This town I call home is quite a place. West New York, New Jersey. Look it up on a map if you think I’m lying about the name. Essentially, it is directly West of Manhattan, sitting atop the Palisades Cliffs, overlooking the Hudson River.
This past week, it’s been raining. And I can’t sit still. So I’ve been running more than usual. Through West New York, down the cliff to Weehawken, NJ (which is directly on the Hudson River), along the water and back up a somewhat mellow but cumbersome hill into West New York once again.
It’s here that I notice the divisions in income. Weehawken is upper upper class. On the water, it’s strictly luxury condos, interrupted by serene sculptures, a P.F. Changs, wine shops, a gourmet grocery store, Starbucks Coffee, even a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream store. And oh yeah, lots of banks. Every branch you can imagine. Plus security guards every 50 to 100 feet. It’s really great for running at night.
Back up the hill, it’s not as, how you say, upper class. It’s still nice, it’s just that I wouldn’t know where in the world to get Ben and Jerry’s ice cream on a cone and a $50 bottle of wine in one trip unless I went back down the hill to Weehawken. It’s made up of taxi stands, bodegas, late night liquor stores and generation old pizza shops. Add lots of immigrants to that mixture, a combination of 3-4 different languages being spoken on any street at any given time, you get the picture. It’s a great mix of people, even if the mean income is far below that of its Weehawkian residents to the East.
The dividing line between the two, a cliff. Normally, gentrification isn’t as dramatically defined. More often, I’ve encountered gentrifying borders as streets. To one side were students, to the other was lower income families. At least that’s how it’s been defined in the myriad of places I’ve lived over the years. But never has the gentrifying line been as staunch a division as a cliff. And normally, I’d assume the positions to be in reverse. The rich go to the top of the cliff, while the poor stay at the bottom. Not so in West New York though.
We have the better view of Manhattan and an easy walk down the stairs, if needed, to spend too much money to eat at P.F. Chang’s. Getting back up the cliff isn’t as easy, but if you get what you pay for, then West New York’s general life experience is a far better investment than a picturesque but typical take on upper class society down below us and to the East…
I.E., I like it up here better.
I’m a music nerd. And I watch BMX videos too. Sometimes though, even if I love a certain section from a certain video, the lyrics just don’t meet up with the riding. The following is not a dig at anyone. I love all of the sections I’m highlighting, I just don’t think the lyrics of the song really meet up with the amazing riding seen in the section. So they’re quaint juxtapositions if you will. Again, the video parts are awesome. The lyrics just don’t match up with the epic-ness of the riding. And that’s funny. I think the following riders would whole-heartedly agree too…
VAN HOMAN ‘FITLIFE’
Van rode to the Patti Smith Group’s ‘Because The Night.’ While the riding fits with the music, it’s hard to connect the following ‘Because The Night’ lyrics with the section…
“Take me now baby here as I am
Pull me close, try and understand
Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe
Love is a banquet on which we feed”
“Come on now try and understand
The way I feel when Im in your hands
Take my hand come undercover
They cant hurt you now,
Cant hurt you now, cant hurt you now
Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to lust
Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to us.”
Hard to imagine Van Homan going nuts when you read the line “Because the night belongs to lust.” Is anyone following me here?
ROOFTOP ‘LIVING IN EXILE’
Same thing goes for Rooftop’s section from the Ride video ‘Living In Exile.’ The section is nuts, but the lyrics to the song “I Need a Hero’ by Bonnie Tyler, well, they’re kinda misleading.
“Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and turn and dream
of what I need”
Confusing, don’t you think?
DIRTY DAN FROM KINK’S ‘CHEAP THRILLS’
Dan Bogard rides to The Smiths. Always a risky venture, so respect is due, considering how man-tastic the lyrics to ‘This Charming Man’ are…
“A punctured bicycle
On a hillside desolate
Can nature make a man of me yet ?
And in this charming car
This charming man
Why pamper life’s complexity
When the leather runs smooth
On the passenger seat ?
I would go out tonight
But I haven’t got a stitch to wear
This man said “It’s gruesome that someone so handsome should care”
A jumped up pantry boy
Who never knew his place
He said “return the ring”
He knows so much about these things”
I will personally ask Dirty Dan why, in fact, he pampers life’s complexity when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat, next time I see him. And what the hell is a pantry boy anyway?
