Today I’m headed back to the recording studio in Echo Park where I’ve been working with my friend Jordan Katz. He’s been incredible throughout this whole album process. He’s a trumpet player who’s been the live music director for people Brother Ali and Big Daddy Kane and is currently producing the new De La Soul record! I met Katz a few years ago when he and Martin Starr did a show opening for Adam WarRock in LA. I remember watching Starr on Freaks and Geeks as a kid and then being surprised to see him rapping – he’s actually a genuinely nice guy a great storyteller when it comes to songwriting. (He’s currently killing it as a disgruntled programmer on Silicon Valley, the new Mike Judge show on HBO… Frontalot agrees with me, the show is great!) Starr has a unique, Big Boi-esque flow when it comes to rapping. Yesterday we wrote and demoed a funny song about the little-known origin of Easter… I came up with the first verse, he took it to a surprising place with the second, and then we brought it home to share the little known origin of Easter in the third. From projecting a character, to trying to piece together a story, to recreating an imaginary scene for the audience, rapping is a lot like acting. I’m happy with the track and I was really glad Jordan could connect Starr and me.
Celebrities with good morals
This morning I was thinking about the concept of celebrity and how important it is to stay down to earth. Not getting caught up in that illusion is so important. Starr is someone who doesn’t remind you about all of the great movies he’s been. When you meet those people in Hollywood and it’s always refreshing. In 2008, I lived near Hollywood and Vine with my cousin Stewart. Stew is a hardworking guy that I’ve looked up to him as a big brother. We’d make videos together as kids and he always patiently taught me about computers, how to design and lay things outin Photoshop. He even directed my first music video, “iGeneration”. He’s another one of the good people I know down here. But living that close to epicenter of Hollywood was also really depressing sometimes. From traffic being held up from the Pussycat Dolls shooting a music video near the metro to the scary side of walking down Hollywood Blvd. at 2 am, I never quite felt at home there. I met some people with a studio who helped me finish “Robot Kills,” where I also ran into Linus Dotson, who was starting a label with Jaret Reddick and Carl Caprioglio called Crappy Records. They helped me finish and release that album, if I hadn’t been in Hollywood at that time and met up with them when I did, that album wouldn’t have come out, so the sacrifice of living somewhere I didn’t like was definitely worth it. Just like there are good people in the movie world in LA, there are good people in the music industry. It doesn’t pay to be jaded because it closes you off from things that can help your career in surprising ways.
I’ve always tried to keep that optimism about building your own world in the shadow of corporate media and how you can use that infrastructure to your advantage, without sacrificing quality in your work. I remember in 2008 my room had a view of Capitol Records building. “The Graduate” had finally recouped, I remember looking out the window and thinking how I was thankful for the people and industries that the major labels and industry had brought to this city, but that I didn’t need that world. That’s why the robot is cutting through the Capitol Records Building on the cover of my second album. He’s destroying the flat mass culture, literally.
It’s been a long education but I feel like I see things clearly, and as the Flobot also said in 2008, “I see the strings that control the systems.” Growing up and starting my career as a rapper during the invention of media and social media has been interesting to say the least. I was talking to my former guitarist Mike Russo on the phone about this last night. We reminisced about how back in the 90s, AOL served as the proto-Internet, which was the start of everything. For kids my age, it helped teach me a lot about the music industry with how labels and artists treated fans. I gained a distaste for major labels and an appreciation for artists who had time to communicate with their fans online, doing things like the AOL Live Chats where they answered questions. It was a shift in culture and media and I was fortunate to witness how everything changed, but as a fan and as an artist.
