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Working on the beat for my song with Watsky today. Look how…

Working on the beat for my song with Watsky today. Look how grimy and raw my gangster-ass studio is. (at Venice Beach)

“The ZDLP Diaries” Part 2 – “Props to John Hall, Peace to King Missile”

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 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 April in Northern California? (at Water’s Edge)

This is April in Northern California? (at Water’s Edge)

Cat’s out of the bag! Get it? ;) (at Waggles…

Cat’s out of the bag! Get it? ;) (at Waggles ‘N’ Whiskers)

A huge thanks to my Detroit friends for finding this 90s rap…

A huge thanks to my Detroit friends for finding this 90s rap classic for me on vinyl!!

I don’t normally get excited by stuff like this, but…

I don’t normally get excited by stuff like this, but getting RT-ed by Bob Saget was today’s highlight.