Friday, April 24, 2009

Student-penned play to premiere as part of Spring Play Festival

The creative vision of one SUNY Potsdam student will come to life on stage as part of the annual Spring Play Festival next week. Erin Nicole Harrington, senior theater major, wrote and is directing Transfigured Night, a play in one act roughly based on a poem by Richard Dehmel and the subsequent music composed by Arnold Schoenberg. The original story has been adapted from the original male-female couple to reflect the lives of contemporary lesbians.

Although Harrington drew inspiration from the works of Dehmel and Schoenberg, she mostly based Transfigured Night on her personal experience. "They say you have to write what you know and I think Erin has done a solid job of looking at that situation within the LGBT community," said sophomore theater and geology major Chelsea Wischerth who plays John Romme, the professor. "I think Erin wrote a great story that will hopefully reach closeted girls and speak to them," Wischerth elaborated.

Realizing something for the first time on stage has been a rewarding and challenging experience for those involved. "I love that Erin is both the playwright and director because she can essentially just do whatever she wants, which is amazing," expressed Wischerth. "[One challenge] has been learning lines that change quite frequently because this is a brand new play and some of the kinks had to be worked out," remarked Matthew DuBrey, freshman, who plays Stephen Maddow in the production. "It has been really cool to see the script kind of morph into what it is now," commented Liz Tarantelli, sophomore, who plays Ruth Hall. "I'm secretly hoping she gives me a line change opening night," she disclosed. "It's changed dramatically from where it started to where it is now," noted playwright Harrington. The play will quite possibly still be in flux until the very moment the curtain rises.

Writing and staging Transfigured Night doubles as Harrington's Presidential Scholars project and senior project for her theater degree.

Harrington's creativity does not stop with Transfigured Night. It is to be part of a "cycle of ten plays that deal with the experiences of American lesbians from 1920 to 2020," explained Harrington. Although Transfigured Night is the only fully realized play so far, she said it is "all sketched out in my head." Ideally, they will all be one act plays so that they can be performed together over a three-night span.

You can see the world premiere of Transfigured Night on April 28, April 30 and May 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Black Box theater. Admission is free for students and $5 for the general public.

Potsdam music scene evolves

Since my arrival in Potsdam nearly three years ago, the "Potsdam music scene" had been a sort of running gag. "What music scene?" someone would always interject.

Suddenly, refusing to settle for what little we have here, a few people have taken matters into their own hands. There's no denying that things have gotten better little by little. Hurley's has changed hands several times. Both the demeanor and quality have drastically improved under the guidance of current Hurley's chair Ben O'Brien Smith. Show attendance is stunning every time. The on-campus venue has brought in acts of ever-increasing quality. Downtown, La Casbah has also played a huge role in reviving live music. Lastly, the school radio station, 90.3 FM WAIH, has brought musicians into the studio to perform on air at every available opportunity. This has made the long drive seem a little more worthwhile to out-of-town musicians. All of the people involved in those efforts deserve our thanks. Because of them, our scene is flourishing and sometimes even boasts multiple shows on the same night. Although double booking isn't ideal, I could never have imagined that we would have so many options.

Freshman business major Brian Bond deserves major props for the show he put together last week at Backstreets. What I experienced on Thursday night at Backstreets was not all that different from a dingy New Brunswick punk house basement show. It brought together people of different interests with a solid lineup. There was dancing, socializing and most importantly, amazing music. Local acts Keeping Wyatt and Greene Reveal (Watertown) drew the crowd anxious to hear familiar acts. The Knockdown (Oneonta) subsequently wowed the crowd with tight harmonies and a solid punk rock sound. I think that the raw punk show and community feel reminded a lot of people of their hometown scenes.

For those looking to help the scene, there are a few places to start. First, pair touring acts with local ones. Touring acts that don't have a name here might have trouble drawing a crowd no matter how good they are. Secondly, use your resources. Money can be an issue, but if the musicians are flexible, there are plenty of opportunities around town and on campus. Lastly, advertise the hell out of your events. Attendance and overall interest will keep musicians coming back and even spreading the word about how great our small town really is.

I'm surely not the only one completely blown away by the transformation that has happened within the scene during the past year. Maybe all we needed were some positive-minded people and fresh blood. The collective effort to bring a scene of such magnitude to Potsdam is admirable. The more we continue to put our hearts into it, the better it will get.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Radio DJ utilises technology to enhance experience & an interview with Bob Boilen

Radio has undergone many changes since its prime. The seemingly dying medium has done anything and everything to change with the times. The biggest change that terrestrial radio has undergone is to incorporate the Internet as a viable tool and broadcast medium. One music-based radio show has gone to great lengths to utilize the Internet as a way to expand its scope and allow for dialogue between host and listeners.

All Songs Considered started as an online radio show in 2000, putting itself slightly ahead of the curve. The show is now syndicated weekly on many NPR affiliate stations. Every week, host Bob Boilen presents a variety of tracks from forthcoming albums of many genres for the listeners' consideration. Aside from the normal show broadcast, Boilen hosts Tiny Desk Concerts at his own desk, allows musicians to guest DJ, streams full albums in advance on the NPR music website (the First Listen series), brings musicians into the studio to chat about their albums (with live questions from listeners) and maintains a live concert podcast. Boilen and his affiliates also provided extended coverage of SXSW Music Festival, including podcasts and videos detailing newly discovered artists.

Boilen started podcasting in 2006 because, "listening to a forty minute, fifty minute show while sitting at your computer was not as inviting as listening to it when you wanted to, where you wanted to." Now, one can even look at individual episode blog posts on the web site and choose particular tracks to stream.

