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Category Archives: 80s

Happy 20th Anniversary to Me?

This month marks my 20th anniversary as a songwriter. There I was 20 years ago, 13 years old and sitting in Kathy Connon’s English class not paying attention as usual. Usually, my magical a.d.d. butterfly friends would transport me to a land filled with man-crushes covered in sequined Speedos and sparkly angel wings. But lo, this time, they took me to a far more enchanted and magical place – one where unicorns frolicked while shitting glitter and Pete Seeger songs played from a rinky-dink Fisher Price fake record player.

It was in this magical land that I penned my first song entitled “Daydream the World.” Looking back, it was one of the more earnest and creepy lyrics I’ve written.

Why earnest? Because at 13 I wasn’t faux-jaded yet. All I listened to was Erasure and The B-52’s. Happy gay music! Sure the jocks were cruel to me at that age but now that we’re friends on Facebook, it’s all water under the bridge. Or at least my therapist says so.

But why creepy? Lyrics included “Leave me now/I wanna be in a shell/Boxed up from/This real life of hell…” Boxed up? BOXED UP??

Sounds like I’m singing a folk song to a coffin. Egahds. But I digress…

As I thought about how to celebrate 20 years of folk-pop goodness, I was tempted to get myself a celebratory Cookie Puss Carvel cake. Then I realized FML I’m in Tokyo and the closest thing would be a Hello Kitty cake. Now THAT’S creepy.

Still, once I started thinking about cake and Cookie Puss, I had a flashback to a commercial like this one, forever etched into the Betamax in my mind…

As children of the 80s, with commercials like these, is it any wonder we’re all in therapy?

But yes, other than eating a cake that looks like an alien with a d*ck for a nose, how would you suggest I celebrate this 20 year milestone?

 
 

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What makes for a good cover version of someone else’s song?

If you’ve caught my live shows you know I enjoy mixing in 80s songs with my originals. It puts the audience at ease by offering something familiar and nostalgic before I hit ‘em over the head with new Danny Katzisms. And since I’m taking a break from touring, I figured I could use my down time to upload some 80s covers to YouTube.

I was practicing Erasure’s “Chains of Love” last night (favorite group evahhh – you have not lived until you’ve been subjected to Andy Bell in red sequined speedos, body glitter and angel wings) and was trying to find a way to make my interpretation unique and worthy of a YouTube upload.

If you surf YouTube for a bit you get the impression that anyone and their mother can record a fairly decent cover version of a song – most pop songs are straightforward and if you can bang out 4 chords on a guitar you stand a chance of doing the song at least some justice. But it seems like the cover versions that truly captivate are by musicians who are extreme virtuosos and/or are extremely tech savy.

I posted to Facebook regarding what songs you would like me to do Danny Katz folk-pop style and got quite a nice range of responses – everything from Depeche Mode to NKOTB.

But given that I can’t even figure out how to turn on an iPod yet alone use one, what is a little simple folky like me to do – how can I make my cover versions remarkable? What makes for a good cover version of someone else’s song?

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2010 in 80s, Nostalgia

 

Brooklyn 2 Beantown – Concert at B.U.

This morning found me getting off the subway at 53rd/Lex and walking 4 avenues and 10 blocks while carrying two backpacks, a guitar, three coffees, a box of Dunkin Donuts munchkins and a partridge in a pear tree.  En route to Matt Sia’s (www.myspace.com/mattsia) apartment, I looked fracking ridiculous.  But several munchkins later he, his fiancé Marisa, buddy Rob Lara (http://www.myspace.com/roblara) and I were on our way.  No major hitches until I, as C.S.N. – Chief Spaztic Navigator, mixed up I-84E and West, I believe.  The exits are no less than 15+ minutes apart.  So if you miss your exit, oh well… you’re F*CKED.

Despite my inability to comprehend the most basic of directions, we eventually managed to make it to Cambridge when we hit a car (not Rob’s fault, the other driver was taking a left onto two lanes of oncoming traffic, appearing to intentionally slow down when Rob laid on the horn and breaks).  What ensued post accident was an amusing exchange between two American-born Filipinos and a considerably older, fobby Chinese-American couple.  Fortunately, the police officer that came by was very patient and even-handed about everything (despite looking painfully ridonkulous in an oversized, poofie hat, Starwars Storm trooper boots, chewing gum like a COW and also talking with the thickest Bahstahn accent I have EVAH heard).  On several occasions he had to tell the old Asian woman to “go back to your CAHHH!” since she kept attempting to peer over the officer’s shoulder and change the story around.

