It took a divorce, a bankruptcy, and a move across country until at age 40 I finally was motivated to accomplish my lifelong dream of becoming a musician. This is what happened once I got started:
My First Singles (“Eye Contact” and “Weekends With You”)
Michael Eisenstein (guitarist of the 90’s Boston alternative band Letters to Cleo) was making that face. At 40 years old I had spent the last 20 something years watching this man on stage, I knew this face. It’s the same face that Beaker from The Muppets makes when Dr. Bunsen Honeydew is starting to describe the torture he is about to put Beaker through. It’s what happens when Michael’s brain can’t find an answer fast enough. There’s a popular theory that says when a person is lying they look up and to the right. Michael doesn’t lie, he finds a lawyer’s answer when he has to say something negative.
Clearly he didn’t like the batch of songs I had just played for him. He was looking for a nice way to tell me. It was probably three seconds, but in those three seconds I felt like I had hit rock bottom.
A year earlier I had been standing in a club watching Gary Young (the original drummer and producer of the 90’s indie band Pavement) get thrown out of a kitchen that he mistakenly thought was the door to Stephen Malkmus’ dressing room. This was not my first encounter with Gary Young, he had famously been thrown out of Pavement for his alcohol-fueled manic behavior, and the last time I saw him 20 years earlier I was helping him unload a station wagon as he wasn’t sure if they had played the show already or not and kept putting the gear we were unloading back into the station wagon.
I told Gary that I had just moved to Los Angeles, I was starting to write songs, and that I wanted to record an album with him. Two of those three things were true, but Gary wouldn’t really have cared either way. He may have seen me as a bar tab, but he was willing to do it and gave me his phone number. There were instructions that came with the phone number about having to call multiple times in a row until he would answer the phone. The next day I enrolled in the Songwriting School of Los Angeles and proceeded to write songs and practice playing them all day, every day for months. I gained ten pounds and lost any chance of ever having a social life again. My reward was a stack of handwritten pages that may or may not have contained the contents of an album.
A few months later when I had the songs ready there would be no answer. Gary had some kind of freak out and was supposedly living in a camper on the streets of Linden, California. He wasn’t speaking to anyone and was having issues. There hadn’t been a plan b, I had wanted to make my first record with Gary ever since I was 15 and time was not on either of our sides. I called my friend Paul Kostabi, a record producer with his own studio back in New York. His studio was booked solid for months. I texted Michael and asked if “maybe, possibly” he’d be willing to help me record these songs.
Michael didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would like this kind of stuff, but I had songs and they needed to be recorded. Michael was a master of his craft, I just didn’t think this was his kind of material. I was right, it wasn’t. His eyes had finally stopped moving.
“They’re all kind of the same,” he said. There was a long silence. “Do you have anything else?” he asked.
“Not really,” now I was searching for information in my head “well, I have this other one but it’s stupid” I said. We agreed that we were both here and it couldn’t hurt if I played it.
Two years earlier I was 38 years old, having just gone through a divorce and losing my business, most of my possessions, and all of my sanity. Having moved out at age 18, I had now moved in with my parents at their new home in Florida. My mother (a retired lawyer) was helping me sort through boxes of receipts and bank statements so that I could file bankruptcy. My bank account on a great day had $30 in it.
At night I could barely sleep. I would stare at the ceiling and think about how I wanted my life to be different going forward aside from the obvious income and living situation. At 29 I’d had a stereotypical life crisis thinking that I “had to do something before I turn 30”. I wrote two books and made a movie in one year. I’d spent the next seven years more or less just working and consuming like the average American. Obviously I was going to make something, and it had to be something that I could make myself without anyone’s help and with very little money. What was I going to make it about? I didn’t want to be like every other person who turned a bad breakup into a work of art. If anything I wanted to do the opposite.
Spending weeks combing over my entire life’s history of music discovery I came back over and over again to the albums that made me feel happiest, not saddest. Two in particular stuck out : “Celebration: The Best of Kool & The Gang”, and “The Sound of Sunshine” (an instrumental album by KC and the Sunshine Band). With nothing but time on my hands I learned everything I could about these songs and albums. They were going to provide some kind of roadmap to whatever it was that I would do next.
At night I began listening to a mix of self-help audiobooks and recordings of Tibetan bowl songs. I began broadcasting live video of myself sleeping on the internet. After I woke up I would scor the comments looking for lyric ideas. While I wasn’t sure what I was doing exactly I knew that it all somehow felt like the best thing to do in the situation I was in. My friends who weren’t creatives were confused as to why I didn’t just go down the street and apply for a job at the local Walmart (where I already went every morning to purchase a .92 cent muffin and walk around in circles). I’d gone from doing the same thing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art just two years earlier (when I lived on the Upper East Side) to a rural superstore in central Florida.
I’d managed to save up $25 found entirely by digging through the garbage next to the lottery kiosk at a local supermarket. You’d be amazed how many people throw away cash when it’s folded into their register receipts. I’d completely transformed from a somewhat useful member of society to a bum. My depression had gotten so bad that my parents barely recognized me. Were it not for my parents and three or four friends who just knew that I was going to pull out of this somehow I probably would have been hospitalized and medicated.
In this zombie-like crazed state I felt that I should take that $25 and spend it on a very beat-up but functional student guitar I’d found on craigslist.
I began taking online guitar lessons on YouTube. To make myself somehow accountable for what would seem to anyone outside of myself as an idiotic purchase I began broadcasting live video of myself practicing on the internet. Weeks went by. The guitar broke. My father sensing that I might completely snap drove to a local store and bought me a replacement the same morning.
More weeks went by. I learned how to play the song “When I Grow Up” by my friend singer-songwriter Jennifer O’Connor. I would break into uncontrollable tears every five minutes. I kept trying. My confidence and sanity were so fragile that I closed and locked two doors between myself and my parents kitchen for fear that even their dog would hear me practice, yet somehow I had no problem broadcasting all of this for thousands of complete strangers on Facebook.
My parents went out of town for a few weeks. Months had passed. I still had no idea how exactly I was going to dig myself out of any real world problems, but I somewhat understood that I’d have to regain my confidence before I could do anything else. Forcing myself to go on stage and perform was the next obvious step to take with whatever it was I’d been doing.
In terms of geography my options were limited to three open-mic nights, all of which were 30 minutes away. Luckily gasoline was relatively cheap in Florida and I could just barely afford the one-drink minimum. I’d figured out how to make $20 a week buying small items at the local Walmart and selling them on eBay. It was enough to keep my muffin and open mic night habit going while I waited on my bankruptcy court hearing.
