Monday, March 24, 2008

In which Birdmonster reaches new cosmic understandings, tours Westward, and wishes pain on others

You know how in those Matrix movies, there's always some dweeb using two keyboards and staring at a whole mess of computer screens cascading neon green ASCII characters who can translate that soup of letters and numbers into an understandable narrative for the movie goer? They call that "seeing the Matrix." Or maybe they don't (and by "they," I'm referring to the Wachowski brothers, who, in their spare time, make J. Edgar Hoover and Divine seem conservative), but the phrase has worked its way into our cultural vernacular. We use it when we're doing really well at Ms. Pac-Man or when we're changing lanes on the freeway at just the right moment. It invokes an understanding beyond just a superficial grasp of a situation, a more interior knowledge of not only why and how something works but why and how it will work in the following moments. I bring this up because, after three years of being in Birdmonster, I can finally see the Taco Bell Matrix.

See, when you're traveling through large swaths of the country where the only food choices are reconstituted burger-chum, liquified roast-beef slurry, and probable-meat wraps, Taco Bell becomes a great option. But Taco Bell is not a place where you can just roll in, order any old thing on the menu, and devour. No, no. There are rules, both subtle and important, that must---I repeat MUST---be followed to avoid all manner of Giardia-style agony.

My bandmates Peter and Zach have long since seen into the Taco Bell Matrix. They are, in their own special way, two white Morpheuses, but, you know, without the penchant for overly hip sunglasses and painfully lame trench coats. They taught me the first, indeed the all-important, rule of Taco Bell ordering: NO SAUCE. It doesn't matter what flavor said sauce is masquerading as---be it "baja" or "chipotle" or "I hope that isn't human sperm"---do not eat that sauce. It will do bad things to your innards and your innards will punish you for your courageous idiocy. The T Bell sauce can be replaced with it's quote unquote salsa, which, in the words of Ralph Wiggum, "tastes like burning." My Siamese-Twin-Morpheus has another rule: thou shalt eat ground beef and only ground beef. In fact, the only true Taco Bell order is, in the purest sense, several crunchy ground beef tacos and a toddler-sized cola. You must err on the side of simplicity; Taco Bell is, in essence, a fast food Zen rock garden.

It was here that we reached our impasse. The ground beef they serve at T Bell ranks somewhere between prison sloppy joe meat and dog food. I tried to eat it on a few wasteful occasions but, alas, to no avail. I was at a loss. I certainly wasn't going to Arby's, but then again, I wasn't getting a Baja Calexico Gordito Supremo either. And while Cheez-Its might've tasted better, I'm not sure they have the requisite vitamins needed to survive or not-turn-orange. It was then that I had my revelation: if two people I trust can stomach ground beef that is not ground beef, couldn't I endure chicken that wasn't chicken? And suddenly, I felt like Harold Perrineau: I could see the Matrix. All the menu items made sense. The Taco Bell Universe telescoped into a singular, streamlined vision: chicken crunchy tacos, no sauce, smothered in the burn juice. I ordered, I ate, I survived.

This might not seem like a big deal to some of you. I assure you, it is. As frightening as this sounds, I now look forward to Taco Bell, whereas gut-holocausts like Burger King, Subway, Wendy's, Arby's, Sonic, and the like remain impenetrable mysteries. The "NO SAUCE!!!" rule applies, I believe, to all non-In 'N' Out Fast Fooderies, but beyond that, we are but babes in the woods.

I first saw the Taco Bell Matrix in Clovis, New Mexico, after choosing the Bell over a drive-thru only Domino's Pizza, a choice I stand behind with both of my feet and at least one of yours. We'd just finished playing the Lyceum Theatre, a thousand-some-odd person room filled with much less that a thousand-some-odd, a theatre that once hosted Buddy Holly and John Phillips Sousa, who, wrote music only for summertime parades and Benny Hill fast-forward sketches.

