Monday, June 27, 2016

New Zak Song: "Something Else"

I've written here before about my process of creating new music... mostly coming to the conclusion that I don't actually have a process, and that it is, in actuality, some mystical magic shit that either happens or doesn't. But I have narrowed down a few points:

1. I tend to write music when I am in front of some kind of music-making thing (a guitar, a piano, a computer running music production software, etc.).
2. I tend to write music when I am not distracted by other life things -- much of which is also very important to me, like being a responsible adult, a parent, a love interest, and those other roles that musicians often (but shouldn't) call distractions.

But beyond that, your guess is as good as mine. I often pick up a guitar in a peaceful and quiet environment, and nothing new even comes close to happening. I've also "tried" to write a song... disaster. "Trying" to write is pretty much a guarantee for writing your absolute worst, most derivative, and completely unexciting music. That's where the filler on an album comes from, when a songwriter has a burst of two or three genuine tunes, and then realizes that he or she needs another ten to fill it up. My advice: don't do it. Wait until you have more actual songs, or just release singles or EPs.

All killer. No filler. Working on music in my new little studio.

Anyway, as my readers know, I recently moved, and it wasn't a simple or easy move. Granted, it was only a half block to the west, but the move ended up stretching out over weeks, and we still have boxes in our living room to sort through a month after starting the process. Anyway, per above, there was no way in hell I was going to write music during that time frame. I was mentally and physically exhausted for a good portion of it, and then my focus was on catching up with the more responsible aspects of my life that were pushed back via the move. It wasn't until last week when I started getting back into my routine of picking up an instrument and playing when I had a spare moment to do so.

Sometimes, at least for me, that's a good time to write. You're approaching it from a fresh angle, having not played in awhile, and perhaps consciously or otherwise, you have some ideas bottled up. But as I also said above, for the love of God, do not try and write a song. Instead, just be within playing proximity of an instrument, and see what happens when you make contact with it. No pressure. Play a few notes or a chord, and then maybe another. Nod your head a bit, perhaps settling on a tempo and feel. Mumble some sounds that might one day be a melody and some lyrics. If it happens, it happens. If not, go do something else.

Hey, that's the name of my new song
Inadvertent mention, or Freudian slip? I have no idea. But here's how I wrote my new song "Something Else".

One night last week, I picked up my Martin D-18V, which has been the conduit for many songs I've written. The chord progression came to me all at once. I didn't stop and wait to write a bridge, or a chorus. I just flowed through the whole thing as it came to me. A good sign, not stopping. I did a quick recording of that, just to make sure I wouldn't forget it the next day. That was all, for the time being.

I didn't know what I was going to do. I highly recommend not knowing what you're doing, by the way.

On Saturday, Kat was reading or napping or something. I decided to fire up Logic Pro, my current preferred music production software. I didn't know what I was going to do. I highly recommend not knowing what you're doing, by the way. But then I recalled that I'd done that little tune the other day, and gave it a listen. Yup, that would work. So I gave some thought -- but not too much thought -- to what the drums and bass might sound like, and then I recorded those. Then I re-recorded the guitar part I'd written previously, and added some little vibe ambience that came to me on the spot. Later that night, I played my in-progress tune over and over again, probably to Kat's dismay. But before I went to sleep, I had a pretty good idea of the melody.

When I'm in the middle of a tune like that, I want to keep the flow going. After coffee and breakfast on Sunday morning, I went straight back to the song. I had the tune and a sort-of melody, but I had no words to sing. This is a problem. Songs require singing. Side note: some of you use the term "instrumental song". This is, by definition, impossible. Songs are sung. Tunes can be played, orchestras can be performed, instrumentals can be realized, but only songs can be sung.

But I digress. I put on the music, and then started writing things that came to mind. I suppose the feel of the music does sway what lyrics I write. I hope so, anyway. I do try and knock out lyrics as quickly as I can after writing new music. It keeps the vibe that much more consistent. Also, as I learned from Neil Young, I don't edit myself very much. I try and write through the song, and then go back and make small tweaks to assist with the phrasing and such, or to make sure the emotional impact of the song is consistent throughout.

