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This Is My Method interview with Mike Corwin – Fall 2004

Conducted in the late fall of 2004, this interview features questions from This is My Method editor Mike Corwin, who was kind enough to allow me to reprint it here in its entirely.

1. What thoughts went into your detailed aesthetic for making music? What feelings brought upon the self-imposed guidelines you have placed on your guitar playing? (i.e. minimal effects, looping, etc.)

As far as my Echoplex approach goes, it’s basically been an ongoing process of figuring out what I can do with looping, and how I can use it to play my own ideas, rather than have me playing to my preconceptions about it.

I started off getting my Echoplex because I was into guitarists like David Torn and Robert Fripp, both of whom are very vocal looping advocates. For the first few years I was basically making abstract, ambient, heavily-processed sounds with the Echoplex, and frequently setting up elaborate (and unweildly) performance rigs with lots of speakers and processing gear.

As I spent more time with the Echoplex, I started noticing a few things. One was that I was frequently spending as much time setting up and tearing down for a performance as I was actually spending playing. Another was that the music I was making in those performances was frequently enjoyable, but not so much so (for me, anyway) to convince me that the musical end product really justified all of the time and hassle of setting up my performance rig.

And maybe most importantly, I started noticing that there absolutely was an “experimental” ambient guitar genre – I use the quotation marks around “experimental” because I was becoming aware of quite a few guitarists who had their Ebows and their effects, and were operating in a fairly predictable and aesthetically codified post-Torn/Fripp/Frisell zone.

So I gradually became more and more obsessed with where this so-called experimental and ambient predisposition was coming from, and what I myself could do to try and steer myself into territory that felt closer to my own musical impulses and less attatched to preconceptions about what looping was “supposed” to sound like. The genesis of the approach I’ve been using for the last few years started when I decided to throw out everything I was familiar with – no effects, no Ebow, just a guitar and an Echoplex – to see what I’d come up with by literally wiping the proverbial slate clean.

2. You’ve scaled down your approach regarding effects by using only an Echoplex, your guitar, and a tube amp. How do you feel this elimination process played into your own improvisations and thoughts on playing?

In a nutshell, it basically makes me spend less time worrying about what to play, and more time actually playing.

One of the biggest traps I’ve seen musicians get into with technology – and I absolutely include myself in this – is that they become so overwhelmed with the variety of things they can do with their tools that they have a hard time actually doing anything with them. This sort of thing is very easy to see in recording or computer-based realms – people can easily spend months or even years tinkering around with different combinations of software, interfaces, and recording approaches, without ever actually producing a finished product that they can present to the world as a coherent statement.

In terms of electronic music performance, what I’ve seen happen a lot (and again, what I’ve sometimes found myself falling victim to) is that people will start accumulating lots of gear, with the idea that more gear will result in more possibilities, produce more sounds, and give them a broader and more liberating pallate to work with. What seems to end up happening, though, is that rather than become a liberating force, each additional component in a performance rig seems to psychologically weigh the player down that much more, because every distinct component in the signal chain is one additional element that needs to be dealt with.

But I keep thinking about how people can spend months, years, and decades exploring all of the possibilities in a “fixed system” like a guitar, or a piano, or a saxophone, or a human voice. It seems to me that one of the fundamental characteristics of learning to play an instrument, or of composing a piece of music, is learning to work within the limitations that any particular instrument or performing situation imposes. And I think that, in a lot of cases, the quest to tinker with different processing components, gear combinations, and the like, can be a subconscious way of avoiding the fundamental issue of actually making some music.

So by reducing my options to the barest essential, the idea is that I don’t have to worry about trying to decide what to use – I can spend my time figuring out how to use what I’ve already decided on. In a way, I’m trying to force myself to think in terms that are more “musicianly” in the traditional sense than they are “electronic” in the sound-sculpting realm. I think electronic music, as a method of creation, is so focused on sound and timbre itself, that it can be easy to look to that area as the main source of development and variety. That’s not a bad thing at all, but I do think it can make a person overlook a huge number of possibilities for musical development.

If a non-electronic solo musician wants to do a show, and create some variation and variety, then they’re going to be thinking in terms of how they can manipulate the fundamental building blocks of music: free time versus strict time, density versus space, major verses minor, tonal versus atonal, harmony versus drones, legato versus staccato phrasing… these are just a few musical elements that I sometimes find very easy to forget or take for granted if I don’t go out of my way to consciously think about them. And these are all things I can explore with just the guitar/echoplex combination.

3. Your turntablist guitar live act is extremely impressive. Do you have any preconceived notions about composition, or do you approach the performance with more of a free-improvised aesthetic?

