Space Rock Opera!

Here's an album that fiction did in '00.

The password to access the folder is "sparrow". All tracks are in sequence and are downloadable 320 MP3s.

This was the band's swansong when we wrapped it in the summer of 2000. It was one of those records that can break up a band and does.

I was sad but still had it edited, sequenced and mastered and did up a whole package prototype for it just so it would exist for me and the fellows. I never planned to release it. There's nothing sadder than a posthumous release.

It's called Space Rock Opera. It is, in fact, a space rock opera. It's meant to be sort of a Day In The Life of the universe, a series of vignettes about some wack space shit that actually very much have to do with goings-on in our lives here on Earth. That's the conceit of the thing at any rate. It was born from a running interview joke we had where we would always refer to the "space rock opera" we were working on and how brilliant it would be. We were playing at Spinal Tap and it was always great to see fiction's upcoming Space Rock Opera referred to in print by an irony-other-abled rock writer.

TJ, the guitarist, actually left me some coded messages in some of the lyrics that he wrote, which is so conceptual it's beyond brilliant. I didn't start picking up on them until much later. It sounds a little narcissistic but it isn't. The things aren't generally all that flattering. They're classy and oblique, though. I have to credit him for that.

TJ, a self-professed alien abductee and intellectually-inclined Christian, also worked in a lot of neat conceptual stuff about religion under deep and not so deep metaphoric cover. The whole "Sparrow" thing is an interesting little manifesto. It's from some scifi book from back when but he subsequently insisted he'd made it up.

The other thing about Space Rock Opera was that it was recorded at a point when we'd been fired from our label and our manager and our entire sort of machine had packed up and fucked off. We were left with our gear and my old breaking four track Tascam 246.

We began the project as a "fuck you" to any of the powers that seemed to be conspiring to keep us from making records. We used what we had on hand- a nice big P.A., some dynamic mics, and a rambling rehearsal complex in La Mesa CA. We positioned the P.A. speakers in different rooms and sent signals through them at huge volume, micing them from a few feet away or a few rooms away to create a sense of space without any digital jiggery-pokery.

We didn't shy away from "crappy" sounds or off-kilter mixes. We didn't have to anymore. The one thing we had going for us was that we could make exactly the record we wanted to make without interference. The only time constraint was that we had to finish it before we couldn't stand being in the same room together. Creatively we were fine; personally was a different story. Paul Cortois the drummer left when we started vocal overdubs. TJ and I made it until the mixes were done and I just stopped returning his phone calls.

I did the editing and mastering at a studio in San Diego where we had all worked and made sure they'd have access to copies.

Space Rock Opera is cool, weird, ironically claustrophobic. Ironically everything. We joked about actually taking it to the stage and doing an intentionally cheesy stage production with tinfoil space ships on strings flying across the stage and shit. That would have rocked.

Enjoy. It's an exclusive.

Here's a quick minilibretto so you're not completely in the dark:

1. "Citizen Of The Galaxy": With a quick transmission from Planet Xenon we're off with this galloping prog rock narration from a blaster-packing space cowboy who implores us to "keep the plasma dry, for God's sake". I'm talking about national borders and national identities in this song, and how arbitrary, outdated and elastic they are. The last minute of this is pretty insanely blazing. I love the drums and bass on this album. And the guitar. And the mic'ed up japanese windup toys. "...so many worlds arrayed like jewels on jet-black velvet/It's a big old sky..."

2. "Live Today For The Sparrow" Suite: Weird, man. The new Space Messiah arrives, announced by a chorus of Buddhist Monks from the Nebula of Langerhans. He prepares the gathering for The Word, introducing them to "The Sparrow", a galactic deity. Then, in a haze of rocket exhaust, he's gone.

3. "Purple Majesty": The first of TJ's little forays into hidden meanings. Or not-so-hidden-meanings if you have a dirty enough mind to get a little tingle from the title. In short, this is a great, funky little song about fucking in space. Great rhythm track. Yours truly is very proud of this bass performance and the drums are so real and tight. Zibba-dibba-zibba-dibba- zum-sum.