I could go on and on here, but I really want to go ride tonight instead. But, if you’re spending a rainy day with your friends watching videos, this is a good way to pass the time…
“In the morning, the sun fills my room. I think I’ll call in sick today and keep my afternoon.” -J Church
Lance Hahn, the prolific and luminary front man for the Austin-based punk band J Church, passed away on October 21, 2007. Following a long and enduring struggle with kidney disease, Hahn finally succumbed to complications on October 12, falling into a coma before passing away this past Sunday. He was 40 years old. His legacy, unforgettable.
Best known for his extensive work with J Church, Hahn (the only original member and prolific out the ass songwriter) had produced scores of EPs, singles and albums in the 15-year history of the band. Started in 1992 after the dissolution of Hahn’s first band Cringer, and a move from Hawaii to San Francisco, J Church embodied a smarter take on the diluted and sappy pop punk scene of San Francisco. Named for a San Francisco bus line, J Church would only retain Hahn as an original member through its entire existence, though he often employed the help of many friends to deliver the message, including former Jawbreaker drummer Adam Pfahler.
Hahn’s song writing skills were unmatched. He had a knack for writing two-minute rock songs that were punchy, catchy and biting, combining socially conscious diatribes with downtrodden anecdotes about the remote sectors of society. Prostitutes, addicts, illegal immigrants, dead end jobs and pinup girls were his lyrical canvas. Only he wasn’t rising above their lifestyle and passing judgement. He was offering glimpses into these unknown worlds though song, helping each listener to understand the true definition of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Through J Church’s lyrics, Hahn had become the ambassador to the peripherals of society, passed off amongst bittersweet pop songs. And at a time when pop punk in SF could have very easily amounted to a successful career, J Church shirked the mainstream, embracing their DIY roots, manufacturing their own singles (on Hahn’s own Honey Bear Records) and playing basements across the U.S.
In 2000, Hahn relocated to Austin, TX, where he managed Vulcan Video Store. In the time since, he had produced three albums and a split EP through J Church, endured the loss of everything he owned through a house fire, continually contributed to Maximum Rock n Roll and was additionally in the process of completing a book about the history of anarchist punk bands. It was also during this time that Hahn began battling kidney disease. And most recently, the DIY community had come together to produce a benefit comp for Hahn, whom did not have health insurance at the time of his death. The comp, entitled “Let’s Do It For Lance!” featured a variety of bands covering J Church and Cringer songs.
And here’s where it gets personal. I never knew Lance Hahn. I stood near him when he played John Hiltz’s basement in Westfield, NJ sometime in 1994, and I saw him walking down the street in Austin once, but that was as close as I had ever come to the guy. Still, he touched me. Very deeply. Through his music. His life, and his experiences, were a window to a world I never knew.
And he remained a motivating factor to me throughout my life following my introduction to J Church. Here was a guy that essentially utilized every minute of his life on earth to follow his true calling, unrelenting and defiantly passionate til the very end.
Rest in peace Lance Hahn, and thanks for the music. Your spirit lives on.
NEW BRUNSWICK, NEW JERSEY, GOODBYE: Bands, Dirty Basements and the Search for Self
A book by Ronen Kaufmann
A few months ago, someone told me about a book being written by some dude from New Brunswick, NJ about the underground music scene. I was interested; my brother was pissed. His band, Endeavor, would inevitably be included in the account, and I’m assuming it’s a chapter of his life that he’d like to ultimately put to bed (even though people come out of the woodwork to tell me how much of an impact his music had on them, say, for instance, Brian Cook of Botch and later of These Arms Are Snakes.)
We lived together throughout most of our college experience, sharing houses with people in similar situations. His band mates, mutual friends that started record labels out of the house, some dude that worked in a gas station with a dog named Misty. It was an experience, I’ll tell you that. From the wise ass antics, to the array of influential bands that slept on our couch and let their dogs run around our backyard, things were good, and things got done. My brother and our roommate Rich Cunningham started a record label which released the first recordings from Hot Water Music and Ink and Dagger, our other roommate Carl went on to start Ferret Music and front the band Nora, while our other roommate Mike, who was in Endeavor with my brother, later went on to front Burnt By The Sun and ultimately joined Nora. The gas station guy, he disappeared. I bet I can find him on MySpace if I look.
So yeah, there was a lot of energy running up and down Hamilton St. in New Brunswick in that day and age. None of which is accounted for in the book I was interested in reading. To the author’s credit, it is a memoir. And memoirs aren’t scene documents. But amid the setting for the memoir, big things were happening and had happened. So I was half-heartedly expecting to maybe recapture some of that energy.
