Soul on Ice

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

With an almost cheerful inability to differentiate between the ridiculous and the sublime, Moris Tepper somehow remains as focused as a bird of prey. At times his mind rests assuredly in a few of life's less popular givens: Don't trust anyone who burns incense; evil comes from the "big brain"; Mother Nature is a bitch gone crazy. Then, without warning, he gets as serious as a triple bypass.

"I do note that lions torture other lions," he says. "And I note that dolphins rape other dolphins. I don't delve too far into this, because I don't think it's useful. But the animal world is very brutal. I don't think it spends a lot of time trying to hide that fact. And I think that man tries to constantly run from his truth. Man's nature is pretty twisted and inverted, pretty cancerous. That this particular species seems to be toxic to everything around it is my humans-get-me blues."

Somewhere between animal, vegetable and mineral, Tepper's affinities lie outside his own kind: Give him the beasts of the field, the monsters of the sea, the winged creatures and the crawling things. By surrounding himself with a decidedly non-Homo-sapiens menagerie in his Mar Vista, California, home -- where he lives with a cat named Rooster, two tortoises and a parrot -- the unmarried musician/painter seems unusually content communing with his shirt-tail relatives from the wild kingdom. "I wish I had more," he says. "I never had much in the way of parents. A firefly and a seahorse taught me most of what I needed to know."

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.

Then along came a guy named Captain Beefheart to throw a wrench into Tepper's continuing education -- anointing him, fresh out of high school, as an honorary member of the Magic Band, Phase II. As the Captain's ace guitarist from 1976 to 1982 (the year the ever-prolific Beefheart stopped issuing albums in order to concentrate on painting), Jeff Moris Tepper, as he credited himself then, contributed to 1978's Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), 1980's Doc at the Radar Station and 1982's Ice Cream for Crow.

"I was in art school and painting when I met Don [Van Vliet]," he says. "He once had a poem called 'Seaweed Beardfoam Bonetree,' and I showed him a painting I did when I was about fifteen called 'Bonetree.' It was like skeleton bones making up a tree. He was flabbergasted at the parallel of our work -- from the time I was a child and the time he was a child. Although the parallel of our work only goes so far, he was a visionary genius at a very young age. And it took a lot of visionary geniuses like himself to help me begin to form my own vision."

As the group's longest-lasting member, Tepper brought something the Captain dubbed "nerve guitar" (both slide and electric) to a raucous and structurally contorted style of blues jamming. Peppered with all manner of lyrical wordplay, that late period of Beefheart's work concerned itself with everything from hypersensitive totem poles to vampire/monkey sexcapades. Beefheart -- whom Tepper describes as "childlike but intimidating" -- spoke a musical language that was at once cryptic and scholarly. In addition to demanding that his young apprentice adhere to endlessly rigid compositional frameworks (half notes, semi-quavers, the whole do-re-mi), the Cap was just as likely to instruct him to play a piece "like a smoky yellow room" or like "a bat being dragged out of oil, dying of asphyxiation."

Tepper's time with Beefheart provided the rare kind of experience that would prove useful in 1987, when Tepper recorded and toured with Tom Waits, helping to bring a stage rendition of Waits's Frank's Wild Years to Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

"I think there are a lot of similarities between Waits and Beefheart and my first record," Tepper says of Big Enough to Disappear, his solo debut from 1996. "Bob Dylan is another major source of inspiration in my life. There's different areas where my influences, my favorite forefathers, live."

Issued on U.K. imprint Proper Records, Big Enough draws from conventional, heartfelt American balladry ("Bankshot," "Beside Me Once Again") as well as plenty of rum-soaked nautical themes ("Then We Sail," "Man Overboard"). Tepper's vocals sound tubercular and semi-Waitsian one minute -- like he gargles with turpentine and sand -- then warm and playful the next: a bogeyman shaking bags of leaves on little kids. The album was more structurally focused than his previous studio efforts with a trio called Eggtooth, which released Sundownerin 1994 and expanded into a ten-piece during live performances. Eggtooth featured what Tepper catalogues as "hurdy-gurdies, marimbas, a weird horn section, two drummers -- one on metal chairs" (plus women dressed as sunflowers!). The circus-flavored Big Enough, meanwhile, met with disaster. "I had a record company that sold 7,000 records, and I didn't get paid on any of them," Tepper says. "Because first their distributor [Indie] went bankrupt and wouldn't pay me for anything that they'd sold. And second, because my computer at home was stolen. I stupidly, at that point, had no backups, and it was my entire record company: all the contacts, all the records -- everything. I just stopped."

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."

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."

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.

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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