My ego was so bruised that I didn’t simply go to an open mic night, I found one of the three that broadcasted live on Periscope (the video streaming app) and watched it religiously for a couple of weeks first. In retrospect it’s funny to think about how I would sit on my parent’s couch, wrapped up in a blanket, my cat sitting next to me, with a legal pad taking notes on each performer and their reactions as if I were handicapping the Eurovision Songwriting Contest.
I put together what would be my three-song set and practiced all-day every day for two weeks. By this point I had a reasonable idea of who the other performers at open mic would be, what songs they would probably play, what the audience reaction would be like, and any other minor detail that I could figure out from the broadcast. There was so much planning, practicing, writing and revising that I may as well have been trying to compete in the olympics as opposed to Wednesday night open mic night at a bar in the middle of nowhere that offered 32 different kinds of beer on tap.
Sitting in the bar, waiting to go on, I was as nervous as I’d ever been in my life. You see this all the time at open mic nights when someone is new. They often start doing shots right before they walk onstage. Only I wasn’t new. I’d performed stand up comedy to huge crowds before, I’d been on NPR promoting my book, I’d spoken at conferences about my movie, I’d been on stage in one form or another since I was a child. I’d never once been even slightly nervous on a stage before that night.
To help disguise my nerves I’d learned how to recite all of my stage banter in French. I figured that nobody there spoke French so if I stuttered or confused words they would never know. There was also this rationale that if I started speaking in a different language they would be forced to pay attention to me, and that since my mind might draw a blank at least I knew every word I was going to say (something I’d learned from stand-up comedy). Later I would find out that they just thought I was a Canadian tourist on vacation.
The next few minutes were so traumatizing that I can only remember two of the three songs I played. Jennifer’s “When I Grow Up” and “Turn It On” by the Flaming Lips (an alternative band that specializes in unique performances). Before I knew it I was in the drive-thru lane at a McDonald’s spending my last few dollars on Chicken McNuggets, crying uncontrollably, and posting about it on Facebook.
My friend Pablo Martin (guitarist for East Village punk band Lulu Lewis) called me the next morning. We slowly and calmly talked through everything that went wrong. I cringed as I watched the recording from the previous night but I fought through all of the emotions to take notes, see what I could fix, and try to reconcile everything I was feeling with the reality of what took place.
The next week I went back, I spoke English, I made a bunch of mistakes but they were different mistakes. I still felt horrible when I left the bar but not quite as horrible. I’d also budgeted for my trip to McDonald’s afterward. On the fourth or fifth week I walked on that stage like I’d been doing this my whole life. For good luck I wore a t-shirt from the now defunct bar that Letters To Cleo first began performing at. I told people on Facebook that I would be broadcasting this live. There were no mistakes, there was applause, everything was fine.
When I go back and look at that recording now it’s unwatchable. At the time it felt like a massive victory.
As I kept going to open mic I realized that people politely clapped but they didn’t really like whatever it was I was doing. I paid even more attention to the other performers who were getting positive reactions. It was clear that I could not compete with the negligible amount of talent on display based entirely on my singing and playing guitar. Years of being taken to broadway shows as a child, studying theater in high school, and reading about performance art as an adult was about to come in handy.
I realized that if I could get the audience to stand up and move somewhere else they would be predisposed to liking whatever I did a lot more. The only room in the bar I could take them to was dark and had some disgusting couches. It was a make-out room for lack of a better term. Lifting the chord progression from the only song that I could competently play (“Best of Both Worlds” by Hannah Montana) and some Teen Cosmo article suggestions on how to kiss, the song was an instant success by my miniscule standards. After months of being ignored at open mic night, suddenly everyone knew my name and said hello when I walked in the bar.
That was all two years ago on the other side of the country. Now I was on a couch in a recording studio behind a vacant massage parlor in Los Angeles’ Koreatown playing it for Michael. As I was sitting there mindlessly playing it while all of these previous events flashed past my eyes I happened to notice his face had changed considerably. He looked like I had just played him a hit song. “We are recording that!” he said. I played him another ridiculous song I had written about couples who post fake photos of being in love on Instagram. He was even more excited about that one.
All of the music documentaries, YouTube videos, recording studio couches that you’ve read magazines on while your friends record their albums, all of it doesn’t prepare you for the strange range of emotions you feel when you’re actually making it yourself.
In retrospect I wish I had read the book “The Manual (How to Have a Number One Hit the Easy Way”) by the artist Bill Drummond (who after discovering 70’s new wave band Echo and the Bunnymen went on to perform elaborate artistic pranks in the group KLF).
Next thing I know we are in the studio with Tom Polce (one of Michael’s bandmates in Letters to Cleo), and the two of them are basically doing everything. I stand there feeling useless and incapable of working at their level. An autographed LP by Ingrid Michaelson is propped up against the wall taunting me that even someone from Staten Island is better at this than I am. I go home exhausted and not knowing what to think.
Sometime after that I get a text from my best friend Angie Shaw (a disc jockey in Boston with an ear for picking singles), she tells me that I need to put a female backup singer on the choruses. There is no thought, I just forward it to Michael, he agrees.
A week later and I am standing around a microphone with Michael and his bandmate (my favorite rock star) Kay Hanley. We are recording handclaps around a vintage microphone. For a brief moment I realize this is what my inner 17 year old could have only dreamed about, I am concerned that this may be the single happiest moment of my life.
While Michael continues working I ask the artist Mark Kostabi (who painted the covers of both Guns N Roses “Use Your Illusion” albums and The Ramones “Adios Amigos”) if I may use one of his paintings for the cover, he agrees.
I decide to call the band “Sam Pocker & the Pretty Colors” as a reference to a lyric in a Juliana Hatfield song (“I’m bleeding pretty colors all over myself” from “Universal Heartbeat”). It had a dual meaning in that the first piece of scenery I bought for my open mic night performances was a multicolored light bulb that projected patterns on the wall behind me. Therefore in order to make a public appearance Sam Pocker and the Pretty Colors would just have to be myself and a light bulb flashing pretty colors on the wall.
In three weeks time the first two songs I’ve ever recorded feature 3/5ths of one of my favorite bands and have cover art by one of my favorite artists. Things are looking great. My friends are super impressed. I barely did anything other than write a song and write a few checks.
I make the mistake of then reading Bill Drummond’s “The Manual” and idiotically thinking I may have a hit on my hands. Angie warns me that I probably do not have a hit on my hands. I spend money on stuff like copyrights and ISRC code embedding anyway (these are electronic codes attached to an audio file so that every time it’s played on the radio or used in a YouTube video you can get paid a royalty).
