Getting secretly doped by locals in India, attacked by malicious intestinal bugs in Pakistan, and solicited to buy AK-47s near Afghanistan — these are not the average distractions from recording a new pop album. It's fortunate, then, that Firewater's Tod A, who experienced all the above mishaps, has little interest in settling for "average" anything. From his days with industrial-punk iconoclasts Cop Shoot Cop to his current role as Firewater's international svengali, Tod's music has always been two steps ahead of the curve. Even when that curve leads to Mideast battlezones.
Starting with its 1996 debut, Get Off the Cross (We Need the Wood for the Fire), Firewater's music has crossed more boundaries than an international superspy. Imagine Balkan brass bands canoodling with louche Vegas swingers, drunk pirates dancing tangos with bhangra boys, or carny clowns taking klezmer lessons from Israeli radicals. At the center of this motley circus is Tod's vicious wit, which he uses to twist anarchistic impulses into inebriated sing-alongs (with a few maudlin weepers for those long, liver-polluting nights).
But as the post-9/11 world unveiled its ugly face and Tod's long battle with depression deepened, he seemed to lose himself. Firewater's Gypsy-punk genre pastiches began to feel forced, as on the all-covers album Songs We Should Have Written. Life in Bush/Cheney's Homeland America Inc. was also really starting to suck "like a flunky for a two-bit whore," as one of Tod's lyrics put it.
It was time to hit eject and get the fuck out. In 2005, Tod did just that. Initial trips took him to Thailand and India, where he taught English or edited unlicensed American textbooks to keep himself flush in tobacco and beer. The plan was to then journey through the Middle East, seeking out musicians to record with along the way — nobody famous, just guys who jam at the casbah. By summer '06, one of his destinations, Afghanistan, was in war-torn chaos. So Tod flew to Turkey and Israel, made some studio recordings in Istanbul and Tel Aviv, then returned to New York, where he and Firewater/Balkan Beat Box drummer Tamir Muskat assembled the tapes into The Golden Hour — Firewater's newest, and perhaps best, album.
The Golden Hour jumps right into action with "Borneo," a kiss-off to the U.S.A. ("Got a monkey for a President/and a head all filled up with cement") that's akin to Tom Waits' "Singapore" cross-faded with the drums from George of the Jungle. The Bollywood dance jam "It's My Life" and utopian Arabic shimmy "Some Kind of Kindness" keep the beats circling before "This Is How It Feels" settles into a boozy, solo calypso. "Unkind" follows with a prayer for shelter from the apocalypse, while "Paradise (Comes with a Price)" sings a paean to commonfolk dreams buried beneath globalism's steamroller. And though you might assume the brassy flamenco-meets-Bourbon-Street parade of "Weird to Be Back" indicates an end to Tod's existential travels, the album's closer, "Three-Legged Dog," is a wanderlust anthem for romantic exiles, hinting that Firewater's globetrotting project is far from complete.
Next on the agenda, of course, is the current tour, with full band in tow. But if you want a concise summation of the journey behind The Golden Hour, Tod's travel blog, Postcards from the Other Side of the World, probably phrases it best:
"I escaped being drugged and robbed in Jaisalmer; I entertained thinly veiled marriage proposals from Punjabi farm girls; I ate opium and jammed with Thar desert gypsies ... I [gathered] enough rhythm tracks for the next Firewater album; I was robbed only once (a cell phone) ... I made some new friends. Weighed with these measures, the trip was a success."
Judging by The Golden Hour, Firewater's success just requires a few prickly language barriers, border skirmishes, and sketchy criminal run-ins. Let's hope Tod's bags stay packed.
For a Q&A with Tod A of Firewater, visit http://blogs.sfweekly.com/shookdown.