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Between the Walls and the Sea

July 28th, 2013

cassette layout

There’s actually news on the solo project front. My next record is complete. I have preliminary masters for it and I’ll be releasing it on cassette and MP3 in the fall. No physical CDs to start out, but I’m offering the MP3s on my Bandcamp page on a pay-what-you-want basis.

Between 1997 and 2009, I released at least one recording every year. There’s been nothing since then. I wrote a bunch of new songs in 2009 and then tabled them. In late 2011 I started recording some of them. I’ve been working on those tracks slowly since then, and recorded a few new songs along with them. That means I’ve been working on this release for four years. I think it shows. Every step was a very deliberate process, and I’ve gotten to know the tracks very well. This is a very different record from Open or Exits — I’ve gotten pretty enthusiastic about analog synth sounds and keyboards in general, so this record is way less guitar-dominated. There’s also a shit-ton of reverb and drum machine. Warning: the rest of this paragraph is geek-talk. I recorded it all in my room using Cubase LE (which I’m done with — I recently switched to Reaper,) an Alesis SR-18 drum machine, an M-Audio midi controller and a handful of free VST synth plugins. Guitar and vocals were mic’d but everything else was done in the box. A big part of the sound is a result of using the same very wet reverb settings on the vocals and the software synths in addition to a lot of spacey delay guitar. To master for the cassette, I ran everything through a PSP Vintage Warmer plugin and a very conservative limiter. For the MP3s I might add a multiband compressor and a little more limiting to get louder tracks if they don’t sound hot enough. They might be good enough already, I’m not sure.

Maybe this goes against what you’re “supposed” to do, but this record is mixed for headphone listening. I’ve been trying to get it to sound OK in a room with speakers, but when it comes down to me having to choose where it sounds great, I chose headphones. In other words, I’m not sacrificing the headphone sound as much as I’ve done before trying to cater to different listening environments. I’m not that great of an engineer anyways and I think I’m talking about pretty subtle differences, so maybe it’s not worth mentioning. I tried to make the kind of record that I would want to listen to privately, from beginning to end, either in a dark room or going out for a walk.

The in-progress tracks are all currently up on Soundcloud, where I’ve been posting them as they come into being. I won’t be putting the finished tracks up on there. Instead, they’ll go right up on Bandcamp as soon as I finish the “hot” masters (for digital distribution) and the cassette will probably be released at a record-release show.

My last record, Open, is currently available on Bandcamp — also pay-what-you-want. You can download it for free or throw some cash at me to help get the cassette produced. Here’s the link again to go get it:

geraldprokop.bandcamp.com/album/open

Here’s the final track listing for the record:
Between the Walls and the Sea
Side One

  1. On a Road
  2. Dwell
  3. Groundless/Flightless
  4. Background
  5. Tornado

Side Two

  1. Cellar Door
  2. Follow Apart
  3. Can of Worms
  4. Let Go

I’m recording and you get to watch.

November 14th, 2011

My vacation from music is over, I’m happy to say.

A long time ago, I started a YouTube channel where I was posting song sketches. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it–or with the songs–but I wanted to try something different. I wanted to publish the groundwork rather than waiting until a proper record came out for people to hear the songs. I really love recording and don’t consider myself much of a live performer, so that keeps my songs boxed up until a CD release. I kind of envy bands who can test out an early version of a song in front of an audience before going into the studio. I’ve always been a little protective of my work–I’m afraid that if you hear a track that hasn’t been obsessively worked over for six months, you’ll think I’m sloppy and not very good.

But now I think that if you have that kind of attitude you probably wouldn’t even pay attention to my blog or listen to the unfinished tracks anyways. What’s the harm in letting people in on the process, letting them witness the changes, and letting them see not only the work that I put past the gate, but also the stuff that I edit out? I really like rawness, mistakes, sketches, and happy accidents. An unfinished piece usually has a lot of character that can’t be recreated in the final product.