All Songs receives hundreds of CDs each week and Boilen personally sorts through them. "There are just so many hours in a week," said Boilen, "I used to try to listen to every single thing I got, if not, just at least the first song. I still stay pretty true to that although I have to say I've gotten discriminating to the point where a bad album cover filled with an aesthetic that doesn't appeal to me, or just a bad opening cut, sometimes even a label where I've never liked an artist, I will pass on if I'm really backed up. So, all of it that goes on the show is something I really, really like, and that's the bottom line." Boilen will sometimes include music less appealing to himself if he thinks that it is something listeners will truly want to hear (like the new U2 single). As the host of the show for almost 10 years, Boilen's discerning taste is easily trusted. But, when there is dissension, radio listeners no longer have to remain mute at the other end of the transmission.

"The community's built up to the point that I am constantly getting suggestions from audience members," said Boilen. He interacts with listeners through e-mails, Facebook, Twitter and blog post comments on the All Songs Considered blog. "I always like to have a dialogue with people on an individual basis. I think it's what public radio should do," he illuminated. The surge in communication has made it difficult to keep in touch with everyone, but he is certainly doing his best. Boilen also poses questions on his shows from time to time to encourage dialogue between listeners. Recent questions include: "When you go to a show and hear prerecorded backing tracks, does it bother you?" "How much would you pay to see your favorite band(s) live?" and "What does your vinyl collection look like?" The response to informal questions allows for one to get a feel for trends in music today.

The benefits of this increased communication via the Internet has transformed listening to a radio show into an entirely new experience. Radio DJing no longer consists of talking and playing music into the darkness. Now, all of the people out there listening actually get a chance to talk back.

KH: Well, I was just wondering, just as background, how did you get into radio in general?

BB: Oh, haha, let's start big, huh? Well, let's see…This goes back a long way. In 1983 (like I said, a long way), I was a composer for a theater company based in Baltimore and I did a piece using sampling that NPR heard my music and did a story on my music. About five years later, the person that produced that story was Ira Glass, working at All Things Considered back then, and I went and visited Ira five years after he had produced that piece and said "Remember me? I wanna work here. How can I do that?" I quit my job at a TV station at the time and just sort of determined to work at NPR. Long story made very short is that I started working at All Things Considered the following week, and about a year later I was directing the show and I did that for eighteen years (of directing, nineteen years with All Things Considered).

KH: So when did you start podcasting All Songs Considered and what brought you to podcasting?

BB: Well, first of all, All Songs Considered started just as an online music show in the very first month of the year 2000. Podcasting started in the summer of 2006, August 2006. I had learned about podcasting from a listener earlier in the year and I approached NPR about podcasting…and NPR was already starting to work on the idea of podcasting and launched All Songs Considered as a podcast along with a number of other podcasts. Our show is perfectly suited for it, so that's sort of what interested me. I mean, listening to a forty minute, fifty minute show while sitting at your computer was not as inviting as listening to it when you wanted to, where you wanted to. Podcasting is just sort of natural. It brought up a whole lot of legal issues that didn't exist with streaming. It was a big nut for a lot of record labels to chew to allow downloading, basically, of their music. It was a real uphill battle for a long time to podcast full versions of songs.

KH: And it's progressed to the point where you stream full albums, which is pretty great.

BB: We stream full albums, we don't podcast full albums. It's been quite a game changer in the record business, with how they feel about particularly what we do in general and I guess they see value in it. Now they're clamoring.

KH: You said it's more comfortable for people to be able listen when and where they want. Are there any other differences between podcasting and regular radio?
BB: Well, being able to rewind, being able to listen more than once. We have people who listen to our concert podcast; we have a number of different podcasts: we have the All Songs podcast, the All Songs Considered live concert podcast, we also have a podcast called Second Stage, and especially the live concert podcast is something that people can listen to over and over again.

KH: In general, when did you think of podcasting the live concerts and what process did you go through to do that?

BB: Well, first of all, in January of 2005 we approached Bright Eyes who had then just released two albums and was coming to town and we asked whether or not he and his band would mind if we tried live webcasting, so, not just streaming it but literally doing it live at the site at the time, and they were up for it. We didn't podcast that, we didn't think there would be a chance in hell anyone would let us podcast an entire concert. A few months later after doing Wilco as a live concert, we approached, I think it was Bloc Party who was a smaller, fairly unknown band at the time and asked them if they would care to podcast, figuring it would be pretty cool if we did that. That was just part of our regular podcast. We did concerts in our regular All Songs podcast for the first year or so and eventually decided to split it off and do a separate live concert podcast.

KH: Do you find that all of these methods with which your listeners can interact, through the blog post comments and Facebook, does that influence how you do your show?

BB: I mean, the best thing is I get more feedback. People can listen more, they can listen again and again and then write to me about it. The community's built up to the point that I am constantly getting suggestions from audience members. We did a series of shows about sort of your "secret band," bands that you know and love that maybe others don't, and I asked suggestions. We did a number of shows based just on listener's suggestions. I listen constantly to things people are suggesting to me, so in that way it influences the show. The audience we've built up is such a music savvy audience that I'm always trying to find stuff to keep them happy, stuff that's already out there or stuff we get way in advance. Our theory used to be don't put anything on the show that isn't out yet. That's what we used to do back in the year 2000. Because it was hard to find stuff; even finding it on Amazon it was hard. But now, we look forward to previewing stuff that's a month before release, six weeks before release, because there's so many ways to get music that we want to constantly surprise people.

KH: With those web-based things, are you the person checking and reading all of them?

BB: Yeah, I've always answered all of the e-mail personally, the Facebook as well. It's mind numbing and overwhelming, I have to say. It's getting to the point where I'm not able to answer every single person and that is very frustrating to me, because I always like to have a dialogue with people on an individual basis. I think it's what public radio should do. So it's a little frustrating now that it's gotten so overwhelming, but I'll keep just doing my best.

KH: If all of your listeners are finding out about great music from you, where do you find out about this music, aside from artists that are established, I mean, you must get so many CDs it's probably mind numbing as well, so how do you weed through that?

BB: We get a few hundred a week. You know, I have lots of different methods. Some of it has to do with, I used to try to listen to every single thing I got, if not, just at least the first song. I still stay pretty true to that although I have to say I've gotten discriminating to the point where a bad album cover filled with an aesthetic that doesn't appeal to me, or just a bad opening cut, sometimes even a label where I've never liked an artist on a given label, I will pass on if I'm really backed up. I'll just say I'm not going to deal with this, because there's just so many hours in a week and if I start falling behind then I'm not going to get stuff on in a timely manner. So, all of it that goes on the show is something I really, really like, and that's the bottom line. If I don't really, really like it, it doesn't go on the show, with very few exceptions. For example, we put a U2 song on the show, and I've never been a big fan of U2 but I think they're a really talented band and I think people would want to hear it. We got a slightly early release of it so we put it on the show. Tom Jones was a novelty to me, I thought he would be fun to put on the show. Not an artist that I'm in love with, but certainly an incredibly talented person. But, really, for the most part, the stuff on the show is stuff I'm in love with.
KH: I was just going to ask if you put things on for the sake of the listeners even if it's not your favorite. And, you answered that.

BB: It's very rare I do. And if I do it, it's usually to generate a conversation tossed to the blog. Like with the U2, I started a conversation about, "why do we love the music we love?" I mean, obviously U2 is a talented band, they have something to say, they're innovative and I don't love them. So what is it about a band that makes you fall in love with them and care about them? I used it as a jumping-off point to try to get comments about that and they've been absolutely fascinating comments.

KH: When you're listening to so many CDs in a given week, if you find something you really love, where do you make time to listen to it? What's been the most recent thing that you've really been in love with and gone for multiple listens?

BB: Well, the Decemberists record, the new one that comes out the end of March on the 24th, I listened to four times over the weekend. One of the only drawbacks about this job is that, I used to, when I fell in love with an album I'd listen to it over and over and over again, and I just don't have time to do that. So, four times in a weekend is a lot for me, and I'll do that at home, I'll do that in my car while driving around. That's where I listen to stuff that I really, really like: either in the house or in the car. But it is rare that I get to hear things multiple times.

KH: Is there anything exciting in the future of the All Songs podcast or the live concert podcast?

BB: Well we've been doing this Tiny Desk concert series, but the biggest thing coming up is South by Southwest, which is always a hoot. I have no idea what we're going to do down there, well I have some idea what we're going to do down there because we've been planning for three months. We have a number of concerts we're going to present live. They'll all wind up in the live concert podcast. We're bringing video cameras and stuff. Last year we grabbed Lightspeed Champion and we put 'em in a field in Austin. We found Jaymay and we put her on a porch. We'll try to do some fun stuff like that this year too. I have no real idea what those are going to be. I'm the sort of person who on one level plans a bit, but I also like to be able to do something on the spur of the moment and be flexible. We'll see.

Student Art Show opens at Creative Spirit gallery

Featuring everything from oil paintings to Sharpie drawings and three-dimensional works, the greatly varied Student Art Show (StASh) opened at Creative Spirit Art Gallery on Friday, April 10. People came together to enjoy live music, delicious snacks and each other's company while admiring student creations.

Students, faculty, friends and family gathered at the inviting Creative Spirit space to see the works of their peers. The mood of the event was extremely upbeat. Music provided by Some Elan Vital, which means "all good things," drifted through various spaces of the gallery. The pleasant soundtrack of flute and balafon (a type of West African wooden xylophone) and other percussion provided a perfect background for the constant din of friendly conversation.

The difference between attending an opening and visiting the gallery on a normal day is the interaction with the artists themselves. From a distance, one could see several artists interacting with the attendees, explaining the meaning of their works. This guided viewing made the works instantly accessible to the viewer.

The most attention-getting piece in the gallery, entitled Turn Me On by Sarah Haze, was a mixed-media work of suggestive light boxes. Shy onlookers stood back while the more daring stepped forward and toggled the light switches. Sharpie-inked works by Chase Winkler garnered attention for their simultaneous complexity and simplicity. The animal-themed paintings of Krystal Stowe inspired speculation and conversation.

Unfortunately, there was little publicity for the event. Luckily, word of mouth spread quickly. Perhaps with flyers around campus, even more people would have come out to the gallery opening.

This American Life live simulcast to appear at Roxy

Potsdam's Roxy Theater will be a part of something very exciting on Thursday, April 23. The Roxy will be one of 400 theaters across the nation to host a live simulcast of This American Life - Live! The unique radio show will come to life on screens across the country and Potsdam residents have a chance to experience it too.

This American Life, a Chicago Public Radio show syndicated by Public Radio International and podcasted for free, presents a new theme each week and then brings listeners a variety of stories based on that theme. Endearing host Ira Glass introduces and sometimes even tells the stories, and the cast of contributing writers is just as colorful as the characters in the stories. Segments of the show range from humorous to profound, from memoirs to fiction.

The theme of This American Life - Live! is "Return to the Scene of the Crime." Popular contributors to the show featured in the live performance will be Dan Savage, Starlee Kine, Mike Birbiglia, David Rakoff and Dave Hill. There will be a cartoon by Chris Ware, visuals by Arthur Jones and a music performance by special guest Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and more). Unlike the one-hour radio show, the live movie simulcast will be two hours in length.

The second annual live show will be broadcast live from NYU's Skirball Center. "Our listeners enjoyed getting together in their own communities to experience our show in a new way," said host Ira Glass. "The live cinema transmission was surprisingly effective. We were flooded with emails asking for us to do it again. Last year was mostly a sneak preview of stories from our television show. This year we're excited to do a full-on stage performance of the radio show."

For those unfamiliar with the radio show, I highly recommend checking the This American Life website for archived shows or the iTunes store to download the free podcast. Unlike many subject-specific radio shows, This American Life succeeds through its flexibility and wide appeal.

Tickets are currently on sale at The Roxy at $12 for students and $15 for adults. For more information, visit and

Poor security at SLU event a problem

Two thousand people descended upon St. Lawrence University on Saturday, April 11 for an event that promised to be memorable. The concert, featuring performer Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis), turned out to be memorable for different reasons than the norm. The Association for Campus Entertainment of SLU was underprepared for the 2,000 people and security was unable to control the crowd. The show, which started an hour late, was shut down after 25 minutes. Luckily for paying ticketholders, Gillis returned to the stage and fulfilled his contracted hour of performance. Gillis did his best to make up for the night's many setbacks with his high-energy performance.