This guy is a bona fide genius crazy guy. He'd be the first to tell you. Fuck it, he'll probably google this shit and read this. Hey, dude- nice fucking album. Look at his picture. This guy has to add a large flourish to every power chord. Even in rehearsal. But listen to what he plays.

TJ was mastering a sort of non-music with his guitar when we did this album. He had this thing where he'd play something really sort of hopeless-sounding and machine-ish and he'd say "that's the kind of thing that my mother would ask me to stop playing". And we tried to let that "non-music" approach influence this stuff. It's pretty spiky. We set up a lot of these drones that stretch with little overdubs and never sort of resolve harmonically. And TJ comes in on top with these hopeless, astringent, galactic sounding lines.

4. "Perfectly Lovely Planets": Another TJ number that didn't make any sense to me at all. But in a good way. I had learned by now that this guy was coming from another galaxy entirely and I sort of sat back for a lot of his input and just did what I was told. I knew it would be weirder than anything I could come up with and that refreshed me. TJ puts his vocal through a really fucked-up robotizer and delivers a chilling story of a race of space females who decimate planets, kill all males and establish themselves. I love the jackbooting imperialism of the chorus and the "Lost In Space" countermelodies he works in at the end.

TJ found a Goth chick in a band in another rehearsal room and got her to record the part of the galactic woman explaining the agenda of the X5-17. Freaky. She was hot.

TJ was always bringing people in from other bands to loop their voices or have them do some random percussion on a track.

5. "The Future's In Space": this was my song about being brave wrapped in an interesting tale about a crazy guy imagining he's spacebound in his Buick Skylark. But is he crazy? "I ease the throttle to overdrive/The G's kick in and I feel alive..."

We did the Space Rock Opera live in its entirety at the Mint Supper Club in Hollywood one summer night in 2000 and this one was the funnest for me to play, along with "Purple Majesty" and "Sugar". It was the only time we did the whole thing live. It went over a storm.

Nice rhythm track on this. Obviously copping "Walking On The Moon". I wanted to get that effect: a rhythm that is super-empty but totally infectious. It's like "space soul". There's a lot of weird distant guitar in this in various states of mangling. Slowed down in places to give a sense of distance and heaviness.

6. "Free From Denial": This one is TJ's letter to me. I'm referred to as "sister B": "Sister B/This mission lately doesn't mean too much to me.../Sister B?I'll telegraph when I get where I'm going..." See, it's a sort of disgusted goodbye. You have to understand- TJ is the kind of person who would do this.

He goes on to say "We've seen each moon three times/Each constellation twice/It seems to me the galaxy is shrinking all the time.../But you don't seem to mind..." which I assume means "I'm moving on to other crazy shit".

This whole song is about becoming disenchanted with a once-crucial mission. Like, say, being in a band. The "free from denial" refrain sort of drives it home. Some very fine guitar here.

7. "Iapetus IV": Ever since Andy Summer's "Mother" I've loved fucked-up songs about men's terror of women. This song couches the whole thing in a galactic ghost story about a guy who has a thing with a female alien ("...she looked at me as if I was a five-course meal/with her blank eyes nictitating/And her six bare breasts like something from a dream...") and is subsequently eaten by her as their space ship barrels into a galactic docking station.

This one was quite a production. It's the "A Day In The Life" of this record. All manner of found sounds were incorporated, sounds from other records, all manner of distorted power tools. I put the sound of a spinning bike wheel through a series of sonic alterations and set up a compressor so the vocal triggered it. That's the sound over on the right that sounds like my voice is being reprocessed for transmission to Nebula XJ-1584355. Ha- I love the lyric "I will never tell them how she came to me/With her pretty blue probiscis and her pheromone sac soft and smooth and cool..."

The ending involved a three-page script that we had to learn and enact. TJ is the docking computer on the right and I'm the pilot over on the left. The pilot mis-hears the docking coordinates and that's when all hell breaks loose.

