I’ve been interested in songwriting process for a long time, although I think it’s only in the past 5 or so years that I’ve thought of it in terms of an actual process. I played in several bands in high school and college and somehow we managed to create songs without really planning the construction of them too much. After having gone through an MFA program, I’ve become a lot more aware of and interested in specific processes that people use. Not least in part to studying some of the process of John Cage. Continue reading
An elliott live video that I hadn’t seen before popped up on youtube today. Dated 1998, it really made me think about how cool it is that these guys had such proficiency at what they were doing at a relatively young age. ..and not only that, but they had also gone a long way to develop their own artistic style – I was going to say art form, but rock music wasn’t new, and there was a whole community even in just their geography.. but still, what they were doing had some new elements. I think that’s got to be a really fulfilling situation to be in. Very self directed.
There’s some allure for me in music attached to a geography that I also am attached to. Last week I watched a documentary called “It’s Gonna Blow: San Diego’s Music Underground 1986-1996“. It was pretty good. I’ve gathered some “dots” of information about the San Diego music scene past, but this helped me connect them and make a little more sense of it.
Hearing about some of this stuff in a chronological context reminded me a lot of some things that I saw and heard about in Lafayette. In my formative years (1998-ish) there, I ran a local music website, and at one point around 2001, my friend Pat was kind enough to write me a fairly comprehensive history of the Lafayette music scene from his vantage point. It coincides with the timespan covered in the aforementioned movie quite well, and I’d guess that similar other stories across the country match too. Kind of a Dischord Records to post-Seattle era. I can’t tell if this was a particularly good window of time for music, or if I’m just partial because it’s when I was young and into music.
Anyway, here’s Pat’s history of Lafayette music: Continue reading
As I’m trying to establish myself here in San Diego, I’ve found that I’m gravitating towards music again. I’m just a few blocks from a great concert venue that a lot of locals and larger names play, and I think that finding myself in that fray reminds me how much accumulated knowledge, and maybe even skill I have in the area.
While I’ve been thinking more deeply philosophically about music, expression and identity, I bumped into a couple of interesting articles. The first, The Assault on Intellect: How Popular Music’s Lyrics Perpetuate American Idiocy cites work by Andrew Powell-Morris on the topic of “Lyrical Intelligence” wherein the author uses some rubric to determine the reading level of lyrics on the billboard charts over the past 10 years and graphs it all out. The takeaway is that lyrically, pop music is getting dumber.
I don’t necessarily agree with the metric – I think I’d like to somehow measure the depth of the themes of the songs as well as the instrumental maturity.. but nevertheless, it’s a pretty interesting idea, and one that has crossed my mind in the past. Notably, I remember a paraphrase from a friend back in Lafayette on the topic of local bands – “I don’t like local bands; They all try to make their music difficult”. The last half of that certainly has some salience to me. I remember playing in one of my longer running bands, Summerfield, and trying so hard to create something original and challenging. I’ve come to understand this as something of an appeal to ego, but doesn’t make me value it any less. I think the flip side is a band that can go play a three chord song that people enjoy dancing to. Both are valid in their own ways.. Why I’m attracted more to the former, I don’t know. Leaving a lasting mark? Advancing an artform? Self fulfillment from conquering a challenge?
Back to the literature review though.. I saw another article around the same time that referenced a GZA interview on the topic of the absence of lyricism in modern hip-hop. I’ve heard a little of this material before in other interviews with the rapper, but this was a broader collection of ideas. GZA’s criteria of quality aren’t that well organized, but I’ll attempt to capture them in bullet point format here:
- discussing the art of MCing
- good analogies
- good wordplay
- good sentence structure
- good visuals
- not about negative things (?)
- having a message
- telling a great story
- grabbing you / pulling you in
- understanding life
- smart rhymes
- clever rhymes
I see three main themes in these items.. The first is embracing a kind of “meta” culture – describing your rapping skills, and maybe even bragging about them. This is definitely a prominent element in most music styles, but I’m not sure if is really a strong thread in what makes lyrics “good”, at least not for me, from a critical viewpoint.
Storytelling is another theme mentioned by GZA. This one definitely resonates with me and I’ve often cited a good story as the main driver for my preference of hip hop songs. In an era of popular artists bragging about material possessions and success at dubious endeavors, hearing a good story can make a difference.
