Up Your Music Game

One thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of music appreciation is that everyone listens his or her own way. Think of the last time you listened to music. What was it? How did you listen to it? Were you paying attention to individual instruments, lyrics, or do you remember how it felt?

In my experience, musicians tend to hear individual instruments; they can tell you what instruments are being played, and they can hear what each is doing and explain it to you. Listening in his mode makes it easy to hear each type of sound as an extension of the person playing the instrument, and appreciate the creativity and skill, or lack thereof. Musicians can break apart a song and explain it rationally.

But it seems to me the average listener hears the song as a whole; they have a connection to how a song feels, but couldn’t tell you what went into making it, and they tend to remember the vocal melody and lyrics before the instrumentation.

Here’s an experiment: if you’re the type who hears individual instruments, try to turn that off for a while and listen to the song as a whole. Pay attention to how it feels. If you’re the type who listens to songs “as a whole,” try to delineate what instruments are making what noises, and pay attention to what each is doing (this might take a few listens). Switching back and forth and listening to songs different ways can lead to surprising changes in opinion.

You can listen any number of ways. Listen to the rhythm section. Listen to the amount of reverb on the vocals or the distance of the mike from the drums. Listen to the lyrics and pay attention to their meaning. Manipulating your own consciousness around the music can be an interesting experience.

You might realize that you disliked a song your entire life because there is one small aspect of it that rubs you the wrong way. For instance, once you muscle through the totally bizarre opening two minutes of “Aja” by Steely Dan, the song is unstoppable, and the last minute is mind-blowing.

You might also find out one of your favorite songs is actually terrible. That’s not a fun discovery, but do you really want to listen to garbage your whole life just because you lost your virginity to Def Leopard?

Drink It In

If I expect a good cup of coffee in the morning, I go to bed excited for it. Everything about coffee appeals to me. The aroma of coffee is one of the most compelling I can think of, and the flavour of a really good cup lives up to that aroma. So for years it has boggle my mind that most people tend to drink coffee like this:

Tall French Roast

Congratulations, you have successfully robbed yourself of half the pleasure of coffee. It isn’t a fluke that when we raise a glass for a drink, our noses are in that glass. That’s just good evolution. If all you want is the caffeine, you can get that in a pill. Likewise, drinking beer out of a bottle is only a good idea if you don’t want to fully taste it.

Our senses are not as cleanly delineated as our language implies. The sense of taste is an overall impression made up of multiple brain processes. The taste from the taste buds is part of that impression, but the olfactory receptors play a vital role as well. Similarly, when we listen to music, the bass drum thumping in our chest and the vibrations through the bottoms of our feet contribute strongly to the experience.

This is why you cannot beat live music. To be inside a physical environment tailored for live music, to hear the music loudly, to feel the music and to see it performed in front of you – this is to experience music fully. The more nerve centers we can engage, the more sense data our brains have to build up our experience.

So-called holy sites can really evoke sacred feelings in people because these places are full of sights, smells, sounds, textures, and all the other sensory paraphernalia correlated to holiness. In places like these, brains simply have more to work with, more “food for thought” that can be used to build up a holy experience.

Of course it also helps to pay attention. Our senses and brains have evolved to extract meaningful data from a noisy environment. You can be inside that concert hall–band wailing away, laser light show twirling all around you–and remain totally oblivious because you are watching a YouTube video on your phone. And with all that noise in your environment, how deeply can you expect to be engaged by that YouTube video?

Mindfulness exercises teach us to connect with experience, to tone down distraction and stay present with the task at hand. Whatever we turn our attention to has the potential to completely fulfill our experience. A fully engaged experience doesn’t want for anything; the more fully we are engaged, the further we must be from worry, depression, and pain.

You can make an exercise in mindfulness out of your morning cup of coffee. It might change your life. Turn all your senses to your task, and drink it in – with the lid off.

Whole Foods Coffee

P.S. These days I roast my coffee from green beans on my stove, then grind the beans into a French press with filtered water I’ve heated to just shy of boiling. It makes for a great cup, but it takes time. Obviously this can only be worth my while if I know I’ll have the time to relax and enjoy the drink fully. You may wonder how much time I spend on coffee. The answer is…don’t worry about it.

Why Guided By Voices Rocks

I bet if you think back to your high school days you can remember the soundtrack. And I bet that when you hear songs from that era, they often call up old memories. We bond emotionally with the music we hear through puberty and adolescence. As we learn our social roles with a little more sophistication, our tastes form and our identities crystallize to an extent. That soundtrack is likely to remain a familiar comfort through our lives.

Besides the constant rotation of Zeppelin and Sabbath throughout my youth, two bands played incessantly during my high school years. These bands are Pavement and Guided By Voices. Indie rock, lo-fi, and DIY recordings dominated my spare time. When I wasn’t being social, I was in my room listening to one of those two bands. I know every nuance of some of those mid-90s records.

