You’d think organizing benefit concerts for the music program at our daughter’s elementary school would be be easy after three years. Not really. However, arranging for bands from Beijing whose records you can’t even buy at Amoeba probably isn’t the most sensible choice.
But how cool is it to have Carsick Cars, one of China’s most excellent and influential post-punk bands, playing to help underserved kids in Chinatown?
Or have Chui Wan return after blowing our minds at last school year’s sold-out show with Dengue Fever and Birdstriking?
Alpine Decline will be extra noisy and amazing, too. How have I missed them every time they’ve come through town before? Or even when they lived here?
My pals in SISU are coming out of hiatus to round out the bill. They were initially going to play a special set as a duo but have decided to bring out the entire band!
We’re lucky to have so many friends that make the shows happen. Sandy and Jules from SISU came on to our usual KCHUNG show with Gabie and Daryl (listen HERE) and of course there was the traditional two-hour hoot and warmup that is the Molotov Cocktail Hour on KXLU, as well.
And what about the flyer that Senon Williams from Dengue Fever volunteered to make? When the bands play in front of the poster-sized image on Sunday, they’ll be like The Clash in the “Complete Control” video!
Plus supporters donating stuff for the raffle, families contributing to the bake sale, everyone spreading the word, and Nate behind the scenes… I hope Sunday’s show raises a decent amount of money for music education at Chinatown’s public school but no matter what happens (Is Ciclavia really happening in Chinatown on the day we chose last spring?) I’ll be grateful for being part of such a rad community that makes it happen.
See cool bands! Eat delicious cookies! Help kids in Chinatown! Get more info at the Facebook event page and save some dough by ordering tickets in advance at eventbrite.com.
Is Steve Ratter the most rockin’ guy or the biggest nerd? The answer is yes.
I was introduced to Steve as the former singer of KXLU-bred and Jabberjaw-tested Slug in the late ’80s, and it’s been a pleasure to get to know him better since he and his wife Max became involved in the Save Music in Chinatown project earlier this year. Following the last benefit, which they kindly deejayed as Cyrano and Lotus from the Molotov Cocktail Hour, I’ve become more aware of Steve’s participation in indie card games.
So how stoked was I when he kindly let me hijack lunch last week by asking questions about his involvement in the underground board and card game scene as well as the new game, which is being funded on Kickstarter right now.
How would you describe Desert Island to non card game players?
Desert Island is a 4-6 player card game where the participants are castaways marooned on an Island. At the beginning of the game, each player finds out, secretly, who they love and hate among the other players. The goal is to escape the island and try to ensure that your secret love survives and that your secret, hated enemy perishes. Each turn, by playing cards, the characters have to choose from foraging for food, helping to prepare the signal fire, or trying to take something from another player. There is a great deal of trading weapons and tools, asking for help, or moving into someone’s else prime location on the island. There is also pirate loot to be found, and holding onto it just might give you the edge to victory. It’s a big game, packed into a small box.
Negotiation, bluffing, temporary alliances, identity deduction, and backstabbing. Do you have to be a dick to be good at it?
No, but it helps. This is a game of interaction and asserting one’s self. I don’t think anyone likes to be pushed around, and playing Desert Island is a great exercise in not only achieving your goals but navigating the waters of negotiation. Not unlike situations in everyday life, right? Lifeboat draws on a rich history of shipwreck and survival literature like Treasure Island, Lord of The Flies, and In The Heart of The Sea. Naturally, when a group of people are stuck “in a bottle” together, certain loyalties, grudges, uneasy truces, paranoia, and other human coping mechanisms start to develop. From the get-go, there is a player you should protect and another you might want to passively hinder (if not outright harm). At the same time, you (potentially) are also the object of someone’s goodwill and of someone else’s machinations. Very quickly a social dynamic starts to develop and it’s natural for players to begin to role-play, casting themselves as a slippery weasel, a peacemaker, a bully, diplomat, or despot. As you want your secret love to survive, you also don’t want him or her to win the game with say, a stash of pirate loot. You’re playing to win, after all. There is a fine balance between helping someone survive versus helping him or her to thrive.
As a guy who makes a living creating art for video games, what’s cool about working on a card game?
Well, I think there are important social dynamics that happen around a dining room table that just can’t be replicated online, or even sitting next to one another with controllers on a couch. An “analog” board or card game allows players to think, respond, strategize, second guess, and bluff in ways you can’t in video games.
