Interview No. 169
Interview By: @The-Great-One
Today's guest is quite possibly one of if not the hardest working musician here on Newgrounds. With his project Better Than The Book being a success here on Newgrounds and acclaim for his assistance towards other musicians here on the site. His skills are incredible as a composer, lyricist, singer, and guitarist. His story is long, but an amazing one and I wish for you to read it all the way to the end. I am most pleased to welcome, @Jabun.
Q: How did you find Newgrounds and why did you join?
A: Man... It was so long ago... I can remember browsing in my teen years to watch all the cool flash animations back in the day: Egoraptor’s “Awesome” series, Legendary Frog’s stuff, “The Matrix Has You”, “The Decline of Video Gaming”, “There’s Something About Halo”, and their sequels, Adam Phillips' Brackenwood series, the list goes on! I’ve always loved animation and it was amazing to me as a teen that people were making these incredible projects independently!
I don’t remember quite how I stumbled upon Newgrounds itself, though I imagine it was through my friends who were pretty savvy when it came to “the places to be” on the internet, and NG was definitely one of them! I joined to upload my own creations: the music I recorded with my band(s) or solo at the time, though many of the earliest projects were actually uploaded on my brother’s account. A lot of this was before the days of YouTube and SoundCloud, when people still had MySpace pages for their bands, and Newgrounds was THE place to upload and share your music. I guess it was a familiar place I enjoyed, as well as a necessity at the time.
Q: You and I have something in common. We both began our craft at the age of 6. That's when I started writing. You started with the piano and the cello. How did you start playing these instruments though? Who introduced you to them?
A: When I was very young there was a piano at this children’s club my brother and I went to, and when I got to primary school and heard the piano being played properly for the children to sing along to, I guess it really resonated with me. I remember at age 6 my brother and I asking my mum if we could learn and she went above and beyond to support that. We looked for teachers but none of them would take “2 young boys who would be too hard to teach” on for lessons, so she talked to the pianist at our school, and after some convincing, though she’d never taught anyone before, we became her first students. My dad was working overseas at the time and unbeknownst to me we didn’t have a lot of money (not that at age 6 I really knew the value of such things). After being “tested” to make sure we could concentrate on learning and had a musical ear, my mum, with only £200 in the bank, contacted a piano tuner to help her look for a piano for us to start learning on. After finding one and organising for it to be moved into our house and tuned, she only had about £20 left. I only found this out about a year or so ago! I have so much to be thankful for to her and my dad for supporting my bro and I back then!
My interest in cello came shortly after that when the person who would become my first teacher came to visit our primary school to show us what the cello was all about. Much like the piano, I was instantly captivated! At the time he was building his own cello too, and bought quite literally a treasure chest full of parts for his unfinished instrument to show the school. Yet again, it was a case of trying to convince my parents to let me learn and sure enough they supported me with that too. Again, I have so much thanks to them for all the support when I was so young and didn’t realise how money worked!
A: Ah man, I used to sing Hania tracks back in the day with the piano! “Softly I Sing” is an oldschool favourite! I don’t really remember when I started singing generally (I’d definitely have been singing at school or along to CDs & tapes as a child), but I really started to focus on it when I joined my first band when I was 14. I feel like that’s when I actually started to think about how I sing and focus on improving my voice and technique.
With regards to choirs I’ve sung in, it was just the one when I was in Sixth Form College: the East Sussex Academy of Music (ESAM) Lewes Choir. It was compulsory for music students to join the choir there, but I had a lot of fun. I sang bass. On the topic of large ensembles though, I actually played a lot more in orchestras as a cellist. The Mid Sussex Strings and Youth Orchestra (and Junior Strings when I first started), the Downlands School Orchestra (at my secondary school), the ESAM Orchestra, and Hatfield College Orchestra at university.
Q: You received a guitar for your 14th birthday. Who gave it to you? Did you play guitar before receiving one for your birthday?
A: That would have been my parents again, and I’m sure my mum did most of the research to find it. The guitar was actually a joint present for me and my twin brother, but he’s since got his own acoustic and so our originally shared one has sort of become mine, following me to University and beyond. It now sits on a stand within arm’s reach of my studio chair!