The last, and largest theme in GZA’s list of preferred qualities seems to be a general intellectual depth and thoughtfulness. Both in terms of being a person with a broad knowledge to draw from but also displaying an aptitude for abstract thinking. This, I think, most relates to the example I cited above about local bands. GZA’s motivations to be creative, innovative and intellectual may be ego driven, but they do also push the envelope of what other artists are doing.
Looping back to the Lyrical intelligence rating, I suspect the criteria used there would probably call GZA’s works less intelligent since the main metric is application of grammar rules – something that is less important to the artist than the wit and craftiness he imbues.
I guess I wrote this all out to start a conversation with myself about how to make smarter music. I’m going to forego the question of whether challenging music is better or worse than simple music. What is “good” to me? and how would one integrate the conversational tradition of most music lyrics with something more heady?
There are ongoing themes in my listening habits; at the most fundamental, bands that I tend to revisit occasionally. Sometimes it’s more about the body of work of a specific musican or group of musicians. In this case, I wanted to post about a couple of bands that I keep coming back to, and the common denominator is guitarist Dave Pino.
I think my introduction to Pino was the band Damone, and specifically their album “From the Attic” which saw major label release on RCA in ’03. (a version of it had previously been self released as “This Summer” under the band name “Noelle”) I really wish I could remember how I found this album, but I’m totally drawing a blank. It was around the time that I was the operating station manager for the short lived Purdue Student Radio station which would be the sensible discovery avenue, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. I do know that the single “Frustrated Unnoticed” was the first song I heard, and it felt like a different production style than the rest of the record, but regardless, “From the Attic” was, and continues to be a very captivating album for me. The lyrics were all penned by Pino, supposedly as a means to get back a girl who had dumped him. A band was formed around these songs when Pino encountered Noelle LeBlanc, then still in high school. On this album in particular, Noelle’s inexperienced yet honest vocal delivery is the perfect match for the adolescent-ish tales of lost love. This feature is something that I’ve struggled to explain to people who are used to well polished and professional singers. There’s just something real and personal about it.
Here’s a very early public access in-studio of the band complete with the oddball-ness of Pino rocking a doubleneck SG; apparently the norm for him while in this band:
It must have been around 2006 when I found out about the band, because I remember their second album surfacing. I had been telling people how cool Damone was, and they would go listen to the couple of early release tracks on myspace (sic) and tell me I was stupid because the band was terrible. The band had very much changed. Instead of the 80’s influenced pop-rocking featured on “From the Attic”, the new record, “Out Here All Night” was showing a lot more thrash metal influence, while keeping the power-pop choruses in place. Noelle’s performance was a lot more confident, no doubt built up from years of playing shows. It lost some of the charm though, I think. Another really obvious thing was the absence of Pino from the videos. He’s still credited for the album, but I question what level he was involved.. As I encountered more of his body of work, it seems like this material wasn’t as much “him”. The band released a third album in ’09, but to be honest, I haven’t even listened. I think I’m only in it for the first one. Apparently the band has folded, but Noelle continues with solo work as well as a band called The Organ Beats.
At some point I realized that Pino was really the mastermind behind the Damone record that I enjoyed so much, and I started digging to see what he was up to after leaving Damone. There were a few bits and pieces out there. Notably, this youtube video of his process in learning to throw a guitar around his body, a showmanship bit that had some popularity at the time. (I must admit I suffered some injuries attempting the same myself)
There were also a handful of really cool guitar lesson videos he had done, breaking down some of the more difficult parts of Damone songs. Here’s the only one I can find that’s still on youtube:
Perhaps the most relevant thing I found though was Pino’s previous band Waltham, (to those of us not from the east coast, it’s pronounced “Walth Am”) and this great little bio pic that someone made of them:
The whole angle is great. it’s kind of a slightly modernized take on 80’s stuff like Rick Springfield. It’s kind of gimmicky, but still good enough to enjoy. In my excitement about the band, I started telling friends, and oddly, a couple of people I knew were aware of these guys. My buddy John had been living out in Boston and recognized some of the guys in the band from their day jobs at Guitar Center. My friend Karen who had lived in Sommerville told me about the Pizza place that Dave’s father owned.
