This website is for my solo music work so nobody gets it confused with my commercial stuff, especially me.
Every spring I'm invited to guest lecture at a friend's aesthetics class at the Art Academy of Cincinnati to talk about 21st century artist survival. Professor Zumeta introduces me by describing my dual path as a comm artist and fine artist. He refers to my 3 minute guitar pop wonders as fine art. He's the expert and knows about this stuff - so I won't argue and sincerely hope my work is worthy of the designation. Since I already have a serviceable “mini auto-bio” on the .com site, I'll write about making
... a name which came to me spontaneously after prayer – my special way of praying – preceded by weeks of failure because every damn title I dreamed up could be readily Googled and linked to another artist’s song, album, or book. The mastering engineer - magnificent Richard Dodd, no less - said he needed a title so he could format the master disc correctly. When I suggested “Rob Fetters” he gave me a weary sideways look of ennui that could only come from a guy who has worked hand in hand with Beatles and Dylan and such. So, on the drive home from Nashville, in my usual way I prayed like a motherfucker for insight, guidance, whatever the watcher in the skies was willing to give up to keep me steering forward. Next morning: Bingo! Saint Ain’t popped into the gray matter - I Googled it, and after scrolling 5 pages of no duplication decided the name fit the work perfectly. Perhaps in Heaven Jesus, Meher Baba, Buddha, Mark Twain and my Mom are enjoying cocktails together and snickering, “Well, at least Problem Boy got that one right….”
Childhood illness is the culprit to blame for my propensity to write optimistic songs about misery, starting way back with Fear Is Never Boring. I had severe and chronic asthma attacks when I was a kid, allergic to everything except a few select fruits, vegetables, grains and meat. Dairy was out, including Mom's, I’m told. I survived chronic, harrowing allergic reactions always accompanied by severe asthma attacks and remember just giving up a few times - deciding I was going to die. But I learned to not freak out when I couldn’t breathe from Dr. Morton – who scarily reminded me of Raymond Burr. He would meet me and my parents in his office or the emergency room when I was hustled there during an attack, roughly pick me up and with his face inches from mine tell me to calm down, breathe slowly and hold the hell still. Next: a shot of adrenaline and in a moment I was all better and ready to go home. He suggested to my terrified and weary parents that I would be a stronger person in the long run because of what I endured. It may sound like happy horseshit to say this, and while I’m sorry my family had to go through the nightmare, I appreciate the adventure. Gradually, I grew out of the allergies - except for a deathly reaction to certain nuts. Asthma attacks are very infrequent. Of course, as anyone with a pulse knows, there's no shortage of other reasons to
in life. A beautiful and wise friend once instructed me: “The Buddha said your most difficult relationship is your greatest teacher.” It turns out she was wrong, the Buddha is not credited with the quote – but – when I quizzed Zen Master Dae Gak about it a couple years ago he laughed and told me, “The Buddha should have said it.”
Tacitus has some shockingly harsh words for the early Christians in Rome but softens slightly when he describes them being torn to pieces by wild animals when they were falsely accused of trying to burn the city down. We'll never really know if
was plucking a lute or fiddling on anything while the place was in flames, but as Montaigne points out, Christianity survived. 1500 years later the faithful French stopped burning witches and blaming Jews long enough to rip their neighbors limb from limb because of theological differences: Bonjour! Be my brother or I will kill you, tout suite! They moved into their victim's homes and let the bodies rot in the streets, according to eye-witness accounts. As a student of history - including my own - I'm cautious as hell around professed religious folk, train tracks, pit vipers, peanuts and politics. Just because I attempt some sort of mental judo with the suffering thing doesn't mean I go 'round looking for the shit. That's why I didn't name Nero "43" and give proper credit to the modern marvel who inspired the lyrics. And to tell the truth - I've fiddled when I should have put a few fires out, too.
