This interview with Jonathan Lindhorst, Ryan Butler and Adam Miller was conducted by email in April 2011.
Tony Reif: Let’s get a little backstory – you’re all Canadians, you grew up in different places (Ryan in Charlottetown, Jon in Toronto, and Adam in Vancouver). What were your musical interests before you three met – were there certain experiences, when you look back now, that marked turning points leading to Turtleboy – and how was the band formed? Did the three of you click right away as a group, personality-wise and music-wise?
Jon Lindhorst: Well, of the three of us, I definitely come out of the “Jazz” tradition the most. I was incredibly fortunate to have a dad with a vast record collection of about 8000 records (it takes up an entire floor of our house) which pretty much covered every kind of music that was happening until about 1969. Growing up I was surrounded by the pop music of the 30s to late 60s. In addition to that, I’m a huge movie fanatic from a very young age, and I loved movie scores and old musicals (especially the MGM ones with the giant sets). I must have seen Singing in the Rain, My Fair Lady, Anchors Aweigh and West Side Story dozens of times. I also played a lot of video games as a kid and would sing along with music there. It was a totally unconscious love of music though, I had no idea I was going to be a musician until I started playing saxophone at 11 years old in the grade 7 band program. I’d never had a piano lesson, and aside from some stints in choir as a kid, never played a note of anything. But once I started I took to it pretty quickly, and I discovered jazz via a local radio station, the now defunct CJRT, a couple of months in. A DJ named Ted O’Reilly had a nightly show called “The Jazz Scene” that I got hooked on and would listen to, tape, and relisten to obsessively. I didn’t get rock or current pop music back then. Dad wouldn’t let it in the house, and I grew up listening to Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, so my interest in jazz came pretty naturally. I tend to learn about things chronologically, so I started to with the really early stuff – Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and just worked my way up slowly. From the beginning, Stan Getz was my biggest influence, and I spent all of high school trying to emulate his sound. By the end of high school I was nuts about the music of the 50s and the early 6’s. It wasn’t until university that I really started expanding my horizons and getting interested in pop, rock, hiphop, classical, and more contemporary jazz. By the end of school I had really gotten into free improvisation and 20th century classical, and began listening almost exclusively to contemporary music (by that I mean people who are relatively young and performing today).
So, how did this relate to Turtleboy? Well, Ryan and I had been friends for years, and he had recently moved to Montreal from the Maritimes. I was about to finish McGill, and we made a plan to drive down to New York the day after I finished my last exam and go to the Vanguard and see the Paul Motian Trio, which at the time was the favourite band of both of us. The goal was to get lessons. So we went down, and marched into the green room at the Vanguard and introduced ourselves to Frisell and Lovano. They were both incredibly nice to us, and talked to us every night we came out to the show. I got my lesson, and even got a chance to sit in with Lovano and his trio. Ryan didn’t get his, but he still got to hang out with Frisell at the club and ask him questions. Anyway, we walked away from that experience with the idea of forming our own bassless trio. It seemed like such a good idea, and only a few people seemed to be doing it (though there seem to be more of them now). We didn’t really get our chance until about a year later. Adam, who I went through school with, had returned from a year in India, and we had started playing sessions. It was during the Montreal Jazz Festival, when I got a call during one of these sessions to bring a trio into a cafe at the festival grounds. So I hired Adam and set out looking for a bass player. And I couldn’t find one. Seriously, not one. I was calling high school kids, they all had gigs. So I thought, “Well, here’s a good chance to try out this idea.” So I called Ryan. Ryan and Adam had never met before I believe, and we didn’t really know what to expect from the music. But what can I say? It clicked. It just worked, right from the beginning. We just played standards, but it was so much fun. We started playing together regularly after that, and shortly thereafter, a band vibe started forming, and we began applying for the grants that would let us really develop the band. (Interesting side note that I just remembered: Adam and I actually had a bassless trio at McGill, we had a combo and the bass player quit on us, so we had to play the semester without the bass.) So yeah, we clicked right away, its pretty magical when that happens. (Not to say we don’t fight sometimes, but it’s all love!)
