My Life in Film Festivals (haiku #1) (Click to play)
A Memory Lost At Sea (Click to play)
From the album â€œMovie Theatre Haikuâ€
-Reproduced in their entirety with expressed permission from Cutthroat Pop Records-
In all my years playing, rehearsing, practicing, tuning, swearing about,Â and performing music there have been few people with whom I see eye to eye.Â In the beginning my musical associates were into things like rap and teeny pop that wellâ€¦just plain didnâ€™t interest me.Â Not that there arenâ€™t merits to those genres (there has to beâ€¦right?), but in reality they seem to just re-plagiarize themselves over and over.Â As a matter of factâ€¦the other day I played one Shakira song while singing another (and, sadly, it fit perfectly).
As I progressed and moved deeper into my studies my associates changed.Â They became die Ã¼ber Musiker and were unwilling to accept that normal culture included things like guitars and drums.Â I did not really like the later parts of my classical training at the university level, because I was forced to listen and study things that no one should likeâ€¦yet everyone around me claimed to not only like it, but they would gladly reproduce with it were that possible.
I was the only person in the whole major that believed there was a place for real musical training in the modern world.Â I felt likeÂ MugatuÂ when he poignantly stated â€œI feel like Iâ€™m taking crazy pills!â€Â I couldnâ€™t take it, and shortly after graduating a left music for good (so I thought).
Enter Chris Robley, years later.Â Chris, as I knew the second I heard his music, had received classical training like me.Â Not only that, but he had decided to use this forbidden knowledge of music-fu to create something both modern, and worth listening to!
It was luckâ€¦pure luck that I found his music.Â I was on my lunch break cruising the internet when I came upon a music blog.Â I donâ€™t remember which, but it had obviously been around a while as there were about a million â€œreviewsâ€ on it.Â I selected one at random, and played the first song I saw.Â It was â€œMy Life in Film Festivals (haiku #1)â€ by Chris Robley and the Fear of Heights.Â I was BLOWN AWAY.Â I caught myself several times grunting or smiling or cheering in approval of the interesting musical twists, the awesome lyrics.Â I replayed it 4 times right then.Â I also told myself that I would bring this to The Reviewistâ€™s attention immediately.
Song after song after song is completely original.Â Not only from what one would normally expect to hear out there on the radio, but from each other as well.Â Each song is completely different from another.Â NONE of them follow typical progressions, the instrumentation is so diverseâ€¦I truly had not heard anything like this before.Â The creativity required to write such a diverse selection of music is astounding.
As soon as I was allowed I wrote Alex Steininger with â€œIn Music We Trustâ€ to request permission to put a full song on TheReviewist.com.Â I received a reply that this would certainly be possible and I was provided with a list of approved songs, but the list did not contain â€œMy Life in Film Festivals (haiku #1)â€.
This, of course, was sad.Â I really, really wanted all of you to hear the whole song, and not just some clip of it.Â I replied, and made the request.Â I donâ€™t know what strings had to be pulled, but after a time I received confirmation from Cutthroat Pop Records that permission had been given.
On top of that, I was able to score an interview with Chris Robley himself.Â I am very appreciative of the time all involved were willing to spend for me, as they all have more important things to do. What follows is the interview.Â It was done via email because everyone involved is pretty busy (and, in all honesty I didnâ€™t want to take more time away from them as I felt I was already intruding somehow).
While trying to come up with good questions it became readily apparent to me that I am much more of a musician than a journalist, but Chris was kind enough to decipher and answer the questions that I meant to ask, as opposed to the slop I threw in front of him.
Dan: Your music is very complex, especially when compared to one might hear on the radio at any given time. Where does your inspiration come from?
Chris: I donâ€™t think the complexity comes so much from any particular influences as it does from a sort of hyperactive intolerance for anything that sounds clichÃ© or familiar. The world is drowning in boring pop music. I suppose this attitude starts in the writing process, with lyrics, and also in how I try to set melodies against interesting chord changes. I definitely bring that mindset to the production as well, searching for interesting sounds and tones. Searching for something slightly jarring or subversive.