I was wrong. Again, to the author’s credit, the book is a memoir. But I was expecting more. Maybe I wanted to believe the book was the New Brunswick equivalent of D.C.’s ‘Dance of Days.’ I don’t know. I guess I just wanted New Brunswick to finally get some vindication for everything awesome that was reared there. This book didn’t do the job. And again, it’s a memoir, so I should just let it go. But man, there were some straight up aspects that unnerved me. Beginning with…
THE NEW BRUNSWICK MUSIC SCENE
This is clearly not a book documenting the New Brunswick underground music scene. Despite the fact that Lifetime have a song entitled ‘Theme Song for a New Brunswick Basement Show,’ and the title (New Brunswick, New Jersey, Goodbye) and subtitle (Bands, Dirty Basements and the Search for Self) of the book might lead someone to assume that this book is about the evolving NB music scene of the ’90s, and more specifically Lifetime, it’s not. It does document some of the later, less influential NB bands, and does cavort briefly around Lifetime, but it’s no all-telling anthropological diagram of New Brunswick’s underground music scene. So don’t go into the experience assuming that, even if that’s what your friends are telling you. If you want to know more about Lifetime, The Bouncing Souls, Deadguy or any other band from the New Brunswick, NJ area, get started on the interviews NOW and write the book already. I would but I was too busy wondering who the dirty kids on our couch were when that shit mattered to pay attention. (They turned out to be Ink and Dagger by the way…)
Furthermore, the back cover blurb states that the book is “an insider’s look at a truly underground artistic movement/community that eventually became well-known and influential.” But, it was well-known and influential before the author came to New Brunswick. Sorry to be the old dick here, but the author’s arrival into New Brunswick was a few years too late to capture the true artistic movement that would eventually give voice to his generation. There were bands in New Brunswick before 1998. And they were powerful, if only because they were doing something so fresh and new that no one knew how to gauge them. I would reference Sticks and Stones, Greyhouse, Policy of Three, Merel, The Trans Megetti or Iconoclast as some of the earlier up and running points for the very safe and established “punk” network that the author arrives into. Even if the bands described within the book didn’t know it, their “revolution” had been started years before by people that had since moved on. And being as how I really don’t know much about what happened before 1992 in New Brunswick, then perhaps that revolution goes further back. The point is this; it was there already. It wasn’t something that began as soon as the author came to town. If anything, I think he arrived just in time for the “revolution” eulogy.
THE PUNK PARADIGM
The author really, really loves calling himself “punk.” I don’t know if it’s punk to refer to yourself as “punk” so much. Of course, I don’t really know what “punk” formally means to begin with, so I’m at a loss, but I don’t know if labeling one’s own experiences and ideals as “punk” “punk” “punk” really helps. To his credit though, the author does fall in line behind a variety of “punk” expectations. I guess that’s punk, right?
1) He holds a job at Kinkos. (If you’ve ever read anything by Aaron Cometbus, who is also continually struggling to define the meaning of punk, then you know that he’s held jobs at numerous copy stores…)
2) He starts a band even though he can’t play an instrument, which isn’t really that out of line. It’s his bands politics, which he’s so ready to espouse upon. (They only play all-ages shows and don’t want people to pay more than $5 to see them. Those aren’t ideals, that’s Fugazi…)
3) He lives in group homes which border on squalor. (One was my former apartment, and yeah, we had roaches, but we dealt with it. And no, I can’t remember a hint of violence in the area, despite the author’s claims of riots in the area. It might sound pretty punk in print, but in actuality, it was a cheap apartment with no strings attached in a fairly safe environment.)
4) He doesn’t care about the music, only the message. (Heard this one way too many times before…)
Ultimately, the author does live a fairly DIY existence throughout his tenure in the New Brunswick scene. And even though he continually states that this book is about his experience, it’s one that’s been tried, tested and perfected for over twenty years before him. The paradigm had been established many years before his entry into New Brunswick. Hell, it was established before my entry there too. We all fell in line to a degree, attending basement shows, living on the cheap, stuffing 7″ records into plastic sleeves, etc, etc. Only I think we had more fun than the author. And we never called ourselves “punk.” My point is this; everything the author experienced was to be expected if you owned anything on Dischord Records and attended college at Rutgers in the ’90s. If he had tried out for the football team and documented the experience, I think I would have been more enthralled. I think that woulda been “punk” too…
According to the author, there were skinheads throughout New Brunswick in the late ’90s. Apparently, they lived two houses down from myself, my brother and our roommates. To my knowledge though, I never saw any. The one dude at that house who might have been construed as a “skinhead” was fat with long hair. I think we called him “Junior” and I know we never took him very seriously because he wore a kilt.
