Thursday, October 16, 2014

Black Belt Karate

Ryan Hanifl, Ryan Brown, Jason Achilles Mezilis and Harry Anthony Ostrem of Black Belt Karate at the Iliad Bookshop


At The Iliad Bookshop
5400 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood (818) 509-2665

There’s something magical about used bookstores. Every time you visit, there are new treasures to be found on its shelves. The same could be said for a good song. You can take away different meanings from a single lyric or discover a section of the melody that excites you with each listen.

The four musicians of Los Angeles-based Black Belt Karate share my love of used bookstores and take me on an adventure at their favorite in North Hollywood, the Iliad Bookshop.

“New bookstores have no soul. Old, used bookstores are awesome,” says guitarist Jason Achilles Mezilis. “I love this place because you can find all kinds of rare and out-of-print books here.”

Originally located next to Odyssey Video, the Iliad took its name as a literary joke and sustains the Greek mythology tradition with its two kitten mascots, Apollo and Zeus, who are often found playing near the register.

While Jason, vocalist Ryan Hanifl and drummer Ryan Brown all reside nearby in the Valley, bassist Harry Anthony Ostrem lives in Westchester, so Jason shares that when the band members do get together it’s to work in the studio or hang out on his front porch.

“What are you talking about, we always hang out here,” jokes Ryan B. “We’re a very well-read band.”

His statement isn’t that far off, though. Ryan B. is an avid fan of Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom series, and Ryan H. reads everything that Richard Russo puts out. Jason loves Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and science fiction.

“If I’m going to read fiction, it’s going to be sci-fi. The two best sci-fi books are Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Dune. They’re ridiculous. I like the MythAdventures fantasy series by Robert Lynn Asprin and James Blish’s adaptation of the original ’Star Trek’ series,” he reveals. “They were based off the scripts, but some things would be a little different from what happened on the show. People give the original ‘Star Trek’ a hard time because it was campy, but if you read the stories they’re really great. I have a book that I found here about the making-of the TV series with all the memos that the different departments would send each other and stories of Roddenberry freaking out about somebody putting the wrong color rock in a scene.”

Harry actually studied English and history in college; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is one of his favorites.

“I’m reading a book right now called Shantaram, which is amazing. It’s [reportedly] a true-life story about a guy who escaped prison in New Zealand and ended up in Mumbai. It’s about his experiences there, falling in love with the country and being forced back into a life of crime,” he shares. “Whenever I see a store like the Iliad, it gives me hope that at least there are still books out there. I’m not against e-books, but the environment, the vibe, the whole experience of going through a used bookstore is like exploring mom’s attic. When I was a kid I would go to places like this to find vinyl or old Creem and Rolling Stone magazines.”

Music is indeed the first love of the Black Belt Karate quartet, especially Jason, who is from the Midwest but was primarily raised in Northern California.

“Relatives and family friends that knew me before I had cognitive memories say that they would put on music and I would sit in front of the speakers and not move for hours, and it’s not very often that I don’t move. The first thing I remember was always watching ‘The Muppet Show’ on this little black-and-white TV we had,” he recalls, as Ryan H. chimes in with, “Ha! He always reminds me of a Muppet.”

“There was a classical pianist I saw when I was 5, Vladimir Horowitz. His hands were hitting the piano so hard; the sound was huge. I had never ever seen a piano in person, but when I heard what was happening I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do,’” Jason continues. “When we moved to California my parents told me I had to learn an instrument, so I picked the piano and started lessons when I was 8. My father is a musician. He played classical guitar so well that it just looked impossible and that actually steered me away from guitar for years. I didn’t pick up guitar until my nuts dropped and I hit puberty.”

“We’re sitting in the children’s section and Jason just used the ‘F’ word three times and just said ‘nuts dropped’ while little kids are walking by with their parents,” notes Harry.

Ryan B. also started playing instruments at an early age in Denver, Colo.

“I got a drum for my first Christmas when I was 6 months old because my mom’s brother got it just to piss her off as a joke. Then, I got a little Sears drum kit when I was 3. My mom plays ragtime piano, so I would play along on the drums to her. I started playing piano when I was 6, trumpet when I was 9 and then I got braces and couldn’t play anymore. The bandleader brought in a snare drum and I said, ‘Oh, I have to play that.’” he remembers. “A big moment for me was in January 1989 when I saw Gregg Bissonette give a drum clinic. I sat there watching the whole thing thinking, ‘I want to be that guy.’”

Ryan B. has played with the likes of Zappa Plays Zappa and Sex Tapes, and is also a teacher at Musicians Institute where he has the opportunity to touch the lives of many other aspiring drummers, just as Bissonette did his. Harry is also a teacher, but he came a bit late to the music game.

“I didn’t start playing bass until eighth grade, then I quit and eventually started playing again. All three of the other guys are schooled in music, know music theory and went to school for music. I went to school for history and english, but I always used music as an outlet. I played in some cover bands and realized I don’t want to live in small town,” says the Montana native, who spent time in Spokane, Wash. before moving to Los Angeles to play music in 2005. “I substitute teach and tutor now, and it’s fun working with kids. You really don’t know how you shape their future, as cheesy as that sounds, you can’t measure it by a paycheck.”

Harry goes on to mention a former student who is now a professional bass player and huge Rush fan, triggering Ryan B. to leap from his seat and grab a copy of Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night – also the title of Rush’s 1975 album, their first with the legendary Neil Peart – from a shelf behind me. 

“I’ve been staring at it the whole time,” he admits.

While many songwriters become interested in words through books or poems, Ryan H.’s creativity was sparked by a musical genre.

“Fascination with wordplay came with rap for me. When I was in high school I listened strictly to gangsta rap. I didn’t really take an interest in it until – as cliche as it may sound – I heard Bob Dylan. Country music, too, because where I’m from [Minnesota], everyone either listened to country or rap. Garth Brooks was huge, and I’ve always been a fan of Dwight Yoakam,” he confesses. “I didn’t get into being a musician until I was 19; before that I really didn’t pay attention to music. My dad always had the oldies channel on so there was a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’ I was a into grunge and late-‘80s Seattle bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. Some of my favorite bands of the last 10 years are Sigur Rós and Radiohead.”

“There’s basically a period of time between 1989 and 1991 where my music appreciation stops and his begins,” interrupts Jason.

“The reason why I respect Harry is he knows The Bends by Radiohead, which is the be-all, end-all of modern rock guitar songs from a songwriting point of view. He thinks it’s one of the best albums of that decade, and I agree. The other two [Jason and Ryan B.], I’m very suspect of,” laughs Ryan H. “I was also big into the Doors in high school because that movie came out and I started fooling around with alcohol and weed. Pink Floyd, too. My favorite music to listen to is classical music. I have it on all of the time, call me pretentious.”

“Well, those are two separate issues,” grins Jason.

