It’s got nothing to do with your ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ yer know

I have to admit I love the new Blur album, The Magic Whip, which just dropped yesterday.  It’s the first new album since 2003’s Think Tank (and the first with all four members since 1999’s 13!)…and I agree with most of the reviews, it sounds as if they hadn’t missed a beat since those last releases.

I’ve been a Blur fan for years, really.  In the early 90’s I’d pretty much ignored most of the angry grunge that WFNX and WBCN were playing, as I was already enamored of the poppy quirkiness of Madchester and Britpop.  The UK always had a leg up on music for me…they always seemed to write better, catchier, more inventive songs than their American counterparts, always seemed to be a few months ahead of the game musically.  I thought “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an interesting reinterpretation of American punk, but I’d already been sold on the herky-jerky bliss of “There’s No Other Way”.

Blur was definitely there for me in the 90s, during all the ups and downs of that period.  When I found myself broke and directionless post-college, “Chemical World” and “For Tomorrow” and the rest of Modern Life is Rubbish fueled my frustration.  When things got a little better and I was out in Allston writing again, the lively Parklife and “Girls & Boys” popped up.  [There’s also the fact that, whenever I heard “Parklife” in Boston, I immediately started singing “Alewife” instead.  Because I’m a dork.]  And in the early days of my job at HMV Records, I was greeted by the newly rocking version of the band with their self-titled 1997 album — I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Song 2” blaring and some stranger “woohoo!”-ing along to it.

They disappeared in 2003 after Think Tank, with most of the members working on their various solo projects (and Damon having a brilliant run with Gorillaz), but I’d still pop one of their albums every now and again.  And yes, I did in fact buy the big box set when it came out in 2012.  And that reunion song, “Under the Westway”?  Damn, that’s a fine single.  Only Blur could capture the sound of post-Britpop malaise as beautifully as they could.

Sure, Blur could be written off as upper-class yobs who couldn’t lift a finger to Oasis (don’t get me started on that manufactured ridiculousness).  They shed their ‘Britpop’ label while all the other bands were still basking in it when the scene began its decline.  But they’ve always written and played incredibly catchy tunes that were always just that slight bit off-kilter.  The Magic Whip is definitely a welcome return, and worth the wait.

Bedroom Band

Today marks the twenty-seventh anniversary of the first meeting and jam session of the Flying Bohemians.  Who is this band, you ask?  It was/is a trio of myself and my high school buddies Chris and Nathane.

The idea to start a band came to me in early 1988, most likely late February.  I’d bought my first bass a few months earlier, a headstock-less Arbor Stiletto (the tuning pegs were at the other end), and after teaching myself the basics, I was itching to get something started.  I floated the idea to some high school friends, and Chris and Nathane were the two that responded.  We decided to meet up after April vacation and test out what we had.  Names were bandied about, and we settled on Chris’ suggestion, as it seemed to fit our nerdy misfit style.

The three of us had been close friends for at least a year or so at that point, having been a part of a larger circle of friends, so I already knew we’d get along just fine.  Our abilities were wildly varying — I had the theory and a bit of the knowledge, but not much of the practice, Chris had a decent knowledge of guitar playing, and Nathane was the virtuoso, complete with the best amp and effects.  All three of us were writers, though, so we were on the same page as far as songwriting went.

The first session was very much like any initial jam session I’ve been in — it’s less about kicking out a solid song from the beginning, and more about testing each other out, listening to see what the other person can bring to the table.  My keyboard work was pathetic, but my bass playing was infinitely better.  Nathane was prone to throwing a few metal screeches in there, but he also came up with some pretty neat melodies as well.  Chris was a natural at picking up counter-melodies and coming up with lyrics on the fly.  There was a lot of noise, but by the end of that Friday afternoon, we had two complete songs committed to tape: a simple round-like track called “The Mellow Song”, and the ridiculous “Green Coffee!!!”.

The cover of our first 'greatest hits' collection, influenced by the early Cure album covers.

The cassette cover of our first ‘greatest hits’ collection, influenced by the early Cure album covers.

We met up when we could over the next year and a half, in between school and jobs and laid out at least twenty or so solid songs we were proud of.  As Chris and Nathane were a year ahead of me and heading off to post-high school life, all told we probably met up maybe about fifteen times between that initial jam and the last original trio meeting in November of 1989.  Nearly all the jams were committed to tape using the trusty Jonzbox, although sadly many of those have now gone missing.  On the other hand I was able to retain the complete and solid songs we recorded, and they are now safely on mp3.  Chris and I would meet up a few more times in the early 90s and record more songs, but by 1994 it had pretty much become my solo project.

