Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Song of the Week: "Turn South"

Here's the next song of the week from Cheap Seats--track #4, "Turn South."

I can tell you what you’re doing is predictably sad
And point out all the wasted potential you’ve had
Believe me, I won’t point the finger any which way but out
I may as well go ahead and turn South

I’ll go on about the secrets that you’d better learn quick
And I’ll scoff if you suggest a method other than logic
Nobody’s impressed with what I’m talking about
I oughta go ahead and turn South

I’ll swear there’s something good in the alternative
I’ll bluff so hard I’ll claim that I don’t mind if I live
I don’t believe in all the shit that’s coming out of my mouth
I’d better go ahead and face South

In terms of the album's concept, "Turn South" represents an early peak in conflict--it's about overconfidence and ego.  By the time we've reached adulthood, it seems we are secure enough in the way our minds behave (and in the relationship between our minds and our brains) that it becomes just "the way things are" and there's no need to question that there may be other things going on behind the scenes that the conscious mind is unaware of.  In this state, our elective preferences and opinions dominate to the point that ego becomes a caricature.  Of course, this is a personal song with some scathing self-assessment.  The phrase "turn South" relates to my much-explored interest in Daoist writings and classical Chinese religion--it's said that when the emperor achieves order in his kingdom and harmonizes the way of the human world with the way of nature and heaven, as a natural next step, he'll "face South"--as in, "attain perfection."  Naturally, here it's used sarcastically (time to add the ever-popular self-loathing tag!).  Along with "The Knack" and "Chrysalis (In Three Verses)," this makes up the hubristic peak from which a fall is inevitable.

Musically, this is another example of what I'm short-handing "ITC (intuitive through-composition)," where one part is through-composed and the others are subsequently composed by ear to fit together as a sort of sloppy puzzle.  Differently from other songs, though, this one doesn't really have a "lead" guitar part--there's the acoustic (trivia: the very first part I tracked over a year about an ego-destroying experience), then the Telecaster (which plays a rhythm part in low-register octaves that somewhat overlap the acoustic) and finally the ES-335 (the last guitar part composed, which plays smaller intervals of thirds and fourths in the upper register).  You'd better believe that things get contrapuntal

This being one of the first songs I started working on, it's interesting to revisit because I had so many hypothetical goals and ideas about how the project would play out--for instance, I was hoping to avoid bass guitar entirely for the album, replacing it with bass clarinet and synthesizer where appropriate.  Obviously that didn't work out, but this one has low register Moog and no bass guitar, which contributes to a sort of (attempted) "warped indie rock" feel.  Also contributing to the "indie rock" feel is the eighth-note focus (so many staccato eighth-notes in indie many) and the absence of lead guitar.  The verses modulate chromatically, which was easy to write on paper but you can bet was a bitch to record vocals for.  The horn arrangement is another interesting thing to look back at--though it changes harmonically, the placement of the parts doesn't change, and I think it's one of the arrangements that fits best and most audibly in the overall mix...guess I got lucky early on, since not all of the parts work out as successfully.  In the studio, this was the second song Drew recorded drums for, and the first really weird one.  At first I was directing him to go "dancy," which turned out to be obviously not what I was hearing in my head.  After a few false starts and a quickly-internalized lesson in communication, we settled on "jazzy" and Drew basically figured out that he could do whatever he wanted, blasting out some ridiculous fills in the song's ending (a show for which I was privileged enough to have front row seats).  And so proceeded the rest of the drum tracking...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Song of the Week: "An Unsettling Preposition"

As promised, here I am introducing some material from Cheap Seats--it's my plan to talk about one song per week.  This is indeed a concept album about the human mind, and though there isn't a specific "story," there is something of a narrative progression to the track listing.  "An Unsettling Preposition" opens the album, and while I won't be proceeding chronologically with these weekly updates, this song is the perfect place to start.  Lyrics are listed below, followed by some thoughts about the song's place in the concept as well as some info about the words and music.  Please take my introspection with a grain of salt; it's there for anybody who wants explanation or is interested enough to learn more about the details imbued in this work, but also as a tool for myself in moving forward artistically for my next projects.

You’ve been on the understanding where the way is by the will
You say you use the fundamental features, not the flashy frills
It’s within reason’s pungent sound you sail without a doubt
Though you were once upon a time so short these tools you were without

But I recall

I’ve been in and out of context enough to lose the feeling
I by no means know the meaning of a life without this ceiling

It’s been a while!
But I recall

We’ve been under these assumptions since I thought they’d keep us dry
You say we both agree that I am you and we are I

You’re so sure!
But I recall

"An Unsettling Preposition" effectively sets the scene--amongst a lot of lyrics and poems that deal with duality, an anxious sense of questioning and explorations-posed-as-dialogues, this song opens the proceedings with a one-sided conversation directed at the complacent, passive, comfortable (perhaps willfully ignorant) self of routine--the "me" that most of us experience, most of the time.  The speaking voice comes from a corner of the mind with a nagging sense that certain day-to-day assumptions ("In conjunction with my brain, 'I' consciously choose to act, then my physical body acts;" "Logic is a clear map I use to determine and decide the course of my actions;" "My reasoning mind and my physical brain are one and the same, always acting in accord with my conscious free will;" and finally, "It's always been this way") are perhaps not quite representative of the entire picture.  I think we forget that there was a time (childhood) when our brains were soaking up sensory input like sponges--before we really had any congealed sense of selfhood or the ego to behave with confidence about it.  Once this system is firmly in place and running like a well-oiled machine fueled by memories of cause and effect, life is an easy enough plate to keep spinning--but have you ever wondered about how much sensory input (present and past) your brain is ignoring because it doesn't fit into the framework whereby you've been routinely living your life for the past decades?  The lyric also posits that the "me" that sits comfortably in routine and the "me" who questions and balks at such an anemic mind-life just might not be co-existing quite as peacefully as the automatic mind would prefer.

Lyrically, I had a lot of fun with this one as a sort of word game--the verses are built from prepositional figures of speech treated as if the locations in question were actually physical.  There's further punning happening with some homophones and imagery tied to the fact that I was looking out across the water from the Ballard Locks to the Olympics when writing the words.

