Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Dr. Frank

Dr. Frank is the lead singer and songwriter in pop punk trio The Mr. T Experience. They started in Berkley California in 1985 and have since put out 10 albums and a variety of singles and eps. Mr. T, or MTX has been a staple for my wife and I since we were in high school, and their satirical, awkwardly poetic lyrics still resonate with us today. 

Dr. Frank packs in a lot of words in his songs, and I remember Dr. Frank uttering the words "This song's about a girl" before almost every song when they'd play shows. As a long time fan, I was thrilled that he'd even give me the time of day let alone participate in this interview. In a nutshell, he sings about love and girls, in a cute, playful, sometimes sarcastic tone, and adds just enough musicality and surprise to his chord progressions to keep you on your toes. Sometimes, it's full on Ramones, sometimes, it's Ramones with a few 7ths and tasteful augmented or diminished chords, and some temporary tonicized modulations. 

What's funny, is he's self taught, and has no idea that he's demonstrated many of the same musical acrobatics as the great composers of our time. Here's the interview.

Do you have a background in music theory and composition or are you self taught?

"I'm definitely self-taught, in every way, and I wind up playing a lot of chords I wouldn't have a prayer of knowing the proper names of, or what's diminished or augmented and so forth.  On the other hand, I have made a deliberate study of the conventions of pop song structure and composition, with an eye to following them as well as subverting them from time to time,  so I guess my approach to the overall composition can be a bit analytical.  "

Listen to MTX's "I fell for you" and try to resist.

Does your brain jump to "Green Day?" MTX and Green Day had very similar beginnings, both signing to Lookout! Records and frequenting legendary punk venue 924 Gilman Street in the late 80's and 90's. 

When did you first realize you wanted to pursue music?

"My dad took me to see the Pirates of Penzance when I was a kid.  Probably the first brush with music I liked.  Then I heard Metallic K.O. and decided to try to combine the two as best I could."

When are you successful as a songwriter?

"My most successful songs are those that take conventional topics and approaches and warp them, only slightly, but enough that the punchlines are just a bit of a surprise in the midst of thoroughly familiar tropes that might otherwise seem a bit like clichés.  It can be a difficult balance to strike, and I haven't always done it perfectly, but when it works it really works.  The downside of this is, a whole lot of people aren't too interested in giving them the benefit of the doubt and dismiss it all as a big juvenile joke unworthy of being given much attention." 

In your musical career, what has been the single most significant, defining event and why?

"Reading the printed out lyrics of the album Milk Milk Lemonade and realizing that near-rhyme isn't good enough and that I should make the rhymes rhyme better, and from there realizing that I could do a whole lot better if I tried."  

What does the perfect song have to have?

"This is probably repeating myself, but the best songs are those that take familiar, genuine sentiments and twist them up just enough that you wind up feeling like you've seen it presented in a different way than you've heard before.  To me, that is way better than just doing something you expect really well.  The feeling is very important, but without getting the nuts and bolts right, it's unlikely to get across.  As for how you decide what sounds good, you just try and see what happens:  it's a bit mysterious, but when it's good you just sort of know."

What was one of your most memorable musical “Ah-ha” moments? 

"This one kind of stumps me.  I guess I could "go negative" a bit and point to the moment I realized that the things that matter most to me as to compositions are of almost zero concern to most listeners.  Further, that decades of anti-art experiments and sloppy writing have trained generations to regard real rhymes and well-composed melodies as "cheesy" or "lame."  And I guess that moment was a tipping-point conversation where I discovered that when a lot of my contemporaries say "melodic" they mean two or three descending notes sung over the progression C-G-Am-F, always ending on the root note;  and that anything that doesn't do that tends not to compute."

Can you read music?

"I can read music sort of, but it is of no use to me in writing songs.  The process is just, I have an idea and I fool around on the guitar till it starts to take shape as a song, and then just keep playing it thousands of times.  The structure just kind of emerges."

Describe your least favorite song, genre, or artist. Don’t hold back!

"I can find something to appreciate in pretty every sort of music I've ever heard, except for "rap rock" a la Limp Bizkit.  The appeal and value "thrash funk" similarly eludes me."

Thank you for taking the time to share your musical story. Anything else you’d like to add?

