Name: Garret "Jacknife" Lee
Occupation: Producer, mixing engineer, songwriter
Current release: Jacknife Lee has formed a new duo with Cathal Coughlan (of, among others, Microdisney). Their debut album a hAon is out via Dimple Discs.
[Read our Cathal Coughlan interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Jacknife Lee and would like to listen to more of his music, visit his official homnepage. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Only sometimes do I get a flash of an idea from nowhere that turns into something good. Most of the time I just start working. I go into the studio and plug in an instrument and begin. I’m not the type to wait for inspiration or the muse to appear before I start to work. Ideas come because I’m working. I do it everyday. Some days are easy and some not so easy but I do it daily nonetheless. A few songs have come to me fully formed in dreams or the half awake state and they turned out well. If it happens I just get up, go to the studio and document it as soon as I can because even if I voice-memo it, it never makes sense later.
I have a lot of vinyl in my studio that I play before I begin work, during work if I need to give my mind a rest and after work as a form of decompression. If I’m stuck for ideas I’ll put a record on and lie on the couch. It reminds me why I’m in the studio. A lot of the things I love are not songs written or recorded to be ‘liked’; they’re generally pieces that are explorations of ideas or sound and that usually put context on what I’m trying to do. It helps me get over blocks that I may have. Other people have discovered solutions to problems that arise with writing and production that can be applied to the current issue I’m facing.
It’s also a meditative process; pulling out a record, putting it on, sitting, listening, waiting for me to connect with it. I look at films or images that also might unlock me during the day, something like a William Eggleston picture can evoke feelings in me that enable sound to appear. When we were making the Telefís record visual stimuli was key.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualization' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
If I’m producing someone else’s work (even beginning from a very basic voice memo idea) I usually hear something finished in my head as I listen to it for the first time and I follow that impulse. The process (with chance, error, equipment and people) then dictates where the path goes and might diverge from the original vision that I had. But sometimes not. Sometimes it’s as I heard it.
For that first time listening I note down what comes to me and begin recording what I write down. If I’m starting a piece from scratch, either for myself or for others, the process begins with something small and simple, like a sound, a beat, a chord. then I rely on instinct. I don’t want to ‘think’ at all during this time. I want to just ‘feel’ it out. “what is my body wanting to do?”. The cerebral part comes later and organizes the piece, but during noise and sound exploration I am waiting for the tingle of giddiness or thrill to arrive. Once I get this I know something good will come.
Chance, accident, error, luck … these are the moments I keep my ear out for. I know one of these will open a door to where I want to be.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
I never do sketches as preparation. I would hope the finished work is the sketch. The genesis of the idea should be part of the finished piece. You should be able to hear the moment of “eureka” in the final recording. I’m impressed by skill and craft but there is something special in the moment of discovery that I think is tangible and adds so much to a piece of work. I love it when something feels unfinished but right.
It took me a long time to get to this point. I used to over-work productions, tending to every corner of it and sculpting every nuance but now I want to hear the unrealized potential of it rather than something complete. Unfinished demands interaction with the listener, completed just asks for observation.
I like my equipment to be working correctly and ready to go. If I have to search for a cable for instance I get nervous that I will lose my flow, which is key for me. Once I start I don’t want to think about logistics. So having things working and ready allows me to chase the rabbit. It would be like a car chase in a movie having to stop because you ran out of gas.
My studio is packed full of equipment. It probably looks like a crazy person put it together but I know where everything is and where it’s plugged in. It looks like chaos but it's very well organized and ready to record. I will, however, work anywhere with any equipment.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I don’t have rituals or anything like that.
I get up very early and love to start straight away but the dogs need walking, and I need to go to the gym etc. Turning on all the equipment sets me up and I know work is to begin.
If I have no deadline I will improvise on the Buchla (synthesizer) for 30 minutes, and then move to the day’s intention.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
It used to be difficult to put down the first note, sound, word etc. If I’m using a moleskin to make notes or write and feel like I’m going to have a difficult start I draw or use charcoal on about 20 pages before writing anything and that way it’s not literally a blank page. It’s a small thing but it can help me.
With sound sometimes I will just record noise (noise from a synth, use ambient sound like birds or a kettle or a recording I made from the city) and start there. Filling a silent space with yourself can be daunting so if I’m without inspiration I'll start with this. I might listen to people speaking on youtube about something and put that under a beat very quietly and that can take away the pressure of filling silence too. It just adds a dimension of life that pushes me forward. Sometimes a sample from a record kick breaks a blank moment.
There is some fear at the beginning - “what if nothing comes?’ - but that now excites me. I trust myself to come up with something always.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
Lyrics. Hmmm … they are not the primary point of interest for me. I love lyrics but sometimes I’ve misheard them and it doesn’t bother me.
I listen to a lot of music in languages I don’t understand. I like it that way. Sure, I’m missing a lot of what’s happening but I get the tone of the piece. Lyrics can dominate songs. That’s fine but I want to feel the whole thing; sound, tone, feeling.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
A bad lyric bothers me straight away though. A great one … that should feel true and unearthed rather than the process of writing be its energy. I don’t want to hear the skill of it. I just want to feel it’s truth and freshness. I want to hear the point of view of the singer. The words need to have good mouth feel. Mealy or mushy banana words just don’t feel good in the mouth. Hard candy is good in the mouth. Something honest, fresh and authentic is what I like working with.
Cathal Coughlan in Telefís has been a revelation for me. He is probably one of the greatest words writers alive. His subjects are unorthodox and his point of view is unique. He’s playful and brutal in the same sentence. Of all the lyricists I’ve encountered he is alone in his ability to yank the floor away when least expected.
Michael Stipe is also an astounding writer. His process is fascinating. Deep and intelligent but again with the ability to turn on a dime and make you giddy with its freshness.