Sunday, January 25, 2015

For magazine Acrobata Brasil

Below is the unedited piece I wrote for the magazine Acrobata Brasil. They wanted me to go in-depth about my creative process, my life, and my collaborations with members of Morphine. 


“Be careful what you wish for”. Or perhaps it should go something like “Be careful what others THINK you are wishing for”. My affiliation with the band Morphine has been as much of a curse as a blessing, in that I have learned a great deal from my collaborations with members of the band, but haven’t been able to fully get out of the shadow of Mark Sandman. If I am to give you any insight on my creative process, I must first clarify a few things:

I never knew Mark Sandman beyond being a fan that was granted a couple minutes of his time after a show here and there. My collaborations with members of Morphine didn’t begin until well after Mark’s death. To this day, I have no idea what strings he used on his slide bass or what tunings he used (fans frequently ask me). I never cared because it was never a goal of mine to play the slide bass like him or do what he was doing. I was simply inspired by his fierce individuality and the unusual instrumentation. I am, at my core, a fretless bass player, and was much more interested in exploring what I could do on that rather than the slide bass.

The first Morphine performance I attended was at the Trocadero, in Philadelphia in May of 1996. At that time the post punk band I was playing in for a few years had fallen apart. We were playing music along the lines of Joy Division, Echo & The Bunnymen, and Josef K and had succumbed to creative differences. Around that time I was obsessed with David Sylvian, King Crimson, Wire, and Nick Cave. I just happened to hear the music of Morphine a few months earlier in the soundtrack to the film “Spanking The Monkey”. I was captivated by the infectious grooves, and the sexy darkness of the sound. But what I found most interesting was that it was essentially rock music that wasn’t driven by guitars. If you listen closely there’s guitar all over Morphine’s music, but it’s used more as a subtle color than a driving force. This all came at a time when I was deeply frustrated by the handful of guitarists I was working with, and I wanted to move forward without them. I knew there had to be a way to create a powerful bass-driven sound in a world dominated by guitars, and Morphine was doing it.

As a child my formal introduction to music was through reeds. I started on clarinet, and moved to bass guitar when I was 12 years old. I have always loved reeds as much as bass, which is why Mick Karn (bassist/saxophonist of Japan) continues to be my single biggest influence. I began writing lyrics in my early teens. I still have them. For the past 30 years I have always carried my lyric book with me so I can write whenever an idea comes to me. I don’t use computers, tablets or anything electronic. It needs to be organic, and tangible, and not easily accessible by others. I have thousands of pages of lyrics and hundreds of hours of recordings that may never see the light of day. 

That Morphine show in 1996 was a turning point for me. I realized I had amassed all this material and had no vehicle for it. I never saw myself as a band leader or front woman. I had just graduated art school and was torn between pursuing music or continuing on as a painter. I wasn’t even able to sing and play a bass at the same time. I was a strong vocalist, and a decent bassist, but couldn’t put the two together. Seeing Morphine inspired me to try harder and take center stage. The longest conversation I had with Mark Sandman was the first, when I ran backstage and introduced myself to him. We spoke briefly and he encouraged me to come to Boston when they were playing the World’s Fair Of Central Square. I bought a train ticket and once up there he told me to introduce myself to the owners of the Middle East restaurant, and that they would give me a job. I moved from my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Cambridge, Massachusetts later that year, and did as instructed. That was the extent of my interactions with Mark Sandman.

