Singing those 'trailer park operettas'

August 28, 2012

By Paul Freeman

Originally from the San Jose Mercury News

For 15 years, singer/guitarist Maurice Tani made a great living with popular Bay Area party bands Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra and Big Bang Beat. It satisfied the bank account. But the soul? Not so much.

"I worked a lot of years as a professional musician, playing corporate dates, playing covers," Tani says. "That was great, but I really felt that I was exercising far more craft than I was art.

"I was in a situation that could have gone on forever. The money was good and the travel was light. I don't mean to complain about it in any way whatsoever. But I felt more like a caterer or some other type of corporate contractor that was hired to play for these parties. I wanted to get back to writing again. And, in the year 2000, I did."

The clever and convincing country songs he has written for his alt band, 77 El Deora, have earned widespread acclaim. Their latest album is "The Crown and the Crow's Confession."

Tani excels in two types of songs, romantic and what he calls "trailer park operettas."

"The trailer park operettas are generally duets, generally meant to be humorous, on some level. I wouldn't call them comedic, but they're lighthearted. They describe the battle of the sexes interplay between the female vocalist and myself. To me, they're sort of a musical equivalent of a transcript of a 'Judge Judy' show.

On the newest album, there are witty lines like this one from "The Outside to the In" -- "Now as far as I can see, and I'm sure your exes all agree, if you're an open book ... you're a mystery."

"I try to connect with people on an emotional level, whether it's humorous or something about heartbreak. I like a song to go someplace. When I'm listening, I want to be surprised. So even the songs that are more heartfelt generally have some little twist to it that makes it interesting, at least for me."

But Tani can also poetically explore the depths of the human condition, as in "Shattered" -- "The quiet rage, the losing score, his buckled knees and esprit de corps; his broken self becomes decor, like mirror shards across the floor."

The San Francisco native was inspired by California country-rock bands like Flying Burrito Brothers and The Eagles, At age 12, he picked up a guitar. In high school, he began writing songs, and in college, he started playing professionally. Tani moved to Texas for a while, then New York, but longed for the Bay Area.

While in Texas, he played in hardcore country cover bands. Back in San Francisco, with Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra and Big Bang Beat, Motown-style dance music ruled the day.

"Learning to play other people's material was where I really learned how to play. It was an extremely good experience and one that I would recommend to any musician. We stand on the shoulders of everyone who came before us. There's a taste of everything I learned in all of my songs, whether it's Smokey Robinson or Dick Dale or anybody else whose songs I had to learn.

When he got back to writing, Tani felt at home in alternative country.

"Country is one of the few forms of music, at this point, that's really lyrically driven, more than most rock or R&B. ... Your average pop song, you can mix up the verses and it doesn't matter. Each just takes you back to the hook. In a linear format, each verse provides you with new information. It reads like a novel.

"Country music, at its best, is reflective of the kind of human experience that everybody shares, that we can all relate to. It doesn't have to be rural. And my material, whether it's the heartfelt or the funny stuff, it's trying to convey a story to somebody."

While fronting a short-lived country band, Tani met vocalist Jenn Courtney.

"She struck me as someone I could write for. She's an interesting, larger-than-life kind of personality, and I felt I could use that as a springboard to build material around. She has a darker, lower voice than a lot of women do. It's a bigger sort of Patsy Cline voice, only a fifth or a fourth above mine. So we have a very good blend."

In 2004, Tani named their new band 77 El Deora, after a gaudy, customized vintage version of the Cadillac El Dorado.

"It was audacious, gigantic, a land shark of a car. Transforming it into the El Deoro made it even more extreme in every way, taking styling cues from every luxury car of the time. It was like a production pimp-mobile. You hardly ever see one. And when you do, you just know that a car like that has a lot of stories. And that's what country music is to me."

The Bay Area is not a hotbed for alt-country.

"Country music is not on the local media's radar. There's one little advantage to that. As we have so little commercial country music, the country bands around here don't feel particularly obligated to hold ourselves to some model of what Nashville says is country."

Tani, who augments his income as a freelance visual designer, is married to Jeanine Richardson, a Big Bang Beat veteran who sometimes adds percussion to El Deora's live shows. They reside in Berkeley.

"There's not a huge amount of money in music, unless you're at the very top, which is a very precarious place to be." he says. "At some level, most writers are adulation junkies. When I was working with Big Bang Beat, there were times I was making amounts of money that seemed crazy. But there was never any amount I ever made on any gig that I remember as much as I do some of the things people have said to me when I've come off stage, telling me that they've connected with a song.

"So, if you see a band in some bar, and there's hardly anybody there, and they played a good set, just go up to them and tell them that you really enjoyed it. No amount of money in that tip jar is going to stick with them as long as those kind words, because, in the end, that's why we're doing this thing, because we love it and we're trying to connect with other people. I know it sounds corny, but it is absolutely true."

Email Paul Freeman at paul@popcultureclassics.com.

Hillbilly Noir. Bashy. Original. Intelligent. California Country. Electric. Honky Tonk. Twangy. Oblique Americana.