I have been on a path of discovery. Since I have started blogging I have had to do a lot of inner searching. I understand that I need to be who I am and not try to fake my way through this process. Friends who read my blog have told me that that they can actually hear my voice when they read it.
That is good news. I really desire that I focus on others and get their stories out. The way I see it, we are all in this together, and if we can have our paths converge on different parts of our journeys, more power to all of us.
I’ll scratch your back and you can scratch mine, so to speak.
It seems almost all my projects require collaboration with others. If I had a budget and I could afford to hire musicians out, I would. But funds are limited, knowledge is limited and I can use all the help I can get. I’m not a one person show, nor do I want to be.
I thrive on social interaction. What better way to be sociable than to work and share my passion for music and creativity.
In the midst of trying to achieving these things, what is really needed is a fundamental change in my attitude toward life. I have to learn who I am and that it does not really matter what my expectations may be, but rather what life expects from me. In that, I desire to help as many others as I am able.
I choose to hang with folks who are smarter, more talented and more driven than myself.
Daily, I take time to read and garner other peoples ideas, checking to see if their concepts and practices are adaptable to my circumstance. I think I have applied maybe 1 out of 1000 suggestions. You might think it takes a lot of time to do this. I ain’t going to lie, it does. This habit is actually an extension of personal rehearsal and reading habits. I understand the results of constantly applying myself, seeing no immediate return on my efforts. It’s a cumulative effect; more fuel creates a bigger flame.
As you can imagine, 1 out of 1000 ideas acted upon isn’t a huge return. Face it, most concepts I look at aren’t that great and most are just flat out stupid. That’s okay, I can live with it.
The biggest result is increase of process. My process is far greater now than when I first started churning out ideas. I spent the first months of idea gathering just thinking of anything and writing it down. Any concept is worth writing down, no matter how dumb or inaccessible.
Still, the biggest purveyor of new ideas acted upon is personal rehearsal. Music is a limitless world of possibilities. Virtuosity is achievable in so many different genres, it is truly mind blowing. I believe that music has direct connection to elements of the universe; I see and understand this more and more.
Back to my first statement: I can’t over emphasize how important friends are for inspirational growth. Because they are who they are, just being around them is a form of collaboration. For me, innocuous collusion is cool. It is truly awesome to sit in front of the console and flat screen, together, piecing out arrangements, parts and voicings.
My absolute, top priority is to become a better player. Honestly, I believe I require practice four hours per day to actually achieve needed results. I know this is true; when I can consistently commit time day in, day out, week in, week out, I rise above plateaus and keep pressing on.
I have spent years reading self help books, sometimes so formulaic I feel like I’m just absorbing drivel. The usual recipe: write down my goals, visualize, journal, associate with people smarter than me, identify what I want, consistency, persistency, embrace passion. Yep all that.
The biggest take away from all of it? There is no guarantee of outcome. Life is fragile and so much of our journey depends upon good relationships, health, both physical and mental, willingness to work with others and to be able to give of ourselves.
Having done this, maybe I haven’t done enough. What I have learned is that my success is the process; I have not become who I am today without it. Any of my abilities has been developed through patience and humble recognition that there is always more to be done. I can see where I want to go, what I want to do, be it tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Since I can’t control the outcome, all I can do is control the process.
I have come to a place of acceptance and gratitude. I know, no matter what, I would be driven to improve musically. I have walked away from pursuing music for extended periods of years and perspective has shown me I was immensely unsettled, discontent, facing turmoil, confused and seeking after things which I was not made for.
We all have been there. Forgetting our vocal line, missing the cue, blowing the arrangement; one domino falls over and the entire band goes with it. As uncomfortable as it can be, revealing our disappointment on stage, telling the audience how badly its been blown with body language and comments to one another, should never occur.
I, for one, take mistakes very personally. I believe I can perform at a higher standard, never comparing myself to others, but comparing myself to myself. My personal standards are much too high and that’s not right to lay on someone else.
They, who ever they are, say that public speaking is considered one the most fearful experiences a person can have. How about botching parts on stage and throwing everyone off? Particularly annoying is working with sequences and not playing the proper arrangement: oops, that was the chorus but here we all are at a verse.
How do you fake your way out of that? Well, you just do. Sometimes you stop; it can’t be taken back.
How about most of the band being half in the bag by first down beat? Don’t worry, by the third set they will all be fully in; that’s when the fun starts.
One of the things I love about all of this is how thick my skin has become; it is becoming ever more difficult to shame myself. I used to become mortified at mistakes but now I recognize blunders as Standard Operating Procedure. I attribute my complacency to error as part of a humans ability to adapt. My personal evolution has gone from being disconcerted by failure to owning the mistake. Let’s just see if I can consciously repeat the flub next measure. Call it technique.
My brain constantly fires on all cylinders; I can’t keep up. The distractions are endless.
Like walking through the front door and leaving a trail of keys, wallet, phone and whatever else my hands happened to be clutching. It’s like a slug trail, except it’s not slime, but an ephemeral path I will retrace sometime within an hour, trying to remember where I left stuff.
A big joke around my house: I’m watching television, maybe I was drinking, maybe, looking for chow de dow in the fridge, and suddenly I can’t find the remote. Scouring high and low, frustrated on the misplacement of the channel changer, looking for a new beer…AHA! I find the controller in the Frigidaire next to the cheese. Makes sense.
I’m not ADA, but I’m always somewhere else, or so it seems. Ever since I was a small child, I have had this endless stream of music running through my brain. My coworkers know that I always have a song to sing to them. One of my friends has told me that everyone I know gets a theme song. It’s not everyone, only the people I like. Sorry everyone else. No theme song, uhh, not sure how to say this…
How about mixing a track? When I’m getting close to the end of a mix, I throw a track into my near fields and turn up the volume as loud as possible. I wander around home pretending I’m, like, doing house work, or something domestic. What I’m actually doing is listening with my subconscious, letting my brain hear things that previous concentration has missed. And there is a lot I miss because I’m constantly distracted.
Setting down to woodshed; concentration is a key element. I get about twenty minutes in to an exercise and then I say to myself, “Bry, what if you simplify this in such a way?”
Oops, turns out I’m borderline incompetent in the simplification of said exercise. Great…turn the metronome BPMs way down and learn how to play it slow. Plug away for twenty minutes and realize there is another way to fail another variation of the exercise.
Maybe I got something better to do, like, something not as challenging, or cleaning the bathroom, or cooking dinner, or finding my keys.
I’m not sure what I did. Rumor has it, as an infant, I was dropped on my head. I don’t know, I can’t remember. Perhaps my amygdala smashed in to my hippocampus, resulting in memory loss. Could have been the drugs or maybe my continuing love of alcohol. Or that last bicycle accident; was that a traffic divider, or a guard rail?
How many times must I make the same mistakes before I figure it out? There must be something amiss in my grey matter’s neural pathways. How many times am I going to blame my circumstance before figuring out I am my circumstance?
One of my nicknames is Chuckles; I snigger a lot. There’s too much that could make me cry, so I choose to counter with a grin and a snort, embracing absurdity. Yeah, man, life is too short and difficult.
Another nickname is Pelon. My Latin friends gave me that name but usually there is a preface that I won’t mention. It’s quite amusing in Spanish but the English equivalent translates in very harsh terms. The first time I heard it I almost cried I thought it was so funny.
My journey along this path has been littered with countless failures and disappointments; I could dwell on those ad nauseam but what’s the point. I choose to find humor in life’s challenges because of the monumental ironies which preclude its course.
Those I choose as my friends need to have thick skins, big smiles and the ability to shrug off the inevitable shortcomings of this existence.
We have all had moments of epiphany: a moment when a veil uncovers our eyes, blindfolds are removed, an ‘Aha’ moment.
Mine came many years ago in a recording session. We had a 10 song project with plans to finish taping in three weeks. Everyone had full time jobs so we were only able to record in the evenings, three times a week.
I made it through four tunes. By the fifth, I was so over wrought, over thinking my playing, I could not continue. A ringer was hired to finish drum parts for the project.
That experience was the deciding move to home recording. I figured I better get used to that red light which represented active recording enabled.
I work with some folks who have the same challenge. Playing live is not a problem, but putting on a pair of headphones and really hearing every note they play raises blood pressure and handicaps performance. I relate, I get it. Even in today’s recording environment, we still undo our flies and let it hang out. A recording experience can leave a person feeling quite vulnerable, especially second guessing each note that we play.
I have full recording capabilities; my home recording studio is literally a home that is a recording studio. Full keyboard set up by the fire place; the entry way can be used as the vocal booth, with isolation. Upstairs, drums fully miced, a full array of tube and analog preamps, more inputs than I need. A hundred foot snake allows me to utilize each room of my house as a tracking room; complete with independent head phone mixes and talk back capability.
Now it’s a turn around from performance anxiety to idea anxiety. I invited some friends over the other day to lay down ideas at the studio. Call it cavalier confidence; “Hey, if we all get together and lay down some ideas we could get some keeper tracks.” Yeah, right. We breezed through my ideas, afterwards sitting down down to discuss chord structure and arrangements. Then we had dinner.
It’s great being a drummer; a person who hangs out with musicians.
I was attending a wedding in Wenachee, Washington and happened to drop off a business card at a local music store. My friend called me to do a series of gigs; that’s how we hooked up.
Darnell is an absolute joy. We are currently working on an album project. I have shot promotional video and occasionally gig with him. The folks that he closely works with have been a great pleasure to meet.
Mackncheeze: When you were living in Australia were you playing guitar?
Darnell: I wasn’t even thinking of it. I came back in about 1997. I was down there for five or six years and came back to the States.
In Australia I fit right in; Australia and I, we got along just great. When I came back I decided this is not going to be the rest of my life. I think we all have something within us that tells us there is a better way. Certain things happen to us which help get us on track and lead us on to a different road.
I needed to seek a better way of living. Some of that came from my grandparents. They said, “You need help, Darnell, you need to get yourself together.” I started changing my direction from what I was thinking and doing.
At that time I had moved to a small town. I thought that would be a great opportunity. I didn’t have any friends in that place; there was nobody around that I knew from my old influences. This was a suitable time for me to make a fresh start; I took it.
At first I didn’t start playing. I sat in that town for an entire year being what you would call a dry drunk. I was literally having a hard time thinking. I felt like I was mentally challenged; things were happening to me, I was in a fog.
Mackncheeze: You must have been a hardcore drunk.
Darnell: I had been starting to lose jobs. I would drink so much on the weekends that I couldn’t make it to work on Monday. I did not want that to be the rest of my life.
That’s when I started making a change and again started playing. I was sitting around one day and this guy asked me, “Hey Darnell, you used to play guitar, right?”
I replied, “Yeah, a long time ago.”
“You should start getting back into it.”
I said to myself, “You know what? I haven’t got anything else to do, I might as well.”
A friend of mine at the local music store gave me a great deal on a guitar and I took it home. My playing started progressing. About a year later I enrolled in college.
