24 October 2014

Musical score and four years ago...

For the love of music!
Today, Throw the Dice and Play Nice turns four years old!

This has been a particularly hectic, unpredictable and amazing year. Made new friends in the name of music, tech, design and creation and have had a blast every minute!

Hearing and writing about everything...from chatting with Stephen Godfroy on the opening of the US's very own Rough Trade shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to discussing the music business aspirations and holiday stylings of Elizabeth Chan, to debating the integrity of music journalism itself, to tackling the touchy subject of misogyny in music with the worldwide effort "Musicogyny," and of course, the more normative, but still exciting, introduction of new music, (by way of Brighton and Pint Size Hero), among so many other fascinating people, places, events and ideas with snappy headlines...2013 into 2014 has been one of the most diverse years yet.

Now going into year five, Throw the Dice and Play Nice is getting ready to introduce some fun changes that will come along as the year progresses. New types of articles, more ways to interact and have those hot discussions and debates–even a new look is coming soon! I am beyond excited and I'll openly admit, quite proud, to say this little corner of the net where I write words has stayed true to itself but, never become a place of monotonous predictability. Art, creation, music, lyrics, pictures, people and their personalities are all different so as always, let's dive into the next 365 taking on all of that uniqueness and do it with all the passion and none of the fear. 

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In honor of starting year five, here are five things I've taken away as ongoing thoughts of importance:

1. Embrace a new genre, even if you only do so by starting with a single song by a band you haven't heard before. If your default excuse is, "well, that's not my thing," think about it: Nothing used to be "your thing." We all had to take a first listen to everything we claim to love now, in order to love it in the first place. So that thing that's "not your thing" might surprise you and suddenly "become your thing."

2. Controversy is worth paying attention to–only to a point. Like stereotypes, stories that breed such stiff opposite sides and such high levels of volume from their respective parties, are usually initiated from a grain of something that has indeed happened in real life but then spread and mutated like wildfire to become talk about seemingly everything but the actual issue/topic/facts.

3. Artists change and sometimes it's important, and can even be interesting, to step back and look at the whole of their timeline. Taylor Swift is my favorite example of this. As metal scribe Kim Kelly recently put it, and I will jump on this wagon with her, "I have a very complicated and nuanced relationship with Tay Tay and her discography."

4. Don't watch a whole concert through your phone. Full disclosure: I do take pictures at concerts but more and more I'm reaching for my phone less and less and I'm extremely happy about it. A photo here and there that reminds you of the mental and emotional space you were in, in that moment, during that concert, is cool. Past that though, look up, the bassist is about to tap your head with the neck of his instrument and if you're holding your phone, well, your hand can't hold your phone and touch a famous musician's bass at the same time, can it? 

5. If you have a pair of thoughts or ideas that seem insane because they've never existed and don't, in any way, seem like they go together, start writing it down and or doing something with it. This year's Music Tech Fest in London is a prime example of this mentality. The festival introduced me to so many people who have degrees and training and aspirations that feel like the oddest pairings in the world but these people make these supposedly opposing skill sets fit together like a perfectly coordinated outfit.

To wrap up, once again, thought you're probably sick of being told, but I will say anyway:

Thank you everyone who continues to support myself and this space, read these words and those who give back thoughts of their own. You each make this so much more than what it began as and I only hope for it to get better and better. 
Bring it on five!

22 October 2014

There's nothing better than talking up a band's “Negative Qualities”

The guys of Single Mothers have plenty to positive about, that's for sure!
Negative Qualities, Online Image, "Dine Alone Records-Releases" 21 October 2014
< http://www.dinealonerecords.com/2013/images/releases/91/391/sm-nq-500x.jpg >

Don't worry, this is no slanderous band rant.

This all about the London, Ontario based, garage punk band, Single Mothers and their debut LP, “Negative Qualities,” which just dropped via HXC Recordings (subsidiary of XL Recordings) on 8 October.

Single Mothers is a band that, even in their relatively short life as a group, already has a narrative that unfolds as fascinatingly, and with the kind of minute, career-span-worthy detail rivaling the “Behind the Music” documentary installments from the heyday of music channel, VH1. Interestingly, the journey to the band's current state of increasing recognition by figures in the mainstream music business feels like a series of events that were cut out of a time from the ways of the old music industry and dropped in present day, digitally driven 2014.

Referencing people to the tagline of “[B]roke up in 2009 - and have been playing shows ever since” and pushing through to album release success, despite a rotating door of at least 12 members prior, is not exactly the epitome of picture perfect normalcy. This is perhaps though, a quality of Single Mothers that makes them more old school punk than even the band's music itself. Calling to mind sounds of bands like The Replacements and The Hold Steady, and with the production chops of Joby J. Ford of fellow punk band and former tour mates, The Bronx, neither “Negative Qualities” as a single album nor Single Mothers as a whole entity, are as easily digested as their respective whirlwind paces might have one otherwise believe.

Currently holding down the fort with four members, Andrew Thomson (Vocals), Micheal Peterson (Guitar), Evan Redsky (Bass) and Brandon Jagersky (Drums), Single Mothers effortlessly balance the rough-around-the-edges character of “the up-in-coming band that's driving neighbors crazy,” with an indescribable cohesion in their execution that makes listeners feel like this band has had anything but player rotation problems.