Musically, the song serves as an apt introduction for the rest of the album, displaying a concise structure (a much-abbreviated traditional verse/chorus structure with a brief breakdown and an even briefer sort of post-second-chorus bridge).  It's a three-guitar arrangement, with one guitar (my ES-335 though a tiny 4-watt Hawaiian guitar amp that belongs to my friend Nick, complete with "mother of toilet seat" turquoise case) laying down rhythm riffs in the lower register and two other guitars functioning in tandem and a sort of "intuitive through-composition" (this ends up happening enough across the songs I'll go ahead and start calling it "ITC") in the upper register, where the Telecaster plays two-note chords, and the Firebird plays more of a liquid, distorted, single-note lead.  This approach has allowed me considerable freedom in terms of partwriting where I'll attempt to to create detail-rich parts with minimal repetition that can be followed individually by the listener but also fit together as parts of a more singular whole.  There's a sort of pleasing (to me) chaos in the fact that the parts can either fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, call and respond, blend harmonically, or be saying different things entirely at the same time, and it can all change from one bar to the next.  So far I've achieved this by sitting down and writing one guitar part, taking care to leave at least some space rhythmically, then composing the second by ear, using the first as a general map of inspiration.  Needless to say, it's an exacting, painstaking process and it's an enormous bitch to reproduce in the studio without extensive rehearsal (which I mostly didn't have time to invest in) but to the ear, the results are pretty unusual sounding with that sort of nearly-falling-apart groove that's been another big goal with the project.  The track really came alive when Russ tracked his drums, handling the odd-metered grooves and tempo shifts of the chorus section with aplomb.  Moving forward, I see challenges in developing the ITC aspect so I don't end up continually repeating myself (though by its fluid nature it may take a while for that to happen), as well as in general arranging--there are bass clarinet/alto sax parts, backing vocals and some piano in the final verse that are only marginally audible--this may be partially a mixing issue, but it's certainly in my mind to pay attention to how many elements can exist in an arrangement before they're obscured by the others. 

* Yes, the YouTube videos have ads.  Why?  It's expensive to make music independently...if my music is being played for free by YouTube users and there's a way for me to make a tiny pittance in return for my self-funded creative content, I'll take it. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Cheap Seats 11: Thanks! (I Couldn't Have Done It--Not Alone!)

Oh!  It's The Noble Fir!  With Ellen and Rick
Ok!  Official Release Day for the album is behind us, as is the release party (I performed an acoustic set and released CDs to Kickstarter contributors, friends and family and regulars at The Noble Fir on Thursday).  Before I get to the business of introducing some of the specific creative content on this album, I'd like to expand a bit on the album's credits and "thank you" section, as there are many people whose efforts helped bring the project to fruition.  Though this diary entry comes out a bit long-winded, it's of paramount importance to me to give credit where it's due.

As far as the sounds recorded on the album, nobody played a bigger role than Justin Phelps--he was recording, mixing and mastering engineer, and as I've mentioned before, he played a crucial role in the quality control department.  In addition to those technical roles, Justin was pretty much the first person I met after emerging from my creative cave--he's a hard-working, friendly guy, and the fact that he instantly took my artistic goals seriously was a hugely important boost to my confidence and morale.  There's a lot of loneliness involved in making music independently, and it's connections like these that, for me at least, act as lifelines.  Though we didn't always reach complete accord regarding my artistic goals (which is to-be-expected), Justin was always ready to constructively challenge and question my decision-making, which is an important part of the learning process for me as I move forward to my next projects--knowing how a sympathetic pair of ears hears ideas you may have thought you made clear is a good signpost to understanding how completely unsympathetic listeners might respond.  Most importantly, I'm looking forward to teaming up with Justin again on my upcoming plans.

Sarah, of course, sits at the top of the thank-you list.  I can't imagine what it's like to be subjected to another person's artistic ups and downs in close quarters, but she is always emotionally supportive even if it's hard for her to understand how high the stakes can be for me personally in the midst of these projects.  Also crucial is having a stable, "real" life to return to from the peaks and troughs of the creative roller coaster.  It's good to be reminded of your responsibilities and know how important the simple things are in life.  Speaking of real life, my mom and dad have also been incredibly supportive throughout the process, hosting me in Camas for long periods while I commuted to and from the studio.  While I'm sure my aesthetic path and career choices continue to mystify them, I know they appreciate how important and critical my current goals are to my happiness and I'm proud to have shown them how seriously I'm taking my current endeavor.

Rick and Ellen at The Noble Fir deserve very special mention, too.  Ever since I burned them a CD-R of the In Not-Even-Anything Land material as I was finishing it up in summer of 2010, they've generously exceeded any expectations as patrons of the "arts," hosting not one, but two CD releases and always providing positive feedback and the warmth of friendship that allows labors of love to flourish.  It was a great pleasure to celebrate this friendship in song, performing "The Noble Fir" at the release party.  In a more serious, "brass tacks" sense, the fact that they've also employed me at the bar since June 2011 has provided me with enough income and leave time to actually afford projects like this--the costs for this album would have equaled about half a year's worth of my previous income, and I'm extremely grateful for the fact that my job enables me to fund artistic projects of this scale while still maintaining a reasonable standard of living and savings--I take this privilege very seriously!

Working my way through the list, I again find cause to thank Nick and Cathy Manwell--I've been friends with them since Nick gave me a dollar when I was playing at 4th Avenue Coffee Shop outside the Liberty Theater in Camas back around 2002.  Since then I've played countless hours of guitar with Nick and "borrowed" pieces of his gear for years at a time (it's his bass heard on the whole album).   It was a real pleasure to get Nick involved in Cheap Seats--he plays lead acoustic on "Chrysalis (In Three Verses)."

In terms of the rest of the "band" heard on the album, much thanks is owed to the kinetic energy provided by drummers Drew Shoals and Russ Kleiner.  I've known Drew since he was an already-legendary presence on the Whitman College campus, playing for every band from the school's jazz band to r&b/hip hop group Love Child to his own solo stuff (releasing such unforgettable singles as "I Can Hear You Having Sex")--apart from a brief stand-in soundcheck appearance, we never played music together.  So, Drew's appearance on eight songs here fulfills a goal I'd long had in the back of my mind.  Additionally, Drew came into the recording process at a very early point (December 22nd of last year), so his willingness to take the music seriously and add some real bones to the fleshy mass I'd concocted was a huge boost to my confidence, which was quite low at the start of the sessions.  I love how Drew's contributions acknowledge the complexity of the songs' meters but also aren't afraid to run rampant, enhancing the "nearly-falling-apart" feel with a free-flowing, intuitive groove.  Russ (to whom Drew introduced me after his school schedule prohibited his return to the later sessions), somewhat contrastingly, approached his songs with a meticulous attention to the details--I was really surprised at how thoroughly he'd internalized the knotty meters of songs I'd not even bothered to chart for him--his energy and sympathetic attention to detail really shine through on his contributions, which were made in spite of a monumental cold (he went on antibiotics after our session).  Finally, my friend Peter Bruckner provided piano for two album tracks and one bonus track, lending a lot of complex feeling with his jazz voicing knowledge, and providing some really choice melodic nuggets in the small spaces that were left by the time he came into the picture.  Here's hoping I'll get to work with these musicians again! 

