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Since I can remember, my dad had the album 15 Big Ones playing in our living room. This was the song I always wanted to hear because of the calliope-like organ part in the bridge. I was amazed that a rock song could have a carnival sound infused into it. I thought that was amazing, even at age four or five.
My great-grandmother took me to Shopko when I was in fourth grade and told me I could pick whatever I wanted to buy. Having just visited Graceland on a family trip, I immediately went to the very small record section and found two Elvis Presley albums, one of which featured this song. The record itself was a transparent blue vinyl. When I heard the sax solo, I was hooked. I told my mom I wanted to play the instrument I had heard.
When I heard this in sixth grade, I started to get the idea that I could record a song. I thought, “I could do that!” So I did. I enlisted some friends and we made a recording of Surfin’ Bird. A world of possibilities had just opened.
Featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day off, this song blew me out of the water when I was in sixth grade. I couldn’t believe a song could be this funny and so incredibly different from anything on the radio. Though I had not yet written a song, I realized while listening to this that anything goes in songwriting. I could do whatever I wanted! Quite a revelation for a kid trying to figure out what a “real song” was. It was whatever I wanted it to be.
Do You Like Worms
When I was in Jr. High, my dad used to take me to a record store called Oar Folkjokeopus. In the basement there was another store that no one was supposed to know about called The Record Collector’s Co-op. There we found a booleg of the legendary Smile LP which was supposed to have come out in the late 60s by the surf rock group The Beach Boys. When we heard it, we couldn’t believe it. It was completely different than anything I had ever heard. What struck me the most was the “Heroes and Villains” theme which reoccurred throughout the slivers of different song pieces. The thought that a rock album could have an interwoven theme really got me going as a songwriter.
She’s Got Me Walkin’
Also in Jr. High, my dad would listen to KFAI in the evenings which featured “The Lazy Bill Lucas Show.” What I heard in Lazy Bill Lucas was this very simple, straight ahead blues. He played a walking bass line with his left hand and chords or solos with the right. Listening to songs like this was how I learned to play piano.
Built For Comfort
Once I got into blues, I really locked in with Willie Dixon. His songwriting taught me so much about structuring simple lyrics. When you have no idea how to do something, and then you listen to someone who does, you can have these “ah-ha” moments during which you get farther into your craft than you realized you could. That’s what I got from Willie Dixon, and “Built for Comfort” was a favorite of mine to play. Still is.
Under African Skies
My dad gave me this tape with a yellow cover and some drawing of an old guy on a horse. The tape wasn’t rewound, so I just stuck it into my stereo in and hit play. When I heard this song, I instantly recognized that it was unlike anything I was hearing on the radio. There were sounds in there that I couldn’t name. And the lyrics…that’s when I really began to see what lyrics could be. I could never have written, I am sure, without having heard this album.
Once I got to my freshman year of high school, I started to realize that a recording of a song was, in fact, a production. There were layers. There could be several things happening at one time. So you can take a good song and turn it into a great production. I listened to this and went, “Wow.” It’s a real production. The basic instrumentation stays the same throughout, but there is a bridge with a tempo change. It goes into a whole other feel there. That really opened my producer’s imagination up when I heard that.
My buddy turned me onto this jazz pianist who sang along with himself. I listened and could hear him singing in this scratchy voice and thought it was hilarious. But I found myself continuing to listen to this album, over and over. What I was taking in was the ragged, lyrical quality of Bud Powell’s playing. I can’t explain it, but it has simply been stamped onto my musical psyche. I can’t imagine not knowing this album exists.
I absolutely did not understand how this track worked when I first heard it as a freshman in high school. You’ve got these guys kind of yelling on top of this electronic-sounding drum part with this distorted guitar in the background. It made absolutely no sense why all the elements were together, but something about the track was exhilarating. It was great, and my buddy and I tried to do our own rap songs after hearing this stuff. It was another lesson in fusion for me.
I must have listened to this song over and over for months trying to understand how Brian Wilson accomplished it. There are sound effects, musical moods, an overarching story, and several movements all put together in a way that made perfect sense. It was a huge departure from the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus formula that I was trying to stick to in my own recordings. I suddenly realized I was free to follow any formula I wanted.
