This week I caught up with Deane Ogden to discuss his adventurous and beautiful album – Eastern Chronicle. I wanted to discuss the technical aspects of creating an album as multi-cultural and worldwide as Eastern Chronicle and what issues he encountered along the way. In case you haven’t heard of Eastern Chronicle yet, it’s:
“a world music album — worldbeat, to be exact — that [Deane] wrote and produced on [his] mobile recording rig while traveling through the Orient and South Pacific Islands for 18 months. The album fuses live and field-captured ethnic textures, world environments, live orchestra, intricate percussion, native and indigenous vocals, international instrumental soloists, and [Deane’s] love affair with 80′s-era synth-pop and digital electronics in a way that strives to be comfortably intimate and beautifully expansive at the same time.”
First of all, congratulations on the album! It seemed like an incredibly ambitious project and its an amazing feat to have pulled it off so spectacularly. Did you aim to make something so multicultural when you first started the project, or did it just evolve from a smaller idea originally?
Hey, thank you so much. Well, EASTERN CHRONICLE actually did germinate from something far different from simply wanting to record a solo album. It’s been kind of a Phoenix from the ashes of a very dark period in my life, as it turns out.
By late 2010 I’d been living in Los Angeles working steadily as a film and television composer for about a decade. In all that time, a lot had transpired for me personally. My marriage had ended pretty badly a few years prior, and with that also went a lot of my friends and the people I was closest to outside of the industry. I tried real hard to get back into an emotional and spiritual groove, but the more I tried the worse things seemed to get. Career-wise I was busy and working but on a personal level life was pretty empty and just dark all around. Even though that situation had been behind me for several years by then, I’d still never really fully recovered. And then kind of on a whim I accepted a commission to do a theatrical show over in Indonesia. I got on a plane and went as fast as I could, partially just to get out of LA and gain some new perspective. When I got over there, even on the plane ride over, I could literally feel my nerves settling and my heart rate calming down. Just being out of the chaos of the business was the best medicine I didn’t know I needed. I was burnt to a crisp and it took me just sitting still to face it. Almost immediately upon getting to Jakarta, I started to take stock and re-evaluate life back in LA and began to get rid of everything that felt superfluous. It was a very difficult time but it was totally healing and absolutely necessary. If I could liken it to something familiar, I’d have you picture the pivotal scene from Jerry Maguire where Tom Cruise is writing the mission statement and he’s just alight with overwhelming passion and new ideas. It was a little like that for me. The combined experience of shedding that old baggage from LA and facing the fresh and imaginative culture that was staring at me in unfamiliar but breathtaking Southeast Asia was overwhelmingly revitalizing. As a result of all of that activity, I was writing and tucking away all these little melodies inspired by the new experiences I was having. Not for anything specific, just little phrases and ideas here and there, saving them for a rainy day I suppose. I certainly didn’t plan for it to happen, but many of those little inspired phrases and ideas ended up being the foundational melodic statements of EASTERN CHRONICLE.
Within a few weeks, I had essentially minimized my carbon footprint to the point of not really having anything to go back to LA for right away. All my projects were wrapped up, the lease was up on my place, I’d cut ties with a couple of very unhealthy relationships. So, without anything really demanding my immediate presence at home I made a quiet last-minute decision to travel north from Jakarta up through the Asian Crescent and spend a few weeks exploring around a bit. I didn’t even really tell anybody where I was or what I was up to, I just wanted to detach and explore. I remember my agent at the time getting really upset that I wasn’t returning phone calls or staying visible, but I just really needed to unplug from everything and everyone and go figure out what my next moves were going to be. I bought one of those Around the World airline tickets and packed a backpack with just my clothes, my iPhone, my Mac Mini mobile rig, my wallet and my passport. The plan was to hit as many destinations as I could and just soak in as much as possible. Maybe do a little bit of occasional iPhone recording, too.
