I got ordained today. Somebody was talking about how she’s supposed to officiate at a friend’s wedding – apparently, you can be temporarily ordained by a Justice of the Peace to officiate at one wedding – and I mentioned that it’s actually really easy to be ordained. Anybody can do it. I pulled up a website and in a few minutes, I was ordained. I didn’t order my official certificate because, while the ordination is free, you have to pay for the paperwork. I would’ve but I blew my last paycheck on electricity and child support. But even without the paperwork, I am ordained and can perform weddings. And I will perform: if anybody is willing to cover travel, food and lodging, plus a nominal fee, I will officiate at their wedding and I’ll play at the reception free of charge. I’m totally serious. I don’t care if you’re straight or gay, just trying to get citizenship or anything. I’ll marry polyamorous covens on peyote in a nudist camp – actually, I’ll waive the fee for that.
Officiating at weddings is only one of the services I am willing and able to provide, only one of the many things I can do for you. As a deeply spiritual person, I am always looking for opportunities to contribute something positive to the world we live in.
Anyone reading this surely knows about the hours upon hours of noisy (not Noise), experimental, mostly improvisational and frequently difficult music that I have made available, much of it totally free, none of it priced at the ridiculously high rates charged by the mainstream music industry scum. You may also know that I have taken the Vow of the Bodhisattva and that I will, therefore, remain voluntarily in the cycle of death and rebirth, forsaking the incomprehensible bliss of Nirvana, until all sentient beings have achieved Enlightenment, at which point there will be no one left except a bunch of Bodhisattvas standing around saying “no, please, after you”. If you need a koan, I can provide you with one. If you are so close to attaining Enlightenment that all you need is someone to whack you with a stick or shout “katz!” at you, come on over. (Occasionally I pass a Wal-Mart or I see someone wearing an Insane Clown Posse shirt and I think about how many incarnations it’s going to take for all those assholes to be Awakened and I get kinda bummed out. I took the Vow – now I’m kinda stuck with it.)
If you’ve been following this thing for a while, you may recall that I once announced that I was starting a shamanic advice column. I got only one query from a snarky little barista, which I responded to with all due respect, but the advice column still stands. Send an email, letter or hand me a note and I will solve your life problem(s) right here in this space.
These are a few of the services I will provide. There are others. For example, if you ever need a B-side or a track to submit to a compilation – possibly a comp I am organizing – send me one of your songs and I’ll do a dub version. Actually, I don’t need the whole thing, just the drums and bass. If your song doesn’t have drums or bass, that’s fine. Just send what you have and I’ll do an alternative mix.
Need art? I got that. Need cover art? Well, by golly, let’s talk. I do a lot of the cover art for BDSR – if the label is willing to do it, I’m usually happy to let them – and I would be happy to provide cover art for you. Unless you are Insane Clown Posse, in which case I won’t.
Handpoke tattoos: $20/hr. I used to do them for free, but then I got tired of doing them. Another thing I used to do for free that I now charge $20/hr for: explaining why I don’t like your poetry.
Also, I’m a shaman. I shamanize. Usually, that takes the form of organizing and participating in performances, but I do other shamany shit too. For example, if your community is experiencing drought or if your usual food-animals have disappeared from the hunting grounds, I would happy to take care of that for you. I would, of course, require the complete cooperation of your community and payment in advance. Provide me with the details – estimates are free.
I admit that I am not as skilled as some at diagnosing and treating physical ailments. I have not focused much attention on this aspect of the shaman trade. I can witch your warts away, sure, that’s easy. If you have a lump on your testicle or bloody diarrhea, go to a fucking doctor. I will attend to some cases involving mental disorders, but I gotta tell ya, those can be tricky. Some things, situational depression for example, are relatively easy to cure; others can’t be cured at all. Certainly, a hearty helping of shamanic ritual can break through the psychological barriers that prevent an individual from locating their own hidden resources, which can completely eliminate some conditions and can make others much easier to deal with, but I would never advise anyone to substitute shamanic medicine for SSRIs or any other form of pharmacology. In general, I advocate psychiatric treatment, including medication as prescribed by the attending physician, as well as active spiritual development as the best possible treatment for mental disorders. As your Espresso Shaman, I would be happy to assist you in dealing with your fucked-up brain.
Obviously, I am able to facilitate vision quests. I prefer to host, as my spirit animals are happiest here in the oldest mountain range in the world. I can travel, but that’ll cost ya. A vision quest is not a camping trip. There will be no Iron John-style men’s movement New Age bullshit. You will not have fun and there is no guarantee that you will have any kind of vision. Basically, you will pay me to take you out into the woods, get you lost, tell you to sit someplace for a day or so with no food and almost no water, without sleeping, possibly enduring some additional hardships which I will make up on the spot, all in the hope of experiencing some sort of vision or hallucination or esoteric wet dream or whatthefuckever and if you don’t get what you’re after, tough shit. Also, you will have to sign a waiver so your family can’t sue me if you die. You could just do it yourself, though I would advise doing a bit of research first. If you do hire me to facilitate your vision quest, I will help you figure out what you experienced, if anything. That’s really the crux of the whole vision quest thing. Anybody can go sit in the woods and be uncomfortable for a few days and almost anybody who does so will have some sort of noteworthy experience, but if you don’t know how to separate the wheat from the chaff and make sense of it, it’s nigh impossible to put it to any good use.
Musical instruction is not part of the shamanic trade, but I don’t feel the need to be bound by tradition, so: shamanic guitar lessons. Whether you are an accomplished shredder or a rank amateur, I will teach you to slough off “the right way” to play guitar and access your own personal style of making sounds come out of a guitar with no regard whatsoever for how “good” or “bad” those sounds are. The whole (spirit) world of shamanolodics will open up before you, beckoning you to strum your way in.
Honestly, though, it really is easier to teach people who don’t know anything. If you’re one of those, I will teach some basics – you really do have to know a little bit before you can launch off into inner space. I don’t mean sight-reading or transposition or any of that useless shit; I mean I’ll explain standard tuning so you’ll know what to avoid, how to annoy the shit out of people with perfect pitch and what to feed your wolf tones. If you don’t have a guitar, you can use one of mine until I locate one to sell you.
If you do know how to play, I’ll still work with you, but I’ll be a lot more abusive. It’s for your own good.
