Geoff Geis

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Uli and the Gringos live album recording

Download mp3: Uli and the Gringos: Parara
Uli and the Gringos on Myspace.

Sunny dance pop, with lyrics I can’t understand and sick synthesizers– I love Uli & the Gringos! I got lucky to meet them when, a few years ago, they moved from New York to the house next door to where I was living with Tyler and Rand. Uli and Eugene were some of the best neighbors I’ve ever had, and they remain valued friends even though we no longer live next door to each other. I’m excited that they asked me to make the flyer for their show on Wednesday, June 23 at La Cita:

They’ll be recording a live album during their set. You should come and be boisterous, for posterity’s sake! Here is a link to the Facebook event.

Last year, I interviewed band member Eugene (synths, saxophones) for the “…What is Happening” magazine released by Big Whup Industries. In honor of their show, I’ve printed it here. I took a liberty by removing myself from the interview, and it’s like a monologue because of that. That’s not how it really was.

—–

Eugene Toale, September 2009:

The core of the way that I write music, that I do music, is improvisation. Like, I was a jazz guy, right? So I went to jazz school, played sax – and part of the saxophone lifestyle is to learn how to improvise and play over chord changes and invent on your feet and all that. When I write music for the band I’m usually improvising my parts, or I was improvising them in the studio and I got to know them and played them again… Boxing makes you think on your feet. That’s where the phrase comes from; that’s where a lot of phrases come from: “thinking on your feet,” “down for the count,” you know, “had him on Queer Street!” Being in the moment and in the fight and having no way out has probably put the capstone on my improvising as a saxophone player. Not that’s not the core of who I am as a musician and all that shit, but it kind of informs all of my writing, all of my everything. The ability to pick up an instrument and just blow has gotten easier as a result of being able to jump in the ring and just fight… Do I understand everything my wife sings about? No. I understand what they’re about, I mean, I was with her when she wrote them, she tells me what they’re about. But words and lyrics and stuff? No, of course not. I can’t sing, like “te quiro puesum da, dumbumbum parara.” I don’t know any of those fucking words, I just know the sounds of them. But then again, in Uli and the Gringos we’ve got that kind of split partnership where we can kind of give each other jobs. I know it sounds crazy, but she writes all the words and I obsess over the bass lines. We both work on the beats. She usually comes up with the chords, I like to do the arrangement of the tune, the sounds, the production, and really get into which players I want to use and stuff. So the lyrics are purely Uli, and the music is, you know, Uli and the Gringos… But I understand what she’s singing about in all these songs because I was there. One song, “No Quiero,” was about quitting her day job. I went to that job everyday after my job, which I hated. I mean, I was there when we quit. I was there when she wrote the song, I mean we live together. We play together. I mean, I don’t know the words because my Spanish isn’t all that good. But I know which bird she’s singing about in the bird song, you know?
…We never wanted to be labeled as a jazz group. We’re not a jazz group. Uli went to a jazz school, she understands that type of harmony. But her philosophy is very independent, it’s very rock n roll… We got a bass player in New York, we got a bass player in Mexico, we got a bass player here and they all play so drastically different. They look different, they act different, they are different. So we let them play those notes however they want. We don’t play them a record and say “play this.” The guys are generally strong enough players that they can just jump in and play something. Then when it comes time to make an album, we usually go to all the cities we work in just so we can use all those guys. And it makes sense to use this guy on this, this guy on that. Jamie is the nastiest funk guy in the world. When he plays, he plays the gig all funky. I play more straight up on the sax, Uli plays a little bit rockier on the guitar. We play with Oliver, I play real sweet. She starts doing the upbeat skank thing a little bit more, lays down on the beat. We go to Mexico and that’s a totally different thing. Eddie is more of an improviser, do you get something different with Eddie. Give him some space, come up with some lines, whatever… I mean, it wasn’t fun at the time, but practicing our instruments as little kids, not knowing that we were going to be a musicians as a job…  now, around this age it’s like the instruments kind of disappear. There’s no reason a saxophone should be in a Latin/Rock/Indie group, but I play it in a way that fits in. Fuck it. That’s the instrument I play. We make it work. I don’t play jazz, I don’t impose my will on it… The saxophone has got many traditions, and I try not to pick one. With the jazz tradition, you really learn to play be-bop. That’s what’s up for guys in that. And then there’s some rock n roll guys, like Clarence Clemons. Michael Brecker can really play, but he sounds a little cheesy. Whatever. What I tried to do was play “pop saxophone,” you know? This is just my instrument. I’m not trying to be cool, I’m not trying to be indie on it, I’m not trying to drag my bassoon out to the rock n roll show. I’m just trying to say “this is what I do.” I can improvise. I can find a spot. I can play like, one note lines behind her. I can play a complementary counter-melody and then I can back off and all that. I can have maybe a new identity as a saxophone in a band… And Uli put the PhD on my improvising, just by having to play with someone who can really compose. Someone who knows how to write classical music,  really knows melodies and stuff. She tells you to “do this, to this.” Most of it was “you’re playing too much, you’re playing too much.” In reverse, though, a saxophonist works years and years and years on his tone. His support. His air. The size of the sound. And she as a singer has been singing against a tenor saxophone with a big sound for the past five years. And her voice sounds bigger and bigger and bigger. She’s got a big strong voice for a little girl… We figured out a register that we can both live in together, we both blast our asses off, and we blaze nice.

