Sunday, April 13, 2008

The road report: March tour, 2008

That there is two thirds of the Industrial Jazz Group, circa March 29, at around 8:30 PM, high in the hills of Berkeley, a few hours before the final gig of our CD release tour for LEEF.

Back row, L-R: Dan Schnelle (drums), Mike Richardson (bone), Damon Zick (soprano sax), Oliver Newell (bass), Dan Rosenboom (trumpet), yours truly (beer), Gavin Templeton (soprano sax). Front row, L-R: Stephanie Richards (trumpet), Tany Ling (vocals), Jill Knapp (vocals). (House and hospitality for this pic c/o Leila Ruyan.)

Not pictured: Ian Carroll (bone), Kris Tiner... at last! (trumpet), Darren Johnston (trumpet), Evan Francis (alto), Kasey Knudsen (tenor sax), Tom Griesser (bari sax), Gabriel Sundy (bari sax), Paul Perez (bari sax), Brian Walsh (tenor sax), Adam Schroeder (bari).

My deepest thanks to everyone involved in this adventure, onstage and off. In the latter category are Matt Lichtenwalner and Tristan (sorry Tristan I don't know your last name) -- boyfriends of bandmembers who both picked up the slack wherever they saw it lying around -- as well as the folks who helped us get gigs: Jim Romeo (San Diego), Kris Tiner (Bake-town), Phillip Greenlief (Oakland), and Ross Hammond (Sacramento). And big thanks to everyone who loaned us gear (Doug Davis, Greenlief again, Romeo again, Tiner again, the members of Joaquin's Night Train). And more and more thanks to those who housed us, fed us, came to our shows, and bought our CDs.

Yes, I'm talking to you. The IJG loves you.

Leaves on a table

You know things couldn't have gone off without a hitch, though, right?

Here was one of my initial challenges: the delivery date for the packaging of the album -- the neat little Arigato Pak solution to the plastic problem that I have been obsessing about for months -- was, as I should have anticipated, delayed by a few days, which meant that I had to order a rush delivery of 100 pcs. to be shipped to me on the road (they arrived on the second day of the tour).

Still, what would otherwise have been a fairly time-intensive task (folding the damned things into the appropriate shape) was made easier by the willing help of the aforementioned Matt and Tristan, and a few other folks as well. (Thanks, everyone.)

Note 1: Something I noticed only after-the-fact about the white-against-yellow writing on the back of the packaging: it is only truly visible in natural light. Initially, that sort of freaked me out, but now I think it's kind of cool.

Note 2: we have yet to develop out LEEF's little "liner notes and extras" page -- hopefully in the next week or two.

Anyway, LEEF is here! Welcome, LEEF.

Near-nudity at 21 Grand

We crossed a few more thresholds of taste with this tour (but who's keeping score, really?). The anticipated (and long-overdue) return of provocative trombonist Mike Richardson (owner of the fleshy thighs in the above pic, snapped at our Oakland gig) may have sparked a pattern of obscenity in some of my newer pieces... but wherever the impulse came from, we now have a song in which two enormously gifted and classically-trained singers (that would be Jill and Tany) are forced to proclaim, "Dinner at Applebee's / fuck all night / dinner at Applebee's / f-f-f-f-fuck all night."

(And that bit happens shortly after the same singers waggle their middle fingers at the audience, in a spoof of the greatest dance-music cliche of all time, which we render thusly: "Raise your finger in the air / wave it like you just don't care.")

(Oh, yeah. And if you were "lucky," you got to hear the above-referenced new tune -- ridiculously titled "Il Ponderoso / Apropos of Nothing" -- on one of the nights that Mr. Richardson's entire performance costume consisted of a single silver thong.)

Make of it what you will. I certainly wasn't expecting any of this to, uh, go down easily. But I'll be damned if I wasn't drawn into post-show pleasantries by more than one seemingly-conservative soccer Mom type. Did they not hear the lyrics, perhaps? Ah, who cares. Music should be the great unifier, n'est-ce pas?

