The first of a two-part ‘interview’ I did last week with long-time supporter Roger Corton. He’s collated e-mails I’ve received on the new record and then we sat down to do an interview of ten questions. (OK, due to my penchant for ‘digressions’ there are probably more than ten. 😀 ) Also–and this is big–Roger has agreed to take over some occasional web duties for me in the (perhaps vain) hope that I’ll have a bit more time for music making. This first baby step in ceding control: he’s elected to leave this text far more ‘raw’ than I would have done
RCBefore we get started, I know you hate doing this, so thanks. You know it’s for your own good, right?
JCHOK, Ma. I heard an interview with Chrissie Hynde the other day that just shocked me. It was the first time in maybe twenty years I heard an artist get, in any way, bitchy with the interviewer.
RCAnd that’s a good thing?
JCHYes. It was routine when I was a kid to give the interviewer a hard time. To make it clear that all this PR stuff is a sham and you’d rather be doing something else.
RCBut wasn’t that also part of the marketing?
JCHSure. But the point is, after all these decades of ‘rock n roll rebellion’, everyone acts so damned polished and rehearsed and downright grateful when it comes to the marketing. They act so thrilled to get exposure. They’re as bad as politicians. Which just feels wrong to me. It was refreshing to hear Chrissie act truly ‘rock n roll’. She was like: I’m tired. Can we get this over with?
RCYou said it. I’m tired. Can we get this over with? (laughs). First question. There seems to be a lot more emphasis on drumming over the past few albums.
JCHThat started when my old drum set got stolen a few years ago. It was a ‘Ringo’ style kit, designed for a very straight-forward style. So that was my ethos. And the thing is: like a lot of gear, when I got it, it was not a Luxe kind of deal. It was a working man’s kit that just happened to become valuable. So when that was gone, I went nuts on one of my ‘Cheapquests’.
JCHYeah, it’s like a Visionquest except with savings that are UNBELIEVABLE! You know, like those idiots on Antiques Roadshow who thrill at their ‘bargains’. I constantly badger students about the whole ‘poor carpenter blames his tools’ thing when they go on about ‘gear’. So I found a student kit, some friends donated heads and various doodads and I did all the things people do to try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And as I obsessed about how to get this cheap-o thing to sound decent, I started really practicing. Like I hadn’t practiced anything for decades. So… one gets better. And as I got better my pretensions increased. Plus, let’s face it, drumming is fun in a way that other instruments are just not. (Laughs).
RCStaying with ‘rhythm’, next question. Most of the rhythms sound really ‘stiff’. You insist that you don’t use sequencers and loops, but it sure sounds like it.
JCHI actually do use a sequencer. Always have. But you can either use a sequencer as a straight recorder or you can use it to create repetitive patterns. You can also use it to ‘correct’ rhythms and pitches (like the ‘T-Pain/Cher’ sound) so that sloppy playing is corrected. I don’t do that.
I have a side note on that. I’m the kinda guy that takes things really to heart. At one point I got criticised all the fucking time for not being precise enough. Now when I started seriously practicing drums a few years ago, I could NOT stop listening to that Steely Dan tune… ummm the one about the Mexican gay guy (Ed. Note: ‘Gaucho’) The mix on that is just so perfect and it’s also ultra-precise in all respects. I just made it my mission in life to be able to play a hi-hat as clean and even and controlled as that song. It was my Zen practice for a looong time. Only recently did I find out that Steely Dan used a sort of prototype drum machine on those records to obtain that crisp tone. D’Oh!
RCRight. Roger Nichols invented it. I understand that it replaces the drummer’s hits with samples.
JCHSo who knew? Maybe I’ve taken it too far (laughs). But especially for this record, I wanted it to sound like early Kraftwerk or Devo. Pre-drum machine. You know, where they were playing synthesisers ‘live’ and the ‘mechanical’ aspect was intended ironically, not because of the machine.
RCSo… it’s a man sounding like a machine.
JCHYes, rather than trying to get a machine to sound like a human.
JCHThat’s why I make the big, big money, Dim.
RCThe song Don’t Try To Change Me sounds reminds me of Peter Gabriel’s Intruder. Is that conscious?
