The box arrived from Cascade on one of those scorching late July afternoons that make your mind wander back to luxurious days of youthful Summer boredom.
I’d been looking up and down the block on the hour, awaiting that brown block of UPS benevolence, like a fat kid straining his ear for the creepy ice cream truck jingle.
As I tore into the box, it seemed a lifetime removed from those rainy Winter days we first started this project.
And then I actually held it, shrinkwrapped and tight, the final product.
We had been through those tortuous post production days of artwork and finalization, listening to different mixes and masters til we were sick of the new songs already.
Liner notes edited and thrown out entirely, the usual bitching about fonts and band photos (I like this one, even if you do look fat!).
But that same familiar thrill returns when holding the record in hand.
It took us back to those Posh Boy days of the early 80’s when we would go down to Zed’s or Best Records to actually hold the vinyl, even smell it—the actual, physical manifestation of creativity and sweat, those dreams and curses sheathed within 12 x 12 cardboard.
TKO Records had graciously agreed to release the record under their relaunched flag, though we were pretty much on our own as far as the nasty business of promoting the goddamn thing to the masses.
Not a worry though, as we had our old mate Hector taking over as the launch manager, and Promo Pro Mike Cubillos signing on to help with the mysterious art of press promotions.
We have learned that a new project is only new for a shockingly brief amount of time, so we shamelessly shilled the platter to any site and rag that would have us.
We considered the launch a success when we finally got a mention in HardTimes!
And so the album came out with some nice fanfare, got our name on the radar for a shining, if not necessarily long, blip of existence.
Proof of life means everything to a band going on 4 decades: Hey, we’re still here-yo.
But like a spent holiday season, the anticipation and celebration are quickly forgotten, and you’re left to wander barefoot through a den littered with torn wrapping paper and broken toys.
It’s back to the daily grind.
They say you always think your latest song is your best.
And as with children, you are not supposed to pick your favorite, but yeah-the baby.
Perhaps it’s because as you lay there in the afterglow of maternity and hold this shining nugget of promise in your hands for the first time, anything is possible.
Inevitably, this little shit will grow up to crash your car and steal all the beer out of the garage fridge, but for now, this kid can do no wrong.
The record splashed out and took its place in our uneven catalog.
We are able to cull two, maybe three songs off of it to slip in among the 1982 songs that everyone tonight only wants to hear.
Hey look, we get it.
The best we can hope for is a few hundred people giving our new stuff a chance, maybe listening through a track before going off to the next level of Candy Crush.
More likely, we’ll get the wan blue thumbs up! on Facebook, the digital stamp of approval that passes for acknowledgement these days. And that’s OK.
We look at it as a snapshot of these times, our hostage note to our future selves that we lived and hopefully survived these truly disturbing times.
And if nothing else, we end up with something to hold, the validation that matters mainly to ourselves.
..there was a girl and boy, then there’s just a boy
Sometimes he wears her dresses and breaks his sister’s toys
Yeah, another one. Goddamnit.
I hear ya, when are we gonna get over these fuckin studio posts and get back to what the people really want: boozy stories of 1983 tour life, huh?
Hey, I’m getting tired of this too, and I have to write this stuff.
So settle down.
The tracks are full now, and the last couple meetings in the studio are like walkthroughs of a newly constructed house: we wander the walls, running our hands over flawed drywall textures, add another note to the punchlist for final clean up.
Nick is in there now with a Dr. Seussian box of shakers and percussion toys, coaxing out the sproinks and klik klaks that will subliminally flavor the tracks.
I clean up a few lines, mumbled verses and cheesy lyrics replaced.
I go back into the vocal booth and make some harmony passes on few tracks, but it turns out just awful.
Jim gives me the note, I sing it fine a few times, but when the track is rolling I just end up doubling the lead track.
It’s as if I cannot separate my self from that other guy, can’t channel my inner Keef to yowl a plaintive 3rd above the original line.
We consider just using the ‘ol group chorus on every fuckin song, that old standby that reduces every nuanced melody to a drunken football chant.
Fuck that though, we need help.
Put in the call, and get Steve Soto in here!
Lucky we are, Steve is not out on the road with one of his dozen acts this evening.
