In theory, the proliferation of low cost multi-track recording devices has democratized the recording process and put these tools into the hands of many people who previously didn't have access to them. All of these people would then go on to create works of musical art that would amaze and gratify, as these musical geniuses were heard for the first time. In practice, if you had to listen to all the recordings made on 4- track cassette recorders and low cost digital recording systems, you'd surely want to die. Like the hapless protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, who's forced to view the terrible acts of humanity for hours on end, you'd beg for it to be over. Admit it.
Occasionally heroes emerge from the mist like Beck, with his top 40 single recorded on an 8-track and cheap sampler. But, reason says there must be more, just like reason says that we just can't be the only intelligent life in the universe, right? Well, where are they then? Maybe they're hard to find until they're overexposed like Beck and the dead aliens of Roswell.
Elliott Earls is one example of an artist doing great work that very few people have heard. His music and art would probably exist without the proliferation of the digital tools he uses, but it would be quite different and it's even more likely that you'd never hear it. No major label in their right mind would ever open their checkbooks for Elliott like they do for N'sync and the Spice Girls. Most music these days is pretty cookie cutter and predictable, but Elliott produces unique and experimental but ultimately enjoyable pop music that is very original. A bit of a novelty in 1999. While original, his influences are still present, just mixed in and regurgitated and disparate enough in the first place to keep things fresh. Immediate references would include hip- hop, musique concreté, funk, spoken word, slice and dice, and contemporary practitioners of the above like the Beasties and Beck. Standing on top of this all is a passion for the English language and wordplay, and a deep respect for Henry Miller.
Elliott has two more or less self released multi-media CDs available, Throwing Apples At The Sun and Eye Sling Shot Lions. Each CD is not only a full music CD, but also has a rich multi-media layer. If you think that a lot of multi-media is boring and soul-less, these CDs will probably change your mind. Instead of trying to create bad TV-like imagery you can control, Elliott strips it down to the basics and fucks with the constraints, turning weaknesses into assets. One nice thing about working with, as opposed to fighting the current technology, is that these CDs run fast and never crash your computer.
The only slightly surprising thing about all this if you enter into it from the music, is that Elliott has no training or background as a musician, but is an internationally renowned type designer and graphic designer, albeit an eccentric one who will probably never reach the mainstream status of someone like David Carson. Once you know this, the visual brilliance of the CDs and the eclectic variety of the music begin to make more sense. At this point a more familiar reference point might be someone like Brian Eno, a brilliant musician, and a practitioner of many forms of art.
You studied at Cranbrook, probably one of the most controversial and influential graphic design and art programs of this century since the Bauhaus in Germany. What was that like, and how did it help to form your current aesthetic.
After 4 years of art school, I found that I was 25 years old, wearing a tie and driving a Saab 900 to work each day. I looked at my life and was utterly revolted. Here I was design- ing corporate communications for a living, paying my car payment, and looking for- ward to my two weeks of vacation. I felt the only way to get my life back on track would be to have a few years to really examine my values, and develop some real work. I started to look for the most fucked up anti-establishment art school I could find. It turns out I went to a graduate school for two years that has no teachers, class, grades or any of the other complete horse shit that fucks up the educational process. The mythology of the place stated that you could study anything you wanted as long as you worked with passion. That's what I did.
How did you move from Graphic Design and the visual arts into music? Was their any kind of music program at Cranbrook that you were involved in?
For 2 years I worked on "many-media." I'm not talking about the complete crap that you see on the CD-rom that came with your Acer-XT. I'm talking about nonlinear digital video, spoken word poetry mixed with typographic experiments, still photography and cell phone conversations. So from the very beginning of this process I began to investigate music composition, pop song form and sound. I read a million books on music theory and composition. I made sure that the books I read were one of two dis- tinct types, either extremely simple, or so esoteric that they were nearly impossible for me to understand. This was intentional. Books like David Harp's Instant Rhythm Kit, or Music Theory Made Easy by David Harp, were over simplistic and would map the territory; in other words these books would clearly spell out the rules. For instance they would explain the blues in an almost formulaic way. It would talk about 12 bar blues form and maybe what key the blues would typically be played in among other things. The point behind this exercise would be to do what artists have done since the beginning of time; fuck with form. Now that I had an elemental grasp of the stereotypical form, I'd start composing around that form and try to twist it and bend it. Simultaneously, I would be reading The Computer Music Journal (MIT press) or maybe The Elements of Computer Music. I'd take an extremely sophisticated program like Tom Erbe's SoundHack(1), and I'd convolve two of my simple tracks to get that groove bouncin'. It's very important to me to clarify at this point: I believe in reading absolutely everything you can about theory, music and technology. I believe in rigorous exploration in a systematic way. But, and I can't stress this more strongly, at the point I'm directly working with the music, all that shit is gone!! The song, the tone, the vibe, the groove is the thing! All the preliminary work is gone, if the shit don't bounce, if you can't move your ass to it, you're fucked! And all the books in the world won't help!
