Friday, August 28, 2009

Old friends and social networks and stuff

As most of you who read my blatherings already know, I almost exclusively use these blog posts to talk about my live music shows in Second Life, or to give you updates as I've worked on completing my album. But here's a rare post about an entirely different topic. Sort of.

You're probably aware that "Zak Claxton" wasn't the name I was born with. I pretty randomly chose that name when my ladyfriend "Kat Claxton" (also not her birth name, unsurprisingly) and I signed up for the 3-D virtual reality world of Second Life in 2006. As I started performing live music in SL, I started developing a small but loyal following of fans who knew me as Zak. At the same time, my real name is kind of long and German and not very appealing from a rock star perspective. Also (and this is perhaps the most important part of what I'm telling you today), I had initially intended on putting up a separation between my real-life self and my music self long before I ever entered Second Life. In other words, I wanted to be able to have my normal life, as a family guy and a business owner and all that responsible crap, and also be able to release music and not have it impact the other areas of my life. After all, I'd hardly be the first person to adopt a stage name. I know it's like having your cake and eating it too, but that was the basic idea. God forbid, if I became some kind of celebrity, I didn't want my kid dealing with "Your dad's a rock star" treatment at school. Having worked in the music industry for a long time, I knew that fame wasn't nearly as cool as it's cracked up to be.

So that was the plan. But plans, as they are wont to do, change.

As time went by, I built quite a bit of content around the Zak Claxton name. I put together a website at, and created social networking pages to connect with fans and so on. However, there were a few problems that arose as a result. First, as I started getting close to my album being released, I gradually became aware that my popularity in SL wasn't nearly enough to allow my music to have the broader impact I felt it deserved. Second, my real life is directly connected to the music and entertainment businesses, and it seemed a pity that I was throwing away 20 years worth of contacts in order to retain anonymity. But most of all, I was missing out on one thing that I actually do find fun about things like Facebook: connecting with people in my real life who I really cared about. None of them outside of my SL friends knew me as "Zak", so they weren't going to find me there, and I wasn't about to create separate pages for "Zak" and for "Jeff"; I'm far too lazy to maintain a multitude of these things beyond what I already do.

I think the trigger for my recent outreach to old friends started when, just a few days ago, my old bandmate and high school buddy Michael Gale finally got on Facebook. As he uploaded these dozens of old photos in his collection, I started seeing names of people making comments on those pics... names that I hadn't heard in years. I realized that many of those people were significant to me back then, and that I was missing out by not giving them an opportunity to be in touch with me. I had the same feelings regarding some of the people I've worked with over the years; these people were good friends with whom I'd shared a lot of experiences.

The upshot of all this is that I've begun reaching out to folks, sending friend requests and letting them know that this "Zak Claxton" person is actually their old pal Jeff. The reality is that I never made any attempt to differentiate between Zak and Jeff, other than the names. There's no big stage persona, no acting in ways that aren't natural toward my usual self, so I certainly wasn't worried about blowing some big secret or anything. And now, I find I'm very happy to hear what's going on in the lives of people who in some cases, I hadn't been in touch with for more than 20 years. I'm also glad to fill them in on my own life's details, and to give them a chance to check out the music I've been doing. Most musicians who are friends do like to hear what their pals have been up to from a musical perspective. I know I do, anyway.

So, that's it. If you happen to be reading this and was wondering why Jeff had some different name on Facebook and so on, it's not because I'm in a witness protection program, or that I hate my family, or anything like that. I'm still just Jeff, and I happen to call myself Zak when I have a guitar around my neck and a microphone in front of me, which is (thankfully) pretty often these days.

And now you know.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Arubia Introduces (08.26.09)

Ask most musicians, and they'll agree: the very best recipe for a good show is feeling at ease and comfortable enough to focus 100% of your energy on the music. When other things get in the way -- pressure to perform well, technical problems, whatever -- it does nothing good for your performance. One of the things that often gets in the way of a good show for me is when I play a venue for the first time. You don't know the crowd, the view from the stage is unfamiliar, and you want to make a good impression (perchance to be invited back).