The grandiose music video I want to make (Nina and Louise from 90’s hard rock band Veruca Salt in a supermarket featuring countless obscure references to a Pavement video they appeared in twenty years prior) is unaffordable, so I hire a guy I found on fiverr.com (a website where you can hire freelancers to work on creative tasks) to make a claymation version of it for $600. Then I sit and wait for a month until it is finished. Kay watches it and calls it “demented”. She posts about it to her social media following, it gets two likes (one from her boyfriend Clay, the other from Angie).
At this point I start to call in all the favors that I dreamed about calling in twenty years ago when I was younger and well-connected. The song gets played for program directors at some of the biggest radio stations in the country, they all turn it down. Radio promotions people won’t return my emails regardless of who referred me (with one exception who tells me I must have an album’s worth of material or he can’t help me). I spend $1000 on YouTube promotion, it gets a lot of views but little to no engagement.
Twenty two of my friends purchase a copy online for .99c each, one of whom (Evan “Funk” Davies) happens to be a disc jockey on my favorite radio station (WFMU) and plays it five times over the next few months. It sells a few more copies.
Unfazed I read about how to make a video with content that could potentially go viral. Watching YouTube for three days straight I learn about the importance of the first 48 hours after a video is uploaded in terms of affecting YouTube metrics. Which day of the week, which time of day, and how to target the video are researched and planned carefully.
I spent $300 making a video for the other song in a green-screen studio in Burbank that clearly doubled as a porno set. It features me lip-syncing the song and pretending to play guitar while three cats ignore me and lights flash behind us. Then I spent another $1500 promoting that one on YouTube. It got even more views and even less engagement.
In an act of desperation I hire a band, book a stereotypical pay-to-play showcase in Hollywood (where you have to pay the venue in one form or another for the opportunity to use the stage and make it seem as if you’ve been booked to play a show), bribe some acquaintances to attend, and hire a videographer to capture it. My idea is that if we have a live version of the song presented in a theatrical manner, maybe this can capture the attention I would need to get more gigs and raise awareness. The videographer never shows up, and the cell phone camera video that I end up posting gathers less than a hundred views.
My “career” is over in my mind. I decide to “quit” this band, make up a new one, and start from scratch with the lessons learned.
Album Number One “Melrose Meltdown”
When I was in Florida I had tried doing this thing that some people do when they are pretending to not be really terrible solo artists. I tried using a band name (even though I was the only person in the band), which I called “Sam Pocker & The Agoura Hills PTA”.
The name comes from my friend Kim who had been the PTA president in Agoura Hills, California and she would tell me all kinds of surprisingly dark stories about the infighting amongst parents in this suburban town she lived in.
In order to sound like a band and not just one person I started using the iPhone app called Garageband (for which I was able to find an $8 adapter that let me plug my guitar right into the phone and play along with pre-recorded drums, bass guitars, and other instruments). Then I could sing right into the microphone on my earbuds and make something that sounded like an actual band playing music as opposed to just me alone in my parent’s living room.
A lot of the early songs I had tried to write with Garageband were nothing more than phrases I had read when searching “Agoura Hills” on Google and trying to piece them into some kind of story. It was all really bad but the name was good. Sometimes I would just make up one phrase that sounded like it belonged in the song and sing that over and over again.
I learned how to export the songs to a website called bandcamp where you can put your music up for sale. Four songs later I had technically recorded my first EP, which I called “Placeholder Lyrics” (a term to describe the fake lyrics that artists sometimes record until they’ve actually written a song).
My open mic night performances had become a lot more elaborate. Bankruptcy court had come and gone, I was finding more things to buy and sell on eBay, and now I had an electric guitar along with some cheap laser lights and a fog machine. The locals in Florida didn’t know what to do with me at this point. By the time I was done setting up all my gear for my three songs someone shouted out “Is Metallica playing?”
Two years later here I was in Hollywood, and I was looking for what to do next after the lack of any interest in the Pretty Colors. I still had the original ten songs I had played Michael that he didn’t like. Gary Young was back at home and willing to work on them, but there were conflicting reports about his health and I couldn’t afford to spend any more money if the record was to go unfinished.
I really wanted to make a record that sounded like the band Times New Viking. They were from Ohio and the type of music they made was referred to as “shitgaze” (a play on the word shoegaze, which refers to a type of 80’s indie rock) because it sounded like shit. There would be lots and lots of distortion and noise, to the point that the average listener would probably not listen more than thirty seconds. This is one of my favorite kinds of music, regardless of it’s limited appeal. I researched the places they had recorded and the engineers they had used, but I had run out of money and it just wasn’t going to happen.
My logic in going forward with this process was that maybe I had been right in the first place, maybe Michael was just the wrong person for what I had wanted to do. What I had set out to do and what I did were two completely different things but they had led me down this path that ended out with this great product I hadn’t even considered making. Now I wanted to get back to what I had set out to do.
Justin, my best friend in college was a bass player and had been waiting twenty years for me to get it together so that we could start a band. He was coming to visit soon. I had met a drummer named Austin who would go to a rehearsal studio with me occasionally to work on these songs.
The three of us went to the recording studio in the basement of the songwriting school I had attended in Burbank and recorded all of the remaining songs.
I took the pro-tools master files from the live recording and sent them to a producer named Arthur in Ukraine I had found on fiverr with the instructions “make these as shitty as possible”. In his advertisement he talked about having a huge studio full of vintage analog equipment that he would use to mix and master each track. Six months later I found his instagram and discovered he was just another teenager with a laptop, but he seemed to know what he was doing. Arthur charged me $21 per song and turned it around in a few days. As I didn’t think they sounded quite shitty enough I imported them into Garageband and placed a distortion effect over the entire album. It sounded magical.
The songs had no titles but I had this idea of where to steal them from. My favorite record label (and home to bands like Pavement and Times New Viking) is named Matador Records. I went back to the very first release in their catalog, which was H.P. Zinker’s “…And There Was Light” and simply stole the titles from those songs.
One problem was that we had recorded more songs than they had, so I just truncated the extra songs. I didn’t think anyone would notice any of this, but kind of hoped that five or ten years from now someone would randomly discover it and think it was hilarious. Sometimes I secretly dreamed of Matador’s founder Gerard Cosloy searching for H.P. Zinker songs on Spotify in a nostalgic moment, discovering the joke, and signing me immediately.
The cover was a photo I had accidentally taken with my phone when I was trying to turn it off. I was at open mic sitting next to my friend Charlsey and she was ignoring the guy sitting next to her by pretending to be on her phone.
