The Griffin, San Diego, Ca. 10.11.12
Catalog #: SC 17
Edition of 300 cdr, 150 Cassette. Silk Screen on die cut chipboard, hand numbered.
Mid way through The Russian Wilds touring in 2012 my long time musical partner and band mate Joel Robinow left Howlin Rain unexpectedly. The remaining 4 of us, Isaiah Mitchell, Cyrus Comiskey, Raj Ojha and myself literally had a flight to NYC the morning after we found out and a week long tour of the east coast beginning the next day. On the plane ride over and backstage in the club before the first gig of the tour we talked briefly about how we could/should play the music without Joel. We'd worked so long and hard on the complex three part harmonies and equally hard to try and always be conscientious of the space in the songs so that 2 guitars and keyboards didn't get too dense and too busy in what was often already fairly dense and busy music. Trying to simplify and take up more space at the same time didn't seem like a totally simple thing.
We decided that the best way to absorb Joel's missing elements was a meaner, leaner guitar rock---the guitars go up in the mix and are omni-present and instead of trying to recreate expansive vocal harmonies let's try and go a little more Keith and Mick with them---loose and bluesy. In a way guitars often sound best doing just that: simplifying things but taking up more space. And the general idea was that when you have a problem in art or performance you figure out what the key elements of the problem are and then figure out a way to make those the new strengths of the performance. Adapting to change. In this case our "problem" was missing elements, elements that the arrangements were often based on. So in my eyes that afternoon before we began to play our new set without a rehearsal we had to look at it as simply having been distilled to a leaner more aggressive entity from the larger more roving, multi-dimensional 5 piece. In rock and roll distillation isn't a bad thing.
Back in highschool in pottery class I once worked two weeks on a teakettle with a hand sculpted fantasy dolphin leaping out of the waves that were molded into the top and lid of the teakettle. It was a ceramic masterpiece (to a first year pottery student). Once I'd finished and it was drying before it had been fired, I had just finished trimming the base of it on an electric wheel and was sweeping up around my area of the studio. I looked up to check the time and my broom brushed the foot pedal of the electric wheel and sent the wheel spinning and the teakettle flying onto the floor into a smashed blob like a giant troll face. I was devastated and my pottery teacher came over and said "I know how much work you put into that, you know what? Sometimes in art the "real" thing you were meant to be doing comes out of a moment that you perceived as a fatal accident or flaw at the time and great art can come of it".
At the time I just nodded and acted philosophically about it on the outside but inside I was pissed and forlorn and I didn't much want to hear that wisdom then. And in fact nothing came of the dolphin teapot, it was totally destroyed and was trash. But I have to admit as my life went on and I continued to engage "the artistic life" mostly in music but also in writing, painting, printing and other avenues I began to see a pattern of incredible regeneration as a result of adversity. We all look to find inertia in our lives so that we can try and find a high point and sail on it, bring down the stress and heighten and extend our positive mental space, our sense of control and fulfillment. But I've found that in our artistic lives those moments of inertia be they positive or negative aren't good for you when they last too long. Furthermore they never really do last very long. One way or another adversity claims the easy ride and tears it down and you're back in a situation trying to step beyond a challenge, trying to figure out a new way of creating and continuing, trying to face and accept changes in yourself or embrace the changes around you to adapt and thrive.
The first time I really came into contact with this was on the eve of completing the first Comets On Fire album. We had finished recording the album and mixed it and gone to Tim Green's and Tim had mastered it. We had a finished copy in hand and drove back across the bay bridge to a friends house in Oakland blasting the mastered copy of our first album and it sounded amazing. Different. Thrilling. I knew it was special or at least it was to me. That was the highest day of my musical life to that point. I had plans to self press the record, get distribution for us, tour the US and beyond; basically world domination was already in our sights. We got back to the East Bay and headed to the bar for a celebratory shot together with the band and just after Chris G (COF's first drummer) and I drank our shots he told me he quit. "What?! What the fuck, didn't you hear that music? We just conquered the world--this is the best record ever! We're going to tour the US not just the West Coast! People are going to flip out over this record! You can't quit!!!" But he did.
I went into a black hole that night as deep down as I had been high a few moments previous. It was one of the highest and lowest moments of my musical life and still is in reflection. I think sometime in the week or two following I convinced Chris G to stay in the band but his heart wasn't in it anymore, it strained our friendships for him to remain and before long he left for good. Which taught me another lesson I've held onto; when someone wants to leave you let em go. If you can get them to stay they will leave anyways after a period of psychic turmoil that you elongated by convincing them to do otherwise initially. The idea behind trying to get people not to quit a band is simply a fear of change, a clinging to inertia, a reliance on convenience.
