Saturday, May 16, 2015

Take them pictures - American Boy

 I’m changing. I can feel it.

It’s not the first time I have felt a change inside me. It happens every couple of years. Sometimes I can have a decade long streak before I hit a change. Other times it can be a single picture or line and I am changed immediately. Life works within those parameters.

What’s the old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

The first real change for me occurred in 1990. Pretty good year for change.

Around 1994 another change hit and from then on time ebbed and flowed. I was always a little on the outside looking in. Each new adventure I took was like a snake shedding its skin. Some got it. Others didn’t.

Change is frustrating to those around you. Most people hold on to a mental image of you regardless of the circumstance. To some I am still twelve years old stealing comics and questioning any authority coming my way. Others see me as the guy in charge. Some see me as a songwriter. Others see me as an old guy needing to grow up. I seem to get it all. People need to place others in categories. Their little brains can’t comprehend people change. I get it.

My dad once told me time goes faster as you get older. I’m feeling that way now. Yesterday during my morning walk I realized I was 42 and I also realized I didn’t remember my 30s. My thirties were one of those decade long, slow changes. You find yourself in the rat race and when you look up ten years have passed. My thirties did that to me.

I just finished reading a poem by Frank Stanford called Planning the Disappearance of Those Who Have Gone

Soon I will make my appearance
But first I must take off my rings
And swords and lay them out all
Along the lupine banks of the forbidden river
In reckoning the days I have
Left on this earth I will use
No fingers

And from there I am reminded of Raymond Carver’s poem Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Late Fragment hits home for me. I find myself asking “And did you get what you wanted from this life…” It is a good question. Tough, but good.

All of these things leads to my latest work – American Boy.

American boy is an old song written in the early 1990s. If I had to put an exact year – I would say 1992. I started writing songs in 1990 but didn’t show anyone until I left high school. The song is an ode to the American dream and to my father. Work hard and the rest will come. My father and I are a lot alike. Our independent minds need to come to their own conclusions. My mother and father lived by two basic beliefs work hard and family comes first. Everything else fell into place from those two things.

I came across cache of photos my mom had digitized. Being the creative type I merged the photos with one of my songs. It wasn’t revolutionary but it somehow struck a chord with my parents and my brothers. I’m glad it did. I have been to a couple of funerals this past year and each time I see families pouring through photos. I see how precious those photos become in times of loss. Those photos become what are left. I have an obligation to keep this up now because life is art. Art is life. These two worlds now collide. They’ve been two separate circles for me for a long time. It makes sense now to merge them. Once again I am changing. Maybe it is because I am getting older or maybe I see how important our time here must be.

Take pictures. Record voices and video. Back them up. Treasure them and share them. They will be worth more than you think.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Interview with Noah Ascher for Waterleftfrog Publications - The Strong Braus Guitar

Noah Ascher: My instruments are important to me. I have been looking for the perfect guitar for the last twenty-five years. And there are a lot of perfect guitars out there. I have essentially quit buying guitars on a frequent basis about five or six years ago. Honestly, I am glad I no longer buy guitars regularly. It is an exhausting effort. I spent weekends hitting local shops playing through as many guitars as I could get my hands on. Evenings were spent looking through Craig’s List and Ebay. I would go to sleep thinking about guitars. I would wake up thinking about guitars. It provided hours of endless distraction. There was even a period of time where I thought I might start making guitars because I wanted something different. 

 In the end I had to ask myself what this really about. The way I see it is that real purpose of having a guitar or guitars is to make music. I found I was diverting more time looking for this elusive holy grail and not making music. I don’t know when the switch actually occurred but it has been sometime that I have felt the need to venture out and look at guitars.

When I started recording on a regular basis I found that the guitar I was using could pretty much sound how I wanted it to with the help of the rapidly improving technology. I found myself appreciating each of my guitars for the quirks they brought to the table as opposed to looking for something that I didn’t have. 

All of this leads to one of my favorite guitars – the Strong Braus guitar. The fact that I have a Strong Braus guitar is in and of itself an odd statement. The Strong Braus are the band that I have played with for about four years. I’ve known the guys in the band for most of my life and it is always a good time when we get together. We essentially stick to Zeppelin and Black Crowes covers. The funny part is – I don’t play guitar in the band. I sing and play harmonica. There are already two guitarists in the band and they cover a wide range of sonic territory so for me to pick up and play guitar in this band is overkill. 

