Beyond Board

Tommy Guerrero's budding music career makes us wonder: Can you teach an old skateboarder new tricks?

"My whole approach is just plug in and go," he says, alluding to the miracle of music software, which allows for pristine recording at the touch of a button coupled with maximum editing capabilities. "I'll improvise, mess around, and something will just strike me, like a cool melody or something, and I'll record it and I'll listen back and say, 'Oh, I like that.'"

The resulting tunes reflect the streamlined comfort presiding over not only Guerrero's home-recording environment, but also his life. A veritable collage of "Oh, I like that"s, his songs are relaxed and spacey, a collection of riffs and beats hastily recorded but carefully stitched together. In sidestepping many of the conventions of downtempo instrumentals -- live drums replace beat boxes, earthy guitar solos stand in for vacant synths, a jazzy urban spice flavors it all -- Guerrero manages an aesthetic that's mellow but not monotonous, that chills you out without leaving you cold.

While some criticized the "generic" and "laconic" simplicity of Guerrero's 2000 release A Little Bit of Something, his Soul Food Taqueria easily jukes these barbs. Offering a vibrant salsa beat here, some densely hypnotic guitar/bass interplay there, and the occasional vocals of longtime friend and collaborator Gresham and Bay Area hip hop mainstay Lyrics Born, Soul Food is consistent in its quality, yet varied in the styles it navigates. Clearly, after five years of developing his vision, Guerrero is hitting his stride. Despite reservations, even he admits that getting a band together to play live -- at least in his hometown -- is probably the next step.

"I've never truly done it here," he concedes. "People are always like, 'When are you gonna do the band thing?'"

But translating his homemade recordings into arrangements for a live act hasn't proven easy.

"What's funny is that I'm practicing for the show, I'm teaching my friends and stuff, but I'm relearning it, too, because I've never played it other than when I recorded it," he says. "It's weird, because they look at me and they're like, 'You don't know your own songs?'"

In addition to reviewing his own material, Guerrero is also dealing with leading a band, something he's not thrilled about.

"Being a dictator [is something] I cannot stand being," he explains. "The fact that you're trying to tell all these people what to do and how to do it -- musicians who are better than you -- it's like, wait a second, that's bullshit."

Worst of all, Guerrero seems downright paranoid about getting stuck in the rut of touring. In addition to the frustrations of travel -- cramped vans, long drives, etc., most of which Guerrero dealt with as a pro skater -- he's afraid of sapping all the life out of his songs through constant repetition.

"The more something is repeated," he says, "the more it is diminished. It loses its fucking point, it loses the reason why it even exists."

Of course, it's certainly possible to keep the tunes fresh. That's what improvisation is for. In fact, both Guerrero's other band, Jet Black Crayon, and the solo performances he sometimes gives with just a bass guitar and some effects pedals are all about improvisation. But there's clearly something about performing these songs -- his songs -- that has Guerrero nervous. Ironically, it's this attitude that has the risk-taker breaking one of the most important rules of his life.

"With skating," he explains, "you're not thinking about five walls ahead like, 'OK, I'm gonna do this here, I'm gonna do that there.' When you're skating, that doesn't happen; it's very spur of the moment. When you see something, you do it. And I think that's definitely transferred into music and just my life in general. I mean, just having that kind of spontaneity, having that type of decision-making, like in a millisecond saying, 'OK, that's it!' and not second-guessing yourself ever. Some people that I know always second-guess themselves about everything, and they never do anything."

Ready or not, Guerrero is done with the excuses and is delivering the goods. And he's in good shape, too. His band -- he's joined by multi-instrumentalists Quinn Luke and Charlie Hall, the three of them taking turns on guitar, bass, drums, sampler, and didgeridoo -- has been practicing for weeks, and its leader has even managed to learn his own songs. What's more, it's clear that the skateboarder inside him -- the guy hardwired to try something, fall on his ass, then get back up again -- will never disappear.

"You gotta try," he says. "People always ask me [to play live], the label always asks me, and it's like, fuck, I guess I gotta try. It's nice enough for people to be into it, for them to put it out and all that, so I guess this is just the reciprocal aspect of it. Maybe when they hear it they'll be like, 'Don't play live, Tommy.'"

Then again, maybe not.

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