Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I was the best dancer in Switzerland (story of "The Bridge")

I was the best dancer in Switzerland.

Completely true story.

Nothing against the Swiss - sorry, my Swiss friends, for using you here poetically. I mean I clearly am a pretty great dancer, as you saw when I was there. But the reality is... and we both know it... I'm just setting the stage for my new story.

The first song off Powder Kegs Beneath Dagger Trees (PKBDT) is called "The Bridge" and it's a free download during the month of February if you hurry (thanks leap year!)...

And of course you understand that all the "best dancer" stuff is just a big fat metaphor...

Let me explain:

Have you ever been trapped momentarily within earshot of the guy (or chick) in the bar... or on the train... who's running his/her mouth about their sales numbers... and they're really only managing a tiny sales force in a tiny company in a tiny corner of the universe, and taking him/herself way too seriously about it?... They're the best dancer in their Switzerland.

Or perhaps you've accidentally sat next to the insecure and bored 49 year-old dude at the bar who's bullshitting his 50-year old victim about all the "tail" he got over the weekend. That bullshitter's the coolest cat in that crowd, and we all know it now.

Another "best dancer" in his own personal "Switzerland."

The BEST dancer among some obviously sub-par dancers. Complete with flannel shirts tucked into their khakis, they're gonna cut a rug tomorrow morning at their meeting, impressing their colleagues and anyone who will listen with an incessant barrage of life-pausing iphone buzzes.

Yeah they're "numero only" in their little land-locked mountain club in the hills beneath the Coors Light ads at the corner sports bar.

So anyway... you get it right?

Folks whose dreams are fading just slightly quicker than their competitive edge is dulling. And they get comfortable there at the bar stool or couch. Comfortable being the top dog in their pack. Or thinking they're top dog in the pack anyway. Taking every chance to convince the world they "still got it." Instead of pursuing or invigorating new dreams.

Truth is I've been the best dancer in Switzerland a few times in my life. And I've scanned the horizon for my escape route each time... across the river... across that bridge.

Even though you maybe can't swim well and might fall in, you're willing to take that risk and cross that rickety bridge when you finally have had enough (another true story by the way - I was the best dancer in Switzerland... and I just can't swim. Both true stories. I sink. Veek says she's gonna try to teach me some day, but I suspect it's a waste of time. In a past life, I'm sure I was a sailor who drowned, I'm pretty sure. Not sure if it was before or after I was a wolf in Quebec but I'm sure it happened.)

So yeah - this song sets the tone for the surreal journey I take on my new CD and tells that story, more or less. I have to decide whether to cross the bridge and kick this new adventure off.

Heather Perry (if you see her, tell her I still want my amp knob back) and Chris Warren... they tracked the bass/drums "live," with me scratching out an acoustic track in some dude's closet*, isolated like indie recording artists do sometimes. I replaced my scratch tracks with the final guitars later, and built the rest of the record on top of their inspired rhythm section. (This went down at a friend's attic* on the south side of Chicago in 2009. )

* I'd like to credit him but he told me in an email on 10/19/09:

"mix them yourself as you have all the current files and more than enough plugins to get the job done. I dont need recording credit as that is not what I really look for...and I think it would be funnier to write 'Recorded here and there during 2009'. You did a great job on your last release, I know you will do so with these songs."

... so while I'm bummed he backed out, I am grateful that he helped me kick this thing off and let me turn the tracks into what you hear now, and I will respect his wishes and he will remain uncredited, and we won't speak of that again if I can help it (it turned into a blessing in disguise as these things tend to do)....

Heather - who will appear in a video next month - performed with me at the end of the OSUNM promotion, and has various vocal parts on the record too. She was involved in the beginning of PKBDT and was super-supportive at the beginning of the record's production, but along the way was drawn to her own projects, dreams, etc...

In any case, she makes vocal cameos throughout the record as "my alter-ego"... the anima to my animus, if you will.

I dabble a lot in French by the way, if I haven't mentioned that. I suspect that in a past life I wasn't simply a "sailor," as I mentioned before, but rather a French privateer who drowned. (Sometime before or after I was a wolf in Quebec ;)

In this track, The Bridge, my anima challenges me, en français, to cross the bridge.

