Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Mathematician By Day - Rock Star By Night

Computer programmer and mathematician by day. Rock star by night.  

Okay, perhaps not a “rock star” at the level of, say, Adele or Carlos Santana, or the latest manufactured celebrity American Idol has vomited upon our national consciousness.

via Gekko Projekt - used by permission

But Peter Matuchniak is a composer/performer on TWO of my favorite new 2012 releases, his own Uncover Me, and Gekko Projekt’s Electric Forest. And (unlike the nonresponse I got from Adele and Carlos Santana) I was able to actually score an interview with Peter to talk about his music, and the process of songwriting, composing, and putting together an album. It’s both similar – and very different – from putting together a novel.

Did you come from a musical family? How did you get started as a musician?
When I was young, my family had a piano in the house, and I would quietly play away on it, making up my own songs. I was mortified at 8-9 years old when my mum got rid of it, because “nobody was using it.”

I discovered much later that her father, who was a judge in Poland, was also a well-known musician and had his own radio show where he’d conduct an orchestra and play guitar on the air. The music we heard at an early in our home in London was classical, and my parents never “got” why I was drawn to “modern music:” Pink Floyd, Genesis, Suzi Quatro, Yes, Camel. I had no formal musical education, but taught myself how to play guitar. I don’t really read music, and although I have written out parts for others I’m much better at playing by ear, composing organically, and recording my ideas.

via Peter Matuchniak - used by permission
Later, I traveled in India, and while playing guitar for fun, landed a stint there as a commercial jingle artist with an old musical and childhood friend. I realized the benefit of having to compose to a tight deadline and strict requirements; sometimes I only had one day to compose a one minute jingle.  I had to work on it, present it, and then, good or bad, just move on to the next one.

So you’re a world traveler. How did you end up a citizen of the United States?
I love London, no question, and I love to travel, but never thought about living elsewhere.  Then my brother talked me into a seven week USA road trip, many years ago; we ended driving over 7,000 miles. During that trip, I fell in love with the place, particularly New York, and decided I wanted to move for “an extended period.”  I began studying job ads in various U.S. newspapers and noticed that computer programming was a popular career.  So I finally decided to stop traveling, get a “real job” in London that would help me land an opportunity in the U.S.  I quickly got hired in San Diego and decided to marry my fiancé and we moved together on a whim really.  And we’re still here, 23 years later, living in Orange County where we’ve raised our children and made our home. [Bev: Peter hinted at a story of meeting his wife in India and following her to Hong Kong. If Peter doesn’t tell me to buzz off, I may pursue this thread, later, as it feels like it could be seeds of an intriguing romance novel.]

Uncover Me
My review of this album is here
Let’s go back to the idea of: “Write it, and let it go.” How do you KNOW when you are done writing a song? Because I can noodle with something I have written for weeks, months, years.
Sometimes an artificial deadline can be very helpful. For example, on my album Uncover Me, I was determined to release it by ZZ date. That meant I had to decide: It’s got to be downloadable on iTunes and Amazon by YY date, which meant it had to be sent in by such date, which meant the mixing and final master and cover photos had to be done by XX date, which means all the recording had to be done by WW date.

Yes, but how do you KNOW? That it’s not your ego pushing it out there, while it’s not yet ready for prime-time?
If, when somebody gives me feedback, I need to defend and explain a song, I know it’s not ready.

So, how long does it take you to write a song you’re happy with?
For the song Uncover Me, I had a dream about actually writing it, sprang out of bed, played with the idea and immediately began recording it.  I had two versions, one in a minor key, and one in major.  I just tied them together with lyrics from my dream and was done in an hour, just before work. For other songs, like Falling Ash [Bev: which with its companion piece Rising Sun is an operatic fugue, more reminiscent of Rick Wakeman’s solo work than a pop or folk song] I started the first bits when I was 17, and finished it decades later. Some of those ideas I had back then still aren’t finished. I write what I can, and then move onto something else.

short samples of the Uncover Me songs here

Songs with lyrics, vs. songs that are instrumental only. Songs that are layered with lots of instruments and vocals, opposed to songs that are more stripped down. How do you KNOW?
You don’t, always.   Sometimes I write a song and I know it needs lyrics, but unless there’s something specific in mind I either “jam out words” that turn into lyrics, or I leave the song on the shelf and come back to it later when inspiration hits. Other times, like Uncover Me, I just knew, the vocals and acoustic guitar, perhaps with a flute, were enough.

It didn’t need more cowbell?
*laughs* No. For a song like Across the Pond, there are no lyrics except a whisper at the very end. That song started with chords, in MIDI, and I always had very clear ideas that I wanted it to reflect American jazz, essentially what I was hearing in my headphones on my first flight to New York, and that it needed a saxophone solo.  Lionheart Betrayed is a very intimate song about leaving home, England, a bit like turning my back on a place, my childhood roots.  For this song it felt right to keep it simple, with me doing vocals (because I couldn’t have someone else singing those words), although I’m not really a singer. On Running Back To You I went with a dirty, urban sound. [Bev: I absolutely love that song, though I admit, for those like myself with domestic violence issues, it was also somewhat triggering.] I needed Ted Zahn to vocalize the Down in New Orleans vibe, with his distinctly American “Woodstock” like singing style, as it didn’t feel right to have it sung with my English accent, though the use of New Orleans was more symbolic than intended to suggest the physical city. All the songs on this album revolve around the theme of displacement and reinvention.  Our ability to create, destroy and reinvent, either physically or spiritually.  The two parts of Landscape Burning act as bookends for the album and its inner concept.

