DB + PSQ Show Review (Asheville, NC)

 

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The David Bazan and Passenger String Quartet show/tour received a glowing review recently from our show at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina.  Read the full review below, or here:

“While there have been cellos and violins (and probably even the odd viola or two) on The Grey Eagle stage before, it’s possible that they’ve never been played with quite the breathless splendor of Andrew Joslyn’sPassenger String Quartet. That group, led by violinist and arranger Joslyn, with cellist Rebecca Chung Filice, Seth May-Patterson on viola and violinist Alina To, has backed the likes of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Suzanne Vega and DJ Spooky. On Saturday, they played with singer-songwriter David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion and Headphones) on a set of songs Bazan said will be retired after this tour.

“The thing about strings is that they elevate everything, underscoring each verse with emotive elegance and promoting decent song craft to resonant poetic genius. Then again, Bazan’s songs are good to begin with — pithy, brutal, funny and human. “Deep green hills whose shoulders fade into thick grey / Tall wet grass whose flesh makes fools of grazing sheep / Whose fleecing makes a fool of me / Who shall I blame for this sweet and heavy trouble for every / stupid struggle I don’t know,” he sings on “The Fleecing.” That song’s moody opening morphed into a soft pastoral with layered textures from bowing, plucking and Bazan’s own guitar strumming.

“It was Joslyn who initiated the project, arranging four of Bazan’s songs. The end result, lush and at once weighty and transcendent, comes off like a true commitment to art — seeing a project through to its final result. Because of course it would be enough for the Passenger String Quartet to be a chamber music group and for Bazan to be a singer-songwriter without ever cross-pollinating. And yet, to the boon of luckily listeners, they took that next step.

“On “Wolves at the Door,” Bazan played a small synthesizer, adding percussive samples and grounding the high, eerie keen of the violin. “How I Remember” was all drama and sentiment; while “I Do” layered warm tones.

“Every few songs, while turning his guitar, the house lights went up and Bazan took questions from the crowd. Like his songs, he’s open, genial, irreverent and humorous. When asked if playing with Passenger String Quartet changed how he wrote songs, Bazan replied, “I don’t know how I write songs. If you scrub hard enough, the dish comes clean. But I don’t understand the mechanics of it.” And to a question about how he cares for his vocal chords he answered, “The only thing I’ve found is to get eight hours of sleep a night and drink a gallon of water every day, but I haven’t been doing the water part.”

“In fact, Bazan’s voice is far from that of the pitch-perfect, smooth-edged soloists who usually perform with classical ensembles. A wooly growl in his lower register and breaking on the high notes, Bazan’s vocal was perfect in its imperfection. The rough edge of his voice against the vibrant and sweeping canvas of the strings felt like a revelation — an exercise in textural and emotional juxtaposition.

“And ultimately, that was the culmination the collaboration: fresh takes on both chamber music and songwriter fair. Sometimes the strings reflected the temperamental pitch of the songs, other times they served as sonic architecture on which Bazan could build and explore with melody and poetry. From start to finish, it was an adventure worth taking.”

-Alli Marshall (Mountain Xpress)

DB + PSQ Tour Diary 1

2014-10-15 10.55.56I woke up this morning in Fort Stockton, Texas.  The Super 8 Motel room’s air was cool, and smelled faintly of dried vomit (by-product of a previous tenant). Our cockroach companion still lay cooling himself in the porcelain tub, where we left him last night.  I couldn’t stop thinking about him for an hour as I was falling asleep last night – between dreaming that my bedsheets were infested with a swarm of cockroaches, or that I was transforming into a 5 foot bug myself (in Kafka ‘Metamorphosis’ style), I had a hard time letting myself drift off. Despite all these seemingly grotesque conditions, I fell asleep and woke up this morning, distinctly happy and satisfied.

Currently I’m on tour with my group, the Passenger String Quartet, which is performing alongside David Bazan (founder of Pedro the Lion, Headphones, etc.) in support of our newest album release, “David Bazan and the Passenger String Quartet: Vol. 1.” We’ve been on the road for roughly one week so far – we started off rolling down the west coast: Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and then Phoenix. We are heading to Austin now, rolling through the flat and hot Texan countryside. We’ve already travelled over 2,200 miles so far, and we have another 5 1/2 weeks to go on the road.  I’ve been using the extra free time in the van to write additional compositions for new music that Bazan has been putting out, with his Bazan Monthly’s – which it helps keep me sane, and feeling productive during the downtime.

It’s hard to imagine that this is now my full-time job – being a musician that is – well being a musician, working with my musical idols, and sharing my own art/writing with the world.  It’s a struggle like any other job, with it’s ups and downs.  Unfortunately the downs are always about money. Just worrying about sustaining a dream.  Thankfully, with a tour like this one – it is utterly amazing, and hard to have a bad time.  Bazan is a touring veteran and workhorse – his own touring schedule takes him the circumference of the United States at least four times a year.  So he runs a tight ship, which is professional, laid back, and also fun. Our touring sound engineer is Chris Colbert, who toured with the Walkmen, Sufjan Stevens, and more for years, so the musical history and experience that we are surrounded by is deep and rich.

