Sunday, December 27, 2015

Top 15 Alternative Songs of 2015

Ah, music. How dare we presume to judge this ethereal art of the muse with the basest of subjective opinions from one presumptuous listener? I'm sure there were actually more like 1500 great alt music songs that various people made in 2015 (and that Kat likely bought most of them), but the 15 below managed to grab my attention more than the rest. So, here they are in alphabetical order (since attempting to further rank them would be even sillier). Note that I only included one song per artist; many of their albums should be examined for multiple great tracks. Giddy up.

Andy Gabbard “Fluff”

A member of Cincinnati-based rock band Buffalo Killers, Andy Gabbard reportedly cranked out his entire solo album during an inspired 12-hour session. The result was Fluff, including the title track here. A neat combination of grunge and power pop, its cool melodies and hypnotic chord progression have made it a regular on my new music playlist this year.

Buy on iTunes

Beck “Dreams”

I don't love every piece of music Beck does, but I always pay attention when he puts out new music, because... Beck. "Dreams" was released as a single right at the start of summer, and while it's extremely poppy for my typical tastes, it has tons of hooks and dammit, I'm allowed to enjoy fun music as much as anyone. I'm naming this 2015's "Best Song To Dance To In Your Underwear".

Buy on iTunes

C Duncan “For (Autumn Rebuild)”

Oh man, am I glad I found out about C Duncan recently. He's a youngish guy from Glasgow who is the child of two accomplished classical musicians, and I haven't heard much from him, but it's been impossible to stop playing this tune on repeat over the course of the fall season. I am very much looking forward to any new stuff he puts out in the near future.

Buy on iTunes

Courtney Barnett "Pedestrian at Best"

I really love good debut albums, and I love fun, vibey music. So while I tend to eschew any artist that rock critics seem to universally adore -- almost every critic has this album on their "Best of 2015" list -- Courtney's album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is full of good stuff, particularly this song that helped put her on the map. Plus, she's a cool Aussie chick. What's not to like? If you enjoy this one, check out the rest of the album. It's got a lot of good stuff.

Buy on iTunes

David Bowie "Blackstar"

Trying to explain David Bowie in mere words is a pointless exercise. Take the ten minutes and immerse yourself in his latest work of art. And don't bother trying to explain it to others; why bother? Just listen and thank whatever god you believe in that you live in a world where there's a Bowie.

Buy on iTunes

Deerhunter “Duplex Planet”

Deerhunter creates some very evocative music. Led by main songwriter and frontman Bradford Cox, this band really grabbed my attention with their 2013 album Halcyon Digest. While that probably remains my favorite of theirs, the new album Fading Frontier made almost every list of the year's best for good reason. The songs may be less confrontational and thought-provoking, but they are truly enjoyable. Most people focused on the lead single "Snakeskin" (a surprisingly funky track for Deerhunter), but I've always preferred the more ethereal side of this band. Good stuff.

Buy on iTunes

Here We Go Magic “Ordinary Feeling”

The words "indie band from Brooklyn" are usually a big warning sign to me. I don't get into music for the sake of being a hipster, regardless of what anyone else seems to like. But Here We Go Magic retooled its lineup for the new album Be Small, and I truly enjoy "Ordinary Feeling", a song that uses its airy sparseness to envelop you in a great vibe.

Buy on iTunes

Jib Kidder “Appetites”

Jib Kidder will likely win the award for "artist you have least likely heard of" on my list for 2015, but he's also one you should check out... with a caveat. His voice takes some getting used to, and he tends to process it very heavily, and after about six straight songs of that vocal sound on the album Teaspoon to the Ocean, you might yearn for something a little more organic. That having been said, his psychedelic collage-based songs are terrific, and I seem to have an affinity for people who are both visual and musical artists, as is the case here. Anyway, the guitar playing in the fadeout of "Appetites" is worth the ticket on its own.

Buy on iTunes

Joanna Newsom “Sapokanikan"

Admission: I didn't get Joanna Newsom in the earlier stages of her career. Her voice was too little-girly. I thought she was a poor person's Kate Bush. And of course, this was all my fault for not giving her enough of a deep listen to really get her genius in both lyrical composition and tremendous musicianship. My bad. I made up for it a little bit this year with my repeat listenings of her new album Divers, and especially what she did on "Sapokanikan"... a daring arrangement and production that truly doesn't sound like anything else (which is apparently really hard to do in this day and age).

Buy on iTunes

Kurt Vile “Pretty Pimpin”

Unlike most of the artists listed above, I was already a huge Kurt Vile fan for the last few years, and when I heard that he was working on this album in Joshua Tree at Dave Catching's Rancho de la Luna studio, my fanboy brain nearly exploded. When b’lieve i’m goin down came out this fall, it didn't disappoint; a lot of critics feel it's his best effort ever, and as I continue to immerse myself in it, I'd be hard-pressed to disagree (though my love of his last album Wakin on a Pretty Daze is still pretty overpowering). Kurt is pretty typical of the musician I tend to like; pretty weird, rather awkward, and seemingly not able to express himself very well until you put a guitar in his hand. But the moment I heard "Pretty Pimpin", I knew this album would be among my favorites of the year.

Buy on iTunes

Martin Courtney “Northern Highway”

In case you're not as hip as me (and let's face it, few are), you might not know that we're in the midst of a massive trend toward retro sounds. That's hardly unusual, but the way many bands are going about it shows a massive dedication toward the authenticity of the songwriting, instrumentation, and production to the point where many songs that came out in 2015 are sonically indistinguishable from those that debuted in 1965, or 1973, or thereabouts. I find much of this music contrived... a little too purposeful of an homage to be considered innovative. But Martin Courtney, who is also known as the frontman of New Jersey-based Real Estate, created his solo album Many Moons with the opposite effect. The songs may sound like an unearthed treasure trove of unreleased tunes by the Byrds, but there's a feeling of honesty in the vibe, and I can't help but enjoy it.

Buy on iTunes

Outfit “On the Water, on the Way”

Based in Liverpool, Outfit is one of the other bands on this list that you probably haven't heard of. I wouldn't have either, except for the fact that I go out of my way to find obscure bands for cool sounds, thanks to online resources like Amoeba Music. Not everything this band does connects with me in a big way, but this song from their album Slowness has a cold feel but employs a great progression that sticks with you after the last synthesized note trails away.

Buy on iTunes

Pixx “Fall In”

If I had to pick a favorite newcomer for 2015, there's no doubt in my mind that it's Pixx, a 19-year-old woman named Hannah Rodgers from the countryside south of London. She's only released an EP thus far and is working on her first full-length album, but it's mind boggling that her music has the depth it shows from someone so young. And i've already planned on stealing the amazing vibrato vocal effect she employs, so keep an ear open for that on some upcoming tune of mine, eventually.

Buy on iTunes

Unknown Mortal Orchestra “Necessary Evil”

Do I like UMO's 2015 album Multi-Love as much as I went completely nuts for their 2013 album II? No, but I'd be hard pressed to do so, and this album has plenty of great stuff. First, the expansion to being a four-piece band with the addition of keyboardist Quincy McCrary allowed Ruban Nielson to spread his arrangements out a bit, and the vibe is still very cool. Definitely a more danceable album with tracks like "Can't Keep Checking My Phone", my personal pick of "Necessary Evil" has plenty of funk while still being chock full o' the fuzzy neo-psych that attracted me to UMO in the first place.