On a higher or meta-level, what are the differences and similarities between music and art; design and sound How is the act of creativity universal to all art, be it visual, literary, musical or otherwise? Or, how isn't it?
It's all the same man. I find no difference at all on the deepest level, between writing a song, building an instrument, designing a typeface or editing video. They all come from the same place. It's the manifestation that's different, and that's so minor. To me it's all about mastery. I'm aware of how ridiculous and traditional that might sound, but at the point the artist has come to a profound and deep understanding of his craft, he no longer is constrained or controlled by it. He's able to transcend it. He's able to control it. So back to the David Harp books. It's all about the fundamentals, whether it's in music, painting or computer programming. I'm a student, man! I'm working hard on my skills everyday! Be they logic structures or understanding the Dorian mode. Everyday towards mastery, towards a deeper and more meaningful form of expression.
Describe your song writing and recording process. Do you go through several drafts of songs? Do you sit down with a guitar or something? How much of a role do your recording tools play in the actual writing and creating process of songwriting?
I've really been thinking a lot about this recently because I'm currently writing the music for my next disc/performance piece. I would have to say that the recording process was a prime element in the construction of both discs. And this is precise- ly where I've decided the new disc will break from the past! A little side note: I'm not saying this to score points. Tape Op is honestly one of my favorite magazines. I just became aware of it about a month ago. The focus on small studios and how they are working makes it invaluable. I used to really love Recording magazine. I would buy every issue and look for their articles on "Making a Broad Band Diffuser" or some other equally interesting topic that would help me be a better recordist. Anyway, about a year ago, I realized that I was picking up the magazine on the newsstand and looking for that one article that would really make me need the magazine. It seems that almost overnight they became this 4 color rag dedicated almost exclusively to reviewing VST plug-ins or the latest Windows sequencing package. The magazine is terrible. My point is that I feel this is a reflection of a broader problem in music today. Take a look at Keyboard magazine as an example. They would have you believe that the composition process should be something like this: First select a pre-made sample off the "Extreme Ethnic Explosion CD-ROM," get Cubase VST with the "Brazilian House Party" plug-in and you patch it in line with the"Hyper-engine-Mondo-Mod-Reticulator" plug-in, then run it through "Recycle," then you're done. Give me a fucking break! So for this, my third disc, I've been writing songs with my strat. No groove up Teddy Riley shit yet. My plan is to finish writing the joints. Make sure that shit is bumpin with no effects, no technology, none. Then take a week and find a beautiful room. Use one of those laser measuring tools from the Home Depot, calculate room fundamental modes and shit. And cut the tracks. At that point, I'm sure I'll get retarded with the mixes, maybe warm up the old D-110 editor and SoundHack. But as I mentioned before, I'm consciously playing with the algebra. I feel good about the new songs I've written. They rely on guitar, harmonica and bom- bastic beats when I play them live.
What kind of gear did you use on your first album? Describe your set up and the processes involved in recording that first album.
My first CD was recorded entirely on a Macintosh 660av with 16meg of RAM. A Mackie 12x2 board. I had a Roland D-110 as a sound module. I should add that as much as that module sucks, if you get an editor for it and really get deep into it and twist it, it has this dark, metallic vibe that's beautiful. I was using Opcode Studio Vision Pro, a really crappy 30 year old Japanese 3/4 scale guitar, a SansAmp and an $80 dollar Shure microphone. I think it's important to state that virtually every track on that disc was processed in some way through SoundHack. I realized that with my limited equipment, I ran the distinct risk of coming off like a bozo. Coming off all Yanni or worse, like John Tesh. So I deeply fucked with the every track on that disc. I would convolve a horn track onto my bass track. Or phase vocode the vocals, pitch shift the drums, whatever it took to create a sonic palette that was dark 'n lovely.
