As a prequel to their 8 day tour of Colorado, the Grateful Web got a chance to speak with electronic/rock and roll duo BoomBox about touring, their history, songwriting, and what makes them and their music tick.
Grateful Web: This is Dave Papuga from the Grateful Web, and today I have the privilege of speaking with Russ Randolph and Zion Godchaux from BoomBox.
GW: Russ, Zion, how’s it going today guys?
ZG: Good, man, thanks for having us.
GW: It’s great to be able to speak with you today. So you guys are about to do and 8 show Colorado run, with one show, an additional Denver show, that was just added on Saturday. You’re also doing a pre-party in Denver, as well as a Semiotic session hosted by the University of Colorado. You seem to have a solid following in Colorado. Would you say that Colorado is a strong-hold state amidst your general fan-base?
RR: Um, probably one of the biggest concentrations, I mean, I would assume we do as well in Colorado as we do anywhere in the country.
GW: You just came off of a Florida run. Are you still in Florida now?
RR: No, we’re back home for a few days before we start heading north.
GW: With the pre-party- do you play at the pre-party, or is it kind of like a meet-and-greet sort of thing where you hang out with the fans?
ZG: I think it’s more of a meet-and-greet.
RR: Yeah, it is, but you know, we’re really weird about those kinds of things, we prefer to just kind of hang out, and, you know, the meet-and-greet thing is an odd kind of, I don’t know, it’s a weird way of labeling the situation. I just prefer to go and just hang out with people…
GW: Just kind of hang out, party?
RR: It helps everybody get ready, get prepared for the show, that kind of stuff.
ZG: We’re not performing or doing any sets or anything.
GW: You guys just came from Florida. How was Florida?
RR: It was alright.
ZG: It was good.
RR: Gainesville and Orlando were way super cool. Really good people and really good times.
GW: I read something back in September that you had to cancel a show at the Big and Hearty music festival due to a contract breach. Would you mind elaborating on that?
RR: Um, you know, when you sign a contract for a show, there is a technical right or a production right that goes along with that that says if we need these things to be able to pull off our show, and to do what we do in the venue, we were told all of those things were there, and we showed up and they weren’t there. We did all that we could do to try to make it work and down to the last minute we realized that there just wasn’t enough production or the proper production to do the full band show, so we decided to do a DJ set so there wouldn’t be an actual lot of live mics in the room which was just going to be kind of a nightmare, and so we did a DJ set, you know, trying to do the right thing to fill the date, because people came out to the show, and drove, all that kind of stuff. Well, at the end of the night there was a problem with money, somebody claimed the door got robbed, and all these kind of things, and it was a hassle. The promoter made some very bad decisions. It end up with us pulling out of the whole thing- it’s unfortunate, we hate to have to pull certain things like that when you’re in that moment and you’re goin’ “man this is the pre-party for this whole weekend and this is just as bad as it can possibly get”- it was like no one ever read our contract who was involved with this particular event, I can imagine what the rest of it’s going to be like. We couldn’t really, in good faith more forward with it, the other half of that show, the contract, we’re out.
GW: So when you guys do a DJ set are you both up at the turntables and mixers?
RR: Yeah, we’re both DJs so we both have our own mixers. Basically, both of us are playing tracks.
GW: So you’re feeding off each other, playing together, both playing the DJ role?
ZG: Yeah, bouncing back and forth.
RR: Yeah, bounce tracks back and forth. Z will play a track then I’ll play a track and we’ll just bounce back and forth all night.
GW: I’ve noticed, following your schedule, you maintain a pretty relentless touring schedule, with back to back shows, I don’t think you have a night off in the 8 days that you’re here in Colorado. On average, how many shows do you log in a year?
ZG: Um, I don’t really know off the top of my head.
RR: Around 140-150 dates maybe. We’ve done more in the past but we’re trying to manage that balance between doing all we can and still having… on the road, so we’re not wearing ourselves out on the road and getting tired of the whole road life thing, and also manage somewhat of a, as much as we can, a balance with normal home life. If you get over 150, 180, pushing 200 dates a year, man, you’re living on the road.
GW: Makes your head spin.
RR: We try and keep it manageable.
GW: You guys are definitely doing the hustle out there, for sure.
ZG: We want to keep more room open for recording here at home and stuff like that too, I mean, we’re still touring a lot but we’re wanting to keep in the studio as well.
RR: If we’re on the road so much, it’s difficult for us to really record and write back home in the studio, if we’re out all the time, drive days, travel days, it’s difficult to record sometimes.
GW: So Russ, you’re from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Zion, you grew up in the Bay area mostly, and I know your mom has Alabama roots and I believe she lives back there now. I was wondering how you came to initially join forces, how you met up, and how all that went down?
ZG: We met actually; I was working with my mom out here in Alabama at her studio. We were working on a record and we had bought a new console, and we brought Russ in to help show us how to use the console/engineer the record really. So throughout the course of- I don’t know- 6 months or whatever it took to front to back/finish the record, me and Russ had a lot of time in the studio just listening to sounds, bouncing ideas back and forth off each other, the writing was on the wall as far as how we would be able to, or the fact that we would be able to, just with me and him, accomplish a lot of these ideas that we were having. We just had a lot of time in the studio prior to Boombox to kind of get a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do with Boombox.
RR: When we first started hanging out in the studio, Z already had a drum machine, an RS7000, his Yamaha drum machine that we’ve used for the whole time that we’ve been doing Boombox. He had this drum machine and he was kind of writing songs on it and with the idea of- we couldn’t find 4 or 5 guys that could commit to a project like that and travel and write- just the general story of complications of putting a band together. We started hanging out in the studio and I said- you know, I’m an engineer and I could manipulate these tracks- and we just started bouncing ideas back and forth and realized we can really do this, and we were both really into DJ music at the time, like house music, and especially like San Francisco house stuff, where Z was from. and we just- you know, like one door opened, and then like 100 doors opened at the same time in our thought process, and we were like- we can really do this- and if we have two drum machines we can mix between them, we can create a track in the studio then play it live with guitar and vocal, and it seemed like a very clear picture or clear path for us. We had both tried to do regular bands and were frustrated with trying to get so many people together and we thought- man, two people- it’s easier to make decisions and cheaper to travel and the big thing was that we knew that we could get opening gigs being so small, which proved to really work because a lot of bands really opened the door for us to come on their stage and really play. We’re two people and we can roll one road case out with all of our stuff, really simple, and get on and get out of your way, you know, just give us a chance- and it really worked.
GW: Not as much breakdown and set up, as with a full band.
RR: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
ZG: I was going to say, you know, with the drum machines, here’s a piece that we can actually both write on and collaborate, and writing on these machines and then taking the machines out to the shows, and the machines essentially replace a 5 piece to 20 piece band, and that was really the power point for us, being able to, like we were just talking about, being able to set up and tear down real quick, that was definitely part of our strategy, just had to get our foot in the door. We knew that the drum machines were powerful enough to hold the dance floor; we just had to get our foot in the door.
GW: I want to ask about your songwriting process. Most typical rock and roll band start off with the lyricist writing some lyrics, maybe coming up with some chords and sitting down with the other band members and filling it in and developing it. I’m wondering how that process goes for Boombox. Does Russ drop beats and you write over them? Does it start, Zion, with your guitar riffs? Do you ever write on acoustic (guitar)? What’s your typical songwriting process?
RR: Kind of like your description of about traditional bands really. Z generally has a general idea of some melody line/song/lyrics or something and then we just build around that, develop that, as we go along. In the beginning we put together our first album before we ever played live and so we didn’t have the luxury of road-testing songs and so we booked a whole bunch of time in the studio, creating, and now it’s a little freer. We’ll have an idea and test a track out a few times before it’s really finished. A lot of times a song may start down one road and we’ll play it on tour and then we’ll say “this didn’t work or that didn’t work” and come back and redo it. I think our writing process is pretty much the same as any band really, and we’re trying to break it down because our main focus most of the time is the song itself and trying to focus on the songwriting aspect of it.
So many people in the electronic world are trying to get as ridiculous and glitzy and apocalyptic sounding as possible, but we’re just not that. We’re both kind of minimalist and we write- we are electronic artists and we live in an electronic world. We think of ourselves as just a rock and roll band, but the main focus is a song and then adapting this song to the dance floor. We’re finding ourselves writing more and more with just guitar and piano and that kind of stuff, on the simplest level. Not saying that we don’t have some loop or some drum beat that we like and hearing a melody in that whatever kind of thing. We’re trying to create as much stuff as we can ourselves and our own sounds- recording our own drum parts and our own clats and our own, you know, using external synths and external keyboards and analog equipment to capture these sounds and then capture that in software and perform these things that we’ve captured and recorded live.
ZG: Both of us are multi-instrumental. I mean, like, we both play drums, and we both play bass, and we both write a little bit of the lyrics. So between the two of us we’re both throwing down ideas, and so what we’ll do is I’ll go to Russ and say “hey, here is this idea that I had,” send him the file and he’ll throw some stuff down on it, put some beats here; we throw ideas back and forth. But like Russ said, it’s really the song first and then we just bat it back and forth between each other, at home and on the road, and some of them stick, and the ones that stick we try to embellish on and potentially record and road test.
GW: Russ, would you talk to us about your DJ setup? I see turntables and the drum machine and the Mac up there, but could you elaborate on what it is you’ve got up there?
RR: Sure. Basically, everything runs through my DJ mixer. That’s kind of the last thing in the chain, and I take a stereo output of my- I’ve got a Mackey D4 DJ mixer, it’s like 4 channels and it’s got a Firewire input on it too that I can use with the soundcard out of my computer, but into that I run two drum machines kind of in the same way that a DJ would run two turntables into a mixer, and so most of the material that is played, most of the tracks and the drum parts, bass, all that stuff, is coming back off the drum machines, and I’ve got one on either side of me and I’m basically mixing from one machine, blending the other machine in, transitioning and mixing over to the other machine.
Recently we’ve incorporated Ableton Live (loop-based software music sequencer) into the show so I’m running more and more tracks off of Ableton. So for the past few years or 5 years now, whatever it was, I’ve been mixing from drum machine to drum machine, so now I’m basically mixing from drum machine to computer and I’m making the next step to transitioning between computer and computer. So say on channel one of my mixer I have one laptop, and on channel 4, I have the other laptop, and channel one is playing- one laptop is playing one song and another song is pulled up on the other machine and they’re not connected together or anything like that.
I hit play on one, play it through the machine, and we’re moving forward. Then at some point during that song I hit play on the other one, turn it up in my headphones off of the mixer, and adjusting it to tempo the way a DJ would, kind of cuing up the next record and then I’ll slowly start bringing it in.
The tracks in Ableton are set up so I still have individual control over all the voices. So I still have individual control over kick, snare, hat, clat, my crash cymbal, the synth sound, main melody parts, keyboard parts, bass parts- all that stuff is individual and so I’ve got them grouped together in scenes or kind of snap-shot automation kind of stuff. I can go back to this scene, or snap-shot, of the console if you will; of course it’s a virtual console, coming off of a computer. Then, on top of that I have some external kind of keyboards that are linked to the software and so in a song I may have a plug in playing a Wurlitzer sound or a Rhodes sound that I can play on the keyboard. I’ve got some external, I’ve got a Kaoss pad I use for delay that’s actually inserted on my mixer, and then the new Kaossilator Pro which is cool, it’s kind of an arpeggiated synth engine which is really pretty hip and it’s all very DJ, you know, set up for live use. It’s very touch sensitive and just kind of a square which gives you a good kind of graphic feedback and that’s pretty much it.
I’m going more- when we first started, like I said when I met Z- we started working in the studio, Z had one of these Yamaha drum machines and they’re way cool machines and they’re totally set up for live use but they’re very limited in their storage medium. You use an old Smartmedia card so it limits the whole show to like 128 megabytes which is nothing for samples, especially when you have a lot of samples that we’ve recorded ourselves, and high bit-rate, high resolution samples and so slowly making the transition with sampling all of these sounds off the drum machine into software, and the software really opens up the world to open up our vocabulary live as far as the tracks are concerned. We can be a lot more dynamic and I can take sounds from multiple places. It’s a lot easier for me to manage big sounds and multi-sampled kind of sounds and that kind of stuff. Adding the external keyboard allows me to play more, it allows me to be a little more elegant, or eloquent, rather, in my speaking from my word or my contributions live and I’m trying to play as much, more and more as I can live.
We just added some recent kind of percussion things and I’m adding some electronic drum stuff on this tour, this up-coming Colorado run and we’re just trying to increase our conversation between the two of us live on stage. Hope that makes some kind of sense.
GW: It’s absolutely amazing, back from the days of vinyl and a single mixer, with all of the things you just said, the possibilities are endless with you know-
RR: Oh yeah, when we first started hanging out, what we truly wanted to be was like an evolution of the DJ world. There were a lot of bands out there, and there still are, a lot of bands that were going towards the DJ role. Or you’ve got 5 guys that are playing like a DJ would and we were just thinking, well, what if two DJs just kind of extended what they were doing. So, from the drum machines or laptop on either side of me- I look at them, both of us look at them- as a record that’s playing but we’re not locked into that record just playing for however many minutes then that record ending. Working with these tracks, we can continually evolve them; we’re not necessarily locked into the song structure the way a DJ would be. The break doesn’t have to happen right there. We can hold that tension a little bit more and drop that break eight bars later, sixteen bars later, or whatever we need to do. If we need to play this track faster tonight, or if we need to play it slower, or maybe just quicker, you know, if we only have this much time for a show and we’ve just got to get in and out quick. The way that we’ve built the foundation and created these tracks and play them back live gives us complete control over the song. It’s a very free kind of thing. It’s all pretty well scary because we’re flying without a net and that’s part of the reason I’m transitioning to Ableton, because the drum machines just kept breaking. I’m working those buttons really hard every night and they break and their rotary controllers and coders just end up breaking. With the heavy stage volume and heavy low end some of these coders just kind of drift.
Making the transition to the software is really, truly helping you out, but I want to make the full transition so it has two computers completely worked out and all of our tracks.... You can’t create that tension. A lot of what we’re doing is creating that tension. The reason that I’m hard mixing between that mixer is so that you feel one track creating tension against another track. If they’re playing at the same tempo they still have a tension of pushing forward between them, and as I start bringing them up I might adjust the tempo a little bit to change or accent some of that tension or what not.
This has to do that, we feel, to truly be coming from the DJ world, or keep in that DJ house/mixing kind of world. If you just have one computer, there’s no, there’s no tension when you transition from one track to another. Its beat matches in the computer, your hittin’ play and it’s just there. You don’t have to physically put it in time. Every night, say we play, if we played the same set every night, it would be different because we’d have to physically hit play on one machine and hit play on another and keep them together. They don’t stay together. They’ll drift and it’ll trainwreck after a while, but that’s what, for me and Z- that subtlety of the mixing- that’s what you see.
When we first got together, Z kept encouraging me and just insisting that I go to Burning Man (a weeklong annual event held in the Black Rock Desert in Northern Nevada) with him. He’d been before and was like “you have to go, you have to go, you have to go,” because I’d basically lost- or not lost- but I’d never really had that- no DJ had completely taken me over the way that a band had. So we go to Burning Man and I hear these DJs, world-class DJs doing these long mixes, and all it took was one good DJ in the right moment and this two record long mix, playing two records for a long time together. It was a pretty ballsy thing for anybody to do. And that was it for me, I was like “this is it, we can do this, we can take this to the next step or evolve this into the multi-tracks and then I can see it- that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.
But it’s that hard mixing that is key, you know? If you see a guy up there with no mixer, it concerns me that they’re not really mixing the tracks. When I see a mixer up there, I see a guy going through, hard mixing through tracks, and you go- ok this is the real thing, this is a real energy exchange, and this is a real- there’s an art form to this mixing that I feel is kind of being lost with a lot of this new stuff.
ZG: For us the real energy happens when you’ve got two separate playback modules that have no idea that each other are there and you have a mixer in between them and so it’s raw and it’s in that, the human comes into play by aligning these two independently moving and playing back machines, aligning them to where it fits just right and in that alignment is the magic. The magic is the fact that the tracks are completely independent of each other and they’re not, they don’t, there’s- the only way that it’s going to sound good is if a person gets in between those two and fuses it together, and in that fusion is tension, in that fusion is rock and roll. That’s rock and roll. That’s the live- that’s the stuff that gives you chill-bones.
GW: The same way that drums and bass would work together, or guitar/bass/drums?
RR: Yeah, yeah, same thing, same thing.
GW: Just like any other instruments, just more of a modern-day version, and you guys are definitely, truly masters of making that happen.
ZG: Yeah. We’re mixing two bands, per se, a full band on one side, and a full band on the other side. Instead of one band playing together and just a bass and drums, now we have a bass and drums and horns and synths and all this stuff coming out of one side and another band playing another song on the other side. Neither band knows that each other are even there.
RR: But I do see it like you were saying earlier about like being like a bass and a drummer. Like I see it as if there are complete bands on either side of me but I do think about it, because I’m a drummer initially, and like if we’re transitioning, going to another song, I’m thinking about being that drummer and playing further, further to the back of the beat just for the second till track gets into a lock into it. Creating that tension, building, that kind of thing, I’m totally thinking like that, as a solo musician would. Z’s playing guitar and singing and I’m thinking I’m going to back this up just a bit, my timing’s going to be back, back, back, back, back and then I’m going to suck it in and really lay into a groove here. Just the way a drummer would, or a guitar player playin’ a lick or a piano player creating this kinda whatever feeling- it’s pretty much the same thing. I don’t think that if Zion and I were setting and we each had a drum in front of us that we would see anything any different then the way we do on stage with all of our gear and all that kind of stuff. We’re still going to look at-
RR: -how we’re playing the same way.
GW: Zion, coming from a pretty rock and roll upbringing, with both of your folks being members of the Grateful Dead, how did you transition from a rock and roll up-bringing into DJing and dance music?
ZG: Basically, Garcia had passed away, and after that I found myself really struggling to be entertained by the live music at the time that was around. Maybe the music was fine, but the connection of the people was lost. Like how it was at the Dead shows, you know, there was something special, a whole unifying thing going on with a lotta, lotta, lotta people all connected under the same roof, and when Garcia had passed that whole part of life seemed to disappear and it was really, really sad and that was, being a musician, you know, I wasn’t really gettin’ turned on by what was going on when I’d go to see shows.
One of my best friends dragged me out to a warehouse in Oakland one night and before that I had said- electronic music is a bunch of geeks making music for elevators. I found out quite differently in that warehouse in Oakland. Matter of fact I found out that that giant connection with a lot of people under one roof was indeed still happening. It’ had just changed form and now it was these DJs mixing records and the house beat and the funkiness of it all and what it could do to a giant crowd of people with everybody on the same page and I didn’t see any bands that were even coming close to doing that. I was like- man, this is somethin’ else- and this is where I’m going to have to go to get turned on these days. It was during those early, early days of house music for me, being a musician, that it was a no brainer. Well, what if we wrapped this whole format of beats and this whole thing around actual songs with live instruments, live guitar, and kind of combined the best of both worlds? That for me was the future and I’ve been chasing it ever since.