The sheer number of people who attended the event was clearly more than the organization had ever dealt with before. Security checks at the main entrance were abysmal. SUNY Potsdam student Jon Wendt had a pen confiscated, while others entered with contraband that was seen throughout the evening, including beer bottles, cans, lighters, cigarettes and marijuana-the scent of which wafted noticeably through the Leithead Fieldhouse on several occasions. Bathroom facilities (port-a-potties) and water jugs were inadequate and unguarded.

Although doors opened an hour early, according to ACE, approximately 800-1,000 attendees arrived ten minutes before the event was set to begin. This mob caused event planners to make the decision to change start time to 10:30 p.m. Although they claimed (in their message to event attendees) that the event began at 10:30 p.m., in actuality, Gregg Gillis did not enter until 11 p.m. Amber Schmidt, sophomore theater major, was affected by the crowd outside. She recounted events that prevented her entry into the building: "I bought a ticket, I was really excited, but I went all the way there for nothing…just to stand around in the cold getting pushed around by drunk people and watching security do nothing." Twenty minutes after 10 p.m., she said the door was shut. After 20 minutes of waiting around with around 300 drunken people and no progress made, she and alumnus BJ LaBrake gave up on the event, both forfeiting their $15 tickets.

ACE concert chairs Sam Tyler and Casey O'Brien enumerated that there were "8 SLU security, 6 student safety employees, 14 uniformed ACE affiliates and exec members working enforcement, 4 school administrators [and] 6 EMTs and 1st responders on scene." It was arranged before the event, through contract stipulation, that 15 audience members would be allowed on stage at a time from designated stage right stairs. This plan quickly disintegrated when people jumped the front boundary (where there was no active security) and got on the stage. Dancers on the stage crowded Gillis, stood on his equipment table and climbed the speaker stacks. The few security members were unable to hold back the crowd, and the rush caused the show to be shut down because of danger to the performers and attendees.

The behavior of the majority of the crowd was nauseating. Clearly intoxicated (whether with alcohol or drugs) attendees tripped, behaved obnoxiously and made sober attendees uncomfortable. The crowd was, at best, outrageous. The manner in which our peers chose to conduct themselves in public is concerning. Event planners removed only a few over-intoxicated attendees (at least eight people had been transported to Canton-Potsdam Hospital before the event even began).

It is unfair to blame the conduct of the crowd and ACE's lack of preparation on the performer. It was clear after the break that Girl Talk was enthusiastic about continuing the event. He made an effort to compensate for the lack of action on stage by moving around and dancing.

Soon after healthy dialogue between attendees about their grievances began on the Facebook event, someone from the organization with administrator privileges deleted the event, and thus all of the content.

One final side-note was the unnecessary mass of toiler paper waste produced by two blowers on the stage. Approximately 20 rolls of toilet paper were blown into the crowd and turned to a soggy mess on the floor. The piles made it difficult to find lost possessions after the concert and was atrocious in the face of Earth week's approach.

ACE concert chair Casy O'Brien gave insight into future planning considerations: they would "request that the setup company bring extra barricades for outside the doors" and "gve people some incentive to arrive more than 20 minutes before the show starts." One way to draw students into such a big event sooner would be to have an opening act.

Hopefully ACE and other similar student organizations learn from the shortcomings of planning for the Girl Talk event. If any student organization chooses to hold such a major event again, perhaps they should take a more detailed look at the things that could go wrong.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Local musician Tas Cru celebrates CD release at McDuff's

Constantly surrounded by musical happenings in Potsdam, it's no surprise that some professors want to get in on the fun. Rick Bates, associate professor of Literacy, under the pseudonym Tas Cru (it means "raw potato" in Quebecois), plays blues guitar and sings, often with a backup band. Tas Cru and friends will celebrate the release of his latest album, Grizzle n' Bone at McDuff's on Saturday, April 11 at 9 p.m.

When Tas Cru plays slide guitar, harmonica and sings, there's absolutely no holding back. His emotional investment in the music is clear and certainly infectious. Cru takes the blues and makes it his own. His songs range from upbeat and catchy to slow and truly bluesy. The mix is sure to make for an entertaining night.

At the CD release party he will be joined by Chip Lamson on the piano, the Slow Happy Boys band and the Stacked Deck Singers, namely Jenny Macri, Meaghan Manor and Montana Rodriguez. Local band The Moistmakers, playing funk and jazz that gets audiences to their feet, will open the show.

The Blues Festival Guide recognized Tas Cru as this year's "Blues Artist on the Rise." He has appeared at clubs all over the country with some well-known artists. He also presents assemblies and workshops in elementary schools through his blues education program, Blues Alive! The program involves general music, literacy and social studies in conjunction with his unique style. Tas Cru keeps a busy touring schedule and will make appearances in the North Country, Vermont and Albany area throughout the spring and summer.

The Grizzle n' Bone release party will be held at McDuff's (59 Market St.) on April 11 at 9 p.m. The event is open to everyone 18 and older. Advance sale tickets are available at McDuff's and Northern Music & Video and cost $5. Entry will cost $8 the night of the show.

Girl Talk to take SLU by storm & interview with Gregg Gillis

Unconventional musician Girl Talk uses beats, drum fills, keyboard solos, vocals and other pieces of mainstream music to create completely new and different tracks. Girl Talk, whose real name is Gregg Gillis, has played on stages and floors all over the world, and his next stop is St. Lawrence University.

Formerly a biomedical engineer, Gillis now devotes all of his time to sampling, mixing and performing his creations live. His April 11th show, which will bring together people from all of the local colleges and communities, promises to be the biggest party that the North Country has seen in a very long time.

