Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In which Birdmonster, barely awake, tries to explain why it's in New York before failing spectacularly and falling asleep on a pleather sofa

Greetings from a windowless basement in Brooklyn sometime near two in the morning, though in fact I'm far too jetlagged and blotto and unemployed to really care where we are, what time it is, or if I have pants on, which, by the way, I do not.

We arrived in New York Monday night, deplaning anxiously after enduring the dual tortures of a talkative pilot and an inflight "The Bucket List" matinee which Dave and Peter were courageoustarded enough to watch. Their verdict: better than "Wild Hogs," which is sort of like saying a mayonaisse sandwich is better than getting stabbed in the face.

New York is the only city where I feel as if I've done something even if I haven't, like the bustle of the town makes you productive through osmosis. Thus far though, we have been mighty productive: We've powwowed with the label about business-flavored whatnots; we played a free show; we saw our producer Tom and reminscened about the Tenderloin strip club Amateur Night we went to, which was simultaneously too skeezy and not nearly skeezy enough; we watched the ends of both of the recent NBA semifinal games, alternately upset and ambivalent; we saw Jeffrey Ross, sitting alone outside some Chelsea coffee house, waiting for an impromptu celebrity roast to break out that never did.

After a solid month of sloth, it's nice to be here. I mean, sure, I love watching four hours of fake court every day, eating leftovers in my robe, and generally wondering why I went to college, but traveling has a way of realigning the brainpan for the better. I tend to come home feeling lucid, a feeling that fades quickly during the eighth consecutive episode of Judge Hatchett. What I'm saying is any trip, unless it involves LSD and a John Phillips Sousa-scored clown snuff film, is a good trip.

But it's odd going to meetings about the band after doing everything ourselves for so long. Don't get me wrong, it's completely fantastic, but ceding control is a hard thing. The idea is to move past the disorganized sojourns across the Canadian border that find us detained as smugglers, past the horrors of shopping for a van in triple digit heat, past the tours that find us playing to a solitary nine-fingered racist hobo on Easter. In the end, I feel as if we're entrusting Birdmonster to a really competent au pair with luscious knockers: on one level, I wish I could stay home with the kid and help him with his science project. On the other: luscious knockers.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How to Chose an Album Cover, Part 2 of 2

Yesterday, we began our course in Album Coverolgy 201, covering the a trifecta of possible cover strategies: Sex Appeal, Elaborate Outfits, and Phenomenal Hubris. Notably, we learned that none of these formidable strategies were sacrosanct, that each led to ruin in more cases than success. These, indeed, are trying times. We soldier onward.

4- The Aggressively Half-Ass Route

With so many ways to go wrong, it's not surprising that bands often err on the side of simplicity. You can't have a woman crapping on your cover whilst holding her shoe if you never take that photo, in other words. Take the Beatles' "White Album" for example: classy, bold, clean, iconic, the inherent message being "the music speaks for itself." But tread lightly, as it's only a hop, skip, and a jump from "Subtle and Classic" to "Put your hands up and step away from the glue stick":

The "Blue Album"

The "Speech Bubbles: They're Not Just For Garfield Anymore Album"

The "Spell Check Album"

I know what your'e thinking: those aren't even attempts at the delicate, Rothkoesque simplicity of the "White Album," to which I'd say, yes, that's true. But they certainly took more time to design. It's like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: sometimes less is more. Once you start adding apple slices and honey and toenail clippings, you're left with something inedible. Less, in other words, can be more.

5- The Patently Disturbing Route

Also known as the "Purposefully Controversial Route," our fifth cover art strategy has enjoyed wide and storied success. The Black Crowes "Amorica" and Two Live Crew's "As Nasty As They Wanna Be," with their exposed pubic hair and shimmery buttockseseses, were transparent attempts to spark controversy, thereby sparking interest, thereby selling records, and in both cases, it worked. Further, the entire genre of metal cover art is predicated on this idea, much to the pleasure of millions of teenage boys and Scandinavians; our producer Tom gave Dave an album called "Leprosy" by a band called "Death," for example, though it could have been an album called "Death" by a band called "Leprosy." A Mobius Strip of dorkdom, indeed.

And, naturally, sometimes this approach can go oh so wrong:

"I'd rather not"

Or, "Your Children Will Never Sleep Again"

I'm really not okay with this one

See, there's a difference between fighting censorship and giving me pigmask nightmares. I say "fighting censorship" because that's ostensibly what the Black Crowes and Two Live Crew did, albeit with hirsute genitals and sophomoric raunch. If you're going to shock somebody, it's important that there's a purpose. It's the difference betweem Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hostel: both are disturbing, but one is an atmospheric classic while the other is porn for sadists. Another route best avoided.