(Very proud, by the way to have written these French lyrics in a rush, on the sidewalk, with commuters dodging me - all in one commuter rush - feverishly writing in near-flawless French (so I like to think) on newspaper boxes all up west on Kinzie past the Merchandise Mart stop and up over the river, on the way to work.)

Fortunately Fabien of Fabsound records (a Belgian-born blues man) helped me polish up the verbiage and coached Heather and me with some pronunciation when we tracked at his place. (Later my good vieille amie, Ariane Perret - who reconnected with me after about 15 years via my blog... while I was making maps... at that job I was walking to when I wrote the French lyrics ... corrected two typos on a completely coincidental "hey is it too late? You spelled this wrong" twist of "thank you god" the night before the CD went to press (totally ironic since Ariane is atheist, I think... anyway...) I had to make emergency repairs to the liner note's Illustrator template at midnight (10pm Pacific) and send an urgent email to the production house in Portland, OR with mere hours to spare. Shwew. How cool is that?!?!)

A few other pieces of trivia here, for anyone who cares:
  • That's my Aunt Pat making the first cameo of the record (among 17 cameos) on bells.
  • The tempo was set organically by me and Chris and Heather, "live" in an attic on the south side of Chicago.*
  • Weeds were symbolic for me during the writing of this album too. Veek captured the weeds well on the album art insert. (Which you can get by buying the CD.... or by downloading it too (which comes with a .pdf insert)! ... sorry - shameless sales pitch. I wouldn't be doing my job otherwise.)
  • I've been planning the video for a couple years now. And thinking this is the year it happens. Have a great team set up. Including pyrotechnics. Stay tuned.
  • Switzerland is a tiny place with poor dancers - except for my man Marcus... who now that I think about it, I never saw dancing when we were at the club. He probably knew better.
  • There is a great bridge in Luzern. Great town too. This song isn't about that bridge.
  • While dancing in Switzerland, I sported a Greek sailor hat (that the Swiss dudes had the balls to make fun of while I was upstaging them on the dance floor... a hat that I still have in fact), foreshadowing, perhaps, the Greek girl, Veek, I would eventually marry?! Maybe a coincidence. Maybe not!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Berwyn, IL 02/09/2012 – FitzGeralds

Chicago - 2/26/2012. Ok so here are my reflections on the pre-release show we played a couple weeks back, finally. See show details at the website.

This show was booked largely because we wanted to test-run the songs, share them with the folks in Oak Park who support both Roxy Swain and myself (and aren't easily drawn to the city. Suburbanites are sometimes like that, even when they live literally two blocks away.)

And we wanted to premiere the songs for Mike Sharp, who runs the board at FitzGeralds, and who mixed the new CD, Powder Kegs Beneath Dagger Trees (PKBDT) – to get his feedback, but also to thank him. It had been a bunch of months since the record had been mixed, and so it had been awhile since we got to share a few laughs and catch up.

This is what it looked like (note the "Sharp!" shirt Matt's wearing - I like making a custom T-Shirt, in Trakan font with my own hands, for each show. Matt's typically the "band messenger," and this night we were honoring Mike Sharp with a shirt):

More photos in a second. Still a tiny bit more back story...

We were offered a slot for this show – third – on a bill called "Exposure," alongside a cool "shoe-gazing country jazz band," as Sharp called em, a polished partially-coverband fronted by a woman named Kimi Hayes, and a great Oak Park band named Ballcock Assembly.

We had been rehearsing for a long time and I guess you would say "itchy" to play to an audience. See, Freddy and Claire had been working with me in a few lineups I was trying to assemble over the last year and a half. They were patient as certain cellists and drummers and vocalists came and went over that span. I almost gave up at one point, leaning toward maybe just playing the damned songs myself. After sitting down with Claire and Freddy though, and determining together that I should give it one last push, I finally thought to ask Matt if he wanted to rejoin the band toward the end of last summer, and also ask Roxy if she wanted to be a part of it for the first time too.

Matt had been working exclusively with Roxy for the majority of the years it took me to produce PKBDT (a duration where all my energy had been focused on writing, tracking, mixing, and other production craziness... and the rest of my energy had gone to cursing musicians who would come into the project and then leave me hanging before it was finished. See this blog for details on this phenomenon).

Fortunately for me, Roxy's new record's production had been pushed back and they were both available and enthusiastic about the new songs on PKBDT.

Fortunate as well, Chris was also interested. Recently back in Chicago, he was looking to play some drums and we were in the right place at the right time for him as well.

So it had been months of rehearsing once a week, with this new lineup, at a factory down the street from the winebar, leading up to this. The band had slowly but steadily learned and prepared seventeen songs with me – from both of my records (which is a lot by the way. Most bands who play original music prep 45-minute sets for a show but we needed two sets for the release, so we were biting off a more aggressive set list).

We were gonna run the nine songs that we felt needed the most work at FitzGeralds, killing two birds with one stone: getting more practice at these tunes, while simultaneously getting comfortable in formation on stage (we rehearse in the round at the factory).

The two rehearsals leading to this show were tense, and challenging. They say that means it will be a good show. I don’t know. I was nervous. Last minute, we learned we had to borrow a bass amp from Dan Lakin at the factory, and a drum kit from Kimi’s band (thanks again guys!)

Moreover, I really hadn't been on a stage with lights and the flakiness of monitored sound for a couple years, during the records production. Neither had Chris.

The first bands were good too. I was pacing. Trying not to drink too many $half-off cans of Hamms. Lost my glasses. Not even sure why I took em off. Had fallen on the floor. Veek found them.

Kimi's guitarist shredding like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Kimi belting like Janis Joplin. Hope Sharp makes us sound that good. I know he will.

Then a really cool surprise! Rob Gaczol, one of Chicago’s finest band photographers popped in and approached me right before we went up onto stage. He had his cameras. That photo up top was taken by him.

So were these:

(above) While I know this looks like rock and roll mayhem ala The Who or something... no, this is just us setting up. Freddy testing (kicking?) his vintage amp (the amp that would flake on him right as we finished our line-check and were about to start playing - about 5 minutes after this picture was taken. It's ok - this is why we wanted a test-run! I like to think of that as the final pre-release challenge we faced :) That's Mr. Mike Sharp behind me with the moves like Jagger!

Ok, we're finally ready, Sharp. Can we make some noise now?

Me finally making noise. With Freddy on banjo back there.

Matt behind me with his signature keyboard rig! We're all tech geeks at heart.

Mr. Chris Warren with sticks in hand. Occasionally rocks the mallets too. This whole band is so dynamic.

On my left, your right, Roxy on guitar and Matt now on bass (they swap guitar and bass masterfully throughout the set).

... that is when Matt's not playing sax. Roxy helping with killer vocals here for "Peter the Great."

On my right, Freddy on solo guitar and Claire on fiddle.

... except for when Freddy switches to banjo. Like a rock, Claire's coloring each song with strings though!

Damn that felt good to finally play a show. Thanks to Rob for the pictures, Mike for the sound, Kimi/Dan for the backline, the bartenders for stocking Hamms, John Fancher and FitzGerald's for booking us, to the band for making these songs sound fantastic and for your friendship...

And as always, thanks to everyone who's come out to see the shows and buy the music.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Roxy Swain (Trakan v11.0 Band Bios)

Continuing the introductions of the band for Powder Kegs Beneath Dagger Trees:

Ms. Roxy Swain...

An amazing baker (thanks for the celebratory "Trakan" cake at the release show, Roxy!) But an even better vocalist perhaps, and has become a multi-instrumental and bi-lingual vocal monster in this project.

One of two Scorpios in the band, and one of two southern-born bandmates, Roxy fronts her own project too, Roxy Swain, shares a mutual shameless affection with me for Bruce Springsteen, and while only performing with me since this project started coming together, has been a friend and source of encouragement for years. Very honored to have her in the band.

Switches among bass, guitar, and various percussion on-stage. Adds a ton of amazing harmonies and vocals.

And as I understand it, secretly wants to return to her native Texas to join the rodeo. (Or did she say "sing at the rodeo"? Hm. My memory, sometimes...)

Check out the rest of the PKBDT band's bios... meet Claire, Matt, Freddy, and Chris.

Claire Halpin (Trakan v11.0 Band Bios)

Continuing the introductions of the band for Powder Kegs Beneath Dagger Trees:

Ms. Claire Halpin...

