Wrote an in-print feature about my buddy James’ boutique pedal shop for the OC Weekly. If you are a musician–especially one fond of adjectives like fuzz, reverb and distortion–you should definitely stop by.

Giving these notes some room to breathe

 

Dawn of the Shred Has a Special Effect on Local Sound

Gearheads flock to the Long Beach guitar shop for hard-to-find accessories

On a recent Friday night, Andy Zipf and Sam West were in the far-back corner of East Long Beach’s Dawn of the Shred, warming up for the gear shop’s first in-store performance. Zipf plucked at a new semi-hollow prototype from Wilmore Guitars, the Long Beach-based company that organized the event.

Plugged into a white Marshall amplifier, the handmade guitar sounded warm and clean, almost dreamy in tone. The singer/songwriter smiled to himself; gliding from note to note, he looked genuinely astonished as he faced West at the drum kit. “This guitar is really cool,” he whispered.

“I know,” West slowly mouthed back.

This is the reaction most musicians have when trying out stuff at Dawn of the Shred, a store specializing in handcrafted and small-batch amps, guitars and effects pedals. In its cavernous storefront across from Heartwell Park, you won’t find any mediocre Boss distortion pedals or Fender Stratocaster gift packs—just a generous selection of small, quality brands; select vintage finds; and owner James Demetra, who is more than happy to help you navigate through it all. “I genuinely enjoy selling stuff,” says the scruffy, heavily inked Demetra. “I love those moments when everything clicks, such as when a musician has found what he’s looking for in the store and is playing it through the right pedal or the right amp. It all becomes one, if I can get overly romantic about it.”

READ THE REST AT OCWEEKLY.COM

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So all of the papers I’ve been writing about Sublime have for the first time paid off in a published piece for the OC Weekly music blog in which I took a moped tour of all of the Long Beach locations mentioned in the police chatter in the song “April 29, 1992” and wrote a piece about the meaning of it all. I think it turned out really well and it was also probably one of the weirdest ideas I’ve ever had.

A previously unpublished photo of my moped in front of the former site of On’s Junior Market (now A-Cherry liquor) on Anaheim St. in Long Beach.

We Check Up on the Long Beach Addresses in Sublime’s Riot Song “April 29, 1992 (Miami)”

Yesterday marked 20 years since the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King incited several days of violence and looting in South Central Los Angeles. But it’s also been 20 years since a similarly motivated uprising erupted in nearby Long Beach, resulting in numerous arrests and causing extensive damage throughout the central and northern parts of town. This rarely gets mentioned in reports of the infamous L.A. Riots.

Chuck D of Public Enemy once famously said that rap music is the black CNN, but in the case of this civil unrest in oft-forgotten Long Beach, it was local ska/punk/reggae/hip-hop/everything band Sublime’s song “April 29, 1992 (Miami)” that became the city’s own news network.

Released on its 1996 multi-platinum self-titled album, the song reports on the burning buildings and felony committers of the band’s hometown in the days following the not-guilty verdict. Using actual Long Beach Police Department radio transmissions and verses that describe personal involvement in the pillaging, it gives a localized account of the Long Beach riots (complete with street addresses of the destruction).

To some, it might seem inflammatory that pseudo-reggae white boys would write a song about participating in racially motivated violence and looting (our friends at the SF Weekly recently wrote that they were “piggybacking on a riot”). But the rioting Sublime writes about is not the iconic Normandie and Florence chaos that continues to define the days following the end of the Rodney King trial. The song is about how the riots affected them and others in Long Beach, a city nearby yet worlds apart from neighboring South Central (and its pent-up racial tension). If you’ve ever been to the mostly working-class port city of nearly 500,000 people — which remains the most statistically diverse city in the country — you know what we mean.