While in the van, I read earlier this week a post on Facebook from one of my fellow musicians in Seattle.  They candidly opened up about their struggles with the state of the industry, the impact it had on their own music making, and that they were considering not putting out any more music.  This was a little bit of a shock – since I occasionally get these pangs of doubt, and wonder if a day job would provide the comfort, and consistency that sometimes I wish a career in music could provide. It is possible for sure – it’s just hard, and takes grit.  I felt for them, and could genuinely relate.  It isn’t easy to make a living off art. Check out Elizabeth Renzetti’s article about Iggy Pop, and his struggle with making money now.

Unfortunately there are so many social misconceptions and myths that envelop a career in music today. Paid work with a company/employer is seen as purposeful by the general community, whilst arts activities are not regarded as having any real purpose.  Arts and music education in the States has been battling with this for years.   Whilst consumers in society may value a beautiful marble sculpture, a rare violin,  a recording of Thelonious Monk, a Chagall painting, it does not have the same purpose as something as mundane as a microwave. Art, in this case can be done without, but the microwave cannot – it has a specified purpose.  So sometimes with music, I wonder… what is the purpose?

From the point of view of the general populace, the word ‘artist’, or ‘musician’ conjures a vision of a temperamental romantic, leading a carefree life – a bohemian unencumbered by the mundane constraints that beset the ordinary wage-earner. This is partly true to a degree, but I feel that a healthy dose of professionalism, work ethic, and business acumen is really important for a sane, full, and long career.  But even then, there isn’t necessarily any guarantee of success.  The music industry also isn’t a meritocracy – there are plenty of terrible artists who are making it – at least for the extent of their 15 minutes of fame.  However one of the damaging myths that comes from this situation, is that you have quick overnight success stories of untested, naive, and young artists who are getting global renown. Look at the general model of American Idol, X Factor, the Voice… a misconception that I think arises from this, is that the general community believes that the rise to fame is relatively easy, and doesn’t take a lot of hard work, or that you have ‘made it’ and that you are set for life. Neither of these myths are remotely true.

Even with your occasional rags to riches stories in entertainment, there is a pervasive ambivalent community attitude about the arts, which flows through to schools – there is uncertainty of what the arts are and what worthwhile outcomes they can produce. Even in my own upbringing, I was freaked out by the proposition of becoming a musician professionally.  Not until I was jettisoned into a rock band while I was in college, did I start to become somewhat comfortable with the idea of being an artist. I still cringe sometimes when I introduce myself at social gatherings as a ‘musician’ or ‘composer’ – since I feel like there is an immediate social stigma which labels me as a slacker, arrogant, and wasting my life.  I know that none of these assessments are accurate – but I sometimes find it hard to articulate why my role in a community is so important.  The meaning of art and music has been a point of discussion by many famous philosophers, such as Tolstoy, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Maritain – but there doesn’t exist a definitive, and firm argument which highlights the main purpose of music in human civilization. Even if it did exist, we live in a culture that appreciates a different set of values – we even look at the music industry in terms of album sales, tour numbers,  fan base, door %’s and recouping. To choose to be an artist and musician is a difficult choice in conjunction with all this.

The philosopher Ruth Chang points out that people always tend toward a ‘less risky option’ with their life choices. To choose a life of art is hard, “because of an unreflective assumption we make about value. We unwittingly assume that values like justice, beauty, kindness, are akin to scientific quantities, like length, mass and weight… As post-Enlightenment creatures, we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world, but the world of value is different from the world of science. The stuff of the one world can be quantified by real numbers. The stuff of the other world can’t. We shouldn’t assume that the world of is, of lengths and weights, has the same structure as the world of ought, of what we should do…Understanding hard choices in this way uncovers something about ourselves we didn’t know. Each of us has the power to create reasons.”

Music and art ideally was never about money- and it never should be.  A lot of people get into music for the wrong reasons: sex, fame, fortune, drugs, respect…. some nobler than others… some not so much.  I’m still young in terms of musical career, and how much I still have to learn – but I think I know one thing that can speak to having a purpose and all this existential conflict: don’t worry about it so much. All the cultural discourse about music will carry on – people will continue bitching about the state of the music industry and everything, the decline of record sales, and streaming, and free music, yadda yadda….  that world doesn’t make or break music ultimately. It never did.

Music is magic. Communal, cathartic, revolutionary, transformational, and sacred. The music business is fickle, and unfortunately has been incredibly faithless lately – and I think that is it’s worst aspect currently. Fans come and go – bookers, promoters, labels all come and go.  But a beautiful song will last, and change lives.  When I first wrote the string composition for David Bazan’s song, “Priests and Paramedics” I wept in my hotel room.  That song, and what it did to me is something incredible.  I can’t put into words the power that an experience like that had on me.

I’m happy and love this life I have chosen for myself. And to all of my fellow musicians: you are blessed, beautiful, and have a wonderful gift to share. This career isn’t easy, and this society not fair.  But grit and a genuine love of this art will keep you going.

Here is a beautiful quote to end on fromKarl Paulnack, the Director of the Music Division at The Boston Conversatory given to freshmen music students:

“You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”

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Passenger String Quartet is On the Road!