SLU's Association for Campus Entertainment booked Girl Talk after negotiations with Slightly Stoopid for the spring event fell through. "[We] had been receiving a lot of requests for Girl Talk," said SLU Association for Campus Entertainment Concert Chair Sam Tyler. "When it turned out he was [available], we did a bunch of sample polling throughout campus and got such a positive response that we decided we just had to go for it." Listening to the student body and conducting polls provided the right amount of support from the local community. "We've had a ton of interest in the concert, both from students on our own campus and kids from the surrounding schools and communities," said Casey O'Brien, another ACE concert chair.

There has been a similarly enthusiastic response from students here on campus. Tyler Fox, freshman history major, said, "having the chance to see Girl Talk is just mind blowing, especially here in the North Country." He listens to Girl Talk because Gillis "take[s] such popular and loved songs and mold[s] them into his own style." Freshman psychology major Ariel Einbinder expressed a similar sentiment about the show and elaborated, "I think it shows that our music scene up north is slowly growing, which I know makes me, and many others, happy because there are a lot of people up here that have a real appreciation for great music." Even some alumni are planning to attend the concert. Mike Belhumeur, a recent graduate, plans to make the trip from Albany. "I'm driving back to come see Gregg (Girl Talk), see my friends, steal some time on 90.3…and see some of my professors. I'm carpooling with three other friends. Saves on gas," stated Belhumeur, an avid Girl Talk fan. The capacity for the show is 2,000 persons. O'Brien expects that if ticket sales continue at the same rate, the show will be sold out by Saturday.

The Girl Talk show at SLU will be far from an ordinary pop/rock concert. Gillis, with his laptop and other equipment, will be positioned on a stage in the middle of the room. Standard etiquette at Girl Talk shows is that members of the audience always climb up on stage to dance. "It's a nice visual element for the crowd," said Gillis, who loves performing but realistically has to be clicking the mouse to keep the show going. The SLU show will be no exception. "We'll be herding everyone up onto the stage from one end and off of the other every twenty minutes or so," said O'Brien. "We're really excited to have been able to set this up as an interactive show with the crowd constantly cycling."

"Girl Talk's musical content taps right into the heart of the current generation at SLU," explained Tyler. "His mash-ups bring many of us back to specific memories of our 'younger years'," asserted Tyler. The musical content he referred to is a jumble of everything from hip-hop to top 40 hits. In one track off his 2008 release, Feed the Animals, Gillis bounces through samples by BeyoncĂ©, DJ Funk, Queen, Beastie Boys, Phil Collins, Busta Rhymes, The Police and The Cure in under a minute. The result is just short of chaotic and actually surprisingly comprehensive. Just when one riff settles in, another takes its place. There's always a solid beat in the background and an ever-changing flow of vocals, backups, synthesizers and other instruments floating through the fore- and mid-ground. "The aesthetic of the music of things moving quickly is my influence from electronic music. I really like quickly edited electronic music…things that are always moving forward," said music-manipulator Gillis in an interview. He elaborated, "I like [finding out] how chopped up and chaotic it can be while still being cohesive." "It all goes back to the hip-hop production," emphasized Gillis, citing Public Enemy, De La Soul and Paul's Boutique (Beastie Boys) as examples. The Pittsburgh native grew up on pop, hip-hop and rock music, especially Nirvana, because they seemed like normal guys.

In the live environment, the music will be just as chaotic as the uninhibited dancing. Gillis uses his live show as a chance to try out new material. "Most of the stuff I play live is just temporary. It will just be in there for a little bit, it'll be a new thing, and most people will never hear it again," said Gillis about the unpredictable nature of his performances. Because of the ephemeral nature of his live music, he needs to gauge what works and what doesn't on the spot. He revealed that the dancers are his feedback. If they are really enjoying something, he will let it play out longer; he'll cut something that isn't going over well. Each show is a process, and what is heard at one live show may never be heard again. Gillis also admitted that he takes things down a notch in a live show (with samples, that is): "I don't want to rush through the material. I feel like if I was able to play at the speed and density of the records with new material, then I feel like it might be too much for people to really be able to enjoy upon a first listen."

Tickets will still be available for Girl Talk until the time of the show unless it sells out before then. The event will take place at St. Lawrence University's Leithead. Doors are at 9 p.m. and the show will start at 10 p.m. Tickets are $5 for SLU students and $15 for the public and can be purchased at the SLU Bookstore or online at

Kim Harrison: So, you're comin' to upstate New York. Have you ever been this far north before?
Gregg Gillis/Girl Talk: Uh, yeah, I've been to Canada, all parts of Canada, dark parts of Canada. I've been to Maine. What other states are above you? New England? I've been to upstate New York a few times: Poughkeepsie, yeah, I can't remember, but I've been in the area a few times.

KH: I was wondering, because your music you put out is so hook-oriented-you get to the point real fast with everything you use-were you into hook-oriented music when you were younger? What were you listening to that drew you into music at a young age?
GG: You know, I feel like with a lot of people, what you get into is a response to what you were into prior to that. So I was into pop, hiphop, rock music when I was young. The first music I can remember enjoying when I was in Kindergarten was kind of like hair metal with Def Leppard and Poison and things like that. The first music I started getting into like "buying" music was like hiphop, stuff under more pop-like, …and Kris Kros also, some more hardcore stuff like Public Enemy and NWA. After that, I also got into Nirvana and lots of alternative music. I feel like a lot of this project is a response to a lot of far out, experimental, noise stuff-a lot of stuff without hooks. But I mean, I always followed pop and hiphop throughout those times. Kind of the aesthetic of the music of things moving quickly is almost my influence from electronic music. I really like quickly edited electronic music, not necessarily hook-filled, but things that are always moving forward, and you know how chopped up and chaotic it can be while still being cohesive. I think that's something I strive to achieve with the Girl Talk stuff.

