Monday, May 17, 2010

Epistolary Appendix 1995 (Repost)

Note: This was originally posted on 5/11/08, and reappears here unedited.  Not because I thought the original post was so great, but because the original post became spam central in the comments section, and a small handful of them simply couldn't be deleted.  Presumably, they were the reason why the post still receives spam comments on a weekly basis a good two years after the original posting.  Those of you who have already read this, apologies for the reposting, but it was the only thing I could think of to do, in the end.
I've also included the original comments section (minus the spam), although now as part of the post.
As part of the gradual archival of the various music projects I've been involved with over the years, I want to include memories and opinions of those who shared that particular part of the journey with me. It's even more interesting to me if these run counter to my own. And the real gold will be if people just come out and call me an idiot or an asshole - heck, a guy can dream!

As if to illustrate this, Ansley Lancourt posted responses to Friday's listening entry, which spurred a much deeper and fuller reflection from me over the weekend. A little context - Ansley and his brother Bran were (as mentioned on Friday and occasionally at other points during this past year's Ramblers) a guiding force for me in the development of both musical and songwriting ability. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that it was their influence at an impressionable age that steered me into music in the first place. I know that I'm something of a closed system, and am mostly autodidactic in my approach to learning a skill, but at the core of most of my musical knowledge is a Lancourt seed.

During the period discussed, their band (Johnny Bravo) were signed first to Madonna's Maverick records, and then switching over to Arista records with their producer/benefactor Ric Ocaseck. The record was called Then Again, Maybe I Won't, and perhaps Ansley will be so kind to write a full history of Johnny Bravo at his site so I don't have to - especially wise, since there was very little of it (the tour with Kiss and opening for Soul Asylum and the Conan appearance and radio promotion and all) that I was direct witness to.

Anyhow, here's what Ansley wrote in response to the entry, for those who don't want to wade into Friday's comments section:

"I remember the discussions about how any song that uses a major 7th chord heavily in it could never be a hit.. ha..


but, at the time it was true..

but in the end our argument proved to be extremely myopic..."

Note to other readers: since my response was originally intended as a brief post in the comments section, it's addressed to Ansley. But then it ballooned to encompass a much broader topic, so I think it's good for a general audience

I don't think your argument was myopic at all. You were focused on having a career in music here and now - or, rather, there and then, ‘then’ being the mid-90's. Not only was your argument based on cold, hard reason (even if it was usually delivered in the patented Lancourt mix of overwhelming exasperation and enthusiasm), it had a strong element of long-term strategy at its core. You weren’t intending to ‘sell-out’ – a term that many view as pejorative but is to me merely a statement of intent – on a permanent basis. You proposed that by getting your foot in the door with a successful record that the record company, media outlets and audiences would be open to a more personal (read: ‘artistic’) vision the second time around. That seemed, and seems, pretty sensible to me.

A lot of the arguments and theories that you disseminated through the ranks - not just to me, but Tammy and Erik and anyone else that you had late-night conversations with - were simply based on the premise that people who weren't at least attempting to find a way to get radio play in the music climate at the time were doing so at the peril of their own continuing poverty and obscurity.

Thing is, I agreed with both sides of the argument. I think that you were right that a music career is a career, so what was the point of making music that no audience would hear, simply because the guardians of the limited media avenues available in those days would generally only play what was safe and popular? But the counter-argument was that music that by design is meant to appeal to popular trends is generally too generic for its own good, and even a popular hit could disappear into obscurity – whereas music made according to a unique and distinct voice could (with a lot of luck, true) make itself heard above the crowd and have greater staying power.

Erik wrapped up all of his counter-arguments against the strategic pursuit of commerciality in music with the hilariously dismissive quip, “Quest! For the Single!” - intoned in the narrative voice-of-doom from many a 1950’s B-movie. Which, now that I bring it up, is a great name for a band…

Of course, Erik indulged his unconventionality to a perverse degree, often dismissing brilliant, heartfelt pop songs that he wrote in favor of meandering studio constructions with deliberately obscure lyrics that lacked any emotional jumping-on point for the listener. I could never be sure if he did this in a canny way to attract a small but loyal following, or if it was just for the sake of it.