Everyone in Black Belt Karate likes to make playful gibes at one another, particularly Ryan H. and Jason since they’ve known each other for over a decade. They were both part of Your Horrible Smile until that band parted ways in 2006.

“We didn’t talk for a few years. We had some unfinished music, and I had been pulling his ear saying we should finish some of the old demos just purely for licensing. We did some stuff at my house and then went to see his friend play with Sabrosa Purr around that time. It was exciting, we had fun and I sort of missed doing the rock thing because I had primarily been the Rufus Wainwright thing for a few years,” says Ryan H., who also composes music for television shows and commercials. “Then we ran into Ryan Brown that fall.”

“The night was Oct. 17, 2011,” begins Ryan B., and everyone starts laughing thinking he’s joking about the exact date. “The reason I know the date is because my daughter was born three days later. I went to see Jason play with a band I was in called Owl at the Viper Room, and Ryan and I hung out.”

“At one point I saw those two talking to each other and was thought, ‘yeah, that looks right,” recalls Jason.

“I actually was working at the Viper Room as a custodian that night,” Harry jokingly interjects to everyone’s amusement. “They didn’t know me then, but our worlds would merge later.”

“So we moved forward making music, but it didn’t cement since Ryan B. obviously had his hands full for a little while. We started working on the initial material for the band and shot a video. If you see our first video, Ryan B. and Harry aren’t in it, there’s actually not a bass player in it. Then we met Harry in then middle of the next year.”

“When I first got the call ,I knew Jason had a house that was in the Hills-esque, above the low level where all the common people live. I heard the first couple of songs, which sounded really good. They weren’t amateur, crappy demos like with most bands you audition for, so I thought he was loaded with a lot of money, which hasn’t been the case, but it’s been loaded with many other things as equally as valuable as money. The music, in my humble estimation, is what it’s all about anyway. That’s what drew me in because I’ve auditioned for bands with a big budget, but the music was awful,” admits Harry. “This band is a blessing. My old band was together for a long time, so I was devastated when it broke up. Then this band came along, and it’s been really healthy and good.”

“I love that we describe this band as ‘healthy.’ That makes me happy,” chuckles Jason.

“It’s just like a romantic relationship. We can disagree and have arguments, but we respect each other as people. That’s the key,” says Harry.

Black Belt Karate released their first EP, Volume 1, last year, and plan to put out another EP next year. They began 2014 by unveiling a new single each month and just released a video for the latest one, “Transformer.” Although, they hail from distinctly different cities across the nation, it seems they were always fated to come together as BBK in Los Angeles.

“I moved here with $30, and while nothing has transpired the way I wanted it to, a lot of really cool stuff has transpired. I’ve played with some really famous people, I get to make music with these guys that I’m really proud of and I’m a way better player than I used to be. That wouldn’t have happened playing covers in Spokane, Wash.,” Harry says.

“There are so many opportunities in Los Angeles. Things can and will happen here that would no way happen in Denver, Montana, Minnesota, Chicago, Michigan or Northern California,” adds Ryan B. “There are a million things that will happen, but you have to be here for them to happen.

“The other day, I was telling one of the artists I produce how happy I was to be home after a trip I went on, and he said, ’Ninety-five percent of the people that come to Los Angeles get really upset and leave. You’re one of the five percent, one of the people who comes here with their dreams, who has made it work,’” Jason tells. “L.A. is amazing, I absolutely love it here. Anything we need for what we do for a living is here, whether it’s on the business side (managers, labels, lawyers), resources (recording studios) or musicians. Los Angeles is like a big toolbox. Nobody moves here because it’s an aesthetically beautiful city, but the fact that everything’s available here for me to be able to realize my dreams makes it a beautiful place.”

Black Belt Karate performs Oct. 21 at the Satellite, Oct. 26 at Lucky Strike Hollywood and Dec. 11 at the Satellite. For more information, visit

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ruthann Friedman

Ruthann Friedman at the Marina Del Rey Jetty


At Marina Del Rey Jetty on Via Marina and Pacific Avenue, Marina del Rey

Whenever Angelenos say, “Oh, I never even go to the beach,” they’re just trying to be cool or there’s clearly something wrong with them. Being so close to the ocean is one of the best traits of this city. This is a sentiment that singer-songwriter Ruthann Friedman (primarily known for penning the Association’s 1967 hit single “Windy”) definitely agrees with.

“How can you get any better than this?” she asks as we walk along the water at her favorite spot, the Marina Del Rey Jetty. “Watching the power of the ocean, the tides, it puts things into perspective.”

As a 40-year resident of nearby Venice Beach, Ruthann first discovered this haven when she owned a little boat and would go sailing for fun.

“I used to go up the channel and out until the houses were just this big. I had to stay in view of the houses because I don’t know how to navigate. I would let the sails go, sit out there and it was almost like being on another planet,” she remembers. “When I was pregnant, my husband and I used to walk down here – me and my big belly. This is also the place where my youngest daughter and I used to come all the time. Even on a crowded beach day, nobody comes to this beach and it’s beautiful. When it’s a clear day you can see the mountains and the view is just extraordinary.”

She continues to visit the jetty on a regular basis just to soak in the nature that inhabits the area.

“I always hear a seal but rarely see it. Sometimes I think it’s just a record, like the recordings of dogs barking that people play at their houses to chase burglars away, because I try to find it but never see it,” she says with a chuckle. “There are lots of heron, egrets and sandpipers eating little crabs. I’ve seen hundreds of pelicans on the wall of rocks, taking turns getting fish. There is the Least Tern nesting area [pointing]. They put a fence around it so that the birds could nest, but what they didn’t figure on was cats! Cats didn’t care that they had a fence.”

Ruthann spent four decades in retirement from music, dedicating her life to raising her two daughters and earning her college degree (She graduated magna cum laude from UCLA in 2007.). However, when her 1970 debut album, Constant Companion, was reissued eight years ago, it sparked renewed interest in her talent, catalog and overall mark on the folk movement. Artists such as Devendra Banhart sang her praises, compilations of unreleased rarities she wrote from the 1960s through 1971 called Hurried Life and The Ruthann Friedman Songbook were released and Ruthann once again started creating songs. She just released Chinatown, her first new recordings in over 40 years, over the summer. 

When asked if she had spent any of those years writing, Ruthann quickly replies, “Nope, I was raising my kids! I’ve always kept journals, though, which is probably why I still had my writing chops when I started writing songs again. After being an English major I became much more critical of my own lyrics, so now writing a song takes me a lot longer than it used to. I like metaphors a lot – who doesn’t like a good metaphor? – but it really has to mean something.”

While Ruthann became known for her songwriting, she didn’t actually start composing until she was in her late teens. Most of her childhood was spent getting lost in books and the songs of others.