By the time we left Clovis, I was literally praying for another forced T Bell stop, but the Highway Gods would not oblige. We played in Tucson at the always wondrous Plush, where I spent half the evening sleeping off the inevitable tour sickness in the back of the van before playing a show covered in feversweat. Here's a great thing about Tucson though: we had a fifth member. His name was Tom. Hi Tom. Tom played the pedal steel, which (factoid alert) is one of the most---if not the most---recently invented, widely-used instrument. Tom was one of those musicians who can sit down and improve songs he's never heard in his life with, at best, a chord sheet drawn out twenty minutes prior and at worst, a bunch of Birdmonsters staring at him smiling. He was a great sport, a great man, and part of a band called These United States.

We would then travel further Westward to San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles. In San Diego, I reunited with an old friend who now does Jujitsu six nights a week and is built like a real life action figure. I laughed at all his jokes. In Orange County we played with the Henry Clay People, one of whom I went to college with and saw the Murder City Devils with, which is neither here nor there, but proves something about the world, namely that it's small and that screaming-horror-movie-punk-rock brings us all together. Los Angeles found us at a gorgeous little bar called the Bordello, which looked a bit like a miniature Great American Music Hall (good), had scantily-clad bartendresses (also good, yet very L.A.), and perhaps the weakest sound man ever (definitely not good). We did a song called "I Might Have Guessed" where I play the mandolin (see the video from last post, if you will) in front of a microphone he didn't feel like turning on. Sure, he watched us play, but he couldn't be bothered to, you know, make it sound good. Oh, and Dave's mic wasn't on either. And it wasn't just us. The next band (the Afternoons, who are parts of Irving, who are both fantastic) spent their set singing into mics that were sometimes on, sometimes off, and sometimes feeding back maniacally, all while the sound man sat there in his designer black shirt, getting paid to suck professionally. I hope he goes to Taco Bell and drinks a cup of Baja Sauce.

And now? Well, now, we're home. It's noon-ish Monday and we're finally finalizing the sequence for the upcoming, still unnamed, next Birdmonster album in an hour or so. So I should probably change out of my robe, wash the egg yolk off the cast iron, and get moving. If you're a Pacific Northwesterner, we'll be up in your general vicinity this weekend(ish) for shows in Portland, Seattle, and Spokane (twice). If you're not, well, you probably aren't getting rained on as much as they are, so take off that vinyl hat. You look ridiculous.

Friday, March 21, 2008

In which Birdmonster sleeps in New Mexico, gets saddened by bad film and, yet again, gets all Texas-y. Also: free music!

Greetings from Clovis, New Mexico. We're here in a rather bizarre little hotel which has, on the one hand, a coin-operated Battletoads game, a regulation-size Ping Pong table, and one of those over-chloronated swimming pools capable of chemical burns and Michael Jackson-esque skin bleachery. On the other hand, it smells like cow shit. I guess if you live in a place where the bovine populous outnumbers the human one, you get used to the aroma. Let's just say they won't be bottling Eau de Outside Our Hotel anytime soon.

Clovis is about as close to Texas as you can get without actually being inside the Lone Star State. In fact, the final town we passed last evening was called Farewell, Texas, which is oh so cute, I know, and is close enough to the central time zone line that, if you played your cards right, you could have a twenty-five hour Christmas or two New Year's Eves. We spent a good six days in Texas this year, doing the San-Antonio-just-don't-make-fun-of-the-Spurs-or-the-Alamo-and-you'll-be-alright-thing, the free-pants-music-music-music-South-By-cacophony-thing, and the oh-my-Lord-how-was-that-so-effing-cool?-Dallas-thing. We also watched the Miami Vice movie that came out a year or so back, which is perhaps the worst movie we've ever seen on tour, a list that includes Crackerjack, Hide and Seek, and Showdown, a veritable trifecta of motion picture incompetence. I've already filed a class action suit against Michael Mann and Colin Ferrell for emotional distress.

