Development Part 1 – Invest the Time

Today I’m beginning a series of shortish entries on development.  Something (perhaps decades of bigger-than-life celebrities) has dulled Americans’ sense of reality and left us believing that over-night success is not only real but also the best and possibly only path to achievement.

Any skill worth having requires effort and time to develop.  There are a lucky few who just come out of the womb with serious ability, but even these people must develop.

Bjork in 1976:

Bjork in 2015:

 

 

I feel like there are two seriously flawed beliefs  that result from denying the need for development.  They are not mutually exclusive:

1) if you can’t do something perfectly and effortlessly RIGHT NOW, you’ll never be able to do it ever so why bother?

2) you don’t need to develop your craft because you’re already really good and the world just isn’t aware of your radiance.

These beliefs both take the “playing to your strengths” philosophy to the extreme point of “completely ignoring your weaknesses”.

#1 struggles to develop new skills because they refuse to give any attention to anything they’re not already good at doing.  They are relegated to the tools in their toolbox – they don’t develop new skills.  They want to be good/finished/rewarded right now or not bother.  They often have incredible strengths but lack the discipline to do to the unfun but necessary things to keep things moving.

#2 wagers that he/she is the next one to be annointed by the gate-keepers and when it doesn’t happen, they age into a weird sense of bitter entitlement for having not really done anything good or at all.  They expect the rest of the world make-up for the fallout created by their imperfect beauty.  (I feel like Courtney Love is the poster child for this in some ways)

 

Now, I’m definiltely a fan of playing to your strengths.  Why make your first stringers sit on the bench while the B-Team is out there missing easy shots and losing the game?  But sometimes you have to play to your weaknesses even if you don’t want to develop them.

No one’s good at everything.

Maybe for you it’s managing money or time.  Maybe it’s interpersonal interactions.  Maybe it’s stage fright.  Some weaknesses must be overcome at least passably or the problems they create will develop faster than your strengths!

Anyway… Developement is simply the process of growth and it’s usually slow.  It can be accelerated by things like guidance, money and smart choices, but mostly, it’s an investment of time. If you want to be good at something, spend time doing it and let your long, long string of tiny successes and experiences culminate into something bigger.

And I mean long.  The other day, I was practicing and I played something I realized that the me of 10 years ago had struggled with.  I remember playing it for hours over and over one night at my old house in south Austin.  That night and the 10 years of nights just like it that followed paid off.  Just not quickly.

Interview with Chico Jones from Boss Battle and Ohm Recording Facility

Chico was the first friend I made when I moved to Austin in late 1999.  There was no craigslist then but we did meet online while I was still living in Dallas.   Chico was looking for a bass player and I was moving to Austin.  I joined his band Object as bass player as soon as I moved to town.  I didn’t last terribly long.  We found a drummer/bass player duo that really, really fit with Chico’s vision.  I moved to guitar but… I wasn’t right for it and I was eventually let go.  It was no big deal.  I knew I was too goof.  But I’d already made a serious connection with Chico.  I knew we’d be lifelong friends.

Chico was always into recording.  Back then, he’d record using a Yamaha all-in-one multi-track recorder that now sits next to the massive console at Ohm Recording Facility – presumably as a reminder of humble beginnings.

His recording engineering took off.  He quit his day job a few years ago to run the studio full time.  That slowed his own music writing/performing/releasing which has been great for other bands’ recordings but not so hot if you’re a fan of Chico’s songs.  I’ve always liked Chico’s music.  It’s like Soundgarden, Tool, Jesus Lizard and a 80s synth pop all rolled together with the energy and percussive thump of a rap show.

These days, his band is called Boss Battle.  Boss Battle has a new and much anticipated EP called Attack Time and hits the road for a western tour with Sky Acre next week.  Here’s an interview with Chico:

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pic by Erin Frazier

 

It’s been a long time (10 years?) since Robot Child With a God Complex came out.  You’ve changed the band name to Boss Battle and even got a new female vocalist.  What took so long?

It’s been 6 years.  The main reason it took so long is Ohm Recording Facility.  So everyone else’s recordings took precedence over our album–that won’t ever change.   I love engineering and producing and the studio is my job.  The next holdup was a lineup change.  But that proved to be something that has propelled Boss Battle forward with more momentum than the old band ever had.

How has the sound changed?  What’s new compared to six years ago?

