|Bradenton, Florida. A shit-hole ghetto town about an hour south of Tampa. I think it was the summer of 1990. I remember it being really, really hot. I was in high school and my friend Chris suggested starting a band. He played guitar already and told me I should get a bass. I took that week’s paycheck from the grocery store I worked at and went to a local used music equipment shop and asked what that could get me, I bought whatever it was they suggested. In my memory it was a sunburst Fender but I honestly can’t remember. I didn’t know I needed an amplifier for it to work, and had trouble figuring out how to play it at home. The following week we got together in another friends garage for “band practice” which was a serious lesson in humility. I showed up without an amp, but luckily (or unluckily) someone there had a guitar amp I could plug into. This was the first time I’d ever heard what the bass even sounded like.|
Chris proposed that we start off playing “New Direction.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. Chris pointed out that I was wearing a Gorilla Biscuits t-shirt at the time, New Direction of course was the first song on their recently released album Start Today. I didn’t actually have the album yet, I had a dubbed cassette copy that my neighbor Max had made for me which I listened to all the time – so once Chris started playing it I knew what he was talking about, but Max hadn’t written the names of any of the songs so didn’t know what any of them were called. Max would later sell me his blue and white swirled vinyl copy of that album, which has remained one of my prized possessions even to this day. Anyway, I knew the song but I had no idea how to play it, given that I had no idea how to play bass. I stood there in the garage all afternoon while my friends jammed one song after another that I knew but I had no idea how to play. That was the only band practice I ever went to, and I wasn’t ever invited to be any of their bands ever again, rightly so.
I kept that bass and every once and a while I’d pick it up and hope I’d magically learned how to play something. I never did. When I’d fantasize about being in a band I always pictured myself singing, so just never got motivated enough to try and learn it. Besides, my favorite band in town at the time, Tired From Now On, already had a bass player and a singer and I wasn’t going to even try to start a Tired From Now On copycat band. I think I sold it to my friend from Canada Kyle for $50 when one of his bands was passing through Gainesville a few years later. At least I’d spray painted it black so it looked much cooler than that crappy sunburst. I wonder if he still has it?
A few years later when I was working at Victory Records my co-worker Chuck told me he wanted to start a band and asked if I’d be interested in singing. Of course I said yes, instantly. He said he was getting the rest of the band together and we’d have a proper rehearsal in a few weeks. At that time I was often the last person to leave the office, which was in a 3 story condo in an industrial part of Chicago. My office was on the 3rd floor, and when everyone else would leave I’d often turn up my stereo as loud as it would go and jump around screaming along like an idiot to the loudest, angriest thing I had. It was excellent therapy. I highly recommend everyone try it sometime. My private karaoke included many bands, but vocalist Tim Singer’s bands – No Escape, Deadguy and the recently released (at the time) Kiss It Goodbye were in heavy rotation. I guess I always kind of related to his “I tried, but everything is fucked anyway” lyrical narrative. In my mind, that’s how I’d sing in a band.
Eventually Chuck would rope in the rest of a band and we’d all get together one evening after work in the basement of Bulldog Records, Victory’s record store in Wicker Park where bands like Blood For Blood and Murphy’s Law had recently played some already legendary shows. Drums set up, amps plugged in and blasting. I knew enough lyrics to enough songs that I figured there wouldn’t be a repeat of the New Direction situation and I was ready to go with whatever song they pulled out of the hardcore repertoire. Except the songs they’d written themselves and had already been practicing that I’d never heard before. Chuck handed me the mic and said “let’s go!” and I just stood there. I didn’t know what to sing, or what to say. I’d never written lyrics before, and certainly hadn’t anticipated doing it on the spot. I’d been daydreaming about doing this for years, and now when given the chance I froze. I convinced myself that anything I’d come up with would be so stupid the band would stop playing and I’d be laughed out of the basement. Of course, just standing there like an idiot had a similar effect.
Decades later I of course recognize how letting my insecurity keep me from doing the thing I was dreaming of doing, when I directly had the opportunity to do it, was just about the stupidest thing I could have ever done. I’m not really big on regret, we all do things that if given another chance we might do differently or applying hindsight realize our errors, but pushing past that fear and doing actually band with my friends sometime in the 90’s when I had countless opportunities is something that I’d totally should have done. If life had do overs, that’s where I’d use mine.
