January 27, 2012

30 Songs #27 - Tempting Fate: Just Enough Awesome to Power Two Bands

The I-5 freeway near Santa Ana. This is what I'm doing while you're reading this.

Okay, so today in "30 Songs" we have a real treat—or at least I think so, and you all will just have to deal with me. This week's song is called "Tempting Fate" and I love it. It's one of my favorite songs that I've written and I think it's one of the best, too—not least because of a stone cold killer opening lyrical couplet, but more about that later. This song was a gift. Well, it feels like that now—but at the time, I sure earned it. Writing "Tempting Fate" was tough (bass player composing = hard), it took too long to finish (eating up all of 2006), it was pillaged for scrap (for my side project in 2007), and it was rebuilt from the ground up (by Bryn in 2009). On top of that, both of my bands had their way with it in 2010 before it was finally considered "finished."

One of the great things about playing in two bands at once is that you get to see how each group plays some of the same songs. In our case, it's not that different—my brother and I play in both bands, and he sings this song in both settings—but it's interesting to see how the other players in each band take the song and run with it. Namely, playing this particular song made both bands reach back to previous sonic incarnations in order to get it right:

That's Honey White's version as it was recorded in December 2010, about a month after playing it for the first time. Then there's this:

That's Radblaster's version from April 2011 (later added to our debut demo), after that band had been rehearsing the song for about a year. Originally, we seemed to pick up right where we left off in 1998, when Adam, Bryn, Kevin and I recorded initial backing tracks for the Seaside Hamlet Skids album at Kevin's parents' Laguna Niguel living room. I think that was the last time we four had played together before we reconvened in March 2010 at Adam's in San Clemente. The setting (O.C. beach town) and recording method (three rinky-dink microphones capturing the vibe in a small room) more than ensured that the classic Mojo surf-noir sound would survive. Adam took on the solo like a pro, first swaggering through it on his old Hamer, then flat-out shredding it on his new Strat. We even tried to segue "Tempting Fate" from another old (and now re-made) Mojo surf instrumental, "Blue Lantern Cove," and it almost worked.

Radblaster rehearsing in San Clemente, June 2010.

When Honey White played the song during rehearsals in November and December 2010, that band ended up harking back to its own early days as well—in this case 2002, when we'd padded our live sets with older Mojo Wire songs, including several of the surf-rock ones from Seaside. Thanks to Bill's background in punk, we'd played songs like "Shivering Sand" and "How Far Away" at relatively blinding speeds, but Bryn and Brian still managed to rip through some reverb-drenched solos before the songs crashed to finale. Well, in the recent rehearsals, Bill noticed "Tempting Fate" was really similar to those songs, and drew on that to power Honey White's take on it. We syncopated the breakdown, so Brian added a more laid-back solo, and Marika added first keyboards and then melodica in the background. Et voila: the leadoff track for a new Honey White demo E.P.

Honey White rehearsing in Santa Barbara, November 2010.

The song obviously has no live history—Honey White hasn't gigged since 2006, and Radblaster hasn't yet, at all—but it took a long time to get "Tempting Fate" to the point where it was ready for either band to play. It all started (I shit you not) in a dream. Seriously. I dreamed that for some reason Emily and I were being chased (by unknown pursuers) though a train station (or ferry port, or something), and the whole time an ominous bass line played in the background. Now, I rarely remember my dreams, so when I do, they're worth mentioning. The riff stuck with me, so I transcribed it and, the next chance I could, recorded it with a band. That just happened to be a Bryn-less version of Honey White, during summer 2005 (July 3 to be exact), and the short little jam that resulted was this:

mp3: Tempting Fate (original snippet)

I thought it could go somewhere, so I worked on it for the rest of 2005 and into 2006—but while the song gained a chorus part, it got fairly overblown pretty quickly. Here's a demo I assembled from Billy's drum samples and my own hyper-processed bass guitar sounds:

mp3: Tempting Fate (2007 Demo)

It's a bit too much, isn't it? Furthermore, only I could take samples from a real drum kit and make them sound fake. On the other hand, after a year of work it finally had lyrics, and good goddamn, for the most part I did well here if I do say so myself:

"Tempting Fate"

when I was younger I was still insane
I looked like Abel and I felt like Cain
I learned to fear, I learned the art of war
until I guess I couldn't take it anymore
or else I got too callous

so I grew up and I approached the bomb
with automatic cool and heroic calm
methodically defused her right in time
and now our reason overrules our rhyme
and interrupts our rhythm

as I hang in the balance sometimes I feel
okay and deal and I give up but then
sometimes I feel sometimes I feel

sometimes I feel like tempting fate again
or wreaking havoc every now and then
or risking everything I got to slash and burn
up past another point of no return
and leave the rest in ruins

so why upend the balance? sometimes I feel
okay and deal and I give up but then
sometimes I feel sometimes I feel
sometimes I feel like tempting fate again

so why upend the balance? sometimes I feel
okay and deal and I give up but then
sometimes I feel sometimes I feel
sometimes I feel like tempting fate again

The big win for me here was the irregular verse structure: five lines instead of four, with the melody coming in a whole line ahead of e chord. Great, great opening lines too. I mean, really—we learned last year that Herman Cain really was insane, right? I was prescient when I knocked this one out four years ago. That first line is also the first line of my as-yet-unpublished novel (in which, surprise surprise, I write about the mid-1990s angsty antics of suburban O.C. teens not unlike myself). That's kind of what inspired the lyrics, in a way—or maybe the lyric and the novel's concept of childhood nightmares and creeping nostalgia fed off each other. The narrator in "Tempting Fate" is (like most of my narrators) projecting like crazy; not only is he still insane, he's in denial about it.

