Solid State Siren v2020. Why are we talking about another ancient record? What does this have to do with the new stuff? Mr. Natural? Dr. Evil? The Melvins? You notated everything? Compression is the secret sauce. Maybe your tools do matter. The tone changes how you play. Rosanno Sportiello and Late Night Muted Piano. Making beer out of oatmeal during a pandemic.
Roger CortonYet another “Version. Twenty. Twenty.” The Solid State Siren.
JCHI like that. Can you do it in that Movie Trailer Voice Of God? “Lockdown! Twenty! Twenty!” Dunh, dunh, dunnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnh. (laughs).
RCYou just did. Happy Independence Day!
JCHI don’t feel very independent right now.
RCI know what you mean. I can’t tell one day from another.
JCHYes. So to get to the point, why do I keep bringing up old material? I mean. Is it even worth doing a new rant? What does it all MEAN, Mr. Natural?
RCWow. We haven’t mentioned Mr. Natural for a long time. We really are going back in time. But yes, let’s get on with it. Why another re-mix?
JCHWell, let me ask you. What do you think of it?
RCYeah, but what about your “rule”?
JCHYou’re doing the Dr. Evil air quotes, aren’t you?
RCI am. What about your rule about not talking about “the music”. And yes, I’m doing the Dr. Evil air quotes again.
RCIt sounds great. My only prob with this piece was that it takes forever to get to the good part (laughs).
JCHYou mean it’s all instrumental jazz for the first ten minutes.
RCYeah. You put all the prog stuff at the end. (laughs)
JCHThere’s this famous quote where Strauss first hears Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and he says, “Very nice. But you know, it will probably never become popular because you started off quiet. You should always open up a piece by giving the audience a real BANG!
RCStrauss wrote the 2001 thing, right?
JCHExactly. And Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite instantly became the most popular piece he ever wrote–quiet beginning and all.
RCIt could happen (laughs). What I really like about all the different versions is that I always hear new things I didn’t notice before. Is that because of the mix?
JCHPartly. But on certain tracks I’ll actually re-play them.
RCAfter all these years you remember all that parts?
JCHNot really. But some clever monks invented this thing called musical notation about six hundred years ago.
RCAll that stuff is notated?
JCHNinety percent. I mean, shit, I had to do something to jusify all the dough I wasted on music school (laughs).
RCI thought you only did that for the classical pieces.
JCHOh no. You see music school works whether yer doing an opera or…
JCHWell, let’s not push our luck. But basically, yes. Almost all the solos were written out.
RCI wondered about that because so many times you double really intricate parts. Makes sense. Now a while back you talked about going back to these older pieces to get back in touch with your “Inner Prog”
JCHI did not put it that way.
RCOK, but you know what I mean. You said you were a different guy twenty years ago and you wanted to try to get back into that mindset. It sounded like you felt you were more authentically ‘progressive rock’ at that time. Would it be fair to say that you’d drifted? Is this new version part of that process?
JCHNot exactly. Initially, what got me going on The Solid State Siren was purely technical. I had forgotten how I had created some of the original sounds and I wanted to use them for new material. And… we haven’t talked about this forever, but music recording software is very unforgiving when it comes to open old projects.
RCOh I remember the screaming. (laughs) You would try to open a song from a few years ago and it. Just. Wouldn’t.
JCHYeah. And getting back to that notation thing; that was, and is, enraging for me. I’m used to being able to work from a score that Bach wrote literally three hundred years ago. The idea that I wouldn’t be able to re-use material from a song I’d written three, THREE fucking years ago would send me through the roof. And the funny thing was, and is, that people in the industry just accept that. They’re constantly working on the next thing. The past is in the past.
RCWell, not in movies. Now you see CGI where they pull in material from old movies all the time now.
JCHRight. In other media, they have totally different values. I think with visual arts they had this tradition of ‘permanence’ that music recording never got to. Visual art was always ‘the product’. Music recording was always considered to be the prize in the box of cereal, not the cereal. You know, for most of recorded music history, the recording was just to goose sales of tickets to live shows.
