Saturday, September 28, 2013

INTERVIEW: Jeff Suszczynski (the gifted children)


Almost two decades into a career dazzling dozens in the WNY area, Jeff Suszczynski has amassed a body of work that would put most songwriters to shame.  With scores of albums, eps, side-projects, and one-offs in the can (and at least 20 others awaiting release!), his output (and quality) rival that of such legendarily prolific musos Bob Pollard and Prince.  After some time away spent contemplating pulling the plug on the group, the gifted children are back playing shows and despite an uncertain future, Suszczynski seems ready to give it another go. Strap in for a lengthy, emotional, and amazing read and be sure to check out thegiftedchildren.com for updates and www.tinhornplanet.com to purchase their music - DO IT!


The gifted children have been somewhat quiet over the last year or so and the songs on your most recent ep, “No One Will Know We Were Ever Here” feel resigned in a way your previous works haven’t.  It would seem to indicate that the band has reached a crossroads where it may no longer be a regular and ongoing concern.  That said, you have started gigging again.  Where are you at as a “band”? Who constitute “the children” now?

This is a good observation, and you pose some difficult questions that I've been asking myself for a number of years... And I don't have a solid answer yet, to be honest.

I've been dealing with lots of frustration and some resentment over a lack of success for many years.  I think our music is compelling, I think we have a body of work that is compelling, I think we have a history and backstory that is interesting, and I think we have an entertaining live show.  So I'm sometimes baffled and frustrated at our lack of success.  I mean, we can't even seem to get smaller, nearly unknown labels or review sites to pay any attention to us.  And forget about larger indie labels like Merge or Secretly Canadian, or fucking Pitchfork paying any attention to us – I've sent many packages their way, to no avail.  It's enough to make me wonder sometimes whether or not I'm deluded in my confidence in thinking that we are a really good band – am I like one of those American Idol contestants who has no idea he is shitty until he tries out and is shot down by the judges?  I rarely think I am like that, but after 18 years of being pretty much ignored, some self-doubt can definitely creep in.

At the same time, I recognize that a lot of the blame lies with me and the rest of the band – we don't have a great practice ethic for the live shows, we are all terrible self-promoters, we all prefer spending time creating new music to spending time on promotion and marketing, or honing older material to make it more commercial or whatever, etc... So how much can we really blame 'the world' for not paying attention, when we are at least equally at fault for not working our asses off to get the music heard by more people? 

To get back to the EP you mentioned: This growing frustration and resentment, coupled with self-doubt and self-blame, has been building over the past several years to a point at which, last year, it somehow morphed into a weird and dark place that is, I think, really captured well by the 'No One Will Know We Were Ever Here' EP... It's equal parts frustration, sadness, resignation, self-blame, doubt, ambivalence, self-deprecation, depression, etc.  It really feels like an end, to me.  I think that was kind of my intention, at least in a self-deprecatingly humorous manner.  I think I described it on our website as a suicide note from a band left ignored for 17 years.  And in a way it would've been a perfect ending for the band – how fitting and funny, for a band complaining about being ignored for so many years, to make their last gasp an EP released as a super limited lathe cut vinyl record?

But as you note, we've started playing live again.  I think it was early summer when I got together with the two remaining full-time/long-time gifted children members in the Rochester area (Brett Dreyer and Aaron Boucher).  We had a somewhat contentious meeting, as I recall, with all sorts of resentments and old arguments brought up, but we somehow eventually decided to start practicing and playing again.  I can't speak for the other guys, but my biggest thing was to start playing more interesting songs from the catalog.  For 18 years, I feel like we've mostly steered clear of the songs that were more challenging to play live, and this led to setlists that relied heavily on the 2 minute indie rock/pop songs that, while certainly comprising a large part of our canon, really haven't been all that common on our recent albums.  I want to play the darker stuff, the more electronic stuff, the really short stuff, the challenging stuff, all of the music that we've largely ignored in the live set over the years.  That music, to me, is what sets us apart from other bands.  And so, starting this summer, we've practiced weekly and are more than halfway through a complete revamping of our setlist.  I think that, for our show at Mr. Goodbar on 10/4, the setlist will only have 5 songs that we've played more than once live; the rest of the music is new to 'the stage'.  It feels interesting and not rote, which is good.  I have no idea what will come of this new live show, but for now it at least feels worth doing again. 

