My material situation, last time I checked, was not very good. (I have my residence in the clouds and hardly go down there, but sometimes you just cannot avoid it.) Making music, in a world of noise, has become a pure endeavor of stubbornness. I cannot not do it, I think if a laser ray fell on me and there were only one cell left of my being, that cell would still try to make some percussion noises with a ribosome or something. But the scope has to change.
The headphones I used for (retained laughter) "mixing", the (retained laughter) "good ones", have blown and I'm in the middle of nowhere, with no possibility to get others. All I have is shitty 3€ earbuds. As if I didn't have a huge bottleneck already with mixing and mastering without the technical difficulties. The possibility of publishing this year the two albums I've been carrying around for a long time, is (again) seriously endangered. Not that it matters to me too much at the moment, life seems to be taking a serious dump on me lately (but I don't want to take it personally, maybe it's a collective thing, I don't see a lot happening on the good side of the spectrum for anyone), so most of my energy goes to, you know, that survival thing. Yet, I still feel happy and grateful that I can keep on making music at any level, something that wasn't possible at all at other shitty moments of my biography (I've had the worst decade ever).
The solution this time has come to me in the shape of renewing my relationship with those great folks at Wikiloops. If you don't know the site, it is great, you just browse among different tracks from people, and when you find something that tells you something, download it, add your instrument of preference, and upload the new track. And it is not difficult to find tight tracks and good musicians, given that you have the whole gamut of the planet to choose from.
It's funny working in this way; having to fit yourself to tracks other people have made shows you portions of your talent that you wouldn't normally have access to. Songs you wouldn't have written, but which ask you to sing or play in a different manner, to look at yourself in a different mirror. There are things I've made there of which I'm quite proud, and this reminds me of Jimmy Hendrix, how the guy, it seems, always tried to jam with EVERYBODY in sight. Perhaps he did it for something like that. Self discovery.
Technically, it is also a relief, as you feel you are among friends -the gamut also goes from very harsh equipment, e.g. "sandpaper guitars" like mine, to more polished stuff, but I have a feeling most of people there, like me, give a secondary importance to sound crafting, second to the songs content and the fun. From a practical point of view, what this represents for me is that I'm no longer producing songs, but single tracks, which is easier and gives me a great feeling of advance as stuff comes out of the pipeline. Plus it gives me that pinch of recognition that we all need not to die of cold (what a feeling when someone gives a "horns up" to your solo!), and allows me to improve my basic production systems until I have them nailed to "wax on wax off" levels.
Personally, I'm happy of how I've tried to make the best of this situation, to adapt and look for new horizons instead of grouch. It seems to be in the nature of things that bad news come on their own but the good ones it is up to you to manufacture them. Anyways, the only thing permanent is change, so this state of things is not going to last either. On my way through adversity, I've met a community of peers; so there's a lot to like about this. Maybe it's all you can expect in the 21st century if you're a sentient being who does music.
The fun/non-fun engine of two times keeps working fine for me in regard to music production. In fact I've found that any deviation from its paradigm is fictitious, it catches with you later.
The line between fun and non-fun is not only subjective but also highly fluctuating (like: day to day fluctuating), so sometimes you yield to pressures of the moment and say: "OK, this task is not really fun, but it's almost fun, or will quickly lead to fun..." This stretch is part of the production strategy, one more tool in your arsenal, but in the latest times I've overused it; becoming more and more obsessed with set deadlines and results (or to put the emphasis somewhere else, too sad for the sluggishness of the whole thing), little by little I've been slipping without noticing it into full time non-fun.
This excess has finally caught up with me. Luckily, the counterbalance in this case is a happy one, because it has lead me to internal and external research and I've come across a new "vein" of fun that I'm now exploring, and now I'm going to be making music only for my pure personal gratification for some time. In other occasions, however, the results of a strain of this kind can be not so happy, they can lead to demoralization and even lead you to store the instruments and "forget about the whole damn thing"...
