GRATITUDE JOURNAL – DAY 17 – Bruno B. Badcat Robins Austin (RIP)

I spent the last two days crying from the loss of the best cat I’ve ever had. In spite of how rude he was, we were best buddies.

I chose Bruno from the Townlake Animal Shelter (now Austin Pets Alive) in 2004. I saw his picture on their site – a real novelty in those days – and went right down and got him. He sat with me for 20 minutes, completely calm.

What a faker. The moment I let him out of the cardboard carrier the shelter gave me to take him home, he was like a lightning bolt.  With teeth and claws. He always seemed to think that biting (hard!) and (deeply) clawing at flesh was a good way to show his affection to humans.

Other than me, Evelyn Goss, Greg Yancey and Dave Irish all suffered physical lacerations at the paws of Bruno’s tough love.

Later in life, Bruno became a pee-er. I nearly killed him a couple of times for ruining stuff — and not just mine!  Austin Luminais had to throw out all kinds of stuff.  I paid him back by moving all his other possessions into and out of storage one summer.

Bruno loved to sidle up and cuddle hard. He would wake me up most mornings with a slow claw to my eyelid. He loved food. In his younger years, he’d eat all his food and then scare the dog (Fajita) away from her food and eat all of it, too.

ugh!  Bruno could be a real pest at times but I won’t ever forget him and I’m so grateful for his companionship over the last 13 years.

 

 

Bill – One Year Later

This week I’m taking a break from my series on development to reflect on where I am 1 year after the death of my friend and longtime band mate Bill Petersen.

I still miss him of course but I also feel  lingering guilt.  Not because I had anything to do with his death but because I could’ve been a better friend.

This may seem tangential but stay with me:

All the victim blaming stuff in the media lately has made me realize how ingrained it is in me and everyone.  When something bad happens to me, I almost immediately ask myself, “how could I have prevented this?” In fact, just writing the words “when something bad happens to me,” makes me cringe a little.  My inner editor wants to change that line to, “when I make a mistake” or some other language that makes me responsible for everything I experience.

But the truth is that there billions of other people in this world and many more forces in the universe at play all the time.  To think that we are 100% responsible for our paths is arrogant, in my opinion. And writing that today is relieving in some ways.

Bill had a lot of stuff going on that lead him to an early death.  Sure, some of those factors were his own doing – in 10 years of knowing him, I never knew him to do much of anything physically strenuous even close to what you might call “exercise”.  In the time we lived together near St. Ed’s University in Austin, I witnessed a lot of beer drinking and TV watching.  Bill knew he had some medical issues that eventually led to his heart condition but he chose to just live his life the way he wanted.  It was really easy, after he died, to say that he hastened his own heart failure and it was really easy when it was happening to essentially blame him for not taking better care of himself (which I still think he should’ve done!)

But Bill didn’t choose to have the heart condition.  He was born with it.  I guess he could’ve chosen to work a day job that didn’t provide him any health insurance but even if he’d had medical insurance at the time of his first heart attack (pre-Obamacare), the cost of his treatment would have still put him in debt for life.  Plus he probably would’ve had to have  some job that would’ve prevented him from playing music or doing what he loved.

There were lots of ways he could’ve probably lengthened his life.  But what was the price?  Was it worth it? Just barely, to him. Bill LOVED salty food and beer.   After his first heart attack, he lived 5 more years that were spent fighting the temptations of all that he felt was worth living for!

I mean… he couldn’t eat pizza.  That’s just unthinkable to me.

Last night Hen3ry Q Vines said to me, “Joggers and non-smokers die every day.”  HA!  So, even the people who do all the “right” things eventually die.  What choices could they have made to lengthen their lives and at what cost?  I suppose they should’ve had the foresight to be born in a future where their consciousness could live on forever by some technological means I can’t even imagine.  It’s their own fault.  It was a bad choice to be born now.

That sounds silly but I think that’s the message many people get from our society – if you’d just made better choices, all of this could’ve been avoided. I guess that’s true when it comes to things like dropping out of school or spending all your money on weed instead of paying the rent. But it doesn’t apply to things we don’t actually choose — like someone else’s actions or biological realities. She would’ve made so much more money had she only been born male…

Each of has only our own experiences and resources at hand to guide us.  Some of us are lucky enough to be born into lives that are rich with those things.

