Mo's Wild Years

After a lifetime playing sideman to a string of eccentric talents, Moris Tepper discovered what he likes to do best -- make music for himself

Moris Tepper isn't home right now. He was up last night until dawn, and he has to drive way out from his seaside home before noon today, lugging tapes for a couple of albums he's helping to produce. Two days ago he was up working in his studio until 5 a.m. He recently returned from Stockton, California, where he played a loose gig based around his new independently released album, Moth to Mouth, with musicians he'd never met face-to-face, on a few hours' rehearsal. And tomorrow he's back out touring again.

So Moris isn't home right now. Leave a message and he'll call you back.

And what the hell: He calls back.

Moris Tepper: "When I first walked into the studio with Captain Beefheart, it was scary. I mean, it would have been scary if it'd been Barry Manilow."
Moris Tepper: "When I first walked into the studio with Captain Beefheart, it was scary. I mean, it would have been scary if it'd been Barry Manilow."


Opening for Calexico

Friday, August 4. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Nita's Hideaway in Tempe

Moris Tepper gets a lot of work. He's been working pretty steadily, in fact, since he was 18 and joined Captain Beefheart's second Magic Band incarnation. Tepper played guitar on the seminal albums Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow; he's since been recruited by Frank Black, Tom Waits and Robyn Hitchcock, among others, who hanker after the distinctive, crinkly sounds he coaxes from his guitar to grace their albums. He's written music for television shows on UPN and Fox, and records and produces his own records at his home studio in Los Angeles.

Tepper is a tough man to get hold of lately, but once you have his attention, you have a whole lot of attention indeed; and most of that brings extremely good feelings about Moth to Mouth, his second solo release on Candlebone Records ( To hear him tell it, Moth to Mouth represents a personal triumph, maybe more than a musical one. "It's a very big onion skin peeled away," he says from his coastal California home. "I'd worked for years in different band settings, performing constantly, and writing and working all the time and trying to get the music to pay off financially, trying to get people to listen to it and pay for it, trying to make my music also be commerce. And it became absolutely painful, and it did to me what it does to a lot of people: It broke my heart."

So two years ago, Tepper stopped.

"I was trying to force the music into a position where it would also pay my rent and support me. Really, I was saying, 'Okay, art: Make me money. I'll even do things that aren't fun, so you can make me money.' And that doesn't work -- no, I should say it didn't work for me at the time. So I changed; I quit doing what I was doing. I moved away from where I was living at the time, I stopped playing every weekend and I slowly built my own studio. And eventually I started playing out again, solo performances, and I started learning the studio I'd put together. And you know what? I got out of the way. I let the music come through; I didn't think about it. What you hear on that album, you're not hearing songs that have been worked and reworked from demos, you're hearing me on my four-track at three in the morning, with some other overlaid tracks, bass and percussion -- great percussionists. I'm working with these guys who take sheets of metal, they've got pickups attached to them, they get that trash-can sound I like so much, and Miiko [Watanabe, of Maypole, Holly Vincent, and the Martinis, among other outfits] plays some bass. I've played with her for years . . . she really understands that fat-ass, hard-dick bass sound I want, and . . . you know, I'm not talking about sex at all -- well, I am. I am talking about sex. Sex and murder. And I don't have any murder in me at all, man, you know? But there's something about those two concepts that we ignore in life. And we can't get away from them: Sex and death are inevitable. We try to get away from our birth and avoid our death at the same time, and it's impossible to do that."


"I don't know if I'm explaining this well."

Reread that last paragraph: Conversation with Tepper, a born raconteur, ping-pongs around exactly like this from start to finish. It's like taking a longcut to an old haunt; if you trust his instinct, which is formidable, you'll eventually get to the swimming hole. But along the way you'll get led through the bracken and the thorny shrubs and you'll be picking weird leaves off your clothes by the time you reach the clearing. Almost before you know it, however, you've arrived.

In fact, Tepper is explaining himself well, though his rap resists transcription or excerpting precisely because he backtracks and corrects and contradicts himself so often, reluctant to fix himself, his body of work or (today) his new album within the confines of any flip phrase.

"It took about six months to put it together," he says of Moth to Mouth, the album that emerged from Tepper's two-year hiatus and slow comeback from burnout. "This album is, almost in entirety, nothing but sketches, and . . . but the word 'sketch' carries a bad connotation in this society, in our dialogue. What I mean, Moth to Mouth represents that first burning-flame vision, before you turn the vision into something you're thinking about, before you make it into an intellectual process."

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