Hosted by Paul Geldart aka Astrolope
How and who are you?
Hi Paul, I'm Phil J aka Bicyclops and I'm mostly just happy to be here! I guess you'd say I'm a Toronto-based producer and multi-instrumentalist, at least at night. During the day I'm a grad student. I'm also lucky to be the most recent addition to Plutoid Records (I think you've probably heard of them?)
Oh yeah, that does sound familiar now that you mention it. Well, what's up with this new album I've heard so much about? Is it any good? And do you mind if I ask about school? You're some kinda brain scientist right?
Yes that's right - I shouldn't miss an opportunity to plug the album! It's called Marooned and it's out right now on the aforementioned Plutoid Records.
As to whether it's any good? I can't really judge at this point. My favourite thing about it is that it's finished. Seriously, I've been chipping away at it in the evenings after work for more than four years now. I know I shouldn't be too concerned about how long things take, and just trust that they'll arrive when they're ready, but there's always a feeling that the algorithms will lose interest in you and that'll be that. But personally I love to listen to full albums start to finish, and I wanted to take the time to make something that works as a complete package. I think there are lots of people that still like to listen that way as well, and I've been really pleasantly surprised with the way people are connecting with it.
As to your second question, you could say I'm a brain scientist in training! More specifically, I'm doing my PhD in psychology at the University of Toronto. My main project involves using a really cool technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG) to study abnormal brain activity in stroke patients. It's definitely interesting work, and brains are great, but it does get in the way of music making sometimes :)
Well If you won't say it then I will: It's good. It's a damn good album, full of satisfying sonic details and deep, spacious melodies. I also love the song structures; I don't think there's a single track here that has a typical verse-chorus pattern, yet they always maintain a flow that makes perfect sense. And the drums! They're so abstract sometimes, but they always complement the music and never sound robotic or out-of-place. I'm not surprised that it took so long to make.
But yeah, fuck these algorithms for real. Don't even get me started...They're almost never beneficial for artists or listeners as they're only designed to serve corporate interests, which usually means advertising and/or surveillance. And as a result, they are heavily biased toward certain kinds of content. It's my opinion that we need drastic change in the "industry" to break the cycle of exploitation and allow everyone to express their art in exactly the way that they see fit. I don't know exactly how to get there, but that's why I like the old-skool, web 1.0 kinda way that things work here at Splendid Industries.
I hope you're not too overwhelmed or conflicted between doing music and science though! I think it's a bit of a myth that people should only focus on one goal at a time, but it can often be really hard to find a healthy balance. I personally really disliked my time in school because it was quite demanding and never took my needs/priorities into account, but I know that you're very disciplined and clever, and you're doing important work! So keep looking for that equilibrium.
So none of that was a question per se but...thoughts?
Thank you for saying that! I'm particularly happy that you enjoyed the drums. I take that as a huge compliment coming from one of the slickest percussionists (acoustic and digital) that I know. Also, I'll just say that I'm really grateful to everyone who has taken the time to listen and digest the album over the last few weeks. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone on this one, especially regarding the lyrical content and the emphasis on the vocals in general, and I'm so glad to know that it's connecting.
And yes, my thumbs are certainly in the down position regarding the algos, at least in their current form. I mean, I guess they are tools and so are not inherently bad, but of course they're used according to the values of those who write them, and unfortunately helping artists find a like-minded community of other artists and fans is not high on the priority list. The thing that's really concerning me right now is that this whole struggle actually feeds back onto the music itself. If I know I have a better chance of getting people to listen to my music if it goes well with a 15 second square-cropped visual and sounds good out of an iPhone speaker, is that going to affect what I make? I don't know, but I'm with you. No idea how to get there but I have to imagine we could be in a better place that values artists more (not just as "content creators"). Communities like Splendid Industries and Plutoid certainly give me hope.
Regarding the music vs. science thing, there's actually some pretty interesting points of contact between the two, since brain signal analysis and the technical aspects of music production both use a ton of the same concepts from signal analysis. For instance, it's common to look at the power spectrum of a brain signal, which is basically the same as using a spectrum analyzer to see how much bass, mid, treble etc. you have in your audio signal. While I'm pretty enthusiastic about all that extremely nerdy stuff for some reason, balancing the two can definitely be tough, time and energy-wise. But I don't think it's really that different from any other full-time job, and I try to keep in mind that plenty of people have made great things while juggling jobs, taking care of dependents and just generally dealing with life. But also that kind of thinking burnt me out during my masters, and then I didn't really make music for like a year. So honestly who knows?? Just have to keep searching, as you said.
I hope those were some thoughts!
Yeah there's a lot to say there, in terms of the way that our relationship with tech and economies and stuff affect the art we end up making. Today I saw a sick video from Sounds Good (linked here) that went pretty deep into this stuff, I think she has a great perspective on it. But yeah, it's all we can do to just keep going and try to maintain a healthy balance.
So, can you tell me more about that nerdy stuff? I can't get enough of it either. Like are there any things you figured out during this album in terms of songwriting, lyrics, arranging, recording, mixing that you would like to pass on? I think this site is mostly read by other musicians so don't be afraid to get too technical.
