Music. Art. Culture. Writing.
Interviewed by Rafael Otto
“Musicians have always been the travelers and interlopers and bridges between cultures.”
Ian Brennan is a GRAMMY-winning record producer who has secured four GRAMMY nominations over the past ten years. His most recent nomination (World Music) is for a record produced with musicians at Zomba Prison in southern Malawi. Known now as the Zomba Prison Band, the group’s album, I Have No Everything Here, will compete with international stars such as Gilberto Gil and Anoushka Shankar. Known also as a writer with a background working in social services, mental health, and violence prevention, Brennan has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. His newest book, the primary focus of this interview, will come out in February 2016 and is called How Music Dies (or Lives): Field Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts.
Rafael Otto: I think of the title of your new book in two parts. Could you talk about the first half—“How Music Dies”— and it’s meaning?
Ian Brennan: Recorded music is now something we take as a given. It’s now people’s primary source of receiving music and for expressing themselves musically, usually by proxy using someone else’s performances. But all those performances are mummified and already dead. So the repetition of those performances, and divorcing ourselves from labor, is actually an act of death. It has benefits, and it’s beautiful in many respects—I love recorded music—but there are dangers which have become dominant.
Rafael: On the “How Music Lives” side of things, are you referring to the live performance and live experience of music?
Ian: It’s ultimately talking about a balance and recognizing that there needs to be the lived experience as part of the process. Recording is great because of repeatability, privacy, and new tools that allow artists to create unprecedented musical experiences. But the danger is when it becomes too divorced from the lived experience. When it returns to that, when people give that value, it’s important. Now that most live music experiences, big money experiences, are increasingly not live music performances, then we have nothing left. The whole experience…the recording itself is not live, the performance is not live, performances are largely lip-synced or it’s someone singing to themselves supported by off-stage or under-stage performers propping them up. It comes back to that renewal and asking where the torch gets passed. And that’s usually in the places that aren’t being listened to—a garage somewhere, some college town or secondary or tertiary city in America, or other countries that are virtually unheard on a global scale.
Rafael: Given the digital age, do you feel that the experience of live music, whether it’s small scale venues or locals-only scenes, is being diminished? Are fewer people participating in it? And is it becoming less significant in our society?
Ian: I think it’s a reflection of our society becoming more fractured. And that’s not really in a negative way, it’s that people have more options that they did not have before. It was only a few generations ago in America, and is still this way in more rural regions of the world, that a musical experience was a rarity, something that was worth going out of the way for. Now, living in any major city in the world, there are simply too many experiences to possibly have most nights in a week. New York City has been that way for many generations already. It kind of comes back to the bumper sticker saying, “real musicians have day jobs.” It’s not so much that that is true, but I think when people do it for pure reasons, for the pure experience of making music without expectation that some of the best stuff can happen.
Rafael: Tell me about the second half of the title in the book, “Field Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts.” What can I expect as a reader exploring that theme?
Ian: There are 11 narratives in the book exploring different experiences in the world, including South Sudan, Vietnam, and Palestine. Interlaced with that are some technical details about field recording, but not much because that’s not really my thing. I don’t think it’s distracting to someone who doesn’t care about it, but there might be some information in there for readers wanting some technical details, information about microphone technique or recording applications. “The battle for democracy in the arts” is really the motivation for the book. It’s about the fact that if you look at the representation globally of most countries, it simply does not exist. It’s not that I believe in a conspiracy theory—quite the opposite—it’s really about the fact that we as the primary inventors of the technologies, by default, get those first rights. If you are the dominant painter of an era, your subjects will look like your friends and neighbors. If you invented the technologies we have today, one-sided communications like radio and TV and film, it will sound a lot like you and your neighbors. So what we have is English and Spanish media in most of the world, particularly English. And other countries where you can literally not find a single recording from a nation of 20-30 million people, with the exception of maybe one ethnomusicology document, usually from decades ago. But currently, they are sequestered linguistically because they aren’t singing in English. And I think everyone loses for that, with creativity and music and expression. Because each language has it’s own music, and neurologically it’s beneficial to listen to things that are challenging and new instead of listening to “Free Bird” for the 10,000th time whether you want to or not, like at a gas station or the background in a movie, or wherever.
Rafael: What does “the battle” look like, the struggle to achieve democracy? Is that why you’ve gone into these underrepresented countries to record and bring the music out the greater world?