Most aren’t.  Does that mean that the less privileged are unworthy of help?

Apparently so.  Americans are so obsessed with “the best” in our modern day Social Darwinist climate.  If it’s not the absolute best, it may as well be dead last and not bothering to foster.  Anything short of #1 is not worth helping.

That seems so backwards to me.  We only seem to want to help those who are already winning.  So the only way to deserve or earn help is to not need it?  Sounds like the entertainment business… or just about any business in the US.

(What’s mind boggling is that those “winners” are often only winning BECAUSE of the help they get but don’t acknowledge – like corporations that lobby for lower taxes and regulations as they bank on public funds/infrastructure, claim public resources for their own and then create their own self-serving regulations that keep anyone else from having a piece of the pie ever. Even more mind boggling is how we seem to buy into it hoping to be struck by the lightning bold of luck so we can become just like them!)

There’s truth to the idea that we all make our own choices and must live with them but it’s not as if we all have an entire spectrum of options ranging from the best to the worst.  If we did, who would ever choose anything but the best?!

Because of that, “the best” is relative and in our only-the-best-will-do world, “the best” eventually just becomes lowest common denominator – odorless, colorless and easy for everyone to digest.  If variety is the spice of life, then most Americans choose to eat mayonnaise sandwiches.  They’re “the best”.

Bill never ate mayonnaise sandwiches.  Not until the end, anyway, when the cost of all that spice caught up with him and he had to start making choices his body could afford.

He lived how he wanted.  He paid the price but I think he was glad to.

I wish I’d been more understanding.  At one point, his health and attitude became so bad that I finally made him take a 6 month hiatus.  He did NOT like that.  I felt bad even at the time, but he felt awful, acted like he couldn’t stand rehearsing or gigging and wasn’t playing well.  He didn’t talk to me much in those 6 months and you know… he never really came back full time.  I felt somewhat justified (but not happily so) when, at the end of the 6 months, he had a cardiac “event” that made him realized he really did need to focus on his health.  That was about 16 months before his death.  I’m really glad that there was time for him to be annoyed with me and then for us to grow closer again before he passed.

I guess what makes me feel so damn bad is that I was just another person telling him he needed to give up something he loved so he could go on living – and even worse so that I could go on doing the thing he loved without having to drag him along (his own words).   One more person giving him mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread as if eating enough of them would ever make the salty sirloin dinners that made life worth living an option again… all the while indulging in those delights right in front of him.  Sometimes literally.

I wish I had found a better way to be more inclusive and kept him more active in our band.  I wish I’d played to his strengths rather than writing off his surliness as unwillingness to grow or change for the better when if fact it was because maintaining his existing abilities had become so hard for him.   I wish that when he was gruff with me, I could’ve seen the bigger picture – that his anger and impatience weren’t because of me, just directed at me because I was the guy in charge.

I mostly wish his last meal in OCT 9, 2014 would’ve included a salty ribeye and a whole twelve pack of India Pale Ale.

 

Gods of Convenience – 10 Years Later

austin9_050162

The Line-up from the Gods of Convenience days: Rick, Adam, me, Bill and Tommy outside Room 710 (now Valhalla) in Austin.

Recently, I was the guest on the Power Nap podcast. It’s a long conversation to have to sit through but I was amped up by the topics raised by the hosts Mike and Dieter.

At one point, Mike brought up The Invincible Czars’ first album Gods of Convenience. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Gods… wow!

A couple of posts back, I was feeling critical of the me of 2005 and since it’s the anniversary of the album, I thought I’d use this post to reflect further on Gods… and that time.

First, there’s a bunch of stuff that might be interesting to know about where we were as a band when we recorded the album.  It was interesting for me to review it.

