There’s some allure for me in music attached to a geography that I also am attached to. Last week I watched a documentary called “It’s Gonna Blow: San Diego’s Music Underground 1986-1996“. It was pretty good. I’ve gathered some “dots” of information about the San Diego music scene past, but this helped me connect them and make a little more sense of it.
Hearing about some of this stuff in a chronological context reminded me a lot of some things that I saw and heard about in Lafayette. In my formative years (1998-ish) there, I ran a local music website, and at one point around 2001, my friend Pat was kind enough to write me a fairly comprehensive history of the Lafayette music scene from his vantage point. It coincides with the timespan covered in the aforementioned movie quite well, and I’d guess that similar other stories across the country match too. Kind of a Dischord Records to post-Seattle era. I can’t tell if this was a particularly good window of time for music, or if I’m just partial because it’s when I was young and into music.
As I’m trying to establish myself here in San Diego, I’ve found that I’m gravitating towards music again. I’m just a few blocks from a great concert venue that a lot of locals and larger names play, and I think that finding myself in that fray reminds me how much accumulated knowledge, and maybe even skill I have in the area.
While I’ve been thinking more deeply philosophically about music, expression and identity, I bumped into a couple of interesting articles. The first, The Assault on Intellect: How Popular Music’s Lyrics Perpetuate American Idiocy cites work by Andrew Powell-Morris on the topic of “Lyrical Intelligence” wherein the author uses some rubric to determine the reading level of lyrics on the billboard charts over the past 10 years and graphs it all out. The takeaway is that lyrically, pop music is getting dumber.
I don’t necessarily agree with the metric – I think I’d like to somehow measure the depth of the themes of the songs as well as the instrumental maturity.. but nevertheless, it’s a pretty interesting idea, and one that has crossed my mind in the past. Notably, I remember a paraphrase from a friend back in Lafayette on the topic of local bands – “I don’t like local bands; They all try to make their music difficult”. The last half of that certainly has some salience to me. I remember playing in one of my longer running bands, Summerfield, and trying so hard to create something original and challenging. I’ve come to understand this as something of an appeal to ego, but doesn’t make me value it any less. I think the flip side is a band that can go play a three chord song that people enjoy dancing to. Both are valid in their own ways.. Why I’m attracted more to the former, I don’t know. Leaving a lasting mark? Advancing an artform? Self fulfillment from conquering a challenge?
Back to the literature review though.. I saw another article around the same time that referenced a GZA interview on the topic of the absence of lyricism in modern hip-hop. I’ve heard a little of this material before in other interviews with the rapper, but this was a broader collection of ideas. GZA’s criteria of quality aren’t that well organized, but I’ll attempt to capture them in bullet point format here:
discussing the art of MCing
good sentence structure
not about negative things (?)
having a message
telling a great story
grabbing you / pulling you in
I see three main themes in these items.. The first is embracing a kind of “meta” culture – describing your rapping skills, and maybe even bragging about them. This is definitely a prominent element in most music styles, but I’m not sure if is really a strong thread in what makes lyrics “good”, at least not for me, from a critical viewpoint.
Storytelling is another theme mentioned by GZA. This one definitely resonates with me and I’ve often cited a good story as the main driver for my preference of hip hop songs. In an era of popular artists bragging about material possessions and success at dubious endeavors, hearing a good story can make a difference.
The last, and largest theme in GZA’s list of preferred qualities seems to be a general intellectual depth and thoughtfulness. Both in terms of being a person with a broad knowledge to draw from but also displaying an aptitude for abstract thinking. This, I think, most relates to the example I cited above about local bands. GZA’s motivations to be creative, innovative and intellectual may be ego driven, but they do also push the envelope of what other artists are doing.
Looping back to the Lyrical intelligence rating, I suspect the criteria used there would probably call GZA’s works less intelligent since the main metric is application of grammar rules – something that is less important to the artist than the wit and craftiness he imbues.
I guess I wrote this all out to start a conversation with myself about how to make smarter music. I’m going to forego the question of whether challenging music is better or worse than simple music. What is “good” to me? and how would one integrate the conversational tradition of most music lyrics with something more heady?
I’ve been on something of a sabbatical for the last few months. Partially I just couldn’t stand to think about academia anymore, and partially I needed to take a time out to try to figure out who I am as a person at this point in my life. (Perhaps I’ll touch on this in a later post)
During this time of self directed listlessness, one of the things I’ve picked up on is how important music is in my life despite my self-imposed absence from participation in it the past several years. Part of this has involved catching some of my favorite bands of olden times who are now re-activated, like Braid, who I saw in Chicago recently in support of their new record and Failure who seem to be giving it another go. Additionally, I do a fair amount of reminiscing about Lafayette bands that I knew personally.