I wanted to do something with my life by helping people and giving back. I was sitting in a class one day and this younger guy sitting next to me, we got to talking. He asked if I knew anybody that played guitar because he wanted to take lessons. I said, “Well, I play. I won’t charge you or anything, we’ll just kind of jam together.” He was happy with that. He had a wife and young kids so he came over to my place and we practiced.
One day he asked me if I was playing in a band? I said, “No, no.”
He said, “You’re pretty good. Do you sing?”
“No, I don’t sing.”
This went on for weeks and he kept saying, “Man, you should be playing in a band.” He asked me to sing. After he heard me he said, “You’re a little rough, but if you practice some you would be alright.” Believe it or not, that guy got me back into it and that was something I liked to do anyway.
Mackncheeze: When you took all that time off did you miss it?
Darnell: I didn’t even think about it because that was not my world; it wasn’t even on my radar.
Mackncheeze: Was that about 10 years?
Darnell: Yeah, I started playing guitar again about 2003. It came back to me pretty easily and I’m still learning even to this day. This is the year 2020 and Covid-19 has allowed me time to focus on my instrument. I’ve gotten better; I’ve invested my time into becoming a better player and learning new styles. I’m very grateful.
Mackncheeze: How did you get the airplay that you have gotten?
Darnell: I figured that I had some pretty great songs and I wanted people to hear them. I had heard about these streaming service radio stations and I wanted to see how people would respond to my music. When I had heard other stuff and compared my material, I realized I had a unique style. My sound is not average or run of the mill, by any means. It’s not an assembly line, cookie cutter sound which is the formula of most of today’s pop music; I feel it is unique and refreshing.
Mackncheeze: Here’s the big question, what do you want people to know?
Darnell: You know what, I want people to know hope and good people are still out there. The world is not as divided as some think; that would be an agenda of those trying to splinter us. A house divided cannot stand. There’s a lot more good going on than bad. These are things that I want people to know.
I’ve seen it personally, and, I would say, don’t let anybody pull you apart or push hate, division, anger or anguish into your heart. That’s them; let them go on their path and you go on a path that is right to you. We’re still united, we are still great; things come and things go, but love is forever. That’s what I want people to know.
I was attending a wedding in Wenachee, Washington and happened to drop off a business card at a local music store. My friend called me to do a series of gigs; that’s how we hooked up.
Darnell is an absolute joy. We are currently working on an album project. I have shot promotional video and occasionally gig with him. The folks that he closely works with have been a great pleasure to meet.
Mackncheeze: This interview is all about you. What is it you want to say? I’ll just prod you along and we’ll just kind of wander about.
Darnell: I remember Terence Trent D’Arby; that guy, when he first came out, he was the biggest thing since sliced bread. I bought a CD because he has an extraordinary voice. A guy with that much talent, you might think, would have been around for a long time; the next ‘Michael Jackson’ kind of thing. He had the look, he had dance moves and he could sing very well.
I remember the performance he did on Saturday Night Live. I thought he was going to be as popular as hell, and for a little while, he was. Right after that he put out a second CD.
After a while you didn’t hear anything from him; he never reached that big status. What I had heard in an interview, he had spoken badly about another artist and that was it. He was done; it’s a shame, too, because he had mountains of talent.
Mackncheeze: That’s like a personal approach of yours, right? Just don’t dwell on controversy and negativity.
Darnell: You don’t, you don’t want to do that. Artists, in my opinion, if they’re smart, are not going to be embroiled in controversy.
I have a lot of Navy buddies from the old days who want to be friends on Facebook. It’s fun to check out their lives and see what they’ve been doing for the last several decades. I’ve been following many of my friend’s Facebook feeds and it comes up on their sites how great somebody is. I’m saying to myself, “I don’t know, man, I don’t know. How did you get into this person? You actually believe what they represent?” They have strong beliefs about something and they ask me, “Darnell, what do you think?”
I’ll reply, “You know that I’m not into all that kind of stuff; in the end it doesn’t matter to me.” Whatever happens with whatever political party is in charge does not dictate what I do: how I’m going to run my life, how I’m going to accomplish my goals. This is not going to be in my way.
Mackncheeze: What is your inner source and what motivates you?
Darnell: You know what, everybody has their source; my source is within me. God is my source, God is my power, God is my breath. At night, that’s who I go to when I commune upon my bed. Things I’m thinking about, what I want to accomplish and manifest into my life; my source within.
A lot of people think that their source is outside of themselves; I believe the Kingdom of Heaven is within you. That’s where my source is and that’s what I believe. When I’m aware of it, I think from within and that’s where it’s coming from. I Didn’t learn that in a church. I already knew it and I felt it; it’s something that is, and was, a realization for me. A lot of people have that source as well.
I hear and understand a lot from people when they speak; a person needs to have confidence in themselves.
Mackncheeze: How do you build that?
Darnell: Building confidence is all intertwined; it is coming from within, and to me, it’s both an annoyance and an assurance. I’m into a positive mental state, positive thinking, positive thoughts. When you have confidence in yourself then you believe in yourself. If you can’t believe in yourself then you don’t have self assurance; if you don’t have that then you don’t know where your source is. It is all intertwined and all works together. That’s what I found out, that’s how it works for me, how it relates to music and all the things that I do in life.
Mackncheeze: In your journey, what have been some of your biggest struggles?
Darnell: You know what, I try not to dwell on that kind of stuff, but struggles do come to everybody. A lot of the struggles that I have encountered have come from the way I was thinking. A person can self-sabotage themselves because of the way they think. Some of my struggles were from negative thinking: Envy, jealousy, lack of growth and overcoming, those were some of the things that I struggled with. Believing I wasn’t good enough and thinking that I wasn’t complete enough, but now I know better.
I’m a human just like everybody else. Until I became aware of my thought process, I didn’t have a solution for why I was thinking the way I was. A time can come, once a person does become aware, that’s when they can really start doing something about it. I’m still a work in progress, but I’m not where I used to be.
Mackncheeze: What’s the most important question that drives you?
Darnell: Am I going to have what I want to have, am I going to be who I want to be and what is it I want to do. Those are three things that I think everybody asks. Those are questions a lot of people ask themselves: am I having what I want to have, am I doing what I want to do, am I being the person that I want to be. Those are the things I ask myself and the answer to those questions is, yes.
My personal manifesto is seeing myself doing what I want to do, seeing myself having what I want to have, and seeing myself being who and what I want to be.
You’ve got to have a vision. God says the people perish where there is no vision. If you don’t have a vision you’re not going anywhere.
Mackncheeze: How do you work your life experience into your songwriting?
Darnell: That is an excellent question. The songs that I have written and that I’m working on are all about real life experiences. Those verses, where I sing, “Where was my father?” That song was written about my mother being there and what she was doing. In my songs the people are real, the experiences are real; a lot of people relate to these kinds of things. A lot of the subject matter has come from within me, and it shows, and it’s out there now. I’m really proud of this material.
Mackncheeze: Your first instrument? What did you start playing?
Darnell: When I was in the fourth grade, we had an assembly at school and they called everybody into the gym. This day they had an orchestra that came through. When they started playing I was fascinated by the persons playing the cellos. and I said to myself, “Wow, look at that thing.” It was beautiful and it was shiny and I really loved the sound. I wanted to touch it and feel it and hold it. At the end of the concert they asked the kids to come up. It was a recruitment; we were all being recruited and we didn’t even know it. I went over and stood by the person playing the cello, that person invited me to sit down. I was shown fingering, how to pull the bow and what notes the strings were.
For the next five years I played cello in the school orchestra. I learned how to read music, dynamics, notation and how to count. I have forgotten most of that stuff but that’s where it all came from.
Then I discovered that playing cello wasn’t cool like playing guitar; I figured I could get more girls playing guitar.
Mackncheeze: Did it work?
Darnell: I didn’t date much in high school, but I wanted to be cool. I figured learning guitar I would have the girls; that didn’t happen.
Mackncheeze: That came later, right?
Darnell: I’m taking the fifth; I can neither confirm nor deny that those things happened.
Mackncheeze: When did you start playing guitar?
Darnell: I think it was the 10th grade. I remember a buddy of mine, he had just started playing, as well, and I would go over to his house. He was playing some of the cooler music that was going on during those days. He started to pick up a lot of those tunes; he lent me one of his guitars that he was not using. So I took it home and started banging around on it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I basically learned guitar by watching other people and hearing things back.
Then I got cassette tapes and a cassette player. I would listen to a song and then I would have to rewind it; a lot of starting and stopping. That’s how I learned chords. No one really taught me how to play guitar; I learned it on my own. These days there are guitar lessons on YouTube which makes things a lot easier.
Mackncheeze: Tell me about your first band…
Darnell: There were four of us, we were some high school guys who just got together. We played a couple places around town, nothing big, I don’t remember getting paid for anything. That was the beginning and I played for a couple years.
One time, we warmed up for a band called Rail. I think that was about 1981, somewhere around there. They were up and coming and had won some sort of a MTV award. They were in Moses Lake, Washington, and needed a warm-up band. That was at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake.
After that I didn’t play for a long time; I joined the Navy. Right after boot camp I was stationed on the USS Camden. One day, I was walking around the ship and heard bass and drums playing. I asked myself, “Wow, where is that music coming from.” I lifted up a hatch and there were two guys down in the hull.
Mackncheeze: They were able to bring their bass and drums on board?
Darnell: They were set up in a tiny little compartment down in the hull.
Mackncheeze: I can’t believe they allowed that.
Darnell: Yeah, they did. They allowed a lot of stuff on that ship, you’d be surprised at what the crew would get away with. We were fortunate, though, we were on a pretty good sized vessel. The Camden was a supply carrier so there was a lot of room.
So I found these two guys playing and I went down and listened to them. I didn’t say anything while I was being entertained and I thought they were pretty good. I am friends with them even to this day. When they were done playing they asked me, “Hey, you know anybody who plays guitar?” I replied, “I play guitar,” though I didn’t have one.
I was very good friends with another guy, his name was Bart, he and I were very close. He just recently passed away and that was really hard. He ended up buying a guitar which he was trying to learn how to play; I told him I would give him lessons. Come to find out, Bart could sing, so we formed a band; we were the ship’s band. We performed a couple times on the fantail. After that I did not pick up the guitar for many years.
Mackncheeze: After the Navy, what got you back into playing guitar?
Darnell: After a long time of chasing my tail, I had developed a problem. One of the things me and my Navy buddies liked to do was drink. I was in party mode and I continued to be in party mode even after I got out. For a long time, like I said, I chased my tail; I was drinking a lot.
As much as possible, I try super hard to shield myself from negativity. Well meaning friends and relatives, seeking sympathy or empathy for their less than positive situations, inadvertently drop their experiences into my refuse pile.
Which brings me to Negativity Bias: negative situations have greater impact on one’s state of mind than a positive situation of similar intensity. Perhaps this explains some of this Covid mass hysteria thing. Hey folks, last I looked there were flowers and grass growing, birds singing, a beautiful sunrise and sunset ( somewhere, anyways ).