"Nope, I better send this in before I wind up sitting on it for another year."

Monday, February 11, 2013

Dan Vapid-Don't Over Think it!

Dan Vapid has been a punk rock musician since 1987 and has played and written songs with Screeching Weasel, Riverdales, Mopes, Sludgeworth, Methadones, Noise by numbers and  his latest project Dan Vapid and the Cheats. To date, Dan Vapid has written or co-written over 300 songs and has performed on 24 full length records.

I asked Dan what it’s all about.
“My goal as a musician/singer/songwriter is to try to take every component I love about music and deliver it in an honest, simple but effective way. I tend to enjoy songs with a mixture of straight forwardness and dynamics most. I try to make music I would want to listen to. This has always been what I've tried to accomplish from the very beginning.  Sometimes I succeed and other times not. But, I almost always have lots of fun trying.
I have no musical training but have been an avid music fan since I was about 5 years old."

The Self Taught Punk.
Dan doesn’t play or write as if he has no musical training. He has a sense of melody that is so simply delivered, yet so unmistakable; I am not so sure he would still be Dan Vapid had he been classically trained.

Return of the Power Chord.
“I play what feels and sounds right. In the past when I've tried reading music it slows me down. I didn't enjoy the process and found that it stifled creativity. When I learned the power chord on the guitar I started playing along to records I enjoyed like the Ramones, Misfits, etc…. It wasn't until many years later I started playing around with open chords, minor chords,  7ths, etc…The power chord and Marshal amp sound is ingrained in me at this point. 
In my view, analytic theory based musicians have their place in the world but find that many of them only play what's on the page. A great musician will interpret what notes are written on the page and give them expression. It would be like the difference between a Morgan Freeman narration in a film versus you or I.”   

Walk us through the early history of Dan Vapid. 

"In 1987 I started singing in a hardcore band called Generation Waste. We were influenced by bands like 7 seconds, Minor threat, AOF, etc…We got lots of great shows, was having fun and the experience was awesome. But, deep down I kept hoping Generation Waste would write songs with more melody to it like Bad Religion and Social Distortion.  At that time, I was just a singer and our guitarist was writing the lyrics and co-writing music with our bass player.  I was discovering the early punk rock bands and it was becoming clear to me what i truly wanted to play. When I heard Ramones and Naked Raygun I was forever changed and knew I wanted to take music much more seriously. GW broke up by 1988 and for about a year I tried to form a melodic punk band (the term "Pop punk" not invented yet) but nothing worthwhile came out of it.  In 1989,  Ben Weasel asked if i wanted to join his band Screeching Weasel. I gladly accepted as I was already a huge fan of the band's latest record "boogada boogada boogada" In 1990 I formed Sludgeworth during SW year long hiatus. At that point,  I felt like I was finally getting it right and wanted to push forward." 

“The advantage of doing what I do is that people know who I am mainly from Screeching Weasel/ Riverdales. There are some perks that come with that and I'm glad to have made worthy contributions to bands people hold in high regard. The disadvantage is "pop punk" has waned a lot in popularity.  That, and sometimes people only want to talk to me about my past and not the present.”

In your musical career, what has been the single most significant, defining event and why?

“I don't have a single defining moment.  I do have a few that stand out and were important. Aside from early days of picking up the guitar and having something "click', working on Screeching Weasel "My brain hurts" was very important. It was the first record I collaborated on and my bandmates and producer liked my ideas. That encouragement produced confidence to keep at it. There was also the first time my mom saw me play live with Sludgeworth.  We opened for Naked Raygun. There were about 2,200 people there and were very well received. After our set my mom and older brother were escorted backstage. She looked so impressed and proud and kept smiling.  Seeing that in the same day opening for Naked Raygun was priceless. I wasn't especially great at sports and felt like such an outcast growing up. I felt like I never gave her much to be proud of and that I finally achieved something. Playing Cobo Hall with the Riverdales in Detroit with Green Day was another. The Kiss Alive record was recorded there. When I was about 6 or 7 years old I would listen to that record non-stop and stare at the people on the back cover.  I remember walking on stage being extra nervous because that Kiss record was all I thought about.  It was so surreal. There's also the first time hearing a song I wrote in a movie. That was also surreal.”   