Single Mothers current lineup from left to right:
Brandon Jagersky, Evan Redsky, Drew Thomson and Micheal Peterson
Photo credit to Ben Pobjoy

Micheal “Mike” Peterson recently sat for a call with me, talking everything from the making of “Negative Qualities” to the band's overall sense of identity and even a bit about his preferred musical tools of choice as the (now) guitar player of the band. Read the interview after the jump!

17 October 2014

Royal Blood at Webster Hall: A case of priceless concert contradiction

"Royal Blood Logo," Online Image, Royal Blood, 17 October 2014
< http://royalbloodband.com/cdn/_graphics/logo.jpg?v=2 >

The age old idea of a “quick rise to fame” is something that stirs up a range of reactions, depending on the context in which said outcome is posed. Reality TV-induced overnight fame is one thing, YouTube overnight fame is another. Beyond those, there is also a quickness of fame that sits squarely in the context of music popularity, evident when the name of a band suddenly seems to appear everywhere a person turns. The latter of these sources of fame is not always overnight in the literal sense but with the volatility of the music industry and the fickleness of public taste and attention, seeing a band penetrating every avenue of press and increasingly becoming a mainstream name, all in less than a year, is no "slow grower" in today's business.

Riff-powered rockers, Royal Blood, have managed to do just that, far away from their home base of Brighton, UK; climbing the proverbial performance ladder from blasting the scattered stages of SXSW, to intimate shows at places like Brooklyn's iconic Glasslands Gallery, to having major press and TV appearances like their recent guest performance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher, the solidly stacked power duo that is Royal Blood, are not shying away from their multi-pronged rise to fame happening both here in the U.S. and five-fold more so, closer to home in the EU, where they are gaining so much traction, so fast, that amidst selling tickets for remaining 2014 performances, they decided to upgrade shows to larger venues in some places, “[d]ue to public demand”, as explained via their Facebook page. Even more recently, MTV announced the pair as one of the performances slated to appear at the MTV EMAs on 9 November.

Now, what typically happens when a band starts to gain more high profile attention and receive booking slots for larger capacity venues?

  • Higher ticket prices
  • More distance between fans and the artist (figuratively and literally)

Prior to that jump up to the level of high profile, mainstream attention, acts are usually doing things like fine tuning their identities/stage routine, merchandise development...maybe even still putting together their music if an album has not been released yet. (As was the case at the time when Royal Blood were at Glasslands.) These things are core to the intimacy and down-to-earth element that comes with a group still in the process of ascending the mountain of the music business. Afterward though, once the “big guns” kick in, shows can take on a feel and a look to match the larger status of a band. (e.g. Fall Out Boy's present pyrotechnic-tinged stadium size shows, as compared with their shows during the days of teenage angst and “Take This to Your Grave.”) This change isn't necessarily a bad thing but fans are losing an apple and gaining an orange, whether they want it or not.

Forced to choose between the accolades of being big and the charm of being small —Royal Blood was having none of that during their show last night in the Marlin Room of New York City's Webster Hall. A room of only 500 person capacity, this show already flies in the face of where Royal Blood are on the global music industry's radar. Webster Hall might be “big by default” because of musically historical context but given other circumstances, Royal Blood could have easily upgraded to the larger Grand Ballroom space and that would have matched the other large scale points of their current reputation. The smaller and barrier-less space inside the Marlin Room already made this show feel like one of a particular rare grade. Then, to have the price for admission reflect a dollar amount that was anything but corporately inflated, implying instead, a vibe of “We're still local enough to not break your banks on our tickets,” solidly put the experience under the umbrella of “This will never happen in this way, ever again.

The combined energy pumped out by Kerr, (left) and Thatcher (right)
could knock down a wall.

Past logistics of show setup, Royal Blood's actual performance simply hammered home the true uniqueness of the duo, even if a lot of the press the band has acquired focuses on the very prominent channeling of their influencing predecessors like Led Zeppelin, Muse and the White Stripes. Thatcher and Kerr are able to unquestionably stand with the likes of bands that sound just as good live as they do on studio recordings and, this is not just due to the fact that there is only two of them; implying quality only as a result of there being not much stuff with which to mess up. (which would be a gross misrepresentation of the pair's musical ability and collaborative chemistry.) Every strummed, distorted, POG'ed bass chord and every sharp-as-knives snare hit lifted with ease, the stampede-sized sound cranked out within the confines of pristine studio space.

*       *        *

This show being for the promotion of their first album, Royal Blood's only weakness is the pure lack of age on the part of the band itself, that results in a limited amount of material to play, with limited coming to mean playing through their entire record, with room left over for another song or two before it is considered a full set. Such was the case last night, as the audience was given a performance of every track on "Royal Blood" and even with that, two B-sides, “Hole” and “You Want Me.” All these tracks had plenty of time to come in without any kind of time crunch. In fact, the whole show, including the set by the tamer but equally unique, multi-stylized opening band, Kan Wakan, ran with an efficient smoothness that could spoil a spectator waiting around for set changes at any other venue. It was about the music and that's that.

