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:

 

Throwback Thursday: I’d trade my mother for a Whopper

About fifteen years ago, I was in Austin playing drums in what you might call a progressive metal band called De Profundis, and as a lark, we wrote a punk song. Even played it live once.

I know the Sci-Fi Romance catalogue isn’t exactly full o’ yuks (although Bride of Frankenstein, 1935 makes me smile), so this song is definitely up there as one of the funniest things I think I’ve ever done, musically.

Here’s to Leslie Cochran

Leslie Cochran died today. Like many, many people who lived in and around Austin, Texas, for any amount of time, I had a chance to meet him on a couple of occasions. That was sort of his business, meeting folks.

That, and rocking a thong, stuffed bra, and high-heels.

For those outside of a certain Central Texas radius who are unfamiliar, Leslie was an Austin icon. He was a scraggly haired, goateed, cross-dressing downtown regular who was often homeless by choice, and ran for mayor three times. His best showing was in 2000, which happened to be about the same time I had gotten good and damn tired of film school, and went and found Leslie for a cameo in a fake documentary I was making with the multi-talented Don Swaynos. I liked Leslie. Leslie captured the good about Austin’s idiosyncrasies. But I always felt the re-purposing of his image by others undermined a lot of what Leslie was trying to do, and sold short much of the creative vibrancy of the town.

Leslie was hard to miss. His usual haunt was on Sixth Street, near Congress, a very busy part of downtown where thousands of people a day were unlikely to miss the six-foot-tall cross-dressing dude in a thong and big Guinness hat. He was a regular on Sixth Street during drinking hours, too, so University of Texas students (like myself, at the time) and other denizens crossed paths with him with some regularity. This guy seemed like one of God’s own prototypes to kids coming from conservative, suburban pockets of sameness all over Texas. Many of the UT students awed by his oddity belonged to the film school (like myself, at the time), so when it came time in our classes to make a documentary, the classroom screens were chock-a-bock with documentaries about Leslie. It was an easy, safe choice, and I got a little angrier each time I saw one.

There is a largely unacknowledged battle raging for the soul of Austin, Texas. Leslie was held up as the figurehead for the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign, but the reality is that Austin really isn’t any weirder than a  big high school. You’ve got your techies over here, your hipsters over here, hippies here, musicians here, indie filmmakers here, UT grads who wish they were still in college and won’t grow up over here. Before arriving in Austin as a musician and filmmaker, I’d heard the stories about how diverse, eclectic, and “radical” Austin was, artistically, socially, and politically. But I never fit in Austin, to be honest. I was a musician, but not one who wanted to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. I was a filmmaker, but not interested in making navel-gazing dramas about me and my friends hanging out and churning through girlfriends. Like a lot of people there, people doing much more important and exciting work than me, I didn’t fit in a clique.

Neither did Leslie, though a lot of people sure wanted to claim him superficially. When he ran for mayor, he had actual positions on real issues, particularly homeless advocacy and police reform. But that was primarily overlooked, and it’s kind of a shame. You can either be weird, or taken seriously, but never both. That’s not confined to Austin, though. Not by a long shot.

But here’s to Leslie Cochran, a man who gouged a very unique, and very specific path through life. Safe travels.

(Sorry I don’t simply have a clip of it, but search to about 11 minutes in for Leslie’s cameo in our fake documentary. We almost couldn’t find him that day, but finally tracked him down, and he was more than happy to go along with our little joke of not actually letting him talk in the would-be documentary about him. He is pointing throughout to Shania Twain’s autograph on his dress)