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An Artist’s Purpose

30 August 2014 in [blog]

A proposition, for discussion and reflection:

An artist’s purpose is to create the things only they can create.

On one hand, it’s absurd to propose a normative purpose for art.  Art is many things to many people, to the point that it’s very hard to define what is and isn’t art.  (Perhaps the question “What is art?” is a mysterious question, to be dissolved into questions like “Who made this”, “What were they trying to say,” “How to audiences tend to perceive this,” and so on.)  On the other, perhaps the proposition is a way to make more concrete the nebulous idea of originality in art.

Originality is always a matter of degree; something that was literally entirely original, making no connection or reference to anything in our experience, would be incomprehensible.  Art always mixes originality – something unique which could only have been created by the specific, individual artist who made it – and tradition.

Artists chase originality, but “be original” or “do something new” are such abstract maxims that they are impossible to follow.  ”Be original” makes me think of standing in front of my amplifier, dumbfounded, trying to play a note that no one has played before.  I’d be standing there a long time, without writing any songs.

“Say something only you can say,” though, seems to give me some direction.  It spurs me to look around for something in the world or in others that only I’ve noticed, or that I have a perspective on that’s never been offered before.  It pushes me to not only express my emotions but think about them, searching for what makes them mine and not anyone else’s.  Raw feelings are universal, but the conditions that provoke them and the choices we make as a result of them are specific to each of us.

Looking for inspiration?  What chords would only you think to put together?  What fresh metaphor blew through your thoughts in the shower yesterday?  What unusual spices do you want to try in a classic dish?  What underlying colors do you see in the world that others miss?  What story are you in a unique position to tell?

It’s all been done before… until you give us your take on it.  Forget convention for a minute; why not make something only you would think to make?

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Tim Scahill (Rent Money Big, Knots, Irkutsk) Releases “Overthrown”

17 August 2014 in [blog]

Our friend Tim’s new solo joint, Overthrown, is up for streaming on SoundCloud!  Check it out below.

I think this is a new high-water mark for Tim, and I’m really digging this.

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The July of Experimentation

27 July 2014 in [blog]

I’ve tried a bunch of new things over the past couple weeks, all of which are worth playing with if you’re interested.

  • Harmonica – With the help of some great YouTube videos, I’m finally learning to bend notes on the harp in preparation for a specific overdub I want to do on Cory’s solo record.  As one of the videos said, it’s kind of like mimicking Darth Vader’s breathing, but with a harmonic in your mouth.
  • Funkbox – A really fun vintage drum machine emulator and then some for iPad/iPhone.  I’m trying it before dropping semi-serious money on a VolcaBeats for a back-burner project with Drew.
  • Slide guitar – If by “slide,” you can imagine “a Sharpie held awkwardly in my left hand.”  It’s gone well enough that I probably need a real slide, though.  This is also in anticipation of some overdubs on Cory’s album, in concert with…
  • Open G tuning, also known as “how Keith Richards plays.”  All those brilliant Stones riffs that are nigh-impossible in standard tuning?  No problem in open G.  Differing slightly from Keef, I’m using the top 5 strings for open G, and tuning my low string down to D so I can still play two-note power chords on the two lowest strings.
  • Tilt/Slant EQ – This simple but underused approach to EQ takes a center frequency and boosts treble / cuts bass (or vice versa) with a very even response, just like it sounds (more details here; the link is about a specific product, but does a good job of elaborating on tilt EQ generally).  It’s best used at lower levels, up to +/- 6 db or so, to brighten or darken sounds very naturally and transparently.  I’ve been testing it on an overly dark bass track to lighten it up a bit, with good results, and I think I’ll be using it a lot on future mixes.  Dedicated Tilt/Slant EQ hardware or plugins can be hard to find (there are some VSTs out there that I haven’t tested), but you can make your own by combining high and low shelf EQs with the same cutoff frequency and lower Qs.  Center frequencies typically range from 600 – 1000 Hz.

Have you tried anything cool lately?

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Pyramids, Crystals, and Nazis

5 July 2014 in [blog]

What do they have in common?

If you dig into what’s been written on reference pitch (which I’ve posted about before), you’ll encounter all kinds of strange alleged connections; that the Great Pyramid in Giza resonates at a certain pitch (it must resonate at some pitch, though the idea that it was designed for a specific pitch stretches my imagination), that the Nazis standardized A=440 Hz as a subtle means of thought control (actually it seems to have been piano tuners in New York in the ’20s), on and on.