Ryan Butler: I grew up in Charlottetown, PEI, although now I usually just say I’m from the Maritimes as I’ve spent quite a bit of time living in all three provinces. Both of my parents studied music. My mom studied flute and voice and has been a music teacher in the NB/PEI educational system for almost thirty years now. My dad studied tuba and trumpet for a few years before getting into business. I believe they met while working together in the Army Band just after high school. As a result I grew up surrounded by music. My mom was always teaching piano and flute lessons from home. The music they listened to was mostly 60s popular music and classical music – Beethoven, Mozart, etc. I’m pretty sure every vehicle my father ever owned constantly had Blood, Sweat & Tears’ Greatest Hits in the cassette/CD player at all times. At the time I wasn’t too interested in music. I was more interested in sports and video games –hockey, baseball, golf – and James Bond: Golden Eye for Nintendo 64. I took piano lessons from age four to ten, but never really fell in love with it. Then in junior high I played clarinet for a year, then alto saxophone for a year, but quit both. I’m not sure why I never gravitated towards music at a young age. It’s hard to remember the music I listened to as a kid. It was mostly what I saw on Much Music or what friends were listening to. Some albums that immediately come to mind are:
Weezer – Blue Album
Queen – Greatest Hits
Greenday – Dookie
Gun’s n‘ Roses – Appetite For Destruction
Live – Throwing Copper
Pearl Jam – Ten
Wayne’s World – Soundtrack
Oasis – What’s The Story Morning Glory
Haha, it’s kind of funny to think back to all this music.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I picked up the warped and deformed guitar that was sitting next to our furnace in the basement for 20-years and started learning Dave Matthews songs, along with Ben Harper, Phish, and other jam bands of the time. Actually I think the first song I ever learned was Blink 182! To say the least, I immediately fell in love with the instrument…well not that specific one, I ended up buying one that played in tune. I think the main reason I liked it so much is that I was learning on my own and was learning music that I was interested in. It was only a few weeks before I found a great teacher and started taking classical guitar lessons. spent about a year and a half learning from the Royal Conservatory books. Around the summer after graduating high school I was really into jam bands and I got really interested in improvising. I was soon listening to Scofield and the likes and quickly gravitated towards jazz.
I think the turning point in my musical interest that lead to the formation of Turtleboy was when I discovered Bill Frisell. I think it was my third year of my undergraduate degree, circa 2004. I was listening to him obsessively. Went to the library and checked out everything. All of his albums and everything I could find with him as a sideman. I soon stumbled upon the Paul Motian Trio and can remember listening to one of their albums every night before I went to bed, for at least a few months. Later that semester I formed a bassless trio with some other students, drummer Mark Segger and alto saxophonist Nick Fischer. We started exploring playing standards within a bassless context. All I remember is thinking “Oh my god this is hard!” It was terrifying not having a bass player holding it down. Since then I’ve grown to love it. The harmonic and rhythmic freedom that it gives me, as well as all of the sonic space it leaves me to explore and fill…or not fill at all. It’s really forced me to explore the low register of the guitar as well as textural playing. As a result it’s largely responsible for the sound and style that I’ve developed.
The other turning point that I can think of is the one that Jon mentioned when we went to New York for a week and basically lived in the Village Vanguard. I remember coming back to Montreal after that trip with a negative bank account balance and feeling like a million bucks!
Adam Miller: I am Canadian and American. I grew up in Vancouver BC but through my father I received US citizenship. My influences over the years have been diverse. I’ve been a Radiohead fan since high school where I also soaked up a lot of electronic music like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Hip-Hop music occupied a lot of my time during my first three years at university. I actually diverted a lot of attention from my jazz studies to focus on being a rapper. I led a couple groups during those years as an MC, that is, up front rapping and not playing the drums. That interest dwindled for a few reasons, which led me back to jazz and the drums. I finished my degree and then took a break and went to India for 8 months where I didn’t play the drums at all. On my return I rejuvenated my jazz ears by participating in the international workshop in Banff. That was 2007. While there I was in an ensemble led by guitarist Steve Cardenas. We focused on the music of Paul Motian, which was my first real exposure to the legendary drummer. There was a lot of focus on less metronomic time feels, which was very enlightening for my development as a musician. That summer, upon my return to Montreal, Jon called me for a gig during the jazz fest at some coffee shop that actually paid pretty well. We tried for like two weeks to find a bass player but had no luck. Jon suggested we get a guitar player instead. Because of my recent exposure to Paul Motian I jumped at the idea. So that’s when I fist met Ryan. After that gig we all looked at each other and seemed to know that there was something there, some sort of chemistry that we hadn’t come across before. So…we kept playing together, and haven’t stopped since.