6- The Man Rides Giant Rat Route

Admittedly, this is a small genre, without a reputable album to hold up as a guide. But I'll be Goddamned if I wasn't going to include Swamp Dogg.

7- The Fucking Awesome Route

Which brings us, in the end, to the answer. In the same way you don't make music by talking about who you want to sound like, you don't make a cover by mimicry. Granted, the Best And Greatest Album Of All Time (tm), London Calling, is a parody of an old Elvis Presley cover, but again, that's the exception to the rule. When we're writing songs, there's always a moment when, after playing a song well for the first time, the notes still decaying, we look at each other and just grin. Sometimes, you just know it's "right." So, while we we've learned we can't simply rip off the following examples of brain-boggling luminosity, I think they speak for themselves:

So do I!

Verily, this is the definition of "Fucking Awesome"

Nevermind. This is.

I imagine the graphic designer finishing the colored marker touchup on Metal Magic, pushing his rolling chair back a few inches from his desk, and thinking, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein, mad with brilliance and dedication, "I've done it. I have created a masterpiece." When it all boils down, all you can wait for is that moment. You have to keep trying, keep plugging away, and, in the end, you'll know. If it doesn't feel right, well, it isn't.

So, without further ado, I'll unveil here, for the first time, the cover art for the brand new Birdmonster album. When it appeared in my inbox early this week, I recall having a "Eureka" moment, knowing, inherently, that we had exactly what we needed, and knowing that no image could possibly convey the artistic statement we are making any better than this:

See, the new Birdmonster album is a lot like a merman on a skateboard. It's mythical, yet earthy. It's experimental, yet American. It's a merman. On a skateboard.

Thematically, it works too. Peter's lyrics have been dominated by aerobics for the past year, notably his use of badminton imagery, which you'll find most striking on "Don't Shuttlecock a Shuttlecocker" and "Put Down That Racket So We Can Skateboard Like Mermen."

I hope you guys like it.

p.s. I'd like to send a big "Godspeed" to Bizarre Records dot com, without whom, several of these brilliant covers would never have been discovered. Like Swamp Dogg. I love you Swamp Dogg.

How to Chose an Album Cover, Part 1 of 2

While we're all well versed in that worn-thin aphorism "Don't judge a book by its cover," when you're actually choosing a cover, that maxim goes right out the window. You begin inflate every mundane detail to risible proportions and find yourself saying things like "I'm not sure this album is that orange" or "Is that font too emo-core?" It can be maddening. Because, really, when you get right down to it, any album or book is, in some small way, judged by its cover. It's superficial, but it's natural.

Thankfully, Birdmonster was born after thousands of album covers have come and gone, allowing us to parse through the genius of decades past. A great album cover is simultaneously iconic and evocative, a representation of the work and a work in and of itself. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon cover is a perfect example, but then again, so is any Iron Maiden cover, with Maiden's mascot, "Eddie" the avuncular zombie adorning each and every one. So without further ado, we look back fondly on some of our favorites, in hopes that they, in their unending wisdom, will inform an important decision.

1- The Sex Appeal Route

The phenomenal success of Herb Alpert's well-known and oft-parodied "Whipped Cream and Other Delights" in 1965, coupled with the loosening of Puritanical mores, paved the way for covers that titillated, sexified, and otherwise made your grandmother uncomfortable. In fact, Alpert's image so captivated his audience that in concert, he'd often joke "I'm sorry, we can't play the cover," a sentence which surely disappointed his fan base, which was largely made up of dairy fetishists. Other artists would try to emulate this tawdry, "sex sells," philosophy, to varying degrees of success:


Mega Sexy!

SuperHyperUltraMega Sexy!

...or "Put your pants on," "put a shirt on," and "Please say you have your pants on," respectively. Sex Appeal is a tricky area to be sure. And you know what they say: "Just because you think crapping while holding your shoe is erotic doesn't mean I didn't just lower my head into the garbage disposal."

2- The Elaborate Outfits Route

Sure, not everyone's sexy. Ronnie James Dio, for example, is probably a goblin. That doesn't mean he can't bellow operatically about Rainbows in the Dark over some crunchy-ass metal: it just means you can't have him bare chested and svelte on an album cover. Instead of Sex Appeal, what you want to have is "a look." Here, think "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band." Or the Ramones. Or even Stryper. The important thing is consistency, a sense of mystery, an iconic representation, via fashion, of the sounds found within. Visually:

The family as table cloth

In which we learn Zeus was black

Can you tell this came out in 1986?

