What I Like

For years, one of the primary criticisms leveled at me is that I’m too negative. I’m a hater. And it’s true, don’t get me wrong. I am a hater.

But I’m also a lover, which is why I’m a hater in the first place. So I thought I’d make a list of things I love. This isn’t a media list — that would be far too long — but just a general list of things I really like. So, without further ado:

Josh Ellis’s List Of Things I Like

Sleeping in cold rooms Beef ‘n’ Chedder sandwiches from Arby’s The smell of honeysuckle Listening to Van Morrison and Nina Simone while I cook Italian food Fog Shaker furniture Dave McKean Road trips The hour before sunrise Steamer trunks Very large dogs Horror movies 1977-1987 The Venture Brothers Sitting around on rainy days reading books and listening to Paul Simon Funky old barbecue restaurants Iced mocha lattés Dinner parties Chuck Taylors San Francisco (most of the time) Terry Gilliam movies Douglas Adams novels Wool overcoats Books about the Caribbean Red dirt Old stone buildings Minimalism Combat boots Leonard Cohen (both as a musician and as a snappy dresser) Girls with glasses African music Wandering Federico Garcia Lorca M&M cookies Empty places Old blankets Sandwiches in general Nina Simone, Nina Simone, Nina Simone Chimpanzees Banana espresso smoothies Boats England Movie parties with pizza Comic books Somerset Maugham novels Stormy weather Silence T.S. Eliot Legos Delta blues Corduroy pants Jeff Buckley’s voice Marlboros Berlin Chili Autumn Real Genius (the movie and the concept) Greg Dulli’s sense of style Cherry cola (C-O-L-A cola) Waterfalls It’s A Wonderful Life Robots Melancholy music Chocolate milkshakes The ocean

…maybe more when I think of it.

My First Perlin Noise Experiment

My First Perlin Noise Experiment from jzellis and Vimeo.

Yay! Robert over at Flight404 was kind enough to give me some pointers as to what I needed to do to get my Perlin flow field experiment working using Daniel Shiffman’s excellent Vector3D library. This is a first example. It’s simplistic and not terribly interesting visually, but it’s a start.

I’ve been trying to do this ever since I saw Robert’s magnetosphere video months and months ago, and I’m cheered up by finally making it work, in a simple way.

Whoo hoo!

Better Off Without A Wife

I was at the Double Down the other night, and I realized that I didn’t recognize anybody there. All the people I used to know — some by name, some just by face and a “Hey, dude, how’s it goin’?” were conspicuously absent.

I’m 29 now. The last couple of years, a lot of my friends have settled down, gotten married, had kids. I have no interest in any of those things. Not now, maybe not ever. I don’t want to buy a house in the ‘burbs, I don’t want to quit doing rowdy quasi-legal shit, I don’t want to stop wandering around the world. I want to do these things more than ever.

I had a realization tonight that I despise the idea of settling into any sort of domestic relationship. (Yeah, I know, I’m fightin’ ’em off.) But I’m just tired of having emotions, and sharing them. I’m burnt out. I’ve been hurt and hurt myself too much in the last few years.

And the idea of sharing my life with anyone who would get in the way of the things I want to do is completely horrible to me. And, let’s face it, most of the women I know would do exactly that. I’m not talking about wanting to screw every woman I can get my hands on — I don’t really want to do that — but I don’t want to domesticate, settle down, buy a house, get a steady job, and be respectable. I don’t want to answer to anybody if I want to fuck off across the globe. I don’t want anybody fussing at me about eating or smoking or staying up too late.

I’m a Lost Boy. And I plan to stay one. Because the comfort of love is not worth the pain of feeling it and losing it, or feeling it and never having it reciprocated, or any of the things you have to give up to keep it. Not for me, anyway. There are wilder skies than these.

Sprint Samsung SPH-M610

So I’m in the Sprint Ambassador program, which means they send me phones a couple of times a year, with a free unlimited account to use them with. I like Sprint for this, even though I stopped paying my other phone bill out of brokeness and they’ve sent it to collections. (Dear Sprint: I swear I’ll pay the bill as soon as I can.)

