Let Some Birds Fly to Catch the Worm – On Writing

Good friend and collaborator John O’Hara told me to focus on getting CS done. “Let some birds fly to catch the worm,” he said. Those little gems folks pass on fill the sails.

I haven’t sent an update to the CS Kickstarters in a while. I’m not thrilled that the project has taken so long to get done. So instead of updating I’m waiting until I have something tangible to share. That should be very soon. Possibly next week.

Now, on to a random firing of neurons manifesting in black marks on a white background.

I think about when I started this project, nearly eight years ago, writing feverishly on the Trolley on the way to work, early in the morning, smell of stale beer and old ciggy-refries from the can collector on his way to the El Cajon Recyc Center, sound of Manu Chau “Welcome to Tijuna” in my headphones, feeling inspired and writing as fast as my hand could dictate the ideas in my head on a semi-fresh Moleskin with a black ink Signo Uni-ball.

That morning, the character of the Alchemist appeared, near fully formed in my head.

Rodia Grigoryevitch Zaytsev, AKA The Alchemist (El Paraguas – The Umbrella)

Owner of The InterZone, COO of Arnelle Liquidation Associates.

The Alchemist is a tall, barrel chested man who is balding with a large beard that rests on his chest, full lips, deep-set eyes and aquiline nose with a prominent bridge. He has double-zero gauge ear lobe plugs and is usually pictured wearing a rubber apron with large black rubber gloves, he is also sometimes seen in a meticulously tailored three piece suit. He smokes cigars. Drinks mescal. He is hacked into the Agility DAS Surveillance network and can watch things happening all around the city.

He was refined over time but the basic concept remained. From there Anton and Xispa and Arellano manifested and the initial treatment for Caustic Soda was totally different from what I have now but I loved every aspect of creating the world of these characters.

The real thrill of writing is the doing. Getting it out. Working it out. Finding that rhythm that happens when the story is hot on the brain pan and you can’t stop thinking about what happens next. How your characters will react and what will become of them in the fictional sequence of events unraveling from wherever they are conjured.

I’ve had interactions with writers. “Writers.” Man, they’ll tell you all about the idea for the story they’re planning on writing. Bragtalk about the vintage typewriter they set up in their cloistered space, where they machete narratives from the tangled jungle of ideas. There are those who’ll try and convince you that writing is something “they love to do.” They love writers and the writerly things they do. Drinking scotch, staying up late, speaking like Old Bull or Bukowski. Name dropping. Smoking cigarettes. Listening to Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Random sex. Bad relationships. Heartbreak. Pain. Whatever helps you get the words out, indulge those impulses but not at the expense of the work. The work is what matters. Words, rather.

My grandfather, survivor of a few bypasses, was diagnosed with ALS in his nineties. Just recently he found out he has terminal cancer on top of his terminal ALS. Unable to communicate, he wrote “I wish I had more time to do everything.” At 92, even 100 years of life seems insufficiently short.

Paycheck is a real drag though, man. Writing takes time and effort. Time is in short supply. The economies of art making are asymmetrical. My mentor and friend, Harold Jaffe writes, “Possibly the hardest factor for concerned younger artists to accept is that there will always be an incommensurateness between their imaginative efforts and results. The primary obligation is to not avert your eyes: to bear witness.”

CS is an action sci-fi western. Peripherally, it is an examination of technology, surveillance and power. A look at the drug war, mediated and filtered through graphic narrative.

It’s real and its unreal.

Imaginings of an ideal. Point is, you have to get the work out. Find writers who write and want to share their work. Writers who talk about writing are full of shit. Myself included.

I try to be less full of shit everyday.

Embrace being one of the unrehearsed.

With CS, at least in the beginning, I was working from my gut. Punk rock graphic narrative. My script for Issue 1 was a mess to navigate. No wonder it took two years for Dan to illustrate it. I sent him 5 or 6 versions over the course of two years.

Of interest is a recent quote from Scott McCloud on Tatsumi [read full post on AV Club]:

And then gradually [Tatsumi’s] artistic convictions began to overtake his survival instincts until finally he was able to do something that was more meaningful in the long run to him and more aesthetically adventurous. But there’s still that sense that you are as an artist, this is your job and you’re part of a society that only values you to the extent that you can give society what it’s looking for, what it wants. And that determines the shape of that career, and so you can feel a bit like a pinball just going from bumper to bumper trying to make your way in that life. But in the end, those artistic convictions did carry Tatsumi through it all. And without some kind of coherent aesthetic desire or sense of mission, one can just get rolled over by the day-to-day needs. And I see a lot of artists suspended in the present. I see artists just trying to work to do what they think everybody wants to see, and I feel as if I can already see how it’s going to end up. Even if they’re talented, even if they’re getting some success, if they’re not stretching beyond that, then it may not end happily for them. Fortunately, Tatsumi did transcend that day-to-day struggle.

