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Back and forth

Bostich + Fussible turn TJ + San Diego into sound

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/17/2008

The red glow of the giant neon star welcomes dancers to La Estrella. The illumination from the “Dancing Hall” sign lights the cement on Sixth Street, just around the corner from Avenida Revolución in downtown Tijuana. Where the glow ends, the dark, narrow entrance to Dandy Del Sur begins. The two bars face each other like old friends, and indeed, both have been on the block for some time. But over the years, Dandy has become trendier and trendier—thanks in part to Nortec Collective’s track “Dandy Del Sur”—while La Estrella remains in some sort of impenetrable time capsule. On the old wooden floor of Estrella, middle-aged patrons dance until 6 a.m. to cumbia, banda and norteño. Meanwhile, over at Dandy, a younger, hip set sips Bohemia while a jukebox blasts Depeche Mode and Devo, with an occasional Mexican pop song thrown in for fun.

Standing between the two bars is a lot like listening to Nortec Collective. Since the late-’90s, the foursome has been mixing traditional norteño with electronic music, and to anyone who’s spent time in Tijuana, the result sounds almost as if Nortec walked around the city with recorders and added an electronic beat. It’s chaotic, melodic, a little wacky and a hell of a lot of fun.

Tijuana Sound Machine, the newest album by Nortec Collective’s Bostich + Fussible (Ramon Amezcua and Pepe Mogt, respectively), is, as Mogt describes it, an audible trip from Tijuana to San Diego and back again. Fresh from a sold-out show in Mexico City—where the duo played with a small crew of norteño musicians (made up of accordion, trumpet and tuba) and visuals guy Ernesto Aello, who uses a live feed and animated computer graphics to give the live shows extra oomph—Mogt paces his Tijuana apartment clarifying the albums’ concept.

“When you listen from the beginning to the end,” he explains, “the album has to do with living on the border. We arranged the songs so that this car—the car pictured on the album—is driving in Tijuana, crossing to the U.S., then coming back to Tijuana. Ramon is living in San Diego now; he’s been living there since two years ago, so doing this album, we were crossing back and forth, and the album reflects that.”

The track “Reten,” for one, uses samples of radio signals Mogt captured while driving around TJ. It was around the same time 13 people died in a gun battle, and Mogt picked up all kinds of police communications.

“There were a lot of checkpoints around the city,” he recalls. “Soldiers would come to your car with a 15-milimeter machine gun, and everyone was more worried about the soldier—that he’s going to mess up and fire the gun. It’s a very stressful situation. The idea was that if you’re going to be at a checkpoint, you just put on that track and relax.”

Another track on the album, “Jacinto,” uses samples of interviews Mogt did with kids in Tijuana. When asked what color would describe the city, most kids answered red, purple or black. When asked why, most answers related to the violence. Needless to say, Mogt describes it as a “very sad song.”

But then there’s “Mi_Casita,” a track written and produced by Amezcua. The happy-go-lucky song likely reflects Amezcua’s less-stressful life in the States. While Mogt acknowledges that things can be easier stateside, don’t expect him to move across the border anytime soon.

“I’d miss the liberty you have” in Tijuana, he said. “It still seems like it’s a city that has no rules. In some situations, it’s good. When I cross the border back into Mexico, I feel free, but if you saw me in the U.S. driving, I make my stop for three seconds, and I’m very careful. When I come back down here, everybody’s free—it’s still like the Old West. Sometimes, though, it’s not good, because things can get out of control. But I’d miss the trivial things, too, like good tacos and good cantinas.”

Nortec Collective’s Bostich + Fussible play Friday, Sept. 19, at Street Scene. www.myspace.com/tijuanasoundmachine.

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Better red than dead

Photo by Rob Queenin

With Foundation, contortion rockers Scarlet Symphony are ready to do things right this time

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/16/2008

So. Much. Drama. And yet so little has been written about Scarlet Symphony’s music. So, let’s be contrary and start there: The four-piece band of San Diego natives Gary Hankins (vocals), Aaron Swanton (guitar) and twins Zach (bass) and Josh Wheeler (drums) cranks out the type of rock ’n’ roll that makes you feel stupid if you don’t dance or at least shake around a bit when you hear it live.

