taking care of business

funny, music, recording, Yakima No Comments »

I always knew that I wanted to be a professional musician.

I grew up in a remote, small town in the middle of nowhere, however, which meant that opportunities for music careers were limited at best, if not completely nonexistent, and that there were no links to the music industry—or any other industry save agriculture—in that little town.  I knew that I didn’t want to be a classical pianist or a jazz bassist (both of which I studied), or a teacher of either piano or guitar.  I knew that I was much too geeky-looking to be any kind of rock star or celebrity, but I figured that at if I could at least play guitar well enough, I might gain some sort of notoriety or interest that way.

All that didn’t stop me from dreaming, however, or from honing my musical skills, because even back in the day, you’d always hear stories about these so-called ‘talent scouts’ who comb the country looking for the Next Big Thing.  Never mind that my little town was so far off the map—thousands of miles from anywhere—and that talent scouts pretty much stick to the four or five biggest cities in the country; I had no concept of any of that, so I thought in my early teenage heart of hearts that if I could play well enough, and if I had a good enough musical reputation, word would spread and somehow get back to those scouts, as if they could show up in a random little town in rural Washington state and say, “Who’s the good guitarist here?”

I was in a couple of bands, and when it was time to record some of our songs, I was lucky enough to choose a studio that was run by a guy who’d moved up from AngelCity, and still had some connections there.  He was (or at least he claimed to be) friends with Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, so he seemed like a good person to know.  And he was, I guess.  He turned out to be a pretty weird dude, and I’ve told a few longish but interesting stories about him already (here, here, and here), so I’ll gloss over him for now.

I figured being a studio musician for hire could be a good and interesting way to get noticed and to connect with people, so I worked with Enigma (not Enigma Records, but my blog pseudonym for the studio owner) and did whatever was necessary.  I played guitar, bass, keyboards, and played the drum machine.  I worked with a group that Enigma had put together that was inspired by the New Kids on the Block, and the two of us collaborated on writing songs for a group of three teenage Hispanic girls who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but who were attractive enough that Enigma felt like they’d have a certain appeal.  All of these projects went nowhere, naturally.  Funnily enough, I do still have a couple or three cassettes of some of my sessions from back then in a box somewhere.  They always turn up when I least expect them.

I had read enough guitar player magazines to know that versatility was the name of the game in the recording studio, and I felt like I always had to be on my game, capable of doing anything, in case one of those shadowy and elusive scouts happened to show up in town, looking for Talent.  I befriended the major studio owners in town (of which there were about two or three), and let them know that I was interested in working on recording sessions, regardless of the musical style.  Occasionally, people I had worked with mention me to studio owners when they needed a guitarist or something, which I always appreciated, and usually jumped at the chance to do whatever they’d recommended me for.

My favorite of the recommended gigs was when one of my friends called me and said, “Hey, I know a guy who’s going into the studio to do a demo.  It’s kind of 1950′s style music.  You’ll like it.”

“Cool,” I said, “sounds good.  Where and when?  And does it pay?”

“Yeah.  He doesn’t have a lot of money, but it pays.”   He told me which studio at which it was happening, and when, and I thanked him and told him I’d be there.

My roommate at the time was (and still is) a musician as well, so occasionally, I used to invite him to come with me to things.  I said he could come if he drove me over there, because then he’d have an excuse to stick around without any of the studio guys raising an eyebrow.

So when the day came, we drove into the studio’s parking lot and saw an Elvis impersonator leaning against his slightly battered but still cool red convertible, talking to an older guy.  My friend used to tease me for some of the sessions I played on, and he liked to call me a ‘musical whore.’  He couldn’t resist needling me as we saw the pseudo-Elvis.  “Man, you are way more than a regular whore.  You’re a gay whore.  You’re taking it in the ass on this one.”

I laughed and told him to shut up as we parked and walked over to meet Elvis, whose real named turned out to be Steve.  He introduced us to the older guy next to him, who was his manager.  I shook his hand and successfully resisted the temptation to say, “Colonel Tom; nice to meet you.”  [FYI, Colonel Tom Parker was the REAL Elvis's manager for his entire career.]  We all walked into the studio together, and set about the task at hand.

The song he’d brought in to work on was called “Jukebox Fever”, which was an oldie that sounded like Johnny B. Goode, only sung like Elvis Presley.  I ended up playing drums, bass, and electric guitar on it, and spent all afternoon doing that.  I remember that the drums weren’t actual drums, but Space Muffins, which were a weird electronic hybrid trigger system thingy that attached over a regular drum kit and made it sound electronic.  It was a stupid idea for many reasons, in retrospect, but it was the early 1990′s (in other words, just BARELY out of the 80′s), and that kind of thing was still considered viable at the time.  But that’s not the point of this story.

The point is that once I was done playing everything, it was time for Steve/Elvis to do his thing, and I’m here to tell you that he totally ruled.  Everyone in the room, with the exception of Colonel Tom, had no idea what to expect from the guy, but he delivered the goods on that day.  Our jaws dropped, and we were completely impressed with him.  Suddenly, I didn’t feel like a ‘gay whore’ anymore, I was proud to have worked on this project.  IF ONLY I HAD A CASSETTE COPY OF THAT RECORDING.  Oh, how I wish I could hear it again.  Truth be told, I’d probably cringe at it, after all these years of experience and time, but I know that it would be awesome, and I imagine I’d be able to find some hint of the kind of work I’m doing now in it.

Not long after that session, the well-known British rockabilly/country swing guitarist Albert Lee came to my little town to give a guitar workshop at a local music store.  I’m not sure how that was arranged, and I wasn’t even remotely familiar with his music at the time, but I jumped at the chance to go to the workshop because I’d seen him in magazines, and knew that he was from The Outside World, which meant that he’d probably be a good person to ask for advice about becoming a session musician.  I went and watched him, and couldn’t have cared less about the music (I was still a metalhead/jazz fusion snob at the time), but liked his guitar playing well enough to stick around after the workshop to ask him a couple of neophyte questions.  Here’s how it went.

“Man, that was great!  Do you do a lot of recording sessions?”

“A fair amount, yeah.”

“What does it take to get into that?”

“I’m not really sure.  They just call me and I go down to the studio and play.”

“Wow, you must know how to play all kinds of styles and stuff.  Do they call you to do your own thing, or do they usually have something specific in mind?”

“It varies, but usually they’ve heard something I’ve done.”

“Yeah, okay, cool.  Thanks a lot.”

I nervously walked away, feeling like a small-town nobody.  When this guy was my age, he’d already performed all over Europe, and had later played with the likes of Elvis (the REAL one, not an impersonator), and Eric Clapton.  But I felt like I’d been lucky to have had a conversation with him, no matter how brief or awkward.  In the decades since, I’ve realized just how much I managed to glean from that tiny moment.

The secret to being a studio musician is a very simple one:  someone has to have heard a recording you’ve played on, or seen you play live, and then come to you and said, “I want you to do that for me.”  Everything else is just frosting on the cake.  So yes, you have to have skills.  It helps to have your own distinctive style, but you also have to be humble enough to listen to any ideas the people you’re working with may have.  It helps if you can take suggestions without feeling criticized.  It helps if you’re creative, and open, and relentless, and patient.  It helps to be prepared, and that can mean a lot of different things.  It helps if you’re able to trust your instincts, and occasionally even fight for them if you need to, but you also need to do so in a diplomatic way.  Above all, your love for music has to be the most important thing.  Serving the song, and doing what it seems to call for, should be everyone’s ultimate M.O.

To tie this all up in a nice, Presleyan way (in what is already a very Elvis-heavy story), you have to be able to Take Care of Business.  [Elvis's band was the TCB band, and those also happen to be my initials.]  You have to be able to give people what they are looking for and expecting from you.  And don’t forget to have fun.  If you’re easy to get along with, and if everyone has a smile on his or her face at the end of the session, you’ll get called a lot more often.

This began as a funny little anecdote about an Elvis impersonator, but ended up being much more than that, in a way that I didn’t foresee when I started writing.  I hope it was enjoyable.

“Thank you; thank you very much.”

Todd has left the building.

The City

beautiful, blogging, love, music, pictures, true 1 Comment »

I don’t quite know where to start.

