Freedom, Zombies, Rats, and Tina Turner: The Stories of Kung Fu Gringo and Mountains of Honey

Aztec Pics and Video 050There were two main reasons I started Aztec Hearts – and it’s hard to believe that was nearly ten years ago. Number one, after playing in bands for 20 years, I had grown increasingly wary of the democratic system where everybody had a vote and majority rules. Now, I loved my bandmate brothers and most of the other dudes I played with over the years, but we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, which is only natural when you put multiple personalities in a room with amplified musical instruments and a 12-pack of beer, three to four nights a week.

Aztec Hearts was a manifestation of wanting to do something completely autocratic. It wasn’t so much of a power trip as it was a desire for freedom. Now when you think about it, as a songwriter I had complete autonomy – so it would seem. But every writer knows the golden rules, one of which is: Know your audience. Or in this case, know your bandmates. This led me to the second reason.

Mates
Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel of Mates of State

Although I loved what Henry Miller Sextet was doing as a power trio, I began to tire of the constant masculinity of our music. It wasn’t like I got hit with a Joni Mitchell stick or anything like that. I didn’t want Debbie Boone to sing back-up and play tambourine. Henry Miller Sextet in particular had one gear: rock hard. We didn’t have many ballads or dirges. We were mostly 1-2-3-hit it! At the same time, I was inspired by several bands that had male and female co-vocals, most notably a husband-wife duo called Mates of State – who also happened to be our practice-space-mates. Kori and Jason both sang lead and I loved the context of their sound. But you could look at Fleetwood Mac as another example. Unfortunately, there was really no room in a self-avowed power trio for a female keyboard player. That just wasn’t going to happen.

As I said, HMS had pretty much one sound and we weren’t likely to change – if it isn’t broke, etc. However, at the same time, I found myself writing stuff that didn’t fit the band’s vision. What’s more, I continued to hear female voices in these new songs. Finally, it came to a point where I had all these jams that wouldn’t fly in HMS, so I said, “Now’s the time to do something different.”

Dying For You To Hear This (2006)
Dying For You To Hear This (2006)

This is somewhat ironic to me now, considering how far away this new record is from the first one, Dying For You to Hear This, both in tone and in spirit. Most noticeably, except for one song, a remix of “Sandy Beaches”, there is not a female voice to be heard, and that was sort of a trademark of the first two records.

Upon my wife’s first listen to the new tracks, her initial reaction was, “It sounds more mature, like, it’s harder and more masculine than the other records.” Haha, you’re right, my dear. That’s because there’s no female voice. And it was for this reason that I seriously considered not releasing it as an Aztec Hearts record. But then I thought, “You know what? Most bands go through stylistic changes – even if HMS didn’t – and there’s no reason to abandon the name you’ve been humping along since 2005. Just stick with it. Nobody is going to notice or care.”

 

Sarah L
Sarah Lovan

On the first record, I got lucky and worked with one of the sweetest and most talented people on the planet, Sarah Lovan, who I met through my friend, Max Edwards and Sarah’s husband, Ryan Lovan – I briefly played bass for Max and Ryan’s band, the Minneapolis-based Lifestyle of Wigs. It was an awesome experience (for me) and I was chuffed about the way it turned out. On the second record, Bigger Brighter Faster Worse, it seemed like I’d struck gold again with my neighbor and drinking buddy Susie Smith, but that deal – the sessions and our friendship – did not end on a beautiful note. I’m still very fond of the work that we did, don’t get me wrong.

“Kung Fu Gringo” was one of the first songs to be completed with words and music, and without a doubt, originally envisioned to be sung by a woman – or at least a duet with me. Later on, when I realized that I wouldn’t be working with a woman this time around, I revised the lyrics to make them first-person, and melodically, it’s almost a different song.

The lyric writing ordeal – it was rough. Almost every song was written one line at a time. There were maybe one or two songs which “wrote themselves”; the rest of it was pushing a boulder up a mountain. Some nights I’d get a whole verse, while other nights I’d go back and erase what I did the previous night, changing a few words here and there. All in all, it took me the better part of five months to complete the lyrics and melodies.