Since I have a brain, I prefer to wile away the hours, sniffing at the flowers.
If I am an average of the five people I most closely associate with, then those folks are the average of the five people they most closely associate with, meaning those folks are the average of those five people: exponential ad nauseam. Results: mediocrity, negativity, fear, unmotivation paired with demotivation, lack of expectations; these can become symptomatic to my head space.
Welcome to my cocoon. I am a the expectant caterpillar, metamorphosing into a beautiful butterfly ( I have an aptitude for triteness ). It can only done in a protective sheathe.
Does any one remember rotary phones? My biggest challenge with those phones was lack of privacy. There was no solitude when conversing; who ever was in the kitchen or living room became an audience to conversations with girl friends. I hated that.
I remember my first debit card. It felt like The Beast was taking over civilization, creating minions of mindless citizens who no longer had to count out cash. Now there is currency based on algorithms; who knew.
I finally started talking to Siri. My Iphone face plate needs replacing and I discovered I could open apps by commanding Siri. She is the only person I’m comfortable with not thanking, but still catch myself.
The ultimate good old days: using analog and digital drums for decades before going back to acoustic.
If I’m using a loop or sample, I make my own. It’s first generation and hasn’t had its 2nd and 3rd harmonics erased and then manipulated back. The weird thing – my samples actually punch through the mix with out having to depend on much filtering.
Excuses are like armpits: everyone has two and they both stink. Doesn’t matter the subject or the situation.
Social media, brother, what a rabbit hole. How many times a day do I check my phone? Leave it up to a former smoker to fidget, having an intense need to have something at my finger tips; a great way to waste time.
Delloitte, a multinational professional services network, conducted a study on smart phone usage. They found out of 270 million smart phone users, each looks at their phone 52 times a day. That is a total of over 14 billion times each day. What a waste of time. How did we survive pre-cell phone?
How about getting lost on the internet? When I first discovered online I would be just ‘Gone’ for hours; lost in front of the screen.
The simple reason I’m not getting anything done – I’m not getting anything done. I allow constant distractions. There isn’t actionable motion; progress is only accomplished one step at a time. Spending my life away on a smart phone isn’t helping.
I started writing a blues tune called Flat Screen Zombies but never finished it. My Facebook feed blew up and, well, you know.
Yep, I’ve figured it out; the ultimate conspiracy theory resolved. I’m staking my reputation on this and those who know me understand the bar isn’t really set that high.
The reason why there is so much confusion and uncertainty in this time Covid 19 is because the aliens have invaded us. Some people will expect me to prove that the aliens are actually here. My response is –
Prove to me they are not!
It’s the only logical conclusion.
I’ve been around for a while and have seen some things. I remember when I was little, year after year my Mom would put water in Ball Mason canning jars. I would ask, “Mommy, why are you canning water?” And Mom, in her motherly wisdom would tell me, “Well, Honey, in case the Russians drop the atomic bomb on us we need to have enough water.” Oh, that makes sense. Being five years old, and having watched a war movie or two with Dad, I understood the implications of being blown up. Back then it was the Russians, they were the problem, because I couldn’t prove that the Russians were not going to blow us up.
There is confusion at all levels of society, especially in national, state and local government. As humans, we don’t operate well in shades of grey and unknowing. Well, there is no need to be uncertain.
It has to be the aliens. I hope Will Smith can save us again.
There you go, one less thing to worry about. You’re welcome!
Adam: My first experience with digital audio was Voyetra. It was basically a MIDI orchestral arranger. Before Voyetra I was using Cakewalk for its MIDI capabilities. Do you remember how you discovered MIDI?
Adam: A buddy of mine had a Yamaha drum machine. I had a Casio CZ-101; I still have one.
Mackncheeze: We did an album with a CZ-101.
Adam: The sounds that you can get out of that thing, it’s the only place where you can get those sounds. We did so much with that thing, so much.
How I figured out MIDI was that the drum machine had MIDI in and out and I had a set of MIDI cables. The very first thing I did was use the drum machine controlling the keyboard. From there it was like, “What else can I do?”
From that point on digital audio workstations would combine both the digital element and the MIDI element.
I was already at the point where I was editing MIDI with Cakewalk, that was before audio was integrated. I was using every component of MIDI, I learned everything that it could do. If the performance wasn’t doing what I wanted I would look at another control to see how I could manipulate the response; that would get me closer to what I was hearing in my head, basically just playing around with numbers. You have the value 0 to 127 in about a thousand different places. What am I going to do, what are the combinations of 0 to 127 going to be? At the time the possibilities were endless.
Me: Do you manipulate audio transfer with MIDI?
Adam: Sometimes. One of my songs I took the vocals, I turned it into a MIDI file. I’ve got that file playing strings in unison with the vocals; and it’s dead on.
Now I consider using MIDI like ketchup; it’s an accoutrement. I don’t like ketchup; I don’t put ketchup on anything but meatloaf. Sometimes I need to make a choice of which is the more direct route to accomplishing my goal. Sometimes using MIDI is faster, sometimes manipulating the audio is faster. Mostly what I’m doing with MIDI these days is globally tweaking the velocities. I don’t do the surgical shit I used to.
I’m glad I know the surgical process because every now and then I’ve got to go in and just change one note.
Mackncheeze: I’ve never had the patience to go to that level. What made you make the transition to multi-track recording?
Adam: It just kind of happened; probably very slowly. It was one of those things where I just looked back and said, “Ten years ago I was doing that and now I’m doing this.” It wasn’t a conscious process; my abilities would outgrow the equipment that I was using. I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got to get more money to get more equipment.”
Mackncheeze: Awe, so you’re a gear slut. Tell me about your guitar processor.
Adam: It’s a DigiTech GSP 2101 which I bought in 1992. It was really ahead of its time.
This thing is not a modeling preamp, it’s a tube preamp. Every effect that is available is in there; wah to resonance to everything in between. If I could get it done with a tube amp I would use that. The DigiTech has tube distortion so if I need that crunch it’s there, there is no solid state processing. It sounds like an amp.
Me: What are your philosophies on recording?
Adam: You have to capture the mood as early as possible; without losing the mood. Get the best sound that you possibly can; get the idea down while the mood is there. The first impression is always the most important. Whatever made you want to record that idea in the first place, you’ve got to capture that, if you can capture that on tape you can recreate it.
You can learn that mood. If you can make it feel the same way, you’ve nailed it. I don’t know if I can actually do that but at least I can capture the mood, the groove and tone that inspired me in the first place. Then I get the euphoria when I do something great, now I’ve got something to build on.
Mackncheeze: What is your songwriting process?
Adam: Pretty much what I just explained; it’s never planned. Usually I’ll be getting ready to practice, I’ll turn on the amp, I’ll put on a drum loop, drag the loop out for about a hundred measures, and I just start jamming. As I’m playing along something inspires me, I will stop and press record. Most of the songs that I write, if I write a song and finish it, it’s usually right then and there. From beginning to end I have about 90% of it, the whole concept is there. Every single song is different.
I have no habits when it comes to songwriting. I could sit and just jam on rhythms for hours; work with a drum loop and just go. Why? Because it feels good and that’s it.
Mackncheeze: What are your current projects?
Adam: I’m working with John Wright, a great friend and great guy. We first met when he came over to just to do a quick 3 to 4 singer-songwriter type demo. That turned into the Stone Lantern CD. Nothing that I have written is on that CD. We took the project up to Paradise Sound in Index and had Paul Higgins lay down drums. I did all the mixing and mastering here.
Videos that Joe O’Hearn and I are working on for the Wicked Snake Bite project.
I’m working with Amy Turner.
Working with other musicians, it needs to be instinctive. Practice is everything; if you don’t practice you don’t see the results.
Mackncheeze: Some challenges you face?
These days everything takes time. The other day I was getting mad because I was thinking, “I have to work today but I have no errands to do.” I was thinking I was going to get 3 to 4 hours of practice in. It was 8:30 before I could sit down to do anything; I barely had enough time to warm up. I was too tired and not in the mood anymore. No one’s fault, it’s just the way life is.
Mackncheeze: Where do you see yourself headed? What are your motivations?
Adam: My motivation is the same that it has always been; it is to make me happy first. I don’t think of money. The ultimate goal is to just have some fun and do it. If I’m in a situation where it’s not fun anymore, if it’s getting too political, or people in the band or arguing the difference between an F or an F#, as far as I’m concerned, pick one or the other, we’re not cutting a Yes album. I refuse to argue about music; it’s not worth it, nor am I interested. I can’t motivate myself for something I’m not interested in.
If there’s decent money on the table then I might be interested other than just doing it for fun. Money can be as much a motivator as a cool voicing you’ve never played before. “Triads, you want to pay me for triads? What kind of triads do you want?”
Mackncheeze: So you’re running Sound Forge and Cakewalk? Is that a new version of Cakewalk?
Adam: It’s the new version; it’s the one that Bandlab took over. Bandlab bought Cakewalk from Gibson after Gibson pretty much abandoned it; they just stop developing it. I had paid a lifetime licensing fee for it and then Gibson dumped it.
Mackncheeze: What is it you want to say?
Adam: Music is just for everyone to enjoy, it’s not a competition, it’s not a statement, it’s not a protest. I hate protest music, some great stuff has come from it but I’m not interested in messages. I’m not against messages, obviously that would be very stupid. I just don’t need a message in the music. I grew up on Van Halen, Rush, AC DC, Judas Priest; I like instrumentals, I like jazz , there’s a lot of country I enjoy, I love the early days of rap. I can listen to some old Judas Priest and say to myself, “That was pretty Neanderthal wasn’t it?” Did they do a good job of it? Damn right they did; not a lot of deep messages there.
Good lyrics? I don’t really hear the words as much as I do the syllables; it’s like I’m color-blind in that way. I hear the syllable with the notes and if they flow that’s great. I could listen to a song my whole life and not know the words.
I don’t care what the words are, I just want the music to flow. Someone could ask me what the words to a specific Zeppelin tune are and I’d have to say, I don’t know. If someone starts singing it and I’ll say, “Oh yeah, I know that song.” If they speak the words I’ll have no idea what the song is. Music is about feeling good, I don’t care about the message.
As far as my own playing? I’m probably like every other musician, I am my own worst critic. I very rarely like my playing or what I do. If I capture the moment, I like what I did right there, something I can listen back to a lot.
Adam: I love music. I do what I say I’m going to do and that nails it. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it; I’m not going to tell you otherwise or act otherwise.
Mackncheeze: What got you started in all this?
Adam: Weed and Kiss. Seriously.
A friend of mine had an old Sears guitar and a Vox AC 30 amp. We didn’t know what we had. Before we knew how to make it work we would just turn up the amp feedback on the reverb and throw out obscenities. We didn’t sound any better than my six-year-old nephew who’s right now trying to learn guitar. We were having a ball; we destroyed the amp and the guitar.
We were sitting in my friend’s bedroom, listening to Kiss and I had the guitar in my hand. I played seven notes, and you know that feeling you get when the music you’re performing is just perfect, you get that high, it was like, “Hey, these things actually work.” From then on it was like, “Hey, that’s it!” The magic was there.
