Bob's Long Long Long bio page III

Arriving in LA in late afternoon on October 17 1989, just about the time of the Loma Prieta earthquake with seven cents, my dog Elva, a change of clothes, a cassette demo of recordings I'd engineered, and a blanket, my van-dwelling friend dropped me off at the house where I'd been invited to stay and drove off. I knocked on the door of the large, dilapidated house, one of the few which still stood, amidst the mostly empty lots, and was met by my friend who nervously whispered to me to hide in the bushes alongside the porch because the landlord, who did not care for strangers, had unexpectedly turned up. Elva and I hid there in the overgown shrubs - Plumbago, Oleander, Jasmine, Bouganvilliea, Bird of Paradise...strange, colorful and fragrant plants I had never known before! After the landlord left, my friend brought me in. The feeling of desperation and danger in this barren house was palpable, I think it was a trap house. Obviously I wasn't going to be able to stay, but I have a few good stories from my couple of days there, which I'll try to tell some other time!

In another adventure too long to type for now, I made my way to the apartment of another ex-Denver friend, who was some miles away, in the Los Feliz area. As I had no money and nowhere to go, she reluctantly agreed to let me sleep on the couch for a few days. There, I compiled the addresses and phone numbers of dozens of recording studios in Hollywood, Burbank and Glendale, which a map showed me were all relatively easy walking distance from Los Feliz. The first one on the list was Echo Sound, practically around the corner, so I walked over there. The manager showed me around, I gave him a copy of my demo cassette and phone number of my friend's apartment. When I returned there to pick up my notebook and carry on visiting studios, the phone rang. It was the guy from the studio I'd just been to. Would I be available for a session that afternoon?

I arrived early enough to at least see where they kept the microphones and cables and so on, tuned up the tape machine, and was ready. This first session was with a rapper, Gerardo. I knew that rap music existed, but I'd never yet heard any and knew nothing about it. I almost think it was because I had no preconceptions about how it was supposed to sound that I did a really good job on that first session! We finished for the day, the producer shook my hand and said see you tomorrow same time.

That was that, I had a paying engineering gig. Next I needed my own place. I saw the FOR RENT sign one of those atmospheric 1930's apartments there off Los Feliz, just at the bottom of the hill from Griffith Park, 20 minutes walk from the studio. The manager was there, a bent little old guy with one eye, he showed me around. We talked for a while. He liked me, and my dog Elva too, and let me move in without paying anything in advance, just a promise that I’d pay part of the required sum every Friday until paid up.

OK, something funny was up. I had paying engineering work for the first time in my life, at the first studio I walked into, on the same day. A nice apartment, the first and only one I visited, without paying a penny in advance. This, after years of hoping I'd find a few coins on the street or under the chair cushion (where I'd already looked ten times). My studio earnings were about average for an engineer of my skill and experience in the early 1990's, but for me it was unreal to have that constant wondering how (or IF) I'd pay the rent, or get a next meal, suddenly lifted. It was so different from how I'd lived the previous ten years there came a moment I had to consciously accept it. This happened a week or two after I'd settled in to the apartment. It was November now, warm and pleasant, walking to Griffith Park with my dog Elva when I felt a strange sensation, a paranormal thrill, and felt a constricting cloud of hard times, still clinging to me from Denver, palpably dissolving, like barnacles suddenly drying up and falling off. I stopped in my tracks, it was such a definite sensation. Dim, shadowy clumps detaching from my arms, my legs, and dissipating like tattered grey fog. Those hard times were over.
Note: I'm not telling this story to appear as if I'm special or want to be congratulated, rather because I hope it might encourage other broke, hungry, dedicated artists to keep at it no matter how tough it gets, 10, 20 years, whatever it takes.

There in LA I had as much work as I wanted, and some of better-known people I worked with included Norman Whitfield, Ice Cube, Lily Tomin, George Clinton, Quincy Jones II, Shirley MacLaine, Charo...the photo here shows me engineering something in 1990 at Echo Sound with bassist Abe Laboriel.