In 1997 I formed Bourbon Princess with drummer Dave Millar. We were hungry to perform so we didn’t worry much about finding that additional player, and we got on quite well as a duo of just drums and fretless bass, performing at parties, art galleries, and other small venues. Our material spanned from spoken word, to Iggy Pop. Eventually we added cellist Jonah Sacks to the line-up and recorded "Stopline" (my first time recording digitally with ProTools). Bourbon Princess was my identity crisis, or to put it more kindly, my growing pains. I was so hungry to show the world what I could do that I couldn’t really arrive at a coherent sound. Some songs were more along the lines of Roxy Music, while others were, as some described, more like Concrete Blonde. Around that same time I was playing my P-Bass with Treat Her Right guitarist/front man David Champagne in a short-lived band called Lucky Bastard. We did a lot of Treat Her Right songs, with a few originals thrown in. David introduced me formally to Jerome Deupree and Dana Colley, and is responsible for recruiting Jerome to play drums in Bourbon Princess, while Dana produced and played on a few tracks. Saxophonist and Either/Orchestra band leader Russ Gershon joined the line-up, and provided distribution of Bourbon Princess’ “Black Feather Wings” and “Dark Of Days’ on his label Accurate Records. Around this time I also formed a very close bond to guitarist/pianist Jim Moran, who joined the line-up and is the best guitarist I have ever had the pleasure of working with.

Up to that point I was accustomed to writing songs entirely on my own, to my Korg D8 machine. To this day it is my preferred method for composing. I own a couple of these machines, since they are obsolete and may break down from time to time. Until I met my fiancĂ© , Michael, I was unable to write in the presence of others. I compose most my songs on the fretless bass, creating demos consisting of usually two bass tracks, and two or three vocal tracks. I would then flip through my most recent lyrics and find something that suited the music I just recorded. Sometimes I would get lucky and the music and words would come in a flood, all at once. It’s always more enjoyable to just go with my stream of consciousness, and let the song write itself. Much of my music is colored by my life long struggle with depression and the sudden loss of my brother when I was a teenager. I try not to let my bad experiences define me, but I also think that it’s completely natural to use one’s art to move through the darkness, to reach the light. When executive producer David Brilliant proposed that Dana Colley and I collaborate I had no idea what a challenge it would be to the writer I was at that time.

A.K.A.C.O.D. was one of the most personally challenging projects I had ever been a part of. It was extremely intimidating for me to work with one of my heroes, Dana Colley, in the home studio of another hero, Mark Sandman, at Hi-N-Dry. As Matt Johnson of The The once said “I was trying so hard to be myself, I ended up being somebody else”. It could’ve all been in my mind, but the intense creative energy of that space was palpable. At times I felt as if Mark was present. I was honored and excited to be there, and at the same time, completely terrified.

When people talk about Morphine, they tend to focus on Mark Sandman, but they were very much about the sum of the parts. I often think of Dana Colley as the John Paul Jones of Morphine. He is an incredible producer, multi-instrumentalist, and a relentless deconstructionist. Out of everyone in the Morphine circle, I owe the most credit to Dana for shaping me as a writer and performer. I have always been a very stubborn and insecure person, and it took a lot of patience and perseverance on Dana’s part to get me to let go of old habits and try new approaches when writing music and shaping a sound.

Morphine taught me a great deal about the power of improvisation, and the importance of recording everything. Dana helped me overcome my weaknesses, while finding my own unique voice. We were writing songs as we went, from the ground up. I came to the studio with lyrics, which Dana would help me edit.

Once we brought drummer Larry Dersch into the fold, we began to do more live performances. It was then that I realized how crucial the live experience is to shaping the sound. We would take any small gig we could get, and we’d often end up improvising part of it. New songs would reveal themselves at these shows. Larry had a minidisc recorder and cataloged every performance, providing us with cds to listen to and learn from the following day.

After several months working on the record and playing extensively around Boston we released “Happiness”. The timing could not have been worse. It was around 2007, 2008 and the music industry was collapsing due to the internet. Labels were going bankrupt, managers and A&R weren’t looking to sign bands, they were looking for jobs. No one really knew how to proceed. It was well before social media and crowd sourcing were facts of life. Thousands of dollars were spent on promoting the record, only to have it go pretty much ignored by everyone. We hopped in a van and did short, 10, 12-date tours, only to play to mostly empty rooms, in little-known venues. It was disheartening and other aspects of my life seemed to be falling apart around the same time, so we decided to go our separate ways. I needed a change of scenery.

***In 2013 I reunited with Dana and Larry to perform The Pohoda festival in Slovakia, and The Exit festival in Serbia. As well as a couple, smaller, more intimate shows. 