ROCK THE MOTHERFUCKING HOUSE
No one should ever state that they are in a place “to rock the mother fucking house” unless they are Flava Flav or some other manufactured record industry scum. The author does though, and even if he’s the most ironic dude on the planet, you gotta remember that irony or sarcasm doesn’t always come off when you’re reading a stranger’s memoirs. I’m hoping he’s the most sarcastic sonofabitch on the planet.
I bought the book, and I read through the thing in a day. That’s not a bad thing. Nor are any of my gripes. I really, sincerely do appreciate the author’s efforts. I just think he got there too late, came off a little naive and missed out on a lot of fun. I applaud his effort. I just wish it was more comprehensive, less about his own experience and not as generous with the word “punk.” That, and not enough about Endeavor. I can’t let nepotism escape here…
I finally started a flickr page after a somewhat successful point and shoot session next to the Hudson River last night.
It’s here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/15602760@N02/sets/72157602587966060/
One of my all-time favorite records is The Weakerthans third album, ‘Reconstruction Site.’ From a literary standpoint, ‘Reconstruction Site’ demonstrated a new type of music to me. For lack of a better description, I’ve referred to the album (and The Weakerthans’ music) as “Book you can’t put down rock.” The Weakerthans principal song writer, a Winnipeggian by the name of John K. Samson, has written some of the best novellas I’ve ever listened to, simple as that.
‘Reconstruction Site’ was sequenced to reflect the cyclical seasons of grief, regret and loss. Framed between three tracks that symbolize the beginning, the middle and the end, ‘Reconstruction Site’ captured Samson giving voice to terminal hospital patients, a cat (written from a cat’s POV unto their depressed owner) and imaginary dinner dates between the French philosopher Michel Foucault and Ernest Shackelton, an Irish explorer. The music, a bluegrassy mix of folk rock and punk, carried Samson’s sometimes difficultly depressing voice through 40 minutes of literary references and hopeless depression.
‘Reconstruction Site’ caught me at a good time. Well, it was a bad time for me, so having a record to carry me through the bad time was a good thing. You get me, right? I needed ‘Reconstruction Site’ when it arrived at my door, and for six long months, I praised its existence. And for six long months, every single time life threw something bewildering my way, I ran right for ‘Reconstruction Site.’ At the end of my infatuation with ‘Reconstruction Site,’ on a plane ride from Vancouver to Newark, I can remember finally grasping my ultimate relation to the lyrical content. And when the plane landed and the catharsis ended, I got on with life and never looked back.
Four years later, I’m not the same person. Nor are The Weakerthans. I kinda forgot that I liked The Weakerthans since ‘Reconstruction Site.’ Not for the lack of trying, they were just fairly inactive as far as new material was concerned. That’s done now, I still love The Weakerthans, and I still love Samson’s story telling ability. He’s still addressing his unfortunately trademark emotions; that of desperation, yearning and loneliness, but he’s learned to cope. No, I take that back. If he had learned to cope, I don’t think the music would be made. I think he’s simply decided to continue his successive battles with the dark sides of depression, utilizing tender and candid anecdotes concerning cats, dead NHL goalies and people with unexplainable medical ailments as a means for the fight.
There’s music there too, not just literary interpretations. The Weakerthans have grown. Weirdly, broadly and experimentally. This isn’t the pop-punk Weakerthans anymore. This is a depressively hopeful take on folk punk, punctuated by atmospheric pop and dark jaunts along the borderline of a Samson-ized a capella.
My one abysmally small gripe with ‘Reunion Tour’ is that the second half of the album all sounds like last songs. You remember those? When the last song on an album was the last song for a reason? Well, the second half of ‘Reunion Tour’ kinda sounds like the last song. It’s heavy is all I can say. The kind of song that when you see it live, the band falls off one by one, til all that’s left is the drummer on stage, trying to clean up the mess of emotions they started just an hour ago.
Slight gripe yeah, but one that I’ll battle til my next cathartic Weakerthans episode becomes past tense. I never expected The Weakerthans to take the easy way out anyway.
