Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ever Feel Like Starting Over?

Here are the lyrics to every song I've ever performed live as a solo artist. Every so often, I want to set it on fire.

Look at that photo above. Look at it. It's a pile of paper, and on each of the sheets comprising the pile are words, and those words are the lyrics of songs that I've performed live as a solo artist. Some are songs I've written; most are not. Most -- in my subjective opinion -- are good songs. The earliest one in this pile was written by Irving Berlin in 1926 ("Blue Skies"), and the most recent was written in 2017, most likely by me or one of my bandmates in They Stole My Crayon.

It's quite the collection. There are well over 400 songs there. Classic '60s rock by the Beatles, Stones, and Doors. Mellow gold from the '70s by Seals & Crofts, James Taylor, and Harry Chapin. Some '80s pop tunes by Madonna, Elvis Costello, and The Police. Lots of '90s grunge by Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots. There's a ton of alternative and indie music from the '00s and '10s from artists and bands a lot of you have never heard of, like Kurt Vile, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Connan Mockasin, and Midlake. They all have enough value to me that at some point, I chose to learn the songs and perform them in front of people.

That having been said, from time to time, I feel like taking this pile, dousing it with lighter fluid, and throwing a match onto it to watch it turn to ashes.

There's an old saying that goes, "Familiarity breeds contempt." Part of my occasional negative outlook toward these great songs is simply due to the fact that I've done so many of them, over and over, for the past 10+ years (and in some cases since I was a high school student in the mid-80s) that while there's a degree of comfort in being able to perform them with little effort, I can get burned out on them. Example: let's say your favorite meal was filet mignon, garlic mashed potatoes, and asparagus. Now eat that same meal every single night for a month, and tell me how much you'd look forward to tasting something new. You get the idea.

But that's probably not the main reason I am, from time to time, in hate with the music I play.

Comedian Louis C.K. told a story while speaking at a memorial service for George Carlin, and it affected me. He explained that he'd developed a comedy routine over a period of 15 years, and kept doing it over and over, and eventually grew to hate it. At the same time, he was understandably frightened to throw it all away and start fresh. But that's exactly what he did, and it's become his pattern ever since... create new material, hone it over the course of a live tour, have it culminate in the form of a big special, and then... toss it. Even if it was great. Perhaps especially if it was great.

Louis did the same routine for 15 years, and then threw it in the trash. I admire that. It's terrifying, but I know where he was coming from.

You're Going To Throw Away All Of Your Songs???
What are you, nuts? No, of course not. Music is different from comedy, or any other art form for that matter. There's nothing wrong with the songs I've been performing, in some cases for most of my life. But if I have a goal for my live performances, it's going to be to continually add more material, both originals and covers, and keep expanding my repertoire. It's going to be to not give in to the understandable desire to play it safe.

An important note: this has nothing to do with musical styles or genres, or keeping up with "new" music. I could give a shit whether a song was created in 2017 or 1817 or 1317, or any time in between. I have zero concern about trying to sound like whatever is playing on people's Internet streams and car radios right now. If anything, I'm even further removed from that kind of effort. My only inspiration is to stay inspired, and I'd rather accept the nervousness of performing fresh material than face the inevitable burnout of only doing the stuff that's so easy for me to do.

You'll continue to hear the stuff that you enjoy, I promise. But there will also be more and more stuff you haven't heard me do before. You might like some of it, and you might hate other parts of it, but either way, we'll all get to walk that tightrope together. That pile may look big right now, but as far as I'm concerned, I haven't even scratched the surface of what might be possible if I stay open and try out stuff that you'd never imagine some guy with his acoustic guitar turning into an enjoyable and memorable listening experience.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Second Life Music Festival at SL14B (06.23.17)

A huge crowd listens to me performing on an amazing build at SL14B's Second Life Music Fest. Photo by Thea Dee.

It's funny, the way things go.

As Robert Burns once wrote, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." My plans, as of a week ago, were to do four shows in six days. I'm happy to say that I made it through three of them, and each of those was outstanding. And then I awoke today feeling horribly sick, and had to cancel the fourth and final show, which was to be at Elysium City of Templemore. Neither my voice nor -- perhaps more importantly for my kind of show, my energy level -- was nearly up to the task. However, I'm not here to dwell on the one show that didn't happen. Instead, let's talk about yesterday's excellent gig for the Second Life Music Fest at SL14B.