Colin SayMoving along, the percussion bit in the verse sounds like it could have been lifted from “Time of the Season” by The Zombies. That part was recorded using Garageband software instruments; I looped a section and ran it through heavy reverb; I was surprised that it wound up sounding so familiar. Meanwhile, the Zombies also had an influence in other ways.

Right about the time I began recording vocals, I was rediscovering the genius of Colin Blunstone, one of the most underrated rock vocalists of all time. Quite by accident, I bought one of those “classic rock” compilation CDs with about a billion songs on it, and one of those happened to by Blunstone’s “Say You Don’t Mind”, which came after his term with the Zombies. Somehow, I had either never heard this song or had never remembered hearing it, but I totally fell in love with Blunstone’s voice all over again. So of course I thought, “Yeah buddy, I want to sing like that!”

Zombies
The Zombies, Odessey and Oracle (1967)

Most casual music fans will have heard of Rod Argent, probably due to his big 1970s hit “Hold Your Head Up”, and some may know that he was in the Zombies and wrote some of their biggest hits. The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle is considered one of the greatest albums of all-time, and Blunstone is probably the best thing about it. Those vocals on “Time of the Season” are pure genius and I long ago started ripping off the call-and-response routine of “What’s your name?/Who’s your daddy?” Anyway, I was listening to a lot of Blunstone and the Zombies over the last two years, so maybe some of that rubbed off. Honestly, I’m clearly aware that I sound nothing like Colin Blunstone, but it is worth mentioning that the overlapping vocal parts were inspired by the Zombies, no doubt about it.

TinaIt’s also worth noting that the opening line is a direct lift from Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” from the Mel Gibson film Mad Max Beyond (1985). How does that happen? It’s something I call ambient association but there’s probably another term for the phenomenon of being influenced by stuff you hear in taxis, supermarkets, shopping malls, and hotel lobbies, which coincidentally corresponds with something that’s important in your life. At the time I heard the song coming from the videoke joint across the street, I was still thinking that I might have a female collaborator in mind. I know Tina Turner was probably too busy to return my calls.

There’s a talented young woman on the Taipei music scene that plays and sings with a bunch of bands. I met her through mutual acquaintances and I asked if she would be interested in possibly singing and playing on some of my stuff. She replied positively maybe and arranged a time for me to drop off a CD of the jams at her crib, which wasn’t far from my pad. In the meantime, we befriended on Facebook and I sent her some links to BSM and my old jams on Soundcloud, but I don’t know if she ever checked them out.

On the day of the drop, I called to confirm our meeting and she asked to re-schedule for an hour later – which I couldn’t accommodate due to my office hours. I offered to email a couple of mp3s instead and she said, “Yeah, sure go ahead” with about the same enthusiasm I have when some random drunk outside Bobwundaye hits me up for a cigarette.

Maybe five years ago, I would have rescheduled and thought nothing of it, but in this instance, I never called the woman back or sent an mp3. Though it wasn’t her fault in any way, the episode flooded my system with all the bad memories of being in a band and trying to make people do stuff they didn’t want to do, or had to be persuaded or wooed or coddled, or any other type of nurturing. It reminded me of doing stuff I didn’t want to do but did it anyway to make the other guys happy; otherwise, I might not have a band anymore.

This wasn’t really about the woman. I realized that I was being quite naïve and pigheaded to think that people would want to work with me when (A) they scarcely knew me and (B) have plenty of other options. It doesn’t seem like anyone is hurting for gigs. On my part, getting other musicians involved was going to take a whole bunch of extra energy and effort that I didn’t have to spare. Forget it, I’ll do it myself, or I’ll do it a different way. Maybe that makes me less of a human being but I don’t think anybody cares one way or the other.

 

Aztec Pics and Video 039
Stuart Morrow’s No Name pedal. Volume, tone, gain. What else do you need?

To change the mood of the story, I had a blast recording the guitars at Up Down Music. I played the Fender Tele through a no-name pedal on loan from Stuart Morrow, into Roland JC-50 and a Vox AC30. The bass went through an Ampeg SVT. Drums were done at KHS as usual, and it was one of the few songs that didn’t require a bunch of overdubs.

