Matt Davignon playing his Drum Machine

Interview: Matt Davignon Talks About Sound Design With Drum Machines , Remixing, The Bay Area’s Experimental Music Scene And Working As A Promoter Of Experimental Music

[Introduction]

Experimental musician, drum machine expert manipulator, creator, podcaster, blogger, and curator. Matt Davignon has been a long time member of the San Francisco Bay Area’s creative music scene. Through his drum machines, electronic processes, field recording, and samples, he is known for creating a uniquely expressive, dreamlike and psychedelic sound world which is often inspired by organic life.

In this interview we talk about a wide variety of topics, ranging from his creative process for albums and remixes, to how he creates his unique drum machine sound palette, to his thoughtful and illuminating ideas on aesthetics, improvisation, and curation. All in all a very complete interview with one of the most active and involved members of the Bay Area’s experimental music community.

Index

  1. Creative Process
  2. Aesthetics: Sound Sources And, Sound Design
  3. Equipment
  4. Remixing Experimental Music
  5. Tips For Working With DAWs and Improvising Over Pre-recorded Material
  6. Ideas On Improvisation: Encountering The San Francisco Bay Area’s Experimental Music Scene
  7. Being A Promoter In The Creative Music Community, Curation, Blogging and Podcasting
  8. What Makes An Experimental Musician Successful?
  9. Recommendations: Music,Books, Films, Artists And Ideas
  10. Links

Matt Davignon's Drum Machine Equipment

[Creative process]

Diego Villaseñor: Your recordings have a very strong focus on a single idea, for example, “The 3am music” revolves around the theme of sleep and “Living Things” focuses on sounds reminiscent or inspired by organic forms of life. Also, both of them inhabit very different sonic worlds. What is your starting point when you decide to work on a new album? How do you proceed afterwards? Can you talk about your process in general terms?

Matt Davignon:  Most of the albums I do come out as a result of having a lot of recordings from live shows and practices at home. I have a process where I pick out things that sound like songs, and I’ll listen to them occasionally over the period of several months. After a period of time, I’ll have a few hours of different songs, and I’ll start to get a sense of the album theme around them. Organic life is one of my favorite themes. A lot of my stuff has that inspiration. “The 3am Music” was originally going to be two different albums – a quiet drone-based one and one inspired by old mechanical equipment left in sheds.

The Oa project already had a theme in how the music was made, so when compiling that CD we simply picked songs that we thought played well together.

Oa at the Luggage Store Gallery
Oa at the Luggage Store Gallery

We actually left a song out because it pointed towards a theme that we didn’t want to have.

I have a CD coming out later this year called “Pink Earth”. In that case I was getting ready for a performance at the annual Garden of Memory event at the Chapel of the Chimes. My practice sessions and live recordings revolved around the theme of reverence for a place of faith and respect for the people who are interred there. Over the following months, the recordings kept the theme of reverence, but started to develop a theme of exploring a strange new natural environment.

Diego: So could it be said that you have two different approaches? One in which you go from a collection of materials upon which you set to discover a theme, and then you proceed to organize, modify or create sounds around it. And then another in which you start from a theme and the proceed to make music directly related to it. Is that so?

Matt: Much more frequently it’s the first approach, where I discover a theme in my existing recordings, then proceed, modify and create sounds (new recordings) around it. I’ve learned that if I try to develop the theme too concretely as the first step, then it doesn’t feel as natural to try to shoehorn a lot of my musical output into that theme.

[Aesthetics: Sound Sources And Sound Design]

Diego: What role does the sound sources play in relation to the theme?

Matt: That’s a tricky one. To me, sound sources play a big role in my identity as a musician, but not necessarily to the theme. It’s not terribly important to me that “Living Things” and “The 3am Music” were made with 100% drum machine. On the other hand, it becomes intrinsic to the non-stated themes of the record. A drum machine processed to sound like a cello or an ant colony doesn’t quite sound like either a drum machine, a cello, or an ant colony. I think that in-between-ness becomes its own theme.

With “Pink Earth”, I’m using voice on a solo album for the first time. I’m not sure if the voice becomes a theme until you do something specific with it. On this album, you’ll hear sounds that are immediately recognizable as vocalization, but the changes in pitch, timbre and dynamics aren’t always following the patterns made by a human throat. I imagine that some absent part of the brain wonders, “What animal did that come from?” I find this synthesis between familiar and non-familiar elements to be a fascinating world to play in.

