Creativity is in the cracks.
Episode 77: Announcement! (and some choice rants)
Good morning! This is Play It Like It’s Music. I’m Trevor, thanks for listening.
On Wednesday, March 3rd of 2021 music is not content, it’s connection.
Saying hi to you from the interwebs in these uncertain times. I’m going to do something different for this episode. Check it out.
[What follows is the full transcript of this week’s show. Feel free to press Play and read along if so inclined. I promise it’s more fun with audio, plus there’s some music on there!]
Listen in your podcast app: Apple Podcasts - Spotify- Stitcher - TuneIn - Overcast - Pocketcast
I’ve had a number of shifts in my creative life over the last few years, things that knocked me on my ass, things that have made me think/question what this is all for but also which got me digging further into how it all happens, and finally some major openings that brought some beautiful new energy and momentum into my musical process.
Some of these changes happened because of doing this podcast and others are separate. But if you listen to this show and you’re engaged with music in some way, one thing you probably know is that the ground is always shifting beneath us. We can’t always think on our feet, sometimes we have to think with our feet. More on that in a minute.
Right now I have an announcement.
And it has to do with the above.
This show in its current form is going to go away for a while. I’ll do a few more episodes with a couple of great people, take it up to Episode 80 and then put it on hiatus.
I’m incredibly happy for how it’s gone and this is not a decision I take lightly at all, since I know that many of you tune in each week for the fellowship we get here. It’s exactly the kind of community I feel I was made to serve, but it’s also catalyzed some really important shifts in my creative life which I have to honor.
I’m going to lean into the music 100% for a while, which will include reclaiming the handful of hours I put into producing this show every week.
The energy is simply too great right now, music is pouring out of me at a rate I can barely keep up with. I want to celebrate this and strike while the iron is hot.
I’ll still be sending you emails and sometimes there’ll be sounds with them. But “Play It Like It’s Music” the show is entering a cocoon phase as it finds out what form it wants to take in the future. I’m so thankful that you are all here listening to this process as it unfolds and sharing your own experiences with me. I’m not going anywhere, this is just a metamorphosis.
So during this episode today I’m going to go through some of the changes themselves, and what they might mean for some of us who’ve been chasing the muse our whole lives.
I think you’ll get something out of it, so let’s dig in.
I got my first drum machine in 1987.
Yes, I’m that old. It was a Roland TR-505, it had some samples on pads and some basic sequencing on it but it wasn’t much to shake a stick at - or shake a room with.
Now tell me if this is you: we put our fingers on an instrument, start getting some cool sounds and then start dreaming of putting a beat together with our sounds, maybe getting a band together and seeing if folks might want to go somewhere and dance to some of our stuff.
That was me as a teenager in the 80’s, and it’s still me today.
I went on to log a few hundred thousand miles on the road, playing in every kind of bar imaginable. I did a couple of local cover bands as well, but it’s all the same chase.
AND! Before you do any bands or put on a show, you gotta have band practice. And because you might not have a drummer lined up right away, you try getting your hands on a drum machine and see if you can make something happen with that.
Honestly some people start there and go pretty far with it, becoming electronic artists, DJ’s and producers. But I’ve never been able to keep my fingers off a set of strings for very long. And it’s dicey, trying to wrangle a beat and play an instrument at the same time. Some folks do just fine with that but it’s a lot of balls to keep in the air.
So for little old me the drum machine ends up taking the form of a glorified click track, which is fun for about 25 seconds before you start realizing that a beat isn’t just marking time as it marches by. It’s a living breathing thing, an animal which will take your music to unimagined heights if you treat it right, but will also rip your vibe to shreds if you ignore it or piss it off.
So the journey is a long one, and for me it’s been episodic and contentious.
I’ve never felt so musically lost than when I was trying to figure my groove out and couldn’t do it.
It’s a weird feeling of impotence where your nose is pressed so hard against the glass and you have no idea how to get through. You know something beautiful is there, right on the other side, but you can’t quite get beyond a sketch and it’s getting hard to breathe.
