The Medici Effect

NOTE: This blog was originally posted at BretAlexanderMusic.com

The Real GigI ended last week’s entry by talking about courage. In music, as it is with everything, you have to have the courage to put yourself out there if you want to accomplish anything.

Obviously, this is very difficult for some to do. If you are of a business mindset, the first thing you will do when creating something is to look at what is out there now that is successful. That’s fine, but if you ONLY copy the style of something else your work will not connect. Conversely, if you get too weird and personal no one will know what the hell you are talking about.

So this week I want to talk about style, substance, and how to deal with the intersection of the two.

To be honest, style can be a pain in the ass. If you have fans of what you do, probably they don’t want your style to change. Even though you may have changed a lot . Also, because of style, there are some people you will just never reach. I still deal with this when I’m writing and recording my own stuff. Sometimes if I’m working on a sweet little folk song, it creeps into my mind that my friends (or enemies) who are into punk, hardcore, and/or metal are going to have a field day with this. Or at the very least I will give them a good chuckle when they are hanging out without me.

But I don’t think it is good policy to try to be all things to all people. If I feel like the tune is coming from the right place I will continue. If the feeling is solid, I take the attitude of “It’s a love song, asshole. Piss off.” I do that because style and substance are two different things. Style is about appearances… and that is important. But as we know, appearances can be deceiving. Some of the loudest, brashest, cockiest people I know are also the weakest. Style is not strength.

I’ve used this quote many times before but it bears repeating. It’s from the author Tom Robbins: “Style is the conduit through which substance must flow.” In musical terms, the style of the music is what attracts people to it. Ultimately, the style is what gets the message to the people. We are all affected by style more than we realize. So yea, style is important. I totally agree with that. But ultimately, you drink the water not the pipe.

Which bring me back to courage. If you are an artist you can’t simply copy the style of something and expect it to work. You gotta put some of your own water in the pipe if you want everyone to keep coming back to the well. Your upbringing, your beliefs, your anger, etc. etc. Whatever it takes. Music is as much about selling you as a person as it is about selling instruments playing notes and someone singing. And putting “you” in there takes some balls.

So, the real question is how do you make all this work together? How can you draw on your influences without completely copying them? Or how do you say something important without boring the shit out of everyone? Where is the line? Why does one song sound fresh and exciting while another seemingly similar tune falls flat? This is what separates the great from the “ok” in the world of music, art, cinema, or whatever. The question can’t really be answered. By definition, the answer is always changing. But looking at it in a wide angle lens, the “next thing you create that works” is usually about taking a familiar thing and combining it with another familiar thing that no one ever thought to combine it with. This can be a very subtle change. But it’s enough to give the new thing its own footing. This can happen out of necessity, by accident, or by design.

A couple examples of necessity: In an industrial accident at the age of 17 , Tony Iommi lost the tips of the middle and ring finger of his right hand. He couldn’t grip the guitar right. So he tuned it down, used lighter strings, and used thimbles to make the strings easier to press down. That lower and darker tone became the signature sound of Black Sabbath….. which helped start a whole new genre of rock music. He combined an affliction with an established form of music to create something new.

Claude Monet developed cataracts later in life. It affected his perception of color. So his painting from that period had this soft, haloed, blurry look to them. He painted as he saw. It’s well-known that such artists as Monet, Degas, Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt and Georgia O’Keefe all reached their heights of artistic vision while facing a decline in their eyesight. How is that possible? Once again, a liability pushes things forward.

By accident: When working on a new track for The Who, Roger Daltrey accidentally stuttered trying to get the lyrics right. He prepared to take it again. The producer chimed in to start again… but keep the stuttering. That song was “My Generation”. The BBC initially refused to play “My Generation” because it did not want to offend people who stutter, but it reversed its decision after the song became more popular. The stuttering technique has been used in dozens of tunes since then (Examples: “My Sharona”, “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”).

A personal example of a happy accident: In the late ’90s, our band was doing preproduction for our 2nd major label album. We were working on a track called “Running Up That Hill”. It wasn’t going well. We knew the track was solid, but the arrangement wasn’t working. While we were plowing away, the power went off in the house. While waiting around for the lights to come back on, I put down the electric guitar and started noodling around on the mandolin. That’s where we found the whole vibe of the song as it stands today. It’s one of my favorite tracks we have ever done. Conceived totally by accident.

By design: The actor Anthony Hopkins has said that when he does a role he always gives his character a trait that no one knows about and never appears in the movie. For example, perhaps his character secretly had a child that died. It never appears in the story line. But it will inform everything he does with the role. It adds depth to the performance. Which imitates life, of course. Everyone you know has some force pushing them forward or holding them back that you don’t know about. That’s life. It’s a great technique for doing something fresh and new.

A personal example of that for me would be a technique I use sometimes when playing solos on the electric guitar. Instead of running scales or playing some solo like Eric Clapton would play, imagine your worst enemy in the audience. Then walk out there and punch him in the face. But translate it through the guitar. Use your instrument as a punching bag. I guarantee you will stop playing scales. It works for all emotions. It takes you to different places.

So that’s it. A few ideas about the inner workings of the creative process. A feeble attempt at explaining the unexplainable. By the way, I got the idea for this blog from a book called “The Medici Effect” by Frans Johansson. A book about the creative process. I just combined the theories in that book with my experience in the music biz. Sound familiar? That’s the way it works.

No matter what you do, there is always someone out there that wants to put you into little square boxes. Preferably of their creation. That’s not paranoia, that’s just the way it is. People want order. No matter who we are, we have to deal with those boxes every day to get by. But remember, the world is round. Don’t be content with squares. The things you create should occupy a place unique to you. And the most boring, ordinary, overlooked thing in your day to day can make all the difference.

Bret Alexander is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio as well as the guitarist and chief songwriter for The Badlees. His “Real Gig” blog runs each Friday.

The Real Gig: A Musician’s Guide to the Universe by Bret Alexander. May 31, 2013.