The dam breaks. Superman, John Williams and The Crystal. I Dream Of Jeannie. Phil Collins: best progressive rock drummer ever? Battle Of Epping Forest. Exercises vs Idiomatic. 7/4 Rules. The pit of despair or the zone of eternal darkness? No more snippets. Artists only.
Roger CortonLast time you were fighting with, can we say, writer’s block?
JCHIt got better.
RC(laughs) Just like that.
JCHJust like that.
JCHAnd by the way, calling it “writer’s block” doesn’t capture the awfulness. But there’s something even worse.
JCHI call it, the “post-orgasmic rage”.
RCOf course you do.
JCHWhen the dam breaks, it’s immediate. It sneaks up on me. And then there’s the moment where I figure out the right direction to go in and I work like a fiend…
RCAnd then? And then? (laughs)
JCHAnd then I can’t sleep because I’m so angry that I’m like that. I fuckin’ hate ‘me’.
RCSelf pity. Not a good thing.
JCHAnyhoo, it really is quite a feeling of just relief when the solution appears.
RCOK, but are you saying that in one second the whole thing comes to you?
JCHNo. Not at all. It’s weird. I get an idea. And from that moment I just know that the rest of the thing will flow. I don’t know how I know that this one idea contains the whole thing. And the final piece may go off in all sorts of other directions I didn’t plan, but that germ somehow tells me that every day from then on is going to be productive. There won’t be any more ‘bad days’.
RCDays where you’re not being productive. You can just sit down each day and somehow know you’ll make progress, even though you don’t know what that will be.
JCHIt sounds pretty wacky when you put it that way.
RCI think it sounds pretty mystical.
JCHIt just hit me. Ya know Superman. The movie?
JCHBest. Movie. Score. Ever.
RCJohn Williams? Better than Star Wars?
JCHPffffft. By light years… See what I did there?
RCI got it.
JCHStar Wars has some great tunes. But Superman is a stand-alone piece of symphonic music. Seriously. It should be right up there with any tone poem by Strauss. Can’t say enough good things about that overture. And man you see those big letters coming at you and it’s Ohhhhhh shit! (laughs).
RCI remember. It’s like a mini-symphony. But we’re going off on a tangent. What does that have to do with whatever we’re supposed to be talking about?
JCHYou no like my anecdotes in this outraaaaaageous French accent, silly English person?
JCHSo remember Superman comes to earth in that flying bathtub and it’s covered in pointy crystals, right?
JCHAnd they all shatter when the bath tub crash lands. So after he grows up, all he has left is that one crystal. He hitch hikes to the North Pole and then throws that one crystal off into the polar ice and TA DA! Crystal Palace.
JCHSo… Does Superman know what the Crystal Palace will look like?
RCI get you.
JCHDoes he even know what the fuck will happen after he throws the crystal?
RCThat’s a good point.
JCHI mean, he coulda simply rubbed it a few times and wished for Barbara Eden. How does he even know to throw the crystal. Am I right? Am I right?
RCOK, that was good. (laughs) I think I get where we’re going. Somehow all he knows is that the crystal will do something big. So maybe he throws it so he can be far away when it does whatever it does.
JCHRight. And that’s how this shit works. I just screw around for ages and then I somehow find ‘the crystal’. And I have no idea what it does. But I know it’s ‘the crystal’. And it just points me North. But I have no clue where it ends up being.
RCAnd what is this crystal exactly? Is it a melody? A drum pattern?
JCHOn this record, I had a couple of goals. I wanted to do some real guitar playing, which fans have been bitching about for years as I got away from ‘shredding’. And I also knew I wanted this to go back to the whole ‘prog’ spirit we’ve been talking about. And I wanted something that would get me out of this four on the floor ‘rawk’. So I dropped the guitar and focused on drumming.
RCWhich makes perfect sense if you’re going to focus on your guitar.
JCHHang in there. I started trying to learn to play like Phil Collins.
RCEarly Phil. Outrageous drumming.
JCHIndeed. In many ways, he was the best of the progressive rock drummers. Just unbelievable. But unnoticeable.
RCRight. I never focused in on how incredible he was until I saw the live video of The Lamb. On the albums he always blends in so well, as you say, you never noticed him much. Total team guy.
JCHExactly. But so many of their tunes were in 7/4. But not a noticeable 7/4.
RCLike Tool would do where they want you to feel the jagged edges.