“I loved it all. I read every Grimm’s and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, all the Mary Poppins and Winnie-the-Pooh books. Reading, playing the guitar and learning songs were my escapes,” she confesses. “When I came to L.A., my teacher was a jazz guitarist. He taught me technique, chords and how to read music. Then I played the upright bass in the junior high orchestra because I was the biggest girl. That was a lot of fun.” 

Having been born and raised in the Bronx until age 10, the Pacific Ocean and shimmering swimming pools of Southern California were wondrous to the young Ruthann.

“My brother was just starting UCLA, and we rented a house in North Hollywood for a year that had a big swimming pool. It was so great because you don’t have swimming pools in the Bronx, then we bought a house in Sherman Oaks,” she recalls. “But as soon as I was able, I went over the hill. My dad was not a happy man. My whole family has a tendency towards depression, but thank god for antidepressants.”

While her brother and sister both went to the University of Chicago, Ruthann “just smoked dope and got in trouble” as the hippie movement was coming to life around her.

“My sister was 10 years older and my brother seven years older, so the times were a-changin.’ I had a lot of fun, but I also had a lot of problems,” she admits. “There were good people and bad people, but as far as social norms, it was a revolutionary time for women and minorities.”

Sixteen-year-old Ruthann started playing Bob Dylan songs, old blues covers and some of her own compositions at places like Barney’s Beanery and “Hoot Nights” at the Troubadour. She spent time venturing up to Big Sur and San Francisco, befriending the likes of Janis Joplin, Country Joe and Jefferson Airplane, before returning to Los Angeles where her friendship with Van Dyke Parks eventually led to an introduction to the Association.

“I met Van Dyke through guitarist Steve Mann when I was still living in the Valley. [Van Dyke and her] were kids together, having lots of fun. We walked around the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire on psychedelics,” she laughs. “Then, during the Watts Riots, I was living with the Association near Western and Melrose on the edge of it all. That was scary.” 

Ruthann’s stories about life in the L.A. area could fill an extra large tome. She actually wrote “Windy” while living in David Crosby’s basement in Beverly Glen. She’s lived in Palm Springs and Laurel Canyon, but Venice is her favorite neighborhood of all. 

“It makes me claustrophobic being in the city now. I like to feel cozy in a spot, like the jetty where I can get to the water. On Wednesday nights they have a sailboat race, and I come to watch them,” she says. “There’s a great little club over there [points to the marina] that my friend plays at some nights called Whiskey Red’s. My youngest daughter, who is a doctor now, would go to Santa Monica Playhouse, a professional group over on 4th Street that put on children’s workshops and productions. When she was fourth grade, she ran for student body president, and out of 1,000 kids they elected this fourth grader as president. At an event she was up at the podium making a speech and was totally fearless. Her energy and enthusiasm, I attribute it to the Santa Monica Playhouse.”

Bidding adieu to the ocean, we get in the car to grab some lunch at Ruthann’s favorite local restaurant, Tlapazola Grill, and she tells me about her feelings for the city.

“I was 10 when I came here, so Los Angeles is my hometown. Trafffic – I can get from Downtown to here using all the side streets because I know the city so well. I love it, and I hate it,” she admits. “I go up and visit my friends in Northern California, and it’s so beautiful up there, but this is my home.” 

We order two bowls of Ruthann’s usual, the Lemon Chicken Tortilla Soup, with big chunks of lemony chicken, queso fresco and diced avocado, and I ask her if Los Angeles’ Chinatown is the one that inspired the name of her new album.

“Whichever Chinatown you’re in, there’s always a mystery about it,” she replies. “I’ve been reading a lot of novels about Shanghai and how the Chinese came to America, Los Angeles especially, and what the community was like. The culture was so different, and that’s the mystery, interacting with a different culture in this country with so many cultures together, being able to retain your culture and still be a part of a different culture. Maybe we’ll make this a culture that includes all cultures, not a stew but a salad where everybody can get along. In a salad you can still taste a tomato as a tomato, but it goes very nicely with the green onion.”

Relationships with musicians of all genres is something that Ruthann has maintained even throughout her years away from the scene. Chinatown is evidence of that.

“Making the album was such a fun experience. It’s different hiring someone to play than having them say, ‘I want to play on this,’ and that’s what happened here,” she tells. “In fact, Aaron Robinson said, ‘I want to play on that,’ so he and Yvette Dudoit drove up with me to [Chinatown producer] John Muller’s house in San Jose to record. Aaron plays guitar, banjo and lap steel mandolin; my bass player is David Jenkins; David Goldstein added some drums; then I called Van Dyke and said, ‘I really need your style,’ so he came in and played piano on two and accordion on one.”

The album – mixed at the studio of another of her longtime friends, Jackson Browne – is a mix of many sounds, from jazz to folk, and features one cover, “Springhill Mine Disaster” written by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, that was inspired by recent global coal mine disasters. We have a bit of a laugh over one of Ruthann’s original tracks on Chinatown, “iPod.”

“I wrote that song before the advent of the Kindle. My husband had bought a Kindle, and I scoffed at it. But now I read on the Kindle,” laughs the lifelong bookworm. “I would read anything that was handed to me, and I still do now. I get lost in them; they were my escape when I was young because you never knew what was going to come through the door with my dad. I just reread Galapagos because I love Kurt Vonnegut. I love Margaret Atwood. I read a historical novel about John Wilkes Booth that was great and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. I just read the Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd who wrote The Secret Life of Bees. It’s a wonderful book based on a real woman.” 

Aside from filling her Kindle with new titles to read, Ruthann is already working on another album.

Chinatown has so many different genres squished together, so I’m trying to have this album go in one direction. I’m going back to my roots a little more with fingerpicking, bluesy kind of stuff,” she reveals. “I get lost playing the guitar, something strikes me and I play it more to see where it leads. That’s how I write songs, and then the lyrics come out of that generally.”

While she laments how certain L.A. venues have changed over the years and the “same old, same old” homogenized sound of popular music today, Ruthann Friedman is completely happy with her place in the grand scheme of it all.

“I appeal to a certain segment of the population; not everybody is going to love my music or lyrics, and that’s OK with me. I have long since lost any desire to be a big star. I’m quite happy to just do what I do, to get to record and play. I’m content with my life,” she says. “So many people want to be the star, and so very few people get to be the star. At a certain age you either have to be content with your life and happy with who you are, or you’re just going to be miserable because you didn’t get to be a star. I know a bunch of people who became stars, and although it’s cool that they have lots of money and can do whatever they want, I wouldn’t want their life. I’m sort of reclusive, I like to read and I wouldn’t want to be traveling all over the place all of the time. I’m happy with my life, and I have good friends – people who encourage my creativity rather than squelch it.”

