Perfect Sound Forever

Jon Hassell tribute

AM: "taken on tour with Jon, just after a soundcheck and I'm with Peter Freeman here (I'm on the left, Peter on the right)"

Engineer Arnaud Mercier
interview by Jason Gross
(October 2021)

PSF: What was your impression of Jon's music before you started working with him?

AM: The very first time I heard Jon's music was in 1997 when he came to Nice to play a concert at the Opera House. It was part of a Festival produced by the CIRM (International Center for Musical Research). At that time, I was a student at CIRM and I volunteered to help at the Festival. They also released an album on this occasion: "Bluescreen Project" as part of the Vertical Collection. Peter Freeman was also there. The music was simply amazing. As many people usually say about Jon's music, I had never heard anything like that before! On top of that, they were using Zendrum MIDI controllers on stage; also something I've never seen before. I immediately looked and bought all his albums online :)

PSF: For Listening to Pictures, how did you work with him to produce the album?

AM: We used to exchange high quality WAV files via FTP then we discussed the different aspects on the phone or via email. Then I would receive some vinyl test pressing and listen using several different combinations of speakers and turntables so I could send a detailed report to Jon with my thoughts and ideas. On a few occasions Jon asked me to directly apply some changes on the master WAV files before going through mastering and test pressing.

PSF: How would you describe the recording process for that album?

AM: Well, with Jon there was no specific process. What I mean is that he had no specific routine for that. One of the most amazing aspects with Jon was his ability to permanently have a "multi layered" listening; What I mean here is that he was able to simultaneously hear very tiny details but also the overall "picture" of a music piece. Most of us don't do that simultaneously. We are able to either concentrate on details within a music composition or take more perspective and listen to the music as a whole. But Jon was able to hear it all on many levels at the same time. I remember, when we were touring, spending days working on a specific element that Jon found interesting: could be a simple keyboard chord, a percussion part, a trumpet phrase. We used to spend hours trying different treatments, arrangements etc.. on specific elements. And those could end up being just a onetime detail within a piece or become the ground foundation for a new piece.

Regarding the composition process, I know that he was intensively using Ableton Live to combine different elements, create some structures etc.. He was also working quite a lot with Rick Cox and John von Seggern.

PSF: How was the process for making/recording Seeing Through Sound similar or different from the previous album? My understanding is that it was all done within the same period.

AM: Correct, it was pretty much exactly the same process for both.

PSF: Was he planning further albums in the 'pentimento; series? Did any recordings begin for that?

AM: Given the quantity of archive we had, I'm quite sure that Jon was probably planning to release more albums on the Pentimento series. However, we didn't really discuss it in detail. So it's just my guess, not something that was clearly planned.

PSF: When I interviewed him last year, he mentioned that there was a lot of archival material that he was going through- was he planning to release any of that?

AM: Well, between 2015 (when I started to collaborate with Jon) and today, I used to record absolutely everything. We always managed to have both stereo and multitrack recording abilities when touring and absolutely every single note of music that has been played has also been recorded. We used to record rehearsals, soundchecks and of course concerts all in stereo and multitrack. Rick Cox also might have a huge archive of all the recent works [ED NOTE: he does]. So, again, there was no "official" release plan prepared but knowing, Jon I'm quite sure that many releases might have come out of this archive.

PSF: Other than the book, are there any other projects he was planning?

AM: The book was already a big project. Jon was intensively thinking about the different possible ways to release it either as a regular paper book, but also perhaps on a digital form. At some point, we were even talking about creating a digital form that contains some "rules" and allow you to jump directly to a different chapter, not following a "sequential" order, according to all the previous chapter you've already read, allowing for a non-linear experience, but rather a reader's choice to take a specific direction.

I also do remember that Jon had been contacted to work on a new music instrument development. I remember him mentioning that during several phone calls as well as emails, but I don't think it really developed more than being a "project."

PSF: For Listening with Pictures, you mentioned that you received the raw material online and corresponded with Jon via e-mail. Was there a reason that you didn't meet up with him then? (geography?)

