I Wrote This: Cass McCombs profile, Paste Magazine

Oh em gee, you guys, where have I been? I have, as usual, been splitting my time between working and galavanting around the Bay Area, both on and off assignment. Funny how the number-one thing that prevents me from updating the blog is the thing this blog is about: my freelance work.

Lately I’ve started working with Paste Magazine, though my work with them came about under unfortunate circumstances: Crawdaddy! closed up shop over the summer, and their freelancing team got passed along to Paste, which was also part of the Wolfgang’s Vault family. It was tough to break in at Paste — after taking on the Crawdaddy! writers in addition to their existing freelancer pool, there was a lot of competition for assignments — but I completed my first assignment for them last month: a profile of the elusive Cass McCombs.

To be honest, I knew nothing of Cass McCombs’ reputation going into this project, and I still kind of wish I didn’t: rumor had it he’s…well, read along and you’ll see.

If you have an mPlayer account, you can read it here. But it’s likely you don’t (though you should: Paste affiliations aside, mPlayer is a very cool little gadget. You can easily lose several hours playing with it if you have no pressing engagements and no clocks within view), so here’s a copy-paste of the story:

It’s safe to assume that Cass McCombs doesn’t have a Twitter account. He’s become as famous for keeping mum about pretty much everything as for being a gifted songwriter. Interviews dating back several years reference his thinly veiled disdain for conversation, all of them using cautionary but upbeat adjectives like “reserved” and “enigmatic” to describe him. They all seemed to suggest one of two things: that he harbors a deep resentment of the press or that he’s some kind of merry prankster. Or both.

However, the reality is that McCombs is almost disappointingly approachable. After releasing his fifth album Wit’s End in April, he’s already back with another full-length called Humor Risk. “I wanted to keep the momentum going from Wit’s End, he says in a soft-spoken voice. “We had to speed up mixing on Humor Risk just to get it out before the end of the year. The most frustrating thing is being told you have to wait six months [to release music]. It’s like artistic constipation.”

Humor Risk marks McCombs’ first attempt at introducing comedy into his music, a surprising turn for an artist known for his opaque brooding. But fans will recognize the album’s uptick in major chords as well as McCombs’ wry lyrics. “I think it’s a revolutionary idea to use humor in music,” he says. “I believe that because of the commercialization of music, people take it very seriously. We want to uphold this idea that it’s worth your hard-earned money. I don’t believe my music has any value. Music should be free and fun and not heavy.”

And yet, McCombs fans are a fervent bunch. There are a few artists who can inspire mass worship on the level that he unwittingly commands—his Facebook page is littered with comments calling him a genius, inspiring, un tremendo artista. Even critics are unapologetically adoring. It’s an awkward position for someone who operates as an outsider.

“I don’t Google my name, if that’s what you’re asking,” he says of it all. “I’d be afraid of what I’d find…I’m trying to piss people off! If you’re saying I’m not, I must be failing.”

McCombs grew up in Concord, Calif., in San Francisco’s East Bay. It’s not the tumultuous East Bay that rappers and punks (and now, Occupy protestors) have made famous, but a sunny suburb about halfway between Oakland and the tenuous boundary of the Bay Area.

He left Concord in 1999, but he never really landed anywhere, leading something of a nomadic existence since—Humor Risk, he says, was recorded in “different studios; different bedrooms” all across the country. Though it seems that pretty much any city he’s stayed put in for more than a few months claims him as their own—he’s been linked to New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles—he begs to differ. “I’d consider the Bay Area my home,” he says. “I’ve spent probably the most time there. It’s a place where I can go and—I wouldn’t say I get in touch with myself, but every time I go there it’s an entirely different experience. Especially San Francisco. Fortunately, Chinatown stays the same,” he adds with a short exhalation that might be a laugh.

Maybe he’s just in rare form this afternoon, or maybe his whole creepy-neighbor persona is just a role people have thrust upon him because they don’t want to believe that he just doesn’t talk much. Even his music hearkens back to old cowboy ballads, often appropriating the use of characters to tell a story. When he does refer to himself in first-person, the truth is usually buried deep in metaphor or simply lacking in details.

It’s these nostalgic tendencies that have McCombs lazily tossed into the “Americana” category. Each album is very different from the next, but it all, in some hazy way, evokes something very American: two-lane highways, high-school sweethearts, boarded-up farmhouses you pass on your way to somewhere else. It’s not a boot-in-your-ass kind of Americana. Not even a schmaltzy John Mellencamp kind. The mood and melody sound like a simple, rustic, American Gothic USA, but there are still modern touches to it all: a sudden syncopation, a jazz organ, a dash of dark humor. Still, he’s not sure the genre suits him.

“Americana, it’s a weird term; a modern term,” he almost whispers before a long silence. “…Yeah. Fuck it. I’m not Americana.

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I Wrote This: Frank Turner: Hardcore-Folk’s Barroom Hero

Remember this entry?

I made it happen.

Last week I sat down with the talented and charming Frank Turner before his show at Bottom of the Hill. It was supposed to be just a review, with a possible Q&A, if the interview turned out to be compelling enough to read. It ended up being, without a doubt, the best thing I’ve written in about two years.

The version that was put up today was edited, in some cases rather heavily. I’m posting my original draft here so you can get a clearer, fuller picture of what went down, and a better understanding of his personality. I am also working on a way to link to a transcript of the interview, because he had a lot of really interesting stuff to say. He just used a lot of words — about 4,500 of them, to be precise — to say it, and I know that long of a draft will only interest a certain amount of people and totally alienate the rest.

