Photo by Derth Adams

Moris Tepper and I are sitting in his back yard in Mar Vista. It’s a crisp fall day, slight breeze. Turtles nip gently at my toes. Feels good.

Tepper points at his pets: “These guys, I need ’em so bad. If they weren’t here, I’d be dead. ’Cause it’s all I’ve got. You know what? Your self is not enough. It’s too big, it’s too endless. I’m nothing, I am no one. I’m alone, I’m this piece of Saran Wrap — I’m starting to reflect everything. ’Cause I have nothing, I only have myself, and myself is all wrapped up in being nowhere.”

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This is the sound of a man trying to put his finger on it — how to be a man, and an artist, and a businessman, a lover too. Why, the other day Tepper drove his car through a storefront window just as his date showed up for their first night out. Shards ’n’ splinters everywhere, people pointing and laughing. Tepper had been very distracted that day — thinking about stuff, like stalkers. And did he smash the glass on purpose?

I say, Moris, I can relate completely. I myself am becoming more and more nervous about driving. It’s not that I’m a bad driver (I’m a defensive driver — hey, I know how to drive), it’s just that I find myself departing the driving while driving. Because there’s too much to think about. Our doom, for example.

Moris Tepper makes music, and he’s a painter. And if he’s often lost in his own world, it’s because it’s his own world, he paid for it, and now he’s compelled to live in it.

Tepperland: The guitarist/singer/multi-instrumentalist/ composer has slight name recognition for his longtime association with Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, in whose Magic Band (Phase II, circa 1978–82) he played for several years, starting as a wee teen. Together they made the landmark albums Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow. Tepper followed that highly educational experience with stints as Tom Waits’ guitar slayer (Frank’s Wild Years) and a continuing thing as six-string foil to ex-Pixie Frank Black. Sometimes he does sessions for people he feels an affinity with, such as Robyn Hitchcock, but “I’m not really a session player — I don’t know where the notes are. I know where the colors are.” He’s scored for cartoons too, such as UPN’s Mouse and the Monster.

He is, among many things and pound for pound, the most original guitar player on the planet, and did in fact have a big hand in chiseling the second Magic Band’s spiky, brain-wringing sound. It’s a stumbling, clairvoyant, feral approach to the ax, a point of view that he has for the last several years brought to a solo career that has produced three albums of startling virtuosity (on his own subtle terms), melodic abundance and freely individual character. 1995’s Big Enough To Disappear first hinted at the breadth of his talents, and he’s recently completed the glorious Moth to Mouth, both of which are available through his Candlebone label Web site.

Okay, Moris Tepper is a wonderful musician (more about that in a sec), and he’s trying hard to make an adequate living at it — that’s a common tale. But Tepper, while far from pathetic, is also a Lonely Guy, seemingly burdened with an immeasurable ache of some sort. I know, I know, you’re damn lonely too, reader, but the point is, there are people who can get a lot of creative mileage out of it, like Tepper does. And you, like Tepper, might not be blamed for feeling sometimes that you ought to, oh, sell out in a small way, if only to feel some kind of re-establishment of relations with the real world, the one where people (not artists) can pay their bills and afford to think about . . . love affairs and . . . babies.

Tepper wants to be a father, but the thought troubles him, and the timing right now is probably terrible. “I’m really enjoying the bloody meat of the pulp of the art I’m doing,” he says. “It’s getting scary, because it entails being free. Part of me still thinks I should have, like, the right woman who can just make it sort of come together in the right way. I think my heart . . . man wants woman, man wants family at this age.


“The natural thing is to procreate and to have the energy not concentrated on yourself the entire time. And I’m not sure I believe that if I have kids that I won’t still be miserable. I believe I’m miserable. I believe I flew out that hole miserable.”

Yeah, but there must be rich satisfaction when you immerse in your art, and savor your body of work, Moris?

“I see that I do exist, or existed at those moments, by looking at it, and it gives me gratification. But it doesn’t give me the gratification I get when I go to a friend’s and he’s got a 3-year-old, a warm, heart-beating little thing. I cry tears of sadness that in my own world I don’t have a life that’s bigger than just me. I’m missing something that adds fuel to that thing, ’cause I got all the loss of that monster — that soul-low monster expression.”

The accomplished painter Tepper ceded the cover art of Moth to Mouth to a friend’s 9-year-old girl: “That monster blew me away, and it happened to come from someone 9 years old, which obviously I’m trying to get back to in my art. I’m trying to be as free as that painting is, expressing the terror, humanity, love, tenderness — that’s a big monster — in the blue world. That’s who I am. That is who I am.”

Candlebone is not just another music-label site, it’s also an interesting place to be — Tepper exhibits and markets his modern-primitive paintings here (he’s also represented by Patricia Correia at Bergamot Station), some of which have been animated to work with the site’s downloadable music. Oh, screw it: Attention, any moneybags out there reading this: The fact is, Moris Tepper is trying to figure out how to get some decent dough for manufacturing and distribution, all right? It hasn’t been easy. “I can’t put my own record out. People want me to give them five free CDs for online distribution, at 800 places on the Internet. I can’t do that and still run through glass windows in my car.”

Years ago, when Tepper opened Candlebone as a label and had some funding, he had a distributor named Indie, which manufactured and distributed his album Big Enough To Disappear. He spent $20,000 on phone calls and press and paying people to handle his business while he was out on tour to support it. He sold nearly 7,000 CDs. Then Indie folded, and — shock horror — Tepper didn’t get paid. This, combined with the strain of keeping a five-piece band together for the fourth time in a row for the past 10 years, along with eventually having his computer stolen from his house — with the entire Candlebone archive on it — was the beginning of a bleak period for Tepper.

