Saturday, January 10, 2015
Saturday, January 3, 2015
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 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.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Saturday, December 27, 2014
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
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.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
I vividly remember writing songs for the Amen Skies. It had been a rough year and the need to write and record was evident. The title Amen Skies had been floating around for some time. After finishing the Amen House I was working towards a trilogy of albums with the word Amen in the title. It ended up with the Amen House, the Amen Skies, and the Amen Ground. The songs included in this release are the first three songs of the Amen Skies.
Recorded in a bare bones environment I have come to learn that the more tools I have in the studio, the less finished work gets done. If I tell myself I will only write with the guitar and spend the time on actual songwriting then I am usually satisfied with the outcome. That thought head true in this process.
The first song Red Leaves Falling is a meditation on a drive through town in the back of a pickup truck. In my early teens my friends and I had enough free time on weekends to wander in and out of each other’s family lives. We’d spend a Friday night at someone’s house and in the morning we’d find ourselves helping out on someone’s farm or running errands around town. If our own families had asked us to complete such tasks we’d have scoffed at the mere mention of the request and protest for as long as we could get away with it. That same request at a friend’s house was an opportunity to be a part of another family and relish in their appreciation and embracement of us as individuals. To our own families we were the burden of the ages. To another family we were valued resources for a few good hours of work.
Mother Earth is a song about falling in love. Yes, yes I know we have plenty of them floating around. I happen to like this one. I remember meeting my wife for the first time and within a few months taking her out on our first date. It was memorable. I almost turned around within the first half hour and dropped her back off at her dorm. The conversation that almost ended this budding romance was centered on religion and my lack of desire to adhere to anything close to religion. We sorted our differences out fairly quickly and within a couple of years we were married. The first line in the song references that first conversation but in a different way.
#137 is a reference to the number of songs I had written by the time this song came together. I had seen Dave Matthews titling one of his songs with a number and stole the idea. The song itself is about my time at Sally T’s in Old Town St. Peters. I ran an open mic there for a few years and the song is a tribute to all the nights I was fortunate enough to sit and listen to some great musicians school me in the world of songwriting and performance. I believe Sally’s was one of my highlights as a musician. Housed off of main street in the old part of town I swear I saw ghosts in the widows of the buildings across the street. The red neck bars that surrounded Sally’s had patrons that were amused by us freaks and tolerated the noise we made. All in all it was a pretty good way to spend a Friday or Saturday night.