Chinatown is currently available. For more information, visit

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mia Doi Todd

Mia Doi Todd at the Trails Café in Griffith Park


At Griffith Park 

Having first heard of Mia Doi Todd upon the release of her fifth album (Manzanita) in 2005, the singer-songwriter has been on my radar for almost 10 years. She has continued to create beautiful songs that showcase her uniquely soft yet powerful voice on four additional full lengths, making appearances on numerous compilations and soundtracks for films like Mood Indigo, the latest from Michel Gondry, who directed Mia’s colorful video for “Open Your Heart” in 2010.

I’ve always felt a little kinship with the L.A. native since she is also half-Japanese and has a keen fondness for nature, so it wasn’t that surprising when she happened to pick one of the places that I love most in the city as her own favorite, Griffith Park. We meet just south of Griffith Observatory at the Trails Café on Fern Dell Drive, order a biscuit with honey for her and her 2-year-old daughter Ynez and a strawberry lemonade for me and begin to talk about growing up in Los Angeles and Mia’s upcoming album, Floresta, which releases next week and was inspired by Brazilian music and culture.

“I grew up in Silver Lake, so I’ve been coming to Griffith Park since I was little,” Mia shares. “[Riding the train and carousel], that’s what we would do for my birthday.” 

At this, Ynez reminds her mom that she would like to ride on the ponies later on their way home to Glendale. It’s quite heartwarming to see the two ladies interact, and I’m sure that Mia feels quite fortunate to be able to share the places where many of her own childhood memories occurred with her daughter. She also considers herself fortunate to have been able to expose Ynez to the person she looked up to most in life, her grandmother.

“Luckily my grandmother was alive when Ynez was born, so she was able to meet her bachan, her great-grandmother before she passed away. My grandmother was my idol; she was such a hardworking, gentle lady,” Mia reflects. “She was a seamstress for a living, so she taught me to sew when I was 4 or 5. She worked at a lingerie factory with silk and lace – the hardest materials – so she could sew anything, doing very detailed and beautiful work. My mother and aunt had the most beautiful prom dresses when they were in high school because of my grandmother.

Mia continues to sew a lot of her own clothes and even some dolls for Ynez. One of the fabric stores she often frequents is in Downtown’s Garment District, Michael Levine, Inc. As a result of her father being a sculptor and painter, both Mia and Ynez love to draw and paint.

“[Growing up,] I was always drawing, sewing and doing crafty things in my room. I wasn’t very athletic, but I was really into school,” she says. “There was a lot of music in my grammar school, which was awesome. My teacher played guitar and sang. We would go around the room and get to choose our favorite song from a songbook to sing. That was really my first experience with singing.” 

At around 8 or 9, Mia’s mother – who is an Associate Justice for the state of California (She was the first female Asian-American judge in the country.) – took her to her first concert, Michael Jackson at Dodger Stadium.

“It was raining that night, and the show was so scary because it was the Thriller tour. I was totally freaked out,” she laughs. “I don’t know if I had ever been in such a big crowd. After that, the first concert I chose to go to that I got my mom to take me and some friends to was the Cure in 1989, also at Dodger Stadium.”

Mia’s own voice training began around this time. The family’s next-door neighbor was an opera singer and gave her private vocal lessons in his living room throughout her teenage years.

“That’s where the tone of my voice comes from,” she offers. “I started dancing in high school, too. We could take dance instead of P.E., so I did that.”

Although she didn’t start dancing until adolescence, her interest in dance and theater was sparked by her immersion in Japanese culture from a young age.

“My mother was on the board of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC), so we went to a lot of performances and art shows there. We went to see kabuki and Noh there,” she recalls. “My interest in Japanese culture definitely stemmed from all of that.” 

Mia was so taken with the culture that she went on to major in Asian Studies (with a focus on Japan) at Yale University, becoming immersed in the country’s history, religion and art. She was especially drawn to Butoh, Japanese dance theater and eventually received a grant from Yale to study the art form in Japan.

“When I was back east, I saw Kazuo Ohno perform at Amherst College. I had already been into Butoh, but seeing him live really heightened my interest in it. He was already 92 or 93 when I was studying under him in Tokyo; he was there, but his son, Yoshito, was leading a lot of the workshops,” she remembers. “I also studied with Min Tanaka, whom I consider a great teacher, during my year in Japan.”

Going away to college and then traveling to Japan were the first experiences Mia had away from Los Angeles, and this definitely had an impact on her. 

“I wrote my first song at the end of high school, and by the time I was in college, I was writing a lot of songs. There’s the whole first generation of songs that I only have on a tape, and they’re really funny,” she laughs. “Then there’s the second generation of songs that were recorded in 1996 and released on my first record, The Ewe & the Eye. Those were written around when I was 20 years old.”

“Going to the East Coast I could definitely see myself as a Californian more because it’s not until you go away that you see where you’re coming from, what’s behind you. I found out I was definitely a California girl, I didn’t know until,” she continues with a smile. “There are other places I would like to live but I have such a strong community here, roots, family and friends. It’s so hard to leave. We have such beautiful parks in Malibu, here at Griffith Park and we live really close to Angeles Crest at the top of Glendale. I find great comfort in nature and am always trying to find it.” 

Nature has always figured greatly in Mia’s work, and she feels that it relates to the fact that growing up in the city, she was constantly surrounded by asphalt. A longing to be in nature is always inside of her, it manifests itself even in the title of her albums. Her latest effort is called Floresta, which is Portuguese for ‘forest.’

Flore is flower, so in Portuguese floresta mentions the flowers of the forest not just the trees. The rainforest in Brazil is so rich, abundant and teeming with life, so Floresta captures that feeling,” she tells. “We made a video for ‘Cais,’ the last track on the album, in France, and it’s about nature being our path to salvation. That characterizes the whole message of the album. I’ve found so much solace in nature.” 

Mia has also found much comfort in Brazilian music. She was originally introduced to the genre via a compilation put together by David Byrne, Beleza Tropical.

“Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, a lot of huge Brailian stars are represented on that compilation; hearing that for the first time was like discovering the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen. I listened to that CD for years and gradually became more familiar with all the different artists on it,” she says. “Over time, Brazilian music became more popular in the states, and a lot of my DJ friends collect the original vinyl, so I got to hear the albums that the singles came from – so much amazing music. My love of Brazilian music has just continued to grow.” 

As her fascination with Brazilian music and culture flourished, she decided to travel to the country to play some shows and became acquainted with drummer and percussionist Mauricio Takara.

“I got to play at Circo Voador, this amazing venue in Rio opening for Marcelo Camelo who is like the Beck of Brazil just by chance. Immediately, I was so accepted by all the people I met in Mauricio’s community. They would be surprised that I wasn’t from São Paulo, while here in Los Angeles, it’s the opposite. People are always asking me where I’m from,” she laughs. “I felt so accepted in Brazil, and it started to be less of the ‘other.’ I spent six weeks there, went back later that year and made lifelong friends.”

