It Was Garage Rock…

…in Emporia, KS last night as 5*C gave our best to Josie’s, bass-less.

I fired up the Frankentar, my Yamaha “Eterna” Strat knock-off equipped with some gnarly pickups and a Roland GK that drives a bass synth.  The synth sounds pretty plain on its own, but when it’s doubling riffs or the roots of chords, the whole combo starts to kick a little.

Without keys or bass, our neo-80s dance-pop transforms into a mix of Kinks-ish garage rock, Franz Ferdinand-style post-punk, and Joel’s good songs.  It’s fun, it’s a little loose, and it’s a decent change of pace from our usual mode, though I’d never trade them out for more than a night or two at a time.

The new Josie’s building has great vibes; I know Emporia-Matt has to work really hard to put on rock shows, which is a shame now that he finally has a cool space to work with.  There are even two booths right by the door that are perfect for merch.  The man treats his bands well.

With any luck, 5*Matt and I will have a night to work on recording this coming week, and we’ll have a night of practice with Mychael for Friday night’s show at the Brick with Distance to Empty.

What's In a Name, 5*Update, and Joe Boyd

What if Cory and I were going to go on a tour, playing all kinds of songs from the MFR catalog – what would we call ourselves??? A new name, an old name? Comments are open.


My studio gear has been successfully moved to Matt’s house for the next phase of Five Star Crush work. We’ll be recording songs, ideas, jams, and whatnot with electronic drums and keys/bass for Joel to work with later. I’m stoked. After two nights of work (and wrestling with g*****n Windows XP), we have a basic understanding of MIDI; one more evening of set-up, and we should be off and rolling.

Matt is going to borrow a bass for me to use. I’m starting to think that maybe if I switch back and forth between bass and keyboard (within single songs) that 5*C could work as a 3-piece. Especially if Matt gets some samples/atmosphere rocking on his drum pads. Hasn’t been tried yet, though, we’ll see.


In June, Pitchfork did a great interview with Joe Boyd. Joe’s recently written a memoir; he knew everybody in the 60’s, and Pfork says his book is worth the read whether you know/care about that music or not.

The whole conversation is a cool read, talking about the Newport Folk Festival, the differences between European and American folk audiences, and other interesting big-picture observations of pop music since the 1950’s. The best is at the end:

Pitchfork: What part of that period [the 1960’s -howie] is such a magnet even 40 years later?

Boyd: I do think there’s a little bit of a problem for people making music today in the sense that there aren’t many new forms. Obviously hip-hop is a new form that’s been invented since the 60s and that’s had a lot of energy and has cleared a space for itself in a way. But the guitar-bass-drum rock band and the singer-songwriter with a guitar– those forms are getting a little tired. And it’s hard for people to come up with something really original, I think. Which is why– and I haven’t really listened to them that much– you get the feeling that groups like the Arcade Fire, who are playing around with rhythmic feels and different instrumentations, have a better chance of coming up with something fresh. You can walk down 6th Street at South by Southwest in Austin and hear that same snare-drum backbeat and that same rhythm-guitar pattern coming out of one bar after another. You’re not feeling optimistic that you’re going to walk into one of those bars and hear something that you’ve never heard before. Most of the ground has been covered.

Pitchfork: Do you think there’s anything else on the horizon? Or do you think it will keep advancing in revivals?

Boyd: Well, you have to believe that there’s something new around the corner somewhere. But it is difficult because I think what we had in the sixties, however illusional or delusional it was, we were optimistic. And when you’re optimistic, you can create more stuff that’s new. You feel like you’re looking forward into a great, big, open, warm, sunny space, and you can go in there with positive feelings of being able to do something new. Today, people are looking backwards. It’s like, “Don’t tear down that old building,” because you feel like if you build something new on that site, it’s going to be worse than what was there. Same thing about a lot of things…clothing or whatever. These quotes from the past dominate what’s new, because people don’t feel confident in being able to take a blank piece of paper and being able to draw something freehand and coming up with something that’s better than before. Whereas we did! When you have that confidence, it’s very different. It creates a very different atmosphere. It opens up things that don’t get opened up otherwise.

The dearth of new musical forms – and new art forms in general – concerns me.  I had a conversation with Jill the other night about how we seem to be pushing up against the limits of what can be expressed in the art forms we know… and how human augmentation might open up new artistic possibilities.

Maybe a new form will emerge from a pocket of people somewhere outside of the West… but new forms develop in isolation, and there are few places left that Western culture hasn’t reached.  Seems like mostly what we have are kids making hip-hop in their native tongues, or older kids blending their local folk musics with Western pop forms.  There’s interesting stuff in those areas, but not entirely new forms.  Not another rock ‘n roll; not another punk; not another hip-hop.

When I was a kid I wanted to discover a new color.  Now I’d like to create a new musical form.  I won’t; forms emerge spontaneously, from communities – a critical mass of people and artists building on their traditions and transforming them to deal with new circumstances, often situations of oppression, poverty, and injustice.  From the Batcave in Raytown, Missouri, middle-class U.S.A… it’s not happening.

There’s still decent music to be made.  People have an insatiable appetite for music, which is nice for musicians.  I’m happy to feed that hunger, always seeking the higher harmonic that satisfies me and satisfies my audience at once (AKA, not being just a cover band; though I respect that, it doesn’t satisfy me).