Thanks for the compliment, first of all! A lot of what I do with the Echoplex involves balancing between free improvisation and composition – using the Echoplex to chop up my playing and throw it back at me in ways that I don’t expect or predict, and then using that as a jumping-off point that will steer me in surprising directions. One of the coolest things about looping is that a totally random, haphazard batch of sound will start to assume significance and meaning if it’s repeated, so for me it’s a great way of trying to find some order amidst chaos.

One thing I do a lot of is establishing a loop, copying that loop into a secondary location, developing and evolving that copy, and then switching back to the first loop, which is still in its earlier stage of development. It’s basically a real-time “theme and variation” approach, and by copying a basic idea into three or four different Echoplex memory locations, and then developing each different loop in different ways (and switching between them) I’ve found that even a free improvisation can have a very composed and structured sound to it, because I’m literally hearing the original seed of the idea restated when I switch back to previous loops.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time developing a pool of composed material – mainly melodies and harmonic ideas that can work in a variety of different keys and tempos – and then seeing how I can plug them into the Echoplex grooves that I spontaneously come up with. It’s sort of like a live “mash-up” approach, in a way – listening to what’s coming back from the Echoplex, and then mentally scanning through my “crate of records” (in my case, the pool of tunes I know) to see what I can “mix” together.

4. Your turntablist guitar is economical in that you don’t have to rely on other musicians to create and perform dense, exciting music. What is the difference between communicating live with other musicians as opposed to communicating live, in effect, with yourself?

A lot of the functions I use in the Echoplex are employed in such a way that I’m fragmenting my playing, cutting and pasting it in real time. Often, whatever I played on the guitar sounds very different when it comes back via the Echoplex. (This is one of the main ideas behind “turntablist guitar” – imposing the actual architecture of the looper onto the guitar, and thereby changing it, in the same sort of conceptual way that a DJ can scratch a record and work the mixer to create sounds with a vinyl record that exist “outside” of the basic music that’s on the record in the first place.)

So at its best, this approach feels less like a soliloquy and more like a dialogue – chopping up my guitar playing will produce loops of sound that I can’t always predict or anticipate, so the element of surprise can ideally spur me into unexpected directions. But because I’m operating the Echoplex myself, and doing so at the same time that I’m playing guitar, there’s a certain window of predictability involved. In other words, I have a sort of “known universe” that my Echoplex approach involves, as far as the functions I use and the kind of sounds I get with them.

In practical terms, this means that there’s realistically a limit to how much of a surprise anything that comes out of the Echoplex is going to be for me. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword: I don’t quite have the potential for surprise and unexpected inspiration that I’d have in working with other musicians with completely different musical identities. But because I know myself musically, there’s a certain bare minimum of togetherness and “quality” that I know I can expect from a gig when I’m playing solo, even if it’s a heavily improvised show, that I can’t necessarily rely on in an ensemble situation.

5. Have you had any thoughts about combining your turntablist guitar with other instrumentation?

I’ve actually done this a fair amount, and while I’ve enjoyed it, it’s rarely produced results that totally knocked me out. In fairness, some of this is probably because the occasions when I’ve looped with other musicians have tended to happen in jams or improv gigs, as opposed to spending some serious rehearsal time with a fixed group of players, refining an approach that makes effective use of everyone’s different backgrounds and approaches, which I think would probably yield more satisfying results.

Another thing is that a lot of what I do with looping involves filling the role that would ordinarily be occupied by a rhythm section. I’m not saying that I can sound like a good drummer or bassist by playing muted string percussion and low notes, but what I’ve found is that when I have, say, a live kit drummer playing along with my loops, the best case scenario tends to be that they’re reinforcing musical information that’s already in the loops because of how I play. So it isn’t really bringing a different element to the music, so much as it’s reinforcing an element (the groove) that would already be there if they weren’t playing. And thus far, I haven’t really found that the music gets more exciting just by having the beats exaggerated by a live kit drummer.

Aside from purely musical concernts, there are the myriad “real-world” issues of integrating additional musicians into things: coordinating schedules for rehearsals and gigs, trying to balance individual musical directions and ambitions, logistically getting multiple musicians and their gear from one place to another, and trying to deal with everyone’s individual financial needs. Truthfully, though, these are things I think I’d be willing to try and deal with if I really wanted other musicians as part of my deal, but at the moment I’m really enjoying being autonomous – both creatively and logistically.

6. Where have you drawn influence for your music making?

Gosh, so many different places… in terms of the turntablist guitar stuff specifically?

Kim Flint (the head of the Echoplex design team, and the owner of the Looper’s Delight mailing list/web site) might be my single biggest Echoplex influence. He came up with the seed of a lot of the glitchier, granular-style functions I use so much. He was also one of the first people I encountered who talked about the potential influence of post-DJ ideas in real-time looping… and about challenging the dominance of the ambient guitar paradigm.