Hard working bastard that he is, the guy is on in constant motion worldwide to ply his trade, guitar or bass in hand, sweet voice soaring above us all.
We meet at the studio and it turns into an three hour chat fest.
We tell inside jokes, repeat road stories we all know by heart, gossip like catty teenagers about scandalous band rumors.
We talk of the very real aches and pains of our age, the wonder that we are still allowed to play this stuff and get paid.
We talk about Gabby, recently gone, and wonder what, if anything, can replace the hole he punched through the local music scene.
Then Steve goes into the vocal booth alone, gives Jim the ok to roll through one time.
I watch as he marks the lyric sheet here and there, nodding to himself as he hears the voice missing.
And then we roll through again, red light on, and he nails it.
Effortless as lying to a cop.
He puts the missing note to each of the tracks then, sometimes going back a second and third pass to layer them yet even higher.
We got a wall of Soto going here.
We do the listen through again, rough mixed and everything up.
The record is done.
..the stars you stare at every night, the language of the sky
Velvet Elvis is in the room.
Velvet Elvis always accompanies us to any studio work, the first thing brought into the room and placed with care. A talisman to chase out the gremlins lying in wait.
Velvet Elvis has a teardrop dripping from his eye, one that lengthens imperceptibly each time we call upon his mighty powers.
When we first found him at the Tijuana border crossing some 25 years ago, there was no teardrop visible. But now, liquid sorrow threatens to moisten the King’s crimson scarf.
A testament to all the tortured hours in those muted rooms.
Playback upon playback of the off-key thrashers he has had to endure.
Recording can be a nerve-wracking process, the right take is always the next one, or worse, the one you just deleted. The clock mercilessly ticks away the recording budget as the guitars go inevitably out of tune.
Whether it is just a one day session or we are camping out in the room for a month, the studio becomes home. A place of heightened senses and bad jokes. Any small comforts that can recreate the bedroom of song birth or the familiar warmth of the musty practice room are brought along.
We’ve been to a lot of studios. From the heady temples with actual receptionists guarding the gates and taking coffee orders, to the bedroom affairs of egg crate insulation and Ikea consoles.
We unbelievably spent a couple weeks at Gold Star studio, home of the Wrecking Crew and the horrors of Phil Spector.
We once were gifted a couple days at Val Garay’s lofty studio in Topanga Canyon, a gated temple best known for producing Kim Carnes’ hardcore classic, Bette Davis Eyes.
We loaded our torn cabinets into the pristine rooms to discover we missed Neil Young and Crazy Horse by mere hours.
Our consolation was found in the overflowing ashtrays, each containing highly potent inch long roaches, sucked on by the soprano Canadian himself.
Those sessions created no memorable tracks but some wicked munchies if I recall.
We loaded into the feisty Racket Room, nestled in a somber Santa Ana business Park.
It was a wet rainy night, everyone burnt a bit from the long days of pre production. The plan was to get a jump on load in, set up drums and amps and start getting some sounds. Come back the next day and the hit the Matrix hard.
Our old pal Jim Monroe would be helming the console once again, an old friend from the Doctor Strange sessions back in 2002. We shared an appreciation for wry irony and Beatles stories, could finish the punchlines to tales told 15 years ago.
Never shy to warn us when the cheese factor got too high or the vocals got too shrieky, Jim started us off with his favorite line, one that would be repeated enough in the following days to qualify as religious mantra: Hey, that guitar, ya wanna check the tuning again?
Set up is quick, a mere moment compared to the nightmare of the 80’s when snare sounds would take up a full 8 hour session. Ah, those days of drum triggers and hair spray, when the drums were modded out to sound like anything but actual drums. The sonic goal, rather, was to sound like shotgun blasts taking down weather balloons in a galvanized geodesic dome.
Satisfied with the setup, a quick check of the amps on hand, finally settling on a funky old JCM 800 that Jim was using as a footrest. We made plans to come back sharp at 10am and start tracking.
You’ve heard the stories of The King in the studio, laying on the floor in a darkened booth, willing the almighty performance of If I Can Dream up to the heavens.
Elvis would wring out each song, this after ninety minutes warming up corny gospel numbers with the Jordanaires, singing a dozens of takes. Each one a jewel.
