San Diego’s Eliot Wilder fooled around Grossmont High and then L.A. and ended up in Boston. His latest work, Quartet, fuses classical and hip-hop. He took questions over email.
What was the music scene like during your Grossmont High years, within and without the school?
I grew up in Fletcher Hills, listening to KDEO AM, and once the Beatles hit it seemed like every kid wanted to learn an instrument and be in a band. On my street alone, there were five or six guys, and we all listened to stuff like the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, the Doors, Dylan and Hendrix and tried our hands at being in a group. At my school, there were kids like Mark Schwendiman, who played piano and still does, and the Espinosa family, who had about 12 kids and they were all very musically inclined. It was inspiring. But it wasn't until later when I tried out for and got into Grossmont College's production of the rock opera "Tommy" that I felt like music, and especially singing and songwriting, was something I could actually do. I have to thank this guy, Craig Palmer, who was the musical director of the show - he really taught us all how to put a song over. Also, the musicians in the show's band featured guys like Jack Butler from the band Glory.
"Somebody Like Me"
By Eliot Wilder
It was a heady time, and after the show ended I teamed up with my friend, Bob Gartland, and then we soon got with another friend from high school, Jef Kmak, and we formed what would become Mutt. The personnel changed somewhat over the years, and incarnations featured Eric Evans on flute and sax (he later went on to be well known on the Christian music scene); Brian Quinn from Queenie on guitar; Tom Schlesinger from the band Harlequin on drums; and later Jim Griffiths who had been in Crack the Sky. But it's the early version of the band that I have fondest memories of. We played a lot of local high school dances and clubs, and it was pretty innocent and crazy and fun. We met a guy at a party we played in Los Angeles in 1973, and he wanted to be our manager. He put us in Paramount Recording Studios for a full 24-hour session, and that's where we recorded the song "Mission Bay," which ended up on KGB's "Homegrown III." I believe we were all driving back from a gig one night when it came on the air for the first time, and we got out and started screaming and jumping around.
Did Dan McClain already have his Country Dick Montana on in school, or was he still developing?
I just remember Dan being a big, friendly and funny guy. He was also very clever. He was always up to something. He used to go to swap meets and buy records, and later he opened his own used record shop. He played a lot of different instruments; he did a great honky-tonk piano thing. We got him to play on our "Homegrown" follow-up, "It's Hard to Be a Saint in San Diego," but that song didn't get picked and so it is consigned to the cut-out bin of history. He also played drums, of course. Once our drummer lent him his drums for a gig, and Dan busted the snare and shattered the bell on the ride cymbal. But yeah, he was always a Country Dick kind of guy. He lived and died rock and roll.
When did you leave SD and why?
Mutt first moved to LA in 1975, and we all lived in the same house out in Sepulveda. Needless to say, it was not like the Beatles's cool pad in the movie "Help." We had that manager who put us in the studio. He was a nice guy with delusions of being Brian Epstein, but it was a dry time for rock music and we played mostly lounges and seedy bars, and the whole thing got pretty depressing. Still we had nothing else to do all day but rehearse and learn songs, so we got much sharper as musicians, and we recorded many demos. But when we really did start starving, we moved back to San Diego. A few years later, after punk broke in the late '70s, we moved up to LA again, and it was a much more fruitful experience. For me, I had to know if I could make it in music, and I felt like I was never going to find that out in San Diego. And after giving it my all for so many years in LA, I was able to find out. Though it didn't go how I'd hoped, at least I knew. Despite it all, I have some good memories of that time.
How did you end up writing songs with Marvin Etzioni? Did any of them go anywhere?
In the early '80s, Mutt became Catch 22, and after I finally left the band (they went on to record an EP), I met Marvin, who worked at Aron's Records on Melrose. I would go there a lot and that's how we became acquaintances. But eventually he became the boyfriend of a girl I worked with at the Los Angeles Times, and I believe she encouraged us to collaborate. We wound up recording about six or seven tracks, and they were, I think, pretty cool, easily the best things I'd done. I seem to recall that a friend of Marvin's worked at Island Records, and she showed some interest. But by that time, I just felt I had run out of gas. I remember feeling like all the joy and inspiration in making music had completely evaporated. So I quickly stopped it all and started doing photography. I thought I was done with music forever, and I was OK with that.
Years later, around 2000, after I had moved to Boston to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing, several things came up for me that started me again on the path to making music. One was my father, and then later my mother, dying. Another was having my daughter, Astrid. Going through all this transformed me in a lot of ways, forcing me think hard about life and just how much time we have.
I'd also met a local musician, Dave Westner, who worked out of a studio in the Fenway neighborhood, where I live. He encouraged me to write songs and, slowly at first, I did. We started recording, and it felt fresh and true. I found the joy again. I also discovered that with so much time passed, I had something in me that I wanted to say, and music, as it had been in the past, was the best way to say it. Eventually, I started to demo songs at home on my computer, and because the studio was costing me more than I could afford, I began to figure out how I could do it all in my apartment. So now I do it all at home. And I work just about every day on something. I feel very driven. And because I write so much, I am able to tap into experiences as they happen.
What led you to mix hip-hop and orchestral influences?
About 10 years ago, I wrote a book for Continuum's 33 1/3 series about DJ Shadow's Endtroducing record. That album was and is a major influence on me. It opened the door to a whole new world and way of thinking, and when I interviewed Shadow for the book, he was extremely articulate, and his thoughts about sampling resonated with me. His records have a gritty edge and big breaks, but there is also a sense of grandeur and sorrow to them. That's the sound I was after.
What led you to use "The Alexandria Quartet" as inspiration?
I construct my albums like puzzles, with each song a piece that's part of the greater whole - and the instrumentals that are interspersed among the tracks with vocals play a critical role. They are meant to heighten or shift a mood, or add a sense of drama and color that lyrics can't quite convey. I've long wanted to record a strictly instrumental album, but I felt I needed a central concept that would make the tracks hang together with some type of through-line. I'd always loved those four novels by Lawrence Durrell, their passion, their detail, their take on the obsessive love, and the way it all interlocks. I wanted to create a piece that in some way evoked the way those books made me feel. Hopefully, with "Quartet," I was able to do that.
What's next for you?
I want to keep making music for as long as I can. Some of my friends, like Dan, are gone now, and some others have debilitating physical conditions that are preventing them from making music. I realize that time is extremely precious. I can't believe my daughter - who has turned out to be my greatest muse - is already almost 11. Like Andre Gregory said in "My Dinner With Andre": "A baby holds your hands and then suddenly there is this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he's gone. Where's that son?"