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Make music to make a difference [2004-05-31]

This year Spastic Ink's second album Ink Compatible finally saw its release and it's shown worth the wait. Complex metal with a lot of ideas thrown at the listener at a fast pace. I hooked up with guitarist Ron Jarzombek to get to know more about him and music. He kindly and enthusiastically answered my questions.

How it started
m[m] What inspired you to pick up the guitar?
Ron I first started playing piano in the second grade, but then switched to guitar. My school buddies kept telling me that piano was for girls, and guitar is a lot cooler. Of course I wanted to be cool so my mom bought me a guitar and I started learning Kiss songs.

m[m] It's quite a leap from Kiss to WatchTower, what happened along the way?
Ron I know. What the hell happened? Shortly after Kiss came Rush, so that explains everthing. The first Rush album that I ever heard was 2112. After a few weeks my brother Bobby and I then went into a record store and discovered earlier Rush albums. Working Man was a favorite song of ours. We played it all the time at talent shows. A Farewell To Kings, Hemispheres, all of those Rush albums have their grooves worn out.

Making music
m[m] Your music's conception, judging by the liner-notes on the albums, seem quite cerebral like putting your IP-address to music, constructing a song limiting yourself by 4/4 measure and using only 2 notes, assigning letters to your frets constructing melodies by spelling words. You don't seem the type to 'grab the songs out of thin air', how would you describe the creative process?
Ron I tend to start with a concept first, then go from there. That happened especially with my solo CD Solitarily Speaking Of Theoretical Confinement, same thing with Ink Compatible by Spastic Ink. It also helps me to write so I'll have something to guide me in a certain direction. With the solo CD, a lot of those tunes were written by formulas or patterns and I just had to figure them out and put them to music. The same thing applies for writing music for animations or anything visual. Just writing music 'out of thin air' is actually harder for me to do.

m[m] Could you say the complexity of your music a consequence of that?
Ron Yeah, that's why some if it sounds kinda 'quirky'. I also write tunes out of various patterns that seemingly have nothing to do with music. If you think about them for a while and apply them in musical ways, cool tunes happen. With animations you have to sync your music to the visual, and sometimes it's very difficult to get the timing right. On Ink Compatible there is a song called Read Me which is divided into 4 sections that were written for videos. 2 of them were especially rough working out the timing.

m[m] Is cartoonmusic like Carl Stalling (the maincomposer for Looney Tunes) an influence to you?
Ron Most definitely. I used to listen to that stuff all the time. Around the time when my other solo-album PHHHP! was written, I was recording Bugs Bunny cartoons onto cassette tapes, and transcribing melodies, progressions and phrases. After a while I got more into filmscores and began listening to composers like Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal. I wrote Oh no, Mr. Kitty, A Morning with Squeakie, and Sex With Squeakie in hopes that someday they would be put to animation. Right now I'm trying to put together a multimedia project called Magmatania with Morley Arts (based in Atlanta). They're doing all of the animation, and I'm writing and recording the music. It's going very slow but that's the next step that I'd like to take.

m[m] For me personally the technicality, the 'over-the-top'-ness some times and generally just fast notes strike me as funny too. Can you see that?
Ron Yeah, there are things that you just can't do without speed. Some quirky little movements can only be captured with fast lines. That's so obvious in cartoon music.

m[m] Does humour belong in music?
Ron Sure, why not!? Just because the music is technical doesn't mean that there can't be some goofing off here and there. It doesn't hurt anything, and it actually gives you a break from getting a massive techno headache. I remember when I was a kid going to Rush concerts and this Max Webster guy would come out with these goofy elf boots and do all this weird stupid stuff. My brothers and I would get a bit pissed off because it didn't seem like he was taking the music seriously. What the hell was he hurting? Nothing! I think my favorite Steve Vai song is When I Was A Little Boy from Fire Garden. If you haven't heard that yet, put it on. It's the funniest thing ever... He doesn't even play guitar in the song and it's brilliant. And could we ever forget Frank Zappa's brilliant musicianship mixed in with humor??

m[m] Do you give bandmembers written parts or are they free to fill in their own parts?
Ron All of the individual solos on Ink Compatible were written and performed by the players. Pete Perez (Spastic Ink bassplayer), Jens Johansson (keyboards, ex-Rising Force, Stratovarius, Marty Friedman (guitar, ex-Megadeth), David Bagsby (keyboards, Xen, Patrick Moraz), Michael Manring (bass, Attention Deficit, Michael Hedges) and Jimmy Pitts (keyboards) all had the rhythmic track to follow, but they came up with their own melodies. The drummers had programmed parts to work with. The grooves basically stayed the same but they all added their own fills. Lyrics were all written for singers Jason McMaster (WatchTower) and Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain Of Salvation) with rough ideas for melodies. Of course the added vocal expression made the tunes come to life. For the rhythmic parts, I had everything pretty much written out, then the players spiced up the parts a bit to give it their own touch. Although some parts were played exactly note for note as I had written them. I had music sheets and CD-Rs with different versions of the songs so they could listen to them for reference.

