January 29, 2006

Don't Mix Your Drinks

The Mojo Wire prematurely stumbles into sophomore slump on our sprawling, schizophrenic second album.

Stop me if  you’ve heard this one before: a confident, well-oiled machine of a rock band has a banner year. They’re full of new wild ideas and dying to show the world what they learned. They record anything and everything, using words like “progress” or “growth” in earnest, lovable, and hopelessly deluded ways. And then they cough up a formless gob of tunes that makes everyone wonder what the big deal was about them in the first place. That’s not exactly what happened to The Mojo Wire in 1998, but it comes closest to describing how we made our second album, which we inexplicably named Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor.

Released hard on the heels of its predecessor, Rocket Fuel gave off a distinct whiff of undercooked tunes dipped in myriad gooey sonic effects. When I listen to it now, the thing can’t seem to decide what it wants to be—rock or prog? Blues or psychedelia? Stripped-down, disciplined writing, or free-form freakout? Any real explanation feels like over-analysis, but since a few of these songs were actually good, and many of the rest have gone on to bigger and better things, it’s worth another look and listen to see how things really ended up this way.

The disc’s weird split personality is more like two mini-albums mashed together than one coherent whole. Some of that’s from overenthusiastic experimentation, but the disc’s overall feel is much closer to our collective contemporary mindset in late 1997, when we’d charged into the deep end of Isla Vista’s nubile cesspool. Our old 12-bar tunes sprouted weird sounds via new and bizarre effects pedals, multiple (and often backwards) tape loops, and extensive overdubs. Indulgent experimentation came easy, but the music we loved back then made a huge impact too—especially Radiohead’s recently released OK Computer. That album wasn’t a direct influence, but its galaxy of sonics inspired us to find out what we could do with what we had.

Rocket Fuel‘s first side started off conventionally enough; the uptempo, surfy blues swung along to the same groove that electrified Battery Acid Blues, but every song on that album had more than a year to develop before recording and release. Most of the first seven Rocket Fuel songs—the title track, “Margarita,” “Jackson Hammer’s Theme,” “Trash and Trouble,” and “Evil Train”—were written either at the same time or shortly after the Battery Acid songs. The tunes for “Run From Me” and “Blackout Baby” dated from even before that, enduring more tinkering over time, but finished at the Bedrock in demo form by the end of the year.

It got weirder (and arguably worse) from there as Bryn, Adam and I explored the full range of our new toys. Sometimes the effects worked well almost in spite of themselves, like Adam’s cello swaying its way through “Kid Icarus” and my echo-bass guitar powering “Under The Sun.” In most cases, though, things just got messier. Almost every song has some sort of treatment on the vocals, guitars, bass, or keyboard. Adam’s voice didn’t need thick layers of reverbed chorus on “Run From Me” or “Margarita”, and didn’t need Wolfman-Jack-gain on “Trash And Trouble.” To this day I have no idea why we didn’t realize all those effects were overkill.

Finishing the album in a presentable form was tough. Our sometime-drummer Brandon Klopp was less and less able to help out (most of his electric kit tracks came from two long Bedrock jam sessions), so we had to wrap it up in fits and starts.”Blackout Baby” got dubbed over the drum tracks for the Battery Acid song “Stay With Me,” and “Drown the Heart” has no percussion at all. The more scattered things got, the more I wanted to organize it into something presentable, and while Adam and Bryn were agreeable, my impulse to complete it fast probably doomed the whole thing, especially when it came to what I thought was my strength: words.

Lyrics weren’t a problem on Side One; except for “Run From Me,’ those songs pretended at nothing more than they were. However, Side Two got bogged down in clunky metaphors posturing as Major Statements of Profound Importance. Strong tunes that could have (and, years later, did) become meaningful merely posed as Significant without truly saying anything; “Kid Icarus,” “Under The Sun,” “Blackout Baby,” and “Wound Down” buckled under my sub-par, self-absorbed, and sloppily incomplete lyrics. Even the album’s central theme was juvenile: it traced the arc of a hangover, starting out strong and crazy only to end up pathetically crashing and burning in a haze of foggy excess. That wasn’t an original observation in a town full of partying, spoiled rich kids, but it was the only glue connecting all twelve songs.

