Further clarification

Were we cynical, I wonder, when we made those social-utility arguments for the arts in the mid-00s? Did we only make them because we believed that our political opponents understood nothing but dollars and cents? Our position on 111 First Street was that the arts center was a public good, and an early driver of interest and investment in Jersey City, and was therefore entitled to special dispensation because of its singular value. As it turned out, of course, we could have saved our breath — the community decided that the Arts Center wasn’t worth the headache, and whatever it was that it was contributing to the commonwealth was inessential. The town would go on fine without it.

But the people who didn’t support the Arts Center weren’t just bean counters. Many of them were people with developed aesthetic sensibilities. They had a good idea of what they wanted the city to look like, and 111 First Street didn’t happen to fit with that vision. Property developers are, by nature, engaged in a creative project; in order for them to realize their commercial ambitions, they’re compelled to deal with artists all the time. Rich guys are good at appraising the commercial potential of artistic production — they might not always be able to put their criticism into words, but they do tend to know a decent investment when they see it. And 111 First Street, as we all probably should have realized, wasn’t it.

Artists frequently feel the need to justify their existence, which is a funny thing, because usually there’s nobody asking. When we go into a gallery, we may not connect with what we see; if we’re feeling extra uncharitable, we might make one of those my-grandkid-could-do-this assessments. But unless we’re total jerks, we don’t demand that the artist turn in his brushes. Society as a whole may not choose to validate the artist’s work by lavishing money on him, but in 2016, you could say the same for your corner attorney, or your local entrepreneur, or a property developer. In every field under the sun, commissions are hard to come by. It’s a risky, merciless, discouraging time in America, and the safety net isn’t there anymore for anybody but the most fortunate (and even then, God help you if you screw up.)

Nevertheless, modern artists often do puff up their self-worth by making the case that they’re in the business of moral correction, or guidance or edutainment, or the upliftment of the human spirit, or “giving back.” I like to believe that my own work is thought-provoking, even as I realize there’s nothing noble or vital about jamming weird ideas into somebody else’s head. Many populists even make a social-utility argument on behalf of bands with huge audiences because unlike you, self-indulgent psych-rocker, they’re spreading joy to the masses. This all speaks well of us; artists do tend to view themselves as stewards of the world’s good vibes, and on the whole, I think we believe we ought to be interesting, broad-minded, hospitable people. Artists tend to offer more rewarding fellowship than financiers do, which is why there’s a long history of financiers patronizing artists and retaining them at their summer chateaus.

But as a resident of a neighborhood where public discourse is dictated by the developers who, for all intents and purposes, run this place, I think we ought to cut it out with the social-utility stuff. The presence of a certain kind of art will indeed make property values go up, and increase the cache of our town, and help with the destination marketing effort and all the rest of it — but the vast majority of artistic endeavors won’t, and there’s nothing illegitimate about that. When we link what we’re doing to the fiduciary health of our town, we subordinate the arts. We make it just another part of somebody’s branding strategy.

In Jersey City, everything else has long been secondary to the project of rebuilding land value. While that’s been grueling at times, there have been benefits to our monomania, too. Some artists have gone out of their way to contribute; some of us haven’t bothered. But just as the community doesn’t owe the artist anything, the artist doesn’t owe the community anything, either. The artist’s only responsibility is to have a vision and express it. That’s it. The artist is the conduit for that vision. If what she expresses is beautiful and uplifting and adds to the cache of her community, that’s wonderful. If it’s depraved and menacing, it might not bump up the aggregate Zillow rating of Harsimus Cove, but it was something that, once seen by the artist, demanded to be reflected in the art.

My own music is an expression of anxiety. It’s lots of other things, too, I hope, but fundamentally it’s a burst of acceleration and turbulence, destabilization, and paranoia about the present dimensions of public culture. Suck it may, but that can’t be the grounds on which it sucks. My task as a writer is to manifest what I’m seeing through my own eyes — for myself first, and after that, for anybody who wants to sneak a peek. If I ever implied that I was a participant in a public health project, or a soldier for justice, or that I had anything to contribute to the commonwealth besides a friendly smile, I’d like to take that back. For all I know, it’s just noise pollution. Any redeeming social value to anything I happen to sing is there by coincidence alone. I *do* have a personal responsibility to be a good citizen, and to treat everybody I meet with respect, and to engage in discourse about the direction of my community. All of that is separate from the responsibility I have to my writing. I reserve for art a status far above consciousness-raising, or community wellness, or urban renewal. And if I ever implied anything otherwise, I was worse than a traitor to the cause: I was a lousy artist.

Getting ready for Saturday

In many ways it’s relaxing to be a sideman: there are a million and one things the main performer is responsible for on the night of the show, and you’re off the hook for all of them. You head to the club, hang with your bandmates before you go on, get set up and choose your sounds, play, pack up, and go home. All that said, you’re probably in the band because you like the people you’re playing with and the music you’re playing — so if the show doesn’t go as well as you hoped it might, you’re probably going to leave feeling like you let your friends down. When it’s own your show, you’ve got nobody to disappoint but yourself.

After supporting George and Mike at the last few shows I’ve played, I’m a little relieved to be taking the helm this Saturday. I want Jay, Justin, and Brett to have a good time and a rewarding experience in my group, but if I mess up the night with my suspect box or my unsmooth stage moves, I’m pretty sure we’ll all still be pals. I’m not going to be half as guilty as I would be had I fallen off the stage in the middle of Mike’s show. This’ll be especially true on Saturday, because Jay and Justin will be doing another set with the Negatones — their band — right after mine. Also, since we’re all singing to benefit Parker Kindred, and Parker has a lot of supporters, there’s a cast of thousands on the bill, and we’ll be done by 7:30 at the latest. Everything feels loose and low-stakes, which is probably the way it ought to be until I’m confident that I’ve regained my skills.

