drum hits the compressor and it explodes in your head. I was actually going for that lame dead 70s snare drum, but he just gets the sound out of any drum, see?

Anyhow, the song took all of 1999 to finally nail down and mix. The drums went down and were never changed a bit since he played them. All the other work was trying out doubled guitars, layered vocals, alternate vocals, solos, and so forth. With only eight tracks and two going to drums alone, my options were few except for all the sub mixing and bouncing, and finally, a lot of cutting of redundant parts of the arrangement. Mixing was made easier but by no means easy. Finally, in early 2000, over a year after the recording commenced, and years after the first idea for it, I got a version that was far grittier than I imagined, but far more fun and amusing when you factor in all the things I didn't plan on—Bill's explosive and dynamic but ultragroovalicious drumming, Todd's half-improvised monologue at the end, and then of course the fact that I finally improvised my way through whole new sections of lyrics while keeping the best of the old stuff intact. I also have to say that there is some bass playing on there that I did that I still marvel at because even now I don't approach the bass that way, despite bass being a favorite instrument of mine for the years since. The rhythm guitar is my work too, but it's totally uncharacteristic and another element of chance that keeps this track exploding. The guitar solo is by Danny Donnelly, the guitar player in Polyester Express, right along with Bill Ray. The whole lyrical story and monologue of Todd's is a tapestry of in jokes concerning Bill and Danny, and a nod to our late soundman buddy Phil Cole, who did in fact attend the last Led Zep show in the states in 1977.

Yeah, it was a victory to get that one in the can. I still listen to it and just enjoy it because it's funny. It's one of my finest pieces because it was one place where a lot of things came together for me. It's one of the few tracks that took a year to nail but still sounds spontaneous and edgy.

Skip ahead some time to the last month or so when Bill Ray sends me an email saying he thinks the time has come for my music to get heard and he wants to do anything he can to help. He heaps praise upon me for the stuff I've done. I'm sort of caught off guard; it's welcome but so out of the blue as to almost confuse me. He started talking up the song, and all things TAPKAE in his web world. He got me to create a MySpace account which I previously avoided like the plague. He got me played on some podcasts that were inclined to listen to his advice. He says he wants to play on some of my new stuff.

Flattered, me, but I'm at this point where I don't even know what I want to do in music. Not that I knew what I wanted to do back in the late 90's, but I did invest all the time I had in making music, not knowing if it would be heard, or when, or by whom. I wasn't concerned with peak oil or world economic collapse. I wasn't concerned with corporate mischief, or being a husband. I just recorded by throwing a load of shit on the wall then watching to see what stuck, and working with it accordingly. I didn't worry about if my gear was good enough to record professionally. I just threw myself at it because there wasn't anything else to do. I pushed the wrong button until I got the right sound. That's all I did.

So now, Bill is making himself at my disposal, and I have to wonder where the spark is. Do I record the various "serious" music scraps that have been accumulating for the past few years since Receiving was made? Do I just jam and hope that I get better stuff than all the things I've thrown out in the last few years with myriad other players and combos? Oh, there was no formula to my madness in 1998. Getting a guy like Bill or Danny, Marc Ziegenhagen or even Mike Keneally was utterly huge to me then, but I sort of had to take what I could get and make it work because it's not like they'd be at my beck and call. I guess I'm not used to someone of Bill's caliber stooping to my level and confusing me with a certain type of validation that I don't even get from most of my listeners. On one hand, I want to just shed all my complex thinking of peak oil and economics and all and reclaim my innocent halcyon days of recording into the wee hours. On the other hand, that is impossible, but it's not like my current musical output does much to reflect the current complex world-weary person I am now. I have long since burned a notebook of naive and cliche-ridden lyrical ideas that didn't have the goofy spark of The Power of Disco Compels You, or the utterly childlike love story of I Wanna Be Your Puppy. I've erased hours and hours of wanky jams that were possibly okay at least to keep around as notes, some of which were transcendent in moments, but the sheer amount of material, all with no particular focus became overwhelming for me.

I once used multitrack recording to hide my utter lack of ability on most instruments, but the current me doesn't want to do the multitrack recording thing, nor is the current me quite up to performance level on bass or guitar, nor is the current me bursting with ideas for things to compose. Nor is the current me loaded with enough clout to be a band leader. So what does a guy like me do when a guy like Bill Ray wants to play on my stuff mainly because he believes in it and would far rather do original music and stay clear away from the corporate cover band scene which took him to a desperate personal crisis? When do I decide it's time to not throw out all the stuff I record? When do I compose something that is "good enough"? Or when do I re-adopt the old habit of working with tracks until I know they are either good, or total shit? When can I shake the self consciousness?