But I digress. The Strong Braus guitar is one of my favorite guitars. I picked up the guitar on a trip to Memphis / Nashville with three of the guys from the Strong Braus. The goal was to head to Memphis and Nashville for the day. The plan was to shop for guitars – at least that was my plan. I don’t think anyone else bought anything now that I think of it. We headed to Memphis in a rented car, told too many stories and laughed our way into downtown Memphis. Our intention was to head to Nashville after lunch. It wasn’t until we finished our lunch that we realized Nashville was a good 4 hours from Memphis. We are not individuals who deter a good time. We decided to explore Memphis and found a Guitar Center within driving distance. 

As we entered the Guitar Center I immediately saw a white Fender Jaguar HH that was on clearance due to a large crack on the top of the guitar near the input jack. I have always liked damaged goods. I don’t want perfect. I want battle-scarred instruments. In my mind the damage tells a story and I am all about stories. To say the guitar was calling to me is an understatement. My buddy Scott was next to me saying – “This has got you written all over it.”

I love Jazzmaster and Jaguar body styles. I am also more of a Fender guy than anything so this already had enough going for it. The fact that I was on a road trip with my friends further solidified my love for this guitar. See – it had story before we even left the shop. 

The reason I love the guitar is for the story. Fortunately it also has a good sound and is pretty versatile. With two humbuckers and some different knobs, the combination of sounds I can get out of it is something I appreciate. The other thing that I love about the guitar is the tremolo bar. I have struggled to find the right tremolo for me. I love the look of Bigsby but they don’t work for me. I think Floyd Roses are cool but I think you need an MIT degree to really use one. I like strats but don’t think of using a tremolo on a strat is something I can make sound good. When I came across this tremolo I realized I had found something that really works for me. I don’t do deep dive bombs. I don’t scrunch on a solo. I smoothly alter the pitch for subtle effect. This tremolo does that for me in a very nice way. 

To date I have used the Strong Braus guitar on a ton of recordings and find it to be the guitar I go to almost all of the time. It covers a lot of sounds and allows me to think about the song and arrangements rather than wonder if I have the perfect guitar. I think it has done a lot for me. The original intention of using it in the Strong Braus is far removed from what I use it for now and that is fine with me. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Amen Ground by Noah Ascher

The first few chords come easy enough. The story bubbles up from some distant place and each line tries to remove the fog of memory. Each time I sit and let my eyes gaze absently against the wall in front of me I go to that place. It is somewhere between my own set of photographs and something entirely made up. The made up parts feel more real as I get older and the history gets rewritten with ease. It’s not that I have a host of bad memories – far from it. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. It is just that I have lived one life already and if I can take myself somewhere else and tell a different story, that is a plus by me. 
This time around is the second part of the Amen series. The songs hold themselves together in a way that makes me appreciate that I took the time to write and record them when I did. When you walk away from a group of songs and don’t record them soon after they are written the feeling is different. I can feel that these songs are close to the source. I didn’t wait long after writing them to cast them to tape. I’m happy because listening to them now takes me back to that time and I smile at the movies playing in my head. 

Where the gravel meets the road has two stories woven into one. I have vivid memories of walking down gravel roads as a kid. Most gravel roads have plenty of space for a car to pass while two folks chat just off to the side. I think the collective wisdom of the world could be gathered in these roadside chats. From weather to the health and wealth of friends and families a roadside chat could make or break a man. In this case the roadside chat started a relationship between a young man and a young woman. The budding romance idea came from the movie the man in the moon. I had watched the movie and fell in love with the characters and their particular story. I wondered how many relationships in the countless rural towns across America started in a similar fashion. 

Footsteps in the dirt is about a ghost story. The young man in the song sees the ghost of a young woman. No one else has seen her and he tries to tell his mother about it but with no luck. I love the imagery of the lyrics and the gentle flow it has. I remember writing this during an afternoon and really concentrating on the right words. I think you can hear the Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska – influence on this. 

The blue someday I will miss is about a conversation I had with my dad. He told me that when he was a child the sky was a darker, richer blue. In his lifetime he had seen it get gradually lighter in color. That thought struck me and I remember thinking what color will the sky be when I am his age? Taking that as a concept I wove the story in of a man who travels from town to town looking for work. During his time he notices how the sky changes as he moves from place to place.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Vinyl Finds - Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (1971)

I used to get annoyed when I would ask people what kind of music they liked and the response I would get was, “Anything, as long as it is good.”

