Perfect Sound Forever

John Leighton Beezer

Photographing The Unicorn
interview by 5-Track
Part 3 of 3

PSF: And yet you'll go out in front of how many people and make a deliberately discomfiting din!

JLB: Oh, I know! I used to say in The Thrown Ups, our goal is to be mistaken for a really crappy band. As long as you think we tried to do that, we win! That was part of the fun, looking at people going cross-eyed - "I guess they like Flipper!"

By the way, that's a massive influence right there - I even PLAYED with Flipper! I have to interject that. It was 1981 in Santa Cruz in the VFW Hall and Flipper played there, there were maybe ten or fifteen people in the audience, it was pretty early on and total insanity. Someone brought a 1940's chainsaw, they look like a car engine, big scary rusty chunk of sharp metal, and they were kicking it around on the floor and swinging it around and stuff, that's one thing that sorta stays in my mind. Another was that someone got up and started playing the drums, and it hadn't occurred to me that you could do that, so I was like, "damn, that guy just got up and tapped the drummer on the shoulder and he let him play! Fuck!" Ok, so I jumped up on stage and tapped Ted on the shoulder and said, "Hey, can I play your guitar?" And he looked a little disappointed, like he was having fun, but he also looked really open-minded about it and he said, "yeah OK, just don't hit anybody with it!" "Got it, I won't!"

He had some kind of amp made out of a tape recorder. I wasn't getting a sound I could manage, just KKKGGGHHH. I looked at the amp to see if I could modify it and it was like, he built this himself, I don't recognize any of the knobs! What does "FFwd" do? So I just went with it. Flipper was great. But if I could sound like the Dave Clark Five, I would. In fact sometimes I have!

Hendrix has always been an influence on me from the very beginning. He played next to my house in 1964 and I barely remember it 'cos I was an infant, but I do remember the incident in particular because we had to leave, my parents were upset by it. And I do remember quite clearly in 1968 when he came back to visit. His godmother lived next door so it was one of the stops when he was in town, so I remember my brother coming running in going "Oh my god!" I was like what, what? And what had happened was, he had this entourage and they were all driving like flashy Cadillacs and wearing just incredible outfits and when he went in to visit his godmother, they all had to stay outside. So I remember running out in the front yard and there were all these really flashy cars and people just kinda standing around waiting for their dude to come back out. So that was pretty wild. And the kid who lived next door had an autographed white strat from Hendrix. So one of the earliest examples that convinced me it could be done was an instrumental, it's on the Woodstock Soundtrack. It's called "instrumental interlude" or "guitar improvisation" or something...

PSF: The solo guitar thing?

JLB: Yeah, it's right after "Star Spangled Banner" and before "Villanova Junction" and it's just really beautiful, just something he spit out on the spot, I assume since it's referred to as an improvisation. Also, it's faked but, "Voodoo Child" on Electric Ladyland. That wasn't a jam, it was sort of a phony jam, it was a reconstructed jam, they had spent the whole evening, that night, basically, jamming on that riff. That's what Can sounds like when it's really on fire, so even though it's a little phony, it's great stuff, so those are all influences.

One other influence that's really weird, it's almost embarrassing but I think I'll talk about it 'cos I learned something kind of cool from it- I was really into the Cure for a long time which was very very early on, before they became this kind of pop phenomenon. I subsequently became very embarrassed to have ever been into the Cure, but the first three or four albums I thought were really good and I listened to them obsessively right around the same time I was listening to Joy Division. So I was a proto-goth.

I tried to learn how to play like that and it wasn't natural for me, I was coming out of a Hendrix thing at the time so it was a totally different style and I tried to figure it out and what I decided was that he was writing songs by putting one simple track on a drum machine, letting it run, coming up with about a 4-note bass riff for it and then layering different things on top. And so this is just my understanding of how he was creating these songs I really liked, and this applies to like the first four (Cure) albums. I think there's an album called Pornography that's really great and after that he lost me, took a left turn and so forth. Right up to that album, it's almost the same on every one, straightforward, kind of heavy drum beat - not always, the drumbeats got heavier with each album.

