At first glance, Montreal avant-garde sound sculptor Tim Hecker and party-obsessed New York rock star Andrew W.K. might seem like polar opposites. Sure, their music sounds almost nothing alike, but the reality is that they’re both incredibly thoughtful regarding their craft. Speaking on the subject of composition, the artists revealed a great deal of common ground.
Fast Forward Weekly: The idea here is basically to have a conversation, and I can interject with some questions if you guys run out of things to talk about, but the reason I put you two together is because you’re both sort of composers in your own right. I guess to begin, how do you start a composition?
Andrew WK: Tim, you can go first. I don’t personally consider myself a composer.
Tim Hecker: Yeah, I would find that term pretty dubious because it involves all of these connotations of aristocratic bourgeois music production and things like that; the act of envisioning this perfect piece in advance. I just kind of organize sound, or assemble things together in a really haphazard way. There’s no process or vision. It’s sometimes amazing and enlightening and sometimes despondent and depressing. I’m the same way, I’m ambivalent about the term “composer.”
Andrew: I’m just a partier. That’s all I can add to that.
FFWD: Do both of you have some classical piano training?
TH: I’m not classically trained. I’ve played music all of my life, but I’ve never formally studied anything.
AWK: I took traditional piano lessons from age four-and-a-half until the end of high school basically. Then I took lessons again more recently in New York City, so I’ve taken piano lessons off and on for the last 30 years, and certainly my entire understanding and foundation of music comes from the piano. And the piano’s a real great instrument to get into music. For one thing, it’s very visual. It’s black-and-white, laid out right in front of you from left to right and high to low. Two, because it also has that rhythmic element. And three, because you also have this ability to play more than one note at a time, so I think that does help with understanding different parts, even if it’s just a bass line and a melody. It’s a really versatile tool for music making and, as a result, a really great introduction to musical foundations.
FFWD: Does knowledge of music theory help both of you, or is it something you try to forget about when you’re writing?
TH: I’m kind of struggling with that all the time, because I sometimes lack foundational understandings of basic harmonic relationships and I just kind of plod along. But I’m learning it as I go, like Andrew was saying about the piano, it kind of introduces you to, and forces you to understand basic chords and relationships of tones that for me sometimes are intuitive. I don’t plan it out too much.
AWK: That’s a good way to look at it and I agree despite the fact that I have these understandings. It reminds me of something like math in reverse, or maybe painting in reverse in that you see this colour that’s a combination of others, and some people would get there through experimenting with mixing different paints and they find this great shade at the end of that, or a number where you can trace it back and see what was added together to get there. But as long as you get there, that really is the point. And I’ve definitely figured out over the years what those certain musical concepts are that feel that certain way to me. I’ve always managed to get there even if I didn’t understand what it was. I think the best thing about music theory is just that it allows you to communicate with other musicians and also understand it, so it’s just like a language.
TH: That’s beautiful Andrew. I just wanted to say that the math and paint thing is pretty nice. But also, I’m the opposite of you in that way. I don’t have any vision of what my song structure is. It’s something that occurs as I work through progressing sound. We work completely differently.
AWK: Yeah, it’s like sketching. It’s like abstract painting and maybe finding some shape that reveals itself. I think in the end it actually is very similar though, because my own subconscious or your own subconscious is sending us this stuff, and I extract some kind of ordered melody or musical structure from that swirling sensation of excitement in my head and try to get it into that place. Whether you do it as you go or whether you do it from what’s already there, I think it always is carving away at everything that isn’t what you want to hear.
TH: Because some people go really far into the pure vision, and then songwriting is the act of materializing that vision. Like Michael Jackson waking up in the middle of the night and writing “Billy Jean” into the Dictaphone, which became almost the structured way in which the song came out, and session musicians just added some guitar riffs to it, but the whole song was written when he woke up in the middle of the night.
AWK: That’s the best when things happen like that. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about just channeling something. I didn’t understand that as much when I was younger, but that is the nicest way for it to come is when you’re there to facilitate something that you don’t necessarily feel like you came up with. And even if it happens through experimenting as you go, I feel like it’s still the same kind of magical, mystical experience where it’s hard to take credit in some ways for that type of creation because it seems so immediate and otherworldly.
FFWD: Moving on in the process, how do you know when you’re done?
TH: For me, I’m done.... Again, I work with digital audio as almost a plastic form of sculpture, so I would say one of my strengths is knowing when to not overwork something. I can work on things infinitely until they turn into harmonically saturated mush. One of my internal battles is knowing when to step back and stop working on things, and leaving things there, and not adding more things and polluting by building up a song structure or whatever. It’s really difficult and I find that’s something that comes with time also, just getting a sense of restraint and being able to do more with less. These are a lot of clichés, but whatever.
