Desert Ambiance Without The Smoke & Mirrors
Michael Ely and James "Spider" Taylor go by the name of Smoke & Mirrors. The name of their musical unit does have a bit of irony attached to it. What these two men are able to accomplish on their new studio album The Perfume of Creosote: Desert Exotica Part One is a 23-track all-instrumental musical patchwork quilt of electronic sounds and effects that create a memorable and intoxicating theater of sound.
The colors of the desert canvas come delivered to your ears via a musical paint brush, sometimes beautifully and at times more cold and calculated by the grinding and pulsating rhythms of the keyboards and other electronic sounds and devices. You can compare that analogy of their music to the ever- changing climate and temperaments of the desert itself. It is beautiful to the naked eye yet burning hot to the skin and brutally frigid to all its inhabitants after the sun goes down. These are the contrasting colors and atmospheres found in a unique climate called the desert and the music of Smoke & Mirrors. They do a fine job portraying all of these characteristics in their ongoing musical journey found on their new release.
The music holds a strong sense of conviction in your memory once it is complete, then your curiosity gets the best of you and will want to hear it all again because its so very interesting and pleasurable. If you have never been to the desert before and witnessed the wonders of nature in every corner, this aural landscape will take you there in a flutter of hummingbird's wing.
"Being an openly gay couple was not easy then. We were embraced by some and shunned by others."
While the two musicians spent their time growing up in the conservative "Father Knows Best" 1950s, as Michael puts it, they both were attracted to the arts at very young ages. Spider started playing guitar when he was 10 while listening to his father's Les Paul records and Michael was a withdrawn child fascinated with film scores and started writing and drawing pictures once he was old enough to pick up a pen. They claim that that they have been around the block so many times since the '50s that they have carved a groove into the sidewalk.
Spider has run the gamut in his life as a musician, from being addicted to heroin and coming to the realization that he was gay to meeting Michael in 1971 and consummating a lifetime bond. They were pioneers and one of the first generation of gay couples to live openly (although they did not identify with the then emerging gay mainstream, and to this day say that they still don't).
[ Michael & Spider ] Being an openly gay couple was not easy then. We were embraced by some (like Spider's family), shunned by others (my family permanently disowned me) and harassed by many, but we were young and crazy in love and determined to live life on our terms. Throughout most of the 70s, Spider and I lived in a world of drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll. It was a time of excessive self-indulgence and experimentation and exploration. Spider gained a reputation as a guitar god as he had the kind of chops that left most guitarists in the dust; he jumped from one band to the next without goals or direction, sometimes picking up session work to make ends meet."
"It was a time of excessive self-indulgence and experimentation and exploration."
In '76, Spider recorded an album with Delaney Bramlett (Delaney and Bonnie) and in '77, he briefly played with the Don Harrison Band, traveling up to Northern California to rehearse at Cosmo's Factory (along with former members of CCR, Stu and Doug). Michael on the other hand became obsessed with David Bowie and the glam rock movement, and throughout the rest of the '70s found himself attracted to performers and bands that were considered offbeat and cutting edge like Iggy Pop, New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Kate Bush and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Artists like Bowie provided inspiration for Ely and he began to write lyrics, and then the punk period of their music kicked in.
When the '80s began, they started their alternative rock period. The couple was widely recognized as founding members of a band called Red Wedding, sharing stages with acts such as Romeo Void, X, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Psi Com (now Jane's Addiction), Killing Joke, The Bangles, Kommunity FK, Nina Hagen, The Romantics, 45 Grave and Bow Wow Wow. The sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll caught up with them by the late '80s and everything unraveled. They finally surrendered to their addictions, gave up music and joined a 12-Step program and got clean.
The '90s arrived with the harsh reality of AIDS affecting them personally as many of their friends died from the disease. Both men became deeply depressed knowing in their hearts a drastic change in life style was needed. They moved from Long Beach to Tucson, Arizona for a more quiet life with no intention of making music again ... or so they thought.
Michael became more and more interested in spirituality and found himself inspired by the serenity of the desert and the opportunity it provided to focus on internal, rather than an externally based life. He shared this with Spider and they both started a new journey to seek meaning on a deeper level. They also experienced survivor's guilt, in that neither of them contracted HIV. This truly painful reality forced them to look at life differently. Both men explored aspects of Hinduism, Native American spirituality, Buddhism, which, among other things, which in turn allowed them to turn their grief into a search for meaning.
"The big challenge is getting our analytical minds out of the way and becoming open enough to allow something larger than ourselves to come through."
Fast forward to 2002... a friend visiting from California convinced Michael and Spider to buy a music-recording program for their computer; Spider got out his old guitars and bass while Michael picked up a cheap Yamaha electric keyboard and the rest is recorded history.
[ Michael & Spider ] We didn't know exactly what we would do; just that it had to reflect who were NOW, and not who were THEN. Essentially, having deepened as human beings, as a couple, as artists, as participants in the world, as survivors of an epidemic that took the lives of more friends that we can say, we just started to explore musically. In the same way spiritual seekers might open themselves up to something greater than they might open themselves, we began to allow inspiration to take over, without even knowing exactly what we would get.