Some background: a couple of years ago, in 2015, I performed at the first official Second Life Music Fest. I found it to be a really cool experience. A couple of months ago, I got a message from Xiola Linden, the lead community manager for Linden Lab. She wanted to know if I'd be interested in performing at this year's event as part of the SL14B festivities.

It's interesting because as most of you know, I'd been performing less in Second Life over the past year or so than any time going back to my start in 2006. The reason was simply that I have limited time to devote to musical activities, and creating my band They Stole My Crayon's debut album had chomped up many of the hours that I could have previously used to do live shows in SL and otherwise. When Xiola sent her invitation, I had to think twice as to whether or not I was a good choice to represent Second Life musical artists at this big show.

Me, performing live at Second Life Music Fest. Photo by Thea Dee.

By happenstance, I'd recently told my manager Maali Beck that we could start gradually ramping up my shows in SL. The band's album was successfully released last year, so I was cool with getting back into playing more frequent SL gigs. Well, who knows why these things happen, but it was shortly after Xiola contacted me that Maali booked some new venues for me, and other things started popping up to the point that I suddenly had four shows in six days lined up. So, any concern I might have had about about my validity as a proper representative of SL music was kind of out the window.

None of this matters, by the way, because I'd accepted Xiola's invitation immediately on the spot, and all that other crap was just floating around my head for awhile.

As you can see from the pictures, the build for the area was outstanding. I really expect nothing less of those folks, but they never fail to impress me. The Music Fest portion of the event was held on their Stage Left build. It was so massive that I barely was able to visualize it in its entirety, but the huge work of art itself was titled "The Guardian", created by artist Walton F. Wainwright (known in SL as Faust Steamer). The stage was perched on top. To get there, they'd set up an interesting teleport mechanism. People rezzed at the bottom of a nearly vertical set of steps, and then would go into a little pool and pop up near the performance area.

"The Guardian" structure at SL14B. You can see the large stage area on top, being dwarfed by the overall structure. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Exactly three minutes after I strummed my first note, an alert went out that we SL musicians enjoy hearing, when we rarely do...


For any non-Second Life people reading this, that message means that the area of Second Life where I was performing was so packed with attendees that it could literally not accommodate another person. Think of it like a server that's hit its limit in data storage. In real life terms, it's the equivalent of a venue selling out and hitting its maximum capacity. For any person to get in at that point, it meant someone else had to leave. My show remained filled to capacity for the entire hour. Much of that is due to the fact that these events are promoted far and wide. The night before, an email blast about the Music Fest had gone out to literally millions of Second Life users, with my name as the headliner for day one. If I couldn't get a maximum crowd under those circumstances, there was no other situation that would be more promising.

Doing my Zak Rock for a big and presumably happy crowd. Photo by Triana Caldera.

The only challenge involved for this show was choosing a set list. It's not as easy as it seems. In total, I've got somewhere in the range of 400 songs that I am comfortable and prepared to perform live as a solo artist. Some of these are originals (both from my solo work and my band), and the rest are covers that span many different genres, eras, and vibes. For an event like this, where people from all areas of the world and all walks of life are represented, I tend to try and meet a number of goals:

1. Play the stuff that I can do well.
2. Make sure to use the opportunity to expose people who haven't heard me before to my (and my band's) original music.
3. Play songs that people are familiar with so they can relate to and enjoy the performance.
4. Don't be afraid to perform some cool music that perhaps most people haven't heard, but might like once they hear it.

It's not easy to hit each of those goals with just 12-13 songs possible in a one hour time slot. Compounding the task was the fact that, disturbingly, I was feeling a scratchiness in my throat not long before I was to start my show, which further removed my confidence that I'd be able to perform at my best level. Had my SL14B Music Fest show been slated for today or tomorrow, there's no way I'd have been able to go on. But since I was apparently just on the verge of getting sick as I obviously am now, I got through the show pretty well.

