Dec 29, 2014

Big Red, Histroy The Way We Want It

big red history the way we want it
"How'd she feel about you doing that?"

"She knew what I was about... Hell that's the thing about border towns man, everyone knows you before they meet you besides... it was party... but that's not even... I mean the next day... the next day got crazy."

Our table's crammed with food and wrappers, mostly burgers and the five of us lounging back in chairs bolted to the floor. Good days. My brothers, my cousin, and Dan. All family. We'd already finished half our second record in three days.


Of course we were prepared, and that didn't hurt. We had our songs arranged and rehearsed before we ever got to Akron. After Abe gave the arrangements a once over, we'd track the music as a group, following Jaime's drum lead through each take, mostly two or three passes, then overdubs, vocals, and the whole song done in an afternoon. One song, soon to be one half of the two title tracks, Big Red, had us struggling and ready for a lunch break: An Everly's style rocker called Everything She Needs.




And while Dante's on a story about his party days in Laredo, I'm now taking down a basket of Cajun fries.


I checked out around the time the food came; I've heard this one before, plus I can't stop thinking of the problem with this song.


It started in the morning.

A big, beautiful golden bear of an alarm clock named Bella came ringing her collar into the den. I was hiding under a pile of blankets and pillows, when she managed to sniff my face out from all of it. I tried to ignore her and get back to a dream:



Back in Texas, warm sunlight, a lake like heaven, where I'm kissing her or the sky itself, and everything is weightless, lifting, the sun, the water, the two of us. The music of her voice clear as the lake and the day itself.

but it's Bella and her big drooping lips, and the cold Ohio morning pulling me back. I guess the alarm was set just for me because Bella didn't bother to wake anyone else up...
Bella's next hunt was for a cloth toy behind the couch and she took it over to the sliding glass door looking out to the backyard.
The slate-grey sky brushed at the horizon with strands of soft red, the light was fighting to get out. It was another cold day. I got a chill that ran deep under my skin. I think the sun rises differently in Ohio, or I see it that way. And though this is where I wanted to be, I was still dreaming about home.
I rolled over to my suitcase, stuffed in a corner of the room marked by the pile of clothes spilling onto the carpet, hunted down my jacket, I needed it even inside the house, stepped over my brothers and snuck out of the den with Bella in lead.

Dan's house was held in a perfect unbroken suspension of morning. Guitars on nearly every wall waiting to be plucked, waiting to break from their stillness. Guitars are never good at resting.

Bella went off to the kitchen in search of her breakfast and left me in the empty room.



I can't tell you how crazy it is to be so close to an amazing studio and having to wait for everyone else to wake up in order to get to work. If it was up to me, I'd have run yesterday's session all through the night, and we'd already be into another song. It helps to keep my head in one state.

And now that I was up and alone in the house, I had a feeling calling me over to the tracking room, that's where I've got to be. I turned on the lights. Walking quietly past the Hammond organ, past the drums. My hands and mind wanted to shake off the cold and distance with a little music and looked through a rack of guitars like I was in a music store.


I found a '64 Texan still in it's bed case ready for me. Dan and his engineer Bob had so much cool gear you wouldn't believe it. Large barely begins to describe it... and the Paul McCartney '64 Texan was only one tiny, amazing part.

I closed my eyes. The smell of the guitar, the wood, so pristine, almost transported straight out of the sixties. For a brief moment I remember my dream, it hadn't been that long but almost completely slipped my mind alreadyAnd a song I had written a while back came into my mind...

My girls got everything she needs,
big cars, house, his money and tv's,
he tries to buy her all life's big luxuries/
My girls got everything she needs
so her love just won't come to me
I tried my best, but Love's no security/
My girl’s as lonely as can be
but she ain’t got the heart to be free
She’s in his house
I wonder if she thinkin' about me...
"Is that what we're doing next?"

"Hey," Dan caught me by surprise, "morning..." a slight pulse of embarrassment ran through my veins as I put the Texan back in its case.

He was carrying his daughter and a cup of coffee, still in full family mode, they weren't even dressed for the day. She threw her head down against his shoulder to hide her face, "This one sounds good... when the dudes are ready, we'll hit it."

"You tell me man, I'm ready to go."

She pointed down at the guitar and whispered to Dan.

"Rene, Why don't you play us another..."

---
The table's laughing... I hit the bottom of the fry basket as Dante finishes his story...
The sounds of the restaurant digesting, the mouths, the talking, the eating, and I leave the table for a refill.

Whenever I hit a songwriting problem, I like to get out into the public, back into the world, and let my mind ramble... something like this.
Everyone else, and the real problems of life are so much more important than a song, but a song can be all the difference when you have a problem... It can lift you up, or throw you deeper... Any song at the right moment. How tragic it would be to hear the wrong one? Or do we only get what we need?

I know it's strange to think so much, but my mind has to do these flips, I can't turn it off, and it won't stop,

I make music for other people, maybe even these people, I wonder how many of them even listen to rock n' roll? How many have sat down with headphones, to a full album? How many hear what the writer is telling them?

The line for the coke machine is four deep, and I wished I had noticed that before I got here. That's one danger of a busy mind, always missing the obvious. But I've got a good way to pass the time, a game I invented when I was in high school: trying to guess what music strangers listen to.

