I was interviewer by Petey Twofingers about my DIY habit

I need to clarify (apparently, because I’ve been asked): Petey Twofingers is a real person, and no, I didn’t write the interview. I just read his questions. He did a whole series of these and interviewed lots of people.

It’s long, and it covers more than just DIY. It was very strange to ask myself the questions!

Here’s what it’d been like to spend a year without a phone or social networking

On July 23, 2012, this was the last thing I posted on Facebook:

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Is this an argument against the collaborative art process?

This is Susan Cain’s (somewhat famous) TED talk about introversion:

Original TED talk link: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html

One of the things she mentions is that introverts feel that they “work best” in low-key environments or when alone. As an introvert, I can say this is definitely true. I do “feel like” I work best in solitude. And I fully agree that it’s important for many people to come up with their own ideas before they must share them with a group. Cain’s very clear that she’s not advocating a single approach for everyone all the time.

Some of the comments on the video (in the original link) mention that art schools, which are places that you’d expect to be full of introverts, often forced collaborative environments, which are often poison for introverts. I’ve blogged recently about how valuable collaborative art can be, but some artists commented on the video that it was a bad experience for them when it was forced upon them in art school. I know that the video actually argues against collaboration; rather Cain argues that greater understanding about introversion is necessary to ensure everyone works at their best. I thought it was worth thinking about how to reconcile these conflicting views, perhaps beyond just agreeing that, like introversion and extroversion, both are equally valid.

I don’t want to draw any conclusions at this time. But after forcing myself to work more collaboratively, I have very recently started thinking about how detrimental my introversion and shyness is not just to promoting my art but creating it.

E-concerts: These are a thing now.

There are all these expectations — which usually I can’t meet — about how many people will come see you play at any given show, even if you’ve never played at that venue before. Sometimes I feel like everyone has a certain amount of goodwill they can get from the local live music venues before it’s all used up, and I’ve used up a lot of it with place that I really enjoy playing in Baltimore. Some people might find that a very stupid way of looking at things. They tend to have more successful music careers than I do.

Well, anyway, today I saw this post from Grassrootsy about something I’m going to go ahead and dub “e-concerts” if they haven’t already gotten that name. What is this? It’s a live performance watched over the internet. It’s not simply taping the performance and sticking it up on YouTube. You’re playing live, and the audience is watching live. Ideally there is some interaction between audience and performer.

Stage-It, the company mentioned in the Grassrootsy post, is not the only way to have an e-concert. Artists have used Google+ to host concerts via the “Hangout” feature. Rob Hinkal from the folk rock band ilyAIMY regularly broadcasts — and then archives — the open mics he hosts on a site called Ustream. The archive part is really cool for people who have no media otherwise. A Ustream video is the only thing on my music page on this site right now, in fact.

Stage-It does have some nice advantages over these other methods, and I’m sure there are other hosts for this sort of activity (including Skype, maybe?), but what I’m really interested in right now is the implications of e-concerts.

Joy mentions that people are “lazy” or just “busy” as a big reason live music isn’t as well attended now than 10, 20, or especially 30 years ago. There are many more factors than that, of course. I think the dropoff in the last 10 years has more to do with economics than anything else. Gas is comparatively more expensive. I used to think nothing of driving for an hour to see a show. Now I calculate that it’s $10 in gas and add that to the cost of the ticket. Does that make me cheap? Undoubtedly. But it’s a reality for many people. Obviously this isn’t an economics treatise. There are many reasons people don’t go see live music as much. I’ve seen people blame easy access to recorded material and live video, but that’s absurd (let’s forego the polemy — YouTube is great for artists). But let’s remember that internet technologies are supplanting physical travelling in other spheres: I used to telecommute a couple days a week when I worked as a science editor, and telecommuting is becoming more and more common in all professions. In some ways, it’s weird that despite a decade of fast-enough internet speeds and the bevy of services available to musicians to promote their art that e-concerts are a such a recent development.

