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"I've always hated the radio," announces Ed Ruscha, leader of the Maids of Gravity, in a sunny, what-me-worry? voice. "Except for, like--well, I listen to oldies and stuff. But hit radio? So much of it is terrible. Basically I'm like, 'Fuck, I can't listen to that shit.'"
Given Ruscha's casually dismissive attitude, it's easy to understand why "Half Awake," the catchy single intended as an introduction to The First Second, the latest recording by his group, is being heard on modern-rock stations somewhat less frequently than the collected works of Slim Whitman. And more's the pity, for the Maids (essentially Ruscha and a revolving roster of sidemen and cohorts) provide an agreeable alternative to what passes for radio fodder these days. The combo is melodically based yet prone to distortion, instrumentally straightforward yet open to structural spontaneity, and lyrically and musically hallucinogenic yet averse to jam-band stereotypes. In other words, it's full of sonic contradictions--and in a scene in which too many acts view one-dimensionality as a positive attribute (the pop-music equivalent of a politician who "stays on message"), this characteristic is welcome.
Ruscha comes by his eccentricities honestly. As the son of Ed Ruscha Sr., a Los Angeles-based pop artist and photographer whose work has been escalating in value since the Eighties, he was raised in an environment that fairly bristled with oddball creativity. "We spent a lot of time in Laurel Canyon, so there definitely was a weird hippie thing going on," he notes brightly. "There were freaks everywhere. Like, Frank Zappa lived up there. Not that we used to hang out at his place or anything." He pauses before correcting himself. "You know, maybe I did go over there a time or two."
Loads of less-famous art types congregated at the Ruscha place as well, creating an atmosphere that was loose and, in the younger Ed's opinion, surprisingly free of pretense. "The L.A. art scene, especially back then, was so on the fringe," he points out. "It wasn't like it was widely respected as a world art mecca. Which I think is what gives it an edge, you know? And maybe that carries over in L.A. music, too. People take it for granted that all these great bands have come out of here: Zappa, Captain Beefheart, the Germs, the Byrds, Love. There's some good history here, but it's always ignored."
But not by Ruscha. He credits his parents' good taste in music with fueling his eclecticism. "My dad got me into Zappa and Beefheart at a really young age," he recalls. "And my mom had these crazy art friends who I got a lot of albums from. Like, this one guy gave me a lot of Faust and Can and stuff like that when I was in junior high. I was sort of a snob back then, which kind of made me suffer in a way. Other people would be into stuff like the Beatles or something, and I'd be like, 'Ugh.' I was only into art noise."
During this period, Ruscha first began to dabble in making, rather than simply appreciating, music. His first recordings were of racket he coaxed out of a synthesizer; later he graduated to the bass and joined a band named SDF, an abbreviation that he refuses to spell out. ("I can't tell you what it stands for," he insists. "It was a secret pact.") This experience led him to hook up with Medicine, a fascinating outfit fronted by conceptualist Brad Laner, in 1989. Ruscha does his best to put a positive spin on the year he spent as a Medicine man--"That was my first taste of realizing, like, wow, you can really get into this world," he says. But he concedes that his relationship with Laner wasn't exactly tension-free. In his words, "Our personalities just clashed. It wasn't working anymore, and we couldn't really deal with each other. It wasn't pretty, you know?" He adds, "I see him every so often, and right now we have a very surface-y friendship. But I know that someday we're going to sit down and have it out, and then we'll be real friends again. Because we've always had this connection. I'll talk to people who know both of us, and I'll find out that we're listening to exactly the same stuff. So I know our heads are in a similar spot. Maybe a little bit too similar--that might have been the problem all along."
Other complications were solely of Ruscha's making. Specifically, he spent several years not knowing whether he should follow in his father's brush strokes. For a time he even enrolled in a prominent California art school. "At that point, I was kind of confused," he says. "I didn't really know what to do. I mean, I've always drawn since I was a kid. I wasn't really around musical instruments that much but, you know, I was always around a pencil."
Before long, however, Ruscha decided to focus on the aural, as opposed to the visual, arts. He and guitarist Jim Putnam, another former Medicine member, put together Maids of Gravity, a combo whose moniker (according to Maids lore) came to Ruscha in a dream. The outfit's signing to the Vernon Yard imprint was accomplished with only a small expenditure of sweat--so little that, according to Ruscha, "We weren't really a band when our first record was made. I had this drummer [Craig "Irwin" Levitz] and I had Jim, and so I was like, 'Let's put this together.' But we had no touring experience. Really, we didn't have much experience at all."