Chelcie (L), Michelle (R)

Though they're further down this posting than they really deserve for their staggering team accomplishment, the post-production design team that created all of the album art and other visuals for the release deserve huge props for making this package something eye-catching and realizing of a concept I'd had in my...brain...for two-plus years.  Chelcie (who sits both in the credits and "thank you" sections of the booklet, deserves enduring credit for acting as a sounding board for ideas, a confidant for hopes and fears and a companion/fellow traveler on the artistic path) contributed the hand-made collage and watercolors that grace the album art, as well as the watercolor image of my imbecilic grin that disgraces the deluxe package.  Michelle Koelbl (who designed the whole package for In Not-Even-Anything Land) returned for some stellar typographic contributions to the outside cover.  My brother Andy took a lion's share of the "odds and ends" that always crop up with this kind of thing, impressingly finding an attractive layout for the verbosity that is the inside of the CD jacket and the liner notes, as well as promptly responding to needs for posters, image manipulation, print layout for the deluxe package, and probably more time-consuming minutiae that I'm ungratefully forgetting (*brrriiiing*"Hey, I know you're at work, but can you do me a favor?").  Similarly, Courtney Morgan picked up numerous loose ends, creating the sweet brain graphic that appears a few times in the art and became a rubber stamp for the deluxe package, designing the t-shirts, and responding to numerous small design needs throughout the project.  Finally, Johnnie Heinz hand-painted the menagerie of brains that sit quietly behind the lyrics in the insert. Again--I'll be a lucky man if these people continue to help me in the future!

This brother band is formed!  Tentative band names include: Knappetite for Destruction and Knapp Kin.

Finally, I need to round out this list with some people whose contributions are less measurable but no less important in sum--Patrick (whose djembe I've been using for something like 6 years) gets thanks for providing ongoing cheerleader support and continuing connection with an atrophied social life.  Randy Parsons and Cody Green at Parsons Guitars have continually serviced my guitars from basic setups to trouble-shooting to exacting custom work, all the while with professional attention to detail and reasonable prices.  Ike's Auto Repair in Centralia replaced my truck's alternator within two hours when it failed in the middle of one of my many trips to Portland--talk about coming through when it counts!  Professor Mitch Clearfield and his metaphysics course at Whitman must be credited with introducing me to many of the philosophical and cognitive science ideas and writings that form the conceptual basis of these songs and the album's overarching concept--these unsolvable problems still haven't let go of my imagination something like eight years later!  Joel, Andy, Donny, Rick, Sandi and all of the interns at Cloud City Sound and Super Digital provided a welcoming studio environment, friendly support and feedback and some especially professional studio and duplication services.  Paul Davison provided inspiration for "Adjacent to Not-Really-Anyhow Time" in conversation on his Roy Harper Podcast.  Finally, there are all of the Kickstarter campaign contributors, supportive music fans and friends, family, artists, teachers and thinkers who provide a huge grassroots network out of which creative projects like this spring.  I'm sure my frazzled brain has forgotten to credit specific contributions, but please know I am constantly thankful for the wellspring of energy that has brought this to fruition.  One of the later lines on the album is "I couldn't have done it not-alone;" rest assured--when it comes to this project, "I couldn't have done it--not alone!"  Thank you!

John gleefully brandishes his deluxe package CD.

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 

Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio 

Cheap Seats Part 4: The (Un)Happy Accident 

Cheap Seats Part 5: Mix Mix, Stir Stir 

Cheap Seats Part 6: Kickstarter Campaign
Cheap Seats Part 7: Alicia Dara Interview  
Cheap Seats Part 8: Tyler Fortier Interview 
Cheap Seats Part 9: Anna Coogan Interview 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Official Release Day!

It's been a long year and a whole lot of work putting together the music and visuals for this album, and today it officially drops!  The CD and digital album are currently available on Bandcamp, where the music is also streaming if you'd like to have a listen.

I'm really excited about the limited edition deluxe package, which includes the standard CD issue as well as a handmade sleeve with pearl snaps (if you know me, you know my love of snap-button western shirts), a rubber-stamped brain graphic and hand-written lyrics and signature.  I'm not hugely crafty, but I'm pumped at how they turned out.  The watercolor was done by Chelcie (more on credits and thank-yous for the album soon).

And finally, there's the release party!  Thursday night at 7 pm, I'm playing a short acoustic set at the beloved Noble Fir, and we're spinning the album afterward.  It'll be a celebration of a year of hard work and hopefully the start of some more traction with what's been a pretty "underground" music career so far.  If you found yourself on this site because of another artist I've reviewed, please do take the time to check out and possibly purchase my album--independent music takes a lot of work and a lot of money and it can't survive and grow without help.  A couple more Cheap Seats posts coming soon, then down to the business of introducing some specific tracks from the album.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cheap Seats 10: Chris Cutler Interview

Today we've got the final interview of the Cheap Seats series, and one that I've been looking forward to since it was conducted all the way back in July (time flies when you're leading a double life!) inasmuch as it nicely caps the interview collection by not only encapsulating an independent musician's perspective, but also that of an owner and operator of an independent music label with a long career in non-commercial music.  As a musician, Chris Cutler is perhaps best known as the drummer for Henry Cow and Art Bears, but like the other members of those groups his recordings and performances have spanned innumerable notable collaborations and solo projects that encompass and cross too many genres and ideas to even attempt cataloging them.  In addition to his percussion skills, Cutler is an experienced lyricist, composer and writer/speaker on various musical topics and, finally, is the creator and operator of Recommended Records (ReR), which has released and distributed an eclectic array of music (most of which broadly falls under the experimental and avant-garde umbrella, and much of it falls in my "absolutely essential" category) since its creation in 1978. 

How would you say the state of non-commercial music (as a whole) in 2012 differs from when you first entered the professional music world in the late 60's/early 70's?

In the late ‘60s there was a handful of major labels and an almost non-existent independent sector. The idea that a band could release its own LPs was not in the air (though there were a few visionary exceptions, mostly in other fields—such as Sun Ra’s Saturn and Harry Partch’s Gate V labels, though lacking any general distribution, these were effectively invisible). And there was the additional problem of distribution: you could make a record, but how would you get it into the shops? A tiny monopoly of distributors dominated the market, structurally tied into the needs of the majors; anything outside that was too much trouble. So bands didn’t think of going it alone, instead they looked for labels. And that meant major labels or their specialist subsidiaries.

On the other hand, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—through a complex set of special circumstances—both labels and public were looking for novelty and innovation, and these are things that an essentially parasitic music industry can’t manufacture, so they had to chase after them instead, meaning that it was still possible for outsiders to get into the game. In addition, there was a moderately healthy gig circuit routinely programming new bands, and these were gigs that paid. Support groups didn’t play for nothing then, or ‘pay to play’ as now; they got reasonable money. So the sign-posted way to success was to get onto the ladder and climb up into the system. And it seemed to work. So there was no thought—and no reason to think—of finding a public in any other way.

