Soul on Ice

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

If the man behind "Soul Suckin' Jerk" influenced Tepper, then so did a hundred or so dead black bluesmen who came well before him -- everyone from Son House to Mississippi John Hurt. Steeped in rootsy and nomadic gutbucket folk traditions, Tepper often accompanies his own raw noise and home-brew bottleneck with a rasping growl, hammering together songs of heartache and ruin ("Palm of His Hand") or spewing out gospel-flavored raveups ("Gorilla"). Lighter-sounding, cricket-accompanied fare such as "Milkweed Man" laments the laws that dictate the survival of the fittest: "It seems these days a man can't do what he wants to/Without shining his shoes on another one's face," Tepper sings. It might be enough (especially in the shadow of a lousy distribution deal) for Sir Moris to keep to himself and his garden, growing strawberries for the reptiles, strumming on the ol' six-string.

"I'm making music for nothing but to make my own dick hard," Tepper admits. "And if it doesn't make my dick hard, it doesn't go much further. I'm not gonna go out there and start making my set list sound like something that the record companies will like. We're just doing what gets us off. I've got an amazing band right now. It just sounds like a buffalo stampede! We make a lot of noise for three people." With bassist/keyboardist Dave Burk and drummer Scott Mathers, Tepper approaches live performances with much of the same openness and experimental zeal that he brings to recording sessions. One of the show's highlights, "Magic 8 Ball," for example, relies on the whimsy of a talking plastic novelty sphere -- one that answers Tepper's pointed queries with vague answers like "It is too soon to tell" or "You must be joking!"

When he's not opening for the likes of PJ Harvey ("She responded to this record [Moth] and came to see the band and loved it," Tepper says), the busy musician might otherwise find himself doing session work or touring with people for whom he feels an affinity: Robyn Hitchcock or Frank Black (which technically makes him an Egyptian Catholic) or Robert Williams (Date With the Devil's Daughter, Buy My Record). He has produced Canadian artist Wyckham Porteus (In This World) and even composed television and soundtrack work for UPN's Mouse and the Monster and Fox's Bakersfield P.D., among others.

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.

But trying to coax Tepper away from the easel -- especially during those long, balmy SoCal winters when he really comes alive -- might result in listening to a telephone ring and ring. As committed to painting as he is to music, Tepper's modern primitive renderings fall somewhere between the works of Kenneth Patchen and William Blake and whatever soul is left in that "plumeless genus of bipeds" that Plato talked about -- a "Water Husband" leading the "Bride of Mankind" back into "The Angel's Womb" or the "Den of Cerberus," to name but a few titles. "You don't try to bend it, make it human, make it ordered and make it fit into the gallery standards or the money standards," Tepper says. "You allow it to be what it is."

Maybe this belief harks back to a revelatory experience that Tepper had at the age of thirteen, when he lassoed a lizard with a blade of grass: "I think I realized that I was capturing nature instead of letting it free," he says. "And in my painting -- which is my music, which is my painting, which is my life, which is my relationships, which is everything-- I realize that you destroy everything you capture."

Maybe the opposite is also true: Even in the world's most perfect petting zoo, St. Francis would likely be torn apart by angry baboons.

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