Friday, December 30, 2016

A Bunch of Good Shit from 2016

Did this year suck? Yeah, but not all of it... and it could have been way, way worse, I promise.

Yeah, yeah, I know... 2016 was the worst year ever, right? Look, I don't blame you for feeling this way. A bunch of your favorite musicians and actors passed away unexpectedly. A bunch of terrible disasters happened. And after a super contentious political season that pitted friends and families and neighbors against each other, the United States elected some guy who conceivably might cause the end of human existence. I get it; it was pretty awful, and it seems like the future doesn't provide much hope of getting better any time soon.

I'm not here to tell you that 2016 was actually good, or that you're all mistaken in your feelings and perception of a year that seemed to be more brutal on many fronts than most others were. But I am writing today to tell you that good and bad is always a matter of scale, and your own experiences and backgrounds have a huge effect on how you perceive any period of time. So, I'm going to give you some short examples of really positive things that happened to me in 2016, and perhaps you've had some similar aspects in your own life over the last year that's drawing, thankfully, to a close.

I Stayed Healthy (and so did Most of my Family and Friends)
There's a reason this is on top of my list; it's by far and above the most important. Nothing else that happens -- good, bad, or otherwise -- matters in relation to our health. I've had previous years where I battled all number of ailments, from influenza and pneumonia to mental health issues to physical injuries. I'm happy to say that 2016 was one of my best years in recent memory in that regard. Some of it is probably due to my just taking care of myself better and better... I exercise daily and my eating habits are healthier than I'd had before (though I still have plenty of room to get better in both areas). Perhaps more important is that most of the people who are closest to me also stayed pretty healthy in 2016. I've had other years where that wasn't the case, and any year that no people close to me died or got seriously ill is something to be thankful for.

If you made it through 2016 with most of your friends and family alive and in good health, consider yourself a very fortunate person, as I do.

My Band Released our Debut Album
Think about it; while it took four years from conception to realization, it was really just 2015 and 2016 when a huge portion of the work that went into the making of They Stole My Crayon happened. And of course, in August, we were able to finally release the album to the public, which turned out to be an experience way above and beyond my meager expectations. NO matter how bad 2016 seems in retrospect, it was a landmark year for me and my band from a musical perspective.

They Stole My Crayon signing CDs at Mel's Drive-In. We worked for four years on our album that came out this summer. 2016 will be remembered for finally getting the album out and being very proud of what we'd done.

I Moved Into a Nice New Home with a Lovely Lady
Some people know that Kat and I met in 2003, became a couple in 2005, and that she moved to Southern California to be with me in 2008. But many of you assumed that she and I were living in the same home in the time since. Not so! Kat and I lived a half block away from each other for the subsequent eight years. This was a purposeful decision on both of our behalf, with good reasons behind it. But last spring, we found out that a perfect place was opening here in the same neighborhood where I've lived since 1995. At the end of May, we went through the hideous process of moving -- which I hopefully will never do again -- and ended up in this really nice 4-bedroom home where we may stay until we're ancient (since, as I mentioned, moving is simply the worst). We're happy here and appreciate being under the same roof all the more, given the time we spent residing apart.

You'd think moving would be less of a pain in the ass with movers doing a lot of the work. No, it's still a giant pain in the ass. But all of the work was well worth it, culminating in Kat and I finally co-habitating after many years of living separately.

A Lot of Musicians Stayed Alive
Not just the young ones either. While none of these people have physical immortality and will eventually pass on, we're wrapping up 2016 with a lot of greats still around, and many still making great music. To name a few who 2016 didn't get... Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Steven Stills, David Crosby, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, and many more will presumably get past the New Year's Eve celebration alive and presumably well. I'm thankful for that. Side note: just because 2016 is ending doesn't mean that these folks will be immune from death in subsequent years. But let's at least be happy they made it this far.

All the great musicians died in 2016? I think not.