Second Life Music Festival at SL14B set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Carey (Joni Mitchell)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
After The Goldrush (Neil Young)
Pigs On The Wing - Parts 1 & 2 (Pink Floyd)

One of the great things about playing an event like SL14B is the chance to have a bunch of people who'd never heard me before to listen to my performance. There was a nice, big crowd for the whole show. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Xiola, the enthusiastic lead community manager for Second Life maker Linden Lab, surrounded by my friends and fans. Photo by Thea Dee.

I always enjoy each opportunity to show the world how Second Life remains a remarkable platform for live music performance. Photo by Thea Dee.

Thanks so much to all the people involved in Second Life Music Fest and SL14B, with special mention of the following people who helped support my show!
strum Diesel, Agadir Flanagan, LadyNyah Resident, Isadoradean Rossini, Asimia Heron, Luriel Lykin, Kathleen Blachere, Lampithaler Resident, Triana Caldera, Jennytryit Resident, TheaDee Resident, stage/stream managers CB Axel and Laura Polke, SL14B leads Diana Renoir and Doc Gascoigne, and the amazing Xiola Linden!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Islands of New England (06.21.17)

Enjoying a great crowd made up of great friends at The Islands of New England's "Superhero/Supervillain Night".

Photos for this post courtesy of Triana Caldera, Aurelie Chenaux, and Asimia Heron. Thank you!

Continuing my "June 2017 Mini-Tour" of Second Life, I hit my second stop at The Islands of New England on Wednesday night. It's funny how these things come together. Most of my shows are booked by my manager Maali Beck. While most SL musicians are probably screaming at their management to get them more shows, my instructions to Maali over the past year or so have been the opposite: do NOT overbook me. My life has been way too busy to devote the amount of time and preparation it takes to do live shows properly, and what little time I'd had to spend on music-related activities had mostly been dominated by working on the They Stole My Crayon album.

But now things are mellowing out a bit, and I let Maali know that she could slightly ramp up the number of Second Life shows to which I can commit. That having been said, last night's show at New England came about with a little conversation between friends. Back in May, I was chatting on Facebook with Christine Haiku, who manages the live music events for the venue, and my friend and fellow SL music performer Sassy Nitely. We were reminiscing about some of the many fun shows we've done where Sassy and I play back to back, and decided then and there to schedule another such event. I didn't know at the time that I'd be doing four shows in the same week, but in a way I'm glad... if I'd thought I'd be too busy, I'd have missed what ended up being one of the most fun nights of live music I've experienced in... well, ever.

Superheroes and Supervillains
We decided to make the night a themed event. It's weird for me, because I'm very much a "come as you are" kind of performer. I don't like giving my audience restrictions on what they can do, what they have to wear and so on. That having been said, the crowd was freaking awesome, full of people in outfits depicting Wonder Woman, Deadpool, Iron Man, and many other heroes of the fictional world. After spending some time looking around for an outfit for myself and coming up with jack shit, I put on my handy Star Trek TNG uniform and performed as Captain Jean-Luc Claxtard of the Federation Starship Enterbutt. It worked.

Speaking of butts, I have to relate a little tale. As I looked down from the stage while performing, Sassy was dancing away in an excellent Harley Quinn outfit with its pair of ultra-short shorts. I -- being pretty much unable to filter anything that is coming out of my mouth at any time -- started making lascivious comments about Sassy's ass. This happened three or four times during my show. It's also a sort of tradition for me at New England that if the performer after me is a close friend and I have a minute or two left in my set, I'll improv a little song for them to welcome them to the stage. So, long story short, that's why my last tune of the night is called "Sassy's Ass".

I can tell you, it's every bit as much fun for me being up on the stage as it is when I'm in the audience for a great show like this one.

The Islands of New England is always a great place to perform, mostly because the people who come there really appreciate good times and good live music.

Can you really blame me for being somewhat ass-obsessed at this event?

The Islands of New England set list...
Save It For Later (English Beat)
Something Else (Zak Claxton)
Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell)
Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Starman (David Bowie)
Linger (The Cranberries)
It's Easy Like Walking (The Sadies w/Kurt Vile)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Tea in the Sahara (The Police)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
*Sassy’s Ass (Zak Claxton improv)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL. Probably the last too, in this case.

