Welcome to Magazine Sixty, Rob. Let’s start with your new album: Marching with Feathers. How long did it take to conceive and finish?
I began recording Marching with Feathers in the spring of 2020 and I worked on it slowly over the course of several months in my home studio. I hear people refer to “pandemic babies” and “pandemic records” — which is how one should classify MwF, but with the pandemic becoming so darn lengthy, it looks like I could have created a second pandemic record!
You have talked about how both the pandemic and BLM fed into its creation. Do you think music has the power to change the world or merely highlight what happens in it?
I believe music has a profound effect on people. Music is a language that transcends differences between people. I feel incredibly fortunate to play music, and I have experiences often where I may be playing with someone really different than me — politically, racially, culturally, whatever — and we can connect, and have an absolute blast together speaking our shared language. I think music, of course, creates a foreground to what’s happening in the world but it’s also such a powerful force for shared experience.
I imagine you must have a wealth of diverse musical influences. Which three (or as many as you like) would you say are the most important to you and why?
I love music of all kinds. I love the history of it, and the way it evolves. My influences reach far and wide…. everything from early to modern classical music, improvisational jazz, pop, folk music from around the globe. Some of my favorite artists include Miles Davis, John Lennon, Brian Eno, Alice Coltrane, and Nina Simone… music from South America, Africa, India, Middle East… film composers such as Nino Rota, Henry Mancini, Bernard Herrmann.
Outside of music which artists, writers, painters etc inspire you?
I’m inspired by the works of artists like Joseph Cornell, Agnes Martin, sculptor Alberto Giacometti, poetry by Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Oliver.
Can you tell us about some of the synths you use: hardware or software, how you learnt to play them, and how would you describe what they give to the music compared with a more traditional instrument?
I’m fascinated these days by what’s become available in the modular synthesis world, but I’m still learning about it. My primary instrument is piano and I grew up when imitative “preset” polyphonic synths, were becoming en vogue, but I quickly became primarily attracted to the limitations of instruments that are of one sound world. I love acoustic instruments, but I also use a lot of electronic organs, Hawaiian guitars, and treat them with effects like tape delay, ring modulators, and various filters. I do have a collection of rare instruments such as a Chamberlin, which is the U.S. precursor to the Mellotron — but I also use a lot of plug-ins, and now have an extensive library of sampled sounds I’ve created in Native Instruments.
The piano feels like one of the few eternally new instruments there are. Is there an infinite number of ways it can be played or effects added, or is there a more spiritual aspect to its staying power?
When playing an acoustic instrument like the piano, there are limitless variations one can create. It is because when sitting down at an instrument with such limitation, the musician is forced to do nothing but draw the most creative parts of themselves out.
How important in your musical development was your time spent in New York at venues like The Knitting Factory and The Kitchen?
I’ve lived in NYC twice. The first time was a very pivotal time for me. I was fresh out of music school and looking for ways to have a musical voice. The music happening at those places really introduced me to a freedom of expression that I had never encountered before. This was also a time I was listening to a lot more avant garde jazz and classical music. I started experimenting with the accordion, and was given the opportunity to tour with an early version of the Bill Frisell Band, and be introduced to some ground breaking performers like John Zorn, Arto Lindsay, and Laurie Anderson. Being a 23 year old with access to what was happening on the downtown NY scene at that time (late 80s / early 90s) was something of a dream, really — it was then and it is now, looking back on it, in equal measure. I lived in NYC again from 2001-2011 and it was different and super inspiring to return and be playing with some of the same characters, but I was in a different place professionally and musically by then.
Can music say more without the use of words in music?
I listen to a great deal of music sung in other languages, so it’s a strange question for me to answer because I very often have no idea what a song is about. I also speak music, really, better than I speak English so I’m always going to be tuned in way more to music than lyrics. I think the luxury of writing music without words is that the work can be even more open for interpretation. Words can lead people to places whereas with instrumental music, you can really go anywhere. That said, I love songs. I grew up listening to them, and I love playing in a support role with singers who write words.