For all of the above reasons, “Kung Fu” was the one jam that I was most ambivalent about. Most of the cuts that got rejected were dropped for an obvious reason. There were months after “Kung Fu” was finished when: it was on the record, no it’s off the record, yes it’s on the record, nope it’s off….

And here it is.

Kung Fu Gringo

 

So, as I was saying about the second record not ending on a beautiful note. If the Golden Tones version of “S.L.O.U.C.H.” was one of the biggest regrets of my musical legacy, then collectively, all of Bigger Brighter Faster Worse was my greatest disappointment. It started off with so much promise and creativity, and somewhere along the way, things got really messed up. In two sentences: Drugs and alcohol. They’re great fun when you’re in control; poisonous when you’re not.

Sunset 2
Typical Sunset District homes with in-law apartments

For five years I lived in an in-law apartment in the Outer Sunset of S.F., which I’d basically converted into a low-budget but utilitarian home recording studio-slash-party pad. In-law apartments are common in S.F. and I’ve seen many varieties, but in general these are basically studio apartments on the first floor of a two-story residence, with a separate entrance and most likely situated behind the garage, giving easy access to the back yard (if applicable).

For the first three years, my landlord and friend “Walter” lived upstairs. He was super-cool and frequently out of town. There were maybe a couple of instances where he asked me to keep the noise down, and that was no big deal. Otherwise, Wally gave me carte blanche of the ground floor, including the garage, where we were able to record drums. The backyard was also under my watch.

Bigger Brighter Faster Worse (2008)
Bigger Brighter Faster Worse (2008)

So for a couple of months, the initial sessions for Bigger Brighter were peachy. Things almost started to unravel when I took a new job as the manager of a small restaurant in Cow Hollow, and it completely threw me off balance. It didn’t help that with the new job came a whole new set of drug connections. Two months into the new gig, I basically had a nervous breakdown and resigned. The stress and anxiety beat me on that deal. On the bright side, the owner of the restaurant was a really nice guy and I think he felt sorry for me, but I didn’t expect him to cut me a severance check, which he did. That relieved some financial pressure, since I knew that I was welcome back at my old job. So I decided to take a break for a couple of weeks and chill out.

Mao chilling in the garden(2)
My cat Mao-mao, chilling in the garden

Before long I settled into a routine. In the morning I would work in the garden. Around noon I would get high and record until dinner time. I’d get high a couple of more times during the afternoon, depending upon what substances were on hand. At sundown, I would decide where to have dinner or whether to cook for myself. Dinner would be accompanied by a bottle of wine, unless I was having Indian food, which goes better with beer, if you ask me. After that, I’d get high again and open another bottle of wine. I could usually make it to midnight before being too messed up to operate recording equipment. So then I’d get high again and mosey down to the pub on the corner and play pinball and drink beer with Max, Susie, or whoever was around. Usually around 1:15 a.m., my drug dealer would show up and if I needed anything, the deal was done.

Two weeks turned into three, and it was a very good thing that I got a call from my old job, asking when I was coming back. Within a couple of days I was back at work and as (dys)functional as ever. This was the golden period of the recording process, and right about this time, I started working with Susie on vocals – as opposed to playing pinball and getting hammered after last call.

PeachesSusie was an interesting musical partner. Blessed with a mellifluous voice, she had never performed in public or worked in a recording studio, so it was all new to her. We began working together by singing cover songs – cheesy but fun stuff like “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver and “Reunited” by Peaches and Herb. Eventually, we moved on to my songs and Susie did an admirable job of following my instructions while trusting some of her own instincts.

Though never involved romantically, Susie and I became close friends. Like most friendships, we had our ups and downs. However, Susie was a good influence because she disapproved of my drug use; when she was around I had to keep my nose clean, literally. Basically, I would get high before she came over, but never during the session. Somewhere along the way, there was a fracture. One day we were pals; the next day she didn’t want anything to do with me. I suspect that she heard something about me down at the pub, but I never got to ask her what happened, because a week later, she moved out of the neighborhood. It was a little sad, but I reckoned – selfishly – that I’d already gotten what I wanted out of her.

