Seven Sacramento musicians let one nosy writer into their homes. Big mistake?
First lady Michelle Obama invites trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, and some 150 high-school students into her new digs—you know, the White House—for a night of jazz music. If home is really where the heart is, then on this night did chests bump a beat supreme?
Here in Sacramento on a recent Thursday at Torch Club, a venue not booked by the president’s wife, the beat too is mighty. A young couple swings near the stage, the bass guitar’s slow, descending thump and drums’ pop-clank lead the dancers, who glide like they’re on tracks. At a nearby table, a hunched-over guy’s completely still except for his right heel, which flexes double time at the Achilles to the measured rhythm. The beat is in his head.
Harley White Jr. is onstage leading it all, electric bass looped over shoulder, seated atop a barstool, feet wrapped over a rung, chin up, right wrist bent over coiled strings. White lays a strong improv-jazz foundation, and he’s at home doing it.
OK, he’s actually not quite at home, but in a dark old downtown blues bar—where you’ll find him each Thursday. White’s played all kinds of music for more than three decades and is a face among sounds in this city. But what’s he, or any Sacramento musician for that matter, like in the privacy of his or her own pad?
This week, seven musicians opened their doors and minds, nooks and beats, basements, hearts and toilets for intimate, maybe even a bit nosy, interview sessions. Serenades, air hockey, cat allergies, dirty laundry, phone tag, party fouls, hopes, confessions—everyone had a unique beat, but one note was universal: Sacramento (whatever that sounds like).
You realize it’s the blues?
Aaron King of Aaron King Quartet
The front door opens at guitarist Aaron King’s downtown apartment, and his two cats, Elton John and Kiki D, act in divergent ways: The former holds his ground on the staircase, the latter approaches to see what’s up.
It’s a little after 5 p.m. and King’s just off work. His apartment is dark, cool and casual. There’s a huge TV in one corner that faces a couch and a chair, where King’s plopped, laptop and BlackBerry resting on an ottoman. He’s in jeans and a T-shirt, chill mode; by day he’s a legislative staffer at the Capitol, by night a husband and blues guitarist. A Real Madrid banner hangs on the wall above his head.
King says Thursdays are good days. Later that night, he’ll join Harley White Jr. on stage at Torch for an all-night jam session. “It’s adventure. It’s ego. It’s just fun. I go into a zone and nothing else matters,” he shares; at Torch he grooves to things as varied as jazz improv, dub reggae and covers of Jay-Z’s “I Just Want to Love You.”
In his youth, King listened to the “popular music of the day”: ’80s English pop like Duran Duran and Simply Red, rap like De La Soul and Digital Underground. He got a “crappy” acoustic at age 10 and, around that time, was into U2, which eventually led to an electric guitar, delay pedal, flanger and learning everything that the Edge was doing on The Unforgettable Fire. Stevie Ray Vaughan was King’s next muse. “I was blown away. ‘Holy crap!’ I instantly wanted to sound like that,” he remembers. He became “geeky” and investigated all things SRV.
In his early 20s, King bumped into Johnny “Guitar” Knox outside of Tower Records on Broadway, who persuaded him to start hanging at local clubs and “getting onstage when I had no business being onstage.” Knox introduced him to Little Charlie, of the Night Cats fame, and they hung out after a Concerts in the Park show. Charlie made King cassettes—’60s jazz, bebop—and urged him to practice, practice, practice.
“But you get to a certain point where your faculty on the instrument is to a level that is good, or as good as you can get,” concedes King, now in his 30s. To this extent, he says he doesn’t necessarily “practice” any more, but instead “synthesizes” music. He has no misconceptions about being a “sheer virtuoso.” Not everyone’s Tiger Woods.
In other words, he jams.
And he follows his “Frankenstein” Stratocaster wherever it leads. But if he leaves downtown, he’ll let you know. “Be advised, Aaron is entering Midtown” is what this staunch downtown-Sacramento-living advocate writes on his Facebook page before heading east across 16th Street. Fittingly, he lives on the same thoroughfare as Torch Club.
Kiki D’s showing off, playing with a toy and rolling on her back. King’s wife is home from work now and turns on the lights; no more blues-club vibe. King’s wife also is the one who turns him on to new music. “Like Neko Case,” King says.
“The perception is that blues is old-people music,” he points out. “But you realize that Amy Winehouse is blues?”
