April 23, 2006

Feeling Gravity's Pull

How Far is the Fall, aka "Welcome to the rest of your life. Do not pass Go and do not quit your day job."

Some people are fearless in the face of the unknown. Some people long to test themselves against the most sublime experiences life throws at them. Some people need to push every boundary, voraciously explore every avenue, and risk danger in order to feel alive. Honey White's full-length debut album How Far is the Fall is not about those people. Instead it revolves around the feeling of standing at life's cliffs and taking a long, hard, appraising look at every possible detail before making choices about anything.

That wasn't a pleasant revelation when it first occurred to me, well after the album was completed and released—but listening to it with a year's removal from the writing and recording process threw everything into stark relief. Paralyzed indecision and self-conscious over-analysis pervade almost every lyric of each song, and everything is blown up to newly epic proportions by a hazy, spacious void of sonic effects and instrumental textures. It's not the soundtrack to the rest of your life. It's the background noise for the time right before you have any idea what the rest of your life will bring.

The creative process that spawned this album didn't begin auspiciously, but it turned out to be just what we needed. During Honey White's first whirlwind year together, we'd navigated the Santa Barbara scene on the bare-bones strength of our debut E.P. and semi-chaotic live shows. Throw jobs and other obligations into that, and everything became a lot to handle, even for four guys in their mid-twenties, so by mid-2003 we agreed to put the brakes on Honey White. Bryn took off for a three-month European tour, Brian finished school and left for San Francisco (with a brief detour to Tokyo), and Bill joined up with punk band Futureman to play and record in Austin. While everyone else recharged and sought inspiration, I found myself in a familiar place: stewing in Isla Vista, bashing my head against the wall of an anemic local job market and Santa Barbara's perpetually indifferent music scene.

The hiatus wasn't permanent, though, and when when we finally did reconvene in early 2004, we knew it had to be for good reasons. Making music had to be fun for everyone, with no preconceived agendas (especially from me) and no single correct way to play. What that meant was an organically-grown Honey White sound; it developed without forcing anything, but profoundly redefined each player's role into what it probably always should have been. Once that happened, we began exploring a new pool of material that was challenging and exciting to create together. Billy and I truly became the rhythm section in ways we hadn't before, creating a solid base for Bryn and Brian to drench with their galaxy of new guitar tones. I stopped singing except for backing harmonies, which freed Bryn up to explore his full vocal range and style.

Bryn brought home three songs from his trip, "Let Go," "Keep Moving," and "Bottlerocket," which we rehearsed and quickly mutated into porously monolithic slabs of echo, tremolo, and reverb. We also worked the new sonic colors into other recent loud, downtempo songs like "Sweet Oblivion" and "Famous Last Words," and even touched up live staples "Mercy Rule" and "Polarity" with a few shiny tricks. It was so much fun that we actually lightened up, thanks to Brian's obtusely crazy instrumental "Sean Goes to Africa"—which to me, drew a straight line back to the bent humor Bryn and I knew from our previous band The Mojo Wire.

Those laughs were rare enough among the new lyrics, though. Everything Bryn and I wrote oozed frustrated impatience, false bravado, mild boredom, and an absolute lack of solutions to all of the above. "Mercy Rule" covered a bouncy, semi-syncopated groove with my morose attrition of confusion: "too smart to waste the effort/too stupid to appeal/to any one too superficially unreal." "Sweet Oblivion" seized on a drifting, wavy rhythm guitar only to shrug, mumble "if only you could see me now," and passively float out to sea. "Keep Moving" tried to "keep busy, keep moving, go on" as if mere forward movement was the only course. "Let Go" imagined a love affair at the precipice of dissolution, wondering not about the fatal impact but instead "how far is the fall?"

Without the lush instrumental backing (or Bryn's sensitive vocals), the words—and songs—would be hopelessly insufferable. Some lyrics accepted holding patterns at face value; "Island Fever" admitted there's "no surprise on this horizon" and "Famous Last Words" lamented "familiar wreckage in the aftermath of fucking up again." Distractions curdled into alcoholic cynicism on "Bottlerocket" and bewildered hangovers in "Blacking Out." Lyrical malaise even seemed to infect Brian's instrumental "Polarity," which ambled perilously between quiet and loud. The one exception, "Sean Goes to Africa"—inspired by a friend of ours who escaped to the wider world and made good—is the only relief, flipping a giant middle finger to the rest of the album.