However, although last night was my first time performing at the relatively-new venue Arubia Introduces, I didn't have any of those problems. Why not? The venue is owned and run by a lady who has been a great supporter of my music in SL, Aurelie Chenaux. She's become a regular at almost all of my shows, so right off the bat, it's nice knowing that the person who runs the venue is completely familiar with your music (and apparently likes it). Second, Aurelie designed the place as a casual, open-air park environment. Don't laugh, but while your real-life body is always standing in roughly the same place (in front of a couple microphones and a computer, in my case), it makes a difference in how you feel based on the environment in which your virtual self is situated. Arubia Introduces reminded me of playing at any real-life park... very casual and fun.

The end result was that I had a great time, I played a good show, and it seemed like the crowd was digging it too, and I am very much looking forward to the next time I play at Arubia Introduces. Good times indeed.

Song Sample: "You're Like a Cloud" (Zak Claxton)

The Set List
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Behind Blue Eyes (The Who)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)
Wild Horses (Rolling Stones)
California (Joni Mitchell)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)

Special thanks to the folks who supported my first show at Arubia Introduces!
Aeriona Bartavelle, Lizbet Loening, Talbot Nootan, Borealis Hammerer, Azurea Sands, Jordan Hazlitt, Triana Caldera, Zylina Straaf, Eth Tedeschi, Diana Renoir, Kat Claxton, Xerxes Ninetails, Siobban Smythe, Doug Drakes, and most of all, our hostess Aurelie Chenaux!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bryant & Stratton College in SL (08.20.09)

I played a private show yesterday at the Second Life location of Bryant & Stratton College, a real-life educational facility that mostly does online classes. This is the second time I've performed for these folks, and I had a terrific time.

What's so terrific about playing for people who are in the midst of trying to wrap their heads around SL? Good question. Obviously, when people are saying things like, "How do I walk? Can I change my clothes? How does this work?" and so on, it might be a little distracting for people who are otherwise trying to entertain a crowd with live music. But let me tell you something: the opportunity to perform for people on their very first experience with Second Life is terrific. I can tell you that immediately after my show (which was, by the way, pretty well attended, with about 30 people in the crowd), I had five people who were there friend me on Facebook. That's terrific, and it's a more immediate reaction than I get from most of the shows where I play for seasoned SL veterans.

Since this was a two-hour event, and I've learned that playing for two straight hours doesn't always produce great results from me (like, my voice going away entirely after about 90 minutes of singing), I recommended that they bring in another great SL live artist - Kaklick Martin - for the first hour. One nice thing about Kaklick for this show is that he has plenty of experience performing for SL n00bs, so I knew he'd be good for this show, which he was.

Listen now! Song Sample from Bryant & Stratton show -- 08.20.09: "Thanks Anyway" (Zak Claxton)

My set list...
Wonderwall (Oasis)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Rikki Don't Lose That Number (Steely Dan)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Crazy Little Thing Called Love (Queen)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Old Man (Neil Young)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
A Day in the Life (Beatles)
Nowhere Man (Beatles)

Thanks to the Bryant & Stratton students and staff who came to the show!
Kimbles Bikergrrl, Drake Feldragonne, Denise476 SpiritWeaver, Renee Taurus, Bryant Stratten, AmyWoo Runner, Shannon1099 Edenflower, dernachtvogel Zufreur, oldnavy170 Bigboots, Traylorman Lane, shanti69 Bumblefoot, Fieramore Loxingly, MJOHNSON1306 Somerset, smiley1974 Pawpad, ChrisGais Mocha, Teresina153 Sandalwood, miah09 Static, malinda Lorakeet, and PaulsMom Afterthought, as well as Kaklick Martin, Kat Claxton, and the terrific Turn Pike!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Rough mix video clips from the studio

I've had a number of people lately express some interest in the process of recording an album. The first thing I usually tell them is that in reality, there is no single process that everyone uses. My friend Lee Flier, for example, is the guitarist for a band called What The...?, and her band tends to go in and record themselves live, with drums, bass, and vocals being recorded at the same time. Then they might do a couple of overdubs (like guitar solos), and they're done.

