I share a label with William Ryan Fritch in Lost Tribe Sound but I am also working with him on two projects myself – a glacis album and the second album by The Kays Lavelle. Without question, William is one of the most gifted musicians/composers that I have had the pleasure of working with. Please check out the videos at the end of this conversation to see exactly what I am talking about! Anyways, he agreed to do a conversation piece with me for the blog and below is our discussion that developed over a number of weeks. Intelligent and focused doesn’t even do him justice. His soundtrack for ‘The Waiting Room’ is simply stunning and his work as Vieo Abiungo is hard to believe at times. Again, watch the video at the end for confirmation of this. In the meantime, please just enjoy the read.
TSP: ‘The Waiting Room’ soundtrack,which you are about to release through Lost Tribe Sound, how did you end up working on this composition and how do you approach writing music for a documentary/film? Does your approach to such work differ from when you are working on a straight up solo album?
WRF: Well, my primary work and source of income is doing music for film. Pete Nick’s, (the film’s director) heard about me from a fellow documentary film maker I had worked with several times. The Waiting Room had actually tried 3-4 different composers before going with me. So it was a real honor that the crew was so trusting an supportive of my work for the film, given what they had been through trying to find the right sound world for their film.
In terms of process and approach, film composition is actually a far more familiar and natural process to me than preparing a standalone record, and this film in particular required very little music in order to bolster and supplement it’s already powerful, candid, and transparent filming. The process for me was all about whittling down my maximalist, highly textural compositional tendencies to only what would best serve the film. The restrictions that this film presented acted as powerful creative catalyst, and pushed me to make 4-5 times as much music as necessary for the score. This soundtrack LTS is releasing fortunately will give this material an opportunity to be heard not just as a sound reinforcement to the film, but as a companion piece to it.
I guess that the biggest difference for me between composing for film and for stand alone composition is the depth of field that can or should be utilized. I want their to be many layers of counter movements and micro-details in even my most subdued pieces, so keeping a stand-alone track for an album compelling enough for me to want to release on an album is very challenging. It is easy to feel intimidated making a long form piece when you are used to having to complete a musical thought for scenes normally less than two minutes.
TSP: It’s interesting that you are more used to working with music for film than stand alone solo albums, I guess for most artists the opposite is true. So basically, most of the music you create has a theme, idea, documentary, film behind it which in itself is, I suppose a starting point for your records? Therefore, do you find it hard starting with nothing when it comes to your solo work? Do you strive to find a theme, idea to use and bend into music or do you just sit and play and see what happens? I am interested in this because I have felt my most compelling work as glacis has stemmed from an idea or theme driving me towards a sound or rhythm or feel. I would love to work with film but I’m not sure how I’d approach such a project.
Your solo work is so dense and rhythmic. Was it/is it hard to generate such density and depth in more minimalist work – something that The Waiting Room achieves in some style in my opinion.
WRF: Making music has always been an immediate and joyful process for me. The themes and characters in the music develop just as easily in the afterthought is it does when I am composing to a pre-existing construct. however, finishing pieces that don’t have that pre-existing story arc is more labored for me. I have hundreds of pieces that are just sitting in the queue 90 % finished. That last 10 percent requires a larger lens view, a macro-cosmic rationale that can feel so difficult when it was produced in such a self-contained, independent way.
In terms of density and scale, I think I have always tended to hear my music orchestrated for unidentifiable ensemble play.
Even on more sparse tracks I like for there to be a sense that something large and cataclysmic could happen. With the waiting room soundtrack there is still an air of mystery as to how big or small the sounds could get, but because these songs were generated from a far more subtle framework I felt much more open to stillness than I have ever allowed. Hopefully it can carry over in to my newer works as well.
TSP: I think this is really interesting. Having predominantly been a song-writer with words until I began work as glacis I never really had to deal with concepts necessarily. I always worked with ideas, melody and harmony and worried about the words later – I still do with Graveyard Tapes and The Kays Lavelle. However, with glacis, I have found it so much more inspirational to have theme or concept behind the work. Working on this new stuff where literature is helping drive the music is fascinating because I have a script to work from and to use as a tool to create and it feels like it’s all about rhythm. I cannot imagine working on glacis material without a concept. I can, like you, sit down and write music without a concept but find it hard to feel that work other than notes in the air.