Who knew a fiddle would sound sooo cool in these songs, and that Freddy would know a cool fiddler who wanted to be a part of this?!

Born in Winnipeg, Canada, and trained on old-timey fiddle music, Claire adds an amazing almost-Camper Van Beethoven-ish element that colors the compositions perfectly, and repeatedly makes me wish I had "heard" fiddle in the compositions before recording them, and that I could go back and re-record some of them with her on fiddle. (What she does to "Fisher Song" and "Summer" are pure awesomeness.)

Claire might seem shy at first, but she’s actually craaaazyyyy – she’s the one who trashes the hotels on the road, and possesses almost sprinter-like-speed when the cops come! (Ok, I totally made that up of course – Claire is actually one of the kindest most grounded people I’ve met.. and we haven’t hit the road yet, so while all that stuff about trashing hotels might turn out to be true, I sort of doubt it at this point.... I'll report back if Claire starts going crazy on hotels.)

What I do know is that she digs beer, hockey, and The Kids in the Hall – just like a Canadian should.

Oh and while I hope no one ever falls horribly out of tune or breaks a string on stage…if it does happen, Claire is the one who bails us out by telling hilarious jokes to the audience while we make repairs!

Check out the rest of the PKBDT band's bios... meet Roxy, Matt, Freddy, and Chris.

Freddy Harboe (Trakan v11.0 Band Bios)

Continuing the introductions of the band for Powder Kegs Beneath Dagger Trees:

Mr. Freddy Harboe...

Met him at the second Tutor/Mentor Jam (which I organized, with TMJ founder Chris Warren in the hills of Guatemala). His band "No Hero" was booked by a co-organizer, and we quickly learned that we had a lot in common, including the fact that we both frequent the wine bar where Veek (contributing artist, and wife extraordinaire) works.

One night we got a glass of wine, and promptly headed down the street to the factory where Lakland basses were being made. He's pals with one of the founders and we've been rehearsing at that factory ever since, even though Lakland basses have since moved (photos from our release dress-rehearsal will be posted here this weekend).

Chicago born, Danish at the core, super-chill, and the project's class clown in some ways. Plays blazing solo guitar, banjo, and slide on stage.

Skål, Freddy!

Check out the rest of the PKBDT band's bios... meet Claire, Matt, Roxy, and Chris.

Chris Warren (Trakan v11.0 Band Bios)

Continuing the introductions of the band for Powder Kegs Beneath Dagger Trees (PKBDT):

Mr. Chris Warren...

Helluva super-chill, fun and spirited drummer/percussionist extraordinaire. Florida born and Spanish-speaking, he hits a Stewart Copeland signature snare. (Have I mentioned how much I love The Police? Probably not yet. I do. My favorite band during my formative years. But enough here about me.)

I met Chris when we were working for the same student-based cause about three years ago or so. He was playing with a cool band at the time called Howling Poppies. Shared a stage with him for the first "Tutor/Mentor Jam" benefit concert (that he organized at Schubas). He sat in on drums with us at that show, and afterward agreed to learn/track the drums for PKBDT. So that's him you hear on the new songs.

Again mind you, this was three years ago. PKBDT took so long to put together that several drummers came and went during that span (Spinal Tap has never made more sense to me).

It took so long in fact, that Chris moved to Guatemala after tracking the drums to assist student-based programs in the jungle, had many successes, and has since moved back to Chicago. Just in time for this run of shows. Shwew!

Check out the rest of the PKBDT band's bios... meet Claire, Matt, Roxy, and Freddy.

Matt Walters (Trakan v11.0 Band Bios)

Continuing the introductions of the band with whom I'm promoting Powder Kegs Beneath Dagger Trees:

Mr. Matt Walters...

The only one in the project who was there from the beginning... Defacto Historian... "The Messenger" onstage (wears my handmade t-shirt with that show's unique message).

Switches between guitar, bass, iPad keys, and saxophone. Leo. Strong constructive opinions and the man most likely to grab the mixing board and start fu#$ing with it when my vocals are feeding-back in rehearsal (I suck with gear, so this is usually appreciated).

Also plays with Roxy in the band Roxy Swain. Overloads his schedule with all kinds of shit from martial arts to snowboarding.

Holds the Guinness World Record high score for the arcade video game Castelvania.

