I’ve always leaned hard on concepts for building and making an album. With Waiting room (1997) I worked closely with a musical director (Spike Mason) and band to re-harmonise simple pop songs into a hybrid blues / jazz setting; with SUPERHYDRATED (2000)I was working with a three piece band (Didi Mudigdo, Reza Achman), incorporating traditional song structures with different time signatures and textures drawn from jazz, hip hop and soul. By the time I made it to illumineon (2003), I was cutting up – recording a rhythm section and then asking my bass player to find different grooves over the top, switching back and playing the grooves back to the drummer to find something new… in short I was cutting up stuff. I took those pods, re-arranged and re-formatted and pushed and pulled and layered lyrics / tone poems until it became songs. It was a long process – ably guided and assisted by the remarkable Tom Kazas.
On When you get down to it (2008) – I starting with an Akai MPC and samples, using D’Angelo and Nusoul as a template, imposing lyrics on semi-finished grooves and polishing it upwards by bringing in key collaborators (Barney Wakeford, Rory Toomey, Campbell McGuninness, Reza Achman). It took five years of playing late night in my basement studio at the former Cafe church in Glebe – falling asleep guitar in hand and driving back to Bondi at 5am in the morning after doing one last guitar take. I had a full time job at the time, so it took a while. Relatively shortly after (in my terms at least) I made a mostly live studio album shortly before leaving Australia West & Lime – with Tom Kazas on bass and keys and Rory Toomey on drums – mostly with Shane Fahey at the wonderful at Megaphon studio. I re-worked some of the the songs I had, principally from illumineon with Tom (who has been a mentor and co-conspirator to me since 2002).
This might feel like home (2013) was the start of what will at least be a trilogy of works made while I’ve been living away from Sydney and away from Australia – caught up in my ‘Berlin years’ and influenced by the electronica and the darkness of that city – a lot of it started with samples and grooves and bounced off little drum machines – in particular my little Korg. Black & Amber (2016) was a brighter return to guitar and songwriting, thematically revolving around the fact I managed to get out of Berlin, and very much influenced by the shadow of those years, and the glimpses of light in my first couple of years of living in Osaka and Kyoto in Japan.
Why all this talk about what I’ve made? I guess because it’s good to remind me that it’s not helpful, in some ways, and it is in others. It’s always been difficult for me, so only natural know to feel hesitant about embarking on what will be a long and often discouraging journey – I can’t think of any collection of songs I’ve made that have come together easily, and forecasting at this point is simply exhausting (do I really want to spend all those hours crafting mixes that fail? Do I really want to admit, at the end of countless revisions, that I don’t like a lyric and probably never did? Do I really want to be honest with myself and acknowledge that my idea for a song simply wasn’t strong enough… after all this time?).
And the past is the past. If I wanted to make those albums again, perhaps the exact process that led to them would be helpful. But it’s time for something new. Of course. Even the old stuff is new, but right now I want surprise and inspiration and to answer the questions that are haunting and knocking and running from me at this point in my life… An album has always been exactly that – answers to a particular set of idiosyncratic questions, answers that have illuminated my decisions, earmarked my eras and offered condolence and advice to my future selves.
And so to discovering those answers, or better yet, discovering the questions.
I’ve never really been a Steven Wilson fan, but I’m listening to the new Steven Wilson album today. There’s so much to like here. From the harmonica opening and smattering of spoken word / sampling, to the wiry cutting guitar sounds and backing vocals. Solo guitars are beautifully recorded -and the synths of course are great.
The song structures appeal to me too – opening up into large scale epic solos and esoteric rhythms but still driving and funky. Lots of empty bars not dominated by vocals and the drive of the song.
I was watching That Pedal show earlier – where they were reviewing his new rig for the tour. He was talking about falling in love with the sound of his telecaster and 5w tube amp. It’s a great production strategy – to lean heavily into a single sound / amp / pedal / configuration to see what can be found.
It was great to see him fretting different chord voicings, and many were slash chords – simple chords on the 6th / 5th / 4th fret, with a shifting bass line, or a pivoting finger on the fourth. He uses chords in a totally different way. I’m not sure I love everything he does, but it’s far enough away for me to explore and see what it brings. I don’t really know the songs or melodies, so looking at the chords is interesting and pushes me to different places.
I’ve decided to learn some of these chords.
But the immediate takeaways are a sense of epic opening up; a joyful pushing of chords and boundaries; a stretching out and allowing space for music around the voice; and a tension between verse melody and sing-a-long choruses… A good example of this is ‘The same asylum as before’ – makes sense of his talk about old school ‘pop’. It’s no mistake that he names Peter Gabriel, Tears for fears and Rush… I can hear those Eighties iconic pop bands nodding toward art rock.
Write out at least ten new chords notated from Steven Wilson’s live playing
Write down five chord progressions from SW songs you don’t know
Build bass / drum grooves based around these progressions
Try some different very specific guitar sounds that might spark songs and a ‘sound’moving forward
Too much expectation, don’t know where to start, don’t know what would do any good, and the impatience, cause you wanna play much better by yesterday…
I’m impatient. Impatience is great when it adds urgency, not so great when you want to learn something. The frustration can fuel productivity, but it also invites a longer term sense of disempowerment. Some things simply take time.
How do I commit to the long game?
Be prepared to work slowly and work on things that have no immediate return
Look for two or three old ideas that have been discarded and see if there is something to be gleaned
Try to be patient – worry less about deadlines and product – more about process and learning
This week I’ve been thinking again about things I’ve read in Timothy Ferries books, and I decided to buy his latest book ‘Tools of the Titans’. For me he walks a fine line between aspirational / annoying / helpful, but it is what it is. One story tipped me over the edge — a conversation relayed about Siddhartha by a number of his guests on the podcast.
Merchant: . . . If you are without possessions, how can you give? Siddhartha: Everyone gives what he has. The soldier gives strength, the merchant goods, the teacher instruction, the farmer rice, the fisherman fish. Merchant: Very well, and what can you give? What have you learned that you can give? Siddhartha: I can think, I can wait, I can fast. Merchant: Is that all? Siddhartha: I think that is all. Merchant: And of what use are they? For example, fasting, what good is that? Siddhartha: It is of great value, sir. If a man has nothing to eat, fasting is the most intelligent thing he can do. If, for instance, Siddhartha had not learned to fast, he would have had to seek some kind of work today, either with you, or elsewhere, for hunger would have driven him. But, as it is, Siddhartha can wait calmly. He is not impatient, he is not in need, he can ward off hunger for a long time and laugh at it.
I think of Siddhartha’s answers often and in the following terms: I can think → Having good rules for decision-making, and having good questions you can ask yourself and others. I can wait → Being able to plan long-term, play the long game, and not misallocate your resources. I can fast → Being able to withstand difficulties and disaster. Training yourself to be uncommonly resilient and have a high pain tolerance
Strategies for the day?
Work on rules for good musical decision making
Be prepared to play the long game
Withstand the difficulties and disasters when things don’t work straight away
Ex Nihilo: Conversations with Barney about Brian Eno
…what would be really interesting for people to see is how beautiful things grow out of shit, because nobody ever believes that…What would really be a lesson that everybody should learn is that things come out of nothing, things evolve out of nothing. You know the tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest, and then the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing. And I think this would be important for people to understand because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know that that’s how things work… If you walk around with the idea that there are some people who are so gifted – they have these wonderful things in their head, but You’re not one of them. You’re just sort of a normal person, you could never do anything like that then you live a different kind of life, you know. You could have a different kind of life where you say ‘I know that things come from nothing very much and start from unpromising beginnings, and I’m an unpromising beginning, and I could start something too.
— Brian Eno
Since I moved to Japan a few years ago, the isolation and the lack of a local music scene I feel a part of has led me to rely on my former collaborators and close friends from Sydney and London and Berlin. Barney – an amazing jazz pianist, theorist, musical laboratory technician and multi-instrumentalist – played keys on When you get down to it, and he and I have performed together often at Colbourne Ave and Free for all, along with occasional jam sessions in random spaces. We’ve also been known to enjoy the odd ale or two together in some fine Sydney bars and clubs.
Earlier this week I was explaining that I can’t find a flow for the album — I have processes and procedures, but it’s feeling like pretty tough work. One thing lead to another, and he suggested I should keep a diary of the production. He mentioned Brian Eno and the notion of making music for your future self, which brought me back to the above quote – one of my favourite about the creative process and the mysteries surrounding it.
I’m hesitant about writing a journal or diary. I hate the idea of giving advice to other musicians about how they should go about making work. Every time I talk about how to create I can think of a thousand exceptions.
But writing down ideas for my present and future self, clarifying and printing them so I can have the conversation about the things that revolve around my head day to day, that idea stuck with me and multiplied by the hour. By the end of the day I’d determined to write journal entries about the daily blocks, thoughts and strategies I encounter. I further resolved each blog would be a moment of reflection, with specific actions I draw from each, to try in a practical, pragmatic context. So what you are reading are the conversations I honestly have with myself as I move through the day — from guitar to mixing desk to recorders to youtube, while doing the washing, practicing and riding through Kyoto. My questions always remain — how can I make something new, something vital, something I will be proud of both now and in the future.
And so, from nothing – from less than nothing — from a determination to do no such thing, but with the concern and care of a skilled gardener friend, comes this, and an outpouring of thoughts, fears, observations, frustrations, confoundment, inspiration and strategy.
So today’s strategy?
Write each day or each second day.
Try to keep it up for a month at least, then publish
So yesterday I wrote down my ideas and intention to blog, and of course straight away started to frantically record in the hopes of ‘making things happen’.
I’m not going to get all spooky, but it did surprise me how quickly the negative thoughts flow in, and how, while recording a part on guitar, or programming a section, I’m monitoring so many negative words and criticisms with the thought that none of it is good enough. It’s discouraging, but worse — distracting.
It got me thinking, I really need to work on that negative dialogue to open space up in it to create without judgement, if it’s going to be fun. This brought me back to a book I read 20 years ago – Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner. There’s a great interview with Kenny here, and he unpacks so many ideas so quickly, I spent a lot of today and yesterday writing things down and trying to work out some strategies for implementing these ideas. I’ve had some experience with the meditations and I used to do them back in my late twenties… time to revisit the ideas.
I love this quote about defining your own sound and finding your voice…
It’s not that I’m avoiding sounding like anybody. I get absorbed in the sound.. it’s an open environment that I accept. The way you find your sound is not something you do actively, you sorta do it passively, by embracing every sound you’re hearing. Now you don’t have that block about what you think the sound should be, and you start to find your inner sound, manifest in whatever your instrument is… – Kenny Werner
You don’t have that block about what you think the sound should be… If I’ve learned one thing from producing myself and others, this is the pivotal thing. Time and again in the studio, the beautiful and resonant has emerged for me from the discarded and overlooked.
I also love what he says about taking time to play, and to be in the moment, rather than endlessly worrying about the outcome and the product. This in part has led me to start blogging, hoping to reflect and catch some of the things I might otherwise miss. But the goal – the goal is to get all Zen Garden about it, right? david Bowie came to the temple in the picture… but famously recorded a Japanese sake commercial here. Maybe that’s a secret to creativity too – finding a sense of zen, but still enjoying the process.
I’ve downloaded the meditations from his site, and watched some interviews
Every day, make time for meditation and create a space from which to play and produce
Oh come on – those disco hats! Are you kidding me…? And the horn stabs… OH! That bass piano riff is absolutely fantastic. Of course I love the chicka wah guitar and ringing high funk chords. Descending / ascending counter lines with strings and trumpets, repeated motif breakdown with a juicey envelope bass; Siren sound -? Drum fills – the seventies kit sound is really appealing. So much to like here. Interesting the piano loop is pretty relentless and gorgeous – and the way it breaks the loop through a figure and pulls all the instrumentation together. Superb.
Again the disco hats, and unison singing. I like the chorus start – that’s really a hallmark of ABBA, right? (???) Again the piano is driving a lot of the melody – but the synth string sound and the way the strings play into the chorus – a lovely build. The chorus is pretty extended too, right? I mean there’s changes everywhere, and the melody keeps developing… SO MANY HOOKS….
There’s a gnarly delay in the mix I’d never noticed – and pulling back to the dark strings in the second verse is a masterstroke. So Singable. That repeated piano figure is repeated a lot.
Wow. The kick is really boxy and dry – snare too. Vocal quite dry too. Tambourine is beautifully echoey. Piano and guitar sitting really close together – strings driving so much of the uplift. Vocal opening up reverb wise in the chorus. That descend out of the chorus – bass, piano and strings across 4 bars – really gives the track pause and room. Also cutting back the strings and the instrumentation in the pre-chorus. Lovely mixing. And repeated chords after the vocal motif. Wide acoustic in the pre-chorus, narrowing for the chorus. A simple vocal line repeated clearly – It’s a cool thing, right? A rhinestone cowboy? It sounds a little like a cookie brand. But in a good way.
On a side note Wichita Lineman – that baritoney guitar tremolo solo is fantastic – and the way he sings this – along with the repeated synth figure that sounds like a telegraph… What a glorious track. Jimmy Webb. My goodness.
Simple repeated string bass, piano and synth swells – taking its time to develop. Bringing in extra strings and widening for the chorus. Upping the tempo through the introduction of the drums halfway through the chorus. And this string break! Simple motif played against more rhythmic and string elements.
And also the strummed guitar – adds a really needed percussive element. And the big breakdown takes the solo motif and develops it symphonically – so grand, leading into the full kit and crashes, and deep horns… Pairing back to violins only. There’s a genuine leisure and super enhanced dynamic – it needs to be I guess to carry itself into cinema. Oboes and violas and chimes and gongs. It really does convey a kind of dappled windswept majesty – to steal from Hopkins.
I’ve been thinking about this synth sound a lot lately – Jupiter 8. I love the tremolo – high and wide and panned to the right. I also love the left turn of the whole ‘dancing, dancing’ interlude. That segue is pretty dreamy. Almost goes without saying his voice sounds fantastic and the reverb is perfect. Also the guitars running up into the chorus. The bass and the synths strings kind of stay close together. The female vocals at the end, singing a more random harmony line – a little tangential, again. The elements that keep it tight are that skank guitar, the bass, and the simplicity of the drums.
Obviously I’m not about to go all ABBA or Glen Campbell for the new album or start wearing flares, but the re-visit / the randomness does throw certain things to light I would otherwise have overlooked… And the question of ‘Why did I think of these songs now?’ is one that bears at least keeping in mind. Here’s some things I’ve noticed for further exploration:
All the tracks have a significant non-vocal aspect, whether it be the instrumental of SWAT, or the extended coda of Avalon, there’s obviously something to learn here for me about letting the song develop without the need to sing something
Both Avalon and Jonathan Livingston Seagull (and the sneaky extra Wichita Lineman) have a pretty epic and open feel coupled with an awesome dynamic… a wide screen picture rather than a hotel room sketch
Disco hats, tambourines, skanky guitar lines and percussive strummed acoustics, eighties synths and an emphasis on rhythm… all noteworthy takeaways
The seventies drum kit and studio sound of the Theme from SWAT I find really appealing, along with the reverbs and synth choices of Avalon
While I’m writing this, youtube has gone on to play Roxy Music’s Jealous Guy. What a gorgeous track that is too… I’ve never really been a Roxy Music fan… but the whistling at the end? And the tremolo guitars? And the pacing, again, is impeccable. See what I did there? Snuck another song in, huh?
Be yourself?: a.k.a. Will you still love me tomorrow
I think the nonsense about ‘being yourself’ in most contemporary self-help literature is… nonsense. Or if not nonsense, then something I’ve personally struggled to make sense of in my personal experience. Every time I need to be ‘true to myself’ I’m asked the question ‘What would my real self do in this situation?’, and since the particular situation is a dilemma or difficulty or a decision, I’m always reminded that this situation is a new dilemma, a new situation, a new decision. So recursively, my true self has no idea what to do… unless I just do the same thing I’ve done before…
This has applications for production and writing. “Be true to yourself, self.” I say, and then re-produce the same thing I did last year, or more ‘essentially’ ten years ago, or I strip back in the name of ‘returning to my roots’. But maybe it is possible to find a kind of truth amongst it – to trace a line that connects, rather than roots me to my past. A narrative rather than a monolithic construction.
But my roots were seventies am pop radio in Syracuse New York – Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone cowboy; the theme from SWAT; ABBA’s Dancing Queen sent over by a kind aunt from Sydney; marching band songs played by my brother and sister on weekend parades…or more tellingly perhaps, church choirs and methodist hymns; the Brahms and Beethoven and Mozart played on the piano and organ by my mother; the corny soft seventies ballads (Neil Diamond, Olivia Newton John) played while my dad was working; the wildly diverse American Top 40 hits my brother brought home as soon as he had a job and cash to buy records (Bowie’s John I’m only dancing, Roxy Music’s Avalon). Tracing a single line through all of that would take a lifetime.
Which of course is the self that I want to be – the one that traces the trajectory of that unique hodgepodge of early influences and marries them to what I’ve learned since. This isn’t about being a beautiful snowflake. No sir. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s my life… Trying to craft songs I’m proud of and I love is a task that necessitates digging deep into the past and making decisions now – but also allowing some other stuff which I can’t remember and don’t know I know – into the process.
So what does all this mean in terms of making an album now? I guess the sense that guides me is (as Brian Eno via my friend Barney would remind me) to pay mind to the self I want to be – what do I most suspect I will be proud of tomorrow, next year, in ten years? That’s as difficult a question as I can imagine answering, but one worth pursuing – and one of the reasons it takes me a while to make a record.
When I was young I told a high school counsellor that I wanted to rebel – that I wanted to throw away many of the things I’d been taught growing up that didn’t ring true. The advice she gave me has stuck to this day. She said “Do it. Just remember to hold onto the things that are really important to you.” Crazy advice, but it’s helped me when I’ve made big life changes. I think it feels (today at least) like there is something in that in terms of how and why I produce music.
List five songs I remember being important to me as a kid (say before I was ten)