Blog Electro Music Tech Writings

Björk Concert 2012

Björk... the other woman.

One of the highlights of 2012 so far was our trip to New York to see Björk at the Roseland Ballroom on March 2.

I’ve been listening to Björk for years, as a sort of guilty pleasure that not many understand. Bjork has been on my stereo a lot more in the last couple of years as I’ve explored my electro side more seriously. Any Björk fan knows she’s an acquired taste, but a genius nonetheless. It’s just a matter of how far you want to buy into the experience – and I do mean that on a monetary level as well as a psychological one.

When Björk’s latest recording was released in October 2011, there were “four physical versions of the Biophilia album—on CD, vinyl, and two custom-made editions— which included the Biophilia Manual, which presents the music on two CDs in a 48-page cloth-bound, thread-sewn hardback book, and the Ultimate Edition, which includes the Manual along with 10 tuning forks, each representing the tone of a track on the album.”*

The Ultimate Edition was priced at just over $800 US, clearly meant for the diehard fan, which I must admit was a bit insane in my opinion. But we know someone must have purchased these. Is the music industry dead? Hardly.

The Biophilia Manual presents the music of Biophilia in a 48-page, full-color, hardbound, cloth-covered, and thread-sewn book, tipped on lenticular panel to the front cover, with foil-blocked spine and back cover; the music, on CD—including a second disc of live performances from Manchester—is housed in black uncoated board wallets. The Manual is being made to order and fabricated only once.”*

The two-disc version was substantially less – something like $80. Still, that’s pretty steep. I love Björk, but I guess when it comes down to it, I just want the music. I opted for the singe disc version, which included hi-res download. Price: $12.

*Nonesuch label web site.

Björk’s Biophilia concept reaches beyond music and the album format into interactive iPhone/iPad applications and an educational curriculum that combines music theory and science. Part of the Biophilia tour includes residencies at schools and outreach to teachers.

On first listen, I can’t say Biophilia immediately struck me as Björk’s best work. It’s vocally stunning as always, but I am still not sure about it. On repeated listens it continues to grow on me, which is often the case with more edgy experimental work. And maybe that is a reflection of its organiz nature. It is very clear that the songs were generated from a different creative process, and Björk talks about this on her web site, during interviews and in her promo material.

Regardless of my opinion of the new album, when the Biophilia tour was announced I knew it was a unique opportunity, and one of the few concerts that I would go out of my way to attend. We didn’t get tickets right away, so by the time we ordered them, the $1000 VIP seats were gone – not that they would have been an option for us. Even the next tier down – between $100-200 – were sold out, and though that’s pretty pricy I would have considered it… for Björk. Ticketmaster gave us the best available seats, which at $75 amounted to standing room for the Roseland Ballroom. We were never there before, so I didn’t know what to expect. The point was we were going, and it was Björk!

We didn’t want to be pressed for time right before a concert, so we booked a hotel for a couple of nights so we could arrive, enjoy the city and then take our time getting to the concert. This was very wise. When we arrived at the Roseland Ballroom Friday night at 6:30 pm, ticket holders were already lined up around the block. And that’s a large NY block, not what we’re used to in Bloomsburg. Doors opened at 7pm, and we were in by probably 7:30, with nowhere to sit.

The running gag here at home is that Björk is “the other woman” and there are few mistresses that would warrant a three-hour drive, two-night stay in New York, and several hours of standing.

Figuring it was best to get the merchandise out of the way first, I got the $75(!) hardcover program because it had some good info about the stage setup and instruments being used. Against my better judgement, I bought the extremely overpriced – thin – obligatory Björk t-shirt. I need to remember to skip those next time.

It was at least another hour until Björk went on, but we were entertained by ambient generative music from a MIDI-operated pipe organ. The stage was set up in the round, and at first we considered standing near what could be considered the “front”. Later we opted to take advantage of a raised platform to give Audra a better viewing angle. This worked out OK, placing us also right above the digital audio/video mixing desks. So the geek in me was pretty happy.

