I got to attend the Interactive conference at South by Southwest this year and was often reminded of how poor a substitute digital connections are for the real thing and what an epidemic of isolation and loneliness is taking place.
One presenter pointed out what a totally different experience it is when music is shared in the room as opposed to isolated in our headphones.
The best thing I heard at SXSW was a bold keynote from musician/producer T Bone Burnett, who talked about the “growing understanding that the internet has morphed into an insidious surveillance and propaganda machine,” calling for radical accountability for our tech giants and asserting that “the artists are our only hope.”
All of this made me think of my song called Be My TV who’s chorus goes, “I think my TV has been watching me, it cuts up my dreams to sell ads for jeans.”
This mantra is also a riddle, being a double negative – no more bad things – which eludes to the next trick, to do more good things. This is why the song itself has two distinct parts, the frenetic ska song about all the ways gigs turn shitty, and the relaxed ending, about how to set up ideal settings for enjoyable situations. The first half is a fed up young man getting older, shaking his fist at all the bullshit, while the second half is a slightly wiser man, choosing to steer clear of the bitterness the bullshit has brought. Because you can’t just quit your job, you have to find and make a better job.
Learning to say no to dumb, draining situations is certainly a difficult and ongoing challenge made more challenging because it can lead first to an empty space where nothing happens. This can be extremely refreshing, especially for a chronic over-commiter with a fear of missing out. One of the toughest parts about saying No to shitty gigs is fear of no gigs at all. And behind that waits the fear of having to do for yourself what noone else is going to do for you.
I know for me I may have never found the courage to unplug from the shitty-gig machine if I hadn’t had a kid. When Anais was born I had to say no to almost everything else for quite a while. But I had a baby that needed me, so it was an enchanting if exhausting, tradeoff. It gave me time and space to dream up what was beyond the shitty music gigs I’d stopped playing, to having to getting to put on my own gigs, and partner with people that shared my vision for what they could be.
Along with the release of MANTRAS, I am proud to premiere the video for Not Gonna Try, the last and longest track on the album and certainly my most involved video production to date.
The wisdom I sing about in this song is probably the hardest piece of advice I give to myself: stop trying to change other people and work on yourself. It’s akin to “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and the serenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
I take it one step further to actively denying my impulse to change others. It’s a tough extra-step, but one I’ve come to believe as a practical truth, that our influence on others increases along with our own personal integrity and decreases the more we try to get people to be like us (or at least do as we say). It is also totally aspirational. I find my belief that I can change others is a core assumption that I have to actively suppress in order to prevent all sorts of frustration and misery that goes along with trying to get people to be different.
The video features psychedelic backgrounds while I go through many wardrobe changes and time-lapse footage of me slowly going through a speeding world. The changes of clothes are meant to refer to my changing myself. The time-lapse illustrates the idea of going at your own, slower, more methodical pace in an ever faster world.
Lil sprinkled her digital fairy dust on this screenshot from the video.
This shoot began a few years ago when I volunteered as a free subject for a video class. In exchange for spending the day in front of their cameras, I got a bunch of footage. The first half of the shoot was all in a studio in front of a green screen, me changing outfits between lip-syncing to my song. For the second half of the shoot, we went down to town lake and shot footage on the Lamar St. footbridge and Doug Sahm hill. I’m happy to have captured two iconic Austin spots along with the skyline.
Last year I met Grey Gamboa, then a new RTF student at UT, and finally found someone to edit the footage together. Grey did a perfectly trippy job editing and creating pulsing psychedelic colors (using oil and water dyes between curved glass). His visuals nicely complement the dub horns that echo as they take turns soloing (through a delay pedal) for the last half of the song. I’m a big fan of such extended instrumentals, and very pleased with how Grey visually represented the dub jazz that the horn section improvised so beautifully.
After five years of production, I launched MANTRAS on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2018 because it is an album of resolutions. You can stream it below or at Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, and purchase at CDBaby or Bandcamp. For hand-decorated CDs and t-shirts, buy em right here, directly from me.