Suck the poison from your leg
Julie Ann Baenzinger of Sea of Bees
“I want a door. You can’t have sex in a room like this.”
Julie Ann Baenzinger lives in a south Midtown house that once was a druggie haven, needles and unpopped pills scattered everywhere. Now, the songwriter sleeps in a peaceful, dreamlike bedroom: Polaroids frame windows and Sacramento Bee scraps are pasted to the glass. John Wayne, a cat, slides his paw under a bathroom door. Mint patchouli trails sneak out the window. The place is dainty, organized. Even a pile of laundry feels in its right place.
But yeah, there’s no door separating her room from the kitchen. So no noisy, feisty you-know-what.
“I get all stressed when everything’s all funkified,” Baenzinger confesses, this after apologizing for the mess (there isn’t one) and texting “b prepared it’s gross.” She lives with roommates, and they just held a house show a few weeks earlier. The place is cozy, but Baenzinger says there are always surprises. “I got up this morning and saw, ‘Oh, we got a new couch and TV … in our front yard!’” she jokes.
Baenzinger, 25, plays her new song, “Wiz Bot,” which she recorded with John Baccigaluppi at downtown’s Hangar Studios. The track is an unexpected revelation, starting with simple guitar and vocals, then growing into a dynamic Rilo Kiley-esque ballad, complete with a full band and horns and a remarkably polished sound.
But the standout is Baenzinger’s voice: rusty but soothing, unfettered and dynamic.
She says she writes about people she meets and, when the songs finally come out, they are like “gifts” to that person. “If you’re my friend, I’ll take care of you. I’ll suck the poison out of your leg,” she says. And her room is full of odd but welcoming décor, too: a xylophone hanging on the wall (German, eBay, nine bucks); hand-carved camel, polar bear and donkey trinkets on her nightstand. “My whole goal is to make this room a forest. But I don’t have time; I’m never here,” says the overcaffeinated barista chanteuse, who—a confession—bites her nails.
“I’m really fucking serious. I want to be famous. I’m willing to sell out,” she finally concedes. She touches her head and recounts a recent bike accident—no helmet—that left her crashed in the middle of J Street, blood dripping over her dress, oncoming traffic bearing down on her. No one would stop to help except a homeless woman with a prepaid cell phone. She didn’t get stitches. “Staples, man. Legit,” she laughs.
She’ll do well. But get a helmet. Then a door.
I hope you die
Marcus Cortez of Darling Sweetheart
There’s a Hammond organ smack dab in the entryway of Marcus Cortez’s Boulevard Park home. If you ever come by during what he calls “3 a.m. drunk parties,” he may serenade you with “the creepy chord.” Vvviiinggg!
Cortez’s roommate, Tim Conroy of local rock-steady band the Kinetics, likes to thrift shop. One day, he trucked the $30 organ into Cortez’s foyer, and it’s remained there ever since. “This is when I knew I would love my roommate,” Cortez says, plopping his fingers onto the keys.
In his living room, Cortez shuffles vinyl on a Numark turntable—the Rolling Stones; Crosby, Stills and Nash. A clothes dryer hums in the background. In the dining room, there’s an air-hockey table instead of one you can eat on. It’s just after noon on a Saturday and Cortez—sporting long red Dickies shorts, leather flip-flops that’ve seen some miles and a jewel-button white cowboy shirt—already has a Budweiser in hand.
“All it takes is that first spill,” he laughs, noting the living-room carpet was at one point pristine. It now looks like a screen grab from Atari’s Asteroids video game.
Cortez is a great storyteller. A state worker by day, when he spins a yarn, it goes deep—from the seed, following the roots and all the way to the blossom, the punch line. His rock-star visage—angular goatee, curly shoulder-length hair, studded leather and pink Livestrong bracelets—make the tales even more compelling.
For instance, he pulls out another vinyl album and warns: “Of all the music I’ve come across that makes me think of a higher power, greater meaning, God, love, this sets me in the right direction.” He puts the vinyl on the turntable, and the payoff is an accordion soloist, a Christian musician named Arthur Guttke, which is an LP his roommate also picked up thrifting. It’s hard to tell if Cortez is serious, but the music’s pleasing all the same, if not oddly transcendent.