I wrote more about the book here, here, and here, but the short version is that it's a stereotypically amateur first novel, with all the good and bad aspects thereof. It's a distorted version of things that happened (and didn't happen) to me, in that "write what you know" vein. The two main narrators are pretty transparent versions of me, too; they're not exactly Mary Sues but they're not developed enough as characters, either (and therefore I'd assume that none of the book's characters are sufficiently developed). I know, I know—we've crashed through so many levels of ego by now that it's probably unbearable—but like all self mythology, what I remembered was less true than what made the book (and now the song) a good story. I mean, I really did dream about defusing a bomb when I was 10 or 11 (see? Dreams again!), and was sleepwalking through it, too. Really.

I did get a good creative boost from the book project though—in the form of a self-produced, all-instrumental soundtrack that I released under my old "Low Tide" side project name. The songs are all ambient, bass-driven mood pieces, and several of them share riffs and other musical concepts. I took inspiration from all over for these tunes, and "Tempting Fate" (along with "Hold Still" and other semi-finished songs) was part of that. Since I'm a better lyricist than musician, songs where I wrote the music are either a) laughably simple, b) loose re-workings of other people's stuff, or c) relatively complicated stuff that I had to work my ass off to finish. My bass playing has thankfully improved over the last fifteen years, but I'm definitely not the world's most gifted composer. Lyrics are much…well, I was almost going to say "much easier" for me but sometimes they're not. I guess what I was thinking is that for me, words are easier building blocks to play with and plug in or replace or adopt or abandon.

Anyway, all of that got tangled up in the solo side project I did for the novel's "soundtrack" in 2008. "Tempting Fate" got disemboweled and buried beneath some echo-bass murk for my Low Tide "Weapon of Young Gods" CD, and these two tunes that are based on it make for kind of a weird listen now that I know the song's been revived in a rock-band context:

Those worked fine for what they were, but the original song and lyric were too good to simply shelve, so I asked Bryn for help, and in late 2009 we rebuilt the song acoustically (like "Lightning Rod" and "Hallelujah"):

mp3: Tempting Fate (2009 Demo)

From there it was a hop, skip and a jump to full-on Rock Band Awesome. We taught "Tempting Fate" to Adam and Kevin in March 2010, and Radblaster has played it ever since. Honey White learned it even faster when that band reconvened in November after a 3-year hiatus, and I gotta say I love both versions equally. The RB version is a great flat-out rocker, and the HW version is agile in obtuse ways (I was super-stoked on my backing vocal part and Billy's syncopated breakdown).

So much for "Tempting Fate." I could write more, but I've already barfed out too much already. I guess I should warn you all now that for the "30 Songs" home stretch it's all gonna be about recent work—songs and lyrics that inspired (or were inspired by) my four-year detour into fiction writing. I do that a lot—the O.C. nostalgia thing, I mean. In fact, I'm doing it again this weekend; by the time you read this I will probably be snarled in southbound I-5 L.A. Friday night traffic, but no matter. Maybe we'll find out what this song sounds like when Bryn plays mandolin on it.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois- w/Radblaster, January 2010; w/Honey White, Nov. 2010
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, February 2007.
Appears on the following albums:
The Weapon of Young Gods (as "Concussions" and "Leave the Rest in Ruins") by Low Tide
Corridan E.P. by Honey White
Hecho En Naranjastan by Radblaster

January 20, 2012

30 Songs #26 - Blunt Instruments: Throw Back a Twelve Pack and Write It All Down, Jack

100% authentic Naranjastani Radblaster, unearthed in Anaheim, 2011.

Yes, you may be cringing now, but that's not just a painfully stupid rhyme, folks—it's the magic formula for "how to name your band." Of course, the catalyst of choice could be any reality-altering controlled substance, but here at the roving My Band Rocks HQ, we have usually chosen alcohol. Why start off the latest "30 Songs" post with this drunken crap, you ask? Aside from it being Friday, you mean? Oh, well that's easy—we have reached our third entry in the "band theme song" sequence, a lyric called "Blunt Instruments" that I shoe-horned into Radblaster's theme song. Because every band needs a theme song—it doesn't matter if we've only rehearsed seven times in almost two years, and have yet to score a gig—some things are simply imperative. My bandmates were somewhat reluctant to acknowledge this critical fact, but they changed their tune after I laid some serious Wisdom on them. Check it out:

Okay, so maybe it's not so convincing, but I Stand By My Point (as I sit down with another beer). That mp3 is a loose, not-ready-for-prime-time demo of "Blunt Instruments," with ugly-shouty vocals courtesy of yours truly. We haven't actually rehearsed this song together as "Blunt Instruments" yet—if you listen closely you can probably hear Adam in the background singing another song entirely—but more about that later. Let me get back to the stupid post title, because it all starts there, sprawled in the wreckage of numerous wasted band-naming sessions. When Adam, Bryn, Kevin and I first formed a band way back in the last century (1996), we played messy surf instrumentals and dirty blues songs and named ourselves The Clap. Naturally, much man-child hilarity ensued from there, complete with stern looks and exasperated eye-rolls from parents and girls that we failed to impress. We let that joke play itself out (it took less than a year, but oh, what a year it was), before Bryn deemed The Clap an "unpoetic" name (and an unlikely gig-getter) and we frantically searched for a new one.