 

ImageThe Passenger String Quartet is about to embark on our first full US tour as a group together, and we couldn’t be more excited!  This is going to be for 6 1/2 weeks, and we will post regular updates from life on the road, while we tour with David Bazan, and David Dondero who will be opening all of our Fall 2014 dates.

Dates are available at www.davidbazan.com. Check out the link for free streaming music, tour dates, and purchase links for the album: David Bazan & The Passenger String Quartet Vol. 1.  See you on the road!

Review of Bazan + PSQ Volume 1 by Paste Magazine

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Well the album is officially released!  You can snag a copy at: http://www.davidbazan.com

In addition, the glowing reviews for the album are rolling in!  Check out the below one from Paste Magazine by Alex Skidmore:

“David Bazan has more than enough material between his numerous projects—Pedro The Lion, Headphones, Overseas—from the last 17 years to have made multiple greatest hits compilations, but rather than do it in the more traditional way of throwing tracks together with a few B-sides or live versions, Bazan reimagines the classics. First it was his live studio album from 2010, Live At Electrical Audio, and now he’s given us a collaboration with Seattle’s Passenger String Quartet aptly titledDavid Bazan + Passenger String Quartet Volume 1.

As with any compilation, everyone can make arguments for songs that aren’t included (I for one would have loved to see “Curse Your Branches” included), but Bazan has chosen some real standards for this collection. From Pedro The Lion numbers such as “The Fleecing” and “When They Really Get To Know You They Will Run” to new classics like “Lost My Shape” and “Wolves At The Door,” Volume 1is a well-rounded assortment of songs. Not to mention the fact that this album is VOLUME ONE. That’s a pretty good indicator that there will be more to come from Bazan and the PSQ in the future. Whether those volumes end up containing new songs or more from past releases, they will be worth a listen.

This album very accurately captures the raw power and intimate intensity that Bazan consistently delivers in live settings. The string arrangements are hauntingly captivating as they give these tunes new life while being reminiscent of the album versions we’re familiar with. Bazan has always had a way with melodies, and the strings capture them wonderfully, accentuating small musical lines and sending these songs into all new heights and even depths. “Bands With Managers” soars after the addition of the chorus from “June 18, 1976,” while “Wolves At The Door” is slowed down for a darker and more brooding feeling than the Strange Negotiationsversion. This album is a must for any fan of Bazan’s work as both a beautiful piece of work and a marker of all that he has accomplished in writing over the years.

It also comes at a time when Bazan seems to be turning another page as an artist. While continuing his living room tours and other live runs with the Passenger String Quartet, Bazan is in the middle of his ongoing New Songs Volume 1 project wherein he releases two new songs on the first of every month going back to July 2014 and through November. Without drawing too much attention away from the piece at hand, he is doing some amazing new things thus far.

Bazan shows no signs of slowing down between his various studio projects and seemingly constant tour schedule. At the very least, David Bazan + Passenger String Quartet Volume 1 is a fitting celebration of a truly great artist.”

Passenger String Quartet Joins Australian Band “Falls” at Bumbershoot

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Passenger String Quartet will be joining the Sydney, Australia band “Falls” at Seattle’s own Bumbershoot Music Festival on August 31st, at 7:30 pm at the Memorial Stadium. Here is a short description of the band from their website:

“Melinda Kirwin and Simon Rudston-Brown, better known as Sydney duo Falls, found themselves better bandmates than bedmates, and headed into the studio to write a few songs. Falls soon found themselves heading out on tour with the likes of The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, and Passenger. Quickly catching the ear of Universal Music Group’s Verve Records, they signed to the label in December of 2013 and moved to the states soon after. With their debut US EP Into The Fire ready for release on February 18th, the band hit the Sundance Film Festival and are now in the midst out on a nationwide tour with Delta Rae that ends at this years SXSW Music Festival.”

David Bazan + Passenger String Quartet Tour Announced

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Excited to announce that the Passenger String Quartet will be hitting the road this fall with Seattle artist, David Bazan, in support of our new joint album together: David Bazan and the Passenger String Quartet Vol. 1!