A week ago I was poking around youtube, and happened to find a pile of videos from Greasers Palace, a band that was active in the 2002-2005 ish timeframe. When I first met these guys, it was during the era of “Tazzma’s Rock ‘O Rama”, a sketchy venue in the spot on 6th street that has hosted Luckey’s, Mixerz, Downtown Records, The Venue, and most recently an installation gallery show by Purdue Visual and Performing Arts grad students. At the time, their music was a weird amalgam. There was a lot of Marilyn Manson influence; an element of shock showmanship, and offbeat instrumentation like theremin and Q Chord. At this point there was also a hint of John Mellencamp influence, which later became more prominent. The music was interesting, but a little chaotic. At the time, it was kind of a high point for me in terms of a happy, networked music scene, and these guys played a big role in that, I think. They were friendly with most of the other bands they encountered, and cool to me as well, so we became friends.
Here’s an audio recording of one of their sets at Tazzma’s around this time:
Over time their sound evolved, and more of the typical punk rock influences came in. The Mellencamp vibe came in more too. While it’s worth mentioning that Seth and Elijah, the two brothers in the band were from Southern Indiana, and the ‘Coug could be counted as a role model, I was never quite sure if the Mellencamp thing was tongue in cheek or serious. I think initially, I viewed it as a joke, but it caused me to go a little deeper into his catalog, and I eventually found myself taking him seriously. I guess it’s similar to the way people view Journey? Anyway, as a hoosier, I now have a pretty good appreciation for Mellencamp’s perspective even though I still laugh at him from time to time. A few selected hilarities:
“But you must believe that when I walk down the tracks
All those young girls fall back and say
There goes that sleek young silhouette
He don’t drive no Corvette
But he stings just like a Sting Ray”
—Chestnut Street Revisited
At about this point I started helping them record. This was more an element of convenience for everyone than a business transaction. I think they’d recorded at a studio somewhere and didn’t like it or it was hard to schedule or something, and there also wasn’t a lot of money flowing around.. Plus, they had some decent equipment including a little BOSS recording workstation, I think it was a VS-890. I may be wrong, but I think my payment for recording them was getting to use the BOSS recorder to do a Jim-Jims album later which ended up being “Here it comes!“, probably my favorite album that I recorded. At the time, I think John Gordon had moved on to Boston, meaning the usual recording space that we had been living in was gone, but I think I still had some of the equipment around, so we set up in the living room of Casey, the drummer’s house that the band was practicing in.
I ran the session in what became my standard documentary style. We set up live, with amps semi isolated in different rooms, and the drums in the living room. Micing was all pretty basic. I don’t think I had anything fancy. I remember that there was a good balance on the two guitar tones. Their bass player had disappeared at some point prior, so they went with a two guitar/vox/drums arrangement that really worked for them. Elijah was using a bandmaster set to an almost muddy tone; lots of low end. he played mostly drop D barres, and the tone fit the style. I can’t remember what Seth was playing through.. Something a little more high gain with a slight harshness. Maybe the tubeworks or a marshall of some kind. I think we got everything live. Vox and guitar solos may have been overdubbed, but I don’t think so. I remember that the band was adamant that the vocals be low in the mix and they wanted a little distortion on them. I think I used a terrible ART TubeMP for that task. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Elijah didn’t have lyrics for all the songs and Seth didn’t have guitar leads/solos. In more recent listens, I’ve been able to catch some mumbling where the words weren’t done, and for one of the solos, I recommended that Seth just play the tapping part from AC/DCs thunderstruck; which he did, and I think it sounds ok.
I guess it’s all a little fuzzy at this point. I feel like I did two 4 song sessions with them, but I really only remember one. Maybe we recorded something at Tazzma’s during the day? I don’t know. Four of the songs ended up becoming the Tatonka EP – Brown Bottle Blues, Transmission, Straight Shooter and 9” Chamber. A few more ended up being their “Going to Arizona” demo – Road to Damascus, Immortal Class, and Battle Flag. I really enjoy that I was around to see the evolution of what these guys were doing, and I’m also really glad to have known them. They were great friends. Once Seth and Elijah graduated, all of them moved to Arizona, and they continued on as a band for a while, but I think it petered out as everyone established adult lives. The last time I heard from any of them, Casey was still playing in a band, but that was admittedly many years ago.
Here are youtube videos for some of the songs I did with them: