Name: Mitch Cheney
Occupation: Vocalist, guitarist, designer.
Current release: In 2009 Mitch Cheney, as part of the experimental rock formation Hey!Tonal, recorded a fascinating self-titled album of instrumentals filled with raw riffs, layered guitar textures, impetuous rock power and mindbogglingly complex studio wizardry. Written with the drums as a point of departure, the music is in constant motion, occasionally pulsating wildly, at other times peacefully oscillating. The entirely organic juxtaposition between post rock and dreamy electronica, between the violent thrust of hardcore and passages of almost ambient sensibilities (captured in the magnificently ambitious key piece “Kcraze”) make for a sweeping listen that sounds as stimulating today as it did the day it was released. Hey!Tonal sadly never recorded together again. Instead, the formation splintered into many different directions, bands and solo projects. The legacy of their one glorious collaboration, however, lives on.
Hey!Tonal is now re-released as a 2XLP via Computer Students. To mark the occasion, we conducted interviews with almost all musicians involved in the making of this album.
[Read our Dave Davison of Hey!Tonal interview]
[Read our Kevin Shea of Hey!Tonal interview]
[Read our Alan Mills of Hey!Tonal interview]
[Read our Theo Katsaounis of Hey!Tonal interview]
Recommendations: Painting - David Lyle & Jeremiah Maddock
Music - Tigran Hamyasan - “The Call Within” & Three Second Kiss - “Long Distance”
Reading - “The Untitled Epic Poem On The History Of Industrialization” by Buckminster Fuller & “Bill, The Galactic Hero” by Harry Harrison
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing guitar when I was around 11 years old, on Oahu, Hawaii. Skateboarding introduced me to metal and punk. The camaraderie of aggression and partying were what initially drew me into music; people rocking out to the same songs together while skating a ramp made me feel like I was a part of something with everyone else.
I had always felt like an odd-ball up until that point. I was severely electrocuted by a lamp cord when I was two years old and had a noticeable scar on the left side of my mouth that the ‘70s and early ‘80s kids had a field day with when I was growing up. Skateboarding and music helped define a common ground with other people, where I could be accepted and excel.
For most artists, originality is 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?
Originality is a strong word. I would even argue that it is a somewhat fallacious. Everything comes from something else and goes into everything else, and everything is perceived differently by each person who experiences.
It all kind of depends on where you dip your foot into the knowledge river; my guitar playing might seem unique and original to someone who’s never heard Michael Hedges, Robert Fripp, Ash Bowie, Marc Gentry, Marc Shippy, Ian Williams, Lee Renaldo and Sergio Carlini … just like Eminem might seem original to someone who has never experienced Rakim.
I mean, I know what I like to think and say; however, my voice is everyone’s voice before me, saying the same things differently.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My parents raised me to believe that I could accomplish anything I put effort into. If I identify with anything, it’s that we are all capable of doing everything we put our minds into and believe that we are capable of.
The art is in believing in your capabilities and making them happen. This has allowed me to not be afraid of doing whatever the fuck I want creatively, for whatever reason I define it as having been done.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I don’t understand this phrase “creative challenges”. Creativity is limited by the amount of one’s current knowledge and experience at any given time and place, but it isn’t a challenge. The more you experience, the larger your vocabulary of existence becomes, but it’s never felt challenging. Creativity is a reward from effort and accumulated experience.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I feel that I’ve always been about doing the best with what I have opposed to needing the best things to accomplish my visions.
My first instrument was a guitar and the first recordings I did were on an old shoebox panasonic tape recorder. At some point I realized that there was a slight ghost of what had been recorded when you would record over a certain section of tape, so I would overlay a bunch of sonic oddities before recording the final guitar part.
The first studio was in 1987 in Golder O’neill’s basement (before Goldreel studios) in Northern Virginia, with my high-school band Castle Town Shed. It was magical for a pack of 15/16 year olds to record to tape back in 1987, but we believed that we could, and we took the steps to make it happen for ourselves.
In terms of my motivation behind instruments/tools/equipment over the years, I’ve always been fine with making whatever sounds come out of a certain set of instruments/tools/equipment opposed to selecting certain equipment for specific sounds. Through this, I’ve found things that I really like to use, like my Maestro-Fuzz MFZ-1 fuzz pedal, Rat distortion pedal or Ross distortion pedal, Stratocasters, a Fender combo on top of a 4x12 Hi-Watt and a Fender Super-Six combo.
