Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Info Interview: Neal Grandstaff

Neal Grandstaff helped me choose music as a life pursuit. Starting with the first ten minutes of my first improv class with him:

“Okay, lets go outside.” He barked in his assertive tone. I, with my confused classmates, mosey out of the music hall to a bustling campus amidst lunch-hour rush.

“We’ll be demonstrating synchronicity. The rhythms of the world around us.” Some classmates visibly drift off. “Did you hear that?!” He asked to blank faces. “How about that one? No? Okay, look at that guy’s pace. He’s walking to the same tempo as that woman over there.” He points and claps his hands to emphasize the rhythm.

For most of us this was a completely new idea. At first it was hard (you should really try it). But, after a couple minutes of attentive listening you begin to hear the patterns. Seemingly unrelated movements become linked: a bird chirps to the same tempo as a skateboarder’s de-ko-de-ka-de-ko-de-ka; a distant car alarm’s pulse is subdivided by the triplets of a couple laughing near by. After five minutes, the symphony of sounds around you become too obvious to ignore.

Music is all around us. All the time. All we have to do is listen.

I was hooked. For the next two and a half years I spent all my free time (between work and class) working on music related projects.

In his Improv Class at Oregon State University, Neal taught a hearty mix of music fundamentals, improvisation, life-philosophy, arranging, political economy, music industry 101, 102, and 400, and of course, edutainment. It’s been nearly four years since I was the nervous novice in his class. So, I decided to meet up with Mr. Grandstaff to discuss some topics that we never got to in class.

We met on a hot June day in the backyard of his Albany (OR) home. Surrounded by a beautiful garden, we talked (well, mostly he talked) about a wide range of subjects.

I’ve edited some sections for brevity.

Neal Grandstaff (Center) and the core members of the Wondertones.
Your job is 24/7 as an artist. You need to be reflecting what’s going on. If you’re a real artist, you should be writing about love and joy, but, also you should be writing about what’s wrong with this world. You need to be spending some serious time on what’s fucked up in the world. In school, you’ve been conditioned to ignore that stuff.

Levi Downey: In fact, if you don’t ignore it, you’re in trouble.

NG: Oh yeah, you’re in big trouble if you start telling people the emperor has no clothes. Shit, they lock you up for that!
In Juarez, Mexico, there is a war going on. People are being decapitated in groups. It’s less than 2,000 miles from us. 60,000 people have been killed in the last 8-years. That’s more people than the 54,000 Americans killed in the Vietnam conflict which was 15-years long. We think because we live in this buffer -- especially here in the Northwest -- that none of that stuff is going on.

That’s why we’re really no smarter than other animals. [For example] look at how much celebrity counts to us. Monkeys will choose a photo of a silver-back -- the alpha male -- over a sustenance drink they’re used to drinking all the time. It’s how much pecking order counts. We’re hardwired for it. We need to get past it.

Some people envision themselves as silver-backs when they aren’t. They are bitter. Aggressive non-dominants are not the same as the sliver-backs. We [agressive non-dominants] don’t get the perceived free ride in the limo. But, we want it. Everyone wants to be the top dog. We want that celebrity status more than we want food or sex. That’s what causes war and disgruntled clergy that say it’s a capital crime if you don’t believe in the same invisible man they believe in.

We have to turn these people around. We need to write some music about that! Nobody can get music like that out because the ones running the show are the silver-backs. They want people to believe that they’re that great.

If you don’t think about these things as an artist then you don’t really understand what your job’s all about. Then when you get into the commercial industry you say, ‘well I can’t say any of that shit!’ You have to tap into the same power and knowledge to sell the stuff that keeps peoples minds turned away from the man behind the curtain. The shit that’s happening in the background to support this pristine illusion. We should be aware of myths that get convoluted and how they can be used to hurt people.

LD: That’s an interesting parallel with journalism and art then. There is a dance you have to do between education and entertainment. Keeping people interested with sugar, but then sneaking in veggies too.

NG: Edutainment. Yes, exactly. That’s the kind of thing we need more of. I think the biggest problem with musicians and artists is that we don’t think about the three generations beyond us. Most people don’t think about what’s going to happen five years from now, after 10,000 hours of hard work. So they just plot along. The ones thinking about it are the ones cracking the whip.

This is hard to maintain [looks around his house and backyard] and I’ve had three kids. I was able to do it with music, AND some side-gigs.

