Theory Of Triangles, Stop Half Assing It, and Jon Brion

You know kids, in the 10 years I’ve been working at becoming a better engineer, you know what thought came to mind most often?

“Wouldn’t it be fucking awesome if I could do none of this work, never show up early or do any research, and just take a 1 hr workshop to learn everything I need to know?”

You know what happened next? I woke up and realized I had zoned out in the middle of an intersection and one of those delivery dudes on an electric bike was coming straight at me.

I was asked to do a “Cliffs Notes” type article about some engineering related matters.  And for some reason, it just hit me the wrong way.  It made me think of this “Everything Right Now Right Away” time we live in.  Maybe not even that, but just the lack of desire to learn to do something the right way.

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At the studio where I work, I often encounter people wanting to do things on the quick and cheap, who refuse to spend money to get it done.  The eternal rule, as we all know, is “Good Quick Cheap, pick Two” and this is certainly a rule to live by.  Technical things are complicated, regardless of the industry.  Video, audio, photography, graphic design, gardening,  it’s all in there.  Sure, there are ways to state things simply, but often a comprehensive guide is required.

Part of me wants to just blurt out:  “There really is nothing complicated to being an engineer. Just read an article somewhere, buy some shit at Best Buy, and you’re there! Also, don’t spend too much money, you really don’t want great gear, just buy whatever your cheap ass thinks looks cool. Also, be really mean to anyone who tries to hire you, that’s essential. Annnnnd you’re set! Get ready to start raking in the cash! OH YEAH.”

What happened to our desire to do things the right way?  What made us seek the shortest and quickest route to whatever destination we fell like reaching?

A few weeks back, I went to see Jon Brion at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village.  Brion, an eccentric producer and composer, had scheduled a rare run of shows in New York.  It just felt like one of those occasions where you knew you were in the right place.  The stage was filled with instruments.  Synths looking wobbily, stacked on a grand piano, tons of guitars, a vibraphone, drum kit, it was all there.

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How long do you think it took this guy to become proficient on any of these instruments?  That’s not even mastering them as he has, just to be able to play them kind of well?  From the skill he exhibited, I’m going to guess CENTURIES.

People would call out requests, of any type, by any artist, and Brion would launch into them.  Very little preparation, maybe 10 seconds to think.  At one point, he moved to the vibraphone, uttered “um, how do I play this one on the vibes….”and proceeded to play a jaw droppingly beautiful version of “This Will Be Our Year” by The Zombies, A song which I must confess, I did not know previously.  He stumbled through it with some off notes, some mildly forgotten lyrics, but it was still perfect.

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This is no asshole looking for the easy way out, he’s challenging himself live in the moment, no net, no plans.  Just a completely blank slate, and some giant balls.  We left the show feeling so wonderful and energized, that a cheeseburger at Minetta Tavern seemed like the only thing to do.  A week later, it was announced that Brion would add one last show “…so why the hell not?” we thought.

This evening was even more whimsical, if possible.  Someone yelled “Tom Waits!”  someone else yelled “Blondie!”  So he played “Heart Of Glass” at the piano in Tom Waits voice.  He performed “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” with a vocoder, mellotron, and grand piano. We need to make this man the fucking president.

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There are Two things we should take from this situation.  First, if Jon Brion is in town, go to the show, I don’t care where it is or who you are.  Second, stop half assing things.  Some important person at one point, said something kind of like “do the best you can with what you have where you are, and if it doesnt work out eat a grilled cheese and watch American Pickers”  I believe that’s a direct quote.  But come on kids, stop looking for the easy way to create something.

There are a billion iPhone apps that can let you fart out some good sounds, but that doesnt mean what you create with those sounds will be any good.  Put the time in.  Spend the money.  If you have less of one, invest more of the other.  That’s my theory, someone back me up.

Nels Cline and Marc Ribot

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I believe there was once a famous showtune written in the golden age of song, in which the chorus was “Don’t Believe The Hype”  which is a brilliant statement.  These days when the hype often overshadows the event itself, we must all be weary.

Last week, it was announced Nels Cline and Marc Ribot would play as a duo at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village.  Thats like Picasso and Da Vinci getting together to do a little fingerpainting.  That’s like Steve Jobs and Eric Tarn getting together to build and internet.  The comparisons could go on and on.  Its no secret that I hold both of these musicians in high regard.  If you added Smokey Hormel to the mix, you would have the 3 greatest living guitar players.  So its no secret that I was quite excited to attend.

By complete coincidence, whilst strolling through the west village last weekend, Nels Cline appeared in front of me.  Caught off guard, i just said “Hey Nels!”  I guess when you see someone fairly often, they feel so familiar that a greeting is necessary.  Being the lovely fellow he is, he stopped and chatted with us for a bit, saying he had no idea what he and Ribot would play, which felt like a recipe for some fantastic guitar dueling.

When seeing either of these players on their own, you expect some fireworks.  And it inevitably happens.  Ribot could be playing a solo acoustic performance, but you know there will be that moment where he launches into orbit.  With Nels, its just his thing, he can’t help but be a highly evolved space alien, who carries a brain evaporating space gun with him at all times.

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The set started out very mellow, Nels on a Dobro, Ribot on an old Gibson acoustic.  The first few songs were spent feeling out some territory.  Very melodic, slightly haunting.  No shredding solos. Further into the set, Nels moved to lap steel, ribot played what sounded like a baritone electric, and things got crazy.

In this setting, with no additional instruments, no rehearsal, you can really see the true character of each musician.  Yes, they played a lot of notes, but no toes were stepped on.  It was not just shred for the sake of shred.  It was a conversation, all very tasteful.  Sure, the conversation was about things mere mortals such as us will never be capable of understanding, but a tasteful conversation nonetheless.  The lap steel portion bordered on country, spooky and western sounding.

The evening’s explosion came, as expected, when each musician moved to their most familiar instrument.  Nels to a Jazzmaster, and Ribot to what I think was an ES-125.  Their voice was immediately recognizable.  Ribot with the clangy edge to all his notes, and nels with a pure and focused tone, even when covered in all sorts of distortion.

In the end, it wasn’t a pissing match of epic proportion, or a chops display.  Really, none of us should have expected something like that from musicians of this caliber.  Lets hope somehow this was recorded, or leads to more collaborations like it.  On the other hand, the selfish elitist in me hopes this was a one off, so in 30 years, I can look back and say “yep, I was totally there, young child who now plays all music on a futuristic tablet like device, people used to play wooden boxes with strings on them!”