There is also this thing going on tomorrow, in West Hollywood at the Standard Hotel. It’s free, and I play at 8 PM:

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Nicole Kidman Interview from Big Whup Industries “…What is Happening” zine

In September, I interviewed Jon Barba (aka Nicole Kidman) for the “What is Happening…”  zine, which was released to accompany the first Big Whup Industries Compilation. Nicole Kidman’s song “Popular” is featured on that CD.

For more about Nicole Kidman, see his myspace.

______________________

Geoff conducted an interview with West Covina musician Jon Barba at Ports o’ Call Bedroom, the clandestine performance space that he’s built out of his parents’ pool house. Jon raises kittens, and he currently has four of them. At the beginning of the conversation, the kittens were playing with a live mouse brought to them by their mother. She watched proudly through the interview as the kittens took turns ripping it to shreds and devouring its carcass.

I started making music in high school, on electric guitar. Strumming and singing about girls that I liked…. A friend of mine – well, not a friend of mine, this guy I knew – had an electric guitar and he never used it and I asked him if he wanted to come over and bring his guitar. And I played it and asked if I could borrow it. I’d just get out emotion… Then I was in Pomona at an antique store, and in the basement of it I found the keyboard and it was only fifteen dollars. And I had twenty dollars so I bought it… I was just going to buy something stupid anyway, so I bought that. That was pretty much it. That changed my sound completely… I was more into the beat. I still don’t even know how to play anything. I’m just messing around and seeing what sounds okay to me… The keyboard has become a best friend of mine…

…And then it stopped working for a long time because the plug in the back wasn’t working. Then Crow was here… I had shown him “Little Trucks,” the first song I ever made on it. It was just about me and this girl – she came here and I was trying to impress her. She liked the White Stripes so I bought posters of them… Like a little mini-date type thing, but I wasn’t all together in the head and I was extremely nervous and trying to get her to like me and I made that song about that… Crow liked it a lot… He pulled the keyboard out and was like “why don’t you play that anymore?” I told him it wasn’t working and then he plugged it up and it started working!  …And then I just picked it up again and made songs, like five songs really quickly… but I still never played it live. And then after the Ports o’ Call shows when there’d be like five of us here – close friends – they’d ask me to play… I didn’t really want to, but all of them were saying “do it! Don’t be a pussy!” …So I just played for them. In the beginning it was like shaking and instant sweat, but now I’ve become more comfortable playing live and I see it more as a way of opening myself up…

Definitely having people perform here opened me up to playing more. Talking to the musicians more as people… realizing that I could do it too. Another wall broke down, communicating with them. I thought “I can do music too.” They’re people. I’m a person. I kind of play music. I can do that!…

The early songs, they’re literally sentences… directly from my journal… I’d have my journal out and I’d play a chord and think “oh, that sounds really good with that chord” and just go with that. “Eat and Cry” was about me going out in public and getting really nervous. I went to the mall to promote the shows at the Hot Topic. I don’t know anything about West Covina – or people, really. I don’t go out. I mean, Hot Topic, right? Someone must like music there enough to take a flyer. So I went to the mall and just started breaking down… And I’m not sure how far I got in but I just turned around and went back to my car and drove home. Everything was so immediate. Then I came here, and there was a bag of marshmallows in my kitchen and I downed that so quickly… And I just felt really sick with myself. I’d done that so many other times, too.

…For a good part of the performances, I really do end up taking myself back to the times and I turn into a complete nervous wreck. Specifically, when I was in Las Vegas on tour with Kevin I could barely stand or walk around… I pretty much cried on the inside, and a little bit on the outside, afterward… There are a lot of times when I take myself back to these really horrific times… Certain chords just resonate… it usually happens in the middle of the song, it’ll just come over me… I feel like it makes for a better performance – but it’s not what I’m going for, it’s just what happens and I can’t control that all too much…

I do poke fun at myself a lot… I like girls who don’t like me. I’ve gotten to the point where I can almost laugh about that… When I was writing the music I was really depressed… but as I’m playing the song over and over about “I should kill myself” I mean, it got to the point where I was laughing: “I should kill myself!” …I’m definitely laughing at myself now about things that I thought were hella serious in the beginning… they’re not jokes, though. I genuinely do love certain people and I genuinely do yearn for certain things… But I’m also acknowledging the fact that it’s not going to happen tomorrow. So why sit around crying about it or being depressed about it? I’m just laughing about it. And I’m still trying to solve these actual life problems that I’m singing about…

People are questioning if it’s an act. Whether or not I really do like Miley Cyrus, or whether or not this Jehovah’s Witness girl I keep writing about is actually real… I want people to know that it’s real. It’s not an act. But at the same time, I have to put it in my act! It’s difficult….

