We’re going to get darker and spookier than any of the previous four entries in this series exploring the trials, tribulations and sheer wackness that has been my fully unsuccessful-but-vaguely interesting musical non-career, for today we discuss a band whose mere mention sends shivers up the spines of the unwashed masses: Morgana Athena.
Morgana Athena (or “MA” as I’ll lazily refer to it eventually) was one of the preeminent Gothic rock bands of the Southwest. Mind you, that’s not saying much as the goth scene wasn’t quite huge in the 1990s or anything, but MA made the rounds for long enough in the early-to-late 1990s that sheer staying power propelled it above the rest of the fly-by-night trench coat musicians.
I was aware of the band through friends and fliers during high school. The band’s bassist, Chris Jensen, worked with me at the Torrey Pines Discount Cinema, and I attended a New Year’s Eve party at singer/guitarist Chris Naser’s house a year or so later. But I’d never seen the band perform, and it had been through multiple line-up changes when I finally encountered the group in full early in 1996. By then, it was just the two aforementioned Chrises, who would perform live augmented by rhythm tracks prerecorded on DATs (digital audio tapes). If you’ll recall, this was the same live set-up my band at the time, Rahne, was using, as well as other Las Vegas Gothic and industrial acts such as Corinthian Flux (then known as Rosemary’s Baby).
After Rahne broke up in April 1997, drummer Brian Pfiefer and guitarist Ryan Couevas joined Morgana, on drums and keyboards, respectively. By this time, Chris Jensen had left, replaced on bass by another friend (and sometimes stand-in Rahne bassist), Dru Broils, so Morgana effectively absorbed Rahne. Meanwhile, I spent about six months huddled in my studio apartment near UNLV, writing and recording all sorts of music, experimenting with different styles such as funk, jazz, dance, soul and noise. I even brought some of my new jazz-rock songs to jam with a friend’s jazz band, spending some time at their rehearsal space off Tropicana and Valley View (this will be important later), but nothing came out of it.
At some point in the fall of 1997, I found out while hanging with Ryan that Morgana was looking for another guitarist, someone who eventually could take over from Chris Naser so he could focus on singing. For whatever reason, I decided to audition — the first time I had to do so, since all my other musical projects up ’til then had been self-started. I showed up at Chris’ house one chilly night. The only other person auditioning was another pal, Scott Hill. Scott was a good guitarist, likely much better than me technically, but I remember his sound being all wrong for Morgana — too much metal, not enough nuance. Apparently, Chris and company agreed, because they ended up liking what I brought to the band, though I’m sure the fact we had all played together for years already didn’t hurt.
Chris’ playing style was quite different from my own. He seemed to create his own, slightly atonal chords to give Morgana its distinctive, haunting sound. I don’t think he could identify a note or scale if asked, but he’s one of those people who just instinctively knows how to make instruments work together. I modified some of the guitar parts to add more heft or depth. Others, I scaled back. I even brought in a glass slide, something that became a key part of the guitar sound for my favorite MA song, “1942.”
(Play “1942” by Morgana Athena)
Actually, “1942” was the song that made me want to join MA in the first place. Before auditioning for the band, I saw the beefed-up line-up perform for the first time since the last Rahne/MA show. And when I heard “1942,” I was floored. Unlike MA’s other songs, it wasn’t just synth swells and icy drum beats. It was raw, angry, floor-stomping — and I wanted to play it.
My first live show playing guitar solo (thanks for the reminder, Ryan) with Morgana (my first show with MA was at Enigma Garden Cafe, but Chris still played guitar on that one) was at SanctuaryDementia, a goth/industrial night held weekly in the back room of Angles, a gay club that resided where 8-1/2 Ultra Lounge now stands in the heart of Las Vegas’ “Fruit Loop.” Everyone wore all black, Ryan and Chris wore make-up, but I was still coming out of a rave-ish period, so I wore stovepipe jeans and a racing-striped knit fully representative of the late-1990s. Aside from that (and my semi-hollow-body jazz guitar), things went pretty well, and by the time we had a few shows under our belts, Chris felt comfortable enough with my playing of his songs that he pretty much stopped playing guitar at live shows.
Things were cramped at Chris’ parents house where we rehearsed, and coincidentally, my friend Anthony’s band — with whom I jammed on that jazz stuff earlier that year — wanted a co-renter for their rehearsal space, which was a double-sized room big enough for two bands. So we moved in, and I brought all of my recording equipment, including my Macintosh computer (a Performa 6360, if I recall).
This move was significant for more than the band. The rehearsal space became my office and studio as well. The band only practiced two or three days a week, but I was in there much more, coming in right after my day job slinging copies to work on recordings, design artwork, mess around on the drums (yes, kids, this is how I taught myself to play drums, which I did not do at the time), eat dinner and generally hang out. I even started to record other musicians, one of which was a rapper (I’d still love to produce a hip-hop album).
Of course, this all means I brought more to the band than just my iffy guitar-playing skills. Up until then, Chris had been responsible for whatever you heard or saw related to Morgana Athena. But I kind of became — shocking, I know — the producer/engineer/publicist/manager. I relaunched the band for the pre-Millennial era, aesthetically, redesigning the logo, building a new website and crafting the sound of our few recordings. I also brought up the level of professionalism, crafting press releases, opening a bank account, and building relationships with radio stations and the media.
But there was blow-back. Even now, archived on some sort of Vegas goth forums from more than a decade ago, you’ll find those hardcore trenchcoaters claiming I ruined Morgana Athena, that I somehow took over and destroyed the band. Never mind that when I joined the band, it was already changing into something different (hence why I joined), nor the fact that when Morgana finally did break up in the fall of 1998 — with gigs still booked, mind you — it was because Chris quit to focus on DJing. Nope, because I was always the scapegoat for all that was wrong and bad in the Vegas goth “scene,” because, um, I WASN’T GOTH.
(OK, to be fair, I was also a dick. But that should have mattered more to the people IN the band, not outside of it, and within the band, everything was mostly gravy. Except for that one time I leaped across a coffee bar at Dru. Or that other time when I smashed at stage lights at a warehouse show. But other than that …)
Anyway, it was an interesting and enjoyable ride. We played a bunch of shows, including the first one at which I ever played drums live, we put out some decent singles that people actually played on radio stations and bought in stores, and I signed my first record contract (sort of), even though I had nothing to do with the recording of “E.S.P.” found on Hollows Hill Recordings’ “Dim View of the Future” compilation and to this day, still haven’t seen any royalties (they may be out there!). But my name’s on it, so there you go.
Next up, I’ll reveal to the world the semi-interesting tale of what the hell I did musically during the “lost years” of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Stay tuned.
BONUS: Buy “E.S.P.” MP3 at Amazon