I also remember getting a concerned email from someone at Warner Bros. Records in 1995 after I posted a System 7 sample of a Flaming Lips song from the Batman Forever soundtrack into one of the AOL music download communities. In the file description I said that I thought that the song should have been included on their Clouds Taste Metallic album and that putting it on the Batman soundtrack was a cynical way for labels to get true fans to spend $16 on other music that wasn’t as good. Apparently, the label people were watching didn’t appreciate my tweenage opinions on their marketing of the Oklahoma art rock scene. They told me to please stop posting “illegal” samples or misleading attributions of certain tracks to certain projects… or there would be consequences. I remember being scared by this veiled threat but also proud of myself that I could “push their buttons” as a twelve year old kid in California playing around on my family’s Performa 550 and 4800 baud modem. I never told my parents about that email from Warner because I surely may have gotten my cyber privileges revoked.
Why I like to make fun of major labels
Also, it was around then I realized that if you launched Netscape while on AOL , you could access the almighty early “Internet”, where found some amazing fan sites dedicated to the different strange bands that I had discovered through my surreptitious viewings of Beavis & Butt-head. King Missile was one of these acts, and they had a strong web community. Best known for their narrative song about a man who wakes up with detached genitalia, Missile had been grinding on the NY underground scene for years with their folk/punk/spoken word fusion hybrid and an awesome back catalogue of indie releases. Shimmy Disc had helped launch them, a label also responsible for the early careers Gwar, Daniel Johnston, Ween and more.
King Missile was silly, smart, weird and most importantly, very different from anything “mainstream” I had heard up until that point. They had signed to Atlantic after building a buzz in New York and had scored a sizable radio hit with “Detachable” in 1992, so people knew the song but not necessarily the band. My maven middle school friend Fred Zyda had told me about a book that the original bOING bOING and Wired teams had published in 1995 called the Happy Mutant Handbook, which I devoured. It talked about all of the stuff that the Internet would become and help facilitate – acting essentially a “best of” of the bOING bOING zine. In it, there was a section on how to print your own albums and another on strange “mutant” music – King Missile and Ween included on this list. I was piecing together the narrative threads of these East Coast iconoclasts through a combination of the Internet, print media, and shows like Beavis & Butt-head. I felt special for knowing about these bands, mainly because all of the cool kids in my class were listening to TLC and Real McCoy. (Side note, the college version of my band, Lars Horris & the Androids used to cover “Run Away” because it’s a great song with hilariously bad rapping, but that’s a whole different story.)
How a punk rock poet changed my life
One day on one of the King Missile fan sites, I came across the personal email address of John S. Hall, the band’s lead singer. Someone from the press had interviewed him and posted his email in an epic breach of privacy. Armed with my parents’ Performa 550, too much free time and Millennial chutzpah, I hit Hall up out of the blue expressing my fandom. I would love to find that email and see what I wrote, most likely cringe worthy attempts to be funny while also giving him props. Much to my surprise, the dude hit me back. I couldn’t believe it! I told him where I had found his email address, and he told me that a bunch of people had hit him up after that, but since it had recently been taken down, he wasn’t mad at the interviewer. I then responded with further questions about how to find his rare albums and b-sides, and he always hit me back. We had a pen-pal email friendship for a long time and he was always gracious and took me seriously as an intellectual equal.