As for who is in the gifted children – that's always a complicated question... I've always said that if you play a single note on a single gifted children song, then you are a member for life.  And so we have this huge cast of characters who, if they all lived in Western New York, would hopefully still all be involved in the band in some way.  But they are scattered all over the place, because that's the norm for our times, and so basically the gifted children consists of this smaller group right now:

Aaron Boucher - drumset
Brett Dreyer – bass, guitar, keyboard, tenor sax, artwork layout and design, etc.
me – guitar, keyboard, voice, and all the recording/mixing/mastering/artwork stuff

And then some part-time/long-time members, who might sit in on the occasional recording session and/or live show:

Jim Sahr – guitar, bass, voice
Justin Sheehan – voice, guitar, engineering, mixing/mastering
Pam Swarts – guitar, voice, flute, etc.

And then there are about 5-6 other people who will come up every couple years for a recording session and knock out a bunch of drum or bass or guitar tracks...  Included in that group is Bill Trautman, founding member and the most prolific songwriter in the band next to me.  Bill still records bass parts via filesharing, at least a few times a year, and he's come up for some recording marathons since moving to North Carolina in 2009.

There are also a couple local friends who have played on a track or two over the years, and who we might eventually pull more fully into the fold, if this incarnation of the gifted children lasts.

Anyway, I guess that's a bit complicated, eh?  Bottom line – I don't really know where we are as a band, but right now we're playing live as a trio or quartet with cameos by longtime members.  And we have 15-20 unfinished albums and a boxed set that may or may not ever be finished... It's all up in the air, really.

The most direct comparison I can make to you as a songwriter (and it’s admittedly kind of a facile one) is Bob Pollard – the restless creativity, the brevity of most of your songs, the massive catalog – is that a fair comparison?

I'd say that's a fair comparison, sure.  He's definitely one of my favorite songwriters, and probably has the largest influence on my work – perhaps not always in content but definitely in inspiration and spirit.

I remember buying Guided by Voices' 'Bee Thousand' in fall of 1994 based on a review in Spin or something, and I recall putting the CD into my little boombox stereo in my college dorm room and just immediately and completely having my outlook on songwriting, recording and releasing music changed – up until that point, anything I'd recorded on 4-track in my bedroom at home or college was considered a 'demo' that might eventually see the light of day only if re-recorded in a studio and released in some formal manner.  I'd been in a few bands, dating back to high school, that saved up money to record an EP or a 7” in a local studio, then saved up more to have the recording duplicated on cassette or vinyl, and then that was it for releasing music until the next time we saved enough money for the next release.  But after being blown away by the songs and the sound of 'Bee Thousand', where these great pop melodies came out of nowhere, sounding current and timeless simultaneously I realized that my 4-track recordings could be released as they were and not just relegated to the 'demo' pile.  This was incredibly freeing and revelatory, really, and is a moment that is directly responsible for the rather large output from the gifted children. 

Who else inspires your writing? 

I grew up on The Beatles, as my dad is a huge fan, so they are an obvious influence.  Again, not just for songwriting but for their adventurousness in creating pop songs that have more to them than just bass, guitar, drums and voice.   I get really bored with the basic rock setup, and really enjoy The Beatles for their arrangements as much as anything.  Other musical inspirations over the years would have to include acts like Red House Painters, Aphex Twin, His Name Is Alive, Tim Hecker, Tom Waits, shoegazer stuff of the early 90s (like Catherine Wheel, Chapterhouse, etc.), Radiohead, Killing Joke, The Church, The Cure, the list goes on... I try to listen to a ton of new music every month, and compile the best of it into little monthly mixes that I listen to and share with friends, and I'm sure that that stuff seeps into my writing subconsciously as well.

There are also a ton of non-musical things that inspire me – the films of David Lynch, Woody Allen and Miyazaki; the prose of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs; the painting of De Chirico and other surrealists; TV shows like Carnivale and Twin Peaks... there are many artists for whom I feel an affinity, whatever their medium of choice.  Generally, I'm drawn to an aesthetic that feels indifferent towards the 'proper' or 'profitable' way of doing things – those creative individuals who have a dedication to a vision that is more important than anything else.

And what are some of the albums you keep going back to?