Check out the dates below:
10/10 : Sacramento CA – Harlow’s
10/11 : San Francisco CA – The Independent
10/12 : Los Angeles CA – The Masonic Lodge – SOLD OUT
10/13 : Los Angeles CA – The Masonic Lodge
10/14 : San Diego CA – Irenic
10/15 : Phoenix AZ – The Crescent Ballroom
10/17 : Austin TX – Central Presbyterian Church
10/18 : Dallas TX – The Texas Theatre
10/19 : Oklahoma City OK – ACM @ UCO Performance Lab
10/21 : St. Louis MO – Old Rock House
10/22 : Nashville TN – 3rd & Lindsley
10/23 : Birmingham AL – WorkPlay Theatre
10/24 : Decatur GA – Eddie’s Attic
10/25 : Asheville NC – Grey Eagle
10/26 : Saxapahaw NC – The Haw River Ballroom
10/28 : Washington DC – Sixth & I Historic Synagogue
10/29 : Philadelphia PA – First Unitarian Church – Sanctuary
10/30 : Arlington MA – Regent Theatre
11/01 : New York NY – Bowery Ballroom
11/02 : Pittsburgh PA – Club Cafe
11/04 : Toronto ON – Virgin Mobile Mod Club
11/05 : Ferndale MI – The Magic Bag
11/06 : Chicago IL – Lincoln Hall
11/08 : Grand Rapids MI – The Ladies Literary Club
11/10 : Milwaukee WI – Turner Hall
11/11 : Minneapolis MN – Cedar Cultural Center
11/12 : Madison WI – High Noon Saloon
11/13 : Omaha NE – The Waiting Room
11/14 : Lawrence KS – Bottleneck
11/15 : Denver CO – Oriental Theater
11/17 : Salt Lake City UT – The State Room
11/18 : Boise ID – Cathedral of the Rockies
11/19 : Spokane WA – The Bartlett
11/20 : Portland OR – Aladdin Theater
11/21 : Seattle WA – Neptune Theatre

David Bazan + PSQ Interview/Review by Seattle Weekly

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Seattle Weekly interviewed me recently about the new announcement of David Bazan and the Passenger String Quartet, Vol. 1 release.

Check out the article here. 

by Morgen Schuler and Mark Baumgarten

David Bazan is breathing new life into his back catalog. The Seattle songwriter, who originally gained a following with his band Pedro the Lion, announced today that he will be releasing an album of songs from throughout his musical career, each performed on accoustic guitar and with accompaniment provided by the Passenger String Quartet.

Now, before the cynics accuse him of repackaging old goods with a well-worn gimmick, it should be noted that the songs Bazan has chosen for the soon-to-be-released Dave Bazan + Passenger String Quartet Volume I (streaming free now) don’t simply feel rehashed; they feel reimagined. These beloved songs have been given a respectful dusting off, the orchestral treatment adding nuanced percussion and a playful feel throughout, providing some levity to the otherwise thoughtful, yet downtrodden lyrics. The tracks chosen range from Pedro the Lion’s 1998​When They Really Get To Know You They Will Run to last year’s solo Strange Negotiations and are evenly weighted between Pedro and solo work.

What does this mean for fans both die-hard and fairly new? Well, Bazan will be playing all those favorites you have on mix tapes and playlists during his upcoming tour with the Passenger String Quartet. That often sweet and most-times painfully melancholy voice will once again be heard throughout the country including a stop in Seattle at the Neptune on November 21st.

The Passenger String Quartet has become quite the hot commodity itself making musical friends with everyone from Tess Henley to Kris Orlowski to Grammy award-winner Judy Collins. Led by Seattle’s stringed sweetheart Andrew Joslyn (freshly off tour, along with a couple of his fellow Quartet-mates, with Macklemore) they create dynamic string arrangements for stand-alone performances as well. We caught up with Joslyn to talk about the album.


Seattle Weekly: How, exactly, did this project come about?
Andrew Joslyn: Back in 2012, I was hired to write string quartet arrangements for a Tacoma Cathedral’s show, which had Kevin Sur, Pretty Broken Things, and David Bazan on the bill. Aaron Stevens, the promoter, asked me to contract Passenger String Quartet to play at the church, and I just wrote up charts for all three groups. I was stunned that Bazan was receptive to the idea, and also extremely excited.

Once we performed the show, it was obvious that there was something special about what had happened, so David and I chatted about it, and agreed that it would be awesome to put together an album. 

I didn’t hear from him for about a year after that. I actually thought he was punking me and giving me the Seattle deep freeze. I texted him, and called, and at one point thought I was getting a little too desperate, so I backed off. Soon enough he called, had a calendar, tour, plan, and everything. And it was like a landslide had hit me. I guess that is how he works. Once he could focus on this album, he was all in.

He had everything worked out, then? 
Well, just when he would like to tour, where to record, and overall game plan. Actual recording, and artistic direction I had a lot more say in, when we finally got into the studio.

Did he have the tracklist figured out, or did you help with that as well?
Well, he initially asked me which songs I heard strings on, and what I thought would work for arranging. So I sent him a list of my top 15-18 tracks (from all across the Bazan catalog). And he went through, and decided which he felt comfortable with, and which he thought would work for an album. We went into the studio and actually recorded 12 songs, but two were cut since they didn’t quite fit in the overall scheme of things. I think we might release them later.

What got cut?!
“Please Baby Please” and “Shit Talker.” I think “Shit Talker” will need a little bit more work—but I liked the arrangement and where it can go potentially.

So, were you a big Bazan fan before you worked with him?
I’ve been a fan of David Bazan for a long time. I remember listening to him on the road when I used to tour the west coast with my first band. Admittedly I’m a later Bazan fan, but his albumsCurse Your Branches, and Pedro The Lion’s Achilles Heel were really powerful to me.

“Hard To Be” floored me the first time I heard it, and “I Do” also had a similar effect. I hadn’t heard his album Control until he asked me to do the arrangement for “Priests and Paramedics”—that quickly became one of my top favorites of his catalog. He became my favorite songwriter in Seattle after I heard Curse Your Branches, and Control just reaffirmed it for me. Just having the opportunity to work with him, was like a crazy fan-boy moment. I think him calling the album, Vol.1, made my year.

