The Morning Breaks: My Life in Music

I just released a new video from our album The Ghost of John Henry, for the song “The Morning Breaks.” It goes like this:


This an intensely personal video for me, and I have to be honest it feels a little weird putting it out into the world. The earliest footage in here dates back to 1993, when I was a kid. That’s twenty years of my life in about three minutes, from the first show I ever played (performing Metallica and Pantera songs on a flatbed trailer at a church carnival, right after I started playing drums), through four bands (there have been more, but I don’t have footage of them all), five or six relocations, my transitions from drums to guitar and heavy metal to folk music, and the John Henry recording sessions earlier this year. I was reluctant to tackle this video, too, because I figured it would either come out really honest and evocative…or totally fail and feel wildly self-indulgent. Hopefully it’s more of the former.

This video takes the song in a different direction from its context on the album, but that’s ok. I realized maybe a month ago while visiting my parents that I had all this VHS performance footage dating back to before I could drive a car, and as I dug through old boxes and drawers and rediscovered more footage, I realized that there was a pretty solid chronology hidden away in there that drew a bright line across most of my life. I think the video still fits the theme of the song quite well. We know who we are, but not who we’ll be.

I wish I could speak intelligently about how it felt to go back through all of this footage, but the only thing I consistently felt…was lucky, really.

So, there you go. Now you can watch me grow up. Like the Harry Potter kids.

PS. Thank you to everybody I played with in these bands – Black Spiral (Chris, Ryan), De Profundis (Matthew, Rob, Chris, Robyn), Mission 13 (Chris, Matthew, Karen), and Sci-Fi Romance, today (thanks, Kurt and Jody).

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The Universe Does Not Owe You Free Music

Here’s how the last three days have gone down in the world of musical discourse:

  1. Emily White writes on the NPR All Songs Considered Blog that she has over 11,000 tracks in her music library, of which possibly 200 were acquired by paying any money whatsoever to anybody. Summary: I love, love, love music and refuse to pay for it because my generation thinks that’s lame.
  2. David Lowery turned in the most thoughtful and insightful piece on acquiring music illegally and the effect it has on artists that maybe anybody has written to date. Summary: Please stop stealing (yes, stealing) our music; you are literally killing us.
  3. An indie label owner (also) named Emily White wrote a defense of EW2, as she referred to the previously identified intern. Summary: Emily, you seem nice, don’t let the internet wishing you a horrible fate get you down. 

In between each of these were hundreds and hundreds of reader comments, rebuttals, new blog posts, etc. But David Lowery’s post is the top of the mountain, here. I don’t know how he managed to take such a stunningly high road and stick to it, but he did (my initial, internal monologue response to Emily’s post had way more swear-words), so just read his post. It’s long, but just read it. I’ll wait…

Here’s what I’d like to talk about, which I hope is a little different. There are two lines from Emily’s initial post that leap out at me:

“I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.”

and

“All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it.”

To these stunning expressions of entitlement I say: Enough. Enough now. The universe does not owe you this. Please let’s not act like it does. As a matter of fact, the universe doesn’t owe you anything.

See, everything has a cost. Somebody’s going to absorb it. We are not entitled to the work of other people’s hands simply because it exists in the world and we also exist in the world. I’m not trying to be flippant, this doesn’t just apply to music, or piracy, or any specific thing, this is a universal truth that we are increasingly trying to ignore as a way to justify our own poor decisions from runaway obesity to the eroding political discourse.

Me, I made a record. Yay for me! But I’m not entitled to listeners. I sent my CD to NPR (maybe Emily opened it…in which case, Emily, you really *do* seem nice…), but they don’t owe it to me to listen to it. If I want potential fans to know my name, I have to introduce myself. They will not come to me, and introducing myself takes time and, often, money. That’s just part of it. It’s my choice to play this game, and I understand that I don’t get to make the rules.

Every choice is a decision point where we have to weigh a cost against a benefit. In the case of pirated music, it’s a lot like Stanley Milgram’s electroshock experiments, where it’s relatively easy to deliver an electric shock to somebody if you can’t see them, but harder when you can. In this case, people who profess to love you or your music are shocking you from their comfort of their bedrooms. It kinda sucks.