Buy on iTunes

Wilco “Random Name Generator”

According to Jeff Tweedy, he had no idea that a new installment in the "Star Wars" film franchise was even coming out this year when he named Wilco's latest album. And then, with no fanfare (or any pre-announcement at all, heh heh), the album came out... and was free. I find Star Wars to be a fun album, with the typical vaccinations between experimental rock and Americana-tinged songs that are the hallmark of any Wilco album. I picked "Random Name Generator" from Star Wars, but give the whole album a listen and choose your own favorite.

Buy on iTunes

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Benefit for Brandy (12.13.15)

One of the best aspects of the SL music scene is how willing we are to help out one of our own when needed. Photo by Kat.

One of the downsides of not having as much time as I'd like to perform in Second Life is the relative lack of blog posts I've been doing as a result. Instead of just telling you about yesterday's successful fundraising show for my friend Brandy Maltas, I should probably fill you in on some other goings on.

1. It's The Most Stressful Time Of The Year
I suppose most people get stressed out around the holidays for reasons that are different than mine. As I'm sure I've mentioned plenty of times before, I work in the musical instrument and professional audio industry, and our biggest event of the year is called the NAMM Show. It's every January, and for people like me, it requires a whole lot of work to prepare for. It's almost laughable how much I have to work in November, December, and early January to make sure my clients are prepared for the show. Like, 14-hour workdays are very normal. If you're in my industry and looking for sympathy about being insane in December, you're in the wrong place.

2. And The Band Played On
Time and tide, they say, wait for no man. Well, neither does music. It keeps going on whether you choose to remain involved or not. In that regard, my band They Stole My Crayon has a few things happening. Our music is being mixed by our Canadian godlike engineer Spencer Crewe. Meanwhile, last week, we started on a cover recording of a song by Eagles of Death Metal. No, we're usually not a cover band, but this is for a good reason. EODM requested for people to cover their song "I Love You All The Time" so that any sales of the cover could go toward the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks. You might already be aware that EODM was onstage at the Bataclan when the horrible event happened. Anyway, in true Crayon fashion, we weren't about to do a faithful rendition of their original tune. It started with Bunny analyzing the song and turning it into a slower, minor key version. After that, I went to town on an arrangement of the song which came out about a million times better than I would have expected. We're still making additions and tweaks, but by the end of next weekend, we'd like to have it wrapped up. More to come on this topic.

3. Down With The Sickness
It's been a rough couple of weeks among those near and dear to me. Kat had been dealing with a very bad tooth for quite some time, and finally went to get it checked out... way too late to save the tooth. So, she had to have it pulled, which is never fun. Immediately thereafter, she came down with the same cold that seems like 85% of Los Angeles has had recently. And then, it being the season of giving, she gave it to my son and I. There's nothing more lovely than working from 7AM to 11PM for days on end while not being able to breathe and generally feeling like shit. Anyway, the cold is on its way out, but in the meantime, I have that terrible leftover cough. Up until Sunday morning, in fact, I wasn't at all sure I'd be able to perform for the benefit show that had been scheduled for that afternoon. And that brings us to...

A Benefit for Brandy
Brandy Maltas -- also known as Kalli Birman in SL -- is a cool lady. I didn't know her very well until around 2010, when the San Diego SL Jam was being put together. At the time, she was managing a popular SL performer, and I had concerns that the jam was going to become some showcase for that artist, which was not something I was interested in attending. I actually called her at the time and we spoke, and I found that she seemed like a very straightforward and honest person... something I always appreciate. She reassured me that my fears were unfounded, and the Jam -- the first I attended -- turned out to be really fun. Since that time, we've gotten to know each other better, and I think it's safe to say that our respect for each other goes both ways. I'm a no-bullshit kinda guy myself, after all.

It bummed me out when I first found out that Brandy had been diagnosed with cancer. She's a single mom and doesn't have all the resources that some other folks might have in that dire situation. But I was extremely happy and relieved to find out that after her various radiation and chemo and surgical treatments, her cancer seemed to be in remission. Then, not very long ago, she got the news that no one wants: her cancer had spread to other parts of her body. Without going into detail, it's a serious situation, and I was wanting to try and do something to help her. When I found out that her friend Ayesha Lytton was arranging a series of benefit shows to help her out, I was ready to jump in immediately.

A very pretty location for the show, courtesy of Ayesha Lytton. Photo by Kat.

Brandy with her... ferret? Photo by Kat.

We didn't get a huge crowd, but those who came were supportive and helpful to the cause. Photo by Kat.

Of course, life being what it is, I was barely able to croak a sound with my cold-ravaged voice even the day before the show. It was a legitimate concern that I wouldn't be able to sing at all, and that led me to start thinking through how I might be able to do some kind of all-instrumental show. I'm a good guitarist who could indeed pull that off if required, but SL audiences aren't generally known for appreciating live music shows without singing. But then, for whatever series of random circumstances and luck, I got up on Sunday and found that I was at least capable of getting some sounds out of my larynx. It wasn't the best singing performance I'd ever done by a long shot, but I was at least able to do a show that would work under the circumstances.

We had a decent crowd... not as big as I'd have liked, but it still served the purpose of the event, and I'm pretty sure we did pretty well in terms of raising funds for Brandy, which was the only reason we were there. So, that worked out, and I felt good that it did.

Brandy Benefit set list...
Shame Shamber (Kurt Vile)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Cat's In The Cradle (Harry Chapin)
Friday I'm In Love (The Cure)
The Waiting Boy (Zak Claxton)
Our Lips Are Sealed (Go-Go's)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Do They Know It's Christmastime? (Band Aid)
Walk On the Wild Side (Lou Reed)

Many thanks to everyone who is helping Brandy through this difficult time, especially all who came to see/hear me perform yesterday!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Islands of New England (11.23.15)

This is what musicians like to see from the stage... a lot of people enjoying themselves. Photo by Triana.

Each time I write a report about my increasingly rare live music shows in Second Life, I'm never completely sure if it's going to be my last one. Don't get me wrong; I love performing in SL, and performing in general. And my shows have been really, really good in recent times. I have no intention of leaving the SL music scene, nor have any reason to do so. But as I look at my current calendar of shows, I literally have nothing booked on my schedule. I've spoken before about the reasons for this. A person can't have everything in life, and when I decide to dedicate my musical time to wrapping up the album for my band They Stole My Crayon, or need to spend time on work and family responsibilities, or choose to only play at venues that directly compensate their artists, those are my choices. Time is limited in life, and at some point, every person makes decisions to prioritize some aspect of their lives over others.