In 2010 I relocated to Austin, Texas not so much because of it’s music scene, but because I just happened to already know people there and could line-up a job and a place to live quite easily. It was in Austin where I met Michael Howard, my fiancĂ© and partner in my current project, Alien Knife Fight. Mike is a bassist and drummer so we related to each other quickly and easily. He comes from more of a metal and hard rock background, which was very refreshing. Having been so embedded in the Morphine circle, I started to feel very trapped in a sound leaning more toward jazz and blues. Years ago when I built my first 2-string slide bass I was reluctant to perform live with it because I knew people would immediately lump me in with Morphine. I deliberately kept it under wraps for many years, while I developed a different style of playing it. Once I began collaborating with Mike I started to find my own sound on the slide bass. Rather than playing it in the slinky style of Morphine, I tried to play it the way someone like Josh Homme (Queens Of The Stone Age) or Ian MacKaye (Fugazi) might play it. A whole new world of sounds opened up to me. Now that many years have passed since Mark Sandman’s death, there’s a whole new audience who have never heard of Morphine or the 2-string slide bass. These people are starting to discover the music Alien Knife Fight, which some people have described to me as “Slide Punk”.

I feel very much like a fish out of water in Austin. I have been here for nearly five years, and despite performing frequently around town, I don’t have much of a presence in the music scene here. I prefer to put my energies into recording and touring. I often tell people that I am a Boston musician on indefinite hiatus in Austin. 

Everything is a trade-off however. Mike and I are essentially living the dream. We record everything we do, in a big, old house, surrounded by guitars, basses, amps, drums, a piano, and an organ. There is no furniture. There is no place to sit inside, other than the kitchen table or on the porch swing outside. Sometimes we wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a song (which was the case with “Keep talking”) and we plug in, record it in our pajamas. Since it’s nearly impossible for us to make a living making music we support ourselves as glassblowers and visual artists. We  affectionately call our home Big Bottom Farm (who doesn’t love a good Spinal Tap reference?). Back when Dana, Larry, and I were recording “Happiness”, I would look around at Mark’s various stringed instruments and think to myself “I am going to live in a place like this some day’, and now I am.

Currently Mike and I are recording a version of the Mikel Rouse song “The Receiver”, under the guidance of executive producer Robert Martinengo. Once this is completed we will resume work on the new Alien Knife Fight record. As far as touring goes, we try to make our way up to Boston and back, playing cities along the way, but at this time we don’t have the necessary backing to embark on an extensive national or international tour.
We are considering crowd sourcing, provided we can build a substantial fan base.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Fiesta by I-35

I was certain that the relief of leaving Boston and the elation of arriving in Austin would yield to a week, maybe more, of a blue period. A feeling that falls somewhere between mourning and being homesick. Garnish it with a pinch of regret, a dash of doubt, and a teaspoon of confusion, shaken with exhaustion.

"Wow. I'm really here."
"what the fuck am I doing here?"
"I lost direction in Boston."
"Will I find it here? Will I find 'it" or myself anywhere? What am I doing?"

Every now and then, the sun rises, and the sky seems to have a secret. I try to look beyond those bright, cream-crisp edges of the clouds, where beams of light, not unlike those on velvet paintings of Christ, shout down onto the strip malls and taco trailers on the outskirts of Austin. Maybe Boston is old and classy, but this is looking good to me, just because I've never been at this spot before. So what's the big secret that I keep looking for in the sky?

