Honk. Squeee! Blat...

Jul 02, 2020
Moving studios three times in the past five years has definitely been, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of a drag, for all the unsurprising reasons. And yet, it hasn't been completely devoid of positives. To paraphrase the python rock-snake in Kipling's Just So Stories...'Vantage number one: proximity to a rotating cast of smart, talented folks with good conversational skills. 'Vantage number two: I know how to pack up my entire herd of instruments and gear in under 48 hours, then reassemble it in the first two hours of a three-hour deadline to write pickup truck music. 'Vantage number three: rediscovering espresso about two studios ago. And finally, 'vantage number four: you never know what stray bits of gear will show up when you get there.

At my last place, three of us shared the use of a vocal booth on the second floor, which meant if no one was doing anything serious at the time, like cutting voiceover recordings, I could go track with my pal Matt's Neumann U67. Or, when I had something serious to do – pickup truck commercials come to mind – I could wheel fellow composer Chris's Marshall half-stack into the room and pretend I knew what to do with it. Often,  the casual expertise that came with these pieces of gear was the best part. I found out the hard way that you have to always make sure the front of the mic is facing towards you before you start recording. Put another way – Matt's way – "Wow, you actually found a way to make that amazing mic not sound totally amazing." When I couldn't get a decent sound out of the Marshall, Chris explained the problem: I was using too nice a mic. "Yeah," he said, jamming a Shure SM-57 up against the grille cloth, "it's one of those things where the bonehead way really is the best."

At the current studio, my landlord Billy is still moving a few odds and ends out. Three weeks ago he stuck his head in and asked if I wanted a couple of trumpets. Well. Yes, I said. Yes I did want a couple of trumpets. Is there anybody who wouldn't want a couple of trumpets?

Now, the black plastic one is almost impossible to play, but Billy warned me about that. It's still taken me the better part of a week to get more than one pitch out of the brass one. I was fooling around with it yesterday, trying to get the hang of how the overtones work, because you can get a root, a fifth, and then the root above that without using any of the valves. You do it by adjusting your lips, which is sort of fascinating and sort of infuriating at the same time. It was finally almost working, and then, on another trip back by the studio, Billy said, "You should learn a scale next." Huh. I'd looked up a fingering chart the day I got the beasts, and it was too much information at once. But now, I thought, ok. This is a guy who builds his own studios, builds his own instruments, repairs his own amps, transcribes entire soundtrack albums, writes musicals and teaches mixing and composing for television. If he says I should learn a scale, I should probably learn a scale.

So I did. But instead of looking up another chart, I did it by trial and error – just pushing combinations of valves to see what happened, and trying to remember what I'd done so I could string it all together. It's a lot of work, for the lungs and the lips, so I had to do it in bits and pieces throughout the afternoon. But by the end of the day I could actually sort of play a major scale – and find a couple of blue notes as well, though all of it was still pretty cracked, breathy and unreliable. I piled into the car and went home, but really, all I wanted to do was keep standing around in the studio making horrible beginner trumpet noises, because I was having so much fun.

I have no idea if I'll keep trying to figure it out. But it reminded me of when my friend Peter Keane decided to learn slide guitar. He was already a touring musician with a couple of records out on Rounder when he decided to do it, and he made a conscious decision not to buy any books or do anything but just figure it out for himself, because he'd never done things that way before. For intellectual hothouse plants like Peter and myself, there's something almost illicit about learning the hard way, just banging away without the benefit of anyone else's organization or insight. There's definitely something liberating about trying to do something I have absolutely zero investment in doing "for real" or even doing well. If I get so far as to be able to blow a few five-note blues licks in Bb, well and good; I can truly call it a day without any need whatsoever to learn to do so in another key, much less at any particular tempo, or even in tune.

I'm not sure where the impulse to expand and improve comes from. I have it spades for the guitar, but ironically, the more I've turned it upside down, narrowing the scope of what I'm trying to do, the more I've enjoyed being a guitarist. Presumably that's because if you narrow your focus, you can concentrate more of your energy on fewer things, the ones you've decided to care about at the expense of the ones you're letting go of. The day I decided only to fingerpick, I cut adrift any sense that "well, gee, as an acoustic guitar player and roots-music aficionado, shouldn't I be better at flatpicking than I am?" Now, I know the answer most emphatically is: ah, nope. Love me some Norman Blake and Tony Rice, but happy to let them do their thing while I do mine. (Generous of me, I know.)

As a result of countless decisions like that over the past decade or more – and they pick up speed and momentum, the more of them I make – I feel more focused and more adept at the things I have chosen, and nearly negligible regret at this point about the equally countless paths not taken. In some ways, it's a kind of creative decluttering – you let go of the things that feel like obligations, and hold onto the ones that light you up inside.

Based on past experience, I'm pretty sure I won't be content with just playing the one trumpet scale in one key, and that's the secret. When you chase the fun – the paths that light you up – you don't stop trying, and working. It just feels less like work in the first place, and even when you do hit the inevitable roadblocks, you bounce back sooner because it seems more worth it.

Honk. Squeeee! Blat...

More soon,