Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More about the new "Falling Down" video

Zak Claxton: Falling Down from Zak Claxton on Vimeo.

To say I'm happy about the reaction to the "Falling Down" video we posted yesterday morning is the understatement of the year. I'm ecstatic that people appreciated the results of the process we used in developing the project. I was expecting a lot of "I don't get it" responses, but there have been way less than I'd imagined, and most people seem to have found their own interpretation of what the song and the video are about. That's all I can ask for.

I've had a number of people ask me about how the video was made, so I thought it would be easier on everyone to do another post and be able to point people here as needed. I'm happy to explain the entire process; there may be a lot of imagination in my creative projects, but there's no magic. You can do this stuff too. No secret formula here.

1. Planning
The most important part by far. Once I decided I wanted a serious video for "Falling Down", the first thing I did was watch a lot of music videos. I needed to answer some questions before I even started writing the storyline. What did I like about certain videos? What didn't I like? What made one video cheesy and another one clever? What kind of video was I capable of making with no budget and consumer-level equipment? What compromises would I be willing to make to achieve a certain look and feel?

2. Writing
The entire "Falling Down" video was "written" in a short paragraph, maybe 5-6 sentences. Don't worry; you'll get into the details later (see "shot list" below). But don't let the details stop you from writing a succinct description of what the video is about, or at least what you intend on showing to your audience if there's no specific story (like a performance video).

3. Shot List
Now it's time to be specific... very specific. You should plan out what footage you need for every second of the entire video. I had a total of 52 different shots for this video. Music videos tend not to last very long on any one shot or camera angle. My longest shots were when I lip-synced the whole song a few times. The shortest ones were my fast flashes of objects. Your shot list should include info on whether the shot is objective, point of view, interior or exterior as applicable, and so on. It should also note the location, and whether special props or equipment would be needed (example: to do the lip sync, I needed to be sure I had a playback device to hear the song while we shot video).

4. Equipment
Just like music recording, a lot of people convince themselves that they need tens of thousands of dollars in gear to make work that's good enough for release. It's all bullshit. You do run into limitations with lower-end gear, but that just makes you be even more creative to get around those roadblocks. I shot the "Falling Down" video on a consumer-level HD camcorder, the Sanyo VPC-FH1A, and edited it in the video software that came with my Mac, iMovie 09. The camera cost about $270; the editing software was free (or at least cheap, if you have to purchase it separately as part of Apple's iLife package). For Windows, there are similar cheap/free editing tools.

Apart from that, I used a tripod (which cost less than twenty bucks), and one special tool that I found to be very cool and creatively inspiring: a green screen. My entire green screen system, with stands and a couple of lights, was about $170, and like the camera, I'll get many, many uses out of it beyond just this video.

One more tech note: I used the highest quality video mode in recording (full HD 1920x1080, 60fps). Is that necessary for a vid that will mostly live on YouTube and embedded in forums? No, of course not. But while you always can come down in resolution, but you can never go up. Shoot the best stuff you can.

5. Filming
I'm not a professional director. All I know is from what little I've seen in the filmmaking world, and fortunately I was working with talent that innately understood what I wanted and nailed it. Look, I'm not an actor either, and neither is Bunny. But as musicians, we are people who know how to convey emotion in multiple ways, and it worked out that with very little direction other than a little pep talk here and there to remind ourselves of what we were trying to get across, I got what I wanted.

Technically, I don't have much to say here. Kat was our camera operator. We'd get a good angle, paying some attention to the position of the sun and the surroundings, and then roll a take. We never did more than two takes, and mostly only did one. The only reason for the few instances of multiple takes, heh heh, was that I couldn't keep a straight face while Bunny was doing his antics. As I said, I'm not a great actor.

Last point: with a music video, you have a huge advantage in not having to capture any sound while filming... the sound will obviously be from the song itself. It makes for many less headaches for locations shoots than you'd otherwise have. However, the camera sound can come in handy, like when you're aligning lip-synced footage to the tune, even though you won't be using that audio in the final project.

6. Editing
I have more experience editing than directing, and editing is where the project really takes shape. Determining what footage to use where, how abrupt/smooth the transitions are, applying visual effects, and so on are really what defines the experience of the viewer. My only words of advice here is to go with your gut. Get as much of the video edited as you can, and then walk away for a bit so you can retain some level of objectivity. Then go back and watch, making notes on what needs to change or improve.

When you're happy with your edit, you'll probably need to export the video in order to have it be viewable on places like YouTube, Vimeo, and social networks. Much like our using the highest quality while filming, there are good reasons to export your video at it's highest setting; I went full HD. Sure, it made for a larger file (300+MB for the 4-minute song), and a longer upload time. Who cares? Let people watch it in high quality if they want.

So... that's all I got! If you want any advice from an amateur on making rock videos, I'm always happy to share what I know, with the caveat that I may know no more than you do already. In any case, I'm happy that "Falling Down" came out as good as it did. That counts for something.