Upon returning from that first trip to Brazil in 2009, Mia began working on material inspired by the culture with guitarist and arranger Fabiano do Nascimento. After going back to Brazil last November to work on a track, “Jardim do Amor,” with Takara for the Red Hot + Bach compilation that released this summer, Mia finally found the perfect place to record the songs she and do Nascimento had been putting together for the past four years.

“Mauricio’s family had moved their studio into an amazing new location that was built in the ‘80s by an Argentinian architect. It’s the most beautiful studio that I’ve ever been in with lots of Brazilian hardwoods, paneling all over, modern architecture,” she gushes. “I had been wanting to make this record, Fabiano and I had been working on this material for four years, and it was getting to the point here we need to record it, capture it or else just move on. Once I found that studio, I said, ‘OK, we’re going to do it!’” 

Floresta is comprised of compositions by some of the Brazilian masters who first inspired her, Nascimento and Veloso, as well as Joyce, Tom Zé, Cadeia, Tom Jobim, Dorival Caymmi and Dércio Marques. There was just one hurdle that Mia had yet to overcome: All of these songs have lyrics composed n Portuguese, and she doesn’t speak the language at all.

“In order to learn the songs I had to know what I was singing, so I do understand all the lyrics. The way I chose the songs had a lot to do with the lyrical content, so I just have to convey the emotion of the songs, the feeling of them, through the music for the listeners in the states,” she admits. “A lot of the interpretations of Brazilian music that get to us in the U.S. are more club oriented, lounge music or jazz with a lot of production, that are more slick. I approached the songs like folk songs. I was aiming for a more roots-y album; that’s what I could bring to it. There are way better singers who could perform these songs in a super fabulous way, but I wanted to go to the core of them because they’re just beautiful songs.”

While several of the songs deal with sad subjects, Mia says that transforming that sadness into something sublime is “the joy that pierces through the cloud.” Beauty can be found in even the saddest of places. Music gives many people solace, a diversion from their troubles. Throughout the recording of Floresta, Mia had her own doubts about being worthy of recording songs by such legendary musicians, but the power of the music itself was undeniable.

“As a songwriter I just love Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso, so I grappled for a long time, 'why should I be doing this,' 'can I do them justice?' Even while we were recording, I was still wondering, ’why am I doing this,'” she says. “But I learned so much, it was so fun. I love these songs, and to be able to play them, sing them is just a dream. I hope that joy is contagious in the songs. And for me, on my path of growing as a musician and songwriter, digesting this material fuels my own songwriting.”

I can’t wait to see what’s going to come next from Mia Doi Todd.

Floresta will be available Sept. 16. Mia Doi Todd performs at Floresta’s release party Sept. 15 at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo. For more information, visit

Friday, September 5, 2014

Mike Watt

Mike Watt as the "Prac Pad" in San Pedro's Angels Gate Cultural Center


At Angels Gate Cultural Center
3601 S. Gaffey St., San Pedro

Over a dozen years of conducting band interviews and all the unique Jigsaw adventures I've had in Los Angeles thus far have taught me to always expect the unexpected. Never in my wildest dreams, though, did I imagine that I would get to experience loading out with Mike Watt.

It was a bit daunting to even prepare for a conversation with the legendary bassist and co-founder of groups like the Minutemen, Dos and Firehose, but what better way to break the ice with someone than to work up a sweat carrying a drum set from the band van to the "Prac Pad" together? There we were in the heart of Angels Gate Cultural Center where Watt's rehearsal space has been located for the past 28 years, and only a few minutes go by before he begins to give me a detailed history of the place.

Originally established as a military base commissioned to protect the harbor, most of Fort MacArthur's land was eventually turned over to the City of Los Angeles in 1977 and divided into Angels Gate Park (home to the Korean Bell of Friendship) and Angels Gate Cultural Center, an artists' colony that houses workspace for 52 local artists, writers, photographers, jewelers, printmakers and, of course, musicians. 

Inside the Prac Pad
"I have one of the oldest spaces; it was the officers' latrine. I pulled out all the shitters and put that bulkhead and hatch in. To my port were the showers, there's a guy who builds sets for Hollywood in that one; where the sinks were, is a crane operator. They both work full time and do music on the side; I'm the full-time music guy here," explains Watt. "When D. Boon and I were boys living in the proj apartments, it was hard to play with a drummer. We were always looking for a guy who had a shed, someplace to make it happen. So when I found this practice pad I really held onto it. This isn't the biggest pad, but it's big enough for trios, which I'm partial to anyway. I'm very lucky. "

The cultural center is located at the top of a hill with a gorgeous view of the harbor, but as we finish carrying the kit inside and I get my first view of Watt's space, I see an even more breathtaking site. The walls of the practice studio are covered in memorabilia – posters, paintings, photos, notes – that he has collected over the years.

"Here's the libretto for my third opera [2011's Hyphenated-Man], so I could pound all of the words into my brain," Watt points to a poster board hanging on a wall covered in lyrics. "Most of this stuff is all what people give me on tour. This anchor hanging around my neck was given to me, as was this bicycle spoke around my wrist. I'm superstitious, maybe it's good luck to keep all these things, and it's a form of gratitude." 

It's evident in his body language just how sincere Watt is when he speaks of his thankfulness for his fans. His speaks with humility and a frank openness about everything and anything, including his amusement over calling a former military home base for almost three decades when his Navy veteran father told him never to enlist.

"The military is still in my life! It's trippy, but at least it's in positive ways," he chuckles. "When I was a boy I never saw him because of Vietnam. He had his 'tours,' but when he came home, the first couple of days he would drive me around, telling me about his adventures. I think that gave me the hankering for touring, that sensibility of working the ports/towns. That's why I used his life in the navy as a parallel in my first opera [1997's Contemplating the Engine Room] to tell the story of the Minutemen. This tour coming up is my 64th tour, and I never get tired of it."

The tour he mentions is in support of Canto Secundo, the sophomore album from his trio with guitarist Stefano Pilia and drummer Andrea Belfi that released last week. Watt came up with the three-piece's name, Il Sogno del Marinaio (Italian for 'the sailor's dream'), in tribute to both his sailor father and his Italian mother. Since both Pilia and Belfi are Italian, the name just fit.
Watt, Stefano Pilia and Andrea Belfi (Hiyori Minato)

"Stefano and Andrea aren't just players, they're both composers. The closest thing I've done to this band is Dos or the Minutemen where there's collaboration," he describes. "With the opera bands or with the Stooges, it was either giving direction or taking direction. I know my name's used a lot because these guys aren't really known here, but it's not a band like those other bands. Do I call it Mike Watt and the Missingmen because I'm full of myself? No, I want people to know who to blame! Don't blame Raul [Morales, drummer] or Tom [Watson, guitar], blame Watt."

Having met Pilia in 2005 while touring Italy with his second opera, The Secondman's Middle Stand, Watt immediately said yes when the guitarist asked if he would come back to the country to play a festival with him and Belfi four years later.

