Big George

“BIG RICH!” is how George would greet me, in a great booming voice that was the loudest kindness I’ve heard, and then we’d hug, like a kid trying to hug an oak tree, or a bear, and we’d set up and play music.

The best way I know how to describe George’s kindness was when he talked about some one or thing he didn’t agree with. His face would scrunch up, and get quite serious, and he’d put his meaty forefinger in the air and say, “well, you see, Rich…” and then show how carefully he thought about it before he decided not to like something.

George was a blues musician, in the deepest traditions and respect although he loved when his friends would step out of the box and explore the places outside those guides. He was the real deal in that world, something people have said because he was a black man playing Black American music now maintained by middle-aged white musicians, but he was the real deal because he lived that live of hard work and respect and celebration and he put it into words and music that lived that life as well.

A year or so ago I began work on a project to feature musicians I wanted more of the world to celebrate with me. George and I made plans to record him performing a spoken-word piece he wanted to do for years; I was thrilled to help him create it and share it to the world, saying, “this is my friend, Big George Jackson, he is a life worth living and listening to.” Covid derailed that project like so many other things.

At the end of every night he’d say, “You be careful on the way home tonight! You’ve seen the Wiz? I’m Evillene. I better not hear no bad news!” And I was always careful. I’ll miss you George.

Seven Months In

It's been seven months since my last post here—most of my day-to-day minutia I'd been plopping on Instagram until my discomfort with Facebook took over—and it's safe to say for a world at temporary rest there's been a surprising amount of life passing by.

There are new and constant struggles of home/distance schooling, lack of daycare, lack of employment, health scares, family crises, quarantines, and social-distancing anxiety. My city exploded with rage over the murder of George Floyd, one more black life lost in a long list of black lives lost. The U.S. election tension is boiling over and among this politicians have cast aside their last pretense of decency to advance agenda. It's…a lot to deal with.

It's been a challenge to pretend a musician has any relevant space in this chaos. And yet—there have been shows, album sessions, video recording, demos and writing. Somewhere there is an exhausted audience asking for a little glimpse of normalcy, and a gang of artists desperate for creative outlets.

Sporadic work has been a combo of remote sessions (argh!), video recording (new and exciting!), and the occasional honest-to-goodness recording session with actual people present (yay!). Thank you face masks, open windows, and shotgun floor plans with tall ceilings. Live performances are for skeleton crews of camera people in empty venues, streamed to video. I’m thankful for those opportunities but can’t say they’re particularly exciting to do. Honestly—I don’t miss the live aspect of performing as much as I do the casual ability to make music with friends. It’s a strange world to navigate.

A few bright moments shined these last few months, though, including new releases of killer pop anthems by my friend Mary Bue and a delightful record about disappointment by the pairing of Dylan Hicks and John Munson. You can check those out and others here.

I’ll leave you for now with a beautiful rendering of a beautiful song by my beautiful pal Molly Maher, a version of “Find the Shepherd” I filmed and recorded at my studio, Bones & Wire:

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

I’ve kept this website for years. It’s an anachronism in the age of social media, but it’s my anachronism and I’m pretty fond of it. I was hoping my first post of 2020 would be chock full of fun things—albums I’ve been working on, gratuitous releases of personal music, recording studio updates, maybe even the last installment of the Ableton Live series I’ve been working on for years (not likely)—but here we are in March, and my first stretch of free time for the year is thanks to a global coronavirus pandemic.

Being a musician is hard enough, but now that the world is shunning travel and social gathering the challenges are feeling a little insurmountable. Over the last three days I’ve dropped over thirty shows and sessions from my calendar. The artists and venues that haven’t yet canceled are running on fumes of foolish optimism. (Maybe “capitalism” is a better choice of word.) They rely on an audience to make a living, and musicians rely on venues, and I, primarily a sideman, rely on other musicians. It’s a chain of survival that’s melting down surprisingly quick.

What to do in the meantime? Well, I do have my studio, Bones & Wire, where I’ll be hunkering down after a thorough disinfecting and making as much music as I can with what resources I have available. Some of the projects I’ve been working on over the last year will be coming out soon—without album release shows or touring as an option to promote them it’s still up in the air how they’ll be presented. I’ll be spending a little more time than usual researching how to earn money from the music I usually write for fun in my spare time. Most of my time will be spent home with my family, entertaining kids out of school and daycare and catching up on house chores while the lifelines of music I’ve grown accustomed to are put on indefinite hiatus. I realize, of course, I'm luckier than many.

It’s a topsy-turvy world out there, who knows for how long, but hopefully you’re reading this from a safe and sane place and hanging here with me spiritually until life is as close to normal as we need it to be.

I found a half-finished version of this video from a few years ago while starting another project the other night, and figured a solid minute of end times set to drums was worth finally wrapping up. The music track is one SM57 sending my drums through a slew of Ableton effects.

Fake Spring

…is what I call the trick weeks of late March in Minneapolis, when the snow starts melting and the sun makes more dramatic appearances and the temperature slinks out of the news. But, every year—at least since I moved here in 2008—winter peeks in for one last "hey, forgot my things, just wanted to drop back to say bye to some friends," and the entire town gets impatient for winter to just be done and go home for the year. But—DAMN!—doesn't fake spring still feel great as anything ever has.

Most of my fall and winter was spent in recording studios with decent climate control, so rather than feeling bummed about the cold I stayed busy making fun records with old friends, Chris Koza and Dylan Hicks; and new ones, Mary Bue and Ellis. Lots of the usual demo/single sessions that never seem to see the light of day, and more time than usual programming my computer to cooperate with me, musically.