Naturally, I began playing in bands. I felt the need to make music. The standard basement/garage accommodations prevailed, and a lot of my time went into jam sessions, practicing, tinkering, experimenting, and eventually playing shows around Windsor. This just seemed like the right thing to do with my time. Better than homework, anyway. I just wanted to be a part of the fun.

Lots of people get to know rock and roll this way. Like physical maturation, identity as a musician forms during those experimental years. In high school, if you want to play rock and roll, you have to do things yourself. You have to find spare time, people to play with, a jam space, etc. So maybe the amps aren’t crystal clear, there’s bleed from track to track, the vocals are buried and the drummer keeps fucking up. That’s all good because this is the sound of people playing for the sheer love of playing music. If they’re doing it right they aren’t worried about being lucrative or looking cool in those moments; they’re just trying to make something awesome happen.

Guided By Voices typified this ethos back in the day. They had a sturdy reputation as a prolific indie band but they treated music like a hobby and a passion, not like a business. Robert Pollard, the main creative force of the band, seemed unstoppable. He absorbed the British Invasion, classic rock, punk, and the spirit of DIY and subjected it all to a unique, Dayton-Ohio-brand drunken alchemy, rolling out one two-minute gem after another like an assembly line.

Their foray into the commercial industry eventuated in a collapse of the band (this detour arguably started with their album Do The Collapse). But after a headshake and a 2010 reunion tour, the band reclaimed their native sound. Even if they haven’t quite recaptured the magic of the glory days (Under The Bushes, Under The Stars, 1996), Pollard’s output has been downright phenomenal. His most recent solo LP Honey Locust Honky Tonk is a gorgeous, country-infused rock album that proves his total mastery and love of the craft. And he’s not showing signs of slowing down.

As recording and production techniques improve with technology, commercial producers seem to think that in order to deliver the fullest experience of music, each instrument should be recorded maximally for frequency and volume, and they accomplish this by isolating the instruments, generally enriching and rounding out the low frequencies and brightening the highs. This can produce amazing quality productions and songs with such aesthetic impact that you can’t help bob your head. And it all looks good on paper.

But not all music should be recorded this way. To isolate any instrument is to create a sonic vacuum around it, removing it from its environment and stripping it of its natural resonance. Lots of the magic in making music depends on the blending of tones. A musician’s inspiration comes from somewhere mysterious inside, granted, but it also comes from his or her environment, the other people playing, the way the amplifiers reverberate in that weird corner of the room and the resonance the bass picks up through the flue of the fireplace. Even the lighting in the recording space will have an effect on the performer and inevitably, on the recording.

Shut your eyes and listen to The Grand Hour, a 10-minute EP from 1992, and tell me if you aren’t transported back in time, to a magical, albeit dingy basement where some drunken buddies are doing their best to blast out some great rock and roll. Hear GBV’s narcoleptic friend snore through Ex-Supermodel, and try to imagine the spontaneous joy that must have been felt during the recording process. They bring you right into their process and let you share in their enthusiasm.

I enjoy everything from Aerial M to Zappa, but there will always be a special place in my heart for home recordings. My favorite psychedelic gurus Bardo Pond record their albums in their home studio the Lemur House. The sound of the room has evolved along with the band, and by now it’s part of the identity of their sound. The day may still come when I pester Michael Gibbons into letting me record there.

Bloemfontein, the post-rock band I played guitar with during university, jammed in a Windsor basement for years. It wasn’t a particularly good room for sound. It was pretty bad, actually, but we were comfortable there and our performances were enhanced by that familiarity. That basement has seen a lot of creativity over the years. When I think that the house is up for sale, and that I will likely never play there again, a little ironic grin breaks out over my face. I’d still love to do one last recording down there in all its sloppy, wood-panel-reverb, amp buzzing glory.

For anyone whose love of music grew up from the basements of high school friends, GBV captures the spirit of rock and roll for rock and roll’s sake. They are a bunch of guys having fun playing music together. If you ask me, the heart of rock and roll is in Dayton.

Free Music

In my post The Sound of Confusion I gave a brief history of my development as a musician. In lieu of written thoughts this week I decided to add a Music page to my site where I’ll host a variety of my own recordings through SoundCloud. There you’ll find Bloemfontein tracks and various collaborative and solo recordings and I hope to add to it periodically.  Please check it out and let me know what you think.

The Sound of Confusion

The different types of music I’ve listened to throughout my life seem very clearly to be a reflection of how I saw myself at the time. I’ve played a lot of different types of music in my life and these too seem like outward expressions of my inward states. This seems like straightforward logic, and it should have been fairly obvious, but it’s impossible to say with certainty whether I was drawn to those types of music because of my state of mind, or if I found the music and it then affected my state of mind.