KH: Did you come up with mixing popular and rock and all of the great things you put together, did you do that on your own or was it that electronic music that influenced you to take it to that level?
GG: Yeah, I mean I definitely heard things, and you know it all goes back to the hip hop production, you know, when you listen to a Public Enemy record, you know, the bomb squad production is lots of samples. When you hear Paul's Boutique, there's tons of samples. When you hear De La Soul, lots of samples. But a lot of that stuff, when I was getting into it, I wasn't really breaking the music up in my head. I wasn't trying to think about how they made it or why they made it or what instruments were involved. It was just music to me. But I think a lot of people my age grew up listening to sampling as an instrument. The actual influence of me starting to do that style of music, I think, came from more or less my experimental days, where I heard guys like Kid666, John Oswald, Negativland, Evolution Control Committee; all of these people making very crazy, experimental electronic music out of samples, and I thought it was very exciting. I thought it was cool to, you know, make music that was progressive and challenging but was still appealing to people who didn't necessarily follow the scene, based on kind of pop references. So that was just the music I was really into in high school, and that kind of led me down the path to starting Girl Talk.

KH: That's great! So, as a musician myself, I am really curious about the process you go through when you are putting together these-I mean, your CDs are almost one continuous piece of music-do you dissect songs in your head and know how you are going to put them together ahead of time? Do you alter things on a computer and do it that way? What's your approach?
GG: It's very slow and drawn out. I think, you know, when you hear an album, it's basically after two years of a huge trial and error process. So, I mean, every day I sit down and I'll have, you know, a bunch of CDs sitting by the computer, a bunch of MP3s on the computer, things I think could be interesting to sample. That all starts with just isolated parts, you know, just a drum fill or a vocal breakdown or you know, an interesting keyboard solo or whatever. And I sample those parts and I do many variations of it. I chop them up, cut it in half, speed 'em up, slow 'em down, do different things to them. And then I try to start figuring out if any of that works with other material. When I get a drumbeat, you know, I'll figure out the tempo of it, figure out whether I like it sped up or slowed down. What does it really flow with rhythmically? What melodies does it match up with? And then same thing with the vocals, I mean, just try out different combinations and try and get these layers of material that work together. And usually, when it works it's a very small idea. I'll have a thirty second or a minute-long part that I enjoy, and then if I want to try playing that out live, in the live set, it's all kind of live sample trigger. And if I'm queuing up different loops and hooks and samples in real time, if I want to play one of these new parts live, I figure out where it fits in the set, you know, what does it come well after? What does it go good into? You know, I kind of have to figure out those transitions. And then I build from there. Maybe I really like the vocals but the melody's not working, and I've got a new melody at a similar tempo or similar key. So I'll put that in there instead. You know, most of the stuff I play live is just temporary. It will just be in there for a little bit, it'll be a new thing, and most people will never hear it again. And certain things sticks, and I keep playing it over and over and keep developing it. So, by the time I sit down to do an album, it will be about two years into that process, and I'll have a really good idea of where this begins and ends, and you know, what flows together and what goes into and out of everything else. So, it's like most of the album is all just, like, written in my head when I sit down to do it. I have a pretty good idea. I do build it as one composition; I build it as one track and that's the intention it is to me: the albums are basically one song. Feed the Animals is one piece of music and I separate the tracks just to make it easier to navigate.

KH: Did you ever study music traditionally? Did you play any instruments or anything?
GG: No. I mean, I played saxophone when I was very young, but not long enough to really consider myself to be actually trained in it.

KH: So you consider what you're doing to be a result of everything you've listened to and you processing it the way that you like it?
GG: Yeah, I mean, for me, I was obsessed with music when I was young. I don't really know why I didn't get a guitar. Maybe they were too expensive; I don't know what the reason was. I just never got an instrument. I was in bands in high school without having an instrument. To me, it was like, well, you just pick up a toy keyboard and you can play in a band or you can scream or you can do whatever. When I was young, maybe 12 or 13 I was starting lots of bands that never actually practiced. You just come up with a name and you figure out who's in it and it kind of goes nowhere. But that was just the nature of it and from there I kind of kept exploring more and more forms of underground music. I was interested in how little training you would need to have to be able to perform. To me, Nirvana was so exciting because they just seemed like normal guys. Even though they were very well trained in their instruments and they write pop music, as a young kid seeing that, it didn't really come across as necessarily professional. I think that's what I kind of liked about it. It just seemed like regular guys in ripped jeans and you know, just didn't seem to care that much. So that kind of led me down a path to just find more and more out about music. And when I was maybe 14 or 15 I really discovered experimental electronic music and I saw people using foot pedals and children's toys and all these crazy things as different instruments, and I started going to shows and buying records by people who had no formal training in music and that was just very exciting and raw to me. So, that's when I officially started up, I mean I started my first real band around 15 and it was all electronics and completely experimental and just unhinged weirdness, basically.

KH: I've read in interviews that you've said that your instrument is basically your laptop and that you can just pick it up and go wherever. I was wondering, what's your setup? What software do you use? Does what you do when you're recording and you're on your own differ from what you do during your live set?
GG: I use two primary pieces of software. One is Adobe Audition, which is just a sound editor. So that's where I cut up all the samples and I try to make beats and I sample songs. And then to perform live I use a piece of software called Audiomulch. And, like I was saying before, that is where I flesh out all of the ideas. So, when I perform live, I really feel like it's a bit more loose and freeform than the actual albums. One reason being that I just couldn't really click the mouse and edit as specifically as the album-it would just be impossible-and also because I like it to be a bit more loose. I don't want to rush through the material. I feel like, you know, if I was able to play at the speed and the density of the records with new material then I feel like it might be too much for people to really be able to enjoy upon a first listen. So, I think with the live show, it's like when I do an album, I kind of record myself performing live many different times and then I edit those down. So, it'll be like, for a section that lasts one minute long, I can perform that live, in the live setting, but then actually sitting down and editing it-get the transitions right, kind of piecing it together-it might take me eight hours to do that one one-minute segment. It's just a very fine-tuned, detail-oriented version of editing down the live shows.

