Mike Dale: Hi Rob, thanks for the opportunity to talk to you about your music. Thanks for the postcard also, the net is great but it's also nice to have non-pixelated communications now and then.
Rob Meany: Wish you could have been here for the show! I will send the DVD.
MD: Talking about the net, there's been plenty of controversy recently, especially there in the US, about the whole file-sharing, downloading, copyright thing, with websites being shut down and University students being pursued very aggresively by the recording industry. The impression I get is that musicians themselves are very divided on the subject: On one hand, if you are a successful band unrestricted copying obviously can cost you sales, although I suspect the actual losses are somewhat exagerrated. On the other hand, for an up-and-coming band the opportunity to reach a huge, world-wide audience the net offers is a great opportunity and making money is of secondary importance. My impression is that Terramara are doing it the smart way: A few samples on your own web site, with the "CD Baby" link where the sample length of about 2 minutes is enough to give you the full flavour of each track while still leaving you wanting to get the CD to hear the rest of it. Did you put a lot of thought into how you would use the net to market yourselves, and where do you stand on the file sharing/wong swapping issue in general?
RM: You hit the nail on the head here. Different from the major label artists, I think we are more interested in getting exposure to new audiences than in making money at this point. So we are willing to share as much as we can and hope that there's enough incentive for people to buy a copy at the end of the day. I don't mind some file sharing, but I think it has be limited somehow so artists can recoup some of their costs/time/effort in putting together the music. With everything going digital, there will be some cost savings on the production/manufacturing end of things (since we won't be needing to make CDs) , so maybe music can be sold relatively cheaper than it has been. This is where the major labels have stumbled. They continue to try to gouge people for $15-20 for a whole CD and only a few tracks are any good! Doesn't make any sense to me. No wonder so many people are file sharing instead of buying records. We should be making it easier for people to get the music they want, any way they want it. People, I think, don't mind paying for music, but they know a bad deal when they see it.
MD: One of my favourite Terramara songs is "Invisible People" which I understand was written for a film: Can you tell us a little about the film and how that involvement came about?
RM: Our drummer's brother is involved in an independent film project called "Revisions". They wanted to include a lot of local music in the soundtrack and asked us if we wanted to submit something. We had already written Invisible People and a number of the other tracks you hear on Four Blocks, so we just picked one and recorded it for them. There is really no correlation between the content of the song and the film. Now that we have the record done, they may be using other tracks as well.
MD: The CD Baby page for the "Terramara" CD says that "Fans of Steely Dan, Sting, Joe Jackson, John Mayer, Ben Folds, and anyone who loves finely crafted, jazz-influenced rock, will enjoy Terramara." That pushed all the right buttons for me, and of course I fully agree, but I was wondering about some of your broader influences. For example, "Summer's End" has something of a west-coast rock feel, while the variety of the rhythms seems to derive from funk or even fusion. The "Pulse" review of "Hennepin" refers to Randy Newman and the Beach Boys, which I wouldn't really have thought of, while apart from jazz Don and Walt admit to being strongly influenced by TV theme music. Can you mention some of the more obscure influences that form part of your musical background?
RM: Yeah, I was trying to cast a wide net on the CD baby page to draw in anyone I thought might dig the music. I mentioned to Gina that I used to listen to a lot early Chicago because I loved their experimental mix of jazz and R& B, and they used a interesting horn arrangements, that at the time, were very unusual to hear in a pop song. I am a jazz fan too and listen to a lot piano greats like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, etc. On the jazz side, I also listened to Pat Metheny. I am also a classically trained pianist and I grew up really into Chopin. Great sense of melody and harmony in his work.
MD: I guess to go further into the background, are you from a musical family?
RM: My parents both sing, but weren't really active in music except in church. My grandma use to play piano for the silent movies back in the day and there may have been another composer on my mom's side of the family. My sister is also a musician and plays oboe for the National Symphony in Washington DC.
MD: The SD boys grew up listening to jazz and early rock'n'roll - do you also have a jazz background, or did that come along later, after you'd been in a succession of punk, country and western and death-metal bands? Have you had formal musical training or are you largely self-taught?
