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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XV–Here Comes Everybody Survives the 20th Century

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The cover of our very first CD release in 1997: The chicken head man and the naked dog foot lady, of course.

Back again so soon? I’ve got about a day and a half to fulfill my Pre-New Year’s Eve New Year’s Eve resolution of writing about the entire Here Comes Everybody catalogue before 2018. In case you’re just stepping into the fray, in short, it has been my project over the last three years or so to listen to my neglected CD collection, one artist at a time from A to Z, and write about the experience. A year ago I found myself mired in the letter H. The letter H happens to include my own band, Here Comes Everybody, which at first I thought I would just sort of skip over, but have since, for autobiographical reasons, changed my mind.

In my last entry I worked through the first six years, from 1986 to 1992 and I shared a stupid but by now kind of famous youtube video of my crazy bad self lip syncing to my own music in 1987. I was listening to and writing about the last CD we released, a 30th anniversary compendium of the first six years of songwriting and recording we ever did as a band. It’s important to note, especially perhaps for younger readers, that, in the 80s and early 90s, independent bands released their original material almost exclusively on cassette tape. Vinyl was way expensive and on its way out. CDs had just arrived, but were also cost prohibitive to produce. Everybody and their dog had a hi-fi cassette deck in their home stereo and in their cars. Cassette tape ruled the day–and for good reason. It was compact, convenient, reliable, and sonically pretty damn good.

All of the material discussed in the last installment of this series was initially released on cassette tape and had to wait 30 years until 2016 for a digital release into the world. After the cassette releases featured on Everything Is Here: 1986-1992, we continued to release albums and e.p.s on cassette tape for another five years, during which there were essentially only two releases, a cassette full-length album called Squish in 1993 and another cassette e.p. entitled Hump Day from 1995 or so. By the time these cassette records came out, the band was full-on grunge/funk/hard rock, a far cry from the synth pop of the 80s and early 90s.

How did we make this radical stylistic turn? Well, we were smitten, as was everyone else in the Pacific Northwest, by the hard rock grunge movement. It’s what we were listening to. It was raw and rowdy and full of energy and political power, and while it really wasn’t stylistically or radically different from the hard rock of the 70’s, it felt totally new and fresh and served as a rebellion against what felt like the antiseptic and artificial pop of the late 80s. And in this moment just before the Life, Friends, is Boring era discussed in the last entry, we had found a new guitar player, Jeff Bryner, a guy who was firstly incredibly inventive and secondly super prolific as a writer. So, combined with our current musical interests in guitar rock and this new dynamic member of the band, the music started to come from the guitar and NOT the keyboard. Eventually, so much so, that René tossed the keyboards altogether and got behind the drum kit. At that moment, by 1995, we were a full-on guitar band. We had left every vestige of keyboard, nu-wave power pop behind us.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. It was new and exciting and I think it was good. But the Here Comes Everybodyness of the music that René and I had been writing during the previous seven or eight years seemed to have been drained out and replaced by something else. I am proud of that work, but it sounds like a totally different band. At one point we toyed with changing our name–and I think we even did a gig or two with some new stupid identity, but it didn’t take, and, eventually, creative differences momentarily disbanded that mid-90s roster.

Some really great songs came from this era, though. Again, approaching the novelty song, our most successful tunes were often our funniest ones. From the Squish era came “I Like My Neighbors,” “My Dentist Is A Good Man,” and a song about forgetting your own lyrics during performance, entitled appropriately, “I Forgot The Words.” Here’s my favorite, the “Neighbors” tune in its original lo-fi glory:

And then something pretty remarkable happened: the advent of the professional quality HOME STUDIO. We recorded Squish (which opened with the “Neighbors” tune) on a cassette 4 track recorder. It was decidedly and unabashedly lo-fi. So grungy. I remember recording the keyboard live during the mix down! That’s just crazy. But suddenly, in 1996 or so, professional quality home recording equipment became, for the first time in human history, somewhat affordable. That was a game changer for us–and the rest of our musical history from that moment on was totally influenced by this phenomenon.  

