August 14, 2013

Bitter Politics - An interview with musician Alec Chapman

As a way of reigniting this blog I wanted to give some publicity to a friend of mine who has followed his dreams and become a musician. Actually, that's not true. Alec Chapman was a musician from an early age when his father bought him a bass guitar and he played along with his other brothers as they learned their craft.

I first met Alec on a film set. We were filming a commercial for a crisp company where we had to spend the whole day at a football stadium doing crowd replication. Long, boring, tedious, but made more enjoyable by the company of Alec who has a dry wit and an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of films. Since then I have followed his progress with interest as he has turned his wit and expertise to film reviewing and - more recently - to producing a film-based podcast.

Earlier this year, though, he started to talk about another undertaking he was involved with: an album release. I followed this with interest as it was obvious this was something he was doing as a serious endeavour. The album was released recently and it’s is called ‘Bitter Politics’. It is available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and Google Play and it is marketed under the name ‘Oh Hi Mark’. If you want to know the source of that name you'll have to check out the story on Facebook. I spoke with Alec recently to ask him about the challenges of producing his own album.

We started talking about how Alec went from being a member of a “function band playing cover versions” to “singer/songwriter creating an album”

Alec told me “They're more concurrent than that. I've been writing songs forever, even before I learned any instruments. I pretty much had to learn instruments to be able to write songs properly. That start in purely mental writing means I am able to write wherever I am - without relying on an instrument to make the sounds for me. I can have the song in my head first.”

We moved on to talk about the mechanics of making the album. Presumably when Alec started writing it was a lot more difficult to physically make and release an album. Technology has moved on since then. At what point did he think "I could do this now", I wondered?

“Well, there wasn't that thought process exactly. I guess in the first place when I started on the project I was frustrated by the fact I was relying purely on other people's availability to move it forward at all. I struggle with motivation sometimes so it simply wasn't working at any speed - so it was really important that I learned to do digital recording and editing myself.

According to Alec there are a number of distinct steps in the album creation process:

Guide Track

“You can join together the demo and guide track, or, if you're working on your own you can go straight to recording. The recording itself is different depending on which instrument everything is hanging off in terms of time. It's trivial to play to a click track to keep tempo for you, but it doesn't help that much if you're playing in swing feel or you have conflicting syncopations.”

I asked Alec what software he uses : “Well, on the first album we ended up using lots of different things. Sonar, Cubase, Logic or even GarageBand in one case. Compatibility isn't really an issue as you can export each track as a .wav file or another form of lossless audio.” In terms of bringing it all together, modern DAW (digital audio workstation) software does this all in one. So as you are recording one you can hear everything else, actually watch the waveforms etc. “But if you're working in various locations, it's trivial to export one recording in, say South London, share it via Google Drive anywhere in the world and have them import it into their DAW. It's not ideal, but it works. I did a lot of bass parts that way.”

I asked Alec for his thoughts on mastering and distribution. “Mastering is a dark art. I have no idea! It was done by a professional. Digital Distribution was surprisingly easy. There's companies that will do it for you - I used tunecore, but others are available. This basically means that an independent artist can kiss goodbye to the questionable joy of needing a record company to get your material released. Marketing becomes the real issue.”

We talked about social media and how it plays more and more into the whole marketing ethos.  My concern was how does he go about getting the word out about a first time album by an artist who goes under the alias Oh Hi Mark?

“Well, it's still in progress, but the important thing to realise is that it's going to be a lot of work. The days where an artist will get lucky and have a dramatically expanding fanbase within weeks are over. There's simply too much music out there to rely on luck. So for me it's about the long game - almost using the first album as a marketing tool for the live shows and then cycling that back around. Making it available on Spotify was motivated by the desire that not being willing to pay £7.99 up front shouldn't stop people being able to hear it, while still trying to maintain some sense of good business.

In a way there’s a catch-22 of music production nowadays. The tools are there relatively cheaply, it's the expertise that's expensive. That's also true for video production. For many years now musicians have used video as a way of promoting their songs. I asked Alec for his thoughts on this and also if he has any plans to use video to promote his album?

“True, but remember some of the greatest music ever recorded was laid onto four or even two track tape in tiny smoke filled rooms. The modern, super polished highly compressed shiny sound people used in records now, doesn't have to be the only aesthetic. Plus there's a temptation when surrounded by modern technology to feel it has to be all used, which can cause major delays. Video, now then, I am still learning that side of it, but to save people having to look at a static picture when listening to the single, I had a little go.... Apparently it causes motion sickness.

I asked Alec if he finds encouragement in the likes of The Arctic Monkeys and Justin Beiber, who were Internet phenomenons before they were ever signed by the big labels?

“Yes, but they are edge cases. Justin Bieber particularly. The Arctic Monkeys had a large live fanbase before they went viral after all. Plus they're actually really good. Bieber I simply don't understand - it seems crazy to me. But I'm not alone in that. Plus, MySpace (where the monkeys broke from) has pretty much died. I enjoy playing live and interacting with an audience, but as for emulating their level of success, I swing back and forth between wanting the recognition and hating the idea of fame. But who wouldn't want to headline Glastonbury? Seriously, I'll do any stage.”

Alec has had to make a fairly major life change to accommodate his ambition. “I made a major lifestyle change to work nights, but it's really a case of wanting the four on/four off pattern rather than the hours. It means that I'm not cramming the music into tiny slices of time and can really get into it. I'm extremely good at losing enthusiasm if it’s constantly stop/starting.”

On the topic of motivation. I was curious how Alec keeps himself motivated, and at what point does he bring in other collaborators? “It's a real challenge for me. The simple answer is that I have learned to be willing to accept that I am not in complete control of my emotions and accept that when it isn't working I need to do something else. Forcing it breeds disillusionment. I know - I've been there before.” So any routines? “Unfortunately I have a very difficult relationship with routines and their resulting pressure. What I've done instead is create a battery of creative outlets that have related skills so that even if I'm not working on one, I am informing it via another.I won't lie, some of my creative process is calculated. But the most satisfying and robust parts are usually products of inspiration.”

Alec told me that Bitter Politics is an album intended to be consumed en masse, rather than in single songs. I asked him if it was written that way or did it evolve? “It was arranged that way, out of ideas that came individually. And actually, the stated intent is that it works best en masse.”

We talked about what things he would do differently on his next album “Sooo many things! But chiefly to spend more time on the vocals in advance and less on fixing problems in the mix. Also to trust my instincts more - and try to have more fun with it.”

As we signed off our time together Alec had one final comment for me “The strongest marketing tool is a good review - if any of your readers listens and enjoys the album, a positive review on iTunes, Google Play or Amazon would be a great way of helping me get this to more ears. Thanks for inviting me to chat to you!”

To listen to Alec’s music try Spotify. To purchase, go to iTunes, Google Play or Amazon and - if you like what you hear - leave a good review..

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