Kitchen Songs

“All I want is a decent melody…
a song I can sing in my own company…”
(U2, “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”)

Acoustic-electric guitar is my weapon of choice, though I’ve dabbled with other instruments. I like the versatility of an acoustic-electric guitar. I can play acoustically or I can run the sound through a variety of stomp boxes, plug into an amp and make it screech and wail. I enjoy writing songs for guitar, but with one instrument there is a limit to how fully a song can be realized.

In the spring 2003 I began using Acid to work up backing tracks for the songs I’ve written on guitar. It has allowed me to create a sort of digital living room band I can jam with. I always envisioned these songs as being not acoustic singer-songwriter stuff, but being backed by a full rockin’ band. After 15 years of dragging my guitar everywhere and jamming with dozens of different musicians, I finally gave up on my quest for a garage band. I have enjoyed jamming with friends and strangers, but jam sessions are based on a common musical repertoire, mostly classic rock of the 60s & 70s. (I was the only one who knew knew material from the 80s or later.) The musicians I know enjoy playing old favorites, or at least tunes they know. There was no interest in creating new original music (and occasionally definite resistance to learning new material).

Musicians either want to be professional or play just for enjoyment as amateurs. Amateurs who play for enjoyment want to play songs they know. People who are interested in creating new original music by and large are people who want to form bands and play professionally. I’m the odd one because I want to play music for my own enjoyment and that includes creating new original material. Although my strength is songwriting, I can’t sing very well. I have the passion of a professional with the guitar-playing skills of an amateur.

“You are only limited by your ability to imagine a sound structure–You are not limited by your ability to play something anymore.”
(Bono, Propaganda)

Acid expands what I can create musically because it is not dependent on my being an expert player. I can compose music using a variety of instruments through the Acid program. Basically, I now have a studio set-up on my laptop and I’m becoming a decent engineer and producer.

There are so many possibilities inherent in the technology that in spring 2003 I was diverted from my original project of creating backing tracks for existing songs into creating new original music composed entirely using Acid. The result of my initial efforts was Breakfast With The Blades, an EP which–as I revise this in the spring of 2004–I am still am very happy with and enjoy listening to. I followed it up the next year with a full length album, Lost In The Mix.

My involvement in what is essentially non-live studio-created music may make more sense if I back up a bit. I discovered punk shortly after getting my first guitar for Christmas 1987. (Better late than never!) One of the appeals of punk was the basic tenet that you didn’t have to be able to play your instruments; you didn’t have to be proficient. Attitude, enthusiasm, a love of music and something to say were more important than musicianship. This was very appealing to someone who had just taken up a musical instrument for the first time on the cusp of 30. That punk ethos is alive and well; it informs the music I make to this day. Through digital manipulation and license-free Acid sound libraries I’m creating original music using instruments I can’t play.

If this idea sounds strange, consider for a moment the composer of a symphony. He doesn’t have to play all the instruments in the orchestra expertly; he only has to know what they all sound like, what their range is and what effects a good player is capable of producing. He must have a good ear for music and an aptitude for composition. The tools have changed, but the principle is the same.

I have fiddled around with trying to record myself over the years. The equipment to make good home recordings existed and I periodically looked at it, researched it and priced it, but did not indulge in anything more than a cheap microphone. The price was prohibitively high for a hobbyist like me. I would also have been limited to the instruments I owned and my ability to play them—not to mention the fiddly business of cleaning up the recording.

Call me Ishmael. Here’s where my musical path intersected with the music of a descendent of Herman Melville, one Richard Melville Hall, given the nickname “moby” as a baby. His album 18 had an unexpected impact on me. As I listened to that album I realized that I didn’t need that elusive garage band I’d been looking for. The music was simple, elegant, powerful and yet used a lot of loops, sequencers, and samples.

I knew that all manner of things can be done by a single person given enough of the right equipment. However, what constituted “the right equipment” has been evolving over the years, becoming more compact, more sophisticated and easier to use. More and more the technology is married to the computer, a tool I was already proficient in using.

The fact that moby can play more instruments (and better) than I can doesn’t diminish the fact that he came from rock to the digitized dance culture and from there into something closer to mainstream music, using loops and samples brilliantly. My discovery of Acid music which followed hard on my discovery of moby opened my mind up to the possibilities of composing new original music in ways I had never thought of before–digital, home studio music, using and manipulating vocals and instrumentation (license-free and royalty-free, thanks to Acid) to create whatever sound I wanted with pretty much any instrument I can think of. Editing and tweaking is easier with Acid than any other music program I’ve messed with. Composition is as much fun as playing because in a way I am playing; I’m playing the instruments through the program and I’m playing a digital mixing board as if it were an instrument.

A digital band has taken shape in the form of neat little high quality digital packets. I have bass, drums, percussion, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, synth sound beds, pads, and effects as well as a multitude of other instruments from horns and strings to ethnic instruments from a variety of cultures. I can co-opt a number of digital vocalists to good effect in predominantly instrumental pieces. I can also record my own instruments and vocals digitally directly into Acid. At present there are no existing recordings of me playing guitar or other instruments. In the summer of 2004 I will return to my original project of creating backing tracks for several years worth of existing songs. Eventually I will probably lay down my own instrumental and vocal tracks on some of those songs, but the priority for Gymshoes is to provide a band for me to jam with so that I can enjoy jamming along with more fully-realized versions of my songs than vocal and guitar alone would allow.

The Breakfast With The Blades EP and the Lost In The Mix album were interesting experiments in creating complete songs using only digital materials, doing no live recording of my own. I enjoyed creating BWB and LITM and gained valuable skills in doing them. I plan on continuing to create new instrumental digital songs, to experiment with the technology and various genres of music, as well as playing live acoustic-electric music.