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Well, I live in New York now. So far I’ve spent most of my time lazing in Central Park, exploring the NYU campus in Greenwich Village, or piecing together my tiny bedroom in my Upper West Side apartment (pictured above). All summer I’ve been excited about this move and proud of myself for taking this leap, but I confess I didn’t (and still don’t) know what I was getting myself into. I suppose a naive part of me expected that I would arrive and immediately begin walking down a clearly paved road to musical success. In reality, I’ve just been trying to figure out how to properly feed, clothe, shelter, and transport myself in this enormous city. I’ve been here for just over a week, and every day I oscillate between being a giddy tourist and a homesick child. I walk around stupefied by the iconic streets full of hip beautiful people, I constantly screw up on the subway, and I miss my family and friends to the point of tears.

And still, I’m so happy to be here. I know that eventually I am going to figure out the subway, I’ll learn where/when to go to the grocery store, I’ll make great new friends, and I’ll start to feel like my tiny closet of a bedroom is a cozy home. Many of my now effortful actions will change into natural routines. What will not change is the fact that I am living in one of the most exciting cities in the world, surrounded by rich culture and a talented, driven, diverse population. I have every resource I could hope for to help me fulfill my dream of musical success: world renowned instructors, innumerable venues, plenty of talented collaborators, and a potentially vast audience of music fans. I have a sense that if I am not successful here, it will be my own fault. This city is full opportunities for me and I believe that I’m going to be rewarded if I only work hard and consistently choose to step out of my comfort zone. Frankly, my dream is to write, record, and perform music all over the world, and I think I’m in the best possible place to make that dream a reality.

This is where you come in precious reader. I’m going to document my musical life and thoughts once a week in this blog, and I need you and everyone else to read it. Sure I could try to hold myself accountable to my goals on my own, but I’d likely end up frequently binge watching any of the brilliant shows available in this golden age of television instead. I wish I were entirely self-motivated, but the fact is, if I know I have an audience, I’m going to try a lot harder. In exchange for your readership, I’ll offer you delightfully useless observations (e.g. New Yorkers won’t make eye contact with you until they are slowly rolling out of your life forever on a subway car— and then it’s nothing but blazing eye contact), as well as priceless nuggets of wisdom (sometimes). You’ll also have a candid look at my life as I rise from Lucas Murray levels of obscurity to Kanye West levels of international superstardom and egotistical delusion.

Finally, I’m going to cap off each weekly blog post with a playlist. I’ve adopted the city-wide habit of walking around with my headphones in— I put all of my music on shuffle, and am consistently delighted by the synchronicity of the random song I’m listening to and my outside environment. Thus, the songs that I’ll include in each playlist are the songs that were most significant or enjoyable to me that week as I roamed the city. And like New York itself, this playlist is going to be diverse, including both old and new songs from a variety of styles. You can find each playlist at the bottom of my blog posts, or follow me on Spotify and find the weekly playlists there if you’re interested in hearing the songs but don’t want to read the blog (you lazy so and so), or if you you like, I can even burn it on to a CD and mail it to you because I’m cool like that (just shoot me an email).

So if you believe in me like I believe in me, please follow this blog, share it with your friends, family, and rich patrons, and don’t be afraid to contact me with any questions, comments, or words of encouragement. Also, if you don’t believe in me or just plain dislike me, please follow this blog, diss me often in the comments section, and judge me as I shamelessly try to pursue my foolish dream of musical success. Whether friend or foe, WordPress user or not, if you would, please go push that follow button at the top right of this post, drop me your email, and then tune in each week for a new post. Thank you!

And here is this week’s playlist:

Three months ago, I told myself and the public that I would release one blog post and one song every week for nine months. So far I’ve been able to stick to my guns because, as I’ve stated before, this project is not about quality— it is simply about quantity. It is a personal quest to get better at the crafts of blog writing, songwriting, and recording simply by putting in some work. However, I’ve run into a problem this week. I had a song to record, and have been working on it all week, but I had no idea what I would write my blog-post about. I casually assumed that I would eventually think of something to write and would be able to knock it out in time, yet each day passed, and I still had no idea what I would write. Even today, the day that I will post this entry, and even now as I am writing this sentence, I still don’t fully know what I am going to write in this blog post.

Yet I’ve got a start. I took a creative writing class my freshman year of college in which we had to write poetry, and my professor told the class that if you don’t have an idea for a full poem, just use fragments of other poems. I was the only one in class who took his advice and I got an A on the poem. It pays to listen to your teachers kids. Well there are no teachers to grade this, but I am hoping that if I just piece together some of my current thoughts on musical things (the phrase “some of my current thoughts on musical things” is best read with a southern accent), it will make for a passable blog post, and we’ll all feel good about Lucas continuing his outpouring of quantity work. Let’s begin with some confessions.

These are my confessions:

  • I haven’t listened to Beyonce’s Lemonade. Why not?! No reason, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’ve been told it’s “a masterpiece,” that it’s full of juicy references to Beyonce and Jay-Z’s marital turmoil, that it’s the “best album of the last two years,” and that she’s not only going to win the Grammy for best album this year, but the Grammy committee is also going to go back in time and give her Beck’s Grammy from 2015 as Kanye tried to do at the time. But yeah, I just haven’t gotten around to it. Perhaps I’ll celebrate the fourth of July with some Lemonade.
  • I’m fairly certain I started playing guitar to impress girls. Now, granted my memory is hazy on this. I’ve always loved music, and I took piano lessons from age 8 to 10, but right around the time I became aware of girls, I insisted on switching from piano to guitar. Coincidence? I think not. I know that by the time I was in high school, I definitely thought it would help me “get girls.” It didn’t, but I stubbornly continued to play, and practice until, by the time college rolled around, I just fell in love with learning the instrument. I’m now (mostly) free from my early ulterior motive, but if it weren’t for my naive misconception that girls would automatically fall in love with me because I played guitar, I might not be the guitarist you see today.
  • Guitar is not my favorite instrument to listen to. When I listen to music, I tend to prefer the timbres of the voice, or an organ, or a horn section, or a nice flute, or even the humble oboe. I play guitar simply because it is the instrument that feels the most natural and comfortable to me. If I am going to contribute to the creation of beautiful music, it’s going to be with a guitar. I do love the guitar, I just like the sound of some other instruments a bit more.

Brief announcements:

  • I have a couple of Rev Room shows coming up soon. The first is with Jamaal Lee on July 3rd for the Drummers in the House event. I don’t know why, but I’m pretty sure Little Rock has the highest dope drummers per capita of anywhere in the world. This Sunday is a showcase of some of these guys including Paul Campbell, Jonathan Burks, Stephen Bailey, and Jamaal Lee, with whom I am playing a short set. I don’t want to give anything away, but we are going to play a song that is going to make you say out loud “what the duck just happened?!” Except remove that auto correct from the word duck. The second show is July 9th, with Big Piph and Tomorrow Maybe for The Legacy Project release show. It’s going to Blow. Your. Mind.
  • I’m going to go in the studio and record an album at the end of July with some of the best songs I’ve written during these past few months. There, I said it. Now I have to do it.

The last album I listened to in full was:

Mr. wonderful by Action Bronson. I got this recommendation yesterday from a special someone— thank you, you know who you are! This album is so incredibly enjoyable. The samples are amazing, the production is great, and Action Bronson’s voice is perfect for his humorous, feel good, braggadocious lyrics. Any album that open’s up with a Billy Joel sample and ends with someone riding “the harley into the sunset” is alright with me.

Something Deep:

Throughout the inevitable ups and downs of a long life, it helps an individual to be at peace and content if he or she is connected to an eternal principle. I am comforted that I get to play, teach, learn and listen to music, because Music is eternal. I’m not talking about any one piece of music, I’m talking about the big, abstract, capital “M” Music that holds all of the various musical works and activities throughout the universe in its embrace. Music is forever waiting and willing for us to touch it’s surface, and is always open to letting us pry it’s depths.

