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.