Wax Stories #9: The Postal Service – Give Up

WaxStoriesLogo

Postal Service Give Up cover

I can remember distinctly an argument I had with my friend Brandon in junior high concerning the validity of electronic music.

“Techno is totally music dude,” Brandon said.

“Dude. It’s not. Literally. It’s just computer noises,” I said with confidence.

“What? Does every song need a guitar to be music?” he replied, trying to call my bluff.

“No! But it needs instruments. That’s what music is.”

“No way dude. Anything with a beat is music.”

“Is this music, Brandon?” I said as I started tapping a rhythm with my pencil on my desk.

“No.”

“Then neither is techno,” I replied with a smirk. I like to imagine I put on sunglasses and walked away from an explosion after saying that, but in high school I just didn’t have the budget.

There’s a slight chance I might have been wrong about that one. When I first started getting into music, I was a staunch purist. Anything that wasn’t a group of people plugging in amps and playing instruments wasn’t “real music.” I wasn’t the first kid to think it and won’t be the last (you can currently find them commenting on Justin Beiber YouTube videos). This was during a time in my life when I would say things like ” I like all genres except for country and rap.” Not only was it pretentious, it was inhibiting me from listening to a lot of great music.

In my defense though, there was a lot of shitty music coming out around the time. For someone who grew up holding Aerosmith as the pinnacle of musicianship J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” and Darude’s “Sandstorm” weren’t really holding up for me. Techno just sounded fake to me. It felt like it needed Ma-Ti to give it some heart (“gooooo Planet!”). I was virtually immovable on my position. So much so I even pretended to hate Daft Punk whenever Brandon mentioned them, while secretly listening to “One More Time” and “Around the World” at home and in private.

Then Ben Gibbard came around. That doe eyed little sap would change everything for me.

photo (22)

As a point of reference, I didn’t initially know Gibbard as “the Death Cab for Cutie guy;” I first knew him as “the Postal Service guy.” It was by strange, nerdy chance that I even got introduced to the band. It’s almost too ironic how much of it is tied to a laptop.  Brandon, our friend Austin, and I (collectively known as B.A.D.) were walking around Austin’s neighborhood late into the summer of 2004. Not just walking, war-walking. We carried around Brandon’s massive Dell laptop, with his wireless card plugged in, searching for free unsecured Internet. It was our version of war-driving, having to make due without our licenses. Sure, we could’ve just stayed at Austin’s and had Internet for free, but where’s the adventure in that?

We stopped in front of one Austin’s neighbors houses where Brandon picked up a signal. “Holy cow! We can check our Mypaces…in the middle of the road! What a thrill!” We were pretty excited. Then we noticed the teen girl who lived there spotted us from the window. She made her way to the porch to ask us what we were doing but we booked it back to Austin’s place before she could start the vigorous interrogation. It was a close call, for sure.

When we got back, we went online (effectively defeating the purpose of hunting for Internet). Austin signed on to his MSN Messenger and ended up chatting with the neighbor girl from before (effectively defeating the purpose of running away from her). Somehow I ended up adding her to my own MSN Messenger. As I mentioned in my last Wax Story, most of my summers were spent talking to strangers online.

I think she and I only had a couple conversations, most of which were pretty surface level. But we decided to exchange some music. With my slow Internet, songs usually took half an hour or more to transfer but I always relished the mp3s even more because of it. The first song she sent me, and only one I recall, was “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service. I looped it in my iTunes player for the rest of the day and listened to it constantly throughout the week. Bleep bloops, synths, and drum loops. One of my initial thoughts was, “I can’t let Brandon know how much I like this.”

Postal Service White Vinyl

About a year later, I found myself at the mall with my grandma. Between war walking and this, you could tell I was a real cool kid. For some reason I thought it was a good idea to take her into Hot Topic with me. I’m sure my sweet, bingo loving Grandma felt very comfortable on her scooter listening to the sounds of Hawthorne Heights and the sights of pink and black mini skirts as I searched through their record bin. That’s where I found a copy of The Postal Services’ “Give Up.”

I immediately recalled a conversation I had with a good friend Amanda Davidson. Something she mentioned before I even had a record player.

“Of all the modern bands, I think that The Postal Service would sound best on vinyl,” she said while talking to someone else.

“Why? What difference is there?” I asked.

“Vinyl sounds waaaay different. It sounds a lot better than everything else.”

“Interesting.”

It all started to come full circle for me. Without even realizing it in that moment that I picked up that record at Hot Topic, I was making a change in how I listened to music. I wasn’t conformed to one format or genre like I was a year before. Maybe I was maturing. Maybe my tastes were changing. Maybe it was all just silly because I watched as my grandma paid the gothed out cashier and bought me the record as a repayment for helping her around the house.

