Mastered by Michael Romanowski
DC: Alex Walsh.
AW: Deborah Crooks.
DC: So you have this new CD.
How many CD’s does that make now?
Well I made 3 cassettes in the early nineties. A solo cassette in ’89, two with a group in ’90 and ’91. A solo CD in ’98, and recorded a thing at home which got released in 2005. In 2000 I was trying to have a band, we made some demos and tried to make a cd, well we did but I just burned it at home and made labels for it. I still have it but I wouldn’t put it out there. Made one in 2003 which was like my big production try, then released the one from ’99 in 2005, finished one in 2007, got released last year, then I finished one this year.
So, this one’s a little different.
Can you talk about that.
Well I did this one all at home. I used drum loops and decided I’m going to do it all myself as much as I can and it turned out I did it all myself except the mastering. I did the art work, layout, and it was a big learning experience. Also, I started practicing buddhism about 5 years ago and I wanted to make a buddhist cd because I had been really inspired by it all. I’m in the chorus in the SGi and there aren’t alot of original buddhist songs. There’s a few but it’s not like a gospel choir where there’s a million songs. There are very few that are very specifically talking about this stuff. There are songs you can apply to it, but there aren’t that many written with that in mind, very little of it. That was my inspiration. The first song I wrote in that genre was called Eternity, I had no idea I was going to make a CD. It was 2005 when I wrote that and my goal was just to have something to sing at a district meeting and have the group sing along. So I did that and maybe 8 months later I wrote another one and got on a 3 or 4 song run of doing that. 3 of those ended up on the CD. And then I tried to write more that way but it just wasn’t coming out. I got into writing a song a day in February (2008) and some of them were buddhist songs, so a few of them are on the cd.
You mentioned gospel. I wondered if you had grown up in any faith or practice like that?
No I hadn’t. I don’t have the experience of singing in a chorus growing up. I was mainly into rock or pop music or whatever was on the radio. My parents didn’t really go to church. I was baptised catholic, didn’t go to church when I was younger, then when I was a teenager my mom and step-father wanted me to go to church. It was really really boring, so i didn’t really like it.
AW And there wasn’t much music involved with it. We moved around alot, 4 different high schools, 4 different towns, and there was one church that had music. And during the sermons sometimes they would have music happening, but not something that made me want to do religious music.
So, listening to this I would say that lyrically it’s buddhist, but music it’s not necessarily. It definitely comes from your pop songwriting.
Yeah, I wanted to do that. I didn’t want to make a sort of new age, trancy, sit down and hear bells or something.
CW So from that point of view…
AW Although I do like that sort of thing.
DW Yeah, I hear that. So you made something in line with your musical sensibilities and integrated your faith practice.
AW I got inspiration from Bob Dylan doing his Christian faze. I think he did 3 records like that and a live record somewhere in there. I could see doing a box set of this stuff, maybe 3 CD’s and a live one, maybe a DVD.
DW Do you think um, because there’s also a way that people who aren’t practicing buddhists who may not get it right away.
AW I didn’t want to hit them over the head. I didn’t want to preach. I think there’s one song that’s preachy in there but it’s near the end, so if you get all the way through the record, when you get to that you may be able to go with it.
DW Which one’s that?
AW The Mystic Law. I figured I can have a few of those. I tried to have the CD be generic so that if you didn’t get the references you might think they were just cool images, like “The Drum At The Gate Of Thunder”, Phantom City, The One Eyed Turtle And The Floating Log…
DW Looking at these, like Winter Always Turns To Spring, you could put them on almost any CD.
AW Karma Crush, I played the CD at a party and people said you should put that first. I did a little research. From every different aspect it was definitely a challenge. Trying to write buddhist songs inspired by Nichiren Buddhism which is pretty eoteric if you’ve never been exposed to it and trying to take the message in there and turn it into a pop lyric that’s singable. That to me is really fun. Like the Beatles, All you need is love. That’s a really profound statement, but how do you make it stick in your head? As a songwriter this stuff just comes out. As a songwriter I can consciously shape it but other times it just comes out and I say, oh, it’s a song.