E-concerts are still actual “events” worth bugging the press about, or even gimmicks, something that a band doesn’t, you know, plan on repeating, unless of course it’s really successful, and then maybe we’ll think about it and maybe you should try it out because you might like it …

There are certainly some ways in which an e-concert is inferior to a live show. Loud rock bands may or may not benefit; some hardcore or metal fans probably want to feel the bass when they see a band and won’t get that without being in the room. Whereas for a live show you might have a PA provided with a soundman and good speakers, for an e-concert you’re probably pumping whatever you play through a USB mic, through a sound card, then out through someone’s computer (or possibly TV) speakers.

On the other hand, you don’t have to haul gear, and if you know what you’re doing, you might be able to muster better sound than some venues, especially if volume control is an issue or studio wizardry is a core of your sound. My band, Midway Fair, has a perennial problem where we aren’t loud or intense enough to be at home in rock clubs, but we’re often too loud for coffeeshops. There are very few places I’ve played where I felt comfortable and wasn’t worried about the volume levels or intensity of music that the audience was expecting.

E-concerts will become more common. That’s for certain. What does this do for live music overall? I suppose there might be some worries that if people know they can see you on a somewhat regular basis online, then they won’t spend the time and money required to see you in person. Or maybe the opposite is true: They’ll see you more often, and then want to see you in person when they can, because the in-person concerts will be rarer.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Recent Midway Fair songwriting and news posts

I thought some of the folks interested in songwriting might like the two most recent posts I wrote on the band’s (Midway Fair’s) blog, about writing new material or rewriting recent songs:

My first co-writing session with Jen.

Joe and I on turning our solo FAWM material into band songs.

An Interesting Article Highlighting the Virtues of Collaboration

I’ve posted here before about my desire to work more closely with the other songwriters in Midway Fair on songs in the future. As part of this, I recently sent them a song that needed a second verse that I’ve been unable to complete for nearly two years. Slate.com ran this article today about a … Taylor Swift song.


These two sentences sum up my current feelings about songwriting — and music making in general.

The unfortunate reality is that she’s operating in a world that’s oddly averse to celebrating the virtues of collaboration and division of labor when it comes to music. In other domains, however, we take it for granted. People produce more and better stuff when they specialize and part of being good at what you do is being smart about who you collaborate with.

I made decent music on my own and wrote decent lyrics. I made much better music once I had a band to work with. I made what I think was really, really good music when I let other people really add their own ideas to those songs.

My New Sheraton, the Blues, and Bippy’s Open Mic

I got a new toy recently.

Jon's red Sheraton

In the late 90s, when I was in high school, I had an Epiphone Sheraton II. Who knows how I paid for it at the time, because it would have been more than $500. It’s like a Gibson ES-335, a really common blues guitar. I’ve been missing it for quite some time ever since I sold it while we were saving up for the house. Then I ran across this one on Craigslist, played it, and picked it up used from a guy up near Bel Air. It’s a reproduction of a 1962 Epiphone model, and it has a different tailpiece and different pickups. It’s a much better guitar than the one I sold, but that’s not really what this post is about.

One of the reasons I was okay selling that other guitar, aside from wanting to buy a house and downsizing my “stuff,” was that I felt I had more or less moved past the kind of music that I used it for. I went from playing blues and 90s alt rock in high school to playing acoustic folk/Americana/bluegrass/old time almost exclusively, and by the time I formed up Midway Fair I was playing something more like alt-country and Celtic music. I have difficulty focusing on more than one thing and generally I’m pretentious, so my feeling that the blues was nothing but guitar wankery sort of took over. Most of the time it is. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like playing it, and ignoring that side of American music was and is, frankly, incredibly short-sighted of me, and I’d only really pull it out when it served as some sort of selling point (like describing the Midway Fair song “At the Dawn of the Day” as “blues + Celtic”).

There’s an open mic I go to about once every month or two in Ellicott City, at a place called Bippys. It used to be the open mic at The Friendly Inn, but moved when that place stopped doing live music. Since I’ve been going there almost uninterrupted (except for living out of state) since 1997, I’ve been there longer than anyone by several years. It’s a lot of blues players, and a few classic rock players. Everyone is much older than me. And most of the time I end up playing by myself, playing music that they really aren’t there to hear.

So last week, I took the new Sheraton out for its test run, and decided to whip out almost entirely new material. Paul Beckwith played bass with me, and Steve Hammond played drums. Great players — they can follow even stuff they’ve never heard. And I was forced to keep things simple.

