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Headlights Chapter Four: Demos Lost

Nearing the end of high school, I publicly released The Domino Effect on February 14, 2014. I did release one other project right before I graduated, an EP called Nurovia. Despite my experimental excursions behind the scenes, I still felt rooted in where I left off on The Domino Effect. Nurovia offered more of the same heard on The Domino Effect, but more of an industrial shade. A song named Owe wanted to do Deftones more so than the early 90s tone I had on Domino. There were instrumental tracks that wanted to be noisy. Again, the demo quality of the recordings held back the territory I wanted to explore. I think The Domino Effect was the better project. Domino felt casual and loose. Nurovia felt too stiff for my liking.

The Thing and Fahrenheit were stowed away onto a hard drive I keep everything on to this day. There were two other developed projects alongside them that I’ll quickly mention: the first was Insomniac, which focused more on my love for electronic music and trip hop styles. Insomniac had a lot of really cool synth and drum machine textures: it was a very sci-fi sounding project. Most of the time, it’s all blended with the use of acoustic guitars captured with DI (direct input, meaning it wasn’t recorded with mics but recorded right into the audio interface). The album’s tone captured the feeling of being up late at night, and so the title reflects that a bit. The song from this project that stuck with me over the years was called Disavow. It had this slightly distorted hollow synth lead that carried the bass line of the song and was the main feature of the track. A stereo delay was on it so the pattern played sort of interplayed with itself. A phaser slowly opens up and swallows the sound as it brushes up against a distortion plugin I dialed in and rumbles a bit. Insomniac was me embracing my love for electronica and finding ways to incorporate electronic textures in a dedicated, cohesive way. It was a different sound for myself I developed that blended smoother electronics and acoustic guitars. The project had sounds I’ve tried to replicate many times over the years and will continue to do so.

The other project was called Millennia: Songs for a Post-Millennium Survival Guide. I stole the title for my Capstone project my senior year of college. This project was sort of pop-rock inspired. Full band sound, but with acoustic guitars. I don’t remember anything noteworthy in it and even at the time I cast it off pretty quick. There was also a solo acoustic EP I recorded during the summer outside of High School. I loved Jeff Magnum’s performances on Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea from 1998 and sought that attitude. Someday, I would love to sit down and develop a solid solo acoustic sound for myself. Maybe it'd be with electric guitar instead of acoustic, I don't know. There is a power to the solo approach that's timeless.

And from there, I moved on.


In August of 2015, I went to college. I studied at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Connecticut. I was originally against going to college. I saw the student loan crisis and I didn’t see myself in a collegiate setting. But I desired a new place to go to and figured it would expose me to new things on top of teaching me how to record better. I pursued a Bachelor’s in Music and Audio Production.

A lot of things changed for me in those days. My roommates, who ended up being my main friend group in college, studied jazz music. I never liked jazz or cared to dig into it. I felt like it focused too much on technical ability rather than expression to me. Putting a kid that’s into Nine Inch Nails in a room full of people listening to Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane would seem like an awkward experience waiting to happen. And it was. But at the time I preferred their company over others I had ran into. They really cared about music. They understood that it was not an activity you just partake or just about having fun (though the fun was something along the way). They understood that its about going somewhere, about being something. You have that with you at all times because the music comes from who you are and what you do. I resonated with their passion. I recognized it as genuine. At the time, I valued difference in relationships and in my environment. I aimed to still be myself but be different from how I was at the same time. Both are possible but it is a tightrope of exploration and experimentation to traverse. It’s important to stay true to who you are and what you should be doing while doing so.

My Freshman year was full of demos that sought to channel that difference. I spent most of my time secluded in my dorm on my MacBook. I started smoking cigarettes that summer. It made me feel like I wasn’t a naive suburban kid amongst other things. I remember listening to Dido’s No Angel on the morning shuttle to my writing class on WestConn’s midtown campus. I recall listening to The Fugees’ The Score and digging into anime for the first time. To this day, I still remember staying up late to watch the two part finale of Cowboy Bebop for the first time. The demos I did in that time swam in a bunch of different things. Some of it was rock, trying to diverge away from what I had done in the years prior. Some of it was more electronic, kind of reminiscent of what I had done on Insomniac and the soundtracks I loved. There was no project in mind. My head was a swamp at that point. My inspiration became more and more confused as time went on. My mental state was deteriorating critically in my personal life.