Even thought it was over 30 years ago as of this writing (December 2022), I am often still asked such things as "What was it like working with those big stars?" Won't be easy to sum it up succintly but here are some thoughts:

Not to belittle the experience, but it was my job. Sessions were booked by the studio, it might be a three week block-booked session with a popular "star". It might be a young local rapper or songwriter who saved up enough to book two hours in order to make their first demo. It might be a Thai producer with 60 songs to mix ("Just pick any and please a lot of reverb".) Some were a lot of fun and I always looked forward to the next time they'd come in. Some were brilliant, really had talent, skill and experience, and also recognized my skills, and ability to grasp what they were doing without the need to explain anything. All were treated by me with the same respect and it didn't matter whether or not I "liked" what they were doing, if they were wolrd-famous or totally unknown. A very small proportion had some chip on their shoulder, and seemingly to impress their friends and hangers-on, treated any engineer or studio staff as replaceable drones just there to do their bidding, I wouldn't work with that sort a second time. Overall it didn't really matter, I was doing a job in order to utilize and improve my skills, learn more about my craft, and to pay my rent. It was never my intention to keep doing those LA sessions forever, it was a good step along the road towards my eventually being able to spend all my time on finding my own music, and not starve in the process!

Sometime in 1990 I had a call from one David Kerman, who lived in LA and knew me from the Thinking Plague albums, inviting me over to listen to his music. Also present was keyboardist Sanjay Kumar. The music they played me was 5UUs and U-Totem, neither of which I had heard of until then. We shared a lot of musical interests and got on really well, they asked if I'd do some things with them: first was engineering and mixing a couple of new tracks for a U-Totem album, which I did (One Nail Draws Another and The Judas Goat), and then if I'd be interested in doing a new 5UUs record with them as a trio. We’d get started on that a year or so later.

While in the studio mixing The Judas Goat with Dave and Sanjay, there was something wrong with the bass part in the opening of the song, it wasn't useable as it was. I said the quickest thing would be if I just played it myself, so I took the studio’s old Fender bass, plugged it right into the mixing desk, and did it. I remember Dave and Sanjay instantly looking at each other in apparent astonishment, exclaiming almost in unison: “HE HAS THE FUCK YOU ATTITUDE!” I presumed that was a compliment, put the bass down and carried on mixing.

As mentioned back on page one, I'd been obsessed by anthropomporphic animals all my life, this has never waned. Though never having serious artistic pretensions, I sketched and drew these imaginary creatures nearly every day, but rarely showed them to anyone, mostly because of the frequent auto/homoerotic element. Thoughout the 70's and 80's I was actually afraid my musical friends would shun me because of that! (One must recall my growing up in a very small conservative town, Catholic parents, queer-bashin' tough guys at warehouses and factories I worked at..I'd learned to keep quiet.) Now that I was in a new town where nobody knew me, it was a fresh start, and I was well tired of "staying in the closet!" I knew others would enjoy my drawings, but how to make them available? I found the answer a few blocks down the road from my apartment, at the Amok Books store on North Vermont.

There, just inside the shop was a table, covered with stacks of photocopied/stapled "zines", a world I had only been vaguely aware of until then. Plenty of extreme or unusual subject matter, very inspiring! I went home and put together a photocopy zine of my most explicit drawings, left some there at Amok, and sent one to Factsheet 5ive, a publication I'd also found at Amok, which reviewed and listed zines along with the maker's contact information. Before long a few people wrote and ordered a copy. The first who did so also asked me if I was going to the "furry convention” later that year in LA. I had no idea what he meant, but I wrote back: “Yes!..what is it?!" In his next letter he explained it was an annual gathering of people interested in anthropomorphic animals, or "furries", in all their aspects: historical and mythical, in art, comics, literature, puppeteering, animated cartoons, film, costumes, all of that. Most members of this "furry community" were artists themselves, from beginners to very experienced. Sounded like my kind of thing so I did attend. (If you want to know more about the furry community, the Wikipedia entry is actually not a bad starting place.)