Diego: In a way you seem to work on extending the common notions (yours and possibly the listener´s) about certain objects: living things, insomnia, the voice or a drum machine. Then they become something else than what they were supposed to be.  How did you arrive to this fascination (or in other words what do you think prompted you to conceive your music making in such a way)?

Matt: I do love changing the expected properties of sounds to allow for possibilities. For me personally, it’s about discovering a range of possibilities that isn’t commonly explored on an instrument. A piano has the very expected sound of a mallet hitting a string, with a certain attack and decay pattern. There are tens of thousands of pianists playing with just that sound. There’s a lot of variety, but it’s well-explored in most genres. “Prepared” pianists have found acoustic means of giving pianos a wider range of expression. While there is a decent number of prepared pianists, they still make up a small percentage of pianists, so to me they seem to have a lot more freedom to find something new.

Electronic processing and sampling technology has evolved in leaps and bounds over the last 20 years. It’s opened up paths for musicians to take instruments and sounds out of their previously-understood contexts, and to create new things that have to be heard to be imagined.

When I started playing drum machine, my intention wasn’t necessarily to redefine how people thought of drum machines. Ikue Mori already legitimized the drum machine as an improvisation and performance instrument long before me. I was looking for an instrument that I could play with one hand, so my remaining hand and two feet could be used to modify the sounds. The idea that I could tune a drum machine chromatically to play melodies made it even more appealing. The combination between drum machine and processing devices was wonderfully responsive to the directions where I wanted to take sounds – I could change pitch and volume like traditional instruments, but I could also make sounds more porous, deep, delicate, swarming, layered, etc, and move back and forth between all these properties as easily as I could change notes. It allowed me to discover who I am musically, in a way that I couldn’t personally find with more traditional instruments.

Diego: Is that why you said that sound sources play an important role in your identity as a musician?

Matt: Hmmm, maybe it’s more accurate for me to say it’s the treatment of sound sources. Before drum machine, when people asked what instrument I played, I responded that I modify sounds.

Diego: That’s a very good answer. It reminds me of Varèse calling himself a72525_466816983248_4527002_n “a worker in rhythms, frequencies, and intensities.” Now, you mention on your site that field recordings are an important source of inspiration, can you tell me about it?

Matt: Field recordings were one of my instruments between 2000 and 2003. I would collect them on a little cassette recorder, and for a live show, I’d manipulate 4 of these small tape machines in real time. There were no effects at all – just playing tape and doing the things you can do with tape.

That got me thinking about all the things that happen in a note if you think of a note as a single musical gesture. On most musical instruments, a note is fairly simple: a single attack-sustain-decay-release (ASDR) pattern and a recognizable pitch. With field recordings, a single gesture could have all sorts of different events in it. Even if your recording is of something simple like a church bell, you probably have environmental artifacts in your sound: birds, wind, people, etc. I was also fascinated by the linearity of it. If you draw how a simple piano note sounds out, you’ll get something like a simple water wave shape. If you draw out the peaks and valleys of a few seconds of field recording, it looks more like the horizon of a landscape or cityscape.

As I moved away from field recordings, I wanted the option to keep that richness in sounds, while gaining the ability to play more melodically. On one hand, I started using a volume pedal or various effects to give more complex or unpredictable ASDR shapes. I also started playing in a way that imitates natural sound elements – single events and pitched or non-pitched clusters that appear irregularly over a . You’ll hear this in the tracks “Freshwater Hydra” and “Blind Cave Tetra” on “Living Things”, and quite a bit of “The 3am Music”.

Diego: So in a sense, your way of listening and of understanding sound events was transformed by listening closely to field recordings, right? No longer a note or a sound event was a single clean human-made sound but rather, the complex conjunction of a diversity of sound sources. And then the stringing of ordinary notes in a melody was substituted by the stringing of more complex events, like a fusion between melodic construcción and soundscapes: ordinary human tones-music in conjunction with the way in which environments sound. Am I on the right track?

Matt: Yes, hopefully if I’m doing it right, that’s what it sound like.

