Ever since I was a little, girlish boy, I wanted to make records. For the past 10 years (WTF!) I have been playing in the band Xiu Xiu. On the cusp of the release of our eighth full-length album, Always, and our 10,000th world tour, I thought of that little, girlish boy and how he got into this mess. I know I should probably talk about Always -- it is in my best interest to promote it as much as I can -- but try as I might, I feel like a jerk-off just going "XiUSA! XiUSA! XiUSA!"
As squirmy self-consciousness has won over responsible self-interest, instead, this is going to be about every other band I was ever in before Xiu Xiu, and the semi-pathetic and hopefully amusing path that led me to it. That said, however, I would like to note that a lot of people think Always is our best record... snap!
When I was in third grade I had a foster sister named Jennifer. She was 16, and to me she was super-cool. I was an easily ruffled, perpetually frightened child, but she was the first person who made me feel like I could hold my head up on occasion. She did this by sitting with me in my dad's office, where she smoked carton after carton of cigarettes, taught me to curse using Mad Libs, and played me the Beatles' Abbey Road over and over and over after school. It was the first adult record I listened to. Prior to that I had only heard "Monster Mash" and "Flying Purple People Eater."
After one year she ran away, which broke my heart, and like most people on Earth, I turned to listening to records to try to heal it. Jennifer left that copy of Abbey Road at the house for me, and I would play air guitar to it every day as hard as I could until my Garfield baseball hat fell off. From this I started my first band ever, called The Enchanters (that was during my heavy Dungeons & Dragons era). It was not really a band; it was just me on air guitar, but I made a logo for it, which was a magical staff with a rainbow (how prescient) spell entwining the letters.
Around this time my parents bought me a stereo that had a record function on it, and a little microphone. My friend Gavin and I would make guitar and drum noises into it with our mouths and improvise lyrics. At one point, however, I found myself screaming "Fred Flintstone's luscious dick!" into the mic, which stopped us both dead in our rocking-reverie tracks. I could not believe I'd said this, let alone rocked out to it. I stopped recording for several years after that. The power of rock and cartoon men's cock was too much for me.
It was not until junior high that I was detraumatized enough to try again, this time under the name The Lime Green Leisure Suits, which was a Weird-Al-Yankovic-type band in which I and my friends Brad and Scott would make up mean songs about our classmates, sung over original album recordings. We would just play them out of one stereo and then, using another stereo, hold a mic close to the speaker and yell out the parody lyrics at the same time. We would then sell these recordings to the very same kids we were making fun of. Needless to say, it wasn't long before we were totally hated by the whole class. We had this coming, but we did not care.
Once I was in high school I wanted to try to be more serious about playing, at least in theory. The Number One Fish Pointers did almost exclusively Bauhaus covers. However, we could not really play, so we just learned one verse of about 20 of their songs and played them over and over. We sucked. We played, I think, the same girl's birthday party for ninth, 10th, and 11th grade, never really improving. Once, some real goths at a party forced us to stop playing verse one of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" over and over, and then they played the whole thing correctly, humiliating us. We responded by playing verse one of "Funeral Rose Garden" over and over.
Somehow, just after high school, I could play bass fairly well, and by total chance I fell in with a group of (to me) older musicians who were famous new-wave and punk icons. This group, however, had an awful name: The Live Nude Psychics. But it was composed of members of Devo, The Screamers, Sparks, Geza X, Josie Cotton, and a great guitar player named Kenny Lyon. I am sure they all thought I was an idiot, but they were all very sweet to me and told me not to play stupid things when I played stupid things. At the time, I did not know what an astounding wealth of musical knowledge was in this group, because I was a dumb kid. I quit to move back in with my parents and go to community college. But I learned a lot from them, which I lean on to this day, even though I did not know it at the time.
Back in my parents' home, overwhelmed by life, I fumbled into playing in a Motown pick-up band called The Rico Ellis Ensemble, a punk band called The Concubines, and a dub band called Rash Majesta and the Crush Crew. The hair in all these bands was noteworthy. Rico Ellis had an incredible Jheri-curl hairpiece that oddly had a huge hole in the center; the drummer of The Concubines, although about 20 years old, was severely balding but tried to maintain a long Albrecht Dürer mane; and, as expected, all the dudes in the Crush Crew had smelly-ass dreads. Within one week I was fired from all these bands: Rico Ellis for fighting with him about ripping me off of $20 from a totally shitty frat-bar show; The Concubines because I called the band "pussies" for not wanting to bum-rush the stage at our friend's show and play our music; and from the Crush Crew when they found out I was queer. Some rastas can be outrageously homophobic.
I was bumming out about this when an old friend and former member of The Number One Fish Pointers, who had at that point gone on to be a legit musician (now he does the music for the TV show Weeds), told me to say "fuck it" to those jerks and start my own band. This led to IBOPA, The Indestructible Beat of Palo Alto, a nod to the township jive master piece The Indestructible Beat of Soweto and a dig at the Bay Area whitey suburb, Palo Alto, where I'd briefly lived.
We had no idea what we were doing and combined crazed, wheelchair-riding theatrics, funk, movie soundtracks, mambo, and songs about AIDS. My only excuse is that it was the '90s. But I do remember it being fun. My dad played bass in it for a while, and we had a chance to rekindle our relationship, as he was largely absent when I was growing up. In IBOPA we were trying to be famous, and that generally ended in failure. The band broke up after briefly having -- and then losing -- a pointless record deal with a major label.
But this led my dad, who was a very successful record producer and music equipment designer, to talk to me and ask why I wanted to be in a bands. I said, as noted, that I wanted to be famous, but he responded with the most important thing I have ever heard regarding music. He said the point of music is to try to touch people. It sounds incredibly corny, but one can approach music from a point of greed and emotional selfishness, or one can approach music from a place of connection with humanity and a place of trying to give. It is impossible to fully live up to this, but more than anything I appreciate his having told me this. I fail at this all the time, but having it as a goal has given playing a meaning for me that it did not have before this.
About a year after Xiu Xiu started, my father committed suicide. He came to one early show at which there were about four people. It was in Sacramento. At that time he was losing his mind, but that night he seemed oddly cogent. He took me aside and told me to keep going and that music was worth it. A month later he was dead.
Lately, I've been thinking about quitting all the time. My confidence has been routinely routed. But then I remember what he told me, and I think of the little, girlish boy in the Garfield hat, crying at loss and holding his air guitar tightly to his chest, and I never want to let them down.