Monday, October 27, 2008

Coquis in California


When I arrived in LA in September 2007, the first thing I asked my friends was if they had any good leads. Matt, who was born in Puerto Rico, said he suspected that a breed of frog thought only to live on the island and Hawaii was inhabiting a hotel pool at Disneyland.

So when an Orange County toga party turned out to be lame, we headed for that place of which children dream. Sure enough we heard the distinct call of the coqui. Seeing no one around we began to look for them in the plants, soon discovering the might of Disneyland's video security. We were politely ejected.

Finding no interest from the LA Times, I turned to San Juan and its illustrious Star which once famously did not hire a young Hunter S. Thompson. In these dark days for print media, freelance payment for one-off jobs is often late and I was warned by my editor--bless him--that it would be.

About once a month for the last year I wrote to request my payment and a copy of the story since it wasn't posted online (although it did appear in print--Matt's parents saw it). This last time, my email bounced and I discovered that the Star had gone under. Truly a loss.

But, to my knowledge it has not yet been documented anywhere on the Web that Puerto Rico's national frog lives at the Neverland Pool. Below is what I sent to the Star more than a year ago.


A coquí colony has emerged in Southern California

By Jason Simms

The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, is one of the most controlled environments in the world. A piece of litter among the Snow White impersonators and Mickey Mouse sculptures will be caught on a security camera and removed seconds after it falls.

Yet somehow this meticulously maintained environment has proved to be the breeding ground--quite literally--for a very surprising fluke. An unknown number of coquí frogs inhabit the tropical garden surrounding the Neverland Pool, a swimming pool that serves the resort’s hotels.

According to Disneyland spokesperson Bob Tucker, the resort has no idea how the frogs—which were once believed only to be able to survive in Puerto Rico—found their way to the pool. A guest might have brought them from the island, but as Tucker notes, “That would be a long ride in a suitcase.” He conjectures that the coquís were transported on one of the pool’s many imported plants.

It is also unknown how long the frogs have been in California. “We just recently noticed them,” says Tucker who adds that some groundskeepers and security guards recall hearing their unmistakable call as far back as three years ago.

This is the first known instance of coquís living on the mainland. Other than the Isle of Enchantment, the only other place the quarter-sized frogs are known to live is Hawaii, where in the last decade their numbers have exploded. According to a 2005 National Geographic article, the volume and frequency of the frog’s call has hurt the Hawaiian tourist industry and driven the locals mad to the point of launching chemical campaigns to kill the frogs.

Could the same thing happen on the mainland? “Southern California is too dry in the summer and too cool in the winter to imagine coquí frogs could spread so wildly there,” says Professor William Mautz, who is researching the coquí at the University of Hawaii. He explains the frog’s ability to survive at Disneyland thusly: “They might establish small breeding populations in spots that are sheltered and irrigated.”

Plus, Californians don’t appear to be as easily bothered as Hawaiians. “Some guests have commented they kind of like the ambiance,” says Tucker.

The frogs were first brought to the attention of this reporter by Mathew Mehne, a 23-year-old Puerto Rican-born resident of nearby Fullerton, California. He first heard the Californian coquís when he visited a bar at the resort last fall.

“To me it’s totally exciting,” Mehne says when asked how he feels about the presence of coquís at Disneyland. “What was sad to me was when they turned up in Hawaii. Not only did it dispel the legend that [the frogs] could only live in Puerto Rico, but they are treated like pests there.”

He adds that the frogs seem happy at Disneyland, since they sing so frequently (you could hear 8-10 calls per minute on a recent warm night). Mehne contrasts the high number of calls to the relatively few he heard during his last visit to the island during a drought last March.

Photo: Coquis live here. Can you hear them? By me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pure Evil

I reviewed White Fang's debut CD for the Oregonian not too long ago. Here's what I turned in since it's not online.

What kind of punk band boasts six drummers and percussionists? Make no mistake, they may wear neon instead of black, but it's still dirty and White Fang is certainly a punk band. All those drummers don't even play in synch or keep regular time. These homegrown 18-20-year-olds simply are intent on making an experiment out of each of the 22 minutes on their first album.

Shouted lyrics about dreams of breakfast in a shattered punk house ("Breakfast") and sudden dynamic changes give Pure Evil a unique aesthetic that's perhaps best embodied by the album's art and production. The cover features a color live photo with half-finished black and white drawings by vocalist Erik Gage of animals from a genetic experiment or an acid trip. And with the heavier, distorted guitar and bass subdued in the mix and clean chords or an innocent lead doodle out front as on "All's Cool," the album's sound is similarly disjointed, weird and cute, always striving for bright over brutal.

