Aztec Hearts Recording Update: I’ve Got My Own Volumizer, Fresh Faces, and We’re Playing a Show!

First of all, it is my profound pleasure and honor to announce two new members of the Aztec Hearts family: Timogan on percussion and Rajah Cheech Beldone on vocals and instruments TBD. In mid-May, Mr. Timogan of the Muddy Basin Ramblers stopped by my pad, dubbed 1,000 Island Sound + Vision, for his first recording session on the project, and we hope to have him back any day now.

Volumizer 1As mentioned in previous updates, Rajah Cheech Beldone has been pivotal in providing me with both a loaner bass (“Miles”) and electric guitar (“Woody”), and has officially joined the fold as co-vocalist and utility instrumentalist. We’ll get to know all about the honorable and legendary R.C. Beldone in the post that immediately follows this one. Meanwhile, you can peruse Chief Concerns, Beldone’s personal (and hilarious) storytelling blog. It’s good, real good.

In the technical department, I can’t say enough about the support I’ve received from Stu Morrow of DIY Strat (and Other Guitar Projects). In addition to loaning me pedals and chords, and giving much-needed advice on ticky-tack issues, I’ve asked him to play slide guitar on a couple of tunes. If that weren’t enough, perhaps in response to my over-the-moon enthusiasm for his hand-made Volumizer pedal, Stu did something he’s never done for anyone else before: he made me my very own Volumizer! Check this thing out, man. As I’ve said previously, I use this on almost everything, and it has made the critical difference in many situations. According to Stu, the Volumizer is basically a straight clone of the MXR Microamp, which you can read all about here.

Volumizer 2Stu writes, “The Microamp is a great booster pedal because it simply adds volume. You can use this to just increase the volume of your guitar for solos, or you can use it to overdrive your amp. The choice is yours.” Well, now. I’m not using it for either of those two things! Yet. For now, I’m using it as a combination direct box/preamp while plugging the bass and guitar straight into the unit. Any Joe Alone recording artist who is not able to mic up an amp, needs one of these Volumizers. However, I will be using it in a live setting very soon, like, in less than two weeks.

At this time, I’d like to announce the first ever Aztec Hearts show. That’s right, the first. Last year on June 9th, I played my first ever solo show at Bobwundaye (in Taipei), and I did include one Aztec Hearts cut in the set. However, this time around, I’m playing almost an exclusively all-AH set, including songs from the new record. Joining me on vocals for several numbers will be R.C. Beldone.

Image by Ian Kuo (c) 2012 All rights Reserved. Originally posted on Ian's website, The Status Kuo.
Image by Ian Kuo (c) 2012 All rights Reserved. Originally posted on Ian’s website, The Status Kuo.
Aztec Hearts will appear on June 8, 2013 at Bobwundaye with The Winking Owl (check out his stuff on Soundcloud.)

Aztec Hearts will take the stage sometime before midnight, which is nice because that means the set will bleed over into the next day, meaning I will have fulfilled my intention/proclamation to play one show every year for the rest of my life on June 9. Some folks have asked, why June 9? Well, first of all, that’s the date they gave me last year. Second, the numerical connotation of the date. Do I need to spell it out for you? June is the sixth month. Nine, well, is nine. Put them together and what do you get? What? Didn’t you see Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Of course you did.

Writing song lyrics has always been the most challenging part of the whole routine, and I would imagine that’s pretty much the same story for anyone other than Bob Dylan or Dave Chappelle’s Dy-Lan, who spits lyrics like “hot fire”. Actually, I was just reading the Wikipedia page for my all-time favorite Bob Dylan song, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and contrary to what I say on a weekly basis about the over-rated nature of Dylan’s work, I truly enjoy some of his jams, particularly the albums Another Side of Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home (the latter of which is definitely a personal top 500 record).

Dave ChappelleAnyway, Dylan said that in addition to “It’s Alright, Ma” having a great deal of meaning to him personally, he didn’t think he could sit down and write it today. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” he said. “But I can still sing it.” That’s an important piece of the whole puzzle for a songwriter. Whatever you put down on paper (and then tape, or in zeros and ones) today, is usually going to remain that way forever. Can you imagine Robert Plant going back and scrubbing the bustle in your hedgerow from “Stairway to Heaven”? Nuh-uh. And if by chance you happen to be so lucky as to sing a song you wrote 30 years ago, you will appreciate the fact that way back then, you had the good sense to put some elbow grease into it.

DylanThat said, the furthest I go back into my songwriting catalog, even if I’m just plunkin’ around to amuse myself, is generally the mid-90s. This is partially due to the fact that I don’t remember how to play (on guitar) the majority of songs written prior to 1994, and that wipes out the first 10 years of my activity. This is probably a good thing, because I can remember the words (and titles) for some of the jams, and while they’re not embarrassing, they aren’t very good, either. Funny, I got an email from Matt Tucker today which said, “Hey, you remember that song [from Brain Kiss’ long-lost masterpiece, Ride In Style] ‘La Machine’? I’ve been thinking about that track. You got a copy of it anywhere?” Actually, I do, somewhere. And I can hear the song in my head right now, but goddamn if I can remember the words or even the vocal melody—if it had one. So the point is, if I’ve learned anything about songwriting over the last 30 years, it’s that the words had better be good. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels.

