Interview No. 169
Interview By: @The-Great-One
Q: During your time at college you did open mic nights, studied music production and recording. What can you tell us about your experiences during open mic nights? Any songs from this time period become a part of Newgrounds and future albums?
A: To clarify for the overseas people, this was during university rather than Sixth Form College. The open mic nights were really good fun and a great way to get out in front of people and perform in a reasonably low stakes environment, especially as these would have been my first solo public performances. You’d get a free drink if you performed and the crowd were generally very friendly. It was this punk pub / bar in Durham called The Angel which was a 5 minute walk from where I lived at the time. One of my housemates organised a fair few of the nights so I tagged along and played. It was a pretty regular thing, maybe a few times a month!
During this time I wasn’t really writing any music of my own so I just performed cover songs: some blink-182 and other pop-punk and rock stuff, nothing which would later go onto Newgrounds or be in future albums unfortunately. It wouldn’t be until a year or so later that I’d start writing music again, though I was regularly studying recording and audio production at the time.
Q: What can you tell us about your work on Better Than The Book - One Small Step. What does Better Than The Book mean as a title for your projects? What were some of the difficulties you had to face when making this first album?
A: Hehe, this is a question I get a lot! The name Better Than The Book formed in defiance of the frequently used phrase, “the book is always better than the movie”. Blanket statements like that are a pet peeve of mine even if they’re often true, so I liked the sound of that against-the-grain title for a musical project, especially something with the rebellious associations that punk has. Better Than The Book was originally used in passing as the name of a fictional ska punk band in a story I was writing in my late teens before I started writing my own ska and pop punk music. One of my first songs as Better Than The Book “Watching Airships” which is on the One Small Step EP, makes use of imagery from that story, and when it came to releasing my first demos in summer 2012, I took the name from that made up band and made it into the one for the project! Funnily enough, Better Than The Book has done much better than that book!
One Small Step was my debut EP, and my first release as Better Than The Book. It was written and recorded in the summer of 2012 while I was still living with my parents after moving back from university. I used 1 mic, an sm58 which was the only mic I had at the time, one bass and one guitar, and it was all recorded in my parents’ living room. The drums were this ultra cheap set of samples that cost me less than £15 for the whole set if I recall, and I’ve been using them for Better Than The Book and much of my production work ever since. The whole EP was recorded in Ableton and I didn’t have an audio interface at the time, or even anything to control the level of the single going into the line input on the front of my laptop, so I had to turn the amps up to the right level to get a good signal to noise ratio, and be super careful with my mic technique to make sure I didn’t clip on the input. I think my only costs when making the album (apart from time and electricity) was to buy a pop shield for my microphone, maybe £20 or so? It was an absolute shoestring budget production!
I had help from my friends too. There were some gang vocals which I called my friends to come and help me record, and one of them, Andy (different Andy to the Crow’s Wing Andy) ended up playing guitar on “Woof Woof, Nag Nag” too. He was a closer friend to my brother at the time and apparently my bro had been playing WWNN on the piano to him while I was still at university. I told him “if you like it so much, you can play guitar for it” and the rest is history! I think he’s doing gang shouts of every track too and we had some great times jamming out those tunes! Funnily enough, his band at the time also placed in that top 3 for the battle of the bands when I was in Lupus Atrum! Neither of our bands were the winners, but it sure is a small world (or maybe just a small town)!
When it came to mixing, I just had my iPod ear-buds and a set of old Logitech computer speakers for listening. This was before I was making any money from my music and I hadn’t splashed out on a set of studio monitors or even headphones yet. I remember doing the final tweaks to the mixing and mastering in the living room sat on the floor in front of my dad’s hi-fi stereo speakers with my laptop (a 2008 Dell running Windows Vista, which I’m still making music on to this day) resting on one of those things you put your feet up on when you’re sitting in a chair. It was such a haphazard and cheap production, but what I didn’t have in tech I made up for by asking for advice when I needed it. One of my dad’s friends, Martin, was a music producer and had been subtly supporting and nurturing my recording side since I was a teen. He got wind of the project, so when I thought it was done, I sent him the preliminary final masters and he had a few pointers to get it sounding better with minimal effort. I followed his advice and called it done! It was an amazing first big project to undertake and I learnt a heck of a lot from it, especially from working with other people and listening to people’s comments. It’s also the only BTTB release that was cut to CD: a limited pressing of 50 copies. I’m sure I still have half a dozen somewhere I‘ve not yet managed to shift!