I mention this because totally out of the blue this week there’s a new EP out by Tim’s new band Bitter Branches and it’s incredible. It’s the last thing I was expecting in 2020, and after listening to it on repeat essentially since buying it I can attest it’s exactly what I needed. If anything I’ve mentioned in this sounds familiar to you, maybe it’s what you need as well. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder to take the chances we have, when we have them. They won’t always be there and even trying and failing is way better than not trying at all.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Doughboys recently. Out of the blue about 2 months ago, for no reason at all one of their songs popped into my head and inspired me to go dig up the albums. This is always a dangerous prospect because when you remember liking a band that you haven’t heard in a very long time sometimes the memory is better than the real thing and when you go revisit them later in life they just don’t hold up. I’ve ruined a handful of childhood favorites by listening to them with a critical adult ear. Luckily, Doughboys held up and have been on almost constant repeat since I put the files onto my phone so I could walk around with them. Listening to these songs again has been really interesting for me beyond just rediscovering some music I used to like.
In 1991 when I was 16 I went to a show to see a band called the Doughboys who had some members from The Asexuals though I didn’t really know what they sounded like. The show I’m thinking of was at a venue called Janus Landing so I knew I could get in free via any number of means, and important consideration for 16 year old me growing up in the middle of Florida. There was a secret back alley entrance next to a sandwich shop that had a fence I could jump, if I got there early enough I could grab a piece of gear and carry it in walking right through the front door with a purpose. There was a guy named Fred who always set up a table inside selling records and I knew I could act like I was helping him carry things in too. Or in the worse case I could find Tony who was the promoter of the show and beg. Looking back now there is no way he didn’t know I was sneaking in to all his shows, but never once gave me any trouble for it and helped me out in many ways over the years. But that’s a different story.
One way or another I’d get in. And the funny thing about doing this kind of reminiscing in 2019 is that in some cases someone actually has the event on video and has posted it to YouTube. The quality is questionable, but I’m certain that one of the heads bouncing around in front of the stage in this is mine. My friends and I all looked the same so it’s hard to pinpoint, but I dead center in the front for this entire show.
That was a long lead up to the main point that at this show I completely fell in love with this band. Their crazy long dreadlocks, poppy as shit songs and overall attitude was incredibly refreshing at the time. And added bonus was that at this show they were selling a purple long sleeve T-shirt giant yellow writing on the back that read “I’M SO FUCKING HAPPY.” It was a favorite of mine for years. This tour was just after their “When Up Turns To Down” but the first record I bought of their was their then most recent album “Happy Accidents” and that’s the one I always went back to and have listened to perhaps thousands of times. If you have one of those records where you know every single word, every single note, every single tempo spacing then you know what I mean. I feel lucky to have a number of those kinds of records, but “Happy Accidents” is on of them for sure. And of course, someone has posted the entire album on YouTube and if you did nothing else for the next 48 minutes besides sit and listen to it that would be 48 minutes well spent.
Every single song on this record resonates with me for different reasons and in different ways. It brings me vivid memories of the swampy smell of the unfinished garage I lived in at the time as our housing complex condo was only 2 bedrooms and I didn’t want to share a bedroom with my mother or brother, long sticky summer days driving across the state with friends, car air conditioner broken, windows rolled down and stereo blasting, or walking through neighborhood streets in central Florida, yards alternating from perfectly manicured to hosting a collection of rusted cars on cinder blocks. The songs were catchy and often about girls and being in love but not in the sappy way that would have put me off at the time. The song “Wait And See” can be found on almost every mix tape I made for any girl over the next 5 years. You might not think think that a song with lyrics like
..If I could take for granted all my faults and second chances, there’s one chance left to take, you could be my maiden and I could fight off all the dragons, but it never seems to work out that way…
would have clicked for a little hardcore straight edge kid in the middle of nowhere obsessed with grindcore and hiphop but they did in a big way. “Intravenus De Milo” “Happy Sad Day” and “Sunflower Honey” were also common mix tape ingredients, though the sample in “Sunflower Honey” that says “What does sex amount to without a sense of guilt” made including that one tricky depending on the hidden messages I was trying to sneak in there.