The keyboard from the antique store, …it would give out a rumble when I hit the high keys… The drums kept slowing down, and I kept losing keys – they’d just go out. The on and off thing got really sticky… My cat knocked it over when it was plugged in and broke off the little thing in the back… That was like, a week before my tour. So I bought the other one…

Everything just sounds crispier and poppier… I’ve grown to be okay with it – I don’t really have a choice. I want to sticker the new one up, though. The old one has my Hannah stickers and my little hieroglyphics on it. The names of the keys. I have hearts on the keys that I especially like. There’s a set of three keys that I think sound really good together, so I put sparkly stickers on those. It’s how I learned to play… I can look at it and I can see songs based on where the stickers are. The new doesn’t really have any of that stuff…

…In the beginning I never thought it would go anywhere. I thought it would just be me playing for the same friends; no one would ever want to put out anything – and I wasn’t even trying to get people to put out stuff. It wasn’t a serious thing, I was more concerned with getting a girlfriend or fixing all of the problems I was singing about. Less about the singing itself… It’s really fun, just playing. I’m having a good time, people seem to like it. And I go to shows. That’s what I did before I did music, before I did any of this. I just went to shows. So now it’s just cool: every once in a while, I come to a show with a keyboard. And I have twenty minutes to express myself – sounds fine to me!

Above photo by Pablo Capra.

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American Gil and the Major Dudes feature from Big Whup Industries “…What is Happening” zine

I wrote this for the “What is Happening…”  zine, which was released in September to accompany the first Big Whup Industries Compilation. American Gil & the Major Dudes’ song “Lunchtime Riverside (Tucson Version, with John Thill and Golden Boots)” is featured on that CD.

For more about the band, see their myspace.

—–

American Gil and the Major Dudes just announced their breakup, a development that has made writing this much harder than I originally anticipated. It’s one thing to write a nice article on one of the best bands in town. It’s quite another thing, however, to write that band’s obituary. And it’s awfully sad. Amongst my friends, the reaction to the news has been universal dismay. People really care about American Gil and the Major Dudes.

When I watched American Gil and the Major Dudes for the first time, I saw people that I already loved and respected doing impressive things that I hadn’t seen them do before. Lou – who masters poise and melancholy in his main act Voice on Tape – was a punk monster on bass! Sam, who I’d previously only known as a keyboardist, likewise floored me: “this guy can play guitar, too? And he’s that good?” I didn’t know the other two guys in the band very well back then, but I was similarly impressed with their skills: Sean can make his drums roll like the ocean, and Brizzah’s keyboard pop counterpoints in songs like “Lunchtime Riverside (Riverside Version)” sparkle and leap out of the song in such a crisp and compelling manner. These are genuinely talented musicians.

Oh man and they rock so hard! Because everyone is so good, they can be afford to be trashy and dissonant and nasty. They can do all that and stay palatable, which is difficult. Whenever I’ve seen them, it’s just seemed like so much fun. It would be so rad to be a part of this band!

And I haven’t even begun to talk about American Gil. He’s this big dude (and I think that with his name he kind of has to be) who barks and yelps and hollers in this voice that reminds me of… maybe Bikini Kill-era Kathleen Hanna, but less young and more of a dude? It’s hard to say. It’s pretty hard to describe his saxophone playing, too –it’s not like Clarence Clemons. Maybe Clarence Clemons in a meat grinder? Or Arnold Schoenberg conducting a heard of elephants? I’ll just say it’s avant-garde. Avant-garde and totally wicked!

The whole sonic world they’ve come up with together is so cool.  The sound quality makes me think it came out of a studio, but in my head I picture the recording session for the  “Tucson Version” of “Lunchtime Riverside” happening right underneath a giant saguaro cactus in the middle of the afternoon. It just sounds like that. Another song, “the High Seas Rhythm Poem,” takes me to a completely different landscape – although it’s far more otherworldly than the ocean suggested by the title. Over a relentless mechanical beat, Gil mumbles about being sick, sniffles, and wheezes in a way that sounds like it came right out of Snoop Dogg and Pharrell’s “Drop it Like it’s Hot” (the mouth-pops and finger snaps that come in later in the song make me think that was intentional, but I could be over-analyzing). Later he tells us, in his best drunken southerner voice, that he’s “Captain of the ship… plotting a course, plotting a course.”  Honestly, it’s disturbing – yet somehow actually groovy. It’s ultimately very entertaining.