"We began working on 'The Perfume Of Creosote' before we really knew what was happening. I am sure you are familiar with the quote by Michaelangelo in which he said about his most famous work, "David" (and I'm paraphrasing), I didn't really plan or create this; I simply removed the excess clay, and there it was. We very much relate with this concept. It was truly by letting go that we discovered 'Perfume of Creosote.' It was more about letting go and tuning in, than anything else."
[MuzikMan] Production of this record must have been complicated with all the layering of the instruments, was that process arduous compared to the actual recording of each individual part?
[ Michael & Spider ] I know what you mean, and you would think it would be, but in truth, intuition and inspiration took over both in recording and in production. Clearly, without having had the musical background, we did, and without an inherent understanding of production and sound, we could not have relied on intuition. Our process was more about listening, adding, changing, taking away, listening some more, adding back in, and listening to our gut. The production was actually fun, as we heard the music begin to evolve the way we wanted it to, and sometimes in ways we hadn't expected. Perhaps our lack of preconceived notions is what gave us that kind of freedom.
[MuzikMan] Can you explain the title of the album in detail, and why the desert is the stage for your music? The desert and its beauty inspire you both and projecting those feelings are beautifully captured via the many colors, sounds and life that abound in the climate of your music; can you explain this inspiration in more detail?
[ Michael & Spider ] The title of our CD refers to the intoxicating smell emitted from wet desert creosote bushes just after one of our afternoon summer rainstorms. Spider and I are both desert rats who love the desert, especially the Sonoran Desert here in Arizona, which is not the barren wasteland most people think of as a desert, but one of the greenest, most vivid deserts in the world. It's filled with subtle and sometimes brilliant colors, amazing textures, and teeming with wildlife. The challenge for us was to find a way to convey this incredible and unique world through music, but without relying on the somewhat cliched Southwest / Native American approach often found in the New Age genre.
"Then came the idea of creating a music foundation based on the romantic and sometimes campy South Seas / Tropical jungle inspired exotica music recorded back in the late '50s and early '60s by artists such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter. This music, originally intended as a backdrop on which we could build and develop our desert theme was simply a project to amuse ourselves and perhaps some of our friends, we never dreamed that one day it would be released as a real CD to be marketed or played on the radio. We really did not have a set genre in mind for the music.
"Once we had the exotica framework as a basis, we then approached each piece based on our own, sometimes off-the-wall interpretations of the given subject matter (be it animal, fauna or climate), drawing from our wide variety of past musical experiences and influences to paint each soundscape accordingly, that is, each subject matter dictated the music itself. This would explain why the music in "The Perfume Of Creosote" is somewhat eclectic in nature (I think there's a pun in there somewhere). The title of our CD refers to the intoxicating smell emitted from wet desert creosote bushes just after one of our afternoon summer rainstorms.
"Again, it began as purely a creative outlet for us before taking on a life of it's own. Had we been able to see into the future, we might have tried to narrow our approach to a single mindset, but thank goodness, that did not happen. The freedom to utilize and combine a wide array of genres allowed us to musically interpret the desert with all it's textures and complexities from our own perspectives, much like an artist painting a desert landscape on canvas with 20 different colors of paint to mix on his palette as opposed to just one or two colors."
[MuzikMan] What are your thoughts on communicating a story in an instrumental composition in lieu of one with words? Personally, I feel the song without words has more feeling and emotion in it and it leaves more to the listener's imagination as to what the story is actually about, your thoughts and feelings?
[ Michael & Spider ] We completely understand why you feel instrumental music leaves more to the imagination, and clearly, we feel this genre has something to communicate that perhaps is "beyond words" so to speak. As a former lyricist, I am aware of the power of words, but I am equally aware that sometimes words can get in the way.
"For example, looking at a vivid desert landscape, either in person or in a photo, gives one a certain experience. Trying to describe it in words, however, cannot capture that sort of experience, and often dilutes it. Similarly, eating an orange and experiencing its flavor is a very specific experience on many levels. Yet it is probably impossible to describe such an experience to someone who has never tasted one. So, in that sense, our music is meant to communicate a type of experience that is beyond words, and which words could never adequately describe.
"I agree that what we are trying to express is most appropriate without words. Still, I do want to add that both Spider and I do not necessarily consider instrumental music a better way to tell a story or to communicate than songs and lyrics, simply a different one. In fact, there may be some stories that truly require words, and language can be used in such a way that it is rich with meaning, and might imply more than one idea, or mean many things to many people. Our message is somewhat more transcendental, and thus the instrumental format works."
Michael and Spider feel one of the challenges of marketing their CD is it's eclectic nature (part ambient, part experimental, part ethereal, part alternative rock, part retro lounge, part jazz, part film score, etc.) and their inability to label or categorize it proves why this music cannot be neatly placed into a box or defined by any one specific genre. It is a paradox that its biggest weakness when it comes to marketing is also its biggest strength when it comes to reaching perspective listeners.
Their eclectic brand of instrumental pleasures targets people with some kind of interest in spirituality and the desert and those who enjoy Electronica, instrumental and experimental rock (likely fans of artists such as Eno, Philip Glass and Beck). These interesting musical/life partners believe it would also appeal to people who enjoy film scores and atmosphere music, and of course, the gay market. They believe strongly that that the Internet can be crucial in marketing Indie CDs these days.
I have no doubt in my mind that these two progressive gentleman have everything in the world going for them right now and their positive attitudes and perspective on life will take their music a long way.