But there's always sort of a simple bass riff, a keyboard riff that supports it, and the reason I'm talking about that is I developed an idea at about that time, based on this thinking. That if you wanted to improvise a song, first of all if it's just gonna happen then good for you, you don't have any problems. But it's kind of a stressful thing for a lot of people, like: "What? You want me to get up in front of people and play and I don't even know what I'm gonna play?" And in fact, I guess it's been a long time since it's stressed me out 'cos I've bombed enough that I know how to handle that, too, it's just not that frightening.

If you really think to yourself, "I want this to be good and I have no idea what I'm doing," which is pretty common, there's a reasonably simple formula you can apply. I don't think there are any rules, you shouldn't need rules, whatever, but the truth of the matter is most people want some structure, just to help them relax a bit. So the idea is, if you understand the sort of basic structure of how to crank out a song on the spot, nobody has to do anything all that difficult. Everyone just needs to know their roles.

For example, it's not that hard for a drummer to start laying down a rhythm. In all of these cases, it doesn't have to be great, that's what's gonna kill you is trying to make it really super-sophisticated. Whatever, it'll get there but don't worry about it. Just lay down something in 4/4, it doesn't really matter what it is. Listen to a tape playing, or ice cubes in glasses, listen to a car going by, you're surrounded by rhythms at all times so pick one. It's just not hard. Ideally most drummers can sit down and start doing amazing things if they're good drummers. You shouldn't need to worry about this, but if you do, just start laying down something simple and keep it simple, 'cos there's the mystery of the groove, and everybody knows what it is, but it's really hard to say exactly what it is! You know it when you see it, right? So I don't know how to define the groove but it's definitely the essence of everything I want to do, but there are definitely some things about it that are undisputable and probably the most important thing is, the drums are the backbone of the groove. The drums have got to be solid. Lock in, basically, and it doesn't have to be fancy but make sure nobody can miss it and you've done your job. You're done, and it's up to the bass player.

And to the bass player I would say, pick three notes. It's hard to pick three notes that aren't in some key. The drums are not in any key, and you as the bass player can pick three or four notes even at random and you've just picked the key. You don't even have to worry about sounding good 'cos one of the little mysteries is that generally things sound better after you've heard them ten times. Even a mistake, something that just sounds horrific and isn't at all what you had in mind, if you can just repeat it, people start to think, "well that's kind of interesting, it's different." So with the bass player, it's pick some notes, and I don't even care what they are! Just pick some notes and lock 'em in with the drums.

That's actually all you need. That's the minimum requirements for a groove. And conceivably everyone can just sit there with their thumb up their ass from there on out.

But now it's time for other instruments. Guitar and keyboards are very similar in that they have dual possible roles, so ask yourself if you're kind of playing a rhythm or a lead. If you're playing a rhythm, then you probably want to look at what the bass player's doing, or listen to what the bass player's doing, and integrate with it pretty closely. The default is, if the bass player's playing A, B and E, well, play those three chords. And maybe add some syncopation or something to give it a little more... but you don't even have to do that, you can just copy the bass player. In fact you can just play the same notes that the bass player is playing. And eventually, you'll start to find embellishments or chord patterns that work, but you don't have to get it right away. By now you've got three people playing, and you know, keyboards are almost identical to the guitar in that you can mimic the bass or you can play some chords or you can take off and play lead, depending on what you want to do. But in general if you're nervous or don't know what you want to do, just default to the simplest thing and go with it.

And by that point, once you've got three musicians playing together, three or more, play with your ears, not your hands, listen to what's happening, you're not just sitting there going "oh I've got to play an A, now the B, now an E." Let that shit go and start listening to what's coming out, 'cos this is kind of the mystery of the groove, you'll hear something more than what you're putting into it and the idea is to somehow feed that and make it grow and happen.

In fact, that's the biggest problem with rehearsed songs- you're counting. "OK, this is the third one, on the fourth one I'm gonna have to go to the verse." Your mind is in the absolute wrong place. It's where are you on the plan, which is just wrong for music. It should be: "I can't believe these sounds that are coming out all around me! I must be participating in it and supporting it in some way, and I don't know how! And I don't care!" If you can just get sort of absorbed in what's coming out then you actually forget you're playing and whatever it is you're doing that got you there continues to keep you there or grows and gets more intense. So definitely, once you've gotten over that hurdle of what am I gonna play and there's actually three or four people playing something, then it will take on its own life if you let it.

