75 hours in the exurbs of Atlanta… The Monkey Power Trio’s 22nd day/year as a band

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This past weekend marked the 22nd meeting of my one-day-a-year pseudo-band, the Monkey Power Trio. For those of you who might not be familiar with our origin story, it all began back in 1995 with a promise between old friends one hot, summer afternoon in Brooklyn. On the spur of the moment, we’d decided to make a record. We gathered whatever instruments we could find, and we made our way into an unlocked basement storage room in a Carrol Gardens apartment building [131 Union Street], where we proceeded to scream and beat on things while an old cassette recorder whirred away, suspended in front of us from a string tied to a sewage pipe. The result was a 7″ record, which we decided to call The First Hour, acknowledging the fact that we’d agreed, shortly after finishing, to meet up and do the same exact thing every year until the point when only one of us was left alive. And, surprisingly, we’ve stayed true to our word for 22 years now, despite the fact that, every year, it becomes exponentially more difficult for the five of us to both get away from our real-world obligations and express ourselves creatively… This year, our destination was Cumming, Georgia, about an hour’s drive north of Atlanta.

I know what you’re thinking… Given how terrible things went the last time we met up in the remote suburbs of Atlanta, why would we do it again, instead of going somewhere exotic and interesting, like Lake Tahoe , or Jackson Hole, or even Cleveland? Well, we decided to go back to Georgia because Mike, the southern member of our band, had just gotten married there, and we wanted to attend a small wedding celebration that he and his new wife Kellie had planned for their friends who hadn’t attended the ceremony earlier this summer. As usual, it was going to be a quick in and out. The idea was to fly in late Wednesday night after work, create a recording studio out of unpacked moving boxes in the basement of Mike and Kellie’s new house on Thursday while drinking bourbon and talking about the various issues that we’re all facing, scream like morons all day Friday while beating on poorly tuned instruments, attend the wedding party on Saturday, and then fly our asses back home. And that’s pretty much happened.

[We give ourselves 24 consecutive hours each year in which to write, record and mix down a record’s worth of songs, but most of that time is spent eating, sleeping, fighting, laughing at one another, and trying to figure out how to adjust instruments so that everyone can be heard. This probably leaves us with about 8 hours to actually come up with songs and record them. And, by the way, we ask that reviewers please keep that in mind before weighing on our creative output.]

The session itself was relatively uneventful. I think, by the time it was all over, we’d written and recorded 10 songs, about four of which are relatively interesting, including one called “Lady Baby,” and another called “Why Did That Bird Die? / I’ve Never Done Cocaine.” At the rate we’re going releasing records, I suspect you’ll be able to hear both in about three years. [The last record we put out, a 12” titled Left Behind, contained our songs from 2011 to 2013.]

Here we are before heading off to celebrate Mike and Kellie’s wedding. From left to right, that’s Matt, me, Dan, Dave and Mike.

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Following, in no particular order, are a few things that stood to me out about this, our 22nd session.

MAKING AN IMPRESSION…. Mike’s new wife, Kellie, was sweet, generous and kind. I know it couldn’t have been easy for her, having the four of us moving into the house with them, just days after they’d purchased it, but she seemed to be a good sport about it. And I’d like to think, by the end of it, we’d managed to make a pretty good impression, despite the fact that we sometimes revert to being kids when we’re around one another, telling jokes at each other’s expense, taunting one another, and doing the kinds of things that men do when they’ve known one another since childhood. At any rate, I’d like to think that, in spite of that, we left her with a sense of just of how deeply we all genuinely care about one another. [I won’t elaborate on the context, but I want to note here that our stay ended with Kellie hugging me and saying, “You actually do have a personality,” as I’d like to revisit it as a potential song idea next year.]

ON NOT MAKING THE EFFORT TO SEE FOXY… Mike kept telling us about a skinny little dude who dressed like Richard Simmons and sat on an old lawn chair down the road from where he and Kellie lived, just waving at passing cars all day. He must have mentioned him twenty times over the course of the weekend, usually after downing a Red Bull and vodka, asking us repeatedly if we wanted to go and look for him. We were united in our opposition to this idea. On the last day, though, Kellie added something to the story that made me regret my decision not to take Mike up on his offer. “According to the sign in his yard, he’s a psychic,” she said… And now I just wonder how much more incredible the session might have been, had we made the time to get a group psychic reading before firing up our amps on Saturday. [note: Find a psychic next year, wherever we end up going.]