As I watched Gibbard, Jenny Lewis, and Jimmy Tamborello at Sasquatch Festival this past May, all of this came rushing back to me. All of these strange and embarrassing memories. All of the shit I gave Brandon and others for listening to bleep bloop music and here I was watching Tamborello stand behind a set of laptops on stage. All of the cringing I had thinking about buying the album at Hot Topic instead of somewhere else as Ben Gibbard danced in all black with swooping bangs across the stage. All the money and years I’d spent collecting records and branching out in my taste based off of one off-the-cuff comment from Amanda.

If there was any embarrassment along the way, it was worth it just for that moment where I belted out all the words to “Such Great Heights”  in the front row with thousands of others. I guess bleep bloops aren’t so bad after all.

photo (23)

Previous Wax Story: Pinback – Summer in Abaddon

Next Week: Simon and Garfunkel – Bookends

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry

Follow me on Instagram: @mrdustyhenry

What are “Wax Stories?”

Advertisements

Wax Stories #4: Grand Ole Party – Humanimals

WaxStoriesLogo

photo 1(2)

If you’re not familiar with Grand Ole Party or Humanimals, don’t worry – I’m not either. I’m not sure if I’ve even listened to this record all the way through and haven’t spun it in years. That makes the circumstances that led me to this record all the more absurd and bizarre.

My senior year of high school one of best friends Brandon’s sister backed up into my car in their driveway, crushing the fender. She felt terrible, but everyone was cool with it and we worked it out. Her parents paid for the repairs and in the meantime let me drive her car while mine was in the shop (they had a lot of cars, so it wasn’t a big deal). This was sort of like winning the lottery of car accidents. Instead of driving around my old car with peeling paint, I got to drive a brand new blue Volvo sports car for over a month. Our buddy Austin joked the whole time wishing his car had got hit instead.

My Nissan 300Z was older and was really the only car I’d ever driven much. I loved that car, but it doesn’t handle anything like a new car does. Turns were easier, the sound system was clear, and the acceleration was effortless. For an 18 year old guy, this felt amazing. There’s some weird fascination with driving in high school. You get obsessed with speed – even if you’re not a speed demon or care about cars at all – you just feel this power that’s been withheld from you for so long. But with this Volvo, I didn’t have to try and go fast. It just happened so naturally I didn’t even realize it was happening.

As I was driving back to school from a doctor’s appointment, just a few days after getting the Volvo, and I felt great. The sun was shining, the roads were open, and I had R.E.M.’s “Man On The Moon” playing in the stereo (a very underrated “lets f*** shit up” song…well actually,no. No it’s not). I was so entranced in my little Andy Kaufman pipe-dream that I didn’t notice the speedometer going up. And that’s when I saw the cop on the side of the highway. I tried to put on my breaks to slow down but it was too late. He turned on his lights and I pulled over. He told me he clocked me in at 80 mph and asked for my license, registration, and proof of insurance. I reached toward the glove box and opened it only to have a bottle of prescription pills fall out. It wasn’t anything weird or illegal, but I didn’t know they were there. I freaked out. This wasn’t helping my case at all.

“I..uhhh…this is my friend’s ehhhh sisters car….I uhh am supposed to be on the uhhh insurance…I think,” I said.

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said. I’m not sure why though. This seemed like a pretty suspicious situation to me.

He gave me a speeding ticket and I went back to school, feeling defeated. I called Brandon’s dad from the student parking lot and pleaded apologies – mentioning repeatedly how I had betrayed his trust and how guilty I felt and how it would not happen again. I think he mostly thought it was funny and assured me I had nothing to worry about. I’m still thankful for how cool he was about it. My parents, on the other hand, were a bit livid. A classmate told that I should get the ticketed deferred, something you can do only once every seven years in Washington state to have the ticket scrapped off your record, and then pay off the fine with volunteer hours. This was going to be the most effective way for me to pay for it, so I went ahead with it.

Later that year I did a senior project job shadow at The Vera Project, following their stage managers for a few days and reporting on it. I fell in love with the venue through the process and everything they stood for. Sometime after I realized The Vera was a non-profit and qualified for my volunteer hours to pay off my fine. Well, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I emailed The Vera and they mentioned they needed some volunteers to work at their booth at Capitol Hill Block Party. I’d never been but decided to sign up for both days.

It was a pretty incredible way to pay off a ticket. I’d sit at a booth and hand out buttons and stickers for an hour or two then would go prowl the other stages with my friend Nate before going back to work again. I got to see Vampire Weekend and Chromeo while checking out some new bands as well. Having learned my lesson from the first day, I brought a backpack full of water bottles to keep hydrated during the sweltering heat. It probably wasn’t the most “green” option, but I wasn’t too concerned with that at the time.