I’m sure the police officer returned to his precinct with some interesting stories… “Hey Joe!  You’ll never guess what I had to take care of today.  How many Chinese does it take to…”  ::drum roll/cymbal crash::

We eventually met the rest of the “roaming Asian mafia” (as I dubbed the 8 of us) and headed over to Matt’s sister’s apartment.  While the rest of the gang went to 5 o’clock mass, Annarei D. and I (the Agnostic and the Jew) watched “13 Ghosts” while I hid behind a mountain of pillows.  Wow – if you want to see a movie that’s bizarrely awful AND gross, so much so that it ends up being cultishly campy, then this is the movie for you.  No matter how hard I tried while watching it, I could not shake the image of Tony Shalhoub, who’s the main actor in the movie, portraying any character other than Monk.

Prepping the B.U. show was a blur of tuning, sound checking and catching up with Alfa Garcia (www.myspace.com/alfa), who I haven’t spoke to in months.  She opened the event performing material from her forthcoming album (which you MUST listen to – it’s awesome).  Her growth as a songwriter over the past few years has been profound, and I was honored that she invited me to the stage to perform two songs with her.  Matt Sia’s set followed.  I’m always floored by how cool and collected he is on stage – a true folky (albeit one with a fine understanding of how to use a loop pedal!), just having a nice conversation with the crowd.  He invited Jay Legaspi (www.myspace.com/jaylegaspi) and Rob up on stage for a great cover of Tenacious D’s “Tribute (The Greatest Song In The World)” and then Jay joined on stage to beatbox for another one of Matt’s songs.

While enjoying their set, I tried to gauge the audience based on what they reacted best to.  I decided to start my set with my 80s cartoon theme song medley, which everyone sang along to except when I got to the theme song for “Jem.”  Apparently only gay audiences know that one!  I then played my Missy Elliott/John Denver fusion version of “Work It,” followed by my ode to the joys and pitfalls of internet dating, “Even I’ve Got Standards.”  This was followed by a debut of “Arcee” from my forthcoming “More Than Meets the Ear: (Selections from) Transformers the Musical,” then I continued with an emo moment – “You’ve Just Begun to Discover.”  In case I wasn’t campy enough, I ended the set with “Karma Chameleon.”

Upon concluding my set it occurred to me just how unfiltered a set it was.  If you’ve seen me perform live, you know I swear like a sailor.  (Heck, you can see it in my blogging, too.)  At a divey bar in the East Village, that’s all good and fine, but when you’re performing for a predominantly Filipino/Filipino-American audience, there are undoubtedly some audience members who are good and churchy.  Hope I didn’t offend anyone!!!  Well, too much at least 🙂

For Jay Legaspi’s set, he introduced a Talk Box – perhaps best known from the weird vocal intro riff to Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.”  Despite this neat gadget, the audience was quite subdued throughout his set until Matt Pana (http://www.myspace.com/panapresents) guest bucket-drummed for a song.  The banter between Jay and Matt reminded me of the banter when I’ve performed with my sister.  I’ll be rambling on about some story behind a song and she’ll interject with “Danny – nobody cares.”  I think at one point, Matt said something to the effect of “Uh, Jay?  Just play the song…”

Matty P. (www.myspace.com/mattpereyra), a Berkley College of Music senior, entertained with an all original set.  While played on acoustic guitar, his songs would definitely fit with a rock band.  Seeing his confidence on stage got me wondering where I’d be with my music career had I gone to Berkeley instead of Sarah Lawrence, where I chose to major in the murky scrubland between Asian/Asian-American Studies and Queer Theory, instead of pursuing a music or performance studies major.

I was reminded how much I enjoy performing for college audiences tonight.  They possess this rare combination of awkwardness, sincerity and idealism.  Performing for them reminds me of how I saw the world 10+ years ago, and how, while I wouldn’t trade anything for what the real word has taught me since, I’d like to be able to see it again. That’s to say that while time has taught me to roll with life’s punches, I sometimes long for the burning energy and almost blind idealism I had when I was 19.  And I think that longing is part of the reason I enjoy sharing the stage with younger performers, or if they’re older, then performers who are young at heart.

