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Knowing this, though, makes Visel’s aural evolution more endearing. Pat’s Pirate Songs is reminiscent of something a long time ago, with sea chanteys and mini-sagas extolling the virtues of rum-soaked troubadour adventures, Spanish excursions, wenches and misogyny passive-aggressively directed at some unwanted houseguests at the time (“They look through my porthole and think it looks fun/But when they move on in, the battle is won/Pirates don’t listen to feminist broads”).
There are even Robert Louis Stevenson references. “You know, the guy who wrote Kidnapped? I always liked this phrase that he had for getting drunk.” He pauses to recall it. “‘He was seized with giddiness and retching,’ which means he got dizzy and threw up.”
Pirate was recorded with the help of another UCI alumnus, Ryan Mall, who was helping other local musicians and told Visel to come over to his garage studio in Costa Mesa, generously taking donations of $60 to $100 for his services.
Visel’s former Blue Whales band mate Pat Schubert has also helped Visel on nearly every album he has written. “I can’t say I was all that surprised when he played me some of the ideas,” Schubert recalls with a laugh of Pat’s Pirate Songs. “I was like, ‘What the hell? That’s kind of strange.’ But I figured he got on some kind of pirate kick. Pat’s an eccentric guy; he’s his own person. That’s what I like about him.”
Visel calls Pirate his favorite album.
In July 2006, again with the help of musician and producer friends, Visel completed Lillian, named after the street on which Mall’s home studio is located. Mall’s production work here is more apparent, with samples and the use of everyday objects as instruments, something Mall read about Depeche Mode doing. (Visel made a trip to Wal-Mart for some whistles.) Again, the style of this album is very different from its predecessor. “I’m kind of singing a falsetto and getting more funky on this one,” Visel explains.
For Lillian, Visel penned “Europa” after friends told him about a National Geographic Channel special on Jupiter’s sixth moon; it’s a wistful track that starts off dreamy and quickly escalates. “No assholes allowed on Europa,” Visel croons.
“I think you’ll never hear music like this anywhere else,” says Schubert. “I listen to a lot of different music, I got tons of records and CDs, but I can’t really think of anything I’ve heard that sounds like what he does.”
But it’s Visel’s most recent album, 2007’s Hot Springs Prairie, that might be his best—particularly the opening track, “Drude Cared,” an anthemic, hooky-as-hell song that recalls a seemingly typical day in Visel’s life and reads almost like a journal entry: “Got to the church, waited at the bookstore/Sat down on the ground and waited some more/What the hell was I driving so fast for?/On my way back to the beach.”
There are bluesy twangs in “My Ogling Eyes,” but much of Hot Springs Prairie is actually reminiscent of ’90s lo-fi—think Wowee Zowee-era Pavement, with its charmingly off-kilter vocals, out-there lyrics and overall playful nature. Just listen to Visel’s crescendoing baritone growl on “Crazy Horse”: “One feather in his hair/One stone behind his ear/Craaaaa-aazy Horse!”
“He’s always had new ideas,” explains Schubert. “I really admire him for persevering and putting in a lot of time—not just writing songs, but crafting them, and asking people to come in whom he thinks will enhance the music. I see him work really hard in the studio with Ryan or Mike McHugh at [renowned Costa Mesa recording pod] the Distillery. He doesn’t rush the process. He goes in and wants to get the parts exactly right.”
In an age of MySpace band pages and shameless self-promotion, Visel has managed to have nothing to do with any of that. He began setting up a MySpace profile, but stopped, opting for an eHarmony profile instead. He continues today to hand out entire spindles of CDs—he had 1,000 to 1,500 of each album made—to friends, who have passed on the music, some even placing them in random cars.
“It’s almost as if they’re doing a paper route with my CDs,” Visel says, smiling as he admits he still has lots left in his closet in that pine-paneled bedroom.
He has even submitted albums to Taxi, an A&R program that connects unsigned songwriters with major record labels, after coming to the conclusion he was probably better as a songwriter and losing interest in playing live as a front man.