I’m getting there. We had a very memorable practice this week; the sort of practice I always wanted to have with my college band but never seemed to be able to manage. Political discussion kept breaking out between the songs — and since I’ve put stuff like “The Man From Nantucket” and “Conspiracy Theory” on the setlist, we kept slipping seamlessly (I felt, anyway) between power chords and paranoia. It seemed awfully new wave-y to me, and I hope we can channel some of our collective dismay when we play these songs on Saturday. In the practice space, we sounded fast, spastic, and appropriately brutal. Somewhere in Indiana Ted Cruz and John Kasich were getting ready to pull the ripcord and leap from the burning airplane that is Campaign ’16. As power was consolidating around some unappetizing figures, we were charging through “Battleships.” Desperate times call for a desperate sound. Saturday isn’t going to be pretty, but I think it’s gonna be satisfying anyway; cathartic, even.

We’ll be doing three songs from Let The Night Fall, three from Shootout At The Sugar Factory, two new ones, and one very old one that we’re determined to rough up. This is essentially the same set we played at the Bernie Sanders benefit at the Citizen in January — but there’ll be a difference. Back then, I reinflated the helium balloons from the Shootout because they were the closest things at hand: they were made for the stage, and for a punk band, and meant to be played in primeval fashion, and Jay and Justin already knew them. We didn’t have time to practice, so we took the path of least resistance –which, for me, always runs straight to the sugar factory. This time around, I had an opportunity to teach the band some of this new material I’ve been working on, and for the most part I chose not to. The three songs from Shootout At The Sugar Factory were written during the difficult time between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. The three we’ll be doing from Let The Night Fall were composed during the mid-’00s cleanup. They all seem to fit my paranoid mood at the moment. We’re gonna go amplified, electro-aggravating, polemical, frazzled, and synth-destabilized. Come on and freak out with us. You’ll be with friends.


Just to clarify

Jim Testa was nice enough to profile me for the Journal this week, even though I don’t have anything new to share with people who like my music. He interviewed me to advance this weekend’s Parker Kindred benefit at Pianos. I’m doing a set with a rock group I’m calling the Contested Convention, which sounds fresh-ish, but actually it’s the same three guys I played with at the Citizen earlier this year: Jay, Justin Braun, and Brett Whitmoyer. I blabbed randomly as I always do, and a lot of what came out of my mouth was confusing and internally contradictory, which isn’t Jim’s fault. I have noticed that most of what I say doesn’t make any damn sense once it’s repeated back to me. That’s probably why I became a writer. I’m (a little bit) clearer in print than I am in person.

A few notes on the piece, which is running over here:

— For me, at least, the campaign to save the community at 111 First Street didn’t have much to do with gentrification. If the people of Jersey City had wanted to keep 111 First Street, it would still be there. The Downtown could have gentrified in symbiosis with the community and left the Arts Center unmolested — things like that have happened in many other East Coast cities. That might not have been good for the Arts Center or for Jersey City, but to me there was no inherent contradiction between the existence of the Arts Center, or an arts center, and rising property values or the changing complexion of the town. It’s always good to remember that one man’s gentrifier is another man’s old-timer; I’ve been in Hudson County since 1992, but I’m aware that some people on my block might consider me a usurper, and rightly so. Whether or not they intend to be, artists are the vanguard for gentrification — that’s what my third album is about — so it could well be argued that the artists at 111 helped make the gentrification of the Downtown possible.

— I also implied that I was interviewing anti-111 and anti-nightlife politicians on the Tris McCall Report. That was sloppy of me. That’s not what I did. In the mid ’00s, it was hard to find a politician in Jersey City who didn’t claim to be an arts supporter. What I wanted to know from the public figures I interviewed, including Healy, Fulop, Smith, DeGise, the late and lamented Melissa Holloway, etc., was how to translate that that theoretical support into policies that might benefit artists. I also wanted to understand why the city was giving out so many tax abatements, and for the most part I believe I got snowed. I’m not a tax expert, so I was way out of my depth there. If you’re curious about that kind of thing, the person to read is Brigid D’Souza. Never send a synthesizer player to do an accountant’s job. That’s a good way to lose your shirt, or at least get it caught on an LFO knob.

— Maybe I’m still naive, but I don’t think that local politicians sought me out for self-interested reasons alone. I think a few of them actually enjoyed the website. Back then there weren’t many people wising off about Hudson County politics on the Internet. Well, hell, that’s not true at all, but by and large the smart-alecs were anonymous posters on message boards. I put my name on it, and I was also pretty visible around town — so if somebody wanted to punch me in the face, which would have been a not-unreasonable response to some of the things I wrote, they would have had plenty of opportunities to connect with my kisser. In a sick sort of way, I think the old-line politicians respected that.

— It’s a tiny thing, but just to be clear, the studio I used in Pennsylvania doesn’t belong to Mike Flannery. It’s called the Farm, it’s a beautiful place, and it’s run by a guy named Eric Tait. Eric also played the drums on those songs. Mike engineered and produced the session. Mike’s studio is on 29th Street in Manhattan.

— I believe The Life Of Pablo actually is finished right now. Maybe.

— Jim called the newspaper the Newark Star-Ledger. I’m very glad he did. It’s what it’ll always be to me.

Player pianos

My first trip to 158 Ludlow Street had nothing to do with music. I went there to see a weird alt-theater performance that I remember zilch about. For a short time around the turn of the millennium, 158 Ludlow was kinda-sorta an underground playhouse, and our friend Brad, who’d founded the North American Cultural Laboratory in the Catskills, was seriously considering buying the property. I am pretty sure I wrote him a long letter telling him to do it, because what the heck, it wasn’t my money. Although I knew that Brad intended to make it a full-time experimental theater space, I figured I could convince him to shoehorn some musical performance in there, too. It wouldn’t be a rock club, but it could be an interesting place to play. Every gang of performers wanted a slice of the Lower East Side; this one could be ours.