Monday, September 27, 2010

New Video! "Falling Down"


The most memorable things in life usually combine triumph and tragedy, and we nearly had a little of each during the making of the "Falling Down" video.

As most of you know, I've made little videos for many of the songs on my album. But up until now, all of them have been pretty low-key projects. Kat takes the camera, and we cruise around my block, filming me at various locations (that are all within a 30-second walk from my front door). We never bothered with anything resembling a storyline or acting... just some imagery that would be something to look at while listening to the song.

I've always felt that of the 11 songs on the Zak Claxton album, "Falling Down" was perhaps the best written tune. I started writing it when I was in an emotional turmoil around 1999, and finished it in 2007 when I got back into songwriting, performing and recording after a hiatus. I think the reason we waited so long to create a video for this song was that the song itself was just too good to throw some half-assed project together and put it up on YouTube.

Getting Ready
I spent days refining the ideas for the "Falling Down" video. For being a no-budget project, we managed to do the planning right. While we didn't exactly storyboard every second of the video, I knew what I wanted to get across, and well in advance of the shoot on Saturday 9/25/10, I had a complete shot list. I also took care of considerations such as choosing our location, making sure we had a playback device to hear the song while at the beach, and all the little details. It was about as prepared as I've ever been for one of these things.

The Shoot
Bunny joined Kat and I here at Chez Zak on Saturday, and then we headed down the coast about 10 miles to a place I used to frequent as a child: Abalone Cove Shoreline Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, where I grew up. It's not really a beach, though there's a strip of sand there. It's really a rocky cove that is also a nature reserve, and it is a really amazing place. Hundreds of tide pools are scattered around the tip of Inspiration Point, and each one is teeming with life: urchins, hermit crabs, anemones, starfish are all there in abundance. It's a great place to visit, and I'd love to go back with Kat sometime when we're not focused on making a video.

Speaking of which, everything worked out better than I could have possibly expected for the video. I was rather hoping for a desolate, overcast day, but Mother Nature had some different plans in mind: after months of dreary weather during the summer here in the South Bay area, it heated up massively the day of our shoot, but I knew I was already planning on doing some effects in post production that would negate the bright blue sky.

Bunny got way into his role, which I'll only explain as being representational of both the dark and positive aspects of my own mind... we call his role Id/Ego, and he manifested both very, very well. It took us a good two straight hours to get all the footage we needed, and once we wrapped, we got ready to head home.

Uh Oh
As I mentioned earlier, it was hot that day. Even down at the ocean, what little breeze was there was hot, and we sweated the whole time we filmed. You can't blame us for wanting to get back to our car and get out of there as soon as possible, so instead of walking back to the trail we used to hike down, we took what looked to be a shortcut. Famous last words, huh? The trail going back up the cliff was steep, and snaked through ravines covered in cactus and chaparral. When we struggled to the top, it was horribly disheartening to see we'd run into a dead end.

Suddenly, Kat wasn't feeling so good. In fact, she was getting faint and nauseous, was red in the face, and (really scary) she wasn't sweating. Those are all signs of heat stroke. I got very worried, and, leaving her behind with Bunny, I grabbed the 40-pound backback and walked ahead, trying to get to the car quickly and retrieve some more water for her. Well, in my worry, I managed to take yet another dead end trail, this one even more steep and treacherous than the last. By that time, I started to get some distressful signs of my own; my heart was racing and I couldn't seem to get enough oxygen in my lungs no matter how hard I breathed. Compounding this was the fact that by late afternoon, dust and grit were blowing across the whole area.

I'll end the sob story. I made my way back down, and finally walked back up the trail we should have taken in the first place (the one we used to get down to the ocean in the first place). We all made it back to the car and collapsed for a few minutes, drinking water and getting our wind back. Then we drove on home.

More Footage
Arriving back here, we took showers and relaxed a bit, then had a great Chinese dinner across the street at Top Wok. Rested and fed, we then got set up in front of the green screen, and did some more takes. Bunny eventually took off, and we slept, and the next morning I was right back at it, grabbing some final shots. At about 10am, I started editing all the footage, just to see how far I could get.

Well, 12 hours later, having done nothing but assemble video for the entire day, I was able to get it all done. This morning, I did the final export, and started posting it around the Internet... which brings us up to this very moment!

I'd like to send my sincere thanks to Kat and Bunny for their tremendous efforts in making the video happen just as I'd envisioned. And, whether you hate it, love it, or something in between, feel free to add your comments and thoughts!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Report: Zak Live on StreamJam ep. VII (09.22.10)


Last night (September 22), we had a celestial event: the Super Harvest Moon. I'd never heard of it before either, but it's pretty cool.

Northern summer changes to fall on Sept. 22nd at 11:09 pm EDT. At that precise moment, called the autumnal equinox, the Harvest Moon can be found soaring high overhead with the planet Jupiter right beside it. The two brightest objects in the night sky will be in spectacular conjunction to mark the change in seasons.