So, I suddenly had lyrics, and it was time to sing them, which I quickly did. Then I did a fast mix of the song, and plopped it up on Soundcloud to share with my friends. And that's where we are right now, my friends. What happens next? Well, I'll probably go through the same process again, to re-record my quick ideas and get them polished up some, and perhaps add to them if I feel it will suit the song.

That's it. That's how I write a song. This was of no help to anyone trying to write a song of their own (and remember, never try and write a song). But perhaps it was interesting in its complete vagueness. Enjoy the tune.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Bonaventure Square (06.16.16)

Doing what I do at Bonaventure Square in SL. Photo by Maali Beck.

It's Monday morning, and I'm enjoying a cup of coffee in the near silence of my new home. It really is quiet here compared to my old place, which is literally 100 yards southeast of here. But the old place is situated on a very busy street, and just being one street over into the little neighborhood where I live in Redondo Beach makes a world of difference, especially in the mornings while people hurrying to work and school would be revving their engines and honking their horns. All I hear right now is the tiny clicks of my keyboard as I write this post. It is, in an overused but appropriate word, nice.

Thursday evening, of course, was quite a bit louder in here as I undertook my first live show in Second Life since my hiatus during the move. As my dear readers know, the majority of my time spent on music in 2016 has been focused toward wrapping up the debut album of my band They Stole My Crayon. As a result of that and other reasons, I've done less SL shows so far this year than at any point since I started playing there regularly in 2007. It's like anything else in life; you need to sometimes make decisions that prioritize one thing over another, even if you'd rather be able to do both. Time is cruel; there's never enough to do everything you'd like.

So, perhaps needless to say, it felt great getting back into doing live shows with my debut appearance at Bonaventure Square. The name is appropriate; the place resembles an outdoor square in an upper-class urban retail area like Rodeo Drive or Midtown Manhattan. The people who run the place -- Meredith Lundquist-Panthar and Candi Lundquist -- seem very nice. So nice, in fact, that despite my only pulling in a tiny crowd, they enjoyed the show enough to want me back there. The reasons for the tiny crowd are completely understandable. First, I'm really not an artist who focuses mostly on SL, so I never am a huge draw regardless. Second, I'd been out of SL for six weeks, so out of sight is out of mind in any world. And thirdly, sometimes the unavailability of a few key friends who tend to pull in other friends can have a big impact. Finally, my show was scheduled there on its own, with no performance happening at adjacent times to my show to pull in some other attendees.

Keep in mind that I'm not complaining at all. The show itself went great. I'd have liked more people around to hear it, but we had a good number of the Zaksters there, and the folks who run Bonaventure Square suggested that next time, my show gets scheduled in between some other acts. It's a good plan, and I look forward to that. But regardless, I'm happy with the music I did, and was in a good mood the entire time, so I'm definitely looking forward to performing there again with a bunch more people there to enjoy it along with me. One other note about the music: I debuted "Carry Me Ohio" by Sun Kil Moon, and I can tell you now that I'll be doing that one again many times in the future.

Bonaventure Square set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
*Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Wonderwall (Oasis)
*Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)
Sex & Candy (Marcy Playground)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Pancho & Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Desire Lines (Deerhunter)

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

Huge thanks to the folks who made it out to my "come back" show at Bonaventure Square, especially the following who helped support the show!
RoxxyyRoller Resident, RansomTalmidge Resident, Richy Nervous, Sesh Kamachi, TheaDee Resident, my great manager Maali Beck and Bonaventure's Meredith Panther!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Thanks Bernie, and Welcome Hillary

I voted in the California primary yesterday. Did it matter? Yeah, it mattered a lot.

Yesterday was the California primary, and I voted. It had been a long time since I bothered voting in a primary, but not because I'm a political slacker. California, the nation's most populous state (with the highest number of delegates at stake by far), is always scheduled near the end of the primary cycle. By the time we get to vote, the candidates are almost always all but completely determined. But not this year. There was still a mathematical possibility that my preferred candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, could overwhelmingly win the state and potentially receive the nomination of the party.