However, I am very, very proud of this story, and pleased I got to meet Frank and hear what he had to say. I hope he was pleased to meet me, too. I’d love to do it again sometime.

http://www.crawdaddy.com/index.php/2011/05/12/frank-turner-hardcore-folks-barroom-hero/

If Frank Turner weren’t a professional musician, he’d likely be a paleontologist – or possibly a sea captain; he hasn’t decided yet. He’s already been a research assistant, and also a computer programmer, a career that, as I suggest one evening in San Francisco, he can always fall back on if his current gig doesn’t work out. However, in light of the sold-out show he’s hours away from headlining, that doesn’t seem very likely.

photo by Megan Amable

Frank on stage at Bottom of the Hill, May 2011

Turner has, in only a handful of years, become the kind of artist that inspires tattoos in his fans. Of his lyrics, mostly, but also of his logo: a large black X, with his initials filling the horizontal gaps and “HC” on the vertical — Frank Turner Hard Core. It certainly helps that most of his choruses, even out of context, represent a credo, a code, a battle cry. His songs are cast in a sense of urgency, bordering on panic, about the looming threat of death.

But they’re also coated in a rare glee, a giddiness to even be alive in the first place. None of it is very punk rock at all, but that’s what most people would call him.

On the spectrum of punk rock, which has only grown more complex and accommodating since the genre’s big bang in the late ’70s, Turner is still an outlier. In sound, he’s one of the last people you’d expect Epitaph Records to snap up. But in all other respects — his desperate, breathless delivery, his defiance and his unwillingness to settle down — he’s right at home on the flagship punk label, which became his American home in 2009.

Turner has arrived in San Francisco just in time for the city’s annual heat wave — 85 degrees in the first week of May. He doesn’t mind: as soon as I find him, waiting at the bar in the dimly-lit Bottom of the Hill, he requests that we “go sit in the sunshine”. I oblige, as the sun has retreated behind the rooftops and a breeze is coming in, the latter of which can’t be good news for the fire that’s raging somewhere across town. We escape into a central atrium, a place that, even amidst the sound of helicopters droning somewhere in the distance, is still the quietest place in the already-quiet Potrero Hill neighborhood. Aside from the amorphous swatch of smoke that hangs over the downtown skyline, it’s one of those pleasant, postcard-pretty evenings in the city.

“That is a well-worn notebook,” he observes as I take out the notebook I’ve had since college. The notebook is almost full, and makes sort of a sad, defeated sound when I drop it on the table in front of me. He folds up a pair of limited-edition Ray-Bans and places them on his side of the table. We get down to business.

All of your songs have such a sense of urgency; they’re all about life and death. Did anything happen to inspire this?

“No, I’m not like a plane crash survivor or anything…A lot of what I do is motivated by the fact that I’m terrified by the concept of death, but in a good way,” Turner doesn’t make eye contact when he speaks. When he talks, his head is often down or to the side, his eyes searching for something to focus on. “Time is short, and well, uh…I can’t remember who said it; I think it was Pliny who said, ‘Art is long and life is short’. I think. It might be Cicero.” (I look it up later. It was Hippocrates.)

“So yeah,” he continues in his charmingly anxious way. “I don’t know, it just kind of seems to me like we should get on with things. Like, I would love to be a paleontologist…”

He pauses and pulls a vibrating phone – and then another phone – out of his pocket.

 Two phones?

“Oh, I know, it makes me look like a drug dealer. American phone, British phone, that’s my excuse,” he says.

“Yeah, and, you know I’d love to be a paleontologist but that’s kind of a lifetime. I’d love to be a botanist, I’d love to be a sea captain, I’d love to be a stunt pilot…”

 Are there even any jobs for sea captains these days?

“Yeah, you know, apparently! I was reading somewhere – this is actually my long-term plan, if everything goes to shit…apparently they’re having a real difficulty finding people who want to captain oil tankers because it’s a really, really lonely job…but you get paid a shit-ton of money to do it as a result. And it’s like man, that’s what I’m gonna do, fucking hell. If I’ve got a tragic story to hide, I’m gonna be an oil tank captain.

“…Um, yes. So, anyway, unfortunately there’s no kind of dramatic story about me getting wiped out in a plane crash or anything.”

 Your sound is such a funny little blend of kind of quiet and introspective, but also very defiant. How did you develop that?

“Something I try really hard not to do is to think in an analytical way about songwriting. Because, to me, that’s when bands kind of break the spell. It’s funny; lots of people use folk-punk and all those kinds of things (to describe me).”

 I saw country on the website for this place.

“Funnily enough, I think if I had to choose a genre I’d call myself a country singer…I play my own songs, therefore I’m not a folk singer. Punk, OK fine, but country seems to make sense to me, in the sense that TownesVan Zandt, Gram Parsons, and Ryan Adams are like 3 of my fucking heroes. Especially Townes Van Zandt. He’s like the songwriter’s password. You meet somebody who writes songs, you say, ‘Townes Van Zandt?’ and if they know what you’re talking about, then they’re in the club. If you meet someone who’s a songwriter and they don’t know who Townes Van Zandt is, then you have to play them some, and if they still don’t get it, then they can…get fucked as far as I’m concerned.”

How has coming from a punk rock background influenced your life?

“You know what, I think this is – OK – right – I’m wary of saying what I’m about to say cause I’m aware that I’m partisan on the issue, but, to a degree punk is a youth tribe…(but) I feel like the kids that grew up with punk come away with a philosophy about life. And that to me is why punk is better,” he chuckles. “And that’s why I’m wary of saying that, ‘cause I don’t want to be denigrating to anybody, but it is more or less a youth culture…”

In the end we all grow up to be the same people, more or less.

“Yeah, but I do really strongly feel like punk taught me a lot of things…punk is like a playground for kids to experiment with life; how to treat other people, how to deal with politics, all those kinds of things. Punk taught me things about self-reliance, and about just being honest, and not taking any shit from anybody, or giving anybody else any shit. For me, Black Flag still define how I think about it…” he extends his arm to point out the Black Flag logo tattooed in the inside of his left wrist.