That's a great video! It took me a long time to realize it myself, but I agree that the preoccupation with authenticity is not really something that serves musicians or listeners. I still catch myself thinking that way all the time though, even as a listener. I used to think I had to be constantly challenging myself with really experimental or conceptual music. Stuff you have to read the Wikipedia page to understand. That can be really exhausting frankly, and I'm trying to 'orient towards pleasure' more, as she said, despite whatever economic forces are involved. 'If it sounds good, it is good' is becoming my mantra more and more these days.
Speaking of which, I would love to talk production. This album was a challenge, because I took a big U-turn about two years in. With my last album (Near) I had to rearrange my laptop songs to be played with a band, but once the pandemic hit and it was clear the band wasn't coming back, I had to go the other way. So songs I had written with a guitar in my hands started taking wild new shapes when it was just me in my bedroom again. I was free from the constraint of making it playable by three people, but of course that can lead to option paralysis. Figuring out how to fill the space as my guitar became less and less important in the arrangement was a painstaking one, and not one I'm eager to try again.
Virgo, for example was originally written entirely on guitar. I recorded three separate guitar arrangements for the first section of that song and scrapped them all, which was super frustrating. Eventually I ended up writing down all the notes in each guitar chord and arranging them for four "voices", and then I played each one separately on a different string of my acoustic with an ebow. So in the end it turned into more of a string pad, and I felt that opening up the arrangement like that was what it needed. In the case of Blue Light I just removed the guitar entirely and left it empty. So the process was full of little problems like that to solve. But while the guitar was disappearing the bass guitar was stepping into the spotlight. I've never had one of my own, but borrowing my friend's (thanks Mark!) made me realize how useful it is. And fun! That matters a lot. Holy Water would not have come together without that red Squier P-Bass.
Something else I noticed, near the end of the process, is that I've become more comfortable putting vocals front and center, which can be pretty vulnerable. I think some of that is just practice performing and producing vocals, but I'm also just more confident as a lyricist than I used to be (posting my lyrics used to terrify me). One difference is that I'm not just writing from my own perspective anymore. Relationships are central to the album, and you can't really talk about those in a satisfying way from just one perspective. I found it really inspiring to step outside myself and try to write through the eyes of a character. It's not exactly a rock opera, but there's a narrative there I hope people pick up on.
In terms of the sound design and all the noises on there, it's always an experiment. I used to try to make every single sound from scratch. I'd record myself smacking things around my bedroom and try to make a full arrangement out of that, which only sort of works. If you have to, I find it's better to use a sample pack or something that gets you 90% of the way and then tweak it, rather than endlessly labouring over some mediocre sound you recorded yourself to get the same result. There's that hunt for authenticity again. If it sounds good it is good.
But yeah there's still plenty of handcrafted weirdness on the album. Blue Light has a percussion part made from my roommate in the kitchen washing dishes. And a train (in stereo!). Marooned has a string part from an old PSA about hygiene. Honestly, more miscellaneous sounds than I can even remember. Oh and tapes. So much tape stuff. There's tape noise in pretty much every track. My favourite flavour of tape noise is from this busted old recorder I bought on Kijiji during the process (one of several), that literally had sawdust inside it when I got it. I only recorded about ten minutes of audio from it before I shorted it out and destroyed it forever (rest in peace). You can hear its swansong best in Intuition.
Wow this was a novel! But these are always the details that I crave when I read interviews with other people, so I hope I'm not the only one, and someone finds it interesting!
Oh, you mentioned mixing as well. Mixing for me is just endless trial and error. And questioning my headphones, my monitors, my ears, my brain, my life choices etc. etc. But I got through it! Maybe it will be less unfun next time. I do want to shout out Mixing With Impact by Wessel Oltheten. ---->
I'm not sponsored (I got it from the library), but it's the best book I've ever read in the music production sphere and it reached me at the right time with this album. Also shout out to my 2015 Dell Latitude laptop which is somehow still functional after running at inferno temperatures for the entire process.
Wow, thanks for the deep dive! There are a lot of things here that I've experienced as well, in some form or another. And damn that tape machine is messed up. I don't know why tape stuff is so fascinating, but it totally is.
OK, one more quick question before we wrap this up:
Have you thought at all about your next project? If you don't mind me asking, what sort of direction are you thinking of exploring next?
My pleasure! And that's a good question. Right now I'm just focusing on broadening my horizons before I commit to a direction for the next big project. I'm trying to listen to as much music as I can, read books again, go outside. Tinkering with old busted gear from Kijiji or the side of the road. Basically anything I can do to fill up the tank, so to speak. One thing I can say is that I don't want to be so "in the box" next time around. I'd like to focus more on capturing performances, rather than editing and automating in Ableton endlessly to get the sound I have in my head. I'm also trying to use this time to get to know what other artists in the community are doing. There are a couple small collaborations potentially coming out of that, but more on that soon(ish) :)
Outside of the Bicyclops sphere, I have one other big project on the go. I've been writing an EP with a friend since pre-COVID and now, a few lockdowns later, we're finally able to record it. It's going to have big guitars and big drums and no laptops in sight, and I'm really excited about it. So keep an eye out for that!
That's it for me! Thank you for having me, see you around the Dream Kitchen!