Over 300 songs in the books, loads of tours, shows, albums, etc… What keeps you going?
“Simple. I really love writing songs.  That more than anything is what keeps me moving forward after all these years. There's always some song idea going through my head. When an idea pops in my head I feel compelled to flush it out and see where it goes. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But it's that feeling of creating something that I truly love.”

Dan Vapid’s Musical Struggles 

“#1  Sometimes I see bands I believe are talentless becoming successful for reasons I view as stupid. And I start thinking why does such and such band have great things happening for them? They are a terrible. What is wrong with people?? And I relate it to my experience and irritation and envy subtly creeps in. These types of thoughts only produce a negative and unhealthy mindset and nothing else.  Over the years, I've become more aware of this mindset and have gotten better at letting that go.

#2 Not over thinking shit. Letting things happen naturally and resisting the urge to perfect everything. What usually happens when you over think and try perfecting things too much is all the charm and life gets sucked out. If you want a song to have life, let it breath.  Don't choke the shit out of it.

#3 Have the courage to be yourself. Find your true voice and reach your potential. I'll never be able to write like my favorite songwriters and that's perfectly fine.  Being you is what's unique. It's kinda like a fingerprint. Nobody has the same.

#4 Writing lyrics.  Lyrics are the hardest part for me. I don't like writing lyrics before I hear the music because I find that it has a "slapped on" feel to it. So, I write lyrics to melody and the words usually take a long time to hone. I could write chord structures with melodies all day long. To me, that's the easy part.” 

What have you learned from playing punk for decades?
“Lots. In many ways I've come full circle. I started playing a genre of music that was unpopular, reach a level of success, become watered down, and end up right back where it started. I've learned that musical trends are cyclical. I've learned that substance is more important than style.  I've learned to trust my instincts. I've learned that modest musicians are often the most talented and vice versa. Sadly, I learned I was a naive kid when I believed Punk Rock would be a great outlet and escape from the assholes and creeps of the world. Ironically, some people in the "punk" scene are worse than the asshole jocks I went to High School with. At least they talked shit to my face. Now, we have anonymity with the internet. But, I also don't mean to sound so negative here, just trying to be as accurate as I can. By and large my experiences have been very rewarding and I wouldn't trade them for anything in the world.”  

Meant to Be-Describe the perfect song
"Something where lyrics and music merge in a perfect marriage, like they were meant to be.  Something where the sum is more than its parts. Something that soars in the air, Something that gives you chills, goosebumps, speaking on a deep and visceral level. Something that takes you to places you didn't know existed. Something that makes you air drum without being conscious of it. All of this. "

Ah-ha! Dan Vapid describes his musical Ah-ha moment.
Remember, songs are just reworked versions of other songs, take his advice and “Don’t over think it!”

 "I remember listening to a Social Distortion song when I was about 16 or 17 and switching the chord progression around slightly while singing my own words. What I found was I just wrote a song. And it didn't sound like a Social Distortion song at all. It sounded like my song and it wasn't half bad." 

Prove it!
Let’s pick on Social Distortion for a sec. Dan has a good point about scrambling up the same chords from one song and therefore creating another song. “Story of my life” uses G-C-D, a I-IV-V progression in G major. The G chord is the key, or “Home base.”
(Read about I-IV-V progressions here, they literally are why we like songs, whether you like Mozart or the Ramones, our ear doesn’t lie!)
“Making Believe” uses the same exact chords, just slightly scrambled up in comparison to “Story of my life.” I said it, our ear does not lie. These chords are pleasing, regardless of the package you deliver them in, with whatever vocal melody, beat, or bass line you put to it, these chords encourage tonality. Tonality creates memorable songs. Musicians! I challenge you to take these three chords, and write a song today. Send me a link to what you come up with and I’ll post it. Hail Ramones!

Back to Dan Vapid...

If you could get everyone you care about to listen to one song, album, ensemble or band, what would it be and why should everyone you know check this out?
"I would say open a guitar book by the Beatles or Beach boys to see what kind of chords they use. There are so many great nuances that went into the writing of those songs.  Learning them and playing along makes you appreciate them much more."
It was hard to pick an example to share with you, but I picked "I'm the man," because Dan's voice sounds great on it! Buy his music here.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Something to Love-With Brendan Kelly

Playing punk shows in Chicago for the last ten years, there’s always been this thing with this band, The Lawrence Arms, specifically, their lead singer, Brendan Kelly. He’s outspoken, enjoys the occasional cocktail or 7, and sings like he’s just smoked a carton. Interesting stat, (though 100% made up) 4 out of 5 lead singers in today’s Chicago music scene are trying to be Brendan Kelly, in one way or another. Let’s get to know Brendan Kelly’s musical background.