Their previous album “Home Again” was no less beautiful and I copied the CDs that I had onto one long playing cassette so that when driving around we could listen to both albums back to back easily. The unquestionable standout track on that was “I Won’t Write You A Letter” because with that sugary hook and lyrics like:
…Now and then I might remember, mostly I try to forget, and right now I’m in the middle wondering if it’s over yet, and I know it doesn’t matter because the road will never end, well so I won’t write you a letter I know I’ll be home again…
how could it not? I cued up the video below to that song, listen to the whole thing and wait for the baseline break down 3/4ths of the way through. Holy shit it still gets me even to this day.
Digging further back, their first album “Whatever” just didn’t grab me, I think if I’d heard it when it came out I may have had a different take on it, but by “Home Again” and “Happy Accidents”they had really found their sound which they hadn’t quite figured out on “Whatever” though it there are glimpses of it if you want to hunt for them, but I never really felt the need.
A few years later in 1993 “Crush” came out accompanied by their first music video for the first song from the record “shine” which got picked up on MTV2 which was a really big deal in those days. I remember someone getting tipped off when it was going to be played and we all went over to watch it together. This video, much better than the live Janus Landing one I posted before shows what weirdos they looked like, and really captures what they felt like in my memory.
They were Canadian too so had some added mystic to us Florida kids, in fact now that I think about it it was probably the Doughboys and The Nils who first made Canada interesting to me. Years later I’d re-release the epic “And Such Is Progress” by Grade and then eventually marry a Canadian girl, so maybe they can all thank Doughboys for initially pointing me north. When you think about it Canada and Florida are both weird places that most people have only heard about and are probably a little afraid of so we have some social outcast kinship right out of the gate.
Anyway “Crush” kept going, here’s a song called “Melt” that you can’t even pretend doesn’t rock.
Their final album “Turn Me On” took a big step forward and felt totally different to me than their earlier work. But not in the way that Jawbreaker’s “Dear You” felt totally different, where you were shocked at first, almost taken aback, but it got interesting on the second listen and the brilliance began to show by the third listen and every successive listen after that becomes clearer and clearer that it’s perhaps one of the greatest records ever recorded without ruining the trio of perfect records that had lead up to it. No, “Turn Me On” was just different, and it wasn’t my thing. It’s not a bad record in any sense, but it’s not “Happy Accidents” and that’s what it was all about for me.
Recently I learned that Doughboys singer-guitarist John Kastner moved from Montreal to Los Angeles just before I did and lived right around the corner from me for many years, though I didn’t know it at the time. I don’t know what I would have done had I known, but I’d like to think I would have walked over, knocked on his door and said thanks.
It’s funny sitting here a month shy of my 44th birthday trying to remember when I was 16. Thinking back on that kid I used to be I can’t help but think of things I would tell him that I know now, knowing full well he would never believe anything I had to say. Similarly, I wonder what he’d tell me, looking at the life I ended up making and where the paths I chose lead. I know for sure he never could have imagined half of what has gone down over the last 3 decades – but given the chance to look ahead at where he’d land I wonder what would be the thing he’d have hoped that I would have held onto. At that time I really didn’t expect to live to far into my 20’s so I think he would be both surprised and proud. I still like that kid when I think about him. Idealistic and stubborn, he definitely had some issues he needed to work through but he came out OK on the other side of I do say so myself.
I mentioned earlier on in this experiment that I’ve been guilty of ignoring the keyboard of the Buchla Music Easel primarily because I’m just not a keyboard player at all and don’t know what to do with it. I can change and Octave here or there but when it comes to playing notes that actually sound good next to each other I’m way out of my league there. Tonight I sort of stumbled into having a really long portamento (which is sort of sliding from one note into the other rather than popping) running through a lot of reverb (Strymon Blue Sky) and I ended up playing notes for a while because it was just sounding so ethereal and spooky in all the right ways. I didn’t have enough time to come up with anything that I could repeat, but I spent some time exploring it and my mind is racing at the possibilities. It was almost theremin like at parts, which was kind of exciting and haunting all at once. This month so far has really helped me get to know this instrument so much better, but at the same time (as the best things always do) it’s shown me how very little I know about it and how much deeper I can go.
