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"Donatella Versace" Video Premier + Eli Chartkoff: The Chain Letter Interview

Eli Chartkoff, one half of hibernating duo The Monolators, returns with the new solo record Obliteration City on April 28th.  Based on interviews with various people, some famous, some not, the record is ultimately a verisimilar meditation on the human condition.   At the risk of being hyper-meta, I interviewed Eli about the process behind Obliteration City and being a mainstay of the Los Angeles scene for the last 15 years.  Enjoy the video for "Donatella Versace" and check out Eli Chartkoff live April 26th at the Hi Hat.  The show is co-presented by Defend LA and benefits the Trevor Project, a non-profit dedicated to assisting at-risk trans teens.  

CL: Obliteration City is a concept record in the truest sense of the term.  Explain the concept and the evolution behind it.

Eli: Sometimes I think the whole idea of a 'concept album' is kind of hokey, but I guess this is one, all right.  All of the lyrics for all of the songs on Obliteration City were adapted from interviews with various people, some famous, some not.  Some of the interviews came from magazines, some came from books, some were TV interviews I found on YouTube, some came from documentaries, but they're all real things that real people said. 

This idea, like so many other good ideas these days, originally came from Gwyneth Paltrow.  I was on Facebook one day and someone posted a link to an article called "The 20 Most Obnoxious Gwyneth Paltrow Food Quotes," which I had to read.  One of the quotes was from a Red Book interview where she was asked what she'd want for her last meal.   She said: "oysters, cocktail sauce and then a baked and stuffed lobster," things like that, and then she added: "I drank like crazy when the kids were babies.  How else could I get through my day?"  That sounded like a song to me, so I set it to music, word for word.  Thanks Gwyneth!

Also, at my job (I work in the archives of a college library) I was working then on a project to digitize a big collection of 1950's and 60's tape recordings of choral music, pieces by Brahms, Bach, etc. etc.  While I listened to these tapes it occurred to me that none of the composers I was listening to had actually written the lyrics to their songs.  They'd taken lines from the Bible, or poems, and set them to music.  So while (say) Franz Schubert wrote the music for "Ave Maria," the text came from an older poem.  

I decided that if they could write songs with words taken from poems, then why not write more songs with lyrics taken from interviews?  So that idea evolved pretty quickly.  Finding more interviews that would work and actually recording the songs is what took me so long, almost two years.

CL: The stories of these people are at times heartbreaking, but you always treat them with the utmost empathy.  Did you find yourself relating to these people when working on the songs?

Eli: I have to admit that I wasn't thinking about empathy at all in the beginning.  The first couple of songs were adapted from interviews in Vogue and Bazaar Magazine with famous fashion/celebrity types, like Gwyneth and Donatella Versace, people who are maybe a little eccentric and removed from reality.  They'd say outrageous, crazy things that only make sense to other famous fashion/celebrity types, it was easy to make fun of them, and the songs were easy to write.  But even with the Gwyneth song, when she said "I drank like crazy when the kids were babies," yes, I can relate to that.  Anyone who has kids can relate to that!  So there was still a tiny bit of truth amidst the delusion.

Later on I decided to start using non-celebrity interviews with people who weren't super successful or powerful, and a lot of those were on the grim side.  There were a lot of themes that would pop up, loneliness, regrets, fears about being broke, all things that I had tried to write about myself in the past but couldn't really pull off.  I feel like the people in those interviews were able to say things that I had wanted to say for a long time but couldn't figure out how to do it.  So yes, I definitely relate, and it was also a "I wish I had thought of that" kinda deal.

CL: You are one of the most prolific artists I know, but this your first true "solo" record.  How was the experience for you, as someone so accustomed to working in a band environment?