The sound is a lot better now.  We know it and everyone that hears the EP or sees us live agrees.  Sonically,  I got more savvy managing all the analog synths while still keeping Ben’s drums huge.  On the vocal end, I stopped holding back or started to find my voice within the mess of sound–something clicked. Plus Erin can sing circles around me and most people I know.  Makes it easy to be better when someone is simply better.

But we also worked hard to write better songs.  Ben and I improvised over half of the structures on Robot Child.  But for Attack Time we wrote with more intention–and then I hacked and rearranged as usual.  And then Erin helped with a necessary finishing critique to make sure we didn’t fall short or get lazy.
There’s not another band in Austin (or maybe anywhere) that’s much like you.  What inspires your sound, lyrics and percussive energy?
When we ask people to define our sound objectively, they tell us we sort of sound like this or that.   We do try to quantify it in order to build good shows and to promote the band accurately.  But most people agree that we don’t sound like any band or genre in particular right now.  We understand that our sound is unique.  That is definitely something that has been important to me since I was a kid.  I have no idea why.  I don’t mean it was important for me to be different… I mean I always liked stuff that sounded a little weird–or a lot weird.
Plus, I have obsessively loved and devoured so many different styles of music throughout the years that it’s just all mixed up in there now.  And I’ve been aware for a while that I’m not really a fan of any genre or any band but that I am totally loyal to certain records or certain songs or certain moments in songs.  Maybe the music I have been writing lately is simply an attempt to string  some of those moments together.  But really I think I’m just trying to make songs that showcase those favorite moments.  It’s fun for me.  But I often say this, most of the structures start with Ben and I riffing or jamming loudly in a rehearsal room.  And I can barely play guitar or I hardly play it the way it should be played.  Piano was my first instrument.   So there’s the percussive energy you mentioned at the heart of all the best songs–it’s very physical and not very technical.

Attack Time was inspired by trying to evolve past Robot Child.  It’s part of 13 songs.  Like I said, it was important to push myself vocally and lyrically.  So the story telling got a bit more in depth.  Themes were more concise and less stream of consciousness.  I approached the vocals differently too.  I always wanted to hear one male and two female voices in our songs. So we did it on this album with Claire Puckett’s guest appearances.  We didn’t worry about it translating into live performance.  Erin and I trade off frequently on Attack Time and we weren’t afraid to put Claire right in front when necessary.

I experimented with more synths this time.  In the past,  I set some rules like this synth will cover the bass sounds etc.  but for Attack Time, just like the approach to vocal parts, no synth was allowed to reign any region too long.   Same goes for guitars .  I used about 5-10% of the guitar tones from Robot Child.  I really had a good time with the guitars.  This is not a guitar-based band.  But lots of people are giving good feedback on the guitar sounds.  Silicone diodes are amazing.

 

Speaking of vocals, how did Erin Frazier (your new singer) come to be in the band?

Erin is my person.  I love her.  That is the best part of the story.  But I definitely met her because of this record.  I was auditioning voices for the female vocal parts and my friend, Lisa (The Well), recommended that I contact Erin. Erin rocked songs. We had to spend a lot of time together as you often do while recording. But we found excuses to see each other outside of the studio too.  Eventually we could not be separated.