A few tunes slouched toward completion in concert. “Run From Me” got grittier and louder live in 2001, and “Margarita” was a live Mojo hit to the end. “The Worst Way” became a nondescript workhorse, and “Kid Icarus” or “Wound Down” were good breaks between the heavier numbers during our 1999 shows. The two worst lyrics took the longest to mature, doing so for another band: “Under the Sun” endured a glacial, four-year rebirth as “The Lightning Rod” for Honey White, and “Blackout Baby” experienced something similar before resurfacing as “Blacking Out” two years after that. Neither showed much trace of their original gene pool.

Rocket Fuel seemed stale and embarrassing almost immediately. We couldn’t use it to get gigs, and with no drummer, we had no idea if the Mojo Wire was done for good. Personally, I thought the only reason to keep going after that was to simply supersede this thing with better songs. That happened in theory if not practice—no Mojo Wire disc is listenable all the way through—but even among Mojo albums, Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor was definitely the problem child, and before long we all knew it.

Play this album:

January 25, 2006

Supergroups I'd Like to See

In a purely musical rock show way, of course. Here we see PJ Harvey, Bjork, and Tori Amos in a shot that has to be from some mid-90s (damn that creeping nostalgia) "Women Of Rock" Rolling Stone or Spin or something. Usually when such powerful elements converge in one spot there is exerted a powerful vortex of such force that grown men weep, mothers gasp in admiration, and teenagers of all nascent persuasions inadvertently wet themselves.

I think I'll just stare at them for a while if you don't mind. I'll just be that enviously green guy over on the right.

January 22, 2006

Back in Kansas

I'm very pleased to report that 2nd Lt. (and erstwhile Pretty Pretty Princess circa '95) Nick Clemente is back home with his wife and son in Fort Riley. He writes:

"I returned home yesterday with the rest of my guys after a brutal week of travel, but who cares, right? We're home! I just wanted to send out a quick note to let everyone know that I am back at Ft. Riley having a great time with Karen and Joe. Karen is more beautiful than ever and Joe is cracking me up all the time with how much he has changed. Thank you all for your letters, packages and prayers over the last year... they really meant the world to me and you will never truly know how much your support was appreciated. Thank you. I will write more later when I finally get back to Kansas time and feel a little more normal but for now I hope this finds you all happy, healthy and enjoying the new year."

Welcome back, Nick. Glad you and your family are reunited and all is well.

January 20, 2006

These Shaky Skills are Awful Rusty

Oh man, I've been trying to bass guitar it along with my Meshell Ndegeocello playlist (wouldja lookit that- she's playing a Jazz bass!) and I cannot keep up for the life of me. Not that I could if I was on top of my game anyway, but still- that woman can play. I've finally been able to appreciate her "Anthropological Mix Tape" album too; for some reason that one was always below the other 3 for me (not counting her debut, which sounds a bit dated now). Plus this new jazz-fusionoid-instrumental thing "Dance Of The Infidel" is impressive too, and similarly way outta my league.

Holy shit- I'm now listening to an old KCRW performance of hers from 3 years ago and she just segued into "Spirits in the Material World" by the Police at the end of one of her own tunes. Talk about alpha and omega: wanky as he may be, Sting was my first influence to play bass, and Meshell my latest re-inspiration. I got "Peace Beyond Passion" in 1996 before my sophomore year at UCSB and it quickly became one of my very favorite albums to play bass along with. For me, bass isn't much fun by itself- I often go long stretches without touching it (hence the rustiness) unless I'm playing with the other 3 guys in the band.

I just started thinking about my bass influences again when I saw Adam Clayton on the cover of Bass Player magazine. See, usually I'm attracted to more complicated players for listening, but the most fun I have is when playing parts by simpler players like Clayton & such so I can insert my own phrases in between their parts if I want, and often that's where my own best stuff comes from. Aside from Clayton, though, I've always enjoyed Mark Sandman's work in Morphine too. I guess that's my range: simpler, poppier players like Clayton and Sting, to intimidatingly complex players like Ndegeocello or sonically inventive ones like the late Sandman.

Wow, guess it's a good thing I've finally posted something that tangentially relates to that big grey bass clef up there.

January 17, 2006

Violence and Death in I.V.

