Sunday, March 23, 2014

All music is pop music (or, James and Johnny Mercer)

Hi, I’m back. I got a job, and it’s been eating up a bunch of time and physical and mental energy. On top of that, I’ve been mixing a record most evenings and weekends when I get home. Whew! I’ve also bought some exciting new gear (thanks, job) - a Roland CSQ-600 sequencer, and I started a Eurorack format modular synthesizer. Exciting, exhausting times!

When I first started this blog, I wanted to focus equally on the two subjects that I spend 95% of my mental energy on - synthesizers and songwriting, especially that too-rare point where they meet. I’ve felt comfortable dipping into and out of the former a bunch, but somewhere along the way, I never really got around to the latter.

It’s time to fix that, for a bunch of reasons - I’m working on a record right now, so I’m in full song-debugging mode, I’m noticing a bunch of big cultural shifts with the way we think about and interact with songs, and as usual I’ve got a bunch of thoughts and opinions about the subject in the first place.

But the main reason is that the song is, well, everything when it comes to music. And not enough people realize that and make it the core of their values, instead succumbing to all sorts of inherited values and opinions and a general decline in the craft and an unjust rewarding of mediocrity. Whew! So I’m commencing with a whole series now of posts about the theory and craft of songwriting - half exegesis, half manifesto. Let’s see what happens.

Listen to that damn thing. That song could be made on a Gameboy or recorded with the greatest orchestra in the world and it’d still be a gobsmacking stunner. I first heard it used as the background for a slideshow of cat pictures of all things and had to wipe away tears in public.

It’s no mistake that this starts with a card game. Writing a great song - conjuring that dude out of thin air, reaching up and catching it - is the closest thing to straight-up performing magic in this reality. The best songs I've ever written have literally just fallen on me like an anvil, in the shower or out walking, mostly fully-formed. That's crazy. It's even crazier that so many of the most beloved songs that exist out there have equally spontaneous origins - accidents, improvisations, "we need one more for the record" desperation, dreams, scrambled eggs. It's simultaneously true that most of the greatest active songwriters out there - Jimmy Webb, Stephin Merritt, Adam Schlesinger, Paddy McAloon, to name a tiny handful of white guys - know a ton about the actual craft and theory of songwriting and can talk about it at length when willing. There are simple rules and tropes that can be combined in endless permutations and honestly - hang with me here - I think that writing a killer three-chord pop song is kind of like coming up with a new joke or inventing a better mousetrap. It's so essentially appealing, so "a-ha!," so "I coulda come up with that" that very few people realize how freaking hard and rare it is. Try as you might, but you'd have a better chance of making Stockhausen or Autechre's entire discographies before you'll write the next "Dancing Queen." Magic, man.

It's also become apparent to me recently that we've undergone a major cultural shift from consuming songs primarily to consuming narratives almost exclusively - that is, we’re pledging tribal affiliation to not just artists and their records but their tumblr and twitter presences, memetic significance, the entire package. This has always been true to a certain extent - being a fanatic/“fan” rather than just an appreciator of the songs in a vacuum - but with the collapse of an active handoff of capital and opportunity cost for this tribal participation, we’re largely seeing a sort of Pinterestification of music, wherein an artist’s songs are sometimes the least important thing about declaring fandom affiliation and participating in that one-click allegiance. This phenomenon is actually super interesting and weird and horrible and awesome all at the same time and it has a surprisingly big impact on the way that we interact with songs in modern culture. This phenomenon is almost like dark matter - that mysterious substance out there somewhere that we can’t actually see but which has a profound gravitational effect on the matter in the universe that we do experience. It’s the dark matter of modern music and culture, and I’ll get into that a bit later. But a little sneak preview example: I’d never call myself a fan of The Shins for a million reasons; discomfort with the cultural construct, the band having been the fulcrum of the mainstreaming of Indie Monoculture with that awful Garden State moment, PNW whiteboy pop baggage of my own, internal band personnel lameness straight out of the corporate rock handbook (band members treated as disposable/replaceable components), the awful Broken Bells side project, that always-terrible album art, etc. etc. etc. There’s nothing about The Shins: The Narrative Concept That’s Bigger Than The Band And Includes All That Stuff And More that I want on my backpack culturally, aesthetically, socioeconomically. Taking up with The Shins Tribe isn’t going to help me Find The Others That Get It, as it were - there's just nothing there that speaks for me or to me in any way that feels meaningful. Now, all of that said - I think that James Mercer is one of the finest songwriters of his generation and certainly one of the weirdest, most interesting, and most legitimately surprising songwriters of the past thirty years. He’s written a handful of perfect songs and about 20 more ones that are only totally amazing. That’s what I mean when I say the song’s the thing - it can and should exist apart from and larger than the narrative. It’s increasingly rare that people seem to recognize that. We’ll dig into that in a bit. In the meantime, here’s one of the perfect ones.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Support in the Maker Age