TR: Where did the name Turtleboy come from, and what if anything does the name say about your collective attitude to your music? Or is it mainly a humorous riff turned into a marketing ploy? Do you think you share a certain 20-something ethos with 20-something audiences, or is that even a concern?
JL: We needed a band name when we were applying for a FACTOR grant, and we decided to name the band after the first original tune we ever played together, which is a tune I wrote in the style of a Paul Motian composition called “Turtleboy” (it’s on our first record). It’s a happy kinda ridiculous tune. I call it Turtleboy, because, honestly, the first time I saw Paul play, I thought he looked like a turtle. I mean, he’s bald and really skinny, and was wearing a green wool sweater at the first show I saw him play. So, we had a name. Now, back then I was taking on more of a leader role, and doing the talking at the shows. So, in keeping with my esoteric sense of humour, and love of sci-fi and comics, I also created a Turtleboy character. I created a whole backstory and I would tell this story at shows. Eventually the guys made me stop, because they wanted us to be taken seriously, which is fair. I’m not a fan of things being super serious all the time, and I’ll just have to form my own wacky band someday where I get to tell all the stories I want.
In terms of our ethos…well, at the heart of it, we approach this band like it’s a rock band – both in identity and musical structure. I wanted to be involved in a project that had its own unique identity, and was something that belonged to all of us, not just named after one of us. And why not have a funny, unique name? Rock groups do it all the time, and nobody bats an eye, but because we’re ‘serious’, ‘trained’ musicians we’re supposed to have a conservatory friendly name? I don’t buy it. And I think that by taking that approach, even in spirit, it makes our music more accessible to people who aren’t trained musicians or life-long jazz fans. I mean, we all want to make beautiful deep statements and everything, but it doesn’t mean we’re against having fun and being a bit goofy. I don’t like to think of it as a marketing ploy, but rather an honest desire to have a unique voice, and make a statement. Of course, if it makes us more memorable at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with that.
AM: Where it came from, and what it’s come to mean are two different things. When it came time to play our first official gig, the name came pretty easily, we were just like “What about Turtleboy?…Yeah sounds good!” Since then though the meaning has evolved quite a bit. In Smart Matter it’s taken on an aspect of turtle symbolism such as, patience, wisdom and so forth. Also, there are various creation myths that have the world on the back of a turtle, like the Iroquois, Ojibwa, and Seneca creation myths. There are also some Hindus who believe the world rests on a turtle. These ideas are beginning to give the name Turtleboy a more cosmic reference, which I think is evident in the new album. Then there is the idea of a boy or child which I think just points to the fact that the three of us are still kids at heart…and maybe always will be. We like to have fun and I think that is at the heart of our music.
TR: Dave Douglas compares you to Radiohead and the Paul Motian Trio, which I assume is still some kind of touchstone for all of you, but I’m wondering if there are younger bands that you feel closer to (I hear a 90s downtown vibe), and how each of you thinks about your own music both inside Turtleboy and away from it. You’ve said you consider yourselves jazz performers first of all, and that’s obvious both in the free improvs and the composed pieces. But there’s a wide range of influences listed on your myspace pages, Jon and Ryan, from Arcade Fire and Fleet Foxes to Bach and Bartok, and of course Radiohead, whose “Pyramid Song” you cover on the record. You also cover (and sing the words to) Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage,” an iconic piece of folk Canadiana (why cover such a famous song?). Are any of you singer-songwriters in hiding, or is your (mostly wordless) singing a way to add more sonic textures to instrumental music?
