Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Ann Arbor Kirtan and Upland Hills with Judy Piazza

Hello,

The past weekend was filled with chanting and tabla. On Friday I played with the Ann Arbor Kirtan Group at the Friends Center in Ann Arbor. It was the maiden voyage for a new sound system that the members of the group all chipped in for, (no more begging and borrowing!) The new board gave us the capability to have a mic for all the instruments and vocals, and also allowed us to have a seperate mix for recording. More inportantly, when you consider that all those instruments and vocals go into the sound system and then come out as just 2 channels (right and left), the system itself becomes just as important as everything else. Anyway, it was a fun show and the responding crowd seems to be growing more familiar with the chants, which just puts more energy into the air. I like the direction this group is going.

The following evening I found myself taking a quiet walk down a path in the woods to the Upland Hills Ecology Center. I was on my way to an "Evening of Devotional Song" with Judy Piazza. The center is set in the woods near Lake Orion, MI and is designed to use the elements of the earth to run itself. When I opened the front door, Judy was on her way out for a walk. She had been teaching a drum workshop earlier and wanted some time to relax before we played. It was great. I set up my tabla and played in a nice big, quiet environment with no one around. It is sort of a "praticing dream" to have that kind of solitude. When Judy got back, others started to arrive and we slowly got ready to play. Judy and I have played in the Kirtan group together for about a year, but this gig was the first one we have done on our own as a duet. It was so nice. No sound system, quiet place, small, intimate gathering of Judy's friends and fans, and just one other musician to link up with. I had a great time just listening and playing. It was a very calming, relaxing environment.

Thanks for reading,

John

Monday, March 19, 2007

Gratitude at MSU, Nick Strange on St. Patties Day

Hello,

What a fun weekend of gigs! First I went up to Lansing on my first trip to the Michigan State University campus. Gratitude was slated to play a show to promote African awareness. I believe they played this same show last year, but I was not able to play for some reason. I was happy to be able to come to this show. I don't get to play the African songs very often, so this show was a real treat. The rhythms are very infectious and the harmonies they sing are so juicy. I was happy to see that Dahjumbay, (the 11 year old wonder on the steel drum), was also singing, and sounding great! There was also a guest drummer, (I forgot his name...sorry), who played an interesting set up of like 10 different size drums that were all sitting verticaly on the ground. He was making very intricate polyrhythms and great catchy melodic ideas happen, all with just 2 sticks, (no feet). He also brought with him a couple of the most intense dancers I have seen in a long time. They were so energetic and powerful. They definitely stole the show when they were out on the floor. At the end of the show we did a big drum/dance jam where people from the crowd came up and played some drums and danced with all of us. It was a high energy evening that made me happy to be a drummer.

The next day was St. Patricks day. I was slated to play a nice 2 hour show with Nick Strange at Good Nite Gracie from 8-10. Nick, (the founder of the group) was selling tickets all week, so the crowd was full of supporters, which made it really fun to play. Indian musicians often talk about how the energy they recieve from the crowd greatly affects the perfromance, and this night was a perfect example. When the crowd would clap for solos, and cheer after pieces were played, the whole group seemed to play with so much more energy. It was also a perfect time to go on. There were just enough people in the place to fill the seats. By the time we were done and the band after us was loading on, the place had filled up with a rowdier party crowd. It was a perfect time to split.

As I headed home, I listened to the Chicago recording in my car. I am so thankful for the experiences I am having as a musician, teacher, husband, son, friend, and student. I feel very lucky to be doing what I love for a living and I hope it just gets better from here. This coming up weekend I will be playing with the Kirtan group in Ann Arbor and then doing an evening of devotional song with Judy Piazza in Lake Orion. I couldn't have scripted a nicer way to bring a sense of closure this incredible last few weeks, as I get ready for a great summer. Thank you for reading, and I will talk to you soon!

John

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Recording in Chicago

The past week has been one of the most inspiring, rewarding, and special music making experiences of my life. In order to fully understand what I mean, I think it is neccessary to understand how this past week came to be. I am not sure how long this will take, but I have been looking forward to writing about my past for a long time. It all started about 15 years ago in my hometown of Marquette, MI. I was a drummer in a garage band with my friends Silas Himes and Tully Devine. We decided to take these new rock band lessons that were being offered by the Melody Shop and School of Music, which was THE local store for all things music. (*Side Note* the owner of this store was a guy named Tony Catainia, who was a graduate of CalArts, and a big reason for my acceptance to the school. Thanks Tony, wherever you are...) The requirements for the lessons were that we needed 4 musicians, so somehow we got placed together with a guy named Ryan Staples, who was a great guitar player with long hair and a heavy metal Kramer guitar. In the lessons we learned basics of playing together and covered the Stones, Hendrix, and the Beatles. We were pretty into it and practiced in my Dad's garage every week. Then, one day, Ryan told us he was leaving the group to join another band called Gomer. Silas, Tully and I were dissapointed, but there were no hard feelings. We wished Ryan luck and continued to play together as a trio.

