Walk a Mile and The London Games

At the beginning of July, Stacey Haber of the Music Firm UK reached out to me to find out if I’d be willing to write and record a song for a social awareness campaign launching in conjunction with the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The campaign is called “Walk a Mile,” and draws its name from the familiar notion of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s an off-shoot of the State Department’s “Hours Against Hate” initiative, which encourages inter-faith and inter-cultural tolerance, and is sponsored by the International Olympic Truce Centre. Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) contributed the theme song for the whole thing. All of that sounded pretty good, and I was flattered to be invited, so I wrote a new song. You can listen right here, and read on below:

But the clock was ticking. It was July 1, I was in a hotel room in Florida, and my house had just been burglarized in Los Angeles, so I wasn’t sure if I even had any guitars apart from a battered old acoustic I had with me. The band and I only had two weeks to get them a finished track of a song that didn’t exist yet. Jaron Luksa, the inimitable force of nature who recorded our record The Ghost of John Henry, was on tour with Amanda Palmer, and would not be able to record us when I got back to town, so I had to find a studio, too.

I wrote the song in my hotel room that night, and recorded a demo of it on my phone (on my phone!), which I sent off to the band and the Music Firm, to make sure everybody was ok with it. I believe deeply in the importance of empathy, but not so much in pithy expressions — especially in lyrics — so I only wanted to move forward if I could come up with a song that got the idea across without actually saying “you should really walk a mile in somebody’s shoes before you judge them.”

When I put out the first Sci-Fi Romance album, for the first year that it was out, I donated every cent that came in from it to a group called Charity: Water (and if you haven’t read the story of 9-year-old Rachel Beckwith’s Charity: Water campaign, which raised over $1 million dollars after she was killed in a car accident, please do so). Charity: Water helps people in developing nations get access to clean drinking water by digging freshwater wells, so people no longer have to carry dirty water miles a day in old gasoline cans. ┬áThat image was the first place my mind went when thinking about this new song, and from there, the other three lyrical vignettes came very easily.

The world does not want what’s best for us. We’re all struggling daily against entropy, and fighting to stay upright in the face of circumstances that would knock us down. The only thing we have, really, is each other. We’re all in the same boat, and it will stay afloat or sink based on our willingness to help each other out. In my mind, that’s done best by recognizing that though our paths diverge, the people walking them share much, much more in common than we may differ.

To me, that’s a joyful realization. So I wanted the song to feel full of life and joy and┬ácamaraderie. If you know many of my songs, you know I don’t do “joyful” very often, so I hope you enjoy this one. I don’t know when you’ll get another like it from me…

We wound up recording the day after Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday with Eric Rennaker in a fantastic studio called Bedrock in Echo Park, and the track was mixed and mastered by Tim Moore at Mas Music Productions in Highland Park (both in Los Angeles). They are good folks, and you should hit them up if you need studio time. And THANK YOU! to the wonderful people who gave up their Sunday afternoon to come sing in the Sci-Fi Romance Choir at the end of the song — Molly, Emma, Oscar, Rebecca, and of course, Kurt, Jody, and I joined in, too.

You can download the song for free right here:

Also, nothing much was taken in the burglary. We were lucky.

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).

Obsolete Technology Will Demand a Reckoning: The Ghost of John Henry

Our new album, The Ghost of John Henry, is available today. The folk tale about a railroad worker who raced a steam drill has stuck with me since I was a little kid, and so in a lot of ways it feels like I’ve been leading up to this record my whole life. That makes the response we’ve received to it so far — the wonderful reviews, pre-orders, internet radio play — tremendously moving. Thank you to Kurt and Jody for not turning around and running the other way when a crazy man (me) asked them to be in a band so we could make a concept record about a 150-year-old legend.

Why John Henry? This is from the album’s liner notes, and about as good an explanation as I know how to give:

After the Civil War, railroads spread out across the country, built on the backs of immigrants, convicts, and men who left their lives and loves to lay track beyond the horizon. But to the rich men who controlled the rails, their eyes fixed only on balance sheets, these workers were cogs in a machine – easily discarded, easily replaced. Into this world walked John Henry, said to be the strongest man to ever swing a hammer or drive a spike.

On his heels came steam. New steam drills appeared with the inevitability of tomorrow, intended to conquer mountains and make men obsolete. Faced with the loss of his livelihood, John Henry challenged the machine to a race. The details are lost to history, but what remains is the legend of a man who fought a machine and won, though the effort cost him his life. His stand was noble, proud, and futile. As technology continues to press against what it means to be human, we persist in his struggle, and walk with his ghost.