AM: I’ve been singing since I was in high school, you know in choirs and theatre and things like that, but I never took it too seriously. It wasn’t until I got back from India, where I had studied some Indian classical singing, that I started to experiment with voice in a group I led called Jazzwarriors. I used a mix of syllabic singing and (when they were effective) lyrics as well. There are really no limits for me, it’s just what ever suits the song. In Turtleboy I use my voice for texture mainly but I’ve been writing more songs with lyrics lately so we’ll see.
JL: As I said earlier, we all listen to a wide variety of music. I’m not happy to stay with one thing for too long, and after almost 20 years of playing and listening to jazz, I find myself listening to other kinds of music more and more. Over the last three years or so I’ve been listening to mostly contemporary music. That includes a lot of my living jazz and improvised music heroes that I get to check out regularly in New York, like Bill McHenry, Chris Speed, Jim Black, Tony Malaby, Andrew D’Angelo and The Bad Plus. But I listen to a lot of singers these days. As a saxophone player, and having been gifted with my mother’s perpetually off-key singing voice, I’m envious of the ability of these people to communicate their message in such a direct way. That’s a big thing for me – I think music is at its best and deepest when it’s about something. A lot of times in jazz you see people get caught up in a technical or mathematical concept. Maybe it’s a cool tune, and fun for the musicians to play, but personally, I want more. I had the pleasure to briefly meet Joni Mitchell once and listen to her talk, and one of the things she talked a lot about was this concept of ‘hip-itis’, where people do things because they sound cool and impressive but not because the music has any deeper meaning. Every song should have some kind of purpose. Just because we’re writing instrumental music doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to convey something specific with the song. Look at the way Lester Young plays a standard, man you can tell that’s about something…
Some days I dream of throwing away the sax, learning guitar, changing my name, and forming a rock band (the kind where it doesn’t matter that you can’t sing very well!). It just seems so much fun. And we’re going in that direction with this band all the time. Some of the newer tunes that Ryan has brought in are folkier than ever, and we’re playing more covers all the time, just for fun. I can’t remember the last time we played a jazz standard with this band. I know that Adam plans on using vocals more on tunes we’re developing now. I’m always happy to provide some backup vocals. It’s cool, it gives me an outlet to write music in that folkier/rockier vein, and then I can write jazz tunes for other stuff.
RB: The Paul Motian Trio is definitely a touchstone for this band. When we first got together playing music, before we were actually a band, we were playing Paul Motian charts – “Mumbo Jumbo” comes to mind – as well as playing standards in that vein. I think as a group we’ve been influenced by Jim Black’s Alas No Axis. Although that band has a bass player, I feel we’re very close to them sonically. The Bad Plus has also been a bit of an influence for us. Not so much in terms of sound, but how they approach their music conceptually. They also play a lot of covers ranging from David Bowie, Nirvana, Wilco, to Stravinsky. They’ve managed to come up with a musically sophisticated sound that appeals to a very wide audience and they’ve been incredibly successful. In that sense I think they’ve served as a good role model for the band.
Personally my musical influences are vast. In the past, when I was just getting into guitar, traditional and contemporary jazz was a huge influence. Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, and Grant Green were very influential in my early days. Towards the end of my undergraduate degree Bill Frisell, Ben Monder, and Wayne Krantz became huge influences on me as a guitarist and composer. But that’s just one side of the spectrum. I love Hendrix and SRV just as much…. hell, even Bach. I play Bach just about every day and never get tired of it – although you probably don’t hear these influences much in the context of this band. These days I would say jazz occupies 5-10% of what I listen to. Recently I’ve found myself checking out a lot of singer-songwriters, folk music, rock, even pop – Sam Amidon, Sufjan Stevens, Dirty Projectors, Arcade Fire, Tallest Man on Earth…I’ve actually removed most of the jazz music off my ipod recently to force myself to check out other things.
I don’t think any of us are singer-songwriters in hiding, although I slowly see myself drifting in that direction. Singing in the band was initially just a textural thing that Adam did, and still is to a large extent. Singing lyrics as a group is a relatively new thing. I remember seeing The Bad Plus perform Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold” at the Banff Centre in 2008. They ended the show singing a verse a cappella in 3-part harmony. It was such a crowd pleaser. I thought it was amazing how the dynamic of the entire show changed just from those 30 seconds of singing. It left a long-lasting impression on me. Last June I brought a chart for “Northwest Passage” on our most recent tour and we played it just about every night. Not only because it was a widely recognized song, but because it’s a beautiful song. The original 3-part harmony a cappella recording gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. It’s always gone over great with the audience. Sometimes when we play on the east coast we even get audience members joining in.
