Half My Life: In the Studio 20 Years Apart

Three months before I turned 20, two friends and I — we were a band called Black Spiral — loaded up a car in Houston, drove to Austin and crashed at a stranger’s house, then went into a makeshift studio early the following morning to try to make a record. That was June 20, 1998…twenty years ago today.

We got breakfast tacos on the way in, recorded nine songs live to tape before lunch, and spent the rest of the day doing vocal overdubs and mixing. I played drums. We finished the day having finished an album. 20 years on, I remain proud of the record (except that one spot in that one song where I sped up noticeably…it still irks me), and deeply grateful for Chris Crowson (bass/vocals) and Ryan Dawe (guitars), with whom I shared that experience.

Me, there. On the right. Stopping on the way back from the “studio” for a hillside band selfie.

Also 20 years on, I find myself three months shy of my 40th birthday, and working on another album, this time in Los Angeles. That long-ago day in June, with the breakfast tacos and the impossible task ahead of us, was exactly half my life ago. And, through an accident of the calendar and because we try to impose order where none would otherwise exist, I am taking this opportunity to finish another record on the same day.

My “new” band, Sci-Fi Romance is itself almost a decade old, and this will be the band’s fourth full-length album. On it, I play a dozen instruments, and have been trying to get it recorded by grabbing hours here and there since December. It is a far cry from nine songs in 5 hours. But it is, hopefully, representative of growth. 20 years ago, I didn’t play guitar, didn’t sing, didn’t write songs, sure as hell didn’t play piano and wouldn’t have dared try to navigate a vibraphone or theremin, all of which I’ve done on the new record. 20 years ago, this was not a day that I could have foreseen. Today, I’ll be in the studio doing the final mixes. Wish me luck.

I feel like there’s a grand conclusion out there I should be able to get my arms around with this unexpected symmetry, this simple, harmonic ratio of life lived…but really I just feel grateful. I am grateful for my wife, a person I could not have imagined 20 years ago. For my children, one of whom also plays piano on this album (not why I’m grateful for them — free musicians!!). Grateful for my father, who has supported me making sounds by hitting things since I started hitting things. Grateful for my many bandmates across many bands. Grateful for my distributor, who reached out after hearing the Spiral CD and has been there since.

Last week, on the day I finished tracking this album.

If there’s a moral, it’s this: our paths are unknown. Every moment of Sci-Fi Romance has been one of me going, “I don’t think I can _______” and then doing it. Me and two talented friends should not have been able to record nine songs before lunch. That’s nuts. But we did it.

I have never easily believed in myself as an artist. I have set barriers I did not think I could overcome, and then, somehow, usually overcome them. Artist or not, musician or not — student, or awesome mom or dad, or whatever — I would hope for you to be nicer to yourself than I’ve usually been to me. I would like you to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. I would like you to be able to surprise yourself, and enjoy the feeling.

I hope you guys dig the new record. Last year, dozens of Europeans bought Black Spiral CDs. It gladdened me. If, 20 years from now, teenagers on whatever continent are swapping Sci-Fi Romance mp3s, I’ll be equally proud.

Defeat, by Black Spiral:

A Burning Ember to a Grove of Trees, by Sci-Fi Romance:

 

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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.

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.”