But I'm pretty sure that I will continue playing live in SL, and I could only be so lucky if each show I do comes close to last night's performance at The Islands of New England. Even before I'd started the show, a bunch of very cool musically-related things had happened that day. I got a lot of great feedback on my new song, "The Waiting Boy", including a very positive response from Nicholas Stevenson, a UK-based musician whose work I respect in a big way, and my musical friend Lyndon Heart, who immediately wanted to learn and cover the song. I'm thrilled that a song that came together so quickly was met with a plethora of excellent reactions, and it really goes to show you that there's almost no corollary between the amount of time/effort that goes into creating a song versus how much people like or dislike it.

The Islands of New England seems to be a place where people really appreciate well-performed live music. Photo by Triana.

So, riding high on those good vibes, I got another reason to smile when, after I sent out a notice about my upcoming show that evening, it got retweeted by the official Second Life Twitter account. I can't say for sure, but the rather large crowd I pulled in for the show just might have had something to do with the notice going out to 44,000 people in that way. Even though SL was acting up a bit and people were having some trouble logging in, the venue filled up pretty quickly and I was very happy not only to be playing to a lot of people, but to a great combination of people who were friends/fans as well as folks who hadn't heard me before, and seemed to be enjoying themselves. That's a great feeling for any musician.

I never complain about the size of my crowd -- it's the quality, not the quantity that matters -- but having 44,000 people get this Tweet via the SL feed didn't suck in any way.

The show itself was about as good as any I've ever done (and better than many of them). Without consciously going in this specific direction, the vibe of my recent shows has been more serious, with slower songs and a focus on the song itself, rather than the spazzy-ass performance. I don't mind being the silly, wacky, fun performer guy, but I also like being thought of as someone capable of delivering music in a serious, thoughtful way (while still having a pretty damn good time up there on stage). I chose this show to do my new song live for the first time, and although it will get smoother as I get more used to playing it, the debut went fine and was well received. One other note: the folks who run TIONE smartly booked my friend Sassy Nitely to perform after me, and I really enjoyed her set. She's been stepping up her game as a performer, and it's a good feeling to recognize the musical skills of people you truly like.

TIONE set list...
America (Simon and Garfunkel)
Don't Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
Again (They Stole My Crayon)
*The Waiting Boy (Zak Claxton)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
†Walk On the Ocean (Toad the Wet Sprocket)
Everlong (Foo Fighters)
Underwater Underground (They Stole My Crayon)
It's Choade My Dear (Connan Mockasin)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.
†I've only played this song once before, it seems, in November 2011. It's a fine song, but the main reason I played it at this show was that so many people kept drawing comparisons between my new song and the vibe of this band, I felt compelled to revisit one of their most well-known tunes.

So many thanks going out to the people who took some time out of their day and came to the show at New England last night, especially the following who helped support the show!
BAT8997 Resident, Alltra Violet, Lizzy Nightfire, Triana Caldera, LolaGoetz Resident, RansomTalmidge Resident, Mafia Citron, Eli Schlegal, chizay Bluebird, Richy Nervous, Sassy Nitely, Barbara Mixemup, Celeste Ewing, my always-awesome manager Maali Beck, and TIONE's host Sesh Kamachi and fantastic events manager Christine Haiku!

Monday, November 23, 2015

New music: "The Waiting Boy"

I really love my weekends. Like the majority of people who are reading this (yeah, you), I work pretty hard from Monday through Friday, and while I'm past the point of needing to go out to clubs and parties and such to enjoy my free time, I really require those couple of days each week to shut down my responsible brain and get some relaxing chill time in my life. This particular weekend, I had nothing specific on the agenda other than to kick back with my lady.

But as they say about the best laid plans of mice and men, something happened to change that scenario. I picked up my guitar and my hands started doing things they hadn't previously done. Side note: I have no idea how to write a song. The only way I've ever been able to do it is to try and not play the guitar while I have the guitar in my hands while playing it. If I try, nothing happens. It's the cruel irony of being a creative person. Anyway, I strummed a few chords, and started humming along with something that seemed to be a melody. Then I said to Kat, "I think I'll do a little work on music," and fired up the computer software that allows me to record things. I started layering tracks of drums, acoustic and electric guitars, and bass. It slowly started becoming an actual song... minus any singing, for the moment.

By Saturday night, I had most of the music done. On Sunday morning, the in-progress tune was still very much in my head when I awoke. After a bit of back-and-forth in my own brain about what the song was about, it came to me in a flash that lasted about three seconds, which was fortunately enough for me to start writing little phrases and thoughts. By mid-afternoon, it was done, and I recorded two tracks of myself singing. Finally, I added a rather understated organ solo, and... well that was all. No tweaking, no messing around, no second-guessing myself. I did a mix of the tracks very quickly, again without giving it much thought, and then bounced the song down to an MP3 file and uploaded it to SoundCloud, which you can hear above.

So... that's all, I guess? I've had songs that I've worked on for years to vary degrees of success, and songs like "The Waiting Boy" which were fully realized in less than a day. Note that I still consider this to be a demo... I'd like to refine certain aspects of the tune. But the final version should sound pretty similar to where it's at right now, and you can expect it on the next Zak Claxton album, whenever I get around to making that. For the time being, I'm happy to be having the first new original solo tune that I've been able to share in almost six years.

Feel free to let me know what you think by commenting here or on the SoundCloud page. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Joshua Tree Trip (11.12.15 - 11.15.15)

Anyone who knows me even remotely well is probably aware of a few things:

1. I write and play music.
2. I cook and eat food.
3. I love the Mojave Desert.

The breathtaking view from our backyard at Rancho Rincon. Photo by Jess.

For this entry, let's focus on that third thing. My earliest trips to the desert happened as a Boy Scout. We had camping trips, hikes, and bike journeys through that magical place when I was a child, and then as a teenager in the later high school years, I'd accompany my friends to that area for various kinds of shenanigans with details that probably shouldn't be documented in any form. But from then (in the mid/late 80s) all the way up until 2010, I somehow forgot that the desert was a special place to me. No wonder I went through some rough mental/emotional times during that period.

But in fall of 2010, my ladyfriend Kat and I were looking for a vacation spot to visit together that didn't involve long plane flights or exorbitant costs. Living in Southern California, there are many place to choose from within a half-day's driving distance. Kat had been a huge fan of "desert rock", the sub-genre of music also known as "stoner rock" that came from (or was inspired by) bands and musicians living in the desert communities. I believe that was one of the main reasons that we decided to visit Joshua Tree in October of that year.

From the moment that she and I pulled off Highway 62 and started heading deeper and deeper into the land of yucca trees and coyotes, we were hooked. She fell in love with JT for the first time, while my fascination with the area was immediately rekindled. In the five years since then, we've been back again and again. We took our friend Jess for the first time in June 2011, and then took our pal and bandmate Bunny along in June 2012. You'd think that we'd had enough of the place by then, but no; we again had Jess join us in March 2013. Later that same year, in October, Kat and I went out there only to have the federal government shut down the day before our trip (which still was great, even without being able to visit the National Park). In June 2014, we again visited with Bunny, and Kat took her mom there (without me, being busy with work at the time) last spring. I guess it's pretty clear that we think of Joshua Tree as a special place that one simply can't get enough of, and we still have no intention of going elsewhere on our rare vacation times.

