Upon the release of my album "Life Among The Rust" I did the thing a lot of musicians say they will never do and you should never do: I told all. On Facebook I wrote a series of posts about the album and each of the songs reveling how I wrote them. I've put it all in here for your reading pleasure. Please enjoy.
About the title "LIFE AMONG THE RUST"
My new album is called “Life Among The Rust” because rust is immortal, always growing, always looming and yet subject to defeat. Rust may grow and corrode but it can be removed and defeated. And what defeats rust is life.
My last album “Exodus Partners” chronicled a dark period of my life where I’d lost almost everything I held dear. The year of making it was one of recovery: recovering myself, my music, my life and ultimately my path and my way after losing it. With that album I could chart my fall and rise, my decline and my resurgence.
As with any album project, once “Exodus Partners” was completed there was a period of ennui, uncertainty and wondering what was next. It’s a challenge in that time to not rush straight into making more music and digging for the next thing. For me that often leads to dissatisfaction, anger and tremendous doubt and self-pity all of which stifle creativity. So instead I took some time out, gave myself some space to relax, renew and review.
In that space I found something different in my music.
I’ve long been a fan of several things in music: the deep echo play of dub reggae and the distorted bang and crash of industrial music. Those have been hallmarks of my favorite songs and my own music for quite some time. Yet I knew that there was a point at which they became crutches as opposed to tools or accents.
The more I thought about this the more I began to explore the ideas that ultimately have become what I try to achieve in the music I’ve made over the last year or so which comprises “Life Among The Rust.” These ideas are basically a greater use of restraint and making much more use of space.
I explored this somewhat on “Exodus Partners” but in “Life Among The Rust” I put them to greater use as rules rather than concepts. Thus every song, to my ears at least, has greater room in it, wider array of sounds and hopefully less bang, boom and echo - though there’s still a good portion of that used to good effect.
But where does the rust come in? And the life that lives among it? Good questions.
The life I found among the rust was this change in creation of music and the approach of a different palette and aesthetic. The rust could be seen as buildup of ideas that once were new and fresh but over time became tarnished and worn. In changing my approach and working through these ideas I created something new from the old, removed the rust so something else could shine through. From rust comes rebirth and from rebirth comes new life.
I think I achieved something new and different for myself in the music on “Life Among The Rust.” I hope you hear that as well and enjoy the results as much as I do.
The final artwork for my album Life Among The Rust came as the result of an argument which made it a better choice than the original album artwork.
I’m a very hands on musician. Some may have called me high maintenance. So be it. I suppose you could use the word artist but I find myself getting mildly ill when used to describe me. Though I suppose it’s appropriate it conjures up the image of a dilettante, privileged and entitled as if I’m above others when I’m not. I’m just a musician and writer who also happens to love the Boston Red Sox and can kinda change a tire. Big whoop.
But I do have a strong visual sense. All music, especially my own, has a vibrant visual element to it which comes from my own synesthesia. I see sounds in colors and shapes and I see my songs and music that way as well.
When I began creating the album art I thought about what the title meant and how the art might reflect that. It would’ve been too easy to photograph a rusted object like a rusted car, atire rim or one of the train track crossings near my home. Then I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for something different. I’ve always made my own artwork for all my albums from cassettes to CDR’s to all my recent releases.
Yet I’d always wanted to incorporate the photography of my high school friend Seamus BC Mills into my covers somehow. Seamus is a Taos, NM resident who makes the most amazing artwork from his photographs. His work is informed by the Taos landscape and scenery as well as his own visual sense which I’ve been privileged to see develop from when we were 19 to now as middle aged men; just as my music has grown by leaps and bounds from those days his art has become something breathtaking and otherworldly.
There was a particular landscape photo of his I liked and over time developed a visual work incorporating it. I had a particular idea going that time around the hydrogen molecule which is commonly known as the Dr. Manhattan symbol by The Watchmen fans. Then I began to work on that until it began to resemble the chakra system in the human body. Then I put that arrangement on a human body. Then I thought it’d look good on Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. WIth the Hands of Aten at his head.