DW How does it fell getting this done? Does it feel different than your other CD’s? It feels like this one, from my perspective, came out kind of easily. Was that your expereince? Even though you did all the work.
AW Yeah, it did. There were times when I was totally frustrated and got deeply depressed, but because of my practice I was able to bounce back really quickly. Because I was doing it alone and didn’t have to deal with other people until the end I didn’t have to compromise everything. One of the ways I work is I don’t have the finished product in my mind completely when I start. Writing is an act of discovery and then I’ll refine it. I’ll refine it as I go, maybe go back to it a year later and re-write it. Then a year later go back say the original is better. I just read an article in the New Yorker about creativity. They said Picasso didn’t do trial versions or sketches of things, he just did it. Whereas Cezanne took along time to get his thing together, and he wasn’t really famous or discovered until he was in his 50’s. Whereas Picasso was when he was 19 or 20. And there’s a difference the way those creative types work. For some people like Picasso they do their greatest work first and for some people like Cezanne it takes many years oftrial and error to become a master of doing Cezanne. And I think I’m more like Cezanne in that it’s taken me many many years to get it together.
AW And I think not having to deal with other people in the production, asking is that good? Is that good? What is that? And then someone else’s ego of “I just played the bass line, that’s my bass line.” And then I’ll say it could be different, I don’t know what it would be…there’s that whole process of discovery–and when
DW The quandry of the songwriter.
AW Yeah. Maybe when you’re a band and everyone’s committed to the band– I haven’t had that experience. I haven’t been able to collaborate that closely I guess (laughs). I need to be the director I think, for my own stuff.
It’s really interesting because the instrumentation is really sparse. I had to figure that out. I could put alot of stuff on it that I could play mediocre, or just a few things that I played well and that’s one thing I learned.
DW You talked about studying the masters of art. Are those the stories you take inspiration from?
AW I just read that in the New Yorker. As far as western society we’re all about the creative genious. Where as someone like Cezanne, he did it all his life and didn’t become “great” until he was in his 50’s. So the question is how do you…
DW Keep the Faith.
AW keep the faith.
DW As an adjunct to your faith practice is that artistic community and stories of other artists that I think, if you cut through the hype, being a songwriter is different than being a session musician or a pop singer. It’s very different. Another one of the paths you can take in the world.
AW Yeah, I don’t think for me it’s something that I could–I’m not happy unless I’m doing it. I know I wouldn’t be happy doing only one thing like a session musician. That’s just not my calling.
DW Right. That’s what I’m saying, you are obviously someone who is a songwriter and you do it no matter what the world says.
AW Yeah and I’ve gone through the fire as far as my own insanity to figure that out and come to terms with it. (laughs)
AW Like Cezanne, the article said this, he was lucky because he had patrons. He had a rich father who helped him out. I didn’t know this, I didn’t know anything about the guy. And it had another guy who was a novelist who’s wife worked while stayed home and wrote. So people figured out ways to do their art when they’re not hitting the big time right away so they can afford to live. I’d be happy to do session work if someone wanted to pay me. I would do it because I need money. But as far as that being it…
Another thing about doing this CD is the technology is so advanced now thatit affected how I did the work. It’s been around for years but I just never do it so easily that it made it a flowing thing in my creativity. For example I don’t play the bass on a regular basis. I just bought a bass so I could do the record. I can play a little bit, but as far as playing through the whole song–basically I would play the bass through the song and then say I like that measure or I like that measure, and then I would cut and paste it out of all the jams, and put together a bass track. It’s just like taking little pieces of tape and putting them together. Another good thing is I could do it in my pajamas at midnight, it doesn’t bother the neighbors, you know what I mean? Having the freedom to be able to do it in my livingroom was really really amazing. I bought a laptop in January for that reason.
My practice totally put everything into high gear. That’s the difference now, My buddhist practice is this thing–like you said it seemed so easy for me. For me it was bumpy and hard.