It’s also a different skill set that I’m using. When I work on art for video games, It’s a long process, sometimes a couple of years to see your work truly in context. Making handsome looking art in video games is only a small part of the equation. Some of your other responsibilities after the art making include working with designers on how your art is used, optimizing your work to run smoothly, debugging problem areas, and ensuring your work appears consistent and intuitive to the user. So there’s an aspect of tweaking and tinkering right up the moment when a video game is shipped.
In video games, I have to employ a long-term view of what something is going to look like. For artwork in a card game like Desert Island, I can get results towards my goal pretty quickly. In games, you collaborate with many people and have to consider their concerns and responsibilities. In this card game project, I am working with one other artist, Fred Davis, who handles the graphic layout and acts as my Art Director. The designer of Desert Island is Jeff Siadek and, as his company is Kickstarting the project, he has final say. By and large though, the images and how they appear are up to me. Fred and Jeff are there to support what is the “best image,” and we’re usually on the same page. I’m happiest if I can present something humorous or give it a story of some sort to tell. I like to put little things in the art for perceptive players to pick up. I guess that comes from hiding Easter eggs in video games all these years.
Have you always been into card games? Even when you were in a art/noise/punk band?
I’d have to resoundingly say “Yes!” I grew up in a big family and I think my parents knew board games provide a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to entertainment at home. My folks also provided a great example of getting together with their friends for evenings of massive card games of Bridge. While I didn’t participate in those, I could see there was some heavy-duty adult fun going on there. We had a game cabinet in our house, and I have many fond memories of playing board and card games with my brothers and sisters. As I got older, my love for those experiences was rekindled in college with what I call the “Euro-gaming revolution” that started in the late ’80’s/early ’90s.
Strangely enough, that was close to the time I guess I started playing in a band. New games were coming out of Europe that stressed player interaction, resource management, and deeper experiences of player choice and consequences. These games seemed different from the ones we grew up with. Take a classic chestnut like Monopoly. You have one choice in that game–are you going to buy a property or not. And usually, if you can, you should. House rules aside, I don’t consider that a very engaging experience and I think we’ve all played marathon Monopoly games and for what? A thrilling conclusion? Usually everyone is burned out and the richest player dominates the last hour in what becomes a game about attrition. I enjoy a game most when a narrative starts to unfold and I’m drawn into its theme. Well-designed games have an elegance to them and by the end, you have taken part in a story.
This appreciation of storytelling possibilities also led me early on in junior high to classic role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. And as I got back into it in college, my early bonding experiences with some members of my band were playing games with them like Settlers of Catan and D&D. We were (and still are) all a bunch of geeks in our own way and embrace what we love. The Revenge of the Nerds happened and you know what? The Nerds won.
You mentioned that the game has been translated into a bunch of other languages. Is there an international scene that I don’t know about?
There most certainly is. Board gaming as a social and even family phenomenon is absolutely huge in other countries. The predecessor to Desert Island, a game called Lifeboat, has been printed in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Russian. It’s not uncommon for families outside the U.S. to play board games as adults, and for people to have gaming groups that get together regularly. This is largely due to the quality of the games, but it’s also a great pretense for people to get together, blow off steam, maybe do some trash talking, and have a shared experience. The idea of a weekly game of poker, mahjong, dominoes, or backgammon among friends is pretty familiar, but it’s essentially a subculture that does the same thing. In San Francisco, there is a very thriving board game underground–maybe it’s because of the weather and people enjoy staying in and playing games on cold nights. And I see that interest growing in L.A., in some ways greater than it ever was! In the past couple years, there are small game stores popping up and it’s cool to see.
Going back to a music analogy, there are small game companies that put out games just like indie record labels have always put out underground music. Jeff’s company is his own, run out of his house, and his stock fills his garage. Anyone that has run a small record label can relate to that, myself included. It’s a labor of love. In the world of games, just like record labels, for every Lookout!, Drag City, SST, or K-Records, there is also a Touch & Go, Dischord, Epitaph, and Matador.
To put it in worldwide context, the biggest annual game convention just wrapped in Essen Germany. It’s like the E3 of board and card games and goes on for days! Unlike video games, board games have a longer shelf life, and favorite designers and artists are regarded almost like beloved authors whose work you can enjoy over and over. So I guess someone out there must love Monopoly, right? Video games certainly occupy places in the hearts of their players, no question. However, as hardware changes, video games tend to drift away into the fog and stay there as happy memories, like playing Frogger in an arcade as a kid, or Yars Revenge on an Atari 2600 or Karateka on an Apple II. I’m not sure who is that excited about going back and re-playing Lode Runner, Pitfall!, Lemmings, Zork, or Doom.
