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

Friday, 9 October 2015

Track Review: Signals. - Sleep Talk

Signals. are a Southampton based quartet, you may remember their "Constructions" which was reviewed by Nile Barrow of By the Rivers a couple of years ago. It's always interesting to read musicians thoughts on other musicians, with Signals. being the pick from Barrow for our Discovery Weekender review festival. Well the quartet's latest release is a developing sound veering away from the math rock / pop of "Constructions" and their previous EP Facial Furniture. Instead, on their Sleep Talk EP and more specifically the self-titled track, Signals. evoke a calm delivery of indie electronica - the same way Delamere pulled away from bedroom recordings to achieve a professional sound. It's no shock that indie rock artists evolve over time, not quite in the same fashion as Pokémon, but you get the picture.

"Sleep Talk" keeps to Signals. narrative, instruments working in unison - though with slightly darker meaning in terms of lyrical and orchestral expression. One of Signals. qualities is their ability to work as a team; with their form of sincere 'math rock', you need the bass to be sporadic, linked to the piano - guitars need layering, guitars need reverb to add textures moving away from the grittiness of math rock's punk past (Fang Island, The Edmund Fitzgerald) conforming to the narrative of post-rock, where time signatures and a EADGBE bears no resemblance to a pre-determined theme. On "Sleep Talk" we see Signals. simply develop, interestingly enough they're doing it in the night’s sky instead of math rock's usual high fiving summer sunlight. 
~Eddie Gibson

Signals will be on tour late October, early November - you can check these dates on their Facebook.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Vök - Circles

Vök's music is continuously evolving from minimalism to a fully operational electronic project with sustenance. Where their first few tracks excelled in song-writing and production, they lacked in depth - offering up minimalism, though to the extend where percussion had become devoted to a singular instrument; be it the electric guitar on "Before", or the saxophone in "Ég bíð þín". Vök have moved away from this singular-instrument heavy material; it's probably for the best. Many artists make this change for creative reasons, but for marketing reasons too. Braids are a perfect example of a dream pop styled guitar heavy artist who dropped electric guitar to pick up electronic based instruments supported by strong production techniques. Although Vök are not similar in style, they're making this progression, completing their own circle - creating songs with purpose, character, but most importantly - substance.

You find this on every track, specifically the addictive "If I Was". They've really excelled in building a song based on simplicity and individual notes. "If I Was" is draped in character from the two-note / three-note synthesizer, to the vocal timings. That's correct, vocal timings. The lyrical progressions found on Circles speaks louder than David Gilmour's new album. It lets of the sense of professionalism, knowing full well that Vök, without even releasing a full-length album, seemingly fit within an industry built on experience and privileged social media campaigns. They combine the beauty of raw technical skill with electronica; without focussing on individual instruments as a frontrunner. Every atmospherical guitar riff, every refrain and high-pitched vocal - it just comes together as an explosion, all within three minutes, in what seems to be 30 seconds. That's how you grab hold of your listeners, by perfectly building a track from the first to the last seconf, filling it with meaningful instrumentation. If you're an aspiring electronic musician / producer, let "If I Was" be your benchmark; a truly captivating track.

If you think Vök cram a lot in to "If I Was", then the five minute "Waterfall" will seem like a century. It's the opposite in terms of captivating music to grab you by the scruff of your neck. That's not to say "Waterfall" is weak, that couldn't be farther from the truth. The slower, quieter (in terms of patience) electronic / ambience tracks are often the best - Slowdive's "Rutti" is potentially the perfect example of this. Like "Rutti", Vök's "Waterfall" is created and positioned first on Circles intentionally as the opener. Deep in wind chimes and whispered vocals leaves the listener deep in thought.