I didn’t really play guitar before being given that one, no, though my dad had a left-handed acoustic in the house for a little while during my early teen years which he was planning to learn on. My bro and I fiddled on that occasionally and awkwardly before receiving our more appropriate right-handed one. Funnily enough, although my dad got rid of that left-handed guitar years ago, he still wanted to play and was planning to start after retiring, so my bro got him his first electric guitar for his birthday last year! He’s been learning slowly but surely since!
Q: You constructed your own double neck guitar at the age of 15. Why would you want to build a guitar from scratch? What was the process that came into making it? Have you made other guitars in your time? What songs have been made with this guitar?
A: At the time I started thinking about building one (2004/5), double neck guitars were very difficult to come by and even the cheapest ones would be £500+ but limiting in terms of features. The only ones I could think of were the Epiphone (£500+ at the time) and Gibson (£2000+) SG double necks, both of which only had 20 frets per neck (same as a standard acoustic) as opposed to the 21/22/24 fret standard of most electric guitars, and had “tune-o-matic” style bridges which I am not a fan of... I really wanted to be able to express myself musically and was very much into my progressive rock and metal at the time. There was no point in shelling out £500+ for a double neck I wouldn’t be happy with, so I didn’t really see much of an option. If I wanted one, I had no choice but to build it myself, and I relished the challenge!
Almost everything guitar-wise I had up until that point had been second hand because that’s all I could afford. In fact I only bought my first brand new electric guitar in 2017 (my first brand new bass would be in 2010/11). My dad was an aerospace engineer and having stopped working overseas when I started up at secondary school, our family garage was now filled with countless tools. My great uncle and a few family friends did some woodwork too, so any tools we didn’t have we were usually able to borrow. The idea of building my own guitar was something definitely inspired by Brian May of Queen, who similarly built his own “Red Special” guitar in his teen years, as well as of course my first cello teacher who was playing his own hand built instrument for much of our lessons together. I think there’s something really special about crafting your own instrument, like building your own voice from scratch. Much like vocal chords, no-one else’s will be quite the same as yours, and it becomes a unique part of your identity, both sonically and visually on stage.
I started mocking up guitar designs in MS paint of all things, splicing together pictures of various guitars and drawing in the bits that didn’t exist (like the headstock shapes), and even made a tiny 4” model out of wood. Having not been around for much of my childhood, it was an amazing bonding experience for my dad and I to build this thing together in my teen years and I think he appreciated it as much as I did. I remember getting a book on how to build an electric guitar and buying and taping together a whole load of graph paper, then sitting on the wooden dining room floor designing this thing from scratch, marking measurements, drawing circuit diagrams for the electronics to get all the tones I could possibly want, then when that was done, making thick cardboard templates as a proof of concept. Once I was 100% sure where I wanted to go with it, we started researching where to get the wood, electronic parts, etc... I remember us driving to collect what would become the body wood and it being so big and heavy I could barely lift it! The $ to £ rate was pretty good at the time so we ordered most of the electronics and hardware from the US. I dread to think how expensive it would be to build another one today!
The whole thing took about a year to build, and it was finished a little before my 16th birthday. Long summer days and weekends routing, sawing, sanding, soldering, and drilling (including accidentally into my dad’s hand...), but it was an incredible journey! The whole thing cost just over £1000 by the end of it, a bit more than expected, and I had to work at the local Tesco every Saturday until summer 2007 as soon as I could get a job to pay my dad back for it (I still have the IOU spreadsheets!), but it was totally worth it! That guitar has seen me through some great gigs and recordings, even after snapping the whammy bar and having to replace one of the bridges, replacing a set of tuning heads, and worst of all having to steam the glue of one of the necks apart to replace a broken truss rod! It’s still going strong (touch wood) and currently lives right next to me in the studio even closer than my first acoustic!
Sadly, I’ve not made any other guitars in my time, though I’ve built a handful of effects pedals, and modded plenty of instruments for other people as a side job as well as a couple of my own. It’s always great fun! Lots of stuff I have has been customised like that, buying what I can afford and then improving it to the best of my ability for my own needs. Effects pedals, synths, guitars, it’s nice to be able to make things really your own if you feel they need improvement.