There have been a number of things happening recently, the biggest of which was a musical trip to New England, which included my first trip to New York City, which seems to have changed something in me.  If you’ve never been there before (or even if you have—ha ha), the scale of everything is enormous.  There are people everywhere, from everywhere.  Every place you go is crowded.  You can stand on one street corner for just a few short minutes and you may very well hear people speaking ten or fifteen different languages within that time.  Most impressive of all, however, is the scale of the architecture and infrastructure.  It’s staggeringly huge.  You can start in one part of the city, get on a subway train and ride for an hour, and when you get back up to street level, you find that the buildings are still crammed together as far as the eye can see.  Parts of San Francisco are built up densely like that, but not nearly as tall, and only in small parts of town.  New York goes on and on for miles in all directions.  Somehow it manages not to be overwhelming, though, and I actually found myself energized by the bustle.  Every street seemed to be associated with a song title, or a movie scene.  Here’s a picture from the beautiful West Village.

My goal for NYC was to see as many of the various neighborhoods as I could.  Obviously we spent the majority of our time in Brooklyn, but I had a few days to get out and explore, either on my own or with the help of one of my long-time blogging friends.  A lifelong Brooklynite, she was very familiar with the city, and she was a fantastic tour guide and host.

At some point, I’m going to want to recount the stories and pictures from the rest of the trip, but my head is still buzzing from it all and trying to make sense of everything I saw, and all of the interesting and lovely people I met, so for now you’ll have to settle for some pictures.  You can click on them to make them higher resolution.

I happened to be underneath the Brooklyn Bridge at the same time as this yacht (I think it’s a yacht; I have to confess that I don’t know much about boats, but I DO know that it’s one of the racing ones) was passing by, and another photographer and I were taking full advantage of the situation.  I love this picture, and it’s probably my favorite one from the entire trip.

From there, I walked across the bridge to lower Manhattan, all around the Financial District and to the site of Ground Zero and the new World Trade Center.  Here’s one of the new towers, in a late stage of construction.  I love pictures like this, because once the thing is built, you never get to see it ‘in progress’ ever again.  I feel lucky to have been there to see it and take this picture before it was finished.

This was a sticker I saw on a traffic signal pole in Greenwich Village near the Village Vanguard.  It may be blurry, but the message is clear.  I spent the whole trip with my camera—and indeed my entire brain—in ‘record’ mode.

After going full speed ahead for so long—and I haven’t even started writing about the Louisiana or Bay Area trips yet—I’ve found it a bit difficult to transition back into the ‘normal’ pace of life, whatever that is.  You could call this feeling the Post-Travel Blues.  Joseph Campbell might call these feelings ‘peak experiences’, which is to say that when people are operating at their highest levels of consciousness, the things they experience gain a certain amount of gravitas and significance, and settling into everyday life after times like those can be difficult.  I daresay that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs would support this theory.

I think—and this is me thinking—that when you’re in the upper levels of Self-Actualization and Esteem, it’s hard to be excited about everyday things like homeostasis and excrement.  When you’re traveling, you’re pulled out of the lower realities and pitched into the higher ones, which is what makes travel so exciting.

Incidentally, I just knew that I’d have to mention excrement at some point.  I had to drag this conversation down to my level, didn’t I?  Abraham Maslow, Joseph Campbell, and excrement.  I really should have named this blog High and Low.

Anyway.


There’s more to come on the blogging front, and while I was coming back from the beach this weekend, I thought of a few stories from back in the day that I think will be worth your while, so stay tuned.  Don’t touch that dial or whatever.  We’ll be right back after this important commercial message, courtesy of someone I photographed in Central Park.

mostly musical news

blogging, music, pictures, recording No Comments »

So let’s see. . .it’s been a while since I’ve written anything, despite my friend reminding me that I promised—on this very blog—to write more and tell more stories this year.  I’m attempting to hear and obey, and I have a ton of stories, since I went to Louisiana and the Bay Area for gigs recently.  My silence around here definitely isn’t due to a lack of material, it’s due to busy-ness, mixed with inertia, mixed with, um, something else that I can’t quite put my finger on.  It’s created an overwhelming backlog of stories to write about, which is also part of the problem.  I don’t want to dump a ten-thousand-word novella on you, so I’ll have to figure out a way to break up the stories into more manageable lengths.  I’ve had a couple of friends make fun of me recently for posting such gigantic entries.  More often,  however, they’ve made fun of me for not posting anything at all, so there’s that.