MANTRAS uses reggae and ska-infused tunes to chant my intentions, like…
No more shitty gigs
No more waiting to be discovered
No more waiting to get signed
I use my system to capture information
I use my system to structure inspiration
Show up for practice
Everything’s connected, everything’s changing
Pay attention, this is what it’s like right now
Keep your word and do your best
Don’t take it personally or make assumptions
I’m not gonna to try to change anyone but myself
My dreams of having a horn section came true working with Mark Gonzalez, the trombonist and arranger for Grupo Fantasma, Brownout and others.
Dan Bechdolt (sax), Kevin Flatt (trumpet), Mark “Speedy” Gonzales (trombone) tracking at Tonehaus
Robert helped me turn my sketch of my dreaming head with repeating thought bubbles into a great graphic that can be filled with the mantra of your choice. Maile, Anais and I decorated the first 50 CDs by hand with watercolors.
Anais made this great version w paint and Sharpie on wood. (I added the LOVE sticker.)
I made tees and stickers for patrons and fans, and this site now features a shop where you can purchase all the j stuff.
For the third time, I am grateful to have recorded my album with Thomas “Tbone” van der Brook at Tonehaus. In the video above are Gray Parsons on drums and Doug Snyder on bass (getting sounds at the original recording session in 2013) who supported me every step of the way personally and musically. And I would likely not have finished if not for months of great help from Danny P. finalizing and mixing. Thank you all, my brothers in music.
Big thanks to Mark “Speedy” Gonzales for arrangements and trombone parts, and to Dan Bechdolt (sax) and Kevin Flatt (trumpet), especially for their trippy solos on I’m Not Gonna Try. Thanks to Derek Morris for playing keys on few tunes, especially for such perfect accompaniment on Bright Eyes Shine. Thank you, Karla and Maile and Anais for singing backup on several tracks. Thanks to Brad Bell for mastering. And thank YOU for checking it all out, I hope you enjoy the tunes!
Have you voted yet? I’m lucky enough to have an early voting station in the lobby of my office building, so I already got to cast my ballot in what feels like the most consequential election of my lifetime. Precarious times.
For me, this is not just about hoping to snatch democracy from the jaws of tyranny but the future of the planet from the claws of those that deny climate change.
When my buddy Ron recently put out the call to make some art to get out the vote, I said “I’m in!” So he sent me some lyrics, aimed at getting younger folks out, to make into a song.
I made a few little adjustments – worked some of Pete Seeger’s participation in – and cranked out this one-minute punk rock Vote song. Please share.
You will listen to bad music
You will wear dumb clothes
You will sport extreme haircuts
You will awkwardly make out
Who cares. It doesn’t matter. You’re young.
One day you’ll look back
At all those selfies
And laugh your ass off
But not voting is different
It really matters
It’s never mattered more
Only way to save the nation
Your chance to stand up
and save the planet
Get off your ass and vote
Get off your ass and vote
Get off your ass and vote
Vote Vote Vooooooooote!!!
On one of our walks around campus a few years ago my friend Dan shared some Buddhist phrases that he uses as mantras. First: “Everything changes. Everything’s connected. Pay attention.” And second: “Right now, it’s like this.”
Those stuck with me and I made some slight adjustments to make them more singable, ending up with:
So pay attention
This is what it’s like right now
After a little searching, I discovered that the first three lines can be attributed to poet Jane Hirshfield, who wrote, “Zen pretty much comes down to three things — everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.”
The last line seems to come from a Buddhist monk named Ajahn Sumedho, who advises us “to see things the way that they actually are rather than the way that we want or don’t want them to be (“Right now, it’s like this…”).”
Gary Sanders’ hands
I like the way singing these lines brings me back to the present, focussing me with a sense of curiosity and wonder on how much is happening at this moment. I hope I’ve made the song catchy enough to stick in your head and bend your attention for a second to the interconnectedness of things.
The video of tall grass with cattails in the wind comes from a lovely city park we stumbled upon one spring day in Boston. I hope you can get lost in the beauty of the wind through the grass and trees.