It’s like being addicted to a drug. Sometimes it happens in the studio, sometimes it happens on stage, sometimes it happens just thinking of an idea. I’ll be in bed thinking about something and telling myself I’ve got to record this thing.
For the rest of my life I’ve always been searching for that feeling. Ultimately, when you are playing music, you’re trying to please yourself. You hope everybody else likes it but if you please yourself then there is success. That’s what it’s all about for me. It’s such a rare occurrence and I’m trying to get back to that point again. I know it’s only going to last a minute or so, and then I spend the next three months trying to make it happen.
The best thing that ever happened was Facebook because the people that really mattered in my life, we are now all back together again. Most of us stayed involved with music one way or another. We loved every minute of it and still do. We share our projects with one another with a little more expertise than we had when we were younger.
Mackncheeze: So your high school band experience…
Adam: We had different bands; we weren’t actually doing the high school dance scene or anything. There was a group of us and we knew we were good; we were having fun playing and we knew we could play.
Mackncheeze: So tell me about your dad…
Adam: My dad is amazing. Growing up we used to hear him every single day just playing scales on piano; all scales and exercises everyday, four hours at a time. We grew up listening to virtuoso practice everyday. It was the way it was and that’s how my father lived.
We would go into Manhattan regularly and my dad would be working on some Off Broadway show. There were always good musicians and good music around the house: classical, jazz, Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach. He would be listening to this stuff and then just rip it at practice.
I had to know where I stood on the guitar before I realized how astronomically good my father was. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Give him any tune and he could play it stylistically perfect in any interpretation: Fugue, jazz, classical, whatever he felt like doing. That’s how he played all the time, it was amazing.
Mackncheeze: Did your dad teach you? Did you go to school?
Mackncheeze: Where did you learn all your theory? You know theory backwards and forwards.
Adam: We were sick of Reno and my friend Bob Knight, who is an amazing bass player, we both moved to Washington. My dad was already here and said there was a pretty good music scene going on.
After we moved to Washington from Nevada, I went to Bellevue Community College for a year. I had been playing guitar for four years and playing in bands for regularly three.
Mackncheeze: What casino was your dad working at in Lake Tahoe?
Adam: His regular gig was playing dinner piano at the top of Harrah’s, but he would also get side gigs at other casinos. Before that he was the piano player and arranger for my grandfather’s band, The Al Tronti Orchestra, at the Sahara Tahoe. My dad played with Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Sonny and Cher, The Jackson 5, Frank Gorshin, The Carpenters, Phyllis Diller, with whoever. Think of the major acts of that era and he played with them.
After that my dad had to hustle. He came to Seattle in about 1982 or 1983 and did a 20-year stint at the SeaTac Holiday Inn playing the main dining room.
I came up in late ’84. When I had first moved to Seattle I took Bob with me to an audition for this band called The Earl White Review. Bob was getting ready to audition for the band and I was talking to Earl and he found out I was a guitar player. He asked me to bring my guitar and amp to his hotel the next night and I sat down and played with some tapes.
I was playing along with a bunch of tunes he had and he asked me if I wanted to play in the band. I said, “Oh yeah, this will be kind of interesting.” I’d only been playing for four years; I wasn’t a seasoned pro by any means. I had been playing mostly 80’s pop metal, and now all of the sudden I’m playing covers like Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, a huge amount of Motown, some goofy hits from the 40s to the mid-80s.
That was a Tuesday that I took Bob to the audition, it was a Wednesday that I sat in the hotel room and played to the cassette. Thursday I showed up for rehearsal and by Friday the guitar player and the keyboard player were gone.
I didn’t know any songs on the set list and we opened on Friday at the Cotton Club on Martin Luther King way. We were booked for a week. My plan was to follow along discreetly with the set and try to stay out of everybody’s way until I learned the music. But now I was told I had to carry the whole thing and I didn’t know any of the tunes. That night we played a lot of Blues.
I worked with Earl for about a year and then that ended because of extenuating circumstances. After my tenure with Earl I went to Bellevue Community College.
That’s where I learned theory. Because I was living with my dad at the time, if I had questions about something that didn’t sound right, he would direct me into the way I needed to go. My dad was an arranger and he was used to writing out music for an entire orchestra. He would do all the copying for each part for each instrument; every bit of it was second nature.
Mackncheeze: How did you get involved with recording?
Adam: Before I even knew how to play I would plug my guitar into my dad’s stereo quarter inch input. I didn’t have an amp at the time. It sounded like garbage. I recorded onto a little Radio Shack cassette thing. I was farting around with the cassette player, I would play something through my dad’s stereo and record it and then I would jam along with the playback. I decided it would be cool if I could record me trying to play along with those cassette recordings; I bought another cassette player.
I had this cheap little mic, I had my little practice amp, I would play back the cassette recording and jam to it and record it onto the other cassette player via the little mic.
I realized the cassette player had outputs, so I was able to accomplish a multi-track recording by recording one track into the right Channel and another track into the Left Channel. I was 15 years old and I realized I needed to do something else. I utilized that for a while before I got a 4-track cassette recorder. It was a Tascam Ministudio Porta One, which I still have.
Mackncheeze: You never got rid of it?
Adam: I keep it because I still have old recordings that I can play back.
We recorded my dad at Kearney Barton Studios in Lake Forest Park. His Studio was immaculate. He had a full size grand piano. Hendrix had recorded there a few times, among others, a veritable whose who.
I mastered my dad’s recordings on Cool Edit Pro which was freeware. I paid 10 or 20 bucks for the pro version in about 1994, 1995. I didn’t know what I was doing; I just winged it and it turned out okay.
That was my first mastering experience. For that time, it was basically a light version of sound Forge. That was my introduction to a stereo digital audio processing workstation; strictly working with stereo files. That’s when I when I made a distinction between recording and mastering. I was using DOS 2.0; this was before Windows even existed.
Some vocalists have super powerful abilities; lots of line in their voices, tremendous breath control and two to three octave ranges.
This vocalist has great pitch control but is a super quiet singer. Certainly great in laying down tracks quickly and efficiently, but, he ain’t Garth Brooks.
And I get asked to do this?
It’s kind of like a bald guy asking the barber to make him look like Jason Momoa.
Okay, I’m guessing he wants more depth.
Vocal tracks were cut with a Neumann TLM 102 through an LA 610.
I duplicated the original tracks four times and routed the tracks into a sub mix. I did a high and low shelf Eq on the sub mix, cutting off those frequencies which did not effect the tonality of the vocal track, reduced or flattened nasty ones. Track 1 had no plug in assignment with volume set higher than the others. Track 2, set at lower volume, had no plug in assignment but I put a little sub mix of delay. I used a two millisecond slap delay with a Waves H Delay plug in. On tracks 3 and 4 a I put two more delays of varying time delay, panned hard right and left. When those tracks were auditioned as solo, they sounded like a big gobbilty goop of delay bouncing all over the place. Putting them way down in the mix, almost to the point of inaudibility, thickened the overall vocal landscape.
(Side note, I really suggest watching Funkscribe’s break down video of Stevie Wonders Superstition. What Stevie did with delay is awe inspiring.)
I then added a vocal plate with a low pass filter, cutting off most of the verb frequency at 2 k, boosted the vocal eq sub mix with a bit of 100 hertz, and, surprise, not Garth Brooks, but one happy singer.
I just love hearing about people doing stupid things. It appeals to my twisted, satirical humor. When I heard about people drinking lysol I laughed hysterically. Yep, more candidates for the Darwin Awards. And high school kids eating soap pods, are you kidding? When I was in high school, I had more sense, I just got stoned and took drugs and drove drunk and … but eat laundry detergent? Yeah, I was a lot smarter.
Mockery, yeah, like a contact sport, I love to scoff.
Taunting, sneering, vocalizing derision for my fellow humans.
I love the word Trenchancy. It implies my behavior is incisive, keen, suggesting I am unusually caustic. Purveying effective, energetic sarcasm. I like it. I am clear cut and distinct in my level of sardonicism.
I discovered a long time ago that I flourish around folks who are less inhibited. Folks willing to expose their talents on stage have a warped, fun loving relish for life; and incredibly thick skins. Oh Lord, and an endless stream of being novel and extraordinary.
It started in high school when I hung out with the theater folks. My best friend and I worked as stage hands for the thespian group. We painted props and staging, acted as stage hands, and had great times with much laughter. They were people who understood the twist in my brain that determines my behavior.
And I learned.
These are my people-
People I feel joy being around; being comfortable with one another.
Non argumentative people, who have opinions different than my own, open to the opinions of others.
People who don’t put down others.
People open to opportunities, mine and theirs.
People who enjoy the company of my friends and family.
Those who are not envious and jealous.
Folks who listen.
No drama. Please, God, no.
Folks who do not drag down my time, whose bad choices do not affect my choices and decisions.
No such thing as perfect friends but everyone I choose to be my friend hangs in these categories.
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Mackncheeze: How do you describe your musical approach?
Sean: My biggest influence aside from a Rock sensibility is Funk. Growing up around Seattle and being a stringed instrumentalist in the early to mid 90s, I was definitely heavily influenced by the Grunge movement. Those sounds really stuck with me in terms of the tones I really like and the way I like to approach things. As I grew up and got into other kinds of music my stylistic sensibilities changed.
I’m really interested in the instrument itself. I can’t lie, I have an agenda, I want the bass guitar pushed further. I’m into music, but there is that old thing about doing what the song calls for and stuff like that. There is a real fine line there between truth and placation and bullshit.
I don’t want to do what everybody has done before. I have this big thing about people looking in the rear view mirror; it’s an analogy or thought in my mind. There are all these standard-bearers. I think there are so many people that are doing that, those standards are safe; we don’t need another standard-bearer.
I want to be more of an explorer. That’s a big thing for me. I like exploring sonic pallets. There is a guy named Squarepusher who is a huge influence on me, kind of an idol. If you have never heard of him, he is a world class drummer, a world class bassist, a one man shot electronic producer. He is absolutely incredible.
Mackncheeze: Tell me about your band…
Sean: My band, Combinator, started as a power trio with two really good friends. Both have found their present day lives to be incredibly different. The drummer, to this day, is one of my closest friends. So many of the bands that I have been in have been with him.
Since both of those guys have departed from the project I have looked at reforming it with other musicians. Over time I have just ended up doing everything myself. In places where I need to, I hire people to do it. I’m composing, producing, engineering, performing and mastering.
I’ll play you a song called Juggernaut where I contracted out two really good players, Josh Kossak on drums and Morgan Wick on guitar.
Morgan and I have played in the tribute band circuit for years and we play with Miller Campbell. That’s where I met Morgan; he’s like this crazy, incredible Prog Metal shred guy, with a full on music education and I know him from a country band.
In my life, through my experience as a sideman, I have been really lucky to play with some of the best. For a number of years we have all done the same gigs together so we have become friends; we are willing to work on each others stuff.
