Category Archives: Music

I Finally Meet Amanda Palmer And It’s All About Darwin

Amanda Palmer and Kai (me)!Amanda Palmer’s experiments in addressing the death of the music model have fed my inner fanboy as much as her passionate music itself. Check her great TED Talk. By embracing new technologies she has made truly immediate, accessible connections with fans. Tweeting photos of herself in the bathroom mirror the morning after a late show. Announcing spontaneous pillow fights on the street. She makes connections and then leaves a hat out, bypassing a whole collapsing industry of leaky money channels and equating direct dollars with love.

Sadly for her musical career, this has meant that she is more often interviewed about her 1.5 million dollar kickstarter campaign (and controversy around her old practices now that she is, “rich”) than her music itself. She also had no idea how to release her next album. In her communal, take it to the people style, she brought together a room full of fans to have a town hall discussion about what’s next. (She also included songstress Zoe Boekbinder) I hammered out a quick essay and, with luck, was invited to attend.

Tech Tech Tech Tech Blech

The most dominant discussion was around a whole range of technologies from Spotify to BandCamp to Kickstarter to Facebook and the fundamental dismay that artists feel when they just want to create something, get it out there for people to hear, and have enough to buy a sandwich while making the next thing. There was a lot of discussion about the challenges of trying to make music while having to be a technical expert, financial wizard, social networking guru and personality. It’s not enough to know how to promote music or set up a website today, because by the time you have another album of material everything will have changed. Nothing that worked before seems to work again a year later.

Music as dialog

Given this type of dialog it was impossible for Zoe Boekbinder to not play the song about technology she had written that morning. At the end of the discussion she brought a guitar to the mic and used it to perform, “I don’t need a machine.” Irony, never being lost on me, lead me to return home and immediately throw together a musical response to the song and the general tone of the event.

link to youtube video

Maybe Darwin makes it all go away

I think one of the most fundamentally intriguing things Amanda brought up during the course of the day was the idea that supporting musicians through buying a physical object like a tape or CD was a phenomenon that was a tiny blip in the history of music. Before this you had to work for the church or other wealthy patron, hold out a tip jar, or charge people to see a show. The wealthy patron format has gone out of style and if paying for recorded music really does die that means that anyone who can’t perform will cease to be supported. That means that for a brief moment in history there was a golden era where introverted artists could make beautiful music and slide it out under the door. If we continue the way we are going, art from that whole spectrum could go away, a huge number of voices silenced. Darwinian and, perhaps, true.

Of course if it’s true that a viable career for introverted artists is going to slip into the history books perhaps that’s an inevitable part of human society’s evolution. Maybe, too, music returns from the realm of “professionals” and back into a place where everyone makes imperfect but delightful music with their families and friends in the evenings. A quick skim of YouTube makes it clear that plenty of people are already doing this by the digital fireside.

I think ultimately the drive to make art is too strong for many to not continue to make it, but there is definitely a sense that without support to provide time and space to practice and create there is only so far they can go.

Suck it up, you’re a plumber now

A reasonable case was also made that musicians may just have to suck it up like every other independent businessperson, from a bicycle mechanic to a cupcake baker. They just want to play with bikes or bake but most of their time is spent figuring out how to promote themselves and handle money. Amanda’s response was that people get into music because they don’t want to, or can’t, handle business, but I really don’t think that’s any different for anyone I know wanting to make chocolate or cupcakes. They are also just as trapped without income if they can’t show up to a job site or come in to cook cupcakes one day. Perhaps music (and, for that matter, writing) have just ceased to be product-based careers. (I’m skipping for the moment that writing, unlike music, has no performance aspect that could generate income. Also noting that I still don’t have a tip jar on this blog.)

Speaking between universes

One of the dynamics in the room that I found most fascinating was watching a techie talk about how she didn’t understand why musicians didn’t just create a co-op based technical solution. Amanda gave a human response, about the challenges of having artists work together and give up control of their images and material. The techie responded again with, “anything is possible”. Being of both worlds myself I could see the disconnect as they each spoke their different languages at each other. Amanda, without an understanding of the process of building software, focused on the human side. The techie saw infinite possibility in knowing she could build absolutely anything technical but that world of infinite possibility didn’t necessarily include the complexity of human behaviors, needs and desires. The solution, if there is one, lies somewhere in between.