Just balancing out the stupid survey with some morbid mortal stuff. There’s been a lot of it lately, whether the steady attrition of cliff-divers to more recent freakish things like the Attias craziness and this poor girl. Now someone else died in the surf off Campus Point.

I liked to joke about Isla Vista as the retarded phoenix but it definitely has undergone a nasty transformation within the last decade (that is, in the entire time that I was living there). Well, that may or may not be true, but it seemed nastier. When I arrived as a freshman in Fall ’95 it was the first year of Zero Tolerance, where county sherriffs frantically tried to outnumber students and keep the fabled partying masses under control.

I don’t know where it changed- where the mix of Fear vs. Fun careened finally toward Fear- but David Attias probably had something to do with it. Even so, things had been getting weirder and more violent, or so it seemed, especially to moralizers outside of the I.V. bubble who either a) feared for their loved ones inside or b) had a full-on “I hate leftist universities and everything about them” problem (this was particularly, insidiously stupid once wingnut students started showing up and bitching about their Bush-hating professors).

There are lots of other contributing factors and one of them surely must be the tightening grip of the large property owners upon I.V. Companies like Ron Wolfe and the like have been the local Monty Burnses for decades, but things seemed to escalate in about ’98 or ’99 when one such agency declared a mass eviction of all tenants in one building. These tenants were all Hispanic, mostly immigrants, who wouldn’t be able to meet the stratospherically climbing rent. This was one case only, but the pattern has been to slowly quasi-gentrify Isla Vista, so that eventually only the children of the very wealthy can afford to live there.

Of course, vague and ominous feelings of malaise have little, superficially, to do with the recent tragedies and deaths. For the most part, the editorial columns of the Nexus (those written by the staff, and probably Hentry Sarria as well) were mediating things- admonishing students (however patiently or empathetically) for the dumb mistakes we all made, but also giving the finger to outsiders who made snap judgements about the supposed Gomorrah by the sea. See, the sexual morality (or lack thereof) isn’t the problem. Of course rape still happens and the culture that creates it should be opposed, and (more superficially) the horrible things students in relationships do to each others’ brains once sex gets involved are regrettable, but what I felt that was frightening was the non-sexual violence. Alcohol-fueled macho crap in I.V. has seemed to skyrocket within the last 5 years, and I don’t know what caused it. I loathe everything it stands for, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to stop horrible shit like this.

I’m probably overreacting. Either that or viewing all this through the wrong sort of eyes, but by the time I left there I was glad to be gone. I should have done it earlier, and I would have if there was no band to play in, even if 3 of us don’t live there anymore. Well, 4, since Billy is actually in Santa Barbara and he hates I.V.

Anyway, this isn’t ending up anywhere special. I’ll probably end up doing a “Shorter UCSB” that will sum it up much better. What weirds me out lately is why these weird nostalgic impulses- high school, UCSB, band stuff- have had such a vicelike grip on me recently. No idea.

January 12, 2006

Isla Vista Uber Alles Survey

Yes, that's Brian on his birthday in front of a couch fire, 1999.

Favorite UCSB dorm?
well, since I had to share my San Raf room with an Iranian terrorist, I’ll go with Santa Cruz.

How many bike accidents were you in?
Zero! No, of course that can’t be true, but I don’t remember any.

How many times did you bike under the influence?
I don’t remember. No, really, I don’t.

Receive any citations in the dorms from friendly RA's?
I don’t think I had a permanent RA all year. They all bailed on us. Maybe they hated us.

How many blocks would you walk for an IV party?
Well, when I wasn’t at the Bedrock (the epicenter of everything in the Year Of Our Decadence 1997), it was however many blocks to Jon’s (‘95/’96), or Bryn’s (everything else). Many blocks. I hated going to random parties, but that didn’t mean that never happened.

Where did you live?
What, for all 9 years that I was there? I mean, uh, for all 4.5 years I was at school and all 4.5 years I hung around to work and band and stuff?
95/96: Santa Cruz
96/97: San Raf
97-99: Bedrock, 65(17?) Sabado.
99/00: Penthouse, Abrego
00-04: 66 block of Picasso
Shit, that’s a lotta rent down the drain.

Beer bong or keg stand?
Beer. Just beer. Shut up.

