Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Elec's Musical History

Like I wrote in an earlier entry, I come from a musical family. On my mom's side, my grandparents both play many instruments between them: piano, guitar, harp, steel guitar, harmonica, and the both of them often perform duets on the marimba and it's one of the cutest things on earth. Momma-bear is a graduate from the Conservatory of Music at University of the Pacific, in piano, and she has also been choral teacher, vocal coach, piano teacher, and many other things at all levels of education. She started me off on piano at an earlier age. She often reminds me that I once, in a six-year-old fit of frustration, told her that I'd never become a musician, to spite her. She laughs now.

Poppa-bear, on the other hand, was in a band with my uncle in the late '70s and also ran a music/instrument shop with him. Two young dudes running a business: I have no acquaintances who can make the same claim. He also built the bass in the above picture by himself from scratch and he still plays it to this day and it sounds beautiful. (Keep in mind that Brian May also built his Red Special from scratch!)
He started teaching me both guitar and bass when I was around twelve years old, and for years and years I would often help accompany my parents on guitar, bass, or drums when my mom's vocal performance group had a holiday gig or session or other commitment.

In Junior High I was in the school band, and one of my first tastes of non-school-related music was when some friends during the lunch hour and started discussing our love for progressive rock without realize that we were talking about a genre. I was heavily into Yes and we were all into a little bit of ELP, King Crimson, Rush, and Jethro Tull; the others threw in some other things like Led Zeppelin and we would just start talking about the riffs and then setting up instruments and hacking some of them out. We ended up working together a really heavy version of the "Rumble" from West Side Story.

Prog took to the sidelines as I, a young male in school band growing up in California in the late 1990's, discovered a way that even band geeks could suddenly seem cool: ska. I could make a joke about the embarrassment of this confession but honestly it was a really positive thing for me overall, and it was in this vein that I formed my first band, Sevensealed.

Sevensealed started off as a ska band but we quickly weaned ourselves of horns and any other signs of ska and morphed into a punk band. We weren't amazing, but we were better than a lot of local bands and certainly the only ones under 18, so we got called on to play a lot of the local scene. We all had talent, individually, but somehow it failed to add up to something solid. I place the blame solidly upon my own shoulders.

I was the lead singer and rhythm guitarist. Upon forming Sevensealed my guitar skill seemed to stagnate; or, rather, it ossified as the music we wrote didn't really help us grow as musicians. I tried to write intelligent lyrics and succeeded only when I wasn't expressly proud of the results. I was a terrible frontman but I was still the most charismatic of the group. I had a bad habit of wanting to explain the lyrical content of the songs before we played them which killed any and all momentum of a set. We did get better as we went along and I think if a few things had gone differently we could have had one more good year in us and been really good.

The others were clearly more talented; Scott Lord, the bassist, is now in LA having studied at the Musician's Institute, and now loans out his considerable talents, touring with bands or artists who require someone amazing like him. Gary, his brother, I don't think plays anymore but was doing extremely well in real estate in the Bay Area. And I'm sure Terry the drummer is off doing something cool. He ensured I got something good out of the whole thing, though: I started learning drums at this point.

In 2001, with Gary out of high school and Terry at a different high school, we decided to break up the band, which bummed out quite a few people and secretly made me feel kinda cool, but Scott and I still played together in a small jazz combo. We won lots of awards, and I even took home some awards for my piano playing. This was hard for me to take because it was clear to me and no one else that I was in fact a weak link in the combo. I may be an above average pianist, but jazz, no matter how much I adored it and the guys I played with, it was much too big a Goliath for me.

That same year, I formed another band with a popular vocalist at school; the band was called "Fragile" and we wrote simple, good rock tunes. What I remember best about that band was that the singer really helped me learn when to keep things simple, catchy, and accessible and when I could make things smarter, more inscrutable, more complex. We'd also cover, like, Boston, or Fuel (the band, not the Metallica song) for some reason. We played a few gigs and then sort of faded away.

The next year was one of huge experimentation as I threw together a little gothy outfit called Flight of the Mechanics, which I still think is an awesome name, and now years later that I know about Flight of the Conchords, I love them but I get a little sad! Anyway, FotM was kinda late Smashing Pumpkins-y and kinda Radiohead-ish, only with better, and therefore probably boring, vocals. The bassist wasn't so hot and the drummer had tempo issues so we played a few times and then I laid the project to rest.

The other big experimentation was with hip-hop, as two other guys and I got together to program some beats and write some rap. This was all done without irony and with the purest of intentions; we simply wanted to make something positive and engaging without being preachy and something dance-able without the lyrical content in mainstream rap that made it nearly impossible for us to digest. We called ourselves Corporate America because, despite our pure intentions, we were flippin' idiots.

Now, if we had known about indie rap we could have easily found something we could have enjoyed, and either incorporated what they had done right or mercifully dropped the project altogether, but our ignorance may well have acted as a creativity enhancer, as we simply didn't realize that there already existed the kind of thing we wanted to do. We had no pretensions that we were doing something "new" or anything; we just wanted to make something that we wanted to listen to. I started playing with words and rhythms, trying to avoid what I saw as stereotypical delivery, and I started listening to a bit of older hip-hop, in particular Digable Planets and such. Nowadays, of course, I sit back and let people who know what the heck they're doing provide all my rap entertainment, but at the time it was just three guys having fun with sounds and words. We performed a few times to good reception but I think I must have seen the light or I had a falling out with the other guys very slowly and that fizzled out too.