Within this constraint, White Fang is quite creative, slowly merging nostalgic strums into a chord progression borrowed from a marimba group that builds into near cacophony on the instrumental "We're Reborn." But the greatest achievement of Pure Evil's artificial and goofy style is the album's almost Zen-like sense of now. As the lone verse of "New Loudness" channels White Light/White Heat and the lazy pseudo-ska with blissfully off-key singing of "Green Beanz" recalls 40oz. to Freedom, it's easy to see how most of the rest of Pure Evil stands on its own as a sophisticated, flawed and beautifully temporary moment.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Kevin and Anita Robinson Q&A

Following my veritable love letter to Blue Giant after their first show, I was pleased to get to write a profile of the band for The Oregonian on the eve of their three-day "Portland tour," which started yesterday at Holocene and continues tonight and tomorrow at Back Space and the Doug Fir.

This article was printed in October 3rd's A&E section under the title, "Blue Giant's Dark Intensity," but, since it was not posted online, here is the text I submitted, which was more only slightly edited in print:

In the moments before Blue Giant took the stage for their debut show at the Wonder Ballroom last June, no one really knew what to expect. "I heard it's country or something," said one of the several hundred people who gathered to see Kevin and Anita Robinson of indie pop duo Viva Voce's new group.

From innocent love songs to furious jams, Viva Voce has always been atmospheric and foggy. The Robinsons made all the music alone, and they were hidden by the impersonal necessity of multitasking.

But there was Kevin, standing, no longer drumming, proudly singing to the ceiling. And with a band behind her and fewer effects to mind and parts to sing, Anita's solos and accents were laser focused. In a way, the crowd saw the couple for the first time.

"I felt like you could cut the air with a knife the good feelings were so thick," says Kevin a few months later over beers in Northeast. So Blue Giant is letting the world wait while Portland gets a three-show "tour" this week alongside the announcement that the Decemberists' Chris Funk has joined the band to play pedal steel. Anita warns that when he began to play, "it just it really did move me to tears."

Returning from Blue Giant's debut show will be Corin Tucker, of Sleater-Kinney. In addition to her contribution to Blue Giant's songs, Kevin explains, "we're backing her up on some of her first solo stuff." Tu Fawning's Corrina Repp and Quasi's Sam Coomes will also guest, though who is performing which night is a secret. On the last night of the "tour" the Portland Cello Project will join Blue Giant on stage for a total of 15 musicians--including two banjo players.

Before diving into more collaborations than a top 40 rapper, Viva Voce spent much of 2007 touring with the Shins and both Robinsons cite the band as an inspiration. Kevin speaks of an imagined songwriting competition: "We're lucky that we've got really talented peers and friends where when I hear songs that they write, it's like, "Touche. Oh really? Well, give me a day. Take that!"

Though inspired by indie rock friends, Blue Giant's songs draw heavily on classic country. "It seems kind of timely for some reason," says Anita. Kevin adds, "No matter what's going on, you can always, as an American, take pride in our musical heritage."

Blue Giant certainly dignifies and adds to that heritage. Bassist Seth Lorinczi skips no opportunity to liven up the low end, playing unusually creative bass lines for music that would fit into whatever category Credence Clearwater Revival is in. Drummer Evan Railton both shuffles and brings the Bonham.

And despite all the friendliness and good vibes surrounding it, there is a profound and enigmatic darkness in this music as Kevin's speakers on Blue Giant's self-titled debut EP pursue unrequited love as a sick obsession ("Hell or High Water") or helplessly watch themselves be destroyed ("Target Heart"). So although he's now up front and center and stripped of his multi-instrumentalist duties, he's donned a mask.

Naturally, there was a lot of good stuff from my hour-long interview with the Robinsons that didn't make it into the story. Here's a slightly cut-down transcript.

How did Chris Funk end up joining the band?

Kevin: He was only going and do two songs and the next day he came over and was like, “Fuck it, I'm gonna join your band.”

Anita: When he came over and added that pedal steel, I seriously teared up. The first song that he put pedal steel on was one of the songs that I sing the lead vocal on and when I heard it, it just it really did move me to tears. It's just a really mournful, expressive, beautiful instrument.

