Monday, March 28, 2016

Greetings from Crayonville

The Crayon in the desert, November 2015. Photo by Jess Smith.

It's been awhile since I gave you readers an update on what's happening with They Stole My Crayon, my band featuring my lovely lady Kat and our best bud Bunny. The short version is that there's a lot going on, despite all of the evidence that may give you the impression that there's nothing going on at all. To explain, let me give you a super-condensed version of how to make an album of music.

1. Write songs.
2. Record songs.
3. Mix songs.
4. Master songs.
5. Release album.

Pretty easy, huh? Well, it can be. If I wanted to create a really fast album, I could literally do all the steps above, on my own, by myself, over the course of a week or so. Seriously. It would be shit, but it can be done. But my honest opinion is that while some artists create music that actually benefits from a lack of overthinking (Neil Young comes to mind), we're not that kind of band. Not at all. So while it's not like we have people banging on our respective doors to harass us to get the damn album done and out, we still have a little way to go, and the one thing we're not going to do is hurry through these crucial final stages after all the work we've done to make the writing/recording parts exactly as we want them.

So Where Are Things Now?
Simple to understand, and I'm glad to tell you. Our album has twelve songs. Of those twelve, eleven of them have been fully recorded and handed off to our mixing engineer Spencer Crewe. Want to know what they are? Here you go, in order of them being handed off for mixing (or close enough):

- Got Guilt
- Underwater Underground
- Bag of Nothing
- River Shallows
- Again
- Longing On
- Disarmed
- Favorite Things
- Vendetta
- Blew The Dust Away
- Picked Up Off the Floor

The last of those songs was just being wrapped up this weekend. Here's a Crayon Fun Fact™: the only song that we haven't given to our mixing engineer is "Things Under Trees", which ironically was the first song that we "finished" as a band. There are still some last touches to add, which is happening very soon. Let me explain something about art that might help explain this. It's extremely hard to know when something that's just been created is "done", and music is perhaps the worst of all art forms in that regard. All three members of The Crayon are pretty particular in terms of the sounds and vibes we like. Anyway, that means that even after listening to a song in progress for a year, one of us might have a new idea for a background vocal part, or the addition of some strings, or something lacking in a certain drum part, and so on. In any case, within the next week or two, there will be nothing more for us to mess with. Everything will have been sent out for mixing, and we'll have moved on to working on the next album even before this one is released. Hell, we already have, to be honest.

Crayon shenanigans in Joshua Tree. Photo by Jess Smith.

The Harsh Reality
But the real reason this album has taken so long is actually much more simple, and kind of sad. Every single person involved in this project is loaded up with "real life" responsibilities. We have jobs for our income, and families to help take care of, and everything else that makes a typical life in the modern world pretty damn busy. So the question isn't, "Why is it taking so long to finish the album?" The real question is, "How the hell did you guys manage to make this album while juggling everything else in life?" I make no apologies about the fact that we seem to be taking our time with this album; in reality, it's amazing that we've come this far.

What's Next?
Spencer, our mixing engineer, is in the same boat as the other Crayons; he has a job, and he also has a one-year-old son who is adorable. But he also can't devote every waking moment to mixing our stuff. That having been said, he's given us excellent mixes of three songs, and has another eight (soon to be nine) to wrap up. After we approve the mixes, they need to be mastered. Mastering is a process by which the final mixes are made to be sonically uniform, so that there is a consistency in the tones and volumes throughout the album so that it's optimized for all typical playback sources (downloads, streams, CDs, radio, whatever).

There are many great resources for mastering, but we have not yet chosen who will do this. Like most things in life, there's a limitation of selections based purely on cost. Great mastering engineers/facilities can be expensive, and we have little hope of selling enough albums to see a return on that investment. So, like most independent musicians, we're figuring out the best choice that's within our budget. That will happen soon, while Spencer is wrapping up the remaining mixes.

What's After That?
We release the album. As to how that's going to happen, whether its on our own or through a label, there are many possibilities to choose from... too many to explain here. Our current estimate is that one way or another, the album will be available for people to hear by the end of June. Yes, of this year. Wish us luck.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Zak Claxton Endorses Bernie Sanders for President

It's what everyone has been waiting for... some obscure musician sends his endorsement to a political candidate! Oh wow, it's the opinion of some guy who plays a guitar and sings, which, as we all know, is the most influential and qualified political voice today!

Okay, okay. Yes, I know this doesn't matter at all to anyone. And that's okay, because I'm writing this more for the benefit of my own state of mind than to sway anyone else's vote. I don't care who you vote for, but I am going to tell you why I think that Bernie Sanders is the right choice for me. Maybe for you, maybe not. But definitely for me. I'm going to make this really simple:

• Income and Wealth Inequality
• Education Opportunities and Health Care for all Americans
• Protecting the Environment, Combatting Climate Change
• Racial Justice, Women's Rights, LGBT Equality
• War as a Last Option

These things are very important to me, and Bernie is the candidate who best represents my feelings on these issues. I told you I'd make it simple! So, with no further adieu, I officially endorse Bernie Sanders for President, and am happy that a candidate like him came along at a time when we need him most.

