Name: Jason McMahon
Occupation: Composer, guitarist
Current Release: Odd West on Shinkoyo
Recommendations: Maze by Christopher Manson.
There was this shadow, this double - Nate Wooley, TILT Creative Brass Band.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Jason McMahon, visit the website of the Shinkoyo label to hear more music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Sound affects me in a profound way. I feel like I’m hearing secrets and stories in a foreign language that I can somehow understand. Music is simply one of the greatest things that exists and in my experience it helps to bring me closer to something greater than myself, so that’s nice.
As soon as I fell in love with jazz in high school in the late-90s, and through college and many years after, my primary musical focus was improvisation. Writing, let alone production, took a distant backseat, but not because I didn’t try or want to, it just took much longer to become something I was comfortable doing on my own. While I co-wrote and co-produced for many years with my good friend Matt Mehlan’s band Skeletons, I didn’t start writing and producing my own music until 2013, well into my 30s.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Honestly, I’m still very much in this first phase of my artistic development. I spent about 20 years with writer’s block, working on other people’s music and focusing on improvisation and performance. I had an unexpected amount of growing to do before I was able to create anything of my own, and I think the sheer amount of unlearning and retraining I underwent left me with something analogous to what’s left after a forest fire, or chemotherapy. I had to kill so much inside me just to get here that I really had to start from scratch to make Odd West. I mean, I learned how to fingerpick, literally scratching at my guitar. For the same reason I detuned my guitar: Everything was new and unfamiliar, everything was uncharted. As a result, I feel like this album is painted with primary colors in two dimensions, with no perspective. The language is even like a proto-tongue, just making the sounds of words before real meaning emerges. I’m just getting my footing, but I’m starting to see a long path ahead of me now, which is new and exciting.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Odd West was composed amidst a slew of compositional challenges, such as specific social requirements for the music as well as all the technical aspects of the guitar. Although I’d had a lot of experience making a lot of music in the past, I had never made something this personal before, and the process of shifting my mindset from supporting someone else’s vision to making something on my own was formidable.
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 started developing a studio setup about seven years ago, and it’s still very basic. I use the same laptop running Logic, but I have a better interface now. Other than that my main tools really are just my four guitars: a cheap Japanese Strat I’ve had since 1994, a Tele I just got last year, a Martin steel string, and a Cordoba nylon string. Also, I've always had some sort of keyboard around. Piano was my first instrument, and it will always be essential. Less is more, until you’re bored.
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 not keep up well with technology, I’ve always felt behind in that way. My preferred tool is an actual guitar, not a DAW, or an app. I’m more inclined towards carpentry than sound design. I find something very comforting about the limitations of traditional tools and established technology. I don’t think older is necessarily better by any means, I just have patience for certain learning curves and not others.
Humans excel at making shit up. Machines excel at doing what they’re told.
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?
Odd West would not be the album that it is had I not recorded and mixed it in a world-class studio. I chose Strange Weather, in Brooklyn, run by my friend the inimitable Daniel Schlett, who I had worked with when he recorded the Bubu Gang years before. We didn’t do anything special in the studio to create a sound for this album, in fact Daniel was very hands-off. The idea was to let the sound of the guitar bask in its own natural beauty. Hardly anything was added; it was enough for the signal to simply pass through three or four exceptional(ly expensive) pieces of equipment.
For this album, there was such a transparent approach to the production, the only thing that took on its own unexpected character in the studio was the sound of the voices. I don't have a strong voice, nor did I have a strong vision when I entered the studio for what I wanted the vocals to be, so both Daniel and Boshra had to help me create something. In fact, the entire concept of semi-wordless vocals came out of this process, so I’m very grateful and fortunate for their insight. And of course Boshra wrote the Arabic words for “Oh, Moon!”, so the co-authorship there was not just figurative.
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?
After spending years collaborating and compromising and subsuming myself in other people's projects, I needed to feel independent and in control of Odd West. The only musical collaboration on this album was in the vocals and the production, which was still huge and pivotal and some of the best material. I hope to always need a lot of help, because that’s life, that’s file sharing. Playing music and making up jokes with friends will always be more than a favorite pastime.
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?