The Weakerthans MySpace Page: www.myspace.com/theweakerthans
Sidenote: If you’re a cat lover, I dare you to listen to ‘Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure’ without shedding a tear. It’s gut wrenching….
Musically, I can be a treacherous snob. Not that I outwardly judge friends and co-horts on their musical tastes. I have friends that do that to me, so I not only know better, I always try to remember that listening to music, any music at all from Fergie to Bobby McFerrin, is better than not listening to music at all. I have other avenues to judge my friends on anyway. Sock choice, poor text message grammar, bad haircuts, etc.
But back to me, I’m a bit of a snob, as in, once something gets popular, I don’t give it a chance. Even if I liked the music in question before it was popular, I drop any chance of liking the future output of the music in question. It’s bad, I know it is, but it didn’t stop me from running far away from The Hold Steady. Even though I liked the band, they got really popular by album number three. And rather than put my personal differences aside and say, “I’m glad for their success,” I ran to the blogosphere, trashed their ironic mustaches, called them out on their Springsteen-ities and never looked back. I heard everyone liked album number three. Everyone except me, the one person in the world that never gave it a chance.
But likes Jules in Pulp Fiction, I’m trying. I’m trying real hard. As for The Hold Steady, I feel it’s too late for me to look back and make amends. Besides, if I need a band to talk about their bar-room-ish-ness, I’ll just go to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ on a random Tuesday night. Or I’ll listen to the Eddie and The Cruisers soundtrack. I don’t need Williamsburg for that.
But again, I’m trying. And six months after the release of their latest album, I finally decided it might be due time to give the much over-hyped Brooklyn via Cincinnati band The National a second chance. The album in question, Boxer, is everywhere. I can’t go three steps in NYC without someone mentioning its latent greatness. I wanna tear everyone apart and ask where they were when their first album came out, but I don’t wanna be that guy. At least not anymore.
I truly loved The National’s 2005 album, Alligator. I can vividly remember tearing down Great Western Rd in Glasgow on my bike, blasting the album into my ears as a I raced double decker buses in and out of the city center. It was a perfect soundtrack for the slightly younger, much angrier version of myself that was cultivated in Scotland and New Jersey in 2005. The National pulled off something I don’t get to see too often. They were toughly but vulnerably bitter. They put up fronts, then tore them down, unveiling a sense of ill-fated doom at the end of the road. They sensed something was wrong, tried to avoid confronting it, then double-backed and said, “Look, shit’s fucked up and we’re scared. Plus, we were afraid to admit to that in the first place and that sucks in itself.” I knew the feeling well.
That same emotion isn’t evoked as easily on the latest album, dubbed Boxer, by The National. Now they’re just vulnerable. Less confrontational, more introverted. Still explosive. Kinda like when an alcoholic gets stoned. The turmoil turns in on one’s self. It’s quieting for the time being, but you know that once that shit becomes unburied, it’s gonna be that much worse. I actually think the song writer might be addressing some sorta addiction or addict in one form or another throughout most of the record. And man, he’s got me feeling for him the past few weeks.
Had I not be an ass and decided that The National were too hyped up for me to listen to Boxer when it was released, the song writer would’ve carried my sympathies with him for the past six months. But alas, I am an ass. And the praise/sympathy is a little late for the rest of the world.
Like I said though, I’m trying. And even though the toughness of The National’s ‘Alligator’ isn’t as readily apparent on ‘Boxer,’ I like the record a whole damn lot. Just like everyone around me.
This shows geographical locations of visitors. Shit’s wild, weird and really interesting…
(Intro and interview done in December of 2005. Photos from the second day of 2006. The subject hates this interview, but I still think it turned out OK…)
Chris Leo’s words and music have been a trusted friend of mine for oh, a little over ten years now. I could go on and on about the intricacies of his song writing and the accompanying lyrics that reference a life of enrichment, worldwide historical/cultural awareness and real life experience, but it would do little justice to the body of music and art that Chris Leo has created since first being introduced to music many years ago.
Throughout the years, Chris’ song writing has taken on various formations and names, from Native Nod to The Van Pelt to The Lapse. But following The Lapse’s final album release in 2000, things seemed to have quieted down for Chris. Of course, things are not always as they seem. Chris was busy writing his first novel and simultaneously working on a new band called the Vague Angels throughout most of that seeming downtime.
