Tuesday, April 21, 2015

For Chicago Musician Colin Morris, Rock 'n Roll Success 'Could Be Anything' -- An Interview Ahead of His Martyrs' Gig, April 23

As I've frequently conveyed on this blog, rock 'n roll has immeasurably enriched my life--and continues to.

My upcoming concert calendar includes cherished artists that stand among the most legendary of all-time (The Who, The Rolling Stones, U2, Robert Plant), air guitar-inducing rockers forever rooted in my youth (Rush, Van Halen, AC/DC) and more personal favorites like Manic Street Preachers, The Replacements, The Waterboys and Paul Weller.

But with all of these acts--and most others that still excite me--dating back to the '60s, '70s or '80s, I often find myself ruing the scarcity of new, young(ish) rock artists who might provide similar satisfaction now and especially 10 years hence.

Still, reports of rock being dead are--seemingly and rather gratifyingly--greatly exaggerated.

And not just because of how much I like Arcade Fire.

While it's possible that the hard rock genre will never again generate a preponderance of zeitgeist-inhabiting artists such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or Nirvana, there should always be a sizable subset of the population plugging guitars into amps and making glorious noise.

The trick may be to find them, but the satisfaction can be all that much greater for finding the proverbial needle in the ever-fragmented digital age haystack.

And to come across enjoyable musicians you not only know about, but actually know, can make it all that more rewarding.

In recent years, I've had the pleasure of discovering that a co-worker in the next cubicle was the bassist for a band whose album I had recently bought and really liked (The Chamber Strings), and in another case was impressed enough by Todd Leiter-Weintraub of Hop on Pop--who I met on the first day of a short-lived temp gig--that I hired him to play a show in my mom's backyard.

In autumn of 2013, at another temporary stint that I repeated the following fall, I came across Colin Morris, who I now know had relocated to Chicago from Ohio--he's originally from Akron--just the previous year.

In spite of fairly frequent informal conversation, and despite his long hair and brightly colored pants, it took me several months to catch on that Colin was a rock star shrouded in the 9-to-5 guise of an account executive.

But especially as I'm always fascinated by people's special talents to which most co-workers likely remain oblivious, I was delighted when--after a conversation about his musical pursuits--Colin shared with me some demos of songs he was working on.

Impressed well beyond polite admiration for a friend's extracurricular efforts, and openly encouraging that his music merited public hearing, I was thrilled on St. Patrick's Day of this year when Colin celebrated his 28th birthday by releasing his first EP, Could Be Anything.

It can now be heard on Spotify (embedded below) and is available for purchase in digital and CD form on Bandcamp, as well as digital downloads via iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.  

Given that he not only wrote the four songs and produced & recorded them himself, but sang and played all the instruments, Colin had to find some musicians to help him debut the EP at a record release show March 17 at the Elbo Room--I attended and found an added potency to the material when played live--and for his gig this Thursday night at Martyrs' in Chicago.

Although he has been playing in bands for years, including recently one called Blindspt, Colin rounded out his current power trio--he plays guitar and sings--with bassist Stephen Mortenson and drummer Gabe Zunino, both of whom he found fairly recently in rather fortuitous fashion. 

Mortenson heads his own band, Shadow of the Titan, for whom Colin plays bass on tandem shows to promote both their new releases.

Wanting to interview Colin for a Seth Saith piece--about his new EP as well as insights on today's musical landscape for a young rock artist--timed to his Martyrs' gig, I sent him a list of questions which he quite graciously answered with considerable thought and candor.

I share the Q&A below verbatim, with only cosmetic editing.

1. You’ve clearly been learning, playing and teaching music for quite some time, but as I understand it, Could Be Anything represents the first release of music you created. What does this mean to you?
It means life got in the way while I let fear slow me down. I’ve been writing songs since high school, and I’ve been hungry to record and perform the whole time. I’ve had great experiences playing in bands, but these songs were in me the whole time. I finally realized over the past two years it was time to quit practicing and get them out there, because you have to start somewhere.

2. How and why did it come together now? How did you record and release it?
I didn’t have the budget to go into a studio, or rather, didn’t know how to use that time effectively. With this being my first release, I wanted to record it myself so I would have time to experiment and make mistakes without some engineer’s meter running. The result is a lot of imperfections, but a much more refined process of writing, arranging, and recording.

3. Why did releasing the EP in physical, CD form matter to you, vs. simply a digital release?
This is an endlessly fascinating time for the record industry. The reality at the time of this interview could be upended six months from now. I want my music to be available on the forms and places my new fans want to listen to it. For a lot of people, that’s Spotify, and that’s fine. For many others, they want to hold it in their hands, and I want to give that to people. Plus, it feels good to be able to touch what I’ve made. I would have made vinyl too if I thought my homegrown, bargain basement production quality merited it. Maybe next time.

