The recording sessions for The Snowman Electrical Band’s Christmas is King EP began by exploding a Peavy Bandit 112 guitar amplifier in the parking lot of an apartment complex in San Ramon. The band had originally intended to simply set the amp on fire, and it was harder to do than they thought. The landlord, Li Li “The Little Scorpion” Hwang, who has been arrested before for floating burning mattresses in the Bay, came out to advise: “Don’t use furniture polish. Real lighter fluid only.”
She also warned them to be ready to put the fire out after they heard the sirens and before they saw flashing lights. “Merry Christmas,” she said hoisting herself into her Toyota Sienna. “Good luck.”
They borrowed some “real lighter fluid” from an Afghanistan vet named Rusty who lived in the building. He asked if the band wanted to have some “real fun.” They did.
Rusty tossed something that looked like a tiny, gray wad of chewing gum into the back of the amp as the flames were dying, the lighter fluid having almost completely burned off, again. “We better get behind the dumpster,” he said running past. Less than a minute later, the amp exploded, hurling flaming shards in all directions. Lights came on in the building. Dogs started barking. A car alarm wailed somewhere. Fortunately, depending on your disposition, the parking lot was mostly empty. No property, other than the intended, appeared at a glance to be damaged. A dense cloud of smoke, glowing noxious green by the streetlights, drifted over the pavement and with it The Snowman Electrical Band snuck inside and got to work.
Even though it’s sometimes fun to watch, I find the destruction of musical gear, even Peavy Bandits, to be an oblique musical statement. At Monterey, Hendrix said he was making a “sacrifice,” but the audience is left to guess to whom or what. Like so much else about Kurt Cobain, it was hard to determine the extent of irony in his guitar smashing. My ambivalence regarding that particular rock n’ roll trope isn’t the only reason I thought the story about The Snowman Electrical Band blowing up an amp in a parking lot was weird.
To clear my head, I flipped through an old copy of the Purple Rising Oracle, an underground newspaper that circulated intermittently in the psychedelic garrets and free clinics on the west side of Los Angeles from 1968 to 1975. The Christmas 1969 edition has a brief interview with Jimi Hendrix. It’s amusing and part of it related directly to the criminal recklessness of Rusty and the Snowman Electrical Band, and The Little Scorpion’s tacit permission of it, but it offered no new perspective.
PRO: At Monterey, when you set your guitar on fire, were you ever afraid your headband might dangle too close to the flames and—whoosh—no more afro?
JIMI: (laughs) Everybody wants to know, was I scared of catching my hair on fire. It’s a groovy question, but dig this, setting guitars on fire is the easiest part of my job. It’s a gas, no pun intended, baby, but dig this: there’s a lot of hard work you have to do before you even figure out where to buy those groovy little cans of lighter fluid.
Hendrix suggests that a flaming spectacle is good for filling muddy fields with pop music zealots, but doesn’t have much to do with being an artist. He is dismissive of the gesture. On re-reading the interview I noticed his answer also disregards the interviewers question, which was about fear. Instead, Hendrix touts work ethic and the procurement of the right chemicals. I dig it.
The story about The Snowman Electrical Band blowing up the Bandit was relayed to me in a discursive interview over Gchat with someone identified only as SXB. Like the Hendrix interview, it didn’t reveal much that I didn’t already know or suspect.
BXT: Am I right that some of the samples on Christmas is King are from a Carpenters’ Christmas TV special? In terms of terms style, what about those specials interests you?
SXB: Is the name of the band The Carpenters or just Carpenters?
BXT: I think it’s just Carpenters, but it would sound weird to refer to them that way.
SXB: Like Eagles. It sounds more right to say The Eagles.
BXT: Scorpions works the other way: it would be weird to call them The Scorpions.
SXB: I think it sounds cooler like that.
BXT: Beside the fact that you only put out a few tunes at Halloween and Christmas, do you think the name Snowman Electrical Band has held you back at all? It’s kind of a mouthful.
SXB: Did the name West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band hold them back?
SXB: I’ve never heard them.
BXT: They’re okay.
It didn’t matter that The Snowman Electrical Band didn’t have an amp. The Peavy wasn’t theirs anyway, and nobody could remember where it came from. They plugged the guitars and the bass into a USB audio/MIDI intferface and recorded everything onto a laptop. Samples were gathered holding an iphone up to youtube on another laptop. The tracks feature a hand-made synth by Siempre La Luna. Altogether, it is clever, in a good way, and as disorienting as it is familiar. Once the “real fun” gets started, it is over in a blinding flash.
In destroying the amp, The Snowman Electrical Band ate their dessert first. In doing so, they offer the assurance of consistency, which is for some of us a Christmastime ideal. Their songs are always loose, some of them barely holding together. Christmas is King is no different, but it is more sure-footed in its looseness. It is stronger for being less (the) Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait and more Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. It affirms that the risks and injury endured by distilling hours of effort into seconds of luminous splendor are always worth it. Call it Christmas idealism.