Africa Is The Source Of The Music
February is African-American History Month. And, the history of modern music is impossible to imagine without African-American History.The rhythm of today's pop, rock, funk, blues, r&b, jazz, punk and hip-hop is traced back along a river of sound that rolls back into history, starting today in places like New York and Tokyo and Stockholm and Johannesburg and working its way back to America to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Kansas City, Nashville, Memphis, Clarksdale, Mississippi, and ultimately New Orleans, and from there to Caribbean islands, Brazil, and, finally, the west coast of Africa.
Humans probably have always musically inventive, in all cultures. But from African-Americans we got something special. We got supercharged doses of rhythm, the tools of polyrhythms, syncopation, and group vocal styles such as call-and-response singing. We got heavily swung notes and blue notes. And, people loved it. Slaves weren't in the new world very long before they were being pressed into roles as musical entertainers, and military band members. But it was after emancipation and the beginnings of the 20th century that dozens of exciting new styles began to emerge from the mating of African music with European ballad forms. Blues, ragtime, Dixieland, swing, jazz, bebop, r&b, soul, funk and on and on. It's impossible to find an American style of music (North American or South American), from blues to hip-hop to salsa, even country, that doesn't get its rhythmic energy from the African musical tradition.
That huge gift of music and rhythm that Africa gave to the world still reverberates in every corner of the globe. It made everything about modern drum set and hand drum possible. That's worth acknowledging, and celebrating.
Bill Stevenson Part 5: Outside Views
The bands Propagandhi and Hot Water Music had positive experiences tempo mapping with Stevenson. Both groups entered the recording studio at different points in the songwriting process. When Propagandhi recorded Supporting Caste at the Blasting Room, drummer Jord Samolesky recalled that “We'd done some very basic demos--mostly for reference's sake. We may have shared them with Bill before heading down--but I think most of the tempo-map construction started when we were at The Blasting Room. Bill would start up with rough mock-ups of tempo maps, then we'd play along with them, and go back and forth with him about revisions.”
Although Propagandhi had tempo-mapped Potemkin City Limits themselves up in Canada, the drummer says that the metronomic templates were much more complex on Supporting Caste. “With so many tempo changes, pauses, and little time extensions and subtractions here and there it made it very difficult to break things down on paper” he said.
Propagandhi’s Supporting Caste.
And to make things even more difficult, Samolesky said of Propagandhi that “We have a tendency to speed things up when we get into the studio, as in ‘wouldn't this sound better a bit faster?’ So it's usually a challenge for me to crank things up a bit after we'd rehearsed most of the material at a slightly slower tempo back home with the metronome.” All these tempo fluctuations and pauses meant that programming the time changes into a computer would be a very difficult and tedious task. Stevenson's expertise with the tempo program kept the tape rolling at a much faster pace. “Our final tempo maps were much more detailed than any demos that we'd done in advance,” Samolesky said, so “with Bill doing the maps, and Jason [Livermore] doing the tracking, it was a process that was smoother overall.”
Once Stevenson had created the first tempo-map for Supporting Caste, Samolesky started tracking with engineer Jason Livermore. Meanwhile Stevenson would get right back to work on the next song's map. During breaks Stevenson and Samolesky would strategize.
Getting Into Hot Water Music
When Hot Water Music entered The Blasting Room to record Exister, they were at an earlier stage in the creation process. The members of the mid-tempo punk quartet had written their new tunes by e-mailing ideas to one another across the county. Three days before they entered The Blasting Room the band got together and rehearsed the material, then demoed with Stevenson for an additional three days. “We just wrote the songs and played them how they actually felt, then demoed everything with Bill” drummer George Rebelo explained. “He basically just took the bits and pieces of the songs that felt best to him, and just tempo mapped that.” It took Stevenson one day, working by himself, to tempo map Exister.
Hot Water Music’s “The Traps” from Exister.
Rebelo found the tempo maps particularly convenient in the editing process. Once a drum track is recorded “you can still edit what you need to edit,” he says. “It's all on a grid. If a kick drum or bass note needs to be pushed or scootched a millisecond, you can still do that in the tempo map.”
Of adjusting to the method, Rebelo explained that recording with tempo maps only takes a slight amount of getting used to--especially considering that the tempo fluctuations are modeled after the bands natural tendencies. Because the tempo does “ramp up,” he explained that you just have to remember to maybe speed up a drum fill before going into a chorus, or push the tempo a little when you hit a certain verse.
When Supporting Caste and Exister were completed, both Samolesky and Rebelo said that Stevenson's tempo mapping improved the recording of their songs. Both drummers also added that they had a great time working with Stevenson and Livermore at The Blasting Room.
Pursuance In Retropect
Pursuance was released on March 13, 2014--when I spoke to Stevenson the recording had been completed for months. I asked him how he felt about the album now that he had some distance from its creation. The drummer paused for a moment. &rduoq;Ohhhh, it's always weird analyzing your own music“ he said laughing-- “it's like, if you made the music, you don't get to comment on it.”
He continued "what I really like about where I'm at with music these days is that I have zero motivation to do anything in music for the sake of succeeding. It's like its all just music for music's sake. That affords me a lot of freedom.”