"Adrift" offers something different to Vök's output. It's somewhat stark in comparison to "If I Was", again carrying on from "Waterfall" with calm instrumentation. "Adrift" actually offers different musical comparisons in my strange brain. I hear Spyro the Dragon's ambient night levels, and Leonardo DiCaprio in the sunset beaches of... The Beach. Here we find a lucid, and much more focussed Vök from the somewhat archaic "If I Was". The saxophone returns as a background instrument - where it's without question stronger. It's similar to the closing self-titled track "Circles"; mixeing the best moments of "If I Was" with the characteristics of "Adrift" - perfect vocals and song structure, with the angelical sea-like instrumental we've come to associate with Balam Acab. This is what you get with Vök, mixed emotions and mixed compositions. Nothing is ever bland in their output. Even their previous EP Tension shows the signs of an artist ready-made and technically proficient. They're taking huge strides with their music, still - Vök is an artist designed for the cold winter months and dark autumn evenings. It's time for the eagerly awaited debut album, but I’m sure with their fast growing fan base, any material will be earned material for their listeners.
~Eddie Gibson

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Discover: Scott Robinson - Noticing

Keep It Up is Scott Robinson's second album - the follow-up to Hopeless Positivity, an album I missed. I've not listened to Robinson's music since 2013, since his Home Recordings collection of fuzz. That was back when Robinson had one like on his 'official' Facebook page, which was liked only by myself at the time. Amateurism musicians who rely on Bandcamp as their primary source of self-expression often find that their music is rarely heard. I'm sure after a few years of releasing music publicly, Robinson understands that Bandcamp perhaps is his port of importance, his safe-place of desperation - money doesn't influence this creative process.

"Noticing" is a stand out track on Keep It Up - it can be found at the 14ish minute mark, but go ahead and listen to the full album, it's not too long. That being said, there are aspects of Robinson's music which I straight up dislike, some parts are intentional to add sustenance which personally it could do without (percussion effects and mechanised wah-wah.) Listening through Robinson's music since Home Recordings is quite surprising as I didn't expect it to be so mellow. Where his original songs were demo-esque, the lo-fi recording was the appeal as it wasn't technically intentional lo-fi, it was lo-fi due to recording constraints - that's the kind of lo-fi which is in my books; passable.

This track certainly isn't lo-fi, it could be, but it isn't. Is it better like this? Perhaps, it's definitely more accessible and easier to hear the lyrics - Robinson's underlining quality. A test writers and musicians should do is strip down what they're listening to - hear it, see it as it's not supposed to be heard; that's when you can fully understand and grasp compositional writing. Stripping "Nothing" to its naked body unearths Robinson's jewels, song-writing and impressive unintended minimalism. The fade out, okay I despise fade outs, but I’ll let Robinson off because the content of "Nothing" does strike a chord with the listener. His influences seem to have changed from his conception - where the fizz sounds of Home Recordings was a clear call to Neutral Milk Hotel and Daniel Johnston, Keep It Up and "Noticing" in particular move away from the foundations of fuzzy alt-rock and indie, towards the realms of acoustic neo-psychedelia the likes of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Ty Segall (specifically Sleeper's "The West") understand. Sure, the heartfelt song-writing of Johnston and Elliot Smith are still present, but the musical accompaniment will dictate whether Robinson's music will progress in to a part of music's memorable library, or like the 45-year olds on Reverb Nation still holding on to that Pink Floyd pipe dream. My assumption would be the former, but perhaps the effects and added substance need to be dropped in order to achieve that Smith / Drake winter feel, within Robinson's bright song-writing.

~Eddie Gibson

Robinson's Keep It Up can be downloaded for free on Bandcamp here.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Discovery: Tuath - "Viholliseni Maala"

Tuath (pronounced two ah) are an Irish shoegazing two-piece - enriched in anti-nationalism, and the music in which they believe to be the neutral ground between politics and music. Self-announced as the first ever Irish language noise rock band, Tuath blend the drones of noise rock with the melodic and sensual sounds of shoegaze - at least it’s melodic to me anyway.

“Viholliseni Maala” is the English title - the actual Irish language title is “I D’tuath De Mo Cuid Namhaid”, a beast to take in. If you haven’t recognised the title, it’s because you’re not a fan of The Brian Jonestown Massacre; or just haven’t heard their 2012 album Aufheben. This is of course Tuath’s cover of the TBJM original, and it’s adequately on par with the original in my opinion.

On TBJM’s version from Aufheben, the vocals manage to get lost in the Clinic-esque production, where the drums sound like their coming from your neighbour’s garage, and the guitars are upstairs. Tuath took the tempo and slowed it right down, without losing the context of the songs original rock song structure. Reverb and delay embark on their voyage in quick strums introducing the listener to the TBJM chord progression. The sound is matched by Tuath’s quality at replicating and taking an original sound to their own level. The drums are slower and lively - sounding unique on the ear. Then the vocals kick in, and it’s quite surreal actually. Tuath clearly don’t hold the vocal power to sing freely on Capital FM, but they do the job their music compliments.