Taking that trip was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. There I was, loose and alive on my own. No companion for the first time in nearly twenty years, just seeing Asia solo with a backpack on my shoulders. I felt like a butterfly coming out of the cocoon. It was absolutely life-changing. Those few weeks turned into a few months and by the end of it I’d amassed close to four terabytes of raw recorded material. I remember listening to some of it on the flight back home to Los Angeles from Hong Kong and thinking that it might make for a cool listening experience if I could somehow find a way to combine that raw footage with a few of those little phrases and ideas I had come up with earlier that year. That’s when the light bulb just sort of came on and suddenly I had a project. It was on that plane ride somewhere over the Pacific Ocean that I decided I was going to produce a solo world music record, I was going to do it with live musicians, and I was going to call it EASTERN CHRONICLE. Five weeks later I headed back to Japan to start producing the album.
On the album fact sheet, it says you wrote Eastern Chronicle in Tibet, China, Japan, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand – that makes a pretty “worldwide” album in more than one sense. How did you deal with writing in so many different places compared to normally writing in the comfort of your own studio at home?
It all happened so organically but it wound up changing the way I’ll probably do things for the remainder of my career. Years of working as a media composer in a dark room chained to your gear tends to devolve you in a certain sense. You can’t leave that headspace to go out into the daylight and still be the guy holding up the wall with your shoulder, you know? So you compound that with being in a foreign land and I just had to amp it up to eleven or I would have been lost and disoriented the entire time. I mean, the parameters of it… You can just see how it was either destined to fail miserably or succeed through sheer force. I had to be assertive. I had to swallow my fear of not being able to speak a certain language and find a way to overcome that limitation. It dawned on me that in my career working in film that I do that every day by finding alternative ways to communicate with directors and producers who don’t speak the language of music. So in this case, it was the same situation only in reverse — I could use music as a common universal language to overcome the barriers of monolingual speech. I got so unashamedly brazen about just approaching people that it almost became like a game.
How quickly can I get you to smile and talk to me even though neither of us understands what the other is saying? After a few attempts, I realized the best way to to accomplish that was through music. I’d just jump in and start jamming on whatever a street musician had in front of them, grooving with whatever they were already doing, engaging them in the music somehow, and suddenly we’d be jamming together right there on the street or outside the temple or wherever we happened to be. We’d just be two complete strangers making music spontaneously. And then we’d go somewhere and share a meal. It might sound simple to some, but for me it was game-changing. It was a completely tribal experience. The more I gave myself over to that process the more people wanted to be involved and the quicker the project found its rhythm.
What issues did you come up against when recording Eastern Chronicle that you hadn’t prepared for?
Some locations were just not excited about a Westerner with an iPhone in perpetual record mode. In China especially. They basically didn’t want me there recording anything at all. The political climate in the PRC is so uncompromising and Big Brother-ish. I was dead set on going to Tibet, but they don’t let you travel there unaccompanied and I didn’t know that so I was really disappointed when I found out. You have to be with a group that is authorized by the PRC. But a friend I made in Hong Kong got me into Tibet through his sister who worked for the government. I contributed “a little something” to the Chinese immigration system and all of a sudden I was going. Kind of like Americans mysteriously getting into Cuba. I was basically Jay-Z and Beyonce loose in communist China! But it’s very tough to navigate the bureaucracy in the PRC. China is such a marvelously rich and beautiful country but they have the whole place pretty much on lockdown. No Google, no Facebook, no Twitter or YouTube. You have to find other ways to connect and collaborate with musicians and once you find those people you spend lot of time listening to them talk about how they just want to be able to create and make art freely without government regulation. It really made me appreciate my First Amendment freedoms as an American. You leave there just wanting to smuggle everybody home with you.
Another thing that was difficult to adjust to were the frequent power outages and dodgy weather conditions. Whenever it rains in Asia, near as I can tell, the power is going to go out for at least an hour at some point. It might be right away or it might be in two hours, but it’s going. You can pretty much count on it. So, I scrambled a few times to get battery backup solutions in place so that I wasn’t just having things go instantly dark in the middle of Logic sessions every other day. If I was in a major metropolitan area like Tokyo or Shanghai or something, it wasn’t much of an issue, but out on the plateau or up in the mountains or even near the beaches I learned to be prepared for it to go down without any notice.