This picture has now changed beyond all recognition.  The old patriarchy has long collapsed and the few surviving major labels face ever-diminishing sales, so they invest what they have in safe mainstream product or dirt-cheap back-catalogue reissues. The old practice of ploughing a healthy percentage of turnover back into speculative releases—testing the water and discovering new talent—has long since devolved onto more energetic, less profit-oriented, independent labels, the first batch of which emerged in the late ‘70s, part of the mini-revolution that was Punk (swiftly followed by its more canny beneficiaries, the New Wave). In that environment, if a band rose to the top, a major could buy it up, thereby avoiding the cost of speculative research. And occasionally an independent might be able to hang on to a success and edge a little closer to mini-major status.

In this climate, all but very mainstream bands had to aim to be signed by independents or release their own records. The independent marketplace expanded crazily throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, at the same time fragmenting into a mass of disconnected and self-contained specialist niche communities. Everything changed: a relatively inclusive mainstream (Beefheart and Sinatra had coexisted on the Warner catalogue) fractured into a major, hits-only, mainstream while a multiplying catalogue of subcultures peeled away, disappearing from the general conversation altogether. So, as the nature of the listening public changed, bands’ ambitions changed along with it.

Looking back, Henry Cow was extraordinarily lucky: we, like many other bands of our era, having strayed across—or broken through—the common-practice fences, had been pitched into the wild, uncharted territories of extended electrification, new instruments, hybrid compositional techniques, cross genre borrowing, radical recording practices, unfettered improvisation and controlled noise… a relatively uncharted terrain. Most of those territories are mapped now, so the sense of possibility and discovery has inevitably dimmed. Of course, there are other terrae novae, but they are not—as they were for us—in such plain sight. I hasten to add that that is not because we were smarter; it’s just that we were just lucky enough to be active during an untypical historical hiccup.  The next musical breakthrough will come along in its own time, as they always do.  Meanwhile, consolidation, revival and minor modifications of existing forms will continue to dominate a musical climate no longer particularly supportive of experiment and innovation. In other words, it couldn’t be much more different now than it was it the late ‘60s, or much harder to survive in.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Cheap Seats 9: Anna Coogan Interview

The Cheap Seats train rolls on--this time we've got an interview with Anna Coogan, a talented songwriter and artist working roughly in the Americana vein.  A seasoned independent musician since her days with north19, Anna now has three solo albums and numerous tours of the US and Europe under her belt, as well as a continuing portfolio of good press.  I'm excited to interview Anna as her career has seen her begin as a regionally-successful artist and grow from national to international touring, not to mention the great leap she's taken from musician-with-a-day-job to full-time musician.  Take it from Anna's experience--if you want to progress in the independent music world, you'll need to cultivate some perseverance.   

Photo: Marcel Houweling, taken at Roepaen Podium in Ottersum, NL.

As a musician who's been doing this for a number of years, how have things changed across your career, both in terms of how you make and release your music, and in how you've attempted to promote and advance it?  What are some of the most valuable lessons/tricks you've picked up?

A lot of things have changed so much, and a lot of things have stayed the same over the past ten years.  I started playing at the most turbulent, exciting, and vulnerable time in the music industry--right around 2002--and so much has changed since then for everybody.  Sometimes I kick myself for not getting into it a few years earlier, but things work out the way they work.

Mostly I have learned how to treat it like a business, with a balance sheet and a realistic view.  What is going in (financially, emotionally, and time-wise) and what is coming out?  Are these things balancing out?  How many years of investment are you willing to make before you want to see some returns?  What kind of returns are you looking for?

The thing that seems to be most important is to hire a good team to help promote you – and that can take years to find.  But I think if you are good, and you are relentless, and you tour your brains out and make records and videos and send a lot of emails and show up on time and are polite and friendly to people, eventually you will build a good group of people who care about you and are willing to help you out, and that makes all the difference.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cheap Seats 8: Tyler Fortier Interview

Today we've got the second installment of the handful of interviews I conducted for the Cheap Seats series.  I've written about my old school friend Tyler Fortier's (Bandcamp, Facebook) music before, and back in September I posed to him a series of questions similar to those in the last interview.  Just as all of the other interviews seem to have turned out, Tyler's offers a unique perspective and an emphasis on some of the constant challenges independent artists face and strive to surmount (with many of which I can seriously identify) on a day-to-day basis.

As a musician who's been doing this for a number of years, how have things changed across your career, both in terms of how you make and release your music, and in how you've attempted to promote and advance it?  What are some of the most valuable lessons/tricks you've picked up?


Over the years I have become more and more self-sufficient.  Each new project has a lower cost attached to it.  Releasing music is easy.  Promoting music is tough.  I'm burnt out and can't imagine releasing anything anytime soon.  It's a lot of politics.  It's all about who you know.  It's like looking for a job--sending resumes (press kits) to every city your traveling to.  There is probably a 10% success rate in that.   And out of the hundreds of people who read a review or see your picture or are even slightly interested, maybe one person will go out of their way to come to a show or go listen to music online.

Recently I've tried releasing digital singles because I wasn't having as much luck selling CDs as I wanted and going digital is a good way to keep overhead low.  I hate digital though so it's hard for me to do that and I probably won't continue releasing anything just in a digital format.  

What's been the most difficult challenge to overcome?


Performing intimate lyrical based music in loud and obnoxious settings for people who don't give a shit.

What's the best way to convert a new fan?  How do you measure your progress--record sales, live show attendance, Facebook "likes," etc.?


I'm not sure.  The best thing is seeing return people in your audience though, I know that.  I don't measure my success because that's a fine and blurry line, but having people that were at a show 6 months ago come back the next time and say they've been loving the CD they bought is as good as it gets.

In your experience, what does it take to break beyond a fanbase of friends and family to one populated by people solely interested in the music?


That's a tough one.  I'm not sure.  There has to be an emotional connection made somewhere but as to how to do that, I'm still trying to figure it out.

How would you describe the Eugene music scene?  How do you book your shows, especially when it comes to traveling outside your home base? At this point, would you say you're most successful regionally or online/globally?


There is a lot of good music in Eugene.  Mostly empty venues though from what I can tell.  It seems like everyone is having the same battle with getting people out to listen.  To book shows, I research a lot on the internet and then send emails or call depending on the venue.  I'm probably most successful regionally, though that doesn't mean too much.  I do appear to have a small fan base in the Netherlands area as well, judging from online sales.  Great bands out of Eugene: The Royal Blue, Leo London, Kingdom County, Tara Stonecipher and the Tall Grass, Scott Austin, Mike Surber, Beth Wood, many more but my mind just went blank.