Q: Architecture of Modernity is a cover of the song Architecture of Modernity by the band Lights, Camera, Attraction!. What made you want to make this instrumental cover? How did you come to join this band? What was your experience with them?
A: I was really into chip-tune at the time and this would have been a little while after I joined LCA. It was really just a bit of fun, but also doing covers like this was a good way to really get to know and learn the songs (of which I had a fair few from their past discography to get through). Architecture of Modernity was the opening track of their debut EP “Everyone’s An Architect” and I thought it was great! It was also a nice bit of extra content to give to fans while we were preparing / working on the next EP!
I’d been a fan of LCA for quite some time before I joined. They were one of the big local pop punk bands, and my friend Sam (of Crow’s Wing and later Lupus Atrum) played bass for them. The Andy who played on Better Than The Book’s Woof Woof, Nag Nag, was their sole guitarist, and I knew the drummer, Lee, from secondary school. The vocalist, Ben, I only really knew as part of the band. Around the end of 2012 I think, Sam picked up a contract playing bass on a cruise ship tour’s functions band and asked me whether I’d want to fill his spot in LCA. I was delighted to take part and pretty soon after I was accepted as a full member of the new line-up! I played bass and sung backing vocals, as well as launched a few samples from my MPC during our gigs. We played a lot in Brighton and the Sussex area and it was a blast! We even played a couple of tracks from my One Small Step EP too, though slightly edited for LCA’s arrangement.
Once I was settled in a bit more we started writing together and made plans for a 2nd EP which would become “From The Ground Up”. I contributed to a fair few tracks and ended up producing that EP for them which was a brand new challenge. Working with live drums again, as well as lots of (bedroom) studio time, but it was good fun at the early stages. Midway through the production though, the practice studio we went to for rehearsals was shut down and we had to find a new place to jam. The new place we eventually settled on was at first a dream come true! Amazing acoustics, much closer to home, and cheaper, but I really didn’t get on with the guy who ran it. It’s not like we were at each other’s throats, but we were on very different pages. After a few practices he wanted to get a bit more involved with the band, acting as a producer and from there it was downhill for me. We did a few recording sessions with him while I was mixing our upcoming EP, and they were ok but we never got any finished products to show for it. To me it was all just a waste of time. LCA had a bit of a bad habit too when it came to unnecessary spending, and I on the other hand wasn’t doing so well financially at the time. Towards the end of the EP’s production it seemed like the rest of the band were getting pretty jaded, about the project in general as well as gigging. We’d be spending all this cash on practice studio time at a place run by someone who basically took the fun out of the project for me, then not really putting that time to good use.
It came to a point where I was in the position of either staying in this band which didn’t seem to care what it (or I) was doing, or be able to maintain a long distance relationship with my girlfriend, which I very much did care for. Pretty much a no-brainer... I committed to finishing the EP I’d started and still look back at it and much of our gigging and jamming with fond memories, but I’ve no regrets leaving LCA, and it seems like it was the best decision for all of us. They bounced back a while later with a new bassist and I got back to Better Than The Book with new vigour to pursue my debut full-length album Two Years On where I could express myself at my truest. It was a sad and uncomfortable time for a while, and it took a long time for Andy and I to really become good friends on the same terms again. I know this doesn’t apply for everyone, but leaving a band is like a break-up to me. It was years later when I finally called Andy again to go out to our old favourite coffee place to rekindle our friendship. He’s playing drums in the BTTB live band now so I’ve no doubt things are very good again!
Q: What can you tell us about Serenade #1: It's Much Too Late?
A: There’s not much to say about this track, just that it was an acoustic cover of “It’s Much Too Late” by Alice Cooper, one of the tracks from the Dragontown album. Alice Cooper was a huge influence of mine back in the Crow’s Wing days and this track is one which I’d taken to playing on the guitar for quite some time. I think it’s a great song.