What else? I can explain Finnegans Wake, extract teeth, paint fences… really, I’m wide open. As I said, I’m constantly looking for ways to make the world a better place, constantly looking for ways to be of service.
How may I help you?
I'm sitting in a room. Specifically, the basement of the Blue Nile, an Ethiopian restaurant here in Harrisonburg, VA. We used to play here a lot, back when I worked in the kitchen and could badger the soundguy for shows all the time. After I left, I didn't see him as much and we haven't played here in a year or so.
The line-up tonight is Helgamite, some heavily bearded, corrugated metalheads frfom up in Luray, Joey Molinaro, a grindcore violinist from New York or some such Yankee state, us, and the Subtlerrrs, a band I never heard of who were added to the list by the soundguy, probably because there's some possibility that somebody might want to hear them and the night won't be a total loss. I've been in touch with Molinaro via the www for a while, but this'll be the first time we play a show. Hopefully, he'll get here sometime soon.
It's St. Patrick's Day. Five years ago, I was sitting in the waiting room of a hospital in Charlottesville, VA, waiting for the Spotted Opossum. I was vaguely wondering how I'd handle a St Patrick's Day birth. I am, by nature, prone to think about such things and I was wondering what kind of sacrifice I should offer to Patty as thanks for a happy, healthy delivery. A goat? A potato? In the event, the wee grrrl didn't arrive until 3am the following morning. She was a tiny thing.
Today, I spent the afternoon with her. She was all about watching My Little Pony and not a bit happy that I still don't have internet at the apartment. I made her put together a puzzle instead. I am that parent - the one who doesn't have an Ipad or TV or internet or any of that cool shit. When this snow melts off, I'll be dragging her out to the woods and making her swim in creeks, capture small varmints and roll around in mud. Actually, I don't have to make her do that stuff. She is my child, after all. Given the chance, she'll wander along a creek picking up quartz crystals and fresh-water mussel shells all day long. It's only when she's inside that she wants to zone out in front of a glowing screen.
Since I've been away from this, I've been working a lot at the Little Grill, a collectively-owned restaurant. I discovered that place when I was 16. It was amazing. There was always something going on - poetry reading, play, bands. The bands then were mostly of the rural variety, bluegrass, country blues, folk, but there were enough rock, punk and just fucked-up noise bands that you never knew what was gonna go down. I lost my virginity in a car in the little Grill parking lot. After, we went inside to see the band.
And the people who worked there then were all cool as fuck. I was 16, so guys in their mid-twenties who drank and did drugs and were in bands were like demi-gods to me. They put up with me pretty well, I guess. I was an obnoxious little piss-drunk kid.
Eventually, a new owner got the place and immediately fired me. I can't say he was wrong.
Over the years, I've mostly avoided the place. I worked there briefly in '06. Got mad and walked out. Last summer, it started to seem like signs were telling me to apply and I always pay attention to that. Even with my shoddy history, they hired me. I announced my intention to become a worker/owner a month or so ago. The A&E recently took a job with a band based out of Nashville (or Ashville, I'm not sure) and the A&E slot fell in my lap. I had been plotting for months how I was gonna take it over, but it just happened without me doing anything.
I've been pretty clear about my agenda. In the past decade or so, the Grill has lost it's way as far as music is concerned. Its all folk now. Folk and old-time. The kinda stuff they play on NPR on Sunday afternoons when old hippies are napping. Boring, hackneyed shit.
No more. Obviously, I'll have to keep some of the boring dreck, but a new day is dawning at the Little Grill. All the freakish glory of my teenage years with none of the vomiting and suicidal hangovers.
Helgamite is destroying. These guys are louder than anybody needs. Molinaro showed up. I sent him looking for the soundguy, who is hiding someplace. I think the Helgamite bassist is sitting in with BDSR tonight. I never know what the fuck is happening with my band. Or why. Molinaro wants to play third, which puts BDSR in the #2 position.
I was hoping to get a recording from the soundboard, but apparently that isn't possible, so it'll be the standard ghetto, sounds-like-shit muddle that we've all come to know and love.
I have just been informed that the Subtlerrrs will be next, then Molinaro and BDSR last. This is how it always goes down. There's some blond with a Eurotrash haircut roaming around making me wanna, Drummer Boy is rockin' out, the order is changing, the soundguy is cranky. Typical. This afternoon, I was kinda hoping the show would be cancelled. I always kinda hope the show will be cancelled on the day of. I'm not a person who wants to be in the spotlight. I do it and I actually do enjoy it when I'm up there and everything is coming together like it's s'posed to, but I'm much more comfortable climbing a mountain or drawing or picking up mussel shells with the grrrl or cooking on a flatgrill or driving my truck or just about anything. I have stage fright - that's part of why I wear the medicine hat. It allows me to get in character, to get out of myself. And when the noise is full-on, cored-out and rolling, I get really far out of myself. Sometimes, when I'm performing I really do love it. Sometimes.
The college girls in green plastic hats just fled. I'm surprised they were here as long as they were. Molinaro told me his tour is going good, which is good. Hopefully, he'll get enough money from the door to cover his gas to the next gig.
And why is BDSR last? How does that make any fuckin' sense? I used to be able to count on us getting the opening slot.
The Subtlerrrs are setting up. I've been talking to dudes in local bands, telling them I'll be the booking guy at the grill, trying to generate some interest. Most dudes in bands just wanna play shows, so it ain't hard. I should have no trouble getting two or three bands every Friday without repeating too often. Outta towners are always welcome, of course.
I always feel weird sitting around in bars waiting for someone to tell me it's time to play. I was never into the whole bar scene. When I was a drunk, I avoided bars as a rule - too expensive and I was prone to becoming somewhat antisocial after I reached a certain level of drunk. Incapable of decent behavior. Getting drunk in a bar was too likely to end in arrest or brutal beatdown. Now I find myself sober sitting in bars.
The Subtlerrrs are reading Genesis. The guitar has a no-name guitar. It ain't even a Silvertone. I'm playing the black, left-handed Hondo tonight. Standard tuning. Black X wanted to switch to open E - I usually work in some D-based tuning. It seemed easier to just tune standard than tune to open D and raise eveything a step. Standard tuning has it's uses. I'm not opposed to standard; I just like variety. Actually, standard tuning is a change of pace for me. At home I've been fucking around a lot in DADAAD.