What kind of gear did you use on your second album? Describe your set up and the processes involved in recording that album. How did it evolve from the first and what prompted that evolution?
On the second disc, I got a DigiDesign AudioMedia III card. A Macintosh 72/75. Some Paradigm Mini Mk2's. A Strat. An Alesis D4 drum module. Sony PCM 2600 DAT. Sony TCD-D7 DAT Walkman with a wide field stereo mic. An old Harmony tenor guitar. An Alesis compressor and MidiVerb. One reason my equipment is so mundane is because we're only talk- ing about my audio based equipment. My work consists of video, program- ming, video projection, photography etc... So for every Sony PCM 2600 I buy, I've also purchased an 8mm Sony video camera, and a LCD projector etc... Have you priced a good LCD projector lately? My God! My studio has got to be a be able to handle broad- cast quality After effects spots, 4x5 photography etc. The recording processes on the two albums were very different. It's quite odd. The musicians and artists who I respect are those who are very versatile. I'm very interested in attempting to work through interpersonal "movements" in the work. In other words, I wanted my second disc; the vibe, the beats, the tone to be completely different from the first. I wanted the accompanying nonlinear digital video spots, the typography, the visual programming all to be different. So I did everything in my power to work in ways that were counterintuitive. In any artistic discipline, if you modify the method or process you modify the result. It's like algebra. The first disc had this dark slow atmospheric vibe, that I was really in love with. Therefore on Eye Sling Shot Lions, the second disc, I wanted to attempt to create something that was a bit softer and cleaner. I was well aware of the danger in this, "soft" can obviously be quite a bad thing. Anyway, I wanted to work within those constraints. I wanted to try to convey the same intensity and passion but through the contradiction of a lighter sonic palate.
What kind of music if any would you do if you didn't have the access to the tools and recording processes you have?
Currently, I'm investigating a sort of fluid guitar and harmonica playing thing. I love the contrast between my extremely technologically sophisticated performance stuff, and this simple harmonica guitar thing. I've been working hard for the past 2 years on the athletic aspects of being a musician.
You use a lot of spoken word type things in your music and in general, your lyrics are more than just something to hang the melody on. Describe your background, influences and approach to lyrics, poetry, language, literature, etc...
At Cranbrook a classmate of mine, Brian Schorn, was this poet from Brown, who used to organize these poetry readings in the north studio at night. I only actually participated once, but because my crib was in this small room called the north studio, I got to observe. Over the course of that year we became tight. Brian would say, "Hey dude, check this shit out." Then he would play some extremely obscure video from "Sacred Fire" featuring the work of a poet I'd never heard of. Brian and I would dis- cuss our work and focus on the linguis- tic aspects. At some point in our rela- tionship I realized just how good a poet Brian was. I also realized that he kind of enjoyed some of the shit that I was hitting him with. After I left Cranbrook I worked on Throwing Apples at the Sun for a year never really letting Brian hear anything off of it. That whole year, I worked my ass off on the linguistic aspect of the disc, all the while keeping Brian in mind. I was hoping that when he first heard the CD he would be proud. That he would be shocked. I guess it simply boils down to the fact that I love words! I love language and I love word games. I take it extremely seriously even when I'm having fun.
Your CDs have a lot of really unique vocal effects. What are some of the tools and techniques you use to achieve this?
Well, It's odd because I read your interview with that cat from Sparklehorse. I just love that guy. And on a very superficial level I'd say that some of the sonic character of his vocals is very similar to the way I handle my vocals. I point this out because I was surprised when he discussed how he treated his vocals. He seems to do a lot of very lowtech hardware manipulation to achieve that sonic signature. I always attempt to record my vocals straight through the Sony PCM2600 DAC's with no processing at all utilizing the shortest possible signal chain, then digital to the hard disk It's at this point that I fuck with the timbre. I mentioned my love of SoundHack. Well the beauty of the program is that it is very difficult to use. Unlike a polished commercial release, this program will allow you to enter parameters into the program that will so severely mangle the audio that it becomes useless. The key, I found is to keep entering "wrong" parameters but do like 35 tests on very short files, until the audio sample is right at that critical point of intelligibility. Then I would either convolve that track back onto its original unaltered file for a bit of clarity or I'd mix the original and the mangled versions together to taste. The other thing I do a lot is to build up a lot of pressure in my throat when singing. It sounds stupid, but for some reason, if I really stress my vocal cords through what I can only describe as pressure, it comes out sounding very distressed. I know I put the smack down on the whole plug-in thing, but there is one set of plug- ins I don't think I could live without; the Waves Pro Bundle or whatever they call it. With the LT-1 Ultramaximizer and that EQ you can really fool with the sonic character of your voice.