Eli: Actually I've done a bunch of solo records over the years, it's just that I either never released them publicly, or I just threw them up on my Bandcamp page and didn't really tell anyone.  In the past I'd go and make a little "solo" record on my own if I needed to write a bunch of new songs in a hurry, and then any of those songs would be up for grabs for whatever band I played in.  There's an old solo record that has early versions of about half the songs that ended up on Our Tears Have Wings by The Monolators, for instance.  Obliteration City is the same thing, some of the songs have already been re-made by two of the bands I play in.  This is the first time that one my solo records has come out on a label, though, and the first time that I've put as much effort into the production on a solo record as I would on a "band" record.

CL: What active projects are you currently involved in?  

Eli: I'm in two active bands now with my wife Mary.  One is Dawn of Sequins, which evolved out of our old band, Monolators, except it's just the two of us instead of a full band.   We use drum machines and backing tracks, and Mary plays saxophone and sings and writes more of the songs than before.  We put out an album in 2013 on the Vanity Projects label and are almost done recording the follow-up.  I'm not sure what it will be called, but it will be out in 2017, and on that album there will be Dawn of Sequins versions of a couple of the songs from Obliteration City.

The second band is called Madame Headdress, which is a sax/flute/tap dancing/choral singing group.  We used to have a band called Cobra Lilies, which was sort of folk-y, there were 12-13 members, and along with singing and playing we'd do elaborate dancing and roller skating routines.  When that band broke up some of the Lilies reformed as Madame Headdress.  We're finishing up an album for Madame Headdress that should also come out in 2017 on the Mental Illness Recordings label.  I think it's currently called Vouvray, named for our favorite kind of wine to drink at rehearsal. It's got sax/flute/tap dancing versions of the Donatella and Gwyneth songs from Obliteration City.  MH also recently made an all-piñata video for an anti-Trump song called "Cats Against Trump" that came out pretty well.  

Mary and I also do what we call "Mini-Bands," which are temporary bands we form with friends to write and record records.  Then we play a single show and break up.  We have lots of people we'd like to play music with, but nobody we know has time to commit to more bands than the ones they're already in, including ourselves, so this is a way to do something that is low on the commitment scale.  We've done two of these records in the past year or so and have plans for more, including with [cough cough] some of the Chain Letter Collective staff, I believe?

Finally, I also play in my friend Tom's band, Shirley Rolls, and there's a new record in progress for the Rolls, as well.

CL:  When you write, do you write for a specific project?

Eli:  Sometimes.  Especially for the mini-bands, Mary and I might say "we need to write a couple of songs for X band," and then we'll try to come up with something that sounds like it will fit.  Mostly I'll just write something that interests me and then we try to find a home for it. 

CL:  Let's briefly revisit the past.  You and Mary were an integral part of creating the scene that so many big East Side bands came out of, Henry Clay People and Airborne Toxic Event to name a couple.  Were you aware of this at the time?  Do you think back to 2001 when Monolators was just getting started and recall wanting to start some sort of scene?

Eli: In the beginning I don't think we had any plan other than trying to find places to play.  When we started in 2002 we played absolutely anywhere we possibly could, all over Los Angeles, mostly at places that are long gone now, and I look back at a lot of those shows and think "what were we thinking???"  It was kind of chaotic.   Sometimes we'd meet bands that we liked, and yes, we'd make friends with them and go to each others' shows.  Later on, when we started being able to book shows at Mr. T's Bowl and Pehrspace, we did consciously try to give shows to other bands that were having a hard time finding places to play, but I think that was the extent of our influence on the East Side scene.  We were just trying to help our friends out and play whenever we could. 

 

CL:  I'm fascinated by the idea of lost bands; the idea that some amazing thing existed for a short time that very few people got to experience.  Having played hundreds of shows, can you name a band or two that may qualify as such?

Eli:  Apart from a couple of people who ended up signing to bigger labels or getting national attention, I think that almost all of our friends' bands count as lost.  Venues in Los Angeles are ephemeral, so are the bands.   Even the 'next big thing' bands that I thought for sure were going to make it nationally are mostly forgotten...at least we've got a stash of everybody's homemade cd-r's at home, because otherwise they didn't seem to leave much of a trace.  So I think the answer is "too many to list."

CL:  You've been in the local music game for as long as anyone I know.  What's changed since you started?  And where do you see it going?