That night during my shift, I was asked to run the merch table for the bands while they played. Primarily, for a band called Grand Ole Party. I had no idea who they were and it didn’t seem like many other people did either. From what I recall, they played a decent alternative rock set that reminded me a lot of Pretty Girls Make Graves. I thought it was pretty good, but others thought it was amazing. Their crowd grow more and more as the set progressed. About halfway through the set, a swarm of people started to come over to the merch table. At first it was just a few CDs, but by the end of their set I had sold the band’s entire stock. People were shoving money in my face and I struggled to keep track who was handing me what and tried to quickly calculate how much I owed them while making change with other customers.

photo 4(2)

After the CDs were gone I told people we only had vinyl copies. A few people complained that they didn’t even have a record player, but somehow I said the right words to convince them to buy it anyway. Once it died down the band came over to take over. When I told them I sold all of their CDs and all but two of their vinyl records, they were floored. Their elation was infectious. I felt really happy for them. Even if I wasn’t totally sold on their music, this seemed like a big deal for them and I was happy I could be a part of it. They were so thrilled that they offered me one of the records for free. I wasn’t sure if it was totally ethical to accept a gift while volunteering, but I took it anyway.

I sat at the booth for a little bit doing some merch for Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head but was shortly after relieved of duties. I had the stage manager sign off on my volunteer time sheet and rushed over to the main stage to see DeVotchKa. I’d lost track of Nate at this point – he met up with some other friends while he was there. But it didn’t matter. I was just so excited to see DeVotchKa play that I didn’t care if I was going to see them alone or not. I sneaked my way near the front on the right side of the stage. As the set picked up, everything turned into a giant dance party. I don’t usually dance unless I’m being goofy with friends, but this night was an exception. I did my stiff, white boy sway to the tunes of “We’re Leaving” as a group of drunk people bounced around near me. Things got rowdier and turned into a joyful, dance mosh. Someone bumped into me and my Grand Ole Party record flew out of my hands and onto the ground. I was sure it was gone forever. I had to wait an entire song before I could look for it. I spotted it near the end of the song and watched as people jumped up and down repeatedly on it. I picked it up and prayed it wasn’t broken but I couldn’t check yet.

photo 3(3)

To my left, a man kept trying to dance with this girl. She would refuse and then a few minutes later he’d be back trying to bump and grind. She’d refuse again and the cycle repeated. He did this three or four times. Finally she took off her flip-flop and proceeded to hit him over the head with it. This was not a playful tap with her shoe; this was full on Mortal Kombat fatality intensity. She yelled “I TOLD YOU AGAIN AND AGAIN I DON’T WANT TO DANCE WITH YOU.” We all applauded. I felt a sense of camaraderie with the group.

I walked with Nate and his friends after the set down to the ferry. We were all jazzed about DeVotchKa’s show. We split ways at the terminal as they caught the Bambridge Ferry and I got on the Bremerton Ferry. I opened the record in my booth to see if it was shattered. To my surprise, it looked flawless. I opened my backpack and pulled out my last water bottle. I already had to use the bathroom, but I came up with a grand plan. I was getting really tired and I still had to drive home once I got off the ferry. I also getting really hyped up when I reallllly have to use the bathroom and I already felt the urge coming on. If I drank this last bottle of water, then that would likely give me enough energy to make it home.

Well, it did work.

In the car (my own car, not the Volvo at this point) I felt like I was on speed. I played Jeff Buckley’s “Eternal Life” on repeat and frantically yelled along with it as I squirmed and jostled in my driver’s seat. I felt like I made record time getting home. I walked through the door at three in the morning, my dad asleep on the couch, and clutching my new record. I felt satisfied with a weekend of music and helping a band get their music out there to people, if even in a small way. But mostly, I just really had to pee.

photo 2(2)

Previous Wax Story: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

Next Week: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry

What are “Wax Stories?”

Wax Stories #2: Elliott Smith – “Either/Or”

WaxStoriesLogo

photo 5

I know in my last post I said I was going to write about David Bazan’s “Curse Your Branches” next week, but this is still technically the same week and I promise I’ll get Bazan ready in the coming days. Given certain events in Seattle today, I thought this one would be a bit more appropriate and timely.

Discovering Elliott Smith always seems like a poignant moment for most people I’ve talked to who listen to him. For me, it felt like finally discovering that unknown artist you’d always wanted to find. In my fantasy it was usually finding an old tape or CD that had fallen off the rack and was covered with dust – long forgotten to anyone else. That’d be pretty romantic, huh? Instead, I found Elliott on MSN Messenger.

My buddy Nate and I started sharing music with each other when I was 15 and he was 14. I’m sure he’s going to come up a lot in this blog series; he helped shape a lot of stuff I listen to today. At the time, most of our friends weren’t listening to the same music as us. We were what would become the annoying hipster “you probably haven’t heard of it” cliche. We weren’t trying to be cool. We just liked different music than our peers. Pretty much every night after school we were on MSN Messenger talking about music, classes, or whatever else was going on. Periodically we would send each other MP3s of new music we were listening to. There used to be a feature on chat where you could see what the other person was listening to.