Then I found an absolutely bizarre image of a Vitruvian-inspired man that I immediately fell in love with (sadly I was never able to find the artist who designed it. I fully planned to discuss compensation for using their art should I have ever found them or use it in the future which I plan to. More on that later). Shortly the album cover went from muted, washed out desert and earth tones to something in garish pink, white and brown. What the inspiration for that exactly was I’m not sure but I believe it had soothing to do with wanting to get away from my more conventional dark palette into truly weird color territory. And there I went.
I came to associate the image deeply with the music which was more or less done at least six months before the album’s release. To the point that when it came time to release the album and Raab from Component said he wasn’t fond of the image, my fragile little artist ego - ulp. Just threw up in my mouth a little there - couldn’t take it. I almost pulled the album from release over it, in fact.
Raab wisely asked me to consider some other artwork for the album. I did and in time I came to understand a few things. One was that it’s not my label and if my artwork doesn’t work for the label then I need to either pitch a fit and quit or consider their perspective. I did the latter and began to think about the image and what it meant to me in relation to the music itself. And the album title.
I realized I’d not really thought about what the title meant to me or why it became the title of this particular album of work. I’ve documented my process for choosing the title and its meaning elsewhere but here is where I truly got its meaning. I meditated on the idea of rust and what it meant in both scientific terms (oxidation) as well as metaphoric terms in popular culture. That path took me again to Seamus’ artwork. Perusing a gallery of his images I came to find a group that appealed to me. I whittled those down to 25 pictures then created mockups of albums covers with each. From those I gathered 10 and presented them to Raab. Once he and I agreed on a smaller set I chose what became the final album cover, tweaked the text a bit and voila! It became what you see now.
The image itself is in fact rust colored which is normally an obvious association I usually run screaming from. But within the designs and shapes I found a curiously calm, subtle and elegant design that reflected the shift and growth of the music and the musician who created it - who happens to be me. Dare I say it is far superior to the original (I also believe it bears a strong resemblance to the album artwork for “Gone to Earth” by David Sylvian, one of my all time favorite albums since I was 16).
And there you have it, the story of a petulant artist who overcame his ego and in the end discovered a better piece of art than he might ever have created himself. I may reuse the original Da Vinci inspired art for something else that fits the image. But for now I can safely say this is my vision what Life Among The Rust truly looks like.
TRACK 1: The Unusual Symmetry
After my usual noodling around and stumbling upon a riff I liked The Unusual Symmetry began as a slow, somber piece which remains as the intro. Swathed in reverb it moves along like a melancholic dirge. As I don’t have any notes from the creation I can’t tell exactly what my initial intentions were. Suffice it to say I found myself in the groove of that slow, swirling beginning and dug it. The elegiac strings and bells only add to the slightly funerary tone. Maybe it signals the end of a journey began in Exodus Partners and heading into a new life? Nah. That’d be too easy.
At some point I found the initial idea had played to its logical conclusion… Yet it didn’t quite seem finished. After repeated listening the bridge began to form with the faster, resonant arpeggio around 4:40. A beat came to mind and after much trial and error it came together in a frenetic closing, the sparse drums of the intro laid bare without its reverberant cloak. I like how the drums wobble a little like they’re wobbly larvae. It degrades into a mass at the end as it fades out, showing signs of continuing on into the sunset (I do love me some long fadeouts and listeners will find that Life Among The Rust uses fadeouts amply to great advantage).
One of my favorite things certain artists do is their songs rarely remain the same from beginning to end. They often wind up wildly diverging from their origins especially in their later releases. In my mind this is conjoined with the idea from my yoga practice that every practice is a journey from A to B, that you should feel differently from when you began. This is most certainly true in this track which goes from slow and dark to bright and frenetic in the course of eight minutes.
As for what the title means… Many of my titles don’t have a real significance that I can necessarily explain to others. I think here I was thinking of the William Blake poem and corrupted the line about “what immortal hand or eye thy fearful did frame thy fearful symmetry.” I was always taken with this line first when I heard Mr. Spock say a fragment of it then when I heard the whole poem in college. It seemed to fit to my ear and there you have it.