I was fascinated to hear the waiting room soundtrack as I was most familiar with your work as Vieo Abiungo. I think what you say is very true and I like the use of the word ‘stillness’ because that is something that definitely comes across. It still feels like your work but with a different emphasis perhaps? You say that this is something you would like to carry into future records but will there not always be the feeling to move towards the denser, orchestrated pieces? I just finished a conversation piece with Greg Haines and we were discussing the idea of ‘the familiar’ in music. Do you think it’s important to push yourself away from what comes naturally in order to progress as a musician? And, if so, how do you do that? Is there an instrument you prefer to compose with and do you find that if you compose using different instruments the output goes in different directions?
WRF: That makes sense. It is amazing how these external structures, story boards or parameters can organize creative work. It is really nice having those mechanisms as a roadmap to keep the music from meandering off to far.
I think your question about incorporating more stillness in my vocabulary is a good one. I think my idea of stillness might be quite a bit more kinetic than others may consider stillness! I still want to continue using orchestral textures and densely over-layed rhythms, but I have realized recently just how much more rewarding these various elements can be when accompanied with moments of calm, disorienting quiet and pregnant ambiguity. I would too often show all my cards or rely too much on the movement of a piece to ever properly set up the surprising and unfamiliar sounds I wanted to orchestrate into my pieces.
Patience and thoughtful restraint. Those are two of the biggest things I have to remind myself of in music. I feel like those are two of the biggest impediments to broader and immediate success for me and my music. I think if I properly utilize those two things, “familiar” and/or preternatural tendencies for me will be realized in a fresher and more coherent way where the end product can be an honest, challenging work. I think it is important always challenge yourself to get to the essence of a sound you gravitate towards. get closer to it and realize it’s nuances and complexities. I think real and powerful progress in music making comes from that intimacy and commitment to the things you love not an avoidance of those things. When I start to feel stagnant with my technique or sensibility with an instrument,style of music, or song structure I most often find it is from me not delving deep enough, doing a caricature-ish rendering of something that I should represent more artfully. I think I could spend 10 lifetimes trying to follow my musical muses, and still not get deep enough, close enough, pure enough.
I compose on whatever best suits the melody or rhythm I have in my head. I have always operated under the, “if I can sing it I can play it” principle, and it has taken a long ass time to get to this point where I have incrementally improved and developed on each instrument such that the process of writing for each of them has become fairly fluid across the board. I am certainly more of a string and percussion player, but I work really hard to try and utilize all the idiosyncrasies of my raw and developing techniques on less fluent instruments in a way that is still interesting and functional in my work. Generally I am happiest with songs that start out as a rhtyhm. They tend to have more open ended structures that are less restricting than melodic concepts.
TSP: I guess it is a balancing act. Stillness does not have to mean Silence? I’ve always found this with my own music, the need to overly complicate the overall sound. When I was working with a band I always wanted bigger, louder, more. I had these tendencies to move naturally towards full and intense compositions and yet now, and probably thanks to my immersion in the ambient/neo classical world, I find myself drawn towards restraint and stillness. I think, for me, finding a balance between these two extremes is necessary but it’s hard!
I find it really interesting what you say about getting to the essence of the sound you gravitate towards and that you could spend 10 lifetimes never getting deep enough, close enough or pure enough. These are words of a perfectionist if you ask me. Do you revisit your work once it’s done or are you acutely aware of this perfectionist that may look at the work through a different lens after the fact and feel like perhaps you could have done something differently that would have improved the overall work? I know so many people who are like this and what intrigues me about true genius is that every single person I would consider a genius, and there are not many, are the most humble, self doubting people I know. It makes their work even more beautiful to me because the critical eye is always there. Even when something is perfect to so many others they always strive for something deeper and something more.
I also like the ‘if i can sing it i can play it’ philosophy. I am still intrigued by the voice as an instrument in its own right rather than simply a mechanism to deliver words. Although the majority of your work is instrumental you do punctuate your work with voices/choirs. How important do you see vocals as being not only as a way to deliver lyrical content but also as a soundscape in their own right?
Rhythm definitely comes across heavily in your work and is something I am really curious about, though lack experience in. The work I am doing now is the first time I have created with rhythm in my head and this is dictated by the writing that drives it. When you took about controlled stillness, is it even harder to achieve that being so driven by rhythm and pace?
Moving on to The Waiting Room. It’s a dense and rich record packed with emotion and standing on its own as a wonderful piece of music. How did you set out on this journey? To create a piece of music that could stand on its own, to create a soundtrack that worked for the film in isolation or was there a concerted effort to achieve both these things? If both – do you think this is always possible with soundtracks or does it depend on the film you are working with?
