THE AFRO CIRCUS: The World of JOSH GOLDBERG

Josh Goldberg

After playing guitar for seven years, Josh Goldberg decided to make a change and take on a challenge. He decided to brush his skills on a Chapman Stick, what enabled him to pursue diversity crisscrossing multiple genres, approaches and personalities. Josh has just released an album under the moniker The Afro Circus. Comprised of eight original compositions, “Journey to the Center of the Ear” as its name suggests sees the Boston, MA resident exploring the vast and unknown of jazz, metal, progressive rock, experimental and video game soundtracks.

Prog Sphere conducted an interview with Goldberg in which he talks about his musical beginnings, challenges of composing, and more.

How did you come to do what you do?

I went to boarding school when I was 15. I was really lonely and it was hard making friends there. Around the same time, I started to get more serious about the guitar. It really helped keep my spirits up. At 17, I took my first music theory class and knew that I wanted to do music professionally. I went and majored in jazz and classical guitar in college, but I really disliked it. I knew I always liked music, but the guitar as an instrument wasn’t the right tool for the job I wanted to do.

I discovered the Stick in my freshman year of college. I was on Youtube looking up cool guitarists when Rob Martino’s One Cloud popped up. My eyes popped out of my head a bit and I said to myself “Hey, I think I could be good at that.” So I saved up some money and got myself one. I wound up finding myself a teacher and really diving head first into the instrument. When I wanted to switch my instrument focus to the Stick at my college, I was denied, so I left to pursue it on my own. I played it for a while in a band called “And The Traveler” in New York, and after three years on the instrument with them I became the then-youngest player to receive an artist feature from the company that makes the Stick.

After a while, there was just too much tension to remain with And The Traveler. I left them to move to Boston at the end of August 2014 and finished up my album. I’ve been here in Boston since, working with my new group GEPH. I’m really excited about this project, 2 Chapman Sticks and drums, crazy instrumental progressive jazz metal. I’m pretty confident that there’s no other band in the world doing what we’re doing right now.

You have just put out a debut album under the moniker The Afro Circus. The album is called “Journey to the Center of the Ear.” How did the creative process of the album go?

It came from being hired to write the music for a cell phone game. It was this neat idea based around head-to-head snake. Anyway, the company designing it went under but at this point I’d written all this music. I kinda decided that there was no way I was gonna stop, and kept writing. After I’d had a few songs put together, it made a lot of sense to look for a place to get it recorded.

Musically, I was just trying to write things that I wouldn’t hate later. I have serious perfectionist tendencies. I also did my best to write everything to be playable live, without either the guitar or the Stick in my hand. It was fun, you really gotta focus to imagine how the parts would be played without actually playing them until after you’ve written them to see if they work. It’s a phenominal test of one’s knowledge of their instrument. I was able to write probably 65% to 75% of it just from imagining how to make the parts playable in reality.

As for the image and the project name, I pretty much just wanted stuff that amused me. “The Afro Circus” was actually inspired by a part of the movie “Madagascar 3,” in which the zebra character puts on a rainbow afro wig and starts singing “Afro circus afro circus polka dot polka dot afro!” I saw the commercial for that and thought it would make a hilarious band name, so I snagged it before anyone else could. For the image, I told my artist to make a picture of me in space battle armor with a laser sword, surfing on the Stick in space toward a giant disembodied human ear surrounded by hostile alien ships. He did so well, it’s like he took a syringe to my brain and emptied it all over Photoshop.

The Afro Circus - Journey to the Center of the EarWhere was the album recorded and how long did it take to complete the work on it?

I recorded most of it at Black Cat Studios in White Plains, NY. I had a slew of drummers play on the album so there are a few places that drums got tracked. The drums for Sargatanas, Gnarsissus and Transuranium were all done at Kissypig Studio in Allston, MA. From start to finish the whole album took about a year exactly.

What types of change do you feel The Afro Circus’ music can initiate?

Well, I’d really like people to start looking at instruments like the Stick a little more closely. With the biggest innovations on guitar and bass in the last decade being the adding of strings to extend the range and expanding tapping repertoire dramatically, modern music is very much headed in this direction already. Why not play an instrument designed specifically to accomodate that?

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when writing music for “Journey to the Center of the Ear”?

Letting go of my imperfections is really a challenge for me. The guitarist Guthrie Govan said once that writing an album is like building part of your headstone. It stays with you forever so you better put your best foot forward. That quote really resonates with me, and during the writing and recording process, I had to fight off a very strong urge to just trash the whole thing and start over a couple of times. I knew that if I let myself do that even once, the album would never get finished. Honestly it’s the little imperfections that make a record human. Freddie Mercury wasn’t always in tune in the Queen recordings (blasphemy, I know), and Jimmy Page was kinda sloppy on some of the Zep recordings (make sure to get your pitchforks). But those things added to the humanity and the charm of the records and helped make them into the masterworks they were.

That and the parts themselves. I intentionally write music that’s harder than what I can play before learning it. It forces me to get better and expands my imagination. One of the reasons I played all the guitar parts on the album as well as the Stick parts (aside from some of the solos) was because I wouldn’t wish those parts on anyone else for fear of them hating me for it afterward.

How did you document the music while it was being formulated?

I have every song in full sheet music on my computer from start to finish. Of course I allowed room for improvisation and changed some of the parts in-studio if I imagined something cooler on the spot, but everything is there!

