Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Hardstuff

Irony, really.  It's not been easy.  Or lets say this process of recording our first album "Prepare to Scream" was a lot harder than I thought it might be.  Because the 3 of us are not "musicians" proper at all.  We're illustrators, painters, artists.  That's the mentality that went into this album.  And when you think of the whole thing being a home job, done in our "off" time, still holding our day jobs and coordinating band nights to actually get shit done and not drink all the whisky…well we done good.

Shay, Mike and I met in Art college SF in the late Nineties.  I moved in with Mike in the SF Tenderloin from my parent's place in San Jose.  I slept in the futon mattress (like taco stuffing) on the floor with the sides ramped up the walls in the closet.  I got hit on by trannies on the way to pick up six packs and boxed "Banquet" fried chicken dinners from the liqour store.  But it was a place to crash, and I could walk to class.

  I met Shay a bit later in Illustration 1 class (I think).  Never laughed so hard talking to one person before.  I think the feeling was mutual.  And he played guitar /wrote his own retarded songs like me.  Turned out he and Mike lived on Guam at the same time around high school days.  The three of us bonded quickly, hanging out, smoking, drinking shit beer, watching Batman the animated series in the Frontenac at Hyde and O'Farrell after drawing class.

I had been in a couple bands before,  Shay had been in a fun scrappy band called Dirty No Dity.  Mike was in a couple bands singing as well.  So we had this common love for rock music and we always had the little nylon string guitar around (Nylo) at any given point after class at the apartment.  Somewhere there's a recording of Shay and I signing "Man with McFarlane hands" from those days.  Inevitably we tossed around the idea of a band.  The idea was playing one minute songs involving explosions, Godzilla screams, chainsaws and "general extremeness".  It was a joke band we called "The Hardstuff".  Music made just for us by us.  We had some funny ideas, but without a place to practice we were sort of stuck with acoustic guitars and dusty casio keyboards.

Eventually my work moved from SF to Berkeley and I was looking at graduation and working full time there.  I had the opportunity through my parents to drag some art buddies into a house they bought and so we would rent.  Problem was getting SF art students to feel cozy living on the other side of the bay bridge.  Shay accepted.  Mike accepted.  The night Mike moved in, we recorded "Army of Hamsters", "Rob Liefeld anatomy" and maybe a couple other horrible songs on Shay's hand held tape recorder.  But the issue was we needed one more roommate to make rent.  Lets just say the "art house" was never fully realized and our dwelling soon turned into "the knock off frat house".  Mike moved out of the house first, once the frattys quickly douched up the communal areas.  Shay stuck around through thick and thin and we continued to work on the art team at Scilearn and non-regularly play music.  I met Tana at Scilearn around that time and she and I ended up spending a LOT of time away from the house and the chaotic conflicts of the 1691 frat "cappa alpha dickhead".  Some time after Mike moved back to SF from Ward st., Shay started writing Lobot and The Hulk upon others that would become the core songs we'd play for the next ten years.

By that time Mike was involved not only writing but playing bass and singing.  I was spending most of my time with Tana at the Delta, but also wrapped up in my band Souls of Smoke.  We all learn from our mistakes.  And that's not saying I'd take any of those years back.  They were integral to being the "musician" I am today.  And I learned an immeasurable amount of improvisation and uh, lets say social compromise.  But I had hit a wall with that "band".  And we never wrote a song...ever.  Mike and Shay started playing what became "the line up" pretty regularly.  Lobot, The Hulk, Mo Nore, Smokin' Cali and I started playing drums to songs that actually had beginnings and ends, which was a big change from the "never ending stoney jam" keys, guitar and percussion I was bouncing between with the other guys.  The idea for Zartan came a tad later as Shay and I were driving Tana's rambler back to Scilearn from the house for lunch.  It could have been Heather's backfiring Plymouth Horizon too.  I'm surprised I remember this much man.

I concentrated on drums that broke up the overdrive jackhammer riffs that came from Shay's guitar and his hell muppet voice.  With his Cobra Commander screams and "confident comedian" persona, Mike was obvious fun and a held the bass parts well while signing.  We had some damn good times, a fun 1999 Halloween and some nice video from that era as well.  The "studio" was IN the house at that point.  Soon after when we started getting into playing the few songs we had and getting them tight, Mike had to follow a job in LA.  And for years the Hardsuff was on the backburner fizzling into nothing.

