Monday, November 28, 2011

¡Viva El Presidente!

If the biblical story of Noah was true (it wasn't), then people had some interesting relationships with their family members.  Richmond's music scene was not dissimilar: there were probably more bands than there were musicians.  These incestuous relationships often produced offspring with some fascinating mutations.
Henry Street Gallery ca. 1995. My friends Mike Mehigan, John Swart, and Ben White formed a band known as the Sparky Collective, and this was their first show.  Maybe I was in a good mood, or maybe it was the "vibe", but I thought they were sparktacular.  One of their songs had this jug juggity jug jug drop D riff with the chorus "Five dollars an hour, five dollars an hour" endlessly repeating over top; and during a drum solo, the bassist and the guitarist totally high-fived.
For whatever reason, Ben left or was kicked out of the band and replaced by this tall, red-haired, bearded dude named Mike Jarvis.  From that point on, they became known as El Presidente.  Now that I think about it, it's entirely possible that Sparky broke up and Mike/Mike/John formed El Presidente, but you know how complicated these relationships can get.
Jarvis's influence on the band was pronounced.  The songs got more mathy and metallic, but still retained a degree of humor.  El Presidente was definitely Jarvis's band - in fact, after a year or so, he was the only original member.  John and Mike were replaced by two stoners named Trip (drums) and E.T. (bass).  Eventually they even got a second guitarist, by the name of Ryan Lake.
Ryan was one of a handful of true hot-shot guitarists in Richmond.  You know the type - those dudes that give off the impression that their moms' ultrasounds had weird bits of wire and wood floating around with their embryos in the womb.  He played in a Black Sabbath cover band called Brown Sabbath (also with E.T. and Trip), and legend has it that he once accidentally split a Gibson SG Custom in half by accident.  The long way.
Anyway, you know the story.  Band forms, band plays a bunch of shows, records a couple of demos, breaks up.  It's a shame that more people haven't heard this band though.  Some of my best memories of Richmond were drinking Long Island Iced Teas at Hole in the Wall, praying that K.M. would show up so that I could ask her to come back to my apartment and watch Tron (never happened), and El Presidente blasting through low-register pentatonic riffs like a Deep Purple record that kept skipping during the good parts.
So where are they now?  Last I heard, El Presidente was actually still around.  I don't know if Ryan Lake is in the band any more, because he went on to be in the infinitely more popular (and questionably named) Alabama Thunderpussy.  This is not their story.
Here is the El Presidente album.
Some time in the very late 1990's, I recorded an El Presidente live show on my 4-track.  Here is their cover of Deep Purple's Bloodsucker.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sistersound and the Venusians