I generally wake up between 8-10am, after exactly eight hours of sleep. Any less or any more than that and I’m a total basket case. I hang out with my wife, eat some oatmeal, and feed my four cats as I wait for my bowel movement, unless I have to be somewhere early, in which case the rest of the day will be a struggle. I ride my bicycle almost every day, sometimes for an hour or more. Same with playing guitar. Honestly, I’m still developing my practice, and it can improve. I love routines, and I have good habits, but I also love chaos and surprise and asymmetry, and the invaluable learning opportunities that come from mistakes, so I try to find a balance.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
These songs were all written on one guitar in the same non-standard tuning, and I wrote them all as I developed fingerstyle technique for the first time. That was the initial instrumental template I created for the songs.
In terms of my emotional approach, I was initially writing music that I could play for my family, who all enjoy music, but aren’t necessarily experimental musicians who demand a challenging experience. I eventually played many of these songs at friends wedding ceremonies as well, so the songs really had to work in this particular emotional setting; they also couldn’t stand out in any surprising way, which was a strange challenge. I developed a technique whereby all the compositional nuance and uniqueness was sort of masked by the simple beauty of the songs.
The development and perpetuation of different types of balance also became an overarching compositional objective as I was writing. It’s all in one tuning, but few songs are in the same key or meter. I also was careful to balance both rising and falling harmonic motion, in both diatonic and chromatic movement from song to song, and I also even made sure that no two songs focused on the same groupings of strings on the guitar as I played it. Aside from all these guidelines and limitations, I just let the ideas flow!
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Odd West was all written in a pretty sober state of mind, and I think it shows. I think it’s also a very honest sort of music, which was a big part of my mindset while I was writing it. I don’t think these states of mind are necessarily required or ideal for me to create. I think the most important mental strategy I employed was to take myself seriously as a composer and to be both patient and demanding at the same time, a skill which is taking my entire life to develop.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
In almost every musical project I’ve been a part of, there have been major difficulties in reconciling the studio versions with the live versions. It’s a symptom of the way a lot of modern bands work: the album is written and recorded by one or two people and made to sound like a lush orchestral tapestry which would be impossible or at least prohibitively expensive to reproduce live, so there’s always some compromise or re-working or heavy use of backing tracks, which is the opposite of what I want to do live.
I give my best performances when I’m improvising and the music can go to unexpected places. Not trying to play something perfectly, but rather continuing to experiment and develop an idea in the moment. I love a piece that is never finished being written until is is no longer played.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Because of the way this album was written and recorded, I was able to spend a whole lot more time on the compositions, the arrangements, the parts, the voice leading, the harmony, than I was on the timbre or the sound. I had a limited amount of time in the studio, and I was at the mercy of what the engineers could do quickly. Essentially the compositions and the sounds are completely separate entities in Odd West. In other, collaborative projects we’ve worked with sound and composition in such a way that we’re not really cooking until we can’t tell who’s making what sound or what instrument it’s coming from.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
There’s nothing like feeling sound. I think that’s what dancing is all about, turning sound into touch, connecting with primal energy. Maybe it comes from the womb, being suspended in fluid such that hearing and touch are inherently linked.
Whenever any sense starts to also involve touch, something intense is probably happening. Eating spicy food, staring at the sun: these things actually cause physical pain. It makes sense; we have a complex, full-body nervous system for touch, but can only see a tiny slice of all the light, and our noses are super weak compared to so many other animals.
I imagine that at its maximum extreme, sound may turn into matter, and fully cross over into the physical realm.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I’ve always made art primarily as a form of personal therapy and healing, a way to lose myself and calm my anxiety. I often feel quite lost socially, so performing and playing with others has been incredibly important to my personal development. I’m confident the deeper I develop my artistic philosophy and musical style the more assured I will feel overall: socially, politically, personally.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21 st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Music is absolutely ubiquitous and ever-present, and everyone has their own constant, private, custom adaptive playlist going 24/7. Since music is no longer simply heard through the ears but experienced through direct neural link, we are capable of an infinitely more acute experience of frequency, loudness, pitch, time, rhythm, and density. Later on, we will be able to use sound itself to physically change our environments and ourselves.