Not long after devouring Rio Grande, my buddy handed me a copied cassette tape between classes that simply said, “Foxtrot.” He told me he thought I would like it. That was an understatement. It was like a 24-minute version of everything I liked about Rio Grande. Instead of six or seven parts, this had at least twice as many, and they all blended perfectly into one another. I immediately knew I could do something like this someday, but not in 1988. It would be four years before I would realize my goal with a 30-minute suite of my own called Gloved Rabbit. Its final track is the final track of my recent Postcards from the Abyss CD.
When Batdance came out on the radio in 1989, I thought it was brilliant. Pieces of dialogue from the upcoming movie arranged into the music…I can’t explain what a revelation it was to hear dialogue in a song. And it served as a great advertisement for the movie. That blew me out. Eventually, I would end up recording my own suite, complete with a spoken word story, called Description a year after Gloved Rabbit came out.
I grew up listening to Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, Guns ‘N Roses…that kind of metal. But I hadn’t paid much attention to Metallica until I heard “One” in 1990. My whole idea of metal, as well as song subject matter, changed when I heard this. A song based on a movie based on a book, a song that was not a love song, and a song with an un-implied message. You could take from it what you wanted, or you could leave it. The production was a predecessor to the coming grunge movement with its clean verses in sharp contrast to distorted choruses/bridge. It absolutely changed my mind about Metallica as well as music in general when I heard it.
Are You Ready For This
In 1992 my buddy had a Chevy Blazer which he had outfitted with two subwoofers. He had me come out to his truck between classes one day and showed me this CD called Technorave 3: Technomania. What I heard was something I could never have even imagined. It took the Batdance idea and gave it cohesion with a wholly new soundscape. The electronic sounds, the bass on every downbeat, the use of panning between speakers was beyond my imagination. The original version didn’t have the rapping and singing, but you get the idea with this track. It was like nothing that had ever happened before in music, and it freaked me out a little. I just couldn’t believe it. Eventually my buddy and I would spend several years trying to get a good recording of a hybrid jazz/techno track. I’m not sure we did, but we had fun trying.
Better Git It In Your Soul
I grew up playing Charlie Parker solos from a compilation called the Omnibook. That was bop… old stuff. On the radio Kenny G could be heard around that time playing sort of a new jazz. But I wished there were a new jazz closer to the stuff Bird was doing in the 30s and 40s but with better sound. That’s when I picked up a copy of Present Tense by Bobby Watson. That CD hit the spot. It was bran new and it was bop…neobop. Once I worked my way over to Mingus, I was really blown away. This song, I can’t describe the feeling when I heard it. Amazement and elation together maybe.
Go back and listen to early Rock & Roll, and this is the sound at its core…performed by one of its inventers. When I hear this recording in 1993 I was playing with gospel musicians from around the city. It was not a new sound to me, but I could not figure out the backup vocals. They intimidated me because it was something I could not fathom how to reproduce. But the feeling…not unlike the Mingus track…elation. That feeling is what I began to strive for in my own music.
We had a small music library at my college, and I would go in and listen to the records quite often. The “classical” stuff was uninteresting to me, so I eventually worked my way to the anemic world music section way in the back. There were maybe 20 LPs. When I put this record on, I felt this unbelievably wholesome sense of happiness. This sound of fluid asymmetrical movement on top of time’s unending clockwork. It was happy and sad at the same time, simultaneously comfortable and unusual. Never before had I heard such sounds. That’s when I realized I had been missing about 90% of the world’s musical output.
The Unanswered Question
One day in probably 1996, our composition professor pulled out this recording, and it scared me half to death. We had been studying correct voice leading and all that, and then here was this sound which was way outside of that box. That really turned me onto “classical” music because I realized it had changed quite a bit since the true classical stuff we had been studying. It was no longer the one-dimensional music store genre that I had always been sold. This was a feeling or perhaps a Koen turned into sound. That really began to focus me on what things, thoughts, feeling, etc. sounded like.
Split Open And Melt
It was a little like everything I ever had heard up to that point was in this song when I listened. Funk, free jazz, rock, gospel, and more of course. It was like, “I can take everything I have ever done or heard and put them all together any way I want!” I was playing with an eight-piece group with a horn section and I suddenly began combining things like polka and surf guitar music. Suddenly anything went.