These guys are pretty good. I gotta get contact info.
I also gotta get working on this piece of art I brought. Pen work, easy and portable. I've got a visual art show in April and I need new stuff.
I'll try to get stuff up here more often.
I haven’t done many interviews for this band and the ones I have done have not included the dread(ed/ful) question about my influences, but it’s such a common question that it’s bound to happen eventually, so I’m just gonna go ahead and address it now.
Nothing. Or everything. Actually, it’s more accurate to say a little bit of both.
The whole thing doesn’t really matter or make sense to me. I have never intended to mimic any band or musician, never thought “I wanna be in a band that sounds like (some other band)”, never gone out of my way to sound like anybody. I have used known bands as comparisons to convey an idea- I wrote about my first band, the Impediments, here once and said “I wanted to sound like the Replacements getting drunk and covering Sonic Youth” or words to that effect, but that was me attempting to explain the sound I was after twenty-odd years later. I didn’t say that at the time.
I have, at times, thought that what I was doing at that moment seemed like a combination of other bands. There’s one BDSR title that I thought sounded like a mix of Pussy Galore and Acid Mothers Temple, but only kinda because that combination would actually sound like the Royal Trux magnum opus Twin Infinitives, not like the skuzzy, fuzzy slab I came up with. More than one person has mentioned what they thought was an Acid Mothers Temple influence, which I don’t see at all unless it’s just the frenzied and over-long guitar attack. Actually, AMT guitarist/frontman Makoto Kawabata is 100X the guitar-slinger I am. I’d give my hands to be able to play guitar like that yellow dwarf star. Furthermore, I was overdoing guitar shred before I heard AMT – part of what I like about them is that they do what I naturally and independently did, but they do it better. That’s true of a lot of bands that I like – I was doing something and then discovered somebody else who was doing almost the same thing so I started listening to them more.
Of course, I’ve used other people’s riffs and made some attempt to sound like them and sometimes it works. More often, the end result sounds nothing like the original which is why no one has ever mentioned the Black Sabbath, Rivieras and/or Norman Greenbaum riffs buried in some tracks. Some may assume that my use of a riff – played or sampled – indicates my fondness for the musician who wrote it. Nope. Not necessarily. I have and will use material by people I like, don’t like, don’t care about one way or another whenever it suits my need. Obviously though, I have to be familiar with music before I can think to steal it. And I am more likely to use stuff I dig.
I’ve been hearing music for forty-four years. I’ve been soaking it up. It all exists in my grey matter somehow. I could run this thing to over 2000 words just by listing the bands and musicians I’m familiar with off the top of my head, but I’m not going to because it seems somewhat pointless. There have been some noteworthy musical moments.
When I was fifteen, I heard the Sex Pistols and it blew my mind. After “Holidays In The Sun”, I knew things had changed. I didn’t become a punk, though. What the Sex Pistols showed me was that there were worlds of music that I’d never heard and that all I had to do to find them was to dig just under the surface. Within months, I’d found Black Flag, the Velvet Underground, Camper Van Beethoven, Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, R.E.M., Einstürzende Neubauten, Christ only knows what else. Free jazz, extreme noise, old-time country, country blues, grebo and all the rest came later.
Bongwater and Gaye Bykers On Acid maybe opened my eyes some to the possibilities of sampling. Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music certainly impressed me with its uncompromising commitment to a ridiculous idea – anybody familiar with the BDSR catalog should be able to name at least one thing there that shows similar determination. Albert Ayler incorporated well-known melodies and riffs into his free-form freakouts, which seems like an obvious thing to do, but which blew minds and heated tempers in the late ‘60’s free jazz scene.
I listen to a lot of world music and old American folk stuff. I’m sure that stuff has wormed into my brain and somehow slips out, but I don’t hear it in BDSR. Actually, there are some Bukka White and Uncle Dave Macon samples on some things and an unreleased cover of Charlie Patton’s “I’m Goin’ Home”, but those don’t sound anything like the original works.
Then, there’s also the nonmusical influences. I was a visual artist before I started working with sound. Recently, I started focusing on ink/watercolor work, but for years I was known around the various local art venues as a collage artist. Collage certainly figures in BDSR. I’m just as incapable of citing influences in the visual arts as in the musical, but I really dig a wide range of styles there as well. Albrect Durer was fucking great. Norman Rockwell, Nick Blinko, Henry Darger, Hieronymus Bosch, Vincent Van Gogh, Jackson Pollack. I’m not a huge fan of surrealism or modernism, but I love dada and fluxus. None of those artists or movements are apparent in my work, but I’m sure they all influenced both my visual and musical works.
The various religions of the world have shaped me as a human being and changed my life trajectory so they can’t be counted out as far as influences are concerned. The drugs I took and the fact that I don’t anymore played a part. The women who convinced me that I’d be happier being single and spending my evenings recording, mixing, drawing and painting must be influences. Coffee – black blood – has made it all possible, but I guess certain selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors deserve credit, too.
There’s also the fact that I work with other people and welcome their input. I’m going to be doing BDSR for a long time; I’ll have plenty of opportunity to indulge my quirks and foibles, so it makes sense to me to exploit those of my cohorts while they’re around. I read a review of a show recently that compared BDSR to Bitch’s Brew-era Miles Davis. It was an old review that I just found out about. I think I had the trumpet for that show and two of the people I was playing with then – Love Buzzard and JuJu “Dallas” Sweetlime – had jazzy backgrounds, so I could kinda sorta maybe see how someone with not much knowledge about jazz could get Bitch’s Brew from it, but not really. Ascension, maybe, but not Bitch’s Brew. I’ve never really dug Miles much. I really enjoyed the jazzish elements Love and “Dallas” brought to the mix, but they’ve departed for greener pastures. The people I expect to play at the house show we’ve got next week are not jazzy. Even if I take the trumpet – I will – it won’t be comparable to Bitch’s Brew. In all honesty, I doubt that that performance really sounded Milesy; the guy who wrote that had probably been listening to Bitch’s Brew and it was the first thing he thought of. I suspect that happens frequently. Certainly, that would explain how/why BDSR gets compared to bands that I never heard of or at least never really listened to. It is quite fine with me if reviewers compare BDSR to other bands. That is an almost necessary tool for describing a band and I appreciate it when people project their own tastes, values and whatever onto my artistic products, musical or visual.
