About John

Because you're probably dying to know.

About John

Early Musical Life

I was born in Austin. My parents - baby boomers, teens in the ‘60s, were still big fans of music, would see shows all the time, and had a great record collection. From the womb, I heard artists like Bob Marley, Elvis Costello, and Stevie Ray Vaughn play live. In our house growing up, the records of Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix were played in mix tapes and records around the house, as well as blues masters like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King.

At some point, my parents noticed that as I sat in my little car seat, with my tiny limbs and blonde hair, I would bang the restraining bar with my hands in time to the music they were playing. Encouraged, I’m sure, by signs that their love of music was being passed on, they got me a little drum set when I was about 4 or 5 - and I loved them. Keyboard playing started around this time, too, using a little Yamaha keyboard they had lying around, and a little portable harmonium. I even started my record collection around this age; even though my turntable was small and for kids, it rocked the likes of The Specials, The Ramones, The Police, and Michael Jackson.

I wrote a few cute little songs as a kid, but it didn’t really occur to me to play rock until I was 12 and Nirvana came out. I was a bit young for the whole Gen X thing and never got to see Nirvana live, but the rise of what was called “alternative” music was profoundly interesting to me and 12-year-old me started taking music very seriously and identifying more as a musician. I started taking drum lessons, and started to teach myself guitar out of magazines and books that published tablature, all at the same time.

By the time I got to high school, I was in a band with three other pals and we were covering all the grunge hits. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Breeders, and Urge Overkill stand out. I was on drums, but I used to also hand-write the tablature for the two guitar parts and the bass, and give that to the other guys so they could play. We had actually gotten a pretty good repertoire by the end, when one of the guitarists moved away, ending our little tribe’s run.

The next year of high school, I started getting into more obscure music. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, there wasn’t much of a music scene, nor was there a radio station that had its finger on the pulse of musical progress. It was pretty dry - especially if you were underage. So I had to start with MTV, really. Alternative Nation, 120 Minutes, and Headbanger’s Ball all gave some pointers. Then started the magazines. First the obvious ones like Rolling Stone and Spin. Then Alternative Press and Flipside. Then you got down to Maximumrocknroll, Punk Planet, and hand-xeroxed zines like Catsup Plate. At the beginning I was buying CDs at the mall. Then in the one really cool independent record store in Tulsa. Eventually I found myself doing mail order out of zines for music that just had a pretty good review, or had a band member in it I knew of from another band, and it went on from there.

A great facilitator in all this was my new friendship with Brad Rose. In many ways we were a great match. Both rock musicians, seeking music with a bit of grit and truth. Big fans of Kurt Cobain. I played all the instruments he didn’t play, and I also had a 4-track cassette recorder so we could make (very bad) “albums” full of whatever music we could come up with. He introduced me to the internet which seemed the antidote to the isolation of Tulsa, particularly musically — and my research and discovery of new music and new friendships took off in a new exciting direction. Most of all, whereas I had reacted to the conservative, religious, sports-obsessed environment of Tulsa (in particular our high school) with alienation, depression, and anxiety, Brad had reacted with defiance. That taught me a lot. We started making a zine together called Bunnies (named after a Pansy Division song) and selling it on school grounds. I would have shied away from the intensely negative attention that attracted just a year earlier, but just then I felt I had accepted that fitting in wasn’t going to happen, so I might as well be proud to be something else. This had helped me put Oklahoma in its place; all the confusion and isolation was a matter of being mismatched, it wasn’t a matter of some personal deficiency. I felt free.

In other ways we were a terrible match. Both of us were full of strong musical opinions, and stubborn, which injected a certain tension to our collaborations. Generally things went smoothest if I just learned Brad’s songs and played whatever instruments needed playing, and did the recording, but didn’t try to rearrange anything, or bring up any songs I had written. Such measures would be met with palpable reluctance. The feelings of judgement and competition can be poisonous to a collaborative team, and begin to spill into very personal feelings. There were two results of this tension: one was that Brad and I had an on-and-off-again friendship. Another was that I had a bit of a filter on when I did most of my music-making, and Brad was acting as a foil.

In many ways, I needed a foil. My love of The Beatles and the more melodic side of rock would, in my early days, combine with my feelings of isolation, and produce some quite embarrassing, quite emo, sickeningly immature songs that simply didn’t need to be heard by the world. By being influenced by the more and more progressive music I was being exposed to, and working in a situation where I really needed to have a cool idea before I would get much in the way of cooperation, I learned better ways of musically expressing those same feelings, but in more subtle and interesting ways.

Expanding beyond “Rock”

The turning point where I can remember starting to write more interesting stuff and incorporate more diverse ideas than “loud guitar, quiet guitar, teen feelings, GO” came when I started getting into other instruments. Mom and dad had an old 70’s Realistic/Moog synth that made all kinds of crazy sounds, and I got my hands on some crazy effects units, like the Boss Pitch Shifter/Delay PS-3 and an Alesis Delay/Reverb rack unit, as well as an old hand-me-down multi-effects floorboard unit by Korg that my friend Andrew sold to me. And of course one mustn’t forget the Big Muff, and in-amp effects like reverb and tremolo on my dad’s old Fender Twin amp, nor should we forget his acquiring of an 8-track Fostex reel-to-reel machine, some decent mics, and a drum machine. Finally, I started getting good at editing audio files and turning them into loops.

By 1996 I had a much richer palette of ideas, due to listening to ever-weirder music I was finding in zines, cassette compilations, and the internet, but I also had a far richer palette of sounds I could make, now equipped with a drum set and drum machine, bass, acoustic and electric guitars, Moog synth, old keyboard, loops, and all kinds of effects to run all of them through. For awhile I was exploring all this while I was working with Brad in a band called Ocasek. Ocasek was probably the most prolific and interesting project I ever worked on with Brad, particular But, by 1997 we were going through another of our ridiculous fallouts. I took all my instruments, gear, and knowledge and started a solo project called Kimaira (a Romanji approximation of the word “chimera” – referencing the multi-headed beast I figured best approximated what I was doing, engaging in the songwriting, performance, and production all on my own.)

I started making CD-Rs of Kimaira stuff and selling them to people online. Each person would get a hand-made CD and I would put on it whatever I felt was interesting at that time. Sometimes I would put old stuff, Ocasek stuff, or new rough demos on there. Sometimes I’d do little drawings. By the time it was 1999 I had built up a pretty decent roster of songs, some of which had gotten a few versions that I thought really refined the best ideas in that composition, and I was getting a bit tired of hand-making all the CDs, so I did a pressing of a mix CD of my demos called “One Volume Demos” (“Demos, Volume One” backwards) and sold it through online distributors. It quickly sold out, and I got a fair amount of attention, including some very nice reviews online and some coverage in Spin magazine, who gave the track “Fifty-One,” the “cool song of the day” award on their site on June 6th, 2000, as well as a 30-minute documentary feature on me that was done for college radio station ???? (gotta remember what this was).

A friendship I had struck up in 1996 was that of Bobby Nath from a band called Mars Accelerator. Mars, along with bands like Pie, Creeper Lagoon, Franklin Bruno, Simon Joyner, and Azusa Plane, were a true standout band amongst all the stuff I had found in the scene of underground cassettes. Their 1995 demo was absolutely incredible to me, and I had ended up writing the most ridiculous teenage fan letter I’ve ever written to a band, which Bobby still has a copy of to this day.

Over the years Mars Accelerator, who were based in Seattle, had put out a couple studio albums but by 2000 had lost two of their founding members. I was pretty sick of Oklahoma by this time, and I had just turned 21. The dot-com boom was ongoing and I had been into making webpages for all my various musical endeavors for years by that point, and Mars needed help getting a new lineup together. So I left school before finishing and got a job as a developer at some shitty startup, hoping to finally find a community of like-minded musicians, young techy people, and good music.

The move to Seattle…

After growing up loving the music of the previous generation of musicians that had come from Seattle, it was really cool to leave Oklahoma and find myself in the homeland of some of my old heroes in the 2000s. Culturally, so much more was going on in Seattle. Cool clubs, places to grab food and see shows, rad little movie theaters, and the amazing Scarecrow Video. Noticeably, I was getting over some incredibly introverted habits I’d developed in my years of isolation. Helping matters was that, living in Seattle, I finally felt like I could talk to random people and have things in common with them. And so I kicked off the 2000s, finally no longer underage, in the Pacific Northwest, and did my best to balance my new life of day jobs and musical evenings.

Whereas music had been a thing that I did in a bedroom and only shared with a small community online, there were actually some very good bands getting together and playing right in my city - no internet connection required! I hadn’t gotten to Seattle soon enough to join Mars Accelerator, who (being amazing) had already attracted a full roster of musicians by mid-2000. But I started to see a lot more shows and think about what I would need (in terms of gear, a lineup, and just as a person) to finally do music in front of people – not in my room, but on a stage.

It took a couple years of building up to it – getting a decent amp and effects pedals, solidifying my musical ideas, and auditioning a bunch of random people who responded to my classified ads – but eventually I had the lineup for a band that was going to take the best of my old Kimaira stuff, and the stuff I had been writing since, and turn it into something more broadly presentable and fun to play live. I named the project Terrene, meaning “of the earth,” or “mundane.” I enjoyed the feel of the world - ethereal, and placing our ordinary existence in the context of the entire universe, but ultimately dealing with the fact that a “terrene” object is common, and earth-bound. It seemed to capture the duality of a struggling musician’s life – head in the clouds, eager to identify themselves among their favorite stars, but as of now, just a person. And I just can’t resist space metaphors – they are great at inhabiting and expressing my existential dread, and outer space has long been where I dream to be. Like I belong there more than earth, really.

My first time playing a show that wasn’t just a garage or a bedroom, but was on a real stage in a bar, was at the Ballard Firehouse in Seattle, with Terrene, in August of 2003. Anybody could have gotten the gig we got because it was horrible – one of those “battle of the bands” shows where the winner gets something lame and is determined by the doorman asking “who are you here to see?” The booker, who by the way I contacted over email, booked us as the phonetically similar “Kareen,” and we were dead last at 2am on a weeknight on a bill full of high school students’ bands (complete with knitting mothers bearing Igloo ice chests in the audience). Still, Kareen put on the best show we could and the feeling of performing the music that had been so private and sacred to me for so long (in front of what crowd was left) was such a rush that at time I was actually crying, feeling utterly overwhelmed.

After spending a year rehearsing twice a week, and getting the lineup settled, Terrene (then: Jimmy Gilbertson on drums, Daniel Gould on bass, Justin McVicker on guitar, and me on vocals and guitar) started thinking about recording. I had my old Kimaira and Ocasek demos, and put together a few more with Jimmy playing drums on the four track. And I had a few home-recorded things as well. Put together, there were some 30 songs to choose from, should we want to do an album. To do an album though, I thought it was a good idea to have a demo so we could attract a producer and a label to help put it together and get it out, so we did a quick 4-song demo at the house of one Bobby Nath, my friend and the lead singer and one of the guitarists for Mars Accelerator.

Recording Terrene’s The Indifferent Universe with Phil Ek

I sent the demo to Phil Ek, who I greatly admire as a producer. At the time it made a great amount of sense; I viewed much of what made my stuff fun to listen to as being derived from the layers of texture, particularly varying degrees of distance in guitar (a spectrum that runs from far away/heavily-verbed out on one end, to in-your-face and trebly/jangly on the other). Phil’s work with Built to Spill (particularly on Keep it Like a Secret and Perfect From Now On) is some of the finest guitar engineering ever put to tape, and I was dancing in the hall when I got the email back that said he was into the demo (“really good poppy stuff,” as he called it) and was down to record an album with us at the legendary Avast! studios in Seattle.

Our live shows during this time were also getting better. We were playing with great local bands like Welcome, Pomeranian, and Black Nite Crash, as well as touring acts like Arco, Minmae, and Of Montreal. At our gig with Of Montreal at the Sunset Tavern, Kevin swapped CDs with us – his Satanic Panic in the Attic for our… er, demo CD. “We try to do the drone thing every once in awhile, but damn you guys do it for real,” he said.

We were between sessions with Phil Ek at that time and things weren’t going as peachy as I had hoped they would. It turns out a big secret to Built to Spill’s sound on Keep it Like a Secret is having a major label budget, and having a good variety of amps to try out that give the songs lots of tonal variation. And maybe, just being a more polished / ready to rumble band had a lot to do with it. In my defense I knew that we were green, so of the 30ish songs we had in our repertoire, I picked the 10 that were the most “rudimentary,” musically. “I’ll give us room to grow,” I thought. But as it turns out, having pet ideas that you aren’t doing yet is antithetical to the process of true creation; it’s holding back, really. If you asked me now, I would say, “Do your best stuff, all the time, and have faith that even better stuff is going to come out of you.” I hadn’t done that; these songs were more safe. Some were on their 4th or even 5th attempt at a recording, which puts in your mind a sort of… standard. There’s a sort of lifecycle to a song; in the beginning the song is infused with your excitement and all this new enthusiasm you have for the possibilities that this recently birthed idea is offering, and at the end it has failed a great number of these possibilities and you are mostly papering up the cracks in your own ability to execute on the version of the idea that worked best. Somewhere in the middle of the cycle is the sweet spot; the part where you are still very enthused and ravenously cycling through approaches trying to get somewhere, but have learned the gist of the song well enough that you’re past the basics, working on muscle memory – mind unencumbered by the effort of mastery and instead engrossed in navigating the route to the sounds in your head.

