NoHo Rehearsal Studio

I own a rehearsal studio in North Hollywood. I’ve been there about a month now. On average, I’ve written slightly more than two songs a week. I’d say four of them are good. One even sounds good enough to show girls and make them like you. Just kidding. But it really does sound nice.

They need some cleaning up, but I’ll be posting the new material soon. Stay tuned, kiddos.

Who says kiddos?

Jimmy Edgar and Everything Wrong With the Live Electronic Scene

It’s half past midnight in Hollywood and the smell of greasy hot dogs follows me to my car. A cool mist fogs my glasses, and I nod to the little lady behind a cart covered with aluminum foil, relish, and fried onions. She’s the same old Latina woman behind every hot dog cart in LA, and she nods back grimly. The wet weather is bad for business.

I first saw Jimmy Edgar in 2006 opening for Jamie Lidell at Troubdour. Jamie always puts on a great show and has really come out since the Multiply single got some play. I remember Jimmy Edgar as having the right idea but lacking in execution.

A few days ago a guitarist friend sends a text saying, “All live electronic music! This Thurs at Knitting Factory! I think u like…” Who could it be but Jimmy Edgar again? Great! He must have pulled a Jamie and gotten a band together, instead of the button mashing and Korg-talking of his last performance! Excitement!

But, no. Come Thursday, it was the same old schtick. A guy with floppy hair behind a lot of gear and wicked gangsta beats paying absolutely no attention to the audience. Occasionally he sang, modding his voice to sound the way he wished it did in high school. He didn’t sing complete songs, so the neat and funky vocal riffs were overshadowed by all the pre-recorded nonsense.

Did he notice when people stopped dancing because he let a naked rhythm go on too long? Did he give any thought to structure, harmonic or lyric? Did he have any stage persona at all, other than a vaguely Prince-in-supsenders outfit? No wonder he hasn’t learned anything in last three years! He never looks at his audience!

So! Here’s a list of rules for aspiring live electronic musicians:

Rule 1 – Excessive looping is boring.

It takes forever to get to the good parts, and it messes up your structure. Looping is a supplemental tool to be used tastefully. It is no basis for an entire track by itself, because nobody wants to listen to the same four bars for five minutes without a break. Also: Beat repeaters and knob-twiddling filters only count as a break the first time. By the twenty-seventh use it gets a little old.

Rule 2 – Pre-recorded music is disappointing.

A good live experience is based on establishing a dynamic between the listeners dancing and the artists creating. Music is simple like that. The mind is simple like that. Adding a step where the mind has to interact with music created somewhere else is distracting, and the mind is never fooled. It knows this pre-recorded schlock could have been created for anyone and the only point of coming to the show was to hear it louder. The mind does not feel special after this and leaves to get a beer.

Rule 3 – A computer screen is not your audience.

The day recording went to 96K was a dark day for tape, because, frankly, 96K sounds great. That happened quite a while ago. Which means everybody and their friggin’ dog listens to music at least recorded and augmented electronically. Hip hop and club pop is nothing but electronic music. In 1998, yes, Americans listening to electro and IDM got a warm, fuzzy future window to carry around in their hearts. Now Muse and Infected Mushroom and Kid A exist, and the glitch vibe is a thing of the past. Listening to electronic music no longer makes you special. Bands now possess the ability to supplement their live act with quality sounding electronic instruments, which means the old one-person-behind-hardware-mountains doesn’t work anymore. We used to watch that because we didn’t have a choice if we wanted to hear the stuff live. Not anymore.

Rule 4 – If you can’t sing, don’t.

This goes out to every new artist out there: You are not Pete Townsend. You are not Daft Punk. You aren’t even Cher, probably. Autotune is not a talkbox. It just makes you sound really stupid.

New album rule! You are only allowed one vocoder-like track per album. The rest you have to sing completely un-pitchcorrected or get a real singer to do it for you. Royksopp is getting better at this. It’s only a matter of time until this production fad backfires anyway, and you want to be the first out the box on that one, don’t you? Rimshot.

