Name: Mark Nelson
Current Release: A Son on Kranky
Recommendations: I’ll put a modern take on it and recommend not only Rebecca Solnit’s books, but she is an excellent follow on social media as well. If I had to choose two of her books, maybe “Faraway near by” and “Hope in the Dark” Second.There’s a record by Booker T and MG’s called “Melting Pot” that I really like. The title track is simply killer.
If you enjoyed this interview with Mark Nelson / Pan American and want to find out more about his work, visit his soundcloud account, facebook page or bandcamp profile.
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?
I started playing guitar quite late - I think I was 17. Because of that I think my tastes were set before I had any technical skill. I never really went through the phase of learning other people's songs before developing my own ideas - they came together. At the time I would have said I wanted to play rockabilly or jazz maybe. I was fascinated by Scotty Moore’s playing on the early Elvis sides in particular - I still think his playing in that context is fascinating and revolutionary. Minimal and in some ways dumbed down from what he could have played - but the technique and musical fluency is clearly implied. So the music feels like it’s going backwards and forwards in time simultaneously. I guess I’d like to think I approach things with this ideal in mind.
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?
Because I was learning to play and writing at the same time my version of this is a bit slanted. I quickly realized my mind didn’t work the way I hoped it would and even when I tried to copy Scotty Moore say, it came out sideways before I got there. My first couple years of lessons on the guitar were classical, so I never really knew the chords that would have been underlying the melodies. In classical guitar the player voices both chord and melody - they are together not like folk or pop music, where the chord structure cycles through underneath the lead (usually vocal) melody. So the (sadly, quite poor) basis in classical guitar that I started with, meeting a desire to play rockabilly that I really wasn’t suited to play, turned into the style I have that really satisfies neither. And that is pretty typical of how I operate.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I spent alot of time working on electronic music. At some point in the late 90’s I fell in love with house and techno music, getting there through dub. I tried for a decade to make a convincing rhythm track and never really got there. So I would say my biggest challenge was a failure. I just can’t make a dance track. I learned alot about production, though - so not a complete loss! I think in my heart I’m a guitar player and producer. I think I have something to offer in these areas. I like writing songs too, simple two/three chord structures derived from folk music, blues, Velvet Underground, Suicide - those basic structures that propel music horizontally and then layers of melody and texture and noise above. Since Labradford that is what I think I do best and what in the end I find most satisfying.
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?
Home studio has always been a desk with stuff on it in a corner of a bedroom or basement. I started with cassette 4 tracks and moved to a keyboard workstation (ensoniq asr-10) and ultimately to software. First Cubase and then Live. I kind of wish I’d stayed with Cubase but at some point I was a few updates behind and they wanted to make me buy the whole program over again! So I switched to Live. I like it, but I don’t really use it properly. I use it more like I used cubase or like people use pro tools-as a tape machine in the box basically. I’m less interested in technology as time goes by, although that might change again. I’m really based in guitar - both steel, acoustic and electric. That’s what my daily practice really revolves around.
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?
I really like that I can listen to something over and over again. I think that’s my favorite part of working alone or producing myself. I can loop something and listen for an hour in the background. I know this is something that will change culturally very soon, but I still tend to regard technology as “dumb”. However it’s clear artificial intelligence will be the central story (after climate disaster) of the next 50 years. I’m outside that conversation though, honestly I don’t really even understand the most basic version of it. I’m sure it will affect music production in all kinds of ways - certainly we can’t be too far away from AI being able to write an arrangement for strings for example if you give it a chord sequence and a melody. I would imagine it could produce advanced harmony quite easily. Maybe even an AI drummer would be something we see quite soon. I don’t think of myself as someone afraid or mistrustful of technology per se, but I involve it less in my music practice the more it seeps into the rest of my life. That’s been how it’s gone so far anyway.
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?
I think I've addressed that. At this point I really use it very similarly to how I used a 4 track cassette machine years ago. Although with much better sound quality and I like some plugins alot. Sometimes I feel like Soundtoys is part of my compositional system. I do something and know right away Decapitator or Echoboy will finish the sound. Those are really interesting and creative tools. Some of the Universal Audio ones as well although most are emulation based. I like the Ocean Way reverb plug in a lot which seems to me to take technology into a very creative concept of how to imagine sound in a physical space.
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?
That’s a hard one because I’ve been working mostly alone. But I do a little of everything. I guess my preferred way would be a bit of file sharing to get an idea started which could then lead to a focused approach to jamming it out. With the hope that new ideas would ultimately spring from that and create a new heart to the collaboration.
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?
I have two children, ages 15 and 10. The first child changed everything in terms of my approach to music. Travelling was not possible for the most part, and it taught me that I had to learn to work in small increments of time and be able to return to something and know where I was. Now that I think about it, this probably played a role in returning to more organic sources. It’s easier (for me at least) to play guitar and have an idea sustain from 30 minutes in the morning to an hour in the evening to 30 minutes 2 days later, than doing something on the computer (programming, sequencing) that type of work seems to require a longer boot-up time in my brain.
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?
I guess I should use my upcoming record A Son on Kranky. Hopefully out November 2019. The idea was to try and make a record containing my most fundamental ideas about music - that it's something fundamentally emotional, the process, the concept should be invisible to a listener. Or if not invisible it should not be an overt part of how it’s presented. I want minimalism in my music and in my life, but I’m not a minimalist person in reality. So an ideal exists but I do like a little soulful clutter around me. This comes into the music as well - I can’t resist a sentimental appeal to the heart in the end. I’m unapologetic about nostalgia as well. I believe in the past - in the lessons of ghosts and how are hopes inform our imagination of the past. It’s difficult to defend such a romantic outlook in our times and it should be difficult and it should be mistrusted. But I do believe and operate as clearly as I can starting with the idea that the heart teaches the rest of the organism. Also the heart needs myth, religion, fantasy, optimism to keep going.
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?
Funny - I saw Patti Smith last night give a reading from her new book and sing some songs and answering questions and someone asked her this. Her answer was perfect. It all comes from working regularly and having that dicipline to return to it every day (or most days) and when there’s no inspiration, it’s not a cause for panic but an opportunity to study or listen or go outside or talk to your partner or brother or sister or friends. As Patti Smith said about inspiration “It will come back, you only have to be prepared”
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?
The more I play live the bigger role it plays. It is how I can test an idea and it gets me out of my own mind ghetto. I need more social contact even if it’s painful. (playing live always is a little painful) I’m a shy person who accepts I have to work against an instinct to hide.
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 think I just do it by instinct. There’s a quote from Morton Feldman “arrangement is composition” which makes sense to me. When we’ve made a decision about a musical voice or a sound, we’ve already made a decision about composition.
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?
Hearing seems to still be quite closely tied to our interpretation of threat or fear. So much of myth or ancient stories revolve around something heard unexpected. So it’s still quite primitive I guess, and still connected to our most basic emotions - am I safe? is this comforting? Is something threatening me? Is something there beyond what I can see?
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?
I think the best version of this is that we can use it one way when it’s useful, and another way when we want. I think we switch between these all the time in an unconcious way. When I keep going back to music and it’s direct access to the heart, this is my sense of what art does for us. Even if it’s heard in isolation it can’t help but gesture to the communal. It works toward community and does so in a realm beyond time. So back to the first question you asked really - moving backwards and forward in time yet still supporting a society or community in the present.
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?
No, but I’m eager to be surprised.