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?
Let’s take “And” from Third Album.
I start almost all of my tracks on the “piano” (the “Vintage Electric Piano” in Logic Pro). I’ll sit down and just start hammering out some chords to see if anything catches my ear. In this case I landed on BMaj, B7 and B7b5 as a starting point. I’ll turn on the arpeggiator and kind of just jam it out for a while and then bounce that as a demo. I’ll usually have between two and five demos like this on the go at any time. After listening to it for anywhere between a few days and a few months, I’ll usually have a pretty good idea of the general shape I’d like the piece to take or if it’s worth continuing to work on at all. Before I start working from this demo stage to a finished track I like to have a solid idea about how the piece will start, where it’s trying to go, how it’ll be paced, where the climax will be and how it’ll end. Sooner or later I’ll be ready to dive into a performance that will, god-willing, encapsulate the final form. It’s usually one or two improvised takes from start to finish. It’s all midi, so from there it’s easy to go back and do clean-up: change notes, fix timings, get rid of little flubs. The next step is finding the right sound. I’ll fire through some presets on different soft-synths until something clicks and voila, I have the beginnings of a song.
After that I’ll usually make a droney instrument to help maintain cohesion, in this case a saw-wavey flute sound, that’ll help to spell out the chords and will serve as a vague marker for where the sections change. From there it’s honestly a real crapshoot. It’s a game of filling in the blanks, just playing around until it sounds right. I'm trying to hear what’s missing and then trying to make the instrument that fills that need. I’ll work on it for a while, bounce it and listen to that new version until I’m ready to start working on it again. I’ll just keep working through versions: adding, subtracting, doubling, rearranging, harmonizing, playing around with the structure; and if all goes well, it will eventually reach a point where it’s structurally done. The arrangement is more or less set, all the sounds are more or less where they should be, everything makes sense, and there aren’t any technical errors in the performances.
The other two-thirds of the process are sweetening and mixing. I looooove mixing. I love it. I love listening to the same 0.5 second clip over and over again. I love the challenge of trying to get the three slightly different organ sounds to sit just right with each other. The satisfaction of finding and fixing that slightly too harsh ringing at 2K. The joy of automating the EQ to make an instrument that’s been playing a supporting role really sing for four bars. Mixing and sweetening happen in parallel. It’s the process of trying to make every instrument sound as good as I can make it. At this point, it’s my job to try and make this machine sound “natural”. I like to imagine that I’m making the music that your speakers would make if they were alive.
In terms of where things come from, there’s definitely just a couple pieces that are always in my brain when I’m working. The Idea Of North by Glenn Gould and Einstein On The Beach by Phillip Glass. I’m not sure why they were so impactful but I think you can definitely hear a bit of that seeping in.
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?
There’s the idea of “flow” as being important and desirable. Flow is that state where the world slips away, where all you’re doing is the Thing You’re Doing. It’s a very relatable experience, I assume that it’s something that happens in varying degrees to most people on most days, but I’m reluctant to equate that state with creativity.
A deep concentration state is definitely where I’m getting the most work done, but I don’t think it’s ever the best work. I often walk away from those intense sessions with something that sounds like overworked garbage. Sometimes I’m lucky and can realize that I’m using the work as a distraction from other parts of my life that may need more attention. I think creativity might actually be all the stuff you do outside of the actual act of creation. All the boring stuff: brushing your teeth, tying your shoes. Creativity is putting the effort into making the conditions in which you can make something. The making itself isn’t all that important. Flow isn’t the shining gem, it’s not ideal… it just happens sometimes; it’s no better than being distracted or sleepy or thirsty. I think my beef with flow is the implication that the most creative state is the state in which we’re most productive.
I don’t know why I’m being so confrontational about this but the concept of an ideal creative state strikes a weird nerve for me. Like, yeah, making music is something I authentically enjoy, and doing it to the exclusion of all else can be really nice sometimes, but I also really enjoy making a nice meal and going for a walk and calling a friend. Maybe it’s just a bit of late-stage capitalism hair-splitting, but I’d like to believe that achieving a state of uninterrupted productivity isn’t the be-all-end-all of creativity.
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?
There isn’t much of a tangible connection between my live performance and my studio practice. My live performances are 90% improvised and use a completely different toolset than my composed pieces. I try to couch my live performances in some of the DIY ethos of my youth by emphasizing immediacy, power and direct communication: it’s a chance for me to say something to you right now! My studio pieces are a chance for me to say something to you, y’know, whenever you have the time. No rush. Wait until you’re comfortable. I even recorded it for you. You can listen as many times as you want in case you missed something. I want you to make the time to eat this audio meal I prepared.