All I wanted to say, really, was that there’s a larger point here that’s also part of the discussion. Let’s please be a little more honest about the decisions we make, because they have consequences. And from Rush Limbaugh assassinating the character of a college student with an opinion he doesn’t share, to people calling for a 21-year-old girl at NPR this summer to lose her job or worse, to seemingly every single person who’s ever posted a comment on YouTube, let’s try to remember there’s another human being at the other end of that transaction.

(Suffice to say that, as an independent musician, I would really prefer you buy all of your music. And if you want to explore and preview new stuff to find out if you like it, go with Spotify (for all its ills) or Pandora, don’t just download the thing from the Pirate Bay or wherever. We all know you’re not going to circle back and buy it legitimately if you fall in love with it. Let’s be honest.)

God, I feel so grumpy now…Sorry, everybody.

Response to (the Awesome) Roman Mars: Frozen Music

He did invite discussion and conversation, but I’ll be honest: the purpose of this post is not so much to respond to Roman — host of the 99% Invisible podcast, which I highly recommend — as to share his most recent episode, “Frozen Music.” You can listen here:
For those of you who don’t know, 99% Invisible is (mostly) an architecture podcast concerned with how objects shape our experience of the world. “Frozen Music” is about how objects shape our experience of music, and discusses the notion that since the advent of recording and playback technology, our notion of what a “song” is has changed to mean not the music, but, largely, the performance of sounds, by a particular artist, at a particular time, as fixed via a particular recording. For instance, people didn’t buy Tinpan Alley songs on a disc or listen on the radio (“What’s a radio?” I hear guys in candy-striped suits and strawboater hats asking) they bought the sheet music and went home and played it on the piano. Now, things are different.

In a segment excerpted from a 2006 interview he gave on Sound Opinions, Jon Brion talks about this on 99% Invisible. What people may not know about Jon Brion, and isn’t mentioned in the podcast, is that Jon is a FREAKING MUSICAL TITAN. He has been a fixture at Largo here in LA for…maybe 20 years?  I cannot recommend highly enough going to see one of his Friday night shows. He is a multi-instrumentalist, a virtuosic player of at least the piano and guitar, and a loop pedal wizard who seems to know every song, ever, and can play them on command. When this guy talks about songs, we would all do well to listen (again, click the player above to do so).

Here’s his point: since performances are now fixed via recording, there has arisen the popular misconception of what a song is, which was mentioned above — “song” vs. “performance.” Both are totally valid and enjoyable musical expressions, but nevertheless distinct from one another.

What I’ll add to the discussion is this: in many ways the “performance pieces” are closer to the musical ideal for artists, because it allows the controlled crafting of a sonic experience. Even in classical music, a composer often lacks the ability to control how people experience his or her work. Ideally a venue will provide good acoustics and a distraction-free environment, but a conductor can change the speed of the music, an arranger can alter the instrumentation, and a performer can screw up, just to name a couple of variables. 

My old bassist, Christopher Crowson, once told me he thought Beethoven would’ve loved programmable synths because they provide a way to write for an instrument without regard to a human being’s ability to actually pull off the performance. I think he’s right. What we’re after with art, largely, is to provide someone with an emotional experience. Recordings, then, have not simply enriched the palette musicians have to work with, but they have given them a way that never existed previously to shape the listener’s experience and evoke an emotional response, either via a song or something totally different. Maybe the happiest marriage of both — great songs presented in an inimitable way — has been The Beatles. You will not catch me covering a Beatles song. They’re great songs, and those four guys performed them better than anybody else has yet.

Objects(of magnetic tape, vinyl, transistors, diaphragms, reflective plastic, etc.) have not only changed and shaped our experience of music, but changed the very definition of it. I love a good chord change. If it’s good enough, it can break your heart or put it back together. But the idea that you can do the same thing by manipulating a drone of static is a pretty staggering revelation.

So thanks, objects!