It’s around this time that his tour manager, Jimmy, slips out onto the patio with us and slides a dinner menu in front of Turner. He briefly scans it while I continue.

A lot of songs are so autobiographical…I mean, you don’t necessarily call people out, but…how do your friends, exes, enemies, feel about being used in your songs?

Turner gives a low, devious chuckle. “That’s a good question. For my part, it’s fine because it’s kind of hard to tell unless you know the back story. I write true stories because I’m not very good at making up fiction, but I think it’s always with a degree of circumspection. Certainly, in a number of cases, names have been changed to protect the innocent…in some cases they haven’t. There have been occasions when I’ve had altercations based around songs. Which is a shame, because you know I don’t actually feel like it’s my place to interfere with other peoples’ lives…”

Jimmy comes back out. He needs Frank’s dinner order.

“Um, can I get the pasta special? The penne marinara?” He pronounces pasta in the British custom, with short vowel sounds.

“…And that’s it? You don’t want anything else?” spurts Jimmy, almost incredulous. “I mean, look over the whole menu just to make sure.”

“ OK, with the green salad,” Turner acquiesces. “Thank you.

“So yeah, I’ve had some…I’ve had a shoe thrown at me once.”

 In public?

“Yeah, kind of…it was in a dressing room, but there were other people there. She threw her shoe at my head. She missed, I’m pleased to say. But that was…that was pretty bad,” he laughs a little, at the ground.

 What it’s like to have a room full of people singing your life back at you?

“For the most part it’s cool, that’s what I’m trying to achieve. If I didn’t want that, I wouldn’t be doing this. But there are days when…particularly ‘Long Live the Queen’ can be…”

He looks down and away again, and this time his voice drops off. “Long Live the Queen” is a true story, a song about a dying friend that won him that adoration of fans and some media in England a few years back.

“And it’s funny because that’s, like, everyone’s favorite song. Which is great and fine, and…”

He takes a long pause.

“And the thing is, I know that Lex would be stoked about that.”

 So there’s a real name.

“Yes. And in fact she’d find it hilarious. With that song I made damn fuckin’ sure that Lex’s family were cool with that song before going anywhere near anyone with it. So yeah, there are days when it just feels weird but…such is life, I guess.”

 That’s what you signed up for.

“Right. And that’s a general rule about pretty much everything I do; it’s very difficult for me to complain about, because I could simply not do this, and I’d be fine.”

 How do you keep yourself from going crazy on the road?

“By staying on tour. I would go fucking crazy if I stayed at home…It’s a funny contrast, cause I live a life that’s predicated around freedom, but at the same time, actually I live a very organized life when I’m on tour: you get up, you travel, you do press, do sound check, do the gig. I know what I’m doing for the next like year and a half. It’s in my phone,” he picks up one of his phones and waves it around. “And if I don’t have that structure around, that’s when I start getting too fucked up and start getting back into doing too many drugs and stuff, and just kind of being a fucking mess of a human being, basically.

Photo by Megan Amable

Frank Turner: Songwriter, tattoo enthusiast, and aspiring sea captain.

“And, you know, if you look at the number of shows I do in a year it’s roughly the number of Mondays to Fridays in a year.”

 That’s very true. And I’m sure it’s preferable to sitting in a chair all day.

“It absolutely is, but that’s why to me it’s not a particularly remarkable amount of touring to do. B.B. King did 300 shows a year for like 30 years, without ever once saying to anyone, ‘Check me out, I’m amazing.’ And he’s still doing 150 shows a year, and he’s like 80 years old. And that to me is the inspiration. I don’t really care about bands saying like,” he adopts a mocking rock-star voice that’s sort of Spinal Tap and sort of Tommy Chong, “’Man, we just toured for like 2 months, man,’…well, so did the guy at the office. The guy at the factory just spent 2 months clocking in every morning. I think there is a tendency within rock ‘n’ roll for people to kind of play the martyr card to a degree, and it’s kind of like, do your fuckin’ job, shut up, get on with it. You have the fucking best job in the world.”

 I take one last look through my well-worn notebook.

 OK, that should about do it.

 “Okay! Sweet. We have been yakking for a massive 25 minutes. Now, let’s see who has been texting me…”

He turns his attention toward one of his phones, and I turn my attention toward finding a taqueria, as it is now 7:30 p.m. and I am starving.

There’s a long line outside when I return. Inside, there’s a Johnny Cash pre-show playlist happening as fans filter in. The very first time he came to San Francisco, he played to a room that amounted to “about eight people”. Tonight’s a little different – a sold-out show.

There’s a crush of beards, body jewelry and firmly-raised fists towards the foot of the stage when Turner takes it sometime in the 10 o’clock hour. He starts in on a set list of songs that celebrate folk heroes of all variety, from Bob Dylan to William II to Steve Slater (you know, this guy). People who embody the things Turner took away from his punk rock past, or who seem to demonstrate that they’re pretty happy to be alive.

Even when it’s just him and an acoustic guitar, his shows are passionate. They take on the energy of some kind of religious congregation, especially in smaller venues like this. His stage presence is ebullient, joyous; his fans speak the word of FTHC. Turner shuts his eyes tight when he sings, but opens his mouth so wide that sometimes it’s possible to see a gap in the back of his teeth. You can’t really dance to it, and you can’t really form a pit, but there’s so much emotion bouncing off the walls that your body is telling you to do something in response. All you can really do at a Frank Turner show is shout until your face turns red, and that’s what everyone does for an hour and a half.

Judging by the sold-out crowd, this might be one of the last times he’ll be able to get away with playing small clubs like these. He’ll be back again in the fall to celebrate the release of a new full-length album, England Keep My Bones, by embarking on another tour, this time with a full band to back him up. Maybe it will be easier to dance next time around.

