My Music Revolutions

Last night I presented three new songs in the form of music videos at the first installment of the Hugo House 2012/13 Literary Series. The theme was ¡Viva la Revolucion! and as the musical guest I chose three tunes that reflect three revolutionary phases of my musical upbringing.

Elaina EllisMatthew Zapruder and Steve Almond were FANTASTIC! Many thanks to Brian and the Hugo House for inviting me along for the ride.

I have a vivid memory of a school assembly at Northern Lights Elementary in Anchorage, Alaska. Our school music teacher (a fella with a salt-and-pepper beard, recessive hairline and glasses) pulled together music instructors from other schools in the district to perform the song Popcorn by Gershon Kingsley. First off, it was a surprise performance: we had no idea the music teacher would be playing, let along bringing other music teachers (who at that age, I basically equated with a bus load of rock stars) to play for us kids. Secondly, they played Popcorn which I’d never heard and sounded like space music. But most impressively, they were playing what the adult me now knows to be Mini Moog synthesizers. My mind was officially blown. You could have rolled in R2D2 (who didn’t yet exist) and it wouldn’t have been as exciting to me. When they finished the final synth-laden moments of that tune, the crowd screamed with delight and I was officially sold on whatever those crazy keyboards from the future were up on stage.

Here’s the full version of the song with intro vocals:

When I was about 14, my parents took a trip to Los Angeles, CA. To a kid born and raised in Anchorage, this seemed like an exotic trip. My dad asked if I wanted him to bring anything back to me and I told him an electric guitar, figuring he would NEVER actually deliver the goods. Upon their return, they presented me with a 1980 Fender Lead II. I couldn’t believe it. Someone I knew at the time gave me a 100watt Fender Bassman head and another friend gave me a 4×12 cabinet. I had no idea at the time that the Fender Bassman is one of the rockingest guitar amps on the planet. I wrote about this amp a while back. Over the coming weeks and months I turned that amp and guitar to 10 and began a livelong love affair with loud, distorted guitar. Welcome to the club, I suppose.

I say “soul-ish” because I’ve never been in a traditional soul band, but most of the bands I’ve been in have veered toward the soul end of the spectrum. A typo sent me off on my soul-ish musical adventures.


Go Toto!

I’ve been Abdulaziz’s “Big” (and he, my “Little”) through Big Brothers Big Sisters Puget Sound for the past 3 years. During that time, we’ve had weekly lunch at Bailey Gatzert Elementary with his friends, played lots of kickball and basketball, learned the card game Set, played acoustic guitar, and I showed him the techniques of air drumming (he was already a natural at beat boxing). Abdulaziz (aka “Toto”) graduates this Wednesday and heads off to Washington Middle School. I know he’ll do great things as he’s super smart (his math skills exceed my own), a natural leader and he has a great family.Thanks for hanging out with me, Toto, and showing me good times. You are awesome.

Making Movie Music

Yesterday a Rolling Stone article mentioned that Maktub (really just Davis, Thaddeus and me) had helped out recording a soundtrack for a movie called Faces In The Mirror. It was a project that was in Boyd Tinsley’s head when his manager contacted us three years ago to see if we’d be interested in recording music in the studio with Boyd. I recall raw footage taken from a hot air balloon in Charlottesville, Virginia … but other than that there was no dialog, actors or plot. So, we just started recording and, although I haven’t heard the result in it’s finished form, in the moment is was a magical recording session. We recorded from midnight to 6am-ish for 5 nights (a time I’m almost never awake) and the music just seemed to invent itself.

Last year I had a similar experience helping David Nixon write music for The Shelf

The 30 minute song

A while back Thad, Davis and I had a loosey-goosey recording session that resulted in a bunch of great tracks. Like many sessions, the tunes are now trapped on a hard drive in my office (I’m looking at them now) buried in a ProTools session (which I don’t know how to manipulate). I was able to pull one session off the drive and deliver it to Michael Cozzi for mixing and mastering.

This was the first time I met Choklate (a friend of Thad & Davis) and the tune was written in one take. I started playing these simple chords while Davis and Thad stayed still and only came in on bass and drums for the last bit of the song. Choklate more or less invented the lyrics on the spot.