Adam does his 007 impression in 1996, with the original orange Radblaster.

As surely everyone knows, we then named ourselves after Hunter S. Thompson's annoying, anachronistic fax machine, and as the Mojo Wire we spread sub-musical terror across two Southern California counties and (mostly without Kevin) countless backyard keg parties. There was a brief identity crisis around the year 2000, when we conducted several mind-erasing band-naming sessions at the infamous Adam/Bryn/Sean/Owen/Brian/Joe apartment in Isla Vista, but nothing we came up with was any better than the Mojo Wire, and so we carried on for another year. Then some other stuff happened and we played in different awesome bands for a while (Los Sindicate, Honey White, etc.) and let the Mojo Wire wither on the vine as an archaeological curio. I was particularly irresponsible, releasing our domain name (www.themojowire.com) into the ether of nefarious online auctions.

And oh, how I paid for that mistake. At the end of 2008—with Honey White on hiatus and myself deep into a massive novel-writing nostalgia-trip—I made a frightening discovery: another Mojo Wire had formed and was stalking Southern California, fronted by a semi-famous singer who used to front another band in the 1990's. Of course, like anyone else would in this situation, I...uh...totally lost my shit—and my shamelessly dumb little online temper tantrum earned an inbox-full of too-bad-so-sad condescension from said famous person (plus some man-dance threats from her prison-tattooed boyfriend). After screaming like a child, then coming to my senses and realizing I was beaten, I remembered my sweet auntie's best piece of advice when it came to Surviving Shitty Times In The Entertainment Business: "you're the creative person, so come up with something more creative." I meditated on that wisdom for almost two years. Two long years.

Bryn at Wall of Sound in Anaheim, 10/22/11.

Then in March 2010, the stars aligned and Adam, Bryn, Kevin and I re-formed the original band and began playing the rock again. Since we couldn't be the Mojo Wire (and wouldn't be the Clap), a new band-naming session was needed. Now, as Responsible Men Of A Certain Age, we couldn't get hopelessly trashed to generate wisdom, but nevertheless came up with many possible suggestions: Contact Hangover, Electric Hubris, Spastic Melodrama, Bingeworthy (can you tell we were projecting?), Obnoxiousaurus, Towering Cumulus, Dolphin Jail, Moses Cadillac Jackson...you get the idea. All hilarious, all shrugged off or outright rejected for one reason or another. And then—like a brutal ass-kicking from Zeus himself—it came: RADBLASTER. There was another musical entity out there called a Radblaster, but it was merely an mp3 player. We were a BAND, goddamnit, and we would not be denied. Or rather it went something like Bryn saying, "fuck it—the name's good, and I'm sick of this crap. Let's just do it." And so it was that we became Radblaster.

Such an epic tale deserves a song, right? I mean, that's how epics came into being, right? They were sung! Surely we could wring three minutes out of this—and I was just the dude to do it. The lyric for "Blunt Instruments" was actually the fourth or fifth attempt, however—and it had to be cannibalized from other nascent Keir lyrics called "Creative Class Yuppie Blues" (which morphed into "Dilemma By Design"), "Crippling Nostalgia Blues" (which I'm still struggling with), and a lousy chorus for something called "Do Your Business" (i.e. "you can do your business baby, but we're gonna do our thing"). What really drove me to finish it, though, was a great tune of Bryn's (part of his current "Black Keys Riffage" phase) that we rehearsed in early 2011. Unfortunately (for me), he'd already written lyrics for it, calling it "Superconductor." It goes like this:

mp3: Superconductor (original slow riff)

mp3: Superconductor (rehearsal, 2/19/11)

Adam at Wall of Sound in Anaheim, 10/22/11.

I won't say that Fate smiled upon me, but for some reason Bryn soon soured on his lyrics for "Superconductor" and he temporarily shelved the song—and then like a pestilential vulture (or maybe Mitt Romney) I convinced him that the best possible solution would be for me to write a Radblaster theme lyric for his bouncy, bluesy, boozy tune. He wasn't thrilled, but trusting in my skillz, relented with honor and courage. Then I went to work—and it was work in all the worst, frustrating, soul-crushing ways (i.e. an over-serious dude like myself trying to lighten up)—but in the end I beat the bastard and smote its ruin upon the mountain side:

"Blunt Instruments"

Circa nineteen-ninety something
when we rose up from the slime
of spastic melodrama in superlative times,

dumb bingeworthy electric hubris
and contact hangovers galore
always made a lotta noise - but we made more

with Radblaster, yeah Radblaster

Four blunt instruments and then some
are only gonna go so far
but reconnect the Mojo Wire, and here we are:

now with swagger by Los Sindicate
and style by Honey White
fifteen years evaporating overnight

in Radblaster, yeah Radblaster

Certain disaster, sober or plastered
we're Radblaster, we are Radblaster

Elliott and Yeats it ain't—but I did manage to pack in four real band names and four fake ones, including the chorus. And then I crippled the "Superconductor" demo by singing like Bob Dylan's senile evil twin:

mp3: Blunt Instruments (Cranky Old Dylan vocal)

Yikes. However, this version also includes the "blaster" sound, made by the orange toy Star Wars gun that I unearthed in the wilds of Disneylandia (or as the locals call it, "Anaheim"). I'm a sucker for novelty gimmicks in our recordings (examples too numerous to cite here), and I assumed this could be a fun, swingy song that introduces the band—the way "12:15 Blues" did for the Mojo Wire so many years ago. I think I've done that—but of course we haven't actually played it in this form yet, so who knows?