READ THE REST AT OCWEEKLY.COM

thesis vomit #3

March 4, 2012

Segregating Sound was an interesting book to me conceptually as it aimed to expose “the truth” about racial politics in Southern music. We continue to see music in dichotomies–black/white, urban/rural, folk/pop–but Karl Hagstrom Miller exposes these dichotomies as having no basis in reality, plaing them instead as concoctions of a music industry that we also recently read about in David Suisman’s Selling Sounds. In the process, Miller uses songs from the era to expose the South as a place that was more racially fluid than we would like to believe, where musians who were able to “play fast and loose with musical styles and show a conscious disregard for the color line that was coming to charactarize the Jim Crow South” were regarded as professionals (p. 54).

But of course, the idea that blacks and whites BOTH listened to blues and BOTH listened to pop music wasn’t a popular selling point in a social world so defined by skin color. So critics, historians and the music industry as a whole resorted to the easiest way to tell this story–emphasizing the differences between these two groups instead of the shared culture that was apparent at the time. Folk “maintained an assumption of isolation…and separated it from its surroundings” (p. 87), which is a completely false assumption since no art is created in a vacuum.

I feel that my research on Long Beach is grappling with a similar dillema of erasure and feel that it is my work to expose the true origins of music and reinsert it into the discourse like Miller. The few artists from Long Beach that have made it into the mainstream are marketed as “authentic” working class musicians, but no attention is given to the hidden histories and intersections that led to these diverse and hybrid working-class sounds. Like those blues musicians who also loved and performed pop music in the Jim Crow South, bands such as Sublime and artists such as Nate Dogg are never recognized for their deeper influences of roots reggae, pop songs and gospel music, all of which swirled throughout the city in the 1980s.

This erasure (or prehaps a never-written) of Long Beach’s music history was constructed similarly by the industry as a way to sell sounds without bogging down Sublime in Rastafarian rhetoric or Nate Dogg in uncool gospel and white-written new wave jams. It’s not, at least, for lack of their own admittance. There is a great interview with Nate Dogg in Vice Magazine where he talks about the gospel influences he picked up from his grandma’s–even proclaiming that he has “a gospel voice”–as well as the fact that he had equal love for the Thompson Twins and New Edition. At the time of gangster rap’s height in the early 90s, the emphasis became on the aggressive black vs. white themes that seemed to arise out of the police-hating genre. MTV didn’t want to admit that a Crip listened to the Thompson Twins, so it was just left out.

VS

(also note that “These Days” is a song about how hard it is to not be in a gang, the antithesis of gangster rap)

Same thing could be said for Sublime, whose singer Bradley Nowell loved, idolized and worshipped Jamaican dub and reggae artists just as much as he did East coast rappers. In Long Beach, Nowell’s love of black music seemed normal, but that fact that he was a former punk rock white dude probably didn’t bode well for record labels trying to map out a publicity scheme. White boys playing reggae living half a town away from gangster rappers hating on whites? The industry probably could not wrap its head around how to explain it, so just like Robert Johnson playing pop songs from New York, it just didn’t.

thesis vomit #2

February 15, 2012

David Suismans Selling Sounds is an in-depth look into the first few decades of the music industry. It dissects the organizations and businesses that helped turn music into a cultural commodity, thus changing the way America listened to music. Arguably, we are witnessing a revolution of similar proportions in the music industrythe internet is altering musics value and changing our listening habits.

But are these changes really so new?

Earlier this week, I met with Avi Zahner-Isenberg, the frontman and “weird little genius” (as my friend put it) for Avi Buffalo, one of the few Long Beach bands to make it outside of the citys music scene since the 1990s. At 18, the members (then seniors at Milliken high school) got signed to Sub Pop Recordsthe Seattle-based home of Nirvana and Sonic Youth, among othersreleased a self-titled record and toured the world.

Despite Avis far-reaching musical influences, he admitted to me that he wasnt very tactile with his music and mostly downloaded it online. This surprised me, mainly because of my experience with other Long Beach musicians (see my previous post on Dennis Owens) and their voracious vinyl collecting.