In addition to the pipe organ, there were stations for the Gameleste (a combination of celest/gamelan), Gravity Harps, Sharpsichord and stations for programmer Matt Robertson (laptop, iPads, synth, Reactable) and percussionist Manu Delago (electro-acoustic drums, Hang drum, xylosynth). Also in attendance were Choir Graduale Nobili – 24 women from Iceland.

Hang drum

More about Björk’s instruments:!

Sir David Attenbourough did the narration (prerecorded) through the evening, and with the first song – Thunderbolt – everything went crazy as a car-sized Tesla Coil descended from the ceiling, less than 30 feet from us.

The rest of the evening was an aural and visual onslaught, impossible to convey here. Each song had a video/visualization timed perfectly, playing overhead on the many projection screens. Photos were not allowed (which didn’t stop some people of course), but Björk has posted some professional images.

Here’s the set list (pulled from

01. thunderbolt 
 02. moon 
 03. crystalline 
 04. hollow 
 05. dark matter 
 06. hidden place 
 07. mouth’s cradle 
 08. virus 
 09. generous palmstroke 
 10. sacrifice 
 11. sonnets / unrealities 
 12. where is the line 
 13. mutual core 
 14. cosmogony 
 15. solstice

Encores included: 
 possibly maybe 
 declare independence

Björk didn’t sing many of my favorite songs from past albums, but I knew she would be showcasing the new album. I was OK with that. I know artists get tired of the same material. Björk was in full voice, and any fears of her not being able to carry this material – even at the end of the tour in NY – were unfounded. She must really take care of herself. The sonic challenge of keeping the choir mixed well with 24 live microphones on stage was impressive, and it was pulled off very well. In fact, given the open nature of the floor plan, I was concerned about how it would all sound. Most of the sound was fine, if a bit heavy on the sub-bass at times. The encore pieces had to be approaching pain threshold though, particularly “Declare Independence” – I have to say I was glad it was over by that point.

I don’t know how much control Björk can assert over volume levels, though she seems to have a lot of creative control otherwise. The technical aspects of this tour were considerable, and the seamless execution was admirable. It just goes to show what can be done when technology is harnessed well, and that takes great people and artists who understand each other.

The Hang drum was a highlight for me, though I have seen them before. We could see the Gravity Harps from a distance, but it wasn’t until I saw a video online afterward that I figured out how it worked. The Reactable has been around a while. One of Björk’s previous tours used a larger version.

Exhausted, we found the closest Russian restaurant and had a great meal. Our ears did not get a break from the live entertainment, but it was all a good time – except for hailing a cab in the pouring rain back to the hotel.

Biophilia Tour (image from

The following day, I purchased a used 20” Chinese gong at Olde Good Things, an antique dealer near our hotel. I came across the gong in the basement, without a stand, where it looked like it had been tied up for years. After a bit of haggling, we landed on a fair price (with a special discount for PA residents). As I checked out, the clerk asked me what type of music I was into. I described my blues/roots side, and my electronic side. She didn’t know exactly what electronic music meant,

“Oh, so you are working with fake sounds.”

Fake sounds?! Is any sound fake? Not any more than any color is fake, or any taste.

I cautioned the attribution of “fake” to electronic music and explained what I might do with the gong is sample it (a real sound?) and then manipulate it in various ways. Maybe she meant naturally occurring? But then, even a violin is not naturally occurring because violins do not grow on trees or can be mined from the ground.

I wondered what Björk would have thought of the “fake” comment. I just laughed inside, knowing that there is no such thing as a “fake” sound. Synthesized, or not occurring in nature… sure. But fake? Wow, that’s the perception of electronic music even still? Even now with our 64-bit hoopla processing and super-fine digital hoosiwhatsits?

