Back in 1995, my pals in Blister Freak Circus and The Sick contributed some music/acting to a 1970’s inspired exploitation movie called “SHANK.” I’d forgotten completely all about it until I stumbled on this clip just now  (the movie was never released, as far as I know).


The Dead Chicken Ranch

I recently had to reinstall Windows on most of my computers. While I was at it, I turned my old Dell desktop into a dedicated audio workstation. It’s isolated from the Internet, which means it is secure, distraction free and only contains recording software. It also means that it’s ready to record at a moment’s notice.  I’m excited!

I began recording stuff in high school with my brother, Loco. In college, I bought a used Ross 4-track from our pal Will. Will’s dad worked making software for Yamaha or somewhere and they had a nice tape 8-track studio in their basement. We were very fortunate to have access to all this stuff, including video recording equipment. I learned  great deal about music, recording and composition – a fine thing to have at a young age.

The discovery of DIY Punk Rock in high school offered freedom from the unreachable production values of Rush, Iron Maiden, etc. and even the brain numbing MTV. During my senior year in high school, it occurred to me that Hondo guitars and Peavy amps were good enough – if you had a mic and tape recorder, you could make something. One could even run a tape label out of a high school locker.

Tim Cookson gave me a mix tape of punk music (which he got from his brother,  J Cookson) that had “Lady Sniff” by the Butthole Surfers, and that song made a huge impression on me. Again, very freeing. I didn’t see it as a gag song, although, I can see how it could make you gag. It got me thinking about noise and rhythm what music can be about. Tim and I recorded the song “Whisker Biscuit” as our two man band, The Infected, in my basement and kitchen the summer before we left for college, and Lady Sniff’s influence can be heard in that song.

Eventually, I’d compost Ornette Coleman, the Amphetamine Reptile bands, Captain Beefheart, Curlew and the crazy shit that comes out of the Knitting Factory in NYC in my brain, along with what I learned about composition in college.

After graduating from college, I had had access to several used record stores and an endless supply of used recorded material. As such, I was able to fund and complete my first real studio, the Dead Chicken Ranch, which lived in the basement of my row home in Hampden, Baltimore.

The first Dead Chicken Ranch

This room was amazing – none of the walls were parallel to each other in order to reduce standing wave forms, and none of the walls touched the existing structure of the house, which made it virtually soundproof to the neighbors. It was a great space. Yet, if I had it to do all again, I would have made the room half the original size, as this took up most of the basement. I also would have spent more time tuning the room instead of making it completely dry with Sonex™. I recorded several records in this room, some of which were released commercially. My favorite is Pet My Kitty, Mr. New York City by Diana Froley (Skoda Records, 1998).

Diana Froley, Pet My Kitty Mr. New York City

Which brings me to the point of this post – what started out as a tidy Alesis ADAT studio 18 years ago has become a mash-up of handheld recorders, cheap software and miscellaneous effects processors rack mounted on a wheeled bread dolly that I found in a parking lot. The wall mounted monitor lets me view the screen from behind the drums or any corner of the room. It’s all very mobile and easy to use.

I think that one of the best records ever made is Tom Waits’ Bone Machine. I consider this to be a perfect record. The songs are wonderful, and it likes to be heard as an album. But there’s also a story about this recording, where they set out in a fancy studio and just couldn’t capture the spirit of the songs. So, they moved the stuff into the boiler room and SNAP! it all clicked into place. This collection of parts feels like that to me.

I have an appreciation for low-fi production, and what appeals to me might not work for the next home studio enthusiast. I’m just so happy to have these parts reassembled.  My plan is to start posting new music here on this site, in whatever form the songs end up taking. As with previous sketch projects, there’s never enough time to complete everything and I’m going to try applying my working principle to this:  “record quickly, post often.”  Hope it works!


The Infected

My late friend Tim Cookson and I recorded two songs together under the moniker The Infected. We both contracted mono at the same time, although Tim was living in Alaska at the time, and I was in Chestertown.

The first track was called Whisker Biscuit and it was recorded in the summer of 1986.

Tim’s older brother, J Cookson, had given us a couple of mix tapes with Punk songs. That music was transformative to me. Lady Sniff, by the Butthole Surfers, made quite an impression on both of us, and inspired Whisker Biscuit.

