Transcript: Sebastian Weiß, Picture: Ben Gibbs
A German translation of this article can be found in Groove 154 (May/June 2015)
How does a piece of music come into existence? What was the initial idea and how much does this idea change during the process of recording? In our „Making Of“ series musicians and producers tell the story of one of their tracks in their own words. This time, John Frusciante gives his account of how he made „After Below“ off his acid house album under the moniker of Trickfinger.
„I had a strong vision of myself making electronic music in 1997 just before I rejoined my old band [Red Hot Chili Peppers, ed.]. I had always seen all music made with electric instruments, and all recorded music, as electronic music. But I had never imagined myself being someone who would make synth pop or hip hop or dance/club music.During the 80s I rarely was very excited about music made with synths, samples, and drum machines. When all the really great techno and jungle emerged in the 90s, I did not even know it existed. But when my 90s drug addiction period came to an end, I became obsessed with so-called electronic music. All of a sudden I loved 80s synth pop and industrial music, and thought my songwriting would sound good produced like that, but I had little money, and thought that this was very expensive music to make. I rejoined my old band, and gradually started buying synths, samplers and drum machines. I soon discovered different kinds of house music, techno, jungle, and labels like Rephlex, Warp, React and XL. I also discovered electronic noise music and labels like Staubgold, Mille Plateaux and Mego.
„The idea that a musician isn’t qualified to be an engineer was just standard rock ignorance.“
I gradually realized, over the course of about eight years, that the best machines for me were not the ones that professionals in the business had been recommending to me, and that you didn’t need big expensive studios or a staff of people to make good sounding electronic music. That was just standard rock ignorance, the idea that a musician isn’t qualified to be an engineer, and a home studio can never sound as good as a big studio. I knew this was wrong by 1999, but I had no idea how music like Autechre or AFX came into being. I had no friends who worked this way, and I had to spend a lot of time doing my professional work in my band. By the time I heard the Analord series in 2005, I was sure that the one man musician/engineer was superior in potential to the tired industry standard of the engineer and musician being two separate people. Those Analord records sounded every bit as good to me as Depeche Mode, and I became intent on unlearning everything I’d learned from our industries professional engineers.
As I started purchasing the old Roland machines from the 80s and other similar machines, I became obsessed with reading manuals and learned how to program these things. I’d been making electronic music in my spare time for about eight years, but had been using the wrong instruments for me. Now I had a clear vision of the path I wanted to follow and I had found the instruments I wanted to use. In the midst of this, I resolved to quit my band and devote myself entirely to becoming the musician I had wanted to be since before I rejoined. As soon as we got off our last tour, in 2007, I recorded the music on this Trickfinger LP. I’d been learning the machines in hotel rooms, planes, buses for about a year, and so when I got off tour, I was ready to go. I was also in the middle of recording The Empyrean, which I knew would be the last rock album I would make, but the acid stuff was my priority, and I was really tired of working with other people.
I made this music strictly to learn, with no intention whatsoever of it being released. I wanted to make music like I’ve made since then, such as the stuff I did on PBX and Enclosure, but I had no idea how to do that, and was afraid of computers. I felt that acid house was the place to start my new musical education. I was listening to a lot of 80s Chicago acid, and English acid, but I was obsessed with Venetian Snares, Squarepusher and so on, and was just taking what I felt were the proper steps towards learning the basic musical vocabulary of these people who I considered to be the highest form of musician existent in the world. Step programming is a way of thinking which I think would benefit any musician, of any type.
Stream: John Frusciante – PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone
The music on the Trickfinger album was recorded in the last four months of 2007, and I continued in that direction for several months after that, a period which gradually phased out as I went through a PCP phase as well as a lot of other distractions (like finishing The Empyrean). Around summertime of 2008, I met Aaron Funk [also known as Venetian Snares, ed.] and we started making music together. We’ve made something like 60 hours of recorded music together up to the present time. Our approach has usually been recording music live, so I guess you could say the Trickfinger stuff led to my doing ‚Speed Dealer Moms‘. But when I made Trickfinger, I was alone, feeling disconnected from my rock friends and still had no electronic friends. Right around the time the music on Trickfinger was finished I made a lot of hip hop friends, but I had absolutely no interest in making hip hop. House music was my thing at that time, and I was aiming to one day make abstract electronic music, such as I eventually made on my ‚Outsides‘ EP, ‚Sect In Sgt‘, and in abundance with ‚Speed Dealer Moms‘. I had a lot of musical goals at that time, none of which involved public receptivity. Generally speaking, Aaron and I made a lot of odd time signature acid when we started, and gradually our music got more free and abstract.
