I’m very serious about every song I put together. Of course, if you take yourself–and the music you’re making–too seriously at the inception of a track, you run the risk of being too critical at every step, which can hinder the organic growth of the song. For me, a song will usually start care-free. Just fun broad strokes. And then when I get into the shaping/crafting phase of the song, that’s when I go from cloud to clock, getting down into the granular details. That part can be painful–struggling with every puzzle piece, hoping they fit, and trying to find out where exactly the best connection for each piece is. But when all the pieces click, the result is so rewarding.
I love mixing different genres and instruments that at first seem like an unlikely pairing, and I’m always inspired by bands that do just that. Take Morphine. They use a bari sax in place of a guitar to create a whole new sound. I love that stuff. I’ve been dabbling with analog synths lately and have found that the warmth and organic nature of analog synths compliment the banjo in a really interesting way. That swinging banjo ditty comes from my Primus influence I’m sure. So as far as influences, there’s Primus, Bob Marley, NIN, Aphex Twin, Mr Bungle, MSI, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Balkan Beat Box, Moon Hooch, Beats Antique, Steel Pulse, Diablo Swing Orchestra… to name a few. And there’s this really cool electro swing movement going on with groups like Dirty Honkers, Caravan Palace, and The Correspondents that is also influencing my style.
Electro Swing Dubgrass
For this song, I recorded the rhythm beatbox-style into my phone, just to catch the vibe and groove. Eventually, I brought that lo-fi recording into Ableton and adjusted the warp markers to make the beat line up with the grid (leaving a little “looseness” to retain the live vibe). After that, I converted the audio to MIDI using Ableton’s “convert drums to new MIDI track” feature. That wasn’t a spot-on conversion, so I tweaked the MIDI notes until I had the beats I liked.
After that, I started playing around with walking bass lines that complimented the drive of the drum beat. I did this with a soft synth just to get the idea down. Once I had a few ideas for bass lines, I copied the bass MIDI clip into a new external instrument track that I ran into my hardware synths–a Moog Sub Phatty and a Behringer Model D. I hit play and recorded the synths into audio tracks, tweaking the physical knobs to really utilize the analog characteristics of the two synths. For the harder stabbing synth parts in the intro and bridge, I hard-panned the two synths, treating them like heavy guitars. After the synth bass was in the mix, I plugged up my fretless Warwick and doubled the bass lines to really thicken up the bottom end.
Once the drums and bass were satisfactorily grooving together, I got out the banjo and noodled around with some different plucky chord progressions until I found a few bouncy ditties that jived with everything else. I knew I wanted a sax line over the driving riff, so I first played around with melody ideas on my keyboard. After finding a melody that worked, I recorded that with my sax (doubling the part to thicken up the sound of the horn).
All this was done in the session view, recording each ditty for each instrument in different clip slots. With all the pieces prepped in the session view, I then played around with different arrangements of the riffs in the arrangement view until I found an arrangement that flowed.
And then came the time for lyrics. I already had a lyrical theme in mind–in addition to collecting riff ideas as they come to me, I also jot down lyrical ideas when the notion strikes. I’m a fan of lightning bugs–I went to the Smoky Mountains to see synchronous fire flies, which was amazing. I wanted to use that imagery of harmonious critters working in sync to convey the idea of inclusion. Everyone’s invited to the lightning bug dance party! Because of this theme, I recorded the crickets in my backyard (it was summer when I recorded them, so they were SINGING). To give the crickets a rhythm, I processed the recording in Ableton using the Auto Filter effect. That’s the first thing you hear in this track.
My go-to physical tools: 5-string fretless Warwick, Moog Sub Phatty, Behringer Model D, tenor sax, and Morgan Monroe banjo. I record all this into Ableton Live and have a couple go-to dub kits I’ve put together that really cut. For certain sections (like choruses and bridges) I like to get a BIG sound without resorting to electric guitars. That usually means stacking and panning synths and sax tracks.
Whenever I start making a thing, I always ask myself: how can I make this thing different and unique? That can be tough. But for me, it’s the main reason for making anything. If it’s been done before, why try and do it again? A lot of time, new ideas come from learning something new. Picking up an instrument I haven’t played. Or combining instruments that I haven’t heard together. Or maybe doing a deep dive on a plugin through video tutorials, figuring out new ways to make it work. If it’s new to me, it’s going to be more exciting. And that excitement usually sparks something fresh. Also, don’t be afraid to stack layers of sounds and parts. And when you have that massive stack, don’t be afraid to subtract from it.
The banjo is a very old instrument, with roots in Africa dating back to the 1700’s. I’m from Eastern, Kentucky, so I know the banjo by way of bluegrass music. And to be honest, for the first 20 years of my life, I despised bluegrass music. It repelled me towards more abrasive music like metal and industrial. It wasn’t until maybe a decade ago that I came back to the instrument looking at it with a new perspective. I do a lot of slap-popping on my bass, so that’s how I play my banjo. And the sounds I get have a lot of attack with little sustain. So in that regard, I see the banjo as a melodic percussion instrument. After playing in metal bands with all the compressed distorted guitar, the banjo’s organic character was refreshing to me. The open tuning of the banjo gave me opportunities to write interesting riffs that I wouldn’t write on any other instrument.
I like songs. I mean, I have an affection for particular instruments–including the banjo. But having this or that instrument in a recording isn’t enough. The song has to be good. The following songs all feature the banjo in varying degrees, and I’m a fan of each one.
“Sarah Jane And The Iron Mountain Baby” by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
“Hate Your Guts” by Pride & Glory
“Cottonwood River” by El Creepo!
“The Air Is Getting Slippery” by Primus
Yes, I will continue to make tracks like this. I’m close to having a full album’s worth of music for this project and am looking to put a live band together to take this music to the stage. I’ve been honing this style for a few years, so this isn’t a happy surprise. This particular track is a touch stone in my artistic journey that is a solid representation of the of Jenny’s Creek sound. It’s got the bouncy banjo, the phat synths, the driving bass, the cutting electronic drums, the quirky lyrics. I’d like to think that if you heard an of Jenny’s Creek song–even it’s for the first time–that it’ll be immediately recognizable as an oJC tune.
I don’t really have a desire to be rich and famous. And I’m not interested in an arena of casual listeners. I’d be happy just to have a devoted audience for my music–just enough interested ears to fill a club. And for these hardcore fans, I would continue to play around with new and exciting ways to keep them–and myself–interested.