Monday, August 24, 2015

They Stole My Crayon: Recording Session II at Sound Sanctuary

I'm awake and drinking coffee. Nothing unusual for 6:50AM on a Monday, but I feel compelled on this particular morning to tell you about our second recording studio session for the debut album of my band, They Stole My Crayon. In case you haven't been following along on the saga, I'll bring you up to speed quickly: we'd (mostly) finished all of the instrumental tracks for the album, but wanted to record our vocals with higher quality than we'd be able to do with our own gear and ears. So, we booked some time with our super awesome friend Phil O'Keefe at his studio, Sound Sanctuary, located in Hesperia, CA. The first of those sessions was in July and went really well, so we were excited to move ahead on the next one, which happened this weekend (August 22/23, 2015).

Saturday August 22
I'd wanted to sleep in a little, but I think my brain knew that it wasn't a typical Saturday, and awakened me bright and early. By 10AM, Christina and I were ready to roll. After our customary stops for snacks and breakfast, we hit the road. Everything was going swimmingly until we hit one of those completely terrible traffic jams on the 15 freeway, which coincided with my having to pee really badly. Needless to say, we were very happy to arrive at Phil's... and use his bathroom.

Bunny arrived moments later, having been stuck in the same traffic as we'd endured, and we pretty much jumped right into the session. As per our usual process, all of our tracks were on a portable hard drive, and Phil loaded them into his Pro Tools system quickly. We started with "Vendetta", and right away I knew things were going to be really good. It went so smoothly that we were able to wrap up another entire song, "Picked Up Off The Floor", before we took our first break. We had to get checked into our modest but decent hotel, and get some lunch.

After that, it was straight back to work. We recorded vocals for "Blew The Dust Away" and "Favorite Things" in a whirlwind of various singers and tracks flowing by. Later in the day, Christina and I needed coffee desperately, so after a run to Starbucks, we continued our session. Dinner that night, in true studio fashion, was a pizza that was delivered ridiculously late, but still was delicious. After a couple final tracks, we called it a night and drove back up the street to our hotel where we slept soundly. At least Christina and I did; we're never sure if Bunny sleeps or not.

Sunday August 23
After the somewhat late night, we weren't in a huge hurry to get back the next morning. We leisurely got up, met Bunny, and grabbed breakfast before heading back to the studio. We'd saved the most difficult song of the session, "Longing On" for that day, and it actually went much better than I would have anticipated. It still took a good portion of the morning and early afternoon, so after that was wrapped up, we went on a food run. Once back at Phil's, it was time to record "Things Under Trees". Again, to clarify: yes, we'd recorded many of these songs already, but we re-did many of the vocal tracks, and the improvement is simply mind blowing.

We'd planned on making use of Phil beyond his already impressive engineering abilities; Phil is also an excellent musicians and singer, so we drafted him to do some extra vocals on a couple of songs. Only problem: while he sang in the tracking room, someone needed to act as the audio engineer to run the Pro Tools system. While Bunny or I could have easily done it, this was a great opportunity for Christina to gain some experience in this area. After a quick tutorial, she had no problem at all doing the job.

When Phil's stuff was wrapped up, we had a couple of final things to touch up, as well as a track of Christina playing tambourine, and that went fine too. So yes... once again, we got six songs completed. That's a total of 12 out of the 14 songs on the album. We'll likely book one final session at Phil's next month to get any remaining parts completed. It was amazingly productive, and yet we all felt relaxed and had fun, which is exactly what you hope for in a great recording session.

Like last time, Phil ended the session by dumping all of our recorded tracks back to the hard drives we'd brought for that purpose, and then at 6PM sharp, we hit the road. the drive home was very fast, and was only hampered by the act of driving due west into the sunset (which sounds poetic and all, but is much less fun when the sun is going straight into your eyeballs while you're tooling along at 80mph in traffic). Regardless, we made it back in good time, and now we're another step closer to unleashing our album on the world. Good times, I tell you. Good times.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Islands of New England (08.13.15)

Enjoying a good show with good people at The Islands of New England. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

Some people have asked me why I'm performing much less frequently in Second Life than I did previously. There are two main answers, both true and hopefully understandable.

