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.

Delays and Reverbs Stacked Up on Everything: An Interview with Jackson Vincent

I had the good fortune of seeing Jackson Vincent perform when we were both on the bill with our good friend Scoopski at the Rusty Nail in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, a few weeks back. Haunting and moody, his EPs Foxtrot and Normal Tension have a dreamy, cinematic quality in terms of both sonic atmosphere and lyrical arc that he adapts to the stage with a single electric guitar and a handful of effects. Both live and on the record, as it were, listening to Jackson Vincent is like keeping an ear open for ghosts in the early, misty predawn hours of a long night in a long-abandoned ancestral home.

First, great show at the Nail! I know you also had a show the next night at City Winery in Philadelphia. How did that show go?

Thank you! You did great too! City Winery was a great time. It’s always fun playing here in Philly. It was a much different show from the Nail. Two hours of acoustic jams, so I covered the majority of my discography and threw in some fun covers. Lots of people came up to meet me after the set, which is always a nice time!

Your live set is pretty spare, at least in terms of instrumentation—just you and a guitar and a couple of effects. What gear are you using? What led you to those particular effects, and how do they contribute to the sound you’re going for?

My main guitar is a 1966 Epiphone Century. I love that thing so much. It’s such a unique sounding guitar and it feels just as special. It really tells you how to play it, like that specific guitar demands that you hold and strum it a certain way. It’s become my best friend over the years. I’m playing through a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp now which is a classic. I was using a Vox AC15 for the past few years but it was just so heavy and the tubes got really hot sounding really fast during a set so I traded it for the Deluxe Reverb. You just can’t go wrong with a Fender amp. At the moment I’m just using three guitar effects on my live board; a Deadbeat Sound Reverberation Station, a TC Electronic Nether Octaver, and an EHX Crayon. That’s really all I need at the moment. At the time I got them, at least, they were all super accessible and cheap enough that I didn’t mind throwing them around on stage. They’ve really taken a beating lately! Most of my reverb comes from the amp, so the Reverberation Station is usually kept pretty low just to add a little extra layering in the mix. I usually only have it on for my old stuff, like Foxtrot. The Crayon just adds a little dirt here and there, this one is also kept pretty minimal. I use the Nether to add a lower octave under my regular guitar tone. I pretty much only use that for Happiest right now.

My vocal effects are the real thing that people go crazy for at my shows. All those harmonies, vocoders, autotune, and formant shifting are happening in real time through a Roland VT-4. I usually keep the unit on a stand to my right on stage and control it throughout the set. That thing gets a ton of usage. It’s super versatile and once I got around the learning curve for it it became really fun to play with live.

Listening to your two EPs, I’m struck by the evocative soundscapes you create. Often, your voice takes on a ghostly quality. It’s a little like being in a dream—walking through an old, empty house and disembodied voice from the next room over. Incredibly haunting! How did you achieve that sound—not just on your voice, but on the recordings as a whole? What’s your recording setup like?

For starters, there’s lots of delays and reverbs stacked up on everything. If it’s not drowning in a pool of reverb, I don’t want it. I try to keep my recording setup as simple as possible. I typically record using the exact setup I bring out on stage so that my records and performances sound similar. For both of my EPs I mostly bypassed a traditional recording studio; Foxtrot was recorded alone in the living room of my parents’ house and the final recordings that made it onto Normal Tension were all made in my producer’s home studio. It gave both recording experiences a more comfortable and cozy feeling that I think definitely transferred into the masters.

You mentioned during your set at the Nail that the first EP came together much more quickly than the second. Can you talk more about that?

Absolutely! Foxtrot was written in the span of just a few days, really. Recording it took a few weeks on and off but it was all written pretty quickly. That record was made in the middle of a really tough time in my life. Everything seemed to be going wrong, I was losing passion for almost everything I once loved, the relationship that I had worked tirelessly for years to maintain was falling apart in front of me. It was a steady flow of getting kicked while I was down and I had a lot to say about that. Normal Tension is more like the aftermath of how my life was for Foxtrot. It’s a lot like me looking back at that period after living through it. At the time I was writing this new record I wasn’t entirely sure just how I felt about things still. Normal Tension was a therapeutic experience for me. I was finding myself more as I was writing these tracks, so naturally it was a lot harder to get those thoughts out. From start to finish it took me just under a year to make, which is a big switch from the few weeks the first record took.

Each EP also has a narrative arc, with Normal Tension building on the story you started telling in Foxtrot. How does storytelling fit into your songwriting? Or, to put it another way, what do you see as the relationship between story and song?