American Gil and the Major Dudes is certainly a product of its surroundings. Each of the group members hails from the Inland Empire, and that has marked their music. The lyrical substance of “Lunchtime Riverside,” for example, is precisely what one would imagine it to be – options for lunch in a pretty uninspiring desert suburb: Taco Bell and Farmer Boys. The Inland Empire is present in their sound, too. They remind me, a bit, of the two musicians who originally put Rancho Cucamonga on the map: Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. And there are analogues, too, between the band’s sound and what’s going on with their contemporaries in the region: Sam’s guitar line in “Quadro Booty,” for example, would go great in a song by Upland heartthrobs Abe Vigoda.

But that’s not to say that they sound like anyone else. They don’t. That’s why it’s such a drag that they’re leaving us.

Normally obituaries tell the “cause of death,” but I’m not close enough to the situation to know anything about that. I am glad to report, however, that there is surviving kin. Every one of these major dudes is part of at least one other musical project, and each of them is worth investigating.

Above photo from Gil’s Myspace, taken by Wild Don Lewis.

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So Many Wizards feature from Big Whup Industries “What is Happening…” zine

I wrote this for the “What is Happening…”  zine, which was released in September to accompany the first Big Whup Industries Compilation. So Many Wizards’ song “Fly a Kite” is featured on that CD.

For more about the band, see their myspace.

—–

So Many Wizards is this guy, Nima, who put together an EP called Tree. When I played his music for my Alabamian friend Andy, he described it as “California pop.”

What is it about So Many Wizards that makes the music feel so Californian? Maybe it’s the optimism. “Love is On the Way,” for example, opens with the line “my car blew up on the interstate,” but never gives listeners any sense that that’s cause for alarm. Rather, the song takes an easy-breezy approach, with reverb-drenched lo-fi ‘50s style pop and the message that – despite appearances – we have no reason to worry. Perhaps it was meant as a metaphor for these troubled times, when fires burn for weeks on the horizon and our entire state’s infrastructure seems to be going through the floor, yet life keeps happily chugging along. Elsewhere on the EP, Nima sings about how nice his friends are, how tongue-tied he gets around a girl who reminds him of Marion Davies, and about how great it is to get high – all topics that I wholeheartedly endorse. Not unexpectedly from a one-man band, the record has a very-confident bedroom pop vibe, with even the up-tempo numbers employing little more than guitar and handclaps.

This dude is good enough that he doesn’t need much more than that, and he’s wise to let most of the “Tree” EP shine with minimal configurations. There is one notable exception, however. Within the context of the low-key jams, opener “Fly a Kite” is downright epic and has a driving force behind it that reminds me of a sunnier, less self-serious Arcade Fire. Opening with maudlin piano and dirgy horns, the song relaxes in dream-land for a moment before zooming into the stratosphere on the back of a relentless beat (again, mostly handclaps) that carries the song in the verses before rising full-bore into a chorus that features one of the most poignant suggestions I’ve heard in a while: “let’s just go fly, fly, fly a kite/all through the hills and through the night/with nothing to do/and nothing to lose.” I don’t know what the song is about on the whole, but I was struck by those words. At the right time of day and with the right soundtrack, freeways are my favorite places in the whole world. I was in my car the first time I heard this song, listening to KXLU on the 110 at sunset. I just put my foot on the pedal and smiled.

I was in Alabama for a couple of weeks this summer, and whenever I missed Los Angeles I listened to “Fly a Kite.” Despite all of that repetition, it never wore out its welcome in my headspace. Maybe my friend is right and this stuff is quintessentially Californian; it certainly did bring me back here every time I listened to it. Maybe that’s because Nima has captured the California mindset – we don’t have anything to say, and we (hopefully) have nothing left to lose. We just keep flying kites and it’s great!

The above image was stolen from Beatcrave.

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Music

This is Soft Sailors! We're a new band from Los Angeles. We don't have any upcoming shows scheduled, but you can hear us online:

Also, here are some solo songs I've uploaded recently to Soundcloud. I'm playing solo July 19th at the Pickle Factory at 647 Lamar Street in Los Angeles and September 1st at Los Globos in LA for a KCHUNG benefit.

In 2011, I released my first solo album, Princess. You can listen to it and download it on Bandcamp:

From 2005 until 2011, I was in the band Pizza! This is our album We Come From the Swamp:

From 2008-2010, I was in the band Big Whup. Here's one of our songs that I sang, called "Cover My Eyes:"

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