1. Music takes time, and I don't have a lot of it. From 2009 (when I released my last album) all the way to the start of 2015, almost all of my musical activities were centered around SL performances. However, I've been hard at work on the upcoming debut album of my band They Stole My Crayon throughout this year so far. With a finite amount of time I can devote to music (as opposed to my career, my family, my lovely lady, and so on), the fact is that I simply don't have time to also do three shows a week in SL anymore.

2. I charge a fee to perform, and less and less SL venues are capable or willing to pay it. While my fee is very reasonable, it's easy to understand that we artists can't expect that all people who try and host live music in SL can afford to pay artists. That's fine! There are plenty of performers who are happy to play for "tips only"... I'm just not one of them. And I also won't charge one place a fee while playing for free at another, which would be ridiculously unfair. I would much rather perform less often than devalue my music by playing for free, or screwing over the venues who pay me just to play for free at others. That will never happen.

So, again: this is a conscious decision, and I'm fortunate that my great manager Maali Beck has been completely understanding in this regard. Even if it means only doing a couple of SL shows per month, that's fine with me. Despite being a silly and goofy guy, I'm also one who won't compromise his ethics. Staying true to your morals does come with a cost, though: it's harder to maintain a strong presence in any environment where you're only semi-involved. Again, I'm lucky that my hardcore group of fans -- the Zaksters -- are also good friends at this point. I have complete faith that even if I disappeared from SL for years, they'd be back to see me when I chose to return. So, all is well, and I'd also say that the shows I now do more rarely each seem a little more special than when I was doing them every other day.

Rocking New England
So, on to the show. I can tell you right now, I know when I perform well, versus performing with mediocrity. Side note: I never perform badly, because if I sucked at this, I wouldn't do it. So some shows are okay. Some are pretty good. And a small number of others, like the one I did last night at The Islands of New England, are seriously great. Everything worked out incredibly well. I reached deep into my repertoire, doing some tunes I haven't pulled out in ages. My singing voice and guitar playing were working exactly as I liked, which is rare when both happen at the same time. Out of the hundreds and hundreds of SL shows I've done since 2006, very few could be considered better than this one, and the folks who were around to hear it confirmed what I was feeling at the time: this was a fucking fantastic show. I have no problem saying that about myself, by the way, just as I can objectively say that a particular show wasn't up to my standards. After hearing myself play live music as many times as I have since I started playing live as a little kid in middle school, I probably am the most accurate judge of my own performances. This one was outstanding.

Fun jams with fun Zaksters. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

I end each performance in this silly pose. If I ever get a new virtual guitar, it's going to be a stipulation that this pose is included. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

A couple of notes: first, it's somewhat of a neat coincidence that I played two Pink Floyd songs last night, only to awaken to today's totally unsurprising news that Pink Floyd is officially finished as a band. I almost never play two songs by the same artist at one show (unless the artist is me, or my band). So, I guess that was my sendoff to one of my biggest musical influences. Second, I want to reiterate that The Islands of New England remains one of my absolute favorite places to play music in SL, as it has been since the first time I played there (which was on August 8, 2011, for you Zak trivia buffs). It's easy to understand: the place is run by an absolutely wonderful friend, Christine Haiku, and is frequented by good friends. When I play there, I can feel free to be as silly and fun, or musically adventurous as I possibly can be. I always feel good while playing there, each and every time.

TIONE set list...
Walk On The Wild Side (Lou Reed)
Save It For Later (English Beat)
If You're Into It (Flight of the Conchords)
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
Norwegian Wood (Beatles)
Polly (Nirvana)
Our Lips Are Sealed (The Go-Go's)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix)
Don't Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
Swing Low Magellan (Dirty Projectors)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
Nobody Home (Pink Floyd)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)

Massive thanks to all who made it to the show, especially the rolling people who helped support it!
Devin09 Dover, RansomTalmidge Resident, Lynne Lowey, RoxxyyRoller Resident, Kiki Utherwurldly, Richy Nervous, Sesh Kamachi, Aurelie Chenaux, my manager Maali Beck, and most of all the lady who makes it all happen at TIONE, Christine Haiku!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Pacifique Park for Relay for Life (08.05.15)

Photo by Triana Caldera.

