Name: Jim Becker
Occupation: Multi-instrumentalist, composer
Current Release: Compassion on Drag City with Lama Lobsang Palden
Recommendations: Two pieces of art: The Masterworks of Satyajit Ray (soundtracks to his films); Perpetual Grace LTD 10 episode series.
If you enjoyed this interview with Jim Becker and would like to find out more about his work, visit his instagram page.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
One of my earliest memories of being in a spell by music was spinning in a circle with a plastic Monkees guitar to the guitar solo to Light My Fire by the Doors. My Dad’s 45rpm.
The Monkees TV show was huge then. Probably 1967. There is an 8mm film of me spinning around transfixed. Another succinct memory was being in bars with my parents after my dads softball games. The velvet black light paintings and the jukebox.
I remember in wafts of cigarette smoke and the smell of booze on peoples breath hearing Pillow Talk by Sylvia or Family Affair by Sly and the Family Stone, Rumble by Link Ray. By the early seventies a lot of friends older brothers had electric guitars. I was always immersed in playing any instrument around then be it guitar, drums, bass or keyboards. Friday nights
my mom and I would watch Night Gallery which had the greatest avant- garde theme music. Then that was followed by the Midnight Special, then followed by Don Kirshners Rock Concert. Then wake up Saturday and there was American Bandstand followed by Soul Train. There was always music either being played in the house or in the car.
Man in the car. In the Summertime, windows open. Superstition by Stevie Wonder, Positively Fourth Street by Bob Dylan, Son of a Preacher man by Dusty Springfield.The list is endless. I was also exposed to film by my parents. I was always aware and subdued by films and movie soundtracks.
I got my first guitar a Kay classical when I was ten. My first electric guitar and amp and Big Muff Fuzz Box when I was 12. I still use that same Fuzz box to this day. I was in my first band at 12.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
My Dad and I would listen to 45s every friday night. He has boxes of 45 rpm records going back to the 50’s. It was only natural for me to imitate the love I felt from hearing and playing music. Even if I didn’t know what I was doing yet. But that is fine because innocence is bliss.
Sound is sound, whether it’s a short wave radio or the beautiful music of cicadas or the wind. After years of playing you find your own voice. Your artistic fingerprint. I always played in bands since I was a kid, so I always learned and I am still picking up things from bad ass people around me. Just important is how you bring your life experience to the table. Years of dreams, whether those are asleep or awake, years of intimate relationships, thousands of movies I have seen, world travel, space, time, nature.
For me the meditation and walk through life is just as huge as the musical sounds and notes to develop and sustain and ever grow to have your own artistic energy.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Well you start out writing songs. Let’s say pop or folk format. Any music for that matter.You just do it.
Sometimes folks ask me “So how do you start to compose or write songs?” I usually say “Well, write your first bad ten songs and see where you’re at after that.” Maybe the first 10 songs will be great! It’s a method of building and developing craft. Whether its poetry, painting, cooking or music. So that’s an example of song or composition.
At the same time I was always aware and enjoyed the playfulness of improvisation. Whether it be by myself or with others. Others could be people or nature sounds etc. Luckily I grew up with no lack of weirdos around me who were also into improvisation. As far as production challenges, when I was 12 my brothers and I received Panasonic boomboxes as gifts from my parents. Probably Christmas. My first “mult-track” recordings were done with those. I would record on my guitar, then play that recording while I played a beat on a table and recorded that with one of my brothers boomboxes. Cassette/Radio.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first four-track cassette recorder was a Fostex. Me and 3 other band members bought it together. We also bought a Symetrix Compressor Limiter. So early on I was able to learn about Compression for recording purposes.This was when I was in High School. I had also purchased a Memory Man analog delay. Which I also still use to this day.
So then I started learning how to manipulate echo and modulation. I have been learning and slowly through the years upping my game of purchasing and learning new studio equipment. I’m a fan of cool heavy duty studio production but dof the sound of a field recording with hiss even. It’s all in the performance and artistry of the recording.