In February 2005, the line-up was young. Rick and I had been at it for 3 years but Bill (keyboard) and Tommy (drums) had been in the band only 9 and 5 months respectively. It’s odd to me that such a fresh line up had already debuted our Nutcracker Suite holiday show just a couple months earlier and (for better or worse) “put ourselves on the map” (as Graham Reynolds said) with a surprise success that was simultaneously exciting and damning: we liked that we sold out a show, but didn’t want to be known as a hokey Christmas band. We inadvertently and effectively put a foot into the uncool world of “novelty” acts.  We didn’t mind so much but there was a collective sense that we wanted to do something that wasn’t perceived as cheesy by our peers and serious music fans. This idea seems silly looking back because it focused on trying to win over people who’d already dismissed us rather than focusing on those who did like us.  I mean…  in spite of what I wrote above, the holiday show we do is fun.  I love playing Tchaikovsky’s music and we don’t have to do it year round.  As much as we wanted to be cool, being true to ourselves meant we weren’t.

(Side note – it was only two months later than we played that weekend with NoMeansNo in Austin and Ft. Worth.  I remember feeling very validated when John Wright thought enough of us to tell his brother Rob to actually listen to us on night #2 – something he doesn’t do often with opening acts.  He told me thoroughly enjoyed us and reminded him of Nino Rota.  Cool kids’ opinions mattered less and less to me after that night.)

So I guess I thought that recording an album of aggressive, proggy instrumentals and a few tunes with angry, snotty lyrics THAT WE’D ALREADY RECORDED AND RELEASED was a good idea. This had the subtle yet later noticeable effect of both alienating people who had loved our holiday show and not even registering in the minds of most others. Brilliant!! (I assure you, there was no strategy to any of what I/we did back then.)

We recorded Gods ourselves, of course. That’s what bands that aren’t already rich or connected do and we were proud to be among that fold. Affordable digital home recording was still relatively new and we had to not only learn how to capture sound but how to deal with this new digital medium that no one else we knew (or could afford) was really any good at it either. We didn’t do that well — when Chico Jones mixed it, he at first asked us not to put his name on it!

Still, the experience educated us beyond what we would’ve learned through any other process we knew of and we/I used it to make future efforts less painful and time consuming.

We tracked the initial takes as a group in a single weekend at the office building where I worked by day. It was not the best sounding space but it was the biggest space we could find. We filled in the vocals and extra horn & guitar parts later at Rick’s house and my house. This was much more difficult than it is today. We only had one desktop computer capable of doing what we needed so if we moved, the whole set up had to move. This was pre-flat screen monitors and pre-cloud storage (dropbox, etc).   Most affordable laptops didn’t have the capability to do what we needed.

The summer before, I’d blown out my voice on the road. It actually hurt to sing for well over a year and has only recently been as powerful as it once was (it didn’t help that I gave up singing for a while in 2010). It was frustrating to have to perform the tunes for the recording knowing I was at about 60%. Worse, it physically hurt to even give that much.

Still, the CD was exciting to work on. We liked hearing ourselves and unlimited undo/redo enabled us (and I mean that in the worst way) to add and take away stuff as much as we wanted. I think my puritanical standards when it came to capturing performance harmful, in retrospect. I wanted us to be able to play a couple group takes and make minimal fixes of each tune but I didn’t seem to understand that doing so would require some arrangement changes.   So everyone was trying really hard to master material that was sometimes simply not playable.

IMG_0396

Rick and I showed up at Ohm to mix the album dressed exactly the same one day… unplanned.  Pic by Chico Jones.

Plus, all the songs were on sheet music and the better readers among us were getting really literal to the point that right notes took precedence and sounding good was less of a consideration.  In that way, Gods is more of a document of how we might’ve sounded rather than how we did.

Unlimited tracks also enabled me to make the arrangements too dense and layer things with tasteless abandon.   I’d gotten pretty good at making complex, layered arrangements that didn’t sound bad but they didn’t sound good either. They weren’t very effective.   I knew what was under all those layers but no one else did.  It must’ve seemed like a total jumble to listeners. It didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. Of the 1000 pressed, I still have about 30-50 copies.

So what’s any good about it?

Well, if it fails to present my ability to orchestrate effectively, it at least presents my strong desire to do so – or at least to do something different than most of my peers (I felt like La Mancha also did a good job of this kind of thing). I put a ton of work into the material and even if it doesn’t work, it shows.  For me, it’s cool to hear what potential was there with no guidance beyond simply listening to classical music and trying to emulate it with our instrumentation with me and my limited skills (a few music classes at ACC and private guitar lessons) in the drivers’ seat.

