(Progressive Newsletter Nr.50 12/04)
excerpts from an interview with Matthew Parmenter (Vocals, et cetera)
Very little has happened for Discipline since 1999. In that year we more or less took a break to focus on our personal lives. We'd been performing together thirteen years by then, and it was getting tough to keep making live appearances.
What's the current status of Discipline? Has the band and their activies just been layed on ice or doesn't the band exist anymore?
The band hasn't performed together for some time. We have all been busy outside of music: living, working. For me, a lot has happened. My wife and I had a baby in 2000, and I've been learning to be a father for three years. I also began recording "astray" in 2001. I had planned to record another CD with Discipline before making a solo CD, but it didn't work out that way. It took me a year or two to conclude that Discipline wasn't where I should focus my energy, and that I should move ahead with the solo CD. This was a difficult decision as I had invested a great deal of time in the band. I knew we had begun to find an audience outside our own backyards, so to speak, and I hated to let down those new listeners. There was also an extensive local Detroit audience who had supported Discipline since the '80s before we found the "prog" scene with "Push & Profit."
Except of the bass parts, you've done everything, also instrumental-wise by yourself. Didn't you want to include other musicians or was it more a experiment to try out everything by your own?
I chose to play the various parts myself mainly to save time. The experiment was to discover whether I could record something independently, but also to devote as much time as I could to my family during the process. I didn't think I could also devote time to rehearsal with a full band. "Unfolded Like Staircase" took a long time to rehearse, and we were a serious, working band at the time. I couldn't afford the time a real band requires. Much of what you hear on "astray" was recorded late at night, drums excepted of course. At the same time, I didn't hesitate to ask Mathew Kennedy to play. I knew he could bring some soul to the music. Some of the most satisfying moments in "astray" are Mathew's performances. He has always been supportive of my music; we have been friends since the age of three, so he is like family.
When did you learn all the instruments you played on record, as you're mainly known for being a keyboard and violin player?
I grew up with a piano in the house and I have played the piano as long as I can remember. When Mathew and I were introduced as playmates, I dragged him into the music room and bored him with the little tunes I had made up. The piano was my only instrument until I was about ten years old. By then I was quite at home on the keyboard. My mother sent me to music lessons with the composer Clark Eastham, but it was discovered I could not read the piano music he assigned me. Instead I would hear my mother play the songs, and I would mimic the songs by ear. I didn't think of this as deception at the time. It was, after all, the way I had learnt any song to that point. Mr. Eastham suggested to my mother that my music-reading skills might suffer if I continued this way and he encouraged my parents to start me on the violin. Through the violin, an instrument foreign to me, I would be forced to read music. It worked. At the age of fourteen or so, one of my brothers loaned me his acoustic guitar and taught me how to strum a G chord and a C chord. From there I taught myself to play other chords. The guitar is a wonderful companion. You can usually find a quite corner to write with a guitar. Also, the vibration of the plucked string is therapeutic. I've flirted with drums off and on for years. My sloppy drumming accompanies several early reference recordings of Discipline songs. I have improved my drum technique in working through "astray," but I am still no drummer. Most the other instruments, such as synthesizers and marimbas, can be played at like a piano, so I just fumbled around. The Theremin is the most notable exception here, and I used it sparingly. I picked up the saxophone in my twenties, but I have never devoted ample time to it. If anyone heard me play the saxophone live, a rare treat or punishment, I'm sure they would agree. It takes me a long time to warm up and stop accidentally overblowing the octave. On the CD I was able to retake and overdub the sax and that helped cover the groaners.
Is there something you like more: writings the songs, getting the arrangement together or writing the lyrics?
