Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Getting Busy: Upcoming Shows

I tend to contradict myself occasionally, but never in a malicious way. It's usually just a matter of not having thought things through before I open my big mouth (or, as the case usually is these days, having started to type before starting to think).

Anyway, I recently mentioned to some friends that I had no shows scheduled in SL for a full month, and wasn't planning on making any efforts to book any. Why? It's certainly not because I dislike performing in Second Life. I always have enjoyed it since I started over three years ago. It's more that other elements of my life -- work, family, love, and so on -- have been busy, and with the small amount of time I had to dedicate to music, I was interested in using it to develop some of the new songs I'm working on at the moment.

Well, that plan didn't pan out. While I did not go searching for gigs, they came searching for me, and I decided not to start turning them down. Besides, with a recording session coming up, I need to get some experience playing the new songs for live audiences. That helped to refine my last batch of songs from my first album a lot. So the upshot of all this is that my dance card is suddenly full.

SAT 4/3/10, 12PM: Zak Claxton Happy Fun Show #5
This is my live video show that anyone can watch on their computer. I've been doing the show every two weeks, and it's pretty fun for both me and whoever wanders in to check it out.

SUN 4/4/10, 2PM: The Notes Shack
My first show back in SL since March 14. The Notes Shack is always a very mellow place with a cool crowd, so it's the perfect low-pressure place to mark my return to SL after a few weeks off.

WED 4/7/10, 4PM: The Pond (Simulcast on FCMC Radio)
Stream address:
This one is cool. I was contacted by the venue's management since they're starting an all-original evening that's simulcast on FCMC Radio, one of SL's Internet radio stations. If you can't make it to the show in SL, feel free to tune in on your computer regardless. It's a complete hour of my original music, and you can bet I'll be doing at least one of the new ones here. By the way, it's also my first time playing at this venue, and you know I like hitting new places and new people.

SAT 4/10/10, 6PM: Buy Me A Rose
I enjoyed my first show at this venue, and decided a Saturday night gig would be possibly fun. After the last show, I'll probably go crazy with the covers. As usual, we'll all see what happens when it happens (I go with whatever mood I'm in at the moment for a show like this, so I"m often as surprised as you are by what I end up playing).

WED 4/14/10, 12PM: Fibber Magees
Every couple of months or so, Cher Harrington contacts me to see if I can play a mid-day show at Fibber Magees, and I invariably say yes, and with good reason. First, I've had some tremendously fun shows there. Second, the Dublin sim often attracts a European crowd who (due to the time difference) are there in the evening after work. It's a good time and place to gain some new fans, and a fun way to spend my lunch hour here in LA.

SAT 4/17/10, 12PM: Zak Claxton Happy Fun Show #6
Yup, we've looped through a couple of weeks, and it'll be time for Episode 6 of the ZCHFS.

So, there we have it... six opportunities to check out my live shows in the first half of April. Try and see one (or more) if you can. I'll try and make it fun for you. Sounds like a good deal for everyone. Win-win. See you there.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Birds of Redondo

Since this blog sometimes gets a little monotonous, with story after story about me and my music, every so often I like to mix it up a little. Now is one of those times.

I live in a suburb of Los Angeles, CA called Redondo Beach. As the name implies, it's a seaside community, and as such we have a pretty cool collection of fauna that make their habitats here. I enjoy nature a lot, and find inspiration for my songwriting from the sea, the stars, and the animals I see around me. One thing that people tend to overlook here in Redondo is the aviary life that's all around us. Granted, none of it is so spectacular that it would have bird lovers flocking here. They're all pretty common birds that can be found in many places. But I still enjoy them for what they are.

Note: I scavenged the photos below from the web and my personal collection. Thanks to Jennifer Cutler's blog for a few of the sea bird shots.


Brown Pelican
The Brown Pelican is actually the smallest member of the pelican family, but it's still a pretty large and spectacular bird with an 8' wingspan and that huge identifiable beak. Kat and I once saw a few of them flying over us, and she asked if we were being invaded by dragons. You can see the big dudes down around the Redondo Pier throughout the year.

We have at least a couple of different seagull species here: the uber-common Western Gull and the slightly more rare Heermann's Gull. Seagulls are often considered pests, but as far as I'm concerned, they have as much right to be here as we do. Maybe more. You can hear gulls crying outside my window every day. It's definitely one of the "sounds of home" for me.

Night Heron
This is another bird you usually only see when you're right at the edge of the water. There are plenty around the pier. The reason that they're called a Night Heron is they're most active after dark, when they hunt. During the day, it's common to see them standing around the boats in King Harbor, sleeping while standing on one leg.