There's something intrinsically sad about people in middle age waxing nostalgic about how great things were back in their day.  I'm (as you may be able to tell) privy to it myself.  I remember watching that movie Dogtown and Z-Boys or whatever it was called and wanting to throw up when some guy said something like, "We changed the world!"  No, you didn't.  You rode a skateboard in an empty swimming pool.  My excuse is that I still write, perform, and record music, so it's okay to give a home to bands from days past that I feel never got their fair shake.
Life is different when you're young and under-employed.  The word "lighter" comes to mind.  Time is more important than money.  Sure, you were working 20 hours a week busing tables and living in a concrete basement; but your parents aren't telling you what time to be home, and there are girls and drugs and adventures and books and friends and music.  There was a time when my entire social circle revolved around music.  When we weren't playing it, we were watching our friends playing it, learning about it, talking about it, thinking about it, writing zines about it.  As you can tell, we have all grown up and nobody cares about such frivolity any more.
I don't know how I got to be friends with Eve.  To this day, I'm not even sure what his real name is.  In high school in Williamsburg, my friend Colin used to talk about a young wizard in Richmond who could play any instrument (obviously, this just means guitar, bass, and drums).  The next year when I ended up moving there, we ended up gravitating towards each other as people do.  Eve was a year older than me, and wasn't very active in the outside world because he and his girlfriend Amy had a daughter named J (said daughter is probably as old now as I was then, which... well, you know).  Circumstance was probably another player in our friendship - he was always home because he was watching his daughter, and I was never at work because... well, why would you work more than you needed to just make your $140 rent?
Eve was the first self-contained musical act I'd ever met.  He had a 4-track, which to me back then was a Very Big Deal; and could not only play any instrument (see above), but play them all well and write songs.  Really good songs.  Who knows how many countless hours he spent holed up in his stuffy, not air-conditioned, cat-infested magical palace... teaching himself how to play songs that he had willed into existence and recording them for no one to hear.
Some time in 1993, Eve set about trying to find a band.  Despite the fact that bass was his main instrument, he decided that he would take vocal/guitar duty.  He wasn't a "shredder" per se, but he had a very unique style and used an assortment of altered tunings that he would keep track of in a notebook (one thing is for sure, people in my peer group where an enormous boon to notebook manufacturers).  He christened this band Sistersound, which I told him wasn't that hot of a name because it would make people compare them to Sonic Youth.  Eventually he got Dave Garrett to play drums, and this guy Jeff to play bass (my chronology may be way off).  Dave was (is... Hi!) a friend from Williamsburg who was impossibly tall and would dub his cassettes at least 3 or 4 times to get a more lo-fi sound.  He was also in an incredible band called Thee Squids (this is not their story) and a very popular band called Bad Guy Reaction (this is not their story, either).  Jeff seemed nice enough - he once loaned me a very rare old Bad Brains 7" - but allegedly had a drug problem.  I only remember seeing this version of the band once at a house party.  I don't know if bands still play at house parties.
The next line-up that I remember was Eve on guitar, Ian Kruske on drums, and Pete on bass.  Ian was 2 years younger than me and will probably get his own entry on the first Monday of February, 2012.  After several bad LSD voyages, Ian was replaced by drummer extraordinaire and avid reader Chris Gallo.  Pete was an amazing bass player and had this gorgeous fretless Gibson SG bass.  They ended up getting a small following around town and recorded a couple of times up in Maryland with the legendary Mark Smoot.
Maybe I'm projecting, but when Pete died from cancer a year or two later, I'm not sure Eve ever fully recovered - at least in the context of his band.  Pete wasn't the first of my friends to have been taken too soon, and was far from the last.  I suppose it was around this time that Eve ended up playing drums in a band called Action Patrol, which got infinitely more popular than his real band ever did.  This is not their story, either.
Eve moved from Richmond to San Francisco late in the millennium.  I think he ended up losing faith in Sistersound and the Venusians, despite starting up another incarnation of them about a decade ago.  Last I heard, he was in a band called Foreign Telegram (thanks Kara!).

2015 EDIT: Sistersound has reformed and has new material!

It's impossible to listen to these songs without going back to a time when the highlight of your day would be finding enough change under a couch to be able to afford a $.99 50-ounce fountain drink at the East Coast gas station on the corner of Meadow and Main.  Maybe the songs were good on their own.  I think so.

01 no place to be
02 please hold back
I think Dave Garrett played drums on the next two songs:
03 talk to me
04 le freak deux
05 the passing of day
06 silly world
This next song is interesting, Eve overdubbed the same acoustic guitar/vocal part (you guessed it!) four times:
07 more
This next song was my introduction to the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff distortion pedal.  Years later, I ended up buying it from Eve, and still use it to this day.
08 bluebear
09 fly away from me
The next song was about a time that Eve was driving and wondered what would happen if he jerked the wheel and crashed into a tree, dying in a fiery blaze.  On an unrelated note, if you listen really close, you might be able to hear his baby daughter J crying.
10 fireball
11 follow the sun
This next title cracks me up.  High school was SO two years ago!
12 high school talent show
The last song on the tape was recorded a little while later, Pete may have been in the band by this point.
13 goodness

The next 7 songs were recorded by Mark Smoot in Silver Springs, MD.  I have no real idea when, possibly the mid to late 90's?  The lineup was Eve on guitar/vocals, Chris Gallo on drums and Pete on bass. 
01 envelope
02 silly world
03 blanket me
04 follow the sun
05 fireball
06 i fell awake
07 goodness

