Thursday 30 July 2015

Interview with Ted Selke (The Seventh Ring Of Saturn)

One of the best albums I've been listening to this year is Ormythology by The Seventh Ring Of Saturn. The band have recently followed this up with an excellent double A-sided 7" single which sees the band return to their bubblegum rock/pop sound with cover versions of The Grateful Dead's Mountains Of The Moon and The Hollies' All The World Is Love. TSROS head honcho Ted Selke has very kindly agreed to share his thoughts on all things musical - discovering Middle Eastern music, favourite childhood 45s, studio techniques and more!

Click over the jump to read the interview.

Your most recent band album Ormythology mixes rock dynamics with Turkish/Greek rhythms and melodies. An unusual combination. How did you first become interested in Mediterranean music? 
The first Turkish music I remember hearing was Erkin Koray. A friend sold me the Shadok's 2LP collection of his singles from the '60s and early '70s. Then in the early 2000s I found out about a Middle Eastern music night in Atlanta at the Red Light Cafe. It was every other month and it was great; I tried to make it to every one. The first night I went I saw an amazing Turkish musician play. His name was Namik Ciblak and he was like the Jimi Hendrix of the bagalama, a stringed instrument also known as a saz. He was a very nice guy and I got to hang out with him and see him play quite a few times before he moved back to Istanbul. Another band that played almost every time was Emrah Kotan and the Sultans. They were great guys as well and they played at other places so I became their fanboy and went to see them at some restaurants and other venues. When I got home I'd try to play some of their songs on guitar from memory. Eventually I worked up the courage to ask if they would mind if I taped their set and they didn't so I did. Both Yedikule and Teli Teli Teli are songs I learned from their sets. They didn't have a bassist and I misheard the root notes on Teli in a way that makes it sound more badass I think. We didn't know what the songs were called and we called that one Koolaid. We still call it Koolaid but the person who wrote it is still alive and I didn't want to look like I was trying to put something over. Unfortunately, most of the Sultans moved back to Istanbul as well, but Emrah still lives in Atlanta. He's a great drummer and a great teacher and he performs with a lot of different bands. I went to one of his shows and sang the songs for him and he told me what the names were.

I think they way you've mixed things up on Ormythology is what makes it such a good record, I wish more bands would approach music with such open-mindeness. What's next for you musically, will there be more of the same or are there new avenues you plan to explore?

I'm working on a Rembetika record right now. The Turkish song Yedikule that I learned from Emrah and Borte turned out to be a Turkish language version of an old Greek Rembetiko from the 1930s called I Foni Tu Argile. A band called A Hawk and a Hacksaw recorded a version of it a couple years after we put it on our first album, but theirs was much more faithful to the original Greek version and unlike ours which I'm sure they never heard. I've learned a bunch of other 1930s Rembetika, which is in many ways a Greek and Turkish counterpart to our blues of that period, and I'm making them into rock songs for another record. TSROS has been playing some of them live for a few years, so recording them will get me caught up to the present. I want to try to write a few songs for that record and then maybe try to write some more psych pop stuff. I'd like to eventually do a record for every style I love: a country rock record, a reggae record, a funk record, an acoustic record, etc..

And that title - Ormythology, is that just something you made up? Google ain't telling me anything about that!

Before recording each of the albums, I spent a year or two thinking about what they should sound like, what the rules would be, what I would and wouldn't do on them. Working in my own studio gives me infinite freedom, and I try to think like an artist who is trying to create an individual world. Having rules (or obstructions) helps me create something that's cohesive, and I like the idea of doing different things on different albums, while trying to retain an identifiable sound.

So the first obstruction was to make it sound totally unlike the first album. Our first album was conceived as a bubblegum love letter to The Beatles and my '60s 45 collection. So this one had to be much rawer and less tightly produced. The White Mice listened and told me not to close mic everything and I followed their advice. I had used mostly major chords and optimistic lyrics, so I didn't do that this time around. And I had birds on the brain, maybe stemming from watching the entire Twin Peaks series (on DVD and VHS) and finding out that "the owls are not what they seem". I started listening to a lot of bird song records and wondered what they were singing about, kind of like with Dungen. I had this grand concept for the record that included making some Musique concrète with recorded bird calls and teaching my bandmates some bird calls on guitar so we could improvise on them. Unfortunately time constraints forced me to scale down but I kept the name anyway. Ormythology - the study of bird songs and their subtext.

It's interesting you mention Bubblegum music which I have a soft spot for. I have this theory that people who are able to see beyond the trashy obviously commercial aspect have a real appreciation for the craft involved. You could say the same for novelty records which seems to be a real dying art. For anyone out there reading who knows little about the Bubblegum genre what top 5 records or bands would you advise them to check out?

I was a big fan of melodic 45s that rocked, like the Beatles and the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. 45s sounded amazing back then and they packed a punch that you just don't get from hearing the songs on CD, or even on a stereo LP. I listened to the radio or my records all the time and I had a lot of favourites each year; I loved Tommy James' Hanky Panky but when they came out with I Think We're Alone Now, I thought it was an absolute knockout. That stayed on my player for months until I wore it out. A little later, I picked up Yummy Yummy Yummy by the Ohio Express and I couldn't listen to it enough. That was the beginning of bubblegum rock for me, but Tommy James says in his autobiography that they jacked his riff from I Think We're Alone Now, so I guess that might have been the true beginning.

If, in fact, the Shondells were the beginning of bubblegum (and not Kasenetz and Katz who produced Yummy Yummy Yummy and most of the other stuff I consider bubblegum), then I would nominate their Crimson & Clover album for one of my top five in the field. They were a great band and it's an excellent album.

The self-titled Ohio Express LP is my favorite album that's undeniably bubblegum; it mixes quintessential bubblegum tracks like Yummy Yummy Yummy (that are recorded with studio musicians and the great singer Joey Levine) with even better tracks by the actual Ohio Express that are much more experimental and psychedelic. I was very inspired by that when I put together our first album, the idea that you could combine pop rock with more experimental filler.

Another favorite 45 was Green Tambourine by the Lemon Pipers and I would highly recommend that album as well. Again, there are some lighter pop-rock tracks combined with some heavier more psychedelic numbers.

I'm not sure if anyone else would classify The Turtles as bubblegum rock, but I will for this list. Happy Together and She'd Rather Be With Me were two of my favorite 45s; they transcend bubblegum but the latter has some of it's hallmarks. I would highly recommend the Happy Together album that features both tracks.

For the fifth, I'll go with John Fred and the Playboy Band, a very underheralded band who had some great singles and cool albums. Permanently Stated is definitely one to pick up.
As the last two might not pass the muster with bubblegum purists, I'll offer up two more that should: 'Cross the Border by Lt. Garcia's Magic Music Box and Hard Ride by the 1910 Fruitgum Co..

The very wonderful Fruits De Mer record label has been very supportive of you in the past, how did you become involved with them?

Barry Saranchuk, who makes some very psychedelic CDs as his alter-ego Psychatrone Rhonedakk, heard our first album on CD Baby and left a nice comment about it. We were getting ready to embark on our first East Coast tour and I saw that he was near Scranton, PA so I e-mailed him to thank him and ask if he had any suggestions for a place we might play in the area. We exchanged e-mails for a little while and he encouraged me to get in touch with Fruits de Mer as his friends the Swims had great things happen due to their association with them. He kept insisting that I should get in touch with them and I finally did, which led to another few months of pleasant back and forth with label head Keith. And when the time came to do Keep Off the Grass, we started banging around ideas for a song TSROS could do and we settled on Ten Thousand Words in a Cardboard Box.

Fruits De Mer releases tend to feature cover versions of classic tracks from the golden age of psych and prog. It's a brave band that tackle tracks a lot of people consider to be sacrosanct. For example your version of The Beatles' Savoy Truffle. What would you say makes for a good cover version?

I loved doing Savoy Truffle. And I got props from two different musician friends, one for showing it could be played on acoustic guitar and one for showing it could be done without horns. I think bands miss an opportunity when they play the same parts that the original players did. I like to look at a song as if it was given to me on paper, even though I don't read music fluently. If I have the words and the chord changes, I can take it from there. On Mountains of the Moon, I changed all the minor chords to Major, I hope the Dead will forgive me for that. We didn't reinvent Ten Thousand Words... but that's because I didn't know it was okay to do that until I heard Cranium Pie and Sky Picnic's contributions.

Your new single (on glow-in-the-dark vinyl no less!) showcases your versions of tracks by The Hollies and The Grateful Dead. Could you explain what draws you to music of a certain vintage and what do you like about those two bands in particular?

I was a music fan pretty much from the time I was born in 1960. My Mom remembers me leaned up against the record player and rocking before I could stand. I started out with Chubby Checker's The Twist 45 and a few others, by 1965 I was spending my allowance on 45s whenever I had saved enough. I had a lot of the Beatles singles when they first came out, starting with A Hard Day's Night. My older brother Gus was a huge rock fan and he got me into all the great bands of the time, many of which you could hear on the radio as well. My Dad was into jazz and classical so I was very lucky to grow up with a lot of great music around.

I loved Bus Stop, but I think my first Hollies 45 was Stop, Stop, Stop. I always liked weird sounds and that one had a very weird sounding banjo. Then I got the On a Carousel single, with a picture sleeve and All the World is Love on the flip side. Neither my brother or I really remember the latter song but I rediscovered it on a German import LP when I was looking for the most obscure Hollies song I could find for a Fruits de Mer tribute LP.

