JASON RUBENSTEIN: Personal Evolution

Jason Rubenstein

Jason Rubenstein released his sixth studio full-length release New Metal From Old Boxes in May 2014, an album that is described as his return to progressive rock roots with a loud, heavy, energetic and modern suite of instrumentals that evoke King Crimson, ELP, NiN, and classical music. Head over to Progify to hear the album in entirety. 

Prog Sphere talked with Jason about his work, latest album and future.

Your sixth studio album called New Metal From Old Boxes was released in May. How did the creative process for this album go comparing with your previous albums?

Completely different than previous albums.  In previous work, I’d compose a bunch of pieces over a few months, creating and editing at the same time, not separating the creative mind from the editorial (rational) mind.  For this project (New Metal From Old Boxes and This Is Not A Love Letter), I quite literally asked myself “What do I want to hear right now?” and “What am I feeling, right now?”, and I didn’t evaluate or judge the music as I created it. I simply created music, every day. And rather than take several months to write, I did all of the writing in 30 days. One month, roughly one song per day.  And no editing as I went.  I ended up with 27 pieces of music.  Once the 30 days had passed, I began the editing – throwing out some songs, keeping others.  During editing, I’d consider whether the music and the arrangement made me feel good. It’s music, right? It’s supposed to feel good while you listen to it.   So, in summary, the major change was separating creating from editing.  I’d read a book by Dorothea Brande called “Becoming a Writer”. It’s really about becoming an artist, becoming someone who creates. In her book she describes the necessary requirement of creating without any editorial or critical thought whatsoever. Just create!  Edit and think later, in a later phase of production. There’s plenty of time to do that. But while you’re in the moment, at your instrument, just create. I made that a fundamental part of my process.

Jason Rubenstein - New Metal From Old BoxesHow long did it take you to complete work on New Metal From Old Boxes?

October of 2013 to March of 2014. Six months. Once I’d composed and then edited the music, and boiled the program down to about 17 tracks of music (not including a cover song), I took some time and just listened to the demo mixes every day.  Sometime in late November, I called Niko Bolas (the mixing engineer and producer)  and said, “I think I have something here…”

So, in January, off I went to the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles, where Niko has his studio “The Surf Shack”.  Originally, the plan was to mix one or two tracks and he’d show me what he’d done, and I’d head back to my project studio and finish the album. But once we got rolling, we had a blast. He mixed all of the tracks brilliantly. The energy is incredible, especially since I’m the only musician on the album!  He really captured the spirit of what I was feeling, and of what I was hearing in my head, which was a loud, tight, heavy, angry band just beating the hell out of their instruments on a stage somewhere.

After that, we scheduled a mastering session with Ron McMaster at Capitol Mastering. By March, it was all in the can.

How does the title of the album reflect on the material showcased on it? Where is the connection?

“Old Boxes” is my gear. Except for what’s in my computer, I use a lot of synth and sample gear from the 1980s and 1990s.  I do have some modern stuff, too, but I love the older machines. That said, I love the new Moog products.  I learned synthesis on a Moog, when I was a kid. They have a huge place in my heart. “New Metal” refers to something you refine, create, and polish and it also refers to the general music genre.  I’m not going to get into defining what’s metal, what’s prog, and so on. Using genre classifications is a nice way to help you search for music, or to classify how to sell music. It’s a tag for convenience. It really doesn’t define the music, or what the music is. So, it’s “New Metal” to me, from “Old Boxes”.  It may not be New Metal to you, or even Metal, or even music to you. To me, it is. So: this music is to me what this music is to me.  And I liked the way the phrase sounds when you say it.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when working on New Metal From Old Boxes?

No other musicians! That was a huge challenge.  I called the drummer who I really wanted on the project, but he was booked through December, and I really needed to get this album done, really needed to create this music and ship the album.  Once I didn’t have a drummer, I just went solo on all of the parts.  The real challenge, technically, was how to create the parts normally played by a guitar and make them sit in the arrangement & contribute to the song. I don’t play lead like a guitarist, I play lead like a pianist or a synthesist. I used that as a strength and not as a limitation. But I didn’t want all of the leads to sound like monophonic synthesizers, or fusion-jazz keyboards. I wanted guitar-like sounds. So the biggest challenge was in crafting sounds on distorted synthesizers to take the place normally filled by rhythm and lead guitars.  It all had to serve the music.  I used this limitation as a strength to create something that sounded original.

