Musical History

Monday, October 21, 2002

I wrote the first couple of tracks that I thought sounded good using a MIDI synth and a Macintosh back the summer after my freshman year of high school and during my sophomore year. That was 1993 and 1994. And I’ve played at Digital Showcases tracks I made in 1996, during my very first semester of college. (I remember specifically because they were written for a girlfriend who heard one of them while still my girlfriend and then broke up with me before getting to hear the second one.) Anyway. I work slowly. But my work spans a good portion of my life.

I actually got my first MIDI-enabled keyboard as a sort of accidental gift from my grandparents one year, Christmas when I was in the seventh grade. It was a crappy keyboard which had MIDI capabilities for no good reason. Happened that the guy across teh street from us had a huge electronic music set-up in his basement, with a Mac SE-30 (hot shit at the time), a couple Ensoniq samplers, and various other things I didn’t know about. Kelly Hodges was his name. I remember him pushing a disk into the Ensoniq and making big helicopter sounds all over this place. Anyway, he gave me the info about buying a MIDI converter (and some software), and I had fortunately just saved up for and bought my own Macintosh Classic. So there I was. Completely accidental on all fronts, really.

So I doodled with that set-up for a couple years before saving up for a bigger keyboard which was still rather amateur (had built in speakers — that’s the clue), but had an internal sequencer, some simple effects (reverb and chorus), and 255 instrument presets (and some wacky knob-mixer thing) — and 64 drum sounds. That cost several hundred dollars — a chuck for an eight-grader. Not professional-grade by any stretch. Not even that great, really, but it had enough to get me through high school. That, some old headphones, and a cassette deck with a mic-input, and I was set to go.

I remember putting together a little comp of stuff I’d been working on — probably about an hours worth — for Zane May of my freshman year. I don’t exactly know why. Just for fun, I guess. I did that, and I guess I made a second copy which I happened to have on me the last day of school. I remember vividly getting a ride home from Lee Whorley with Sean Owen in the car and — I think — Jennifer. Maybe Falana White or Hollie Hernandez. Anyway, somehow my dorky little cassette ended up in the stereo.

So Sean must have liked what he heard, because it turned out that he had his own little synth and that summer we got together once at my house and then at his house a bunch of times to hook it all up and see what happened. I remember having a messy room and having my mom set up a tray table for Sean and his keyboard. She probably loved it. Sean seemed uncomfortable.

And then into our sophomore year we continued our little sessions, sometimes every weekend, sometimes holding off for a month-or-so, just doing other things. These sessions actually lasted through high school and into the summers between our college terms, when Sean came back into town. Our sophomore and junior years of high school, though, I remember doing a lot of stuff. Making cassettes for people, including Zane and Brooke and Gunn and Daniel Spradley, doing some thing during a “Choice Learning” period (ask me later) called “Biostock” in the biology classroom. That involved us bringing our synths in to the school, rugging them up, and playing our little tracks. Sean had a small Alesis drum machine at the time and I had the drum sounds on my synth — I remember specifically Jordan Friedman repeating “kick it old school” over and over and us beating out little patterns. I think Chris Graf and Jody Henning, maybe Mellisa Barak, were the only ones who listened to us. These were years of frequent — sometimes daily — trips down to Waterloo Records to poke through the CD bins that I knew more-or-less by heart. Our finds of the time included the Aphex Twin, Autechre, the Orb, the Artificial Intelligence series, and the more main-stream Erasure, Depeche Mode, Front 242, and Nine Inch Nails stuff. (Owning the entire catalogue of Nails CDs was somewhat of a badge of honor for us. I remember Sean, myself, and Chris all owned the complete set, and going to see the band live ended up being a huge production, involving about a dozen kids. Got to see Marilyn Manson live, too, before they were a big name thing.) Anyway.

Sean got funding from his grandparents, I believe, to break into the serious music market with a Roland JV-1080 synth. I remember very well heading down to Strait’s and asking about good quality synths in the low-end range and being totally blown away by the recently released JV-1080. It was an all-in-one synth bank, effects processor, and drum machine that used the MIDI we knew and loved and sounded phenomenal compared to what we had. Sean got one, like, Christmas of that year. And I wanted one so god damned bad but it was just too expensive for my family at about $1400. Finally that summer, just months later but months during high school seem like years, I managed to wrangle one up. I still own it. And it still generates about 90% of the sound for my live performances. It has been an amazing unit. (The other 10% comes from my Korg Electribe and a bit of audio out of my laptop. The core layout of my set-up has not changed, though, since high school, though the individual pieces have become higher-quality.)

So, I had this thing during the summer. I should step back. We recorded our first CD in March of 1996, our senior year of high school. At that time we were writing stuff solely for Sean’s JV-1080. Our CD included five tracks originally by me, five by Sean, but we each had big input in each other’s work. My tracks were mostly things I had come up with on my older synth and remixed using the JV-1080. CD burners were not common back then and Gunn hooked us up with some strange Chinese dude who had a cluttered apartment and lived a bizarre life with his computer and pictures of oriental girls. He made us five copies and we paid him, like, $50 and, thus, “deus ex machina” was born. Named for what we were calling ourselves at the time. Around that summer we started abbreviating it to just “dxm” or “DXM” or “DxM,” depending on our mood. (A quick web search revealed too many bands called “Deus Ex Machina” — mostly metal bands. Thus, “DXM.”)

So, Sean took off for Harvard. Harvard didn’t want much to do with me, so I stayed and entered Plan II. (Just a couple of days ago someone told me that their daughter had been accepted to NYU, Yale, and Georgetown but *not* Plan II, that’s how selective it was. Whoo!) So. I fell in with a girlfriend right away and immediately started cranking our tons of tracks for her. Women: Do not forget your amazing power over boys. That first semester of school I put together hours and hours of music, sitting in my room and playing it for her. That’s the most productive I’ve been musically since the AMODA phase, starting last summer. The summer after my freshman year, Sean came back and we put together “Tapestry,” our best work so far. We were fueled on Pink Floyd, the Orb, and psychedelics and just crazy warped-out kids having a great connecting moment.

It fell off after that. I mostly just tinkered around with no real direction or goals, being more into the dorm or co-op or literature or whatever and not so entrenched in music. I think I got frustrated with it, thought it sucked, felt other things were more rewarding. Whatever.

So, I guess AMODA entered the picture last summer for me, giving me an excuse to focus back in. The thing is, no one in the co-op or dorm really cared much for it. Didn’t get much positive feedback. People found my hobby interesting in the dorm just because they found every idiosyncracy interesting — that’s part of being a freshman/sophomore in college. The co-op is more of an indy-rock, thrift-store scene. So, no real impetus to continue. So. AMODA came around, and suddenly people did seem to care and I felt reconnected to the broader musical world. And, thus, lots of energy went back into it. And here we are today.

And that’s the story.