Has beer ever been spilled on you from the balcony party above?
Anyone who says no to this (i.e. Nicole) is a lying lying liar. This happened to me many times. Perhaps someone was trying to tell me something.

What is your most prized possession stolen from your house?
I don’t think anything of mine was stolen. I was super-paranoid about locking up.

Have you experienced a foam party?

Ever been to a College FF party?
Not really. Bryn and I ended up at Nicole’s 2nd one after it ended. Terrible timing.

Most unusual theme party you ever attended or threw?
Well, there was the transvestite party at Biko in ’98. That was a Mojo Wire gig too. Guess who was the only one in the band to wear makeup?

How many loud music violations did your house receive?
A million. Most of them were caused by the bands I was in. We also caused many more violations at other people’s houses too. Our record is being shut down one song in (this was a Honey White show) on 9/28/02.

Walk of Shame or Stride of Pride?
Actually it’s more like the Stride of Shame. One walks fast in the a.m. cause usually it’s pretty cold, even for California. Though I don’t think guys ever took shit for things like this. I sure didn’t.

Ever tell a lie to hook up with someone?
Yes. They never worked.

Ever had a one night stand that would never end?
Yeah, but it wasn’t up to me that they ended.

Was there a problem with recycling hookups among your roommates?
Ho, ho, ho. We shall say yes and leave it at that for now. Though I wouldn’t call them “problems” per se. More like ”hilariously uncomfortable coincidences”.

Favorite night of the week to party?
Well, school didn’t stop random parties, and neither (on several occasions) did work, and I guess any gig night was kind of a party night. Can’t decide.

How many nights out the week did you party?
2-3 for the first 4 years, then about 1-2 after.

Thing or party you blew off a night of studying finals for?
Everything. Like I said, work, school, etc went out the window if there was a gig.

Do you know the Greek God?
No. Like every other “Greek” thing in I.V., though, I’ll bet he’s not Greek at all.

Who was the biggest bastard IVFP in IV?
Actually the IVFP were cool to Honey White when they shut us down. They were almost apologetic about it too.

Tuesdays at Qs, Thursdays at Cooneys, or Fridays at Tonic (AKA 634)?
Shit, the only one of those I know is 634, and I think I went there twice. I went to pubs more often like Old Kings Road or Press Room.

Have you hooked up with someone on your way home from downtown on Bill's Bus?
No. Have I tried to avoid someone who was trying to hook up with me? Yes. That’s all I want to say about that.

Did you wake up next to them the next day?
No. I was successful in avoiding them. Either that or my social ineptitude knocked off them beer goggles.

Have you gotten kicked out of a club for obscene drunkedness?
No, but I was mistakenly thrown out of the Wildcat because my 24-year-old bald self didn’t match my 17-year-old moptop drivers license.

Have you thrown up on Bills Bus?
Ha, no. Everyone else I know did. Brian didn’t even make it to Bill’s bus, but he yarfed out the window of a taxi on 101.

Favorite place(s) to eat in IV?
Cantina & Bagel Café.

Favorite 2 am drunk munchies?
Pop Tarts. If none available, Vons chocolate chip cookies will do just fine. Made me the 200+ pound monster I am today, dammit.

Do you know who pirate is?
Yeah, he was kind of an asshole, if I’m not mistaken. He’s in one of the Honey White videos- the UCen one from 1/30/03.

Tell us your favorite IV bum story?
One time in 1997 the Mojo Wire had a Bedrock balcony gig and Bruce the bum showed up. Before the Pirate Bruce was the most notorious bummer of all bums. He gave Bryn and Brandon his own unique style of pep talk while we churned through some drunken blooze, and fortunately Adam and I didn’t need to deal with him. Still, at least Bryn and Brandon made a new friend, and he didn’t even ask us to play Skynyrd.

Most vivid memory of IV?
More of a recurring fear if you will: the electricity in the air on Fridays (or sometimes Thursdays) at about 4:30 or 5pm, the feeling that everything is going to self-immolate and absolutely destroy itself over the next few nights, only to rise from the ashes like some retarded phoenix, ready to do it all over again next week. That’s one of the most lasting, pure total recall memories I have. The amount of fear it generated varied, but The Fear was always there.

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