Eli:  The biggest change in LA I've seen in the last few years is the drastic rise in rents and the cost of living. It's driving away venues and musicians, DIY all-ages/experimental venues especially.  Everybody's worried that there's going to be a crackdown on venues following the Ghost Ship tragedy, people are leaving the city because it's not affordable any more.  It's a struggle to find places to play, now more than ever.  Maybe Los Angeles will just stop being a place to be in a band?  I hope not.

CL:  Is there any hope?  I mean, in general, about the world we live in now.  

Eli:  I re-wrote my answer to this four or five times because everything I said sounded either flippant or like a slogan off an inspirational "you can do it" poster.  I'm not sure that I have anything useful or insightful to say, I wish I did.  Mary and I talk about politics and the future endlessly.  Things look bad right now, it's overwhelming, but I do hope that the sheer awfulness of the (Trump) administration will galvanize more people into fighting back, demanding changes.  People can start by getting involved in their local elections.  I think that's possible, so there's that kind of hope.

OK, here's my inspirational poster moment: I think about the Gia Carangi interview, the last song on the record, where she says: "I'm gonna show you motherfuckers what I can do.  I'm still in shape, everybody, I'm still alive."  That's my motto now. I'm gonna put that on a poster with a picture of a tiger or a crab or something.  A tiger fighting a crab.

CL:  What was the last thing that inspired you? It can be anything.

Eli:  My family does sing-alongs when we get together for the holidays.  We do folk songs, Christmas songs, Beatles songs, stuff like that.  In a sing-a-long there's not much call for guitar riffage or extended sax solos (much as I love both), it's just drinking raspberry liqueur and belting out songs like "They're Moving Father's Grave To Build A Sewer."  Not every song works as a sing-along.  The tune & lyrics have to hold up on their own with zero embellishments, and it's not easy to write that way.  That's what I aspire to, and doing the sing-along reminded me of that.

Oh, also: we were listening to a record by the Carter Sisters the other day and they had a song that went something like "I ain't leaving without my bay-beeee."  But Mary thought it went "I ain't leaving without my bike," which is better. So now I think I need to write a song about my bike.

April, 2017

 

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PREMIERE: Wolf Woodcock's "Pet"

Wolf Woodcock “Pet”

 

I’m not exactly certain when or where I met Wolf, or if he was wearing pants.  The bassist for LA’s psycho-sexual kings Vs Colour, Wolf is a man of intense talent, at turns a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist.  “Pet” is his first release under his own name, but what immediately strikes me is how composed, how confident, the music is.  

 

Wolf had this to say about “Pet”:

"Pet is a song about the feelings someone can get when he believes that he is a subordinate in a relationship and conversely when the roles are reversed and his significant other feels unequal. These thoughts sometimes only come when he or she has distanced themselves from the relationship for a long time. It’s important to feel equal and to make sure that both parties have confidence in themselves as humans and as partners. This song explores both sides of the feelings and how reflection can prove to be helpful in moving forward in future relationships and friendships."

 

We look forward to many more releases to come!

 

 

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OPINION: M OR N? WE VOTE 3/7/17

M or N?

 

No, you’re not high.  There are two competing measures regarding marijuana regulation on LA’s March 7th ballot.  Right off the bat, let’s separate the two measures.  Measure M is sponsored by Mayor Garcetti and the LA City Council. Measure N is a citizen initiative.  However, since Measure M was introduced, supporters of Measure N have abandoned their measure and have urged peeps to vote in favor of M.  Got that?  No one likes N.  Not even the ones that used to like N, like N.  

 

While essentially clerical in nature—legalizing recreational marijuana in California antiquated our old regulatory measures from 2013—Measure M represents a larger political argument.  The nuts and bolts of M give the City regulatory powers over the sale and distribution of marijuana.  It also decreases the tax on medical pot from 6% to 5%, while levying a 10% tax on recreational pot, and a 1-2% tax on the transportation, cultivation, and research-related areas of marijuana.