I worked in the high-tech manufacturing industry as a side-gig. It’s much more straight forward to clock in, solder or work with a microscope and collect a paycheck. I was working 7-nights a week playing music and working [other jobs] full-time during the day. That was while we were raising a family. There is work out there. You just have to know that there is no free ride. You don’t get to coast. Ever. Once you get that out of your mind, then shit, there’s plenty of work.

This is why I say go out and play. Be in engaged in the giving of joy. Because that will come back to you. It might not [get you] a paycheck you can follow directly back to the source -- it’s not that simple.

So some of the older guys are really bitter. They are telling the truth; this is really hard. But, they’re over-reacting. You need to change what you do in the music scene as you age. There’s performance and once you get good enough to teach you should teach. Not as a charlatan teacher. While you teach, you should be producing something. A product that is tangible and you can say ‘this is where I am now and I’ll be somewhere better in the future.’

Perform, teach, and produce. Those are the three things you need to be doing. As you age you might move further away from the performance. I’m getting too old to perform more than a couple times per week. I get tired and last year I got sick. In addition, the younger folks won’t hire you if you’re past a certain point. You don’t look like the silver-back that they see on TV.

LD: So what was it for you that drew you towards this livelihood? I know you started at a young age.

NG: I just loved the sound. It felt great. It put me in a different space. I was lucky to have the genes to process sounds in that way. It wasn’t just noise to me. It excited me, it turned me on. Not in a sexual way, but in a spiritual and emotional way.
At the core, the source of being alive, there is a group of sounds that confirms life. And as a musician, you learn to use those sounds. It’s like our conversation now. When you converse you create something bigger than the  two people having the conversation. You both create it together. Getting brains to work together and move in the same direction. It’s very powerful.

I started on accordion and wanted to throw it out. I wanted to play guitar or trumpet. My dad was a jazz nut. My mom had been a singer when she was younger. So I had some good influences growing up.

When we moved from Mill City to Corvallis in 1967, I started teaching guitar in Salem. I was only 14 and won some talent competitions. As I hit puberty I started to like all the attention I was getting too. I had a few different motivations going for me.

I didn’t really even know about the silver-backs [the famous people] until I was a little older. But, even then, I realized I didn’t want to be them. I wanted to be an aggressive non-dominant. It’s a safer place to be. Sure you have to take a few hits, you have to be engaged, but it’s not as easy to be replaced. I figured out that if I can stand next to a silver-back and help him along, that I could make out with a pretty good living. If he’s a smart enough silver-back then he sees how the aggressive non-dominants can help him along.

The monarchy approach is all over society still. In the music business it’s everywhere. You see a photo of John Maher and you like his music. So you buy it.

LD: Yeah while you’re “waiting on the world to change”.

NG: That’s a sell-out set of lyrics. He’s a brilliant songwriter, but he really sold out. Sure he had some things to say about the control of the media but the truth is you can’t “wait” on shit. The world will roll right over you if you wait. He helped convince a whole generation [of that]. Language is a powerful thing.

So by the time I had a family, I had already done the traveling thing in Nevada, Seattle, and Portland. We lived in Reno and LA before we had kids. But, I wanted to run my own show. I didn’t want to be scrubbing on some major label in the studio all day. I was on staff at Kay - Smith Studios and Vanakrin, which became Creative Animals in Seattle in 1975.

I got passed my teenage years and got a taste of what it was like to be a professional. I had played Vegas by the time I was 18. I’d played up and down the west coast with a real show band. We had dancers and a script.

Production work for all the media in Las Vegas is huge. Sometimes the same performers in Vegas that wander the Excalibur playing 500 year old music are the people you see on the TV advertisements and they do the production work too! They’re local stars. A lot of times the stars are already decided and established.

There is so much content out there now! And who produces the music? Great question. You’ve probably never heard of most of them. Sure, there’s John Williams, Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith and his son John. There are the stars, like John Williams, being paid $1 million to write the music for JAWS. But, there is a lot of independent work too. The independent film scene in Portland is huge. A lot of young musicians don’t even think of it. If you get a gig here-and-there, someone may hear your work and like it. They might ask you to do all the music for their B-film and they’ll pay you a few grand.

So to get back to your question. I planned for this. I knew I’d get to a point where I’m too old. In 1979, Staff-O-Life Production team [production company founded by Grandstaff] made soundtracks for ads on TV. We produced libraries of music. I’m now getting back into that.