I guess the analogy of application here is the kid who is learning to walk. He takes two steps, falls down. Takes one more step, he's sure now he's got it, he falls again. Of course he never stops standing up whenever he falls down. There's too much to learn up there, and besides he's had enough of crawling already.
I will surely forget again about the importance of having fun, and I also for sure will keep trying every time. When I come to think of it, having fun is very connatural to making good music, it's a deal maker or breaker, it blatantly shows in the results. A guy will never go to a chair manufacturer and say "hey dude, I want to complain, you had no fun the day you were making my chair, you just followed the procedure, went through the movements..." No mood signs can be inferred from the finished product. However, when a musician is not having fun, when he just "goes through the movements", you bet it shows, and it's not precisely a pretty sight...
I just don't know where else to put them! These jokes are a test of your degree of Lean obsession. If you don't get them, you're not a real Lean geek (and maybe that's a good thing...)
(By the way, I've noticed "Lean" is also a term used in bodybuilding, but this is about the Lean production methodology, so if you are the upcoming Ernie Scwartzebergson, sorry, this stuff is not for you...)
The most common paradigms of production in our time are Just in Time, Just in Case and Justin Bieber.
He had the knowledge, the skills and the passion, but no matter how hard he tried, no Lean company wanted to hire him. Was he cursed or what? Timothy Woods was starting to feel a bit concerned...
It is rumored that Jimi Hendrix was going to record a special version of "Hey Joe" for Lean fanatics that started like this: "Hey... junka, how are you going to level that load...?"
"Dear Lean consultant, is it true that if you practice Lean for enough years you become fluent in Japanese?"
In one of those sarcastic moves that life sometimes plays on you, there was a time when I had to work as a proof reader in a car reviews magazine.
It was just a pay the bills kind of job. The car fetish that people out there often have has never been a thing for me. I've always preferred means of transportation where I'm carried, so I have my mind free to think, my senses free to observe, and both my hands available for writing stuff in notebooks, facing contingencies easily, etc...
At this job, I was surrounded all day by world of car geeks, so let's just say that we had a few awkward moments. However, I became a good friend of one particular guy there. He was as big of a car geek as the others, and I'm not sure what was different that created that bind between us, but I have a few ideas. Firstly, something that helped was that we both could talk about things outside our One Thing, and also about "anything stuff", and we both had a healthy, non-toxic sense of humor. Sometimes people try to create too much of an identity out of the things that they do, and that certainly wasn't our case at all, and we both had the healthy habit of not taking ourselves too seriously.
But I think I've remembered him today because of something else, something he told me one day before going to an appointment he had for a test drive: "man, the thing is... I would do this shit for free".
It was not a happy comment at the time; I think the conversation was about working conditions, someone taking advantage of us... (yeah, I know; shocking, right?) There was also a bit of an undertone -that I myself know very well- of "I really can't help myself, I couldn't do things other way even if I tried, it's like I have no say in this..."
Now I wonder if maybe that was the thing that connected us the most. We were both devoted persons. To very different purposes, for sure (I think I never mentioned to him my musical endeavors, among other things because at that moment I was on hiatus), but both of us shared that personal consistency that results of having one focal point in your life. He "lived for that stuff", and I "live for this stuff", too. When you have that kind of premise in your life, the rest gets ordered and prioritized accordingly. And that shows in some way, and creates links that are not always made of words.
In the case of music, like most of the people out there, I actually "do this shit for free". Money is a recognition of value, and according to that "scoreboard", it seems our society concedes little or no value to it.
Not that I'm going to let that stop me, let's just follow the line of reasoning: if you don't make money with something, you do it in your spare time. That period of time associated to recharging, the time considered "lazy time". Here's where the difficulty arrives. How can you call "lazy" to being stuck to a screen for 10 hours in a row trying to make a song sound better? Well, that's the way it works. Such activity can have all the personal value you want, but if it does not have societal value it does not make money, and it is leisure, it is "lazy".