But I digress. This year's journey's to Austin was far mellower than usual. Whereas prior years had found us playing several shows a day in infernal temperatures, this year we played a single show at the Fader fort, recorded a couple brief sessions, and got our fair share of free crap while wearing last year's free crap, all in a pleasantly mellow clime. South By is, by nature, a bit overwhelming, what with the four billion bands and industry folk schmoozing frantically, everywhere, but there's still time for enjoyment. For example, we saw what ranks among my favorite shows---ever---at the aforesaid Fader spot. The band? N.E.R.D. In a world where great drummers are in short supply, it seems plainly unfair that N.E.R.D. gets two, but goddamn did it sound good. It was one of those shows where I actually laughed, not at the band, mind you, but because cheering and hooting just weren't quite enough. It was the laugh of some maniacal supervillian who, having captured and tortured a tuxedoed secret agent, ransomed the head of the U.N., and fire bombed Orlando, can only marvel at the inarguable awesomeness unfolding in front of him. So yeah: they were alright.

We also did some fancy pants recordings here and there too and while only one of those has made it onto the tubes of the interwebs, we're proud of it. The always fine folks at WOXY were the catalysts here and please, do check it out.

But South By is still South By. It can be a little Disney Worldy. The crowd is 90% exhausted bands, beer reps, girls hawking Nintendo products, 'zine peddlers, A&R guys, PR girls, B&O Railroad---people, in other words, with other things to do. That's why you go to Dallas.

See, Dallas was one of those shows. We started out playing to the bartender, the other bands, and a handful of dedicated stalwarts and ended up sweating and hooting to a bar full of blotto folks shaking tambourines, screaming requests, wrapping duct tape around my arm, stomping, and generally, well, being Texans. And that's a big compliment. It's essentially the opposite of doing the much maligned crossed-arm-hipster-"Is this cool enough for me to enjoy?" dance that's sweeping the nation. So thanks Dallas. You are the little straw that stirs our coffee.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

In which Birdmonster escapes Arizona unscathed, flees to Texas, and quickly replaces its lost friend

Arizona was the last contiguous state admitted into the Union, is the political home of the least-frightening-but-not-by-much Republican Presidential candidate, and the roost of a fatally flawed but lovable basketball team. It is a place, much like Palm Springs, that was largely uninhabitable before the advent of air conditioning and, much like Palm Springs, it is a place that is teeming with old men in funny pants and old ladies who give you those hard candies that look like strawberries but taste like that fruit-flavored wax dentists use. It is also a state that, historically, has crippled Birdmonster: we've had three vans over the life of our little band and Arizona---no joke---has crippled every one, including the one we were forced to buy inside Arizona, after the 48th state reduced our prior van to the vehicular equivalent of a tubercular leper. In the 2006-07 fiscal year, Birdmonster actually contributed 2% of Arizona's gross state product, barely behind crappy Southwestern, coyote-themed art and far ahead of the Cardinals, who, by all accounts, ceased being a professional sports team around the time Tecmo Super Bowl came out.

A thing like that can give you a complex. As soon as the border is in sight, I say three Hail Marys, a Shema Yisreal or two, and a Salah. I also sacrifice a cloven-hoofed beast, just to cover our bases.

So it was a surprise when, this trip, while still covered in pig's blood, we made it to the show without anything approaching a catastrophe. We exited the van gingerly (I expected the earth to rend apart, personally) and loaded out with extreme care. We played a show to more than six stalwarts and nothing exploded or melted, then sat around all evening waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Amazingly, it never did.

Now, I'm not saying we've conquered Arizona. That'd be like saying Apollo Creed got some good punches in against Ivan Drago. But what we did do is travel from one side of Arizona to the other without hemorrhaging cash, played a damn fine show to some damn fine folks, and lived to tell the story. Special thanks to Kevin from So Much Silence for putting the evening together, letting us sleep on his various couches, and play his hilariously out-of-tune piano at three thirty in the morning. Kudos.

