INTERVIEW – Fireworks Magazine (UK) interview with musician and producer Patrick Grant, creator of A Sequence of Waves (twelve stories and a dream) released on the Peppergreen Media label.
Patrick Grant is an American composer living and working in New York City. His works are a synthesis of classical, popular, and world musical styles that have found place in concert halls, film, theater, dance, and visual media over three continents. Over the last three decades, his music has moved from post-punk and classically bent post-minimal styles, through Balinese-inspired gamelan and microtonality, to ambient, electronic soundscapes involving many layers of acoustic and electronically amplified instruments. Throughout its evolution, his music has consistently contained a “…a driving and rather harsh energy redolent of rock, as well as a clean sense of melodicism…intricate cross-rhythms rarely let up…” Known as a producer and co-producer of live musical events, he has presented many concerts of his own and other composers, including a 2013 Guinness World Record-breaking performance of 175 electronic keyboards in NYC. He is the creator of International Strange Music Day (August 24) and the pioneer of the electric guitar procession Tilted Axes.
FM: The last time we spoke, you were talking about your Detroit origins in classical and rock music, your early avant-garde theatrical work in New York City, but mostly about your album Tilted Axes: Music for Mobile Electric Guitars. How was that?
PG: I could not have been happier with the response that album received. It was a crystallization of five years work, the end of a Phase One. If anyone is not familiar with the project, it began as a procession of electric guitars with portable amps for the winter solstice in 2011. It is part concert, part theater, and part street spectacle. Musically it encompassed everything from rock to classical to non-western, all written my me. It a way, it is a huge theme and variations. It became popular and we’ve performed versions on three continents so far. The album was a way of getting the music out to people and radio stations far beyond the scope of the live performances we did.
FM: What has Tilted Axes done since then?
PG: A couple months after the album came out, the USA was scheduled to have its presidential elections. The album was peaking in the press and we just finished performing for over a quarter of a million people in the NYC Village Halloween Parade. That’s a big thing here. Then we had the election and you-know-who won. That was highly unexpected. I was in shock for a number of weeks and it’s fair to say that a number of people are still in shock. I felt there was going to be a change in the coming year, maybe years. It was a good time to hit the brakes and re-evaluate. It seemed clear that the current models of professional music making were going to change and I wanted to stay ahead of that curve. I greatly reduced live performances so I could concentrate on recordings and took some formal training in film sound and associated disciplines. So, to answer your question: Tilted Axes has been on hiatus but will return in 2018. Currently, that’s the plan.
FM: What do you mean when you say “film sound and associated disciplines?”
PG: I needed to get current with my Pro-Tools skills. It is the industry standard for film and TV. My albums have been mostly Ableton, Reason, WAVES and other plug-ins up until now. My engineers were handling anything pro-Tools up until recently. They were better, faster, and has more experience. Then there’s dialogue recording and editing, sound design, ADR and Foley, as well as musical scoring. On top of all of that is the mixing and mastering for film and TV. It’s very different than music alone. Everything used is being used in service of a narrative, even if it’s abstract. It’s all about stories. Telling stories in sight and sound, even before language, could be argued to be the oldest art we have as human beings. Everything else is just detail and decoration.
FM: How has that affected your current work?
PG: I decided to do something concrete about it. Like a number of my avant-garde colleagues, I accepted a position at institute of higher learner. OK, I’m being funny. What I mean to say is that for two days of the academic week, at am a professor at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts Film School. NYU Tisch is pretty famous if those readers outside of the USA don’t know it. Its students include Martin Scorcese, Spike Lee, and a slew of others. It keeps me sharp and on top of the tech. I have studios and rehearsal rooms within which to experiment. The students are full of great ideas so I feel hopeful for the future of film, music, the arts. Really, I do.
FM: So that’s two days a week. What about the other five?
PG: Like I said, it’s been a time of re-evaluation. I’m pretty much the same writer, performer, and producer that I’ve always been. I’ve been consciously upping my game in the studio. I’ve been going back and forth between four projects and the first of these, a 13 track instrumental album, has been released, “A Sequence of Waves.” Its subtitle, (twelve stories and a dream), shows some influence of the film school. It’s also the title of an H. G. Wells short story collection, a connection I don’t mind at all. It feels like a pop album in duration and form. Many of the tracks have a verse, chorus, middle feel, even though I try to twist that around. The tracks themselves have a lot of variety in terms of style: prog rock, classical, blues, ambient, EDM, samba, cinematically inclined… there’s many cross-pollinated genres on it. It’s chamber prog! Supposedly no one listen to “albums” anymore, they just flick through playlists until they hear a track they like. However, there is a strong programmatic element as to the order of the tracks. It’s not just “a sequence of wave files.” [Dryly] Ha ha. That’s storytelling, plain and simple.
FM: What do you think are the standout tracks on the album?
PG: While we don’t really live in a time where there are “singles” as such any more, it could be argued that there are four singles on the album. The first would be “Seven Years at Sea.” On an album of instrumentals, it actually has vocals. It contains a 1930s field recording of three Creole sisters singing the ancient sea shanty “Sept ans sur mer.” I added piano, guitars, and other electronics to it. The end result is unintentionally Eno-esque.