What was your favorite song to work on?
I actually really wanted to work on “Hard to Be.” Hopefully I can convince him to allow me to do that one on the second volume. But for the songs that are ACTUALLY on the album, my favorite arrangement was “Priests and Paramedics.” I actually went about it as a pseudo-canon (round) with baroque counterpoint and it just came together really beautifully. It was also really good for me to work on because of the subject matter, and the beautiful bleakness of it. Trying to write a string quartet arrangement to match that was a nice challenge.

Another tune that I really enjoyed working on was “How I Remember.” It was the most aggressive arrangement on the album, and pushed the quartet to really deliver a raw, powerful performance.

David Bazan & The Passenger String Quartet Album Preorder

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My new album with the Passenger String Quartet and the amazing songwriter David Bazan has just been announced!  You can stream the full album here, as well as check out upcoming tour dates in October/November 2014.  http://www.davidbazan.com/david-bazan-passenger-string-quartet-album-tour/

Here is some more information about this album as well:

The seed for this album was planted during a one-off show back in 2012 when Bazan was invited to play a show in Tacoma WA with the Passenger String Quartet. PSQ leader/Northwest composer Andrew Joslyn put together string arrangements for 4 songs and it was an enjoyable evening for all. They immediately began talking about doing it again and eventually started talking about making proper studio recordings of these songs. But it took nearly two years for everyone’s schedules to line up again. In February 2014, they were able to spend a week at Avast! studio in Seattle tracking a collection of 10 songs pulled from Pedro The Lion, Headphones and Bazan solo albums. Long time friend and Bazan collaborator Chris Colbert recorded, mixed and mastered the album. Chris’s no nonsense approach and years of friendship helped focus things in the studio and they were able to record the entire album in just a few days.

With the release of the album they will be touring all across the USA in October and November playing in clubs, small theaters and cathedrals. 

David Bazan was, for many years, the songwriter and driving force behind the acclaimed band Pedro the Lion, building a dedicated following and selling a couple hundred-thousand albums. After a decade helming the project, he found himself embroiled in a major personal philosophical and spiritual cataclysm, wrapped in a growing drinking problem. Bazan got to work exorcizing both his demons and angels, ditching the Pedro moniker in favor of his given name. He’s released the Fewer Moving Parts EP (2006) and two full-length albums, Curse Your Branches (2009), Strange Negotiations (2011) under his own name.

The Passenger String Quartet is an avant-garde, experimental neo-classical group, formed by Northwest composer/violinist Andrew Joslyn. The group is in high demand as studio session musicians, tours & performs original compositions, as well as backs a wide variety of regional, and national touring groups from DJ Spooky, Suzanne Vega, to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Ivan and Alyosha, Kris Orlowski, Doug Martsche, and many more.

David Bazan – singing, piano, guitar, percussion
Rebecca Chung Filice – Cello
Seth May-Patterson – Viola
Alina To – Violin
Andrew Joslyn – Violin & string arrangements
Chris Colbert – recording, mixing, mastering

KEXP Q&A: Andrew Joslyn

Pub1545610_10100770882871600_1892798655_nlished by KEXP, written by Jacob Uitti. (http://blog.kexp.org/2014/06/01/kexp-qa-andrew-joslyn/)

Andrew Joslyn has flown all over the world with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, he has composed string arrangements for Dave Bazan and he recently put together a new studio to take the plunge and be his own boss. KEXP caught up with Joslyn to talk with him about his myriad new projects, what he remembers fondly from the past year, and what key signature he’d use if he HAD TO CHOOSE ONE!

You’ve been on a world tour in the last year with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Can you explain what that’s been like and what you’ve seen that’s blown you away?

First and foremost, being able to say that music has given me the opportunity to travel the world is pretty amazing.  Since September of 2013, I’ve travelled to over 18 countries around the globe with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and I’m very thankful to them for that opportunity. To express the sheer impact that much traveling and exposure to the world abroad has had on me is hard to encapsulate with any sort of brevity, but it has been eye-opening, to say the least, and also inspiring for my own creative writing in music. Some of the most stand out spots that I had a chance to see were: The Zen Buddhist and Shinto Temples in Kamakura, Japan; The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, and the 100 Islands in Alaminos, Phillipines. I think also seeing a powerful song like, “Same Love” and have audiences worldwide singing along to it (regardless of race, background, upbringing etc.), has been stunning.

In the time when you’ve been home recently you’ve done a lot of string arrangements for incredible musicians. Let’s rapid fire – I’ll mention a handful of artists and you explain in a sentence or two the style in which you’ve composed:

David Bazan - David Bazan and myself are currently in the middle of working on a joint album together, and it features my group the Passenger String Quartet. Bazan and myself first had the opportunity to collaborate back in July 2012 for a show, and it’s exciting that we are finally able to take that performance and crystallize it on a record.  I’ve also been a huge fan of Bazan and his songwriting ever since Pedro the Lion. Stylistically, my string arranging for this album seems to be a healthy cross between the There Will Be Blood soundtrack, and Bjork’s Family Tree. Plan on seeing the album out in the latter part of 2014 with a tour to follow.

