For singer/songwriter Tod A., founder of the band Firewater, the signs were clear. "New York, or America, was telling me it was time to go," he says. "I was living in a windowless room in Bushwick. [President George W.] Bush had just gotten back in, and it seemed like there were palm trees out there with my name on them." It was March 2005, and Tod was emotionally debilitated from a harrowing divorce, depressed and probably serotonin-deprived from the long Northeastern winter in his Brooklyn basement. New York City itself, his home of two decades, felt strange and alienating. "The New York City skyline looked like bad wallpaper to me," he stated in a press release. "It was either kill myself, or hit the road."
When he left, it was with no particular plan in mind he started in southeast Asia, and for his first year, supported himself by teaching English in Thailand. "I was basically escaping for my mental health," he explains. "And I really was not sure if I wanted to do music anymore."
What started as a flight response borne of self-preservation turned into a nearly four-year journey through the Middle East, India and southeast Asia that resulted in a fascinating travel blog (www.postcards.blogs.com), a near-death experience or two, and The Golden Hour the first Firewater album in five years, released last month as the band's debut on the Bloodshot Records label. The record itself is a masterful, nuanced mashup that chatters with as many diverse notes and elements as an Eastern bazaar. Finished in a Tel Aviv studio with producer Tamir Muskat (of Gogol Bordello and Balkan Beat Box fame), it's a deeply emotional document with strong political leanings, and it serves as a travelogue for a journey Tod says is not over yet.
Rash decisions have turned out well for Tod in the past. In 1996, while in his former band Cop Shoot Cop, he ditched a deal with Interscope Records in order to start Firewater, a project inspired by a dusty box of Eastern European records he unearthed in a New York junk shop. The ensuing amalgam of Eastern folk, Western rock, jazz, ska, classic Bollywood, Russian folk songs, salsa and cabaret rocked in a way that was greater than the sum of its parts, like an alchemical compound.
Firewater garnered a devoted cult audience and presaged the success of gypsy-punk hybrids like Gogol Bordello. But Tod shelved his musical ambition for a while, choosing instead to knock around strange corners of the world. In Calcutta, his urge to make music began to come back partly, he says wryly, out of boredom: "There's not much of a nightlife in Calcutta." After wearing out the available options, Tod began spending his evenings at home, writing.
In due time, he had about a record and a half's worth of material and decided to start making what would become The Golden Hour on the road, using the available resources which included local musicians. "I had one mic, a laptop and a sound card," he says. "I'd show up in a town and ask around and find the musicians." Working through translators, Tod recorded in the field as much as he could, building rhythm tracks on his laptop and editing as he went: "There wasn't a clock ticking like in an ordinary studio."
There were also unique and sometimes bizarre opportunities, like a Pakistani religious festival that he recorded on a handheld machine and mixed into the track "This Is My Life."
'It was a music festival in a graveyard outside Lahore, in Pakistan," he says. "Kind of a combination battle of the bands/go-go bar/religious festival all rolled into one. There were transvestite dancers on the graves of Muslim saints and six or seven Sufi bands all positioned in different parts of the graveyard, just a cacophony of people and music."
Tod is currently based in Indonesia, and his tour with Firewater is his first prolonged return to the U.S. since 2005 (he'll play the Parish at the House of Blues on June 13, with opening act the Happy Talk Band). "I'm still kind of a tourist here," he says, adding that he hasn't decided whether or not he'll ever take up residence stateside again.
"Obviously, if the Democrats get back in, it'll be better," he says. "But it's a big world, and I feel like I've already experienced American culture." Firewater
9 p.m., Fri., June 13
The Parish at THE House of Blues, 229 Decatur St., 310-4999; www.hob.com
- Tod A. and his band Firewater will perform at the Parish at the House of Blues.