Bill’s keyboards really stand out to me. I hear the songs differently than I did in those days – instead of focusing on the horn and guitar, which were the original two instruments in the band, I really zoom in on those awesome analog keyboard sounds that Bill shaped for us. No wonder audiences kept telling us we sounded like Yes.

IMG_1522

Bill aka Willie Poland.

I’ve always liked Tommy and Adam’s performances on the album.   We’d recorded the songs before with other drummers but they finally rocked with Tommy. He understood what I was going for with these tunes.   I remember feeling giddy after the first time he came and played. It was just the two of us and he made “Doctor’s Excuse” really kickin’!

Possibly the best thing about it —- Gods doesn’t sound much like anything else from that time. I’ve often thought we’d be perceived as a Brown Whornet or Mr. Bungle rip-off but we’re not really as avant garde as them and lacked animated front man.  Whether anyone else liked it or not, we’d successfully created an unlikely mix of aggressive indie math pseudo-metal with fun, goofy, world-influenced stuff a la Oingo Boingo and Brave Combo combined with the DIY attitude of NoMeansNo and Fugazi.

We were pretty good at what I now know to be marketing.   One really, really weird thing at this time was the number of other bands who thought we’d quit our day jobs. People far more experience were surprised to learn that we weren’t making any more money than they were… or at least very little more. (Maybe that’s why none of the cool kids came to our shows – we seemingly came out of nowhere with this Christmas thing that didn’t seem like much of a gamble from the outside and got a bunch of attention for it. I’d probably have hated us, too.) I guess we’d just done a good job of promoting ourselves – we had a better web site than most other bands in Austin at the time thanks to Rick.

01.tif

Our second show with Tommy on drums at the Caucus Club in Austin— now known as The Mohawk — on their brand new (at the time) outdoor stage October 2004. We were super stoked when the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram ran this a HUGE version of this pic (taken by Gina Holton) in advance of one of our shows there.

As all over the map as the album is, that variety has never gone away. We’ve at least been consistent with our inconsistency and it all started there.  We only got better at things like improvising (which most of us sucked at in 2005), playing latin and country styles and mixing loud guitars with horns and violins.

Though the recording is super dense, many of the tunes on Gods lasted a long time in our live show. We got a lot of mileage out of my arrangement of “A Glezele Vayn”, “Iron Fist of Stalin” and “Mursketine” which were always standouts. “Glezele” was the default encore number until 2013! You know how you sometimes get sick of a song? I never got tired of playing “Doctor’s Excuse”, “Gods of Convenience” or “Mursketine”.

Unlike a lot of Austin bands, we actually had a bit of a message with the notion of the song “Gods of Convenience”. The Austin Chronicle called us “activists” in their generous 2.5 star review. The rest of the lyrics were about indie-rock snobs and other people who’d pissed one of us off. Not exactly tackling the issues. Nonetheless, our lyrics weren’t just about partying, love/sex, satan or nothing at all. They may not evoke much emotion, but at least they were pretty well thought out.

Tommy, Adam and I were really tight together. This recording reminds of all the stop-on-a-dime weird, unnecessarily difficult changes we were capable of together as the extended rhythm section. Even if it only appealed to other dudes with beards who like metal, we were pretty damn good at it.

Emos-Oct-2004-1024x768-375

Adam, Tommy and me at the old Emo’s in 2005 opening for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. We’d shaven half of our hair. Tommy had only half a beard and I only had one mutton chop. Adam had half a goatee!

I think that sentence might just sum up the way I feel about the album in general. Gods came out right around the time that new music was newly so plentiful and readily available that no one wanted to invest their money or time in anything that wasn’t sure to please. Developing an act slowly in public still happens, but it seems that most of the more successful (whatever that means now) groups these days come out of the gate already totally put-together with social media, business and video editing skills as strong as their musicianship – sometimes stronger!  Maybe we (especially me) were naive and idealistic dreamers living at the end of an era but I’m glad that we were able to have a time of such an innocent and simple passion for what we did. I miss that. We were just doing what we thought was cool and working what we had (we still do this).  We were always, always genuine. I’m proud of that and that’s what Gods reminds me of now.