“Melrose Meltdown” had been the caption in a magazine in the 90’s that featured one of the stars of “Melrose Place” on the cover. Twenty years ago I had been standing on a sidewalk with a friend who was a musician and he saw the caption and said he was going to make it the title of his next album. As an ongoing discussion every time he released an album I reminded him that he’d forgotten to use the title until ultimately I used it.
There were some other serendipitous angles to the title as well. Letters to Cleo had a breakout hit song on the “Melrose Place” soundtrack, I now lived on Melrose Avenue, and I was clearly having some sort of meltdown.
To me, everything about this album was perfect. Nobody cared. As in literally I did not sell one copy. My friend Ellen said it reminded her of Sonic Youth. Again, my “career” was over.
Album number two “The Sam Pocker Ensemble”
One night in Florida I was struggling for ideas about what to do at open mic night. The bar I’d been performing in was as country of a bar as you could imagine. Some weeks I was the only person on stage not wearing a camouflage patterned garment. I’d started to think about things I could still do for free (or close to free) that would get a reaction after having done so well with the make out room stunt.
There’s an opera by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson called “Einstein on the Beach” which is unique in the fact that most of the libretto is spoken and not sung. It was a groundbreaking work of postmodernism and helped both of them get their careers off the ground. As an avid Philip Glass fan I thought of something he said once about his learning process. “You learn by copying.”
It was pretty easy to find the libretto for “Einstein” online, and I took one segment, separated the three vocal parts into separate documents, printed them out, and headed to the bar.
I went on stage with my guitar and asked for volunteers. A couple of unsuspecting people walked on the stage. I handed them the printouts and said “Ok, I’m going to start playing the guitar. When I start I want one of you to read the entire page over and over until I stop. I want the other person to read the entire set of five pages until the end”. I played those same chords I’d used before from “Best of Both Worlds” as slow as possible over and over for about ten minutes while the two of them read nervously into their microphones. I sang the third part (which is just a string of numbers) badly into my microphone.
The entire bar was silent. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the stage. The entire room stood still for all ten minutes and then erupted into riotous applause. I’d just pulled off the world’s cheapest and worst production of “Einstein on the Beach” in a saloon 61 miles south of Tampa. For a brief moment I felt invincible.
Meanwhile back in present-day Hollywood : It was fall and my seasonal depression (which is a nice way of explaining the fact that I’ve been depressed my whole life except for like six weeks in 2011) was kicking in.
I started listening to a lot of opera as one does in this situation. Weeks went by and all I had done was pay bills and listen to every recording imaginable of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”. Opera (like popular music) tends to go in cycles of what’s popular and what’s passe. “The Pearl Fishers” was having a big revival moment. Every opera company seemed to be doing a version all of a sudden.
“The Pearl Fishers” features a duet about friendship which is titled “Au fond du temple saint”. If you’ve never heard it, it’s probably one of the best if not the best operatic songs of all time. I listened to it all day over and over for a while. Here in central Hollywood I was feeling as lonely as I’d ever felt. I’d survived a major life change, moved across country to start over, and couldn’t find anyone to even have lunch or dinner more than once every few weeks at best.
I went down to the public library and took out a book about how to listen to opera. I began to toy with some of the classical loops in Garageband and had grandiose visions of composing opera even though I had no idea how to read or write music let alone write an entire composition.
At this point I still thought that my next project was going to be another guitar-based pop/rock album. As I felt alone and had no one to talk to, I started to want to emulate another Matador artist named Liz Phair. Her earliest recordings were just her alone in her bedroom with a guitar and I thought “well, I could do that!”
Liz Phair’s first record was titled “Exile in Guyville” and was a track-by-track response to The Rolling Stones “Exile on Main Street”. I went about printing out track lists, chords, and lyrics interpretations for both albums and covering the wall of my kitchen with them. I wanted to use the same formula as a template for the album I was going to make. It took a few weeks but I started to get the hang of it. In any given song Mick Jagger would be singing about one thing, in the Liz Phair version she would present the same concept from her point of view, and I could see where many of the songs shared similar chord progressions and structures.
I made blank pages that had the chord progressions and structures in place, I made notes about the themes, and I started to scribble down my point of view as if I had overheard them talking at a party and interrupted.
Most of the songs ended up in the trash, but I had this one song title that I couldn’t stop thinking about. “Hot Soapy Water” just sounded so much like a Liz Phair song title that I struggled with it for a long time. The chorus is great and everything else about it is horrible. All the other songs I had written for this project were garbage. Mick and Liz were talking about their sex lives and I didn’t have one. I hadn’t been on a date in four years and in Hollywood I was as invisible as could be. There weren’t even people for me to imagine writing this stuff about. I needed some ideas.
When I searched my old emails for the phrase “Liz Phair” I came across plans that my friend Ellen and I had made to attend a Liz Phair concert a decade prior. The details of that concert were minimal so I sent Ellen an email asking her everything she remembered about it. Ellen is a business copywriter and has an incredible memory for these kinds of things. She sent back a very long email detailing everything going on in her life at that time. I printed it and placed it on the corkboard in my kitchen next to what was beginning to look like some kind of manifesto they find after someone commits a mass shooting.
One night while eating a candy bar and staring at her email I had an idea. I highlighted certain phrases from the email that I liked and started reading them over loops of the string quartet parts I’d been playing with on Garageband. It sounded like “Einstein on the Beach”. This was something I could actually do and would express the emotions I wanted to express. I was learning by copying.
When you are recording music on a computer, each instrument or voice is separated into what is called a stem. Each stem can then be exported in a universal file format so that anyone (regardless of which software they use) can do work on the file.
Using fiverr I sent separated stems of each instrument to a musician in Russia who for $5 each sent me back sheet music for each part.
Then I hired another musician in Belarus to play those parts for $5 each. This served two purposes: I could verify that the transcriber had done the job correctly (since I can’t read or write music), and I had a new recording of the part that wouldn’t sound obvious to anyone who was familiar with the Apple series of loops.
I had a new recording that sounded fresh and as if I had actually composed the parts from scratch, it cost $40 for one song.
Making a spreadsheet and spending days researching on fiverr, I was able to hire actors to read the highlighted phrases from Ellen’s email and I could layer and loop them in Garageband. Then I hired Arthur (the producer who had worked on the Agoura Hills album) to mix and master the song for $21.
While I was waiting for Arthur to do the work I started having all sorts of other crazy ideas. I got the Google Maps directions from Ellen’s office, to her home, to her therapist’s office, and back to her office. Then I hired a choir in Venezuela to sing them. They sent a 30 second sample which sounded incredible, and I agreed to pay them a few hundred dollars to do the rest. After several days I got an email stating that the engineer’s hard drive had been destroyed and he couldn’t complete the work, then he disappeared. Fiverr issued me a refund, I tried finding another choir, but I couldn’t find anything close to the demo they’d sent.