LA band, Kan Wakan, offering up
otherworldly songs with a symphonic touch
Gratitude and a few calls for revved up excitement were certainly strewn throughout but, other than that, everyone involved was focused on just setting up, counting off and playing passionately through; not hanging onto filler dialogue. Approaching a live show this way might feel like a shortcoming to some but in a lot of ways, it instead can translate to mean that the music is strong enough to hold audience attention and that everyone just wants to hear the next song rather than a personal anecdote.

Ben Thatcher out for an audience supported stroll...
That's not to say Kerr and Thatcher did not know how to keep things interesting. Pulling what could very well be called a “Matt Shultz move,” (Matt Shultz of Cage the Elephant is known for routinely incorporating a stage dive and or audience walk at shows,) near the tip end of the set, Thatcher stood up from his kit, walked over to the edge of the stage and casually stepped up, into the audience — not stage diving but, indeed being held up by the fans and even rotating to let everyone see him. Capping that up-close and personal interaction with a traditional flood of hands and arms reaching out to the stage (the perks of no barrier or burly security line) while Kerr knelt down, whaling out power chords on his bass with a fuzzed and fierce fervor that shot straight into nearby arms and legs, firmly ensured that no one would return home thinking they heard less than what Royal Blood's compounded record, formal press and social media hype had set them up to expect.

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You can keep up with Royal Blood via their official website, as well as find them on these social media outlets:

You can check out more about Royal Blood's tour mates, Kan Wakan, on their official website, as well as these social media outlets:

14 October 2014

Get IN on the global street date or DIE.

A single day can make a world of difference...

"Calendar Pages", Online Image, "JosiahDWalker.com-Someday", 14 October 2014
< http://www.josiahdwalker.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/calendar-pages.png >

Perhaps "die" is a bit strong of a consequence to say but, as a gentle reminder to those who have been reading here for a while, and for those that are relatively new, let it be known titles and headlines are a favorite spot to place thematic puns and wordplay.

In any case, the dilemma over establishing a global street release date is the question the world over (as it pertains to music) is currently tossing back and forth. Notable organizations like the  International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), have even spoken out to offer their "whole picture based" input as far as whether this idea is one of mostly beneficial consequence or not.

The prospect of an international field of business, like music, considering an across the board change, is not something seen so often. Countries from around the world comment and give input on things relating to this universal art form and its accompanying business matters, sure. Still, there are not even that many umbrella elements within music available for uniform evaluation and capable of being brought into the light for discussion without mass confusion and frustration. That said, it is not as though this proposal has been put forth completely absent of financial trepidation and debate over confusing data and projected figures, as has been outlined during the many conversations and the IFPI's own conference held last month, to specifically address this concept.

While there's no need to rehash the fact that there is very clearly the two camps — one pro and one anti — there are also two interesting potential facets to the idea of a new global street date that deserve illumination, as they might just set in motion, an entirely new change and next stage of (de)evolution for "what it means to be indie", perhaps even initiating a lasting ripple effect on preferred trends of the music industry for years to come.

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A few notes of context first, as reported by Billboard in a follow up piece they posted on 6 October 2014:

Some of the sentiment from the U.S. going against the ate change has comes from larger bodies of influence:

"...In addition to independent record store coalitions, who were the first to publicly oppose such a move, the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), the U.S. independent label organization, and Target, the giant discounter, are also publicly opposing a Friday street date..."

The U.S. has been accustomed to the early week release day of Tuesday (#NewMusicTuesday) within its own borders; so much so that the day's profit-pertinence has blanketed most current media related distribution:

"...the Tuesday street date used in the U.S. has been in place for a couple of decades. Since the music industry began the concept of releasing new records on the same day, other entertainment software industries -- books, DVDs, and video games -- have adopted Tuesday as the day to issue their new titles as well. So in the U.S., consumers know that Tuesday is the day to go to stores for new releases, making it the third largest sales volume day of the week, after Friday and Saturday..."

What's worth attaching to this second point of note, is the fact that the U.S. is one of the top figures of music as an export, as explained back in April of this year, by UK music licensing organization, PPL:

"..[The U.S.] is one of only three net exporters of music in the world (along with the [UK] and Sweden)."

Yet, despite this position of stability, (relative to the overall fluidity of the music industry (and its continually changing revenue streams), one would imagine that adoption of a new street date would be an easier transition than perhaps for another nation whose music export, import and consumption fall far below that of these three. This is where the intertwining of business decisions that affect other media related, but nonetheless separate, products seems to have left the U.S. in a weaker position regarding consequence of choice, than they ought to be in, given the significant amount of U.S. music taken up by other countries, rather than vice versa. Music itself might a serious bedfellow to both film and games but the people who manage the distribution and promotion of the latter two are not the same individuals reserving shelf space and hitting the green light for a sale date for the soundtrack to accompany those items.

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The second piece of food for thought on turning New Music Tuesday to New Music Friday, comes off of a comment made by Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz during a Billboard interview back in June. Wentz's comment was revisited this morning, in a piece promoting the video accompanying the band's newest single, "Immortals." The song is featured with the movie, "Big Hero 6" being released in the US by Walt Disney Animation Studios next month, on 7 November.

“I feel like you can just put out whatever and as long as it's authentic to who you are. It can be singles or an EP, it's just whatever you want.”

