26 July 2010

I'm over here (or there) now!

hey folks.

it's been a while. i know. but what i have lacked in blogging i have made up for in songwriting, playing out, etc. i have also grown a little tired of the clunky interface and lack of ability to intersperse blogging with multimedia here; so, along with my need to start promoting myself as a musician and performer, i am moving operations over to Tumblr. if you wanna continue to read my occasional ramblings, but also get a chance to see videos of my and my band perform, please click on over to and adjust your rss aggregators to my tumblr site.

again, that's: chrisqmurphy.tumblr.com.

hope to see you there.

30 May 2010

Survivors and then some.

My dad always wanted to be a musician. My mom, while having sung in the "glee club" back in high school, couldn't have cared one way or the other. No no no, this will not be that long-ass post about how I became who I am, but I should mention that those of my friends who are close enough to know that music is the air that I breathe and have met my family are often confused as to how I came upon such a way of life. My wife is principal amongst them. Recently, however, she was able to make a little more sense of how I came to be the music junkie I am.

In an effort to spring a birthday surprise on me (which is beautifully becoming more of an outlier than an actual surprise), my dad traveled in excess of 1000 miles in order to just "turn up" at my birthday extravaganza last month. He is one of my most ardent supporters and one of my favourite faces to see in the crowd because despite any longtime hatchets or old wounds still healing, he, more than any other adult in my life during my formative years, made me a musician. He laid the foundation with Harry Chapin eight tracks in his seemingly endless parade of used cars and built the first few stories by surrounding himself (and as a result, yours truly) with musicians and creative free spirits of many an ilk. The two characters who helped most in lending a little more tangible weight to my father's quest to make me a musician were Lee (whom we called Spider) and Bob (whom we called Dr. Bob). These guys were guitar players, singers, entertainers, and improvisers of the first degree. I will never forget the night that I, probably around 10 years old, was allowed to stay up well past my bedtime on my father's second-hand couch nestled into his armpit as a roomful of bikers and/or recovering addicts improvised verses to an equally improvised folk sing-along whose simple refrain was "disfunctionality". I can still hear it in my head. It lives in my mind as a moment rife with the musical ideals I strive for in my classroom and in my home. The organizers/star performers of the evening were the aforementioned Bob and Lee. It was around that time that Lee gave me my first two (and only for 20 years) guitar lessons, only to sort of drift out of my consciousness and conversations when my old man moved down to Florida a year or so later. Bob, however, seemed sorta omnipresent. He had moved down south as well - abiding (and I use that in both the "living" sense and the "Dude-referencing" sense) in Jacksonville to my dad's Gulf Coast. He still seemed to come up in conversations from time to time. A few years back when sneaking down for a weekend to be the last mate to Captain Dad on a fishing tournament/client courting weekend, Bob was first mate and the most pleasant surprise of the excursion. At some point over the course of that short jaunt down memory lane he told me that he had a bunch of old songs he had written but had never been played in public and, based on what my dad had told him about what I was up to at the time, he would love for me to do something with them. I think I asked him to email me some mp3's, but, for whatever reason, that conversation was the last I heard of those songs - until last month.

It was strangely not surprising to see Dr. Bob standing there next to my dad in the divey bar I choose to celebrate my birthday in each year. And whatever surprise may have been present was of the most pleasant variety. All talk of their response to the show aside, we all agreed to have lunch the next day - but a stop up to our apartment would be in order first. I am not sure at which point he was talked into it, but my Dad asked Bob to play me "The Biker Song" (possibly to finish up the conversation we began on the back of that boat a few years back), I handed him my guitar, and he obliged. I was slick enough to record it on my iPhone as to preserve what I somehow knew was going to be a special event, but all the technology in the world couldn't have captured the raw emotion in the room. For the next four minutes or so, we all sat spellbound: My wife taking in the sheer beauty of the event, my dad reliving the memories about which Bob sang, and me flashing back to the late night on my dad's shabby couch over 20 years ago. When he finished the song, we all caught our collective breath, wiped the damp from the corners of our eyes, and my wife simply said, "I finally get it. I never understood how you wound up a musician, but I finally get it". We all just sorta chuckled a knowing laugh and went out to enjoy the weather before getting lunch at the diner.

While I am sure groups of friends and gatherings of folks have heard Bob's songs before, he swears they have never been performed in "public" before. Without getting into which of those "publics" is more important (see my friend Matt's comments on my post from a few days ago), I told Bob that I would do my best to honor his years of hard work and bring his songs to the stage. Here's a video of my first effort:


video

28 May 2010

Going it Alone (as a douchebag with a guitar).

As I will outline in a post later this weekend, I am much better at playing my songs on stage with a band backing me. There are musical concerns (a broader textural palate, an opportunity for me to due something other than provide basic harmony and rhythmic drive) to be sure, but the real difference maker for me comes down to confidence and comfort. I am still not 100% sure as to why I need people around me on stage when, truth be told, I don't interact with them all that much, but I know that I exude a little more swagger and come off as a little more relaxed when I have a backing band. I have been super lucky up to this point in my budding solo career to have had great friends willing to learn my songs and back me up for discount rates. The Fiendish Thingies (as I have taken to calling my backing band) are the greatest group of players I could ask for. Sensitive and flexible, they are able to render beautiful renditions of my tunes with the efficiency of a crack team of ice-cold musical assassins.