There’s also the fact that I read somewhat voraciously about experimental music et al. and I can be interested in a band’s process and start to think along those lines without ever hearing that band. I’ve read about numerous bands that fit the basic description of BDSR: improvisational, shambolic, chaotic, with a semi-open membership policy. There have been countless such bands over the years, but most of them managed to avoid being recorded and nobody ever heard of the few that did. I’ve heard a few of those off-beat, free-form combos –Amon Düül, Anima Sound, Taj Mahal Travelers, No-Neck Blues Band – but many, many more I’ve only read about. One band that I can see people comparing BDSR to is the Residents, a band I've read numerous articles about and for whom I have great respect and admiration, but whose music I've somehow never gotten around to listening to.
So, what it comes down to is: I don’t plan on citing influences. There are by far too many individuals, organizations, entities and avatars behind the scenes and in the woodwork which have and will influenced the progression of BDSR for me to suss out any one or few for special mention and I am loathe to do so.
Besides, if I was to make a statement like “The Big Drum In The Sky Religion is my own attempt to channel the wonderful sounds of Raymond Scott”, everyone would know immediately how far short of the mark I’ve fallen and that would be embarrassing.
- The name of this band is The Big Drum In The Sky Religion, shortened when desired to Big Drum Sky Religion, abbreviated BDSR. For some reason, people want to leave off the first “The”, which isn’t a big deal. One time, we were billed as Big Drum & The Sky Religion, which was a little silly. More than once, it’s been sliced down to Big Drum. Sometimes, the unwieldy name is lengthened to The Big Drum In The Sky Religion Is Not A Religion, but not often.
- Little known fact: the last two notes of the Boredoms’ “Melt Down Boogie” are the first two notes of the riff from Pussy Galore’s “Cunt Tease”.
- Harmonics are only supposed to be possible on the fifth, seventh and twelfth frets. I have gotten them on the third. It happened accidentally once and then I tried to do it again and it happened again. I have no explanation for this nor do I feel any need for one. Impossible things happen sometimes.
- The other day, I took the little girl to church and as we were getting out of the car, I spilled my coffee and said “Oh, shit”. The girl asked “Daddy, why did you say ‘Oh, shit’?” So I lied: “I said ‘Oh, shoot’ because I spilled my coffee.”
As we were walking into the church, holding hands, she looked at me and said “You know, Daddy, it isn’t very nice to say ‘Oh, fuck’.”
- I am male; therefore I have never experienced menstrual cramps. However, I would never say to any of the female people in my life “Your menstrual cramps are not real. You’re just imagining it.”
Atheists are people who have never had religious experiences and who claim that those of us who have are just imagining it.
- The spiritual battlecry of BDSR is “Kill the wounded; mutilate the dead”, but it’s meant in a purely metaphorical way. For now.
- It is not at all unusual for this Espresso Shaman paraphrase Smokin’ Joe Campbell’s theme that myth is poetry, that myth should be read figuratively, not literally. I absolutely affirm that it is so and I love it for being so. However, no one should infer from that that I like poetry. I do not. There was a period of my life when I thought I did like poetry, but really, I just liked my own poetry. I don’t think I was the only person at open mic poetry readings who was only there so they could read their own stuff and didn’t give a rat’s ass about anybody else’s shit. After I stopped smoking cheeba, I realized that my poetry sucked as much as everybody else’s. I do have a book of Japanese death poems, Japanese Death Poems, which has some great pieces, all of which are really short, and I like some of William Blake’s really short poems – “The Proverbs of Hell” are awesome, though The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, of which they are a chapter, is kinda tedious. Other than those few examples, I can’t think of any poetry off the top of my head that I like, but I love me some myth.
- BDSR had two local shows, a week apart. The flier for the first had a picture of a woman breastfeeding a baby; the second had a still from a ‘70’s disaster movie: a woman covered in her own blood. One business downtown wouldn’t put up the breastfeeding woman, but the other one was okay.
Our society is fucked up.
- Browny’s Vox Maxim: There is no vocal track so flat, off-key or otherwise terrible that it cannot be rendered awesome by the simple application of fuzz. (More than one coat may be necessary.)
- The last time I checked, the number of deities being worshiped in India was something like 3,600 which is awesome in and of itself. The thing that makes it even more awesome is the fact that the average Hindu on the street is cognizant of the fact that all those deities are metaphors, images that represent the incomprehensible Mystery which underlies and animates the Universe. They know that there isn’t a four-armed, blue-skinned magic man with an extra eye in the middle of his forehead dancing to keep the stars spinning or a chubby, elephant-headed dude riding around the cosmos on a rat or a flesh-eating, corpse-fucking chick lurking around looking for the chance to chop off their arms for her skirt. They know all that and they still keep right on going with it, century after century. That is fucking awesome.
- People used to say that the music of BDSR didn’t “go anywhere”. Maybe people still say that, but nobody’s said it to me for a few years.
I never understood what the fuck that was supposed to mean. Where is music supposed to go? Where can it go except from its source to your ears? I honestly do not understand. I listen to a lot of music - ragas, free jazz, old-time, punk, new wave, no wave, hardcore, pre-war country blues, anthropological field recordings of naked savages chanting and beating slit drums, bagpipe regiments, grebo, gospel, noise, gamelans, heavy psychedelic, probably some other stuff that I can’t think of. None of it “goes” anywhere. Some of it evokes emotions. I listen to that stuff when I want to experience the emotions it evokes. Some of it helps me enter into a mentally turned-off zone which I find pleasant. I listen to that stuff when I’m drawing or painting or just zoning out. It’s possible that I’m missing out on something, that other people are having some kind of listening experience that makes them feel like they’ve gone someplace, but I don’t think I want it. If I want to go someplace, I’ll take the little red truck. It’s got a cassette player – I can listen to Native American war chants along the way.
- Some great quotes by me:
“Atheists and fundamentalists are equally annoying and for the same reason.”
“Things are seldom as they should be, but they’re always as they are.”
“Unsought advice is insult; unrequested help is injury.”
“Better to suck originally than be great at copying.”