Kris Orlowski - I’ve had the pleasure of working with Kris Orlowski for a number of years now, since our first release together, Kris Orlowski with the Passenger String Quartet Live at the Fremont Abbey. We released a joint album together called, Pieces We Are, which had me writing full orchestral scores – brass, woodwinds, and full symphonic strings. We were going for a more folk/pop vibe, so I tried to write the music in that vein.

Mark Lanegan - I worked with Mark Lanegan on his latest release, Imitations, which was a cover album of old classics like “Mack the Knife”, “Autumn Leaves”, “You Only Live Twice”, etc. The fun thing for me was that I had to dig back through all the old John Barry, Andy Williams arrangements and create my own take on them, and definitely give it that dark, gloomy, Lanegan spin. Was awesome to be a part of that!

Susy Sun - In October 2013, Seattle songstress Susy Sun released her album, Wanderlust which I contributed 5 string quartet arrangements to. Since her music and singing is much more delicate, I had to make sure that my writing was extra sensitive to the vocals, and matched the beautiful tracks that she wrote.

Judy Collins - In January I worked with folk legend Judy Collins for a short string of shows in the Pacific Northwest with the Passenger String Quartet backing her. I arranged a small set for her (to a couple of her classic tunes like “Mountain Girl”), and also composed an original set of my own music which we showcased as the opening act for her while on tour. Having an opportunity to play my own cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for her was a musician’s dream.

Kevin Sur - Currently I’m working with songwriter/composer/Artist Home director, Kevin Sur for a collaborative album involving PSQ. Will be going into the studio in Mid-May. Stay-tuned…

Tell me about the Passenger String Quartet – when did it form? What’s the thesis of the group? Is it something that aims to be able to fit any situation musically? 

The Passenger String Quartet is an extension of my own arranging/composing, and is a stellar crew of string players that I put together from around Seattle. I use it as a platform to perform my own original neo-classical/avant garde arrangements, but also as a group that can back a wide-variety of artists that I work with in and out of the studio while composing for their albums/shows. Essentially the group does aim to be able to fit any situation musically, because it continually challenges me to write string based compositions for everything from rock, to hip-hop, folk, country, electronica, and more.

The group initially came together back in 2010 when we were first hired to backup Suzanne Vega at the Moore Theater. The name for the group is a slightly longer story though. I was a music/English student in college, and studied Charles Dickens a lot, and fell in love with a part from The Christmas Carol:

“But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Just always thought that was such a beautiful line of writing. Ever since then, I wanted to start a band called ‘Fellow Passengers To the Grave,’ but it seemed a little too cryptic out of context. Once the string quartet formed, it seemed natural to just apply that name to the group in a modified form.  Win-Win!

How does Seattle inform your work? How long have you lived here? What does the city offer you in terms of inspiration? 

I moved to Seattle shortly after I graduated Western Washington University, around 2006-ish.  I’ve always loved how vibrant and communal the music scene in Seattle is – and it is also incredibly multi-faceted. Between organizations like the Bushwick Book Club (which recruits songwriters/composers from all over Seattle to write original music for a specific show), Love City Love, The Seattle Rock Lottery Benefit, and The Seattle Rock Orchestra (which taps into singers/bands from a lot of different genres for their tribute shows), Seattle does a great job with encouraging collaboration between artists (visual, written, musical, and beyond).

It is this idea of collaboration that has influenced a lot of the work that I do as a composer and arranger, and it is continually pushing me to become a better artist. To this day, one of my favorite collaborations I have done in the past, is I wrote a full orchestral score to back a spoken word poem by Roberto Ascalon for a show at Town Hall. Was beautiful and stunning. Seems like a pretty Seattle thing to me.

Some more quick hits… 

If you could only use one Key (A-minor, F#-major, etc.) what would it be? 

D minor.  One of my favorite Bach pieces of all time is the Partita No. 2 (Chaccone) for solo violin in D minor. With what Bach did with a single key, and how much he expanded on it…. I could only hope that one day I could write something even remotely close to that achievement.  

If you could compose music underneath any poet’s language, who would it be? 

D.H. Lawrence with his work.  It is very sublime, yet raw, and I feel like I could write some beautiful music as an underscore.  Couple runner-ups:  Alan Watts (with his lectures and written works), and/or John Donne with his shorter works.  

If you could teach one famous person the violin, who would it be? 

David Bowie or Harrison Ford (it would just be such a kick with either of them).  

Lastly, what’s coming up next for you? 

I’m currently writing my own solo debut album of original songs (set to full orchestrations), which I will then bring to different singers (based on the needs of the various pieces). It will be kind of like a musical equivalent to Cinderella, and trying to find the right person to fit my glass slippers! Currently some of the tracks are in a dark Portishead/Bjork vibe right now that I’m actually surprised came out of me! It is fun and very revealing to finally let my own creative voice come out after all my collaborations with so many different artists.

Welcome to the New Age

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Amateurs and Pros?

