Who were the Night Watchmen? Some of you reading will know but most of you won’t. This story is about the band I formed in San Francisco in 2001, and the dark, vaudeville, jazz, blues, and punk-infused music we made together.
Our costumes, backstage chaos, circus antics, tiny-but-devoted audiences, excessive drink, drugs, depression, friendship, and my beat-up fedora all culminated in our best album Lost in California. It was released 20 years ago in April 2003.
Our sophomore album received little fanfare at home in Northern California, but it garnered a cult following online and that set the stage for me to have a music career. The first musician who believed in me enough to form the band didn’t live long enough to make our third album, but he was essential to our best one.
2001 was awful. After I lost my day gig, I flew to Vietnam to surf and got intentionally lost in Hanoi, Halong Bay, and the Mekong Delta. I returned to San Francisco a few months later, two weeks before 9/11. Afterward, the U.S. sank into desperate violence, paranoia, and absurdity and I became deeply depressed.
I was mentally and financially broke, staggering in chronic pain, and felt my only asset was the large stack of songs I had written. I’d won a series of songwriting awards in 2000 and 2001, but even with the accolades, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to play music with me. It made me believe I was a musical pariah.
The first demo productions of my songs failed because the engineers were either high on meth or wasted drunk. I could only find gigs playing solo at dive bars or as entertainment for idiosyncratic artists’ gallery openings. Occasionally, I’d swing into the No Name Bar in Sausalito and play a few songs at an open mic. There, I met Dr. John.
Of course, Dr. John wasn’t the famous New Orleanian musician. He was Dr. John from Milwaukee, who played guitar and happened to have a doctorate in psychology. Everyone called him DJ, but I called him John. He liked my tunes, and I invited him over to my tiny apartment to hear more of them.
I sat at my piano and after I played John half a dozen songs, he looked at me dumbfounded, and said, “Man…what have you been doing? Just sittin’ here, all alone, writing songs in a cave like a caveman?”
“No, I wanna play live, dude.”
“Well, let’s play out. Your songs are really good. I’ve never heard anything like ’em. I’ll switch to bass. You stay on keys and vox. Musicians who don’t play their music live for people die before the ones that do. Let’s play.”
That night, between showing off my songs for John, I played records for him by artists I wanted to sound like. I blasted Mark Lanegan, Morphine, Nick Cave, Whiskeytown, Joy Division, and Tindersticks while we drank rot-gut whiskey John brought with him.
At 3:00 am, my landlord, who happened to run a music studio below me, pounded on my door and demanded we quiet down or I’d be thrown out. Before being silenced, John and I decided on a band name: the Night Watchmen (with a lowercase ‘t’ for ‘the’ because we wanted to be pretentious).
We convinced gregarious rock drummer, Ryan, to join us and recorded our first EP Illumination. I was very pleased with the record and used it to book our first shows. Nervous and wearing a shoplifted fedora, I led the band singing, sweating, and pounding the keys while John interpreted my songs with his bass, and Ryan held down the beat.
The response was lukewarm.
Ryan was an excellent drummer but like most good musicians, he was in numerous other bands so I thought I should find someone else to lock in our sound. I also got the feeling Ryan wasn’t terribly excited by my lyrics about young, heroin-addicted prostitutes or my often bizarre, Kurt Weill-esque, punk rock-meets-polka songs.
Ryan bowed out gracefully and Corey stepped in. A fantastically goofy, rattle-trap drummer up for anything musically or party-wise. John, Corey, and I went to an army surplus and security store, bought actual night watchmen uniforms as costumes, and began playing venues all over the Bay Area.
The venues varied widely from sneezeguard bilgewaters to small, dank bars. Most shows we played were far off the known San Francisco or Oakland club scenes. We often performed to people’s backs or to three overexcited people and the promoter. No one knew who we were and no one cared.
I knew it was time to add to our trio.
I tried out numerous musicians who joined the band for a night or a few months. Some thought I was a lunatic, a drunk, or both. Others thought I had no idea what I was doing and some fell in love with me. It was chaos.
My favorite brief Night Watchmen were women and both were backup singers. Cocco was a wild, redheaded, 1920s flapper-style chanteuse, and Heather was a curvy, beautiful, belting gospel singer. Though both were very talented, neither of them worked as well as the eventual fourth Night Watchmen member: multi-instrumentalist Jeff.
Jeff was magnetically calm and marvelously strange. He played saxophone, cornet trumpet, and acoustic and electric violins, and he would seamlessly switch off between instruments during the middle of a song. The problem was that he wouldn’t rehearse.
There was always an issue with the Night Watchmen and I hated and resented that.
With me as the struggling band leader, booking agent, promoter, songwriter, pianist, and lead singer; suffering from chronic pain, depression, and anxiety; and numbing my stress and pain with booze and female audience members, the Night Watchmen was a train barely staying on the tracks. I didn’t know if I was the engineer or a drunken hobo secretly riding in a cargo car.