This same ambiguity applies to Cortez’s songwriting. He’d recently broken up with his girlfriend, for instance, but left a pile of lyrics on the kitchen counter. She was at his pad while he was sleeping and stumbled upon the lyrics to “I Hope You Die.”
“I wrote the song to cut off the feelings, cut off the relationship,” Cortez explains of what’s actually a lovely, affectionate, vaudevillian ballad. He’d had this dream where he was at a party and found his ex dead on a couch. “Wake up! Wake up!” he yelled, but her corpse was cold, like a wet stone.
For the record, she likes the song.
Cortez owes a lot to his ex; she basically taught him how to sing. Sort of. “She wanted to try out for American Idol, so of course I got suckered into joining her,” Cortez recalls, noting his contempt for the TV show. His mom loaned him some vocal-coach DVDs and, long story short, the audition never happened but Cortez kept using the videos. They transformed his singing from “grunge howling” into a guy who kinda knows what he’s doing.
He practices alone in his office when his roommates aren’t around.
Cortez pops up off the green plaid couch and makes for his nylon-string guitar; he wants to play “I Hope You Die,” and does. The guitar’s a beat-up acoustic, which he’s toted with him on hiking trips; his first guitar, another junker, is nailed to the entryway wall, broken in two pieces.
Cortez says he writes a lot of Darling Sweetheart’s tunes on this ax. “Most of the free time I have is here in the living room, and the guitar’s just right there,” he smiles.
Fast, rotten, sweaty, foulmouthed
Lory Gilpatric of Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang!
As a kid, family would tell Lory Gilpatric that rock music was pure evil. “Metal is Satan’s tool, and if you listen to metal, Satan will possess you,” she remembers them admonishing. So she grew up listening to ’50s pop and rock—safe music. When she borrowed her neighbor’s Men at Work album in the third grade, her parents were not pleased and confiscated it.
Now, years later, Gilpatric listens to hardcore thrash music, plays bass in punk band Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang! and—gasp—reads comic books. Except for a brief stint of Amy Grant fandom during her teenage years, she’s a relatively normal 35-year-old.
Yet rebellion lingers. Of all the homes in Gilpatric’s Little Pocket neighborhood in south Sacramento, hers is the only one with the garage and front doors open. Her doormat reads “Keep out,” which for some reason is welcoming; at least there’s life at her pad.
In the living room, her cat, Pizza, gives strangers the once-over. Rolls of yarn rest in a pile next to the tan couch, but they’re not for the feline; she knits. The band room down the hall is both a slice of heaven—and maybe even hell to Gilpatric’s parents or neighbors—music, CDs, eight boxes of comic books and not one but two drum sets.
“If you’re a girl, you don’t have to play acoustic guitar. You can play fast, rotten punk rock, and you can scream, sweat and be foulmouthed. And you don’t have to wear sexy clothes,” she reminds.
Gilpatric lives with musician Craig Hancock, formerly of punk band the Helper Monkeys, and just moved from Midtown to her new locale about five minutes from downtown. She misses the grid, the fact that people leave their windows open. In her old apartment’s basement, which would flood, she built pallets to raise her drum kit, a set her friends built for her one birthday. Now, her drums have their own room.
Gilpatric always wanted to be in a band. She used to admire Dave Dorsey when he was in legendary punk troupe the Lizards; this was long before became the singer/guitarist for Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang! Dorsey actually named the band after a ’40s-era comic book, but it was her boyfriend that got her hooked on comics: He brought home an issue of The Walking Dead, and now she puts down $100 a month on books.
She’s cheery on her suede sofa, wearing blue brand-free sneakers, jeans and a green punk T-shirt with the arms and collar cut out. “Just get together and start a band,” she advises young kids, especially to aspiring female musicians. “You may suck for a while, but eventually you’ll get better.”
The hip-hop chef
Mahtie Bush of the Alumni
Local emcee and hip-hop beat maker Mahtie Bush does all his “cooking” in the kitchen. A tan dining-room table with white legs is pushed up against the wall in his Midtown home’s nook. On top is his production studio: a PC (which 7evin built), stereo, monitor, receiver, all sorts of gear. A keyboard’s wedged between the table and the wall, papers and a Milwaukee Brewers cap cover its keys.
