Last night Vancouver and I were on the phone about the new album the band and I have been recording. I brought the hard drive that the whole album is on to his place in my suitcase when we flew to LA for the Sunset Sessions gig. Vancouver called me screaming that he had just listened to the tracks and had vomited in his mouth. He couldn’t believe how raw and rough they sounded. He especially couldn’t believe how insanely rough the drums sounded. I had told him I was bringing him “the finished tracks” so he could add all his parts. (This is a technique that is becoming more and more popular fyi for those who are not musicians. Transcendence is a band. The same band that has been touring and recording together for 11 years. Same guys. But we do presently happen to live in five different cities. All over the country. From Miami to Atlanta to New York to Seattle to Los Angeles. It’s crazy. Normally we fly to one city to record. For the basic rhythm tracks for this new album we did. But then we parted ways. I’ve been recording my guitar parts in New York and my vocal parts in Seattle. Father Bloopy (now-The Ex Norwegian) adds his bass and keys and guitars in Miami. Vancouver will add his guitars and keys and vocals in LA. All through shipping hard drives around the country. It’s a fascinating process. Sometimes if we are just doing one song, we will just fly the files over the internet. And yet the end result is still the same thing: a finished track. (the latest one I just described is about to appear in an upcoming sports film being released later in the year. We were never in the same room once together. But no one will ever know or even think about that aspect of it… They’ll either “like” the song or not. This is a side note, but it’s essence is actually pertinent to the major theme of this post.))
Vancouver knew we had started tracking the project using v-drums triggering a multitude of high grade drum samples. It was an experiment based on several different needs at the time. Using drum samples is so common today that 98% of the music we hear on the radio is made that way. Even if the drummer of the group originally recorded his parts on real drums. Often times the mix engineer will substitute better sounding drum samples if he thinks he can improve the track or he wants it to sound more current or even if he just wants to change up the sound of the drums a bit from section to section. Again, most people don’t know this. Then again, they don’t care. They don’t think about it.
So The Ex Norwegian and The Poet and I fill Vancouver’s head with days and days of stories about how incredible “the new stuff sounds”. And he can’t wait to power up this hard drive and listen to the tracks and start adding his parts to them. But I had brought the wrong hard drive to LA! So what he was listening to were the rough demos we did of the songs back in July of last year. He was aghast. He couldn’t believe this was our idea of “amazing sounding finished songs”. And for good reason. Demos can be notoriously shitty sounding. Even if you’re used to listening to them as we are. But he had been set up to believe he was about to sky dive over the Grand Canyon with a choir of angels or something. And instead we throw him out of the back of a plane over a garbage heap with a couple of crack whores.
The conversation soon turned into a debate about using drum “samples” versus “real drums”. (Drum samples are “real drums”. But they are samples of real drums. The sound itself isn’t being created there in that moment. The PART is being played live there in that moment. But the SOUND could have been created thirty years ago. Google it if you aren’t familiar with the process.) Granted, in our genre of music, rock, (pop-rock in general — ALL of the various different radio formats and genres and sub-genres included) we almost exclusively use real drums. Rock bands that is. Yes the engineer then replaces a good portion of them with what he considers “better sounding” real drum samples IF the band lets him or her do so; but the playing is all real, the feel is real, it’s human. And that’s what we the artists are used to. Again, the people, the music consuming public, has no idea that this paradigm or any debate about it one way or the other even exists.
[It is still shocking, funny, twisted, trippy, controversial and disturbing to US, musicians, when we see an artist pretend to play live on TV with a little group of musicians behind them also pretending to play drums and bass and guitar and keyboard when we know that the album was almost entirely made on a keyboard and that those musicians were hired just to show up and pretend to be playing — their mics aren’t even turned up. It’s still an “issue” for most musicians to see that. Especially if the singer is also pretending (lip-synching).]
The conversation got me thinking about this whole ongoing debate about what is REAL music. To be fair, it’s primarily only musicians that even think about this kind of thing. Music lovers especially casual ones don’t seem to even know the difference between what we call “real” music, i.e. traditional music instruments being played, and “non-real” music, i.e. music that is made on computers or keyboards or beat/drum machines. But as much as non-musicians don’t give a shit, musicians really give a shit. Trust me. They are ADAMANT about how important it is for music to be made on “real instruments”. Typing it here it sounds ridiculously inane and funny. I know. But believe me, it’s a subject that much passion goes into when you get a room full of musicians together.
To my mind, though I used to agree with this sentiment and it’s taken some getting used to, I just couldn’t really rationalize it. I believe it’s a generation thing more than anything… more on that later. I couldn’t figure out why the rest of the world didnt seem to care as I and other musicians did… for example, EDM (electronic dance music) is the most popular music in the world today — if we go by certain statistics… And it is made entirely on computers — no “real” musical instruments involved. Why didn’t average everyday people care “how” this or any other music is made? I struggled with this question for years. Both as an artist and as an ardent music lover.