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in the quiet recesses of Kerry Hall, one of the performance halls at Cornish College of the Arts, watching a friend of mine, Seth, perform the Bach cello suite no. 5 in c minor, arranged for viola.  The entire body of work is beautiful, and each piece was encapsulated in perfect silence. The performance, and the sounds (the runs, the rushed notes, the squeaks, the perfections and imperfections), that emanated from his instrument lived and died in that room – and it was amazing.  It was human and only existed for that one moment.  There is a part of me that wished it was recorded, so I could re-listen, but also that was part of the charm and magic of it.  It was mortal.

Sometimes I think recorded music has the ability of ‘sucking the life’ out of a piece of music.  How many times have you heard a top forty track, played ad infinitum, and can no longer stand listening to it? The not so sweet side of immortal music. Those artists though can be so incredibly venerated, and idolized in our society.

Back before there was recorded music, (1870’s), there wasn’t such a venerated divide between ‘musicans’ and audience. Most classical performances had a lot of amateur musicians and composers in the crowd, and there was more performer/audience interaction, at least more than there is now in the sterile classical performances we get in concert halls today.  The point is, that everyone to a degree was an artist. It was ubiquitous and a part of the fabric of a community.  Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case as much.  You have professional musicians, some amateurs, and a lot of listeners.

I recently read this article written by artist David Gerard, and it was interesting to hear his take on the state of music for independent musicians currently:

“The problem isn’t piracy — it’s competition. There is too much music and too many musicians, and the amateurs are often good enough for the public. This is healthy for culture, not so much for aesthetics, and shit for musicians. Literally everyone is a musician if they want to be. Good for culture, bad for employment. The serious problem for the working musician, though, isn’t records being cheap — it’s competition from other musicians. Because any talentless hack is now a musician. There are bands who would have trouble playing a police siren in tune, who download a cracked copy of Cubase — you know how much musicians pirate their software, VSTs and sample packs, right? — and tap in every note. There are people like me who do this. A two-hundred-quid laptop with LMMS and I suddenly have better studio equipment than I could have hired for $100/hour thirty years ago. You can do better with a proper engineer in a proper studio, but you don’t have to. And whenever quality competes with convenience, convenience wins every time.

You can protest that your music is a finely-prepared steak cooked by sheer genius, and be quite correct in this, and you have trouble paying for your kitchen, your restaurant, your cow. But everyone else is giving away zero-marginal-cost digital steaks, even if they’re actually reconstituted tofu or maybe poop. This means art becomes entirely a folk enterprise: the sound of the culture talking amongst itself. This is lovely in its way, but all a bit fucked if you aspire to higher quality in your subcultural group. We’re not going to run out of music, but it’s going to be a bit mediocre by and by.”  - David Gerard

In essence, with the accessibility of new technologies, everyone can become an amateur musician again. Music creation has been brought back to the masses. Shouldn’t that be a good thing?

The plight of the professional creative:

I used to have a home studio: Saffire Focusrite Pro interface, simple microphone and preamp setup,  a standard midi controller keyboard, and a killer view of Magnolia and the Puget Sound.  I also had enough cracked copies of professional software, VSTS and samples, that I had a pretty sweet setup.  I could wake up leisurely and record music right in the comfort of my own home, and just record when I felt in the ‘mood.’  Also during this time, I was juggling a 9-5 job at a label in town, which demanded the majority of my time during the workweek, but also which allowed me a level of safety financially.  I was taken care of, and didn’t put expectations on my own creativity and music-making.

I took the brave step to become an ‘official’ full-time professional musician in the winter of January 2014. Over the last four months I have created a music studio in south Seattle, updated my setup tenfold, legitimately licensed my music software, and purchased some kick-ass microphones for recording.

A week ago, I walked into my new outfitted space, and felt pride, but also an overwhelming sense of panic.  There was now a new dimension added to my routine that I hadn’t anticipated: “expectation.”  When I had just a home studio, I could create without any expectations, and it was wonderful.  Now, there was a need, and a reliance on creating.  My music now has to make money somehow to support me.

I think one of the most alluring and magical things about all the creative arts is the fact that there is always a risk of not knowing if something you work on will make money or not. Some of the time, money isn’t the intent, and in an ideal world , it shouldn’t be ever. Unfortunately, you also need to be a pragmatic sometimes.

I was reading an article recently about the difference between a ‘professional’ vs. an amateur photographer (which certainly has many parallels with musicians), and the one difference, is the necessity of the professional to run a profitable business. Amateurs can leisurely work, be fly-by-night, make good work – but not until their personal life is tied in with the success of their own business, can they be fully deemed ‘professional.’  Like Plato said, “..let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention.”

With my new studio, I now have the tools, but now need to really develop and perfect my own voice, and hopefully that is something that will ultimately be marketable, and sustainable.  However, with this in mind, was I merely an amateur before I took the leap of faith to finally fully pursue music?  I’m not sure, since it is such a fine line.

