Thursday, April 28, 2011

Collaboration Nation

Brian and I have been collaborating on music. We have both created around a dozen songs independently over the last year, each with it's own positive qualities and negative traits. We realize that. Some of the music is down-right awful. Some of it is good, but needs tweaking. A fresh set of eyes. Perspective.

So I sent Brian my cannon. Brian sent me his catalog. Recordings, lyrics, tabs, and chicken-scratch napkins have all been relinquished, in the spirit of betterment and collaboration. Brian has torn my music apart, piece by piece, and rebuilt it as he sees it. I have taken Brian's music, and turned it on its ear.

The process is both energizing and nerve-wracking. It's like taking your diary to your friend and saying,

"Rip this apart, and write me a new one."

So much emotion goes into a song, even a light-hearted, goofy ditty about politics, that when he sends me an email with his interpretation attached, I anxiously click on the message. I read his thoughts. I get his perspective. I click "Listen."

And so far, I love it. Sure there are parts that Brian has changed that I think are inferior to my version. But he's added so much freshness that I am thrilled to record this project later this year.

So this brings to mind some thoughts about collaboration.

Co - Labor - Ate

When you collaborate, it is an incredibly humbling experience. It's easy to rely only on yourself. It's easy to put words on a page that touch your heart. But creating a product that can then be held out for the world - a cold, unforgiving world - to judge, is a harrowing prospect. What if they hate it? What if they think it's shit?

By asking someone else to critique your work, you are asking for gentle honesty. Tell me what is good AND what I need to improve. Don't sugar-coat it, but don't make me want to give up all together. It's a fine line, and one that few people have been able to provide to me in my creative endeavors.

Why is honesty is such a hard thing to come by? Why do most people either reply with a disinterested "That's nice" or a judgmental scoff? Is it so hard to realize that someone who has worked up the courage to share their craft with the public is worthy of an earnest review?

Once a level of trust is built, and you don't have to apologize for every criticism you give a collaborator. Saying "I don't understand what you were trying to do" is not the same as "Your music sucks." It's refreshing to hear Brian change something and not have the overwhelming urge to yell "You don't understand! That was important!"

Collaboration has helped me grow as a musician. That insight will hopefully help me grow as a person as well.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An Accomplishment of a Sense

I spent the entire night last night cleaning my apartment and listening to podcasts. It was one of the most mundane evenings I've had in an incredibly long time.

I loved it.

There is something very refreshing about getting things back in order after a prolonged period of chaos. I see it akin to hitting the restart button on your computer. I did dishes, folded laundry, went through papers, and all the other domestic goings on that no one ever talks about, because it's too plain. But in the vanilla of last nights evening, I learned a few things.

T-Shirts are Destroying the Earth

When I was in high school and college, I received a t-shirt for every activity, event, and experience. Marching band, soccer, FFA, quiz bowl, ZBT, theater, Boy Scouts, blood drives. You could look at a persons dresser and see a time line of their activities. As I was organizing my clothing last night, I realized that I have a stupid amount of commemorative t-shirts. I never where them, as I am a professional who no longer shows his extra-curricular involvement through 100% cotton.

So I cast off a large portion of my shirts. It was initially a painful thing to do, as they brought back memories of homecoming festivities, opening nights, and losing seasons. Then I realized that I have those memories, regardless of what woven fibers sit at the back of a drawer. Sure, running across an unworn t-shirt from 1998 helps jog those memories, but the memories are there regardless.

So I kept a few of those memory laden shirts, and put the others in a box labeled “GOODWILL”. And it is good, for both me and the punk high school kid who will pick up these shirts because he thinks they are vintage.

Socks will Never Match

I washed every sock currently residing in our home. All but the pair that sheathed my own feet yesterday, as well as the pair that I assume my wife wore to work. I scoured the apartment for any renegade sock, looking under beds, dressers, stoves, and couches. Satisfied with my investigation, I washed, dried, and began the matching and folding. And this is where I floundered.

Socks that were obviously from the same factory were different sizes. Socks that were the the same size had different markings. And one in every four or five were single and looking for love. My sock drawer is like an internet dating site. Only these singles can't connect to the internet.

Accomplishment is Exponential

When I got home, I was beat. It'd been a long, dreary, soggy day, and I wanted nothing more than to spend the evening watching movies in a horizontal position. But then I took Ellie, our Basset Hound for a walk. As we wandered the broken sidewalks in our neighborhood, I got lost in the music that was pumping through my ear-buds and wound up taking a much longer walk than originally anticipated.