Last night, however, I opted to go it alone. No backing band. No safety net. I booked the gig early last month with just this in mind. I figured that any playing I do can only help me get better at interacting with the crowd, designing solid set lists, etc. Despite my good intentions, the gig kinda slipped my mind and I found myself rehearsing for it (specifically as opposed to just generally rehearsing my songs) with only a few days to spare. I kinda freaked out. I was tempted to, at the last minute, call up some of the Fiendish Thingies and see if they were available after all, but I thought better of it and decided to go ahead with the plan and brave the stage alone. Sound dramatic? Yup - but allow me to explain: I am terrified of being what a good friend of mine and I call "that douchebag with a guitar". You know the one: kinda schlubby, heart on his sleeve, strumming an acoustic guitar in that mid-90's acoustic rock sorta way. His songs aren't great. His voice is kinda "meh". His guitar playing is passable but he's no one would you would pay a cover charge to see again. Yeah. That guy. It's hard not to be that guy when it's just you and your guitar on stage. Like I said in yesterday's post: my songs are above average and I am pretty good singer and guitar player - I've even started to work in the harmonica in hopes that I could have another layer of sound on stage and maybe even evoke a little of that cool folk-singer vibe - but at the end of the day I might just be a douchebag with a guitar. It's situations like this in which I wish I was female. As maligned as the post-Ani, or, even worse, the post-Michelle Branch "girl with guitar" is (and I do some of said maligning from time to time), there is something quintessentially more attractive and interesting about a young woman playing a guitar and singing songs she's written. While I know that those ladies have the odds stacked against them in more ways than I can count, I also envy the seemingly endless amount of audience surprise and, dare I say it, immediate novelty of what they do. (girls in the room, I really hope you're not taking this the wrong way) But I am not a girl. I am not even what many consider cute. Why is that important? It's because over the years we have seen countless "cute guy with guitar" types achieve some modicum of success as a result of a combination of passable to great musical skill and, moreover, *ahem* marketability (read: attractiveness). See: Blunt, James. Mraz, Jason. Mayer, John. Johnson, Jack. Singer/songwriter types all (though Mayer has attempted - and succeeded to a certain degree - to remake himself as a serious guitar slinger), these gentlemen have become the poster-children for this generation's worth of what I do.

Why am I so friggin self-conscious about this? Well, the problem is three-fold. First, I have a severe contrarian/indie/anti-mainstream streak and the "douchebag with a guitar" reeks of what I see as that sort of mindless, artless mediocrity or is trying really hard to attain it. Second, in said land there are two types of guys: the famous ones and the annoying "douchebags with guitars". I am not famous. You do the math. Third, I hate watching the bad ones play. I can honestly count on one hand the number of singer-songwriters/solo performers I have actually been impressed by in my ten years of playing live music in NYC. I have seen what feels like thousands and almost all of them make me feel a little embarrassed for them. Is it snobby as hell of me to look down on what they conceive and perceive to be their art? Are my standards too high for lowly clubs in NYC? The answer to these questions very well might be yes, but in a world where mainstream media, and moreover, musical success is more often predicated on one's appearance as opposed to how they sing, write, or play, someone (that also doesn't work for a major media outlet) needs to be a standard bearer of sorts. I try hard not to be a critic, but I know what I like, and this whole fuckin entry seems to be about my fear of becoming something that I don't.

(this really wasn't supposed to be a rant, btw)

My friend Spiff, who is also working the singer/songwriter circuit has figured out a way to beat the system: he's a one-man band. Capitalizing not only on his good songwriting, he also takes advantage of his ability to play a ton of different instruments by cleverly arranging them in such a way that he can sing and play as many as five instruments (up to four at a time) in a single song. Sounds cool, yeah? It's great. Were his songs shitty (and they're quite the opposite), I would still wanna go see that live. Ernie Vega, who I know from the NYC CBGBOT (country, bluegrass, blues, old-time) scene gets away with escaping the aforementioned "douchebag..." moniker by mixing in his originals with some traditional blues numbers. It helps that he's a great guitar player and his own songs seem to fit into that feel - but either way, I like to go see Ernie play his songs because his abilities as a player and his interpretations of older tunes make his shows interesting as all get out. To call either of these endeavours a "gimmick" would be an insult to either/both of these great musicians, but both of these guys have found a way to separate themselves from the pack. I have yet to find a way to do the same. Shit, I am not even sure what genre of music I play. Without a solid marketing scheme (yup, even at this level) based on either a specific genre thumbprint or gimmick, it's damn-near impossible to be seen as anything other than just another "douchebag with a guitar". As original or as clever as I think my music and show might be, until I can make someone interested in hearing my music before actually hearing my music, I am essentially dead in the water.

So I need a backing band or a gimmick to make myself happy. Hmm...

Long in short (more long, really), the gig went as well as could be expected last night. It was a low profile gig at a low-pressure venue on a weeknight, so remembering the words and only making a few mistakes would have been considered doing ok; but I think I did a little better than that; yet I still hope that was my last truly solo gig ever.

Sincerely (and, possibly, inescapably),
A douchebag with a guitar

27 May 2010

The entry I have been planning to write for a looong time:

Sitting on my couch last night I got an email from a good friend of mine. He is one of my most regular musical conspirators and one of the best musicians I know. The fact that we get on well is an added bonus. We don't socialize much outside of making music, but I am sure that one of the reasons we keep playing together is because we enjoy one another's company. I had sent him (and some others) an email early in the day about potentially getting together in more of a social setting this upcoming Sunday, and, while he was certainly interested, he mentioned that he might be sitting in with another musician that evening, so his plans would need to be based on the time that gig allows him. A sharp pang of jealousy and disappointment ran up my spine. Why wasn't I sitting in with someone on Sunday? I realize just how ridiculous this was. There's a good chance I don't even know that cat that he's playing with - and yet - there I was - a little frustrated. This came on the heels of a conversation with another very good friend of mine who I have had the opportunity to sit in with a few times. He has only recently begun playing music again after a long hiatus and has often looked to me for counsel as he slowly dipped his toe back into the murky waters that are the live music scene in NYC. He asked me to come along and play a show with him at some point in July. I was disappointed that I couldn't take the gig he offered as I was playing a gig with my band that night. That's right, folks: I had a crisis of conscience about having to turn down an opportunity to play someone else's songs because I was already booked to do a concert of my own. Fucked up? Surely. I offered to get him a gig on the same bill as me, and, strangely, he wasn't particularly interested. It might have been because he's doing more of a "rock" thing at the moment (my show is at a quieter venue), but I think the real deterrent was that it was in Park Slope at cafe whereas his potential gig is at a bar (albeit a kinda shitty one) in the far more musically illustrious neighborhood of Williamsburg (I am actually not spewing sarcasm there). It kinda hurt. While I know he wasn't levying judgment on a venue I am choosing to play, it was an unintentional yet subtle dig at the path I have chose as of late: quasi-acoustic, small venues, etc. Between these two exchanges with some of my close friends/musical friends I was emotionally spent and just needed to go to bed and pretend I am not a musician. This feeling gets me from time to time. I often consider throwing in the towel. The "quitting" rationale usually makes sense as I often have this way after coming home from a particularly mediocre gig or rehearsal. This time, however, I am forced to really think hard about this as it comes on the heels of not having played music with anyone in public for more than a week. I hate to sound dramatic, but my entire musical ego seems to rest on constant positive interaction with other musicians. Either way, it just calls this entire endeavour into question. Were I 22 years old with no attachments (read: career, wife, etc) and lots and lots of time on my hands, I could continue to slug it out in the minor leagues hoping that at some point someone would like my music enough to pay me money to do just that. But I'm not - which is a big part of this quandary. It's interesting: I know I'm never gonna make it. I have rationalized it. I have processed it. I have come to terms with it (sort of). And yet: I keep on plugging away. There are moments (like this one) that I ask myself why. Let's examine this introspection, shall we?

1) If it's gonna happen, it would have happened by now.
By music industry standards I am old, overweight, and just plain 'ol not interesting enough to make me worth marketing. Furthermore, I have been plugging away at this for a long time. I have played a few different instruments in lots of different bands and, as fun as it's been, it hasn't "lead" to anything. This doesn't really bother me. I am somewhat content to tread water at the "level" I am at right now: playing at low to mid-level venues on a semi-regular basis with people I love. There are, however, lots of little things I need to balance to be able to keep doing that.
2) Looking for a job is a full-time job.
The people who "make it" in this world work their asses off. They do nothing but write, play, rehearse, etc. They may have a "day job" that requires little cosmic energy, but they are certainly not defined by it. The folks that both work a day job and are full-time musicians are often romantically unattached. I am not afforded these *ahem* luxuries. Now let me be clear: I love my wife and would not go back and do anything differently in that regard. She's unbelievably patient with the amount of playing I currently do and I couldn't do any of it without her support, but the times I have played out more regularly have put a strain on our relationship, so those two ideals will always clash at least a little. Also: I really love my day job. I get paid a decent amount of money to turn a whole new generation of people onto making music. It's a blast, it's fairly fulfulling, but it's exhausting. Years ago I wrote off a friend of a friend (who has gone on to be fairly famous) for repeating the dreaded adage "those who can't teach" to my face - but I have come to understand an appreciate this ex-thorn in my side in a very different way: those who teach can't because they don't have the psychic energy it takes to commit themselves fully to anything else. Sure, teacher hours afford me time to have a second 1/2-a-life as a musician - and I think that that "other" life is what ultimately makes me a great music teacher - but, so long as I have another full time job at which I cannot "phone it in", I'll never have the type of chutzpa it would take to "make it" as a musician.
3) Humility gets you nowhere.
Confidence and ego aside (and we may get to these in a later entry), I am generally rather humble about my skills as a songwriter, singer, and player. While I am still a fair piece from the top of the heap, I am an above-average guitar player, a passable upright bass player, a competent player of a number of other instruments, a pretty damn good singer, and a pretty good songwriter. Yet you'd never know any of that after meeting me or even talking to me for a half an hour or more. I may make some passing reference to my life as a musician, but I tend to play it down. I am not quite sure why I do this. Maybe it's the mid-90's self-effacing slacker ethic I picked up way back when. Maybe it's 'cos I am terrified that someone will say "well play me a song right now". I also think that, aside from my being generally shy when meeting new people, I am just not sure that anyone cares to hear about my misadventures on the NYC music scene. So many of my closest friends are also musicians and have had similar experiences, so I think have convinced myself that those experiences don't make me particularly special or interesting. So rather than be over-assertive, I tend to not talk about it at all. I also convinced myself, at some point, that reminding friends about my shows via emails or text messages only annoys them. Do I have any actual evidence to back that up? No - but I do know that I am easily annoyed by people in constant "promotion mode". I know a dude who can't go four sentences without talking about his next show. He only responds to my gig emails by telling me he can't go 'cos he has a gig that night, but recommends I show up at his show before/after mine (he just did this yesterday). It's fucking annoying. I mean: I also think the dude is a douchebag so I am sure that colours the situation, but I also find that the people that try to turn friends into fans upon meeting them for the first time, either by handing them a business card or talking up their next gig, are a little disingenuous - and that's just about the least flattering social trait I can think of. I dunno - maybe they are just that excited about what they're doing and they wanna tell everyone they know (or just met). Either way, it's a skill that appears to be necessary just to keep things rolling on the music scene in NYC. Unfortunately, it's also a skill I have yet to muster. I don't want people to think my friendships with them are laced with ulterior motives that will lead to their suffering through shitty opening acts and overpriced drinks. I tend to choose socializing over networking and it tends to bite me in the ass. Balance? This one is absolutely exasperating.
4) Guitarists are a dime a dozen
It was a little more than a year ago that I wrote a long entry on this here blog about wanting to become a great guitar player. One year later I have lots more skills, yet fewer guitar gigs to show for it. I recently quit the one band wherein I was the primary guitar player and kinda blew the one chance I had to be an aforementioned friend's regular guitar player by overplaying. Ugh. I really want a chance to be a hotshot guitar-slingin' sideman - a pretty tall order as no one knows I play. When I do my singer/songwriter-type thing, it's tough to show off any fancy guitar stuff because my instrument is really part of the larger texture, and besides, I want to draw attention to my singing and the songs themselves. Furthermore, in the band in which I am most publicly visible, I am playing bass about 90% of the time. So why don't people ask me to play bass gig more often, you ask? Well... to be frank (and I am not just being humble here): I am not a great upright bass player. I do ok, but it's doubtful anyone will call me up and ask me to play fo them based on the merits I display playing with the Whistlin' Wolves. I am also not known as a freelancer-about-town. See: there are certain bass players around that are sorta "on call" - and since there are so few of them - and since most of them work full-time as bass players (see earlier paragraphs for reasons I don't) - work just doesn't get tossed my way. To be fair: I am practicing to remedy this and I did just get my first freelance bass gig ever - so things are looking up - but I am still a long way from being first call. I am not sure why I strive to be a hired gun. I guess it's the ultimate compliment that someone thinks you can just show up and be good to go - and god knows I my musical ego is so fucking fragile that I want all the compliments I can get. I think I am ready for that kinda work. So who wants to hire me to play guitar? bass? *crickets*
5) To gig or not to gig?
One of the reasons I am guessing that my friend (beginning of post, not interested in the gig I offered) finds the idea of playing in Williamsburg - even at a fairly shitty venue - more appealing than doing a coffee house show with me is because there's a scene there. People just go out to hear music. Going to hear your friend's band is something you do regularly. I am sad to report that while I have done my time going to see other people's shows over the years, I have found that this simply is not the case with the crowd I run with or places I live. I refuse to believe that my music is so piss-poor that people refuse to come see me, but rallying the troops beyond those who are doing the "friendly thing" by coming to watch me play has been a challenge for as long as I have been doing this. I have made excuses. I have raised questions. I have promoted my shows (though, as I mentioned before, probably not nearly enough). Still, I have always brought out small to medium numbers of people, and I have always been waiting for the other shoe to drop. This has led to a weird consideration/concession I have had to make while beginning to step out as a solo artist: how often should I play? Sadly: in NYC, your ability to get gigs is often predicated on your ability to draw a crowd, rather than, and, sadly, sometimes in place of, how good your tunes/show are. I recognize that the places I play are businesses, so the "bottom line" will always be a part of the equation, but I have seen some pretty shitty bands (and I know this is all very subjective) play at some pretty great places in some fairly prime spots due to their having lots of friends who are young and like to drink and hear live music (I guess I have the wrong type of friends for a musician). So here's the quandary: If I play too seldom, my name does not get "out there" leading to the type of recognition that would lead to bigger audiences and bigger gigs - but if I play too often I will be rolling the dice on having a crowd at all, thus risking my ability to get any gigs in the future. Straight up: my friends are not gonna come out and see me play every week - and I don't fault them for that. But on the off-chance that I do make some new fans who really like going out to see live music, there's a good chance that they will have forgotten who I am by the time they receive an email notification about my next gig some three weeks later. I have had constant discussions about this with musician friends and no one seems to have figured this game out. I think the ideal is that you live, work, and play in a community where live music is an essential part of people's lives. I don't, so if you can figure this one out for me, please let me know.

6) Wanting your cake and eating it too - and pie - and ice cream - and...
When I go see a rock band, I want to start a rock band. When I go to see an old time group, I want to start and old time group. When I hear my friend is sitting in on guitar with and avant-garde Himalayan jazz nonet reinterpreting the songs of Paul Simon, I want... you know. That's right, folks: I want to be a singer/songwriter (requiring time to write more songs), an ace hired-gun-type lead guitarist, a bass player in a successful old time/blues/country/Americana/folk group (luckily I have this one already), a guitar playing vocalist/contributing member to some sort of indie pop/rock band, all the while maintaining my job as middle school music teacher and life as a loving husband and someday father. I am guessing that if I picked one of those goals and poured all of my energy into it, I might be able to get somewhere with it - but then you'd be reading about how bored I am doing just one thing. It's a vicious cy- nevermid. This one sorta speaks for itself.

So if you see me looking angry or despondent or just plain 'ol pensive after a show or during a show or between shows or walking away from you after meeting you for the first time, just think back on this post and remember that it's not just 'cos I am a sad-sack, it's 'cos I have a lot on my mind. Every step (and misstep) I take in this dense and murky forest that is the NYC music scene is cause for reflection in my world. Do I realize that all the time I spent writing this could have been used to try and tackle any of the aforementioned time-sensitive challenges I have set up for myself? Sure I do, but I wouldn't have gotten shit done without getting this off of my chest. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have. ;)

p.s. - come see my show tonight!
p.p.s. - (see. I'm trying!)

18 May 2010

The end of an Era.

As you may or may not know, I played my very last show with the Randy Bandits on May 1 at a private party thrown by/for Bandits' bassist (and one of my oldest friends and musical soul brothers) Jay Buchanan's family. It was the end if a 7+ year run with one of the greatest group of musicians and friends a guy could ask for. If you wanna read about my getting my start in the Bandits, you can read an old post about it here. Rather than try to pour over things I have already poured over and write stuff all over again, I will just go ahead and cut and past the simple explanation I send out to my mailing list back in March. Here 'tis:

After nearly 7 years of playing with the Randy Bandits, I have decided to call it a day. I have had the time of my life playing with the various shady and nefarious characters who have slipped in and out of this band of musical marauders over the years and have learned more about music from these guys and gals than from any other group of players I have ever worked with or studied under. It's been a journey worthy of 14,000 valedictory speeches and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but it seems to have run its course for me; but like so many Bandits before me, I walk away knowing that I have left my mark on this ever-changing organism of a band. To be clear: there's no ill will here. The guys in the band right now are my brothers and I thank them sincerely and immensely for being so understanding and supportive of my decision. It's just time to step aside and watch the Randy Bandits from the same perspective you all have had the privilege to share over the years. I look forward to standing next to you all in the audience at a Bandits show in the future and toasting the band for the magic they make.

If only for completeness's (or vanity's) sake, here is what Jim Knable, the fearless and stalwart leader of the Randy Bandits had to say about it:

Fandits, Tonight's gig at Hank's Saloon in Brooklyn (3rd and Atlantic Ave, 10pm) is a historic one as it will be Chris Murphy's last official New York gig with the band (he's still playing with us in New Jersey for a party in May). Chris Q. Murphy has been with the Bandits since another historic gig we did back in 2003, a gig at the Triad where two of the Bandits met their future wives and Spiff magically found a trumpet mouthpiece backstage when he was missing one. Since 2003, Mr. Murphy has contributed greatly to the Randy Bandits sound, style and substance. He put his personal vocal stamp on "Sally Ann" and "Romeo, You Gotta Go"-- both of which are preserved for eternity on our albums REDBEARD and GOLDEN ARROW. He co-wrote, along with myself and Russ Kaplan, the music for "What You Believe" (also on REDBEARD) and contributed greatly to many song arrangements (including the horn arrangement on "Loraine"). Starting in the band as the bass player, he moved to electric guitar in 2007 when his childhood friend Jay Buchanan took over bass duties. As a guitarist, Chris created many memorable parts, especially on GOLDEN ARROW. His work in the production studio is heard on tracks from REDBEARD ("New Zealand" and "Catalyst") and on the entirety of GOLDEN ARROW, where he served as mixing and mastering advisor to Bryce Goggin and Fred Kevorkian. Many of you who have known Chris as a teacher, friend and collaborator know that he works tirelessly and is always ready to offer strong opinions-- something he has done for this band now for 7 years. Chris let us know that he was moving in a new direction recently and we've all been very supportive. As with legendary Bandits from days of yore, Stephen Aleman and Regina Bain, Chris will always be with us in spirit, continue to stay with us in the arrangements he's helped create and will more than likely show up from time to time as a guest star. We'll miss him in the band, his energy, his great talent and his motivational work ethic. Join us tonight as we celebrate both Chris' birthday and his lasting Randy Bandits legacy.

I was literally welling up with tears a little bit as I read that. Those Bandits are on classy crew. SO! I thank all of you who have come out to see me and the Randy Bandits over the last many years. It has been fabulous to have had your support all this time and hope to see you out at Chris Q. Murphy & The Fiendish Thingies and The Whistlin' Wolves shows in the future.

17 May 2010

One day I'll get what's mine...

through the Persistence of Time.

At some point last evening, while reading through some of the Dio obits, I stumbled onto some pics of the recently passed metal god hanging out with some of the guys from Anthrax, a band I hadn't thought about in years. I quickly did the re-acquaintance rounds (official site, Wiki entry, recent news), pirated (I really need to lay off the Mediafire, btw) some albums I deemed "essential", and was reminded as to why I liked these guys more than the other 3 of the big 4 (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax) thrash acts of my 'tween and early teen years: their clear links to NYC hardcore and their sense of humor. While history has shaken out differently and I have come to adore some of the earliest efforts by Slayer and Metallica (I still don't really get the whole Megadeth thing), as a lad, I could never get past the staunch seriousness displayed by these bands while playing music that, as I knew even then, was more theatre than most people were willing to let on. Anthrax didn't bother with the posturing. They were working class skater punks from Queens and made no bones about it. While they could write an angry tune as well as any of the others, their public personae were always a little on the goofy side. In this they were able to appeal to both my suburban white preteen angst and the side of me that considered the Naked Gun movies to be high cinema. (for the record: I still do)

Now don't get me wrong - I was never a serious metalhead. I don't think I would have been allowed to be one in my house. I don't even think I purchased any music by these bands (instead relying on cassette copies from friends) until I was already in high school. So I was shocked by the immediacy of the memories and the nostalgia I felt for Anthrax's 1990 album, Peristence of Time. I guess listening to it was somehow akin to my opening a time capsule - as all of the other music I loved way back when has either stuck with me through the years (Guns n' Roses, Whitesnake) or has been canonized by the indieretrofuckbag movement as the ultimate kitsch (Vanilla Ice) and become ubiquitous whereas this album's very existence had completely escaped my brain - because I couldn't get the silly grin off my face as I walked to school this morning rocking out to this album that I have unfairly forgotten. No, I am not here to claim its being on par with metal classics like Slayer's Reign in Blood or Metallica's Master of Puppets - nor am I even claiming it to be Anthrax's finest hour - but this record seems to represent a very special time and place for me, and, after all, isn't that why we like the records we do?
So think hard folks. What were you listening to when you were 13 or 14 years old? When was the last time you listened to it or even thought of it? Would it still resonate with you? Would it at least be worth the cheap nostalic thrill? There's only one way to find out.

07 October 2009

Ride Like the Wind indeed!

Whether you know of musicians like Michael Macdonald and Christopher Cross because you were always a fan, have become a fan recently, have heard them sampled by hip hop producers, or just plain 'ol dig Yacht Rock (I refuse to link it, but you can go find it on Youtube), you all know these cats can sing; but did you know that Christopher Cross is a sick guitar player?! Neither did I. Check It:

24 September 2009

Embryonic Review, or: The Return of Michael Ivins, or: The Record I've Wanted the Lips to Make for Some Time Now.

After taking my second class with Salim Washington at Brooklyn College, I finally convinced myself to swear of music criticism. I stopped reading album reviews (for the most part as old habits die hard), didn't renew my subscription to Paste, and have made a lot of efforts to not be such a dick about other people's tastes when different than mine. I have been fairly successful in this quest to purge myself of the world of negative and/or uninformed response to other people's art, but we all fall down every now and again. I only mention all of this because, while the title of this post does indeed contain the word "review", I am no way hoping to levy criticism or pass any judgment on the Flaming Lips upcoming album or their catalogue as a whole. The fact is, I am only eight songs in and feel the need to celebrate this album's accomplishment in making all of this l'il Lips fan's dreams come true.

Like so many people my age, I was turned on to the Flaming Lips via the lone hit single in their 20+ year career: "She Don't Use Jelly" from 1994's Transmissions from the Satellite Heart.
At the time, it seemed something of a novelty and I didn't even get into the band proper until I picked up a cassette copy of the aforementioned album from the "cutout bin" of a local record store during my sophomore year in college. (During the cassette tape's last gasp, you could often find many fairly contemporary and even classic albums on cassette for as little as $1.99. Being as I was in a sort of "hording" phase for music and, as I did live in the 'burbs and only had a tape deck - as opposed to a CD player - in my oft-used vehicle, I loved rummaging through these "cutout bins") While it wasn't exactly love-at-first-listen, I was very drawn to the rather ramshcakle or homemade aesthetic. Raunchy guitars, raw natural drums, and Wayne Coyne's less than stellar (by "conventional" standards) vocals seemed to mesh seemlessly not only with the mid-90's slacker ethos I bought into, but also with the psychedelic element present in this music. All of these modifiers, however, never overpowered the great songcraft and universalist/world saving vibe that made this a fun listen - but, for at the time, only a fun listen.

I finally got wrapped up in their world a few years later. While working at a shitty chain record store during the summer after I graduated (college), I decided to grab a copy of 1999's The Soft Bulletin. Critics had been raving (it was around then that I started my aforementioned dirty habit) about it since it dropped, so that in concert with my earlier casual, but enjoyable, relationship with their music and the cover art that made the whole thing seem somehow cinematic, was enough for me to take a copy home at the end of the summer (with my employee discount). It was nothing short of life-changing. It was beautiful, majestic, exquisitely produced, and, most importantly, incredibly human. There was life in these songs! Roughly conceptual (in both production value and lyrical content), this album seem to tap into many of the things I wrestling with as I stepped out of the sheltered world of the music conservatory and living on my parents' dime and into the real world. It was a mixed bag of louder-than-hell drum beats, chiming guitars, purposefully-phony-sounding string patches, pianos, organs, and the melodic (but always structurally supportive) bass playing of Michael Ivins - and all in the context of the inimitable Wayne Coyne singing about the one thing that matters more than the humdrum drama of daily life and the loftiness of science and the supernatural: love. I was hooked on the music and on the message. The only that seemed to have gotten lost in the shuffle was the reckless "homemade" qualities I found so appealing on that old cassette I had.

My best friend and now ages-old musical conspirator, Lucas, began drinking the Flaming Lips Kool-Aid, at my urging, around the same time - and he took a considerably larger dose, delving into their back catalogue and seeing them live. First the back catalogue: Despite our both loving The Soft Bulletin in a very big way, he was equally drawn to their preceding album, Clouds Taste Metallic. More in tune with the record which had gotten my initial attention (the aformentioned Transmissions...), this record seemed purposefully messy and organic from an instrumental and production standpoint, but seemed to be lyrically grappling with some of the larger issues that got me hooked on their then more recent release. In addition to the role that lyrics about love and whatnot began to play, the musical stylings of Steven Drozd (who plays almost all of the instrumental tracks in the studio) and the sure-handed and imaginitive bass playing of Michael Ivins really took centestage on this record. But, as I was a sucker for slick (and often overdone) production at the time, I didn't give too much thought to Clouds Taste Metallic 'til much later when, in a twist of fate, I found myself interested in it largely due the presence of that more youthful and raw (some would called it "sloppy") vibe that seemed somehow lost on later Lips releases. Luke also got to see them on tour in support of "Bulletin". I look back in horror at my having missed it as this was when the whole Flaming Lips "thing" really came into being. In addition to coming to the shows to sing along to the new and uplifting songs, fans around the country (as opposed to a more localized fanaticism in their Oklahoma City home) started showing up in costumes ranging from large animal getups to chracters from the Wizard of Oz. There was a gong. There was confetti. These concerts were no longer just musical performances, they were becoming "happenings". But let's be clear: the musical stuff was important too! In order to bring their new larger-than-life recordings to... uuh... life with only a three-piece band on stage, they starte encouraging their fans to bring small FM radios and headphone to concerts so that while the band was playing some (as much as they could) of the music live onstage, the remainder of what one would have heard on the album was transmitted via FM to those with headsets on so that they could get the "full" experience.

These changes were really only a stepping stone for the Flaming Lips. After this, things seemed to get even bigger; and as said wideing of scope transpired, my world was getting a big bigger at well. In August of 20002, three important events to this story coincided:

1) I moved to Brooklyn
2) The Flaming Lips released their follow up The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
3) I went to my first Lips show

I was excited to just to find out what the new Lips record would sound like after hearing how things had progressed over their previous three releases. I was also excited to buy it from the indpendent record shop downstairs and next door to my new apartmenet; and while their inventory was made up of mostly hip-hop and R&B records, they were happy to special order it for me and I had it in my hands just a few days after the release. Man did it throw me for a loop. Programmed drumbeats? Synth bass? Synths in general? Breakbeats? Something about a young black-belted girl attempting to battle Pink Robots that have been sent here to eat us? There was just sooo much to digest. Frankly, I wasn't sure I liked it at all. While the inspiring lyrical palate that they had been drawing from over the previous two records (perhaps prefected in Yoshimi's "Do You Realize??"), the sonic landscape had completely changed. I mean: sure, they were moving towards this sorta sound on The Soft Bulletin, but this was completely over the top. The solid songcraft was ever present, but it seemed as though the heavy drums and organic and majestic mess from earlier in their career was all but forgotten.

Their show, however, was a completely different story. Billed as the Unlimited Sunshine festival, Prospect Park was beset by thousands of concertgoers to witness a lineup that included The Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, De La Soul, Cake, and a few others I cannot remember at the moment. A bunch of Jersey peeps came in for the show (and to see my new digs) and after a few hours of "pre-gaming", we hoofed it down to the park's 9th st. entrance and found some spots. Generally overcast, the day came to something of a screeching halt when the inevitable rain decided to start falling in the middle what was already a rather paltry set from DeLaSoul. The entire enterprise was for shit. One of my favourite rap groups was doing a lame show that some of my friends came (at my behest and to the tune of $40 a pop) to see and now it was raining... blah. But wait! Now it's only drizzling! Maybe the Lips' set won't be delayed. Indeed it was not. The lips opened up (as pretty much always at this point) with "Race for the Prize" (opening track from Soft Bulletin) and the crowd went berserk. Singing and dacning ensued. There was confetti. There were people flanking the stage in animal costumes. The Lips' entire world of sound was blaring from the PA. There was a giant screen behind them showing cool images of god knows what. Down front stood their lead singer, Wayne Coyne: part manic-preacher, part Wavy Gravy, part stereotypical rock frontman. His energy was inspiring and infectious. To make matters even better, he proceeded to create what is, far and away, my greatest concert memory of all time. As the band headed into their second tune ("A Spoonful Weighs a Ton") and Wayne opened with the line "And though they were sad the rescued everyone, they lifted up the sun...", the rain came to a complete halt and the sun let itself be seen in all its glory for the first time in hours. Wayne had literally lifted up the sun. If there was any doubt as to whether or not I was ready to hand over a little piece of my soul to this band, it disappeared with the rain that august afternoon. *whew* In addition to this transformative experience, this show helped me in gaining more appreciation for Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The songs off of the new album translated much better and felt somehow less electronic and sterile with actual humans at the helm. The standout, by far, was "Do You Realize??" which so moved us that it has since started a tradition whereby if Lucas, our friend Chris, or I are at a Lips show that the other(s) can't attend, we will call the non-attendees on from our cell phones during that song and hold them up in the air in hopes that those not at the show can at least get a little taste of the Lips and their fans group performance of this uplifing anthem.

As time passed, I did start to dig that record for what it was rather than what it wasn't. Each time I saw the band live (which, btw, is my favourite place in the world: a Lips show. seriously: imagine being at gigantic birthday party celebrating the birthdays of every one of the thousands of attendees simlutaneously. yeah.), I dug into "Yoshimi..." a little deeper, and began wondering what they would do for their next record. How would they, if at all, reconcile aesthetic of their earlier work with the new paths they had forged on the last two albums. The answer came in the form of 2006's At War With the Mystics. To be honest, I feel like this record is kinda mediocre. It's something of a hodgepodge of a band looking to rock out and have fun with a band trying to continue along and avenue that looked to be something of a dead end. Some of the more "rock" elements of their earlier work were present, as were many of the more "digital" sounds from Yoshimi, but the album sounded like, at best, a collection of b-sides, and, at its worst, crude demos. Much like the tunes on their last album, they were a little more interesting when played live, but I was still never able to sink my teeth into "Mystics". Perhaps the facts that they continued to tour using the same stage set as they had used for Yoshimi and chose to include several older songs than ones from the new record spoke to their own lack of confidence in the material. Who knows? No matter how you slice it, I was disappointed.

Luckily, their being significantly low profile in the last three years gave them a chance to finish their movie and me a chance to delve into their back catalogue - and I am glad I did. Hearing their entire ouvre really put all of the aforementioned sonic and lyrical choices in the context of a much larger progression than I had realized. It also set me up to full appreciate their new album, Embryonic. I will be honest with you, I am still one song shy of listening to the whole thing, yet I am already prepared to name this one of the best albums of 2009 and, perhaps their career. Without getting too detailed (after all, I want you to dig it for yourself), I guess the best way can sum it up is by saying that they have finally found that balance. It's trippy, it's loud, it's spacey, it's synth heavy, it's got loud drums, big guitars, beautifully deep and moving lyrics, silly lyrics... it's really everything. It's like looking at Transmissions from the Satellite Heart or Clouds Taste Metallic with the scope of The Soft Bulletin (18 songs!!!) through "Yoshimi's..." lense - with just a hint of the intensity of their pre-"She Don't Use Jelly" stuff.

