Atheist – Topanga

“I was nostalgic at 17, and now I’m making this so someone will remember me”


If you all are still looking for a summer anthem with the hot-off-the-cuff feeling of, say, the first Clash or Beastie Boys album, and you haven’t picked up Topanga from my man Atheist, do yourself a favor and get that shit. I knew this MC in high school; a chubby, fro-haired, dimpled back-yard wrestler that could’ve been the biggest dork in school had his brain and attitude not been bigger than any dick in the whole county. This guy was super nice, earnest, funny and totally no-bullshit. He was the only reason you liked those WWF guys (sorry Taylor and Brad <3) and when he would kick reality, even if he pissed you off (only because you were a bratty teenager), you were down with him. This guy was way too authentic to be a Mormon, which he just happened to think he was at the time.

I’ve been listening to Topanga about twice a day in my perpetual San Francisco-driving job, and this record brought home once and for all what my musical life is about. Atheist effortlessly releases rhymes from his neck flowing from his intuition, loves and basic desired outcomes of life, which he singularly calls “Topanga.” His rhymes about friends from elementary school, being surrounded by people you’d want to be like and having to leave the homeland for greater things are so real and not at all bitter-sweet. Half or more of the songs are about real life and partying, and it’s not a drag and there is nothing mundane about it. The other half of the songs are funny and poignant observations/jokes about hip hop culture not from the street and its bragging and mad-dogging, but from a lover for whom hip hop is home in the true sense of the word. I have never in my life wanted to go to Salt Lake Shitty for anything, but as Atheist puts it, the place to be is taking shots with [him]. If we could get Slick Rick out to SLC to party and barbecue for a month while making a record with Atheist, it would be bigger than Random Access Memories.

 It makes sense that this dude was into stand-up comedy before adding rhythm. His flow, like his beats and lyrics, are chill, steady and fun. His stanzas have a punch line in the cadence that get laughs every time. There is nothing sloppy or undernourished about this music. I would get up in front of any crowd and deliver these rhymes and probably feel more confident and positive than when I woke up that day. There is a minimum of poetic or intellectual digression in his rhymes that would let the smile sag from your face at a show. I would go see this guy every time I could and go crazy while the normies hid their embarrassment. His resonance and phrasing are fluid, consistent and warm. This is the kind of hip hop classic that you could play right next to “No One Can Do It Better” from the D.O.C.

Topanga is a talisman of OUR culture. Not corporate media culture and its sex-sells, guys-like-guns-and explosions bullshit. Our generation would have languished in the inner city squalor and suburban isolation were it not for the punk rock and hip hop that told us what was really going on and gave us a right to be exactly what we are despite the inorganic grid in which we grew up. In fifty years when they play this record in music class, it will be to show people how hip hop brought music back to the people from the clutches of industry. Hip hop was pop art: mass-produced, readily available products broken back down into raw artist’s medium and material. In this case, rather than Campbell’s soup cans serving as a sponge for our sponge paintings, we have a schema for the innocence that we kept safe and took with us hidden in a word that people everywhere remember from mass media: Topanga.


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Freedom of Choice

The most intense period of song writing for me, which eventually coalesced into Bedtime, was from about age 18 until about 24. At this time, I lived in a tiny, beautiful pastoral region of California called Santa Cruz County. I saw myself always as a worthy rock musician and recording artist, someone who’s job it was to make records into which people could lose themselves and find pieces of themselves they could not choose to look for. I wrote music to deal with my issues, because I wasn’t about to talk to anyone, and if anyone found out that I was different, I would surely fall off the face of the earth, or whatever outcome was the worst possible. Music was essential, I could not cope with things without it. It was safe, predictable, it filled my needs and it was private, and it was mine.

I also thought it was my job to go on tour, play shows, be on TV, do the whole 20th century mass-media rock thing. But my introverted master kept me from taking the necessary steps toward large populations, being out every night and making a spectacle and a product of myself. I needed my quiet, foggy little Mexican landscape, my room, my steady job that provided for my habits and my sanity. l gave myself a lot of shit for not being Keith Richards: a famous, influential, touring, professional, drug-hungry sex machine. I thought everybody else was like that, or at least all women. It’s always what I wanted most that I thought I could never have, that was the hardest thing to just have.

Chronic anxiety, depression, self-medication, and the persistent thought of “what the fuck am I going to do” pervaded every corner of my Mexican landscape. I didn’t enjoy anything because I just couldn’t accept the reality of my situation. I wanted out. But I look back on all of that fondly and know that I always was doing the right thing, because God and Jesus and Allah damn it, my choices and habits and neuroses quite simply kept me alive.