What does it take to sell an album?  What sells most for you, physical media or downloads?  For you, are recording sales the goal, or are recordings more a piece of the overall puzzle in terms of promoting the music?  Have you reached a point where the recordings pay for themselves, or are they a necessity you're willing to support yourself?  Are people actually willing to pay for the music, or do they expect it to be free?

I'm not sure what it takes to sell an album.  I sell most of my albums at shows.  Out of town shows, that is.  I can't sell a CD in Eugene to save my life but I sell a good amount when I travel.  I don't know why.  Recording sales are not my goal, but I'm proud of my work and I want people to hear it and like it, and I want to be paid what I think I deserve for the work I and everyone who contributed put into it.  People do expect music to be free these days.  I feel like a sex worker most of the time, folding up my tips after playing with extra emotion because I needed to make some money tonight and maybe if I just sing this part with lots of gusto, I'll make an extra $20.

How important are production values when it comes to your recordings?  Your albums have spanned from lo-fi home recordings to more produced, professional products--do you think it's important to fans to have a polished, professional recording, or are they willing to sacrifice production values for quality content?  Do professional production values manifest themselves in the finished product in a way that justifies their cost?

Production is the most fun part of making music for me.  I'm always plotting the next big idea even when I'm still in the writing phase.  It is very important.  It is opening yourself up, connecting with a song on some unexplainable level, and understanding every word, guitar strum, and breath to the point that you know exactly what the song wants, what the song needs, and how to make that song sound how it was meant to sound even from the point of its conception in the pen-and-paper stage.  I think certain songs need certain things and whether it is lo-fi or polished, the song will reveal itself to the producer in time.  Fans or music listeners don't need anything.  They just want a song they like and they don't care how it's done or what work went into it.  People who like to dance want a fun beat to move to and people who like lyrics want to be challenged existentially.  I think it is literally that black and white for a majority of “music listeners.”

When it comes to promoting an album, what avenues seem the most successful in getting the music heard?  Do you do everything yourself, or do you get help from anywhere?

I haven't had much luck in promoting my albums.  Local radio here has been super supportive, especially 89.7 KLCC NPRNinkasi Brewing has been a big supporter as well and I have had great support from The Eugene Weekly.  As far as getting my music out to the masses though, I haven't had luck.  Facebook is an awful way to do this, but it is the easiest way so I rely on that sometimes because I don't have time to do anything else.  I think management is key for any serious musician.  Everyone needs some knowledgeable cheerleaders on their team.

When do you decide it's time to head back into the studio? When you've got all the songs written...when it feels right creatively...when you've got ideas but not necessarily songs?

I'm always in the studio (aka the spare bedroom in my house).  This is where I record all my projects as well as projects for my clients.  Sometimes I will record a song when I deem it “ready” or sometimes I'll record a song when I am stuck melodically or lyrically with it.  Most of the stuff I don't keep, but I am always recording songs and thinking as a producer--how can I construct them to reach their highest potential?  In the last week I've been working on seven songs that I have recorded in the last two-and-a-half weeks (two of which are mine).

What keeps you going in the tough row-to-hoe that is the independent music world?  Where's your inspiration coming from right now?

I don't have inspiration or hope as an independent artist, but I do have inspiration as a songwriter.  The desire to always be better and never being satisfied with anything I do has been my inspiration and fuel for the last few years.

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?

Don't let your ego get in the way and don't take anything too personally.

What have you been listening to this week?  How do you seek out new music?

My playlist this week has pretty much been:
-Joe Pug's first two EP's, a record by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris called Trio, John Prine - Common Sense, Van Morrison - Saint Dominic's Preview, Elvis Costello - Armed Forces, and in my car stereo is Saves The Day's first record: Can't Slow Down


What's on the horizon for you musically?

I'm putting my music on the back burner and starting to work specifically with songwriters on their songs in the role of a producer and mixing engineer.  My debut as a producer was with Mike Surber, who released is debut full length this past June.  I'm currently working on Scott Austin's first full-length, as well as some EPs for three other clients.

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 
Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio 
Cheap Seats Part 4: The (Un)Happy Accident 
Cheap Seats Part 5: Mix Mix, Stir Stir 
Cheap Seats Part 6: Kickstarter Campaign
Cheap Seats Part 7: Alicia Dara Interview

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cheap Seats 7: Alicia Dara Interview

As part of the continuing Cheap Seats series I've conducted a handful of interviews with independent artist friends from the Pacific Northwest and beyond.  So far, this series has focused on my own experiences making and promoting independent music, but the reality is that each artist interacts and responds to the challenges and necessities of the independent music world in his or her own unique way.  In this first interview, conducted in early July, I'm excited to feature Alicia Dara of Seattle-based bands The Volcano Diary (with Gus Palaskas and Dave Bush) and Diamondwolf (with Glen Cooper).  Alicia has been an active independent musician for over 15 years and brings a wide-range of experiences in the music industry to her ever-evolving mission as an independent musician.

Alicia performs with The Volcano Diary

As a musician who's been doing this for a number of years, how have things changed across your career, both in terms of how you make and release your music, and in how you've attempted to promote and advance it?  What are some of the most valuable lessons/tricks you've picked up?


The most awesome, fantastic, and nightmarish event in my career was the advent of the internet. I started way back in 1997, before FB, Twitter, Wikipedia, Reverbnation, and MySpace. There was email and there were websites, which weren't very interactive and tended to crash while listening to MP3's (remember them?) if you stayed on too long. Before that I had been making cassette tapes of my songs in my tiny bathroom on my friend's 8-track recorder. That bathroom was fully tiled and created the best echo/reverb effect ever. I'm still trying to find a plug-in effect that can beat it!

I was raised by classical musicians who never touched a computer in their lives, so I had absolutely zero tech background to draw from as I slogged my way through the maze of the internet, and the various ways that the music business was working to stay one step ahead of it. I had had some radio play locally and on a few stations on the West Coast before internet radio but I was pretty frickin' pleased to discover there was some demand for my music online, on the early stations like

Once took off it was like the gold rush; everybody wanted a piece of the action, and the industry responded accordingly. I started making records on digital recorders in people's home studios, because all that recording equipment was suddenly affordable. I like being in the studio a lot, but I work quickly, and it was tough on my patience back then while everyone was learning these new programs called "Logic" and "QBase."  I was quite grumpy during that era.

These days when you Google my name you can find over 6 million results, which on a good day makes me feel like I'm getting somewhere. But the reality is that since music became "free" I know very few musicians who are able to make a living at it. I am fortunate enough to pay the bills through a combination of teaching, singing session work (adding my vocals to commercials and other people's music projects), and soundtrack work for film, TV, and Internet stuff. Live shows are my passion but they pay so little unless you're in a national touring band. Record labels--contrary to popular belief--are still very much alive, and they are the ones that sign and promote the bands you've heard of in the last 10 years. They also act as filters for music, though in many cases their taste is at best questionable and at worst horrific.