As a listener I could care less how the music I love is made. I LOVE Nabukazu Takemura. Everyone knows that. he makes “blip music”. It’s just a sound or two repeated over and over — all chopped up using a laptop. For the most part. And if a band wants to go all keyboardy like Bowie did with Eno back in the mid-seventies, if i LIKED the music they produced, I didn’t care HOW they made it. But why did I care as a musician? Why did it matter to me if a band used drum samples versus real drums? Or if a guitarist used a guitar amp modeling app from a computer instead of a Vox AC30 amplifier? No matter how I tried to piece my logic together I just could not rationalize my criticism.
So I did what all musicians should do. I continued to contemplate it and feel into it and at the same time I listened to the Top 40 — Billboard’s Hot 100 list of the “most popular songs on radio and in sales” — to try to get a better understanding of what the differences were. Truth be told, there are no differences in the bigger picture. The WAY that the music is being made may be different, but the passion and skill and sentiment behind it is still surprisingly the same. That’ s why the average music listener or even the aficionado doesn’t care or even notice. To them it’s just MUSIC: a feeling and/or a thought expressed through the filter of the art and craft of music. They either vibe with it or they don’t.
I kept on listening to popular music. Not just the popular music that I perceived that I “liked”. But ALL popular music. Studying. Learning. (I will grant anyone that the lyrics to 99% of popular music suck. That is, they just don’t offer anything intelligent, meaningful or new. AND that popular music is for the most part ingratiatingly repetitive. Not only within the construct of the same song, but from song to song and artist to artist — they all sound phenomenally similar. As if ONE artist made them all rather than 100 different artists (on the Hot 100 list for example). These are valid viewpoints. As valid as a purely subjective viewpoint can be that is. Most people share them. (this is a false and illogical attempt to rationalize a viewpoint, i.e. “everybody feels this way…” I know that). But to be fair, these aren’t new ideas. Many people have this complaint about pop music. This is why the majority of popular music is geared towards and consumed and enjoyed by young people between the ages of 10 to 18; and why most people move beyond pop music once they reach a certain age. They are searching for more meaning, for something new, for more intelligence and variety lyrically, etc.
One thing to bear in mind though is that we as young people don’t listen to popular music because we like it or dislike it. We listen to it to be a part of a scene. To feel a part of something bigger than we are. Because most people — or at least the perceived majority of people we come into contact with in school when young — listen to whatever is being played on pop music radio and TV, we tune in in order to have knowledge of it and to share in that collective experience. Black sheep and outsiders, like myself when I was younger, do the exact same thing by taking an opposite approach. We fit into and become a part of a different scene by refusing to listen to what is popular on the radio and instead join a smaller niche group where everyone does that. But our primary goal often times at that age is just to be a part of something big due to our limited access and mobility.
So yes, popular music does have it’s limitations as mentioned above. Few would argue with these distinctive markers of popular music. There is only so much one can listen to songs exclusively about dancing, drinking, falling in love, making money and fucking to a 4/4 rhythm set to 120 beats per minute. I grant the music snobs that.)
But I did and do find a lot of the music that is popular today and has been since the beginning of the “popular music” concept first developed remarkably entertaining and intriguing. So I have continued to listen. Genre and format and “how it’s made” be damned. It finally hit me one day while taking a walk outside to get some fresh air. It really shouldn’t come down to “what instrument” is used to make music. As long as its “good music”. Meaning that “we like it”. Music like all art is completely subjective. Our perceived like or dislike of it IS purely subjective. So too is our transparent judgment of what makes it good or bad. Those are just terms we use to reflect what we like or don’t like. This idea of course drives so-called music snobs CRAZY. They will scream and argue till they’re blue and pass out that there IS a difference between “good and bad” music. That they can somehow qualify it. But they’d be lying; to whoever they’re arguing with and to themselves. (It’s much like the visual art world in that aspect…. What makes a valuable painting versus one that sells for $1 at a yard sale?)
If we discovered a another species of conscious beings from another planet or solar system entirely who knew nothing about out music or how it is made and we played them a wide variety of music that has been created on planet earth over the last fifty years, they would have NO idea what we consider good or bad. They would have their own opinion and feelings about it. The last thing they would probably think about would be “what instrument is that song being played on?” They just wouldn’t care because it wouldn’t occur to them to care.
So whats to stop regular folk from worshiping the music of the Black Eyed Peas? or Drake? or Usher? or JT? or Kesha? Or anyone else they happen to love…? The same way musicians tend to love The Beatles or The Doors or Led Zeppelin or The Boss? So what if Kanye and Jay Z make their music on little MPC beat boxes or laptops or keyboards as opposed to on traditional musical instruments? Isn’t that MORE inventive and innovative in a way? I began to see that perhaps it was. After all, any 13 year old can pick up a guitar and learn to play a power chord well enough once some overdrive is added to make it sound “cool/hip/authentic/real” and write a “song”. But these new music makers (and they aren’t really new anymore –(that’s what I meant about this being a generational thing…) are pioneers in their quest to make music withOUT any traditional musical instruments. We can no longer use the term “real instrument” because what IS a REAL musical instrument? I would assert that it is ANYthing that one can make music on. So we are reduced logically to calling them what they are: traditional musical instruments, versus just “musical instruments”.