In high school I didn’t meditate. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath instead. I had an interest in drums and my parents were masochistic enough to get me a kit. I made a ton of noise in the basement of Mike Beauchamp until we decided the world needed a new band, so we formed The Moon Patrol, after the Atari game. In those days, mentally, I was going a hundred ways like most high school kids and the music showed it. It was loud, influenced by rock, blues, punk, funk, dub, metal, and we had fun and burned off a lot of steam.

By University I began to think meditation might be for me. I read somewhere that David Lynch used Transcendental Meditation, and since I wanted to make films like his, I looked into it. I never went through with the TM course, but reading books about meditation (The Science of Being and the Art of Living, by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Raj Yoga by Swami Vivikenanda) did start me towards understanding and having the language to speak about states of mind. It was obvious to me that toning down the level of noise inside my mind would be a good thing. A few frustrating attempts at meditation didn’t lead anywhere because I think I was more excited to read about meditation than actually do it. But finally a few techniques got me over the hump and I began toning down that chaos.

Coming out of The Moon Patrol I started playing guitar. Banging around on drums was great, but there was something missing. Naturally I sucked at guitar pretty well, but I knew I needed a bit of melody. Friends in another band were having differences of opinion on – what else? – the “direction” of the band. I settled in jamming with these guys. The music didn’t have any definite direction at all. It just built and flowed and didn’t change much, and we all loved it.

Bloemfontein (with friends Brian, Matt, and Mike) was more like cinema score than anything you’d hear on the radio. (A little while after we started playing regularly, a similar band Explosions In the Sky got quite big scoring the movie Friday Night Lights.) There were almost no scripted changes in the music. We’d just start playing. Sometimes the music would build or shift or get quiet and it would just flow along until it broke apart or petered out. It was so simple we were almost embarrassed at how much we liked the way it sounded. We actually listened to this stuff. We played a ton of shows around Windsor and people actually came out and got into it too.

None of the music was abrasive. Some was cheery, some was sad, but it was almost all mellow. The music would just settle in and become almost background to your own thoughts. That’s how I remember it, anyway. And at the time I was getting very used to analyzing or simply observing the flow of thought during meditation.

But then I hit a wall in meditation. I could quiet my mind, but only to a point, and that point shifted around seemingly at random. I now think of this barrier as the intersection of three factors: 1) my will to master my mind and quiet things down in there; 2) my mental inertia (a pattern of scattered thoughts, loosely controlled for twenty years and change); and 3) my fluctuating frustration with meditation based on my successes and failures, how I slept, what I ate, and a host of different typical anxieties.

So despite some early successes quieting my mind, I could no longer reach that point where the mind lets go. When the rational mind lets go you can sometimes feel a surge of bliss and a feeling of unity with everything. I’m pretty sure that this feeling is something we can all feel. I think it’s what they mean when they say “religious ecstasy”. That feeling is what I was after.

Right around 2001 Bardo Pond put out their album Dilate and I saw their live show. Now, this music is distorted, druggy, and full of noise, so it might have turned me off. But it definitely turned me on. I realized that you can get back to that bliss feeling, that feeling of dilation, by soaking your mind in noise. That was a total revelation for me and I became a devotee immediately. And I mean devotee – the music had a the feeling of gnosis to me. I’ve had two out-of-body experiences at their concerts. Actually.

So of course Bloemfontein’s music became a playground for noise. I had a Line 6 Delay Modeler that, to this day, is one of my best purchases. I’d layer guitars with different levels of delay and distortion until it was just a droning wall that would slowly build up under the melody. So before you realized what was happening you’d be just buried in sound. I couldn’t get enough. I stayed up for hours just playing, looping, layering things by myself in a dark basement until it was time to go to school the next day.

I also read all sorts of far-out stuff at this time, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to David Icke. I loved alternate histories, disinformation, postmodernism, and anything that blended truth and fiction. And the stuff I read led me to other art forms, artists, ways of thinking. Once again, I cannot trace the causality of my own mental influence perfectly. I can only point out signposts. I know that Pavement came before Guided By Voices came before The For Carnation, but can’t define the why of it all.

It’s been a long time since Bloemfontein played together, and I’ve since developed new techniques for meditation. But lately I’ve been feeling like I need something more. In meditation I’m adding about five minutes of mental exercise to my regular routine. The urge to make this addition just came recently, but with it was the urge to play more music. I’ve been banging around on an acoustic guitar for years and I’ve worked out a lot of new material that’s a far cry from anything I’ve done before. At the end of the day I don’t care if one causes the other. Because whether it’s music or meditation, I just want something that gives me that feeling of ecstatic union.

I’ve recorded a scant few tunes since I’ve lived in Toronto. This one, called “Homecoming”, is only a demo so the quality isn’t great. But it’s probably as close as I’ve come to blending quiet and noise in one track. I recorded it under the name Dwale, an archaic term for a delirium-causing potion. Beware…it’s very, very mellow.