Spiderhound: Behind the creation of the “Dopamine” EP

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To say that the making of my new “Dopamine” EP has been a transformational journey of learning and self discovery is an understatement. My life has changed in monumental ways over the past several years and the EP is my sound journal of the experience.  The running time is only 14 minutes, but countless hours of focus, dedication, perseverance, patience and sacrifice have gone into creating it. Before I get into my “Dopamine” journey, I want to share a little bit about where it all really began.

In the beginning…

At age 14, I began guitar lessons and my musical tastes over the years went like this (Top 40, Classical Music, Classic Rock, Heavy Metal, Alternative Rock, Electronic Music, Jazz, Electronic Music). When I was 18 in University, I finally mastered the skill of playing guitar and singing simultaneously and wrote my first song, “Shell” which reflected the grunge sound of the moment.  In college I played in quite a few cover bands and actually made quite a bit of cash playing in bars.  Soon I became tired of performing other people’s tunes so I began to focus on writing my own music under the alias “Mushroom Spiderhound.” It was quite mental and I remember one of the reviews of my live performance described it as “acutely distressing.”  Enough said.

I joined a Jazz ensemble in college and at the peak of my guitar playing skills I was able to sight read in an ensemble. My guitar professor told me to learn theory and then forget it.  His point was to not get too restricted by theory, because it will suck all of the soul and beauty out of the music and make it too mathematical.  Being a lazy punk, I loved this advice and was happy to forget everything I learned since my incredibly accomplished teacher told me to do so.  Let’s say I may have taken this to an extreme.

After college I produced my very first EP as “Mushroom Spiderhound” on a 4 track tape recorder. I then got involved in collaborating with other bands and projects and landed comfortably in the band YellowDog where I spent about 10 years or so collaborating on hundreds of original rock songs with my bandmates.  Our first project was a rock musical, “Project: Ground Control” inspired by David Bowie’s Major Tom character which was a huge endeavor with quite the cast of characters that had a run of performances at the Brooklyn Lyceum theater in the year 2002.  After this, YellowDog continued writing and performing original music mostly in the New York, New Jersey area.  The birth of my daughter closed that chapter in my life and the role of being a new parent dominated my focus for the several years that followed.

Frustrated with ProTools and it’s lack of intuitive creative flow, I began to research the artists that I admired to try to find out what DAW were they using?  I remember seeing Four Tet doing a 10 minute song creation challenge on YouTube and the DAW he was using was Ableton.  It seemed magical to me and I had to learn more about it.  I purchased Ableton Suite and a Push and my Ableton learning journey began.  The learning curve was quite steep and I don’t learn very well from manuals, so I scoured YouTube for tutorials and everywhere I looked, ill.gates was popping up in my feed with these amazing tutorials and the “Ill Methodology.”

That Moment When

I was commuting home one evening in the summer of 2015 when an incredible life changing opportunity happened.  Ill Gates posted a video about his involvement in Patreon and said that he is opening up 10 slots for monthly 1 on 1’s with students.  When I saw this an incredible feeling of “This is it!” resonated throughout my entire body.  This is what I had been asking the universe for and it had finally responded. I tried to sign up on the train, but I couldn’t do it from my mobile…the second I got home I signed up from my laptop and it was the best decision I ever made.

One on One’s with Dylan

My monthly one on one’s with Dylan predated his Class of 808 and Producer Dojo concepts. I learned so much about the psychology of music, self motivation, daily journaling, meditation, Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, Mr. Bill, creative approaches, sound design, arrangement, mixing, mastering, branding, marketing just to name a few topics.  Each month I faced new and more complex challenges and Dylan coached me through everything during our 1 on 1’s. After some time, Dylan invited me to collaborate with him and a few of the Class of 808 members when he was spending time at a recording studio in New Jersey.   We worked on the song “Is You Is” and I learned so much by getting to be in the same room with Dylan while he was working.  His work ethic is unparalleled and he seems to have a limitless energy supply as he worked full force for countless hours without stopping. His creative energy is infectious.

The Dopamine Journey

In January of 2016 the first Dopamine EP song I began work on was “Get It,” which had the working title “Setting It.” I created the foundation of the song in Maschine Studio and then imported all of the Wav files into Ableton. The first version of the song sounds nothing like the final song that is on the EP.  The first version was a funky hip hop tune that had the vibe of “So Watcha Want” by the Beastie Boys, but it evolved over time (over 50 versions).  The original funky version was the track that I sent to the vocalist, Ashley (from StudioPros) to create topline. My guidance to Ashley was to sing about going out to a club on Saturday night for the night of her life with her best friends. The performance she returned blew me away and the hook was “Get It.”  This is when I changed the name of the track from “Setting It” to “Get It.” Through trial and error the song took shape over time as I learned more and more advanced production techniques.  At times I just had to stop working on it and take a break to focus on other new songs and then return to it later with fresh ears.

I began work on “Detach” in October, 2016. At the time I was taking a Warp Academy Creative Mastery online course that was teaching the importance of Detachment in the creative process.  The fascinating paradox is that you reach your goals by detaching from the final expected outcome and instead enjoy the process of creating by being in the moment and not focusing on the future. The first version of “Detach” came out pretty effortlessly and I was able to give this track to Evan (from StudioPros) so that he could create topline. My guidance to Evan was to write a song within the theme of detachment and impermanence and he returned a stellar performance that revealed his level of frustration with shallow surface level relationships.  He sings about wanting a companion who will not play the typical shallow dating games and surprise him by taking him away to that deeper more meaningful place. Evan’s emotional vocal performance gives me chills and actually takes me away to that place when I listen to it.

“Skivvies” was one of the 15 tracks that I created for the 2017 FAWM (February Album Writing Month).  The song came out quickly in one session and only needed minor tweaks and mixing fixes.  I did a last minute fix to the arrangement to make it more friendly for DJ’s who expect changes in 8 bar increments.  There was a section that transitioned after 7 bars so I extended it by 1 bar.  Compared to the previous two songs, this song was effortless in comparison and a ton of fun to create.

“Skip Class” was a project that I did for the monthly Producer Dojo Cypher 001.  The creation of it was pretty effortless and came out in one session on a Saturday afternoon. I think this is interesting, because it clearly shows my progression as a producer.  No longer was I wrestling with a track over many months, instead musical ideas are now coming out quickly and the process is more intuitive. It also helps to have a better understanding of each part of Dylan’s 3 phase music production process. I also have a better grasp now about which tools to reach for when I encounter a problem.

The song creation process is incredibly time consuming as songs evolve and take shape over time. You do need to give your ears a break and come back to it so that you can have a fresh perspective on things. Ear fatigue can work against you and lead to bad decisions if you don’t take breaks and monitor at a low volume. In the beginning, I think it’s great to get the initial idea and arrangement down so that there is a draft song structure with a beginning, middle and end. From there the song will evolve as you start getting into the nitty gritty details and mixing.

The making of “Dopamine” has been an incredible experience and if I didn’t embrace detachment from the final outcome I would not have finished the EP.  I am so happy to release it to the world and see which song(s) will resonate with people. I look forward to reaching my goal of creating at least 52 new songs in 2018. I’m also excited to work on my next release which will definitely sound very different as I continue to evolve my approach to music production and experiment with new sounds.