“I play bass and guitar and sing in bands such as the Lawrence Arms, the Falcon and the Wandering Birds. I took about 2 or so years of folk guitar lessons and a year of bass when I was in middle school/high school. Bass lessons were the last thing I did and ended when I was a sophomore in HS.”

Dr. Jim Stopher is an avid sight reader and conductor, Miguel Chen is a punk rocker who happily admits dumping theory for the power chord. Devin Peralta seems to be a blend of the two, so where does Brendan Kelly fit?

“I have almost nothing in the way of analytical theory based training. I know how to identify a key and I'm sort of familiar with notes. That's about it. I haven't really taught myself much since my lessons either. I’m generally not much of a musician besides the fact that people like the crap I do and I surround myself with talented players.”

How has the power chord shaped you as a musician?

“Well, it's the sound of rock and roll. I play a lot of power chords because they sound great. I also play barre chords and open chords and I even dabble in playing riffs here and there, but truly, the power chord is the democratizer that is easy, sounds great, and enables hacks like me to play music in popular bands.” 

When did you first realize you wanted to pursue music? 

“Eh, I guess I've always been interested in it. I used to write songs when I was four and five. It's been something I've always been consistently interested in. I started my first band and did my first multi-track recordings when I was 12, way before I could so much as hold a guitar properly.” 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of your musical persona?

“Hmmmm…I guess the disadvantages are apparent. I've got limited talent and therefore extremely limited range. That being said, creating within those constraints requires unexpected methodology and solutions in order to pull off anything interesting, so in that regard, I'd say that's my advantage as well. How about that?” 

Reaching people

In your musical career, what has been the single most significant, defining event and why?

“I honestly don't know, but selling out the Metro is always a thrill and the Lawrence Arms ten year anniversary show saw a bunch of people coming to the metro from as far away as Australia, Europe and Japan. That was a pretty unbelievable experience.” 

It seems you've been incredibly active over the last few years, playing in different bands, and playing shows/writing etc. What keeps you inspired to keep writing? 

“I write as a more obsessive activity than as a hobby. I'd liken it to the way that people compulsively exercise or diet. I get almost panicky when I don't create something and I just go for it and go for it. When I'm writing songs, I write probably four songs a day, and often more. When I'm not writing songs, (and lotsa times when I am) I work on blogs, stories, books, scripts, movies, pitches for network shows, etc. It's really not a matter of inspiration at all, though I HAVE been inspired, it's nowhere near my main motivator. This isn't entirely accurate, but it seems to me that fear is more of a motivator in my process than inspiration. Inspiration, in my case, seems motivated by work, not the other way around.” 

What has been your greatest struggle with music? 

“I think the above…that I'm bound to compulsively create and that if I don't it starts to affect every facet of my personality, to the point where I can't sleep or focus (not that my focus is spectacular to begin with). Music just happens to be where I've had a small level of success. If I was a successful self-help book author, I'd have struggles with self-help books. It's ridiculous.” 

Have you learned anything from playing punk for decades?

“I don't know that I've learned shit. I have learned about specific people, I've learned a little about the industry and I've learned some jargon, but I don't know that I've learned anything about real truths that I wouldn't have learned just traveling and meeting people, if that makes any sense. Punk rock is just an aesthetic trapping, and any statement to the contrary is necessarily dismissive of other interests. Yes, people love punk rock, but people also love S and M or Zoology or surfing and consider it to be a real, important discipline practiced by devout and dedicated people. Punk rock is no different. Don't mistake me, I love it, but that's all it is. It's something to love.”

What does the perfect song have to have?

“Any art succeeds when it makes the listener understand that someone else (usually someone a little bit more articulate or funny or direct) feels similarly about things to the way they, the listener also feels.