We lost a hell of a lot when we grew the frontal cortex. Look at how happy dogs and cats and simians are: content with safety, any old thing to eat, water, shelter from physical harm. Don’t they all usually look so homeostatic and robust? Their batteries are at the fullest possible charge at all time. They don’t have the nervous system components that drive something to starve itself, harm itself, or sabotage itself in order to survive. How in the fuck would that work, anyway?

Well, humans are great at it. Notice how, as technology, opportunity and society advance, the more diseases of the human body and mind proliferate. Why is it that with all the choices out there, all the people to see and talk to and all the ways to get food, shelter, predictability and purpose, that people are more and more stricken with anxiety, depression, lack of attention and physical/mental malaise? Choice is a killer. The frontal cortex is new and we are not at all in touch with how to make it work for us.

Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) that humans are not yet able to make technology work for them rather than the opposite. The frontal cortex is at the very root of technology, and a million or so years has not been enough for us to master this incredibly powerful and truly magical tool. I don’t doubt that the frontal cortex can move mountains or do other kinds of Darth Vader shit. Your hind brain is HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF YEARS OLD. It has kept you from being destroyed since you were the ancestral grandfather of the first ever invertibrate. It will never, ever, EVER let you down, tell you you are wrong, or permit you to be destroyed. It is fail-safe. And yet this young punk frontal cortex can screw it up and make you think you have to destroy yourself to survive. Just like that. What the fuck!

There came a point when we apes figured out we could kill lions and bears and huge megafauna that previously were not possibly threatened by us with stones and big bones and clubs and sharp things. Slowly we came down from the trees where the big bad dudes hunted, unafraid of their huge carnivorous teeth. How do those teeth like a stone launched with a sling? Ouch! And so we had access to all the complete protein eastern Africa could provide. Before long, in geological time (remember, if the history of the planet were a clock starting at noon and ending at midnight 2013, hominids came about sometime after 11:59pm), we had our basic needs fulfilled consistently enough that we could begin to choose. That’s when the pärk went to shit, Bärb. We got big, strong, and smart. Our basic needs, food, water, shelter, predictability and later purpose, were met well enough that we figured out that perhaps instead of eating shitty McDonalds off the forest floor, we could do some pushups, scrape a stone for a bit and get that hippo that thinks it’s king. Who’s king now, Hippoburger?

And now the women wanted men with big muscles and big brains who knew not eat the yellow snow and who could get protein from animals, cause that’s what’s up. Now we want warmer shelter because being cold really burns the carbs and that’s just a waste. If you wanted to get a bigger brain, more kids, longer life, you had to get your shit together. No more McDonalds off the floor because it’s there.

In 2002 I knew that I was great at language, music, literacy, analytical artistic thought and empathy, although nobody knew because I thought I had to act like a bigger ape than I was or I would be destroyed. I didn’t want to make all these choices about college or jobs or apartments. I had food, water, shelter, a scattered and incongruous family, predictability in that I knew what I would do with my day, and a purpose: to one day, when I was a big enough ape, be a hero to everyone as someone who delivers their mastery of their own life to the world through music.

As I got older, the nagging question of “what the fuck am I going to do” got so distracting that I had to get stoned and drunk just to cope with the anxiety and depression. How in the hell was I going to get ahead in this world? There was not a demand for my music because there was not a sufficient musical climate in my area because there was not much variety because everyone did the same things because they had very few choices because the cost of survival was too high. I still didn’t want to choose a job from the jobs available, nor did I want to pursue a career from the careers in demand. And I began to shrink. My frontal cortex could not confidently make the decisions and it told my infallible hind brain that something was wrong and I was in danger until I figured it out.

I watch all of the people I truly love and all of the fakes go through this every day. The introverts that I attract to myself fail to get a grip on their anxiety every day of their lives. I see billboards for ADHD treatment and I imagine what it must be like for that perfect child’s brain going berzerk trying to do what it was made to do while everyone tells them that their choice isn’t going to work within the program. I watch the fakes dress like they have never looked at an old fashion ad and gone “damn they looked stupid back then!” They don’t know what else to do. They are terrified of their only selves not fitting into the prescribed plan of life that does not concede to the demands of their gifts. They will pantomime any era of fashion, popular music or social attitude to prove to the world that they are alive.

We’ve all been through it, even the wealthy people and people like Zach whose upbringings were perfect and nurturing. And instead of looking back at your life and damning yourself for not doing better, give yourself some fucking credit, because all of your neuroses, all of your PTSD, OCD, depression and anger KEPT YOU ALIVE. And now that we know that, take a deep breath and realize that we don’t have to do that anymore. We are in control. If we spent enough time teaching our frontal cortex and our hormonal/muscular brain to work in concert, we can finally let the fridge open itself and let the beer float over to our hand.