So color me lazy then, because those 10 hours are the ones I enjoy the most of any day. Even if I'm tired like a dog when I'm finished, even then, it's that kind of fatigue that is somewhat enjoyable too, that kind of fatigue that makes you feel you've earned yourself a good movie and a pizza, or a fatigue similar to the one that follows the sweet labors of love :)
I think what we have here is 1) a disagreement on the definition of value, and 2) the slightly slippery definition of what being "professional" means. On one side, when we hear that someone is a "professional" in X, we automatically think in someone who gets paid for doing X.
But now that musicians are no longer paid, or hardly, how do you differentiate a professional musician from a non professional one?
I have no answer to offer, but while this state of affairs lasts, I think the only criteria of professionalism we have available is persistence, pursuit. Here I remember an interview with the creator of the Reaper DAW, where he said he liked to make songs now and then, but usually after half an hour or so he considers it "good enough". He is not trying to be "professional" (but, as an aside, what a good thing is that a developer keeps in touch in that way with his own product!) Inversely, I can sometimes sit at the computer and research something I want to code, "wouldn't it be great if I could...?" I give it a few tries, and if it works awesome, but if it doesn't at some point I'm going to let it go and don't spare one more think on it. I prefer to carry in my head melodies, chord progressions, you know, that kind of stuff.
In the case of a programmer, on the contrary, I'm sure a kind of problem like that will stick to him, he'll carry it to bed and wake up with it in the morning, find what seems to be a solution during the shower, discard it as he spreads jam on the toast... Who knows, we'll never find out for sure because of the high regard computers have in our time, but perhaps he would even do all that stuff anyway if there was no money involved. I guess not all kinds of laziness are born equal...
(Note: when I speak about "musicians" here, I guess I'm thinking real musicians, musicians who make real music, today music, here-and-now music. Saying that a bunch of guys who play Abba covers are professional musicians is like saying that a guy who works at a morgue is in the hotel business... Ehm... well... Ok... Kindasorta...)
A recent trick that has helped me was creating deliberate "chaos" or "mess" areas in certain rooms. By doing so, you tacitly admit that 1) You are not (and you are not intended to be) perfect. 2) There is mess and chaos in your life. 3) Now you know where to find it.
Doing this has brought me great relief. Anything I don't know where it goes, anything I don't have the bandwidth to deal with right now, I know where to put it. Giving it a spacial location is something that connects with your "old brain", thousands of years of training of going to the tree that had nuts, getting your tools from under the correct rock... So it feels very natural and I think it gets some dopamine going.
With all the amorphous blobs corralled into one single spot, you can start to tackle "it" progressively, and what was once daunting becomes often a very nice and stimulating routine. By a few daily minutes of chipping away a couple of random papers, very often you liberate inventory (you become "richer", as you liberate resources that were tied up and producing nothing), and also, the test of time gives you great surprises and even insights about yourself.
An additional advantage of this trick is that, by putting all of it in one place, you get an instant visual control of your chaos levels. As it attracts its dark anti-tidiness matter, one day the initial folder may not suffice anymore and you may have to turn it into a "chaos box". The box perhaps into a "chaos area" in the room. Who knows, maybe you could get at some point to a whole room full of chaos. Still, it's just one room, you know the dimensions of your chaos, and you know where to venture when you have to maybe "rescue" something that suddenly has become important or urgent again.
The journey is also possible in the other direction; at the current pace, one of my chaos boxes will turn into a folder next week, I'm confident that the process of getting there keeps great surprises for me, and also, it feels great...
I suspect I'm "an enthusiast". Not necessarily of this or that. I'm an enthusiast as in I frequently get into enthusiasm. Etymologically, the word means "in God". To me, the state of enthusiasm is that state where things move on their own, where time and effort no longer exist.
Some of my objects of enthusiasm seem to remain stable, here to stay or at least part of a slower cycle; nothing makes me flow better than music. Making, listening and dancing to it. Maybe I'm biased because of how much I love it, but I consider it one of the highest things a human can do with his limited time. If a curious alien race would ask me, that's what I would present to them: "we are a shitty species in most of the areas right now but, here, this is what we call music"...