The best thing about mentally purging all this crap was getting it out of my system, and I suspect that was true for Bryn too. We solidified the songs further with a few local gigs, which went well enough for us to pull the trigger and properly record everything. We chose Nate Perry's Take Root Studio in San Francisco, enlisting engineer Jonathan Mayer, a total pro who proved masterful and empathetic for the duration. The sessions encompassed day-long (and state-long) drives, gallons of caffeine, baseball on the radio, and an entire Simpsons VHS library. Our first trip alone was massively productive; we warmed up with Neil Young's "Dead Man" theme, then powered through three takes each of our originals and spat out two formless jams. With Jon at the helm refining, arranging, and employing Take Root's full arsenal of noisemaking flotsam, the album steadily came together with overdubs, mixing, and mastering over two weekends per month in fall 2004 and winter 2005.

By the time we began gigging regularly again, we'd comfortably become the model Bill proposed a year prior: Bryn's vocals took precedence over his solos, Brian's effects took over the lead guitar work, and I stuck to backing vocals, keeping in lockstep with Bill's drumming. At shows, we ditched most of the covers and all the Mojo Wire songs in favor of the longer, epic tunes from How Far is the Fall, which was finally released in April 2005. It was a bargain at about $8,000, our friends and fans loved it, we got great press, and we finally felt accomplished as musicians and songwriters. Where My Band Rocks flexed and posed, How Far is the Fall threw punches with precision. Where My Band Rocks defined range without filling it, How Far is the Fall exploited and redefined that range. Life's background noise can seem like a crushing deadweight, but it can also be a push in the right direction, or even a catalyst for explosive inspiration. It was for me; making this album was the best creative experience of my life.

Play this album:

April 21, 2006

Things Fall Apart

Every band has a document of their dissolution. For the Mojo Wire, that document is You're On Your Own.

When rock bands destroy themselves on record, it's usually a group effort. The Beatles bickered like babies on Let it Be, the Eagles slouched into the sunset on The Long Run, and the Police drove each other crazy making Synchronicity. Some musical self-immolations, however, get sparked by one band member's driven, monomaniacal fixation on Finishing The Project At Any Cost. Elvis Costello did it to the Attractions on Blood And Chocolate, and David Lowery did it to Camper Van Beethoven on Key Lime Pie. On a much smaller and justifiably ignored scale, I did it to The Mojo Wire during the making of You're On Your Own, a slab of vintage indie-rock that would prove to be our final album.

In hindsight it was totally predictable, but I didn't realize it during the summer of 2000, when we began recording again after a long layoff. The full band hadn't been playing much because of jobs and school, but Bryn and I briefly filled the gap with two extremely low-profile releases: the first experimental Low Tide E.P. in July 1999, and Bryn's all-instrumental solo disc in April 2000. You're On Your Own began as a real effort at a new album, but soon devolved into an open-ended, directionless morass that veered from new songs to live material to remakes of old tunes. Real-world interference slowed progress, but band member interest faded in and out too, and what we finally released in June 2001 was more like an outtakes compilation than a bonafide new album.

The new Mojo music was strong, though. Our final lineup's chaotic amalgamation of blunt force translated well to tape, and with real effort might have yielded our best release. Everyone was writing: Adam and Bryn continued the acoustic surf-noir of Seaside Hamlet Skids, churning out songs like "Happy Birthday," "Breathe," "Blue Lantern Cove" (all by Adam), "The Sandman," and "You Let Me Fall" (both by Bryn). Adam tossed off another surf instrumental that I combined with my own latest narcissistic-messianic lyrics to make "Water Into Wine." I finessed some obsessive-compulsive lyrics over one of Joe's blistering, guitar-dominated tunes to make the "You're On Your Own" title track. As for my own stuff, I added "One Last Hallelujah," "Heart On A Platter," "Fatal Flaws" and "The Peak Of My Career" to the new pool of material. The songs were there, but properly recording them all never seemed to be in the cards.