The problem here lies with fickle Fashion herself. Growing up, I was certain that my Hypercolor shirt and Airwalk jam shorts were the absolute apex of awesomeitude. As it turned out, I was mistaken. We've all gone through our closets and thought to ourselves "I used to wear that?" before taking it to a Salvation Army and having them say "I'm sorry sir. We're trying to help these people, not make them the butt of unending suffering." A route best avoided.

3- The Phenomenal Hubris Route

A few years back, Talib Kweli released an album titled, simply, "Quality." In a way, that's simultaneously a bold claim and a backhanded slap at all his contemporaries. As it turns out, the album was fantastic and more than lived up to its name and Kweli's cover was actually a restrained, thoughtful image of himself, an understated counterpoint to a vaguely boastful title. Of course, this is the exception to the rule:

I've deleted fifty jokes here.* Let's just let the unbridled arrogance of a NELSON MILLENNIUM COLLECTION speak for itself

Apparently, this "Handel" fellow thinks quite highly of himself

Or, "I'm rich; kiss my ring."

Like when Mohammed Ali said, "It ain't bragging if it's true," if it ain't true, it's insufferable. Covers that convey a sense of entitlement, a brash money-grab, or celestial parentage tend to rub the casual record buyer the wrong way. Let's put it this way: did Woodie Guthrie ever make an album called "This is My Hot Shit" with a picture of him riding in a baby blue Thunderbird, blanketed by bikinied hos? Exactly.

Part two tomorrow.

UPDATE: A hearty, hearty thank you to esteemed commenter ncbutters, who showed me the error of my ways by providing us with the following:

Did I mention I love the internet yet?

* For the record, the Nelson Millenium Collection narrowly edged out "Snow's Greatest Hits." And now you have "Informer" in your head. I am sorry.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Birdmonster, not unlike Billy Joel, is in a New York State of Mind. So here's a free show while we're there.

In the history of American Music, from Aaliyah to ZZ Top, no city has enjoyed more musical kudos than New York. Where lesser towns like, say, Lodi, have singular songs penned about their deadend decrepitude, New York has no less than thirty-five songs blandly named "New York" or "New York City." And there are the streets. Avenue B, and C have their own songs. So does 110th Street. And 57th Street. And 52nd. And the intersection of 53rd and 3rd. And the bridge on 59th. And those are just the reputable artists off the top of my head (Iggy Pop, Barry Manilow, Bobby Womack, Springsteen, Billy Joel, the Ramones, and Simon & Garfunkel, respectively). Who knows what Big Apple-themed opus lingers in the catalogues of, say, these guys?

(At the beginning, you may find yourself thinking "Okay, Birdmonster, this is just a crappy cover of 'The Final Countdown, a song equally notorious for its ad infititum overplay at every European sporting event and as George Oscar Bluth's magic show theme song. I am not impressed." Just wait for the singing. For the love of everything that is holy, wait for the singing).

It gets so that I can't walk around New York without a scenery inspired soundtrack, and that's without ever having been in Hollace on Christmas. I bring this up because we're visiting NYC next week and the earworms have already started. I woke up this morning with "Rhapsody in Blue" in my noggin, which, after last nights research, I learned was inspired by the sounds of a locomotive at Grand Central. (The San Francisco Bus System, unfortunately, has not impelled a song of similar quality, unless you count the peanutbutter-mouthed mumblings of backseat hobos, which, of course, we should).

So then, what are we doing in New York? I'm glad you asked. Much of it will be business, the details of which you will be politely spared. The rub here is freeness: specifically, a free show. We're playing the Mercury Lounge on May 28th at 7 p.m.; it's an invite-only thing and this here blog is your invitation. If you'd like to come, go ahead and email and we'll write you a confirmation response, applauding your on-the-ball frugality. Email early, as we have a limited number to spread around.

Yep. That's it. I think I'll spend the rest of the day pondering the victory of the San Antonio Spurs, who, in their own special way, are the embodiment of crushing inevitability. If there's one thing I won't be thinking about in New York, it's good basketball.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

An exceedingly helpful "How To" post that will completely and utterly change every fiber of your being

I'm here on my couch, simultaneously unemployed and yet wearing a suit, an incongruous situation owing to a morning spent impersonating a low-rent mobster for a corporate team building scavenger hunt. This, apparently, is my life. So be it. At least I look dapper.