Big thanks to the excellent crowd who came out the the Zak and Sassy Superhero show, with special kudos to the following folks who helped support my set!
Ericc Arkright, Hogan Baily, Turn Pike, Aely Witte, Triana Caldera, RoxxyyRoller Resident, RansomTalmidge Resident, Asimia Heron, Sesh Kamachi, Triana Caldera, Tyche Szondi, Aurelie Chenaux, TheaDee Resident, my excellent manager Maali Beck, my wonderful and talented friend with the great ass Sassy Nitely, and -- most of all -- the always amazing Christine Haiku for having me back on her stage so many times over many years. Thank you all!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Serenity Gardens (06.19.17)

Standing next to Thea Dee just after wrapping up my show. Photo courtesy of Serenity Gardens.

It was 5:53, my show at Serenity Gardens was starting in about five minutes, and the only people there other than myself were my manager Maali Beck and the two lovely ladies who run the place, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde. As usual, I started worrying about it.

[17:53] Zak Claxton: speaking of people... MAALI WHERE ARE MY PEOPLE?!?!?!
[17:53] Maali Beck: they are COMING!!

And, of course, she was right. You'd think after over ten years of doing shows in the online virtual world of Second Life, I'd have a little more faith that people do come to my shows, and it's almost always more people than I expected or could have predicted. Unlike a real life concert, where people arrive early, mill around, get drinks, and hang out before the musical event starts, people in SL tend to teleport in within seconds of the start of a show... because, why not? As a typical paranoid and oversensitive artist, it can drive one batshit, and nine times out of ten, I convince myself that absolutely no one is coming. And then, I glance up at the end of my first song, and a whole bunch of people are out there applauding and presumably enjoying themselves. Maybe that's something I'll get over someday... but probably not.

That having been said, it was a really nice show at Serenity Gardens last night. It was my second time there, and since I'll be performing every other Monday night for an indeterminate amount of time, hopefully it's indicative of how my shows there will go moving into the future. It really is a lovely spot. Few places in SL have as much focus on foliage as their design theme, and Serenity Gardens is overflowing with beautiful blossoming trees all around. It's a nice and airy outdoor venue. And, like I said last night, it's the people who make the venue, which includes both the management and the audience who comes around. Serenity Gardens has had a good vibe in both aspects each time I've played there so far.

A couple of notes: first, last night's show was the kickoff of my unplanned mini-tour of SL, with shows on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this week. It's been a long time since I've done a bunch of shows in a compact time frame like that, and it's actually pretty cool. Second, my voice has been unusually cooperative lately. It's actually doing what I want it to do, which is weird, because it often has a mind of its own. Granted, that didn't stop me from fucking up a song or two by doing things like juxtaposing the second verse with the first, but even while making the error, the voice sounded pretty damn good. Finally, I decided to do a bit of a theme with my set list, and pulled out an unusual amount of songs from '70s singer-songwriters and rock artists. No one complained. I can tell you that for subsequent shows this week, it will be a completely different group of songs at each of them, so hopefully everyone got their fill of that style, because I'm moving on to other stuff soon enough.

One final note.... I've previously mentioned the "SL Performer Diet". While working out this morning after last night's show, as usual, I dropped about a pound and a half compared to the previous morning. This is literally all the sweat that pours from me while I play live, in SL or otherwise. Of course, it's all water weight, and it will be back by tomorrow as I rehydrate and all that. But it's a real thing. When I talk about being sweaty after a show, it's not a little dampness. It's "shirt soaked through like I just ran a 10K" sweat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Fly Like an Eagle (Steve Miller Band)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pancho & Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
Space Oddity (David Bowie)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin)
Sex & Candy (Marcy Playground)
Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
Help Me (Joni Mitchell)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Behind Blue Eyes (The Who)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

Huge thanks to all who came out to the show, including the following who helped support it. Thank you!
RoxxyyRoller Resident, Christine Haiku, Sassy Nitely, RansomTalmidge Resident, TheaDee Resident, nitesoft Resident, Sesh Kamachi, my wonderful manager Maali Beck, and lovely Serenity ladies Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Serenity Gardens (06.05.17)

Enjoying a cool crowd and a beautiful environment at Serenity Gardens.