So, we had this amazing full moon at the precise moment summer ended and fall began, just as I wrapped up my show. It only happens once every 20 years or so (next one will be in 2029), and if you're a mystical person, maybe it'll explain why I played so damn well last night. I mean, I usually play pretty well... I have no complaints about what talent I have, and I'm thankful for it. But everything was working last night... the guitar felt perfect and my voice completely unencumbered by any strain. I don't think I missed a note in a full hour of performing. It was freakishly good, and I felt good while I played.

I rock; therefore I sweat. Good times at StreamJam VII. Photo by Kat.

I also felt good because we had a good crowd. Not a big crowd; a good crowd. All of the serious Zaksters along with a few other good pals dropped by. Their enjoyment of the show reverberated back to me, which made me play even better, which made them be even happier, and so on and so forth. It was like a feedback loop of goodness. I also was very satisfied with the first live performance of a new, as-yet-untitled instrumental I'm working on. I wouldn't have normally played a song in progress, but as I said, it was a good crowd and I wanted to give them something special.

StreamJam #7 Set List...
Go Easy On Me (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Shine (Zak Claxton)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
*Untitled Instrumental (Zak Claxton)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Time Never Waits for You (Zak Claxton)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)

Thanks to everyone who came to the show! See you next time on Wed. Oct 6!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Neil Young's new album: Le Noise

ZAK RATING: ***** (5 stars out of five)

I was sitting here in Zakland yesterday, working away (I'm fortunate that my work can involve the things I do to make money, or the things I do with music and filmmaking and art, and all of it involves me being creative, but it's still work in any case). At some point in the late afternoon, my darling Kat sent me an IM with a mysterious link and a happy face. I clicked it, and discovered that the new Neil Young album Le Noise was available for listening. Up to that point, I'd heard nothing at all, other than that Neil had developed a somewhat unlikely partnership with producer (and fellow Canadian) Daniel Lanois, and that they were working on a project together.

I didn't know what to expect of that, and frankly, I'd been a little concerned that the result would be some weird hybrid of Neil Young and U2. It wasn't an appealing thought. Despite that fact that I've been a Neil Young fan for about 25 years, and have respected almost everything Lanois has touched in his career as a producer, I wasn't sure how the two would mesh. Next, I found out something that really intrigued me: this was to be a Neil Young solo album (as opposed to recording with a rhythm section, as he's done with Crazy Horse, the Stray Gators, and many other collections of great backing performers). Well, I (and pretty much everyone else on the planet) have a preconception about NY solo records; you think of Neil strumming his acoustic guitar on songs like "The Needle and the Damage Done", or perhaps "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)".

Well... how was something like that going to jibe with the well-known Lanois sound? After all, he's the guy that did Peter Gabriel's So, U2's The Joshua Tree, and other albums where he seemed to treat the recording studio as another instrument. If there's one thing that was mostly constant in the ever-changing world of Neil Young, in all but a few exceptions, the studio stayed out of the way of the music. The less recording trickery, the shorter path between Neil and the recording medium, the better the albums were. We heavy fans of NY are all familiar with the motto of Neil's long-time producer David Briggs: "The more you think, the more you stink." So what the hell was this album going to be like? I had no idea, and there was probably even a little chip on my shoulder, expecting the worst.

Daniel Lanois in his home studio where the album was created. Photo: Luis Sinco (LA Times).

Having now listened to Le Noise in its entirety, I hereby proclaim myself an asshole for having prejudged this album. I really, really should have known better. This is the first time in many years that the experience of listening to a Neil Young album has produced chills down my spine. To understand why, you should have some idea of how this music was made, and why it's simultaneously similar and different than anything Neil's done in the past.

Neil in a screen cap from the "Angry World" video.

First, yes: it's a solo album. There's no drums, no bass, no pedal steel guitar, no backing vocals to augment Neil's performance. But as opposed to the familiar solo acoustic songs that Neil's done many times, this is a solo electric album for six of the eight songs (the other two do use acoustic, but in ways you've never heard from NY before). Well, the electric guitar has never been the choice of the solo singer-songwriter. In its raunchier modes, its sound usually competes too much with the voice for the song to be highlighted.

And that, my friends, is where Daniel Lanois comes in. Neil had spoken to him about producing this solo album, and had originally intended on walking in with his old Martin guitar and doing something that I'm sure would have been acceptable to his fans. But after throwing ideas back and forth, apparently Lanois did or said something to Neil that allowed Neil to trust him. The result is a combination of Neil's honest, heartfelt songwriting with Lanois' incredible ability to weave sonic tapestries. There are no overdubs here, despite what your ears may tell you. Neil and Daniel used some special gear and recording/mixing techniques to deliver a huge wall of sound that moves, changes, echoes, pans, fades in and out, and otherwise keeps you spellbound while you listen, despite the fact that the guitars and vocals were recorded live at Lanois' home studio here in the Los Angeles area. With Neil's blessing, Lanois treated the moods of the songs as if he were doing audio post-production for a movie, and the resulting picture is painted in a way that keeps the listener fascinated the whole way through.