 

The larger question is whether or not you’re for government regulation.  Voting No on M (I’m just gonna ignore N from here on out) means you’re for the deregulation of marijuana.  Imagine a free-for-all wild-west situation where anything goes.  Remember when you could vape anywhere?  Pre-school playgrounds, movie theaters, restaurants, funeral homes?  Voting No on Measure M wouldn’t give you that same freedom with weed, but you would be essentially saying, “fuck city government.”  Which, hell yeah, fuck the man, right?

 

Not so fast.  As a student of entropy and chaos, I used to be a flippant proponent of nihilism.  That was until I witnessed nihilism in action.  For your consideration, I present the presidency of one Donald J. Trump.  His efforts to render language meaningless and fact subjective, his encouragement of the capitalistic greed of multi-national corporations via deregulation, plus his sheer unpredictability (anyone who can single-handedly annihilate the human race via nuclear Armageddon, I’d prefer to be a bit more predictable) should give anyone with half a fucking thought for their future the heebee-jeebies.  Do I trust governments?  Fuck no.  They’re made up of people and people are irrational and selfish.  However, there are cases where I have to choose between the devil I know, i.e. the Mayor and City Council, who have some sense of accountability and track record, and the devil I don’t, nihilism--by it’s very definition--and it’s effect if loosed on Los Angeles.

 

Perhaps I’m being hyperbolic.   Measure M is just red tape through which we have to sort.  There isn’t even an official argument registered against Measure M.  Voting Yes should be a no-brainer.  But stranger things have happened when people throw up their hands and say “fuck it, let’s watch it all burn.”

 

 

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PROPAGANDA: Meet the man behind Noonmoon, an interview with Mike Sparks Jr.

CL: As a member of the Seattle-based bands By Sunlight and He Whose Ox Is Gored, Noonmoon is, at first listen, quite a departure sonically.  But this music has been in the works for some time.  Talk to us a bit about the process of creating Noonmoon and "Vanisher."

 

MSjr: I came to a crossroads, musically. By Sunlight started slowing down, and after ten years of playing with a group and having it be your primary focus, it sort of begins to define you. Not having By Sunlight as my main creative impetus put me in a position I hadn't been in before: What kind of music do I want to make, when there is no predicated construct in which to operate? Ambient music has been a huge influence on me over the last five years or so, and I wondered if I could make a record drawing from that paradigm.  It seemed daunting, delving into a completely different arena of music.  So to facilitate the transition, I decided to not play any guitars on the record (guitar being my main instrument.) The process of writing these songs was very improvisatory. I would come up with a theme, and just record demo after demo, always trying to do the opposite thing that I would instinctually do. Eventually the tunes just started coming together.

 

CL: We've had long talks about depression, anxiety, and addiction.  Where are you at with those things, and how do they inform the music you make?

 

MSjr: I mean, it’s a revolving door. Some days I feel totally in control, and some days I don't.  I would say I'm dealing with my emotional problems as well as I can while living in an uncertain world.  Obviously my skepticisms and mental equilibrium play into how I operate creatively, but I would like to think that there are bigger things afoot when I really jump into something. The sanctuary of composition has been an aide and invaluable crutch for me when things have been too dark to stomach. Regardless of how things are going for me personally, Writing puts me in a safe space. 

 

CL: Do you write poetry outside of songwriting?  Because Noonmoon to me is poetry set to soundscapes.  The song "Vanisher" is a great example; the lyrics absolutely slay me.  

 

MSjr:  I've always written. I've kept a journal since I was a teenager and my obsession with language has kept me mystified and inspired for about as long as I can remember. Poetry became a focus a couple of years ago, and while I still write it here and there, most of that energy goes into songwriting. I figured, why not just have all of the poetry I write set to music? Generally speaking, I’ll smoke a bit of pot and just sort of write whatever comes out. Later I'll go back and edit things and try to paint a picture of some kind.  These songs definitely have a narrative voice, but the language is consciously enigmatic and unreal. I wanted there to be other worlds in these songs. The words themselves have a presence beyond the story they tell.