It can be a new idea, that makes the listener go "wow, I didn't even know I felt like that but I do" or it can be something as simple as making a relatable statement about love. A good song also tends to cast a little corner of existence in a beautiful light, (I say this with the clarification point that there's beauty tied up in passion and frustration and hatred and sadness as much as in love or peace or whatever). If you can do this, you've got a good song on your hands.
Also, never underestimate a good melody as one of the most effective ways to convey all of this even in instrumental or mindless songs. Universal truths are at the core of this, and that shit is simple: love, hate, loss, redemption, confusion, etc. Basically, watch a dog. Their emotional range sums up universality pretty well.”

Intelligence as a weapon

The other punk rockers I have spoken with often site punk band Bad Religion as the source of early epiphany. Brendan Kelly, much like punk rocker Russ Rankin, concurs.

“The first time I heard No Control by Bad Religion, I was drawn to the urgency and intelligence like I'd never been drawn to anything before. I grew up a nerd and that album really kind of recapitulated the notion of intelligence as a weapon rather than something that made me some kind of pantywaist.”

To each his own…

If you could get everyone you care about to listen to one song, name it.

“I don't have an answer to this. Music is important for so many different reasons to different people. I can't imagine that I could write one prescription that could please or even impact everyone I know. Townes Van Zandt doing that Pancho and Lefty live in London is profoundly awesome, but my brother would hate it, for example.”

Is Imitation Flattery?

(Earlier I mentioned the seemingly endless laundry list of Lawrence Arms knock-off bands across Chicago and really across the country.) I just so happened to ask Brendan what he hates. Here is his reply.

“If I'm being honest, the stuff I usually end up hating the most is the stuff that's very similar to what I do but poorly done. Any time that I can look at something and see where the artist is coming from but not feel it, I'm gonna be super turned off. I don't like Mystical, (for example) but he has such a different thing going on that I'm not even sure what his desired ends are, therefore, I don't hate his output at all. It's just not relatable. That's like me hating a specific type of infusion suite chair or a certain brand of fertilizer. However, when I hear some rock band full of white guys ruminating about the futility of life and the desire to try to find a place in the world anyway, and it's done poorly or obviously, that's what I hate the most. I hate stuff that's very similar to what I do. I think this is more universally true than most people would like to admit.”

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Drone-Insert Melody Here

A drone is a blank canvas for melody. 
A note or notes are the foundation, literally droning the same pitch, creating a mesmerizing affect. The constancy of the drone is used for meditation and deep relaxation.
Now, where the fun comes in is in the melody that sounds over the drone. A drone won’t commonly be a major or minor chord, it is often one sounding pitch, sometimes played in perfect octaves, and sometimes drones are played as a perfect fifth. I first realized the coolness and openness of musical drones when learning about Indian music, most notably, the Sitar and the Tambura. 

The video below features a Tambura player sounding 3 pitches, C# in a high octave, C# again in a low octave, and G#, a perfect 5th above C#. (Pitch wise, no different from the all American POWER CHORD!)
The droning strings allow the performer to improvise melody over the drone with his voice. He touches on notes within the typical major scale, but this type of music often dabbles with many accidentals, most notably, a diminished fifth, which is simply a flatted or dropped version of a perfect fifth, also known as the Tri Tone or the Devil’s Note. But that’s a different write up, one which will talk Black Sabbath in detail.
Embedding is disabled for this video, but you can watch it on Youtube here.  

Droning about droning

I was watching Prometheus a few weeks ago, and I found myself enamored with a part of the score that used a drone. So enamored in fact, that I feel the need to tell you about it. 
The track is called “Life,” and the composer is Marc Streitenfield. I think given the title of the piece, the melody over the drone is very appropriate. It seems to encapsulate the mystery and beauty of life. I just got deep on you. Here it is.
(Note, by :41 seconds into the piece, the drone is established as the tension from the first :40 seconds subsides, and the melody appears at :45 seconds. Note, the drone never goes away, even when the melody above it changes.)

Droning in time?
After digging into more works from Streitenfeld, I found a track on the American Gangster Soundtrack called “Frank Lucas” that has this feature, except this example is less of a sustained typical drone, and more a repeating note with a rhythmic function.  
Like a drone, it’s still the same sounding pitch for the entire song, but unlike a drone, it is playing to a steady pulse, making the melody over it more pronounced and structured. You’ll notice that the drone used in “Life” is much more free and flowing, without a steady pulse or beat; I would go as far as to call it rubato. Google it!