Two days later, Turner posts a photo on Twitter of a new tattoo, just under (or above, depending on your viewing angle) the Black Flag logo: TVZ, for Townes Van Zandt, and a small skeleton key next to it: the songwriter’s password. No matter how big a rock star gets, he’s still someone’s fan.

I Wrote This: The Life and Death and Life of Psychobilly

I owe a lot of people a lot of thanks for making this happen. First, the well-oiled machine at Hellcat Records, where both Nekromantix and Horrorpops are signed. Hellcat’s lightning-fast response times are nearly unheard of in my experience. I might send them a little thank-you in the mail. I’m super-impressed by their work ethic — not something you usually find at record labels.

I also owe a big thanks to my good friend and fellow J-kid Jayne Liu, who worked with me on ye olde Phenomenauts feature for [X]Press way back when. I chose her because, as I told her in my initial e-mail, she’s  good with live shots, and can hold her own when working around the screaming, flailing, shin-kicking masses.

Thanks to all my sources for helping me out, hooking me up, and playing phone tag with me. Everyone I talked to was a really interesting person. Not a boring one among them. I wish I could write about them all separately. People are fascinating. I love meeting them.

And I don’t know who provided the adorable  illustration, but thanks to him/her as well. (I’m sure most psychobilly kids would recoil at the word ‘adorable’, but LOOK AT THOSE HAPPY SMILING MONSTERS IN THE BACK. Cute as hell.)

I’m not going to copy and paste this story, because, well, it’s 3,000 words. So put on some comfy clothes and settle in with…

Psychobilly’s Roots and Renewal: The Genre of Death Lives On

I Wrote This: San Francisco Mixtape Society

With this piece, I officially declare myself a freelancer.

http://www.crawdaddy.com/index.php/2010/07/15/the-san-francisco-mixtape-society-a-conversation/

Annie Lin talks fast, and flaps her hands around while doing it. This could be the gravy boat of coffee in front of her, but it seems natural. Only in San Francisco could she comfortably have a bowl of minestrone soup and coffee for dinner on an evening in July.

Lin has just moved to Potrero Hill, but it’s not the first move she’s made in her lifetime. “I knew John when I lived back in New York,” says Lin. “It’s funny; the two of us are not only from New York, not only from Brooklyn, but from Williamsburg.”

She’s talking about John Verrochi, her co-founder of the San Francisco Mixtape Society. San Francisco Mixtape Society is a bi-monthly meeting at the Makeout Room for mix-making enthusiasts in the Bay Area. Many have tried to install similar events in the Bay Area in the past—there’s a cautionary tale going around of a former mixtape event in San Francisco that required participants to arrive armed with enough copies of their mix for the entire group—but Lin and Verrochi’s SFMTS has been the only Bay Area mixtape-trading event to actually work.

In 2008, both she and her friend John Verocchi happened to find jobs in the Bay Area around the same time. Having frequented an NYC event called Fixtape together, they decided to import the mixtape party to their new home.

“I don’t know if this ever would have happened if it weren’t for the two of us,” says Verrochi. “She was all about it; I was all about it. We just wanted to do it and we did it. We never really had a business model.”

Though based on its East Coast predecessor, San Francisco Mixtape Society feels uniquely San Franciscan: It has all the community and come-as-you-are vibes of a classic Haight-Street collective, but the precise organization and engineering of a Silicon Valley startup.

 

At the July 11th meeting, the theme is “Foreign vs. Familiar.” It’s a small crowd compared to the explosive turnout for the inaugural event in February this year, and the stormy Easter Sunday meeting drew a soggy but sizable crew. This time it’s a scant 40 or so, but they are no less enthusiastic. Prizes are given for audience’s favorite playlist, judge’s choice, and best artwork, which, this time, goes to a woman who has encased her disc in a globe. And they’ve put a new rule into effect: Anyone who brings a mixtape—a mix on an actual audio tape—gets a drink ticket.

It’s no wonder that interested parties from across the country are reaching out to them, asking how they can start their own branch of SFMTS. Groups from Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle have all come knocking, asking if they can start spin-offs in their home cities. The press is heralding SFMTS’ success as evidence of a renewed interest in the art of the mix. Even rumors of a possible book deal are in the air.

Verrochi isn’t ready to start thinking about that just yet. “Besides getting the website in order, I’d simply be happy if we were still around a year from now.”

“I feel like it’s harder to talk to people out here,” says Lin. “The good thing about Mixtape is that it’s a music event you can talk to people at. A show is a common first date, but you can’t really get to know someone while you’re watching a band.

“That’s my dream. I’d love to hear that two people traded mixes and then later hooked up, all because of our event.”

I Wrote This: The Phenomenauts at Homestead Lanes

After a long break from writing due to some family trauma, I’ve returned with a small box in the back of the Metro this week. It was on the front page of Metroactive as of this morning. Not bad for 250 words.

http://www.metroactive.com/music-clubs/phenomenauts.html

THE Phenomenauts are gods among geeks these days, but it wasn’t always as such. Ten years ago, singer/guitarist Angel Nova, drummer Jimmy Boom and former ‘Naut Joebot 1.0 set up camp on Fisherman’s Wharf, busting out ’80s covers on accordions and ukuleles. “We thought we’d show up in costume, make a whole bunch of money, and go home rich and cool,” says Nova. Under the name Space Patrol, they hopped out of a van in white jumpsuits and attracted the attention of passersby. “A lot of people took pictures, but not a lot of people gave us money.”