This is of course shoegaze, the scene which celebrated itself two decades and counting ago - Tuath are in no way bringing a noise rock revival to Ireland, but by singing 100% in their, THEIR language, they add a personality and character beyond the band name, and beyond the music. The music just happens to be pretty good with raw sounding percussion and incredibly well produced guitars. There are not many flaws with this cover, the only criticism I can actually give the track is the needless 20 second fade out which burns a hole in my ear drum. Nevertheless, a very good cover and executed well.
-Eddie Gibson

MRD's Discovery

We're happy to publish the first issue of MRD's Discovery. It's the start of a series which we hope will relay across a number of platforms, and a number of styled 'MRD's .....' They won't all be Discovery, but this will be the first of many Discovery releases by Music Review Database. It's where we get the most enjoyment, and it's where the discovery tagged artists get the most attention in music media - if they haven't already been picked up by a hip intern at IPC. We applaud anyone giving attention to the artists behind closed doors, and those far from the weak critical acclaim of BBC Radio 2's Drivetime. We believe some have enormous potential within their respected musical path, others we're just happy to give constructive criticism to. Most importantly, MRD's Discovery's intention is to bring attention to artists in the same light as others do for chart toppers. 

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Interview: If These Trees Could Talk

MRD: How did this band realise that they could work together?

We have all been close friends since we were young. I think that is why we work so well together, because we understand each other’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses and since we were friends before we were band mates we have a strong bond. Everyone except Mike went to the same high-school and we all kind of ran in the same circles.  Zack and Cody obviously have known each other the longest being brothers. Zack and I started playing music together when we were about 14 I think. Then in high-school we met Jeff and Mike and Matt Socrates and we all had different groups we would get together and jam with. The five of us have been in various bands together playing stuff from Alt-Rock to Metal to Classic Rock in the past but this formation has been by far the most successful.

Did you have any lineup changes before you stuck with the current one?

No. Same five guys since day one. It would be really hard to replace anyone because we are so used to each other. There is certain chemistry, even things outside of music like just being in a van together with the same guys you really get a special bond that would just seem different if we brought an outsider into. 

Did you always play the same style of music as you do now?

Officially as the Trees Yes, it’s always been this post-rock-ish stuff. But growing up and being in different groups, No. I think we have all had some periods in which we experimented with other styles and genres. I was in a couple different punk-rock and ska bands. Then I started playing gigs with a couple different bands that Zack and Mike were in that were more Alt-rock I guess you could say. Cody, Mike and Zack gigged in a metal band together for a while. And throughout all that we all played covers of all kinds of different stuff. I guess between us we’re all over the place with influences like Punk, Jazz, Industrial, Motown, Classic Rock, Anything from the 90s, etc&hellip

How did you get signed to Metal Blade records? Was it at a gig they attended?

That’s kind of a weird story. We had always released our own music except for the vinyls which a couple labels helped us to print and distribute. So we have never officially been on a label before now. We just went out and did our stuff the way we wanted to, when we wanted to, and the music just kind of got out there. Eventually through different channels, mostly digitally and word-of-mouth I would guess, a chef named Chris Santos got a hold of our stuff and happened to be hanging with Metal Blade founder Brian Slagel in New York. He got Brian to listen to some of our stuff and then he got in touch with us. We chatted a few times and before you know it they gave us an offer and we couldn’t have been more excited to become part of their family!

Why don't you have vocals on your songs, is this a preference?

This whole style grew from a demo project Zack started while he was away at Art School. He was into stuff without vocals like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky and wanted to record the ideas he was having. Some of those tracks made their way onto our first EP. None of us are much of singers and we really were just into the music anyway so we never really cared to add vocals. With all three guitars working different parts it’s nice to just focus on that. We always get asked if we ever want to get a singer, and honestly if we ever did it would be something different. The Trees are going to be without vocals for the foreseeable future.

Your music is very progressive, so I was wondering if you have any prog influences on your music, like Liquid Tension Experiment for example?

With all the different genres that each band member is into I’m sure there is some prog-influence in there. I don't think there is any one specific band that we could point to as modelling our sound from. It just comes together the way it does. I think we all would say there is something unique about doing things in a manner other than the simple straight-forward 4/4, verse-chorus-verse thing. So if you want to call our creativity and ambition to do things our own way progressive that’s fine. I’ll be the first to tell you there are a ton of bands out there doing things way more “progressive” than us.