There are 2 things that I've learned over the past decade. The first is my great strength, which is that I can walk away from anything. If you mistreat me, if you disrespect me or my bandmates, if you do not honor the contract I signed or if you change it without informing my lawyer, I will take my toys and go home--and I will never look back. This saves me some headaches.

The second is that I am able to see into the future a bit and know which projects are worth my time and which ones aren't. I value my time.  Granted, I get paid a great big hourly rate to sing on commercials, and I do that even when I don't really want to. But I also know in my soul how short this life truly is, and I (mostly) refuse to spend it on shit that doesn't make me feel sublimely on fire.

What's been the most difficult challenge to overcome?


The biggest challenge to overcome was adjusting to the lifestyle of being an independent artist. It took awhile, and it was a bumpy ride. Making music is its own reward; you have to love it more than being loved. Everyone around me was telling me to go back to school, get a degree, learn a trade or skill that would bring a mountain of cash to my door. But I look around at the world and I see an awful lot of lost souls with fat paychecks. I don't envy them one bit.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rodriguez - Cold Fact

I first heard Rodriguez's 1970 debut Cold Fact back in 2008 at local record shop Sonic Boom--ironic, considering the store's typical "KEXP: The Record Store" selection (to be fair, I've found some great jazz classics there, as well as those epic Betty Davis reissues).  These days, Rodriguez is getting all kinds of press for Searching for Sugar Man, a new documentary detailing how the singer disappeared in the 1970's after recording two albums only to find out decades later that he'd become a star in South Africa and nobody knew where he was or what became of him.  It's a fascinating story--so many quality artists disappear without ever achieving recognition in their heyday (or ever, for that matter), so it's pretty cool, if bittersweet, to see that someone actually was appreciated, even if it took decades for his art to be recognized.  It's also nice that Rodriguez is actually still around to get his due (as well as tour and actually make some money from his music). 

As for the music, it must be said that Bob Dylan casts a long shadow--Rodriguez is clearly heavily influenced both by Dylan's songwriting as well as his vocal delivery.  "This is Not A Song, It's an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues" is an awkward attempt at a talking blues in the style of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," there are several kiss-offs in the style (with added venom) of  "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" ("Forget It" and "I Wonder," for example), and Rodriguez is one of legions of singers to adopt a mid-60's sneering Dylan inflection (though his underlying vocal talents are formidable).

To write off this artist for being indebted to Dylan, though, would be to pass judgment before giving his craft a chance.  Besides, there's nary a post-60's artist who's not influenced by Dylan in some way--one of the greatest things about him is that his music showed aspiring artists that it was possible to make pop music that aspired to greater artistic depths in terms of songwriting, lyrical aesthetics and subject matter, without abandoning mainstream appeal.  While Rodriguez doesn't necessarily create a completely unique style for himself, his songs exude careful construction.

There's plenty of great one-liners (like the "you're the coldest bitch I know" conceit in "Only Good for Conversation") and Rodriguez's lyrical vision is often both emotionally direct and open to multiple interpretations.  Coming in well after the flower power movement, there's a dark, disenchanted, urban and undeniably cynical edge to a lot of the words and attitude, as heard in the unsettling "Gomorrah (A Nursery Rhyme)" and the brilliant "Hate Street Dialogue." What's more, Rodriguez has a real knack for concise, melodic song structures, a characteristic that's amplified by some great production choices--from a wet reverb on most of the vocals to the orchestrations that back many of the songs to the occasional psychedelic flourish like overdriven guitar or delay, the arrangements add tasteful depth to songs that probably could have stood alone with stripped-down arrangements.  These, of course, exist in ideal harmony on the album's flagship track, "Sugar Man" a drug song that any songwriter would kill to have penned--from the hair-raising melody to the way it ambiguously seems to both endorse and caution against drugs.

Rodriguez was probably never destined to be a huge star, but his abilities are undeniable and this album is a recommended addition to the collection of any Dylan fan who's looking for other artists of a similar caliber and style.  In light of the continuing Cheap Seats content posted here, I think a story like Rodriguez's is another piece of the puzzle that answers some questions and probably raises even more--people just might be out there listening, but you may never know.  Is it worth it to make music even if no one recognizes it in your day?  I like to hope there will always be thoughtful listeners out there just waiting for the right circumstances to lead them to music like this.

Get it here.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Cheap Seats 6: Kickstarter Campaign

I've started a campaign on, a website that helps independent artists like myself fund creative projects.  As described in the video above, the campaign is meant to fund the CD duplication and promotion of my new album, Cheap Seats at the Cartesian Theater, the professional recording of which was funded out of my own pocket.  There are some fun rewards, starting with digital and CD preorders of the album.  Any contributions or help in spreading the word about the album and Kickstarter campaign would be greatly appreciated!  I've put a lot of work into making this music the kind of stuff that readers of these blogs will enjoy, so I hope you check it out and find the money and effort I've expended worthy of a small contribution in exchange for the finished product, and help support more music to come!

More Cheap Seats content to come, including some interviews and thoughts on the brass tacks of independent recording.

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 
Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio 
Cheap Seats Part 4: The (Un)Happy Accident 
Cheap Seats Part 5: Mix Mix, Stir Stir

Monday, September 10, 2012

Love - Forever Changes

The past year has been so busy with recording and evaluating my own music that I've had much less time to listen to other people's sounds, which means I've focused a lot more on the "new" music I'm finding instead of revisiting old favorites.  When I do get around to albums I've heard many times, the experience is often quite illuminating.  Especially after doing so much critical evaluation of music on this blog, I sometimes realize that my "5 star" albums, upon relistening, aren't necessarily free from the kinds of things I might label as "flaws" in other music, and that ultimately, designating something "as good as it gets" rests on a certain feeling of affection or nostalgia toward the music, or at least an assertion that the great things in the music are so good that any "flaws" come across more as endearing idiosyncrasies.  In other words (and yet again), it's all subjective!  The fun part about analyzing music in writing is the disjuncture between personal preference and the fact that yes, we actually can (and should) identify and judge specific characteristics in the music that justify how "good" we say it is, but also that "good" will always be individual, and reading music reviews and blogs is ultimately most useful as a way of pairing others' tastes with your own to discover music you might enjoy. 

Forever Changes is one of those albums that winds up on innumerable critics' top lists, but has somehow kept a much lower mainstream profile in comparison with its contemporary "classics."  You never hear any Love songs on the radio or in movies etc., and you'll be lucky if you hear anyone talking about them outside of musicians and critics.  And yet, pick up Forever Changes and give it time to work its magic and you'll most likely understand why it quietly persists as a milestone in psychedelic folk-rock and as one of the best albums of the 1960's.