Back then, of course, there wasn’t any Facebook, Myspace or even Friendster. I guess I may have been a novelty in his life – to constantly hear a young fan that genuinely liked his music, but not just his hit, his entire back catalogue may have been refreshing. There are people in my world that I always hear from too, people who know surprisingly more about my music than I ever thought possible. There are people on Facebook who often quote songs I did in high school that I thought and hoped were long ago forgotten! And, I realize now, that Hall was most likely just being nice responding to me, waking up every day to an email from LARSHORRIS@aol.com asking him such fanboy-eque questions as “Why was ‘Our Jungle’ only on the Surf Ninjas soundtrack instead of your last Atlantic release?” or “What kind of cake would your mother prepare for you on your birthday?” And, whenever I was being annoying, he’d tell me. “Sometimes I think you’re asking questions just for the sake of asking them” he said once, later apologizing for being grumpy, when I thought he was being totally reasonable in saying that. He told me about everything that was going on with his career at the time, leaving Atlantic, how authors like Tolkien had inspired him as a writer and how he now had a different opinion of certain albums of his in retrospect. He has a funny song where he talks about his love for Martin Scorsese, a violent, curse-filled tribute to someone I had never heard of. I asked Hall to explain why he swore so much on that track, he patiently told me about the director and the types of movies he made, ending his email with “But if you have to explain a joke…”
Because of this exchange, King Missile has and always will be my favorite band. Hall and I stopped corresponding as he became more busy as he braved the post-major label world of King Missile III (the third incarnation of his band, it’s a long story but Wikipedia does a good job of explaining why he kept changing the group’s name) and I went to high school. He later became a lawyer, but I’m not sure what he’s up to these days. Hall, after all, had a life and I began to realize that I probably shouldn’t be bothering him so much. To his credit, he always wrote me back, though, and that he respected me as a person as much as a fan really meant a lot to me. It’s hard to explain, but it inspired something in me to want to be a musician too. Hall was a real person, and a good, kind generous dude when it came to his time, and when I met him in 2000 to interview him for my college radio show, he remembered me. Between him, the props and encouragement that the late Wesley Willis and the respect and help Adam Goren from Atom & His Package had given me, I learned something very important: to mean something more than just being a one-hit wonder on the radio or a YouTube novelty, you need to take your fans seriously and treat them as people, almost friends. As soon as you put up too many “rock star” boundaries, these fans will quickly forget and resent you, which they should.
Now, this can be problematic, and not everyone in the music industry has this same opinion as I do on this. I’ve heard that this an idealistic perspective and that sometimes you have to put up some walls between yourself and your fans, which I agree with to a point. I learned this lesson the hard way when during my 2012 tour with I Fight Dragons, I gave my cell phone number out to people who wanted to meet up with us for food after a show. Someone from the crew then decided that it might be hilarious to post these digits on 4chan and – surprise! I woke up the next day to a deluge of texts and calls from well-meaning fans, but some not so nice things as well. I had to change my number, which was annoying to say the least.
But, I do try to respond to every single person who reaches out via Twitter, Facebook or email, even if it takes me weeks or even months. And sometimes certain messages are harder to respond to than others – my song “Twenty-Three” is about the loss of a dear friend, which I’m sure some of you have heard. It was a painful song to write and do a video for, but healing at the say time. I thought about not releasing it, but my drummer Jon and Jaret Reddick both said it was an important song to include on the second album. I have a mixed reaction when people hit me up saying how much that song has meant to them. It brings up old emotions that I just want to get past. It’s sad to think that other people have had to go through the same stuff, but it’s nice to know the song has helped them during a time of darkness. They often tell me that they are (1) dealing with the loss of someone to suicide and wondering if I have any words to help them or (2) they are thinking of hurting themselves and want me to tell them not to. In the case of the first, I talk about how it takes time, not to blame themselves, and I often send them a link to the remix I did with Weerd Science about healing and moving on. In the case of the second, I tell them that I am not a licensed professional, but I give them a phone number to call and that they shouldn’t make a permanent, irrevocable decision about something they are feeling temporarily.
But when people send pages and pages to me about a personal problem they are going through, I try to write back with encouragement, but when it becomes a regular thing from them, I can’t offer myself as an open book and therapist all of the time. It’s just impossible – I’m only human. That’s something I’ve come to realize recently, the main issue being in these scenarios that it prevents me from making music or living my own life. John Stuart Mill talked about utilitarianism and the importance of maximizing happiness while reducing suffering. I can’t cure all of the suffering in the world, but I know a kind email back might cheer someone up, but when the darkness is too deep and demanding of my time and energy, it’s impossible to keep giving and stay sane. If people can’t understand this, there’s really nothing I can do, and I can’t take it personally if they respond with mean things when I can’t keep hitting them back.