There's a young couple, 30's, at a high table. He's in jeans, work boots and a trucker hat. Hands cut and dirty. Textbook blue collar. Her hair's stripped blond and black, skirt tight, not a lot of make up but she didn't forget her blood red lipstick. I would have'em as Springsteen fans but they've been ignoring the classic rock playing. They're straight modern country, Rascal Flatts, Miranda Lambert.

The guy in front of me at the coke machine, in his 40's, dress shirt and fuzzy vest, bald, well off and been rocking out to every thing from the eighties. I don't know why but he's putting off a Phil Collins vibe.

A curly headed kid, taps his foot against the metal legs of his chair, red chucks, and his unlaced strings flapping out of time.
He hits the heel so hard one shoe falls to the floor. He's a real mid-west rocker, even if he doesn't know it yet. A future Uncle Doug.
And that's when I hear it for the first time. Chuck Berry's Almost Grown starts playing overhead. And it comes to me.

---

The tape machine rolls back. It starts with drum clicks, Take 7 begins to play.

Dan flipped knobs like a mad man, several strings of jumper cables around his neck, his chair squeaked, as he swung around the mixing room.

His mind had been in another zone for the last half-hour of vocal takes. Quickly he moved his empty mug off the console and adjusted more knobs.

"It's just not sitting right," Dan said to no one in particular.


"Damn..." I wanted to say it, but I kept it back. It kills me when he we hit problems like this. I need more details, specifics: is it too much, not enough, too sharp, flat, what does he mean? But he's so focused I don't want to disturb Dan's process.
Finally his chair spun around towards us. "The vocals are good," he said while checking his phone, "I like it... I just don't know if it needs something else, or not, or what... but we're not there yet."

I can't help but take these things personally. Not because I think I'm great, but because I want what's best for the band. I want to nail my vocals. I want a definitive yes. I think I'd even take a definitive no, more than just a "not there yet."

The microphone hung in the tracking room like it had just beaten me, not eager to go through that again. "Should I go for it again?" I asked half not wanting an answer.
Jaime and Abe were sitting behind me, "meh," seems they weren't into that idea either.
Dan scratched his beard and finished up a text, "let's get lunch. I think I know a spot. You dudes want burgers?"

His idea got a much better response.

---
The table's quiet again.

"I think I know what we need to do," I said to Dante putting down my soda. "It's all about the rhythm, it's just off to me. Maybe the guitar, maybe if it had some more substance ya know? Just put some movement in it. Listen to what he's doing here." I pointed to the speaker, but Dante's looking away, the other side of the table, restaurant, maybe nowhere.
"Maybe," Dante's lips barely move, "I don't know." And the song finishes.
"We ready to hit it again?"

---
It didn't long for the guitar to find its place, and after a few takes, the song found a whole new position.

Bella ran through the playback room. Her tail hit against the legs of everyone on the couch as she got chased away by Dan's daughter.
Were listened to the playback, the speakers are loud enough for the sound to push into your chest. I can tell Dan's really into it. Like he's been hit by a jolt of adrenaline and every movement is sharp and inspired.

"This is sounding a lot better. This," I said getting closer to the center of the sound, where the stereo speaker's direction meet together in a beautiful sweet spot above Dan's chair, "is where we need to be. I can feel this."

Dan nodded his head, but he's lost in some thought far away.
The track reached to me, to some deep place of understanding and I haven't said it yet, but I start to get a feeling to cut all the vocals completely.
This song needs to be an instrumental.

Abe's standing next to me, studying quietly, his face is serious and I can't help but wonder if he's knowing it too.

Feeling the movement.

big red image from rene villanueva word is a bell blogThe song's better this way. And I'm over the pain of my failed vocal take, cause the song's feeling right. It's everything fifties. Chuck Berry, Everly's, sugar, burgers and car hops. And the taste of Big Red comes into my mind. The atomic red soda of my hometown. The fuel of my youth. And being a kid running at my grandparent's ranch, and summer, and the lake, and a lot of beautiful things, and I don't think my words could cover that. It's all a big landscape. A wordless vision.

I want to be in those moments. That dream. The sun. The lake. Home. Family. Me. And the curly haired kid I saw at the soda fountain. From his Ohio. And my Texas. Tastes that make a memory. The nostalgia. It's not always real. It's never as perfect. Colored in half-truth. Sweetening away any contradictions. But that's what all this was, Rock and Roll... History the way we want to remember it.


-rené





Nov 24, 2014

Memories From A Show... The Self Known


"Don't you have anything for us?"

Sitting around Dante's living room, lit by the glow of the t.v. on mute, while Abe paced back and forth on a call with a local promoter, we waited for an answer. I was nervous, watching the ceiling fan circle, wanting good news.

"Ok," he said.

Another pause.

"Ok..."

Shows were tough for us from the start. We were too soft for most of the metal and punk clubs, too young and clean looking, too nice for modern rock. 'But what do you do other than be yourself?'

"No, we don't scream..." Abe sounded a little defeated. This wasn't the first time we had to describe our sound by all the things we weren't, "well, we move around, but... no, not thrashing..." it didn't sound like it was going well.

Then another, "Ok," and I had to get out of the room.
  
Kitchen, drink, pace the floor, check the fridge again, nothing, pace... Finally I decided to wait at the table. Dante always kept this place so darkly lit, it was hard not to be a little restless, 'This was probably going to end with us playing in front of a row of Mohawks and leather jackets, giving disappointing looks as we tried to harmonize on a cover of a Beach Boy tune out of a busted speaker.'

