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All systems go for 2019!
Here is a video I enjoyed recently. Dweezil Zappa (one of the human beings more at ease in his skin that I know; always a joy to see), reminisces his guitar lessons with Steve Vai. On his turn, Vai also mentions at the end how he once took lessons from Joe Satriani. A simple yet beautiful testimony of the transmission of knowledge and beauty, as years go by...
Best of wishes for everybody for the upcoming year... :)
I guess it's connatural to this season to make plans, summaries, reviews... To pause and look back for a minute before starting to move forward again. In my case, this year it's meant to start keeping a "Musical CV", in other words a chronological (as much as I can) document that contains an exhaustive (as much as I can) list of all the music I've produced, and other noteworthy events in this noisemaker vocation that has happened to be the "one thing" for me.
I started the document in order to get some clarity, and I've already got some. The first surprise -expected but yet a surprise- is just facing the heap of stuff I've already worked on, been involved in, and put out there already. I guess it's also only natural that we forget about the road we've already trod upon, always focused already on reaching the next stop. Even physically, we have eyes on our forward side, and a back, which is blind, on the backwards side.
The improvement works I've been doing upon my processes in the latest years include that each song now receives a "closure" process after shipping, so it will be very simple to add a step in that process to write down the title every time some new stuff is put out there from now on.
If you're going to create a document of this sort, here's a bold movement I dare you to make: make it a "closed box". Before starting, give it some thought, and come up with your best estimation of until what year you think you'll be around in this planet, and put that year at the bottom/right side (depending on how you format it) of your document. Now how's that for a reference point? :P
No, I'm not addressing here that dual, schizophrenic, Peter Parker/Spiderman kind of life that most of worthwhile people who want to bring their "dear thing" to this world are usually forced to live, feeding the ruthless machine by day and doing the actual, memorable work by night. That's a matter for another post. What I mean by "two works" today is the way in which followers of the Lean methodology frame their work.
I heard such expression in an interview with the Lean consultant Jess Orr, who used to work for Toyota -the company that is the gold standard for Lean; and by the way, could we please have soon a Toyota in healthcare, in supermarkets, a computer seller, a political party, a... etc? :) -.
The two works are:
1) "Making the numbers". Units produced. Outcome. Weekly production plan.
2) Work the system. Work your processes. Improve the way you do things.
In this mental model, 1 and 2 are strongly interconnected. A supervisor will scold you if you make the numbers without being able to explain your process (you just "got lucky", and luck is not sustainable). Making the numbers, in a Lean context implies: you're serving that guy who expects to receive the value at the end of the line (He's called the customer, and Lean always keeps a steady eye on him; in contrast, non-Lean companies usually have attention to customer as an item somewhere inside a Top 3,500 priorities list, when not as wallpaper decoration turning yellow at some room). It also means generating the money that assures the survival of our company, so that we can keep improving and giving service to society. (Yes, you heard it right. Real Lean companies have an interest, that goes beyond slogans and spare change, to serve and improve the society they belong to. I know, shocking...)
Obviously, if before you only had 1) and now you have 1) and 2), you have just created a balancing act. I for one, know that I have a certain weak spot in being too focused on 2), perhaps as a sequel of the many previous years working without a method, just the usual chaos and workarounds that most people accept as "normal", "comes with the territory", etc. Music creation, being at its core a very solitary and introverted activity, makes things even worse (you can dive into a song and emerge somehow three hours later - picture the confusion)...
Time and energy are limited, Peter Parker expects his share, and there are opportunity costs at every corner of the way. Under such conditions, full balance is kinda impossible, and embarrassing moments will be plenty... But hey, progress over perfection. Every step you take is going to be a learning step, once you have a "map" of the game. In a recent article, John Shook uses the simile, for a different matter but applicable here too, of a teeter-totter. I like that analogy because what makes a teeter-totter fun is the continuous ups and downs. Full stability would be boring, and we don't want that, do we? :)
I should perhaps feel threatened or pissed about this guy, considering that one of my songs in the making has a strong and deliberate 80s feel. But he obviously tackles the most wussified-keyboardish side of the thing, and also, I think he is great...
This Maple Dye song, as the previous one and some of the others that will follow, was recorded in 2013, short after finishing the first Black Sheep Riot album. The effort that album took of me was tremendous -although in exchange, I learned a lot from the experience too-. After such intensity, I entered in a period in which I just wanted to "see countries", to move quickly and carelessly, so I recorded song after song out of my catalogue, heedlessly, doing only "the easy parts", still dazzled with the novelty of the things you could easily pull out with a DAW. Some of those recordings, as time has shown, are worth completing and putting out.