When I got home, my legs were tired, but I felt good. That additional exercise got me re-energized and, upon seeing the pile of laundry sitting on my couch, decided to tackle it. Listening to The Sound of Young America podcast and NPR's All Songs Considered, I moved from the laundry to dishes. Then I repaired a broken household appliance that I'd been avoiding, packed away some winter clothing (I'm being optimistic), and filed some old bills. When I was done, I felt great. I looked around with a sense of satisfaction from the work I'd accomplished. What did I find?

The apartment is still a mess. But a lesser mess. And there's always tonight.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Let the Record State

On a dreary Saturday afternoon, I'm feeling a little antiquated, so I throw on my blue corduroy jacket and head to my local record store.

When I walk into the building that is the re-purposed shell of a 1930's auto-dealer the smell of vintage overwhelms me. The music of some indeterminate indie up-and-comer floats through the atmosphere, not quite loud enough to recognize, but familiar enough to enjoy complacently. Old 45's sit stacked in musty cardboard. Clothing from the 40's, 50's, and 60's hangs limply from aluminum racks. I sidle past hipsters wearing skinny jeans and Chuck Taylor's, and peruse the stacks of pressed vinyl that sit inside worn pasteboard covers, encased in tired plastic sheaths. On the transparent plastic coats are hastily scrawled numbers, sharply haggling with my sense of worth as I look for a bargain. I find some guilt pleasure in placing my hands upon a couple obscure albums by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. As I pull them from the box that they've been sharing with the likes of Stevie Nicks, I slide the black vinyl discs from their casing and review the grooves imbedded in the album. A few marks mar the surface, but they are virtually untouched. I get lost a moment in the circling lines that move ever inward, guiding my eye toward the center of the disc.

I am bumped by an older man, who upon seeing my album selection, scoffs. I look at him with equal disdain for his judgement, and head toward the counter. On the way, I notice a Simon and Garfunkel album that I'd never experienced. It brings back memories of listening to the two poets' Bridge over Troubled Water. In middle school, my sister and I would listen to those men spin visions of things unknowable to our naive minds. They called him "baby driver", that only living boy in New York. Cecilia shook his confidence daily, but he still kept his customers satisfied. And we were satisfied, despite the fact that we got the album as a fluke when my sister had requested a Beatles album from my father. It was the best mistake he could have made, confusing two New York hipsters with four teen pop stars from Liverpool.

The album was five dollars. I added it to the pile with The Dirt Band albums.

Near the front of the store was the new vinyl. I am always leery of this section, because the new trend to record albums to vinyl. I fear this is a fad that will blow over, and most of the albums are twenty five to thirty dollars, as compared to their sixteen dollar compact disc counterparts. But I took a look. To my surprise I found two albums that I was interested in. The Smith Westerns 2011 release "Dye it Blonde" and Iron & Wine's "The Shepherds Dog". Both were under fifteen dollars, and included digital versions of the albums. They piled on.

I paid in cash and returned to my car. Nestling the brown paper bag full of music into the passenger seat, I got home and pulled the Smith Westerns from the bag.

I slipped my pen knife into the slot and, with the precision of a surgeon, ran the blade along the cellophane seam. Then ever so slowly, the album, shrouded in a dust jacket bedecked in smiley faces, emerged. I slid it into the phonograph and loosed the metallic arm from it's repose. Dropping the needle with the utmost care, I spun the dial and heard the earthy crackles of silence before the first guitar lick dropped. And then the music came.

And it was good.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Finding Authenticity in Americana

I'd been discussing with a colleague last week the idea of Authenticity in today's culture. He is from the New England region, hailing from Maine, and has spent a great deal of time in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. When you look at Shawn, the New England woodsman ambiance is clear. He often wears thick cable-knit sweaters, durable mariner jackets, and generally sports an impressive, full bodied beard.

Shawn told me that, since he was a child, the clothing company L.L. Bean has been a mainstay in his house. This Northeasterly outfitter deals exclusively in durable outdoor apparel meant to last. It was a regional business that provided quality products to the hearty people of the North Atlantic. But recently, it seems as though L.L. Bean has become much more vogue in the rest of the United States. Popping up in fashion magazines and on indie hipsters in places like Portland and Memphis, this diaspora of Shawn's beloved Bean should be a welcome sign of prosperity for the company. So why is Shawn feeling an underlying level of resentment toward these retrofitted, skinny-jeaned lumberjacks?