I'm also typing on a computer that, as of this time yesterday, was not working. I had just finished watching The Young and the Restless---which, first off, is a sentence I hoped I'd never write, at least not until I transmogrified into a brandy-soaked grandmother and second, a sentence I need to explain at the asterisk*---when I was greeted with the unsettling aroma of melting plastic. Since I hadn't been smoking crack out of an Evian bottle lately, I was understandably perplexed. Burning plastic is an unholy smell, a smell I'd really only dealt with once, when, as a high schooler, I bought lawn seats to Ozzfest so I could see the 98th Black Sabbath Reunion Tour, and a bunch of countrified rubes made a bonfire out of disposable cutlery and liter-size Pepsis. It literally took my breath away, in a "wow, I can't effing breathe" sort of way. I learned two valuable lessons that day: thou shalt not burn plastic and thou shalt sing the guitar solo to "War Pigs" with thousands of inebriated longhairs. But I digress.

It didn't take long to note the fact that the Macintosh I was using had stopped charging and that the olfactory problem was emanating from my crotch. Not my loins, per se, but the computer that sat on top of them and, since this isn't my computer, well, this was a problem. (Also a problem: burning crotch). The central issue was the AC power cord, which had melted, and my wallet, which has been dieting lately. I needed a new cord and I needed it to be free.

Which brings us to today's helpful blog post: "How to Navigate the Horrible Labyrinth of Customer Service Call Centers, Retain Your Relative Sanity, and Get Free Shit in the Process."

(Note: Between copious touring for the last album, I worked at a call center which shall hereby remain nameless. It's not a job I'm proud of, but it paid much better than pretending to be a mafioso while drinking far too much coffee and perplexing nearby patrons. Onwards)

1- We begin with a rule taken directly from the great and knowledgeable Patrick Swayze (also known as "The Swayze") in the highly underrated film Road House. The Swayze plays a "cooler" (read: glorified bouncer) who is recruited to turn a bar named the Double Deuce (owned by Locke's dad from LOST, to my unending pleasure) from a seedy dive frequented by toothless, violent alcoholics, to a swank yuppie bar where floozies do coke in the bathroom. It is from The Swayze's opening speech to his cadre of bouncers where we take rule one: "Be nice." You will be frustrated by this phone call. You will be transfered, you will be left on hold listening to Tesla, you will be asked to repeat the same information at least ten times, but you will be nice. Just be nice. It's just like when one of the Double Deuce bouncers asks The Swayze, "What if [a customer] calls my mother a whore?", and Swayze answers "Well, is she?" then continues "Just be nice." That's rule number one.

2- Have a goal and clear your schedule. You're not calling in to Apple or United Airlines or Verizon to let them dick you around. You have to know what you want, what you'll accept, and whether they're the same thing. The only thing standing between you and a waived fee or a complimentary ticket is dedication.

3- So you missed your payment or you're being charged some magical fee for something you never agreed to or, say, a cord melted on your wang. The company you're calling does not want to give you anything. It screws with their profit margin which screws with their investors who pay the salary of the people at the company who make the rules which prevent you from getting any recompense. The first person you'll speak to in this Kafkaesque Mobius Strip is a "Tier One" representative. These folks cannot help you and, largely, they are either very new or very stupid. But remember, be nice. "Sir, your computer isn't under warranty anymore and we can't get you a new power cord," is something they might say. To which you politely respond "That's unfortunate. I'd really like to get this problem fixed. Is there anyone else there I can speak with?" You will be transfered because you were nice.

4- Here's where it gets hairy. Odds are, you will be "escalated" up several layers of the diabolical call center hierarchy. You'll talk to at least one unbelievable idiot whose only goal is to frustrate you into hanging up. You'll speak to a middle manager type who, depending on your problem and level of nice-ocity, may be able to help you. You'll start growing tired of repeating your case number, your serial number, and your account number, but that's their strategy. A call to a customer service center is like the Ironman Triathlon: you don't so much finish it as it finishes you. But ask yourself, dear reader: would you rather fall in a heap during the bike ride or at the finish line, coated in blood, gatorade, and a brand new power cord? Exactly.

5- Empathize. The guy or girl on the other end of the phone hates their job. They spent all day dealing with irate pricks who were less wronged than you and who pointlessly feel that reaming some anonymous phone jockey will alleviate their sadness and financial loss. Things like "I'm not trying to be difficult" and "I used to work in a call center too, man, I understand" go a long way towards the ultimate goal. And empathy is reciprocal. And it's transfered. When you're escalated to each ascending level of the call center, the workers talk amongst themselves about you and your case. If you're empathetic, casual, and pleasant, they'll say things like "I really want to help this guy out; he seems like a decent sort" instead of "Fuckwad on line 2."

