May 08, 2006

Protracted Sagas of Paralysis

An unashamedly self-centered analysis of Honey White-era song lyrics.

The Lightning Rod (December 2001): This lyric is the one that mercilessly gave me the most hell and was the hardest to finish. The actual music was composed in December 1997, and ended up on the second Mojo Wire album as "Under The Sun," but that lyric did not age well at all. We refused to give up the tune, cause it's good, but finding the right combination of lyrical point of view and attitude to go with such a huge, sweeping piece of music, and not come off as a pretentious wankers was a tough thing to do. Basically, how do you write a clear, direct lyric to such an epic monster? It's a tough contradiction, and thematically it's probably still the most pretentious thing I've done, meshing several narratives into a complete whole (and I know that sounds like something Sting would say, but it can't be helped) that amounts to the last of the abandonment songs. The narrative is I vs. You yet again, and it's mostly a conflation of 1) getting kicked out of my dad's house at Christmas when I was 19, 2) every breakup I've ever had to go through, and 3) (warning- this is where things get pretentious)- concerning the expulsion of a certain angel from heaven after he decided to do his own thing. Seriously.

It was going to be my last lame biblical allusion; I was taking a Milton class at the time and we'd just started 'Paradise Lost', so that makes it a little more significant. The first verse just runs from there. "Tonight the town's electric" is something I actually said at the time. There were some evenings around 6pm in Isla Vista with that weird spark in the air, where you just knew it was going to destroy itself utterly that night and then become semi-reborn the next morning, like some retarded phoenix. I could feel it in the air, all that potential energy and tension and anticipation building up to a ridiculous degree. "I used to want to be the main attraction" refers to me and that devil again, but for very different reasons. The devil of course wanted to be the bright star of heaven, the main attraction. I, of course, wanted to be Elvis Costello (the frontman of the Attractions). The line in the second chorus about giving up my heart to anyone on the spot stems from a weird resigned desperation of someone in "fuck it" mode. I actually never made it there that night and I think this is why after all this and the 3rd verse, the resolution, was so difficult to finish. It happened, though ("tomorrow ain't a threat to my behavior"), and it's the end of something, and not much more.

Unprofessional (January 2002): Another gripe about the band being amateurs, only what I tried to do here is to ask, "well, why is being a rookie such an awful thing?" Why do you need to be recognized and respected by a group of random elitists in order to get anywhere in the world? I decided to make noise about how I don't think it's all that bad to be unprofessional, at least in the music business, and not for all the old dumb reasons about selling out. We don't need to be famous to do what we like doing, so why get all worked up? Well, because I hate elitism and exclusionism in many of its forms. I hate how people seem to expect you to play the game according to their rules and if you don't, you are deemed to "not have what it takes" to succeed in your efforts and you should pack it up and go home. Of course it's a lie, but people stick to it like gospel, and it actually doesn't bother me too much, except to the degree of dedicating 3 minutes of my time to address that with this song. "We know better, we know best, and we'll endure nevertheless."

Mercy Rule (September 2002): This song is probably the whiniest result of my journey into the world of the 40-hours-a-week working crowd. I stole the first line from the title of a book I'd been reading on the ins and outs of being a professional freelance writer. I think my main point of view here was just trying to get across that stereotypically stifling feeling I had from wasting 8 hours of every beautiful day inside an office cube. The other thing about this lyric is that I was glad it got finished, and I'm relieved I don't resemble the narrator or that attitude too much anymore. I had to get it out of my system just so I wouldn't think along those lines, cause it's just so lazy, selfish, and weak-minded. Still, it's a side of myself that I found relatively interesting to explore, even if it did make the women in my life think that I was a negatively bent and depressed guy.

Sweet Oblivion (February 2003): Took a while to finish, but that became my default modus operandi in those days and unfortunately it remains that way. I pulled this one out of the ether as I was just beginning another long 18 month stretch of irresponsible unemployment- the kind that people usually indulge in when they need to "find themselves." The only thing I found was that this guitar part Brian wrote sounded a lot like something drifting endlessly in a sea of doldrums. That's how I felt, though- at the time, no one wanted to give me a job, and nobody "important" wanted to book my band. The lyric has to do with that theme, frustrated aimlessness, which was a relatively soul-sucking experience for someone spoiled by circumstances such as myself. Like "Mercy Rule," I had to get that crap out of my system too, and hopefully I don't resemble that narrator much anymore- at least superficially anyway.

Famous Last Words (February 2004): All these "ending" lyrics obviously have to reach a conclusion at some point, and so I tried to do that with this one, since I was tired of writing things that were self-obsessed and pissy. I mean, I was 27 at the time, and I was still churning out this hypersensitive diary stuff, so I had to kill that impulse off sooner rather than later. Conveniently, this was also at the time when all my friends and I were planning to get out of Isla Vista after overexposure to that place and everything that went with it. Especially me- I was too old and too out of it to survive among raging demons a decade younger. Someone pointed out that it sounded like a suicide song, which was disappointing, but then again there are only 2 chords and it's seven-plus minutes long on the album, so I can sort of see the inducement there.