I remember the specific moment I told myself that since I was taking the music thing seriously, I had to open up and listen to everything I could. The stuff I never thought I’d listen to. Even stuff I didn’t like or get. Whether it was John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, One Direction’s Made in the AM and everything in between I was sitting down and listening. That idea I had for this different sound I wanted was all I thought about. It was all I felt when I listened to music. As a musician, as a songwriter, as a producer, I was searching. I looked everywhere. As a person, I think I was looking to. McCoy Tyner’s first few notes on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme made me whip around when I heard it. I didn’t understand jack shit of what I was hearing, but I listened. Because in different music laid the answers I seeked, even if I didn't understand them yet.

Radiohead’s OK Computer finally clicked with me after years of Kid A being my preferred record. Being around other music where communication within ornate arrangements was key, the specificity of what Radiohead would achieve in their sound found a place in my rotation at the time. I sought out the more “intelligent” side of the rock music I loved in that period. Keeping up with current music at the time, Kendrick Lamar had released “To Pimp A Butterfly” which I was a big fan of. That was an album that had a hold on everyone when it came out. I admired the consciencous tone, the organic production values and how well the album flowed from front to back.

It was around this time my problems with the Rock genre became more apparent. In modern examples, starting around the mid 2000s, mechanized production values cast away a lot of the soul and character I heard in my favorite records. With that adjustment, the “verse chorus verse” tactic helmed by groups like The Beatles, refined through the 70s and 80s, revitalized in the 90s by the alt explosion and finally drilled into the grave by emo and post grunge in the 2000s, had become so head on within the 21st century it felt suffocating. As someone who loved the music, and could even pick smaller things I liked out of the phases I didn’t like, I was tired of hearing it do the same thing over and over again.

First and foremost, I wanted to avoid the verse-chorus-verse structure yet find structures that channeled the accessibility and rush that the form offers. I did love songs that did that, but for what I wanted it had to go. That was the first big swing at departing from what I had done before, and from my influences I had grown up studying. I also wanted to avoid common phrasing that I kept hearing and didn’t like. There are all these “micro-feelings”, mannerisms and gestures in how music moves that I would note to myself. In college, I was usually listening for what to avoid more than anything. The more I heard rock artists double down on bigger choruses and try to nod to a current mainstream trend, the more it catered to the issues they were probably trying to rectify from my perspective. Maybe they made something they loved, but I wasn’t hearing what I wanted out of it. I saw some of those problems in my own work and wanted to change that. The ideas of what to avoid were formulating, the first steps in seeking what it was that I really wanted.

My Freshman year of college I would describe as a “swamp”. Don’t ask me why that makes sense to me, it just does.

In my sophomore year, my practice led me to create a lot of instrumental demos. The second floor audio practice rooms of my campus’ Visual and Performing Arts Center (shortened to VPAC by most) were my favorite spots to practice. I worked in Logic mostly. Even though there are audio people that tell you Logic sucks and Pro Tools is the standard, I wanted an understanding of both. I’d experiment with guitar tones and record some band-formulated ideas. The instrumental ideas were where I felt most comfortable at the time. In those pieces I was more confident in moving away from conventional song structures. One demo I remember was called "Crowds of Crows", an arpeggiating piano tune that I fantasized a trumpet melody on top of. I was into layering soundscapes at the time, and a recording of rain and cars driving by that I made myself played behind the paino part. Those sessions were the beginning of what I implement now with my love for soundtrack music. Another demo, "The Thrill is Gone", was in a heavy 3/4 timing with heavy guitars that would blast in in the chorus. These sessions were dry, I still lacked the ability to thread the needles properly. It was just about swinging at that point.

At the time I was living with random roommates. I just came out over that summer and was struggling mentally. The most notable artist I was getting into at the time was Soundgarden, and by extension anything Chris Cornell was involved in. I remember hearing “The Day I Tried To Live” one day and it hit me especially hard. When I came out, I felt very alone and out of place. I had some very challenging conversations with people. I lost myself in that a bit. Hearing Chris’ voice, I didn’t want to be him, I wanted to be me. I would sort of get a grip on my character listening to the music he was in. He had soul that was genuine. He had an earnest character to him that felt so strong yet so fluid. He was masculine but never felt macho, his persona was so dynamic in the music. He was like a weeping angel over these atomic backdrops. His music kept me together as I was beginning to traverse a mindless chapter in my life. Soundgarden’s Superunknown is the pinnacle of 90s rock. And Chris’ 1999 solo record Euphoria Mourning is also phenomenal. There was a technicality to his work that elevated the music above other stuff from that era. When I learned that he had taken his own life around that time, my heart shattered. I felt like I had lost a friend that helped me through a hard time. Nowadays, I find it a bit hard to listen to him without being reminded of where I was back in those college years. But I still love Soundgarden and the music he made. I will always be grateful for Chris Cornell’s work and the way it impacted me. Many people have told me my music is reminiscent of his and I don’t hear it at all. Though I respect his and Soundgarden's musicality, I actually wouldn’t cite him as a musical influence. I think I occupy a very different space in music than he did. His work was something that had more of a personal impact on me in a unique way.