The Danger of and Instant Gratification of Technology:

I just about finished the book, “ How Music Works,” by David Byrne (of Talking Heads), and there was a section in the book which fascinated me greatly:

“In music… a group of hot young programmers soon emerged whose skills were in constructing, for use by others, grooves made from scratch. With a relatively inexpensive piece of gear or software, you could make contributions to major songs from your bedroom. In contemporary hip-hop, there is now often no relationship between a compositions backing track and a simulation of a live performance by musicians in the traditional sense… In the early days, there were live DJ’s using vinyl to loop drum breaks, but now everything – every instrument – is sampled, processed, or in some way shamelessly and boldly artificial. This music floats free of all worldly reference. Most other pop genres retain some link to simulated live performance, or at least to the instruments used in one, but a song put together with finger snaps, super-compressed or auto-tuned vocals, squiggly synths, and an impossibly fat and unidentifiable bass sound doesn’t resemble any existing live band at all.”

I remember being at South By Southwest a couple of years ago, at Fader Fort, and was disappointed that a majority of the artists were just behind a laptop. Maybe there was some variation here and there: dancers, maybe some keyboards, at most a couple cursory instrumentalists… However at it’s core it was recorded, synthetic based music.  Without a laptop, none of it could have happened. Even with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, we have crafted a live show which, at it’s core, is Lewis’ amazing beats.

In a sense, we are in a ‘golden age’ for DJ’s and electronic musicians.  Some of the biggest chart-topping success stories are artists like: Daft Punk, Kaskade, Skrillex, David Guetta, Avicii, etc.  I don’t remember any DJ’s from the 80’s, and don’t think any of them have the power that they hold today.  Deadmau5, in a blog post, opened up honestly about the live performance of DJs:

“its no secret.  When it comes to “live” performance of EDM… that’s about the most it seems you can do anyway. It’s not about performance art, its not about talent either (really its not) In fact, let me do you and the rest of the EDM world button pushers who fuckin hate me for telling you how it is, a favor and let you all know how it is.

I think given about 1 hour of instruction, anyone with minimal knowledge of ableton and music tech in general could DO what im doing at a deadmau5 concert. Just like i think ANY DJ in the WORLD who can match a beat can do what “ANYONE else” (not going to mention any names) is doing on their EDM stages too. “

A lot of the music technology available nowadays is geared towards ease of use, quickness to master, and instant gratification.  It makes sense though: why would you release a piece of software which makes your clients frustrated because it takes ages to figure out how to use and get results?  Our world is becoming more and more impatient… we get pissed if our internet connection is slow, we find instant dates on Tinder, we hunger for faster delivery, etc.  – Slowness is bad for business.  We have even made finding our favorite music easier by providing an instant gratification library, which we don’t have to pay much for – thank you Spotify. (I love and hate you.)

The scary thing though, is that with speed, and powerful technology, comes a lot of smoke and mirrors.  With all of this, you can pose as a decent music creator (most people wouldn’t know the difference), and not have a shred of training in you, or taken any time to perfect your craft.  Essentially you are getting something for nothing.  Instant-success yay! In an age, where we see instant fame with shows like American Idol, the Voice, America’s Got Talent, etc. it all seems in line.  Like David Gerard pointed out earlier, “a bit mediocre by and by.”

One of my favorite youtube videos has Mozart and Skrillex duking it out and arguing which of their ways of music creation is better:

Let me make a quick point of clarification: I am not demeaning the art of electronic music – there are a lot of incredibly talented and innovative producers, musicians, & engineers that I admire in this style of creation. And I’m proud to work with some of the best producers to come out of Seattle. I am merely pointing out that technology has made it easier for an amateur to appear much better than they actually are.

On the flip side, does having years of academic education and training necessarily deem you a ‘professional’ and a better musician? Personally I feel like this should at least give you more tools and skill to excel, but it doesn’t mean you are automatically a professional either. I remember meeting a Julliard graduate who never became a professional musician, and they were exceedingly gifted. Unfortunately the career of a concert soloist didn’t work for them.

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In the End:

Ultimately, my opinion on this matter is skewed by personal bias: I have been playing and crafting my art as a violinist since I was five years old.  I’ve been learning composition/theory/music business since I was in college. Obviously anything that can be mastered in a shorter timeframe seems threatening to me.

I think that when technology gives us such powerful tools which creates shortcuts, and instant gratification (canned drum beats, easily downloadable samples,  arpeggiator, abelton live, etc. etc.) you make way for programmers, and technicians. Not necessarily musicians. But we are all making music, so why does it matter?  I think it matters when the listener doesn’t know the difference, or doesn’t care to know the difference.

Mistaking an amateur as a genius just because they have a $2,000 sample library, and tons of technology at their fingertips, seems to be misplaced praise to me. Most people now unfortunately seem taken in by the glitz, sleek, and easily digestible packaged music – ultimately, because it is all made for instant gratification.  Well doesn’t that just make those creators smart artists and businessmen? In my opinion, that makes them just cheap opportunists.

In the end, looking back at my friend Seth’s performance at Kerry Hall – the thing that was most amazing about his performance was that it was honest, and without any extraneous trappings, and it took genuine skill to accomplish.  No smoke or mirrors. Hopefully that type of music will be appreciated by the masses in years to come.