Another open question: could I, Mr. Painfully Serious Man, write a non-serious song? Ever? Well…yes and no, apparently. If you consider stringing together disparate, semi-funny non sequitors into a semi-coherent whole, then yes. If you consider this in competition with Bryn and Adam's greatest hits of hilarity from yesteryear—"Your Mama's a Ho," "This is the Chorus," "Drunken Asshole Bitch Blues," "Margarita," "March of the Idiots," "Broken Nail Blues"—then no. It doesn't even come close to my clever audio-collage from 1999, "Rocked by the Magnum."

Kevin at Wall of Sound in Anaheim, 10/22/11.

Ah, but who cares? It's Friday night in Southern California, my wife is asleep, and I am less than sober. We can get back to being Serious Keir next weekend. Until then, my trigger-happy, em-dash-laced wisdom will surely rattle around in many impressionable brains, right? Right?

Song stats:
Music by Bryn DuBois and Radblaster, January 2011.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, October 2011.
Appears on the following albums: None (yet…)

January 13, 2012

30 Songs #25 - Unprofessional: All the Gatekeepers Can Go Straight to Hell

Honey White rehearsing at Table Salt, Oct. 2002.

I like to think that my dreams of rock & roll stardom died quickly and painlessly, but they didn't. Someone's always too happy to tell you why you won't make it, especially if that means they think they're putting you in your place. I'm not too hung up on that stuff anymore—believe it or not, I've actually learned to take criticism less personally, even when it's painfully stupid, but the few times I've run into people "in the industry" who claimed the authority to know who has "what it takes" and who doesn't, they've never hesitated to tell me that I didn't have it. I always assumed that meant I didn't have the all-consuming manic bloodlust to Succeed No Matter What the way we're supposed to in America, and once I got over the idea that people who believed this were worth my time, I was much happier.

Until then, however, there were all kinds of useless gatekeepers in the way: sneering promoters, bored A&R people, clueless commenters, blah blah blah. Today's "30 Songs" entry is called "Unprofessional," and at its worst it's how I chose to deal with those people: stuffing their lame arrogance into four verses and a chorus, and dispatching it all within two and a half minutes. At its best, though, "Unprofessional" became the de facto theme song of my second band, Honey White. It's the first song on our debut studio recording from 2002, and a great way to kick off our epic garage rock run:

I almost can't believe it's literally ten years old this month. The studio take doesn't quite do the song justice but "Unprofessional" became a constant live standby, a two-minute burst of gritty garage-rock often sped up to near-punk tempos when played live, galvanizing the rare tanking gig back to life. It would have suited the final Mojo Wire lineup just fine, and in fact the first demo was based on a Mojo jam from Oct. '01:

mp3: "Unprofessional" (composite demo, 1/02)

That's me sing/sneering, but I had my reasons for putting up a front. Fall 2001 was a strange time. The horrible things happening in the world certainly made people rethink their priorities, even if they weren't personally affected by terror or war or whatever. For me, silly as it sounds, that meant wondering if I might be better off as a recording engineer instead of a struggling UCSB bureaucrat in a crumbling, no-hoper band. The Mojo Wire had been on hiatus since our final gig in June, and I was sort of feeling like that group had run its course. Adam spent the summer working, Joe spent it in New York, and Bryn and I endured university paychecks while we figured out what the hell we were supposed to do with ourselves. We all reconvened for a few rehearsals at our then-new digs at Table Salt, but for whatever reason the spark wasn't there and we just let it fall apart.

Normally that would be another story for another time, but I got the itch to Do Something Important Because Of The National Tragedy Of 9/11—or something like that. It was a dumb, reactionary move, but I did it anyway—signed up for (what amounted to) a mail-order course for recording engineers. The company that did it hooked me up with a semi-retired engineer named Mark Anthony, who was a nice guy but who also proved just a little too jaded and cynical to really be a good teacher—or so I thought. After about three weeks I called the recording school and spoke to the owner, some smarmy Hollywood asshole who basically tried to shame me out of giving up. I believe his exact words were "well, don't you wanna quit your day gig, dude?"

Honey White at Giovanni's, Feb. 2004.