DC Well it was alot of work. It looked less bumpy then other processes I’ve seen you go through.
AW The last CD with personalities and stuff I had to fire the bass player with a band I liked because my producer partner didn’t like his playing and I agree. There’s the hard of the personalities because you like him for playing the gig because it’s a good vibe, but when you put it under the microscope of the recording thing his parts weren’t good. They just didn’t fit. They might fit in a jam situation but not what’s going to suit the song. That was really hard.
DC Were you able to make that gracefull you think?
AW Relatively, as best as I could.
DC So now you’ve got a CD. How do you see it living alive in the world? Other than people buying it and listening to it at home, but as far as performing it. You chose the first song more out of popularity than following a narative.
AW I think it follows a narrative. I think it’s a good intro song. It’s light, it’s not heavy. Everyone knows the word Karma.
AW Karma Crush sounds kind of cool. I do the songs live now. Not all of them. Some of them I’ll never do live. THat’s just the way it is when you do a record. I kind of like that. Some of them are meant for performing and some are meant for recording. To try to reproduce it live it might be really boring onstage or not in the flow of the other stuff going on. And this has been one of my concerns or fears is to be considered The Buddhist Guy and be put into a niche. You know what I mean? But from everything I’ve read as far the independent music scene that’s what you’re supposed to do, find a niche that you can do good in.
DC That may be what you’re supposed to do but what do you think the truth of you as a songwriter is?
AW It’sa part of me. I wouldn’t say I’m the Love Song Guy, or the Break up Song Guy either. It’s just what I’m going through now. The way I see it is if Dylan can go through his Christian faze I can go through my Buddhist faze.
DC (laughs) Is Dylan still a practicing Christian?
AW I have no idea. It was a very focused thing he did. I know the next one isn’t going to be a buddhist one. It always influences me. And I think it influenced my work before. It’s just that this one was inspired by the Lotus Sutra and the writings of Nichiren Daishonin and President Ikeda.
DC Are you going to send it to president Ikeda?
DC Did I hear your wife singing on this?
DC How did she feel about as a longtime buddhist. Is she excited about it?
AW She’s very excited about it. She thinks it’s great. What I see is it being something the SGI members really like. I could see parents buying it for their kids. Just like people buy their kids christian music. I investigated that, there’s a christian rock section. I even bought a christian rock CD to listen to.
DC Is there a buddhist section?
AW No. There’s not a buddhist pop section.
DC THere are alot of pop stars who are buddhist. On the Pretenders new CD. I don’t think she’s a member, but I heard a new song on the radio and it had Nam Myho Renge Kyo at the beginning and she’s talking about the different things she’s tried. I don’t know what it does after that because I haven’t bought it yet. But I heard it on KFOG and I went What? And it’s CHrissie Hynde on her new CD, Boots of Chinese Plastic. I htought it was fascinating that even though she isn’t practicing, that the first line on her song to get widespread airplay was Nam Myho Renge Kyo. I want to look into that a little bit more.
DC So do you see yourself self-producing the rest of your CD’s?
AW Well there’s alot of ways to work now. As far as doing stuff at home and bringing it to a studio as far as the technical stuff you can do stuff anywhere now. I mean it all depends on money. If there’s someone that wants to produce me and I have money and I want them to produce me I would try that. I haven’t done that yet. I’ve always been heavily involved. And that’s what was interesting about this one, I really had to switch the hats. Okay, I’m writing the song now, then I’m the recording, later I’m the mixing guy nd that’s where you take all the tracks and takes and put it all into the final mix. That’s where I had to be the producer and say okay, that’s enough. And then be the record label and say there’s a deadline you have to meet to get to the mastering people, then deal with the manufacturer, and be the graphic designer. Every step of the way was–and I’ve done this over the years so I’ve had some practice. Even my day job helped because I got really good at doing the layout program for our newsletter at work, so bought the same one for home rather than spending the same money to have someone else do it. Discmakers was like $800 for the graphics so I just did it myself.