They still don’t get paid much more than most local indie acts, but they’ve gained a few more fans since then. The Phenomenauts have come a long way since hustling tourists on the wharf. Not only is their name known far and wide across the Bay Area and in certain geeky circles, they’ve got a slightly bigger budget to work with. These days, it’s Have fog machines, lasers and toilet-paper gun, will travel. The band has become legendary for its ghetto-rigged live shows, featuring audience-interactive toys, gadgets and games, and has attracted legions of devout followers who dress alike, organize into regional chapters and write themselves into the Phenomenauts storyline.

 Constantly playing and prepping for the release of The Electric Sheep EP on Aug. 6, the band is busy unleashing new songs on its audiences. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do in the future; the industry’s changing so much,” says Nova. In appropriately futuristic form, Electric Sheep will be available for download only. No matter what they do, it’s always in the name of their ubiquitous slogan: science and honor.

And for old times’ sake, here is the story that started it all. I’ve got more material on these guys than I know what to do with.

I Wrote This: Crazy as Hill

Here is the music feature from this week’s Metro. It is not online, so I went as far as to SCAN it for y’all. I am that proud of this story.

I really hope I can work with these guys again in the future. They have some really interesting stories to tell.

I Wrote This: Latino Life

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been afraid to look at this since I turned it in, because I still feel like I was too hard on it. But I’ve had more than one person tell me they really liked this review, so I guess it’s going up.

http://www.sanjose.com/review-latino-life-a27771

JUST LAST WEEK, a man walked up to me and asked what my nationality was. “Half-Mexican, half-Italian,” I told him—my stock response. I get asked that a lot. I’m half-Mexican, but the half of me that is Mexican isn’t very “Mexican” at all. My family is what Sunsets and Margaritas playwright José Cruz González would call “assimilated.” My dad made meatloaf and casserole for dinner, and both he and his sisters learned Spanish in school. I don’t claim to know much about present-day Latino culture, because it’s something I was never really a part of. But I know enough to know that even though Sunsets and Margaritas makes a good effort to represent the entire culture in two hours, it falls short.

Making its West Coast premiere at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Sunsets and Margaritas is a comedy about the Serrano family, four generations of Mexican-Americans trying to relate to one another. After his aging father, Calendario (“Candi” for short), crashes his car into the side of the family restaurant, Gregorio begins to face the decision to put his father in a home. Along with his daughter, son, wife and restaurant employee, he tries to track down Dad, who’s gone missing in the sea of protesters that have overrun their small Colorado town that day to fight for workers’ rights.

The play highlights the way each generation is markedly different from the next and whether that represents a loss of culture or just a shift in it. The raw material is the stuff that immigrants and the families of immigrants have worked with time and again. Sunsets and Margaritas, however, tries so hard to educate its audience on the authentic Latino experience that it ends up tangled in its own good intentions. The biggest problem is that the play sometimes gets so wrapped up in its own silliness that it loses sight of its message of family and sometimes nudges that fine line between poking fun and offending. For instance, paralyzed son Jojo (Miles Gaston Villanueva) rides a tricked-out wheelchair covered in blue velour and equipped with hydraulics that bump to the beat of a “Low Rider”-like tune at the press of a button. The most believable person onstage is Papa Candi (Daniel Valdez), who comes off as human rather than as a caricature.

Sunsets and Margaritas tries to deliver the Mexican-American experience through the filter of family, something we can all understand, but is so busy trying to catch us up on a couple hundred years of Mexican history that it leaves little time for us to see these characters as people. Even when it tries to prove to us that the characters can be 3-D—daughter Gabby is a gay, Latina Republican who speaks with a Valley girl accent—it does so in a hurry and with blunt force. Every cultural nuance is explained in exhausting detail—references to La Llorona, the Virgin of Guadalupe and illegal immigration cause all action to stop while a character recites a brief history of its significance in the Latino community.

However, there is a good chance that my background filter is hampering my view. After all, the playwright, the cast, the director and others are all Latinos, who, presumably, had a more authentic experience than I did. They probably know better if the play works or not. Maybe I should stop and enjoy my life’s sunsets and margaritas.

SUNSETS AND MARGARITAS, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday–Wednesday at 7:30pm, Thursday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm (no 2pm show Apr 3) and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (no 7pm show April 4) through April 4 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $24–$62. (650.463.1960)

I Wrote This: Reality Chick, Metro Silicon Valley

I almost feel bad taking credit for this. The EIC of the paper also did an interview with her, and it looks like they merged a lot of his information with the story I turned in. But hey, if they’re willing to attribute it all to me, I’ll take it…

http://www.metroactive.com/features/ashley-lindley.html

It’s difficult getting into Sabor tonight. The general admission line is long, and many people standing outside are worrying about the dress code after a bouncer fades a guy wearing baggy pants. No one seems to be aware that Ashley Lindley, the local-girl star of MTV’s The Real World: D.C. is set to appear.

A few people mill around on the outdoor patio, and inside is a dark crush of bodies on the dance floor, where girls in very high heels and very short skirts are squealing excitedly. Some of them weave through the crowd carrying glowing green specialty drinks that look like something out of Blade Runner.

Ashley isn’t drinking tonight. She prefers to be on her game when she’s working. She has become a national sensation, this season’s big thing. The producers have cast her as the Bad Girl (the Bitch), a loose cannon who creates a lot of drama. Since taping of The Real World wrapped in October, she’s been paid by clubs to make appearances like this a few times a week. But at Sabor tonight, she blends right into the crowd after slipping in around 11:30 though the side hallway whose walls have been autographed by previous celebrity guests. She pauses briefly to admire Lady Gaga’s signature.

The Real World was a novel television concept when the show premiered in 1992, ushering in the American era of reality TV. Now in its 23rd season, it’s difficult to separate one season from another. Aside from a few variables, it’s consistent: seven strangers picked to live in a house together and have their lives taped. Seven strangers times 23 seasons equals 161 people that have been quarantined for four months at a time in houses all over the world, then re-released into the real real world. For Ashley, that meant coming back to the South Bay, where she spent her high-school years.