There’s a clear 80’s vibe going on in some of the tracks (eg. Global Villager). I remember you saying before you were a big fan of Level 42 – did you consciously bring some of these influences into the album?
I don’t know whether it was conscious or unconscious, but yeah. I’m totally a product of my influences, no doubt about it. I think as musicians we are curators of our own little mental museums. My museum is all about the acts I grew up listening to. I’m not a conservatory-trained composer. I come from the school of radio and records and I’m part of the generation that was raised during Top 40’s heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I sort of view my musical foundation as three sides of an equilateral triangle. My parents are both musicians and my dad taught me about the art of a perfect performance and was into the Eagles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Lee, Journey and Led Zeppelin. My mom, on the other hand, taught me about the craft of songwriting and was into artists like Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond and Willie Nelson. So I think I got a damn near perfect education in terms of how to combine those two worlds. But then, as a result of growing up in the 80s I learned Top 40 production chops by listening and studying cats like Mutt Lange, Wally Badarou, Peter Wolf, Patrick Leonard, Hugh Padgham and Trevor Horn. So, I’m a producer junkie at heart.
One time when I was being a little brat, I remember my dad saying, “I don’t know how you can remember who produced Wang Chung’s last record but you can’t remember where you left your damned tennis shoes!” So my true voice has always incorporated a certain element of that era’s vibe, I’m sure. I think I’m a very classical-thinking composer without being overtly classical, if that makes any sense. The comment I get the most regarding my film music is that it sounds “timeless” or “harkens back” or whatever. And I take that as a huge compliment because I’m much less impressed by contemporary composing trends or the modernity of radio than I am by the classic sound of the Golden Age of Hollywood or the music I remember from Casey’s Coast to Coast. To me the old stuff is still the best stuff.
What was the most enjoyable part of creating the album?
I feel a real sense of pride that I was able to discover some amazing native performers and enroll them into the project. Some of the vocalists I worked with had never even sung into a microphone before, so that was a big deal for all of us. And then collaborating with people I’ve wanted to work with for eons — Tina Guo, Steve Ouimette, Bob Reynolds, Richard Chance, Anthony Sallee — so many of my musical heroes and people I look up to as artists. That in and of itself was a dream realized. I also have to say that one of the most enjoyable things about making this record was being behind my drums for two years and having the freedom to paint in more finite strokes. So much of my time is spent recording drums for other artists and when you are doing studio work like that you are doing a lot of “manufacturing”. It’s all format-driven. It’s what the late great Phil Ramone called “hit design”, really. You are one of many sub-contractors on a piece of the construction of something, whereas on EASTERN CHRONICLE it was rewarding to get to be the architect working out things the way I heard them in my heart and head rather than how they would need to be in order to function in a formulaic production.
What did you find the toughest part of creating the album?
Probably figuring out how to keep the music accessible to Eastern and Western ears simultaneously. That’s something I struggled with at many points, especially during the writing phase. I asked a small group of family members and colleagues who I really trust for honest opinions as I went along and I got really great feedback from all of them. Whenever I started wondering if I was leaning too far toward one side or the other those people would be like “Hey, whoa… you lost me there.” It was important to me to preserve the multicultural integrity of the material but also maintain a familiarity for people who were brought up on radio-friendly pop records. My father really helped me a lot with that. He’s someone who has no qualms about telling me when something just isn’t vibing and he’s a real meat-and-potatoes kind of guy in terms of understanding how music hits people’s eardrums. If there’s no strong hook, he’s out. His famous phrase for when something is really working is “Yeah, I can hang my hat on that.” So when he’d make those kinds of noises, I knew I as close.
With a project as large as Eastern Chronicle, I imagine the logistics and managing the overall project must have been difficult? How did you keep track of everyone and everything going on?
I think if I’d needed to do this even five years ago, I’m not sure it could have been done. It’s a real testament to the role technology played in the creation of the record because without tools like SoundCloud, Gobbler and Evernote, or even Siri or Google Translate on my iPhone, this just wouldn’t have been doable at all. For the musical aspects, I kept an updated version of every potential album cut on SoundCloud at all times. I originally wrote sixteen songs and whittled it down to the twelve that made the album. But I had everything on SoundCloud at all times, even if it was just four bars of a work-in-progress it was on there in a private list of all of the tracks. I would render out a new version in Logic and update each track in the SoundCloud playlist any time there was even the slightest change so that I was always sending my guest musicians the freshest stuff. SoundCloud makes that really easy. It’s the only platform I know of that is designed with core functionality that handles works-in-progress as seamlessly as it handles everything else.
Initially, my biggest worry was that with so much traveling and packing and unpacking I was going to lose something somewhere… A hard drive, a session, some important file, or that I’d leave a USB thumb-drive behind at a café somewhere or something… Whatever. That was always in the back of my mind: “I’m going to lose something huge and be so screwed.” Gobbler was the only way to go in terms of keeping digital assets backed-up offsite. I kept each one of my Logic sessions on Gobbler‘s servers and never lost a single note. And they make it so simple, it’s all automated so you never even realize it’s updating everything as you go along. I toasted an SSD drive while I was in Nepal and within a couple of hours I had everything back from the Gobbler servers on a new drive. I kept a checklist of every single component in my mobile rig in Evernote. Every piece of hardware, every cable, every adapter, every SIM card for my iPhone, every USB thumb-drive, every package of Energizer batteries, even down to the pen I was using to journal with every day. That was the only way to keep from leaving anything behind every time I moved to a new place. I also kept a comprehensive project log in Evernote with offline notebook functionality enabled so that even when I was off the grid in some remote corner of Asia I could update it on my iPhone and then sync later when I had a connection again. It had all my musicians’ information, a work-in-progress of what would eventually become the liner notes, pictures I’d taken, musical sketches, voice memos, details about locations, language translations, poetry I’d written during the writing process… I mean, you name it and it was in there. I used it all the way up until I handed it all over to Ryo Ishido who designed the album packaging.
Eastern Chronicle utilizes a wide range of instruments and languages – did you need to do a lot of research into these before you began writing for them or did you already have a decent handle on them already?
Let’s just say there was a lot of “on the job training”. I mean, as a percussionist and world music fan I’ve always been a student of ethnic flavors and tones so I had a pretty decent handle on the musicology of the more well-known areas already like Japan, China and India. But Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal, Tibet, Thailand… They also have their little idiosyncrasies that are indigenous to their local culture and musical heritage. I basically learned as I went. I know from working with orchestras as a film composer that there is nobody who knows an instrument better than its player. Some of these instruments have been around for 3,000 years and in Asian culture there is much more of an emphasis placed on honor and respect for the past, so you have to understand that these players have a rich and vibrant understanding of the legacy they are holding in their hands. It’s not “rock and roll” to them. It’s not that casual. It’s a real serious discipline in Eastern life to play a musical instrument. It’s a deep and often lifelong study of honor and heritage and respect for that particular artform. So, I was just in awe most of the time.
I mean, even if they aren’t formally trained, like if they learned to play on the street, you still just cannot believe their talent and proficiency. It’s stunning. I researched how to write for some things and of course I wrote the notes and fully developed each melodic line and harmonic sequence as best I could so that they weren’t just set adrift with no anchor, but to be honest their performances are so nuanced in their own styles and voices. I stayed very loose and limber when notating articulations and transitions because to try and write something micro-specific for them to play, to shoehorn them into my limited understanding of what they were capable of, that would have just been a huge sorrowful waste of their abilities.
You did some remote recording for children’s vocals on the album at one point. How much remote recording were you able to do and what software/tools did you use to take advantage of this? Did you find it difficult to convey your feedback to the performers when doing a remote recording?
