Music, musings and more from the mind of Ben Averch.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

WA State Interview with YTSERob

WA State Interview with YTSERob

Shortly after completing his 'New Neural Substrate' album, Washington State resident Ben Averch went to work on the follow up. Where 'Neural' was a concept album, telling an epic tale throughout the duration of the disc, the follow up has a definite theme, but tells ten different stories. As with the last album, Ben has given me the pleasure of conducting an interview to allow you, our dear reader, a glimpse into the mind that has crafted this music.

I give you now, my 2nd interview with the always insightful Ben Averch.


Rob: Ben, I must first say that I am very impressed with Washington State. You have managed to outdo yourself, and have written an album that I have no doubt will rest easily in my top five of 2006.

Ben: Thanks Rob! I'm really happy that you like the record. The response so far has been really positive, which is great.

Rob: New Neural Substrate was an epic concept disc, and an excellent one at that. Was it a conscious decision to stay away from the concept story this time around?

Ben: Yeah, most definitely. The concept of 'Substrate' was a little bit out there –"What happens to people when they can upload their minds into a universal supercomputer, and live forever? Is it really living? What's missing?" So these are some really big, abstract questions about future scenarios – which don't have too much relevance to life today, just kind of hopefully interesting fiction writing.

What I wanted to do with 'WA State' was to take things out of the realm of science fiction and plant them firmly in the here and now. I wanted to write songs that didn't really need a lot of explanation – stuff that had a direct emotional impact. After working on 'Substrate' for over three years, and never really feeling like it was finished, I really needed to take things in a new direction. So my goal was to write really direct songs about humanity and being alive and some of the decisions that we have to make. Having the awesome natural beauty of Washington all around was really inspiring too.

Rob: I have had the distinct pleasure of hearing these songs in their embryo stages, and while I believe the sound was excellent at each turn, I understand you brought in an outside ear to help polish these tracks. What was that experience like? Do you feel the final results were better afterwards?

Ben: I did take the finished mixes to John McCaig at PanicStudios in Seattle for mastering. He has a really strong ear, a lot of awesome equipment and really did a nice job making the songs sound great. During the recording and mixing, I would run the songs by as many people as I could to get their feedback. It was really motivating as I was going through the process to have people get excited about the work and tell me that I'm on the right track. My wife Alycia, my friend Chris and my brother Mike contributed a lot of constructive ideas, and I'm sure the finished songs benefited a lot from their ideas and perspective.

Doing everything myself, it's easy to get lost in the process – so having that outside influence is really vital. In a regular rock band, there are checks and balances where each guy will want to hear his part sound a specific way, and a specific volume. I'm trying to get good performances, get good recordings of those performances, and then get good mixes that emphasize the sound and impact of the performances. It's a lot of stuff to juggle so I'm grateful to everybody for their contributions…especially to my wife! This thing took a lot of time and energy to put together. She was very patient and supportive.

Rob: I hate to pick favorites, but Cloud Cover and Through the Chain Reaction are two definite favorites of mine. I love the keys that you added towards the end of the writing for Cloud Cover. Could you tell us a little more about these songs?

Ben: 'Cloud Cover' was the first song that I recorded for the record. When I moved up to Washington from California, I actually came up in advance of my wife and son by about a month, in order to start my new job up here. That feeling of being away from them, and being all alone, was definitely hard. Now there's also the awe and wonder at the whole Pacific NW experience, which is really something. There are trees and clouds and lakes and the sky is just so huge up here – it was definitely inspiring. So what I tried to do was draw those two threads together, and 'Cloud Cover' basically meshes this sense of isolation with the feeling of the impact of the natural environment.

There was an experience that I had, waking up one morning and kind of experiencing the day that was about to come before it had even happened. The verse which closes the song, 'when the dream ends/and you're up with the sun again/and the rain falls/you can already see the future', was about that feeling, and I ended up using that feeling as the foundation for 'Reset the Clock' as well.

I actually shot a video for 'Cloud Cover', directed by Brian Barnett, which has got me in the woods rocking out with my PRS Singlecut guitar. There's some animation stuff I want to do, and there's a few more production stages left. It's a lot of fun to bring in more collaborators and do mastering and videos and get to work with talented people.

'Chain Reaction' is an interesting song – I had recorded the music with some lyrics in mind, but after I recorded the initial vocals, I realized that what I had written didn't really fit the song. So I ended up re-writing the lyrics and came up with what is really a love song, about whether love between two people on earth can go with us wherever we go when we die. This one is probably the most 'outside' of the central theme of the record. I definitely struggled with this song, more so than the others. The sound quality on this song I was really happy with immediately. I was getting some really good sounds from all the instruments and felt like I had dialed in what I was looking for. The bass sound in particular is big and rich, so that's really fun. The second half of the guitar solo stands out to me on this as well.

