What would force you to take a hard look at the priorities in your life?
Maybe surviving a close shave. Beating a serious illness. Dodging a figurative bullet. Realizing we’re not promised another day can make people refocus, clarify their goals, work to make deferred dreams deferred no more.
Let’s say you contract typhoid while studying in India. Let’s say you’re bitten by a shark your one and only time in the ocean. Let’s say you’re carjacked by a bunch of skinheads who carve on you like a jack-o-lantern. Let’s say you’re on your motorcycle, lose control and fly off an overpass onto MoPac Boulevard. You shouldn’t even be alive.
Any of these incidents would make you reassess. Having all of them happen to you would make you Phil Ajjarapu.
“Does God hate me?” Ajjarapu asked, sitting in his office next to the choir room at Anderson High School, where he’s the assistant director of a highly decorated choir program. “Am I the next Job? At some point it’s just funny.”
This last brush with mortality made Ajjarapu think. On March 26, 2012, he was on his way to the bank, crossing MoPac on Loop 360 North, when he apparently lost control, overcorrected and plunged off the flyover. And fly he did, down 25 feet or more, landing on the highway. KVUE-TV called it “a miracle on MoPac.”
Paramedics were amazed he was alive, let alone conscious and responding to them, when they arrived. He doesn’t remember any of it. Despite wearing a helmet, he had a hairline skull fracture and so many broken bones, “I don’t even know the whole list.” He also had a traumatic brain injury. His injuries were severe enough that, to mark the one-year anniversary of the accident, his friends threw him a party and called it “Holy (Expletive) Phil Didn’t Die.”
He was at University Medical Center Brackenridge until April 9, 2012, and then transferred to St. David’s Rehabilitation. Once he was released, Girling Health Care paid home visits. Outpatient physical therapy continues, and he had another operation toward the end of the spring semester this year to get some hardware taken out of his knee.
It was while still in the hospital that he first had the thought: I’ve got to make a record of my own.
In terms of style and instrumental prowess, Ajjarapu is a wildly versatile musician. Soul, funk, country, pop, whatever. Hand him anything that makes a sound and he’ll know how to play it, whether it’s a viola or a pedal steel. He had done plenty of recording and session work. But he’d never made his own album. One that reflected his favorites – the Beatles, of course, and Big Star and Matthew Sweet and Jellyfish. Pure, unapologetically retro pop. One consisting of his own songs, which he describes as “defiantly derivative.”
Now it was time.
But first he had to re-learn basic things, like going to the bathroom by himself. He spent the next few months at home in a wheelchair, recently divorced and more recently broken up with a post-divorce girlfriend, listening to John Aielli on KUTX, convalescing alone but for the company of his beloved more-or-less border collie Molly, in pain, not knowing how long it would take to recover or to what extent he would. A strong network of friends and choir parents helped him get better, and he was back at Anderson for the beginning of the fall semester in 2012.
The music man
Ajjarapu grew up mostly in Libertyville, Ill., an affluent Chicago suburb that also happens to be the hometown of Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. In school he played approximately everything that made a sound. He was in orchestra, in choir, in jazz band, was in a band in high school and did plenty of session work later on. “If there was a music class I could fit in my schedule, I took it,” he said.
“Ninety-one was a good year to be in high school,” he said. “We had a real good record store, and we’d go there and they’d hip us to stuff.” He loved the Descendants, Red Red Meat. And he loved his music teachers. Ask him why he became a teacher, and he doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s easy. Mr Price, Mr. Lestina, Mrs. Ramsey and Mr. Shupe. All those teachers made me want to be a teacher. They liked me exactly the way I was.
“A lot of kids complain about school,” he said. “I really liked almost all of my teachers. I liked school more than I liked home, not that I dislike my parents.”
His parents, Indian immigrants who moved to the States in 1974, had grand designs for their son. The father, now retired, was a surgeon; the mother a nurse. So young Phil was going to be a doctor, oh yes, he was. He dutifully declared himself a biology pre-med major at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland but then switched to music education after a year, which unleashed a wave of paternal consternation.
“You guys don’t get it,” he told his parents. “I’m doing what I should be doing.”
His father’s response was to throw him out of the house. The freeze-out lasted for years. The thaw, such as there was one, went down thusly, as he remembers it:
“My dad calls me at Thanksgiving of my senior year. He says, ‘Are you coming home for Thanksgiving?’ I said, ‘No, you threw me out of the house.’ He said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ And it went like that for a few minutes, and it ends with him saying, ‘Your mother wants you to come home.’ Click. I drove home six hours, spent about four hours there and drove right back. The next time I saw them was at my graduation, then I taught a year in Florida, then I bought a house, then they cut education (funding) and I didn’t have a job, so I had to move back in with my parents and teach in Illinois.”
