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March 17, 2008

Filed under: music»technique»lyrics

What Plugs To Pull

Monster Magnet has a line in one of their songs, "Bummer," that basically sums up the entire genre of stoner rock:

It's against my second nature
Not to chase you down that hole
I need a fistful of medication
Just to keep it in my pants
Although it's not quite the same without Dave Wyndorf's derisive "HAW HAW HAW HAW" after it.

What other lyrics so succinctly sum up their genre? There's got to be a bunch, but I'm having trouble thinking of them. For the blues, it's probably hard to beat this gem from Willie Dixon's "Third Degree":

Got me 'cused of taxes
I ain't got a dime
Got me 'cused of children
And ain't nary one of 'em mine
Bad luck
Bad luck is killin' me
Dixon, of course, wrote a great deal of Muddy Waters' repertoire, and had his songs ripped off by Led Zeppelin. If anyone represents the genre, it's him.

Anything coming to mind for anything else? It seems to me like it's harder to do the less codified the subject matter for a given genre--blues has a pretty straightforward thematic set, so it's far easier. Hip-hop, metal, and country are probably likewise simpler to find (and subgenres like stoner rock or nerdcore are even easier). But what to do for something like indie, or jazz?

Trivia experiments like this always make me want to try to write something that goes way outside of the standard definitions for a genre's subject matter. A nerdcore blues song, for example, would be a fun thing to attempt.

October 27, 2006

Filed under: music»technique»bass

The Outer Limits

A rare interview with Squarepusher, the experimental electronic musician, was posted to the Lowdown the other day. I had heard, somewhere, that he was a bassist, but I since I'm not much of a fan of techno I hadn't paid much attention. He talks about how his electronic side project became more well-known than his work in bands, and then plays a short solo on six-string bass without any effects. It's surprisingly melodic. I'm still not really interested in his techno pieces, but I am impressed with what he does.

What was interesting was the reaction from one of the bassists, who was conflicted about Squarepusher's use of chords on a bass. He wrote that he wasn't sure why the solo shouldn't have been played on a guitar or a piano, instruments with a higher range, instead of on a bass where the lower strings weren't being used constantly. The poster also wondered why this was considered "pushing the limits of bass" when similar techniques have been used on other instruments, ones capable of greater polyphony. Later, he clarified that he's still working out his thinking on this. I don't want you to think this was some sort of blood feud. But I did take it personally, a little.

I don't pretend to be some kind of unbelievable pioneer on bass guitar. But one of my pet peeves is to be told that I sound "just like a guitarist," or to be asked why I don't just play my music on a guitar. I play bass because I like the feel and the physicality of the instrument, as well as the sound it makes. It's frustrating to be told that I can't make a different kind of music just because the bass "isn't supposed to be played like that."

A lot of that comes from playing rock music, as far as I'm concerned. For a young musical form, it didn't take long to solidify the arrangements--and particularly in the wake of classic rock and hair metal, to solidify the guitarist's hold on center stage, much to the dismay of every other instrumentalist on earth. Not to mention the relegation of the bass guitar--itself only fifty years old--to a limited style and role. Go beyond that, and for a lot of people you might as well have grown a third arm.

That's why I don't really listen to people like Squarepusher or Vic Wooten on a regular basis, but I'm really glad they're out there. It's hard to try to expand the instrument's role, especially when perception works against you in two ways: either you're playing too many notes, or you're just imitating your betters.

January 2, 2006

Filed under: music»technique»looping

It doesn't speed up, either

Conversation after my open mic last night with a guitarist in the audience:

Guitarist: Hey, how do you keep the loop from slowing down?

Me: (confused look) I'm sorry...?

Guitarist: (examines looper) Well, you're using the DL-4, right? Yeah, I've got the same pedal. But usually it slows down.

Me: (still confused) You're using the sample function?

Guitarist: Uh-huh.

Me: Well, that doesn't slow down. There's no feedback function on the Line 6.

Guitarist: Yeah, but when I play with a drummer it starts out okay, and then the loop slows down.

Me: Then your drummer's speeding up. Is he playing with a metronome?

Guitarist: No, man, he's a jazz drummer, he's rock solid.

Me: Well, something's off. I mean... Look, do you practice on your own with it?

Guitarist: Yeah...

Me: I don't know what to tell you. The loop needs to be very precise.

Guitarist: Right. I guess so. I love the sound of the pedal, but it keeps slowing down...

If you decide to do what I do, and by all means you should because it's a great way to practice and build a sense of rhythm, learn this well: the loop does not change. It does not slow down. It does not speed up. That is the whole point of a loop. And because it is mindless, the loop is god. It takes time to get used to playing over samples, because they won't react to you the way a regular band does, but it will teach you to be a better listener, and I've noticed that I've gotten much better at maintaining a tempo since I started.

You have to get it right the first time, and then change to fit the loop if necessary. Because the loop will not change to fit you.

