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."

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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 (www.candlebone.com). 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."

Pause.

"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."

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.

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?"

Even as he's being pulled in a thousand directions at once, producing and engineering for other people and the like?

"Yeah, sure. We have to pay the bills and the rent and we have to survive. And sure, I'd love to be able to work on my own stuff and never have to worry about doing anything else for money, but I don't think it's ever going to happen. But man, it's okay. I've got to be open and trust the songs to come through. Working in my own studio, with no budget or engineers, I can do that for my own music and not worry about whether I'm communicating what I want to an engineer, or whether what I'm hearing is what someone else is hearing.

"Working with these musicians for the tour, especially, I have to rehearse 100 times over, because you want to keep the integrity of the music you think is so bitchin', but you also want the humanity of those players to come through in performance. Every one of those 100 times is more pleasurable. It sounds like people who care. That's why we always leave some time during the performance where nothing's written, where we can write on the spot and that humanity can express itself.

"I'm telling you, man, it's a beautiful experience."

Moris Tepper isn't home yet. Or maybe he is. But wherever he's calling from, he's having a hell of a good time.

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