At the time it was totally beyond me why Chris G would ever quite that band. The chemistry was there like a bomb going off, we had just finished an album, we were already touring the West Coast multiple times--everything was happening for us and happening pretty quick. And now I get that that's why he left---When I asked him to be a part of Comets On Fire on the first day the "idea" or "band" existed I asked him to come be a part of a 4 track recording project, just for fun, make loud riotous music off the cuff. But from the first day we got together and made music and recorded the thing was so good and so fun and so "special" in Flashman and my eyes that we just harnessed and rode that energy forward at high speeds from each step to the next. 4 track recording for fun becomes a record. Taking a gig for fun becomes a tour. One tour becomes two becomes three. One recording session becomes two practices a week, every week. For Flashman and me it was obvious that this band should consume our lives and the lives of every single person involved. But Chris G never signed on for any of that, he just came over one weds night to do the 4 track project with us. The rest of it was some crazy shit going on in Flashman and me and Noel's heads and now he was caught up in it because somehow we got the train moving too fast for him to safely and simply step back off as he had always intended to do.
We didn't know what to do. We knew we had to find another drummer but how? Chris G was a phenomenal player and finding a 'virtuoso' drummer like that was going to be, well, probably impossible for us at that point. Now we were just three misfit kids in Santa Cruz. We didn't have many contacts out in the larger world of music, hadn't been out there much and only a relatively few number of people really knew who we were though I was sure we were on the brink of something. He was such an integral part of the sound of the band at that point. It could have been a fatal blow and the thought crossed our minds that it was.
Half in a panic and half embracing chance we simply booked studio time with Tim for 4 months later without a drummer. We figured that putting things in motion, knowing that we had a looming date to record our second album hell or high water, that we would somehow sort out the problem and necessity and chance would bring us a drummer. And it did. Utrillo Kushner, a guy we known from around town in Eureka where we'd grown up and was friends with Ben Chasny who was now hanging around Santa Cruz with us. Plus Utrillo worked at Revolver, the distro company that had ended up distributing the first COF album. Chance upon chance upon chance. Utrillo was by no means a "technical" virtuoso the way that Chris was but certain the creativity, emotion and power of his playing was virtuosic if I may bend that word into a non-technical term and he fit Comets like a glove and opened us up and with him we began to fully realize Comets' musical potential.
With Utrillo on board and Ben Chasny hanging around the outskirts and finally joining the band a year or so later the group had found it's most creative and powerful center and began to fire on maximum heat.
So with a little time and reflection I began to see the patterns of inertia, change, adversity, rejuvenation in the twists and turning of events and tried embrace it after that and my musical life has been a whirlwind see-saw of extreme good fortune and sometimes baffling adversity. In fact, since COF's first album came out in 2001 I can't remember a 6 month period that just simply ran smoothly. Bands don't run smoothly. They can't. There's too many variables, mostly called human beings. Perhaps that is good. Perhaps the alternative is inertia.
But I digress. All that is to say, fast forward 12 years on and Howlin Rain loses Joel on a dawn drive from Joshua Tree to Oakland to catch a flight to New York City to begin an east coast tour. We had to reinvent the band into a pure guitar rock 4 piece without a rehearsal. And it ended up being a successful transition in my eyes. Thrilling even, to succeed in reinvention inside the curl of a wave of violent personal change. It was a big thing to us, for all of us, Joel's departure weighed heavy on us personally and musically, as individuals and his friends as well as a band. As much as I loved the keys driven era of Howlin Rain, on July 22, 2012 that era had apparently come to an end and that's all there was to it.
"The Griffin" isn't that first gig, not even from that first east coast tour as a 4 piece. It's from a few months later when the 4 piece had come along, travelled a lot more miles and was honed, fast, mean and sleek. But it's still a pretty ecstatic example of the way a band's earth is completely rearranged into new formations by violent seismic activity, especially when embraced, when you allow the old buildings to just fall down with the quake instead of trying to save every one of them. Maybe even build structures over the top of them, right into the side of newly formed mountains, ride the quake, let the old debris fall into the dust and sand and go down for someone else to dig up and ponder or build with someday.
Besides all that reflective mumbo jumbo The Griffin is a ferocious bar gig and it's fun. A few months before this gig we were a different band. Something else. Now we were this. That's how it goes. Crack a beer, dig it.
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