I Don't Live in Extreme Poverty or in a War Torn Area
Listen... I have plenty of friends who live paycheck to paycheck, and who squeak by each month after being saddled with medical bills, debt, and more. Few people I am personally close to have an easy, affluent life. But none of them live in areas where 10-person families huddle in one-room, dirt-floored hovels, or where each day could be interrupted by exploding bombs and drone attacks. Where there's no accessible drinking water, or working waste disposal. Where disease is rampant and untreatable. The fact is that even many of us who think we have it bad are doing pretty damn well compared to a good chunk of the planet's population. I don't take that for granted... ever.

The candidates I voted for in the primaries and the general election both lost. But I did get to vote, and I do live in a really nice place, and have a life that is more comfortable and filled with opportunity than most others living today or at any time in the past. Be aware of those things before you start thinking about how bad your life is.

I Went to Minnesota
Yeah, that's right. In September, one of my best friends in the world, Jess Smith, was a host of the Second Life Twin Cities Jam. Kat and I went. Side note: Jess had visited us here in Southern California like 50 times over the last eight years or so (I'm only exaggerating slightly), and had we not gone to see her in her hometown, she'd probably disown us both as crappy friends (and she'd be right). But we made the trip, and had a great time. While Minneapolis isn't known for being a great vacation destination, the weather in September was lovely and the people there were nice, and I spent a few days jamming with many of the friends I've met through the SL music scene, which is always a good time.

Okay, it's true... I mostly went to Minnesota to put my head on Jess's boobs.

The Cubs Won the World Series
Not that I really give a shit -- my connection to Chicago is tenuous at best, having lived in Evanston for a year or so when I was a toddler, and I'm a Dodger fan through and through. But you have to figure, if a team that last won a championship 108 years ago makes it back to the top, then anything can happen. Like Donald Trump being elected president. Perhaps I should have left this one off.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

16 Interesting Songs from 2016

Well hello, everybody. I'm Zak Claxton, former child fashion model and current occasional not-well-known rock star, here to hip you to some of the songs that were released in 2016 that I found interesting. Be very aware that this isn't a "Best of 2016" list. You can find those all over the place, and I don't think music has anything that qualifies as being "best" in any way, so perhaps you will enjoy the following 16 songs and the people who made them.

Side note: on a general basis, I didn't find 2016 to be nearly as great as 2015, or 2014, or especially 2013, in terms of the kinds of indie/alternative music that I really enjoy. That having been said, there was still plenty of super cool stuff. In alphabetical order (because why not?), here they are.

"The Air" (Soft Fangs)

Soft Fangs is John Lutkevich, another "one guy performing as a band" indie artist out of New York, but he does it well and with a unique take that I enjoy. Strong/sensitive songwriting is all over his first full-length album The Light, which came out in March. Get it on Bandcamp.

"Alarms" (Goat)

Goat is a super-fascinating alternative/experimental band out of Sweden. They perform in costume. What's not to like? Their new album Requiem came out in October. Get it on Bandcamp.

"Big Deal Party" (Jackal Onasis)

I really love the dissonant beauty of this New York-based band. This is the title track off their debut EP which was released in June. Plus, singing girl drummer. Get it on Bandcamp.

"The Breeze" (Lou Barlow)

Lou is a godlike legend of alternative music due to his membership in Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh. The guy basically invented lo-fi music in the late '80s (though maybe not on purpose). His new 5-song Apocalypse Fetish EP came out in October. It's a solo effort that showcases Lou playing... a downtuned grungy-sounding ukulele? And man, it's great. Get it on Bandcamp.

"Do You Need My Love?" (Weyes Blood)

Weyes Blood is Natalie Mering, an LA-based songwriter with a super amazing contralto voice that's kind of like a modern take on Karen Carpenter. Her new album Front Row Seat to Earth came out in October. It's her fourth full-length, and it made many of the critical "best new music" lists for good reason. If you appreciate the mellow gold of early '70s AM radio, you must hear this. Get it on Bandcamp.

"Dollar Days" (David Bowie)

It's with both happiness and sadness that I note how Bowie had songs that made my 2015 list as well as this 2016 from the same album. The first single (and title track from Blackstar) which grabbed my brain by the ears came out in November 2015, while the album itself was released in January of this year, just a few days before the artist's shocking death. "Dollar Days" has that something which only Bowie could do... that thing that made him a genre unto himself. Get it on iTunes.