Sometimes working with music equipment, especially vintage gear, can feel like being an antique car enthusiast - things break, fuses blow, components burn out, everything eventually falls out of calibration - and that’s a best case scenario for studio use. Add in live gigging and you introduce a whole new world of spilled beers, power surges, drops and collisions, etc. It’s not fun, but it comes with the territory. David over at The Compleat Synthesizer recently had a string of surprise equipment failures. A few of my vintage pieces, including my beloved Roland System 100m, need a handful of smaller repairs and refurbishments that I don’t feel like paying for and don’t want to attempt doing myself. Sometimes the techs themselves are a whole other can of worms.

With the big analog resurgence and the explosion of boutique gear manufacturers over the past decade, many people have dumped their vintage equipment in favor of the modern stuff. I totally respect that decision, especially for musicians that don’t want to be bothered with maintenance or surprise failures. As a vintage fanatic, I’m more than happy to take the ancient stuff off of their hands!

However, new gear breaks too - and what companies do next can either make or break reputations in the modern customer base.

In the past decade, the rising tide of Maker Culture, circuit bending, and the DIY ethos has created an entire generation of tech-literate end users who are more than comfortable doing their own troubleshooting and repairs - or at least the bulk of the diagnostic work. When I had a problem with my Elektron Analog Four, I didn’t just say “help, it’s broken,” I created a high-quality YouTube video to demonstrate the problem before my little box was even packed up to be shipped back to Sweden so their tech geniuses could repair it. Many other people are comfortable busting things open on the workbench and doing their own repairs - that is, if the company will work with them.

And that’s where things can go terribly wrong for all involved. My friend Caleb recently had a nightmare experience with Arturia trying to get help with a basic repair on his Minibrute. Caleb is a genius synth builder, module designer, and hardware hacker who could have done the repair in his sleep, but instead ended up with a five-month runaround from the company that left him so disgusted by the experience that he immediately dumped all of his Arturia equipment on Craigslist and won’t do business with them again. What an unfortunate lose/lose outcome: he won’t get to enjoy their amazing products and is likely to share his negative experience with many other people from his position of influence in the synth community.

Another high-profile example from my circle involves Eric Magrini, a guy I’ve known online since 1997 (wow, it feels crazy to type that out!) who has always been a natural ambassador for equipment that he loves. Though we started with the Roland MC-505 back then, he’d since become a major proponent of Elektron’s devices and created a ton of helpful tutorials and content. However, after a recent support scenario where the company would not do right by him - the less said about the better - he’ll no longer use their products. Ouch. A company couldn’t pay for the amount of dedication, support, and cheerleading that this guy has freely given for the past 15+ years and now that bridge is burned over something so utterly preventable on their part.

In some cases, these companies are still in the awkward growing stages of transitioning from a few guys in a garage to supporting an international client base. In others, they’re way too established for such behavior to be accepted. I’ve had nothing but exceptional experiences with Roger Arrick of, whereas anything I could say about Dave Smith Instruments’ support would just be added to the legions of frustrated users out there - that ship has sailed for the company’s rep at this point.

Things are going to mess up, even with brand new gear. Whether you’re a dude soldering at the kitchen table or have 30 years in the game, what you do next will make customers for life or permanently poison the well.