Pretty sure, deep down, he wishes he was a major league relief pitcher. But I could be wrong there.

The Castlevania thing is real though.

Check out the rest of the PKBDT band's bios... meet Roxy, Claire, Freddy, and Chris.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Trakan, The Band Version 11.0

Chicago 2/24/2012 - Introducing the band, left to right: Roxy, Claire, Trakan, Freddy, Chris, Matt (photos by Rob Gaczol).

Ok so I know what you're thinking – why the hell would I not be writing about the CD Release show that brought over 100 people to the wine bar this past Monday night?

Well because I need to catch up in the story, silly. I've been busy making a CD, man. Takes a lot of time! I'll get to the "show" stuff. Patience little sparrow!

See, the thing is that none of these stories moving forward will make as much sense unless I introduce you to the band I'm currently working with – how we got together and how the project was born and such.

(I also lied in the last blog – I still owe you the story of the actual pre-release show. This weekend, you'll be all caught up. Promise.)

First let me introduce Matt, who's playing guitar, bass, keys, and sax on this promotion - like a contortionist sometimes. (I bitch when I have to put on a capo, but I make all these guys/girls in the band swap instruments almost every song. Man, I have to hand it to them. Amazing multi-instrumentalists each of em.)

Anyway, Matt told me last week, that by his count, I've had eleven different lineups in the project's two-record history (yeah btw I still call em "records" – I'm (just barely) old enough to have owned a record collection, so I'm allowed to say "record" I think).

So as de facto "band historian" (Matt's been in eight of the eleven lineups by his count), I'll introduce Matt first. Matt's the dude who encouraged me to carry my guitar to my cubicle one morning years ago, and at corporate quitting-time, drag the guitar onto a commuter train to play an open mic over on Halsted and Diversey. (I can't remember the exact year. I'll ask Matt. He'll know.)

And that's how my project was born. I played an open mic one evening – showing off three songs that would eventually end up on Opening Soon Under New Management (OSUNM). I think the songs I played were Emotional Genocide, Fisher Song, and Chronic Dylsexia. I got some really nice feedback (which I liked), so I returned every week for a few months, until one night, Matt called from a club where he was playing, and where he had run into an old classmate, Noah – the drummer who helped me mix/record OSUNM. A band fell in place (version 1) while I wrote the rest of OSUNM.

Toward the end of that OSUNM run however, I ran into an unpleasant and unexpected hurdle - the lineup started fluctuating, and became really transient.

As a rookie "band leader," this surprised me and I didn't always handle it well.

The way I make sense of it now - people leaving the project during its promotion - in retrospect, is that I was/am an indie artist who's relatively unknown. I don't make a lot of money doing this as you might guess, so with no real money to pay ringers, the musicians I tend to work with all have day jobs, sometimes other bands/dreams, families... you know – real adult priorities and stuff. This is a time-gobbling hobby for most of us down here.

And it takes a lot of work and practice to be any good. In a lot of cases, asking folks to "work" toward something (something that leaves you tired at the "day-job" the next morning after rehearsal or shows) gets old after a while for most musicians I've worked with.

After the novelty/honeymoon/getting-to-know-each-other period wears off, I can only imagine there is a lot of "why am I killing myself for this dude's songs?" and "what's in it for me?" Or maybe they just don't like me or the songs. Who knows - probably different reasons for each person that's left.

But the problem for me has been this - for whatever reason, there's this window – sometimes as quick as three months even, that eventually closes, and at that time that musician "moves on."

Meantime it takes years to write, record, mix, package, and promote a CD or record when you're doing it all mostly alone.

So when that window closes, usually somewhere in the middle of any one (or all of) those phases of production, well it sets you back. And it sucks at that moment.

And now you need to find a new musician who's available, interested, talented, reliable, and plays the instrument or sings in the range you need.... you have to hope that person remains happy (without money) while they learn the songs... and you have to hope that when you get to know each other better, you don't want to kill each other. More still, you then hope they're still in the country and/or sane and/or not in six new projects when the thing's finished.

It's a chicken/egg thing in some ways too - how do you find people who will work hard enough to get good enough to make money, without the money/reward that encourages them to work hard enough to get good enough to make money?

It really is a miracle any bands or records ever happen when I take a step back.