Each step is most satisfying during the creation. Melody emerges on its own, usually without my intervention. I do not feel clever or amused after discovering a melody, in the same way I might after crafting a particular phrase in words. The melody brings with it an emotional demand, and an emotional reaction is all I remember. Exceptions might be when some formula or plan is used to construct the series of notes. Usually my job is to stay out of the way and let it come. As the writer, I decide whether to discard the melody, or alter it. I must also make sure it doesn't steal directly from Lennon-McCartney, etc. Arrangement is most fun when it is a surprise. But usually I find I am fleshing out the skeleton in fairly predictable ways. When I was very young, the words of my songs were an afterthought. I invested little more than rhyme in them. Now I am more careful. Lately the words are perhaps too direct. Statements I would have tried to communicate subtly through indirection come out awkward and square. This can both endear and annoy, I've no doubt. Writing lyrics is perhaps one of the greatest joys in my life. I love to step out of time with the dictionary, and pick out words from the ether. When I develop lyrics, I can lose myself for hours. Recording is a necessary obstacle that must be overcome. There is little joy in it, and it requires much effort. I've many unrecorded songs.
Is it difficult by doing everything by yourself, to be still objective and critical enough concerning your playing and what to try to achieve musically?
Yes. It was difficult working without a band. When you record with a band, there is much preparation and rehearsal before you go in to the studio. Studio time is costly. The band tries to spend little time in the studio recording the basic parts. So by the time most bands begin recording, they have already played through each song many times. The songwriter benefits enormously from this pre-production. The band is the first audience, and as a writer you create passages with specific musicians in mind. Recordings made by a well prepared band have a tightness and precision we, as listeners, have come to expect from a commercial recording. So even in "Unfolded Like Staircase," though the band chose to record without a click track - metronome - , the music is solid, stable, confident. An alternative approach is to use virtual tracks via MIDI programming or sampled loops. This can suggest a full-sounding, cohesive ensemble that guides the listener and eliminates imperfections. Since I didn't want a mechanical feel, and I wanted to introduce spontaneity through improvisation, I ruled out virtual MIDI tracks and loops. The result is the loose quality throughout "astray." Objectivity wasn't a concern. I could hear when it sounded lousy. What I really missed was having a team to turn to when the doubts and questions of worth crept in.
Where do you see the difference of "Astray" in regards to your previous works and albums?
When I hear the two Discipline studio CDs, I find the small touches of improvisation are the most engaging parts: violin, saxophone, organ, mellotron. These were unexpected surprises amidst the polished core. Early Discipline live shows included plenty of improvisation - we called them jams - but improvisation was slight in either studio release. This is probably, again, a consequence of studio costs, and the need to get the recordings done quickly. With "astray," the performances are very spontaneous, and much more improvisational. Imperfections abound, but so too do numerous little gems. These surprise moments I couldn't have planned, and I would have never found them if I'd rushed the process or adhered too closely to my own arrangement.
Can you tell a little bit more about your participation on the last Tiles albums? Did the band ask you or was it more a participation because of your friendship to them?
Tiles invited me in on both "Presents of Mind" and "Window Dressing" because they wanted to introduce a violin sound. We get along well as musicians and friends, so working together is easy. We have also tried this on stage to some degree of success. I'm a little out of my element with Tiles because they are very professional and tight, and by comparison my performance comes off underdressed. But they don't complain, and I muddle through. I recorded the "Window Dressing" fiddle at Terry Brown's Toronto studio. It was mostly improvised, though I did spend an evening with Chris and Jeff preparing in Michigan before the trip. This was the first time I had worked with a real producer, and Terry was very cool. I imagine I was a frustrating subject to record. I recall many requests to "play what you just played again." Whereupon I'd play something completely different, because I was just jamming. In the end, Terry was able to salvage some loveliness out of my various bits. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
Any additional plans of participations in other projects or other activities?
I played violin on the 2004 Acuity CD "Skyward." That album is full of fresh melody and ideas, if a little disturbing. We are considering releasing the Discipline Live video from 1995 on DVD. We may also re-release the now out-of-print "Chaos out of Order" album (1988). But this is a very imperfect recording. I have begun planning my next solo CD. I do not expect it to be finished any time soon, so I had better not say more for now. It is going to be quite different.
Kristian Selm © Progressive Newsletter 2004