Back To the Present
Enough reminiscing. For this trip, we invited both Bunny and Jess to come with us, and we were completely thrilled when they both accepted. We started planning for this trip about three months ago. Due to a variety of circumstances, this was to be my first vacation of 2015. Side note: don't go a year or more without a vacation. It's not good for either your mental state or your ability to be a productive person. Anyway, needless to say, this trip was very welcomed by the time the date finally arrived.

Bunny arrived at my place at 11:00 that morning, followed shortly by Kat. After a quick run to the store for road snacks, we picked up Jess, who had just stepped off a plane from Minnesota, at LAX at 12:30. We were all hungry and grabbed lunch before hitting the road. The three-hour drive of about 150 miles was smooth and fun, with lots of goofy conversations and good tunes happening. By late afternoon, we rolled into JTree and first headed for the Desert Lily B&B, where we said hello to the lovely innkeeper Carrie Yeager, who has become a friend over the years we've stayed at her places. For this trip, we booked Rancho Rincon, one of Carrie's rental cabins where we'd previously stayed. We got the keys, rolled down the street, and unpacked. That evening, we just absorbed the desert vibe. It was beautiful... a bit chilly, but clear and lovely. One thing about Joshua Tree: you don't really need to be "doing" stuff all the time, or any time for that matter. The world of nature surrounds you, and sometimes just being quiet and looking around at the flora and fauna is as good as it gets.

We spent a good portion of our time hanging around the cabin and doing our first official jam as They Stole My Crayon. It went as well as I expected. Video capture by Jess.

The first two nights, we enjoyed the fire pit that Bunny tended, roasting weenies and s'mores and all that good stuff you can do outdoors. Photo by Jess.

I did manage to do a wee bit of yoga with Kat while we were there. It was actually an excuse for me to run around half-naked. I would have been fully naked but... it was cold, and shrinkage was a distinct possibility. Photo by Jess.

Heading into Hidden Valley with Jess, Kat, and Bunny.

These are my friends.

They Stole My Crayon in the desert, again.

The Paris Connection
One thing was new for this trip, something that was good but not entirely welcomed: we had Internet/cellular service at the cabin. A new cell tower must have been recently installed. Normally, we go entire multi-day trips without knowing anything about the outside world, and the disconnection from society is a welcome change.

This year, one of us surprisingly noted that their phone was showing full service. On Friday evening, I thought it might be cool to post a picture I'd taken that day, and popped into Facebook to do so. That's when I saw the news about the terrorist attacks in Paris. I bring this up now only to note a rather odd coincidence, and a personal connection to what had happened. One of the bands that came out of the desert scene is called Eagles of Death Metal. The last time I was in Joshua Tree before this trip, we'd gone up for a special event for EODM member Dave Catching's birthday, held at the world's best roadhouse, Pappy & Harriet's. We had two bands that we were happy to see performing that night: Fatso Jetson and Eagles of Death Metal, and the show was a total blast. We are also fans of Dave's Joshua Tree-based recording studio, Rancho de la Luna, which was recently made much more well known via an episode of "Foo Fighters Sonic Highways" HBO series.

Anyway, it soon became clear to us that the band playing at the historic Bataclan venue where the majority of the attacks took place was indeed our friends of EODM. We ascertained that none of the band was killed, but we also knew that despite this, the fun-loving band would be shattered by what had happened. They've since released a very positive statement about the event, and it's my opinion that after taking an appropriate break, continuing to rock is the very best thing that Jesse Hughes and his merry brigade could possibly do to continue to make the world a better place.

Outside the amazing Pappy & Harriet's, getting ready for yet another meal of a lifetime.

Inside Pappy's, pausing from shoveling food in our faces for a quick picture of Kat and myself.

Jess and Bunny... two people who rock hard.

How To Do Nothing
I'm not sure how most people plan vacations, but I have a nagging fear that they try and set up things to do the entire time they're supposed to be relaxing and recharging. That sounds like hell to me. My to-do list in the desert would have gone something like this:

- Eat food when hungry
- Stand outside and stare at the horizon
- Look at rabbits and chipmunks
- Go somewhere if we feel like it

And so on. In my daily life, I am very bad at doing nothing, and pretty much fill my days with responsibilities and creative tasks. There was no problem putting all that aside while in Joshua Tree. Sure, we had some things that we wanted to do... trips into the Park, a dinner at Pappy's, and so on. But a good chunk of this trip was purely putting everything aside and being relaxed and content, and I think we accomplished that with flying colors. I give us the highest marks in overall laziness and sloth. We rule.

Here's To Next Time
I don't know when our next trip to Joshua Tree will be, but I do know there certainly will be a next time, and a time after that. A wise person once said, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens in JTree stays with you for a lifetime." I can't agree more.

Amazing sunset photo by Jess.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Back Room (11.16.15)

Yup, this was definitely a good way to spend a half hour of a Monday night in November. Photo by Kat.

Let me tell you a little bit about live music venues in Second Life: most of them are just fine. They have a stage, they have places for people to sit, or to stand around, or to dance. And that, along with the ability to re-broadcast an audio stream, is really all you need. People can show up, see and hear and live music show, and the responsibility of the party running the venue is complete.

But much like real life, there are places that make a huge effort to provide an ambience that gives audience members and performers alike the feeling that shows there are meant to be a special occasion. How they go about doing that is as individual and unique as the people who create these online environments, and much of what one person prefers can be a purely subjective choice that may not apply to everyone else. For me, there are a couple of key factors that separate the really great venues from the merely acceptable ones.

1. Size, or lack thereof. While I appreciate some people's desire to create a massive hall with 200-foot-high ceilings, giant open spaces, and massive stages that would proportionately be able to host a Broadway-style performance, the fact is that the better SL venues are designed to corral the audience in a defined space that is more like reality. A smart builder can make a venue that still holds plenty of avatars comfortably, but gives everyone a feeling of intimacy between the audience and performer.

2. Design details. We've all seen it. The way that lighting is arranged. The way that elements such as seating, artwork, and other aspects are placed here and there. The fact is that some people have skills and experience that exceed others' in terms of the ability to attractively create a space for live music experiences. It should be no surprise that many of the same design details that make a real-life venue look impressive are those that are often overlooked in the virtual world.

All this is just a preamble to tell you how last night, I got to perform at the grand opening of a new venue that's the brainchild of a great friend of mine (as well as a fellow live musician): Barbie Horsley, aka Sassy Nitely. The place is called The Back Room, and it's located on the same set of sims as Key West and Key Largo. It's really no surprise, then, that The Back Room is every bit as visually impressive -- perhaps even more so -- as the other great venues in that location. But it also has that quality of intimacy that I personally really prefer in any venue. All in all, I was hugely impressed the moment I arrived. Barbie had booked a really good series of performers to open her new place: Quartz, Dominoe Effect, Camme Carver, myself, Bat Masters, and Lyndon Heart (in order of performance). She did a very smart thing: each artist had a 30-minute slot. While most of us prefer to do a full hour set on most occasions, this arrangement allowed a good number of musicians to get their shows in while retaining a big portion of the audience (who would have otherwise been expected to stay around through some six hours of music). The result was that the place stayed pretty packed through all the shows I saw.