Mark Anthony, the engineer, simply shrugged when I told him I wasn't interested anymore. He also said it would be a waste of money, and I guess he felt bad about that because he offered to use up the rest of the time recording my band. I explained I was sort of in-between bands at the time (this would have been about December '01), but he put the idea on layaway until I was ready to do something about it. Between that fiasco and a few others (the cold exclusionism of the "Taxi" A&R service, the sheer brainlessness of Garageband.com), I was pretty burned out on trying to make the world care, and "Unprofessional" was the annoyed result. The lyrics go like this:


Survival on the naked truth has saved another boring youth
from having any bit of fun or getting close to anyone
and by the time I bought the myth an amateur can deal with
I heard the luck was running out for everybody anyhow

come on love, forget about the pressure and the fear
come on love, we can't afford to waste another year

It used to mean the world to me, but chasing down elusive dreams
and second-guessing everything is so unhealthy mon ami

come on love, forget about the pressure and the fear
come on love, we can't afford to waste another year

Here we come now, here we come, so unprofessional to some
but we know better, we know best, and we'll endure nevertheless

you're wrong love, you'll never know if it's a revelation
you're wrong love, the payback isn't any consolation
come on love, forget about the pressure and the fear
come on love, we can't afford to waste another year

I still like them a lot—they're a great snapshot of my state of mind at the time. I'd finished college and felt stuck at a dumb series of jobs where nobody trusted me to not be stupid. It didn't matter to them that I kicked ass in school or was a gifted and talented designer/wordsmith/rockstar. No one cared, and I didn't have the patience to make them care if they couldn't figure it out. It still smarted years later, when successful designer me was asked to write a piece about my background as a "gifted" student.

But enough about all that. Back to the story: in early March 2002, Bryn and I had our first rehearsals with Brian and Billy (Bryn recruited Brian on guitar, and in February we'd placed an ad for a drummer, which Billy answered—and to this day I love him for it). We all clicked instantly on a musical level, and Honey White was born. "Unprofessional" was one of the first songs we did really well—it merged Billy's punkiness and Brian's cool with Bryn's earnestness and my bitchiness. We played it faster and livelier than the earlier Mojo Wire jams, and it grew from there. When it was time to record a demo, we went back to Mark and he helped us make it work—recording the My Band Rocks! E.P. in summer 2002.

Honey White at Embarcadero Hall, Jan. 2005.

The original tune for "Unprofessional" was my own, but as with most of my ideas, it came out much better when the band got ahold of it. As a musical composition it's probably most like a combination of two early '90s songs from my youth: U2's "Zoo Station" and P.J. Harvey's "Dress." Check it out:

That last clip is us on local Santa Barbara TV in April 2003. We came off a bit stiff, it has to be said—which is a bummer because "Unprofessional" was never really like that in concert. It quickly became our opening song at almost every show, mostly as a tag-team, one-two punch with Honey White's giddy take on the Mojo Wire song "Heart on a Platter." Here's a better live take from a bit earlier, December 2002:

Honey White at the Derby Club, Nov. 2005.

Several years ago, I did the numbers on Honey White live shows just for fun. Perhaps unsurprisingly, "Unprofessional" was our most-frequently-played song. We kept it in the set for a long time. Sometimes it ended up later in the show—on one occasion at the UCSB UCen it was a nice wham-bam quickie after "Lightning Rod," on another it jump-started our Derby Club set after "Blacking Out." Here's another live take from 2006, where Bryn explicitly describes it as our theme song:

Even when Honey White got sloppy and goofy, we still managed to stay sharp in one way or another, and this song is a great example of that. Because really, why is being a rookie such an awful thing? Why do you need to be recognized and respected and validated, by a group of random elitists who barely know you, 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 (despite my early '90s exposure) 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? I know I'm a rock star, so who gives a shit if some coke-addled record label exec can't see that?

Well, because I hate elitism and gatekeeping in all 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. I guess I should be glad that it bothered me enough to dedicate three minutes of my time to eviscerate it with this song. "We know better, we know best, and we'll endure nevertheless." Damn right.

Honey White at the Ocean Institute, Aug. 2006.

These days, as someone with small amounts of pull in the local design business, I've tried to keep that in mind when training younger designers and interns. I still can't believe they actually listen to me, but they do—and I think it might be my life's mission to not be a sneering, condescending prick (or even a passive, apathetic one!) when working with other creative people trying to break into the business. I want to prepare them for all the other assholes who will try to step on them. I know I can't always be the perfect one-man-envy-eliminating machine, but unless someone really is acting too big for their britches, there's no reason to stomp their dreams before they even know what those are. I don't mean to get all earnest and righteous on a Friday night, but the world's always too full of pompous, arrogant gatekeepers. If I can puncture their egos one at a time—especially in a two-minute-thirty-second rock song, I'll consider it a job well done.

Okay gang, that's all for now. Tune in next week for Radblaster's theme song. Hopefully I'll have lightened up a bit by then, but today swung between boredom and stressed annoyance a bit too much for me. Thanks for enduring.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and Honey White (2002).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, January 2002.
Appears on the following albums:
My Band Rocks E.P. by Honey White
Live and Unprofessional by Honey White
Saturated Songs by Honey White
Deluge and Drought by Honey White
Some Reassembly Required by Honey White

January 08, 2012

30 Songs #24 - Wishing Well Blues: Same Thing We Do Every Night, Pinky

Guest backing vocalists on the faux Mojo theme song.

