Friday, July 29, 2011

The Majestic (07.28.11)

I've been performing at The Majestic in Second Life every other Thursday at 6PM for the last couple of months now, and despite the challenge of the 6PM time slot in SL (where there seems to be hundreds of different shows happening at once), I'm starting to get a groove rolling. Even though I'm still getting over the tail end of a flu-like illness and didn't have the level of energy I usually exhibit (possibly a good thing, now that I think about it), last night's show was quite decent, and there's an interesting reason why this is so.

Who's In Your Crowd?
I can't speak for all musicians in SL... no one can. It's a highly varied group of individuals, just like musicians in the fleshy world. However, in my experience, having a lively and engaged audience produces the best shows. That doesn't mean the biggest audiences, per se; it means that however many people you have there, that they are talkative, responsive to the songs you're doing, and making the experience fun for everyone. Now, I'm well aware that there are some artists who want to be taken very seriously, and that's fine. Perhaps those folks would be offended by the audience chatting during their songs, or just politely applauding after each tune. But I can't stand SL shows where people are deathly quiet. It makes me think that they're busy checking Facebook instead of being involved in the show.

So, my favorite shows happen when we get a collection of witty people in the house, and then it's a two-way street. The audience entertains me, and I, in turn, am energized to perform better for them. My Zaksters who come to most of my shows all qualify, and there are many others who make shows all the more fun when they pop up.

The lovely EvaMoon Ember. Having my fellow SL musicians in my crowd is always a plus. I also consider many of them as good friends. Photo by Kat.

Xerxes Ninetails (left) with Crap Mariner (right). Two of the kind of people who make shows fun for everyone. Photo by Kat.

Majestic Set List...
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Neil Young)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)
The Weight (The Band)
Furry Sings the Blues (Joni Mitchell)
Tea in the Sahara (The Police)
Perfect Girl (Zak Claxton)
†Sister Golden Hair (America)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
The Worst (Rolling Stones)
Broken Day (Zak Claxton)
Woodstock (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)

†My last performance of "Sister Golden hair" in SL was on January 4, 2009. Coincidentally, it was also at the San Diego City sim. I played this in tribute to Dan Peek, America founding member, who passed away last weekend.

Thanks to everyone who came out to the Majestic, especially those who supported the show! See you back there in a couple of weeks (Aug. 11)!
Diana Renoir, EvaMoon Ember, Crap Mariner, Aurelie Chenaux, TheaDee, Kat Claxton, Xerxes Ninetails, and Majestic hostess Tialicia Muircastle!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Report: Liquid reunion show at Keegan's (07.23.11)

As I previously mentioned, after a four year hiatus, my old rock cover band Liquid decided to have a reunion show, and after a couple of rehearsals to shake the dust off our rock chops, headed over to Keegan's Pub in Torrance, CA on Saturday night.

Sayonara, Amplifier
Upon arrival, the very first thing I was greeted with was a grim portent of possible gig failure. The guitar amp which had worked perfectly and sounded great in our rehearsals had simply died. All that came out of its two 10" speakers was a loud hum. Randy and I took the amp apart and checked the tubes, made sure the connections were set correctly, plugged it back in, and... nothing. Fortunately, we were able to rig together a backup plan. I used the little amp that Randy was supposed to use on the few songs on which he plays guitar, and he plugged directly into the PA. Not the best system, but it would have to do. Once we got all set up, it was passably good, and we got rolling with the Liquid rock!

The Tunes
The set list went back and forth through a couple of revisions, and (as always, it seems) we were tweaking the list while we were onstage due to various reasons. All in all, though, people seemed to like the choice of songs quite a lot.

- Set One: Roadhouse Blues, California Dreaming, Stray Cat Strut, Come Together, Mary Jane's Last Dance, Break on Through, My Own Worst Enemy, Sweet Emotion, Cinnamon Girl.

- Set Two: Vaseline, Man In The Box, Heartbreaker, Custard Pie, Born to Be Wild, A Little Help from My Friends, Black Velvet, Love Me Two Times, The Immigrant Song.

- Set Three: Tush, Purple Haze, Good Times Bad Times, The Real Me, Pinball Wizard, Interstate Love Song, Red House, Fire/Drum Solo, White Rabbit, You Oughta Know, You Got Another Thing Coming, Communication Breakdown.

