|FUTURE PUNX’S CRUCIAL AUDIO GEAR
Finding inspiration in the dancy, angular post-punk of bands like Devo, the early Stranglers, and even Blondie, Brooklyn’s Future Punx have delivered with “I’m So Inspired” (recent Deli NYC Record of the Month) one of the most fun NYC albums of 2014 . We asked guitarist Jake Pepper a few questions about the band’s creative process.
What comes first: music or lyrics?
There’s no hard and fast rule here, but in my experience, they tend to grow simultaneously. Often, a tiny lyrical idea will inspire a songs worth of music, and then get fleshed out to correspond after the music is complete. Almost as often, it happens the other way around.
What’s been inspiring your music lately?
We’re constantly sharing music with each other, and getting turned on by each other to bands. We’ve also all been steadily learning more about electronic production and dance music as the band evolves to incorporate those elements more. We are all heavy readers and are inspired deeply by the exploration of various different states of consciousness which can have a revealing and inspiring effect. We’re also inspired by life itself. We’ve been lucky to enjoy many beautiful and transformative experiences together as friends and as a band, and those experiences continue to add up, providing a wellspring of inspiration that seems to us more or less infinite within the context of this project.
Is inspiration some kind of random blessing, or is it possible to set it in motion?
I view inspiration as a natural flowing of creative energy which can be encouraged by seeking a balance between one’s biological, emotional, and spiritual needs as well as creative desires. When this balance is achieved, confidence reigns, and ideas flow.
With confidence, we become less concerned with outside re- and per-ception and more tapped into our inherent creativity.
Tell us about the process of the one song from your repertoire that came together in the most surprising way.
Many of our songs have protracted evolutions as we continually revise the arrangements and electronic elements involved. Chris, Jason, and I all contribute as primary songwriters. Usually one of us will bring in a skeletal demo that we proceed to flesh out as a group.
The song “I’m so Inspired” [streaming below]was written by Chris but became a whole new beast when we brought it to rehearsal and randomly jammed it to a “House” preset on our sequencer. Certain dominant elements of the track came straight from the preset. That’s something I’m sure none of us ever imagined doing, as we like to build our own sounds from scratch, but it worked so perfectly that we ended up incorporating them permanently into the song. It continued to grow as we began playing it out live, accidentally debuting it during a particularly chaotic Halloween performance a couple years ago and refining it ever since. Even still, it evolves, as it ends in an open ended jam, which is unusual among our songs.
Where do you look for lyrical inspiration?
We all are voracious readers and draw much from books for lyrical ideas. The three primary lyricists in the band have relatively divergent reading interests that meet on the ground of curiosity regarding the nature of our mutually perceived reality and what it means to us, including the oft-unacknowledged non-physical (spiritual) aspects. Our lyrics reflect this curiosity, making frequent references to science, pseudoscience, science-fiction, spirituality, symbolism, mythology and poetry in their many forms and interpretations. We compare and contrast ideas from these areas with our life experiences, ideally creating our own adapted mythology, helping us to achieve our goals as a band while understanding the role of the band in our own lives. It’s a tall order on paper, but we make an effort to apply these ideas in ways that are not overly intellectual and can be appreciated on a gut level as well. Things don’t get too heady if we keep our focus on having fun with it.
Is there something you look for when writing lyrics, like, say, catharsis, personal expression, topicality, or positivity?
All the things you mentioned come into play when we write, but above all, we seek to inspire others with our music, and as such we pay close attention to every word we sing, taking care to express ourselves in a clear and direct manner while also bringing in the elements previously mentioned. We do project a generally “positive” outlook, though our lyrics frequently acknowledge the shadow aspect in our attempt to convey the need for balance. I would use “constructive” or “evolutionary” over “positive” as a more accurate descriptor of our approach. Our goal with both our music and lyrics is always to turn as many people on as possible.
Are there any instruments, pieces of equipment or musical toys that lately made you rediscover the playful side of creating?
