The Making of Street Life and the Manipulation of Sound

The Making of Street Life

If you are a Roxy Music fan, as I am, the above article is an interesting read over at Uncut about the making of the song Street Life.  In reality that is narrowing the article down a bit, as it also deals with reflections of the band from that whole period, when Brian Eno left and the band had to make the album Stranded.  For those of you that don’t know, Roxy Music not only gave birth to the career of Bryan Ferry, but yes, also world famous musician and producer Brian Eno.  Eno was only on the first two records, Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure.  Also, the band was more than a two man show, as everyone that was a member of Roxy Music was extremely talented.

Some of you that have been reading along might wonder how I could jump from the earthy roots rock reggae to the seemingly more alien Roxy Music.  However, all great music creates cinematic worlds.  One doesn’t want to watch one kind of movie all of the time do they?  Also, in the way that Roxy Music and Lee “Scratch” Perry manipulated sounds, there is a commonality between the two.

One thing that I find really interesting, and perhaps you will as well if you make records or are interested in how they’re made, is the manipulation of existing sounds.  Manipulating sounds has been made easier now by modern technology than it was in the 70’s, but I find it no less enchanting if done well.  Often when one records something you will notice that a certain section lacks something.  When you play live the sheer enthusiasm with which you play something, the ambience of a room, may cover up the fact that a part of a song lacks some quality to make it stand out compared to the rest of a song.  When one notices something like this in a studio often the first idea is to add some kind of new overdub, whether that is a new instruments, a harmony, or a second part by an existing instrument.  I’ve found a really interesting way to get something unique, while remaining true to the existing recording is to manipulate something sonically.   You can either manipulate something that is there already, or duplicate something that is there and then manipulate it beyond recognition.  I personally really like manipulating guitars.  Because there are so many human elements in the playing of a guitar, the way a string is pressed down, the tuning is rarely absolutely perfect, etc., when you manipulate a guitar in a unique way it usually ends up being a sonic one-off, something that can’t be repeated exactly.  I know there are some people that want to be able to duplicate a recording as perfectly as possible live, but I see live performance and recording as different formats.  If you want the formats to match, that is up to you, but it doesn’t matter.

Yesterday I was listening to this period of Roxy Music on headphones and the guitar solo of Amazona blew my mind.  It is not only greatly played, but the way that section is manipulated and treated adds so much to it.  You are never taken out of the world of the song, but the world of the song expands tremendously through this solo section.

Bjork to be Featured at MoMA

I still really love the new Bjork album, though I got on some other trips and got slightly distracted from it.  I want to write a comprehensive piece about it, but it may be awhile.  In the meantime I saw that Museum of Modern Art is doing a sound and video installation of her work called Black Lake.  The above clip is the trailer for this installation.  Bjork is one of the few musical artists where you feel the visual side of what she does is fully integrated into her work, that it isn’t just a way to drum up press.  So many modern pop stars are visual spectacles without substance.  She is someone that you feel belongs in the Museum of Modern Art.  I actually started appreciating her by seeing one of her concert films in a theater.  It was a totally unique experience.  I’m about 99% positive that I won’t be able to go to the MoMA installation, but if I was in striking distance I would.

More Scenes From Touring

If you want a good many laughs, and a view into temporary insanity, I can’t recommend Henry Rollins Get in the Van enough.  Although the early 80’s hardcore scene is far crazier than anything I have ever witnessed, there is something in the dark fatalistic humor of the book that captures touring better than anything I have ever seen or read.  I know I have mentioned it before, but I am thinking about it on my way to Oklahoma city. 

When you tour it is like living in dog years.  Time slows to a crawl.  I am not trying to romanticize touring, quite the opposite.   There may be some that love every moment of it, but to me my passion for music makes it something that I tolerate.  I am not saying that there aren’t great moments, nor am I complaining.  It simply is a mountain that needs to be climbed to reach the golden city of music.  It is mostly my ability to disconnect,  to float away into books and records, that allows me to keep climbing. 

I am an introvert by nature.  Being in a crowd, even if I am having a great time, diminishes my energy instead of restoring it.  I purposely need to retreat into an autistic cave of solitude at times to make it through the day.  (Hat pulled down over eyes and headphones on.)

But lord I love being creative, playing with great musicians, and diving into the world of music.  I can never hear enough of the stuff.  I live with headphones on.  I could play a two hour set and the first thing I want to do after is listen to a record.  I love the world of recorded sound.  I have ever since I was a kid.  While some friends obsessed over sports stats, I was up in my room reading music magazines and listening to albums. 

When some people tell me that I am bold to follow my dreams, I thank them, but I know the truth:  My passion for music borders on obsession, and I have no other choice.  It isn’t much different than an alcoholic slithering over to a bar as soon as it is open.  Reason and courage play no part.  I give into my addiction and follow it down the rabbit hole. 

2001: A Space Odyssey, I’m Not a Man, and the Power of Suspense

Two nights ago, when I was writing a blog about my favorite albums of 2014, I happened to watch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time.  I realized it was a glaring omission in my film education and decided to correct it.  It was every bit as astounding as I had heard it was throughout the years.  Every single shot seemed perfectly orchestrated.  It was pregnant with ideas.  However, there is so much written about the film that I don’t feel like I can comment on it too deeply having only seen it one time.  I do just want to add that I can’t understand why special effects of 1968 look much better than many of the special effects in modern cinema.

However, although I was not high at that present time, my mind was operating like it was, pulling two different things together that had nothing to do with each other.  If you go to my blog where I picked songs from my favorite albums of the year, you will hear the Morrissey song I’m Not a Man.

Songs From My Favorite Albums of 2014

That song begins with about a minute and a half of eerie white noise.  While this space of sound makes complete sense, at least to me, in the context of the record, I understand how when hearing the track by itself it could seem a bit strange.

While watching 2001: A Space Odyssey I was taken by how the very first thing that takes place is a few minutes of eerie ambient music while the screen is entirely black.  This happens before you even see the studio logo.  At first I was thinking my TV wasn’t working as it seemed to go on longer than it should.  Once I realized what was happening I thought about how disorienting this must have been at concert volume in a real theater.

However, concerning the movie, I feel like this did two different things:  First, it creates a sense of the uncanny in a viewer before the film even begins.  This is a feeling, that uncanniness, that keeps rearing its head throughout the film, brought to a head in the final section.  It also cleared out my mind and got my attention so that when the first real image did appear, it was incredibly powerful.  By taking away something that we are expecting the imagination begins to fill in what isn’t there.  It sets a mood so that what comes after it is even more visceral than what follows would be on its own.

I think the same thing is achieved with the eerie noise at the beginning of I’m Not a Man.  It creates a degree of suspense as you wait for the song to begin.  You expect something epic to arrive, and although the song does eventually get there, the tinkling keyboard and sweet melody that begins it comes as a surprise.  The craft of the melody and chord progression, while having a power of their own, seem even more powerful when compared to the absence of form that comes before it.  I once read that, although Morrissey’s lyrics are very intelligent, that he doesn’t care if people think so long as they feel something and that he is perfectly fine if they feel uncomfortable.  The song is about how the macho male that society so often celebrates is actually one of the things that has caused so much pain and destruction in the world.  This is a topic that is sure to make some uncomfortable, and the beginning noise highlights that emotion while also contrasting the melody that follows.  Because the piece of music is not any one thing emotionally when the intro and the proper song are combined, it creates complex feelings in the listener.  This is the difference between something that is art and something that is mere pop music, even if the melody of the proper song itself is as catchy and singable as any true pop song.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how space (Not to be confused with the kind of space in the title of the film!) and emptiness are as an important a part of art as anything else.  This movie and song show how by withholding something one can create suspense and complexity.

The Ridiculous Zen Art of AC/DC

ACDC

I’ve been obsessed with AC/DC lately.  I want to try to explain why to those of you that might not get them.  I also think they demonstrate how powerful minimalism can be.

AC/DC albums are kind of the opposite of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album.  I love well orchestrated ornate pop music, but I love its opposite just as much.  The arrangements on AC/DC albums rarely go beyond what can be reproduced live by a four piece rock band other than backup vocals, occasional percussion, and Angus Young’s lead guitar.  There are some minimal guitar overdubs, an additional guitar in the chorus or whatnot, but rarely more than that.  Their records musically are usually just bass, drums, and one electric guitar in each speaker.  However, as Lou Reed said about Kanye West’s Yeezus album, “the arrangements are minimal, but the parts are maximal.”  It’s hard to sound bigger than AC/DC, they often play to packed stadiums, but they achieve this sound with only a couple of instruments.  Their sound is created by the way each musician plays and, more importantly, the way that they play together.  For instance, Angus and Malcolm Young, the guitar players and brothers that run the band, perfectly compliment each other in parts and sound so that their guitars sound infinitely bigger together than either one could on their own.  Malcolm, who is in the left speaker, plays a Gretsch guitar and has a thicker cleaner sound.  Angus, whose rhythm guitar is in the right speaker, plays a SG and his has a more distorted and biting tone.  The frequencies created by each insturment perfectly compliment each other, creating a gigantic sound.

They also use space in a way that each instrument achieves maximum impact.  On their mega-hit You Shook Me All Night Long, the bass does not come in till the chorus, which is unusual for a pop or rock record.  By withholding it that long, when it does come in, the listener really feels it.  The riffs that the brother’s write also often have large gaps in them.  By having moments of silence in between their riffs, you feel the full impact of each scrape across the strings.  Much like how a Zen garden, through being minimal, forces one to focus on what is there, they too pull the listener in by knowing what to hold back.  Even their drummer for most of their career, Phil Rudd, rarely plays the usual rock n roll drum fills.  He makes every cymbal crash count.  Except for when Angus’s lead guitar explodes, which again is so powerful because it is restrained until just the right part of the song, AC/DC does so much with so little.  A lot of other bands couldn’t get that kind of emotional impact with their music with twice the musicians.

One of the misconceptions in the media is that AC/DC make the same record over and over.  They do have a set of rules in place that can often make their music sound the same to the casual listener.  But there is actually a lot of diversity if you compare the rock n roll boogie of their earlier records to the more melodic rock of something like Blow Up Your Video.  Their records are always driving guitar based hard rock records that feature typical rock n roll subject matter in the lyrics.  There are no guitar effects used other than amp based distortion.  It’s like they set a frame and a subject matter, like a painter that only paints certain sized water color landscapes.  But as you know, there are a lot of different landscapes one can paint even within a certain sized frame using a certain medium.  By limiting themselves they achieve their unique sound.  They also must figure out how to be creative while limiting themselves.  Even on one album, lets take their famous Back in Black album, there is a lot of difference between the sound of Hells Bells and You Shook Me All Night Long.  One has a foreboding quality, while the other one is celebratory.  The devil is in the details with this band.  If you are willing to explore their music they have a lot to offer.

Now I know that some of you will think that it is ridiculous to take a band seriously that often only sings about sex, explosions, rock n roll, and more sex.  Forgetting that their original singer was actually pretty clever within the confines of those topics, I think one can take what they do seriously and think they are charmingly ridiculous at the same time.  Even the sexism that is apparent in so many of their songs is taken to such a ridiculous level that it is comic.  This is stuff that is meant as release and as fun.  There is a reason they can fill up stadiums and give so many people a great time.  I think you can listen to their stuff on several levels.  On one hand it is just fun ridiculous music, but if you pay attention to the craft they put into creating this stuff, it is pretty interesting as well.

Also, if you take their career as a whole, in their refusal to change thematically if not musically, their is a certain noble defiance in it.  Where other bands try to reflect their lives in their lyrics, AC/DC has almost made an art out of being an immovable object.  They are the mountain that has not been eroded through time.  Their biggest hit album, Back in Black, was written after the alcohol related death of Bon Scott and features a song called Have a Drink On Me.  Their new album, Rock or Bust, was recorded after founding member Malcolm Young had to retire because he was diagnosed with dementia.  Yet as they grow older and life thins their herd, they remain as they always have been thematically, unchanged, Mount Fuji in the background of the changing seasons.  Like the last sentence at the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, they are grinning horribly and thumbing their nose at You Know Who.

A Strange Sliver in Time

On the late van ride from Houston to Beaumont.   Tonight is a perfect example of performing and having a completely different experience than the audience, or even anyone else in the band.  Tonight we played a venue I usually love, especially because the crowd is so great there.  The crowd was no different tonight.  However, I was in some weird sound cave where I could hear everything I didn’t need to, and none of the musical cues I actually needed.  On top of that one of my drinks spilled two songs into the set and it felt like I was standing on an oil slick.  Not being able to hear or move is a great way to play like you have mittens on your hands.  I wasn’t drinking so there was none of the false triumph of a buzz.  After the show I slithered out to the van like the Grinch.  All this happened while, three feet from me, Keith said he had the best sound he has ever had in that room.  Sound frequencies behave in weird manners. 

I am not complaining.   There are bound to be nights like this.  You play 150 shows a year and some will be bad, good, and average.  Just because you are having a bad night, doesn’t mean anyone else is.  Just keep plugging away.  A week from now this will all be a distant dream.  They say one should live in the moment, but sometimes the opposite is true; The moment is just a small strange sliver in time that will eventually fade, good or bad. 

AC/DC, Bryan Ferry, Hieronymus Bosch, and the Washington Monument

One thing I’ve really wanted to communicate to people through this blog, is that if you think of music being visual, it can really open up your appreciation to it.  I want to use two records that I listened to on my recent trip to try and convey that.  Two records that I listened to a lot were AC/DC’s Ballbreaker and Bryan Ferry’s Avonmore.  Musically and aesthetically these records are at the opposite ends of the spectrum, although both artists have a signature sound that they rework in different ways throughout their careers.   I want to write this for the average music listener and not someone that understands the technical side of music.

AC/DC have, per usual, a very stripped down approach to musical arrangement and mix.  There is one guitar in each speakers, bass, drums, and vocals.  The only guitars that are added through overdubs added, that could not be recreated live, appear to be Angus’s lead guitar.  This album is brilliantly produced by Rick Rubin, and I am not always a fan of his work.  AC/DC are a band whose greatness comes from their playing and arrangements.  The way the band play with each other creates their sound.  The brothers Young, Malcolm and Angus, play dueling electric guitars as well as anyone.  The rhythm section play simply, but with a ton of swing and feel.  During the Brian Johnson era, AC/DC’s lead singer, the sound of his voice communicates more than the actual lyrics do.  All of this is presented as straightforward as possible, so that the listener can enjoy what the band is doing and not be distracted by any studio tricks.

On Ferry’s record, again as usual for Ferry, features dense arrangements with a lot of competing instruments.  Everything is also draped in studio effects bringing a sense of mystery to the proceedings.  I have described what Ferry does before as futuristic film noir.  Movies like Bladerunner and Trouble in Mind come to mind while I listen to his records.  Ferry has great musicians like Nile Rodgers and Johnny Marr on his record.  However the performance of the individuals are not as important as the overall sound.

One record is primal and straightforward, while the other one is impressionistic and slick.  (Though I would argue that what AC/DC does on an album like Ballbreaker is more sophisticated then they are often given credit for.  The way the brothers bob and weave their guitars is not amateur hour, not even close.)  I believe one can absolutely love both approaches.  Music fans are less rigid than in the past, but there are still people that prefer one approach over another.  I don’t think that we need to make such choices, as long as each artist is doing what they can to the best of their abilities.

I think what AC/DC does is monolithic.  It is like the Washington Monument.  It is minimalistic, but powerful.  All fat has been stripped off until you end up with something simple, but riveting.  If you were to compare it to a movie it would be like an excellent Western, where the story is as straightforward as possible, but communicates a great deal through the minor tweaks of the form.

Meanwhile, what Ferry does is akin to Hieronymus Bosch.  He is creating something with a lot going on and your attention drifts to different details and textures, while never focusing on one thing for too long.  I don’t mean that Ferry’s work is like Bosch in the images that it creates mentally, only that there are many characters and images on the canvass, that add up to a substantial whole.

If you think of music like this, in a way where sound is visual, I believe that it can open up many kinds of music that one might not have previously enjoyed.  If I like a record, it is not because it is a certain style, but because each artist is realizing their vision to the fullest extent that they are capable of.  In music there are so many styles and textures.  If you can like dramas, horror films, and comedies, one should be able to like a wide range of musical artists.