Name: David Rothon
Occupation: Musician / Pedal Steeler
Current Release: Nightscapes on Clay Pipe Records
Recommendations: Johanna Warren's album Gemini I & II. The song-writing, singing and musicianship are astonishingly good. She deserves to be much better known. / James Curtis's novel The Gilt Kid. It's an amazing repository of arcane underworld slang of the 30s, and has a real ring of truth about it. There is a small but fascinating body of 'low-life London' novels from this period, showing a side of the city one seldom reads about, certainly in 'respectable' fiction. Robert Westerby's Wide Boys Never Work is another good one. (Fun fact: I nicked the title of the track In These Quiet Streets on Nightscapes from another Westerby novel.)
Website/contact: You can find out more about David's steel pedal music at www.davidrothon.co.uk
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing songs and recording them on cassette when still at school – obviously they were pretty terrible, but then, as now, I was influenced by a broad range of music. At one point, I was trying to channel the likes of Pop Group, PIL and Pere Ubu, but when you have just two flatbed cassette recorders, a £15 guitar and limited musical skills at your disposal, the results inevitably fall a bit short…
I was also mesmerised by the sound of the steel guitar on a couple of Hank Williams EPs that my parents had; I tried tuning my guitar to an open chord and emulating the sound using a dinner knife as a slide; amazingly enough, it didn't sound quite as good as on the Hank records, but it sowed the seeds that led to my taking up the pedal steel many years later.
Early passions? The Move were the first band I loved, along with early ELO. Through my sister, I also got into Alice Cooper, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and other freaky and scary-sounding (for a 10-year-old) stuff. Before I started liking pop music I'd obsessively play my parents' records – from Switched On Bach to Louis Armstrong. Then, as now, there would be particular 'magic moments' in tracks I'd listen out for, and those are what drew me in to loving music.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Well, it's taken a while! I'm a dabbler by nature and, on the whole, happier playing somebody else's songs as a band member, albeit always hoping to make a telling contribution within that role. For while in the early 90s I had my own band, called Ruby, and went through a purple period of song-writing in a post-Byrds/pre-Britpop vein, that I like to think wasn't entirely lacking in merit. Then I sacked myself as singer, and things fell apart after that. On the whole I've always found it challenging to write lyrics, even though, as a sub-editor by trade, using words is my day job. It's only in the past few years that I've stopped feeling that I 'should be' writing songs, and decided to focus on instrumental compositions.
As regards transcending influences, on my album Nightscapes there are tracks where I have consciously set out to emulate the feel of a piece of music I love, or the types of chord progression that certain composers might use, while others have come purely out of tinkering with new sounds, effects etc. The Omnichord is a terrific compositional tool because it's very easy to happen upon an unusual and interesting chord sequence. If I pick up a guitar, my fingers tend to look for familiar places…
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Compositionally, I feel my main challenge has always been in pursuing a good basic idea through the awkward middle stage – where you're providing a musical context for the 'good bit' you first came up with – to a finished piece where everything has come together. I'd quite often give up in frustration during the middle stage. I suspect that artistic success is very much tied into just ploughing on until you've got something to show for your efforts.
In terms of production, I've always enjoyed recording, but it's always been with entry-level technology: portastudios going back to the 90s; until recently I was struggling on with Garageband. It's only since finally taking the plunge and investing in Logic that I've felt I can produce anything 'proper', and it's absolutely inspired me to up my game. To be honest, before that I wasn't even sure I had anything good enough in me to offer the outside world.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I've covered much of this in the previous answer, but in terms of gear… well, I'm somewhat of a technophobe, and my set-up is super-basic. I'm really more interested in the sound of instruments than using sequencers and that. That said, I love Logic. I found it surprisingly easy to get to grips with, and its 'drummer' facility is brilliant – I used it for some tracks on Nightscapes, and to me it sounds totally 'real'. So, all I use with that is a Focusrite interface, into which goes my keyboard, SM57 mic, and line out of a Roland Cube amp (through which I play pedal steel, guitar and bass). The Electro-Harmonix mellotron pedal is something that saw quite a bit of use on Nightscapes too.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I do like to record a 'performance', even if that ends up as a comp of several takes. It retains the human feel. If you listen to any current chart record, there's no sense of any musicians playing actual parts, and that to me is quite depressing. But of course, splicing 'real-time' together involves technology – it's just so easy to do that now; the very fact that you can make a record in your own room. And yet things are evolving fast – the aforementioned Logic 'drummer' allows you to produce lifelike results that mean for, say, the sort of music I do, of which drums aren't really a key element, you don't need to record in an actual studio with an actual drummer. (Sorry, drummers.)
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Again, I've largely covered this in the previous answer, but just to bang on about Logic's drummer again, that did enable me to 'create' parts that sounded perfect for the track but that I'd be incapable of coming up with off my own bat.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I love collaborations! Just as I enjoy, in a band situation, trying to bring something interesting and fresh in terms of an instrumental part, it's fascinating to hand over something you've done or started to someone else to bring their own ideas to it. With the Cloudier Skies project, I was involved in, I would come up with a melody line/arrangement and send it to my musical colleague Claudia (Barton) to come up with the words – sometimes songs; sometimes spoken-word pieces. The joy was in knowing she would produce something completely unexpected and brilliant. The album Nightscapes is essentially just myself, but likewise I sent a few tracks to my brother-in-law John Hymas – who just happens to be a genius composer and musician – do to some string arrangements, which are awesome. And of course, Frances Castle's artwork is a crucial element in the album – the ideas came from her, and the second version she came up with was perfect, and in fact it pulls together the album as a whole.
But it's also fun to do more improvised things – I sometimes work with a local group (called Rookery) that involves largely spoken-word pieces with semi-improvised backing, and it's enjoyable not knowing quite what's going to happen each time we run through a track.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
As someone who has a day job – albeit as a freelance – fitting the making of music around that is quite haphazard. Were I more disciplined and organised, I might set aside certain times of day to knuckle down to it, but a) that's not always practical, and b) I tend to alternate periods of creativity – where I'll use every available bit of spare time making music – with 'dormant ones'.