The reason for me to bring someone in instead of doing it myself is that they are an expert at something that I am not. I recognize when it’s time to let somebody do something the way they are apt to do it, but I still direct the goal.
I fell out of touch with the more progressive and aggressive music that I was into when I was younger. I’m having a really fun time exploring that and getting back to my roots.
Mackncheeze: How do you integrate the digital and acoustic/analog realm with one another?
Sean: It is a great challenge. There are so many ways to attack that question. There are no rules. In general I find electronic sounds, sonically and texturally, have more of an extreme bookend quality. They go lower and they go higher. I will use sub bass stuff, and deep hits, that sound overtly electronic. I’m not trying to pass them off as acoustic.
There are a lot of times when I want electronic percussion and a drum kit won’t work. There are other times when I want a drum kit sound. I really like mixing them together and exploring what they both do best. Mixing those two elements is something that really appeals to me. I really like to utilize and explore the benefit of both of those textures on top of each other.
I’m really into mixing organic and non-organic things.
Mackncheeze: When you are integrating this stuff into your music, are you using automation or are you drag and dropping the components?
Sean: I drag and drop it in to be present, at first, then I always use some sort of automation, in terms of volume envelopes and filters. I’m not a big midi person, but it makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways because it is so exacting. I’m not very adept at using tools that work natively with midi. I’m also not a great keyboardist, I tend to build keyboard parts, implementing two and three notes at a time.
Drums are horrible for me. If I try to program stuff in, I would rather have a drummer do that because I don’t think like a drummer. I’m not very good with sticks but I have thought about getting an SPD SX, having a midi output for that. I tend to use audio clips of things that started life as midi. There is a clip inventory in Ableton; I have a bunch of expansion packs that are licensed to be used. I try not to use things that are off the shelf; I like a lot of the sounds that sound definitely non-real.
Mackncheeze: How do you find that unique Loop that you are not afraid of someone else utilizing?
Sean: That’s a good question. I guess I always have a little bit of fear that someone will.
The way in which music production is occurring now is different than it used to be; I have to remind myself that it is not a negative thing. Hip Hop culture has really instilled new values in fans of music, it’s actually kind of fun now to use things that are recognizable. It’s a call back, a quotation to some extent; it’s like playing the Amen Break, like playing The Lick.
A little minor scale 1 2 3 4 2 7 1
Mackncheeze: I’ve been hearing that lick since I was in college band.
Sean: It’s analogous to the Wilhelm Scream. There was a western out of the 50s called The Charge At Feather River. That’s where the scream came from, it’s been used in hundreds of films. It’s named after a person called Wilhelm who was shot with an arrow and fell off his horse. The guy’s scream was so ridiculous people liked it. George Lucas is somebody who specifically used The Wilhelm Scream in many of his movies. A lot of times when Storm Troopers get killed he would used that scream. It’s like a running joke.
I’m mainly concerned with two different elements, sort of landscapes, of mixing when there are similar frequencies. I’m looking at separation of octaves, as I mentioned, I like to use a lot of really deep electronic stuff and a lot of really high electronic stuff. I want it to sit under the drums and above other instruments. The other thing I’m aware of is stereo image. You can get away with mixing a lot of stuff if you pan it correctly.
Mackncheeze: You have an example?
Sean: Recently I was confronted with that. I performed at the last NAMM Show, using my computer, and a lot of tracks; a lot of electronic and a lot of acoustic elements.
I was kind of naive; I wasn’t aware when you do live performance almost everybody mixes it to mono. I had to figure out how to get all the stuff I had separated to work well when it’s all stacked vertically.
I discovered that about three days before the performance; I had to remix like a mad dash. In order to get a proper sounding mix in a mono environment I had to filter the individual instruments and loops by cutting off where something starts and where something ends. Psychoacoustics plays into this, a field I am interested in but don’t know enough about.
Mackncheeze: Could you explain the concept to me?
Sean: Psychoacoustics has to do with the brain’s perception of sound. The analogy is – when you are talking to someone on the phone you know whether they have a bass voice or a shrill voice even though the phone speaker only reproduces sounds down to 600 Hertz. A person hears the specific key outline of a voice of someone who has a very low centered voice. If it’s very low it has harmonics that happen at predictable places. You can hear the sound and can tell that this person has a really deep voice, even if you hear it through a tin can speaker. You know he does because of the timbre; your brain fills in the empty places.
When you’re talking on the phone your brain doesn’t fill in the sound as if you’re talking to somebody on a sub woofer, but in a musical mix it can work that way. As a bass player that is really important because what we have to do all the time is to cut off all the frequencies we really like for the drummers.
The way that I typically produce, the lowest frequencies in my mix belong to the kick; bass guitar has to be out of the way. I will end up high passing the bass up to a hundred hertz. I’m a five and six string bassist and we are really proud of the fact that our instruments can go down to 30 Hertz. That stuff doesn’t translate as well. If you cut it out and listen by soloing it, sometimes it doesn’t sound great. In context, it becomes all of what mixing is. The mind fills that in, especially if you have a particularly resonant bass drum, with a long decay on the track. The bass drum is a pitched instrument even though it normally is not thought of that way. It is pitch and it will fill in a lot of sonic information in the range you cut out from the bass guitar.
Mackncheeze: I understand what you’re talking about. I hadn’t connected the dots.
Sean: Every instrument has its zone where it speaks the loudest. You don’t have to cut the other zones out but you do have to make way for everything to set together.
I’m lucky that the stuff that I do does not happen to be so harmonically dense that I really have to worry. I use a lot of percussion so it is not as hard.
Mackncheeze: Who are you in the deepest sense? Who are you and what is the major question of your life?
Sean: There are a lot of different facets, a lot of different ways someone can describe themselves. Deep down I am somebody that wants to be involved with creating something new. I’m somebody who isn’t satisfied with status quo or with living a life that doesn’t result in anything tangible or appreciable. I suppose I’m afraid of being gone without a trace, someone who is afraid of mortality; we all have to face that.
Cassia and I have a daughter that is 9 months old, we call her Nugget and her nickname is DJ Nugs. Through her I feel a little bit safer in that part of me will live on. Before her, even now, I have this drive to produce something of note; I want to leave something noteworthy.
Aside from that I got a lot of stuff to say. I have a lot of strong opinions.
I have this strong rebellious streak; it always directed me to go against what my peer group thinks.
The rebelliousness I have is a major driving force, simultaneously part of the conscious question, and also subconsciously, a facet of my personality. It’s something in me. It’s kind of like a Punk attitude. I was never super into Punk but I had a punk phase and I love punk rock. It makes me who I am.
There is a process in myself that makes me fight against the dominant paradigm that surrounds me. Musically that comes out in a number of ways. Through the eclectic approach I like to take, I play Flamenco Rasgueados on bass and I really like a mixture of electronic and acoustic elements. I want to move the ball down the field from what is acceptable and what is being done.
I always want to prod people. It’s what I like to do musically.
Mackncheeze: Thanks, Sean. Wow, that was some incredible stuff.
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Sean: As a bassist, I’ve been playing for 25 years.
I fell in love with the instrument. I quit middle school band. There wasn’t a spot in the school band for an electric bass player. The band director was upset with me because he was a saxophone player. I had been performing in early morning classical quartets with him, and he was grooming me to follow his footsteps.
At that time I became a really, really rebellious teenager. I basically said fuck you to everything, dropped out of band and found my own way.
My high school musical experience was completely different and was totally wonderful. The band director was a very forward thinking technological guy. His name was Duane Duxbury. He ended up developing a curriculum using digital technology. This was at Jackson High School in Mill Creek.
At the time it was incredible, totally valuable and I didn’t realize it. I started building first hand experience with multi track digital recording. We were recording on High 8 tapes. It was a digital format that looked like little cassette tapes used for VHS recording. The unit was a Tascam DA 88 which could record 8 tracks; we also had a DAT Master recorder. The school got a number of the very first CDR drives. I remember being so excited to use it and buying my first blank CD for like 20 bucks in 1997 dollars. It would take 30 minutes to burn 40 minutes of content.
I got involved with Jazz choir. That was another very serendipitous thing. The Jazz choir director was an opera singer. She was a live stage person but really had no background in jazz. She was unrestrained and was a free spirit. Her name was Janet Hitt.
At one point I decided I wanted to make my living as a session musician. After high school I directed my studies to ready for that course of action. I planned to move to LA. I studied under Steve Kim; he got me ready for the move.
Mackncheeze: How was that move to LA?
Sean: ( Laughs ) That’s a whole another long story. In the end it didn’t work. It was the early days of the internet and I had done apartment shopping online. I found a place but had never seen a picture of what I was getting into.
I freaked out when I saw the place I was supposed to live. It did not have a kitchen. It was one of the few freak-outs I’ve ever had in my life. I decided LA kind of sucked. I was there for 2 weeks.
I came back and finished school, graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in linguistics and a Minor in music.
The whole experience did not stop me from playing professionally. I’m a hired side man and a recording artist. Now my focus is doing my own solo stuff.
I have worked hard and I’m starting to get notoriety for the work that I’m doing. My focus now is in composition and recordings.
I had a recent revelation. My time is normally playing with a bunch of different bands. It’s not music that I have a personal stake in. I’m a hired player. It pays a lot of the bills. The realization is that I’m ready to make a pivot away from that. I convinced myself for so long that was the way to legitimately make money.
Perhaps I’m still in the process of rediscovering that teenage excitement. For me it’s about having ownership, not playing other people’s parts, not just being a hired player.
What I’ve learned is that when I’m playing I always speak with my own voice. My favorite players are the ones who come up with their own statements and their own voice.
In a total sense, I really like a lot of chime and attack. I love players like Geddy Lee and Chris Squire and Les Claypool and Flea. I love guys who play with picks; I love present, harmonically rich sound.
I have always been a band leader, a singer and a front person. As a bass player that is not a commonality. It’s the way that I express myself in music.
Mackncheze: Who are you touring and working with.
Sean: I have a company by the name of Fairchild Sound. It does a number of things, it is my umbrella company for working as a contract player to create videos for a brand. I’m a consultant. I use it for any sort of business endeavor. It’s really not a lot of what I do. Most of what I do these days is teach and record.
Recently I have been working with Miller Campbell. She is a second cousin of Glen Campbell. I do a lot of regional shows with a Billy Joel and an Elton John tribute band. I play on remote recordings which is the majority of my session work.
I worked for Behringer for a short time. This was 7 years ago. When I was working for them at NAMM, we were doing a series where I was interviewing artists all day long. I got to interview Don Randi who is the keyboardist for The Wrecking Crew. He owns The Baked Potato jazz club in Studio City, California. Still playing. Wonderful guy, great guy. Lots of really great stories. For some stupid reason he seemed to to like me.
In my time with Behringer I was also on the team that did product reviews for salespeople. We were doing feature walk throughs, like what Sweetwater does. We were doing this on the equivalent of what, eight years ago, would now be Zoom technology. The stuff was available to the public most of the time and we would put it out on YouTube.