I’ve been around the block with it a bunch of times, and the cycle is pretty much the same: I find a line or a riff or a melody or some chords, then I set about looking for combinations with a rhythm or some lyrics. Or I might start with one of those by themselves and look from that angle. Sometimes it works out quickly, other times it leads into a maze. The maze sometimes leads somewhere cool (like my cello style, which I love) and other times it just leads further into the maze.
I’ve had insane power struggles with some of the human drummers I’ve worked with, as well as some crazy dysfunctional codependency with most of the drum machines I’ve used and owned in the past. Then, if you get going with computers using something like Ableton Live the thing changes entirely.
I like to say that Ableton Live is Excel for music. And I stand by that.
And I’m a technically-inclined guy!
So I’ve been able to get quite well-versed in the relationship between strings and drums, between live drums and electronic drums, synths and samples, software and hardware. I’ve owned quite a few pieces of gear over the years but I usually let them go because I can find their limitations pretty quickly. And they are quite limiting.
Usually it comes down to a question of feel and tempo: if it’s a machine then I’m always craving more variation than the thing will provide inside of its feature set, and with a live drummer (and live musicians in general) there are questions of dynamics and personality that can shortchange the musical payoff if you’re not on the same page.
Now a critical point in the process is when you let go of control, watching the elements combine into something greater than the individual parts or preferences. But oftentimes our ego (or egos) will keep us stuck and we don’t give ourselves that chance. Then you end up back at square one, which for me usually takes the form of sitting in a space by myself with a cello, tapping on the surface of it.
As long as I don’t have any life complications getting in the way, that is.
Music is a beautiful thing.
It’s a great way to un-twist ourselves.
But the twisting part can also bring you to your knees if you don’t keep your head up.
My journey took me off the rails for a while. I burned bridges, lost homes, chased the muse into the weeds far more times than I can count.
And I won’t lie: a lot of those trips can definitely make you sound better in the long run. Learning what a musical moment is really worth and connecting with a deep place, each time. But at some point you do have to take charge of your life.
I had to stop throwing my well-being out the window and get down to the work at hand of making a true sound, one that would matter to people and bring them together.
But I had no idea what that even meant anymore.
Personally I had suffered too many losses along the way. I’d come off the road, stopped playing in bars to sell other people’s beer, my mental health was in shreds and I had no joy at the idea of going out to another gig, anywhere.
With no idea of what any of it meant anymore, I started this show you’re hearing right now. I needed to talk to my fellow musicians about these questions: Why do we even do this? What separates the pros from the dilettantes and wannabes? What do we need to stay away from?
I had no idea, but I knew I could ask my friends. So Play It Like It’s Music was born. I knew that it would lead me somewhere. Probably forward.
So two things happened.
First, on the day I launched the show the phone stared to ring with clients and I started booking work as a podcast producer. I made like 40 grand in 6 months, which was astonishing.
The other thing that happened was I started making music again, and not like before. I was writing and producing too. With joy.
There’s something about the very act of hitting Record which will scare a musician back into their shell. The creative process is often not fun, there’s a lot of dread and doubt which can paralyze you. But when it’s your job to produce media for other people - at a high volume with delivery deadlines and so forth - that same act becomes a mere reflex.
Suddenly you’re just doing it. You’re thinking with your feet.
So while I was making the first episodes of this show (for myself) and producing three other shows (for money), I suddenly found myself also writing songs again, composing instrumentals - and most importantly producing demos of said material at a higher rate and quality.
Something was working where it hadn’t been for a long time, which brings me to the third act in this tale.
At some point I stumbled upon the live-coding scene.
It’s the collision of music and technology at the core level. People tapping directly into the sound and musicmaking capabilities of their computers, bypassing all that front-facing software - the digital audio workstations which are so expensive and mostly just imitate tape machines to begin with.
Now there’s nothing wrong with tape machines, I love em. But computers are not tape machines and it’s no use pretending that they are. I mean, DAWs are great but they are not musical instruments!
At some point people decided that DAWs and plugins were instruments in and of themselves, but they’re not. They’re just production and composition environments. Computers might be the most powerful musical instrument humankind has ever invented, but the DAW environment is like using 3% of your brain.