Hankins, with the shape and stature of Jack the Pumpkin King, writhes and twists across the stage like Mick Jagger, only wilder and more rubbery, and often ends up intertwined with the microphone chord by the end of the set. Swanton, who’s more squared and machine-like, cranks out the driving guitar riffs and screaming solos, dripping sweat while trying to equal the energy of the crowd, which, especially when the band plays all-ages shows, is as squirrelly and hyped up as the singer. And the twins form an eerily calm and cohesive rhythm section—their fraternal connection cutting through all the onstage chaos.

The crew were standing outside their new El Cajon practice space last week, smoking cigarettes, drinking Pacifico and going through their somewhat contentious past in a rapid-fire manner, which hardly allowed one to finish a sentence before another was off on another tangent. They were noticeably eager to get on with it, get past “the L.A. bullshit,” as it’s now known, and start talking about Foundation, their upcoming full-length set to be released in February. The album could technically be considered their first full-length, since their first release, Vulture, was recorded hastily and then nearly ripped apart by the greedy hands of big-time producers promising big-time deals that never panned out.

The band formed in 1999, Swanton and the twins first, Hankins later. They floored the San Diego house-party and underground scene, and the “they’re gonna break” whispers started quickly. That’s when they recorded most of Vulture, but they only played one real show, at a place on El Cajon Boulevard called Club Venus, before one of Swanton’s good friends died and he moved to San Francisco to sort things out. The band broke up, but the recordings got passed around and the excitement surrounding their bright future got even bigger, driving the band back together in March 2003.

Friendster existed in small circles; MySpace didn’t—but the band still managed to get the sort of word-of-mouth promotion that spreads across a city faster than avian flu. It wasn’t long before L.A. bigwigs were swooping down, clawing at the new glam-rock band with supposed record deals and label interest.

“It was a crazy time,” Swanton says, “because we recorded in different studios and lost all that music. We were trying to make a record—.”

“And every time we looked for outside assistance in progressing—,” Hankins adds.

“We ran into a few walls,” Swanton finishes.

“Yeah,” Zach Wheeler interjects, “and we just lost faith in people.”

“It was a weird time,” Swanton continues, “because the music industry was falling apart. So they got interested in us, but they were in the middle of falling apart, so all these weird things would happen: We’d get courted by a major label, and it would take us so far and so many things would happen, we’d go to the studio and record some things, and we’d go some place and we’d talk and we’d have a lawyer and be, like, is there a contract that’s gonna be handed down? And then everything would be like poof, because now, like, I mean, Capitol Records isn’t even in the Capitol Records building anymore.”

All the record-deal shenanigans led to break-up No. 2 in July of 2005. The Wheelers joined Society!, an Afro-beat band that garnered a lot of local attention, while Swanton and Hankins started UV Tigers, which they admit was just an excuse to continue writing songs. A few years flew by, and the boys decided they couldn’t let such a good thing go—they made their grand reentrance into the scene at the 94.9 Independence Jam in 2007.

“I think now we know,” Swanton says. “We need to record records—that’s all we need to worry about doing: be a band, play shows, record records. All the rest of the bullshit is just bullshit. If some record label says, ‘Hey, I like your record; I’d like to distribute it,’ cool, but—.”

“But we’re not going to be on some leash with some record label,” Hankins finishes.

Josh Wheeler only speaks up when the talk turns to Foundation, which consists of old stuff, new stuff, one live track and a few slower tracks they never play live because the energy always seems too high.

“If this article could focus on the new record,” Zach Wheeler says, “that’d be cool.”

“Yeah,” Swanton adds, “it’s fair to say about the breaking-up thing that we’re all pretty over it.”
Scarlet Symphony play with Say Vinyl and Drowning Men on Dec. 21 at The Casbah. www.scarletsymphony.net.