When we first started the band, we knew we wanted to incorporate electronics, but we had all generally come from a background of playing in more traditional “rock” setups, though I had had some years experience sequencing with Reason and Fruityloops beforehand. Around this time I purchased a Korg Electribe EMX-1 off of Craigslist. It’s an all-in-one hardware sequencer which one can program drum and synth patterns on, and then arrange the patterns in song sequences. It’s an incredibly deep and versatile device. I bought it thinking I’d use it mainly to make demos of my songs for the band, but It ended up becoming a central component of the band, fulfilling the electronic role. We programmed all our songs into it and it remains the backbone of our current setup (though that is rapidly evolving).
The EMX-1 is not particularly user-friendly, and there was a fairly steep learning curve, but we were all excited to approach the process from a new point of view. At first, programming all of our songs was at times difficult and occasionally tedious as I learned to navigate its menus efficiently and interpret our imagined ideals into concrete sequences. It definitely was a valuable challenge and inspiration which got us all to think differently. Eventually we started writing songs directly on the device (rather than on a guitar and then transporting the ideas over), encouraging our continued evolution into more dance-oriented style combinations.Do you guys use guitar pedals to forge your own sound?
As we’ve become more and more interested in dance oriented music, our songs increasingly demand a restrained rhythmic guitar style accentuated by bursts of leads and skronky weirdness. In general this has led to lots of reliance on a bright clean tone (with the slightest bit of gain grit) for funky picking and strumming.I do use a couple of pedals regularly, but nothing very flashy. I use a Boss ODB-3 Bass Overdrive for pushing leads through. I prefer the bass rather than the guitar version (OD-3) of this pedal because it has a split EQ knob that provides a lot more potential girth to the tone. It allows me to go from really small to really big without getting too gainy or distorted. I use a Boss DD-3 Digital Delay pedal, very occasionally, to provide light touches of psychedelia here and there. I also own an Electro-Harmonix Ring Thingwhich I rarely use, but intend to dig in on as we play around with tones for the LP. It’s a ring modulator with tons of options that makes all kinds of crazy sounds. I look forward to incorporating that into my live chain after developing a better understanding of how it works.
Have you ever looked into Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” when in a situation of impasse?
A close friend made me a set of those as a gift for my 16th birthday. I treasure that set (definitely one of the best birthday gifts I’ve ever received) and keep it out in my room at home. I use it as a kind of Tarot, flipping to a random one whenever I feel inspired to, and leaving the selected card on display next to my turntable. I’ll notice it occasionally and let it subtly influence my activities in that way. For the last couple weeks, it’s been on “Always First Steps”.
The band has yet to use them in the studio or in songwriting, though I’d be curious to try to incorporate them in the future, whenever we inevitably decide to try different approaches. We have yet to find ourselves at an impasse that demanded it. If anything we currently have more ideas than we have time to work on already. We’d be just as likely to come up with our own set of strategies, which may have been part of Eno (and Schmidt’s!) original intention.RECORDING
How much of your recording is done at home versus in the studio?
It’s about half and half. We start everything at home, and ideally end up in the studio. We’re about to go into a studio to record our first LP, but the electronic elements were thoroughly tweaked over the last several months in Jason’s home studio/bedroom and in a way are already “recorded” (though we look forward to dumping them to a nice big reel of tape).
If you use a studio, what do you record there and what do you record by yourself and why?
We intend to use the studio to record as much of the live elements as possible. Certainly we will get all our drum tracks and probably most of the bass and guitar. There’s a certain quality of depth to a drum recording that is difficult to attain in a home setup. Also, though we use a lot of electronics, we’re big fans of the rich, warm, and dynamic sound of tape recording.
What are the pieces of equipment that you find particularly inspiring when recording at home?
(We had Jason take this one as he’s the biggest recording head among us.)