Glenn Farrington. A CheekyMonkeyFunker.I've been trying to get into the studio and make stuff lately. Last week I got some new plugins for ProTools and Peak, and have been twiddlin' with guitars and basses lately. Today Glenn came over and we did about an hour's worth of jamming on a few themes that have been batting around here either for a few days or a few years. This makes two tunes we've had take any real shape, which I have to say is two tunes more than I have done in almost that many years. Both are in need of arrangements and more development, but they sort of hang together like pieces of music would. One is called 21st Century Headache, and that's a heavier more artsy sounding tune with some good overdriven guitar and active bass. The one we did today is tentatively dubbed Nude Beach Savior and is harmonically very sophisticated for me, and the bass part I put down is surprisingly sweet for being such a track with many different chords. Nude Beach Savior is a slower tune with some jazzy balladic sort of feel, fairly open. The drums carry it sort of like a tune on my CD called "Pearls Before The Swine." It's easily the most musical thing I have done in two years, and one of just a few tracks that have been worth a shit since I finished my CD in mid 2000. Both have their rhythmic issues but each has a certain power and grace that has been absent from my recordings for a while. Both have me on guitar and bass. 21st Century Headache has me on drums in part, and Glenn on another section. My main focus for a while has been bass, but since Race To Judge was done about two years ago, guitar has been as likely a thing for me to pick up, but when I jam to write, I use guitar. When I jam to jam and have fun, it's bass. Now that I have the 4 string Music Man, I am feeling good about playing bass. I have sort of left the 5 string on the wall for a while now. The new bass just fits into the mix really well. It's hard to not pick it up.

As for now, my head hurts like a muthafukka. I don't wear earplugs when I play guitar in jam situations. I wore them religiously for drums in the same situations, but never for guitar. I can't hear my tone, man. And playing the tune over and over and over for playback, bass tracking, and mixing is just making my head explode.


Ani DiFranco

I find myself oddly liking a recent Ani DiFranco CD called Evolve. Kelli bought it while we were gone on our honeymoon. She had the misfortune of recording a couple of CDs before she left, but in the wrong format and they didn't play in the car CD player. So we hit a record store along the way and she got this CD.

I sort of liked it on the first listen, which was a little scary. I had known about Ani for a long time; Kelli told me about her maybe back in '97 or so. I remember hearing a bit of her stuff close to then, but not around Kelli. Since then I've heard bits but not enough to like or consider myself informed. I've heard more since Kelli moved in.

This CD has some bits on it that sort of echo the sort of thing I'd like to do. She has a lyrical approach that can alternately delight me and scare the shit out of me. I'm not so fond of her staccato singing as much as I've heard, but this CD seems to have less than expected, so I can get around to "getting" her delivery. I like the whole band arrangements on this CD more than some of the more solitary stuff I've heard. Some of them sound like demented Stax-era R&B. Then there is the clincher—some sound like Dancing-era Mike Keneally! There are distinctive phrases that are right out of the Keneally book, and it's sort of neat to hear some of that vocabulary outside of the Keneally world. Ditto some perverse horn harmonies that are just tooting some unusual chords and phrases. I just noticed that there is hardly any electric guitar on this. Is that typical Ani?

Ani is sort of a latecomer to my club of self-produced, often multiinstrumentally talented artists. I'm sort of burned on Mike Keneally though. Kevin Gilbert is amazing still but dangerous to listen to in amounts like I once did, and Adrian Belew still delights, but I've been trying to ease the Fripp/Belew/Guitar Craft approach back a little so as to explore my own identity. Todd Rundgren and Stevie Wonder I respect, but don't know as much about them. So it is sort of nice to get another artist on the order of Kevin Gilbert who can not only write emotionally gripping stuff, but can play some instruments, and even run a mixing board well.

I find listening to this Ani CD that I want to go in and try to do some stuff again. Getting that guitar also is exciting—it's the first new guitar I've bought in five years and more. I even bought a new bass too (my 11th or 12th)! I advertised again for a drummer to help me jam and compose some stuff, and there have been a couple bites, so I'll see what happens, but in the despondence after the election, I sort of want to ease up on the political stuff and see if I can connect with music again. I know, it's been like this for years now, but I'm charged again. We'll see what happens.