Breaking Through Shells

Photo by Heather Leavitt

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in Arts Perspective Magazine 7/1/2009

When Alma Schneider sat down to put words to her post-college dilemma of wanting to either buck all responsibility and travel to South America or return to the peanut-butter-and-jelly comforts of her family’s home in Southern California, she wrote Gastropod.

A somewhat dark, but mostly humorous and cerebral, multimedia performance piece ostensibly about two snails (but really about a person’s often conflicting inner selves), Gastropod will go from print-on-paper to actual live stage production when it makes its world premiere at Durango’s Abbey Theatre June 16 through 18. If all goes well, Alma and the Heart Hustle theatrical cooperative she works with will then hit the road, taking the production on a nationwide tour.

And that’s all thanks to the decision Alma made after graduating from Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts last year. “This is my priority,” says Alma decidedly, pushing back her dark hair from her dark eyes and readjusting in her seat at a café.

The ambitious 23-year-old didn’t end up trotting off to South America after all. Instead, Alma moved back to San Diego, got a job as a live-in nanny, took the money she’d set aside for the trip, plus the money she saved by not paying rent, and used it to fund Gastropod, her first official out-of-school original production, which she’ll also be directing.

“So, gastropod,” Alma says, eager to talk about her brainchild, “is the scientific name for snails or slugs. It’s the class, and what it literally means is ‘belly foot,’ or ‘belly footed.’ I found that out and I became obsessed with this concept of having your belly and your foot operate as the same organ and what the human implications of that are — what the embodied implications of that are. You know, if your foot is in your belly, can you ever stop moving, or can you move at all? The idea that movement is a sense in your gut and, at the same time, to have your home on your back — that kind of just sprouted this thing of this creature that never really leaves or never arrives.”

The script itself is still changing, but the characters in the two-woman show are crystal clear. Alma wrote the play specifically with two actresses in mind. “Karina and Amanda are hilarious together,” Alma says with a smile.

Karina Wolfe, a native of Durango who says she’s the one who persistently pestered the owner of the Abbey Theatre until he agreed to put Gastropod on the bill, and Amanda Raleigh, an actress living in New York, are the two young performers. They both helped Alma and a few others start Heart Hustle, the mostly female collective of now-nationwide artists who met in high school or college, and have a straight-forward goal of producing diverse, experimental performance art, making sure it’s both accessible and relevant. Gastropod is the cooperative’s first official collaborative project.

The set of Gastropod will be fairly simple, with the production relying more on dialogue, video projections, choreography, and beats and raps (as in rhyming), rather than elaborate set design. Wolfe and Raleigh will be in skin-tight, nude-colored bodysuits. Raleigh will be more mobile, representing the restless side of human nature. Wolfe will be the lethargic one, poking fun at the side of us that would rather just sit on the couch eating Cheetos than do anything.

“Really, they’re two parts of the same person,” explains Alma. “That’s what they’re meant to represent. It’s very Waiting for Godot,” she adds, immediately and modestly recanting, saying, “Not that I’m comparing myself to Samuel Becket but, you know. . . .”

What Alma meant by invoking Godot is that Gastropod is a dialogue-driven exploration of life, growth and decisions that leaves much to be interpreted and figured out by the audience. The play is funny and intense, with a touch of oddity.

“I’d say it’s more absurdist theater,” says the brunette, blue-eyed actress, Wolfe, from behind a pint at Carver Brewing Co. in Durango. “It brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. I guess you could call it a coming-of-age story, too.”

The two characters in the play mature and eventually reach a point of forced change.

“At first they try to fight it off,” explains Alma. “Their relationship comes to a boiling point, and they eventually have to get out of there, but they go where no other gastropod has gone before and they . . . ”

Let’s not spoil the end.

Gastropod plays the Abbey June 16 through June 18; $10 for adults, $7 for students. Purchase tickets at the Abbey or Southwest Sound, 922 Main Avenue, Durango. Contact Alma at alma8_6@yahoo.com.