 

CL:  As someone I consider to be extremely talented and well-listened, I'm always shocked at what music you like.  Tell me some shit you're into right now that might make me groan.  You can also tell me about something that would blow my tiny mind.

 

MSjr:  Haha. I think, as you can probably garner by our conversations, that I ultimately try and see the good in any music I hear. It's easy to have a negative opinion, but it's ultimately more rewarding to hear something objectively and appreciate it as the artist would. As a thirty-four year old dude, I'm still actively looking for new music all the time. There is so much amazing stuff out there. Right now I'm sort of all over the board. I've been listening to an early 2000's band called The Shipping News. Members of June of 44 and Slint. Really moody guitar stuff. The new Fennesz record with Jim O'Rourke has been blowing my mind. Going back and listening to The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski has ben tickling me in solitary moments. As far as a "groaner" goes, I seriously cannot stop listening to the Alan Parsons Project, particularly Eye in the Sky. It's the weirdest pop/rock record I have ever heard, but that song “Gemini” fucks my world up.

 

CL:  You've toured extensively in your short time on this rock.  I'm a fan of road stories.  Give me a highlight and a low light that come to mind.  Can be anything.

 

MSjr:  Man, I've toured so much that all of the stories kind of blend together. Low moments on tour are always solitary ones for me. In the back of the van sweating out booze, head full of mysteries, vacant and terrified. But the good moments are always monolithic. Sold out show at Bottom of the Hill, feeling invincible and perfect. Ghost riding the whip listening to the chronic in the middle of the night on some desolate highway. Tour is a paralyzing world of extremes.

 

CL:  Can we expect to see Noonmoon as a live band at some point?

 

MSjr:  Noonmoon has begun playing some shows. Right now it's been sort of a rotating collective. I've played shows with eight musicians, and then played shows with three. I'm just starting to consummate a solid line up, and I think you can expect some West Coast dates this year.

 

CL:  Lastly, tell me about the last thing that inspired you.  It can be anything.

 

MSjr:  When you are as moody and bummed out as I am, you find inspiration in the weirdest places. I work super early in the morning, and my bus commute is about 30 minutes. Every morning I look around at the people on the bus, and see everyone completely hypnotized by their phones. Seattle is so mind numbingly beautiful around dawn, and as everyone checked their Facebook feeds the sun shone above the Olympic mountains beyond the sound, and it felt like it belonged to me. So there I was tearing up on the bus while everyone played angry birds. Feels good to remember how beautiful and weird life is.

 

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OPINION: WHAT THE SHIT IS MEASURE "S"?


If you've at all looked out your window while driving around the east side of Los Angeles, you've probably noticed the giant blue billboards imploring you to help save our neighborhoods by voting "yes" on Measure S on March 7.

The hyperbolic nature of the claim--the idea that anything needs saving and that voting can save it--immediately tickled my bullshit detector. Looking at the fine print of the billboard, which I can do, as there is a double-sided gigantic plea for my vote right above my home, you'll notice that this measure is sponsored in part by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.  This organization is responsible for a number of needed health initiatives and outreaches around LA (and one of two that were not--porn star condom requirements, cough, cough).  However, in the political arena, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is known to be a money tree for their president Michael Weinstein's socioeconomic interests. I did some light investigation into the origin of Measure S (previously the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative) and discovered that its origins arose out of a fight between Weinstein and a Miami-based real estate development corporation. This developer, Crescent Heights, is developing the revamped Hollywood Palladium site, which includes two giant high-rise towers that, not coincidently, will block the view of the Hollywood Hills from the offices of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation on the 21st floor of the Sunset Medical Building on the corner of Sunset and Vine. Ah ha. Sounds like a classic case of you-can-save-the-wetlands-but-don't-take-away-my-private-beach activism. When Weinstein’s lawsuit failed to stop the development after it had been unanimously approved by the city council, Weinstein created the Coalition to Preserve LA and funded Measure S to the tune of $1.5 million, lest views everywhere be destroyed.