I wasn't expecting for us to find a spot easily, but I was hoping there was a someplace in town for us. '
How did other bands do it? Where do you go? It can't all be built on people you know? Asking them to our shows one at a time?'

We had heard good things about Austin, but it would still be a few years before we would get there. We weren't even that serious about playing, just wanted to have a night with people like us.

'They had to be out there, San Antonio was a big city.'
  
"Get back in here," Jaime called from the living room.

I walked back as Abe was furiously writing on a notepad. "We got it, I think it might be a good one this time."  

...

They looked like dad's more than musicians. Mid-thirties, clothes understated, hair and beards disheveled, they mostly kept to themselves, even on-stage, either because they were weary from the 15+ hours of flights or just by nature.

They weren't the cliché, sex-chasing, ego-blimp style people that usually fill out portrayals of rock acts, They were the blood and flesh style of real working musicians. Not the old guys around town who've been playing the same five clubs for years. Not teenagers who borrowed a family van to sell their burned demos to neighboring cities. These were real world traveling artists... everything I wanted our band to be, and at the time, they were the closest I had ever been to it.

augie march band image from rene villanueva the word is a bell blog
Collectively known as Augie March, named after the acclaimed novel by Saul Bellow, they mix melodic and lyrical inventiveness with cross-genre fundamentals that would be comparable to Radiohead if you replace the heavy electronics with a roots music fetish. They recently released a new album Havens Dumb that I can't wait to check out. Hope you keep an open ear for it too.


We were poorly rehearsed and loud, something we picked up trying not to get killed by other punk and metal bands we had to play with, but filled with the blind determination of a young band. We didn't know how bad we were at the time, we we're just happy to be on the show, playing with like minded people.
We loaded our gear off the stage, down into the back alley behind the tour buses, and back into our cars, trying our best to stay out of the way of the professionals as they loaded their gear on to the stage.

Plugging in guitars, turning on amps, they gave us a quick thumbs up and great job, all the pleasantries. Then in a moment of great honesty, their keyboardist pulled me aside with some advice. 
Though at the time I didn't fully understand how good. I was sweating, out of breath, trying to hear through a ringing in my ears. So I'll tell you now what he told me:
"Lock yourselves in the studio, and write, write, write...
find your voice. It takes time but you got to do it."

He'd left me stunned, nothing to say but a quick "Thanks," as they cleared out of the room. I grabbed a beer out of a backstage ice chest and found a dark corner on the staircase where I could hide my under-agedness and watch the show.

The audience was mostly just arriving, having missed our set, they were drifting around the room, some getting drinks, some talking, a few were looking at the stage. The house lights faded away, and the drummer smiled and turned to his band. 
With a deep breath Augie March seemed to turn off the world. The club, the audience, all the shit life gives you before you get on stage, it all vanished. Even when they had trouble with the vocals not being heard, even though the audience tilted between interested, confused, amazed, and bewildered, the music came through.

I was moved.

A wonderful understated performance. None of the musicians tried to steal the show. They put the songs first. The music first. The message. They weren't performing, they were translating. Some musicians are entertainers, actors, or fashion guides, but these guys were interpreters. And I felt it. The show was about giving something, not expressible by words alone.

If you ask me about that night, I don't remember any wild antics, or people in the audience. I don't remember clothes or haircuts, or what I ate... But I remember the songs. I remember the way I felt, straining to hear lyrics. I remember watching the fluidity of the drummers snare work. I remember the fullness of the bass as it resonated through the room. I remember the organ swirl. I remember the depth.

Over the next few weeks, I thought about that show a lot. During rehearsals. During long, quiet drives out to my job as a writing instructor. During classes. It hung in my head. I listened to the album repeatedly. I talked about it with the band, what it meant to see that. The mood infected me. It became a part of the way I listened to music, the way I played, the way I wanted to be as a musician.

My brothers and I are on the first steps of a new phase of our career. And my mind went back to that moment this week. That seventeen-year-old me, who had his life unexpectedly changed by a band. The seeds were planted, and there was no looking back... This week we are rehearsing a new set, and I'm thinking about what I want to share. To that kid, side-stage. Listening for the first time.




-rené



 
On thousand tongue branches
a great expression of the self known saying, 
"be more concerned with the strength of your roots
then the style of your leaves."








img source: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-EkpeX-BdYLw/TleXh4gDEnI/AAAAAAAADiY/16SNkvSZZv8/s1600/Augie-March-General-PR-EH.png

Oct 20, 2014

Bar-flys, Broken Strings, and The Best Of 'em

"I've seen'em... all of'em... right here," the boulder of a man never closed his mouth. When he wasn't talking he was breathing, but always a big open hole for words to come out and beer to go in. 

His lips were too thin to be seen under his two day salt and pepper. At once mesmerizing and hard to look at. Three thick busted fingers pushed against the bar with every one of his words, "I didn't even hav'ta leave... I live," his eyes seemed to drift apart like they couldn't decide where to look as he pointed first to the door then to the back wall, "I live, down the street... Just walk here and see the best, best shows, you could imagine... the best. Ya ever play somewhere like this 'ene?"
I didn't know what to tell him... I had, I mean I've played historic places, I've played bigger places, I've played nicer looking places, and smaller, uglier ones too. It was another stop. But you can't break a guys story like that, you just can't. He stands his life on his stories, we all do.

