Musical Revelation

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Kevin Gilbert?

That photo is supposedly Kevin Gilbert. I don’t think it looks like him. But anyway, I listened to a few songs from “The Shaming of the True” today.

It happened because some kid on Facebook thanked me for referring him to Steve Vai’s Passion & Warfare. And I got to thinking again about what music means to me, if anything. I gave a very long personal rant to Belén the other night about how I think I have possibly made some very bad mistakes with my relationship with music over the past few years.

I was telling her that it wasn’t necessarily the “notes” (meaning, scales, rhythms) that meant anything to me, at the core. It was always the message that meant something to me. Whether it was Ani DiFranco or Henry Rollins or They Might Be Giants, it’s because the music made some sort of statement or meaning. A large portion of my energy was spent in analyzing how those meanings were executed — learning, so that I could do the same. I won’t deny that technique is a big part of what excited me for many, many years… and still does sometimes.

What happened to me, is that in 2006, I decided to change myself. I wanted to get away from the darkness of the past that was holding me back. My childhood, my teenage years, all the people who betrayed me, the “revenge” I wanted. A handful of people around me encouraged me to walk away from it all and start a new life. That caused me to move to Los Angeles.

But I found it VERY difficult to just make “music” or feel “creative” without that meaning behind it. In May 2007, I spent a month straight in a studio in northern California, paid for by someone else, trying to come up with something, but barely anything came out. It was day in, day out of non-inspiration. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with me, because I always made so much music so easily before then. I made up excuses, but really couldn’t figure it out. I suddenly just sucked! After all those magazine reviews, wow, they were so wrong about me.

Some of these people who were trying to encourage me were voting for me to remove all the skits from my recordings. They didn’t care for that — they only wanted to hear the notes. They believed I should do something pure and beautiful — just music — which I also believed I could somehow do. But when it came time to do that, I just didn’t want to. I didn’t have anything to say. I found it uninteresting to only use music. I struggled with coming up with ANYTHING. So I resorted to doing fancy cover versions of classical music. I had all these great ideas for what the music could be, but I had nothing to say.

For me, my music writing process always felt automatic, much like what is called automatic writing. I’m not saying I didn’t use theory as a tool to help it make sense, or that I wasn’t also using logic, but a lot of it was really just fun doodling and it just came out great. But the way I always started was by coming up with a concept. A title. After that, it took minimal effort for me to make a song and write music around that concept. The average song on How To Sell… took me between 2 and 4 hours to conceive, write, and record all the instrument and export the mix. It happened very, very fast, and I almost never went back and changed anything. When the time came, the song would pop out. I didn’t even need to worry about it. As long as I had a title, poof! I’d sometimes do a couple of songs from scratch in one day. Very easy for me!

So, for me to have to struggle to write music was a very bizarre experience. I felt like I lost my magical gift or talent. What was wrong?

As I listened to Kevin Gilbert today, I felt sucked into that world. I heard the words and felt strongly about them. They almost “moved me to tears.” I found myself wiping my eyes and feeling very sad, in a good way.

I emailed a friend, who was friends with Kevin Gilbert in a past life, and I asked him what he thought about that record… the message of it. He was one of the people who encouraged me to drop the dark message in my albums. He replied and used the phrase, “It reflected Kevin’s angst and conflicted ideals.”

I thought, “well, what the fuck, this album would have never been made if Kevin had just tried to make pretty music without the message.”

Something about the word Conflicted struck me very hard. I use the word Conflict a lot in writing screenplays and stories. And it occurred to me that without conflict, a person is not really alive. My art has always been about conflict. I didn’t always project a winner of the conflict, but still… the conflict was there, and that is what always meant something to me.

For the past 4 years, I’ve tried to rid myself of conflict. Maybe that’s not the right thing to do. Maybe accepting the conflict and using it as a tool is the way to go. Rather than letting it destroy me. I believe that our universe is inherently Ironic and Conflicted — otherwise, we wouldn’t have so much interest in those elements in movies, stories, music. I somehow tried to eliminate dissonance of all kinds from my life, which is probably impossible to do. I had a girlfriend who seemed to be that way, which I never understood. How can a person be that boring? It encouraged me to try and compete with that, which helped me in some ways. But in other ways, it just wasn’t me. It wasn’t real. I wasn’t speaking from a place I understood at all.

So I finished up an entire album of music that was about music. And I didn’t feel very good about it. I didn’t hate it, but I just didn’t care much about it either. At best, it annoyed me. It felt like something I just wanted to get over with and forget about. I got to a point where I just dreaded music altogether. I thought of it so scientifically, in such a calculated manner. It was just work. Without me telling a story and surrounding it with skits and words and images, I just felt incredibly bored by the scales and rhythms. Put a 5 over here, a 7 over here, then a triplet, double the guitar. Blah blah blah.

The music was always entirely secondary! It was always the story, not the notes. As soon as I made it about the notes, I sucked.

And I got to where I really felt like I hated music. I have barely listened to any music at all for probably a year at this point. I can’t even remember. I’m just guessing it’s been that long. I listened to just a little bit maybe 6 months ago or more, and then gave up. I still work with producing recordings and instructional videos about music, but as far as enjoyment for myself, there is none at all. For the most part, I have had a very negative reaction to it. It distracts me and upsets me. I want it out of my life. I have often wished I was deaf.

But all of this thinking today made me wonder if maybe I’ve gotten it all wrong over the past 4 years. Maybe this change was entirely necessary for me. I believe it has been a very healthy period of growth in my life. There is no denying that. But still, maybe I was just blaming music for something I was running away from (my past), or maybe I completely missed the point of what music is about (or forgot).

It was convenient to just assign all of my rebellion against my previous life to music, and say music is the bad guy I need to flush down the toilet. But it’s just a way of telling a story, expressing meaning. Maybe I can use it again, since I am very good at it.

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