Diego: Are there any other sources of inspiration that have helped shape your sonic world (in a similar way as soundscapes did)?

Matt: A few other things. I often want my music to represent a sort of coherent unpredictability that is inspired by organic life.

Another one comes from equipment. The first live looping devices I used did not let you set start and end points to your samples, so the loops would have weird hiccups in the. Instead of 4/4, they’d often be something like 5.23. I came to like that, and started trying to work rhythmic imperfections into music sometimes.

Lastly and most obviously are the musical inspirations. Since I was a teenager, I was taken with musicians who established instantly-recognizable sound identities for themselves on their instruments. Adrian Belew and Jon Hassell are good examples. I also really enjoyed the work of Klaus Schulze, who was able to do well-layered live electronic music in the 70’s from his bank of synths, organs and tape machines. Coil and Nine Inch Nails were also influences for the way that they created unusual sounds in musical contexts.

[Equipment: Drum Machine and Signal Flow Chart]

Matt Davignon's Drum Machine Rig

Diego: Can you talk about your rig and how do you use it to achieve this sounds?

Matt: I made a video a few years ago about my drum machine rig: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ELCrrMdphk

It’s still about 85% accurate.

My current solo rig is for drum machine and voice.

The voice samples are pre-recorded to USB on a Numark NDX-400 digital turntable. The singing samples are of me singing a single note, looped so that it goes on continuously for about 2-3 minutes. All the pitch changes come from me using the turntable.

On the drum machine, I mostly use either kits where the same sound is tuned chromatically across all the pads, or the sounds on the pads have a similar nature (such as cowbells, tablas & woodblocks with short decays).

Both the turntable and the drum machine go through a series of fx devices:

–Boss Dr. Sample SP-303 (mostly used for pitch bending or filtering. Very rarely for actual sampling.)

–Digitech DF-7 Distortion Factory (for distortion/fuzz)

–Electro-Harmonix Micro-Synthesizer (for more distortion and some filtering)

–Alesis Philtre (for hi-pass or lo-pass filtering)

–Alesis Amplitron (for dual tremolo effects)

–Volume Pedal

–Electro-Harmonix Super-Ego (This makes an instant drone from anything it hears)

–Alesis Ineko (usually used for reverb)

–Two DOD-DFX94 digital delay pedals

Matt's Drum Machine and Effects Signal Path . Courtesy of  Matt Davignon
Matt’s Drum Machine and Effects Signal Path .
Courtesy of Matt Davignon

After that, I split it up into A and B chains for looping. One chain goes to Looperlative LP-2 looping pedal. The other goes to an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man with Hazarai. The outputs of these then go to a mixer, where I can control the volumes separately.

When playing with Oa, I take out the drum machine and the Super-Ego, and replace it with a Korg Micro-Sampler. The sampler is pre-loaded with a few banks of different people speaking various fragments of words. Also in Oa, I use a wider array of samples on the digital turntable, which feature multiple people speaking or singing.

[Remixing Experimental Music]

Diego: It’s interesting to see that you are using some of the main tools of the remix culture and somehow doing something completely different: instead of mixing elements of different styles of music you are mixing heterogeneous elements from the sound world, voices, environments, animal behaviors, musical instruments and machine “malfunctions”, etc. I think it speaks very powerfully about the power of both these tools and the core idea of remix. You recently released a record with remixes of your own music by other artists and even yourself. How did the idea of such and album came about? And how did it enriched or modified the way in which you relate to the whole experience and culture of remixing?

Matt: I’ve always been interested in the act of remixing since I started working with CDs as source material in the mid 90s. My first remixes were for a compilation CD called “CT Project West Coast”. In 2003, I also released an EP called “Charcoal”, which is technically 5 tracks of me remixing my first CD “5 Spots”. Currently, “Charcoal” is still available, but “5 Spots” is not.

I’ve also done remixes for German artist Michael Peters and the experimental Christian hip-hop group Soul Junk.

I had never thought of doing a project of other people remixing my work until it was repeatedly suggested by my friend Lance Grabmiller.  Up until that point, I didn’t think others would be interested in remixing my work. After putting out a couple feelers on Facebook, I found the interest was there and it came together rather smoothly. I was very happy with the results, I love the community aspect of it: artists sharing their musical impressions and responses to another artist’s work. I wish that more experimental artists did remix albums so that I could contribute to a few.