I worked for a contest group for a while. I learned that you didn’t have to be the best to win. It was usually who knew the judges. I worked for Special Productions Incorporated out of Nashville for 6 years. They ran what is now the Colgate Country Challenge [recently rebranded again: Texaco Country Showdown].

LD: You were a judge?

NG: No, I was in the band. These singers had a real live backing band. I prepped and arranged a lot of music. I knew I could organize everything while teaching here in Oregon. Then fly out to Nashville to make some grand theft money for a weekend. One year, we did 80 tunes. We had to learn and arrange all 80 in a month!

LD: Wow, that’s amazing.

NG: That’s right, and Stew Carey, who was in The Works with Joe Milward. [Stew] was the bass player on that one. So you pick really professional people to get the job done. Nobody knows these guys names. Sure, they’re not famous, but they’re all silver-backs. They are the local silver-back guys. It’s a collective of silver-backs. We’d warm up for national acts. We’d scare the piss out of the big dogs coming through town.

These contests don’t really tell you who will become professionals. It’s hardly ever the folks that come out as number one that become real professionals. More often than not, it’s the people that make second or third that really continue on to become real pros. Garth Brooks and Reeba McEntire were both in those contest. They both lost. Now, they’re independent producers making millions.

Now we have all these American Idol shows. People don’t realize how the show is in the bag by the time it starts. It’s part of the illusion. You have to tell a story and you have to quantify this stuff for people to pay attention. And, the silver-back has to win. Sometimes the silver-back is made out to be a surprise. You didn’t even know they were there until they come up from the bottom. Don’t we love the underdog story? Because that means we could all make it.

The true underdog story is actually much more rare. The story is altered to fit the arch that will sell you something the most effectively. Maybe it’s: ‘you need this to get laid’ or ‘buy this before you die’.

LD: So now you’re working on this music library?

NG: Right, my next step is to finish that up and to market it.

LD: Is it a pool of music you’ve already created?

NG: Right, licensable music. I’ve got a guy helping me, but the more people I get involved the better. It’s been my experience that you need a younger aggressive person, that’s on their shit, to help out. They need to work with some older folks in a team. Everybody wears a little bit of a different hat. That way you have a group of non-dominant silver-backs working together. Much better than one guy running it alone. You don’t want to put all your hope in one person to market your shit. Because if they burn out or fade away, then they’ve poisoned every well. Much better to get a bunch of different people working a bunch of different wells.

As you probably know, in marketing, the message is very important. The more often you see a name the more likely you are to try that brand. Then there is the tease too. It’s coming. It’s almost here. It’s amazing. Here it is! Get it now, it won’t last! How you state that can be all the difference.

You need to build a customer base and know how to talk to them.

LD: So how does that work in the Licensing world for music? You’re selling to music production companies?

NG: I’ll give you a few examples. Say someone needs a piece of music for their water purifier. They’re a local company and they want something that brands them and their sound. A piece of music they can play on the radio and TV. So they need original material because it’s more expensive to license a Stevie Wonder tune.

LD: So if you can get them the sound they want, and maybe it sounds kind of like a Stevie Wonder tune, but it’s original.

NG: Or maybe it sounds completely unique and it sounds like [the company]. It brands [them]. Maybe you give that water purifier company a few different options and they say, ‘well it’s close but do you have anything that sounds more like this?’ And you pull something out of your butt you wrote twenty years ago and they pick that one. They never pick the first one! Even when you know the business and you know what will work. Most buyers don’t really know what they’re looking for. You have to help them through that and find a way for them to pick the best one.

So that’s what I want to do. I’ll have a library of around 150 thematics and then another 200 or so shorties. Latin music, large ensembles, small combos, Maritime pirate stuff, a very wide range of styles and feels. We’d have a sample of all the styles where it will be clear that we have what they need. And our licensing fees will be in the right ballpark. So, if someone decides they like your theme but they might need to re-brand in a few years to modernize then they might have you produce something new again. So they pay to license it for a long period of time.

And then there is another group of people who want something for 1 to 18 months and they pay $1,290 or $129, depending on the music, to license the music. They just decide they like it. And click. Drag drop and it’s theirs.

LD: Okay, like a stock-photo service. Or pay-per-view.