Wentz, in that quote, may have been referring to the content and style of music, as opposed to the business side of the release process, as he didn't say, "You can put out whatever, whenever." What though, is to stop some in the industry from indeed taking on that very mindset and that very course of action? 

Thinking hypothetically but plausibly...

Bands and individual artists are already neck deep in the many ways of DIY-culture, where "you are your own boss." Artists of all levels of fame have dealt in the self-run system; from the neighborhood garage band, to A-list established acts like Weezer, coming, going and then returning to major label partnerships. 

Initially, this idea might sound moot if DIY is already a method in motion. The whole idea of do-it-yourself and not having to adhere to established expectations or regulations in the same way as someone else restricted to corporate needs is already there, right? This is true but, what would the landscape of the music industry look like if after this new global street date were to take affect, in order to have more, or total, control of how much or, (for the sake of this conversation) when, to release music, most groups decided to defect from the remaining major label/management/A&R/PR hierarchies of the world? Suddenly the traditional business systems and traditional positions might take an even bigger and more abruptly initiated hit — something for which that the music industry may or may not be prepared. 

There is the aspect of where and how this sudden surge in "artists-turned-independent" would physically place their releases if the remaining corporate elements, like Target, for example, were to establish and hold a willingness only to provide shelf space to artists working with traditional bodies that would be following all the universal rules and expectations, like this potential new street date. However, the continuing flourishing of digital access and digital release (which doesn't always match up with physical street date release as it is now anyway), shows that artists are willing to forego most, if not all, physical release and the subsequent distribution thereof, altogether, knowing their music can see reach the fans they seek. 

In this way, if enough artists were unhappy with the impact of a fixed date, the industry could take an even steeper shift toward combined embrace of the indie/digital relationship. Conversely, independent music retailers that want to stay relevant and avoid a complete turn to that scenario, could adapt and push for a return to tangible, grassroots music discovery if those same artists wanted to have a real world place to put their music —whether it be a full LP, EP, random single, B-side or "one-off tour van mix tape" on any day of the week. That second scenario might even see a music industry that would have the unexpected revival of appeal for brick and mortar music shopping. Before you know it, the entire face of what it would mean to be indie would move away from an implication of "being off the majority's grid" to "being the grid itself," wherein businesses and artists both, opt for the majority to be about organic control of material and organic discovery in real space; a perfect compromise of the eclectic access offered by the web and the face to face, exposure and "education" provided by the passionate gate keepers of old.

Side note: Given the sentiments and matching reports now surfacing regarding Sony/ATV's objective for departure from traditional PRO's ASCAP and BMI, (so as to "open direct negotiations with digital and broadcast outlets," according to Hypebot), this idea of individual and direct control becoming the new and 99% norm, might not quite so hypothetical...

So much potential, all from something as innocent as the desire to move a pin on the music industry's calendar...


10 October 2014

There's “fun” and then there's being “fundamentally cool”

Super subjective topic? Maybe, but, still incredibly pertinent to a lot of people.
"Misfit", Online Image, The Gritty Christian-True Grit,  9 October 2014
< http://www.thegrittychristian.com/?cat=11 >

It's hard enough going through life trying to attain some definition of “majority acceptance” (especially in adolescence), to say nothing of the difficulty when one is then pursuing and enjoying additional activities that may or may not come with a separate set of social prejudices.

Is there even a difference though? Two “types” of coolness (or lack thereof)? Admittedly, it does sound somewhat like a self-generated mentality full of malarkey, derived from a single experience rather than something with which a massive amount of people might connect. However, consider these musings before the idea of “opposing forces of cool” gets filed away under nonsensical rambling:

First question: What does it mean to be a cool artist?

On the one hand, for those striving to “make it” in the business, making it can mean financial security solely through the pursuit of creating and performing music. This objective is often achieved through the formation of a relationship with a financially stable label, otherwise often referred to as the mainstream route. This route is not traversed to a successful end by most and thus is a large part of the reason for a boom in artists contrasting with DIY pursuits and such matching services. 

Recent times have seen the DIY approach to penetrating the music market as one that is now accepted, commonplace and at times, even extremely fruitful in terms of social visibility and financial sustainability, comparable or even greater than that of the bands that go the mainstream way. The sudden rise of a DIY artist can be surprising because of initially lower public awareness but the abrupt turn around is not uncommon anymore.

In this way, it can be perceived that musicians and artists existing on the fringe and out of the musical equivalent of the “popular crowd,” is considered cool.

Okay, so, with music, you can do the uncommon thing, be different and still be cool (accepted). Check. Bonus cool points awarded if your music is also non-generic and makes an attempt at genuine sincerity and personal creativity.

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Second question: Where does the creativity for that genuinely cool music come from? 

(Note: This is just one of many proposed sources, pertinent to the larger topic on hand, as the origin of creativity is a widely discussed query, not new to either science or art.)

This morning, while waiting for coffee to finish brewing, one of my local radio stations cued up Indie pop band, Echosmith and their currently radio-trending single, “Cool Kids.” This song having the subject matter that it does, felt like a second poke in the arm for some talk on the topic of coolness, (to be elaborated on below), following a plain, but nonetheless well written, scene between characters Scarlett O'Connor and Maddie Conrad, (Clare Bowen and Lennon Stella respectively), from the ABC show, Nashville.