Here's something else that doesn't happen very often, at least to me. About an hour after I wrapped up my show, Barbie sent over a link to Showtime Magazine, a blog that covers the entertainment scene in Second Life. The article writer Edith Halderman had posted a very complimentary piece about the new venue that included pics of each performer that night. She said...

The room was packed with other performers as well as those featured this evening. I sought refuge in the loft and happily sat on a comfortable chair with no one around. As I looked around, I noted that the list of people present read like a who’s who on the SL live music scene.

A correct assessment, and an unexpected happy surprise to get a little press from an SL show. My half-hour slot went very well, I should add. I was grousing a little while we were on vacation in Joshua Tree over the weekend... "I have to play a show the day after we get home!" Well, I am beyond thrilled that I was included in this event, and my 6-1/2 song set was surprisingly good, considering that I'm performing rather rarely in SL these days and had just spent the four previous days running around like a crazy person in the middle of the desert.

Great place, great vibe, great tunes. Photo by Kat.

Even my grumpy avatar seems to be enjoying himself, kinda. Photo by Kat.

Again, hell yeah to great venue design by someone who understands the details that make a good place great. Photo by Kat.

The Back Door set list...
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pancho & Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

Gigantic thanks to everyone who came and saw me at the grand opening of The Back Room, especially the lady who made it all happen: Sassy Nitely! Thanks to all for the constant support over the last 9+ years of my doing live music in Second Life!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Islands of New England (10.21.15)

Rocking and laughing is a great way to spend a Wednesday evening. Trust me, it's true. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Some musicians describe performing live music like a drug, and they might not be far from the literal truth. Think about it this way: you get an adrenaline rush from singing and/or playing your instrument in front of a crowd. Playing music is a physical activity, so you get a similar endorphin rush as a distance runner. And finally, I'm pretty sure your brain starts pumping out neurotransmitters like serotonin, creating those lovely sensations of well-being while you play.

So, even for we musicians who don't turn to external drugs while we play live, our bodies are creating their own euphoric experience. And, like pretty much any drug experience, it's quite easy to get addicted to playing live. I should know; I started when I was in middle school and have kept doing it in many forms for the past 35 years or so. I was hooked after my first taste of applause.

My performances in Second Life, especially at places like The Islands of New England, invoke the same sensations that I've had many times playing in the flesh in front of a live audience in clubs, theaters, parties, festivals, and more. While an SL show has a different dynamic than a real-life gig, the artist is still there, combining his or her talent and ability to connect with an audience, regardless of the fact that the crowd members are often thousands of physical miles away. This is especially true at a venue like TIONE, where people seem to really have an appreciation for well-performed tunes. Last night's show there was, as always, a blast both for me and the people who listen to my insanity and who apparently enjoy my music. I have never once had a bad show there, and I probably never will. I'd also like to add that my great friend Lyndon Heart had the slot directly after mine, and it's always a terrific pleasure to hear him masterfully do his stuff.

The Islands of New England has been where some of my best shows in any world have happened. Photo by Triana.

Here's me, doing what I do. Photo by Triana.

My Set List Secret
Here's another thing I want to share about my shows. In one hour, I can almost always count on being able to fit in either 12 or 13 songs. previous to my show, when I'm putting together a set list, I never pull out exactly that amount. Instead, I usually grab 16-17 songs, and then adjust my set as the gig goes on based on a couple of factors: a) how I'm feeling at that moment and b) what I think particular members of the audience might like to hear. One of the greatest aspects of SL music is the ability to get to know your audience members way better than the random folks who might happen to be at a bar one night that you're performing there.

In addition to the original songs that I do (and those of my band They Stole My Crayon), I always make sure to pull out songs that span a few areas: emotional vibe, year of release, genre, and so on. That way, as the show goes on and my mood changes (usually for the better, per above), I have tunes available that will fit my state of mind, and also be able to whip out certain songs based on who I see in the crowd. Especially because I do not take requests, it's a nice way to try and thank the people for their presence. If I see a person who I know likes a particular artist, I'll proactively perform that song for that person. Of course, doing it this way, I get to the end of the show and have songs left over. I just save those for top choices at the next gig. It all works pretty well.

TIONE set list...
1979 (Smashing Pumpkins)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)
Everyday I Write the Book (Elvis Costello)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
My Hero (Foo Fighters)
Underwater Underground (They Stole My Crayon)
Heart of Gold (Neil Young)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Pancho and Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

Huge thanks to everyone who came out to the show, including the following who helped support it!
Richy Nervous, Triana Caldera, Lyndon Heart, RoxxyyRoller Resident, Sesh Kamachi, Brookelyn Breen, Sommer Shepherd, Aurelie Chenaux, RansomTalmidge Resident, my great manager Maali Beck, and TIONE's lovely events manager Christine Haiku!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Making Strides Against Breast Cancer (10.04.15)

Boobs, I'm here to save you (and the people to whom you are attached). Photo by Kat.

So, here's something funny: I have no idea where I performed on Sunday afternoon for the "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer" event. I can tell you that it was a really fun and cool place in Second Life. I can tell you that it was set up like a tailgating party in a parking lot, which is a super creative theme for an SL build of this nature. I can tell you that we had a nice-sized crowd of enthusiastic people comprised of my Zaksters as well as a bunch of others.

But I can't tell you what the name of the place was. Oh, I can give you a link that will take you there, but I don't know what "there" is. Is it a regular venue for live music in SL? Was it built just for the purpose of this event? I have no answers. So, I'll just tell you what I do know, which was that it was a really good show, and it seemed to be successful in its goal of raising money for an important cause.

Let's talk about that cause for a moment. "Making Strides" is another fundraising branch of the American Cancer Society, the same folks who organize the "Relay for Life" events, but the difference is that "Making Strides" is specifically dedicated to breast cancer. You probably already know this, but I'll mention it anyway: the chance of a woman having invasive breast cancer some time during her life is about 1 in 8. The chance of dying from breast cancer is about 1 in 37. Those may seem like decent odds, but they're not: breast cancer affects more women than any other kind of cancer apart from skin cancer. That's the bad news. The good news is that due to years of ongoing awareness campaigns and medical research over the past 30+ years, more women are finding their cancer earlier, when it is more treatable and their chances of survival are greatly increased.

Why would I spend an hour on a Sunday helping to raise funds for this cause? Well, I hope the answer is obvious. No, it's pretty unlikely that I'll personally get breast cancer (although, just to be fair, it does affect a small percentage of men as well). But I already have had an uncomfortably large number of women who are close to me be diagnosed with the disease. Almost all of them, fortunately, are survivors so far. But they had to go through hell and back with radiation and chemotherapy, and deal with the awful side effects of that process. It's my genuine hope, as I mentioned during my show, that before the end of my own life, we're able to talk about cancer in the same past-tense tone we use for supposedly incurable things like polio and smallpox (or with the triviality we currently attach to something like a cold virus). With the right support, that just might happen.