Once we got out of NY, we were off to the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University to see the Harry Partch collection of instruments there. According to the web site, no reservations were needed and it appeared to be open to the public. They even provide very detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to get to the studio. We got to the door to the studio, only to be stopped by a student. We were very disappointed to find out that the collection isn’t open to the public. The web site was very misleading and made it sound like people could visit.

Dean Drummond, the curator, was not available and no one else could authorize access. All we wanted to do was look around for a few minutes since we were already there – not even take any pictures. But it was a no go. We sent Dean an email and took some time out for lunch.

Just as we were about to leave town, Dean got back to me via email and explained the collection is not a museum, and apologized that there was no chance to see anything unless there was a performance being held.

Dean has since updated the web site to reflect their practices so other people don’t make the same mistake. It’s really discouraging when academia takes the roll of “protecting” something from the very people who want to study it. I understand that these items must be preserved. It’s just particularly frustrating when we’re talking about something so obscure and rare as Harry Partch… how many people in their right mind would go out of their way for this stuff? Not many. And you’d think we’d be welcome as fellow artists and in appreciation of the musical legacy Partch left behind. All we wanted to do was look! So I also found myself wondering what Björk would have thought about this.

Indeed, Björk is an expensive mistress, but I came away from my triste very inspired to continue on my path of musical experimentation knowing that there are people out there who *do* appreciate all sorts of music. Maybe I’m a long way off from $800 box sets, and $1000 concert seats, but I am still part of the universe of *real* sound that people are making with (and without) technology.

Harry Partch




Web Audio: The Search Goes On

For a while now I’ve been using Plaino’s Wimpy Player, which give me an audio button option for single tracks, and a player option for playlists. For the most part I like it because I can drag/drop audio into a folder and it just works (for existing players I’ve configured with some coding). For new players, there’s some light coding, but Word Press doesn’t always get along with it. The other major downside for me is that Wimpy requires Flash, so iPad and iPhone users can’t hear anything. Wimpy has lots of tracking capability that can be programmed, but since I hate programming, it is of little use to me.

When I recently maxed out my 1.5 GB of server space, I began studying SoundCloud. Many of the electro and DJ folks seem to like it. SoundCloud gives you 120 upload minutes (not GB). That’s enough to play with it and see that their player is superior. It runs on HTML5 and has some major tracking built in, but that requires a paid account. I’ve been seriously considering SoundCloud because I needed an faster, easier way to set up my players, and I also needed space.

One downside to SoundCloud is that the time it saves you in coding, you spend in identifying tracks with meta data. It seems to ignore all of the detailed info that I already have on file via ID3 tags.

SoundCloud may ultimately be the direction, but I’ve negotiated more space with my ISP (like 3x as much for no charge) because they are changing how their hosting plans are structured. Space has become very cheap, so it is no longer something my ISP can hold back on. So I now have more than enough space to host all of my radio shows, albums, etc, but now I’m back to the player situation, and the coding time.

The company that makes Wimpy also makes a Word Press plugin called Rave. It is very slick compared to my previous Wimpy experience, and integrates very well with WP. One main difference, because it works with WP, is that files aren’t just drag/dropped via FTP – they have to be uploaded as media into the WP database, then assigned to playlists from there. But since it requires zero coding, and works very well, I don’t mind. So the player you see at the top here is Rave:

It’s is “demo” mode because I don’t have a full license for it yet. Metadata is also stripped somewhat though I may be missing something and need to study it some more.

The players you see here are still Wimpy:

Yet, Rave still requires Adobe Flash :-(. Doesn’t run on my iPod touch. So now it is a question of:

A) Sign up for a premium subscription model with SoundCloud to cover all bases:

B) Purchase Rave (one time $50) to at least make things easier for now. It comes down to whether or not I care if someone in Guam listened to “Ones & Zeroes”, or whether or not the Apple mobile crowd can hear anything. I mean, I do care, but there’s also only so much time in a day to do this stuff. SoundCloud’s space allotment increases with the various price points they offer, and it isn’t exactly cost effective. My radio shows are each an hour, so I’d eat up space on SoundCloud quickly. Besides, I keep thinking that – if I have my own server(s) and space – why should I pay for hosting AND functionality? I just want the functionality (a great, cross-platform player, with good tagging and ease of use.)

Suggestions for other solutions to this problem are welcome.

Local Music Writings

Uke Player Magazine – Tom Dennehy Story

Check out the story I wrote on Danville native Tom Dennehy, fellow collaborator and musical wonder.

Desert Disc

Desert Island Disc: Belladonna (Daniel Lanois)

Beautiful instrumentals with depth and emotion

After posting a number of “desert island disks” a few years back, it was inevitable that the island would have to get larger. Or at the very least, supply lines would need to be extended. In the past few years a number of artists and albums have come through my speakers, making my previous list incomplete without them.

Belladona – Daniel Lanois
Daniel Lanois seems to get praised one moment, and slammed the next. His talents are not always appreciated, but some of us (who are male) would give our left testicle to spend an hour with him.

I was first made aware of Lanois’ genius via friend/bassist Matt Homiak. Sure, Lanois produced U2, but that is secondary to his solo work which is where his talent really shines (and Shine is another album!).

There are high points on his 1993 album For the Beauty of Wynona, a close contender for the island. But the one I keep coming back to is his 2005 release Belladona. As an instrumental work, it stands out from my other desert island disks (except for Bach), and like Raising Sand, it is production that stands out.
As my iPod listening history attests, I have listened to Belladona some 200+ nights in a row before bed. Track #10, “Frozen” is the one that still amazes me every time I hear it. The expressiveness of the pedal steel, the use of volume swells, to say nothing of the use of delay on the cymbals. This all seems academic, but it is really amazing from a sonic and emotional perspective. Without this texture, the piece would be something less. It’s as if every stroke, every grace note, has meaning.

“Frozen” was later used as the backing for a vocal piece on Black Dub with Trixie Whitley (daughter of another desert island disk artist, the late Chris Whitley). This totally blew my mind when I first heard it because I had listened to the original instrumental so many times. I immediately recognized the underlying percussion, but was then transported to another world.

Desert Disc

Desert Island Disc: Raising Sand (Plant/Krauss)

It's all about the tremolo baby!

After posting a number of “desert island disks” a few years back, it was inevitable that the island would have to get larger. Or at the very least, supply lines would need to be extended. In the past few years a number of artists and albums have come through my speakers, making my previous list incomplete without them.

Raising Sand must now go on my list. It’s the anticipated 2007 collaboration between rock god Robert Plant and bluegrass goddess Alison Krauss, produced by studio divinity T-Bone Burnett. Forgive me for being the audio geek here, but this is the ultimate tremolo album. Is the songwriting great? Yes. Is this singing great? Yes. Do they cover a Tom Waits song? Yes, awesome. Arranging, musicianship…. yes, yes, give me more…

But the thing that stands out here for me is the production, so velvety sweet… a dumpling of goodness, all driven by the judicious and doctoral use of tremolo on the guitars, and maybe other stuff too.

Let’s put it this way, when I got new studio monitors and wanted to break them in and get a reference, this is one of the albums I had to listen to from start to finish. It also forced me to understand my tremolo pedals more, and showed me how they (and their digital counterparts) could be used to add character to tracks.

When I was working on Catch the Squirrel, I tried to incorporate a fraction of that tremolo flavor on some tracks. In subsequent years I spoke to producers who said no one cares about such psycho-acoustic textures. Nonsense. Such textures matter more than ever in a landscape of $200 sound card rock and Garageband slapstick that is nothing more than regurgitated loops.


Swivel Chair Stupidity

Taylor 314CE Limited

This is a tale of stupidity… guitar players read on and learn from my mistake.

