The Aaron Sarlo Tapes: “My Jim Dickinson Story”

March 27, 2019


This is from one of the times I was at Ardent Studios tracking demos with Techno Squid Eats Parliament. We tracked a ton of demos, spent a lot of time hanging out up there. 

At Ardent, they had a little room in the back, off the main corridor. It looked like a waiting room, had two facing couches, and an upright Defender arcade machine that we used to play all the time. One day, I was walking past the waiting room area, and I saw Jim Dickinson sitting on one of the couches. Jim Dickinson had famously loved Techno Squid, but a rumor had gotten back to me that he had called me “the weakest member” of the band. This irked me, which is not surprising. Nobody would like to hear this news. But, in fact, the main reason why his statement irked me was because I originally taught TSEP’s singer, Clay Bell, how to play guitar. 

When Clay and I were in 9th grade, I taught him his first few chords on acoustic guitar. Clay had once told me, in his living room when we were 15, that he did not want to learn to play guitar. He said it was because his dad was a musician, and he didn’t want to grow up to be like his dad, who was, admittedly, a fairly hateful drunk. I showed Clay the chords to The Troggs “Wild Thing,” and Clay and I would strum it and belt out the words to each other for hours, laughing. I also remember teaching Clay the G chord, C chord, and F chord, and I remember our discussions of the fingering of the chords, specifically me telling him to finger G with his middle, ring, and pinky fingers because it freed up his index finger to make the G suspended chord, not to mention making the transition from G to C much smoother than the way some people played a G chord: index, middle, and ring finger. 

As we progressed, I recorded all of Clay’s demos, as well as my demos, and the songs we co-wrote. Clay never owned any home recording equipment, and relied on me to record everything he wrote. I still have hours and hours of demos of mine and Clay’s — the very demos that helped get us our record deal with Ardent. They’re really a trip. Guitars, bass, drum machine, mandolins, penny whistle, harmonica, accordion. We recorded some fun shit, imho. 

So, like I said, it did not sit well with me when I heard that Jim Dickinson had referred to me as the “weakest” member of the band that wouldn’t have existed but through my blood, sweat, and tears on those recordings. So, me, being curious, and also being the kind of person who doesn’t shy away from a direct question, I asked Jim what the deal was. 

Me: Hey, man. Did you say that you thought I was the weakest member of the band? 
JD: Yeah, I said that about you after the Spectrum thing. Your stage presence was terrible. You’re a good guitar player. Really solid, great technique. But, yeah, it was painful to watch you at the show. You looked nervous as hell. I felt bad for you.* 
Me: I’m the guy who records all of our demos. Just so you know. I’ve been recording Clay and me, our demos, since high school.
JD: Oh that was you? You did all that? Jody gave me copies of that stuff.** What do you record on? 
Me: Yamaha MT 100 II 4-track. 
JD: Oh, yeah, man, I really dig those demos. Really inventive stuff. I didn’t know that was you. 
Me: Yeah, all me. Basically, I record all the rhythm tracks, and tell Clay to come over with his guitar, and then we track his parts. 
JD: Well, it’s really impressive stuff, Aaron. You’re like Brian Wilson, man, with that Yamaha. Just this little twisted genius toiling away in his bedroom. If you record any new stuff, I want to hear it.”  

. . . 

I don’t know if this story interests you or not. It was one of my only direct interactions (that I remember) with the man. I know he was a fan of Techno Squid, and I think we discussed having him produce the record at one point, before we went with John Hampton. Anyway, I hardly ever get the chance to talk about my old stories from the TSEP days, but being that you’re writing about me, I guess it’s the place to tell them. 

*Jim was correct. I was very nervous the night we played the Spectrum Showcase, and I’m sure I could have been better. I was only 20. Fun fact: Techno Squid won our night at the Spectrum Weekly Musicians Showcase on the night of my 21st birthday. We played our set, and were up against Hazy Nation and Ho-Hum that night, and the judges were Jim Dickinson, John Fry, Jody Stephens, and Rick Clark [writer for Billboard Magazine]. The results were announced right before midnight — Techno Squid Eats Parliament won! — and then, at midnight, I turned 21. Best 21st birthday ever!

**Jody Stephens, who was our A&R guy, famously played Techno Squid recordings for anybody and everybody who would listen.

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