In terms of songs with my double neck “Satin-X” on them, I’ve been using it on recordings since my first band Crow’s Wing’s stuff, all the way to my most recent album as Better Than The Book “Hopes and Dreams”. It’s one of my workhorse studio guitars since it’s so versatile, though it’s pretty heavy so there’s been many long recording sessions that have given me a dead leg! The Satin-X double neck was heavily featured on Better Than The Book’s “Two Years On” and “Hopes and Dreams” albums, almost on every track. You can hear the 12-string side especially for the solos on “The Bigger Picture”, “(The Travelling To See Eva Song)”, “You’ve Got A Lot To Say” and “Hopes and Dreams”. Most recently, the Satin-X was featured on my new side project Jabun [Alternate Reality]’s debut track, a metalcore cover of Kesha’s Warrior. I think it was the sole guitar on that song apart from for the guitar solo.
Q: When and how did the band Crow's Wing form? What were your rolls in it?
A: Crow’s Wing would have formed shortly after getting that acoustic on my 14th birthday (spring 2004). My friends were getting into music too and a few of them had started learning instruments so we’d commandeer music practice rooms after school and jam. Originally 6 of us, myself and my brother Eamon on guitar, Sam on Bass, Andy on Drums, James on guitar and Kevin on keyboards, a few weeks of jamming sorted who was really interested in playing and shortly afterward it was just the 4 of us: myself, Eamon, Sam and Andy.
Back then Eamon and I didn’t have electric guitars of our own, heck we had just one acoustic to share between us! There were these 2 beat-up electro-acoustic guitars with maybe 2 or 3 strings each at school and so Eamon and I would bring packets of strings with us and string these things up every week whenever we had a practice session for MONTHS, taking them off at the end of each rehearsal! We started by playing covers of rock songs we liked, the first being Paranoid by Black Sabbath, then Crazy Nights by KISS and Don’t Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult, before moving onto more challenging things like Iron Maiden when we could actually play well enough. I brought my first electric guitar from eBay in September that year, £112 for a beat-up Yamaha Pacifica 112, a little Marshall 15 watt combo amp and a guitar stand, cable and tuner, and my mum drove me an hour away to a McDonalds car park in Chichester to pick it up (thanks again Ma)! By this point the 4 of us in Crow’s Wing were practicing around each other’s houses over the weekends and after school regularly, but it was still just the acoustic guitar shared between my brother and I. Eamon was playing most of the lead parts and solos, and I was mainly focussing on chords and lead vocals. When we came to our first practice with my new electric, I was so excited, but then realised Eamon would need to be heard more than me... Disappointed as I was, I sucked in my pride, picked up the acoustic, and he played my new instrument instead. It was a strange moment, but we sounded a whole lot better for it. Eamon picked up his own electric guitar from eBay shortly afterwards, and the fully functioning formation of the band was complete! I’m sure we decided on the name by putting papers in a hat and drawing one out at random. I remember putting in the name “Tinned Piranha”, but I’m happy with the name which got picked!
Crow’s Wing would continue until 2008 when we headed our separate ways for university, with a slow fadeout during our Sixth Form years as we were in different colleges. At the start, I was lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, but by the time we stopped regularly jamming, I was sharing some lead guitar roles with my brother, playing keyboards (organ, piano and some synths) occasionally, as well as playing (Sam’s) bass whenever we jammed “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz! I’d also somehow become our main sound engineer and producer when it came to recording our music, though the song writing was an “each person writes their own song and presents it to the band” kind of situation. My recordings with Crow’s Wing would be my first, and we ended up with 4 tracks by the end of it. It was an amazing early learning experience and my gateway to music production and recording.
Q: When and how did you become a member of Lupus Atrum? What can you tell us about the song Face the Omega?
A: So this is a bit of a strange one. In my first year of Sixth Form (2006/7) I spent most of my time in the music department hanging out with the other musicians. I think it was Thursday lunchtimes where I’d have my guitar in, and a couple of my friends were free, so we’d jam in the drum room. Ali was on drums, Alice was on bass, and I was on guitar. We’d jam anything, but usually something simple we could pass a solo around on, a blues, occasionally some simple reggae or ska or something like that (some foreshadowing there). We’d even swap instruments occasionally for the heck of it.