The first track came back from Arthur and it sounded great. It worked out to $81 to make an entire song from scratch. I decided my goal was to make an entire album of these, have it actually pressed on CD (because I felt that opera listeners were mostly older and more interested in having physical product) and have it placed in the opera section of Amoeba Music where I’d been spending a lot of my time looking for versions of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” that I hadn’t heard yet.
After doing some back of the envelope math I realized it would cost a thousand dollars to make this record and I no longer had a thousand dollars to spend on making music that nobody other than Ellen and I wanted to hear.
I might add that I didn’t even know that Ellen wanted to hear it, I never told her what I was doing, she was just used to me asking lots of random questions for artistic inspiration.
I could save $400 just by using the original loops. I made a demo of the track using the loops, took Michael to lunch, played him the demo and asked if it sounded “real” to him. We listened to it on his studio monitors and he was shocked that I had been able to make something of this quality in Garageband. That was a good enough litmus test for me.
I started to scour Ellen’s old facebook posts from previous years looking for more material and I would send her emails asking about them. At the same time she was encountering problems at work and would send me long emails with great detail. I kept highlighting phrases that stuck out.
The spreadsheets started getting massive, there were so many parts and actors. No actor appears twice on the album. Ellen finally heard the work I had done so far and had a good reaction to it. Then she got fired and ran out of material for a minute.
My friend Dee called me one day and told me that someone kept calling her phone and leaving messages for someone else by mistake. She played them for me and told me it had been going on for a few months. Neither of us had any idea what the person was talking about. I transcribed all the voicemails and turned them into another scene.
One night at the Hollywood Bowl a ticket scalper friend told me that he was an avid user of the “Casual Encounters” section of craigslist. I had no idea what it was but quickly discovered it was a forum for prostitutes to solicit customers. Having never read this stuff before I started looking at it and was intrigued by the fact that the prostitutes would write simple ads with a name, maybe a photo, a phone number, and a price for their services. The customers meanwhile would write long essays detailing all of the sexual fantasies they wanted to meet someone to fulfill.
I stopped reading the prostitute ads and started reading the ads all the customers had posted. There was so much copy to sift through but I found great stuff. Using the same technique of printing out the ads and highlighting words and phrases that sounded unique, I hired actors to read the parts.
When I listened to the first version of the recording it was awful. I started to question what I was doing. While I was sitting at the desk listening I looked over to my cat who was sitting in the window. We started having an imaginary conversation and he said “Why don’t you have women read the men’s parts, and men read the women’s parts?”
As I started to look for actors to cast in these roles, I thought that maybe I should find people who wouldn’t try to sound sexy reading them. I looked for actors who specialized in business voiceovers and audiobooks. The finished result was completely different and brought all the joy of this process back to me. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d done but I loved listening to it over and over. That was good enough for me at that moment.
Shortly after that a friend was visiting from out of town and took me along to a business dinner. I observed everyone at the table, imagined that this was a scene in an opera, and went home to reconstruct the evening. An older gentleman who was buying a company was represented by a list of things to be aware of when buying a company, his companion that he openly stated was from a sugar daddy dating site was represented by a list of things to be aware of when entering an agreement with such a patron, and the waitress was represented by having an actress read the entire menu cover to cover. Many years prior I had done a performance art piece where I would read restaurant menus cover-to-cover in a slow, matter-of-fact manner and this was partially an homage to that.
Around this time I’d been invited to a birthday party. It was the first party I’d been invited to in a long time and I was very excited. I picked out an outfit, cleared my calendar of whatever it was I was doing that day, and bought the person an expensive bottle of champagne as a birthday present. The person who invited me told me they would text me the specifics of what time and where to go, but to plan on being there.
The night of the party there was no reply from the host. I sat and watched the party play out on Facebook. I’d never been invited to and uninvited from a party before in my life, let alone something like this. I thought these people were my friends? Had I been caught in that old adage about everyone in Hollywood is fake? I cracked open the champagne and started crying.
My cat started nuzzling my ankle. Once again we started having an imaginary conversation. “Why do people hate me?” I asked
“Meow” he said
“Am I going to die alone?”
“What do we do now?”
“Meow art meow, you an artist right?”
I opened Facebook again and stared at one of the photos. I knew several of the people in the room. What was going through their heads? What did they have in common? Was it something that I didn’t have in common with them?
In art history you learn how to look at every square inch of a painting and translate the symbolism in minor details that anyone who didn’t take art history wouldn’t understand. I was an A+ art history student. I stared at that photo for a really long time. Before I knew it I’d made a list, the last line of which was circled and it read “adults without children”.
I started reading articles about how being an adult without children makes you different from other adults. Even though I don’t have children and many of these things should be inherent knowledge I kind of needed a reminder. I needed to find some kind of artistic statement I could make about how upset I was that I’d been uninvited from this party.
There was a market research survey I found with a list of statements that required you to select how strongly you felt about each one. I took the statements from this survey and used them as one part. In my head I imagined a real opera where the uninvited person sat on a bench at one end of the stage repeating the statements over and over. How then would I represent the party itself?
Going back to what I’d done with one of the Ellen pieces I went on each of the attendee’s facebook pages and pulled random quotations from prior years. Things that may have sounded innocent at the time but in this context sounded quite bitter and dark. I hired an opera singer in Canada on fiverr to sing a random assortment of these phrases.
After combining the two and listening to the song I knew I really had something. Most importantly I felt better. This was my way of coping with the rejection and I had this great work of art to show for it. Everyone who hears the album says this is their favorite track.
I’d learned from all the music I’d done so far that at 41 years old when you introduce yourself to someone and say that you’re in a band they kind of look at you as if you were either a loser, a deadbeat, or just stupid. I figured if I told people I composed opera they might look at me a little differently so I decided to give that a try for a few weeks. Turns out they just give you a very confused look as if they had absolutely no way to process the information you’d just presented. It wasn’t where I wanted to be but it was an improvement.
I called the project “The Sam Pocker Ensemble” so that it would sound good and pretentious. If you do something weird and pretentious enough it has the potential for a higher perceived value.
My friend Matthew Couper is an exceptional visual artist and was kind enough to let me use one of his paintings for the cover. I spent days bargain shopping for the best deal on having the CD made, and I drove right from the factory where I picked them up to Amoeba Music and had a copy placed on consignment in the opera section. The next day I went back and took a photo of it on the shelf.