"...never man. This place is pretty great. Should be a good show."
"No, 'ene," I don't know if it was the beer or just the fact that he couldn't pronounce Rene completely, but it was kinda endearing, "this place is the best."

...
I couldn't imagine the best shows being in Minneapolis. Nothing against the city, just never imagined it. 
The stage was much smaller than clubs that hold half the number of people. Maybe it was all our stuff, but it seemed small even before we loaded in. It looked impossibly small when I was standing at the front of house looking at all the amps, guitars, two drums, congas, a giant open triangle, and the lights: 

These giant metal flower shaped lights, towered over our gear, blasting down waves of heat. We'd started the tour with two lines of l.e.d.'s, but high-powered lights mixed with a high-volume band had more than few audience members passing out during our sets; so somewhere along the way we picked up these giant flower shaped meat warmers, and I was sweating buckets every night, but at least they looked great, and the fainting stopped.

The rest of my band was off in the city; I finished an afternoon drink, paid my tab, and left my new friend to go explore the stage. I had seen this club in videos, but everything looks better on television. In person, there was no room to walk. I couldn't believe this was the same stage so many big names had played before. This was the same place the bar-fly came to night after night to see music.

And there amidst a tangle of wires, was my corner of it. My amp. My bass. My Mic. My moment. A slice of time where I would share apart of this. My chance to make a mark. 'How was I going to do anything worth seeing in this small space?' I could already feel this stage was going to affect me, and it didn't feel good.
Dan Auerbach and The Fast Five band from rene villanueva the word is a bell blog
That's me,  all blurry on the right trying not to fall*
A few feet off the stage from me was an old monitor console that looked like it had been through every single show, all of them manned by this same guy who was just as beat up. 

He was thinner than the bar fly. His long ponytail was white and streaked with black. His blue eyes circled by rings of milky grey. He carried a cigarette behind his ear, ready for his break, and his favorite tool, a roll of black gaff on his belt.

He moved quickly back and forth across the stage with a quick two-note whistle/wheeze every three steps. Without a second thought, he went about plugging in cables, positioning speakers around our gear, taping down loose wires. Never talking, especially to me, except for the occasionally grumble into his walkie-talkie.

The older crews don't really talk to the younger bands. They're some of the toughest critics, having seen too many shows to be fooled by cheap gimmicks and fads, it's not easy to impress the older guys. I can't blame them. It's also one of the biggest compliments to have one of them say they dug your set.
....

When it came time to play, I was on the side of the stage waiting to go on. Warming up my fingers, practicing a few bass runs,  watching the opening act. Maybe it was a little bit of adrenaline, or the drinks, or maybe it was a trick of the lights, but the club started looking a little different to me. This didn't look like the same empty club I saw early today. For one thing, I hadn't noticed how tall the stage was. I had only seen it as narrow and cluttered. Now that the crowd had filled in to just shy of capacity, and they were pushed together, right below stage level, I could see how they saw the show. They were all too low to see the mess of cables and power outlets, they only saw musicians, well us above our shins, the faces, the gear, the lights.
Second, the club dropped a curtain down between acts, adding to the mood. Even though everyone knows what's going on behind the curtain, it does have a Wizard of Oz -ness, making the show feel powerful. Cause when the lights are dark, the crowd goes quiet, and slowly the curtain rises, its about to happen.
And that gets me amped. 

Suddenly I felt this was not just another show, but a moment. A moment for me. And for the kids who have never seen a show before. And the ones who were on dates with would-be lovers, or friends trying to find a good time. And the barfly, and the sound guy, and all the old guards who've seen it a million times before and still come hoping to be delighted and moved with something new and creative. It does still happen. 
All those thoughts were in my head when inch by inch the curtain was raised. And to my right was the worn face looking down at his monitor board, with a new cigarette tucked in behind his ears for after the show, giving me a thumbs up. 

Higher up it went, and there were the bright faced teens, the men and women with arms around each other, all fighting for a better view.

The curtain was almost at the top, and somewhere in the back I knew there was the wobbly-eyed boulder knocking back the last of his drink before turning to the stage to watch. To see this moment. 

I was ready. Everything is silent. The lights flash. Drums. Guitars. Our singer is off, and with a snap at the bottom of my right hand, my string breaks.





 

Sep 26, 2014

The Ocean and Then This

I didn't want to move. I definitely didn't want to go back to the party. I was alone on the beach, and I mean surrounded by the splendid multitude of nature, only absent of humans. 

I'd walked far enough from the neighborhood where I could see the lit up windows, and all the talking, smoking, lies and music were overtaken by the heavy breaths of ocean. So loud and powerful, the wind and wave, yet not near as exhausting as talking to the party crowd. 

Example:

Apparently there was an underground band in the 90's and nobody went to their shows. Yet everyone had a story about seeing this band play to literally an empty room. Also, it was repeated to me many times that I had to hear them, but I probably couldn't because the band only made one rare cassette that's nearly impossible to find... but if I could it would be amazing... L.A. voice, "I mean it was like me and my boyfriend and the bartender... that's it... gawd can you believe it? They're just so good...so good. And then we broke up and the ba***** took all my tapes."

I'll admit if I'd passed by the window, having never been inside, I'd probably be envious... I'd probably want to be mingling and drinking and making up stories, but not now. Not once I've sat on the floor breathing in smoke from vanilla cigarettes, waited for an hour to use the bathroom while people took care of their noses, or drank any that awful metallic punch.