The most interesting move for me this winter—literally, as I hauled furniture and recording gear at 11pm during the polar vortex—was into the old studio space of my pal John Munson. It's not quite a studio (although we did cut Lucy Michelle’s Attack of the Heart here) but it's been fun setting up a consistent area to record new music. I try to make a habit out of creating something tangible with my learning process—if you're interested in following along, check out the stream over at Bones & Wire.

Well, hot damn—look who got his new working space set up with microphones and a Mellotron.

I was trying to find video of me playing drums to explain to my daughter what it is I do for a "living" and after a trip down the rabbit hole I found this, which she watched six hundred times. It's a fun clip of Erik Koskinen and band closing out a night at Mears Park with "Boomtown." (This show was the first music I played after returning home with my daughter this summer.) Video by Gina Smith.

My friend Molly Maher is hosting a new duets series in downtown St. Paul, Two X Deuxdélicieusement français!—and was gracious enough to invite me and a friend into a slot. I'll be teaming up with my bass playing pal Cody McKinney for a fun night of heavy and electronically-inspired rhythm section improvisation. This will be the first time I've used my hybrid drums-into-Ableton setup in an improv setting versus a carefully arranged setlist, so I'm imagining the odds of the set completely imploding on itself are pretty high, guaranteeing an interesting show (for you), and a chance to run through some pre-written apologies (for me).

If you're around the St. Paul area this Tuesday evening, it'd be great to see you there.

(Anti) Social Media

Remember MySpace? I do, if only vaguely. I was a holdout, although I couldn’t really say why. After months (years?) of friends saying how it was indispensable for promotion and networking, and with me having none of those skills, I finally signed up right around the time everyone started moving to Facebook. I was a Facebook holdout until all my friends said how indispensable it was for networking and promotion, and with me having none of those skills I finally signed up. The same with Twitter, and Instagram, until eventually I settled into a happy mental stasis with them all and used them to promote, and network, and share good things, and stay in touch with family, and reconnect with old friends, and all was well until I realized what a miserable person I was becoming.

I realize not being on any social media these days is akin to being That Guy who’s “never even OWNED a TV,” but vegging out on the Great British Bake Off for an hour might bum me out about my soggy pie crusts, at worst. Here’s a small list of things about social media that crush my heart:

  • The feeling when I see others doing projects I wish I was doing
  • The way I engage with others I don’t agree with
  • The amount of time that flies by while I’m tricking myself into thinking I’m making meaningful interactions with other people
  • Watching humanity slowly evolve into a hive mind of instant opinion
  • The feeling I get with trying to promote anything I’m doing artistically
  • Handing over my content and personal information to advertisers
  • The compulsion I feel when it’s available
  • I just hate it

But I get it! Social media is the world today. It’s how you are probably checking in with everyone you know, how you get your news, how you tell people what you’re doing. My options for doing so without it are a) keeping this website updated, and b) keeping people updated personally, both of which I am completely terrible at. All that said! I’ve been running into people I haven’t seen for a few months and they’ve all been asking, “where have you been?” So here’s where I’ve been.

I played music—I shared a lot of stage time, plus a healthy amount of studio time, with the Twilight Hours, Chris Koza, Erik Koskinen, Dylan Hicks, and more. A few interesting outliers like pretending to be Tommy Lee with Jeremy Ylvisaker’s Mötley Crüe tribute band (!) and a night backing up Sandra Bernhard (!!!).

I’ve had some projects fizzle (more than I care to admit) and joined a few others, one of the more fun being John Munson’s brainchild of 60s/70s organ funk, the Fragrants. I’ve been steadily plucking away at new music, although if any of it hits the airwaves before the end of the year it’ll be a small miracle.

I’ve acquired some new, inspiring gear—I’ve had more fun playing my 70s clear Vistalites equipped with triggers and effects than I’ve had in a while, and I’m the proud new owner of an Ableton Push which lets me play my favorite software like a musical instrument that can do almost anything I want it to.

More importantly, though, I’ve acquired new family. My wife, five-year-old son, and I journeyed off to Kolkata, India to meet and bring home with us our new daughter, two-year-old Aradhya. We’ve been deep in the adoption path for almost two years, and the joys of this beautiful, spirited, and shining girl in our life far outweigh any of the challenges we’ve faced in our process.

Turns out not steadily publishing my life is a slightly healthier way to live it. Let's stay in touch, us, okay?

Bones and Wire

They say time is the healer, but, you know, it tends to take a while. For me, the better option has always been music, which I guess is why late in the summer of last year when I was feeling, say, less than my best, I decided I’d make a record.

I picked up my laptop and wrote an email to a few of my favorite people, musicians I loved playing with but didn't get to very often: Cody McKinney, a bass player whose melodic sense is second-to-none; Jeremy Ylvisaker, the epitome of a fearless musician; DeVon Gray, the truest steward of art I know. I didn't have an idea of what music to play, so I proposed something I rarely get to do—gathering for a “writing” session of improvisation and constructing an album based on the themes we invent. I hit “send” and waited.

Well, those suckers all agreed it was a grand idea, so a few months later we hauled our favorite instruments to The Pearl Recording Studio here in Minneapolis and two days after that I was sifting through hours of music. The biggest surprise for me wasn't how much fun the session was, or how much material we recorded—lots and lots, respectively—but how complete most of it sounded. I don't know what molecules fall into place to have a timeline of music considered a song, versus a stream of silly ideas, but turns out there's a surprising amount of both hiding in here.

So! Schedules and money being what they are, it’s taking a little time to record the initial concept of composed music born from the therapy of improvisation. In the meantime, though, we’re releasing the little gems from our initial recording sessions as we find them. Here’s our first, accompanied by a sweet and determined anthropomorphic snowman. It’s apropos for the season! It also makes me feel better about the future somehow.