When you hear about the garden of eden and the fruit of knowledge that brought on all pain, realize what we sacrificed to have this choice organ. Nothing’s good enough anymore! And it used to be all good!. What the fuck kind of promotion is that? Christians, Jews and Muslims, bless them, all come from around the red sea and Mediterranean, just a few hundred miles north of where it all began. And they all will tell you that your problems, undeniable desires and neuroses are SINS and it’s all your fault because life is evil and pain and iniquity, and if you cripple your frontal cortex and the rest of your nervous system and body enough, you’ll be a lot less able to fuck up with strong, convinced purpose, and when you die, something worse than more pain and death won’t be waiting for you. Fuck that. If I drink and do drugs and worry about every note of my music and every nuance of my term papers and every heartbeat of my love life, it’s because MY BRAIN MADE ME DO ALL THAT TO KEEP ME ALIVE. So instead of blaming me, and yourself, for being cärnatic, let’s all drink and screw and blow it to the fact that we are developing our frontal cortex. I’m in control here. I’m going to be very careful how I talk to my lizard brain, because that dude is all-powerful and it doesn’t forget anything. It hasn’t forgotten the feeling of my emotions floating easily from the keyboard drums and the low droning strings sound. It hasn’t forgotten how ready I was at any time to make someone else feel better. And it won’t ever let me down. ::::Fridge::: :::beer::: :::body::: (GULP) :::Aaaahhhh:::

Denney Joints Musical Chronology

1984 – born in Auburn CA with a blue Casio PT1 in my handpt1

1988 – saw Will Vinton’s “Meet the Raisins”raisins

1994 – started writing songs on paper in strophic pop form. got Woodstock 94 on VHS

1995 – got my first MN-series Stratocasterred strat

1996 – saw Smashing Pumpkins in San Jose CA

1997 – on new year’s eve, heard “Show” from the Cure on tape

1998 – started amassing huge folder of guitar tableture from the internet, playing every day.

1999 – downloaded “Tanz Debil” from Einstürzende Neubauten off of Napster. got Black Celebration from Depeche Mode on vinyl for $1 in Santa Cruz

2001 – made first discreet tape recordings as the Fagits, Violent Profanity. played first show as Violent Profanity in Elkhorn (Castroville) CAVPLIVE!!!

2002 – played first show at Anzar High School as Bauhaus/Joy Division-esque The Doldrums. Played First show as Crass/Peni-esque The Blackouts in Prunedale, CA. Recorded and self-released Dying with The Blackouts.DoldrumsbwBO

2004 – recorded and self-released Huckapino as Happy Meal with Aaron Emmert of Mammatus, made first public TV appearance in Santa Cruz, CAhuckthumb

2005 – recorded and self-released Matarte with Happy Meal

2007 – began attending classical solo voice class at Cabrillo College with Michele Rivard. recorded and self-released You’re All Dead with Happy Meal, Slowdance as Denney Joints. Heard Selda (1976)

2008 – metriculated into Cabrillo College music program, joined Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus with Cheryl Anderson. Sung Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Handel’s Messiah with CS Chorus and Santa Cruz Symphony. First west-coast tour with Dead Daughter

2009 – Second tour with Dead Daughter. Sung Haydn’s Creation, Ariel Ramirez’s Missa Criolla. First shows with Midnite Snack, recorded and self-released Soup Samwich with Nick Overhauser and Midnite Snack. Received AA degree with emphasis in music

2010 – Recorded Bedtime with Nick Overhauser, played first show with short-lived Butt Club in Los Angeles, CA. Sung Orff’s Carmina Burana and Bach’s B Minor Mass. Last winter program with Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, including Paulenc’s Gloria

2011 – Self-released Bedtime, dissolved Midnite Snack, moved to San Francisco CA to study art at SFSU. Took Dean Suzuki’s American Iconoclasts course, took in-depth study of Edgard Varese. Also studied Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Played first show with Sweat Dreams in Oakland

2012 – Played first solo acoustic show in San Francisco CA. Recorded On Repeat in Oakland, CA. Played last show with Sweat Dreams in Oakland.

2013 – Self-released On Repeat. Recorded Despechado y Deslechado with Nick Overhauser in Los Angeles, CA. Played first show as Denney and the Angels in San Francisco CA at SFSU senior art exhibition.

Music Vs. Sound. The conflict between psychos and acoustics

Music, once and for all, is organized sound. If a sound is organized by humans, animals or human-made machines/electronics, it is music. The sound of a fan that comes on when a thermostat drops below a certain temperature is sound. A fan that comes on when a thermostat drops below a certain temperature in a manner organized by a human for the purpose of sound production is music.

In a room full of voices, a human will find its mother’s voice. The songs of birds, which to us are indistinguishable, are as semantically meaningful to them as written and spoken language is to us. Music breathes in and breathes out. It has phrases: a sound with a beginning and an end. A pump that produces one tone while pumping is not music. If a person operates the pump discreetly with rhythm and phrase, that is also music.