It is an interesting phenomenon that is taking place in our society. A trend towards the rustic that goes beyond clothing. It's infused in our food, music, attire, and recreation. It's a call to authenticity, but is it authentic? I'm aiming to further clarify this phenomenon in a series of posts. If you have any anecdotes or resources, I'd love to hear from you.

MicroBrews, MicroDistilleries, Microcosms

I would be naive if I said that Microbreweries were a new phenomenon. That being said, the rise in widespread popularity of the brewpub and microbrewery can be seen in the mid 1980's, after a steady decline in breweries due to the lasting affects of prohibition1. Now, you can find a microbrewery in every town of moderate size, offering a unique product and intimate connection to the product served.

Hot on the heels of the craft-brewed beer is the microdistillery. Facilities that craft-brew small batch vodka, gin, whiskey, and other spirits are increasingly popular in the recent years. These distilleries, similar to microbreweries, will create one-of-a-kind blends in batches of only a few thousand, that create a sense of ownership in those who consume their libations. By being among a select few who experience the spirits, you can become a member of the esoteric group that is more cultured or savvy.

The element that truly draws people into this industry is the connection to the process. By purchasing a locally distilled bottle of vodka, you know where the grain comes from, who is processing it, and can even purchase it directly from the distillery. You can walk through the facility and see the giant copper-pot stills. And every sip has that story in it. By knowing more about the liquid in the glass, the connection is greater.

So why do we feel that need to connect with our product? Why do we care about the back story of our brews and bubbly? Kurt Reighley, author of United States of Americana has some theories.

'People want to have real, genuine, authentic things,' says Christina Vernon of Wolverine, who've made boots since 1883. Thanks to the protracted recession and mounting concerns about conservation, she predicts that demand will only increase. 'The throwaway society is going to go away – or be greatly diminished.' ” 2

So blame it on the economy. But many of these trends started earlier than the recessional woes of the last decade. So I don't believe we can attribute this lurch toward authentic living solely to the likes of the big banks and greedy CEOs.

Recession Reaction or Larger Trend?

Musicologist Brian Wilcoxon has a more cyclical perspective on the “authenticity” movement. As the commercial world blossomed over the last few decades of the twentieth century, becoming cheaper, more prepackaged, and more accessible, the bubble has burst, and we are living in a post-commercial America, where the emphasis is not on bigger, faster, cheaper. Instead the appeal is local, handcrafted, and rare. Wilcoxon, in a recent interview:

There is a sort of "call to small" -- while there's a cynical part of me that thinks much of this is just a trend (like the clothes at the above named stores), I think there is a real sense of disenchantment with "large" America. Young adults, or at least, a segment of young adults, seem to be interested in quality, in origin, in roots, in the environment, or maybe just one of these things that has an impact on the other. And thus you see things like the farmer's market making huge grounds in how people eat. You have chains of grocery stores like Trader Joe's, Fresh Market, and Whole Foods offering organic foods grown (and sold) with integrity (when I say "sold," I'm thinking particularly of the push towards "Fair Trade" chocolate, coffee, tea, etc.). You see people wanting to purchase things grown and made locally. You also have people doing their part to help the environment by riding their bicycles or driving hybrid vehicles.”3

So where does that leave Shawn? Should he be irritated that people are wearing L.L. Bean, but have never experienced the grueling Maine winters that the company protected him from as a child? Is this move toward American roots simply a fad, treading on the heals of all the other recurring decades? If that is the case, then I'm afraid the next stop may be a Neo-Victorian resurgence, complete with parasols and top hats.

Ok, so I just googled Neo-Victorian. It's already started. Hold on to your flanel, indie hipsters.

Seriously though, where does this “Roots” movement come from, in your opinion? What have you seen that irks, excites, or befuddles you? I welcome any insight, anecdotal or theoretical.

1 Papzian, Charlie. The Revival. Craft Beer: Celebrating the Best of American Beer,

2 Reighley, Kurt. United States of Americana: A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

3Wilcoxon, Brian. (2011, April 11) Authenticity [Interview by Chris Walljasper].

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On Schwartz' Tap

The sun had just dipped below the barren hills out my passenger-side window as I coasted into Pilot Grove, Iowa. A handful of houses dotted the roadside. I passed a hard worn machine shop, an oversize bank, an impressive machinery implement, and pulled in beside the now defunct rail station that sat across the dusty gravel lot from Schwartz' Tavern. I was meeting my grandfather for supper.

The Old Pilot Grove Depot

The building was low and long, a dusty white building with small windows that advertised Busch Racing and Pabst on tap. The neon gases flickered and shone as I approached, and the screen door bore a handmade sign that read,

“Will be serving turtle tonight.”