Many, many times on this very blog you're looking at right now, I've noted that I enjoy playing at Second Life venues that are new to me. This is still true, though it's a more rare occasion than it once was for me. I perform less live shows overall in recent times, and it's easy to fall into the pattern of playing at familiar old spots where I am comfortable and know what to expect.

What I didn't expect last night for my first show at Serenity Gardens was a good-sized, engaged crowd that included a bunch of my Zakster fans and SL musician friends. Think about it: it's Monday evening. People on the west coast are still at work, or sitting in traffic on their way home. It's a venue that I haven't played before, so my fans aren't necessarily familiar with it. Since the venue was doing a grand re-opening, I also had to assume that they didn't have a steady crowd of regulars who would be populating their dance floor. And yet, despite all that, we managed to have what I consider to be a really good, successful show. I'm booked to perform there bi-weekly, on every other Monday evening, and I'm looking forward to more shows there.

Onstage for the first time at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

The crowd at Serenity Gardens enjoys some mellow Zak tunes. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

Here's a point that some other venues may want to note. I teleported into Serenity Gardens, and like ten seconds later... BAM: performer group tag was provided. BAM: payment of my fee was made. BAM: the venue confirmed that they had my stream info and were all set. I have to say, hats off to the Second Life music venues who are on top of things (which is most of them, really). I didn't have to worry about anything other than playing guitar and singing. Especially at a place I'd never played before, it was highly reassuring for the Serenity staff to handle all the business right away.

At new (to me) places, I like to do a show that a) is representative of the range of stuff I play, and b) not super "out there" in terms of the familiarity I can expect of the audience. This show was good, and I think the songs I chose for the event worked well based on the above criteria. I also had some specific reasons for several songs. I did "Good Morning Good Morning" to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", and "Wonderwall" as a little nod to the folks of Manchester, UK.

Serenity Gardens set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
Carolina in My Mind (James Taylor)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Good Morning Good Morning (The Beatles)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
Wonderwall (Oasis)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)

Huge thanks to all who got to witness me losing my Serenity Gardens virginity! May there be many happy shows there to come. Special thanks to the following who helped support my show!
jlafleur Resident, Maurice Mistwallow, Tyche Szondi, strum Diesel, Valhala Vollmar, Asimia Heron, Jenna Dirval, RansomTalmidge Resident, TheaDee Resident, Meegan Danitz, not4gods Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, my great manager Maali Beck, and Serenity Gardens' awesome staffers Ilsa Wilde and Tilly Rose Wilde!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Artist Focus: Nine Things about Mark Kozelek/Sun Kil Moon

As part of my actual job in my actual life, I write profiles and do interviews of musical artists. I usually don't have a choice as to whom I write about; it's done for my clients, who are the companies who make the instruments and sound gear that the artists use. I've decided to create some profiles on artists and bands that I personally find super interesting, and whom I feel deserve more attention and recognition for what they do. This is one of those.

I don't make many promises about my musical performances; I hate the idea of setting someone up for disappointment. For my typical live show, I mention two things: a) that I'll be performing songs from my solo career and my band They Stole My Crayon, and b) I'll perform interesting covers that people generally don't hear elsewhere. I try and live up to those things. On Sunday May 28, I was doing a show at Templemore in Second Life, a terrific virtual world venue with a crowd of open-minded people. My set included a song called "Carry Me Ohio", one of the better-known tracks by a lesser-known band called Sun Kil Moon. While I played, I was surprised to see an audience member shout out in all-caps text that he loved this band. The next day, when I posted about the show on Facebook, the same person (his name is Garrett, by the way) made a point of commenting, "Mad respect for covering Sun Kil Moon." I don't cover Sun Kil Moon often because I simply can't, and the reasons might become clear as you listen to some examples below.