I imagine the engineers, bewildered, as E would call for yet another rollback, another pass.
He was searching for something, as ethereal as faith, unreachable from even his pinnacle.
He’d finally take off the headphones and drawl, ya know, that one, what was it, take 24?
…..way back where she comes from, the sun goes down in flame
And when she shuts her eyes she sees it all again
She brings her brush down to paint
I circle LAX once again, here to pick up Jay on the eve of Superbowl 51.
Eyes peeled for that familiar tangle of crimson hair and insouciant jawline.
It’s a tricky task though, as the usually insane avenues of the International Terminal are now overflowing with protesters of Trump’s latest threats to humane Immigration Policy.
And just days earlier, he had let loose this gem:
You got that? You know it’s VERY IMPORTANT BECAUSE IT IS TYPED IN ALL CAPS!
Nothing like a little insane non-information to set our anxiety levels to nuclear.
I imagine him lying on his princess bed, typing out these babies on a Hello Kitty clamshell while Melania braids his hair: Our Leader.
Anyway, the thrum of the Drum Circles and war cries of the hijab wearing masses gives the arriving travelers a glimpse of this Blade Runnery, dystopioid, really cool Los Angeles if it were not also really terrifying.
Jay finally crosses the Police Line and jumps into the Ford Focus and can only say what anyone would. What the Fuck?
When we reported to the spare Brian Elliott Studios in North Hollywood to lay down the Fear of Life Record– I’m thinkin, what?, 1958? Posh Boy had sent Jay Lansford down to keep an eye on things.
We were a bit intimidated of course, Jay being the very epitome of LA cool rocker in those days.
Oh, he had done his time in the punk trenches, with the legendary Simpletones as well as with a dozen other acts that formed and broke up while we were still lip syncing Starz songs in the mirror.
By the time we were ready to set the punky rocky world on its pierced ear, he had already burnt out of those days and was now nipping at PopRock stardom with the awesome Stepmothers.
But we hit it off right away, and he famously filled in as bassist on the Lights Out Summer tour 1983, and blah blah, you know the rest. What am I, fuckin’ Wikipedia over here? Do your own homework kid!
But yeah, we shared the same pop sensibilities, always suckers for melody and not afraid to dip our toes into the cheese vat, if not too a bit too often for the hardcore crowd.
When it was time to get back to work on this record, it was only natural we bring it back to its wobbly roots and have Jay as producer.
We wove our way out of the packed airport and onto the packed 405, and caught up on all the insanity of his former home.
Jay had successfully escaped to a fine Germanic lifestyle decades before, and I could tell he was attacked now, lights too bright and voices too loud. We made a pinky promise to not bring up the T word the rest of the week, and to get to business of the Rock at hand.
A quick dinner and bed, for a full week of work lay before us.
After a fitful night of sleep, we got Jay up on a rainy Superbowl Sunday and headed over to Nick’s rehearsal room in Signal Hill.
It was Nick’s first time meeting Jay, though they had communicated almost telepathically through the song clips bouncing back and forth over the Atlantic this past month.
Ant, he knew Jay from European tours past. And Kimm, hell, Jay probably still has some of his underwear, borrowed from 1984. Familia reunited.
Pre production seems to come down to editing really.
That really cool idea for a 4th verse? can it.
A bridge there, solo here? nah.
We’d learned through the years that our listener had a short attention span and even shorter temper for our hijinks, so we made each song a quick punch and weave.
Intro and done before the listener even had a chance to move a lazy finger hit NEXT: Beat ya to it bub!
We broke down the songs to just drum and bass, now pinpointing downbeat to downstroke, then got into the very color of rhythm guitar.
A small resolve here and there, some key changes on a track that was charmingly out of my old man vocal range.
Two tracks left untitled and unplayed.
Countdown to tracking: 75 hours.
There was one track that we didn’t really have a handle on yet, but we knew it was the pop song.
But it just wouldn’t spark just yet, and was in danger of being tossed aside for something else.
Late in the day we chopped up the verses to give it some breathing room, and it all fell into place.
Nice when that happens!
We left the room exhausted at sundown, ears ringing and fingers grooved by steel string.