And then the roof came down. Literally.

Walter took an assignment overseas, so he let one of his work buddies move in to the upstairs flat. Unfortunately, I was not given that option. The new guy “Leonard” was from Chicago, a massive Bulls fan and a major drunk, so we got along pretty well. He never complained about the noise I was making – mainly I suspect because he was passed out – and I never complained about…almost everything he did. Or didn’t do.

The more I got to know him, the more Leonard gave indications of being somewhat off. He was completely harmless and Wally said the kid was wicked smart, but he had some type of anger management issues – scratch that, he had a ton of issues – and I’d hear him screaming and smashing shit up there all the time. It only took one Sunday afternoon watching a Bulls game together before I thought, “Nah, I’m never doing that again.”

Leonard wasn’t accustomed to cleaning up after himself. He would clear his joint of some trash like once a month. Then he went two months without a clean-up and we got rats, so I had to call Walter and break the news. As usual when something like this happened, Wally asked me to call a local exterminator and work on Leonard about cleaning up the joint. Over the years, Walter traveled so much that I became the unofficial caretaker of the crib. So I was way ahead of him.

RatsThe rat infestation came on and escalated like an unexpected storm. At first, I noticed a rotting garbage odor coming from the vents. Then I started hearing noises one day and the next day I cornered one big black rat in my storage closet and beat it down with a post from a disassembled wine rack. Only took a couple of whacks and it was dead, so I didn’t feel bad that it had suffered. My next move was to track down Leonard, who could be elusive at times.

Anyway, the laundry room was upstairs on the back porch, so I was up there once a week doing my stuff. It also allowed me to see through the kitchen window, so I was used to the place in total disarray; but I was shocked at the mountains of empty beer bottles, pizza boxes and fast-food packaging that Leonard has accumulated. Jaysus, had it been that long since I’ve done laundry? It was like a scene from that TV show Hoarders. Stuff was piled waist-high in some places. With a decade of hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Leonard would order pizzas and drink at least a 12-pack every night, but the only bottles in the recycling bin were mine. The once a month clean-up was never a full sweep, either. It was a superficial exercise. Like wiping a window with a greasy rag.

HoarderLeonard wasn’t around that deadly rat day afternoon, but the back door was always open, so I shoved my way into the sea of trash. I took a few steps toward the living room but stopped dead in my tracks when I saw maggots in the sink. I puked a little at the sight, like a controlled retching. Meanwhile, the odor was thick and foul, and I wondered how the guy could live in such squalor. After poking my head in every room to make sure Leonard’s body wasn’t decomposing somewhere in the pile, I beat it back downstairs and called Walter.

“We’re going to need professional help,” I said.

“It’s that bad?” he replied.

“It’s crack house bad.”

Always a good-natured fellow, Walter laughed and said, “Leonard.”

“I’m gonna call a cleaning service. Got one on the hook now.”

“Definitely, and have Lenny pay for it. The kid is loaded anyway. Maybe you can set up a regular service for him.”

Walter had already spoken with Leonard about the garbage situation by the time I tracked him down. Lenny was very contrite and ashamed, and he told me that he’d been having some issues lately – he didn’t elaborate but I had a pretty good idea – and things had spun out of control. Of course, I was sympathetic; my own life had careened off the rails, so it wasn’t like I had any moral or ethical issues with the kid. Anyway, he was grateful that I arranged to have his joint simultaneously cleared of garbage and rats. Life went back to normal, for about a week.

studio 2Following the clean-up ordeal, I vaguely monitored Leonard’s condition. I went upstairs frequently to say hello and check-in on him. An eccentricity of the house was the conductivity of sound through the ceiling and vents, particularly in the upstairs back bedroom. I could hear a sound as soft as whisper coming from that back bedroom, and conversations sounded like they were taking place in my living room – where my studio set-up was located.