And for me, it was easy to sit and listen, in my usual capacity as a bystander. While mostly everyone else in the circle (that I was only tangentially a part of) was determined to become a rock star – the mind-set that’s probably necessary to keep the energy up in the first stage of building a music career – I would have to admit to eternal dilettante status.

I very much like the formal play involved in music, and I like the dedication involved in developing a craft, and I enjoy brainstorming theories about what it all means and all that (as this conversation shows). But you can tell just by the language I use to discuss it that these are the equivalent of parlor room diversions for me – or, rather, basement playing, which was the 1995 equivalent of the parlor game for musicians. I never wanted to be a rock star. I could never even be sure that I wanted to leave that basement in the first place, and the succeeding years have borne that out.

Of course, history is the judge of everything. If I define ‘history’ as ‘my opinion now,’ Tammy’s work - which I’d argue hewed most closely to your music philosophy - is catchy but instantly disposable. Your own Then Again, Maybe I Won’t drummed out all of the subtleties (yes, like major seventh chords!) in your music and lyrics, which – as it turns out – was probably an underestimation of the sophistication of the listening audience. My recordings were – as shown on Friday - laughably amateurish, with me lacking the skills necessary to polish any of the few good ideas into anything anyone would want to hear, but also failing to recognize that, much like giving Hitler a shave and a Toni Wave, rectifying my lack of studio polish would do nothing to correct my core issues.* Lizard Music’sDear Champ… is so singularly a product of Erik’s internal vision that I suspect the only way to enjoy it fully is to be Erik – and I say that as both a fan of the man and a then member of his band.

What do I think has held up?

Lobster T, Lizard Music’s first EP, home recorded and engineered and showing an almost perfect balance between Erik’s pop-surrealist tendencies and chief foil Mike Jorgensen’s streamlined studio work and genetically inbred college jingle-jangle/drone… not to dismiss the presence of Chris and Craig – early Lizard Music was a fucking great band. Aggravating to me that it’s been relegated to a footnote in all of their musical careers. Lizard Music isn’t even on Mike’s Wikipedia page!

- The untold hours of recordings you did at Kevin’s immediately before and after Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, with endless great, great songs of charm and character and melody and you name it. The Lancourts that recorded something as winning as “The Christmas Monster” while balancing it with powerful emotional songs like “Don’t Say it’s not the End of the World” were the band I’ve always been the biggest fan of. It was probably the only time in your entire involvement with music that you weren’t engaged in the Quest! For the Single!, and I bet you look back at it as well as the best music you’ve ever made – and probably as the happiest you ever were during your twenty years in the game.

At the time, your focus on what would make you and your music a commercial success was exactly correct to achieve that goal. At no point should you second-guess yourself on that. You got quite far on that scale, and should be proud of what you did accomplish.

I guess what I’m saying is that pursuit of something that will supposedly make you happy is only sensible until you’ve become too unhappy in the process of pursuing it. At which point you have to separate the thing you love – making music – from the thing that made you unhappy – selling music.

Curiously, in the long-term derby between you and Erik, it ultimately was Erik who ‘sold-out’ (again, not a pejorative), by following the career path of sideman (currently with Cat Power, for those not familiar with the dramatis personae). But I have a hard time picturing you giving up the right to use whatever musical project that you’re currently involved in as a laboratory to experiment with your current theory on what will grab the attention of an audience.

You’re not cut out to be a sideman, and you should wear that with pride – because true art is following your own vision, regardless of if that vision is to find a way to make platinum-selling records.


*Not to say I have no ego regarding my music – I definitely submit my lyrics as the best among the extended circle. Let’s argue that one for a while!

bran said...
I totally don't want to take credit for anyone getting involved with music on any level!!...

