Monday, August 20, 2012

Hot Wrists, Hot Ritz, HOT ROOTS..


     So I started writing this blog post a flippin' long time ago.  I was in the throws of planning the tour for the summer, when I suddenly got inspired to write what follows.  Unfortunately, the round-the-clock work of tour-hustling kept me from finishing it then, so what we have here is a frame blog-post.  Oh, and BTW the 'two weeks' I am about to refer to turned into seven, and I did become a bona fide yogi.

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     I have been sitting stoically in a double-lotus position on the floor with my laptop for the past two weeks straight - with occasional breaks to play guitar now & then - in the efforts of booking my tour this summer.

     I believe I have become a bona fide yogi.

     However, tonight I received a link to a radio spot featuring an old and dear friend of mine:  Henry Barnes of Amps For Christ.

     Happy to find something that would be a substantial soundtrack to my marathon typing session, I decided to check it out, and I'm glad I did.  This clip is a great nutshell presentation of a brilliant artist, and it sent me down memory lane recalling how this artist trained me from a three-stone apprentice, to a twelve-stone warrior of Rock.

     I met Henry Barnes when I was sixteen years-old, in the summer of 2003; I purchased a sitar from him.  Well, I purchased a sitar from a music store - the Folk Music Center, in Claremont, CA - that since my boyhood I've given most of my life-savings to, and Henry worked there, and that's how we met & became friends.

     To a sixteen-year-old having grown up in Squaresville, CA, Henry definitely had this otherworldly presence about him.  He was a long-limbed, well-over-six-foot-tall, grasshopper with an illustrious wizard-beard, and usually wearing some kind of funny hat.  He had these fierce eyes; and it didn't usually take much to get him pontificating on some sort of esoterica, very quickly filling any-sized room with his energy and with his looming figure as he paced around in a triangular, star-shaped, or figure-eight pattern.  To this day, if I am trying to describe Henry to someone, I'll usually have to use the sentence:  "He's kind of like Gandalf the Grey, in that he is really like 3,000 years old, but he has always just looked fifty-something."

Here's Henry playing his hand-made electric sitar,
in front of his hand-made amps & oscillators.
     Anyways, Henry & I very quickly became friends, and after about a year of my hanging around the store, sharing ideas, & Henry teaching me some licks now & then, he heard me playing percussion on a set of tablas in the shop.  I guess Henry liked what he heard, because he then uttered the phrase, "Hey man, want to do some recording?"

     I responded that, yes, I did in fact want to do some recording!  And, it was not long after that that I showed up at his studio/workshop/living space to hang out and be creative.

     In the time that I have known Henry, he has shown me a lot of things, but something definitely worth a note is that Henry was the first person to show me that I could live my life with art & music at the center of it, on my own terms, even if my face isn't on any poster, and even if I am not lauded as some sort of new 'it' boy.

     Henry was the first person I met who had built a recording studio from the ground up, and did whatever he wanted with it.  He was also the first person I met who built & designed his own instruments, amplifiers, and sound-manipulating devices of various kinds.  He was the first person I met who 'illegally' lived in his own creative workspace, unapologetically putting the higher-level needs of art & expression in front of the lower-level 'needs' of sleeping in a bed, and having his own bathtub.

     And, Henry was/is a fearless explorer of music.  He is the only person I have met with his acute sensibilities in this area; and I would later learn that Henry is really a progenitor of folk-core, freak-folk,
In the workshop.
industrial-folk, noise-folk, electro-/psy-/sci-folk, this-folk, that-folk, etc {whatever they've begun calling it over the past several years.}  He really deserves far more recognition than his infamy in the musical underground, and - in my mind, at least - he should be placed right up there with Vashti Bunyan.  However, true to his perennial soul-rebel nature, one of the only main-stream accolades he has been given is LA Weekly's award for 'Most Uncategorizable Artist.' Though this may be somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek award, he certainly deserves it.

     So, in the late summer/early autumn of 2004, at the tender age of seventeen, I was initiated as an apprentice into the ranks of Henry's long-time creative project & brainchild:  Amps For Christ.  I was introduced to AFC as the percussionist, playing tablas, a few cymbals, and a guitar pick-up on a cookie tin (to create the nastiest feedback-driven industrial bass sound you've ever heard come out of a pastry can.)  I also held down a few other odds & ends.

     At the time, Amps For Christ featured a fully fleshed out band line-up.  Playing any number of stringed instruments, electronic equipment, oscillators, & on the mic was Henry.   On the gu zheng/zither & on vocals was an eternally-young, nurturing-yet-impish older-sister named Tara Tavi.  Usually playing a treated electric guitar & singing back up vocals was the post-baccalaureate Erika M. Anderson.  And, playing viola & laptop was a steely, bespectacled post-rocker named Ezra Buchla.  

     In my brief tenure with the group, I played my first official gigs as a professional musician, among them was my first engagement at the now much more prestigious Downtown LA club, The Smell.  This period lasted all but a few months.  I guess I was never really in the band, so I was never really kicked out, but it was made clear that AFC would be carrying on without my percussion.  And, Amps For Christ returned to being Henry's solo-project within some months after that.  However, in that short period, one recording made it onto a small compilation pressing that another friend of mine produced around holiday-time 2004.