WRF: I make something then turn my back on it in a sense. To preserve sanity and not toil in the mire of the missed potential of a piece. That is probably why I have been so slow to take a live representation of my work on tour. It would mean me having to revisit, rehash and re-submerge myself in a sonic snapshot of my life that in many cases I often feel that I have outgrown or possibly changed in a way that it is no longer mine. At this point in my life, the confidence (or arrogance) that my abilities or natural ability are unique or rare. I think the only think that will carry me to the aforementioned purity and effectiveness I desire for my music will only come from my will and desire to grow and learn from my previous oversights, impatience and hang ups.
To me the voice is the measuring stick of expressiveness and timbral versatility for all instruments. I love finding subtle ways to augment my music with singing, but with my last few albums have shied away from writing compositions that are basically just a fancy vocal bed. Also, it is intimidating how loaded the use of vocals in music can be. Hearing vocal dominant music is so familiar and ubiquitous, that making a song that highlights the voice is immediately put into a realm where elusiveness is dramatically diminished and in fact makes operating of a genre-less form frustrating for many listeners. It is basic nature to judge music by it’s commonalities and conventions and making vocal based popular music is judged in a far harsher way than predominantly instrumental music of a similar ilk. I am however having fun working on some music that is more allowing of the vocals leading the way.
Regarding rhythm and it’s effect on stillness, I do think the reliance on rhythmic motifs in my writing process has been an issue for me in achieving the desired space and openness I want have in my work. Because of all of the overdubbing I have to do to realize my pieces songs can quickly become constructions that are very reliant on rhythmic forms to be the glue that binds all the over-layed components. The more and more I work on structuring pregnant pauses and intentional lapses of groove into my rhythms the better I get at shaking free from the slavery of the pulse.
The Waiting Room is a film that was so well made and captured that it teetered on pure verité. This is a difficult entry point for composer. I chose to accumulate a world of music and sounds that ran parallel to the film in order to discover the sonic identity of the film as an allegory to the film and then cull from that work (which became the soundtrack you are referencing) to select the most quintessential sounds and motifs that fit elegantly with the film. Otherwise I would have just been looking to compose in a phone booth rather than take the filmas an impetus to create a whole sound environment and use the germinating ideas from it to fill the small but crucial function required for the score. This is how I generally compose even for the smallest of projects. It is not the smartest, most economical, or timely way to work, but it allows me to leave a film having made more than just a collection ditties or hooks.
TSP: Based on our discussions about the voice being an instrument in its own right and being able to utilise that within the landscape of a song, whether that be front and centre or further back in the mix, do you think this quicker criticism of vocal lead music is simply to do with the words and the connection made or not with these? I am fascinated, as somebody who sees the vocal as tool to improve the overall sound and words as coming later to harmony and melody, I do find that an interesting point to develop.
You are a slave to the beat by the sounds of it. I think it’s hard to step away from what you know best. Always. But working with Matt Collings on the Graveyard Tapes record showed me that the best way to improve as a song writer and musician was to step out of my comfort zone. The second Graveyard Tapes record will most definitely do this for me because unlike the first where the majority of ideas were mine – the majority of demo ideas to date for album 2 are Matts. I think it’s essential that this happens. If we want to grow as a group I think pushing ourselves in different directions is essential. So, whilst I know I am about to step in to a bit if an unknown world, it’s really exciting for that exact same reason. Do you feel that working with others helps you develop your skills and understanding – even if it’s getting a piece of music and working with it, does it help you develop as an artist?
Film scores etc seem to be a big part of your work. Obviously The Waiting Room could open up doors for you in this respect. Do you see this being your main source of work in the future?
Also, you are based in Oakland (I believe). How much of an impact does place have on the way you create, on the music you generate and on your life and work?
WRF: I think vocals with coherent and decipherable lyric are certainly what I am primarily referring to. There are so many potent elements that are working together ( or unfortunately sometimes against each other ) in popular song form, but i think we are conditioned to hone in to the most familiar element. Undoubtedly the voice would be that most familiar element, and the more present and recognisable the manner it is presented the more subject, I would argue, it is to comparison with all other music that has used the voice similarly. The upside though, is that it gives people precisely that familiarity, and it can move listeners in a way seldom done in music without that central vocal presence.