So I left. 

Oh beautiful ocean. I love the things you say. The stories you tell. Now the party is only filled by distant shadows and I'm safe to take off my shoes and socks. To sink in. It felt so good my shirt came off too.

"You are what I came for anyway," I said to the beautiful mouth of the Pacific. It's not hard to understand how it got it's name.

Travel mile after mile of field, desert, mountain. The pain. It must've taken a lot of pain to be the first settlers to get here.
 


Then this...


The moon watching from above like a loving mother. The soft sand pulling in at my feet as if it wants me closer, and the ocean. The great mystery. That perfect embracing vastness. I felt the wind. Pushing hard against my bare chest. And the motion. My world was stillness and motion. The blackness, the space, and me. Listening to the freezing waves come from the dark-beyond, rolling across the sand, over my feet.

I fell on my back, spread myself out across the sand, and closed my eyes.

Open. The water's up to my shins, soaking through my jeans. The night was colder and darker than before. The lights from the party were gone.

"Had they all left?" I picked myself up, dusted off a layer of muddy sand. It wouldn't be the first time the band went back to the hotel without me, but getting lost in Spain is another story. There was laughter in the wind, but from whom, I couldn't say. Maybe people further down the beach. It was too dark. 


I reached for my clothes along the sand brushing my fingers around me... can't find anything. My eyes slowly started adjusting to starlight. I could see the tops of waves coming in from the black waters. And the laugh again from nobody.

It was like a bump. I felt something buried just under my hand. The end of a rope about as thick as a quarter. Slowly I began pulling it towards me and the rope went on and on.

The water was singing. Washing out, hi-hatting in the night, keeping time with the deep bass thud of crashing wave. Striking an old song about the great loneliness in life, and separation. From shore to shore, longing. The laugh came back but this time it came accompanied by a girl.

She was dark and thin, and her hair was long constantly lifting with the wind like the way movies fake it. "What are you doing?" She asked.

I said I wasn't sure, but I had pulled so much I wanted to know what was on the other end.
She laughed. 
Further down the beach her friends were calling her back, but she bent down beside me.

"What if it's supposed to be left alone?" She asked playfully, or maybe she was serious and her sweet accent made it sound gentler, I don't know.

"I'm a little late for that," I didn't let her stop me, and kept pulling the rope out of the water, hand over hand.

"What if the other end holds something you don't want?"

I stopped pulling for a moment and the sounds of droplets falling off the rope, hitting the surface of the water caught my ear.

"Or what if the end is right behind the surface, just underneath where it is falling in now, you could get it with one more good pull."

I tightened my grip and started pulling again.  
It was not the end.

"Or then again," she said, "maybe it just goes on and on for miles covering the whole ocean floor with no end." 

"That's ridiculous," I said coldly before trying to soften up, "I mean it's a rope... it has to have an end." 

I think I offended her, cause she got up to go back to her friends. "You know," she yelled as she turned back to me, "Don't be so sure. There are lots of people pulling and pulling without ever getting anywhere."
-rene

Aug 5, 2014

Manifest Focus, I Dont Throw Lightning

I've spent a good amount of time (year and a half maybe?) at home songwriting/recording our next project. And if that sounds like a long time... it is... especially for us. This is actually the longest time we've had to work on writing music since we started the band. After the release of our first record, we've been running non-stop touring, writing, recording, touring, and so on. We wrote the next two albums each with about three months prep, and under one week to record everything. ONE WEEK EACH. *

Usually tracking two songs a day, for four days, and two more to do all the vocals. Usually leaving the studio straight to the stage to perform the tracks before they were even mixed. That is incredibly fast. It's 1964 fast. 

When you have a great producer and engineer, like we did, and a tight band, great things happen with a little time. Most of our songs were recorded in one, maybe two takes. A very exciting and creatively volatile atmosphere. There's a lot to be said for this sort of pressure cooker creativity: plenty of spontaneous bursts of ideas but overall it's not a lot of time to dig in and create.
While we were in the studio for a song that eventually became Don't Turn Out The Lights, our producer Dan Auerbach was unhappy with the working chorus. We played the demo. He made some notes on the groove. Did a practice run then went back to Dan to get his thoughts.


Dan leaned back in his chair, and with a sigh and a look of tiredness worn like a comfortable shirt, Dan announced he was going to take a coffee break,  'I want a great chorus by the time I get back.'  He is a man of few words, but he means every word.
Dan has always pushed our band. I don't know how he works with other artists, but for us he always asks for more than I thought we could do. Can you do it all live? With Vocals? Can you sing it better? Write it better? Play it better? And I'm grateful. His drive has taught me a lot about myself and what I'm capable of, so when he asked me to write a better chorus and walked out of the studio without a single word of direction, I knew he was testing me, and I knew I could succeed.

I sat down on the floor of the studio live room armed with an 60's flat-top Gibson and a legal pad, and started running through the song's chords. Repeating them. Listening to the notes. Playing variations on tempos and octaves, listening for a melody hidden inside. Feeling the clock and trying not to worry, I focused on the music. Strumming. The vibrations. Visualizing the notes, the waves bouncing against themselves in the air. Strumming. The subtleties, the patterns.


Then the melody came in focus like a distant image on the horizon. Closer and clearer. Walking to me. In no hurry. Just traveling at its own pace.