Other objects of enthusiasm do change. I guess another way of describing my enthusiasm is that I am a "deep diver": I fall in love with a subject and I submerge myself in it with passion, until I think I "get it". Generally the process works like this: I have a few introductory sessions where I think "um... Interesting... Peculiar...", but don't go beyond that. Then one morning, just because, I move to "Wait a minute! This is dynamite! Have to learn it! I want it! No time to lose!". Examples of this "revelation" in different moments of my life have been: Marvel comics, gore & terror films (the good ones, please, don't get me started), computer programming and videogames, literature, meditation techniques, certain psychology schools...
It seems I'm just wired this way. And another one that seems to be a keeper for me is what Womack and friends in the 90's named, with eternal hesitation forever and ever it seems, "Lean". Deming. TWI. Etc. The whole family. A set of techniques and work philosophies that turn whatever it is you want to do into sort of a dance. Sluggish into flowing. A tiny improvement into a time investment with great return. An "error" into something that makes you reach out for a fork and knife.
If these things float your boat, you are already suspecting analogies, trying applications that can benefit your music making. In this case, the particular application problems I encounter will not be of interest to you, you're too busy solving your own issues in your own processes.
And if these things say nothing to you, there's no way you find something useful in all my rambling about the virtues of these techniques. Nothing of this is new, and the information has been out there for a long long time.
I guess if I still write about this stuff sometimes is because I feel lonely, and putting it in words helps me see it in a different way. The sensible, suit wearing world of manufacturers and office workers who usually "do Lean" would see me as a loonie ("he does not do Facebook? Outrageous!"). Those who call themselves musicians probably think I'm just some sort of control freak. I'd rather share my words with someone who is into this stuff like me but... at least writing about it gives it some degree of expression. It's like I almost feel guilty of keeping this stuff all to myself. I don't know, it's strange...
(Incidentally, and although nobody cares, I'm currently very pumped up with an adaptation of TWI's Job Breakdown lists that could help me standardize my processes for good, plus a new look at visual workplace and 5S, where I think I've taken my understanding to +1. The good thing about this stuff is that -I think I've used the analogy before- you move on a spiral rather than a circle; each time you go back over an element you have a different "altitude", you always find something new, it's endless...)
Reiterating the theme of my previous post, I've come to think that the activity of music making, particularly when you're doing it all on your own, is particularly prone to depths in which it is easy to get lost; if you want, you can polish anything to infinitum. There it is for example "Chinese Democracy", a record started with one foot still on the CD era and other in the Internet times... or all those terrifying forum posts where a guy reports that he's presenting the song he's been working on for 15 years... (What do you do next after completing a cycle like that? Maybe they implode like that guy in the movie Scanners...)
The solution to these lingerings (unless you like to linger that much) has been mentioned often and is one of those things that are at the same time both simple and hard to do: before stepping in, make sure you put a stake on the ground; define what you want to reach today. This far from earth-shattering revelation is particularly important in music making. Set the point, and give your best shot to reach it.
This connects with my aforementioned experiences in the latest recording sessions. The other day, for example, I set as the goal for the day to finish a full "live demo", a musical piece that could be listened to from beginning to end. It's the song I'm composing right now, which will very probably be called "Born to ruin", and I needed to patch up the scattered fragments I had into some kind of "whole" to determine what is in excess and what is still lacking.
I reached the end of the session having recorded that "something". I got to the end, but, I felt, at what price. How many times I thought I was lame, I had "cheated", etc...
And yet, returning to the recording the next day, once you take away all the wood chips, cover the microscope, and just press play and let it flow, I found that the result wasn't bad, wasn't bad at all. In fact, some of the "errors" turned out to be very cool and will help me complete the song in ways I would have never expected. The session, the self-imposed mission of "reaching to the other side" was about generating "material", in the same way a silk worm generates silk, leaving the judgmental machine on standby and just having fun. And I'm so glad that I ignored laziness and self-doubt and did it... As usual, my intuition knew much better than me.