Incidents and Calls to Action

At one point a fan in the back row told his story of how he had payed for a crazy expensive flight to Europe to see one of his favorite musicians perform – but hadn’t bought her latest album. On the other hand, he talked about how he was perfectly happy to contribute to helping buy her a piano so that she could make more of the music that he loved. There are clearly dedicated fans who are perfectly happy to throw money, tokens of love, into a bucket for someone they care about. All they need are incidents or calls to action. Amanda’s Kickster was just such an incident. When I heard that there was an opportunity to support her, I jumped at it and threw some money behind the project. I had given her money in the past and I could have given her money any time in the weeks or months before the Kickstarter but I didn’t. Helping pay for her meals would have allowed her to focus on her art and contribute in just the same way. But I needed a reminder and an opportunity, and this opportunity was particularly well flavored in that it gave me the sense that my contribution was directly contributing to getting the art I loved made.

But

All in all there were some interesting points but, of course, no real conclusions and it left a melancholy about an already sad reality. It helped a little to get an awkward fan photo with one of my heroes but then I made a bumbling ass of myself in our discussion and had to walk away evaluating each moment like I was 13 and just bumped into my crush in the hallway at school. It was just another demonstration of the power of human contact and perhaps brings us right back around to the fact that our artists may just have to learn to shake hands with, hug, and sing for their bumbling fans until we find another way.

The Bus Stop Warbler Can’t Be Stopped

Look, I’m just going to be honest about this. The Bus Stop Warbler can’t be stopped. A new passion and fearlessness has overtaken me and blurred the lines between public and private. Now, I hear what you’re saying. Shouldn’t that irritating racket be coming from a bedroom or bathroom or sealed vault? Hear me out or, fortunately for you on the internet, read me out.

After my snowboarding wreck I wasn’t able to play guitar for many months and the craving for musical expression was so intense I needed some kind of outlet. Something that didn’t require hands. Something portable. Something that bent with the flow of the soul. I poured through hundreds of websites and videos and finally pushed the button that sent a harmonica to my door.

Here in San Francisco, there isn’t much private space and there is a hell of a lot of waiting. Specifically, waiting for the archaic bus system that crawls through the streets at its own time and whim, that becomes tired and uncooperative at night and that leaves silence for hours — silence waiting for The Bus Stop Warbler.

The Bus Stop WarblerAt first I worried about how my practice sessions would be received. It’s not music yet, mostly a series of honking and squealing sounds. I think it was the second time I was brave enough to bust out at a bus stop. There I was, honking and squealing away. I was a little bit self conscious but tried to focus on squeezing out a real note. Behind me, a woman stood alone screaming obscenities into the air. It wasn’t very coherent, just an endless streaming rant about fecal matter, socially inappropriate sex and the like. The honking, the screaming… sounds of the city. No one so much as glanced our way. The people have spoken and my choice of venue has been accepted.

The Magic Harp Switch

Years ago in a move of legendary historical hackery, someone figured out that by drawing air through the harmonica in the right way it made the “wrong” note. The pitch went flat, even as far as several notes down. While originally seen as a flaw in the design, blues players realized that by basing the musical scale on the second hole the notes that “bent” out of tune allowed them to play a blues scale. Better yet, bending made it possible to be really expressive as you slowly twisted the notes from one to the next, and generally sounded significantly more awesome.

Now the bend, as it turns out, has another special power. It works much like a surf board. When you catch your first big wave, there is a rush of hormones and some irrepressible shout or squeal is released as a switch snaps in your head and suddenly you become… a surfer. Waves never look the same again. There is a deep longing to be back in motion. You dream about the drop.

When, after huffing and puffing away on the harp you suddenly feel that crazy resonating deep in your belly as the pitch suddenly dives… it’s on. The moment you catch your first bend a little toy suddenly becomes a soul extender. I may still be honking and squealing, but the harp switch is on. I don’t go a day without messing with it, and I carry a harmonica everywhere I go.