When I pick up my guitar and hit a note I’m pretty certain what it’s going to sound like. The G chord I play today will sound the same as the one I play next week, or next year. Sure I can fuck with the settings on pedals but that’s almost post processing. The guitar sounds the way it does. With the Buchla Music Easel that isn’t such a sure thing. The slightest variation in a slider position or variance in tempo and everything sounds different. Take the patch here as an example. I was really enjoying where part of this was heading but feeling a little stuck on another part. I wanted to try something out but it would require undoing everything here. But not wanting to lose what I had I took a photo that I assumed I could reference later and try to reconstruct it. That didn’t work out for me. The thing I wanted to try out didn’t sound right, so I pulled out this photo as reference and tried to recreate what I had earlier and but just can’t get there. Switches and knobs seem to be in order but the oscillators sons totally different. It will require more tweaking to get back to where I started, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.
I mentioned earlier that one of the amazing and frustrating things about the Buchla Music Easel is it’s limitations. By giving you a limited set of options it forces you to think of creative ways to do things and saves you from the paradox of choice that you can run into on a larger modular system where you have so many things you can do that you can’t decide on any of them. This is freeing and fantastically exciting to see how many different ways you can mix the same limited pieces. That said, occasionally there is something you want to do and you just can’t. You can trigger the sequencer, envelope generator and the pulser with the keyboard, the sequencer and env gen with the pulser, the env gen and pulser with the sequencer but you can’t use the envelope generator to trigger anything. On my Make Noise system I’m always using the EOC (end of cycle) on Maths to trigger things and I’m dying to do something similar on the Easel. Perhaps this is something I can unlock with program cards or expansion cards or something but that doesn’t help me right here right now where I really want the sequencer to step only once the env gen has completed a cycle.
Being a weird old electronic analog instrument that uses touch capacity as an input method the Buchla Music Easel is known to have the occasional grounding issues. I knew this before I got it and in the US mine seemed considerably less glitchy than other people’s. The tell tale sign of growing trouble is when you touch one key and it starts playing several, almost arpeggiating between them at times. When I moved to Tokyo the weirdness began right away. One thing to note is that Japan 100V with 2 prong plugs and the US is 120V with 3 prong plugs so some translation issues are to be expected. Unfortunately the most common suggestion to solve music easel grounding issues is to use a little adapter and turn the 3 prongs into 2. Since I’m in Japan and that’s a given, no dice. The next option is to connected it to the metal on another piece of grounded equipment via the ground jack on the side, but again since all the stuff here is similarly ground, that also made no difference for me. I finally found something g that worked though. I got a really long banana cable and attached one end to the ground port on the easel and tucked the other end into my waist and with the metal top making skin contact. This worked immediately. I guess adding myself to the circuit really helps when touching those contact pads. This was important for me because the new piece I’m working on right now needs to be slooooow and being able to key in the note changes and tempo is interesting.
I remarked earlier today that there was something magical feeling about turning off the lights, putting on headphones and just watching the synths do their thing. It feels like a mad scientist’s wonderland, an LED powered fortress of solitude. Watching the blinking and pulsing this morning was thinking about where this whole series was headed and about where I’d expected it to lead and how the way things play out is always different than you expect, and the people that can enjoy that journey are very different at the core than those who get stressed when plans don’t play out to the letter. I like a little bit of chaos and a little bit of unknown. I know a general direction but not an exact path. My friend Joi Ito says “compasses over maps” and I think that is a good mantra both in life and with these unwieldy yet elegant instruments. Have an idea where you want to go but let the path find its own way to get there. Here my Buchla Music Easel and my Make Noise Shared System are playing beautifully together but aren’t synced in anyway. I’m going to pull a 20-30 minute track out of this patch sometime this weekend I hope, I haven’t had the chance though I’ve been noodling on it for days. I’m trying to decide if it needs or would benefit from tape loops of Tokyo sounds, kind of making it an ode to my first 6 months of living here. Guess we’ll find out when we get to that bridge…
I spent a lot of today thinking about a composition and how I wanted it to work, and when I finally had a few minutes to play with knobs and cables I just couldn’t get it there. I got close, and ended up somewhere that wasn’t at all bad, but wasn’t the thing I had in my head going into it. The Buchla Music Easel does that I lot l find, it gives you some thing, just not what you’d necessarily expected. Speaking of expectations there is another tweakable thing that I always think to explore but just never have. The 3 CV outs from the keyboard module correspond to the 3 CV ins above them, but they don’t have to. They can be rerouted and hijacked in any number of ways. Send the sequencer CV to the pressure CVIN and simulate keystrokes maybe? Turn a pulse into a gate? So many options.