- Set Four: I Want You To Want Me, Back in the USSR, Hard to Handle, Can't Explain, Everybody Wants You, Jenny (867-5309), Suffragette City, Two Princes, You Really Got Me, Panama, Surrender, Hot for Teacher.

The Fun
All I wanted out of this show was fun, and I got a lot of that. Like, tons of it. Playing for four hours (even with breaks between sets) beat the crap out of me, and I've been moaning and groaning all day today. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Huge thanks to my good friends Randy Harmon, Phil Gilbreth, and Dante Silva for their outstanding musicianship and great personalities... they make it easy for me to look good up there. And even bigger thanks to the folks who came out to Keegan's and saw us tear it up. As I told people last night, it won't be the last time that Liquid rocks the South Bay.

The Video
Here's the "Cliff's Notes" version of the show, with four+ hours boiled down to 16 minutes.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Waking up in a foul mood

I have yet to meet a human being who's in a good mood 100% of the time... at least not one who isn't full of shit. I do often describe myself as a "happy person", and that's no lie. I've managed to get to a point where I am appreciative for the things I have, and have grown as a person to the point where I don't take the little things for granted. On a side note, I get really annoyed when I look through people's Twitter posts or Facebook/Google+ status updates, and it's a steady stream of doom and gloom (often in regard to things that are incredibly trite). I mean, in a world where people die of famine and get jailed and tortured based on political beliefs, is it really justifiable having a fit over a package not arriving when you expected, or a software update not functioning as advertised?

But I digress. I awoke today in what many people would call a shitty mood. I mean, right from the start. Alarm went off, and maybe three milliseconds later, I was unhappy. Why? I have no idea. You would think that it had something to do with some event that happened the day before, and it carried over into the next day. Nope. Yesterday was just fine. Got a lot of work done, had some laughs, played with the new cat. All fine. You might think it was inspired by something that happened overnight, but no; I slept soundly for a solid 7-1/2 hours, and what dreams I could remember in the AM seemed my normal mishmash of imagery. I do have a slight headache and the weather outside is deeply overcast, gray and miserable, but neither of those facts would generally inspire me to snarl at people as I'm tempted to do today.

What To Do?
I tried to shake it off in the shower, which often works. Tried some music, which is sometimes helpful. Tried some coffee, because... well, it's fucking coffee, and I need it regardless. Currently, I'm trying to pressure it out with potassium, in the form of a delicious banana. But nothing, it seems, is working. And now, I have a whole day still ahead of me, and no desire to really do anything, or see anyone, or... well, you get the idea. It's not the best way to spend one of your 29,000 days on the planet.

Everyone, to the best of my knowledge, has days like that. Unexplained and unfocused feelings of gloom. In terms of being grateful for what I have, the huge saving grace is that unlike periods of my life where I've gone through situational depression, I am positive that this won't last long. For people who have to live like that day after day with chronic severe depression, well... it's no wonder what the outcome often is.

It Gets Better
Back in the late '90s, I also used to struggle with anxiety, but the main thing that helped me beat that is the awareness that while it may rear its ugly head now and then, it doesn't last long and then it's gone. I'd start to feel an attack coming on, but instead of letting it spiral out of control, I'd just remind myself that in 10-15 minutes or so, provided that I didn't feed it with negative emotions, it would just dissipate. All I needed to do was to wait it out. Gradually, they stopped coming altogether.

A moody, depressive day is like that, but it usually lasts a little longer. But the result is the same; it eventually goes away. Sometimes you do need to force the process a little, and there are a number of ways to do that (I'm doing one now, as you'll see below):

- Exercise: It usually the last thing you feel like doing when you're down, but guess what? It works on two levels. First, the physical aspect of getting blood flowing, oxygen pumping, and possibly endorphins kicking in will magically make you at least a little better. By the way, I'm the world's biggest hypocrite at this moment, since I couldn't muster the energy to workout yet today. Maybe later.

- Do... something: Doesn't really matter what it is. Write a blog post (hint hint). Do your laundry. Go grocery shopping. Play with a pet. Read an article about something scientific. Play a guitar. Watch a silly video on YouTube. Walk through a park. Even doing something for work that you don't ordinarily equate with being joy-inspiring can help you refocus your thoughts in a more positive direction. In any case, sitting there wallowing about your pitiful self is probably the last thing that will help make it go away.

- Talk to people: This is a double-edged sword, since often, you're not in emotional sync with people around you, and though I hate to say it, sometimes having interaction with someone who is chipper and happy when you're anything but is more annoying than helpful. However, it can be a reminder to you that your current mood is an aberration and that eventually, you get to be the annoyingly happy person again.