AWK: It’s odd, because I don’t feel like they’re ever done. That’s the problem, but it’s a nice problem to have I guess. I could work on them forever and ever and ever, and that’s the most painful part about recording. The songwriting, that’s usually relatively quick, but it’s usually been a slow process of recording with all the overdubs, and I’ve just never been able to feel satisfied with it. It’s just unpleasant in every way, even up until the final mixing and mastering, it’s hard to listen to it because I always hear things I want to change or redo, or is that part good? Usually just the sound of it, the sonics.
TH: But Andrew, with overdubs, do you think there’s a point where adding more overdubs is a way to redress problems with the song?
AWK: Sometimes, it’s just about: does it feel exciting? And I think we also share an appreciation for inorganic sounds. I don’t want it to sound like a band playing, and that’s what I like about live performances, because it sounds like a band playing, but the thing that’s fun about recording is that it doesn’t have to be a band playing. It can be a fantasy that maybe never could be produced live in an organic way. So I always try to make the recording sound like one big sound, like one instrument and not a personal expression of someone playing a particular instrument or a bunch of people playing together.
FFWD: When you are both writing, how much is your audience in your mind?
AWK: Pretty much that’s the whole goal for me. I think about that the entire time, how it’s going to feel to play live as well as how it will feel for that person to first put this song on, or to listen to the recording. That’s just the nature of the music. Again, I’m not proud of it, it’s just the way that this particular flavour that I’m offering is arranged is that it’s not really about me or a personal expression of my life experience so much. I think again Tim can probably relate to this. It’s music that’s meant to make you feel a certain way using sounds, and in my case it’s very traditional rock ’n’ roll sounds. But it’s all about the other person. More specifically, it’s all about me and the other person. Like us, and that group feeling. That’s why I always like group vocals, because I want people to feel like their voice is already in the recording, or those big crowd vocals with many multi-tracks. I want those people to feel like they’re already a part of it. That’s the most important part.
TH: I come from a zone of pretty much total self-indulgence, total isolation, total domination of the sound field on my own through multiple different means. The knee-jerk response is to say I do it for myself and that’s the obvious thing, but there’s no doubt that the way it affects people goes through your mind, and you can’t rule that out. I’m not as much of a collectivist, but I’m increasingly working with other musicians. It comes out as something that bears my name that involves other people’s work sometimes, so it’s a really tough one. I feel really mixed about it and I can’t give a straight answer that it’s for other people nor is it just for myself in some lonely castle on a hill. So I would say it’s total torture.
FFWD: With that in mind, do you still get the same satisfaction out of your music as you would if you were making it strictly for yourself?
AWK: Yeah, absolutely. Because it’s that feeling of doing what you were meant to do, doing what you were born to do, what your skills are. It’s very satisfying in a very broad way because of that. Nothing is more thrilling than making something that I really like and feel excited about and then finding someone else that connects to that same feeling — that’s been desiring the same physical feeling. It’s a really, again, magical thing where, if you ever meet the person and talk to them, they feel like they understand a physical sensation or the way it feels for you to be alive. That’s a great, almost scary, kind of feeling. But it’s thrilling. Thrilling is a good word for it.
FFWD: Finally, you’re both doing a talk of some kind at Sled Island, correct?
TH: I guess I’m giving some sort of basic Q and A, talking about my working methods and some basic conversational thing I believe, yeah. I don’t know what Andrew’s doing.
AWK: From my understanding I’m doing a lecture about partying.
TH: (laughs) That’s great man. I love this.
AWK: I’ve done them before, but I’ve never done one at Sled Island and I’m very excited to be coming back to have this unique position at the festival to see so many great acts, including Tim.
FFWD: When you’re talking about your work to other people, is that a totally different experience? When you’re not hiding behind an instrument, maybe, or when it’s not a concert setting?
TH: For me, I’m not hiding even though I play in darkness. It’s more of a philosophical rejection of the way sounds can be dominated by visuality, or people need hyper multi-sensory stimulation in order to feel satiated. So what I do is not out of fear of showing myself, it’s just, I don’t play with traditional forms of gestures or manoeuvres or guitar riffage or like keytar throws in the air. I do stuff that’s like mixing, and stuff where I don’t want to animate my body gestures because I feel like it would be kind of a side show. It’s about deep listening and a kind of journey, if you want. It could be a trip into some sort of strange feeling. I don’t want to dictate the kind of emotional outcome from those types of situations. But visuality for me is super vexed, I just feel like right now, as it stands, the less of me that people focus on and what I’m doing, the better they can channel their own minds into the pure sonic heat that’s blasting out of a hopefully awesome PA system.
AWK: I mean obviously for me it’s a lot of visual stuff and I like that because I always like visuals. They’re all just tools to me, music and sound and visuals and performing and using your body, they’re all just tools and methods and techniques to get to this physical place of feeling good, of excitement, of raw energy. I try to use every single one for better or worse. As far as talking about process like we are, to me it’s very secondary, but I always appreciated learning about how people did what they did. Even if it seems kind of boring to me to talk about specifically, maybe someone out there will have something to relate to or learn from it. All I really care about is that sensation of excitement, that feeling of possibility. Everything else takes a back burner.