"We're going to learn a bunch of songs for one gig? Let's do five or six gigs. We're going to learn them for the gigs, so let's record them. In the old days recordings were just flyers for gigs, but as I become older I realize these are your gravestones for when you're gone," Watt tells. "So we recorded La Busta Gialla, which didn't come out for three years because [we're all] involved with lots of projects, and finally got some time to tour a year and a half ago. I really got to know them playing on that tour, so we said, ‘Let's make a second album.’”

While La Busta Gialla featured several guest players, Canto Secundo ('the second song'),  which was recorded by Bruno Germano at Vacuum Studio in Bologna, really showcases the trio, and Watt feels the band has really found its voice on the effort. Whenever he mentions his fellow musicians and Germano, he calls them "fratello Andrea," "fratello Stefano" and "fratello Bruno," literally referring to them as brothers, and his affection for them is palpable.

"Fratello Bruno has his studio in a barn with a farmhouse next to it where I stayed, and they cooked for me every day. They're really sweet, genuine men. It's a sincerity that they have. When they say ['fratello'], it's not just for show," he shares. "There's young people in the music scene that are really intense and beautiful. It's almost like all that work we – the Germs, the Minutemen, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü – did wasn't for nothing. It wasn't just about our bands, we were laying out something that other cats picked up on. There are a lot of ethics and values from those old days that got transmitted somehow to cats that weren't even born yet, that have their own world. In [Pilia and Belfi's] case they're from another land, but we have so much in common it really blew my mind." 

Through music, two young Italians and a 'cat from Pedro' have found common ground. Although Watt has several years of experience on them, he actually views the two Italians as the teachers and he as the student. However, he is going to have to assume the role of leader as the trio embarks on a national tour next week that has them doing a whopping 53 gigs in 53 days.

"It's in the tradition of Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, the way we did it in the old days. The way D. Boon used to play gigs, like Ig [Iggy Pop], was that it might be the last gig so you don't go half way. That had a big bearing on me, and I just figure when you go out, do as much as you can before the weather turns bad. It's like vaudeville [Fun fact: Watt's maternal grandfather was a vaudevillian for a time.], the idea of working the towns," he says. "One thing about Pedro, probably why I've stayed, is I'm spoiled by the geography and the weather. I figure there's Pedro weather in every part of the country, you just have to time the tour right, usually in spring and fall. If it's a fall tour, I go through the country clockwise to get out of the north before it gets cold and wait until the south cools off. If it's spring, I go counterclockwise to get out of the south before it's too sweaty and wait for the north to thaw."

Aside from the ideal weather, what makes San Pedro so special to Watt are the many experiences he has had in the town since moving there at the age of 10. There isn't a better guide to the L.A. community than him, whether he's talking about its fishing industry or Angels Gate. When I tell him that I've never visited the Korean Friendship Bell, he proceeds to bestow a wealth of knowledge on me.

Korean Friendship Bell at Angels Gate Park
"When I graduated high school in 1976 it was America's 200th birthday, and Korea gave that bell as a present. It doesn't have a clapper, it has a big log that they bang it with on New Year's and Fourth of July," he informs. "The basketball court there is used a lot for commercials, and there's also a youth hostel. Euros get kind of bummed out because they want to see Hollywood, and they're 30 miles south! The Minutemen living close enough to play in Hollywood but not being in Hollywood helped make us us." 

The Minutemen's story began when Watt was 13. D. Boon just happened to fall out of a tree to the ground right next to him in a San Pedro park, and they became fast friends. As a way to keep them off the streets after school, Boon's mom, who played guitar, told them to form a band with her son on guitar and Watt on bass even though he had no idea what a bass guitar was ("I just played a regular guitar with four strings. I didn't see a real bass close up until I was 16, and it blew my mind!"). The only albums Boon had were Creedence Clearwater Revival, hence Watt's lifelong affinity for wearing flannels.

"I thought if I wore the singer's shirts that D. Boon would like me, that's how I got into flannels. I was from Navy housing, I didn't know they were for farmers and lumberjacks. I thought, 'Marc Bolan has a boa. John Fogerty likes this plaid," he confesses with a grin. "Even playing music, the culture at the time was to copy. The guy who plays guitar the best is of course the one who plays 'Black Dog' the best. No one used music as expression. It was more of a technical thing, trying to copy."

Some of the albums they tried to emulate began to inspire what would become the musical foundation for the Minutemen.

"With D. Boon, his idea of politics was not just put them in the words, he wanted to put them into the band. Since he was the guitar man, dominant at the top of the pyramid, I was going to play little and trebly. We got the idea from R&B bands where I could hear the bass – Larry Graham [Sly and the Family Stone], James Jamerson – and English rock bands where they put it loud – John Entwistle [the Who], Jack Bruce [Cream], even the Animals and Kinks. Over here it was too blurry, except for R&B partly because of how they composed it, they played trebly to make space," he recalls. "The whole idea of the Minutemen was we're going to make it like an economy: I'm going to hold back, play trebly and leave room. I want the bass and drums up there, not just holding the beat but with fills. We're going to get a conversation going where the power gets distributed equally. That's where the Minutemen sound comes from." 

One of the first punk gigs the two friends went to in San Pedro – the Bags – was actually in the barracks on the lower reservation (now Cabrillo Marina) of Fort MacArthur. The Minutemen eventually came together in 1980 with Boon on guitars/vocals, Watt on bass/vocals and George Hurley on drums with the intention of eschewing any band member hierarchy and genre boundaries à la the ethos of the burgeoning punk movement. 

"I can't imagine the Minutemen without the punk movement. It was profound on us; it changed everything. It wasn't styled music, it was more like permission to go crazy, a state of mind. The style was up to each band, the way you painted, wrote, took pictures," he recalls. "This scene really attracted us on an acute level,'why not use songs as expression?' It was exciting, provocative and we didn't care that it was still little. [When punk was new] we had to build up a thick skin and not care what anybody thought. In school we didn't care about safety in numbers because we weren't getting it. I didn't care as long as D. Boon was my friend."

The music world's reaction to punk was incredibly intense, and Watt's dad definitely had concerns.

"My pop gave me a little talk when I was about 19. He gets a six pack of beer, and we're sitting on the deck of my little pad. He asks, 'What's this punk shit about?' He had no music people in his family, seeing all this imagery of Sid Vicious bleeding, so you can imagine what he was thinking," he remembers. "I say, 'Me and D. Boon, we're going to find our own voice, write songs, record, do gigs.' He says, 'Yeah, yeah, but what's it really about? Is it socialist?' I didn't mean to but I laughed, he grabbed the leg of the table and his hazel eyes turned slate gray because he was so pissed. But then he let it go, and we never ever talked about it again." 

His father was never able to see the Minutemen perform before Boon's death in 1985, but he was able to see Watt play with Firehose. Being able to watch his son run his crew of bandmates and expressing himself through music led to his acceptance of punk and music being Watt's actual career.