RM: I took piano lessons starting at 12, and continued through high school and part of college. I also sang in choir, played trumpet and french horn in band, and electric bass in jazz band. I taught myself acoustic guitar in high school. I never really was into the heavy rock stuff, and always seemed gravitate to the pop, jazz and R&B of the time. I couldn't find anyone to teach me jazz, so I learned on my own how to play charts and learned to improvise somewhat. I'm still not a great jazz player, I decided long ago that I wanted to write good songs more than I wanted to be an expert player.
MD: On the Steely Dan Newsgroup I mentioned how Steely-Dan like "Freedom" was, and you said with that song you'd deliberately set out to write a SD-style song. You certainly succeeded there, especially with the arrangement, although it fits really well within the Terramara style too. The following track on the CD, "Outrunning Headlights", seems quite reminiscent of Ben Folds - was that also an intentional exercise?
RM: No, not really. I was just trying to write a slow ballad-type song, and keep it really simple and stripped down as a break from the big productions on the other tracks. I wasn't really inspired by anything directly.
MD: How do you approach composition in general? Do you usually set out to write something with an idea in your head of the type of song you want to write, or is that the exception? Are you a "10% inspiration, 90% perspiration" writer, or is it more of a case of working steadily and crafting a song section by section?
RM: I think there's a little of everything you mentioned depending on the song. The best songs just fall out of the sky into your lap as a whole. There's still a lot of work to polish them into final form, but at least they don't sound forced. They are straight from the muse--I don't know how to explain it. Other times, I might find a good melodic idea for a chorus, and then build a verse to fit it. Or, I might build a song around a riff. In the end, I just try to follow my instinct for what sounds good together. Any I try to keep it fresh and see if I can work in an unusual twist or turn that people might not expect. The words are always the last thing and they can be hard until you get inspired by a concept.
MD: Not to keep harping on the Steely Dan comparisons, but one of the several things that makes Terramara a band in its own right rather than a Steely-Dan pastiche is the song lyrics. While Donald and Walter's lyrics are often obscure, the lyrics in your songs, while showing care in construction, are generally quite direct and understandable. Also, your songs often have a romantic theme, almost non-existant in Steely Dan songs. Do you find lyric-writing comes easily, or is it a struggle? The British singer/songwriter Colin Vearncombe, formerly known as "Black", has a line in his song "Sweetest smile" that goes: "Don't tell me how to make it pay/I write a new song every day". Would you say that being in an emotionally-charged state is helpful to the songwiting process, or is songwriting the last thing you feel like doing in that situation?
RM: I think it really does help to write every day to keep the pump primed so to speak, but yes, songs mostly come from some emotional inspiration, and you need something to happen to you to get that. Songwriters need experiences to get new material, it's essential. At the same time, there is a whole school of songwriting like Steely Dan, where they are essentially creating fictional stories out of whole cloth that maybe have nothing to do with their own experience. We just don't know. I have tried both methods. The relationship songs are definitely from experience, songs like Four Blocks and Freedom are just made up for fun.
MD: Both the CDs close with "hidden" instrumental tracks. How do the instrumentals come about? The "Terramara" closer seems fairly much like a jam and is the most jazz-sounding track on the CD, while that on "Hennepin" sounds far more constructed. While it's a nice tune, it also sounds like it would be pretty hard to make into a singable piece of music - is that the case, or was it always intended to be an instrumental?
MD: The one on the first record just just a jam on the outro to the last song, Your Mother's Eyes. It was done live in one take. Really not too much thought went into it. On the other hand, on the Four Blocks outro, I came up with another chord progression/song idea that seemed to be an extension of the song , but in a different vein. I decided to keep the musical idea and just play with it by adding a fugue-like sythfest over the top, with new parts coming in each time the progression repeats. Lots of planning and construction there. In both cases, these are just extra things I didn't really feel like drawing attention to by making them separate tracks. I'm pretty proud of the Four Blocks outro as I did all the parts myself and it took a long time to make everything work together.