Still, I always enjoyed everything you ever did - with a few exceptions.. It's funny, I was listening to Terrapin Station the other day, and ironically for someone who's always disliked the Grateful Dead, one of your songs, I think it's called 'We want too much?' sounds very similar to a section of the main Terrapin theme.. When I heard this, I thought a couple of things 

A) It could be Craig's influence as he drummed on it, and was a Dead lover and B) No matter what we liked or disliked, we still LISTENED to everything.. and WHY did we listen to everything? Because we were constantly showing eachother shit, and learning from eachother... When I thought about that, it made me realize that that was by far the best part of my whole musical life.. being able to share all those hours, and ideas, and enthusiasm, with others, and mostly with YOU and of course ans.. At this point, with the recording industry in ruins, I like to think we broke even...

bran said...
I was always a Dave fan!

Curiously, We Want Too Much came to mind pretty much unbidden the other day, as I was driving across the TZ. 

I'm not sure if it was Craig's influence, but that's a not bad theory for why and how the feel ended up as it did. The riff as written didn't exactly swing, but Craig was able to find a cool New Orleans shuffle feel that made it work. Or maybe he was just 'doing' Bonzo from Fool in the Rain.

So, yeah, the Dead feel was probably him, since I've never been a Dead fan and have only listened to Terrapin a handful of times (although it is an enjoyable listen). 

For my influence, I'd guess Genesis. In fact, even though I was more into the Gabriel era stuff, I can see a direct line from Keep it Dark to We Want Too Much - both in 3/4-6/4 and based around a repeated figure. Which makes the final recording an interesting blend of influences.

I'd have to say, of anyone over the years, you have been the most likely to specifically point out something that I did that you liked - and even more impressively, do so by name and cite a specific reason, sometimes months - or, in this case, years - after the original work had been sealed in the time capsule.

In this life, where people rarely even offer a shrug when you force stuff right in their face, it's a good feeling to know that someone actually listened! Thanks.
I meant to say '3/2-6/4 time.' That's what made it somewhat unique.


bran said...
Like I said, I was always a fan of your stuff..

Interesting side note about 'We want too much'.. It has a rare guitar solo by me on it.. Unfortunately, it probably could have been pulled off better by someone else - still it was fun to do!
Yes - that's actually the part I was specifically reflecting on the other night. I was saving that for mention when We Want Too Much is up for the Weekend Listening. Let a girl keep some of her secrets...


Ansley said...
I wouldnt argue against you being the best lyricist on the whole.. I wrote some good ones when I wasnt trying.. but after a while I just didnt have anything to say and tried to keep it simple to the nth degree.. 

You actually write lyrics about things you feel so in that sense you are probably the best of the bunch... 

Like Bran said, I've always been a Dave fan.. 

post more songs from your first two albums!

I cant add anything to your post, you pretty much said it all perfectly..

The drawback to the 'give a shit' method of writing lyrics is that it becomes incredibly difficult to write about anything when you've got nothing to cheer/complain about. An emotional no-fly zone is a hard place to write about, Watching The Wheels Go 'Round aside.

I think I've finally managed to get through that barrier on the current in-progress album (with the band with no name that goes by the provisional sobriquets "DeSk" or "P.C.M.A.") - and the 'discipline' of maintaining the Rambler has been useful in that. But even now, my best lyrics are the ones that resulted from me dredging something unpleasant up and poking at it to listen to it rhyme.


Ansley said...
Yesh, thats been exactly my problem lyric-wise for the last 11 years... and also am hypercritical of my lyrics to the point where Im frozen.. I find every word I come up with completely cliched and hackneyed.. 

" becomes incredibly difficult to write about anything when you've got nothing to cheer/complain about. An emotional no-fly zone is a hard place to write about"

Speaking of clichés, a good sign that you're on the right (write?) track is if you find yourself crying because of something you wrote. Smiling and nodding comes in a close second.


Ansley said...
I don't think I've EVER had that experience..

Oh, I'll give you something to cry about...

...well, not really...


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