biography - page 3

i. "... help me kill my time..."

Elliott's first experiments with recording began when he was around fourteen.

Elliott: "I've done it [recording] since I was 14 or so, hours and hours of unmarked blank tapes. ... I borrowed [a four-track] for a really long time, a year at a time. It was a friend of mine's brother-in-law's, and he didn't really need it. One of those old Tascam ones with the big knobs. ... Sometimes I would sync up two of them by cueing them up and hitting play at the same time and constantly adjusting the speed on one of them to catch up with the other. It's not that hard to do. ... I was really taken with the prospect of being able to record one thing and then another thing at a different time that would play at the same time. It was all about parts and I didn't think much about sounds. I EQ'd things, but I just did it instinctively."

Halfway through his freshman year in high school, Elliott made a momentous decision. He left Duncanville and went to Portland, Oregon, to live with his father. The move away from his mother's family, and away from Texas, represented Elliott's first real attempt to make a positive change in his life. He once commented: "[My songs] come more from moving out of my Mom's family than anything else. ... There's the part of me that tries to chronicle other people's lives, especially my mom's." He once cited the lyrics to Waltz No. 2 (xo) as a specific example of a song that was, in some way, about his feelings as a child watching his mother and step-father in a karaoke bar.: "She appears composed, so she is, I suppose. Who can really tell? She shows no emotion at all, stares into space like a dead china doll..." The original version of this song included the lines "I love you, Mom," sung in a plaintive, pleading chord that probably had a little too much nakedly personal emotion in it to survive Elliott's subsequent revision of the song. Another reference to his mother may be in this unreleased song:

Talking to Mary, you know you dont have to shout
She can hear what you're thinking like you're saying it right out loud

After all, who else but your Mom always seems to know just what you're thinking?

His troubled relationship with stepfather is hinted at in a few songs. "Some Song" (a 1996 b-side, performed at many Heatmiser concerts) links an abusive home-life to the violent subcultures of Dallas:

Charlie beat you up week after week
and when you grow up you're going to be a freak
want a violent girl who's not scared of anything
help me kill my time
cos I'll never be fine
help me kill my time
you went down to look at old Dallas town
where you must be sick just to hang around
seen it on TV how to kill your man
then like Gacy's scene a canvas in your hand ...

In "No Confidence Man" (1994?), a parting of the ways is reached: "Charlie got a band in his hand, a rubber loop, says I'm the man you really want, so just act natural. Don't try to tell me your bullshit scheme... cos I gotta split, I'm late to leave, he gave me nothing but grief, some bullshit story, only I would believe. I've heard quite enough ... and you're full of it all the time." It's hard not to see this as a song about the emotions of a boy faced with walking away from a difficult situation at home-as Elliott did.

Leaving Texas and going to live with Gary Smith, Elliott found himself taking a natural interest in his Dad's work: psychiatry. "I would have liked to have done the same job. I've read a lot on that subject; particularly Freud. But anyhow, I was never the type to become a psychiatrist or a psychologist; I don't have enough to offer other people. As a kid, I wanted to be a mathematician, but then I realized I'd never be able to be independent, that I'd have to work for a business or some other organization. I turned back to my one passion-music ..."

Lincoln High School in Portland became the place where Elliott and his friends formed their first band: Stranger than Fiction. The band comprised Elliott (billed as either Steven Smith or Johnny Panic), Garrick Duckler, and Jason Hornick. In 1986 they added drummer Adam Koval. Elliott has remained in touch with both Garry and Jason; both are mentioned in booklet acknowledgements in Elliott's albums.

Elliott recalled: "I was in a band in high school. We didn't really play out. We just made tapes. We'd be recording an "album" so to speak except it'd be an album we'd record to cassette four track and then make some tapes. ... It was pretty exciting, it was something to do. It was a good way to spend time. I can't say much for the music though. The first thing we did, we had this drum machine called Dr. Rhythm which was not slick in any way at all. It didn't sound even remotely like real drums. The cymbal went "chhhhhhhh." So we'd program that and something else at the same time onto a track. We did a lot of bouncing or ping ponging, whatever you want to call it. We'd try not to put more than a couple of things on the same track. Everything was totally dead. We didn't have any effect at all. The next year after that, we had a real drummer and two four tracks and we were synching them up like I was talking about. We'd do the drums to two tracks in stereo because that was of utmost importance to have the drums and one other thing on one four track, and the other one would be mostly for vocals. We'd just chase the drum.... You hae to have some patience. I had a friend who had a Nakamichi. One time we mixed down to beta video tape 'cause supposedly that sounded better than cassettes. I couldn't really tell. We'd get kind of extensive with miking the drums. We'd round up as many mikes as we could. Sometimes I'd even use headphones for a mike."

A French fan, Laurent Vaissiere, wrote of Stranger than Fiction's 1985 tape: "Any kind of mudher":
"I heard a song from the tape that was played on local radio around here, and no doubt it was Elliott singing but with a sixteen year old's soft-toned voice. Basically, Elliott sings now with the same intonation as when he was 16. Slightly out of tune, though! The song is pretty, kind of a ballad-song with piano and bass and-that's very surprising-some loud rhythm box-'the eighties sound!'"

Elliott's precocity as a musician is underlined by how certain aspects of this period in his musical apprenticeship continue to surface in his work, both creatively and technically. Commenting on the song "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands" from his 1998 album XO, Elliott stated: "that song is derived from a song done by a band I was in during high school. The music is the same. It was planned to be an acoustic song that did that [switched to a sudden instrumental crescendo] in the end, but it needed to go on long enough that it would be a surpise." (Musican Mag interview)

It was around this time (1985-86) that Elliott composed what is, so far as we know, the earliest song that found its way into his mature repertory. Condor Avenue, written when he was 16 or 17, eventually took its place on his first album Roman Candle. The lyrics provide a collage of images that hint what life was like behind the scenes at Lincoln High in the late Reagan era: "I can't think about you driving off to leave barely awake, to take a little nap while the road is straight ... She took the Oldsmobile out past Condor Avenue, cops were running around the scene, looking for some kind of clue. They never get upset when a moth gets crushed, unless a light bulb really loved him very much. I'm lying down, blowing smoke from my cigarette, little whisper smoke signs you'll never get ..."