Swinging into my spring semester, I suddenly found myself the happiest I had been in college. Sophomore’s take the dreaded barrier exam which dictates whether you move on to your more major-focused classes in your upperclassmen years. I was starting to embrace my natural voice more. My guitar playing was becoming more technical and open. I loved Dave Navarro’s work on Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute and John MacLaughlin’s Extrapolation. I valued open playing that relied on being in a rhythmic place. I didn't want solos in my music. I didn’t take to soloing, and I never was one who really enjoyed listening to solos anyway. It was another thing I wanted to avoid. Yet the vision I wanted to thread had no real foundation yet. There were all these smaller idiosyncrasies I was poking at slowly still but by this point, it began to get murky. The Domino Effect, The Thing and Fahrenheit, the plotline of where to go from there, sort of faded into obscurity. A lot changed that year. I passed barrier. The year ended.

Junior year, I experienced turmoil in many relationships in my life. I was arguing with family a lot. I dated someone briefly and it turned out to be humiliating. I cut off friends who were not good influences. All realms of my life exploded into each other. I was lonely. I was living with strangers. My friends lived in another building across the campus and I stayed there often. I was listening to Beck’s Sea Change and John Mayer’s The Search for Everything. There was a Jeff Buckley B-side collection that was released at the time which featured his cover of Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman that I loved.

In that period, I ended up writing an acoustic EP called Love Diaries. It was 5 songs. They were pretty conventional. I knew at the time I was bored of that level of writing but it’s what I was inspired to do at the time. There was a song called Daydream which I loved. The chorus goes “But someone said that I could love you, and wake up in a better place too.” I presented a recording I did of the song to a panel of professors at the end of the semester. They enjoyed the tune. I pull Daydream out in practice every now and then. I look now and I think it's the only thing I made during college that felt inspired. But I had done that kind of music before and wanted something different. I swept that song and the EP under the rug and I slowly transitioned back to wherever else I was at the time.

There was a period where I pulled out Fahrenheit and wanted to expand on it with some of the ideas I had. I came up with new ideas for the story and tried to write new songs for the project. But with each new thing I tried to implement, I felt that it strayed away from what made it Fahrenheit in the first place. I was sitting and playing one of those newer things I wrote and remember feeling absolutely shitty. The story only got weirder and didn't feel inspired like the original vision did. I felt the project, alongside the other projects I did when I was younger, start to fall apart in my hands. The newer songs were just imitating the original attitude the older songs had. The older songs were from so long ago. I shoved Fahrenheit away and didn’t want to think about it.

I practiced a lot of guitar that spring semester. Miles Davis’ Round Bout Midnight became my favorite record to listen to with “Dear Old Stockholm” being my favorite Miles track to this day. I would take breaks from practicing on the basement floor of the VPAC. I’d leave my practice room, walk down that long, carpeted hallway and out the double doors at the end. The back of the building had automatic sliding doors where you were greeted to the parking lot outside. Later on in the day, the sky would be nice to look at. I would walk outside, light a cigarette and stare out over the parking lot into the tennis court that sat on the other side. A long road ran down the middle of the Westside campus, past the practice center and the lot behind it, eventually leading to an area surrounded entirely by trees. I’d look out. I was lost. Deep down. Writing the dreaded middle of the story. With music, I thought I was defining myself but really was undefined. That different sound I seeked was just a feeling of mush at the time. The rain and fog to peer through only grew heavier. As a person, I was learning how to define myself. I was a caricature of myself on the surface, just sort of "there" at that point. I had the music to move forward in. I knew exactly what I was doing but never acted like it. My audio lessons turned out to be less than encouraging. Anything real I absorbed in those days were from getting in the Campus’ studio and being hands on. The real lessons happened outside of the classroom.

I didn’t belong in college. And that’s fine. There are many glaring issues with college as a whole, but I do think college is a privilege and luxury some don’t even come close to thinking about. The tools I could use there and the exposure to different subjects I did benefit from greatly and helped me pursue what I wanted to pursue. This is something that should be within the reach of most people, but unfortunately isn't due to tuition being way too high. Most people go to college with a mission that belongs in that environment. I went in with a mission that was off the grid a bit. And when you go off the grid, you’re bound to get a little lost at some point. It’s what I signed up for.

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