This one was composed 3 years before the recording sessions took place. Its theme is those flashbacks of embarrassing moments that we all get sometimes, about stuff that is generally very far in the past and we can't do anything about, and yet it comes back again and again to torments us. A good remedy I've found for them is treating them as a biographic game of Jeopardy. The moment one of them comes, and I notice, I say aloud "1993!", "2009!", "1987!"... whatever the year more or less I guesstimate it was. When I do that, they flake out very quickly.
Different schools of thought and spirituality have different names for these flashbacks. Conventional medicine connects them to our brain stem or "lizard brain". Buddhism calls them "the beast who lives in a cave, travels alone and travels far", if I remember correctly. Eckhart Tolle would call them the inner voice or Pain Body. NLP defines them more or less like "pain stored in a holographic representation of our body"... In a more poetic vein, my song compares them to teasers (as in movie teasers: those 5" ads that you get in movie theaters perhaps a few months before the real ads: "Get ready, Spiderman returns..." - quick logo - ok, done.) In this case, these are teasers where you get a "premiere" of... what will hell be like. :)
For the vocals I thought from the first moment in a delivery a la David Bowie, at least how I understand his style. What I most admire of his singing is the unique way in which he manages to be at the same time theatrical, flamboyant (a lot of people would say over the top), and yet at the same time you always have a feeling that he is dead serious. It was a fun exercise imitating his style, even though there are other aspects in his worldview of music that I don't share so much...
Scoffing at all kind of seismic events, my production system continues alive and well, always advancing like alive creatures use to -even if some days only a bit-, and, like all alive creatures, always modifying itself, getting new branches and prunnings.
One thing that this at-last-stable-enough system has allowed me to tackle is my long aspiration of using metrics.
(At the sound of the word, a big collective yawn overloads the interwebs... Please bear with me, I'll be light, I promise).
The problem with metrics is that a lot of boring, horrible people has used them to do boring, horrible things. But the tool, in itself, separated from its uses, is neutral. And damn powerful.
The simile with a sports match is a bit rough for my taste, but it is good as a starting point: imagine a [put your favorite sport here] match where there wasn't a score board. No way to track the points of each team, the number of periods, the remaining time for the current period... It would be chaos. No possible strategies (you cannot "dance around" the factors if you don't know the factors). And no excitement.
That's the kind of torture you submit yourself to when you do any cyclical task without setting some kind of system to to know if you're improving or getting worse along time.
At first I was going to write "if you're winning or losing", and now that I think of it, perhaps that's what I don't like about the sports simile: it's too warlike, us-vs-them, zero sum, only one winner on top. Maybe the comparison would be better complemented if we take out the competitive element and think of metrics as a "map".
It is very useful and heartwarming to know that some task that at the beginning of the year took you 17 hours now takes you only 14 and a half. You look at those cold numbers and feel wonderful. If I hadn't that point of reference, all I would have, at most, would be perhaps a vague feeling of "I'm getting better I guess".
I've also found that, given that music making involves a highly subjective use of time, it's great and very mentally healthy to have some kind of fixed reference (example: when I'm trying to compose a song, playing around with the riffs, checking old recordings, moving to pen and paper, getting distracted to cool off and then get back... All these processes feel as if my life had opened a parallel subsidiary that lasts forever, with a lot of depth, in which I get lost. Then I look at the clock: I've only been playing for 30 minutes!)
So now that my system is relatively steady, I've been able to put in place a couple of very generic metrics, the simple ones, the 101 of metrics, the stuff that would probably make a guy who works in a mature lean factory laugh at their naivete. For each song in process I'm measuring:
Failed attempts have shown me that the most important thing when you're using metrics is that they are easy to keep, sustainable. Otherwise they become a "luxury", a bureaucratic nightmare that adds up to your "real" work. So my system to keep these metrics is:
Hours invested: a spreadsheet document in each song folder, where I write at the beginning of a session the starting time (control+caps+colon shortcut in my computer), and ending time at the end in the same way. The cell on the right of those two calculates the difference. I have a template to create this file quickly, and the file is "floated" to the top of my list using the trick of naming it 000_thisfile, so it's immediate for me every time to find it, fill it, keep going.
Lead time: i.e. time from the moment a song enters my system until it is published. I keep track of this one very simply, writing the starting date on the kanban card of the song, and adding the finish date when the card reaches the right side. I cannot tell you what difference having those dates in the board has made. It suddenly is no longer an "abstract" object, it's alive and full of memories ("oh gosh, I started that song in May? Really?")
It will take some time before the results become reliable, because at the moment there are only 2 songs from scratch in the system. I'm applying these metrics to the songs in intermediate states too, because it's good practice and I'm sure I'll get a lot of good insights from them too, as I get better at interpreting the info.
So measuring takes some time to put it place, but for me it is being well worth the effort. I hope you find something in here that can apply to your practice, when the moment comes (it's taken me 8 years from the moment I thought I needed it, 24 if we count the time before I knew it... oh, there you go, another metric... :P )
It didn't take a rocket scientist to notice, but hey, I gave myself a mental medal when I saw Jason Becker's second single, after having mentioned in my previous post about his adventures how he seems so strongly focused on love.