Amy X Neuburg is a fantastic singer/composer in Oakland, who uses an Echoplex in her live performance work. I first heard and saw her a few
months after I started off on the stripped-down Echoplex approach, and seeing how thoroughly focused and together she had her approach was a serious wake-up call to me; I really started trying to get my act together after hearing her, and she’s probably my favorite “looping musician” right now.

Public Enemy, Squarepusher, Fela Kuti, ’70s era Miles Davis, and My Bloody Valentine are some of the better-known people who have been strong reference points, either in a purely sonic sense or in a more conceptual one. PE for the way they used very abstract and dissonant sound collages in a very hooky, groove oriented way… Squarepusher for the way he brought a musician’s sensibility to the realm of programming… Miles and Fela in the way that they used contemporary groove-based music as a template for live musicians’ playing (which was frequently very “loop-based” in performance and execution)… and MBV for using the electric guitar in a way that’s simultaneously textural, aggressive, abstract, and very unmistakably “guitar-esque” in its sound.

7. Your melodic playing echoes classical Indian and eastern European music. Did your study of music at Cal Arts affect your melodic improvisations?

Absolutely – I spent a couple of semesters taking North Indian lessons from Rajeev Taranath, trying to play the lines he’s sing or play to me on my electric guitar. And like so many others have, I totally fell in love with the Balkan folk music that Miroslav Tadic has explored so deeply.

I never really approached those musics with the ultimate goal of playing them authentically, though – my main interest was in seeing what made
them tick, and then seeing how that could inform what I did in my own music. An analogy might be that it was like studying Sanskrit in order to gain a different perspective on my own use of English, rather than with the intention of speaking Sanskrit fluently in the native tongue.

8. When you began performing your turntablist guitar live act did you find that there was support for what you were doing?

When I started gigging out with the bare-bones guitar-Echoplex-amp looping approach, I really wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do with it, particularly in a live performance context. I had some ideas about functions and aesthetic ideas I liked, but I wasn’t so clear on how to use them. To return to the language analogy, I had a basic vocabulary, but I was still trying to figure out what kinds of stories to tell with it. So some of those early gigs were pretty difficult for me, and for the first several months I played quite a few shows to very small, or even non-existent, crowds.

I noticed that a lot of people seemed to “perk up” when the more overtly rhythmic material would come along, and I also found that I enjoyed my
own playing a lot more when those aesthetic ideas were placed in a more overtly groove-based framework – it basically sounded less like a collection of interesting ideas, and more like music that worked strictly on its own as music. So the more I approached it from that kind of rhythmic, post-DJ mentality, the more comfortable I felt with what I was doing, and the stronger the reception for it seemed to be when I gigged out. In retrospect, I think there’s been an ongoing back-and-forth: the more “together” my playing has gotten, the stronger the tangible support and feedback I’ve gotten, which in turn helps give me an incentive to keep improving.

9. There’s been a sudden influx of guitar loop pedals on the market today, including the Boss Loopstation, Boomerang Sampler, and the recent reissue of the Electro-Harmonix 16 second delay. Have you experimented at all with these pedals? If so, what is it about the Echoplex that you feel stands apart from these other pedals?

I’ve messed around with a few other loopers casually over the years… (wow, that sounds really bad, doesn’t it? Um… let me rephrase that:)

I’ve tried a couple of other loopers over the years, but I haven’t really found anything that I’ve been compelled to use in addition to, or instead of, the Echoplex. The thing that really sets the Echoplex apart from just about everything else out there is its particular design angle: it was conceived as a live performance instrument for instantly sampling – and EVOLVING – one’s spontaneous playing. The myriad functions available for changing material once it’s been looped, coupled with the numerous possibilities for using those functions in different, user-definable ways, is really unmatched.

I sort of think of it like guitars – there’s no one guitar that has every conceivable performance feature available, and there’s no one looper that “does it all.” I guess I sort of think of the Echoplex as being like a Stratocaster – it’s based on a fundamental idea that was deep and successful enough to see it persist throughout several years and eras. There are ideas that were in the very first software version a decade ago that are still unmatched in other loopers, and that players are just now starting to wrap their heads around.

There are a few features in other loopers that would be cool – timestretching would be a lot of fun, as would having multiple tracks per loop, or so forth. But I feel like there’s still so much more I can do with the Echoplex, and so many ways I can improve, that I’d rather spend my energy building on the skills I’ve already acquired with it.

10. What are your musical plans/ideas for the future?

Basically two-fold at this point: trying to maintain/deepen/expand my “own” thing as a self-contained solo act, and also branch out into other
more established areas of music – not just for the sake of getting more/better gigs with other people, but to expand my range as a musician first and foremost. The more I learn, the more aware I become of how much I haven’t learned… it’s like a path that gets wider and wider the further you go down it. Very humbling, but also very inspiring…

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