I began to see that the only reason we care is because we are musicians. It matters to us… For a variety of reasons. Sure. And there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong is when these musicians use this idea to justify insulting or criticizing the music that others make just because they don’t make it the same way that they do. Their true claim, their only claim, is that “they aren’t making it using traditional music instruments”. But what does that really matter? It’s a principle issue. And all because of this illogical reason of “principle”, many musicians are willing to ignore entire social trends of modernization and progress transpiring all around them in the art and music world.
Some call these types “traditionalists”. We’ve all heard the term before. In a variety of contexts. I’ve never liked tradition myself. I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid it at all costs. Rock ‘n’ roll certainly didn’t start off traditional. It was all about bucking the system and breaking with tradition. What’s with this small group of close minded musicians who refuse to accept the various new methods and processes that their contemporaries are using to create music with? It’s an odd anomaly when you consider it.
I used to belong to this group until recently. I don’t want to mislead or misrepresent. I have always been open to ANY kind of music, purity or tradition be damned; as a listener. I liked what I liked and that was that. But as a musician I must confess to playing the music snob millions of times when critiquing other musicians. Why now I don’t really know. But that is pre-epiphany. The whole paradigm has changed for me now. I find music snobs annoying. The funny thing is that there are so many little sets and subsets of music snobs in every category of music, all claiming that the music that they like is the “best” or “only real” music. It’s ridiculous. Pair up the classical music snobs against the indie rock snobs against the classic rock snobs and let them verbally duke it out for a few days or weeks. They’ll eventually realize they’re all saying the same thing based on early-adopted transparent beliefs that have no justification and make friends and laugh it off, or they’re most likely mentally or emotionally challenged and we shoulnd’t be entertaining adult dialogues with them in the first place.
After all, it’s this same group who 70 years ago protested against the “electrified guitar” versus a “real guitar”, or 100 years ago complained about the switch from classical to pop composition not being “real music”. Ten years ago you wouldn’t catch a “real musician” recording “real music” into a computer (rather than onto analog tape) even if they were dead. Five years ago it was “they suck; they use autotune!” Now who in their right mind releases music withOUT autotune??? Perhaps only people who don’t want to make living from making music. All of these distinctions eventually become arbitrary and archaic because society continues to move forward without us unless we r willing to keep up and embrace what it is we r actually doing: making popular music, i.e. making music that is popular with the masses as our job. To make our living.
It took me a while but I actually love technology in music now and see no difference between a great guitarist or a great loop or beat creator. About eight years ago, I watched for the first time this DJ kid take our music — as we were creating it in the studio on acoustic instruments — and import it into his laptop every night and come up with the most insanely catchy “new” music from it by the time we arrived in the morning. Like totally new songs… The result can be heard on our All Your Heroes Become Villains album from 2011. We combined what we did and what he did to create an absolutely thrilling sound. It was like he had a whole different aesthetic and artform to music making than we did. Yet he was using OUR music… but making it all on his laptop. It was wild. He couldn’t play a note on a guitar or piano. But he could talk music and he understood music just as well as any of us did. [An interesting note: Our nomenclature is also different. Artists like him, Moby, David Guetta, Skrillex, Akufen, Jam and Lewis, Kanye, Mark Ronson, et al. DO have an entirely different way of speaking about music. They might not refer to notes and chords in the traditional sense. It may take traditional musicians some time to learn the vernacular of their style of music making, but the final result — what everyone is going for — is the same.]
I have heard so many musicians over the last ten years attempt to qualify why and how their music is better because they play an instrument versus those who don’t. They use terms like genuine or organic or authentic. But I believe that all those terms are more indicative of something mysterious inherent in the soul of the music rather than in how it’s made. I have worked with too many “musicians” now who don’t play a traditional instrument but they still believe they are organically creating “music” and so too do their fans. The DJ guys and beat maker guys. It’s just a new form of music… It sprang up around us all while we were digging rock music. So maybe we missed it. But I’ve watched them. They’re doing the same thing we are. Just on different instruments. It’s a trip. It’s glorious. Their inspiration is the same. Their commitment to purity and greatness. They know no different than how they make music. They never thought “hey I’m going to try to create music NOT on a traditional instrument. They take it for granted that that’s how you make music. Just as many “rock” musicians know no difference. But it’s all music.
I look at it this way now: If an artist comes out one day whose main instrument is a cardboard shoebox and whale samples (weirder things have happened) and he finds a way to make it sound cool and it catches on and people like it, there is really NO way that someone can rationalize saying it’s “bad music” — just because it’s created on a shoebox and not a “real instrument”. They can try. But they’d just be spinning their wheels. No one would care. The song is already at #1 and now inspiring a whole new generation of kids to go find old shoeboxes and write hit songs on them. And THAT’S the real beauty of music/art.