(We even had one night where Jill apologized to a middle school (?) kid named Josh, who was in the audience -- with his parents (?) -- as she introduced "Fuck the Muck." Josh's smart rejoinder -- "Don't you think I say worse things than that at school?" -- produced an excited chant from the band and the audience ("Josh! Josh! Josh! Josh!"), and the kid was summarily invited to the stage (by Jill) to formally introduce the tune, which he did with remarkable gusto. Thanks, Josh!)

I'm still a great believer in the power of obscenity. Despite the remarkable way jazz has, in some circles, become a signifier of politeness and urbanity (nothing wrong with either of those, mind you), most jazz musicians I know are profoundly, gorgeously foul-mouthed. I suspect that's the norm in the community, in fact. Why not celebrate it?

Or use it as a tool? In a world steeped in deception, layered in mask after mask after mask (so that even the phrase "keeping it real" means anything but), the greatest value may be in the stuff that can actually cut through -- whether sound, or text, or image, or idea. (I'm not saying that we've accomplished anything truly incisive yet in this group. But we're trying, and that's partly where the fun lies, for me.)

Off-stage / Ob-scene. Rear guard / avant-garde. Apollo / Dionysus. These are probably the central tensions (and inspirations) of my artistic life. (Are you surprised that the working title for the next album is The Ballad of In and Out?)

Keeping with the animal theme

"Animal songs. Nothing but animal songs."

Well, not entirely. But close. Lately I've tried to keep my writing "grounded" around a one-page list of "keywords" -- concepts, issues, characters (etc.) that help to give our show some kind of coherence and identity (even if that identity is only fleetingly expressed in lyrics). Yes, one of the keywords is "fuck" (you probably guessed that, right?), but there is also a whole cluster of animal keywords -- "frogs," "bees," "wolves," "goats," "crabs," "chickens," "pigs," and "fish" are all on the list. I don't know what sense to make of this (if there is any). But on some level I'm sure the animal keywords have to do with the fact that I spend my days with a three-and-a-half-year-old, who of course is also fascinated with animals, as most children are.

What was it that Stravinsky said about his music being best understood by children and animals? (And what is it that I wonder from time to time about people losing their fascination with both animals and music as they age?)

Of course, on the negative side of this equation, there is also the underlying theme of every California trip we make -- the inevitable passage through the sprawling expanse of "Cowschwitz" (thanks to Evan Francis for introducing me to that term). I'm not exactly a PETA person, and this surreal hamburger factory is really only about ten minutes out of a six hour journey between LA and the Bay area. Still, the whole thing is not only depressing, but disgusting -- can it be normal to stand around in your own shit all day? -- and its continued existence seems somehow like further evidence of a general decline in western civilization.

Or something like that.

A near-miss in Bakersfield

One of the other challenges this go-round was when one of my guys -- let's call him "Slick" -- nearly disappeared into the wilds of Bakersfield, lured by the siren song of two of the city's native daughters. It made for a little bit of a stressful afternoon the next day, when he was a no-show as we were trying to leave town with enough time to get up to Oakland for another gig. But it also made for a comical comeback when he arrived shortly before downbeat (roughly five hours later) in a rented silver Mustang (I guess silver was one of the official colors for this tour).

You might think I'd be pissed off by this sort of thing, cuz it does happen from time to time when we're on the road. But here's my take: as long as, in the end, everything makes for good music (and without a doubt, "Slick" knows how to make good music), and nobody gets hurt, I'm cool. As Zappa said:

I respect musicians' idiosyncrasies -- they add "texture" to a performance. Musicians tend to generate better "texture" when they get "The Blow Job." Yes, I want them to find that elusive cross between a waitress and an industrial vacuum cleaner.

That about sums it up -- except that I'd use "Blow Job" as a metaphor (cuz different musicians want different things).

Six facts about me

1. I have been (consciously) writing music since I was seven or eight.

2. This year I will be forty.

3. I now have a kid of my own, and a mortgage.

4. I have a lovely wife who "gets" me, and who puts up with my artistic delusions / ambitions. (So the fact that this band is still around is partly her fault.)

