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Entries in magnificent meatsticks (2)

Wednesday
Jun232010

Magnificent Meatsticks

the richard meltzer review of the magnificent meatsticks. from the san diego reader july 2000Meltzer's review of the MagMeat song bearing his nameGoodness me. It was a decade ago when me and some fellow beer and burrito loving friends convened in Hog Heaven Studio and wrought havoc on the instruments there. The Magnificent Meatsticks were intentionally horrible, in part because of the facts of the matter: Ezekiel Bonham (Brandon Arnieri) was not particularly a bass player (though he was a technically proficient guitar player but one lacking in musical sense of his own); Ham Rockett (Mike Thaxton, who drove to San Diego each week from Dana Point just to hang out and do this stuff) was not particularly a drummer—in fact, he pretty much hit his first drum hits with us; and Leviticus Mitchell (me) was not particularly a guitar player. That was the point: to be equally handicapped so the worst possible result would follow! The other reason was that as my CD project was approaching a year or pretty regular recording and development, I was frankly burning out on the methodical approach, with some tracks happening delightfully quickly in the early days of the project, and later ones taking some prolonged period to get players and track as best as possible considering no one was getting paid! So the all-improvisatory MagMeat was a breath of fresh air for me, giving me a chance to rattle the musical tree but without sweating details like tuning, rhythmic precision, harmonic or melodic standards, or dare I say, foresight and control of any sort! We were doing our best to scrape the bottom of the barrel, and sometimes we succeeded. Occasionally we actually nearly broke out into something nearly like music, and that was simply not allowable.

Our band name was originally borrowing a couple letters from each of our names: BR AX ED from BRandon/thAXton/ED, but of course the beers induced brainstorming (in the classic tradition of garage bands). Fabulous Fucksticks was a contender before the slightly more acceptable Magnificent Meatsticks was voted in. Our individual names were taken from a formula guided by a biblical first name of some sort and the last name drawn from that of a famous rock drummer (Led Zep, Poison, Hendrix respectively in the list above). We rattled off a few more than that and kept them in mind for when we needed to bestow a name upon another guest Meatstick. I seem to remember a sax player named Steve Young came and blew some horn for us. We dubbed him Deuteronomy Carr after Eric Carr of Kiss. I seem to remember calling Jukka Pietarinen (a Finnish Keneally fan who was here for the Nonkerstock that summer) by something like Methusela Moon or Nicodemus Peart!

The MagMeat was always accompanied by file sharing and other illicit computer based activity by young men. Actually, I was not particularly a part of that but in those early days of mp3s, I was like a kid in a candy store when I realized that Thax seemed to have the means to get damn near anything I wanted, and more. So he was always feeding me some CDs of new stuff, old stuff, odd pop songs I asked for, and so on. He was like a musical drug dealer. That summer was in the very early period of my online presence. Earlier in the year, Thax had started me up on email, gotten me an MP3.com account, and some other stuff like that. I had no computer of my own, so I used to go to Brandon's place a few miles away to check in and make updates. I was getting into Photoshop, starting to dabble with effects and was having fun making little images on Brandon's computer. He used to let me tinker on that thing all night even after he went to bed. I'd mess around and leave at 5 am and then call it a night! It was a far cry from my prior computer experiences, long before all these great programs and the web had been developed. It was like learning magic.

Over some stiff beers (Arrogant Bastard and Stone IPA were pretty common) and some wicked good carne asada burritos we used to joke about how dreadful we sounded and how we could be famous on MP3.com since the space was given away for free. So we set about creating our space there and put up a number of recordings from the first few jams in June or July. We recorded everything straight to two-track and therefore had no mixing recourse. Editing was not off the table though so I practiced some savage editing on the two track stuff and did some odd things like copying and pasting a sample of the left side, making one side stutter or echo separate from the other. Other things we allowed to have done in recording was one vocal performance to "enhance" the trio recording, but it had to be improvised and fucking rude, loud, distorted, or otherwise unacceptable to most listeners. You can hear the seven cuts that we called finished elsewhere on this site. The thing is, since we recorded most of our jams nearly every week, there was massive amounts of material. It was more than my VS-880 could hold so I routinely cut the stuff ruthlessly and then burned CDs. Even still, there are probably 15 CDs on a spindle somewhere that has some of the most er, avant-garde stuff you (n)ever heard. To make up for a lack of chops or compositional foresight or tasteful use of silence, we usually drenched things in massive amounts of long-tailed reverb. It was quite something. (I still occasionally tickle myself with the idea of making a CD of that stuff, cut up ala Miles Davis material with Teo Macero at the helm of the editing block, slash cuts with no real attempt to mask the edits.) For such bad music so intentionally mangled, the two track stuff sonically has way more finesse than it deserves. It's not like we just used a boombox with a built in mic. There are moments when I like certain sounds and mix levels better than some of the stuff I captured track by track and spent days or weeks working on. All this went down 8 channels of mixer (with added effects all the way through) and through a compressor across the whole thing, and there it was!

We put our worst foot forward when I wrote to the San Diego Reader to tell them to pass on word about a certain track called "Richard Meltzer is my Fucking Hero" to the rock critic who bears that name and for the time around then, was a writer who contributed to the Reader. We used to crack ourselves up reading his concert previews, which never really focused on any of the artists being discussed. It was always wild stream of consciousness stuff. Anyhow, we figured we could get his attention with this ditty that invites Richard to come and "fuck me up the ass." It worked. I mean, we got his attention in one of the few articles he ever wrote (that we saw) that actually made mention of the artist in question! Check out the "review" here.

But personally, Magnificent Meatsticks in retrospect has proven to be a sort of heir to the absolutely irreverent stuff I did with Matt Zuniga in 1992-93 or so, and more broadly, the last hurrah of playing with total abandon and just not caring if anything was good or not. After the taste of live interaction in the MagMeat, I found myself wanting to start playing bass within a band context and was hoping to work in that vein a bit. The quartet I tried to get started later that year was a more developed thing for the few weeks it lasted. Brandon was in it, as was his friend Ryan on drums (still one of the best drummers I played with), and Todd Larowe. Various other groupings over the next year or so included Todd or Brandon at times. Eventually though, all that was way more than I was cut out for, some people within these bands giving me the news that I myself was not good enough a player to be in them if we were to really play the music I was hoping to play. But in the summer of 2000, I did not yet know that.

Ahhh—Hog Heaven in the summertime. No windows. No vents. No AC but for a fan or two. Insane humidity like a gym locker room. Play 15 minutes then open the door for 15 or more, then repeat a few times. Get burritos and beer. Come back and scan the recording for some highlights. Ah. The good old days.

Monday
Jun142004

Composing

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 Brandon Arnieri 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. Brandon 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.