I was initially going to start from scratch and gradually write new songs. When I had a bunch, I would record them. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking–that’s not how I work. The songwriting process doesn’t drive me. I have no interest in writing songs unless I’m recording (or unless I have the right combination of depression and privacy). Writing bass lines, tweaking echo effects, fucking with synth plugins and micing amps are as much part of the songwriting process as playing chords and coming up with words.

So I decided to pick up where I left off and rework the songs from YouTube and record a new EP. Some of them are getting a near-total rewrite. I’m trying to take the folksy edge off of all of them and work them into a layered, echoey, loud, electric landscape. It’s a lot of fun to take something that started on an acoustic guitar and rebuild it from the drum machine up.

I’m also mixing down sketches that I have sitting on my fourtrack, which will probably turn into new songs for some future project. I’m documenting everything I can online: videos to YouTube, audio to SoundCloud, and updates to my recording to-do lists get automatically Tweeted.

My finished recordings are now up on Bandcamp for listening and purchasing. I made a compilation of all my best old songs (entitled Questions Unexplained) which you can get for free as individual tracks, or at a price of your choosing if you download the whole thing. There’s also my last two “studio” records, “Open” and “Exits + Obstacles.” I consider “Open” to be a major artistic success. Erase the 10 years of stress and anxiety preceding it and maybe it wouldn’t have been such a complete marketing failure. Maybe. Anyways, I’m very proud of that disc. Listen to it. Buy it.

As for “Exits + Obstacles,” I think it’s funny how right as I was releasing it, the economy was collapsing. It’s a loose concept record that I wrote as if I was living in a post-apocalyptic, mid-western dystopia. It was pretty easy since I already felt like I was. After listening to both of these records with fresh ears, I realized that there’s this subtle, angry political undertone in my songwriting that wasn’t there before. The royal “we” left my songs back in 2004, and when it came back, it came back darker and more damaged.


Open up…

June 15th, 2009

There’s something pure and infinite in you, that wants to come out of you, and can come out of no other person on the planet. That’s what you’ve got to share, and that’s as real and important as the fact that you’re alive… The world at large, careerism, money, magazines, your parents, the people at the rock club in your town, other kids, nothing is going to give you that message, necessarily. In fact most things are going to lead you away from it, sadly, because humanity is really confused at the moment. But you wouldn’t exist if the universe didn’t need you. And anytime I encounter something beautiful that came out of a human somewhere, that’s them, that’s their own soul. That’s just pure, whatever its physicality is, if the person can play a piano, if they’re tone deaf, whatever it is, if it’s pure, it hits you like a sledgehammer. It fills up your own soul, it makes you want to cry, it makes you glad you’re alive, it lets you come out of you. And that’s what we need: we desperately need you.

- Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel, quoted at the closing of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Kim Cooper

I’ve always felt like I’m being distracted from what could be my own life.  The past few days I’ve been picturing myself as being in a cloud, where I can see myself but everything else is obscured, and I’m obscured to everyone around me.  I’ve always imagined the soul as being these lines that you cast out from yourself, to attach yourself to things.  I make music, keep up a few relationships with people, write a blog, etc.  There are things that pull at me that threaten those connections.  The demands of my job and my small role in this unnatural capitalist machine we live in, for example.  I think in your 20s you’re discovering yourself, and when you hit 30, it’s time to stop trying so hard and just be yourself.  I’m going on this solo road trip in September, and it’s by no means a way of finding myself.  It’s an attempt at being myself, without the distractions.  I think I’m dedicated to the idea whether or not I save up my ideal amount of money to make it happen.

I just finished the book that I quoted above, and it reminded me of what I’ve always thought life was about.  As soon as Careerism was mentioned it hit home why I spent 10 years recording fourtrack records that no one ever heard and unsuccessfully jumping from part-time job to part-time job, trying to get out what I needed to get out.  John Frusciante said that he believes most music is made for the wrong reasons, and I agree.  Sometimes I try really hard to make something sound a certain way, even though my heart’s not in it.  Then the songs I like the most are the ones where something just clicked and took off.  I hear about bands getting all this hype and going on these huge tours and it just seems like too much of an industry, and I’m still trying to reconcile that attitude with the fact that I need to make money to fucking survive and I really don’t see myself delivering pizza much past the first frost.