Diego: That’s certainly a very good idea. How do you approach the remix project?

Matt: As a remixer, my goal is to create something new that sounds both like the original artist, and like me. (Sounds like what every remixer does, right?) I almost always use only material from the original artist, but I frequently use elements from several different songs in the same remix.

Other than that, my approach is this:

I’ll put the CD (or digital file) in the player, and play around with making simple loops at various speeds until I get something that I feel I can build on. Usually I stick to fairly pure notes and gestures. I’ll record that loop into my digital audio workstation for a few minutes, sometimes with a little manipulation so it doesn’t feel so repetitive. Then I’ll go back add more layers of different samples of the source material. These may be digital turntable again, or keyboard sampler or sometimes I’ll even transfer some sounds to cassette for tape manipulation. I like to treat the samples as instruments that can be played. Before my old-school CD player died, I liked to try to use the CD skipping/search function to add rhythmic elements. The whole process is very improvisational, except I can throw away things that aren’t working. After several passes, I’ll go back and mix the levels to structure it into something with a beginning, middle and end. There should be a name for this process – maybe I just don’t know what it is. How about multi-track improvisation?

[Tips For Working With DAWs, And Improvising Over Pre-recorded Material]

Diego: I have always struggled with improvising over prerecorded material, especially when it is also improvised,  I am intrigued, how do you make it work? Do you also do that when working for music that is not a remix?

Matt: I sometimes struggle with it too. So far with this strategy, the original track is either a loop of some sort, or has a loosely live-played repeating theme. The improvised stuff on top isn’t as free as solo improv. I play over the track a couple of times before I try to actually record it. I rarely keep the first take. However, I try to keep it on the loose side, and avoid getting into any kind of locked in groove.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done any multi-tracked music that wasn’t a remix. With the exception of a collaboration I did with Rafter Roberts, none of it has ever been released on anything official. When I first started, it was my main method of music making. Then, about the time I discovered the SF free-improvisation scene, I also made the transition from 4-track cassette to digital recording via computer. While the results were much cleaner, it now took me much longer to finish a song. And I was much happier with the stuff that was free-improvised. I plan to devote more time to digital multi-track recording for future projects, but I think the secret to getting it to work for me is learning to be more informal with it. To treat it more like a 4-track.

Diego: Do you mean, because of the limitations of 4-track recording?

Matt: In a way. When I transitioned to a digital workstation (DAW), it came with all these tools you can use to clean up the audio. You can easily edit out mistakes, or remove any tape/room/line noise, or compress to get the levels louder. In order to save on hard drive space, it’s tempting to record loops and copy/paste the loops into compositions. It’s tempting to use all of these bells and whistles, but I found myself doing more of this track admin work than actually recording music. After years of leaving it alone, I’m recently discovering I can be more productive if I record a track, adjust volume levels, then go back and do the second track, etc.. Don’t worry about polishing it up until all the tracks are done.

Diego: It seems that the more tools one has at his disposal, the more at risk one is at doing nothing but admin work.  What tools do you normally use and which ones do you prefer to avoid?

Matt: That’s certainly the way it works for me. When doing remix work or new work, the only computer stuff I do is multi tracking, noise reduction, compression, and volume envelopes. Even with my CDs being mostly based on live work, I’ve used quite a bit of editing on the last two to keep long tracks from dragging on too long.

Most people I know who use DAWs for composition really thrive with them. I do not. I like to dial up effects in real time to find the exact right setting. I haven’t figured out how to do that in my DAW, and admittedly it hasn’t been a big priority. So most of my sound design happens before the sounds get into the computer.

Diego: What other processes or ways of doing things have you found that help you concentrate better in the creative aspects of your work and efficient?

Matt: A big thing for me is to remove technological obstacles to taking sounds in whatever direction I might want to take them in improvisation. I’d have real-time controls for a set number of parameters, than need to hunt through menus and lists to be able to control a larger number of parameters. Most of my pedals do one specific effect very well, such as filtering.