The scene, which can be appreciated easily without any prior knowledge of the show, contains a smartly crafted bit of dialogue that reads as follows:

Maddie Conrad, age: 15,
Scarlett O'Connor, age: 24

Cousins, also both singer-songwriters.

Scene: Riding in a car, leaving a barn party where alcohol and other teenagers had been present.

Scarlett:“Look, I'm not out to get you in trouble or anything. I don't want to stop you from having a good time–“

Maddie: “I wasn't.”

Scarlett: “Me either.”

Scarlett: “I don't fit in.”

Maddie: That’s how I felt too. That’s how I always feel.”

Scarlett: “You know, that’s a big part of what makes you an artist. It’s a blessing but, it’s also a curse – ‘cause that is what we do: We feel, very deeply, all of the time. But, instead of sneaking out, or acting up, the best way for people like us to deal with all them feelings, is to write them down.”

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A third angle to this question of where the creativity comes from, if you will, is another school of thought that is commonplace enough to warrant the writing of entire books: artists' perpetual inner turbulence.

Joni Mitchella prominent singer-songwriter of the late 20th century and staple figure of the folk and jazz genres, recently released a book titled,  “Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words,” that compiles recollections from various casual exchanges and interviews with singer-turned-journalist and reporter, Malka Marom.

As is highlighted in part of this Brain Pickings feature, a quote from the book, by Mitchell, sees her acknowledge the role of inner struggle and its resulting, ongoing sense of nonconformity, with regard to creativity and her being a musician:

An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion, and I’ve created out of that. It’s been part of the creative force...”

These two examples, one written to emulate real life emotions felt by artists, and one existent in actual life, both incorporate the idea that artists have, and or develop, a lingering sense of non-belonging and or inner conflict — the very things those same individuals may be hell bent on wanting to shed when it comes to having their overall self be socially accepted and found “cool.”

This unabashedly stirs up thoughts on the juggling of “fundamentally cool” versus “artistically cool.” In the beginning of the “Cool Kids” music video below, the “be true to yourself” sentiment for the song is presented with the opening spoken line, “To me, cool is kind of being unique and being someone who you want to be and, like, how you see yourself”, only to see the desire for mass acceptance take over, with the refrain line, “I wish that I could be like the cool kids / Cause all the cool kids they seem to fit in.”

Certainly, the song gets a nod for the underlying message being given at the start but the pseudo-rebuttal just points out the distressing social juncture with all the more prominence. Sure, non-musicians also contend with the struggle of being yourself versus "being one of the crowd" but, add the perpetual factor brought on by the desire to be an artist and for those like teenage Maddie Conrad, it can feel like this conclusion is all that remains:

The cool (read: socially accepted) NON-ARTIST and the cool ARTIST have two sets of widely accepted/common criteria, that are nothing if but pulling apart from one another.

Does this ring true for you? "Cool" might be only one word but how it's explained depends on who you ask. 

How have you navigated some of the more intense aspects of being an artist (among non-artists)?

03 October 2014

Ghostly International Show: Christopher Willits, Beacon and Tycho

Ghostly International's Official Logo, Online Image, Twitter.com 3 October 2014
< https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/125613612/n5552189986_14811_8055.jpg >

Even as someone more than waist-deep in the trenches of the music industry, it's always gratifying when an experience manages to strike my emotions in the same way as that of a detached fan on the sidelines – someone who isn't concerned over the gears, the vernacular and the game play of this business that happens to make an art for which the world universally pines.

That's what happened with the show put on by three acts from independent label, Ghostly International, who performed together at New York City's Terminal 5 this past Wednesday, 1 October 2014. Based in Michigan, USA, Ghostly International specializes in working with electronic artists and is also a brand affiliated with the creation of other artistically inspired items. The show featured sets by these artists: Christopher WillitsBeacon and Tycho.

Despite what the better part of the music loving world might presume, music journalists don't know everything about every band at every moment – sometimes even falling behind (read: not being first) to become aware of the more “hot and trend worthy” moments that appear out of nowhere and on the turn of a dime or tip of a hat. This is as good as a back story as is needed with regard to my relationship with each of these groups. Tycho was the headliner for last night's show and also happened to be the artist with whom I had the most previous familiarity. Still, even that is not saying anything along the lines of a “first fan level” of knowledge or devotion.

Awake,” the new release by Tycho that this show, and its underlying tour, are promoting, is the first album I have acquired by the group (initially solo act) of visual designer Scott Hansen. That record was intriguing enough to prompt the purchase of concert tickets and the subsequent investigation of Beacon and Christopher Willits, both of whom I became a fan upon some casual listening and steady exploration. My reasons for becoming a fan of all three of these acts are almost mirror reasons for why I write here now to say that the showing of all at once was a very positive and enjoyable experience. Putting things in short summation:

These three acts and their combined stylistic similarities/complementary qualities, create a collectively powerful musical experience that would be significantly lessened with any one element isolated from the others.

