In the Studio, Final Weekend – Video Blog

We wrapped all of the recording for the new album, “The Ghost of John Henry” this weekend with our final cello, guitar, and vocal sessions, in addition to getting some miscellaneous percussion tracks. Percussion “instruments” on this record will include chains, old cast iron jail keys, artillery shells, homemade stomp box, a “thunder tube” (not a double entendre) and regular, more normal things like drums, shakers, tambourine, what-have-you. That was a fun session to do. Also, I shaved my beard to celebrate. Here’s a look at the weekend, and how everything came together throughout the sessions:

I jokingly gave Jaron, our engineer, a hard time in this video — he just got back from a tour of Australia and New Zealand with the Dresden Dolls and has been working literally around-the-clock mastering another project that’s way more high-profile than anything I’m likely to do, but he still made room for us. I have to be serious and thank him publicly for his ability and insight throughout this process. The majority of my previous recording experience has been decidedly lo-fi, so the sound and performances on the record owe a tremendous debt to him. If you need studio time in the LA area, gets our official endorsement (expect the Sci-Fi Romance bump now, my friend).

You can hear the first record “…and surrender my body to the flames” over on our Bandcamp page.

God Bless You, Struggling Stand-Up Comedian

One of the more perplexing things about being a musician in Los Angeles is how often I’m invited to play somewhere, from an open mic night to a booked showcase, only to arrive and discover I’m the only person performing who isn’t a stand-up comedian.  This happened again last night, and made for a very bizarre evening in Echo Park.  Even though I’m not a stand-up, I’ve watched a lot of them bomb, and I’ve sure as hell bombed as a musician.  And as a director, sometime acting teacher, and somebody who’s been paid to write jokes on paper, I feel like I’ve got some words of wisdom that might be of aid to those sad fellows who inevitably slink off the stage in despair, often loudly pondering self-immolation.

So God bless you, struggling stand-up comedian. What you’re doing is really hard, and you’re in for some of the longest 3-7 minutes of your life.

1. You Will Probably Bomb. But it’s Cool.
Look, if you’re taking the “stage” in a whole earth cafe or coffee shop or something, and a blender’s running like ten feet from the stage, you may recognize you’re not in the ideal comedy environment.  And understand that the people sitting there mostly looking at you aren’t really an audience.  Most of them either just got off the stage and are inwardly crucifying themselves for bombing the same way you’re about to, or they are waiting their turn to go on, running through their own routines and breaking out in flop sweat as the entire room continues not laughing at anybody.  

But that’s cool.  You’re not there at the open mic night with the make-believe audience and hummus-based menu to bring down the house.  You’re there to get better at your craft, and you cannot fail at that.  It is not possible.  You do your material, and it makes the next time you’re onstage easier.  You work on your banter, which is huge.  In this case, your measure for success isn’t laughs, but just doing it.

Oh, but that joke about raping your female roommate while she sleeps?  That one’s probably never going to be funny.  You should just cut that one.

2. Don’t Apologize For Your Jokes. Unless That’s Your Thing.
The audience wants you to be good.  It’s almost as uncomfortable for us to watch you bomb as it is for you to do it. And you get that, so the natural thing is to want to apologize to us.  There are lots of ways to apologize.  You can say “I’m sorry,” sure, but you can also talk too fast like you simply CANNOT WAIT! to get off the stage, or you can hedge. Hedging is self-critiquing while onstage.  It comes in the form of taking the microphone and saying “I’m gonna try out some new stuff, so it might be rough,” or failing to land a punchline and saying “ok, there’s something there in that one, I just have to find it,” or even telling us “Really? Nothing? People liked that one on Twitter. It got favorited.”

What you’re doing here is giving the audience permission to not give you that first laugh. The first laugh makes it easier to get the second one, and then the third one, etc.  But maybe your shtick is apologizing for your jokes.  In that case, go to town.

3. Relax. Slow Down.
Even if we’re totally in our own heads and worrying about our own material, we do want you to be good because it makes the room better.  A good comic makes the room better for everybody who follows.  We *want* you to be good, so what are you nervous about?  You know you’re probably going to bomb, you know we want to like you, you know that your measure of success is simply not dying of fright while holding the microphone, and you’re probably going to pull that off.  So slow the hell down and take a minute to be yourself and let your material breathe.  If we don’t realize your punchline is happening until after it’s over, because you just blew through the whole thing and didn’t give the joke any shape, we won’t laugh. And then we’ll feel bad we didn’t laugh.  And then there’s just this big shame spiral that the whole room gets sucked into, and there’s nothing we can do about it because the vegan place doesn’t have a liquor license.