"He didn't understand why I still played even when D. Boon got killed. He didn't know I was making a living at this, so I started sending him postcards from the road. He was like, 'Whoa you play all over, you're like a sailor.' I could tell from him watching everything at the Firehose show, he saw it was just a way of expressing myself. It wasn't part of somebody's hand-puppet shit. It was validation in a way," he shares. "The lame thing about the cancer that killed him [in 1991], I was just starting to get to know him. Growing up without him, there sure is a parallel to me working the towns and not being home a lot. I never had kids, I didn't want to do that to them." 

Although he never had kids, Watt was married to Kira Roessler for six years. They met in 1984 when Roessler was part of Black Flag, who were touring with the Minutemen at the time. It's clear from the way he talks about her that there is still much love between the pair.

"When she was on tour with Black Flag, K. would fly home to do midterms because she was working on getting an engineering degree from UCLA. She taught herself programming, did it for 25 years after Flag, taught herself ProTools and got into dialogue editing for film," Watt gushes. "She just got her second Emmy for 'Game of Thrones,' and what's more, she got a Golden Reel Award from her peers, who are 99 percent boys – just like in hardcore. I'm so proud of her. She's got balls like church bells." 

The two bassists formed Dos in 1985, a few months before Boon's tragic death. Roessler moved to the East Coast for an internship at Yale, but they continued to send each other improvised jams on four-track cassette tapes.

"She would record on two of the tracks and leave two open for me. We have to give K. the credit for introducing me to trading files, collaborating with somebody without being in the room with them, because she's a force. When she wants something done she doesn't look for excuses, she looks for ways to get it done," he says. "Not this October but the next one, it's 30 years for us. I've had a band for 30 years! We're planning to make an album called 30 Year that she's going to produce and record." 

It was through collaborating with others that Watt was able to begin to move on after Boon died. Although I don't think if anyone can ever completely heal after losing a childhood friend that had become more of a brother than just a bandmate. 

"Life deals you hands. D. Boon got taken away from me, and I had to – I didn't have to, I didn't think people wanted to hear me anymore – but people asked me to play with them," Watt says with tears in his eyes. "Thurston [Moore of Sonic Youth] asked me to be on the Evol record and a Madonna cover for the Ciccone Youth EP. Then this kid from Ohio..."

Ed Crawford, a Minutemen fan and guitarist, drove all the way from Ohio to San Pedro to convince Watt and Hurley to continue making music together, and Firehose was born. Firehose, Dos, the Sonic Youth tracks – these were just the beginning of the next stages of Watt's musical career. In addition to his solo albums (Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and the three punk rock operas), he has collaborated with the likes of the Stooges, J Mascis, the Go Team, Nels Cline, Richard Meltzer and Yuka Honda and performed with everyone from Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl to his Secondmen, Missingmen and Il Sogno del Marinaio trios.

"Collaboration is much more open now, you don't have to live in Pedro to collaborate with Watt anymore. You can live in Italy. It's a whole different sensibility than 'guy jumps out of a tree on you when you're a boy, and you make a band,'" he laughs. "I  usually don't like the name game so much. Virtuosos are amazing, but I like it when people's personas – a vibe, spirit – strike me. I'm more partial to that because of the way I came up through music. I was not a musician, I got into music because I just wanted to be with my friend. So, that's how I pick guys in bands. " 

Watt continues to get solicited and collaborate with musicians all the time because he not only wants to keep growing as a person but give back to the punk movement that has been so integral to his entire life.

"Stop learning, stop living. Don't be a curmudgeon because everyone has something to teach you," he says with a smile. "Part of it is to be [learning], but part of it is to spread it out. I do feel that I owe the movement, and bassists are conducive to that. We're like glue. What's glue without anything to stick to? A puddle. I don't want to be a puddle."

Canto Secondo is currently available. Il Sogno del Marinaio perform Sept. 11 at the Echo. For more information, visit

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tobias Daniels

Filmmaker Tobias Daniels at his L.A. haven, a balcony at the Grove

At The Grove 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles (Mid-City West)

While several artists have opted to do their Jigsaw interviews at the Grove, none of them took me to the exact place in the shopping center that Los Angeles-based filmmaker Tobias Daniels did. In fact, I'm willing to bet that none of them even know about the hidden-in-plain-sight balcony that he refers to as his "hideaway."

"This is the best kind of secret because it's in such a commercial area. It sounds weird because it's the Grove, but it's like my little East Village," he shares. "When I was in the East Village I could watch people from my apartment. I would leave the windows open and stare at people, watch the world go by."

Albeit, there hasn't been much time for Tobias to do too much people-watching lately. On top of his day job as a videographer for PopStar! Magazine, he has spent the past six years working on Black Velvet, a feature-length documentary on African-American LGBT performance artist T-Boy. Filming has taken him everywhere from San Diego and Miami to Alabama and Berlin. Tobias finally has some time to breathe in between wrapping up post-production and preparing for the doc's theatrical release, so he is able to meet me at the Grove's famous fountain and lead me to his favorite spot in the entire city.

"The reason I brought you here is because if I'm editing, coming up with concepts or writing, I need that space to clear my head," he says, as we make our way to the Starbucks located on the third floor of Barnes & Noble, place an order and step out onto the balcony. "I either get a large hot chocolate if it's cold or a small latte and a triple chocolate chunk cookie. The great thing about this balcony is it's set back so you can spy on people without anyone knowing. The Grove has this piped-in, magical music, it's kind of like Disneyland here, and people do the weirdest things like dance and sing to each other. There are couples, gays and tourists – it's a people-watching situation that you don't really get anywhere else in L.A. I literally just stare at people until my own head is focused enough so I can sort through whatever I need to sort through idea-wise. I normally come in the evening after I've gone through the day and I've come to that point where my brain cannot process anything else, so I just stand here and watch people."

We watch shoppers walk along the road beneath us for a while, take in the amazing view of the Hollywood Hills and Tobias begins to tell me about his childhood. Although he was born in Jersey, most of his youth was spent in Iowa and Colorado. Because of his mother's love for film, no matter what state his family called home, movies were always a part of the household.

"Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple was the first time I was interested in the director, the actors and understood that the film wasn't just this thing to entertain me, that something bigger went into it. My first VHS was E.T. I was a teenager when The English Patient came out, and I've probably seen that 150 times. It's another sweeping epic, so put that and The Color Purple side by side, and that's one side of the coin," he begins. "On the flip side, I like the weird, dark and deep. Stanley Kubrick because I don't know how many people can do the weird things he did and get away with it the way he did. A lot of people have tried, and it's not art the way that he made it. I like scenes from Eyes Wide Shut, but I don't know if i like it as a whole. I like 2001, but I don't fully understand it. I'm not going to lie! Then, Federico Fellini because he was brilliant. It's like watching a song when you watch his movies, and they're weird also. There's a part in the middle of La Dolce Vita where I lose focus, and once I get through to the other side it changes my entire mood. 81/2, I like because it's about the crazy life of an Italian director so I'm glued to the screen the whole movie."