Originally I’d planned on making more of these cover song videos, but I guess it kind of just fizzled out after the first one. At the time I would have been working on Better Than The Book’s One Small Step EP and things just kept getting busier after that! I also wouldn’t say I’m too confident speaking when it comes to video, even to this day still not so much. Apparently I’ve always been a good band front man but I really don’t know how I keep ending up in that position! I feel like I’m better suited to a support role!
Q: When you first hit the scene on Newgrounds you announced yourself as an Audio Mastering Engineer. What possessed you to want to offer your services to the Newgrounds community?
A: It was more like when I re-joined Newgrounds as a community after a period of absence, than when I first started. It was spring 2015 when I really started putting myself out there as a Mastering Engineer. At the time I had a few years of experience mastering singles and albums, a fair bit of it being freebie work or my own work, and a little bit of paid work. I was gaining confidence in my own ability though I still had much to learn, and the best way to learn was by doing it for other people. Having grown up as a music producer on Newgrounds, I thought it would be one of the best places to start offering my experience and services. It wasn’t just a case of improving my own abilities too. The thing I wanted most was to help people express themselves in the best possible way. When I mastered tracks, I wasn’t just giving them the finished product, I’d let them know my process, things to watch out for to help improve next time and get better at their own craft from what my past experience could pass on. Each client / job was a give and take relationship. I’d gain new experience and a bit more money to live off and they’d gain a polished project and the knowledge of how I’d gone about it so they could apply similar strategies themselves in the future if they felt comfortable to do so.
Over the past few years I noticed too that if you’re offering something of value, people only really take you seriously if they’re paying for it, and a suitable rate too. The amount of people who’ve wasted my time with projects or treated me like crap when offering a “favour” has taught me that the hard way. The exchange of a suitable amount of money for the time you put into something is as much a means of living as it is a symbol of respect and professionalism. I always write up invoices and contracts and again having learnt the hard way, while I can be flexible, I’m committed to charging what I feel I’m worth. If I’m spending 2 hours on something, I’m not going to charge a fiver for it. Also, you don’t need to be the best to be able to offer a service and charge for it, you only need to be able to offer a quality service. I think that’s something many people don’t realise. If your clients leave happy then you’ve succeeded and you should keep doing what you do. If not, then it’s a learning experience. Adjust how you do things and try again.
That’s not to say I haven’t worked on passion projects with people for free or low pay, but that comes with an already established level of mutual respect, it’s not something you’d often have with new clients. Pick your jobs wisely. If you’re doing something for low or no pay, make sure it’s something you actually want to do and are willing to put the time in for with potentially no end results. Otherwise you can find yourself becoming bitter.
At the same time as offering my services as a mastering engineer I also offered audio post-production services for animation. The story of how I got there was similar in terms of past experience, and for me this was another passion thing I felt someone needed to do to help improve the community.
When I first started on Newgrounds, independent animation felt like it had a long way to grow, but fast forward 10 years and you had amazing graphics animations and voice acting, some of which could have been at Disney level! For some reason though, there was a very apparent neglect in the evolution of the soundscape of animations, particularly the quality of the mixing and audio post-production. Graphics, voice acting, sound effects, were great but the quality of the audio very much separated these projects from their professional counterparts in the cinemas or on TV. For musicians, it seemed like the quality of music production had increased with the access to affordable technology, but in animations the audio seemed stuck a decade or so in the past. There were so many beautiful animations which were let down by bad sound mixing. I didn’t really know if it was that people didn’t care or that they didn’t have the means to make things better. With such big projects too, often people seemed so focussed on the visuals, the character acting, etc... that the actual mixing of the sound was merely an afterthought, if a thought at all. It very much saddened me, and I felt like I had to do something proactive to help. It was one of the only areas in independent animation which I didn’t feel was growing as fast as it should.