Iâ€™m kind of an arrangement junkie, too. Once the basic song is written (chords, melody, lyrics), it seems to just repeat in my head for days at a time and Iâ€™ll slowly come up with other parts in my head. Â So we usually end up with lots of semi-dissonant countermelodies playing against the more basic â€œsongâ€. None of it is rocket science, though. It is somewhat dissonant for pop music. But weâ€™re not talking about Stockhausen or Sun Ra here.
Dan: What is your process for creating your songs?
Chris: I try to have the songs entirely â€œproducedâ€ in my head before going into the
studio, or at least have a pretty detailed road map for what everyone should be
doing. Iâ€™d say about 75% of what was happening in my head actually works when we press record, and then we adjust the other 25% based on what we hear back through the speakers. The main reason for that process is simply finances. I like to record in studios with engineers as opposed to neurotically over-obsessing in a home recording environment. But the down side of studios is, of course, that it gets expensive. So the more complete the arrangements are in my head before going to record, the better. The cheaper. The quicker.
Dan: I think that related to the complexity of your music is the use of interesting
instrumentation (kazoo, whistling, clarinet, mandolin, fiddle etc.). Having been through classical training as well, I know you most likely didnâ€™t learn to put those things together in a school setting. Where do you get your ideas for the instruments used in your pieces?
Chris: Well, Iâ€™m not exactly sure where the ideas come from. I tend to just hear the arrangements in terms of melodies, counter-melodies, harmonic changes, and groove. And then itâ€™s just a matter of fitting the right instrument to the corresponding melody. Iâ€™m not really stubborn about it, though. For any given melody there are probably a handful of instruments that could do the job and then it is just trial and error to see what works with the other instruments. They donâ€™t have to behave. But theyâ€™ve all got to co-exist.
Iâ€™m also a big fan of albums that have a range of diverse sounds and instruments from start to finish. The ubiquitous Beatles influence, I suppose. So if Iâ€™ve got a Theremin on a song already, Iâ€™m probably not going to use it again on that album. Iâ€™ll find some other tone that works just to keep the album evolving for the listener.
Dan: Who would you say your music is intended for? In other words, is there a
particular group of people you hope to reach?
Chris: I wish I had an easily definable target demographic like â€œangst-ridden goth teensâ€ or â€œ30-something divorcees,â€ (actually, that might actually be my target market) but I think, because the tunes, styles, and production is fairly diverse from song to song and album to album it becomes harder to nail down who the actual audience is. I suppose that is a good thing in the end, because the only audience I can really guarantee will be there is me. So I definitely write with ME in mind first as the target audience.
Iâ€™m definitely proud that so many musicians and obsessive music-geeks are fans of my music. Theyâ€™re a harder crowd to please anyways. But perhaps I inhabit the in-between place for people who are bored-to-tears by most of the un-ambitious pop/rock/folk crap that is out there now, but theyâ€™re a bit too traditional in their tastes to really start digging the avant jams.
Dan: Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years? 10? Do you have any particular milestone at which point you could say, â€œI have finally accomplished what I set out to accomplishâ€?
Chris: Well, like a lot of songwriters, I think the pie-in-the-sky dream for me right now would be to live a somewhat stable existence solely on the income from performing and selling my own songs, and continuing to do production work for other bands. If I could keep that up for a good run, Iâ€™ll think I have â€œarrived.â€
Making touring sustainable is a big goal now, too. Balancing finances, time, family, the schedules of the other 6 people I tour with. There are a ton of challenges there. Â But if we can keep the momentum going and feel like weâ€™ve achieved something new each time we go out, that would be success in my book.
Dan: While this may be a somewhat clichÃ© question, I have readers who have specifically stated they want to know these kinds of thingsâ€¦if you could meet and perform with any musician in history, who would that be?