I think it went over better than any set I’ve played there, but I noticed that most of the simplest songs I played were “solo” tunes, and that many of them were, if not exactly blues, much more blues-based than songs I played with Midway Fair. And they were fun and comfortable in a way that a lot of the Midway Fair material often isn’t.

So now I wonder. Was it the simplicity that made me think that, or is this my brain trying to tell me to keep it simple stupid?

[Oh, the guitar did fabulously for anyone curious.]


“Stop Mumbling”

“Don’t mumble” is a tough one for me. Basically: people are scary.

Jon at Brown's Orchard

Me playing at Brown’s Orcharge on 3/16/13. Yes, that’s Eeyore, suckahs. (Photo by Michael Friedman.)

Anyway, I’ve never really been a mumble-y singer (at least not in the last 10 years or so …), but I do tend to mumble when talking, on the microphone and off. Lexa called me out on this recently, so I made a special effort this past Saturday not to mumble.

Clearly this is one of those “fake it” things … apparently it improves your whole performance, because I can’t remember ever having such an positive response to a solo performance (especially not one where I noticeably forgot the lyrics to TWO songs I play quite often). Also, I noticed I smiled a lot more. People actually laughed at the jokes.

My friend Michael Friedman, who’s a wonderful guitarist (and fellow gearhead — he owns a few of my creations), split the show with me. Michael plays classical on an electric guitar, and his touch is just unbelievable: it doesn’t look like his right hand’s fingers are moving at all. Just incredibly deft and completely at home on the fretboard. Plus he’s pretty hilarious between songs.

We played at an orchard (Brown’s Orchard, near-ish to Harrisburg), which is something different. They’ve got a little country store/grocery and a cafe. I ate corned beef and played a few Irish songs.

I did have a few issues related to equipment and volume that made my first set a little uncomfortable: my dirt pedal sounded a little louder through the Centaur acoustic PA than through my amp, and the first time I hit it I was scared of blowing out the nice folks having a wine tasting five feet from the speaker. I don’t think anyone really noticed, but there were times when I felt like I really ruined a moment or two. I was also scared in the first set of being too loud for the room (not exactly a small room, but it “felt” small), and it was cold outside and I hadn’t warmed up, so I got some helpful comments on the high notes being pitchy, which I think I corrected in the second set: I got compliments on my vocals (always unusual for me) after the second round and it felt more comfortable.

And one person said, “I like how you don’t mumble.”


Time for the real work: Rewriting

The title’s a joke: I actually enjoy the rewriting process, and I don’t consider things I enjoy “work.” Rewriting is when you get to play with songs.

Musicians use the word “play” in a very generic sense that isn’t really the primary meaning of the word, which is an activity that kids (and juveniles of many species) engage in naturally, where you explore and exercise your imagination. For some reason, adults very often lose the ability to do this, and what we get in place of it is a lot of inhibitions.

So for me, most of the work is just breaking down inhibitions when I first start writing the song, and again later, after I think the song is “done,” to begin the rewriting process. But once I’m in my mental “play” space, good things happen. One particularly interesting example of this was the rewriting process for “Blue Eyes” with Midway Fair. I met up with Tim one night and played him what I had so far. It was a sort of mopey, slow feel with some Decemberists influence. Then we proceeded to run through a dozen different styles of music until the song just clicked with a rock and roll feel. Before that, it was one of my least favorite songs and would have been filler on the album (and better deleted). After, it’s one of my favorite songs to play live, and I think Jen had fun with it in the studio.

But our plan, as a band, for the next little bit, doesn’t involve arranging things for live shows, and we’ve also decided to be a bit more collaborative. So I’ve passed off some of my songs to Jen just asking for her thoughts, and decided to … rewrite someone else’s song. Today I did a little bit of work on Joe Scala’s “Grounded”, which really hit home for me when he wrote it. Turning a skeletal song like this into something that fits the band isn’t exactly easy. It has a kind of weird rhythm part that doesn’t work with other instruments in the mix (the lead parts I tried to play with Joe on Monday at Teavolve didn’t mesh well), so the first thing to do is convert the guitar to a rhythm that DOES leave space for other people. The next thing to do is normalize some things so that the backing vocals are easy to perform live.