I thought it was interesting how you guys printed out cards for beta testing at gamer conventions. What tweaks did that lead to? Did any of you sit in on those sessions?
We’ve play-tested the game at my house and at some other private sessions. Desert Island’s designer, Jeff Siadek is like a chef, always adding a bit here, tweaking aspects there, trying to craft a balanced experience. And like a great meal is delicious, a great game is also fun. It’s a lifelong passion for Jeff and it’s a blast to collaborate with someone so driven. Printing out prototype decks has proven to give the game early life, make it feel substantial and tangible. Even in the testing phase, when you get your hands on real cards laid out in front of you, the game suddenly breathes. I might be asked about something or make a suggestion, but Jeff is the one at the helm. Some examples of changes that happened fairly recently were: making the wild boar attack more severe, making the character of “The Kid” not quite so weak. These might be small things, and even sound obvious, but there is an invisible engine under the hood of the game and the designer is the mechanic. Many of these revisions made at the tail end of testing have to do with streamlining the game, so it doesn’t become bogged down under its own structure–finding the balance between too much and not enough. Think of a restaurant where there’s five things on the menu versus being in one that has a seven-page menu. People need to feel empowered, but you also don’t want someone to feel overwhelmed.
Kickstarter campaigns can be effective but are also difficult to pull off… What do you think is the coolest premium for Desert Island?
The little black wooden skulls are cool, as are the custom banana tokens, but I think I would have to say, the coolest premium is our “Voodoo Volcano Tiki Expansion.” If we hit our highest stretch goal, we will include more cards in the game, and I get to draw cool Tikis with supernatural powers, a voodoo doll, and an old friend from the previous game will be returning, in a hilarious, state of transformation.
Plans for a third game? Other projects?
As Jeff is the creator of Desert Island and its predecessor, Lifeboat, I’ll have to wait and see if he can make it a trilogy! My immediate future involves going back into the world of video games, working for an amazing start-up called The Tangentlemen. I will be joining my incredibly talented, inspired, and veteran group of friends on a game of dark, existential horror. They are already crafting an eccentric and curious experience and it’s going to be a wild ride. I’m looking forward to lending my art, storytelling contributions, and possibly even music endeavors to the project. But I have a feeling I’ll be called back to the world of Desert Island for another adventure someday, and when it happens, I will gladly be on board!
For more information on Desert Island and how to support it, check out the page on Kickstarter.com. And don’t forget to keep an eye on slugla.com just in case…
For more than a month, I’ve been submitting details about Sunday’s Save Music in Chinatown benefit show to just about every calendar and music blog in town. And I have yet to see a listing or receive a reply.
That’s a bummer since I’m super proud of the lineup (the first hometown Bicycle Thief gig in 13 years, second show ever by Evil Hearted You, the return of Hector Penalosa from the legendary Zeros) and feel very strongly about the cause (music education at Castelar Elementary, the public school that my 6-year-old daughter attends). I thought the angles of bringing punk shows back to Chinatown and uniting the neighborhood’s subcultures of art and music for the local kids were strong, too. Oh well.
But just when I start to wonder if I’m delusional, in come my excellent friends contributing awesome goods for the raffle, volunteering at the bake sale, and promoting the gig via social media. And a few have even put me on the airwaves to help get the word out.
Last night, I was a guest of Cyrano and Lotus on KXLU‘s Molotov Cocktail Hour. How cool was it to make the pilgrimage to L.A.’s main artery of underground and independent music–and for my pals to not only give me a lift to the station but provide snacks, as well. They’ll be DJing at Sunday’s event, and I’ll be too busy to enjoy their selections of Asian and Latin garage rock, psych, and punk, so it was extra cool to dig those jams in the studio while adding cuts from bands that have been supporting the cause and gushing about the upcoming show, as well.
On Thursday, my friend Gabie invited to the KCHUNG studios in Chinatown to be on her Crystalline Morphologies program. She invited me to bring a guest and Ben from Evil Hearted You was available to talk about his band and share why they jumped on a chance to play our next event. Gabie has been a supporter of our project since the beginning, and always invites me onto her show each time we have a benefit to play records and promote the cause. You can stream or even download the show at archive.kchung.org.
Thanks again to Cyrano, Lotus, Gabie, and everyone else who helps in whatever ways they can. There’s no way we will single-handedly raise enough dough with our little DIY shows to pay Castelar’s $50 thousand bill for music education. But raising awareness, building community, and engaging the scene matter, too. And we can have a blast doing it.
