Soul on Ice

Legendary sideman Moris Tepper fronts his own vision, with chilling results.

After moving to the beach, Tepper converted a garage into a recording studio. With the help of a friend, he launched a multimedia Web site called candlebone.com and made his records, videos and paintings available through cyberspace. "I knew I'd make music again. I didn't think for any other reason than my own," he says. "And that's exactly how that [second] record was made."

While relying on the building blocks of story-based folk songs, that album, Moth to Mouth, finds Tepper splashing colors and form around with immediacy rather than rumination. "I went to a Picasso sketchbook exhibit, and I was just floored by the sketchbooks -- and I've never been floored by his masterworks," Tepper says. "You really get his mind, his soul and his smell right there on the paper. Once you've got a masterwork, you've got something that's been edited with a lot of consciousness. When you just sketch, when you let the stuff through, you have a lack of that. I think the truth speaks through an artist when things are not conscious. This new record is far more the truth."

At an enormously varied 24 tracks, Moth offers a looser, rougher, weirder and more unique approach to songcraft than its predecessor. "Just whatever came out -- that was the song. Most of them are not only the first take, but they're being written on tape. There's an incredibly strong, concentrated stench of my soul, and mine alone. There are a couple of songs that will make your girl weep. There's a lot of humor. There's a lot of craziness. There's even a lot of evil."

Moris Tepper today
Moris Tepper today
Tepper (second from right) with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band in 1980.
Tepper (second from right) with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band in 1980.

In a John Wayne Gacy-inspired tune called "Skull Clown," Tepper describes "a Tuvan-throat-singer kind of thing happening," while "Buckets of Blood," a thick, dreary, mantra-infused number, "sounds like you went into a cave filled with monsters all speaking at the same time." "Frankenstein's Daughter" -- which borrows a theme from Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) -- combines a fat bass line (courtesy of ex-Screaming Siren Miiko) with a distended, one-string Chinese violin called an erhu; played over a driving hip-hop loop, the tune also features gurgling (via the wonders of fiberoptics) from Tepper's mentor and longtime friend.

"Beefheart was hearing me building the record. We talk every couple of days. The phone I'm talking to you on now, it'll get real noisy and snowy every time I walk into the studio from the house. Hear this sound?" he asks as the line turns to static. "When I switched to the other phone, he was going --" Tepper makes squelching sounds, imitating Beefheart's interpretation of wireless electricity -- "and he goes, 'Man, that's your intro, man! Lemme record that! Put me on the tape!' And I recorded him doing it, and sure enough... I thought I was never gonna use it, but as I put the record together and sequenced it, I stuck that in there, and it sounded really correct."

With the Captain's "blessing" preserved for the ages, Tepper mixed together "Frankenstein's Daughter," the tale of a stagecoach racing through a dark forest and crashing, and the subsequent struggle of a dazed woman trying to find her way to the beast's castle. "One verse says 'She walked in dripping in blood/She came down from the canyon/No one thought she would live again/And no one showed her compassion.' It was weird. I was singing the lead vocal, and that came out, and the hair stood up on my arm. I wasn't even aware of where it came from. Then later I realized there was a connection between it and 'Buckets of Blood,' which is about someone whose mate was killed in a car crash in a canyon. None of this is taking place in my life; it's all coincidental. But being open like this and not thinking about it can be very powerful in terms of the soul speaking. I think a lot of souls can be speaking when you're pretty open. And that is a wonderful, magical and scary experience to see those things lining up in these songs because of the method and process that I'm recording."

Using simple analog equipment throughout the album's production (and often recording in the dead of night, when there were fewer distractions), Tepper patchworked together the seemingly disparate sounds of tubas, banjos, pennywhistles, mandolins, bagpipes, bihuela guitars, synths, samplers and trash-can percussion into something that resists easy classification. "Another influence like the Picasso exhibit was Beck's early work," Tepper says, citing the cassette-only release Golden Feelings as well as Stereopathetic Soul Manure and, most specifically, One Foot in the Grave, a low-key folk-art effort Beck once described as "acoustic hardcore with cardboard boxes."

"That stuff really spoke to me about the process of not giving a shit about nothin' and having fun. I came from Beefheart -- very serious, very studied and worked over, pull-a-muscle-in-your-finger -- and here was this guy doing hundreds of songs all recorded on cassette that sounded shitty, which actually added to it for me. I remember in my youth hearing the sound of my four-track cassette and mourning the lack of good sound quality. And here I was hearing it, and I was really enjoying the actual rubber roller and the sound of plastic on the tape. The actual limitation in sound put out a tone of its own."

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