Major news on the music front.  My band (which I might call GhostBand for BFS&T’s sake) just finished mastering our CD, after I spent the last few weeks recording the last few parts and then mixing the entire album.  In case you were wondering, mastering is the process by which the ‘master’ CD is created, from which all of the future CD’s will be copied.  It’s the stage of the process in which the songs are officially named, put in album order, and a combination of some technical stuff (equalization, compression and limiting) to make the songs all play at the same volume level and make the individual tracks sound like a coherent collection.  It’s one of the many underlying but crucial steps along the way, and now it’s done.  Mastering is a process that began with vinyl records, because if there was a section of a song that was too loud, or if a sudden low-frequency instrument like a drum or a stand-up bass was too loud, it would make the record skip, or it could damage speakers.  Mastering is a way to smooth everything out, and to eliminate unwanted fluctuations in the overall sound and flow of an album.  CD’s are more forgiving, certainly, but the process is still important, and it really enhances the overall sound.  Our next steps will be to get the thing duplicated (we’re getting a thousand CD’s made), and to design the album cover.  Exciting!  I can’t wait to get this thing released into the world, so that you and everyone else can hear it, love it, and buy it.

We also filmed a video for one of the songs.  Can’t show it yet, because we’re waiting until the album is a bit closer to its release date in August, but it’s done, and it looks amazing.  It showed in a music video screening at the historic Hollywood Theater here in Portland a month or so ago, and that was the first time any of us had seen the finished product.  Our minds were completely blown.  It’s supposed to look (which is to say that it does. . .ha ha) like it was filmed in a night club in 1959.  We all dressed in period clothing, thanks to the costume designer; there are various characters (each with their own miniature stories), dancers, and choreography, and it’s absolutely stunning to watch.  Very distinctive, and it’s all somehow crammed into the framework of a three-minute song.  The filmmakers did a brilliant job.  Okay, okay. . .I CAN share a still from it.  FYI, I’m in the back left, with the vest and red tie, playing the electric guitar.

Pretty swanky, eh?  We used KickStarter to fund this whole process, which is a short way of saying we worked our asses off for an entire month, playing as many gigs as possible, making short promo videos, and generally promoting ourselves in every way we could think of.  And it worked.  We raised enough to pay for the video, and to finish the mastering, duplication and design of the CD.  We also will be paying for the rights to the two cover songs that will be on the album.

At the same time as all this was happening, FrenchSinger and another friend on whose CD I played cello had their own CD release parties a week apart, right before the Louisiana trip, so there was the obligatory flurry of rehearsals and craziness getting ready for those as well.

                                                 

As if that wasn’t enough, there was the photo shoot and KickStarter video for PolishCellist, who is about to start working on her next CD.  Certainly can’t forget about that.  What a hilarious and awesome photo session that was.  And yes, that’s a buffalo-head hat that we’re all wearing.

So that’s the biggest news.  I still have to go through my mountain of pictures from the band-related stuff, and from the trips to Louisiana, California and Washington (the state) with FrenchSinger.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to get some entries posted before my next musical trip, which is in a couple weeks and will take me to New York, Massachusetts (including the town where I was born!), and a dip into New Jersey as well.  Super excited, since I haven’t been back East for quite a long time, and many of these places—notably New York City and Ithaca—I’ve never been to before.

I should mention how grateful I am to have the opportunity to travel, and to play so much great music, and to be in videos, and to have photo shoots.  It’s a huge honor (not to mention expense) to be a part of these various endeavors, and I owe even more thank yous to my friends and collaborators who continue to make it all possible.

More to come.

the cloths of heaven

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When I was in high school, one of my friends had a reputation for being a prankster. Sometimes I found myself guilty by association, and sometimes I was an actual accomplice. He went through a phase during which he liked to find pictures of nude or scantily clad women and post them in friends’ lockers or Pee-Chee folders, so that when the person would open the folder, he’d have a little surprise waiting for him.

He actually got in a bit of trouble when he did that to a girl in our choir. The girl had red hair, you see, and so did the girl in the picture, and the picture was exceptionally lewd, so the girl reported my friend to the teacher. By way of a reprimand, the teacher famously told him, “Now, I like to look at a Playboy every now and then—”, which still makes us laugh, even all these years later. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, my friend thinks that was a cruel thing to have done to the girl, and if he could do things differently, he would. He also has daughters now, and that tends to make people grow up real quick, as well as to make them much more sympathetic to the tribulations that girls often experience in school.