I leaned in closer to hear. Pressed my jaw into the shoulder of the wood and felt the chords ringing through my head. I shut my eyes. Closer the details formed. The shape, the feel, the words...

It was about ten minutes when Dan came back with a half emptied mug and sat back in his chair. He was perked up. Everything was done. I gave him the legal pad to read along as I sat on the couch playing the newly written idea to everyone.


Halfway through my performance, Dan put done his mug, whispered to the engineer and when I was done, he clapped loudly and we were ready to get back to work, "Yeah Son, that's right!"


That chorus was born out of a time crunch. I needed a chorus at that moment. And with focus, it manifested, it came to me. So I hope I don't sound like I'm complaining when I talk about now and the amount of time we are taking. I want to try working a record with a different feel and pace. I wanted to know what we could do with a little more. 


A little more time to write. More time to practice. More time to do takes, and mix, and sing. And it all adds up to a lot more time in the long run but that was the plan.

We could've easily retread the same musical territory we've run before. Could've put out another album like Shakedown, our last, but that's not what we're about. Since then I've learned a lot about writing and playing where I feel we can improve technically, but I've also changed emotionallyBut most importantly I want to be a man in the present, not history.


This has been a crazy year for me and the band. Our family has grown and shrank. On the industry side, we've had so many highs and lows, from the top of the world to the lowest slugged out tracks of the gutter, that it makes my head spin just thinking about it.


All of that gets filtered into newer and newer songs. It was almost too much to keep up with, leaving me with used notebooks, forgotten computer files and recordings, filled with songs, ideas, and fragments at every level of completion.
Those albums are past. Artifacts. Preserved moments of time. A memory, and I'm not yet at a place to be nostalgic for our own work. I like to build off of the past, not recreate it.

Anyways I've been enjoying my own bed. My own city. My own life. And on my own time. These precious things pass by quickly, but they are the riches of life. So I have no guilt about seizing the chance to wake up to the sounds of my neighbors riding their lawnmowers, my son babbling, or my wife heading to work; not highway truck stop engine revving, hotel cleaners, lobby check-out calls, or a tour manager nervous about the next gig.


I love walking Boerne streets, looking at the changes in my city. Business come and go while I'm gone. I recently came back to find one of my favorite restaurants gone forever... oh well. I love being home for the longer days of summer staying up watching movies, reading books, and playing a violin concert in the afternoon to myself. I like becoming a better person and musician, not just a more popular band. I love writing and writing and throwing it all away and starting again. I love working a song and trying it with just a shade of difference. And those things can't be done while touring.
So day after day I drive a short road between my house and our studio, lock up with my brothers, and think of words/melodies, approach/delivery, style/substance, all in an attempt to move our band forward.


As I'm writing this to you, I'm a few feet from our speakers, listening to songs come together in the final stages (We've been mixing all day which means generally balancing the track. This is close to composition/color/balance in photography) and I've got this feeling... somewhere between anticipation, nerves and ecstatic craziness.
Anticipation because I've been bouncing these ideas in my head for a so long and this'll be the first time I get to hear a result in full. The culmination of hard work. A birth. Finding out if the songs were as good as they were conceived to be. That brings me to Nervousness: working so long on an idea puts the creator so close to it, they are never able to see the faults. But creation isn't easy. It comes with a lot of hurt. I'm not too worried though, I've got much more of the Ecstatic Craziness burning in me and I'm really digging what I hear: the best test for a song. This last feeling comes directly from my state of trying to do something I haven't done before. Challenging myself to go further, the way Dan always has; Challenging myself to dig deeper into myself, be more vulnerable than I've ever let myself; but mostly because I feel like we are pulling it off.


These songs will be of home. Of love. Of this moment. Of loss and change and growth. My reality. The life that grows outside my window. I'm happy to be out of the past, and more than willing to take as much time as I need to get there.



I don't throw lighting
I make no thunder
no way to transcend bone

No ambitious dagger
poison truth, no
shimmering hell for home

Devils play for bigger
game, starry seas
tomorrow and her works

Leaving me stolen strings
breath of body and
all good places of earth


-rené





*photo source: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/nB0-1IjSlxY/maxresdefault.jpg 

Jul 25, 2014

Some Great Unconscious Radio Station Of Lost Melodies

There's a strange magic that appears in the treks of rolling endless highway; driving tunnels of expansive skies; following roadway lines like a meditative drone. Some beautiful delirium where deep seeded thoughts uproot in the mind with new-surfacing enchantment after hour 22. 
I've seen New Mexican desert sunrise, and it's worth a trip on it's own, I've seen the quick sprint of night racing up and down the hills of Kentucky while constellation's burst out like fireworks firing off the horizon. I've seen endless waves of both shores crashing on cool nights against the borders of our country, and in between all the countless miles, the miracle truck stops, the gas stations, and food joints supplying our journeys.
No musician starts out to be a truck driver, but it should be a subheading in the description. I am a musician, traveler, hauler of goods, loader and un-loader. That along with merch-slinger, salesman, entrepreneur, and insomniac just about describes what I do. 
Come to think of it there should be a way for people to understand what the life of musician is like when they start on this path so I will try: To put it straight, if you want anything else but music from being a musician than don't ever start. If you want fame, love, or money try another line of work.
Back to the small tasks and fevered inspirations.

