Vincenz Serrano on New Order

Hey welcome back everybody!

Been gone for about a month, but here we are rolling on and bringing you a lot of new episodes for the new year. We start off talking music with poet, teacher, and music fan Vincenz Serrano.

We talk about a few New Order songs, trying to understand why we love the band and its music.

You can download the episode here.

You can listen to the songs we talk about in the videos below.

Thanks for dropping by and we hope that you’ll listen to the fun episodes that are lined up this year.

2012 in Review: Music

Last night I was at the rocking birthday part of Ina Santiago and we were head banging and dancing (well, she and a lot of other people were, I was kind of jiggling in my seat) at Craft’s Glam Rock night which featured cover band Trinidad. And while taking in the Bon Jovi and David Lee Roth it made sense to start thinking about how I have been working and getting back into music this year.

I talk about how music saved my life in high school (I mention it in the paper which I gave, more on this below) and how it has been such an integral part of my life and the way that I interact with the world. Though I was never much of a musician, playing music and loving music form a large part of my identity. I struggled to make it as a musician for a long time, dreamed the rock star dream. Sometime in 2009 I gave it all up. In reaction to the big break-up of that year I put my guitar away. Right now, I don’t know where the bass that served me for many good years is out in the wind, and I guess I should track it down.

But I put the guitars away and stopped writing about music. I still listened to music, but things had changed.

In 2012 though, I picked up the guitar again. Not only that, but I made the jump from bass to guitar. Part of this is thanks to friends Adam David and Michael David, who pulled me into a gig, and that got me started playing. Once I had a guitar in my hand, I missed playing music and realized that I wanted to play again. Over the course of the year, I played a couple times with them at Sputnik, before it closed.

I bought my first electric guitar, a Samik Telecaster style cherry red scorcher. And an orange amp. I’ve pulled ’em out at every possible chance. Again, I’m not much of a musician, but I enjoy playing music.

After gigging for about ten years on and off, and then quitting for almost three years, I took to the stage again with Gang Bading at the Komiks rOX benefit gig. We played a bunch of 90s covers and it was hell of fun. I can’t think of a group of guys whose music I jive with as much, and I am looking forward to playing some more music with them in the coming years (yes guys, this is me trying to drop hints, come on, we gotta do a classic rock set and I can let rip my heavily distorted version of “Heart of Gold”).

And towards the end of the year I got to join the junior faculty as part of the band, playing guitar and bass on one song. It ain’t a performance to write home about, but it was fun to be playing music, and further to play music with people that I just like hanging out with. It’s great in that being able to connect with people has an affinity for in a way that one loves just helps to develop camaraderie and friendship. Sounds like a big dollop of cheese, but yeah, I’m getting a little sentimental and hey the world didn’t end, so lemme have this little shout out.

Beyond playing music, I got to attend some really great concerts. I was near broke and had to borrow money from friends to go (it took a semester for my papers to be processed and for me to get my salary as a professor) but I got to watch Death Cab for Cutie and Toe. That was pretty amazing. I had dreamed of watching Smashing Pumpkins live since I was a teenager, and braving the terrible storm I got to do it with some of my best friends and my sister. Got to catch Snow Patrol and Keane on someone else’s dime too. And towards the end of the year, saw the Wolfgang 20th anniversary concert. To cap it all was glam rock night, which is now something I will want to go to regularly.

I also got to present a paper about music. I talked about music and poetry, and how we can read music using a literary background. Presenting with good friends and faculty bandmates was another fun thrill. Thanks too to new friend Aine, who helped me write this paper. Nothing like talking to specialists who challenge your ideas and help to push you into different territory and ways of thinking.

I also got to listen to a lot of new music this year, as evidenced by the previous post with the list of favorite songs. Music has always been integral to the way that I am in the world. And I guess I am happy that I have gotten to engage it again, and most importantly, start making music again.

Top Song Picks for 2012

I tried to listen to a lot of new albums this year. But in truth there was just too much music for me to get a good grasp on everything. Thus take this list not as all the best music, but as some of the stuff that I really liked over the year. Some artists might not be on the list, but came out with pretty good albums (Beth Orton comes to mind) because I did not have enough time to really listen to the album and choose a favorite. In any case, here’s ten songs that I loved this year, and I think that you might like too (in no particular order).

1. Japandroids’ “The House that Heaven Built

I love the big, anthemic, heart-on-your-sleeve, screaming with a sense of urgency, drive of the song. It’s got a simple, catchy riff that sticks and an energy that contends with lyrics that problematize life and aging. There are also these great vocal hooks that I now cannot get out of my head.