m[m] There are a lot of guests on your album. Any musicians you didn't dare to ask to contribute to your record and for which reasons?
Ron I had some rather well known players in mind, but of course I was on a limited budget and couldn't get whoever I wanted. Plus, I didn't have the contacts. A few guys that I wanted on the CD wanted too much money, so I had to pass. In one instance I found a much better player who didn't want a dime. And actually there's a player on Ink Compatible that I wish wasn't on it, but I'd rather not get into that right now. I did run into a bunch of flakes when trying to put Ink Compatible together. But the cool thing is that I made some friends too, and ran into some really cool people who busted their ass for me and did their best to help out.

m[m] Do you have to practice a lot on your own music? Do you ever have to change something you thought up because it's too difficult to play (for you or your musicians)?
Ron Yep, that happens sometimes. I wrote most of Ink Compatible on computer. When it came time to play the parts on guitar, I had to modify a few things, either the parts were too fast or were finger twisters that I couldn't work out no matter what I did. Back in the old days that didn't happen because I would write totally on guitar. Now I write a lot on computer, and sometimes don't even think of the playing aspect. When I recorded the Spastic Ink stuff, I learned the parts well enough to play them, hit the record button, then moved on to the next part. Same thing with the solo CD: most of that material was recorded while I was reading it.

m[m] What's the difference between songs for WatchTower and Spastic Ink, what are the criteria on which you decide who should play the song?
Ron The big difference to me is in the writing. Spastic Ink tunes are made up of carefully worked out parts that need to be played correctly for them to work. WatchTower is more free form, a 'throw in whatever you want' type of thing, then see what happens. The only time I really had to decided what tunes should be for WatchTower and which for Spastic Ink was when Bobby and I first started Spastic Ink. All of the complex, intricate tunes worked best with Spastic Ink and the more straight ahead material worked with WatchTower. Doug Keyser (bass) and Rick Colaluca (drums) from WatchTower don't really play tunes as they are originally written. They take simple tunes, rearrange notes, play tunes at different tempos, etc… With Ink, tunes are played almost exactly as they are written.

m[m] So in Watchtower there's more improvisation or do you mean the creative process is more democratic?
Ron Both. On improvisation, Rick doesn't have note for note worked out parts written at all. He basically has 'frames' for parts and he improvises his way through them. It's kinda scary when you think about it but that's how he plays and that's a big part of WatchTower. Back when we were recording Control And Resistance in Germany, I remember recording final guitar parts over scratch guitar parts and it was a bit difficult. We didn't use a click track on those recordings so I didn't have a reference. Trying to figure out where the downbeats were in the middle of totally improvised measures of 15/16 sections took a while. When WatchTower played live just recently, I was having a hard time remembering my solos note for note, so I basically took patterns for sections and improvised my way through. On being democratic, Tower music is written by Doug, Rick and me. One of us will present a musical idea, then the others will play something off of that. It's more of a collaborative trial and error thing. Bobby Jarzombek (drums) and I wrote Spastic Ink's Ink Complete together but not while we were in the same room with our instruments. We only rehearsed the material with Pete live, to make sure it all came together. We did most of the writing on our own time. On Ink Compatible, I wrote everything on computer, then worked out the parts with the players.

m[m] What do you want to achieve with your music?
Ron I'd like to make a difference. I love it when good musicians say that they are influenced by me, either my playing or writing. It makes me feel like I'm doing this for a reason, not just to be just another face in the music world.

Rap vs. Rock
m[m] In the thankslist in the booklet of Solitarily Speaking… you thank 'Everybody who hates rap/hiphop and supports progressive rock/metal'. I happen to love rap/hiphop and still I support progressive rock/metal (as we speak), is that OK?
Ron No, you should be ashamed of yourself. LOL... The only thing about rappers that's slightly cool is their ability to come up with rhymes in an instant. My favorite thing lately is when rap guys try to sing. It's freaking hilarious. Hang it up dudes. Leave the singing and playing to real musicians and writers. Just keep ripping people off because you can't write your own music, and talking monotone in time because you can't sing. And it's even funnier when they have bad timing. And should we bring up them killing each other? What the hell is that about? What ever happened to the days when entertainers overdosed, and destroyed hotel rooms? Let's see if the rap guys are around as long as rock artists like the Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Priest, Maiden, Sabbath, Scorpions or Rush. Or if they end up killed by fellow rappers.

m[m] Oh, you think OD-ing is more fun than being shot?
Ron Well, the motto is 'sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll', right? Well, it doesn't say anything about killing your musical peers, does it?

m[m] You sound like you're judging the entire hiphop scene on what's in the charts, that's not fair: you don't judge the rockscene on Nickleback and 3 Doors Down either. I know that hiphop is more dominant in the mainstream in the US but there's more to it than Chingy and P. Diddy.
Ron You know what, you've got a point there. I don't give rap a chance because of the stuff that I've heard is garbage. It's not music. It's talking in time. Music is a mixture of melody and timing. There is supposed to be pitches and rhythm. Without pitches, you're coming up short.