 

[Ideas On Improvisation: Encountering The San Francisco Bay Area’s Experimental Music Scene]

Matt Davignon playing his Drum Machine

Diego: Did your encounter with the Bay Area’s free-improvisation scene change your way of making music? If so, how?

Matt: Absolutely. Before I moved to SF in 1997, my only experience with the local music scene was a radio show featuring post-industrial music on KPFA (called “No Other Radio Network”, hosted at the time by John Gullak.) When I started going to shows, the majority of the musicians I encountered were doing “non-idiomatic improvisation”. I had fun with that too, and it taught me to be more flexible. At first my live instruments were either found objects, or a combination of turntable, CD and cassette instruments. Working with other musicians got me thinking about the roles different instruments fulfill. In time, I wanted to move away from always being only the source of weird electronic sound in a group. I wanted to have a role that could contribute melodically and rhythmically to a band, without distracting from the tone and intensity of the other musicians. That’s a big part of the process that led me to drum machine.

The other big change was realizing that I’m a small fish in a very big pond. Meeting lots of people in the community doing very diverse work was at the same time humbling, encouraging and freeing. Humbling because I was meeting lots of people who were way more creative and talented than me. Encouraging because a number of people really liked what I was doing, when I had no idea whether my work would stand up to any sort of criticism. Freeing because even in such a big pool, I don’t often encounter people who think about music-making in quite the same way that I do, and I came to realize that some people wanted to hear more of that approach as much as I like hearing other people’s approaches. Also, in such a big pool, there is freedom to not cover certain bases that I would otherwise feel had to be covered. For example. I don’t have to meet a quota of harsh noise because enough people are doing it better than I would. And those people are open-minded enough that they welcome me into their worlds.

Diego: You once mentioned to me that in free improvisation sessions where groups would be formed at random, the ones that attracted you the most were the ones in which the musicians would not try to meet each other in a middle-ground but rather, would emphasize their differences, which resulted either in drawing the other musicians into their “language” or having multiple contrasting styles sounding and interacting simultaneously. Could you elaborate more on this idea?

Matt: This is absolutely something that falls in the realm of “one person’s opinion”, and perhaps it’s a hard thing to explain. One of the main reasons I like experimental & improvised music is that it brings out the individuality of the musicians involved. In most of my experiences, those personalities show most in solo contexts, or one in which a musician is a band leader. Going back to the pond analogy, they would all be in different places of the pond.

Several years ago, I became involved with the idea of organizing sound-shifts – large scale music festivals where 60 to 100 musicians perform in overlapping shifts. (The idea was originated by John Berndt in Baltimore.) Over the course of 3 festivals in 3 years. I came to hear lots of sets where musicians were playing together for the first time. In many of the cases these musicians (myself included) sportfully find a middle ground which avoids many of the sonic hallmarks of where they originally came from. (Is this non-idiomatic improvisation?) Anyway, after hearing so many sets of this middle ground I came to miss all the other areas of the pond that weren’t being played. Sometimes in a great set, one of the musicians sticks to their comfort zone and the other musicians walk all the way over and meet them there. Or all the musicians decide together to go into a strange new place that’s new for all of them. I think that either of these strategies usually requires a bit discussion amongst the musicians beforehand. Maybe I shouldn’t say I don’t like the middle, but I don’t want to hear only the middle.

Diego: And going back to the metaphor of the pond which I find to be quite a fortunate one. I think that we could speak of a scene as an ecosystem where different musicians are fulfilling different roles, and each occupying their own niche. Then what becomes important is the way in which each species interacts with the other, and how certain events in the ecosystem open paths through which others might feel compelled to evolve. If we look at it that way, your interest in the resources of the drum machine, as you mentioned before, would be an effect of that. This leads me to believe that it is of the interest of all musicians to keep their ecosystem as dynamic and healthy as possible, to enhance interactivity and the participation of their fellows.

Matt: I think you nailed it pretty well. I would add that I think it’s up to the individuals to determine the best direction to take their craft. I consume a lot more recorded music than live music, so I think the best thing people can do for a healthy pond is to figure out what unique things they can contribute to music, and learn to get those messages across well.