Like many great albums, Forever Changes is so great because it's often a bizarre combination of unquantifiable elements.  There's the fact that it's a much mellower affair than Love's previous two albums--the more garage-like electric sound of Love and Arthur Lee's aggressive vocal style on Da Capo mostly replaced by acoustic guitar and orchestral textures--and yet it's still insidiously edgy.  There's the album's unique twist on psychedelia, which often takes the form of hard-panned instrumental tracks (the nylon-stringed acoustic is so far to the right it's almost gone!) and brief additions of reverb as well as arrangement choices like having the background singers say a different word at the same time.  There's Arthur Lee's obvious magnetism as a front man, which twists together the role of a sort of tormented seer with a dark fragility, surprising poetic capabilities, an ability to distill the countless clashing emotions of the 60's into songs that are simultaneously emotionally gripping and ultimately ethereal, as well as being a larger-than-life historical legend, somehow more than fulfilling Da Capo's thwarted potential here but quickly unraveling into mental and artistic instability (he was reportedly sure his death was imminent during the creation of this album) in the following years--still capable of creating good music but never coming close to reaching the same level of insight (especially lyrically) repeatedly on display here.  And finally, in spite of Lee's dominant persona, there's the fact that the band was undeniably a collaboration, that Bryan MacLean's songwriting contributions and classical guitar contributions are as important to the album's success as any of the other elements, and that Lee's decision to disband the Forever Changes lineup soon after the album's release was a terrible blunder. 

The distinctive characteristic that most people note about Forever Changes is the inclusion of orchestral arrangements, especially prevalent on the MacLean numbers--the balance is sweet and delicate on "Alone Again Or," "Andmoreagain" and "Old Man," songs whose optimism counterbalance some of Lee's desperate worldview with detours into romantic euphoria.  Elsewhere, though, the strings and horns just as aptly provide a creepy, unsettling edge, as on the paranoid "The Red Telephone" and robotically closing "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This" (gotta love those Dylanesque 60's track titles), as well as brilliantly cathartic, as on the Latin-tinged "Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale" (which boasts some of the album's most sly lyrical conceits, with expected rhymes interrupted by staccato horns only to appear to begin the next line...until the instrumental breaks, that is) and the transcendent album-closing "You Set the Scene."  The cleverest part of the delicate arrangements is how well the rock moments stick out--"A House is Not a Motel" sounds like the heaviest rock you've ever heard, despite the fact that at least half of the song doesn't even have electric guitar, and the solo on "Live and Let Live" is insanely scorching because there's nothing "hard" to compete with it.  Relistening I'm really surprised at how simple the arrangements actually are in comparison with the songs' complexity, usually consisting of just a standard two-guitar rock band with maybe a bit of piano and the aforementioned strings--the band's ability to make each part indispensable is a testament to the skill and care on display.

Lyrically, the album literally never lets up.  While it's often difficult to discern what exactly Lee is singing about in each song, the impressionistic moments paint a collectively awe-inspiring picture of urgent searching, resultant disillusionment, distress, cynicism and ultimately grasping a fleeting sort of brilliant something that makes it all worth it...a something that might just be the absence of alternatives.  Lee manages to toss out piercing one-liners right next to surreal scene-painting with the spontaneous force of a man possessed by something larger than his own conscious decision to create, and somehow manages to do so without completely slipping off the edge into incoherence.  Despite the fact that the album is so very 1960's, his struggle and observations about the world's contradictions can't help but still ring true.

Perhaps this is the only truly great album Arthur Lee had in him, but its quality does seem to justify its singularity.  Though it will likely always remain lauded but obscure, Forever Changes continues to humble me every time I revisit it--albums like this are something more than just old friends, comforting and diverting but always capable of teaching us something new.

Get it here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information

Shuggie Otis is one of those thoroughbred musicians--being the son of early R&B pillar Johnny Otis provided a host of life-long in-person musical inspirations and paved the way for a Mozart-like career beginning for the 15 year-old Otis when he co-billed on Al Kooper's Kooper Session.  By his most "recent" full length, 1974's Inspiration Information, Otis had undoubtedly found his own voice, if not much of a commercial niche for himself.

Of course, great music doesn't go away, and today there's a lot of cult appreciation for Otis' music in the form of samples by major artists and healthy, in-print reissues of his albums.  What I really like about Inspiration Information is the subtlety and variety.  While there's a number of tracks that satisfy what you'd probably expect from a 70's soul album (the title track and only single, as well as "Sparkle City" possess the low-end bounce and horn/organ instrumentation of the day), there are a number of songs that cut the funk with something more orchestral and moodier, and even more that fit neither here nor there when it comes to standard 70's soul fare.

Songs like "Island Letter" and "Aht Uh Mi Hed" stretch the formula further out, spinning languid soul grooves whose strengths lie not in booty-shaking beats but in the subtle spaces between buzzing string arrangements and Otis' often jazzy guitar lines.  This tendency becomes even more pronounced on the atmospheric instrumentals "Rainy Day" and "Pling!", the song where the music least likely demands a titular exclamation mark.  "Pling!" also features one of the arrangement elements that makes this album distinct--Otis' experimentation with early drum machines here adds a subtle, forward-looking twist, while on the brief "XL-30" (probably my favorite track) the drum machines and wonky organ grooves start to slide in a funky early electronica direction.  Add to this fascinating experiment a couple more in "Happy House" and "Not Available," which both jump between smooth psychedelic orchestration and crisp funky R&B, and you've got an album--albeit a short one at 32 minutes.

It's easy to see why Otis has maintained a cult following in spite of decades of inactivity, with such idiosyncratic and forward-looking music, but it's also easy to see why big-time commercial success eluded him--there's far too much tempo variation here to make a successful funk album, and a reliance on instrumental tracks always alienates much of the LCD pop crowd, which almost exclusively demands vocals singing simple lyrics.  Interestingly, the 2001 CD reissue's addition of three tracks from Freedom Flight bolsters the album with more "songs" (including Otis' undoubted royalty annuity "Strawberry Letter 23") and more hooks, as well as a considerably more enticing cover that replaces the original's drab earth tones with bright, stylized colors.

Get 'er here.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Cheap Seats 5: Mix Mix, Stir Stir

After a seemingly interminable two-month break after the end of recording (a day of righteous drum tracking), Justin and I are mixing this record.  It's also worthwhile to note that it's been seven months since this album's first recording dates back in December and two years this week since I wrapped up recording for my last album in my parents' basement!  Time, naturally, flies, and it's sort of hard to believe I've been working so long on a single project. 