Gotta Be Different

Now, being that there is an internet, I couldn’t help but wonder what had come of harmonica innovation. It turns out that someone (Brandon Power) realized that the way the harmonica was being played was still a hack to a device of 200 years ago. What if you designed a harmonica knowing from the start that you were going to use it for bending? He figured out what makes notes bend (it has to do with both the draw and blow reeds for the same hole resonating together based on their pitch difference) and created a new tuning that allows all of the draw notes to be bent.

One of the most frustrating things about the harmonica to me, as someone who’s played music most of my life, is that the Richter scale, the standard on harmonicas, is designed for playing chords. Because of this there are a lot of missing notes in between. Brandon’s, “Powerbender” tuning allows you to play almost every note just by using the already awesome bending hack. I had to have one of these harps. Being that there is a China, he was able to get harmonicas with his tuning produced cheaply enough that I could afford to have one shipped from London. Now I’m playing the Godfather theme, Summertime, and random other things that require key changes and weird accidentals.

I cannot be stopped.

Earn It

My next step is to get good enough that I can Warble somewhere that people will throw me change. I figure it starts at the 16th and Mission stop, where there is enough chaos and madness that anything sounds good. I really want a better harmonica in the new tuning, but I refuse to buy it unless I can use money I’ve earned on the street. Only then will I have proved myself worthy. Until then look for daily sightings of the Warbler. Throw me a quarter or ignore me – I’m inspired either way.

Well Blued

blue moon roadhouse
While many frolicked in the high winds and long dusty white outs in the Black Rock Desert this last weekend, some gathered to commemorate the event here in Austin at an event called Orfunner. (‘Cause we’re all burn orphans for the year!) It was like a little “taste of Burning Man” with one flame throwing car, one thump throwing DJ, a couple of fire spinners and two small chill domes. At the center of it all, like something flown in from another time and place, was the glow of the outrageously overdone Blue Moon Roadhouse featuring live mad-lib sock puppet blues karaoke and, among others, me.

kai sets up
As my last film project has been winding down I’ve been allowing the long stifled and barely contained musical Kai to emerge. The result has been a slew of song ideas and a nearly insatiable desire to play guitar. I was struggling to get some tech work done the other day but I kept finding myself mired deep in guitar porn, checking out old videos of Stevie Ray or websites of minutia about the history of the EVH Wolfgang guitars. This was intensely frustrating because web surfing for guitar porn wasn’t anywhere on my priority list. I wasn’t getting tech work done and I wasn’t playing guitar either.

At last I just picked up my old Strat and played my heart out for the last few hours before going to bed. The lights were out and I’d just dropped my head onto pillow when I could almost hear the snapping sound as the relays clacked over in my brain. Suddenly I knew just how I was going to restructure my tech solution and solve my problem. Brains are mysterious things that way.

ke, kai, and michael 7.0 getting into it

So I decided that it would be worth heading out to Orfunner for a day to do nothing else but play guitar all day with my friends at the blues bar. I pulled up, loaded my gear into the tent, and we started practicing immediately. Everyone left for a break and I goaded Nobodobodon up on stage to tell some really terrible jokes, in part so that I could keep vamping away behind him.

When night arrived to drape the Blue Moon Roadhouse in the more appropriate robes of murky darkness, the bar rose to take it’s place in a long history. The walls were dipped in blue light and the bar tables were moons. A hand painted, full sized cityscape backdrop filled in behind the band. Along the pilers were framed photographs of BB King, Jimmy Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn and, of course, Patrick Swayze who appeared in the film, “Roadhouse”.