And then after high school, I completely turned my attention to my studies, only briefly flirting with the idea of a band once freshman year. I was in a play, our student director who I was sorta/kinda seeing? said she knew a guy looking for a bassist. I met with him, they seemed a bit heavy for my tastes at the time, but I thought I'd give it a shot--I was all set to join and then I realized that he was the boyfriend of the student director. I did not join the band and didn't try again until my senior year.

That was when I took a music history class and the professor wanted to do an experiment by throwing together a band of students and then having them perform songs written by other students, usually non-musicians, in various styles. I decided to audition, and even though I play all the standard rock band instruments, I thought I'd audition on bass, as that is my strength.

The Professor had brought in a friend of his to help advise and coach the final band: Rob Sabino, a keyboardist from the Bronx, childhood friend and former bandmate of Ace Frehley (Frehley's Comet in 1985), also formerly of Chic, and played on David Bowie's "Let's Dance" album and Madonna's "Like a Virgin" album. Among a bajillion others, as you can see.

I had everyone beat easily until this one guy showed up and blew me away. (He played in a group called The Parlour Dames, which he would later ask me to join, but as I was moving to Japan in 6 months it might have been too much trouble. I grudgingly declined.) I knew then and there that I wouldn't be in the project. That bassist that would beat me was, unfortunately for my disappointment, a really great guy and we hit it off. I sat at the piano and he and I noodled around with various songs. Sabino noticed me, came over, started jamming on the keyboards with me, and he asked me if I'd like to be the keyboardist. Such an endorsement restored my confidence in my piano playing.

The band, called "Rockward" (very apt), was huge, and there were so many personalities in it... also, with two weeks before performance, the professor told me I had to arrange horn parts for all six of our pieces. I said no, prof. said yes. I called Rob, who called the professor, and we reached an agreement that I'd write and arrange horn parts for three of the songs. I sort of resented that, but so it goes.

The set was pretty cool; four original songs solicited from students, and two covers, all pretty unrecognizable by the end. There was "Foster Mom Blues" (imagine Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line" if it were taken at a shuffle and add some sax solos), "Empty Bottle Blooze" (imagine wanting to make out with and possibly get to 3rd base with a song, and then a harmonica comes in), "Sharp" (dual lead guitar/keyboard lines make it kinda metal but then it turns into a solid rocker with this part in the middle with a zillion chord changes that sounds inexplicably like Elton John), and some lame song with a million unfunny references to our university that we ended up somehow making not-lame by the end. The two covers were Heart's "Barracuda" which we did fairly straight, and Stone Temple Pilot's "Plush", which thanks to us now had ragtime piano and muted horns. And it worked well, if I do say so myself.

And now I'm in Japan. I was looking for a band for awhile, mostly because I realized that the world of a beginning model who still wants a roof over his head and food in his stomach still needs a part-time job and there's too much waiting involved. Most bands didn't ever get back to me, and those that did either expressed reservations about my Japanese (obviously not a problem and I have a piece of paper to prove it!) or the simple fact that I'm a foreigner. Black:List sent me a very, very polite email on my phone saying that they were going to go about the new member search in their own fashion. At least they got back to me, though.

I found a melodic hard rock band called WILLPOWER who welcomed the fact that I wasn't Japanese; they were into your standard metal staples and then some prog and Deep Purple and stuff. We got along great, they were extremely talented, and jamming with them felt great, but just before I was set to join a few weeks later, they decided to kaisan instead.

That's been my musical journey up until now; for several reasons I was suddenly struck by a lot of the memories and wanted to write about it. I'm leaving out quite a few little projects and filling in I did as favors, but I think I've gotten almost everything important. I wish I had more to show for it!


e said...

"older hip-hop, in particular Digable Planets"

Ouuuch. {turns to dust}

Anonymous said...

I'm diggin the hair.

stephen said...

completely innocuous comment: it's always fun to see you called 'jim' (as in the photo names).

good luck with everything, and when your band begins its world tour (in may of 2011), i'll see you in nyc.

nyagoping said...

hahah you looked cute in high school

Gary said...

James... Gary (as in Lord) here. Good to see you're still in Japan and seem to be doing well.

I was googling around the net at 12:21am and somehow sevensealed came to mind, which is how I stumbled across your blog. Crazy.

Hope the music works out well for you. It makes me happy to see you still actively pursuing your passion. My priorities have shifted quite a bit since way back when... I'm married with twin boys now :P

I still play from time to time (mostly recording electronic music via reason/midi controller) at home but not at all like I used to. My primary focus is family and work now.

Write me back some time. It would be cool to catch up.


Amber said...

Hello, I'm new to your blog and I'm slowly trying to read all your entries. I had to comment on this one even though it is old because I find your musical background so very interesting. I always believed that you stagnate as an artist in any medium if you don't dabble in a little bit of everything and use what you learn to flesh out your style. Your willingness to experiment with so many genres is admirable.

I'm enjoying this blog so far, I can't wait to catch up!

basschik7 said...


First off I would like to congratulate you on all of your success and wish you the best of luck on all of your future plans^^ I have to say that you really inspire me to go out and follow my own similar dreams of playing in bands in Japan (I'm a musician myself, with 5 years of bass playing under my belt).

Now on to my question: how was it that you were able to find all those different bands and join so easily (or so it seemed)? Is there a sort of "Musicians Wanted" thing that goes on that is similar to what you would find back in the states? And how difficult was it to get in?

I'm sorry that's more than one question, hehe ^^; But yep, that's it!

Thanks, and good luck again!