"INN PARADISO (what a great name) is magnificent. Just listened to it (closed eyes, etc) and it really blows you away. Hopefully you'll do more of this stuff... we need it..." (Academy-award nominee Javier Navarrete)
"This music is INSANELY cool! THANKS!!!" (Film composer and electronic music pioneer Jeff Rona)
I do a lot of sketching. Always have. Every idea I have gets fixed in the medium it came to me. Some sketches are conceptual (what would happen if I did xyz?) and go in my notebook (yes, I do still have one of those, although more often than not I'll now jot the idea down in my iPhone first and then copy it over into the book later - but if it's not on paper I am afraid I won't find it again.) Some sketches come to me at the piano and get notated on scoring paper. And some sketches result directly from getting my hands dirty with sound-sculpting while working at the computer with software, or with electronic gear like stomp boxes. Those get recorded in the computer.
Over the past year or so a new theme emerged in my sketches - my ideas were getting thicker, denser, more complex, more layered, more distorted, perhaps even more angry. But also extremely vivid, strong, alive, vibrant. They were all about "more is more", so I called it my "maximalism" and decided to start fleshing out some of those sketches. This album is the result, and I really think it's something I have only just started to explore. Good stuff ahead.
Most pieces started out the same way - by creating a layer start-to-finish. Which is quite the opposite of the more common approach to writing music (or songs), where you would start with the structure, the chords, the melodies, and then realize the actual sound layers after that is finished. I realized I probably borrowed a lot from painters like Gerhard Richter (watch his documentary "Gerhard Richter Painting", it's on Netflix), who starts with a layer of actual paint instead of, say, a pencil outline sketch of the shapes, then scrapes, paints again, scrapes again, scrapes some more. Similarly, I kept adding to the original layer, whatever it was, by recording over it, processing it, recording again, processing the whole thing, doing it again, layering again, and so on. All this is done based entirely on the question, What do I want to hear next, and where?
Since these are neither songs nor film scores, this music is just about creating a "music-scape" for you to wander around in. What you see, hear, make out, even if it's a real sound like a wolf or an escalator, is just there to sound the way it does. There's no story, no meaning, just a ballet of sound gestures coming together to create a dance. You make your own story - or just enjoy the movement and colors.
So what about the titles? They came way later - Jen and I invited our dear friends Haynes Brooke and Allison Baer, both wonderful writers and inventive minds (as well as awesome drinking buddies) to come and listen to the tracks, and we asked them what they heard. The two of them and Jen had a bunch of visuals and notions (after months of working on these pieces I of course can only see trees anymore, no forest.) We ended up with a wonderful array of wild stories and images, and the titles are derived from those. The titles merely exist to kickstart your imagination, and also so the tracks don't end up as "Movement 1." I mean, how bleak is that?
About the cover: On my quest to find imagery that properly reflects the music on this album, I came across an amazing French artist who goes by the name of april-mo. Check out her flickr page here. She was kind enough to allow us to use her work - two more images that will be part of the CD artwork are a bit lower on this page. I'm particulalry fond of her blur images, as well as the crumpled images. Great stuff.
One more thing: This is listening music - pour a drink or a cup of tea, put on a good pair of headphones or sit down in front of your stereo, and enjoy the trip!
This track started with a simple rock riff that I played on the guitar as I was testing one of the awesome stomp boxes designed by the divine Devi Ever. Devi is a genius, look her up. Her designs are insanely musical and very inspiring. I cut together a whole guitar track from those sketches, then added the other elements. The big orchestral-sounding melodies in the "choruses" are created with a technique I invented using elements that by themselves sound nothing like the end result. Now, I normally share a lot, but how exactly I made this one I'm keeping a secret. Here's an excerpt:
Years ago I built an instrument from flower pots. I decided to use it again and recorded several layers of flowerpots freely, without a click track. Patterns emerged and I began recording the other layers on top, using the flowerpots as if they outlined rather wonky measures and beats (much like you can "see" patterns in random natural textures like clouds or tree bark.) This tracing approach was one of the concept sketches from my note book, and like so many other ideas it was stolen (or borrowed...) from the visual arts. Here's a short bit:
Another idea from my notebook - take a recording of a natural texture and use it as your rhythmic guide. This is a recording of a train running on tracks, and I edited an entire drum track out of a few "bars" of it, in more or less a simple pop song form. There's also recordings I made of escalators in a subway station in Munich. As I'm standing there, mic in hand, some teenage punk hanging out with his buddies sees me, walks by as casually as possible, then lunges forward and goes "Goooaahh" right into my mic. Needless to say, he's now part of the track (at around 1:32 of the full track. In fact, he made me put in a chord change. Thanks pal!) On top of the trains and escalators I recorded a bunch of electric guitars, using the very nasty amp built into my Baldwin Electropiano, and those two elements created the main outline of the piece. The rest of the layers were "painted" on top of that as I felt them - the only thing that was always clear was that this one was going to be epic. I decided very early on that the train tracks had to be doubled by a virtuoso drummer, and that's what you hear - train on the left, drummer on the right. The drum tracks in the "verses" are pre-recorded drum grooves, processed and edited. At the very end I asked my dear friend and trumpet-god Daniel Rosenboom to play a few tracks on it, going completely crazy. He did, nearly bloodied his lips and gave me a few takes to choose from. So I used them all at once. It is "maximalism", remember? A taste:
One day I was fooling around in the studio and decided to build an instrument like one would build in Kindergarten. So I took a shoebox, put two pens on top as bridges, "strung" it with rubber bands, tuned them by tension, and stuck a contact mic (a mic recording vibrations directly from a surface, as opposed to through the air) on top of it. That's the (very noisy) track you hear in the beginning of the full piece. The tuning was super-funky, so I played a very simple "spanish" sounding chord progression on it, in two passes, one melody, one bass line. next I improvised a bunch of trombone tracks, eight in all, based on the simple chord progression of the shoebox. My trombone playing is very basic, which was great. The end result was this oscillating, shifting, unstable lament. The trombones were also filtered so in the beginning they sound like they come from an old radio, slowly clearing up. All the other layers followed, and in the end I asked my friend Dan again to play a trumpet track. It all sounded too clean and out-of-place until I asked him to play it like Don Quixote. Voila, it was perfect. Love me a musician who understands what I mean by that. Again I used all "alternate" takes at once. Here's a little preview:
This track was a bit different - it started out as an actual tune, with melody and chords, not as a sonic layer. It follows a simple A-A-B-A form like many classic songs (Somewhere Over the Rainbow, for instance) but this song develops so slowly it goes through the form only once. Here the "trains as drums" came later. But they became a very integral part of the track - the whole track has two mirror-imaged sides - the "stuff" on the right (like trains) and the 'musical' sounds on the left, more or less. The trumpet melody and a handful of other things in the middle. Tying them together is a technique called vocoding - once we get into the song, the trains on the right get "filtered" through the echoed piano on the left, giving them a musical color while they still retain their train-ness. Sounds dry in words, but oh-so-gorgeous in music. I always knew I wanted my friend Clinton Patterson to play this melody. He is one of the most expressive musicians I have ever heard, yet has a very elegant and understated way of playing. (He's also a great composer, songwriter, singer, guitarist and producer. Look him up.) Here's a sample of the piece:
This track started out with the cat purring on the right. I had this beautiful close-up recording of a cat, and manipulated it so it would create more of a regular beat. Then I played around with a guitar using a ring-modulator, which is a very unique distortion device that was used in old-school sci-fi-type electronic music. To me it feels like another creature purring, a guitar-cat, so to speak. That's what you hear on the left. All the other elements were built around those two, again using a simple A A B A form. Of course once I started with the cat I was way in animal-land, so there are wolves, camels and two baby jaguars in addition to the cat (these are all recordings from sound effects libraries I bought, the same kind that gets used in films to build the sounds in the movie.) The wolves are fun, because I used autotune on them. They start out natural and end up cleanly resolved to the key of A major, using the same kind of software pop producers use on good-looking pop stars who just can't sing. I finally asked the wonderful April Guthrie to play the cello melody, adding some real soul, longing and emotion into this surreal zoo-scape. A taste:
The slinky groove heard throughout, built from industrial machine noises, was the first element of this piece. On top of that I wrote the middle-east inspired melody using an 8-note scale (I love 8-note scales, buy me a beer and I'll tell you all about them) -- and then I hit a wall. It wasn't until I decided this was going to be a crowd-sourced track that I knew where this was going - a simple verse-chorus type happening party, where everybody gets to contribute something. So I created the backing tracks (guitars and the like) on top of the groove, with extensive use of pedals by Devi Ever and the awesome Joe Berardi of F-Hole, whose "Double Helix" is a masterpiece of fuzz. I placed the melody in the choruses, and sent it to some twenty different people all over the world, asking them to do one or both of two things - play the chorus melody, or play a solo over the verses, and send me the results. I got the coolest stuff back, and it felt like christmas every time. I ended up with this abundance of improv material that I could cut together into the storyline like Judd Apatow cuts Will Ferrell. And the choruses, with all the instruments playing the same melody layered on top of each other, ended up sounding like a party in the bazaar going out of control. Once again, as I worked on it, I realized that every decision was not a question of either-or, but of what-on-top-of-what. Maximalism, dig? If this album has a single, this is it. Here's an excerpt:
By far the oldest sketch, this started with the noise/percussion sounds some ten years ago. I had bought a new software intended to basically replace drummers, and was playing around with it to see if I could use its capabilities for good instead. :) Turns out it's pretty adept at creating abstract textures that have nothing to do with its advertised purpose. Fun. As I was working on the other tracks I realized this sketch was ripe for the picking, and I started painting on it. As it was already very abstract I wanted to have something 'musical' in the old sense of the word over it, and ended up writing this very simple chorale-type thing, but played by all sorts of distorted sounds reminiscent of traditional instruments. This is another one of those "slow-growth" forms. The last third ended up just feeling like it should go into this frantic jazzy double-time, so I did, and of course wanted a Hammond on it, but one that is set so it almost craps out. Thankfully my pal Jason Staczek has the real thing (not very common anymore, most people use samples), so he was able to dial in that sound, better even than I imagined. And Daniel Rosenboom played a killer set of solos. Once again, they all recorded multiple takes so I could pick one. Guess what I did…? Here's a preview:
This track started out very much like the one with the flower pots. I own this beautiful, funky Baldwin Electropiano that I bought out of the Recycler for 50 bucks a number of years ago. I was playing around with just repeating chords, and decided to record a few tracks on top of each other. That became the basis. Then I recorded the vocals (it's me singing into an SM57, a very typical rock n roll mic, through a small Sears guitar amp from the early 60s. Super distorted.) Everything else is just "painted" over that as I heard it, creating one long big crescendo, starts small and keeps growing. Love the recordings of high-voltage electrical arcs in the outro section. The sound of pure energy - literally. Here's an excerpt. It gets bigger in the full piece.
Special Thanks to: All the musicians who played on the album, from LA and the Bay area all the way to Munich and Ireland; Allison Baer and Haynes Brooke; the entire CalArts community; Mort Subotnick; the inspiring music makers of Los Angeles; and, most especially, Jen.