By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
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.
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.
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.
* * *
After going back to Orange Coast College to study accounting, Visel has worked in accounts payable at various places. He recently passed his CPA exam and is on the lookout for a new position. But he daydreams about moving to a slower-paced, more pastoral place where he can write songs and maybe even find a gal with whom to settle down. He enjoys shooting hoops and occasionally surfs, hobbies carried over from childhood.
Visel says he doesn’t play live much anymore, other than some ragtime guitar at random events, art shows and even a holiday stint at Neiman Marcus. He digs some other local acts such as Aushua, Satisfaction and Innaway, but when asked how often he catches any of these bands live, he laughs and says, “Busted! I don’t go out that much anymore.”
He speaks highly of the local music scene and holds onto high hopes for his own passions. “You know, everyone has thoughts that they’re creative and artistic and that they should be accepted by people,” Visel explains. “I’m just trying to find a useful place for myself.”
Visit Patrick Visel online at www.patvisel.com.