Aztec Hearts Recording Update: Down With The Bass!

As the world and my daily routine have become increasingly compressed and transparent, I’ve been impressed by just how quickly things can be done (and in some cases, completely and irrevocably destroyed) by the Internet. Yesterday’s Gawker headlines contained no less than five stories about people who’ve either done wonderful things on the web, or have flushed their lives down the toilet by unwisely saying crazy stuff or posting pictures of themselves doing questionable shit on Facebook or Twitter.

And that’s just from the front page. There are dozens more. Click any one of those links, and well, now you know why I’m a cynical fuck when it comes to this kind of shit. But every now and then, something good happens, and it’s my duty as a human being to share that experience.

pbassWith the bulk of drums finished – one more track and a bunch of timing mistakes to fix, so basically one more session and one session beyond my proposed deadline – it was time to direct my attention to bass. Perhaps the most pressing need was finding an actual bass to play. My beloved 1978 Fender P-bass is in a storage space in S.F. At the time, I did not know anyone in Taipei who played bass (and would ostensibly let me borrow their stick for a cupla weeks). I know there are a bunch of bass players out there; I just don’t know any of them. So I went around to several local music stores and inquired about renting a bass. No dice.

While I was genuinely surprised to learn that nobody in town rents stringed instruments, that’s a result of coming from a place where you can rent literally anything you could think of. California is good like that. But here in Taiwan, it’s a different game with different rules. And that’s OK, because it forces you to think creatively and develop resourcefulness.

BobsAnyway, it occurred to me that my favorite watering hole, Bobwundaye, had an acoustic bass sitting around (more like hanging on the wall) that I had never seen anybody use. Bear in mind that I usually don’t stick around for musical performances, but whenever I did, it seemed like everybody always brought their own axe. I know I did when I played there last year. In fact, playing a borrowed or “house” guitar never crossed my mind. Unthinkable type-shit.

Bobwundaye (or Bob’s, as we call it) is owned and operated by a woman named Katrina Ku, and over the years we’ve become friends. She’s a very open and approachable person—she’s basically friends with everyone who comes to the bar. Super sweet lady. You can pretty much ask her anything and she’ll give you an answer with a smile. So one night I went down to Bob’s and asked Kat if it would be possible for me to use the bass on nights when there were no bands—they typically have live music on weekends. Kat said, “Sure, go ahead, but…”

Turns out that there is a reason the bass sits untouched: there’s something wrong with it. The pickup might be fried. I dunno. That’s what one of the bartenders, Punk, who is also a musician, says is the problem. Well, it’s an acoustic, so that made me re-think the gambit and I said, “I could just mic it instead of running direct. That’s really not the sound I’m looking for but, hey, it’s a lemons and lemonade type-thing.” I went over and pulled the bass off the wall and sat down to get a feel for it. Immediately, I felt like something wasn’t right with the neck. I plunked on it for a minute or two and thought, “Nah, I don’t like it at all.” Back up on the wall you go, Mr. Bass. I suppose that even if you did work properly, I wouldn’t have wanted to play with you. No hard feelings. Much respect.

All right, square one, here we are again.

TaiwaneaseThere are two main expat-driven online bulletin boards in Taiwan, Forumosa and Taiwanease™, with the latter being the newer site, and much more mature and less-trafficked by trolls than the former.  In the early days, I spent some time on Forumosa, mainly posting in the “Where can I find…?” section, and every so often, getting into verbal scrums with certain posters. You know, some guy posts a thread about Taiwanese women and everybody’s gotta get their two cents in. Whatever. After a while, Forumosa began to lose its utility, mainly because I’d already found just about everything I could have been looking for.

Then one day I got into it with one of the Forumosa moderators of the “Dating and Relationship Advice” forum, a woman who—let’s just say—has a questionable history of moderating and whatnot. Rest assured, I was not the only person on the site who took issue with her.  Anyway, some guy had started a thread asking for advice, and I tossed mine at him, only to get reprimanded (and my post deleted) by the moderator, for “not giving practical advice.”