Getting space to create. That is the struggle. Time as well. Those two are like twin helix, space and time.

Back to CS. Rodia, the Alchemist, doesn’t suffer fools. He’s a killer and a poet. Foil to Anton Nevona. I imagined him as a modern day Raskolnikov (his name “Rodia” is Raskolnikov’s patronym) minus the conflicts of conscious or propensity for being a bumbling fuck up.  I saved the bumbling fuck up character for Anton–modeled him after someone I know intimately, the cowardice and the desire to not be exposed as a coward. But The Alchemist was also born of my impression of “K” from The Trail if he were instead a functionary of the state rather than a man trapped in the absurd spiral of prosecution and bureaucracy. A killer and an accomplice. A realist. Someone to build a better mousetrap. A guy who will always fail better.

Putting together a 3 issue mini-series on a DIY budget is a big accomplishment. Getting the words to appear as illustrations by a capable and talented artist is an accomplishment. Convincing people that the vision and the story are worth supporting is an accomplishment. I have no idea if anyone will “like it.”

Writers, they’ll tell you that the work they do is solitary. Lonely. That writing is therapeutic. Cathartic. Sure those things are true. But anyone who identifies as a writer cannot possibly be a writer without readers.

Over the summer I was approached by a gentleman who wanted to make CS into a film. I put together a synopsis. Sent it out. Tried to follow up. Tried to connect. Nothing doing. Did I dream momentarily of going “pro”? Yeah. I did. I reached out and made some connection but it wasn’t quite enough. Did I take it personally? Yeah. It takes so much energy to make a movie.

How the fuck do so many shitty movies get made? A friend who works in the movie biz agreed to look at my pages and he was incredibly generous and helped me refine the piece. If there were more of this type of dude helping young writers/artists navigate the sea of bullshit, maybe less shitty movies would get made. But he’s just one fella. I owe him a debt. No bullshit goes a long way. Really, it does. That goes for those folks in your inner circle. You know the ones who always encourage you despite the chorus of disapproval in your head, telling you it can’t be done. Hold those people dear.

Getting discouraged by rejection can be kryptonite to any creator. Any creator worth a shit will plug their ears and keep hacking away at that jungle until they clear a semi-coherent path to the gooey center.

Fail better. Always.

This post is a fail better post. Somewhat random and incoherent, loosely tied together with string, barely wrapped for your delectation.

Within the next few months, Caustic Soda Hello, the War is Here will be done. Nearly 80 pages of a graphic narrative about a guy bumbling his way through a dangerous and indifferent world.

Interview “The Mast” – Live at Soda Bar January 22, 2015

Brooklyn-based electronic duo, The Mast, are playing Soda Bar this Thursday, January 22.

Their latest record, Pleasure Island, is a hypnotic and alluring journey comprised of thirteen danceable and heady tracks. You’d get lost in the layers of sound, keep your feet moving and find the easily memorable hooks sung with aplomb by vocalist-poet and instrumentalist Haleh Gafori. Musician, composer (music director and composer for Louis CK’s “Louie”)  and producer Matt Kilmer pulls inspiration from many places, from acoustic instruments like the Balafon to the sound of the city to Pygmy water drumming. It’d probably be pretty easy to hook the IDM genre label on The Mast, but I’d be remiss if I failed to mention what I hear as distinct lines of inspiration from drum and bass and breakbeat—Metalheadz era Goldie and Roni Size—as well as elements of trance and trip hop. They took some time from their tour to answer a few questions regarding the creative process.

Go check them out this Thursday with Lightworks and Bakkuda. INFO_TICKETS

As both a poet and musician, how important are the words you choose for a particular song?

Haleh Gafori — Sometimes I’m emotionally invested in the words and they feel like the life-blood of the song. Sometimes they’re relating images or fragments of a story. Other times, their sound and rhythm are more important than their meaning, and the words become more like abstract brushstrokes–sounds and syllables rather than vehicles for a narrative.