"Daydreaming" (Radiohead)

While I've always appreciated what Thom Yorke and his band have done over the past 30 years, I've never counted myself among their true fans. The album they released in May of this year, A Moon Shaped Pool, is among my favorite things they've ever done -- which is all the more impressive given that most bands have used up their creative mojo by this point in their careers. Get it on iTunes.

"Favorite Things" (They Stole My Crayon)

Call me an egotist or a narcissist -- many have before and many will again. But my band's self-titled album came out in August, and if I didn't think we produced some of the most interesting music of the year, we shouldn't have bothered releasing the album in the first place. "Favorite Things" is one of my personal favorites on the Crayon album, but it's one among 12 songs that are all pretty different from what many people hear regularly. It makes the list, proudly. Get it on Bandcamp.

"Gardenia" (Iggy Pop)

This song, and the album it's on (Post Pop Depression), hit me like an anvil falling from the sky when it came out in March. I've always admired Iggy, but when you combine his totally unique vibe with the musicianship and production work of Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), something magical happened. I'm pretty sure "Gardenia" is a love story about a male transvestite prostitute, and why not? Interesting music should have interesting themes, and this one sure does. Get it on iTunes.

"Human by Night" (Lucky Shivers)

A couple of years ago, my band unsuccessfully tried to have our music be featured on a podcast we all enjoyed. It's called Welcome to Night Vale, and it's fantastic. We may not have yet had our music featured on "The Weather" portion of the show, but I discovered an artist whose song that had been selected which I absolutely loved. He's a UK-based independent musician and terrific visual artist named Nicholas Stevenson, and I've actually gotten to know him a bit since discovering that song, "Here I Land". Recently, Nicholas began a new project called Lucky Shivers, and this is the first song I've heard from them, and I'm already hooked and looking forward to much more. I don't think "Human by Night" is available for purchase yet, but you can leave it happy comments on Soundcloud.

"Human Performance" (Parquet Courts)

Of all the bands on this year's list, Parquet Courts and the title track from their latest album probably requires my validation the least. The album, released in April, made the year's best lists from everyone from Pitchfork to Paste to Rolling Stone. I don't care about any of that; I just like Andrew Savage's Jimi-esque approach to the vocals and the overall vibe. I have a bad habit of turning off any Brooklyn-based indie band that other people like without giving them a chance, but Parquet Courts are cool and different enough that they merit my respect and a spot on this year's list. Get it on iTunes.

"Lonely World" (Moses Sumney)

Try and hang a genre title on LA-based singer-songwriter Moses Sumney. Go ahead, I'll wait here. The dude performs live shows all by himself (something with which I'm rather familiar), but employs all manner of loopers and effects to create lush sonic atmospheres using just voice and guitar. He released a 5-song EP called Lamentations in September, and it's remarkable. The song "Lonely World" features another LA-based musician whose talent slays me... bass player Thundercat. Get it on iTunes.

"Night Witch" (Wolf People)

Ah, I just enjoy the hell out of this UK-based psyche/folk band. I don't know or care if they're looking backward or forward in time. Their sound is both intensely rocking and deeply introspective, often within the course of the same song, which is the case of "Night Witch" from their new album Ruins which was released in November. Get it on Bandcamp.

"Someone to Lose" (Wilco)

If you're looking for "interesting", Wilco really never fails to deliver. A band that has one foot in the alt-country and Americana realm, and the other in experimental/indie art rock, they've consistently done cool things for over 20 years. The latest album Schmilco came out in September and, surprising no one, is great. "Someone to Lose" is another superb Jeff Tweedy song... he rarely misses the mark. Get it on iTunes.

"Sleep Easy" (Sam Evian)

Much like the salmon travels hundreds of miles to return to its spawning ground, I've had this huge attraction lately to artists who are showing the influence of the '70s mellow pop/rock vibe. Sam Evian does it, along with a quirky use of timing and cool production stuff that I enjoy. His new album Premium came out in September. Get it on Bandcamp.