I can say a lot for making music within established forms, and doing it well.  There is a clarity of purpose in that.  It’s not easy; you have to be better than what’s come before, to distill the form into a more concentrated thing, plus add a twist (See: Five Star Crush).

Boyd talks about the difference confidence makes.  I see the lack of confidence in every genre-band I hear; artists who only create their art with a basic level of competence towards the conventions of a single form.  It’s so competent I find it aesthetically offensive (Hello, Nickelback!  Ack.  Easy target).

There are wonderful musicians making great music today, maybe more than ever before.  But do we have the confidence – dare I say faith? – that we can say something new?  Honestly, I doubt the West does.  In the US, it’s an open question whether we have the confidence to maintain our democracy.  Confidence in art, confidence in our social contract; which informs the other?  My songs are statements of faith in art, and I hope that by them confidence may bleed over into other worthwhile causes.  -h

The Sad, Surprising Relevance of "It's A Trap"

I wrote most of Sally Ride’s second record, It’s A Trap, in June and July last summer during the run-up to the 2006 mid-term elections.  The war had been steadily going from bad (aka, strategically and tactically unsound, illegal, and sold on untrue premeses) to worse.  The chances that We the People might achieve electoral victories seemed slight.  With our national media, and therefore our national conversation, obsessed with trivia it felt like a trap.

To my surprise*, the Democrats won big by running against Bush’s war and his complete trashing of our Constitution, and we seemed headed for change.

Recording and mixing the record took longer than I had hoped, and so a bunch of the songs with more specifically political elements (“Lookers,” “Baby Bells,” “Addington,” “We the People”) written in a pre-election context seemed to have lost their bite when the album finally came out December 20.  There wasn’t anything we could have done differently.  But I was bummed.  I’d wanted to have It’s A Trap out as part of the election process.

How sad, then, that political developments this past week rendered these year-old issues freshly relevant.

“Lookers” – Congress has just passed sweeping new authorization of Bush’s domestic spying/eavesdropping program, giving the President legal cover to go even further than he has gone, illegally, for the past several years.

“David S. Addington and Your Democracy” – As chief legal architect of Bush’s feudalist power-grab known as the theory of the “unitary executive,” Congress has not sufficiently pushed back on the executive branch’s unconstitutional actions.  You’d think the Dems could stand up to a President with 66% disapproval ratings; you’d think wrong.

“We the People” – As a more general song about us masses versus the kleptocrats who’d just luuuv to be new feudal lords, “We the People” has a constant back-burner level of relevance in any free society.  I had expected the Dem Congress to reduce the front-burner urgency of our need to stand together against the would-be-lords, but it has not, and the call is still loud and clear for us to get up en masse and save our democracy.

“goddamn” – A song written at this time, in this style, that will be a part of SR’s new You Have To Wear the Boots, with the lines:

“We heard about Ohio in Rolling Stone; Blackwell’s party stole their state for George.

Death by 1000 cuts and no one cares, the streets ‘re empty.”

New reports of the illegal destruction of ballots in 2/3 of Ohio precincts, an inconceivable coincidence, can only lead us to believe that there was indeed something to hide; that Ohio was stolen, giving Bush his second term.  I can’t even parse or internalize the implications of this statement, which my head believes to be true even if my heart can’t figure out how to act like it.
We take open, lawful society for granted.  We forget that it’s not the ‘natural’ state of things; that 99% of humans who ever lived, lived under feudalism with one mask or another.  Democracy requires constant education, participation, maintenance, and vigilance.  Americans, we’ve been lazy.  Our forefathers and mothers would be ashamed.  We still have access to the tools to take our government back; certifiably fair elections and independent media.  We can’t afford not to use them, with the impending global warming crisis breathing down our necks.

I’m going to try a couple things, maybe tonight, but look forward to announcements on an improved and re-mastered It’s A Trap soon.  I’m happy it still has a role to play in our political conversation (it has other things to say about love), but distraught at the state of things in which I feel moved to speak.  -h
*Which says something about the Dems utter inability to capitalize on Bush’s nearly endless political weaknesses, Americans’ broad support for classically liberal (Adam Smith) policies, or the ready-to-fracture Republican coalition of neoconservatives, dogmatic libertarians, Christian dominionists, and decent conservatives who don’t realize their party has been hijacked.  Most days I wonder if they even want to win elections.  They’re certainly not serious about it.

Music Rags

After years spent as a loyal SPIN reader, you, ma’am, have been replaced.

My free trial issue of Paste has usurped my allegiance.  Andy Whitman’s blog was my introduction, followed by Ctrl+V.

Issue #33 came in last week’s mail.  The first ten or so tracks of the CD have been mildly interesting.  Petur Ben and Fields are both groovy, but God knows what Cake’s instrumental b-side “Conroy” is doing on it.

The mag itself sealed the deal; overflowing with intelligent, earnest writing about good music from the top 40 to Carolina Chocolate Drops and everything in-between.  Limited ads, mostly for records I’d probably like.  Makes SPIN look like the magazine equivalent of VH1’s “Best Week Ever,” full of entirely predictable snarking and reveling in empty pleasures.  SPIN’s review section sucks too now; what good is it to write a thousand fifty-word reviews and give every record three out of five stars?

No good, that’s what.

Today I love Paste.  It is a good magazine+CD about good music.  Love, -howie