Friday, December 28, 2007

Secret Mommy

Following up our slice-and-dice composition stories of late, this is a discussion with Vancouver musician Andy Dixon. For the past four years, Dixon has creating playful sound art as Secret Mommy: first by plundering pop songs beyond recognition--not unlike the early work of John Oswald--and then by working with thematic field recordings. The Hawaii 5.0 EP was constructed of sounds from a Hawaiian vacation; the Very Rec album was composed from sounds of various sports, such as tennis balls and sneaker squeaks.

For his 2007 release, Plays, Dixon assembled several of his musician friends--he himself plays in a Vancouver band, Winning, and his label Ache puts out other artists near and far (they released the vinyl for Konono No. 1's Congotronics album and Death From Above 1979, as well as 7" singles by Matmos, Four Tet, Hot Hot Heat and Hrvatski). Inviting them to improvise, he then assembled melodies from the raw material, treating the music just as he would any of his field recordings or plundered pop songs. Much like Amon Tobin's Foley Room (discussed at length at this space here and here), it's not a coincidence that the result is a Secret Mommy album that functions as much more than simply a nifty gimmick; indeed, it's one of the finest electronic albums of the year, on both an emotional and aesthetic level. (Like all of Dixon's work, it's not a dance album--just in case you think "electronic music" is code for "house.")

As we discover in this conversation, Dixon is using it as a springboard into other projects: The Secret Mommy (live) Orchestra, and his new solo project--one where he's extremely hesitant to label himself as a singer/songwriter.

Andy Dixon, Secret Mommy
November 1, 2007
Locale: phone conversation from his Vancouver home

Was all your previous work solely from field recordings?

No, it was mostly sample-based. The first couple of records were Top 40 style. Then the middle area involved more field recordings, especially Very Rec. But it depends on your definition, because I also did specific recordings of tennis rackets and balls.

I guess my general use of the word means non-traditional musical properties, which I guess is wrong.

Right. I was distinguishing between studio recordings and an environmental one. It was definitely non-conventional instruments, sometimes in the studio and sometimes not.

Did you also add any musical instruments to those tracks?

Just peppered through a bit. Mostly I tried to get melodies out of non-conventional instruments, but once in a while I’d use a guitar riff somewhere, or my friend Pierre would play a bit of cello just to give it a bit more emotion (laughs).

This album is obviously very emotional, then.


Is it a mix of the two approaches? Or is it all culled from the musicians’ sessions?

No, it’s all culled from the hours and hours we did. We recorded non-stop for two days, but probably not more than five hours total.

What kind of direction did you give them?

It depends. There are two songs on there that were actually based on a riff.

Of yours?

Yes. Just to break the ice initially, because everyone was sitting around scratching their heads. So I said, okay, I have this guitar thing so let’s start with that. That’s the very first thing you hear on the album, actually. That song was the only one based on a predetermined guitar part. Then there was one other song where I wrote a riff on a ukulele during someone else recording something. But generally it didn’t matter. I just wanted sounds. I purposely picked people with all calibers of musicianship. Jesse Zubot is a Juno Award-winning fiddler, and then my friend Matt played trumpet in my high school band.

What made it on to the album? Other than the riffs that you directed, are there melodic motifs that remain intact? How finely did you slice and dice?

Not really. I sliced and diced a lot. Even the riffs that you hear are made by me. Or I liked a run that Shane did on the clarinet, three notes in a row, and then I’d put that at the beginning of something else.

How much melodic intention comes from you as opposed to the players? Is it an issue in sharing songwriting credit? It sounds like you are constructing every melodic motif.

I would do that case by case, obviously, depending on how it works. But I did not share the SOCAN stuff, for reasons I just outlined. Every one of them is an amazing musician, and I’m not trying to undermine that. But I literally pieced every note together to make the melodies. I consider them tools.

I’m assuming you’re paying them as session musicians then.

Well, that’s another thing that’s probably different than what Amon Tobin did. Everyone that played is one of my closest friends. It wasn’t an issue. We didn’t talk about it. I’ve come to function under the assumption that I’m never going to make any money anyways. It was more like a friendly jam session. Everyone was just hanging out drinking beer.

Yes, but what about the millions of dollars you’ve made as a result of this album?

Well, don’t tell anyone about that! (laughs) People are starting to question my Hummer and my mansion. Maybe I’ll rethink this if something did happen and I made money; then I’d share the wealth. But there’s no money to even debate right now.

But you then assembled the Secret Mommy Orchestra. How did that work?

I brought back a handful of the people who recorded it and we now play live. We had to figure out the parts that they technically played at one time that I then chopped up. It’s confusing, but fun. I like that chicken-and-egg thing.

How many people in the band?

Five. I play guitar and percussion and laptop. Then there’s Greg Adams, who does all the male singing on the album, and he plays guitar as well. Meredah Anderson plays accordion, Sarah Jane Truman plays flute and bells, and Shane Krauss who plays clarinet.

