Hearing Colors, Seeing Sound with Adam John Williams

Adam John Williams is not your typical musician-turned electronic instrument inventor. A few years ago he sustained a brain hemorrhage which reorganized his brain. Prior to the injury he already had synesthesia (a neurological phenomenon where one sensory input triggers involuntary experiences in another sensory pathway) but afterwards, his synesthetic manifestations were drastically changed, inspiring him to create artistic experiences that are multisensory, blending the visual realm with the sonic. He has invented instruments and participates in Hackathons—24-hour competitions where individuals build instruments using a multitude of technological elements—he also has a map of the fourteen closest pulsars tattooed on his chest. I recently had a chance to catch up with

What was the nature of the injury you sustained?
I previously had an unknown neurological condition, after spending a great deal of time and money we found out that it was a congenital defect that had been there all along. In the space of about seven years I went from walking normally, to having a cane, to one crutch, then two crutches, eventually to a wheelchair. I then suffered a brain hemorrhage, and through the process of neuroplasticity, the language center of my brain was reprogramed and used for motion. So where I was wheelchair-bound, I suddenly lost the ability to speak conversationally, but regained my ability to walk. I also have synesthesia.

Had you been musically inclined prior to this ordeal?

I played guitar at a young age. The same way I retained some of my abilities to speak, I was able to retain my musical abilities. Things I learned at a much younger age I retained, but things I learned later in life went away.

How does your synesthesia manifest itself?

My particular synesthesia confuses color and sound. For instance I can hear the color of a sound, but it is also as specific as timbre. For instance C-Sharp on a harp and C-Sharp on a piano will be vastly different colors to me. When I had the brain hemorrhage, my synesthesia changed drastically. It was as though the order of the colors changed. Things like other people’s voices changed in my head. My own voice changed in my head. It sounded like someone else was speaking in my head. I was studying at the London College of Music when this happened, and I suddenly lost my comprehension and my ability to play, on top of that everything was being inverted in my mind. It sounds the same to my ears, but it looks completely different in my mind.

That must have posed a few challenges getting back into music.

I had to defer my studies for a year. What I was doing was video, loop triggering, visuals, and live audio synthesis. The idea was to get multi-sensory. Having gone through something that shifted my sensory inputs so much, it changed my whole angle on it. This made me reanalyze everything.

How did it change your performances?

I used to say I was, “much more of a musician,” and I’d make visuals to go along with that, but now I am trying to unify the experience and give people visual, audible, and as much information at once. I was experiencing things in such a new way, I wanted to cross over these things.

Do you think you would have incorporated three-dimensional images and other visuals into your performance had you not had this experience?

I probably wouldn’t have. I was always far more interested in the sonic aspect of the art-form. But having gone through this experience that was such a shock to my system, it made me start thinking differently. It’s not like seeing sounds or hearing colors as much as it is about experiencing things on a much more unified level, as if this is your whole experience. You take it in with every part of your body. While it is a terrible thing that happened, I am very thankful because I saw so many people in the hospital who were so much worse off than I. I was already in the wheelchair when I went into the hospital, and I left the hospital with more abilities than I had before. At one point it made me feel like a robot or a cyborg. It has only given me abilities. At points I feel as though I am watching my own life through someone else’s eyes.

Did it affect how you thought about identity, about self? Did it make you feel as though you are just a bunch of chemicals and electrical surges?

Yeah, I am quite fascinated with neuroscience and psychopharmacology in general. Everything you hear and see is being mediated through these chemical processes in your brain. This interconnectivity in my brain and the synesthesia allows me to take any data, process it in any way, and then turn it into a piece art. So I started to do some work with looking at the brain with music. The thing that fascinates me with this is if you took away the preconception of someone being a hipster or someone set in their ways, sit them down, play some music and put an EKG on their head to see what kind of music actively engages their brain. I’m trying to strip away someone pretending to like a certain music because it’s cool. The test subject was my own father who was in his 60s at the time. We scanned his brain and played him the sound of his own brain working.

