Big Enough to Reappear
For the listener, it's a genuine high finding a ferociously creative talent that few of your friends know about. You fetishize the records, play them for your friends ("You gotta hear this"), and, if God is good and the ferocious talent rolls through your town, you drag all your like-minded acquaintances out to the gig so you can show them in person what the hell it actually is, this exquisite thing you've been babbling about.
For the ferocious talent him- or herself, it can be a tremendous pain in the ass. Here's a lifetime of work built up, credits and kudos to boggle the mind, album appearances for days and a word-of-mouth reputation that brings name talents a-dropping their calling cards at your doorstep . . . and you're still selling your own albums through mail order, lugging boxes of your own CDs to gigs to make the rent.
California-based jack-of-all-stringed-instruments Moris Tepper has been one of contemporary music's worst-kept secrets for just over two decades now, but for a moment let's give a pass to all that. Forget about the credits which begin in his barest youth, with three albums' worth of avant-guitar in Captain Beefheart's second Magic Band incarnation, and end (most recently) with Frank Black's Dog in the Sand, from January of this year. Forget about his stellar work with Tom Waits, P.J. Harvey, Robyn Hitchcock, and so on. Forget about the paper trail of accolades from BAM, the L.A. Weekly, Music Connection, the L.A. Times, Mojo, The Wire, Option, Alternative Press, Goldmine, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian (and the list goes on), all of which play one familiar note: Moris Tepper is a stone righteous musician.
Forget about all that, and listen to his two solo projects, Big Enough to Disappear (1996) and Moth to Mouth (2000), available at Tepper's shows, in finer record stores, and from www.candlebone.com.
Tepper inhabits a noisy, chaotic, fuzzy, utterly beautiful musical landscape entirely of his own creation. The L.A. Weekly calls him "a jewel"; BAM starts its evaluation at "amazing," and proceeds from there. When Tepper and his band swing through town, everyone who shows up gets tickets to the carnival, and a sweet and spooky place it is, indeed -- full of loud sounds, bright lights, and music that's as lively and cantankerous and joyous as it is heartfelt and hopelessly romantic.
You want creative? You want anger and lust and humor? You want a highly unconventional conversationalist and raconteur? At the risk of giving up one of our prized secrets: You gotta hear this.
New Times: What are you reading lately?
Moris Tepper: A lot of technical manuals. Also, I'm just now reading Miles Davis' autobiography; that's a wild kick. And more manuals.
MT: Yeah. Do you wanna talk about gear?
NT: Okay. You're using new technology in the studio these days; what are you finding you can do that you weren't able to do before?
MT: Well, you know, I did an entire record [Moth to Mouth] that was heavy on the gear, and I'm getting more into it now. You can keep going deeper and deeper into software that does different things. I've been working lately with the SP808 synthesizer from Roland, and with Reactor, and with Acid [sampling] software on the PC side. The changes I'm going through now are ways of stretching time and pitches; using multiple platforms, PC and Mac together, to achieve new ways to deteriorate the audio. Or, you know, twist the sound. It's like being able to solder a nose onto a kneecap. But even with all the gear, I'm beginning to really enjoy working with natural sounds. I've been carrying around a little digital tape recorder with me for like the last eight months. I've been singing into it, been recording insects, bushes . . . fights between people, loving conversations between people, random thoughts. Lately there's more of a consciousness in my process to employ the natural universe around me as it occurs, as part of my . . . my pastiche.
NT: Deteriorate the audio?
MT: Right, right, right . . . Even more than on Moth to Mouth, I'm trying to bring the sounds of the universe into the things I create, and it's like opening a very big hole.
It's weird, the more times that I've done this and then walked away from it, and then come back to it and done it again, I find that I'm not an artist who every minute thinks about making a record. Stuff happens organically. Like for the last four or five months the band has been learning a couple of new songs a month, but it's only been all of a sudden that I've kind of realized, "Well, I'm making a new record." It's like I keep trying to run away from what I know, and every time I get there it's still me, anyway. I'm writing again, writing kind of heavily; I write and then I go out into the world and I come home and I want to write some more. It's exciting and it's also scary.
NT: The last time you came through Phoenix you played acoustic guitar throughout the show, so it's kind of weird to hear you talk about using technology to "deteriorate" sounds . . . The set you and the band played last time seemed a lot more stripped down than usual.