Other people build layered recordings where everything is created in computers, like drums, keyboard parts, and so on, and these are all stacked together as the composer makes each individual part. I've done some composing/recording like that, especially back in the early '90s when I first started using computers in my music.

For my album, I use neither of these processes. Here's the gist of how I recorded the Zak Claxton album.

1. In the studio, my drummer Bunny and I play through the song. We record Bunny's drums, but I (singing and playing guitar) am NOT being recorded for the album. What I am making is called a scratch track; it's a reference point only. It allows Bunny to get the drum tracks down correctly. We do not play to any kind of timing reference (called a "click" in the business). I like the free, natural feel of a musician playing using his own human sense of time.

2. After we have the drums down, I usually record the bass next. Yes, "I". I've been a bass player nearly as long as a guitarist, and I played all the bass tracks on the album. I listen to the playback of the drums through my headphones, and record the bass over that, on its own recording track. Yes, this is called "overdubbing", and "multitracking", and it's how all the subsequent parts of the song are recorded.

3. What happens next is that I usually replace the guitar that I'd played on the scratch track with the actual version of the guitar that will go on the album.

4. Then we start layering the other instruments. I might play all of those instruments, or one of my pals (Ken, Phil, or Bunny) might contribute on some instrument.

5. I usually do the lead and backing vocals last. Like the guitars, these replace the scratch tracks I did while tracking the drums back at the beginning. Occasionally, I end up adding yet another instrumental part even after the vocals are done, if the song calls for it.

6. The very last thing that we do before wrapping up a day of recording, provided we have all the parts down for a song, is to give it a quick rough mix (i.e., bring up all the stuff we recorded, set some basic levels so it all blends together) and then we give it a listen. It's usually a pretty exhilarating moment, since it's the first time you can actually experience your own song in a way that a listener might once it's all done. So...

For the two videos below (also linked here and here on YouTube in case you don't see them below for whatever reason) we turned on the video camera during the playback of those rough mixes at the end of our last day of recording. These are obviously just rough ideas of what the final songs will be like after Phil works his magic as a mixing engineer. When the final versions come out mixed, the sounds will be much more refined. Also, keep in mind that the audio quality of a hand-held digital camera isn't exactly on par with even a terrible MP3 file; it's like you're listening to music on an AM radio through someone's phone. Know that the final versions will sound much, much better.

Still, these should be sufficient to give you an idea of what we ended up with last weekend in the studio.

1. "Fade Away":

2. "Waiting for This":

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Done recording the album!

I almost can't believe I'm saying this, but we are done... yes, done... recording the album. While it only took six days of recording, those six days spanned form March 2008 through August 2009. And now, the only thing that remains are the final songs to be mixed and the album to be mastered. We'll get to that soon enough.

In the meantime, enjoy the final "Studio Session" video for this album.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul (1915-2009)

A younger Zak Claxton (far right) meets one of his idols, Les Paul (middle left) in New York, 1997.

Here's something that should put Les Paul's contribution to music in perspective: nothing you'd hear on the radio today would sound the same if it wasn't for Les. Here's why.

Les invented multitrack recording, or, as he called it at the time, "sound-on-sound". For the layman, that means the ability to record individual parts of a song at a time, as opposed to recording all music live as it happens. In other words, nearly every song you've heard from the early 1960s on was recorded in this manner. Without Les, you might be still listening to live recordings of big bands, like they did in the '40s and '50s.

But wait. Les also invented something called the solid-body electric guitar. Without that little innovation, it's likely we'd never have had something called rock music. No Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Neil Young, no Van Halen, no Who. No rock. Think about it.