DP: It’s 6 in one, half dozen in the other. I know what you mean. I was a 90s Deadhead, and I can remember the first show that I saw, and just the power and connection with the audience, and I rode it until 1995 pretty much, and I can see those same parallels in house music.
ZG: And you know, like for me, I grew up around Deadheads, and Grateful Dead and all that, and was pretty well versed with that part of the counterculture and I was aware that back in the 90s there wasn’t a lot of Deadheads or hippies, or whatever you want to call it, who were opening up their ear to electronic music. Now I start going to these house parties and there’s this whole huge demographic of kids listening to this electronic music and they have really no idea or much respect for live music with instruments and players. So you’ve got- call ‘em the ravers and the hippies, but neither one of them would open their ear to the other one yet. I’d seen that there’s definitely legitimacy in both worlds. And if the hippies could just hear the right track, the right electronic tracks, they might start- they would dig it too, and I knew it. And I knew that the people that listen to just electronic music- if they heard live instrumentation incorporated on top of that- that they would dig it, and it was like trying to pull these two worlds under one roof and get down. I have to say that in recent years that we’ve seen a lot of cross-pollination- a lot of hippies and a lot of ravers, and people all across the board- are gettin’ down to stuff that they normally wouldn’t have.
GW: Crossing genres.
GW: That definitely seems to be the wave of the future. I did a festival in Nederland a couple of weekends ago and there were bluegrass bands playing mandolins hooked up to midis and singing, one bluegrass band from California covered a Dr. Dre song, one bluegrass band had a saxophonist, and that definitely seems to be the future with that crossing, that melding of genres.
RR: For sure.
ZG: It’s successful for the musicians, but it’s also for the people and the listeners. We’re trying to pull listeners from different backgrounds under the same roof, who normally wouldn’t listen to electronic music or listen to a live band. To have a crowd mix from both sides, all gettin’ down- that’s what it’s all about for me. It’s as much about connecting the people as it is for the musicians connecting these different genres.
GW: What do you guys have on heavy rotation on your MP3 players? Being in the rock and roll realm and being in the electronic music realm, what do you guys listen to?
RR: Um, right now I’m listening to a lot of Townes Van Zandt. I listen to a lot of singer/songwriter stuff. That’s where I’m at right now- Townes Van Zandt, Dylan. We’ve got our hands on some Bob Marley demos which are kinda cool- just him and a guitar, pickin’ in a hotel room-stuff like that, that kind of stuff. I like, right now, non-edited, non-studio piece together, puzzle kind of stuff- a mic and a room and a guy and a guitar, and whatever- a guy and a piano- singing through his song and doing his craft. That’s personally what I’m into for right now.
ZG: Yeah, I think we’re listening to anything that’s raw. I’m listening to a lot of old blues- Leadbelly and Hawkins and Muddy Waters. We both bow to Mississippi John Hurt.
RR: For sure.
ZG: So that’s where we’re at. Honestly, I don’t really listen to much electronic music, like I used to. I used to listen to it a lot. But now it’s more just- how do we, how do we make our own? And what inspire us are the old heavyweights. I just keep going back to that- the bosses.
RR: The cool thing about living in Alabama is that we don’t- we can go out and hang out and do our thing and never once hear another electronic band. We’re not like in New York City- you’re walkin’ down the street you get beat over the head by electronic beats coming out of every club on the street, every door; it’s not that way here.
It’s good because when we’re making a record or making a track, we don’t go- ok, what did this band do on their last record- or what is everybody else doing. That’s even not in our reality at all, we’re not even thinking about that. We’re thinking- what do we want to do, what are we feeling, what are we hearing, what makes sense to us, what moves us? The way that we were both touched and moved by other bands when we were younger-we’re really looking to do that. We want to make people feel the way that the music made us feel when we were younger, really feeling moved from a track, to make you feel like you’re connected or part of something bigger. It makes you realize there’s something outside of your day to day world that you see. There are people doing other things. The tracks that really touched me that I really embraced as a kid are a big deal, I mean, meant a lot to me. We’re listening back to a lot of these old blues guys and trying to, you know, learn from them and also embrace the technological age with the toys that we have now and the instruments. I totally feel that my MacBook Pro is my electric guitar. If I grew up in the 60s, and that was our hey-day, it might be different, it might have been an electric guitar for me, but for right now it’s a computer and software and beats and these things. You struggle with it, because it’s easy just to make beats and it’s easy to do these things. Software makes life very easy for electronic music quote/unquote producers, and everybody’s a fuckin’ producer now. I feel that if we work really hard, and it does take work, to make a track so that you get lost in a track, or you get lost in the idea of a song- those kind of things that can take you away from your day to day life. It’s difficult; those things don’t come easy for the writer if they’re open enough into my headspace.
ZG: Even though one of their hits might come easy, the lifestyle and the lives that these people have had to lead, and the trials that they have had to go through and sacrifices they have had to make to give us that feeling is unbelievable, and we have probably no idea how hard that is. It’s a really tough road and we are in a position to assimilate as much of that juice as possible and flip it back out through Boombox and essentially we return a favor that someone had done for us. It’s equally as hard and equally as challenging.
GW: Zion, you’re a right-handed guitar player. What’s up with the left-handed upside down Stratocaster you play?
ZG: First of all I barely, barely consider myself a guitar player. It’s just a means to get these songs out. It’s the easiest way that I’ve found to accompany singing and cover as many bases as possible on stage with Russ. But that being said, the electric guitar that I grew up playing on- its knobs were- it was a semi-hollow body guitar- in a different place than the Stratocasters volume knobs and it got to the point where I didn’t feel comfortable taking the guitar I grew up playing on out on the road and I needed to retire it back to the house. I knew that the Strat was easy to work on, and they’re cheap, well not all Strats are cheap, but I can get a Strat for 300 bucks and it’s going to be a workhorse of a guitar and I know that it will hold up in the heat of the battle. Tried and true, tested Stratocasters. The only problem was that the knobs were right where I would strum and I kept hitting the volume knob or hitting the treble knob during shows, and I didn’t have time to completely relearn my technique, but I knew I wanted to play the Strat. I liked the Strat sound and I knew that was the way to go. The quickest fix- because I didn’t have months to relearn ergonomics and my strumming style and technique to adapt to the Strat. So I just flipped it so the knobs were above where I was going to be strumming. It was a quick fix.
RR: It also sounds different too. Z’s talking about the knobs, but the pick-ups being flipped and strung- your strings are hitting the pick-ups in a different way then they were designed to be played. Tonally, it gives it a different kind of bite and a different kind of feel across the pick-ups. That is another thing to look at, because it does affect sound. A left handed Strat strung upside down and played that way versus a traditional Strat, with just stock pick-ups of course- there is a tonal difference there which is cool and unique sounding.
GW: Russ I read a piece about an endorsement that you did for a Sanyo recorder that talked about you recording organic sounds like a train coming in and a truck being unloaded. Would you talk for a minute about that?
RR: Back to what we were talking about earlier, it pretty easy to produce beats and tracks for electronic music. The problem with modern electronic music is that it gets over-saturated with the same sounds. When you buy Ableton Live it comes with certain built in sounds, and if you buy Reason (music software) and all these other programs that allow you to sequence and build tracks, they come with built in sounds, and you can morph those and buy the sample libraries, but you’re still working from someone else’s sounds. So what we try to do is try to record, as much as we can, our own sounds. I was lucky enough that Sanyo asked me to review that recorder and try it out.