One week from today, my wife Wendy and I will be throwing the fourth Save Music in Chinatown DIY punk matinee/fund raising gig at Human Resources gallery to pay for music education at Castelar Elementary, where our daughter goes to first grade. This an unplanned and awesome extension of my days of writing about music and hanging out with artists when I edited Giant Robot mag. Getting to share and push culture on the printed page was a real gift. But to do something that happens in real life and try to make a difference in the community where my immigrant grandparents and in-laws have spent time is a different type of radical. Especially since Eloise goes to school there now.
The harebrained idea was spawned last year when our daughter started attending kindergarten. Her inner-city campus looks like a prison but it’s an excellent school with passionate teachers, bright kids, and a kick-ass dual-language Mandarin program that Eloise is thriving in. Then, in the first week, we parents received a flyer stating that the music program had been defunded. Could the households help pay the $50 thousand bill? In that particular mostly immigrant and blue-collar neighborhood, probably not.
Wendy wondered what we could do, since we’re not loaded and don’t do bake sales. It occurred to us that Chinatown has a punk rock heritage that can’t be beat (X, Zeros, Weirdos, Black Flag, Dils, Germs…) and a lively art gallery scene (post punk) as well. Although the scenes don’t overlap much with the locals outside of bars and restaurants, of course they’d help kids if they could. Especially for music. And since Wendy and I have ties to all three cultures, we decided to have punk matinees in art galleries to help the local kids. Wendy came up with the name: Save Music in Chinatown.
I was fortunate that my old friends Gabie from KCHUNG and Wendy from Ooga Booga Store introduced me to the crew at Human Resources right off the bat. The gallery’s vibe is perfect with its past lives as a kung fu movie theater, porno theater, and sweat shop before it was abandoned and was reborn as a gallery that specializes in difficult to show or sell art. Eric, Grant, Luke, and everyone else there have been nothing but super cool and supportive.
And how awesome is it to have punk rock back in Chinatown. In the afternoon. I have a lot of friends who don’t get out as much as they used to because they don’t like staying up late or dealing with getting a babysitter. These all-ages matinees are a perfect way to get everyone out but also expose kids to cool music.
At six, Eloise has seen the likes of The Chuck Dukowski Sextet, California (with Jason from Green Day and Adam from Jawbreaker), Channel Three (with guest appearances by Maria Montoya and Tony Adolescent), Money Mark, Hector Penalosa from The Zeros playing with The Baja Bugs, and Bob Forrest from Thelonious Monster. Not to mention art rockers like Lucky Dragons, L.A. Fog, Deradoorian, Bitter Party… (Conversely, a lot of the artists who are used to playing late-night, sketchy venues dig being able to bring family and kids to our shows.)
While groveling for raffle goods is definitely the most awkward part of planning, I think it’s a key part of the fund raising. It allows us keep the door price low but raise some extra bucks. And it allows all sorts of friends and neighbors to contribute and build a scene. Regulars like Una from Keep, Mark from Donut Friend, Chris at Scoops Chinatown, and Vicki at Berndt Offerings, all the bands that sign records, artists who donate autographed books and prints, and everyone else–what would I do without them? And on the the bake sale end, gourmet goodies from so many parent/volunteers plus baked goods from Wendy’s pasty chef/cousin Linda, coffee courtesy of Julia and interTrend, and other treats add to the awesome experience (and funds raised) substantially.
And Sunday afternoons are ideal because there’s plenty of free street parking and everyone can leave early enough to grab some noodles in Chinatown before getting home at a decent hour and not being a wreck on Monday. A perfect day.
So please come to our next show. I still can’t believe Bob Forrest (Thelonious Monster) and Josh Klinghoffer (Dot Hacker) are playing their first hometown show as The Bicycle Thief in 13 years for our little matinee. And I love Evil Hearted You’s carefully crafted post-punk roots sound on their debut album but their live show is going to kill you. I’m not even going to get into how great Hector Penalosa’s mini set of My Revenge was at the second show–a perfect mix of power pop, garage rock, and O.G. punk–and how much I want to see a full set. All that tied together by the garage rock tunes spun by KXLU’s Molotov Cocktail Hour DJs? Damn.
I hope you can tell that although Save Music in Chinatown was born out of necessity, and there are worthwhile cultural angles that I’m interested in and proud of, this project is mostly just super fun for us. And I hope it’s that way for everyone who helps out by playing or promoting the gigs, donating raffle items, working the bake sale, or attending.