I have ProTools but I decided to record the Lama Lobsang Palden Jim Becker record with a Tascam Four Track. For that particular project I wanted that sound.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
For me whether it’s playing a harmonica, writing words on paper or using the latest recording technology, everything comes down to artistic feel. Your own artistic fingerprint.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Well, just lately I’ve been able to get a hold of some nice studio pre-amps, compression and other outboard gear. I’ve also have had ProTools since about 2005. I remember because I toured and played as a fourth member in the Dirty Three. I played bass, mandolin, percussion through effects and sometimes “harmony twin fiddles” with Warren Ellis. Damn that was fun. I took the money I made from that tour and bought my first computer and ProTools. So I have been learning editing and the flow of that medium for awhile.
The Lama record was recorded on a Tascam four track then transferred to ProTools. I took the live recordings of the Lama and I from the four track and then recorded overdubs on ProTools and then creating a huge collage of sounds and splayed them through out the recording.
So again, whether its a field recording with a Walkman, or phone or a Professional studio you need the artistic merit, ambience and performance.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I’ve alway collaborated with people. I love playing different styles of music just as I like different moods of music. Thought out composition and improvisation. I’m 55 now and I started playing music with people since I was 12 and I’ve learned something from each and every person I have collaborated with.
From the Garage “Kegger’”parties starting in 1979 to playing Radio City Music Hall or Sydney Opera House. No matter what group or project you are involved with it comes down to the hang. Existing with people. You have to be adaptable and malleable. Leave the ego at the door. Depending on the project at hand.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? 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?
Like music I improvise my day. But one ritual or routine that occurs is that I like to write when I wake up. Fresh out of the dream state. Residue Dreamland. More able to channel information and not use such direct ego. After I make coffee of course. That’s one of my favorite meditations. That’s almost everyday. Sometimes I start with coffee and watch a film. Film is and has always been a huge influence on my artistic vision. Check out the films of Satyajit Ray if you haven’t yet.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
The way I recorded the Lama record has been a way I recorded many times. I mentioned the films of Satyajit Ray. The music and his films are mind blowing. The live field recording approach. There are also 8 Monks that chant in different parts of the record. I just put up a stereo mic and recorded them also with the Tascam four track. Then I just dropped them into different places in different songs.
You play around with the track and line it up with a different track that is already recorded. It is mind-blowing, the amount of synchronicity that happens. At first you may not hit the mark the 1st or 4th try but when it works its amazing. Completely by chance. You wouldn’t think to juxtapose those two events playing simultaneously. Magical. I recorded with Califone with that approach often for 10 years.
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?
The older I get depending on the project I remind myself to put my ego aside. With that said I fail miserably every once in awhile. Luckily with the folks I get involved with there is a mutual trust in our individual offerings. So the ebb and flow of control with everyone involved is key. Being as healthy as one can be is key also. The more I get into a circadian rhythm of existence the better off I can collaborate and create.
With that said, I have have experienced many cycles through this life where I have struggled and also been close to death. Yeah, try to eat well, exercise, yoga, sleep well. Try to have fun. Yeah, sometimes that takes work too. Make it happen.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
In the studio you are connecting with the other musicians, engineers and the space of that room and in your creative mind. Playing live is that but also bouncing the energy off and from the audience. Interplay. Interaction. It Can be very powerful! It also depends where the planets and moon are lining up that day or night as well. For both live and in the studio.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I show up to a recording session or a live setting with already hitting the reset button. Every situation is new at that moment. Another huge part of sustaining being a creative artist is listening. In the studio you might be working with a producer or co-producer and they are going to help set the foundation of the mood. You might have had a “pre-production meeting.” Map out what’s going to happen.
Timbres and sounds you’re looking for. Usually I just bring to the table my sound, and usually that’s what is used in a recording session. But I am also up for creative input from engineers/producers. Some of my favorite sounds recorded are ones I came up with myself. There are also many recorded sounds that I have played on recordings that I love because the producer or engineer suggested to me to try this or that. I love coming up with stuff, bouncing back and forth idea’s. If I am mprovising in the studio I feel there is a more abandonment and more of taking spontaneous risks.
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? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I’ve done a lot of soundtracks through the years. Live and studio. The amount of possible correlations and colors of sound of music for even 10 seconds of film or an image are infinitesimal. Transcsendental.
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?
More cyclic energy. Art into everyday life. Everyday life into Art. Yin Yang. Waves ebb and flow.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I may think music is its own force beyond our comprehension.