But about the rockscene, you've got that exactly right. Most rock music these days is crap. If you were to look at 'rock music' of decades ago, you'd find that the most popular music was written and performed by real musicians, not put together by some formulated corporate label, management, etc... You could pull up a few Rush tunes that charted like Spirit Of Radio, Tom Sawyer. Hell, Yes' Roundabout was even made into a single way back when. I don't think Nickleback could pull that off. That guy from Rage Against The Machine gets so much praise because he makes weird noises on his guitar. Yeah, that's cool and all, but how about playing something instead. He should get credited with “guitar effects”, not “guitar playing”. Who knows, maybe he really can play. But why has the rock world been so downgraded? Because most of the kids are listening to rap, and there isn't any room for rock bands.

I honestly don't know how I would be impressed by any rappers, aside from their ability to come up with rhymes on the spot. I do think that the producers and engineers who record tracks for the rappers are really great at what they do. But the plain sampling and stealing is ridiculous. I mean what's so great about Kid Rock ripping off Metallica's Sad But True? I saw Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page a few weeks ago doing Kashmir, and that was flat out embarrassing. Do you really think Jimmy is impressed because Puffy found the upbeats with his 'uh-huh yeah, uh-huh yeah'? Next time, try fitting in some septuplets. All Jimmy is impressed with is the check that he got for having Puffy butcher his song. But again, I'm talking about the mainstream rappers…

m[m] More generally: quotation is a compositional tool that is used in popular and classical music as long as there is music. I don't see nothing wrong with it. To me it seems some strange rock ethic that came into existence somewhere in the sixties or seventies, not sure. Stravinsky said: good composers borrow, genius composers steal. :) What's your vision on that?
Ron Somebody needs to sue Stravinsky for stealing their tunes!! LOL... I don't have a problem with being one artist being heavily influenced by another, but taking original recordings for your background music? C'mon, that's unacceptable. Write your own material….

m[m] Would you agree a lot of so-called progressive rock/metal is in fact regressive?
Ron I couldn't agree with you more. I sometimes hear a band that is labeled "progressive" and I don't hear it at all. It just sounds to me like heavy rock. Anything that I write and record these days gets labeled as 'technical metal' or 'math metal' (which is actually fine with me!) because I use time signatures of 11/16, 7/8 or anything that isn't in 3 or 4. Tool comes around and plays in odd measures to the MTV world and they are labeled rocket scientist musicians. Yes, they are a really cool band, but come on people, it's not that difficult to understand. Just pull up your hand and count on your fingers like you did in the 1st grade. I'd like to blame most of it on rap. And now listeners don't even know what a melody is anymore. Or if there is a melody in a rap song, it's from the sample that they are ripping off. And what's really unbelievable is that there are still bands that heavily rely on the old eighties heavy metal gallop for rhythmic patterns. Could we please move on and progress a bit?!!

m[m] What do you think of this whole math-core/math-grind scene with bands like The Dillinger Escape Plan? They carry the torch of WatchTower a bit I think.
Ron I had student who brought in DEP and I flipped out. These guys were nuts. Wow! But of course I knew that hardly anybody would understand how good they are, and they would never come to the forefront of music. That's just how it works. Show how extreme you really are, how good you can play, and most of the listeners can't handle it. Then turn on MTV, there you have P.Diddy and Eminem with all of their gold chains and bitches dancing around.

m[m] Personally I think 'rockers' ('jazzers' too by the way) make this whole big thing of the odd timesignatures while these are common in Eastern music, from the Balkans to the Middle East and nothing special, it's just another rhythm, like a waltz (also an 'odd timesignature') or a march you'd have a Bulgarian ruchenitza or a Turkish zeybek.
Ron Yep, there you go. Exactly. Why can all these kids from other countries understand odd measures of 13/16. Over here, if you do anything outside of 4/4, it's pushed aside. It's not that difficult!! It's all counting in time. That's it. I saw a Steve Vai video a while back and he wrote some ethnic musical piece and he based it on a fast, hellacious pattern of 13 or 11. He said that kids over there are dancing to this stuff like it was a 4/4 Britney Spears groove. That's frustrating. I feel like we're so musically uneducated over here.

m[m] How important is progression to you personally? How do you define progression? How do you try to progress?
Ron Good question. I think it's cool when a band shows that they are moving in a different direction from album to album. Getting heavier, more aggressive, more melodic, broadening their music to other styles, adding other instrumentation, etc... And hopefully, it's progressing as better players and writers. Some bands chose to stay exactly where they were before (or that's what it seems like), because that's what their fans want. Play it safe and hang on to what you have. To me, progression means stepping up to another level. I try to progress from recording to recording in various different ways. I also try to do something that is unexpected and hopefully listeners will understand where I'm coming from, so they'll want to follow along. I always try to outdo what I did before, but I think that's on everyone's agenda....

Oh, that thing…
m[m] So what's the 'tentative releasedate' of the new WatchTower these days?
Ron A release date?? Hhhmmm.. uuhhh…. Actually, as of now, we're back on track to get the CD completed. Every time we do these reunion gigs, we talk a bit more, and get a little close to getting it done…

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