Whaddya mean ‘practical advice’? I don’t remember what his question was about, but the point was, from my angle, that’s exactly what I gave him. Who the fuck are you to judge what’s practical or not? I don’t care if you’re a moderator. Your job is to make sure people don’t get too far off topic or out of line with personal attacks. Fuck you.

TrollI didn’t say that on first reply to the moderator, I simply laid out my argument—I’m tryin’ to help. Different perspectives have a tendency to do that. She came back at me with some bullshit about don’t tell her how to run the forum and blah-blah. Then I went back and did some checking, and it became clear that she had a problem with men. In general. A big problem. OK, so I went back to the thread and posted something which addressed both the poster’s question and the moderator’s issue with me. [Unfortunately, that was two years ago and the woman has wiped everything starting from that post. I just checked.] Anyway, the next thing I know, she sent me a warning notice, saying it was against policy to criticize the moderator, blah-blah. Do it again, and you’ll get bounced.

Nice move, sister.

Of course, I kicked it up a notch. My next post said basically, “This woman has issues and clearly has no business moderating a ‘Dating and Relationship Advice’ forum.” Yoinks! I still believe that to be true, though I have no idea if she is still moderating because following my one-week suspension, I have not returned to the site (as an active user). I’ll go there when a Google search turns up some relevant information I’m looking for, but otherwise, if it’s not fun, I’m not doing it.

Then I got an email from the guy who runs the site, reprimanding me for what I’d posted and justifying my punishment. I wrote back, saying, “Please, just delete my account.” He wrote back saying, “No. I don’t do that. Just don’t login anymore.” Yeah, well fuck you, too. [Later on, I discovered that I was one in a long line of guys who’d been jacked around by this broad. All I had to do was say her name in a bar. Word on the bartop is that if you’re a man who posted on the site, you’ve been in a similar dust-up.]

So I started hanging around Taiwanease™ and never had any issues, even though I scaled back on posting. Occasionally, I’d get into it with some of the other folks, but nothing traumatic. Things generally don’t get out of hand over there unless someone is doing a lot of trolling or drunk-posting. It’s all meh as far as I’m concerned. It’s so easy for people to take shots at you. Internet forums, no matter how well-policed, can turn personal in a hurry, which is unfortunate because most folks are only acquainted via the forum; they don’t actually know each other. Either way, I’ve only been issued one warning for telling a troll to go fuck himself in CAPS after he said I was racist—which is the proper response to the accusation if you are not actually racist.

Anyway, my expectations of Taiwanease™ are fairly low. All in all, I’ve posted a little over 100 times, and generally found what I was looking for, more or less. I dunno. Well, I now found myself in a position where Taiwanease™ might come in handy. So I posted a thread in “Where can I find…?”:

Bass guitar to rent for a week or two
Kind of at my wits’ end here. Been to the major music stores in town (that I’m aware of) and nobody rents stringed instruments. Does anyone know of a store that does? I need a bass for about a week (for a recording project). I have one friend who is willing to lend me a bass, but the pickup is fried and I don’t have a tool kit (or the patience) to replace it. The procedure isn’t open heart surgery but I’ve swapped a bunch of pickups in the past and yeah, it’s not going to happen this month.
Anyway, I don’t care about the quality of the instrument – tone is in the fingertips. I’ve checked the joint in Ximen, the pad up on Jinshan Rd., and I’ve been tracking drums and piano at KHS. My gut feeling is that if anyone was renting guitars, it would be KHS. Great people, very kind, but they all say NOBODY in Taiwan rents guitars or basses. There’s the place on Heping Rd. but a knowledgeable friend said no dice on that joint, too. Are they right? Is my only option to buy one and then turnaround and sell it? Ouch.
Just in case anybody is wondering, “Why does this guy think ANYONE rents stringed instruments?” Where I come from, you can rent anything you want: from a show pony to a 20 lb. tank of pharmaceutical nitrous oxide. Of course, I realize this is Taiwan and home rules do not apply.
Much respect to anyone who replies. Thanks in advance.