Love not as in Hollywood love (i.e. control, power and prejudice). Not as in cheap novels (i.e. fear structures, mating game, stiff definitions of you, of me, of you-and-me). Love is a very bastardized word, like most of the important ones are.
Love as in breaking the barriers, the chains that exist within us. The separations that burden us and make us unhappy. Love as in a connection that is already there and only awaits to be "unburied". Love as something whose meaning must be investigated by each of us, one by one, on our own; something to get better at. Like Emerson once said, we are not here to work, we are here so that a certain work is done upon us.
Watching this new video, with the incredible performances of the players, and the proud "parade" of people who gather around Jason, at one point I remember I thought "hey, this is the human kind I want to belong to". A rare, wonderful emotion, in these days of darkness and hypocrisy... :)
(I've been a bit under the weather these days so I decided to write something light today...)
The other day I was working in a song that has two bridges. In order to locate it easily, I named the second one "Bridge 2 acoustic" in the DAW.
However, at some point it dawned on me: a name like that breached the "don't make me think" principle; each time I read that definition, instead of quick mental access to the part, what I got was having to decipher a small puzzle first: "just a second, I'm up to my ears in keyboards right now - what part was that exactly?" "Lemme think, does the part I'm thinking of have an acoustic guitar?"... An invisible burden that adds up each time.
The solution was easy. After all, I'm not a manufacturer or an engineer, mostly concerned about data accuracy; I'm a musician, a poetic being, fueled by thunder-like intuition and creativity; as a plus I'm a goofball, too, with a strong and healthy tendency to say all kind of random silly stuff at all times.
So the part was instantly renamed to "Bucolic bridge". Boom. Now I read that definition and know exactly, in a fraction of nanosecond, what part I'm referring to, where it starts and where it ends.
This kind of naming (un)conventions proved to be very useful in my band days, too. I remember once, discussing the arrangements of a song, the bass player said something like "...and then comes the Mötley Crüe part". We all burst in laughter. The part didn't sound like Mötley Crüe like... at all -it was a heavy and slow riff, closer perhaps to Black Sabbath-. Hell, I suspect that the bass player hadn't even listened to Mötley Crüe in his life... But the definition stuck -perhaps because it was so absurd?-, and from that moment we all referred to that part as the Mötley Crüe part. There was something tremendously right about calling it like that, and we all 'connected' with it instantly.
Fast forward to some years later, I'm not sure if any listener of my bridge would ever comment, right off the bat: "oh, how bucolic this sounds!" But it sure is working for me... I guess making music does not necessarily mean making sense :)
I've always found that many musicians, even many musicians that I adore, constrain themselves too much into a certain genre. Music making, in my case, certainly does not work that way; I listen to lots of different kinds of music (and not like a tourist: the moment you get chills out of a song, there's some serious stuff going on there, that song becomes a part of you, and such phenomenon has happened to me, and happily still does, with a wide spectrum of genres). So when the moment comes and this music lover moves into music making mode, the sources of influence are many and the results are therefore diverse.
However, I've also felt for some time now a need to "divide the ocean", to give some additional pointers to the audience, as a sort of courtesy. That's how I decided to create this second "band" (I hope I can kick out the quote unquote at some point), for my let's say more "classic", hard rock influences.
As another way of describing it, Black Sheep Riot has hardcore punk and thrash metal in its heart, while Maple Dye is my band for the songs in a line closer to Neil Young, Tom Petty, JJ Cale, Eric Clapton...
Yet another way to put it would be that BSR tends more to anger and MD tends more to sadness. But in fact these are all oversimplifications, and there are often big grey areas where I'm not sure where to put a song better... there are dark ballads that feel more BSR to me, and MD has some kick ass rockers too...
In any case, here is the first Maple Dye song, "As my mood goes down". Here it is officially, I mean; in fact this song, and the few upcoming that are going to follow, have already had some minor internet distribution in the past. But I thought it would be a good idea to revisit them "systematically" in this blog, now that I'm going to gather them in the shape of an album, which will also include 3 new songs. My initial idea was to finish the Black Sheep Riot album first (2 songs to go), but, as I continue with my struggle to repair my sonic chain, it does me good to "clear the decks" and keep the machine moving...
I hope you enjoy the song, written in (alas) 1993 and for a long time forgotten. The harmonica bit at the end is probably due to the fact that in those days I was discovering Bob Dylan big time. There is also influence of The Doors ("Been down so long"), and The Notting Hillbilies, I think (I saw Steve Phillips live in those days, in a gig that perhaps he would like to forget -small attendance-, but that I will always remember fondly :) ).
I have a guitar and I'm gonna use it