Can you tell me about hackathons?
I went to the first hackathon in my wheelchair as a participant. The first year in 2012, I built a bass guitar. It was a fretless bass, with sensors for pressure, movement, and motion control. So people who have no motion control with the exception of their arms can still use an instrument. I won the prize from EMI the first year. The next year Cisco sponsored the prize for the best new musical instrument. I took an iPad, I mounted it into a guitar base midi controller. The quarter notes were already programmed, and you could strum on a touch-screen with a bank of oscillators, allowing a huge range that is not readily accessible to guitarists. Anyone who already played guitar could pick it up and they would know
the chord structures and they could strum the touch-screen and get sounds that previously you never would have gotten without learning programming skills.

 

-K. Winslow Smith

Rapper’s Delight and Japanese Hip Hop: An Interview with Ian Condry

phopjapan

Dr. Ian Condry is a professor, an author, and a cultural anthropologist who focuses on Japanese Hip Hop. In his book, Hip Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, Condry explores the cultural significance of Hip Hop in the Tokyo clubs, or the “Genba”, and how Japanese artists have turned a genre of music that was undeniably an American phenomenon into a global one. I was lucky enough to sit down with Ian recently, check it out!

Where did music start for you?

Early on I was impressed by how small songs could tell big stories. I grew up in Upstate New York with music in the household-my father was not a professional, but he would play bawdy Irish folksongs. Then I came to college here in Boston and discovered rap music. Where I grew up the question was “Are you Zeppelin or Judas Priest?” not “Hip Hop or Rock?” When I was looking for a Ph.D. thesis topic, I was interested in global culture and local culture interactions and Hip Hop in Japan was just a fascinating example. I stumbled on that in the mid-90s. I spent a lot of time in the recording studios and the clubs.

Is that how you got started on Hip-Hop Japan?

Exactly! I propose that Hip Hops root in Japan had a lot to do with the spaces that came together, especially the night clubs. I started in record companies, seeing if they could introduce me to the musicians, but they were totally unsupportive—for good reasons [laughs]. I was a grad student writing a book that wasn’t going to come out for ten years that wasn’t going to help them sell anything! They all said they didn’t think Hip Hop was important and it wasn’t going to last, but they sent me to the ‘Genba’. Genba means, “the place where something gets actualized.” It could be the car factory, or the scene of a crime, or an accident. The Genba for Hip Hop was the clubs, it was where this music was being actualized.

Ian Condry

Ian Condry

How did Hip Hop first come to Japan?

Like a lot of places around the world “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang became a huge hit in ‘79. The DJs who were hip were playing it back then. Another big moment was in 1983 when the film Wild Style came out, featuring rapping, break dancing and graffiti. The premier of the film was in Tokyo, and Charlie Ahearn—the director—brought over all these musicians and they were on TV. Some of the younger musicians in Japan saw this and said I’m getting into the DJ business. Bands began performing every Sunday in Tokyo at a place called Yoyogi Park, and eventually break dancers came week after week. By the mid-80s there was this other stream, “the club kids” who were into New Wave and Reggae and Punk, eventually they got into Hip Hop. By this time, they were rapping in Japanese, whereas when rock came in the 60s and 70s it was largely in English. Early on there were no big stars, so nobody was really insecure, or they all felt equally insecure. There was a freedom and openness and time for experimentation early on. The Underground scene is way bigger now because of the internet. It used to be that the rappers needed to come to Tokyo, but now you get these interesting pockets of rap happening in these local areas.

So you think the internet helps music?

The question really is, “what makes a healthy community?” How do we support these communities? My sense is that it does not hurt. In 1999, Napster came out, and all the industry people were predicting the end of music. It’s amazing how wrong that prediction was. You used to have to shell out twenty bucks for a CD and hope that there was something good on it. Now, you can see it on YouTube and test it. Music and musicians are at a really unique place with this new media technology. Even what you guys are doing at Grouptones is an example of using the connectivity of technology to—and some people say to make something out of nothing—it’s not nothing. Many economists don’t recognize the kind of social value that arises from a community—from there being a kind of social fabric that holds us together. Capitalism is actually built upon the social world, in fact the bulk of our lives has a lot more to do with the social obligation and sense of mutual responsibility because we’re fellow human beings; which doesn’t work all the time, but it does work a crazy amount of times. Music relies heavily on social interaction and social value.

What are Japanese Hip-Hop artists talking about?

Everything! This group King Giddra started with rapping about bullying in schools, but in the mid-90s switched to talking about where the jobs would be coming from. Some artists were even talking about abuse of women in the porn industry. These are things I wasn’t hearing too much in the US. But then in other ways, they still had the braggadocio, talking about who was the best rapper—there was even some gangster rappers. I don’t see it as imitation, and it’s always been the criticism that these overseas rappers are imitating, but I don’t buy that because they are Japanese people, rapping in Japanese, to Japanese people, about Japanese stuff.

Has Japan always had a strong music culture?

Back in the day, Japan was the second largest music industry in the world. In ways there is a sort of music renaissance in terms of experimentation, but also in terms of live music where you know what you’re getting. It used to be you had to guess from the names. It is like Europe in that it is much more cosmopolitan where they listen to stuff from India, or Korea, or the UK.

Are there any artists we should we check out?

One good one is Scha Dara Parr. They’re art school type rappers. Miss Monday is fantastic, she is more in the pop vein these days. She came over and played with Zeebra at an event I worked on. Rhymester is great. Spicy Chocolate has worked with Miss Monday. Komachi does some cool stuff. Check out the song 911 by King Giddra. That song shows imagery of Hiroshima to talk about 9/11. It shows some of this complexity where they are sympathizing with the New Yorkers, but they are still mad at George Bush. That is a good example of rapping in Japan that you wouldn’t hear in the States. When the towers came down there were a lot of references to “the day of infamy” and a foreign attack on our soil, Pearl Harbor. The Japanese, who are our allies, they don’t make a huge deal about this because they sympathize with the tragedy, but there is some grumbling because Pearl Harbor was an attack on soldiers and the Japanese were under a blockade at the time. Also check out Tha Blue Herb.

What have you been working on recently?

I’m interested in cultural movements that go global, often in very niche communities that become an international presence. I’m interested in areas especially where there isn’t a lot of support from either corporations or government, but are driven by independent or grassroots efforts. Music, the Arts, and Sports are just a few examples of places where this happens. Often times there is a group of interested peers that become the crucible for something new. In this time of economic uncertainty and political dysfunction we need to find new ways to find jobs and opportunities and I think we should look to Creative Communities.

 

Check out iancondry.com for more information on his various projects and links to his books.

Both of his books are published under creative commons licenses.

Finding Music With Nicole D’amico

Nicole D'amicoGetting to Know Nicole D’Amico

Nicole D’Amico (of Nicole D’amico and Friendsmakes music that is one part jam-band, one part Blues-Rock, a dash of Reggae, funk and fiery guitars and top it off with a heavy dose of Joplinesque vocals. I had a chance to chat with her about following the Dead and finding music along the way. Check it out!

How did music start for you?

When I was little, I played piano and I was atrocious, so it never seemed as though I had musical abilities. I always danced, but never played an instrument after that. It wasn’t until I got to UMass-Amherst when I got into the Grateful Dead and started touring. Every night there were drum circles, but I was never really a part of it until my boyfriend at the time stuck a guitar in my hand and said, “You gotta play.”

Did you even know you could sing before that?

No! [laughs] When I was a kid, I listened to a recording of my voice and didn’t realize that what people heard was different than the sounds in my head. I took that to mean I couldn’t sing in tune, and that what I am hearing is totally different. Then someone finally said to me, “you actually have a decent voice.” After that I started to think differently.