Whisker Biscuit, 1986

We wrote and recorded another song the following summer. I had discovered Thunderbird, a fortified wine, during my freshman year of college. I had been playing guitar and bass for about a year or so.

I remember my mom came home from work and we were in her bathroom singing, trying to get a little reverb from the shower.

I was using a crappy little Fender champ that was bolted to a piece of plywood and J’s old distortion pedal. The “Electric Cowhead” was my grandfather’s electric razor.


Frank Zappa Statue Dedication

Frank Zappa was a lot like Yoda. For example, he said the best things. This weekend’s statue dedication was opened with the following FZ quote:

“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.”

Gail Zappa offered it might be possible to do both, bless her. And this quote, in part, is why the new bust of Frank Zappa has come to rest in front of the new Highlandtown (Southeast Anchor) branch of the Enoch Pratt library in Baltimore City. Zappa was born in Baltimore, adding to the impressive list of unique creative geniuses from this town.

Gail Zappa,  the Zappa kids (Diva, Dweezil and Ahmet) and Zappa archivist Joe Travers kindly spent some time answering questions at the Creative Alliance in Patterson Park. Tom Hall from WYPR was on hand to help get things started.

Here’s what I learned.

  • Gail and Frank met in an airport in LA. Their first date was a packed Zappa show. At the time, in the mid 1960’s, Folk music was hugely popular and Gail thought to herself, “This is the ballsiest music I’ve ever heard!”
  • What did Frank like to do when not making music? Write MORE music and tickle people
  • Frank loved Christmas trees and tinsel (not necessarily Christmas, though). Aside from the huge tree in the living room, he had fully decorated trees in his studio, his office and the kitchen
  • Ahmet’s favorite Christmas present was a pair of stilts
  • It was asked if the presence of Do-Whoop vocals in his music was a parody, or did he genuinely like it. Frank truly loved Do-Whoop music.
  • He had a station wagon he called the yellow submarine (this was pre-Beatles, too).  He went to renew his drivers license and was asked to take both a driving test AND written test. He left, and never renewed it
  • He often asked the kids when they were upset “Do you want a beer?”
  • Uncle Meat will be re-released
  • Diva is super cute and a die-hard knitter
  • There are a lot of die-hard Zappa fans in this world


The real surprise for me today was Dweezil.

I’ve always had a lot of respect for Dweezil. He was the wittiest VJ on MTV and a crazy-good guitarist. As a kid, I was a little dismissive, though – he  had access to the best lessons and gear, his dad helped shape the careers of Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, Warren Cuccurullo, etc. I mean, how could he NOT be awesome?

What I failed to notice as a youngster is how hard he worked to be great. Talent is only a small part of what it takes to be good at anything.

In his adult life, Dweezle has turned into an articulate,  super nice guy. And he still has amazing hair. All the Zappas were approachable, gracious and very sweet. But, especially Dweezle. He seems like a truly genuine guy.

Dweezle described how he took two years off to undergo a process most people wouldn’t want to do. He set out to learn how to play as Frank did, ignoring 25 years of musical instincts and developing new ones. While nothing Zappa wrote is easy to play, Dweezle said the real challenge was a mental one – to learn how to think and anticipate like his dad.  Frank was an improviser on stage – he would see shapes in his head and express them musically with his guitar. He got choked up while talking about this – I was moved (wiping eyes on sleeve) and can imagine what this must have been like. Not just the task of learning to play like someone else, but learning how to do it like your father.

Dweezil also gave some insight into  Frank as a (musical) dad. He said that Frank let him pursue whatever musical path he wanted to, and was eager to office advice and help if asked for it. He said that Frank would advise people to examine what motivated them to make music, and follow their inner musical ear where ever it leads. He wasn’t concerned with academia, or being labeled as a composer, guitarist, producer.

The Statue & Dedication

The statue is a replica of an original that sits in Vilnius, Lithuania. In an act of true democracy, the people of the city signed a petition to have the statue installed there.

It’s very tall, sitting about 20′ off the ground looking out onto Frank Zappa way.

Gail spoke without notes. Dr. Carla Hayden of the Enoch Pratt and mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake proclaimed this a huge win  for libraries (Baltimore used to be the city that reads, didn’t it?) and Baltimore. Today will always be Frank Zappa day in Baltimore, and the mayor hinted at future Highlandtown music events to commemorate it.