Jason: I started buying digital/analog gear and multi-tracking at home from age fifteen on. I am now twenty nine. In that time I have had many ever adapting home studios but there is really only one completely non particular piece of gear that never lets me down. I have always found a simple electric guitar (and nothing else/no amps or pedals), of any make or model (give or take) is all I really need to channel the biggest sprits of inspiration. Playing an electric without an amp really allows me to dig in but stay in my own little world while I write and create the melodies and layout the general vibe my mind is going for. Once I’ve settled on some electric guitar I can then translate those basic ideas in an infinite number of ways to synths, drum machines, amp sounds or whatever.
What one piece of hardware/software would you most like to add to your recording setup?
We’re going to incorporate more electronic possibilities into the band as we move into our next batch of songs. To that end, I’d love to attain some vintage analog synths and drum machines, but more realistically, we’ll probably soon graduate to using a laptop and software sequencer such as Ableton, which I’m equally excited about. Software sequencers, though often less aesthetically pleasing, are generally way more user-friendly than hardware in my experience. I’m guessing Ableton would feel like a breath of fresh air after a few years of programming strictly on the Electribe.
Do you have a particular recording style that you aim for?We’re all fond of what I’d call a “classic”, dynamic style of recording, and do our best to avoid the hyper compressed, squashed, rectangular sound of many modern recordings. We’re proud to ignore the loudness wars in favor of simply good, full sound. Our first 7″ was pretty raw, recorded on my Tascam 388 at home, and I think we all feel that our last EP ended up a little cleaner sounding than intended. My personal ideal is “mid-fi”, a well produced record that maintains a certain degree of grit.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of the recording process? On the flipside, what aspects are the most rewarding?
I think in general the most challenging thing is trying to get an idea from ones head onto tape, working with the limitations while attempting to maintain the integrity of an idea. Similarly, most challenging to me personally has always been getting a vocal take that I feel satisfied with. I think this is a fairly common issue for untrained vocalists in general. Thanks to my band mantes’ encouragement, I’ve grown a lot in this regard within this band, and have learned to appreciate and utilize the things my voice naturally does well, rather than forcing it into shapes and textures that don’t suit it. So I’m looking forward very much to tracking vocals for our LP, as I can measure how far I’ve come by how challenging it is this time.
Most rewarding for me is listening back to something years after it was recorded, remembering everything that went into it, and discovering all the layers of meaning that were hidden during the frenzy of creation. Through time we gain some perspective and can appreciate things more richly when we’re not still directly in the act of creating them.
Is there a person outside the band that’s been important in perfecting your recorded and/or live sound?
Perhaps no one in particular (apart from our musical influences), but we have a wonderfully supportive group of enthusiastic and creative friends who have been wholeheartedly encouraging us to do our thing since day one. I’m hesitant to name names for fear of leaving anyone out. But, definitely infinite love and respect to our all our close friends in the bands in the Dull Tools family such as Pill, B-Boys, Eaters, Beth Israel, and Parquet Courts, for being great friends and inspiring musicians in equal right.
LIFE AS A BAND
What’s the songwriting/arranging process in the band? To what extent is each band member’s role defined?
As stated above, we tend to bring in demos and then flesh them out together. Much of our songwriting time revolves around refining the sequenced electronic elements of each arrangement in the interest of giving each song its own identity while making sure there’s room for us to play live with the sequence. We get together and spend long sessions tweaking our sounds to suit the songs, often before even bringing them into the rehearsal space. At that point, we’ll play the sequences loud and work with our live instruments to further refine the arrangements. As we’ve learned more about electronic production, the process has become increasingly streamlined, leading to increased productivity in general, though we do often go back and revise older sequences to update them.
As we’ve evolved, our roles have become increasingly defined. Our instrumental roles have been pretty solid since day one, as we all have instruments we naturally gravitate towards. Chris(vocals/bass), Jason(drums/vocals), and I (guitar/vocals) are the most involved in the songwriting elements, but Heather (visuals) and Britney’s (keytar) roles should not be downplayed in the slightest, as they contribute greatly in those aspects and with equal enthusiasm and creativity, adding a great deal to the project as a whole. Other roles have developed as well, Jason is most heavily involved in the recording and production aspects, while Heather and Chris manage much of our booking and various logistical concerns.