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2. The Gaslight Anthem’s “Handwritten”

This album got a lot of play on my iPod this year, and for good reason. The Gaslight Anthem, and I guess I risk sacrilege here with albums by Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins coming out too, may have put out the best straight up rock record. It’s got big guitars, mad riffs, great guitar solos, and that Springsteen-like sensibility for rock themes. It’s sweet on the ears without being light or thematically vacuous, which is much more than one can say about most music that gets radio play.

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3. Best Coast’s “The Only Place”

This is just an incredibly catchy little gem. Have to admit to affinity for the place they are singing for, LA kid and all, but then the song also makes me think of the Philippines too. It’s got a beautiful, crisp guitar jangle throughout, simple, sing-along lyrics, and a skip and a beat to it whenever you put it on.

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4. Jack White’s “Missing Pieces”

The song’s initial appeal was, well, coming from a pretty bad break-up the fiendishly dark lyricism reflected a lot of the negativity I was feeling. But god, it’s got this great groove, and this live version here has some extra rocking. Jack White delivers something rocking and raunchy and groovy and dark. Whole album is damn good too.

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5. Beach House’s “Wishes”

I think the proper word is entrancing. This song washes over you and you kind of just get lost swimming in it.

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6. Cody ChesnuTT

I heard the opening guitar riff and I was hooked. Then Cody ChesnuTT came in crooning and I was sold. Damn if this isn’t one of the catchiest, grooviest songs I haven’t heard in a while. I can’t dance, not at all, and yet this has me wanting to hit the dancefloor. It’s lush and classic, got these great horns that pipe in perfectly. Give it a listen, as I find it difficult to describe how it all comes together.

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7. Kishi Bashi’s “Bright Whites”

There’s a great arrangement and an irresistible melody driving this piece of pop. You hear all kinds of musical influences at play, but what comes out strongest is just a solid, beautiful song.

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8. Ladyhawke’s “Cellophane”

I have a hard time putting my finger on what exactly I love about this song. There’s this droning guitar riff that gets my head banging. Ladyhawke’s voice is beautiful. But I think, more than anything, it’s the vocal melodies. The contrast between the melodies in the verses and choruses and the bridges between get stuck in my head. And the swooping, large melodies of the chorus are enthralling.

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9. Norah Jones’s “Happy Pills”

Sure Jones can be boring. And it’s hard to get excited about her stuff. But this was definitely something fun and something to really get excited about. Her collaboration with Danger Mouse provides us with some of the peppiest, trippiest, sounds, and again, the lyrics hit an emotional note.

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10. Passion Pit’s “Love is Greed”

It’s dance-y and fun. They lyrics are ironically biting though. So there’s all kinds of fun and tension going on here together.

11. Metric’s “Clone”

Another song that I like for its vocal melodies. There’s a point later in the song where the vocals push really high and I think it’s a sublime turning point for a very good song.

12. Benjamin Gibbard’s and Aimee Mann’s “Bigger than Love”

Leave it to Ben Gibbard and Aimee Mann to break your heart in a massive way. And yet, it’s couched in lush melodies and there’s a kind of attempt at redemption too.

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Right so, those are some of my picks. I realized, as I was making the list, that there was so much more that I wanted to put on there. But hey, it’s a start. Post comments and suggestions for me or tag me in your posts!

The Other Instrument

I began playing the bass in high school. I was fifteen. It was for a girl. This will probably show up in a future YA novel I think I’ve got in me. I didn’t know many people at school yet and I got put into a group for a presentation. The other people in the group knew how to play guitar or percussions or whatever. And the girl, she could sing. (And man have I been a sucker for girls who sing since.) I didn’t know how to play, and up to that point the only instruments I had been acquainted with were bells and the recorder. The recorder was required, and because I could not sing, I had been put in the bell choir many years before. 

So I went down to the corner and started asking people to teach me to play the bass. I was lucky that one of my first friends in the country was and still continues to be an amazing bass player. Formerly PJ and going by Poldo now, he lent me his guitar and we spent a lot of time on his stoop as he taught me the basics. He showed me some basslines he wanted me to learn, particularly memorable Green Day’s “Longview” (and man wasn’t that such an amazing song when it came out?). 

I wound up sticking with the bass because it was what all the other bands around needed, and what most other people didn’t want to play. Everyone wanted to sing, be the lead guitar, be the drummer. Those were the cool instruments. No one ever noticed the bass, and even more, no one ever notices the bass player. Okay maybe if it’s someone like Paul McCartney or Sting, or someone as wild and talented as Flee. Me, I can name bunches and bunches of favorite bassists, because, of course, I studied lots of them. But most people can’t. Bass players, they are there, they provide the backbone, the groove. They aren’t the stars.