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

I took some notes about the process in a diary-like form, but otherwise I didn’t document.  The music itself is the documentary of the project.  In future projects, maybe I’ll video or blog it, or both.  I do have a whole library of backups from the editing sessions which tell the story of my decisions. You could listen from version one through version X and hear how they each came together.

How does New Metal From Old Boxes reflect your journey as a musician to date? What evolution do you feel this album represents for you compared to your previous efforts?

A huge leap personally and creatively. Now, I write music for me. I trust my aesthetic sense. If I like what I create, then the chances are good that other people will as well.  And some people will hate it. That’s good too, because it means I’m doing something right!

The evolution is very personal.  Until this project, I’d been writing music with an audience in mind, constantly editing against my assumption of whether something would sell. It was a conflicted, hybrid creative-commercial process, and eventually it wore me down. And whenever I did music from the heart, from a completely creative perspective, I loved it. At the time, I wasn’t brave enough to publish purely creative projects.  And we live in such a hyper-critical society! I let the mindless, meaningless bullshit criticism and unnecessary commentary wear me down. Someone I know recently called it the “Well, Actually…” culture.  For example, “Well, actually, that’s not prog because prog primarily emphasizes odd-meter hemiolas over complex classical chord progressions and pseudo-intellectual lyrics rooted in 1970s new-wave science fiction….”, said while stroking your neckbeard and drinking a hand-crafted triple-espresso. Or maybe that’s just San Francisco.

Now, beginning with this project, I write for me. I shut out all editorial voices in my head and outside of it. No one hears the demos while I’m working but me. And as Dave Grohl said, “I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you fucking like something, like it.”   If I want to borrow from ELP or King Crimson, I’ll fucking borrow from them. If I want to create the kind of music I love because I want to create the music I love, I’m going to do it.  I’m not writing for you, or for the musician down the street, or for the know-it-all asshole on the social-website comments section. I’m writing for me. It took me a long time to get to this point (a point that’s at the heart of rock music, right?), but I’m happy I got here.

Jason Rubenstein

I understand that this album marks your return to your progressive rock roots. Which artists in the first place influenced your work on New Metal From Old Boxes?

The artists of my childhood, mostly. In 1972, I had one of those K-Tel cheap-o albums of “hits” (that were popular in the U.S.), and it included Yes “Roundabout” and Focus “Hocus Pocus”.  That was the gateway into more Yes, ELP, King Crimson, and then into JL Ponty, Vangelis, JM Jarre (all of whom influenced this project).  All on vinyl, all played through analog tube stereo systems, listened to through headphones.  Throw in some Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Who, Rush, Van Halen, and the rest of the usual suspects for a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s.  There’s some Philip Glass in there as well. Not to mention that era’s FM radio programming in Chicago, which was extraordinarily good.

I know that the influences from King Crimson and ELP are wildly obvious in this project. I wanted to get that out of my system, and create music rooted in the part of my childhood that was very happy – the music at that time would take me away, completely. Off to a different world.  And since this was my first project in a long time, and a project in which I was just creating music for me, I wanted to start at a place from which I was most familiar, most comfortable, and most happy.  Or, better said, start from a place where those influences were not repressed.

I did not make a conscious decision to do this, by the way. I made a conscious decision not to edit while I was creating.   Whatever music had influenced me over the years was allowed to seep out, to express itself shamelessly through whatever filter I am as a musician and a person.

In terms of how I approached the project in general, and of how I’d create and what my intentions were, I was (and am) influenced in various ways by how writers write novels (show up and get to work, don’t wait for inspiration), by what Miles Davis and Robert Fripp had to say about making music, and by Neil Young.

I like to think of this album, after the fact, in some way as a nod to the giants on whose heads we stand.  The influences won’t be as starkly obvious in my next project, but they’ll be there.

Have you managed to make any new discoveries in terms of songwriting on the latest album? Did your writing approach for New Metal From Old Boxes change drastically compared with previous albums?