6- Do not, under any circumstances, hang up until you get what you want (or, as we discussed earlier, what you'll accept). They cannot hang up on you. You'll notice that most customer service reps say things like "is there anything else I can help you with?" or "is that all, sir?" That's because you have to conclude the call. It's the ultimate trump card in this war of attrition.

7- And lastly, call early. Find out when the call center opens and catch them before a whole litany of uptight cheesedicks has ruined your chances for positive adjudication. This isn't highly important---indeed, it can be counterproductive, as sometimes the aforesaid cheesedicks make your overall niceness seem even nicerer---but its worth keeping in mind. Definitely don't call at the end of the day. Think of it like going to a Chinese food buffet ten minutes before closing: sure, it's still open, but don't page me when your innards are liquifying.

And now, for my infomercial-tastic conclusion:

"Using these seven simple steps, I turned 'I'm sorry sir, you aren't under warranty' to 'We'll get that out in the mail today, sir. Sorry for the inconvenience.' Birdmonster's program is simply amazing. It changed my life. Even a baby can do it! Thanks Birdmonster!"

* To explain: my girlfriend's aunt had a brief cameo on the Young and the Restless, so I parked myself on the couch to watch her three scenes. Of course, now, I desperately want to see how the first issue of Restless Style turns out and if Nikki will marry David. I hope she doesn't. They just don't seem genuinely happy, you know?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Cancel Church. It's the Third Sunday in May

San Francisco, alas, can at times be a parody of itself. While we aren't all eating Tofurkey in our plastic shoes, championing Communism, and scoffing at middle America, The City is often portrayed that way. Just a few weeks ago, for example, Barack Obama made a rhetorical boo-boo in town, and nearly every article mentioned how his "elitist" comment was made in San Francisco, noted hotbed of Liberaler Than Thou sanctimoniousness. It was a bit absurd, really, and the shock nearly made me drop my Sun-Dried Tomato Avocado face cream. I mean, haven't they been to Berkeley?*

Now, granted, The City does it to itself. We do have Cafe Gratitude, a restaurant where you don't order "Enchaladas," you order "I Am Elated" (and, I'm told, your waiter sits down to dinner with you and asks you "What are you grateful for?" while you decide between answering sarcastically or punching them in the face). But for every Cafe Gratitude there's something like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free outdoor banjo-soaked celebration of inbred musicality or, as is the case this glorious weekend, Bay to Breakers.

For the uninitiated, Bay to Breakers is a seven and a half mile run through the streets of San Francisco. And while that, in it of itself, sounds like nothing special, its the spirit of the race that makes it so. Bay to Breakers is the day where you can see a middle-aged Silicon Valley man's exposed testicles, see someone's Grandma doing tequila shots at 8:15 in the morning, see police men taking bong rips. It's the day when the entire city throws up its collective arms and says "Screw this, I'm getting wasted and I'm doing something stupid." I love it.

There's also the "running" aspect of the whole thing. In the front of the pack, out on the streets before even the most diligent revelers, there are those people with Clydesdale legs, coasting through 5 minute miles while I'm fumbling with the Maxwell House tin. They're followed by semi-serious runners, joggers, and weekend warriors. (Parenthetically, I told myself I was going to run Bay to Breakers this year, so, a couple weeks ago, I went for a jog. It ranked somewhere between "agonizing" and "I can't feel my legs." I've now convinced myself that wiffleball and Online Boggle qualify as exercise). But after the actual racers are past, the real fun begins: elaborate floats pushed by exhausted frat boys in afro wigs, girls drinking Franzia out of the bag, and hundreds of people who no one ever wanted to see naked, well, naked. The last part isn't "fun" so much as "funny," though more in that "remind me to soap my eyeballs" sort of way.

I'm always a bit sad when tour keeps us away from home on the third Sunday in May, so I'm overjoyed that we're here to get blotto with our fellow San Franciscans. Speaking of tour, we don't have much planned right now---we're currently wading in that infuriating limbo-period between finishing the album and the album coming out---but we will be in New York at the end of the month and will be playing at least once while we're there. And we're doing our damndest to reinvigorate this here blog with posts of some regularity. It should be easy now that I'm jobless and below the poverty line. Writing, after all, is free. Food, unfortunately, is not. Until soon.

* Sorry Berkeley. That was a cheap shot.