For the final Mojo Wire post of the "30 Songs" series, we have a song that's almost the perfect synthesis of the entire Mojo Wire ethos and outlook on life: "Wishing Well Blues." It's an eight-bar blues arrangement, sun-kissed by reverby surf guitar; a simple, unpretentious lyric supported by a novelty-song feel and silly vocal overdubs. In short, it could be the unofficial Mojo Wire theme song. This isn't the case, of course—a more likely Mojo theme is probably our notorious song "Your Mama's A Ho," a tasteless, scatological blob of slime—but humor me here, folks. I'm running out of ways to be a pretentious bore about all the music and lyrics I've written, so it's time to get figuratively self-referential with three posts in a row about "theme songs." The first of those is "Wishing Well Blues," from September 1997 or so (and our first album), which goes like this:

Sometimes I forget how much fun that bassline is to play, in the original four-on-the-floor funky tempo we used. I had to chop it up a bit when we revived the song (in a garage-y, punky version) for our 2001 live shows, but more on that later. What I'd really like to start with is something I wrote in last week's entry that has bugged me ever since I posted it. I dismissed that entry's song, "Can't Keep Warm," as "not bad, for what it is—but not the stuff that art is made of." That's true, but it's also perilously close to being hung up on "serious art" and "meaningful creativity" and other such empty, earnest platitudes spewed by arrogant jerks. I do get hung up on that stuff a lot, and it detrimental to my creativity. I don't really know how to neutralize or offset it these days, but back in the Mojo Wire era of 1996-2001 I had plenty of balance for my serious sad-bastard routine. That balance was called "Bryn and Adam" because when they wanted to, they could be riotously funny—funny in the way that teenagers who watch too much Monty Python (or in this case, too much "Animaniacs") can be. Honey White had our goofy moments, but those rarely ended up on tape; there's a long line of Mojo Wire silly craziness that was recorded, for better or worse.

My ill-fated "happy on the outside" period, April 1997. The bleach clearly affected my brain.

Some of that found its way onto the break of "Wishing Well Blues" in what we've always called "the Pinky and the Brain vocals." Also to the "drip drop" falsetto in the chorus, which may not be the goofiest thing we ever committed to tape back then—but it's certainly the gutsiest. I mean, think about it—how self-confident would three sensitive young men have to be in order to record their own fatuous attempts at falsetto, looking totally stupid, and for what reason, again? Well, because we could, frankly—and because to us it was some funny shit at the time. I remember Adam's dad didn't think it was that funny, but Adam did it anyway. So did Bryn and I, but since it was Adam's tune in the first place, it was up to him. To his vast and unflappable credit, Adam always sang whatever lyrics I've come up with for his tunes, and he sure humored me when I presented these:

"Wishing Well Blues"

I wish I was in rock & roll, I wish I were a star
I wish I had some plastic pants and a big-ass fancy car
I wanna hear 'em shout my name when I walk into a bar
and I wish that all that alcohol would stay there in its jar

Don't toil in no piss factory, ain't got no busboy blues
Never had no dead-end job and I ain't here to abuse
Yeah I've heard there's naught to gain and far too much to lose
But guitar and me and the other three's the only way I'd choose

drip drop drip drop—dancin' in cement shoes
drip drop drip drop—damn those wishing well blues
drip drop drip drop—dancin' in cement shoes
drip drop drip drop—damn those wishing well blues

I wish I were the wiser for everything I haven't learned
I wish that I could see the world when my back was turned
I wish I'd seen it coming when a woman had me spurned
and I wish I had a cigarette for all those times that I got burned

I wish I beat the system but I wish I hadn't tried
I wish I had a conscience every time I tell a lie
I wish I had a weapon against the things that make me cry
don't say I'm never happy when the blues don't pass me by

drip drop drip drop—dancin' in cement shoes
drip drop drip drop—damn those wishing well blues
drip drop drip drop—dancin' in cement shoes
drip drop drip drop—damn those wishing well blues

I'm sure I was trying to be clever with the references to Bono ("plastic pants"), the Police (their song "Dead End Job"), and Patti Smith (her song "Piss Factory"; I'd just interviewed her for the UCSB school paper a few months before this), but it either looks too showy or obscure now to really matter. I think what I was trying to do was shoehorn as much of my weekly Daily Nexus/Artsweek "Battery Acid Blues" columns into this lyric as I could. The column was supposed to be about music in popular culture, but it ended up as a semi-fictional weekly diary on the trials and tribulations of our first year as a band. The term "band" is used very loosely, by the way—we had very few real gigs, we barely knew how to record, and we rarely had a permanent drummer until Bryn finally took over behind the kit in 1999. The lyrics for "Wishing Well Blues" reflect this, sort of—they're semi-fictional, mostly non-sensical, and again serve as a vehicle for Adam to extemporize in his fake-bluesman voice.

The Mojo Wire as a wedding band, August 1997. Bryn is obviously attempting to read Adam's mind. I don't know what's up with Kevin.

I might have also been trying to translate something that I obviously couldn't express at the time, but explained better in an "introduction" written for a 2006 band book project that never went anywhere:

"I just can't picture you doing that."

I was watching a bad swing-revival band play an outdoor gig at Chico State in late April 1996 when the girl next to me told me this. We were in the middle of one of those "this relationship isn't going to work and this is why" talks, and for some reason I'd mentioned that I'd wanted to play bass guitar in a band, and that I'd wanted this for a few years now. I'd actually bought a bass the month before, after being dumped by a different girl for a guy who I'd eventually end up in a band with.