Droning at Home
In this video, you will hear a low C acting as a drone on my guitar. I will demonstrate the freedom of melody that comes with the foundational pitch of the drone. You'll find, some notes are more dissonant than others, and I'll also play the main melody from "Life."

At :39 seconds, I purposely walk you through the basic intervals found within a C major scale. (For more on intervals and their qualities please stay tuned, I'm working on that one!)

C to D, (a major second)
C to E (a major third)
C to F (a perfect fourth)
C to G (a perfect fifth)
C to A (a major sixth)
C to B (a major seventh)
And by 1:12 I finally get to C to C (a perfect octave)

Minor Adjustment...
At about 1:46, You'll hear a drastic change in mood, that's because I stopped using the C major scale and started playing notes in the C natural minor and harmonic minor scales. Remember, major is happy, minor is rather dark and sad. We'll talk more about mood in other posts, but I wanted to at least show you a little variety in this video. The last thing I play is the theme from "Life" but in a lower octave than I'd previously played. Happy droning!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Maestro and the Punk Part 2-THE PUNK-Miguel Chen

Please note, I'm not trying to favor one type of musician or the other, I'm just examining the beauty in variety. I honestly consider myself a blend of music theory nut and ridiculous punk-rocker, and my purpose is to learn from musicians who resemble both sides and everything in between.

In my last post, we met Harvard Graduate and professional Orchestra Conductor, composer, and college professor, Dr. Jim Stopher. His musical identity is one of academic expertise, centered around his ability to read music, interpret scores, and properly conduct his musicians so that he can achieve the full potential of his music. For Jim, he finds beauty in the technical nuts and bolts of music as well as how it touches him emotionally. 

Miguel Chen is bassist of Wyoming punk quartet Teenage Bottlerocket. Their latest effort "Freak Out!" is out now on Fat Wreck Chords.  Let's dig in.

"I have been playing music basically all of my life. I started with guitar lessons in 2nd grade, then played saxophone in middle school and high school. I started playing in punk bands when I was 13 years old."

Our Maestro, Dr. Jim Stopher described his musical identity as "analytical."
Let's dig into Miguel's identity.  

"I think I wound up being a "play what sounds good" type. As mentioned I did have lessons, starting with classical guitar in 2nd grade. Then Saxophone from 5th-11th grade. I even took more classical guitar lessons around age 14. None of this ever really stuck or is applied to what I do however. The most useful thing I ever learned, was a power chord. Once I started playing punk rock, all music theory pretty much went out the window."

If you just smiled, keep reading. If you just turned your nose up because Miguel praised the power chord and dropped theory, maybe read something else.

Wondering why power chords get a bad rap? I'll explain that in detail and link it soon. In a nutshell, power chords are a quick fix, they only require the guitarist to use 2 fingers, (see chart) and the grip can move all over the neck with virtually instant results. 
I for one absolutely adore the power chord. In my teaching, I've seen power chords build confidence in young players. Not to mention, they just sound awesome.  

-The Punk Dream Come True-

"I knew I needed music when I first discovered punk rock. My friends and I all started getting into bands like NOFX and Agnostic Front, lots of Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph stuff. 

I knew that was where I belonged. 

I didn't ever really think I could do it for a living, but I knew I wanted to be in a band and play for people. Now more than half my life later, I'm still here, still playing punk rock and actually making a little bit of money. It rules. All of us had wanted to be on Fat Wreck Chords and tour with NOFX since we were teenagers. 

When it finally all happened I was so happy I actually cried. 

Really all of us had a dream, worked toward it and finally got to make it a reality. Somewhere between hard work, persistence and luck we ended up getting to live really cool lives. We are very thankful."

So, Miguel has a theory and instrumental background, but his attraction to punk rock and the instant gratification that came with learning the power chord took over his early exposure to the basics of notation and theory fundamentals. So what happens when Teenage Bottlerocket gets together and writes songs?  

"I really don't think too hard about it. It's a pretty honest, short process. It's either, does that suck? Or would I listen to that and get stoked? I would have to say it's more feeling than being excited about what chords or tempos or whatever else. 