Finally, near the end of 2004, Chris’ book was released alongside the first ‘Vague Angels’ album. I read the book in a day and played the ‘Truth Loved’ album for most of the past year. The book/CD combination release was an amazing accomplishment for Chris, and the result of his works is an inspirational piece of New York fiction intertwined with what’s come to be considered Chris’ finest song writing to date. The story takes an unusual turn here, as I listened to ‘Truth Loved’ one more time on my last flight over to Glasgow this past November.
The following day, I coincidentally bumped into Chris in a health food store not far from the Dig office. Since we were both in Glasgow with time to kill (Chris plays in a Glasgow band called Pro-Forma; I was there to “work”), the decision came quite easy. I said, “Interview?,” Chris said, “When and where?” We met up in a tiny corner of Glasgow, and Chris was quite receptive to espouse upon any and all past, present and future projects happening under the Chris Leo as writer and Chris Leo as songwriter tag. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.
Can you describe what you set out to do with the release of the ‘White Pigeons’ book and CD?
I wanted to explore the spaces between spaces, and then the spaces between those spaces. It’s an endless dissection of off, so take two things that are on, and the two things that are on are before and after the book. So the book begins in this break in the character’s life, and in that break is another break, and it keeps on going down, down, down. The fictional band name The Breaks came from that, and the CD also falls right in between the romance of the book. So before the CD, the character’s only alluding to the love he might have in the future, and then after the CD, he’s only alluding to this love he had in the past. It’s kinda about love in the present tense but not really.
Are the experiences in ‘White Pigeons’ based on real life?
Some authors say that they don’t write based on true experience but I don’t believe those authors, nor do I really like them. Hemingway would always get down on Fitzgerald for writing about real life experience, but if you’re not writing about real life, what the fu*k are you writing about? Where’s it coming from? It’s coming from real life at some point. I pulled those stories from real life experience. I wasn’t really worried about when I was lying and when I wasn’t. I wanted to tell the story above all, I honestly can’t say what’s the truth and what’s not the truth. It’s blurred in my mind. I think that’s intentional. If I hold these things in, you can’t be here. You can’t be in Glasgow. I’m in my 7th month on the road, and I have one more month to go. If I’m thinking about home, and I’m thinking about memories, I’m going to have a miserable day in Glasgow today. The only way to make Glasgow today work, it’s fucking cold, it’s winter, I have no money, nobody does, and I don’t even have a show tonight, and I can’t go home because the place I’m staying at, my flat mate’s girlfriend is going away for two months, so here I am tossed out in the cold in Glasgow. If I start thinking about home, and what home means to me, and collecting these stories, then I’m going to be depressed. The only way to go to it is to wake up in the morning and say, “What the fuck do I do with today? Today is the only day that exists.”
Can you explain the ideas you’ve aimed to create within your second book?
‘Fifty Seven Octaves’ is the working title. So basically, it’s same sorta scene as ‘White Pigeons,’ which is, that, paradox is the same thing as exploring the breaks. You take these two things that are opposing forces and then focus on where the shift is, and I think that’s the part where you enjoy it, the shift. With this book, I did set out more methodically than ‘White Pigeons.’ I figured I would take, what I consider to be the greatest paradox, which is my love for New York City, and NYC in general, and everybody’s love for NYC. Not just New Yorkers, but everyone everywhere loves New York. So I was bartending. Talk about ruining a relationship, and where you make bank in NY, and I quit to work as a tour guide on top of those red double-decker buses. So for 9 months, I was getting up at the crack of dawn and yelling on the top of a tour bus to tourists from all over the world, and then I’d get home at like 6 at night, right when my girlfriend was starting happy hour at her bar. I have no voice left, no energy. I’m lucky if I can stay up til 1 or 2 in the morning, while she doesn’t get out til 3 or 4. But I had to do it to write this book, even though it was a total girlfriend killer.
So you’ve finished writing your second book and finished recording the second Vague Angels album, when are they being released?
I don’t think my new book is going to come out anytime soon. I think we’re going to put it out in September, maybe in the end of Spring, but the next album is coming out in early March. And I don’t want them to come out too close to each other because initially, after I wrote the first album and book, I wanted to do the same thing again. I just thought it was perfect, a book and a CD. If I’m always writing a book and I’m always writing a CD, it will become the same story, but when I was done with the first book and CD, it wasn’t the same story. I could not synch them up, which was the exact opposite of what I thought they would be at the beginning. So I naturally thought it was going to be same thing, and next thing I knew, it was two totally different projects. So I wanted to give them at least six months space so people don’t confuse one with the other. They’re related but they’re not at the same time. The CD veers from the story, but the story also veers from the story. There are new stories from the CD, but it’s the same kinda of narrative that runs through the whole project.