In all seriousness, I was quick to point out to myself that just because this ballot measure emerged out of a squabble between two wealthy corporations, doesn't mean there isn't something to Measure S.  I dug deeper. Measure S, if passed, would put a 2 year moratorium on building projects in LA, unless the project is allocated for 100 percent affordable housing AND does not require a change in zoning. Sounds pretty good, no? I mean, I'll be the first to admit that these bullshit European-prison-looking things popping up in and around Silver Lake and Echo Park suck. And old school DTLA and Hollywood residents probably dislike the way developers have transformed their neighborhoods, too.

But the more I thought about it, something kept coming back to me: didn't we just vote on this issue in 2016? Turns out, yep, we did. We voted in favor of Measure JJJ, which basically requires developers dedicate 40 percent of new housing projects over a certain size to affordable housing.  JJJ got a lot of support. Developers liked it because they received permission to continue to build at will, bleeding hearts like myself liked it because the lack of affordable housing is a serious problem in LA, and unions liked it because the measure requires union labor to build these new developments.

Measure S basically walks this entire thing back and does so in an insidious way. The proponents of Measure S are making their case by stoking LA residents’ fear of change and inciting their anger towards the MAN, which in this case is outside developers, or what supports of S have dubbed “BIG Real Estate.”  If this sounds at all familiar, it's because these were precisely the same tactics used by Donald Trump's campaign: fear the stranger, fuck the man.

Proponents of S mask this approach by pointing out that affordable housing projects are the one thing exempt from this freeze on development, but what they’re less eager to mention is that the development has to comply with the current zoning code.  And herein lies the heart of the problem here in LA. Apparently, everyone in city government and private development agrees: our zoning code is fucked. It's outdated and unwieldy. And it's gotten so bad that it's almost too expensive to fix. Therefor, saying that affordable housing projects are exempt from Measure S as long as they comply with the current zoning code is a little like saying you are free to exit the aircraft at 30,000 feet as long as you can fly.

Measure S supporters are not wrong to want to address the zoning code, but freezing all new development is problematic. LA is currently at capacity, housing-wise. Do we want San Francisco level rents? If the answer is no, then you have to support new development, as much as I hate to admit it.  Fuck developers, right? I live right next to shiny new town homes constructed and owned by a Riverside real estate development corporation operated by outspoken Evangelicals.  I could be wrong, but I'm betting they don't share my political and social views.

 However, people need places to live. Simple economics dictates that when demand is high and supply is low, shit gets expensive.  And shit is already expensive.  LA currently has a wider gap between the average medium income and medium cost of rent than New York, San Francisco and Seattle. Sure, this is partly due to the fact that we have so many shitty paying jobs, something we're addressing with minimum wage hikes over the next 5 years. BUT this is also symptomatic of a lack of housing, affordable or otherwise, currently available. Fuck, my best friend moved to New Orleans because he couldn't afford to live around here anymore. This is a problem, but like the minimum wage, a problem that we are already beginning to address. Mayor Garcetti has pledged to begin overhauling the zoning code as part of his administration. The city council supports this, too, just not as publicly as we may like, for fear they appear to be in bed with developers.  (UPDATE: Silver Lake/Echo Park City Council Member Mitch O'Farrell also opposed measure S.  His office just got back to me.) JJJ doesn't fix the zoning problem and does give a leg up to developers, even as it simultaneously incentivizes them to create more affordable housing, but at least it doesn't shut the whole thing down altogether for the sake of someone's view. 

Finally, let's not forget that affordable housing is code for poor people. And in Los Angeles, poor people are often brown. And if you're rich and white—hi Micheal Weinstein!—then brown and poor is bad.  Ultimately Measure S reflects our larger socioeconomic condition, one that exacerbates systemic racism and champions income inequality.  This alone should give you pause when considering whether or not to support S.

As for me, I'll be voting no, even if it means the proliferation of shitty live/work lofts and mixed retail/residential monstrosities.  At least with JJJ, we poor people have a chance.  Measure S freezes even that.

 

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