I started my musical career late, a few years after graduating from college. I went to Cornell University, and studied mechanical engineering. I worked at it for a few years before realizing that the corporate life-style was just not for me. I had a burning desire to play guitar, write songs, and become an artist. I moved to New York City, and have lived there since, except for an eight year period in California. I decided California was not where I wanted to be permanently, and I moved back to New York three years ago.
I tend to think of myself as an artist first, and musician second. I say this hopefully without conceit, but because this is the conclusion I have come to in order to understand myself. I’m not the normal “groovy” musician, I’m an over-educated tech-head trying to loosen up. I’ve never been part of a band, and I don’t really enjoy public performing, although I did a lot of it in the seventies, solo with acoustic guitar. I started out as a folk singer, writing folk-type songs - my first major influence was Bob Dylan - but I came into my own style only when pop music became conceptual art, in the late seventies with New Wave Rock.
You released a record in the ‘80s called I Am A Model. In my opinion it
sounds a little like old Gary Numan stuff. Could you still explain, which
things were an influence in that time and how they changed till today?
Gary Numan was one of the important New Wave figures at that time, and my music from that period may sound similar, but he was never a primary influence on me. His lyrics (for example in Pleasure Principle) do embody the spirit of New Wave, the shift from sentimental, teeny-bopper, love-addicted pathos to more arty, introspective, conceptual, poetic, satirical, social commentary. His musical sound was dissimilar to mine in that he used no guitars, and his songs were still busily chord-based, with splashy drums, although he used the same monophonic synthesizers of the day that I did. He played with a band and was probably dependent to a certain extent on the band coming up with the arrangements. He probably chose to not use guitars in order to differentiate his sound from rock music of the day, and I achieved the same even though I used a lot of guitar because I never learned to play rock guitar and developed a unique style. In addition, I put all my guitar parts through the ElectroHarmonix Microsynthesizer, and got interesting sounds that many people have thought was a synthesizer.
When I released Model in 1982, to me it represented the next phase of the New Wave, which was being pointed to by artists such as Talking Heads, Eno, Laurie Anderson, Kraftwork. There seemed to be experimentation with reducing music to its strongest elements in order to make it more powerful, and music became body-oriented. By that I don’t necessarily mean dance music, just that music became less cerebral, and more “trance” oriented. Trance in those days was closely aligned with the Eastern concept of expanded consciousness - going beyond the ego-mind, transcending, perhaps getting spacy or cosmic. But paradoxically, going beyond the mind also meant getting into the body, and it felt good to me to try to move my music in that direction.
This was what I had in mind when I was developing my style. The first thing I let go of was the usual chord-based song. I found I could create a more compelling musical piece by playing mostly in only one chord, reducing melodic movement and increasing rhythmic components - everything played rhythm. It was reminiscent of funk - like James Brown, and reggae, although my music didn’t sound anything like these forms. Becoming less “musical” was not an easy choice, since I had experience and competence in chords and harmony - the traditional Western Classical approach to music, which pop music has of course always been founded upon. But in dispensing with chord movement, I felt that I was onto something new and exciting, and that I was aligning myself with the Eastern sense of music, with its drones and more “ambient” sensibilities.
Tell us more about how you composed that album, and how you compose today.
The next biggest defining element of my music, distinguishing it from other bands, was the repeating bass line, which could be said to be the foundation of all my songs. Even if there is an occasional chord change, the bass remains the same, not following the chord, like a pedal point. Just as in reggae, the repeating bass creates the sense of forward movement and being supported. It lets the listener sink into the body with the strong groove that it creates. Bass is one of my favorite musical sounds, and coming up with those bass lines was always a thrill for me. I feel as if they are subtle, understated, yet inviting and forceful. I feel them deep in my body, and they always get me moving.
Then, the other defining element of my music was repetition, borrowed again from Eastern music. Not only was the bass repeating, but all sounds were repeating. The musical elements became short, tasteful phrases that repeated and intermixed, creating a larger tapestry. Along with this was perhaps the most consequential design guideline of the new music as I saw it - doing away with the foreground and background. Western music has been characterized by its format of a foreground figure - a voice or lead instrument - playing in front of a background, which could be as large as an orchestra. I felt this configuration to be symptomatic of the limited Western ego-mind that I was trying to go beyond in my music. In the new form, in theory there was nothing out front. All parts were of equal importance, had equal prominence, and were to be given equal attention, like a Jackson Pollock painting.