His musical tastes are wide and deep, but his default is the pop of the ’70s and earlier. He started doing session work in Cleveland when he was 18, moved back to Chicago, did jingle work and sessions for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony while in college and spent four years playing bass in Liquid Soul, listening to the Beatles in the van on the road.
“Liquid Soul made me love the Beatles even more,” Ajjarapu said.
He came to Austin in August 2006 because that’s what everybody does, and he quickly plugged into the local scene, more often than not as a bassist. Ask him how many bands he’s in, and he’ll say, “Eight. I think.”
These days “Mr. A,” as he’s known to his students, is in his eighth year as assistant choir director at Anderson, working with director David Beussman to steer a formidable program that soon well might need a new portable to function as a trophy room. He’s the cool teacher with the tattoos and bushy hair and beard who brings his dog to school sometimes, who talks to the kids not as if they’re kids but fellow musicians. It was a lesson he learned long ago from one of his mentors. In addition to choir, which requires a lot of long weekends on the bus for competitions, he also teaches a history of rock ’n’ roll class and another on songwriting and recording.
“You don’t have to be a technically good musician to be a good musician,” the technically good musician told his writing and recording students one day this spring. “You can count to four. Maybe this (he puts hand to a Roland electric piano) is not your instrument. Maybe that, the computer, is your instrument.”
Later, the “avowed coffee snob” limped to the offices he shared with Beussman, brewed a couple of cups and chatted with students who popped in on their way to the afternoon’s next class.
“I love these kids,” he said, with Molly at his feet, waiting for whatever excitement would come next.
Those brushes with death
Let’s review quickly the periodic but persistent Job-ian misfortunes of Phil Ajjarapu.
Yes, he contracted typhoid fever at 16 while visting family in India. He says he was sick for about a month.
Yes, he was bitten by a baby hammerhead the only time he set foot in the ocean. That was during his first year of teaching in Titusville, Fla.
“I screamed like a woman,” he said. “It’s downright cartoonish until you’re the one being nibbled on.”
The water was just knee-deep. He can’t swim. He got stitches. The odds of being bitten by a shark in U.S. waters, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, are 11.5 million to 1. You are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning. The odds of the same cursed soul being both bitten by a shark and struck by lightning aren’t even worth calculating. Unless you’re Phil Ajjarapu, who given his luck might well one day suffer both misfortunes simultaneously.
It’s reasonable to assume the odds of your being jacked by three carloads of skinheads are substantially better, especially if at the time you “looked sort of black,” and it was late at night in a winter storm, and you were boxed in at a stoplight. Ajjarapu is somewhat hesitant to talk about it – “I don’t want to give anybody ideas,” he says – but the crime happened in Cleveland a year before the shark incident, and when he does talk about it, it’s as if he contracted a virus that was more an annoyance than anything.
“What are my options, roll over and die?” he asked. “Your days can’t all be good. That’s just not natural.”
Ajjarapu was beaten, cut with a knife and set on fire “but I wasn’t conscious by then,” he said in his brush-off tone. No arrests were made. He now has a tattoo across his chest: “Love Conquers Hate.” It is, he says, a daily reminder of something he believes.
And then, after 12 relatively disaster-free years, the motorcycle accident. Just running a check from a gig to the bank on a Monday afternoon, he presumably makes a minor mistake, the 1978 BMW R100 goes down, and he takes to the air,waking up in the hospital five days later.
His students at Anderson were afraid he might not make it, or at least might not make it back. He had nerve damage in his foot, a punctured lung, broken ribs, a traumatic brain injury, even nerve damage in his face that made it droopy and made food taste bad.
“I remember being in the hospital thinking that I need to make this album, even if no one bothered hearing it, even if it didn’t mean anything to anybody but me,” he later wrote on his successful Kickstarter campaign to raise $15,000 for the project. (The final amount: $17,525.) “If I had died without making it, that would have been the one thing I really regretted, and I couldn’t stand the thought of dying with regrets.”
He cut the demos at Anderson after school. He called his Kickstarter “The Philstarter: I didn’t die, so I’m making an album, by Phil Ajjarapu.” He raided his collection of vintage gear to offer incentives for higher-dollar contributors to the campaign, including the ’87 Alvarez acoustic he wrote most of the album on and a Yamaha electric grand piano. (Shipping not included or offered on that one.) Kicking in $2,500 would get you a solo house concert. Twice that would earn you a four- or five-course Phil-cooked meal before the show, but if travel was involved, could y’all split the gas, and can he bring Molly?