Going it alone

The day after the sessions with Phil were all over, I woke up and started sobbing. After all that buildup, all that effort, all that rehearsal and all the money, I knew I had not creating something that was up to snuff. I listened to our mixes and felt utter despair. I knew it was not Phil’s fault. He had delivered 10 songs to our best ability to play them with the equipment and time we had. But I just listened to the songs – vaguely interesting, potential obvious, but not at all reaching the heights I knew the music was capable of. Whether driven by the “pet idea” fallacy of there being such a height, or the disconnect I had created by choosing our more rudimentary offerings versus what I was really capable of, what I heard playing back at me was just not music I was proud of, or had set out to do. But I had the Pro-Tools masters…

Thus began a 2-year-long process during which I built up more of a home studio so I could crack open the Pro-Tools files, and fix the record. I replaced vocals. I added layer upon layer of guitar. I added sound pastiches with recordings from my answering machine. I added xylophones, and ran them backwards. I added videogame samples (of course). And, as the momentum within the band ground to a halt with me doing all this, the lineup slowly dwindled away until I was the sole member of the project. My girlfriend left me too. I had isolated myself once again. And the nights working on the record to make it better were long. I had set up a desk in my cold, damp basement, keeping warm with blankets and wiping my sniffly nose as I exported a new mix again. Again. And again.

Before absolutely everyone had split, I managed to shoot two videos, syncing the performances to rough mixes at the time, for “Fifty-One” and “Unwelcome,” and work on these probably also prolonged things by quite a lot. But I wanted that parallel track running so they’d be done alongside the record.

The end result was The Indifferent Universe, an album that had the weird distinction of being both home and studio recorded, Phil Ek produced and re-produced by me afterwards, of a band that was now a solo project, full of rudimentary songs that had been layered and relayered into Pet-Sounds-like complexity but with none of the compositional maturity, that, despite being the result of a very lonely and cold person exporting mixes in his basement, was described as “overproduced” in its most favorable reviews. But, full of contradictions as it was, and as unremarkable the songwriting on the display in that record might have been, after two long, cold years, I could at last listen back to it and feel that “yes, these are the best versions of these songs. I can share these now.”

The videos turned out to be a great idea. I had shot Fifty-One during a roadtrip of the West coast, starting in SoCal and ending in Seattle. I shot in places I had no permission by saying that I was a “film student.” I looked like a protestor, given that the video concept was that I was holding aloft signs, each with a single lyric from the song, in locations that exemplified the sentiment of that single lyric. Sort of a take on Bob Dylan’s famous short for Subterranean Homesick Blues, which I went ahead and referenced in the video’s sole black and white shot.

For Unwelcome, which I felt was one of the album’s strongest singles, I had our label, Wax Orchard, send the song around to video directors who sent back treatments. There was a really stupid one where we would’ve been talking and acting the whole time, (with the song, I guess, playing in the background) with us pretending that I was a sourpuss who never smiled, and the rest of the band shows me ~~true joy~~ and my big grin is like the payoff of the whole thing. I couldn’t feel that shit at all. Like, at all. If you shit that directly into my hands, piping hot, I’d be like “did you shit yet?” And you’d be like “yeah” and I’d be like “well that was some weak shit then I guess.”

Anyway the treatment that got my attention was by The Nee Brothers, in which they had synced various events in the video to music cues, required no talking (because after all music videos are ironically the one place where silent moviemaking techniques still reign supreme), and had the band going underwater, to outerspace, fighting aliens, pirate ghost skeletons, all done in a very attractive paper-cut-out animation style that looked great in their demo reel. Though my acting abilities remained a barrier (I recall needing a dozen takes just to give a convincing thumbs up in one shot), and being in a green room was weird, the video came out great, and we enjoyed airplay on MTV2’s Subterranean, HBO’s Feedback, as well as various closed-circuit outlets, and of course online. We even won “Best Indie Video” in Yahoo!’s 2008 Video Awards – back when Yahoo! had a video service, heh.

I toured for The Indifferent Universe by myself, hooking up a laptop to an external audio interface that had eight outputs. I fed these outputs to various amps and the house PA to create a big “band sound” and played a single guitar and sang in the middle of this strange presentation. I went on the road for 6 weeks, playing with some truly lovely people in lovely places, like KVRX in Austin, TX (where, in addition to playing live on the air, they let me DJ and play some of my obscure fave music, like the old tape label stuff I grew up with, and bands I was friends with), Union Hall in Brooklyn, and the Chinese Theater in Denver, CO.

