Monday, August 4th 2008
Interviews: Jack Conte
Jack Conte hit my radar a few months ago when I stumbled on a “videosong” combining his own renditions of Radiohead’s Exit Music For A Film and a prelude by Chopin, Op. 28 No. 4. The mix was somehow strangely perfect, but it wasn’t the song so much as the new approach to the recording process and the passion involved that inspired me to dig a little deeper. What I discovered was a creative sparkplug, a one-man-band in every sense of the word; Conte plays every instrument and does multi-layered harmonies with himself, naturally with the help of Pro Tools. He pours himself completely and unabashedly into every song, with a disarming sense of commitment to his craft.
Conte’s videosongs have become his trademark, split-screen live performances of himself recording all the individual tracks, cut up and mixed to fit the music. Some of them are covers mash-ups, while others are promising Conte originals. They’ve become massive hits on YouTube- check ‘em out on his MySpace page.
According to Conte, a videosong is a new medium with two rules:
1. What you see is what you hear (no lip-syncing for instruments or voice).
2. If you hear it, at some point you saw it (no hidden sounds).
Propelled by the popularity of his videosongs, buzz is starting to build around both Conte and his new EP, Nightmares And Daydreams, a handful of brilliant electro-pop tunes, showing both his songwriting prowess and versatility as an artist.
We sat down with Jack to get to the bottom of this videosong business, and to study the angles of another independent musician who’s kicking ass without compromise.
Antiquiet: These videosongs have become something of a trademark of yours. They’re innovative, they push the boundaries a little bit and expose people to something new, a different approach to experiencing the music. How did that first come about for you?
Jack Conte: I started uploading videos to YouTube about a year ago, and… I’m really interested in coming up with processes, more than individual works. I’ve found that if I work on a process instead of working on a piece, it helps me be more prolific, and it’s easier to actually compose and make music. The video songs were an avenue for me to get ideas out quickly. I often find myself stifling my ideas in the creative process in recording because I want everything to be perfect, and I have to re-record it and get the microphone placement right, and all that stuff. So the videosongs were a way for me to cut through all that crap and just get the ideas out really quickly. Having that weekly format sort of forced me to make them quick and leave that behind.
Antiquiet: How do you choose which songs to work on?
Jack Conte: The Radiohead / Chopin one, um… one of my favorite discs is Chopin’s preludes- I think it’s Opus 28, and that particular piece is in there, in the song. There’s this melody that sounds so much like a Radiohead song, and I was listening to the both of them, and the similarity of this one little melodic motif that they use… I thought it would be fun to seamlessly integrate these songs and just show the roots a little bit. Because Radiohead has really classical roots. Like the videosongs reveal the recording process, I think it’s fun to reveal history with a mashup. It’s pretty cool.
Antiquiet: What about the Bright Eyes / Aphex Twin mix?
Jack Conte: With the Aphex / Bright Eyes one, it was just an interesting challenge to just take two things that are completely different and integrate them. My first introduction to that Aphex song was from a jazz trio called The Bad Plus, and their drummer, David King, he’s like… he’s a fuckin’ beast on his kit. When I go to see their shows, I go to see David King. His beats, his energy… he’s just a really dynamic player. So that was the first time that I heard that song, then I discovered it was a cover, and I got into Aphex and the rest just kind of unfolded.
Antiquiet: Let’s talk a little about the techniques you use, whether in songwriting or making your videosongs.
Jack Conte: Sure. I start with an idea, usually, a melody or a guitar riff or something. I usually record the drums first, using Pro Tools, and I mix everything as I go. Some people don’t like mixing until the very end, but I’ve found that unless I’m satisfied with the way something is sounding in the process, it’s hard for me to know whether or not it’s going to sound good as a finished product. So I mix it as I go along, and I record each instrument individually. Sometimes I loop them, sometimes I record them straight through. I’m videotaping everything, so once the song is finished and built and I’ve recorded vocals, which I do at the very end, I upload it all to my computer and then I synch it up by hand using Final Cut Pro. And then I just chop it up.
Antiquiet: How do you decide on a basic beat to start recording?
Jack Conte: I guess my interest in drums comes from beatboxing. I used to be a really big time beatboxer. I loved beatboxing. For years I was never quiet, anytime I’d have a moment to myself I’d be going off, making all kinds of beats and noises. Usually I just beatbox the beat and then build the drums around that flavor. There’s this one guy named Louis Cole who’s really influenced my beats- his sense of harmony and rhythm and drumming is just out of this world. I find myself really inspired by his beats, and particularly his kick drum. It’s always so unexpected… I really like that.
