Interview with Todd Ainsworth AKA Murl Hartwood of Seattle Country Band, Hartwood
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I first learned of the K.I.S.S. concept in college jazz lab band. The professor, a horn player by the name of Bart, introduced the notion to soloists. I loved Bart; he was awesome.
Evidently there are two ways to interpret K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple Stupid, or, Keep It Simple, Stupid. I always considered the latter as proper interpretation. Evidently, the U.S. Navy, who by the way, coined the acronym, identifies with the former. Just keeping things stupid simple, or simple stupid, alleviates greater frequency of errors.
I’ve always thought in terms of, “Hey Stupid, keep it simple.” But that’s me and my sarcastic mind set.
I think it is a perfect way to interpret a mix, especially when starting with a foundation. Simplify, keeping the concept stupid simple, identify your substructure: drums, vocals, melody, rhythm tracks, use your own judgment, then base your mix on that.
I constantly cross reference mixes from the big boys, using compromised sound sources ( iPhone speakers, bluetooth speakers, crappy head phones, extremely low volume near-field play back, listening from another room, car stereos while driving…)
For me, the ultimate foundational K.I.S.S. mixing technique: Isolate the kick and the lead vocals. Make those two voices as musical as possible, then move on. That’s what I do. E.Q. and compress the kick drum and vocals and blend them the best I am able; everything else follows.
K.I.S.S. can also be applied to personal rehearsal. Being a drummer, I imagine the concept is much less complex. I break down rhythmic passages into 2’s and 3’s and slow the metronome to excrutiatingly slow BPM, requiring painful concentration, actually making my brain hurt.
When practicing like this, I can actually feel new neural paths carving different channels through my brain. I have told this can delay Alzheimer’s but does nothing to alleviate Some Timers or Delayed Intelligence.
In all my endeavors, I try to start with as basic as an idea as possible. It’s overthinking that complicates matters.
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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.
In my world, friendship is everything.
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Is there respect? Am I receiving the accreditation I deserve?
Is there reciprocation?
Level of commitment? What are the goals? Is the band a social club, which is fine, if that’s the definition of the band. Does it match my expectations?
Environment. Do you feel comfortable? Are you welcome or are you a door mat?
Politics. Is there an underlying power struggle going within the group? Finding it hard to work with folks? Is flow happening?
Would I spend my free time with the band members? If I am in it for the long haul, I am going to hang in there, thick or thin.
Trust. Would I want my Mother to know these people? Would she except them, enjoy them, love them?
These are things I consider and priorities I set when working with others.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Laughter is the best medicine, so they say.
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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.
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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.
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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!
Happy Fourth Of July
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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.
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There’s your family, there’s your job. In your life, where is the Third place you derive your sense of community?
It used to be church, or civic clubs, some sort of lodge, maybe the library. Nowadays, Starbucks has laid claim to being a place of gathering. All I see there are people with coffee and laptop, getting some work done; social interaction is minimal.
Social media may have some claim, but I see it as being a superficial outlet. I do not consider the internet as a sane or rational forum for discussion. For me, community is derived from face to face interaction and shared interest.
For those who are musically minded, may I suggest various jam sessions and song writing groups provide A Third Place. In my own experience, I have seen close friendships develop within those “communities”. In this age of Tweets and Instagram, I believe this is super healthy association.
Aren’t most of our successes realized with the help of others?
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