Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Amon Tobin vs. Simon Angell

Yesterday Amon Tobin told us why, on his 2007 album Foley Room, he takes all the songwriting credit after using improvisations from hired musicians to construct his melodies--a question I posed in this article. Today, we talk to one of those hired musicians: Simon Angell, guitarist in Patrick Watson's band.

I've said before that I think the individual talents of everyone in Watson's band--including Watson himself--supercedes anything they do together, something I'm sure will change with time. In the meantime, both Angell and Watson are a huge part of what makes Foley Room such a fascinating listen. Here, Angell explains how it worked.

Simon Angell
November 4, 2007
Locale: cell phone from somewhere in England

I mainly want to talk about your involvement with Foley Room.

I’m proud to have been part of it. It’s a big achievement.

Did you recognize yourself on the finished product?

I did, because I have specific sounds that I’ve been working on in the last year, trying to find my own sound on the guitar. People who have hired me in the last couple of years want me to sound like me and do a specific thing. I would lay down parts and he would cut them up, but not necessarily change the sound with plug-ins and shit. A lot of the sounds were done live.

When I did the session, it was with Sarah PagĂ© the harpist, and he would give us little melodies and tell us to go off on that. We’d do improvisations on that melody, and then he would overdub and cut it up. But the sound was true to what we did. I was surprised. I thought he would take it apart to the point where you wouldn’t recognize what we did.

He told me that basically took tones as raw material and constructed melodies later.

He did have a short, small melody in mind, maybe four notes. It can be heard throughout, but he would also turn it into different melodies and harmonize as well, using it in different ways. I was blown away that a guy who doesn’t necessarily have any musical training was able to hear music that way. When he was showing us the melody, he was trying to sing it to us the first time, but he couldn’t really sing. After about half an hour, he said, ‘Oh, if I do it on the piano do you think it would be easier to learn.’ ‘Uh, yeah, that’s probably a good idea!’ It went a lot smoother after that.

When I first heard the record, there’s a surf-y guitar line which I’m assuming is you, and then there’s a piano melody that I assumed was Patrick [Watson]’s. And I thought, why is this album written by Amon Tobin if the most melodic thing in certain tracks comes from a distinct player?

It’s a fine line. I’d say it’s what he’s done with those lines. At this point composition is not as cut and dried as it used to be. You don’t just say, ‘You wrote the melody, and you wrote the lyrics.’ On tunes now, the drumbeat can be the driving force of the tune. Patrick has some tunes that our drummer Robbie [Kuster] essentially wrote, just from his drum part. The lines are a lot more blurred than they used to be.

It’s a very Western notion that songwriting is merely melodies and chords.

Another thing I learned recently is that you can’t copyright chord changes. I learned that from Marc Ribot; I was taking some lessons from him.

When you think about how hip-hop has changed songwriting and how producers are king there—a producer can lay down a drum track and that is, essentially, the song.

Exactly. In hip-hop and electronic music, it’s the producers. In hip-hop they’ve got it a bit more. They’ve revolutionized—though that’s a bit too strong a word—the fact that the producer makes the track and then just hires a singer to do their stuff.

I was also thinking of jazz albums where a Miles Davis album is credited entirely to Miles Davis, whereas everyone who played on that album is just as much a part of the composition as we know it.

Miles was a known tyrant for that. There are a lot of tunes that he claimed as writing—and I don’t mean the improv, but tunes that Bill Evans actually wrote. I think “All Blues” from Kind of Blue is all Bill Evans. But Miles was like, “It’s my record! My record, my song!”

You’ve done a lot of session work in general, haven’t you?

Not so much in the last year because I’ve been on the road with Pat, but in the three years before that, yes. A lot with producers. I did a lot with Rama Sutra. Last year he was the reason I was able to pay my rent!

Does songwriting enter into any of the session work you do? What creative input do session players have, and does that ever result in a songwriting credit?

The thing I’ve learned about doing session work, is that the best session players are the ones who are best able to interpret what the composer/ producer/ artist wants. Not all producers or songwriters say: okay, this is the chord chart, this is the melody, etc. A lot of times you go in with just an idea. They’ll say, ‘I want it to sound like a house burning down, and there’s music coming from an old radio from the 40s inside the house. I want something that sounds like that.’ One producer actually told me that once.

It’s all interpretation. From my experience, I’ve been lucky by either surpassing their expectation or giving them exactly what they wanted.


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