Rule 5 – Memorability is a good thing.

“Music is Rotted One Note” is a prime example. As an avid Squarepusher fan I am happy to report I love this album. That doesn’t mean I ever listen to it.

There’s a lot of debate on memorability in music, which in my mind makes it the most important. When I recorded the Sex Pistols, John Lydon told me, “Debate! Always debate. Let the Nazi talk!” He also told me, “All good music is folky, mate!” He would point out the melody in any folk song (Not surprisingly, they all have one. Take note, Jimmy.) and then during an instrumental break he would say, “Can you hear it? It’s still there! They aren’t playing it, but it’s still there, and you can’t wait for it to come back in, can you?”

That’s called a hook, which sounds like marketing, which sounds like sell-out, which is bad. So don’t call it a hook. Call it folky. That’s called integrity. All music we owe to folk, because it was memorable. Don’t ignore thousands of years of songwriting because you’re afraid of being called a sell-out. Be at peace with the way the human brain works or stop complaining about your lousy concert turnouts. It isn’t just about you.

On a final note, let me talk about my friend Lee Noble. He used to play bass and pitchbent toys in a Nashville band called A Poet Named Revolver, and they were awesome. They made one great album and broke up, ignoring the interest from labels it sparked. He has a film degree and now lives in Burbank.

He sometimes performs under the name Conger Eel. His set up, which is usually in dim dive bars that serve more Mexican beer than domestic, involves several tape players, a guitar, illegible vocals and noise, noise, noise. His show is always different and the only genre label that might possibly apply is avant garde. His performances are fearless and without expectation and are to be taken seriously and very flippantly simultaneously.

Knowing that Lee exists gives me great comfort. His Conger Eel project won’t make him any money, but he follows all the rules I’ve just laid out. His loops are created on the spot and never last long un-chopped. There’s no computer screen, because he does this all with hacked tape cassettes. Anything pre-recorded is ironic, like an old M.C. Hammer sample found at a thrift store. And he is a good singer.

My friend Alen is a visual artist from Detroit, and he remembers the experience when I took him to see Lee at the Airliner with a vague sense of awe. That counts. Memorable means genuine, and Lee is most definitely that.

It’s half past midnight and the smell of greasy hot dogs follows me to my car. A cooling mist hangs in the air and fogs my glasses. Maybe the crummy weather explains the sparse crowd at Jimmy Edgar’s show.

I wouldn’t bet on it.

The Beatles

So I never knew much of the Beatles besides what the average person learns listening to the radio.

I just listened to every album in a row on a road trip with a good friend, and here’s a few things I’ve decided.

The Beatles were really awesome. I feel sad that nowadays most discussion of them is hipsters arguing over who was the best Beatle. It’s obvious that take out any one of them, and there is no Beatles.

Where any one would fail, that’s where the others would come in. Lennon and McCartney wrote so many good songs together, filling in for each other, fleshing stuff out. Honestly, I think most of the songs George Harrison did are my favorites. Often I would be disappointed in the song if not for the guitar part.

And everyone needs to back off Ringo. Genius drum parts (like Come Together) are the kind of simple, steady soulfulness that brought the whole thing together. We tend to shut him out because he wasn’t this mad strummer type. Ringo is a genius, he just isn’t crazy. He was normal and people think that’s a bad thing.

I think the first four albums are very good and kinda cute. When Help! came out you started to see a little more depth than just lovey wovey dovey stuff, and Yesterday sticks out like a sore thumb. A really, really gorgeous sore thumb.

Rubber Soul really stands out as a marked change, and then Revolver is the first album that feels like there’s no filler songs. It’s just magic from start to finish.

I think I need to do something about Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery tour, because listening to them in the car just doesn’t quite do it. I really liked them intellectually but at parts it sounded just messy or boring. Loved anything involving the sitar, though.