American Crow
Ah, the crow. No one ever seems to care about crows. But they are smart birds, and there's something pretty eerily cool when you walk up to the park around dusk and see a couple hundred of them standing there, staring at you.

Band-tailed Pigeon/Rock Dove
Yeah, every city has pigeons. Some people think of pigeons as disease and bug-infested flying rats. I can't say I'm much different, but they're birds and they deserve some mention here. By the way, the glamorous-sounding "rock dove" is just your typical city pigeon with a fancy name.


House Finch
These are probably the most talkative birds around my neighborhood. All year long, I hear the distinctive twee-tika-tika-tika-tika-trrrrweeeee! sound every time I step outside. They're cute little guys, but pretty aggressive during mating season, and you can see some spectacular mid-air brawls among these red-headed dudes.

European Starling
Here's another much-maligned bird that's considered a pest. I like them. They make cool sounds. In fact, they mimic other birds, and anything else they hear. My two favorite sounds of theirs include their mechanical chattering, and a hilarious wolf-whistle. Wheee-EEEE-eee!

Black Phoebe
These birds are way cool. I love their swooping flight pattern. They camp out in one place -- a tree branch, a fence post, a railing, whatever -- and then they swoop down acrobatically to grab a bug, then take it back to where they were and much. They can do this for hours. They have a cool little chirp, too.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
These are pretty little guys that tend to stay in trees. I don't see them very often on my block, but they're very common in the tree sections toward the south end of the city, which borders Palos Verdes, where they eat bugs and berries.


Red-Tailed Hawk
The easiest way to tell if there's a hawk around is to wait for teams of crows and gulls, who mob the hawks as they fly by. "Mobbing" is when birds gang up to force a predatory bird to leave an area. But in any case, there's no mistaking the sound of a hawk cry. These hunters fly higher than just about any other bird around here, but when they're a little lower, it's easy to see why they scare the crap out of everything else. They're big, fast, and mean-looking, and it's awesome when they cruise over my home, as they do pretty regularly.

This bird is also known as a Sea Hawk, and we have a good number of them here. Most of them stay right on the water, but these guys are definitely raptors; the curved beak and talons make it clear that they're ready to hunt. The ospreys are easily distinguishable from the other hawks in flight with their solid white underbellies. Our local high school's team name is the Sea Hawks, probably due to the commonality of these birds in the local vicinity.


Anna's Hummingbird
Even after you've seen them a thousand times, it's still a thrill to have one of these little guys hovering around you. They're all over the place around here, year-round. They make an interesting little click sound that's very identifiable once you're familiar with it.


Mitred Conures
Why are there conures in Redondo Beach? Great question. While almost all the birds above are completely native to the area, these tropical birds (a small kind of parrot) are most definitely not. The story I've always heard is that their population started when birds being kept as pets either escaped or were freed by their owners. Slowly, over the past 20 years or so, their population has been growing here in Redondo Beach. In any case, you can't help but notice them; they are super loud when they fly by twice a day (morning and evening), and they stay in a tight flock of maybe 50-75 individuals.

There are certainly more birds that make their homes here, but these are the first that popped into my mind when I started writing today. If you have anything you want to share about the birds of Redondo, feel free to drop me a comment!

Friday, March 26, 2010

What's a Zak Claxton recording session like?

I could sum up for you what a Zak Claxton recording session is like in maybe four bullet points:

• Totally fun
• Super productive
• Creatively fulfilling
• Physically exhausting

But what fun would that be? There are a lot of details in a recording session, but instead of writing 10,000,000 words about it, let’s do this pictorial-style instead.

Get ready, for here I come...
I don’t have a traditional band that gets together and rehearses and stuff like that. Instead, I have a group of friends -- Phil O’Keefe, Bunny Knutson, and Ken Lee -- that are all excellent musicians and music producers, and every so often we get together to record songs that I’ve written. So, to prepare for a session, I send them emails with rough demos and notes about how I envision the vibe of the song will be.

Traveling Riverside Blues...
The studio where I record all my stuff, Sound Sanctuary, is about an hour’s drive east of here, in Riverside, CA. Kat and I get up and leisurely get ourselves ready and collect what I need for the session:

• My acoustic guitar
• My harmonicas and other music accessories
• A change of clothes

After a quick stop at the store for snacks and drinks, we get on the road. If I'm lucky, Kat chauffeurs me rock star-style.

Finding Sanctuary...

We all arrive at the studio at noon, usually with Kat and I pulling up first followed by Ken and Bunny. Phil, of course, is already there; he lives there. First thing we do is put the gear (and snacks/drinks) inside the studio, though (luckily for me), most of the instruments I use for recording are already there.

Communication Breakdown...