Anyway, beyond all that, the show itself went really well. You all know that I'm performing more rarely these days, and that makes each show a little more special. Upon arrival, I was a little trepidatious about the fact that there was a DJ spinning tunes before my show; as I've said previously, not all audiences are into both DJs and live performers, and there's always a risk that a mass exodus will happen from a venue once they hear the strum of a live guitar rather than familiar recordings. But DJ Titan was doing his job well, and the transition was smooth. It seemed that we retained a large percentage of the crowd, and brought in a bunch more.

What a cool idea for a build. Each time I think I've seen everything in SL, I'm proven wrong again. Photo by Kat.

People seem to be enjoying themselves while I do live tunes in support of a great cause. Photo by Kat.

Me, doing my thing. Photo by Kat.

A tailgating party in a parking lot, a circling blimp, a fight against breast cancer, and me playing live music to people around the world. Life is weird, you know? Photo by Kat.

One final weird note: I announced yesterday that one of the songs I performed, "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden, was a debut for me. As in, it was the first time I had ever performed that song in SL. I actually was under the impression that I'd never done that song anywhere, ever, and announced it as such to the crowd. So imagine my confusion when I happen to see that I really had played it once before, in June of 2013. I have no memory of this. None. Even more strangely, I can't find "Black Hole Sun" in my collection of lyrics, which would be a sure-fire way of knowing I'd done it previously. So... I don't know what to tell you, other than perhaps I'm living in some parallel universe and finally found proof of this.

Making Strides set list...
Help Me (Joni Mitchell)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)
Underwater Underground (They Stole My Crayon)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Cat's In the Cradle (Harry Chapin)
She's Always a Woman (Billy Joel)
Eleanor Rigby (Beatles)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Nobody Home (Pink Floyd)
Shock the Monkey (Peter Gabriel)
Tribute (Tenacious D)

Many thanks to everyone who came out to the show and helped support an unquestionably great cause! May your generosity bring you great Karmic rewards!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Key West (09.23.15)

It may just be a bunch of pixels, but Key West is a visually stunning place for live music. Photo by Kat.

This is a tale of triumph and tragedy. Well, not really. Minor triumph and insignificant tragedy, I suppose. Okay, even that is silly hyperbole. I'll start again.

This is a tale of my show last night at Key West in Second Life. I have performed at Key West dozens of times. I've said many times that it's one of the best live music venues in all of SL, and I've meant it every time. In fact, it continues to prove itself in that regard time and time again. Previous to the show, I saw that as usual, Key West owner Liz Harley had set up a bill that was chock full o' talent. Nova Falta! Bi-Polar Express! Twinghost Ronas! And capping off the evening's festivities at the late 8-9PM set, the one and only me! It sounded like a great plan. Except it didn't happen that way. TG had to cancel, which happens to every artist occasionally, usually for good reasons. Of course, I didn't know this until I'd logged into SL to get ready for my show. A quick glance at the map told the tale; instead of the expected sea of green dots that showed the full house that one often finds at Key West, I saw that there were maybe three people there... my manager Maali Beck and two Key West staffers.


Okay, not really. In fact, it didn't bother me in the slightest, and I'll tell you why: never once have I performed at Key West to an empty room. That venue is excellent at bringing in people, and despite the fact that I started from basically zero, in typical Key West fashion, by the time I was strumming my first chords, we had a nice-sized audience that continued to grow as I played on. And play I did... it was one of the semi-rare nights that both my voice and my freshly-restrung guitar were sounding about as good as they get. I suppose that I can credit the new guitar strings for that side of things, but I honestly have no idea why sometimes my voice is laser-focus on pitch and sounding great, and other times I sound (to my ears, anyway) like a stressed-out goat. I'd like to know why this is the case, but I've been singing and performing live music since I was a small child, and I've never been able to narrow down between about a million factors that might be influential in this regard. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, who passed away yesterday, performing live music is 90% mental... and the other half is physical.

Rocking my crowd. Photo by Kat.

Having fun with people having fun. Photo by Kat.

I've literally never had a bad show at Key West. Photo by Kat.

Strumming, singing, laughing. That's a fine way to spend a Wednesday night. Photo by Kat.

One more thing about last night. Liz Harley, who owns and runs Key West, has spent a long time fighting a physical disorder. Earlier this month, she had been in the hospital for a surgical procedure, and has had Key West being run by her fantastic staff. I did not expect to see her at my show last night, but as I was getting set up to play, her smiling avatar popped up there. I know she's still very much in recovery mode and shouldn't overexert herself, but having her be at my show is probably one of the factors that inspired me to play my best. Liz has done so much for the SL music community, and is beloved by many. I thank her for all she's done, and wish her a speedy recovery (and share her opinion that antibiotics, though life-saving, really do suck).

Anyway, we ended up with a great crowd of enthusiastic music lovers, I did one of my best shows in recent memory, and it ended up being a terrific night that reminded me of all the positive aspects of live music in SL. Not bad, huh?

Key West set list...
Saved By Zero (The Fixx)
Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones)
Bag Of Nothing (They Stole My Crayon)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Underwater Underground (They Stole My Crayon)
*Nothing Compares 2 U (Prince)
On The Way Home (Buffalo Springfield)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Don't Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Improvised Outro Tune (Zak Claxton)

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

Big, big thanks to everyone who took time out of their evening to come see me at Key West. You are always appreciated!
Helllor Highwater, Carol Greenwood, canisincognitus Resident, Alexis Fairlady, Chiral Euler, Isis Rexie, Landarbeiter Resident, Kat Claxton, Votslav Hax, Sesh Kamachi, RansomTalmidge Resident, Christine Haiku, CB Axel, TheaDee Resident, GregKat24 Resident, my wonderful manager Maali Beck, Key West hosts Tommi Bayn and Syd Baddingham, and most of all, the queen of Key West, Liz Harley.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Stand Up To Cancer/LC Live (09.19.15)

Enjoying a Saturday with good friends and good tunes, and kicking cancer's ass at the same time. Photo by Kat.

Maybe a month or so ago, my manager Maali Beck messaged all four of us in her stable of live musicians -- myself, Lyndon Heart, Taunter Goodnight, and Sassy Nitely -- to see if we'd be interested in performing at a fundraising benefit for cancer. None of us are unfamiliar with doing charitable shows in Second Life; we've each done dozens and dozens of them, for a wide variety of causes. But I wasn't entirely aware of the particular association for which this benefit was focused. It was called Stand Up To Cancer, so I did a little reading up. Their mission statement:

Stand Up To Cancer’s (SU2C) mission is to raise funds to accelerate the pace of groundbreaking translational research that can get new therapies to patients quickly and save lives now.

SU2C brings together the best and the brightest researchers and mandates collaboration among the cancer community. By galvanizing the entertainment industry, SU2C has set out to generate awareness, educate the public on cancer prevention and help more people diagnosed with cancer become long-term survivors.

So, it wasn't surprising that all four of us wanted to show our support. What was sort of crazy was that we were not only all available on that particular day -- if you think this is easy, go ahead and try and wrangle four musicians with different schedules and responsibilities -- but also could be on the schedule for back-to-back shows. The event itself was spread out over many days, across many SL sims and venues, but on Saturday September 19 at LC Live, Lyndon took the 2PM slot, Taunter was at 3PM, I played at 4PM, and Sassy did the 5PM show.