Shay and I stayed tight, playing often.  Tana moved into the house in 2001 and the guys eventually all moved out as we were planning to get married and all that.  I was laid off soon after the 9/11 nightmare and took some time to study soundproofing in interest of converting the two car detached garage into a music studio of the house Tana and I now owned.  After about a year later, the studio was complete.  We moved all the instruments in there and soon after, Shay and I put it to good use.  He and I couldn't stop obsessing on The Hardstuff though.  There was some good songs in there.  Shame to lose them.  We came up with an idea to use the songs we created as a vehicle for our illustration and animation skills/interests.  And since that discussion in the kitchen we've been steadily working toward that goal.

I was thankfully rehired at Scilearn in the beginning of 2003, my daughter Jade was born shortly thereafter.  My friend Scott who used to live one house over asked if I had met his old friend Don who'd taken over rent.  I was pretty wrapped up with Jade and work but eventually I discovered that two doors down, this guy Don had his own studio set up occupying the back of his house.  We quickly made up for lost time by relaxing over at his place playing digital beats, synth keys, percussion instruments I didn't have...he had all the stuff my studio didn't.

Mike returned from LA as well.  Whammo.  The Hardstuff was back on in full effect rehearsing once sometimes twice a week with deep interest in playing shows locally.  Whiskey, song writing, laughs and sweat.  A few shows under our belts and well, it took us a long time to be able to not only know how to create music and trouble shoot that know how continuously, but to also listen to each other and work together for the sake of well, why the hell not.
Don was a breath of sharp air adding a new component to the musical nights giving Mike Shay and I a sense of "future" and moving on from these songs we'd been playing forever.  New songs were written but Mike and Shay worked the same place, lived in the same place and were part of the same band soooo things weren't always peaches and hugs when Thursday band practice came around.  After a couple years we fell into a bit of a band lull.  We were getting better and the music was sounding tighter but it was taking forever.  Again, none of us were musicians.

Despite, and for good reasons, Shay decided to move to New York to pursue his heart and career.  Again, Don was a great guy to have around the studio for Mike and I.  And we now joke around about making shirts that say "The Hardstuff now with 20% more Don!".  Before moving out of Cali though, Shay and I scrambled to record the drums and guitar tracks for an album so once and for all we could document these "rock gems".  We finally got things set up pretty haphazardly in multi-track on Garageband using 4 mics on the set, one on the guitar amp, and recorded live into an 8 track that fed into a mac laptop I was using from Scilearn.  These tracks are what's now on the album Prepare to Scream.  Soon after Shay left, I finally moved from Garageband to Apple's Logic Pro which Scilearn bought for product related sound effects work.  See, it all comes together.  In learning the application for work, I realized Logic allowed me SO much more control over the music but I also realized I was diving into a realm of digital music I really should have gone to school for.  It was a two year crash course for me in music writing, recording, editing, producing, mastering, funding, CD package design, illustration for print and in the end...enjoyment and pride.

The album is done, and not only the band name, but the album title became so appropriate and ironic that I knew it was the right call.  Like every project, there's the checklist of things that could be better.  But I paste in Tana's saying, "it is what it is" and I like what it is.  During the recording of this album, Don, Mike, Shay and I have nearly recorded another album of completely different songs in a completely different style.  And there's left over material from the Prepare to Scream sessions that will be going on yet another album.  This last week Shay flew in from New York and we synced up our CD release party with his planned visit.  Mike, Don, Shay and I hung out, ate some BBQ, drank some Jameson, put together our CDs with Jade and celebrated 10 years of art, laughs, friendship, work and music.

And that's the story in a semi-large nut shell.  I won't tell you the stories of the ice cream sandwich fight that landed Mike in the SF general hospital, or the shroomy emperor slipper and dead puppy fetus supremes, Shay's early attempts at bum communications and his egg teeth, Estella's threats to call the cops, "the band drama"...none of that.  Leaving it out.  Ten years, we made an album.  We're moving on to the next chapter as friends, as brothers.  That ride was damn awesome guys, lets hop on another!  Hopefully the line isn't as long.

And if anyone is interested in picking up the album or hearing it, please contact me and check out The Hardstuff blog for more info.  Thanks.