Yes. I know: all that backstory for a lousy four or five sentences about the title of the friggin' post. Well... either I am getting shittier at writing about music or better at not being a lousy music critic. Which one doesn't matter much. If you want to know more about the new record, go and find out for yourself, and check out this video for the album's first "single" (bullshit term as this will never get played on the radio) here. The record drops on Oct 13.

09 September 2009

Running Down... in Circles.

At some point during my junior year in college, I made the decision to NOT go home for the summer and, instead, get an early jump on moving in with some friends in a house off campus. Whether it was a something of a lark, some way of exerting my independence from my family and old friends, or some combination of both, I cannot remember, but I count the summer of '98 as one of the best of my life. I am still not quite sure why my mother agreed to let me do this, but, as I recall, she had little issue ponying up the paltry $273 per month for May, June, July, and August provided that I cover all of my other expenses. In what, in hindsight, was a surprisingly responsible move for 21-year-old me, I got two, count 'em - TWO jobs: one working at "media center" (read: CD, LP, and VHS library) - which was really just my NOT taking the summer off from my regular work-study gig - and one at a local Ice Cream Shoppe/Cafe called Halo Pub.

I had frequented this place since my freshman year and there seemed to be a revolving cast of students from my school behind the counter, so securing employment was quite simple. As most of the other college-types were home for the summer, thus necessitating the establishment's hiring of several local high school and/or community college/live-at-home kids, I was one of the oldest people on staff, so I progressed fairly quickly from lowly ice cream scooper to barrista (making coffee and espresso beverages) to shift supervisor. I was pretty proud, to tell you the truth; but my rising up the in-no-way-corporate (this joint was family owned and operated) ladder was really only a nice perk. The real fun at Halo came from the people I worked with.

Be it this girl Nicola who I took out on one date, my college friend Constance (who got me the gig), another girl who's name I can't remember but about whom I wrote a really great but as-of-yet-unfinished tune, or our hippy manager (and the big boss's son-in-law) Tom, there was always an interesting cast of characters that took an otherwise thankless and mundane job and made it fun. The ones that had the biggest impression on me were the North Brunswick emo kids: Mark and Robyn. Now I know what you're thinking: "EMO?!?!... yuck! Isn't that the adjective used to describe 13 year olds who wear their hair in their face a pretend that their rather pleasant suburban existences are far more dramatically terrible than they actually are to the point where they cut themselves?! Isn't emo some shitty music with screaming and/or whiny vocals about melodramatic teenage bullshit with vague references to the gothic or gorey all set over annoying clichéd punk guitar playing?!" The answer to these questions is a bit complicated, but that's why we're here.

To be fair: the only reasons I remember Robyn Tesauro is 'cos I have for years been trying to write a song in which I rhyme her last name with the word "bureau", she was cute, and was friends with Mark - and he's the important one here. I wish to god I could remember Mark's last name, but it completely escapes me at the moment. He was a skinny kid from North Brunswick who shaved his head and looked like a skater and seemed to be really hip to what was going on in the world of below-the-radar punk music. I was pretty hip to all sortsa other genres at the time, and since we seemed to dig talking music with one another, we agreed to make each other mix tapes. I spent some serious time on his, making sure to include some Phish, some Moondog, some Stravinsky, some Tom Waits, some Monk, and (I am guessing) some Barenaked Ladies and Ben Folds Five, but I really don't remember if he liked it at all. Again: not important. What is important is how lifechangeingly great the tape he made me was.

He said the the tape was made up of songs by all of his favourite punk and "emo" bands - a term he defined for me as "short for emotional punk". Boasting early tunes by soon-to-be-famous bands like Blink 182 and Jimmy Eat World along with seminal proto-emo artists like Sunny Day Real Estate and masters of texture The Jazz June, this tape instantly changed my life and remains one of my favourite compilations ever. (I still have it!) Knee deep in the world of classical music and very arty and/or bubbly pop, this tape full of angry and emotional young men and women playing music that combined the energy and drive of punk with the guitar orchestration skills and attention to texture that really got my brain working, I was in serious need of a reminder as to what first excited me about music. This cassette, called "Chuck's Oh So Political Tape #1", was just what the doctor ordered. It not only forced me to immediately rejigger my values and tastes, but also changed the way I approached contemporary music. I thought Emo was just about the coolest thing in the world.
The knowledge I gained from that tape, in concert with the fact that many of the bands whose music was included were still "underground" also gave me a certain amount of caché when it came to the occasional cultural pissing contest I would often engage in. A few years later, when I started a band that was made up of me and three professional music critics who were always three steps ahead of me in terms of new tunage, my knowledge of emo, which was not even a word in the general public's conciousness yet, allowed me to tread water in the inevitable "what's next" conversations we always seemed to get into. As it was indubitably a young people's music, it also made me seem just a little hipper to my first group of middle schooler students when I taught right out of college. So not only was this tape awesome, but it was helpful too!
Over the course of the last few years, "emo" became a dirty word. Riddled with my aforementioned assumptions about your reaction to the word, it hardly carries any of the weight it did ten years ago. It's become a name brand of sorts - and one that seemingly no one wants to wear. BUT WAIT!! What is that I see?! Someone looking to remedy and explain this in a way that is much clearer than my babble? Indeed. While I have something of a love/hate relationship with Paste Magazine, I still read its online content fairly dutifully, and I couldn't let one today's articles pass without being linked to and commented on. I freely admit that what I have written here is most likely longer than the article itself, but I seriously suggest you give it a read and give the musical examples a listen, because these guys seem to want to rescue the term emo as much as I do.

You can read it here.

08 September 2009

Your To Do List:

1. Buy this!

that is all.