Even if you curtail his contributions to that of his namesake guitar, the Gibson Les Paul, there are countless classic songs that were recorded and performed on that particular instrument.

But I have something that most people don't: memories of meeting and hanging out with Les on a few occasions. In my previous life (before becoming a rock star in my own mind), I worked in the music/audio business, and often had to attend trade shows for the industry. At one such show, I was standing in my booth when a little old man came walking toward me. I recognized him instantly; in the world of pro audio, his face was as iconic as that of Michael Jackson's was to the world of pop music. The company I worked for at the time made a very popular digital multitrack recorder called the ADAT. We'd been very successful with the product.

Les stopped at the reception desk and asked for the company's artist relations guy, and was directed toward me. He walked up to me, still very spry for a guy who was 82 at the time, and said, "Tell me what this machine does."

I explained to him that it was a digital multitrack recorder.

"Multitrack?" he asked. "Sound on sound?"

"That's right, Mr. Paul," I agreed.

"I invented that, you know," he said.

"I'm well aware of that, sir," I offered.

"Have you sold many of them?"

"Well, yeah," I replied. "About a hundred thousand of them."

"A hundred thousand?!?!" he said incredulously, with a gleam in his eye. "You owe me a lot of money!" he exclaimed, and then cackled loudly for a long time. We both laughed together, actually; his laugh was infectious. A few moments later, we were ambushed by other company executives, who gathered around to take a pic with Les like we were little groupies as opposed to music industry businessmen. That's the photo above.

On several subsequent occasions, I'd run into Les, and he was always a very nice (and usually hilariously funny) man. He would remember my name even if it had been a couple years since we'd spoken. As I'd stand there with this little old guy, my mind would reel a bit. He'd make people around him so comfortable, they'd tend to forget that without Les, there might very well be no music industry.

Right up through the end, Les continued to play music, usually on Monday nights at a club called Iridium in New York. And amazingly, despite his age and the accompanying physical problems, he continued to sound like the great player he was, all the way into his nineties.

For any of us who record music, or play an electric guitar, or love music in any form, please take a moment to thank Les Paul for everything he did to make it happen. Personally, I'll be using a Les Paul guitar to record this weekend, and you can bet your ass that I'll be doing a few licks in his name.

Rest in peace.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Going back into the studio one more time

Here's a little update on the Never Ending Album: it's coming to an end.

This Saturday (August 15), we're going back into the studio one more time. As I mentioned in a previous post, we had a session on July 25 where we captured all of the basic tracks for "Fade Away" and "Waiting for This". At most of our sessions, we've managed to go soup-to-nuts on two tunes, i.e., we get everything recorded on the same day. But at the last session, the songs themselves were pretty complex, and right toward the end we ran into some technical snags and ran out of energy at the same time.

So, what we're doing this Saturday is finishing what remains on those two tunes, namely guitars and vocals. For awhile, the session was shaping up to be a pretty lonely affair; Bunny had some family stuff to attend to, and Ken had previous commitments for the day. But as of yesterday, I found out a couple of great pieces of news. First, Bunny will be able to wrap up his stuff and return on Friday, allowing him to be at the session the following day. And while Ken sadly still can't make the session, our friend Ralph "Songrytr" Torres will likely drop by to perhaps add some keys or backing vocals. I've been trying to get Ralph at the sessions for the last year and a half, so it'll be great if he can make it.

Bunny's presence, though, is especially important. Bunny's main contribution to the album has been as the drummer on every track, but he's also added a great guitar solo to "The Sands of Redondo", and his mere presence has made the sessions all the more fun and productive. I've wanted to have Bunny sing on a particular track for a long time, and in his apparent absence was preparing to sing both of the co-lead vocal lines myself. It's going to be a LOT better with his contribution. I'm also tapping Bunzo to play some guitar again.

