Moris Tepper opening for PJ HARVEY at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Friday (October 15), 7 pm. $28.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
As the guitarist of choice for Tom Waits, Robyn Hitchcock and Frank Black among others, Moris Tepper has made a respectable living as a creative sideman since graduating with honours from the travelling Captain Beefheart academy of the absurd.
He's proven his skill at tastefully using distortion to make his celebrated employers look and sound good, but the man formerly known as the Love Hunter has had a tough time shaking the guitar-ace-for-hire stigma.
It's really only been since the 2000 release of his self-produced Moth To Mouth disc that many people, his musician peers included, have started taking Tepper seriously as a solo artist.
So what happened? According to Tepper, it was a matter of rethinking his career goals. He gave up his major-label aspirations and set himself up as an independent entrepreneur with his own Web site, www.candlebone.com, and a home recording studio that led to fundamental changes in his approach to writing and recording.
And all it took to set Tepper straight was having his home burglarized.
"For years I'd been working as a musician in Los Angeles, trying to get on a major label like everyone else," explains Tepper during a stopover in Philadelphia. "I'd had three bands that lasted three or four years each without any real label interest.
"While I was out on tour, my distributor went bankrupt, which was bad enough, but then I got home to find that my home had been broken into and my computer stolen. My entire database, with all my contacts, was gone, and there was no backup. So I decided that was it - I quit the business. I didn't make any music for a year.
"Eventually, I felt inspired again and the song ideas started coming, only this time there was no commercial intent. I got into digital home recording, and the result was the Moth To Mouth album. Suddenly, artists I respected were much more receptive to what I was doing. Something definitely changed. I think my music had become purer in the process."
Moth To Mouth touched off a small buzz for Tepper, largely among fellow musicians (Polly Harvey asked Tepper to open shows for her solo based on hearing the album), but his forthcoming Head Off (Candlebone) disc could be his long-overdue breakthrough.
Recorded quickly by Tepper as a three-piece with drummer Scott Mathers and bassist Dave Burk, the rough-cut Head Off roars with that Beefheartian blues looseness that Tom Waits tried so hard to replicate on his Real Gone disc but wound up making a mess of instead.
No doubt part of the interest in Tepper's Head Off will be the track Ricochet Man, co-written with the reclusive Captain himself, Don Van Vliet, who hasn't released any new music in 25 years. Van Vliet's characteristically oblique lyrics were evidentally inspired by events surrounding the troubled life of Arthur Lee, formerly of Love.
"Don and I talk on the phone every week, so as I was recording the new album he was in on it, listening to new tracks as they were finished. I had a song where I wasn't really happy with the lyrics I'd written, but he loved the backing track.
"While we were talking one day, I mentioned that I'd run into Arthur Lee at a studio. When Don asked how he was, I told him how Arthur had been in jail for three years for firing a gun in his apartment while no one else was around. Right then he started coming up with what became Ricochet Man. But that's not unusual. Each time I talk to him he's singing something or reciting a new poem."
It sounds like an album waiting to happen, but Tepper doesn't seem overly eager to push ahead with a full-on Captain collabo concept. That's understandable considering Tepper is only now beginning to make a name for himself.
"I guess there's a chance of doing a collaborative album," allows Tepper as if the idea had never occurred to him. "We've done enough stuff together over the past 10 years that we could easily fill up two or even three records.
"Right now I'm pretty involved with what I'm doing, and likewise with him, so it isn't something we're working toward. But should we decide to do something, the material is definitely there."