Reading Selling Sounds, though, has put this assumed consumption in perspective. Music recorded on discs was not the traditional way music was listened toin fact, music was always fixed in a certain time and place of its performance, not embedded in objects. But we have lived for more than a century with music being audible in so many environments and with the economic value of music so extensively and meticulously cultivated (p. 240) that imagining a world where recorded music becomes intangible is almost blasphemy.

Avi, of course, doesn’t see this intangibility as another “affront to the integrity of the listening experience” (p. 245)as many critics of mechanization in the musical soundscape argued in its early years. Instead, he just sees it as a way for him to be able to have multiple musical experiences he wouldn’t have otherwise had. In actuality, the internet and music downloading have reverted us back to the time periods covered in Selling Sounds in two ways.

In one way, we are returning to a time of musical temporality, where live performances created music that existed in the consciousness of those who experienced it similar to the way that music is stored in the ethereal “cloud” of the internet. Today, as then, music does not necessarily exist physically. In another way, however, downloaded songs have reverted us back to the Tin Pan Alley days of single-song consumption. Avi’s generation is not downloading entire albums, but individual songs, similar to how sheet music and 45s were sold in the early days of the music industry.

Whether or not the music industry “created a culture of degraded listening” (p. 255) is still up to debate, but what is certain is that today’s music consumers are still consuming. It may not be in the material way that we have grown accustomed to (the foundations of which are laid out in Sounds), but it is still consumption. Now what to make of Spotify…?

a pure national music?

September 16, 2011

I found this article from the Phnom Penh Post to be particularly relevant to some talks that have been going on in my film critical studies seminar, especially in regards to “national” cultural forms and the idea of innovation and progress through transnational identities. Unlike the film world where creativity is largely working within the confines of the festival circuit (or a film risks relegation to the–gasp–avant garde), I’ve always felt that in the music world, hybridized music happens regardless of outlets–it’s just an extension of a cultural situation–and that issues of national vs. transnational seem to be less important than in film studies.

Welp, I was wrong!

Fearing that young musicians are being infiltrated by too much foreign culture, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen released a statement last Thursday urging Cambodian young people to “stop copying foreign styles and instead develop the country’s unique musical identity.”

But this request raises so many issues. Firstly, considering that today’s global music culture affects nearly everyone (think of the kids in Brazilian favelas that idolize Tupac) how can one avoid making music that incorporates in some way other music they’ve heard? His request is an even bolder one considering that officials in the same statement suggested that young musicians draw influence from the “golden era of Cambodian rock,” which in the 1960s was a controversial hybrid genre built on top of psych rock and surf guitar riffs, themselves products of another country’s milieu.

The government’s statements of national heritage and pride become even more contradictory when one considers how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge destroyed the 60s Cambodian rock scene in its systematic elimination of all artists and creatives. At the time, the music was blasphemous and too American, but today, it is the music that the country wants to build its national sound on top of?

I am having an even harder time understanding the country’s fear of dependency on foreigners for their music since the only reason that Cambodian rock has seen a revival at all is because of foreign musicians’ interest in collecting and preserving the few recordings that still exist, namely the L.A.-based band Dengue Fever. Through this ethnically diverse group of musicians (that fuse 60s Cambodian rock with African rhythms, jazz and American pop) the once-lost music genre is being introduced to a new generation of both Cambodian and international listeners. In fact, the cover of their latest album (see below) features a photo of the band’s custom instrument–that is part Fender Jazz Master, part two-stringed Cambodian guitar (called a chapai dong veng)–being shown off by the band’s Cambodian-born singer, proving that this hybridity is not only happening, but there is now a physical object that embodies it!


So, is it wrong to allow foreign music to have an influence on a national musical identity? Does it make music less authentically Cambodian if it uses an electric guitar instead of a chapai dong veng? Isn’t part of the country’s contemporary identity the fact that many citizens left for other countries during the Khmer Rouge and are now representing Cambodia with new knowledge of the Western world? Contradictory statements from the Cambodian Prime Minister bring to mind many questions like these and highlight how complex the issues of transnational culture are even in the music world.

april 2011 city beat

April 12, 2011

Below is the original version of this story. The slightly edited one that made it to print can be read here.