TR: Do you see big differences between your first, self-released record and Smart Matter? Are you aiming to be more accessible to a young, non-jazz-identified audience? Is there something you think of as being distinctive about the group’s approach to music and music making?
JL: I think that the band has matured and grown significantly between those two records. The original album was done when were still a young band, I mean it was recorded literally a year after we got together. Since then we’ve had all kinds of crazy experiences, both individually and as a band. We’ve got a residency at Banff under our belt, and we went through Dave Douglas’ Jazz workshop there as well, not to mention a few tours now. On top of that, we’ve been long-distancing this band for the last couple of years, so we’ve all had our own crazy musical experiences. I think we’re all more experienced and more mature musicians, and I even hear a difference in our playing now compared to when Smart Matter was recorded (that was nearing a year ago). In terms of our audience, we’re definitely trying to make music that is accessible to a wide variety of people, without outright pandering or selling out. Obviously playing rock covers allows a non-jazz audience to understand and relate to us more, and we also are conscious of keeping our tunes to a relatively short length mostly. We just don’t approach the music like a group of jazz musicians, but like a rock band.
Most of our tunes are worked out very collaboratively, and while we do use charts, most of the music is about the grooves we come up with and the vibe we can establish more than the notes on the page. Ultimately we’re just trying to play music we like to play, but also stuff that we would listen to. I personally like simple melodic music far more than uber-complicated math jazz, or 20 minute long sax freakout jazz. Not that I don’t listen to that as well, it’s just not where my taste tends to wander often.
RB: I think there’s a huge difference between the two albums. As Jon says, we were a very young band when we recorded our first album, and have since come a long way. We’ve all matured as individual musicians and composers as well as a band. Adam has started contributing much more as a composer and it’s really taken our music in more of a rock direction, which I think we’re all very pleased about. The free improv on this album, with the exception of Jon’s “Vampyroteuthus”, was all freely improvised in the studio, whereas on the first album we would just play free within the structure of a specific tune. Smart Matter also features two cover songs, which is something that we’re constantly exploring more and more. We’ve also taken the actual quality of the sound recording to a much higher level. I think we’ve all learned a lot about the recording process over the years and made it a high priority to find a studio and engineer that met all of our expectations.
I don’t think we’re necessarily aiming to be more accessible to a young audience, but we are constantly trying to make the music more widely accessible and trying to not limit ourselves to a jazz audience. Playing covers has proven to be very helpful, as well as keeping the overall length of songs around 4-5 minutes, just having a couple that we really stretch out on. I think staying focused on groove and the overall group sound and dynamic has helped us reach a more diverse audience. It’s not often you hear us play long solos, or even lines for that matter.
TR: Do you have a game plan for the band? What do you think it takes to break out of the specialized niche that most “post-jazz” or avant jazz-rock occupies – or does that concern you? What have the high points been so far? Do you have any heroes these days? Where do you hope to be in 10 years – do you think the group will evolve together that long?
JL: Wow, that’s a lot of stuff. Ok, the game plan: not sure. The band changes and develops all the time. I mean, whatever happens musically, I would like to be playing and touring as much as possible, personally. I just love playing music, especially for audiences, and if we get enough crossover appeal that we can play at some rock festivals or whatever, I’m all for it. Obviously it would be great to be able to get our music to the widest audience possible, anything to keep us playing and working. I’m not sure what we’d have to do or change to get that, and there is a certain point where you have to say, “No, this isn’t what I’m hearing.” People who are more pop-minded than myself sometimes suggest that all we have to do is add a bass and we could be playing the big stages. But that violates the fundamental concept of the band. I’m super-open-minded about where we can go musically, but I put my foot down at adding bass! So, if we can break out of the avant-garde jazz world, that’d be nice. But I still love, LOVE, avant-garde music, and no matter what I do, my music is always going to have a bit of a twist to it. I’m no good at giving people exactly what they want or expect, so maybe I’m personally stuck on this side of the fence, due to my own stubbornness.