This is very basic rewriting. But doing it on my own isn’t likely to yield the best results. So it has to be run by other people, especially Jen, who’s a better arranger than I am.

All of this in the end, though, has to come down to a song fitting into “our” style, whatever that means. I know it when I hear it. And the only way to hear it is to try everything without reservations or prejudices until it comes out.

One year of DIY — the story of my first working pedal, built one year ago today

I started building guitar pedals just over a year ago, and today is the one-year anniversary of the completion of my first working pedal, a tap tempo tremolo from MusicPCB. It was my fourth attempt to built a pedal, with two failed attempts at building a different tremolo and a partially failed BYOC fuzz (it worked, just not like it was supposed to).

Here’s what I built, the Cardinal Tremolo:

Okay on the outside. Horrors await within. Also, the depth knob was backwards.

I colored it with sharpie paint pens. When I opened it up recently, I was pretty much horrified by the insides. I don’t even have a picture of what it looked like originally, because I was too scared to open it up once it was working. I’ll just describe what was in there: Bad soldering. The PCB was mounted in such a way that it was sitting on top of the jacks for the guitar and amp, with some electrical tape insulating it. It was lopsided and would pop up when I opened it. The LEDs were just sort of hanging around in there, with wires taped to the inside of the enclosure to hold them down. The wiring was too long in some places, too short in others, and had solder burns and its insulation was melted off in places. But the important thing at the time was that it worked and sounded good. In fact, despite the horror inside, it worked quite consistently and held up to being on my gigging pedalboard for quite some time, with one or two failures at various times.

Eventually, I graduated from using paint pens and started using real paints. I built dozens of pedals, and the cardinal trem stopped looking charming and started looking kind of, well, crappy. So I repainted it in June:

Cardinal tremolo

Looks a lot better, doesn’t it?

Recently, the pedal had started to act funny. The tempo would change when I turned the pedal on, which was a little inconvenient to say the least. I was really scared that the pedal would have to be retired, but I was a l0t better now at fitting things into tight spots. So I pulled the PCB out of the enclosure and went to work.

Here are some things I’d learned in the meantime: How to solder properly. That having the right tools for the job is essential for a good build (good soldering iron, helping hands, etc.). How to dress wires neatly. Generally, how to build and box a circuit board so that it is a solid tool that won’t fail.

I redid all the off-board wiring. I replaced a couple dodgy looking parts. I re-positioned the switches to make a little extra room and turned the board 90 degrees so it no longer could come into contact with the jacks — now the PCB looks like the case was actually set up to accommodate it! (I was a bit lucky that it did fit sideways.) The LEDs got little metal bezels so they looked uniform and professional. I replaced all the jacks and the bypass footswitch so I could be sure that the soldering on them was solid. So here’s the inside and outside as they stand now:

Cardinal Tremolo reborn

Look! Bezels!

Cardinal Tremolo reborn guts

The insides previously were an indescribable horrific mess. This looks like it was made to be built this way!

A bit of irony regarding fixing this is that for the new project I designed this week I’m planning now uses the same digital chip as the Cardinal tremolo for tap tempo and everything — but I’m pairing the chip with a circuit that does both normal tremolo and the extremely-rare-but-awesome harmonic tremolo found on Fender amps from the early 1960s. Since this would retire this Cardinal, and because I arrived at the final version of the design on the anniversary of building it, I’ve decided to name the forthcoming circuit the Cardinal Tremolo. Plus it gives me an excuse to paint more birdies!

With a year of this hobby behind me, it’s amazing not only the number and variety of effects I’ve build — fuzz and distortion, boost, compression, delay, tremolo, vibrato, phase shifting, octave, envelope filter (bow chicka bow wow) — but what remains to build, things like ring modulation and more complicated or just different versions of the same effects I’ve already built. I’m incredibly proud to have six of my own designs completed in my first year at this hobby. I’m also proud to have made a dozen pedals for friends and other musicians and have them tell me that the pedals sound great (just like playing music, this is a hobby where you need feedback to know if you’re crazy). Of course, I never would have had the knowledge to do these things without the incredible support network in the DIY community. I’m consistently amazed at how generous people are with their hard-won and frequently highly technical knowledge (so I do my best to pay it forward).

And there’s always more to learn and experiment with. I’m looking forward to my second year.