“Music is my life,” Al Howard told me as we sat down after his shift at Ocean Beach’s Cow Records recently. “And there are certain people where that decision is already made for you. I feel like I’m one of them. I don’t think I’ll ever NOT have something to do with it.”
We first met back when Howard was fronting the spoken word/jazz collective K23 Orchestra and struck up a conversation about the tee-shirt I was wearing.
I saw the K23 play many times over the next few years and it came as no surprise to me that, when the ensemble decided to go their separate ways, Howard made his way back to the scene with roots-rockers the Heavy Guilt.
What was a surprise, however, was that the one-time frontman and songwriter was no longer behind the mic, but rather sitting in a chair and playing everything from homemade stomp boxes to saw blades and rope chains.
Now three years old, the Heavy Guilt not only count on Howard’s unorthodox percussion, but his lyrics as well -- despite the fact that he doesn’t sing any of his own words when they perform.
In Bernie Taupin-esque fashion, the 34-year-old musician decided to expand his proclivity for lyrical output with the Black Sands, a “Radiohead-meets-alt-country” project that will be hosting a CD release party at the Griffin on Friday night.
“I’ve been writing lyrics for the Guilt and wanted to really try that on,” Howard said. “You know, I really wanted to see if I could get my footing as a songwriter. I was listening to Jenny Lewis, Neko Case and a lot of Mazzy Star, and was thinking that I’d love to try a female-vocal project. I just needed a singer.”
Knowing plenty of musicians in town didn’t help, so Howard had to search things like Craigslist and his old contact lists in hopes of fulfilling his latest ambition.
It wasn’t until the Heavy Guilt played Winston’s with Heather and Johnny Janiga, a.k.a. husband/wife duo Podunk Nowhere, that lighting struck.
“I hadn’t listened to those guys in years,” remembered Howard. “But they stepped on stage that night, and after the first note Heather sang, it was obvious that I had found the singer for the group I’d been envisioning.”
After the set, Howard approached the pair. He asked Heather if she was interested, and he asked her husband for his blessing. He wanted to make sure they knew he wasn’t trying to steal her away, and that he wanted them both to be involved. They all met, hit it off, and the Black Sands were officially born.
“Luckily,” Howard laughed, “the lyrics worked for her. And Johnny is a great guitarist. Now we’re planning on playing on the regular.”
It’s at this point where I lost Howard for the rest of the interview. His phone started blowing up with texts like either his house was on fire or Thom Yorke had mentioned him on Facebook.
“As a lyricist, I feel like those songs are my children, and I’m allowing someone...to raise them....,” he tried.
“I’m...I’m really sorry about this,” he said while reading and quickly typing a response. “I got really lucky...with both Heather and [Heavy Guilt singer] Erik [Conzona].”
“And I...I really trust them...both. I’m actually hypercritical about my lyrics...and they sing them perfectly.”
“I’m really proud of it. I...ah....Oh, man. I’m sorry. I just have this crazy thing going on.”
Ding, ding, ding.
The crazy thing Howard has going on is a young woman he met recently in Canada. She’d been on a 10-day silent meditation in Mexico and her plane was delayed for the night in L.A. on its way back to Vancouver.
I could have pressed my friend to talk more about Friday night, when his new seven-piece will drop its debut CD. Or how they try to recreate the album thoroughly when they play it live. But I knew his head was already crossing the border into the Great White North.
“No sweat,” I said. “Do your thing.”
“This has just totally derailed my train of thought,” he laughed. “Problem is, I don’t have a car. I have a 15-passenger van that eats gas like an overweight person at a Vegas buffet.”
There were further dings, but the gist of it all really comes down to this: Don’t miss the Black Sands' CD-release party with the Heavy Guilt, the New Kinetics, and Dark Thirty at the Griffin this Friday. Someone who truly loves (and lives) music wants to share some of it with you.
And for those of you wondering if he did get in that gas guzzler and make a beeline for the City of Angels?
Of course he did.
In a torrential downpour.
He may love music and writing songs, but the inspiration has to come from somewhere.