Do you find yourself making concessions for words to fit the melody?

H –Words in a song have to sound good when they are sung. I would never use the word ‘usurp’ in a song, for instance, that would probably sound terrible.

They also have to rhythmically work in the melody, so sometimes I have to cut a word or find a synonym with less syllables.

Does the form (music) allow for more flexibility in theme/narrative?

H –I think music often dictates optimal line lengths, stanza lengths, rhyme, and rhythm patterns. So in that way it can set limits. Sometimes the limitations push me to excavate things from my imagination that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. So in a way it can be liberating and revealing. That’s the irony of form I guess.

When composing a song, are you fitting the lyrics to the music or vice versa? Or is the process more dynamic in that regard?

H –On ‘Nuclear Dragon,’ I wrote the lyrics first.  I was listening to some tracks that Matt was working on and one jumped out as the right track for the words, rhythmically and emotionally, it just worked.   So I started singing over it, letting the words dictate the melody, and the song was done.

Sometimes I’ll have a basic idea for a song or a couple of lines and the rest of the lyrics and melody will develop as I go back and forth between my notebook and the track. This is how “UpUpUp” and “Luxor” and “Temptation” came about. At the time I was working on “Luxor” I was reading about hot air balloon rides over tombs in Luxor, Egypt. That was the starting image and it developed from there.

When I started working on “Temptation,” I had just watched Josh Fox’s documentary on fracking. The image of a ball of fire exploding out of the open tap triggered the words in the first line.

How does culture influence your songwriting?

H — I write more when I’m reading, listening to music, watching movies.  MuraMasa, Mount Kimbie, Pure Horsehair, tUnE-yArDs, Tiniariwen…Force Majeur, Birdman, The One I love…Miranda July, Jim Jarumsch, Reggie Watts, all these musicians, movies, artists inspire me. They oil the wheels and get the right machine in my head working.  It is amazing to live in a time where so much art is at our fingertips.

What is your favorite poem?

–I can’t name one particular poem that is unequivocally my favorite. I love so many poems and so many single lines from even more poems.

Today I happened to reread Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Sunflower Sutra’ which is great and Galway Kinnell’s poem “After Making Love we Hear Footsteps.” I love the line about the baby returning to the “ground of his making.” Denise Levertov’s “Writing in the Dark” is a good reminder about how to live.

What was your favorite record of 2014?

H –Flying Lotus , “You’re Dead”

and on a totally different note, Sharon Van Etten’s “Are We There” (*both were favorites of mine in 2014 as well)

How does your creative process differ when making films/videos for The Mast? “So Right,” and “UpUpUp” were beautiful vignettes whereas “Nuclear Dragon” was a performance-style video (all were well executed and beautifully shot). 

H –The first video I directed and edited was UpUpUp. It features Pandora Marie, an amazing pop and lock dancer who lives in LA. I wanted to merge her style of hip hop dance with the   minimalist and eerie aesthetic of Japanese butoh. I think it gave her a beautiful part zombie-part avatar look which fit the mood of the song. I got obsessive about the editing, that took a long time.   Editing video is a great way to put the obsessive part of my brain to us.

“So Right” is a very different video, but also character driven. This one stars my 22-month old nephew. He loves to play with our ipads and keyboards and we started filming him a little and then I thought it would be fun to make a video with him as the DJ. The idea of him escaping from his crib, tricking the baby cam, and inviting friends over for his mini rave came later and I eventually did my first shot by shot storyboard. That was necessary especially because we were dealing with a baby. Everything had to be super organized on our end and super fun and relaxed on his end. We turned each scene into a game which his parents helped a lot with and we shot for 5-10 mins a day for 5 days and then shot the party with all the kids. Each day we filmed, we had no idea if he was going to go along for the ride or if he was going to freak out, in which case we’d have to cancel the whole thing. It was a great reminder to temper expectations.

“Luxor” was the latest video we made. It features some of my very close friends.   I wanted to make a video about friendship between women, and the healing power of that. They happen to be from very different parts of the world, all arriving at this island of rejuvenation. Kind of an afterlife maybe. I was thinking about the tombs or sarcophagi in Luxor too, which is what the box is modeled after, and how the ancient Egyptians thought the tomb was also a womb, a chance for rebirth.

Is it a democratic process when deciding what to do to visually represent to a song?