In a beautiful little moment of completism, the docking computer says, "almighty Sparrow...she's on top of us...", I really love this. It sums up the intent of the whole record- the idea of a masterpiece held together with tin foil and clothes hangers. Space Rock Opera is about that exactly- it's not so much a space rock opera as it is a record about a space rock opera.

Listen to the breaking-up transmissions at the end. They're really disconnected and beautiful like they're coming from another star cluster. We figured that's what you'd hear, you know? You wouldn't hear some huge explosion like fuckin' Star Wars. You'd hear the radio go dead. Bzzt.

And with that, a pretty and otherworldly bass/drum/guitar ensemble ushers in the spacious, stately "Sugar".

8. "Sugar" is my favorite. I love this deeply as a piece of music because it's such a triumph of economy. Here we have the zenith of the "non-music" from the intro to the last note. It's as simple an arrangement as a song can have and still be flat-out majestic. Everyone plays to their strength here- Paul is stentorian and powerful on the kit, I do the playing-about-four- notes- in-the-entire-song-Zen thing that I developed from long years of being a lead-singing bass player. TJ shows off his incredible knack for arranging off-kilter guitar and elevates this whole song. This is TJ's record as far as I'm concerned. I told him when we were working on it that I thought he should just run with it, that I'd take his arranging cues because the stuff he was coming up with was so interesting and original and had such integrity sonically. And it was innovative.

I love the little bass section where the fuzz bass is about eight times too loud for the track.

"Sugar" on the surface is a song about a space drug that takes you "farther than you've ever gone...faster than you've ever been..." The backstory has to do with a mythic civilization that use the drug as a time-retardant that allows them to have million-year orgasms:

The Mercury-Neptune shuttle
Leaves the spaceport on the hour
I'll meet you in that milk bar on Ganymede
I've got an ounce of Plasma Powder

I know you're gonna love it
It's like starlight on your pale and perfect skin
Faster than you've ever gone...farther than you've ever been...

I've heard of a place in the Pleiades
There's more sexes than fish in the sea
And they mate only twice in their thousand-year life
I know it's crazy, but it's real...so real...

And I know you're gonna dig it
It's like oceans waxing blissful in the moon
Faster than you've ever gone...sweeter than you might assume....

Change your life
Change your life
Change your life
Change your life...

Here, in the last refrain of the album, we are at last clued in to the larger intent of Space Rock Opera. The jacket that I designed had a big red planet with that lyric emblazoned across the equator to drive the point home. The whole record was conceived as a blow from the depths of hell, the ultimate fuck-you to the idea of Going Quietly. It was by a factor of 10 the best thing the band ever did and my memories of recording it are rich, hard and bittersweet. We were in this sun-drenched complex in the San Diego desert and it felt like the end of the world out there. And we'd meet every day and work as we lived out the last days of our rock 'n' roll unemployment and the money went away.

And it was cool because we knew it was just for us. It was just for sake of making a really, really original statement. I love how the record manages to be about so many things by virtue of its threadbare, ironic hubris. It really is a finger up Death's ass. Check it out.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

first time through: lots of interesting stuff. will repeat.


12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"TJ, a self-professed alien abductee and intellectually-inclined Christian..."

That's insane on about 20 levels.

Anyway, this was one hell of a post. Seldom do many bloggers post entire albums! I'll have to port this over to my MP3 player & check it out at a proper volume later.

I never knew which band you'd been with in the past, actually. But, I Googled it & all sorts of stuff came up. Looks like TJ used to have this music up on a web site -- that and a closeup photograph of his face that was at least 1000 pixels wide.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Bobby Lightfoot said...

Thaaaat sounds like our boy.

4:55 PM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...


8:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gave it a better listen while jogging tonight (although, admittedly, I wasn't concentrating too well as I was dodging cars and so forth), but...