RCAs it is now.
JCHAs it is now. We had a very short window of time where the ‘album’ was considered to be a free-standing piece of art.
RCAnd the thing that made you a living.
RCSo perhaps this time we’re in now is ‘normal’.
JCHPerhaps. But it wasn’t what I expected. (laughs) It’s sorta like a lot of the world. We grew up in this Golden Age which we thought was ‘the thing’. But it turns out that it may have been the exception and not ‘the rule’.
RCI think you’re right. But back to the song. You said you were trying to figure out how you made certain sounds. Give me a specific example.
JCHSure. The bass lines on The Solid State Siren were all either my old fretless or my old 5-string. People always think it’s some sort of synthesizer.
RCPart of that is because some of those lines sound really hard to play. but I think the main thing is how even the tone is. It definitely sounds like a synth. What’s the secret?
JCHWell, as I’ve said a bunch of times,
RCYou’ve said everything a bunch of times now. (laughs)
JCHAin’t it the truth. A big part of it is that I do write things down. Meaning I compose away from the instrument. So a lot of shit I write isn’t idiomatic. It does not lie easily on the fingerboard.
RCBecause you’re not writing like I would with the guitar in hand.
JCHExactly. I’m just writing what I hear would sound cool to me. Not what lays under my fingers. Not the patterns I’m used to playing. I highly recommend this to students, but they rarely do it. Write your lines away from the instrument. Just write what sounds cool.
RCI have taken your advice and tried that a few times. One of two things happen. I either write something boring–which I know I can already play. Or I do what you really want and I come up with something so difficult to play I just give up. (laughs)
JCHWelcome to my world! I write stuff all the fucking time that I then struggle for hours to learn to play. People ask me all the time how I practice at my age and I’m like, “Dude. I get all the practice I need just trying to execute the shit I think up.”
RCRight. But what about the tone. I assumed it was some MIDI deal.
JCHOK, I’ll give you one big part of the secret sauce. Softube TubeTech CL1B compressor.
RCAnd you’re not an endorser, right?
JCHI am not. I’m kinda cringing at saying this, but sometimes there is one piece of gear you just gotta have. You can’t get ‘that sound’ without it. Well, I struggled for years to get a particular ‘synthy’ electric bass sound; a sound which was responsive and organic, but just sustained for-ehvehr. I tried MIDI-synth interfaces, distortion, compressors, praying to Tiki Gods and nothing was quite right. But this is the shit. Sounds like no other device I’ve ever heard.
JCHAnd we’ve talked about this before. I honestly believe that a big part of the ‘luck’ in being successful is making some connections. And one of them is a great axe. I mean, I’m trying to think of Jaco if he hadn’t accidentally found that bass. And then the Acoustic 360. And then stripped the frets.
RCYou don’t think he would’ve found some other genius move?
JCHNo I don’t. Now that I’m old I realize how much of this is kizmet. There are a shit ton of ‘geniuses’. You need a combination of that talent and stumbling into the right opportunities in order to blossom. And one of those opportunities is finding ‘your sound’. Not every great player has a sound. But every great player we remember has a sound.
RCIt’s an interesting chicken and egg discussion.
JCHI mean, sticking with Jaco for a second. I’ve played his solos for years. But they never sounded ‘right’. Until I actually plugged into that Acoustic 360 rig. And instantly I had ‘that sound’. And all the stuff I had been playing that sounded like just a photoshop of Jaco became Jaco. I didn’t even have to try to sound like Jaco–the equipment guides you to that playing.
RCWell, you have to be able to play.
JCHAbsolutely. You can’t just give any schmuck a ’62 Jazz and that rig and expect good things to happen. But if you have the technique, I have to admit that it is the gear that gets you across the goal line. And because I spent so much time seeing people blame their gear for their failings, I’ve been far too dismissive of the importance of a certain gizmo.
