Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Interview: Brandon Scott Robinson

MRD: Where are you from? What's the music scene like there? 

Scott: I'm from a relatively small city, Frederick MD. I've seen from scrolling through Reverbnation that there is a pretty genuine music scene here, but being that I've never spent a lot of time going to bars or venues, most of it I’m completely unaware of. I've heard of and know about some of them but I don't think Frederick has spawned anything big in the last decade or so. Usually in this town when a band branches out of the local bar/club scene they start playing in either Baltimore, or Washington DC, which are pretty much the biggest cities from around where I live. But to actually answer the question that could at least give some real insight is that I used to frequent weekly open mic shows at really low scale bars in the downtown section of Frederick, and always enjoyed the music but not the atmosphere. Frederick is considered the hipster capital of Maryland, and although the 'hipster' subculture is mostly about fashion, I think it bleeds into their music as well. I wouldn't be able to identify it if I heard it but when I used to go to open mics there wasn't a tremendous amount of talent, yet there was always a small following of people aged 18-50 crowding the guy while they sway back and forth with their eyes closed. That's all the experience I've gotten so far. Other than that there are a lot of bands filled with older type guys who make old fashion rock' n' roll, and always draw a huge crowd singing 70s-80s hit songs.

When did you realise your music was considered 'outsider'?

Well, due to the limited amount of exposure I've gotten online, I've never really been able to come to a verdict on what people think of my music and sometimes even what style it is. I have a wide array of "outsider" bands that inspire me which leads me to try not to be so mainstream sounding. With all the music out there as of currently it's hard to imagine you'll invent your own style but that doesn't mean it can't be done if you be yourself and try to have some sense of originality. When I started having conversations with the few people who like my music was when I realized we shared a lot of the same musical taste and would always eventually discover music I've never heard that was very far from the limelight and could definitely be considered "outsider".

What made you pursue music? Why? and when did you start writing songs? 

I've always wanted to be a musician, but it wasn't until I started singing around age 16 that I learned how absolutely fun it was. I've been playing guitar since my older brother taught me when I was really young. It wasn't until I started getting heavily into The Beatles that I started to take on the "musician" persona. I've read over at least 15 books on them and always found it super inspiring to read about their transition from touring/playing live to making the album Sgt. Pepper in the studio and how they completely stopped playing live so they could focus on the song writing aspect of their careers. I absolutely love watching documentaries about bands being in the studio working on an entire album and the creative focus that goes into it, alongside with having to work with and compromise with your band mates. Something that definitely helped guide me into becoming a musician was programs like audacity and FL studio. One of my friends helped me get a free version of Fruity Loops and that was when the idea became completely doable, because it's much like having an entire band at your fingertips. Another benefit to it is that you don't have to go through the struggle of finding other people to write with, and a backup band. Prior to FL studio I NEVER would have written a song and got the courage to record it and show it to anybody. I would occasionally mess around with verses and chorus ideas I had but never with proper lyrics and would get embarrassed to present the "ideas" to anybody, especially with my vocals, which aren't considered (to me) to be something I'd consider I have strength in. I eventually started to make orchestral sounding stuff on FL and would do it all by ear and people wouldn't believe I made it and I'd feel a huge sense of accomplishment and would listen to the songs over and over and each song began so completed and unique because they were all different and spawned different (I guess) emotions but still had a similar sound. I'd say that both my brother and sister had a play in it, because we've always found great joy in sitting around covering songs. Eventually I acquired this weird sort of confidence and it wasn't long until I was able to play out and sing an entire original song to a group of people without being ashamed but instead exhilarated. I could imagine it's extremely difficult to write a song with friends or band mates because everybody involved has these weird and cagey boundaries and a lot of the time nobody has the courage to really lead the song in the right direction. The opportunity to make computerised drums and all that turned me into a one man band, and I had Stanley Kubrick styled control over EVERYTHING I did, and I could do it alone which is great!

Tell me about your experiences releasing music to a small audience?