How to stay sane while trying to be a shining light of joyful smiles
I try to strike that balance – there’s something inside of me that doesn’t feel right if I ignore the people who reach out, but there are limits and so many hours in the day. In 2014, everyone with a public persona is accessible due to social media, and I really get a deep joy from trying remove that boundary between the stage and the audience. If you watch old Minor Threat videos, the hoards of kids stage diving are an example of that same ethos. Both the artists and the fans felt the music so incredibly back then, and those videos are a testament to the powerful thing that they both respected and shared. That’s why I always bring up fans on stage to rap “Mr. Raven” or skank with me – because we are all the same and it’s a party! Also, I try to instill that anyone with passion, dedication, and something unique to say could be in my position; that’s the main message I want to pass on in living my life… to spread those joyful smiles, as I said in my last post! I know it means something to make these connections, just like John S. Hall’s kindness in always hitting me back twenty years ago.
When I get deep in a project like an album, I do tend to get behind on the emails, Facebook messages, Tweets and all of that. I trust people understand. The creative process is a different kind of empathy. I’m always there, but there is a finite amount of hours in a day and time away from the screen in front of the mic is important too.
Off to the studio!! Thanks to anyone who’s still reading these ruminations. More to come.
P.S. DJ has just been hired to record all of the vocals for the album. He did most of the vocal production work on “the Laptop EP” and “the Edgar Allan Poe EP” – he always gets the best out of me and the dude has an amazing ear. He doesn’t use his Stanford music degree enough, so Horris Records and I are working on remedying that with this album. Ha!!
This is my first tumblr update on the new album. I will be keeping you all in the loop with regular posts to document how everything is coming together with a project like this. Before I begin, I wanted to address some questions that people have been asking me.
“What’s up with the ‘Zombie Dinosaur’ concept? Where did that come from?”
I thought it would be a hilarious extension of some of my ridiculous album themes from the past. “This Gigantic Robot Kills” was an album title that the late, great Wesley Willis came up with in 2000, while “Lars Attacks!” was my spiritual space-themed tribute to the Tim Burton comedy, so killer dinosaur zombies were obviously the next logical step.
“So where exactly are you on the progress of this album?”
We have seven songs completely demoed and about sixty beats and rough lyrical concepts and verses that DJ and I are currently sorting through.
“That’s a lot of music!”
Yes it is – and since I’ve had ADHD my whole life, it’s very easy to go down the wormholes of different concepts and characters. DJ is helping me stay focused though. For instance, a few weeks ago I did a song about the minor character Hans Moleman from the Simpsons, which of course required a full day of research. The result was a tribute to my favorite TV show of all time and how Moleman’s uncanny ability to keep coming back to life can inspire us all to while we traverse the ups and downs of life. His story is a metaphor for this entire album and I guess you could say my career in general.
“What was up with ‘Lars Attacks!’ though? Why was it so different from the other stuff you’d put out before?”
That album was an experiment on how far I could creatively move past everything I’d been working on up until that point in my life. I wanted to make a record with faster and more technical rapping, with as little humor as and pop culture references as possible, with heavier minor-key beats and serious stories about my life, religion and hip-hop’s role as a glue in making sense of all of that. Basically, I wanted to take everything that “the Graduate” and “Robot Kills” were and do the exactly opposite – to see how “non-commercial” sounding of a project I could create with my friends (KRS-One, Sage Francis, Mac Lethal, John Reuben etc.). I’m still proud of that record, but in retrospect I realize that it was rushed for me to try to finish to have on the merch table at the 2011 Warped Tour. Let’s be honest.
Between issues with a a mastering engineer and delays in manufacturing, I didn’t end up getting the CDs back to sell until Warped was already half over. Also – I think I confused everyone because there were so many darn versions of that album: the second pressing of the physical CD had different mixes, there was the sample-free iTunes / Spotify version and then there was the Bandcamp / robot USB amalgam. I had inadvertently become the George Lucas of indie rap for a minute. In all honestly, it was a chaotic time in my life; I was moving, I was constantly on the road for almost a year and I had recently come out of a serious, long-term relationship. So even though that album ended up being a hip-hop hydra with a million heads, creating it got me through a difficult and strange year. There are mixing and production elements of that album I still want to fix and repress, but that will come later when I have a break. (Also it’s no longer in print on CD. I get emails from people looking for it all of the time and crazily, I don’t even own a copy myself.)
