Road Stories: The Russian Dude

After a somewhat crappy show at the Pig ‘N Whistle in Hollywood, I went to the bar and got a beer.  Standing beside the bar, a guy with a heavy Russian accent, a purple shirt unbuttoned to his stomach, and a heavy gold chain complimented our set and I thanked him, then went to watch the next act, Olivia May.

After Olivia’s set, I went out to the balcony/stairs to get some air, and the Russian Dude followed. He told me “I like your drummer. He knows jazz. I like the jazz. I play the jazz. All my life.  Sorry for my English.”  Dude was a drummer, I also was a drummer for many, many years, and I told him so. “This is cause for celebrate. You come. You drink,” he tells me.  We go back to the bar, and he tells the bartender to give me anything I want, on him. I get another beer, and Russian Dude says “Also for this guy and his girlfriend.” He points to Olivia and her boyfriend.  “Also this guy, and…her.”  He picked two others at random, and bought us all drinks.

Talk returns to drumming.  “I play anything. I play seven, nine, eleven. Anything.” These are complicated mixed-time signature patterns that are beyond me.  I tell him I’m impressed, and he says “You want see six? I show you six,” and proceeds to bang out this really stunning pattern on the edge of the bar with his palms.  We head back out to the balcony, myself, Russian Dude, and Olivia and her small entourage — six or seven of us total.  Russian Dude says “Who wants to hear great, amazing music? Complex, great music, two minutes.” Everyone nods and says sure, and he says “You come,” and heads down to the parking lot below.

I follow, and look behind me to realize I’m the only one.  Everyone else had just been smiling and nodding at the foreign guy, not having any idea what he was saying.  So it’s me and Russian Dude, and he unlocks his S-Class Mercedes and climbs in. Knowing this is the part of the story where I will probably get killed, I get in the passenger’s side, leave the door open, and keep one foot on the pavement.

Dude cranks up the car, fires up the stereo, and plays me…Iron Maiden.  As loud as his car can manage.  Which is goddamn loud.

We went back up to join the others, Russian Dude bought us all another round, and we held up our glasses and said thank you, to which he replied “Thank you for America.”  Olivia asked him what he did, and he politely shook his head and said “No.”

Thank you, Russian Dude.  For the drinks, your generosity, your absolutely unique spirit, and for turning a lackluster night into an awesome one by giving me this story.

Thinking About the Album as Art Form

As we gear up to head into the studio to record the next album, naturally I’ve been thinking a lot about albums. Everybody knows that the album as we generally understand it — a coherent collection of songs by an artist — is pretty much dwindled to a niche preoccupation.  Bands like Radiohead get some press for their dedication to crafting albums, and theirs are albums that are united mostly by atmosphere or “sound.”  You recognize a song off of “Kid A” as being different from a song on “OK Computer” as different from a song on “The King of Limbs.”

The alternative is to make a couple of singles and wrap them up in filler and call it an album.  This practice was widespread, and totally never fooled anybody, so that’s why you see digital single sales/downloads FAR outstripping the pace of album sales/downloads.  Nobody even needs to bother making albums anymore if they are a big deal pop star and don’t want to.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a lot more concept albums coming out and getting attention.  A concept album is one united by a single topic or narrative that binds all of the songs together.  This is, of course, basically an opera.  “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is probably the most famous early example everybody points to.  It’s the Beatles, pretending to be a different band, playing a show.  Not much of a concept, but you can’t expect everything to be perfect right out of the gate.  The concept album was huge in the 1970s, with David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, and tons others releasing often several of them.

But in the last few years, we’ve seen “Hazards of Love” by The Decemberists, “Hadestown” (which is stunning) by Anais Mitchell, “Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes” about a messiah who keeps getting distracted from saving the world by meeting pretty girls, NIN’s “Year Zero,” stuff by Coheed & Cambria, Mastodon, Green Day, and Aimee Mann’s wonderful “The Forgotten Arm.”

I think the reason why we’re seeing this, and maybe one of the reasons why I even tackled a concept album, is that if you want listeners to experience your work in context, with the dominance of the singles market, you have to give it an explicit context.  Bon Iver basically did this with “…for emma forever ago,” which wasn’t strictly a concept album, but is always described alongside it’s context (“Bad breakup, dude goes to cabin, makes sad record.”).

Me, I like it.  Between their concept work and song cycles (Crane Wife, parts 1-3), The Decemberists have become one of my favorite bands.  It gives people a reason to keep buying albums, and in a way, with the art form beset by decline, it has fostered invention.  I can only hope that someday the John Henry project we’re working on now might be mentioned in the same breath with some of these wonderful, wonderful albums.

Anais Mitchell – Wedding Song by BlurbPR

The New Album is Written

I finished writing the new album tonight, which will in all likelihood be called “The Ghost of John Henry.”

If you are not familiar with the legend of John Henry, it goes like this, more or less:
In the 1870s, as technology was rapidly advancing and railroads were linking the United States in a way that had never been possible before, railroad tycoons began experimenting with steam-powered drills that could chisel into the rock of mountains supposedly faster than the “hammer-men” who had been doing this back-breaking and deadly work for years.  John Henry was the most powerful of these hammer-men, and when a steam-drill showed up at his work site — just one of a number of new technologies that threatened to make the men on the line obsolete — John Henry challenged the drill operators to a race.  When the day came, John Henry took a hammer in each hand, and attacked the rock like no one never had before.  The steam-drill threatened to make better time, but it broke down, plagued by mechanical problems, and John Henry emerged from the tunnel, victorious.  Then he laid his hammer down, collapsed on the track, and died.

Possibly not the most obvious choice for a concept album, but I will re-post what I wrote a few weeks ago, when I first shared a couple of demos of the new material here on the blog:  “The Ballad of John Henry is a folk staple, done by everybody from Woody Guthrie to Pete Seeger to Johnny Cash to elementary school choirs throughout the South (this is where I first heard it — in third grade), and I think maybe because of that omnipresence the essence of the story has sort of lost its meaning to a lot of people. It’s an amazing story of loss, professional frustration, heroism, and man’s place in an increasingly technology-centric world, which I think all speaks to us today.

We will go into the studio in a few weeks and begin work.  Look for the album in early 2012.  And please, feel free to check out the tracks below and spread the word if you like the direction we’re taking this thing.

Sci-Fi Romance – A Broken World by Sci-Fi Romance

Sci-Fi Romance – My Love Look Up by Sci-Fi Romance