Back to my first con: though I knew no one else in this community yet, as soon as I arrived and saw all these colourful, creative people having a great time, perused the art show and the home-made crafts and books in the dealer's room, I was definitely a part of this. The next year I brought some of my drawings along, showed them around to general amusement and appreciation, and began many lasting friendships. My art made something of a splash for a couple of years in the mid-90's too, because it was different from the typical furry art of the day: my characters were decidely untidy, usually overweight, and seemed quite happy with that. And though not lacking in "attitude", they had a friendly vibe. Some say I even spawned a genre: "fatfurs"!

Jumping ahead a few years: once I was living in France, I began attending furry conventions in Europe and the UK, and occasionally the US, every year between 1994 and 2016, wonderful, creative, very social events which were a highlight of every year. In 2007, thanks to some well-paying engineering work, I commissioned my fursuit head from costume maker Alexis Rudd, which she made from my own sketches. It looks exactly like them! Maggie Thomas and I made the body, and I took the suit along to conventions up until 2016. Since then the travel and hotels have became too expensive for me. I've performed in the fursuit with Knifeworld and Thinking Plague, The Multiverts, and took part in two or three local events here in the neighborhood around Caudeval when a (sortof) polar bear was needed. Since around 2017 I don't suit in public anymore, only at home and for my own videos.

I still make visual art now and then, an activity enjoyable itself, and it's one of the few things I can do while also listening to and enjoying music at the same time! Recent projects include the Beastley Manor cards and the Packs of Soft Animals, both done in 2019, and I post the occasional sketch to a popular furry "social media" site.

Where were we...early 90's, back to the studio: though sessions in LA kept me as busy as I wanted to be, paid the bills, and the 5UUs album with Dave and Sanjay was sporadically underway, my priority was to find my own music. In all my previous musical life I worked with songwriters, the first in the mid '70s, my now deceased pal Mark Bradford in Kankakee Illinois. They were “Christian rock” songs but they were his own, he got us frequent gigs, and liked what I did on the bass. Later there were bands with Lin Esser, Bruce Odland, Susanne Lewis, Mike Johnson, all songwriters who always had ideas to show me, something for me to get to work on. Now that I was far away from all of them and starting afresh, it was time to try writing songs by myself. Didn't know if I could!

To get started I bought a second-hand 4-track cassette recorder, plugged my electric guitar into it and started messing about... to my surprise, catchy ideas came quickly, and I'd soon organised some into my first songs. While they naturally tended to be a bit “funny”, or as others have said “off-kilter", some had a slight country-ish and even old-timey quality. I had never paid much attention to that kind of music before, so those hints turning up in my first songs seemed a bit mysterious and exciting. That lead me to go out to record shops (I could afford that now!) and discover the universe of country, bluegrass, the Southern California studio “hillbilly music”, contemporary banjo...all of which contributed ideas to my early songwriting and inspired me to play the electric guitar in a banjo-like fingerpicking style, which some have mistaken for banjo on my first couple of albums. (I didn't have a banjo until around 2003.)

I should explain at this point that although I had played guitar since the 70's, it was always a secondary thing for me. I considered myself a bassist first, then a drummer. In the 80's my guitar playing was mostly "prepared guitar" and noisy improvisation, some examples on the first Thinking Plague album are the solo in I Do Not Live, and all the guitars on A Light Is On And Name The World. It wasn't until 1991 when I started trying to write songs that I ended up becoming "a guitarist", and still feel funny describing myself as one!