1. Mark Kozelek = Sun Kil Moon
As is the case for a number of artists, Mark Kozelek records and performs under various names. I'm not sure how he differentiates between what qualifies as a solo album versus one done under the Sun Kil Moon name. Some albums, like 2010's Admiral Fell Promises, have Mark doing all of the singing, songwriting, and instrumental performances, while other albums employ the work of a full band. Apart from Mark, the members of Sun Kil Moon fluctuate between various people with whom he records and/or tours. Mark tends to write all of the band's music and lyrics, unless it's a special project (like when he did his second album Tiny Cities, which only included reinterpretations of Modest Mouse songs for some unknown reason). The band's name, by the way, was inspired by the Korean boxer Sung-kil Moon. Boxing is one of the themes that Mark returns to often.

"Ålesund" from Admiral Fell Promises (2010)

"Carry Me Ohio" from Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003)

2. Mark Doesn't Make It Easy to Be a Fan
Most musical artists/bands these days have things like Facebook pages, or Twitter or Instagram accounts, or some way of allowing fans to quickly and easily feel connected to the band, or share their news, concert dates, photos, or whatever. Mark doesn't seem to use any of that shit. In a way, I find this to be really admirable. All of that image/personality stuff does is take away from the music, and I get the idea that the music is really important to him. In any case, like a number of serious artists, Mark seems to struggle between the necessity of self-promotion to allow his music to generate income versus the desire to remain somewhat anonymous and be allowed to create his art without the trappings of fame.

Another note in this regard: much like Neil Young, it doesn't seem like you know which Mark Kozelek you're going to get when he releases a new recording or you go to see him live. His musical styles of choice are varied, and he often does live versions of songs that are very different compared to his studio recordings. Speaking of live shows, Mark sometimes seems overtly antagonistic to his audiences... another quality he shares with Old Neil.

""I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same"" from Benji (2014)

"Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes" from Benji (2014), live at Pitchfork Music Festival 2014

3. Mark Is From Ohio and Is Around My Age
I didn't have to do much research to know Mark was from Ohio. Ohio gets mentioned in a ton of his songs, in titles and lyrics. Like Mark, I was born in the late 1960s in Ohio. Unlike Mark, I never really lived there past early childhood. That's not this story, though.

"God Bless Ohio" from Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood (2017)

4. Sun Kil Moon Grew from Red House Painters
Mark's first widespread recognition as a musician happened starting in the late 1980s, when his band Red House Painters was playing around the San Francisco area, eventually getting signed to 4AD Records in 1992. Red House Painters almost immediately became a critical success. A number of their albums and songs were noted in a number of "best of" lists. Due to a bunch of label mergers and other factors, Red House Painters found themselves without a record deal, which was probably a tough time for a band that seemed to have all the markings for big success. In 2002, Mark put together the first incarnation of Sun Kil Moon along with his former RHP bandmate Anthony Koutsos and others.

"Katy Song" from Red House Painters' self-titled album (1993)

5. Mark's Songs are Intimate and Story-Like and can be Depressing as Fuck
Some lyricists prefer to invoke nebulous concepts in their songs, allowing the listener to derive their own visions and meanings. Mark doesn't do that, though he's certainly no less poetic than the most analogy-fueled writer. No, Mark tells stories, very specific stories. Listening to one of his songs is often more like watching a movie. You stroll along with Mark through some event in his life, which sounds way too precise and defined to be a fictional invention. Like any writer, Mark explores ranges of emotion in his lyrical content, but overall, his stuff leans into the melancholy more than any other direction. The mood is often deeply introspective, with expressions of guilt and reflections of remorse being common themes.

It's not for everyone, this music. And even for those of us for whom it is, it isn't for all the time. Apart from the lyrics, Mark's intricate yet hypnotically repetitive music compositions are often punctuated by interesting classically-oriented interruptions and segues. Another musical observation: Mark has also -- purposefully, I believe -- altered his approach to singing over the years. He's shown himself to be capably melodic and clear-voiced at times, especially on earlier material; on other songs and albums, his voice is more close to a spoken-word rasp. I like both approaches, and they seem to always fit the feel of the music.