After hearing this song, I did everything in this rhythm for about a week. I ate to the rhythm, I worked to the rhythm…everything. There’s a famous line said by Charlie Parker about learning all your scales and chords, then forgetting al that shit and just playing, and when I heard this, I suddenly understood that line. Just groove. Just groove. Relax and play. That’s all. I got that idea from this.
I’ve Seen All Good People
I listened to this album almost every day for over a year. It was my dishwashing music. The chord changes, time changes, instrumentation, execution…there was something about this album the hit me. In its way, it was like the jazz I had listened to in college; I just let it wash over me even though I didn’t completely understand it. I tried to incorporate what I could understand into my writing at the time.
Zappa was beyond what Brian Wilson, Geneses, and Yes could offer. I was amazed while watching his live shows from the 70s and 80s that the band was so dynamic onstage, so tight, and yet so loose. They had the craziest sense of humor…it was better than anything I had previously heard. This track cracked me up particularly, and although this sketch was half-planned and half improvised, the band behind it is together as hell. When I heard this, it was another, “you can do anything” moment.
Then a guy who played bass with me left this CD at our jam spot. When I put it on the playback speakers, I was further blown out of the water. There were musicians out there who were so far beyond me musically, and I was in awe. I listened to the whole album for days. I tried to work the instrumental ideas of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the humor and tightness of Zappa’s band, and the unusual changes of Yes into the stuff I was writing at the time.
When I got a divorce, I had just picked up the American Recordings album, settled into my new place, and turned the album on. I had heard Johnny Cash many times, but this time was different. He had this straight-forward way of telling a story with his voice. His vocals were becoming increasingly shaky by the time of this album, yet they were clear and authoritative. There was wisdom in that voice. I instantly related to the album.
Having never heard anything by James Chance, I was suddenly thrown into his music when I had the chance to play with him while he was in Minneapolis one year. It was music unlike anything I had ever heard, and I couldn’t make it make sense. It was a straight ahead plunge, chugging and churning with an angry motion I could have never imagined. Once I understood the secret of his writing, I realized how brilliant it was. I was beyond blown away.
Wild Montana Skies
I never was a John Denver fan, but after all I had gone through with my ex and my current wife, getting back to basics by playing acoustically with my in-laws was great therapy. We played this for my grandfather-in-law’s funeral and it was a powerful experience.
White Winter Hymnal
Hearing Fleet Foxes for the first time in 2008 was a huge breath of fresh air. I knew the type of music I liked was still being created by new bands in new and inventive ways. That mixture of acoustic and electric instruments, interesting arrangements, actual melodic vocal lines…it was all there in Fleet Foxes.
I picked up the “Brown Album” at the library on a whim in 2010. When I saw the guys on the cover, I thought, “I bet they would be cool to hang out with.” When I got home and listened, I couldn’t put the album down. The grooves, the instrumentation, the lyrics all knocked me out.
No No Keshagesh
This combination of rock, almost-techno, and Native American chanting really led me into studying native music. I wished I could work with someone who could make this kind of music, and like magic I was introduced to White Buffalo Calf Woman and Holiness David Running Eagle with whom I collaborated. This song put me on the path of a huge learning experience.
I am still astounded by this track. You can almost see the movements of the flock as it slips through the air. I can’t explain how they do it in these oblong, flapping, soaring phrases, but it has to be one of the most beautiful moments I have ever heard captured on tape. I know I’ll never be able to make a recording like this, but I can dream.
I had been listening to a lot of Ravi Shankar stuff, and when he died, I came across his daughter, Anoushka. This combination of raga and flamenco astounded me. The entire album just knocked me on my ass. It was again like the jazz I had been studying. I couldn’t comprehend it, but I could let it wash over me. An amazing combination and it works brilliantly.
This is the album I stumbled on after my brother gave me a didgeridoo for Christmas. I wasn’t really sure what to do with it for a while after learning to play it, and then I heard this and instantly knew what to do. Eventually I would work the didg it into my album Chants for Renewal, Presence, and Awareness.