Here’s a little side rant:
Between the twin tectonic shifts of the streaming era and the digital production explosion, not enough attention gets paid to just how toxic the DAW timeline is to a musician's mind.
Hear me out. A musical sound is a living organism. We interact with it when playing an instrument or writing a song. Composing on paper is writing notes to it while it lives in the ether - the sound itself manifests out of the process.
But when sounds all start and end inside a timeline, it's like raising animals in a cage. Yes, they all move exactly when and where you push them, but freedom and surprise are removed entirely.
I don't know about you, but freedom and surprise are exactly what I want MORE of in music, not less.
The DAW timeline is an authoritarian environment where the M.O. is to assert total control over the sounds. Ableton Live is almost as thrilling to use as an excel spreadsheet.
Now I’ll admit that there’s a part of me gets off on using DAW tools: it's the desperate, lonely part of me who craves certainty and safety. Who can't accept music as fundamentally chaotic and interact with it on those terms.
Playing cello, by contrast, is like living with an ostrich. Awkwardness abounds, and surprise is never far away. Control is out of the question, and anyway who would want that? You can collect instruments like animals if you want to, but the real action is out in the wild.
Now don't get me wrong: I use my DAW rig every day and love it for what it enables. But it's an adult activity: taking care of business and delivering the goods. The musical animal in me resents the constant funneling-into-certainty that the DAW timeline demands.
What's weird though is that my musician self also loves the crap out of computers for the raw chaotic power of the sounds they can make. Because music is where spirit and science mingle.
There's a whole scene of folks out there getting dirty with a computer like Jimi Hendrix or something. Check out @yaxu, @hellocatfood and @kindohm:
We’re not all just out here making beer commercials.
Anyway, back to what I was saying…
In live coding, you’re actually playing the computer. You’re not stuck in a grid, mousing around with tempo envelopes or some corny “shuffle” knob. You’re in the machine itself, putting in formulas and rolling the dice on what it’s gonna spit out.
Needless to say, the learning curve is intense. But since the same goes for playing the cello, I jumped in and got hooked. Pretty soon all the different parts of my musical mind started coming together and I felt that sonic sense of purpose again.
Now I’m not a real computer programmer, so I mostly just tack things together and start playing along with it once my brain gives out and I can’t formulate any more. But that dance has started right here in my studio and it’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
So I’ve made two new releases in the first two months of this year, and I’m already working on #3. And I’ve never felt better.
So let’s hear some of it, shall we?
TRIOS 02: post-cello generations is available.
Here is installment #2 of the Trios series.
We are getting into some lusher and more melodic territory now, since the cello sound took quite a beating the first time around. We're letting Grandpa breathe a bit here.
February is a short month, hence a slightly shorter album. I hope you like these sounds, they are crafted with love and an adventurous spirit.
TRIOS 03 will come out on 4/1.
Click here to go to the album page.
As before, the creative limitation "Trio" in this instance means that there are three live passes: once with the rhythm bits (done directly from the computer using a live coding program called TidalCycles), and then two instrument takes followed by minimal editing and a mix.
I’m along for the ride with you.
So that’s my story.
I have so many people to thank for helping me to believe in this music and actually get the thing done.
Many of you (in fact the entire Play It Like It’s Music community) are listed in the release notes. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for being here, and most of all for listening.
OK that’s all for this announcement. Thank you so much for being here, please enjoy and share the album.
Thanks so much for listening to Play It Like It’s Music, for spending some very generous time with me today.
This is episode #77, I’ll be back next week with a new show but we’ll be winding this down after episode 80.
Follow me on twitter @trevorexter and talk to me on there if you have thoughts.
We're all contending with a mutating professional landscape, jacked revenue streams, a catastrophic global pandemic and plenty of other noise out here.
But you gotta keep playing.
We don't draw any lines here between scenes or styles.
So as always, thank you for listening and remember to play it like its music.
Music is a beautiful thing and it makes the world go round.
Big Love to you and your big ears,
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