Mackncheeze: How did you get the gig with Bass Gear magazine.
As a bass specialist I had been writing reviews because I am incredibly nerdy. I was always into technical aspects of music and gear. I had been writing reviews on Talkbass.com for a long time. I believe the editor saw what I was doing with one of the bass products at NAMM. I received an email from him and he asked, “If you ever want to do that stuff for us we would love to have you involved.” I was hugely impressed. I was like, “Oh my God this is great.”
It’s a great publication; they care a lot about bass gear. It’s all very technical. It’s the former Bass Player Magazine. They were recently bought out by the UK’s Bass Guitar Magazine.
It used to be in print. By the time I got my first piece published it was the last print edition. I’m excited that I got to see that but also bummed that the print format is gone. At one time the distribution on that was 300,000. That’s globally.
Things definitely changed when we went online only. One of the things we struggled with is creating a format that makes it feel like a periodical publication. We publish a couple of issues a year. It’s a big collection of reviews, interviews, editorial pieces and stuff like that. It’s graphically laid out to look like an issue of a magazine, which is very cool.
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Mackncheeze: Tell me about yourself.
Sean: My parents were in the Foreign Service. I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There is an economic and racial disparity there. The good thing about Malaysia is that it is culturally pluralist. It has a high number of Indian Hindus, a high number of ethnic Malays, a lot of which are Muslim, and a proportion of Chinese people. The Chinese people are the minority but they are the wealthy people; they own everything. They are by and large Buddhist with some Christians.
It’s a really interesting place. As far as that part of the world is concerned all these different cultures are able to get along remarkably well. It could serve as a template for a lot of places.
After that we lived in Guangzhou, which is in southern China. I had a Chinese nanny who was part of the intelligence service of the Communist Party. My parents were aware that I had a spy nanny. The apartment was bugged. My parents tell interesting stories of me telling them stories of her taking me to the home office because she still had to do the job of a nanny. My parents learned that all the other nannies called her the Major. Apparently she was a ranking official in the intelligence service.
After China, my sister was born in Colorado. She is 3 and 1/2 years younger than me. We did not live in Colorado for long. We then moved to France.
We moved back to the U.S. and I had absolutely no common ground or frame of reference with people my age. I felt completely alienated. It really led to a pretty easy transition into this disenfranchised rock and roll, early 90s Grunge thing that was going on. It was a long time living in the States before I started to feel like I had enough stuff behind me to have common ground.
When I got into Middle School I remember there being a preliminary sort of hype for the upcoming music program. It was a way to get kids thinking about what it is they wanted to play.
I really wanted to play saxophone. When I was living in Paris I had this poster of a neon saxophone in my room. I never wanted to be a bass player or guitarist or anything like that. They wanted me to play clarinet first because that’s what they tell kids who want to play saxophone. I said nope, it’s sax or nothing.
They gave me a saxophone. For a long time I thought I was going to be a successful Jazz player. I figured, “That’s how my life is going to go from this point on.”
My parents split up; my dad kept his job and his next posting was in Tokyo. My sister and I would spend six weeks at a time with him. She had befriended this Australian cover band and they were doing pretty well. Their bass player, Kerry Dunne, had an extra bass that somebody had found in a dumpster. He had decent instruments and he had no use for it. One day he asked, “Would you like this bass?” I asked, “What’s a bass?” I have a picture of the moment he gave it to me. It’s the coolest thing ever.
This was a monumental thing that happened in my life.
I went home after that trip to Japan, which was in July, and by December I remember thinking that this is going to be the course of my life. I was 13.
Mackncheeze: What did you experience as you were traveling around the world?
I have studied five languages: English, Portuguese, Indonesian and Malay, for the most part the same language, French and German.
I went to International Schools, stuff like that.
It was a cool way to grow up.
I remember being very bitter about it by the time we left France. I remember coming to the States and being happy to forget French, happy to forget the previous life. Most of my friends were kids of military families. Being a kid in a Foreign Service family is not that common.
I missed out a lot. I did not have a common cultural base with people that were my age. I remember when I moved back here everybody knew this dog by the name of Spuds Mackenzie. I was like, “What the hell is that.” I never learned how to play baseball. I didn’t learn sports.
I still don’t realize how unusual it is until someone gets me talking about it. I know that it’s different when I hear the words come out of my mouth. I value it a lot.
Most of the time it was very uncomfortable and I was not happy about it. That’s probably why after I started playing music I used to spend seven hours a day playing. I was going to school and I was too young to work so all I did outside of that was play music.
After 25 years I recently reconnected with Kerry Dunne. Because of social media I was able to find him. I hadn’t had any contact with him since the last time I was in Japan. We have become really good friends.
What is the price of our relationships? I often joke that I do not have the emotional, intellectual, spiritual and financial capital for another girl friend.
I ask myself: what am I willing to spend to consummate my musical relationships?
The answer is simple yet surprisingly complex.
First: I haven’t got time to work with folks who are unpleasant. A good criteria – is this some one I would break bread with? Do they have a good heart? Is their conversation engaging? Do they like animals? Are they funny?
Second: Is there proficiency in their playing? Is there commitment? Are they able to back up words with action?
Third: Are they worth my friendship? I used to be altruistic in my musical relationships. No more.
Has any one you have worked with ever committed to a rehearsal and then not shown up? Did they even contact you?
I get that there exist extenuating circumstances.
Did you reschedule with them and have the same result? Those actions are an indication self importance. It is happened to me many times. I no longer give people power over me.
Maybe I appreciate the one trick pony. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.
In my network and associations, I have experienced superficiality among many players; they just won’t get back to me. But the moment they want something……
Anymore, I’m not jumping through hoops. Done with that circus.
Mackncheeze: When you were at the Art Institute, did you study vocals? How did you learn to sing the way you do?
Rob: A mixture of church, singing by myself, with my quarter inch reel to reel, some vocal training; at the Art Institute there was a lot of recording. At that period of my life I wasn’t really into doing music. I wanted to be a producer and make albums. I had no interest in being an artist. There was no intention.
The first time I ever started singing was at a karaoke bar when I was stationed in Japan. At that time, most karaoke bars in Japan would have Elvis songs, some Beatles songs, Johnny Mathis. This is like 1988. Back then, in Japan, karaoke was cool because everything was on a LaserDisc. They all had videos.
Some of the most amazing bands I have seen were in Japan. This one band was a Zeppelin cover band. This Japanese dude looked just like Robert Plant, his hair and the whole nine yards. He was blind and he sang just like Plant. His pronunciation was spot-on. There was a part of me that was asking, “Is he really blind?” I’m just like, wow. A high energy, amazing show. I’ll never forget them.
So the cool thing was my Aunt Dee Dee knew Jay King who was the head guy of Club Nouveau. He was in the Army and he was stationed up in Anchorage. I was working at Miramar ( Abraxas Pool, The Storm, Steve Lukather ). I was doing a few projects for him that we’re not related to Miramar. It was more R&B and rap stuff and we hooked up a few times. The initial connection was through Japan. I was off and on in Japan for two years.
I was given the opportunity to go back into broadcast journalism in Japan and be a writer for the Stars and Stripes. The catch was that I needed to re-up for 2 years. This was right before the Gulf War. I didn’t go that route.
Mackncheeze: Please give me a history of being a DJ.
Rob: I started when I was in the Marine Corps. When I wasn’t in Japan, I was in Pohon Korea. That was a cold weather training, and I was also a part of the operation Team Spirit. North Korea’s leader Kim il-sung was firing missiles in protest of the American and South Korean operations occurring at that time.
So the club DJ did not show up.
Everybody knew I was a broadcast journalist and so they said, “Hey Brewer, you have to DJ.” I crawled up in this really small square cube glass enclosure. I’m sitting cross legged, the club is packed, all the heat is rising to the ceiling. I was in this tiny little room in my own world, just getting down , throwing down all the cuts, and keeping everyone happy. I did not know it at the time, but being a DJ would be something I would end up doing.
It was all turntables back then. I was having a good old time. That was back in the day, my first real experience with turntables. I got paid a bunch of free beer. I was happy, everybody else was happy.
Mackncheeze: I find it very interesting that you sing in two different bands, doing a DJ Act as well.
Rob: Being a DJ, I am my own entity. I control my own destiny, I don’t have to pay anybody else at the end of the night, I make my own decisions. Being in a band, you can not instantly take a gig. When a gig is offered you have to call everyone up and ask who is available. Many times booking agents and club Owners need to know right away.
As a DJ I’ve never had that problem; it’s just me.
Mackncheeze: You carry a light show?
Rob: Yes. I think ambience is important. Not only do I carry lights, I carry video as well. I have a philosophy that most people are pretty much wallflowers. I think they need an icebreaker to engage them to want to dance. If I can nostalgically take you to a period, or mentally put you in a happy place, have you visually see something that makes you think of someone else, makes you think of another time, it might engage you to want to dance.
Macknceeze: Have you thought about writing books on psychology?
Rob: I think it’s important to be a good DJ but I think you have to do a little bit more in order to get people to buy into what you are doing. Being a DJ, you definitely control the mood and the tempo of the Dance Floor. Technically, I’m not the greatest DJ ever, but I know what I need to do to make it work.
I do a little scratching, but I’m more into blending and overdubbing, I’m not trying to be a turntablist.
If you’re a turntablist, people are only going to your show to see you perform. If you’re a club DJ, people are going to a club to dance. It would be selfish of me to practice turntable technique to a packed dance floor of people trying to get their groove on. It’s good to show a level of skill, whether it’s taking a song and mashing it into another song, or recreating some songs. To me what’s important is creating my own brand and originality of style.
Mackncheeze: A technical question: if you were a DJ with a live band, could you take your discs, sans CDs, using correct tempo and scratch tracks into the band’s performance?
Rob: Oh yeah. Mackncheeze: There are not many DJ s that can do that.
Rob: That’s where some of my time at the Art Institute came into this. During that time I was producing and engineering. Knowing how to lay tracks properly, knowing how to piece together songs and how to orchestrate and collaborate, that was very important on my education. It’s one thing to know how to play an instrument but it’s another thing to know how to work as a team and work together.
Mackncheeze: Tell me about the two bands you are working with…
Rob: Midnight Radio Revival, that’s a band I’ve been with for 7 years. I took over the lead vocal position around for 11 years ago. We’ve mainly been doing psychedelic Rock from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. We call it Golden Age Heavy Rock. We cover about 80 or 90 songs.
Over the past year, Doug, our lead guitarist, has written some amazing stuff. We could continue playing covers, but our new focus now is to take some of this music that’s been written, and do it in a classic rock style. We want to record it and get it out. Certain clubs do not want a cover band; they want bands with original content. There are radio shows and TV shows that love to have a bands like that. They can’t do it with bands doing covers because of licensing agreements.
I think for a lot of the people who come to the shows, they’re like saying okay, what’s next? You can only do so many covers. Our next step is to record about seven or eight original songs. We will still do covers and blend in original material. That’s our next big step.