“It freaked me out,” Ashley says after the Sabor appearance, speaking of her transition back to normal life. “I felt like a Kenyan man coming to America for the first time.”

She found The Real World experience similarly disorienting. Though there might not have always been a cast mate in the house with her, there was always at least one cameraman, whom cast members aren’t allowed to talk to. “The first time my roommates left me alone in the house, I was a wreck,” she recalls.

The cameras were on “all the time, 24/7, even when we’re sleeping. There are cameras in every corner of every part of the house.” she says. “You’re constantly miked from the minute you wake up in the morning until you go to bed. Except when you shower. There’s no camera in the shower, but they’re right outside of the shower.”

It doesn’t take long to forget the cameras are there. “For four months, you”re not going to go, oh my god, my grandma’s going to see that. You just forget about it.”

The show has been running for almost as long as Lindley, 23, has been alive. Now, she’s one in a very long line of pseudocelebrities spawned from the show and the dozens of reality shows that followed—a slew of castoffs wandering California and beyond. Many of them appear not to know what to do with themselves except more TV, taking second-rate roles as they desperately clutch their mini-stardom. Even the winners of shows that promise careers, like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, are often launched straight into obscurity after production wraps.

Ashley knows she wasn’t a celebrity going in; she says wasn’t a celebrity during taping, and she isn’t one going out. She may be the only reality star to beat the system.

Home Away From Home

Ashley lives in the back of a sprawling apartment complex in Santa Clara with her two best friends from Santa Clara High School, where she took honors physics and performing arts classes and was a cheerleader. “I loved Santa Clara High School,” she says, her eyes widening.

On a recent gray Thursday, all is quiet behind the community’s automated locked gates. There are landscapers roaming the grounds with tools, and two of the ducks that usually congregate in the man-made ponds scattered across the complex have made their way into the community swimming pool.

In her apartment, most of the lights are off. Lindley is in her very pink bedroom, getting cleaned up after a morning workout and packing for a trip to Los Angeles to film the after-show for The Real World, a tradition that involves a televised cast reunion, and, she says, “three hours of taping for a half-hour of television.”

Ashley says she doesn’t really have a hometown. On the show, she admitted to strained relationships with her biological family that left her free to bounce around from the valley to Los Angeles, where she worked at the Disneyland resort and did a test shoot for Playboy magazine, to Houston to live with a boyfriend for three years to D.C. for the show and now back to Santa Clara. Right now, her friends are what matters. “They actually got to me before the show,” she says of her roommates, one of whom is sitting in the front room, cursing at the video game he is playing. “Santa Clara is where most of my family is; it’s where my friends are.”

“I feel comfortable here. I think I’m understood better here. I think I’m very similar to most Nor Cal women. I’m not similar to East Coast women, I can tell you that. I’m proud to be a Bay Area kid.”

She’s standing in the bathroom, which smells like shampoo and soap and the burning residue of hair product on a curling iron, with smears of foundation on her face. In person, she’s not mean at all—she’s very well-spoken and looks people straight in the eye when talking, which probably scares less-confident folks. She’s tall, slender and striking. She never went to college. And she knows what she’s talking about.

In her MTV.com biography, which has been copied and pasted all over the web, Ashley is referred to as “the most politically aware” in the house.

“I grew up with a civics teacher,” she says of her stepdad. “The only time we really hung out was when he was grading papers.” At the dinner table, she was regularly quizzed on presidents and asked to name their contributions to the American political landscape.

“Thomas Jefferson was probably my first inspiration, at age nine,” she says. “In high school I was the girl who would never come to class and then show up and ace all the tests.” And her love of politics persisted. In 2008, Lindley served as an Obama delegate to the Nevada caucuses. “I heard he watched our show,” she says about the president, whom she still supports though she thinks the Nobel Peace Prize was a stretch. “Oh my god, I thought, my hero knows that I exist. It was an unbelievable feeling just to know that even for just a second, he saw my face.”

She says, however, that she has no interest in pursuing a career in politics. “Absolutely not,” she says. “I love it too much. I think I would lose my love for it if I did.” She once wanted to go to law school but changed her mind after dating a lawyer.

The microblogosphere is content in believing Ashley’s a bad person, even though, watching the show, the case against her is weak. She hasn’t physically attacked a housemate. She didn’t get kicked off the show. The worst she did was pilfer a few random items from the set on the last day—a blanket, a door hanger and a plush bald eagle that her roommates’ puppy, Mia, is tussling on the floor with as she packs. In the great pantheon of Real World housemates, she’s tame.

However, every story needs a villain. She knew going into it that the show was entertainment, and that around 3,000 hours of her life would be condensed into a few short hours of escapist enjoyment for the world to watch. “It’s not me,” she says. “It’s the edited version of me.”

In one celebrated episode, Ashley appears to be hurt and surprised when a roommate she kissed on camera, Mike Manning, hooks up with a guy. “I found out that Mike was bi on the bus. We got into that conversation on the way to the place. I roomed with him on the assumption that he was gay. Everyone assumed that I wanted to be with him,” she says.

“They didn’t show all of the volunteer work we did. We worked with DC Vote, served food to the homeless and participated in Pinktober to raise breast cancer awareness. No one wants to watch that. It’d probably be pretty boring. They just show when you drink and get angry.

“To be perfectly candid, if I watched, I wouldn’t like me either.”

The comments on her recent guest blog for the Huffington Post, and on social media sites, are vicious and relentless.

“It’s so funny—and I don’t say this to rag on Huffington Post in any way—but when they approached me, I assumed they asked me to write for them because, you know, I’m liberal, I’m politically aware, and I have an opinion,” she says, blending her makeup. “They asked me for topics, and I gave them a list of, like, 20 topics, and the topic they chose was the one about sex.”