Brad decided not to buy 158 Ludlow, which was very sane of him. It became an interesting place to play anyway. If memory serves, Pianos initially pitched itself to the neighborhood groups as a restaurant with occasional music in the back room. A restaurant it was, and still is. But the rock that started in 2002 has continued unabated ever since — several bands and deejays a night, nearly every night of the year, and loud party crowds spilling out onto the sidewalks. Community Board 3 would have much preferred Brad, but heartless me, I didn’t care. I just wanted a space downtown where my voice could be heard.

My voice had already been heard in that space, though. I didn’t realize it then, but if a handyman knocked out the back wall of the Stanton Street version of the Melody Lanes recording complex — a place where I made some of the most obnoxious rackets of my life — he’d be looking through his sledgehammer-hole at 158 Ludlow Street. That location of Melody Lanes was a marvel, since it was almost entirely hand-crafted by Jay and Justin Braun, right down to the functional toilet they’d built. The Lower East Side used to be dotted with similar improvisations, but by the beginning of the 21st century, boutiquization had grabbed the neighborhood by its now-white collar, and Melody Lanes was priced out. Pianos provided Jay a halfway house: he temporarily moved his base of operations to the cellar of 158 Ludlow before decamping, permanently, to Williamsburg and points east.

As the center of rock gravity slipped away from Manhattan, many of our other friends followed Jay over the bridge¹. I love Brooklyn, too, but as a Jersey person, I’d always rather cross one river than two. Many of my most memorable shows happened at Maxwell’s, Cake Shop is a home away from home for the cupcake pop outfits I’ve played with, and there was a time in the early ’00s when it felt like I had a date at Luna or Mercury Lounge every week. But I’m pretty sure that Pianos is the room where I’ve appeared the most. (Some of my favorite local musicians have deejayed and/or run the door there, too.) Though other NYC clubs have earned my allegiance, or at least my appreciation, I’ve never been able to detach for very long from 158 Ludlow Street — and my association has only gotten tighter since Steven took over as the full-time Pianos booking agent.

Thanks to Steven, we were able to do the Let The Night Fall record release event at Pianos, which I consider a frazzled high point in my run of synthesizer madness. Every Mr. Flannery show so far has happened at Pianos, and some strong recent Overlord concerts have been hosted there, too; I recall playing the Pianos upright piano (now gone, sadly) at a solo gig and accompanying Palomar on “Keeping Us Up” and “Bury Me Closer”. I’ve had some awful gigs at Pianos, too, and evenings when I was the only sober person in the room, and probably the neighborhood, too, and I paid a steep price in sanity for that. There was the disastrous night that featured an altercation on the Ludlow Street sidewalk between a bandmate and a friend of mine — a fight that I was powerless to intervene in despite my flailing efforts to break it up². Standard rock and roll stuff, and I’m not complaining about it anymore; my point is that I almost never come away from Pianos without an story to tell. If we do this rock business, in part at least, to add drama and noise, and effrontery, and all the emotional depth that goes with it, to our lives, 158 Ludlow has provided a setting for this obscure but crafty art flick for a decade and a half.

So when I say that Thursday night’s gig is a big one, I don’t necessarily mean it in a showbiz sense. I mean that I expect events of consequence to unfold at 158 Ludlow Street, because they always seem to. A karass³ needs a clubhouse, and I guess this is ours — because time and again, circumstances keep on calling me back to this address, and I’ve long since convinced myself that there are some paranormal forces at work. I have a feeling that this return is going to be a meaningful one. I’m not just inviting you to a gig here — I’m inviting you to be a witness to a plot point of an ongoing narrative. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out: this could be a triumphant chapter, or it could be a yucky one, or it could just be a transitory passage that sets up a climax. But it’ll be something. It always is.



¹The worst one of them all, according to a Negatones song.

²That happened on my birthday, too.  That wasn’t such a happy birthday.

³See Vonnegut, Kurt; Cat’s Cradle.

spoon river

it’s almost exam season, so hilary has gone to the poetry anthologies to scrounge up some end-of-semester verse. one of those anthologies i stole from my tenth grade english class, and i still have it on the shelf, with the names of my favorite poets (e. e. cummings, edna st. vincent millay, marianne moore) underlined in red magic marker. i was amoral back then and would have courted any risk to possess some poetry. sorry, mr. byrne, i shoulda turned it back in. if my disdain for capitalization bugs you, you can blame the poets for that too. william carlos williams in particular. he was a jersey guy through and through. he liked to see what fences he could hop.

here’s something i forgot: i forgot how much i liked edgar lee masters. the spoon river anthology is a collection of two hundred short poems, each one narrated by a different dead person in a small town cemetery. the poems are stupendous on their own, but to really understand the anthology, you kind of have to swallow the whole thing. many of the narrators knew each other in life, and refer to each other in their epitaphs — it would have made a great hypertext document. some of the stories are contradictory, and some deliberately undercut others; for instance, the local politician praises his mother for teaching him his strength of character, and then we find out in a different poem that his parents stole him from a german immigrant. now i’m making spoon river anthology sound like a lifetime channel movie, and it isn’t that at all. it’s an attempt to engage with the midwest, and rural america, by examining the struggles of ordinary people and then asking the reader to assemble a folk orchestra from a riot of individual pipes and fiddles.

i wrote (bad) poetry in tenth grade, because of course i did, and i found myself wondering if, someday, i could illuminate my little quadrant of the universe as nicely as edgar lee masters represented his. i put those ambitions on hold in the nineties while i was learning how to play and sing, and i think spoon river got lost behind the kinks and randy newman and other pop miniaturists and social satirists i was eager to imitate. but it now occurs to me that the original draft plan for tris mccall album number two was something so similar to the spoon river anthology that it had to have been a direct influence on it. i made up a street on the border between union city and jersey city heights, and imagined the people who lived there, and then wrote songs from the perspective of each of those characters. i came up with a whole quasitheatrical stage show based around this, and dragged some of the new jack trippers into my fiendish plot. as it happened, the company that promised to back the project pulled out, and that, i thought, put an end to that. but jay braun rescued most of the flotsam and we made it into shootout at the sugar factory, which is way better than what i’d been planning, so all’s well that ended well. several of the characters did survive the crash and found a path to shootout: tim berg, the frightened stockbroker of “the night bus,” hector the code inspector, frank the overeducated toll collector of “scatter my ashes on the new jersey turnpike,” etc.  we buried edgar lee masters in the mix behind david byrne and nick rhodes, but if you listen carefully, you can hear him strumming.