That didn't happen, and there are plenty of people who -- having finally found a candidate who truly speaks to the issues they find important -- are going to be bitter and disappointed today. There are those who are -- quite understandably -- completely disillusioned about the entire political process. I'm not one of them. Let me explain a few things.

Take The Test
First and foremost, as difficult as it is at this juncture, try putting your perceptions aside for a moment and focus on what really matters, which are the issues. There are a number of online locations where you can take an in-depth look at each major issue facing the country today, and see which candidate is most aligned with your views. The most popular (and probable best) one is called "I Side With". Go ahead and try it out. Go in as deep as you have time for in each category. It will probably take you about 10-15 minutes. I'll wait right here.

Done? Alright, let's take a look at the results, or at least my results.

As expected for a person with a fairly liberal outlook, my candidate is and always has been Bernie Sanders, who did indeed receive my vote in the primaries. Also not surprising: as a person who finds environmental issues very important, Jill Stein of the Green Party would be a good choice for me if she were in any way electable. But look at the actual percentages. Per their stated positions that are on record, I agree with 96% of Sanders' and Stein's policy issues... and 95% of Hillary Clinton's. In other words, whether I like Clinton or not, only one percentage point separates her and Sanders regarding the only thing that actually matters: the issues and policies the next President will support.

"No Sanders? I hate Hillary! I'm going Trump!"
I'm going to tell you something: if you're one of the thankfully small number of people who would choose to vote for Donald Trump now that Bernie is out of the race, you have some serious problems. I don't mean that as an insult; I mean that you don't have an understanding of what the role of President of the United States is all about. You may have liked Bernie because of his "political outsider" status, and frankly, so did I (and still do). But the reason you vote for a POTUS is that you feel that his or her position, as the leading influencer of the direction of the country, is most closely aligned with your own beliefs. And let me ask this: if your beliefs are that closely aligned with Trump's, why were you interested in Bernie Sanders in the first place? They are extreme polar opposites in terms of how they would affect your lifestyle as an American. There's no possible way that a person with a sane, rational mind would switch to being a Trump supporter, unless they never had an understanding of what Bernie is all about. I can promise that it's not what Bernie would want, and sometime in the next short while, I suspect Bernie will directly state this as well.

So that's it? It was all for nothing?
Oh, hell no. What Bernie did was amazing. He educated a huge portion of the populace about the details of topics like income inequality, climate change, racial injustice, and treatment of LGBT people. There are literally millions of people who -- as a direct result of Bernie's message -- became politically aware and active after years and years of apathy. And guess what? Just because the general election will not have Bernie becoming the President doesn't mean that the spark he lit under millions of Americans will die out. Bernie Sanders successfully created a movement that will hold the U.S. government to higher standards at all levels. In almost all meaningful ways, his campaign was a greater success than anyone could have imagined.

I am proud that I supported Bernie, and the ideals that he championed during the campaign are those that I believe in, and will continue pushing in every way I can. But the first and foremost way I can try and ensure that the United States doesn't become some kind of dystopian nightmare and a totalitarian regime led by a sociopathic monster is by throwing my support behind Hillary Clinton. If I don't do that, I am tacitly saying that I am okay with Donald Trump, a thoroughly despicable human being whose outlook is the opposite of everything I hold true, becoming President. I will use every ounce of my small amount of influence to make sure that doesn't happen, for the sake of myself and my son and those near and dear to me.

Therefore, while I love Bernie and hope that his message reverberates for years and years to come, I am officially supporting Hillary Clinton for President of the USA in the general election. No matter what you believe about our political system, if your stance on the important issues is closer to her's than to Trump's, I highly recommend you do the same. I also encourage you to talk about this... with me, with your family, with your friends. With fellow Bernie supporters. With anyone who thinks that Trump is a better option. Your best way of making sure that Bernie's campaign wasn't for naught is to make sure that the country doesn't go in the literal opposite direction of his policies that you've supported so strongly.