I've experienced all sorts of different reactions from different types of people. During the time where my music would have been considered "lo-fi to its absolute extremity" I got a lot of love and quite a lot of hate as well. The positive responses would range from genuine to sympathetic, which I always thought was funny when I could tell certain people were trying to give me a pep talk and to explain to me why my song was "not that bad" but then I got a few really encouraging responses that went into depth and in turn made me realise a lot about my music that I otherwise wouldn't have recognised. One thing for sure is that I don't think I get a lot of "return customers" in the sense that when I see a YouTube comment or a soundcloud heart it's always from a different person that's just persuing my music page. That's one reason I find music to be kind of one of the hardest forms of creativity to get out there as opposed to paintings and drawing and stuff. In order to get people to want to hear more is to always try to raise the bar and make the song as catchy and unique as you possibly can.

Your favourite artists, and why? 

I have about ten bands/musicians that I consider some of my main inspirations, but I'll try my best to shave it down to about four. 1. Daniel Johnston, because I consider my discovery of him to be the turning point in my life that I decided to evolve from someone who occasionally covers songs to a real songwriter. I was instantly fascinated by his music and loved the fact that he was punching out song after song in his teenage years, NEVER gave up on it, and made his music so personalised. As soon as my old girlfriend showed me his documentary when I was still a teenager it seemed so nostalgic because at the age of 15 I was secretly and discreetly recording songs on my own keyboard in front of a microphone at 2am using the quietest voice I could possibly sing with. Never even showed them to anybody, and eventually lost all of them in a disorganised mess of old computer folders. I still remember them though. His never-ending struggle with bipolar mania also hits the nail on the head because that sort of depression is something I've experienced since I was about 18. It doesn't even come close to as bad as his was/is but I felt like I was discovering this kid with a lot of similar characteristics. Another reason he is so inspiring is because the raw emotion in his music is, in my opinion, unmatched by any other artists alive OR dead. Lennon & McCartney are also huge influences in my music. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't know how to write a melody, or even harmonise. The fact that their music and personalities differ so much from another helped guide the way my music sounds. I wouldn't be able to tell you which of the two influences me more. I think I try to make my songs have the Lennon edge and the McCartney cheer, only with my own angle and personality to it. Upon first listen to just about any of my songs you can definitely hear The Beatles influence in all of them. I've been trying to stay away from doing so many harmonies and instruments because nobody wants to be told their ripping off the most important band in music history, but after so many years of listening to and studying The Beatles and having been such a fan of them when I STARTED writing, I sometimes feel like it's a habit that won't be easy to shake. At the same time I ask myself, "what happened to all the delicious harmonies in music nowadays? Why would such a beautiful sounding thing become so widely unpopular?" and I don't think I know the answer to it. I'm not the greatest vocalist though, and I feel like harmonies come easy to me so I use them frequently to overcompensate for my lack of a superb singing voice. I read someone say recently that "ANYBODY can sing if they sing with emotion" and it stuck with me right away, because I believe that's so undeniably true that I can't even begin to try to explain why. It just is. And although the Beatles were so extremely talented at just about everything I still don't think that's why they wrote so many great songs. I think they just had a lot of fun doing it and another thing of importance is that they never settled for a certain style and proceeded to learn and try new things until they eventually broke up.

What are you trying to achieve when you release your music?