now that i am writing and recording again, i discover to my amazement that i am still trying to do a spoon river anthology. edgar lee masters is ultra-lucid and i am anything but, but i remain committed by the idea of a cycle of individual stories told by separate narrators on a common theme that only becomes apparent when the listener experiences the stories together. these thirty-five songs i’ve written for this project are each single narrations from the mouths of american characters who i’ve conjured up and know much more about than i can fit in a pop song. if i could draw, i’d draw a picture of each one. maybe i could write a story about each one. maybe they should be presented, spoon river style, in sequence somehow. some of the narrations are so general that there’d be no way for a casual listener to pick up on any of the backstory i’ve developed — or even connect the character to the city he’s meant to represent — but maybe that’s my task. maybe i have to frame these stories so that the spoon river nature of the project is always apparent. and even as i type all this i am realizing my unbearable inadequacy to the source material. but it’s a literary grail i’m after, i guess. if i’m ever asked about my influences, and i don’t mention edgar lee masters, please refer me back to this post. and then to my poetry anthology.

Get up everybody and sing

Wednesday was a different thing altogether. Of the ten songs we ran at practice, I’d never played six of them, and I had no approach strategy for five of those six. I’d never seen the drummer before, and one of the guitarists was a guy I’d met briefly at shows but never made any music with — actually, I didn’t even know he was a musician until February. This was a common experience for me ten years ago when I played with a bunch of outfits that were permanently in flux. Back then, I possessed improvisational skills that have now, alas, evaporated. In 2016, just figuring out where my hands go on the keyboard is enough of a challenge for me.

There is a school of thought that says this is the best way to run a band: keep things unpredictable, stay open to possibility, switch up the musicians constantly and see what happens. That school has not been getting much funding lately. Zappa, who was the headmaster, died in ’93, and superintendent Jerry Garcia went two years later; it’s all gotten more and more Common Core since then. Conformity to rock and roll convention is not the sort of thing that Mike has ever cared about, and I am glad he’s committed to making each Mr. Flannery And His Feelings show a discrete experience. At the first show we did, Mike was backed by several musicians from the Chamber Band, a really good, D&D-loving Brooklyn group he was then working with. Show number two was a free-for-all with what felt like thousands of people onstage at Pianos at once; I was at the very crowded stage right and had no line of sight to Mike or Eric Tait, who played the drums that night (I believe). After that, #3 was a total changeup: just me, Mike, and Chris Conley onstage. I think it’s a measure of the strength of Mike’s concept that nobody can decide which of the three shows was the best.

I’m pretty sure show #4 is going to be the best. It’ll certainly be the most audacious and eclectic: reckoning that there are more Mr. Flanneries in the world than one, Mike is turning the stage over to his brother Dan for three songs and then to his dad for another three. Turns out Ron Flannery — that’s Mr. Flannery The Elder — was in a psych/garage rock band in Long Branch in the mid-’60s. They were called the Inmates, and they put out a 45 on Columbia Records in 1966 or 1967; I should’ve asked. The a-side of that disc is a goofy Beatlesque number called “Local Town Drunk” that I really like and which has been stuck in my head for the past 48 hours, but the really fun numbers are the other two: “You Tell Lies,” a pure garage rocker with a “Paperback Writer”-style riff, and “More Than I Have,” a tripped-out psych song that could have made one of those Nuggets collections. This stuff is a blast to play, even though (or maybe because) the organist doesn’t have to do too much. If I make like Daryl Hooper from the Seeds and wheedle away in the upper midrange, I ought to fit in fine. The irony is that, given George the Monkey’s fixation on ’60s pop in general and the Four Seasons’s psychedelic period specifically, the three Inmates songs probably share more with Overlord than they do with Dan’s ukulele-funk project or Mike’s upcoming Try Your Hardest. Hopefully Ron Flannery will stick around for the Overlord set. I already talked it up to him, but if he doesn’t want to wait around in a cramped club on the Lower East Side when he can get back quick to the Jersey Shore, I can’t say I’d blame him.

I rode the elevator up to the fourth floor of Ultrasound with Ron Flannery, and asked him whether the split show was his idea. He told me that Mike had put him up to it, which certainly sounds like Mike. But once we got in the room and started playing — Mike and Ron on guitar, Dan on bass, me on the organ, and a kid I’d never met named Tomo on drums — it was clear to me that he was enjoying himself. Not only did he burn through his own material, but he happily added Stratocaster and good vocal harmonies to his sons’ not-uncomplicated songs.  Which got me wondering about me and my usual musical running-mates: how many of our own dads would ever do the same? My father was a celebrated doo-wop singer in the 1950s, but by the time I was old enough to take piano lessons, he’d left that part of his life far behind. It’s as difficult for me to imagine him with an electric guitar around his neck as it would be to picture him swinging through the jungle on vines. Dads — even former-hooligan dads — are supposed to be, at best, vaguely disapproving of the rocking activity of their children. If they ever do consent to sing together, it’s supposed to be moldy oldies, with the kids playing an earnest support role on a trip down Memory Lane. Certainly dad is not supposed to ratify the boys’ musical ambitions by singing along enthusiastically to unconventional new compositions. But here was Mr. Flannery the Elder doing just that.