KH: As your music has evolved, as you said from the more experimental to more pop and hip hop samples and everything, it's obvious your live show has evolved a lot too, just by seeing pictures through the years. When all of those people are up on the stage dancing, how does it affect your live performance? Is it distracting to you? Is it invigorating?
GG: You know, it's mostly exciting. I feel like that whole aspect of the performance kind of evolved to a point where I was no longer in the decision making process. It was definitely a component of the early days, when I started, always kinda gettin' in the crowd, getting a few people on stage. But it wasn't really a fundamental aspect that people would be on stage. So that kind of just took off in the past two years or so. Since then, it has slowly developed into the standard etiquette. You know, when people come out to shows, they know that's what they want to do. People in the front row are ready to get on stage. And that's cool, you know, I kind of let that happen. And at this point, it's just a matter of controlling it to a level where it isn't completely distracting. I've kind of done this on my own for many years and I officially got my first tour manager starting in November, and now he's the guy who kind of camps out on stage and helps brief the security and them ready just so the shows don't completely collapse. For a minute there, I was really interested in pushing the envelope in terms of chaos. I like the shows to kind of fall in and implode on themselves without anyone actually being hurt or problems like that. I just like the nature of just insanity and whether people could keep up with it or whether I could keep up with it or not. But it kind of reached a point where the shows got big enough and the crowds got tight enough that I just couldn't do it. It actually was reaching a point where most shows were ending prematurely. It was just too much. So we kind of fine-tuned it for a little bit there, and with people on stage now, you know, I like it. For me, it's a nice visual element for the crowd. I like to perform and get out there in the audience and stand and scream and do things like that, but technically I have to be clicking the mouse every few seconds to keep the show going. So, it's a nice visual for people who don't necessarily want to be up there, for people who just want to watch the show. On top of that, it's a lot more exciting for me to be able to dance and party with people. They are my response. How they are going helps govern the show. If they're excited about something or quiet about something it definitely impacts me in the moment. You kind of just have to reach somewhere in between where it can be completely insane and crazy and people are just jumping up there, but to some degree you have to control it or else everything will fall apart, I won't be able to move or things like that. I've played in some pretty intense situations at this point, you know, right in the middle of crowds or on the floor at larger venues and things like that. I feel well-schooled in being able to keep it together myself and I feel like I like to give the audience some degree of…I give them room to…the audience can completely destroy the show if they want to. Anyone can just smash my computer, unplug it, or fall into me or push me over. So I like to give them that freedom. I feel like it's a level of responsibility. A lot of times people are drunk and wasted and just trying to have a good time but oftentimes it's almost like we have to work together to make sure the show doesn't fall apart and I do like that kind of community feel to it.

KH: Have you ever been stuck at a venue where they were unhappy about letting people on stage? Have you ever had to fight for that?
GG: Yeah, that was another thing too with the learning curve of this. There was a period of about a few months whenever the popularity of this project started taking off a bit where not every show people got on stage. There was a big period where I'd show up at a venue and say you know, "people may get on stage, they've been doing it before, it's not every show, I really don't know." And then slowly it got to the point where it was like "oh wow, well, the past ten shows have all had people on stage," so it got to the point where I had to start telling them and informing them. I feel like we've just gotten better about that. Before, I never even used to talk to security and again I never had a tour manager or anything like that, but now it's something we try to advance. But there was a brief period where I didn't really tell them. I just wasn't sure what it was going to be like. I've had shows ended early, people freaking out, some university shows, a university stopping a show because they think it's out of control or forcing everyone offstage, or things like that. I've experienced all of that, you know, stages almost collapsing, things like that. But now I feel like it's at point where we've made a science out of making it happen. We control it to the point where it's not going to completely fall apart.

KH: You've proven through all of the festivals you've played and other shows that you've been on that you can fit in with a diverse bill of pretty much any kind of music. Is there any act that you'd love to share a stage with?
GG: I'm very excited, in the near future at a show at James Madison University I'm playing with Three Six Mafia, who are some people I've always listened to and some musical heroes of mine, so I'm really looking forward to that. Outside of that, you know, I'm down with whoever, I mean, at this point, including the festivals and stuff, I've had a chance to play Neil Young and The Police and Bone Thugs and Harmony and Wu Tang Clan. Yeah, it's really been an honor to do all of that, and at this point, you know, I really couldn't isolate anyone that I'd love to play with. I'd love to be on the same stage as Justin Timberlake some day.

KH: Are there any new acts that you'd really like to see succeed?
GG: Out of Pittsburgh, there are people I tour with, these are personal friends of mine, people really into their music: Grand Buffet is a hip-hop group from Pittsburgh I tour around with a lot, band called Hearts of Darknesses who I've toured with a lot over the years has a new record coming out, CX Kidtronik, I just had a tour with recently, I'd like to see take off, The Death Set, these are all kind of people I've shared stages with recently. Trying to think about any other bands I've seen recently, you know, those four kind of stand out in my mind, as just people I've had a chance to tour with I think they're very down to earth and know what's going on and have a pretty excellent musical project going on right now.

KH: Nice! You've been traveling around a ton. Is there any place you haven't been that you'd like to get to?
GG: I haven't really done Eastern Europe much, which would be exciting. The thing is, I went to Japan about four years ago before I really had a following, and I was playing more do it yourself style shows, very small shows. So I'd like to get back over there and I haven't done that in a long time. I basically haven't done that since Night Ripper came out. I'd be interested to go to Asia in general, it's a place I haven't really been over to too much, so I'm trying to make that happen for late summer this year.

KH: So, no day jobs since your engineering days?
GG: No, I quit about a year and a half ago. I tried to hold onto it as long as possible but these days I seem to be traveling like 150-200 days a year so it's hard to hold on to any job.

