Ex Nihilo

August 30 2017

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

Is that the song I knew?

29 August 2017

Breaking down five tracks I remember loving as a kid

Rhythm Heritage / Michael Omartian: Theme from SWAT

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.

ABBA: Dancing Queen

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.

Glen Campbell: Rhinestone Cowboy

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.

Neil Diamond: Jonathon Livingstone Seagull – Be

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.

Roxy Music: Avalon

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.

Strategy /takeaways

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?

Will you still love me tomorrow?

August 29 2017

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)
  • Listen to them again
  • What do I still like about them?
  • Try and incorporate that into my current work.