Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Not everyone likes a minstrel

This wikiHow entry on how to be a minstrel reads a bit like a hastily-dashed off high school homework assignment, and requires some serious editing (well, maybe "serious" is not the right word). But bits of it are very amusing.

I dunno, maybe I'm punchy with a mix-heavy morning. You tell me:

"Be constantly cheering people up. Use your skill with the instrument to sing impromptu songs about people on the street. Sing about their demeanor or clothing and always try and poke fun when possible."

"Not everyone likes a minstrel. You may be asked to leave by a police officer or a member of the community who obviously opposes fun of any manner."

"Always dance."

There's a bland insistence and naivete to this stuff; it's almost charming.

Alright, back to work...

More conceptual art?

The site tells me they're selling this software, but the packaging sure looks like they're selling a sex doll (yes, that link is "work safe," and worth checking out).

Not that I know much about what typical sex doll packaging looks like. (Ahem.)

One of my many questions: is she singing in front of a wall of fire?

And who the hell came up with the name "Vocaloid"? I guess they couldn't have known that it would remind me of a certain Devo song.

UPDATE: This just in: "Sweet Ann" has her own MySpace page. Sounds to me like they forgot to program her to take the cotton out of her mouth before she started singing.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

No fuss, no muss

So an insert for these came in yesterday's mail, and my day was basically ruined.

I mean, what the fuck? Like, are real human babies not already helpless enough? Do we hafta make 'em small enough to fit in the palm of your freakin' hand? If that's not an instance of de-evolution, I don't know what is.

Or maybe it's a way to feel superior and in-control, subtly disguised as an obsession with "cute things." As my wife said, satirically in character as one of these obsessives (I'm paraphrasing): "Oh, look at me! I'm a giant! Look at my itty bitty baby! Haw haw haw!"

Of course, Jeeeezus has to be involved somewhere under all this. If you're bored enough to click over to the website of the lady who insists on unleashing these upon the world, you will be greeted with some churchy doggerel equating sculpture with divine creation. Hoo-boy.

But if there really is a god, I seriously doubt he/she would intentionally make something like this:

And here's a gruesome twosome for ya:

This guy looks a little like Edward G. Robinson. And he's made out of silicone:

Anyway, the insert had a little disclaimer that read "This doll is not a toy; she is a fine collectible to be enjoyed by adult collectors."

Oh really? "Fine" in what sense exactly? "Enjoyed" in what sense exactly?

I mean, we're not talking about wine here, right?

I guess what really creeps me out is that I can't help but wonder if the existence of these things, much like the existence of the child pageant phenomenon, is actually evidence of a deep disgust for real, living, breathing children. A product of these sad, sick times.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Jocko Homo

So here's the "Jocko Homo" video I mentioned in the last post, for those of you who haven't seen it.

Mothersbaugh: "Jocko Homo was one of the first songs I wrote for the band. The whole song was meant to be a theme song for the theory of de-evolution and for Devo, what we were about. It was meant to lay out the story right there. It was a collection of discussions we had where we sat around in Kent after students had been shot, and decided that what we were seeing happening on the planet, when we looked at the news and read the paper, was not evolution but was more appropriately described as de-evolution."

Casale: "We were kind of poetically explaining what it meant to be Devo, and what de-evolution was. We didn't see any evidence that man was the result of some never ending linear progress and everything was getting better. When we were growing up, the magazines would show the world in 1999, and it'd be this beautiful, futuristic, domed city with everybody going around in jets and space-cars. Everybody was fed and everybody was groomed and everybody seemed to have tons of money. It's such a joke, what really happened was: the planet got more and more overrun by population, greater gaps between the rich and the poor, more new diseases, decimation of the environment. It seemed like even though people were getting more 'free' information from television and newspapers, they were actually less informed, less thoughtful, and acting dumber. So we saw de-evolution. The fact that a bad actor could be elected president was more proof to us. Things have just gone downhill from there. We didn't really want it to all be true, instead it looks like de-evolution was clearly real. In retrospect, compared to what's going on today, Reagan looks like a serious guy."

More commentary here.

It's Pavlovian, baby

I must be an absolute basket case for even considering mounting another IJG tour for 07 -- such a thing would be like, what, the third? fourth? fifth trip we've taken this year?

I mean, I've got a semi-idyllic existence going up here -- hanging out with my beautiful family, enjoying the greenery of Portland, writing new music, getting all mixy with the new album -- do I really want to subject myself to the madness and exasperation that inevitably accompany the tour-booking process?