A faculty member from Peabody was on hand and told the story of how Frank had once reached out to Peabody, and Peabody didn’t know how to react. Pierre Boulez has since proclaimed that Frank Zappa is one of the greatest American composers. Dr. Faculty explained that Peabody would now know how to react.  Love it.

There were a lot of wet eyes during the dedication – it was very moving, and the Zappas seemed truly honored.

Finally, Dweezil gave a concert with Zappa plays Zappa. So good. It was a great, great day.


John Cage Says

For Amy Souza’s Spark project, I did two prompts this time, this one them being music. Amy Moffitt provided a poem for my inspiration piece called August Prayer.

Here is my response.

I had planned on recording a new, less experimental song (I wrote the parts) but my archaic audio gear wouldn’t cooperate. So, I used my iPhone, a tape deck and my laptop to piece this together. It’s funny how these things work out, because I think this piece is a perfect summer response to Amy’s poem. Also – I smell an opportunity for some new audio stuff, though.


Music Magic

I saw a meme on Facebook that I can’t resist – the albums that we find most influenced us in our lives. I don’t care for Facebook. I hang a shingle there for peeps who don’t blog, flickr or twitter. But, I digress. Here are some my favorite records, in no particular order.

  • Ken Nordine‘s Word Jazz was my introduction to beat-ness
  • Beatles: Sargent Peppers was the first rock music I ever loved
  • Reader’s Digest Collection of favorite Classical Music: Mozart My dad played Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 many times when I was a very little kid. It still haunts me. 
  • Rush: Moving Pictures was my introduction to Neil Peart. Sums up junior high school.
  • Cheap Trick: One on One was the first album I bought with my own money
  • Police: Outlandos d’Amour made me want to be in a band
  • Thelonius Monk: Best of the Bluenote Years was my introduction to Monk…I don’t think I’d ever listened as hard to music as I did with this collection
  • Ornette ColemanThe Art of the Improvisers
  • Diana Froley: You’re not Broke but I’m going to fix You Diana recorded this in her kitchen. I still find inspiration in this music.
  • Iron Maiden: The Number of the Beast While I loved this music as a lad, this album gave my Dad and I a chance to discuss the differences between dogma, theology, art and story telling. It was a moment when I realized how cool my dad really was.
  • Buddy Rich: Plays and plays and plays and plays I wore this record out
  • Helmet: Born Annoying, Meantime
  • Fishbone The Reality of My Surroundings
  • Steve Vai Flexible recorded with an 8-track borrowed from Frank Zappa, this Lp was my summers’ soundtrack through college.
  • Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band Trout Mask Replica always sounds new to me
  • Tom Waits Bone Machine is my favorite Tom Waits album – probably my favorite album period. Someone, please play this at my funeral, just for fun.
  • The Dukes of Dixieland, West Side Story and Camelot lps in my parents’ stereo system
  • Posh Hits, Vol 1 featuring the Circle Jerks, Agent Orange, Black Flag
  • Donald Fagen The Nightfly
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers Mother’s Milk
  • The Cure Head on the Door My college years
  • Fugazi Repeater
  • Bill Evans Trio Portrait in Jazz True introspection
  • Oingo Boingo Dead Man’s Party Play this at my funeral, too – right after Tom Waits
  • Medeski Martin & Wood Friday Afternoon in the Universe
  • Tommy Flanagan Montreux ’77
  • The Ventures Batman Theme

This last one took me a while to track down. I had this record in my basement as a kid, and it made a profound impact on me. The dissonance in the reverb soaked surf guitar was intriguing to me. I still love it.

The Ventures Play TV Themes

There are many other singles, albums and bands worth listing. For example, Neil made me plenty a-fine-mix-tape of outstanding music. Tim and J Cookson shared lots of hardcore and punk (Angry Samoans, Dead Kennedy’s, Marginal Man, Dead Milkmen, Butthole Surfers and Minor Threat). I am still into my old Knitting Factory records, Latin Jazz, 1950’s be-bop and indie rock. But the records above all contributed something important to my musical DNA.

This is an incomplete list. What about YOU? What records do YOU hold dear to your soul?