- Give yourself a break: You're not perfect. You're a human being who might just get run down every so often. I don't know about you, but I work hard and have a lot of responsibilities and commitments, and I often bite off more than I can actually chew. I handle that well most of the time, but even when I'm not directly aware of it, it tends to build up to the point where my mind and body say, "Okay dude, we've had enough, and we're going to close the gate for awhile." If you can't fight off a moody day using your normal set of tools, perhaps it's time to stop fighting and just let it flow until it goes away.

No Easy Answers
As I said above, I am one lucky bastard: due to whatever combination of brain chemistry and environmental factors I have, I don't suffer from depression very often. In fact, during the time it took me to write this, I'm already coming around a little bit. Not everyone has that ability. Each person is an individual, and it's going to be easier or harder for different people to fight the bad moods that will undoubtedly hit you now and then. I really don't claim to have answers for everyone, and what works for me might not do jack shit for you.

However, the one thing I think I can say universally is that it's better to be proactive about fighting off bad moods, temporary depression, or whatever you want to call it. If you can summon the will and the energy to do something about it, you'll probably feel better than being a passive participant to your mood swings. Easier said than done for some folks, I know. But it's what works for me, most of the time. Hopefully, it'll work for you too.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Crystal Gardens (07.19.11)

A little history lesson is needed to explain the significance of last night's show at Crystal Gardens. I joined Second Life back in 2006, and at the time, had no idea about the possibility of live music in virtual worlds. It didn't take long for me to find people doing their shows, though, and I quickly jumped onboard with my own. However, like most new players in SL, it took awhile before I built up an audience and found cool places where I liked to perform. Sometime in mid-2007, I was doing a show and someone from the audience came up and spoke to me after my set was done. Her name was Sandi Benelli, and it turned out that a) she owned a venue named Crystal Sands, and b) was a big fan of the music I tended to cover then, which included Neil Young and similar acoustic-based artists.

Sandi asked if I was interested in performing at her place (I was), and after my first show there, she booked another... and another. It wasn't long before I was performing every Monday evening at 5PM at Crystal Sands, and one of the fun things about a regular gig is that you get to know the other artists who play around your time slot. I recall Elvis Duffy having the 4PM slot, and Ictus Belford playing after me at 6PM every week. We would do things like perform each other's tunes (forcing the others to scramble and find songs that hadn't been already done), and those nights were almost as fun from a comedy standpoint as they were from that of music performance.

Unfortunately, like everything in life, there were some changes. Sandi wasn't able to sustain the financial obligations in paying so many artists (she was hosting a lot of shows by then), so in late 2008, she had to cut way back, and eliminated the Monday night shows (which, to be honest, was a tough time slot to get good crowds in any case). I certainly understood, and by then had plenty of places where I could play, so I moved on. Like most situations where you're not seeing the same people all the time (like a job change, for instance), I gradually lost touch with Sandi and her gang of friends over the next couple of years.

Sandi Benelli with her RL fiancé Mikal Beaumont.

Back to the Now
As you all know by now, in February I started working with a manager in SL for the first time, the lovely Maali Beck (who has been outstanding). Maali recently attended the Chicago SL Jam, and happened to hang out there with Sandi Benelli, who is from the Chicago area. They spoke and discovered their mutual connection to me, and the next thing I knew, Maali had booked me to play at Sandi's newer (and much nicer, may I add) venue, Crystal Gardens. It seems that Sandi and her man Mikal have an entire island sim there, with a coupe of venues that are very well designed for both performers and audience members alike.

The most fun you can have on a Tuesday night with your clothing on. Photos by Kat.

I played on their Beach Stage, and while we didn't get a massive crowd, the people who were there were very fun, and we had a great time reminiscing about the "old days" (which in SL means just a few years ago). It was great to be back! Some of the songs I chose for this show were purposeful nods to the material I was playing back in 2007/2008.

Crystal Gardens Set List
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Tangerine (Led Zeppelin)
Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts)
Broken Day (Zak Claxton)
Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
Love Hurts (Everly Brothers)
Tribute (Tenacious D)
Heart of Gold (Neil Young)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Crosby, Stills & Nash)

Huge thanks to all who supported my show!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Kitten, Harry Potter & Relay for Life (07.16.11)

I'm ordinarily not one of those, "Hey everyone! It's the weekend! Let's jump up and do lots and lots of things!" type of guys. I'm more like a, "Hey... it's the weekend. Now I don't have to do anything at all" person. Still, the reality on most Saturdays is that I do have things to do, like it or not. While yesterday was indeed a busy weekend day, I'm happy to report that it was chock full of fun.