I personally know a handful of the people who actively post on the site and some of them are musicians, so I figured someone might have an idea. I was right, kind of. One of the usual suspects, a man who I know personally and has already agreed to play on the new record, posted that he didn’t know of a place, but he did know someone who might. He’ll check and get back to me. And then nothing. One reply. That was it.

EntDamn. This sucks. All that “expect nothing, never disappointed” crap came up and I shrugged. Then, out of nowhere, a private message arrived in my profile inbox. It was from another usual suspect and it read: “You can borrow my bass for as long as you like.” I wrote back immediately. “Are you serious? Really? Am I missing a witticism here?” [Note: the guy is well-known for his humor and often biting replies to posts.] A message came back: “No joke. Here’s my contact info. Get in touch.” He also mentioned that the bass was “a little Entwistle-y” and I thought, “Hell yeah, that’s exactly what I’m looking for!

It turns out that Rajah Cheech Beldone, King of the Gypsies was more than happy to oblige me this solid—all I had to do was scoop up the bass at his crib. Man, I was amped. Like, doing a dance in my chair. Over the course of the next two days, we corresponded and made arrangements for me to pick up the bass on Friday evening at his crib, except he wouldn’t be there and his wife would make the hand-off.

Having interacted with Rajah in the past, on both Taiwanease™ and Forumosa, all of which was good-natured and fun, I wrote back and said I was kind of disappointed that he wouldn’t be there, and offered to come later in the evening. Plus, I had a bottle of single malt Scotch I wanted to give him as a token of my respect. He wrote back saying that it wouldn’t be convenient but if I was headed to Bob’s that evening, we could hook up, have a few drinks, and chew the fat.

Club Family MartThat’s exactly what went down. Well, not exactly. This is kind of cool. I was about 15 minutes ahead of schedule, so I had the taxi driver drop me off in front of the 7-11 which is a block away from Bob’s. I was out of smokes and wanted to pound a tallboy before heading over to the bar, which is Standard Practice in Taiwan. The first drink of the day is almost never in a bar. Every single one of my friends does it, too. Before we post up somewhere, it’s understood that first, we’re gonna post up at 7-11 and get a beer or two in the pouch. [Beers are minimum NT$150/US$5 in the bar. They’re like NT$45/US$1.20 in 7-11. How many beers you gonna put in the tank tonight? More than several is the correct answer. Right, so this is practicality in action.] Anyway, I bounce from the taxi and as I’m walking up, there’s a foreign guy sitting on a scooter with his back to me, who just happens to match the description of Rajah. That’s because it was Rajah. And what is he doing? Having a smoke and a wee dram of Famous Grouse in a baby flask. Already we’re off to a good start. I approached and said, “Señor Beldone?” Good times did follow.

I can tell you it’s a miracle of miracles, but you will be hearing more about Rajah Cheech Beldone, King of the Gypsies. That’s one of the great things about the Internet. Would this meeting have taken place 15 years ago? Highly unlikely, but possibly…maybe. These days, if there’s something you want or need, all you need to do is outlined above. Put an ad on Craigslist. Post on Twitter or Facebook. Find a community forum and try not to be a total jackass while you’re interacting with the hoi-polloi.

Now, first of all, thanks for trudging through all that. You know, I was talking to a good friend back home the other day—he’s a well-known guitar genius; the interview and article is forthcoming—and I was asking him about his creative process, and he kept talking about all this stuff that had nothing to do with music. My tactic was to keep steering him back to musical stuff. At one point, he got a bit annoyed and said, well, you keep asking what influences me and I’m fucking telling you that these are the things I think about; these are the things that come through my filter. This is the stuff that eventually comes out in my product. Isn’t that what art is all about?