'Chain' probably has the most keyboards on it, or the most pronounced keyboards. 'Cloud Cover' is the only song with a keyboard solo, which was really fun to do and added another dimension to the music of that song. I've been a real eBay addict for a few years, kind of trolling for gear, especially guitars. Mid-way through the recording of 'WA State' I realized that the songs could benefit from the additional color palette that some keyboards could offer – so I ended up building a quick and dirty keyboard rig to add some pads, some leads and some general weirdness and atmosphere to the music. The keyboard rig consists of a Roland D-50, Roland M-VS1, a Korg Wavestation SR and Novation A-Station. Probably the coolest keyboard moments on the record are the intro to 'Sandcast', and the solo on 'Cloud Cover'. I think they fit nicely in 'Reset the Clock' as well.

Rob: You are an excellent lyricist, and there is an abundant supply of though provoking lyrics on Washington State ('Step Up the Stairs', 'Reset the Clock', 'Levitate', and especially 'No Division', to name just a few). Tell us a bit about your lyric writing process. Obviously on this album you draw a lot of inspiration from your home state, but there is more than meets the eye here, isnt there?

Ben: Thanks very much! I wanted to write an album that was really direct, and just tackled head on what it's like to be here and live life now. In the earliest stages of working on this record, I started my music blog ( When I wrote 'Substrate', I did a stream of consciousness of lyric writing for a couple of weeks into a little notebook. This time, I wanted to do the same thing – just generate as many lyrics as I could without self-editing them as I went. The difference being, I posted everything to the music blog as I wrote. After a few days of this, I had a lot of ideas and pieces, and even some finished songs, like 'In a Dream State', which basically were complete straight out of that stream of ideas.

So what I would do next would be take the guitar or the bass, and see if there were any chords or melodies that sync'ed up with the lyrics that I had, try to piece some verses and choruses together from different streams and try to construct songs out of these lyrics. Sometimes, I'd just have the music, and I'd go in and write lyrics to the music. 'A Chance for Me to Stay', the final song recorded for the album, and one of my favorites, was written this way.

During the time I was writing, I was also reading 'The Power of Now' by Eckhart Tolle, which is an amazing, life-changing book. The main idea being, don't worry about stuff that's out of your control, or hasn't happened yet, or has already happened. Focus all of your attention to the present moment, and this is the gateway to joy, ease and lightness. It's really a simple, straightforward idea, but totally counter to the way most everyone experiences life – which is total identification with the mind, with thinking, analysis, words, worrying about the future or reliving the past. So the idea is, just be here now, fully. As I wrote in 'Life Size', 'don't think so much, just do what you need to do.'

This book was really powerful and had a huge impact on the lyrics on the record. It was also interesting to me how much the stuff I had written before reading 'Power of Now' was really aligned with these ideas, so it was apparent that I was on this wavelength and reading the book helped me clarify a lot of the feelings that I'd been having.

'No Division' was inspired by a blog posting called "My Favorite Meditation" by Steve Pavlina, who's a personal development writer. It's basically about a vision of meeting your future self and your past self – and what you might say to each of them. I thought that idea was really fascinating and it pretty quickly turned into 'No Division'. It syncs up well with 'The Power of Now' (which was also a big influence on Steve), which basically is to take time out of the equation of being, and feel the depth of being alive, instead of the surface noise of thoughts, TV, worrying, and all that.

So I think 'presence' and awakening to being alive, and feeling empowered to build the life you want to live is probably the main theme of the record.

Rob: When listening to the music I hear a definite Rush influence, a little Floyd, in fact there is so much here that I was hoping you would talk briefly about some of your biggest influences and how they helped to shape the music on the album.

Ben: Yeah, I definitely love Rush, and that's been just huge for me ever since I was a kid. My first show was Rush at the Worcester Centrum on the 'Power Windows' tour in 1985, when I was ten years old. My older brother and his best friend were obsessed with Rush and turned me on to it. I remember hearing 'Limelight' as a six-year old boy and just thinking it was the most amazing thing I'd ever heard. I wanted to play guitar but both my brother and his friend Dave were so far ahead of me on that, that I knew I needed to play something else -- so I started on drums when I was 8 or 9.