Lanois himself does a better job of explaining this process than I ever could. Check out this little interview...

Now, you may be wondering: does all this production cause you to lose sight of the artist himself? No, not in the slightest. The songs are all 100% Neil. I hear vibes that hearken back to nearly every phase of Neil's career. The ghosts of "The Loner", of "Cinnamon Girl", "A Man Needs a Maid", of the techno sound of Trans, of the feedback-laden assault of Weld, the sparse beauty of the Dead Man soundtrack, and more. In any case, since this is an album review of sorts, perhaps we should talk about the songs.

"Walk With Me" opens the album abruptly, with a powerful D chord that will rattle the fillings in your teeth if you have the stereo cranked. It also sets the tone for the album; if you don't know what to expect, you might be thinking that big drums will be soon following that menacing opening chord. Nope! Neil's voice comes in loud and clear, and perhaps more confident-sounding than it has in a long time. Also, you immediately start getting the vibe of Lanois' sonic treatment; while Neil played the song once, his producer was able to bring back sections of the guitar and voice in echoes, loops, and filters that burrow into the depths of your brain. In any case, the drums never come (it's like "Waiting for Godot" in that aspect), but you never feel like the sound is too sparse. At various points it's bright and muffled at once, while never abandoning the strength of the songwriting in exchange for sonic gimmicks. I love how it decays and comes back at several points. A great start! Let's see if the rest of Le Noise holds up!

"Sign of Love" once again returns to the D-modal key we've heard so often from NY over the years. It's another song that starts with an unsettling degree of menace, and ends with a gorgeous flux of feedback and a few sparse notes that function nominally as a solo. I believe this is one of Neil's love songs for his wife, Pegi, and you're left with no doubt about his love for his woman. The next track, "Someone's Gonna Rescue You", opens with a cool riff, accompanied by the great line, "Somewhere in the ray of sunshine, you'll find the dark". Who is Neil singing to here? It very well might be himself. Is this song in D major or D minor? Yes. Yes, it is.

Track four on Le Noise is the first of two acoustic-based songs on the album, this one called "Love And War". It's here where we can picture a gunslinger walking past the saloon toward his nemesis at high noon. The song itself is an anti-war prayer that portrays mothers trying to tell children why their daddies will never come home. Neil turns introspective at one point, explaining why he continues to sing about the title topic. It's a haunting track that ranks up there with any of his great acoustic songs over his 45+ year career.

That brings us to what might be the highlight on an album full of them: "Angry World". I can't do justice to the song by writing about it. Just... listen.

The next song on the album is particularly special, but for a different reason. Back in 1976, Neil had a burst of creativity which led to a multitude of great songs being recorded in a short time frame. Some of these songs ("Powderfinger", "Ride My Llama", "Pocahontas") ended up on Neil's classic album Rust Never Sleeps, but in the classically perverse NY style, some remained unreleased. For the new album, Neil did a new version of "Hitchhiker" (formerly known as "Like an Inca"), one of his most self-revealing, confessional songs of his career. It's an amazing rendition, with the song's story of drugs and living life not obscured by the light sonic treatments.

The penultimate track, "Peaceful Valley Boulevard", is the other acoustic song on Le Noise. Speaking of "Powderfinger", this song is an amazing Western story that starts in the past, ends in the future, and sucks you in from the first line. It has one of the most haunting set of bridge chords on any NY song I've ever heard... the lushness and spookiness is perhaps more reminiscent of mid-70s Bowie than most things you associate with Neil Young.

Finally, the album ends with "Rumblin'", a song that really focuses the spotlight on Lanois' production while also shining on Neil's song. He cries, "When will I learn how to listen? When will I learn how to feel? When will I learn how to give back?", and you really want to tell him that he's done so, many times over. Neil seems excited by the newness of his own sound, and stops to recognize that change is in the air. It certainly is. Eventually, the track dissolves in a swirling morass of looping, filtered notes, and the experience of Le Noise is over... until you go back and re-listen to these amazing songs, which I predict you may do immediately.

Le Noise goes on sale on September 28. You can pre-order it now on Neil's site. But first, why not check it out for free? From now through October 5, you can stream the entire album from NPR. I highly recommend you do so. Le Noise is very likely the best album Neil's done in a decade or more, and may end up ranking among the top NY albums of history, along with EKTIN, Harvest, Rust Never Sleeps, and the rest. Thank you, Neil, for once again proving that you do indeed have something to give back to the world.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Triana's Music Trivia (09.19.10)

Day-o! Photo by Kat.

I tend to tell stories over and over again, but it's not because of early-onset senility. Rather, I assume that new people occasionally peruse this blog, and that new people come to my shows from time to time, and I don't expect that they'll all have done a full historical perspective on me before reading the latest post. So, if you know all this stuff already, feel free to skip ahead a paragraph or two.