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t know any better.”
“I don’t hit on women. I avoid any situation in which success is the worst-case-scenario.”
“When you’re dealing with crazy people, it’s important to remember that they’re crazy.”
“If what you see is all you see, you’re missing most of it.”
“Honesty is the best policy if you don’t want friends, sex or money.”
“Fuck a bunch of irony.”
Myth is metaphor. That is and will continue to be a reoccurring theme. Every myth is a story, usually a fantastic one, which conveys a meaning. Actually, any halfway decent myth conveys many meanings. Read a myth at fourteen and then again at forty and you’ll get different meanings. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The meaning changes according to the perception of the reader. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to read any myth.
I never write these things in one sitting. Well, maybe there have been a couple hyper-caffeinated sprees of opinionated free-association, but most of the time they’re spread out over a few evenings. Sometimes I peck away while waiting for the grrrl to come out to the waiting room where the parents wait for their grubs at the Montessori school because sometimes I don’t feel like chatting with the other parents and I want them to think I have some important work to do on the computer. I’m the only Daddy in the waiting room at the Montessori school with paint on his hands, tattoos and a 10 gauge septum ring. I wrote the opening paragraph, decided it was a good opener and then read an article about Wolf Eyes in The Wire. I respect Wolf Eyes, but I really haven’t heard a whole lot of their stuff and the little I have heard didn’t grab me by the short hairs so I haven’t followed up. The article was boring so I went to sleep and then today, when I was out dumping a truckload of trash at some student housing complex, I heard an announcement on NPR that later they’re going to play David Sedaris reading his thing about taking guitar lessons from a guy who hated kids and I remembered the time I took guitar lessons and I decided to write about that instead.
My Dad got me an electric guitar for Christmas when I was fifteen – the red Hondo All-Star that I still have. I don’t know what he was thinking. We were on bad terms, even for us, at that point. I assume he was trying to bridge the gap and maybe he was trying to tap into my interests to get me to do something positive or channel my angst into a creative direction or something. I dunno. It became very obvious very soon that I was not going to start playing Rolling Stones or Byrds guitar licks. Left to my own devices, I ran the Hondo through a shitty, homemade amp that I got for $15, all knobs at 10, and just thrashed out the most heinous feedback scree I could manage. I opened the guitar to see what was inside, removed the neck to see how that would make it sound, scraped the strings, swung it around, tore the flesh off the side of my thumb, all at maximum volume for hours, totally in love with my new power to create horrible noise. I had no sense of sounding good or bad, just a visceral and engorging excitation. Any sound I made was fascinating. I’m sure the neighbors thought otherwise.
Now, when the time comes to thrash, I am unable to recapture that purely ignorant spontaneity. What I know about music, though useful and good in other ways, always interferes. It’s something I’m working on.
One Saturday, Dad picked me up after I mowed my Grandma’s yard. He had my guitar in the truck and he informed me that I would be taking guitar lessons and that I would be paying for them. Before I could come up with a token argument, he had dropped me off at some guy’s house. The guy turned out to be Jeff. Jeff was about thirty-five and had a moustache. His hair was parted in the middle and I’m sure it had once been just long enough to hang over his collar. He had clearly peaked early. At thirty-five, he was working some job – selling farm insurance or used mobile homes or something – and trying to keep his marriage from falling apart. I got the impression very quickly that his wife had given him some kind of ultimatum, something like “Stop playing in bar bands or I’m outta here.” Bar bands were a huge part of Jeff’s past. We would be sitting in the little side room where he taught guitar lessons, laboring over some song from a Mel Bay Guitar For Beginners book, “Cockles And Mussels” or “Greensleeves” or something, and Jeff would start explaining guitar techniques like “pull off”, “hammer on” and then he would say “When you master these techniques, you can do something like this…” and he would wander away from reality and into an extended Allman Brothers jam, head back, eyes closed, clearly reliving some unbelievably awesome gig at The Elbow Room or The Broken Spoke or whatever local redneck bar he had been at when he achieved supreme awesomeness.
I am not making this shit up. I would sit there, failing to comprehend the melody of “Shortnin’ Bread” because I never practiced what Jeff had told me to practice and had no interest in learning to read music and Jeff would completely zone out, wailing away at some Doobie Brothers solo until he suddenly realized what was happening and then he’d break off and say “Oh, uh, yeah, that’s what you’ll be able to do. Practice this song here”, poking his finger at “The Noble Duke Of York” or whatever, “That’s it for today. My wife’ll be home soon.”
The Mel Bay books are good instruction manuals for beginners. I’ve collected a bunch of ‘em over the years, mostly at thrift stores. Jeff basically had the right idea. He taught me to read chord charts from which I learned all the major and minor chords. He showed me barre chords which came in handy – I watched some Ramones videos and took power chords from that. He taught me where the notes are in the first five frets and tried to teach me to sight read melodies. I would figure out the notes using “Every Good Boy Does Fine” for the lines and “FACE” for the spaces, memorize the melody and then pretend I was sight reading, which worked. I can’t say that I liked Jeff or respected him, but I didn’t mind him much. As his marriage got rockier and rockier, I started to feel sorry for him and also to find him more interesting. Going to guitar lesson became more about watching Jeff crumble than about learning to play guitar. He started drinking beer during lessons. I was disappointed that he wouldn’t let me have one, but the beer did open up some long and rambling monologues which revealed more than Jeff probably intended. He went off one time about how you should never work for your father-in-law. That explained a lot.
One day, Jeff called to give me directions to his new place, which turned out to be a fairly crappy basement apartment. I didn’t ask, didn’t need to. After his wife threw him out and he lost his job, Jeff pretty much quit trying. When we’d first started, he was consistently dressed in khaki slacks, white shirt and loosened striped tie, the uniform of guys who have to dress for work but who have no sense of style. By the time he moved, he was usually in jeans and T-shirt, sometimes without shoes. At his new place, boxers, T-shirt and bathrobe became standard. He was now smoking cigarettes one right after the other and downing two or three beers during our hour. There were whiskey bottles sitting around. He was incoherent half the time, mumbling some drunken monologue about how unfair everything was. Jeff’s decline had clearly gone past the interesting and kinda funny stage and into the depressing and kinda scary stage. I started worrying that I was going to show up one day and find him dead on his kitchen floor surrounded by empty bottles and sleeping pill packages. And I was paying Jeff $5 an hour for this. I was sixteen by this point. I had a car and I knew college students who would buy beer for me. I had figured out the “Louie, Louie” riff without Jeff’s help and was ready to rock.