Monday, November 14, 2011

Some Hope, Some Despair. Lance Hahn of J-Church

Not long after Lance Hahn died a little over 4 years ago, Liberty gave me a box of Lance's old tapes and his old 4-track so that I could digitize them.  I did so, and documented the process in as detailed of a fashion as I could.  It's been such a long time since I did this that I no longer have any hope that these songs will have anything resembling a normal release.  It's sad, because I honestly feel like anyone that knew of Lance and/or his music would find at least something of value in this collection, but why would anyone in this day and age release an album from an artist that couldn't do anything to promote it?  Especially considering the fact that there are probably warehouses full of J-Church merchandise that are unfortunately collecting dust even now.
If you're reading this entry because you read my blog, then this isn't really the story of J-Church (that can be found here.  I was only in the band for a couple of years, and - all modesty aside - I didn't really add much to the mix (Punk Planet disagreed in their review, I am happy to say).  So without any further ado, here are my detailed notes.  At the bottom, I've included a link to sendspace so that you can download all of these tracks and share them with the world.  I don't have any real influence, maybe you can succeed where I failed.

April 2008
Yesterday I went to Liberty's house to pick up some of Lance's broken (?) equipment and some of his old master 4-track tapes. This was stuff that Liberty didn't think would be worth selling due to damage or whatever, so she wanted it to go to someone that might get some use out of it. My plan is to sort through the tapes and digitize everything.
Also I picked up a beat-up (but working) Tascam 644 Midistudio 4-track, a very beat-up (and possibly working) Fostex 4-track (now I have 3 4-tracks), a bunch of chords, 2 broken tuners, and a broken Alesis drum machine.
Liberty still seemed fairly broken up about everything. Her hands were shaking as she handed me the demo tapes and I promised I'd get to work on the project as soon as possible and get them back to her safely. Lance's shoes were still by the door to their apartment. I don't know. What's the correct way to mourn? I won't go further about this... even the mildly autistic can sometimes know when to edit.
I also went to Chris's house and got an old Boss CS-3 Compressor, a Dunlop Wah pedal (seemingly identical to the one I already have; so I might sell mine, keep Lance's, and give Liberty the money). Hey wait. That sentence was a real mess. Can someone punctuate that for me? Anyway. He also said something about a few labels being interested in releasing a posthumous J-Church album. This could bring up some ethical issues. I don't want to have anything released that Lance would consider "unfit". For example, once on tour I had a soundman make a board tape of a J-Church show. Lance made me promise that I'd never let anyone hear it, and I think I have respected his wishes. I figure I'll mix and master everything and talk to the labels about it. Obviously I wouldn't ask for money or whatever, it's just that I know there are fans of J-Church that would probably want to hear Lance's demos.

Even though I already have 2 4-tracks that operate at different speeds, I figured it'd be more appropriate to use Lance's equipment to sort through his material. Lance's 4-track is generally beat-up looking, though not in the traditional way that equipment seems to suffer from wear and tear. It looked old, and it didn't appear that Lance was careless with it, it just seemed like he used the hell out of it. Most of his stuff was like that. He was just always, always working. The box that I got from Liberty included maybe 15 or so tapes, which varied from official-looking releases to apparent board or studio tapes to unlabeled blank-looking cassettes. Obviously it was the last category that interested me the most.
The first tape I looked at was an unlabeled, transparent TDK D-90 that was in the 8-track when Liberty gave it to me. She said she couldn't get it out of the machine, and when I was at her house I tried too and it seemed seriously stuck. However, when I plugged the machine on and rewound it to the beginning, it came out quite easily. It's very easy to get sucked into ghost stories when it comes to this kind of stuff.
Anyway, back in the machine, counter set to zero, hit play. Drums on track 1, bass on track 2, guitars on tracks 3 and 4. Each track had very little - if any - bleeding, which leads me to believe that they were all recorded individually and not in a live setting. It was hard to figure out who was playing drums. Not as hard-hitting as Chris. Not as finessed as Adam. Still fully competent, though. My guess at this point is that it was Lance himself. The bass lines weren't terribly distinctive either, so I'll assume that was Lance also. No question about the guitar playing though, definitely Lance.
The style of the songs also made it difficult to pin down chronologically. It definitely was before I was in the band, because I didn't recognize anything. It couldn't have been Palestine demos, because that was all drum machine (also, that's probably my favorite album by them/him/us/whatever). It must have been some time in the mid-to-late 90's. The songs were unmistakably J-Church though. Mostly mid-tempo, straightforward but with the occasional quirky chord change. They had an interesting linear quality to them also, and few lasted more than 100 clicks on the counter (approximately a minute and a half). The recording quality was decidedly lo-fi, but certainly not unlistenable. What was sad to me though is that no vocals appeared anywhere on any of the 10 or so songs.
The first batch of songs lasted for a little over 20 minutes, and a new session began. This one only used the first 2 of the 8 tracks, with the drums being way too loud in the mix. They were also played in a much more professional manner, but again not by Chris. I didn't recognize any of the material, but seeing as J-Church released like 50 albums this doesn't mean much. Hell, for all I know it's Cat Food.
Tape number 2, another blank-looking TDK-90. This was different though because the font on the casing to the tape was in a more italicized style, which dates is a little later than the first one. I'm no expert, but in the later 90's, TDK D-90's used a different font style on their cassettes. During the 80's, they were I think black, then grey before that. Anyway, this tape started out with some very professional-sounding punk rock, but then a girl started singing and I heard some weird ghostly backwards-sounding stuff over top. When you play a regular tape in a 4-track, the first 2 tracks are left and right forwards, and tracks 3 and 4 is side B backwards. So it wasn't the spirit of Lance coming back to supervise the session! Just a mix tape. Next.
I forget which kind of tape the third one was. Anyway, in it went. Rewind, play. Track 1 was the only one that had anything, a vaguely familiar song - but with all the instruments on 1 track it was very lo-fi. Suddenly on tracks 2, 3, and 4... vocals! Then I realized why the music was strangely familiar - it was (I think) the same material that was on the first tape. Apparently, Lance recorded 4 instrumental tracks, then bounced them all on to one track, and used the 3 open tracks for vocals. This would be EXACTLY the kind of thing that I was hoping to find. If this is what I think it is, I could easily mix the instrumental tracks on my computer and synch up the vocal tracks.