In earlier ramblings, I’ve reflected on the challenges that come with presenting oneself or having oneself be presented as an Asian-American singer/songwriter as well as the challenges that come with playing to predominantly Asian-American audiences.  Those challenges being what they are, I was particular struck by how diverse the musical styles were that we presented at B.U. And I was further struck by how almost all of the songs performed were about universal themes, rather than any sort of stereotypical Asian-American themes, e.g. the immigrant experience, experiences with racism, experiences with stereotyping, etc.  Not that there’s anything wrong with songs that cover those themes; protest and political songs definitely have their value and I think they can be important to one’s finding their artistic voice – if you don’t know yourself, how can you write for others?

But seeing what went down at B.U., I’m curious if the “Asian-American music scene” might be growing in tandem with the larger Asian-American population, and the political empowerment that goes along with growing numbers.  What I mean by this is if we are at a stage in the Asian-American community’s voice where talking about identity isn’t essential anymore.  As the Asian-American music scene evolves and defines itself, there might be less of a desire to write and perform songs that are specific to the collective Asian-American experience.  Or there might be MORE of a collective desire.  Iunno…  I guess time will tell.  And I’m sure I will return to this topic again and again as I try to sort it out.

But while I’m rambling about collective experiences, I think something a lot of touring musicians contend with is the issue of where “home” is for them (regardless of ethnic and cultural upbringing).  I certainly return to this question time and time again – and I’m not even on the road that much!  Playing this show pushed that question to the forefront.

Years ago, I asked my mom what she considers to be home, since although born and raised in Japan, she’s lived more than half of her life in the U.S.  Now a practicing Jew, she hasn’t relinquished her Japanese citizenship for an American one.  When I asked her what she felt home to be, she said something to the effect of “home being something that’s inside of you and that’s shaped by your life experiences.”

As we drove through Boston, I kept looking out the window thinking “I could live here…” but would it ever truly become home?  New York definitely feels like home; with the exception of a year living in Japan, I’ve lived within a 40 mile radius of NYC my entire life.  Yet home for me has been shaped by PEOPLE.  Home is someplace I feel I belong, where I meet groups of people with whom I have a shared set of experiences.  What was reinforced playing B.U. was that the more I perform outside of New York, and the further I get from the people who have made this feel like home, the more important it is to find a sense of home wherever I am – by being able to connection with complete strangers and to achieve something like small-town feel wherever my touring takes me.

I think the small town feel appear to me in particular because I grew up in the suburb of Scarsdale.  While the population of 20,000 doesn’t sound like a small town, it had a small town feel- most people knew each other in one capacity or another.  Now it may be partly growing up and/or partly the culture of NYC, but since moving from Scarsdale to the city itself, I’ve learned to connect with people intensely for a moment, knowing full well it might be days, weeks, months and possibly even years before our paths will cross again.  And while there are plenty of amazing people here that I’d love to get to know better, I’ve come to accept that there’s not enough time.  The ability to connect on the go and still feel part of a larger community is particularly important to my surviving away from the geographically specific home off NYC but it’s a skill I’ve been learning BECAUSE I live in NYC.

At the same time, I think in order to articulate what home really is, I may need to leave it, for long periods of time.  Rob Lara and I spoke at length on our ride back to NYC about his and Matt’s experiences growing up in Marquette, Michigan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marquette,_Michigan).  They both left behind an amazing town to be in the thick of NYC’s insanity, but have somehow managed to still be small town boys at heart.  Why did they leave?  Perhaps Matt explains it best in song “Marquette.”  I think the lyrics speak for themselves.

Marquette, MI

by Matt Sia

Cold outside, it’s so
Rust-orange sun inside a periwinkle glow
Fifteenth Hole

Coming back, I understand now
How much more I do appreciate this town
Miss those sounds

Chorus:
Silence breaks away from the stone wall along the lake
And the air is sweeter than it’s ever been
With every breath, I take in memories of way back when
I left this place long ago
Now I’m home
I’m home

I’m paintin’ the rock tonight
The island fog is lifting, making for a perfect drive
Red and white

Cruising third at 3 a.m. over icy roads of sand and snow
Things have change and all the same, I let them fade
But still I’ll keep these memories not to return
Until I’d grown enough to see

Stars instead of lights
Cricket sounds instead of honking horns and sirens fill the night
Dragonflies

Chorus:
Silence breaks away from the stone wall along the lake
And the air is sweeter than it’s ever been
With every breath, I take in memories of way back when
I left this place long ago
Now I’m home
I’m home
I’m home

 

Chromia!