Ian: Oh yeah, it’s by design. My wife Marilena Delli and I go to places where we can’t find records from. I think it’s important that the music and the songs and the voices come first. You can go in with the best intentions, but you have to find something that holds its own, especially if you are going to present something to the larger world as somewhat representative of that place. They need to be good in some way and we’ve been able to find some great stuff. My belief is that anywhere you go in the world there are musical people and good music. There are no amusical people, just as there are no asexual people—they would be extinct—because you have to be musical to speak, and you have to be musical to move. Anyone who can walk and speak is musical. So when music became a literate thing—you could read it or not read it—there developed a division between audience and performer, and from that grew the idea of tone deafness. There is literally no such thing. There might be people who are challenged, or they don’t have the perfect pitch of some musical genius, but they have to be able to identify tone or they would be mute, they would not be able to speak at all. The battle is not about conspiracy, but with the centralization of the industry it’s like a stranglehold over most outlets. So, if only one southeast Asian country has received a GRAMMY in the last 58 years, I think we have to ask, are they just not very good or there is something wrong with the system? I think it’s failed in some way. It’s not about Affirmative Action or that something or someone is to blame, but we need to begin to confront that it’s not right, that the system of distribution is not equitable.
Rafael: What does the challenge look like in terms of getting people to listen to music in other languages? Spanish is common enough in the US and still people will resist listening to songs in Spanish because they don’t understand the lyrics. So even with exposure, it can be hard to get people to listen. What does the obstacle look like in getting people to listen to songs in Chichewa?
Ian: I think the challenge is to get people to care about music and books and art like you do, like I do, like most people who are involved in it do to varying degrees. I think they suffer as a result of not caring. Trivializing the importance of popular music is a mistake because it’s not trivial; it’s everywhere and it influences people whether they like it or not. The great irony is that if you ask most people what their favorite song means, or ask them the words to it, they don’t know the words or the meaning entirely. So this idea of having a barrier because they don’t understand it… most people don’t understand songs in their own language to begin with. And I include myself in that. Lyrics are important, but I don’t know what half the songs I listened to growing up mean. Most aren’t really well-written enough for me to care because there aren’t that many Bob Dylans out there.
Rafael: How did you get to this point in your work in thinking about music in this way, wanting to explore music from other cultures, and recording and producing music to help bridge cultural divides?
Ian: I’ve been making music my whole life and making records since I was a teenager. I really just started getting burned out with two guitars-bass-drums and guys singing in English. I was already bored with that almost by the time I started making records. At some point I just became interested in the act of creativity itself and who it was attributed to and then thinking about my role as a producer. There is more than one kind of producer and I don’t think there is a right way necessarily. I feel my role is to be invisible, to help be a midwife to the process but not claim any parentage. So whether it’s my creativity or someone else’s creativity, or I get credit or someone else does, the important thing is that it happens. I mean I think a lot of the best songs get conceived by somebody in their head and never written, or sung a cappella in your car, by musicians or not, or a musician who plays it once and never records it. Recording everything puts too much emphasis on results. Someone sitting in a room and writing a song and singing it once, that can’t be bad for the world.
Rafael: In terms of the creative process, do you want to bring that to as many people as possible? Or are you more interested in the higher, artistic achievement… trying to find the music and art we need to hear?
Ian: Ideally you want to break down the barriers between audience and performers. The whole superstar system is very destructive, even though it makes sense economically because it’s a billion dollar business. But if you break it down and deal with it logically and mathematically, it makes no sense. To think that on a planet with seven billion people there should be one artist with one name that everyone should know and then spend hundreds of dollars to get within a football field’s reach of to watch on a video screen as they sing to their own recording… And that is the ultimate musical experience someone will have in their lifetime? I think that’s a lie, and it’s not that it’s wrong but it should be sold for what it is, which is just a commercialization of something that could be free, and not so costly, laborious, and limited. People have become silenced by sound, and that’s the irony, the more sound there is the more silenced they become.
Rafael: Could you talk about some of the topics in your book such as the damages of colonization and the need for imperfection? What would a reader expect to find related to these themes?