The lack of opportunity to flex her political muscles only fanned the flames for the trolls. “Oh God, it was awful,” she says, picking up some pink eye shadow out of a box full of brand names. “They say I’m a bitch, I’m stupid, that I should just kill myself and get it over with.” She barely cracks a smile, and shakes her head as she digs around in her makeup box.

“You know what? Fine. I’m misunderstood then. At first I got really upset about it. And I cried about it. I was kind of heartbroken. I was like, I don’t want to be the girl that everybody hates. And then I realized, I’m at home. I’m surrounded by my friends. I’m surrounded by my family. If everybody hates me, everybody hates me. At the end of the day, what can I do about it?

“I’m a control freak. and this is the one thing I can’t control. At some point you just have to let it go. So I’m letting it go. If y’all hate me, y’all hate me. Whatever. I’ll be the coolest bitch you’ve ever met.”

“I think people confuse that immaturity for bitchiness. I’m a young person, and sometimes I act immaturely. And I need to learn from that, Most people don’t go through that process of learning with the whole world watching. I am.”

Reality Reality

Growing up with a mom who married and divorced twice during her childhood and moved around a lot, Lindley’s upbringing wasn’t of the silver spoon variety. She attended 10 schools before moving out of her home at age16. She says her father, with whom she doesn’t maintain contact, lives in a trailer park in the Nevada desert. Dining before the club appearance at Le Papillon restaurant, the waiter brings out a bent spoon with crème fraiche and trout roe. As she contemplates how to eat it, she says, “I’ve never tried caviar before, so you can’t make fun of me.”

A Twitterholic, she tweets what she ate for dinner from her Android before leaving the restaurant. “I tweet all day,” she says.

Living in the District of Columbia as part of a television production is an experience she says she’ll never forget. “I’ve never lived in such a nice place before. Ever. I’ve never seen such a nice house.

“I’ve never been to a soccer game and been VIP. I never sat front row at a basketball game. Opportunities don’t happen for people like me that often. Big opportunitites like that. So I don’t take it for granted.”

Back at Sabor, the place is so packed, and her VIP table, recessed into the wall, is so snugly fit into the back of the room that no one appears to take notice. She doesn’t have a huge entourage in tow, just a few friends. She isn’t dressed like a star—she wears a simple black dress and black pumps—nor does she carry herself as one. No one approaches her, though that might be due to the protective rope surrounding her table and the hefty security guard presiding over it.

Some event photographers take her picture, and if they recognize her from TV, they certainly don’t let it show. When she’s not living up to her Real World persona, she’s hard to recognize. In real life, she’s more like the pieces of her personality that were left on the cutting room floor.

She says she doesn’t regret a thing. “I can say with honesty that The Real World is the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says. Though there are things she can’t say or do, due to a contract she signed that’s “the size of War and Peace,” she’s confident that The Real World accelerated a sea change in her life.

“It is true, I used to be mean just to be mean,” she says, shuffling around her room, gathering dirty laundry in a pink hamper to wash at her mom’s house in before she gets on her flight to L.A. in the morning. “It used to be a defense mechanism.” After being picked to live in a house and have her life taped, there’s not much to hide anymore, and not much to be mean about.

I Wrote This: Side With Her

There has been so much drama with the story over the course of today alone that I’m tempted not to post this. But it is the biggest thing I’ve ever written, so I should have an account of the correct version that was supposed to appear in print somewhere. Like Leslie (whom you’ll meet in a second) said, the print copy will end up in the recycling. It’s the online version that sticks around.

Long story short, an old draft of the story got submitted to production, before the final paragraph was added and where my editor mistakenly referred to my subject, Leslie Hampton, as Lisa. Since her first name was only mentioned once, every reference in the headline, captions, etc. says Lisa.

This is how it was supposed to look both online and in print.

FOR a town where bands are relegated to playing in bowling alleys, arcades and church rec rooms, Leslie Hampton’s one-woman operation, Side With Us Records, is fantastically sophisticated.

Hampton uses Side With Us as a test kitchen for new ideas. New ideas like not taking starving guitarists for all they’re worth. She’s less interested in turning a profit than she is in helping out local bands.

“A label is all kind of relative,” she says. “Some people will tell me, ‘You know, you could be getting more money out of them.’ I could, but …” she says, scrunching up her nose a little. “To me, this label is a way to say, ‘I’m here and I believe in what you’re doing.'”

The bands she represents agree. “She’s great,” says Evan Jewett, guitarist in Worker Bee. “Being on Side With Us is not like being on a label. First of all, we never had to sign anything,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like having a friend.” Before Worker Bee embarked on a tour last year, Hampton asked for a list of the cities they’d be stopping in, so she could contact all the local record stores about carrying their CD. She has also managed to set up a small U.K. distribution for them.

Hampton has an overwhelming presenceóshe talks fast and moves fast, and channels her kinetic energy into Side With Us. The label only officially launched in November 2009, but thanks to her tireless work, it’s gaining impressive momentum.

“She’s so helpful,” says Jesse from the Record Winter, a San Jose band on Side With Us that’s heating up fast. “She does a lot. She advertises a lot for us, really puts herself out there.”

Hampton also has an eye for design. When she pulls her business card out of her wallet, she’s quick to point out a printing error on the logo. “See, they cut it off wrong. It should have been here.”

She originally lent that skill to longtime San Jose promoter Eric Fanali, once she returned home to Los Gatos after studying design in England for six years. She made promotional posters for Fanali and worked the door at his shows when she could. After a while, she started playing around with the idea of starting a label, and asked Fanali to start one with her. He wasn’t interested, but he had a vast network of contacts he was willing to share to help her get it off the ground.