Bill Stevenson Part 4: Learning Time
It's never surprising to find that many innovative artists learn their craft in an innovative way. Hunter S. Thompson learned to write by copying down The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises verbatim, visualizing what was going through Fitzgerald or Hemingway's minds as he copied down their words. When Bill Stevenson was young, he would put an album on his record player, lay down on his bed while staring at the cover, then listen to one side at a time as he tried to “endeavor into a relationship with the band,” striving to get to know them, and trying his hardest to visualize what the musicians were attempting to say on their instruments. Still, when he listens to old jazz records he tries to get a sense of what the people are trying to do as players--and it's something he see's less and less of these days in our sped up culture of “right now,” where hit singles are here today and gone tomorrow. “That stuff is not as satisfying as putting on a big body of work by a band,” Stevenson said, “getting your head around what that band is actually about--what they might be like as people. What they might stand for.”
Stevenson's attempts at musical empathy are a practice he maintains to this day. Tempo, in particular, is one of the things he tries to distill from any band that enters The Blasting Room. Often the first thing a group does when they arrive is spend days recording demos. Stevenson explains “usually I'll do demos that are untethered by any kind of restricted meter--demos that are done in free time with no click. Those demos will inform me to the intention of the band as it relates to the song and it's various parts.”
While the demos do inform the tempo map, Stevenson does take “real time” into consideration. If he just modeled the tempo map after any fluctuation in time, then he'd “basically be etching in stone any kind of meter or timing errors the band has” he explained. He listens to different takes of the same song side by side, then gauges their consistency in tempo fluctuations. For instance, he's often noticed that many drummers speed up the tempo when they go into half time. “Then you have to study it,” Stevenson says, “then make a decision about what the true ‘manifest destiny’ of that bridge is. Sometimes it's a matter of meeting the band half way with their push-and-pull, willy-nilly tempos that occur when they're just jamming and practicing. Sometimes it's a question of the band meeting ‘absolute time’ half way. Maybe the chorus is 3 beats a minute faster than the verse. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn't. Maybe they were just rushing when they played the chorus that time" [laughs].
“This is the judicious part of production and recording that really requires brain power, because that tempo map becomes the DNA of the song. It's like the foundation for the house--and if you don't get that right, it's hard to change that later down the road when you already have a bunch of stuff on tape.”
Although tempo mapping is a tedious task, it has the major benefit that it allows the band and drummer to work on certain sections of the song out of order. “You always know exactly where you are,” he says, “which can save you considerable time later.”
Bill Stevenson Part 3: Tempo Maps
Stevenson seems to naturally gravitate to musical experimentation. Take one of his favorite musicians, Ornette Coleman. “Ornette Coleman might be my favorite as a melodicist” Stevenson says of jazz artists. “With Ornette, he had three different careers. Those first two records he did, Something Else!!! the Music of Ornette Coleman (OJC Remasters), and Tomorrow Is the Question--those are really bebop records--but with this impending threat of him taking over the world a couple albums later, which he did. Those are some of the best be-bop records, because the melodies are so strong. Then he did that Skies of America record, where he got The London Philharmonic Orchestra to play with him--and he made them play way up high in their register so it almost sounds like a toy orchestra. That record is amazing. And then those science fiction sessions, a lot of that where there's two bands going at the same time." Stevenson continues. “Then there's all those Atlantic records. That's maybe his most accessible stuff after those first two, cause those first two--you can get them, even if you're not a musician.”
Experimentation on Only Crime’s Pursuance was not limited to song construction--it continued in the studio as Stevenson recorded the album. On all three Only Crime records he captured the drums differently. On their debut effort, To The Nines, Stevenson recorded practically the entire record with the band playing live while he laid down his drum tracks (afterwards each member of the band went back and overdubbed their instruments individually). For their second album, Virulence, Only Crime recorded the final takes of their instruments together, live in the studio--everything except for vocals. For Pursuance, Stevenson captured his drum tracks by using the recording method that he typically uses while producing other bands, which includes the laborious task of creating tempo maps.
A tempo map is a type of computer program that's function is defined in its name. Basically, it's a grid of several tempos that fluctuate throughout a particular song, which Stevenson models after how a band is naturally performing a song. Once the tempo map is created, the guitars (including bass) record scratch tracks. The original tempo map track click track is then removed from the headphone mix, and Stevenson records the drummer playing along with just the scratch guitar tracks--hopefully capturing a more organic track.
For Pursuance it took roughly four to seven days, on and off, to capture the final drum takes. Stevenson prefers not to record for 12 hours at a time, which is luxury he can afford since he owns his own studio. But that's the easy part, for the drummer will be preparing for days before ever hitting the record button, both with his own projects, and while producing other groups.
Bill Stevenson Part 2: Only Crime
Only Crime began writing Pursuance--their third full-length--back in 2007. Each band member lives in a different city, so they typically meet up for five days at time at Stevenson's recording studio, and generally flesh out three songs per meeting. Song writing often entails one person bringing in a tune or idea, each member contributing their two cents, then vocalist Russ Rankin working out his vocal melodies alone. Things get tweaked when singer Russ Rankin [of the band Good Riddance] returns with his part.
While there's no formula or agenda for an Only Crime song, Stevenson admits "sometimes I think with Only Crime that we meet convention half way. The verses will be a little more adventurous in terms of the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic landscape, but then the chorus will be something that is maybe a little easier to handle on the first listen. I don't know if that's conscious for us--but we seem to fall into that a lot. Throw them a few wrenches during the verse, but the chorus is not such a difficult thing to digest."