"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."
For all that, Maids of Gravity, which hit stores in 1995, doesn't sound at all sketchy. Producer Matt Hyde, who's worked with both Jane's Addiction and Porno for Pyros, gave the threesome a sound that was equal parts alt-rock tumult and Sixties space pop, a la Spirit. "Only Dreaming," the album's single, and "20th Century Zen" are heavy groovers of an accessible sort, while "Introverted Skies," "A Sad One" and "Your Ground" sport loping tempos, gruff background cooing and random sprinklings of cacophony of which both Neil Young and Sonic Youth would approve.
Upon the completion of the disc, the Maids finally got acquainted with the road, thanks to stints opening for Bush and Matthew Sweet. But the lineup didn't stay firm for long. By the time Ruscha was ready to assemble another platter, Putnam had gone on to other things, so Ruscha invited guitarist Eugene Gorester and bassist Mark Fay to join him and Levitz in the studio under the supervision of producer John Cale. The sessions would be among the last times the quartet would be in this form: The Maids lineup now touring includes drummer Quazar, bassist Dean Opseth and guitarist Matt Londi. Ruscha swears that this latest turnover isn't an indication that he's an egomaniacal taskmaster. "I guess I pick people who have their own musical tastes and directions they want to go in." He laughs. "And after a while, that's what they decide to do."
For Ruscha, the experience of working with Cale, a founding member of the Velvet Underground whose past productions include memorable albums by the Stooges and the Modern Lovers, was both exciting and a bit nerve-racking. "I try to just view people as people and not get too much into the baggage they carry along with them," he says. "But he has an intimidating personality beyond just what he's done. He's...well, he's pretty hard, if you know what I mean."
Fortunately, Cale's firm hand proved beneficial during the whirlwind three-week period in which The First Second was recorded and mixed. "It was pretty funny," Ruscha says. "He would have us come in at noon and go until eight o'clock every day. And that was it--it was like punching a time clock. But in a way, I recommend it. When you go into the studio late, you get some strange ideas and stuff, which is good. It's so much more efficient when you don't stay up too late, though. Then you come in the next day really sharp and ready to go.
"But even though he had the discipline going, he also allowed for all the funky little things that I like to happen, too. He knew the songs, but he was definitely open to whatever feel we were throwing down that particular day. And then he'd coach us along. When he told us that the take was 'carnivorous,' that meant it was good."
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Actually, Second is not as carnivorous as that description might lead you to expect. While "Can't Lose," "In the Days" and "No Room" (spiced by the lines "I'm climbing up your tree/'Cause it's all green in your head/And there's a screen in your head/And there's no time to be dead") move along at a bruising pace, most of the other cuts revel in the tunefulness that lies just beneath Ruscha's arty exterior. "Don't You Disagree," "Light You Gave" and "Another One" are near-ballads Ruscha steers like a Buffalo Springfield. In fact, only "Golden Harm," a clamorous 45-second fragment of a song, and "It Don't Have to Be," which concludes in a blast of instrumental frenzy, truly head into the nether regions. While Ruscha may not like to hear it, there are half a dozen songs on Second that would sound perfectly fine on the radio.
But Ruscha has other goals. "I'm into psychedelic music," he declares. "Not like psychedelic slap-funk. I mean real psychedelic music--the whole psychedelic trip. That's one of the reasons I wanted to use a Mati Klarwein on the cover." (Klarwein, whose artwork adorns Miles Davis's Bitches Brew and Santana's Abraxas, painted "Exterminating Angel," which adorns Second, in 1968.) "To tell you the truth, I don't think I've gotten as psychedelic as I want to be. The next batch of stuff, which hopefully I'm going to be producing by myself, should have some really mind-bending effects."
If that doesn't strike you as a recipe for Top 40 supremacy, Ruscha doesn't mind. He's not interested in such matters. "I don't really pay any attention to that whole thing," he says. "I find all the kinds of stuff you're supposed to do to get where you're supposed to want to be kind of annoying--especially right now. Like, you're supposed to want to be in Rolling Stone, but if you compare the quality of an old Rolling Stone to new ones--well, you open up one now to any three random pages and I'll bet they'll be huge fashion ads." Chuckling, he allows, "I don't know anything about fashion. I just want to make music."
Red House Painters, with Maids of Gravity. 8 p.m. Friday, December 13, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $6, 830-2525 or 800-444-