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[above: Our basement setup. You can’t see the area that we build for Matt and his wind instruments out of boxes, drapes and rugs.]

TRAPPED IN THE EXURBS… Mike and Kellie’s new house, where we stayed, is about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta, in an exurb community called something like Pelican Cove. With the exception of a trip to a terrible roadside barbecue spot, where they apparently boil their pork and pre-chew it for their customers, and the restaurant where the wedding party was held on Saturday, which was really good, it’s where we spent every minute of our time in Georgia. And I hope I don’t hurt either Mike or Kellie’s feelings when I say this, but, having now spent a few days living in their remote exurb community, I can say with some certainty that I would sooner chew off my own arms than live that kind of isolated life, completely disconnected from society. I mean, I can see how some people would like the solitude, but I think it would drive me out of my mind. [We were so far out, there wasn’t even a Chick-fil-A within a 30-mile radius. If you’re familiar with Atlanta, you know how insane that is.]

In the three days we were at their house, which was really beautiful, by the way, I believe we only saw two other adults. We saw one heavily made-up woman power walking in a silk jogging suit. And we saw an extremely douchey looking man in a golf cart, barreling down a nature trail. With those two exceptions, we did not see a single person in their community of dozens and dozens of enormous faux mansions. Everyone in the neighborhood, by the way, owns a golf cart, according to Mike, which struck me as odd, given that there isn’t a golf course. He says that’s how people and their kids get around the neighborhood when they have to leave their homes, like to walk a dog, or get their mail from their mailboxes.

Here we are on Mike’s golf cart, cruising around the neighborhood, searching unsuccessfully for signs of exurban life.

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The whole place just struck me as incredibly surreal… all of these huge, asymmetrical homes with two-story entryways, superfluous columns, and gigantic rooflines intended to convey wealth and social standing, with absolutely no life outside of them, like isolated little make-believe castles behind tiny fences intended to project the illusion of security. [Mike and Kellie’s house, by the way, isn’t one of the houses I’m referencing here. Their house is really quite beautiful.] I mean, I can kind of see the appeal of getting away from everything, and I don’t fault Mike and Kellie at all for living there at all, as they got a good deal on the place, and it’s near to where both of them work, but, as someone who values things like sidewalks, human contact, and just being able to walk to things, it struck me as the kind of place that would leave me feeling incredibly hollow. And I think that feeling kind of permeated this session, where one of the songs I’d write was about an armed revolt against wealthy landowners who had displaced those that had existed in that space before them. Mike’s home, I should probably have mentioned earlier, is right next to the Cherokee Trail of Tears, which kind of made things even a bit more surreal.

A scene from the barbecue joint I mentioned earlier, which I’d wanted desperately to love, as it reminded me of other great places I’d been to in the past.

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THE POLITICS OF NORTH GEORGIA… It didn’t help the general feeling of unease that we were smack dab in the middle of Trump country, in a county where racism still seems to be quite prevalent. So, as you might imagine, the specter of Trump hung heavy over everything. Against our better judgment, we tried to engage some of the local folks about the presidential campaign on the few occasions that we left the house. Of the people I personally engaged with, all but one was a strong Trump supporter. The one who wasn’t was a bartender at the restaurant where we had the wedding party. Before talking to Dave and me, she literally looked around her to make sure that no one could hear her say that she’d be voting for Hillary. She was a single mother of two, and said that she couldn’t imagine voting for Trump. Everyone else who we talked with, however, was vehemently anti-Clinton. The word “crooked” came up several times, which I thought was kind of chilling. [It’s amazing the power that Trump has over people, repeating the same buzzwords over and over again until they become a part of our collective unconscious.] People would invariably mention the corruption of the Clinton Foundation, the email scandal, the ‘fact’ that, had anyone else done the things that she had, that they’d be in jail. And we’d try, to the best of our ability, to respond with facts. I’d like to think we were polite about it. We’d go over the go into the details of Hillary’s email, and recite facts about the finances of the Clinton Foundation [being sure to mention both that Bush used a private email server as President and Trump’s charity is currently under investigation], but it didn’t seem to have much of an impact. And, for what it’s worth, it also didn’t really help to discuss the character of our aspiring Pussy Grabber in Chief. When we mentioned specifics, we’d invariably hear back, “Well, they’re both terrible, but she’s dangerous” or something to that effect. So we weren’t able to change any minds.