So my intention with the CD–yeah I’d like to introduce people to buddhism in a nice way. In a way that’s really natural for me. And I think if people like my voice they’ll like it. I don’t think it’s offensive.
AW And I think the imagry is not worn out.
DC What is worn out?
AW Like Christian. Everyone knows Mary and Jesus, but no one knows Devedatta.
DC (laughs) that’s true. Where would you like to perform this? In your dream performance. Do you want people to perform it? Do you want to take a band on the road with this? Perform it with the buddhist choir? Go to Japan and sing it?
AW Yeah sure.
AW I don’t have enough material. I don’t see that just yet. What I think is I’ll get 3 cd’s out and have enough material for a full buddhist show. But I don’t want to be just a buddhist thing. I want to have my other stuff in there too.
AW Cause I have other songs that are good. (laughs) I think that would be really cool to be able to do it all.
DC But you are doing it all.
AW Yeah I’d love to go to Japan. One of my goals for the song Eternity is to have the chorus go to japan and do it for him at one of the leaders meetings and have it go all over the world. But I’ll settle for doing it for him here when he comes. Or the song that we wrote. That would be fun.
DC So you said you’ve been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for for five years. Can you say more about that?
AW I got interested in buddhism probably like many people, through the beat writers. Probably the beats, and then Zen. I was sort of a dabbler. The stuff became part of popular culture–the Zen of this the Zen of that, the Art of blah blah blah.
AW And then I did try to sit at the Hartford Street Zen Center in the Castro because I was introduced to Phillip Whalen who was a famous beat poet, one of the founding members of the beat thing here in San Francisco and he became a Zen Monk and he ended up there. My co-writer at the time who I met through New College was working on editing his poetry for a book for penguin, so he introduced me. I went there for awhile for a summer. I sat but I just couldn’t keep it up. I had a talk with one of the priests but it just seems like you have to go and live on a mountain or become a priest in order for it to really work or sink in. It was hard because I sort of gave up on it my first time I tried to formally do stuff. And then a couple years later I met Lisa who introduced me to the practice. I sort of had an epiphany moment with it in the Ikeda Auditorioum when it was open. It was one of the Kosen Rufu Gongyo’s with a few areas combined so the place was packed with everyone chanting really high energy. I thought this is amazing! It just felt like I was in the right place. So then alot of stuff changed, everything changed, from the inside out. And it’s still changing. It’s one of those things where its a spiritual foundation. It’s a concrete practice I can do. Like with guitar if you do these excercises you’re going to get better. And with buddhism if I practice I’m going to break through whatever my challenge is. It appeals to me compared to something like Zen I couldn’t see the connection between breaking through my challenges and trying to calm my mind or something like that. And I think it’s great ,people doing Zen. It really prepared me, the fact that it didn’t work for me, to try this one. And another thing is, I don’t think that I would have stuck with it if it hadn’t been for Lisa. The fact that we were married just made it all–cause I would have walked away many times. Whether personality conflicts with people or not understanding the organization. I haven’t really been an organization type person in my life. But now I’m getting, organization is good. I enjoy that it’s something I can rely on. It’s bigger than individuals. I had an experience with twelve step in the past. And that’s a real structured thing. I think I’m someone who needs a structure because the stuff is so big that I need a way for me to take it all in. And there’s many different religions you can do that with. So that’s my take on it.
I think it’s really great because not everyone knows the imagery. Everyone knows the Garden of Eden inside and out but hardly anyone knows the Ceremony in the Air. And it’s so fresh. But it’s so OLD. The possibilities of writing stuff, I feel like a pioneer.
DC That’s great . You found your niche.
AW It’s a huge thing you can do anything with. There’s so much you can do with it. And millions of people can do anything with it and it wouldn’t be old, cause it’s not part of our culture–yet. We can say the Zen of this or that and that’s part of our culture and it’s cool but the other stuff hasn’t become popular yet. But it will I think.