Jeff told me after a lesson that he wouldn’t be there the following week. He had to take care of something. He might not be there the week after. I should call before I came over. It had all gone too far. I left knowing I wasn’t going to call and that I would almost certainly never see Jeff again. I haven’t. I hope he’s okay.
I never had any more “formal training”. Whatever else I have learned about music came from listening to music, reading books and interacting with other musicians.
Don’t be surprised when I re-use that opening paragraph.
“…We should mention also a feature found in some African music that involves both form and polyphony, namely the tendency – in some pieces – for a number of apparently unrelated things to be going on at the same time. Some of this is due to the development of complex rhythmic polyphony, the simultaneous presentation of which seem, to the Western listener, to have little in common. It is hard to say whether the African listener feels all of these rhythms to be part of one over-all rhythmic structure (as a Westerner can conceive all of the voices in a Bach fugue to be independent yet united), or whether the African can conceive of music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena…”
My main source for used books is Gift’N’Thrift, a Mennonite thriftstore. I get a lot of cassettes and LP’s there, too. And picture frames. I recently picked up Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents by Bruno Nettl, the book from whence cometh the passage quoted above. It was worth every penny I paid for it – all fifty of them. It’s got some interesting observations and general insights and is inadvertently funny in its patronizing ethnocentricity, although, published in 1965, it came a little late to be really hilarious or to qualify as what I call “double anthropology”, i.e. anthropology that reveals as much about its creator as its subject . For a stunning example of that, check out the short film, African Pigmy Thrills, from the late ‘30’s, in which a group of Pigmies (sic) construct a bridge of vines across a raging river while some smugly asinine narrator embarrasses all white people with his condescension and pathetic attempts at humor. White people sure are a bunch of assholes.
Please notice that Mr. Nettl includes Africa (sub-Saharan, to be precise; North Africa he excludes from this work on the grounds that its folk and traditional musics have been heavily influenced by middle-Eastern peoples and are therefore properly “Asian” and not within the scope of his book, which is a ridiculous and specious argument) – Mr. Nettl includes sub-Saharan Africa among the “Western Continents”, which would seem to make sub-Saharan Africans “Westerners”, but he still makes a distinction between “Westerners”, by which he means people who “can conceive of all the voices in a Bach fugue to be independent yet united”, and “Africans”, who may or may not “conceive of music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena…” and who probably spend a lot of their time running around naked in the jungle spearing and eating each other. That the word “Negro” doesn’t appear in the quote above does not mean it doesn’t appear repeatedly in Folk and Trad…, although that really doesn’t reflect badly on Bruno, as “Negro” was the proper term in the early ‘60’s. Still, the chapter on African music is far more insulting than the chapters on European folk and traditional musics, though those were hardly celebratory, referring as they did to “gesunkenes Kulturgut”, which sounds like something Hitler would have wanted to eliminate. Why Nettl chose to write a book about the traditional folk music of people he had such distain for is beyond me, but the next chapter is about “The American Indians” so it should be pretty amusingly racist.
But what I really wanted to address here was the idea of “music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena”, because that’s standard operating procedure here at the BDSR Hondo. The majority of BDSR releases have layers of shit going on. Sometimes, there’s a riff or other repeated element that runs through the entire thing as a unifier, but it’s not unusual for us to just pile a bunch of sounds on top of each other and then turn up the volume on the track that sounds the least awful. In any case, there’s a lot going on. Minimalism ain’t our thing, man.
Way back, many moons ago, there was this acid-casualty around town. I worked with him and he was one of the few people I could almost always count on to be in the mood to drink Night Train and smoke pot when I was which was always. He owned a four-track and sometimes we would make a bunch of noise in his kitchen. It was from him that I stole the idea of recording independent jams and layering them. Last time I saw that guy, five years ago, I think, he was sixty pounds heavier, had a bunch of scars on his face from driving a pick-up into the side of a moving train and was muttering some paranoid gibberish about crop circles and chubacabras. I’m not making that up.
A significant portion of the bands I’ve been in in the past decade used layered unrelated phenomena. The ones that didn’t didn’t because I was outvoted. Piles of random sounds all trying to squirm their way to the top of the mix is what I like when I’m making music. I like it when other people are making music too, which is why I have numerous recordings of African folk and traditional music and not one Bach fugue.
Ephemeral sounds are good too. A few years ago, some other guy I know was talking about his recently purchased Robert Johnson box set. He was complaining about the static and hiss, a result of primitive recording techniques and the effects of age on the masters. He even managed to bitch about the fact that there were other sounds audible in some of the songs – Johnson’s creaky chair, car horns outside the hotel room where the recording took place, somebody coughing. I was stunned that a) anybody would buy a box set by Robert Johnson as opposed to Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi John Hurt, Charley Patton, Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie Johnson, Henry Thomas, Bukka White or any of the dozens of other country blues Negroes who picked and slid circles around Robert fuckin’ Johnson; and b) that anybody would complain about the static and hiss and car horns and coughing on old country blues recordings. The ephemeral sounds are and always have been intrinsic aspects of the pleasure of old country blues for me.
What’s that song? The one where Charley Patton’s voice rises up out of the crackling fuzz like a specter pushing his head up through the graveyard fog, shouting “Loooooord, have mercy on my wicked soul”? That hits me every time. I swear I can’t listen to Patton when I’m driving alone. I did it once, going across the mountain for some reason, and I had to pull over. Can’t drive them mountain roads when your eyes are blurry with tears. Jesus. Patton is a hungry ghost, moaning across an ocean of time. Then there’s Henry Thomas, whose Pan pipes still cut through the years of tape decay like shimmering razors though cornbread. Beautiful.
Layers upon layers, waiting to be discovered, like the meanings in myths, like how you can know someone for decades and still be surprised when they mention some insignificant event from their childhood because you never knew that. Like how the moon can sometimes catch your eye as you walk in from the car and make you pause, even though it’s the same fucking moon it’s always been. Like a detail in the Norman Rockwell print that Nana has had in her dining room forever, but which you never noticed before. All the elements are always there, but we pass them by. We fail to hear the melody under the noise or we just look through the reality because it doesn’t advance our agendas. Sad.