Back in fall 2006, my friend and former bandmate Mike Burns called and was excited about something called Second Life. My ladyfriend (who lived in Seattle at the time) and I checked it out, thought it was cool, and signed up as Kat and Zak Claxton. We both thought the creative possibilities were cool, and we started going to some live music events and so on. But really, we didn't develop any sense of community inside SL until a couple months later, when we noticed something called Triana's Music Trivia. It was (and still is) a weekly music trivia game held every Sunday evening at 7PM local time (which is the same as Second Life time). We started going and soon found that as much as we enjoyed the trivia game itself, we had even more fun amongst the crowd of looney people who would attend each week. Several of them became good pals of ours. In fact, Triana (the hostess and namesake of the game) became so close to us that twice, she's visited us in the Los Angeles area from her home in the midwest.

Hardly a week goes by that both Kat and I aren't at TMT on Sunday night. It's become a given in our schedule that we spend the last part of our weekend there, and it's always fun, without fail. Back in summer 2008, Triana was planning a special event for her rezday and the anniversary of TMT, and asked if I'd be able to perform at the festivities, which I gladly did on July 6, 2008 (and premiered a song I wrote about Triana and her trivia game that evening). Since then, I've done another five shows at TMT, and they're all terrific.

Triana, rocking her Aaron Rodgers jersey. Photo by Kat.

Which brings us back to the present. I did my sixth show at TMT on Sunday 9/19, and we really had a great time. The last few times I've played at Triana's, we separated the trivia game from the concert, which I think was better than trying to do them simultaneously, and made it a two-hour event for which I played the last hour. For last night's show (as I tend to do at TMT), I pulled out a couple of tunes I'd never done before, and overall just had a fabulous time.

TMT Set List...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Heart of Gold (Neil Young)
*The Banana Boat Song (Harry Belafonte)
Help Me (Joni Mitchell)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
*Fuck You (Cee Lo Green)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Triana (Zak Claxton)
Shine (Zak Claxton)
Starman (David Bowie)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Crosby, Stills & Nash)

Triana's roof, a great place to rock on a Sunday evening. Photo courtesy of Triana Caldera.

Gigantic thanks to everyone who supported my show at TMT, as well as for your amazing friendship! You're all great!
wendela Beckenbauer, Nakira Tennen, Alchemy Epstein, Horizon Darkstone, Mick Majestic, Samantha Poindexter, Jordan Hazlitt, Candy Falodir, Diana Renoir, MrNoCal Honey, Xerxes Ninetails, Kat Claxton, and last but the opposite of least, TMT's founder and hostess, Triana Caldera!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Feeling fall

I know that fall, or autumn, or whatever you want to call this season, doesn't officially start until Wednesday, September 22. It's still over a week away. However, it would seem that summer made a very fast exit a short while ago. There's no doubt in my mind; fall is here.

People often say that we don't have seasons in Southern California, and they're mostly right. But sometimes seasons aren't always definable by the color of the leaves on the trees, or whether or not you're able to wear shorts to the mall. Fall can be a vibe, rather than an average temperature, and let me tell you: it's fall, baby. My son started school particularly early this year, on August 31, and in the couple of weeks since then, I've felt fall coming back with a vengeance.

In New England, it's easy to tell when it's fall. Near Los Angeles, less so.

There are a few physical clues that the seasons are changing here. The daily temperature here has been steadily dropping (though we had such a cold and crappy summer at my home here by the beach that it wasn't a really dramatic change). I find myself having abandoned the flip-flops and shorts, and I've dusted off the thermal shirts and socks that stayed in the back of the drawer for a few months. I wake up each day to fog and overcast skies that sometimes burns off in the afternoon, and other times hangs around, bringing an eeriness to the entire day. It's also awfully quiet here at Zak Central; my aforementioned son is gone at school for most of the day, and I was pretty much used to the sounds of him playing video games, banging around on his guitar, and shooting baskets in the driveway for the past couple of months.

All this can seem a bit depressing. But this will be my 42nd fall; I know from experience that there are good and bad sides to every season. One thing that seems to go well for me in the fall is my tendency to get organized and get moving on some projects that I may have let slide over the lazy summer months. And that, my friends, is what I intended on writing about when I started this post that's been pretty bleak thus far. Let's get rolling with some positive vibrations.

Much to my surprise, I found I actually enjoy the creative aspects of recording and editing videos. In my life that doesn't involve being a wanna-be rock star on the Internet, I own a small marketing communications firm... we do ads, websites, PR and that sort of stuff, mostly for the music/audio products (and related) industries. I've always been forced to use other resources for video work, but it's pretty incredible what you can do with mid-priced gear and a little ingenuity these days. I had recently purchased a new HD camcorder, and in a couple of days I'll have a new addition to my video making arsenal: a chroma key "green screen" and a couple of lights.