Is the Vague Angels a solo project or a band now?
I did this whole European tour, half was with a bass player and the other half was with a keyboard player. And we’re going to play as a trio when we get back. And I think that might be it. I can’t see myself playing with a drummer again. I love drums but it took me a long time to realize that I don’t need them with what I do. I remember the first time I heard Kraftwerk, I was depressed. I remember thinking, “This CD is mid-blowing and it has nothing to do with the art I make. Have I got it all wrong?” I was young at the time and then I just realized that you’ve got to figure out what you do. And I know that I play guitar, frustrated and as naked as a guitar can possibly get.
From the first album to the second album, the sound of the Vague Angels has become a lot more stripped down. Why is that?
It’s easier for me to get into the acoustic music I’ve been writing lately. In the studio, it’s easy for me to get into anything. You’re wearing headphones and you’re no performing for anybody. I can be as drunk as I want to be or as sober as I want to be. Depending on what the song needs, I can change what needs to be changed. Whereas, on stage with a drummer, there were these lines that I find important, lines that I believe in and spend a lot of time with, and then I take it to the stage, and there’s a drummer, and I’m trying to scream over the drums to get my words said, but the words aren’t words that need to be screamed, they need to be whispered. To sing them really loud is counter-productive to the point that I’m trying to get across, so this is easier.
Is it difficult for you to align lyrics you write with the music you write?
When the words don’t meet up with the music, that’s one of my flaws. I try to make off music often. But even with off music, there needs to be some balance. You can’t be too off, you can’t be so off that it’s pointless. There’s got to be a reason why these two off things are together. So if my lyrics are fighting the song, hopefully they’re fighting it in a way that’s also going with it. And that’s a hard thing to figure out all the time, if it’s truly fighting each other or if it’s an argument. An argument’s a good thing, but I hope that they (the song and the lyrics) are arguing together, arguing the same topic.
Do you think it’s slightly unique that you grew up so closely with your brothers in a tiny scene, sharing the same record label for the earlier parts of your career and even playing the same shows, but that each of you took such divergent paths within your respective song writing?
I’m a middle child. My sister had to get away from all the boys, so she moved to Sweden, but she’s not making music. My older brother is 4 years older than me, my little brother is 1 year younger than me, so he’s barely a little brother. But I think I fall in the middle musically. My older brother [Ted] writes these perfect songs, and my little brother [Danny] writes bizarre, unclassifiable music. I don’t know what he calls what he does now, I think he might be calling it the Love Overdub, but he built a studio in Ridgewood near Queens, and he’s been working on this opus forever. I recorded a lot of my album there. I don’t know if this is cheesy or not, but I feel like he’s in the heart of the city and he’s writing music about way on the outskirts of the city, and Teddy is way outside the city and he’s writing about the inside of the city, and I’m kinda hinkering on the edge. I like playing with song format, but I don’t write music like Teddy’s music. I couldn’t if I tried.
How do you think that happened?
I don’t know, it must be a trip being a parent and watching your children each take their own path, especially cause we all get along. If we didn’t get along and we all took different paths, that would be one thing. But we all totally hang out, and our musical tastes may overlap, but they don’t come out the same way at all. People that like the Vague Angels usually hate Teddy’s music and vice versa. Ted’s fans think I’m evil.
What do your parents think about the choices you’ve made to arrive at where you are?
My parents don’t hate that I’m poor, they hate that I’m in Glasgow, cause they know that I hate Glasgow. They know I prefer the sun. They had a couple freak outs. Before Teddy was successful, that’s when they started to freak out. They sat me down at the piano when I was 4, and they just forced music down our throats. And there was a time when they were like, “We’re so sorry for doing this to you. We made you into musicians. We made you poor and miserable, we made you bi-polar.” And then Teddy made it big, and they realized that there might be some hope, and then they could focus and realize that I don’t care. I know I’m making myself happy and most people spend their whole lives trying to make themselves happy. My dad came to Sicily with me on this tour. So they’re into it, they’re kinda having a renaissance.
How difficult has the song writing/holding a band together thing been for you?
