the persistence of momentum

one of the most exciting times in making music is as it's coming into being. the ideas you had are transforming before your ears. no longer sketches or vague promises of potential to live up to, you can feel it becoming a reality. a combination of the instant gratification of feeling and hearing what you're playing combined with the more esoteric sensation that comes when doing something new. something most of the world hasn't heard yet.

and in the opposite corner, its nemesis: the loss of momentum. that's a big part of what drives creativity into that special place. on the one hand, you can dream up all kinds of ideas that never get fully realized. on the other, you can spend hours playing for fun, or playing while searching fruitlessly for the right part. but when the two come together it completes a circuit in the brain and gives the work momentum.

lack of momentum is one of the biggest obstacles we've faced in working on new music, whether due to other projects, scheduling, time, sickness, personnel, or technical issues. to have that feeling of being there, or at least getting there, and then having to stop, is almost physically painful. it's like suddenly going from breathing fresh mountain air to being in a poorly-ventilated basement.

being able to work partially on a laptop helps get work done, but not in terms of momentum. in fact, it splits up the process further, into different times and places. there's only so much editing that can be done in headphones while in transit, or waiting for something else to happen. at some point it needs to move to a decent studio and involve live performers and reliable playback.

as i write this, i'm on a train. but my thoughts are elsewhere. back in the studio, with the lights low, listening to bryin's distorted beats and slicing loops while i wrench notes out of a 5-string fuzz bass. hearing the words in my head and making up melodies as i sing along. a version of a song suspended halfway between the flashpoint of inspiration and the final realization.


agent provocateur

working with bryin dall isn't like working with any other musician. he's not a muso full of technique and attitude. his approach is either to play totally from the gut, or from a place that leaves almost everything to chance.

in the latter sense, he reminds me of brian eno, who would also set up a series of seemingly random parameters and then do experimental treatments of various sound sources. the end results, however, are totally different. while eno still ultimately tied his work to melodic and harmonic elements, bryin tends to create atonally, based on texture and rhythm. when he does play notes, he often knows instictively what note to play, even if it makes no sense in the key of the song. a few times i've pitch-shifted him to make it "right", and found that right is wrong and wrong was right after all.

sometimes i go to him with a specific sonic request. a recent one for the new album was something like "make this beat sound like whirling knives". he usually comes up with solutions and methods completely different than mine would have been.

often it's better to let him just go off on his own, whether on noise guitar, original loops, or creative sound manipulation. the results can end up being the beginning of a new song, or the perfect missing piece to an unfinished one. there's a new song now that started from him pulling up a sound, putting his hands on the jupiter 8, and switching on the hold button. some might say there's not enough thought put into such actions, but he's the one who made those choices and set events in motion.

just like with photography, making technical choices and capturing moments isn't enough. what you choose to keep, discard, and emphasize is the final step. if he were to continue on his own recordings (as he does with 4th sign of the apocalypse), he'd probably use what i throw away. several times that's actually happened if he's been in the room as i edit his performances. he'll ask for the clicks, bumps, and stray artifacts to be saved for him. his is the realm of the discarded, the forgotten, the ignored.

what i look for are the peak moments, when he reaches the heights of whatever other realm he's channeling. he gets to those places easier, and edits himself more appropriately onstage. in the studio however, every option, every random impulse, is tried and acted upon. meanwhile, i record it all with a barely-suppressed grin on my face.


the muse is a harsh mistress

my muse wakes me at times somewhere between too late and too early. it interrupts conversations. it makes me hum strange melodies to my voicemail. it gives me a vacant look while walking down the street. it has ruined my life. it has made my life worth living.

it even has fights with itself. one idea can barely be finished or even started before another comes along to challenge the first for my attention.

i try to focus, but it glamors me, tarnishing the skin of the creations it deems unworthy. what was once a work of great promise becomes yesterday's dirty laundry. i'm faced with the choice of choosing to toil away at cleaning it, or turning my gaze to the shiny new object. both approaches have their pitfalls.

one theory is that if something gestates too long, it loses its immediacy and life. that can be countered with the idea that if something doesn't die, it has more potential longevity. i tend to gravitate toward the latter concept.

another side effect of the muse delaying completion of the music is, the longer it takes, the more angry i become. which means i'm less likely to feel like crooning sweet melodies in my head voice. this ends up skewing the muse of course.

fortunately, the muse can make a quick turnaround. what was once out of favor will suddenly be attractive again due to a change of instrument in my head. when that happens, it's best to give in and act on its impulses. before they change again.


through the haze

if a recording of a tree falling in a forest is out of phase, will anyone hear it?

i spend a lot of time fixing things i perceive as problems. the more i learn about why some recordings sound better than others, the more problems i discover. however, with bryin's help, i'm also able to solve or work around them, which makes the music better.

if we had an engineer working with us, we could just point out our concerns and they'd be fixed. or they might not even be a problem in the first place, because we'd have been stopped from causing one in the throes of creativity. unfortunately that's not the case. so we make a lot of interim mixes of songs to listen to on different systems and decide what needs to be added, subtracted, or modified.

i'm gratified that anyone wants to listen to our music. it's not for everyone. this is not being elitist, but realistic about the appeal of the types of sounds we make and the emotions and subject matter we deal with. having said that, ultimately we make music to satisfy ourselves. we have something inside us that drives us to create, to say what we want to say. this isn't driven by trends, marketing, sales, or focus groups. it's driven by the desire to hear something that doesn't exist until we bring it into this world.

however, we do need to consider the final form our creations will take, which is subject to at least some of those very things i just mentioned. the current prevalence of mp3 players and cheap earbuds has thrown another wrench into the gears working towards good sound. certain instruments, or just parts of instruments, end up creating an irritating noise or losing their volume or character when experienced those ways. then there is the recent resurgence of vinyl, which can't contain as much bass, treble, or volume as CD's or even mp3's. this means at nearly every stage of music-making process, we have to consider if a sound will come out as intended.