The phone they’ve given me most recently is the titular Spring Samsung SPH-M610. I actually like it. It’s not really a futurephone in any way, but it’s a perfectly useful cellular phone with a decent built-in camera. I especially like the fact that it works as a Bluetooth-connected modem with my MacBook Pro, straight out of the box: just set it up in your Networking panel and it runs like butter. It’s pretty fast, and it’s been a lifesaver a couple of times.

There are only two things, in fact, that I don’t like about it: 1) the ringer isn’t loud enough, and b) it uses a proprietary jack not only for power and USB, but also for wired headphone — you can’t just plug a 2.5mm headphone into it. Since I don’t like my Bluetooth headphone very much, and I have a really nice wired headphone I use when driving or when I need my hands, this is sort of a problem.

Other than that, I can actually recommend it as a low-end cellphone (as opposed to some multi-Benjamin rig like the iPhone or the Ocean or what-have-you). It’s thin and light, with a rubberized skin that keeps it from slipping out of your hand (I’ve only dropped it once or twice, and it survived with no ill effects). The software is pretty straightforward and easy-to-use, though I wish there were an easier way to turn Bluetooth on and off than to go through a couple of menus. The battery life is good — I usually need to charge it once every four or five days, unless I forget to turn the Bluetooth off after modem surfing, in which case it’s about two to three days.

I think I’ll probably keep this phone until Sprint sends me a new one. After a few years, I got sick of my Treo 650. I never used the smartphone features, and it was just too big and bulky and fugly and useless as a modem (or even with a Bluetooth headset). Unless I get one of the new Samsungs like my friend Matt has — which have dual QWERTY/keypad sliders — I’m not going to bother with anything more hardcore. I just don’t see the point, frankly…at least until cellphones and UMPCs finally just converge for good.

Scatterlings And Refugees (demo)

“Scatterlings And Refugees (demo)” (MP3, LAME encoded 192kbps)

This is just the demo version I recorded to play for Ryan and Tom, to get their input. It’s got some digital popping in it (I accidentally recorded the guitar part at too low a latency rate, so my hard drive couldn’t keep up, and there are tiny glitches in it.) But the album version will be pretty similar, pretty stripped down like this.

I just thought y’all might like to hear this. I love it very much.


We are scatterlings and refugees, we have never known peace We have never known a home Home is wherever we are when we’re together Peace is the sound that we make when we’re alone

I rang the New Year in In a field out in the suburbs Somewhere outside East Berlin I watched the fireworks Burn the night And I wondered where you were and if you were alright

We are scatterlings and refugees, we are bastards, we are orphans We never make a sound Traversing the oceans in perpetual motion Our feet don’t ever touch the ground

We were dancing Old soul records playing in an alleyway And we are old souls, you and me Disappearing at the dawning of the day

We are scatterlings and refugees, we have never known peace We have never known a home Home is wherever we are when we’re together Peace is the sound that we make when we’re alone

And when my telephone rings in the dark You say ‘Hey, I’m at the White Cross on Las Vegas Boulevard’ No matter where I am, I’ll be on a plane I’ll go anywhere to see you again

We are scatterlings and refugees, we are angels, we are monsters We never mattered anyway Patron saints of rented cars and last goodbyes in airport bars In the morning, like ghosts, we slip away

We slip away


I’ve put together a tracklist for my album. Most of the songs are newer; some I haven’t finished recorded yet (“The Big Darkness”, “Scatterlings And Refugees”, “Entropy”, “After The Ice Age”); there are a few older ones (“Sleeping In Flame”, “Sky Blue”, “Redwood City Station”). With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve decided to re-record everything again, because I finally feel like I know what I’m doing, for the most part.

The album was going to be titled The Big Darkness, but on reflection I’ve decided to call it Travelogue, because that’s basically what it is: all of the songs are about travel and exotic places and motion. The linchpin of the whole album is “Scatterlings And Refugees”, which I just finished writing, and which may be the prettiest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the song that owes the most to Paul Simon, both in lyrics and melody. (Have I ever mentioned that Graceland and The Rhythm Of The Saints are two of my favorite albums of all time? I must have.)