But with four band members in place, I wasn’t stopping. I would drive the train off a cliff or into the spotlight.
I called off the silly costumes and replaced our look with vintage suits. Then, I booked as many shows as I could for our new foursome.
Off-stage, I meandered through my days as a music director for a nonprofit that taught music, art, and dance to differently-abled adults. My day gig was a melange of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a badly staged live performance of Sesame Street. I rarely slept and was fueled by insomnia, inebriants, and ambition.
2003 began with a three-set night to kick off the new year at a now-defunct club in San Rafael. We played over twenty songs, stretching them out into gothic, quirky, improvised jams. Included in those sets were all the songs that would become Lost in California.
Days later, we went into the studio I had booked. We were in one large room at PopSmear Studios and planned to record everything live. I intended to keep all the live-recorded instrumental tracks and re-record my lead vocals and John’s backup vocals later.
I sat behind my keys with a microphone on a boom stand in front of me. John stood to my left wearing his electric blue bass. Corey set up his drums directly across from me. And Jeff played from behind a baffle, the top of his faux hawk was all we could see. Scott, our engineer, was in a different building and talked to us through headphones.
My producing style was to track every song in five takes or less, moving quickly to capture live energy. If we couldn’t capture the vibe of the song in five tries, I would scrap it completely. We only had one day to record all the instrumental tracks, then one day for vocals, and three more days to mix and add overdubs.
Our band was known to be a soused crew of partying buffoons on stage. A drunken band of broken minstrels swaggering between songs. I led the charge with copious amounts of beer and whiskey while I performed, acting like a tightrope walker who’d been struck by lightning and didn’t fall.
Despite our drunken way of performing, I made a rule before entering the studio: no booze while recording. Corey protested. I didn’t care. I was footing the bill for this indie production.
Our first takes were rough and I was worried. I’d already had many botched studio experiences all the way back to my first teenage garage band in Minnesota. I watched the second-hand roll around the clock on the wall. Every minute that ticked on the clock meant another dollar spent. Moving quickly, I kept the band going.
As we got through song one, then two, we warmed up, and by the time we rolled through our third song, we were a well-oiled machine. Corey and John were a locked solid rhythm section on Bootleggers, Moonshine Man, Rise Up, and I Gotta Leave You. Jeff pulled out every instrument on Johnny, Lock Me Away, Beauty’s Bones, and Loons.
When we got to When I Dream of You, I knew we had to nail it because that was the single. Everything connected. I burned through the best piano solo I had ever done for the song.
Hot now, we slammed down a rocking version of The Devil Is Chasing Me in one take. Then we recorded the full version of When the Sun Goes Down, and though I later edited out the second half, somewhere the cacophonous, high-energy part exists in the musical ether.
We’d been recording for eleven hours and it was the end of the production day. All our gear needed to be broken down for the next day’s band, but we had time for one more song. I asked Corey and Jeff to go on a beer run while I taught John a completely new song. I had written it three days earlier in a classroom filled with toy instruments at the nonprofit where I worked during the day. The song was Motel Chablis.
When we recorded it, it felt like the studio room flew into the air. We were all flying to Oz on a tornado of joy.
I finished mixing and mastering the album in February and sent it off to be pressed. In April, I picked up a box of one thousand Lost in California CDs, then I put the album online. The CDs didn’t sell well but the digital version stayed on MP3.com’s Alternative charts for months. People were sharing it.
The single When I Dream of You reached the top 20 out of 100,000 songs on Garageband.com and we began to have a cult following internationally. I began fielding emails from around the world and one critic called me “Tori Amos with testicles”.
But the good times were short-lived.
I fired Corey over creative differences soon after the album’s release. I replaced him with a mild-mannered and beautifully eccentric jazz drummer named Alex. He was essential to making the third Night Watchmen album Rain Come Down, and he helped keep me sane during the next year.
John began making the Rain album with us but never finished it. He committed suicide on a mountaintop eleven months after Lost in California came out. When he was found, he had a piece of paper in his pocket. On it, were the lyrics to a Mark Lanegan song I had played for John the night we met.
After the release of our third album, I hung up my fedora, dissolved the band, and went solo in 2006. Jeff and I continued to play together live in different groups and collaborations. Alex and I produced numerous projects and he worked on four of my solo albums.
I listen to our albums now and hear all the voices. Still living, still speaking to one another. All the instruments collide in a powerful sphere of sound.
I see us in memories, sweating on stages and laughing behind drawn curtains. With bruised fingers and hoarse singing voices. Dressing up in other people’s old clothes and smiling across rehearsal rooms.
What lasts is art, our lingering voices, and the memory of creating together. What lasts are the stories we told together and for each other.
It’s one of the reasons why we make music and why we tell stories. To make an imprint. To drop a pebble into a massive universe and create a never-ending ripple. Reaching for the infinite.