AM: As you mentioned, geography is the main reason for that. After 2015, the "nucleus" of Jon Hassell group has been: Rick Cox, John von Seggern and Jon himself. And they all are based in L.A. Also, the technology today allows us to exchange files very fast. It makes sense to have meetings "in person" with all the musicians so each one can bring a new idea, participate in the composition process. I see a real "added value" here in meeting in person. But, on the technical side, the need for me to be onsite wasn't very relevant. Working as we did, remotely, was perfect.

One might be tempted to consider that the composing and recording process for these 2 albums has been different than for a "regular" album as Last night the moon came... (if the word "regular" ever means something : )) But actually, if you compare them it's pretty much the same. For Last night the moon came..., we all met in Avignon (Pernes Les Fontaines) in the studio for a week, with Manfred Eicher who joined us for 2 days. We did all the recordings and then the album was mixed in L.A. by Jon and Peter Freeman.

For the 2 Pentimento albums, we hadn't met all in the studio or in the same place to record all the material, but actually, all the material was already recorded as it comes from the huge archive we built during the last 10 years of rehearsals, soundchecks and concerts. A lot of material that has been recorded, especially during rehearsals and soundcheck, was never used on stage...

So basically, it's pretty much the same process except that the recording material has been created all along many years. Then Jon along with Rick and John von Seggern proceeded to the composition step. And finally, myself and the mastering engineer have both participated in our respective fields.

PSF: Some of the musicians on Seeing Through Sound told me that they had the impression that Jon tweaked the material more to make it not sound exactly like the previous record. If you did see that happening, could you give some examples of that?

AM: To be very honest I didn't see that happening here. I just think that both albums belong to a "collection", and therefore people tend to find them perhaps similar on some aspects and could think that there has been additional treatments, more tweaking as you said, to make the second one sound a bit more different that the first one. However, knowing Jon and his process in making music, I'm almost certain that it's not happening here. Perhaps just a feeling some people might have when listening to the album without having been through the creation process.

PSF: How did you find Jon's process of making music different on stage versus in the studio?

AM: Jon's process of making music is unique and happens in the exact same way in the studio, on tour, at home etc..

When he was at home in L.A. he was practicing trumpet for several hours every day, but also composing, trying new things, recording some material (a trumpet phrase, a keyboard chord, a percussion pattern, etc.) He was regularly in contact with both Peter Freeman and Rick Cox, both also bringing some new ideas and material (a guitar riff, a bass pattern etc...) And all that could become a new music piece. Jon was also regularly going through our big audio archive from previous rehearsals, soundchecks and concerts. He used to email me asking for the details of a specific piece or part as I always had a very detailed archive of all the recordings (date, place, equipment used etc.).

On tour, we always tried to have 1 or 2 days of rehearsal before the first concert. It allowed us to meet all together, to play, to evaluate all the new material elaborated by Jon, Peter and Rick that I mentioned above, but also to create new parts with all the other musicians. Then, once on tour, after the first concert, we used to listen every day to the recording of the previous concert, either on the road, on a plane, or on a day off before the next concert. We also sometimes had a "hotel room rehearsal" with a scaled down setup, listening to all the recordings of the previous concert and proposing new element and material.

Also, Jon, either with Peter and Rick in L.A. or with all the other musicians on tour, was giving a lot of indications to each one during our listening sessions about what he liked, what could be done differently, what could be played a bit later or a bit earlier in a piece etc. so each musician could take notes and propose something on the next soundcheck and concert. As you can see, his process was exactly the same whether he was at home, in the studio or on tour.

PSF: Do you know of any plans to have Jon's book finally come out? [ED NOTE: this was before the announcement of the release of Atmospherics]

AM: Not really. I do have a big archive of all the material, text, visuals, graphic elements and all our exchanges about the book but I don't know if and/or when it could be released. That's probably something that will be discussed with Jon's family at a later stage and perhaps also with Brian Eno who was part of the "Conversation Piece" with Jon on stage: a series of lecture, all around the book. So perhaps he might want to be part of the process... I really don't know.

See the rest of our 2nd part of our Jon Hassell tribute

Also see the 1st part of our Jon Hassell tribute, with additional interviews and more

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