NG: Right, that’s what I’m doing. Plus, the more stuff you put out there, the more you’re part of the fabric. It’s like all this stuff I wrote for Sierra On-Line -- the video game company. A lot of that music was put in a giant library and then repackaged and resold. A piano place I did for Peppers Adventure in Time was used on this old TV series Summer Replacement, which later became Law and Order. It was two years after I produced it.

LD: Wait, did you get paid for that?

NG: Well I still technically owned the music. So I was getting residuals from the games. And I knew that my stuff was being used by the higher-ups. So since I was still at the company, they could sell my work. But, once I left, I owned my material -- because of the contract.

Robert Holmes, Chris Brahman, Ken Allen, Dan Kahler (Dan was one of the good ones that stayed and stayed), and me. Chris is still in the game industry and Holmes still produces a ton of stuff too. Anyway, there were about 5 of us who wrote all their music. I wrote around 900 songs for them in 3-years. I was working 4 games at once sometimes.

LD: Wow, what was that like?

NG: Well, I knew what all the games were so I would write a lot of music in advance. I had music that nobody even knew about. I’d go to work, figure out some tunes to go over certain game scenarios. I’d take a break, have some lunch, then take some tunes home and finish them. I’d save them to the web with a little reminder for me. That way, when they were looking for something to fit a part, I’d have something ready. And we had some arrangers to help with making something fit too.

For example, I had this tune called Kings Waltz. You can rearrange it to be in 4/4 or any other way you can imagine. I later did it with a group called Three Play, with Donny Osborne Jr. and Craig Snazzel. But, it’s in Kings Quest 7. It was the first song I wrote for Sierra in 1992. Didn’t even get used for two years.

But it was nice. I would get to work around 6:00 a.m. to practice. Then I’d work on the project of the day. We had a lot of writers that got canned because they irritated people. I just wouldn’t irritate people. Every Monday we’d have a big meeting. I wouldn’t say a word. It was mostly middle-management trying to pat people on the back. We were doing some heavy lifting for a few years.

LD: So how did you end up leaving this gig?

NG: I left Sierra in California and came here. I got a bad report. I had written for their flagship games but they had to get rid of me eventually. I was at the highest paid position I could be in. So they could either make me a manager or cut me loose. I didn’t want to be a manger. I wanted to make music. I had to tell them over and over that as soon as they didn’t need me I would go back into production work. I never left production. The whole time I was there [in California] I was flying back and forth to Portland for production gigs. And driving up to San Francisco to play.

So, they knew I was more of a musician than a manager. There were about five of us that did some serious work. At one point there were about 12 music writers on staff. They canned 7 within the first year.

LD: Wow, did they just not need that many or did they not know what they wanted?

NG: They knew what they wanted, but they had to find the right people. They needed a big pool of people to determine which ones could actually write what they needed. They were hiring blind.

Roberta and Ken William owned the company. They had a good creative director, Bill Davis of Infinities Child, a show on NBC. He was a great artist. I worked for him on “Slater and Charlie Go Camping”. Fun project that was one of the first talking books in 1992. Teaching kids how to read! Bright electric colors and fun reggae music. I wrote all the music and we had to make cute sound effects.

I did all the music for about 10 projects and then piece work for another 20 or so. I did Herk Force and Earthsiege II, Trophy Bass, and sound design for Rama (designed by big names: Gentry Lee and Arthur C. Clark). I loved writing for space.

LD: How did you go about creating that sound for space?

NG: It’s a bit like mystical maritime music. Still a bit like being at sea. The darkness of the briny deep is a different feeling and sound than the distance out there in the dark. Being in space is a different kind of dark. It has a different weight to it. Different fear factor involved with space. John Williams borrowed from Gustav Holst's "Mars" when he wrote the Star Wars music.

Compare Gustav Holst's "Mars"

To John Williams' "Imperial March"

When we write, we borrow from everybody. You identify a few styles or themes that you can adapt or change to fit your scenario. If you find a way to implant it as a hook, then people don’t forget it.

LD: That brings up a question I have for you. Do you have a process for writing? How did you do it for the games?

NG: Sometimes it was a storyboard, sometimes it was the finished product. I prefer to see the finished product. Because if they clip something out I don’t have to go back and adjust my work.

I was mostly writing contingency music. For movies you need about 45 minutes of music for a 2-hour film. Sound effects and all kinds other audio take up the rest of the space.

With Sierra, I would write a theme and then motifs that branch off with a different timbres. It’s not like a movie where you have 8 or so scenes and 2 acts. It’s more like 45 rooms that need their own music. Like 45 scenes. Some will be related to one another but many won’t.
At that time [mid 1990’s] we were still wrestling between getting the exact sound we wanted and saving enough memory space to put it in. We were still shipping games on floppy disks. You got 23 floppy disks for Police Quest 4. Space Quest 6 was on CD.

LD: How long of a time period was that between the two?

NG: A year.
It was funny we were on the verge for a bit. I worked with the guys at LucasArts, and the international signature group that was working on developing the international standards for the video and audio parameters in video games.
See, the sound is so important for a game’s experience. When the sound stops the game stops. If the video stops, you still have an image at least -- but if the music doesn’t stop then it doesn’t take you out of the environment. If the audio stops but the video keeps going, it could be the best looking video in the world, and you’ll go “What the fuck happened?”

So in Space Quest VI they gave us 6 audio channels, just like a film. We could finally use real sounds and audio files. Some of those audio files I made I’ve heard in other places. Because they were packaged up and resold to other content. I’m totally fine with that. I’m not doing this work for a free limo ride or a free sandwich. I pay for my sandwiches. And I have enough sandwiches (pats his belly).
The whole point of doing this was to communicate that feeling of being alive. Or to change the way someone is feeling with the music I wrote. I’m part of the fabric and that’s what I wanted. So, at 62, I’ve accomplished that.

I can’t physically perform as much. I get too tired. I’m good for about three hours a night for about three days in a row and then I’m seriously dragging. It’s not like the old days where I used to stay up all night practicing. Had to practice in the dark so my dad thought I was asleep. Didn’t realize how great of practice that was. I used to only sleep about four hours a night.

I had that band as a teenager that was number 4 in the country [Ingredients Unknown]. Looking and listening back on the music, we weren’t really all that hot. But, it’s perception of value and we were big frogs in a small pond back at home. Perception of value is important when you’re trying to sell something, but you want to be truly valuable as well. You can look good and that will get you in the front door. But, if you can’t really produce, then that will get you straight through to the back door. Shalom, shalom. Hi, bye.

LD: And there’s your time teaching at Oregon State University (OSU).

We were trying to teach people over there at OSU. Sadly most the kids have no vocabulary. I would say in class, ‘We all live in an opulent society. Do you know what opulent means?’ No one would answer... ‘No? How about affluent?’ Then maybe one person would chime in. Kids, we’re living in the most opulent and affluent nation in the world and yet you don’t know what those words mean... there’s something wrong with this! That’s what I was trying to teach them. That’s part of why I’m not there anymore. Because, they don’t need guys like me. We just stir up shit and try to educate people for a change.

LD: It’s too bad. I learned a lot from your class. Funny how many of the things I learned the most from at OSU are on the chopping block.

NG: Well, the education system has been getting dumbed down for the past twenty years. We had the self-esteem movements followed by other movements that scared people away from being hard on folks. This was in the 1970’s and 80’s then they started dropping all the standards for tests. You want to help someone improve, then you teach them! Don’t just make it easier so they can achieve the minimum.

There is a real reason to educate people. There is a real reason to make music that shares the positiveness of life. Help people break out of the box we’ve been forced to live in. All the things we’re forced to do just to live. It doesn’t have to be that way. If we learned to love each other a little more. If people could stop chopping off heads for believing in the wrong invisible man.

Let’s get past that. We need to educate people to show a better way. Let’s teach people there is a premium for language. The smaller your language is the smaller your thoughts are; the less expectation you have of your life. If we can make everyone in the next two generations idiots, then it’s going to be easy for the silver-backs in power to to keep everybody else down.
There might be a real brilliant person, but if they don’t have the language to express that  brilliance then we don’t have anything.

How we gonna find the cure for cancer or solve climate change? We already have cures for cancer but they’re too damn expensive. It’s all about money now. We need to write some songs about this. We need to write some folk tunes about the elephant in the room.


And that’s when our conversation shifted to the importance of renewable energy. Specifically hydroelectric production without dams. Very insightful, but a little outside the scope of this blog. Shortly after, he had to leave to take care of his mother and our talk was over.

In the next couple days I’ll be posting Neal’s official “23 Axioms for a Livelihood in Music”. You won’t want to miss it  (:

*Correction: In an earlier version of this post I misspelled: Kay - Smith Vanakrin, Chris Brahman, Dan Kahler, Craig Snazzel, and Herk Force.