Next time you listen to something, don’t think “I’m listening to Taylor Swift.” Just turn something on, and think “I’m listening to Music,” and then stop thinking, and just let it hit you. As much as we like to glorify our favorite artists, they are not the point— the point is Music itself. No one invented Music, we’re all just channeling it.

Something Shallow:

It helps to be hot.

BeyonceyoungelvisNow listen to my new song. Peace!

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Start spreading the news

I’m leaving today

I want to be a part of it

New York, New York

Ok, so technically I am not leaving today, but it is true, I’m going to go make “a brand new start of it” in New York City this fall. This past fall I applied to a number of music master’s degree programs in New York City. My hope was that I would get in somewhere (anywhere), increase my musical knowledge and skill with the help of my teachers, meet fellow musicians at the school in order to start or join a band (or multiple bands), and proceed to “make it” in New York. Because “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere” (that’s my last Sinatra reference I swear). Well, in March I was informed that I had been accepted to NYU to do a master’s in jazz studies with a focus on guitar performance. And an instant after hearing this news, a very tangible feeling of fear appeared in my gut. New York is so far away! I can’t leave my friends and family! I’m so comfortable here! School is so expensive! Is that really what I want to do? What if I’m not good enough? I should stay here… Yet in spite of these voices of fear, and in fact because of these voices of fear, I have decided that NYU is exactly where I need to be this fall.

I am making a conscious decision to go against what my fear is telling me to do because in my heart and mind I know that going to NYC is right. I am simply experiencing something like long-term stage fright: before I play a show I always get a little nervous (and sometimes I get very nervous), but that doesn’t mean I don’t want and need to play the show; I am extremely nervous about moving to NYC, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want and need to move. In fact whenever I take a moment to check into my body, and I say to myself “I am moving to New York,” my heart smiles. Yet it is a strange phenomenon to know that something is right, and to still be clearly afraid of it. I likely won’t be free from these fears until I actually start school (even then who knows), but in the meantime, I am going to engage in the futile activity of trying to dispel these fears by explaining to myself and you readers exactly why I am moving.

I have reached a peek in my music career. When I finished my bachelor’s degree at UALR my singular goal was to not get a “real job,” and instead to support myself solely with musical activities. My logic was simply that if I used only music as my livelihood, I would be spending a lot of time working on music, and thus would become better at music, and thus would be equipped to have more opportunities to earn money with it, and thus would be spending even more time on music (and so on and so on in a wonderful positive feedback loop). At first I had to hustle hard to find enough guitar students and gigs to pay the bills, then slowly but surely I had enough musical work to feel comfortable. As we were doing my taxes for this past year, my accountant even told me that I “did well this year” (granted I did well by a young, single musician’s standards— the bar is low). I have succeeded at my initial goal and have spent over two years in Little Rock as a full-time professional musician. Unfortunately I have also grown somewhat complacent as a result of this. There is currently no pressing need for me to get a lot better at guitar, or make a lot more money, or challenge myself creatively. If I were to stay here in Little Rock, I like to think that I would do these things out of sheer will and self-motivation, but I wouldn’t necessarily have to. If I am going to succeed in New York City, among the enormous amount of creativity and talent there, I will have no choice but to maximize my potential. I’m aiming for a new peek.

I am going to New York to test myself, and to learn. Sometimes it is not clear to me here in Little Rock how good of musician I am. Honestly I could name ten guitarists in town who I think are better than me, and yet I have had a few people tell me that I am the best guitarist in town (they need to get out more). I play a large amount of gigs, yet many of these gigs connections are made through friends and family. There is not a clear external test of how good of a musician I am. In New York, I’ll be one of hundreds of good guitarists, with little to no connections prior to arriving there, and I am going to have to work my ass off to practice, plan, and put myself out there. Perhaps this sounds like a fools errand— it is actually a personal test to see what kind of musical and personal strength I can muster in my pursuit of New York City success. Regardless of what the success test shows, I know that I have much to learn, and at NYU I am going to receive an incredible musical education and be in the presence of world-class guitar teachers such as John Scofield, Peter Bernstein, and Wayne Krantz. I am going to grow.

Finally I am going to New York because the time is right. I have always thought about moving somewhere else, but part of the reason I have stayed here this long is because I have an incredible family whom I have loved to live close to. However, this past summer, after decades of living in Little Rock, my parents moved to Newport, AR and my sister, brother-in-law, and baby niece moved to Kansas City, MO (each move was for work)— my stable family tree has been uprooted. Thus the people who are closest to me, my blood, do not need me here right now. Add to that the fact that the location of my brunch gig shut down last month, and it is time for this little bird (ok, grown bird) to leave the nest and go take flight. Peace!

For those not yet privy to it, this blog is part of a nine-month long project in which I release a blog-post and a new song every week. So below is this week’s Opus if you care to listen, and even further below are links to posts from past weeks. Enjoy!

Week 1—Nine Months of New Music

Week 2—That’s Masturbation

Week 3—Oblique Strategies

Week 4—A Conversation with the Wolfman

Week 5—Turn Off the Music

Week 6—Thoughts on Prince

Week 7—Grieving for the Afterthought (pt.1)

Week 8—Grieving for the Afterthought (pt. 2)

Week 9— Paul Simon, Still Alive After All These Years

JasoninStudio

I admit that today’s blog-post is a bit longer than normal (that’s only because it’s a lot more interesting than normal). So if you’re simply looking to hear this week’s song, you can click this link right here. But you have to promise me that you’ll go back and read the post. Promise? Ok, go ahead you can click it.

Today marks the fourth week of my nine month long endeavor to release a song recording and a blog-post every week. As I explained in the first weekly blog-post, my primary goal for this project is to produce a large quantity of work, yet my underlying hope is that I will happen to create some good quality work along the way as well. Yet quality songs are hard to come by. Assuming that I have written a good song (which is certainly not a safe assumption), there is still the problem of making the recording of the song sound good. I use a recording software called Logic 9, and with it I have more ease of control, more effects, and more tracks at my disposal than George Martin and The Beatles could ever dream of, but I have an extremely limited understanding of how to use all this power. My knowledge of the recording process comes solely from me tinkering around with various recording devices and software and watching a few youtube videos. When I am recording, I typically have a vague sense that I am doing something wrong, and sometimes when I make something that sounds good, it feels a lot like luck.

So instead of subjecting you readers/listeners to weeks and weeks of poor quality recordings, I decided to try to learn a thing or two this week from my ole buddy Jason Tedford. Jason is the sole owner and operator of Wolfman Studios where he records musicians and bands in all genres and all walks of musical life. He also plays guitar for the riotous rock band Iron Tongue and is a co-owner of the brand new music shop Dogtown Sound in North Little Rock. I got to know Jason during our stint together in the band The See, and he has always impressed me as someone who is extremely kind, humble, genuine, talented, and incredibly knowledgeable about music, recording, and Star Wars. So for the small price of one Gyro Platter, Jason agreed to meet up with me Monday at Leo’s and let me pick his powerful brain. Below is an abridged transcription of our conversation— if you want to delve deeper into more technical side of our conversation, feel free to send me a message and I’d be happy to share. Enjoy!

L: Jason, this is just so the people can get to know you a little bit. You are probably the biggest Star Wars fan I know, but who are you in Star Wars?

J: Han Solo. Who else would I want to be? Han Solo.

L: I mean that’s a pretty bold claim, we’re talking about the whole star wars universe— most of us probably aren’t Luke, or Han, or Leia, or even Jar Jar— we’re probably just some dude sitting at the cantina.

J: Ok I can say I want to be Han Solo. That for sure. Whether I am him or not… I mean I don’t know, I’m a bit of a scruffy looking nerf herder. So I think I got that. Scoundrel a bit. I think I got that. He’s very anti-establishment. He’s a nonconformist. He sums me up pretty well. He’s definitely who I want to be, and he’s definitely who I’m most like. I mean I do have this (points to his millennium falcon tattoo).

L: Ok, I’ll give it to you. Here’s another Star Wars question, where does The Force Awakens rank against all the Star Wars films?

J: I’d say it’s a tie for third. First is New Hope— I saw it when I was six and it was a huge thing for me, now is Empire a better movie? Probably, but there would be no Empire without a New Hope. So second is Empire Strikes back. Third, is a tie between Jedi and Force Awakens. And then if you’re going to add the prequels in the’ll be ranked in reverse order: It’s gonna be, revenge of the Sith, Attack of the Clones, and if we have to put it in there, Phantom Menace last.

L: Ok now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can start talking music. So you both play in bands, and record them. Which do you identify yourself as more, musician or recording engineer?

J: Oh I think I definitely identify as a recording engineer/audio nerd, more than anything else. There have been times when I’ve gone years without being in a band, that I’ve always had the studio going on.

L: Did you start playing first? Or did you start recording first?

J:I started playing first… Well… that might not be totally true. Because when I was a little kid, I would spend hours at my grandmother’s house playing on this cassette deck doing all sorts of radio shows— all sorts of crazy stuff. And ya know, going through high school, I mean even when I was playing guitar, I had cassette decks chained together trying to record something. I didn’t really understand the concept of being a recording engineer. I didn’t even realize that was a job until I was in my first band and recording for the first time.

L: And what band was that?

J: Well it I guess it wasn’t my first band, but it was the first band I was in that actually recorded. It was a band called Pseudo Hippie, and it was all the same people who were in Ashtray Babyhead. It was like an early 90’s grunge band, we sounded like we came right out of Seattle!

L: Cool, cool, cool…

J: Eh, I don’t know if it was that cool. Haha! But we recorded, and it wasn’t real good—it was in a not great studio, but I was like “wow this is fascinating!”— this whole process ya know? And it really kinda grabbed me at that point. But it wasn’t really until the next band that I was in— which was called Marigold and we wen’t to record with Barry Poynter, at his studio which was then still at his parent’s house, and we’re recording with this dude and he has a console on a pool table and he’s tracking drums in the sun room, and we’re like “this sounds amazing” — that’s when it dawned on me “hell, I could do this!” I bought my first four track probably weeks after recording with him and was tracking stuff in my house, and that’s when it all started for me.

L: So jumping forward quite a bit, what are some of your favorite bands that you’ve recorded to date?

J: The Becoming Elephants record was a lot of fun to do— those guys are just incredible musicians. The See record was a personal accomplishment, I was really proud of The See record. The Collin vs. Adam record was really really fun and good. Who else… That’s it. Haha! No. I’m always recording with this guy Drew DeFrance— hard to say I like a particular album because he just does a ton of stuff. He’s really great to record with. They’ve got a full band now, and they’re all really good solid work your ass off players. Who else, Brian Nahlen is always really fun to work with. He’s great, writes great songs, great singer, and he’s got really great ears. Piph is really great to work with— he’s a pro.

L: And do you record using Tape or Digital? And is one better than the other in your mind?

J: I use digital. I used to have tape, but I don’t have it anymore— I mean it’s sitting in a closet, because it’s just too hard to mess with, and it’s not the type of tape that people are looking for. People are looking for 2 inch tape—16 or 24 track whatever— because it sounds better.

L: It sounds better than digital?

J: Well, two inch tape sounds better than the half inch tape that I was running. Two inch tape vs. digital? They both sound good. It’s really more of an opinion. I think that certain things sound better on tape— I think drums and bass guitar. Guitars can sound good on anything. But I think with a lot less work you can make things on tape sound a little bit punchier and a little more real and have some grain to it that is really fun and interesting, whereas you have to literally create that on the digital side.

L: Can you do that? Can you fool somebody with digital into thinking that they’re listening to tape?

J: You can. But the fact that you’ve got 90 percent or more of the population listening to music as MP3’s on their phones or streaming off of Spotify, I don’t know if it even matters anymore! Hahaha! You can listen to something and go “oh, that has a nice warm, punchy kind of feel to it” — that could have been done with tape or it could have been done with digital. I think some people, depending on the medium that they’re listening to—whether it’s vinyl, or CD, or MP3, and depending on the speakers and where they’re listening— maybe they can tell a difference; maybe they can have a preference. I don’t think it matters anymore. The funny thing, is that it’s all going to be digitized at one point or another.

L: When you listen to music, how do you listen to it— what medium do you use?

J: Usually it’s off of CD. Usually it has been ripped onto my iPod, but at full range. I don’t mess with MP3’s— I’ve got friends who are like “I’ve got 50,000 songs on this iPod of mine” and I’m like “yeah, but they’re all MP3’s, and I’d rather have 5,000 songs that sound good, than 50,0000 songs that sound bad.” I mean there aren’t 5,000 songs I’m going to listen to anyway! So that’s what I usually listen to, in my house or in my car. In my house either with my studio monitors, or in my room with my vintage Klipsch Heresy speakers.

L: So here’s a technical question. What are you referring to when you say “full range” as opposed to MP3?

J: Well an MP3 is a compressed audio file. CD’s are generally 44.1 (kHz) sampling rate, 16-bit audio files. When I’m ripping a CD into iTunes I’m ripping it in at that same resolution. It makes your file size 10 times better, but it sounds as good as it does on CD.

—At this point, Jason launched into a long and fascinating technical explanation of the sampling rates he uses during his tracking, and mixing process in the studio. I learned a lot, but I had to stop him to insist that he take a bite of his Gyro—

L: Ok so before we wrap up, I want you to try to ruin one of my songs for the public. I want you to listen to it, and tell me what’s wrong with the recording. This song is called Jesus Burger.

J: It’s kind of Beatlesy! But are you tracking any of this stuff as MP3’s?

L: This is an MP3!

J:Oh yeah I can tell… It’s very 60’s. It’s good. I like it. But I could tell it’s an MP3 right off the bat. I could definitely hear the phaseyness and the weirdness about it. The drums are a little hard to kind of distinguish, at first you can hear them and then as it goes on they kind of get muddied up in the mix. If they were a little more defined, I could probably feel the rhythm a little better. It might be an EQ thing— usually a lot of your muddier frequencies are in the low-mids, and sometimes dipping some of that out can give you a little clarity. The vocals are a little on the thin side— which may be that you are using a dynamic mic. If you got a condenser mic, that might be better. Your voice is a little on the higher side, and you’re singing throughout it, rather than screaming like some guys do. I feel like a condenser would be better for your voice. A condenser will be a lot clearer and more flattering for your voice and might sit in the mix better. We could make a great song out of that.

Thank you Jason for sitting down and talking to me! It was a totally fun and educational experience. I’m going out to Dogtown Sound now to buy a condenser mic to help make my dainty vocals a little thicker and creamier. For now, here’s another Opus recorded without the help of a condenser mic. Enjoy!

This post is part of a nine month project in which I am releasing a new song and blog post every week. If you want to get caught up, here are the links to the previous entries:

Nine Months of New Music— Opus 1

That’s Masturbation—Opus 2

Oblique Strategies—Opus 3

A month ago Whitewater Tavern was packed for the final show of the eight-year old Little Rock band The See. Over the course of the cathartic hour and a half long set, I saw audience members dancing and singing along and at least two bearded band-members kiss former bandmates on the lips. Since 2007, when Joe Yoder (vocals/guitar) and Dylan Yelnich (bass/keyboard) founded the band, The See has played countless shows, recorded two-full length albums, been dubbed the “Kings of the Scene” by the Arkansas Times, and toured the country. Despite numerous cast changes (Louis Watts played guitar and sang briefly before leaving the band, then Eric Michael Morris joined on lead guitar, then Dylan and Eric left the band, and finally Jason Tedford and I stepped in on bass and guitar respectively), The See was able to endure because the signature pieces were always present: Tyler Nance’s heavy drumming and Joe’s infectious singing. The See is finally ending because the voice and vision of the band is going away. Joe is moving to Kansas City, and thus Arkansas is losing one of its best songwriters.

Joe started writing songs in seventh grade when he first learned how to play a power chord on guitar. Enchanted by his new power, Joe brought his mom to his room to hear his first song equipped with verses, chorus, and a bridge. When teenage Joe wasn’t at school or work, he was likely seeing live music at Vino’s or buying CD’s at Rod Bryan’s record store Anthropop (sadly, this is a very dated sentence— Anthropop is closed, Vino’s has declined, and no one buys CD’s anymore). Inspired by local groups like Ho-Hum and Ashtray Babyhead, Joe started his first band Attacking the Audio in 2000 when he was a sophmore in High School. He and his bandmates Mark Chisenhall and Taylor Willet recorded at Blue Chair Studio when it was still just a small shed. Soon after, Joe started another group called the Dischordos with Charles Lyford, Gaines Fricke, and Tim Tellez. In both of these groups Joe was the cornerstone piece, playing guitar, singing, and writing songs. Joe also played bass for a couple of other bands in high school, but recently said to me “any band I have been in, even if it was a jam band that I was playing bass for, I would always write or lead the jam. Song writing is my strong suit, not my ability as a player— it’s how I contribute.”

After moving to Tempe, AZ to attend college at Arizona State, Joe and Mark formed a more mature version of Attacking the Audio with fellow Arkansas transplant Louis Watts. Although Joe’s musical skill and creativity was apparent in college, he was still experimenting with his sound and artfully imitating his favorite groups. A home recording from 2003 called “All for You” showcases not only Joe’s love of Radiohead, but also two trademarks of Joe’s songs that he has carried with him to this day: 1. Long moments without any vocals, highlighting the instrumental side of the song and 2. Drastic section changes, switching from one mood to another within the same song. Listen for yourself.

ALL FOR YOU

Joe graduated from ASU in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in film and theatre. Despite such a practical degree and likely countless job offers, Joe (like many graduates) didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. After a bad breakup he left Arizona and went to Nicaragua for a month to build houses with his dad. He then moved in with his parents in Springfield, MO to save up for an epic road trip with his friend and band-mate Louis, all the while continuing to write and record songs. Joe and Louis spent nearly three months traveling all over America before Joe finally moved back to Little Rock in the summer of 2007, wishing to start a new musical project. By the time Joe moved back to Arkansas, though just 23 years old, he had been writing songs for over a decade.

Given Joe’s musical experience, a talented rhythm section in Dylan Yelnich and Tyler Nance, and numerous connections to the Little Rock scene, The See quickly gained popularity after forming in 2007. Joe even wrote some of The See’s most enduring songs when they were still just a three-piece. The song “Selling Gold,” written during this period, may be the band’s most popular song and to me is the prototypical Joe song, incorporating a long intro (almost a separate song), biographical lyrics, passionate singing, and a catchy guitar riff that can stand on it’s own with out lyrical support. Here is the very first version of the song recorded in 2008 at UALR, (though there’s a more polished version on The See’s debut EP Selling Gold if you can find it).

SELLING GOLD

The See hit their stride after lead guitarist Eric-Michael Morris joined the band in 2010 and provided the chord support, solos, and counter melodies the band needed. They played numerous shows in and out of town, performed at festivals like Arkansas Sounds and Riverfest, made it to the finals of The Arkansas Times musicians showcase, and continued to write new material. In 2012, Joe, Dylan, Tyler, and Eric recorded and released The See’s first full-length album, Pretending and Ending, with songs inspired and organized by the progression of birth, to childhood, to adulthood, to old age, to death. Fittingly, the tastiest ear-candy comes early on in the 15 track album. If The See had been in a bigger market with wider distribution and better promotion, I think we might be hearing the song “Hey” on alternative radio stations throughout the nation.

HEY

In early 2013, Dylan and Eric left the band on good terms in order to pursue their careers, but Joe and Tyler, encouraged by their strong new album, still wished to continue The See. Furthermore, they had already booked an April gig in Denver for a friend’s birthday that they didn’t want to back out of. Luckily Jason Tedford and I were eager to fill in and provide the missing pieces— I played good lead guitar and Jason gave the band literally everything else it needed (bass, foot pedal synth bass, amps, pedals, practice space, recording capabilities, and tour van). We played our first gig together at a Pizza restaurant in Denver to a largely lesbian audience who loved our big beards and loud rock (the opening artist performing at the party was a local lesbian singer-songwriter who brought out a large lesbian following). We introduced The (new) See to Little Rock at a Garland Street Art Party later that spring, and by summer I had realized one of my teenage fantasies: tour the country with a rock band. You can read about The See’s sandwich fueled do-it-yourself tour of summer 2013 in my past blog posts here.

Joe is not your stereotypical rockstar. Despite an enormous voice and robust appearance, Joe doesn’t revel in being in the spotlight. Joe makes music because he loves to make music, not because he wishes to be the center of attention. I suspect he enjoys writing and recording songs more than actually performing them—The See has certainly spent more time in the studio than on stage the past two years. The result of this time is an album called Borealius. It is a collection of old and new Joe Yoder originals enhanced and updated by the band and recorded, mixed, and mastered by Jason Tedford at his own Wolfman Studios. Tyler, Jason, and I are all pleased and proud of our contributions to this album, but I still think of this as Joe’s parting gift to us all as he leaves for Kansas City (it is quite literally a gift as you can download it for free here).

BOREALIUS

I suppose I should mention that Joe is my brother-in-law. He and my sister Liza are moving in July so that she can do a medical fellowship at a hospital in Kansas City. Joe’s no slouch either: he’ll be going to the University of Missouri-Kansas City to get a masters in social work. They’re facing a new job, a new school, and a new town, yet the most significant change is the new life that one of them could literally be holding in their arms at this moment. This past Wednesday, Liza gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.

Bridget Murray-Yoder is an adorable creature— as my friend Carmien said, “she looks like a human and not a potato-dinosaur, which is what most newborns look like.” I would love to spend the rest of this blog talking about how she is objectively cute and will surely be the most magnificent person this world has ever seen, but you would probably stop reading. Also, this is a music blog (I am reminding myself), so I think instead I’d like to tell you what this monumental moment means to Joe’s musical life. In sum, “suddenly everything has changed.”

You, reader, are warned that this paragraph is going to get flowery for a moment. When I saw Bridget, I felt my world expand. When I held her, I couldn’t stop gazing at her sleeping face— I wanted to make her feel happy, comfortable, and loved forever, and I’m only an uncle. I know that Joe and Liza are experiencing these feelings to an even higher degree. Yet songwriters rarely touch on selfless love. Most songs are about heartbreak or lust. This is because they are true forces that everyone has felt preoccupied with at some time, and good songwriters often sublimate the pain and passion of their life into their art. And that is exactly how I would brand Joe’s songwriting: he takes the real experiences and emotional content of his life and translates them into something that sounds good. Thus, I can’t wait to hear how the new dimension of fatherly love sounds in his future songs.

I am taking it for granted that there will be new Joe Yoder songs. Although he doesn’t (for now) have a band to play with in Kansas City, I know that Joe couldn’t stop writing songs if he tried. Songwriting has been a primal urge of his since he first started doing it in seventh grade. Joe admitted to me that he dreamed of gaining fame and fortune with Attacking the Audio, the Dischordos, and finally The See, yet I’ve seen firsthand that this is not why Joe writes songs and plays music. When we went on tour, Joe enjoyed himself, but also missed being at home with Liza and didn’t try to indulge in the proverbial “rockstar lifestyle.” Despite discovering a mild distaste for touring-band life, Joe was writing songs for the next See album within a matter of months. Joe doesn’t write songs to get rich or to attract girls (though I’m sure those have been motivators at various times in his life), he writes songs because he is good at it and it allows him to communicate his most honest thoughts and difficult emotions. Talking about why he writes songs, Joe recently said “when you believe you’re good at something, and people tell you you are, really cool things can develop in anything you do. So songwriting became a huge part of who I am and how I cope and relate to others. It feels great to create things that others can appreciate and listen to.”

Joe played his first song for his mother in seventh grade because he wanted to show his new means of expression to the person that he was the most deeply connected to. 18 years, 6 bands, 2 albums, and scores of songs later, and Joe now has a child of his own. I imagine that she will now be the first to hear his new songs. Because, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

MOM

At the dawn of this blog, you’ll remember (well, I remember) that my mission statement was to pursue the art, craft, and critique of music. Throughout my two year span of being a full-time musician, it feels like I have greatly succeeded in my goal of working at the craft of music; I’ve consistently practiced Classical and Jazz guitar, learned an enormous number of songs, played countless gigs, and continually taught private guitar lessons. I feel I’ve failed in the areas of art and critique; I’ve been terribly inconsistent in keeping this blog, and have virtually no original works or recordings to share.

I see clear reasons for this. There is a direct incentive for me to learn songs for gigs, and to teach guitar lessons— this is what people pay me to do (the craft). Conversely, I’ve yet to be commissioned to write my first Symphony (the art), nor have I been approached by any publications to write music reviews (the critique). Practicing the craft of music is essentially the entirety of my job at this point. After I’ve done my job for the day, like many other people I know, I’d rather watch a TV show, drink a beer, or go on a date than try to write a song or an essay. Furthermore, I have a habitual tendency towards learning songs and practicing guitar— these were consistent parts of my former life as a full-time music student from 2009-2013. During this period, I developed no such habits towards recording original music (the art) or expounding my own opinions on music (the critique). Simply put, money talks and habits are hard to break.

My desire to write music is motivated by something more abstract than money or habit. Although I’ve certainly fantasized about getting rich off of my own original music, there is actually no guarantee that I will make any money writing and recording original music. Yet even faced with this possibility, I know that I still want to make music.

My best evidence for this is the fact that my most prolific recording period occurred when I was in high school— a magical time when I wasn’t worried at all about money (my parents had me covered). Weekends and nights I would spend hours on end recording and re-recording parts on my red Fostex 8-track digital recorder for whatever song of mine I was wrapped up in at the moment. I didn’t do this because I thought it was going to make me rich and famous (I barely let anyone hear my songs). I did it because it allowed me to explore and release thoughts and feelings that were deeply personal to me; my songs were typically concerned with girls I liked, frustrations with high school social life, and my semi-secret spiritual yearnings. I remember writing during this period that I was so thankful to have music as an outlet for these difficult and sometimes dark feelings and wishing that everyone could have something similar— I wondered how anyone could be sane without an art to pursue. In addition to the psychological benefits I reaped from it, recording songs also satisfied my basic need to tinker. My recording process was essentially an extension of my childhood fascination with Legos: I would record the foundation of a song (most often guitar and vocals), then add another piece— perhaps a bass-line, then another— a drum track, then another— maybe a guitar solo, then another— a vinyl sample, all the while listening to the work over and over until I was satisfied with the pieces in place. I’d be so wrapped up in these sound-experiments that I would sometimes forget to eat all day.

To be honest, most of the songs I created in high school are not very good (I have the recordings to prove it), yet over the years I’ve also produced enough music that I actually thought was good (and enough is a relatively small amount in this case) to be encouraged to continue writing and recording. Most importantly I still have the burning desire to create and tinker with music that is emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and bodily meaningful to me. If it were not my job to play and teach music, I would still wish to write and record songs. I can sometimes get complacent, thinking that because I am getting paid for musical activities that I am following my adolescent dream of being a musician. Yet the truth is that my deepest aspiration all along has been to write, record, and perform my original music. I am lucky that both my college major and my current job have made me more capable of creating higher quality music, but I won’t at all be satisfied with this fact unless I actually make the music! I don’t need to make money doing it (even though yes I would like to); I simply need to do it.

And last week I did it; I completed a song for the first time in over four months. Furthermore, I’m going to share it with the internet world— something I truly haven’t done since I had a myspace page in high school. I’m not putting this work in the public space because I think it is particularly special (it’s not bad, but it’s not great); I’m putting it out there to hold myself accountable to my goal of writing, recording, and sharing my music. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the school of thought that would have aspiring artists only share their best work. My strategy is to share music as it comes and as I create it, despite it being less than perfect. With the knowledge that my music is available to the public,I hope to be pushed by a constant sense of “I can do better than that last song” to continue to write and refine my work. Furthermore, as an artist you never fully know what your audience will respond to— a track of mine that I think isn’t particularly good may end up being meaningful to someone else listening to it (or vice-versa). I certainly have my tastes and opinions about music, but I can’t pretend to be the ultimate judge of what is good (even regarding my own work); musical taste is about as subjective and personal as it gets. So right now I think I just want to try to throw a bunch of darts at the board and see what sticks.

So perhaps you’ve picked up on the fact that I am killing two birds with one stone with this blog post. My two failed musical missions (the art and critique of music) are now being resumed. I’ve shared a song (the art), and I’ve written about it (the critique). I should note that I am using critique in a very loose way for my purposes. I am not talking about a formal academic critique or music reviews. I reserve the right to do those things if I wish, but when I say the word critique in the context of this blog, I am really talking about simply writing about anything pertaining to music, and most often pertaining to my own musical life. I wish to use writing as a tool to explore and expand my musical life; perpetual writing prompts for myself are “what am I doing with music?” and “why am I doing it?”. Similar to my logic for sharing my recorded songs, I believe that sharing my musical life via writing will hold me publicly accountable to doing meaningful musical work.

I’ve recently picked up a small collection of Henry David Thoreau’s writings entitled “On Nature and Man.” In the section on aspiration, I read the following:

“Do a little more of that work which you have sometime confessed to be good, which you feel that society and your justest judge rightly demands of you. Do what you reprove yourself for not doing. Know that you are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with yourself without reason. Let me say to you and to myself in one breath, cultivate the tree which you have found to bear fruit in your soil.”

Writing words and music are truly what I reprove myself for not doing. When I am doing it, I am happier, and my whole world feels more complete; when I am not doing it, I feel I am missing something, and almost everything else feels either subtly or overtly like a distraction. Given my long history of not doing these things, I am honestly a bit skeptical that I will indeed continue to write music and keep a blog. Yet I know that I desire it more than anything right now and I know that I have the ability to do it. I pray that acknowledging these facts will push me towards doing what I know that I need to do— and if you see me in the street, feel free to give me a little push in that direction as well.

So everybody, this is my blog and so I can present myself however I want. The temptation is to conveniently omit all my warts and ulterior motives. But I don’t think doing this will ultimately help either myself or my readers as much as if I am being completely honest. Throughout this blog-post I’ve naturally been showing myself to be pretty noble in my pursuit of music, and indeed everything I’ve written above is true— part of me loves music in an utterly pure way. Yet I’d be lying if I said there weren’t vain and superficial reasons that I do what I do. Part of the reason I want to write music is that I think it is a cool thing to do, and I want to be a cool guy. My ego loves the identity of musical artist and I want you to love me for it too. The same is true for writing about music. I certainly care about what I write, but I also think it is cool that I write and love getting complimented by people who have enjoyed my writing. Being a musician, an artist, or a writer all fit perfectly with what I consider to be an attractive image, and perhaps even more dangerously, they seem to fit many other people’s idea of what is cool and attractive. If I am not careful and self-aware, I know that I can begin to love the image more than the substance (we’ve seen it happen before). The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. So again, if you see me in the street, and catch an all-too-princely pep in my step, feel free to tear me down a few notches with a swift verbal jab— not out of hate, but out of love for what I really am: just some dude.

Saturday, February 21:

With the end of our journey in sight, Piph, Paul, and I sat at breakfast and marveled at the many wonderful sights, sounds, and learning opportunities that this trip has offered us. For instance, our previous day in the village of Rebola, with it’s small makeshift houses, joyous children, and moving funeral march, had highlighted both what we’ve taken for granted in America (i.e. clean running water, air-conditioning, internet, transportation, education etc.) and what we dislike about America (i.e. isolation and lack of community). We all agreed that this trip had put things in perspective and made us see that there was little to complain about back home. Piph, the most experienced traveler of the group, explained that after similar musical expeditions to other countries, he realized that he did not want to associate with consistently negative people. Later at lunch, Corey echoed this sentiment by expressing that he did not want to simply return to the complacent doldrums that sometimes pervades the Little Rock music scene. We’ve seen people on this trip who are accomplishing so much more, with so much less money and resources than many of us back home. Indeed, talking to each band-member, I’ve realized that we’ve all experienced this trip as a reminder of how much more we believe we can do with our lives and our music. None of us feel that it is time to rest and pat ourselves on the back, but rather it is time to be even more proactive: to write, to record, to practice, to go back to school, to learn a new language, to volunteer, to fight against injustice and to become who we truly want to be.

In the afternoon, we drove to the French Cultural center to rehearse with some local rappers for the evening’s show. Though they had never heard our music before, five different MC’s were easily able to do rap verses over our songs. This and other rehearsals during this trip have served as evidence of how universal Hip-Hop has become. We haven’t had to teach anyone how to rap, perform, or represent Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop has been spreading around the world on its own for years now. From what I’ve seen, the tiny, obscure country of Equatorial Guinea, brimming with talented rappers and dancers, is a perfect example of this trend.

In the evening we enjoyed a delicious meal on the relaxing patio of the French Cultural Center —I had steak with creamy mushroom sauce, fried plantains, and San Miguel beer (a ubiquitous Spanish beer in Equatorial Guinea that I grew to love). After dinner, we shuffled in to the center’s concert hall and watched the main event of the evening: a two-on-two breakdance battle tournament! Dancers taunted each other with acrobatic flips, popping-and-locking, and incredible feats of strength and balance all to the beat of the DJ’s tracks. I tried to work on this tour diary from the balcony, but realized I couldn’t turn my eyes away from the amazing display of coordination, skill, and energy on the stage. Before the tournament’s winning team was announced, we took the stage to perform a short set. We heavily featured the local rappers we had rehearsed with earlier and the crowd (already worked up from the amazing dancing) was loud and supportive.

After the show and a brief rest at the hotel, we went out with Micheal and Piedad to partake of the local nightlife (wich Piedad explained is most enjoyed by people in Malabo between the hours of 1 and 7am). We went to a brightly lit bar, eccentrically decorated with roman pillars, paintings of Buddha/beautiful west African women, and all topped off with a green laser-light dancing on the ceiling. There we sampled local palm-wine, danced with Piedad, her sister, and their friends, and stayed out until our 3am curfew (imposed by our Embassy driver).

Sunday, February 22:

Today we luckily had plenty of time to sleep off the previous night’s party. Our first event was to meet with an Equatorial Guinean street-workout group called Barbarrio at 3pm (or 15 o’clock as I like to call it). We heard from five members of the group as well as the program’s organizer named Sese (pronounced “sesay”). We sat poolside at the hotel as Sese explained that Barbarrio’s purpose is much greater than providing fitness for young people— it is about acquiring skills like teamwork, communication, English, and discipline which will be useful for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, she explained that they execute their training within a Hip-Hop context— using minimal workout equipment and taking turns to improvise and perform rhythmic workouts to the beat of Hip-Hop songs. When we heard from the five teenage members of Barbarrio (speaking in their best English), the most common sentiments being expressed were that “Barbarrio is like a family,” and that “it is good to work out alone and be in shape, but it is much better when you do it with a group.” I responded by repeating the same ideas about music and our band: “of course it is good to play and practice alone, but it is best when you can make music with others,” and that indeed “over the course of this trip this band has become like a family.” After our discussion, they gave us an impressive demonstration of a typical workout which incorporated difficult pushup and parallel bar routines using our song “Untouchable” as the soundtrack. Next they encouraged us to get in on the workout and showed us different dips and core workouts that we tried out. At one point after a vigorous (and self-centered) workout synced up to my own guitar solo, I decided it was necessary that I jump in the pool with my jean shorts on (much to the chagrin of Michael, who was ready to escort us off to the next event). I went upstairs to change clothes so I missed Piph nearly completing a difficult 180 degree turn on the parallel bar (however, there is video of the attempt if anyone is extra interested).

We all got changed and went to have drinks and hors d’oeuvres with the kind Ambassadorial couple Mark and Jane Asquino, who hosted us at their large, modern home inside the US embassy. There we learned about their travels to central Asia, and talked to them about our musical and personal lives. They showed us pottery, clothes, and art they had collected around the world and we humorously attempted to play some of the African string and percussion instruments they displayed. The food was delicious, the drinks were generously poured, and the conversation was delightful. At one point, Paul exclaimed out of the blue something like “this is incredible, wow.” After we all exchanged warm goodbyes and gratitude, Paul explained outside that he became overwhelmed by the realization that his life could have been very different, but that certain choices (going away from home for college, devoting himself to drums, staying in Arkansas, etc.) had lead him to this wonderful moment we were all having together.

We returned to the hotel room for a poolside jam session at sunset with local Equatorial Guinean musicians. We began with a funky Afro-beat jam lead by local legend Alex Ikot on drumset and a talented young guitarist named Elvis-Bob. Another great hand-percussion player named Gafar played along while Corey and I listened and adapted our playing to the novel but infectious rhythms. Next an incredible young singer named Nelida Karr, who also happened to be married to Elvis, joined us on a West Africa infused rendition of Gershwin’s classic “Summertime.” Alex then summoned up the bass player for his band and we in tomorrow maybe took a refreshing moment to be the audience members for a stellar ensemble of musicians. Everyone played masterfully, joyfully, and tastefully as the band supported one of the best voices I have ever heard in person— Nelida sang with such precise control over her gorgeous full voice that it was difficult to believe that she is only 25! If you don’t believe me (and yes I have been accused of hyperbole from within the band), I have audio evidence of just how amazing this group was. After a few songs, we joined them again for a Hip-Hop jam with Nelida singing an improvised chorus between Piph’s freestyle rap verses. Unfortunately it began to rain so we had to pack up early, but I retired to my room with the rhythms and melodies of the evening still singing in my head.

Monday, February 23:

Our first order of business today was to check out the equipment we would be using for wednesday’s show at the Malabo Spanish Cultural Center. Similar to nearly every stop on our voyage, the equipment at the center was not quite up to the same standard as what we’re used to back home, yet by this time we were veterans of making due with what we’re given. Like many times before, Corey looked at his bass amp, surveyed the rest of the equipment, and uttered a resigned but confident “we’ll make it work.”

After our equipment check, we drove over to a vocational school in Maloba where we sat down for a talk with a large audience of young adults, all wearing lab coats (blue for students, and white for teachers). The enthusiastic crowd encouraged us with loud applause for seemingly every introduction and answer we gave. At one point we asked the audience if anyone knew what Hip-Hop is. Five or six students approached the front to give the answers, most of them replying something similar to “it is a way to express yourself and talk about the experience of being on the street,” yet everyone was especially impressed when one of the students confidently stated the four elements of Hip-Hop which Piph had been describing since day one of this trip: “Rap, DJ, Graffiti, and B-Boy.” We then invited some of the students to the front to showcase their own rap skill, and about six students took turns rapping while Paul made a beat on the table with his hands. Their was an interesting variety in both flow, demeanor, and lyrical content— we learned later from Michael (who understood the Spanish), that one young man was very positive and had thanked us for being here in his rap, whereas another took the opportunity to disparage and attack white people (and I clapped for that guy!). We finished the session with Piph rapping his own verse and a massive group picture with the students. We then got a chance to take a hard-hat tour of the facility where we saw students learning skills like metal-working, electronic engineering, wood carving, and cooking in preparation for good jobs that could support them for the rest of their lives. In a country marked by a huge disparity in wealth between the super elite and the poor, this school seemed to be a very good and potent drop in the bucket.

