Name: James Hinton aka The Range
Occupation: Producer, DJ
Current release: The Range's new song "Bicameral" is out now.
If you enjoyed this interview with The Range and would like to find out more, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Soundcloud, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I tend to have a very bimodal beginning to every song - either a melody will come out of thin air or I’ll be listening to something and instantly want to sample it!
I suppose they are both forms of the subconscious working so I have a difficult time placing the specific set of influences that matter for my music. They all kind of get jumbled together.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Most certainly not - I think my process is extreme serendipity. I will rarely work on a fresh piece of music unless driven. It kind of feels like I am chasing a complete thought that is in the ether, kind of like grabbing at clouds. Then in retrospect a day or two later I tend to realize I’ve really found something special in a small number of the songs I start.
I confess to being jealous of a workmanlike process where I am in the studio every day, but it never seems to stick for me!
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
I do think there are ‘early versions’ of my work, yes. All songs start and finish within the same folder and are iterated on very heavily - it’s not uncommon for me to have 100 different saves of a given song over time.
I do find it is helpful to have a fresh environment a lot of the time, and I am lucky that for most of my writing I only need my laptop and perhaps a keyboard to work.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
My main ritual is chasing the feeling I get when I have an idea I know will slip away rapidly if I don’t get it down into software as soon as possible. I try to let that feeling of urgency take the lead and get as far as I can with a new song on the first day.
Coffee is a big staple for me, though I tend to finish a pot of coffee very early in the day and only really write in the afternoons so I am probably just getting the tail end of it!
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
As I said I usually am chasing something tangible in my mind when I sit down at the computer, so I always feel like I’m running and don’t really have any blocks. Most of my difficulties come with finishing things as I get too wrapped up in minutia at the end before finishing the structure of a song.
On my most recent song "Bicameral" for instance I more or less had the emotional core of the song written in a day, and then spent around 5 years working on getting it finished. Certainly it’s not an efficient process by any means!
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
I find that the sooner I find a vocal in a song the better - but often it can take a very long time. My writing is rather different from most artists because I sample all of my vocals. I try to write through the rewording to create phrases and sentiments that would be emotionally hard for me to sing myself, so it can take a long time to find a tone or a song with enough lyrically for me to work on.
Sometimes I will find a vocal sample and write around that as well, and those can be some of my favorites.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
For me good lyrics have to first work timbrally, rhythmically, and tonally, and only then can the meaning matter. I know this is quite an opposite approach to how I write when I am singing but I think in a strange way those three things carry much more of the emotion of a song than even the most cutting lyric.
So I almost always fall in love with the Fourier qualities of a vocal melody before then diving headfirst into thinking about the lyrics.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Gradually is a perfect adjective. It’s slow iteration over time in my work.
Recently, I moved to Vermont and found it really useful to go for drives and listen to things I’ve worked on outside of the studio. I think it has sped up my thinking about what matters in any piece, but perhaps introduced more hemming and hawing than I had when I lived in New York since I have all the time in the world here.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I certainly try to forfeit control in the beginning if I can and just follow my senses, and then reign it in as I progress through adding new sections.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
I’m fortunate in that I have a wonderful sounding board to make sure that I’m not taking things down a crazy lane when I am deep in song. If I really take a song in a new direction I will always save it as a new song and chase it completely.
I have a song called "Metal Swing" from an album a few years ago where I more or less completely rewrote an older song by slowly stripping away the original counterpoint and writing over the top of it until there was nothing left of the original.
I then keep a huge list of the most up to date version of every song I have ever written and keep returning to them over time to see if there is any dust that has been brushed off over time. It’s like having little bookmarks in your life that you can thumb back to whenever you like.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I wouldn’t say spirituality no - more like a core feeling that I need to be writing to let out whatever is inside. If I am not writing new things I think I am noticeably irritable and depressed, or at least I think I have picked up on a correlation of those two with not working over time.
The creative state for me is ideally a direct translation of whatever is going on in your brain down to a listenable medium. I think we all can take a melody in our heads, harmonize it, add some drums if that’s what you are thinking about, and layer and layer, but it is difficult to keep that idea fresh in your head and get it down to paper or the computer in time before the idea has vanished.
So I find it’s important when those states pop up to be as swift as possible in capturing that idea.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
It’s likely not the right way to go, but I think my songs are always finished when I can’t find anything wrong with them after a few days. I don’t think it’s the most sophisticated way to go but I find if I proceed from the negative and work on what I think is bad about my music, I hope to leave only things that are good.
It seems unlikely to me that I will ever be able to turn in a one-take masterpiece but I really like the honing process even though I do think a few magic pieces probably get left on the cutting room floor.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
This is critical! Almost without fail whenever I think I have finished something one day the next day I listen to it I feel like I must have been crazy to think it was any good at all. This goes on over and over again until I no longer generate that feeling.
In practice this comes in a few stages. First working on the demo of a song to get it to a place where I feel good about sharing it, second working on the song structure and trying to find the best possible form of the song, and then lastly the mixing. Each proceeds by way of the negative to try to chisel out something that takes away flaws.
I don’t think I succeed completely on every song obviously but it does give me a definitive read on what I think is best on the song and hopefully will allow me to remain productive for the rest of my life.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
This part is of a very high importance to me. I spent most of 2017-2020 attempting to get really good at mixing and I think I came a long way from where I was. Ultimately I got to a place where I think fundamentally you can’t effectively mix or master your own songs. I don’t think it has anything to do with skill level and everything to do with perspective.
It’s kind of like looking at yourself in a mirror versus a photograph - you need to see your music how others hear it, not how you hear it. There are some special talents, noticeably the late Phillipe Zdar, who were able to mix their own material, but it seems to be the exception not the rule.
I do think that having gone through a good part of the learning curve that I have a much better understanding of where production ends and mixing begins now. I am much more focused on sticking to writing when I am writing and sticking to mixing when I am mixing now - never the two shall meet!
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Emptiness is an interesting word for that feeling - I’m not sure that fits my experience totally. I find that the first year of an album being out is a rollercoaster. Elation, certainly, at being able to share something you worked on for so long, invariable dread at some small mistake you left in somewhere, and the weird feeling of being in the room when friends are listening to it for the first time.
Also there is the odd part about usually having ‘finished’ a song many months before it’s actually gone out into the world. There is a kind of emotional delay that happens. I tend to barely limp across the finish line and therefore am excited to write something new when I finally am finished with mastering.
Then, like the moment I am in now, when a song is circulating all of the delay and emotions hit all at once and can be a little overwhelming, simply because all of the emotions you’d have experienced over the course of a few months hit together all at once.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Yes I do think music crosses into an elevated area alongside painting and film. The intellectual argument that there is nothing special about the higher art forms (over, say, fine craftsmanship or sculpture) has swayed me in the past but I am currently in a place where I do find them to be deserving of their historical pedestal.
I’m not sure why that is but I do think it has something to do with the perception of time plus your hearing - the same way film gets to use all of the senses, and that painting approximates to great effect. By being able to bottle up time music reaches a new plane that more daily items can’t match.
Lastly, of course, there seems to be something about our attachment to music in our first twenty years of life that is magnetic too. Perhaps music, film, and picture making share this trait as well. Though it doesn’t quite explain why purely narrative forms don’t seem to be on the same plane to me.