The Origins of Guilt
No, this is not an essay on Catholicism, nor any organized religion for that matter. This is how an unlikely 6-piece band came together, both very gradually and also very suddenly. I guess it began with the Alfred Howard & the K23 Orchestra, a 6-piece funk band based in San Diego. Featuring keyboardist Josh Rice & spoken word artist Alfred Howard (that would be me), the K23 toured for 7-years and met it's demise in December 2008, in the season of high gas prices and an ocean of miles between gigs. And though gas prices plummeted towards reasonable, as the K23 was admitting defeat, it was too late. (Apparently, you can thank us for relief at the pumps). Also, my immune system was as strong as a malnourished suburban grade school kid dressed as Harry Potter (on any given day of the week, not just Halloween), and years of crashing at 4 a.m. on dusty dog dandered hippie couches had taken its toll. With a persistent throat problem that has lasted about three years and counting, I couldn't really see myself doing vocals or touring professionally, but I still dug writing lyrics.
In about 2004 Josh Rice and I began amassing a litany of songs. Between 500 pages of lyrics and Josh's well earned nickname 'Instant Rice' (I have plenty other names for him, but I'll keep this bio PG-13), we churned out song after song every time we got together outside of the band. The music we were coming up with didn't necessarily fit in with the psychedelic funk stylings of the K23; these songs were more influenced by artist like Neutral Milk Hotel, Mark Lanegan, Spiritualized, Songs Ohia, Leonard Cohen and a few thousand other artist. This, coupled with the fact that most audiences would rather hear a Fran Drescher (the Nanny) spoken word album than either Josh or I singing, lead to these songs laying dormant in a Garage Band file, collecting digital dust on an old Mac. After the K23 played their last gig, I got a job at the Cow, a record store in Ocean Beach and a second gig driving limos and scaring the wealthy with a nappy afro and tangled sideburns. Josh started apprenticing as a carpenter making furniture. Music was a dream that was temporarily let go of, an afterthought that we almost reached. I even let myself believe that although I had had a solid 7-year run it was time to move on from making music. However, on a whim I sent out one last band mailer with the following inquiry:
"Josh and I have been writing some songs together and are waiting to find a singer who likes Wilco, Radiohead, Curtis Mayfield, and Otis Redding and can somehow channel them, yet for some reason isn't a multi billionaire and is willing to work with us. If you are that person and are more mellow than crazy, please shoot me an email"
Enter Erik Canzona.
"Hi Al, I'm really happy to hear that you and Josh are working on a new project. I was definitely a fan of the K23 and have always thought that your sound was unique. I think that my voice and talent would be a great fit. I'm sure you're sifting through dozens of emails that say the same thing and are maybe even regretting handing out your email address. But before you look any further check out my site, erikcanzona.com.
Wilco is one of my favorite bands. I'm heavily influenced by Tweedy. Another influence of mine is JJ Grey. I think the combination may be what you're looking for. I've been playing guitar and singing since I was 8. I only just recently started writing music. I'm 29 and live in Normal Heights. We actually met on Xingolati. And a few friends and I were at your last show. Anyway, I've always wanted to pursue music but have never had the guts or felt like I was ready. Just wanted to let you know I'm ready and better than any of the other emails you'll be getting over the next few days. I'd love to audition. Either way, let me know what you think. I'd love any feedback you could give me.
All the best,
First of all, I loved that he was under the impression that a bunch of people were beating down our door for the position as vocalist, when in all actuality we got three emails. One was kindhearted, but as far as I could discern, their professional experience had been singing Sublime songs in the shower. The other one, hmmmm, I don't remember what happened to that one, apparently it was lost in the abyss of inbox, sorry. The crazy thing about Erik's email was that right after I read it, I called Josh and said "I think we found our singer." Before I even listened to the tracks on his website, I knew he was the guy, I didn't know why, but I was absolutely certain. This email was on February 10th 2009, and we made plans to meet on Monday the 16th. In the meantime I checked out his myspace profile to learn that he watched the same sitcoms that Josh and I did (the good ones) as well as the same films and listened to the same musicians, then later I found out that he was an avid follower of LOST which sealed the deal before we even met. When we found out that he was a graphic designer (yes, we had a website before we ever played a gig) we knew we had tapped into the Ultimate Band Member.
Since Josh and I had never auditioned a singer and had no idea what the protocol was, we basically wound up auditioning our songs for him. Fortunately he liked them, learned a few, came back the next day and sang Clove, the first song off our upcoming debut album, and Josh and I were totally blown away. In fact, I hugged Josh for the first time since 2002. Erik had the perfect voice, the sound we had been hearing in our heads to convey these songs. He caught the rhythms we were hinting at; he had this soulful, gritty tone to his vocals that was powerful and moving, and he sang the songs like they were his own experiences. It was magical, one of those moments I will never forget, when you remember something you always knew, but occasionally need reminding, MUSIC is FUCKING POWERFUL. I got chills and for the first time in my life I saw the potential of fully realizing an artistic vision. I went home that night and looked at a record collection of about 3500 LPs, I picked out the ones that I couldn't live without and I made the preparations to sell the rest. Josh and I did three weeks worth of Yard Sales where one could buy a coffee maker, golf clubs and an Ark Blakey LP (I had a double) for ridiculously low prices. Erik brought down his DVDs (of which I unfortunately wound up purchasing a couple, couldn't resist those Curb seasons), Josh dumped his cd collection, we got a bit of scratch, booked some studio time at Prairie Sun, made some key phone calls and put together an ass-kicking band.