Some of the best of this early to mid 90s material ended up on a 13 year anniversary CD released in 1999, appropriately called Thirteen. One of the first of the stupidest ideas I ever had was to release a kind of greatest hits record that would collect on CD the best of what we had released on cassette over the first thirteen years. Stupid? We had no hits. We made 1000 copies, because, you know, 1000 copies is cheaper than 500–really, seriously. It cost, in 1999 about $1,000 to replicate a thousand compact discs, whereas 500 copies would cost only a hundred bucks shy of that–so why the fuck not produce 1000 of those babies?! Well, because there’s not a market for it, that’s why. However, it was fun. It felt good to give the music a digital run, but we couldn’t afford to master it, it includes crappy four track recordings, and it was, as most albums produced on CD in the mid to late 90s were, too flipping long. Who has the patience to sit through a 73 minute compact disc? Outside of the appearance of a few select tracks from this mid-90s hard rock era on the Thirteen cd, this material, so unlike us, feeling to me today not totally authentically us, will likely never see the digital light of day. Although, by special request from a single individual who was a fan of that particular era, I recently burned a copy of Hump Day and sent a single solitary CDR off into the mails. Yeah, I could do that again.

Okay, it’s 1996 and 97.

Once More With Feeling. Kids in a candy store, having put together our first home basement studio with bonafide real professional recording equipment, we wrote and recorded our first album to be released on a compact disc. On this record, we primarily started the practice of promoting ourselves as a duo. The band, then, consisted of past band mates, HCE alum, who were willing to lend a hand. And we got almost every one of them involved somehow, going all the way back a decade to our very first full line-up.

Its weaknesses are that, again, it’s too long. It’s super self indulgent. We included everything, even the most silliest of things like jazz improvisations over spoken refrigerator magnet poems, nutty manic tunes that are nearly unlistenable, the absolutely absurdist spoken word poem that inspired the artwork, a crazy thing about a naked woman with dog slippers sitting at a bar with a massive, human sized chicken talking about those orange spider mites. Okay.

Its strengths: some of the best songs we had written to date:  The manic opener of “Holier Than Thou,” a satirical piece about any kind of hypocritical moral authority in which I get to do my best impression of an evangelical preacher; “Ba Ba,” a song that takes its title from the monosyllabic background vocal but delves more clearly than “Blue Refrigerator” could about the importance of self discovery and authenticity; “The Love Thing,” you know, about the love thing; other more serious and issue driven pieces; and a lot of really fine performances by so many good friends of ours. Overall, its variety, its manic qualities and its more reflective quiet moments, the instrumental experimentation (horns! acoustic guitars! improvisations! fake jazz!) the whole thing feels like a big ass party.

My goodness. There are four albums that I have yet to mention over the next two decades–the material that I am most proud of, actually. And I’m finding myself, on the eve of New Year’s Eve, at the end of potentially the most exhausting year in memory, unable to go further tonight. So I’ll leave you with this, a kind of sleeper from Once More With Feeling, but, as I’m re-listening now, nevertheless a tune that stands out as a favorite, and features a reunion of the 1987 band, Allen Hunter on bass and Greg Kirkelie on guitar. “Everybody’s made of something. What are you made of?” That’s a pretty good line.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XIV–31 Years of Here Comes Everybody

Oh my. It’s been almost an entire year since the last time I added an installment to this series. Maybe I will make a New Year’s Resolution not to wait another year before the next one!

I did not intend to write about my own music in this series, only tangentially as it related to something I was listening to, or, if something I was listening to was an influence on my own songwriting. Why the hesitation? Oh, I don’t know; I didn’t want to seem self-indulgent. I know, that makes terrible sense; I am blogging, after all, primarily using my own bad self as subject matter! What could be more self-indulgent?  And if this is an autobiographical sketch through the lens of the music I have listened to over the years, what could be more autobiographical? And here we are, the founding members of the rocking teen combo Here Comes Everybody, myself (Michael Jarmer) and my wife and musical partner in crime, René Ormae-Jarmer, in the midst of our 31st year of marriage and 31st year of playing music together in this band. It seems fitting now, both because of the momentousness of the occasion, but also because here I am, after 13 blog entries and thousands of words covering the musical compact disc collection alphabetically from A to Z, in the middle of the letter H. All right. Let’s do this.

Because of it’s longevity, Here Comes Everybody has become an integral part of my identity. The thought of doing a solo album is distasteful to me. The thought of being the principle singer and lyricist for somebody else’s band, while not out of the question, is likewise to me unfavorable.  I like to play the drums. I like drumming so much that in the last couple of years I have taken to the throne to drum for other peoples’ projects. But no one else has ever asked me to write lyrics for them, and I’ve only had very brief flirtations over this last 31 years singing in somebody else’s thing. Whether it’s because I’m being selfish and holding on to my talents for this one singular project, or because my talents are not conducive to any other thing, remains to be determined. Whatever it is, I feel HcE is a piece of me just as much as is my inclination to write, or my love of reading, or my dedication to teaching, or any other proclivity or tendency that one would lump under the category of Things That Make Michael Jarmer Michael Jarmer.

