Hurricane Harvey: When the Levee Breaks

We are releasing a cover of the 1929 song “When the Levee Breaks” to help benefit the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Download it here:

My Hometown

I was born in Houston, Texas, and lived most of my life there until I moved to Los Angeles in my late 20s. I learned how to play music in Houston, my first bands were in Houston (hell, most of my bands were in Houston), my first few years of playing live music in bars and clubs that smelled like cigarettes and old beer were in Houston.

My family is in and around Houston. My friends are there.

Watching the devastation brought on by the flooding from Hurricane Harvey and checking Facebook and email constantly to see if my family and friends were safe (they are), or if my old neighborhoods survived intact (some yes, some no), those cannot compare to the feelings of living through it. But watching from 1800 miles away and feeling helpless, I wanted to do something. The night the rains started, it occurred to me we could do a version of “When the Levee Breaks,” and use it to try to raise money. I had no idea how bad things would get, and how much relief would be needed.

I wrote to our cellist, Jody (originally from Dallas), and told her I wanted to try to do something to help out in Houston. Without even asking what it was, she wrote back, “I’m in.”

Yesterday we were able to get into the studio. And today, here we are.

The Song

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The 1971 Led Zeppelin cover version is certainly the most well-known version of “When the Levee Breaks,” but the song is not original to them. I decided to go back to the original version, which was a Delta Blues song written and recorded in 1929 by Memphis Minnie and her then-husband Kansas Joe McCoy. The song was about the 1927 Mississippi River flood — still the worst river flood in U.S. history. If I wanted — in some small, small way– to express solidarity with the people in Texas dealing with this nightmare, I thought a song that’s 90 years old, commemorating a similar event, had a lot of resonance. Ain’t nobody alone, even if it feels that way.

But I can’t play Delta Blues guitar, so I re-worked the song, moving it from a major to minor key, and slowing it way down.

Thomas

When I lived in the Midtown neighborhood in Houston, I rescued a stray cat that showed up on my porch one day, starving. His ear was docked, meaning he’d been caught, neutered, and released back into the neighborhood. His other ear was cut, like he’d been in a fight. My wife named him Thomas.

Thomas

That was almost 14 years to the day before the rains from Harvey started. That neighborhood flooded. This other cat, which has now gone viral thanks to an indelible picture by an LA Times photographer during Harvey, could have been Thomas:

We lost Thomas earlier this year. He showed up skinny and starving, but made the move across the country with us and he lived out his life for another nearly 13 years, fat and happy, with friends all around our neighborhood in LA. He was the best cat, and so half the money that we raise from this single will go to support the Houston Humane Society, which is working like crazy right now to help animals like Thomas all over Houston.

The other half of the money we raise will go to the Greater Houston Community Foundation Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. This fund was set up by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and so donations are going a local organization that will hopefully be able to provide meaningful, dedicated assistance to the people of Houston long after national and international groups have been called away to deal with whatever the next disaster might be. Probably Hurricane Irma, churning its way across the Caribbean toward Florida as I write this.

The band is not recouping recording or publicity costs. Everything Bandcamp pays us for this song from the people who purchase it will go directly to these two groups. I don’t know if we will make a difference, but with your help we can.

If you live in Texas and are suffering from these floods and dig the track, take it. Download it for free. If you want to help those people, and the animals of Houston with them, then please make a donation with your download, and spread the word. This only works if people share it.

Thank you.

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A Burning Ember to a Grove of Trees

A Burning Ember to a Grove of Trees CoverHere we are, less than ten months after releasing our album Dust Among the Stars, with a surprise EP. It combines new recordings and previously released singles in one collection, most of which share a message of (cautious) optimism despite our current social calamities, and it was important to me to get this out before the 2016 Presidential election. These are our most political songs, and I’m sure I’ve never written an “important” song, but these are probably as close as I’ve gotten.

The EP kicks off with a brand-new song “In the End,” which was written in response to the constant howl of this election season, and recorded the first week of October. So that was, like, last week. It was the unexpected chance to jump in the studio and record this song that made the EP possible.