The Grateful Dead was the next chapter of my musical development, starting in the early 1970s. Gus got ahold of a copy of Workingman's Dead and I listened to it all the time. When their self-titled live album came out it had an address for their fan club; I signed up and received all their mailings from 1972 on. I was heavily into the Airplane and the Byrds and CSNY and the Allman Brothers at the turn of the decade; I took the Rolling Stone reader's route whilst the Creem reader took a totally different path. The Dead was my favourite band of the '70s, until Talking Heads pushed them out of the spot in 1979. I got to see them over 70 times and every show was an experience. The best was in the '90s when Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick were on keyboards and I could see four shows in a row in Atlanta with no song duplication.

And sometime in the late '70s I came across a used copy of Evolution by The Hollies and loved it. It showed that they had successfully made the transition from singles band to album band, as so many others of the time weren't able to.

As far as the vintage goes, I like the sound of music from the 1960s and early 1970s the most. Our guitarist Jacob feels the same way and we hope it comes through in our music. I've enjoyed a lot of punk and underground stuff since then, but I haven't been able to listen to the radio since the mid-1970s.

I think you're right about the sound of the music of that era, it probably has something to do with the human aspect involved – using live drummers, ensemble playing etc. As well as using natural reverb of a room as opposed to trying to replicate such things digitally. Pro-tools is great for cutting out little glitches and mistakes but also seems to take some of the soul with it. Your recordings all seem to have a real organic warmth that a lot of modern recordings don't. It'd be interesting to know how you achieve this and what your recording set up is.

Thanks so much, that's something I've really been working toward. Not close mic'ing as I mentioned earlier has yielded positive results. A little space between the source and the mic creates natural compression which helps the track sit in the mix, and also preserves some of the air that a recording needs to breathe. And I don't compress or EQ anything if it doesn't need it. I follow whatever direction the tracks take me but I do like a pulsating breathing track if that's what I'm getting. Our stuff has all been mixed in Chris Griffin's Pro-Tools setup and I do think it adds something that's not necessarily there on the original tracks, for better or worse. But the thing that sucks the soul out of a recording for me is quantizing, which aligns everything to a strict tempo, and if imperfectly applied, it can totally change the feel of a song. I often build up a track from the drums but I try to recreate the feel we would get if we were jamming live. That means having to get the bass and drums and rhythm guitar where they would be with regards to the click, or 'in the pocket'. I never achieve it perfectly but I'm always striving for it. Recently I've been playing all three and it's always a challenge to get the feel right. I never edit the drum tracks, I just go with what I have and try to work around any potholes.

As for my setup, I have some awesome Chandler Limited and Universal Audio stuff. Both companies are aimed at people who are looking for a vintage sound. I have a Mackie 24-8 board so I can mix with faders but still utilize some of the tricks I discovered working with Chris, like running tracks out to a stomp box such as a Mu-Tron phaser and then back into the session again, which we did on pretty much every Fruits de Mer track. I've tracked all the previous TSROS within the cramped confines of my record store in Atlanta, now I have more space but the sound is a lot different. I'm working on a new track for a David Bowie tribute CD that Keith at FdM is putting together and it's a great opportunity to experiment with the new sounds.

The vintage theme we touched on earlier is continued with the artwork of your releases which are made to resemble the first wave of vinyl bootlegs - plain thick card sleeves with hand-stamped lettering. You obviously believe (as do I) that packaging is still important in an increasingly digital age. Is this commitment to physical formats central to how you think music should be enjoyed?

In keeping with my goal of making everything different for this record, I wanted to go a different direction with the cover. For the first album, our friend Alec Addleton drew an amazing picture of our name with colored pencils and our friend Susan Archie helped us turn it into a cool looking album cover. So I wasn't going to top that anyway, and all my requests for art from my friends and bandmates went unfulfilled, so eventually I came up with the idea of hand stamps as something that I could pull off. Unfortunately the earliest promo copies were my guinea pigs and some of the less attractive ones had their pics posted online. But I had improved quality control when I got to the stock copies. I was definitely thinking of the old bootleg LPs and I'm glad you noticed it. I was also thinking of passports, as each back cover has different stamps on it in a different order. I wanted to make it something special because I think it's a special album, one I could never make again.

I know from our recent correspondence you've recently relocated to Massachusetts, what's the scene like there and are there any local bands our readers might enjoy checking out?

Lou Barlow is back in the area and he has a new solo album coming out, which I'm sure will be great. Six Organs of Admittance is here now, and Elisa Ambrogio from Magik Markers has a new solo album out on Drag City that sounds really good. Sunburned Hand of the Man is still putting out great stuff. I saw a punk band called Chemiplastica that was excellent but I'm not sure if they have a record out. I'm looking forward to seeing what else I can find while I'm here!

Click here for The Seventh Ring Of Saturn website

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