This is your moment, and somebody was dumb enough to give it to you, so take a deep breath, and make it last as long as possible.  If for no other reason than to punish them for giving you a microphone.

4. Try To Not Be On Drugs. 
They really don’t make you funnier.  I get that it’s hard and your nerves are a mess.  I used to get so nervous before going onstage I would literally lose my voice.  Now I do breathing exercises, and they help.  But if you want this to be your job, remember nobody keeps a job very long if they’re always blitzed.

Also – just, as a very last thing – stick around.  The people going after you listened to your bit, so sit back down and listen to theirs as you eat your pita of shame.  It’s basic etiquitte, and we’re all in the same boat, here, so grab an oar and help out.

Here’s one of my friends bombing on purpose. And it is amazing:

Great Album Reviews: Pictures at an Exhibition (Moussorgsky/Ravel)

Album: Pictures at an Exhibition
Artist: Modeste Moussorgsky (composer), Maurice Ravel (arrangement)
Genre: Classical
Year: 1874/1922

Though originally written as a piano suite in 1874, way before anything like what we think of as an album existed, I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this an album.  If you wanted to, you could even call it a concept album.  But whatever you call it, the fact remains that Modeste Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition changed my life.

There are two stories here — mine, and the music’s.

Here’s my story: In 2000, I was in college and playing in a kind of progressive metal band with my friend Robyn, a cellist who went to what was at the time Southwest Texas State University, where she was in the school orchestra.  They had a recital one night, so I went down to be supportive, with no expectations at all.  I sat in front of the cellos and double basses to watch a tiny orchestra, and they began playing Maurice Ravel’s arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition.

A few things happened to me during that performance. First, it made me want to write music. I already enjoyed classical music, and I’d produced a CD of piano music by the incomparable Ryan Dawe, but not being a trained musician, classical music always felt too dense for me to really understand in any way that transcended simple, ignorant enjoyment.

But as I watched the double basses playing Moussorgsky/Ravel in San Marcos, Texas, and I paid attention to just to their parts at first, the construction of the thing started to make sense to me.  I found myself suddenly conscious of how these different components breathed through the piece — BIG HORNS, no horns, soft strings, quiet horns, BIG EVERYTHING, just a trumpet, soft counterpoint on the basses, BELLS! — and how the introduction, re-introduction, and evolution of the “Promenade” theme linked everything together into what felt like a narrative.

Second, I *felt* something.  I’d wrapped myself in the melancholy of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and the frustrated rage of Mozart’s Requiem Mass before, but this was the first time I’d been taken on a deep, really shattering emotional journey by a piece of classical music.

I went home. I put a bunch of synths and stuff on my computer, and I started writing electronic music, ultimately calling the project Mission 13.  I was, you understand, exclusively a drummer up until this point.  No exaggeration, I don’t go to San Marcos that night, there is no Sci-Fi Romance today.

And here is the music’s story: Modeste Moussorgsky was a composer and pianist in 19th century Russia under the czars, and friends with the artist Viktor Hartmann.  Hartmann died suddenly in 1873, and after his death there was an exhibition put together of many of his paintings.  You see where this is going now.

Moussorgsky was shaken by Hartmann’s death. But inspired by that gallery showing of his lost friend’s work, he began a tribute, a composition that mimicked walking through the exhibition.  It begins with the Promenade, walking in. You spend time in front of different paintings, each its own small composition, and you walk between them, each time hearkening back to the Promenade, until finally you reach the last painting, and the last movement of the work, The Great Gate of Kiev.  All the while, the emotion builds so that ultimately there is a tremendous explosion of joy at the beauty before you, mixed with the sadness of the loss you’ve endured to get here. Here’s how it ends:

Listen: the work is so enthralling, that when Svatoslav Richter played it in Sofia, Bulgaria, to an audience of 1500 sick, coughing, sneezing people during a 1958 flu epidemic, there are passages so intense that the audience literally stops coughing.

A few years after I saw that first Pictures at an Exhibition performance, I took Robyn, my cellist friend and former bandmate, to Houston and we watched the Houston Symphony perform it. That entire Southwest Texas orchestra could’ve fit in just the horns section.  I cannot describe how loud, how immersive, how shattering it was. When the lights came up, neither of us could move.  Robyn finally said “I feel like I’m on drugs.”  I kinda did, too.  I felt exhilarated, and broken.

And I can offer no higher praise to the experience of a work of art.