The second of these four would be “Lonely Ride Coney Island.” It was originally created for a film but I recorded an album version here. I used every retro synth I have on it though it has real drums like all the other tracks. “Lonely Ride…” has turned out to be a hit in the EDM community. I wasn’t going for that but I’m happy that they picked up on it. Third would be “To Find a Form That Accommodates the Mess.” I’ve been saying that “every track has a story.” The story of this tracks actually begins with the one before it, “Prelude II”:
“Prelude II” began as an assignment from Robert Fripp. A few years ago at one of our Guitar Craft events, he pulled a number of us newer folks aside and said he had a “performance challenge” to give us. We all sat down and he pulled out The Hat.
The Hat is rumored to have once been worn by Bowie on one of his tours (Serious Moonlight?) and is now used in Guitar Craft to pull out names and numbers for random draws on slips of paper for such on-the-spot assignments. In this case Robert had written on little slips of paper words that designated quartets, trios, duos, and one solo. He pulled them out and assigned them to us at random. I was the lone soloist, a composer and performer who usually hides within layers of other guitars. That irony wasn’t lost on anybody. Robert swears to this day it wasn’t a set up. I believe him.
The challenge was that we had 24 hours to write a new piece of music and perform it in front of the larger group after dinner the following night. Being the lone soloist amongst the group, I announced the title of my piece as “Dude, Where’s My Band?” Robert laughed so hard. He himself calls it a Guitar Craft classic. That’s an honor of sorts. That’s how that piece was born. I renamed it “Prelude II” for the album, I multi-tracked it in places in the recording, but it is essentially a solo piece.
I liked its themes so much that I developed most of them further in “To Find a Form That Accommodates the Mess,” into which the original became the prelude. So, this new piece, “To Find a Form…” became this Post-Prog mini epic with a lot of orchestral textures. It also contains many elements from all the previous tracks. It’s a way of summarizing the experience of these twelve “stories.”
FM: And the fourth “single”?
PG: That would absolutely have to be “One Note Samba” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. By default it’s the “dream” on the album though, I like to say, any one of these tracks could be the dream depending on your perspective. The track began as a demo for a radio show here in NYC. I found a lot of sounds that I could render into the same pitch. It got played once on a Christmas special. I was invited to create a Tilted Axes performance in São Paulo, Brazil at the 3rd Música Estranha (Strange Music) Festival. I was able to record a number of found sounds there and incorporate them into the track with similar sounds found in NYC. I’ve always been a fan of original sounding covers whether it’s Joe Cocker doing The Beatle’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” or Devo doing The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” So these four tracks represent four different ports of entry into the album no matter what your main style of interest may be.
FM: Anything else to say about the other tracks or the album as a whole?
PG: It’s true that “every track has a story.” A quick run-down would be: “Lucid Intervals” began as a live looping piece but is now performed by orchestral instruments, the album contains a mini-suite called “Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms,” “Primary Blues” was created for the 100th anniversary of the first blues piece. There’s a few more tracks but that’s the gist of it. Like its predecessor “Tilted Axes,” this new album has somewhat of a mirrored sequence in the tracks. That is, track 1 mirrors track 13, track 2 mirrors track 12, and so on inwards with track 7 as a stand alone in the center. BTW that track is “Seven Years at Sea.” It’s no accident that it is in that position. All of this gives the work a sense of cohesion. Again: it’s storytelling.
I should speak more about the instrumentation. Those who know my work through “Tilted Axes” will hear more than the electric guitars, basses, and drums that make up that album. On “A Sequence of Waves” there is all that but there is also piano, organ, violin, viola, cello, synthesizers, percussion, and sampling. In a certain sense, it’s a more colorful album. I tried to reflect this in the album art and design.
I used the same production team as on the last album. Garry Rindfuss engineered much of the recording and was present for all the mixes. I rely on his ears a lot. Sheldon Steiger did the album mastering. He has a long list of credits working within a number of classical and popular styles. I think it’s because of this he is able to balance of the eclectic sets of tracks I give him.
FM: What are your interests outside of music?
PG: I’m interested in anything that can tell a story using non-verbal means. This includes all kinds of visual and graphic art, design, and architecture for example. A well-designed household item can speak volumes. This spills over into the realm of semiotics and this is a branch of philosophy I use a lot in our work. I’ve written a lot of music for modern dance and for experimental theater. That last one interests me a lot because it’s the only art form I can think of that contains all of my interests under one umbrella: every aspect of the visual, of music, of movement, of text, live performance, projection, and political commentary.
Another intentional aspect of the album was to suggest music that would be good for visuals. I am looking forward to creating music for film again. I have been away from it for a couple of years when Tilted Axes was at the center of my work. Now that I’m working with the NYU Film School, things are set up for that return.
FM: What’s in store for the future?
PG: I feel that I have put 2017 to good use and that I have a firmer foundation upon which to build. I’ve already spoke of a return to film scoring so there is that. There are also a number of recordings that need to be finalized for early 2018 release. One of these albums has members of the California Guitar Trio, King Crimson, and the Adrian Belew Power Trio on a number of its tracks. Also appearing will be my Tilted Axes and Guitar Craft regulars. You’ll also hear a lot more of my keyboard playing on future releases. Many people forget that keyboard were my main instrument for years. It’s time they should remember!
Tilted Axes will be making a return in a Phase Two sense. A tilt shift? I have partnered with a Canadian company that is making a new kind of portable amplification for electric guitars. It’s in prototype now and should begin production after the new year. We’ll begin working with these new amps in February.
One thing is for sure is that I have missed live performance a lot. Then again, I wouldn’t have this improved base of operation if I hadn’t put my attention toward other things for a while. Duty now for the future.
The next album’s working title is “The Velcro Variations,” because, after all, what is Velcro but hooks and loops? Yes, it’s hooks and loops.