April 29. Back in the shed.
Tape #3, unlabeled. Rewind, play. Sounds like a live board tape. The melody is carried by the bass line. The guitar playing is mostly indiscernible, ringing out chords with tons of distortion. Time does a weird thing to the high end of normal bias cassettes... it adds a weird underwater/phasing sound to it. Personally I think it's a cool (if obviously unintended) effect. Drums are VERY English early-80's. Sixteenth notes on the hi-hat punctuated by the occasional triplet. I don't know if it was something in the water, but it seems impossible to really replicate the feel of early 80's English drummers. Vocals come in, very much not Lance. Thick British accent. This is where my punk rock ignorance presents a problem... for all I know this could be the only copy of a Subhumans board tape. I have no idea. I skim the tape by alternating between Play and Fast Forward, but Lance is nowhere to be found. Rewind, stop, eject.
Tape #4, unlabeled. This one is definitely J-Church. Because Lance was always very clear about enunciation, I'm able to pick out a few lines to some of the songs so I can google them later. This was something that I always found interesting about Lance's vocals - they were always very clear. For him I think the message he was trying to convey lyrically was more important to him than it was to many of his contemporaries. One of the songs kept repeating something about "playing so many victims". Definitely a studio tape, so these songs must have been released some time.
Tape #5, unlabeled. Similar to tape #4, but the songs were somewhat faster. Also recorded in a studio. I jotted down a few lines for later googling, one of which appeared to about lemmings.

April 30. Googling phrases taken from tapes 4 and 5, I was able to determine that the song about the "victims" was called "Jennifer Jason Leigh". The one about the lemmings came up dry. I sent an e-mail to Graham - who runs - asking for help.
I brought the 4-track, tape #1 and tape #2 from the shed into my house. Plugged the 8-track into the RCA Y adapter into the sound card of my computer. Opened Nuendo. Tape #1 had the instrumentals to the lost(?) J-Church album, while tape #2 had the vocals. The plan was to mix and record the instrumental tracks into the computer and later synch up the vocal tracks. Set Nuendo to record, adjusted level, hit play. No glitches or problems, 18 minutes of music. Stop, rewind, eject. Tape #2. Instrumental guide track 1 turned to zero. Main vocal track 2 set to around 4 panned center, backing vocals tracks 3 and 4 set to 2.5, panned hard right and left. Also without a glitch. Fortunately there were a few spots without vocals where the guide track bled on to the other tracks, which will help with the syncing process.

