Outside Is Where We Live

Everything in life, even the dumb random stuff and mistakes, should be part of the process of getting better, and not be about defeat.

I’m not a great photographer. I’m probably not even a good photographer. I was trained (in college) as a journalist and worked most of my career as an editor and writer. I was drawn back to music a few years ago, both as a fan and as a songwriter myself, and as someone who wanted to create a small record label, because I needed a change and always loved music. The recent vinyl revival just seemed too exciting to let it go by without exploring that space myself. It seemed like something really cool was about to happen, again, in music.

I’m also an oral historian and spent years traveling the world interviewing people about war and peace and their lives. Collecting stories. That’s something I’ve done since I was about ten years old, when I walked up and down my suburban street “visiting” with all the neighbors, asking them to tell me stories about when they were children, or about their jobs, or about why they or their families moved to the Pacific Northwest, about the wars they fought in (all citizen soldiers mostly drafted into World War II or Korea or Vietnam), or not. My most recent oral-history work dealt with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and took me into prisons, into “squats,” into small apartments and farm houses, places where young soldiers escaped, whole or broken, to find new lives. It was work that broke my heart.

Now, with my camera, at live shows like this one, in the darkness and the storms of light and sound, this time with the band Junip playing at Neumos (lead by the extraordinary guitar player José González), I want my pictures to be about the “story” of the show. I want to capture the movement of the musicians, their faces, their bodies in motion, as they sing their amazing lyrics, bring forth whole worlds from the instruments they play, the connection I feel to them simply by being in the room.

At this show, in early June at Neumos in Seattle, I had borrowed a friend’s Olympus camera. He’s an artist. When he uses this camera he finds things I could never find. That night, the camera slipped into a setting that I wasn’t trained to use, and couldn’t figure out how to set it back. As I look over my shots, more than a thousand of them, I can see where I wanted to go, but time after time I missed the shot because I didn’t how the camera worked.

But here’s the thing. I kept hammering away at it, slowly getting closer and closer to understanding the problem as the bands played on. I never fixed the setting back to what I knew, I just kept shooting until I got closer to something I could work with. That’s the coolest part of this portfolio, to me. I didn’t give up. I just kept going, kept searching for the story this band was trying to tell.

It’s why when I write my record reviews I throw in details about Shakespeare’s plays, or the poetry of John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I have friends who read my stuff and they tell me not to do that because no one will care, not in a music review. But for me, I can’t read some of Keats’ poems and not feel the stories still connecting. I can’t read some of his poems without crying, because of the connection I feel, his heart to mine, his humanity to mine, his music to the music inside me. It’s the story of a brilliant, sensitive young artist dying at the age of 26. It’s about a poet writing right up until the day of his death. It’s about a poet dying thinking he was a total failure as a poet. It’s all stories. Everything is connected. Behind every record, behind every live show, there’s a story unfolding there, too.

And I can’t get enough of them. The stories. I want them all because somehow, if I keep at it, if I keep them close, artists and poets and creatives, what I feel and what I write about will help me live a better life. I know how that sounds, but it’s true. I’m not some cool music critic. I’m still that kid walking from house to house in search of the stories of people’s lives. To feel I belong to it all, somehow. It’s my quest.

I’m not a photographer. I’m probably not much of a writer or reviewer. But I am a man in search of stories. And that’s all. That’s enough.

It’s Still a Wild Animal

Tonight, I’m going to see Come at the Crocodile. Their reissued “11:11” from Sub Pop is so cool. We’d be lost without the artifact. The memory. 1992. Recorded at Fort Apache Studios in Cambridge, MA. The Croc is this strange wild-animal hybrid venue in Seattle. It has two bars inside, sells food (I think) and has an all-ages viewing area, so people under 21 can see live shows. But it’s all kind of cobbled together, booze and music. And it’s in Belltown, a part of Seattle that’s known for late-night trouble. There are always cops and tourists and people on the street. Cool and edgy and creepy woven together. Ironically, it’s still one of those places where rising star bands want to play. That’s the part of this scene that I find the most interesting today. Being in a band today is a job. People have to play gigs and make money to pay for the road. But the audiences come in to listen to music and get wasted. I’ve seen bands refuse drinks from bar patrons. Almost every band who plays the Croc talks about it in interviews. The road is a grind. It’s a job. Bands play, tear down, and head for the next gig. Bands are their own techs. Their own tour managers. Their own drivers. It’s an overheated world where fantasy and reality rarely exist in the same physical space.

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Barbarossa at Neumos

A selection of my photos of Barbarossa (aka London-based recording artist James Mathé), opening for Junip (and playing in that band as well), at Neumos in Seattle, 5 June 2013. Mathé is touring in support of his new single, “The Load,” with a full-length LP, “Bloodlines,” coming out this summer (Memphis Industries).