You’ve had a lot of roadblocks along the way with personnel and other issues.  There was a long period of very little activity by   How have you kept moving forward?
I think the most inactivity we had was when I started recording full time (before Boss Battle).  The hours are long.  And a lot of creativity is focused on the good bands that choose to work with me.  So I would just coast through rehearsals instead of writing new material.  And the old band just stopped trying to make things happen and seemed to be waiting for something to happen instead.  The difference now is that all three of us are busy outside of Boss Battle.  But we are working hard like any good band should.  We are not waiting for an opportunity.
You’ve been operating the Ohm Recording Facility over ten years and have sort of become to Austin what Steve Albini was to Chicago in the 90s.  What have been some of the highlights in that time?
I hope Steve Albini isn’t reading this.  I am definitely a fan of his work, his bands, his attitude.  My friends in The Gary and I joke about my five minutes of fame working on their record — Albini recorded and mixed it and I handled one overdub on it.  So my name is right there with his in the credits.  I have been operating in this space since 2004.  I really do enjoy recording and mixing and yes, producing.  Helping people write full songs or rearrange songs is very close to my heart–it’s the reason i learned to record.  To me and probably to most musicians the studio is part of the band experience.   You can sing a song in the shower or map it out in garage band or rock it on stage but most people will know your song in its recorded form.  And the studio production has a huge impact on that recording.  That’s probably why engineers like Albini try to stay out of the way.  That’s the artists’ music–not the engineer’s music.  So I definitely try hard to stay out of the way too. But if they want all my help–then yes I will add whatever it takes.  As for highlights, almost every session.  I know there are popular bands or better-skilled bands or more hip bands that can be used as calling cards.  But honestly, I don’t go to the studio everyday to be associated with those people.  My favorite highlights –just as i mentioned above–are often moments on a session vs the record itself.  And for a nerdy engineer it’s not interesting stuff like we spun a microphone around the room while the singer screamed naked and later slipped on his own diarrhea.  In contrast, it’s the memory when i plugged something in wrong and accidentally got this crazy bass sound that reminded me of a song from 1975.  it seems that the more time i spend in the studio, the more chances i have to try new things and make mistakes and piece the sonic puzzle together.  and all of that experience helps the next band even if they are a totally different style.  and it helps me figure out new ideas for Boss Battle’s music too.
What kind of music do you wish you could record more often?  (or is there’s any kind you’ve never done but would like to?)
I feel sorry for engineers who specialize in one genre of music.  I’m lucky because 1) I record lots of different genres, often back to back, and 2) I live in Austin so I also get to record local bands who mix genres together in gutsy and/or bizarre ways.  I honestly haven’t lusted to record a certain genre.  Maybe I should do that to be more business-minded.  Much of the studio time is spent with the band members.  If those people are good people then I’m happy–just like any other job environment.  Of course, I want popular bands and genres to frequent the studio.  But my favorite bands in the end are hard-working bands,  You can feel it.  They could be serious or jovial, super focused or scatter-brained in the studio.  But you can feel it.  They like being in a band.  They like writing and recording.  They like playing live, touring , doing whatever needs to be done to be a musician.  They don’t fake it. It’s inspiring.
You took a leap of faith a few years ago and went full time at Ohm.  What keeps you afloat?
Money.  Haha.  Seriously.  If I didn’t make money I would still write, record, perform music.  I would work a non-music job like I did for years.  In reality the studio is still a job.  It’s just a job that I really like.  But if I can’t pay my bills then the show must not go on.  That’s not a glamorous answer but it’s the truth.  I think that many of us are conditioned to measure success against a few lucky people in the industry.  No one is going to write about all the failed studios that close every year or all the bands who’s dreams never came true.  So for a lot of people it’s all or none.  It’s like saying that someone who enjoys cooking has to own a restaurant.  And if they don’t own a successful restaurant then somehow they failed.  That’s ridiculous.  I know that I’m a musician.  Music makes me happy even when my life seems upside down.  So I surround myself with it.  It’s not the dream of being successful that keeps me going.  It’s knowing what I love to do and finding time to do it. I can’t fail in that scenario.  But I might have to work a less than ideal job like most people in life. Boo hoo.
What do you hope to see in the future for Ohm and yourself as an engineer and producer?
Ohm is awesome: The space, the gear, the sounds you can get–it’s solid, and it keeps getting better.   I just want it to be busy all the time.  I want local bands to make good records with good engineers.  And I want those recordings to turn more attention to Austin.  I think Austin filmmakers are trying to do the same thing.  There are a lot of creative people here and they deserve work.  But it’s not really about records alone.  As I said before it’s about hard-working bands.  Bands make an impact by touring other cities and or countries.  That impact ripples back to Austin.  I can’t control a band’s work ethic.  But I have made good records with independent bands who are now signed.  I want more of that.  Making a record is easy.  Making a good record takes more than a studio.  And getting people to actually hear that record takes a lot of guts unless you are independently wealthy.  So unless I win the lottery, the only way I can control that hopeful future is trying harder myself as an engineer and producer and working musician…and attracting other no-bullshit engineers producers and musicians.
Why do you do what you do?
I enjoy it.  But something tells me I’m supposed to do it.  I have a lot of voices in my head.  And I feel like I’ve worn a lot of hats or lived a lot of different lives simultaneously along the way.  But there’s a bit more clarity around that part of my brain or psyche or whatever you believe in.  There are things that you know look good on your life’s resume by most people’s standards.  But there are things that resonate with you despite what anyone thinks.  I guess that’s your truth and your truth alone.  Maybe that’s stubbornness or stupidity–and I’ve convinced myself that this is what I should be doing with my time.   But it’s always there.  It’s there when everything is fucked.  it’s there when something else amazing is happening.  I can’t help myself.  That’s why I do it.