JCHExactly. I just started making myself play all day in a flowing 7/4 and 11/4. Like The Battle Of Epping Forest and that Dancing Out… whatever.
RCDancing With The Moonlit Knight.
JCHRight. And after I got that down, I went back and started playing guitar over it. I basically started doing all my daily practice over those recordings.
RCIs that what you’d call atonal?
JCHI’d call it a piano exercise. (laughs) It wasn’t anything ‘atonal’ or ‘serial’. I have these old music books which are designed to improve yer sight reading. They’re not really great music. They’re meant to be tough to read, which also usually means real finger busters. I like them because they have a ‘punk’ vibe. They’re a way to sound ‘noisy’ but without a fuzz pedal (laughs). But they can be hard as hell to play.
RCWe’ve talked about that. You introduced me to the word ‘idiomatic’.
JCHRight. Most music that sounds ‘right’ for the instrument is often also easy to play. There’s a relationship between music that sounds good from a particular instrument with music that falls naturally under yer fingers. There are exceptions, but most of the really insane sounding guitar stuff that everyone knows is just not that tough to play. It only looks impressive. Like sweeping arpeggios on the harp or piano.
RCOr rasgueados on the guitar. And Van Halen.
JCH(laughs) Exactly. It always kills me that moment when guitar students figure out how easy the Eruption solo really is.
RCIt’s interesting to me that you started with this technical checklist. You wanted this drumming and that guitar playing. You didn’t just wait for that bolt from above.
JCHExactly! That thunderbolt shit never happens. I gotta have some rules. Stravinsky had this famous quote that the most frightening situation for him was the blank page–having no rules. If I start by imposing some restrictions, it makes it easy.
RCSo where was the ‘ta da’ moment?
JCHI had several snippets I was working on within these boundaries. And I had no idea how to get them all to fit together. Like one was a very typical Rickenbacker/Chris Squire ‘gallop’ as Bill Bruford might’ve said. And then another was this sort of jazz/fusion thing with upright bass and another was this really distorted guitar sheets of sound durge. But they were all within those limits.
RC7/4 drums and guitar exercises. All over the map stylistically.
JCHRight. And I had one idea that I thought was going to be ‘the crystal’. I just thought it was terribly profound like Brahms because it was complicated and majestic and I felt so very proud of myself working on it for like three months and then it just hit me: BOOOOOOOORING. I mean it was just rubbish.
RC(laugh) That’s the pit of despair you talk about.
JCHActually, I believe I referred to it as ‘The Zone Of Eternal Darkness’.
RC(laughs) Did not.
JCHAnyhoo. So I finally dragged myself away from it one day–which was literally the day after we last talked.
RCWow. So all that ranting did the trick!
JCHMaybe. For whatever reason, I decided just to take a break and go back to the other bits to try to polish them. And all of a sudden something else hit me: If just dropped that ‘impressive’ bit, all the other pieces might fit together. I didn’t know why I felt that way, because they were all so different from one another. But that was what the ‘ta da’. It’s just this knowledge that the answer is there. You don’t know how or why, but it’s there. So I started borrowing bits from one snippet and injecting them into the others here and there and within two or three hours of dumping that useless wreck of faux-Brahms, I realised that it really was all going to work out.
RCIt just sounds like you were too wrapped up in it.
JCHOh is that all. Well, thank you VERY MUCH for that brilliant insight (laughs).
RCYou’re welcome. So when do we get to hear it?
JCHOh, well this is the fun part right now. I’d say I’m about one third done when I get all the notes done. Then comes the ‘polishing’–actually learning to play and record it properly. That’s probably two thirds of the journey. And that is the not fun part.
RCSo much not fun part. (laughs) Any snippets?
JCHI’m done with snippets. I understand why we did it all that time. But I’ve decided that it’s a bit like bad Twitter.
RCI’m not on Twitter.
JCHI’m not either. Well, not much anyhoo. But a lot of people–especially writers, try out ideas as Tweets and sort of work on them in serial fashion. They get encouragement and feedback from other tweeters as they go.
RCI did not know that.
JCHBut what happens a lot is that people see the ‘work in progress’ and they’re not patient. You may just be trying shit out and people react badly, you know because it’s not fully baked, and then it gets upsetting. It’s better to keep it all a big military secret so you have the freedom to fuck up over and over and no one sees it.
RCLike that Talking Heads song.
JCHExactly. You can’t see it. Til it’s finnnnnnnished. (laughs)