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:

 

Road Stories: The Bombed-Out Whorehouse

Maybe the best sustained musical experience I’ve ever had was playing drums in the band Black Spiral from about 1995-1999.  I was in and just out of high school, and the band started as Chris Crowson, Ryan Dawe, and I were just starting to learn our instruments.  The first songs I was ever involved in writing, and the first lyrics I wrote all went into that band, and we ultimately felt like we were making compelling music that honestly brought something new to the table.

So of course it couldn’t last.  But it did give us the opportunity to shoot a music video in the ruins of a semi-famous brothel.  There is that.

A section of the ruins. Credit: Jayme Lynn Blaschke’s Chicken Ranch Central, http://www.jaymeblaschke.com/ChickenRanchImage15.html  


Crowson and I stayed in Texas after high school, but Dawe moved to Georgia for college, and that was the de facto end of the band, though we (still) never officially broke up.  We pooled our money the following summer to make our album Defeat (recorded in a single day) and, later, the music video for the last song on it, “Twilight.”  The multi-talented Don Swaynos and I began scouting locations for the shoot in the vast openness between Houston and Austin, Texas.  We knew of a place in Sealy, Texas, that looked like a bomb had been dropped on it.  About six buildings, real low, maybe two of them still had a roof on it.   Don and I had driven past this place a hundred times going between Houston and the University of Texas.  This time, we stopped in for a look.

Place was nuts.  We figured it had been a hotel, and we walked the buildings, which seemed to have once consisted of two or three tiny little rooms arranged around a single, shared toilet.  But who would build a hotel like this? It wasn’t just cramped, it was oppressive, even with no walls intact.  But the entire place was all crumbling, with lots of broken glass, and the biggest freaking corn spiders you ever want to see in your life.  Great for a death metal video.

There were a couple of mobile homes parked just on the other side of a cyclone fence, so we knocked on a door to ask about the place.  If the person living there knew what it had been or anything about it (no), or who owned it.  The answer was surprising — Omar, the owner/operator of two Mexican restaurants (named Omar’s, one in Sealy, one in Katy, Texas) — was thought to own the place.

So we drove to the Omar’s in Sealy, just hoping he’d be there.  He was.  This is my conversation with him, as best I can remember, and keep in mind, Omar has a super-heavy accent:

Me: Hi, we’re film school students from UT, and we were told you might own the old hotel or whatever it was out on I-10 outside of town.
Omar: Sure. The whorehouse.
Me: The…wha?
Omar: Yeah, yeah.
Me: The, did you say…”storehouse”?
Omar: No, whorehouse. With ladies. Girls.  The chicken ranch. (The eponymous “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” of Broadway, film, and ZZ Top song fame – vk.)
Me: The…I thought that was in La Grange.
Omar: Sure, but there was another. There in Sealy.
Me: And you own that?
Omar: Yeah, sure.
Me: Ok. We were wondering if it would be possible to shoot a music video. There. In the whorehouse.
Omar: Sure. What do you need?
Me: We would need a location release, saying it’s ok for us to shoot there.
Omar: Ok.

He then took an order pad off the hostess stand, and wrote out that it was ok for us to shoot there, and handed me the torn order ticket.  Um…Perfect?

Turns out, the place was called The Wagon Wheel, the little sister of the Chicken Ranch, which was in La Grange, until a huge scandal shut them both down and propelled a TV reporter named Marvin Zindler to a local stardom that would last until he died many, many years later.  I wound up in school with Marvin’s granddaughter, eventually.

We shot the video a few weeks later in some of the crumbling rooms and back behind the building, and it was a grueling-as-hell shoot in 110-degree heat, with no shade or cover.  There were one or two rooms that still had roofs on them, albeit sagging and threatening to collapse at any moment.  They since have.  But the big reason why we didn’t want to just kick it in one of those rooms was because they were utterly, utterly terrifying.

They smelled like trash and sex.  There was a big, torn up couch in one, with the words “KILL ME” scrawled above it in red paint or possibly animal blood.  And *so many* empty beer bottles and used condoms.  It had become a love nest, I guess, for local teenagers.

It’s interesting. In The Shining, the murder hotel just has murder in its soul, and that spirit infests Jack Torrance.  I have to wonder if sex is the same.  Nobody knew what this place was, apart from local history buffs, and Omar.  The people living next door to it didn’t know.  I wonder if sex was just in the building’s —  the land’s — aura, and it called to people.  It’s possible.

It’s also possible, though, that when you’re a teenager and horny, no place is too terrifying or too disgusting to distract from the magic of touching and being touched.  There is that.

So when you say "Death Metal…"

I’m quick to let people know that I used to play drums and do backing vocals/growling for metal bands. The most prominent of these — not that any were terribly prominent — was Black Spiral, and we put out our one-and-only album, Defeat, back in ’99 or 2000.  Something like that.  I played in other metal and rock bands as well, including a prog-metal band (I guess) that had a cello, which we used to play the keyboard parts on NIN and Ministry covers.  I so wish I had video of those shows.

But I do not.  You can, however, hear and download, and further enjoy the magic of Black Spiral.  I guess different things come to mind when people hear the words “death metal,” and outside of those fully steeped in the many hundreds of metal subgenres, folks might be a little fuzzy on exactly what that sounds like, and I wanted to go ahead and post one of the Spiral tracks for anyone who’s interested.

(And for those metal die-hards who want more specifics, I’d say that we were really more of a melodic death metal and thrash hybrid…)

This is me on drums and backing vocals, so all the “yeah”s and “humanity corrodes”es and stuff like that…that’s me.  Many, and eternal, thanks to Chris Crowson (Bass/Vocals) and Ryan Dawe (Guitar), who were the real creative forces behind this music.