Chris: Well, a clichÃ©d question deserves a clichÃ©d answer (though Iâ€™m very sincere in this response.) I just think everyone else on the planet would pick a lot of the same people. OK. Here is the dream jam session:
Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Thom Yorke, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Bowie/Eno, Syd Barrett, Gillian Welch/David Rawlings, and John Vanderslice producing.
It would inevitably sound TERRIBLE, but itâ€™d be fun to record.
Dan: The Fear of Heights has to do some difficult playing to keep up with the complexity of your music. Has it ever been hard to get everyone on the same page when it comes to creating songs and getting them practiced and ready for performance?
Chris: Surprisingly, no. Iâ€™m really fortunate to have a bunch of really talented players. I kinda stole them all from other bands and projects, so I got to pick the people I wanted to play with from the local Portland scene. Practices are really efficient since Iâ€™ve already come up with half of the parts. So we start with a good framework. Then it is just a matter of committing it all to memory. And if someone is having trouble with a particular part we leave it until the next practice and they go home and work it out on their own time.
Dan: One thing that I found in my previous life as a musician is that sometimes things just donâ€™t go well live, especially when the music being performed is so complex. Have you guys ever had the dreaded â€œOH NO! We donâ€™t know where we are in the song!â€ moment on stage?
Chris: Again, no. Iâ€™m lucky. I canâ€™t ever remember any time weâ€™ve totally botched a song. There is always the rare missed chord here and there, and I screw up a lyric occasionally. But that actually is sometimes a good thing for a gig. If you donâ€™t let it throw you it can loosen things up a bit and actually become a fun moment for the audience, too, especially when I just start making up words on the spot. I think the worst thing recently was about 2 months ago; Iâ€™d had a few too many fancy drinks and counted off every song slow. It was like our morphine set. Unfortunately, I think it was a Red Bull crowd.
Dan: Iâ€™ve heard you say that the first song that got you going was â€œThe Boy in the
Bubbleâ€ by Paul Simon. Have there been any other particularly influential
pieces for you?
Chris: Many. It all started with Rhythm of the Saints (Paul Simon). Then Revolver (Beatles). Bitches Brew (Miles), OK Computer (Radiohead), Hunky Dory (Bowie), Animals (Floyd), the Rite of Spring (Stravinsky), Armed Forces and the Juliet Letters (Costello), Big Time (live Tom Waits), Drumming (Reich), Revelator (Gillian Welch), Cellar Door (John Vanderslice), Nilsson Schmilsson (Nilsson), Sung Tongs (Animal Collective). Sail Away (Randy Newman). A hundred othersâ€¦
Favorite Instrument and Venue?
Chris: Mississippi Studios in Portland is a pretty great, cozy place where we have played a bunch. The people there are a bit like family and it feels like home. Besides that, Iâ€™d have to say we always love playing the Deva CafÃ© in Modesto. It ainâ€™t technically a great venue, but the audience is always tops.
In the present world, Iâ€™d have to say I like sitting down at a real baby-grand piano
best of all. Nothing quite like a few hundred pounds of wood resonating and sending sound directly up your body through your arms.
In a post-apocalyptic peak-oil world, Iâ€™d have to make my acoustic guitar my prized
possession. As long as Iâ€™ve stashed away enough strings Iâ€™ll be fine. And it can double as an easily wielded weapon.
I canâ€™t say enough how much I recommend this music.Â It is great stuff.Â The lyrics are superb (and, at times unnerving), and there are times when I am just floored at what he throws in there musically.Â Once, there was even aÂ Picardy ThirdÂ (my personal favorite) in â€œPremiereâ€
You can hear Chris live regularly, his schedule in on the websites up at the top.
Finallyâ€¦I think I can safely say that Chris Robley and I see eye to eye musically.Â Itâ€™s about damn time someone does.