Each artist/group is unique on their own and has their own flavor so, if you wanted to get into one particular artist and describe them to a friend later on, you could do that without confusion. At the same time, the artists are each analogous enough to fit quite snugly in a “Recommended If You Like” / Pandora Radio style arrangement. Furthermore, the way the three acts' sounds and intensity levels also fit into each other, like musical nesting dolls, with each getting more expansive than the one before it, the flow of the show felt simultaneously like a fluid linear progression and uniform blending. Describing their sets in brief:

Christopher Willits: A sonically gentle, instrumental opener, (no pun intended for new album, “Opening”) Willits has an affinity for applying enough similarity that his tracks are a bit hard to distinguish when they are played live. Nevertheless, in that same vein, the songs run together so well that they clearly function better as a whole unit, which, when paired with a film, makes perfect sense. Use of atypical, off-beat time signatures is an atypical way in an of itself, to account for musical difference. This choice might not be as detectable or appreciated by the average listener but it is nonetheless worthy of a nod for subtle cleverness.  

Beacon: Continuation of instrumental styling but with the inclusion of vocals that somewhat matched the fluidity, punch or whichever feeling they were aiming to evoke with their striking melodies and rhythms. The increase in intensity came via things like more percussion, louder volume, faster tempos and more complex rhythms. 

Tycho: A combination of both the prior two sets. Tycho's sing-able melodies, (to be noted later) hooks and absence of lyrics align with Willits's style but the band also employs more intricate arrangements, louder volume and traditional, conventionally-catchy rhythm patterns that lean toward the feel presented by Beacon. 

Add in Tycho's own original melodies/individual electronic effects and the culminating result is like a perfect frosting topping the most sensibly baked cake. Those involved in the programming decisions deserve just as much of a high five. Lineup is important to a concert, as track order is to an album.

The inclusion of large screen projected visuals in each band's set –of everything from cascading nature scenes to kaleidoscopic abstract visuals– as well as Tycho's specific use of expanding, multi-colored laser lights, made the show half of the entertainment that it was. That said, you were never worrying someone would come from behind with a sharp elbow to try and gain better sight; neither of the projections nor whomever was on stage. That kind of energy wasn't resonating in the audience and there was enough to interact with that, even had I not managed to have my spot right against the front barricade, I don't imagine my night would have been so much less enjoyable. The audio and the visual were capable of being appreciated from anywhere and no one behaved in such a way as to indicate they felt like they got the significantly shorter end of the stick. 

Lastly, it would be a crime to leave out mention of the third sensory element in this live performance — one especially apparent during Beacon's set — which is that of extreme bass and heavy use of the nine sub-woofers lining the front of the Terminal 5 stage. I will say for that particular aspect of the concert, having a front spot was quite different than being anywhere else, as I truly felt each downbeat against my whole body. However, it was balanced and EQ'ed well enough (A double thumbs up to the individual running sound for the show!) that, although extreme, the bass vibrations didn't go so far as to start encroaching upon the listening experience in a negative way. 

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Logistically speaking, this show is a reminder of how much Terminal 5 runs a tight ship and how everything aside from the venue's actual location, (near what I like to call, “the edge of the world” at 11th Avenue) is something to which I look forward when going there. Some events in NYC feel like a chore once you get to the end of said event, because you know it is late and the venue is coincidentally far from where you have to go, and, even with a show schedule, you have no idea when things will conceivably end. 

This isn't how Terminal 5 does things. Doors opened at 7PM when they said they would open, not 15-20 minutes after, the show itself started at 8PM on the dot, sets were changed in a relatively silent and fast fashion; with the kind of urgency akin to that of a race car pit crew. It probably helped this time because the equipment used and instruments coming and going hardly varied between sets. A computer rolled in here, a mixer rolled out there, a few guitars swapped out from song to song but that's simply another bonus of this grouping, contributing to a seamless evening of listening.

The only downside of all this efficiency came when Tycho's intended double encore got cut short by one track because of Terminal 5's strictly imposed curfew. However, Tycho's choice to end their individual set, the whole show and the whole U.S. tour with “Awake's” strong title track was a smart decision musically and psychologically, as was evident by the fact that there were some heard loudly belting out the track's nine note synth motif on the way out of the venue after the show ended.

This was a concert (and these are artists) that would be good for:
  • First time (and or) solo show goers
  • For people whose intention is to partake from the in-venue bar while listening (No fear of spilt alcohol!)
  • For those whom being physically well balanced in intensely crowded venues has never been a strong point.
The overall immersion of the audience into melodies that undulated like waves, the presentation of smoothly blended, complementary colors (Who would expect less from a designer turned musician?) and the physical manifestation of the sound that allowed the music to further permeate and be stamped upon my memory — both mental and muscle — was enough to leave me at the end of the night, with all my music journalism lingo and industry knowledge, simply thinking, 

"When it's good, it's good and this was just all around damn good."

You can learn more about Ghostly International and all the artists on their label at their official website, find them on Twitter @Ghostly or visit them on Facebook.

If you want to get a more actualized idea of the great musical cohesion I've described here, just give a listen to these tracks back to back!

29 September 2014

An in-depth Q&A: Way more than three reasons to love 3D guitars from Customuse

"If you imagine it [for a guitar], we can make it!"
Customuse Founder, Mahdi Hosseini

The idea that the world thrives on personalization and customization for just about everything one can purchase in society is certainly one based in truth. There even seems to be a reality television show to showcase people finding or building exactly the things they desire, whether that be homes, cars, boats, clothes, food or otherwise.