JCHNot really, all though I can see the connection. I guess both songs have a an 80’s vibe and both are about some form of obsession. Of course he did ‘Intruder’ in the 80’s which seems like cheating to me (laughs).
RCBut it’s more than obsession. It’s mental illness, right?
JCHYes. But it’s a fine line. I started off trying to convey someone who is ‘medicated’ but then it morphed into the anger everyone feels trying to ‘maintain’. There are lots of situations where you can’t just be yourself. It could be a job interview or on a date or when you come in hung over to work. So there’s this inner dialog: ‘Am I coming off normal?’ which of course makes you come off as anything but normal.
See the pitch of -everything- is constantly sliding up and down a few cents here and there. If you listen without the drums or voice you’ll feel seasick. The guy is trying so hard to keep it together and that’s what it’s like being medicated for anything. You’re constantly self-conscious and wondering: ‘Do I come off normal? I think I’m normal. Do I look normal? Fuck you! I -am- normal! I’m sick of trying to look normal.’
RCHence the anger?
JCHIt’s more like frustration. But that’s the thing: everyone in that position feels like, “If only the world doesn’t throw me any curves, I’ll be FINE!” And of course, the world does throw one curves and so you’re not fine. You can’t be fine because the world will never be what you need to be fine.
RCWhew. Speaking of frustration, that seems to be a theme. Is Sisyphus autobiographical?
JCHNo. Although it could be if you’re into Freud. It’s actually a melody I came up with to test a keyboard my ex-wife bought me as a gift one day. It was the first gizmo I ever had with a built-in sequencer and so I recorded something that seemed mechanical. I distinctly recall thinking of Willy Wonka’s factory. What with all the Oompa Loompas running the conveyor belt. It was supposed to be child-like but also menacing. That was Willy Wonka. But the message was more about my father who had worked forever like those Mad Men guys but ended up getting fired and having a heart attack. So it’s a child-LIKE song about what I thought at the time was a child-ISH idea, namely the whole American Dream.
RCDo you still think it was childish?
JCHAbsolutely not. I may not have thought much of the particulars of his job, but what he was trying to do was noble. He was playing by the rules, trying his best and it was his bad luck to be doing so during a time of existential change. That happens all the time throughout history. You try to get your stuff up the hill and hope you’re not gonna end up like Sisyphus.
RCWhew. I’m not exactly sure what you’re trying to say with Solid State Siren. On the one hand, you said you were entranced by technology but on the other hand there isn’t anything good to say about it.
JCHI’m nuts about the ‘Steampunk’ aspect. When I came to America one of my first jobs was repairing PAs and amplifiers. I liked the fabric. The smell. The knobs. Everyone who has had an old amp or a synthesiser knows what I’m talking about. They were just cool as objects. I honestly thought we’d get to ‘moon bases’ and ‘flying cars’. Except for the iPad, the ‘tech’ now is largely abstracted… you can’t actually -touch- it. I would really recommend the movie ‘Her’ which deals with this a lot.
RCOK. Now to some more concrete questions. Tour?
JCHYes. I’m hoping to have the dates up on the site this weekend.
JCHSorry, I thought it was a word association game.
RCNo. I mean, how do people get The Solid State Siren? iTunes? Amazon? What are you doing to get the word out?
JCHJust go to the web site and click Purchase. I don’t want to gas on, but the bottom line is that I don’t have the energy for a lot of marketing anymore. And sites like Amazon and iTunes take between 1/3rd and 1/2 of the purchase price.
JCHIt’s like Global Warming or the Housing Scandals on Wall Street. It’s one of those realities that nothing gets done about because the average guy simply won’t believe you when you tell them. Besides, most people don’t care about -my- problems (laughs). The bottom line: this is a niche market, people who know about it support it and hopefully they can find other people to spread the word.
RCObvious question, how’s the health?
JCHYou know I hate this stuff, but it’s a fair question. It varies. I only bring it up to the extent that it affects my ability to tour. Some days are pretty good… especially in summer… I can breathe a lot better. The thing is that it’s kinda like the weather: you know how they can sorta forecast out ten days or a month at a time. They get certain days wrong, but they can see trends. That’s how this is: I can kinda get a feel for the next few days or weeks. So I schedule work and gigs based on that best guess. So far, so good. What kept me off the road for quite a long time was that I didn’t know this. I hadn’t spotted these ‘patterns’ so I never planned -anything-. I mean -anything-. I was terrified of something going wrong on a plane or in the middle of a gig. What I’m trying to say is that how I actually -feel- hasn’t improved so much as my being able to kinda work with it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but being confident enough to plan a bit more is a -huge- improvement.
