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

To his credit, when you hear him drop a phrase like "that first burning-flame vision," it doesn't sound like Tepper's blowing smoke; it doesn't even sound affected. Tepper describes his music differently from one minute to the next, in a way that suggests he tries out words like he tries out sounds, auditioning different combinations to get the vision across (later on, he'll call the album "the sound of a pirate-miner ship").

It stands to reason that Tepper would be anxious to talk about his own music, of which he's rightfully proud. Much has been made about his long association with creative visionaries like Beefheart and Waits, and he answers those questions gracefully, but you can sense the slight frustration when he says, "For a long time, the people who knew about me knew about me because of that element, Beefheart and Tom Waits and Robyn Hitchcock and all. Now it's getting to where people know about me as me, for my music. And I really have a lot I want to say about the album."

Moth to Mouth is, actually, pretty accurately described as a burning-flame vision. Tepper played most of the instruments himself, seeking out other musicians to get sounds he couldn't produce or that would only come through another player's specific abilities. Swinging wildly from nightmare landscapes like "Buckets of Blood" and the warped country two-step of "Gonna See Her (Sometime)" to the scratchy instrumental "Fat Sandy" and the aching sadness of "Impossible Things" and "The Palm of His Hand," Moth to Mouth is a solid and cohesive piece of work, despite the fact that no two tracks sound alike. Some of it plays like a static-washed phone message from a distant friend you don't see anymore; other cuts are full-on percussion-heavy distortion grooves.

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."

Taken entire, though, Moth to Mouth sounds mostly like a home recording from a far country just after the war, where traveler's insurance is a bad joke and the locals gather in empty fields with beaten-up stringed instruments -- dobros, banjos, slide guitars -- to trade stories and preserve their history (forgive the opulent metaphor: Talking to Tepper messes with your syntax even hours later). Most important, when you listen to Moth to Mouth, you don't hear a Waits ex-sideman or a former Beefheart axe suddenly taking center stage; what you hear is familiar noise in an undiluted form. Moris Tepper knows what he's doing, and listening to his new album makes it clear just how much he contributed to the sound of albums like Frank's Wild Years and Doc at the Radar Station, even if he's quick to give respect to his mentors.

"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. I was just out of high school, working with a professional musician on a studio budget. But when you watch a great artist at work, unless you're retarded, you're going to learn something. And Beefheart was the greatest teacher I've ever had. He taught me, above all, that brain has no business in art. It has a lot of business in the business end, the budgeting and all that, but art is about letting things through, and when you get brain involved, you're no longer doing that.

"Now," he continues, warming to a topic he'll vibe on for the next hour, "that sounds really easy, like, 'Just turn your brain off and you're an artist.' No: You have to have heart; you have to have had a lifetime of experience, and have had that change you in significant ways; you have to make connections with people and learn to listen to everything. I think we can all -- musicians, everybody -- learn to hear all those voices that surround us: angel voices, devil voices, insect voices, wolf voices, all the natural and synthetic sounds in the world, in the universe.

"And you know what? If I hadn't learned that from Beefheart, I might have learned it from looking at a palm tree, three years later. I'd already been going down that path, I'd been painting and writing since I was a kid. We all have the potential to do it, hear those voices. You have to allow it to come through.

"I'll give you an example: I was talking to a friend of mine who pointed out that on Moth to Mouth there are three songs that center on a loss, a loss which somehow involves blood, cars and something coming down from a mountain ["Frankenstein's Daughter," "Buckets of Blood" and "The Palm of His Hand"]. These songs came out completely independent of each other, and I didn't plan that. But there's something coming through me in a case like that, I don't know . . . maybe it's someone I'm going to meet, maybe in the future. I don't know who she is, but I'm telling someone else's story."

Whatever might be coming down the mountain to meet Moris Tepper, he doesn't seem to be afraid of it. In fact, from the yard at his home, what he can see is "blue skies and bamboo, man. I have two tortoises, a cat named Rooster and a parrot, and every evening we come out here and sit. I've got such a nice life now, so much better than when I was running around worrying about trying to get someone to respect my music financially. I'm grateful. I'm so grateful for everything I've got, you know?"

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