I've been asking myself this for quite awhile. I've come to the conclusion that good music is supposed to make people feel emotions that they otherwise wouldn't have felt without the music. My favourite kind of music is the kind that somehow has the ability to make a person feel terribly sad and terribly happy at the same time. Personally, that's my favourite kind of music out there. I hope to succeed in making people feel both of those two somehow at the same time. That's what I tell myself at least. The longer it gets to where I can call myself a musician sometimes I wonder if I’m writing these songs to and for myself though. But the thing is I want it to be relatable and for the listeners to apply a certain song I make to their own personal situation. For instance, a song like "Don't Think Twice it's Alright" you get to hear Bob Dylan sing about a break-up of some sort. That's a good example of a song people like to listen to while reminiscing about a failed relationship, or a soon-to-be ended relationship. It's Dylan's thoughts written in a pure unadulterated form that is terrifically relatable. A lot of the songs I write, if you really listen to the message, it's always a positive and motivating message (or I TRY to make it that way) because I've always been a big fan of songs that are comforting and motivating and have one simple message which is "keep trying, never give up, it's GOING to be alright" because when I listen to songs like that I usually end up crying depending on which mood I'm in. If my songs have the ability to make someone choke up, then I feel like I've done my job, because sometimes it can be incredibly hard to clean out all that emotional baggage without the use of something external like music or drugs or other stuff. Music is like therapy. As far as money or fame or all the other stuff that comes with being a musician, I’m not honestly too sure about all that stuff. Creative people who say they're not interested in those things are lying to themselves, because what point is music without an audience? I've struggled with the whole "getting an audience" part of the career since I started. But the few people that revisit my music and check in on them mean the world to me because then I know it's been heard both subconsciously and consciously and there's a very good chance you might get one of my tunes stuck in your head because I do try to make them as poppy and as catchy as I can. I made the conscious decision long ago that I don't need wealth to continue the path of being a musician. If I can work a job that pays the bills and continue sitting in my basement making albums every few months, well, I know I'll be happy and content.

Have you thought about playing live?

That's something that I think about quite a lot but still haven't pursued at all, but eventually I will. I need to build a little something called musical stamina because hardly ever is it that I stand up with a guitar strapped to my chest and try to sing a set list of my songs. Let's put it this way... If I were to be thrown unexpectedly on stage at an open mic I would struggle. I'd struggle singing full songs and focusing on the pauses that would allow me to catch my breath. THAT'S really what I need to work on, because sometimes I go to my computer to record and start manually making up a song out of thin air, and it's a long drawn out process that doesn't include me having the stamina or charisma to perform the song from start to finish. Sometimes I sing to my mom or a few of my friends but have to get a grip on my nerves when I do it. It's certainly a fun kind of nervous though. I used to imagine myself getting on stage without anything planned out and just sort of see what happens and embrace the discomfort of being stared at by tens of people, and be stone cold sober while doing it. It's exciting to think about!

Where do you see your music in five years time?

Well, there's a big contrasting different in what I can hope for and what I think will actually happen. The reality of the situation is that if I don't start playing live I don't think I’ll ever get anywhere. Also, music to me has become an addiction and an obsession. I've only been writing for two years and I already have over 50 songs. Sometimes I remind myself of Sickboy's theory on life in the movie "Trainspotting" and try to apply it to my situation, and in that movie he goes on about how famous musicians "have it... and then they lose it" and tries to explain how most popular artists sadly but eventually turned into has-beens. I don't HONESTLY believe in that theory, but it doesn't hurt to try to write as many songs as you possibly can with the hopes that when it comes time to drop a real studio album you can knit pick which ones you and your audience consider being the best of the best. That may very well be the reason I have so many songs that all have a similar style. I hardly give myself a chance to stray from the norm and try new things because I've gotten to the point where I don't even have to make much of an effort to write a song. A problem with that, and a problem that I see in my music is that being that I don't have much of an audience, I can't really tell if any of its actually good. Hopefully in five years I'll already have met who I hope to be my "musical soul mate" which to me is considered someone who I can bounce off of, work well with, and collect inspiration from. I've always liked the idea of having a duo with a female musician. I write songs with my sister a lot, and she's about twice the musician I am but doesn't know it because she doesn't play an instrument or write songs. I hope to start up a project with her and a few friends I'm hoping to one day write with.

If you could give any encouragement / advice to any artists in a similar situation; what would it be? 