So by late 1991 I had my collection of embryonic songs, all with a melody for the vocal. To try my own voice for the first time I scribbled a few lines of any old words and sang them. Listening back it sounded awful clunky at first, some typical first-time-singer habits which I quickly weeded out, kept at it and added some harmonies, didn't sound too bad though definitely not "album-quality" yet! I wasn't completely inexperienced at singing, I'd always sung and arranged vocal harmonies in bands, but it's the blend of voices that matters in that case, quite different from being the ONLY voice. Another thing helped me while getting started - I was picking up a lot of good singing tips while engineering sessions for several excellent vocal producers. Two that stand out for me were Norman Whitfield and Hil Davis. Being the engineer, sitting at the recording console literally in-between the producer standing behind me and the singer on the other side of the glass in front, it's a perfect position from which to quietly observe and learn.

In 1991 I moved to a little house with a small garden in Burbank. My dog Elva died shortly thereafter, and some months later at the Burbank animal shelter I adopted a little coyote-dog I called Hank. We loved taking long walks on the dusty trails in Griffith Park, he would later come with me to France, and lived to the ripe old age of 17. His barks can be heard on some of my albums!

In late 1991, while carrying with freelance engineering sessions and my first solo album, Chris Cutler proposed a European tour with Hail, the group consisting of Susanne Lewis and myself. His label ReR had released our album Turn of the Screw in 1989 and later Kirk in 1992. His idea was that he'd play the drums, we’d get a second guitarist Bill Gilonis, I'd play bass and Susanne guitar and singing. This 4-piece Hail toured in 1992 and once again in '93. There are some videos from the 1993 tour on Youtube, here and here.

Arriving in London for the first Hail tour, it would be the first time Chris and I met in person so I was a bit nervous. I knocked on the door, he let me in and immediately ran off do something in the kitchen, me still standing in the doorway. I never drink wine, don't care for it (it's beer or nothing for me) but was so nervous, when he returned and offered me a glass of wine a minute later, I took it and actually drank it! He went back to the kitchen. I stood about and had a look at the bookshelf: MR James, HP Lovecraft, Arthur Machen...all my favourite weird fiction authors! That broke the ice and we were soon like old pals chatting about our favourite stories.

The sound engineer on the tour was Maggie Thomas, who had been Henry Cow's live engineer, and as part of Recommended Records had made many of the label’s album covers including my favourite, the Art Bears Hopes and Fears. Chris, Maggie and I got on very well, and while talking about this and that on the tour, the subject of the old farmhouse in Southern France they had purchased years before came up. Before long, I mean probably the next sentence, we were talking about fixing it up and putting some recording gear there so we could work on our own projects and record bands we liked. We would talk more about this a year later. In short, it was my first time in Europe and it already felt like home..

Back in LA, throughout 1991-93, Dave, Sanjay and I carried on sporadically recording what would become Hunger’s Teeth. Once we had all the instruments for the first couple of songs recorded, it was time to find a singer. They didn’t want to ask the ones they already knew, Susanne Lewis lived 3000 miles away, I wasn’t prepared to volunteer and didn’t know any singers in LA who would be into “that” kind of music. Wanting to get it done without waiting around too much longer, we decided we’d each do a take singing the first part of “Well...Not Chickenshit” and based on that decide who should be assigned the job.

Dave went first, and probably wasn’t even really trying because he knew he wasn’t going to do it. (probably to make the rest of think we sounded good in comparison!) Sanjay was next. He correctly and politely “hit the right notes”, that’s about all we could say. James Grigsby was there, because he’d just done his guitar solo on the song, so we made him try it too.
As an engineer, I’d learned to keep a poker face, not react to unintentionally funny or horrendous performances, so I kept my cool, but Dave and Sanjay were actually on the floor laughing. James was not elected. Next up was me, I shouted out the first part, they liked it, then I did it screaming an octave above, pretended to sing the next bit like Jon Anderson, and we all had to agree, out of the four attempts, mine was “best”. Was I ready to be “the singer” in this new band? Definitely not. So I got the job.

Somewhere in 1993 I finished the vocals and mixed Hunger's Teeth, then it sat on the shelf for a while. Hail did their second European tour so Maggie, Chris and I carried on talking about getting the house in France (La Borde Basse) set up and habitable - it had stood empty many years, not good for an old house! And since Dave and I had been talking about making another 5UUs album, I suggested a plan: he and I would go to the big empty house, borrow Maggie's microphones and mixing desk, we'd all pool our money and buy an Alesis ADAT (8-track recorder which used VHS tape), record a new 5UUs album, and during that time I’d decide if I wanted to stay there or carry on living and working in LA. Maggie and Chris liked the plan.