I’m basically a folk singer, and I felt like I had to get something out there about all this noise. Because the thing is, the votes are going to get counted and one of the candidates is going to go away, but we’re still going to be stuck with each other, and I think people have lost sight of that. I’m not a political party kind of guy, I care about human beings. I care about empathy and I’m terrified at how easy it is to lose that for other folks. You know, Woody Guthrie wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitars, but Pete Seeger wrote “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” on his banjo. I think that second one is the sentiment I was going for the most.

To go along with the track, I also made an immersive, 360-degree music video shot inside the studio, showing four of me performing all of the instruments. This’ll probably hurt your head:

Lyrically, “In the End” focuses on all of us bearing some responsibility for how we treat each other, and the fact that when people are hurting, we have to turn *to* one other, not turn *on* one another. That sentiment ties the track to two previously-released songs on the EP that come from the same emotional place – “Just to Win the Fight” and “A Mile of Ground.” Both of those were released in slightly different forms in 2012 and remastered for this EP. They focus on the human aspect of struggle and conflict, and the human cost.

Two cover versions of folk standards “Goodnight Irene” and “House of the Rising Sun” round out the EP. Our take on Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” is being released for the first time, and was recorded during the Dust Among the Stars sessions.

The title of the EP, which has more words in it than the release has songs, is a metaphor for fear, which we could all do with a little less of, and is adapted from a line in “Just to Win the Fight.”

Score!

The independent superhero comedy Spaghettiman made its theatrical debut in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and is now available on VOD from all the places (iTunes, Amazon, etc). It’s about a self-centered, lazy, and generally repugnant slacker named Clark who gets the ability to shoot spaghetti out of his hands, then uses that ability to fleece crime victims out of some cash. It’s a legitimately good movie, and I have to tell you, the music is pretty kick-ass.

And I’m not just saying that because I made it…

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I want to give the credit to director Mark Potts (who also made the wonderful Cinema Six), because he had the vision for what the score should be, and I was happy to be able to execute it. Mark and I have a mutual friend, and after I saw Cinema Six, I reached out to Mark to let him know that if he wanted to use any Sci-Fi Romance songs in future movies, I’d be happy to make that possible. He responded that he was actually about to start shooting a new movie in a few days, and they were looking for a composer, if they could afford one. So we went to get drinks.

Mark wanted Spaghettiman to be a ridiculous send-up of superhero conventions, but played totally straight. No winking to the camera, no broad slapstick or direct parody, just everyone taking these absurd things happening around and to them seriously. The script was written by the Heckbender comedy team, Benjamin Crutcher, Winston Carter, Brand Rackley, and Mark, and I read it and loved it. I totally got it — in spirit, it had a lot in common with Return of the Forest Monster, the horror comedy I made over a decade ago.

Mark pitched the idea of a big, rock and roll score. Very sort of self-serious, like the characters in the movie. Not rock songs, but a legitimate film score, just played by a rock band. I told him I was pretty sure I could do that, and I came aboard.

I tried to apply film score “rules,” as best as I understand them. So for one, I created character themes.

Here’s the “Spaghettiman Theme,” which plays when mild-mannered slacker Clark goes into Spaghettiman mode:

Dale, Clark’s deliriously supportive roommate, also got a theme:

Both of these themes evolve over the course of the film as the characters change. There’s also a minor theme for the movie’s other main character, an ambulance-chasing freelance videographer named Anthony. His theme weaves in and out of other pieces of music to subtly indicate his presence, and his ultimate importance to the movie.

I worked very, very late at night and recorded all the instruments into my desktop. It was kind of amazing to be in the theater for the premiere and remember things like, “Oh, I remember doing that at 3 am and the cat started meowing and blew the take…” I’m happy it turned out as well as it did.

I did make a vocal version of one of the songs, and the video is below. It’s written from the perspective of the character, so this isn’t an indication that I’ve turned my back on my usual sort of cautious optimism about humanity. For about $6, you can buy the whole score on Amazon, Bandcamp, and iTunes, even though Apple seems to be hiding it for some reason…

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Out front of the Vintage Los Feliz 3 in LA for the premiere