I walked into the dimly lit building and was greeted by the low din of old friends chatting at linoleum tables. The walls displayed a border of deer antlers, with mirrors and hunting images that all reminded us that,

“Pabst Blue Ribbon is proudly served here”.

The ceiling was almost completely covered in the empty shells of snapping turtles. The implied source of the dinner special, these empty amphibious husks were an all-too-real reminder of what was in the soup so, after finding my grandfather, I ordered the catfish, along with a draft pint of Blue Ribbon beer.

While waiting for the meal, I ventured a visit to the washroom. Inside I was met with the quintessential filthy bar/filling station bathroom. The space was not more than six feet across and four feet deep. Behind the toilet sat a coffee can to avoid overflow, although the cracked and soggy tiles on the floor implied that the can had failed its duties as of late. The warm water handle was broken on the sink, and the soap dispenser looked as though it was bought new in 1978.

The walls of the bathroom were mottled blue and gray panels that also harkened back to a decade before I was born. Devoid of the graffiti you'd normally find in a toilet of this ilk, the only degradation these walls showed was that of age. They'd obviously faded from their original vibrancy and were starting to disintegrate at the seams.

The washroom also had a tiny window at the top of one of the short walls. It was the type of window that would be ideal for a man to escape from, if he needed to make a quick, yet inconspicuous getaway. The pane, once unlatched, swung down on two rusty hinges, and allowed just enough room for an agile pair of shoulders to pass through. As I relieved myself, I imagined a scenario in which the window might require such a use.

A man, on the lam for a crime he may or may not have committed, or maybe just for being who he was, stops into a back woods tavern in a one horse town for something warm to eat and cool to drink.

He walks into the bar with a wary eye and a tired gait. He approaches a stool at the far end of the bar and asks for a glass of bourbon, neat, and whatever is on special. As he sips from the glass he surveys the room. Dead animals hang from the walls and ceilings like a taxidermists gallery. The dim light from bare bulbs gleams from the glassy eyes of stuffed deer and off the shellacked backs of turtles long since departed. A handful of old men sit at a table across the room drinking cheap beer and chewing catfish as they argue agricultural. The waitress brings the special.

A faintly gray bowl of soup slides in front of his hunched, tired shoulders. What the whiskey had done to ease his nerves, the pungent odor of this nondescript liquid reverses in a heartbeat.
“What is this?” the haggard man chokes as he picks at the rubbery meat in the stew.

The waitress chomps her gum as she replies, unfazed by his reaction “Turtle soup. You ordered the special, right?” She pulls a dingy spoon from her apron and tosses it on the bar beside the mans rough-hewn hand.

He grumbles an inaudible reply and turns to his dinner. As he spoons down the slop, he hears the squeak of the screen door behind him. Fighting every urge to spin around and identify the new-comer, the man slowly lifts his head from his soup to see the reflection of three uniformed men in the mirror behind the bar. He calmly takes in the last of his bourbon, slides of the stool, and makes his way to the bathroom. As the men approach the bar, he ducks into the door and slides the lock home. He can vaguely hear his name through the thin door as he searches for his next move. He spots a little window above the toilet.

He breaks the seal on the fenestration with little trouble, and within minutes is able to see out the window and into the inky night. No one in sight, he hauls his tired body up into the frame and, with a final heave, slides through the portal. Landing on his back with a soft thud on the dusty gravel lot, he lays there a moment until he regains orientation. Through the window above him, the sound of knocking echoes off dirty walls.

He picks himself up, moves to the corner of the building, only to find two more men in similar uniforms standing out front. He turns back and darts across the lot, into the field of tasseling corn. He turns back only at the sound of splintering wood from the small window, then redoubles his efforts, not stopping until he is through the field, its stoic stalks standing silently in the sultry night air.

And he begins walking north, destination unknown.

I zipped up, washed my hands, and made my way back through the dingy tables to my table. After a while, a waitress who was likely too young to be serving us food brought out our meals. The fish was greasy and tender, just as it ought to be. The beer was cold and sweet, just as it ought to be. The conversation was mundane and agrarian, just as it out to be.

As we left Schwartz' that night, I felt myself fulfilled. Not only had my physical appetite been sated, but so too had my spiritual appetite. I felt comfortable in that tavern, shooting the proverbial shit with my grandfather and drinking good beer.

I felt the comfort of home in that ramshackle tavern. It's a feeling that I find myself missing sometimes, living in the city. But in the end, I know I'd never survive that lifestyle, so instead I'll settle for a little turtle now and again.