I've already mentioned the biggest one, Guided By Voices' 'Bee Thousand', but there are many albums that I go back to regularly.  I just spent about 5 minutes looking at my collection for albums that I've been listening to consistently for at least a few years, and these were the albums that popped out immediately:

aphex twin – richard d. james album; selected ambient works ii
american music club – everclear
william basinski – the disintegration loops
the beatles – revolver; magical mystery tour
big star – third/sister lover
broken social scene – you forgot it in people
burial – s/t; untrue; just about anything he's ever touched
the caretaker – we'll all go riding on a rainbow; stairway to the stars
catherine wheel – ferment; chrome
the church – starfish
ornette coleman – science fiction
crooked fingers – s/t; bring on the snakes
the cure – disintegration
destroyer – destroyer's rubies
dj shadow – endtroducing
bob dylan – freewheelin'; the times they are a-changin'; blonde on blonde
the frogs – it's only right and natural
future sound of london – dead cities; ISDN
godspeed you! black emperor – lift your skinny fists...; slow riot for new zero kanada
grifters – ain't my lookout
tim hecker – haunt me haunt me do it again
idaho – three sheets to the wind
mogwai – happy songs for happy people
the national – alligator
neutral milk hotel – in the aeroplane over the sea
pavement – crooked rain, crooked rain
radiohead – the bends; ok computer; kid a
red house painters – I (rollercoaster); songs for a blue guitar
tom russell – hotwalker
sigur ros - (); agaetis byrjun
slowdive - souvlaki
the smiths – louder than bombs
smog – wild love
the tragically hip – phantom power
viktor vaughn – vaudeville villain
the verve – a storm in heaven
tom waits – bone machine; swordfishtrombones; the black rider
wilco – summerteeth
yo la tengo – I can hear the heart beating as one

and of course, I could have a separate list of frequently revisited Guided By Voices/Robert Pollard albums, like:

Alien Lanes
Tonics and Twisted Chasers
Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department
Kid Marine
the various GBV Suitcases

Anyway, I probably listen to each of those at least once a year, and some of them many times a year, year after year...  I also listen to my old mixes all the time, which is nostalgic fun and kind of a way to jog my memory into remembering what I was up to in the past.

Ok, I went way long on that answer – sorry!

Your “catalog mountain” of material is constantly growing, yet there are things that haven’t yet seen the light of day (I think you have been threatening to release “The Afternoon Needs You” for almost 10 years!) – how do you determine when a project/album is complete and ready to go?

Yeah, this is tough... I think that I wrote about 20 albums between 2001-2005, when we kind of stopped playing live.  I just looked at the 'Future Releases' section on our website, and counted at least 6 albums written and mostly finished during that time period, yet still not released.  I had, and still have, a bad habit of finishing albums or EPs enough for them to be fun to listen to in my car while I'm driving around, but not enough for me to feel like they are releasable.  I love driving around and listening to freshly recorded rough mixes – it's such a great feeling to have this new thing that feels vibrant and new and exciting, even though it's unfinished.  As that wears off, though, it becomes more of a chore to go back and fix all the little details in order for the album to feel complete and releasable to the public. 

It's also tough because I'm constantly trying to improve my recording and production techniques and arrangements, so it's hard to just release something that was almost finished 3, 5 or 10 years ago, without re-recording some vocals or adding some better-sounding guitars, better effects, etc. 

Yet another factor is that I generally have a certain set of people that I want to play on each song, and it's become harder and harder to get many of those people to play on the albums.  A few examples - our cellist (Katherine Jacobs) is in DC but lived in Russian and Greece for years, our main bassist (Bill Trautman) moved to North Carolina a few years ago, we have drummers in California (Nick Hall) and Florida (Tim Grimaldi), in addition to our past and current drummer, Aaron Boucher, who thankfully is still in Rochester... I have a hard time letting go of my desire to have these and other people play on certain types of gifted children songs, so sometimes I have to wait several years to get them to come up to Rochester or Buffalo for a recording session.  It all adds up to a chaotic state of affairs in the mountain of material that we have – some albums are written, recorded and released in days, due to a recording opportunity to finish things the way I want them, while other albums languish for a decade or more... There's no real pattern, either – sometimes the best albums get released quickly, sometimes the lesser stuff gets out more quickly.

Oh, and the real bummer about 'the afternoon needs you' is that I lost the mini-disc containing the multi-track master for the title song years ago, and it had nice cellos and everything all recorded and ready for release.  The loss of that master mini-disc and the idea of trying to figure out what the hell I was playing, finding another cellist for the cello lines, etc. has proven too much to overcome.  But I still want to release it, someday!

Why hold on to so much material for so long?