Through everything, though, a friend who had my back from start to finish was the talented and hard-working producer Joe Oliger, a.k.a. Joey Flash of the Florida band IM1 (a project he started with my drummer Jon Longley). Joe and I spent many days and nights in the attic studio in his parents’ house in New Jersey working on beats, lyrics, mixes and arrangements, constantly pushing each other into new and unfamiliar musical territory. He really put a lot into that record and I will forever be thankful for his energy and focus.
Some of you may remember “Indie Rocket Science” also, the mixtape that came out right before “Lars Attacks!”, which was essentially a compilation of b-sides and alternate mixes from the record that would follow. When I listen back to “Indie Rocket”, I hear that that project has in all honesty better stood the test of time than “Lars Attacks!” has. But, due to the legalities of uncleared samples, less people heard it commercially. Some of the sample-free versions of the “Indie Rocket” songs were later released on the “Frosty the Flow Man LP”, which also contained sample-free songs from the “Frosty the Flow Man EP” (an underground project I had done with K-Mudock in DC that came out exclusviely on Bandcamp during the holidays that year). 2011 was the first time that Horris Records had truly become its own entity, and was the first time I had moved away from the bigger indie labels who had helped me with distribution / promotion / A&R over the years, so I was honestly still learning. Also – as some of you may remember I was also still working on Weerd Science to help get his “Sick Kids” album out to everyone, so I was wearing a million hats.
I learned two important things from the “Lars Attacks!” project era: (1) as an artist, it’s good to experiment, but also not to forget what makes you great. Humor, high-energy beats and pop culture references were the bread and butter of post-punk laptop rap and everything I had released and fans had related to up until then. I impulsively jumped into a project where I intentionally tried to abandon all of that, reinventing myself from the ground up. I think I confused everyone with the serious subject matter and also sheer amount of projects that Horris Records released that year, specifically with how they were all Frankenstein-ed together and released in so many different ways with alternate mixes. This led me to realize that (2) it’s a lot better to write more than you actually release and then put out one definitive album with only the best tracks. That’s how I made “the Graduate” and “Robot Kills” and that’s how I’m going about making this album.
Art is a process of trusting your instincts but also knowing what to edit and revise. You don’t want to become Axl Rose or Dr. Dre and sit on a project forever, but you don’t want to rush it. The anxiety of trying to quickly produce and create something for a perceived market is poison to the creative process, often exacerbated by the assumed competition for fans’ attention through social media and the sheer inundation of free online content. But good art stands outside and beyond all of that; a well-crafted song will exist years after the Instagram selfie of the artist in the studio mugging for the smartphone has been forgotten.
I’m realizing that this is why people are still discovering “This Gigantic Robot Kills” and “the Graduate”, even though both albums been out for many years. I’ve noticed an interesting trend of young kids inheriting their older brothers’ and sisters’ music collections, and then being drawn to these first two albums. I get so many kind emails from young people who love the songs like “Download This Song” and “This Gigantic Robot Kills”, and I think it’s because I made those songs at a happy and optimistic time in my life where I could channel those emotions and feelings into my performances in the studio. Conversely one of my favorite songs from “Lars Attacks!” was “Judas Priest”, but no one ever really emails me about that song. I remember feeling a ghostly creepy vibe when I wrote and recorded that track – the lyrics just came to me in sort of a weird trance, but I don’t think I was really myself when I wrote it.
I could analyze the hows and whys of the different album making approaches forever, or I could simply channel that joy and passion for life and music into this new project, trusting that my team and myself to only put out only the best jams. This will always work when an artist is dedicated and hardworking and has faith in his or herself and his or her art. I’m very thankful for everything I’ve learned these past few years.
Why do you always say ‘joyful smiles’?”