It’ll never make a record, as it’s not a very good song, but, like every other band in the word, we felt obliged to take a crack at writing a song that would contribute in some way toward the complete electoral blowout we’re all hoping is in Trump’s future. We failed at it, and we’ll never release the whole thing, but here, in case you’re interested, is a short clip.

OTHER INFLUENCES… As there’s presently no bathroom in the basement of the house where we were recording, Mike, not wanting to either walk into the woods behind the house, or go upstairs, would just piss out of an open window. And, at one point, he noticed a small bird that had apparently died as a result of smashing into the side of the house. He brought the bird back with him, and it, like Trump before it, became fodder for our creative process. Another influence this time, at least for me, was radio personality Phil Hendrie, who, as you may know, employs a number of voices to manipulate members of his audience into thinking that they’re listening in on legitimate interviews, when, in fact, they’re really more like improved one-man radio plays. Having listened to an old ‘interview’ between Hendrie and an overzealous community watch organizer on the way to this year’s session, I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind that somewhere in the United States there must be people going through the trash of their neighbors, looking for clues as to where their loyalties lie. While this idea did come up during our session, it also manifested itself in a sign that we put on Mike’s golf cart, letting his new neighbors know that he’ll be watching them, taking notes on their activities, etc. [“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” it said.] Here’s a photo.

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NEW TWISTS… A few years ago, we introduced something new into our creative process. At some point during the session, if there’s a creative dry spell, we take a break for meditation and reflection. We all just walk outside in different directions, to sit quietly with a notebook until we come back with a song idea to flesh out with the rest of the group. It’s worked well for us. And, in that spirit, I started something new this year, a kind of icebreaker, just to get things started. I call it the “time capsule,” and it’s a pretty simple concept. As everyone tunes their instruments and gets ready, I just state briefly where we are, what I’ve been up to the last year, and then encourage others to do the same. The best part is something I’m calling “the litany of ailments,” where each of us, who are all approaching 50, discuss our health concerns, medical scares, recent procedures, etc. I think our kids will appreciate it one day, having the ability to listen to us break down and fall apart over time.

QUEEN LATIFAH… While the rest of us flew coach to and from Atlanta, Matt flew first class, and it yielded the best travel story of the session. As Dave and I sat in the terminal, waiting for our flights home, which wouldn’t leave for at least another five hours, we got a text from Matt, who was already on his plane, getting ready to leave for New York. It said “Queen Latifah is seated in the row ahead of me.” When we asked how he knew it was the rapper turned actress, he said that he’d found her photo online and made a positive identification from the tattoo of two blue butterflies behind her right ear. He added that he’d actually admired it before he knew who she was. [He also said he’d been tipped off to her identity by people boarding the flight and saying “Hey, Queen Latifah.”] We, of course, asked him to talk to her, and see if she might record a backing track for us sometime, but he’d stopped responding to us by that point as he and Queen Latifah had taken off… For what it’s worth, while we’re on the subject of being recognized, when we first landed in Atlanta and met up at the airport, a young woman eating at TGI Friday’s, having seen us with our instruments, asked us who we were. She said, “I know you’re famous. I recognize you. I just can’t remember the name of the group.” I was tempted to play along and say, “Yeah, we’re the Barenaked Ladies,” which I know is what she was thinking, but I told her the truth and walked away sadly into the night.

This, by the way, is Matt. This was taken at the steakhouse where we met up to celebrate Mike and Kellie’s wedding.