There's also a really basic principle I had a long time ago, that sometimes I think, like, I know why things happened in Seattle and it was 'cos a few of us thought this way, but it was so hard to think this way that we forgot. And it basically amounts to, any group of people that gets together to try to play music is a good thing. And it's so easy to trash music that you don't like, or bad music or offensive music! There really is such thing as bad music, I'm not saying there isn't! But the fact that people want to get together to create is a good thing. You don't have to do more than that. Get together with good intentions and reasonable skill and talent and don't worry about do you look cool, do people like you, is this music gonna advance my career. All these weird things that come into your head when you're playing, just banish them, just think about how much fun it is to play music, and you're 90% of the way there. You either won't suck, or you'll suck in a delightfully interesting way! And either is fine.

PSF: You said to me once that the first thing you do to play good music is find some other career.

JLB: So your rent isn't contingent on how you play tonight! Scary! I should say that I admire people who can do it, I just can't.

PSF: Besides El Grande Conquistador, what's going on these days?

JLB: Basically, about 8 months ago, back in January (2008), I got a Jam-Man looper - before that I had an echo device and it had a 5-second loop feature and I found that when I was playing on my own that I was relying on that, that I would pretty much always lay down some kind of five-and-a-half second riff that would repeat and then jam over it. I was starting to do that so much that I wasn't really using the echo box for echo anymore. I started to wonder if there were things that did that better so I could go back to using my echo device for echo, and in fact there are! So I got the Jam-Man which I recommend to anyone, it's about 300 bucks and basically it'll hold, it'll hold about 20-30 minutes of mono recording. You start it with a foot pedal, basically you lay down one track and then you stop it. If you start it again, it'll loop forever, that two minute track'll play over and over again, and you can overdub as much as you want.

So what I've ended up doing sort of organically, and I do this two or three times a day, whenever I'm working and I'm getting stressed out, reach a stopping point and need to clear my mind, I'll just go in the next room and start one of these loops and I'll do two or three of these a day and what they generally are is a minute or a minute and a half long. I generally start with two or three chords, I'm doing a lot of overdubbing, it's all improvised though 'cos it keeps going in a loop and you just go over it, so I can crank out an 8-track song so to speak in five or six minutes. Well, it'll take a little longer than that but you get the idea.

So I usually play three or four chords over and over again, and then I'll triple that, you get this cool effect, it's kind of like chorus only chorus sucks 'cos it's mechanical, you know. It gets this really organic kind of shimmering effect to it, you can't really tell that it's been played three times but it doesn't sound normal either. Kinda sounds like a 12-string, so I do a lot of that. I'll lay down a bass track and then I'll sorta noodle over it for two or three tracks, play a duet basically with myself. I get these weird little vignettes that are about a minute or a minute-and-a-half long and when you listen to them, they don't have a starting point or a stopping point, so they start abruptly and they end abruptly 'cos they were created as organic loops. What they're intended for - they're intended as catharsis for me, but if you were to want to listen to them, what I would recommend is pick one and put it on a loop and let it go. Twenty or thirty times, 'cos almost all of them are continuous. Sometimes I'll get organized and have a clear start or stop point, but mostly they're just intended to loop on and on. That's what I do, after I create one, if it's any good, I'll just leave it playing, sometimes all day! And think about it, it's only about a minute or two long and I'll listen to 4 or 500 repeats of it all day long.

It's interesting in a lot of ways. I'm creating new sounds, never did I come close to multi-tracking before 'cos that just felt like cheating. Why would you do that? But since it's just automatically going through a loop and I'm just jamming with it, I end up multi-tracking. I'm learning a lot about shit like that, getting some cool sounds, and what's also cool about it, you know everybody goes through slumps and good times, you know? And since I'm pretty methodically laying these down and storing them by date, I have to unload the memory chip every now and then and put it on my computer, so I've got this inventory of maybe 400 of these tracks by now, and you can see the ups and downs, like, "oh I got stuck on a bad groove for a week or two here, everything sucked and I was frustrated and nothing was going right," and every now and then I'll just go on a streak where everything I do is godlike!