In a very real sense, the answer to this question is a big fat "no." But, alas, like any addict, I remain enthralled by the potential highs that can accompany the all-too-brief 4 or 5 hours we might actually spend on a stage during a week or so of touring. In any case, I keep telling myself to hang on, Sloopy; the next batch of gigs will surely push us into a position where this whole process actually gets a little easier. And if not the next batch, the batch after that for sure. And if not the batch after that for sure...

Ahem. Anyway, this time -- if, as the magic eight ball suggests, all signs really do point to yes -- we'll be exploring new territory in the fabled "rust belt" of Ohio, western PA, Kentucky, and (possibly) West Virginia. (A region about which, I presume, Zappa's delightful "Sun Village" lyric ("It take the paint off your car / And wreck your windshield too / I don't know how the people stand it / But I guess they do") could just as easily have been written.)

Got any venues to recommend, dear reader? If so, let us know!

"Why the rust belt," you ask? Answer: we got invited to do a showcase at (Cincinnati's own) Midpoint Music Festival, which on the surface looks like exactly the sort of indie rock festival some of us upstart jazzers think we need to play if we want to make our art economically (and perhaps culturally) viable.

I usually commit to these things based on a combination of instinct, research, and band voting. This time, however, in addition to all of those things, there was a weird convergence of geography and listening interests. It turns out that July 2007 was the month that I finally got around to checking out the band Devo; a band that, coincidentally enough, emerged (as probably everyone but me already knew) from the Akron, Ohio scene in the seventies.

Let me put this in context -- I have never really considered myself a true fan of the so-called "new wave" -- at least not in the way that someone who came of age during the new wave period ought to have been. Alas, while that particular phenomenon was happening, I more or less ignored it, turning instead to the fifties and sixties for my popular music.

As I got older, and as the new wave receded into history, I allowed myself to make occasional forays into its poppy, punky goodness. And so I have gone through an Elvis Costello period, a Talking Heads period, a Blondie period, and so on. But Devo was always one of those bands that managed to slip through the cracks. This even though I was quite sure that they were worth investigating further -- an opinion based soley on what I thought was the startling originality of the ubiquitous "Whip It" (as good an example of a weird song "crossing over" as I can think of).

Several years ago I tried to address my Devo-less-ness by purchasing Are We Not Men?... and was a little disappointed. I don't know why it didn't click, but it didn't, at least not right away. But I didn't give up, and recently, while hunting for interesting music for Thandie, I hit upon the somewhat misguided notion of getting her a Devo DVD compilation with an intriguinging title: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution. I dunno, I think I was probably expecting something a little more, well, "cute." Turns out Devo videos are anything but cute, and are not exactly the sort of fare you want to run by a three-year-old. I mean, they're funny, but man, are they bleeeaaaak.

Funny and bleak -- one of my favorite combinations! So the DVD that was intended for my daughter ended up as my nightly viewing for about a week. And now it can be told -- maybe I'm being premature, or whatever, but at this moment, I have to say that Devo is one of the most interesting bands I've come across recently.

Here, in no particular order, is a series of observations related to that last point:

1. Turns out Devo was not only from Akron, but they went to Kent State. Turns out they were there when the national guard gunned down several of their fellow students. Turns out (at least according to one report) that they actually knew some of the students who were killed. If any of this is true, I can only imagine that it was a key formative experience for the band -- much like Zappa's getting framed for making a pseudo-pornographic recording, and then getting sent to jail for it. Zappa and Devo -- now those are two artists you won't hear mentioned together very often. But I submit that they have more in common than you might initially think.

2. Exhibit B in that argument: also like Zappa, and unlike many of their other contemporaries, Devo seem to have understood dada's potential as a response to a world that gets more absurd with each passing year. So much of what emerged in popular music in the seventies seemed either to be about pure rage and alienation (metal and punk), or authenticity and narrative (singer-songwriters), or escapism and masturbation -- er, virtuosity (prog-rock), or celebration and the body (disco). Holy cow, I know I'm getting into deep doo-doo making these gross generalizations, but I do think the basic point -- that very few artists turned to dadaist aesthetics, at a time when such aesthetics seemed particularly apt -- is right on. Devo has always had a reputation for being a silly, weird-for-weirdness' sake kind of band (see number 6 below), but their intent, so I am learning, was actually quite subversive.

3. It may be obvious, based on what I have said, that my sudden appreciation of Devo has something to do with seeing them as well as hearing them (note that it was a DVD that hooked me, not a CD). Mothersbaugh's turn as a bouncy, demented professor in the video to "Jocko Homo" (for instance) made that song come alive for me in a way that my initial listening didn't. But I also want to be clear that though the visuals are indeed quite important to the Devo aesthetic, the audio is not insignficant by any stretch. In other words, I think it would be a mistake to overlook Devo's music, however simple and repetitive it might be. This is true on a number of different levels: melodically, texturally, rhythmically...