4. For me, having grown up while LPs were still the dominant popular musical form, having something tactile accompany the music has always been important. So along with the songs, I very much admire not only that you had CDs pressed, but that you have a pretty cool, original cover design. Talk about the cover art of Could Be Anything, who created it, why you chose it, etc.
One of the lessons I learned in this process is to do as much by yourself as you can manage, and delegate the rest. I don’t even like to think about how this album would have looked if I’d designed it myself. Instead, I went to one of my favorite graphic designers in the world, who happens to be my cousin, Alex Eben Meyer (www.eben.com). He and I half joked about him making album artwork for a band I was in five years ago, but it took until now for me to call in the favor. I gave him almost no input, and couldn’t be more thrilled with his work.

5. Discuss your songs; they’re all unique but I’ve noted something of a “man vs. universe” theme, espousing some frustration, but also championing self-empowerment. This is probably most apparent on “Cubicle,” but also seems to factor into the others, especially “You Can’t Change.”
When you’re learning to write songs, it’s natural to be drawn to your strongest emotions, which is why so much pop music is romantic. That’s fine, and there are plenty of those in my repertoire, but part of the growth I’m proud to show on this EP is that my focus has shifted elsewhere: I’m in my late 20s, my life is good, but like most people, I’m unfulfilled, insecure, and unsatisfied with the world around me.

Those are strong, common feelings too, and it felt important to work through those for myself as much as for the listener. I didn’t set out to write a collection of songs with a single, cohesive message—this four-song EP started out as an eight-song LP that I edited down. But I do think the songs share the basic theme of accepting who you are, recognizing your shortcomings and those in your environment, and doing something extraordinary with the life you have.

6. I think all 4 songs are strong, but also liked “Tears and Laughter,” which you shared with me in demo form, and the new “When You Run,” with which you closed the set of your record release show. Is there a thought to develop enough songs to evolve Could Be Anything into a full album?
Those songs are both now part of my live set, actually. I owe a lot to my amazing band for being able to flesh them out and get them show-ready. And there’s certainly more where that came from—as I mentioned earlier, I left almost half of the material on the editing room floor while making this EP. So fans can expect to see these songs and more like them on the next release, hopefully early next year.

7. You wrote, arranged, produced, sang and recorded all the songs yourself, playing guitars, piano, bass and drums. How did you become proficient on so many instruments?
I started classical piano lessons when I was seven, and hated it. I was a lousy student. But once I caught the rock bug as a pre-teen, I wanted to play everything. My parents both play guitar, and my mom played professionally. It was a hard life for her, but they both encouraged me in music, especially after seeing me try sports.

But I also love drumming and taught myself on my dad’s old kit in the basement, and I love playing bass. Alt-metal hit its heyday right around the time I started high school, and all that over-engineering and compression made for some really delicious low end. But being a multi-instrumentalist has had its consequences. One is focus: I’m not a virtuoso on any instrument because I’m constantly switching as the need or whim arises. Another problem is overcoming the urge to micromanage every note in a song because I know just how I like each instrument to sound and contribute to the total experience of the recording or performance. But I’ve mellowed out in the past couple years, and I’ve found I actually really enjoy playing in other people’s bands, following their lead, and escaping the pressure of being up front.

8. I know you’ve played in several bands, but currently seem to be promoting Could Be Anything in tandem with Stephen Mortensen and his band, Shadow of a Titan. How did that come about, how’s it working out, and also talk about your drummer, Gabe Zunino, who you also met somewhat uniquely.
Stephen and Gabe are two gifts who fell into my life to varying degrees of serendipity. Stephen and I met in the musicians classified section of Craiglist. Stephen posted an ad seeking members for a touring band to support the release of his debut record, Translating the Veil, that he mostly made on his own, the way I did. His music is very compatible with mine, as is his personality, so we made this deal to play in each other’s bands, and sometimes at the same shows. The cross promotion has been good, but mostly it’s just been so fun and rewarding to spend that much time with such a dedicated and disciplined musician. He works really hard, he’s humble, and he’s got a good head on his shoulders. I really look up to him.

How I met Gabe is another matter entirely, and the more we work together, the more I like the guy and the story. I’d been on Craigslist for years, writing and replying to ads to find bandmates with little to show for it (my friendship with Stephen notwithstanding). It’s a lot like dating, and it can be just as much an emotional roller coaster.