I Can Has Itty Bitty Kitty?

Blog readers, meet Sneak, the cat who is apparently mine.

My son and his mother (my ex, who I manage to tolerate only for the kid's sake) conspired together, and with no consultation with me, decided to bring a new animal into my home. I finished a show in SL on Thursday night, walked downstairs, and there was this eight-week-old feline in my living room. The only thing that made me less annoyed than I should have been under the circumstances is that a) I do miss having a cat in the house since my buddy Captain went to the Great Litterbox in the Sky in March, and b) this particular little cat seems pretty spunky. The first thing she did was hiss at me, which I took for a good sign.

Side note: I use the pronoun "she" with a high degree of uncertainty. I really have no idea what the gender of this kitten is, but fortunately I won't need a degree in catology to find out. She (or he) has a vet appointment on Monday for shots and all that, so I'll let the experts fill me in. My son, meanwhile, has named the cat "Sneak", so that will work regardless of gender. Saturday morning, we spent a good portion of the early hours finding the cat (who'd gone exploring around the home overnight, naturally), and then dislodging her from behind the bookcase where she'd wandered and gotten stuck.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2: We Approve

Harry and the gang go into badass wizard mode in this final film. Image copyright Warner Bros.

I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan. It would be a little creepy, IMHO, for a 42-year-old man to devote much emotional focus on a story aimed at kids and teenagers. Still, I've admired and respected the universe that J.K. Rowling built with this franchise, and the films have been well made and a fun means of escapism. My ladyfriend Kat, on the other hand, has been a devoted reader of the books, and has been awaiting this final film with high anticipation. Combined with the fact that my son is now old enough to not be frightened by the darker imagery of the series as it's progressed, I looked forward to seeing it as well, and it didn't disappoint. Really enjoyable film, with some very respectable acting performances by much of the great cast.

We saw HP7.2 at the South Bay Galleria AMC theater not far from here, and also took along Kat's sister. It made for a fun day, starting with a food court lunch and culminating with the film, which we all enjoyed. In addition to our cumulative eight thumbs up, it has a 100% positive critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is already the biggest box office opener in history, so we're apparently not alone in enjoying the film. But there wasn't much time afterwards to hang out and discuss what we'd seen, because I needed to get back home and warm up for...

Relay for Life 2011 in SL

We had a fun crowd and did a great show for a very important cause during SL's Relay for Life 2011. Photos by Kat.

I requested to my manager Maali Beck that she make sure I got a slot to perform at this year's main Relay for Life event in SL. I have done dozens of RFL shows in SL over the last four years, but the final event of the year -- the actual relay -- is always an important one for fundraising (and awareness raising). As I've mentioned previously, RFL in SL is every bit as legitimate as the Relay in real life, and raises significant funds for the American Cancer Society... over $350,000 USD so far in 2011 alone.

Our crowd was lively and we had a very fun time despite the seriousness of the cause. A good number of Zaksters, including my lovely Kat, Triana Caldera, Diana Renoir, TheaDee, Horizon Darkstone, and many more turned up for the occasion, and despite my having hurried home and jumping into my show, it went very well.

RFL 2011 Set List
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
Into The Mystic (Van Morrison)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
The Man Who Sold the World (David Bowie)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Shine (Zak Claxton)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Blue Skies (Irving Berlin)
The Right Thing to Do (Carly Simon)
Wonderwall (Oasis)
Who Do You Love (Bo Diddly)

Thanks to all who came out, enjoyed the show, and helped contribute toward fighting cancer! You rule!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Being part of the Second Life Music scene

You may have noticed that other than reports and announcements from my own shows, I don't spend a lot of time talking about the music scene in Second Life here on the Zak Blog. It's not because it's not important to me; it is, very much so. But really, so many other folks do it so well, I didn't think it was necessary to add another voice in a big chorus.

However, as time goes by, there are inevitably more and more people who perform various kinds of music in virtual worlds, and as the size of the community grows, a little of the tight-knit camaraderie has shrunk. It's an inevitable part of the process. If you're in a room with four people, you can hold great conversations and have meaningful interaction with everyone. In an arena with 10,000 people, it's a lot more difficult.