Was your voice always the gravely, Janis Joplin-like, voice, or did you have to work to that?

My mom called it the screech when I started because I would always push my voice to sound that way up to the point where it was crack. It definitely took a lot of time to get to where it is now, but I always had that huskier tone to my voice.

When did you decide to take music seriously?

I think Dan [Adler-Golden] was a big part of that. I was just playing open mics and he got me to start recording. I ended up recording 20 tracks as is. The guy who recorded me was friends with the guys who ran Unregular Radio, and so it just sort of took off from there. If you had asked me a couple years ago if I was going to be a musician, I would have told you that I have no musical abilities what-so-ever.

Who are your biggest influences?

The Grateful Dead, Joplin; right now Susan Tedeschi is one of my favorites. My dad is such a Beatles fan and loves Bob Marley; he was the one who got me into Classic Rock.

Can you talk about the musical community in which you find yourself?

I definitely fall into a variety of communities. My drummer and guitarist, [Alex Martin and Zach Cohen] play in a band called the Family Dinner that’s actually a live hip-hop group. We are sort of in that hip-hop scene, but we are definitely in the jam-band scene, the funk scene, reggae/island music, and the blues scene. People don’t always know where to place us.

What is your ideal setting to play?

It’s hard, because each venue has its own vibe. I love playing festivals because sometimes you have thousands of people looking at you, and you have these waves of emotion coming at you. At the very small clubs you may only have 10 people watching you and it’s so intimate that there’s almost more pressure. Boston is one of the hardest scenes to play for, because here you are always playing for other musicians, and it’s intimidating. It’s the most rewarding and challenging for that fact. Boston is interesting too, especially for blues and jazz, because you have these old heads that have been doing it forever.

Do you have any guiding principles behind your music?

Not really, we just want people to dance. We always say, we’re not the band that brings the crowd, we are the band that keeps them. We want our music to be a conversation with the audience.

What are you doing now?

I’ve just had a baby, so I’m really trying to work around the schedule of being a mother. I play acoustic sets with Rachel DeTroy who is my best friend and the godmother of my baby, but I’m also playing with Zach, Alex and my husband once a month.

If you could collaborate with anyone who would it be?

Being a Deadhead, it would be my absolute pleasure to be on stage with Phil Lesh.

What would be your one studio amenity on your rider?

I love sunflowers, so I’d have to have them in my dressing room.

Who would you want to be a superfan?

If Susan Tedeschi told me I was doing alright, that would be enough satisfaction for a lifetime.

 

 

By Kyle Smith

Freelancing Florida with Christian Ryan

Christian Ryan at House of Blues

Christian Ryan Interview 3/23/14

By K. Winslow Smith

Christian Ryan is an Orlando, Florida based saxophonist who epitomizes the idea of the

freelance musician. He plays with dozens of bands and is a constant fixture up and down the

sunny Florida peninsula and America’s southeast. He blends genres and breaks down musical

barriers, having played with Incubus-like prog bands, Christian-Pop-Spanish groups,

jambands, funk outfits, and much more. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with

Christian, check it out!

 

When did you discover music?

I grew up listening to my parent’s music. My mom was really into Motown and my dad was

more of a classic rock guy. I started playing saxophone when I was in 6th grade, just over ten years ago.

Right about when I was seventeen or eighteen I really

started pursuing music seriously. I grew up doing the school band thing for a while,

and I didn’t think I was going to be a performing musician. I thought maybe I was

going to be a band director, but right around when I was seventeen I heard the Dave

Brubeck Quartet and I never heard anything like it before and it changed my whole perspective.

 

How has being a freelance musician differed from being in a set band?