[Being A Promoter In The Creative Music Community]

Diego: You have also been an active promoter in the creative music community, co-curating the Luggage Store Gallery Series, along with Rent Romus, as well as a the  San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. Even more, you host a Podcast called World of Wonder and you have a blog (Ribosome, Appreciation For Unusual Sounds) where you post short reviews of music from other musicians that interests you. Can you tell us about this? What led you to doing all this work for the music community local and worldwide, and why is it important?

Matt: Let’s start with the live shows:

As I mentioned earlier, when I first came to this music scene, I was expecting to hear a lot of electronic sound design stuff. While the scene I encountered was very welcoming, I started organizing events to try to create opportunities for musicians that I identified with. Many of these were concept-based performances that emphasized a combination of electronic and acoustic sounds. I also organized events where the musicians would play or sample found objects brought in by the audience, or 40+ musicians would collaborate in a 4 hour drone music piece, or Pmocatat Ensemble – an ensemble where the artists performed with CDs and tape recordings of their instruments, rather than the instruments themselves.

Rent Romus needed some help in running the Luggage Store series, so he asked me to join in 2003. The San Francisco Electronic Music Festival staff included many people who had worked with me, and they liked that I was good at organizing events. That’s kind of a tip for musicians who want to get involved with those sorts of arts organizations: Local arts organizations are often on the lookout for people like that: Start putting together a few shows at different venues where it’s not just about getting a gig for your own band, and they’ll probably take notice.

Anyway, as I grew as an artist and curator over the years, the desire to do these concept-based performances subsided. Rather than try to make musicians play by my rules, I became more interested in hearing what their own rule sets were.

Diego: Those ideas are beautiful and inspiring, plus they give a the feeling of a once in a lifetime experience. Anyways they are very attractive and make me want to compile an encyclopedia of improvisational games (or how would you call them?)

Matt: Not sure where you to point you for more information about concept-based performances. I don’t know if there’s a general agreed-upon term.

But “Game pieces” are live music improvisational compositions that set up certain sets of rules for musicians interacting with each other. The most famous is “Cobra” by John Zorn.

Diego: That’s interesting, seems like I have a new topic for research.  Anyways, about curation, what is your approach to it? (Criteria, procedures, etc.)

Matt: At Luggage Store, probably 60% of the booking comes from people contacting us. We’re definitely open to hearing from new people. We’re proud to not be one of those places where you have to be well known or have an audience of x number of people before you can get a gig. We try to keep some open spaces on our calendar for musicians we haven’t heard of to contact us. Other than that, I try to keep an ear to the ground for who is actively playing but hasn’t played our series in a while, or who has just released a CD, and I try to send them invites. Admittedly I’m not terribly good at staying on top of everything, so I hope people will contact us.

Matt Davignon ImprovisingDiego: What got you into blogging about new music releases?

Matt: I just recently started releasing my own CDs. While trying to compile a list of radio and review contacts, my strategy was to find who I liked who were at about my fame level (which is not very much), and find blogs where their music was being discussed. For some of these musicians, I found their music was being reviewed or independently promoted on one or two blogs. So I decided I’d try to be another avenue where they might be heard of. Blogging is a fairly new world for me. I still have no idea whether I’m doing it right or not, but I’m hesitant to become one of those blogs that reviews every CD that comes my way.

Diego: Why did you start a Podcast?

Matt: As I mentioned earlier, I listen to a lot more CDs than live concerts. I love to hear what an artist does when they have the opportunity to get everything just the way they want it. In the same way that the Luggage Store series supports live musicians, I wanted to create some forum where the completed recordings could be heard. I originally planned to put out only a few podcasts a year, but soon KUSF in Exile asked me to put on a regular show. I did for as long as I could, but since it takes me at least 6 hours to put together a 2 hour program, I couldn’t keep up. I still like doing it though. I’m trying to put out at least one episode per month.
(http://ribosomematt.podomatic.com/)

Diego: Which medium has proven to be more engaging for the audience?

Matt: It’s hard to tell. At the Luggage Store, I can see who comes to each show and talk to them. That’s the most immediately rewarding.

With the podcast, there are about 5 or 6 people in the community who have told me that they follow them. That’s a good thing, because otherwise I probably would’ve given up on it. I was surprised to see that it’s been averaging at about 50 listeners per episode. I often search for experimental music podcasts, so I imagine new similarly-minded people must land on mine every once in a while.