How does the modern music business differ from what it was when you began?
As a teen, it was much, much harder to break in as an independent artist; but once you were in, there was much, much less competition.

The advent of the internet, with YouTube, social networking and outlets like CD Baby allow any independent artist to directly market their music, but since so many do there’s a lot more choice for the consumer and although we have a better reach it doesn’t necessarily turn into proportional sales. [Bev: Much like the self-pubbed literary market.]

The indie market has always existed. For my first band, as a teen, I put together a 40-minute cassette of three songs of our original music: two songs about 8 minutes each, and one about 20 minutes long. I used a tower of cassette decks and made copies, about ten at a time. I ended up selling over 3,000 copies for 2 pounds each.  Once we got some traction the orders came in from around the world and appeared in a lot of music papers and fanzines.  When I worked one summer at Virgin Records I noticed that a lot of other independent artists operated this way and Virgin had their stuff stocked on the shelves.  The internet would really have helped us all in that regard.

via Gekko Projekt - used by permission
Build-A-Band – 21st Century Style.  How?
In London, as a teen, I formed bands with my friends.  Since moving to the US and being away from playing in bands, I turned to Craigslist as I didn’t really know any musicians.  That’s how I started my first band here, Evolve IV, and also when I came across with Rick Meadows (Gekko Projekt’s bass player), who knew Vance Gloster (Gekko’s keyboardist and co-songwriter), who knew Ted (vocalist on my album), who knew David Gilman (flautist)…and so on.

When I settled in the U.S., my initial priority was my wife and family; I spent many years coaching my kids in AYSO soccer and so on. You can’t earn a decent living and spend enough time with your family and dedicate adequate time and energy to your music.  There simply aren’t enough hours and something has to give.  So, while I never abandoned my love of music, and would still play and record song ideas, as far as actively pursuing my music as a career… that got put on a back burner. But I would still take down names and contact info whenever the opportunity arose; for example, I heard Natalie Azerad perform with the Pink Floyd tribute band Which One’s Pink? and her vocals on Great Gig in the Sky blew me away.  I’ve always loved that vocal style and knew it would work with my ideas.  So I asked her right then if she might be interested in working on my album “sometime in the future,” and was delighted to be able to include her on Uncover Me.  [Bev: She sings some of my personal favorites on the album.]

So how did you assemble your solo band?
I found that a lot of better-known or accomplished musicians, people like Natalie, well-known drummer Jimmy Keegan, vocalist Ted Zahn, and many others, were happy to contribute; all I had to do was ask.
For my album I extended my reach to those that make a profession of this.  I struggled at first with the idea of compensating them for studio time, maybe even paying for gas and so on, since I had only ever played with friends who did it for the love of it and I had those preconceived notions about being in a band.  But I didn’t want to compromise and had to change my mindset from whether I could justify it.  As the album developed, I decided, I am worth it.  It allowed me to create and release the album I wanted, from cover art by Patrick Carney to jacket photographs to vocals and instrumentation all the way to mastering it.  
[Bev: Note to self-publishing authors – you, too, need to decide you are worth it. Please, hire professional editors and cover artists, rather than rushing out a substandard product, simply because you think you can do it cheaper yourself. Remember, it’s got YOUR name on it. Do you really want your brand to scream, “I’m a cheapskate and an amateur”?]

Electric Forest
My review of this album here
What’s the difference, between being an old a more mature artist, compared to being a fresh young kid? Seems like many artists in their twenties are extremely… passionate and energetic, shall we say, while older artists display a deeper level of artistry. What’s better, what’s worse?
One dynamic with a young band is: The Girlfriend In The Room, at a jam or recording session. Some band members would ignore her, some would play to her, some would simply feel threatened or competitive just because a woman was there.  We’re talking about the age of silly teenage boys.

As a younger musician, some band members would become very defensive; if someone went over to experiment with a riff on your keyboard or guitar, there could be this whole territorial “but that’s MY role in the band!” reflex. You were a lot more wrapped around ego. More likely to be mortified if your band-mates didn’t like a piece you played for them, to take it personally.

As a more mature artist, it doesn’t usually bother you if there are wives or girlfriends or anyone in the room. If somebody wants to pick up your bass, or guitar, or try your keyboards, you’re more interested in what they are trying to do musically than whether your status in the band is threatened. Letting go and accepting help – it’s all much easier to deal with. If your band-mates don’t like an idea you have, you can shelve it, or put it aside for your personal CD, which has its own benefits.

Gekko Projekt - if you're wondering what progressive rock sounds like, here's a nice taste

Peter Matuchniak favours a progressive style of guitar that features melodic solos and graceful chording, clearly influenced by the likes of Steve Hackett (Genesis), Dave Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Andy Latimer (Camel) and Steve Howe (Yes). Always drawn more to composition and melody above pure technique and over-indulgence, Peter Matuchniak lets sounds and textures guide the music first and foremost.

Find Peter:
Personal Website

Peter, thank you so much for your time and very interesting chat. I look forward to seeing you and Gekko Projekt play at a venue near me, soon.