Freedom to Experiment: Brian Lambert Interviews Marc Schuster

Quick note: This week’s post is by Brian Lambert!

To say that Marc Schuster is multitalented would be quite the understatement. I first met him online when he started reviewing tunes from my 52-week song challenge and then interviewed me on this blog. What came out of it was friendship and a collaboration in music production blossoming into a full-fledged band, The Star Crumbles. I thought for a change I’d flip the script on Marc and interview him and give his many readers and fans an opportunity to learn a bit about the hub of the wheel on which the #Tweetcore scene revolves.

Thanks for doing this, Marc. 

Absolutely! I appreciate the opportunity.

Your productivity blows my mind and I have a hard time keeping up with all of the things you are able to do. I suppose to start, could you give the readers a rundown of all the collaborations and projects you’ve worked on in the last couple of years.

I’ve actually been trying to figure that out myself lately. Obviously there’s the Star Crumbles, and that’s led to some other fun collaborations, including the mockumentary we made with a bunch of our #Tweetcore friends, and then we’ve both been working with Mike Mosley in Jr. Moz Collective recently. My other big collaborative music project is with my friend Tim Simmons. We record instrumentals under the name Simmons and Schuster. And I also record a decent amount of music on my own as a solo artist. Outside of making music, I interview musicians and occasionally opine on musical topics on this blog, and I’ve been doing the weekly #Tweetcore Radio Hour on AMS Radio since November. Once in a while, I’ll work on a more ambitious writing project, like my Beach Boys book, Tired of California: The Beach Boys’ Holland Revisited, or the children’s book I wrote and illustrated last year, Frankie Lumlit’s Janky Drumkit. Then there are the one-off collaborations with various musicians where I’ll play drums or keyboards on a track.

The first music I listened to by you was, in my opinion, very experimental, Brian Eno-esque as well as the sounds you craft for the Star Crumbles music. In contrast your latest solo effort Factory Seconds is a pretty straight forward rock affair focused more on your lyricism. What inspired the decision for what might be described as a more stripped-down approach?

I was reading a book about Elvis Costello called Complicated Shadows by Graham Thomson when I started working on Factory Seconds. As is often the case, the book made me want to listen to the music I was reading about, and the music made me want to make similar music of my own. Specifically, Elvis Costello’s first album, My Aim Is True was a major touchstone for that project since it was recorded fairly quickly in a studio that didn’t have all the bells and whistles of other “big” studios at the time. That one, Get Happy!! and Blood and Chocolate were in pretty constant rotation when I was recording the album.

How do you get started with a song?  Is it beats, a guitar part, lyrics?   Does that approach change depending on if it’s a solo project versus a Star Crumbles Project?

I usually just fool around until something starts sounding cool to me. Right now, for example, I’m working with some beats that I recorded last week. I just sat at my drumkit and recorded seven different sessions in different tempos and styles. The sessions were all between five and seven minutes long, and when I was done, I started listening for parts that I could loop and splice together into rhythm tracks. I’m still in that stage now, but the plan is to start riffing over them on guitar, bass, and keyboards until I have something. That’s my usual process, though I’ve also just started singing over drum tracks to get started. That way I know the song will be in my vocal range when I start adding instruments. That’s actually how the chorus for “The Way We Walk” came to me. I was looping a drum track, and the first words that came out of my mouth were “We walk the way we walk, it’s the way we walk.” Not that it made a lot of sense, but I liked the way it sounded.

You play so many instruments well. What was your first instrument and what would you say is your favorite to play?

My first instrument was the song flute, which is kind of like a poor cousin of the recorder. That was when I was in third grade. Every Friday, an old nun would come into our classroom and teach us to read music and play songs like “Chiapanecas.” Then I started taking piano lessons in fourth grade and guitar lessons when I was in high school. The problem was that I never really practiced much, so I didn’t start getting decent until much later.

