In Process Blog 02: Reinventing a Musician

As a young musician I loved grooves. I also loved it when someone could take a familiar instrument and play it with unfamiliar ideas, like Edgar Meyer playing fiddle tunes on an upright bass, or Bela Fleck playing Bach on a banjo.

I made 2 recordings back in 2008 that used these ideas, but they were kind of “cheats”. I played them with my computer. Now don’t misunderstand me, it wasn’t like the stuff I hear from “the kids these days”. I didn’t just throw a loop on a timeline and rap over it (not disparaging rap, if it is thoughtful, energetic, and well done, I love it, but I hear a lot of it that isn’t). In my case I used zero preconceived sounds (maybe a few percussion tones as exceptions), but I wrote crazy complex stuff with jazz harmony as a basis.

The whole time I was doing it I was falling more and more in love with “new acoustic music”. What I loved about this genre was:

1) it was very listenable. Unlike Jazz, people really listened to it.

2) It was interesting. Like jazz, you could play any tune simply, or take them in a very complicated format. How much you wanted to “mess with the tunes” was up to you.

3) It was quite. One of the biggest problems trying to play jazz or rock is how loud it becomes. It’s very difficult to play “wallpaper” gigs (performances where the intent is to provide fun background music at an event) when you have to peak 80 dB just to be heard over the drummer.

A few years ago, I decided to make this “new acoustic music” my direction. In order to do so, I switched instruments.

I started playing the mandolin, switching from bass.

The reasons are simple:

1) It is the time keeper in acoustic music, the way bass is in jazz.

2) It shares a lot of ground with the violin (the lead instrument in the style) and the guitar (the main accompaniment instrument in the style), therefore it is the obvious instrument for the band leader to play.

I also decided to learn to sing…more on that in a future post.

SO after a year of practice I commissioned a custom mandolin to be made by Marty Jacobson, and I was off to the races.

Part of what I am attempting to accomplish in Hong Kong is learning to be the musician I want to be.

Here are some images of Marty’s process as he built my “axe”.

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In Process Blog: 01 The Big Move

Some history:

I am a guy from a tiny town in the hills of Virginia. When I say tiny, I mean tiny. It is smaller than most shopping malls in the inhabited portions of the world. At the moment I live in Hong Kong. The closest shopping mall to me is called “IFC” and I believe I could easily fit about 8 or 9 of home towns in it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I was a kid I loved 2 things: comic books, and groove oriented music.

In high school I got more attention as a musician than as an artist, so I focused. I didn’t really go to college, but when I was 21 I won a full scholarship to the Atlanta Institute of Music, where I completed their 1-year program in a little over 6 months. About 9 months after graduation they asked me to teach there, and I stayed for a long time.

But eventually I felt like I hadn’t finished a LOT of stuff I wanted to do. Teaching at AIM I basically wasn’t finishing music degrees of art degrees or actually putting out any music or comics.

Truth is, I was scared to put out any music. I spent all my time telling guys what was wrong with their playing. I knew they could also tell me what was wrong with mine pretty easily. Not to mention, I had no training in composing or arranging. Those were skills for which I knew I had talent, but no development. By the time I was 28 I should have been MUCH better than I was. My arranging still sounded like I was a talented 18-year-old.

So, I went to music school, and put out a few recordings. Much critical success, but I never really played any shows or developed a fan base. Turns out that the stuff I thought was important: writing and executing music, wasn’t nearly as important as just getting in front of people. Unfortunately, the music I made was so complicated, I couldn’t get anyone to play it with me, and it wasn’t designed to be executed by me, solo.

Realizing (in my mid-30s) that I didn’t really have any skills as a performer, I picked up my pencil and started to hack away at becoming the comic book artist I always knew was in there.

(BTW, by this point I had a Masters degree in Music Composition, and I was teaching at the Art Institute…but that’s another story). I was the skill level of a talented 14-year-old comic artist…because that’s where I left off.

So I applied to a college-level sequential art program and started trying to figure it out.

Meanwhile, life was getting tough. I was balancing my jobs at Ai and a big church (I did music and graphic stuff for both), I got married, we had a child, and I was growing as an artist, both sonically and visually…but I wasn’t making anything significant (I mean art…money was getting pretty good).

An opportunity arose to really do something with music. It would allow me resources, and a platform, and I thought it was my calling!

But I was wrong.

As soon as I put all my eggs in that basket, “they” took the basket away. Even worse, the job I found myself in once the “good” job was no longer an option used zero creative skills. It was all plug-and-play, sound-a-like music, not to mention it was the most boring music ever created.

My wife was having a rough time with her career as well.

So we made a decision to change everything.

My wife got a job offer on the other side of the world, and it seemed like a good opportunity for me to simply go somewhere quite and become who I’ve always wanted to be: A Musician and Sequential Artist.

I think the Sequential Art part is the important bit from a career perspective. I think making books is a good idea for someone with my personality. I’m an introvert, and a creative. I’ve always hated the “performance” part of music…I like the creative parts. I think the music needs to be an advertisement for what I’m selling: the stories.

Anyway, that’s where I am. In a tiny flat in Hong Kong trying to become.