Next we packed up and departed for the airport in order to fly to the city of Bata on the mainland. We flew with the Equatorial Guinean airline Cieba Air, who conducted their airplane safety demonstration in Spanish and French. I’ve heard it all before so it didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand the words, but I realized that this was the first flight that I’ve ever been on that had no English language demonstration. This was a minor detail, but a major reminder of just how far away from home we were.

We were on the ground in Bata a mere thirty minutes after takeoff, and then checked in to the seaside Hotel Ibis. For dinner we went to the restaurant at the Bata Spanish Cultural Center where we would be performing the following night (Spain is still a major diplomatic influence in E.G. and has some of the finest facilities for cultural programming on both the island and the mainland). There we met with four foreigners who had been living and working in Bata— three of them were Spaniards working at the cultural center, and one was a young American consultant named Elsa who grew up in Mexico, but spent her senior year of high school in Dewitt Arkansas of all places! After expressing the appropriate level of amazement at this coincidence, I enjoyed getting to know her more and talking to her friend Quico, the Spanish Consul in Bata, over a delicious dinner of locally caught fish.

Tuesday, February 24:

Today Piph, Corey, and I conducted our morning workout outside on the wide walkway next to the Atlantic ocean. The oppressive heat and humidity of the tropical country made for perhaps our most intense and difficult workout yet— it took me an hour to stop sweating.

We met up again with Elsa for lunch at a Lebanese restaurant in town, and let her order us a large family style meal of hummus, baba ganoush, beef, chicken, salad, olives, bread, and a San Miguel beer for me. As we were waiting for our food Elsa described the excessively relaxed attitude of Equatorial Guinean waiters— “Once I ordered pizza at a restaurant and they then waited an hour before telling me they didn’t have pizza, and sometimes you’ll order one thing and they’ll just bring you something different.” Sure enough, right on cue the waiter brought me Heineken. Oh well, que sera, sera. The food was plentiful and delicious, and the restaurant owner insisted on treating us to some complimentary papaya and pineapple for dessert (E.G. has the best pineapple), which I washed down with a potent cup of Lebanese coffee.

We then went to a walled in orphanage which contained it’s own school and residence halls— if the children are not adopted at a young age, they are allowed to live and go to school here all the way up to high-school. The large campus was contained by tall stone walls, and on the inside

we saw playgrounds and many buildings which were pointed out to us as classrooms, residence halls, an auditorium, and more— though everything was a bit rundown, Elsa assured us that this was a nice facility for Bata. We met with some administrators of the school there, and although the principal seemed actually a little confused at our presence and definitely disappointed that we were not dancers, he quickly assembled a group of about 80 high-school age students for us to talk to and interact with underneath the shade of a large outdoor covering. We sat down in front of them, with Elsa and Pieadad strategically placed amongst us to do the translating. We introduced ourselves, gave the background of our band and Hip-Hop (expertly translated by Elsa), and then began to ask and field questions. Although shy at first, they told us which American Hip-Hop artists they liked (Eminem, Lil Wayne, Tupac), repeated back the four elements of Hip-Hop, and by the end of the talk some of them had sufficiently loosened up enough to try their hand at freestyle rapping— the crowd favorite was a teenager who didn’t really rap or freestyle, he just repeated the phrase “chopina, chopina, chopina!” to which the crowd shouted back “chopin!” (this was both hilarious and awesome). Next, at the request of the students, Piph rapped a verse to his song “Untouchable” while Paul held his phone speaker up to a megaphone and played the instrumental track out loud. The crowd of students erupted and we were all consumed by swarms of picture takers and and autograph seekers (I apologize to the girls whose shirts we signed— I know that seemed like a good idea at the time). Even Michael, Pieded, and Elsa were asked for pictures and autographs (which they of course obliged).

After numerous unsuccessful attempts to make it back to the car un-photographed, we finally rounded up everyone and drove off to do some brief souvenir shopping. We found a street-side trinket dealer and Elsa helped us all haggle and procure bracelets, carved wooden animals, necklaces, coasters, and bowls. Piph and I also dipped into the grocery store across the street and purchased some Cuban Rum and Italian Wine.

After the shopping spree we drove to the Spanish Cultural Center to check out the equipment and rehearse with local rappers. We’d gotten very good at this routine by now, so it didn’t take us long to conduct the soundcheck and work the two Batan rappers into our act. We booked it back to the hotel in the bullet-proof Ambassadorial SUV that had been our conveyance around Bata, rested, refreshed, and prepared for the nights show. We arrived thirty minutes before showtime and were met with a massive empty room— not a single audience member. We set up and then waited backstage, anticipating a sorry show. Yet, the day was saved when a group of about thirty teenage girls (students from the school we visited earlier), showed up and filled the seats— soon after even more people showed up so that by showtime, we stood before a very decent audience. We had planned on playing a slightly shorter set, but the crowd was so into it that we ended up playing all of our songs. Elsa took the stage in her rock-star attire and helped us conduct the crowd-participation portions of the show, teaching the audience to sing our song “Feel Alright,” telling them to shout “hey!” along to the chorus of “Something to Tell Ya,” and inviting any dancers to the stage for the song “Chills.” The latter made for the highlight of the show: about a dozen young audience members on stage dancing along as we watched and played— Elsa even stayed on stage with us to bust a few moves (“I see you Elsa!”).

Feeling hot and high after the fun show, we were met with a shocking surprise when we found out that someone had tried to break into the Ambassador’s SUV during the show. This was a lousy attempt at criminality on a couple levels: for one, our driver Diosdado was standing right there watching the whole thing unfold; for two, the would-be robber tried to break bullet-proof glass with a crowbar (poor guy barely scratched the surface). We didn’t want to wait for the police to show up, so we went to Quico’s nearby apartment, dropped our equipment off, and walked on to the (possibly) famous “Freedom Tower” for dinner in a revolving Italian restaurant (which we requested they stop revolving because it was making us sick).

Despite being the only customers in the restaurant, the service was textbook Equatorial Guinean (slow and inconsistent) and the long wait time afforded me more opportunity to get to know Elsa. She described the culture shock of arriving in Dewitt, Arkansas for her senior year of high school, where at 18 years old she suddenly lost the privileges of drinking and going clubbing and gained an overly-protective host-mother and a school ripe with racial tension. Despite encountering a slew of real life negative Arkansan stereotypes, she did manage to make friends there and even visited Hot Springs last year to be a bridesmaid in one of her Dewitt best friends weddings— it was at this wedding that Elsa met our one mutual friend/acquaintance: Claire Nichols (shout out to you).

When our food finally came, I was proud to be part of the only group of Americans eating dinner at an Equatorial Guinean revolving Italian restaurant. After dinner we continued our unique journey by being the only people to hang out in the club downstairs— the bartender roped us into staying with some free tequila shots. We busted some brief moves on the empty dance floor, which was surrounded by mirrors on the walls; Elsa explained that this was because in many central African clubs women will dance facing the mirror, watching and waiting for acceptable dance partners to approach them. We all drank another drink and continued to discuss the peculiarities of life in Equatorial Guinea until it was time to depart for some much needed sleep. This will not be news to my bandmates, but I admit to being reluctant to part with Elsa.

