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Maurice Tani: "Are you listening? We're taking calls"

September 7, 2013

By Robert Sproul

Originally posted in NO DEPRESSION


I don’t pick up my mail regularly, which is not a good practice in my line of business, however one day I dropped by the mail room and found an envelope that contained two cd’s and a nice handwritten card from Tanya Pinkerton who is publicist for several up and coming Bay Area singer songwriters. One cd featured Maurice Tani with his partner Mike Anderson in a more or less acoustic setting and one with Tani's band 77 El Deora. Tanya had read my blogs on No Depression particularly the articles on Hardly Strictly. I told Tanya that I’d listen to the two cd’s and if my ears found them interesting or noteworthy I’d give her a call.

I not only found them interesting, I was actually blown away.  Maurice Tani writes songs that I would call “Hillbilly Noir” that sound at once familiar, ethereal and beautiful.  I was invited by Tanya to come see Maurice perform at the Freight and Salvage (ironically a Warren Hellman, Founder of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, financed nightclub).  Both my wife and I were enthralled by songs on the cd as well as with Tani’s performance.  I met Maurice backstage prior to his first set and we chatted for about 15 minutes…a quick interview by any standards.  I have found it useful to interview artists, start writing and as the story progresses send out a bunch of questions via e-mail to fill in the gaps as they come up. I find this to be more accurate and more respectful to the artists.  Lately I’ve been interviewing bands who are starting out and looking to move up rather than established musicians with relatively large followings or established body of work.  I am continuing my quest for an answer to the question of how do musicians “make it” in a splintered, fickle, internet market. There are more outlets for music than ever but how does a talented musician get airplay and bigger bookings. I listen to the drek on “Coffeehouse” on SIRUS and then I listen to Maurice Tani’s songs and think this guy is a cut above most of the artists featured on that particular station.  I was talking with my brother over Labor Day weekend. He had met a friend of mine from the mid sixties, Paul Fauerso, who was a founder of the band The Loading Zone.  The Loading Zone didn’t make it after two albums but it launched Linda Tillery’s career, Tower of Power and Cold Blood.  The person who worked behind the scenes with these three groups was a East Bay resident and record collector by the name of Mark Edmund who was into old, obscure R n B records.  He turned these groups onto great songs.  Tani was ten years younger than these groups, but he would also be drawn to R n B music and wind up as the guitar player in a very successful corporate cover band, The Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra.   Zasu Pitts not only made it big in the Bay Area, it gained a reputation as the “go to” party band and its large ensemble  of singers and musicians made a good living off that band over the years. Tani admitted “Zasu Pitts bought my house.”

Maurice Tani was born and raised in San Francisco. “I count myself lucky that when I was young, Top-40 radio played a very wide spectrum of music.  I didn’t even realize that these were different styles of music. Smokey Robinson, Nat King Cole, Roger Miller, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold, Dave Brubeck, James Brown and the Singing Nun all came  to me from a small transistor radio tuned to KYA.” 

The Summer of Love also had an impact on Maurice.  “I would take a bus to the Haight and listen to music in Golden Gate Park but I always had to be home for dinner by six.  By high school, we started going regularly to the Fillmore  where Bill Graham often put together different types of music on the same bill that you’d never see today..Miles Davis, Pentangle, Ike and Tina Turner…Woody Herman’s band opening for the Who.”

Tani’s first introduction to roots style country came with the hit record “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” classic Appellation Mountain old timey songs performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Tani moved to Texas in the mid seventies playing guitar in hard working bar bands “playing 5 sets a night, 7 days a week, playing top 40, soul, hard rock and country music depending on the venue.”  Tani then moved to New York City doing similar gigs before returning to the Bay area during the Punk era in the late seventies. He joined Roy Loney’s (Flamin’ Groovies) band the Phantom Movers. “It was a very good experience. It took me probably a decade to appreciate everything I picked up from Roy. I was trying to cram as much “brains” into my music as possible, Roy was more about the “gut”. His music was raw and his lyrics were smart.” This lead to Zasu Pitts which lasted until the late nineties when Maurice decided to get back to his roots.

“When I formed 77 El Deora in 2003, I had just come out of a testosterone-driven, 4 guys, 2 guitar, bass and drum, bashy electric honky tonk band called Calamity and Main.  I had just met Jenn Courtney and we hit it off musically immediately. She had a relatively low range, a dark sultry tone and a larger-than-life presence that made me think I could explore some of the noir concepts, writing from a different, feminine perspective with her as the voice. She became my muse and vocal sparring partner. Today I sing a lot of those songs myself, but being able to write for her voice initially definitely broadened my comfort zone for romantic subject matter.

Songs like “I Think of You”, “New Dress” and “Radio City” ( a crowd favorite at the Freight performance) sound like buried treasures…treasures that while having country elements in that they tell a story and employ traditional instrumentation, are their own thing. “New Dress” was written for Pam Brandon, which Tani describes as “one of the spookier songs in my repertoire”.  Starting with a subtle breathy sigh that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch movie, Tani explained that it’s “a song about  rebirth, reinvention but also wide open to interpretation.”

Years ago, my ad agency had the radio station KSAN as an account. We wanted to run billboards that touted that real country music was “Soul Music for White People”. Like some of Buddy Miller’s country/soul songs and arrangements, Tani  may have changed the instruments that back him up but he hasn’t abandoned his soul roots.  While I think of my music as being rooted in certain country music tenets, my “country” is stamped on the bricks in the basement, rather than on the office door.” 

I would be remiss not to comment on Tani’s vocal style.  He has a quality to his singing that is closer to a Raul Malo or a Roy Orbison, almost a classic cabaret voice, rather than a quirky, twangy bar voice, that brings a haunting feeling to many of his songs.  His vocals on “Radio City” build on a form that Tani describes “as cinema for the blind”. You can imagine driving along a desolate road when this song comes on the radio “ a lost-love song where the protagonist is an all night disc jockey who laments that he has squandered his chance at love and finds himself alone and lonely in a one way conversation with thousands of people who only know his voice."

Tani has songs and a voice that should be heard by more than thousands of people. As the lyrics of “Radio City” laments…”But look at where I am…This really is nowhere!”   Hopefully not for long.  His two new cd’s, Two Stroke and Blue Line, have been on my cd juke box for the past month and in constant rotation.

Hillbilly Noir. Bashy. Original. Intelligent. California Country. Electric. Honky Tonk. Twangy. Oblique Americana.