Showing a bit of a pattern, the band continued but Dave was gone. The 2003 release “Permission to Build” had all the same charming Pino features that Damone’s “From the Attic” did, but the follow up EPs were lack luster. Still the band made a major label run in ’05 with some touring through Germany. After a long hiatus, they put out another collection of songs through band camp in 2013 as “Wicked Waltham” but it seems like they only play new years eve events and the occasional charity show at this point. Still, they left behind some good music and some entertaining, albeit slightly hokey videos like this one:
Pino now seems to be a bit of a hired gun, playing with the band Powerman 5000 and Andrew W. K.
I seem to be picking up pieces of the idea that musical composition is design. I mean, it’s clear that it is, but I think many don’t think of it in the same what that we think of visual design, but there are parallels both philosophically and pragmatically. I’m going to try to start documenting the bits that I find. Here is the first – Order Is by Louis Kahn.
Design is form-making in order
Form emerges out of a system of construction
Growth is a construction – In order is creative force
In design is the means – where with what when with how much
The nature of space reflects what it wants to be
Is the auditorium a Stradivarius
or an ear
Is the auditorium a creative instrument
keyed to Bach or Bartók
played by the conductor
or is it a conventional hall
In the nature of space is the spirit and the will to exist in a certain way
Design must follow closely that will
Therefore a stripe-painted horse is not a zebra
Before a railroad station is a building
it wants to be a street
it grows out of the needs of the street
out of the order of movement
A meeting of contours englazed.
Through the nature – why
Through the order – what
Through the design – how
A form emerges from the structural elements inherent in the form.
A dome is not conceived when questions arise how to build it.
Nervi grows an arch
Fuller grows a dome
Mozart’s compositions are designs
They are exercises of order – intuitive
Design encourages more designs
Designs derive their imagery from order
Imagery is the memory – the form
Style is an adopted order
The same order created the elephant and created man
They are different designs
Begun from different aspirations
Shaped from different circumstances
Order does not imply Beauty
The same order created the dwarf and Adonis
Design is not making beauty
Beauty emerges from selection
Art is a form-making life in order – psychic
Order is intangible
It is a level of creative consciousness
forever becoming higher in level
The higher the order the more diversity in design
Order supports integration
From what the space wants to be the unfamiliar way may be revealed to the architect.
From order he will derive creative force and power of self-criticism to give form to this unfamiliar.
Beauty will evolve.
I am admittedly behind the times in regards to music. I tend to gravitate towards bands who are still trying to advance the sounds they were working on in late nineties and early 00s. As such, I don’t get excited about music nearly as much as I used to. One such band that has recently popped back up on my radar is Feersum Ennjin.
You likely wont recognize this band’s name, but it starts with a band whose name you likely know. The album Undertow by Tool was something of a landmark; prog-rock for the grunge era. Paul D’Amour was the bass player for that record and left the band shortly thereafter. D’Amour moved on to start a band called Lusk with Brad Laner, Chris Pitman, now of Guns n Roses and Greg Edwards who was in Failure and is now in Autolux. Surprising to most who knew D’Amour from Tool, the result was an excellent, but very poppy record released in 1997 called Free Mars. (iTunes link) The album was nominated for a “best packaging” Grammy, and had a video for the song Backworlds that did well on MTVs shortlived show 12 Angry Viewers.
Lusk disappeared shortly thereafter. I remember reading on some long-gone band-related blog that one of the members had been in trouble with the law or something. Apparently their label was having some issues that also led to the project not going anywhere. It’s a shame, because Free Mars was really good. When recently played for one of my bandmates who hadn’t heard Lusk before, it was assumed to be more modern, and compared with Owl City.
Jumping from 1998 to 2005.. D’Amour released an eponymous EP for a new project called Feersum Ennjin. I think I found out about this around 2008. While only 5 songs, it was a great album. It had a striking similarity to Lusk, but was perhaps a little more focused, and heavy. Seeing as I was so late to the party on this one, and that there hadn’t been any new releases, I assumed that Feersum Ennjin had already come and gone.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about Lusk, and I decided to go good Paul D’Amour and see if he had anything new going. To my surprise there was a Feersum Ennjin full length. I grabbed it off of iTunes. Somewhat disappointingly to me, the LP is comprised of the songs from the EP with some new songs. Still, it’s a good record. As Paul himself states in the interview below, it’s pretty easy to see where Feersum Ennjin goes from being Lusk part 2 to something slightly different.