Art (and subsequently creativity) being a medium steeped in the very concept of uniqueness, it is not entirely surprising, between the rise of more personal 3D printing and the influx of start ups coming to successful fruition nowadays, that a company focused on the meticulous production of tailor-made, affordable guitars would eventually step onto the scene. Customuse, a London based, fledgling company looking to bring high level craftsmanship to more than A-list stars, has burst out of the gate with 3D printed guitars that have effortlessly grabbed the public's attention; thanks to vibrant color, atypical design and of course, a strong instrument sound.

Founded by E-commerce, IT and software expert, Mahdi Hosseini, Customuse is all about the evolution of the guitar alongside 3D printing technology and this collaborative team of business professionals, musicians, scientists and sound engineers has taken one of the world's most commonplace and popular instruments to a more complex plane — both in terms of aesthetics and its undeniably high ceiling of functionality. (Have you heard, the BBC reported this month, that electric guitar now overtakes the violin with the interest of music students!)

Hosseini, and Customuse's resident guitarist, Ben Tannahill, who both recently shared the work of Customuse at Music Tech Fest in London, spoke with me and pulled back the curtain on what makes Customuse so appealing. We talked everything from the company's approach to the product's market value and the guitar's performance capability, as well as what makes the team tick and where Customuse hopes to take its vision as the company grows and 3D printing technology gains a wider foothold in public use.

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Kira: You guys clearly have a powerful product and were able to bring your company to light with strong offerings fairly quickly. Nonetheless, 3D guitars are not brand new as of 2014, so what went through your minds as far as making Customuse's position in the market vastly different and more appealing that pre-existing competition?

Mahdi Hosseini: The reason I believe our company will have a successful business, in terms of trying to compete with the other companies, and basically open up our position in the marketplace, is that what was available up to the point was, first of all, too expensive, and also, there was no customization. [Guitars] were 3D printed but they weren't customizable. I kind of thought [other companies] were missing the point of 3D printing. You see, what really differentiates normal guitars from 3D printed guitars...is that traditional manufacturing is cheap to create a lot of guitars that are exact copycats of each other. But with 3D printing, it is not that cheap to print one guitar. If you print 10,000 of it, each of them is not going to be as cheap as the normal manufacturing. But if you print two different guitars, it is much cheaper than traditionally creating two different guitars. So actually, 3D printing is only very competitive on the basis on customization. We decided to get into this space and add the customizability – it's kind of our mission statement.

Kira: On the topic of all this customizing, How does the design process start?

Hosseini: At the moment our models are limited because we've just started out doing what we do but, the goal is that when we fully launch, there will be two different options. So if for example, you'd like the start with a template and be able to customize it to some level and basically just print it out, that would be our standard range, which is where most people probably fall in because most people like to have somewhere to start from, as opposed to absolutely starting from zero; especially if they're not experienced guitar players or, they might not exactly know what they want. We're trying to build this platform where, let's say, you decide, “I want this [guitar] body,” and then you would pick what design you would want in it. So you could decide you want a certain overall shape but with a design from another shape. 
We'll have a selection of 10 different designs at least, trying to appeal to different subcultures. For example, our skull design kind of fits into the rock and roll [and] metal subculture, we have one that's more abstract, we're making one that's called, “Steamuse.” It's sort of steam punky; it's has moving gears and everything and we've got a country [themed] one...so you can pick the overall design and then change the colors of different parts or you can add or remove small things to the model without knowing how to do anything in design.

[Conversely,] if you were a premium customer where you say, “No, I want a guitar that looks like a box of cereal and has my picture on it,” what we would do is if you're in the UK you can come into our office in London or you could do a Skype interview where you would sit down with one of our award winning designers and then you would just tell them what you want and they would come up with sketches that are closest to [what you imagined]. But we have both, so depending on how much you want to customize, we can go all the way. ...We're currently working with this agency who created [the] platform for this website and the agency is going to build a very similar platform for us, so through that you can see what [we're envisioning] with our customization platform.
Customuse Founder, Mahdi Hosseini, displaying the "NecroMuse" body design for electric guitar

Kira: I know you have sound engineers and luthiers that are part of the Customuse team, so could you elaborate on how they fit into the process and what is done to ensure Customuse's finished guitars come away with a professional and dependable sound appropriately matching that of a traditionally built guitar of equal value (approximately £1500 / $2440 and up)?