Anyway, this session will be especially cool, since we have all the basic tracks done. That means not having to bring in and set up drums, which is a big use of time in the studio. I can essentially arrive and start recording immediately, which will be nice for a change. Also, we'll be able to wrap up the tracking at a decent hour and drive back toward home so we don't have to book another night at the lovely Motel 6 in Riverside. All good stuff.

For those who aren't yet familiar with the process, just because I'll be done recording does not mean the album is done. There are three essential steps before anyone can buy the album.

1. The remaining songs will need to be mixed.

2. The album will be sent to my friend Bill Plummer for mastering.

3. The album will be replicated on CD, and the digital song files will be sent over to iTunes, Amazon, and other retailers. There's a lag of 4-6 weeks after it's submitted before it will appear for sale.

But it's all one step at a time, and after this Saturday a humungous step -- the recording of all the music -- will have been completed. As usual, I'll be posting videos, pics, and stories from our session after the fact.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Notes Shack (08.09.09)

Song sample: "Fade Away" (Zak Claxton)

I was talking with Kat after today's show at The Notes Shack, trying to determine what it was about that place that makes me do some of my best shows there. It's not that the place generally gets packed with people; a good day at the Notes Shack is in the range of 20 people in the crowd. But every time I play there, it always seems to be a super fun combination of people who do show up, which then puts me in a good mood, which in turn allows me to play my best. It's all a process, you see.

I usually don't schedule shows before noon, but it was fun starting at 11:00am and getting the rock rolling a little earlier than normal. I made sure to eat my cereal and get hydrated so I'd be able to pull off a performance at such an un-rock-like hour. In any case, it seemed to work; the show was totally fun for me, and Krakov Letov said his sides were hurting from laughing so much, so we must have done something right. I also threw in a bunch of covers that I haven't done in awhile, so that was fun for us all.

What I played...
What I Got (Sublime)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Bertha (Grateful Dead)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Stonehenge (Spinal Tap)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Free Man in Paris (Joni MItchell)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Tribute (Tenacious D)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Nowhere Man (Beatles)

Huge thanks, as always, to the people who helped support my show today!
Alchemy Epstein, Nakira Tennen, Silver Rockwell, Dazzlyn Rosewood, Diana Renoir, Kat Claxton, and the host with the most, Krakov Letov.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Ambrosia Dance Club (08.07.09)

I'll tell you up front: I had a good time playing at Ambrosia Dance Club today. It was my first time performing there, and I did have fun. But did you ever have that feeling when you walk into a place for the first time... say, a party, or an office building, or a store... and immediately realize that you were in the midst of a scene of which you are definitely not fitting in? Like one of those "What's wrong with this picture?" puzzles, and you're the odd component?

That was pretty much me at Ambrosia today. It's a beautiful club, the people were very nice, and the crowd was pretty good; I think we had 30+ in the audience. The problem is that at a dance club, it's best to have a show that's focused on danceable music, with drums and so on. While my solo acoustic stuff seemed to be enjoyed there, it probably wasn't the best fit for the place. Luckily, I had a few of my favorite Zaksters in the crowd -- namely Triana, Diana, and Aurelie -- and so I felt a little better doing my usual ZakShow™.

I'll tell ya what: if I heard that the regular crowd at Ambrosia dug my show and wanted me back, I'd be glad to give it another shot. I would say, though, that perhaps the ZakShow™ works best when people are more about grooving to the tunes than, well... actually dancing. :D

Set List Du Jour
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
One (U2)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Behind Blue Eyes (The Who)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Loser (Beck)
Everything Counts (Depeche Mode)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)
Help Me (Joni MItchell)
Losing My Religion (REM)

Thanks to the following people who helped support my show today!
Triana Caldera, Shellie Sands, Spikie Thorne, Ictus Belford, Scotty Femto, princess Shuffle, Willow Larkin, Diana Renoir, Lorellai Kondor, ivoni Miles, Aurelie Chenaux, and Ambrosia owner Phil Kearny!