July 29, 2011

30 Songs #1 - Fatal Flaws: In The Beginning Was The Riff

Portrait of the artist as a hypersensitive, insecure 19-year-old

For better or worse, I'm not really a first-though-best-thought type. Most of my best stuff—writing, music, lyrics, design, whatever—is usually the result of an annoyingly protracted cerebral root canal, ideas over-thought within an inch of creative death. There is, however, a lone exception that naturally proves the rule, and it just happens to be the first song I chose to write about in this new little series: "Fatal Flaws." It's not a bad lyric, and it's definitely one of my favorites to play and sing. Take a listen:

That's a live take (perhaps definitive) of the song as Honey White played it back in 2002 on Del Playa in Isla Vista, but the original guitar/bass riff is much older than that. It may be the first riff I actually wrote, way back in those ugly days of summer 1996 when the only good thing I had going (or so I thought) was playing bass guitar in a goofy garage band called the Clap (later the Mojo Wire) started by my brother Bryn and his best friend Adam. Oh, the wretched melodrama of being 19.

Anyway, it wasn't my first lyric—the riff existed long before it became a bonafide song—and that song hung around for a while longer before it got lyrics. I distinctly remember playing it through a tiny 15-watt amp in my sophomore-year dorm room at UCSB (fall '96), and feeling so damn clever for creating a hybrid of two killer riffs: U2's "The Fly" and Beck's "Devil's Haircut." Sounds silly right? Seriously though, check it out:

Again, it's a miracle I survived the preposterousness of youth (I thought I was such a genius for writing this thing). However, for months and months, the riff languished without arrangement, until finally I'd absorbed enough faux-blooze-rock from our first band to set the riff to a twelve-bar structure. I'm pretty sure that Bryn learned it on guitar around that time too (early '97), but it didn't get the full band treatment until he and Adam moved up to UCSB and we recruited Brandon Klopp to play drums for the Mojo Wire.

I don't think the riff had a name even then—we just called it "the funky A riff" or something—and its role ended up being a simple soundcheck jam, something we could get loose to before a rehearsal or gig (in fact, it survived in that incarnation well into 1999, when Joe played it with us). However, in the frenzy of 4-track recordings we made in late '97, we laid this one down as a six-minute monster-jam, and that's when I first thought of making it a real song. Sadly, things didn't quite work out that way. Not yet, anyway.

It happened like this: near the end of overdubs for the first Mojo Wire demo-album, Battery Acid Blues, we were a little giddy and delirious (in Isla Vista? No! Surely not!) and decided that the best thing to do for this lyric-less song was to improvise and be weird and just record it all. Bryn, Adam and I all wrote a few verses, then cobbled them together into a half-assed lyric we dubbed "Sammy's Spitcan" (a title with its own sordid story involving Ryan Hart's ex-girlfriend getting sick at a New Year's '98 party at Adam's brother Andy's house in Pacific Beach…), and the song essentially became a six-minute excuse to act like total morons on the mic. It was funny for a little while, but for me, not enough to balance the dumb—and I subsequently left "Spitcan" off all but the first several pressings of that first CD. Still, the song as an instrumental was handy as a soundcheck or show-starter, and like I said, we kept it like that for so long I thought it might just stay that way.

mp3: "Spitcan" (instrumental version, 4/98), a Bryn/Keir/Brandon jam.

Then I quit not one, but two jobs within 3 weeks of each other in fall 2000—and suddenly, the "Fatal Flaws" lyric just slipped out, three simple 12-bar verses. Here's how I described it to Honey White's drummer Bill Fedderson in 2002:

Also known as the "Unemployment Paranoia Freak-Out Blues," this was one of the most fun things I've written and is a riot to sing because it's way too close to the truth. The personification of Reality, Boredom, and Ambition as three women the narrator is/has been involved with was a simple, convenient metaphor. It's about having an ideal goal and knowing that there's a mountain of work ahead, coupled with that awful feeling of not knowing where or how to start—like something good is just around the corner but still out of reach. Bummer, huh? Maybe, but the song is a 12-bar that really rocks, so we'll just take what we can get.
Indeed, and we actually did start a studio remake of the song, as part of the ill-fated "re-record the Mojo Wire classics" project Bryn and I started in early 2001. Only a bass/drums version survives from that, though some other remade Mojo tunes ended up on that band's final, messy hodgepodge collection of remakes, originals, demos, and live takes, You're On Your Own. "Fatal Flaws" did appear on that album, but as a sub-par live version from 12/15/00. We played it at every Mojo show that year, though—even the final show on 6/3/01—but it would take another band to realize the song's full potential.

Yeah, because "Fatal Flaws" was one of several Mojo workhorses tackled by Honey White during the 2002/2003 gigs, condensed from that freeform jam down to an armed-and-dangerous four-minute, twelve-bar based blast of wah-wah riffage. The idea was to pad our set (which lacked lots of HW originals) with whatever we could, and this song (first at the kickoff, then moving to the finale) kept the energy level high at every show until 2004. My shouting, self-absorbed lyrical dementia was ably countered by Bryn’s and Brian’s dueling axes and Bill’s sharp snare. As many songs do, it got faster and shorter at every show, but that progress was slowed by me throwing in snippets of other bands’ lyrics into the break, like BRMC’s "Spread Your Love," U2’s "The Fly," and (on several occasions) Wilco’s "Outta Mind, Outta Sight."

Honey White played that song so much that we played it into the ground, really—its last appearance at a gig was 2/26/04 at Giovanni's, and I don't think it was rehearsed much after April '04. Still, when Bryn and I got back together with Adam and Kevin to form Radblaster in 2010, we trotted out "Fatal Flaws" for a token run-through in a shambolic, garagey-disco version. We haven't tried it since then—sometimes it's easy to tell when a piece of music has given you all it can, and I think this song has run its course. Doesn't mean it's not one of my favorites, though. It transcends every band I've played in. I mean, good riffs never die, you know?

"Fatal Flaws" lyrics:

For many years now I've forgotten my dreams,
if I ever remember at all
Reality wants my attention more often,
so I always come when she calls
Cause I'm gettin' used to the pull of routine
and the comfort of my fatal flaws

Now, I never really found Boredom attractive,
but she won't stop flirting with me
She don't understand that I can't reprimand her
for such innocent flattery
and I used to think I could hold out forever
but she's circling patiently

For many years now I've forgotten the fear,
but now I remember it all
The nerves and the pressure of one good impression
are making my confidence crawl
Cause I've got a date with Ambition tonight,
but she's not returning my calls

Song Stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (12/97)/Keir DuBois and Honey White (5/02).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, December 2000.
Appears on the following albums:
Battery Acid Blues (as "Sammy's Spitcan," later deleted) by the Mojo Wire
You're On Your Own by the Mojo Wire
Live and Unprofessional by Honey White
Some Reassembly Required by Honey White

Live video: with Honey White, 1/30/03 at the UCSB University Center

UPDATE: Bryn asked for the local TV version, so here it is in low-quality glory:

Okay, so that's that. Come back next week, and see what song pops up when we spin the Big Wheel again.


  1. I've always liked the version we did on local TV, too.

    Also... Man, we were sure playing to a full house in the UCen, eh? :)

  2. I'll go find that video and post it then, too.

    And re: the Ucen show, well...you know as well as I do that the crowd noise ain't fake. They were all off on the right, out of camera shot. Saying that sounds pathetic, but it's true!

  3. Sweet! Thanks for putting that version there too.

    And yeah, I know that the camera angle wasn't super forgiving. But we did get to see that drunk bum grooving along to "Mercy Rule" at one point. Plus we had Shaun up on the second floor cheering us on, which was quite cool.

  4. Also, this make me think that maybe I should make room for the wah in my current set up. We'll see.

  5. Stupid drunk pirate bum.


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