You’ve played in “rock” bands before, and Secret Mommy was obviously designed as a sideline to all of that. Are you interpreting earlier Secret Mommy material as well, or just this record?

I am interpreting it—but no one else is. The laptop might grab from that catalog while I’m flipping around in there, but the four other people are playing the new material.

Are you sticking to the compositions, or are you stretching out?

Compositionally it’s not there at all. We do play a song from Very Rec, but it’s a medley of that and a song from Plays. I like the live performance to be something different, even if just to illustrate that I am playing the laptop and not just pressing play on an iPod.

I’m trying to remember now if it was just the first Secret Mommy record where you plundered pop songs.

The first two, actually. The first one was Babies That Hunt, and the second was Mammal Class.

How did you approach those in terms of licensing?

I didn’t. That was the thrill of it. I wasn’t an electronic musician at that point. I was a punk musician. I was in an obscure art/punk band playing guitar. I started to get glimpses of stuff like Kid606 and Lesser. Something about it jumped right out at me—probably the punk spirit of it. I think the spirit of punk is—or it used to be—taking a non-commercial approach to music. That’s what I equated it with. We were all big on anti-corporate music, so when I heard Kid606 I was really excited and inspired and started doing my own collage. I sent it to this label in San Francisco and they put it out. That was before I ever played a show or even thought of it.

Did you get tired of that kind of pop plundering? Why did you shift?

I don’t usually analyze these things. Maybe I felt like I had done what I needed to do. But Hawaii 5.0 is a missing link there, because there is a tiny bit of that in there. There’s a 50 Cent sample at the beginning. Then on Very Rec it just wouldn’t make any sense to include that kind of stuff.

On those early records, if you hadn’t dropped major hints in the song titles, I wouldn’t have known what you were plundering.

The titles were fun. On Mammal Class, I did put in the names of everything that I sampled, and obscured it slightly by removing the vowels. But it’s pretty obvious! For me, I’m functioning under the idea that I’m never going to make any money. If EMI or Universal knocks on my door and tells me I sampled whatever without their permission, I’d invite them to take the money I made on the album—which is nothing. If they want me to stop selling it—fine, I don’t care. It’ll be on the internet.

Were you familiar with John Oswald [of Plunderphonics] when you started doing that?

No, actually. When I did the album, I didn’t know much about electronic music at all. I had a couple of Mouse on Mars records that I loved, but I was still kind of against the whole thing in a way as a hardcore punk guy. Then I sent it to Orthlorng Musork, which is owned by Kit Clayton, and he liked it and put it out. I was thrown into this scene that I didn’t know very much about, which was quite thrilling. So [John Oswald’s] name came up, and I’d never heard of Matthew Herbert at the time. People kept telling me I did stuff that sounded like them.

I was thinking that this approach is kind of the reverse of dealing with session players in Motown or Nashville, where someone comes in with a song and get the people to play it. And maybe a guitar lick that some session dude comes up with on the spot becomes the most identifiable part of the song.

How does it work with that?

Well, usually they’re either on a payroll, or they’re being paid for that one session with very clear terms in the contract excluding them from songwriting credit. One the other end of the spectrum, you have Miles Davis albums where he gets all the songwriting credit, but everyone on there is equally responsible for those improv compositions.

I play in bands too, and we always split everything evenly for SOCAN. I would never say, ‘Oh, I wrote 80 per cent of that song.’ We’re a band and a unit and any money that could be made, in my opinion, should be split between us. It’s a different process to me [than Secret Mommy]. I curated this whole thing. We weren’t a band. I got some people together and it was my idea, as opposed to everyone’s thing.

What is your band history?

When I was 11, I was in my first punk band called DBS. We played for almost ten years, and we were on Sudden Death, which is Joey Keithley’s label [of DOA]. We broke up in 1997, maybe, and then I was in Red Light Sting. That’s about it, and now I’m in a band called Winning.

So the orchestra has only played BC?

Yes. We’re going to do a European tour, and we’re thinking of breaking up the flight and making some extra dough by making a pit stop in Montreal and Toronto. That would be in April [08], but nothing is set in stone yet. I’d love to do more, but getting across the prairies just sucks.

What about new material? There’s been a Secret Mommy album every year so far.

There is some, but I don’t know what I’m doing and there is no big picture. I just finished an album that I’m going to release under my own name. It’s different than a Secret Mommy record, and now we’re interpreting live versions of those songs with most of the same people as the Secret Mommy Orchestra—which includes two members of Winning as well. The album is being mastered now. I feel like I’ve painted myself into a bit of a corner as Secret Mommy, and I’m not sure if this is a new direction—if Secret Mommy is a band now and if we should write songs together. I don’t know.

So this is your confessional singer/songwriter phase?

Kind of! In a way. It is singing and songwriting, but I’d certainly stay away from that term (laughs). You’re not that far off, though.


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