There's no exact number of musicians who perform in SL and other VWs, and of course the number changes constantly as people come and go. In any case, the total numbers in the thousands at this point, though if you boil it down to the folks who play week in and week out, it's probably still a good 500+ musicians. As per my example above, back in 2006, it seemed I knew damn near everyone who played live on a regular basis. Today, I only know a fraction of the people. As I look down the list of live music events, while I still recognize many names, there are many more who I've never heard.

SL musicians Noma Falta and Kelvinblue Oh. Rest in peace, Kevin.

Something happened today that made me aware that it would be nice if there was some way to inspire more interaction and solidarity among the Second Life music performers. I got up and did my usual scan through world news and my social networks, and got hit with the sad news that Kelvinblue Oh (real life name Kevin Navy) had passed away suddenly. Well, I've heard Kevin a number of times, usually in situations where we happened to be playing at the same venue and I was scheduled before or after him. Despite that, and despite liking his music, I never took the time to get to know the guy very well. Had I reached out to him, I'd have said that I really enjoy his guitar playing and singing, and his obvious love of blues music. Now I will never have that opportunity. That's why I thought it might be nice to suggest a few things to my fellow SL musicians -- especially the newer ones -- that might make their experience as part of a community more rich and fulfilling.

Grace McDunnough and I, pretending not to know each other.

Go To Each Other's Shows!
What better way is there to get to know people's music than to hear them play, I ask you? I get particularly happy when I see a fellow SL musician take the time to stop by my show, and it makes me make a mental note to go see them at the next opportunity.

Keep An Open Mind!
There's all kinds of different music in SL from all kinds of different people. Don't be so fast to dismiss a person because you think they are a DJ, or a karaoke singer, or play a style of music you're not really into. Seeing (and hearing) them do their thing may give you some great tips on better ways to execute your own shows in SL.

EvaMoon Ember, Beth Odets, Patrick LaSalle, and Lyndon Heart.

Collaborate With Other SL Artists!
If you see an artist who you particularly like, and feel might be a good fit for your own music, see if they have any interest in collaboration. That might mean having someone play a solo on an upcoming recording of yours, or even teaming up for live performances via stream relay.

It's Not A Competition!
Obviously, we all do compete to a degree in getting people to attend our shows. There are only so many people in world at any given time, and they make choices for their entertainment based on a number of factors. However, the best musicians in SL are those who support each other's efforts. Minimally, you should make sure you know who is playing before and after you at every show, and acknowledge their efforts to your crowd. Quite often, I make sure to recommend to my audience that they go and check out other performers... not only is it the right thing to do, but karma tends to make these small efforts come back to me in a big way.

Max Kleene.

Get To Know SL Musicians In Real Life!
When you're together in a room in the flesh and blood, you can find that strong and long-lasting friendships are built. Over the past few years, more and more people are doing SL Live Jams, where a bunch of musicians and SL music fans in a particular area get together for a few days and jam. In February, I attended an SL Jam in San Diego that was so much fun, I don't have words to describe it. There's a Facebook group set up specifically to organize and discuss various SL Jams... find it here.

EvaMoon Ember, Raspbury Rearwin, Max Kleene, myself, and Lyndon Heart at the San Diego Jam.

Be Part Of Each Other's Social Networks!
Speaking of Facebook, you will find plenty of SL musicians on all of the major social networks. Be a fan of the musicians you enjoy, and interact with them. You may learn more about the cool places to play and special events through that avenue than you will anywhere else. Also, many SL musicians have web sites. A little Google search under their SL names will usually yield useful info.

Blindboy Gumbo.

These are just a few tips... there are many more ways to allow the community of SL musicians to help each other. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

200 Days of Wii Fit Plus

Yup, my Wii let me know this morning that I'd hit my 200th day of doing something other than sitting on my ass everyday.

Actually, that's not quite fair. I've always led a semi-active lifestyle. I tend to do a lot of walking versus driving, which is pretty rare here in the Los Angeles area. Even doing things like playing live music is a massive calorie burner, as is evidenced by the puddle of sweat around me after I finish a particularly good show. However, as I've mentioned several times before (like here), I spent far too much time over the last few years complaining about various aches and pains, and meanwhile my body was starting to show those telltale signs of getting into my 40's... flab accumulation around my waist was a biggie. The longer I waited to do something about it, the worse it was going to get.

Knowing that I didn't have the time to go work out at a gym, the Wii Fit Plus was really designed for people like me. I spend 40-60 minutes each morning doing various yoga, strength training, balance, and other exercises, and it's a great way to start the day. Have I been the perfect Wii user? Nah, of course not. I'm human. There have been days where for various reasons, I had to skip my exercise session. Oddly, though, I find that I really regretted those few days where I missed my workout, so I do try to make sure I get in at least a little exercise each day.

I feel better all around after 200 days of spending my mornings with Mr. Wii, and I've supplemented those sessions with some light use of freeweights as well. I don't have any impressive before/after pictures, and to be honest, it's not immediately apparent that my body is in much better shape than it was before I started working out again. However, I know just by the way I feel that it's making a huge difference, and I certainly now have better muscle tone than I've had since I was in my 20's.

It would be nice if I could get the remaining fat off my waist... there are actually strong abdominal muscles buried under that flab. Still, for being a lazy 42-year-old, I'm not looking half bad. Thanks Wii Fit Plus!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Random Notes (07.11.11)

I have so many different things going on at the moment, it's difficult to adequately articulate any of them. Instead, I thought I'd use the shotgun approach and splatter them all over this one post. Ready?

Personal Hygiene
Look up at the photo on top. I really need to shave. I kind of blew it off all last week for no particular reason. I'll have you know that apart from not having scraped a shard of highly sharpened stainless steel across my face, I am clean and well groomed and smell nice. Don't judge me!

Saturday's Liquid Rehearsal
My former band Liquid (who is reuniting for a one-time show) picked up where we left off a couple of weeks ago with our second (and final) rehearsal before the gig we're doing on Saturday July 23 at Keegan's. I have to stop being surprised that we're a good band. All of us are very experienced musicians, and unlike athletes, our abilities don't diminish with age. Anyway, we continued down our set in mostly alphabetical order, and we also went over some songs with Amanda, our guest-star vocalist. Sounded great, and I'm very excited about the show. Admission is free, and drinks are cheap, so come rock with us!

Are you ready to rock? No, seriously, are you?

Upcoming Second Life Music Events
In addition to the resurrection of my real life music career, I suddenly find myself pretty busy with SL shows. A few highlights:

- Thursday 7/14, 6PM: The Majestic
- Saturday 7/16, 7PM: Relay for Life
- Tuesday 7/19, 5PM: Crystal Gardens
- Thursday 8/18, 6PM: Molaskey's Pub

As usual, all times given are SLT (same as Pacific Time). For SL venue owners who'd like to book me, it's easy: just get in touch with my wonderful manager Maali Beck, and she'll work out the details.

I'm continuing the busiest portion of my life, musically speaking, and loving it.

What Happened to My Shorts?
It's summertime here in the Northern Hemisphere, and I'm lucky enough to live less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean, with the resulting mild temps and all-day sea breeze. Still, it's summer, and it's been warm lately, even here in Redondo Beach where the temps were in the 80s last week. But apparently, almost every pair of short pants I own decided to run away from home. I seems to have just three usable pairs at this point, and one of them may have shrunk to a point of non-wearability (he said, refusing to acknowledge a recent inability to comfortably button size 32 pants).

Anyway, I hereby vow to get some replacement shorts the next time I am near a mall. By doing so, I will probably cause some record cold front to move into Southern California. Mother Nature loves to screw with me, so it's almost guaranteed that whatever season I am prepared for apparel-wise will not deliver the weather I expect.

One of the last surviving pairs. Maybe my other shorts fell through an interdimensional portal of the space-time continuum. It's been known to happen.

Famous Last Words
The date today is 7/11/11. To celebrate, shouldn't I be having a Slurpee and a hot dog that's been spun around under a heatlamp for three days?

Res ipsa loquitur, and mahalo.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Liquid: The Commercial

LA residents: keep Saturday July 23 (7-10pm) circled on your calendar, and come see the one-night-only reunion of Liquid, the South Bay's real rock band! Keegan's Pub, 1434 Marcelina Ave, Torrance, California 90501. DON'T MISS IT!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Audio Argument: Digital vs. Analog

Most of the people who read this blog know me as a guy who strums a guitar and sings, and you're correct. That's what I am, but it's not the only thing I am. I'm also someone's dad. I'm someone's significant other. I'm a guy who owns and operates a small marketing communications company. And while my background and my career has always been integrated with the music world, a good portion of my actual education was in the technical side of audio recording and music production. While I've always been a performing musician -- nearly my entire life -- I also spent a good amount of time on what we call "the other side of the glass", meaning that I've engineered and produced music.