Are bands ever true democracies? What about yours?
I’m sure there’s some bands that work explicitly as democracies. We don’t really operate one way in particular. Whenever there’s an disagreement, we do our best to take everyone’s thoughts and needs into account and resolve by choosing the best options for the group as a whole.
How do you guys deal with the inevitable conflict of egos?
We seek a balance by encouraging each other’s strong suits and remaining open to each others ideas and critique, and through this, continually adapting our roles within the band. We’re a proudly mature group, all fairly ready to diminish our ego needs in the name of creating music that engages and excites us as a group. We’ve yet to have any serious interpersonal arguments. Usually our disagreements have more to do with logistical aspects, and those are often sorted out with a little common sense.
THE LIVE SHOW
Would you say that your live show informs your recording process? Or that your recording process informs your live show?
I think it goes both ways. Many of our songs we’ve played for a year or more in a live setting before recording. That’s about to flip with our album, which was about 1/3 songs that we’ve played live, and 2/3rds brand new stuff that hasn’t ever been played out yet. It’s been good to road test things, but we’re all really excited to drop a bunch of fresh stuff on our listeners too.
What equipment do you find particularly useful on stage? (Please mention the brand and model name and say why you like it)Once again, the Korg Electribe EMX-1 has been invaluable in our development, both live and otherwise. It enabled us to expand our sonic palette far beyond that of a typical rock band front he get go. It gets less and less active use onstage lately but has been inherent in our evolution up to this point, and we’re sure to continue using it as we evolve. The Roland Lucina AX-09keytar that Britney plays has also helped define our sound and aesthetic. We had a black one that was misplaced, and had to replace it with a white one. They’re equally rad.
Are there any vintage formats that you’re interested in pursuing for the band, like, say, vinyl or cassette? If so, why?
I’m a lifelong record collector, and I also love tapes. I think all formats are beautiful for different reasons and don’t personally see vinyl as vintage, or any less relevant than mp3’s or streaming audio. It provides a very different listening experience which is valuable in reinforcing the album as art form. When I’m at home, I play almost strictly vinyl, because I love to engage with an album that way, pulling it out, flipping it over, and being forced to sit through songs in the order the artist intended. I find that most albums provide a richer listening experience in this setting. Though I have no problem with digital and streaming audio, I personally believe the album art form is lately underestimated, partly due to the dominance of those formats. With our forthcoming LP we hope to demonstrate its continued relevance, through the use of consistent conceptual elements in an effort to create a world within the album, which, taken as a whole, will give a richly symbolic and multi-faceted experience of our music and the messages we hope to convey. We even went to the extent of bringing the physical LP and the side-flip symbolically into our concept. With that said, we understand that most listeners, ourselves included, primarily listen to music on the go on digital devices, so we’ve taken care to ensure that each track is engaging in that setting as well. It’s one of the duties of the recording artist to consider all different formats while constructing their work.
With bands doing more of everything themselves these days (recording, performing, self-promoting, etc.) and the evermore multimedia nature of the world, how much effort do you put into the visual component of your band: fashion, styling, photography, graphic/web design, etc.?
We consider every aspect of our image, hoping to maintain consistently engaging and accurate portrayal of our values and interests. As with our music, our visuals combine elements of new wave, post punk, and dance styles with modern technology, implying the post-post-postmodern understanding of genre that we refer to as “post-wave”. Heather Strange handles most of our visual aspects, making our videos and designing our live projections, which serve to further draw our audience into the experience. We’ve sought to engage likeminded visual artists in our other artwork as well, as seen on our record covers thus far.
Any comments about the current state of music and art in NYC?
I’ve lived in NYC for about 15 years, and feel more inspired to be here every day. Beautiful things come and go all the time, but the music and art scene here is ALWAYS thriving and evolving. We’re proud to have come together in New York City.