in a sense, this is nothing new. there have always been poor quality playback systems, and each one presents a different sonic challenge to musicians and producers. the goal is to make the music sound as good as possible on as wide a range of listening devices as possible.

people who think that's too contrived, or only for audiophiles, would be shocked at how much of the power and excitement can be lost from even a straight-ahead punk record if none of these things are considered. on the other hand, there is such a thing as tweaking the life out of a recording. it all depends on the musician's goals.

my goal is to make recordings that aren't dated; that i'd want to listen to over and over; to embed little accents and layers of sound and meaning that reveal themselves with more listens; to create instrumental noises that defy easy description. and, in the end, if all that and more is done correctly, i'd like them to connect with people and become a part of their lives. so maybe ultimately not purely for ourselves after all.


the vision and the void

trying to bring a sound in your head into the world is a maddening task at times. i know i drive myself and others a bit nuts trying to get it. but when a goal seems so perfect and yet attainable, it makes sense to go after it.

our sometime live sound engineer and studio keyboardist scott gave me a bemused look when i told him i wanted a single instrument halfway between a guitar and a piano. even worse, during a live-in-studio jam, he made an incredible synth sound that i thought would be perfect for the same song. he had no idea which program it was or how he'd manually changed it at the time. since then i've spent hours tweaking two different synths trying to recreate it or at least come close. in fact, the overall mix of sounds and styles is so delicate that at this point, i'm not even sure the song will end up on the album.

in the first example, the sound is essentially created in my head. in the second, the sound is something i've heard a recording of and therefore know is possible.

strangely, the latter scenario isn't much easier than the first, even with sampling technology. you have to find the sound isolated, if you can even track it down in the first place. the final nagging piece in the puzzle of the impossibly labyrinthine song mentioned in an earlier post is, in my mind, a fairly standard drum machine kick or tom i've heard on a hundred hip-hop or techno records. of course we'll give it our own touch, but we can't even find the original, and we've gone through dozens of sample libraries. any number of other kicks could be used, but none of them are the right one. so the search goes on.

other times, when the elusive "sound" is more of an overall effect, i end up sounding even more unhinged. for "secondhand daylight" i told the others it should sound as though the whole song was being heard through a layer of gauze while on valium. unfortunately, the literal interpretation of that was for me to muffle or delay every instrument. it may have been a faithful to the sonic concept, but it sounded awful. maybe we should release that version as a deterrent against valium and gauze abuse.

that song is now complete, after achieving the same effect through a different version of the same idea. in the end, the joy of finally finding the right sound erases all the agony of searching and of working on incomplete and incorrect versions. when you get something right, it just works.


lining up

one of the greatest joys for me when working on music is when things start to come together. unlike those who play only one instrument or handle one aspect of a musical production, i get to have the over-arcing vision.

the painful part of this is when it lies there in a seemingly irredeemable mess, and those around me question my sanity and motivation. i can only babble the poor english translation of the images, sounds, and concepts that made sense in my head when i didn't have to articulate them. this is a sort of trial by fire (the fire being the burning attention given by musical peers or friends). either my explanation falls apart so badly that i realize my idea should be abandoned, i decide i have to find a solution that expresses it better, or their argument only strengthens my resolve.

at this point, or if i'm lucky, before it, i hopefully have an "epiphany session" in which my intent flows easily out of my fingers, charging the machinery with the correct outcome. those moments are like finding the auto-lock on a target. the song plays from the speakers simultaneously with the version in my head and they are a match, forming perfect quadrophonic sound.

it's fun building up an instrument at a time, being a player with my hands and a whip-cracking producer with my brain. then later, giving each sound its own definition and space, and hearing how they relate to one another. if i can't wait to sing along, or start moving without thinking, i know it's right.

things are coming together in a broader sense too. ideas about the album's running order and flow are making more sense. booklet art is being fiddled with, and logistics of special packaging are being investigated. the more these elements come into focus, the less they seem like an impossible patchwork of insanity and more like a complex but cohesive work.


the story so far

contrary to what may seem to be, i don't strive to dwell in the negative. expression of negative feelings is healthier than suppressing them. this is one of the things dream into dust is about. the name itself might seem to be resigned, but its existence begs the question: what do you do when your dreams turn into dust? answer: you carry on with reality.

the current reality has been pretty bleak, but at times we can focus on the bright spots. the fact is, we have accomplished a lot. the oldest unreleased song, "flowers of destruction" is up on myspace. a lot of other songs are close to being finished. "end of memory" which was previewed in live shows, has weathered its changes for the better and only lacks one tiny guitar bit from bryin. another song we've played live, "secondhand daylight", is essentially done, after a bout with temporary insanity that had me rewriting half the music; a few tweaks and that will probably be online soon. a really heavy song, one of the best we've ever done, just needs two overdubs, while a pair of melancholy but danceable(!) tunes are all worked out and just need to be laid down. even the labyrinthine first song we started sounds better than it ever has, with only a few brow-furrowing beats and missing accents to nail.

better yet, a new attitude of working has led to renewed creativity. bryin and i no longer wait for anyone else to show up. the quandry discussed in a previous post is being circumvented. the work we've done with other musicians has been very rewarding and enriched the music, but at a cost. this is not to blame the other contributors, but acknowledge that sometimes people work in different ways and have their own creative paths. this doesn't mean ruling out working with others in the future, if the right people present themselves.

this means we're keeping most of what we've done, getting it out electronically when we can, and pushing forward with new songs and ideas. and damn it feels good.