RCI forgive you. (laughs)
JCHIt’s not like that. I’m mentioning it because it held me back. Stubbornness comes in many flavors. I hurt my own playing by being so rigid; by always trying to ‘make due’, rather than getting ‘the thing’. It was a point of pride, but it kept me from nailing a lot of the sounds I wanted.
RCAnd also some lucrative endorsements.
JCH(laughs) No shit! Those CL1Bs cost an absolute mint now.
RCSo maybe that’s why you keep remixing these epics?
JCHThat’s exactly where I was going with this. A lot of times, I got tones that were ‘good enough’, but never just hit me in the chest like on a truly legendary record. I figured that it was the piece that was the important part; moreso than individual tone colors. But now? I’m much more aware of how every sound on a record has to have some ‘magic’. And that’s the other thing that occurs to me. I’m beginning to accept the notion that it was serious luck that they had some great sounds at Motown or Stax back in the day.
RCYou mean to say that if the sounds of the drums weren’t as cool the songs wouldn’t have been hits?
JCHAs blasphemous as that sounds, it’s probably at least partly true. I mean, there were a lot of good songwriters back in the day. And a lot of decent bands. And I’ve had a chance to listen to many old records that didn’t blow up. And a lot of it isn’t so much ‘the song’ as it is that the sound of the record is just. Meh. It doesn’t have the punch.
RCOK, but aren’t you the guy who told me that Stevie Wonder could make a shoe box sound musical?
JCHAbsolutely. Maybe it’s just the mood I’m in right now, but I gotta say, without that Clavinet, Superstition just isn’t a hit. In fact, without that Clavinet, Stevie doesn’t even bother writing that song. Like I said about Jaco, a lot of the time, it’s the tone that pushes your playing in a certain direction. I always think about that iconic six stroke roll that opens so many Motown Hits.
RCI always wondered what that’s called. What’s cool is how completely different it is at different tempos.
JCHExactly. That’s what’s cool about the drums. You learn a few basics and just speed ’em up or slow ’em down and yer good. (laughs). Anyhoo, having worked in that room, I gotta tell ya. It sounds way, way, way, way better in there than it does in a lot of other spaces. I think the room, the kit all push the player in the direction. At least back in the day, before all the technology.
RCI’ll have to think about that. It’s a tough question.
JCHI’ll give you one other example. There’s this jazz pianist Rosanno Sportiello I like a lot. So in the lockdown he’s doing something really creative. He has a Yamaha upright piano in his home. And Yamaha’s are kinda unique. The middle pedal on a piano usually doesn’t ‘do’ all that much. So what Yamaha does is make it a ‘mute’ function. Like the rubber thing on bass bridges?
RCIt deadens the sound.
JCHRight. I guess they did that to make it quieter for practicing. But the unintended consequence is that it gives the piano an totally new character; almost like an electric piano or a B3 with percussion. Anyhoo, Rosanno does these Late Night Muted Piano videos on Facebook that are, for me, really extraordinary. They sound completely unique. And here’s the thing: He may not admit it, but his playing changes to fit the muted piano. He adjusts his voicings, lines, everything to fit that timbre. And it sounds fantastic.
RCYou’re right, it sounds somewhere between a Hammond organ and a Wurlitzer; not like an acoustic.
JCHBut here’s the thing: I suggested that he should continue doing that even after the pandemic. And he just shrugged it off. To him it was just a way to record songs at night without bugging his neighbors (laughs).
RCBut to you it’s something else.
JCHAbsolutely. To me it’s a totally new thing. To me it’s like those ancient Egyptians finding that by leaving oatmeal out too long they had accidentally made beer!
RCSo now you just have to convince him to make more beer.
JCHI think we all need to figure out how to make beer out of oatmeal these days.
RCYeah, who needs lemonade during a pandemic? (laughs) I think that’s a good way to tie this up for today.