So what’s the approach here? Should I follow the rules and write about only one or at least one record–or should I, like I only have, I think, for Elbow thus far, write about every single record? And since this is about my neglected CD collection, should I limit myself to material released on that format, or should I also give air time to the “records” we made that were released only on cassette?!

I think, if it’s true that Here Comes Everybody has indeed become part of who I am, it seems that I owe them at least the same kind of attention I gave to Elbow, a band I only discovered in 2002, a full 16 years after the first recording my wife and I made together. So let’s do the whole damn CD catalogue. And I might mention, but not go deeply into, those cassette-only releases–just because they form an important part of the picture, even though it seems that there’s a pretty good reason those pieces never escaped their magnetic tape origins.

Everything Is Here: 1986-1992. For the 30th anniversary of the band, we went back to the very beginning, remastering and releasing on CD for the very first time our complete early recordings, 4 short albums over two compact discs.  Our debut e.p., “Holy Smokes,” is kind of what you might expect from 22 year old kids in an 8 track (!) professional studio for the very first time, recording their very first batch of original tunes: pure unbridled enthusiasm, blinding self-confidence, awkward amateur performances, and some really strange, albeit 80s appropriate choices–like a band with two drummers relying on a drum machine for all the set work! My voice is quite a few notches higher here than it is now, in fact, sometimes embarrassingly so. I sound like someone’s pinching me really hard. I think I remember the phrase “manic yelp” as being the way our earliest critics described my voice. Yep. Totally accurate. I was indeed manic, and I was indeed yelping. We started as a trio (vocals, keys, and bass)–a configuration we would return to in the late 90s–but clearly we understood that we could not carry the tunes completely without guitar, so we found a hired gun in a guy named Kieth Charley who came in and performed these screaming lead guitar solos on a few of these tunes. They are awesome, sometimes the best part of the tune, even though they are somewhat anachronistic.

By the time our second e.p. came around, we had had the realization that real drums were the way to go and that the guitar should be an integral part of the band, so “Brand New Species” found us in a 24 track studio and with a year of lots of gigging and more writing under our belt, sounding like a real band. Oddly, still a band with two drummers already, we found a different drummer (high school buddy Sean Moultrie)  to play the kit–mostly because Rene had her keyboard duties to perform and I wanted to jump around on stage like a maniac. It wouldn’t be until 1997 when finally I would decide to sit down and play some drums in my own band.

Autobiographical note concerning the roster: René and I were high school sweethearts. Our first bass player, Terry Gassaway, was a high school chum. Our first guitar player, Greg Kirkelie, was not only a high school chum, but a guitar player with whom we played in our very first band ever. Our first drummer, Sean, was a high school chum. Our second bass player, Allen Hunter, was a chum from our teen years with whom we played in our very first band ever. Stephen Westerhout and David Gilde are the only musicians on these early recordings that I did not know as a teen, but I met Steve in college and Dave a little later–we must have only been 27 or 28 when we met. It strikes me as important and kind of profound that I would be willing and happy to play music with any of these individuals again and still to this day continue to think of each of them as friends. Insert something wise here about musical soul mates and the long lasting friendship power of our earliest creative acquaintances. 

The Everything Is Here compendium closes out with our first kind-of-full-length album clocking in with 8 songs, “Wake,” and then another e.p. called “Life, Friends, is Boring,” after John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.” While “Wake” was most powerfully influenced by the likes of Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love,”  “Life, Friends” was our earliest foray into the heaviness that would become grunge. By 1992 we had all had our fill of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Cross all of that with our early new wave and prog rock influences and you’d have a pretty good idea about what we sounded like.

Out of these first four records came at least three tunes that would become emblematic of our quirky irreverence (is that a redundancy?) and, for better or worse, would become our most popular tunes early on: “I Am Not A Social Cracker,” “I’m Gonna Send You A Mail Bomb,” and most famously, now clocking in at over 3500 views on youtube, “Blue Refrigerator.” In 1987 we made a video for that tune, shelved it, showed it to no one, and then, on a whim, after digitizing our old tapes, decided to post it to youtube. The rest, as they say, is history.