Earlier this week, I heard some bad news about the father of somebody I care about. That particular dad can’t be much older than Ron Flannery is, yet it sounds like his body is betraying him. I don’t think he was ever the sort of dad who’d strap on a Strat and make psych-rock with his children, but if he was ever so inclined, he doesn’t have that option anymore. Many of the people who played during the period that we all still strive to imitate aren’t exactly in performance shape anymore. If it wasn’t for ’60s music, we indiepop individuals wouldn’t have anything to rip off but the new wave and the C86 — and that’s just not as good. I’m not a member of the Flannery family, but I’m still glad I’m going to have the opportunity to play these Inmates numbers for the same crowd that’ll be there to hear Overlord and the material from Try Your Hardest. I’m a cornball, I know, but these links to Jersey musical history always excite me. I should just open a museum already.

I’m glad he insisted

I wasn’t surprised that it rained last night. It always rains on the night of an Overlord practice. Rain or snow or wind or some combination; whatever it is, I’m prepared to ride my bicycle through it. It never bothers me. I’ve come to see it as a solid metaphor for the adversity that Overlord has always had to face. Practice itself has been swell lately. If I can get through the discomfort of the trip, there’s always something rewarding on the other side. It seems like a small price to pay.

That the band is better than ever isn’t the surprising part to me. What’s most amazing in 2016 is that there’s an Overlord at all. Everybody in the group has other projects and commitments, many of them consuming; still, no matter what else comes up, Overlord outlasts those distractions. Some of the obstacles that the group has had to overcome during the decade or so I’ve been in it: geographical challenges, including the frontman’s relocation to San Francisco, some not-inconsequential lineup shuffles, the defection of a few key allies to other cities, the loss of a permanent practice space, a scrapped European tour, the lucidity crash in NYC indiepop that made everything on the scene sound like the Pains plus a blender for awhile, and our bewildering name, which always makes the uninitiated assume that we’re a metal band.

Overlord is not metal. I doubt very much that a metal band would have me. For many years, I wasn’t sure why Overlord would have me either. Sometimes I’ve joined a band — My Teenage Stride comes to mind — with a clear need for something I know I’m able to provide.¹ Overlord wasn’t like that at all. The lineup I first heard at the old Knitting Factory in Tribeca sounded impressively complete, but George wanted me in anyway, and he can be a persuasive monkey. In retrospect, I’ll bet he asked me to be part of the band because he was under the misapprehension that I was a capable backing singer. I know he appreciated my spazmo enthusiasm during performance, though it must have made quite a contrast with his impassive mid-’00s stage demeanor. I remember long bike rides back from Williamsburg after practice, wondering if I’d contributed anything or if my bleeps and blorps were just messing up the songs. Once after a show in Philly that didn’t go too well, I wrote to George and explained that I’d always be a fan, but I wasn’t fitting in and Overlord would probably work better without me. He wouldn’t accept my resignation.

I’m glad he insisted that I stick around. George didn’t really have any suggestions about how I’d better fit in to what the group was doing, but he must have been envisioning a future Overlord that could accommodate my approach. The guys who were then in the band — Steve Schiltz of Longwave, and Jon Robb, a longtime Overlord collaborator who is in a Philadelphia group called Lo Power Plane that you might not know — played in a tight, resolute, super-locked-down Euro-style that did not beg for ornamentation from me. I love those guys and enjoyed being in the band with them, but I… I can’t really play like that. I don’t need to be in Phish, necessarily, but I’m always going to put intuition ahead of execution, which is a pompous way of saying I need latitude for my many screw-ups. What ended up saving me was the addition of Kerry Kennedy on second guitar, which saturated the top range and gave me a place to hide, and jump out from, like a mugger with a synthesizer.² Although George wasn’t hearing it then and still, I’m sure, wouldn’t want to hear it now, we’d started to resemble Oasis: songs influenced by classic sixties pop and the Smiths, wall o’ guitars, impressive rhythmic discipline, alternately anthemic and cheeky numbers but an atmosphere of seriousness, no small amount of stadium rock grandeur.

Cake Shop is no stadium, thank goodness, and there is limited demand for an Oasis-like band on the cupcake pop circuit. George, I think, understood this, and at some point (and I’m still not 100% sure how this happened) we acquired the Palomar III rhythm section. For me, this felt like coming home. Matt Houser knows the whole pop-punk playbook and his Costello too, and he’d put it to practice in my own band on many occasions. Sarah Brockett is basically a new wave kid.³ Brockett, I understand, played in one of the first versions of Overlord, long before I knew who George was, and thus began a long and fruitful musical partnership that, I hope, will last forever ever. Suddenly the band began to sound less European and more like the Cars. And if a band is going to make like the Cars… well, yeah, it’s pretty obvious where the synthesizer fits.

A wise woman once said that if you look around the practice space and you can’t identify the jerk in the group, it’s probably you. I must be the jerk in Overlordª, because I can’t even imagine three people I’d rather be in a band with than Matt, Sarah, and George. Even if they weren’t as good at what they do as they are, I bet I’d still feel that way. We’ve got a ten-song record coming out called The Well-Tempered Overlord, and every time I hear it, I’m astonished, and inspired, all over again by how beautifully my bandmates played. There’s a lot of love inscribed in this album — which is counterintuitive, since the songs are all about interpersonal disaster and aesthetic frustration. But ain’t that indiepop, something to see, little pink houses for you and me. Trust me, I’m not boasting not because of anything I did. I’m just proud to be in this group and absolutely confident that this is going to be one of your favorite albums of 2016. If I had the ability to do it, I’d link to the songs right now, but that’s not how showbiz works. I take the moral of the Overlord story to be one about patience and perseverance, not to mention the perennial cleverness of monkeys, so perhaps it’s for the best. One way or another, you’ll be hearing from us soon enough — at Pianos° on April 28, if you’re game.


¹The other model, which I always dig, is to join a group in its nascent stage and help shape the sound. That’s how it worked in Sasha Alcott’s first band. What I contributed to her music wasn’t all that hot (sorry, Sasha), but playing in that outfit taught me how to respond to other musicians. Before that, I was strictly plug in and twist knobs and to hell with the rest of you people.