In terms of playing, they’re all fun, but if the goal is just to unwind and have fun, drums are my current go-to. In some ways, it’s the physicality of playing drums that I like. I mean, even getting to the kit involves climbing over a bunch of junk in a back room of my basement, so there’s the adventure element, too. And once I’m behind the kit, I’ve gone to all that trouble to get there, so I’d feel silly if I only played for a minute or two.

One of the aspects of your drumming that I love is the bounce your beats always seem to have.  Who were some drummers that informed that approach?

Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello and the Attractions is a major influence. If you listen to his playing on “Tokyo Storm Warning,” you’ll hear some real bounce. I think he’s doing kind of a Motown groove on that one, so I guess I’m also influenced by Benny Benjamin and Pistol Allen. And Ringo Starr. Listen to “Love Me Do.” Loads of bounce on that one!

With your many musical creations, a weekly radio program and blog, you also teach full time and are married. It makes my head spin just trying to imagine how you get it all done. How do you keep track of and manage all the projects that you have going on at any given moment?

I’m pretty good about putting everything I need to do on my calendar – and also scheduling my day around activities that need to get done. I know I’m going to spend a good chunk of time on teaching every day, since it’s my job. After that, I have some room to play with other interests, but if, for example, I have an episode of the radio show that needs to get done, I’ll focus on that instead of doing something that has a softer or non-existent deadline like working on a song. Otherwise, I just play it by ear and work on whatever grabs my attention.

As the hub around which the #Tweetcore world revolves, what have you learned over the last year of being in the scene? How, if at all has it changed you approach to making music?

It’s funny, I don’t think of myself as the hub of #Tweetcore. If anything, I’m more of a node, which is related to one of the things I’ve learned from being part of the scene. The music industry is hierarchical in nature. There are top artists who make loads of money, and then there are what might be considered second-tier artists and so-on down the chain. And, of course, there are gatekeepers throughout the industry trying to sort out who’s who and who gets not only to have their music heard on influential playlists and radio stations but also just to be considered “real” musicians. But none of that has any bearing on music. If you’re making music, then you’re a real musician. I don’t care if you’re doing it by banging rocks together or switching your vacuum cleaner on and off. If you’re having fun with sound, then you’re making music. It doesn’t mean everyone’s going to love what you do, but that’s okay. Just have fun with it.

Because one of my favorite topics for us to discuss is mixing and mastering, what’s one of your favorite things about mixing at this moment in time?

I love the freedom to experiment. The fact that I can try different mixing techniques or play with things like EQ and compression without ever having to worry about paying for studio time – or even paying for equipment beyond my laptop and a set of speakers – is amazing. Plus, I can practice various techniques at my leisure or go back and try new approaches to mixing old songs, again without worrying about paying for studio time. Really, it’s all about the amount of time technology affords us if we use it in a constructive way. I can spend three hours scrolling through TikTok videos or I can spend three hours playing with attack and release times on a compressor. I’m not saying one is necessarily better than the other. I just know which one I’d rather do.

Odds and Ends: How Bob Dylan and the Band Outdid the Beatles

The first time I bought The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan and the Band, I got ripped off. A used copy of the two-CD set was selling for $22 at Plastic Fantastic, and I figured it was probably a good deal, so I bought it only to see a new copy selling for $20 across the street at Sam Goody an hour later. And Plastic Fantastic had a strict no-returns policy, so I was out the $2 difference.

So I went home and made the best of it and tried to squeeze every penny’s worth of experience out of the CD by listening to it over and over again until it became my latest favorite album. That was probably sometime in the early 90s, and dozens (if not hundreds) of other albums have briefly become my favorite album in the intervening years.

But the experience of getting burned—albeit mildly—on that initial purchase many years ago was still fresh in my mind when I spotted a used vinyl copy of The Basement Tapes at Siren Records a few weeks ago. The price this time around was $20, which isn’t bad for a double LP and is exactly what I should have paid for the two-CD set years ago, so, once again, and with only the mildest trepidation, I bought a copy.