If you’ve got a dog or cat, you probably talk to them as I do. And I bet they speak to you too.
Frida and Townes, cuddling on the couch
Saturday Morn is a song about walking my dog, Townes, early one Saturday as my cat, Frida, followed us from a distance.
I was very much in my head that morning, frustrated and dispirited. But as my mind wandered, Townes’s buoyant doggy spirit brought me back to the sunlight and serenity of the park.
Eventually, Townes’s insistence that we play and fetch and swim lifted my mood. So this song is about how our beloved animal friends get us out of ourselves and bring us back to the glories of the present.
“Ya got some buddies there I see”
the runner said to me
as me and Townes and Frides lounged in the sun
Twas a gorgeous Saturday morn,
cool breeze, warm sun
the day barely begun already runnin’ round
Townes was chewing on a stick,
Frida chewin’ on her leg
we were all rollin on our backs in our grassy gowns
I was sittin on a stump by the stream
across from where I’ve been
I could see the rut I was in and how well worn
How I sit day after day,
dreamin’ of places I’ll play
without finding a way to get it done
And Townes said “Let’s jump in the pool and chase things”
and Frida said “Don’t mind me, I’ll sneak along behind”
I said Come on, move along, let’s go now And home we flied
Takin advice from the dogs is a mugs game
Takin advice from the cats is fine
Take me some good advice for when you need relaxin
Stay kind to yourself in your mind
And take yourself a little time
Cause I know that Townes is right,
a dog needs his exercise
but I feel like some catnip and following behind
Now they’re dozing on the porch
and I’m strumming a few chords
try in to get my head restored to the how and why
I know that I need that plan
that details who I am
defines the discipline to win the war
To forget about my worst
put out my best and bust
on to the scene like the first one to be born
And Townes says “Please don’t be gone all the time”
and Frida says “I’ll wander off into the night”
and I said “I’ll stay and myself that I’ll play
and walk you every day forevermore
and walk you every day forevermore”
Here’s a little journey I took on a Sunday morning 25 years ago that is still with me.
I wrote this song, Sunday Morn, while living in Dublin, Ireland. It’s about walking up the beautiful, wide, car-free Grafton Street watching a dozen street performers along the way, past the big church at the top then back along the River Liffey.
It’s about wandering in search of the sacred and finding it in a great array of artists along the way. That is certainly how my life has turned out, finding the spiritual, the spark, the source of life in art and the people making it.
I can still see all the buskers chronicled in this song. I hope you can see them too.
I was on my way to church one Sunday morn
the sun was bright and the weather was warm
winter was over but I needed my coat
the streets were clear and the cars ran slow
there a clown breathed flame and ate the fire
juggled a knife a book and a tire
he called all the children and gave em all toys
sent them back to their parents for coins
I came to the poet in a long tattered coat
who sung and chanted every word he spoke
he pointed and pounded his great walking stick
I could hardly get through the crowd was so thick
then I came to a one-man band
who’d rigged up strings to every finger on his hand
from a little dance and from a little song
came a chorus or strings and drums and gongs
two girls sat on the side of the street
on a Persian rug with cards about their feet
for the smallest of bills and they’d shuffle the cards
and give you the blessing of their beggar gods
and a middle-aged lady with old misfit clothes
sat on a crate no song nor show
just dirt on her face and her inhuman eyes
that begged for the money that they despised
and a short man with a beard and beret
had a saxophone and man could he play
low and slow a hoarse sort-of cry
you could see the sadness in all who passed by
and a freckled gypsy boy with spiky red hair
played a penny whistle high with despair
his two younger brothers played violin
as the mother and father passed ’round the tin
and when I finally came to church I was late
and I’d spent my money for the collection plate
tossing my coins in the cups and hats
so I decided to take the long way back
I walked through the street with old women and men
nodding a greeting now and again
down by the courthouse and past the cops
looking in the windows of all the closed shops
my legs had gone weary and my mind had gone blank
as I made it home along the riverbank
arriving again at my door
having spent Sunday morning like so many before