I start each session by gathering the troops in the studio lounge and talking with them about what we’re trying to accomplish so everyone is on the same page with the vibe I envision. I also like getting some feedback from them about their ideas for song parts.

During this chat, I usually have my guitar in hand so I can play through various areas of each song and talk about what’s going to happen when we record them.

Feel the rhythm...

The first thing that gets set up are the drums. The way we generally record is as such: once the drums are up and miked and Bunny is at his kit in the live room, I stand near the glass in the control room where I can see him. I make sure I'm in tune, and then we do a couple of runthroughs of the song we’re going to record. Once Bunny feels good about it, we try a take. Important note: we are recording Bunny’s drum parts for posterity here, but even though I’m playing guitar and singing, we will not use that performance on the record. Those are called “scratch tracks”, and I’ll end up overdubbing those tracks later.

Lay it down...

Next, we start overdubbing layer after layer of more tracks on the song. Once we have the drums down, Phil will do a quick submix of the drums since we’ll be playing everything else on top of them (so they’d better be right).

Each song calls for its own arrangement of instruments, but a typical order of tracks (after we get drums) would be as follows.

• Bass
• Rhythm Guitar
• More rhythm/ambient guitar parts
• Other instruments (keyboards, percussion, and so on)
• Lead Vocals
• Harmony/Background Vocals
• Instrument leads

Two a day...

If we’re being productive (and we usually very much are), we’ll get two songs done in a single day of recording. Keep in mind that each session lasts about 14 hours; it’s rare that I get out of the before 2am, and I don’t think we ended any session before midnight.

The way we found works best for this goal is to get all of the rhythm tracks out of the way for both songs. So, after Bunny and I do the first tune with the basic tracks down, we usually start the basic tracks for the second song before we start overdubbing on the first tune. It’s a good way to make sure we capture the most important aspects of both tunes while we have the opportunity with Bunny’s drums already set up and miked.

Break it easy...

Despite wanting to get as much as we can done in the time that we have available, I still am a proponent of frequent breaks while recording. First, it gives your ears a chance to rest. Second, it gives your hands a chance to rest. Third, it gives you a chance to talk about how the song is coming along and make decisions about what’s next with some better objectivity. I usually step outside the studio and bask in the sun for a few minutes between takes, as well as while one of the other guys are putting down their parts.

Recording the recording...
There are tons of great reasons to document your session with photos, video, or both. Kat’s primary duty at the sessions (other than to be my morale booster) is to grab as much footage as she can throughout the day.

Produce, but don’t babysit...
I work with Ken, Phil and Bunny because they’re terrific, intuitive musicians. While I do oversee the recording process and make sure that they know what my vision is, I almost never hover over them while they do their parts. In fact, when they do a take, I’m usually outside the studio, making mental notes about what I’m hearing. But I leave them alone to do their thing, and Phil is in there to make sure the recording gear is working as expected and to have them do as many takes as he thinks we’ll need for the mix.

Pizza Pirates, ahoy...
One of our traditions in recording at Sound Sanctuary is getting our dinner delivered from Pizza Pirates, a little local pizza chain that’s unbelievably yummy and ridiculously cheap. When it gets to be about 8pm and I’ve been playing and singing for eight straight hours, I can’t wait to dive into an extra-large deluxe and cheese bread and all that delicious stuff.

Rough cut...
The last thing we do before calling it a night is have Phil put together a super rough mix of both songs, and give them a listen. It really helps you get excited about what you accomplished when you can hear some immediate results. Though it may be awhile before a more refined mix is ready, you’ll be all the more jazzed about the song when you walk out of the studio with the rough mix still echoing in your head.

The lap of luxury...

I had a couple of sessions where I left the studio in the wee hours of the morning and drove the 70+ miles back home to the beach. Bad mistake, especially when you’re exhausted and there are way too many drunks on the road on a very late Saturday night. More often, Kat and I check into the luxurious Motel 6, about a mile up the road from Phil’s, and crash there until we drive home in the morning (usually after a stop at Denny’s for a huge breakfast).

That's all, folks...
A Zak Claxton session, start to finish. By the way, we've scheduled the very first session for recording some new stuff, presumably for the next album, on May 15, 2010. Should be fun!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My musical instruments (Part 3)

In this third and final part of my series on instruments I use for live performance and recording, we'll take a closer look at the stuff I used in the studio for the creation of my debut album. You can check out part one (my Martin D-18V acoustic guitar) and part two (my Hohner Special 20 harps) of this instrument series if you'd like.