Recording is a different thing all together, especially with the ease of home recording nowadays. I like using Pro-Tools through a Scarlet 1818 or my old Digi002 for home stuff (almost all of the Hey!Tonal record was recorded through the Digi002 or an M-Box), but still prefer the drum sounds and overall tone and experience of a good 16 track 2 inch analog studio. Jim DeVito, of Retrophonics Studio, in St. Augustine, FL has my favorite studio environment on the planet … and he’s a great dude … best vibe.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Nothing technologically has made me question the way I make music, only time and growing into a man who doesn’t really feel the need to be in the limelight as much anymore has. Experience has made me want to produce quality over quantity nowadays. I used to be really into recording all the time and throwing everything out there, but I don’t see the need to do that anymore.
Recording technology has drastically changed over the years. The digital age has provided the ability to have more than 4 tracks available to you in your house and share/collaborate much faster over much larger geographic areas. That’s been pretty cool to experience and adapt to. There are people out there making music who have never had to buy a few $100 2” reels before walking into a studio. I’m not sure that they could truly understand how much easier it has become to create and release music.
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 prefer every way of collaborating with others. Each experience is unique to the collaboration and I don’t really have a preference. I enjoy adapting to the given set of parameters. The only thing that I really prefer is having others who equally contribute to the process involved.
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?
Everyday is a variant of the others. Weekends, and days off, open up a lot of freedoms. I make my money as a film/television producer/editor. I built out an edit bay/rehearsal studio in my house, and create my own hours based on when a project is due to be delivered to the network in it’s various Rough-Cut Fine-Cut and Picture-Lock stages. I can wake up at noon and work until 4am if I choose to.
Music is a constant no matter what I’m doing. I am always writing music in my head, and I’m always scoring the music on the shows that I edit. That involves me writing music or repurposing/altering elements of a music library to fit the scene/pacing/feel of the show. I also have to do all of the sound fx and sound design, so I’m surrounded by sounds, and playing with them, even when I’m not writing my own music.
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?
I really enjoyed joining Chevreuil for the Africantape Festival in Ouillons, France, as a second guitar, in 2011. There’s so much history and respect between Julien, Tony and myself (Sick Room release their music in the U.S. and I brought them on their first U.S. tour with Rumah Sakit and By The End Of Tonight in 2005 - I also helped get Africantape off the ground with Julien before he took over everything on his own).
I really enjoyed writing my own parts over the songs that they had already written. We only practiced once together before performing and we absolutely killed it … fucking slayed it. I ended up in a handstand on top of my broken Strat with blood from cuts on my hands wiped under my eyes. Epic.
There have been a ton of experiences equal to that show. I really enjoyed the Rhys Chatham 100 guitar performances I took part in, the first Rumah Sakit U.S. tour in 2000 and recording guitar parts with Foals for their Four-Four-Ten remix sessions, to name a few. The biggest breakthrough in playing came before I even started playing music; the belief that I can do anything I put my mind to. That has been there for every step of proficiency and growth.
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?
I think that all of the answers prior to this question, answer this question.
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?
All things can be a tool towards hurting and/or healing, it depends on how a person uses them, so, in a sense, it is the person who hurts and/or heals, not the tool. I’ve never been hurt by music.
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?
If it exists in the world, you should be able to learn from, and be influenced by it. People are way too fucking sensitive.
I think one of the best things in recent years was Kevin Shea’s band, Mostly Other People Do The Killing, doing a note for note attempt of an exact replication of Miles Davis’s “Kind Of Blue”. It was hilarious to see how many people that pissed off, when they should have seen the sincerity of the love they have of the notes of Miles Davis’s Band’s initial performance.
You say it is a fine line, but I think it is a giant smudgy-smear that will be argued by people who feel the need to argue things, opposed to looking for enjoyment in life.
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?
I’m more interested in how this question would apply to people who are deaf.
The most inspiring overlaps between senses have come from my experiences on mescaline, mushrooms and dmt.
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’ve never met a true artist who would call themselves an artist. That’s such a weird thing. It’s like listening to a musician talk about their “fans” … it is such a delusional and divisive thought process.
Life is all about believing in yourself and making things happen. That’s not art, it’s action.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
What can words express about life and death which music alone may not?