Ignore it (or choose to be amused by it).  What matters is how the music sounds.  After recording yesterday with a reference pitch of A=424 Hz for the first time, I’m convinced 424 Hz is musically superior to 440 Hz as a standard reference.  424 Hz is a little over a quarter-tone (62 cents, I think) flat from 440 Hz.  For reference, using A=440 Hz, the Ab immediately below A would be at 415.30 Hz.

A=424 Hz is easier for me to sing in.  My acoustic guitar seems to resonate for longer, with richer harmonics.  Hopefully you’ll start to hear it as we release new music; the new Mars Lights EP is being recorded at A=432, and the songs I did yesterday will appear on the MR|Ten compilation in September.

pedalNot many tuners will let you adjust your reference pitch that far down.  One that does, that I use, and that also happens to be a great, true-bypass, chromatic tuner is the Snark SN-10.  I paid full price for mine, and am entirely happy with it, especially when using the trick of rolling back my guitar’s tone knob all the way to better let the fundamental frequency through the signal.

Have I convinced you to experiment with your reference pitch yet?

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Check Out Song Exploder

21 June 2014 in [blog]

Stereogum linked me to the Converge episode of the new-ish Song Exploder podcast the other day, and it’s well worth a listen. Their tagline sums it up; “where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.”

I was surprised to hear Kurt mention a Boss metal pedal, since their reputation is generally poor. He might have been talking about one of the Hyper Metal pedals, and not the Metal Zones; anyone know for sure?

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Back in November,

3 June 2014 in [blog]

I didn’t know why Jill asked for the lyrics to “Make Our Sound.”

Over the next few weeks, I forgot about it entirely.

When I found out what she’d been up to, though, it all made sense.

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100I accept the gentle teasing about getting Ventura done with gratitude; to me, it means that it matters to someone, and I love having a piece to remind me of that, and of the friend who created it, every time I pass by it.

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An Autumn Psalm by Clyde DeWitt

28 May 2014 in [blog]

Below is the poem “An Autumn Psalm” by Clyde DeWitt, who I knew through St. Peter’s.  The poem, published in his funeral bulletin, inspired the song “Make Our Sound” on Ventura.

Omnipotent and omniscient God
who alone can truly comprehend time and space without end;
We who are in the autumn of our lives on this tiny planet
give thanks for the gift of what to us
has seemed a long and fulfilling life.

We give thanks for the chance to see the beauty of nature -
the earth, the water, the skies, the trees, the flowers -
and to observe nature’s creatures.

We thank thee for the gift of love
reflected in the love for us from those here
and from those parents, kin, and friends who have gone before us,
and the love we have for mates, for children, for their children, and for friends.

Oh Lord, let them feel this love as the autumn of our lives
becomes the winter,
and even when our bodies turn to dust.

Lord, grant us the wisdom to live our autumn years with grace,
being forever grateful for the joys of life
we have already been granted.

May we share with others the bounties we have been given
and our fleeting insights into your wonderful wisdom.
Give us the courage to face the aches and infirmities of these autumn years.

And let them never keep us from beaming with our thanks
for the great joys you have bestowed upon us;
and when our mortal time draws to a close
let us depart with grace,
knowing it is simply a part of your holy plan,
and that the spirit of life and love will continue without end.


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Ventura Lyrics

24 May 2014 in [blog]

Coast & Plains

They say that everyone feels a certain way
About the place they grew up in; they either hate it or love it
And every time you try to leave, it pulls you back
Like a lover who’s untrue, you try and leave and it kills you

Back home; the place that you came from

You left the uptight coast behind for the great midwest
What you thought you wanted, but the good life was haunted
And then you get this idea floating around in your head
Home wasn’t so bad, but you know that you can’t go

I’m one person leading two different lives,
Trying to make the coast and plains coincide

Back home; the place where you belong

Large’s Garden State

Sam, you know that you’re too cute
Strobe lights and unexpected shakes
Never got the best of you
My week back home’s been shot
Every which way but loose
You’re the weak link that broke addiction’s hold

Read the rest of this entry →

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Ventura Writing Dates

20 May 2014 in [blog]

Ventura has been 10 years in the making.  It was written as the second Sally Ride record, after Don’t Let Them Take Us… ALIVE.