I’m touching on different things here: my deliberate mashing-together of unrelated recordings, accidental happenings on old blues sides, the unnoticed beauties of the plain and simple world around us – yet they somehow seem to go together. We miss so much. We don’t appreciate all there is. We don’t get it. We judge things as being “good” or “bad” depending on how well they conform to a notion we hold of how things ought to be. Then, like Bruno Nettl, we display our utter inability to truly appreciate anything which is foreign or contrary to our cherished prejudices.
I recommend Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents, I really do, not because it’s especially special in any way, but because, recommending it gives me an opportunity to recommend picking up any and every 50¢ book that looks vaguely interesting. Obscure used books are gold. Ephemeral noise is priceless. Norman Rockwell prints are sublime.
A friend called t’other day and asked if I wanted to work with him refinishing a hardwood floor. I told him I’d never done that kind of work, but I’d show up and learn as fast as possible. As it turned out, he’d never done that kind of work either, so we were even. I’m fortunate to have a number of friends who approach work with this kind of fearlessness. So what if I don’t know how to do the job I’m committing to do? I’ll figure it out and if I need any help I’ll hire a guy who also doesn’t know what he’s doing.
We did the big sanding and then the other guy went to get us more coffee, leaving me to the detail work on the stairs with this little power sander. I was hunched down over the thing, buzzing away on the risers when I realized that beneath the electric motor drone I could hear a high-pitched “deity-deet-deet”*, which was definitely coming from the sander. It was a pleasant little sound, rhythmically similar to a dot-matrix printer and tantalizingly reminiscent of something I couldn’t place, though I think it was from a movie – radar or sonar sound effect, or a computer on a space ship, or something. Or maybe the sound that accompanies the printer when a hot news flash comes in over the wire. Whatever. I really enjoyed listening to it, barely audible over the hum and not unlike the melodies buried in the scree on Lou Reeds’ Metal Machine Music, definitely the best thing Blue Lou ever did after White Light/White Heat and the only thing he did post-VU that I can stand.
Music is everywhere. Well, sound is everywhere and it is possible to listen to any sound as music. I really became consciously aware of this in ’03 or so. I was living in a little house that was gradually crumbling into its own basement as a result of shoddy construction and the vibrations in the ground from the rock quarry at the end of the road. At that point, I still had music blasting most of the time. I went outside to smoke a cigarette on the porch one sunny day and as I sat there, I became increasingly captivated by the sounds around me: low rumble of trucks and bulldozers to the right, medium-range car traffic to the left, high-end birds in the trees above. Occasionally, a door would slam somewhere in the sound-field, or a dog would bark. I had been experimenting with making music for a year or so at that point – had gotten used to thinking of my own compositions from a technical angle, separating the various components and arranging them in the two-speaker stereo arena. That day on the porch I realized that any and all sounds can be heard the same way. I started trying it out in different places and found it to be pretty easy and pleasurable in most situations.
I was reading a lot about Zen at that time. And I was becoming much more active in seeking out weird and challenging music. My drunk’n’cranked twenties, when I had some kind of aggressive artpunknoiserock blasting 24/7 were a few years gone and I was primed and ready for what Pauline Olivernos called “Deep Listening”. I began to deeply listen to all of the sounds in my environment. The hardest thing to overcome is actual music, most of which is popular and therefore utterly banal and grating. Traffic noise, industrial machinery, gunshots, trucks backing up, espresso machines, all these and more can be incorporated into a symphony of sounds which is pleasing; Eminem cannot.
Some friends and I went up to NYC for the Boredoms 7/7/07 show in Brooklyn Park – the Boredoms plus seventy-seven drummers. We got there a few hours before the show, but there were several thousand people in line ahead of us. Somebody official eventually came down the line informing people that the park was full, no more getting in, but that we could sit on the bank of the East River and hear the show. My friends were only sort of interested in the Boredoms, so they went back to Manhattan to I don’t know what they did, but I stayed. The Boredoms + 77 were clearly audible – and so was the river, the traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, the seagulls, the tugboats, the taxi horns and all the other sounds of the city, which I would not have been able to hear if I had been standing in front of a mammoth wall of speakers. Not being able to get in to the park caused me to sit in one place for three hours and listen, which allowed me to hear the Boredoms and New York City. Sure, I’d’ve liked to’ve gotten in for the visual experience, but I had a better listening adventure than I could’ve asked for. Random noises certainly suit the Boredoms.
In one of my earlier bands, a free improv power trio, the other two people were the editors of all recorded material. As far as I was concerned, every single duffed note, feedback scree and drummer tantrum was solid gold and should be kept. They were much more selective about cutting out things that didn’t “sound good”, which caused me to shout “Shit! None of it sounds ‘good’!” on multiple occasions. I did soak up some of their arguments – I do edit out the most heinously offensive and annoying boring bits of BDSR jams – but free improv is free improv. Sometimes it doesn’t flow like molten chocolate – but then when it does, it’s all the sweeter for the bumbling mass of mess that the good stuff came out of.
Horace Walpole (1717-1797) invented the word “serendipity”, which means “a happy accident” or “a pleasant discovery”. He got the idea from a Persian fairytale, “The Three Princes Of Serendip”, the title characters of which were constantly happening upon wonderful discoveries when they were not looking for them. I would suggest that, while they were not looking for specific things, they were looking – they had their eyes and minds open, ready to receive. Frequent shoppers at thrift stores know that you don’t go thrifting with a goal in mind; you go looking for what’s there. This is a delightful and very profitable way of addressing reality. Everywhere I go, I know there are countless wonderful things for me to see, hear, touch, taste, smell and otherwise be aware of. I have shelves filled with amazing and weird trinkets and artifacts, very few of which have any value in a monetary sense, all of which are interesting and unique. I have spent untold hours sitting around in the woods with my daughter, identifying for her all the sounds around us and had the pleasure of having her return the favor – “You hear that sound, Daddy? That’s a sick-ay-duh.” It’s a hell of a lot of fun.
The world is a wonderful place, filled with sound for our listening pleasure – as long as nobody is playing Eminem.