A light rain still fell and the industrial streets of Signal Hill now glittered like an abandoned outlying arrondissement in Paris. I had to wonder, did Jay regret leaving his Safe European Home for this?
What would you think, to come back to the cultural, political, black smoke cauldron we have become?
I accompanied Jay over to King Neptunesto catch the game in progress with his brother, former Rams place kicker Mike Lansford.
I’d met Mike a few times before, once notably at a pre season bash he threw in the Anaheim Hills when they played at the Big A down below. Hell, I could’ve gotten a selfie & autographed Wilson from Eric Dickerson, but was far too interested in the ignored keg of beer in the landscaped backyard to pay attention to the NFL Royalty inside.
The bar is packed with the usual Superbowl suspects, all flashing Bud Lite visors and Jagermeister beads, conversations shouted over the blaring televisions. Enormous amounts of greasy treats are washed down by watery beers, burps are encouraged and judged by tone and volume.
The locals howl at the commercials, repeating the inane punchlines to each other with jabs to the ribs. And now here comes Lady Gaga, floating down into the stadium suspended by a Goodyear Blimp that is being towed by a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk.
I truly anticipate her tremendous tits to now shoot red white and blue laser beams into the sky, bringing a bald eagle down in a flaming ball on the 50 yard line.
Somewhere in the bar, someone starts up a chant to make America Great!….Again!
I look over at Jay who now clutches 32 ounces of shitty American lager while a girl in a Falcons jersey tries to stick her tongue in his ear. It is as if he is being force-fed AMERICA in one terrible sitting.
We may have allowed you to leave once, but we will always have you!
I left them there with the Pats trailing 28 to 9–nine! I mean, who comes back from that?
I went home to work on the lyrics a bit more, get ready for a full day of guitar and drum work with Jay and Nick.
But when I got home, the game was still on, overtime now, with those goddamn Patriots coming back with 19 unanswered points in the fourth.
And as they embraced the most cliché of all Hollywood endings, rode the very atmosphere of triumph into a stunning victory, I shut off the TV and thought of the project ahead.
A success in the face of impossible odds, after all.
That was all we were asking for as well.
….the crack in your heart let the light turn black, hope all turn to gloom What will load each empty chamber? Which caliber of doom?
Not sure what constitutes the family dinner table these days.
Perhaps you can get them all together in the same room for a meal, all gluten-free and vegan approved, doled out by Blue Apron or UberEats. We open the right app on a screen and are rewarded with nutrition, reduced to lab rats pushing the correct button after all.
Conversation is now replaced by the swipe and click of a half-dozen personal screens, each member of the tribe on a different episode of Stranger Things–ahem!
We were lucky enough to enjoy the last vestiges of the nightly hearth back in the 1970’s, modeled after the Bradys in their rancho deluxo tract home: Dad at one side of table, mom at the other and grandma, Obaasan, hovering over us all.
We all somehow had a sense that the end of innocence was coming very soon, but for a brief golden moment each weekday evening, we could relax with our family as a whole. Milk shooting out of nostrils upon punchline, curse words tested in front of the parents, inside jokes amongst brothers and sisters: living in a big family, this is the stuff you remember.
Now someone tips his chair backwards completely.
Mash potatoes splatter, undetectable upon the asbestos moonscape of the ceiling.
The Doctor would put down knife and fork and wipe his mouth. He’d look around the table, bewildered by the savages he can barely still recognize, and ask, “What’s so funny?”
The modern day campfire, that’s where you learn the personal history of your family. Dad’s earliest days on the frozen streets of Philly, Grandma coming over from Hawaii to cook food for Ojiisan’s shady Yakuza-adjacent cronies.
And of course around that table is where we first heard the stories of the Internment Camps of WWII.
Mom and her brothers being forced from home, bringing only what they could carry. Grandpa burying his precious ceremonial swords to keep the hovering Oakies from grabbing them as they would ransack the house-a home!– that would be vacant tomorrow.
They would live along the pungent paddocks of Santa Anita before being shipped away. Mom would tell of her adolescent years in a prison camp, the camp dances and boys, and it sounded almost quaint.
But I recall that inexpressible rage. It was history, but not in the History books.
That would come back to the surface when we first got into a recording studio for the track Manzanar.
The connection between inspiration and the memories absorbed by your DNA, well, it’s about the best you can hope for when you get to the lyrics. You hear those stories, that familial poetry often enough, and it becomes the very myth of your life.
A tale that has been left half written, awaiting you to come up with the ending.
We’d been working steadily on the songs the last month. We had a pretty good handle on which ones would be recorded, which ones we’d let go.
In the strange transatlantic process we were now comfortable with, we would track each session and Dropbox the batch over to producer Jay. He would peruse with his morning mug of Kaffee in Hanover as we slumbered through the Pacific Standard witching hours. He’d email his notes (Cheesy. Cut in half. The Producer will allow it-once!) and then we’d repeat the process.
Everyone had their own homework on the tasks that lay ahead. Kimm gets to work on guitar parts, Nick comes in with new beats each session, whittling the parts into songs. Anthony washes his DOA shirt in preparation for bass tracking day.
So now it was time for me start naming these new pets, baptizing some of the tracks with silly working titles, while others seemed to have the words jumping forth from the very subliminal code of their beat and key.
In the past I would have the songs complete, and report to recording Day One with notebooks of hilariously self important lyrics written down to the pompous semicolon.
Let the songs tell us what they wanna be called, wot?
Still, gotta stay ahead of things. You search your battered matter for inspiration, jot down a grip of song titles in the middle of the night that will appear absolutely stupid in the morning light.
I drive around aimlessly blasting the rehearsal tracks over Bluetooth, screaming inane phrases into a digital recorder, hoping something might stick.
We had that one strange off tempo song, all minor key and empty space. The stepping off point was of course London Calling, the rhythmic strike of guitar, the spare line of lead mirroring the Simononesque bass hook of the victim.
On the television, our new leader continued his frenzied hate rallies, as if he was unaware the election was over–and he won!
The chants of Build a Wall, of Put her in Jail!, well.
What we had here, apparently, was leadership built of bumper stickers.
The national discourse now reduced to slogans embroidered on red baseball caps.
Fuck you. No, Fuck you.
There is always that racist undercurrent to anything this guy says, and you get the sense that it is just a matter of time before he starts yelling Nigger! or Chink! to his frothing masses. I am reminded of the spark, the inner twinge of pain that brought forth Manzanar and how, sadly, that bitter ember is stoked again.
I am back at the dinner table, listening to those stories of injustice. Acts of hate disguised as patriotism.
Fighting words, hurled like buckets of feces from both sides of a wall that is threatened to grow ever larger.
And so we boil it down to its schoolyard essence, Put ‘Em Up.
….she pointed at her heart then she pointed my way
She shook her head no, that was all she had to say….
January, and we gather on rainy nights and–would ya believe?-even Saturday afternoons!– to sift through the riffs (and raff) that have collected the past few years.
Now we are into that messy business of assembling parts into songs: throwing out the stuff that simply doesn’t come into form, coaxing out structures from disjointed bits.
I imagine an exhausted working mom coming home and staring into the fridge, wondering what sort of meal she can throw together from the chilled ingredients staring back at her.
It’s harsh business at times, you bring in a part that sounded just huge when you were playing it on the couch last night, but once you play it for the lads it is met with a shrug and meh.
You’ve brought the latest finger painted masterpiece home, but this one will not be hung on the refrigerator.
So you throw it out and move to something else, try to get a grip on how that can become a song.
There was one sketch that Jay sent me that kept coming back in each session.
4 derivatives of a D chord, played on the beat 1-3-5-7 simple and pure.
But what the hell we gonna do with that?
We hauled it out each time and stumbled along until giving up and throwing it back on the pile til next session.
But it only takes a small reflection to get a handle on a song, a different perspective.
A glimpse that reveals that thing, like a print or sculpture viewed from a side alcove of the gallery instead of from straight on: Ah.
The riff of course echoed Clash City Rockers, so we set about to basically rip that off, down to the very break (yeah yeah!) in verse two.
We call it homage, not plagiarism, by the way.
We’ve found that if you start with a song in mind, you’ve got a nice jumping off point, but it ends up somewhere else indeed.