White Album, Abbey Road, and Let It Be are all just fantastic beyond reckoning. I like George Harrison best on Abbey Road and consider Let It Be a pretty good way to go out. I disagree with Paul McCartney that Phil Spector did a bad job producing it, because even though the album was a return to the old form, modern production techniques make listening to it less distracting.

As much as I’ve learned listening to them, I think in the end there’s a pretty good reason Paul McCartney doesn’t top charts like he did with the Beatles. The chemistry isn’t there, and without that chemistry Paul is kind of cheesy by modern standards. Still, they were the greatest band of the last century and something you gotta grok if you feel you want to write songs someday.

Think vs. Animal vs. Daniel Levitin

Just finished This Is Your Brain On Music.

Very excellent book. For my own purposes, this is my favorite quote: The coming together of rhythm and melody bridges our cerebellum (the motor control, primitive little brain) and our cerebral cortex (the most evolved, most human part of our brain).

A criticism, though, on referring to the cerebral cortex as the most human. I understand what the author means, but at the same time hate the Western concept that to be human is to be not-animal. This concept is essentially my enemy in life as well as simply in music. To deny the animal is indeed to deny a large part of what it means to be a human-in-the-world.

Still, Levitin essentially explains scientifically the concept I came across in my compositional philosophy (wow that was kind of a douchy turn of phrase) which I referred to as ‘think vs. animal’. Musically, it means good music should use both big heavy primal funky rhythm and bass, but still have complex melodies and harmonies, both sonically and figuratively full from bottom to top.

What I’m discovering, honestly, is that this presents a problem in production. The sound gets so full the volume has to go down to compensate. I think one of the reasons club music is so boring is that you have to turn everything else down to get those booming, dancy drums.

Well, fuck that anyway. I’ll figure it out. Here’s a mashup of think vs. animal by the esteemed DJ Earworm.

The Legion of Space (space space)

Just came across a really cool old science fiction novel from the 40s called The Legion of Space (wikipedia). I like it for several reasons, the most obvious being that it’s from the freaking 40s and is yet so advanced in narrative. I find it poignant that someone who was so forward thinking in applying real themes to the then dreamy genre of scifi also saw fit to casually drop names heavily influenced by the Arabic language (Habibula, Kalam). Reminds me of JRR Tolkien using exotic European languages as the basis for his Middle Earth tongues. Fun!

Evil jellyfish aliens, beautiful blond protectors of doomsday devices, and a lockpicking Falstaff. What’s not to love?

Music and the Brain

It’s Music and the Brain,
One is a genius,
The other’s insane!

“That’s so animal!” my friend Lysandra exclaimed over the soulful thump of The Soul Children’s afrobeat. “I can’t get into it.”

“But animal is great!” I yelled back. “Why deny our animal? We’re part beast and part logician. Why can’t we embrace both?”

This hit home with a concept that’s been fermenting in my head for a while now. In music there are two ancient traditions that got mixed up in the early part of this century. I am thankful for this, because we got the blues out of it and soon after jazz. If America sank into the ocean tomorrow, at least we got jazz out there in the world.

Everyone knows the basic tenets of the differences in Western traditions and African traditions. European music was all about chords, structures, and arias. African music was dance and drums, the heartbeat of the earth.

In my new favorite non-fiction This is Your Brain On Music, Daniel Levitin lays out the basic components of music, the basic structures in the brain, and how it all interacts. Toward the end of the book, a bit that blew my mind (har har) involved the cerebellum and the role it plays in music listening. Through some pretty inspired detective work and collaborations (including input from Francis Crick!) they found that things like rhythm and beat, planning, expectation, and movement take place largely in the cerebellum (the oldest structure in the mammalian brain).

We already knew that harmony and listening to the soprano part/main melody takes place in the frontal lobe. The reason two entirely different traditions of music can develop is that they take place in different parts of the brain! The African tradition is cerebellum-heavy (rhythmic, repetitive, and dancey) and the European tradition is frontal lobe heavy (melodic, harmonic, and, well, cerebral).