“I just stopped. It was like, I gotta move. It got dark.” So he packed his shit and moved to Mar Vista. At his new digs, Tepper built a recording studio in his garage and set about teaching himself how to produce, engineer and master. The new Moth to Mouth is the end result of a creative process that often found Tepper recording in the middle of the night, when there were fewer distractions, and he could follow his whims. He needed his whims, you understand.

“The lack of brain power in the process of creation,” he says, “I tried to carry that through as much as possible, including the EQing and engineering. When I’m plugging in, I’m not going, ‘Well, how would the listener be affected?’ I’m just goosing till my dick gets hard, and that’s it. Reaching other people, that’s a very generous outlook toward art, but I think it’s a selfish act, very much like ‘Me me me, I want to enjoy myself.’”

Yet, like I mentioned, the selfish life distresses Tepper. “Maybe there’s a sense of shame and guilt to being an artist in this world, with all the suffering and pain, that instead of applying my energies directly to others’ pain, I apply it to my own pain and call it ‘meaningful.’ I’m not one who thinks that I’m doing anybody else any good.”

I beg to differ. Anyone with the spunk to plunk down for Tepper’s new CD or to seek out one of his spectacularly energized live sets is going to come away loaded up with fresh insight on, yes by god, the joys of truth, beauty and individuality. Moth to Mouth is 24 cuts of hugely varied stuff, all hooked on the fly in the early hours, then pottered and polished over six months of slavish devotion at his Mac. The opening “Milkweed Man,” an inverted-McCartney folk-pop thump, offers delicate strands of acoustic guitars, synth, organ and samples, all painted on, not multitracked, then chopped and channeled; its message of human sufferance, strewn over such a weirdly open parking lot of sound, is liberating. Tepper slides into “Copperhead,” the first of a few rum-soaked (which?-)“country” sloshers, Stonesy, all plucking dobros and wobbly tubs. But “Frankenstein’s Daughter” (gurgled intro courtesy Beefheart) is a hip-hoppy beast, guest star Miiko’s growly bass supporting an addictively melodic tune carried by a sneering leer in a typically Tepperian mode: “Another heart is shattered, another told you so.”


For those requiring the “Beefheartian,” there’s a bit of that too, like “Gorilla”’s twining jock-itch guitar contrapositions and chorizo-stuffed bass belch, or “Fat Sandy”’s abrupt rhythmic changeups, trash-can-school percussion and gnarled low-end bark and woof. Tepper proves a vocal and musical chameleon, and the tunes are small miracles of construction; he’s an orchestrator of unorthodoxymoronic dramas, so he needs plenty of tubas, banjos, pennywhistles, mandolins, accordions, bagpipes, biwas, synthesizers and smattered unidentifiable samples. Despite the music’s complicated birthing, its trademark is its very direct impact, though that veers from the creepy and clouded to the plainly gentle and sweet: “Someday we never say goodbye.”

Tepper’s current live band includes drummer Scott Mathers and bassist Dave Burk. Both were chosen for their spirit more than their playing, and the trio has an unusual way of keeping things fresh onstage: Each gets a turn playing an instrument he really wants to play, rather than one on which he’s got expertise. “I’m after the sound of crippled fingers searching,” Tepper says. “It’s a new band, and it smokes, it sounds like a choking shotgun, and it’s fucked up and strong and beautiful.”

Each day, Moris Tepper spends some time out here in his freakishly fertile garden, with the tortoises, which enjoy gobbling his strawberries, and the cat, Rooster, a beautiful killing machine that offs seven birds per week.

Several years ago, Tepper dated a Haitian woman who was young and beautiful and charming. They went out to have dinner, then returned to her apartment. The room held an ungodly stench, as if something was busy dying. The young woman said, “Excuse me,” and went into the other room. Tepper heard her pick up the phone, dial and whisper, “Get over here quick. We’ve got one.” As she re-entered the room, Tepper saw that she’d grown decades older, her skin saggy and wrinkled and sallow, open sores on her arms and legs. Behind her, on the wall, Tepper noticed a small figure crucified on a cross — the figure’s face resembled his own. Instinctively, Tepper ran for the door — but it was bolted: six locks. Frantically trying to escape, Tepper felt the withered hag tackle him from behind. He turned and kicked her as hard as he could, got the last lock open and fled. The next day, he found a maggoty slice of raw steak wrapped around his rear-view mirror. He hadn’t told her where he lived.

The sun is shining, but I’m cold. Then Tepper becomes Tepper again, intoning:

“There’s a monster in a mountain. Three separate songs were written three months apart, no conscious thought lyrically: a monster in the mountains, a car crash, and she’s dripping in blood — ‘Buckets of Blood,’ ‘Frankenstein’s Daughter’ and ‘The Palm of His Hand.’ These are unconscious things that tell a story: There is a monster in a mountain, and it’s coming through — it may be about a car accident that’s gonna happen in my life, and I’m gonna lose the woman I finally meet. This woman appears in several songs, she walks dripping in blood, and in another one she’s lying in a canyon, from loss of blood in a car accident.

“The monster is death, maybe the mountain is where the car accident happens. I’m saying that when you get in and open, shit comes through and you don’t know what it is. I’m still trying to figure out what it means, but there’s something there, and I believe in its power. The reason I think it’s real is because I didn’t think about it, I didn’t make it up — it came through me.”


Moris Tepper performs at Spaceland Friday, October 27.

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