The new record is entitled OPEN and will be out September 3rd, my 31st birthday and the night before I leave for the road.  I decided tonight its underlying theme of authenticity.  I’m looking for something real in myself, and others, and in the world around me, and I’m struggling to find it.  The idea is that you’re more likely to find it by leaving your door open than by knocking on closed ones.


Electronics Projects

June 8th, 2009

Digitizing vinyl and mixing my next album has inspired me to build the CMoy headphone amplifier.  I’ve been taking regular walks to the bar with a set of headphones and a cheap MP3 player loaded with in-progress mixes.  Since these are unmastered tracks, and thus uncompressed audio signals, the little USB-charged MP3 player doesn’t have the juice to bring the tracks up to normal listening level.  The more complex the track, the greater the build-up of transient peaks and the quieter the mix.  Vinyl tracks are also uncompressed, which means there’s more difference between the loud parts and the quiet parts.  The CMoy amp adds an extra 18v of power, which means I can plug in the MP3 player and leave it at its default volume, using the amp to drive the headphones.

CMoy Headphone Amp
I’m almost done.  The tutorial I was using suggested a dual pot with a built-in power switch, which I had to order separately from the other parts.  This particular pot works so that when you turn the volume all the way down, the power clicks off.  It’s a wise feature considering that you can seriously damage your hearing with this amp.  This way, it’s always turned all the way down when you power it up.  I tested it out before I housed it (in the standard Altoids tin) and it got pretty loud with one 9v battery.

I took another look at the looper project I’ve had put off to the side for about a year:  three toy sound samplers with pitch shifting that you can hack into and add to a simple mixer circuit to create a lo-fi, multi-channel looping effect.  I drew up a wiring diagram, planning on using a chunk of steel stud to house it:
bent looper

I still have the power supply, mixer and one channel hooked up to a breadboard. Last I checked, it worked, and I haven’t touched it since:
Toy guts on a breadboard

Three Channel Live Looper
I decided instead on an enclosure from an old whatever-the-hell-it-was from ax-man.  You can buy old machines for $5-$10, take the guts out and use the case for new stuff, which is cool because electronics enclosures are really expensive.  The drawback is that it’s harder to get a space efficient design since the housing was meant for something else, but I’m starting to realize that I like things to be life size, sturdy and clunky with plenty of soldering room.  The last looper circuit I built, I think I fried the chips because everything was crammed too tight on the board and I couldn’t troubleshoot it.

All the knobs are where the pots will go.  The nuts represent toggle switches, the plastic grommets (LED holders) represent LEDs, the washers represent momentary switches, and the pots represent foot-switches.


I don’t just sit at home and watch TV.

April 13th, 2009

Large groups of people (society) fall into patterns naturally, and elements of power, whether it’s advertising and marketing or public policy, take advantage of and/or dictate those patterns so that society keeps within certain boundaries.  In other words, the world is mostly lame.  It’s up to artists to break away from that and do something different.

As expected, society makes little channels for artists to fit into.  For instance, if you’re a painter you go get a studio in the Northrup King building.  If you’re in a band then you get a practice space and book studio time when you decide to make a record.  If you’re a writer you sit at the coffee shop with your laptop.  None of these are necessarily deviations from the status quo. You’re participating in one of our “industries.”  Most likely you’re also participating in some other industry to make up for the fact that your creative activity doesn’t pay the bills.

There’s no doubt that artists benefit from having separate, dedicated space and time to do their work.  The problem is that your rent is not being determined by the economics of what artists are willing to pay for studio space, it’s being determined by what anyone is willing to pay.  My first studio was, before I moved in, a storage space for the Whittier Globe newspaper.  It was $100 a month and it was all I could afford.   Lots of buildings that would be perfect for artist studios are occupied by offices because anyone would value the same amenities artists value–things like high ceilings, historic character, and large windows.  Those spaces are much more likely to be snatched up by entities for whom those things are a luxury.