Leonard and Walter were using the middle bedroom as a storage unit, so Lenny mainly existed in that back bedroom. He only ever left to watch basketball games on the big TV in the front room. Otherwise he was up there screaming at his computer screen, playing video games and getting sloshed. Fortunately, I only had to hear it a couple of times a week since I worked nights and got home well after he’d slipped into a beer coma.

This one night I wasn’t working – it was like the day we had been declared rat-free and the upstairs flat was still spotless – and I was in the middle of setting up to record a guitar part when heard Leonard turn on the shower upstairs.

At least half an hour later – may have been as long as 45 minutes – I took off the headphones and noticed that the upstairs shower was still running. “Wow,” I thought, “he must having a good time up there!” And then I remembered Walter talking about maybe someday calling a plumber because the basin wasn’t draining properly. On a closer listen, the water flow was continuous – there was no splashing or variation – because Leonard wasn’t in the shower.

“That moron,” I said out loud. “If he doesn’t turn off the water it’s going to…”

And as soon as I said that, a big chunk of my kitchen ceiling came down, followed by a cascade of water. Shouting a series of obscenities, I panicked and pulled my recording equipment as far from the downpour as possible, and then ran up the back stairs, calling Leonard’s name. I opened back door, ran to the bathroom and shut off the water.

I found him passed out on his bed and used my foot to shake the mattress until he was rousted.

“Leonard! Leonard, you fat piece of shit. Wake up!”

Irritated and threatened, he snapped, “What the fuck, man!?!?”

“Dude, you forgot to turn off the shower! It flooded my joint!”

“Oh shit!” he cried and we moved to the bathroom, where the shower basin was still overflowing and water was pooled on the floor.

“Is it bad downstairs?”

“Dude, the ceiling came down!” I continued to curse him for his stupidity.

Once again, Leonard was contrite and humbled. “Are you going to call Walter, or should I do it?”

“You do it.” Man, I was so mad I thought I might throttle the guy.

The next day, I felt a little guilty about going off on him like I did. Coincidentally, a dude I used to work with had just gifted me a six-pack of some kind of brown ale craft brewed stuff (made by his friends) that I had no intention of drinking. Knowing Leonard loved that type of beer, later that evening I popped up the back staircase and offered an apology. He was apologetic as well and we shook hands.

studioset1He said, “Well, now we gotta deal with getting it fixed.”

“My joint is trashed.”

“Walter is pissed.”

“You think?”

The upstairs bathroom was situated directly above my kitchen. My studio set-up was just on the other side of the threshold between the kitchen and living room, so the downpour missed my computer and other gear by about two feet. It only was affected by minor splashing. However, my kitchen was basically destroyed. Half of the ceiling was exposed and water had seeped into the walls, bloating the drywall. The water had also shorted the electricity, which had happened before, but this time, everything on that side of the apartment was fried. The electrician that came around took one look at the wiring system and said, “Nuh-uh, I’m not touching it.” Christ, I was afraid to plug in anything after that.

Despite all the other depravity and stupidity that took place on my own behalf – beyond the flood scene – this event effectively marked the end of Bigger Brighter. The studio was shut down as I put the gear in storage while the plumbers and contractors mucked around for nearly a month fixing the ceiling and the walls. Walter had hired a couple of fly-by-night guys and it was an absolute nightmare on every account. And to make matters worse, they did a horrible job. A couple of weeks after they had cleared out, it happened again – Leonard passed out with the shower running – only this time, the ceiling didn’t collapse this time as much as it started to melt and ooze.

The song I was working on at the time was “Mountains of Honey”.

Mountains of Honey

 

 

Blue Sunshine 1
The Glove, Blue Sunshine (1983)

“Mountains of Honey” was one of half a dozen songs from Bigger Brighter that had music but no words, and eventually got scuttled. The main riff is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, so even though the original 2007 version had to be scrapped, I figured why not give it another shot.

The song also contains direct lifts from a line from:

“Waiting Room” by Fugazi
“Punish Me With Kisses” by The Glove
“Maggie’s Farm” by Bob Dylan
“Twisting by the Pool” by Dire Straits

 

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