Death Is Messy

by Ape School

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about

This is my “new” album. It will only be available as a digital download, and all proceeds will be donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Here’s the short story:

I had plans to release it physically in the most ridiculously elaborate packaging I could construct: a hairy tombstone 12 inch with the title burned in via branding iron so it would retain a healthy stench forever. However, the more I thought about it, the less that made sense. I won’t be touring on this record, as the one time I formed a band to play them, it was a staggering emotional experience for me. I’m not sure I want to go through that again. Why is it so emotional for me, you may ask? Well, here’s the long story…

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John Robert “Bobby” Johnson passed away in September 2014. He was my brother. He came down with a severe lung infection related to Cystic Fibrosis. He was 33 years old.

This was the tail end of a stretch of four deaths in my family that occurred over the course of just one year. I lost my closest aunt, Cindy Colangelo, in August 2013. I lost my absurdity role model grandfather, John Robert “Dig” Welsh in October. The next month, I lost my grandmother, Carlene Johnson.

In January 2014, my daughter Cynthia was born.

9 months later, Bobby was gone. His last words to me, texted, were “it’s just a bleeder, no big deal”. He was wrong.

The depth of my grief was numbing and hard to explain. I was cocooned by the sheer exhaustion of early parenthood, and in hindsight this was a boon and a bane. I shut down Ape School completely. I sank into my professorial occupation. I avoided nearly everyone save my wife and daughter.

The death of my aunt was especially hard to take at the beginning of this stretch. I couldn’t bring myself to go to her funeral, something I am deeply regretful of now. She was the only unconditional supporter of my endless loner pursuit. When I told her I’d been meeting my teenage shoegaze idols through my music travels she asked “Have you met Aerosmith?” She was the cutest. (I still have not met Aerosmith, but I HAVE seen some killer Steven Tyler fan art).

I made it to Miami to say goodbye to my grandfather, and this injected some necessary levity to my mindset. Above his head in the coffin at the viewing hung a sign saying “This sign is placed above my head, I don’t look good because I’m dead.” I burst into laughter in an extremely solemn setting, knowing this was his intent. That guy ruled. If I become half the ridiculous and decent man that he was, I’m good.

My grandmother was a different experience. We hadn’t been in close touch since my teens. This ate away at me in a different way.

By the time Bobby got sick for the last time, there was a bizarre sense of dread that perpetually hung over me. I didn’t know why, but I felt like something was coming. I spent early September at the wedding of one of my oldest friends and was a complete sourpuss the entire trip. Something was coming. Unfortunately prescient.

Two weeks later I was back in Gainesville, FL with my brother in the ICU. I went to college there, and I rented a room in the neighborhood I lived in when I was in school. I had lived just across the street from the hospital where he was being treated. That house is where this whole music thing really began: A swampy psych wonderland that reeked and was dirty as hell with all manners of swamp beasts coming through the crack under the back door. My room was a funhouse of synthesizers and instruments and all manners of half baked dada song sandwiching. On this trip, I got my first view of the house, demolished and replaced with “The Garden of Hope”. Final closure to my youth was completely completed. I walked on to the hospital to find my brother lurching and attached to all manner of machines, unresponsive for the most part. Every single moment of this 6-day period will remain the most surreal experience of my life.

He became more lucid the third day I was there, and his last attempt to speak to me was foiled by the breathing apparatus. He seemed pissed, but that wasn’t entirely out of character.

That week ended with Bobby being flown by helicopter to North Carolina in hopes of recovery and lung transplant. This seemed like a win. He had made it far enough for this to be a reality. As he was wheeled to the elevator, I yelled at him “you can do this dude”. He rolled his eyes at me as was customary. A week later, Bobby passed away. He didn’t have the strength to make it through. I was, and still am, devastated.

Our relationship was complicated. Bobby was in a prison constructed by his disease, and he was proudly jealous of my health. While I was traipsing around the country on tour, imbibing myself into a haze and wailing away on the drums, he was stuck in Florida. Outwardly, he never expressed much support, but when I’d visit he’d have pictures of me from various concerts on his fridge. I knew he was proud, but he wouldn’t admit it directly. This hung over me as well. A deep sadness permeated, brought on by my guilty realization that I had total freedom and he never would. It will take years for me to fully unpack this. Lemme know if you have a good therapist.

Bobby was a really clever and considerate soul who was crippled at times by his deep seated anger. He too was a professor. Philosophy, in fact. Wasn’t fun to argue with this guy, as he would carry on beyond the point of no return. I’ve never heard another person say “keynesian” casually the way this dude did. I’ve never seen anyone (except maybe me) deliver his opinions with such a lack of tactful consideration of other’s feelings. His goal was full honesty with the world around him, but I’m not sure he ever found emotional honesty. Maybe he did. Wish I knew.

I am very proud of Bobby for accomplishing what he did with the limitations he had. He was highly respected in his academic community. He was well read and well spoken. He was incredibly sweet when he let his guard down. He was resourceful and had the pain tolerance of a god. Dammit.

He got to meet his niece once. He couldn’t hold her for fear of catching a cold, which was essentially the cause of his demise.

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In the immediate aftermath of all of this, my usually steady creative drip stopped. I was a dad and running a program at a University and I was getting 4-5 hours of sleep a night, tops.

BUT come the fall of 2015, the ole song faucet started gushing. I set up a rudimentary home studio, just a couple of synths and a bass and an acoustic guitar, really. Given my previous propensity for kitchen sinkism in the recording arts, this was a new flow. I rode that wave as far as it would go. This record crashed to shore.

The first song that really came was “I’ll Not Watch You Die”. It sounded claustrophobic, but oddly joyful. There was an audible darkness to it. I kept with this theme whenever a new idea birthed itself. In contrast to my previous outbursts, lyrics were coming out as honest, primal grief howls rather than acerbic rants, as was my tradition. I let the machine elves take over and the record finished itself in very little time.

I still feel weird about releasing this to the world. Lord knows, few are clamoring for more Ape School music. I have been reticent to play the game correctly since my introduction to this business, and I’ve been a real bastard to bandmates over the years because of it. Now, though, there is this added layer of exposure to my actual soul rather than my forked tongue. I’m not sure it’s meant to be “enjoyed”.

That said, I do think there are moments on this record where I left consideration behind and let the emotion flow through me. Every song deals in some way with the sudden finality of death in family. Some are direct appeals to Bobby, who is clearly zooming around in the ether with spacemen or whatever. All revolve around the ultimate truth for those left behind: Death is Messy. Really messy.

If you dig in, keep all this in mind. At some point I’ll put out something again in a big clam shell or on rubber. But not this one. This one should serve a different purpose. This one will memorialize Bobby with the same venomous wit we shared: a veneer for a deeper empathy.

I miss him. I miss them. Hug your brothers and aunts and parents and grandparents and so on and so forth. Life’s way too short to be concerned with the modern social paradigm. Kiss a baby. Teach your daughter to play an ARP. It’s why we’re here.

- MJ

credits

released December 20, 2017

MIchael Johnson - everything EXCEPT
Cynthia Catherine Johnson Rock and Roll Animal - Guest Vocals

Mastered by Jacob Folk, Inc.

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Ape School Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I make music. Some gets released on big labels. Some never gets released. This is my solo stuff. The first LP came out on Ninja Tune in 2009. The second retired itself and shan't exist. The third, "Junior Violence", Came out on Hometapes in 2012. I am getting older and angrier, & my audio regurgitation disease shows no signs of improvement. Tis an addiction. Hope you enjoy the noises that result. ... more

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