Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Oakland Singer-Songwriter Joe Rut Battles Fire, Flood, and Tar Dust

By Kathleen Richards
Tue, Apr 27, 2010 at 1:14 PM

Joe Rut has a finesse for finding humor in life’s inane moments. It’s a useful skill considering that the Oakland singer-songwriter has faced a maddening amount of roadblocks just trying to produce one album.

It started in 1995. Rut was set to record in a studio he had built in a garage. Then his landlord burned the place down while he was out of town. Next, a converted laundry room he was living in flooded. Rut spent months converting a garage in Berkeley into a studio, only to find out during the rainy season that the roof was “Swiss cheese.” The landlord decided to fix the roof over his storage area by tearing it off while all his stuff was still in it, covering his belongings with tar dust.

Rut built a studio space in an industrial building, but had to move out because he ran out of money. He booked studio time with two other musicians, but the sessions had to be postponed because of back injuries. They were eventually committed to tape but sat on a shelf for a year as Rut went about building another recording studio in an Oakland warehouse. After it was finished, his new landlord replaced the roof without telling his tenants, leaving Rut’s recording gear once again covered with about an inch of gravel, dirt, and tar dust. The songwriter salvaged some of his tapes and moved out while the warehouse was decontaminated. Meanwhile, he recorded new tracks at another studio with a backing band. But his recording engineer had his car stolen — and Rut’s hard drive was in the backseat. Of course, there was no backup.

Joe Rut has a sense of humor.
  • Joe Rut has a sense of humor.

Joe Rut performing "Barbie Feet" at the Freight & Salvage:

At this point, some musicians might give up. Jump off a bridge. Go postal. But Rut stubbornly persevered. Essentially, he had to start from scratch. And by some miraculous set of circumstances, he eventually produced the album that he’s always wanted. It’s called Injured While Faking Own Death.

As the title indicates, Rut acknowledges that life has been known to mock him. But, he says, it’s made him better. “In some ways it kind of turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I look back at the songs I wanted to work on back then, and I’m glad I didn’t waste the time doing those tunes,” said Rut, sitting outside Cole Coffee in Oakland on a recent Wednesday afternoon. “It’s allowed me to get a lot better as a songwriter and have a better vision of what I want to accomplish.”

Rut notes that it’s also forced him to laugh at his misfortune. The lyrics on Injured are abruptly hilarious — not in that self-consciously-funny way, but in that bluntly-honest, no-filter-from-brain-to-mouth kind of way. Take opener “Control Freak,” which starts out with earnest acoustic-guitar strumming and Rut’s quavering voice. One might expect some sort of profession of love, but it turns out to be an unfettered admission of hostility against everyday injustices:

I think bad things/when the Volvo driver breaks for the green light/’cause it might turn yellow
I think bad things/Cafe Royal/I’m just trying to read my paper/you’re fighting on your cell phone
I think bad things/In the checkout line/You’ve got eighteen items/and the limit’s nine
I think bad things/At the Versateller/You’re endorsing fifty checks/I just want twenty dollars
I think bad things/At the Wash N Fold/You take up seven dryers/And then leave for three hours

“Everything that seems horrible to me now, I can take a step back and go, wow, you’re taking this way too seriously,” said Rut. “A certain amount of hardship just kinda makes me go, oh, this sucks. If there’s a bunch more hardship, that actually makes me feel better, because perhaps it confirms my worldview. And so then you can just start to laugh and go, see I was right, it’s nonstop hardship.” Relatively speaking, of course. He acknowledges that he’s “not a poster child for oh woe is me.”

Comedy in music can become shticky, but Rut’s wry humor never approaches that, even when he’s admitting his foot fetish on “Barbie Feet” or poking fun at a strung-out hippie chick on “Dosey Doe.” And on songs that address serious subjects, such as the country-tinged “Perfect Skin,” in which Rut pleads for “perfect skin to keep my insides in,” the songwriter can’t help but throw in an absurd reference from left field. In this case, he hopes for skin that takes in oxygen, directly from the water, just like Kevin Costner, in the worst movie ever.

Rut, who grew up along I-5, says this is partially the result of his songwriting process. About half of his songs he’s worked on for years; the other half are the result of lightning-fast songwriting that he does as part of the Immersion Composition Society, in which musicians aim to write as many songs as possible in one day. “Often it’s those ones that can come super quickly like that that are the best ones because you get out of your own way, you don’t edit yourself to the point of ridiculousness,” he said. “I think we often want to make ourselves look cooler or better than we are, and in the editing process we go, oh, I can’t say that, that’s kinda dorky. But when things just vomit forth, it kinda paints the real you a little more sometimes.”

But lyrics are just half of Rut’s charms. He’s also a prolific songwriter, self-taught multi-instrumentalist, and composer. Amazingly, Rut says he often hears whole composed songs — lyrics, melodies, parts for guitar, bass, drums, organ, fiddle, pedal-steel, a choir — while in the shower, walking down the street, or driving. He admits this is a gift, but also somewhat of a curse (see “Control Freak”).

Luckily, Rut can play most of the parts. Of the twelve songs on Injured, about four were done with a drummer and bassist, who wrote their own parts. Rut played almost all of the other instruments, including drums, bass, guitar, organ, lap steel, and harmony vocals.

Because Rut has such a definitive idea of what his songs should sound like, collaborating with other musicians can be difficult. But he’s recruited a “dream lineup” to help him put on a show at the Great American Music Hall on April 30. Musicians will include drummer John Hanes (Pearl Harbor and the Explosions), bassist Dave Jess (Mondo Combo, the Mermen, the Shi-Tones), Joe Goldmark on pedal-steel guitar, Jason Kleinberg on fiddle, Val Esway and Heather Davidson (Loretta Lynch) on harmony vocals, Danny Allen on guitar, Steve Lucky (Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums) on Hammond B3 and piano, and other guests. Rut says it’s the biggest show he’s ever played, with the largest group of musicians (he usually plays solo acoustic at venues like the Starry Plough). He scored the gig after two months and about fifty emails with the booker, who had no idea who he was. Rut’s confident that his small but rabid fan base (his friends) will show up, including a strong Burning Man contingent. He’s doubtful that such a lineup will ever be recreated again.

As for his plans after the show, Rut says he’s thinking of packing up, buying a van, and hitting the road to play shows up and down the West Coast. Maintaining a van might be just as expensive as renting, he figures. But at least there won’t be any landlords.

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