MT: Well, that's something I'm not really conscious of, because it depends on the set list, plus I play through a lot of effects, and I play with the slide or whatever, so I don't even really think of it as "acoustic guitar," very much. But it's interesting what you say about the band looking like it was more stripped down, because there's a strong thing I feel to be true in the process. I'm a romantic; I love certain things and I don't want them to change. I don't want to see the sunset turn green, for example, even though I'm sure it'll be beautiful for the next generation. But at the same time, for the music to live, and for me to live on stage and not feel like I'm doing some kind of repetitive thing, I've gotta constantly be doing new songs, and constantly rearranging old songs.
So when you talk about the sound of the live show changing when you saw us last, that's the evolution. Or the de-volution, the deterioration taking place.
NT: I sat down today and played Big Enough to Disappear and Moth to Mouth back-to-back, and Moth to Mouth. . . it was so much more about controlled chaos, it was like it came from another time zone. I kept thinking, "What happened to this guy in five years?"
MT: And the songs we're doing now, it's almost like the same five years, only now it took place in five months. I think I'm really latching onto the process lately, and it's like the feeling of swimming in the scary, black, dark, ocean. And there's something in it; I feel like I'm about to open it up, like I can light it up and we're going to swim around in it, with it, and it won't be that scary. I feel like I'm about to peer into this precipice of darkness and go into it and bring whatever it is back. And it's big, it's bigger than before, and it's scary, and it's also really nauseating sometimes. [Laughs.] Never had that feeling before. That's the truth. I'm just digging that process of finding out what's happening as I do it.
It's like the birth of anything, and I feel like maybe I'm going to have to struggle to get it. Just go through the process of birthing this big, dark space. It's the anticipation of the power coming, and being the translator, the channel where it's coming through. If you believe in anything, it has power.
I'm far less egocentric about that process than I used to be. I used to think, like Ornette Coleman used to say, "God creates the music; I play God." I don't believe that, exactly, but I'm beginning to understand that it is me, that I can be something larger, and that's when the good stuff starts happening. When all I am is "Moris Tepper," just talking about it, I'm pretty dumb. It's pretty personal, pretty small. When I can get past this human brain, the songs are larger. They're me, but they're not wholly me, or wholly my creation. They're just themselves, and I put little wigs and coats and pants on them and make them walk a certain way, but they're actually from some other place. When I used to be more egocentric about it -- you know, "Will I ever be able to write another good song, am I really a good writer or am I just mimicking" -- I had less of an ability to understand that. I would be more apt to, in the process, try to control every single aspect of it to gain a power over it.
All I think I'm saying is the more I get to understand the grace of the process, the more able I am to say, "Yeah, it's not just Moris Tepper." When I become a soul, just floating, that's when the good shit really happens.
[Pause.] You know what? Shit. That sounds a little too much like a belief system. I'm not saying scrap it, but I'm not sure I believe anything I just said. [Laughs.]
NT: Well, here's the deterioration again.
MT: Yeah, man. Deterioration is magic, magic equals deterioration. Mortality is what gives everything its beauty. I really see that . . . like, vampirism is probably the most awful of all scenarios I can imagine. The beauty of everything is just gone. In your first year, when you realize you're immortal . . . how would you relate? I mean, it would be the most horrifying thing. Everything stays forever, there's no reason to be interested in anything. But that's the magic. The life- and-death cycle is the magic. The deterioration is the magic. The limitedness of each thing. The beauty and the magic of the universe is all within the limit of it, the deterioration of it. [Laughs.] Time is a nut case, man.
NT: So let's talk about the future.
MT: Let's talk about the future . . . There's very little hope for man, don't you think? For a poet, or a romantic . . . there's very little hope for a future that, ahh . . . favors insects.
MT: Insects, definitely. Yeah, that's a good theme. The future always favors change, and being the unit that can effect change most gracefully. And humans aren't always as good at it as, say, a cricket. I'm not gonna say an insect's a machine, but the living unit that most resembles a living, changing machine is the one that's most favored in natural selection. I mean, I look at animals for examples of how I should be. I look at the animal world, and that's where I draw my religion, my morality from. Like these tortoises here at my house . . . I think when we last spoke the tortoises were up, and they've been down in hibernation for six months, and now they're up again, and they're grooving hard. They're heavy creatures. They're sensitive, and they're very deep. They follow me around; when they hear my voice, they react. It's pretty cool. I love animals, and there's always that feeling of intense pain when they die, and tortoises seemed like a way of ensuring that wouldn't happen, you know? They're going to live beyond me.
So I guess all I'm saying is, if we're talking about the future, I'm investing in insects. In my dad's day, it was aluminum siding. Today it's insects.
I lost all my money in E-Toys, anyway. I'm putting what's left into insects.
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