Music has been there all along. Through the addictions, the mushrooms, the sold-out hometown shows, the first time on the radio, the gig posters, the best friends, the broken marriage, the chipped teeth, the muggings, the pistol whippings, the grumpy sound men, the tours, the shitty bands, the great bands, the one night stands, the record deals, the money, the drops from the label, the smashed guitars, the broken bones, the bee-bees in the mouth, the van surfing, the tinnitus. the re-writes, the shows to one person. the shows to 2000 people, the who’s who, the darlings. the nobodies.
This story of chaos, sadness, ambition and more sadness, which spans a few decades, would take a book to write and might not be very good. It certainly wouldn’t be original. But it would be true, and could possibly even help someone else. I have always said that my career in music reads like the perfect cliche. That is because I am a terribly slow learner. Yes, touch the flame, it’s hot, that kind of thing. No, it’s not a very fun way to live. I think Conor Oberst sums it up pretty well in Lua, “It’s not something I would recommend, but it is one way to live.”
I am not Conor Oberst. I could only wish to have the self-awareness he had at 21, at my current age of 41. But that’s what my journey has been about: self-knowledge. I can honestly say that I was a card-carrying indie-rocker in the late 90’s and early 2000’s in a very awesome Portland, Oregon, with The Dandy Warhols in full swing, Modest Mouse, The Shins, Death Cab, Built to Spill, Menomena, Helio Sequence, The Turn-Ons, and the list just goes on and on. I thought I needed a Marshall stack to sound good, to have “over-tones” so I borrowed a couple thousand bucks from my best friend, Mike Facchini and I bought one. Because I did everything impulsively, as hard as I could, for as long as I could, as fast as I could, with just enough musical talent to get by. Thing is, it can only be so long before that kind of mentality puts you headlong into a very thick wall.
I feel like I’m telling on myself when I say that, revealing some kind of fraud, but I’ve come to realize it is part of my story. Yes, my band Stars of Track and Field became very successful, but that was because of Jason Bell, Daniel Orvik Tony Lash, Kyra Reed, Lance Miller, Jamie Coolie (a DJ for KNRK who’s no longer with us, bless her soul), Alicia Rose, Mike Souza, and countless other folks who propped the band up, time and time again…over and over. Those days were fucking thrilling. We were a scene. All I had to do was show up.
Eventually, after re-locating the entire operation to New York, many national tours, opening gigs for huge acts, playing Conan’s and placing songs on all kinds of television shows, the band had run it’s course. We ran out of oxygen. The friendships, at least the ones I thought I had, were gone. Dried up on the vine. There’s no reason to try and place blame, I guess. It’s hard to distinguish it these days, because it was a long time ago, but I sure the fuck had something to do with it. I had also, in the haze of alcohol, chosen the pursuit of pleasure and the lustful life of being alone, over my first marriage. This was a moment that travels with me to this day, and likely always will. I sum it up as saying, “I lost a loved-one.”
That’s when sobriety entered the picture, yes indeed, the cliche continues. It didn’t come in and make sense immediately. It was a fucking alien. Sobriety is a different planet to an alcoholic. Everything is re-learned. The spaces are all wrong. The people are stick figures with fangs and the inside of your mind is a beehive. I have a big blue book with the name Pete inscribed in it and a phone number. I got it from a guy in midtown Manhattan a decade ago. I still want to call him, check in, but I fear he might be dead. That’s the nature of this business, and only half of us make it.
On the Wing:
I haven’t had a drink in seven years, and my mind is just starting to clear. The selfishness is beginning to pale and reveal what is beginning to feel like empathy and self dignity. I have a beautiful wife, who supports me beyond my wildest dreams, and a daughter who is more precious than water. They are my everything, my happiness, my satisfaction, my orbit.
Out of the Blue:
So what the fuck am I talking about? Well, a long time ago, Gregg Wattenburg who at the time was head of A&R at Wind-Up records, told me I needed to get in touch with my feelings. We were working on the second verse of “End of All Time” (which to this day remains the best pop song I’ve ever written, and likely would have blown the band up, but they released the wrong single) and he told me I needed to get in touch with my feelings. He pissed me off that day, but he was right. My lyrics were all about the equator and helicopters and shit, and I thought they were spot on. The fact is, given the amount of pain and anguish I had just walked through, my lyrics were trite, cryptic, veiled and distant if not downright nonsense. I’ve always had trouble with this aspect of writing, you know, the writing, and I’ve opted for the cryptic over the intimate. But what I found was that cryptic has no shelf life. Cryptic can’t be re-heated.
This is where the next cliche comes in. Through the work and the honesty, the self-inquisition and the forgiveness, I’ve been able to become closer to my center. To get to the inside of my inside. If I was actually the douche bag I had turned into back in the mid 2000’s, than I don’t think I would have made it out alive. But I did. I spent a few nights in jail. I worried my family sick, and I hurt a lot of people, but it wasn’t in vain. I’ve been able to tease apart my ego, my big massive hairy ego, from my actual mind. That’s been very useful thus far. I don’t have to react with fear and anger, because I can pause for a moment. Yes, the cliche continues. But, I honestly think this is helping my composition, the chord structure, the lyrical direction. I’m not saying that I’ve become completely literal, utterly boring and just all self help and shit. I’m saying that I’ve got two voices, where before there was just one. And if there’s one thing I learned from my old friend Steve Lillywhite, it’s that many voices are always better than one.
The Salt and the Sea:
What does this mean for the music now? Well, hard to say. I just released a record, and I’ve put a seven piece band together here in Minneapolis. My wife lends her gorgeous voice, and I was even able to snag a few members from The Cloud Cult. We’ve got french horn, cello, 4-parts, a wild rhythm section and a downright genius on the keys. It’s about the live show now. It’s about these guys. The only thing I try and do is work hard. I have few ideas, and a couple of thoughts, but I feel like letting go these days. I guess that as I become more in control in spirit and mind, I get to let go a little on the outside. I still fucking suck at it, and want to yell and scream when I don’t like what I’m hearing, but not quite as much.
But I’m super excited about the record we’re going to write.
It’s gonna be something else…
AirLands new album, So Much to Keep is available now!
For more information visit AirLands.NYC
*All photos courtesy of Kevin Calaba.
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In collaboration with/produced by Jeff Gorra