Please keep that in mind come November. And, as always, thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 2, 2016


Trying (and failing) to find stuff after the move.

It was July 1995, I was 26 years old, and I needed a place to live.

Actually, I had a place to live, and it was fine, sort of. It was a one-bedroom apartment in Torrance, CA, situated on busy Artesia Boulevard, so close to the overpass of the 405 freeway that the smell of exhaust fumes was a regular aspect of my daily existence. If I recall correctly, my rent there was $600 a month. I lived there with my then-wife, whom I'd married in 1993. We didn't have a child. It was, as I said, fine.

But it was a long way from ideal. The building was old, and shit was falling apart. Like, bad stuff. Plumbing was a serious problem. The neighborhood itself wasn't the greatest by a long shot. And I'd been out of college and at my job for several years, and was making pretty good money for a young dude. So, we decided it was time to move. Back in that pre-Internet era, just finding a place for rent was kind of a pain in the ass. I suppose I did what people did then, which was to look through newspapers and such. We checked out a couple of places in Torrance, assuming that a) we couldn't afford anything closer to the ocean and b) anywhere else was going to be an even worse situation.

But then one day, as we were driving around on our way somewhere, I took a left onto Beryl Street from 190th, and saw a big "FOR RENT" sign on a front lawn. I assumed that there was no way we could afford living in this nice neighborhood, but since we didn't have anything to lose, we stopped by to check it out. The place seemed unimaginably huge compared to where we'd been living. I was surprised to find out that the rent was $895... something that was within our range at the time. There were rental applications sitting on the counter, so we filled one out and left. I saw that other apps had been submitted, and didn't have high hopes about getting the place. But the next day, my phone rang, and an older man with a heavy Asian accent was asking me when I wanted to move in.

His name was Sherman Yu, and I told him that we could move any time. I met him back at the apartment, handed over a check to cover our first month's rent and a deposit before he could change his mind, and -- still in some degree of disbelief -- went back to start packing our small number of possessions. We moved into our place on Beryl Street the following month, in August 1995.

Two Decades Later...
It's been almost 21 years since that day, and you could say a lot has happened. In 1999, my son was born. The following year, I got laid off the only job I'd had since college (panic!), only to get a new and better job a couple of weeks later (whew!). That job lasted a few years, which kind of coincided with my marriage eroding. In 2003, I started my own marketing services company which I still run today. That same year, I first made the acquaintance of a lady named Christina who would eventually have a significant impact on my life, and whom I started seeing romantically a couple of years later. In 2008, the larger, two-story front unit opened up in the same building, and I jumped on it. Christina moved down here that September, living just a half block away for the subsequent 7-1/2 years.

We had always intended on sharing a place to live, but there was no specific deadline to do so. I'd had a vague idea that we would move ahead with that plan in 2018, after my son graduated from high school. However, sometimes opportunity knocks, and you should be ready to answer the door. Around the start of May, we found out that a home here in our neighborhood was becoming available. It was pretty much perfect for our needs... two-story, four bedroom, two-car attached garage, nice large patio. Big open living room/dining room area. Completely renovated interior. We didn't have to think much about it; we put in an application right away. A couple of days later, we found out that we got the place.

Since that moment, life went into a whirlwind as the process of moving began. I won't bore you with those details... moving is as shitty as anything that most humans go through multiple times in their lives. And frankly, we're still not done with that process; there is still a lot of cleanup work and collection of random crap that remains in my old place. But as of today -- June 2, 2016 -- I am writing from my office in my lovely new home. And lovely it is. A huge improvement from our former places. And, of course, I am finally living with Christina, which is something we've both wanted for a long, long time.

So here I am, trying to get our new place put together while sorting through a sea of boxes, and at the same time trying to get work done so I can earn enough money to live in this large and lovely home. But I'm not worried. Everything is coming together very nicely. Life is short, and the living quality improvement more than makes up for the temporary pain in the ass of this big transition.