Blank Page

It boggles my mind at how I can spend my days at work longing to go into my studio eager to record some masterful piece of musical art. Then I come home and sit down here at the computer, then hours later it's time to go to bed and start it all over again. On a good day, I do actually go in and maybe mess with guitar, drums, and bass, and maybe even enjoy it. Some of my playing has been interesting considering I don't do much of it anymore. Then the rest is the most boring dreck you've ever heard. The problem, same as it has been for over a year and a half at least, and four years if I was perfectly honest, is that I just have no patience for writing music anymore, and recording it. The two have almost always gone together for me, so to mess with musical bits is one thing, but I am not really into playing for people or for my own fun. I mean, no Dylan songs, no Hendrix or Zeppelin. I don't have a musical repertoire. If I wasn't recording, I wasn't interested. That's how it went for years. Now I don't really record but for scraps. Some sound interesting for starters, but when it comes to making it sound like more than a rock trio, I am lost. I listen to my old stuff, and in some cases, it's so full of textures and details that I can't even begin to discipline myself to do now.

I have been daring myself to record an honest piece of musical work that doesn't somehow rely on my traditional dependence on effects, digital editing-as-composition, and sometimes synthesizers or drum machines. I've been straining to get my little sound down that reflects an honest effort to make music without gimmicks. My appetite has been whet for playing material and THEN recording the resulting composed or partially composed stuff. I used to start a piece from recordings and overdub an insane amount of things and then go for severe editing to figure out what had to be there and what not. Now I approach things more like a band player. I have my dreams of doing a whole CD of stuff on my own for once. My playing ability sharpens up when I need to actually accomplish something, but as of now, I just don't know what to do. Really, the things I lament are that I don't have an arrangement-savvy partner who can take my fragments and turn them into something more than I tend to do on my own. I also miss having a drummer with a good sense of musicality. The one track that I did come up with in the last few years that I still beam with pride in is Race To Judge. That was recorded with Paul Horn and I recording his drums and my acoustic guitar in different rooms, based on themes we had rocked out with in the same room, with me on electric. So I know that having a good drummer will pull stuff out of me, but I've had hell trying to orchestrate a band effort. Paul isn't always available, and I don't always like what is produced, so that is too much guess work. I had a young guy here who could play the living shit out of the drums and he brought my stuff to life for the few weeks he was here, but that didn't work either.

Some of my favorite musical heroes are dudes who can play a lot of instruments and also have a unique self production sense. Mike Keneally, Adrian Belew, Kevin Gilbert, Ben Folds, Jon Brion, Stevie Wonder, and Todd Rundgren all have an amazing sense of making music, and producing themselves. They all seem to be able to get on any rock band instrument and just play something. Then they write stuff and go record a lot of it themselves. There is a certain stamp that is distinctly theirs. I have a bit of that. I'm just not as good.

The other thing I am bugged about is that my ability to sing is not what I would want it to be. I can do some things okay when singing along with an existing recording, and I can even do some harmonies on the fly. But I am totally lost and embarassed when I am trying to find my own voice. I have more of a baritone voice than anything, and I can do some falsetto, but there is a huge area in between that just falls flat on its face. I often think that if I were to establish my singing range I might have an easier time writing songs because at least I would have a key reference and range in mind. As it is, the music I write is more geared for an all instrumental presentation because of the way I fill space (as opposed to comping and doing certain antiphonal phrasing). With the last four years being an unending stream of life experiences, I would think somewhere there was meaningful stuff I could sing or speak, but somehow I just can't seem to tap into it when I am in the studio.

Sometimes when I am in the studio now, I am too aware of my surroundings. I am more worried about what my roommates or wife or neighbors think of my work. It is hard to be discreet when playing acoustic drums. Sometimes I am fucking great, and sometimes dismal. Ditto electric guitar. And especially voice! So I self-censor if people are home. When my grandmother was alive, she was nearly deaf, and while she would feel my drumming or bass playing, she wasn't able to articulate things. Voice was totally lost on her. So I could get away with some outrageous stuff. My studio has no windows, and to a person on the street, it's invisible anyway and unless it's drums I'm playing, almost inaudible. Still, I am just too self conscious about playing much if people are in the house. It is hard to tell whether the cart or horse came first; my grandmother died in early 2001, and within two months, I had roommates. It's been like this since then.