TBR pretty much goes off of what sounds good to us and beyond that we don't think too much about it."
(Miguel is on the right)

My 2 Cents
As someone who has studied advanced music theory and actually enjoyed it, I find this comment refreshing. As much as I love analysis, borrowed chords, etc, I sometimes let that cloud my judgement when composing, and I get blocked up or the feeling suffers. We have to remember that it just feels good to play, and enjoy it for what it is.

What was one of your most memorable musical “Ah-ha” moments?

"I remember in my first band one of the members showed me palm muting. Blew my damn mind. I had heard it in songs, but couldn't ever figure out how they got the guitar to sound like that. One day John walks in and tells us we have to check something out. He picked up a guitar and palm muted and completely blew us away."

Check out TBR's video for "Bigger than Kiss." At :19 seconds, you can observe palm muting at its finest. Oh, and they are palm muting POWER CHORDS by the way! 

My 2 Cents. Again...
This was the first song I ever successfully palm muted! 
Talk about a breakthrough for a young guitarist!

The Punk's Pick
"Every single person on earth should listen to the Decline by NOFX. If you don't like that, then we probably don't have a lot in common musically and we know never to talk about it again. If you do like that then we probably have a lot more in common than just music."

Here's a link to NOFX performing "The Decline," (all 18 minutes) live. It is the real deal. Buy the studio version here, it's a masterpiece. 

What is it with Punks and dubstep?
Describe your least favorite song, genre, or artist. Don’t hold back!
"Dubstep. What is that shit?"
 Anything else you’d like to add? 
"The Reaganomics are a great band. I wish you'd all quit your jobs and tour!"

Thanks a lot to Miguel for taking the time and for his in depth responses. He, like many punk rockers, plays what feels good, which has it's pros and cons, but ultimately I find this approach just as admirable and pertinent as the more analytical musical approach of orchestral conductor Jim Stopher. 
By comparing Dr. Jim Stopher and Miguel Chen's responses, I have found value and relevance in both of them, because while on the surface they are virtually opposites, they share a passion and adoration for music, and they absolutely love what they do, which is good enough for me. 

I hope you take these musician's stories and learn something from them in your life and in your musical journey.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Maestro and the Punk Part 1- THE MAESTRO- Dr.Jim Stopher

Why am I trying to talk to musicians from all kinds of backgrounds and examine the differences in what makes them who they are? Because I consider myself a walking musical contradiction, a paradoxical blend of a passionate music theory enthusiast/composer/teacher and an unapologetic obnoxious punk rocker that plays only 1 speed and 1 volume. In order to understand my own perspective, I feel the need to observe every walk of life in the music world. The greater the variety, the better, and nothing says variety like pitting an Orchestral Conductor against a Punk Rocker.


Jim Stopher is a Harvard grad with a Master's Degree in Orchestral Conducting, and a DMA in the same field. Aside from conducting, he is a 20 year+ pianist, and also a music educator and composer. Jim first fell in love with music when he composed his first song at the age of 11.
For Jim, an advantage of doing what he does is that he has complete control over the repertoire in which his ensembles perform. By hand selecting his concert literature, he can build and mold programs based on whichever theme or idea he'd like! A true maestro!
When selecting music, for Jim, it's a combination of both his emotional involvement and the nuts and bolts of the music itself.

"Beautiful and unexpected harmonic progressions are crucial, but also melodic invention and unpredictability."

So how is Jim Stopher able to identify all these nuts and bolts? Does he just know?

No, he reads music.

To Jim, the ability to read music is "indispensable." For his profession, this could not be more true. Not only does he have to know how to read, but he must have a developed enough ear to catch and fix when musicians are not playing the correct pitch or rhythm. Reading is everything for Jim, and it enables him to literally see the harmonic intent of the composers he chooses, and therefore, build better programs and ultimately feel more fulfilled as a musician/performer/conductor.