During this whole era, from 86 to 92, we gigged like crazy. We gigged ourselves silly. We played everywhere for anyone. We opened up on many occasions for local heroes The Dan Reed Network. We exhausted the local scene. We were under the mistaken impression that the more we played the more likely we would be to “make it big.” What we probably should have done, but never quite had the courage to do, was tour. Finishing college, establishing careers, finding our way in a new marriage, the life of the road was just not in the cards and nobody was throwing money at us. We didn’t get famous, but we got pretty fucking good.

What’s most interesting to me, personally, about this collection is that it shows how fast and how wide our growth was in these first six years. I find it kind of impressive, enough so that 30 years after that first song was recorded, I felt the work deserved the attention and care of a remaster and a cd release.

I didn’t realize I’d get 1500 words out of that first CD. We may have to do this episodically, one record at a time. We may have to spend a lot of time on the letter H. I wasn’t finished with the other H-artist albums in the collection a year ago–I’ve still got Jerry Harrison, Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Holiday, and the Housemartins to explore!  Pre-new years New Year’s resolution: finish the Here Comes Everybody entries before the clock strikes 12 on December 31. Please don’t hold your breath.

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Radio Silence (An Interview)

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It’s been quiet around here on the Michael Jarmer blog. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Don’t think I haven’t wondered what had become of that guy who was wont to be so prolific with his blogging. Don’t think I haven’t worried about him just a bit. Well, me and this Michael Jarmer guy happen to be friends–more than just Facebook friends, and we were able to catch up recently, face to face, so to speak, and he gave me the whole scoop about why the radio has been so silent of late. He asked me to fill you in. Don’t worry, it won’t take long. To make it easy, I’ll just record verbatim the interview that transpired when I sat down with Michael in his natural habitat down there in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, in a house surrounded by a grove of oak.

Me: Even though you wrote about how you were endeavoring to beat the post writer’s camp blah blah blahs, we have not heard from you.  What’s up with that?

Michael: I talked a good talk, but I was, in actual practice, unable to beat the post writer’s camp blah blah blahs. I was, in fact, mired in the blah blah blahs, unable to write more in the new novel, uninspired for blog topics, even I found the poetry muse absent, out on some other business  junket, no doubt. Things went from blahzy to blahziest in short order.  I guess that this was just not a writing summer. But don’t worry. It’s not like I was sitting on my thumbs.  I had some stuff going on.

Me: What kind of stuff did you have going on?

Michael: I was mostly preparing for the release of my band’s new album.

Me: Tell us about that.

Michael: I play drums and sing in a band called Here Comes Everybody, and we’ve been working on this record for about six years now, a pop rock record that takes it’s lyrics from three plays by William Shakespeare.  The album is called “Play: Songs from Shakespeare.”

Me: That took up all your time this summer?

Michael: No, that wouldn’t be fair.  We were rehearsing once or twice a week, doing a promotional stunt here and there, trying to get a crowd for the cd release party on September 4, and now trying to get another crowd together for the vinyl release party on October 24.  But, you know, I’ve had this experience before.  I have found that the writing slows way down when I get busy with music–as the music slows way down when I’m busy with writing, and I tend to get busy with writing when musically I’m in between projects, or not gigging as much, or in between bass players–it’s kind of a teeter-totter effect.  There’s only so much creative fuel to go around, and when the teeter-totter falls on the music side, even if there’s plenty of time in the day, especially on a summer’s day, that doesn’t seem to make a difference.  I don’t get the writing done.  I feel bad about it.  But then I remind myself of all the good stuff that’s going on with my musical life, or in my family life, and then I don’t feel so bad.  But it’s a discipline.  Mostly I feel bad about not writing.  And then there was some teaching this summer, which is unusual, and now, of course, the school year proper has just kicked in and I’ve got two new courses I’ve not taught in a long time and that takes up some mental and creative energy.  This is all very boring stuff.  I’ve got lots of excuses (explanations) for not writing. Some of them are pretty good, as excuses go.  They don’t always help; tugging at a writer constantly while going through a dry spell is a fear that the well has run dry, that your best ideas are behind you.  All that’s stinking thinking, because the thing is, the new novel beckons, I want to write more poetry, and I want to write about teaching.  So, I’m not making any promises at this point, but I’m going to make a concerted effort to get back to the blog. I think it’s important for the health of the creature they call Michael Jarmer.