Look Ma! I'm Industrial Light & Magic! Not quite, but this will indeed help me do some cool stuff for videos.

You, being a savvy technology-centric person, probably know what a green screen does, but I'll tell you anyway. When I film something in front of the green screen, my computer software can take a different batch of footage and substitute that for the green background, ostensibly placing the subject in any environment you can imagine (and probably several you can't). So, as you'd guess, this opens up many creative possibilities for my video work. I'm excited. My green screen -- a 10' x 20' type that was way less expensive than I'd assumed it would be -- is supposed to arrive in the next couple of days, though it will probably be next weekend before I can start testing it out.

Without spoiling the surprise factor, Kat and I are going to be working on a video for one of the songs off the Zak Claxton album, and we're putting a lot more planning and effort into this one than we did with our previous videos. Stay tuned.

Say what you will about American professional football. It's barbaric (sure). It's corporate-sponsored bullshit (absolutely). It's homoerotic (ooh, big guys in tights!). But I will shrug all of that off and tell you that I love when the football season gets rolling. Hell, I love all of it: the games, the pools, the endless analysis. I love adding ESPN's NFL scoreboard back to my browser's bookmarks. I love finding an extra hour to pore through Gregg Easterbrook's TMQ column on Tuesday mornings. I love the history of the game. I love the veterans trying to eek out another meaningful season; I love the talented rookies making names for themselves. I even love watching my woeful Oakland Raiders, even though they have an offensive line that a group of kindergartners could seemingly stroll though without much effort.

Yep, I love it all, and I'm excited it's back. Go Raiders! You suck, but I don't care!

Keep those cleats in good shape, Jason. You'll be doing a lot of running this year.

Music Recording!
Sigh. Here's what I'm going to say about this topic: I have songs to record. I have a great place to record them. I have great people to work with... musicians, engineers, and so on. But for the past four months, we have simply been unable to get our shit together and get back to Sound Sanctuary to work on new stuff. Well, all I'm going to say is that there's no way I'm going to let these new tunes languish and fester in my brain; they need to get recorded, and they will. As soon as we actually set up a date where my musical cohorts and I can all be in the studio at the same time, I'll let you know.

See how happy I am in the studio? It's time to get back.

Yeah, I know, I know. "But Zak, you hate traveling!" Wrong. I hate being forced to travel to places I don't want to go, and for reasons that don't involve my choice. But in the next two months, I have one trip planned and another that's on the "maybe" list, and I find I'm looking forward to them both.

First, my darling Kat and I are soon taking a weekend excursion out to Joshua Tree National Park. "Joshua Tree" is more than the name of a U2 album; it's a huge expanse of beautiful desert in the eastern part of Southern California. It's only a couple hours drive from here, but it might as well be on a different planet. Kat and I are planning on several activities during our brief visit. We're taking my still-new telescope with us for some desert star gazing away from the light pollution of Los Angeles. We're planning some short desert hikes where we can enjoy nature and take some cool photos. I'm also taking the cheap guitar with me, just in case I get some musical inspiration while in this unique environment. All in all, it should be way cool.

The Southern California desert has a beauty that's different than anywhere else in the world.

Later in the fall, there's a trade show that I'll likely attend. As much as you've heard me whine about hating trade shows in the past, this one still brings me some enjoyment. The Audio Engineering Society (AES) show is back in San Francisco this year, and while I have legitimate business reasons to attend, it's also a good excuse to take Kat up to the Bay Area again, something we haven't done since our first face-to-face meeting back in early 2006. So, while the plan isn't set in stone yet, it's likely that we'll take a weekend and enjoy the food, culture, and sights of that city soon enough.

It really is a great city. Looking forward to going back again.

We'll end this note with a nod to my absolute favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. Regardless of anything else going on, I am committed to hosting Thanksgiving dinner at my home, which means I get to cook. And yes, I really like cooking, especially when navigating the intricacies of a full thanksgiving feast. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, candied yams, cranberry sauce, bread rolls, and so on. Not only do I enjoy cooking it, but I love serving it, eating it, and pigging out on leftovers for the rest of the weekend.

Thanksgiving is great because you don't have the pressure you get at Christmas. No malls, no buying presents you can't afford, no rush to return stuff shortly thereafter. I cook, I eat, I'm done. By the following Monday it's all a distant memory, and I throw out whatever remains in those Tupperware containers in my fridge. Still, it's something I look forward to every year, and especially since I've decided to hold the meal here for whoever wants to come, there's an even higher level of anticipation this time around.

How can anyone not love Thanksgiving?

Well... I wasn't planning on writing a small novel when I started this. But you only acknowledge new seasons four times a year, and Fall and I have this interesting relationship. I like having these plans, and hopefully a good portion of them will actually happen. No promises, but I think Fall and I are going to have a fine time over the next few months.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Pocket (09.10.10)

The Pocket is a great place for live performance, day...