Yesterday brought a day of thunderstorms and showers. Last night I pushed myself out the door to go see a band. I felt like an outsider at the bar. From minute to minute I went from loving that feeling to hating it. If I was truly enjoying the music maybe I wouldn't have felt so uneasy. The room was packed. Two bands playing what sounded like every female-fronted country rock band I ever heard. The crowd was ape-shit. I guess that's why so many singer songwriters keep doing this shit. People just never get tired of it. Your long flowing locks, your summer dress, your red and white cowboy boots, don't impress. Where's the edge? Where's the color in the song? I have arrived from another planet. I am here to tear it up. Why don't the busses run past midnight?" I bought another beer and looked around for older, handsome dudes that look like they've seen the world, toured, read a lot, played a lot (well, men with brains and character) that I could fuck for at least five minutes in my mind. I saw only one, and he was so clearly a "somebody" in this town, that I couldn't even imagine him with his clothes off. He looked too famous. I could only imagine him passing through the whispers of all the young, beautiful, texan girls who longed to have him as a sideman on their next tour. Instead of some five-minute fuck fantasy, I imagined a drama unfolding: where the alt-country starlet exits the stage and goes to grab a beer. When she returns to the van out back she finds him speaking softly to a girl from the audience, turns the corner with her and vanishes....Wait. I realized I had seen him before. Thankfully, the dull-dream is interrupted. Yeah, I don't like him. I think I was introduced to him by a drummer friend. His teeth were unnaturally white and too straight to rest in the gums of a humble mouth.

The lights are on in the tattoo parlor next door. I kind of know those guys. Maybe go next door and say "hi"? Yeah, and talk about what? Fuck it. Maybe just hook-up some more ink. What is it about Austin that makes me want more ink?

This is one of the biggest tests of my patience so far. I went from living somewhere with so many studios, venues, friends within walking distance or a subway ride. Everybody knew me. I could get up, sit-in, shout out. I'm a stranger again. What makes it a bit more challenging is that now I'm 37 instead of 23.

Yesterday a producer friend of mine here said "So why'd you decide to come to Austin? The music scene here is full of sissies. Why don't you go to L.A.?" L.A.. Hmmm. For some reason I've always thought of L.A. as the world's largest shark tank for musicians. A place where I'd go and surely have all my dreams crushed and then served in a rocks glass with Maker's Mark melting them to their final resting place. A place where 60 year old men covered in tattoos are still trying to "make it" with their neon Ibanez guitars and their stretch velvet jeans. A place where one shakes your hand while the other stabs your back. Hell, maybe I've just watched too many movies about Hollywood. I'm sure there's a lot I'd like about it.

The answer is simple: It's where my heart and my gut brought me (why do I always think these things are a compass for my life? I wonder if I should ignore them now and then). I went on to explain that the cost of living in Boston was taking a toll on me, I had hit a serious creative rut, and that even though I really had no interest in becoming part of the Austin music scene, it felt like a good place to hang out in for a while and get my ducks in a row, recharge, write, finish those dozens of songs that I started in Boston. Then he got me thinking. I started thinking about how more and more these days I'm chatting with friends in L.A., and an old flame from 10 years ago, who appears to be an industry heavyweight, has even reappeared, texting me, sending emails about his life there. Then the producer mentions there's an artist based in L.A. that he thinks I should work with. He goes on to tell me that he's got a session with him in a couple weeks and burns me a cd of his material.

I'm burned out from being primary songwriter, arranger, singer, bassist. In rapid fire I imagined being on the road with someone like Imaad Wasif, just playing bass, and singing backing vocals, and absolutely loving it. I fantasize about finding my musical other, with whom I'd write and piece new material together. No longer crabby me, cooped-up in my apartment, alone, writing about struggle and masturbation, and recording half-cocked bass lines to my little D8. There was a time, about 15 years ago, where I wanted to do everything myself. I did just that, and now I'm tired of it. I want to be a part of a creative team. You spend too much time creating things on your own, and your mind starts to eat itself. My mind was starving by the time I left Boston. Moving to a new place seems to help. Having creative input from a musical partner would be like the storm soaking the desert. I want someone to build the arc with me. I don't want to go on this trip alone.

