Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Previous to this year I had an absolutely rigid and - in hindsight - untenable schedule of working a 50-hour-a-week day job and running on the treadmill at least five days a week. That was already pretty brutal! But it gave me a laser-focus when I had exactly two hours to work on something. I was squeezing in creative work whenever I could, but my desire to do it was so strong that, at least for a few years, it worked okay.
That is not the case anymore! My days are completely free form and are molded around whatever freelance gig I’m working that day, whether it’s tracking guitars remotely or taking meetings or scoring something. I really long for some regularity but given how unpredictable everything’s been ultimately I think I just need to learn to thrive without the rigid structure. Hard for me!
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The biggest breakthrough I ever had came the summer of 2013 when I unexpectedly was offered an extremely generous opportunity to live in Alaska and work on music for seven weeks - they’d provide housing, a studio, and food, I just had to get there. So I quit a horrible job working for a legendary experimental music composer and shoved my guitar in the overhead compartment.
Among other things I made that summer was a collection of songs that I don’t think a lot of people have heard. It’s called Three Sisters Music, a 90-minute-or-so continuous performance song cycle (no breaks at all!) for electric guitar, delay pedals, and voicemails played off of my cell phone. There is a recording, but I always thought of it as more of a live performance / opera / theater piece.
I say it’s a breakthrough because it’s an actual synthesis of the many things I’m interested in - roiling, wave-like ambient furls of tone, athletic and insistent guitar playing, the spaces between life and dream and sentence and poem, the actual material of my lived experience (the voicemails). It also just unapologetically is what it is, for better or worse.
That synthesis came from a very specific place: very dedicatedly playing this same material in this same guitar tuning for hours on end, week after week. I love and value what comes easily to me or a band, but putting in the work is necessary on occasion.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
There are many creative modes - writing these responses, for instance, is creative, but very different from the process of writing a song or improvising something or mixing a piece in a DAW. But for me, I need to enter a place of unthinking judgementlessness, meaning that whatever I’m working on or dreaming up has to bubble up organically and waltz its way past whatever natural cynical or analytical filters I might have. One reliable way for me to get there is to, well, space out! Lately I’ve been playing a lot of really hypnotic, repetitive figures on the piano, moving my fingers almost mechanically and listening to how the overtone sequence changes as different strings are struck. After about ten minutes of that, I start to maybe have one good thought, haha!
Maybe another way to describe it is slowing your conscious thoughts down. I have had a lot of good ideas playing guitar while half-watching TV, when I’m in that sweet spot of paying attention and not.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I think we all have felt way too acutely lately that, under normal circumstances, music is absolutely the embodiment of camaraderie, community, and fellowship. We’re all so siloed, so isolated after the last year - we really need dancing in the streets, whenever it’s safe.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
It does feel like there’s a lot of hand-wringing about this, but for me it feels pretty cut-and-dry - people of historically privileged identities and backgrounds should try to avoid utilizing the aesthetics of a historically marginalized culture whenever possible. Those same historically privileged people ought to be educating themselves constantly and - this is crucial - remain open to criticism and feedback, however harshly delivered. Folks of historically marginalized identities shouldn’t have to face such scrutiny - that’s about it for me!
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
The other day I was combing through the collection of CDs I still have kicking around in one of those soft-sided CD cases from high school, taking out various discs and remembering what they sounded like. And every single one brought with it a nearly overwhelming flood of personal details, circumstances, and emotion. It really felt like listening to my own memories, watching a movie adaptation of when I bought a particular Modest Mouse CD at a particular Tower Records location.
Smell works in a similarly overwhelming, Proustian way - for instance, the smell of dill forever reminds me of the Filipino food my aunt prepared for Christmas one specific year, must have been 1994. I instantly recall the pill of the wall-to-wall carpet, the fake candles of the lamp above the buffet table. Both are endlessly potent.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My view on Art in general (as broadly as you want to define that) was really challenged by a few years working at a very fancy, very moneyed, very famous art foundation in New York City. Especially in the fine art world, it really started to seem like these beautiful wall objects were really just financial holdings for the ultra ultra wealthy, and a big part of my job was ensuring that wealthy people were kept happy. I offset that creeping discomfort by focusing on the fact that the Foundation did a lot of philanthropy and a lot of good work besides selling paintings, but ultimately it all led back to whether or not the Art was still worth a lot of money.
But that’s a result of Art being turned into Commerce, and I found that the way to take the money-hoarding out of it was to connect at a human level, to think about what hands made the work, whose eyes would get to see it. I realized that the human level is where the Art really is! And I’ve been trying to stay on that human level ever since.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Back before recorded music was ubiquitous and on-demand, music could only be heard if someone performed it. Back before CDs or 45s or even wax cylinders - music had to be performed to be heard and then, poof, it was gone. The most ethereal of the high arts, the parlor piano or the symphony or the chorale would ring and then dissipate just as soon as it was perceived.
It’s well and good to note that life is ephemeral and blinks by, but I think music expresses that inevitable march of time so eloquently.