By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
Musician Pat Visel makes the best albums (almost) no one’s heard
Balboa Island is kind of a weird place. It has something like a three-block-long main drag and pricey homes, and its claims to fame are Balboa ice-cream bars, frozen bananas and a couple of ferries.
Patrick Visel has lived there all of his 35 years.
“I’m from right here,” he says, gesturing around his backhouse room. “I was pretty much brought to this room right after I was born,” he explains with a leisurely smile.
The room is attached to a main house, owned by Visel’s father, who resides in a second-story apartment a few steps away from Patrick’s bedroom door. Books are scattered around the room; among them are The Old Man and the Sea, Ishi: Last of his Tribe, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, a Bob Marley biography and a book by Billy Graham called Angels: God’s Secret Agents.
Visel has a low voice, and he speaks slowly and deliberately. He’s got gentle hazel eyes, a brown mop of hair, and towers at six-foot-three in Reef flip-flops and a sensible T-shirt with a screen-printed surfboard motif. He’s got a kindhearted, Tim Robbins-like vibe going on, giving you the feeling he’s just a nice guy.
Visel first met drummer James Fletcher (later of Smile, Satisfaction and Matt Costa) in his church youth group, “when my mom used to make me go to church in junior high.”
Fletcher had introduced Visel to Piers Brown when Visel was a 20-year-old at UC Irvine studying classical guitar and medieval history. The three eventually started jamming together, forming the psychedelic outfit Film Star in 1994. “I was anxious. It seemed like it would be fun,” Visel says. “I just wanted to play music. And it was something new to me.”
Film Star put out two albums, built a fan base, acquired some sort-of groupies, garnered tons of local attention, and even made their way onto some sizeable bills, opening for Blue Album-era Weezer. But in 1996, Visel left Film Star after he, admittedly, began exhibiting some obnoxious behavior. “I was drinking, getting drunk. I was trying to be punk, you know?” he asks. “So I’d be on the floor . . . all . . . trying to act punk,” he says with a deep laugh.
But it’s what Visel did after Film Star that’s really notable and actually, pretty odd. In the past 10 years, he has recorded six full-length albums, the last three in consecutive years from 2005 through 2007.
Odder still? He’s done nothing with them.
* * *
Post-Film Star, Visel played bass with another Costa Mesa outfit, the Blue Whales, and, after that, the band Weasel and Shoemaker, a collective effort with some former Film Star band mates. Visel played an acoustic, nylon-stringed guitar, something characteristic of his training at UCI, but it also contrasted with the music Weasel and Showmaker were making—Visel describes it now as “garage rock with a nylon-stringed guitar.” Weasel and Shoemaker put out four albums from 1998 to 2001—Mystery Shopper, Ebb and Flow, Quiet Strength of Catalina and Remember the Rune—and played live shows for about a year, mostly opening for other bands.
But it’s really Visel’s latest three albums that have people—mostly friends and friends of friends—talking. It’s something you hear about in Costa Mesa’s small, slightly incestuous circuit of bars and clubs long before you ever meet the man. The albums are so different, each unique, they’re the kind of thing you’d play for a friend during a long car ride.
One of these, 2005’s Pat’s Pirate Songs, opens with the sounds of the sea: rocking waves, seagulls, full-blown gales, thunder, even some rough-and-tumble pirate growls, all of which recur throughout the album.
And then Visel’s voice hits—a deep lull that rings a bell to the baritone, slightly out-of-tone voice of indie-rock icon Calvin Johnson, founder/owner of K Records. “Of treasures found on voyage bound/I’m on my way/Of pleasures and frivolity/I’ve had my stay,” Visel drawls on the chorus of the opening track, “Pirate Song,” followed by some intricate guitar plucking.
“I put pirately themes with my lyrics and vocals on top of that. My voice kind of fits a little better than that style. It’s not pretty, you know, and I kind of was more like . . .” Visel pauses for a bit of nervous laughter. “Being more of a thespian. A thespian art project.”
It makes sense: Visel comes from a musical family. His grandmother was a drama and music teacher at Costa Mesa’s Vanguard University when it was still known as Southern California College, and she had given Visel singing lessons as a child, including him in recitals she held at her retirement home. His mother, also a singer, purchased Visel’s first bass guitar when he was 13, which he quickly traded for a six-string. He credits his sister for helping to shape his musical tastes. Visel pulls out an old shoebox that’s covered in Budweiser-can-patterned contact paper, inside of which are mixtapes she made for him: Metallica, Anthrax, New Order, Violent Femmes, Iron Maiden and, you know, “the kind of music chicks liked back then,” all of it blending in with the punk rock (and, eventually, classic rock) he was already listening to.