I was thinking about all the lame, banal, and outright stupid song lyrics that have been major hits over the years. If I were Kid Rock, I probably wouldn’t have an iota of shame for writing some of that “Bawitdaba” bullshit, mainly cuz it all made me a big star, rich and famous, master of all I see and survey. But I feel bad for him listening to some of that stuff because from what I’ve seen, he’s a fairly competent and entertaining performer. Ain’t my lookout, but whatever. Anytime you get a guy who comes out and has to remind you who he is (“My name is Kiiiiiiiiiiiid Rock!), you’re dealing with a questionable sense of reason. Yeah, I know Prince has a jam called “My Name is Prince”, but he gets a free pass, since he…well…you know, did that whole symbol thing. That guy needs to tell us which persona he is today. Camille? Christopher? Vincent? I can’t keep ’em all straight. Again, whatever. There are so many insipid songs in popular music, there’s no use in going through the motions of discussing them any further. Point of redundancy: write some good words or don’t do it at all.

Personally, there are few lyrics in my catalog that I find cringe-worthy, although they do exist. There is a song on the first Brain Kiss EP called “I Don’t” which contains some of the worst shit ever I’ve committed to tape. Check this quatrain:

I don’t want to be a cowboy / I don’t want to be a saint / I don’t want to be [something-something] / I don’t want to be Chris the Great.

That’s just downright lazy, numb-skull garbage, but at the time, I remember everybody being really excited about the jam. Seriously. In fact, after the EP came out, the band was being courted by a small indie label in N.Y.C. Every week or so, I would have to call them and let them know what we were up to. It was hit-or-miss whether or not I would speak with one of the dudes, or if I got dumped into voice mail. Their voice mail greeting was typically a sample of a song they liked; I vaguely remember there being a Helmet song the first time I called. One day I called and it went straight to voice mail. The song on the greeting was “I Don’t”. Whoa. Didn’t see that one coming. The next time I spoke with the label dude, he spent a few minutes raving about the jam. So there was clearly more than one numb-skull on the scene.

To say that my lyrical progress for The Inner Distance has been glacial is being generous. After two months of setting aside several hours a night solely dedicated to words and melodies, I’ve completed (written and tracked guide vocals for) one song, “Right Now You’re Feeling Me”; an ode to my beloved state of California, where I wasn’t born, but my soul resides. That’s not a lyric, by the way. Meanwhile, out of the now 20 tracks, there are two instrumentals and three cover songs, one of which, “S.L.O.U.C.H.”, I wrote and recorded with Golden Tones in 1998, so I guess that’s not technically a cover. The other two songs may or may not make the record, I dunno yet. So that wipes out five jams from having to bother with lyrics, thank you, Baby Jesus. So that means one down and 14 to go. I’m getting close on “Ain’t No Man of the World”, “Face”, “Kung Fu Gringo”.

HMS_atf_front_cover_1With “S.L.O.U.C.H.”, there were a couple of lines which always bothered me, and aside from the gnarly, distorted vocal effect on the original, those awkward lines were always something that made me think, “If I could go back and change one thing about that song, it would be…” There are only two songs in my career that I’ve ever recorded twice, those being the Golden Tones’ “Rise Up”, which we re-made on Henry Miller Sextet’s Achieve Through Failure (2004); and HMS’ “All Day Sunshine”, which appeared on both the Metal never Made Friend, Vol. 1 (2002) and Swan Song (2006) EPs. In the case of “Rise Up”, it was a group decision based on liking the song and nothing more. We didn’t change anything about the jam. With “All Day Sunshine”, we felt the original studio recording never quite matched up to the live version, so we went into the studio and attempted to capture the “live” energy.

“S.L.O.U.C.H.” is not my favorite Golden Tones song by a long shot. But it might have been, if only we didn’t get crazy with the production, and for a couple of lyrics which (to me) seemed awkward and disrupt the flow of the melody. When I decided to re-record the song, I thought, “Fucking change those lyrics, man. Who cares?” And so I did. Then, one night I went over to Beldone’s house, and we were going through the jam. At some point, I asked him to sing the last verse, which he complied. However, he didn’t follow the original melody line, and actually skipped a couple of words here n’ there. “Whoa! Hold it!” I cried. “I like that better than what’s on the track. Do it again.”

So this is one example of what I wrote in the May 27 post: “I’m constantly amazed at how mutable the creative process can be.” While I haven’t the changed overall direction of the record, it is not the record I set out to make; but it is. But let me tell you, this lyric thing is killing me dead. And I’ve tried every conceivable trick in my book. I went through some of my short stories and looked for sentences that appealed to my eye; I spent several nights hitting Random Article on Wikipedia, jotting down curious or interesting lines. At one point, I printed out the lyrics to “Born to Run” and sang bits of it over a couple of tracks, trying to find a melody or a turn-of-phrase that would fit. That little move actually produced some worthwhile results, believe it or not, although you won’t be hearing any shit about “hemi-powered drones, screaming down the boulevard.” But anyway, thanks, The Boss. You helped me out of a tight spot.

Aztec Pics and Video 057Furthermore, I have always hated the sound of my singing voice, hence my desire to always have other people sing with me. During some of the early sessions, I found I was having a lot of trouble with sibilance, which would have been neutralized by a windscreen, but I don’t have one here and I can’t be bothered to go out and buy another one. No, that’s not true. I went to two music stores and neither had a windscreen. Finally, I found one at an unnamed music store and they wanted US$75 for the thing. Balls to that. So, there ain’t nothing that promotes resourcefulness like recording on a shoestring. Thus, I made my own ghetto windscreen (pictured on the right), and it works like a charm. Yes, that is a cheap-ass CD jacket.

That’s all for now. More to come. Stay tuned for 20 Questions with Rajah Cheech Beldone, King of the Gypsies.


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