"What" (Bart)

I'll freely admit to still having much love in my heart for progressive rock, stemming from my teen years listening to Yes (usually with a bong close by). There's a new style of prog that's become more prevalent in recent years that combines much of what I enjoy in indie rock along with the intricacy and challenging musical skills that attracted me to the original masters of the genre. Bart, a band out of Toronto, has a new album called Holomew that came out in April, and is chock full of that neo-prog vibe that I'm digging so much. Get it on iTunes.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Islands of New England (12.14.16)

The Islands of New England in Second Life is a place where I can always count on having an appreciative and happy crowd. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Readers of this blog must have assumed that I became a hermit and moved to a desolate cave in the mountains after the election, but that isn't the case. Zak Claxton (he said, referring to himself in the third person) doesn't run away from challenges. But the fact is, I use this blog more for reporting on my live shows, and for the last six weeks, since November 1, I've done exactly none of them. It's a busy time of year for me, and I've had to be careful throughout 2016 to divide my musical time wisely between my live performances and the work we did to wrap up and release the They Stole My Crayon album. Last night, I finally got back into Second Life and did a show at The Islands of New England, but -- speaking of 2016 -- there's a point I'd like to make first.

"Why Are All the Musicians Dying?"
It's easy to think that the year 2016 was especially harsh with the passing of so many great musicians. Actually starting with Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister at the very end of December 2015, this past year saw us lose David Bowie, Glenn Frey (Eagles), Paul Kanter (Jefferson Airplane), Maurice White (Earth Wind & Fire), Merle Haggard, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), and a number of other lesser known but still impactful musicians. It's tremendously sad, but there's a pretty mundane reason. The concept of the "rock star" really came into play in the 1960s, with a batch of young men and women who were in their 20s at the time. It stands to reason that the combination of age and -- in some cases -- the rock star lifestyle would eventually take its toll.

Here's what I want you to keep in mind: it's actually surprising how many iconic musicians are still with us, at least for now. Paul McCartney. Mick Jagger. Keith Richards. Neil Young. Joni Mitchell. Roger Waters. Bob Dylan. Pete Townshend. All of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Not only are all of those musicians in their seventies and seemingly vibrant for the most part... many of them are still out rocking live and putting out new music! So, while I get the reason why it seems like we've lost so many inspirational makers of music, the reality is that we're super fortunate that we still have the ones who are still around. On a less happy note, be aware that the end of this seemingly rough year won't mark the end of seemingly immortal rock stars passing away.

The Show
Back to the present. As mentioned above, I hadn't done an SL show in six weeks, and I was a little concerned that my voice and/or guitar playing would be pretty rusty for the show at TIONE. Frankly, they were. However, I'm a much more harsh critic of my own abilities compared to everyone else; most people wouldn't have noted much of a difference from my well-rehearsed abilities, and at least I got through the hour without my voice giving out or my fingers giving up.

As is typical at TIONE, we started with a smallish crowd that built up pretty quickly once I started playing, and we had a great turnout of Zaksters... my good friends/fans who've seen and heard me play hundreds of times. I didn't have any particular theme to what I played, though I did get a couple of tunes in that I hadn't done before. I should also note that it's a special pleasure when I'm performing before or after Lyndon Heart, as I've done many times. He's a great friend, and I sincerely enjoy his show (and not just when he covers my compositions, as he did last night with "The Waiting Boy").

Doing what I do. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Wrapping up my show while the mighty Lyndon Heart awaits in the wings. Photo by Triana Caldera.

TIONE set list...
Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell)
Sex & Candy (Marcy Playground)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
*The Wassail Song (Traditional, arr Zak Claxton)
Man of Constant Sorrow (Traditional)
*From The Beginning (Emerson Lake & Palmer)
Don't Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Peace Love & Understanding (Elvis Costello)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Space Oddity (David Bowie)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Welcome Lyndon Improvisation (Zak Claxton)

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

It's good to be back! Massive thanks to everyone who came out to the show at TIONE, especially the following who helped support it!
Bigfoot Hendrassen, Aurelie Chenaux, Sesh Karachi, Triana Caldera, TheaDee Resident, Roan Blackburn, RansomTalmidge Resident, Brooklyn Breen, not4gods Resident, my great manager Maali Beck, and the wonderful stage manager at TIONE, my friend Christine Haiku!