Both EPs were always concept records to me. I wrote them with the intention of forming this story through sound. There’s a single narrator that is sharing their world in these songs and crosses over from Foxtrot to Normal Tension. There’s that ambiguity though, too. There’s rarely a time where I’ll provide a name or any other type of conforming detail. These songs are part of a whole, but each their own mysterious little story that the listeners have the ability to find themselves in. There’s a theme and a storyline in my mind while I write, but I’m not necessarily going to say what that is. That’s for the listener to decide. There’s really no wrong answer, just different connections to be made.

Is there a confessional aspect to your storytelling?

For sure. I always used the narrator of the songs as a loose reflection of myself. These songs say the things that I can’t say in person. Hidden in the lyrics are truths I’ve denied, apologies I could never give, and certainly some confessions. Songwriting is a real outlet for me. If there’s something on my mind that I need to let out, it’ll find its way into lyrics.

You produced Foxtrot on your own and worked with a producer, Mekhi Jackson, for Normal Tension. What was the difference between the two experiences? What did working with a producer bring to the process?

The processes behind the two records were wildly different in the most beautiful way. Foxtrot, both in themes and sound, is very dark and almost miserable. The recording process was very representative of the record as a whole. I made Foxtrot alone in a dark room in the middle of the night with nobody listening or watching me. Normal Tension, still not the happiest of records, certainly shows a vague sense of optimism hidden underneath its misery. There’s a little bit of positivity to be found there. It was wonderful to not be alone while making it. Mekhi is a master at his craft and brought a lot to the record that I may have never even thought of. I arrived at his studio with six skeletons of songs and he helped mold them into the best work of my career so far. We almost always were thinking on the same wavelength so the sessions really just felt like two guys hanging out and having fun doing what they do best. I’d record a guitar track and all of a sudden he’s adding the most beautiful orchestral arrangements I’ve ever heard.

How do you see your music evolving from one project to the next?

I don’t really think about it until it happens. Like from Foxtrot to Normal Tension I didn’t really think about changing the sound until I looked back at the demos for NT and realized how different it had become. That’s good though. It’s nice to switch things up but I feel like if I sat down and told myself to find a new sound I would just fall flat or hate the result. I’m sure my sound will continue to evolve with each new project I create. I’m just having fun doing what I do and playing with new sounds as much as I can.

I know that you’ve studied photography. Is there any overlap? Does photography inform your approach to music? Or, from the other side of the equation, does music inform your approach to photography? Do you ever carry concepts, ideas, or techniques from one medium to the other?

My professors often point out the similarities in my approaches to the two art forms. My music has become known for being dark and almost depressing at times. My photographs, like my music, are purposely dark and underexposed. Professors tend to show a distaste for it, but there’s certainly an audience for it. I know the rules for photography and making “correct” exposures, I just choose not to follow them. If I followed the rules that everyone else follows then my photos would look just like everyone else’s. I suppose the same can be said about my music.

What’s next?

Something big! I can’t be sure what that is yet, but I can feel it coming. I’ve had a constant thought of Foxtrot and Normal Tension being the first two installments in a trilogy of EPs telling this story, so it’s pretty safe to say a third EP will be in the works in the near future. And as many gigs as I can possibly get!

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

Thanks for having me!

Loose and Free: An Interview with Brian Lambert

When I spoke to Brian Lambert back in December, he was well into his 52-week song challenge. Designed to showcase his skills as a songwriter, the challenge has also given Lambert a showcase for his ever-increasing skill as a music producer. Songs like “We Are OK” and the more recent “Heroes at the Dawn of Time,” “In Your Face,” “Kids,” “Hang Out with You,” and Lambert’s cover of the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” reflect a wide range of influences while allowing his craftsmanship to shine. As he nears the finish line, I thought I’d drop him a line to see what the year-long experience has meant to him.

Fifty-two songs in fifty-two weeks! How does it feel?

Thank you, Marc, for this opportunity to talk about what was a pretty epic adventure in music making.   As you can imagine there is quite the range of emotions: relief, excitement, a bit of sadness.  Overall, I‘m very proud of climbing this mountain I set out to climb.  In some sense, though, I’m really still so close to it that it’s hard to really put into words what the whole experience means.  I don’t know if I can until it’s a bit further in the rear view mirror.

Yeah, I guess it’s hard to have perspective when you’re still so close… Were you ever tempted to give up? What kept you going?

I don’t know if I was ever tempted to give up per se.  There were some outside pressures with money that made me question whether finishing this was the right thing to do, but by that point I was almost at the end and people were cheering me on.  It didn’t make sense to stop then.  More than that was the question of whether I could get the music done in time to keep on the song-a-week schedule.  I took a fall and injured myself which caused me to get behind.  The music takes the amount of time it takes to make and it created some anxiety around being able to complete it in the time I had set out for myself. It  was important to finish though, and working on music is the one thing I can do regardless of my mood or disposition.

I’m curious as to whether the parameters or even the purpose of the challenge changed for you over the course of the year. Did you go in expecting one thing and getting another?