My first very (very) good guitar was a Taylor 314CE Limited Edition (limited because it has Koa back and sides, a tropical wood that is becoming rare). I am also the owner of a Baby Taylor and a Taylor GS8. I am a big fan.* I even own a Taylor guitar stand, which doesn’t make this story any easier to relate.

In late December 2010, I was doing an online gig in Second Life. As the set wrapped up, I just wanted to get off of the headphones and away from the computer. Struggling to untangle myself from my plethora of cables, for a split second I did something very stupid.

My guitar stands were out of reach, so I set my Taylor 314 CE Limited in my swivel computer chair.

Yes, I even saw something bad happening in my mind’s eye, but did it anyway. Thinking the guitar would stay put for 10 seconds, I turned to do something. When I turned back, the guitar was already in motion, heading straight for the floor, neck first. It was headed – ironically – toward the open case in the middle of my rather crammed studio.

I was most concerned about what would happen to the neck, so I attempted to brace the fall as best I could. But it was already too late. The devilish guitar-falling-on-floor sound rang out, along with multiple strains of profanity in combinations my readers will have to imagine (insert Italian temper here).

I examined the instrument. The lighting was poor at the time, but I was surprised to see that the neck was actually OK. The guitar played fine, and other than an additional minor nick, I did not see anything worrisome. Thinking I had dodged a bullet, I put the guitar away. I then spent the next week rearranging the studio and installed an additional wall-mount guitar stand. I also vowed to never do something that stupid again.

It was about a week later, with very good sunlight coming in, that I found the true extent of the damage. A 7.5 mm crack in the finish in the lower bout, along with a “D” shaped ding nearby that is likely from the guitar case fastener. More profanity rang out. The crack goes with the grain, but does not appear to be in the wood. There was also another slight divot off to the side, barely perceivable unless you were looking for it.

This is my Taylor, on crack. Click for hi-res stupidity.

Now, I am a guitar player, not a collector. I believe guitars are meant to be played, not just hung on a wall for observation (which is actually bad for the guitar anyway). But guitars also aren’t meant to be destroyed. They deserve some respect, and I let it down this time. Too distracted by all the technology crap around me, forgetting fundamental etiquette and presence of mind.

I did not want the damage to get worse over time through temperature and humidity changes**. So after much consideration I decided to send it to the factory for repair. I had a box from an earlier pickup repair that was under warranty. Unfortunately, since this was due to my own stupidity, I have to cover all of the costs. The shipping is killer, but Taylor says they can probably restore it. So there is hope.

I know better. I take care of all my instruments and gear. How did this happen? After telling a fellow musician this story, he chalked it up to the way we sometimes have two brains, one which goes against all logic and just does crazy stuff. It must be kept in check. So I’m going to go find ways to punish myself now. Perhaps self-flagellation with a (Taylor) guitar strap is in order.

* I’m not a Taylor fan out of snobbery. Living in PA, everyone expects you to play a Martin. I like Taylor necks more than Martins, and have just never found a Martin that spoke to me much. I’ve been to their factory though, and would love to find that one Martin that fits my style. My other choice would be Froggy Bottom, but then we’re talking second mortgage. Not going to happen.

**Note to humidity Nazis – the damage we’re talking about here is not the result of humidity/dryness issues. I am very familiar with humidity requirements and use Dampits religiously. This was pure stupidity, and the guitar had no other environmental cracking.

PS: On a more humorous note, happenings like this are why guitarists need at least two good guitars. Readers may wish to share this story with their spouses. Hey, it is worth a try anyway, right?


Why Shivasongster?


My original site, MINDSPEAK.COM, was launched in 1998 as my central music and event site. Over the next 10 years, the site branched out considerably to incorporate everything from community events, essays, and travel journals to restaurant recommendations and CD/Book reviews. Eventually, more interactive web technologies such as blogs, RSS and wiki came along, making it almost impossible to keep up in a pure HTML-based environment. While I remained computer savvy over the years and have made a living as a software developer, the time to maintain my own site began to eclipse the time I was spending creating content (musical or otherwise).