²I don’t know if Kerry ever liked me much, but we played well together. One of my favorite moments in any show I’ve ever done with any band: me and Kerry improvising a lead line over the top of “Keep It From The Baby” at the Bell House. We’d just flown across the country after a show at a Nerd Nite event in Los Angeles, and were on an hour of sleep, max; we got into JFK a few hours before soundcheck. (The Wrens were headlining, which more than justified the trip.) Maybe exhaustion had lowered our mutual empathetic resistance, but we were really listening to each other that night. I miss her.

³One of the first times I ever felt like I was on the right track with Overlord: onstage at Cake Shop, I messed with the semitone knob on the MS2000 until I’d made the beginning of “Evergreen” sound like early OMD. Brockett, who was in the audience, lit up. I thought to myself, hey, if Sarah likes it, I’m going to stick with it.


ºI’m pulling double duty that night. I’m also playing with Mr. Flannery and his Feelings. Mike’s band is on first, then Glenn Morrow of Bar/None plays with his Cry For Help, then Overlord, then Richard Davies, and then Hamish Kilgour of the Clean finishes the night. Steven puts together ambitious bills.

Four new(ish) hip-hop albums

Last year was loaded with epochal, state-of-the-nation hip-hop albums. Natch, this year is off to a somewhat less ambitious start. I won’t say slower necessarily, although I do realize that now that the novelty has worn off, both the new Kanye and Kendrick feel like leftovertures. Really good, entertaining leftovertures, but leftovertures nonetheless; they’re attempts to hoover up all the debris in the blast radius of their last two albums. Throw in just-okay new projects by Future and Young Thug that break no new ground, and you might conclude that hip-hop is spinning its wheels after a ridiculous 2015.

But there’s some swell records out that you might not know about, and I’m gonna be a buddyroo and tell you about them right now. Grades are very very certainly preliminary and based on a scale where A+ equals “Children’s Story” and F- equals Madonna’s verse on “Vogue” (or Kanye’s verse on “Jukebox Joints,” jeez, Kanye.) This is the music that’s currently inspiring me to make some music of my own. Not hip-hop, mind you, because that would be absurd, but music that shares with hip-hop an interest in the intersection of character, urban setting, and topicality. Also, ass jokes.

Too High To Riot is Bas‘s second album for J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint, and if you liked 2014 Forest Hills Drive, you’ll probably want to get with this, too. Cole he is not — for one thing, he pushes a much more conventional life story, and for another, he’s not that good. But he raps nicely in the introspective style favored by wake-of-Drake emcees who want to make their seriousness manifest, and the production, which is mostly handled by Ron Gilmore, provides moody uniformity. I don’t mind too much when he gets personal-political, as he does on “Black Owned Business” and the title track, and when he kicks himself for his inattentiveness to his sick relatives, I believe him at least as much as I believed Soupy from the Wonder Years. He could be nicer to the women around him; him and every other emcee in America. Anyway, this ought to hold the average J. Cole fan over until the next J. Cole album, and might also appeal to those uncommitted voters who find Cole too corny. Then again, when the boss drops by to do a verse on “Night Job,” predictably, it makes Bas look like a junior partner. That verse contains what might be the most J. Coliest stanza ever: “can’t fuck with Cole either/don’t ask for a feature/we bring a whole liter of ether to eat ya/if these bullets was heat seeking, they wouldn’t even reach ya.” All the way from Fayetteville, you can hear him patting himself on the back. B+.

A project I keep expecting to hear more crossover praise for is Northern Lights by Allan Kingdom, the St. Paul rapper who played the mystery man on “All Day.” A feature on a Kanye track doesn’t get a kid quite as far as it once did. The post-808s production on this mixtape, which is streaming free at Kingdom’s website, is outrageously good: simultaneously glossy and creepy and enveloping, redolent of cold streetcorners, flickering like a neon sign advertising off-brand beer in the window of a scary-looking bar. Kingdom has a good ear for an autotuned tune that, again, is reminiscent of Drake’s, but he’s got his own melodic vocabulary, suite of synthesizer sounds, and home-studio tricks. The obvious reference point here is Kid Cudi –early Cudi, that is — and there are at least ten times on this tape when I expect him to break into “Day ‘N’ Nite.” So, yes, this is stoner rap, and I don’t blame you if you’ve had enough of that, but as much of the music here was handled by Plain Pat himself, you know you’re getting the highest quality strain. I can really see why this appealed to Kanye: it’s one of the few albums I’ve heard that manages to expand on the palette established by 808s without tipping into bombast or sentimentality. With production this good, Allan Kingdom could have rapped any old bullshit and gotten away with it (see Future) and he does indeed coast through some of this. Elsewhere he shows enough promise that I never find myself tuning out, or so engrossed by the sound that I space on his annoying complaints about various broads. A for the production, B- for the lyrics.

“How Does It Feel” (to be rich) was a decent-sized Internet smash for Kamaiyah last autumn. I thought it was surprisingly lucid for an Internet smash — usually those things are all I like to cha cha and other such nonsense. A Good Night In The Ghetto, which is streaming for free on Kamaiyah’s Soundcloud page, is more where that came from: sympathetic realism from a likable young Oakland woman with faith in her friends and a taste for laid-back West Side funk. That said, the reflections of a female hedonist high on drugs and her own sexual power aren’t all that much more illuminating than what you’d get out of a male rapper in a similar position, and the end rhymes aren’t too scintillating, either. As catchy as the music is, there’s something thin about the production. But Good Night reminds me a lot of YG’s My Krazy Life, and not just because YG makes a guest appearance — it’s a slice-of-life album narrated by a young hellraiser who just wants to party/don’t want to hurt nobody, but you get the distinct impression that somebody’s going down nonetheless. I sorta dismissed Krazy Life as derivative when I first got it, but it grew on me ferociously when the coherence of the character and the simplicity of the beats turned out to be a strength. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happened here. B/B+, for now, but that assessment could be revised in a hurry.