For my 15th birthday my parents presented me with a brand spanking new Gibson Les Paul. It was the best birthday I ever had: I still remember the clean smell of the red plush-lined leather case and the hand-polished instrument as I gingerly picked it up for the first time. It didn't leave my hands for the rest of the day - I kept it beside my bed as I slept. Next day I woke in bliss and gazed at the beauty but soon descended into melancholy as I realized I might never be as surprised and happy as I had been the day before. A dream had come true, the object of my desire was in my hands, but the peak experience was behind me. The cycle of gain and loss has whipsawed me - like the rest of humanity - so much that I've finally started paying a little attention to that nice fellow who spelled it out 2500 years ago: name starts with a "B". When I wrote the lyrics to
I had just quit the security of a commercial studio composer job with a steady paycheck and had a year-long non-compete clause to fulfill before I could start my own business. An anticipated tour with The Bears was thrown under the bus and my savings were not enough to sustain my family for 5 months, let alone a year. So, I sold non-essential musical equipment and found other bits and pieces of music work to do that wouldn't get me into hot water with my litigious ex-boss. My wife started working at our neighborhood hardware store. We hung on by the skin of our teeth - and it was one of the best years of our lives. It also marks the blossoming of my friendship with Matt Malley (founding member of Counting Crows and a fantastic songwriter, singer). He played the killer bass in Desire which we celebrated by scarfing sushi in Thousand Oaks. He credits a Bears show he saw in Berkeley with inspiring him to become a pro musician. He told me he had never seen musicians having so much fun together.
Speaking of great pals, Cincinnati born, Walnut Hills High School / UC grad Andy Haskins moved to L.A. in the '90's to work for network TV and gave me my first break writing music for promos 15 years ago. Since then, he left a cozy network job to make a go of it alone, succeeded, and has encouraged my independence - especially when the phone stops ringing for extended periods, as it occasionally does for almost every freelancer. He says I've done the same for him, but I don't remember. When his daughter, Bee Haskins, was 13, he sent me a Wizard rock song she had written: blew my mind and I became a fan. Around that time her witless idiot middle-school music teacher told her she didn't have the vocal chops to make the school choir. Well... I just happened to have an ice-cold dish to serve the music teacher because I had composed
Famous Last Words
- a song begging for a coolly detached female lead vocal. I thought Bee would be perfect for it. Dad recorded her in his video editing suite and the future star totally nailed it. 13. Years. Old. Incidentally, I think she was a ripe old 14 when she sang the bridge on Desire. F.L.W. also features my son Noah on drum additions to the percussion loops holding the groove down. He was 17 at the time and since then helped me with the mixes on Saint Ain't. His hearing is surpassed only by dogs.
I woke at 3 AM with a melody I dreamed and snuck downstairs to our living room guitar (Kimble #1) to quietly figure out chords to match it. Forgetting I had a 4 track recorder app in my iPhone, I just kept playing it over and over. Next morning, Noah asked me what the hell I had been playing non-stop for 60 minutes - his bedroom was directly above the living room. I had no lyrics but something a zen teacher once asked me had been bothering me - still does, in fact. He inquired if I knew who I was. I quickly responded, "Yes, of course! I'm a musician and a parent and a runner and I like this and I did that and then something happened blah, blah...." I paused for a breath and he quietly said, "Well, you might think about who you are without your story." Speechless, I bowed and left the interview. With that question in mind, two days after the melody dream I wrote the words for
and set out to record what looked to be an easy little tune. Ric Probst's vintage U67 mic helped for tracking - but then I starting mixing: only 17 tracks on the darn thing, should be piece of cake.... After 11 revisions I took it to L.A. and played it for Matt Malley and asked, "What's wrong with this? It ain't working." He blamed himself and re-tracked the bass. I returned to my studio and revised through Mix 18, then decided it was my vocal that sucked and re-sang it - started sounding like the Bangles produced by Aleister Crowley... Mix 20: Matt Hueneman heard it and said he remembered Mix 9 sounding great, just not enough low end. I went back to Mix 9 (original bass and vocal), touched up the EQ on the goddam kick drum and that's what you're hearing. Forever came close to never making the album.
I was griping the tired old parent's lament: "You kids didn't come with instructions." Son Sam's lovely whip-smart friend, Brittany, responded sweetly, "We didn't get instructions for you guys, either." Perhaps something John Daido Loori put forth gives guidance that could help all interested parties. I'll quote him here:
What You Do
and what happens to you are the same thing. Realizing that you do not exist separately from everything else, you realize responsibility: you are responsible for everything you experience. You can no longer say, 'He made me angry.' How could he make you angry? Only you can make you angry. That understanding changes your way of relating to the world...." I made my version of this as simple as I could so it's easy to remember when I've been hoisted by my own petard.
It's Cathryn Lovely's fault: she turned me on to Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece, Blood Meridian. I've read it 4 times. There's a fireside chat towards the end when the Judge explains man's true nature to a fellow scalp hunter (Brown) and cheerily proclaims
God Is War
... Brown says, "You're crazy". I don't want to spoil the ending for future readers (be brave - I dare you), but it's safe to say if you happen to be a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel it's never a good idea to tell the psychopath he's crazy.