When I got back to LA I presented the idea to Dave and Sanjay, they loved it, Dave especially. We could even get my big Kustom bass cabinet flown from LA to France - Sanjay worked for FedEx at the time, 75% discount!
Meanwhile I got back to work on my solo album.

Despite having been encouraged by Mike Johnson many times in the past to write lyrics (I used to invent and tell weird little tales about the places and landscapes around us when we’d go hiking together) I’d never tried it, but once I got going, words came along quickly. I played my first songs to Dave Kerman, he liked them so I asked him to drum on a few.

The months rolled by, I carried on recording at home on 4-track, and finished it up at Studio Dee, where Hunger’s Teeth had also been recorded. In 1994 I pressed 1000 copies of my first solo album What Day Is It? myself, and 5UUs Hunger's Teeth was released the same year by Recommended Records.

Must have been late 1993 that Mike Johnson came from Denver to Burbank, and he, Dave Kerman, Sanjay and I worked out a new piece of music meant to be the first for a brand-new band, with - this old story again! - an as-yet-unknown singer. We had a great couple of days at my house arranging the song and then recording the instruments, Mike went back home, and it was soon evident that nothing more was going to happen, with that pesky 1000+ miles between LA and Denver, not to mention my main interest by now was in pursuing my own music. In addition, Mike began referring to this new band as Thinking Plague again, but my interest in being a Plague person had run out a year previously, by the time I'd finished the Etude for Organism recording. It seemed a shame to leave this new piece unfinished though, so I wrote some lyrics, sang them, mixed it, and that was that. Five years later, Mike included it as This Weird Wind on Thinking Plague’s In Extremis album, along with Etude for Organism.

After finishing Weird Wind I told Mike I was officially severing myself from the Plague, which I thought would be best for both of us - I could concentrate on my own music, which was what I really wanted to do, and he could carry on with Plague in a fresh new way. Since this voluntary severance, I’ve mixed several Plague albums and have sat in at gigs drumming in my fursuit a couple of times.

Later in 1993, my friend Bruce Odland, who had been doing sound design for director Peter Sellars' productions, got me the gig as half of the live sound mixing team for Sellars' adaptation of The Persians, which played in in LA, London, Berlin and Paris.

While the theatre company moved from Berlin to Paris, I had a few days off so I travelled to Bern to see U-Totem, who were in the midst of a tour. My 5UUs compatriots Dave Kerman and Sanjay Kumar were in the band, and Maggie Thomas was the sound engineer. (it was a brilliant show by the way!) There, I learned that Dave had decided to go through with our plan – he was going to La Borde Basse after the tour, to stay there and write for the new 5UUs album. The U-Totem tour finished, he and Maggie drove down and got the house opened up, electricity and phone turned on, the worst of the leaks patched, etc, then Maggie returned to Rotterdam where she was living at the time. Dave stayed at la Borde Basse, writing the material which would become Crisis in Clay. In December, when The Persians tour finished in Paris, I returned to LA, Maggie flew over shortly thereafter and helped me move out of my rented house, and put my belongings into storage.

Next came a European tour with the EC Nudes: Amy Denio, Wadi Gysi, me and Chris Cutler, with Maggie on live sound. (some videos: here and here) and during a break in the tour, Chris, Maggie and I drove from Bern to La Borde Basse, to see how Dave was getting on (no internet or mobiles in those days!) and also so I could get my first look at the place. Dave was doing great and had a lot of new song demos recorded on his 4-track cassette. The Nudes tour finished, after which I returned to LA, this time just to pick up my dog Hank and a few other things I still had in storage there, gave away the rest, flew back to France, to La Borde Basse, where we stayed.

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