KH: If you have an iPod, how much music is on it? Otherwise your music collection, how much volume are we talking?
GG: I do have an iPod but I don't use it. My parents would be bummed out to hear that because they got it for me for Christmas a few years ago. But I don't really actively use an iPod. I also don't collect digital music really. I have lots of loops. I have thousands of loops and samples and things like that on my computer. But actual MP3s, I maybe have like 50 on there right now. I primarily buy CDs, what I've been buying since fifth grade. I don't have a number. I moved into a new place in Pittsburgh a few months ago and they're all still sitting in one room in a giant towel and I've been meaning to alphabetize them any time I get some time off but I never do it. But I am an active CD buyer. I'd have to say I probably bought more CDs this year than I have in my entire life. I like to buy full albums, I like to check out the artwork and do it the old-fashioned way. I'm excited about that and I hope to continue collecting CDs until I die. I have no idea how many I have. I wish I had a complete collection because half of them are like missing cases or just beat up or I can't find the CDs and things like that. But yeah, I actively buy compact discs and have been doing so for a long time.

KH: Speaking of CDs, are there any plans in the works for a new album or live album or anything like that?
GG: I don't know, you know. Right now I average about doing one album every two years. So that would mean this would be an off year for me since I put one out in 2008. I'm not sure, you know. I'm constantly working on music. I kind of am interested in the idea of potentially doing maybe a live release or giving away a live album because I know certain people bootleg sets and people get into them. I know certain bootlegs of mine people will enjoy more than the albums and with the live shows I like to do reinterpretations of album material so it's things that would never see the light of day unless it was released in a live form. So that's something I've been considering. Yeah, I don't know, I'm kind of constantly working and I have no real plans. I mean I usually decide on making something kind of spur of the moment-just do it.

KH: I think that what you're doing would really benefit from that live CD/DVD package that so many groups have been putting out.
GG: I love buying music DVDs, I just can't tell when people do that if consumers think, "oh they're just trying to bank in on this," or it's almost like buying time so they don't have to make a CD. I don't want it to come across like that at all. I do think it's cool, I think the live show's become it's own beast. I've toured so much and it's become such a staple project it's almost like a whole other world apart from the album. So yeah, I'm definitely kind of considering it.

KH: That sounds great. Well, we're all looking forward to seeing you in April.
GG: Cool, cool.
KH: Thank you so much for talking to me today.
GG: Cool, have a good one.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Drum circles bring people together, relieve stress

All semester long, innumerable stresses plague students. Whether they are school or social life-related, they are unavoidable. Luckily, two recent clinicians at SUNY Potsdam have a simple answer to your stress-filled days. Their answer is to make music. Even if you never studied an instrument in school, you-yes you-can still make amazing music in the company of friends. This is possible through group drum circles. They are easy to organize, and you don't even necessarily need drums: just your hands to clap or fingers to snap.

In a drum circle, everyone is equally important to the process and overall sound. Drums are instantly playable to those with no musical training. Aside from being fun, drumming helps develop teamwork and leadership skills.

Earlier this week, alumnus Matt Savage returned to facilitate several drum circles, lead percussion masterclasses and speak to several music business classes. The clinic, part of the Dean Alan Solomon music and wellness series, even attracted the dean himself. The biggest drum circle, held in the Crane Commons, drew approximately 50 students. Participants got to do four important things: "move together, think together, work together and play together," said Savage. He led the group through activities (some from an educator's perspective to benefit the many music education majors present) that tested the group's concentration and ability to work together. The climax of the session was organized chaos: everyone was given a steady beat and got to create their own rhythms. Savage sculpted the sound by having only certain groups play at certain times. The environment he created was nurturing and exciting. Everyone left the drum circle with a smile.

In February, SUNY Potsdam hosted Ghanaian-born master musician Kwasi Dunyo. Over the course of two days, the drum master taught many students the finer points of traditional music making in Ghana. In Ghana, music consists of singing, drumming and dancing and cannot exist if one element is absent. This comprehensive approach to music allows people to get involved on many levels. Dunyo's anecdotes about success and failure and always trying to move forward were inspirational and amusing to all who attended.

Although drum circles are periodically held on campus and around town, never have they been as organized and well publicized as these sessions were. Hopefully these two clinicians have inspired workshop attendees to recreate similar situations. There's no better way to release stress than by beating on a drum. Sometimes, you just need to make noise.

Neko Case gets complex

You may recognize Neko Case's voice from the Canadian indie-pop band The New Pornographers, but this isn't run-of-the-mill indie-pop. Middle Cyclone is filled with intellectual, complex and engaging alternative pop music. Each listen allows you to peel back another layer.

With a tinge of alt-country and a heaping spoonful of Memphis soul (think Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins' Rabbit Fur Coat or Cat Power's The Greatest), this is a crowd-pleaser from beginning to end. Her voice is strong, flexible and mature. Case could never be a pop star, but she has the pipes of a true professional.

Middle Cyclone is jangly enough to be pleasant without being too sweet. The highlight of the album is the multi-layered instrumentation. Case incorporates everything from acoustic instruments (guitar, banjo, cello) to synths and a toy music box. The variety allows her to create a truly diverse yet coherent collection of songs. The range of different sounds allow for each song to have its own vibe. Ubiquitous vocal harmonies on the album make it warm and inviting. Thoughtful lyrics take this album from just good musically to great overall.

The album takes the listener on an auditory ride. It takes some unexpected turns. The mood sometimes changes quickly, from lighthearted ("I'm an Animal") to weighty ("Prison Girls") and satirical ("People Got A Lotta Nerve") to melancholy ("Polar Nettles"). Each track could find itself nestled into very different mix CDs.

Most of the songs are short and always leave the listener in want of more. The best tracks are the opener, "This Tornado Loves You," a driving non-traditional love song; "Magpie to the Morning," a cautionary, sultry summer song and "I'm an Animal" with its prominent percussion and simplicity. The album closes with a thirty-minute field recording of crickets, peepers and other natural sounds. Such sounds are often associated with the coming of spring and summer. Although it seems frivolous to use so much time on the track, perhaps Neko Case is conveying the message that this long winter has come to an end. Fittingly, Middle Cyclone is the perfect soundtrack for the end of Potsdam's winter hibernation.