Nineteen hundred and ninety nine was an odd year. Musically, it was a turning point for me. Professionally (if you can call my work that) it was pretty stagnant. Personally it was pretty dead, even dreadful at times. Most of the time I hated the work I did, but took refuge in music, and worked endless hours on the varied projects I had going on then. In that year, I had my goofy music project well underway (in its third calendar year), some work with Tamara Vilke (someone Mike Keneally hooked me up with, which ended up being a ten song project with me on drums primarily, but also on bass and guitar and a little bit of keyboards, Todd Larowe and Bad Jesus as the band, on guitars and bass, respectively), Mike Keneally's Nonkertompf (really, a bunch of stuff I thought was just demo material), the research and development of musical ideas that led to and ultimately became the basis for my CD Receiving, and my friend's band, Loaf (five songs toward the end of the year, on which I played guitar and keyboards). These were the true Hog Heaven halcyon days. In that year, I played on singer songwriter stuff, did wacky improvisation, "session" playing, and the painstaking job of playing whatever would eventually become my CD. I actually became a better musician that year, and when I listen back to the stuff I did, I feel proud of it. There are some good drum performances on Tamara's stuff, and some soild guitar and keys on Loaf's stuff. I also did a smashup keyboard solo on one tune on Receiving, and I am still baffled how I pulled it off. I just got lucky, as Todd would say. My goofy music project was an interesting outlet for me, and some of the last fun I had in my music was done then. Since the mid summer or so, most of the fun has gone out of it. After that period, I thought of myself as more serious, and the silly ideas just sort of stopped happening, or maybe I censored them out. I am still proud of Receiving though. Actually, as I was making it, I knew I was asking more of myself than ever before, and even now, I feel that it was a mark of achievement that I still haven't touched, and had a feeling it would be that way, even as I was making it.

I thought I would take several months to recover, but here it is, nearly four years after the musical portion of the CD was done, and I still have barely finished a damned thing. Everything I do seems to fall short of my expectations of myself. I know I have the ideas, and the ability to play the parts is there with some work, but somehow, I just find myself scrapping everything now after a few overdubs. My patience for dealing with gear is almost none. I used to like messing with gear as a means to making sounds and atmospheres, and frankly, to cover up for a lack of musical technique. In the time since my CD was done, I felt like getting back to basics, or more realistically, getting to basics at all. My ultra-rude and perverse "band," the Magnificent Meatsticks, was to my music what Nietzsche was to Judeo-Xtian thought. Deconstruction. Start from the ground up, don't assume anything. In the middle of 2000, toward the end of my CD project, my buddies Mike Thaxton and El Brando got together for beers and burritos and music swapping, and eventually we got to playing some "music" that was so out in left field. Mike wasn't really a drummer; he had no experience, but he suited us fine. I was more familiar with bass than guitar, but I played guitar. El Brando was a guitar player, but he ended up on bass. That way everyone had a handicap. After 1999, with me being a 3rd rate session dude, and solo artiste and all that, I wanted to be in a band, but really, for all the music I had done, I was a studio guy who relied on the stop button, multitracks and digital editing to do so much of my stuff. The MagMeat was a way to enter the band realm again, this time on guitar and bass. I had to do what every other punk had to do when he joins his first garage band. I was never in a garage band. Yep, this was my boozing and cussing gig that I never had when I was 16. And I sucked, just like I would have if I were 16!

But the MagMeat made me bold, as I found that after a few years of ONLY interfacing with recorders and the rare live session, I was itching to make music, even bad or deconstructed music, in a band. For some reason, we recorded everything we did, no matter how bad. Mike got better on drums, and I decided to get all my ya-ya's out on guitar by doing the most abusive things I could with an Ebow and my whammy bar and gobs of gain, echo and feedback, and other implements of guitar molestation—we'd be big in Japan, no shit! I still have hours and hours of our sonic holocausts and once in a while, I hear a few minutes and smile.

We were bad, make no mistake, but it was like stripping all your clothes off and running naked. It got me to think about music again. The somewhat related but all different band that stemmed from the MagMeat experience was a quartet, mostly here to play stuff that I had, was another kick for me. That was the first band I played in on anything other than drums. This time it was my five string bass, and I allowed myself an octave pedal, and some distortion and chorus. But I had to put the notes where they belonged. This band lasted three weeks, and it wasn't for another year before I got something like it again, but in the mean time, had some one-off jams with me on bass (sometimes on my new fretless, which was a whole other ballgame or my growing trust in my instincts) that left me feeling good. 2002-03 were years where I tried a number of band combos, and liked a few of them a lot. For a while, I was on bass, and thought of that as my new musical home, but after throwing up my hands in disgust at not being able to find and brainwash a guitar player, I just decided to try it myself, and that was, for me, more of jump than drums to bass, or fretted to fretless. All of a sudden, I was playing the part that is most associated with the entire piece of music being played, and in a few cases, it was odd hearing the bass being played by anyone else, sometimes technically better, but with a whole other approach! Well, that only lasted for a while before I gave up music for a while. But I would like to play again, and on guitar.