Indie-pop project Fort Wife is the latest graduate of Millikan High

If the west coast ever gets its own version of Fame, Broadway would need to look no further than Long Beach’s Millikan High School for inspiration.

Through its impressive music and art programs, the campus has recently generated a handful of young performers, some of whom still aren’t old enough to drink.

With world-wise lyrics and indie-pop sensibilities beyond their years, these alumni have teamed up with other local musicians to form a new generation of Long Beach bands that has included Avi Buffalo, Forest of Tongues, Time of Wolves and Eugene and the 1914.

The de facto queen of this motley community is Elise Ewoldt, a soft-but-well-spoken 19 year-old who works part time at a frozen yogurt store and harbors an escapist alter ego named “Elkie.” Her band, Fort Wife—fronted by Elkie, of course (“She brings more to the table”)—began when she wrote her first song two years ago on her mother’s old Yamaha guitar.

“Writing my first song was empowering,” Ewoldt—who had previously only played for other songwriters—said. “It felt like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I felt more like me.”

Ewoldt originally enlisted schoolmates Avi Zahner-Isenberg and Sheridan Riley to back her dreamy melodies and floating vocals. Eventually, she settled on a rotation of musician friends, making Fort Wife either a duo or a four-piece depending on the show.

Her most steady collaborator lately is Zachary Mabry, a 21 year-old drummer she met last year through friends from Millikan. Other part-time band members—including Dylan Wood, Joel Jasper and Chad Matheny—might fit in with Ewolt’s on-stage sound, but her artistic compatibility with Mabry goes beyond a musical understanding.

“The last time we played at {open}, I just told Zach, ‘Okay, you’re in San Francisco, just pretend you’re falling into a huge cloud of fog but you’re not afraid because you know the fog will catch you,’” Ewoldt said. “And he played it perfectly. I only do that because I trust my musicians.”

Ewoldt admits that Fort Wife could easily be acoustic versions of what she creates alone in her bedroom, but trusting other musicians with her tunes is part of her M.O. Unlike many other songwriters who have begun to make music in the Internet age, she rejected the idea of using computer programs to flush out her self-recordings and instead envisioned her homespun riffs with a live, beat-backed texture.

“Recording by myself through Garage Band has been lame,” Ewoldt said. “I really want the band to be represented as drum oriented. Drums are more powerful than cutesy little melodies.”

Ewoldt’s cutesy melodies, however, are powerful in themselves. Nurtured by an eclectic mix of Neil Young, Bjork, Deerhoof and Prince, her guitar work swirls around snarky lyrics such as “You’re a girl, they can see/the sides of your tits thru the sleeves” to build a rainy day soundtrack that is innately mature and yet perversely child-like. Though the multi-layered tracks that make up the band’s yet-untitled debut album (hopeful release date: this summer) are anything but over-sweetened, one would still never expect exorcism to come into the equation.

“I’ve been thinking about that word a lot, though,” Ewoldt says,” because the best way I can describe writing a song is that it’s like an exorcism that’s really painful. I feel a huge sense of violence even if the result isn’t violent. For me, [songwriting] is about turning something threatening into something beautiful and harmless.“

http://www.myspace.com/fortwife, http://www.facebook.com/fortwife.

MAN OF MANY TALENTS

Originally printed in the March 2011 issue of City Beat Long Beach.

Behind the keys or in the studio, Isaiah “Ikey” Owens is a musical celebrity everywhere he goes

It’s 10 a.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, and Isaiah “Ikey” Owens is occupying a booth in the darkest corner of the V Room sipping on a glass of Jim Beam, neat. The barstools are already filled with anxious football fans, but Owens is early into day two of a three-day layover in his hometown of Long Beach and has no interest in watching the upcoming game—even if his old friends are playing the halftime show.