I scrambled to try anyway—first on tape, then digitally—since we had great songs arriving thick and fast, but I foolishly tried to hustle gigs at the same time. I pressured myself to finish something, anything—even as I ineptly tried gate-crashing a passively exclusive local Santa Barbara scene that couldn't care less about us. The three other guys shared an apartment in I.V., but nobody seemed to be in the same place at the same time very often and I never bothered asking for help. We ended up putting on our own shows, which usually meant buying two kegs and destroying the backyard of 6710 Sabado Tarde with a party. Most of these shows were recorded too—a Mojo Wire first—and those tapes went into the pile with everything else.

Songs trickled out eventually, mostly in demo form. The first sessions I did with Joe and Bryn saw release as a single/demo for "Heart on a Platter" backed with "Water Into Wine" and "One Last Hallelujah." The takes were crude but powerful; I mostly shouted over Bryn's drum bashing and Joe's dominating guitar, but the prevailing raw power didn't bode well for the subtler songs from Bryn and Adam. The frontman dropped in for some vocals on "Shivering Sand" and "Water Into Wine," but his heavy school and work schedule, plus the intense recording habits Bryn and I had assumed often kept Adam out of the loop. We even played two shows as a power trio without him, capturing live takes of "You're On Your Own" and "Fatal Flaws" complete with tuneless yelling from yours truly.

Bryn and I were also keen to improve on the shambolic amateurism of Seaside, so we tried making another demo of old songs, starting new takes of "Run From Me," "Pisces Lullabye," "I Fly Free," "How Far Away," and "The Shivering Sand," but only completed the latter two. More band apathy also kind of scuttled Bryn's attempts to finish "The Sandman" and "You Let Me Fall" (though they rightly later graced the first Honey White release). The same went double for all of Adam's songs, with two exceptions: the gorgeous solo instrumental "Blue Lantern Cove" and the token goofy novelty "Stuck On Chapter Nine."

Joe and I didn't get everything we wanted either; a semi-acoustic "You're On Your Own" went nowhere, as did an echo-bass driven "Peak of My Career." Any initial excitement we all felt for each others' tunes soon dissipated. The downhill rush was halted for two great gigs in April 2001 and another, higher-profile show in June (to date, the Mojos' last), but otherwise nothing was working and it was obvious. I hated that nobody seemed to put in as much effort as I did, Adam hated when we scoffed at his heartfelt lyrics, Bryn hated being unable to push his own songs from behind the drum kit, and sometimes it seemed like Joe hated to even be seen onstage with the rest of us. The operative word was almost always "seemed," but young men are terrible communicators, and at the time I was probably the worst of us all.

I was desperate to promote in spite of everything, so I compiled nine songs into You're On Your Own  scribbled out an album cover, pressed a handful of CD-R copies, and shoved them at anyone who got within arms-length at our final show. We played a six-song set as part of a huge bill, got offstage, and stopped doing anything Mojo-related for the rest of the summer and most of fall 2001. Bryn briefly went back to Orange County for work. Adam put his nose to the grindstone too. Joe left for two months in New York. I tried to keep momentum going in any direction anyway—this time by taking recording lessons and booking practice space in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone. Once again, though, not much happened apart from four or five rehearsals in October and November—and the whole band showed up for only two of those. The Mojo Wire immediately lapsed into a hiatus that became permanent when Bryn and I formed Honey White in early 2002.

When I listen to it now, the final Mojo album certainly sounds like chaotic implosion, but there are bright spots. Almost all of the eleven songs (two more were added to post-2003 pressings) ooze a wildly lurching swagger, topped with lyrics that sneer with revenge. Like all musical epitaphs, though, the hardest lesson learned was how good this thing could have been if we (or maybe just I) found a way to ignore every selfish hang-up and simply cooperated. It's a lot to ask four smart, talented, twenty-something people to do, and this time, it was too much to ask.

Play this album:

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