Frontalot and I had an interesting talk the last night at SXSW this year. We were sitting in a friend’s yard at 3:00 am and reminiscing about the NES Game Genie and how with games like Contra you could just run through the levels, fearlessly blasting the creepy aliens unscathed. I told him that I saw life like an 80s video game game, and that the meaning of life is to implement that PMA cheat cartridge or Konami Code to spread positive vibes wherever one goes. He told me I needed to write a song about that.
SXSW was a special time this year, despite the tragedies that happened (and how lucky we were not to be hurt by the reckless driver). I remember sitting with Random and Doc Awk one night after the Tech N9ne showcase talking about how and why hip-hop and art are important. At a surface level, rap is just poetry: someone talking quickly over a syncopated beat. But Awk made the point that art, music and anything important is deceptive in its true purpose because it taps into something bigger than itself.
I think that that’s why people love nerdcore so much – it speaks to the fans and creators as a folk culture that by virtue of its weirdness and unflinching intellectual swagger, it won’t and can’t ever reach Justin Bieber status. But despite that, we can still sell out small clubs, we can still get the reddit kids amped and we can still get hundreds of thousands of YouTube views. Why? Because we all strive to tap into something bigger than us. We can all relate to this subjective millennial quest for identity and meaning in a changing, cut and paste digital culture and economy where even though people like us and Zuckerberg might control the technical puppet strings, we sometimes feel like we’re floating in this cultural desert space. “Lars Attacks!” was about what it feels like to be Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity while “the Graduate”, “This Gigantic Robot Kills” and “the Zombie Dinosaur LP” are and will be albums about the joy, peace, clarity and victory that comes when said meaning is ascertained.
You feel me??
“How often will you be all up on tumblr with these updates?”
As often as I can. The project I was working on before this record was a book about the Beat generation and how dudes like Jack Kerouac helped usher in the social revolutions of the 1960s. I was writing a literary history to show how the Beats and hip-hop truly have much more in common in terms of their approaches to the subversion and recreation of the American Dream than many people might realize. Tupac Shakur and Jack Kerouac occupied a very similar place in their respective eras, mirroring each other in everything to where they lived geographically, the cities where they wrote and performed, to their effects on counterculture, to their writing styles and even to the way their demons and their celebrity eventually killed both of them at a young age. (I have a song about all of this on the new album called “You Don’t Know Jack”.)
What I love so much about Kerouac is his concept of “spontaneous prose” – he spent seven years traveling the country to research On the Road before writing his classic book in just three weeks. He would simply sit down with his typewriter, say a prayer to the cross that he hung on his office wall and spill his heart and soul into his rhythmic recounting of his incredible journeys. His passion and colloquial remembrances really helped show the world how America was changing and how he was developing as a person and artist. If you haven’t read him, please do! In my opinion, his best book was Big Sur.
Kerouac’s “freestyle” process was reflected in the many autobiographical novels that he put out, all of which encompassed a larger narrative that he referred to as the Dulouz Legend. Now, I’m no Jack Kerouac, but it’s clear that this creative catharsis really helped him find meaning in life and his times. I hope that these album diaries serve a similar purpose for me and anyone with the interest in reading them. You will see the changes I’m going through personally as I work on this project, the challenges, the joys and the ups and downs of this whole exciting artistic process.
I remember reading an interview with Wes Borland years ago in Guitarist magazine. He talked about doing the metal / rap stuff that he had become famous for with Limp Bizkit and what the creative process was like for him in the studio. He said something to the effect of “if you know exactly what your project is going to sound like before you start, isn’t your vision by definition limited?”
On Kerouac’s List of 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life he similarly gives props to the the “unspeakable visions of the individual”. These diaries will reflect my own journey in deciphering these visions. When this album is finished and it’s in your and my hands, it may be interesting to go back and re-read how it came to be. (I did something similar when I made “the Graduate”; maybe I’ll dig those up in a future post.)
Thanks again to the Kickstarter donors!! How we managed to quadruple the goal still blows me away. Thank you for staying on board through the creative ups and downs of this whole journey. I promise to repay you with the best album I can.
With love and joyful smiles from West LA,