I ended up only doing that one remote session of the girls choir you mentioned from the direction of West to East. The rest of the remote sessions were actually done going the other way — East to West. Toward the end of the production phase and all through the mixing phase when I was starting to incorporate the Western soloists into the pre-mixes, I was using Jakarta as sort of my home base. So I was running remote sessions in the United Kingdom with Richard Chance, in Los Angeles with Bob Reynolds, in Boston with Annmarie Stanislaus, in Nashville with Anthony Sallee, in Phoenix with Steve Ouimette, in Amsterdam with Tina Guo, in Las Vegas with Jeff Jordan, in St. Louis with Scott Jones… I mean all over the place. I used SoundCloud to deliver WAV files to them and then they would throw those files into their DAWs to record and send the parts either back through SoundCloud or occasionally just over email if they happened to be small enough . It was fairly easy to communicate with everyone because we’d just jump into a Facebook chat and work things out. We’d talk about direction and tone and then they’d just go for it. Once I got their stuff back, I’d pre-mix a version of the track with their solos onboard and upload that newest version to SoundCloud so they could hear it and decide whether or not to tweak it or expand on an idea or subtract something or whatever. We had a lot of fun on those sessions and there were a many of laughs and a ton of memories made. It was really great fun.
You have more than 50 “special guests” credited on the album – where did you find these performers? Had you worked with them before, or did you go in search of people in the required fields?
I got really lucky with vocalists. Asia is full of some incredibly talented vocalists and you don’t have to look very hard or go very far to find them. I played with a lot of street performers, especially in Japan and India. It took awhile to find the right colors in the voices that I thought would work against the Western musical landscape that I was envisioning, but I finally landed on three main male vocalists — Moweto, Iitan, and Suvi. They are all from Shanghai and I heard them all sing when I was running around there lost and not sure where I was in that big city. They were there, entertaining passers by. Killer voices, all of them. Rachel Tan is from Hong Kong and we met on SoundCloud. Rianne Fenneller has worked with a producer that I play drums for often down in Huntington Beach, so he hooked us up and we became fast friends. Rianne was born in India, her family moved to New York when she was six, and now she’s back in India again so after I went to Mumbai the second time I flew to Kochi and recorded her at her home there.
Nudgi Shanthee is from Colombo, Sri Lanka and is still in her teens. She’d never sung into a microphone before EASTERN CHRONICLE. Now she’s planning to audition for Indian Idol next year. I met her and her mother in a mall in Colombo when I heard her singing the refrain from Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” in an elevator. All of these were part of those bold and random encounters I was talking about. Just breaking the ice with people who were doing something musical that was interesting to me. Tina Guo and I swim in the same circles in LA. She’s a genius-level musician, in my opinion. Richard Chance is a very close friend who I originally met years ago through SCOREcast. I needed a good recording room in Tokyo to track strings in so I called a place that was highly recommended and Dannielle Faristina answered the phone and that’s how I met her. Turns out we are both from Oregon. Steve Ouimette and I spoke on a panel together at NAMM two years ago and have been trying to work together ever since. It’s just connections. You develop a vast network of people if your eyes are open and you pay attention to what folks are doing and what they’re excited about. There is so much talent out there. There’s just no reason to do everything yourself or create in a vacuum.
You’re credited on the album as having played a huge range of instruments including: drums, percussion, electric and acoustic guitar, cane flute, bansuri, ruan, pipa, cumbus, keyboards, bass guitar, cello, koto, duck flute, wet harp, shamisen, konghou, ney, sitar, ravan hattha, pungi. Firstly, at which crossroads did you sell your soul at, and secondly, where on earth did you find the time to learn and perform all of these instruments?
I love playing. It’s what I spent my whole childhood doing and it’s what I’ve devoted my entire life to. It’s why I became a professional musician in the first place and it’s what I hope I’m doing when they cart me off to the old geezer’s home! I love playing the things I play and I love learning to play new things. When I write a film score, I always try and work in some musical color that I’m unfamiliar with just to get the chance to fumble around with it for a few weeks. So, when I started to formulate ideas for EASTERN CHRONICLE, I made the bold promise to myself that I was going to put my Musicman Stingray to better use than the wall-hanging it’s been for the last four years and learn how to play bass. My father plays bass, so I grew up around it and I absolutely love the sound and expression of an electric bass guitar that’s holding it’s own deep in the pocket. I really love when producers understand and appreciate a tight syncopation between the bassline and the right foot of the drummer. Handling both of those roles myself on EASTERN CHRONICLE meant that I could work extra hard on getting that right.
