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.

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I need your opinion.

I’m pretty sure nobody is reading this (yet), but I’m going to throw this out there anyway.

I’m considering submitting one of my features from my last year of school to the SPJ Awards.  I think there is prize money involved.  At the very least, there is some sort of convention in Vegas where I will shake a lot of hands.

I have two features I think I did a pretty darn good job on, and that I think would give me a good shot at winning something.

The first is “Invasion of the Cadets”, from the May/June 2009 issue, and it can be read here.  ‘Cadets’ was a project that started in late January and is still going on.  I got the idea when I decided to swing by a Phenomenauts show at Slim’s a few days before school started, and a man in a helmet gave me a flyer about the upcoming Phenomenaut fan convention at Disneyland.  I had always known their fans were pretty gung-ho, but I didn’t know they were motivated enough to meet up for a day at a theme park nine hours away from the band’s home base in Oakland.  I got in contact with some people from their street team/fan club/whatever and the more people I talked to, the more complex the story became.  The version that ran in [X]Press barely scratched the surface.  There is a much bigger story here than just ‘here are some goofy people that like to dress up in costume and sing songs about space’.   There is so much psychology to the band and to the Cadet movement itself.  I am dying to write a longer version of it.  I still take notes every time I go see them.

Also, keep in mind that I will be sending in PDFs of the pages in the actual magazine, not links to our snoozer of a site.  The art on the ‘Cadets’ looks pretty cool.

My other option is “Return of the Bellows”.  This one is about the accordion beginning to surface in independent music.  It can be read here.

My gut reaction is to turn in ‘Bellows’.  I had a lot of fun writing ‘Cadets’, but often times I feel like the story is only interesting to me and people who already know about the band.  ‘Bellows’ has a broader appeal, and I feel like the writing is much better.  I know I’m never going to be able to write a better lede than ‘Aaron Seeman still smells like propane’.   However, I was also told by a lot of my sources that the story was kind of old news, and a whole bunch of journalists had come sniffin’ around lately to write about it.

I’ve never worked on a story as hard as I worked on ‘Cadets’. I’ve never done that much reporting.  In the same word count as ‘Bellows’, I was able to squeeze in six sources, whereas Bellows only had three; two and a half at best.  The writing in ‘Cadets’, for the sake of efficiency, is very newsy, but the story, I feel, is inherently more colorful.  The characters are much clearer, and the details are very telling.  For a contest called ‘Mark of Excellence’ awards, I want to make sure I show that not only can I write, I can report.

I’m too close to both of these stories, so I’m leaving it up to you. I’ll leave this up for a week or two and ask some human beings before I make my decision.

Also, feel free to leave comments! Talk to me. This blog is pretty lonely right now.

I Wrote This: The Man Behind The Music, [X]Press Magazine

My very last story for my student publication at San Francisco State University. Farewell, 3rd floor Humanities! It’s been a good run.

If you’re in the city, pick up the print version, or check out the digital edition at http://www.sopdigitaledition.com/xpressmag/. There are pictures and stuff.

http://xpress.sfsu.edu/archives/magazine/014251.html

  It is lit like a desk: a reading light skims the top of the console. Daily, David Hegarty punches in and sits down to work, staring fixedly at the documents in front of him, just a cog in a big, big machine. He has been doing this job for the last thirty-one years. And he would not have it any other way.

Patrons of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco have come to expect one thing with their classic movies – a musical introduction by David Hegarty. He comes and goes quietly before almost every evening show. A few minutes before the movie begins, he emerges from behind a black curtain and takes his seat at The Mighty Wurlitzer, the theatre’s in-house organ. He strikes a chord, and suddenly the entire building seems to turn on.

The Castro is closed today, so he is sitting in front of the organ in complete darkness. The only light is the one above the organ console, and the faint shadows of cars on Castro Street creeping through the open door at the back of the theatre. “I don’t have the key to turn the lights on in the house,” he says.

He is a small man – not tiny, but in comparison to the Wurlitzer, anyone can seem diminutive. He is quiet and humble. Everything he says is just barely above a whisper, almost as if he is afraid to disturb the sanctity of a silent, dark theatre.

“I find the organ works best with Broadway; show tunes,” he says, flipping a few switches and drifting into a song. The organ in front of him has four steep tiers of keys, surrounded by a circular panel filled with a dizzying array of buttons and toggle switches. After receiving a degree in Organ Performance and a Master’s in music, he knows his way around a theatre organ. Even when he is surrounded by pitch black that morning, he is snapping switches and pressing buttons like a NASA engineer.

The sound The Mighty Wurlitzer makes has a dreamy, ghostly quality to it, only made dreamier and ghostlier by the dark. The keyboards he plays are connected to a towering collection of pipes on either side of the theater by huge tubes that run under the stage. Hegarty is still captivated by the noise it produces after thirty-one years. Sometimes he will begin a song to demonstrate the settings on the machine, and disappear for minutes at a time.

There was a time when theatre organs were everywhere – before sound was introduced in the twenties, movie houses were built around them. Now, the Bay Area is the last organ outpost before hitting the Pacific. The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto and both
The Paramount and The Grand Lake in Oakland still have working theatre organs that get regular use. Hegarty has played them all.

Known primarily as the man behind the music at the Castro Theatre, Hegarty has been the head organist since 1978. From his work at the Castro, he has emerged as the go-to guy for the theatre organ in San Francisco. His only job is to play and teach the organ. “I mostly play in churches, and theatres like this one,” he says. “Sometimes I’m hired out for parties and whatnot.”

Hegarty migrated from the Midwest thirty years ago. He was working full-time as a composer in his native Michigan when he decided to leave for California. “I came out here in 1976. It was a nice excuse to get away from those Michigan winters,” he says, allowing himself to crack a smile. “Also, this is just such a colorful place to live.”
He also considers himself a ‘film music historian,’ something that propelled him into the theatre organ world. “I greatly admire the film composers of the early twentieth century,” he says. In Hollywood’s infancy, composers from Eastern Europe began fleeing to the United States to escape Nazi terror. “Many of them settled in Hollywood, and began contributing scores to films.”

Every night, Hegarty deals directly with the ghosts of these composers. It is his job to decide the pre-show playlist. “If it’s a movie that has famous music, there are certain songs I need to play,” he says. “I will rent the movie, listen to the music, and write it out.” Sometimes it’s not so clear. “Often times there are movies that have very little music, or music that isn’t recognizable to people,” he says. “I try to find a link between the movie and the music. If I can’t, there are always great standards that I know people enjoy – Cole Porter and such.”

As soon as he got to San Francisco, he began looking up “influential people” in the Bay Area organ community. Now, some say, he is one of them. He is the only organ instructor in Northern California. He currently teaches seven students, one of which comes all the way from Reno to work with him. “There are no real academic programs for the organ, you just listen to organists that you admire,” he says. “You never really stop learning. It’s a genre of its own – you learn it over time.”

Hegarty is a very lucky man. He has found a way to spend his entire adult life getting paid to do something he loves. Hegarty is a fixture at The Castro–he has been there so long that some people take him for granted. “They come to expect me. Sometimes I get a crowd that isn’t as appreciative, but when I get a good, lively audience, it’s really quite a thrill.”