You are now building your own instruments. Describe some of these instruments and how and why this came about.
Well, I've been doing these performances for about a year and a half now. And what they are is not like a rock concert or a hip-hop show, or a rave. They 're a kind of mixture of theater, movies and poor musicianship utilizing CD-ROM and LCD projection. It's quite hard to explain, but essentially Excerpts from Eye Sling Shot Lions is an interactive digital composition conceived and constructed around the Quicklime Media Layer, Max and Supercard technologies. During live performance, a melange of typography, sound, video frag- ments, interactive digital video, simulated live performance, short films and pop music are controlled via MIDI and interwoven with live poetry, sub-urban hip-hop and spoken word texts. I've custom built interface elements like gold boots that trigger samples that link me to computer controlled video and typography. It's all based upon piezoelectric elements. You know, those 3 dollar buzzers at Radio Shack. Well if you cut them apart, they have these little discs inside that when struck give off a faint electrical impulse. This signal can be used to control video, audio, smoke machines, cell-phones, scan- ners etc... All you've got to do is get a sol- dering iron and spend about three years of your life learning to program some fairly sophisticated shit in a scripting language. Anyway the instruments you refer to are more like interface elements. They are boots, and drums and electro-magnets, and horns and lights, that feed signals back to the Macintosh. The Mac is listening for these signals and alters the film that's play- ing, the base audio, turns on some lights, switches off the smoke machine etc. While all this is happening, I'm playing the gui- tar/harmonica, telling stories, hiting ya' with some spoken word etc...
What was the impetus that led to you recording your first CD?
Well, after I got out of grad school I went to work for Elektra records at 75 Rock in Manhattan as a designer. I met a few peo- ple that I really liked. Some unbelievably good cats working on what amounts to a slave ship. Generally, I felt like this was one of the most amoral outfits I'd ever seen. I couldn't believe the way the corporate culture treated people. I found out they would fire like 25% of the staff every 3 months. It took them over 120 days to pay my initial invoices! I couldn't believe it. Anyway, I got fired 6 months after I started. I was told later that there was a small uprising among the women that worked in the art department with me. Apparently, they went to my boss, and said "Either he goes or we go." At least that's what my boss told me. Get this, the last project I worked on and the potential last straw was a European release of the Eagles Greatest Hits. I simply couldn't bring myself to give them that dorky Hotel California vibe they so desperately wanted. They showed the band my comps and I was told that Don Henley hated them so much he pulled the package from the art depart- ment, and had an outside designer do it. Needless to say the chief was none too pleased. Anyway, I mention this not simply because I now find it humorous, but because upon being fired, I immediately started my own studio, The Apollo Program, and began to record music that I liked rather than the crap the A+R department was having a hard time shoving down the throats of the American con- sumer. I decided to become a "prosumer" of music. I decided to base my studio upon my music, performance, typography, video, posters and do business the way I thought it should be practiced. Fuck the multinational-musico-hamburger-pushing establishment until they treat me with a little fucking respect.
What's next for you and what are your current projects??
I was really fortunate that last month The Wooster Group in SOHO gave me an Emerging Artist Grant and I was one of the featured performers in their Emerging Artist Series. This was an amazing experience, The Wooster Group has been around for some- thing like 30 years and has played a critical role in avant garde theater and performance art in New York City. The people helped me tremendously. I mention this because during that week, we had two top of the line Sony 3 CCD Digital Video Cameras, a Hi-8 mm and one straight 8 running. And over the course of the past year, I've been collecting documentary footage including my first poetry reading based performances in New York City and a private performance I gave at Bennington's research center in Treviso among others. So I've been working on a documentary. I don't know what form it will take yet; I'm hoping to put it out on DVD. I've also been getting calls from all over planet earth to perform, so that should keep me busy for a while. And, of course, I'm hard at work on my next CD.