I have a bottom-scraping life, consisting of a part-time job (not career), my artistic goals (music), and a minuscule social life (made up mostly of artists and musicians.)  I’m continually fighting for the one element with any potential to pan out.  If I enjoyed prosperity in the other two elements of my life (career/money and social life) it wouldn’t be that hard.  But since I’m a natural misfit, trying to be successful at those two things would burn me out. I would rather risk burn-out doing something that’s important to me.

I make records at home.  I write and record music, in my apartment.  When I moved into my building it definitely felt like a creative community, but in the past six months or so I’ve felt like I’ve been intruding on people’s lives by doing what I do.  Meanwhile I’m probably living below the poverty line, which rules out any other options as far as living my life without any conflicts.  I won’t be buying a house or getting a separated studio space anytime soon.  Not on a delivery driver’s income.  I try to record as much as I can without feeling like I’m being too annoying of a neighbor.  But it’s hard  to do when you know people are just going to be passive aggressive.  It doesn’t help me feel like any less of a hack when I’m trying to work on a recording that isn’t working out how I want.  And the whole time there’s people out there making records and writing songs and forming bands, and I read about them on blogs and see them on radio station playlists and advertised playing shows and I feel like I’m missing something.  Either it’s because they have more money or more friends than I do, or it’s because I’m just not very good at what I do.

“Common sense” logic dictates that if you’re unsuccessful at something, you’re probably just not very good at it.  I refuse to believe that because it would force me to value my work according to the terms of capitalism.  But I’m losing that fight.  They say if you can’t beat them you should join them, but the only thing I have in the square world is laziness and alcoholism.  I don’t want to be any lazier or alcoholic than I am right now.


Recording

March 30th, 2009

I find that I think about my life more when I’m bored with it.  My songs get angrier and fewer and far between.  Oddly enough I’m better at songwriting when I have a lot going on.  The more time I spend out around people and interacting with the world, the more songs I write.  The more time I have alone to dwell on my life, the more I check my Facebook and watch movies.

It’s the perfect time for me to put the writing aside and start the production part.  The benefit to having a recording studio in the middle of your living room is that the songwriting process includes a little bit of the recording process.  When I first write a new song, I like to get as much of it recorded as possible, even if I don’t have all the lyrics yet.  So I already have a bunch of tracks that are all fully recorded tracks with all the parts (vocals, guitar, piano, bass and drums.)  Now comes the fun part: redoing parts, recording live drums over the drum machine, adding lead guitar, experimenting and layering stuff.  I have plenty of time and it doesn’t cost me any money to sit at home and record music.  A new full length record is definitely in the works.

Bla Bla Blacksheep and I finished day three of our recording sessions yesterday.  We’re adding the vocals and small instruments like glockenspiels and concertinas.  Sanden and Lacey (figure 1.) were having a hard time getting into the spirit while tracking their vocals so Garrett (figure 2.) danced for them.

Sanden and Lacey
Figure 1.

Garrett
Figure 2.


The Return of the 8-song EP

March 29th, 2009

I was doing this a lot when I was using the fourtrack and burning CDs at home.  A large handful of really short tracks on a 20 minute CD, half of them noisy instrumentals and half of them folky vocal songs.  It’s a fun format.  It suits my music.  But it doesn’t really work if you want to do bulk runs or promote the disc commercially.

Also, once I decided I was going to try and promote my music commercially, I started wondering what I should do with all the weird, quick, noisy experimental stuff.

I’m going to do the Belle and Sebastian thing.  They had a habit of releasing EPs in between all of their proper albums.  I’m recording enough these days to do that.  So I’ll be “releasing” a new 8-song, 20 minute EP in May.  It will likely only be available on my websites and at shows.  I am also working on a new full-length, which is likely to come out late this summer.  That one will be available everywhere possible.


Bla Bla Blacksheep

February 22nd, 2009

We started work on Bla Bla Blacksheep’s record today, laying down about 8 songs worth of drums and acoustic guitar.

Sanden

Garrett

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