This is not an idea she dreamed up overnight. In college, she gave dissertations on the business of major and indie labels. Having played in bands for years, and currently playing in two on the Side With Us roster, Hampton was more than familiar with the inner workings of labels, big and small. “Running a label and being in a band is like owning a place and being a renter at the same time.”

Hampton’s latest project is PostCode, an online catalog of Side With Us music that a friend built for her. Hampton sells posters for bands on her roster, stamped on the back with a URL and a unique code that users can enter into a form to receive a zip file of a band’s album. Mike Park of Cupertino’s venerable Asian Man Records has already put his catalog on the PostCode system, and Streetlight will be carrying PostCode posters for Hampton’s band, Tourister, later this month.

“It taps into something a lot of people complain aboutówith downloads, you don’t get the art that might come with a CD or a record.” She designed the Tourister poster herself.

Though she’s got what most people would consider a full plate, she still works with Fanali. “I still make posters for him, and I think I worked the door at almost every show last year. He jokingly calls me Miss Moneypenny,” she says with a laugh and a wide grin that bares most of her teeth.

Hampton is looking to expand the label, but, unlike everything else about her, she’s not in a huge hurry. “I’m looking to have as much of a cohesive sound as possible,” she says, on the hunt for bands with what she calls “a bunch of noise and reverb”. “There are so many good bands here that not enough people know about. Eventually, I just want to collect all the bands in the area that I really, really like.”

Some Small Things

Hey there hi there ho there,

I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff in this week’s Metro that I think you should read.

First, here are some calendar blurbs. These are probably the best I’ve done so far:

Goodbye Elliott, appearing Jan 22 at the Refuge in Cupertino:

So, big confession here: I love Degrassi: The Next Generation. I wasn’t even in the target audience when I started watching it, as a common guilty pleasure between some friends of mine in my later years of high school. Whereas the rest of them grew up and moved on some time ago, I haven’t. The entire original cast has timed out and graduated; replaced by a new generation of high schoolers with, somehow, an entirely new mess of trouble to get into. Goodbye Elliott is the kind of perpetually pleasant, endless-summer music that teen shows cue up to. And why shouldn’t these guys sound like an antidepressant haze? They’re young. They’re from Hawaii. Right now, life’s all about school being out, hanging with friends, and hoping to catch the eye of a certain girl (all paraphrased from actual lyrics). If the Beach Boys actually practiced what they preached, they’d be Goodbye Elliott.

…and Reason To Rebel, Jan 21 at the Caravan:

Be careful when Googling this band. One slip of the mouse and you’ll end up on Amazon.com, wondering how you got to the listing for a real bodice-ripper of a romance novel, entitled A Reason to Rebel. I’m not necessarily saying this happened to me. I’m just saying…be careful. I can’t imagine fans of one taking an interest in the other. Reason to Rebel is like a slightly less coherent version of System of a Down, all spastic and screaming and alluding to political and social injustices every now and then. Reason To Rebel are fond of weed, the female form, and, judging by the frequent use of Carlin’s Dirty Seven in their lyrics, the First Amendment. Having conquered Southern California, the band is wandering up north to the Caravan. Maybe they’ll sign a few copies of A Reason To Rebel afterwards. Wait, I’m logged into Amazon on this computer, aren’t I? Damn it, this is going to throw off my recommendations for months…

(I always forget that formatting goes out the window in the calendar due to space issues, so I apologize that all of these look like lunatic ramblings.)

And lastly, the big one, an interview with composer Paul Gordon, whose new musical, Daddy Long Legs, premieres at TheatreWorks in Mountain View this week. I’ve done a few interviews for the Metro so far, and this one was by far the best. Really nice guy; had a lot of really interesting information. I think it shows.

THIS WEEK, Palo Alto’s TheatreWorks presents the world premiere of Daddy Long Legs, a new musical based on the novel by Jean Webster. Daddy Long Legs had a long journey to realization, and composer Paul Gordon was there from the beginning. “I had worked with TheatreWorks before,” he says. “John Caird and I had just finished Jane Eyre, and we were looking for a new musical to start on.”

Caird’s wife suggested Daddy Long Legs, a story in the same vein as Emma and Jane Eyre, two novels that TheatreWorks had adapted for the stage in the past. “In the United States, most people are familiar with Daddy Long Legs through the Fred Astaire movie,” says Gordon. Cairns’ wife, who grew up in Japan, where the book is very popular, knew a different Daddy Long Legs.

Daddy Long Legs is the story of Jerusha Abbott, an orphan sent to college by a mysterious benefactor, whom she nicknames Daddy Long Legs. The American film, produced in 1955, was made near the end of Fred Astaire’s career. The film was made almost solely as a vehicle for Astaire, who was in his mid-50s at time of its release. His co-star, Leslie Caron, was 30 years younger and spoke with a French accent, clashing with her character’s American roots. “We’re extremely faithful to the book,” Gordon says. “We’ve brought it back down so that the age discrepancy isn’t nearly as great.”

Gordon has previously worked with TheatreWorks on similar projects, scoring the musicals Jane Eyre, based on the Brontë classic, and Emma, modeled after the Jane Austen work. “The music is different from what I wrote for Emma and Jane Eyre; I tried to make it a little more contemporary,” says Gordon. In Jane Eyre and Emma, he adds, “the songs sort of went along with the scenes.” Gordon says there are more “stand-alone” numbers in Daddy Long Legs. “It has a little more of my own personal influences in it. You can hear Sondheim, but you can also hear the Beatles.”

The TheatreWorks performances are the second stop in a co-premiere with theaters in Cincinnati and Ventura. Daddy Long Legs is being performed with a six-piece orchestra containing a violin, cello and piano alongside the drums, bass and a guitar. “I was trying to do more contemporary, pop songwriting,” says Gordon of his score. “But mostly I was just trying to write good songs.”