And that was totally fine with me. As a bass player of limited skill, I was well and good with people not really taking notice of my playing. Let the guy shredding solos get all the attention. I was happy to be supplying a nice steady bassline, syncing with the drums and laying the groundwork for the groove. 

I did this, more or less happily, for about thirteen years with a variety of bands. 

Then I stopped playing music. I had my heart broken. By a musician. The experience is rather well documented in my second book. I just couldn’t find it in me to get back into the studio, to make music. And I had bandmates who were, let’s say, less supportive of what I was going through that I would have hoped. I extricated myself from the whole music-making experience.

Then a few months ago, while dealing with a pretty bad manic-depressive bout (which led to among other things the writing and finishing of my latest book in about a month) I was with friends Adam David and Michael David. They were performing and I decided to tag along. I picked up Adam’s old acoustic and jammed with them. I don’t know how we sounded, as I was pretty drunk and far gone. But it felt good, playing again. 

A week or so later we were doing pretty much the same thing. Except this time I was wielding an axe borrowed from good friend Karl de Mesa. This night I wound up similarly smashed. I woke up hung over with a box of KFC two-piece chicken in the pillow beside me. I could remember very little of the night and what music we played, but a couple weeks later my friend Lotte showed me a video of Adam, Paolo, and me rocking out to “Paradise City” and I have to say, for a drunk dude who would not even remember playing the song, it wasn’t half bad. 

Which brings us to my current attempts at playing guitar. I have left the bass behind and am transitioning to the guitar, which has, for many many years, been a rather intimidating instrument. Sure I’ve played the guitar, made stabs at it. Entertained thoughts of playing guitar instead of bass. But I would always wind up back on the bass. It was what I was comfortable with, what I knew. 

Now, in a couple of weeks, I will be taking the stage for the first time wielding an electric guitar and playing as part of a band. It is an exciting prospect, frightening and exhilarating and challenging and many other emotions that well up as I strum those strings. 

In the practice studio, there are things that keep happening that form a kind of cognitive gap between my thinking and playing. I will be playing the guitar, will be playing the right notes and doing what I should be doing in the song. So my hands and a good part of my brain are on point. But I am listening to the music coming together and I hear the bassline and I focus on that. I think that I am the one playing the bass and I start grooving to it. Then I’ll realize that that isn’t me and I’ll try and find the guitar and find what I am sounding like. 

Other times I will be strumming and thinking, hey that guitar’s not sounding bad, where is that coming from. And then I will realize it’s me. Okay I know that sounds like I’m bragging, but really, I fail to realize that I am the one playing the guitar. It’s like my mind refuses to make a connection, and it’s only when I flub my fingers and I stop playing that I realize, hey, that crunchy distorted sound, that was you, man. 

I am enjoying the transition though. I am discovering a new capacity which I had assumed I could not do. I love playing the guitar, and I am enjoying it and having much more fun with it than I did with the bass. I’ll sometimes not be sure if I am doing alright, and I’ll ask the dudes I’m jamming with, Adam, Vincenz Serrano, and Joseph Saguid, if what I am doing is working, and they will nod and let me go on wailing on the guitar. 

Here’s to hoping that the next couple of weeks of practice allow me to develop the skills needed to justify my presence onstage. All I want to do is rock. And I hope that my brain wraps my head around it and I can just get up on there and make some noise. 

Am I a traitor to my nation (culturally)?

To which the simple answer is: YES. This simple answer coming of course from certain frameworks quick to brand people nationalistic or not. But I feel that asking this question is important, and it brings up a number of very interesting issues.  Read more of this post

The Importance of Not Censoring Cee Lo When He Sings “Fuck You”

(A downloadable version of this is available on my scribd feed)

Censorship is and always has been a concern. What we can allow in film, television, music, print, and other media is always something that is negotiated by social norms and mores, values, and usually what we would be willing to expose others to. There are some things, I believe, which will always be wrong and taboo (snuff, child pornography, other similar things) and then there are other things which are commonly available but based on my aesthetics and personal values I find disgusting and would much rather not ever see. Read more of this post

Arcade Fire’s Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountain)

Arcade Fire’s new album, The Suburbs has a great mix of different styles of music, that familiar way that Arcade Fire has of building up into massive movements, and the ever-intelligent lyricism.

The standout for me has been “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” Though it could be argued whether this is the album’s best track, it’s very clear that its placement, and how it comes into the album, is perfect. After an album of a range of emotions, the sad and happy, the lonely and bright, and after the dirge-like “Sprawl I (Flatland)” that precedes it, “Sprawl II” breaks through the whole thing, punching this massive light into the depths. It operates, effectively, as a crescendo. Though there is a track that follows it, that track serves almost like a score, that denouement to the climax of “Sprawl II.” Read more of this post