I started writing it for somebody I fell in love with; that didn’t work out (or actually work at all, or even get hired to work in the first place), but the song is about the good feelings involved in that, not the sad feelings. It’s a flat-out love song, a hopeful song, which is something rare for me — especially since I’ve decided that I’m not going to open myself up to those feelings anymore. It never works out (or gets hired to work in the first place) and it’s not worth getting the shit kicked out of me again.

But hell, maybe the song will work for somebody else. 🙂 That’s the best you can hope for as a pop musician, I think: to write songs that make other people fall in love.

I want to get this finished by the end of the year. Which, with my current roster of work projects, means I’m going to be invisible for the next few months. I’ve got a tentatively-scheduled work trip to Germany and Turkey in November (the details of which I’m not at liberty to talk about yet), and I may be spending a few weeks holed up in Nowheresville, Utah, also for work. I’m also hella broke, so I don’t have a lot of money to spend on socializing.

So don’t expect to see me. But I’ll post fragments of what I’m doing. And I’ll leave you with a bit of “Scatterlings”:

I rang the New Year in In a field out in the suburbs somewhere outside East Berlin I watched the fireworks burn the night And I wondered where you were and if you were alright

Red State Soundsystem – Airport Tunnel

Airport Tunnel (192kbps MP3, LAME encoded)

This track may be a work in progress — I may add vocals to it eventually — but I also really kinda like it the way it is. It’s a soundtrack for driving in the airport tunnel on Swenson here in Vegas in the middle of the night. (If you know the city, you know the tunnel I mean.)

It was inspired by recent listening to David Sylvian and Jon Hassell — particularly in the distorted “guitar” sweeps, if you know Hassell’s work, you can hear the influence. You can also think of this as a companion piece to “The Secret King Of Africa“, though the songs are very different. They’re both part of a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist, except in my head.

I’d like to see this track on a real movie soundtrack someday.

The Dark Is Sucking

I was extremely happy to see, earlier this year, that a film adaptation was being made of one of my favorite novels as a teenager, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. If you’ve never read the book — or the other four books in the series — they’re worth your time, at least if you’re into fantasy based upon British mythology. What characterizes the novels most for me — and what made them stand out to me when I first read them — is their intelligence and their pervasive sense of atmosphere. What I most remember about the novel is the way Cooper describes a small prosaic modern British town choked by snow and darkness — a place that is literally and metaphorically being crushed under the weight of its own history. It’s a quiet novel, and though the heart of it is a deep and desperate struggle between the Light and the Dark, it’s thankfully short of wizard duels and big explosions. The confrontations between 11 year old protagonist Will Staunton, his ally and tutor Merriman Lyon, and the Dark — represented by dark horseman the Rider and insane tramp the Walker — are mostly metaphorical. There’s a lot going on, but it’s all behind the scenes.

And who couldn’t love dialogue like this? (Copied over from Oz and Ends):

The rector stood up, his smooth, plump face creased in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible. “Certainly it has gone,” he said, looking slowly round the church. “Whatever–influence it was. The Lord be praised.” He too looked at the Signs on Will’s belt, and he glanced up again, smiling suddenly, an almost childish smile of relief and delight. “That did the work, didn’t it? The cross. Not of the church, but a Christian cross nonetheless.” “Very old, them crosses are, rector,” said Old George unexpectedly, firm and clear. “Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ.” The rector beamed at him. “But not before God,” he said simply. The Old Ones looked at him. There was no answer that would not have offended him, so no one tried to give one. Except, after a moment, Will. “There’s not really any before and after, is there?” he said. “Everything that matters is outside Time. And comes from there and can go there.” Mr Beaumont turned to him in surprise. “You mean infinity, of course, my boy.” “Not altogether,” said the Old One that was Will. “I mean the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level. Yesterday is still there, on that level. Tomorrow is there too. You can visit either of them. And all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for. And,” he added sadly, “the opposite, too.” “Will,” said the rector, staring at him, “I am not sure whether you should be exorcized or ordained. You and I must have some long talks, very soon.”

Brilliant stuff.

So I was very, very unhappy to see the trailer for David Cunningham’s film, which looks like a pretty blatant attempt to ride on some extremely profitable coattails. (I won’t go into the massive and bizarre changes between book and film; someone’s already done it for me.) There’s also a lot of discussion about Cunningham’s apparent evangelical bent…and it seems odd that they picked screenwriter John Hodge to adapt the novel; though he’s definitely an excellent writer, he’s most known for writing gritty and/or weird Danny Boyle films (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach) than fantasy.

But of course, the path that leads us here is a pretty clear-cut one: novels about boy wizard sell roughly a hundred trillion copies; movie adaptations of said novels do pretty much the same; good old Gandalf and Aslan (who, on screen at least, is a contracted employee of Walden Media, the same faith-based production company that’s making The Dark Is Rising) are worth their weight in gold; suddenly, every producer in Hollywood is hunting the used bookstores for cheap young adult fantasy properties they can option and turn into their very own personal magical mint.

Problem is, the “kids” haven’t read The Dark Is Rising. It came out in 1973. And while you can probably turn any Newbury Award winning book into a movie and guarantee that parents will drop their Potter-besotted children into theater seats, your real audience for this film are the people who read it as children or teens and fell in love with it, and smart kids and teens who’ve never been exposed to it.

Of course, that’s not the billion dollar Harry Potter audience…but The Dark Is Rising is not Harry Potter. It’s not full of expensive CG set pieces. You could probably make a pretty good and faithful adaptation for about $20 million, and earn your money back in the first week. And you’d end up with a great piece of cinema, both profitable and high quality, something to be remembered by.

But I think The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (as the film is clumsily titled; there’s gonna be a sequel, kids!) is going to be at best a by-the-numbers Hollywood fantasy film, and at worst a complete train wreck…this despite the presence of Christopher Eccleston as the Rider, which is a nearly pitch-perfect piece of casting. As much as I like Ian McShane in Sexy Beast and Deadwood (where he actually plays a real-life ancestor of mine), he’s totally wrong to play Merriman Lyon; I think Paul McGann would have been excellent in the role. From interviews I’ve read, it seems apparent that none of the filmmakers and maybe only one or two of the actors were familiar with the books before production. (McShane was quoted as saying “I know they sold a few copies, but I couldn’t read it very well. It’s really dense. It’s from the 70s, you know?”)

So do me this favor: don’t see it. Go buy the (doubtless marketed as a movie tie-in) book and read it instead. Punish these people with your wallet, and reward Susan Cooper for writing such an excellent novel.

And maybe in another twenty-odd years, somebody will revisit this material and do it right.

Hey, Kids? Fuck You!

Reading Mike Breen’s melancholy story about seeing Perry Farrell’s new band, Satellite Party, I was struck by this bit:

There’s now a perception that the early ’90s “AltRock Revolution” was all dark and gloomy and doomy. But I remember a sense of hope. It was exciting to watch groups that I had seen play to 20 people at a tiny, dark, dank club months earlier suddenly get played on mainstream radio and dissected in the mainstream press. It was a weird feeling, but It felt like “something” was happening. But nothing ever really did. Pearl Jam gave up on their Ticketmaster fight. Kurt blew his head off. Cheesy Pop made a comeback. Mall stores started catering to the “Grunge” crowd. Peace never came, so the cynics just said, “See told you so” and put their headphones back on. The dream was over. Still is. Maybe that’s why hardly anyone was at the show. But we still need dreamers who don’t think about the end and the bottom line. We need more Perry Farrells. We need more young Perry Farrells. To evolve, we need people who think beyond themselves.

This is, I think, ultimately the problem I have with most rock ‘n’ roll right now. It’s not evolving. The Strokes sounded like a slicker version of the New York Dolls; Interpol sounds like Joy Division; Modest Mouse sounds like the Pixies on Ritalin. (Are you really gonna argue this with me? Really?) And the kids love it. They love pop. They love disposable music. The sheer level of neoteny in rock and roll has reached a fever pitch: bands have a half life of no more than ten minutes before the kids wanna hear something new, new, new. How many new bands have the shelf life of, Christ, even a Pearl Jam these days? Of all of the new indie bands you’re listening to, which ones do you think will put out a fourth album? A fifth? A fifteenth?

I want to make this clear: I’m not waxing nostalgic for the old days. I don’t think that expecting new musicians to push the envelope of what’s been done before is some sort of old timer’s position. Quite the opposite. I’m tired of nostalgia.

Everybody draws on influences, sure; but there is a big difference between being influenced by an artist and doing a bad impersonation of them. A good artist — in any medium — synthesizes their influences, syncretizes them and adds something new and valuable to the mix.

It’s not that this can’t be done. Radiohead did it a decade ago. Bjork’s been doing it for almost twenty years now (more, if you add in her career with the Sugarcubes). The Decemberists are still trying to do it, and so is the Arcade Fire (though I’m not a huge fan of either band, and I’m not sure how well they succeed). I’m most impressed these days with artists who are working in the electronic and “backpack” hip-hop areas: the Klaxons, MIA, Hot Chip, The Roots, Aesop Rock, RJD2, Prefuse ’73…these are artists who are taking a whole lot of different ideas and extending them.

I think where I differ from most music-lovers is in my belief that music serves a purpose being making your booty shake. Popular music, to me, is one of the driving forces of culture. I won’t go so far as to suggest that pop musicians have a responsibility to move culture (or really, to do anything other than make music)…but I will suggest that the amount that an artist attempts to move culture — how seriously they take their position as cultural manufacturers — is directly related to their value as an artist.

That doesn’t mean they have to take themselves seriously — it’s perfectly possible to take your work seriously without taking yourself seriously — nor does it mean that they have to produce heavy, ponderous, meaning-filled works to be of value. (Did the world really need an Operation: Mindcrime 2? Come to think of it, did we need the first one?) Great work can be joyous, both to make and to listen to: “Sweet Jane” comes to mind here, and so does “Mr. Tambourine Man”. (I also think of Soul Coughing songs like “True Dreams Of Wichita” and “Circles”, but then, I’m convinced that Soul Coughing is one of the greatest unrecognized bands of the past two decades.) And it’s possible to make deep songs that fill people with joy. “Fake Plastic Trees”. “Bittersweet Symphony”. Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah”. “Such Great Heights”. These are just a few examples.

But right now, rock is in one of those irritating and embarrassing phases where a band’s image and attitude is worth more to the audience than their actual ability to actually write and/or play. We want arrogant rock stars who spend a lot of money to look casual, who fuck movie stars, who have publicists for their publicists and are more concerned with their marketing plan than with making great music.

Is that what we really want? Do we really want rock stars as models? One of the great things about the aforementioned “AltRock Revolution” was that a lot of the people involved were plain-looking at best (Frank Black, neé Black Francis or Elvis Costello, Michael Stipe) and completely physically bizarre (Farrell, Shane McGowan) at worst. (I’ve seen Perry Ferrell up close, and he’s not exactly a Ford model.) But that wasn’t what was important. What was important was their drive and willingness to create something new.

This is cyclical, and it’s a shame we’re at a low point. But I don’t have much patience with the kids these days, either. They’re either too stupid to realize that they’re being duped into liking pretty, vapid crap by the massive machine of the entertainment industry’s marketing component…or they just don’t care, and just wanna dance. Which makes them vapid themselves.

Ah, well. How much lasting work came out of the disco era? Only the reaction to it. (Unless you’re one of these tired souls who really believes that “Play That Funky Music” is some sort of great art, in which case, you can choke on my dick.) It’s a pity that nobody’s reacting to the dullness of indie rock.

Note: If you’re one of these hideous people who thinks that asking for substance and nuance and meaning from music is some form of passive racism (aka “rockism”), you may also feel free to choke on my dick.