A: Ah Hikarian! Such an incredibly talented animator, director, writer, and more, and one of my favourite people to work with! I had been following her work for quite some time here on Newgrounds and was captivated by her amazing animations back before we worked on Tales of Zale together. Just watching I could see so much potential in her animation vision, and on a whim, I contacted her to ask whether she wanted any help with audio post-production. Sure enough she let me have a shot at mixing a short scene from the (at the time) upcoming Tales of Zale Episode 1, and she must’ve liked the results because I’ve been mixing Tales of Zale ever since!
Hikarian is not only an incredibly hard working and gifted animator and writer, but she has this amazing attention to detail and command as a director that I’ve not seen quite so much in anyone I’ve worked with before. She knows exactly what she wants, what bits to ask help for, how to organise a team and when to ask for a second opinion, how to keep everyone motivated and happy. Super easy to work with, really friendly and bursting with drive and passion but this balanced laidback aura which makes it such a pleasure to work on her projects.
I have 2 moments that really stand out to me when we were working together. The first was when I was doing the final audio post-production for ToZ Episode 1 and she called me out on something she didn’t like: “There’s something a bit off about the reverb in this scene; I feel it’s a bit too bright for the room”? We had a chat and she pointed out that I’d mistook the wooden floor for concrete and not taken account of the hole in the ceiling where the sunlight was pouring in! A quick adjustment and things were sounding much more appropriate. THAT kind of detail is why I love working with Hikarian! The other time that stands out was when the audio team got mixed around a bit and I was working with an unfamiliar foley artist / sound designer. We’d had a meeting together with Hikarian to discuss the direction of the sound in this particular scene and I thought we’d got everything sorted but when it came to putting things together though, it appeared there’d been a miscommunication and I was having trouble with the audio I was given. I asked the new sound designer about it and things got a little heated quicker than I expected. I wasn’t sure what to do, but before I’d even had a chance to think, I got a message from Hikarian asking what’s up. I explained the situation and she quickly solved the issue very nonchalantly in a way that made everyone happy. It’s great to have that kind of director who can resolve those problems so quickly and painlessly.
I’ve been working with Hikarian for a few years now on Tales of Zale and having seen her growth, I can say with certainty that the direction she’s heading is one destined for greatness! I feel privileged to be part of that journey and wish her all the best in what she’s doing. She deserves all the success animation can give to her!
I’m very much looking forward to working on ToZ Episode 3 too! It’s going to be a blast!
Q: Cyberdevil joined us not too long ago. When he was here we talked about the collaborations you did with him. One thing we weren't sure about though was who contacted who first, even I couldn't find that when researching him and I couldn't find it researching you. Who made first contact?
A: Hehe! I read that interview with great delight! Cyberdevil will have to clarify this, but I’m pretty sure I made first contact. I remember hearing him on a track and thinking, holy moly this guy’s voice and lyrics are incredible! He really reminded me of Del The Funky Homosapian who featured in the early Gorillaz records! I messaged him as soon as I could about working together. Definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made on Newgrounds!
Q: When I asked Cyberdevil what it was like working with you, he had this to say...
Jabun's a humble dude. Very positive, forthcoming and easy to work with, not to mention incredibly talented with all that involves music. Hopefully these almost-yearly collabs are still far from over!
What can you tell us about working with Cyberdevil?
A: Hehe, very kind words, CD and indeed I’m looking forward to the next collab too! Working with Cyberdevil’s been great! He’s an incredible guy both musically and socially. I’d say I come from a rock/punk background with an interest in hip hop and rap, but we both have a huge shared interest in nu-metal , and working on the more hip hop fusion side of things with him has been a super fun challenge. He’s really opened my eyes and expanded my horizons to the world of hip hop music too with some great recommendations which have become big parts of my musical taste. Lots of thanks and praise to Cyberdevil for everything he’s done to enrich my life both when we’ve been working together or just chatting casually. I’ve no idea how many emails it’s been throughout the years!
The guy is of course super talented too. I love the way he handles his lyrics and it’s always a pleasure to see what he comes up with next! He even has this amazing habit of suddenly writing in rap verses during emails which is an incredible treat! Very chill and positive guy, super fun to chat to, and great to make music with. He’s an exceeder of expectations and a great friend I cherish.
Also if you’re reading this Cyberdevil, thanks so much for introducing me to cloudberries and cloudberry jam! It’s been a game changer!