When you get the thumbs-up directly from Mother Nature, it says something. Bernie on March 25, 2016 in Portland, OR.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Islands of New England (03.14.16)

The Islands of New England: always a great place for live music in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

It's early on Thursday morning, and since the archaic and useless Daylight Savings Time kicked in this week, it's still pitch black dark outside as I begin writing this at quarter to seven. Usually I would be spending this quiet time in the early AM looking at the news and browsing through Facebook to see what my pals have been up to, but frankly both of those activities have lost their appeal during this insane political era. I find myself using classic avoidance techniques so I don't walk around being angry and/or depressed throughout the day. The news will inevitably catch up to me at some point; I'm not spending life with my head stuck in the sand like the proverbial ostrich. But I also don't go out of my way to start my day with the latest horrifying news from the campaign trail. Frankly, no one should; if you haven't made up your mind as to which candidate most interests (or least disgusts) you at this stage, I can't imagine how you'll make a choice between now and November. All that's happening now is stuff that tears apart friendships and families. I honestly want no part of it. Life is too short to be filled with hate.

Anyway, I'm not here to talk about that. Let's go with something positive instead: my show last night at The Islands of New England in Second Life. As I've mentioned before, I'm performing less and less in Second Life these days, a choice that's both purposeful (due to my limited time) and dictated by the comparative lack of venues who are capable of compensating artists for their time and effort. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps, for some performers and audience members in the SL music scene. All it does for me is makes me focus a lot harder on making sure each show is as good as it can be. I'll put it this way: I had a much higher percentage of crappy shows -- shows where I found I didn't focus well, didn't perform to the best of my abilities, or played at places where my style of performance would never be appreciated -- back when I was playing 4-5 shows each week. Playing a few times per month allows me to make each show a special event, and I treat it as such.

I cover everything from Motörhead to Mr. Rogers, and yet people keep coming back to my shows. Photo by Kat.

Last night at The Islands of New England was a good example. My set list included three songs I'd never done before. We had a really great crowd. And, perhaps most important for my fragile artist's ego, every single person there seemed to truly appreciate what I was doing. They got it. The dessert of this cake was being followed by a guy who is without a doubt one of the most impressive talents in the SL music scene... Jon Larson, aka Mulder Watts. I've had several occasions where I've performed before or after this guy, and I can tell you that he'd be impressive in any musical setting. I rarely am able to hang out for long after my shows, but I stayed for most of Jon's set.

Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons
No, I didn't forget what blog I was writing. I wanted to share a little story that pertains to a song I did last night. NPR airs a short segment each Friday morning called "StoryCorps". It's a fascinating collection of stories told by people from all walks of life. Some are admittedly depressing, and some are inspiring. All are interesting. On Friday March 10, as I was driving my son to school, we listened to the following story told by François Clemmons, the singer and actor who used to appear on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" in the role of Officer Clemmons. Listen to his short tale below.

I've long been of the opinion that Fred Rogers may be the best human that ever existed, and certainly so within my lifetime. When I heard about François Clemmons' story, it reminded me that of all the wonderful music that came from that show, I'd never paid homage to any of it, and I decided that doing the song that François and Fred sang together -- "There Are Many Ways To Say I Love You" -- would be an appropriate tribute to these great people, as well as a song that diffuses all of the anger and hatred that seems so prevalent these days. I should also note that I did another new song off Martin Courtney's great album Many Moons, and finally found a song by Wilco that I felt I could do adequately.

Nowhere but Second Life would my audiences be so accepting of the variety of songs and musical styles I perform. Photo by Kat.

TIONE set list...
Bring On The Night (The Police)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
*Bull Black Nova (Wilco)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
*Northern Highway (Martin Courtney)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Appetites (Jib Kidder)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
*There Are Many Ways To Say I Love You (Mr. Rogers)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
After the Gold Rush (Neil Young)
Save It for Later (English Beat)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in Second Life.

Massive thanks to all who came out to The Islands of New England for my show, especially the following who helped support it!
Trena Levee, Metal Svartur, Jenna Dirval, Bigfoot Hendrassen, ClaraMaeline Resident, Alyss Whitewood, Isabella Beltway, Sheila Morlim, Triana Caldera, Mulder Watts, Richy Nervous, Kat Claxton, Stratus Mactavish, TheaDee Resident, my excellent manager Maali Beck, New England co-host Sesh Kamachi, and (most of all) the lady who keeps New England being one of the most rocking places on the grid, Christine Haiku.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Surprise Mini-Reunion of Liquid (03.02.16)

As most of you readers of this blog know, I've been a musician for a long time. Like, over 90% of my life. Granted, I wasn't too hot from age three to about nine, but since then, I've played a lot of music, in a lot of different styles, in a lot of different environments. To me, music is never something that can be limited; if you're a musician, you owe it to yourself to explore as many different ways of making music as you possibly can.