And so, as we have harnessed music from acoustics starting with the heartbeat, out of our larynx, stamping our feet on the ground, we turn acoustics into music in our minds. It fits a gestalt of our expectations and our learned skills and experience. Music is a form of communication. Sound communicates the idiosyncrasies of its vibration in an autonomous manner. It is nearly impossible for animate creatures to make music accidentally, excluding their will to act.

Audio technology has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 300 years. The Cristofori Fortepiano added great dynamics and touch response to the keyboard, an instrument with a greater range, polyphonic capacity and tuning complexity than any other instrument. Suddenly piano music was the most expressive of all art forms. As the science of temperment, the scope of harmonic and melodic function and the nuance of articulation has expanded, the standards of quality in music have been continuously redefined.

In the late 19th century Edison patented the first recorded media and phonographs. Since then, music has reached an unprecedented number of listeners on personal playback devices. With the evolution of audio technology now comes new methods of recording, processing and voicing music. Most Americans born after the second world war have listened to recorded music in their lives more than live music by a drastic margin. The most basic fact of musical organization and tonality is that the human ear comes to expect what occurs the most frequently. As audio technicians strive to perfect sound, the sense of musicality is both augmented and diminished.

Psychoacoustics is the the way the brain interprets musical sound. For any note, a harmony of a fifth strengthens that note. A major or minor third between the tonic and fifth completes the overtone series and establishes a consonant, settled feeling in the ear. One note or chord could sustain for any period of time and the ear would get used to it, but once anything changes, it changes relative to the established sounds. To raise the third to a fourth and the fifth to a sixth degree above the tonic causes the “four chord”, which demands resolution downward toward the third and fifth, like gravity, like falling into rest. AAAA-men. To drop the tonic down one step (a minor second, the greatest dissonance [beating]) and the third down a major second to the second degree from the tonic makes the dominant (five chord), which want to resolve upwards to the tonic harmony. These musical expectations serve as the most simple place markers in western music. But now we have the expectations of sound quality, mix definition and commercial/social appeal.

When producing records, the equipment at hand defines the sound. The music on the other hand, is ephemeral, with the instruments and technology in its service. It can be hard in this day and age with such technical capability to find the happy medium between perfect sound and rich musical experience. Its no wonder pop music is simple, instrumentally basic, fully electronic and sensational. The sounds used in pop music are so pure that great articulation is inconvenient. To make the articulation of sounds in pop music more subtle would complicate the whole piece, demanding greater attention the meter, duration of notes, pitch registers, etc. This is why orchestras need a conductor. This is why big band jazz and seventies funk are so appealing. The nuance of many, many sounds is controlled in concert with many fingers, brains, lungs. For pop music to open this can of worms would complicate the entire musical expectation, making hit dance tracks so variable it would be impossible to make a sure sale. It is reduced and simplified to a point of infallibility, it is engineered to appeal to the frontal cortex all the way back down the nervous system without needing examination

.And since what you hear is what you get, the brain has a way of filling in the gaps. Recordings from the 1930s have the same psychoacoustic appeal as  any other recording, because it is the sound of people and rhythm and human feeling. In the same way you can understand your mother’s words through a heavily distorted phone, the ear takes what it can get and puts it all together. When making lo-fi recordings, engineers must focus at all times on the feeling of the music and not ruin it by attempting to tweak a sound closer to a sound in their recorded music memory. Originality will always prevail if the performer believes in what he or she is doing. If the vagaries of technology can get out of the way of the performer, the music will speak to the ear in a way that the sound of the media cannot on its own. Super-produced sound with no music will not make an impression. A drunk ina  bar once told me that people will never remember what you said or did, but they will remember the way you made them feel. This is the appeal of punk rock.

This is also why today’s generation of performers will go to great lengths to make their sound like “garage rock”, complete with old amps, jean jackets and long hair and moustaches. Their music can be poorly performed, uninspired and forgettable, but the ear is in love with the sound. Pop music is loud as hell because the small number of badly balanced, disparate sounds have to be slammed together acoustically. The same goes for the Ramones. When recording, the musicians and engineers must let the standards of musical experience guide their process and not those of sound and other non-musical factors.


Welcome to the Denney Joints Blog.


(Denney Joints with Sweat Dreams, 2012)

Here in Cyberspace is the best place to keep abreast of the imaginary world and real-life goings-on of Denney Joints, music project of the northern Californian underground mainstay, lifetime DIY musician, frequent bedroom recording artist and visual artist.

In this Blog are pages for news, album-related material, lyrics, art works and writings on artistic thought, music theory and the evolution of music in America. And more!

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