I tried in vain to get anyone in the opera world to write about it, listen to it, review it, notice it, or publicize it. Either I was ignored or I was told that it was “too low of fidelity.” I tried to get it booked as a live event, having remembered the success that one of my idols, the now deceased Simon Jeffes (of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra) had done by performing classical music in bars and pubs. Everyone in L.A. scratched their head and moved on.
With 98 CDs and nowhere else to go I decided to manually send them to classical radio stations by hand. I sent out about ten of them, and a week later got an email that a local station KXLU was going to play some of the album on the air. They played one of the tracks about Ellen’s problems at work between Brahms and Leonard Bernstein. Not bad for my first attempt at opera, but not enough to help me make another one without spending a fortune of money.
Once a week my mother still tells me this is her favorite thing that I’ve ever made and that I should be trying to do more with it.
Album number three “Lavatory”
Many of my ideas occur to me when I’m in the shower. The whole goal up until this point was just to have some kind of recorded music that I could use to go out and perform a show with, to gain a small audience, and to keep on writing and performing more elaborate shows. If I could even get 50 fans that would be more than enough to make the whole thing self-sufficient and allow me to work creatively. My goals were (and remain) extremely modest. I counted that with some luck I might be able to get five people to attend one of my performances, and that I needed to make something somehow that I could get five people to attend that wouldn’t cost hundreds of dollars. At least if I had five people maybe I could grow that to ten people and so on.
I opened the shower curtain and looked at the bathroom. I could probably fit five people in there. What kind of show would I do? It would have to be just myself and an instrument. It should be site-specific, and it should be short because it would be uncomfortable to be in there for more than about fifteen or twenty minutes.
After reading about Los Angeles in detail I realized that the most appropriate music would have to do something with hair metal (so-called due to the bands’ extensive use of hair spray and an emphasis on looks over talent) of the 1980s, as it was the only kind of music that had truly been indigenous to Los Angeles, regardless of its lack of artistic integrity.
After spending a few weeks learning and researching I had the brilliant idea to record the whole thing on cassette, have the record release party in the bathroom, and have that show recorded on VHS tape. Between the album, VHS, and a t-shirt of the cover (which of course was designed by someone I hired on fiverr) there would be an entire box set based around this project.
Once again being inspired by Drummond’s “The Manual” I decided just to cover songs and not waste any time writing my own. My enthusiasm would contextually overshadow my lack of talent and the work was more about the overall production than the songs themselves.
During this process I watched music videos for all the songs I was thinking about covering, along with extensively reading the band biographies and watching documentaries about everything to do with the songs and the artists. I was trying to learn as much about Los Angeles as I could through it’s art. There were little things I noticed such as in the copyright for one of the songs, each member of the band had clearly formed their own publishing company for distribution of their songwriting royalties. This is a common practice and usually results in names such as “[Singers Name] Music” or something similar. One of the songs had an attribution to “Dick Dragon Music” and I imagined the meeting where some intoxicated rock star was told by their lawyer they had to pick a name, any name, for their company and he thought this was hilarious.
One video, for the song “Down Boys” by the band Warrant was unremarkable except for a t-shirt that the lead singer was wearing. I took a screen capture of it and sent it to Angie. We discussed for a while what we thought it said as it wasn’t fully legible. Some more research led me to a website where someone sells bootleg “PEE LIKE A MAN” t-shirts as they appear in the video. I decided this would be my costume for my performance as well.
I bought a cassette recorder on eBay and it broke after I recorded one song, then I bought another and it arrived broken. I borrowed a cassette recorder from a friend and that one broke too. Then I had to buy a couple more after that, and ultimately spend $100 getting one of those repaired.
Another thing I hadn’t considered was the licensing fees involved in doing a whole album of cover songs, which added another $200 to the budget. On craigslist I was able to find a videographer who worked mostly in making skateboard videos. He owned a VHS camcorder and was excited to have a reason to use it. None of his clients wanted to work in that format, and he was willing to record the entire show for $50. I invited 5 people over for the record release party. Only three of them showed up. A friend bought a copy on bandcamp. The video looks much cooler than the event did in person.
Sometimes when I’m in the bathroom I look around and think “I can’t believe I played a show here”.
Album number four “Sam Pocker Sings Juliana Hatfield”
I’d been thinking a lot more about Bill Drummond’s “The Manual”. One of the key pieces of advice is to not bother trying to write a song, but simply to cover a song that had been a #1 hit a long time ago, not too long that it sounded dated, but just long enough that most of the public had forgotten it. His advice was to re-record the song using a more contemporary sound and to make a music video wearing contemporary clothing.
I was starting to hear about a record by Juliana Hatfield that had been recorded but not yet released that sort of did the same thing. She’d taken songs made famous by Olivia Newton John (late 70’s — early 80’s) and transposed them to her signature 90’s alternative sound.
One day I got an email announcing her record and I saw the cover and the title “Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton John”. Within half a second my brain went back to my idea of interjecting myself into the conversation of two other albums and I started laughing uncontrollably. I wanted to make “Sam Pocker Sings Juliana Hatfield Singing Olivia Newton John”, take the existing cover which featured both of their profiles, and simply add my profile to it.
Then I sat down and listened to Olivia Newton John’s Greatest Hits and quickly realized that this was not something I really had my heart set on doing. As funny of an idea as the cover was, there was nothing more to it. I started to scale back and thought about just doing an album of Juliana Hatfield covers instead.
At first I had picked out an equal number of songs as appear on the JH/ONJ album. As I started to think more about it I was worried that Juliana might be really pissed off by this project. Here she was doing something earnest and I was making a complete mockery of it in a way by diverting attention from her work to my version of her work. At the same time, I know she has a sense of humor and was hoping she would just laugh at it as hard as I did.
I’d learned from “Lavatory” about song licensing and consciously went through the songs in her catalog that she didn’t control the licensing of. Even though the licenses I could be granted were considered compulsory (meaning that the artist can’t deny you a license), the rights holder would receive a notification that I’d licensed the work. I’m sure there aren’t a lot of people licensing her songs for cover versions, and that I didn’t want her getting notification that I had licensed fourteen of them at once.
I worked through songs that had been controlled by her former record labels and refined my selections across her entire catalog.
As I’d learned from my previous outsouring on fiverr, I could hire musicians to do pretty much anything I wanted. The easiest thing would be to have MIDI files made of each song, modify them, and then sing over them. A MIDI file is a digital file that tells a computer what notes to play and when to play them. Using a program like Garageband you can change which instruments are playing which parts. So if the MIDI file has an electric guitar, and you have a software instrument for an acoustic guitar, all you have to do is assign that instrument to that part and all of a sudden there’s an acoustic guitar playing instead of an electric guitar.