With the blog, that’s still a shot in the dark right now. I have no idea whether people read experimental music blogs or not. If so, who are they? Are they people looking for new music, or artists searching for places where their CD was reviewed?
The blog and the podcast both aim to support the “global-local” community of experimental music. Before the internet, such a community probably only existed between frequently-touring musicians. Now “local” is a level of renown as much as a geographical term. “Local” musicians can easily make their music as available as Kanye West’s. We just need more pointers online that say, “If you like this, then you’ll probably also like this!”

[What Makes An Experimental Musician Successful?]

Diego: Through your experience with the Bay Area’s experimental music scene, either playing, curating, or promoting music in way or another. Which are the qualities that you have observed that have an influence on the success of a musician?

There are certain elements that I think point to a successful musical artist. By “successful” I mean that I think their records are good, whether or not I personally like them. Also, the musicians who have found fame and honest financial success seem to usually have these qualities:

  • The artist knows what they’re about: They’ve figured out what they uniquely add to the large and varied pond that is their art form.
  • And they’ve figured out how to communicate and share that: In practice, they’ve probably focused on distilling their uniqueness rather than trying to catch up with the expectations of their field. They’re probably not the ones who are trying to sound like other artists. In this way, I also think it’s better to specialize in one or a relatively small number of niches than try to be a “jack of all trades”.

I think the pop artist Beck is a good idea of what I’m trying to get at here. Beck has worked in a number of genres over the years, but in most of his records I feel he’s never stopped sounding like himself. He’s worked hard to be good at what he does, but if he had spent all that time trying to polish himself up to be the most talented or most perfect musician, I don’t think people would’ve detected a musical personality to attach to.

In the experimental world, just about all the most successful or famous musicians I can name are loved for the distinct things they brought to the table.Matt Davignon's Drum Machine Rig

[Recommendations]

Music

I could recommend musicians for days. For the best recommendations, I’d suggest listening to my podcast. However, for artists that I strongly identify with:

Oval has been very good at taking sounds apart and reconstructing them into beautiful, flawed new forms. I recommend the album “Dok” as a starting place.

Coil made exceptional experimental music (often but not always in a sort of abstract/electronic“post” offshoot from industrial pop music) from the early 80s to the mid 2000s. My favorite record is 1996’s “Black Light District”

I probably wouldn’t sound close to what I do now had I not picked up the Jon Hassell/Brian Eno record “4th World Possible Musics” as a teenager. Hassell has created a very unique electronically-inflected personality on his trumpet.

Another big teenage influence was Klaus Schulze, who was one of those guys who would play 20 minute science fiction epics as a live solo act on synths, organs and tape machines. Very much in the vein of many other artists at the time such as Tangerine Dream. Pick something from the mid 70s and it will probably be a nice listen.

I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve heard on the Rune Grammofon label out of Norway, including Alog, Phonophani, Deathprod, Humcrush, Huntsville, Supersilent, and Information.

Steve Roden makes music that’s rather similar to mine, though often made from sampling sounds of found objects. His is often a bit quieter, more beautiful, and much more patient. My favorite of his is called “Light Forms”.

Things that have been influential for your art:

Book(s) / Film(s) / Artist(s)

It wouldn’t be honest to to say that these have been directly influential to my music. Sometimes something makes me feel quiet, reflective, or awe-struck in a certain way that I’ll want to share, but it feels like it’s the emotion that’s the influence.

Idea(s)

There are a few ideas that have been influences. Nature gives me ideas often: bird calls, the sound of things moving in the wind, the sounds of human and animal vocalization and socialization…
Another one was the experience of coming of age musically with limited equipment. My first looping/sampling devices did not record things in perfect 4/4 loops. Once I gained that ability, I still preferred the irregular sounds. So I often build loops now that have similar timing hiccups.

[Links]

Contact Matt

Matt Davignon’s Official Website

Matt’s music at Bandcamp

Matt at Soundcloud

Matt is also a member of the improvising avant-rock quartet Tiny Owl

World Of Wonder, Matt’s podcast on experimental music

Ribosome, Appreciation For Unusual Sounds, Matt’s blog for sharing and reviewing experimental music

Matt’s Youtube channel. Look for his documentation of the equipment of several musicians, including his own drum machine rig!

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