At our level, you really have to play everywhere you can. That is: chase leads, find venues, talk to people. We’ve played in a converted church sanctuary artspace that is now condos, on a dock about 6 inches above the mighty Potomac, living rooms, street corners (with and without overzealous doorguys screaming at us), as well as a variety of clubs, lounges and ballrooms. We’ve had our Guns N Roses moment where the helicopter arches overhead and trains its searchlight on us. We’ve had our Spinal Tap moments where we can’t find the stage, or when the stage prop balloons get repeatedly kicked in our faces by the drunk guy. We’ve even helped book friends as entertainment for glass blowers meetings. “Load in, load out, get down, get out, drive home too late, my mind stays crooked and my back stays straight”
As always it’s not just the songs, it is the story behind the songs. I cannot speak for the people who wrote these songs as to what they were thinking and trying to say, but I can speak for myself about how they make me feel and the memories they project. It was a time and a place, and I should mention every one of these people are still making music, so this is not a eulogy.
Alice Despard used to own and run Galaxy Hut, Arlington’s last bastion of funky artiness. She was always good to her bands, once you could get her attention to book you. This would usually necessitate having beers with friends at the Hut, and immersing yourself in their culture- getting to know the bartenders, helping bus tables, keeping the door closed during songs. One day after work I dropped in just as the Hut was opening. Waiting for Jim, I saw Alice do something I will never forget. A patron had walked in and was obviously down on her luck. She had 4 dollars, and wanted to buy a 5 dollar glass of wine. She then began asking Alice lots of questions, some apropos of nothing. One of which was asking for mayonnaise, for use as lotion. Abruptly, but courteously, Alice steps out from the bar- this woman, me, and some straggler at a booth still there- and buys this woman a big bottle of lotion. The Hut got its’ far share of characters, but everyone respected the place because they knew the place respected them. This song is one of her bands “signature tunes” and eventually Philip D’Ambrosio would leave Zero Beat to play bass with them; this song taking on greater significance in the soundtrack to my life.
Jake Reid used to DJ with an old roommate’s boyfriend. Their night, Head On, would consistently surprise me. Considering myself studied in several different sounds/genres, out would come some song that would blow me away, taunting me with the notion “you don’t know Manchester” or, insert your city here. We did a few shows with his former band, Alcian Blue, and this song always stuck out from their sets. While riding the “Wall of Sound” about as far as it could go and still be discerned as music, suddenly a shift in the verse of this song would floor me. Their original brims with frenetic energy of cascading guitars (in my version you can hear the intro as ambient sound, the snare bashing giving away that it’s been sampled), but at root you can hear rock n roll in a variation of it’s most primal level. And you barely notice because it is done so well. This is the song that started this project, realizing there are people I know that are that good. Sure songwriting might be dumb luck, as you stumble around in the dark and find something: but it’s still luck.
Eastern Homes was once a band called Sad Bastard. Sad Bastard began as Terrence Henry recording demos to hard disk back west. After moving back to DC, I got all alpha-male (something I am not) and threatened by his presence in my little world of bands, music, etc. Mind you, this is a friend I have had since I was 19. Zero Beat was slow to get our act together, and Sad Bastard threatened me in a way I regret. We had a chance to get something really cool going, but all I could worry about was him stealing my bandmates- yes, me, the jealous lover. Life is too short to worry about such things. Positivity must prevail. Negativity will kill a band. Imagine my surprise when I figured out I was simultaneously Zero Beat’s John and Yoko! Before all that, Terrence had the idea to cover the other bands’ song and release a single. Here is my contribution, 4 years later. I sampled the loop from his original demo for this, taking the chill vibe and turning it out late night style.