Finally, after a few years in the wilderness, Elzhi has returned with a new album, which ought to prompt rejoicing in some quarters, especially those who supported the crowdfunding effort that made Lead Poison possible. Kickstarter fulfillment can be a bear — just ask Eisley, or the guys (allegedly) making Unsung Story. At one point I think some of Elzhi’s backers were considering forming a posse or hiring a private eye. Patience has been rewarded, though, because even by the high standards of the Detroit underground this is one hell of an album. Substantive, thematically detailed verses with genuine emotional and narrative trajectories, including several about Elzhi’s bouts of depression (that’s what delayed the album, he explains) and a total winner about the not-inconsequential cost of a trivial pot bust. He continues to be one of the world’s most acrobatic rappers — “The Healing Process,” a levitation, is the most impressive workout, but there are many others — but he’s such a magnetic storyteller that his skills aren’t even the main attraction here.  This isn’t a “fun” album, per se; consider that the title is a not-so-subtle reference to the junk the kids in nearby Flint have been drinking. But I’ll be damned if Elzhi doesn’t make his internal struggle compelling listening. I can even forgive the Anne Rice bullshit of “She Sucks,” which comes out of nowhere and is probably Elzhi’s idea of comic relief. So give him give him some of that vampire money. It’s early yet, but I’m betting this one is at least an A-, so welcome back, old friend, all is forgiven.

So that’s a pretty good start to the year! I’m not holding my breath until Views From The 6 arrives, if it doesarrive on the 29th, which, given the exercise in extended cruelty that this rollout has been, is no guaranteed thing. Plus I haven’t come close to wearing out the great rap albums of late 2014 into 2015. I continue to find Surf the cream of that bumper crop, but I’ll admit the one I listen to the most recently lately is Pusha T’s Darkest Before Dawn, which I’ve come to understand as a tight concept set about setting hype and bullshit aside and concentrating on what really matters. Not a new subject for hip-hop artists, but with his ruthless writerly precision and distinctive neutral evil outlook on life, it’s one that Pusha is well qualified to speak upon. Also, at thirty minutes, it perfectly suits my ride from home to the NJCU swimming pool. (The Allan Kingdom is another great cycling-after-dark album; try it on Communipaw or Bramhall sometime.) Anyway, if you’ve got anything to add to my playlist, please send me a recommendation and I’ll check it out. You know I don’t listen to nothing but hip-hop, unless I’m listening to something else.

What I got

Lovin’. Lovin’ is what I got. Also I got a bunch of quasicompleted semirecorded tracks. More than I can shake a stick at; then again, I’ve never been one of those wide-arc stick shakers. I’ll leave that sort of thing to the medicine men.

At the moment, the Glyph drive to my immediate left contains nine new songs recorded with Michael Flannery at a studio in rural Pennsylvania, a couple of sessions’ worth of material cut at Water Music in Hoboken with Brett Whitmoyer on drums, Justin Braun on bass, and Jay Braun in the producer’s chair, and about ten other demos of songs that I’m not sure would benefit from a band treatment. The law of indiepop suggests that some of this stuff is no good at all, though as I’ve written elsewhere, I couldn’t tell you right now what’s worth developing further and what isn’t. But unless I’ve completely lost my touch, some of it is also bound to be pretty good, too.

Exactly how half-baked are these pies we are half-baking? Golden brown and flakey with steam piping out a heart-shaped hole in the crust, or still a little wet on the bottom? To be honest, they’re not quite ready for the oven yet: I am still adding some ingredients. I spent the weekend overdubbing synthesizer — Mike was kind enough to set my Korg and the Moog up in his studio on 29th Street and leave me be to go wild. (He hasn’t heard the results yet; when he does, I wonder if he’ll still be so nice.) At home, I’ve been adding synth to the Water Music tracks, in a process that oscillates between methodical and crazed, while watching opening day baseball. Jay has yet to apply his Stratocaster to anything, and we’ll probably want to add horns to a couple of these songs. I haven’t done any of the backing vocals yet, so stand ready to be called, singer. I’m also not sure I’m done with my own lead vocals — some of what I did still makes me cringe, but I’m assured that there are ways to digitally decrockify my performances. Chances are I’ll be back in the vocal booth before long in a desperate, flailing attempt to improve the palatability of some of these numbers, so wish me well, pal.

But the basics are all there. The drums on the songs I’m doing with Mike Flannery were done by a guy named Eric Tait at a studio called The Farm. It’s Eric’s own place: a big barn converted into a recording studio. I’d only met Eric once — he was behind the kit at the second Mr. Flannery & His Feelings show — but he learned my goofy songs very quickly, and we motored through a bunch of them with very little trouble. Mike did most of the bass himself, and I, god help us all, contributed some acoustic and electric guitar, too. Brett and Justin played as beautifully, and empathetically, as they always do, and I tried my best to keep up with their inventiveness on the Water Music grand piano. My one regret so far is that I haven’t roped Matt Houser or Sarah Brockett into playing at any of these sessions, but they’re pretty busy with Overlord and other projects, and there’s still lots of time.

None of this is very interesting yet, and won’t be until I’m ready to release some of this music. But I’m leaving it here as a signpost to myself, and maybe to my collaborators, on the long and wide Llano Estacado of record-making. I’ve got some radical but vague ideas about how I want to begin making these songs public, but I’m trying as hard as I can not to get ahead of myself. If the crucial task of the moment is to get a synthesizer sound that suits the tenor of a song, I don’t want to start daydreaming about bigger plans. Recording original music is one of the most humbling things that a poor clod like me can do, but even at its worst, it’s also a lot of fun. Very little puts me in a better mood, so if I seem giddy at the moment, I apologize for that. It’ll all become clear soon enough.