RCAnd one more. So… no Gus… No mascot?
JCH(Laughing) No, no more mascot.
RCDoes that mean you’re done with dogs?
JCHNo. I’ve actually been sucked back into ‘rescue training’. But I’ve switched to a completely different breed. It sounds hokey, but I don’t need any reminders.
RCWhat is the deal with the dogs?
JCHI don’t wanna get all weepy but unlike most things involving emotions, dogs can be fixed. They almost always give one a second chance–something people often cannot or will not. The problem is that people get these animals at the local shelter and they’ve been repaired -physically- but not emotionally. So the same dog gets re-homed over and over until they’re finally destroyed. They’re a complete PITA at first, but I like the fact that if you put in the time, they usually turn out great. It ain’t horse-whisperer shit… it’s just 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Do it enough times and they do come round.
RCHence your Calvin Coolidge quote.
JCHExactly. I love things that submit to persistent effort. I tend to not do well with things that are like, “We’ve only got one shot at this, Jim!”
RCOK, I can’t let that slide. What about all the studio stuff you’ve done?
JCHWell, a) that was when I was younger and b) that didn’t involve people skills (laughs). Dogs are like that movie Groundhog Day. They always tell you exactly how they feel. More and more people constantly act like, “It’s all good” regardless of what they really think or feel. Only musicians used to do that (laughs). And [with dogs] you get an almost unlimited number of chances to mess up and try again until you figure out what to do. They let you make mistake after cruel mistake. So it gives insensitive guys like me a chance to feel good about ourselves (laughs).
RCWell, tacking back to ‘music’, I still don’t see how that meshes with all that you’ve written about never using loops or editing on your tracks.
JCHBut that’s not inconsistent at all. As I said, I do use a sequencer, but as a recorder. I play a part as many times as necessary to get what I want. Or more, often to practice, practice, practice until I can execute what I want. What I don’t do is paste together twenty takes to get le piéce de résistance! When you work with totally mental dogs, you can’t ‘edit out’ their mistakes and keep the lovable junk. You just have to keep at it until eventually, you have a whole day where you go, ‘Wow. We got it right for ONE ENTIRE FUCKING DAY!’ I’m not a patient guy. It just looks that way because I’m so obsessive. But on zee eeenside? I am stewing like Kirk Douglas.
One other digression re. ‘studio work’: I’ve made it clear that I wouldn’t get my foot in the door today and this bears mentioning. I recently saw a movie about ‘young Jimi Hendrix’. (Ed. Note: ‘All Is By My Side’). In the movie, Jimi is developing his style while working for King Curtis and so on. To a degree, he works his stuff into the act and there’s this development going on. At a certain point, music became big business. When you audition for a band now, you not only can play, know the material inside and out, can dance all the routines and are held to a level that was unimaginable thirty years ago.
RCAnd that’s bad because?
JCHThose are great qualities. But because it’s so ‘corporate’ there’s absolutely no room to innovate. You definitely get to network to try to build a career BUT (gestures dramatically) you get no chance to deviate. In other words, ‘back in the day’ yes you played the show, but you also got enough chances to mess about that you could develop. For example, I would swap parts with the other guys. Such a thing would not be possible today. And I didn’t have to looove everything I played. In fact, I hated a -lot- of what I played. All that mattered was that I did the work. But today, since each show -must- be perfect, you’re being monitored. And I think it makes people more conformist and ultimately less creative. I know that sounds like an old guy talking about ‘young whippersnappers’ but people are always going on about ‘lack of creativity’ in music and I think the fact that touring now is so ‘programmed’ stifles young guys. They become robots. That dance really good.
RCAnd that’s a fine ‘rant’ to end with. Thanks for doing this.
JCHOh no. Thank YOU.
RCNo, no, no. Thank YOU!
JCHI think that’s enough of that. Do people even watch Monty Python anymore?