TRACK 2: LUSH LIFE
LUSH LIFE was the first song I wrote for Life Among The Rust. It encapsulates what the whole album’s theme is to me: aural space, room between the notes, silence and new tones.
For years I’ve wanted a Roland JV1080. Yes, they’re old and many devices have come along since then that do what it did and better. I first saw one when I was working a lot with Bryan Carrigan on our project tentatively titled MUGATU? (After the Star Trek creature not the Will Farrell character). Back when it was released it was well out of my price range but with the gift of time and Ebay I got one for a very nice price. And with the addition of the Vintage Key card it was even better. It’s got some nice pianos as well as other great patches.
As I began to play the piano sounds I found some parts forming in mind. It reminded me of hammering away at my piano teacher’s Steinway in her beautiful acoustically designed studio behind her house. After a while I’d created a nice assortment of chords and progressions with a rather light feel to them. It was quite different from what I’d been doing until then.
The other addition was a simple freeware plugin call ValhallaFreqEcho. This produces an effect similar to what you hear on the drums from Bowie’s “Low,” specifically the snare on “Sound and Vision.” However the plug-in has a wider range of effects from really, really long delays to some eq’ing. The drums in Lush Life are a straight up TR909 kit from Ableton Live. Just a little of this effect gives those drums a shimmer like morning sunlight on water. Combined with the time I took to program the drums full progression I think the drum parts sound really nice.
As for the rest… The opening loop is the drum part from a particular 80’s band that shall not be named. But once that was run through the abomination filter it got a very nice roughened edge to it.
There’s no particular meaning or message to the song. The image in my head is a lot of light, and fast moving objects like those 1970’s science fiction paintings of orbital communities or something. It’s got a great deal more space and room for sounds in previous works of mine which I hope you can hear like I do.
TRACK 3: ABUNDANCE
Abundance has to be my favorite song on Life Among The Rust. Honestly I listen to it about once a day.
It was actually a rather difficult decision to begin the song with a simple 4/4 kick drum; I thought it was too obvious somehow for setting the song’s tone. That’s right: I’m such a dork I fret over the use of a kick drum.
The impulse of the song itself was not necessarily to be uplifting. I’m not exactly sure where it began. When I put most songs to bed there comes a time where their creation is almost lost to me as if someone else wrote them all. I often ask my friend Jay – who is my beta listener and often has the final say on album tracks and sequencing – “What the hell was I thinking?” Because I don’t remember making them or the process as I’ve said but some things stand out.
This track uses massive Mellotron choral pads which come from my beloved JV1080. I’ve long been a fan of songs that use them – from King Crimson’s “Court of the Crimson King” to XTC’s “Pretty Girls,” “The Him” by New Order to name a few – and I’d use them in every song if I could. They were big in the 90’s and early 00’s but I never stopped loving them. Hell, even Autechre uses choral pads in their recent songs. This track seemed to have a perfect spot for them where they provide a nice soaring feeling to it. Choral pads can be like that, either they bring you up and add an elegiac kind of feeling or they can drag it down to a funereal, sepulchral vibe.
There’s some metallic percussion in there as well which I stumbled upon that’s actually an arpeggiated pattern like the bass parts. By manipulating the gate time and quantize rate of the arpeggiator it adds and subtracts notes which vary the rhythms nicely. The other arpeggio has a nice little shuffle every so often as it varies from 16th to 8th notes with a little legato thrown in.
Abundance’s fadeout has a little continuance of the DR55 beat that open the track. I like how it provides that feeling of the song continuing even after the fade out. I realize it’s something I learned from reading about Lamonte Young who used to open his drone concerts after the musicians began playing to give the feeling of something eternal, infinite and looping. It’s an amazing idea that I hope I convey in this and other songs on the album.
Lastly to my ears it bears an resemblance to Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” possibly because of the old beatbox bossanova root of each song. But I believe I wrote it before Drake so he best not be getting ready to sic his lawyers on me.
TRACK 4: DOGJAW
Honestly, Dogjaw is just a weird song. It’s title refers to a prank I love playing on people and one my mother especially loves. It was on my mind when I began sketching the track out.