MS2000 is the tool

Some people like fancy sportscars and slick telephony devices. I like my synthesizer. And while I have had many synths over the years — including a brand spanking new Moog Sub 37 that you’ll be hearing from — there’s only one I could possibly call my true love. That’s the Korg MS2000 that I got seventeen years ago when I first outfitted myself to be a real performing musician, and the instrument that has been with me ever since. I have modified and switched up the sounds so many times and for so many different projects over the years that the stored patches are an archaeological history of my development as a synth player. All the sounds I made for “Scatter My Ashes” and “The Night Bus” and Let The Night Fall are still right there in the patch suite, plus others a listener might recognize from Consultants and Palomar recordings or My Teenage Stride shows or the lost Kapow! album or a bunch of less permanent projects, too. It’s fair to say that my MS2000¹ is now more Tris McCall than Tris McCall is. I don’t know where the machinery ends and the rest of my artistry begins, and yes, I do think I have a song about that.

The MS2000 was the most affordable analog modeling synthesizer on the market around the turn of the millennium. It was meant to emulate (sort of) the MS20, an instrument I’d fiddled around with in college but didn’t make that much of an impression on me. I opted for the MS2000 because of the price — a cool thousand bucks cheaper than the Waldorf Q, which was then state-of-the-art — and because of its physical resemblance to the Korg Mono/Poly, a really good analog synth I owned briefly in the early ’90s. I bought a beat-up Mono/Poly that was on its last transistors from Rogue Music on 30th Street, and though I didn’t know anything about synthesis at the time, I knew how to crank dials and press buttons and marvel at the changes in the sound. As it turned out, the MS2000 was much more like the Mono/Poly than it was like the MS20 — not only did it offer partial polyphony, but its internal signal chain was similar to what I knew, or thought I knew. The MS2000 didn’t get the greatest reviews upon its release, but I have since had the opportunity to play around with the competition, and I think I lucked/cheaped into the best decision of my musical life. I notice I almost never see those more expensive analog modeling synthesizers² onstage anymore; the only band I ever saw with a Waldorf Q was My Favorite. Indiepop bands do still use the MS2000 or the MicroKorg, which is just the MS2000 in a smaller body. Sarah Martin of Belle & Sebastian played a MS2000 at Radio City last summer. I felt validated.

I’m aware of the problems. For instance, the synthesist is limited to four notes at a time (this was true for the Mono/Poly, too.) There are other synths that allow you to make grand polychords, though, and the MS2000 isn’t really about that anyway. The built-in memory is awful; you’re required to erase a patch if you want to design and save a new one, which has led to a great deal of frustration and a few disasters. It is somewhat cheaply built, too — the knobs are plastic and puny and have a habit of coming off and rolling around the stage. It’s hard to do one of those great Moog-style filter sweeps when you’ve only got a few millimeters of diameter on the dial to work with. That said, I come from the Keith Emerson tough-love school of synth-handlers, and in sixteen years of rough play, I’ve only sent the MS2000 to the shop a couple of times. This unit is sturdier than it looks. Korg might be Moog’s pale step-sister, but the company doesn’t make junk. The clock on the arpeggiator won’t sync reliably to or through MIDI, which would give me fits if I ever wanted to create jacktastic electronic dance music. Fortunately, nobody expects the screwy music I make to be played in time anyway. I have never ever used MIDI onstage and probably never will.

So if you don’t care about getting the arpeggiator perfect, or jacktastic industrial dance music, or RAM, or making nine hundred keys sound at once, I encourage you to give this instrument a shot. Or just respect. Because if you’re the sort of synth player who just wants to treat your instrument like a guitar — quarter-inch cable into willing amplifier and maybe even a stompbox or two — there’s very little like it. The trip from the initial signal through the filters to a radical outcome is the quickest I’ve ever experienced in nearly two decades of playing analog modeling synthesizers. My MS2000 affords me the kind of expressive latitude that would, on comparable instruments, require me to page through screens of parameters to achieve. In order to get the same immediacy, you’d probably need to get a real analog device, and those come with their own distinctive suite of drawbacks, including an irritating propensity to drift out of tune. It could be that I’m just used to the MS2000, and I’d have the same identification with a different analog modeling synthesizer if I’d gotten it around the same time. Somehow I doubt it, though. Everything about the MS2000 interface is intuitive, and everything about it calls you to, ahem, express yourself with your organ. I don’t even really mind erasing old saved patches when I make a new one: it forces me to economize, and treat each experiment as a meaningful one, and shed old ideas that have gotten stale.

I’m using the Sub 37 on my new recordings, and boy, has it ever been a thrill. I don’t feel worthy of it³. One of its ten million cool features: MIDI actually records the data of every knob-turn. I expect to spend the rest of my life unlocking the secrets of this amazing new instrument. But at least in the short run, the synthesizer you’re most likely to encounter on my new recordings will be the MS2000. After sixteen years, I know just how to get what I want from it; if there’s a sound in my head, I can usually realize it in an hour or so of fiddling with the oscillators. When Mr. Flannery’s Try Your Hardest comes out (any day now), and when The Well Tempered Overlord comes out (any day now), the instrument you’ll hear me play on those albums is the MS2000. I could play it on your record, too. All you’ve got to do is ask.


¹Since I’m a cutesy character, all of my instruments have proper names. The MS2000 is named after Miwako Fujitani, a Japanese actress. I’m calling the Moog Yolanda Watts, which is a cross between Yolanda Adams (the gospel singer), Rolonda Watts (the anchorwoman), the color yellow, and wattage. I give this stuff serious thought.

²My guess is that synth players don’t like to bring really expensive pieces of equipment out on the road with them, so they keep those upmarket analog modeling synthesizers safe in home studios, sample the sounds or use MIDI or whatever. Which is understandable. I’m just glad I was never precious about the MS2000, because it’s nice to have a blue friend with you when you’re far from home. Possibly unwise, but always fun.

³Then again, now that Keith is gone, we’ve all got to pick up the slack. I promise to reach beyond my grasp if you will, ok?