September 06, 2006

Twelve-Bar Ruse


The Mojo Wire built our debut album Battery Acid Blues with two of rock's primary colors: blues and surf.

First albums are special. First albums by first bands are exponentially much more so. People can be a bit weird about their first band—I definitely have been and will be again—and I think first recordings are one of the big reasons why. There’s nothing quite like the first the first rush of converting creative impulses into good, bad, and ugly originality; nothing like getting it out of your head and on tape to make it real.

Another great reason is that there’s no one correct way to do this. Anyone who says so is lying. Some bands stick their toes in the water first,  working their way up to competence and maybe greatness on later records. Some others jump in head-first, splashing talent (or lack thereof) all over everything. Some debuts come out of nowhere with surprising freshness, and some crawl out of the distant artistic past via long-ignored or discarded stylistic roots (and routes). Some are labors of love, some are by-blows made to avoid boredom, some come from improvised chaos, and some are complete accidents.

All of the above is true for the first album I was ever a part of: my first band The Mojo Wire’s debut Battery Acid Blues. By the time we created it, Bryn, Adam and I had more than a year of writing and playing together (with or without drummers), and plenty to throw in that stew called “your life up to this point” so often poured into debut albums. We had no agenda other than having fun, being creatively expressive, and cracking each other up. All the other usual, motivations applied too—friendship, discovery, revenge, guilt, and impressing girls—but when we arrived in Isla Vista we’d nailed down the basic twelve-bar/three-chord classic rock & pop template. We’d been recording since starting the band in May 1996, but the actual “album sessions” didn’t start until October 1997, only a week or so after we’d recruited drummer Brandon Klopp for a few jam sessions and keg party gigs.

We created a unique sound on tape almost in spite of ourselves. Bryn, Adam and I were almost completely ignorant of established recording methods, but thankfully Brandon saved us with actual technical knowledge. We took a few shortcuts, like using an electric drum kit to make live tracking easier, which made the final product a strange but original mix of old-school low-fi and cheap-tech sounds. Songs that started as basic blues and surf numbers now resembled wall-of-sound mono recordings from the early ’60s.

Like every Mojo Wire recording, the songs themselves were simultaneously awesome and awful—maybe even more so on this first album—but I still really love many of them, especially the simpler blues tunes. Bryn’s galloping. Bryn’s galloping “12:15 Blues” grew from an embryonic three-verses-and-solo take into a bonkers showcase for the whole group. Each of us took a twelve-bar solo before the song ran out—to “introduce” the band on the album’s first track. The strongest, and best song on the album came next: “Long Black Leather Boots”  a collaborative blooze belter that crushed everything in its path with not two, but four dueling Bryn and Adam guitar solos.

That initial spasm of recording also included “FM Blues,” my slapstick whine about radio dominance topped off with baseball-stadium keyboard from Bryn, a cover of “Nobody Knows You when You’re Down and Out,” and “Your Mama’s a Ho,” the oldest and most notorious song in our short repertoire—dumb and crude and not nearly as funny as we thought. Two more quick-and-dirty twelve-bars rounded out this batch: the lazy groove “Can’t Keep Warm” and Bryn’s Stevie Ray Vaughn instrumental pastiche “The Witching Hour.”

Every other song with actual structure and arrangement took longer to finish, but all of them were good blueprints of how to do it better in the future. Brandon’s drumming transformed the instrumental “Whitecap” into an unstoppable force of nature. Adam’s ballad  “Stay With Me” gave the album a mellow break in the middle, but not for long. “Wishing Well Blues” jolted the sequence back to high gear with more surf-rock and some bizarre “Pinky and the Brain” backing vocals that defied intelligence and taste, but balanced my lyrics’ ham-fisted ambition.  We tracked two more that worked at gigs but didn’t make the final cut: another surf track called “El Nido Thunder” and a noodly jam called “Sammy’s Spitcan” that got another life four years later as “Fatal Flaws.”

The album title came from my semi-fictional, gonzo-lite music columns for UCSB’s student-run Daily Nexus newspaper. Most of the lyrics—intentionally and not—became goofy parodies of every clich├ęd theme in classic blues-rock. This was entirely down to Adam’s vocal delivery; anybody would be hard-pressed to sing “Leather Boots,” “Wishing Well,” or especially “Your Mama’s a Ho” with a straight face, but Adam totally sold it. The lasting result was a streak of bent, sub-Yankovic humor on all our following albums. Battery Acid Blues ending up feeling like a weird dilution of some 1966 party record, made by four people who weren’t there and didn’t know anything about it.

I can’t emphasize how little all of this mattered to the late ’90s Isla Vista/UCSB scene, which mostly ignored us. Everyone and their dog was in a band, everyone threw backyard keggers, and everyone who thought they really cared about music went to downtown Santa Barbara clubs to see “real” bands. The Battery Acid CD-R languished on the (now defunct) I.V. Morninglory Music shelf, and locals paid more attention to a dying ska revival, lifeless jam bands, and rotating brat-punk and metal monoliths. Playing styles at least a generation older than our peers guaranteed a hopeless disconnection with our immediate surroundings, but ultimately that didn’t matter. The album’s songs came alive at every show, and we pulled a small but steady crowd of hard-core friends and fans each time.

Like all great stretches of pure fun, it didn’t last. By the time we finished the album, we’d already dove deep into weirder sonic territory. It eventually resulted in a dead end, but going sideways from straight blues and surf staples to self-indulgent cheap psychedelia on the next record was just as much fun at the time. However, twelve-bar structures and traces of crunchy blooze-rock popped up on all our later albums, and many of the Battery Acid songs stayed in our live set until we fell apart in 2001. Some musical reflexes just aren’t forgotten, especially if they’re all-important formative ones.

Play this album:

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