"...Rene..." her voice is distant like a TV on in the next hotel room. I'm lying in the dark and one of the stiffest mattresses available. If you didn't think recreating the feeling of sleeping on a rock was possible on a bed, than you are not staying in the right over-night motels. "...Rene..."
I groan and roll face down on the pillow. It's not that I don't hear her, or don't want to answer, I'm just too tired to do anything but stare out the slit of light coming in from the wall sized window. Another great feature of motels is a giant window that opens to the parking lot. The curtain wouldn't close all the way and the yellow light from the parking lot is humming in, with a constant sizzle of electricity buzzing like cicadas. My eye is stuck on this light and its ethereal song, and I don't know why, or what I'm waiting for but I feel like it's in there, an answer to a dream, or a prayer... Maybe I was just trying to ignore the wheeze of a passed out drunk guitar player with a heavy snore... It was a very long night.
We'd played until one in the morning, loaded out by two, and drove an hour and a half out to the hotel. After food and TV it was nearly five when I finally stretched out on the bed, but sleep wasn't coming. I'm not good at turning off my brain like that. My heart still pumping energy to every corner of my body. I could hear the sounds of drums in my ears, or maybe it's the whoosh of blood? Da dum, da dum, da dum, da da dum. 

I stayed up reading until every word is blurred together in exhaustion. I was re-reading the same passage for the fifth and sixth times. My legs sore from being wrapped up in the van, my body sore from the loading gear, my throat sore from singing, and I finally pass out with an exhaustive grin on my face hidden under an open book, cause I'm still tingling inside with the roar of music and the hum of tires.
"Lobby Call in 15 ya hear?" With a slam of her fist on the door, her voice trails away down the hall presumably to check the band out of our rooms. I groan seeing that the clock reads seven a.m. I probably got all of half an hour of sleep. I might be able to sleep in the van if it's not too bumpy... I kid myself. My roommate's in the shower and the humidity only helps to bring out the smell of mold breeding into the carpet.
I manage to drag myself to the lobby alone, late, but not so bad that anyone would really notice. We're still waiting for the tour manager to pull the van around to the lobby.
Everyone's cloaked in sunglasses, a few are taking some breakfast from the lobby buffet. I've got my bag at my feet and I'm humming. Was it a song from last night? Was it from the other bands? We pile in, throwing my suitcase in the back on top of a pile of carefully Tetris-like piled gear, and find a seat on the middle bench.
The seat's cold, the window's cold, my body folds into a familiar spot as I close my eyes. Still humming this mysterious melody on repeat... It's playing on a horn, or is it an organ? It's dreamy and evasive. I can't put my finger near it much less hold it yet. If I try to think about it, the melody disappears, but if I try to sleep it comes back into the back of my mind. Spinning around like a looped vinyl unable to move forward in the song.
Two hours fly by, the cities go too, and I wake up from a daze of staring out the window. I have no idea where we are but we are moving east. I roll out a snap in my neck. The radio is quietly talking the news to the front seat drivers. And the melody is still playing. Is it from the radio? A record I know? With heavy eyes I watch the trees streak by my window. One by one. House and field. Cows. Car after car. Over and over. There's something about repetitiveness that zones the brain out. Takes away from what is physically happening, and morphs monotony into a beautifully complete idea. Putting the brain on auto, let's the subconscious and all its imaginative ferocity come out to play.
It's my turn put more gas in the tank, and I'm huddled at the side of the van with my jacket collar high to block the wind. I hear the sloshing chug of gas as it pours into our empty tank like a pulsing snare, and the song in my head starts playing along. It's been hours and I haven't placed the tune yet. I'm starting to feel like it's an original conjuring of the sub-conscience singing out to me. Slowly words start to mold themselves, beats become syllables, words become phrases, and verses, and by the time I'm working on a chorus we are pulling into a back alley of a club for today's load in.
It'll be another several hours till I'm back at a hotel room, writing down the ideas that have been playing to me all day. At one side it feels unfair to say I wrote this, as much as I found this. I heard this, playing to me off some great unconscious radio station of lost melodies.  My mind slipped open, a crack emerged, and in came a song. I don't recommend exhaustion as a method for inspiration, but it is one way to get my mind to a quiet spot. Quiet enough where I am not thinking about creating, but only creating. Allowing myself to take in rather than push out. This is merely scenic driving through the frontier of creativity. Those empty highway roads waiting to be explored. Waiting to be found. Waiting for an ear to speak themselves into, for a mind willing to listen among the clutter of life surrounding us.

your hands like flowers 
talk in subtle ways
I'd love to be the hours
and fields where they play


-rene





May 21, 2014

Do Your Job Well, There's Nothing Better/ An Afternoon Lull

"I've been hunting something for a very long time. I guess since I started playing music."

Sheila wanted more of an answer, and was happy to work for it. Though it's hard to tell what she's thinking behind the straighteness of her smile.

An interviewer who wants, but doesn't give makes for a tough interview. But when conversation is slow, persistence helps, and Sheila never stops.


"Can you describe that hunt... what it is you're after? What it means to you?"

The two of us, and her tape recorder make three, are in a bubble amidst a fury of backstage noise. Other bands loading gear; stragglers and hanger-ons earning their titles. The melted ice sloshing in the tubs of beer emptied by young bar hands, and I remember having a few more than a few cans myself while I'm holding the warm remains of a can. I started to feel light, and the emptiness swirled in to my stomach, as all the brave fury seems to evaporate. And there's a strange feeling in the back off my mind when I know I'm going to talk too much, beer makes me talk too much.