The intro beat and riff were simple and easy. Just kind of a lazy loop I’d let run for a while without much else going, lazing along in the beat. Noodling and improvising got me to the melody – such as it is – which is from either a JUNO 106 or an Arturia Microbrute stacked on each other and run through MangleVerb by AudioDamage. Now those guys are my secret weapon and that of many other musicians I know. Their effects are strange and wonderful and used on almost every instrument in every song of mine. On DOGJAW another effect, Automaton, is used on the looped intro beat. Their DubStation is also a staple of all my songs. Because Dub.
I played an early version of the song for Jay the Beta Ear as we were going to see Autechre in Portsmouth, NH in the fall of 2015. Jay and my wife Alice hear all the early versions and demo versions of my songs. I can often tell just by playing a song for them whether or not it needs work even before they offer their comments. And Jay’s silence and comments following made me realize DOGJAW needed some work back then. At that point the song really went nowhere for about 3-4 minutes, repeating the opening themes and ideas. So once I recovered from the Autechre show I went back to the woodshed to hone DOGJAW a bit.
But I didn’t really find anything else for it to do. After some failed attempts I did what I often do in frustration. I threw everything I could at the song to deliberately mess it up. After pursing that I came across a particular uneven beat that somehow worked perfectly in the framework of the song. While pulling back all the other extraneous crap of the song the beat kept its place nicely among the other rhythm elements and the degrading echoing soundscape of the song’s lengthy fadeout.
As with most of my songs I find it’s a great one to drive to with its open space and elements.
Trudge Lightly is a significantly darker turn for the sequence of “Life Among The Rust,” beginning what I call “the dark dip” in the album tracks.
It was also one of the harder songs to bring to fruition. It began like most do as a series of clips, small segments of audio or MIDI files arranged in a rough pattern or scenes of the song. The opening was extremely hard to bring together. There were several different versions where I began it differently with each one. But nothing would gel to my ears where the song could take shape. What you hear is the results of furiously moving notes around into some sort of working order then changing the sounds around until something finally clicked. That process represents a tectonic shift in my musical development yet one that I can’t even put into words.
Once that came together the rest of the song slowly began to fall into place around it.
Trudge Lightly began as yet another attempt by me to make a Basic Channel/Berlin Dub type track (think Deadbeat, Monolake, Maurizio, Shapes&Forms, Rhythm & Sound, the Silent Season label, etc.). I’m infatuated witht hat dark, hollow sound, deep reverb and minimal drums. And yet again I failed miserably – but in a good way! But the filtered hit that drives the background ambience if from my Analog Rytm, a good solid piece of Scandinavian electronics. My mother says it sounds like a funeral dirge which I take as a compliment. It does plod along slowly, with a certain somber majesty though it resolves into a brighter mood towards the end.
Another different thing about it is the drums. I’m old enough to remember when the TR707 came out and everyone was all “OMG REAL DRUMS FOR AFFORDABLE PRICES” which meant it was about $600 as opposed to a Linn Drums $1,995 price tag. The 707 never really got me because it wasn’t an 808 nor was it an MPC or Emu SP12. Everything on it sounded dull and a bit toy-like as if it were the drum machine played by one of those toy monkeys with the cymbals. I had a Yamaha RX21 which wasn’t much better but something about that had a little more balls than the 707. Yet in searching for drums for the track I came upon this kit and somehow it stuck. I used it for the very things I disliked about it and I think there’s something to it. The beat plods along, the toms and cowbell are just clunky. And it works.
This is also the first song off the album with a video! Made by the geniuses at Condition Human Industries Visual Stimulus Bureau (Video is the first comment below!).
ENSLAVED TO YOUR GHOSTS
“Enslaved To Your Ghosts” is a more sombre tune than the rest of Life Among The Rust. And it’s often one that I forget when thinking about the album. It’s not that I don’t like it; all the songs on this album and any I’ve released are favorites of mine. But for some reason it falls under the radar at times. The title is an obvious one, a nod to the baggage we all carry around and unconsciously often wield and toil for. Here’s to shaking off them ghosts!