Which bands or artists influenced your work for the album?

Guys like Guthrie Govan, Greg Howe, Ben Levin, Tosin Abasi had a huge voice in my work. Same goes for groups like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Cloudkicker, Oceansize, Tool, Bent Knee etc. And of course, videogame music! Listening to music in videogames when I was a kid was the first time I realized that music is beautiful and should be taken seriously. That influence has crept its way into everything I’ve done.

Where do you draw the inspiration from and how do you go about channeling it into writing?

I draw inspiration from life events, music or art that I like, cool books or just feelings that I’ve felt or would like to feel. Things get channelled in different ways. Fishaar (the last track) was originally a tune I wrote after requesting a story to write a song around from a friend. She sent me a news article about how poorer villages in Pakistan had stopped burying their dead in protest of their government’s lack of response to terror bombings. The song is supposed to be through the eyes of someone who can’t bury their dead loved one. Fishaar, she told me, translates roughly from Urdu to something like void, but emptier.

Have you managed to make any new discoveries as the time passed during the creative process? Do you think that at some point of that process your writing approach changed drastically?

TONS! As I said before, I write music that is too hard for me to play and then I learn to play it. As I get better and my knowledge increases, so too do the limits of my imagination. So then I imagine new sounds or techniques and I go to explore them. I try to take these ideas to their logical conclusions, which of course open more doors to explore and so on ad infinitum.

As for changes in my writing process, I think the only constant is that I keep doing it. I’m always trying new compositional techniques and new ways to write songs. I’m not the biggest fan of repeating myself, I feel it’s akin to reading the same book over and over again, so I’m always hunting for new ideas and avenues for my musical ideas.

Tell me about the complexities of creating this album.

Well for one, I had a harder time writing stuff in 4/4 time than any other stupid time signature. Seriously, I’ve got one song that goes back and forth from 9/8 to 15/16. Who even does that? It’s overtly complicated and a little silly and extreme, but it’s where my ear is at currently and I’m proud of how it came out. GEPH is doing similar stuff meter-wise. It’s really easy to write in odd times on the Stick, I think in one part because you’re not confined to “THE DOWNSTROKE IS ON THE BEAT AND THE UPSTROKE IS THE OFF BEAT!” Once you break out of that confine, it’s just a matter of getting comfortable switching between groupings of twos and threes.

One of the other complexities was sound design. Because of my love for videogame music and groups like Tool and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, I developed a taste for a broad tonal spectrum. I spent a lot of time fiddling with my pedals to get the kind of sounds I wanted for the album.

What inspired you in the first place to pick a Chapman Stick as your main instrument? What kind of gear do you use for recording your music?

I was a jazz and classical guitar major in college and I hated it. I never really liked playing the guitar right from the start, I always felt it had this connotation of either mindless rockstar bs or being a super stuff jazzer or classical snob. That and I felt that guitar had kind of been taken to its limits in a lot of ways as an instrument. I wanted to do something new. I wanted to blaze a trail.

One day in the computer lab, I was on Youtube looking up cool guitarists (as much as I didn’t like playing it, I still love listening to it). Rob Martino’s One Cloud popped up and I checked it out and my jaw hit the floor. I said thought “I could be good at this,” saved up and got myself one and haven’t looked back since!

Do you tend to follow any pre-defined patterns when composing a piece?

Nope, I’m always looking to try new stuff. Probably the two things I always strive for though are intelligent composition, so making the whole piece by teasing out 2 to 4 ideas total and developing those, and musicality over technique. If it’s super tech-y but sounds stupid, I’m not using it.

What non-musical entities and ideas have an impact on your music?

I love story-telling. I consider myself a story-teller just as much as a musician so a lot of times I’ll write music around stories. The And The Traveler album I was involved in was a story, the upcoming GEPH EP and our debut album will both be around stories, and my next solo album will also be based around a story. I have a lot I want to say.

Josh Goldberg

What is your first musical memory?

I was about two years old, and I sat my parents down on the couch and proceeded to rap the ABCs into a little plastic microphone while dancing about in the living room.

What advice or philosophy might you impart to other musicians, be it in forms of creativity, technical stuff, the business side of it, or anything else?

You don’t have to kill yourself for your art. I spent a lot of time hating everything I ever did because it wasn’t perfect. I really regret that. There’s an aspect of recognising the gap between your current skill level and the level that you want to be at that is necessary to become good, but if you let self-dissatisfaction and disappointment run that recognition, you’re going to do yourself a lot of damage. Just keep working and looking for ways to improve, and always be honest with yourself about the quality of your work. If you do that, and always work with love, you’ll get to the level you want one day. The funny thing is, by the time you get there, you might not even notice because you’ll be looking at even higher levels and telling yourself “one day…”

What are your plans for the future?

Right now I’m super focussed on GEPH, and very excited to see what we can do. I’m also talking with Michael Millsap AKA Dr. Froth of Six Minute Century and various other groups about collaborating on an album with him. I also intend to write an instructional book for the Chapman Stick based off my instruction Stick Science series on Youtube.

After that, who knows?

The Afro Circus’ “Journey to the Center of the Ear” is out now, get it from Bandcamp. Follow Josh Goldberg on Facebook.

Nikola Savić is a prog enthusiast, blogger and author, in addition to being the founder of Prog Sphere, Progify, ProgLyrics and the ongoing Progstravaganza compilation series.

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