"That Bird Has A Broken Wing" from Among the Leaves (2012)

6. Mark Is An Incredibly Great Guitar Player
I've been playing guitar since I was seven, over 40 years ago, and attended some of the best music schools in the country, and have spent a career peripheral to the music industry. I know very quickly what a highly-trained, highly-practiced player sounds like. Mark Kozelek, as I was completely unsurprised to find out later after becoming familiar with his music, is a well-studied classical guitarist. His instrument of choice is almost always the nylon-string classical guitar. You hear Marks classical background all the time, in small flourishes, in the way he voices chords and intervals... this is not some typical pop/rock guitarist. It also is one of the elements that makes it exceedingly difficult to cover many of his songs. While I have some background in classical guitar, a) I'm really out of practice in the style, b) I don't currently own a performance-worthy nylon-string guitar, and c) I don't even have any fucking nails on my right hand that I could use to approximate his style. Three strikes, and I'm out of being able to play most Sun Kil Moon songs at my live shows. It's probably better that way, frankly. Most of Mark's material is so complex and deeply personal that I have a difficult time doing it justice.

"Half Moon Bay" from Admiral Fell Promises (2010)

7. Mark Releases Music Under His Own Label
In addition to releasing Sun Kil Moon music, Mark's Caldo Verde Records puts out recordings for Mark's solo material (alone and collaborative) as well as artists like Jesu, Kath Bloom, Heirlooms of August, Corrina Repp, and others.

"Hey You Bastards I'm Still Here" from Mark Kozelek & Desertshore (2013)

8. Mark Acts and Seems Really Busy To Me
Mark appears in films occasionally. He was a band member in the 2000 Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, playing the bassist for the fictional band Stillwater. He was also in the films Vanilla Sky and Shopgirl, and played himself in a 2015 film called Youth. I also get the idea that Mark is one of those people who is constantly working, usually on multiple projects at once, and tours (and therefore travels) a lot. I believe his home base for many years is San Francisco, but he always seems to be on the move.

Mark (left) in a scene from Almost Famous (2000), in which he plays Larry Fellows, bassist for Stillwater.

9. I Can't Think Of Any Music Like His
I can definitely pick out some precursor musicians whose songwriting and performance styles are reminiscent of Mark's. As a classical guitarist, he's expressed a love for Andrés Segovia, and my familiarity with that master allows me to hear elements of his style in Mark's playing. When I think about acoustic-centric indie-folk artists whose vibe imbues melancholy, I have to think of people like Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and Leonard Cohen. I have no idea if Mark was actually influenced by any of these musicians; I certainly was, and have since been influenced by Mark as well. That's the way it goes.

But Mark's music, with its melange of vibes and instrumentation and arrangements, is not directly like any other artist I can think of offhand. Perhaps that's one reason it has such a high level of appeal to me. When I hear something that doesn't make me immediately think of something else, that's usually the first thing that draws me in.

"Birds of Film" from Universal Themes (2015), possibly my favorite song of Mark's

Monday, May 29, 2017

Elysium City of Templemore (05.28.17)

Templemore, one of the most impressive designs in all of Second Life. Photo by Kat.

I don't recall how and when I first heard about Luis Lockjaw, the creative genius behind a number of Second Life environments called Templemore, but I do know when I met him in person. It was at the Nashville SL Jam in May 2014, a little over three years ago. There weren't many of us from California who made the trek to Tennessee, and I was surprised that this young-looking dude from Compton had gone all the way there just to hang out. But the more I got to know Luis, the more I became aware that he was the type of person who'd go to the end of the Earth itself to be supportive of his close friends.

It's impossible to describe the level of detail that goes into his Second Life creations. Mere pictures don't do them justice either; the only way to experience them is to immerse yourself by being there in person. His designs have always seemed to go beyond the technological limitations of SL. I'm pretty well versed in the creation of virtual worlds, and to this day I still don't really understand how he does what he does. But it's more than just making things work like he wants them to. Ultimately, he approaches the designs of the Templemore environment the way a fine artist takes his or her brush to a canvas. It's a talent that may not be teachable, in the same way that some musicians seem to be born with a gift that no level of training can imbue. I will tell you one thing that gives Luis an advantage over most SL designers: his real life job has him building and tearing down and rebuilding event settings at the Staples Center here in Los Angeles. One day, he might be assisting in the creation of a stage for an awards show, and the next for a basketball game, and so on. Because of that, I believe that he sees things from a viewpoint that takes him beyond the audience perspective, and beyond that of most people who try and create virtual environments of any kind.