MD: There's an article in the Melbourne "Age" newspaper today about Peter Frampton and his struggle to be taken seriously after allowing himself to become a teen idol. From limited personal experience I know that there's always a temptation to write and play music you think Joe Public will like, rather than what you want to write or what comes naturally. Even Fagen and Becker were supposed to be staff writers of pop songs for a time. Do you find any conflict like that in your writing, or are you able to (or determined to) do pretty much your own thing?
RM: I've never felt the need or desire to write something that I think people will like. It just never seems to work. I just try to write what I like and hope others will like it too. That way, at least I am happy with my work and can live with it.
MD: The standard of musicianship on both CDs is very high, and Ken Chastain has done a fantastic job of production - both CDs sound very slick. I believe "Hennepin" also took considerably longer than you had first thought to get together. Was that because you're setting yourselves higher and higher standards, or were there more mundane reasons (like money) involved? One of the standouts of both CDs is the horn arrangements. Jim Hann gets a credit on Hennepin for helping out with those, but do you mainly do them yourself?
RM: Thanks. Ken did do a great job on both CDs. I must also credit Rob Genadek for his great mixing and mastering on the Four Blocks record. It was superb. To be honest, I have two young kids now and had to take some time to be at home with them during the making of the new record, so things went slowly because of my schedule. Plus Ken Chastain is really busy and could only meet a few hours a week. So I plugged away at it, recording all the vocal tracks and synth parts at home on my little Pro Tools rig. Then we got together and finished at this studio. I gave Jim recordings of the horn parts and he transcribed those ideas into parts for a horn section. He also had some other ideas that didn't get on the record, but we use them live. He's a good player and put together some good charts for me.
MD: One thing that's struck me at the two or three Ben Fold's shows I've been to is the very wide age demographic of his audience - anything for kids too young to drive to the grandparents who drove them there. Of course, BF has (or had) that high school adolescent rebel image, but does Terramara have a similar generation-crossing appeal? One thing that many Australian musicians envy about their counterparts in the US is the fact that such a huge market finds room for paying customers for even quite esoteric forms of music, or that's the impression anyway. Even here in Melbourne, which is meant to be the rock music capital of Australia, there are plenty of bands that can't get a gig to save themselves, or end up playing to the bar staff and the other band on the bill. How would you describe the live scene in Minneapolis? Boom, bust, or something in between?
RM: You know it seems like we have broad appeal too. Although our most rabid fans seem to be those my age who remember growing up on this type of music. But then they play it for their kids and they like it too. We all struggle with getting people to gigs and finding an audience. Fortunately, this internet thing has turned out to be a great tool. I mean I wouldn't be talking to you and Gina right now if it wasn't for the web, right!? The Minneapolis scene has a ton of bands and a ton of clubs. It is hard to stand out and hard to get a paying gig anywhere unless you have a good following. So it is tough. Great scene though with plenty of diversity and new sounds cropping up all the time. I love it here.
MD: One last question, which I'll ask because I can't be there to see you - do you guys put on a great live show? I'm sure you do, if only because I believe you've put a lot of careful thought into every aspect of what you're doing and there's no way you would have neglected the live performance aspect. I guess what I'm really asking is, is it something that comes naturally, or have you had to come to terms with it as a necessity if you want a serious career as a musician?
RM: I will let you decide when you see the DVD of the show. But to be honest with you, I don't really feel I am a natural live performer, and have had to learn to deal with that. I always feel more comfortable as a singer songwriter. I have had a hard time doing the rock show thing but still enjoy playing live. I think we do a good job of presenting the songs and of course the musicians are great! It's a lot of fun.
MD: Thanks very much Rob, it's been great to have the opportunity to pick your brains, and I hope the CD launch is a great success. And thanks, very sincerely, for a couple of truly great CDs worth of music. Quality doesn't always gets its reward, especially in the music industry, but if you guys don't end up being a very big band there's something very wrong with the World.
RM: You are very kind and I hope you are right on that. Thanks for all the great questions. I hope I answered them well enough. Appreciate your interest and look forward to seeing the interview posted.