This was on top of getting thrown out of my dad's house the previous Christmas, so I had sort of been through the wringer in the last few months, and apparently the only thing that would fix my problems was Loud Rock Music. Naturally, when informed that this wasn't a sensible thing to do, or that it was unlike me somehow, and by someone who thought they knew better than I did, I immediately chose to become absolutely bent out of shape enough to become exactly the opposite of what everyone expected.

Well…that didn't happen either—at least not in that exact way. What did happen involved me spending the next decade of my life making much more music, noise, art, and fun than I had any right to expect from something that was originally a blatantly selfish act of revenge.
Well, the one thing that hasn't changed is that I'm still a pompous ass. Way to go, dude.

On to more interesting things: musically, "Wishing Well Blues" started as a surf instrumental Adam brought to us in summer 1997. I have a very strong memory of Bryn and Adam recording it (using the keyboard drum machine) in Bryn's room at our parents' house in Dana Point. The guys had just finished high school, but I can't remember if they'd been accepted to UCSB yet. We were also gearing up for our third-ever "gig," which was being the band at my mom and stepdad's wedding later in August. Bryn's room was unusually clean (we were packing up for either his move to UCSB or for my parents' in-town move to a condo) so we had plenty of space to set up the equipment. The old Tascam four-track had actually been living with Bryn all year, and he'd recorded a metric ton of stuff on it—drum machine versions of the old Clap songs we'd originally demoed at Kevin's house, guitar-only improvisations, new instrumentals that were waiting on lyrics from me (or any of us; we weren't that choosy), and some totally random covers like the Beatles' "Polythene Pam" and Petty's recent "Zero from Outer Space." That drum machine demo of "Wishing Well" got vocals soon enough, when we all moved back to UCSB two months later:

mp3: "Wishing Well Blues" (drum machine demo, 9/97)

In Isla Vista, we began assembling "real" recordings of all the Mojo Wire songs to date around September 1997. We didn't know much, but we did know we wouldn't be able to get any gigs based on the drum machine demos. When drummer (and next-door-neighbor) Brandon Klopp agreed to help us out, we nevertheless discovered that the easiest way to re-record the songs was still via drum machine: his electronic kit had a single input cable that only took up one track on the Tascam. The difference was that there was great, versatile drummer playing the machine this time, instead of a computer metronome. We basically got a chance to enhance and/or improve everything from the original drum machine demo; the surf guitar shone a little brighter, the background vocals were slightly less annoying, and the break still sounded like the perfect balance of genius and insanity. The result is the final Battery Acid Blues version of the song at the top of this post. When the album had twelve songs and not ten (its first few pressings or so), "Wishing Well" held the seventh position—the first slot of Side 2, even though by then the idea of album "sides" was basically dead. I just liked the idea of structuring an album that way, since it was full of classic, album-era sounds.

The Mojo Wire version 2.0: Bryn, Keir, Adam, Brandon, December 1997.

"Wishing Well" has a live history too—it closed most of our Bedrock-era shows in 1997/98—but since we didn't record any Mojo Wire gigs until 2001, the best live take I've got is probably from the show where we revived it after several years in mothballs: the April 7 '01 backyard keg party rehearsal for a Giovanni's appearance on April 12. Like many other performances from the Adam/Joe/Keir/Bryn lineup, it was messy, loud, unsubtle, and totally rock & roll. We punked it up a bit, which meant the tempo increased too much for me to effectively play the original bassline, but I still pulled off a passable solo in the break, and for better or worse decided to keep the falsetto backing vocals. It was lots of fun to play. I think it was a result of our contemporaneous "re-imagine the Mojo classics" project that revived a few other songs too; reinvigorating old songs is always such a blast when it works this well. Check it out:

mp3: "Wishing Well Blues" (live 4/7/01)

We haven't done much with it since then, so "Wishing Well Blues" has been dormant for over ten years now. If I recall correctly Bryn thought it might work for Radblaster, but so far that hasn't happened; the new band seems to be skewing to the rootsy-blues-rock end of things instead of the surfy-reverb end (despite some fantastic instrumentals and the "Stranded" ballad). But who knows? Maybe there's a home for it somewhere. So yeah, it's probably a stretch to call "Wishing Well Blues" the Mojo Wire's theme song, but it'll do in a pinch. It is, however, less a literal or figurative theme song than say, "Unprofessional" for Honey White or "Blunt Instruments" for Radblaster, both of which we'll get to in the next two weeks—so stay tuned.

The Mojo Wire version 3.0: Joe, Adam, Bryn, Keir, November 2001.

Song stats:
Music by Adam Hill and the Mojo Wire, July 1997.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, September 1997.
Appears on the following albums:
Battery Acid Blues by the Mojo Wire

January 01, 2012

30 Songs #23 - Can't Keep Warm: What Foulness Lurks Beneath Storke Tower?

The den of iniquity: KJUC/KCSB and the UCSB Daily Nexus.

