Maurice Tani is Friday's headliner at Freight & Salvage
May 1, 2014
By Tony DuShane
(NOTE: Space in newspapers is obviously limited. This is the full, unedited transcript of the interview.)
Over the years, Maurice Tani has performed in numerous bands - including Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra and Big Bang Beat. The San Francisco singer-songwriter's lyrics are compelling narratives accompanied by an upbeat Americana sound. His latest releases include "Blue Line" with 77 El Deora and "Two Stroke" with bassist Mike Anderson.
Was there a band you heard when you were young that inspired you to become a musician?
I'll give you two of my earliest influences.
My role model as a kid was an older teenager down the street who had a gold Fender Jaguar, a Super Reverb, drove his parent’s black 440ci ’65 Superstock Dodge Coronet and had a girlfriend that my young, hormone-soaked brain thought was the sexiest woman on Earth.
This guy had the whole package and he took me under his wing, teaching me to play rhythm while he practiced melody lines, and letting me tag along to rehearsals with his band. He also got me into places I was too young to go, turned me on to the cool music, taught me how to roll a joint, and how not to be a total moron with girls. He was my mentor for all the things one could never ask one’s parents or teachers about, and the guitar was at the center of it all. To this day, I still think everything he said was cool still is.
When I was in junior high my two best pals and I had our little rock band and would walk to Speedway Meadows to hear those early concerts in the park, which were still very casual affairs, attended in the hundreds, rather than hundreds of thousands. One afternoon the three of us were hanging around the back of the flat bed trucks that were used as the stage, waiting for the Dead to go on, when Jerry (Garcia) walked up to us and asked if we had any matches. Of course all boys of that age had matches on them back then and we quickly dug them out. Jerry offered us all a cigarette (Marlboro in the hard box -same brand we had, but we eagerly accepted his, as his were surely cooler).
Jerry chatted with us for a good 10 or 15 minutes as if we were peers. We talked mostly about gear while he noodled on his unplugged guitar. That was the moment I decided that smoking was cool. It took me a decade to realize it really isn't, but for my pals and me, that day, he was the coolest guy in the world and the Dead could do no wrong. I never really considered myself a true Deadhead, but largely because of that day, I followed them through their various phases and they introduced me to many different styles, perhaps the most important of which for me were country and bluegrass. Thanks Jerry
How does living in the Bay Area affect your music?
I don't just live here. I'm from here. While rooted in country music, my writing is centered on an urban West Coast perspective. Though much of my material is based on fictional characters and situations, I still write what I know. I'm not particularly comfortable with the rural/rustic imagery of tractors, "hills 'n hollers" or general agriculture common in much country music. What attracts me most about the genre is the story telling side. I was born and raised in San Francisco and I write about the things that hold my attention.
What's the most important aspect to putting on a live show?
For me, it's connecting with the audience. If I have done my part well -written engaging songs, performed them convincingly, and framed them on stage in a way that helps the audience to appreciate the nuance, I am often rewarded with these moments afterward where people will come up and tell me how they were touched in one way or another by something in the set. Something sad, funny -personal. That's the heavily addictive part that keeps pulling me back to a process that often seems to have more in common with beating my head on the wall.
Which of your lyrics best defines your band and why?
From "Out With The Old"
I see my burning bridges.
My hands burst into flame
I seek the cool, cool water
as my ship sails out of frame
Our bloody lips. Our bleeding hearts
-call out the ghosts by name
And check them off some master list
as my ship sails out of frame
Out with the old –In with the new
I press against the window so my skin can feel the view
Out with the old –In with the new
The song is about renewal or rebirth. I embrace my past and the art that influences me but I'm not particularly interested in retro or staying true to any path I have already walked. My goal is to keep moving forward and to keep myself interested.
If your band could collaborate on a song with any person, living or dead, who would that be? and why?
I think i understand the spirit of this question. I write about a wide variety of subjects but if there is a common thread, it is romance. So, given you parameters, I would choose Gomez and Morticia Addams, who, to this day, are still my role models for the ideal marriage. His all-consuming obsession with her, and her unconditional embrace of his excentricity exemplifies, in the extreme, the complicated relationship of lovers that I find so interesting. I think they would interesting to collaborate with. Btw: this is just for writing together. I suspect they could be problematic in a performance setting...
If a junior high school asked you to play a cover song at the next talent show, what song would you choose? And why?
These are some rather colorful questions, Tony.
I'd like to say it would be something sophisticated, hopeful and inspiring like James Taylor's "The Secret 'o Life", but honestly, it's probably more likely to be what I played at the talent show when I was still in jr. high: Rumble by Link Wray. Why? Because there is still a 14-year old kid in me that thinks he knows more about what is cool than the music teacher. Do they still teach music in school?
How would you describe your sound?
My personal taste is pretty broad and I have played a wide variety of styles professionally, so the songs and arrangements reflect that. All of that colors the sound of what I do now -both musically and lyrically.
Generally, I fall in the vague Americana/singer-songwriter category. The material is heavily lyric driven, framed with arrangements built on traditional instrumentation but embellished chord structures. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel, but rather to build the best wheel I can to take the listeners to my personal point of view. I think of it as cinema for the blind. Short musical narratives of life on the left coast.
What I do these days is the culmination of playing professionally most of my adult life. I moved to central Texas in my early 20s and worked the club scene between Austin and Dallas 5 sets a night, 6 and 7 nights a week. Then NYC in the gritty, early CBGB and Max's KC days. Back in SF, I worked 5 years with Flamin' Groovies lead singer Roy Loney's Phantom Movers on the Indie rock scene and then 15 years with the seminal SF party bands Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra and Big Bang Beat playing R&B. I left at the end of 1999 to return to original music and I've been working the California Americana scene for almost 15 years now.
How did the band come together?
I started 77 El Deora in the spring of 2004 as a vehicle for the "trailer park operettas" I was writing in a style dubbed "Hillbilly Noir" featuring vocalist Jenn Courtney. Since 2010, 77 El Deora has functioned as the name for my back up band as I have moved to working as a solo performer. I use a rotating cast of players chosen depending on the venue I'm playing and the types of instrumentation I'll be needing. I play in variable formats from solo and duo (usually with bassist Mike Anderson) up to large electric or acoustic ensembles. Clubs, for example, usually get a more electric line up than, say, listening rooms.
The show on May 2nd at Freight & Salvage will feature Mike Anderson on bass, pianist Randy Craig, long-time El Deoran Steve Kallai on violin, Ken Owen-on-Drums™. Featured female vocalist that night will be Pam Brandon sparring with me on the duets. Background vocals by the singers of Loretta Lynch: Val Esway, Heather Davison & Ari Fellows-Mannion, and we'll have a guest appearance by singer-songwriter Aireene Espiritu.
How did you come up with your band name and what does it mean to you?
The El Deora was a customized version of the Cadillac Eldorado in the '70s. It was the gaudiest, most over-the-top car you could buy, occupying a weird niche halfway between the gold-chain & leisure suit crowd and a production pimp-mobile. But what interests me are the people that would buy a car like this used. The wannabes that couldn't afford one new. Examples found today are typically trashed, and it's that final layer of patina that appeals to me. If I had one, it would likely be pouring smoke out the rear, -or up on blocks in the yard with weeds growing out the fender wells. A car like that speaks to fallen aspirations, shattered dreams and bad checks. That's my kind of country music.
What's your latest release release?
I released two albums simultaneously about 6 months ago. My fourth studio album, "Blue Line", and an album of acoustic duos and trios titled "Two Stroke" with long-time 77 El Deora bassist Mike Anderson and a cast of different third players and singers on each track.