Malabar Front was featured in the video game Infamous, how did you feel when this song was picked for a game like that?

For us, that was the first major recognition that we had ever received. It feels pretty good to have someone come along and tell you that they like your music so much that it inspires them and they want to use it in something they are creating. That got us some more publicity I think because after that we started to get more requests and license offers. We like the artistic projects that come up the best. Obviously we feel like artists and want our music incorporated into more unique projects that other artists are working on. We had a couple of major motion film trailers that we've been in the running for but so far haven’t landed a big one yet.

You formed in 2005, but only got signed a few months ago; did you have any other encounters with record companies?

As I mentioned before, we have never been officially been on any other labels other than Metal Blade. The other companies we have worked with (The Mylene Sheath and Science of Silence) have been agreements to release vinyl records of the albums we had already released ourselves. These were small runs which is why until now we haven’t really had the ability to get our music in physical form out to all the people who want it. There have been a few smaller labels that we had considered trying to work with but to be honest Metal Blade is the first and only one that made us a legit offer that we felt would really help us grow and get our music out to our fans around the world.

Is it hard to make it onto the music scene in Ohio, and what is the music scene like there?

I think “making it” here is probably just as hard as it is most anywhere else. Outside of LA and New York I suppose. There aren't really any major labels around so it’s all about getting your music out there into the world. You've obviously got to have talent first and foremost, but I think there is a lot of coincidence that goes into it too. You've got to have the right person hear it at the right time for things to work out. 

The scene is pretty eclectic. There’s all kinds of stuff; metal, rock, punk, folk, soul there are a couple of cool jazz clubs in town here in Akron. It’s kind of all over. Most notably in recent years Dan and Pat from The Black Keys came from Akron which I’m sure you already knew. There is also a sweet pedal company called Earthquaker Devices who’s here in town. When you get into some of the big university cities like Columbus you see a lot more stuff from those crazy college kids.

Do you think it's more difficult drawing in a crowd being an instrumental band?

At times I think it can be tougher, but we have found by opening for all kinds of different acts that our sound connects with a lot of different people for the simple fact that we don’t have a singer. I mean, if we had a “metal” singer who screamed and stuff we probably wouldn't appeal very much to the people that aren't into that kind of thing. But at the same time, our sound would lend itself to that if we so chose and the more metal inclined fans probably would say that would sound good if we had it. I guess being instrumental has its pluses and minuses for that simple fact.

What is the key thing to your live performance that attracts the audience?

We work hard to make sure that we are tight and get our timing down. We like to play loud but it’s got to be tight or with as many guitars as we have it would just get sloppy. We want to continue to add to our live shows to make it more of an experience with lighting and other visuals, but it all starts with being able to play the music well.

Your last prominent recorded material you have was Red Forest, what is next for you guys on the recording front?

We have already begun tracking our next album, the first to be released as Metal Blade recording artists. It is as of yet untitled but I can tell you we are happy with what we demoed out and can’t wait for people to hear it. Hopefully it will be well received as we feel we are continuing to grow and develop our sound. The goal is to have it ready for a release in the latter part of the year.

Will you be gigging soon? You seem to be quiet on social networking when it comes to live performance.

For the time being, our focus is getting this album tracked and back to the guys at Metal Blade. We all feel really lucky to have the opportunity to work with them and we don’t want to let anyone down. So we are 100% focused on that right now. We have had a few things come up for some possible touring but the timing just isn't right for us. As soon as we get through our studio time, I can guarantee you’ll see us out on the road.

Do you guys find it difficult to make any money in the music business as it is showing a dramatic decline financially?

That is something we are still trying to learn the formula for. For us, thus far we have not had the ability to commit full-time solely to the Trees. We all work other jobs to support our families. The band has become somewhat self-sufficient at this point but we hope that it can be more. If you are able to wear more than one hat in this business you have a better chance of succeeding. If you can write, produce, engineer, create artwork and play you can certainly give yourself a better opportunity for success. Just playing an instrument occasionally at a gig or two isn't going to keep food on your table.

