I’ve lived my artistic life backward, or at least sideways. At an age when I should have been rocking out and making noise, I was a hopeless classical music nerd. When I finally grew up, I stopped practicing and started breaking things.
My mom played piano and folk guitar and started me out on both instruments. Piano came first. I wasn’t particularly musical, and my fifth-grade choir teacher appointed me group manager so I wouldn’t downgrade the ensemble with my voice. But when I started playing guitar at age 11, I pretty much locked myself in my bedroom and didn’t come out for several years. (I was practicing. Mostly.)
Instead of playing in high school bands, I practiced classical guitar and immured myself in music theory and history. By age 16 I was enrolled in the music department at UCLA, where I studied composition with renowned Bulgarian composer/tyrant Henri Lazarof and film scoring with the great David Raksin, an amazing character who’d studied with Schoenberg and worked with Chaplin, Hitchcock, and Preminger. I taught guitar for folding money and (big surprise) became an early-music nerd. Somewhere there’s a picture of me at age 17 sporting long hair, beard, tights, and a lute, playing for change at a Renaissance fair. (Actually, I know exactly where the picture is — and you’ll never find it.)
I went straight into the grad composition program at U.C. Berkeley, mainly because I didn’t know what else to do. After studying with Ollie Wilson and Andrew Imbrie, I left with a mere M.A. — tantamount to dropping out at a PhD. mill like Cal.
I moved to San Francisco and finally started playing in bands. I’d developed a passion for African pop, and was privileged to play afrobeat and highlife with Ghanaian and Nigerian dudes who’d actually been in Fela Kuti’s and Sunny Ade’s bands. Master drummer C.K. Ladzekpo was a crucial mentor and influence. Eventually I started a band called Big City with bassist Robin Balliger. We attempted to fuse punk, funk, and African music, which seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. We ruled the SF club scene for a few years before our band and scene folded. Depression ensued.
Reasoning that it was time to put aside childish things, I got my first day job: an editor for Guitar Player magazine. It was brutal, man — traveling around interviewing hundreds of the world’s greatest guitarists backstage, in the studio, and in their homes. Getting paid to audition new gear. Sifting through all those free CDs. How did I stand it?
A few hundred articles later, two strange things started to happen.
First: My attitude about guitar changed. I’d witnessed musicians without a shred of conventional skill creating sounds that left me breathless. I’d heard players with more ability than most of us could acquire in ten lifetimes disgorge dismal puke. I stopped caring about things I couldn’t do and embraced my quirks. I realized that playing expressively was more important than playing “well.” Second: I started getting invited to play on cool records. First, Big City’s old roadie, Les Claypool of Primus, recommended me to Tom Waits, and I went on to contribute to seven of Tom’s albums. I worked on two PJ Harvey albums and toured with Polly’s band for a year. I got to work with Jon Hassell, Lisa Germano, Stephen Yerkey, Meat Beat Manifesto, and the late Kathy Acker. I was signed to Rykodisc as a member of the quasi-jazz band Oranj Symphonette and made two Action Plus albums with my most frequent collaborator: Elise Malmberg (a.k.a. “wife”). Eventually I quit my grueling day job.
Meanwhile, I’ve continued to write about music and music technology, sometimes anonymously or under a pseudonym. I’ve contributed music to movies, TV shows, and commercials. I’m a terminal geek on two audio recording platforms, Digidesign’s Pro Tools and Apple’s Logic, and I’ve done extensive contract work for both companies. I’m getting more bass, keyboard and programming gigs in addition to guitar work. I’ve recorded with Courtney Love, DJ Shadow, Aimee Mann, Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches, the Eels, Carrie Underwood, John Cale, and Tracy Chapman. Playing with Tracy has been especially gratifying. Besides being an incredibly cool person, she is a far greater guitarist than many people realize. I love playing with her.
I recently completed The Clubbo Story, a tale of musical forgery set against the backdrop of a dying musical industry. It’s one facet of a sprawling music fiction project conceived in collaboration with Elise. [Read more about Clubbo.]
Things took an interesting turn a few years ago, when I started doing audio development work for Apple and other companies. I contributed to the latest versions of Apple’s Logic, GarageBand, and Mainstage programs. Much of the work involved mimicking the sounds of analog gear for the digital medium. It occurred to me that if I wanted to accurately evoke analog devices, I should have some vague inkling of how they work. (See previous comments about living life backwards.) So I started building guitar pedals and amps. I’d never been anything like a workbench-type guy, but it became an obsessive hobby. I swear, I gained more insight into sound in a year than I’d acquired in the previous several decades. I didn’t go commercial with my gadgets — I’ve just been using them on my own recordings and giving them to musician friends, famous and otherwise, whether they want them or not. (If you’re not asleep yet, you may want to scope out my new Tech page, where I plan to post some of my favorite geeky discoveries.)
But after a year or two of scrutinizing analog and digital sound, I started to feel like a painter who mixes his own exquisite pigments, but never gets around to actually painting anything. Which is why I’m so stoked about Mental 99, my new band with drummer Dawn Richardson. We create lush, trippy textures via live looping and extensive use of Apple MainStage software. We recorded our first album, Mental 99, in a single day, tracking live in the studio without overdubs. You can hear some of it at www.mental99.com, or buy the album at the iTunes store.
I’ve also created a large library of licensable production music. I have over 100 compositions available exclusively through Noiseheap Music Licensing.
Two recent developments: Much to by surprise, I’ve gotten back into the guitar magazine racket, working as a part-time senior editor for Premier Guitar. (Here an index of my recent stories.) Also, I’m finally selling some of my custom guitar effect pedals through Vintage King.
And after all this time, I still love playing guitar, though nowadays I feel less of a need to lock the door when I whip it out.