Tonight we wrapped up mixing of “More Than Meets the Ear” and holy fuckitty, I’m EXCITED!  Just gotta master the album at Salt Mastering in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and then send it off to the duplicators.  It sounds amazing and I can’t believe it’s all done.  Brooklyn fresh.  Word.  A decent analogy might be something like a graduation.  You wait and wait for that day to come, and then when it finally hits you, it just seems like BAM and it’s done.  Except now comes all the promotion work, which is a job in of itself.  Fortunately, my Director of Internet Promotions, Nathalie Gonzalez, is amazing.  So hopefully my dream of teaming up with The Minibosses (an incredible rock group out of Phoenix, AZ that does Nintendo covers) will come true and we’ll take over some anime/comic/toy convention near u!  Botcon, b*tchez, botcon!

 
 

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More Than Meets Your Monitor!

I’m happy to write that production on “More Than Meets the Ear: (Selections from) Transformers The Musical” is close to complete.  Just two more sessions and the tracks get sent off to be mastered (adding final “umph” to the mix).  Once that’s done, they’ll be ready for your listening pleasure.

I’m still on the fence about whether to release this album only as digital downloads or whether it’s still worth the substantial expense of making CDs (with digital downloads through iTunes following within 6 months).  Any thoughts on this?  How many of you still buy physical CDs?

In any event, here’s all we accomplished at last Saturday’s session:

1. We mixed “Optimus Prime” – a song which originally was a simple ballad mourning Optimus’ passing in the ’86 Transformers movie.  But with lyrics like “Optimus Prime/I think about you all of the time/Rememering our conversations on Cybertron/And Optimus Prime/I think about you all of the time/And I know that your legacy will live on” we agreed that it deserved a transformation (yuckyuckyuck) into an epic David Bowie meets Queen song.  It’s now totally over-the-top and I love it.  I’m sure you will too 😉

2. We mixed “Sam Witwicky” (the song about The character of the same name in the ’07 movie: “Just because I ride a girl’s pink bicycle/Doesn’t mean I can’t hold the weight of the world in my hands/It doesn’t take the Allspark/Or the Autobot matrix of leadership/To make a man/All it takes is your great-great grandfather’s glasses/And an eBay account”) to give it that Beatles/old time radio feel by panning vocals and guitar hard left and hard right and compessing the s*it out of the vocals.

3. For “Allspark,” (a song written from the point of view of the vending machine that gets brought to life for 5 seconds during the final fight seen in The ’07 Transformers movie – “Allspark-I am nothing without you/Allspark-you make me feel brand new/Before you came into my life, before I had you by my side/I was just a lonely vending
machine/Down and out in Mission City”) we broke out the old organ and ginormous Leslie (?) amp.  The kind where the wawa sound of the organ comes from this fan type thing twirling like a carousel on crack.  Aaron had to get me to focus since I kept staring in wonder at the amp.  Ooh.  Antique music gear (drooling).  Must. Touch.

4. We had fun distorting the living s*it out the vocals in “Arcee,” my Greenday-esque tribute to the most memorable female Transformer from the ’86 movie (if only because she’s the only female Transformer that was seen for more than five seconds.)  With lyrics like “Autobots and humans should keep things professional/interspecies dating is way too extraterrestrial/And I know I can offer you a different kind of love you’ll see/even though at my tallest point/I barely reach your knee (will I see you at BotCon?)” you know this track’s gotta be… Special.  Besides… Ain’t she a beaut?  And never in my life would I have imagined that a little folk singer like me would be able to pull off punk-pop!

5. Rachel Beninati, who is the darling lead vocalist of my “Eternally Bueller” 80s covers band, came in to do some Amy Winehouse (minus the beehive/cocaine stash) style lead vocals and harmonies for the track “Bumblebee,” written from the point of view of an unnamed female Junkion (a line of Transformers introduced in the ’86 movie who live on the planet… Junkion.  I know, cleverrr) who suspects Bumblebee is cheating on her with one of the other *gasp* male Transformers.  Seriously though, it’s an awesome experience writing a song for someone else to sing.  It’s something I definitely want to do more of.

6. For “The Acousticons,” the track about a fictional line of Transformers that pride themselves on Transforming into non-mechanical things (“We are the Acousticons/Get that microphone away from me/When you are an Acousticon/You transform accoustically/We are the Acousticons/No need for machinery/When you are an Acousticon/Ya transform naturally”) we recorded “bar sounds” by smacking beer mugs around and knocking over stools.  Kinda like kindergarten.  Yippee!  And once these low-fi sound effects are mixed in with the fake bar banter we recorded a few months back (with the help of Mel Aroco, John Violago, Mike Violago and their mom), the track should have the feel of a lively Irish pub.  Albeit one filled with drunken Transformers.  “Bartender!  I’d like an Energon martini.”  Yeah, something like that.