May 1.
Here is where things get hairy. The idea is to mix pre-recorded instrumental tracks with vocal tracks from a different tape. However, cassettes and 4-tracks are quirky and can sometimes run at slightly different speeds. 2 minutes 15 seconds on one 4-track with one tape can be 2 minutes 12 seconds on another 4-track with another tape. Even having a difference of a half-second can totally ruin a song - vocals coming in late in some places and early in others. Fortunately, Nuendo has a time stretch/time compress function. Digitally copy and paste vocal track to first song, sync it at beginning. After 5 or so tries, compressing the time to 99% makes the vocals fit correctly. Next the instrumental tracks get some equalizing to take out a little bit of the muddy bottom end. I don't really know what the hell I'm doing, but it makes sense to me to have plenty of bass in the mix that goes into the computer, and try to digitally reduce the levels. Bass seems like something that is easier to take away than it is to add. This ends up making the EQ bands look somewhat like an inverted chart of President Bush's approval ratings minus the 9/11 bump. Low at the bottom for a while, then gradually getting higher, and going back down a little. Then I highlight the instrumental tracks and turn them down slightly in the mix to take the vocals out. Usually vocal tracks require a little bit of doctoring when it comes to levels - singers tend to sing some parts louder than others - but Lance's levels were extremely consistent. As a singer he didn't like taking a lot of chances, but he was always able to nail tracks on a first or second take.
Track 1 is done! Track markers set, export the .wav file.
Track 2 throws me a bone, as some of the guide track bleeds through at the beginning of the vocal track. Now I know exactly where it begins. Lance kind of pops a "P" late in this song. You know how Axl Rose used to have those dumb foam guards over his microphones? I think the point of those is to block out the "P" pop. It makes a noise that's way louder than the rest of the track so I have to add a little compression. This is tricky because the key here is to preserve continuity. I don't want to have one vocal track sound all squashed. Fortunately I'm able to just highlight the offending consonant and reduce the level. Track two takes several more tries to get the timing right, but after compressing the track by .5% everything fits. Export.
Track 3 requires some slight compression on vocals. Fortunately this track is less than a minute long. There's some really strange noise that goes on this... like a cheap toy organ playing some high notes or feedback. I have no idea, but I'm leaving it in. Shit. There are still 7 more songs to do, I am sick, exhausted, and have to go to bed pretty much now to get enough sleep.
Track 4. This one has a weird beginning and there's no guide track, so I'm not sure where the vocals start. Because the length is similar to the other tracks I'm compressing the track by .5%, but I'm not sure if they're starting and stopping at the right place. Maybe I shouldn't be doing any of this. That weird high pitched noise comes back, but it seems to serve some sort of purpose.
Track 5 is a nice J-Church ballad that has Lance doing some kind of falsetto thing during the chorus! I know he'd want those relatively low in the mix just to add a little high end so I'm respecting his wishes. The vocals need a little compression but that's it. Again, .5% is the magic number.
Track 6 is a short punk song that seems to be about a baseball card? For some reason I actually have to expand the vocal track to fit the instrumental by about .03%. How weird. Maybe he had to do a bunch of takes and it stretched the tape slightly? Maybe the reels move differently the further you get into the tape? Who knows.
Track 7 is a weird, noodly instrumental. Lance always used to say he couldn't really do a lot of pull-offy kind of stuff, but I think he does a pretty okay job on this song.
Track 8 has kind of a Misfits feel, with a descending chromatic figure over the verse and a major-key chorus. There are no vocals for this song, but it sounds like there would have been. Suddenly I feel a tinge of sadness. There will never be vocals over this song. It will never, ever be finished.
Track 9 is a typical up-tempo J-Church song. Again without vocals.
Track 10 is another ballad. The dynamics rise and fall, and I keep waiting for Lance's voice and it never comes. It ends abruptly.
Track 11  is way longer than any of the other tracks.  I can't help but think that it might be a prototype for "Society is a Carnivorous Flower"? 
Open each file in WaveLab. Trim the beginnings and endings. Normalize to 100%. Cut, print.

