Fodder for Life

Now a Texan, former Tucsonan Fish Karma releases a new album

Until almost three years ago, Fish Karma was something of a Southern Arizona hero, albeit one born and raised in Phoenix. Known for some 20 years for his bizarre, conservative-baiting comedy and satirical songwriting, he suddenly disappeared from the Old Pueblo in September 2003. Or so it seemed.

With a then-new Mrs. Karma riding in his sidecar, Karma escaped Tucson for the distant land of Texas--a village called San Antonio, to be exact--where he has worked tirelessly as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman and endured a climate that seems, to a lifelong cactushead, relentlessly muggy.

"They have this thing here called humidity, and any time that it's more than .001 percent, I'm just a complete wreck," said Karma after getting home from work a few days ago.

"And these Texans! They say, 'Well, son, you should have lived in Shreveport,' or something like that. What does that have to do with me? My hair's terrible; my pores are huge. It's just awful."

Nice to know Karma's still an outspoken S.O.B., and thank the goddess for that.

Karma was on the phone to discuss his fifth full-length CD, The Theory of Intelligent Design, which will be released Tuesday, July 11, on Alternative Tentacles Records, the legendary label headed by punk-rock avatar Jello Biafra.

Since the early 1980s, when he was a fixture at the UA's Comedy Corner shows, Karma has released several albums filled with such classic Tucson tunes as "Swap Meet Women," "Die Like a Dog" and "God Is a Groovy Guy." Recorded for a variety of record labels, the recordings never earned Karma much money. So he toiled as a grade-school teacher and raised three sons with his first wife. Karma never stopped writing twisted tunes, although a brief detour into corporate comedy gigs about five years back soured him on stand-up.

"It's actually one of the few comedy gigs that pays decent money. But those audiences are the worst," Karma said. "They're all these businessmen from out of town, getting wined and dined on the company tab, and all they want to do is get drunk and go out to strip clubs."

At a hoity-toity foothills restaurant, Karma gave what he called "the worst and best comedy show of my life." It concluded unexpectedly with his infamous meta-imitation of a moth, in which he frenetically taps his head with a light bulb. (Heh, heh. It makes me chuckle every time.)

He was a bit too enthusiastic with his prop.

"I smashed the light bulb on my head. Blood was literally pouring from my forehead. There were glass shards sticking out. I didn't know whether to pull them out or not.

"So I pulled them out, and there was more blood. After 20 minutes into the job, I walk through the crowd, pouring blood, and I collected my money. It was really an example of the horror of corporate comedy."

By the time he got to Texas, comedy was fading into Karma's rearview mirror. But he couldn't stop writing songs.

"The lines would just insinuate themselves to me periodically. Definitely in the last couple of years, it has become sort of a compulsive thing."

Karma, though, didn't even have a guitar anymore, much less recording gear. So he went old school.

"I borrowed a guitar from a friend at work that had three steel strings and three nylon strings, and I sang into my wife's cassette tape player. I recorded over an old tape and sent it off as my demo tape to Jello Biafra."

Karma and Biafra had been mutual admirers for many years and came close to working together, but The Theory of Intelligent Design is his first album on Alternative Tentacles.

When the time came to record the album, Karma called on old Tucson pals.

"I snuck into Tucson last summer to record with Jim Waters at his Waterworks Studio. The bulk of recording was done with Gordon Groves. He and I had attempted in the past to meld heavy metal and rockabilly, so we recorded with the rhythm section of his band."

A longtime local musician, Groves is also a respected Tucson instrument maker. Karma ceded all artistic decisions to Groves in the studio, he said.

"I kept my hands off this time. Pretty much, Gordon would say, 'Go there, sit here, sing it like this.' If I questioned him, he'd shout, 'Shut up,' and I did, because he's like 6 foot 9.

"Anyway, I'd rather let the professional musicians do all the work. My goal is to reach the point where I can subcontract out the vocals and lyric writing, too. It's bound to be a better product."

Karma's old friend Al Perry--no slouch when it comes to songwriting, band leading, guitar tickling, radio DJing and playing alternative forms of country, blues and other traditional music--dropped by the recording sessions as the ringer.

The Theory of Intelligent Design was supposed to have been in stores earlier this year, and then it was delayed until May, another deadline missed. The July 11 release is certain now, he said.

Karma had made arrangements to play a record-release party at Club Congress in July, but the CD's delays meant that it, too, has been postponed. "I hope I can get out there to play for you guys in the fall."

Having recorded for such labels as Deep Shag and San Jacinto in Tucson and Triple X in Los Angeles, Karma is looking forward to the new CD, which should get the most comprehensive distribution yet. Once it gets out, that is.

Not that Alternative Tentacles isn't excited about the CD. The label's Web site has this to say about Karma and his latest album:

"Fish once again provides badly needed relief from our increasingly Branch Davidian-like government and all those obnoxious, large, golden crosses shackled around puppet celebrity necks at the Grammy Awards. These songs feature his unique skewerings of the dark side of Americana as mutated into the sun-damaged retirees, townies and pleasure-seekers only the Southwest could create. ... Kind of outsider, kind of blind-sider, with a barb or two at supply-siders, Fish Karma's in the tent to enlighten and mangle your mind."

While Karma is glad that his superiors at his 9-to-5 job remain blissfully unaware of his moonlighting as a singer-songwriter, the daily grind provides endless inspiration for his art.

"I was just recently at a get-motivated seminar that was beyond anything I could imagine or believe, with people outlining selling schemes to beat the big companies at their 'game.' It was profoundly the most disgusting and interesting thing I've ever done."

And good fodder for satirical songs?

In a deadpan voice, he said, "Good fodder for life."

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