Before I started recording it I got fired up about the 2006 elections and the Iraq War, wrote some stuff that seemed more time-bound, and went ahead with It’s A Trap.  I was living in a basement apartment underneath my landlords (no drumming allowed), so I moved on to the basic guitar and vocal tracks for You Have To Wear The Boots.  Got the carriage house, Mars Lights was set up for the Sides EPs, and so I had Matt do the drums for There is Something and not nothing while the gear was in place, and that ended up coming out before we finished …Boots. * So, in early 2012, I finally got serious about recording Ventura.

Trying to track down when specific songs were written (my legal pads aren’t dated; maybe I should start) has been a trip.  Mostly, I’ve dug back through the blog for early mentions of “Ventura” or song titles.

In November 2005, there are two mentions of a “Ventura EP,” which would have included “Coast & Plains” and possibly “Large’s Garden State.”  Then, by April 2006 I was blogging about it as an album.  It wasn’t 100% finished, and two songs slated for it at that point were eventually dropped.  ”I Want To Know” was re-worked and ended up on …Boots as “Harvest Moon,” and “You Do What You Want” remains an unfinished tune of Cory’s.  ”Green Christine” was added later, but it’s pretty weird how early the songs, and the sequencing (!), were set.

Here, to the best I’ve been able to figure, is when Ventura’s songs were written.

  1. “Market Stress” – 2003 December.  I have an incredibly clear memory of being packed in the back of a bus in Ghana, going from Cape Coast or Winneba to Accra, half-dazed with the heat, exhaustion, and dehydration, and the chorus – chords, melody, lyrics, and marimba figure – just arriving in my mind from a daydream.  There was no Ventura at this point; there was, and remains, a set of five or six tunes I wrote while in Africa that are unfinished, and “Market Stress” belonged with them for a time.
  2. “Coast & Plains” – 2005 July?  Again, a clear memory of sitting on my Mom and Dad’s front porch and showing Cory these chords, and he came up with the melody on the spot.  I think the lyrics were finished a week or two later.  I think it was July 2005 because I was probably in the process of moving from Minnesota to Kansas City.
  3. “Large’s Garden State” – Fall/winter 2005/06?  Jessie loaned me Garden State, and I liked it but thought the ending was too neat, so I wrote what I thought was a less-Hollywood epilogue.
  4. “Lee’s Summit” – 2006 February.  I remember writing the lyrics to this song on a visit to Grandma, in Gibbon, NE.
  5. “While I Was Moving About Flyover Country.” – 2006 February.  Took a walk around the park at Gregory and Blue Ridge in Raytown on an unseasonably warm day, came home and immediately wrote these lyrics.
  6. “Were In Love” – by 2006 March.  I played it at a coffeeshop on a trip to Ventura (the actual city) with Cory, and forgot the second verse, and thought to myself “Ack, I always forget the second verse to this.”
  7. “Make Our Sound” – by 2006 April.
  8. “E Harbor Blvd” – by 2006 April.
  9. “Car Chase” – by 2006 April.  I only know about these three due to the post linked above.
  10. “Green Christine” – 2008 June.  Finishing this song is also mentioned on the blog.  Note the two-year gap, after busting out the eight core songs of the album in less than 12 months.  I’m really grateful it arrived, though; Ventura was feeling just a hair slight until “Green Christine” filled it out.

* Sally Ride album sequence:

Order written Order released
1. Don’t Let Them Take Us… ALIVE 1. Don’t Let Them Take Us… ALIVE
2. Ventura 2. It’s A Trap
3. It’s A Trap 3. There is Something and not nothing
4. You Have To Wear The Boots 4. You Have To Wear The Boots
5. There is Something and not nothing 5. Ventura
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Ventura: The Slightly Interactive Map

17 May 2014 in [blog]

Ventura can be just a bunch of songs, and I’m 100% cool with that; it’s by design.  It can also have some themes and stories that connect the songs together.  The strongest one might be the idea of moving, particularly moving from east to west (with a lot of time spent in the middle).

VenturaMapScreenshotI made a Google map for you to explore, with the quasi-location of each song marked.

East-to-west can also stand in for other directions, like younger to older, and west connects to classic American themes of freedom and opportunity and their less-classic shadow sides of alienation and brutality.  Not that the record leaves you in that place; rather, it starts to mix those things in as you move through it.