4. Unpacking the DVD and getting a little backstory on the band really helped, as these things often do, to put my own work and artistic struggles in perspective. Briefly: it took a long time for Devo to hone its act / philosophy / aesthetic, and once they did "get it together," their success was fleeting at best. If their commentary is to believed, they were (like most bands coming up in the age before artists were savvy about such things) fucked every which way by a pretty unsavory cast of characters, including (surprisingly) one Mr. David Bowie. And they continue to be fucked by bands like Korn.

5. Gerald Casale: "Devo's irony and absurdity were always aimed at making people think, and making people realize the random possibilities in a world of chaos. Thereby strengthening the validity of us as a species rather than our self-serving egotistical view of ourselves being at the center and masters of all. It makes you a much more humane person to realize that one degree in temperature in an atmosphere or .2 percent of some chemical over another creates a whole new life form. That's what we were always pointing out, that humans have to stop and realize they don't know what they're talking about."

6. Mark Mothersbaugh: "We were constantly misunderstood by the record company, critics, and everyone around us. Our sense of humor was ironic humor; we were so far out and had such a vocabulary already put together by the time we became public, because we worked for so many years in Akron, just coming up with our own choreography, music, philosophies, politics, wardrobe, the films, everything... our own slang terms. [...] People kept trying to put us in categories and we didn't really fit in with the punks and we didn't fit in with new wave. We didn't party with all the rock and roll people. We didn't take drugs. We didn't do anything that would have really made it easy to figure out what we were about, and the irony in our humor often threw people off from what the message was. They thought, 'oh, they're just kidding,' or, 'they don't take what they're doing seriously.' The record companies thought of us as just clowns and quirky, and they'd put out press releases that would say 'that quirky, zany band.'"

7. I knew that Mothersbaugh had a post-Devo career that involved making music "for the man" -- but I wasn't prepared for the little anecdote he tells in TCTADE: that (once upon a time?) he put subliminal messages in his commercial scores, with the intention of undercutting the very product he was hired to help sell (e.g: a subliminal message of "eat less sugar, kids," in an ad for soda). Outstanding!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Maybe I'm Crazy...

...but this seems like an awful lot of work for very little payoff.

I dunno, I could be mistaken.

Also: how I have missed the word "execrable"! Thank you, David Ocker, for reminding me of its stealthy power.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Live Dirge

I'm all for the cause, of course, but if you really wanted to save the planet, couldn't you at least sign up some halfway decent acts?

(Look, folks, they're doing that "band against a wall" pose. Need I say more?)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

What I did on my summer vacation

So summer is here and the time is right to finish the next IJG record (in production for over a year now). I know I've been dropping all sorts of ludicrous hints as to its concept, character, title, and so on. Here is the latest update:

Shortly after I moved to Portland last September, my friend and longtime recording partner Michael Kramer (responsible for the recording, editing, and mixing of three of our four "official" albums -- Hardcore, City of Angles, and Industrial Jazz a Go Go!) seemed to sense the impracticality of my 6-month plan to commute to LA every few weeks in order to complete the new record (at that point each tune in the current show was on hard drive in some form, but there was a lot of overdubbing -- not to mention editing, mixing, and mastering -- left to be done). Realist that he is, Kramer talked me into getting set up with my own home recording rig. This turned out to be easier than I expected, and after laying out a few hundred bucks I had converted my basement office into a humble-but-functional studio, with the requisite ProTools software, a set of decent monitors, and a few spare hard drives.

And so Ugly Rug Records was reborn.

Backstory: though I have never been a studio obsessive by temperament (among other things, I've always been just a little leery of the way technology can interfere in the creative process), I did catch the home recording bug for the first time back in the late nineties, initially as an expedient to help with a number of film scoring projects I had picked up at the time. "Ugly Rug Records" (named for a brown-orange shag carpet that lined one of the many apartments Daphne and I shared when living in LA) started with a very basic four-track-and-DAT-machine setup -- and in some ways I still miss its simplicity, as well as the kinesthetic rush it inevitably provided (actual knobs and buttons and tapeheads and faders, oh boy!). This was the main contraption used in the creation of the only Jay's Booming Hat album (a lo-fi-ish mess called Gruel -- you can, if you must, hear excerpts (including the original versions of "The Job Song" and "Big Ass Truck") here, though I will probably unleash the entire thing upon the Internet Archive someday).