Modern pop groups like Superorganism take this to extremes by replacing instruments with sounds like an apple being bit into, a pop-top soda can being opened, or a hand splashing the top of a full bathtub. The artist M.I.A. had a hit single where she replaced some instruments with the sounds of gunfire and cash registers. It’s a fairly modern sound, and I thought I would attempt to do the same with Juliana’s songs.
A musician in Greece would make me new MIDI files with each instrument separated for about $30 each. It took him a few days to do each one, but it worked out to almost $500 just for the files. I hired him to do one as a demo, and then I loaded it into Garageband replacing the drums and guitars with more modern-sounding electronic instruments. It was OK but you could tell it was still a rock song.
My friend Nick Turco from the band Skin Town was visiting and I played him the track. Nick is a MIDI fanatic. He showed me some tricks, and he began playing with the file. I took a step back and realized that these would sound great as disco songs. Many of Olivia Newton John’s songs could be categorized as borderline disco. There were certainly many disco remixes of her singles in the late 70’s. I could do the reverse of what Juliana had done, Juliana made a 70’s song sound 90’s and I was going to take her 90’s songs and make them sound 70’s.
We got out some of my books about disco music and disco culture. With a little work we were able to track down emulators for the kind of instruments that producers like Gregg Diamond would have used on songs like “More More More”. The 12” version of Andrea True Connection’s “More More More” was sort of the benchmark for the sound that I felt would work so we just copied whatever we could of his production.
Nick went home to his studio and worked on the files for a few days. He sent them back and they sounded amazing. All I had to do now was actually sing the singing part of “Sam Pocker Sings Juliana Hatfield”.
I spent most of my childhood in performing arts programs of some sort. Choirs, school musicals, arts camp, and all the rest of that but as an adult I am not the greatest singer. I can sing, but I struggle with hearing whatever it is I’m singing. Even after a full year of voice lessons ($5 for 30 minutes, from an instructor on fiverr of course), I was competent but not talented enough to make the laughably egocentric album “Sam Pocker Sings Juliana Hatfield”.
There were multiple failed (and expensive) attempts at working with local producers on recording the vocals. They were depressing to say the least. A low point came when I was standing in the living room of someone half my age, watching them manually adjust every note I’d sung, while looking at motivational notes they’d posted on the wall all of which revolved around how much money they were going to make as a successful producer.
It was at this point that I realized it would not be financially possible to record 14 songs. I went home and read about disco some more. One of the major business concerns of disco was that you could extend one song for around six or seven minutes in order for people to keep dancing and issue the one song as a single on a 12” instead of a 7” record. By taking a three minute rock song and turning it into a six minute disco song I could put fewer songs on the album and achieve a longer running time. This would both save me money and appear to be a more accurate artistic interpretation of the work.
I wanted the record to be released on the same day as the actual JH/ONJ record otherwise it wouldn’t have made any sense to anyone. I felt like the element of surprise was what made it amusing. Why would some no-name who could barely sing feel that it was appropriate to put out this somewhat carbon copy of a talented performer with a small following covering an artist who had been out of the mainstream for thirty years? The whole thing was such a microcosm self-referential work that either I had to do it correctly or not at all. The clock was ticking.
As I kept bouncing around recording studios trying to get the vocals done I’d hit another snag. In order to use Juliana’s name in the album title I’d have to get her permission. There was no way to get around this. I was going to wait until the last possible second to ask her, but I’d had alternate cover artwork made with a different title (“Sam Pocker Disco!” a nod to “Mickey Mouse Disco!” a Disney record that had capitalized on the Disco fad).
Once I was able to get a decent vocal recorded for the first song I bit the bullet and emailed Juliana to ask her permission. There was no reply. Days went by. I thought for sure she was going to hate this. The release date was approaching, the record was done, almost no one knew what I was up to.
Sometimes when you want to attract someone’s attention you don’t approach them, you get everyone around them to start talking about you. I uploaded the cover art to my Facebook page, spent $20 on advertisements, and targeted people who live in Massachusetts and like Juliana Hatfield. Within 48 hours a member of her band likes the post, and the next day I get an email from her that reads “Hey, what?” After some mild pestering she agrees to let me use her name in the title.
A local arts website in Boston agreed to run a story about it resulting in the first real press I’d gotten for any of my music. I made a video in under fifteen minutes by placing my laptop on the floor of my hallway, running back and forth to my living room to watch a YouTube video on basic disco dancing moves and then recording them. The video was meant to emulate a similar music video that Juliana Hatfield had done for her previous record. I hired a teenager in Sri Lanka (whom I found on fiverr) to edit the whole thing for $16.
In the end this three-song album cost so much money that I’m too embarrassed to even give you a number. It sold nine copies.
Album number five “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain”
At this point I was delirious. I decided to lock myself in the bathroom for a weekend with the cassette recorder and learn how to play every song on (my favorite) Pavement album “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.” It was going to cost zero dollars. It was going to be fun. I was going to have a good time for no money.
I didn’t care if I sang off-key, if I played the wrong chords, if I sang the wrong lyrics. I just wanted to enjoy what I was doing as the previous albums had all felt more like work than fun.
The cassette recorder broke, of course, and I realized I could place an iPhone on one side of the bathroom and an Android phone on the other side of the bathroom, record each song, then import the two recordings into to Garageband, slightly alter each track, and end up with something that sounded unique.
In line with my desire to spend no money I simply uploaded it to YouTube because they would deal with the licensing and royalties. It’s not like this was even going to sell one copy had it been released via any other channel.
It has 63 views, more than double that from the “Lavatory” event which cost hundreds and took over a month. It’s not my best work, but it’s authentically me. If I weren’t concerned with pissing off my neighbors I would have done it with an electric guitar and amplifier instead. I may still do that someday.
Album number six “The Pregnant Vegans”
I stopped making any kind of music for a few weeks. Maybe it was a few days, maybe it was a few months. At this point I had just sort of given up. Nothing I was making was generating the slightest bit of interest from anyone.
As an artist you’re supposed to make art because you have to, because it’s the only way you can express certain things you can’t express otherwise, and / or because it’s the only way you know how to communicate with other people. While I do tend to suffer from all of these mental illnesses I also suffer with the mental illness of being a businessperson and knowing that I can’t just spend every dollar I make on making art that nobody wants to buy.
I’ve been called “complicated and expensive” in court documents before, and it’s probably a very accurate description of the fiscal realities of my imagination. It’s easy for me to work with a budget, but just set adrift on my own things can get expensive.
One day I found myself at the post office having an argument with one of the employees. It was like one of those scenes in the film “Idiocracy” where everything had become so dumbed-down that an employee at a basic service couldn’t really grasp the basic functions of the system. Two postal inspection clerks overlooked the argument and laughed, but neither one stepped in to help me. I was aggravated and left the building.