These traditions obviously exist today. People who grow up listening to hip hop are fine with repetitive beats and little to no melody, and people who grew up listening to alternative are fine with undanceability in favor of harmony and melody.

I grew up with both these types of music, and on top of that, I had Arabic music. Sure my parents showed me jazz and classical, sure I grew up in the ghetto and listened to quite a bit of RnB and Michael Jackson. But really it’s that Arabic music that throws the wrench in the works. I got all kinds of exposure to modes, rhythms, and timbres from a way earlier age than most Americans, and by that I mean since negative nine months.

What does that mean as far as my musical tastes? Well, I’m not fine with crap production on Western music or the absence of harmony in African music. I enjoy them both but am satisfied with neither. I want both. At the same time.

What most people don’t seem to realize is that all hip hop is electronic music. Most recorded things are samples or vocals. That’s where the amazing production comes in. There are a handful of pop acts who are utilizing the inherent awesomeness of this electronic sound to add danceability. Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Madonna, they’ve been doing it for a while now. Unfortunately, the songs themselves are terrible. They just sound good.

That’s where I come in. I want to ZIP the music back and forth between the frontal lobe and the cerebellum. And I want it to sound phat. Freaking LOUD and sonically universally amazingly wonderful. No frequency between 5 and 20,000 Hz will be left out (the low bottom is for rumble). When I saw My Bloody Valentine at the Santa Monica Civic Center, they played so loud my shirt rattled and it was specfuckingtacular. Thank Krishna for earplugs.

So Europe and Africa are still fighting and that’s silly. The East, what with Goa, psy, and the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack are making their presence know too, though with less hullabaloo. But the new region thrusting its music hand in the potluck?

The world of Digital. Yes kiddies, the magical land of zeroes and ones. Look around you. You’re on the internet right now. That’s your brainspace right now. Not America or England or Nepal or even Canada, but the internet. The Brave New Almost-World. And since music affects your entire brain and vice versa, cyberspace wants to make its voice known too.

You know what cyberspace music sounds like? Yeah. It’s loud. It’s weird. Hilarious and tear-jerking and thoughtful and incredibly well-informed.

When I hear music now, I’m so god damned well informed all I can think of is, “Why aren’t you doing this? Or this? Why didn’t you use this or that awesome thing I just wikied?” All music sounds like people ignoring things. There are so many possibilities. “Simplify, simplify, simplify” doesn’t mean “crap, boring, lalalalalaicanthearyou.” It means listen to Lead Belly and make the best music you can think of that might seem appropriate in 2020. It’s the future, man. Dude. The future.

My production isn’t quite there yet, but I know that with the right team we can deliver this stuff live. Live, people. These wonderful ideas I have, you don’t have to react, “Well, that’s a nice dream, Paul.” It’s possible, now. The Digital tradition has caught up with technology. These tools are ripe for the plucking.

So that’s what I’m going for. Full brain stimulation. In a hundred years, will cognitive scientists argue about whether our brain is hardwired for the internet, too? Isn’t the brain already the world’s greatest computer? We’ll never know, but lets hope our music shows we were thinking about it.

Irwin’s Conspiracy

Just caught a great show last night at Air Conditioned Supper Club in Venice. Lots of innovative live electronic acts put together by Irwin. First Wednesday’s at 9!

Bonus tracks!

Mama’s Rockin’ Chair – Produced by Bryan “Rock God” Titus!

Landslide – Produced by the incomparable Billy Van Rooy of Download.

Self Control – Here’s a track I used to perform all over Silverlake! I nailed some Boss Gigadelays to a plank of wood next to a Whammy and OD pedal and looped live! Good times.

Who’s Watching Kush? – Made for Kush Boys Studios! I also drew storyboards on a couple projects for them. These guys are awesome.