Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Neighborhood Has Changed

Our state is on fire. The summer of 2015 is going down as the hottest and driest on record here in Seattle.  Hundreds of thousands of wild salmon have died en route to spawning, due to low water levels (we had an unusually dry winter, thus have a lack of snowpack melt), and increased water temperatures.  Between May 1st and July 31st, we recorded a record total of a mere .9 inches of rainfall.  I cannot overemphasize the dramatic shift in landscape these past few months...dead brown lawns where green grass once grew, the snowless blue/grey outline of the Cascades to the east and the Olympics to the west.  Our garden beds are but dust, though we've been home often enough this summer to toss a little greywater on the tomatoes and potatoes, and we've had quite a decent harvest.  This was the first year we planted tomatoes with seeds we'd saved from last season, started outdoors in February, so I wonder if our extra-resilient plants were perfectly timed for such a difficult season.  

While the landscape suffers, Aimee and I have had a fruitful musical season, spending most of the summer touring as the rhythm section for the Ian McFeron Band.  Our travels brought us to northern Idaho in mid-August, routing through central and eastern Washington.  We traveled along I-90 mostly, about a hundred miles south of some of the biggest fires actively burning in WA state.  The smoke was incredibly thick.  At our gig in Sand Point ID on the 19th, big flakes of ash quietly sprinkled down throughout the night, remnants I presume from the Clark Fork fires 25 miles east of us.  Our gear was dusted with a fine layer by the end of the set.  The following night in Coeur d'Alene, ID, we played in a park on a giant sundial, facing west.  The sun set directly in our faces, the most intense ruby-red glow I've ever seen.  The crescent moon later that night was also the brightest red I'd seen, an eery jewel against the black sky.  Both were bizarrely beautiful after-effects of these raging fires.

I spent a good part of that road trip paging through Timothy Egan's 1991 bestseller "The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest".  It's a beautiful book, sort of a combination history book, journal, love letter, and political/environmental commentary.  In many ways, it helped to organize my thoughts on the current social and environmental problems we face today.  On one hand, I feel some real despair that so little has changed for the better in the past 25 years.  That's a vague statement I know, but it could take me a whole book to elaborate, and I'd recommend reading The Good Rain for that information.  On the other hand though, Egan's narrative serves to strongly remind me of the amazing natural beauty in this region, and of all the people who strive to protect it.  His writing heavily influenced a couple of tracks on our new MoZo album The Neighborhood Has Changed, a release we'll celebrate in Seattle with a show at Columbia City Theater on Nov 20th.  The title track is meant to serve a few functions; as a pop tune with a catchy chorus that appeals to people in both melody and lyric, a historically informative song, and a balance between acknowledging despair and recognizing hope.  

The lyrics are as follows:

A thousand years ago and a thousand before that, along the Black River people lived and worked and laughed. Then in 1916 it dried up and went away because the Lake Washington Ship Canal was run to Salmon Bay. Now concrete and glass rise above an ancient glacial lake and all people do is complain. They say there's too much traffic man, it was different back in the day…but back in the day was before eminent domain. And it's never coming back again, because the neighborhood has changed. Every day in Ballard there's a new Proposed Land Use sign, they're tearing down the houses to build townhomes that are all alike. So much wealth in the hands of so few means nobody's left who cares to take care like they used to. Life as we know it isn't life as we knew it, the only thing steady is change. Keep the history, teach the history, turn around, change.


It's meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek you know.  On the surface, I thought the refrain might ring true, especially to Seattleites who have witnessed the massive changes of the last few years.  Explaining all those changes could also fill a book, but suffice to say the city is rapidly growing, many people are facing an affordable housing crisis, others spend an ever-increasing amount of time sitting in their cars, and dozens of houses around our block have been torn down and replaced with luxury housing.  But the truth is that things have been changing dramatically in this region for  centuries.  Every generation inherits problems and can create solutions.  For the people who lived here for ten thousand years before George Vancouver paid a visit, the arrival of settlers, timber barons, and fur traders must have been truly horrifying.  This song is a nod to that truth, and tries to acknowledge that my problems today are an extension of yesterday's reality.  Things change, but we can learn to do better if we can remember the past. 

It seems that folks these days have shorter and shorter attention spans, and it's a mystery to me how it is that intricate art can function properly in the face of all of the instant gratification entertainment options out there.  Aims and I have tried to do our part in creating work we're proud of, work that speaks to living well, having fun, and leaving things better than you found them.  I did a phone interview this week with a reporter from the Quad Cities, regarding an upcoming MoZo show in Rock Island, IL that will celebrate the release of our new album in front of many friends and family.  I ended the interview with an uneasy feeling that I did a poor job explaining the complicated process of sustaining a life through playing music.  
I worry that we came across as a side project, something I didn't believe in fully.  There are a lot of old models out there that some performers still follow...some of which the reporter brought up, commenting that MoZo didn't play as many shows per year that other bands do, and that nowadays the money comes in from playing shows.  I'm pretty sure I answered that we could talk for hours about the state of the music industry, and then I rambled for awhile about our motivations…but I hope that what came across is this:
Most musicians I know are creating more and earning less than ever before.  True, the most money I've made this year from music came from playing shows, and Aims herself this year has performed over 100 gigs and played on half a dozen albums...but it's a long way from a traditional living.  Successful musicians who "make their living" playing music use models that vary as wildly as the musicians themselves.  And for the most part, the money definitely isn't exclusively from playing shows.  For us, the model and the norm is about filling our time with passionate creativity, and involves everything from teaching kids songwriting to running sound at a local book talk.  MoZo and our original music is at the top of the list of things we care about, but I'm unsure of how to quickly convey that to reporters who may be wondering why we aren't advertising our work, playing more shows, focusing exclusively on one band, scrambling for airplay, or why we're rolling out a self-released album months (and thousands of miles) apart.  But I never really had a taste for the business side of the industry anyway, and that industry has shifted so much it's unclear what the most useful business practices even are anymore.

Take a listen to the title track.  And next time we see you out and about, let us know what you think.  Until then, live well, have fun, be thankful, and enjoy the rest of summer.