Island Fever (August 2004): The coda to all the abandonment and ending songs- but done detached and clinical as through the prism of not having to deal with those particular problems anymore. The symptoms are described from knowing experience but also from relief and gratitude that it need not ever happen again, like writing about being lost on a desert island once you're back at home. The big steps here, though, were brevity (four syllables per line in the three verses), and distance (no first person hypersensitive narrative). While the maturity level is still developmentally sluggish considering the age of who wrote it, it's at least one removed from the destructively narcissistic stuff so recently obsessed over in other songs. In other words, I grew up a little, and was happy to do that, and didn't want to go back. I only thought I became cool.

Blacking Out (September 2004): Brian's take on the music for this one was that it resembled an acid frenzy, but I don't know what that feels like, so I went with a binge and hangover type theme, and blew it up to national-geopolitical proportions while still trying to hide it within the clinical view of Isla Vista. After 9/11, America's long national hangover of psychotically raging behavior reached epic heights of fear and loathing, so I thought it appropriate to give the narrative over to the collective "we" once again, but with a few caveats: no one knows what's going on, and everyone's unreasonably scared shitless. This totally irrational abandonment of logic and common sense struck me as absolutely medieval, so "blacking out," the phrase, also refers to the oncoming fits of Dark Age ignorance that threaten to envelop everybody. It's only got worse since then.

Hold Still (September 2005): If "Blacking Out" was nebulously political in a compulsive-addiction way, then this one is the same, only as a throwback to more stalker-ish lyrics like "You're On Your Own." This is the first lyric I've written that is unambiguously evil- it revels in the use of brute, coercive assault in order to illustrate the deliberate emotional fascism inherent in the point of view taken up by so many ideological, warmongering Republicans. They know what's right, and you don't, so just shut the fuck up and take it. Since it's been finished for a while, I've also thought of it as a plea to get someone to do something for their own good that they refuse to do, but the last verse still obliterates that option. It's a nasty piece of role-playing, and I'm still not sure that it's any good, but there you have it.

May 04, 2006

Instant Gratification

Honey White kick-starts their career with ease on the multifaceted My Band Rocks E.P.

Demo discs are strange animals. They're tangled up with unwritten rules about recording skill, song sequence, palatable hooks, smart (but not too smart) lyrics, professional composition, and a million other subjective attributes. Demos without those things will allegedly never, ever get noticed by anyone whose opinion matters. And yet the least boring, most unique demos often sport amateur production value, tentative or unfocused aesthetics, and limited musical proficiency.

E.P. discs are weird too; a relic of the vinyl era, they're often the first release by emerging indie groups. Not a single, not an album, but maybe more of a bargain than either, an E.P. needn't be encumbered by concepts or themes inevitably attached to full albums. An E.P. is free to be the incomplete opening salvo in a band's never-ending war to make people care. Honey White's first release, My Band Rocks  is both a demo and E.P., with all the benefits and drawbacks of both formats. However it also displayed more range and promise than we had any right to expect after only four months playing together, and that was down to all four band members.

When Bryn and I took a second plunge by forming another band after the Mojo Wire imploded, we gambled and scored big with bandmates. Our longtime friend Brian Wolff joined as second guitarist, we recruited jazz-trained, Colorado-seasoned punker Billy Fedderson on drums, and in no time we started jamming at Earl Arnold's Table Salt rehearsal space. We clicked immediately on both musical and personal levels, fusing our differing aesthetic tastes and playing styles into a deft, subtle expression of power. Thanks to our tiny Mojo Wire-era network of friends & fans, gig offers appeared within days, and Honey White played our first show only a month into the band's existence.

We got really good really fast, but recording was a tougher nut to crack. I tried taping rehearsals, but soon got in over my head trying to improve on the low-fi Mojo Wire albums, so I enrolled in a studio course with local engineer Mark Anthony. I didn't finish the course—turned out engineering wasn't for me—but Mark offered to record our demo, and so we soon did just that at his home studio. It was the first time Bryn, Brian and I had ever recorded with a professional engineer, but thankfully he let us track most of the songs live, and we didn’t do many overdubs of anything we couldn’t replicate live. The result was minimalist in execution but also showed stylistic range, a big difference from the final Mojo Wire lineup that excelled at no-frills garage rock newly en vogue thanks to the Strokes and White Stripes.