"I wanted a purpose," I said with a thousand thoughts of my first days playing music playing in my head. "But less noble than that... I wanted to go... Away from people I knew. Away from my past. This feeling really started in high school. Some people had a great time and never wanted to leave. Some of us," I said with an raising brow, "couldn't wait to escape."

My eye zeroed in on her small notepad, and that red rubber ball of an erasure dancing up and down between her fingers.

"I knew the world was bigger. I wanted to run in it. Leave everything I couldn't change. Remake things I could. That's what I see most of us doing. Musician's, artists."

She's not writing a word I'm saying, I have a feeling this is unusable for her and we are just talking. I don't like giving interviews after a show, but it's the only time we had. I'm fried. Sweaty. Red faced. Ridiculous.


I spent the first few questions splashing water on my face from the small dirty sink, near-falling off the wall, in the edge of the room. I moved, slightly clearer in thought, on to the one cushion free of cigarette burns and questionable stains; but once I sit, I can't help feel stuck between the couch and the question.

Sheila smiled, "Do you think you've found the life you want?" Suddenly there's a commotion over a lost guitar, I turned my attention away. She leaned in, and hit me with her pencil dead in my hand. "Your purpose... did you find it?"


"Well I don't know..." I laugh, rubbing the small stinging pain, like an ant just had a snack across the back of my hand.


"How can you go up in front people and not know?" She pushed. The good ones try and let you lead because with enough space, people will confess as much truth as they can. And she's gave me more than enough rope to hang myself with some deep-old-dirty truth. But something's are too big to explain.


A great interviewer will bend questions, acrobaticly, weaving words to the right answer. I've had the privilege of meeting only a handfull of people who can, and do, this well. Sheila's knows how to get her way, not by tact, but it's her own lovely pushy-ness.


To tell the truth, I had asked her not to ask the regular questions. Tell me about your band? How would you describe your music? I could do without ever answering those again. But still some lazy writer, won't even give a Google to get those. So a few days before, on a phone call when I was still three cities away, I challenged Sheila to think of something different for us to talk about.

So now it's on me. Forget clever. Everyone wants to say something clever, but it's not easy when the question is there, and the moment is quick and tired. Stick to honest.


"I think I found a purpose... Trying. Every song. Every show... To try. Others want to change the world. Enlighten. They want their music to instruct. And they do. Beautifully. I guess I want that too but... there're many ways to do that. I'm just not so direct."


She started to write in her pad again, "so you consider yourself a teacher?"


"No," I laugh again. Artists hate being concrete. "Still a musician. But we can learn from everyone. We all have stories, not just songwriters." I search the shelves to find an un-opened water. "And those stories have truths. Even when I make mistakes," I finally find it and come back to my chair. "You can get out there and explain your message. Spread the word."

"Or..."


"By example. One note at a time."

My head is finally slowing down.


"My favorite teachers gave to me by example. By living clearly in the day-to-day. Subtle meaning you know? I feel like if I give honestly. People can listen honestly. That's all I have. My purpose. The simple tasks say so much. Showing up to a performance and not playing the motions, but really trying to get there."

I could tell she wasn't buying it, "example?“

"Great players, my favorite players, don't fall on theatrics or clothes to get noticed. They play. And that speaks for them. They don't even use the music. They play the song, the best they can, and let the music illuminate itself, not the person behind it... you see? And that's what makes them so special. So simple. To do your job well, there's nothing better."


Sheila put down her pad, then lays back in her chair. She asked, "Is that what you think people want?... A great effort?" And I have the feeling this is off the record now, but you never can tell in an interview. I heard always assume anything you say will go.


“I don't," I start then catch myself in half-lie, "I try not worry about that. I worry about what I can give. With my mind. My song. What they want is up to them... I can't control that. Only what I give. I'd go crazy worrying about others'. Though I admit it's a struggle."


Sheila sat for a moment before she reached for her pad and got back to her list of questions when my tour manager came in to get me. The club was closed. People ready to leave. The show was done. So was the interview. And we said goodbye, in the mess of a green room. But like any conversation not ready to end, there was more hanging in that room waiting to be said.

I rested my head against the window looking out into the night highway, and I can't help but think of what I said to Sheila. My home. And what I was looking for out here. I realize I wasn't done. In fact I wanted to change my answer. I hadn't lied, but it wasn't complete.

The truth: I was running. I was exploring. Searching the country. Collecting. Hunting. Looking for it or away from home. Away from the things I couldn't change. Away from the life that was. In every part of my journey I have gotten something, but I also realized then, I brought something too. I was carrying all the best parts of home with me, and gave them to everyone I met. I carried the movement of the people in our streets. The songs of the wild hill country beauty that surrounds my home. I carried the subtle meanings, and lessons of all the wonderful people I knew. I wasn't just leaving home, I was being sent out.






An afternoon lull, a long breath of street
in a lonely town. Stores are quiet,


Doors closed, keeping out a summer heat
only the brave would wander.


But if they follow the end of the sidewalk
wrapping round the last posted light


Down a worn and broken row of slippery rock,
it might even be lost for a while,


Down through a huddle of branches,
under their low unkempt strays,



Down away from the plague of concretes,
where the hum and highway whistles never reach


There, they can cool in the long waiting shade
take off their shoes, and be light


Under a vault of oak, listening to the fade,
the song of evening.
-rené