From a technical standpoint, it was time for a redesign. A change was needed to take advantage of some of the newer time-saving and content-rich tools. I was not taking advantage of the many dynamic content technologies that became more prevalent in 2009-2010.

Thus the move to Word Press. Two years in the making, and two designers later, I finally came full circle to doing my own coding and design after realizing that absolutely no other options existed for executing my vision. Even high-paid programmers could not pull off even the most basic enhancements I wished to achieve. Or maybe they weren’t really that basic after all. Whatever the case, it was an expensive lesson. Anyone interested in learning more about the pros/cons of a Word Press installation, and why you should probably do it yourself, contact me.

But why Shivasongster?

For starters, the name Shivasongster is much more “musical.” That characteristic is something MINDSPEAK.COM lacked. Those that are familiar with the breadth of my work should “get” the reference to the many arms of Shiva, in a sense a reflection of the many hats I wear as a singer, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, etc.

Image from

On a deeper level, Shiva has the role of the destroyer in Hinduism, but also the transformer. Shiva dances upon Maya, the demon of ignorance , something I personally think that art can do, and something my musical work continues to do whether people “get it” or not. Shiva is also depicted as both an ascetic yogi – he is known as the great yogi (maha yogin) – and as a householder – roles which are mutually exclusive in Hindu society, but have become integrated in my own life. I have constantly walked the fine line between a complete material existence and a less materially-attached life of spiritual study.

Let me be clear – I am not comparing myself to a Hindu god. I am not a yogi. I am not Hindu. However, I am using the imagery and symbolism within Shiva as apt representations for the many directions that my creativity has taken over the years. I’m also heavily influenced by the work of Joseph Campbell and have thought about this carefully, so to those Hindus out there reading this, please understand this reference is being used with highest respect to Hinduism in general.

The Graphics
The original graphic design of the blue character that you see in some places on was done by Adam Lunger from Crazy Ant Studio of Elysburg, PA. He’s did a great job turning my vision into reality. However, over time the image itself was problematic and didn’t scale well for use in the more modern Word Press templates. Thus, in late 2013, I retired the header and most of the appearances of the image, though it is still in use on my business cards and in a few select places like SoundCloud where it fits a bit more with my electro persona.

Around 2015 or so I considered moving away from the Shivasongster name completely – and grew a bit frustrated – because a few people had approached me with confusion around “Shiva” as it “sitting shiva“. One of them, via email, was very insulting about it. Of course, the Judaic meaning is a completely different connotation of “shiva” (lower case S). And sure, it could be said that much of what I produce has a mournful quality. But it isn’t music for sitting shiva. I never claimed it was. As I understand it, music isn’t even allowed during the days of shiva.

Eventually I decided it wasn’t my problem if people were confused by any of this. There are far more bizarre names out there. And far stranger music!

What’s happening to MINDSPEAK.COM?
MINDSPEAK.COM Around 2013, I felt it was necessary to separate my musical persona from other activities. Very often I am interested in topics that have little to nothing to do with my music and I didn’t want people to be confused about this. The fact is that music is a great medium, and still a large part of my life, but it is not always the best medium to tackle certain subjects. It’s difficult to bring music out of its exploitive history and into a pure form of dialog free of market concerns and hype. Many people see music as mere entertainment, and do not take it seriously. In many ways, I can’t blame them.

So at first, MINDSPEAK.COM housed my own commentaries on several topics that I am passionate about: Education, technology, spirituality, small business, and community. For a brief time in 2013-2014 I included some writing from others, but for the most part it was my own. From about 2016-present, the site is undergoing new development, though I am not ready to disclose further details at this time.


It’s all about the tone…

Recently picked up the blonde version of Fender’s Super Champ XD, a combo amp. You can click the image at left for the Fender specs.