Elysium Theatre, looking amazing. Photo by Kat.

A great-looking build is inspirational for great performances. Photo by Kat.

I've performed at a number of stages and locations under the Templemore umbrella over the past few years. Each of them has been incredible in its own distinctive way. The current incarnation -- Elysium City of Templemore -- is perhaps the coolest one of them all. As an artist, Luis seems to be inspired by the beauty of decay. Textures show signs of rust and wear. You'll see a lightbulb or two that are out. There are cracks and chips meticulously placed on various surfaces. It's not a perfect world that Luis creates; the thing that sets him apart is, rather, the purposeful inclusion of imperfection that so many virtual designers seem to ignore. It's spooky and fascinating, and I love playing there.

It's a rare pleasure for an SL event to be promoted in the way that Templemore can do.

For yesterday's show, being on the Sunday in the middle of a three-day holiday weekend, I didn't have high hopes for a big crowd. I figured most people would be on vacations or recovering from days at the beach or barbecues. Plus, I was the opening act of an evening that included a couple of other really high-quality SL musicians -- Twin Ghost and Loreen Aldrin. And yet, for whatever combination of reasons, I ended up with an excellent audience who seemed to be really engaged in the music and enjoying themselves. It had been over two months since my previous show, and when you don't play on a regular basis in Second Life, you tend to not draw as good crowds. I'm happy to say that we had a great showing of both my Zakster fans and new folks, including a bunch of people who would probably come to Templemore events regardless of who was playing. It was great.

A great crowd in the midst of a holiday weekend. Photo by Kat.

The man behind the amazing environment of Templemore, Luis Lockjaw. Photo by Kat.

One moment that made me laugh happened before the show started. 99% of the time, when I arrive at a venue and get ready to do my show, I simply walk up and jump onto the stage, and then start setting up for my show. But the fact is, there's so much to see at Templemore, I wanted to check out what things looked like backstage, so I went through the side door and walked into a little hallway, and then around back, inspiring the following exchange:

[16:43] Luis Lockjaw: Zak that was so cool
[16:44] Luis Lockjaw: you walked your ass back stage to get on stage
[16:44] Zak Claxton: I did
[16:44] Luis Lockjaw: the only person to ever do that
[16:44] Luis Lockjaw: \o/
[16:44] Zak Claxton: might as well use these amazing designs as they should be

A couple of other notes. Despite coming off of a two-month hiatus, I felt my show was pretty good. I spent a good amount of time over the two days before the show getting my guitar playing and singing voice back into shape, and I think that helped. I also chose a set list that I thought would be complementary toward the vibe of Templemore, and that seemed to work as well. Second, even though I'm a physically fit person who exercises daily, that show kicked my ass, as the good ones tend to do. Not only was I a sweaty mess afterwards, but while hurrying to get my show wrapped up and clear the stage for the next performer, I managed to bash my Takamine guitar directly into my forehead while taking it off. Yay me! It really wasn't that bad of an injury, though I do have a nice little lump there as evidence.

Happy and sweaty right after my show at Templemore. Photo by Kat.

Templemore set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Saved by Zero (The Fixx)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
*Linger (The Cranberries)
Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog)
Swing Low Magellan (Dirty Projectors)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
It's Easy Like Walking (The Sadies w/Kurt Vile)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
How Soon is Now? (The Smiths)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Big thanks to everyone who came out to see my show at Templemore, with special thanks to the following who helped support it!
go2smoky Resident, TwinGhost Ronas, RoxxyyRoller Resident, Robert69 Little, Diana Renoir, Tracy Redangel, Aria Lazuli, Asimia Heron, Aurelie Chenaux, Grace Sixpence, Tyche Szondi, Kat Claxton, Kayliegh Lykin, TheaDee Resident, and the entire staff of Templemore who do such great work, including Bee Blackrain and, of course, Luis Lockjaw.