The Abbey Theatre is located at 128 East College Drive, Durango; http://www.abbeytheatre.com, and is under the new ownership of Chuck Kuehn and Doug Sitter.

Kinsee Morlan is an alternative art gallery owner, an arts writer and collector, and a major art fag in general. She currently works at a public library, a public radio station, and she freelances when she finds the time.

Elevating the underground

Jen Trute's "Sunbathe Barbie at Bombay Beach for Lowbrow Show" is pictured above.

A high-end art museum opens a lowbrow art show

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 1/20/2009

When co-curator Michael Gross sent out invitations to the Oceanside Museum of Art’s Jan. 24 Lowbrow Art: Nine San Diego Pop Surrealists show, he got one back with a yellow Post-it note attached.

“This is disgusting—appalling—not art—more porno—ad nauseam!” The words came at him like tiny daggers flying straight into his eyeballs.

Gross, a movie producer and artist known for designing the Ghostbusters logo, set the note down, then picked up the phone and called most of the nine artists in the show.

“One of the artists suggested we get it blown up and hang it in the museum!” he mused between chuckles in his New York-cynic sort of way.

If it were any other museum show, the artists probably wouldn’t have been so amused by the seething Post-it, but if Mary Fleener, Scott Saw, Tim McCormick, Scrojo, Jason Sherry, Charles Glaubitz, Ron Wharton, Pamela Jaeger and Jen Trute have one thing in common, it’s a lack of pretension and an elevated sense of humor.

In fact, a sometimes sick, other times sarcastic, and often times opinionated sense of humor is one of the most common traits of the artwork that now falls under what’s called the “lowbrow” movement in some circles and “pop surrealism” in others (the interchangeability of the two is still up for debate because some consider pop surrealism a subgenre of lowbrow).

The term “lowbrow” has its roots in the pinup art of the 1950s and gig posters and comic art of the ’60s, but it didn’t really make its way into popular vernacular until the ’80s. By the late ’90s, more and more artists started painting lonely-looking cartoon-like characters set against post-apocalyptic surreal scenes, and few arts writers, curators and gallery owners knew what to call it. That’s about the time the term “pop surrealism” hit the scene.

Really, though, both words are just vague references or attempts by the art establishment to group together a style of work that finds inspiration in things like comics, cartoons, tattoos, hotrods, skateboarding, graffiti, street culture and rock ’n’ roll; is centered around Los Angeles and San Francisco; and has its own bible in the art magazine Juxtapoz (whether adherents to the scene still follow or give a damn about the magazine anymore is currently a matter of debate, several artists say).

Lowbrow art is a lot of things traditional fine art isn’t. It’s funny, often illustrative and narrative and rife with pop-culture references, but, otherwise, it’s all over the place in content and form, taking shape as paintings, sculpture, posters, art books and even vinyl toys. But in no way does the “low” in “lowbrow” mean the painterly skills or technical execution of the work is any less deserving of highbrow appreciation. Artists like Mark Rydon, Frank Kozik, Robert Williams and Tim McCormick, who just turned 40 and has been painting for the better half of his life, are prime examples of that.

“I personally really dislike the term ‘lowbrow,’” McCormick says during one of his dog-walking breaks, which force him out from behind his chaotic canvases and onto the relative calm of the streets of Oceanside. “I remember reading it in Juxtapoz a long, long time ago when that magazine first came out, and I remember people desperately trying to put some kind of identification on the movement…. For me, personally, it doesn’t fit me really at all, but I’ve kinda given up on explaining my work to a lot of people, because, my understanding of art lately—each artist and their work has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. You can group things and put people in groups all you want, but, ultimately, you have to take it case-by-case.”

McCormick and the rest of the painters and art enthusiasts who’ve been either in or watching the lowbrow scene for awhile are the first to recognize and criticize the recent over-saturation and obvious rip-off work of younger artists who slap a doe-eyed character in a dreamscape and call themselves pop surrealists. It’s easy to understand why McCormick took last year off so he could slip out from under the lowbrow umbrella and further develop his own style.