Hosseini: Sound is a very subjective thing to start with. It's not like I could rate it, scale it 1-10 and have it be universally true from everybody's perspective...but the way we try to get the really top quality is that we have, on our advisory board, a mechanical engineer, who was the first mechanical engineer in the UK to design a 3D printed guitar. Also we have our sound engineer, Jason [Sanderson], he worked with Ginger Wildheart and Courtney Love... 
...So the way we tested [the guitar] is that we took it to his studio, he's got this church in Northern England that he turned into a studio...[at the time he] was recording a new record there and basically [the band] were using a normal guitar and they then also re-recorded the same chorus with one of our guitars [of the same model], the “Sunrise” [design], and they liked ours more, so they just mixed that [take] into the track. ...So it's all very subjective but in terms of musicians being happy with the quality, we have that and we [also] we try to compare it to other instruments, try to get the same sustain, the same resonance for the same notes and match it up. 
We also [work with] Professor Neil Hopkinson...he's affiliated with the University of Sheffield and he's actually one of the inventors of the latest 3D printing technology, which is not even commercial yet. What [Hopkinson] has done, is created technology that [he explains,] "has the potential to make parts at a rate 10-100x faster than comparable laser technology today" and instead of burning the printing material with a little tiny laser, he's created technology so it melts [material] one whole layer at a time...it's a lot faster. Imagine you're trying to fill in an area with a small pen and then filling in the same area with a very big pen. There's a lot of work that goes into making sure they sound like a real guitar, not just look good.

Kira: On the flipside, what were some of the obstacles or limitations with requested designs, you ran into with the 3D printing?

Hosseini: When we did the very first guitars, we were really experimenting and when you do a 3D model there is a lot of simulations you could do in terms of [asking], “Is this going to be strong enough?”, “Are there any weaknesses or anything like that?” And there's only so much you can do before you print it out and when we first printed it out, we didn't know what the exact thickness was that we had to have...Basically what happened is that some parts of those guitars where slightly bendy if you pressured them hard enough because it was very think in parts. But then we changed our 3D model to be more robust and kind of compensate for that so that it doesn't run into that issue unless you smash it into the ground.

Kira: Can you speak to what exactly makes the sound hit the quality that it does?

Ben Tannahill: The sound is incredibly solid. The reason for this is, first, you have a central block of wood which is connected solidly to the neck. Really, really awesome sustain, and a really thick sound. Also, and I think Mahdi pointed this out, if you think about electric violins, the body isn't that important. An acoustic guitar would be very, very different...you'd have to worry about the body a hell of a lot more. Whereas, with an electric guitar, there are loads of crazy guitars from the 80s, which have really weird bodies and no one accused them of [having bad sound.] Like, Michael Angelo Batio, he has this series called “Speed Kills,” where he's got some ridiculous silver, rocket guitar, and Flying-V guitars, they have very little body on them but they're still a favorite of rock stars. So you don't need a really massive, solid body. Otherwise the best guitars would be the ones with the thickest, fattest bodies. And you don't see Slash going around with a giant chunk of wood after all.

It's sort of a lot about the quality of the neck and the quality of the construction and the pickups and the bridge and the strings and how well you play it. All this comes together to make the difference, rather than the fatter the body and “It's not made of wood.” 
Hosseini: [Another] thing that's different about our guitars is that you know a normal, solid body guitar, say an SGR Fender, it's never built out of a solid piece of wood. It's always built out of two or three or multiple, depending on which range you buy. As a result of that...where the pins and all the components for your bridge go is not necessarily in the same piece of wood. It's all stuck together with glue and everything but because our wooden block is just slightly thinner, it's possible that we make it our of a single block of wood. So then it's more consistent.

Kira: Customization makes pinning down a “popular setup” difficult but, for the resident guitarist of Customuse, Ben, what's you're preferred setup of components as far as pickups and the like are concerned?

Tannahill: I'm a bit of a shredder myself so what I would personally go for is Humbucker EMGs, 8185's, they're like the active, active EMGs. They've got some serious distortion...[From the Sunburst guitar here], this is a really nice neck but I reckon if you have a wizard two neck like Ibanez have or something similar...just one of these really, really thin necks. Like the thinner [it is], the faster you can play. And like, a floating bridge so you've got a whammy bar. These are all things that could hopefully occur in the future. So if you've got a 7-string, a floating bridge, some EMGs, a really thin neck, with some really really whacky headstock, like, you'd have a seriously cool guitar, in my opinion.

Kira: So tell me some of your plans for the coming months.

Hosseini: [Aside from what we've discussed], we're looking forward to doing a crowd funding campaign soon...about three months from now, just before Christmas. It would fund our operation to basically go full scale, which means we'd be able to build that customization platform, add more models to it and basically scale up our operations to where [something like Ben's dream guitar] this would be a normal request because we would have many, many different combinations that somehow we could fit [that] into it.

Kira: Just for fun, if you could have any musician pick up and play a Customuse guitar on a stage at a show, who would you want?

Hosseini: Absolutely Slash!

Kira: If someone in the US wants to order a Customuse guitar, how would they go about obtaining one?

Hosseini: The way it works right now, we don't do direct payments so you have to get a quote from us and say you're based in the US, we'll just give you a quote for dollars. The other thing for people in the US is that you don't pay VAT, which is cool. I mean, it depends on which state you're in, you're probably going to have to pay some sort of import tax but it's [most likely] less than 20%. We do ship internationally so that's not a problem.

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You can learn more about Customuse by visiting their official website, as well as find them on Facebook and Twitter @Customuse.

The Sunburst guitar shown in the video below, is designed by Sheffield based mechanical engineer, Chris Reeve.

For those who were not at or watching the stream of Music Tech Fest in London, here is an up close and personal showing of just what Ben and Customuse's Sunburst guitar can do, together with the beatboxing skills of Shlomo!


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