     I had to put some effort into digging this recording up in the writing of this blog entry, as it was almost lost forever; it's story is somewhat unique:

The kid, 17.    Note: *this is the only known
photo of me as a lad playing music*
      One of the many songs in Henry's preferred repertoire is a centuries-old, apocryphal ballad from the British Isles called The Cherry Tree Carol.  It tells the story of Joseph & Mary a-courtin', and Mary having to come up with a way to tell Joseph that she is pregnant while they are strolling through a cherry orchard.  She asks Joseph to gather her some cherries, as she cannot do it herself, as she is in the family way.  Joseph reacts by telling her to get the kid's dad to do it for her, because he is out of there!  And, Baby Jesus in the womb demonstrates his divine parentage by commanding the tree to bow down before Mary, to let her casually pick cherries.  Thusly, Joseph knows that this child truly is.. The King, of Kings.

     I was very attracted to this song for a number of reasons, but a main reason was my fascination with the fact that as enchanting as this song's narrative is, it really has nothing to do with any biblical account, and in that way it is heretical, but I've yet to hear any mainstream Christian raise a concern about this particular historical fiction.  Indeed, the song survived in the days when people were being burned at the stake for this sort of thing.  It is a beautiful song, and the power of beautiful music - in this case - trumps dogmatic puritanism.

     Since I was so attracted to this song, I found myself rapidly memorizing the words & singing them unconsciously while the others were playing it.  When I found out about my friend's compilation project, I asked Henry if we could record a version of it on the fly for the rapidly approaching disc's pressing.  He was into the idea, but in the short time available, the whole group couldn't get on board.

     So, Henry & I met, and since Tara - who usually sang the song - couldn't make it, Henry asked who would sing it.  I told him that I could, and I began to sing it in the same register as Tara.  Henry kind of chuckled and said, "Alright, Whitney Houston..."  {RIP Whitney}  I guess he wasn't expecting my natural range to be quite so up there, but then, there we are.  So he decided it was best to pitch the song down a couple keys.  I remember at the time, standing in awe at his ability to do that with a guitar.  However, if I could go back and do it again, I would have fought for the original key, as the vocal performance that came from the pitched-down approach kind of sounds like the bastard step-child of Nico & Mark Hoppus.

     The song that we recorded is beautiful nonetheless, and I am proud to have been a part of it, particularly at such a young age.  A day or two after that meeting, Henry, Erika, & I met my friend Bill Selak - who was producing that compilation disc - and in the acoustic space of an old empty church that he had secured for us, we cut a quick four-track recording of The Cherry Tree Carol.  I was playing tablas and singing, Erika was playing acoustic guitar and singing back up, and Henry was playing electric sitar.  We used two well-placed microphones, and we played the song live, in maybe two takes.  Afterwards, Henry & I met at his studio, and the third track was used for a vocal overdub that I laid down to doubletrack my voice.  The fourth track was used for psychedelic treatments.

     And here she is, the nearly-lost, newly-recovered recorded version from 2004 of The Cherry Tree Carol, featuring Neil Mallick, Henry Barnes, & Erika M. Anderson:

           *•-*-\_*•*|* /*•*/*•*
           *•*_*• \ *•|*|---*-*-•*•*              ----   The Cherry Tree Carol (on SoundCloud)   ----
          *•* _/    \    /_*•_*
          *•         |    |      \*-*•*         
                  _ /     \
            __/    /  |   |   \
          /    |     |  |  /\    | \---\ 

    As I said before, unfortunately my time with the group ended not long after this recording was made, and the group itself dissolved a few months after that.  However, Henry Barnes continues on the path of untamed artistry, as Amps For Christ and in other side projects.

     Here is a clip of Henry from around that era, being a badass:

     Tara & Erika played together for some time as Blue Silk Sutures.  Tara is currently enjoying a successful career as a teacher, while putting on art shows around the city, and playing at some of the awesome former haunts of the greatest hardcore punk bands {Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, & the ilk} with her band, Dude Mirror.

                                                                        -- Check 'em out!  ----------|

     Shortly after the split with AFC, Erika & Ezra played as a combo called Gowns, recording & touring around the country.  In 2010 they each pursued different projects.

     Here is a review which came out a little while back for Ezra's latest release:


    And, after Gowns, Erika started a band called EMA - yes, her initials - and they are doing very well for themselves (touring Europe, features in SPIN & Pitchfork, and whatnot.)  

            Check out their bandpage            :  


     I really do owe Henry a debt of gratitude.  Aside from essentially taking me on his knee and showing me my first note-bending blues riffs when I was sixteen, and teaching me about oscillators & other swirling cosmic things, and being a good sparring-partner with musings on art & music, Henry has continuously been a supportive figure in my own development as an artist.  Over the years he has on multiple occasions taken the time to repair an instrument or a piece of gear for me while - if even that - charging a purely ceremonial fee.  He has given me inside scoops, and has cheered me on in my recent endeavors on the road.  He has always been generous with his time & talents.  And, he has always been a very natural teacher.

     Thanks, Hank Barnes.

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     So there is the post that I tried to finish before I hit the road in June.  I am sure that people are going to want me to write a thing or two about the tour, and rest assured, I will definitely get to that.  I suppose I haven't done that yet because it is hard to get the perspective to write about something when one is right in the middle of it.  Anyways, check out the blog in the near future for all that and for other updates on my plans for the upcoming months.  Enjoy the tail of your summer, froinds!!  

                                                Your pal,