Me: Well, good luck with the return of the writing, and good luck with the new record.

Michael: Thanks.

Me: Hey Michael Jarmer, thanks for spending some time with me today.

Michael: Yeah, no problem; it was a pleasure.

 

 

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Some Things that Sucked about Music in the 80’s

It’s time to make some pronouncements.  I have no authority, and I hate it when people who have no authority make pronouncements, but because I am a musician and can kind of claim to know something about music, and because I lived through, was actually a teenager and a young adult in this particular era, I will make some pronouncements anyway, even though none of this makes me an authority.

Many things about music in the 80’s sucked.  Hair bands, for the most part, sucked. Mainstream pop, almost entirely, sucked.  The more popular of the one-hit wonder new wave bands, for all intents and purposes, sucked.  Overproduced drums and vocals, the snare drum that sounded like a nuclear explosion and the vocal  track drowning in reverb, these things sucked. Most of the videos on MTV, as exciting as they were for awhile, sucked, especially the videos which showcased some of these musicians in their full dumb-assed glory, for example, playing a single note with an index finger on a synthesizer while boogying with themselves, or posing ridiculously with guitars jutting out from between their legs like gigantic phalluses, or this, what my band Here Comes Everybody was guilty of in the 80’s: way over-the-top lip synced performances, complete with real instruments plugged into nothing in a bare studio against a blank backdrop.  Yes, even I, to a certain degree, sucked in the 80’s . Even if the music I made didn’t suck (and it didn’t, by the way, in my humble opinion), my notions of what was hip, cool, or engaging in the visual department certainly did.  I’ll direct your attention to Exhibit A:

This video sucks in so many awful ways.  It appears that the singer in the band, c’est moi, is on speed.  He wasn’t, by the way.  But he was all hot and sweaty because he had done perhaps ten takes before the stupid videographers got their stupid video shit together enough for a complete performance.  His mascara is running.  Musicians in the 80’s wore mascara.  That kind of sucked.  But what especially sucks in this video is the battle the singer in the band, c’est moi, has with a digital blackout bar, the kind usually used to black out eyes or naughty bits.  That was just a dumb idea, but it was, at the time, the fanciest special effect we had at our disposal.  Also a dumb idea is this notion that the musicians pretending to play their instruments should be huddled in a little line behind the spastic lead singer.  Okay, enough about me.  And I really wanted, initially, to write about things that DIDN’T suck about music in the 80’s, but I just couldn’t seem to run out of the things that did.  Let me try to get through the rest quickly.

Bands and artists that were great in the 70’s, particularly Cheap Trick, Elton John, Kiss, Rush, and Journey, sucked in the 80’s, despite a number of mega-hits from many of them.  The word “sucked,” which I’m certain had an earlier origin, was particularly overused in the 80’s, and that has nothing to do with music, but it, nevertheless, sucked. However, there’s a very sharp little defense of the word “sucks” by Seth Stevenson on Slate, and it makes me feel not nearly so guilty for overusing the word in this little blog post.

What didn’t suck about 80’s music?  Not surprisingly, the things that didn’t suck about 80’s music are the same things that don’t suck about some of today’s music. Bands contain real musicians who can really play.  Or, bands contain mediocre musicians whose spirited and unique performances totally make up for the fact that they’re not very good.  Arrangements are unpredictable.  Lyrics contain actual ideas. Some envelopes are pushed.  This is my list of the 80’s greatest pop bands or artists: XTC, The Boomtown Rats, The Talking Heads, Japan, The Fixx, Tears for Fears, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and several others I’ve temporarily forgotten because I’m getting old.  Some people will say that Bowie sucked in the 80’s, but they’d be wrong about that. And my test to determine whether or not I was deluded as a young man by bad music I believed was good is this: the music of these artists has real staying power for me.  I can listen to any of those records and appreciate their craft beyond and outside the pure nostalgia I might feel for the good ol’ days of my youth. And finally, there were things we thought sucked about 80’s music that, in hindsight, or hind-hearing, don’t turn out after all to suck: Michael Jackson decidedly did not suck in the 80’s, even though I believed he did.  And because I have been recently involved (as Uncle Wes) in the musical Footloose, I  have developed some appreciation for the tunes from this show for which I was absolutely dismissive as a young punk.  Let’s hear it for the boys, indeed. Flashdance, however, will have to go into the suck bin until I get a part in that musical.

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