“I remember going up to Los Angeles to see the Black Eyed Peas play with Ozomatli and Macy Gray back in the day. We still hang out backstage whenever we play shows together,” Owens says. “They’ve always been great live, but I don’t think of them as that band on TV.”

Owens is so nonchalant about his relationship to the “Boom Boom Pow”-singing megastars that it’s easy to forget that he is, himself, a musical celebrity.

A Unique Force

Though the 36-year-old is more pop-culturally known as the Grammy-winning keyboard player for the Mars Volta—a band he has performed with almost continually since its inception and the only one that has ever shared a stage with the Black Eyed Peas—Owens’ ubiquitous career as a musician and producer spans over two decades of Long Beach sounds.

As one of the most racially diverse cities in the region, Long Beach has been home to thriving scenes from every corner of the sonicsphere. And growing up as one of Long Beach’s few keyboard players at the time (his parents lived in Lakewood, but he attended Poly for their music program), Owens has been a unique force whose navigation between these communities comes as second nature.

His work across genres is so prolific within Long Beach that if Kevin Bacon got six degrees for Hollywood, Owens only needs two to connect himself to anyone involved in the music world here.

“I was the kind of kid who knew everyone,” Owens says. “And I still like to hang out with all different kinds of people. To me, music is all the same thing.”

From the early days of ska to the latest folk revival and every dub and hip-hop resurgence in between, Owens has dipped his fingers in seemingly disparate genres, bringing life to projects on all ends of the spectrum.

The result is a cross-cultural CV that includes bands such as Long Beach Dub All Stars (with members of Sublime), De Facto (with Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez) and Look Daggers (with rapper 2Mex) as well as guest appearances on tracks by Mastodon, Teen Heroes, Nocando and Flying Lotus.

No Bands Sound Alike

“The coolest thing about Long Beach is that no bands sound alike,” Owens says. “You’re not going to see four bands that sound alike at a Long Beach show, which is really rare to say. Across the country, it’s rare.”

These days, however, Owens has been spending less and less time in Long Beach. In addition to a stint living in Berkeley that ended this past holiday season, he has been flying around the country lending his expertise to the next generation of underground acts as a producer-for-hire. Owens’ history with the diverse Long Beach scene has made him an ideal facilitator—able to connect with a myriad of bands with different backgrounds and sounds.

His first credit, for example, was on Bay Area-based Gravy Train!!!!’s 2003 electro-raunch EP Hello Doctor, an album he admits is vastly different from his world.

“They were one of the first bands that were openly gay and their shows were ridiculous and nasty as shit,” Owens says. “But it was super punk rock at the same time and their expression of it was so pure that it interested me.”

From there, he—with early help from engineer/friend/mentor Anthony Arvizu at The Compound Studio in Signal Hill—began producing local groups Dusty Rhodes and the River Band (2007), Crystal Antlers (2008) and Greater California (2009). Eventually, he generated enough cred to garner work with established bands across the country.

But Owens’ is more than some glorified consultant who merely hits “record” on a computer and lends his recognizable name to the album’s liner notes. In fact, he doesn’t even know how to use Pro Tools.

“We’re like Voltron”

From Chicago to Austin to Weed, Calif., bands more than 10 years his junior call upon Owens as a member of the old guard—a pre-Auto-Tune musician who’s approach to recording reflects that he is hyper-aware of how the digital age affects the way music is both produced and consumed.

“I go in with the band and break apart every aspect of what they do,” Owens says. “‘What instruments are you playing? How are you playing? Are you listening to everybody?’ First, you apply fundamentals of music and stuff that doesn’t have to do with a computer—then you can use all that technology to help you.”

This emphasis on sound and self-image as opposed to the appearance of waves on a screen has found him, most recently, in San Francisco with “Chicago-Jazz-meets-Built-To-Spill” band Rubedo and in Portland with stoner-rock band Ape Machine.