This stuff isn't *my* stuff!
One thing to be aware of: almost all of the instruments I used on the Zak Claxton album don't belong to me, with the exception of the aforementioned Martin guitar and set of harmonicas. Instead, they all belong to Phil O'Keefe, the owner of Sound Sanctuary Recording Studios, where I recorded the album. Why did I use Phil's gear? Simple: his is better than mine! Like a lot of cool studios, Phil keeps a wide variety of instruments on hand, and keeps them in great condition so that they're ready to pick up and play 24/7. In any case, the only things of mine that I brought with me to the session were the Martin, my harps, and myself. Everything else that I played was waiting there for me. Nice, huh?

By the way, you'll note that in some places, you'll see guitars used on parts that seem to be replicated, and it's because they are. I would occasionally use two different guitars to do a rhythm part on a song, and then Phil, in his magical way, would incorporate both into the mix. So, with no further adieu...

Epiphone Limited Edition Les Paul Standard

This is a good place to start, since I probably used this guitar for more songs than any other electric. It's also good so I can make a point here: I am NOT a guitar snob! If a guitar plays well and sounds great, I couldn't care less about what logo is on the headstock. In the case of Phil's Les Paul, it's an Epiphone, which is the lower-cost brand of Gibson. This particular guitar, like many of Phil's, has been set up by Dennis Galuszka, who is a master builder at Fender and an amazing guitar technician in general. I'm not positive, but Phil may have upgraded the stock pickups in the guitar. Regardless of all that, it plays like a dream and sounds exactly how a Les Paul with humbuckers should. Phil's is nice looking too... a cherry sunburst flame top with a creme pickguard and binding.

I used this guitar a lot on the album. Check it out...

- The solo on "Lines on your Eyes"
- Rhythm and lead on "Come Around"
- Rhythm on "This Afternoon"
- My solo on "The Sands of Redondo"
- Rhythm and lead on "Fade Away"
- My solo parts on "Waiting for This"

Epiphone Casino

This is probably Phil's personal favorite guitar, and you can't blame him for this choice. The Casino is a terrific hollowbodied electric that was made famous by a little group called the Beatles; Paul, George, and John all played them at various times. It has P-90 single-coil pickups, and a terrific biting, trebly sound that cuts through anything. Most of the guitar work on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's you hear is via the Casino.

On my album, the Casino really shines for the solo on "This Afternoon". It's also the source of the rhythm parts of "You're Like a Cloud".

Gretsch Pro Jet

I absolutely loved this semi-hollow guitar with mini-humbuckers. It was perfect for what we called "texture guitar", where we'd want something in the back of other stuff that wasn't too obtrusive, but added a lot of depth to the arrangement. On "This Afternoon", it's the Gretsch that I used for the doorbell-like chiming harmonics, using the Bigsby vibrato to slightly detune the notes. The Gretsch was also the source of the pretty solo on "Always Tomorrow". Finally, I used it for an arpeggiated background parts on "Falling Down" and "Fade Away". Great guitar.

Fender Telecaster Special


Ooh, I loved this guitar. Classic Tele sound, smooth as hell neck. Played like butter, thanks to Dennis' expert setup. In the video above, you can see me using it for the rhythm parts of "Lines on Your Eyes". I also used it for rhythm on "Fade Away", and for the electric rhythm at the end of "Waiting for This". I should have used it even more on the album, and probably will on the next one.

Danelectro DC-12

I don't play 12-string guitars very often. They have a very specialized sound that I don't often require. But while we were recording "You're Like a Cloud", Phil put on his co-producer's hat for a moment and asked me to try and do some big open strums under the solo section. Good call, Phil. It came out great. I liked playing this guitar more than I thought I would. Plus, it was blue and sparkly. Hee.

Fender American Standard Stratocaster

What's a rock record without a Strat on it? It's like a day without sunshine. We actually used the Strat pretty sparingly on the album. As time has passed, I've become less of a "Strat Guy", whatever that means. But when it was called for, we didn't hesitate to pick it up. You can hear it on "Thanks Anyway", where there's a single-note line that's sort of a counterpoint to the acoustic rhythm in the song's choruses. But the main place you'll hear the Strat is the lead guitar on "You're Like a Cloud", both for the intro and solo parts, as well as the solo on "Falling Down".

Ibanez SR1100 bass

I consider myself every bit as much of a bass player as I am a guitarist, and have spent plenty of time as a bassist in various bands. We only used one bass on the entire Zak Claxton album: an Ibanez SR1100. I played it direct, using fingers (not a pick), and got some great sounds from it without even trying hard. I know Phil has a great signal chain for bass, but we're not going to get into all the geekdom of the recording process. Anyway, every song on the album features this bass, and it was terrific, and I can't imagine using anything else for the next album either.

So, that's it! You now know everything I played on the album. Feel free to go out and get one of these fine instruments if you like what you hear. Speaking of which, you can listen to snippets of all 11 songs right here at the music area of the Zak site.