Okay, I will fess up, and it's not like it's a secret. I don't practice any of my instruments. That's not to say I don't have the occasional breakthrough with some resulting effort to try to polish up that new discovery, but nearly always, my technical ability has been called up on an as-needed basis. But then sometimes there is some amazing lucidity in what I do, even if I have been away for a while (that used to mean I didn't play for a week or so, but now there have been a few stretches that go on for months). But really, I never sat down with a book and said, 'I must learn these scales and be able to play a zillion permutations of 3-, 4-, and 5- note groupings.' I know my scale theory well enough to be dangerous, but don't master the dexterity end of things. It's not because I think I will lose my musical soul to technical articulation. I am just lazy. But despite that, I am a better player from playing with the short lived bands, because in any one of those groups, I like the challenge of thinking on my feet, and if I use whole notes and half notes, so be it (I can do better than that, just not too well at first). Improvising has been my main love, but not jamming. I draw a distinction; jamming is, to me, what the Grateful Dead and their clones do. Improvising is what King Crimson and Keneally (on a good day) do. Improvising calls upon your active input; jamming pretty much lets you cruise by on autopilot. Improvising, when done well, should sound composed, and composed stuff, when done well, should sound like it has the fire of an improvised interaction. Improvisation is not necessarily going to be solid sounding. It can be, if you have some dudes who know their shit and can articulate it, but improvising should be daring, without crying over "mistakes." The basis for the improvised material in my little bands sometimes stems from an abstraction: "play the sound of a ..." or maybe from a theoretical idea I want to explore: "you play in the key of D harmonic minor, and I will play in B major, use quarter notes to start, then open up as the clash and consonances start to make sense. Or maybe I suggest a harmonic vocabulary based on a few anchoring notes: "use the notes D, A#, E, C#, first in a series of parallel-motion chord roots, then use them as harmony notes in whatever inversion seems to make sense, then use them against each other in harmony (the 7th from E to D, the third from A# to C#, then add the E, and do some other stuff). So you see, I think in abstract ideas, and don't mind calling on bitonality, polytonality, metric juxtapositions and stuff. I don't have as much control over it as I would like but I find the fun is really in suggesting this stuff to someone who knows what is being said, but doesn't know the outcome. Unfortunately, some guitar players took umbrage at my ideas and left.


Musician Ad

After years of my studio only work and years of great fun experimenting with instruments and recording gear, I have decided it's time to do a band project that is of the performing persuasion. I would also like to make a recording, but of an ensemble that is based on material that is rehearsed and ready to go as a performance. It's an old fuddy duddy idea, you know? I am playing bass in this configuration, though the ideas arrive pretty much equally to me on guitar and drums as well, and occasionally keyboards. I have the space and time and will to do this, so I need some folks that are decent players who want to get on that bus. I have been trying to do this same project for some time now and it's taken its usual hits and bumps in the Grand Tradition of Garage Bands.

Make no bones about it: this project is rooted in fusion and prog rock. Rooted in, let me repeat. Yeah, I admit, Jethro Tull is my musical home away from home, so is King Crimson. They've given me a lot to think about for years now. I have of course added a number of other colors to my palette, like some eastern and European sounding stuff, Impressionism from Satie and Debussy. Sometimes it's a concept or notion of a pairing of musical elements that informs me and causes me to make the choices I make. I don't compose by chord progressions that are in the book. Not to say that I am utterly original, but I really only get the biggest charge when I am led to things that I have not heard enough of. So, in effect, it's original. Sometimes that will be in line with conventional practice, and sometimes not. But listen to the tunes I offer. They are things that I cook up when a small band is available. They are also not done yet. Most were conceived as bass ideas, and the bass is certainly a prominent feature, though by no means the only thing I use to explore music. But it's the common thread through a number of tunes. I hasten to add that these tunes are AT LEAST a year old. I have been recording less in recent times, so there is less to offer. Three of these are one shot rehearsal takes. And they tend to be underdone, before we all got comfy with the music, but early enough to capture that sincere level of uncertainty, with the possibility that it could all spin out of control any minute now.

If you are interested in making the effort to rehearse and play out and record some tunes that are a little off the beaten path, please listen to these tunes and get in touch by email and we'll get together. I think the music can be challenging and hopefully rewarding to those willing enough to make the effort.