I'm willing to bet that drummers and many bassists especially have trouble with this. As the rhythm section of a traditional band, we're used to setting the dynamic--which is great, that's our job in that role. When you play with a loop, your role must, to some extent, become more of a soloist/accompanist. No matter how solid you think you are, the loop does not slow down.

December 28, 2005

Filed under: music»technique»looping

Qu'est que c'est

Last night I played Psycho Killer at Stacy's with someone who didn't know the chords or the strum pattern. I was reduced to shouting chords on the fly as I figured them out from the bassline. Combined with the way that I play/sing Psycho Killer, which jacks up the crazy factor about as high as it is possible to go, it was probably a unique experience for us all. I've missed playing the song, and I think it's time to add it to my set. Here's how I'm going to do it.

Psycho Killer, like most Talking Heads songs, is pretty simple in structure. According to band history book This Must Be The Place, the Talking Heads would often build songs by recording themselves jamming, extract inspired parts, and then splice those progressions together. This gives many of their songs a hypnotic repetition, and facilitated the call-and-response work that made Stop Making Sense such an amazing collection of work. Psycho Killer was one of the band's first songs (indeed, it was the first song that Byrne brought to Weymouth and Franz), and is constructed more traditionally. This makes it a more challenging loop from a playing perspective, but somewhat simplifies the arrangement process.

I arrange songs to fit the Four String Riot in three basic ways. The first is to use a single loop for the entire song. Voodoo Funk uses one background loop the whole time, as does my cover of Naive Melody and the Zelda theme. Songs where I'm primarily sampling percussive sounds also use this method, like Closer (with its boom-shhhk drumbeat) and anything by the White Stripes. Most pop music, however, doesn't use just one progression, but alters it at least once (for the chorus) and often twice or more (bridges and more intricate verse structures). For these songs, I try to find a way of bringing the loop in and out as emphasis, and use technique or technology to fill space when the bass is solo. For example, my cover of Island in the Sun loops the verse progression for a very full, cheery sound, and then drops the loop out and replaces it with heavily distorted chords in the chorus. In contrast, We Used To Be Friends has a big chorus loop, and I fill space in the verse by combining the bassline with percussive slaps (oddly enough, that song actually only uses two basic chord shifts, and just swaps them around, but that sounds weird in a loop). The temporary loop method gives me more complex structures to work with, but it's more technically difficult to perform: I have to trigger the DL-4 in and out at the right times, while working my other effects and singing, plus the unaccompanied bass shouldn't sound too empty.

Not that I'm complaining. The challenge is the whole point of this project.

So for my third method, which I haven't really implemented so far, I'm planning on incorporating a little bit of the previous two. The loop will be running the entire song, but creative use of the DL-4's playback options will allow me to cover several chord progressions in one loop. For those who aren't familiar with the pedal, it gives me two special options for loop output. The first is the 1/2 speed switch, which also plays loops at 2x speed if you recorded them while in "slow" mode, and will reverse-play a loop in either speed with a doubletap. These are really cool abilities, but not always useful in a song context (it would honestly be much more helpful if I could speed up or slow down the loop by degrees, but that's neither here nor there).

The second playback option is the Play Once button, which does exactly what it sounds like. If the loop is currently playing, it will stop once it reaches the end instead of repeating as usual. If the Play Once mode has already been activated, pressing it again will restart the loop from the beginning and play it (you guessed it!) once. That sounds very limited (and it is), but in a song like Psycho Killer where the chord progression cycles back on itself several times, it works perfectly. Let me show you how. Here are the lyrics and chords for the first verse/chorus of the song:

A       A            A         A G
I canít seem to face up to the facts
A             A           A       A G
Iím tense and nervous and i canít relax
A       A              A         A G
I canít sleep ícause my bedís on fire
A     A             A          A G 
Donít touch me Iím a real live wire
F              G
Psycho killer, quíest que cíest
A     A        A        A     G
Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
F            G           C
Run run run run run run run away
F               G
Oh-oh-oh-ooooh 

Hopefully you can see that there are two basic patterns there. The first is A-G, and the second is F-G-C (truncated the first time through). They fit together in a predictable way, i.e. pattern two is almost always preceded by at least one repetition of pattern one. I can create a conglomerate loop that sums up the whole song, minus the bridge, by recording patterns one and two combined (A-G-F-G) and restarting it constantly. This does require fudging the very last part of the pattern, but since A and G are both members of the C major scale, I think I can retrigger the loop there and use the live bass to accent the C instead. It'll become a passing note instead of the dominant chord.

Start loop, press Play Once to prime the loop
I canít seem to face up to the facts
Restart loop with Play Once
Iím tense and nervous and i canít relax
Restart loop
I canít sleep ícause my bedís on fire
Restart loop
Donít touch me Iím a real live wire
Allow loop to continue through G
Psycho killer, quíest que cíest
Restart loop
Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Allow loop to run through completion, then begin again at the C
Run run run run run run run away
Allow loop to finish again, restart
Oh-oh-oh-ooooh 

Add in Byrne's jittery little drum line, complete with slap bass to replace the mid-song bridge and breakdown from the live version, and you have a complete 4SR cover.

Future - Present - Past