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:

 

“Fields” Music Video

My folks were both raised in small, rural towns in Texas, but moved to Houston in the 1970s, where I was born. I spent my childhood, then, living in the suburbs and for holidays, summers, different events, shuttling back and forth out to farm and ranchland and towns too small for grocery stores. I spent a lot of time there.

A few years ago, my grandmother started experiencing rapidly declining health. I had moved to Los Angeles by then, an even bigger city even farther away, and felt tremendous remorse at not being around. I spent a lot of time thinking about the days and weeks I’d spent as a kid with my grandmother — and the self-sufficiency that kids were just expected to have. The here’s-a-dollar-walk-into-town-and-buy-some-candy-or-something-be-back-for-dinner laissez-faire approach to childcare that was so empowering and fun and formative and now has almost been literally outlawed. It’s a shame. The song “Fields” came out of those memories.

As I was working on this album, my grandmother passed on. While I was packing for the trip to go back to Texas, it dawned on me that while the emotional ties I have to that area will always be there, the literal and physical ties were now almost gone. Even now, I could no longer navigate the roads with no names that I drove so many times to get to her house. So I took a camera with me, because I didn’t want to forget those scenes and images that to be honest I took for granted for too much of my childhood.

A lot of footage I shot on that trip made it into this video. Maybe that could seem morbid to some, or too personal, but to me it’s a celebration. This was a difficult song to sing in the studio, something I tried not to shy away from in the video, and it was a difficult video to put together. But this is all very deeply a part of me, and wrapping it in a few bars and pictures and handing it to the world like that felt like the best way I had of sharing it.