The job that I worked so hard to get down here, well, naturally now that I'm here I don't want it. I don't want a job at all. I just want to throw my gear in a van and go play a month's worth of shows. I'm not against working hard. But I am very much against working hard for a huge company, losing about 2,500 (commute time included) hours of my life each year to something that has nothing to do with my art or music. It seems ridiculous. Time goes by so fast. How could I possibly go back to punching a clock. I know how: I just look at the pile of bills on the kitchen table and the state of my gear. Where the hell will the money come from? I keep answering "the money will appear when you need it." Sheesh. I'm such a fucking Sagittarius. I'm also getting to the point where I wonder what difference it makes whether or not I pay my bills. I'm not married. No boyfriend. No kids. No family that I'm all that close to. It's likely that when my time is up I'll end up in that crematorium that's the human equivalent to the dead letter office, where employees spend weeks trying to track down financial records and next of kin, just so my unclaimed ashes could be dumped into a hole with thousands of others, the grass punctuated with a small year marker.

I'm not really feeling that bleak. Just sayin'...tired of these things ruling my life. I sense Austin is just a station stop.
I like it here, but I don't see a big future for me here.

I had to take a bus to get to the print shop, so I could pick up my handbills for the show on 7/15. The bus took me to an area where most people drive and only shitheads walk. So if you're walking people look at you as if you're a vagrant or a runaway. No wonder. Most of them are. I kind of felt like one for a moment.

(On the other side was the gargantuan Fiesta mart, where about ten years ago me and my Bourbon Princess bandmates got very high and roamed around, laughing at the fact that they had golf carts parked inside the store for cruising the aisles. I went to the Mexican section and stared in wonder at shrink wrapped pigs feet, tongues, and hearts, giggling and feeling repulsed at the same time.)

On the way back my GPS with bus scheduling kept fucking-up. It was the first time I felt tempted to throw my iPhone into the storm drain. I got on the wrong bus 3 times. I remained calm and kept telling myself "you don't know the lay of the land yet. take it easy. Don't sweat it." But I kept thinking how it would only take me ten minutes each way if I had a car. I ended up at a bus stop along I-35, sitting with a white "loner" who was awkward but not creepy. Then there was the older black man who was drinking a 40 from a paper bag and insisted on describing all the ways he'd like to get to know my ass(literally my ass. Not me as a person) and the crack he claimed he could see (huh? I wasn't wearing low-rise this time. And I was wearing boyshorts. At best he could see a waistband) I chuckled at him and asked what kind of crack was he referring to? He laughed and then told a long-winded story, most of which I couldn't understand, about three different women. One blew him. One bought him a burger and smoked him up on crack. The third allowed him to "introduce his nine and half inches of lovin' in her rectum."
"Nice." Here comes the bus. Is this the right bus this time? Who fucking cares? Just get on it. Look at that sky. Keep looking and that glorious sky. I wrapped-up the evening having my bi-weekly serving of meat in the form of a chicken fried steak. The only word I can use to describe it would be "beige" (beige cuisine is very popular here), but I felt obligated to try it since it seems to be a big Texas thing. I'm glad I tried it. I'll never eat it again.

The big sky here makes up for the lack of ocean. And since our oceans are quickly becoming cesspools I can only really look to the sky as that mirror of hope and better days to come. That is, when the smog and pollen levels are low.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

You kept me wired, you kept me tired. I laid right beneath the wheels of your tires. You pushed into me and I gladly received it.

Six times a day, six days a week I'd be working at the store and perfect for sleep, but you called me. You called me. Talking for hours, juice is running out of the telephone. I was always alone, but you made me forget. At least for a second, and that second felt good. Coming down the escalator, with your guitar across your back, slapping you leg because you jst can't believe it. i can't believe you are here, right now. I was sure we'd really ever meet like this.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Boston to Austin. Take a week to unpack and get settled. Not too settled. Have to get these new demos done and try to play out before venturing in the general direction of New Orleans.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

They send you off with gifts.
There's one, whose eyes are mines you want to set to work on.
Ok. I think I'll take this road.
When you return the ships will set out.
You look past the trees to get to the water.
Was it wrong for you to leave?
Maybe you need to be there.
I can't decide with all the petals in the air,
exhausted and ghostly in some crisis again.

The stalker gets stalked,
by the girlfriend of a stalker.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Stingers, poison arrows, and magic bullets.

Try to get centered. Try to get off the ego trip. I'm trying.

It's difficult being in any kind of relationship when both people have extraordinarily large egos. Going in circles, accusing each other of being selfish. I talk too much, but mostly when I feel exceptionally insecure or like I'm about to lose something dear to me. It's difficult to get to know someone when the personality they show online is so different from their true personality, or the one you witness when face to face. It's frustrating when someone says they don't want you out of their life, but at the same time they seem to want nothing to do with you. "You can't have it both ways." Lately I've been accused of being overbearing, dramatic, and emotionally manipulative. It's frustrating when the accusation comes from someone who used to call and text me several times a day. It feels a little unfair when the accusations come from those who feel the need to constantly, publicly announce, online, their health problems, jabs that "aren't to be taken literally", or how miserable they are at their job, or how much they hate this, that, or the other thing until they get their thread of sympathetic responses. It has always seemed to me that many people do this solely for attention, validation, or out of insecurity. Anyone could deny it and say that they don't need to do that to feel validated, or they don't need the attention, but if that was the case they wouldn't feel the need to post such things online in the first place. I'm to the point where I am trying to avoid social networking websites more and more. It's tricky since they have become such a promotional tool for artists. But they have caused more harm to me and my relationships than anything else. Things felt so much simpler, solid, and real, before the web.

I wonder if I'm just really out of touch. I look around me, and people seem to be getting on just fine, texting, avoiding calls, posting inane bullshit on their Facebook walls, etc etc. Meanwhile I feel like an alien. I feel as if I just don't get it at all. I have friends here but I never actually hear from them. I only get to read about the food they ate, where they drank, how much they hate their jobs, or their politics. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that it would be far more interesting to actually be conversing with them, sitting at a table together, drinking beer or something along those lines. ...but maybe that's where I'm wrong. Maybe these days most people prefer detachment. I don't know. All I know is that the more "connected" I get the more alone I feel.

As I get older I realize what a lousy upbringing I had. Sure I had lots of flashy material bullshit as a kid, but what I learned from mom and dad is that no one can be trusted, not even them. How can one have a stable relationship that allows both people the proper amount of trust, security and personal freedom when you're used to seeing your folks constantly fucking each other over, fighting, cheating, emotional manipulation, lies? It makes me think of the phrase "born to lose". Don't get me wrong. I love my folks, but the choices they have made are showing their true colors to me now, in my life, in my relationships. As much as I try to take responsibility for my actions I can't help wondering why I continue to go about things the way I do. I'm swimming upstream, trying to get out of the murky, dangerous waters for good. But how do you do that when you're a thrill seeker?

Relocation may not be a magic bullet, but it's the best idea I've come up with so far. I'm getting rid of everything except my cat, my music and recording gear, favorite cookware, and some clothes. I already got rid of several photo albums. I'm tired of holding onto the past. Exhausted actually. I'm also trying to let go of the guy. The guy who used to claim that he loves me but is sick of me now. I've been down this road before. I know that nothing good comes of my clinging and pushing to make it work. It only makes things worse. He will end up hating me. And I end up ashamed, humiliated, wondering who's right and who's wrong, when there's no point to it. Especially when our egos are cocked and loaded. I'm not crazy. I just have some very bad patterns. I'm trying to get a grip and let go at the same time. Gotta let go of everything: this place, my life here, my past, AND my future. I just need to be right the fuck here, in this moment, strong in the solitude, unafraid, open, breathing. No more self-sabotage. No more hurting people. No more regrets. No more big expectations.

I don't know why I write this stuff. I can't write for shit....unless I'm playing my bass.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

I walked off the ledge but I did not fall.

I grew wings.

On the red line, I was cozily tucked-in under headphones and sunglasses. Low frequency music is almost inaudible on a train, except for those freckles of cracks and pops, that Pole sampled from old vinyl. All I'm really doing is seeing and hearing. And thinking. This time, as the train goes over the Charles River I'm looking at the Prudential and Hancock buildings with goodbye eyes. How many more times will I get to see this?