The Sanyo is just one tool in which to capture sounds. At my house I have a drumset set up and it’s all miked up and I can record drum sounds and loops and grooves that way but the portable is a great way to record samples. They’re traditionally stereo and they’re very high quality and it’s great for recording like- door sounds, car doors opening, or just hitting a piece of wood- anything- slapping your garbage can when you’re taking the garbage out- any kind of sound that surrounds you in everyday life. And with Ableton, it’s easy to bring these samples in and splice them in a way that is very easy to play them on keyboard or assign them to drum pads and bang them out the way you would a beat, but now you’re using sounds that we’ve created and it makes our tracks sound unique and different from other acts, hopefully.
In our backpacks both of us have numerous ways to record sound from all kinds of things. If something sounds cool, both of us will be trying to plug it into something or mic it to try and catch it. That’s the modern age now. When something sounds cool, point a mic at it, hit record, take it back to the studio and we’ll build a track around it. There’s a lot of things in nature. You can listen to a train run over a railroad track or cicadas at night or whatever.
We live on the river and at my house I can hear barges go up the river and occasionally there’s a cadence or a rhythm going on with engines or whatever. You can hear a rhythm or a pattern and record a few seconds and bring it into the studio and loop a few bars of it- and that becomes one the sounds in the track.
I really think that a lot of these guys who call themselves producers are missing a lot of the wonder of the technological world we live in. They have the ability to record all these cool, wonderful, beautiful things, but so many people just remix or manipulate what someone else has recorded or gathered as far as audio is concerned. That’s what I see as the unfortunate thing about technology being in everyone’s hands- that everyone opts for the path of least resistance instead of going out and recording those. We totally embrace that. If a company calls me and says we want you to check out this mic or recorder, we are all about it, in a heartbeat, and I’m out recording everything I can. We go to a lot of festivals, and we’re forever recording people, crowd sounds, campfire, just the way things sound in the woods. All of that adds up to being an interesting recording.
Then it becomes artistic in the way that you add those into a beat- like I say, we’re very minimal so we may record tons of sounds and combine them in a way that’s not abrasive or over the top of the recording. If you combine these things in somewhat of a cohesive way, make them work together as one world, it can be a very minimal, but powerful sounding track.
A lot of times people have no idea where the original sounds came from. They don’t know where that snare sound came from, or that kick drum sound came from and who knows, it could be anything.
ZG: There was a night we were in some city and I wish we could have had something like a handheld recorder at the time because there was a garbage truck that had dumped garbage into a garbage can, and everything fell into the garbage can at a certain time and it actually created a perfect beat and a perfect rhythm. It was the craziest thing. They poured garbage it the receptacle and the time that each piece of trash landed was in perfect time and it created a beat, like a funky beat. We’re essentially wanting to get that.
GW: In a world of electronic music with artists using the same beats and the same samples it pays dividends in helping you to individualize your sound and to be able to capture that because music originated in nature and it’s gotten so far from that, I think it’s innovative for you to try and recapture that.
ZG: It’s a work in progress. We’re not saying that every single sound that we use was created outside in nature, but it’s definitely part of it and it’s becoming more and more part of it.
GW: Russ and Zion, I’d like to thank you very much on behalf of the Grateful Web-
ZG: Yeah man, thank you.
RR: Yeah, thanks very much, man, we appreciate it.
GW: We’re super stoked to see you at the Fox in Boulder in a couple of weeks and for everybody out there- BoomBox will be in Colorado from February 18th through the 26th, playing every night without any rest days. Playing every night, they’ll be in Summit County, Aspen, Durango, Denver, and Boulder. I know Colorado is super stoked to have you back out.
RR: We can’t wait to make it out there.
ZG: The less sleep we get, the better we play. It’s going to be a grueling tour, but the less sleep we get, the better we play.
GW: Sometimes you’ve just got to ride it out, man, you know.
RR: Yeah. We’ve got some surprises. We’re in the studio now. We’ve got almost a week off before we start heading north then start turning west so, we’ve got some surprises that we’re working on for this Colorado run so I think it’s going to be really good, man, we’re really excited about this one.