What it comes down to for me is that we play our music the way we want to play it, with as much honesty and integrity as possible. Hopefully people will like it, but you can’t worry about that too much. It’s impossible to know anyone’s experience except your own. People like to think that ‘oh the audience will like this or that’ but you don’t know. You can’t. All you can do is present your vision, and if you’re lucky it will resonate with people, and they’ll be willing to give you their time, ears, and maybe even money.
RB: Game plan for the band? I’m not sure either. It’s constantly evolving, every time we get together and play music. Right now with the release of this album we’re working on developing some new promotional materials, touring, and expanding our audience. There’s still a large part of Canada that we haven’t reached yet and now that we all live in New York we’d like to develop more of a presence here as well as throughout the US. One thing that we’ve been working towards is bringing our music to Europe by 2012.
I’m not sure what it takes to break out of the specialized niche that we’ve found ourselves in. That’s something that always comes up in discussion. Maybe it will be a natural process or maybe it will have to be a conscious decision in the future. Once Smart Matteris released I’m going to try applying to different festivals and see what opportunities come from it and then pursue them accordingly. I can see our music being accepted into any number of genres. I think now that we’re all finally in the same city again and can get together on a regular basis, the direction of this band will evolve much faster.
JL: High points: well, personally the highest point was at Banff when we got to open for the faculty, which included Dave Douglas, Adam Benjamin, Matt Penman, Clarence Penn, Dave Gilmore, and Joshua Redman. Getting to share the stage with Josh was one of the highlights of my life! I mean, I was a huge Joshua Redman fanatic as a kid, I used to go see him every chance I got growing up in Toronto. I had all the records and transcribed him like a fiend. When I finally got to meet him, and he turned out to be incredibly nice, supportive, and humble, well, it was just a dream come true. Backstage he gave me some really inspiring advice and the greatest compliment I’ve ever heard in my life, and it’s something I think back on when times are tougher and I begin to doubt myself.
Heroes: I’ve got a ton. I moved to New York to be around the great musicians there, but there’s a bunch that really inspire me, and I get all nervous and flustered when I try to talk to them. These include Bill McHenry, Andrew D’Angelo, Chris Speed, Tony Malaby, Jim Black, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, and the guys in The Bad Plus – Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King. And of course there’s the older guys like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Lee Konitz, you know, the obvious ones. Outside of jazz, Joni Mitchell, Bjork, Radiohead, Tom Waits, and Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one of the finest writers/directors in the world. Also, a lot of people who died a while back, like Monk, Lester Young, The Beatles, Miles, and Orson Welles. Growing up though, Stan Getz was my biggest hero.
In 10 years: I have no idea. I would love for the band to continue. I would love to be touring the world and have respect, and money, and the adoring attention of a good woman I guess, but at the end of the day, all that really matters is that whatever I’m doing, I’m happy, healthy, and hopefully still playing. The rest are all just details that you have to accept when you get there.
RB: I think the high points for this band are probably the same for everyone. Releasing our first album, touring for the first time, receiving our first press review, performing in our first festival. They’ve all been pivotal for us as a group. The programs we did at the Banff Centre were also huge highlights for us. We participated in a 6-week Residency were we got to rehearse constantly, perform regularly, two recording sessions, and collaborate with some amazing talent. I think a lot of our musical growth can be attributed to this program. Not to mention spending that much time together, which was followed by a tour – we really got to know each other and learn how to get along and deal with one another. I’m laughing out loud thinking of some of the arguments we’ve gotten into. Haha, mostly Jon and Adam. Also, Dave Douglas’ Jazz Workshop that Jon mentioned. That was an incredible experience for us and provided us with many opportunities. I think it gave us a lot of confidence as a group. I should also mention that we’re releasing this album on Songlines. That’s a huge highlight for us that we’re all very proud of and excited about. *High Five Tony.
Heroes? I’m not sure. I could write a long list of guitarists or musician/composers, but I wouldn’t really say any of them are my heroes. I mean I don’t necessarily aspire to be like them. Maybe I aspire to be as successful or prolific. I think the people I admire the most are the sincere and compassionate ones who genuinely love what they do and bring joy to people by doing it. Bill Frisell is a great example. So is my friend Mark or my friend Chris.