So what I'm doing with these things is I go through every now and again and just cull the good ones and I keep about 10%. So I've got about 40 or 50 songs now, whatever you want to call them, little snippets, that are really really cool! And I named them, when I take them off the Jam-Man I name them, but I just name them in a way that will help me remember, so all the ones I keep are named like Genius! or Brilliant! I'm a little reluctant to show them in public 'cos it's like, "well, you're full of yourself!" And I'm like, "no, I listened to 500 of these! And this one was really good so I called it Brilliant! No, I'm not full of myself!" Well, yes, I am full of myself, but that's not why I named those songs like that! I'd like you to hear another song of mine, it's called Genius, let me know what you think!

PSF: I tend to play the whole CD of them rather than just loop one track, the whole CD just has this fantastic flow.

JLB: They're totally created for no other reason than it's 3:30 in the morning, I'm a little tired, I'm going to play some music. And then there's also the effect of combing through them all and finding the really good ones. It's almost unfair, if I presented some of these to someone and said, "look, here's what I can do on guitar," I think a lot of people might listen to those and go, "fuck, how do you do that?" And the answer is, I don't know! You ought to hear the other 300 that kind of suck! The answer is you play 300 songs and pick the best one.

[Some of John Leighton Beezer's short loop-based improvs can be heard at]

PSF: Do you have anything to say about what you do when you're not playing music?

JLB: Where I'm at right this moment is very interesting and it's because for the last five or six years I've been working on software projects intended to monetize file-sharing. Because I think frankly you know I wonder what it would be like if all this infrastructure was available back when The Thrown Ups were starting, 'cos we absolutely made the best of what was available. We didn't even have jobs, I don't know where we got the money, but we figured out how to record and get records out and compared to now it was almost impossible to do. So if we had sorta taken that attitude and somehow gotten mp3s out, I can't imagine what that would have been like, but it'd be even cooler if you could make some money at it!

So I've been working on that for a long time and Weedshare was the company I had from 2002-2007 which was kind of successful in that we met a lot of people and a lot of people appreciated what we were doing, which basically sort of was that if you buy a file and share it with someone else, then they buy it and you'll make a commission. It just sort of says, go ahead and share music, but buy it, too. If you do and you're actively sharing music, you might even make some money.

And the idea was, I remember back in the '70's, there were just record stores everywhere, any moron could take their record collection, get a storefront and put up a sign and be in the record business, and a lot of people were doing it and a lot of them were very cool. It was very personal, like the person who cuts your hair- they know what you like, you'd go in and they have stuff behind the counter waiting for you and stuff like that. And that's just sort of gone the way of the big box stores and even those are dying now because they killed the business! So the idea was, what if anybody with a blog could just start selling music and make a little bit of money at it, and it's not really practical right now. It seems like it should be but it's not. I've been trying to solve that problem for a long time.

You and me and everyone we know, we're just constantly generating music and it's digital and it's very easy to get it up on the Internet and I'm about to put my favorite 30 or 40 tracks of those vignettes up and the stuff we did at that show the other day, we recorded about 6 hours worth of stuff, I'm going through that, you know I think about a quarter of it is stuff I would put up, about an hour and a half of stuff, I've got about an hour now and I'm not done yet. So that's what we're going to do, and there's no sense at all that we're gonna make any money with it. But it'd be kinda cool if there was something you could do with the files that made them monetizable and if anyone who ever heard them wanted to pay for them, they could.

But in the meantime, we're just cranking out the music.

Weedshare was not a financial success which was very difficult and in fact the days of Columbia City and the Chai House, I don't know if you knew it at the time but those were the only things happening in my otherwise-bleak life! But, basically all I'm doing right now is building prototypes for the new system and listening to a lot of music. Software and music is what I like to do, and I'm currently getting paid to do it which is nice, so my story currently has a happy ending. And look out, I'm coming to save music!

It's neat that anyone would care what happened 20 years ago, but it's just as exciting now. And it's not like it has been continuously exciting. There's a big gap in there where there's basically nothing going on but for some reason the last few years have just been getting better and better. And I'm very happy about that.

John Leighton Beezer currently lives in New York City, where he continues to annoy patrons of dive bars with his long-term co-conspirator, singer Jason Dennie.

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