Wednesday, February 25:

Today we flew back to the island of Malabo for our final show of the tour. Did I admit to being reluctant to part with Elsa? I have met some very impressive and inspiring people on this journey and she is certainly near the top of them. She is a consultant working on development in Equatorial Guinea, much needed because the country’s massive oil wealth sits in the hands of the elite minority, leaving over 70% of the citizens to live on $2 a day. Despite it being an underdeveloped country lacking in western comforts like running water, electricity, air-conditioning, and internet, whose citizens can be cold and distrusting of foreigners, Elsa chose to go to E.G. because her work is needed there and she believes her work could actually make a positive difference in people’s lives. She lives and works in a harsh reality, yet amazingly maintains an extremely upbeat demeanor— when I asked her how she manages to be so happy in such difficult circumstances, she said one of the most beautiful sentiments I’ve heard during the trip: “I just make my own sunshine.” Time and time again on this trip have I been humbled to meet people either with less wealth or heavier burdens (often both) than I, who nonetheless have truly learned the art of happiness and continue to live and work hard.

After landing back in Malabo, we had nearly a full day to rest and recover before our show. I took the opportunity to sit by the pool and work on this tour diary, punctuating my paragraphs with dives into the water; I stayed there long enough to work up a nice sunburn.

Around 6:00pm we again arrived at the Spanish Cultural Center and conducted a brief set up and sound-check. Corey, Paul, and I then went and had cake and coffee at the restaurant, and enjoyed watching a Barbarrio street-workout unfold before our eyes— this time there were about 25 Babarrio boys and girls (I was happy to see that the group is co-ed) taking turns doing various incarnations of pushups, pull-ups, and dips. Backstage we grouped together and prepared for our final show in Africa. Everyone was loose and ready to put on a great show, continuing a running joke which began at our first show in the Equatorial Guinean heat that we were all going to perform shirtless. Babarrio opened up the show with a ten-minute workout routine set to music; after each person completed a difficult set of maneuvers Nelson, the strong 17 year old leader of Barbarrio, would shout “Uno, Dos, Tres!” and the rest would answer “Barbarrio!” When they completed their whole demonstration he again shouted “Uno, Dos, Tres!” but this time Nelson’s countdown was met with “Big Piph and Tomorrow Maybe!”

We played a loud energetic show to a nearly packed house, relishing playing a show we had perfected over the course of the month. Multiple times I looked around at my bandmates to see them either dancing, smiling, or both. Gone was any self-consciousness attempt to be more or less Hollywood than the other— we were all in this together, and we played one of our best shows of the tour. When it came time for our boisterous closer “Untouchable,” I saw Dre and Piph really considering taking off their sweat drenched shirts. I’ve been of the “give me an inch and I’ll take a mile” mentality for much of this trip, so I went ahead and stripped my shirt off right there in front of the foreign audience (which the Ambassador was sitting in no less), and before I even had time to turn around, Dre had followed suit… then Piph… then Paul. Corey just sunk his head— “are these guys really doing this!?” I read clearly on his face. Halfway through the first verse and Corey had (halfway) followed suit, lifting his shirt above his head, and by the second verse he had reluctantly completed his unveiling. There we were, Big Piph and Tomorrow Maybe, valiant, sweaty, shirtless, American. At the end of the song, encouraged by the rest of the band, I stretched my unaccompanied closing solo well past the limit of tasteful length and dropped in a Star-Spangled Banner quote for good measure. For me, this was absolutely the most fun show of the tour, because after a month of playing, laughing, and working everyday together, it was the most connected we felt as a band.

We made it back to the hotel in time for one more buffet dinner at the “Teatra” restaurant that had become so familiar to us over the course of our Equatorial Guinean stay. We ate and joked around with the hotel staff who had greatly warmed up to us during our week there, and halfway through dinner we were joined by our friend and Barbarrio organizer Sese Site. She passionately pleaded with us to not simply make this a one time trip to E.G.— “what you have done here has been positive, but you need to follow up again and again. The youth here have a lot of pain and frustration below the surface, and they need help finding constructive community activities like workouts and music. You could have a huge impact here.” Piph then explained that while we would like to help, our program (AMA) sent us here as a one time occurrence, and we do not have the money to come back here on our own. Furthermore, we can only help if there are people here in Equatorial Guinea who will be proactive in any potential program and who want us to help. Yet in the end we all agreed that we would try to find a way to continue our exchange with the Equatorial Guinean youth and would absolutely look for grants and programs that would allow us to return.

After dinner, we all went to the hotel bar (Piph, Paul, Dre, Corey, Piedad, and I) to have a final celebratory drink together. Dre and I ordered beers, but we were all a little turned off by the high price of drinks at the bar, so Piph went to retrieve the Cuban rum I had bought the night before and the young bartender kindly let us use glasses from the bar to pour our own booze in. I poured us all healthy portions of rum, and we took turns contributing to a massive band toast: “here’s to the being in Africa!” … “here’s to a great experience, and many more in the future” … “here’s to having the best possible band—there are other great musicians out there, but I don’t even want to look for them”… “ditto!” … “here’s to not really knowing you guys at all before this trip, but now considering you some of my best friends” … “CHEERS!” Piph, Corey, and I went in for a sip, but saw Dre and Paul take the whole cup down, so the three of us followed suit. Despite tossing back a healthy two shots each, we were all pleasantly surprised by the smoothness of the Havana Club rum (something we’ll hopefully all get to enjoy soon in America). We finished the bottle while marveling at the many amazing sights we’d seen, the wonderful people we’d met, and the amazing fact that the five us had spent 25 consecutive days together working and playing and that there had been absolutely no drama or flare ups between us. This was a special journey.

 

Thursday, February 26:

Today our flight back home didn’t leave until night time, so it made sense to our program organizers to have us do a couple more talks before we left. Logically I understood this, but the fact was that after a great last show and a rum-drenched late night recap of our journey, we were prepared to fly back home and start afresh in Little Rock, carrying the lessons we learned with us. It seemed like the scheduled events resonated with our tour fatigue. The first was a talk at the university in Malabo with an English class, where neither the students nor the teacher (nor us for that matter) seemed to know what we were doing there. We dragged through the conversation, took a picture, and left confused. The second event was another talk with an English class for all ages in the English quarter of town. Here they were better prepared for us and we had a pleasant talk about music and life in America, yet all of us knew that we were ready for the flight home. Finally we ate a delicious dinner of American sized portions of pizza, chicken wings, cordon bleu, burgers, and pasta at a nearby restaurant and went on to the airport. We began our return journey at 9pm Equatorial Guinean time, flew to Paris, then to Detroit, and finally arrived in Little Rock around 5pm Friday evening (central standard time). We were seven hours ahead in E.G. so you can do the math on how long this voyage actually took (I don’t want to think about it).

Afterword:

I think if you re-read this diary (I’m certainly not suggesting you do that), you would find that the most frequently used word was “experience.” I’ve used it as a verb, adjective, and noun countless times, and that word once again is the one that best sums up my time here: I’ve experienced three different countries, eleven different cities/towns, dozens of beautiful sights, and hundreds of impactful people; I come home with a deeper knowledge of the world— I am truly more experienced; and I can honestly say that this was the best experience of my life.

I know that if you asked the other members of the band they would affirm how meaningful this trip was. Yet what is fascinating is that while the magnitude of the trip’s effect on us was similar, the character of the trip’s effect was different for each of us: for one, it reaffirmed and energized his current path; for another, it revealed people and things he needed to let go of in order to progress; for another it showed him how fortunate he was, and made clear that he needed to hold on to someone special; for another it cut through the superficial stressors of American life and showed him that people are what is most important; and for another it showed him the true purpose of musical performance and what the future should look like.

I want to offer my sincerest gratitude to American Voices, the State Department, Marc, Bahri, JJ, Ida, Fatma, Selma, Michael, Piedad, Elsa, Sese, Epiphany, Corey, Dre, Paul, our sound engineers along the way, the many artists we worked with, and all the wonderful Moroccans, Algerians, and Equatorial Guineans that we met along the way for helping make this such an amazing journey.