Ian: Essentially, with multi-tracking the emphasis shifted to a quest for perfection. Multi-track recording is probably the most important musical instrument of the past few centuries after the piano and the guitar—the guitar for it’s portability and the piano because of its ability to harmonize with itself. It’s an incredible tool but it brought about the cart before the horse situation where the sound of the recording became more important than the content and the emotion. I learned it on my skin in a painful way, being subjected to severe overnight sessions because it was cheaper to go to the best studio that way. But ending up with tortured experiences with no flow, and constantly stopping tape to reroute or redo something. You can make a Frankenstein recording, and most people do, but there is beauty in a naked, candid, honest snapshot of what someone is. And most of the other stuff is just ego. As a producer I don’t indulge that. It’s not what I want to spend my time doing, so I’m not going to do 30 takes of one song. You do two or three takes and move on, two or three at the most, because you aren’t going to get better! (laughter) You are you who you are at that point in time. You could stop and practice and do the record again in a month or a year, but at that moment you are you who are and are as good as you’re going to be. And people flip out about the little details, and often it’s about something really beautiful, something most wouldn’t even notice—a flat note that drives the horn player nuts—and that’s often the very thing that makes the recording cool. That’s the role of the producer, to give people a point of view that’s a bit more objective or more detached to be able to say, hey that’s alright.
Rafael: What kind of tips or techniques do you have in terms of field recording?
Ian: Really it’s about keeping it simple. Again, in the end what matters is what people hear, because most people don’t listen to music clinically. They don’t care. Even most people who care about music don’t listen clinically. They listen with their heart, and listen to how a record makes them feel and not how it sounds. Engineers listen to how it sounds and that’s fine, and sometimes you get a Pink Floyd kind of amazing recording that stands up over time, but most people have very different records sitting side by side, and aren’t listening that way. Clinically, some sound really bad. Louie Louie for example, and all the Sun Records recordings, were done with the intention of having bleed. Sam Phillips made his room more reflective, which is the opposite of how things are done today. Most of the time the goal is to have a dead room, which speaks for itself, I think, with musicians recording in isolation, which also speaks for itself. I just think most people aren’t concerned with the way something sounds but rather with the way it makes them feel.
Rafael: Could you talk about your work around nonviolence and where that comes from? How did you get involved in that work?
Ian: From a need for survival in the home I grew up in and a need for a lot of conflict resolution. It came with and out of the need for survival physically and monetarily as a musician. I had to find work and the only thing that interested me was working in social services and mental health. I started doing that as a teenager to support myself and through that became a quote-unquote expert on violence prevention. I was kind of good at it by experience or by nature or both. For me, music and social work are one in the same. I think the greatest artists are social workers, and the people who are artificial are essentially the opposite. They are doing harm to society, to people’s’ psyche and spirits by selling them on experiences that are not real, selling them on fast food culture. That comes with consequences, and I look at it as a missed opportunity. In music, people are often robbed through their musical experiences because the experience itself is quite empty.
Rafael: How do these two worlds intersect for you, arts and music specifically and your more social oriented efforts?
Ian: They intersect in concrete ways. People want to be listened to, that’s what they desire. When we listen we have a chance of understanding them and gaining empathy and when you have empathy you don’t have deliberate violence or sadism. But in true states of empathy and understanding it’s not possible to be in violent conflict with another person. I think musicians have always been the travelers and interlopers and bridges between cultures and they have value in that way. But when you take that away all we have is London and Los Angeles broadcasting their perspective out into the world. I don’t think that’s healthy.
Rafael: In thinking about your creative work across music and fiction, your novella Sister Maple Syrup Eyes, and your new book, there seems to be an underlying theme of survival or recovery. How does that resonate for you?
Ian: I don’t think it’s deliberate but it’s an interesting observation. Certainly my music was historically quite dark and depressing, and it came out that way even when I didn’t want it to. I was interested in literature and used music as an outlet, and it probably came out darker because of that influence. But what we are doing is largely about survival. Not that the world is a horrible, dangerous place, but people need to be active, and recognize that a lot of what we’ve been given, and what have become givens, are not all that normal. Up until a few generations back, the exceptional family member was the one that didn’t play music. Now the unusual family member is the one that does play music. That’s a weird inversion that isn’t necessarily good. The punk rock movement was connected to the idea that anybody could play music, but unfortunately that was picked up by the “me” generation, the egocentric era, and grew into this idea that anybody could be a star, which is almost worse than the star system. What we have now is really the celebration of mediocrity. The ideal objective of the punk movement should have been to eliminate all stars, or the desire to be one, but it’s become this idea that anyone who can play four chords and write semi-decent songs that aren’t that different from generations of songs before them can be considered a genius. These artists come and go and they play the middle stage at Coachella and are written-up in Pitchfork and then disappear. It comes back to the idea that there are seven billion people on the planet and there aren’t that many people who deserve such widespread attention. Yes, we will have the Dylans and Lennons every now and then, but I think we should listen to those around us more rather than be told who to listen to.
Rafael: We hear a lot of negativity about the music industry, but you sound hopeful. Are you?