The ruthlessly economic approach imposed by me and Bryn may or may not have been fashionable, but it was also absolutely necessary. We'd refined and strengthened the various Mojo songs in our set, going from competent to speedy, and that spilled over into how we played anything. Studio time was expensive, and we lacked the money for extensive exploring, so with few exceptions, we abandoned extraneous effects and complicated arrangements. If we did include something strange, like my echo-bass on "The Lighting Rod," it became more agile than epic. Bryn and Brian mostly kept their guitar tones clean, and other than some subtle compression, Billy’s drums went down on tape clean too.

Another crucial decision was recording only new songs. It was important to establish Honey White’s identity on record, and since our sets were full of Mojo Wire songs, we thought any new recording should contain new songs. "New" in this case meant tunes not properly attempted or completed by the Mojo Wire; every song here except "Wayfaring Stranger" had been floated to the Mojos in some form, and either stalled or never started. For example, ”Unprofessional" would have fit comfortably on the final Mojo Wire album, but Honey White sped it up to a two-minute burst of gritty garage-rock on stage, galvanizing the rare tanking gig back to life. "Unprofessional" was a gutsy, forceful way to kick off our debut, and it basically became our theme song from then on.

And then there’s “The Lightning Rod,” an absolute beast and the short disc’s centerpiece. It wasn’t completely new, but Honey White transformed it from its original incarnation as the Mojo Wire’s plodding “Under the Sun” into a live showstopper and fan favorite. It's a huge song, propelled by my echo-bass riffs and a precise yet frenzied drumming performance by Billy. The guitarists took a back seat as additional rhythm elements, but Bryn held his own on vocals. The lyric was a bloody four-year tooth pull, but became a crucial accomplishment for me and is still probably my best. It’s a preposterously multilayered rejection/revenge narrative that amplified the posturing denial of latter-day Mojo lyrics into delusional confidence

Bryn's songwriting voice finally got some space too, first with sensitivity on "The Sandman," then with power on "You Let Me Fall," and finally with pathos on his arrangement of "Wayfaring Stranger." A somber, jazzy ode to Morphine's late frontman, "The Sandman" was completed at least two years previously but never became a Mojo Wire song. Likewise, "You Let Me Fall" was a bit older but didn't see release until this E.P. either. "You Let Me Fall" had a biting lyric vilifying manipulative love, backed by Billy's bravura drumming and a snarling lead riff from Brian. "Wayfaring Stranger" makes a fitting coda, ending the disc (and many a live show) with a haunting slice of history poured through a supple Honey White filter.

At first, starting with a demo/E.P. felt incomplete and under-defined, but My Band Rocks got us immediate results on release, opening doors around town and earning us a surprising amount of positive recognition in the local music press. We hit several gig milestones that the Mojo Wire never came close to, like on-campus shows at UCSB, local TV appearances and club gigs in downtown Santa Barbara. That was all great, and we loved it, but the E.P. was still rough enough to make us even more determined to do a proper recording session. When that finally happened two years later, we finally accomplished what the songwriting and interplay on this debut had always promised: a good album we could proudly show off to everyone.

Play this album:

May 02, 2006

Americans Are (Still) Geographical Morons

So sez here. Now, every once in a while it has occurred to me that despite my ridiculous retention of geography trivia (which, if I recall correctly, I was never required to be taught or tested on in school), I am still not gleefully paid voluminous sums of money for the sake of knowing it. I think it's a matter of absolute immaturity that I still sorta resent this.

I don't mean money in a Jeopardy sense either- getting that's all about timing. I mean being genuinely rewarded for taking the time to learn and remember all this crap simply cause I found it interesting. Now, that may or may not show proof of other sorts of brain damage, but when I see that many, many 18-24 year old red-blooded prime fighting age American kids can't find Iraq on a map, even after we've been killing people there for a few years, I can't help but get a little impatient with the stupidity of it all.

Worse, a sizeable chunk of Americans can't find Louisiana on a map even when you spot them the word "Katrina". That's appalling. That's not like silly me knowing the capital of Kreplakistan or how to draw Libya or whatever, that's knowing where a big fuckoff hurricane destroyed a major American city not even one year ago.

Granted, the last time I was seriously tested on this stuff, at the '89 Geography Bee in Sacramento, I bombed. I got my ass handed to me after the first round- after the first question, even. So even with all my map mojo I still ain't the best. Ten to one there's a 12-year-old out there right now who could eat me for breakfast and then go on Letterman and laugh about it. But still, I know my shit.

Schools should be required to teach geography, not shamed into it by National Geographic. Of course, they should teach art and music full time too, but do they? Hell, even science and history are electives where Em teaches. That's even more appalling.

I guess I should say that it's getting harder and harder to not heap total scorn on the willful ignorance of so many people, but then again I don't think it'll come to that. If people aren't going to take the time to learn about the world around them, it's their problem. After all, I've only actually been to seven U.S. states and Baja California, so I shouldn't be too mean.


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