Anyway, a few months into this, Ali finds out there’s a battle of the bands on and says he needs a lead vocalist / guitarist for it, so I said “sure thing”. He’d gathered a few people for it: a music tech student called Nathan who was amazing at guitar and could do super high vocal harmonies effortlessly, Jack from my friendship group who was a bassist, then there was me on lead vocals and guitar, and Ali on drums. Everyone did harmony vocals in that band, and the genre was: power metal! Strangely, I kind of didn’t feel like a proper member of the band despite being part of its founding. For me I was just doing Ali a solid so we could compete in the competition, and it was really more him and Nathan’s project at the core. They chose the songs to cover and did the bulk of the writing (Ali’s lyrics mostly I think), and Nathan acted as recording engineer and producer when we did any recording. They were phenomenal musicians and it was great fun playing with them though there was definitely a different power balance compared to my days in Crow’s Wing. My whole stint with them was probably less than 2 months and I was really just there to compete in the competition. Highest judge votes in the finals, though I can’t remember whether we placed 2nd or 3rd overall. Unfortunately, the BOTB finals were the same day as my younger friends’ secondary school prom, so we didn’t have much of our fan base there for the finals either. I left after that little mission was accomplished and we’d finished our recordings. Funnily enough I did actually see Lupus Atrum in concert the summer afterwards, with a different Nick on guitar, and Sam (the bassist of Crow’s Wing) on lead vocals! They were great too!
Face The Omega was the only song we wrote and recorded while I was there which had lyrics. We had another called Point of Impact, but that was an instrumental. I’m sure Ali wrote the lyrics to this one, and apart from performance, I wasn’t involved with the technical aspects of the music production or the writing (unlike in Crow’s Wing). Nathan handled the engineering and production. We actually had 2 versions of this song and the vocal melody was slightly different when I performed the song live. There wasn’t much time between being given the words and learning the song and going on stage so it was very much performed as best I could at the time. Usually when I would record, I’d also take the time to properly write guitar solos, but for this track, it was a bit of a rush, and so they were all improvised. I think we recorded all my parts in an afternoon at Nathan’s parents’ house, and as such I’m not quite happy with my solos on this recording. I’m sure the ones I did live were better, but it’s a nostalgic snapshot of a very specific time in my life! You can see my double neck in that video too, as well as that later gig after I’d left where Sam’s on the mic! Good times!
Q: You are a musician that wears many hats when in music. From guitar player, to vocalist, and lyricist. What is your process for juggling all of these? What advice do you have to give to those who are looking to do it all?
A: I think the notion of doing it all is a bit of a misconception. It’s more of an illusion than anything, at least I feel that way when it comes to my own hats. In reality, I feel like my skill set is wide-spread but not really as deep as it could be compared to someone who specialised in one specific thing. It’s like life is an RPG and time becomes the experience points you can use to level up each of your abilities. Some people would put all their time into boosting their bass guitar playing stat for example so that they could play any genre under the sun, learn pieces super quickly and improvise comfortably on any scale. Comparatively, my bass playing is narrowly specialised. I live and breathe ska and punk bass styles, but put some soul or jazz in front of me I’d have no idea what to do! It’s similar for my guitar playing, and lyrics I find very challenging to write because I don’t put the time in regularly to nurture that skill, it’s more that I brute force my way through with it whenever I do need to write lyrics and it takes me ages! On the other hand, I’m consciously and constantly trying to develop my music production skills, really pushing and challenging myself as much as I can, and after years of almost daily practice, it comes quite naturally to me now, though of course there’s still much to learn and improve on.
Juggling lots of things might seem daunting too but for me I feel like it’s a strength. When you’re focussed on developing one thing for a long time it can go one of two ways: either you’ll keep getting better at it constantly, or you’ll start to stagnate and hit a roadblock where you’re not sure where to go and how to improve. That’s when juggling things has become really useful to me. If I feel like I’m stuck at how to progress more as a guitarist, I’ll switch over to focussing on bass, or vocals, or keys, and I’m on a roll again! It’s a big reason I have 2 main writing projects, Jabun and Better Than The Book. When one big album project is finished, I’m often exhausted and it takes a while for the writing ideas to flow again for that style, so I’ll just switch over to the other project and it’ll be a change of pace and scenery. I don’t think I could write BTTB albums back to back every year, but alternating projects (and even doing collaborative ones in between) keeps me energised for both!
It’s all about what you really want to do too, and there’s definitely an element of compromise to it all. There’s simply not enough time to max out all of your skill stats. For some people, being the best at one thing is the goal, and that could be true if for example you’re a musician in a function band where you need to know 200+ cover songs and be able to quickly learn more each week. For others the compromise of doing well with a small section of lots of things is worth it for their own purposes, and that’s what works well for me. In that case, it’s about switching off from the things you don’t need to work on to prioritise and maintain the areas you do.