Laura Burhenn and I became friends through Jim Grief, MFA’s drummer. At the time he was still in LavaJet, and Laura was hosting an open mic at Common Grounds (now Murky Coffee). She had the placed wrapped around her finger, but had to stop hosting due to scheduling conflicts. She offered me the gig, and I was content to funnel the small stipend into a modest recording budget for MFA’s first 3 recording sessions at Inner Ear. About two months in, I realized most of the people coming to the open mic were there to see her, and all but the regular crowd dried up. It was her, playing her songs on an out of tune piano that was the draw. Her version of this song is very feminine and swoony, and I wanted to play with the gender while giving it somewhat of a dancefloor feel. While trying to make it somewhat masculine, it ended up androgynous and almost J-Pop! The open mic space started to share with a group called “Stitch and Bitch” and we were slowly phased out. Laura and I would see each other about every 3 months when she would cut my hair. When I moved to Pennsylvania, sensing the end of an era, I gave her my electric shears out of gratitude for 2 years of modern style and timeless advice.
My brother Dan was the first in our group to meet Brice Woodall. Every Wednesday we would descend on Iota to play open mic, often badgering our friends as if it was our show. Depending on when you were able to sign up, it could be a brilliant performance, or some drunken solipsism. While our ability would vary, this guy Brice would be spot on. Turns out he is friends with one of our friends from Boone, from their days in Richmond, and we all hit it off. We would go check out his old band, BWP, at shows, and Sad Bastard opened a show for them in Richmond back when Dan was playing bass with them. He would fill the slot of opener at some of our Staccato dates (both SB and ZB) and we would consistently wonder: why isn’t this guy playing for more people?! A few years later he’d move to Chicago, put a band together, and tonight he is playing with his band in Philly on an east coast tour. Without a doubt one of the hardest working musicians I know.
Myspace is a beautiful beast. The end user license agreement might be interpreted to mean that Rupert Murdoch owns your recordings; but millions of people can hear your music if you play your cards and/or spam right. Our engineer, Nick Anderson’s band The Hailing, is up there, and he introduced us to them when we were at Inner Ear for recording or mixing. They’d be in and out every now and then, the perks of setting up your own mini-studio within the bigger studio. Happening upon their myspace page was the audio equivalent of the part in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy steps out of black in white into full Technicolor. Except for this one demo. This one song was more black and white, and warranted a little colorization. I took a 2 minute acoustic ditty with 3 or 4 part harmonies and reconstructed it here as a fully formed Faint/NIN send up. The rhythm was created as an attempt to do a Beauty Pill song, but worked far better with the way the melodies arc. Covering Beauty Pill would need to be very sparse, as Chad Clark’s production leaves very little room for variations on the theme (read: any attempts did not succeed). Chad told Anne and I one day while talking about mixing “You are very lucky to have Nick’s name on your record!” Hearing what Nick has done with some of their ideas inspired me to look into production more, and we have had several exchanges about the merits of tape, analog gear, and vibe, vibe, vibe.
Also file under myspace: More Lights by Georgie James. They had been working on “Demos at Dance Place” and their full length at Inner Ear, but we had not crossed paths. John Davis and Laura Burhenn had been talking since Laura opened for Q and Not U a year before, and she had been aching for something less singer-songwritery for at least as long as I had known her. Once upon a time I considered selling her the music and songs to “Summer Music for Winter People” for her to record her vocals over to try out some “rock.” Their collaborations as Georgie James are a pop enthusiasts’ band- steeped in years and years of pop music tradition, and More Lights seems like the perfect melting pot. Better yet, it’s pro-active. Having seen Q and Not U at Coachella and Fort Reno in 2004, I still have not met John. While working on our “Opening Flower + Happy Bird” EP, Mark Stalzer regaled us with stories of his band touring with Corm. Apparently they invented the interstate rock lock, so all you start-ups out there owe them royalties. [ed note: Mark has reported it was Maginot/Corm Rob that invented the rock lock- not him– thanks for fessing up, mark!]
I like how in the original, John and Laura’s voices couldn’t be different. Never said I’d do the songs better in remake, just reinterpret them. I almost left this and other songs off, but rationalized their chronological merit. It shows the breadth of the process: to step outside yourself and push your boundaries. Then you realize there are none. Aside from copyright concerns, which I truly hope to not get sued over, my boundaries were all hard disk related.
Stay tuned for two more tracks that couldn’t make the January 23 deadline. These aren’t bonus tracks, but intended as the “index” and “about the author” of this album. Front cover photograph of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry is one of my dad’s.