A Single Story

I’m proud of Brangien’s essay about our house which appears in the latest issue of Arcade Journal. Here is an excerpt to get you going …

During the first months of owning our new house, which we purchased in the spring of 2010, my husband Daniel and I told our story over and over—a gripping tale concerning the condition in which we found the place. We told people about the previous owner, who’d neglected the house to the point of serious, Grey Gardens-level disrepair, who shouted, “I hate this house!” at us on the day we picked up the keys. We spoke of the standing black water filling the kitchen sink. The broken dishwasher stuffed with garbage. The raccoons so accustomed to being fed they knocked with black, infantile fingers at the kitchen window each morning, demanding breakfast … (read more)

More photos of the house (the further you go back, the uglier it gets!)

Oh, Viaduct!

An ode to Seattle’s Viaduct by Braniel.
Song: Brangien Davis
Music: Daniel Spils
Video editing: David Nixon

Recently, Brangien wrote the lyrics and melody for a song about the Viaduct.  After days of her casually mentioning the song idea (repeatedly), I finally got the clue. I had her sing the melody to a click track (telling her this was just so we wouldn’t forget the idea) then proceeded to write the music around the melody when she went off to work. As it was sung without a key in mind, her singing fell between keys and I had to tune all the instruments down about a 1/3 step  (40 cents, to be exact). Here’s the original idea track (sorry Brangien!):

My proudest moment was playing the drums and nailing the intro drum fill. I’m a crappy drummer at best, so this was an exciting musical achievement! Next up, we drove along the Viaduct with my Canon S95 and shot some video. David Nixon then pulled video together, editing our footage with other footage of the Viaduct coming down and some excellent WSDOT animations of the Viaduct collapsing in an earthquake and the digging of the tunnel that nobody agrees on. From a married morning recording session, to drums and guitar and backup vocals in the basement to video editing with David’s cats. Go team!

The Haves and the Have Nots

Tonight Brangien and I are attending The Have and the Have Nots at the Hugo House. I was lucky enough to help David Nixon work on the tunes for his 3 videos that will show tonight as part of this series. I’m especially excited to see the music paired with the video of which I’ve only caught early glimpses.

David playing banjo somewhere

David’s songs are very personal, wonderfully sad and … short. I love short songs! The 10 songs that comprise the second video section have a total length of 11:30 (one song called “Wealth”clocks in at a whopping 19 seconds!). The theme of haves and have nots got me thinking about how we worked on this music together. Collaborating went something like this: a musical file from David would appear on my computer via the magic of Dropbox. I would open it. There I would always find David’s vocal and maybe some banjo or keyboards tucked into a Garageband session file. I would add some more music to it (drums, piano, bass, guitar, backing vocals), beam it back for David’s review and more music-adding. Then I mixed it all together. Some would call this the role of Producer, but the lines weren’t that distinct in our case. We never played music physically together or talked much about the tunes other than by adding to the composition. I’ve never worked like this before, but I have to say that if this is the future of music making, sign me up! It was fun, creative and had an exciting feeling similar to writing and receiving hand written letters back in the olden days.

There was a time when the only people who could record were the haves (those with money or a label interested in buying studio and producer time) or those who excelled at recording technology (people smart enough to figure out multi-tracking with tape or, eventually, software that was always just a little too complicated for the likes of me). Then the future arrived in the form of Garageband: a simple way for smart-but-not-overwhelmingly-technically-savvy musicians to record their ideas. In the last year or so I became aware of services like Dropbox and SugarSync that allow us to send these ideas back and forth with ease. The have nots have officially dropped the “not.”

I never imagined writing tunes with so little physical musical interaction or direct communication, but the experiment worked in this case. David’s tunes are fantastic (and, yes, they’re lovingly sad). Congrats, Mr. Nixon, you’ve made some great music. And thank you to the people that created Garageband. I know you’re probably referred to as a “product team” and have meetings about features and market share and such … but you should know that there are many formerly “have nots” out here in the world who love the simple tools you’ve created that allow us to have music.