On top of his nearly full-time production gigs, there is also Owens’ personal music—Free Moral Agents, a Long Beach-based artist collective spearheaded by Owens whose first studio album since 2004, Control This, was released on iTunes last September. While time between The Mars Volta tours are natural (“We’re like Voltron—we do our thing then go back to our respective caves,” Owens says), the last few years without them has been particularly productive for Owens’ own creative expression.

“I started developing Free Moral Agents as a band right after the first record came out,” Owens says of his one-time solo project. “We got signed in 2008, started touring in 2009 and now we’re pretty much a full-time touring operation.”

One Records at a Time

The gradual shift away from performing for other people’s projects in order to focus on his own is a defining turn in Owens’ story.

Whether being the badass keyboard player on stage with The Mars Volta or the producer behind The Commotions’ new EP, Owens has spent the majority of his career as a hired-gun with his own musical output few and far between. Now, however, instead of merely selling his various services to endeavors already in progress, he is finally exploring his own artistic vision and hoping the same economic model that has kept him in business thus far holds true.

“I am the least punk rock DIY [person] out there,” Owens says. “I do what I do because it’s smart. It’s good for business and it’s got a bottom line that makes sense. Art and money don’t have to fight each other. Money in exchange for personal expression and art is natural.”

Control This is Owens’ latest exercise in personal expression. And this time he’s hired his own guns to help him. Released digitally last year and in physical form as soon as he picks up the first 500 rubber-stamped copies from his friend/duplicator’s garage on 4th Street, the album is a nearly hour-long sprawl of genre-bouncing serenades, key-heavy body movers and lazy Sunday lullabies performed by some of Long Beach’s most recognized underground faces.

Though Free Moral Agents has been together in its current lineup for over five years, it is embarking on its first European tour this month and will return for its second full U.S. tour in April.

Owens is excited that demand for Free Moral Agents is enough to take the band on the road, but these milestones don’t seem to phase him, and he is as nonchalant about his own success as he is about his friends in the Black Eyed Peas.

“At this point in my life, I’ve done way more than I thought I would ever do,” Owens says. “Ten years ago I could never have predicted where I’d have gone. So I just take it one day at a time—one record at a time.”

http://www.freemoralagents.com, http://www.myspace.com/freemoralagents, http://www.themarsvolta.com.

Echo Park shop latest victim of LAPD raid

Since 2006, the Echo Curio Curiosity Shop and Art Gallery has hosted experimental all-ages shows in its living room-sized storefront on a popular Echo Park strip of Sunset Boulevard.

But earlier this month, the privately owned community space known for its support of the freaky, demented and avant-garde side of Eastside culture was unceremoniously shut down by the Los Angeles Police Department, which cited the gallery-turned-venue for not having the proper entertainment permits.

The raid — which followed in the footsteps of a vice squad crack down on Echo Curio’s bring-your-own-booze policy last August — puts the important underground space in the same position as other prolific Los Angeles venues that ended up on the LAPD’s bad side, raising issues of enforcement that are ever-present for those creating and consuming music on the fringes of traditional media.

Though hardly low-key — shows filled with brown-bagging artistic types consistently flood the area’s main drag — the venue is one of many that have operated under the radar to provide a space for those contributing to the anti-mainstream musical identity in this city.

Similar to infamous Hollywood punk club The Masque, which was closed down for building violations in 1978, and the Sun Valley bowling-alley-cum-hardcore venue Godzilla — closed in 1982 after spending money on redecorating instead of permits — Echo Curio is the epicenter of an up-and-coming music movement, one ignored by established venues with expensive permits.

By allowing these community centers to thrive for years before suddenly enforcing live music permits or building codes, the LAPD effectively puts an end to built-up eras of expressive freedom, which one could infer is its intention judging by the arbitrary nature of these raids.

read the rest here…