“It’s not like there aren’t good artists within the scene,” McCormick says. “There are good pieces here and there. There are pockets of good work and then overwhelmingly bad and ignorant work from the masses—that’s just the nature of the beast.”

Wading through the beast to find the region’s best pop surrealists was largely the job of Jerry Waddle. Waddle, the bespectacled owner of Ducky Waddles, the underground art-and-culture oasis in Encinitas, has been dealing, collecting and showing contemporary art since the mid-’90s. When asked to co-curate the museum show, he pretty much knew immediately who the first five artists were going to be. The next four took a little time, but Waddle has so many artists in his arsenal that it wasn’t much of a stretch. The guy, after all, has artists like Shepard Fairey willing to show in his tiny shop’s gallery thanks to his collector’s sense and ability to catch on to trends before the rest of the world (Waddle was showing Fairey in his store long before people figured out what the weird Andre the Giant face was all about).

“There are a lot of people who want to be artists or who think they are artists but don’t really fit the true definition of the word,” Waddle says. “There are also artists that would fit into the genre but are more derivative of other artists; in other words, they didn’t have their own artistic voice developed. Mary Fleener, Scott Saw, Scrojo, Tim McCormick—all of the artists I chose have their own artistic voice. They aren’t copying or derivative of some already-established lowbrow artist out there.”

Some of the artists Waddle settled on, particularly McCormick, whose new work is deeper and more Goya-esque with intense sex and violence themes, and Fleener, whose new work is aesthetically closer to cubism mixed with Native American and Tiki influences, hardly fit inside the lowbrow or pop-surrealism category anymore, but Waddle says he was more concerned with involving artists who blazed the lowbrow trail rather than those who simply followed the path.

“I do not see it as a necessity for them to stay within their particular style,” Waddle explains. “I feel it’s important for their growth as an artist. They needed to grow out of that and move forward.”

Others in the show—like Scrojo, the poster artist who does all the gig posters for Belly Up Tavern, a music venue in Solana Beach, and whose most recognizable figures are his hot punk-rock chicks with big and perky breasts—are planted firmly and proudly in the lowbrow genre and probably will be for life.

“What happened was the death of the LP art and even the CD art,” Scrojo says, pushing up his signature black-framed, yellow-lens glasses and launching into an explanation of why he’s stuck to music-poster art. “There is no longer a direct connection between artwork and the music coming out, so the only thing left is the gig poster, and it was never thought or planned out that this is what I’m going to do—it was just by divine accident. But, yeah, the gig poster is the last direct connection between rock ’n’ roll and art.”

That’s why, even when people like the irate Post-it sender get offended by imagery like the kick-ass design Scrojo came up with for the Lowbrow invitations—a drawing of one of his voluptuous hot chicks covered in tattoos, which, if you look closely, are actually representations of all of the nine artist’s work in the show—he and other artists like him will keep doing what they’re doing no matter what the art world thinks or how it’s labeled in the end.

An opening reception for Lowbrow Art: Nine San Diego Pop Surrealists will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Oceanside Museum of Art, 704 Pier View Way. Admission is $10. The show will be on view through May 24.


Reach for the stars at Observer’s Inn in Julian, Calif.

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/10/2009

Mike Leigh does what he loves. His perfectly trimmed mustache and impeccable clothes are the only remnants of his former life as a reserve police officer and businessman. For the last 14 years, Leigh’s been able to turn his longtime astronomy hobby into a profession.

With the help of his wife, Caroline, Leigh runs Observer’s Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Julian that offers a one-hour guided tour of the night sky along with warm beds and buttered toast.