Ian: Yeah, absolutely. Things are great. A lot of the unheard artists are great but I think the important thing is that we need to continue to break down boundaries. In an ideal world we would just have one big jukebox and the best songs would win. But it’s not a contest. Once you get to a certain level of expression, it’s all equal, it’s just great. People say there is good music and bad music, but I don’t believe that. I think there is honest music and artificial and dishonest music, and some people like artificial and dishonest music. The reason some kid who is 21 years old who is getting married tomorrow is going to play “It’s a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong at his wedding is because the song resonates with him on an emotional level; they believe the singer. And they’ll play that right next to some new single or other song they are into. There can be a great song written by some crap artist—that’s not the issue. The question is should they be playing a soccer stadium, or should anyone be playing a soccer stadium. Again, I understand the economic incentives but I’m not sure it’s beneficial to the individual.
Rafael: When you think about heading into the field again, what’s next for you?
Ian: We don’t like to talk about where we are going next because we’re a bit superstitious considering so many things that can go wrong governmentally, coordinating visas, and other details. You never know what you are going to come out with. But, generally, you come out with stuff that exceeds expectations. It’s the leap of faith that’s important, and also being very clear-eyed about what it is that you are seeking. Sometimes people put on the kid gloves cross-culturally and it’s like, why? Why should a band from Uruguay be treated more gently than a band of my peers from California? If something is good it’s good; if someone is slacking they’re slacking or being a jerk, whatever. It doesn’t benefit anybody to be dishonest. I think you still have to apply the same hard-minded standards to the process and then usually you end up coming out with something that is better than you imagined. There’s just so much good music out there, too much. And not all of it needs to be recorded and not all of it will. Most of the stuff that was wildly popular when I was young, no one listens to now. Most of it is gone. As hard as people try to press it into petroleum and box it and cement it in history, music isn’t like that. It’s a very fluid thing. No one is really going to remember who wrote those songs in 10 years or 50 years, and they shouldn’t really care. But some version of the great songs will live on. And the words may change a bit and the melody may drift, which is the folk tradition anyway, but they will live on.
Rafael: What kinds of obstacles and dynamics do you encounter when traveling into other countries and attempting to work with artists and musicians?
Ian: I think the dynamics of artists and bands are fairly similar anywhere you go in the world, musicians and bohemian and artistic types are not that different anywhere you go. You can sense when you are dealing with ego and you can sense immaturity, which are kind of one in the same. You find people believing the rock and roll myth, believing in the big money, scared we might steal their song and make a million dollars off of it. I mean, there are too many good songs out there and that’s just not going to happen. But, in general, people want to be listened to, and the greatest gift you can give to people is your attention.
Rafael: Tell me about the Zomba Prison Project and the GRAMMY nomination for the album you produced.
Ian: One of the projects we did was go into the Zomba Prison in Malawi and we worked with the prisoners there on songwriting and recording. We spent nearly two weeks there and recorded with 60 people and ended-up with 20 songs from 16 different singers, men and women. It’s a nice little record and when it came out it did pretty well for a grassroots record for an album in a “foreign” language. There are four or five a cappella songs on the record and very few drums or percussion, so it’s basically a folk record, basically like a blues record, a real field recording. It got some nice writeups and that was basically it. So to get this nomination now has been incredible, and it’s gotten an incredible amount of attention, especially for something so small. When you look at Sub-Saharan Africa, very few countries have had a nomination. The lion’s share of the nominations have gone to countries with more developed economies like Mali, South Africa, and Nigeria. Meanwhile, all these other countries don’t exist. Even big ones like Ethiopia, Congo, and Kenya, massive countries physically and in terms of population, have been rendered virtually invisible in that regard. It represents that inequitable aspect we’ve talked about, and this is the first nomination Malawi has ever had.
Zomba Prison Project Mini Documentary
A great quote from Ian, also found on his website:
“Nepotism and academia are both antithetical to major pop-culture revolutions. Innovation has almost, without fail, routinely risen culturally from the bottom to the top, not from the aristocracy that now rules much of the misnomered ‘indie’ rock world. Pop culture is rarely a trickle down affair. Be it James Brown, Elvis Presley, Billie Holiday, Bob Marley, Louis Armstrong, Grandmaster Flash, Edith Piaf, Johnny Rotten, Woody Guthrie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Kurt Cobain, The Carter Family, Miriam Makeba, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Django Reinhardt, Chavela Vargas or Eminem, many of the most important artists historically have originated from less than auspicious circumstances.”