We've got two business weeks for mixing and at this point Justin's doing pretty much all of the work--I mostly sit around and do things like this while he sorts through the amorphous pile of tracks I heaped upon him, and after he works on a song for a few hours I chime in with some kind of verbal ingratitude like "the lead guitar isn't very audible, can we do something about that?"  While I've got a musician's and seasoned listener's ears for mixing, Justin has a professional's ears and the skills to make things happen efficiently, quickly, and with an ever-present sense of each song's big picture.

The process starts with the drums; since the record contains recorded contributions from two drummers, it's possible to dial in the mixing settings for one drummer, apply them to every song recorded with those drums to save time, then tweak them minimally for each song.  After that, Justin seems to work on the bass (if there is any) and so forth on to the guitars, horns, vocals and other instruments.  To treat this like a mixing version of A Day in the Studio, let's start by saying that "mixing" basically means arranging and adjusting the characteristics of all of the tracks that make up a song in order to make them sound cohesive, organized, and to properly represent the song's arrangement and most important elements in a way that's audible to the listener.  The process involves things as simple as setting the volume and panning (whether the track's coming from the left speaker, the right, or a mixture of both) of each track (which can actually become quite complex when there's lots of tracks), but also encompasses things like compression, equalization (or EQ; adjusting the bass, midrange and treble of a track to compensate for too much of something or allow two tracks with similar frequency ranges to coexist without covering each other up, a problem that can happen with dense arrangements like the ones in a lot of these songs), and all sorts of effects--commonplace ones like reverb and delay as well as more "proprietary" tricks of the trade.

In a nutshell, the fact that Justin's done this hundreds of times means that he has a method and a creative vision that form a solid launch pad for each song well before we even get to the point where I'm giving my own input.  As with all of the phases of this project, mixing has been a real learning experience.  I've gotten to hear the consequences of the arrangements I've made--sometimes things work great and there's space for all of the instrumental voices to sound audible and distinct, and sometimes things I thought we'd be able to fit in end up sitting atmospherically in the background, where they certainly contribute, but not quite as identifiably.  It's also been instructive to see how Justin reacts as a listener to the ideas and concepts in the music--more than a couple of times ideas I've had regarding the mix have met with questions about why exactly it needs to happen.  Not that there's some kind of creative struggle happening, but rather Justin's been quite helpful with providing feedback as to how well ideas I've had are actually audible in the music, and whether or not the things I want to do are actually making it easier for the listener to grasp the concept.  Though I don't have a lot to do to make the mixing happen, I'm trying to learn as much as I can conceptually to use during my next project--there are a lot of things I could do ahead of time to make things run smoother, and and I have a better idea of what kinds of things will later become problematic.

Hopefully, I'll also be able to maintain the inspiration that naïveté brings--I want to remain focused on coming up with the weirdest, most distinctive ideas I can rather than thinking of the mixing process first--things have a way of working out, and everything can be fixed, in one way or another!  Bottom line, this record's sound is a week away from being 95% complete...after we finish mixing, it's mastering, duplication and release!  Stay tuned for more overarching Cheap Seats content (including interviews!), as well as details about preorder and release of this behemoth. 

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 
Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio 
Cheap Seats Part 4: The (Un)Happy Accident

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Kate Bush - The Dreaming

The Dreaming--Kate Bush's fourth album, arriving less than five years after her debut--has got me thinking about a whole mess of different things.  Approaching her music fairly indirectly (not having been around when the music was new [no real change there!], or being a hardcore fan, and not having much of an interest in 80's pop music) made for slow progress in appreciating it, but a couple of years have provided an enlightening and broadening experience in getting to know and learn from this music.

While I agree with most fans that Hounds of Love is her most distinctive and cohesive set, this album makes a close second for many of the same reasons.  Partially fulfilling her move toward tighter pop structures and chic sounds of the day, the songs here continue to move away from the more traditional (especially piano-dominated) instrumentation of her first albums into an area where 80's synths and effects surround the songs' core piano parts and multi-part structures juxtapose wildly different styles within pop-length tracks, with Bush's multi-tracked vocals calling and responding in an often bizarre array of different vocal deliveries.  Needless to say, these songs can come across as difficult to penetrate at first, a fact that's not helped by the fact that the late-80's CD reissue is in dire need of remastering, making the already-difficult songscapes even tougher to perceive because of the mediocre sound reproduction. 

Nevertheless, this shit's awesome!  What's especially interested me lately is the fine balance Bush strikes between weirdness, progressive and experimental complexity, and pop accessibility.  When I say "weirdness" I mean things like singing in a weird voice (like those shrill backing vocals that nobody else has really done the same way), laying a really strange-sounding effect on a guitar line, or singing Australian narratives and utilizing native Australian instruments.  Weirdness is a great attention-getter, and is a great way to make music distinctive and set it apart from the vast pack of musicians out there just trying to make something that sounds pretty and inoffensive in hopes that it'll appeal to the largest audience possible.  However, weirdness alone isn't enough to keep my attention long-term.  Really, the lukewarm feelings I get from a lot of today's music come from a feeling that weirdness and style often outweigh the actual content of the songs, music, lyrics etc.  Not that every artist should be changing time signatures every two measures and shredding ridiculously difficult guitar parts for music to be considered good, but there's more to making some distinctive music than singing a tired indie breakup song in an overwrought plaintive voice over eighth-note staccato power chords. 

What I love about Kate Bush is how well she backs up her weirdness with musical substance--every song has a discreet feel, be it narrative or more philosophical, and upon close examination it seems that every element of the song is carefully tailored to fulfill the song's conceptual promise, from playfully poetic lyrics to song sections that brilliantly channel Bush's twisting moods with shifting timbres and pacing (see "Pull Out the Pin," "Night of the Swallow") to vastly differing stylistic experiments between pounding, expansive rock like "Sat In Your Lap" and waltzing existential pop like "Suspended in Gaffa." 

Finally, I'm continually amazed by how poppy the music ultimately is--in spite of the fact that she's often reimagining and further developing a lot of concepts explored by then-and-now-villified progressive musicians when the genre was all but completely forced from mainstream interest, Bush manages to maintain a pure, sincere emotional core along with a buoyant conciseness that makes these songs accessible in spite of their complexity.  Even more, she's still making new fans 30 years later in spite of the extreme 80's vibe, although that's a retro aesthetic that's still currently regarded as "ok" with today's young music fans.  I'm sure it doesn't hurt that her visual aesthetic pretty much rivaled her musical one--if only today's pop songstresses could back up their audacious imagery with such equally challenging music!  Anyway, good on KB for proving that great pop doesn't have to skimp on nuance, and for helping me expand into some new musical areas.  This makes me want to check out some of her more recent work...

Get it here.