... or night. Photo credits: Triana Caldera (top), Kat Claxton (bottom).

FREE SONG SAMPLE: "I've Been Waiting For You" (Neil Young)

I'm sure this is a pretty common situation: I'd been aware of The Pocket for a long time, and the folks who run The Pocket were aware of me as well. But for whatever reason, we never made a connection... I'd never asked to play there, and they'd never invited me. With the hundreds and hundreds of live music venues in Second Life, you just have to expect that you're never going to hook up with all of them. But last week, while I was playing at another place, Delinda Dyrssen happened to catch my show, and asked if I'd like to perform at The Pocket. I accepted, and I'm really glad I did: I had a great time playing their weekly Friday night show!

Especially considering that the Friday night 8:00PM slot in SL is really a highly competitive time for shows, with literally dozens and dozens of other artists playing at the same time around the grid, I was very happy about the crowd that came out. Not only was the crowd fairly good sized once we got rolling, but there were a good number of serious well-known live music lovers who showed up. I was really happy about this.

In any case, I've noted many times here that I enjoy playing at SL venues that are new to me, and The Pocket was terrific in that regard. I definitely hope to play there again in the future. The show itself went well, with my doing a pretty good combination of originals and covers.

Set List at The Pocket...
Nobody Home (Pink Floyd)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
I've Been Waiting For You (Neil Young)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Sex & Candy (Marcy Playground)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
You've Got To Hide Your Love Away (Beatles)
Edith and the Kingpin (Joni Mitchell)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Tribute (Tenacious D)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Is It In My Head (The Who)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)

Thanks to everyone at The Pocket who helped support my show!
Triana Caldera, Cellandra Zon, Alexis Fairlady, Aurelie Chenaux, Charm March, gwampa Lomu, Mootly Obviate, Kat Claxton, and The Pocket's great staff, Delinda Dyrssen and OhMy Kidd!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Report: Zak Live on StreamJam ep. VI (09.08.10)


As I probably mentioned during my previous show on StreamJam, I'd been doing these live video music shows on Facebook for five straight weeks, and have enjoyed them all. However, I got to a point that I was concerned my audience was going to get burned out on them from my doing them so often. I do, after all, have other shows in places like Second Life, and there's only so much begging and pleading a guy can do to get people to come to shows.

So, I backed the StreamJam shows off to a bi-weekly schedule (similar to what I'd been doing with my Zak Claxton Happy Fun Show on Ustream earlier this year), and I think it was the right idea. Since a couple of weeks had gone by since my previous show on StreamJam, it felt fresh and fun again, both for me and my audience.

Check out Jess' Zak Claxton t-shirt. I love it!

Once again, the show consisted of all original songs that I'd written. Some people might not take these things very seriously, but we StreamJam artists were specifically told that we could only perform music to which we had the rights, and as a songwriter, it would be pretty hypocritical of me to do other people's tunes in such a public setting without paying for the right to do so. Besides, there's a cool challenge in arranging the order of songs to keep things fresh and fun for everyone. I think we did well in this regard last night.

StreamJam #6 Set List...
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Go Easy On Me (Zak Claxton)
Triana (Zak Claxton)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Shine (Zak Claxton)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)
Waxing Gibbous (Zak Claxton)

Giant thanks to my terrific friends/fans who attended this show!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Notes Shack (09.02.10)

FREE LIVE SONG #1: A Case of You (Joni Mitchell)
FREE LIVE SONG #2: Redemption Song (Bob Marley)

The Notes Shack. Photos courtesy of Diana Renoir.

I suppose today could have started out crappier. Like, someone could have thrown a brick at my head. So, since that didn't happen, we'll not complain too much about the fact that right before my show at the Notes Shack in Second Life, a construction team was using jackhammers, drills, and circular saws directly outside my window. We won't mention little work-related frustrations and whatnot, or the fact that I have a sore throat and may have a cold coming on.

We also won't waste time talking about the fact that even after I arrived at the venue (thankfully, while the construction crew seemed to have taken a lunch break, whew), things didn't go so hot. For the first time in quite awhile, something borked my stream, and my audio was stuttering in and out for my listeners. This is literally the worst thing that can happen at a virtual show, and I seriously considered just calling it a day, apologizing to the people who were there, quitting SL, and curling up into a fetal position for the next 18 hours or so.

However... even when things seem their worst, sometimes you gotta keep fighting through, and every once in awhile you can push past all the bad shit that's trying to knock you down. I took a deep breath and set up a different stream, and presto-bango: people could hear me again. I was half expecting it to go out again, but it managed to hang in there, and I did the last 40 minutes of my set uninterrupted by techno glitches from hell.

That's me in the spotlight.

A number of times, I've found myself pissed off, or otherwise in a dark emotional state that is rare for me (I'm usually a pretty freakin' happy dude), and it does tend to bring out good music performances. I don't think the trade-off is worthwhile; I don't like going dark. But I will say that the songs really worked well once I got up and running.