5. I have never felt saner in my life, but I have never had more people openly questioning my sanity.

6. If being a musician -- and especially a composer for an original big band -- is an abnormal career aspiration, then as I get older, I get farther and farther away from being able to return to life as a "normal." In some ways, I feel like I am living out this (hackneyed) artist-fantasy in the most bass-ackwards way possible. Instead of having committed myself to music as a vocation in college -- which probably would have been more sensible, but, given my personality, might have burned me out by the time I was thirty -- I actually tried for a while to get into a more "respectable" career (a "real job," if you will), always doing music passionately but surreptitiously, and splitting myself into two incompatible identities. In a way, that was a useful experience, because it engendered, over a period of about ten years, a sense of longing (and resistance-to-normalcy) that simply had to spill over at some point. I guess that's what's happening now.

Getting paid

Wow, these tour blog posts are becoming a little redundant -- there are only so many ways you can say "Hey, that was a great tour, I love the folks in this band, I love the audiences, I can't wait to do it again." All that was true this time too. But my sense is that we've reached a certain plateau of "success": more often than not, we have great crowds, great responses... and lukewarm-to-shitty bread. Once in a while, the bread is better than lukewarm -- but not often enough. If I could only afford to hire a business manager, I might be breaking even (how's that for irony?).

Still, that's fine. For a while. But how wide is this plateau? How long do we have to stay at this level before we can move up to the next one? (And what is the next one, exactly?) Those are really the big questions. Cuz this is very cool, to be sure, but it's still an ever-so-delicate balancing act, made possible only by an absurd dance of nonexistent budgets and overstretched credit cards and less-than-optimal traveling conditions (and so on). That part of it may not always be obvious from the outside. Or at least it seems that way whenever someone finds out what I do, and asks the same initial question: "How do you make it work? You know, like, financially?"

As if! Please, everybody, listen carefully. I do not make this work financially. Maybe I make it work in most other ways. But financially? No sir, not yet.

And there's the rub. Truthfully, one of the things that has kept the group going for so long is the participation of ridiculously talented musicians who also happen to be willing to play in the group for ridiculously low sums of money. Because they like the music, they like the people, and they like the experience. Many of them have told me explicitly that, if it came down to it, they would do IJG gigs for free. Some have even refused to take any money on the nights when we have clearly bombed (thankfully we are bombing a lot less these days).

All of which is flattering beyond belief. Trouble is, it's not enough. The guilt that accompanies dragging these folks from the comfort of their warm beds (or wherever) to head out on an adventure that may or may not help them pay their bills -- well, it's becoming excruciating. That guilt is not going to stop me (at least in part because I'm addicted), but my compulsion to tour doesn't sit well with the fact that the tours aren't producing the kind of cashflow that the project needs (and deserves).

So boy oh boy am I obsessing about the question of "payoff." I need to speed up the slow burn. (And to that end I have some new schemes which I'll be revealing soon...)

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not kvetching. Ah, hell, let's end this with some levity:

And now a series of random shots

Ever wonder what kick-ass percussionists look like while eating breakfast? That's Dan Schnelle and Tatsuya Nakatani (who double-billed with us at Bakersfield, and pretty much floored everybody).

Chalk graffiti at the Fox and Goose. Not sure which list Gavin is at the top of, but I always listen to what the chalk says.

Ian C. catching Z's by the fire. (Didn't I say something about less-than-optimal traveling conditions? That's right, here's one of my guys sleeping on the fucking floor.)

Thank you, thank you, thank you, and goodnight. See you again real soon.


James said...

Beautiful, man...

It's good to be alive.

mrl24 said...

"(And to that end I have some new schemes which I'll be revealing soon...)"

Looking forward to hearing that those schemes are. And of course, as always, if there's any way that I can help in said schemes - well, you know the number.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks, dudes.

Schemes to be revealed...