But, I’m still the same me whether I’m in my studio or in front of an audience so the two constitute a continuum vis-a-vis myself. In that regard composition and improvisation inform each other in the same way that what happens during the day informs your dreams.
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?
I was DJing once a week for the past four years and part of the job was playing out The New Bangers. Which I loved. It gave me an excuse to keep up with popular (“western”) music and seek out the gems. Some days I’d be skimming through like, 5-10 full albums and it got to this point where I would/could only listen to about 2 seconds of a song before I kind of just tuned out. In those 2 seconds, the sound became the entire song.
The sonic character of a song, its tone and attitude, contain the whole. You can almost figure out everything that’ll happen in the rest of a song with just that little clip. This is particularly true with capital “P” Popular music (which, I don’t think I’m wrong in saying includes most contemporary Rap at this point) but it extends to all music. I think part of why I like mixing so much is because it’s a chance to dive into the minutiae of the sounds I’m using to try and shape or subvert that kind of identifiability.
I try to make things that defy that kind of instant read… what happens at the 30 second mark won’t really tell you what happens at the 3-minute mark. I guess this is a long way of saying that to me sound and composition are inextricably linked.
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?
I think our sense of time is the most interesting when it comes to hearing. It mediates our ability to perceive music and is an integral part of its enjoyment. When jazz guys hoot and holler about a lick someone plays, it’s usually because that lick is a reference or call-back to a previous passage and if you can’t hold that temporal information/can’t remember the passage, the joke just doesn’t make sense.
It’s also why I think drone music is so challenging. Most of the time the idea of listening to a 30-minute drone is not at all appealing. Not because it’s boring but because it takes a lot of energy and effort to keep track of something that is slow-moving. If minute 2 is only slightly different than minute 20, then paying attention that whole time can be really taxing. Music can warp your sense of time by demanding different levels of concentration, and concentration is just mental effort over time.
I’ve also experienced a kind of concretization of sound. When I’m working I often feel like I’m stacking all the instruments spectrally and then massaging the edges so they work together. It’s a combination of visualization and something like auditory proprioception to sense how things balance and react. With digitally produced sounds, the question of how it would naturally behave becomes important. You could create a violin with infinite release, but the ear would eventually stop believing it - unless it’s put in context with other instruments that mimic or contrast that behaviour. So, you have to build a certain conception of what a sound is in order to work with it. For me a sine tone has a definitive top and bottom, its weight depends on frequency and it has a smooth surface, so things can easily slide against it, but to try and stack more than one becomes challenging.
All sounds possess a certain mass and volume and texture and the whole fun of it is making a sculpture out of the materials.
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 feel like it all comes down to making a choice. It’s not much more than deciding in a moment, “I’m gonna make something new”. I know it’s not feasible for a lot of people, a lot of the time, and I’m thankful every time I’m able to make that choice.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st 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?
It really IS remarkable! I think it speaks to the idea that music is just something humans do. Real lizard brain stuff. We just can’t stop! It’s been hard being a musician because I do feel disheartened by the relentless commodification over the past like, 100 or so years. There’s been a real narrowing of the definition of a “successful artist” to the detriment of everyone. We’re all broke and tired and have worked so hard for crumbs just for the chance to have our names on the front page of some billionaires’ payola-platform so we can stop eating beans and rice [no shame to beans and rice].
We’re in an extremely wild time right now, a lot of artists and art-related professions are just done for the foreseeable future. Everything’s cancelled. Art forms that have been predicated on community participation have come to a screeching halt. I’m lucky to be safe and snug in a warm home with a relatively hefty government cheque, but the conversations I’m hearing around me are unsettling. Many people aren’t equipped to think about a negative future. Comfortable people like me have never had to legitimately contend with things being inaccessible.
Things might not turn out. There’s a chance that there will be no shows for a year or more. No galleries, no venues, no tours… not even an open mic jam. I think the cultural landscape is going to be very different coming out of this. I’ve seen a lot of online performances pop up and I get it and I’m all for it, but it doesn’t strike me as a sustainable replacement. I am cautiously optimistic that this will collapse giant parasites like Ticketmaster and Sonicbids, and force a more open and fair relationship among artists. Maybe we can all stop trying to play bigger and bigger stages around the world and work on building strong and supportive local communities. The cost is fucking heavy though, I never thought it would go down like this.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t know man. Two months ago, I thought I knew stuff about the future of music but now I have no idea. Eventually, when we can all gather safely, we’ll be presented with an unprecedented opportunity to build something new, equitable and sustainable and I really hope we do.