Most people have this strange Déjà vu tingle when they listen to it, but they can’t quite place it, unless some asshole comes right out and explains the trick.
So now we have a handle on what we’re gonna do, time to start putting the parts together on chart.
Of course we can’t read music, silly–much less write it!
So we jot down notes, making up names as we go along, anything to jog the battered memories for the next time we tackle the song in progress.
We come across a series of descending chords and a brief intellectual discussion on the actual musical term ensues:
What is that, what ya call it, a glissando? Opposite of crescendo?
Nah man, that’s a modulation redux! Look it up….
What? Get the fuck outta here, that’s what’s know as retardāre.
You’re the Retard!
No you are…!
We settle on calling it a dogleg, for lack of any better term, and move on.
When you write a new song, you can’t help but compare yourself to that 19 year old kid that so effortlessly made up a song that somehow connected way back when.
You come to the realization. You are not going to write like that kid, you are not going to sound like him.
There has been a lifetime of pain and boredom, a novel of hilarity and small index of triumphs.
So better or worse, we are on the other side of that divide: can’t call it wisdom, pray it’s not cynicism, but we have become separated from the idealistic kids in the garage, and can only wave to them from other side.
All day long we hear him cry, he says that he was framed….
When we start a new project it’s like staring at a blank wall, paintbrush in hand.
You can’t quite believe you are going to end up-some time, somewhere-with a fully painted upstairs. But you gotta start somewhere.
Jay had been on me for five years at least. Sending tapes in the mail, actual cassettes recorded in his home in Hanover, Germany. Then reluctant concessions to the binary technologies, emailed wav files of song snippets.
C’mon man, he would message in the middle of the night. You guys need a new record—you hear anything here?
Kimm would show up to practice with a riff or two. I kept the usual journal full of lyrics and song titles, scribbled down in those odd moments of inspiration that strike in traffic jams or upon awaking from feverish dreams.
But somehow, it just never seemed like the right time to lay down a new album.
Truthfully, you ask yourself, why?
If our most notable achievement has been to just continue playing, well, you can’t really blame the people who come to see us for wanting to hear those songs.
Oh, you know. That first EP, Fear of Life, that’s the stuff we are known for.
And you have to be goddamn grateful that you can travel around and have a handful of people know some songs you wrote alone in your bedroom, a whole lifetime removed from the creaky old guy who’s onstage tonight.
The set list inevitably reflects that: We hit em 1-2-3!, Fear of Life, Catholic Boy, Manzanar–boom.
You see a 50-year-old man in the crowd come alive, see this former 16-year-old kid somehow awaken by the gleam in his eye. He hands his beer to his frowning wife and pulls up his pants by the belt loops before jumping headlong into the pit. He shows the kids how to open this goddamned thing up! and he’s singing along with the lyrics I have honestly forgotten and mumble, winging it. The song ends and he raises his arms triumphantly, lets out a whoo! towards the ceiling. He looks expectantly to the stage for the next song:
Got a Gun? Maybe fuckin’ Separate Peace! Love that one!
Now, this one here, here comes a new one, I’ll say, just recorded last year……,and the light goes out.
He tucks his shirt back in and grabs his beer, swallows it down and guides the wife outside for a smoke.
You’ve lost the momentum started by 35-year-old songs and the people catch their breath, make their way to the bar for a refill. Or – worst of all-peer down, faces illuminated by the tell-tale glow of cellular phone and check their Facebook messages while you stumble through a new one.
Yeah, every veteran band knows this routine. Do you stick to the safety of the crowd favorites, or feed the creative soul and throw out some new stuff?
Some artists refuse to play the songs the crowd loves *cough* Paul Weller *cough* for fear of living in that past, no matter how glorious.
I didn’t want to play the song That gave people so much hope I turned my back and turned away Here’s the rope that made me choke
But earlier this year, finally, it was back to work.
We had an unusually rainy winter, perfect for getting together on the weekends and woodshedding some ideas. And then you have fuckin Mike Love as Commander -in -Chief now, so some of that teen indignation is resurrected, embers from yesterday’s campfire brought back to glowing red by the breeze.
Jay set a hard date-Superbowl Sunday!- to come out and start pre-production, so we started working backwards. Set a recording date, brought out all the tapes and notes.