Here is the second part of the interview with the 21st Century Monads. The first part is here, and there is one more installment to come. Enjoy!
Catarina: How is the creative process of writing new songs? Is it collaborative?
Kris: I guess broadly speaking we have two sorts of songs – those in which I initiated the creative process and those in which Carrie initiated the creative process. But the end result is still very collaborative. The ones that I initiate usually start in the following way. I’ll have some fragment of the lyrics in mind, usually with some basic vocal melody and some chords to sing along with. I sit down with a guitar or the piano and kind of noodle for a while until I get something that I like well enough to want to pursue. Once I’m at that stage, I’ll usually lay down or program a very monotonous drum beat to keep time, and start recording some basic tracks so that I have a demo for the song. Ben comes over and I play for him what I’ve recorded. Then we talk about instrumentation, where we want the song to go from where I’ve started it, and so forth. At that stage, my role is basically just to set up microphones and monitor recording levels while Ben plays various instruments. Once we’ve gotten a framework for the song built up, I send a rough mix of the song to Carrie along with some of our ideas about where she might take the song. And then we wait to see what wonderful things she contributes. Sometimes I’ll solicit help with the lyrics at this stage as well, especially if the song is one for which I intended that Carrie sing the lead parts. After I’ve gotten all the parts from Carrie, I replace the monotonous drumbeat with a better drumbeat, usually one played on my drumkit at home. If at that stage any parts need to be re-recorded, we take care of that next. But usually all that is left is for me to start the (often laborious) process of producing the final mix of the song. I usually produce between 10-15 mixes before settling on the final version; sometimes I go back and correct something in the mix months later. I’m still learning.
For the songs in which Carrie starts the creative process, things are similar on Ben’s and my end. We receive files from Carrie, usually of her singing and playing piano, plus a rough mix of the music, along with suggestions about where she was thinking the song might go. Ben and I get together, listen to the music, and discuss what we want to contribute. We record some stuff that gets sent back to her for feedback. At some point everything is recorded, and then I begin the process of mixing.
Carrie: Often you can tell which songs are Kris-initiated and which are Carrie-initiated. Anything that makes you want to dance and hug people was probably Kris-initiated. If it’s some kind of soppy ballad-ish piano-driven number it was probably me-initiated.
Catarina: Yes, I recognize this distinction!
Ben: Usually Kris writes most of the song all by himself. Then he comes out and says to me, “I don’t know what should come next” or “play a guitar solo here.” Then he gives me a guitar and stares at me until it is more uncomfortable for me *not* to play an awesome guitar solo than to keep sitting there doing nothing, in accordance with my lazy nature. Sometimes he will ask me to add some lyrics to a song, so I’ll give him some lyrics and he’ll say “this is nothing but a string of profanities! We can’t use this.” After we fight for a little, we get Carrie to figure out the rest.
Kris: That’s a little misleading. Sometimes I give Ben a cello and stare at him until he starts playing it. One time I handed him an accordion.
Carrie: When Kris and Ben send me a song that needs something fitted in – lyrics for another verse, or a tune for a middle section, or something like that – it’s quite a lot harder than writing my own songs. If I come up with a cool idea for the final verse but it doesn’t fit with the rest I can’t just go back and re-write the whole song around my new cool idea. (I assume. Actually, I’ve never tried …) When I’m writing songs myself I usually come up with a few lyrics first, then figure out vocal and piano parts together, and I don’t normally show anything to anyone until it feels nearly finished. This is because I’m actually very shy, and not intimidating at all.
Catarina: Well Carrie, you don’t seem all that shy in those youtube videos you upload… I’m impressed at how cool and poised you look in them. (Sorry, Kris and Ben, you are cool and poised too!)
Carrie: Haha! Thanks. Fortunately, as well as being shy I am a great actor. (Actually, the trick is that when I’m recording a video I know that if it doesn’t work out nobody else is ever going to see it.)
Catarina: How do you manage the long-distance relationship? (Kris and Ben in the US, Carrie in the UK) In particular, do you rehearse? How is the process of recording songs?
Carrie: Like with any LDR, communication is key. We send each other a lot of emails and demos and things. When I get files from Kris I usually listen to them on my walk to work for a few days, by which time I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to try to add to them. Sometimes I have to revise my ideas when I get started, but it usually takes about an evening per song to get my parts recorded. Things are more variable at my end with the songs that I initiate. Sometimes it takes a day to get parts written and recorded, sometimes weeks.
Kris: Because of the long-distance, it’s not possible for us to rehearse as a group. I usually practice parts before I start recording, but Ben doesn’t always. Usually he starts recording parts pretty soon after first hearing the song. The nice thing about computer based recording is that hard drives are now incredibly large, fast, and inexpensive. Instead of practicing, for example, a guitar solo, and then recording the solo, we start recording takes of Ben performing the solo and then keep the best take. It’s not like we are going to run out of physical tape; each 21CM monads song unmixed takes up about two gigabytes of space total, but we have plenty of hard drive space to record these takes, even if many of them will be deleted. But to be honest, Ben is a very good musician, so he usually gets something good recorded in an efficient manner.
We submit files to each other via dropbox, and then sync the files up in our respective recording setups. That the technology exists to make an international collaboration of this sort work is actually pretty amazing.
Ben: Sorry, what? I was admiring myself and wasn’t paying attention.
Catarina: Clearly the 21CM is an entity that could only exist as such in the 21st century, as it relies on all this technology for the international collaboration to be possible. In a sense, this technology entails that one should re-evaluate the very meaning of ‘rehearsing’ for a band; for you guys, the process of recording is actually the process of rehearsing in a sense.
Kris: Sort of. The modalities are a little tricky here. I couldn’t have done something like this while I was in college (in the 20th century) because I wouldn’t have had the money to afford the kind of equipment we’d have needed back then to do what we are doing now. But the technology to do what we are doing was there in the mid 1990s, even though I didn’t have access to it. Dropbox hadn’t been invented, but there were still ways to transmit and receive over the internet large .wav files (or .aif files), which is what is necessary if the collaboration is to happen in a timely manner. (The alternative would have been to burn physical cds and mail them to each other, I suppose.) What’s really changed is how accessible the means to produce music is now. To give you an idea, the core of my studio setup cost me roughly 3000$ (not counting musical instruments). That core consists of an Intel IMac with some extra ram and a spare hard-drive, an eight-channel analogue to digital converter, a tube amp, and software, including Logic Pro 8 as the main recording software. But with just that core I have at my disposable what would easily have been at least 70,000$ worth of hardware equipment in the mid-1990s, and that’s a conservative estimate. Someone with 70,000$ could have done what we are doing in the mid-1990s.
It blows my mind how quickly advances in computer processing power, memory, and programming savvy have made things so much more accessible to people. I still have in a closet somewhere an Alesis Nanoverb multi-effects box that I bought for a couple hundred bucks at the turn of the century; it is a good piece of equipment, capable of producing, for example, nice reverbs at 18bit quality, but nothing the box can do is anywhere near as good as what one can you do with the suite of effects that comes with Garageband, a recording program that now comes free with every apple computer. And Logic Pro is substantially more powerful than Garageband.