H –I basically do most of the video direction and editing, though Matt is involved and give feedback through it all. He also took on the role of videographer in ‘So Right’ and ‘Emerald’ so there was a lot of back and forth about the shots in those.

Drums first? Melody first? Does a melody come to you followed by the rhythm? Or is the process more organic and simple?

Matt Kilmer –I always like to have a tempo in mind though before starting anything.  Sometimes I’ll make a beat and then find a nice chord progression to go with it and other times it’s the opposite.  Haleh comes up with the hooks and melodies once I have a beat and progression in place and then we bounce ideas back and forth after that.

How does your creative process differ from your work as a composer?

M —  As a composer (for film and TV), there’s usually a scene or character that I’ll be writing for so it’s coming from a specific direction to begin with.  With The Mast, the sky’s the limit and it’s about self expression and making something that I’d want to listen to.  I like a lot of different music so it’s nice to pull influences from different genres and mix them up with my own sense of what sounds good.

Does it inform your approach to creating in The Mast?

M —  Now that I think about it, we’ve been writing with different themes in mind so there’s some direction and limitations in place.  I think it’s really good to set some sort of limitations on yourself when creating so things have a unified sound and vibe.  I think we’re getting better at that.

How do you know when you’ve found the right “sound” for a song? The Balafon isn’t a typical instrument found in most rehearsal spaces. Do you have an arsenal of instruments you can draw from when making tracks?

M —  I have a lot of instruments that I’ve collected along the way and I will always love playing acoustic instruments.  As far as the “right” sound, I think it’s really about finding the right combination of sounds and the proper mix of those sounds – whether it be acoustic or electronic.

Is there a conscious effort to strike a balance between synthetic sounds and organic sounds?

M — I find that I gravitate towards more organic sounding synths as a result of playing instruments for so long, but I’m still open to new “synthetic” sounding synth sounds and getting more into the sound design side of things.  I’m a musician first and a producer second, so I feel more comfortable starting tracks by playing something and then later sitting down at the computer and making it all work together.

Working within the realm of polyrhythms and syncopation, do either of you find yourself inspired by the sounds of the city?

M — Most definitely.  Just being around so much activity and interesting sounds, it must seep into our being.

H — When I’m in a relaxed frame of mind, I can hear the trains, buses, trucks, drilling, and construction as music. It’s less grating that way and even beautiful sometimes, the rhythms and textures are generally uncharted so the soundscape can feel pretty unique and fresh.

Follow up to the previous: have you ever used “found sound” or field recordings when composing music for The Mast?

M –Yes, on Pleasure Island, we used the sound of water drumming from the Congo on the “Lean Into It” intro and there’s also the sound of a windsurfer riding through the water as the background ambiance on Emerald.

Favorite piece of gear, either outboard or software?

M — I’d have to go with Ableton Live, just because it’s the centerpiece of our whole setup, both live and in the studio.  But I’ll never stop playing my 16″ Cooperman frame drum either.

H –A distortion pedal my friend Ryan Scott made and my latest Touch OSC set up on my iPad.

As touring, working musicians, do you feel that economic imperatives trump democracy and art?

M –They can unfortunately. Music houses for commercials pay a lot more than Spotify and everyone’s gotta eat.

What excites you and Matt most about the music you are making?

–We’re addicted to making things, whether it’s songs or videos. Hearing new sounds, beat, progressions, melodies, that gets us off.

Do you prefer live performance to recording/producing?

–We love them both.

Creating art at a loss…Is there a gain to be made in music?

–The process of creating is the gain.

That’s where the magic is.

In the era of the single, short attention span culture, what are your thoughts about “The Album” as a compilation of songs…what does it represent to you? What does it signify? A portfolio of songs?

H –The album is still alive. Sometimes it’s a record of a time or phase in a composer’s life. Sometimes it’s a chance to explore a concept through 10 or so songs. I think it makes sense nowadays to release a single at a time, and then one video at a time if you can, to keep the album alive for longer than one pass through a newsfeed.

M — I think albums are going to die one day very soon, but at the same time, they’re are kind of a signification that you are a serious artist and not just a hobbyist.  They definitely make it easier for your fans to have a volume of your work but they also put all of your “content eggs” into one basket.

Thanks for taking the time to answer. Greg sent the record earlier this week so I’m still getting to know it, it’s quite good. Have a fantastic show on Thursday at Soda Bar.

M and H – Thank you so much for taking the time to listen and for spreading the word. We appreciate it.