Dax Pierson’s New Album Confronts a Near-Death Experience and Turbulent Recovery

On 'Live in Oakland,' lurching synths and mechanical percussion convey the challenging emotional aspects of Dax Pierson's recovery from a debilitating accident.  (Francis John)

In 2005, Dax Pierson was on tour as keyboardist with Subtle, an Anticon Records-affiliated dance-punk-meets-hip-hop sextet, when tragedy struck. The band's tour van slipped on black ice on a freeway in Iowa. After the car flipped upside down, Pierson's seatbelt gave out, and he fell on his head.

The resulting injuries rendered Pierson partially paralyzed in all four limbs—including in his fingertips.

Now, 14 years later, Pierson has released his solo debut under his real name, and his first album in 11 years. Live in Oakland, out this month on Ratskin Records, introduces Pierson's new style of freeform electronic compositions with a sprawling, ocean-like musical topography. With recordings of doctor's visits and his wheelchair's mechanical noise interspersed among droning synths and dramatic, reverb-heavy percussion, Pierson lets listeners into his recovery process, where the emotional challenges have sometimes been as heavy as the physical ones.


On the opening track, Pierson repeats the warning like a mantra: "Don't take your physical abilities for granted. For you could lose them—at the snap of a neck."

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"It was something I was constantly thinking and saying to myself for a while," Pierson says when I meet him at his sunny home studio in the Oakland hills, where warm, golden-hour light floods his nook of cables, controllers and towering shelves filled with vinyl records. "When I started getting those sets together, I wanted to incorporate my injury and my life into my work."

The compositions on Live in Oakland were recorded during Pierson's live shows from the last several years. At the now-defunct underground venue LCM, a West Oakland church-turned-noise music haven, and the art gallery ProArts, Pierson rediscovered himself as a performer before a supportive, tight-knit audience that had been awaiting his return since his Subtle days. 

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Indeed, the underground music community was an essential support system when Pierson got back to Oakland after eight months in a Houston rehabilitation hospital following the accident. When he returned, his friends, peers in the music scene and coworkers at Amoeba Music (where the other members of Subtle also worked at the time) organized benefit shows and fundraisers to get him a caregiver. They also formed an apartment-hunting squad that helped him get set up at his own place.

"I was getting a lot of support from the Amoeba family," says Pierson. "And thankfully the music community, like the way they have rallied around other types of events like Ghost Ship, they were able to rally together and have benefits. They helped me that first year."

Dax Pierson.
Dax Pierson. (Mike Daddona)

After getting back to Oakland, Pierson tried playing keyboard by hitting the keys with pointers, but found his physical abilities decreasing with time. Doctors offered little insight or emotional support, as heard on the track "Treading Water," which mixes in a recording of Pierson's doctor feebly attempting to reassure him about a situation that, realistically, looked bad from all angles. Amid woozy synths that lurch like pangs of nausea, Pierson's doctor explains that his neck is fusing together, and even though he'll lose mobility, "the good thing is if you have arthritis there and it fuses, you won't have pain anymore."

In the recording is a snippet of Pierson's shellshocked "oh" in acknowledgement. Now he reflects, "That appointment really left me hurt and angry, and putting that piece together was a form of therapy—just a way for me to get the frustration out of what he was saying and how unbelievable it was."

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As his recovery went on, Pierson helped co-write songs on Subtle's 2006 and 2008 albums by singing bass lines, verbally giving his bandmates edits on compositions and teaching them Ableton. He wasn't able to do much else musically until five years after the accident in 2010, when the advent of the iPad changed everything for him—and many other musicians with disabilities.

"When they introduced the iPad, that’s when I knew there was a real possibility to make serious music, because I had a way to interact by touch instead of having to press keys, play chords and turn knobs," he says. Showing me an app he uses to control Ableton on his computer, and another one that functions more like a mixing board, controlling multiple iPad apps at once, he adds, "I can do it all virtually."

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These days, Pierson shares his Oakland hills home with his longtime partner, Chuck, a visual artist. In fact, the two of them met on a social networking site, Tribe.Net (pre-Facebook, post-MySpace), and were starting up a long-distance relationship during the year before that fateful tour. While on the road, Pierson was supposed to see him in New York.

"I never made it, but we met and he came out to visit in Houston," he says with a sweet smile. "And we’ve been together for 15 years."

Visceral and stirring, Live in Oakland is Pierson's way of clearing his throat and letting people know that he's still here—and why he's been laying low. It doesn't paint a falsely inspirational portrait of surviving a near-death experience or living with disabilities. Instead, the album allows listeners to course through the messy, uncomfortable and sometimes ugly emotions that have been part of his recovery process.

Pierson is already working on his next album—which he says could take a more poppy form, gesturing to an entire shelf of Prince vinyl he's been collecting since the age of 12.

"[Music] has kept my head out of the shit. And there’s a lot of shit," says Pierson with a sarcastic laugh. "Music has been a real lifesaver."

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