When I finally did take the full-on digital plunge, it was by way of Steinberg's Cubase program. I got a number of good demos out of that fucker, and concocted a few of the more "experimental" tracks on the first few IJG albums (e.g., "Los Feelies," "Fantasy on Eine," etc.) using it. But once I recognized that Cubase was not going to be the industry standard, and once I started down the time-intensive road of expanding my compositional ambitions from the quintet to bigger configurations, I lost interest in cultivating whatever modest engineering skills I had developed.

So for the last three IJG albums I have mostly contented myself with shaping each recording "from afar," so to speak -- that is, I never got in and actually did any of the engineering moves myself. I have been very lucky to be working with Kramer throughout most of this period -- because we've been recording together for awhile now, and because we have a basic musical simpatico, we developed a shorthand (and sometimes a telepathy) for the recording / editing / mixing process. This shorthand has been immensely valuable, because there are certain things, when dealing with the creation of a musical recording, that are just very difficult (and tedious) to have to explain to another person. And when you're paying for studio time by the hour, you sure as hell don't want to have to rely on a spell-it-all-out-in-detail mode of communication. You want someone at the helm who just gets it.

Of course, even with a good producer/engineer relationship, there are edits or mixing moves that (given a basic familiarity with the technology) are easier for a producer to do him or herself. And hence the brilliance of Kramer's suggestion that I just bite the fucking bullet and get my own rig. I'll admit that, initially, I was a little put off by the learning curve -- I thought it would take forever to get up to speed on a whole new system. But lo and behold: it turns out that several years of watching someone else use ProTools can actually help you learn how to use ProTools! And so much of this has proved to be more intuitive than I anticipated.

Not so intuitive that I feel ready to finish the project entirely solo, of course. I'm having a lot of fun geeking out, but I know my limits, and I'll still be leaving the final mix in Kramer's hands. With any luck, that will be happening in LA sometime in August (at which time I also hope to have a reading session for some of the new IJG charts). But between now and then (so goes the plan), I'll be holed up in my basement here in Portland, madly editing, assembling in-the-ballpark rough mixes, taking care of the few remaining overdubs, and coming up with the "eureka" album sequence and whatever transition pieces are necessary.

It's gonna be a long, hot summer (did I also mention I'm writing a whole new set of material and trying to plan out the band's touring itinerary for the next year or so?)

* * * * *

So what will the new album be like?

First, I should clarify by saying that I'm actually working on a pair of albums -- it's just high time to get all this material (fifteen or sixteen tunes, I think) finished and out into the world, already. (For a brief moment I actually considered releasing a single double album, but who buys those anymore? No, these will be two separate releases, but meant to be understand as a set.)

Before May, there were basically two main sessions I was working from. The first was meticulously tracked (old school rock style) at Kramer's Wolftone Studios. That was a process that began more than a year ago, and as of today is still not completed (there is at least one instrument left to track on most of the tunes). The second was more of a live session done at CalArts with a skeleton crew version of the group, just before I moved to Portland (this session was engineered by the very talented Owen Vallis). The CalArts session too is in need of some overdubbing. In any case, I had been poking at these sessions half-heartedly throughout 07, not exactly sure how they would end up. But I had been assuming the album(s) would be a purely studio effort, with all the clarity and precision that that implies.

Then came the European trip. In the weeks before we left, I did some research and discovered that (for a somewhat pricey fee) I could get our Bimhuis show recorded. I had been wanting to get a good multitrack live recording of the group for some time, and I gambled on the possibility that the excitement of the trip, plus the fact that we had a critical mass of very experienced IJG-ers (and some amazing subs), plus the possibility of a truly receptive audience would all conspire to produce a good performance. You can read the post on that show to get the details on how things actually went, but in short, the group played a mostly fantastic set, much of which, it turns out, is album-worthy. Of course, "IJG live at the Bimhuis!" would have to be a very different release than "IJG Multitracked in the Studio!," the album I had initially been imagining.

So I found myself faced with a bit of a conundrum, now that there were two extant versions of almost all of the tunes. Do I 1. make the studio album, which has the benefit of clarity and precision, or 2. make the live album, which has the benefit of that elusive and magical "live vibe" that jazz fans so crave?

The answer should have been obvious from the start, given my aesthetic interests (and the circumstances of my life in general): hybrid vigor, baby! Stay tuned for the specifics...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Hummingbird, hummingbird...

So my wife (who I will now start calling "Quick Fingers") snapped this bitchen shot of an elusive hummingbird in our yard yesterday. (Click it for the full effect.)

Look at that little dude / dudette! This was probably the only restful moment in his / her entire day.