I get it now. Traveling across genres and picking albums up randomly has given me a greater appreciation for liking good music as opposed to bad music. In a given week I hit my local Goodwill or other donation type store scrounging for vinyl and VHS tapes. To be more specific – I really dig for pretty much any kind of medium – reel to reels, cassettes, 45s. I am a digger and I believe there are tons of things to discover that are amazing but we’ve either forgotten about them or we don’t realize there is a cache of significant art out there waiting to be discovered. 

About a month ago I came across Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s first album titled Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. I am not typically drawn to prog rock. Again – I appreciate what is good and love to explore things I’ve never seen or heard. On this particular dig I grabbed about forty records and through the course of a weekend flipped through the albums indiscriminately. Towards the bottom of the stack the ELP album got thrown on the turntable as I laid down for an afternoon siesta.

On that overcast and dreary afternoon this album struck a chord with me. The first track was a bit aggressive. I don’t know what that low end fuzz like instrument was but damn, it has a life of its own. It is like a beast waking up in the dark.  The second track - Take a Pebble is the perfect doze off song. Letting my mind wander through the different movements was a gift I rarely get listening to music. The last track on Side 1 is proggy but enjoyable. With some background in classical music I don’t mind the musical references and can appreciate the different interludes on this particular track. 

I would have never come across this album if I had not poked through a couple of boxes of .50 cent records. I have essentially quit buying records that are more than a dollar or two. There is enough to discover in these discount bins to last a lifetime. Go forth. Spend .50 cents on a great unknown record. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

VHS Tapes - My new fetish

I have a new fetish. I admit I have a few of them but this one seems to be taking hold.
First I will acknowledge I am a digger, a picker, a junker, but I refuse to be called a packrat. I am not a packrat. Yes I have a lot of things. But I don’t take just anything. I take the stuff I want. And somewhere down the road I will use it. I pride myself on being able to let go of things that are no longer of use to me. I have changed over entire recording studios because they no longer work for me. I had an enormous library of books at one point and one day I felt they were holding me back. Within a week they were all packed and gone. Most were donated. So I refuse to be called a packrat. Packrats are just a hair away from hoarder and I feel sane enough most days to not be a hoarder. 

This latest fetish actually makes sense to me. There are plenty of times I have started down a path and could not tell hide nor hair as to why I was excited about a particularly new path to go down. This time I am digging on VHS tapes. Say what? VHS tapes???? Yep. VHS tapes.
Here’s what I am doing – First there are a ton of movies that have not made it to DVD and I can’t say I was ever a huge fan of the DVD. I grew up with VCRs. We would watch movies six to twelve months after a movie had left the theater. So much time would have passed that when we watched the movie again on VHS – it would be a whole new movie. Nowadays you can actually wait about six weeks and the movie is hitting the Redbox. 

Second there are no more rental stores for VHS or even DVDs / Blue Rays. Remember how you could go to a video store and not be confined to the latest releases? They had a whole library of movies you could choose from – classics, to forgotten movies. Everything was there. Now we don’t have that luxury. It is as if we have chosen to forget our film past. Sometimes I just want to flip through a stack of movies I had forgotten about or didn’t know existed. A rental store allowed for that. 

Third – they are cheap these days. The Goodwills by my crib sell them five for a dollar. As my son pointed out - .20 cents a movie. Hell yeah. And I have yet to come across a bum tape. They all work and the quality is fine. It worked for me in the 80s. Not sure why I shouldn’t accept it now. And the collection is impressive. I have amassed about 300 movies in a two week period. Good movies. Classic movies. Stuff I want to see. Each night I have been able to start a movie before I go to sleep. I get about half way through and guess what – the next night – the tape is in the same place. Crazy talk I tell ya.
Fourth – Film school wanna be. I went to college for music. I had friends who were film buffs and they got me hooked on foreign films. I would occasionally try and grab films from the university library to watch and given the school I attended they would have a pretty good selection of films. At the time the cost for owning these films was high. And at the time there was no Amazon or ebay to find those difficult to find movies. Going back to VHS has allowed me to score a number of films I couldn’t own or didn’t have access to. I told my wife the other day – this is my film school. If I could go back in time – I would probably choose film school over music. Now I can do both.
Lastly I have access to stuff I didn’t know existed and each time I hit up a Goodwill there is no telling what I will come across. I have found a whole series of home movies and other oddball things recorded on VHS. With the advent of Video recorders people started taping everything. As I come across these home movies I am finding plenty of material for future projects. I say it is the gift that keeps on giving. 

As of now I have three VCRs working overtime. Each one cost between six and nine dollars at Goodwill. Do yourself a favor – check out a VHS tape sometime soon.