Something I’ve been thinking about in writing about each of these songs is my own personal musical taxonomy mission. I’ve been trying to classify songs in my own manner under my own criteria. For instance ‘Abundance’ is an Anthem: something uplifting, moving and stirring. ‘Dogjaw’ is a meditation, wherein a particular pattern or progression is followed to a conclusion. ‘Dead Below The Echoes’ (about which I’ll write more later) is more of an invocation, a song that produces a spirit or essence in a repetitive, ritual manner. “Enslaved…” is a bit more of a meditation, wherein the music proceeds at a certain pace, unfolding in a contemplative manner of exploration. “Enslaved…” does this, revealing a darkened landscape of beats and shimmering synths.
‘Enslaved…’ has a lot of my troubled JUNO-106 on it. I bought that on eBay in 2004 and it’s deviled me ever since. It arrived not working and in the last 12 years I’ve owned it the damn thing hasn’t functioned properly for more than a few months at a time. Right now it doesn’t retain patch memory so when you boot it and load the sounds they’re in there until you turn it off. And then the voice chips are screwy so certain notes are just pops rather than actual tones. But the descending three note riff is all 106 and I still love that thing. Just can’t quit it.
‘Enslaved…’ also continues my fascination with old beatboxes. The spine of this song is a mutated Roland CR78 rhythm that’s filtered and fudged ad infinitum. Jay said that when he first heard it he cringed at the overuse of rhythm boxes but he soon warmed up to the sound. The rest of the drums are form my trusty Elektron Analog Rytm which is just such an amazing, deep device.
The song was one where I really worked hard at the restrained space aspect of my music, striving to find a balance wherein the sounds balanced out with room around them to accent them both. If you want another good example of this I’d suggest “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave because that song is more about the space around the notes and the silences than it is the sounds themselves.
DEAD BELOW THE ECHOES
‘Dead Below The Echoes’ is probably the darkest track on “Life Among The Rust.”
Like I said in my previous description of ‘Enslaved To Your Ghosts’ and my taxonomy of songs, it’s clearly an invocation. Its dark repetition, the tribal drums, the haunted string line all combine into a strange mix suitable for a ritual - or exorcism. Its title doesn’t refer to anything specific but more of a description of the atmosphere of the song, how there’s an infinite darkness below the drums and echoes and synths.
It’s also one of the first songs incorporating hand drumming by me! I’ve longed to learn how to play drums either in a kit or on dumber or bodhran. As you may have guessed drums and rhythm are incredibly important to me in life and my music (most of my songs have 2-3 drum loops or drum parts in them). I’ve long admired the masters like Ringo Starr, Stewart Copeland, Neil Peart, Bernard Purdie, Jaki Liebzeit as well as percussionists like Tito Puente and Glen Velez.
In fact I have an enduring memory of seeing Paul Winter in concert decades ago at a University Of Connecticut auditorium. It began with a striking man with a long black pony tail walking up and down the aisles playing a bodhran but not in any particular rhythm or with a beat. It seemed random and absolutely bizarre how he struck the head while holding the frame aloft so it resonated. He’d lick his thumb then run it across the head so it hummed and whined. I wished the entire concert was this as he climbed the stage and began to play with the rest of the musicians.
Years later I’d pick up an album called “Internal Combustion” on recommendation from the late great Tim Haslett of Other Music in Cambridge, MA. I’d heard Autechre mention it as well, saying he did things they could never replicate with their machines but would often attempt to do. Sure enough when I listened to it I realized this was the guy I’d seen and I was hooked on his music ever since.
It’s that style of playing I was trying to emulate in ‘Dead Below…’ with that urgent cadence, hollow tone and strange twang of the drums. I used a Korg Wave Drum which has an actual drum head and with work you can produce completely authentic drum sounds and some otherworldly ones as well. So I sat down to play that and voila (My playing style to my ears sounds like a cross between Bernard Purdie and Glenn Velez. In the comments below there’s a video of Purdie that describes how he created his “ghost notes” style of drumming)!
‘Dead Below…’ has this great, haunted string sound from my JV1080 that with a little reverb and delay sounds like a wailing nightbird. There are a couple different arpeggios that intertwine over the deep baseline so that the song comes apart every so often but ultimately resolves back into shape. One of the drum parts has that nice solid LinnDrum clap to give it some funk amidst the darkness.