I call TFB a ‘bedroom band’ rather than a garage band, as our jams mostly took place in someone’s bedroom after school or on the weekend.  We weren’t a loud band, but that was more due to the fact that we didn’t boost the volume all that high when we played…we were as lo-fi as you could get, and we had to ensure we weren’t blasting our families away either.  But we were okay with that, as it lent to our unique sound.  We did jam in my parents’ garage a few times, though that was always an issue if it got cold, or if the crickets decided to come out and join in.  There’s a solid version of Chris’ song “Temptation” out there that I’m quite proud of, except that there’s a cricket-chirp throughout the entire recording.

Drop 021614

‘Drop’ was recorded 1990-91 by Chris and I. The sound is more acoustic and pastoral than previous songs we’d done.

There’s also the fact that the three of us were heavily influenced by college radio, and you can definitely hear it in our songs.  We gravitated to many of our favorite bands of the time: The Cure, Love and Rockets, the Smiths, REM, Cocteau Twins, Joy Division, and The Sisters of Mercy.  A few of our songs, like “Night Pt 1”, are loud and pulsing (and most likely inspired by “This Corrosion”), while others like “Epitaph” and “Look at the Blank Sunlight” are soft, ambient instrumentals that would fit nicely on late 80s college radio.

I recorded a few solo sessions between 1993 and 1995, the last done on a rainy day off while I was living in Allston MA; it’s all instrumental and varies in style, but it’s mostly experimental and meandering.  The last Bohemian recording was a joke song Chris and I did at his house after a gaming night called “(I Can Do) Math in My Head” in early 2001.  By that time I was jamming with a few buddies from my Yankee Candle job under the name of jeb! (Jon Eric Bruce), and our sound was less ‘college rock’ and more ‘modern rock’.  Those sessions would also be taped and ripped to mp3 for posterity as well.

I chose to finally retire the TFB moniker last year to start a new music venture, Drunken Owl.  [Thank my wife for that moniker!]  Now that my schedule has opened up again, I plan on recording future songs and snippets — this time straight to my PC — and see what comes of it.  I’ve got more guitars and a lot more years of practice under my belt, so this is going to be a new sound for me.  I’m curious as to how it’ll come out.

Still…I’m still thankful that, twenty-seven years ago, I was able to kickstart this whole music playing thing as part of my life.

Life Soundtracks

Last week on the KSCU radio show The 80s Underground (podcast here), the DJ decided to play songs from the Top 25 albums of 1988 per a readers’ poll at the great college rock-themed blog Slicing Up Eyeballs.  And you know me, I couldn’t resist.  I just had to listen in.

Interestingly enough, hearing my favorite college rock year outside of the normal context (read: my ridiculously large mp3 collection) kind of put things in a different perspective.  I purposely didn’t look up the poll they’d done a year or so ago (which I of course took part in), so I was pleasantly entertained by not exactly knowing which song would come next.  It was a little jump back in time to my years listening to WAMH.

Back then, I used to have a lot of life soundtracks.  Certain albums or compilation tapes I’d listen to during certain times of the day, or certain radio stations and shows.  I often do the same thing while I’m writing; lately I’ve been listening to Beck’s Sea Change and Morning Phase during my Spare Oom couch sessions.

Thing is, I don’t have nearly as many of these as I once did, and I suppose in a way that’s a good thing.  I always have the radio or some music going during the work day, but I’ve long past grown out of attempting to forge a mood from the music being played.  I now listen to KSCU (a college station) as much as I listen to Radio BDC (an internet station) or KFOG and Live 105 (terrestrial stations).

Do I miss those days, giving myself a soundtrack as if I were the living embodiment of a Miami Vice or a Grey’s Anatomy episode?  Well, not really.  I just grew out of attempting to find the perfect sound to complement whatever I was doing.  It had gotten to the point where I was forcing the mood, and that’s no fun.  I’m still an active listener, mind you–certain songs will hit me just the right way and I’ll pounce all over them, like I did with that TV On the Radio track a few months back.

Life soundtracks are more of a passive thing now.  I let them pop up organically, by serendipity.  Just like life itself–sometimes it’s more fun to see what life (or in this case, a radio station) throws at you rather than trying to pigeonhole it into something it’s not.