Well, what title would you have written if you'd been watching consecutive Hobbit movies all week, instead of typing up a holiday-shortened, quickie "30 Songs" post about a song that doesn't inspire great and profound writing? Yeah, that's right—this week's song is like last week's, except even less so. It's called "Can't Keep Warm" and it's one of the bluesy twelve-bar-by-numbers lyrics I wrote in the very early Mojo Wire days of 1996/1997. There's not much to it—the tune is the first of several video-game-music ripoffs I've made, and the lyrics are meaningless except as a vehicle for Adam to sing something in the ancient-blues-singer voice he was so adept at back then. Check it out:

Not bad, for what it is—but not the stuff that art is made of. Am I making art all the time? Of course not—but it's important to grow as a creative person, and all the growing I did had to start somewhere, right? That "somewhere" is basically the riff for "Fatal Flaws," the whole of "FM Blues," and then "Can't Keep Warm." The latter's tune grew out of a riff I swiped from the theme for World 7 (the pipe one) of "Super Mario Bros. 3," but all that survives from that is the bass line. I finished a workable lyric around Feb/Mar 1997, and we recorded the first version of "Can't Keep Warm" at the same time as the other drum machine demos (summer and fall '97). Most of those demos were for songs that had already been recorded in rehearsal, but I don't think we ever practiced "Can't Keep Warm" in the 1996, Clap-era lineup of the band. The drum machine demo is notable for how loose it is; there's so much space in the slow, nearly percussion-less take that Adam has plenty of room to play a great guitar part:

mp3: "Can't Keep Warm" (drum machine demo, 9/97)

I love that sound he's got there. Just enough reverb to bring it to the front, and yet not overwhelm the whole song. The lyrics go like this:

"Can't Keep Warm"

Since she's gone I shiver
and I can't keep warm no more
Since she's gone I shiver
and I can't keep warm no more
All my nights are so long
cause I'm frozen to the core

Don't wanna see the snow outside
I'm so damn tired of the cold
Don't wanna see the snow outside
I'm so damn tired of the cold
What I need is her warm body near
What I need is her warm soul

Since she's gone I shiver
and I can't keep warm no more
Since she's gone I shiver
and I can't keep warm no more
What I need is her warm body near
What I need is her warm soul

Look at that—it's only two verses, with the repetition that twelve-bars sometimes have, and the third is a combination of both. Easily the least effort I've ever put into a lyric. Pathetically weak, and yet it seems to work for the song.

The album version (in the music player above) that we recorded with Brandon playing drums during winter 1997 was actually trimmed down from a six- or seven-minute jam, the original recording of which I've since lost. The way we'd do those would be to record live jams of drums, bass, Bryn's guitar, and sometimes Adam's guitar (tracks permitting) to the Tascam four-track cassette machine that we lugged around, and then bounce those four tracks to another tape where they got locked in on one track, leaving three more for vocal overdubs and anything else we wanted to throw in. Then Brandon would take the cassette and convert it to DAT, making digital audio files from that conversion.

Mojo Wire drummer Brandon Klopp, rehearsing with us in December 1997.

And so much for "Can't Keep Warm"—because if I recall correctly we didn't ever play it live, and I can't be arsed to look it up in the Mojo Wire archives. The laziness I'm afflicted with during this second holiday weekend is truly amazing, as you can see. I promise that next week (and the run-up to the end of the series) will be compellingly interesting.

Now, about that title—what lurks beneath Storke Tower—that refers to about the time when these first songs were written and recorded: when I wrote for the UCSB Daily Nexus and Bryn and Adam deejayed on KJUC, the dorm-only frequency of the KCSB campus radio station. I wrote CD reviews and a weekly column for the Artsweek section; the (frequently illustrated) column was called "Battery Acid Blues," which ended up also being the title of the Mojo Wire's first demo CD. Like the first few songs I wrote at the time, my columns were amateurish, spastic and weird—and written mostly with the goal of cracking up my friends. I wrote more about them here and here.

Cartoon illustration for the first "Battery Acid Blues" column, 4/24/97 (artist unknown).

Bryn and Adam (with help from our buddy Ian Shifrin) also cracked us all up with their weekly show, called "The Further Adventures of Imran and Bjorn." They played lots of classic (and modern) blues, surf, and rockabilly, tossing in liberal amounts of our own recordings—mostly the "drum machine demos" of which "Can't Keep Warm" was one. The show's intro music will give you an idea of the kind of goofiness they indulged in:

mp3: "The Further Adventures of Imran and Bjorn" (show intro)

Yes, Beavis & Butt-head, Soul-Train Santa Claus, and who-knows-what-else lurked beneath Storke Tower in the bowels of UCSB's fetid media rooms. There was a lot of bizarre crap that went into the stew that was our first band ("Your Mama's a Ho" was the tip of the scatological iceberg, for example), but we did have a few songs that were stone-cold awesome from the get-go ("Long Black Leather Boots," "Whitecap," "12;15 Blues"), and once we figured out how to parse it out a bit—controlling before deploying, so to speak—we improved considerably. I know I sure did as far as lyrics are concerned. Took me a little longer to sharpen up as a bassist, of course.

Okay, that's about enough of that. Tune in next week for the first of a three-song trip through a theme-park of rock. We're nearing the home stretch, children; you won't have "30 Songs" to kick around much longer, so be thankful for that.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire 1997).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, March 1997.
Appears on the following albums:
Battery Acid Blues by the Mojo Wire

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