Bands are like sports teams. At the end of the day, after piecing all the music together, it becomes a collaborative effort. In order to have success it has to be a team effort. It’s funny because music is kind of oxymoronic; a lot of it is based on self oriented concepts where there is no team.
The other band is Cold As Ice. We’re a foreigner tribute band. We have only been doing Foreigner covers. Foreigner is a 7 piece band. We have been covering all the parts as a four-piece. We have some amazing folks. We did a show together last year on the 4th of July. That was the last gig we did. We got together before this whole corona virus thing happened. We pieced together a song list of what we were going to work on. All this came about and that’s where we’re at now.
I almost had the opportunity to play in an Earth Wind and Fire tribute band called Kalimba. The manager approached me and during the interview I was told they do about 70 shows a year. Most of the shows are out of state. As a cover band they’re probably doing better than most national Acts. It was good; I was practicing all of that Philip Bailey stuff. It helped increase my range. To me, any opportunity is always a fun challenge. To be acknowledged or even thought of as being a part of that is kind of cool.
I pretty much enjoy all aspects of music. I’m always keeping my ear to the ground.
Mackncheeze: So Rob, what do you personally want to say?
Rob: Rob Brewer, aka, DJ Forrest Gump, still has a lot of music in front of him. I have a lot of things yet to accomplish. I’m looking forward to doing those things.
I am Robert Brewer, son of Shirley Brewer, grandson of Lula Bell Brewer, from Seattle Washington, born and raised in West Seattle, at High Point.
Back in World War Two, High Point was subsidized government housing for military personnel, all the way into the 90s. High point is now gentrified; now it’s $500,000 plus Homes.
I come from a family where music was a very important part of our lives. My older sister, Kathy, her father, was a local music icon in radio; his name was Burl Barer. He was on KJR for a long time. He is not my dad.
My life has jumped through a lot of hoops. I have been a radio DJ, on and off, for 25 years.
Mackncheeze: Really, what stations?
Rob: KCMU 90.3, which later became KEXP, and KLSY 92.5. My first internship was at KFOX. 1250 AM. That was when I was in college. Bob Wickstrom was president of Bailey’s School of Broadcasting. He asked me if I would like to intern at KFOX. I would run from The Art Institute to KFOX to do it. I stayed there until the station went off the air.
Some of the first records I ever had were from my mom and my dad. When I was three, I remember my mom playing Sly and the Family Stone. One of my first vivid memories is hearing the song, Stand.
Mackncheeze: That’s a cool memory man. I love Sly Stone.
Rob: Stand, I Want To Take You Higher, those are really the first memories of my life. As I grew older I would listen to more and more of my mom’s and my aunt’s music.
My grandma loved Hee Haw. So I watched Hee Haw, Lawrence Welk, and a little bit of the Grand Ole Opry. The folks from my mom’s side are from Little Rock Arkansas and St. Louis Missouri, as well as the Mississippi Delta area. In my back ground there is some Creole, Native American, and a little bit of Haitian.
Mackncheeze: You got the turntables, you got the vinyl, that’s awesome, man.
Rob: My mom had these records which I have kept till today. My mom and my dad wrote on the album sleeves. I cherish those albums because I really feel like I have a connection with them. Through these pieces of vinyl, to me, that’s really the only true connection I have with my dad.
As a child, watching TV, my grandma always used to record me singing Michael Jackson songs; ABC, I Want You Back, stuff like that. I pray those recordings have been destroyed.
In recording, if you don’t get used to you the sound of your voice, you are going to have to either accept it or forget about it.
My aunt Catherine was the music collagist of our family. She was an amazing woman. Her life and music, in a weird, chronological way, went along with the albums she collected. I have all these older Fats Waller albums. I have a Quincy Jones 78 disc. It is a recording of Quincy’s band when he was stationed at Fort Lewis. My aunt would not only give me vinyl but tell me stories that went along with each one, how they were purchased, how each artist inspired her and why she liked them. My mom was into The Supremes, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix.
Mackncheeze: What influence started you performing?
Rob: I was the only boy in the house. I grew up in a house full of women; me, my mom, my grandma and my sister. If I wanted to hang out in the house I either had to be in my bedroom or I would be doing chores. My other choices were down at the gym or down at the park playing.
My mom gave me all of her vinyl. Some days, Seattle being drenched with rain, I would spend part of the day at the gym and spend afternoons and evenings listening to albums.
One day, my mom got me a quarter inch reel to reel tape deck. I started experimenting with recording. I would take my record player and record sounds, just goof around. Those were my early recordings.
Through a buddy of mine I got a body of a Gibson SG. There was a record record shop called Zobrist. Zobrist is the first place Jimi Hendrix got a guitar. I bought all my guitar components there. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I built my first guitar, a copy of a Gibson SG.
When I started going to High School I saved up some money, my mom helped me and I took guitar lessons. I took lessons at a place called The Rosewood guitar. That was in the U District. After school and in between playing basketball I would go there and learn guitar.
I was a decent athlete and I wanted to play basketball at Roosevelt. In the early and mid eighties Roosevelt was the number one team in the state. I had been going to private school most of my life; I wasn’t part of the Seattle public school system. That gave me an option to go wherever I wanted to go.
I would get out of class at 2, basketball practice would be at 5:30. A lot of times I would go to a place on the Ave called Kennelly Keys. The Rainbow was across the street. I would go and jam out on different guitars. After practice I would go back to the Rainbow and listen to bands play. The one band I enjoyed and listened to a lot was Robert Cray.
After High school I played basketball at Shoreline Community College. We weren’t good; we went 8 and 20 or 7 and 21 something like that, we were really bad. That was the first time in my life I had ever played on a losing team. It was unfortunate, we had some really, really good players who got caught up partying too hard.
I went into the Marine Corps which really was not my first choice. When I first started at Shoreline I had applied into ROTC Army officer training program. I felt like the process was taking too long . I remember one day I went across the hall to the Marine Corps and signed up. That was in 1988. The day after my mom’s birthday I shipped off to boot camp. Believe me that was an experience and a half.
I was in the Marine Corps for four years.
I had decent scores so my original job was a broadcast journalist. The Marine Corps School of Journalism is at Syracuse University. Towards the end of boot camp I had to take my school of Journalism tests. I was just trying to finish boot camp and I wasn’t ready to take all these tests. In the middle of physical training I was not able to focus; there was no chance to study. The only thing I was brushing up on was cleaning my M16.
They decided to send me to Wire and Comm School At Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Part of Comm School is that you spend three or four weeks climbing telephone poles. Most of those poles are 40 or 50 feet off the ground. The pole yard had tons of wood chips spread across the ground so if we fell 40 feet down we wouldn’t break a neck.
Mackncheeze: Did you ever fall?
Rob: Hell, yeah, I fell down many times. We were provided boots and climbing gaffs; it was never a hundred percent free fall. Poles can be really slippery, especially in the rain, especially with a lot of humidity. Where I lived in North Carolina there could be days of 90% humidity. Five, ten feet off the ground, you’re drenched in sweat.
Towards the end of my time in the military, a really good buddy of mine who has passed away, used to work at The Improv. The Improv was a comedy club that is now the Showbox.
I was doing security there. I started doing that on one of the last times I was home on leave. Larry Harris, the owner of the Improv, he used to own a couple of recording labels named Buddha and Oasis. Larry and his first cousin created a record label called Casablanca. He used to manage Kiss. Two of his other bands were Parliament and Funkadelic.
I started going to the Art Institute when I first got back. I was studying music and video production. I was inspired by one of my good friends, Russ, a super great guitar player. His group was called Bitter End. They were a heavy metal band. They were one of the last heavy metal bands pre grunge in the Seattle area. I remember seeing them on MTV when I was stationed in North Carolina. It was really cool to see my friend on National Television.
The Art Institute was one of those organizations where people would come to the school because they were infatuated with Grunge music; people seeking a musical education for not all the right reasons. For me, going into it was for all the right reasons. I knew my limits; in order to advance I knew I needed a higher level of musical education. So a combination of me going to the Art Institute and working with my friend Russ in Bitter End, and also working at The Improv , having a mentor like Larry Harris, from Casablanca, really helped me connect all the dots of entertainment. Working with Larry was not just about the whole business of music, but included the whole business of comedy and the whole business of dining.
Times were when I used to envy my married friends. But enough about my thirties. When I hit forty it was like, “What was I thinking?”
I’ve been told I would be a good father. Yeah, maybe when I cared. Now I’m selfish and jealous with my time. Life’s priorities have moved from, “I want to make time for someone,” to, “How much time is left?”
I do not live by a honey do list. It’s the, “If I don’t do it now, it won’t get done,” list.
I’m not complaining. Life is good. Life is exciting. I marvel at the timing of all going in my little world. What a blessing. Truly, my head spins at the possibilities.
Pardon me, but I sometimes forget an ordinary human being is not interested in sitting down for hour upon hour trying to perfect an imperfection. Basic nature of artistic endeavor of any sort requires lots of time spent by one’s self, working out a path of accomplishment. Social Distancing.
Wood Shedding, the old timers called it, spending hours in the back wood shed, away from the house, practicing. For me, its like, duh.
I had to learn how to conquer impatience. I always wanted to be really great but I wanted it right now. Repetitive failure inspired me to make a perpetual habit of practicing. Perfect practice makes perfect, as the adage goes; a great truth.
I have a friend who is actually a real engineer. Unlike me, he knows the inside and out of all his gear. He will unassemble a piece of equipment, replace necessary components, and reassemble. Add the fact that he is an accomplished musician, song writer and producer. The real deal.
How many times has he rotated the ten thousand hour rule?
The average person isn’t interested in these kind of commitments. I identify this as a quest for perfection. That perfect song, perfect mix, perfect rhythm section, perfect performance. All it takes is patience.
Yes, I want it right now. Why do I have to wait? Why must I fail? Why is it so hard?
In my entire life, my kids are the best thing that’s ever happened. My kids are centered and focused and on their way and they are artists. I told them if you’re not ready to go to college, don’t go to college. Their college is paid for, they don’t have to worry about it. My son said he didn’t want to go, he hates school. I said don’t go. Right now he is making wine with me. He is going to Europe with his sister and when he gets back he’ll be working harvest.
I’m a kid who grew up in the state of Washington. I’ve lived here my entire life. I have walked into pretty much all of my opportunities. I’m someone who wants to be the best human who I can possibly be. I have been able to chose from opportunities that have presented themselves. I am so lucky, so lucky.
Mackncheeze: Everyone that I talk to, who are at the top of their game, says the same thing.
Tom: We don’t make a lot of wine. It’s amazing to pull it off at 4,500 cases. We have three full-time employees. I love my staff, I have the best staff ever. They are beautiful people. They love their job.
I love all the moving parts. I get to do everything. I get to manage people, I get to work on the financial side and the marketing side.
I get up every day and get to work by 7:45 or 8. I take my dog for 45 minutes and we walk the orchards and vineyards. It’s so beautiful. I might see a four-wheeler or a tractor but there won’t be any people or cars.