This is a question I think I can really go into detail about. I would say the first piece of advice would to be too literally NEVER let criticism get to you to the point to where it has potential to stop you from doing what you love. People won't criticice you or judge you if they see that being creative/writing songs makes you happy or gives you any sort of fulfilment, and if they do? Then they're just trying to be a dick intentionally because their lives are sad and lacking and they've most likely got their head screwed on the wrong way for some odd reason or another. Another piece of advice is to just do it and not think too hard about it, and to just go with the flow until you've figured out your style and your favourite way to do things. Not everybody is going to be enthusiastic about your song writing, and if they are, don't take it personal. In fact, if you're just starting out and in the midst of the phase of where your friends are hearing your first couple of songs, expect that it's not going to be that way forever. People will get used to it and before you know it the people you thought were your fans/audience will tend to be less surprised that you're writing all these songs and won't say as much. Just keep at it though, and always think up new ways to get new listeners. It's hard because there really is no one way to do it, and you'll find out pretty quick that there aren't many successful ways at all to promote your own music. One more thing that I highly suggest you do is download simple software like audacity and try to mash out entire songs and make them as colourful as you possibly can. That way you can get a feel of separating the verse from the chorus and so on. My first year of recording music I didn't even have a microphone, just a laptop and a guitar, and making a drumbeat on the back of my guitar helped give the songs somewhat of a decent structure and can be a lot better of a method than trying to write an entire song without recording.

Words by Eddie Gibson, with thanks to Brandon Scott Robinson.
You can check out Brandon's music here.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Track Review: EMA - Active Shooter

EMA's released some fantastic material over the years; I’m still mildly addicted to Past Life Martyred Saints and Leif Shackelford's viola inclusions on said album (he also very kindly created a mix for my radio show last year.) Erika's song-writing has always been poetic, the pounding "California" with its encoded brilliance: "Love so much so real so fucked, it's 5150." Her work in Gowns will be remembered for gritty lyricism and even grittier drone recordings; in the Godspeed You! Black Emperor gritty way. Erika has chosen her path since Past Life Martyred Saints; EMA's music has seamlessly transitioned from a mild form of noise rock ("Milkman", "Marked", "The Grey Ship") to a more dissonant reality with The Future's Void's "Satellites", and her nuance of political noise rock. Her cover of Sinéad O’Connor's "Black Boys On Mopeds" is a darkened apathetic view on what we see in the mainstream news; and it paves the way for her latest release "Active Shooter".

Now this is the bridge between political opinion and matters of public discussion. "Active Shooter", without tying in the lyrics which I’ll touch upon below, is a harrowing music video depicting police simulating a school shooting. Musically, it's a distorted thumping NIN-esque call to arms - if you'll mind the blatant pun there - it would fit perfectly on a detective based, 24 type series finale. As for the lyrics, well they're emotional to say the least. It's tricky because who am I (a UK-citizen who doesn't own a gun or have immediate access to a gun) to say US citizens should follow the same system as we have,  additionally who am I to say US citizens shouldn't follow the same system as we have. 

Lets dissect: "Anyone in America, wrong time wrong place in a hallway," yep, agree with that - no matter who you are or where you are there's always a threat; you may not like it, but it's been built in to society now that at any minute you could be at risk, of course this is extremely unlikely - but it's in your mind, isn't it. "Armed good guys are a myth, never saved no one from shit," this one I’m wholesomely against, though the more general message Erika is portraying here is along the lines of 'fighting gun violence with guns is not the answer', which I absolutely agree with. "Angry white boys get uptight, got no right to end a life," okay sure, it's justified in the cases of Sandy Hook and Columbine where mentally deranged lunatics killed innocents - and mark my words, you do have to be mentally deranged to point a gun at children and shoot. The point I disagree with is the generalising of young white males. Not to mention that this particular case in Oregon was carried out by a mixed-race British-born IRA sympathising mentally deranged lunatic, not your typical Caucasian American young narcissistic loser like Adam Lanza; but the similiarities are there. I don't think race defines the act of cowardice. It's accurate to say that school shootings on a whole tend to be carried out by white males in the USA, but we can't ignore the huge levels of gun crime commited by African-Americans on an everyday basis. EMA's emotional response to tragedy is key here, and this is another tragedy. It's awful to admit it, but it's only a matter of time till the next one - not necessarily due to eased gun control, but because this sickening behaviour is idolised by sickening individuals - and in this age of social status attention seeking, school shootings will unfortunately never be eradicated, even if every rifle and every pistol in America is taken away; that threat will forever loom. And that, I believe, is what Erika is conveying here, possibly.. maybe - we've gone so far down the rabbit hole that there’s no end in sight.
~Eddie Gibson