Notes Shack Set List...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Black Peter (Grateful Dead)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Go Easy On Me (Zak Claxton)
After the Goldrush (Neil Young)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
†A Case of You (Joni Mitchell)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
††Redemption Song (Bob Marley)
Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young)

†Last performance of "A Case of You": 09.13.09 at the Notes Shack, oddly enough.
†† Last performance of "Redemption Song": 06.30.08!

Thanks to everyone who hung out through the technical issues and stuff! Turned out to be a cool show... thanks to you who supported it:
Aiden Witrial, Delinda Dyrssen, bob Savagard, Edith Ogleby, Diana Renoir, Kat Claxton, Idella Quandry, and especially Notes Shack madman Krakov Letov!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The opposite of schadenfreude

If humans didn't have dark emotions, we wouldn't need scary-sounding German names for them.

Schadenfreude is a word stolen from the German language. It's not a nice word: it means to find joy over the misfortunes of others. But we've all experienced it. Those of us who consider ourselves to be nice people can usually frame it via some kind of karma. You see a guy driving 100 miles per hour and jackrabbiting across lanes, and then a few miles up the road, you see he's been pulled over by the highway patrol. "Yeah, you reckless bastard!" you think. "I hope they take away your car and your license, ya jerk!" Sure, there's justice involved... but face it: you're happy because that guy is miserable.

Some people would interpret the opposite of schadenfreude as feeling sorrow for people's bad fortune (aka sympathy or empathy), or perhaps feeling good for others' good fortune. But I disagree; really, the opposite of schadenfreude is another, less well known German word: Gluckschmerz. This rather nasty-sounding word has an equally repugnant meaning: feeling displeasure when good things happen to others. It's kind of like spite, but worse. it's also similar to envy, but the difference is that you may not even want whatever has made the other person happy; you just aren't happy because you know they are. It's not an emotion to be proud of in any case.

I don't advocate suppressing emotions, positive or negative. And yet, being filled with either schadenfreude or gluckschmerz is sure to put a taint of corrosion on your soul. The former is just plain mean; the latter will leave you bitter. I try and think of myself as being a pretty enlightened person, with a lot of compassion, but I'm not immune to either of these feelings. Especially when it's a situation involving another person with whom you've had a checkered history, it's difficult to not allow these dark feelings to affect you.

Happiness is a hard thing to define, and God knows there have been enough attempts to create a dictionary entry for happiness that applies to all people. I can tell you one thing: a sure-fire way to avoid happiness is to spend your life comparing yourself to other people, or to be overly concerned with the actions of other people that don't affect you directly. I have spent little time in my life doing either, especially in the last ten years or so. I guess I got to a point where I realized that life was way too short to waste a moment of it being consumed by negativity of any sort. Still, every once in awhile, they rear their heads, and I walk around scowling for no good reason. Fortunately, when it happens to me, it's pretty rare and it doesn't last long.

In fact, I'm over it already. Back to the happy.

Bryant & Stratton College (08.31.10)

Zak plays at the pretty Bryant & Stratton sim. Photo by Triana Caldera.

My final show for the month of August 2010 was at the Second Life campus of Bryant & Stratton College. I have done a number of shows for B&S over the last couple of years, to the point that their in-world liaison Turn Pike has named me the honorary dean of music at the college (which is all the more funny when you become aware that they don't have a music program there).

Despite that, Bryant & Stratton is a respected educational institution in real life, founded over 150 years ago, with both physical campuses in New York, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, and a major online education component as well. As part of that, they've used SL to help give a sense of community to their online students. They have a nice-looking island sim with a couple of cool performance areas, where I've performed several times. The event they held yesterday was their annual registration bash, welcoming new students to the school. As you would guess, the new students are in most cases also brand new to Second Life, so many of them are getting the hang of doing basic things in SL... walking, talking, and figuring out how to do that silly dance move they see others doing. Additionally, as at past shows there, plenty of staffers from the college -- all cool people, by the way -- were around to talk to the new students.

Since the event was two hours long, I recommended that they use two performing musicians to cover the time (two hour shows tend to blow out my voice, and I tend to lose some of my trademark enthusiasm after the first hour anyway). So, they brought in Matthew Perreault to cover the first hour, and I took the last hour. We didn't get quite as big a crowd as we have at previous B&S events, but it was fun nevertheless. I'm still giddy from the ability to play more cover tunes (since I've mostly played only original stuff at recent shows), so I think the set list came out pretty good.

Bryant & Stratton party set list...
Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Tangled Up In Blue (Bob Dylan)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Go Easy On Me (Zak Claxton)
Old man (Neil Young)
Just Like Starting Over (John Lennon)
Behind Blue Eyes (The Who)

Thanks to all the new B&S students and staff for making it a fun show! Special thanks to Bryant & Stratton's Turn Pike and Starry Bloobury, as well as my Zakster Officers, Triana Caldera and Diana Renoir, for their help and friendship!