You have a fantastic following, with comments on YouTube ranging from “This album makes me want to smoke some weed” to “Their music consists of ultra-relaxing songs, which are great for daydreaming and piecing together landscapes”, how happy are you reading comments that compliment you in  different varieties?

It’s really great to know people dig what you’re putting out there. We are grateful to each and every person who has given us a chance and supported us. We’d probably still be making music if nobody was paying attention but to have been able to positively affect so many people is inspiring and keeps us going. We can’t wait to get out on the road to all the places we have not had a chance to go and continue to play our music for people.

Interview by Matthew Clewley, words by Tom Fihe.

The Streets - A Grand Don't Come for Free

A Grand Don't Come for Free - Mike Skinner's magnum opus under his pseudonym The Streets. It's all somewhat taboo labelling The Streets' sophomore album a classic, but remember it's been over 10 years now since its release with Locked On Records giving us the go ahead to review, admire, and praise. It's simplicity attracting listeners to Skinner's music, though the listeners are far from simple. UK hip-hop, the genre often associated in the scrub lands as 'grime' innit, but Skinner's hip-hop is leaned towards 2-step garage, as heard on the exceptional Original Pirate Material released two years prior to his Grand piece. His upbringing, Birmingham, rich in musical culture and multiculturalism as Skinner's musical influences would suggest - ranging from the reggae sounds introduced to the UK through Island Records' humble beginnings, to the smart rapping and production skills of the Wu-Tang Clan. His story on Original Pirate Material was street music for street people - electroheads and stoners united. It wasn't so much an album displaying the hard life youths often face in Birmingham, but the comedic and varying sounds of a period remembered mostly for Ronaldinho's chip - normal, day-to-day life for a 'lad'. Skinner took the lyrical realism to the next level on A Grand Don't Come for Free, creating a real world version of Deltron 3000's self-titled debut album; something hip-hop / music in general was in need of - the concept album hasn't been matched to this detail since.

"It Was Supposed to Be So Easy" - He failed on the DVD, he couldn't withdraw any money, or call his Mum for tea, or get his savings on the side next to the telly. Skinner doesn't have the best of days in A Grand Don't Come for Free's opening track; the protagonist tells the audience of his day-to-day failings, mentioning his initial problems such as failing to return a DVD to the video store (pre-Netflix,) and losing his £1,000. Those that have heard this album in full will know the story and know how it ends, but if you haven't... go listen to it before reading on. Musically, the opening track like most of A Grand Don't Come for Free comes second to the lyrics. This is typical garage fashion - with Skinner exploiting the simple structures, and often standard beats with his additional piano playing. "Could Well Be In" is the perfect example of this; simple beat, very thin structurally, with lyrics applied to the tone of the instrumental. It introduces the love interest - Simone - with the atypical Skinner refrain: "I saw this thing on ITV the other week. Said, that if she plays with her hair, she's probably keen. She's playing with her hair well regularly, so I reckon I could well be in."  Though, the cuteness of Skinner's lyricism comes to a swift end. "Not Addicted" makes sure the listener fully grasps the lifestyle of Skinner's protagonist. He explores the degenerate lifestyle of part-time weekend bettors, contemplating whether or not to bet his bankroll on one bet through his 'instinct'. He fails to put the bet on, then explores the highs and lows of being angry not being on, then relief through the realisation of losing his bankroll.

A Grand Don't Come for Free also stepped in to the innovative foundations of the dubstep genre which peaked a few years later. "Blinded by the Lights" explores subjects untouched in Skinner's previous releases. The club becomes the setting, drugs the content - with classic Skinnerisms throughout. As a story, "Blinded by the Lights" is right up there as one of the best on this album, spoken perfectly with just the right level of confusion and club life slang. Skinner's production here is flawless, hard hitting bass synthesizers reminiscing the sound of 90s trance mixed with the 2-step beat creating an original dubstep recording with faint whiffs of ambience backing the sharper synthesizers.