But, upon coming back, I was told that the label had money problems and was folding, and after that incredibly long road and huge amount of effort (and money), The Indifferent Universe was to be pulled from the shelves. I had meant to go on to do videos for Stereo! and Media Sift (Through Heart Rises), but instead it was all over. The years in my basement. The weeks on tour. The loss of so many personal relationships, was basically all for naught.

After that I wasn’t musical again for a couple years…

Mental illness, tough times, and coming back

Around 2010 I was in a rough place. I had been layed off, after moving into a rough part of Seattle called the Central District – the only place I could afford to buy a house. There hadn’t been any work after the big crash, so I was tapped. The house had been broken into, the car had been stolen. I was self-medicating with weed daily, and not in a fun way. In a “I don’t give a shit about my sucky life, let’s eat a box of Fruit Roll Ups” way. And I had acquired a new companion, which was chronic anxiety. My first panic attack was the classic story – I thought it was a heart attack, I couldn’t catch my breath, I went to the emergency room, and I came home with a script for Xanax.

I layed in bed one night during a panic attack and let it flow through me. I had auditory hallucinations. I heard a voice say “ah!” (sort of like the guy waking up from The Pear Dream) with a long tail of reverb. One ear went blank and all auditory input was replaced with the literal sound of TV static – it sounded exactly like it. I could feel my brain making a fist inside my head, and felt like my skull was experiencing waves of magnetism that would’ve rearranged iron filaments were they dumped on my head. My right eye twitched profoundly. When I sat up, I felt like sediment was in my blood and it was slowly settling to the earth, disturbed by my vertical positioning. I was so angry at how things had turned out for me, and so scared by what my brain was doing that I thought surely I was going to excite myself into seizures, bust an aneurysm, or have a stroke.

But I had to rebuild. I eventually got work again as a technical writer, creating educational materials that taught people how to make apps. I quit the weed. And most importantly, I started writing music again.

I had accepted an offer from Mars Accelerator to finally join as a multi-instrumentalist. I played bass, guitar, keyboards, shakers, backup vocals – whatever needed doing. It mostly ended up being guitar, which forced me to massively step up my guitar game. Mars’ music is full of tone changes, tempo changes, and diving deep into your effects units on a hair trigger. In order to pull that off, I had to use my job money to redo my rig to be MIDI-controlled (so that with one foot press, I could activate 3 pedals, and switch to preset #23 on such and such unit, etc). Mars’ music was also harder than Terrene’s – much more screaming and distortion, which was music I had listened to all my life but had never made.

With my new experiences, new influences, and new gear, the new songs I was writing came out in a way I didn’t expect. I found myself vacillating between anger and fear in real life and so too did the music, which would sound alternatingly full of rage or full of anxiety and despair. I tried to counter that consciously, because it scared me a little that it was coming out of me that way, but even that song (titled “Get Beyond”) ended up having a much more fuzzy, distored feel than any of Terrene’s stuff.

The current project

I decided that if I was going to get back into recording my own stuff, I needed to take a few lessons with me that I had learned.

  1. No pet ideas. Do the best version of your best stuff and get rid of everything else.
  2. No overproducing. I don’t need to go to a studio, because that’s where you go to make music “how it’s supposed to sound.” All of my favorite albums have a more distinctive sound that isn’t about ultimate fidelity so much as conveying a feeling with the “shape” of the recording. After all, to me, the way that a song was recorded and is presented is as much a part of the experience of listening to it as the actual music.
  3. Strike the right simplicity/complexity balance. Never choose to do dumb simple songs, reward deep listening, and eschew well-tread chord change progressions wherever possible. On the other hand, if a 5-piece band can’t recreate what you’re doing, you’re probably fucking up.
  4. I’m doing it myself. I would play all the instruments and record and produce the music at home. I would also self-release the music. This basically was to remove dependencies on people who weren’t as invested in it as I was, to shield the music from being vulnerable to a record label’s commercial issues during a tough time in the music industry, and to make taking awhile to develop the sound of each song a “cost-free” endeavor rather than one that made everyone sweat because time and money were so limited.
  5. I would make the music an open source project and invite people to remix and sample the music to their heart’s content, as well as listen to the different pieces of the music individually and hear all the flaws, nuance, etc that you hear when you solo out one aspect of a given track.

And that’s how the project operates.

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