What struck me this time around was the cover art. As one might expect, the front cover depicts Dylan and the Band gathered around a reel-to-reel tape recorder in a cramped basement. Dylan is holding a mandolin under his chin as if it’s a violin, and he’s playing it with an imaginary bow while a dog and a couple of other mysterious characters linger on the periphery.

Off to one side, a man sits cross-legged with his hands pressed together in something approaching prayer, and a woman in a wide-brimmed hat grins at the proceedings from the back of the room.

Turn it over, and a host of other characters appear, including a ballerina, a belly-dancer, a weight-lifter, a fire-eater, a clown, an Eskimo (Quinn, one imagines, despite the fact that “Quinn the Eskimo” does not appear on the album), a woman in a tee-shirt that reads Mrs. Henry (Mrs. Henry, one imagines, given that “Mrs. Henry” actually does appear on the album), and a diminutive newspaper delivery person.

Plus it’s a two-record set, so you can open the sleeve to see all of the aforementioned characters gathered more closely around Dylan and the Band, which immediately made me think of the cover another rock-era classic, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Rolling Stones.

Just kidding. I know it’s the Kinks.

In any case, the similarities between the two album covers got me thinking a little bit about the music contained therein. Specifically, I started thinking about how The Basement Tapes and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are essentially doing the same thing, and also that The Basement Tapes might actually be doing a better job of it.

All of this, of course, is just painted from memory, so make of it what you will. But my understanding is that the Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band after they gave up touring. They wanted to do something new and different to what they’d done before, essentially an attempt at re-envisioning and reinventing themselves as something other than the loveable mop-tops they’d been since “Love Me Do.”

Sure, the Beatles had always been evolving since their early records, but this new project was meant to be a major leap forward. After all, quitting the road meant that they could spend more time in the studio, and spending more time in the studio meant, in theory anyway, that they could really break new ground in terms of what an album could do.

Apparently, they hit their mark.

I’ve always heard Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club described not only as the Beatles’ “masterpiece,” but also as one of the first – if not the first – concept rock albums of all time – the concept being that all of the songs on the album are being performed not by the band that actually recorded the songs but by a band they’re pretending to be.

Or something like that. As much as I like the album, my impression of listening to it is that if not for the two tracks announcing that the band we’re listening to is, in fact, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and not the Beatles as we might have guessed, the album would just be a collection of extremely good songs rather than an imaginary performance by a band that formed, if the first track is to be believed, in 1947.  

The problem for me is that the conceit doesn’t hold up. I mean, sure, I can willingly suspend disbelief as much as the next listener, but it gets increasingly difficult to do as the album goes on. Yes, the sound of an orchestra tuning up at the start of the album conveys the illusion of a live concert, and, sure, I can imagine that Ringo Starr is actually Billy Shears and that he gets by with a little help from his friends.

But by the time we get to “Within You Without You,” outlier thought it may be with its swirling sitar lines and percolating tablas, I’m starting to think that there’s no way all of these songs were recorded by a military band that got its start in the 1940s. It’s all too much, to borrow a phrase.

More to the point, I’m not really buying the whole “what ties these songs together thematically is that they were all recorded by the same imaginary band” angle. How’s that any different than saying what ties all of the songs on Love Me Do—or any album from any band for that matter—is that they were all recorded by the same band?

It’s probably worth noting that the Sergeant Pepper concept only became part of the project after much of the album had been recorded. Before that, it was a collection of songs looking for a concept to tie everything together. After that, it was a collection of songs loosely tied together by a somewhat flimsy premise.

By way of contrast, there’s The Basement Tapes, which I’d describe as “the real deal.” Like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album was recorded in relative seclusion in 1967. Following a motorcycle accident in which he had broken his neck (or so the story goes), Bob Dylan was recuperating in Woodstock, New York, when he started visiting his former backing band at the house they were renting in nearby Saugerties.