There were times when it’s been incredible for us. There was a time, where The Van Pelt had like a year and a half and it was just easy. We were all thinking the same way musically. Not outside of music, that was amazing. Otherwise, it’s been few and far between. But it’s getting there. The two people I’m playing with now are incredible. One guy, the stand up bass player, his birthday is a day away from mine and we share a lot in common, and then the girl playing keyboards is an ex-girlfriend of mine. She’s one of these characters that everyone has in their lives. The most important love interest of my life was with this girl, it wasn’t the longest but it was the most important. And so, every two years, we’d bump into each other again, and either one of us would have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, or if none of us would, we’d date each other for two weeks and then hate each other after that. So in the end of last summer, I was dating a girl for three years and she and I broke up. So naturally, I bump into this girl again, and she’s dating a boy anyway, so it makes it easy. And we say, “So what are we gonna do?” And we decide to play music together and see what happens, and it’s been incredible. Not easy by any means, but incredible.
A lot of Vague Angels’ lyrics mention specific names of people in your life, how did that come about?
Usually they’re real names. If you’re trying to make honest music, you might as well not even change the names. It makes it difficult to enjoy the night though. If I play those songs and I’m trying to make honest music. But making honest music means that every time I perform it, I’m performing it honestly. So it’s a weird self-destructive night. I’m trying to destroy my night. If I succeed in doing everything I want to do on stage, then I’ve destroyed my night, because there’s no way I recoup those feelings. Yeah, I’ve gotta relive those memories. So in some ways, I hope I’m having a pretty good show. It’s this weird thing, if I have a piss poor show, then my night’s ruined, but if I have an amazing show, then my night’s ruined, cause I just sunk into these memories. My real goal is to probably have a pretty decent show, it’s a weird balance.
How have both the Vague Angels and ‘White Pigeons’ been received?
Let me give your the chronology of tours since the book has come out. The book comes out exactly a year ago. Imagine this, I began the book and the CD in 1999. Finally, I find a publishing house that’s willing to put out a book with a CD. No record companies were willing to put out a book and no publishing companies were willing to put out a CD. So finally, I find this cool art house from Atlanta. The book comes out, and the first tour I do, is with my older brother. So I’m playing to like 400 to 600 people a night, solo on stage, and his fans are so dedicated to him, all he needs to do is say, “Buy my brother’s book,” and I’ll sell like 30 books. So I’m thinking, “Fuck yeah, this is so easy.” Then I go out by myself on a tour of the states, and I’m playing to like 11 people, selling 3 books a night, so it was a slap of reality. Then I go Europe, and I sell like 500 books on a 6-week tour of Europe. But I think it was about the novelty of it all instead of people being into what I was doing. Here’s this guy from The Van Pelt and The Lapse, so we’re gonna turn out and buy his book anyhow. So I don’t really consider that to be a successful tour, because it felt like people were going to buy what I did regardless, and then I did another tour of the states for a month by myself. And I was lucky to get $50 for gas a night, if I was lucky. And I had a girlfriend at the time, so she wanted to kill me for being away all the time, but the only places I can stay when I’m out tour, is either with girls, who I can’t stay with cause I have a girlfriend, or with, you’d hope to god there was some kid that lived with his parents and had digital cable. But 4 out of 5 nights on the last tour, I spent the night driving my car, finding the nearest lamp post to shine light into my car. I tallied it up, by the end of that time on the road, I had read 1,500 pages of literature, cause I had nothing to do at the end of the night. There was nothing to do. Either you go home with a drunk girl, whom I’m not allowed to go home with, or trying to find the kid who lives with his parents. So I spent most of the time sitting in the back of my car. That was the worst tour ever. And then I followed that up with a Pro Forma tour of the UK, which was a good tour, but the UK Pound is so strong that all the money I made, I burnt right through.
I don’t feel like I really had a great tour until this last Vague Angels tour of Europe. That was the tour when everything congealed and we were able to articulate that to the audience. They could see that the point we were trying to convey got across, and I think that’s because I had given up.
We’ve both since returned to the NY area, and Chris along with the other members of the Vague Angels, are currently in full swing promoting the new album, ‘Let’s Duke It Out At Kilkenny Katz’ in the greater NYC area.
For more information on Chris’ first and upcoming books, log onto http://www.fifthplanetpress.com/
For more information on Chris’ current band, The Vague Angels, log onto http://www.myspace.com/vagueangels