As seniors in High School, we actually played shows with Gomer. They were an intense group doing mostly original music created mostly by the bass player and band leader Jared Smith. They had a lead singer/trombone player named Mike Waite, and one other guitar player (besides Ryan) named Ben Imdieke. Their drummer was a guy named Dan, who sounded great on the kit, but was often letting them down by not showing up for gigs and recordings. They were a band shooting for the stars. They played a ton of shows, did recordings, competed in many battle of the bands, and had a die-hard fan club. (I think they even have a MySpace account!)

When high school was over, I stopped playing with Silas and Tully and started playing with a band called the Flat Broke Blues Band, (who are still around today). I was a young guy in a group of old blokes, who, like Gomer, were shooting for the stars. I played a ton with that group. At times we were consistently playing 4-5 nights a week all over the mid west. At our peak, we were doing shows with Shirley King, who is the first born daughter of blues guitar legend B.B. King. She was an amazing performer and I learned many lessons on how to work a crowd. (Never got to meet her dad, but heard many interesting stories). We had plans to record a C.D., but it fell through when Shirley basically dissapeared. (I heard through the grapevine that she wound up in France!) Anyway, it was a blow to the momentum of the band.

Around that same time I was learning of this amazing music school out in California that was started by Walt Disney and had an amazing world music program, which, for a drummer, is very enticing. I had been using this new technology called e-mail to communicate with Jared, (Gomer bass player, and new student at CalArts) about what was going on out there. It sounded too good to be true....African drumming, Indian drumming, Indonesian drumming, plus all kinds of jazz, experemental, and new different stuff that sounded right up my alley. I applied for CalArts in the summer of 97 and was accepeted in the winter of 98. Ryan Staples had also been attending CalArts and was Jareds roomate. I was very excited not only to be going to a top music school, but also to be going with two friends from my hometown.

The summer of 98 was a high point in my life. I was getting ready to move to California, I had just met my wife Jody, and Jared and Ryan came back to Marquette for the summer with an idea to form a band with myself, my sister Evelyn and the former members of Gomer. The idea was simple, put on a huge going away party. The band was called Whipple. We had about a month to prepare and rehearse. Gomer's die-hard fans were all excited to hear the band in this new form and helped to create a buzz around town that just kept building up. We played live on Radio X, (the local college radio station) the day before the show. It just spurred more excitement. One sad note, about a week before the show, Ben, the other guitar player told us he could not make it for the show. I forget why, but it made us scramble to find a replacement. We hired a guy from Chicago named Ryan Mahoney. He had been living in Marquette for a while and sounded great on his Fender Strat. He was a perfect fit for the band.

The show was, from my perspective, a success of epic porportions. The sold out crowd never left the dance floor and by the end of the show the whole stage was full of dancers. I will never forget how it felt. That night we solidified a musical relationship with each other that would never let up. A couple of days later I moved to California and into a house with Jared and Ryan. We were all going to Cal Arts and loving the musical life. We came back to Marquette every chance we got and did another Whipple show. Each show got better and better and we discovered this ability to create great sounding music in a very short amount of time. I have yet to be in a band where the communication both on stage and in rehearsal flows so well. Our personalities gel and the music always sounds great.

Fast forward to January of 2007, two months ago. I had been in Ann Arbor, MI. for the past 5 years, building my career and creating a musical life. Jared stayed out in L.A. and has been doing amazing things with his band Hello Stranger and doing all kinds of great projects with guitar legend Ry Cooder. Actually Ry's son Joachim Cooder is the drummer in Jareds band. They have been recording and touring for years, and the experience Jared had gained has been incredible. Ryan moved to Chicago, got married,(I was the minister at his wedding!) and started an amazing recording studio called Pragma Studios, (he was at Cal Arts for music technology). Mike Waite has been in Marquette building a family and writing music. Mike has his degree in music from Northern Michigan University in Marquette. He playes all over the place with all kinds of people, and over the past 10 years he has written some great tunes. I got an e-mail from Mike asking me if I wanted to be a part of a project to record his songs at Ryans studio in March. He said Jared is coming from L.A. and they are booking 10 days solid. I couldn't respond fast enough! I was so excited at the prospect of making music with my friends that nothing would keep me from this project. I was very lucky to be able to take the time off from Go Like The Wind and lessons and headed out to Chicago last Friday.