The other day, as I advanced through my daily ordeal with mixing and mastering (the song in the works is "Empty roads", also referred to, if you read my last year's activity logs, as "the power ballad"), the other day like I say, something that happened made me remember a joke I once heard in a movie: "All the women I slept with were beautiful... but some I woke up with were quite ugly..."
In fact, the situation that brought the witty observation back to mind worked in the reverse order in my case; I closed a session that sounded like a train wreck to me, and yet the next day, when I reopened it and did the first listening with fresh ears, I found everything way nicer than I expected. I slept with the ugly one and woke up with the beautiful...
Perhaps due to things like that, my mix+master fuse for this song blew short after and I've had to let it cool down and wait for two days doing different stuff. I'll resume the works tomorrow, hopefully for a final oomph that takes it to the desired results or at least to a certain state I've defined called FTS, which stands for "fuck this shit", any of which outcomes will tell me the song is ready...
What you try to do with any productivity system is creating a way of balancing factors that produces the biggest advance and profit. An economy of forces (if I remember correctly, "economy" comes from ancient Greek oikos-nomos:care of the household). You place strategically openings and restrictions, so that the result of the whole propels you forward in the best way. An opportune metaphor here could be the steam machine: you have to manage fire and water. Not enough fire and you won't generate steam, the machine won't move. Too much fire and you'll run out of water too soon; you have to balance the factors.
In my discreet home recording adventures, I've tried drawing the line at many places, labeling in a lot of creative ways, always looking for the most cost effective way of keeping the machine rolling. My latest discovery, which I've mentioned before because it seems to stick nicely, is the fun/non-fun division.
This tension between fun and non-fun factors seems to be working as a great fuel for my machine. As I've also mentioned before, this is a dynamic kind of tension, as tasks can be born fun and then become non-fun, and viceversa, and so on in a perpetual dance, so it's important to stay open and flexible.
Here are the standard definitions I use as of today:
* Fun: things that I feel pulled to do, they don't require willpower. I go into them out of curiosity or wish of gratification, not thinking how long they are going to take, and not expecting necessarily a result out of them (if such result comes, for example, if out of the fun of playing guitar comes a riff and then a song, that's a nice bonus, but the moment you go into the thing with "I have to come out of today's session with a finished song", it stops being fun).
* Non-fun: in the realm of music making, things that I don't feel compelled to do, but I do feel compelled to get the outcomes they provide. My most notorious example: mixing and mastering. It drags me and tires me in many ways having to go through my own song over and over, but at the end of the process you have a presentable song that you can show to the world, and I do want that result.
Some other of my findings after a few months of following this division are:
* Non-fun tasks, surprise surprise, are overwhelmingly more in number than the fun ones (at any given time, because like I say they shift their category non stop). The best way of facing this is staying calm and applying the eat the elephant principle, and doing something non-fun every day (using a timer or other trick if you need to), so that those tasks do not become in your mind more dreadful than they really are. Also, there is a principle used in budgeting that I think is also relevant here: "embrace your real expenses". Don't just turn your back on things like distribution, promotion, etc, until the day you are "ready", "more liberated", etc, because if you turn your back on them you'll feel them staring at you every second from behind. Add them to the non-fun pile, do a bit of them when you can, and get the benefits of the synergies.
* Typical fun tasks: in my case, playing and recording just-for-me stuff, is something I could do forever. Also, those tasks that have a novelty halo: trying a new program for the first time... But once the novelty is gone, the moment you face a serious hurdle, the task will bump into a non-fun item; "wow, this program is so cool, but how the hell do you install the midi drums..."
On the contrary, sometimes tasks that started being boring for me (e.g. certain sessions of EQ or gorilla artwork) have turned into fun once I've got into the "zone" (and even though those tasks will never qualify among my favorite things to do).
* The discipline of doing something fun every day is just as important as with the non-fun stuff (and sometimes, just as challenging!)
* Two filters for non-fun tasks: out of a pile of non-fun tasks, there are two additional filters that help me choose more easily what to tackle.
First: the non-fun task that is closest to the "finish line" (=song published), gets done first.