The Phone calls
Jason Smart was the first call. He would also be the recipient of the distance-traveled award. The thought of flying in a musician for a session was so far beyond me, it sounded like some rockstar shit that Motley Crue would be messing with, not me and my lunchbox budget. But J Smart had to be the drummer. There was no question in my mind and no way we could do it without him. Jason is one of my favorite drummers I've ever seen; when he sits on that throne he makes the complex look so simple and effortless that you kind of hate him for being so God Damn good. Fortunately I met Reed Mathis in a line for Egg Rolls at the High Sierra Music Fest in 04, Reed introduced me to J, J and I watched Pootie Tang, ate Ranchos Burritos in OB, became close friends, and the rest is history. We've wanted to do the right project for some time and I knew that this was it, he trusted me and we figured out a weekend to make it happen. The date was set, a flight was booked, but the puzzle still needed a few more pieces.
Sean Martin, the second dial and an equally important ingredient, but closer to home. I met Sean in about 2003 or so, the K23 was playing a weeknight gig at a sports bar with low expectations. Actually, the expectation was that we'd be playing background music in a sports bar as people talked louder than the band and I'd recite lyrics while staring into the oblivion of TV screens, praying for a Lakers loss. When we loaded in, I remember stopping, not so much controllably, but more like the music that was coming out of the Skirt Alert Duo bitch slapped me and seized me in my tracks, it was bass and electric guitar and they were doing some mind bending jazz with crazy changes and relentless solos at high octane bop blistering tempos. It was one of those groups that makes you want to either practice or quit. Fortunately, through the weighted miracle of myspace, I contacted those guys and over the years played some shows, some scrabble and even recorded an album with Sean called Volatile As, but no one ever heard it because a) I can't sing very well and b) I can't spell very well and misspelled our myspace url.
Sean was down to do the project and I had wanted to see him play with J Smart since I met both of them. However, Sean had to be a question mark, due to a scheduling conflict with a spinal surgery. He answered so nonchalantly, "I'd love to record, but I might have to have my vertebrae fused." "Oh." I responded, "Keep me posted." Somehow, some magnificent force (Hippie magic, Voodoo, Chinese herbs???) healed Sean's ailment and he gets to duck surgery for what we're all hoping is forever. Sean made the dial to Jason Littlefield, the bass half of Skirt Alert who was the member of the Guilt I knew least going into the studio, but now I know is the most important member of the band. Jason Littlefield ROLLS DEEP!!!! He came to the studio with Tuna Steak, a grill, an ironic gift for me, a Hootie and the Blowfish Crew T-shirt (hey, I'm a black dude writing country tunes, it struck home), some great stories and a violin (great to find out mid-session that if it has strings, he plays it).
We had the band, but we needed an engineer. I called up my buddy Timins, (Pronounced Tim-mins in the south park voice of Timmy). Timins is an awesome engineer, with dead serious knowledge behind the board, appreciates a good fart joke and knows what we were going for. If there was a sound we wanted, he knew the amp to get it and settings to get it, he knew the mic to use and the room to set it in. Even if you had to describe it with San Francisco art-house ambiguity…. "we want a rosy tone, we want that guitar to sound like it's floating on a cloud of opium smoke through an amber forest, we want the vocals to sound like a snake speaking to the Dali Lama through a sandpaper scarf." Not that we said anything remotely close to that, but if we did, Timins would know the knobs to twist to conjure up such audio obscurity.
Last but not least, what's a country song without an Emmylou Harris type voice harmonizing on a chorus or two. I called up a good friend Robin Eisenburg, the most attractive girl to own all the Star Trek seasons before it was cool (It's cool now, right?). Robin is a hell of a keyboardist and over the years I've watched her play afrobeat, funk, indie rock and jazz. She's currently a member of the alt-country band the Silver Sparrows.
One of my favorite parts of this band and making music with these guys involves a dirty little secret in Erik's closet. No, he didn't lie to us about his sanity and realistically, even if he did open up and confess to gruesome murders of girl scouts in years past, he has a great voice, loves Wilco and watches LOST (we call that a full eclipse). The secret that stumbled out into the open at our first practice was that Erik had never played with other musicians before. In fact, his live experience was covering a Strokes song at his cousin's wedding. This whole movement on his part required a huge leap of faith and extreme self-confidence. When I put together the Heavy Guilt Band, I called out all the heaviest of heavies that I ever met touring, Jason Smart has years of Road-doggin under his belt, played with Fareed Haque, Robert Walters and JFJO, Jason Littlefield has a degree in music from Ball State, Josh has 7-years of touring and even more of songwriting, I'm black, Sean teaches guitar to students ages 6 to 93, and has studied and played music professionally for more than a decade and the comfort that we all felt together as people and as players was instant and immense. This was a reminder that music is a language that extends across cultures, ages and experience, we all spoke it and spoke ecstatically together. I hope you all enjoy the results of those conversations.