Circa 1993, if you wanted to find me, I'd usually be in a recording studio somewhere. Here I am getting ready to strangle my friend and fellow engineer Mike Gale (who I'm sure deserved it at the time).

As you would imagine, there are entire communities that revolve around the art and science of audio recording, and no single aspect of recording has been as divisive as the argument of "digital versus analog". Even today, some 28 years after the Compact Disc ushered in digital audio to the masses, nothing starts a good 10-page thread on audio forums than someone opining about their preferences and reasons for choosing one over the other. I thought it might be nice to talk about this a little and explain the fast version of why this remains such a hot topic.

1. Analog Sounds Better
"Sounds better" is a stupid thing to write. Listening to music recording is subjective, meaning that what I like might not be what you like. However, without getting into the science behind it, most people prefer the sound of a song that was well recorded on analog tape than those recorded via digital systems, and most people prefer the sound of music being played back on a clean vinyl LP record than from a CD or especially from an MP3 file. Analog simply represents a better approximation of the original sounds being recorded, and there's a warmth and depth to analog that digital recordings fail to completely achieve.

2. Analog Doesn't Sound Better
All this nostalgic talk about analog sounding so much better than digital leaves out one key element: the tangible act of playing back music! Records almost immediately get scratches, and often even the new ones have clicks and pops that happen in the manufacturing process. Cassette tapes were never a good format for listening to music; the noise floor of a cassette meant that when you turned it up during quiet moments, you always heard the hiss of the tape. So while it's great in theory, it's not always great in practice.

Let's face facts: LP records sounded good for awhile, but most eventually ended up like this. The songs on your iPod don't get scratched up.

3. Analog Is Expensive
Whooo boy. Below, you'll see me holding a reel of 2" tape that I used for a 24-track recording back in the early '90s. The machine that I used to record this music was an MCI JH-24, which at the time cost around $50,000. But let's say you don't need the machine; you just need the tape. A reel like the one I'm holding below currently costs about $500. Running at standard speeds, that reel will hold maybe two songs' worth of music. The amount of tape needed for a full album ends up being about $2500 or more. That's fine if you're a wealthy rock star, but for typical people who just want to record, the cost is way too prohibitive.

If tape didn't sound so damn good, this debate would be null and void.

4. Digital Offers More Creative Tools
It's not even debatable. What people can do by recording with digital audio workstations (i.e., computers) is simply amazing. I can copy and paste audio tracks. I can add processing that simply plugs into the recording software I use. I can change the pitch and timing of a performance as needed. While some of these things were possible on analog tape, the process that was required to achieve them was incredibly time consuming, and could ruin an entire recording with one small error (as opposed to hitting the "undo" command when you screw up).

Each year that goes by, more and more creative tools are added to digital recording systems that allow for amazing creative expression and faster workflow.

5. Digital Is Convenient
It would take me pages and pages to explain "the old way" of recording and distributing music. First, you didn't do it. It was a process reserved for musicians/bands that were signed to record labels, who would invest the thousands of dollars it took to go into a recording studio and create singles and albums. Then, the master recording was sent to a plant -- there weren't very many of them -- where albums were pressed and sent to stores. And to sell the music, people had to physically go to the store and buy the album.

Today, a skilled person can make a professionally recorded album in his/her bedroom on a pretty typical computer, and their song can be made available around the world via services like iTunes. My "tape" is the amount of space on my hard drive, and with the price of large drives continuing to dwindle, it's easy to do an entire album on a drive that costs maybe $100. The person buying the music can do so by clicking a mouse and entering a credit card number. While the process of opening the world of professional recording has its downsides (like a lot of people being able to release less-than-spectacular music), I can't help but be in favor of something that democratizes a process that used to be reserved for the wealthy elite.

Even some no-name guy like me can now record their best stuff and offer it for sale alongside the infinitely more famous people on iTunes. None of this would have happened without several levels of revolution in digital audio. By the way, you're welcome to go buy my album right now. You don't even have to keep reading. Seriously, go get it. I'll just wait here.

6. Everyone Listens To Digital Playback Systems Anyway
I'll get yelled at for writing that, but it's really true. How do you listen to music? If you're like 95% of people in 2011, you listen to digital audio downloads like MP3 or AAC files you buy online, or you listen to CDs. Whether it's your iPod, your car stereo, or even the radio, almost every playback system you hear today is digital based. Even with those old records that were recorded in analog before the digital revolution, you are almost certainly listening to newer digital remasters by now.