I love the people I work with, the people I deal with, it’s especially about managing relationships. Life, when you throw in wine, is so much more fun. Everywhere I go I take wine and make new friends; not always but most times.
Mackncheeze: How do you draw the line between science and Alchemy?
Tom: Humans are 90% sensory-based. As winemakers, if it doesn’t smell good or taste good, people are not going to want to drink it. I just don’t pay attention to what numbers say. I have never been a proponent of scores.
I tasted wines the other day and I said to myself, it’s just not a good day to be tasting. It’s like playing music, sometimes your guitar sounds out of tune when it’s not.
Mackncheeze: Back to the science thing: What part of your career did you embrace the science of making wine?
Tom: The whole time. At this point I don’t use as much science. I’ve dialed it down to – what is it do we need to know.
Before we make a picking decision, as far as longevity of the wine goes, we are looking at the balances of our sugars and PH s. It changes every year. That’s pretty much what we look at before we pick grapes. After we pick grapes, we use chemical analysis to see if we need to make any changes. We test, we cross-flow everything, test before and after filtering. We have gotten away from using commercial yeast. We will let things ferment on their own.
We call our wines uninoculated, that’s the fairest way to state it. Most natural yeast cannot finish a fermentation of wine that is over 22 brix, the alcohol will be too high. Most natural yeast cannot handle that much alcohol.
We use an outside source for testing. We run tests at the beginning and end of fermentation. It’s nuts, every year the results come back differently. Two years ago our Merlot fermented dry with a white wine yeast. Last year we had a wine that fermented dry with a yeast we have never used before, it had never even been in the winery.
Tom : That’s technology and the applications we use.
When it comes down to picking decisions, walking in vineyards, I know what the numbers are. We’re just walking through and asking ourselves, how does the fruit taste? What are the chemical constituents of the skins and seeds? That’s the art part of what we do.
Mackncheeze: Hypothetical question: You’re a Roman winemaker two thousand years ago, with your vineyards, how would you approach wine making?
Tom: I’d have to see what kind of equipment they had. I think criterion would be the same: Does it smell good? Does it taste good? I guess I wouldn’t be worried so much about cost.
Mackncheze: You understand the history of what you’re doing. Tom: Where did Syrah come from? Mackncheeze: It would have been Persia? Tom: Legend has it the Phoenicians brought Syrah to Europe from around present day Syria.
Mackncheeze: As an entrepreneur, as an artist winemaker, what is it you would like to say?
Tom: The main thing is, I wish people were more aware of what was the last wine that they were drinking. I think about it all the time, I really do. I want wines that I make to taste like the person who made them loves their job. I see so many people in this industry, to them, it’s just a business. I want people to understand that there’s a difference between my $25 of Cabernet and my competitors $20 bottle of cab; there’s a huge difference. We truly care about what we do. We take every step to make sure that the wines are true to what they are. A customer will know where our wines are from and know how they’re produced. I saw an ad for the sale of 75,000 gallons of Cabernet. No consumer is going to know its source. That’s wine manufacturing.
Mackncheeze: Lot of that going on.
Tom: I want people to know we make our own wine. Only three people touch it. What we do is our testimony. We Care.
Mackncheeze: This has been great.
Tom: Yeah, this has been fun. I always tell people I like answering questions because it helps me to remember what I know.
This interview involved sharing a bottle of 1998 St. Innocent PinotNoir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Mackncheeze: Tell me about the kids and playing music?
Tom: They both grew up playing instruments. My son played trumpet for a year and didn’t really like it. My daughter, Amelia, played Cello. She had her great-grandmother’s Cello. She played cello for a couple of years and is pretty good.
A couple of years ago I thought, I’m going to buy Winston drums. I bought him a drum set for graduation; he loved them.
It was really strange because my buddy Jared, I was out to dinner with him one night, and he asked me, do you know anyone who wants to buy a bass? I said I would. Two hundred bucks and a case of wine later, I got a bass.
I already had a Stratocaster and acoustic guitar. So we have electric guitar, bass and drums. Winston and I would start playing a little, and my daughter started playing bass. It’s one of the most awesome things in the world to come home after work and have my children be there. I walk into the basement and I say, oh my God, I love my children. They love it.
I bought Amelia her own bass. I didn’t know what to get her for her 18th birthday, I just didn’t know. I was perplexed; I was in Spokane and I went to the guitar store, and said, “Hey, I’m getting her a bass.”
I figured she would like a black one, it would be cool for her. When I gave it to her it was the best thing in the world. She was so happy and so excited. I gave her a bass amp. She can practice at home and also play at my house. It’s one of my favorite things in the whole world. I love it
Mackncheeze: For you, what sparked your interest in playing music?
Tom: I started playing piano when I was in second grade. I really didn’t like it but at the same time I liked it. In sixth grade I started playing trumpet. I liked trumpet a lot but then my music teacher quit. Then I did shop and pottery.
My former music teacher came back and he asked me why I quit band. I said, “Because you left and I didn’t like the other guy.” He asked, “Will you come back? I don’t need a trumpet player but I do need a baritone player.” I said okay and I went back to band class.
When I went to high school I didn’t see any baritone players in jazz band. So the band instructor told me he would buy me a valve trombone. In my freshman year of high school I played valve trombone. The next year he told me I needed to play regular trombone. So my sophomore year I played regular trombone and my junior year he bought a bass trombone. By my senior year I said, I’m just going to smoke weed and play Hacky Sack.
Mackncheeze: ( Gut Laugh ) How did you become intrigued with wine?
Tom: I got married in 1995 and moved to Walla Walla seven days later, no job. I started working at the Walla Walla Country Club. Mornings I mowed Greens, afternoons worked the pro shop (this is pre children) and I worked the clubhouse at night. Finally the golf pro asked me to work full time. I passed my players test and entered the PGA as a Club Professional.
Tom: And then he got fired. I said to myself, I don’t want to work for anyone else and I don’t want to do this anymore. So I got a job as a commercial loan officer at Banner Bank. In that time I met Eric Dunham. He was living on the top floor of L’Ecole 41. It was a small world thing because I gave Marty and Megan Clubb and their daughter golf lessons. I also gave Megan’s parents golf lessons, so I knew them all. When I was in between jobs, Eric called up and asked me if I could help out at L’Ecole. Eric was beginning to open Dunham Cellars.
When I worked at the Country Club, part of my job was to act as the host part of the winemakers golf tournament. There were only eight wineries at that time. I started at L’Ecole in 1998. Rick Small, Chris Doucet and John Abbott would come out and play golf. Jean Francois played as well, so this got pretty big.
I was helping out at L’Ecole and Marty asked if I knew anyone who would want to work there and I said I would.
I hooked up with Mike Corliss. We started talking and he said if I ever wanted to do a winery let him know. That was a great opportunity . That was in 2001 that I started with Mike. In the process of ordering fruit, I contacted Tom Waliser, he has a vineyard in the Rocks. Andrew Will had to back out of a fruit purchase, so I called Tom and he said, “Come down and pick up some fruit.” He then asked if I would be interested working for him making wine.
For two full harvests I was making wine for both Tom Walesir and Mike Corliss. There wasn’t a production facility for either winery. The first vintage of Corliss and Beresan were made at L’Ecole 41, which was great because I was helping Marty out and simultaneously making my own wine. We did that in 2001 and 2002. In 2003 I left Corliss and started with Ash Hollow; that was a short-lived brand.
Mackncheeze: I’ve never even heard of it
Tom: I got to manage 50 acres of vineyards so that was good. I learned a lot about growing grapes and vineyard management.
Mackncheeze: So you just fell into this?
Tom: Yeah the whole thing. When I worked at L’Ecole they sent me to school at UC Davis. When I first got there I had no idea what they were talking about. When I went back the next year it kind of made sense. Year three, I got it; between schooling and practical application is what set it straight.
Mackncheeze : So you have no degree? Practical experience is the whole thing?
Tom: Yep, at that time, most people in Walla Walla learned how to make wine by making wine.
I was at Ash Hollow in 2003 to 2004. In 2004 my dad passed and I said to myself, I’ve got to do my own thing. I was tired of working for other people. So I quit and found an investor who helped me start my winery. I was just about ready to pull the trigger on that deal and my buddy Mike Sharon, who was the winemaker at L’Ecole 41 said, “Why don’t I help you out.”
In 2005 we started Balboa Winery with $40,000.
Mackncheeze: Really, that’s nothing.
Tom: Tom Waliser helped a lot. He created space for me so that I could vinify wine. We were the first people to use screw caps in Walla Walla.
Mackncheeze: Really? I haven’t seen any of your wines with screw caps.
Tom: I have four wines with screw caps.
I like the concept. I think it’s a much better capsule. The wines age fine. That’s the big thing, before it goes in the bottle, you have to make wine correctly.
Mackncheeze: That’s what you’re all about, making wine correctly.
Tom: Two and a half years ago we merged Beresan Wines and Balboa Wines.
I was thinking about this earlier. I love my job now more than I ever. I get to hang out with really great folks. I love playing golf, I love playing guitar, I love making wine, these are things which will never be perfect. I can always try to be better.
This is my 22nd year of wine making. I love walking through Vineyards and tasting grapes and running the numbers. I love the group of people who go through a harvest together, it’s seven days a week, 12 hour days, you become extremely close with that group of people. Some of my closest friends are people I have worked with during harvest.
I could go on for days.
The whole relationship between sunshine and dirt and plants and temperature, I mean, it’s different every single year. You have to be able to adapt. You can’t make wine the same way every year. That’s what I love about wine, we are always trying to capture wine at its peak regardless of vintage. Last year was tricky. It was a cooler; the fruit was ripe but sugar levels were low. Physically, the grapes were ready to go, so we picked. A lot of wineries did not.
Mackncheeze: The wine was more complex?
Tom: Yeah it was. I like cooler vintages. The 2011 vintage wines are still great. They will be great longer than the wines from 2015. I would never say one vintage is necessarily better than the rest, it’s always a reflection of what that year was. That’s why we make wine the way we do. Our wines reflect vintage; this is what we were given.
Scores are very challenging. How are you supposed to score wine if you haven’t been part of the process? You weren’t there, how do you know? You don’t know the soils, you don’t know the harvest, you don’t know the vineyards. There could have been six 100-point wines in that release because that’s the best you could have done with both grapes and vintage. It’s extremely difficult to judge a great wine unless you know how it was made.
You want to talk about the art side of what I do? It truly is an art; I mean, we’ve decided to use as few of commercial products as possible. That decision we made because we feel our wine is more like a wine should be. A lot of wine making is just a job; some winemakers make a wine because its profile is predetermined.
As a young winemaker, I was geared towards younger wines, but now I think it’s much more fun to drink older wines. I have wines I made in 98 and 99, it’s so fun to try them.
Mackncheeze: How you feeling about them?
My office is in a wine library. In that room I’m surrounded by every bottle of wine I’ve made for Beresan. I remember the sense of all the work, this is where I was, this is what went on that year. It’s great, I love it.