Ten Cent Zen performs at Kenai Joe's earlier this month. From left, Ray Bacon plays harmonica and guitar, Micc Negron plays drums, Dave Boyle plays guitar, and Josh Silba is on the bass. They all share in vocal duties.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
Contrary to the words that may come out of their mouths while in bars on weekends, David Boyle and Ray Bacon aren't depressed.
Both have families and full-time jobs Boyle as a teacher at Soldotna Middle School and Bacon as an electrician and carpenter and are, in general, pretty happy guys. But when the founders of the band Ten Cent Zen get together and play the mainstay of their repertoire blues some of the lyrics they wail out make them sound in need of Prozac.
"I've been thinking about it, and I'm a pretty happy guy in general, but when I sit down to write, oftentimes it's about introspection or things that are bothering me at the time," Boyle said. "Playing is cathartic."
Ray Bacon of Ten Cent Zen
It's not so much the melancholy message of the blues that appeals to the longtime Kenai Peninsula musicians, though both appreciate the honesty of blues lyrics that expose common human experiences, however gloomy. Rather, it's more the sound of the music and its essence as the foundation of rock and roll that keep them playing it.
"It's unaffected, uncontrived," Boyle said. "It doesn't seem like some guy in a studio told people, 'Hey, play this song because it'll sell records.' It seems like real emotions cutting loose. And as a musician, I just love the voice and sound of blues guitar."
Bacon has yet to find a better musical home for his John Popper style of harmonica playing unconstrained howling with so much intensity it sounds like it should cause hyperventilation.
"I think I relate to it in a way where when I play the harmonica, it actually grabs me," he said. "... I really don't play it, it plays me. That's what I really like about blues there's lots of room to stretch."
Bacon and Boyle started playing together about 12 years ago in an a band called Men With No Pride with fellow area musician Mike Morgan. About five years ago the two formed Ten Cent Zen.
The lyrics of blues often can be melancholy, but Boyle and Silba find the tunes fun to play.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
"Ray and I kind of stuck it out together," Boyle said. "... Of all the musicians I've played with, he and I had the closest musical vision."
Their vision coalesced into Ten Cent Zen meaning cheap enlightenment with an orientation toward blues and "neo-folk" music, Boyle said. Members have changed over the years, and the current makeup is rounded out with Josh Silba on bass and Micc Negron on drums.
The band can play just about anything and tailors their performances to the establishments they're at, whether it's covers of whatever's hot on the radio, classic rock or older favorites from various generas.
"We're going to do a Diana Ross song," Boyle told the crowd at a recent performance, sarcastically adding, "and we're just the band to do it."
At Kenai Joe's, where they usually can be found the first weekend of every month, Ten Cent Zen can indulge their blues bent, mainly because that's the kind of music the owner, Dale Howard, wants to hear.
"He's got the greatest jukebox in the state, he really does," Boyle said. "Every set we play are songs we've heard on the jukebox. It's really cool."
The bar's laid-back atmosphere gives the band the chance to expand their solo playing and wander away from the most mainstream, well-known songs to play their own originals, all the while with the audience grooving away on the peanut shell-strewn wooden dance floor.
"They'll dance and clap to a song they haven't heard just as enthusiastically as they would a Rolling Stones tune," Boyle said.
To look at Ten Cent Zen onstage, "blues band" isn't the first phrase that comes to mind. Bacon's red-headed, twinkle-eyed grin and Boyle's surfer-boy, long-in-front locks don't mesh with the images of hard-bitten, life-worn blues legends. Silba and Negron look like they'd be more at home in a metal band than a blues setting. But even though they don't look the part, they can certainly play it.
Boyle started playing on a Kmart ukulele his mom got him when he was about 4 after he saw a cowboy playing the guitar on TV and thought that was "the coolest thing," he said.
He evolved into a guitarist who can handle the "tasty" licks of rock and blues, Bacon said.
"Dave's an unbelievable guitar player," Bacon said. "He's clean; he's pretty much the rock that holds us all together."
As a vocalist he's a true tenor, meaning he can reach into higher ranges with ease, which is tough to do for male singers, Silba said.
"Dave is incredible to play with. He's just a real original-sounding artist," Silba said.
In contrast to Boyle's tenor is Bacon's growl.
"He's got that kind of gravely voice down and it fits the style of what he's doing," Silba said.
Bacon plays guitar, which he learned when he was 18 in New York state by trading his labor helping build a log cabin for guitar lessons from the cabin's owner. He picked up the harmonica and discovered his natural talent for it about seven years ago. Without so much as a lesson or glancing at an instruction book, Bacon could play it as well the first time as he can today, he said.
"I just love his harmonica playing," Boyle said. "There's a lot of great musicians in town, and there's bands who I think are much more polished than us. But if you were to name one soloist where you'd walk into a bar and say, 'Wow, that was a great soloist.' The person you would most often say that about is Ray Bacon and his harmonic."
Silba and Negron, though they come from more rock and metal backgrounds, have settled into blues beats. Silba grew up around music and professional musicians by virtue of being the son of Mike Silba, owner of The Music Box in Soldotna.
"Being around all those guys at a young age was a really good experience," he said. "It taught me at a really young age how to play with real players."
Silba started out pounding a "cheesy" drum kit about age 5 or 6, he said. He was playing with professional bands "probably before he was even legal to be in a bar," Boyle said.
Silba filled the vacant drummer slot of Ten Cent Zen about a year and a half ago. When the band's bass player left, Silba filled in that slot a few times and became the permanent bassist when Negron came on as the drummer about eight months ago.
He's played in metal and classic rock bands and even did a brief stint as a country musician solely for the purpose of opening for Charlie Daniels, he said. Silba and Negron are in their own band playing original, new-sounding rock, he said. Ten Cent Zen gives him a chance to keep up his playing and singing and get some experience in blues.
"It's a lot of fun playing blues," he said. "I'm still learning a lot of the blues stuff but playing with Dave and Ray, those guys are so good at it, it's been really helpful playing with them."
Negron, who also plays guitar and sings, comes from a background of metal bands in Florida. He said he decided he needed to get away from the music industry and chill for a while. He chose appropriately enough for chilling purposes Alaska and has been in the central peninsula for the last three years. He said he didn't know what to expect from the music scene here, but he found a lot of great musicians, though not as much competition or variety in music styles as he was used to.
Playing with Ten Cent Zen has posed an intriguing challenge for him to transition from the aggressive style of metal drumming to the more technical requirement of blues.
"It takes a lot more schooling, learning time signatures and what not. It's just a different caliber of music," he said. "... The guys have been awesome. Everybody in the band does their parts; it's all been kind of inspirational to me."
The band plays more frequently in the summer, but Bacon and Boyle have kept busy in slower months putting together a CD of original songs that they plan to release this summer.
"There's some just heartfelt originals, songs that come from our experience up here," Bacon said.
Many are in the blues genre, like "Ray's Blues Harp," a tune about fishing and "basically having fun in Alaska," Bacon said. Others take a more mellow folk sound, like "Sing With the Child," about parents teaching their kids to do right.
Bacon and Boyle have widely differing song-writing styles.
"I'm somebody who reads poetry and listens to lyrics and thinks about it," Boyle said. "He's the opposite. His approach is just kind of let go."
Playing off each other's strengths is something Bacon and Boyle have learned to do well, a fact evidenced by the sound of their music and longevity as band mates.
"Our friendship has helped us move along any little divisions that my have come up that have separated other bands I've been in," Boyle said.
"I know it's cliche, but it's like we're brothers from different mothers."
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