This criteria of equal prominence has become second nature to me at this point, and it’s amazing that it has been an apparently limitless mode of musical expression that I do not seem to tire of. In fact, whenever I hear any kind of music in which a performer is soloing in front of a background, I can’t help feel “how unenlightened,” and I immediately get bored. This is what can be found, for example, in much of the New Age music of today, and of course, jazz. In contrast, in the trip-hop and ambient field, in which I now work, the criteria of equal prominence has become standard. By the way, the lead vocal is still not entirely in sync with this philosophy, because it must, by definition, be singing lyrics that change. But if the concept is kept in mind, the lead voice can blend in, and many times, the vocal is in fact repeating the same line.
How and why did you get into playing all the instruments on your records?
Nowadays, multi-tracking on the computer is common. But back in the seventies, when I began, it was unusual. The only well-known artists who multi-tracked were Stevie Wonder, and before him, Les Paul, who were regarded as geniuses. But even though I wouldn’t want to arrogantly compare my musical talent with them, I just naturally got into multi-tracking. My engineering background gave me the technical aptitude to deal with recording equipment, and I started with a Teac four-track, and then two of them, and then in 1979 I opened a sixteen track pro recording studio in New York City, primarily so I could have access to the equipment, but also to maybe have a way to generate income besides working as a carpenter, as I had been doing. Model was recorded at that studio, Crossfire Recording on 22 St., on the legendary Ampex MM 1000. The studio was the second budget recording studio in New York - we charged $25 an hour, and right from the beginning we were busy. I started out engineering, but soon had to hire an engineer. It was a great period, and I got to know a ton of emerging musicians. We even recorded a lot of commercial music - radio advertising jingles.
It’s strange, though, that even in that studio environment, where I knew so many talented musicians, who were much more talented than me on their instruments, who would have been eager to play with me, I wound up playing all the instruments - basically guitar and Arp Odyssey synth - except for drums. This was before drum machines. I found an excellent drummer, who was rock-steady, and could play the precise, understated, non-flashy, driving style that I wanted, who played the parts that I came up with. Precision was a vital part of my musical vision. If the parts were not executed precisely, this musical concept didn’t work. I see many young players today who do not have an understanding of precision, even drummers. If you can’t play with a metronome, or click track, you’re not yet an accomplished player. You can get by playing in clubs, but if you try to record, it’s not going to sound good. Precision is one of the primary qualities of a good recording artist. Of course, today if you’re recording midi on the computer, all you have to do is quantise.
But why did I multi-track? I think it’s because, as I said, I’m more an artist than a musician. I feel like a painter, developing a canvas, which is my recorder. I’m a solo act - that’s one reason why I started as a folk singer, and why I play tennis now and was on the wrestling team in school instead of the baseball or soccer team. When I’m working on a piece, I put down the first part that comes - it could be a bass line, or on my most recent cd, Day By Day, it was usually the piano part - and then listen to it over and over, enjoying it, savoring it, and then without my even trying, I’ll often hear another part joining in - sometimes, literally. Then, I try my best to duplicate the new part on my synths, get it down, and repeat the process. Or if I don’t actually hear the new part, it will jump out when I’m doodling around, looking for a new sound to fit into the work. Eventually, lyrics, melody, and meaning will emerge, and I’ve got a finished piece. I allow myself to be guided the whole way. It would make no sense to get another accomplished player to execute the part, except perhaps for a performance, like Moby. And the few times I did try to bring in virtuoso players, I found they couldn’t get the feeling as well as I could even though technically they could play circles around me.
I've heard that there are some more songs from that 80’s period. Could you
tell us, how they are and why there are not released in the past?
After I got Crossfire Recording built, I still didn’t have my musical concepts solidified. I spent the first year trying different styles, even playing with a few other people. Then, I finally got down what I wanted my music to sound like and launched into creating the work that became Model. The previous material, while some of it I thought excellent, didn’t seem to form a coherent album, even though there was enough for an album, and I wanted to make a splash with my best efforts. So rather than be sidetracked with promoting the experimental-formative stuff, I concentrated on moving forward, putting promotion time into Model. However, as I look back, I see that the early material from that period was really quite good, and I’m now mastering that album and releasing it as Just In Style, the title track. It will be dated 1980, released around June ‘06.
I completed another album in 1984, again equally good I thought, with a slightly new concept, executed entirely - including drums - on the fantastic new Oberheim Eight polyphonic synth. I was getting away from guitar, mesmerized by the beautiful, evocative electronic sounds of that instrument. But unfortunately, by then I had burned-out from the intense lifestyle I was living, and I just didn’t have the energy to promote it, so it wasn’t released. Promotion, of course, is a big deal. I spent almost a year promoting Model, not by touring, but by doing college radio interviews, live and press. It got a huge amount of college airplay, released as an independent on my label, 22 Records. Also, at that time, 1984 - 85, I felt like the pop music scene was collapsing and going no where. I got a bit discouraged, and thought it might be time to look around for the next big thing for me. I didn’t want to stay in the studio business, because then it would only be a business. I have always needed to be passionate about what I was doing, and feel as if it was a vital part of my personal growth process. However, this other album, entitled Fever, with a cover of that famous song in an effort to be more commercial, which was the criticism I ran up against whenever I approached the major labels, will also be released soon, probably in the Fall of ‘06.
There are also other albums of material from before that period, done on the four track, folk-rock and electronic-rock - first efforts with the Arp Odyssey - which I will probably put up on my website eventually for any die-hard enthusiasts.
25 years later you released a new album Desert Dawn and it sounds to me
atmospheric, calm and relaxed. What are the intentions to make music again?
It wasn’t quite 25 years, although it did seem like it at times to me. I released Desert Dawn in 1997, even though it was completed a few years earlier. After getting out of full time music in 1985, and in the process of looking for the next thing, I got into a program of self-healing, based on a yoga approach. I had to, because the burn-out was serious, even though I never had a drug problem. I needed to relax and take care of myself. Eventually, I started thinking of music again, and ten years later, I got back into the studio. I still had all the equipment and the control room intact, since the studio was part of a 3000 foot loft I owned - and I thought I would try some meditative music in keeping with my healing program. I’ve already mentioned what I think of most New Age music, and I wanted to keep those same musical principles that I had worked with 10 years earlier if possible. So most of the cuts on that album are made by repeating loops of beautiful, lush sounds created on the Oberheim, which engage each other randomly (ala Eno), creating a textured, relaxed mosaic for relaxation and inner contemplation.
There are only 8 songs on the album but it last 75 minutes. Why are the
songs that long. Depends this on the point, that you want to do something
like terminate the importance of time?
I found that in this type of music, time goes by faster, or not at all, or becomes unimportant, as you say. The cuts just wanted to be longer as I listened to them. That album began a trend, and now all my songs range from 6 to 7 minutes long.
Do you think, that music can change the mind or have an huge effect on the
That’s an interesting question. You’d probably expect me to say yes but in fact, I would have to say it depends on the skill of the listener. Music is the embodiment of emotion, and has been thought to influence moods from time immemorial, but if that influence is not permanent, to me it is of little value. Just to feel good for the time being doesn’t mean much if you fall right back into chronic negative feelings or mind-sets when the music’s over. This topic is actually a large part of my latest book, Emotion And Art, which is about to be released. In it, I discuss how art in general can be used as a means to evolve consciousness, both as a viewer and as a creator. In short, if art (including music) is used to merely try to push away uncomfortable feelings and substitute more pleasant ones, or to try to change oneself without an authentic meeting with the true inner self, any result experienced is only a temporary distraction from the inner condition and not a true change. However, if the art is used as a means to reflect what is inside, as part of a conscious program of self-work, then art can be a significant aid in helping achieve goals of real change.
Your next record, released in the same year was something like a chilling
trip hop. Please give us a few thoughts, that you try to work with on this album.
This album, IN, I composed and recorded in Los Angeles, released in 1997. It was the first album I had done with MIDI, without the sixteen track tape format. It’s a song-based album, performed without computer on my Korg O1W, connected to a Tascam 238 tape recorder for vocals and some sparse guitar, and a Roland S550 sampler for special effects. I was overjoyed with the equipment, and the way the record turned out. It represented my getting back into music full-time, the result of the new trip-hop revolution.
Los Angeles at that time, 1995-97, was an amazing place to be for me, mostly because of its college radio station, KCRW. Internet music was not yet happening, so exposure to new trends was still somewhat slow. KCRW was into the European electronic music scene big-time, but especially this new sound called trip-hop. When I first got into this music, it hit me like Dylan, the Beatles, or Talking Heads. It was an amazing evolution of pop music - something new had finally happened, and music was worth making again. I was doing trip-hop. And not only was it something new, but it was something that seemed to have developed along similar lines to my musical philosophy. I felt immediately completely at home: One chord songs, simple, strong, repeating bass lines, no soloing, electronic ethereal textures, catchy down-tempo beats, understated and underplayed arrangements, intelligent lyrics. My favorites at the time included Massive Attack, who may have originated the sound along with Enigma.
However, I was not to release another album until 2003 because I was directing most of my time into my other developing career. This album, The Secret Pattern of Things, was mostly instrumental trip-hop and composed on my Kurzweil synth and Mac computer. My latest release in 2005, Day By Day was recorded on the East Coast. It’s a song-based album that has taken a turn to what could be called post trip-hop - acoustic piano with electronics, intricate rhythms, interesting, expressive sounds, and cutting, introspective lyrics. On this one, I use several soft synths along with the Kurzweil. I’m quite happy with it.
After making this sensual music you started to become an author. Your first
book Emotional Clearing is something like a guide to get what the title
says: "Emotional Clearing" Can you give us a short comprehension about your ideas?
Becoming an author was the result of starting to look around in 1985 for the next big thing. I had been involved in consciousness work and Yoga since my early twenties, which included a thorough investigation into mind-expanding substances when they were in vogue. Yoga was another passion, along with art and music. In my self-healing program I started going deeper into Yoga than I had ever before, and I had some quite interesting experiences. I discovered, with the aid of a teacher I had luckily found, that working with feelings and emotions was what I needed. Feelings work is of course central in psychology, but I never had any psychotherapy, and didn’t feel drawn to it. Instead, I began to incorporate feelings work in my meditation practice.
To try to sum it up, feelings, like anger, sadness, anxiety or loneliness don’t normally get properly handled by most of us. We’re not comfortable with those types of feelings, and we try, often unconsciously, all kinds of ways to get rid of them. But trying to get rid of them almost always means that they just get pushed back out of awareness, and we don’t get rid of them at all. They stay with us, they build up and then act on us, influencing us in painful ways, even drawing circumstances and people to us that correspond to the feelings. The feelings that had built up in me included frustration and anger, not in a small way connected to my experience in the music business. Also, the creative work itself was exhausting, and that fatigue had built up.
As I kept on with the inner process I was developing - which is actually a synthesis of traditional psychospiritual principles - I started to become rejuvenated. I got more insights into working inwardly with feelings, and I began to see that it was not only me, but virtually everyone who needed this work of releasing trapped, negative feelings. But most of all, I realized that the process I was developing for myself was unique - it was cutting edge, and not something commonly known, even by professionals in the psyche field. After making a study of psychology literature, I was convinced that I had something that I had to share.
I perhaps somewhat brazenly decided to write a book about it. I had never written a book before, but I soon noticed that twenty years of crafting song lyrics had indeed developed a sensitivity to words that enabled me to write about technical, psychological concepts with ease and clarity. It took a year to write the book, another year to edit it, and another year of almost full time hair-pulling to find the title and design the cover. Having a feel for self-publishing from my independent record company days, I spunkily decided to go that route. The book finally appeared on the market in 1993, and became an immediate underground success. In 2000, I sold the rights to Random House, who put out a hard cover edition. It has been translated into eight languages, including German. And the work continues to grow. I’ve been doing private counseling since the book came out and now train therapists in the technique.
You wrote 3 more books and 2 of them are about emotional themes again. You have a private counseling practice and leads workshops of several days in
the USA and Europe. Please let us know, what your work means and how it
influenced you on doing music.
I’ve mentioned Emotion and Art. This book is near and dear to me and seemed like a natural follow-up because it brings together my two major interests. Many people on the consciousness path also practice an art, but perhaps are not aware of the subtleties of combining personal growth with artistic expression that I’ve learned from a lifetime of experience. I feel that I’ve broken new ground here as well, just as in Emotional Clearing, especially with insights into artistic manic-depressiveness, and what to do about it. The other books are more personal and right-brained - memoir and fiction - writing I felt I needed to do to balance the technical, left-brain, psychological material.
This new career seems to be something I’ve been destined for. It does seem to be reaching people on a large scale - something I was never able to do with the music - and does seem to have the potential to make important, meaningful changes in peoples lives. Of the many truly moving emails I’ve received, I’ve posted 100 of them on the www.emclear.com website. When I read them, I know I did the right thing in quitting that corporate job so many years ago and breaking out into the life of an artist.
Because both the music and the psychology are about the same thing. Both have served to bring me into myself - to increase my awareness, to open me to parts of myself that have been undeveloped or in darkness, to lead me forward. My focus has always been on going within - that’s the instinct that propels me. When I can share what I’ve learned and seen on my inner voyage with others, and have it be meaningful to them, then I feel truly fulfilled.
Thanks, Michael, for this opportunity.