I was intentional at the beginning about being loose with the parameters. It was such a huge undertaking I wanted to give myself as much grace as possible.  The purpose was to realize my potential in terms of songwriting, performance on a recording, and my production/mixing mastering skills.  I knew I wanted to write new songs in new ways, I knew I wanted to do some cover tunes and write a couple of instrumentals, but besides that it was really get a song a week out to the world every week for 52 weeks straight.   I view things a bit differently now, but do feel confident about my ability to express myself in the studio.

What did you learn about yourself as a result of this challenge? 

One, I love music.  There were times where I had to sit down and play when I wasn’t feeling it but afterwards I was almost always glad I did.  I’m not tired of music and am ready to start working on new music. I suppose the biggest thing is that I don’t have to be perfect, that I’m perfectly alright just the way I am.  Not sure how I came about that realization in the process, but I do feel that way now.   The other part is becoming less cerebral about the whole process.  Thinking doesn’t make good music, it’s more of a feel thing.  I honestly don’t remember how I did much of the last part of the challenge. There was a lot of just hitting record and letting it rip.  I think that’s how you get the right feel, loose and free.

What about your evolution as a songwriter?

I’m definitely more of a melody/music first songwriter now than I was before.  There were lots of times during the process later on when I would have all the music but no vocals or lyrics and then come up with them listening to the track.  Before this I would need a fully composed song on the guitar before starting.  This has been freeing in a lot of ways and allows me to kind of compose lyrics to the overall vibe of the track as opposed to feeling like I have to be able to sit down with a guitar and play the whole thing out.

Listening to your most recent tracks, I’m struck by your exponential growth as a music producer. What are some ways you’ve evolved in that regard? Any tricks or tips you can share with readers? 

 I think that is a result of listening with the mindset of an objective listener. After doing so many tracks, it gets easier to notice when you start to get bored with the song.  Like a more passive than active listening where if I start to lose interest, I think about what I can do to keep my attention. So much is about what you take out at certain parts than what you put in.  Creating subtle dynamics with volume or eq is one way to do that, but I’ve found arrangement is probably the most effective way to keep listeners interested over the course of a song.

I’m also thinking about the sheer number of songs you’ve released. Do you think of them all as being of a single piece—like one massive album—or do different songs fit into different categories and represent different sides of who you are as an artist? 

I think of the project of going through some distinct phases.  Phase one was just getting a sense of things and experimenting, I’d say up to about up to “On Your Side,” which was song 16.  I really just kind of played around with different approaches and ways of doing things.  Phase two was definitely an indie pop/rock stage which is most encapsulated in the We Are Ok album that I released only on Bandcamp.  By that time I felt like I had a specific method and was going for more or less a unified sound with an album in mind.  Next I decided to explore one-mic recordings and getting a great performance without hiding behind production.  It seemed to me that was the element that was still lacking for me.  I had always been told I was way better live than on recordings and I wanted to finally get over that hump. So I basically just sang take after take until I got it right.  The last phase was the last 12 songs which to me make up an album and was really me taking everything I had learned and putting it all together.  There is a bit of a grungy aspect to some of the songs because I was just feeling that. The last 12 saw me do a collaboration, wink, a co-write, and three of the songs were inspired by Twitter friends.  I was really happy with how all of them came out and really feel like the best work was right there at the end.

What do you think about this body of work that didn’t exist a year ago?

I feel great about it and, ironically enough, about the work I released prior to it as well.  This process was about growth and learning to accept myself, and I accomplished that.   It’s still really a ton to process.  I wish I had some really great insight that I could share about the whole experience, but I think whenever you do something this big, the scale of what you’ve done won’t make sense until a little further down the road.  I guess in a rambling way I’m saying I’m still too close to it to have perspective.  I know that for the first time I listen to my own work and really enjoy it and for me that’s a huge win.

Definitely a huge win! What’s the plan now that you’ve met the challenge? 

Gosh, I need to figure out the whole how do I make a living thing.   I’m looking at ways to do it from art but the reality that I need to add some dollars to the bottom line is ever present, so figuring that out is a priority.   Artistically, I have a remix that I did for Scoopski coming out soon and then another collaboration with Marc Schuster* that I am super excited about.  I need to release some of the songs in album form.  I’d like to do more collaborations and just contribute to other projects and help people realize a bit more of their own visions, but nothing concrete as of the moment.

Do you think you’ll do it again?

No, not intentionally in any case.  I’ve proven what I need to myself in terms of my ability to write and produce quality work.  I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in time working with other people that I surpassed that output but as for creating challenges that have to do with a volume of work in a set amount of time that challenge has been met.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Brian! 

It was my pleasure Marc, thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the huge journey that I just completed.

*Hey! That’s me!