Skinner is quite simply an extraordinary musician from his lyrical poetry to the raw production skills. This album acts as a compilation of all his skills and stories from what he sees and hears from his time growing up and living pre-Original Pirate Material, and post-Original Pirate Material. It's the varying nature of Skinner's protagonist in A Grand Don't Come for Free which resonates with so many listeners, At times he's incredibly lucky to be in a financial position to have his drugs, alcohol, and relationship life - explored deeply as a level of stability in "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way", a tale of decision making and settling for the sedimentary lifestyle. Demolished on "Get out of My House" by the vocal introduction of his love interest Simone or C-Mone as the actual vocalist is known as. These are both examples of Skinner's extremely British lyrics; his use of slang terms and cockney rhyming may confuse the non-British listeners, but at the same time activates a specifically intended style of vocal delivery actually acted out in real life. This is delivered exceptionally well on "Fit but You Know It" - the ultimate lad song pre-Magaluf: "See I reckon you're about an 8 or a 9, maybe even 9 and a half in for beers time." Skinner's lyrics take place on what appears to be a holiday abroad where the beers are flowing and the birds are flying all over the pavement. It introduces the non-British listeners to the state of British women, or the perception British men have of women who put very little effort in to the pulling game, it specifically applies to cheap holidays in the sun.

Skinner's protagonist often comes to his senses throughout A Grand Don't Come for Free. He's constantly making self-reflecting comments, questioning his own thoughts and desires. "Such a Twat" has an angrier tone - the fun and games of "Fit but You Know It" are coming back to haunt Skinner, and what seems like the listener for partaking in his moments. This track acts as a buffer for the remaining tracks bringing A Grand Don't Come for Free to a close. "What Is He Thinking" carries on Skinner's self-inflicting anger. It's passionate spoken word questioning, in a Silent Witness / Midsummer Night Murders fashion - loosely. Skinner comes to the conclusion of his 'mates' betrayal, in a typical human hypocritical fashion after the events of "Fit but You Know It" and "Such a Twat". His passionate love for Simone falls to desperation on the penultimate track "Dry Your Eyes", the soul searching tear-jerker on A Grand Don't Come for Free - it just had to have one to complete the story, and Skinner executes it well. Acoustic guitar, the repetition of the word "please" and even more realisation that the protagonist's life has taken another, massive hit - leaving the listener in a state of mourning for his woes.

The closing track is a remarkable end to Skinner's sorrowful concept album. It's a classic The Streets track, Utilising basic structures to create a masterpiece right after delivering what’s come to be known as The Streets' most known and successful single "Dry Your Eyes". On the album closer, the audience is exposed to different endings. The first ending is what Skinner's previous 10 tracks would realistically ask for - confusion, self-inflicting anger, and the passage the protagonist would rightfully take in the real world. The second ending is what the listener wants, what Skinner's protagonist wants, and what would be considered unnatural, and fanatical for its fairytale ending. It's seen as an anomaly on A Grand Don't Come for Free because of its length (8:15,) and content. "Empty Cans" involves the listener more so than any of the previous tracks, its intention is to close the album, and complete the story arc in a typical Hollywood linear cycle. The first half of "Empty Cans" doesn't do this - and it's not the only reason why A Grand Don't Come for Free ends there. Skinner's not finished. The sound of a vinyl being rewound can be heard before the same opening to "Empty Cans", only with piano accompaniment - heard previously on "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" when the protagonist was last in his comfort zone. Of course, he does end up in his comfort zone as expected. The second half of "Empty Cans" brings together the characters, finally united as one. It closes A Grand Don't Come for Free with an answer to the £1,000 problem. Again, he thinks, deciding on allowing his mate back into his life to have a look at his TV: "It's the end of something I did not want to end, beginning of hard times to come. But something that was not meant to be is done, and this is the start of what was." Skinner delivers this with such conviction. He really does make you want to get up off your arse and do something, be it reconciling with a lost friend, or completing a set goal you made five years ago. The ambient synthesizers and piano increase in volume, the strings enter, and the bass becomes more dominant. Skinner finds his grand, completing the cycle he started in "It Was Supposed to Be So Easy". Choosing to forgive his mate, and realise his life can only be decided and looked after by him, and as he says it, the refrain enters, bringing together the cinematic vibe A Grand Don't Come for Free cries out for in its raw percussion and spoken word poetry. And it's in the dying seconds of "Empty Cans" when the protagonist finally sounds at peace - which resonates with the audience who have been involved in Skinner's first hand events throughout the album. It's not only a complete circle for Skinner's story and The Streets, but for you and I who put so much time and attention in to this music; music, it's so much more than that on A Grand Don't Come for Free, that's why it's a classic, and that's why it deserves all the plaudits - truly innovative right from the start.
~Eddie Gibson