It’s 3 p.m. on a Sunday. Bush looks like he’s about to hit up the basketball court: black ankle-high socks, blue athletic shorts, white T-shirt with the arms cropped off. “I’m always right here. This is where it is,” says Bush, resting in a cushiony and beaten-up office chair. When he’s not producing, he’s at his girlfriend’s place.
Bush just finished making a new album, Backpackramento, which will drop later this summer. His producer friend Wyzdom is mixing and mastering it, which features music from the past two years of Bush’s life and sounds from the past three decades: ’80s beats, ’90s sampling and the 21st-century use (some might argue abuse) of Auto-Tune. People send him beats from all over the world; he opens iTunes and shows plays a beat some dude just e-mailed from Germany. And he never has to leave the kitchen.
Bush gets a text from a guy named Ben that says: “U r my fav rapper rite now.” It’s not a plant; Ben’s in a Las Vegas-based break-dancing troupe, Knucklehead Zoo, who Bush occasionally emcees for. “Ah dude, it’s huge,” Bush says of the local B-boy scene.
In fact, Bush says he himself does some B-boying. The Hiram Johnson High School graduate, now 27, used to live in Vegas. “One of my friends came over one day—he was a really cholo dude—and he asked me to learn,” Bush says of his dancing genesis.
Sure, but does Bush break-dance in the house? “There’s enough room for me to practice my footwork. There’s not enough room for me to fly.”
So is this Bush’s true home? Or does he consider his girlfriend’s pad home? “This is my home, because I paid for it,” he says, adamant. Sure, but who has the better TV?
“Oh, she does, by far. She’s killin’ my TV,” he laughs. No matter: TV isn’t his vice. “I’m on the Internet every day. Anytime I can. I wasn’t addicted three years ago. It’s horrible.” That’s a lot of hours in the kitchen, but not a lot of it spent cooking; there’s a piece of paper with lyrics scribbled on it in the middle of the linoleum floor.
But Bush can cook more than beats. “I make a great white lasagna,” he praises. “Hella good. The bomb.”
Not just buttons
Dani Fernandez of Sister Crayon
“It’s exactly like being a drummer. I am a drummer, but I use my fingers. And it’s fucking hard, too. I’m sweating at the end of shows.”
Dani Fernandez takes exception to the term “button pusher.” Her father, a percussionist who grew up in Queens, N.Y., taught her at a young age to play hand drums, which led to picking up the piano and other instruments. Yet when she began learning to play, her eventual musical apparatus of choice didn’t even exist.
It’s dark in Fernandez’s modish two-bedroom duplex apartment off Broadway, south of Midtown. The sun’s setting and you can hear Interstate 50’s traffic whiz by, slightly louder than the clothes tumbling in the dryer. Fernandez, one-fourth of local indie band Sister Crayon, is tired from three marathon days of recording a new album with Scott McChane and shifts at work—12 hours in the studio, another five or eight at the coffeehouse.
She pulls off her black knit cap and runs her hands through a stylish punk do. She looks older than 21—black knit collared shirt buttoned to the top, gray jeans—but her braces give away a few years. There’s a flat-screen TV and Guitar Hero in the living room, which is strewn with beer bottles left over from last night’s party, but Fernandez swears she rarely plays video games. Or parties. “I like to catch up on my TV shows. I watch a lot of cheesy stuff, like The Hills,” she admits.
Hip-hop sounds were always Fernandez’s beat. She met Sister Crayon’s Terra Lopez after a show and instantly clicked. And it was Lopez who introduced Fernandez to the MPC 1000, her aforementioned unconventional instrument.
“I just watch my fingers the whole time. That’s the one thing my dad taught me: try not to listen to what everyone’s doing; tune them out,” Fernandez explains of her technique. The MPC, a digital drum-machinelike production station, has on its face 12 pads that you smack with your hands. You can create original or sampled beats, which then can be looped and altered, or you can just play it live.
Basically, it’s like playing drums, but on a flat box with the tips of your fingers. And the sounds run the gamut: deep hip-hop bass backbeats, conventional pop drums, whatever. (If you Google “Jel drum practice,” you’ll see a master at work on the MPC—it’s like John Bonham meets Milton Bradley’s Simon.)
“There’s not a lot of female musicians out there who make beats. I don’t see it. So I want to see how far I can go with it,” Fernandez says of her unique styling. When she practices, she plops down on her bed with the headphones and her roommate’s dog, a terrier named Curly, and just “sees what ideas come.” Intense. Introspective. And a lot easier on the neighbors.