10-year plan: I don’t think I’ve thought that far ahead with this band. I would love to continue making music with these guys and to do it on international stages. I could see us keeping it together long-term. Myself, I would like to own property, a lot of property, 50-acres or more, somewhere on the east coast, and build a modest home on it. I’d like to spend roughly half the year on the road or in a city making music and the other half in my own personal paradise.
AM: Turtleboy 10 years from now? I see us still making music together, pushing boundaries, and touring the world. I would like to experiment with adding another guitarist at some point…maybe a pedal steel or something.
TR: Looking more closely at the band’s process, could each of you pick a song you composed and tell us something about how the group developed and worked on it to get to what we hear on the record? Were all the original tunes on this record written for the group?
JL: I have two songs on this record, “Separation Anxiety” and “Vamyproteuthus Infernalis”, and they’re very different from each other. “Separation” I wrote during my time at Queen’s College, and so it has more of a jazz structure, as it was initially written to be played by the people around me. So it’s fairly through composed and has sections, with specific harmony and written-out bass parts. I had a lot of say in how that tune was constructed. But generally Adam will come up with some kind of groove that works under the tune, and Ryan will try to figure out how to cover both the bottom part and the harmony. “Vampyro” is a different deal. That’s a completely free tune, with an unharmonized melody. So we had to discuss a lot more as a group where we wanted it to go, how we wanted it to build, etc. We play a lot of free improvisation, but we also like to clearly establish beforehand some guidelines on how we want the piece to build. In the case of this tune, we decided that each instrument should represent some part of the fish it describes, or the scene it occupies, to try and paint a complete portrait of it. We’d put the BBC Planet Earth footage of the squid on repeat and tried to play along with the images. In the case of this tune, I did write it with this band in mind.
Ultimately though, a piece usually evolves over time and consistent performance of it. Just playing it on stage in front of people allows us to develop it further. All the tunes on the record were toured for three weeks before we recorded them.
RB: Every time I bring a piece of music in to a rehearsal I’m amazed at the direction it goes in. The groove that Adam comes up with, the way Jon articulates or phrases melodies, and the ideas that everyone brings to the table – arrangement, dynamics, form, etc. The two songs that I composed, “Arms Wide Open” and “Lost in Life”, are both similar in structure and the way that they were developed in the group. They’re both very composed pieces with long forms and two open improv sections. Somewhere along the way I developed a habit of showing up to rehearsals with anywhere from 3 to 10 page charts…since then I’ve reverted to short 1-page lead sheets. Both songs developed very gradually over four weeks of rehearsing and touring before we got into the studio. They were both very challenging, even technically demanding. Thank god for the Zoom-H2 recorder we had on tour. Recording live shows and listening back has been a huge part of developing our material. Both pieces were written for this band and this album, although I have since played them in other groups.
AM: “Elephant” was one of the first tunes I wrote on the guitar. Before that it was piano (which is where “Smart Matter” was conceived). “Elephant” was a pretty straightforward song, other than the fact it’s in 9/8. Because of its less complicated harmony though the 9/8 seemed to fall into the background and our audiences seemed to like it immediately. This is a tune that I wrote with lyrics, but it took a long time for us to incorporate some of them. The melodies and sections were all pretty specific, but the way we played the song and the energy definitely evolved over time. It started a lot softer in the earlier days. I gotta say Ryan deserves credit for giving those chords life. His thick sound really makes the tune rock out.
TR: It strikes me that you three have developed a consistent group sound involving concepts of time, structure and beauty – there’s a hard, resonant, driving, anthemic aspect and a more pliant, supple, floating side, not to mention a freer, almost chaotic urge that surfaces from time to time, and these complementarities relate to timbre and melody also. Strong melodies are very important for you, but not at the expense of other, less obvious things. There’s also something nostalgic for me in some of these pieces, almost a sense of time passing and past – have you felt that in your music? If so, where do you think it’s coming from? There’s certainly a moody quality to much of it. Do you talk about what you’re trying to express or does it just emerge in the rehearsing and performing?