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WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT… The thing I really enjoy most about these brief weekend sessions of ours, is the time we just spend talking. While it’s cathartic to scream, make noise, and work collaboratively on a project, the real interesting part for me is just having the time to talk about the kinds of adult issues that we, as men, rarely discuss in our day-to-day life. For instance, we had a whole, long conversation this year about who, among the parents of our childhood friends, modeled healthy, loving relationships. That’s not something that I would have imagined us having talked about twenty years ago, or even five. It’s just good to sit down for hours on end with a bunch of guys you’ve know for years and talk about things in depth, like what it really means to be successful, parenting challenges we’re currently facing, and, of course, the looming prospect of death. It’s huge stuff, and I’m eternally grateful that I’ve got these guys to go through life with, even if we just see one another the one weekend a year. Everyone should be so lucky.

One more thing, as long as we’re on the subject… I was also struck this year by the fact that my life could have been incredibly different had I just been either a few months younger, or a few months older. With the exception of Dave, all the rest of us were classmates in high school, and I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that, had I been in the class of either ‘85 or ‘87, instead the class of ‘86, I’d likely not be where I am today. This band certainly wouldn’t exist. And I don’t even know that I’d have the family I have today, as I met Linette at a show that Matt, Dan and I played in Ypsilanti in ‘91, after they’d moved up to Michigan to form the band with me that would eventually evolve into Prehensile Monkeytailed Skink. It’s just weird how connected we all are in this life, and how much our actions impact one another.

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[above: Dave in the act of pointing to something on Dan’s phone.]

GOING FORWARD… We are going to be celebrating our 25th day/year as a band in three years, and I’d like to start planning for it. Over this past weekend, I came up with two ideas, both of which involve collaboration. First, I was thinking that it would be cool if we could put out a CD with some bands that we like covering our songs. [Jim Cherewick already did a great job with our song Portland is Doomed. ] The other is an appeal to animators and filmmakers, asking that they consider incorporating our music in some way. Whereas the first collaborative initiative would yield a CD, I’m not sure what the end point would be for this second effort. Maybe there would be a screening somewhere, like on the side of a building in Brooklyn, near the spot where, back in ‘95, we recorded The First Hour. We’re open to other ideas, though. We just feel like we should mark the occasion in some special way… And how better, I’m thinking, than to cast the net wider and get more people involved somehow. Maybe we could live stream some portion of our session, taking song ideas from listeners, or, better yet, letting them sing along. Or, maybe we include our families, and officially start getting them ready for that day when they’re going to have to take over for us? Or, perhaps I could find a museum somewhere that would allow us to do our thing in a gallery, behind a curtain or something. I don’t know. It’s fun, however, thinking about the possibilities.

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[above: Mike and Dave enjoying a break from riding in the golf cart.]

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9 Comments

  1. Eel
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    I’d love to live in Pelican Cove but my socials are too low.

  2. Tim
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    You should have loaded all of your equipment on the golf cart and recorded around the neighborhood.

  3. url
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Here is a reference for when you need the vocabulary to describe just why those enormous, ugly houses in the exurbs depress you:

    http://www.mcmansionhell.com/101

  4. Alice Krum
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    On one hand I think that in order to make compelling art you need to create a safe space where you can work comfortably. On the other hand though I can see how it might create good dynamic tension to keep putting yourselves in strange and uncomfortable places where you can draw off the energy that’s given to you. Maybe next year instead of retreating into safety you should push yourselves even further and play somewhere that really makes you uncomfortable.

  5. Dirt Bag
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    You are lucky to have good times and friends to share them with. Not everyone has either and even fewer people have both.

    You have a life worth living.

  6. Brad
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Love you guys. Glad to hear you had a good time.

  7. Gillian
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I like it when you all fight, but this was good too.

  8. Posted October 25, 2016 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Oh, there were fights, Gillian. I’m saving that stuff for the book, though.

    And, Dirt Bag, you have friends too. In fact, one of them just messaged you. Check your phone.

  9. Posted October 25, 2016 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    I deactivated my account. I can no longer receive messages.

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  1. By The giant rat waiting for me at home on October 24, 2016 at 9:50 pm

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