It’s a huge learning curve, but I ended up playing bass on all the tracks except for DHOMPE DHOMPE which Anthony Sallee just shreds on. I asked him if he would do it and he said yes and I just flipped. I really wanted him because his groove is one of the best in the business and I felt like his anchor with my foundation on drums might be a great match on that particular track. You mentioned Level 42 before. Mark King was a drummer before he was a bassist and it shows in his percussive approach to the instrument. That’s pretty much how I am trying to approach it too and I still have a very long way to go with it but it’s just another form of expression and I’m really loving it. A lot of the Asian string and wind instruments were purely experimental for me and I’m not particularly disciplined in those either by any stretch, but it was so much fun to just monkey around with them and learn what playing techniques have been developed around each one. I feel as though I’ve been very lucky that I’m proficient on three instruments that seem to provide a very solid core for adapting well to other things. Understanding piano, guitar and percussion gives me the foundation to pick up at least the basics of a lot of things fairly quickly and learn to be somewhat musically conversational on them. Once you learn how the tuning is laid out and how the phrasing of an instrument works, the rest is really just about breaking down the mechanics. Then you can just forget about what the right way to play it is and have fun. At least that’s what I do. It’s a lot better than the crossroads option!
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to release their own album?
Do what you feel is in you and don’t listen to the people who will tell you it’s not worth it. And trust me, there will be plenty of those. Just block them out. Hell, I completely let go of certain people because they were messing with my mojo by pooh-poohing this project. You just don’t need that as a human being or as a Creative, either one. It’s just not helpful in any way to you or the people who are hopefully going to ultimately experience what you are cooking up in the lab. Your art is in you and it has to come out, period. I’m a pretty left-leaning guy, but I always say that when it comes to art I’m Pro-Life all the way. I don’t believe we have a choice. It has to come out. And it will in one way or another and sometimes if people stifle it too long and suppress it or restrain it, the way it comes out is not always healthy or positive. So you just have to open up the tap and let it flow and to hell with the naysayers.
And if you’re thinking about releasing an album, you can’t get all caught up in the marketing stuff and the online promotion of it, either. Those things will all come later and you can even hire someone else to mess with it if you need to. Don’t even tell anybody you are working on an album until you are at least 60% finished with it. That’s about the time I announced EASTERN CHRONICLE and that might have even been too soon. Just keep things under wraps and reveal only what you absolutely have to. Resist the temptation to plaster things everywhere because people will get tired of your promotion and then when the album finally does come out, it’s like “Meh”… They’re already sick of hearing about it. Just be patient and let your music do the talking. It’s just always always always about the music. Just keep focused on that. That’s the best advice I could give, probably. Just do let your music do the talking.
If you could go back to the start of Eastern Chronicle and do it all again, what would you do differently, if anything?
I’d honestly do nothing different. I really wouldn’t. EASTERN CHRONICLE came together in exactly the way it was destined to. I really do believe that. I think had I done anything even the slightest bit differently it would have been another listening experience entirely. The things I learned about myself and about my own creativity are lessons I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. I have a massive worldwide network of new friends. That didn’t exist for me two years ago. My musicality has been stretched and challenged. I’ve found a new creative outlet as a recording artist that I’d put on the back burner for years and has now been awakened like a sleeping dragon. I’m probably a better drummer than I’ve ever been thanks to being pushed by all of these phenomenally talented collaborators. Those things made this all worthwhile right there. There are just so many upshots I could list as a result of just swallowing hard and going for this ride. The album really is just the icing on the cake.
If you’re interested in listening to an audio interview with Deane too, head over to his interview on The Audio Spotlight
Deane’s Website: http://www.deaneogden.com/
Buy Eastern Chronicle: http://store.deaneogden.com/