During high school, I switched to guitar when songwriting became my primary focus. I became a street musician in Harvard Square, Cambridge after that and basically tried to bring arena rock energy to acoustic street busking. It was really intense, I'd play for hours and hours and just wear myself out. But I learned a lot and got a lot better as a player, a singer, and a songwriter. I had a few near out-of-body experiences while playing that I still think about sometimes.

But yeah, I love Rush, Sugar, Jawbox, Yes, Swervedriver, Urge Overkill, Jimi Hendrix and I've been listening to Journey quite a bit lately. Jawbox was an amazing band. They had the same musicianship as Rush, but were so intense, they would just thrash and sweat and their veins are bulging out of their necks and they never missed a beat – they were incredible.

But I dunno about how it shapes the music, other than I try to record music that I'd like listening to. So it's going to be rocking, it's going to hopefully have texture and dynamics and a sense of richness about it. Also, I get bored easily, so while I love bands like Stereolab, I probably wouldn't do like a 20-minute drone rock song hoping that people just vibe out on it – although it's possible!

I feel a little of that Floyd sound in the solo in 'No Division' in particular, but can't say I'm really a huge fan of Floyd. I've listened to that stuff and I of course love David Gilmour's playing. He's an absolutely magnificent soloist. Really lyrical and fluid. There's just some kind of angst or darkness in that music that I could never really relate to. I'm really looking for positive vibes and experiences, in music, and everywhere I can find them. But there's no doubt those guys are a great band. Generally, I prefer Yes, Zeppelin and The Who when it comes to UK super groups.

But for sure the Rush thing is there in the playing, songwriting and arrangements. I just embrace it now rather than really trying to get away from it. I'm trying to build something that's unique and special by itself, but those guys were and are so key to my love of music that I think that's always going to be in there somewhat. To me, the greatest thing about Rush songs are the guitar solos. Alex Lifeson plays with so much emotion, it's amazing. There are leads in Rush songs, like 'Available Light', or 'Between the Wheels', that just bring tears to my eyes when I really listen and feel the impact of the songs fully.

Recording guitar solos is probably my favorite thing to do. I learned from Neil Young that you don't need to have perfect technique or know lots of scales to play good leads. So I just hit record and go, and hope for something good to happen. 'In a Dream State', 'Reset the Clock', and 'Levitate' are a few of my favorites on the record.

Rob: I noticed that you are already at work on the next album, is there any specific direction youre headed in this time?

Yeah! I decided a while back that I just wanted to be as prolific as I possibly could for as long as I could. Just try to build a whole catalog of music and just be a real high output kind of songwriter. One of the biggest things that's different about what I'm doing on this newest material is, for the first couple of songs, I'm using drum loops rather than playing the drums myself. This offers me the ability to have really robotic precision in the drum part, and lets me change arrangements around. I can also just find a groove I like and play it back and just jam to it. It takes a lot of the pressure off to nail the perfect drum take before any of the other instruments can go on. The drum loops really instantly give a song a different feel than the live drummer, so it's interesting to me to hear that difference, and it's a new thing for my music. I'm using Fruity Loops 6 and so far, enjoying it quite a lot.

I had always thought that a project that was like a merger between Crystal Method and Rush would be the coolest thing. I don't think there's anything like that out there. Kind of like heavy, rocking, futuristic, lots of guitars, yet danceable. But I'm not sure that's where I'm headed on this. So far I'm going for a lot more experimental types of sounds, a little more dirty and trashy sounding, a little bit like 'Achtung Baby' by U2 -- and then bringing in super clear, bell-like guitar tones as a counterpoint. Lyrically, I don't know if I've established the theme or direction. I'm hopeful that will start to emerge soon. I think it's likely the record may be darker thematically than 'WA State'. I've got three new songs so far, a couple more that I've written (which I will probably play drums on), and after that it's anything goes time again.

Rob: One final question and I'll set you free; Is there any chance of hearing some of this material live in the near, or even distant, future?

Ben: I would really love to do that. Basically, I need to find a bassist and drummer out here in Seattle that really like this material and want to take it to the stage. I'm going to make a real effort to see if I can get that moving. At the very least, I'm planning to do some acoustic sets that will hopefully be exciting for people as well.

Rob: Thanks again Ben for taking the time out to talk to us here at YtseReviews once again. Its been a pleasure, and I look forward to any material you release in the future.

Ben: Thanks Rob! Talk with you soon.


Anonymous tim boucher said...

Sweet! Steve Pavlina is awesome! Checking out your tunes now...

2:46 PM


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