Show up every day and compose. Press the record button, get your coffee, and start creating. In that order.  Don’t worry about whether what you’re doing is great or whether it sucks. Shut the fuck up and get to work.  I also discovered that it’s important to me to challenge myself, frequently; for example by selecting a scale that’s either new to me or one with which I’m not comfortable, or writing a chord progression that I wouldn’t normally just toss out there during an improvisation, or playing a solo over a time signature that makes my head spin.  Sometimes these result in music that feels great, and sometimes it results in music that sounds solely like an intellectual exercise.   This is where the writing approach changed drastically from before.  I used to wait for inspiration, and was very critical of myself if the music sucked. Not anymore. Now I do not wait for inspiration, and I don’t judge the music while I’m creating it. I just ask “What do I want to hear, right now?”, or “How do I feel right now?”.  Usually I’m fairly frustrated or pissed-off at some idiocy somewhere or just really tired and need some ambient music, so that’s an easy question to answer!

The biggest discovery I’ve made is that if you show up and do the work, every day, great stuff can happen. Dig. Dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig.   There are some classic and elementary songwriting skills I’ve finally started to apply, like rising in pitch during a chorus (or chorus-like) section, building a lot of tension during bridges, and so forth.  Lastly, just ignore the uninformed critics and the nay-sayers.

Although the music is completely instrumental, is there anything in particular that you are trying to “say” with the material presented on the record?

At a high level, I wanted to take myself on some journeys (and so hopefully take the listener on some journeys).  I wanted the songs to tell a story, or a part of a story.  The “Heist Trilogy” of tracks 2, 3, and 4.  Or “Unspeakable Highways”.  They’re all stories, in soundtrack and musical form.

At a much deeper level, it was my subconscious saying “This is who I was back then, and this is a part of who I am now, and I needed to get it out of my system so I can move on to the next project of music.”

And in retrospect, for some reason it was important for me to say “Fuck genre classification. Fuck your definition of prog, your definition of metal, your definition of rock. Fuck your notion of what a guitar is, of what a synth should play, or what a song is, of whether a piano should be heavy. This music is what this music is. Take it or leave it.”  This is probably because I read too many comment threads on social media that stupidly and relentlessly condemn any music that isn’t made with a seven-stringed instrument and in a time signature based on a prime number.

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

I am inspired by all sorts of things.  A great genre novel or story; events in my daily life; other bands’ and musicians’ work and projects; sounds and textures I may hear while walking down the street or in my studio; a riff that will pop into my head at an unexpected moment. Or, sometimes, someone I respect will say something to me about creating art and it will inspire me to just do it.

I’m very inspired by the work of other creators – writers, musicians, artists. Their process, their volumes of work, how they approach their life & work, where they find inspiration.

And it all gets channeled into music through my emotions, through how it makes me feel. If a story keeps me on the edge of my seat, I know how that feels when I’m writing at the piano, and so I’ll try to get that same feeling as I pound out a riff.  Or when I hear a song by a new-to-me band and it’s just amazing, that will immediately inspire me to create something because I’m excited by the new sounds.  Writing music is a very emotional outlet for me, so everything is wired through that.

Jason RubensteinHow do you know when a piece is complete?

I don’t! I know when it is time to abandon the piece and move on to the next one.  I just feel it – I know that the piece moves me, I like it, and it fits.  Usually I’m right. Sometimes, I get a false positive and the piece needs more work, and sometimes it’s a false negative and the piece was ready to go three edits ago.

I have an older version of “The Steppes of Sighs Pt 2” that I love. It’s not on the album (it is on my SoundCloud page), that is an example of this. The version the album is cool, but the version from three-edits-ago is also cool, and feel totally different.

But in the end, it’s how I feel. Does the song move me, and do I want to keep listening to it? If yes, then I know it’s in good shape and I need to move on to the next one.

I also go into editing with the approach of not fucking up the original idea. If the song needs a crap-ton of editing, or revision, then maybe it wasn’t that great to begin with and I should take the new ideas on their own and create something new.

Niko Bolas, who mixed the record and also provided a lot of advice to me to just create and to serve the music, told me, “It won’t be better, it’ll just be different”.  Great advice.

What kind of gear do you use for recording your music?

