Firewater: You Give Them $12, They'll Give You the World
It’s been a hectic coupla years for Firewater’s Tod A. First life in George W. Bush’s Amerikkka nearly drove him insane (hey, we understand completely). Unlike so many bitchy lefties who threatened to flee the country after the '04 election, however, Tod followed through on his promise and spent much of the past few years seeking sanity and/or satori in Southeast Asia, India, and the Middle East — see the related feature story here. In-between the hellish heatwaves, beautiful monsoons, and bars with midget bouncers, he even found the time to write and record an excellent new Firewater record, The Golden Hour. We caught up with Tod, who’s currently on tour with the band, and pestered him for some extra details; read the answers after the jump.
So where are you pitching the tents of “Camp A” these days? Last I heard you were in Bali. Any plans to return to the USA on a permanent or semi-permanent basis (and if so, why the hell would you want to)?
Technically speaking I’m still on the move, but Bali is a pretty nice place to hang your hat for awhile. My girlfriend and I rented a little grass-roofed cottage next to a temple, not far from the beach. I’m a sucker for sunsets. There is a small garden with a stream running through it. The garden has lizards, stray dogs, cats, birds, bats, and butterflies and other bugs. We go to sleep to the sounds of the local gamelan band rehearsing at the temple. I’m in no rush to get back any time soon.
Approximately how many miles would you estimate you slogged across Asia and the Middle East (not counting occasional jaunts back to NYC)?
Hmmm, maybe 30,000. Just a rough estimate.
Since you obviously recorded a fair amount of the instrumental backing tracks overseas, how did you find musicians for the current touring band? I assume there were some logistical problems in building this latest version of the Firewater Frankenstein beast.
I had originally hoped to bring some of the cool players from India and Pakistan over to tour, but it rapidly proved to be a logistical nightmare. I thought about doing it with loops, but would have hated to be so dependent on computers in a live situation. Thankfully, through the magic of the internet, I was able to track down one of our secret weapons, Johnny Kalsi. Johnny is a multi-instrumental percussionist who has played with Asian Dub Foundation, Transglobal Underground, and Afro Celt Sound System, as well as his own band Dhol Foundation. He’s a one-man rhythm extravaganza.
Between Thai tearjerker karaoke bars, ashamed & secretive Indian tipplers, socialist Israeli kibbutz-dwellers, and so on, in what overseas socio-alcoholic environment did you feel most comfortable as a former Loisaida barfly?
I am, as you have correctly identified me, an alcohol enthusiast. But I’ve never been such a huge fan of the bar. Bars in most parts of India are, as you said, full of furtive men hunkered down with their whiskeys; but more importantly they are sorely lacking in women. Thai bars tend to feature only a certain type of woman, plus power ballads played at top volume. Kibbutz bars are full of soldiers and jaded idealists. Indonesian bars are either swimming with drunken businessmen or bleary-eyed expats looking for trouble. Unless I was unusually starved for companionship I usually found myself retiring to my hotel with a six-pack or two where I could listen to my music and write in peace.
The title The Golden Hour reminds me of this passage from one of your Thailand travel blogs: “The air begins to cool at this time of day, and the roof of my building is one of my favorite places from which to witness the dawn of the night. As the cruel afternoon heat dissipates along with the sun, my brain slowly returns to life following the inevitable siesta, and the creative juices begin to flow again. From atop my building I can watch the whole city start to come alive after the stultifying temperatures of the afternoon....” Besides the long-awaited temperature drop, what about this transitional period inspired you the most? NYC summers are humid and beastly, too, yet something about these overseas “golden hours” seems to have struck you more intensely.
I’m a big sunset fan. And the sunsets in that part of the world are spectacular affairs, especially as the monsoon builds. Imagine massive black clouds that loom up from the horizon and extend thousands of feet into the sky, bathed in a gory mix of reds, oranges, and purples. Then picture this reflected in the river, as the longtail boats cut through. Then throw in huge clouds of bats and swallows darting after insects in the first cooling breeze after a long, hot day. Pop the cap on an ice-cold Beer Chang, and you may begin to understand my fondness for those moments. It was when my work day (teaching) ended, my brain came back to life, and I would begin to feel inspired to write.
You’ve always lyrically identified with the short-straw guy, the person who gets dealt the cosmically unfair hand and has to play the game according to someone else’s rules. Yet you and I are both American-born white males, i.e., among the planet’s lucky elite. Has direct interaction with Third World poverty caused you to re-evaluate your identification with the perpetually screwed and downtrodden? Or did it reinforce the idea that the so-called “untouchables” are closer to sainthood than the so-called “elites”?
You’re right. On average, white guys have it pretty good the world over. It was nice being the minority in places where mighty whitey did not rule. I’ve always been interested in the stories of ordinary people - their struggles, triumphs and failures. In my life, it’s generally been the underdog that I’ve had the opportunity to meet, so their stories have most inspired my writing. Sure, witnessing poverty on the scale of India or Pakistan certainly puts one’s own meager problems into perspective. But the most amazing thing for me was the resilience and humor of people in the face of what most westerners would consider absolute hopelessness. That was the most inspiring thing of all for me about that part of the world.
Finally, once this round of Firewater has been duly consumed by audiences, what next?
There’s a new album worth of songs written and awaiting realization. I really enjoyed the process of making the last record, so I think I may do a similar thing for the next one – but passing through different places. I never completed my last overland trip, so if it looks reasonably safe, I’d like to start in Kabul and head west to Istanbul. A guy wants to come along and document it. If I can catch a few uninterrupted months in Bali, I hope to finish my book. I’m about halfway there.
Firewater plays this Friday at the Bottom of the Hill, with Microfiche and The Audiophiles opening; show starts at 10 p.m., costs $12, and is all ages. Visit www.bottomofthehill.com for more info.
— John Graham