Texas, on the other hand, has always been kind to the Monster. Whereas Arizona has traditionally stabbed us in the shower, Texas has always healed our wounds with energetic concert goers, incredibly cheap beer, and the total absence of fruits or vegetables. And, where Arizona had once melted my bass amp only to have Texas provide another (albeit far more expensive) one, Texas once again came through for us in the clutch, this time with another mandolin. The lesson, of course, is that Texas giveth, while Arizona taketh away. Well, hopefully not anymore. We're traveling back through AZ in three or four days. I hope this doesn't bite us in the ass. I'll be wearing chain mail.

So, yeah, a mere four days after the shattered corpse of my mandolin was found in the darkness of our van back seat, a San Antonio store called Spacetone Music provided a new, strangely similar, potato-bug looking mando. And, although this new one was roughly a third of the price, it's somehow far superior, namely because you can play it above the fourth fret without it sounding like a middle school orchestra playing Hot Cross Buns. This was rather fortuitous, as we had several acoustic thingies to do in Austin at South By this year and, while we all love the banjo, if I play it too much, I start wearing overalls and getting this urge to eat Funyuns.

(And by the way, when we get the recordings of those sessions, we'll post them. Hopefully later in the week. Back to the regularly scheduled blog.)

San Antonio, as always, was lovely. Instead of the Limelight, this time around we played the Rock Bottom Tattoo Bar, a decidedly grimy venue whose floor was covered in some strange colored water that was dripping from a ceiling made seemingly of garbage bags and duct tape. We played with some great acts, including the Whigs who are worth crowding the stage, trampling toddlers, and elbowing your mother for.

Austin followed San Antonio and Dallas followed that, but, judging by the carpal tunnel cramping I'm getting, I've been typing too long. We shall return shortly with stories of SXSW and our show in Dallas (easily the most fun I've had all year). Until then, I'll be walking around the greater Dallas area in my Warriors hat, hoping not to get pummeled. Au revoir.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A brief something to listen to

So, I was writing this post about our unusually triumphant jaunt through greater Arizona---a state which has taken from us countless hours, a bass amp, our second and altogether worst van, and a good percentage of my dignity---when I realized we were mere hours away from Austin. This not only means a probable heat wave and some definite tinnitus, but, in the purposes of the interweboblogosphere, free music. Yes, yes. We're taking an hour or so to play some songs for our old friends at WOXY and, if you so desire, you can hear it live. We'll be on at 3 PM Central, 1 PM Pacific, 4 PM Eastern, and 5 AM tomorrow in Pyongyang, which I felt you needed to know. There will probably be some sort of interview too, during which I'll say something I wish I hadn't and the room will go silent and then the Feds will come. I'm certainly looking forward to it.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

In which Birdmonster confronts staggering intelligence, leaves home again, and, like Elton John, has a Funeral for a Friend

I've never been one of those misanthropes who, upon each of life's many screwjobs, throws up his hands at the overall idiocy of humanity. "Everybody's an idiot," is one of those things you'll never hear me say---it's like that saying: If you meet ten assholes today, maybe you're the asshole. To wit: if you think everyone's a dumbass, I'd recommend checking your criteria.

Unless you're at U-Haul. Then everyone's a dumbass.

See, we'd been killing our van (the Donald) for the past few years by not tugging a trailer; the shocks needed replacement and sometimes, there's this peculiar noise when you back up, like a robot with emphysema. So we decided to bite the bullet, get a hitch installed, and rent a trailer. Unfortunately, this necessitated not one, but two trips to U-Haul, which is essentially like going to the lobotomy ward at St. Judes Hospital for Adult Mongoloids. See, when you call U-Haul to make a reservation, they keep you on the phone for an hour an a half so that when you come in the next day for your hitch-installation appointment, they can confess that, no, you have no reservation, but they can take that information they took yesterday over the phone yet again, just so long as you're willing to sit there and watch an eighteen year old hunt and peck on the keyboard like some Ukrainian peasant whose knowledge of computers is confined to watching Gorbachev's kid play Tetris in a state sponsored video from 1989. Oh, and you'll get your hitch, even if it takes three times as long as you were advised. Just don't reserve a trailer because there's no way you're getting the size you ordered, but if you want a trailer anyway, they'll do their best to charge you for the only size they have left because, well, the customer's always right the customer can always suck their balls.