I use Logic Pro X; Native Instruments B3, Abbey Road Modern Drummer, Guitar Rig, and classic compressors plugins; a Yamaha KX88 and Akai MPK88 88-key MIDI controllers; Synthogy Ivory II; Korg plugins for the PolySix, MonoPoly, and MS-20; Yamaha TG-77; Ensoniq ASR-10; A Minimoog virtual instrument; and Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Stylus, and Trillian. I have access to a Moog Voyager and a bunch of vintage Roland and old pre-MIDI Korg keyboards as well (old, old boxes).  I also use the Python programming language to write scripts to do various things, like procedurally-generate a riff or progression. Only one song on NMFOB used a script like that.

For any project, I limit the number of devices or virtual instruments I’ll use. I find that constraints around the quantity of gear allows me to be very creative. Instead of pulling up a patch on yet another synth or virtual instrument, I’ll use the sources to which I’m limited and create a new sound for the project.  For NMFOB, this meant the Minimoog, an Oberheim patch from Omnisphere, a piano, the Korg MonoPoly, a virtual sampler, and the B3.  Between the Minimoog and the MonoPoly, you can do anything.

You are largely working as a one-man band. What are the benefits and drawbacks of that approach?

Complete control without having to explain the different parts is a benefit. I can just create and record what I hear in my head (or very close to it). Another benefit is that the limitations inherent in being a one-man-band can be turned into significant strengths. I’m not a guitarist (though I can play the Chapman Stick), I don’t think like a guitarist, I don’t play lines like a guitarist. So I use this “limitation”  as a strength, playing lead lines like me, with sounds that are evocative of, but not from, a guitar.

The drawbacks are that I miss the live, raw energy of a band of great musicians playing their heads off. I miss the creative input of a skilled bassist, a drummer, and a guitarist when I’m a solo act.  I’m writing a song now where the kick-ass guitarist plays the first lead and solo, and then I play the second one with that distorted lead I used on NMFOB. The best of both worlds, I think.  Another drawback is I don’t experience the interplay between the musicians of the back-line: me, the drummer, and the bassist.

I love doing both the one-man-band and the hire-great-musicians projects.  They’re very different, and provide different advantages and challenges.

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

Books have a tremendous influence on me. I’m a genre-fiction nerd, and I read science-fiction and fantasy mainly. A great story fires my imagination, or evokes an emotional response, and it fuels my music sessions at the piano.

Daily life does it, too. I hear about or read about such monumental idiocy on a daily basis, it’s probably unhealthy for me. So I channel this into music. I will beat the hell out of the lower register of the piano, riffing for hours. It feels great, and sometimes I’ll get something musically compelling out of it.

Are you working on any new material at the moment? 

Tons of new music. I just recorded an “Asynchronous Improvisation” with the remarkable bassist Steve Lawson. It’s melodic and less heavy than NMFOB, and sounds amazing.  Steve is simply incredible in the creativity and beauty of music he makes with the bass.

I’ve started writing and recording for my next album of heavy progressive rock, and it will feature drummer Tom Hipskind and bassist Shawn Sommer. There will be some awesome guitarists on the project as well, and I’m lining them up now. The first track is already in the works. The heavy piano is featured moreso than on NMFOB, as a natural evolution of the arrangements that I like.

And we just finished mixing and mastering a heavy rock/fusion song called “Walking on Hot Sand”. It was written by Tom for his jazz-fusion band “Kick The Cat” in Chicago. I arranged a heavier rock version (than the original) and asked guitarist Brian Kahanek to play the lead part. He and Tom just killed it! I dialed-up a monster B3 sound for it. It’s fun, it’s huge, it’s heavy, and it seriously rocks.

And a bunch of us are recording some cover songs, and those will get posted online as soon as they’re ready. For now, which cover songs will remain a secret.

How do you see your music evolving in the future? What do you hope to accomplish at the end of the day?

It’s already evolving, and it’s not at all as obviously “King Crimson ‘74” as NMFOB. The piano parts are heavier and more prominent, there is more frequent use of melodic structures, less frequent minimalist chugging and more melody to carry the sections.  The synths are evolving to be more like the ones on my “This Is Not A Love Letter” EP.  There will be a real drummer and, when needed, a real guitarist.  And there will be a real bassist for the entire album. The music remains heavy, and powerful.