Then one night, I went out dancing with some friends, got kind of drunk, and spotted Gabe across the crowded room when he came in. I still don’t know what drew my attention to him, because he wasn’t doing anything like air drumming to the music, the way I usually do because I can’t dance, or giving off any other signals. But I took one look at him and somehow just knew he was a rock drummer. I think I kind of freaked him out because I walked over and called him on it pretty aggressively. Just pointed in his face and shouted over the music: “DRUMS?”

He gave me that side-to-side look, like, “Who is this guy, and is he dangerous?” And then he asked how I knew. I should mention this meeting was extra fortuitous because I was already booked to open for Shadow of the Titan on a couple shows, and my drummer had just backed out to go play SXSW with another band. So I was getting a little nervous. But that turned out to be a huge blessing, and working with Gabe is a total dream.

9. In seeing you live, I was impressed by how good—and at times, ferocious—you were. But since I had heard most of the songs already, besides the stellar, closing “When You Run,” what surprised me was that you opened with a solo, seemingly non-ironic cover of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” I like the original and I really liked what you did with it. Talk about why you choose to play it; I imagine perhaps as an up-and-coming artist there’s something about resisting the slings & arrows that you may identify with?
People can say what they want, but Taylor Swift is awesome. That was partly my point in playing the song. I’m a big, unapologetic—and yes, unironic—fan of hers. She writes her own music, which is extremely catchy and well constructed, and often performs with a guitar in her hands. What more do you want? The double standard for female singer songwriters is still pretty gnarly, and unfortunately her success hasn’t made her an exception. But I digress.

But you also nailed it—slings and arrows are everywhere for an artist, and the worst part is that the ones most likely to hold you back come from within. I had to overcome a lot of fear to stop making excuses and finally release this little record, and it doesn’t stop there. Every show, every interview, every new experience is a little scary. But fear is usually part of doing anything worthwhile.

Have you tried sending your version to Taylor? Or recording and releasing it?
Maybe I’ll get it on YouTube one day, along with the 500 other covers.
{Note: Exclusively for SethSaith readers, here's that clip.}

10. Let’s do Rock Journalism 101 and talk about your influences. I know you’re a big Foo Fighters fan, and can see that in some of the music. Who else has been important to you?
I listen to a lot of electronic music and piano jazz trios. Tycho and Marian McPartland are two of my favorites. There’s plenty of rock I enjoy, and it obviously influences my writing and playing—the best artists steal, right?—but I like to branch out so that when I write, I know it’s me coming out and not just a facsimile of the riffs and fills and hooks I’ve been hearing all day.

I do really look up to Ben Kenny, who is a multi-instrumentalist and records all the parts on his records and performs as a trio, the way I do. He had a punk band in the 90s called Supergrub, but is better known as the former guitarist in The Roots and the bassist in Incubus for the last decade or so. My favorite bands are locals: Bailiff, Empires, and lately, Mason’s Case.

11. You’ve been playing several gigs lately, but have a big one coming up at Martyrs' in Chicago on April 23. What can people expect?
Two entirely new songs I’ve never performed live before, excellent sound, and sweaty hugs from me. Oh, and it’s a two-fer: I open the show at 9:00, then I play with Shadow of the Titan after The Runaway Five.

12. I recognize how passionate you are about making and playing music, and certainly admire not only the dedication, but the quality of your efforts. So I would never suggest that you limit your ambitions and aspirations, but also know the way music is made, released, heard and sold has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, seemingly not to the benefit of unknown artists in a rock ‘n roll vein. What do you like to think is possible? What does the rock ‘n roll dream presently look like; at least for you?
It’s an exciting time in the music business, to put it mildly. Plenty of people out there have written about this in more informed and enlightening ways than I can, so I’ll just say this: Yes, it’s scary that fewer and fewer people are paying for music. But it’s liberating to know that success is more the artist’s responsibility more than ever. There are more tools available online than ever before to help artists connect with audiences, and they’re getting simpler to use. Labels have less to offer, the playing field is more level—albeit more crowded—and enterprising artists have a better shot at building their own scenes, markets, and careers.

Are the odds any better at fame and fortune? No, I don’t think so. But I believe it’s possible to carve out a living as a musician and artist, especially if you can give people something to connect with, and I’m ready to try.

Thank you for your time and insights. For what it’s worth, to date you’ve provided living proof that rock isn’t dead, you just have to look for it in smaller places, on more personal levels. I certainly hope your career will continue to develop, and perhaps even boom, but I also hope just doing what you love is the most important measurement of success.  
Thank you!

Below is a clip I shot of Colin Morris and his bandmates playing "Could Be Anything," March 17, 2015 at Elbo Room in Chicago:

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