I think that is absolutely right about a bit of creative challenge being necessary for growth. I catch myself avoiding certain kinds of collaboration that keep me out of the drivers seat. I think it was backlash from working with Sole and the Skyrider Band where I had plenty of input, but filtered input… input that kept me from that role of “finishing” the song. I think it underdeveloped me in a lot of ways for several years, but now that I am so comfortable in my processes and rituals of finishing a piece I am realizing that a change in mindset or a relinquishing of control in some capacity might actually help me grow in a profound way.
I have been working on this Death Blues Record (collaboration with Jon Mueller) for over a year now. It was the first time I had worked in a musical partnership with someone in a number of years, and I think I certainly had some growing pains associated with finding ways to open up to that collaborative spirit. I would go to work on a new piece and just go ape-shit on a track trying to make something epic for him so he’d know how enthused I was to collaborate… and then realize just how little space I left for both his input and collaborative energy. There really is no better way to show commitment than through trust. We started from scratch and had him plant the germinating seed by establishing a rhythmic idea on the hammered guitar, and immediately this process breathed whole new life into the idea of us working together. Once he had the space to establish his musical sensibility as the foundation, the orchestration that I built upon it had to establish a whole new kind of balance and contour with these new bearings. So yes I’d say anytime I have to arrange or record to someone else’s rhythmic (being that rhythm is normally my creative catalyst) it is a great opportunity to grow and challenge my habitual processes.
I have been scoring films since 2007, and doing it as my only source of income for about 4 years now. I have had to keep up a ridiculous rate of production in order to sustain my other musical practices. Since 2009, I’ve been doing an average of 3 films a month! I have a hard time seeing myself continuing this work rate/ pay rate ration for too much longer without having a complete adrenal blow out. However, film music and composition for multi-media will probably be my bread and butter for the foreseeable future. My short term goal is to have my career as a recording artist and film composer function in a state where I can be afforded the time to make the best of music for both worlds, instead of my records always having to take a backseat to the film work I am doing.
I lived in Oakland for 3 years and love that city very much. However, I currrently live about an hour north in Petaluma, CA (the land of butter and eggs). My girlfriend and I moved there to live on a farm, have space, have a garden, have a dog etc.
I love it. It is certainly a different environment, and I think it has opened a new chapter for me musically. It is an environment where I feel more stable, and that stability has given me greater courage to dig deeper and more critically into my art and hopefully extract the most meaningful and ancient part of myself and my music in the process.
TSP: Is that then the skill that needs to be addressed most – ensuring that all the elements work together not against each other? For me, that’s why the best music uses vocals as an instrument and not just a means of delivering words. The melody can be spot on but delivered in the wrong way, in the wrong tone and mixed in the wrong way – the vocals can actually kill a track when they should be completing it. I always come back to Sparklehorse as an artist who got it right most of the time vocally but I do think it’s the perfect example of how to use a voice as an instrument within the overall sound.
Do you think the success of a collaboration is dependent on the two artists coming from very different worlds? I guess if you are coming at something from the same place and in your own musical worlds you do very similar things the music can become a bit overcrowded? I don’t know, just interested in how other collaborations work. I think with Graveyard Tapes our success comes from the fact that Matt and I come from very different musical backgrounds but share many of the same thoughts/views on music. Our sounds sort of smash together but somehow, with a bit of Collings magic, develop into something great but I imagine working with somebody with similar skills, vision can sometimes stifle the creative process, or at least make it much more of a challenge.
My goal as an artist was always to get in to film scoring! So I guess we are working on opposite trajectories! I just need to find a way in to that world and though I’ve had a few interesting things to work on they have mostly fallen through for one reason or another.
I guess I am just fascinated by how place shapes music. It’s something I’d like to explore in much more detail actually. How the environment that surrounds us shapes our thoughts and feelings and ultimately what we create as artists. Perhaps a discussion for another time and place.
WRF: I think Sparklehorse was a band that had an other worldly deftness of touch when it came to mood and tone. Their sound always felt immediately genuine, a quality I would take over virtuosity of arrangement or slick production any day. The trick really is how do you make everything feel sewn together and unified like they did so well, while still allow room for the music to expand or contract and still give a sense that something unexpected could happen. Because I work with such a large palette of sound so often, I honestly think I could throw just about anything into a song and find a way to make it “work”, but this is at the expense of the appealing predictability and cohesion that I feel listeners want from a band. It is a really fine line, and it makes me appreciate artists that do it well all the more.