“When I take people down to the observatory,” Leigh says, crunching along a gravel path toward what looks like a large gray shed with a retractable roof, “to begin with, I use a green laser, which looks like a Star Wars light saber, and I point out the brighter stars and constellations and I try to give a little bit of trivia so people can remember it. And then, after about 10 minutes of showing them the night sky, I take them inside the observatory, give them a quick talk on the different types of telescopes and how they work, and then we start looking through the telescopes. We treat it a little like sipping wine—we go slow, we talk about who discovered the objects, what they are, the dynamics behind the objects, how far away the are, and give them a little personality so that people find it interesting.”

To describe astronomy as “interesting” is understating how Leigh feels about the night sky.

“At 8 years old,” he says as he grabs a two-by-four piece of wood and manually pushes back the roof, “I became infatuated with astronomy by finding Saturn on my own and thinking, Wow, why isn’t everyone fascinated with this? Because if you’ve ever seen Saturn live in a telescope, it’s just awe-inspiring—it looks three-dimensional and it’s just a fantastic site.”

After Leigh shows off his three gargantuan telescopes, he steps outside and looks up into the clear afternoon sky.

“You should see it on a starry night,” he says, a twinkle in his eye. “It’s horizon-to-horizon, just a spectacular sky, so many stars.”

The wooden spoons of Tryyn Gallery

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/10/2009

With his white beard and green apron, William Chappelow looks a little like Santa Claus. The fact that he has a workshop out back does nothing to thwart the illusion.

But Chappelow doesn’t make toys; he makes wooden utensils—spoons, mainly—and sells the pieces of cut and crafted wood for around $50 a pop.

The pricey utensils are works of art, though, and Chappelow’s collectors know how many hours, how much thought and how much love he puts into every hunk of wood.

“I’ve been at this now for 35 years,” the craftsman says, leading the way from his Tryyn Gallery, where he showcases his wood works, to his Hissing Camel Gallery, where he shows others’ arts and crafts, then back again to his workshop, where he and his assistants spend hours cutting, buffing and waxing each piece. Chappelow’s plot of land (on the winding Old Highway 80 in Guatay) isn’t big, but the old guy’s managed to put every inch of land to use, building what’s become a cultural refuge in an area known more as a refuge for wildlife.

“It doesn’t seem like I’ve been doing this for that long,” Chappelow says. “It seems like maybe four or five or six years, but even after that fairly protracted period of time, I still look forward to every day, and it’s still an exciting experience to step up to the band saw with a limb or a log and kind of study it a little bit to see what it might have to offer, then dive in.”

The band saw is Chappelow’s sketchpad. He rarely draws lines directly onto the wood because he’d rather let the natural grains and curves of each piece guide the blade.

“The first cut often can reveal new direction that a piece of wood might like to go in,” Chappelow explains. “I don’t want an artificial line that pulls my eye away from what that piece of wood has to say. It’s sort of a metaphorical dialogue, I guess you might say. I let the wood have a voice in the process.”

After the process is complete, and Chappelow has his spoon, he picks up the scraps of wood he’s cut away and puts them to use, too. Bigger pieces become knives or paddles, smaller pieces become pendants for the jewelry he makes, splinters become kindling for the fire that heats his home, and the sawdust becomes mulch for friends or ash-glaze for his pottery.

Chappelow tries to use only certified wood (responsibly chopped), recycled wood or wood brought in by customers who want an old tree of theirs to have a new life as a utensil.

“Trees are special to lots of people,” he says, pointing to a box of logs his neighbor brought in after one of their fruit trees died.

And just to add a little personality to his utensils, Chappelow adds funny little tags to each piece.

“People seem to enjoy that a lot, and it kind of gets your imagination started,” he says. “So, instead of just being a knife or a peanut-butter knife, it’s a ‘Stick-to-the-Roof-of-Your-Mouth Knife’ or a ‘Glue-in-Your-Dentures Knife.’”

Chappelow chuckles, kind of Santa-like, then shows off his impressive “Beef Stalk Tomato Soup W/ Jump Lima Beans and Ham-Hawk Stirrer” made out of a beautiful Birdseye Maple.

The Durango Roller Girls and Articulation

This story is about two small-town women with big ideas. Aired on KDUR and podcasted at PRX.org.


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