When she plays live with Sister Crayon, none of the percussion tracks are pre-programmed; she plays live, and it’s different every time. “People diss on programmed beats—‘You just push a button’—but that’s not true at all. You have to have a lot of rhythm to play an MPC,” Fernandez says.
“I consider myself a musician.” Sure, but can she dance to those beats?
“No. Oh, god! I love watching people dance, but I don’t like dancing. I have a lot of rhythm, but just not on my feet.”
Harley White Jr. of Harley White Jr. Orchestra
Midway through Harley White Jr.’s nearly two-hour interview, he comes up for air: “Now, I don’t want this to be another one of those Harley White rants that gets into print.”
Actually, White was pretty low-key in the tirade department. There was “If life gives you a cow town, make a chocolate shake.” Or “I’m digging the recession because it’s making it hard for the pretenders.” And “Blues clubs have been taken over by white people,” specifically “phallic-guitar-worshipping” and “stylistically fermented lawyers pretending they’re from the South.” But otherwise, pretty mellow.
White takes music damn seriously, and his apartment attests to this dedication. Oscar Pettiford blasts from speakers in the small Oak Park room. A stand-up bass towers in one corner. His bed, which is made, takes up most of the studio. There are no neighbors, and it’s a quiet, private place. White explains that he’s been learning Duke Ellington on the tuba. “To be able to practice at 4 a.m. is pretty awesome,” he smiles.
He’s seated outside the studio on a strip of concrete overlooking what he calls his “living room,” or a nice spread of lawn, which indeed does buzz like one of White’s favorite albums, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
White has lived in Sacramento most of his life and was schooled in music at Bear Flag Elementary; Kennedy High School; and American River, Sac City and Cosumnes colleges. His musical genesis is of a dying breed: violin student at age 7, composer and orchestra leader now in his 40s. White used to teach music to kids at Joe’s Style Shop downtown, and laments that music education has been “sucked away” from schools.
White’s celery-colored linen shirt breathes well in the heat as he sits cross-legged wearing baby-blue paisley cotton pants and buckled dress shoes. A black-braid straw blues hat and fuzzy chin goatee act as bookends to his pointed and well-thought observations. He fiddles with a white lighter. “Lately, though, I’ve made a hard-core turn toward doing original music,” he begins.
The Harley White Jr. Orchestra, his new project, consists of a troupe of regulars, and also “mercenaries” and “whores”; White writes the songs, arranges and conducts. He laments the death of “virtuosity” in modern music—the fact that black kids gravitate toward hip-hop and “button pushing” instead of traditional music ed and appreciation.
And he’s downright offended by American Idol, which he likens to an encroachment on his “profession.”
“They don’t have American Fireman?” he prods. Does this egg on White?
“Hell no, it doesn’t motivate me,” he says. “I am, ultimately, indifferent to it. Bullshit is bullshit.
“With this orchestra, I’ve found it.”
It’s time for White to drive off for a gig at a nearby vineyard. This is how he does it, and it’s all so he “can get after Duke,” he repeats, like a mantra. Because there’s something to prove.
“Who allowed these people in my profession?” he keeps asking.
Where to find them
Aaron King Quartet plays every Thursday at Torch Club, 904 15th Street; 9 p.m.; $5; 21 and over.
Sea of Bees will perform Thursday, July 9 at Luigi’s Fun Garden, 1050 20th Street; $5; 8 p.m.; all ages.
Darling Sweetheart will gig Friday, July 10 at Old Ironsides, 1901 10th Street; 9 p.m.; $7; 21 and over.
Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang! throws down on Friday, July 17 at the 300 Room inside Capitol Bowl, 900 West Capitol Avenue in West Sacramento; 9 p.m.; $6; 21 and over.
Mahtie Bush will host a Fourth of July emcee battle at The Boardwalk, 9426 Greenback Lane in Orangevale; 8 p.m.; $10 in advance, $12 at the door; all ages.
Sister Crayon will perform at SN&R Music Fest this Saturday, June 27, at Cesar Chavez Plaza, 10th and J streets; 3 p.m.; free; all ages.
The Harley White Jr. Orchestra will perform every Tuesday night in July at The Shady Lady Saloon, 1409 R Street; 9 p.m.; free; 21 and over.