Antiquiet: There’s a quote in your myspace bio that says “This is a music revolution, and it’s everyone that’s making it happen. It’s the fans, it’s the musicians, it’s the blogging sites, it’s the programmers who make the blogging sites, it’s everyone.” How do you apply that perspective to the current state of the industry?
Jack Conte: The music industry is changing so fast right now. Everything is changing, fans, bands, the interaction between musicians and labels, between managers and musicians… It used to be that you had to be an idol to make music that people heard. But with YouTube and MySpace, anybody can get heard now. And instead of there being about 20 great bands that everybody listens to, there’s like a thousand freakin’ awesome bands. I haven’t heard of any of the bands that my friends listen to, and they haven’t heard of any of the bands that I listen to. We just get together and swap bands, and there’s just so much new music hitting everybody, it’s awesome. And these guys are making a living, cause they’re all touring, and they’re all successful on a microcosmic level. That’s just so different than how it used to be, thanks to the internet. Thanks to YouTube and MySpace, and awesome publications like you guys who interview guys like me and get the word out on innovative, new, cool stuff. People are able to get their music heard, and it’s not about fame anymore, it’s about cool music and innovation and sincerity. And I think that’s such an awesome paradigm for us to be alive in. It’s such a cool time for us to be able to make music and explore what’s out there. Just the fact that you called me up instead of picking out some huge band, that says so much about the times today.
Antiquiet: It comes down to convenience. The $18 blind buy format doesn’t work anymore when you’ve got an avalanche of bands that nobody’s heard of all vying for attention. For the labels not to be adapting to the evolving formats and methods, refusing to update their business models, it’s willful suicide.
Jack Conte: It’s ridiculous. If you look at CD sales, they’re plummeting with each passing year. Some people think the music industry’s dying because of that, though, when the truth is, people care more about music now than they ever have before. The iPod is more common and popular than the walkman was. People are listening to music all the time. People are starting to treat their MP3 players like their cell phones, if they don’t have them…
Antiquiet: Well for a good percentage, their cell phones are their mp3 players.
Jack Conte: Right, absolutely. And because of that, people are starting to develop more eclectic tastes, and they’re open to new genres and new ideas that they wouldn’t otherwise have. We don’t have to worry about storing thousands of CDs, we can just call up randomly whatever album we want and listen with convenience. I think it’s really speaking to the breadth of styles and genres that people are listening to.
Antiquiet: When it comes to putting out your music on a larger scale though, or even recording in a more professional format, you need some friends if you’re not going the label route.
Jack Conte: I’m sort of in the middle of talks for what could potentially be a deal, but it’s not with a label. They would possibly help hook me up with someone good to mix and master the EP, instead of doing it all myself. I mean, I’ve been completely independent for two years, doing my own music, and in the last couple months things have started to change a little bit. And because of that, there’s people coming out of the woodwork who sort of… want a piece, you know? And that makes me nervous, cause things are going well, and I don’t know if I want to throw in a wrench and change things up. But at the same time, they have so many tools and resources that I don’t have. I want to be making music. I want to be making videos and recording songs. I don’t want to be sending out press kits and booking shows. That’s not my forte. I can do it, but I’d rather be recording. So a part of me wants to hand that responsibility over to somebody else, as long as I trust them and I feel that they’re hip with the times.
Antiquiet: We talked to a musician named Joe Purdy a few months back who basically told every label that came calling to fuck off. He stayed independent and still hit 50,000 paid downloads in March alone. It’s just him and his manager, a guy named Brian Klein, and they’re doing it their way. It seems that finding the right business partner with the right connections is crucial to being a success and staying independent.
Jack Conte: People have left comments on my YouTube videos saying things like ‘man, I hope you never sign.’ And I respond to them, because those really hit close to home for me. And I think what they’re saying is ‘I hope your music never changes.’
Antiquiet: Exactly. And Purdy got approached by Wal-Mart for a nationwide distribution deal. They want to stock his album in their stores.
Jack Conte: Holy shit. That’s huge. So yeah, for me, the idea of working with a label is a very scary idea. And since the buzz is starting to pick up, it’s something I’m starting to have to confront. But really, for me it’s very simple. I know exactly what I want. I know the kind of music that I want to make. I have some of the tools that I need, but not all of them. Some of them, as far as promotion and all that I’m not as familiar with, but I’m not going to sign anything unless it’s exactly what I want. Precisely what I want.