The first notes chords of Red House punched from the ancient speakers, leapt out into the night and immediately began grabbing people by the ears and dragging them in. Soon the club filled with tiki-cup wielding patrons and hooting tutu clad cowboys. With Michael’s heckling and my reassurances we were able to get quite a few people to step up to the mic. Some were actually quite good vocalists and improvisors but most made use of the stacks of cue cards written mad-lib style by the audience members. They were everywhere, intently scribbling out tales of their deepest woes with sharpies. Lost cats. Shaving cuts. Embarrassing unintentional bowl movements.

brian rush on drums

There were swing dancers and guest musicians. We even took things down a peg for a few jazzy spoken word numbers. The band sounded good, gelled well and did a great job of working together to come up with off the cuff musical bits, dropping right into grooves and playing off of each other. The sound system Aaron put together was fantastic, and I couldn’t get over how well my old friend, my pink ’62 re-issue Strat, was singing. My playing is a hundredfold better when I sound good and can hear myself well. My friend Jose had been out of town for quite a while and despite my having grown a beard and lost the glasses, he claimed the reason he couldn’t recognize me right off was my playing. “You were playing so much better than I remember that, combined with the hat, I thought you were some great seasoned old blues guy!”

In trying to duck out quickly the next morning I was only waylaid once for an hour or two, and it was time well spent getting to know some people I’d been wanting to talk to for a while. I loaded up the van and cruised back to town to be welcomed by my projects now freshly infused with life and proceeded to knock out both code and video editing progress like they were the best things in life.

How Smashing Rocks Forced Me to Hear Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan never really had any appeal to me until the universe woke up one day and decided to introduce us in a manner to which I am most receptive: complete meltdown. In May of 2004 the Flipside effigy was a giant six armed monkey that spewed fire. You could hear his trumpeting, honking cry for miles every time the fire bursts shook his tiny rubber valve seals. I had broken my foot rock climbing that year and so I was hopping around on crutches when I discovered that my girlfriend of two years had run off with a mutual “friend”. I couldn’t hear the monkey sing over the roar of the engine as I stole my suddenly ex-girlfriend’s car and floored it along the dirt road away from the event. I drove north out of Texas until I could drive no more and, after at last taking a moment to figure out where I was, aimed west towards the mountains.

As I was winding my way up into the Rockies, I pulled out a CD by a musician friend I’d met working at SxSW. She was a singer songwriter type, and as I was a musician primarily interested in strange changes and weird jazzy improvisations, I found the idea of three strummed chords mind numbingly tedious. Somewhere in the mountain air was a voice asking for it, though, and I wasn’t in any state to argue so I popped the pink and yellow disk into the little slot on the dash to wait and see what would come out. After an hour I had mixed feelings about the CD in general, but for the first time I found that I was listening to the lyrics more than the song. It made me wonder about the heralded icon of the genre, Bob Dylan. I wondered if that’s what I’d been missing when I had dismissed him years ago.

For some inconceivable reason my haste had been so great that I hadn’t brought a guitar with me. I set myself on a mission, that as soon as I took a little time to smash some large rocks and scream at the sky, the next order of business would be to find a cheap acoustic.

As I walked empty handed out of the first pawn shop I found, I passed an old guy arguing with a little kid of about thirteen. “Man I’m telling you, you don’t even understand. After Blood on the Tracks…” at this point the old guy looked up at me and noticed my stare as I processed the coincidence of coming across an argument about Dylan. “Do you wanna get in on this?” “No,” I said, “but do you know where I could find a used record store?”

The first place didn’t even have a single Dylan CD in the racks. On the way to the next one, I wandered into a T-shirt shop. The walls were covered with posters, but two faces looked out from 90% of them: Albert Einstein and Bob Dylan. I was beginning to wonder if Boulder was secretly a shrine for an underground cult hidden in the mountains.

Two record shops later I took a break to walk into a coffee shop. They didn’t have WIFI and so I pulled out my paper notebook to scribble about my experiences so far. As I was writing I suddenly paused to squint and listen to the music piping through the old speakers tacked to the wall. In the time it took me to nurse my cup of twiggy green tea, they played the same Dylan album twice through.

Now I was really an unstoppable force. The cult of Bob was reaching out to me in every way it knew how. I cruised neighborhoods until at last I got a strong signal to my laptop and the universe we call the internets beamed me a crude copy of “Blood on the Tracks”. It didn’t even have breaks between songs. And yet there it was. Track three.