Lots of tones to choose from. I first played one at Guitar Center with an Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plus Top Electric Guitar in Harrisburg. This is a bit unusual because I am more of a Strat guy, but I can see the allure of the Les Paul sustain.

Despite the noise of everyone else trying out guitars there, this amp really impressed me. The tremolo alone is worth the purchase price, reminding me of some great tones on recent Dan Lanois and Robert Plant recordings. I would have bought one right there, but I knew sales were coming for the holidays, and I have a general policy to not buy anything full price at chain stores (if at all). So I waited and got one a week later in Scranton, and am so glad I did.

Even though I have a Fender Blues Junior that has similar tones and is approaching vintage in its own right (12 yrs old and flawless), the Super Champ is a great two channel amp (which the Blues Junior is not). So there’s a clean channel, and then a lead/overdrive channel as needed. Only thing is that GC recommended a stupid Livewire footswitch (against my better judgement) that ended up not working, so I am going back this weekend to get the Fender-approved switch (which they threw in free for my trouble). As much as I hate these big retailers, I make it work my while.*

Except for a bit of tube rattle from the 12AX7 preamp tube (which is  normal for stock tubes, and will get replaced with EHX or some other better brand), this amp is awesome. Highly recommended, possibly with EHX tubes or whatever your favorite is. Tons of tonal options here, and really great for recording. I’m not an electric player overall, but this might change that. It is likely this amp will be showcased in my upcoming material for the play Dog Assassin and a so-far-unrecorded blues album that I am contemplating (with support from some local blues talents).

* Yeah, yeah, I know, buy local… but this was a GC special, not offered by smaller dealers. Believe me, I tried. As noted, I rarely pay full price at these stores. And can I just say how annoying it is to go into a Guitar Center and hear people playing “Iron Man” and “Crazy Train” when I’m trying to auditioning amps with more subtle blues material? I like Black Sabbath just as much as the next guy, but can we guitar players please find some better riffs to use?

Local Music Writings

Some Kind of Jam

Bassist Matt Homiak plays with Coal Region All-Stars

5/2/10 – 6/13/10 – Reflections on the Jibberjazz concert in Schuylkill County in 2010. For photos to this story, click here.

I usually look forward to the third weekend in April for Bloomsburg’s Renaissance Jamboree, but this year I had already purchased tickets for the jam-band festival “Some Kind of Jam 5” (SKOJ5).

SKOJ5 is one of several similar concert/festival events produced by After moving around to several other locations in past years, SKOJ5 landed in Schuylkill County Fair Grounds in Schuylkill Haven, PA.

My main reason for going was to see friend/bassist Matt Homiak perform in two of the bands on Saturday. Matt, whom I met while attending classes at PSU Hazleton, soon became a musical comrade in the early 90s and played bass on two tracks on my debt CD Mandala. Though we have been out of touch, he remains one of the kindred musical souls that has (whether he knows it or not) had a tremendous impact on my own musical path. Left-handed, and comfortable on all manner of 4, 5 or 6-string bass (fretted or fretless), Matt is definitely among the players in my mind if I could create a supergroup of people I know.

After Mandala, we lost touch for a number of years, Matt moved to Pittsburgh and I moved to Bloomsburg. I missed Matt’s previous appearance at a Jibberjazz event, and felt terrible about it for several years. So when I found out Matt was going to be at SKOJ5, I knew I had to be there to support him. A brief jam in Pittsburgh over this past winter showed we still had a lot in common, and Facebook has allowed us to keep in touch more often.

It’s worth noting that I do not related very easily to the jam band “scene”. There’s a few reasons for this. For one thing, my own music tends to be song-based. My songs have a verse, a chorus, a bridge, etc. Jam band music is much more improvisational and open ended. Many of the groups are entirely instrumental, and even the ones with singers often don’t feature songs in the typical rock, blues or folk sense.