Antiquiet: Right. And with the old model, you didn’t stand a chance in hell of getting that kind of deal right out of the gate. Nowadays, it’s not too far-fetched of an idea, because you’ve already developed a buzz on your own. You’re building a foundation without the label, so anyone who wants a piece of the pie has to work a refined angle.
Jack Conte: Yeah, exactly. And it shouldn’t be too much to ask for an artist to have complete control over the creative process. Or the branding process, for that matter.
Antiquiet: How did you first get into playing music?
Jack Conte: My sister started taking piano lessons when she was five, and I was totally into it, so I started taking lessons a little later on. My dad’s an incredible jazz pianist- he taught me the blues. That’s the first thing he ever taught me. So I was playing blues and improvising from a young age, probably around 8 or 9. It just stuck, and I really got into it. I got sick of classical music soon after that, and I started taking jazz lessons. That’s when I really started composing. I feel like I really come from a jazz background. Jazz is all about switching things up and putting things in there that you wouldn’t expect to be there. Changing the melodies. Jazz is very free, and that really resonated with me. The funny thing was, I didn’t listen to pop music at all growing up. I’m 24, and I didn’t even know who Green Day was when I was in high school. My parents listen to old music. I was listening to the Beach Boys until I was like 17 years old. The first kind of modern band I got into back then was Incubus. My friend gave me an Incubus CD. I think they’re a really creative band. They have some crazy sounds, and very jazz-influenced harmonies. I was really drawn to it. After listening to that for about a year, the floodgates opened, and I started buying tons of CDs and catching up on everything. I only found out about Tom Waits about 6 months ago, and I’m totally blown away. I had never listened to the Beatles until about a month ago…
Antiquiet: Wow… I’m jealous. To hear those songs again for the first time…
Jack Conte: Yeah, my mom gave me the entire Beatles catalog at once. I’ve just been listening to them back to back to back, and it’s just amazing. Their mastery lies just as much in compositional structure as it does in the composition itself. The first thing that’s so amazing is that almost all their songs are two and a half minutes. There’s just so much material… they do the chorus like ten times in less than three minutes, and it’s like how do they do that?
Antiquiet: Some are saying that the future of the industry is the EP, something easy to digest, quick to put out, etc. How do you feel about that theory?
Jack Conte: I really love the album as a work. There’s something so brilliant about a cohesive, single work that’s divided into these subsections of songs. And nothing rings more true for me in that case than that Bright Eyes record Lifted. That record feels like such a single thing to me, and the idea of separating that into pieces, or the idea that there would be no more of those made is a tragic thought. But on the other hand, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m releasing EPs and song by song. There’s something really hard about making a whole record sometimes. Then there’s the Elliot Smith way, where he just released an album whenever he had fifteen songs. He’d just put them on a record and that would be it. I hope the album doesn’t disappear, because I think it’s a wonderful venue for exploring a person’s head. Moreso than an EP or a single song. But at the same time, it does feel like the industry is moving towards something smaller, singles and so forth. I think in terms of the future… it’s just so hard to say at this point. It’s all changing so quickly. The last thing I’m gonna do is make a predication about what’s going to happen.
Antiquiet: What do you say to a kid who’s got a passion for music and really wants to put a song together, but doesn’t know how?
Jack Conte: I think it’s so important to stick to your convictions and to your dreams. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I’ve had a very supportive family, and that’s been wonderful, but I’ve also had lots of people in my life, including people that were very close to me, who discouraged me from the very beginning. It’ll never work, you’ll never sell, you’ll always be poor. You just can’t listen to them. It’s about confidence. If you don’t have the confidence, fake it.
Antiquiet: Fake it till you make it.
Jack Conte: Exactly. Exactly. I never thought that I could sing, and to be fair, I still really don’t… But I got really inpired when I heard Bright Eyes, cause here’s this other guy who can’t really sing…
Antiquiet: That guy can’t sing worth a damn.
Jack Conte: I know! And it was so inspiring to me that he was just like ‘fuck it, I can’t sing, who cares?’ I just think hard work pays off. Hard work and tenacity and discipline. If you really want something, go get it. In this country, there’s still an opportunity to do that. It’s possible.
What I’d say to this kid is you can do anything you want. Listen to music, work on writing songs, and just be prolific- write a bunch of shitty songs. Just write crappy, horrible stuff. I’ve got books and books and books of shitty lyrics and terrible songs. But you can pull some good things out of that, and build off those experiences. Just stick to your dreams and be tenacious.