One good piece of news for analog lovers: due to a couple of different factors, the use of turntables and vinyl LPs has actually had a resurgence over the past 7-8 years, and more artists -- especially indie musicians like myself -- are opting to do runs of record pressings of their new recordings. While I can't justify the cost of doing this for my own music (I don't sell enough albums to break even on it), the idea is constantly tempting. I find that I yearn for the day of hearing the needle plop down on some fresh vinyl and hearing my own recordings come out of the speakers. And I'm not alone; the recent Foo Fighters album Wasting Light was completely recorded on analog tape and is offered in an LP version. The reason for this was that Dave Grohl and his band were adamant that they wanted a rock album that sounded as good as music can be experienced, and I applaud their effort; it was worth it.

Want to hear what rock can sound like when recorded and played back in analog? If you don't have a perfect copy of Led Zeppelin's "Physical Graffiti", try the newest Foo Fighters album "Wasting Light" on a nice turntable.

So, Which One Is Better?
Both... and neither. There's no clear cut winner in this now-old argument, and the act of arguing about it is a massive wate of time. No one is going to be convinced, be it through scientific explanations or evangelizing the subjective sound of one over the other, that the opposite side is correct. The good news in all of this is that while digital audio isn't ever going away, it does continue to evolve and improve, and there may come a point in the not-distant future that audibly, one will be indistinguishable from the other. Until then, as I always say, the most important part of making good music is writing good songs... a much better use of someone's time than arguing about the technological side of things.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Majestic (06.30.11)

As you probably know by now, a couple of weeks ago I started my new regular slot at The Majestic, a fine venue on the San Diego City sim in SL where I hadn't played for the two previous years. It wasn't a very auspicious return; I'd completely forgotten that the 6PM weeknight slot in Second Life is insanely packed with shows. In fact, before my show last night, I took a peek at the other live music events that were scheduled at the same time as mine. Holy crap!

I like many of these artists and the venues where they're playing, but damn! It's hard to try and round up a crowd at the 6PM time slot with all these choices.

That having been said, my second show of my new regular slot at the Majestic ended up being terrific. We didn't have a gigantic crowd, but it was respectable for the 6PM slot... quite a bit bigger than last time, and the folks who were there were engaging and obviously having fun. Really, I don't ask for anything other than that... my audience talking and laughing, and everyone having a good time. It's as important to me that they enjoy the vibe of the show as they do the actual music. Sure, it's nice when I pull off a great performance or two and get my ego stroked by folks who get immersed in the music, but ultimately what it's really all about, especially in SL, is for folks to walk away having had a smile on their face for the last hour, and I don't care what inspires that. Sometimes it's hearing a song they love, but often it's also the banter between my crazy Zakster fans that makes the event worthwhile.

My view. I really think we'll continue building a regular crowd to come see me every other Thursday evening at the Majestic. Fun place, good staff, nice vibe. Show photos by Kat.

Speaking of the music, though... one nice thing about having a big repertoire is that I can go many shows without playing the same songs twice (though I obviously tend to pull out a few of my originals that come up at nearly every show). I also try and constantly add new material, which keeps it interesting both for myself and my fans. We pulled out a new one last night, and also did an original that I'd kept in the drawer for quite some time. In any case, I'm back at the Majestic in two weeks (Thu 7/14 at 6PM), so we'll have a new batch of tunes to try at that show.

The Majestic Set List...
Change (Tears for Fears)
Polly (Nirvana)
Time Never Waits for You (Zak Claxton)
*Into the Mystic (Van Morrison)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Starman (David Bowie)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
I Am the Walrus (Beatles)
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da (The Police)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Black Peter (Grateful Dead)
Soul Kitchen (The Doors)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL. Coincidentally, this was the first time I'd ever performed any Van Morrison song in SL. Pretty weird, huh? I have no idea why this is the case. Van is cool and people love his music.

Huge thanks to everyone who supported my show!
Alchemy Epstein, Uma Carlucci, shoota Waves, Alexis Fairlady, Horizon Darkstone, Triana Caldera, TheaDee, Kat Claxton, my terrific manager Maali Beck, Majestic hostess Tialicia Muircastle, Majestic manager Kalli Birman, and owner Ayesha Lytton!