That house, known as Big Pink, is where the band in question (formerly the Hawks) became The Band as they recorded their debut album Music from Big Pink. It’s also where informal jam sessions with Dylan yielded what originally circulated in bootleg form and would eventually (and officially) be released as The Basement Tapes.

You know all of this, and I know you know it, but I feel like I need to build my case, so thanks for continuing to bear with me.

Just so we’re on the same page, the parallel I’m drawing thus far is that the Beatles stopped touring because, among other reasons, being the Beatles meant that they were always working in the shadow of the public’s perception of what the Beatles were. Similarly, Bob Dylan stepped out of the public eye in the wake of his motorcycle accident at least in part because he needed to get out from under the spectacle of being the voice of a generation. Both parties, in other words, needed a break from the public personas they had created.

Interestingly, though, Dylan and the Band weren’t recording a product that was necessarily meant for public consumption as the Beatles were. They were just having fun, and the tape recorder happened to be running, which is why the recordings sound muddy and somewhat unrefined.

The songs, moreover, don’t always make sense and often end up going nowhere. By opening with the incredibly short “Odds and Ends,” The Basement Tapes signals that the collection of songs will be idiosyncratic, to say the least: “Odds and ends, odds and ends, lost time is not found again!” lacks the direct, declarative assurance of “We’re Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We hope you will enjoy the show!”

Likewise, “Odds and Ends” does what the opening track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sets out to do without being so obvious about it. Rather than saying, in effect, “Look, here’s the premise of the album: We’re the Beatles, but we’re not the Beatles because we’re actually this other band that formed twenty years ago today,” Dylan and company just go ahead and become another band by sounding like a band that could very easily have formed decades ago.

As The Basement Tapes progress(es?), one thing that becomes clear is that it’s neither a Bob Dylan album nor an album by the Band. Dylan’s lyrics are not what had been his usual far up until that point; lines like “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” are replaced with lines like “Under that apple suckling tree, there’s just gonna be you and me.”

And though the Band hadn’t released any music as the Band yet, largely because they still hadn’t recorded any, the loose, loping band we hear on The Basement Tapes is distinct from the tight, forward-charging version they would become as the Band on Music from Big Pink. To get a sense of the difference, listen to the versions of “This Wheel’s on Fire” that appear on both albums.

The track order is also somewhat telling in this regard. When I bought the CD many years ago, I was frustrated by the fact that the “Dylan” tracks were interspersed with the “Band” tracks. What I wanted was to be able to just listen to the Dylan tracks on one CD and the Band tracks on the other, if I was so moved. Instead, even if I was in a Dylan mood, I’d have to listen to some Dylan, then some Band, then some Dylan, and so on.

Looking back on this forced blending of Dylan and the Band, I realize that the effect was to make me imagine new entity that was greater (or at least different) than the sum of its parts. They never declare that they’re a different band than who they might appear to be, but by playing loose and swapping singing duties throughout the album, I get the sense that I’m listening to the music of a band that never actually was.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that without even trying, or at least without saying as much, Bob Dylan and the Band conjure an imaginary band and make me feel like I’m actually listening to them as captured “live.” The Beatles, in contrast, overplay their hand a bit by announcing that they’re not, in fact, the Beatles and delivering a product that’s just a little too slick to be believed.

Of course, the Beatles would move in a different, rootsier direction soon enough with The Beatles and the aborted Get Back, which eventually saw light of day as Let It Be. That these albums both appeared after Magical Mystery Tour, itself a pale imitation of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that continued to play on themes of concealment and disguise—the band appears dressed as cartoonish animals on the album cover—suggests that the ruse of their 1967 masterpiece had begun to wear thin.

The Basement Tapes, meanwhile, continued to circulate underground, hissy, fuzzy, and shot-through with sonic imperfections that only leant to the music’s credibility and the underlying aura of mystery behind it. By the time of its official release in 1975, it truly was music of another time that somehow also managed to also sound oddly contemporary—the music, perhaps, of a generation still trying to find itself in a past that was already slipping inexorably into the realm of myth.