Much like practicing anything too, the more you juggle things (correctly) the better you’ll get at doing it. Try to start small and add to it gradually. I had a great head start learning both piano and cello at a young age, but I’m positive anyone can pick it up with the right strategies; it’s just like learning multiple subjects at school. Start with jugging just 2 things which synergise. Perhaps vocals and guitar, or recording and mixing, or even writing lyrics and singing. When you’re comfortable with those, add something else, and so on. For me, learning guitar wasn’t so hard because I already had the finger strength and basic string instrument principles from cello, and from guitar, it was much easier to pick up learning the bass, etc... It’s about finding a natural strategy to practice those skills, and balancing the time to develop and maintain them as necessary.
Q: You went to Durham University and graduated with a Masters Degree in Physics and Mathematics. Why not pursue a music degree? Was this a fallback plan or something to cover bills while in pursuit of your music?
A: I always felt like a career in physics or the sciences was something expected of me from a young age, and I enjoyed studying those subjects so I thought that’d be the best thing for me to continue with at university. Of course there was the whole “physics graduates on average make blah blah money” propaganda that was fed to everyone by the schools and universities so I’m sure that had an influence too, but on the whole, it was something I was good at and wanted to know more about at the time, and I didn’t think I’d be able to study them to the level I wanted to as simply a part-time / casual interest.
For my A levels, I took maths, physics, chemistry and music (and a pre-professional music performance course), and by the time I had to choose what I wanted to study at university, I was content with the composition techniques and music history I’d learned and wasn’t really interested in formally studying music further. There was also an aspect of chasing grades to musical instrument learning too. You had to have a grade 8 in an instrument to be accepted into most university courses, following strict rules on what you had to / could learn, effectively to jump through hoops and tick boxes to meet standardised requirements. Once I’d decided that I didn’t want to study music further in a formal setting, that freed me up to learn whatever I actually wanted to on the piano and cello, rather than the limited set of pieces and techniques you needed to pass to get to university. It was liberating!
There was also the aspect of what I wanted to do in the future which at the time I wasn’t sure. Realistically, I didn’t see myself as going into a music career as a performer or academic, it just seemed too distant a goal for me, and I didn’t feel additional qualifications would help me either. That freed up my musical energy to focus on things I really wanted to learn for myself, like music production and exploring more experimental techniques and less “academic” genres. Music had been a huge part of my life for almost as long as I can remember, so I put all my free time into my own musical self-exploration outside the confines of academia. Physics and maths on the other hand was a blast to study! Very little essay writing and in a nut-shell it was all about solving (often very difficult) puzzles and problems rather than learning facts. It was more about seeing the world from a different angle and gaining / developing the skills to apply that to other areas of life rather than just the narrow scope of science. It was hard work but often fun!
When I finally graduated in 2012, I took that summer to apply the skills I’d learned to record my first original tracks as Jabun as well as Better Than The Book’s debut EP One Small Step, and it was a super fun adventure. Meanwhile I was starting to apply for physics / science related jobs not because I wanted to, but more just because it was expected of me, and I didn’t enjoy any of it. I was applying for all these things that felt alien to me just because of the salary and because it was what I was told I should do. I didn’t get any interviews, just in my mind the dissatisfaction of lots of time wasted chasing someone else’s dreams for me. On the other hand, I started actually making money from my own music, and by 2013 people weren’t just asking to work with me, but also giving me money to do so, for music and for audio work on animations. I figured why waste my time pursuing something that I don’t enjoy and that’s going nowhere when I’m finally having a blast doing something I love and being paid for it! Somehow, my casual hobby had become my source of income, and my plan A of physics (really other people’s plan for me) had become a tentative plan B. I figured I’d just drop the plan B! I was in a lucky position where I could put all my energy into nurturing my own music / audio production business, so I stopped everything else and just focussed on that, and I’m still doing it today! There didn’t seem like there was any point in having a plan B, it’d just take away from the plan A!
Now that’s not to say that the decision hasn’t made for a bumpy ride, but it’s a road that’s been true to myself and that’s been incredibly rewarding! Sure, I’m certain my bank account would be a lot happier if I’d have given up on music and kept looking for physics jobs, but even with all the headaches and occasional financial uncertainty, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing now, even 8 years later, and I’ll be continuing down this path for as long as I can!