The greatest educational, enriching experience I’ve ever had is making music with another person who genuinely does not give a shit what anyone else in the world would think of it, or whether it ever gets released. In my opinion, making music with no intention of releasing it is the best thing a musician can do for his own development in this day and age. The Trickfinger LP was made in that mindset, and it was the beginning of a new musical life for me. When I hear it, it sounds like I am opening up doorways to new worlds, and I never have had that feeling listening to music I made for the purpose of releasing it and selling it. Upon meeting Aaron, I made friends and acquaintances who grew up around nothing but techno, hip hop, jungle, industrial, etc. and this was very comforting and stabilizing for me, as I was, and still am disgusted with the thinking of modern rock musicians, and the downward direction that form of music has been going. Also, through Aaron, I discovered labels like Suburban Base and Lucky Spin, which put out some of my favorite music which has ever existed, back in the 90s.
When I made The Empyrean, I had been making records by the traditional work methods of rock music for a long time, and could visualize my concept for a song or a record, and then achieve the realization of that. When I made Trickfinger, I lacked this ability in electronic music, and each track just ended up however it ended up. I wasn’t at all concerned about the result. I was devoted to the process, and I have remained that way to this day, despite that after a few years I did start releasing music again. My records PBX, Enclosure and Outsides, were all made after I had developed the ability to visualize a concept for a record and achieve it, in electronic music.
„Starting a recording with a pre-written song is an antiquated method of making a musical recording.“
Starting a recording with a pre-written song is an antiquated method of making a musical recording. Making music with no pre-written map is the new frontier technology has made possible, and I began my journey on this road with the Trickfinger LP. I have made records since that time with pre-written songs, but I nevertheless employed the work methods of modern electronic music, and found my way as I went along. That’s the kind of person I am. I don’t mind being lost, and I don’t mind having no degree of certainty where I am headed. I love exploration and investigation, and Trickfinger was when I began making music exclusively for these purposes. I would always begin with a simple element which required no ‚brilliant idea‘, and move from machine to machine, until the track was ready to be performed and recorded.
All the music on Trickfinger was recorded live onto a CD burner, through a cheap mixer. I would sit on a Thai floor chair, in my living room, surrounded by five to 15 machines, and just keep programming and jamming with myself, until the track was ready to be recorded. There were no overdubs – it is all live. At one point I had so many machines around me that my cats could not make their way to me and I had to start leaving a space so they could walk over to me for love. I was listening on my normal stereo system, sitting in the same chair I always practice guitar along with CDs in, listening to the same sound system my friends and I listen to records on.
Stream: Trickfinger – After Below
To the best of my recollection, ‚After Below‘ was programmed and recorded in one day. The instruments I used were: one stock 303, a 606, an 808, a 101, a 202, an ARP 2500 and an EMT 250 reverb. It was recorded through a 16 channel Mackie mixer, onto a Tascam CD RW-2000. There are other songs which took me as long as two weeks to make, such as ‚Sain‘, where the Roland R8 drum part alone took me well over a week to program, but ‚After Below‘ was me making it super easy on myself. I programmed a straight kick on a 606 drum machine, made the one bar 303 part which repeats throughout the whole track, made the main melody on some sequencer or other (probably a 202) playing the ARP 2500 heavily treated by the EMT, made a secondary melody on a 202, and made an 808 snare part which is kind of soloing over the whole thing. I also triggered a 101, set to a noise setting, with one of the 606s trig outs, and manipulated this sound throughout the recording. Sometimes it sounds like part of the kick drum, and at other times I opened up the filter so you just hear pure noise. There are no hi hats or cymbals of any kind in the track, but the noise does sometimes feel a little like a crash cymbal.
I remember ‚After Below‘ as being the very easiest track to put together on the record, and I recall no complications. You can hear these funny clicky sounds, but that is just a sound 606s clock make sometimes. They are a kind of leak, and though a professional engineer would never tolerate such a sound on his precious recording, that sound just sometimes comes along with using a 606, and is audible on great raw recordings such as Drexciya, 808 State and old Chicago acid, and I see that kind of unintentional stuff as part of the fun of it all.
During the recording, I was mainly manipulating that 101 noise sound attached to the kick, and the 202 part, which is subtly brought in and out by my hand on the filter cutoff and resonance. In those days, I would sometimes use what is called ‚Song Mode‘ on the old Roland machines, and so the 808 snare and the ARP 2500 melody were programmed to come in and out where they do throughout the whole track without me having to do anything while recording.
„I think an analogue synth is an extension of the natural world.“
Analogue machines with computers inside them, like all those early 80s Roland machines, are great because the computer responds to your mind’s commands and the analogue synth responds to your body’s energy. Using a computer for sounds places a division between your actual physical energy in the moment, and the sound you hear. I think an analogue synth is an extension of the natural world and correlates to the body and all living things perfectly. Analogue synths are like all of nature reflected in a machine, and computers are some other world which is an alternative to the one provided by nature. I’d say analogue synths sound great and are fun to play with, and computers are good at obeying commands.
‚After Below‘ was nice because I barely did anything. It is my nature to work really hard and challenge myself. I like difficulties and am drawn to complications. But this song was just me being easy-breezy, and I guess the vibe of it feels easy-breezy, which is a nice feeling.“