Thank you Adam, Rick, Tommy and Bill for rocking for real.

 

 

Tribute Bands – Cruising in the “B” Ark

(or Shooting Free Throws Whilst Stand on a Ladder)

I was going back and forth with a fan from Chicago this week on the topic of original music verses playing covers and tribute bands. It got my wheels turning.

Before you read this, know that I don’t hate tribute or cover bands and I think that comparing them to original bands is not apples to apples:

I don’t remember much about my first gig in LA except being surprised to find almost nothing but tribute bands in the show listings of their weekly paper.  Someone (I think Bill Petersen) predicted the scourge of tribute bands would find it’s way across the country and it sure has.

Though I mostly feel neutral about them now, the idea of tribute bands becoming the primary contribution of a music scene to its region still bugs me. “Los Angeles – the Copy Cat Music Capital of the World” doesn’t seem fitting for a town that creates tons of good original music – even if it’s just as obscure as anything from any other city.

Maybe that’s what happens when a scene gets so big and saturated though — when a community has so many options that the fleeting and unrefined tastes of the majority practically dictate that anyone who wants to play the game must deal in lowest common denominators. The idea of asking the audience to make an investment as simple as listening to a whole original song or watching a whole original short film becomes too big a request. They don’t have time for that when they could be seeing one of two Led Zeppelin tribute bands tonight!

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about giving your audience what they want – and don’t tribute bands do that better than any original act possibly can?

I mean, The Egg Men are about as close as anyone under the age of 50 will ever get to seeing the Beatles live. That’s valuable to a scene – and possibly even outside it! Plus, it helps keeps the Beatles’ alive beyond recorded media. Cool.

But that’s not giving your audience what they want. That’s giving The Beatles’ audience what they want.

And this is why it’s so easy to hate tribute (and cover) bands when you’re a snobby, self-proclaimed artist like me (hey, at least I’m not alone!): They get to skip past the years-long investment and trial and error of creating music and a b®and and building an audience. Instead, they tap into an already-existing catalog of beloved classics that audiences already love thanks to the work of the most popular bands in the world ever and their team of managers, arrangers, handlers, publicists, etc. etc etc.

That sounds pretty smart from a business standpoint – but it’s kind of like shooting free throws on ladder three inches from the basket. Either you’re cheating or you’re not really playing the same game.

If you don’t care about playing the same game, that’s great because you are now mentally set to play high paying gigs right off the bat while furthering the catalog of your favorite band.

That’s why I now feel pretty neutral about tribute bands. They’re not playing the same game. I already know I can shoot ten out of ten free throws on the ladder as long as I don’t mess up majorly. I don’t really care about playing that game.

That’s oversimplified. Good tribute bands take work, talent and dedication just like original bands – but (I say this with total respect to The Egg Men and any really good tribute band) tribute bands aren’t artists.

OK OK OK – yes, there are some very cool tribute bands out there like that put their own spin on the music they tribute – Jazzus Lizard, Dung Beatles, Dread Zeppelin.  In that way, they’re more like a band covering the material in their own style rather than striving for an exact replica of what’s already been done.

But there’s probably a Beatles, a Led Zeppelin and a Pink Floyd (why are they all British?) tribute band in every major US and European city. Why should anyone outside of Austin care about the Egg Men when the Day Trippers and the Paperback Writers and the Number 9s are all playing the same songs we all know and love?

I posit that the number of people who choose to listen to a recording of The Egg Men over a recording of the Beatles is very low and probably even lower than the number of people who listen to recordings of obscure small time bands.

Original bands have the opportunity to make a direct and much deeper connection with their fans. Even if it’s small, it’s real, lasting and valuable to both parties.   Original bands can change lives and that can go beyond the boundaries of their home town or region.

Tribute bands only validate changes to lives already made by the band they tribute.  They don’t make as direct a connection so much as they act as a medium for one.  They’re valuable and even memorable but… ultimately they’re cruising through universe of music in a Douglas Adams-esque “B” Ark and the music business knows it:  Ever see a review of tribute band’s album?  How many tribute bands play at ACL, SxSW, FPSF or other music festivals?  Not many… if any.

Side Note: Anyone want to start a NoMeansNo tribute band?