All I know is that this week, I'm blessed to have not had any aneurysms thinking and worrying about all this while putting this thing together, and blessed for having the right band at the right time, for this promotion.

Thanks, my awesome and talented band-mates. I love you guys. Hopefully we can do some more cool things together while we can!

Meet the band here: Roxy, Claire, Freddy, Chris, Matt... and meet me, Trakan, at the website.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Finally played a show! Thanks Sharp!

Chicago 2/15/2012 - Well after many many hours of rehearsal in a corner of a rickety old awesome Chicago factory, playing mostly to a gimpy factory cat named Eddie and my five bandmates/friends – all of whom have sacrificed dozens of hours of their free time to be a part of this project… well, we finally played a show a week ago. And "a show" is no small accomplishment believe it or not.

Over the past three years making my new record, Powder Kegs Beneath Dagger Trees (PKBDT), musicians, artists, and friends have come and gone – occasionally crushing my momentum. Don’t get me wrong – no hard feelings toward any of them (tonight). I've learned that’s the nature of this indie thing. I have thoughts about why. A blog for another day. (Really. I won’t forget.)

Anyway, engineers also came and went during this project's gestation.

The gentleman who finally put up with my overly-perfectionist (some might say "meddling") production notes, and the man with whom I finished the mixing phase of PKBDT is a really humble and friendly veteran live sound guy.

Michael Blaine Sharp has been running sound at legendary FitzGerald's just across the last road on the far west side of Chicago, in Berwyn proper, for as long as I've been trying to make music in an organized way. He's encouraged me almost from the beginning (told me once that I "remind him of the Velvet Underground – with more upside." Not totally sure what that means, but I'll take a compliment from a grizzled sound guy!).

We spent the last couple years mixing the CD in a really odd way... I bet no one has ever mixed a record like we did. It just happened to work out for us though.

Basically, I worked a non-profit in Chicago's West Loop during the majority of PKBDT’s production. As fate had it, Sharp worked right next door to the train stop I used to get to work. I didn’t know this, but one day at a show at FitzGerald's, I asked on a whim if he’d be into mixing PKBDT. He obliged, telling me where he worked. I got a crazy idea. And the routine ended up looking like this:

I would periodically pass by his office at some point late morning or early afternoon (my gig was part-time so I made my own hours to some degree). I'd call him as I was walking by. Sometimes he'd answer. If not, I’d call the next day and keep walking.

When he would answer, he'd ascend from his data center (lots of musicians I meet are techies by day) in a matter of seconds, and I'd hand off a little blue flash drive with all my raw takes, while he threw back a cigarette. We'd then weather a barrage of cigarette mooches hanging out by the CTA stop, squeezing in some war stories, until we'd eventually have to get back to work.

About a week later the same thing would happen, but this time he'd deliver his mixes to me when I called. Ball in my court.

I'd obsess over the mix (sometimes using a shit pair of ear buds in a crowded bar) for about a week. Bartenders all over Chicago probably think I'm nuts cuz I like to get a bottle of Bud and scratch out notes in the corner all alone, dancing in my seat to music they can't hear, all in a passing transient way. (I walk a lot – more on that soon too.)

About a week later, I'd deliver my new over-production notes and any additional music files if needed, via that little blue flash drive we treated like a baton. Outside the train stop, fending off street urchins looking for smokes.

This cycle went on so long, that when it was done, I sort of missed the routine. Sharp never complained either. (I would have killed me about a year in.) Thanks for your patience, Mike Sharp! I thought for sure you were gonna get tired and abandon ship like so many others at some point. Thanks for believing in these songs and making them sound great.

Any rate, point is,"Sharp" was the dude who finally saw PKBDT to its conclusion... He works at Fitzgerald's... Matt and Roxy – who switch between bass and guitar in the band - live down the road from FitzGerald’s where Sharp works.

So it was a no-brainer when John Fancher, who books FG's monthly "Exposure" local showcase pitched us the pre-release show on 2/9/2012.

And we finally got to play a show last week. We thanked Mike Sharp with hand-crafted rock and roll shirt (modeled onstage by Matt Walters to the left in that picture there, which was snapped by Rob Gaczol).

I'll tell you how the show itself went in the next blog!