Sometimes my thoughts are as out of control as Donny's ashes blowing from the Folger's can in The Big Lebowski. I imagine stuff that isn't happening: good things, bad things, cosmic bliss, the wreckage of my future. When I catch myself it's with surprised relief - grateful nobody knows what I've been really thinking. I wouldn't enjoy being institutionalized.
is about a relationship that looked solid, even to outsiders, but in the end it was just my imagination. Something clearly needed as a blueprint for creation is also the element that destroys. But don't cry. It all worked out in the usual manner: I didn't get what I wanted. I had to settle for something better. I made my own ersatz Mellotron in a sampler synth for Stories and the backing vocals are the best imitation of Todd Rundgren and Kasim Sulton singing like angels I could manage.
Brian Lovely - Cathryn's mate - is just about my closest guitar player friend. I think he's better than me - but that's not the only reason I like to keep him around. Together, we've recorded, written songs, toured, gone on long runs and even longer political rants. Once, when we were jogging in Philadelphia, George Bush the First went by in a motorcade. Brian claims my comment was, "He... looks... so... lifelike." Recently, while lying on the floor of my studio with Tilly the beagle prostrate on his chest licking his face, he told me his hands were aching because of some house rehabbing he had been up to. Now, those are hands I've watched a lot. Valuable digits. Brian Lovely screwing around with power tools makes me nervous - like thinking about Jeff Beck sticking his hands near a fan belt while tweaking a hot rod engine. Stop. Please - stop it. Stop doing that and just
Play Your Guitar
because it's what you're here for. Do the dishes, change the diaper - that's OK, but no circular saws. Surviving as a professional musician is all the heavy lifting you need to do, my friend. I asked Belinda Lipscomb to sing with me on this one. We've known each other since she began churning out platinum albums with Midnight Star at QCA, a studio just down the hill from my old apartment. Chick totally rocks - and she knows what it's like to piss off her parents and break the boys' hearts, too.
Vocalist Clyde Brown is a legend among Cincinnati musicians: classy and elegant... and a total bad-ass. Working with him is like being in the presence of a magician: I'm left wondering, "How'd he do that, where did it come from?" He consistently nails tracks on the first take. I was recording demos for a restaurant commercial and Clyde was in my studio singing ad libs. I had the guitar groove for what was soon to become
Life & Death Boogie
rough-tracked and asked him to do his thing - my only production hint was, "Now Clyde, I know we're supposed to be extolling the virtues of a sandwich, but could you make it more like we're singin' about... well, you know what I mean...." Needless to say, the client rejected that demo - much to my relief because now I had other designs for the little bad boy. It only takes two seconds to tap into my under-age inner child, buzzing up to Detroit on a Friday night to see a show at the Eastown Theatre. One of the best groups I ever saw there was a Toronto band called Crowbar featuring King Biscuit Boy. I can picture Life & Death as one of their tunes and at the mention of "Detroit" in the 2nd verse the crowd erupts and maybe the 20 year-old chick wearing black leather everything who's standing next to me is giving me a hug 'cause I'm just a rosy-cheeked kid, and everything is loose and her boyfriend doesn't care and the air smells like incense and pot and the Hare Krishna people are dancing with the bikers and I'm in a sweet, dark, electric heaven Dad would never understand and the MC5 are up next....
Ever been around somebody famous and have a little chat? Exciting stuff: you may remember and recount the incident forever but the famous one has probably forgotten everything by dinnertime. I once found myself in a San Francisco hotel elevator with Raymond Burr (and his partner), who indeed looked like my childhood allergist mentioned earlier: ailing but still an imposing figure. I tend to exchange pleasantries with strangers in close spaces so I asked him how he was doing. He said, "Not too hot, right now." I replied, "Well, you look great - if that's any help" and told him to have a good day. The elevator door opened to my floor and as I was
he chuckled, said thanks and told me to have a nice one, too. He co-starred with Godzilla, twice! Made my day. 'Nother time Faye Dunaway sat down right next to me. Honest. Just inches away. And I love Faye Dunaway. Remember her in Little Big Man? Chinatown? Oh, Lordy. It killed me not to turn and stare at her. We listened together as a woman nearby blamed her bad fortune on a jerk she loved and Ms. Dunaway leaned over to me and half-whispered, "You make your own luck." I couldn't breath for a moment. She should get another Oscar for it because it's a blockbuster movie in my head: she made a believer out of me. You never know where you're gonna get the help you need, eh? Sometimes you don't even need to ask. Just hold still and listen. Then help somebody else.