7. For my personal favorite, “Ironhide,” we added a slide guitar lead to give the track an alt-country feel.  It’s a nice flourish to a song about love and loss with lyrics like “But for all of my/All of my bravado/Chromia I miss you so/And I’m still aching for your touch/But I’ll be coming home/I’ll be coming home soon/And we will dance by the light of Cybertronian moons” Some Transformers trivia for you (so you can sound extra knowledgeable at your next dinner party – or Comicon):  Chromia is another female Transformer who I believe is featured for all of 1 minute in the episode “The Search for Alpha Trion.”  From what I recall of that episode, she was kinda gruff and a tough fighter.  Reminds me of my boss.  Awesome.  And what was with the dearth of female characters anyways?  I’d accuse the show of being, oh iunno, phallocentric but it’s not as if they… Ok, lemme stop.

Since this album started out as a one song joke consisting of two lines repeated in my head ad nauseum (“Optimus Prime – I think about you all of the time”), I’m amazed at how it’s grown into a full-on concept album.  Even when I was teaching the songs to John Violago and Matt Pana (who play bass/vocals and drums on it, respectively), I only had a partial idea how the songs would grow in the recording studio.  Their blooming (can Transformers songs bloom?) is owed in no small part to Aaron Nevezie’s genius behind the board at The Bunker Studios.  (Not that I wasn’t aware of his skills when recording Strangely Beautiful, but much of that album was me recording tracks in my noisy Manhattan Apartment, then transferring the tracks to CD-Rom, uploading them at The Bunker and telling Aaron and John Davis, “Yeah- so these songs are kinda done.  But can you, ya know… Fix ’em?”  This time we recorded everything in the studio.)

I’ve recorded studio albums since high school, but I’m still amazed how songs evolve in the studio environment.  There’s something incredible that comes out of collaborating with musicians who get what you’re looking for in your songs, even if you don’t have words to convey the ideas to them.  And there’s really no greater pleasure for me than to hear all these ideas fleshed out and brought to life in a collaborative and improvisational environment. 

It was even more gratifying than I would have expected because writing comedic songs about something that was such a large part of my childhood gave me an artistic and “grown up” way to become a kid again. 

Not that childhood was all picturesque suburban pastures – elementary school was particularly challenging (once a geek, always a geek!) and  Transformers was therefore an imaginative escape for me.  Even though I realized other kids had them too, it felt like a very private world of role play, battles, and some awful super 8 stop-motion videos of Kup jerkily transforming/falling on his face/tripping on legos/etc.

As an aside, I think I got quite a few in my Transformers collection as bribes from my mom to continue attending Saturday Japanese school, the most memorable one being Soundwave.  What?  With Hebrew School on Wednesdays and Sundays and Japanese School on Saturdays, I was a bit overwhelmed.  And Friday night’s shabbat usually consisted of me and my a.d.d. self trying to devise ways to avoid sitting with my mom at the kotatsu doing kanji homework.  All of my Transformers are now being displayed, museum style, by my friend Ms. Hawley (since I don’t have room in my apartment for them).  And somewhere, deep in the trenches of my childhood suburban home, I think I have all the episodes reocrded (complete with commercials) on BETAMAX!

For what it’s worth, I think Optimus Prime was my first crush.  Ok, I know. Who the fuck has a crush on a truck?!  Is there even a psychiatric term for that?  Dirty.  You’re all dirty.  It was an innocent kid crush.  Nothing sexual.  Something about his virtue, voice and oh yeah, his chest.  Woof.  Oh maybe I’m mixing him up with He-Man.  After all, He-Man did have that white guy trying to work the Asian bowl hair-cut thing going on.

In any event, experiencing the ’07 movie in a packed movie theater was therefore an emotional experience I cannot put into words.  Here was something I had very privately grown up with that a packed movie theater related to with as much enthusiasm as I did.  There are no words to describe how geekily exciting it was when the entire audience bursted into applause the first time Optimus Prime transformed.  I think I shed a tear.  Yeah, tre butch, I know. 

So I’m hoping the album conveys some of that youthful glee.  Because recording this album allowed me to tap into that exhuberent childhood connection with The Transformers cartoon and use it to create something totally new and fabulously cracked-out. 🙂 

I go back next Thursday for more mixing.  Wish me luck!

 
 

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