As I noted above, it's definitely not by choice – if I could get all of this catalog mountain released in a way that I was happy with, I would.  It would be so lightening to have all of that material just out there, allowing me to move forward and not be haunted by all the material from the past.  I've often teetered on the edge of just saying 'Fuck it' and giving up any efforts to release all of the stuff.  You know, maybe release it all when I'm old and bored, just to do it.  But I always come back to some kind of ever-shifting release plan, because I feel like I need to get it all out before I can really move on.  We'll see, though...

Can you describe your songwriting process for me? 

There isn't a single process or inspiration source, really, and my processes and sources are constantly evolving.  In the 1980s, I would generally write music and a melody and later write lyrics to fit that music.  In the 1990s, I would mostly write lyrics start to finish, and base songs around those already completed lyrics.  At some point, maybe near 2000 or so, I just started writing lines of poetry and prose into notebooks as I was falling asleep each night, to capture my thoughts when they flow more freely than during the day, when they can get stuck in boring, linear patterns.  During this period, which probably lasted until about 2008-2009, I might get a feeling that I needed to write one or more songs.  It was a mental feeling somewhat akin to the physical sensation of having to take a shit – I'd just know that I had to write some songs, that something needed to come out.  So I'd go through those notebooks filled with shards of poetry and pluck lines that I liked and somehow assemble or stitch them together to tell the story that I intuitively wanted to tell. This process, which I quite liked, and still use when I can, involved the song forming simultaneously as a whole – a melodic idea could determine which lines I picked from the notebooks, or a line from a notebook might lead to a whole musical idea that would form a song... Often, I'd be able to write 4-5 songs like this in an hour, and be pretty pleased with most of them.  Then, at some point a few years ago, I got out of the habit of writing at night and only occasionally wrote any poetry or random thoughts.  I became interested in carving lyrics out of things that already existed.  For instance, we have an unreleased (surprise!) album that gets all of its lyrics from reconstituted spam emails.  At some point, I collected all sorts of interesting snippets from that spam and picked my favorite lines and tried to create some kind of storyline from them.  It was an exercise in carving meaning from utter meaninglessness, and it was fun. That album (or it may end up being a couple of albums, as I think we wrote and recorded about 30 songs) is called 'clutter the inbox'... There's another EP or album, still in the works as well, in which I take final transmissions from planes and ships that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle or under similarly mysterious circumstances, and set them to music.  And recently released things, like 'No One Will No We Were Ever Here', have lyrics that all fit a certain arc or storyline.  So now I seem to be drawn more to little projects that either have a set of rules (lyrics must be from spam) or a theme (lyrics are telling the story about a band's implosion) – that's what seems to interest me now.

What inspires you to create? 

I think it all boils down to some kind of complex fear of death, not believing in an afterlife, and wanting to create some large body of work that will live beyond me... I don't have much control over the world I live in, and this drives me a bit crazy, but in my self-created world of songs and albums I am able to create and exert my influence on my own little mythology.  I like the fact that there are some recurring characters in the songs, some internal references.  And I love the fact that in this world, each song's recording process has its own story and memories, with its own cast of characters playing the various parts (bass, guitar, drums, knob twiddler, etc). 

In my collage work, used for most of our album art over the past 4 years, I think the creative drive is the same – to create a substantial body work that will have a life beyond mine, in whatever tiny way.

There is of course more to it, but I think that's the best high-level explanation for why I create.

You have released literally hundreds of songs, ranging from standard indie/college rock to more experimental and noise concrete pieces – what avenues haven’t you touched on as a songwriter that you still wish to explore?

I've actually been thinking about this a lot lately, too.  I kind of stopped writing songs this year, not consciously but it just sort of happened.  It's really been tapering off for about 5-6 years; when I look at my dated demos (I am an ardent archivist) I can see the taper clearly start in the late 2000s... When I started analyzing why it happened, one possibility that came up was that perhaps I've covered the territory that I wanted to cover with 'songwriting' and maybe it's time to move on to the next thing.  I started making collages about 4 years ago, and have found that really rewarding, and have found an acceptance in my limited foray into the visual art scene that I've never had in a music 'scene'. 

I've also become really interested in ambient music over the past 10 years, but especially in the last few, to a point at which I'm listening to more ambient music than rock or electronic stuff.  But, aside from the occasional album-ending instrumental or some kind of interlude on an album, I haven't really done much in that genre.  So over the past year, I've actually spent a lot of time culling some of the best piano and keyboard instrumentals that I recorded over the past 20 years, then editing them and running them through giant reverbs and delays.  I've got dozens of pieces like this now, and keep tweaking them and adding more in the hopes of creating a single, really top-level ambient album.  I think the material is getting close, but it's definitely incremental work.  But ambient music is definitely something I think I've delve more fully into in the future.