Left to right: Lyndon Heart, Taunter Goodnight, Maali Beck, and Sassy Nitely. Photos by Kat.

For a typical SL show, I arrive at the venue maybe 20 minutes before I am scheduled to go on, but that wasn't the case this time. Instead, I arrived a bit earlier -- like almost two hours early -- so I could check out what my friends were playing. I have to say that it's a matter of no small pride that I'm on this team with people like Lyndon, Taunter, and Sassy. Nothing against any of the other fine live performers of SL, of which there are plenty, but I think it's fair to say that all four of us bring a level of performance skill that sets us apart from many of the other folks who do SL shows. If I had to pick the one shared quality that allows the four of us to be somewhat special, it's that we all are able to establish a connection with our respective audiences. This isn't an easy task in the virtual world, and it's really an honor to be part of this little gang that we affectionately call "Maali's Kids".

I can't complain about the crowd. I never do, but I certainly wouldn't for this. Photo by Kat.

My view from the stage. Photo by Kat.

Me, defeating cancer one strum at a time. Photo by Kat.

In any case, my show went fine. Smooth as could be with the stream and the venue, and my songs choices seemed to work. I used to be super crazy careful about the songs I'd pick for a cancer benefit, never including songs that referred to death or sadness or anything negative. Over the years, I've lessened my self-imposed rules in that regard for two reasons. First off, I've had a number of my close friends get various kinds of cancer, and I've found that they certainly relate to both the light and dark emotions that music can impart. Second, it was impacting the variety of songs I could play, and the last thing I want to be is repetitive or boring in my shows. LC Live and their staff did a good job of keeping the show rolling with dozens of various kinds of SL artists, so hats off to them as well. We had a good crowd throughout the event, and raised a whole lot of funds. From what I heard during my portion of the show, the whole series of events was on track to raise a total somewhere in the range of L$1.5M, which is around $6,000 USD. That's a significant chunk of change, and it makes me proud that the SL music community of fans, venues, and artists can put other issues aside and work together successfully for these vital causes.

Stand Up To Cancer/LC Live set list...
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Pancho and Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
On A Plain (Nirvana)
It's Choade My Dear (Connan Mockasin)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

Huge thanks to everyone who came out to the shows for Stand Up To Cancer. Each of you made a huge difference in someone's life. Since they may not be able to thank you personally, I do so on their behalf.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Islands of New England (09.16.15)

I'm baaaaaaack. Photo by Triana Caldera.

A number of interesting things happen when you take a full month (or more) off performing live music in SL.

First, you kind of forget how to do it. Not how to perform music, of course; if that's part of who you are, you can do it without even trying. No, I mean the actual act of getting ready and doing the show properly. Where do these cables go? Are my microphone levels the way I usually set them? How do I launch my stream? Did I send out invites to the right people? That kind of thing. It's amazing how quickly those details start to fade, even from a relatively short hiatus.

The second thing, in my previous experiences, is that SL audiences have short memories. As far as the SL music scene is concerned, absence makes the heart grow... absent. That's why I truly was not expecting a large crowd to show up last night at The Islands of New England, one of my favorite SL venues that I've played many times over the years. I was fine with that; it's up to me to be committed to performing on a regular basis, and any reader of this blog knows that my limited time for musical endeavors has been 100% focused toward wrapping up the album of my band They Stole My Crayon. So, my expectations weren't really high in terms of the crowd size, though I did plan on enjoying myself (because otherwise, what's the point?).

The first batch of people starts flowing in. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Enjoying watching the people watching me. Photo by Triana Caldera.

When I played my first song, my prediction seemed to be accurate. I'm not kidding; there were three people there when I strummed my first chord. One was my lovely manager Maali Beck, and another was the equally lovely event manager of TIONE, Christine Haiku. But then, as has happened so many times before in the nearly nine years that I've rocked Second Life, people started showing up. First another three. Then a batch of five. By my third or fourth tune, it was a packed house, and I felt the same level of surprise and gratitude as I've always felt whenever people take time out of whatever else they could have been doing to hear me perform live music.

That's what it's all about. No, not the size of a crowd, but the fact that anyone at all finds enjoyment and fulfillment of some kind from experiencing live music in the SL environment. And honestly, whether it's 10 people or 100 people who made the decision to come out to my show, I'm always appreciative, and I always put in the same effort to my performance regardless.

They seem to be having fun. I know I was. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Just me. Photo by Triana Caldera.

TIONE Set List...
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
America (Simon and Garfunkel)
Bag of Nothing (They Stole My Crayon)
California (Joni Mitchell)
*Underwater Underground (They Stole My Crayon)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Space Oddity (David Bowie)
After the Gold Rush (Neil Young)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Low Key (Tweedy)
Improv Outro Tune (Zak Claxton)

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

Huge thanks to all who came out to The Islands of New England and made my show all the more fun via your presence. Special thanks to those who helped support the show!
Parker Static, Diana Renoir, Alexis Fairlady, TheaDee Resident, RansomTalmidge Resident, Sesh Kamachi, Triana Caldera, Richy Nervous, my manager Maali Beck, and TIONE's most awesome person Christine Haiku!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Random Crayon Notes

This is what most of our band meetings look like. Bunny, holed up in his den in the Valley, with Christina and I here at the beach. We hold these meetings (or, as we call them, "scribbles") as often as needed to keep the ball rolling on our album's development. Some musical concepts are just much easier to communicate verbally than in writing back and forth to each other (as we do daily anyway).

Oh, hi there! I have a blog, don't I? I should probably use it and stuff.

I guess you could say I have good reasons to being an absent blogger. As most of you know, I usually write little reports of my live music shows in Second Life and elsewhere, and 100% of my musical focus lately has been on my band, They Stole My Crayon, which I'll tell you about in a moment. The lack of regular updates is also due to a weather phenomenon that I call "August Sucks and September Sucks Too". I don't know if global climate change is directly involved, but I will say that it's been a crappy, high temperature, unusually humid number of weeks here. Fortunately (and not wanting to jinx it by mentioning this), this Monday morning is overcast, and there's even a small chance of rain, with highs only in the mid-70s. If that is true, it will be heavenly today in comparison to recent days, and so it's high time to tell you what's been going on.

Meet Spencer Crewe, the Crayon Sharpener
I've mentioned Spencer a good number of times previously. But Spencer has always seemed more of a concept than a genuine person, at least in terms of his interaction with The Crayon. He's been a friend of ours for a long time; like Bunny and Christina, I originally met Spencer back in the early 2000s via online forums focused on our common interests in music and audio engineering. I've known him for close to 15 years, and have always enjoyed his personality and obvious wide-ranging knowledge about capturing sound in creative ways.

As we progressed through writing songs and recording demos, it became clear that for a plethora of reasons, it would serve our music better to have it mixed by an outside source. Spencer had mixed Bunny's last solo album, which sounded excellent. Spencer's other recording projects -- he's done many of them in and around his home town of St. John's, NL (that's in Canada, folks) -- all showed that his skills as an engineer were more than sufficient to work on our music.