Tracks 5, 7, and 8 stood out to me as personal favorites. I can see why you like Sugar so much as a "triumph of economy." It even has the slow feel of a song that's easily 7 minutes long, though it clocks in at 4. You could easily have expanded that during live shows or something. The sound & ambience reminded me of a tune I remember from an instrumental rock band I used to love called Tortoise. Ever hear of them? I didn't mind the standout bass that you mentioned (though I was somewhat distracted during part of the song). In fact, the only real standout-type thing I noticed was how the drummer really seemed to beat the hell out of a ride cymbal in one of the songs (maybe the first?).

I heard the odd influence here & there -- a chord progression that reminded me of Kravitz, possibly; a vocal thing that reminded me of early Van Halen (like, from "Tora! Tora!" when you hear the pilots in the planes crashing in the background). You mentioned various Police (the band) references in the post. They must've been pretty influential on you guys, eh?

With a Space Rock Opera, were you guys ever tempted to include a synth/moog on any of the tunes?

Now that I've reread your post, I think it's weird that I was listening to this in the context of a 15-degree, cold, pitch-black evening. On the one hand, that's probably a lot closer to outer space than San Diego. But on the other, I think the album more closely reflects that desert environment. As you said, "a really, really original statement."

10:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've listened to it maybe six or seven times since downloading it. It's awesome.

"[Sugar] even has the slow feel of a song that's easily 7 minutes long, though it clocks in at 4."

That's one of the things that impressed me most: how all the songs feel like vast epics, yet none are even as long as 5 minutes, and most are closer to 3. So much in such economical measures -- as if Borges had been in a rock band.

"With a Space Rock Opera, were you guys ever tempted to include a synth/moog on any of the tunes?"

I kinda wondered the same thing, until it struck me that there was something subversive abt the whole opera as executed: Bobby said himself that the very notion of doing it started as a snarky joke. And for the main course, we have "Moog Surprise"! / Where's the moog? / That's the surprise! And I mean honestly: the thing is called "Space Rock Opera," which would seem to call for a massive triple-LP gatefold affair with Cal Schenkel artwork or something (space and opera being two words that evoke nothing if not "vast" and "infinite") yet the album clocks in just under a half-hour... A-and a "suite in three parts" that's only 2:38? Whah! Of course, we still have the race of amazonian dominatrices, the alien/robot voices, the space buddhist choir, even a shoutout to Eccentrica Gallumbits...

Great stuff -- thanks for sharing all this.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Sugar: Put that one on again, twice, while jogging tonight. Not only do I "not mind" that loud fuzz bass part as I said before; I love that part. I think it achieves this cool layering effect that some musicins are able to get to on occasion -- where each musician is adding something distinct and valuable to a tune, building into a kind of orgasmic crescendo of intensity. A good example of what I'm talking about (though, in a totally unrelated kind of tune) is Cake's cover of "I Will Survive." There's that part at the end where there's just the bass line & some quiet percussion, then they add the acoustic rythm guitar, louder drums, and an electric lead, and THEN there's a horn solo on top of it all -- and you get all that shit going on in the listener's mind at once, and somehow it works. (I saw 'em do it live & it didn't work so well, though. They must have good stiduo guys.) On the other hand, I'm probably just talkin' out my ass.

RE Synth: Yeah, I liked Decency's comments. What I was getting at, though I didn't articulate it well, was the only other "spacey" music I had in mind. Stuff like Space Oddity, Time Keeps on Slippin..., and of course Dark Side of the Moon. Before I ever heard the album, I envisioned synth ala Heart or that freaky solo on Lucky Man. But, it's better that it's not there, I think, for the reasons Decency thouoghtfully provided.

11:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Bobby. Read the entry, haven't yet listened, but will - it sounds great. Your blog is a fun read.

The reason I read it is that it has John Lebhar's name in it. I had a dream about John last night, and I haven't been in touch with him in ages, so I googled him and your blog came up first. We went to Hampshire together and were pretty tight at one point. (I witnessed The Malarians's very first show, back when there were about 23 people in the band; I bet I could name a dozen people you know well.)

Couldn't find any way to email you, so I'm posting here. Any idea how I can contact John? My email address is dalehgeist@yahoo.com. Thanks.

1:48 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home