Digging deeper through Lance's tapes, I've located 2 more tapes of interest. One is labeled "J-Church 4-1996" and it's apparently some guitar/vocal 4-track demos. The second one is of more interest to me: 4-track demos for the last J-Church album The Horror of Life.
The drum machine on this is very familiar... it's my Boss DR-550! I wish I could remember when I let Lance borrow it. Anyway, it's already mixed which makes my job a lot easier. I'm able to compare the titles on the demo with the titles on The Horror Of Life and it would appear that there are several unreleased tracks. With titles!
Romantic Weekend is almost kind of new-wave sounding. Lance is using some uncharacteristic minor chords and there's a catchy vocal melody on top. I wish I could have been in J-Church for longer than I was. I wish these songs could have seen the light of day. The guy in (censored) is going to be putting out albums for the next 30 years and Lance is gone. I digress. Lance is also playing a bunch of cool little choppy/melodic solos. Octave melodies. Cryptic lyrics, considering: "High blood pressure's got a hold on me..."
When the War Began... seems to be about the futility of protesting the war, but I really shouldn't speculate. Lance usually seemed to only use 3 or 4 different drumbeats for each song. This stuff is a lot like what was on Palestine, which as I've said is my favorite J-Church album. I've decided that I am going to try to get these tracks released somehow. I don't think anyone will fault me for it, I mean it's not like I'm going to rap over them or try to make a profit.
Dying Eyes Without the Glow is really, really eerie. He talks about lying in a hospital bed, sleeping all day, blips on the screen... "There's a smell I cannot shake."
"The Ocean" and "Unrequited" are both on The Horror of Life, so I am not touching them.
Where's Our Godard? - another fast punk song, Lance is using some interesting chords during the chorus.
"Vampire Girl Wants Me Alive" has been released so I'm not touching it. Cool title though.
Exiled Expatriates I remember vividly. Lance showed me these parts on tour once in New York backstage at the Knitting Factory. I wanted us to do this song and bugged him occasionally about it but by that time it was fairly late in the game. This one would have been a lot of fun.  (EDIT: Ben White just told me that this song indeed was released on The Horror of Life as "New Ho Chi Mihn City."
Rewind, stop, eject.
In goes "J-Church 4-1996". It's all guitar direct into 4-track and vocals, but it's well-recorded. Initially I had kind of dismissed this stuff, but on second listen it might be of interest to at least someone.
The first song is a demo version of Young Mother. Normally I wouldn't include demo versions of already released material, but I'm fairly sure this version is different than what got put out.
Tracks 18 and 19 might have been released previously, I don't know.
So this is it. There are a few board tapes from Gilman Street that I was going to burn to disc unless someone else has already done so. I just hope that someone out there is into these tracks.  (thanks Mike!)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Austin's Hottest Band (ca. 2005)

Maybe I should have made this clear in the Intro, but the plan for this blog is to write 52 entries, posting a new one every Monday night.  Although I'd like to have it be even between Austin bands and Richmond bands, I was more active and went to way more shows when I lived in Richmond (I was also younger and wasn't married/with children).  Bands are chosen pretty much at random, so if you don't like one week's installment, you might like next week's.
Austin's The Hot as Shits: truly a band that lived up to their name.  For a little while in the mid 00's, they were the band to see.  Aside from the fact that they were all girls, they didn't really seem to have a whole lot in common.  The drummer was a black girl named Khattie that I think fronted another band, I forget.  The guitarist, Lisa... well, let's just say that she lifted a 4x12 Marshall cabinet from the floor to a 4-foot high stage by herself, which is something you don't see a lot of people doing.  Hilah, their singer, looked like she could have just gotten back from a sorority rush.  Despite their dissimilar appearances, they had a very singular and (to me) appealing sound.
The last time I saw the Hot as Shits was in that club across the street from Beerland... what was it called?  Room 710?  Anyway, I had to pay to get in because I didn't know any of the bands playing.  The Hot as Shits were great as always, and had CD's for sale.  Of course, I had to have one.  Unfortunately, they were $10.  That's a lot for a CD from an unknown band, especially considering that it was a burned CDR and a Kinko's color copy cover.  Oh well.  They ripped me off, but I still love them.

01 Mother ____er
02 P___y
03 Buy Me Things "I don't care if you're not attractive, as long as you buy me things that are expensive."
04 Rodeo Clown (Intro)
05 Rodeo Clown
06 Check My Grill
07 Hot B____es
08 Que Paso?
I asked Hilah to be in my band Funeralizer at around this time.  She said no.