Of course, anybody can make a record these days. You don’t even have to play an instrument. And anybody can launch a Kickstarter to fund it. But then Ken Stringfellow came into the picture when mutual friends suggested he get in touch with this guy Phil in Austin.
Stringfellow is a veteran of the Posies, REM and the reboot of Big Star, unquestionably the ultimate cult pop band of the ’70s. He’s worked on something like 250 records over the years. In terms of passion for pop, he and Ajjarapu couldn’t be more simpatico. So Stringfellow, who lives in Paris with his wife and children, did get in touch. The very, very busy man, remarkably, had a more-or-less 10-day gap in his schedule this summer and already had a gig booked in Austin. Ajjarapu hired him. He figured he’d need $15,000 to back it all: Stringfellow for producing and recording; studio time; paying the musicians; mastering by Mike Hagler, who’s engineered Wilco; and pressing on vinyl.
The finished product will be available early next year on vinyl and as a download. He’s still contemplating a title.
The dream sessions
The kids in the recording class finished their finals, and Ajjarapu said goodbye to them and the rest of his students for the summer. He and his friend and collaborator Matt Simon — who’s worked with Voxtrot and Sons of Fathers, among many others — had blocked out time in a studio in San Marcos, only to discover at almost the last moment that the place had been double-booked. So they rented Eastern Sun — known as Sweatbox Studio when Mike Vasquez ran it — in an industrial space near the Austin Animal Center. They’d both worked there before. Great room with high ceilings, but no AC in the studio itself. They hauled in all the gear themselves, including Bruce Robison’s 24-channel mixing board, four drum sets, an ancient Wurlitzer and even a sitar.
Stringfellow arrived in mid-July, and within hours Ajjarapu could feel the vibe of the sessions changing in ways he welcomed.
“Ken brings more depth and shadow,” Ajjarapu said as he drove his producer to Lockhart for barbecue at Black’s. “It’s more three-dimensional.”
“This is going to sound like a record from 1969,” Stringfellow said. “I go where I’m needed, where I feel like I can bring a bit of a teacher role. Every record is like an ‘Iron Chef’ challenge. Making a record is no big deal. I make, like, 20 of these a year. I’m not intimidated. I swing at every pitch. And I hit a lot.”
Stringfellow hadn’t had a day off since April and was booked through Christmas, but he and the whole crew threw themselves into long days and nights in the studio. Some days Ajjarapu’s formerly broken ribs hurt after singing for 10 or 12 hours. Molly kept everybody company and finished off Stringfellow’s beef rib bones, which he accurately described as roughly the size of his forearm. Now and then Ajjarapu would lay on the couch in the control room and noodle on an acoustic guitar.
“So I was thinking about changing the key for ‘Nothing Is Connected,’ ” he said one day. “Letting these songs grow up a little bit.”
Stringfellow listened to a few bars and politely vetoed the move.
“That sounds good,” he said after hearing a few bars of the song in its original key. “I know it’s at the top of your range, but it’s more emotional.”
They tracked the record mostly live, the players — close to 30 when it was all done, including the Tosca String Quartet and Brent Baldwin, better known as the artistic director at the Texas Choral Consort — sitting in a circle. Stringfellow played upright bass on “The Wedding Song” with Molly curled at his feet. The song is about how Ajjarapu asked his ex-wife to marry him.
“Unfortunately, she said yes,” he cracked, his finances and psyche still stinging after the 2010 split.
After 10 days or so and a gig at Whisler’s in East Austin, which Molly attended, Stringfellow was on a plane back to Paris and Ajjarapu was left with the rough mixes and a sense of a job well done. Ajjarapu and Simon aim to keep renting the studio. They figure a few sessions a month can cover the rent, and maybe a client will hire Stringfellow to work in the familiar spot.
“At this point, I couldn’t have made a better decision,” Ajjarapu said, sitting in front of his house in East Austin. “Ken is absolutely the right partner in crime. He said, ‘Let the room be part of the instrumentation.’ Tonally it’s really rich. The album sounds old, like things we like.”
He’s realistic about the record’s commercial prospects, but at least he didn’t have to raid his retirement to finance the project. Still, a teacher’s salary and the divorce didn’t leave him with much. He rents his house with five roommates.
“I don’t need much,” he said. “I’d like a tub my knees don’t stick out of, a gas range to cook on and a yard for Molly before she dies. If there’s two lessons from me, it’s wear a helmet and get a better lawyer.”
He already has what he needed most: a promise to himself fulfilled. A dream deferred no longer.
He’s 36 and he’s alive.
And no, he doesn’t have the motorcycle anymore.
Go into the studio with Phil Ajjarapu, the ‘Miracle on MoPac’ survivor, as he records his album. Video on Austin360.com.