One summer evening when I was 16 I remember seeing it say Nate was listening to a song by Elliott Smith. I’d heard the name before. For a school project a couple years prior, I interviewed one of my all time favorite artists (Cinjun Tate of the band Remy Zero) and in one of the questions I asked him what his favorite album of all time was – he said “When I think of perfect albums, Elliott Smith’s ‘Either/Or’ comes to mind.” For whatever reason, I didn’t immediately go and pick up the record…idiot.

I was on a big singer-songwriter kick when I saw Nate’s music status and I got the impression Elliott Smith was probably along those lines. I asked Nate how Elliott is. He responded pretty ecstatically, singing Elliott’s praises. He sent me over a couple of tracks. The first one I can remember hearing was “Rose Parade.”

photo 4

The lightly strummed guitar chords with a simple three note lead played over it felt elating. Then Elliott comes in with his hush voice, telling a story about a trivial parade that slowly becomes more and more bitter as it goes along. It was unlike any songwriting I had been exposed to before. Something about being at such a happy event like a parade and critiquing it for all it’s fake pageantry felt so desperate and lonely to me – I’d later have many of these same feelings listening to the majority of his work.

I had Nate send me over the rest of “Either/Or.” I listened to it all night at the computer. I’m pretty sure, but not certain, that I intentionally listened to “2:45 A.M.” at 2:45 A.M. The album became a secret obsession. I’d spend down time fumbling through “Between The Bars” on guitar, smirk every time at the opening line to “Say Yes” (“I’m in love with the world, through the eyes of a girl who’s still around the morning after”), and burn copies of the album for friends who I thought might appreciate it. As I looked at my small record collection, I thought about how “Either/Or” would probably be the best sounding vinyl out there. I had my first “holy grail” record and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to find it in a junk bin at Great Prospects.

That spring Nate and I decided to go hang out in Seattle on a Saturday. We walked on a ferry over and checked out the Experience Music Project – spending most of our time messing around in the fake recording studio. They had a feature that would let you record for 10 minutes and then you could buy a CD copy to take home. We messed around with the guitars and played a partial version of “Rose Parade” (which I refuse to go back and listen to) and some silly songs I’d written.

Afterward we walked over to Easy Street Records in Lower Queen Anne. We dug through the crates, marveling at their impressive selection. In Kitsap County the closest thing to a music store that I was aware of was the electronics department of Fred Meyer. Being able to walk through these aisles and see stuff that I only thought existed on the Internet was amazing. I had been to both Easy Street locations before, but not since I had expanded my taste out of exclusively alternative rock radio.

Then I saw it. “Either/Or.” I could not believe it was actually there. I thought no one knew about him, let alone would take the time to stock his stuff in a record store. Shouldn’t this be covered with dust in a corner? It was amazing to final see the cover art as it was meant to be seen, and the stark back cover with the blurry, swaying chandelier.

eitheror

Nate and I marveled at it and kept repeating how good it was going to sound. I didn’t hesitate to buy it; I didn’t know if I’d ever get another chance. I took it home in my black plastic bag with the Easy Street logo and carried it with pride. I listened to the record repeatedly for months. I even held up the sleeve as a model as I tried to recreate the cover art in my sketchbook (which included the “fuck you” graffiti behind Elliott in the picture, because I was a total rebel).

Seven years later and this is still one of my favorite albums and vinyl records. I live in Seattle now and literally can walk down a few blocks to Sonic Boom where there’s always at least a few Elliott Smith albums in the bins and other bands I’m continuing to discover. It’s a convenience I love to exploit (my wallet is not so fond of it though). I’ve continued to fill my collection with records from Easy Street Records too. Sometimes I forget that it wasn’t that long ago when finding these records was a big deal for me.

Now today Easy Street Records in Queen Anne is closing its doors for good to be replaced by a Chase Bank. It may seem trivial to be saddened by the lose of a business, but to me and a lot of other music fans this a huge loss. I can’t find a treasure like “Either/Or” at a bank. I won’t have that same feeling of discovery and excitement when I go to cash a check or make a withdrawal. Every time I put “Either/Or” on my turntable now, I’m going to think about Easy Street and how it inadvertently encouraged my interest in music and brought me closer with artists like Elliott Smith. We’re really lucky here in Seattle. I hope we don’t take for granted that we have so much access to culture and art that helps us express ourselves; I hope we don’t ever favor chain stores and condos over priceless things like these.

Thanks Elliott. Thanks Easy Street. You’ve both given me and others some truly great music.

Here’s a video of Elliott Smith playing on a pilot for The Jon Brion show, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”):

Next week: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches (for REAL this time)

Previous Wax Story: U2 – War / INXS – Shabooh Shoobah

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry