From Small Things, Big Things One Day Come

Recently I was searching the web for some orchestra samples when it occurred to me that I should be creating my own sample library.

I spend most of my studio time trying to come up fragments that I can use to build a complete piece of music. Usually I start with a small idea and try to keep adding to it until I have something I’m happy with. When I start, the big picture is not always clear to me, and I frequently will go in one direction for a while before giving up and trying something else. This means I’m sitting on a large – and growing – collection of licks, two bar phrases, drum samples, and other cool sounds. Some of these are not being used for much of anything, and others I use quite a lot. So why shouldn’t I make them available to other musicians? It would be really neat if someone else thought something I created was worth using in one of their projects.

To this end, I’ve added a sample library to this site. There isn’t much hear at the moment, but it will grow steadily over time. Any musical artifact that I think sounds good on its own will be added here. These samples are free for you to use. If you find them useful in your own project, I’d love to hear about it.

Click here to enter the sample library

A Familiar Story

This last year had been nuts. I had a clear vision of how I wanted the next few years of my life to play out, and then the universe laughed, and all my plans evaporated. The several months leading up until September – when my son was born – and the 7 months since have been dedicated to building a home for my family life. It’s been an exhilarating ride. And predictably, making music had to take a back seat to other pressing concerns.

Which isn’t to say I stopped completely, the lack of updates to this site non-withstanding. I have been very steadily working on my follow up to The Far Side of Never. It’s rare that I get large chunks of uninterrupted time now, so I have to fit my music making into smaller increments. This has been really challenging. My process usually involves lots of experimenting until I land on an idea I like, then lots more experimenting to shape the idea into a completed track . This takes lots of time that I don’t really have any more. My whole approach to writing music has taken a kick in the pants, and I’m still trying to figure out how to make it all work.

In the meantime, this site has been languishing. I always find a reason to put off making updates. The main reason is that I don’t have much completed music to share. When I created this site I told myself that I would not blog about the lack of updates. It’s so lame when you see a blog that has been updated 3 times in the last 2 years, and each of those updates is an apology for not updating. I don’t want to have a site like that, so I have resolved to not post until I have something worthwhile to say, and there has been very little over the past several months that I think is worthwhile.

This reason gradually become a lame excuse. My situation changed, and I need to change with it. I’ve been doing some serious soul searching about what kind of art I can create given current limitations, and I feel pretty good about what I’ve come up with. Over the next several days there will be some big changes to this site and the beginning of a plan on how to move forward. I’m not going to say any more just now; I’d rather show than tell. Hopefully this is the start of something cool.

New Adventures in FM Synthesis

I’ve mentioned this on this blog before, but I’ve been working on adding synthesizers to my music to scratch a retro music itch I’ve had since watching Stranger Things. I’ve been dying to get my hands on some classic hardware synths, but I’ve been put off by the ridiculous price of vintage gear. Software emulations have had to make due instead. Until recently, that is.

An old friend of mine – who taught me my first guitar chords, but that’s a story for another time – was in town recently, and he suggested we check an small mom-and-pop music store that we used to go to when we were in high school. “There’s no way that place is still in business”, I said. And I was wrong. The owner told us that although his store doesn’t make much money, he still loves teaching music and introducing kids to their first instruments. We had the kind of experience you just can’t get at Guitar Center.

While my friend was trying out distortion pedals made by a brand I’d never heard of, I noticed an old keyboard burried under a stack of other old keyboards and a mountain of dust in the corner. It was the large DX7 on the case that caught my attention. The Yamaha DX7 is one of the best selling synths of all time and its sounds dominated the pop charts back in the 80s. I’ve always thought it would be cool to have one, but they get expensive, usually going for $500 and up. That’s more money than I want to spend for a piece of hardware that’s over 30 years old. But this one was listed for $145. There had to be a problem with it, right?

Nope, no problems. After verifying that it worked, I asked the store owner why it was so cheap. He told me that he used to teach lessons on it, but after upgrading to a newer keyboard he thought he’d get rid of the old one. “I’m more interested in finding a good home for it than trying to make a lot of money on it.” I could give it that home, I said, and I bought it.

I’m still learning how to use it – the DX7’s reputation for being challenging to program is well deserved – but I knew from the minute I first turned it on that it will become a central part of my music from now on. Here is a small sample of me triggering the synth using a guitar with a Fishman Triple Play midi pickup.

Aging Toward Youth

A couple of years ago I brought my 84 Camaro to a hot rod garage to ask the owner’s advice on what I should I do with it. My main question: would it be worth the time and effort to restore the car? I was quick to tell him that I had no illusions that the car was in the same league as the ’59 Corvette, ’32 Ford, and ’72 hemi Barracuda that were taking up all the room in the shop. He laughed, and said that didn’t matter as “we all want the car we desired in high school.”

This comment has been stuck in my head ever since. The guy was right – when I was in high school in the mid ’90s, third generation Camaros were cheap enough to be affordable by high school kids but not so old that they were falling apart so several of the gear heads I knew had one. And I wanted one too. I didn’t get one until many years later. I told myself it was a good purchase because it was cheap and fast and fun to drive in San Diego with the t-tops down and AC/DC blasting, but maybe that was a lie. Maybe I was just trying to hold on to the dream I had in my youth of how I would be as an adult.

What does this have to do with music? Well, I’ll tell you. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of synthwave. For those not in the know, this is an electronic music sub-genre that is heavily influenced by 80s sounds and sensibilities. FM-84’s album Atlas is an excellent example. It’s new, yet sounds like it’s been around forever- or at least since 1985. Stranger Things got me started on this. I loved the theme, and that made me seek out other examples. Something has been nagging at me, though. Do I like it because it’s good, or because it reminds me of my youth? It’s probably a little of both, but I think more the latter than the former. The entire show was fantastic, but it totally played to the nostalgia of it’s audience. Watching it brought me back to all the sci-fi 80s classics I loves as a kid. Now I’m listening to the music, playing Asteroids on my phone, and considering a move back to my old stomping grounds on the East Coast. Is this what a mid-life crisis looks like?

The music is really good, though, and that is all that’s important. I think there is a way to be inspired by your past yet create something new. In fact, all of the best art is like that. I’ve decided to trust in this, and write what I’m inspired to write without reading too much into my motivations, whatever they might be. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing synth parts for my next track. I have the hints of an idea that combines some behind-the-beat vintage rock and roll guitar sounds with the old-yet-new sounds of analog synths. Here’s a sneak peak:

It’s taking longer than expected (when does it not?) as I try to write for a new instrument and figure out how to get my hardware and software synths and sequencers to work together smoothly. But these delays are a good thing: I’m leaving the comfort zone of what I know in order to do something new. This wouldn’t be the case if all I was doing was trying to recapture my youth. You can’t recapture your glory days if you never had that glory to begin with.

Besides, I know longer own the Camaro, so there is hope for me yet.

Anticipation

It’s 3:45 pm. A little over 3 hours from sound check, and almost 8 hours until our set is scheduled to begin at midnight. The rehearsal we had this afternoon went well. We kicked the rust off of our set and ran through the two new songs we’ll be doing with a guest vocalist. All signs point to tonight’s gig being successful, and morale is high. But there’s a lot of down time between now and then for things to go wrong. Our front man is also the show promoter, and he’s got a ton of things on his plate, like coordinating with the other acts on the bill and entertaining the friends and family who came in from out of town to see us. During rehearsal I could see the fatigue in his eyes. And this sinus thing that has been kicking my ass all week shows no sign of easing up before showtime. By the time we go on all I’ll want to do is sleep. I’m not sure I’m going to make, but not making it is NOT an option.

This is the life of a musician, I suppose: figuring out how to turn it on when the switch is stuck in the off position. It’s amazing how fragile the whole thing is. Getting four people to agree on a vision and to figure out a way to make it happen is hard work. It doesn’t take much for things to fall apart. I used to think that bands only broke up when something bad happens, like the singer forcing his wife into the band or the drummer stealing money or something. But there are so many reasons why things might not work that have nothing to do with people being dicks to each other. Finding time to rehearse, figuring out how afford the gear you need, convincing people to let you play, building an audience that cares about what you’re doing, finding motivation when life is beating you down…the list is endless.

To be honest, though, these are really nice problems to have. When everything comes together, man is it worth it. Soon I’ll pack up my fancy new pedal board, the guitar I wanted more than anything when I was 16 and now own, and the amp I built myself, and head to a packed house to perform music I helped write. This is all I want to do with my life.

 

 

The Transformative Power of Pop Music

On January 31st I went to see Frank Turner at the Wonderland Ballroom in Portland. He was every bit as awesome as I expected to him to be, and I had a great time. But the lasting effect of this concert came from an opening act I had never heard of before that night.

Arkells are an indie-pop band from Hamilton, Ontario, and they are bloody fantastic. Great pop hooks, killer harmonies, an engaging front man, a super tight performance- they had me from their first chords. I had no idea who they were, but I was singing along by the end of the first song. I got so caught up in the show that I did something I would never have done: in the middle of “Private School” the singer asked if anyone in the crowd wanted to play guitar, and my hand shot up instantly. Then this happened:

 

I admit it’s a little hard for me to watch this clip. In my head, I was jumping around and rocking out with the band, but you can see here that this wasn’t the case. The stage was cramped, I was trying not fuck up (though I’m not sure my guitar was loud enough for that to have been an issue), and playing a song I wasn’t familiar with. But oh god, what a rush. At one point I managed to look up at the crowd – the place was packed – and thought, more clearly than I have ever thought before about anything, that THIS is what I’m meant to do. Returning to my daily routine has been painful. I can’t concentrate on my day job, things that I used to enjoy don’t leave me as fulfilled as they did before…all I can think about is getting back to that moment.

I can’t remember the last time I went from having never heard of a band to being a die hard fan by the end of the first set. Now that I think about it, I don’t think it’s ever happened. Most of my favorite music took a several listens to fully implant itself into my psyche. A few years ago I saw Northcote open for The Gaslight Anthem, and I liked his music enough to buy his self-titled CD. I love that album, but it took a few listens. Occasionally I’ll get infatuated with a single the first time I hear it, but that infatuation tends to burn out pretty quickly. I’ll listen obsessively for a few days and then forget all about it. This hasn’t been the case with Arkells. Their last two albums, Morning Report and High Noon, have been on my play list since I bought them the day after the concert. The music is unashamedly pop and immediately accessible. There was a time when I thought this was a bad thing, but my tastes have changed over the last several years. I’ve been moving towards music that reminds me what I loved about music in the first place: the visceral joy of a great hook.

After the show I learned that the band is pretty big in Canada. They’ve won a bunch of Juno awards and are heroes in their hometown. After the Portland show the tour moved on to Vancouver and the bill flipped: Arkells became the headliners and Frank Turner the opening act. Thankfully they are committed to growing their US fan base. Last Wednesday they were back in Portland, this time opening for UK band Blossoms. Naturally, my wife and I went back to see them. We were there when the doors opened and staked out a spot directly in front of center stage, next to some college kids whose experience with the band mirrored our own. Once again, they played a killer set, though they didn’t ask for anyone to join then on stage this time. After their set, I headed to the bar for a beer and saw singer Max Kerman talking to fans, so I got in line to talk to him. I told him I loved his music and thanked him for pulling me on stage last time (which he remembered!). It was really, really cool. And as a bonus, a guy next to me at the bar come up to me and said “hey, are you the guy that got to play on stage at the last show?”. I’m not going to lie, that was cool to hear. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who had to see this band again.

The high, which had never fully dissipated from January, is still in effect. Now I have to figure out how to turn this motivation into something tangible. Over the past year I’ve been struggling with the question of whether it’s ridiculous to attempt a career in music at this point in my life. This is the wrong question. Of course it’s ridiculous. But it’s also necessary.