Back then, however, the picture prank was something he did somewhat regularly. Once, he went to the library and found a National Geographic magazine with a story about Tahiti, which was full of half-naked women, so he pulled out a page and kept it for his own nefarious purposes. We sat next to each other in choir class, which meant that we shared a music folder. On that fateful day, when we sang the song “The Cloths of Heaven,” I opened the music and found the picture of a half-naked Tahitian woman. Ha ha. Then, when we finished the song, we put the music and the picture back into the folder, never to be looked at again, since the two of us learned and memorized music faster than most people. I only mention that fact because it’s apropos to the story. We had the song memorized from that day on, so we didn’t use the music anymore.

Three or four months later, our choir drove to a college an hour or so away, in order to participate in a somewhat prestigious regional music festival. I don’t remember much about the trip, to be quite honest with you (it’s been almost twenty-five years now), but I do remember that we did well enough during the afternoon performance to qualify for the finals later that evening, and one of the songs we performed was “The Cloths of Heaven.” At some point between the afternoon show and the finals, a couple of people came up to my friend and me, saying, “That wasn’t funny, you guys,” or, “Not cool.” We were mystified, and had no idea what they were referring to.

That night at the finals, it was our choir’s turn to take the stage. We filed onto the risers in our robes and awaited the announcer, who walked out a moment later. “Interesting story about this next choir,” the announcer told the audience of several hundred. He explained to them that the judges got quite a shock when they opened the music for “The Cloths of Heaven” and found a picture of a half-naked Tahitian woman inside. Our choir director was unaware that this had happened, but he had no doubt about who was to blame for this disgrace. He glared furiously at the two of us as we realized what had happened and tried unsuccessfully to suppress our giggles. Our surprised choirmates turned to each other, saying, “Who did that?” and others turned to us and asked, “Was it you guys?” as the entire audience erupted into laughter.

Our director was really angry, and after our performance he pulled my friend and me aside into a rehearsal room. He was convinced that we had done it on purpose, to prank the festival. We had to explain to him that no, this was just a private thing, and that we hadn’t used the music for months. We’d long since forgotten about the Tahitian. Out of the seventy numbered music folders our choir used, each one of which contained one or two copies of “The Cloths of Heaven” (our folder had two, one for each of us), the teacher’s aide had unluckily grabbed OUR numbered folder, and THAT copy, to turn in to the judges. I don’t think the director believed us at first, but eventually he had to admit that the circumstances were pretty funny, and we got off with a Well, Don’t Do It Again.

Oh, and our choir won the competition, by the way, so there you go. Apparently, sex sells.

How was YOUR day?

music, true 1 Comment »

Last night, I was co-hosting my friend’s really cool radio show.  While driving home, I was stopped by the police on suspicion of a DUI.  After being questioned, taken to the station, passing all the various tests, and being kept awake all night, I was cleared and released at ten o’clock this morning.  I got home by eleven and took a nap for an hour and a half.

This afternoon, I sold a keyboard case on Craigslist to a really nice guy who plays bass for churches in West Linn and Vancouver.

This afternoon, a lady came by to try (and hopefully buy) one of the two accordions I’m selling.  She had a third one to look at elsewhere first, so she wanted to try that one before she settled on one of mine.  She told me she’d let me know after she saw that one.  Totally fine.  Let’s hope she buys mine.

This afternoon, I wrote out the complete version of the police story here in BFS&T, in order to capture all the details as best I could remember them.

This evening, I played accordion with PolishCellist and our violinist friend at a swanky downtown venue with a North African theme, as part of a gigantic bellydance event featuring the most famous bellydancer in the world.  She’s so famous that even I know who she is.  The venue was full of elaborately clad dancers, cabaret performers, musicians, photographers, and a host of other interesting people.  It was loud, frenetic, and beautiful, and I’ll remember it for a long time.

Just now, I got home from the bellydance event and wrote down this short synopsis of the day’s  events, in order to capture all the details as best I could remember them.  The ironic, caricatural nature of the day’s highs and lows, and the significance of the juxtaposition between them, was not lost on me.  The whole time I was enjoying the gig I kept laughing to myself and thinking, This morning, I was in jail.

My eyes won’t focus anymore.  I’m finally going to collapse in bed, so that I can be ready for rehearsal at ten o’clock in the morning.

Life is weird.

How was YOUR day?