Here’s what’s been cooking in my “studio” (I haven’t come up with a name for it yet). The beginning part of the week featured two drum sessions at KHS, and miraculously, zero meltdowns. “Barnyard Shuffle” got a complete makeover and re-recording. In fact, I added a repeating bridge which is now my favorite part of the jam. Win-win on that one. All that’s left is the drums on that track and it can be farmed out for guitars, percussion, lyrics, vocals, and horns. Got a wicked bass track on it! But that’s getting ahead of things.

One night was dedicated to the intro sound collage of “Come Closer”, which lasts about a minute. It’s a mix of ambient and discrete noise that rolls into the actual song quite nicely so far. I’m debating whether it should be the opening track. OK, moving on. Then came the first piano sessions, which I forgot to mention, but yeah, there’s going to be piano on the record. I’ve decided that I will not do any keyboards or synths; everything has to be organic, electric or acoustic instruments. That means if I can’t find someone to play violin, there won’t be any violin on the record. Oh yeah, just cuz I like saying it: NO DRUM MACHINES!

DSC05568Saturday, despite my previous history, turned out to be mucho productive. Let’s turn our attention to the bass. Meet “Miles”. He’s an Aria Pro II circa 1984-ish RBS Special, with a single active EMG pickup, and a headstock with the perfect amount of ciggy burns. This is the first time that I’ve ever played anything with an active pickup (for info about the difference between active and passive pickups, click here), and this is the first time the bass has been out of its case in many, many moons.

It’s been my experience that instruments which haven’t been played in a long time take a little while to get back in the groove. They’re kind of like baseball gloves in that they become more than an extension of your appendages—they are appendages. The 12-string gave me all kinds of fits and starts after three years in storage, even though it was temperature and humidity controlled. After a few days of wrangling with it, one evening it was like the end of a rain storm; the sun came out and the birds started singin’.

DSC05567The second half of Friday evening was dedicated to getting the bass acclimated and tuned; checking the input levels, and so on. As the night wore on, so mounted my buzz, and I put Miles down and killed the console before something bad happened. Saturday afternoon was spent at KHS on the piano, and man, what a smack in the puss! It’s been more than five years since I sat down in front of one of these fuckers. Reality check. It’s pretty humbling when you’re barely able to play a three-finger D chord on the right hand, with octave bass on the left, and next door there’s a 10-year-old girl who is absolutely shredding her way through Chopin’s Étude Op. 25 No. 2 in F Minor.

[During a short break, the girl and her teacher came out in the hallway and the girl—kind of shocked to see a foreigner—said, “Oh hello! That was you next door, banging on the D?” I laughed and said, “Yeah, sorry. What the hell were you playing?” The three of us had a nice little conversation. Upon saying goodbye, the girl poked her head in my room, saw the mic and the 8-track, furrowed her brow and said, “Good luck on whatever it is you’re doing in there.” God bless you, sweetie.]

Saturday evening was my first night with Miles, and I gotta tell you—it was rough going at first, for both of us. But we kept at it, and boy, and I’m glad we did, cuz I’m diggin’ the sound. And Raj was right. John Entwistle would be proud.

Anyway, I gotta cut this short so here’s the bottom line. Almost everything I plan on doing to the tracks (minus the bass, vocals, and some piano, which will go down this Saturday) is finished. I’ve ditched the English Beat cover (“Hands Off, She’s Mine”) because quite honestly, it sucked. I decided to go with the new version of “Mountains of Honey”, mainly because it was done at faster tempo. I blew my own fucking mind by pulling off the drums on “Barnyard Stomp”, which used to be called “Barnyard Shuffle”, but I couldn’t hang with a shuffle beat at 160 BPM, so I split the drums and recorded them separately. It’s no longer a shuffle, let me say that.

Half of the tracks have bass; I’ll finish that up within a week. Now it’s time to get the newest members of Aztec Hearts involved, and as I said before (I said it before, didn’t I?), no names will be announced until we’ve hit the RECORD button. Super psyched.

Thanks for hanging. Catch you later. OH! Next week’s update will feature a cool video. Rock on.

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