This was Mikes first big recording project. None of us knew what to expect, but we had a feeling that it was going to be good. Jared had been a part of some legendary recording projects with Ry Cooder and he was coming with some great wisdom. I showed up in Chicago on Friday evening. I had a gig the night before with Nick Strange at Good Nite Gracie in Ann Arbor, so I had a full morning of repacking my car with every instrument I could fit into my van. I even had a set of vibes on loan from Charles Russell, (of Gratitude), and a harmonium from one of my students Laurie Feldt. Thanks you guys!

I was the first to arrive at Ryans house. Mike showed up with his family about an hour later. As Mike's wife Erica and their 3 kids wound down from the 8 hour drive from Marquette, Mike, Ryan and I went to the studio to check it out. There was another project happening, so we just brought some stuff in and went back to Ryans. They would be in the studio on Saturday as well, but we wanted to come early and start getting a feel for how we were going to approach the process. Jared flew in from L.A. that night at 4 a.m., so Ryan and I went to pick him up. I was so excited and wired that I stayed up with Jared. We went to a Starbucks and caught up on what has been happening in our lives. When we got back, most everyone had woken up and breakfast was happening. We decided to bring equipment to the studio and see if there was any chance we could get in there that night. There wasn't. They were recording until 3a.m., so we loaded our stuff into the bottom floor storage room and went back to Ryan's to rehearse some of the tunes and throw ideas around. There was a bit of apprehension in the air as to how this would go, but it all felt normal and good.

On Sunday morning we were well rested and excited to get into the studio. We decided to record all the foundational tracks in one room, with the drums, guitar, and vocals all happening simutaniously. Setting up for that was a lot of work. I was busy with the monster drumkit I was putting together from my own kit, and borrowed drums, while Ryan and Jared set up sound baffles and ran chords. We spent an hour and a half just getting the kick drum to sound right. In all there were 12 mics on the drums.

The set up started at 11:00a.m. and did not finish until 5:00p.m. But once it was set up, we were all so excited that we jumped right into the recording process. Ben Imdieke showed up to the studio during the day sometime and wound up playing with us on the first few recordings. I was so happy that he had a part in the process. He is a very busy man, but luckily, he lives in Chicago, so he could stop by when he got some free time. That first night we ended up recording 3 tracks. By the end of the night I was so tired that I couldn't hardly see straight. We got to bed by about 2 a.m. with the songs fully in our heads.

The next two days were filled with recording. We were putting in 14 and 15 hour days and it felt so great, (the music I mean), that the time seemed to just slip by. The process was pretty simple, we would sit with the song and learn it, then Ryan would press record and let it roll for an hour or more while we tried different takes on the songs. When we got the one we wanted, we would go and listen and decide to keep it or do it again. In any other group this process could be grueling and get very tense, but with this group of guys it seemed to just flow like water. After the second day, we were all very excited about the way things were going. We did a couple of late night tracks that were bluegrass style with all of us sitting in a circle and playing mainly for a room mic. It turned out great, and I was happy to see Ben show up again to lay down some banjo and mandolin.

On the third day Jared rented an upright bass from a rental shop and layed down all the bass tracks at once. As a drummer I don't have much experience with recording without a bass on the first track, and it was kind of difficult to imagine what would be there when it was done, but once Jared layed it down, the songs seemed to come alive and my drumming seemed to gain a dimention that was not there in the original takes.

The following days were dedicated to overdubs. I played so much shaker that the next day I could barely lift my arms. I also layed down some hand drums, tabla, cymbal rolls, vibes, tamborine, and anything else the songs needed. Ryan's wife Stefanie helped out a lot with some shaker and tamborine as well. She is a great drummer and it was nice to have her on the recording as well. Once all the percussion was layed down it was time to say goodbye to my beautiful percussion corner of the studio and pack it up.

The next day our friend and fellow Yooper Jessica Ross came from Ann Arbor to lay down some cello. Jesse has been a member of my World Percussion Ensemble for the last few years and it was great to see her go back to her musical roots as a string player. She was a member of the Marquette Senior High School Orchestra. It was fun to hear her and Jared share stories about how Jared drove the teacher crazy by never ceasing to play and doing things his own way. Judging from the contribution he made to this album, I would say things worked out for the best!

I got to stick around just long enough to hear Jessie record one take, then I had to take off back to Ann Arbor to play a gig with the Nick Strange group in a small little town somewhere near the Indiana/Michigan border. By the time I got to the gig I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, I felt like I was in a dream. The next day I slept in, and thought about the week I had just gone through. It definitely felt like I had turned a corner in my musical life. I feel lucky to still be making music with my hometown musicians, and I am looking forward, now more than ever, to what the future holds.

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