This report from my show to benefit Relay for Life at Pacifique Park in SL is about five days late. While I'm admittedly tardy, I do have a reasonably good excuse: I've had a medical thing going on. Is it the end of the world? Did I die? No, and no. But I've had a mild sinus infection happening which has kind of sapped my energy just enough to force me to postpone any writing that wasn't necessary for work and other boring stuff. And, even less critical but much more annoying, my ruggedly handsome looks have been temporarily disfigured by... well, see the pretty picture below.

Nice, huh? While it may look like I'm auditioning for the part of Igor, Frankenstein's assistant, that ugly red lump on my left eyelid is merely a stye. I'd never had one in my life until a month or so ago, and now this thing has been recurring multiple times. I can't make it go away entirely, and between that and the sinus infection that I was hoping would go away on its own to no avail, I finally dragged my ass to my doctor yesterday afternoon. A side note to this long side note: I have to say that the folks at Ocean Medical here in my lovely hometown of Redondo Beach, CA, always do excellent work. I've been going there for over 20 years, and I'm still alive, which must mean they're doing something right. So, long story not-so-short, I have a treatment plan for the eye and am on antibiotics for the infection. I should be much better rather soon. And that brings us to the show I did on Wednesday August 5, which was a Relay for Life fundraiser at Pacifique Park in Second Life.

As you all know, I do benefit shows often. In fact, at this point, I do just about as many charitable fundraisers as I do shows where I am paid for my efforts. That's fine with me; the "payment" of knowing I've used my musical skills to help others is pretty great. For this show, Alexis Fairlady (who is a longtime fan of my performances and has seen me play dozens and dozens of times) had politely been waiting for me to have some available time to do a show for her RFL team. For anyone who is unaware, Relay for Life is the official fundraising arm of the American Cancer Society, and a multitude of Second Life events raise thousands and thousands of dollars each year for this effort.

Ready, Set, Don't Go
Live music performances in Second Life are fairly straightforward for tech-minded people. I make musical sounds here in a room. The sounds are picked up by microphones, which go into a mixer, which go to an interface where they are translated into digital signals, sent into my computer via USB. Then, I have software (Rogue Amoeba Nicest on my Mac) that streams the signal to a server, where it can be accessed by anyone who has the address. When we musicians perform in SL, we give that address to the sim owner/manager, who plugs it into their land settings and bada-boom: anyone who clicks the audio button will hear me playing.

It works every time... except when it doesn't. I still have no idea why my very-reliable audio stream wasn't working that day, but it wasn't. There are so many combinations of ways for it not to work, it's impossible to know. But the end result was that for the first 20 minutes (!) of my show, my audience had silence. It's a bummer when stuff like that happens, and I used to get really pissed off about it. I don't anymore. Instead, the DJ who was spinning tunes for the crowd before my show was kind enough to loan me his stream, and once we got it sorted out, I was playing. Thanks Nick!

Photo by Triana Caldera.

Photo by Triana Caldera.

We had a good crowd at the venue, which was quite pretty in an open outdoor park setting. It's amazing to me that 90% of them stuck around during the stream debacle, so hats off to them. Despite the delay, I did manage to get a good number of songs in the rather abbreviated set. And, as far as I could tell, the fundraising aspect of the show seemed to be successful. So, mission accomplished.

Pacifique Park RFL set list...
Pigs On The Wing - Parts I and II (Pink Floyd)
Saved By Zero (The Fixx)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
Cat's In the Cradle (Harry Chapin)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Friday I'm In Love (The Cure)
Man of Constant Sorrow (Traditional)
She's Leaving Home (Beatles)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)

Huge thanks to Alexis Fairlady and all the people who helped support this great cause (and put up with our technology nightmare for 20 minutes). You rock!