When I first started I was primarily playing with a singer-songwriter. For a while I

was just involved with that. When you really put your heart and soul into something

and it doesn’t really work out, it can really drive you crazy. It got to the point where

I was frustrated, and it got to where I couldn’t rely on people to be a certain way.

After that I started branching out and playing with other people. Freelance, opposed

to being in other groups, is like being a mercenary in a certain way. Any band that

I play with sends me their music and I learn it, a lot of times I don’t even rehearse

with these guys. I’ll show up and do the gig, and that’s it. As a freelance guy you

take everything into your own hands. Most everything I’ve done has been by myself.

It’s gotten to the point that a lot of people in Florida, when they think of a saxophone

player, they think of me. Being a freelance person, a lot of people just wait for things

to happen, rather than going out there and making things happen. I’ve played at some

festivals in front of a lot of people, and I’ve played in backyards with a handful of people.

 

How do you approach a new gig?

Recently, there was a band from Tampa who hit me up because

their trumpet player was going to be out of town—they sent me a few dates and I

told them which ones I could make it to and in a about a week’s time I learned the

horn lines, I drove down to Tampa and played the show. I just always try to be as

professional as possible. Being prepared is one thing I really strive to do. When a new

group approaches me it’s not just that I’m open to their music, it’s that I’m open to

how they do things as well.

 

Do you have any musical goals?

I have this three-headed goal. My main goal is be a part of the music festival circuit—whether

with a particular band or as myself as an artist. I’d love to have the ability to tour

and then have my own home-base here in Orlando. The last thing would be to make

my own music. I feel like I have a lot left to learn before I pursue my own particular music.

 

Do you have a philosophy of music or any guiding principles?

One of my mantras is to do what you love, whatever that may be. Once I discovered

the flame and realized that I wanted to play music for the rest of my life I just went

for it. Any art in particular you’ll have the naysayers who say you’ll have to get a real

job or you can’t possibly make a living that easy, but what is easy? If it’s something

you’re passionate about, you gotta do it. I’m fortunate because some people might

not find that thing, but for me it clicked and I rolled with it. It hasn’t been easy all the

time, but when I’m playing on a stage, whenever that may be and with whoever that

may be it’s like nothing else. I don’t do drugs, and I don’t drink, so that feeling I get

when I’m on stage performing with people is all I need to keep on keeping on. It’s

like you’re in another world where nothing can go wrong. It’s euphoric.

 

Where do you get your kicks, live or recording?

I’m much more of a live performer than a studio musician. With live music you

get the audience reaction, and any one moment could go in a direction you might

not expect. There are those moments that happen that you can’t duplicate, where

everything comes together at the right time and that can’t be matched. The studio

gives you the opportunity to do a lot of things; you can bring in different musicians

and overdub and there are multiple takes. There’s more freedom live. In the studio

there’s schedules and deadlines. I’m trying to find a unique voice in the studio,

whereas live I already have an established sound. Recording is an art in itself, from

the musicians to the engineers to everybody else that has a hand in it. Whereas live

it’s the band and the audience.

 

If you could collaborate with any musician who would it be?

I’d love to have played with Frank Zappa. I have the greatest respect for him, not only

as a musician but as a person. I’d love to play with Snarky Puppy. I got to meet their

bass player and he’s a really down to earth guy, and to see someone you really look

up to be so humble is great.

 

What would the one thing on your studio contract be?

I’m just really happy if I get some food. [laughs] A nice fresh home-cooked meal. I’d

also like a bottle of original Listerine for my reeds.

 

Be sure to check out Christian’s music at christianryanmusic.com, as well as his projects, Buster Keaton and Holey Miss Moley!

Getting to Know Rocky Russo

Photo by Sarah J. Halliday

Photo by Sarah J. Halliday

Rocky Russo is a man of many musical talents, both on the stage and off. His band, Rocky and the Pressers, is reggae at heart, but they incorporate ethereal, sophisticated harmonies and tonalities that have become associated with new folk and indie rock. Rocky is also a wizard behind the mixing board, having been tapped by The Wondermics to engineer and produce their upcoming album. Kyle Smith of GroupTones chatted with Rocky about his music, his history, and music philosophy. (Be forewarned, Nietzsche makes a guest appearance)

Where did music start for you? What did you listen to early on?