Dr. Stopher's favorite, Brahms.
(and my 2 cents)
Brahms's Violin Concerto is Jim's favorite piece of music. In my listening to it, I enjoyed the pentatonic (5 note scale) melody at the beginning and I loved that they revisited that melody later in piece, also, the half cadence left me hanging at around :20 seconds, which I liked. Don't know what I'm saying? Google it for now!
It had my attention and took me places. From then on, there's drama, and many instances of all those things Jim looks for in music. Surprises, but thought out surprises, executed precisely and never abandoning melody and harmony.
Well I don't listen to Brahms regularly, it was very cool to listen to this while thinking about Jim's background and his adoration for this music, not to mention how his identity as a musician plays into his tastes. I always take my interviewees tastes into serious consideration and set my personal tastes aside, as should you.
My sincere thanks to Dr. Jim Stopher for his time and his input.

Stay tuned, and meet the PUNK!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Russ Rankin-Sounds Good

Russ Rankin is lead vocalist and songwriter for Fat Wreck Chords bands Good Riddance and more recently Only Crime. Russ's new solo effort "Farewell Catalonia” (out on Paper + Plastick Records) was released in 2012 and he has since been performing solo shows in support of his latest work.

Whenever I get to speak to musicians for this blog, I always ask them where they fit. 

Is Russ Rankin an “analytical theory based” musician, or more of an “I play what sounds good/self-taught” musician?
"I would put myself mostly in the 2nd category you listed although I have recently begun to study music theory a bit more, mostly inspired by my introduction to jazz."

Here's a link to Good Riddance's "Salt" You won't find much jazz in this selection, but the chord progression and vocal melodies and harmonies suggest that when Russ plays "what sounds good" it comes out enjoyable, provided you like hardcore/punk music. 

When did you first realize you wanted to pursue music?
"I thought about trying to sing punk rock when I first bought and listened to Bad Religion’s “Back To The Known” ep. I thought it was amazing the way they used vocal melodies to deliver a potent message."

Bad Religion is pretty influential. Devin Peralta of Cobra Skulls also sited them as an early inspiration.

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of your musical persona?
"The obvious advantage has been the modest platform it’s given me to speak on issues important to me (animal rights, politics etc). The disadvantage would have to be the inability to hide and be anonymous in the music scene. Having to be extra conscious of everything I did or said, who I hung out with. It comes with the territory and I have learned to deal with it. It isn't nearly so extreme lately as my band(s) aren't really hugely popular but it’s still a thing."

What is Russ Rankin most proud of?
"I would suppose it would be when Fat Wreck Chords agreed to release our music because it turned us almost overnight from a struggling local band into an international act. The most humbling thing has been the thousands of people who have been inspired by our music to make positive changes in their lives."

What is your typical process when writing a song?
"I usually just play around with riffs on my guitar and when I find something that catches my ear I decide whether it will be a better verse or chorus and then I go about trying to fit a good vocal melody over it. 
Other times, a vocal melody just appears in my head (this happens a lot while I’m out in the water) and then I have to try to remember it until I can get home, grab my guitar and put a chord structure underneath it."

I love hearing about musical "Ah-ha!" moments. Guess who is responsible for Russ Rankin's? 
"My Ah-ha moment was listening to Bad Religion’s “Suffer” album. I was blown away. I thought it was a tremendously thought-provoking and powerful experience and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of punk rock music as a mechanism to inspire conscious thought behind a wall of ear-pleasing melodic information."

If you could get everyone you care about to listen to one song,what would it be and why should everyone you know check this out?
“Love and Ire Song” by Frank Turner is pretty powerful. It’s about hope, disillusionment and growing older. It gives me chills. It inspires me and at the same time it makes me want to quit writing music because I know nothing I write will ever be that profound."

My 2 cents, I can't help it...
After viewing and listening to Russ's big moment, I can't help but point out the musical simplicity of the song. Frank Turner is strumming the ever popular I-IV-V chord progression. (V7 if you're knit picky) 
I've said it before and I'll say it again, I-IV-V is so commonly used because it simply sounds good. We identify with these chord changes, and when pointed lyrics are passionate delivery are layered above.....Well, "Ah-ha!"

Ixnay on the "ub-step day"
We've seen what inspires Russ, but what is he NOT a fan of?
"I don’t care much for dub step, and I have never been a fan of the punk/ska fusion. I loved Operation Ivy but at the same time I think we have to blame them for all the bands that came after."

Thank you for taking the time to share your musical story. Anything else you’d like to add?
"Thanks to anyone who’s ever supported me or any of the bands I've been involved in."