JL: Hmm…I’m not sure how to answer that. All I can say is that we each bring our own lives, experiences and tastes to the music. The nostalgic stuff probably comes from me, I’m a pretty sentimental guy. We do talk about what we’re trying to express in each piece. For me, every song I bring in has a very specific meaning or story attached to it, and I make sure the guys are aware of what I want to convey with it. I think we all have such distinctive writing and playing styles, and we know each other so well, that we’re able to negotiate a lot of this stuff on the bandstand without a ton of talking. We’ve done a lot of playing with each other over the last four years, so we know what to expect out of each other.
RB: That’s a difficult one to answer, about nostalgia. I’ve never heard that about our music or really ever thought about it. So no, I’ve never really felt it and don’t know where it’s coming from. Having said that, nostalgia plays a huge role in the music I write and listen to. Most of the music I write is based on previous experiences or people, places, and events that have shaped me. I’m a very nostalgic person, and love music that’s nostalgic to me, even if its bad music. But I’ve never thought of it coming out in Turtleboy’s music. I generally don’t talk about the music I write, in the sense that I don’t tell other musicians the personal emotion behind a piece, unless I feel it’s absolutely necessary. I usually just describe the mood or vibe I’m going for and give them directions related to dynamics, articulation, and energy.
AM: We talk a bit about concepts but most things happen in the rehearsal process and even shows sometimes. We’ll just be playing something and someone will do something and we’ll stop or just take note and then go deeper into that. It could be anything from a specific drum beat to an atmosphere Ryan is creating on the guitar to Jon’s ridiculous stories.
TR: Ryan, you have quite an identifiable electric guitar sound, could you tell us how you get that twangy, ringing, holographic quality? It seems to me there’s something different and unusual about the attacks too…
RB: I guess part of it is specific to gear, while part of it is specific to technique and influence. The first thing to say is I play a strat. I love solid body guitars. Standard 2004 American Fender Stratocaster with stock single coil pick-ups with D’Addario .12‘s. I’m also a bit of a tube amp snob when it comes to playing music in the context of this band. I’ve been playing a Carvin 1×12 tube amp for years, but I’ve started looking for something more vintage and versatile. Pedals are a big part of my sound. Reverb, Delay, Distortion/Overdrive, and volume pedal are integral to my sound in this group. I used to use an octave pedal but got rid of it around the time of this album. Most of my pedals I built myself, and were designed by this great company called BYOC.
My influences for guitar sound are pretty much, in order of importance, Bill Frisell, Wayne Krantz, and Ben Monder. That’s without getting into all the rock guitarists – Hendrix, Stevie Ray, hah even Edge and Slash. As far as achieving a lot of those sounds, it’s hard to describe. It’s all very subtle and second nature at this point so I never really consciously think about it. I’m kind of obsessed with sound, color and texture when it comes to guitar. I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with everything from where on the strings you pick, picking with fingers (both skin and nails), different gauges of picks, different pick material/brands, pick-up settings, bending the neck, hitting the guitar in different places, picking the string on an angle so the pick scratches against the coils of wound strings, plucking the strings like a banjo – this can go on forever. Can you tell I’ve spent a few years geeking out on guitar? Still to this date I’m constantly trying different strings, picks, and even shaping my fingernails differently searching for a sound. It seems I’m never satisfied.
I think, although I’m not sure, what you’re referring to as a “twangy, ringing, holographic quality” is when I have a wet sound and I do a volume swell while bending the neck. The volume swell disguises the attack while all you hear is the echo of it, and each echo is slightly out of tune with the others because of the neck bending during the attack and sustain.
Two important things that come to mind when I think of the development of my sound are, first, when I started experimenting with the order of pedals in my effects chain. Placing the distortion before the volume pedal and the volume pedal before delay and reverb changed everything. Guitar–> Distortion/OD–> Volume–> Delay–> Reverb. I remember being blown away at the difference in sound just from my pedal chain. The other thing is exploring the 5-way pickup switch on my strat. Each setting gives you a subtly but completely different palette of colors. Often I’m constantly switching pickups in the middle of a song or solo trying to find that tone. Other times I have something specific worked out and I’ll write notes on the chart.