I was lucky to go to an elementary school where we played a lot of music. Until recently I hadn’t realized how that contributed to my interests in music. We played the recorder and all that simple stuff. We also had to take an orchestral instrument in sixth grade—I took the clarinet. By the time I got to middle school I had started playing bass, and I lost interest in the clarinet. My first a-ha! moment musically came when I heard Sublime, and that’s one of the things that sent me on the course of being interested in reggae music.

Were your parents influential musically?

I am a first generation musician. The main reason I started on the clarinet was because my Dad had one—he fought in the Korean War. One way he avoided active duty was by playing in the military band, and one of his best pieces of advice was, “If you ever get drafted or have to be in the military, work in the kitchen or play in the band, because then you won’t have to do anything dangerous.”

It’s hard to label Rocky and the Pressers as simply reggae with the complexity of your vocal harmonies that hard to mix?

As far as walking a line between reggae and the more contemporary elements you hear, it’s not hard to do that—the rhythmic element is always intended to be a reggae, Jamaican, soul, R n’ B vibe. It’s easy to keep those influences together, but the elements that are associated with the New Folk and Indie Rock scene—the vocal harmonies and the sonic stuff—are present in reggae music, but they are used a little differently. The way we use them may be more like Fleet Foxes sometimes might use them but some reggae artists were also fearless with close harmonies.  That is sort of the novelty to our sound, but it also represents the challenge to the listener.

How did you get into the sound-tech world?

It started as me building a home studio so that I could record my band from college. Then you talk to friends who ask to come by to record, and then before I knew it I ended up with thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment.

How is it working with the Wondermics in a professional studio?

I worked with them on their EP, so I knew their vibe, but what they were going for on this record was much more serious. The EP represented a younger band, but the LP shows them as being more certain, more determined. They wanted a sound that was modern, but still harkened back to retro, soulful stuff, like Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye.

When you are playing live, how does the audience react to the different elements if your music?

The reception is usually pretty good, but some people are confused by what they hear. It’s not exactly music that is straight-ahead danceable, it’s the type of thing you can sit down and think about theoretically too. All the reggae stuff is dance music at its core but the eclectic mix perplexes people. [In a commercial voice] Your experience may vary.

Can you describe your creative process?

There is a healthy amount of collaboration. But Eric Sullivan, who is the lead singer, is the primary songwriter. The vocal and rhythmic arrangements are collaborative but the band is not set up for creative democracy. We go with an old-school approach with a primary songwriter and he is the creative director of what is happening. I believe that artistic creativity happens best when there is a single strong force behind it and there are other people around to help it along in creative ways. Being a bassist and engineer, my role is to help shepherd things along, but not necessarily be the primary creative force.

Do you have a philosophy of music?

I have some guiding principles about my role. As a bassist and engineer, I see myself as someone who is meant to be in a supportive role. In terms of a more philosophical role of music generally, I think of Nietzsche when he talked about the idea that what makes music powerful is the way it effects your body and the way music has a direct connection to your body. He was a very poetic writer, and he felt that for his writing to have an effect on the reader it had to have a rhythm and a poetry to it. The thing that is so striking to me is that he was a writer, but he believed the most potent form of art was music.

What’s next for the Pressers?

We are playing out a lot. We put on these last tours independently. It’s difficult working at the grassroots level, but it’s important because it gets you into playing shape and gets you in front of new people. We’re also working on a few pieces of new content and producing a follow up to the “Never Dry” video, which was produced and directed by our good friend, Riley Fields. We’ll be working with jim on the new one too, but the idea is to be more reflective of what we do live….There is also talk of making another record in the next year or so.