Name: Steven Brown
Occupation: Composer, singer, songwriter
Current release: Steven Brown's El Hombre Invisible is out via Crammed Discs.
If you enjoyed this interview with Steven Brown and would like to listen to more of his music, drop by his bandcamp account. For more information and updates on Tuxedomoon, head over to their official homepage.
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?
All of the above. Not so much personal relationships. More world events, social movements. Other musics. Books. Dreams also, very sporadically over the years.
Examples of dream inspirations - the song "The Train" by Tuxedomoon and the song "Spirits and Ghosts" on the album YOU.
Examples of world events influencing songs can be found in the song "Where Interests Lie" on the EP Scream with a View by Tuxedomoon. The lyric refers to the US military intervention in El Salvador in the late 1970s. Another example on the same disc is "Special Treatment for the Family Man" which was written in response to the assasination of gay politician Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone in a very dark period in San Francisco.
As for lyrics inspired by books, see "59-1" on the first Tuxedomoon album Half Mute. Lyrics taken from the philosopher E.M. Cioran’s book The Problem With Being Born.
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'?
Yes there are usually many "early versions" . Going over and over the idea each time making it a little different. Sometimes over period of months or even coming back to an idea after years. These would be pre-demos.
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?
Stimulants like coffee and other psycho active substances are often important. Though not always. Sometimes I create cold sober and other times I purposely derange myself somewhat to see what comes out. Often the derangement comes in a group environment ie with other musicians.
Exercise is important in the sense that generally I need to feel relatively "healthy" and fit and alert to create.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
Often when working alone, the lyric or a text can elicit a melody or music.
Working with other musicians, often the music tends to flow first and later texts can be added. There is no fixed rule of course.
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?
As I mentioned above, sometimes the lyric elicits the melody or musical phrase.
The line from the song "Warning" on my new album El Hombre Invisible – "Every year they come to warn us." - has its own little melody, at least to me, and that melody I adapted to the key or harmony I wanted the song to be in.
On the other hand sometimes a song or musical arrangement will be finished or relatively so, and an idea for words will appear whilst listening.
Another moyen is to have a statement you want to make, and you want it to be the basis or inspiration for the rest of the song. I'm working on such a song now with Benjamin Anaya. The song is called "Cheran" after the town in Michoacán Mexico where the people joined forces and expelled the mafia and the police and the politicians from the town.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
Well they have to be poetic in some way, prose can be poetic too, and they have to at the same time address the human condition in an intriguing or political or poetic sense.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I would say that the aspects of the narrative that get out of hand are found in the musical composition and maybe less so in the lyrics. The lyric content tends to be more controlled in my case.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Yes, I believe in the presence of spirituality in what I do.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I would say maybe this spirituality of the creative process largely offsets the digital in my case.
I am rather computer limited and in any case it never or rarely, interested me to compose or write music other than simple notes on paper or in sibelius or recorded and a written text to go with it. No digital tech or very little is required.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I record the piece until I get the best possible version without being too fussy and that's it. I don't listen again until it is released or played live.
When I was younger I was more nervous about not being satisfied til I got the one and only golden version. I don't think that way anymore.
Because, yes, I could go on and on refining some idea sometimes. But if I think the piece is working then that's what stays.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Mixing - yes, very important. Mastering I tend to trust the fates and the technicians
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
After releasing a new body of work into the world I often will be playing it live for some period of time. In this process, the original recorded works are transformed in the course of repetitions.
Also in the course of revisiting the said body of work, paradoxically, new ideas begin to appear
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Well one hopes that music itself is the opposite of mundane so what is expressed in music is the music or poetry itself and nothing to do with any tasks.
I suppose I might believe the creativity of a good chef for example, might be the equivalent of a good composer. Why not? But the music like the food of course, only exists in and of itself. It isn't pretending to be something else.