So, say you make it through that an your have a trailer and a hitch. Now you want it installed? That'll take another hour and a half, regardless of the fact you were told it would take twenty minutes. In the meantime, you can wander around in circles, hollering invective. It'll be fun. Promise.

In the end, the best you can do is chalk it up as some bizarre rite of passage. You are mentally prepared for trips to the DMV, gas stations in central Ohio, and conversations with George Bush apologizers. It's like developing callouses on your brain. Of course, if I were you, I'd just take my word for it.

The end result is, thankfully, that the Donald is running like a dream, albeit a dream that smells vaguely of socks and rotten bananas. It's like sitting on a barcalounger that's sitting on a cloud that's can't go faster than sixty miles an hour.

And with that, we were back on tour. We are back on tour. Either way. In fact: both. Unfortunately, the overwhelming dumbassitude of U-Haul rubbed off on me personally, as I left all my keyboard doohickeys in my folk's garage in San Diego, which I discovered last night, right before I found out that my mandolin had been broken in half by a careless foot, right before I (yet again) spent a good few minutes wandering around a parking lot screaming words I'd rather not write, as my mother reads the blog from time to time. But more on that later. Rest in peace, little mando.

Our first night was San Diego's Casbah, which, admittedly, is pretty much the only place we play down in my childhood home, but if you played Scollari's Office the first trek down, you'd stick to the Casbah too. See, at the Casbah, they book less than eight bands, you're never really in danger of getting shivved, and no one screams "ROCK IT CALI-STYLE BROS!!!" at you the entire set. These are good things, although I'm not personally opposed to rocking it, Cali-style. I've plenty of nice things to say about the Casbah---the attentive and professional sound guys, the Churchillian amount of free booze, the astonishingly fantastic Ms. Pac-Man in the back room---but I've said them all before. I'm just happy we can keep coming back. It was always that club I wanted to go to in high school, but couldn't because it was never all-ages and my fake ID claimed I was a forty-year old Hindu. It's good to be old.

The jaunt to Los Angeles was, as always, too long, too slow, and filled with brown air, but it was worth it. The Pehrspace wasn't the cushiest club you've ever seen, but a $5 cover and a BYOB policy tends to make for happy evenings. Indeed it did. In fact, it was probably our favorite L.A. show to date. There were birthday girls, an old friend out for her first Birdmonster show, much dancing, and nobody doing the too-effing-cool-for-this, arms-crossed, Los Angeles non-dance.

That night had a little sadness as well: the aforementioned, mangled corpse of my mandolin. Lame. The worst part is that the thing was over a hundred years old (made by some long-dead gentleman named W.C. Cole in Boston) and that, in that century-plus, over who-knows-how-many-owners, no other buffoon managed to fustigate* that fragile little fellow. And then came me. And there went that. Let's just say I wouldn't recommend letting me hold your baby. Or your fine china. Or your cup of coffee. I'm like Mr. Magoo over here.

However, we've let that go. I'm carrying it's skeleton home for a proper burial, to be attended by my banjo, Dave's old Stella nylon string, Pete's old wheezy harmonica, and Zach's collection of cracked cymbals. Services will be at noon. Bring tissues.

We did the Arizona thing yesterday but, given our history with Arizona, I can't write about the state until we've actually left. In fact, writing that sentence just gave me heart palpitations. Let's just forget about the whole thing, Arizona. Just let us out alive.

Until soon.

* Fustigate is a perfectly cromulent word. It embiggens the soul.