Thoughts on Songwriting

For many, songwriting is cloaked in mystery. There seem to be certain stereotypes about the people who write songs, and certain preconceptions about the process itself. I’d like to think it is not as complicated as all that, and need not be so mysterious.

One of the most dreaded questions an interviewer can ask me is, “Which comes first, words or music?”

This seems to imply that songwriting is locked into those two approaches. Indeed, many people do write from one of those perspectives or the other, but I think deep down – at least for vocal music – all songwriters have a sense that the two are intertwined.

So my answer to that question is “Both, neither, and it depends.” There’s no correct way to write a song, and I do not usually subscribe to the three-minute rule for song length (even if some of my songs do end up at that mark).

I write (or improvise) much more musical (non-vocal) content, but that is just a function of being a multi-instrumentalist and studio nerd. Sometimes those instrumental elements will trigger a lyric idea, which will be the birth of a song.

Then there’s the topical side of my writing, where I select a subject and decide “I want to write a song about X”. That may or may not involve having a musical concept in mind, except in the case of a blues song or some other genre that may suggest itself at the outset. More likely, I have a verse/chorus structure of lyrics on paper that lends itself to (hopefully) a musical idea in my archives.

Other times, everything comes together at once, just from doodling with the guitar.

Aside from the obvious personal relationships and political happenings, past inspirations for songs include anything from Overhearing a conversation at a Chinese restaurant to movie characters.

Any song that is forced or written about a topic where I lack experience is going to show. I have several songs on the backburner that simply need more research to really come together. I’ve become more interested in crafting songs more carefully as the years have gone by, mostly because I like the process of getting things to work more tightly together, particularly for recording. Occasionally the first idea will be the best, but not always. It helps to take a step back an realize that nothing is sacred.

Tools of the Trade

Pencil, paper, Word processor. I usually go analog with pencil and paper until the idea warrants actually spending time in front of a computer. As much as I use computers, I don’t care for staring at them to write songs. After the song is fleshed out, I’ll type it and perhaps tweak it on screen if needed.

It’s more likely that the song idea will be put to tape/disk before it’s written up. Then I can go back later to pull the chords and words together. Over the years I have used just about every recording medium out there for capturing song ideas…


Pros – portable, easy to use

Cons – batteries need to be charged often, sometimes unclear due to self-noise, limited recording time, labeling/cataloging can take time. Tapes are susceptible to heat damage and deteriorate over time (usually not the best quality tape to start with).

Cassette (2-track & 4-track)

Pros – portable, easy to use

Cons – batteries need to be charged often, sometimes unclear, limited recording time, labeling/cataloging can take time.

I’ve used various digital formats, including DAT, MD and portable voice recorder.

DAT is nice, but though digital, it’s still linear, like cassette tape. So archiving/labeling stuff can take more time. MD is a big mistake for anyone who wants to be sure they don’t lose anything (see my Sony article elsewhere). Voice recorders can be very good, but you have to look for ones that take standard media, are easy to use (not too big or small) and have a decent interface and battery life.

These days, I am moving to WAV format for everything as it is the most reliable in terms of archiving ability and transition to other formats or platforms.

Next installment: More thoughts on inspiration. For now, see my YouTube video, The Birth of a Song.

Songwriting Resources:

The absolute best web-based chord finder.

grossmandvdIf you are unable to find a teacher in your area (or even if you can), and you want to expand your mastery of guitar, then I highly recommend the videos that Stefan Grossman puts out on his Guitar Videos web site. There’s also a YouTube component if you want to get started right away or test drive this learning technique.

Mr. Grossman’s teaching style is easy going, firm and encouraging, without being too academic.
songwriters_chordThe Songwriter’s Chord Book is a wonderful resource if you are looking for an idea generator for chord progressions.

thirdhandThird Hand Capo

An innovative tool to get alternate tunings and put yourself in experimental territory to come up with new ideas.