The arrangements are evolving as well, though I still like the “suite” structure of “A Burden Of Secrets”, so there will be that sort of series-of-vignettes going on. The chords I’m choosing are more complicated in places, borrowing more from classic music theory and from jazz than previously.  I’ll try to sneak in some secondary dominants in there.

Overall, I see my music’s evolution into more melodic, more powerful, heavy music that still tells a story, and takes people on some journey when they listen to it.  I want to get better at musically creating the feelings I want to feel when I listen to the music. At the end of the day, I want the listener (and me) to feel like they’ve had an incredible experience – a ride, a journey, a surprise to their expectations, whatever you want to call it.

What is your view on technology in music? 

Absolutely both a curse and a blessing, moreso than ever before.

On the one hand, the tech is there for everyone to create great productions in their bedrooms & basements and distribute their work to a world of connected devices.  This is very healthy for music, and for music lovers. There’s a ton of great music out there which you can find, if you’re willing to wade through the crap. And musicians, especially musicians in specific niches, can reach an enthusiastic audience quickly and relatively easily! For musicians who are willing to put in the hours of work, to develop their skills and talents and take advantage of the incredibly powerful range of music production and distribution tools available, technology is a blessing.   It means that talent can now connect with listeners almost immediately. And, musicians can choose between different levels of tech that produce different aesthetic results: now we can choose to record digitally in-the-box, or to 24-track tape, etc. You can offer mp3s for convenience and FLACs for high quality.

However, it’s been a bloody curse for the music business. I don’t mean just for the majors; I mean for musicians in general and for the music-listening culture. Technology has given us the mp3, which is fantastic for portability but abysmal for the experience of music. It’s given us streaming, which is a great distribution model (on-demand radio for any internet-connected device? Very cool), but at the same time has devalued our music to hundredths-of-a-cent per play and sucked & compressed the quality & sublime experience of our work right out of it. It’s like going to experience a Picasso painting and getting to the museum only to find an 8×11 cheap-ass black&white photocopy from a book of art history stuck to the wall with a piece of tape (And if that’s all you’ve ever seen when you go to see “Picasso”, then for you a cheap-ass faded photocopy of a page from a book is all you ever know as a “Picasso”. How sad is that?).

And until there are widely-available (paying) outlets for on-demand streaming high-quality music, it’s going to suck for musicians and for music-lovers for a while. It is insane – there’s a clamor by consumers for better, higher quality, high-definition, easy-access streaming film and television, but a desire for more and more crap-sounding, easy-access music.  When people hear the difference between mp3s and high-quality digital music, they shit kittens. They can’t believe how good their favorite artists sound. They never knew; they thought that an mp3 was the be-all and end-all of digital music! The technology to provide convenient, high-quality music must become better, and must become widely available for a fair-to-everyone price.

And this cheap and easy terrible-sounding technology has provided the means to develop a popular culture that chants “Music should be free!”.  A great challenge now, at present, is to use the tech available to us to connect with people who love what we do and who will pay us for our music – to connect with the people for whom the cultural mantra of “music should be free” is appalling.

Do you think that progressive rock as a genre that emerged in 1970’s has good prospects for the future?

I think it clearly does. There’s a whole generation of people who grew up listening to their parents’ music, or who discovered it on their own, and who are now creating their own progressive rock. The bands and musicians out there now are very, very good.  They’re taking the genre forward, and as long as they keep at it and keep developing as musicians as as bands, they will provide the next generation with inspiration to create their own progressive rock.

The ecosystem seems very healthy, and it will hopefully stay that way. The prog-specific labels are curating and producing excellent albums, and with a deep respect toward the genre, it’s past and it’s future. The blogs and digital magazines are deeply engaged with the music. It’s a great time for it.

Are there any modern progressive bands that you listen to?

Haken and The Fierce And The Dead are my most recent go-to-while-wearing-headphones listening. Also Chimp Spanner, and various prog-metal bands like Intervals and Karnivool, The Pineapple Thief, and several more whom I discover via progressive rock and metal webpages. I’ve been listening a lot to podcasts and web radio of progressive rock programming. there is some great curation out there. Too many more bands to mention, really.

Jason Rubenstein online:

http://www.jasonrubenstein.com

https://www.facebook.com/jasonrubensteinmusic

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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