Second: the "fuse" safety principle. This principle overrides the first. Sometimes I get saturated and have to stay away for a few days from certain tasks. The prototypical example is working so long in a song that you've lost all reference of how good or bad it sounds. Ignoring the fuse is looking for trouble, as the chances are you won't make a good job when you're so burnt out and just trying to advance out of obsession or stubbornness.
Until here a portrait of my inner dynamics for making music as of today. The latest song took me 5 months to complete (considering that it underwent special circumstances like a change of computer, being an intricate song, etc...) The song I'm currently finishing to mix has been in the works for 2 months now, and my guess is at the current pace it will be finished in 15 days (I was going to say a week so I multiplied it by 2, ha...) I see this as an advance, and I think the next ones will take less and less time, as my processes consolidate...
French culture has been a gift to the world for many centuries now, and I would need a whole new post to speak about my literary, philosophic, musical and cinematographic heroes either hailing from France or French speaking. However, I wonder if contemporary and modern music is not perhaps an area where they fall a bit shorter than in the others; this might just be my personal ignorance, maybe I'm just a guy grabbing a trunk and calling it an elephant, but when it comes to rock-metal-punk music, with some notable exceptions (love me some Burning Heads, for example), the French bands I've come across often fall in the trap of emulating US models without making them theirs, when not turning them into a bit of a "pop caricature", or copycatting to extents that can be servile.
That's why I've been doubly pleased to find Powder, a French band that is not "good for a French band", but plain fucking good, a honest attempt at creating something new, a genuine and original voice.
We who listen to punk are more often than not misadapted people, rejects, sore thumbs, people who feel the world is not right. Otherwise we would probably be listening to lady fucking gaga. This genre is good at (in fact it was born as a means for) channeling the rage, that angst and despair that is impossible to avoid for any human who wants to live, not just sleepwalk, his life through the 20th and now 21st century. I'm sure many musicians we admire, had they not been gifted with talent to express themselves through a guitar, would have resorted to a machine gun, as in so many of those sad cases we read out there.
What I find in Powder is a new way of channeling that rage, of giving it a shape. Their style is not so much confrontational (not so much in-yer-face fuck you), as an introverted kind of sadness that still gets very violent at times, with a lot of raw hardcore energy. Like I say, a new kind of deal, a peculiar mixture of the components, a voice of their own.
In certain phrasings I hear a bit of Fugazi (term that means "fucked up", a useful reminder here), also a bit of math rock (for example in the beautiful, desolate riff of "Death and lies")... There is also a great feel for melodies, which are used like broken pieces of a puzzle, here and there, as if they appeared only to relief the tension for a while. The instrumental parts have a feeling of "scenery" of "landscape", they feel organic, full of ambience...
One of my favorite songs is "My sorrows", with its mechanic, ruthless riff that has a "medieval" kind of feel to it. The lyrics can be interpreted as an introvert meditation, a lament of separation, but there is this verse that for some reason always makes me think of the recent random killings France and my country (and other countries) have been suffering lately: "I'm sorry for what I did/that makes you so desperate"...
All this emotional charge is backed by great musicianship through and through. The ups and downs, the expression... A note of impeccable taste is that they prefer to err on the side of caution and all the songs are very short, in occasions perhaps too much, as it leaves you a bit like "what just happened" after so much intensity. But I belong to the same school, I prefer falling short rather than going too far, maybe it's something they do by design to slap you in the face, and in any case this is a "measure" that will just become better as they explore their creativity in future albums.
My other but would perhaps be that the level of intensity and chagrin throughout the whole album is so high that maybe the songs as a whole feel a bit too similar, although in a good sense, in the same way four shots of mescal feel similar. It's always a tricky trade-off, because on one hand you want cohesion and on the other variety, and the album does propose a coherent trip from beginning to end, so... just a tiny remark about a great record from a band I hope to hear more of in the future.
This review ends (just in time!) my collection of what my musical year felt like. From this point I'll go back to "habitual programming" of one weekly post minimum. Happy 2018 to everybody!
I have a guitar and I'm gonna use it