Kevin: I don't think the songs were lacking anything, but when he started playing it was just like, “Oh, of course.” There are some things that you record and you put into an album and you're like, “Oh, fuck, we're gonna have to EQ the shit out of that and compress it to get it to fit in the spectrum of the song.” When he started playing, I don't think i touched any of it. There are times like that when you record, like somebody will do a part and it's so good you don't have to edit it, you don't do anything.

Kevin, you mentioned having written a lot of the songs really quickly. What spurred that surge of creativity?

Kevin: Dude, having these guys! We rehearsed the other night and I feel a little bit like I'm gambling and I know all the ways you can possibly cheat. We have an amazing band. Anita and I have a relationship where if we write a song we don't really have to explain it that much, but to have these guys that all you really have to do is the structure and the lyrics and just go. That is kind of greasing the wheels to where it's like, “I got another one, I got another one.”

Anita: It's totally liberating because our shit is set up all the time and we're not in the house and there are no distractions

Kevin: We're lucky that we've got really talented peers and friends where when I hear songs that they write, it's like, “Touche. Oh really? Well, give me a day. Take that!” You'll hear a song and it's a challenge. It's that kind of McCartney-Wilson creative competitiveness. It's kind of cool to live in a city like this.

Anita: Who's McCartney and who's Wilson?

Kevin: Well, we toured for the entire 2007 pretty much with the Shins and James is a fucking amazing song writer. When you strip away the grandeur of a show, those are fucking amazing songs.

Anita: It makes you not want to be half-assed with what you're doing.

Why tour Portland and not the world?

Anita: This is our town. I love living here and I love playing here.

Kevin: We sold everything we had to move to this city. We didn't really come here to work desk jobs. We literally we came here to do what we're doing. And the cool thing is, this city is one of the few places on the planet that actually gives back to local art, local businesses, local breweries. If you do something of any level of credibility, the town takes it seriously. We saw that the moment Viva Voce started to play and we've always had the benefit of people at least paying attention to what we're doing whether it teeters on career suicide or not, we' ve always tried to do something above and beyond, whether it's a kazoo quire or 3-D show or the time we had the stereophonic drummers on the floor. And when we started a new band, yet again everyone was on board. At our first show, I felt like you could cut the air with a knife the good feelings were so thick in the air and it was really kind of a magical moment for us. We can turn a new page and everybody is right there with us. Why wouldn't you want to give back to a town that gives you that opportunity?

So you don’t think another town would have made for quite as magical of a first show?

Kevin: Are you kidding me? We lived for a while in Nashville and it was like, if you weren't some bullshit bleached hair band-in-a-box no one would take you seriously. If you were local, they really wouldn't take you seriously.

Anita: If you're not on MTV, what are you doing with your life?

Kevin: That's why some of the bands that have succeeded there like Lambchop and some of the Calexico guys, they don't really do much there because no one gives two fucks about it. There's no way we could do what we're doing in October. I wouldn't want to. It's not really about anything else but making this special event that I think people will enjoy rather than trying to build up some band credential.

Anita: A we just didn't want the party to be over after one night

Kevin: It's giving back and trying to keep that good karma going so that when we have a record and we're just playing normal shows that people can kind of see our new thing and take it on its own merit so that it's not like Viva Voce's other band, it's viewed as its own thing.

It seems like Kevin sings more of the leads on Blue Giant songs than he has on Viva Voca songs. Was that a conscious choice?

Anita: [To Kevin] You pretty much had your station and I had my station and it started to really feel restricting, I think, for you.

Kevin: Yeah. We were never able to make a sound together, like sing together or make a voice together, because we were constantly struggling with the physical restraints of beating the fuck out of the drums for 9 minutes and then having to be right on target.

Anita: It's fine with me. I can do the guitar playing and sing harmonies with are my two favorite things to do in the whole world. I don't think my voice is a lead singer voice, but I have the guts to do it, and when I write a song I feel like I can have the courage to do that. But really singing harmony and playing guitar, when I'm driving in my car and I'm listening to my favorite song and I'm fantasizing about playing it, that’s what I'm imagining I'm doing, not being the lead singer.

Kevin: My favorite records are where there are different voices that come in and out. There's several but we were talking about Yo La Tengo's Fakebook, of course that’s just cover songs, and some stuff by the Birds. You don't know whose taking the lead and where the harmonies end and the main vocals begin, they all bleed together.

Where do the ideas for the songs come from? Songs like “Hell or High Water” don’t seem to be about a married dude.