As a child, Tobias performed in choir and theater. In fifth grade he write, directed and starred in his first play, "Birds Fly North" about a flock of geese that, instead of flying south for the winter, flies to New York to hang out in Central Park. Performing continued to be his first love throughout high school and, just like that flock of geese, Tobias moved to New York to attend the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. 

There Tobias learned about script analysis, working with actors and being an actor. Around this time he was also featured in a Christina Aguilera music video directed by David LaChapelle, and was chosen to pose as a young Muhammad Ali in LaChapelle's contribution to the Taschen GOAT art book. All of these experiences, however, were not bringing Tobias the happiness he had expected.

"I woke up one day and said I'm not good at this – not that I couldn't do it, but I wasn't finding joy in it. My classmates said, 'You're good, though,' and I replied, 'It takes you five seconds to drop into a role. That process takes me two hours. If I'm going to do something that takes that much out of me, I want it to be something I love, that makes me happy," he remembers. "Thankfully at that time I was working on a friend's play, assisting with light and sound. I ended up running light and soundboards for equity stages and realized that I liked it. There was literally a moment when I was queuing the lights, the action of turning up the lights and the actor moved me, and I was filled with joy. I knew this was in line with what I want to do." 

To please his parents, he enrolled at the University of Illinois, majoring in liberal arts. He was able to meld his senior thesis with a TV pilot he wrote and was developing. The script landed at Nickelodeon, and Tobias was soon on his way to Los Angeles where the pilot would be produced.

"That went nowhere," he laughs. "It was a really horrible year after that, I had no plan B. Something told me to stay in Los Angeles, and I suffered through that first year. Then I got the job at PopStar!, and the pieces started coming together."

Even though his childhood was quite gypsy-like, Tobias has adjusted to living in one city quite well. I don't think he would rather be anywhere else than Los Angeles.

"I love that weather is always like it is today, that our only complaint for the past few weeks is that it's been a little humid for our fragile skin," he teases. "I have really awesome friends here. That might be a testament to working with really great people and out of that, developing great friendships. The word on the street right now is if you're artistic, you're either moving to L.A. or Berlin, so I feel like this is the place to be. I love Berlin, but it's not L.A."

Some of the places that make Los Angeles home for Tobias, include Harvard & Stone ("Their drinks are expensive but delicious and strong, and the bartenders are really cute!"), happy hour at El Carmen, a brunch of eggs benedict at Home or Alcove Café and burritos from Cactus Mexican Food No. 2 on Beverly. Since Tobias only lives a few miles away from the Grove in East Hollywood, he can reach his beloved balcony haven in a quick drive. 

It's apparent how much time he spends here, when the Starbucks barista asks him, "Do you work around here?" "No, I'm just obsessed with the Grove," he replies with a grin.

He often catches a double feature at the Grove's Pacific Theatres and raves about the Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Sorbet at the Bennett's Ice Cream Stand located at the Original Farmers Market next door.

As he finishes his latte and triple chocolate chunk cookie, we revisit his years spent in New York to the time when he first encountered T-Boy and the inspiration for Black Velvet was born.

"I was bartending, and he was the Friday-night DJ at the club that I worked at in Chelsea. He always had a good understanding of music – not just Bobby Brown sang this song, now Britney Spears is singing this song and I'm going to play the Bobby Brown version, but where did Bobby Brown get the original beats from, it's probably from a group like the Temptations. He would find a cool way of mixing the Temptations and Britney Spears; it always blew my mind. He introduced me to new music. It was about the time that hipster really began to take off, and he had that whole Solange, Afropunk vibe about him." Tobias recalls. "Eventually we became friends, and he told me what his real passion was: singing. He told me his story, about being in the pre-Don't Ask, Don't Tell Navy. He's a very tall, thin, statuesque man, who wears these crazy outfits. The best way I can describe him is if Grace Jones and Marilyn Manson had a lovechild, that would be him." 

Tobias was so struck with T-Boy's musical ear, flair and talent that he knew the performer would make for a fascinating subject for a documentary. As the layers of T-Boy's personal history became revealed, the crew traveled from San Diego to Miami, Alabama and eventually Germany to capture the entire story. To fund the the trip to Germany, the crew turned to Kickstarter, and  their goal was generously met. 

From the crowd-source support and finding an Emmy-winning Director of Photography (Greg Harriott) to shoot the film to the unexpected raw emotions expressed by T-Boy and his family in scenes, Tobias feels like luck has undoubtedly been on his side throughout this project. What began as a rise-to-fame story turned into something incredibly bigger in Black Velvet.

"It took so long to do this film because there was a bigger story about acceptance and his family that came to the surface when we were filming in San Diego. We just went there to get footage for his Navy years, and two weeks after that Don't Ask, Don't Tell was overturned. The story turned and became more about his struggle. I realized that the struggle in the end is what is giving him fans, it's what's making him a success [in Germany]," Tobias comments. "My cousin is helping me find a scholar to talk about African-Americans during the jazz era, like Josephine Baker, who went to Paris, Germany and other places in Europe to find success because here they were second-class citizens. It's the story of a lot of LGBT artists now." 

Tobias assures that Black Velvet may have moments that will make you cry and think about the bigger picture on certain issues, but it is anything but a depressing film.

"A lot of people have come up to me and said, 'This story needs to be told because it's a voice of a people.' I honestly wasn't going into it that way, but fully am embracing it now because it's how the story turned," he says. "Originally I wanted to make a movie about an artist who just happens to be gay, but now I'm fully embracing the gay because it has become a voice in it, a struggle unique to him but also a struggle of other LGBT artists. I don't have any answers, but all I have to do is say it out loud through the film. I'm not trying to find a solution, but I do know that I have to say it."

Tobias' own story is one of bravery in admitting that performing wasn't for him, which eventually led to him finding his true calling behind the camera; in taking the chance of life in Los Angeles where he had no job, family or friends to begin with; and in continuing to push himself creatively as a filmmaker.

"I have the same feeling now that I did when I was young, I knew in my heart that I was going to be in the biz. I'm the black sheep artist in my family, and there was always this 'I need to stick with this no matter what' [mentality]," Tobias concludes as he reflects on life as an indie filmmaker. "You make mistakes, and through them you learn other ways of coming to a shot that a director got with a giant budget. I can modify this and kind of get the Kubrick effect. [I've learned] that sometimes you have to do the best with the circumstances you're in. In the end, I will be a better director, a more flexible director, because of it. You can't always have the big sweeping epic, but sometimes you can create the same effect with what you have. It's about realizing that and letting go."

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