The madness started at age 12. My brother Steve, who was 14 at the time, walked into my room and said, “I want to do this talent show but I need a full band. You have two weeks to learn the mandolin.” So I did. And we won. And it was awesome because girls noticed me, even though the mandolin is an inherently weird instrument.
So when my brother came back in my room some time around 1986 and said, “how would you like to make a million dollars?” I followed him like the Pied Piper down The Road To Hell. At the time, I was a junior in college and he was a Disenchanted Pirate, and we hadn’t made music together for about five years. My future consisted of either a) not getting into film school for countless more years or b) becoming a weatherman in Pocatello, Idaho. So I chose option C: become a rich and famous rock star with my brother. And thus the madness continued.
In the mid-nineties, the madness reached its most fevered pitch when our band, The Uninvited, was signed to Atlantic Records. Between 1996 and 2001, we logged a couple hundred thousand miles on the road and did Rock Star-y things like play the 1999 MTV Music Video Awards, open for bands you’ve actually heard of, play for crowds of 10,000+ and have almost/sorta/kinda hits on the radio. Famous? Depends on who you ask. Rich? Not in the least.
In 2002, we hung up our touring shoes. Steve and I continued to make music for another seven years or so until he decided to move to Maui, because, you know, Maui. When he left, I decided to turn my creative energies towards writing, while Steve kept The Truth Faith and formed a band called Flat Jackson out on the island. Admittedly, I came to miss playing music with my brother. After a while, even road time in the godforsaken van seemed romantic again.
So when Steve came into my room a couple of months ago and said, “hey bro, want to go on the road with my band?” Well, bring on the madness.
Flat Jackson is a five-piece that plays a kind of music that can only be described as American: It’s a simmering gumbo of bluegrass, rockabilly, country, folk, ragtime and punk. The band is fronted by Steve along with Aaron Jernigan, who seriously has one of the most unique voices in music today, and Stina Nelson, whose plaintive, heartbreaking vocals serve as the emotional counterpoint to Aaron’s whiskey-fueled lyrical sermons. Russell Halverson coaxes fat-bottom notes from the Doghouse bass, while Jonas Troxell plays grooves that both slather like a roux gravy and give you a bloody nose like a drunken soccer hoodlum. For this trip, my Strat would stay at home and it would be back to the mandolin.
The plan was to have the band fly out to San Francisco – even Our Man Tony, the Uninvited’s beleaguered yet eternally-focused road manager would be joining us. We’d play a gig up here, then head down to Los Angeles for two shows in Hollywood and the valley. The highlight of the week would be recording the band’s second album at 4th Street Recording in Santa Monica, the place where The Uninvited recorded three of its indie albums back in the 90’s. Pack your shit, get in the van, sleep on the floor, hope you like In n’ Out Burger, the band gets the first drink free then pony up like everyone else.
It had been two years since I’d been on stage making music, so the first gig in San Francisco was an absolute blast. Granted, I only knew half the songs – and the half I did know I only knew half as well as I should – but an actual band that plays notes together on real instruments should only get things about 90% right anyway or it ain’t rock n’ roll. I drank all the gin, which was probably stupid considering I had to work the next day. But considering work the next day ain’t rock n’ roll, either.
Then it was pile into the van for the trip down to LA. Road Time is always exciting at first: The thrill of starting an adventure and going new places, the rush of the outlaw band, defying the norms and conventions of society and rolling up into town with nothing but loud intentions. And then ten minutes later it’s boring as fuck. Literally just endless hours of cramped, smelly discomfort, with nothing but countless McDonalds signs rolling past the window to mark the time. To make matters worse, I passed the time by reading a book on hospitality concepts in the wine industry, which was so un-rock that I half expected Keith Richards to personally pull the van over just to bitch slap me.
Walking into 4th Street Recording created a much more visceral reaction than I was expecting. The memories oozed from the wood-paneled walls and rose from the bong-water-stained carpet to shake me by the shoulders. There’s mojo in that room; juju from three decades and countless bands, sweating out dreams and bleeding passions onto tape. We were one of those bands, twenty years earlier. And now I was back.
It’s hard to describe the recording process. Imagine trying to make a marble sculpture while giving birth during psychotherapy as four other people yell at you. It’s exciting, it’s tedious, it’s intense, it’s monotonous, it’s 15-hour days of the same song over and over. And I freaking love it. I actually love it so bad that I had to leave the studio on several occasions. This was my brother’s project, and the band’s baby. The last thing they needed was another producer, which is exactly what me and my un-closable mouth would have become.
Our first gig in Hollywood was my favorite of the trip. If Miranda Lambert had a threesome with Andy Warhol and David Lynch, the night was something like that. We played The Viper Room, the iconic Sunset Strip club, one of five bands on a bill that was headlined by Paradise Kitty, an all-girl Guns n’ Roses tribute band. The place was packed with a lot of friends, but with a lot of unsuspecting leather & tattooed locals as well. But rock is an attitude. Punk is an attitude. You can smash someone over the head with an acoustic guitar and cause just as much bleeding as you can with an electric. So we did.
The next night in the valley got a little hazier. The set was longer, more drinks were drank, people went missing, there was a hankering for Taco Bell and a six pack for the road and we smashed the van into a yellow concrete guard post. “Wow,” I said, “I hope we got the insurance package.” “It’s not our fault,” Steve replied. “What the fuck did they expect, renting the van to a rock band? How stupid is that?” I don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.
Home again, home again. I drove the blemished van back alone, as the band was flying to Maui out of LAX. When I walked through the door to my apartment, I was struck with the most disorienting sense of déjà vu, as though perhaps nothing had changed in twenty years. Here I was, coming back from touring and recording, to my sparse, tiny apartment, just as I had so many times before. And I knew logically that a lot had changed in that time. A lot. Another marriage, another divorce, three amazing kids, two careers, a few different dreams, a few different disappointments.
But still a dreamer, and still a sparse apartment. I have a few hundred songs, seven recorded CDs, one novel and thirty blog entries, all forged from the mojo and soaked with the aforementioned blood and sweat. But I don’t have a microwave oven. I had one, sometime during that moment when I blinked, somewhere in that short space of twenty years and a thousand stories.
Make that a thousand and one.
Give me the madness. Fuck the microwave.
Being Able To Start A Story With, “One Time, When I was 53, I Went On The Road With This Band,” Pairs With: Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. Yeah, I’m cheating for this blog post. It’s like the old adage that no good story starts with, “So I was eating this salad when all of a sudden…” Jack Daniels is synonymous with rock and all its glorious decadence. Hell, even Frank Sinatra knew this…he might have even invented this, as a matter of fact. In all honesty, my preferred drink of Rock o’ Clock is the mighty gin & tonic (which Flat Jackson pays tribute to in their new song “Seven Gin & Tonics”). I can’t deny that there are wines that rock, and that you can rock with a bottle of wine in your hand…but Keith Richards (and Frank Sinatra) probably wouldn’t approve.
I’ll keep you posted as to when Flat Jackson’s new album, Straight To Voicemail, is released. In the meantime, you can check them out on YouTube by clicking here.