* I typed “deety-deet-deet”, auto-correct made it “deity-deet-deet”, and I decided that was fine and dandy.
**Sometimes she likes it loud. She is a big Acid Mothers Temple fan but doesn’t like the No-Neck Blues Band at all. Go figure.
“The Universe is making music all the time.” – Tom Waits
Aye, and what a strange and terrible music it is: omnirhythmic, omnitonal, omniphonic, reverberating eternal through and through the inconceivable distances, burning, roaring, throbbing, whining, screaming, colliding, pounding, whistling, humming, groaning, booming, shrieking and echoing, echoing, echoing endlessly, infinite and on and on, coda, refrain ‘til the end of timeless time. Let the god be praised who made our ears so small to save us from hearing the aweful sound of Creation’s constant symphony. Such sounds were not meant for such as we, mere parasites on Gaia’s green skin. Like lice under Mozart’s wig, we may, at times, sense some sound beyond our ken and strain to understand, but we ain’t a-gonna get it, so there is little point in even trying. Then again, why the heck not?
The Big Drum In The Sky Religion assumes chaos as a starting point, as chaos is the starting point in all Creation stories, then attempts to impose some form of order, as Creators make the world. That’s the theory, at least, and generally it does kind of happen that way, but chaos has a wonderful way of spreading, especially when you make little or no effort to check it, and imposing anything on anything is incompatible with the general BDSR lifestyle. Hence, though there is, usually, some kind of vague concept or theme, it’s not rigidly adhered to.
There are two basic forms for BDSR releases: straight studio recording and a combination of studio and live. The straight studio stuff is fairly easily kept within pre-determined confines regarding tuning, mode, key &c. The ones that include live material less so. I don’t have any interest in telling people what to play or how, so I don’t. I invite people to participate based on my assumption that they will bring something to the mix and then I encourage them to bring it. Some people want a hint as to how they should proceed, a key or something. I give them as little instruction as possible. I know going into a show what I’ll be doing with the recording; I know what instrument I’m playing, how I’m tuning and what mode I’m using to fit the overall dynamic of the title I’m working on. Most of the time it works; others, the recording is terrible, but even then I usually use it, low in the mix or processed beyond recognition. Honest to gods, I start every show in tune and with all good intentions of staying in a mode, then my brain shuts off and whatever happens is what happens.
That, in a betel nut, is Shamanolodics. There is intention, but spontaneity is more important. Frets are useful. Keys make it easier to start. Musical traditions exist and can be drawn from. Reality does not happen in regular time. The spheres do not sing in fifths. God is not equally temperamental.
Within Shamanolodics, I employ a method I made up and named the Fauxdal System, outlined below.
The Modal System is based on ancient Greek music theory. There are seven modes: Aeolian, Locrian, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian. Each mode divides the octave in a different way. Ionian, for example, divides the mode thus: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step, completing the octave and starting over. On a fretted instrument such as guitar or banjo, tuned to a modal tuning, DADGAD for instance, Ionian would be played using the following frets: open, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, completing the octave. So far, this is standard fair. It starts to get a little off the beam when one tunes differently. Dropping the A’s in the above tuning to G’s would alter the sound, creating more of a drone effect, but would still be in the mode.
At some point, before receiving the vision of BDSR, I started using non-modal tunings, but kept the modal frets. This is Fauxdality. It’s also contrary to how it’s “supposed” to be done. A guitar tuned C#G#C#FG#C# and played using the frets determined by the intervals of Dorian mode – 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12 – sounds weird. Some would say it sounds “wrong”, “bad” and/or “nightmarish”. Meh. The human ear is a surprisingly malleable organ and can adapt pretty quickly to anything if it’s owner isn’t determined to hold on to the arbitrary preconceived notions ground into their grey matter by music teachers, pop culture and other soul killers. It’s amazingly easy to learn other ways of hearing, seeing, thinking and experiencing if you wanna.
One time, at work, I was hit with an inspiration which knocked me off-balance. I said it out loud, “What if I recorded a full-length cd with all instruments tuned DD#GG#?” There was someone there who had enough musical knowledge to know what that meant and her response was quite amusing: a mix of shock, disgust and patronizing superiority, “Oh. My. God. That would sound horrible.” I went straight home and retuned the mandolin to DD#GG#DD#GG#. Sure enough, it sounded fucking terrible. I used that as the foundation for The High Lonesome Zounds Of The Big Drum In The Sky Religion. “Open Zounds” is the only tuning I can claim to have invented. (Open Zounds = all strings tuned to I I# V V#. The High Lonesome... is in D, but it could be any key.) All others I’ve used have been established tunings, some, such as G6, slightly modified. (Any asshole can throw together a random string of notes and call it a tuning, but A#BEA#GC# is going to be pretty hard to get on a guitar without re-stringing and it’s going to sound like shit, not in a good way. I won’t claim to have “invented a tuning” unless it’s significantly different from any established tuning, is practical and I’ve recorded with it.)
So. I show up at a gig carrying a tenor banjo which I have tuned to whatever tuning I’m using for whatever I’m working on, intending to improvise using the intervals that I’m using for whatever I’m working on. There may or may not be other tunable instrumentation at any given show. If there is, I may or may not tell the other musician(s) something about what I’m planning to do – if I’m tuned DGDGA#D and using the frets for Lydian, I might just say I’m playing “in G”, which isn’t a complete lie and will force the other(s) to either try real hard or just give up and do something else. Then, in the heat of it, I’ll almost certainly space out and completely forget whatever intention I had when I started. This is desired. Nothing I plan will ever be as good as what happens. Chaos is the starting point and chaos reigns. I also have a heavy right hand and even though I use the thinnest picks available, when I use picks, I bang and bend the strings all out of whack. How it’s tuned at the outset ain’t how it’s staying.
Improvised music is a small version of life. One shows up with a plan, communicates more or less with the other people involved and then forges ahead. Try too hard to stick with the plan and it probably won’t work. Even if it does work perfectly, it’s merely the plan. A life that only includes what I’m capable of planning isn’t one I want.
Under it all, Shamanolodics is a vehicle for spirit travel. BDSR aims for otherworldly adventures and I, for one, have and enjoy them, which is why I can’t possibly stay with a mode – sometimes, I’m not there.
See ya on the other side.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.