Meet our first rock 'n' roll ambassador to China.
If he looks familiar you probably caught him when he fronted a band of cats called the Chainsaw Kittens, the best alternative glam-pop act ever to scratch its way out of Oklahoma and all the way up to the college-radio bigtime back in the '90s.
Tyson Meade will take the stage Saturday for a rare home-state performance, playing with original Kittens guitarist Mark Metzger for the first time in 19 years, and spreading the word about his plans to record a hands-across-the-water album — in China — with Chinese and American musicians.
“For five years I lived in China, in Shanghai, and the last three of those five years I was running a boarding school and I've fallen in love with China,” the singer/songwriter/guitarist/educator said in an interview with The Oklahoman last week.
“China loves America, loves Americans, and everyone was so good to me there.”
Meade plans to finance the recording and distribution of the album through Kickstarter, the funding website that gathers donations from the general public for creative projects. Meade said Oklahoma-bred filmmaker Bradley Beesley (“Okie Noodling,” “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo”) is directing a video promoting the Kickstarter campaign, which kicks off Friday at kickstarter.com.
“Partly this is diplomatic,” Meade said. “In some small way, I would like people to know that Chinese people are awesome — as are Japanese people and Vietnamese people and Thais and ...”
So how does a guy who describes himself as a “glitter-rock farm boy” from Oklahoma — the same guy who used to wear dresses onstage and write such subversive avant-rock songs as “She's Gone Mad” and “Violent Religion” — end up in Shanghai as an English teacher and dean of students at a public high school?
He once explained it this way: “For a year and a half, I was an English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and LaGuardia Community College in NYC. The bulk of my classes were writing classes for international students who were preparing for freshman English. I loved this time. I really loved it. And it occurred to me that I could do basically the same thing in the exotic city of my choice.”
A guidebook writer/editor friend suggested Shanghai, and that's where Meade's appetite for adventure took him.
After years of fronting rock bands (first Defenestration, then the Kittens) and turning out two solo albums (“Motorcycle Childhood,” “Kitchens and Bathrooms”), Meade had all but turned his back on music, having lost his inspiration.
Shanghai is where he found it again.
“I met this violinist — he was 15 at the time — who goes by the moniker of Haffijy,” Meade recalled. “That's his English name, that's not really a name, nor is it English.”
The Chinese teacher who introduced them told Meade, “This young man is a great violinist.”
Meade, who still owned a guitar, suggested they play some songs together. Two days later they got together in the school garden and Meade played some of his songs for the boy.
“And he just immediately started playing along, and I was just awestruck at how amazing he played for a 15-year-old. He just, like, embodied this pure love of music. And he had this pure spirit and we would play every few days. I kept thinking, I had not written a song in a while, and I just went home and wrote this song and I played it for him, and he took all these notes and scored it, and then we recorded it, and then when we recorded it he immediately, like, each part he played, he just played it once and it was perfect.”
Meade wanted to help open the doors to a formal musical education and much-deserved recognition for Haffijy, and some of his musically gifted classmates as well. But the education part takes money.
That's when Meade hit upon the idea for an album. He started reaching out to his musical friends in the U.S. He's hoping the guys he worked with on the recent Winter Boys 7-inch single — Jesse Tabish of Other Lives and Derek Brown of the Flaming Lips — will join in. He said his old friend, ex-Smashing Pumpkin Jimmy Chamberlin, has agreed to play drums on the album, and he's invited former ex-Lone Justice lead singer Maria McKee to add her distinctive voice to the mix.
And Haffijy will be the “cornerstone” of the album, Meade said.
“I've approached a few schools, like the University of Oklahoma and Columbia College in Chicago, and the University of Houston in Texas about doing some sort of collaborative (effort) where they send some college students with me over to China, some student musicians to help me with the album, so I'd have Chinese and American students playing together on this record.
“I want this album to basically be a cultural exchange of sorts. I would like to see us have a strong relationship with China. Because the people — I'm not talking about the government — but the people are just so good there. And they love America and that's my sort of, my cause at the moment. And so I want to do this album to promote, just, I guess, it sounds really corny, but just the love of mankind.”
He also dreams of some day bringing young Chinese musicians to the U.S. for a tour.
But this Saturday night, local fans can enthuse over Meade's reunion with Metzger, who left Chainsaw Kittens after the release of their 1992 sophomore album to raise a family.
“We're gonna play some songs that the Kittens never play,” Meade said. “We've decided to do an early show and a late show. I'm not going to have an opening band. Instead, what I've decided to do is invite different friends to play some songs with me and they will also play songs on their own.”
Singer-songwriter Beau Jennings (Cheyenne) and Derek Brown are also among those friends, and Meade said there may be a couple of surprise guests. No telling who he'll be playing with next.
Tyson Meade and friends
When: 9 p.m. Saturday and 2 a.m. Sunday.
Where: VZD's Restaurant & Club, 4200 N Western.