It's not anything that I've ever experienced and I hope I don't ever experience. It's just this dark bitter love song of someone who's not gonna let the other person go ‘till the bitter end and you don't have to experience that to see it from a third-party perspective. I would say 90% of blue stuff is...there's some dark, dark shit on that record and I haven't been through all of it, but I've at least seen it and experienced it enough to have some perspective on it.

I remember an offhand comment a while back in an email about being frustrated with the music business. Have you experienced some difficulties there?

Kevin: Just to peak in through the indie world, I can't fathom what it's like on the other side of the fence. Just to get a glimpse at it from one vantage point is horrifying enough…Just because these bands have labels and they're touring doesn't mean there's not really blue collar horrible hard shit that they have to go through.

Anita: Playing music is kind of like a family farm. It's really heart breaking when tough shit happens. It's not like we're in college and this is our freshman year and we've got a band that we're gonna have for a summer. We've put all our eggs in this basket.

Kevin: I think from the very inception of music, it's been tainted. The very first pictures of music was a devil holding a violin. From classical musicians on, they're always plagued with dark, horrible, evil shit. it's kind of in the art form that there's going to be this darkness that accompanies it. Maybe that's part of that songwriting style. Sometimes it becomes so much that you can't really ignore how heavy it gets.

What shaped the Blue Giant sound? Had you been listening to a lot of country?

Anita: I had been listening to a lot more country. I really got into the Carter family and I think that was a part of it. Kind of subconscious. It's the music of my childhood. I sang harmony and rhythm guitar with my dad on songs by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.

Kevin: My family was not musical or artistic in any way shape or form so my musical up-brining was purely out of rebellion. It wasn't until I grew up that I even discovered cool music and cool bands and got into different styles of music. When we met I shared with her my weird musical past and she had a whole different bag.

I learned just because someone sings with a drawl doesn't make it red neck bullshit music. It is now, country musicians are on inflatable horses and it's just as disgusting as Britney Spears. But Dolly Parton's greatest hits, anyone could play those and it wouldn't necessarily be a country progression they're just like great classic songs, they just happen to be in that style.

Do you play Americana?

Kevin: Not really…I would proudly say that we're an American band. I wouldn’t shy away from that at all. Country music is in a terrible situation rock and roll is in a worse situation and pop is even worse. So I would just like to hope it's something...what would you classify CCR as? Just songs that transcend all the boundaries to where you would go to the concert with your mom or your brother or sister.

Anita: There’s something soothing about it. It does seem timely right now.

Kevin: Traditionally, the worst times in history is when the best art comes out. The late 60s and early 70s, music was like the signature on the document that said, “This time in history has passed now.” I feel like we're maybe entering another one of those moments where there are no Weather Underground or Black Panthers, but people are people. They still feel the same sense of outrage the same sense of injustice and the same sense of wanting something to calm them musically.

Anita: Or inspire them. I feel like when we record new Viva stuff, we'll really be able to come to the table with the kind of material that we need to. B0ut if we hadn't indulged our desire to have our friends on stage with us and not be just two people, I don't know that it would have been as inspired.

Above: Blue Giant in Seattle by Blush Photo. Below: A blue giant.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Arena Rock Medley


Last week My Morning Jacket played in Portland and I wrote a review of it for the Oregonian. I listened to a couple of MMJ songs when I was asked to do the review, but that was all I had ever heard of them. I like writing about well-known bands I know nothing about and I think this round of that game went especially well. I got the song titles by catching a lyric and Googling it later or asking the person next to me, "What's this song called?"

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Movie Biz Advice from Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon via Lovline


So the other night I was doing the dishes and listening to Loveline on the radio because I love that shit and you know you do too. (Although my first love was Dr. Judy on the less popular and now forgotten Love Phones.) Anyway, the guests were Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, two of the creators of Reno 911! and seven or eight other movies.

When I tuned in, Garant and Lennon along with Dr. Drew and his new co-host dude whatshisname were talking about how many movies are badly written. They said the problem is that studios often assign large teams. There are too many cooks in the kitchen and next thing you know, bad dialog.

Since I am currently co-writing a summer blockbuster (fact!), I thought I'd call in and see what advice I could get about getting a script that isn't written by a committee made into a movie. I didn't really get that advice, but I did get a good pep talk about writing. After my call, Garant and Lennon left and Dr. Drew said he really liked their advice. The advice and Drew's comment are in the clip below.