That's a preamble to say that those of you who know me exclusively as an acoustic guitar-playing singer guy who does online solo shows might not be aware that like so many of my fellow musicians, I've been in plenty of bands, going back to when I first got good enough to jam with other people back in middle school circa 1982. Almost all of these have been rock bands. No, scratch that. Every single one of them have been rock bands, with the definition of rock music being as varied as it is. One of those bands -- my most recent band that played out live on a regular basis -- was called Liquid. Liquid was the very typical bar band, playing covers of both classic and modern rock tunes in Irish pubs, sports bars, neighborhood clubs, street parties, and the like. Along with singer Randy Harmon and bassist Phil Gilbreth, Liquid included drummer Dante J. Silva, a guy who is a lifelong friend of mine with whom I've been jamming in multiple bands since we were teenagers.

Liquid never broke up; we just faded away. Between 2004-2007, we played a lot. Hardly a week went by that we didn't have a show at a bar somewhere around the South Bay area of Los Angeles. But then, I got tremendously busy with my business and being a parent, and it wasn't fair to the other guys with me not being available for rehearsals or most shows. As many of you know, I started performing as a solo artist, and recorded my own album which came out in 2009. Phil -- one of the best bass players with whom I've ever had the pleasure of working, who had some local notoriety many years ago in the Twisters -- was constantly in demand, and continues to play with a variety of different bands including country/Americana act Abby Hankins & The Lionheads. Randy has continued seeking out any opportunity to showcase his mighty vocal skills, sitting in with his many musical friends on various occasions. And Dante has never slowed down at all. He's in a successful local Led Zeppelin tribute band called Like Zeppelin, and they play out multiple times per week.

Checking out the Like Zeppelin set while getting ready to rock. Photo and top photo by Kat.

But Dante also has another kind of gig that I find fascinating. There's a club at the Redondo Beach Pier called Starboard Attitude that been there... well, pretty much forever, it would seem. I remember hearing about that place when I was just a kid growing up here. It is the typical beach bar, somewhat grungy but with plenty of vibe, overlooking the ocean in our beautiful city of Redondo Beach. Anyway, each Wednesday night, Dante is the host of an event called "Dante's Inferno", which is an open jam where musicians can get on stage and jam tunes with whomever happens to be around. I love that kind of thing, but frankly never have time to participate; see above in regard to owning a business and being a dad.

The guys in Liquid have remained close friends, but we've only managed to reunite a couple of times over the past six years or so, the last time being in 2012. About a month ago, Randy messaged Phil and I via Facebook, and asked if we had any interest in joining Dante for one of these events at Starboard Attitude. The catch: we had no intention of telling Dante about this beforehand. Last night at about 8:00, I met with Phil and Randy on the pier downstairs from the bar, and then had the pleasure of walking in to completely surprise Dante. The look on his face as the realization of what was happening dawned on him was, in a word, priceless.

Ladies and gentlemen... Liquid! Photo by Kat.

Phil (bass), Randy (vocals), Dante (drums) and me (guitar and backing vocals), doing what we do. Photo by Kat.

Dante's Zeppelin band rocked through some tunes -- I was totally digging their version of "The Wanton Song" -- and then Liquid took over the stage. Keep in mind, we'd had no rehearsal, and none of us had been performing these songs in years. I say that not as an excuse, but as a matter of pride, since the set went much better than you'd expect for a band that hadn't played together regularly in as long as it had been for us. Was it perfect? Oh, hell no. But we had a ton of fun, and the crowd at the bar truly seemed to enjoy what we did. Speaking of which, we'd discussed a few songs as possibilities to play, but of course once we started, Dante had his own ideas of what material we could do, and we all obliged.

Liquid at Starboard Attitude set list...
Surrender (Cheap Trick)
Man In The Box (Alice In Chains)
Tie Your Mother Down (Queen)
Vasoline (Stone Temple Pilots)
You Got Another Thing Coming (Judas Priest)
Panama (Van Halen)
Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix)
You Really Got Me (The Kinks)

The whole event was incredibly fun. As you all know, I'm a) in the midst of creating an album with my current band They Stole My Crayon, and b) continuing to play live as a solo artist rather regularly. My musical plate remains pretty full. That having been said, I can definitely see us doing another "Liquid Night at Starboard Attitude" in the near future. Jamming out some rock covers with a capable band is exciting and fun for pretty much any musician, and my musical brothers in Liquid are great people to be with on stage. We'll do it again soon.

Here's to good times, good friends, and hard rock cover tunes. Photo by Kat.