Spencer has great taste in music and audio gear. Trust me, if your mixing engineer isn't insane, you may have picked the wrong one.

In April of 2014, we first approached Spencer to see if there was any possibility he'd be interested in working on our music, and he emphatically accepted. But since then, there's been very little action for him in regard to The Crayon. It really wasn't until the start of this year that we put the Crayon Car into high gear. As you know from recent posts, we did a couple of sessions at Phil O'Keefe's Sound Sanctuary Studio in Hesperia that essentially wrapped up the last of the recordings for the album... or did it? More on that shortly. In any case, we finally had tracks that we could ship off to Spencer and let him do his thing. Well, a couple of days later, we got back our first mix from Spencer. It was for our song "Underwater Underground". Spencer just wanted to see if he was on the right track in terms of our expectations. Let me say, on behalf of the entire band, that he fucking nailed it. His very first mix showed us that he was going to add something to the band that we could never have done on our own.

Spencer has now received a second batch of tracks, this time for our acoustic/vocal-oriented song "Got Guilt". I'm sure that it's going to be insanely great when we get it back. Working with Spencer has already made a huge impact on The Crayon, and we're now even more excited and committed to getting the album wrapped up and ready for prime time.

Good Stuff Gets Better
One thing that happens when you're getting ready to hand off your tracks to a mixing engineer: you get super focused on making sure that everything is 100% perfect, or at least as good as it's ever going to be. Sure, you can keep making additions and changes to a song after a mix is done... but it starts becoming a waste of several people's time and money. You're much better off thinking through every detail before handing off tracks for mixing in the first place.

Up early and ready to record. When I have a specific musical thing in mind that I want to capture, it's often difficult to focus on anything else until it's done.

We knew our song "River Shallows" had a couple of things that needed to improve before we started getting ready to give it to Spencer. For example, the original bass part was recorded hurriedly, before we'd fully absorbed the song itself, and had some sonic glitches that we didn't love. Also, the rhythm guitar part wasn't doing it for us. On Saturday morning, I opened up the song file on my Logic Pro X system. My intention was to re-do the guitar and bass, but then something else kept popping into my brain. It was the song's intro, and it really was rather pedestrian and boring. We'd done a couple of passes at it, but the phrase "polishing a turd" kept coming to mind. So before I even started on the new guitar part, I threw away the old intro and started fresh. We all agree that the new version is infinitely more in line with the sound we intend to project as a band, and that was inspirational to then go in and revise the guitar and bass parts to our liking. By Sunday afternoon, I had all these revisions complete, and it will almost certainly be the next song we ship off to Spencer for his mixing talents.

Christina and I take a break from recording (and to get out of my sweaty room on this muggy late summer day).

Much like "River Shallows", I find it likely that every song we'll be sending to Spencer still requires some small tweaks here and there. We have a list of our tunes and what remains to be done on them before mixing. It would seem that the most likely candidates that will next go through the "fine tooth comb" treatment will be "Again", "Bag of Nothing", and "Disarmed". I have no words to tell you how much I'm looking forward to this. No one but my fellow recording musicians will know the thrill of hearing your own music after it's been honed and polished by someone with the skill of a guy like Spencer. It's going to be an exciting couple of months while we wrap these things up and Spencer does his thing. After that... well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Monday, August 24, 2015

They Stole My Crayon: Recording Session II at Sound Sanctuary

I'm awake and drinking coffee. Nothing unusual for 6:50AM on a Monday, but I feel compelled on this particular morning to tell you about our second recording studio session for the debut album of my band, They Stole My Crayon. In case you haven't been following along on the saga, I'll bring you up to speed quickly: we'd (mostly) finished all of the instrumental tracks for the album, but wanted to record our vocals with higher quality than we'd be able to do with our own gear and ears. So, we booked some time with our super awesome friend Phil O'Keefe at his studio, Sound Sanctuary, located in Hesperia, CA. The first of those sessions was in July and went really well, so we were excited to move ahead on the next one, which happened this weekend (August 22/23, 2015).

Saturday August 22
I'd wanted to sleep in a little, but I think my brain knew that it wasn't a typical Saturday, and awakened me bright and early. By 10AM, Christina and I were ready to roll. After our customary stops for snacks and breakfast, we hit the road. Everything was going swimmingly until we hit one of those completely terrible traffic jams on the 15 freeway, which coincided with my having to pee really badly. Needless to say, we were very happy to arrive at Phil's... and use his bathroom.

Bunny arrived moments later, having been stuck in the same traffic as we'd endured, and we pretty much jumped right into the session. As per our usual process, all of our tracks were on a portable hard drive, and Phil loaded them into his Pro Tools system quickly. We started with "Vendetta", and right away I knew things were going to be really good. It went so smoothly that we were able to wrap up another entire song, "Picked Up Off The Floor", before we took our first break. We had to get checked into our modest but decent hotel, and get some lunch.

After that, it was straight back to work. We recorded vocals for "Blew The Dust Away" and "Favorite Things" in a whirlwind of various singers and tracks flowing by. Later in the day, Christina and I needed coffee desperately, so after a run to Starbucks, we continued our session. Dinner that night, in true studio fashion, was a pizza that was delivered ridiculously late, but still was delicious. After a couple final tracks, we called it a night and drove back up the street to our hotel where we slept soundly. At least Christina and I did; we're never sure if Bunny sleeps or not.

Sunday August 23
After the somewhat late night, we weren't in a huge hurry to get back the next morning. We leisurely got up, met Bunny, and grabbed breakfast before heading back to the studio. We'd saved the most difficult song of the session, "Longing On" for that day, and it actually went much better than I would have anticipated. It still took a good portion of the morning and early afternoon, so after that was wrapped up, we went on a food run. Once back at Phil's, it was time to record "Things Under Trees". Again, to clarify: yes, we'd recorded many of these songs already, but we re-did many of the vocal tracks, and the improvement is simply mind blowing.

We'd planned on making use of Phil beyond his already impressive engineering abilities; Phil is also an excellent musicians and singer, so we drafted him to do some extra vocals on a couple of songs. Only problem: while he sang in the tracking room, someone needed to act as the audio engineer to run the Pro Tools system. While Bunny or I could have easily done it, this was a great opportunity for Christina to gain some experience in this area. After a quick tutorial, she had no problem at all doing the job.

When Phil's stuff was wrapped up, we had a couple of final things to touch up, as well as a track of Christina playing tambourine, and that went fine too. So yes... once again, we got six songs completed. That's a total of 12 out of the 14 songs on the album. We'll likely book one final session at Phil's next month to get any remaining parts completed. It was amazingly productive, and yet we all felt relaxed and had fun, which is exactly what you hope for in a great recording session.

Like last time, Phil ended the session by dumping all of our recorded tracks back to the hard drives we'd brought for that purpose, and then at 6PM sharp, we hit the road. the drive home was very fast, and was only hampered by the act of driving due west into the sunset (which sounds poetic and all, but is much less fun when the sun is going straight into your eyeballs while you're tooling along at 80mph in traffic). Regardless, we made it back in good time, and now we're another step closer to unleashing our album on the world. Good times, I tell you. Good times.