As I walked down the steps back to my car it somehow struck me that it was a great idea for a punk song.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard that David Byrne quotation about how people care more about little everyday things than big ideas. Everyone has a problem with the post office sooner or later. Punk is simple, it doesn’t require much in the way of musicianship. Maybe I can piece something together.
Again I went back to Garageband loops and searched the words “heavy” and “dark”. I looked on YouTube for classic Los Angeles punk bands (the kinds I’d never liked and would never listen to), and it seemed like they often used a three piece set up out of necessity.
Emulating this with one drum kit, one bass guitar, and one rhythm guitar I simply painted a loop of all three instruments for about five minutes, plugged in a microphone and started ranting.
The next day I went back and took some of the better lines out of the recording, pieced those together and wrote lyrics around them.
I sent the recording to Paul Kostabi who was surprised but kind of impressed. We both thought it actually sounded like something a punk band would have released but with this edge of the kind of knowledge that people in their teens and early twenties who might be the stereotypical punk songwriters wouldn’t possess.
Within two days I had written three more. We agreed to find someone who would record the vocals locally, then I would send all the files to Paul and he would edit them.
Paul got me in touch with Geza X, a producer best known for his work with bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and The Germs. Communication was stalled at best for a couple of weeks. I’d started phoning the worst recording studios I could find and asking if there was anyone who knew how to record punk or metal. My budget was about $10 an hour, and I wanted this to sound somewhat authentic.
The moment I’d finally booked something with a studio that advertised themselves as “420 Friendly”, I got the call back from Geza with a proper appointment time. I hired someone on fiverr to make a logo for the album cover, I paid them $5.
Most of the lyrics were written in an Uber on the way to and from the studio. The irony of writing punk lyrics in the back of an Uber was not lost on me. We recorded the whole thing in three days. We could have recorded it in two days if we hadn’t been laughing ourselves sick the whole time. My throat has never hurt so badly in my life.
After recording a couple of tracks I spoke with Geza about the imposter syndrome I was feeling. I told him that I didn’t think I could scream (for lack of a better word) as well as the guys who had really done this stuff. Geza asked me if I’d heard a certain Black Flag song. I admitted to him that the only Black Flag song I knew was “TV Party” because they used to show a music video for it on MTV a lot. He said “You sound as good as any of that stuff.”
This kind of music is strange. It’s so loud and angry that it sort of builds a wall around the singer to the point you just assume they spend their time offstage punching inanimate objects and sleeping on a lot of floors. It was the complete opposite of any life I’d ever aspired to, but I felt that there should be something else to go with my song about how annoyed I was at the post office. When we listened back to the recordings it sounded like something an actual punk band had made and put a lot of effort into. We kept laughing about how easily we’d made this thing.
Paul mixed and mastered the record in an afternoon. I had two t-shirts made with the band logo I’d purchased on fiverr, and I sent him one as a thank you gift.
I released it the same day it was finished. There was no point in trying to sell this to anyone, it’s a dead genre. Paul and I wear our Pregnant Vegans t-shirts regularly on both coasts. They get nothing but compliments. Everyone who hears the record loves it. I’m proud of the fact that I made a legitimate punk album with two of the best producers ever to work in the genre for less than $500.
We got so many compliments on the t-shirts that I had a small batch of them printed, and they are for sale behind the counter of Headline Records on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. It is the most stereotypical punk record store that you’ve ever seen in your life.
The videographer who shot the “Lavatory” party met me on a Sunday morning outside the post office where I’d had the argument. I had a sock puppet adorned with $6 worth of googly eyes from Amazon. The teenager in Sri Lanka edited the video for “The Los Angeles Post Office Sucks” for another $16. The video currently has 35 views. I’m not sure if we’ve sold a copy of the album yet but I’m going to guess not.
In some ways this is the project I am proudest of.
Album number seven “Pretty Perfect”
I’d had the title scribbled down on a post-it note for a while. It was the entire contents of an email from the artist Steve Keene of whom I’m an avid collector. I’d sent him a photograph of a wall in my apartment where I’d displayed one of his paintings alongside the various influences for the painting.
The photograph on the cover was taken in a K-Mart store in New York where myself and my friends Josh and Alex had gone in to use the bathroom. I saw these frisbees and thought this would make a good album cover. I had no album in mind for it at the time.
Over the past few months I’d been trying to get more videos of these imaginary bands I’d created. There’s a venue in Burbank called Kulak’s Woodshed where you can go in and play two songs with a full backline, professional video setup, and multitrack ProTools rig all for $30.
I asked Austin to come play some of the songs we’d recorded, and since Justin couldn’t fly all the way to Los Angeles for two songs I hired a bass player off of craigslist.
The bass player asked for recordings of the songs and I accidentally sent him the files from before I’d added all the distortion to “Melrose Meltdown”.
Austin and I both realized my error and we were surprised at how good the songs sounded without the distortion. I re-ordered them, added back all the songs that I’d removed, retitled them, added the K-Mart photo and the snappy title.
Then I sent the record to everyone I’d previously sent “Melrose Meltdown” to and it got a much better response. Only Austin and Justin had any idea what I’d done.
I’ve considered making a handmade box set of the seven albums and four additional singles I’ve recorded in the last 11 months. What I was going to do was just buy an existing box set from another artist, remove their albums, and put mine in. Then I would collage my own cover art over the existing box.
I went from barely being able to play a song to having a complete discography, recorded in multiple studios with great people. It cost a lot of money and what little was left of my sanity, but I can say that I did it as well as anyone possibly could for their first year out of the gate.
My goal was, is, and has always been to be able to have a solid audience of about 50 people who would allow me to put on a show once a month somewhere. I just want to be able to work on stage creating all sorts of different live performances. The records were supposed to be a commercial for those performances, the videos a commercial for the records, this essay a commercial for all of it.
Sometimes it’s very frustrating watching people half my age just breeze onto a stage, play music that isn’t connecting with anyone, and fails to entertain the audience as they manage to fill a room with people they’ve collected on Instagram. When I think about how I wish I’d started a lot earlier I have to remind myself that there were a lot of false starts when I was younger, that having been a published author by the time I was 30 was a big deal, and that I’m better off with the knowledge I have now. Even though I wouldn’t want to compromise the quality of my work in order to attract an audience, it’s frustrating regardless.
On one hand I’ve failed miserably, but on the other hand I’ve made an entire discography of work in the process. I have no idea what I’ll be doing a year from now, but I’ll send you another postcard then.