Whatever you do to/with/while listening to this song just be careful to use its power for good!
TALKING TO A GIANT
‘Talking To A Giant’ was one of the harder songs to include on “Life Among The Rust” for a number of reasons.
The first was that I couldn’t figure out which version to use. I’d gotten it to one working version that passed Jay The Ear’s test but there was something about it that I still wasn’t satisfied with. I loved the lonely, mourning lead synth and the synth-harpsichord arpeggio. The drums were heavy and funky with a good solid 808 clap that I and many like me love. It had enough space for delays, reverb and atmosphere to come through. And yet… something wasn’t quite working…
That’s the great thing about my work flow process and type of music. You can record as much as you want and use only what you want with very little trouble. I’m fairly certain I write in a pretty conventional style owing to the days of recording on four tracks with guitars and drums. My process is three part. First I write the music which is usually just me jamming out and getting some patterns, pads and riffs down in MIDI or on virtual instruments. Then I’ll do a rough take jam on that once or twice, recording it in Ableton Live. Then I’ll begin the editing process, shortening the songs (usually they’re way too long and lag in places. Shocking I know since many of the songs on “Life Among The Rust” are long). I’ll also play with effects here and work on the combinations until it sounds right. Then… I’ll listen to it a couple dozen times at least until I’m either sick of it or certain the combination is perfect.
So I did another mix of ‘Talking To A Giant’ which kept all of those elements but brought them out in a different light and arrangement. It may even sound exactly the same given a cursory listen. But it was different. It was also… Really good. So good that I couldn’t tell which one I liked better. Neither could The Ear. They were both so funky. In the end after considering putting both versions on I decided on one purely out of how it sounded in the final mix and sequence. The other version may see the light somewhere else someday but for now you got this one which is pretty rad.
It’s got my requisite 3 drum parts in it. There’s a little ROland DR55 kit chugging along in the background. There’s also a Korg Electribe ER1 providing some heavy hefty drum lifting. I’ve had one since they first came out and it’s safe to say it’s on almost every single song of mine since the day I bought it. Many deride the little plugger’s sounds as thin and limited but I’ve found a place for it and by hook, crook or a little DSP it’s part of the song and rocking along.
The Analog Rytm is here as well in fine form providing the bulk of the bang of the drums. The actual drum part I recorded was a long jam through the whole song with me twisting and twirling knobs as the beat played. At some point it got pretty hairy. Too much so in fact. What you hear is approximately 10% of the total track with the Rytm’s random LFO messing with the decay times on claps and snares. Maybe I’ll make it available in a remix or something so it can be heard because WOW that whizz is cray.
‘Open Apparatus’ is the longest song on “Life Among The Rust” and one of the longest I’ve ever released. “Thug Hatchery” on the “Tribal Malfunctions EP” is about sixteen minutes long (and in retrospect I might’ve trimmed that a bit and not lost anything. But anyway…). It’s also just one of those strange ones that comes out of nowhere.
As I’ve mentioned before the piano has featured more in tho album than almost anywhere else in my work. In this case I paired it with some arpeggiation and got a series of strange, seemingly improvised piano parts. I transposed them up and down a few octaves to create the base of the piano work here. In working out the song I would let them run for several minutes just spacing out and listening to them. Soon I centered on their placement and reined them in slightly and they became what you hear now.
The drums are also interesting in this track in that you have these gentle synth and piano parts then the drums are quite aggressive and brash. The loop that comes in around seven minutes into the song was so heavy it needed a great deal of compression and limiting to bring it into the fold less it overpower the song. But as it and the other drum parts come together around eight minutes it all works together with a nice balance of heavy and light elements, darkness and light if you will, roaming across the stereo field together. Then as the bass rolls up it’s a slow, building climax of parts, all the elements coming together into one whole… apparatus.
As for the name well that can be left to interpretation. Suffice it to say the entire album should hopefully function as an open apparatus, an entire piece of music working with the elements of space, restraint and time to create something very different for this lone CRT.