Another avenue I'd love to explore more is writing for film and television – I think that some of the gifted children music lends itself well to soundtrack material, and I would love to actually write music for an existing film.  I think it would be really a great inspiration to perhaps kickstart the songwriting again.

I've cried wolf on the 'end of songwriting' before, though, and I'm open to the possibility that this could just be a phase that will end and the songs will start pouring out of me once again at some point in the future.  Maybe it's for the best if I stay away from songwriting for a bit, though – if I just concentrate on the unreleased albums that are already written and partially recorded, I could release 2-3 albums/EPs a year for the next decade and still not be finished...

You created your own label, Tinhorn Planet, to release and distribute your work (and some of your closest colleagues and collaborators).  You also trade in small-batch, “boutique” physical releases for your works (lathe cut 7-inches, etc).  How has the experience been?

Releasing our stuff without worrying about finding a label or anything like that was originally done out of necessity, because no one else expressed much interest in releasing it.  Having the label, such as it is, has been fun, but also a ton of work.  We do it all – writing, recording, mixing, mastering, artwork, layouts, printing, cutting, etc. It's quite laborious, and I have a pretty high standard for quality control, so there are many iterations of both the music mixes and the artwork/layouts.  So the experience has been cool, and we've all learned a lot in the process of releasing everything from mini-CDRs to lathe-cut vinyl, but it's also a bit fatiguing...

We had chatted previously about trying to coordinate a traditional label deal several years ago, but you seem to have carved out a niche for yourself.

I am definitely in a place where it's still cool to release things on Tinhorn Planet, but with a full-time non-music job I don't have the extra time or resources to promote those releases properly.  We have a few dozen people around the world, who buy the releases via the website, but that's about it.   I really appreciate the fact that this small but loyal group of people, who have no connection to me other than this music we release, take the time to look for and purchase it.  It's amazing.  At the same time, I would like that audience to be much larger, and so I am definitely thinking about once again sending material to more established labels or promotion or distribution avenues, in order for people who have the time and resources for building audiences to help build one for the gifted children and all the related projects.  

You have been very liberal with free download releases – what are your thoughts on the current model of digital distribution and the push for artists to give away their music and find alternate funding streams (touring, merch, etc) to fund their endeavors?

My primary goal with allowing most of our stuff to be freely downloadable has been to expand our audience.  I think the music is good, I want people to hear it, and since we have never toured, it seemed like offering the music for free via the internet was the best option... I have/had this na├»ve hope that if people download something and like it, they will pay it back in the future – perhaps with buying a record or CD online, or perhaps going to a show, etc.  I know that I try to do this – I download a shit ton of music every year, for free from various sites.  I really appreciate the 'try before you buy' thing with music – as an obsessive listener/consumer of music, I've been burned too many times in reading a single review that makes an album seem like the next great thing, only to spend some hard-earned cash on it and be completely underwhelmed.  So I download everything first for free, keep a list of my favorite albums and try to buy the top 40-50 releases each year, just to try to be ethical about it – reward the creators of music I really like.

The problem though, as I see it, is that too few people see it as a moral obligation to help the artists they like – there is a mentality that everyone is entitled to download albums, TV shows, movies, and other art without any obligation to ever pay for it.  Even paying for it in a non-traditional sense, such as emailing the artist and telling him/her how much you like their work and what it means to you, that doesn't really happen either.  It's really feeling like a one-way street – artists spend money and time and great effort to create something they think is worthwhile, then give it away for free and don't even get a 'thanks for doing this, it's appreciated'... It can be frustrating.  As I said in answer to an earlier question, we do have a small but loyal group of fans who consistently support what we do, and I definitely appreciate that, but it's such a small percentage of the people who download our music that it's a bit depressing.  I can easily tell how many people download or stream our music on Soundcloud, and I upload our stuff to all the torrent sites that I belong to, so I know how many people grab that music.  My rough estimate is that about 1% of the people who grab our stuff for free reach out and either buy something from us or at least send a message of support.  It's hard not to be disheartened by such a low percentage, I think. 
 

So I'm now beginning to think that if you offer stuff up for free it will just be gobbled up and absorbed, with very few people bothering to contact you or support you financially if they like what they hear.  I think there are potentially dire implications for the music industry and many other creative industries, but I'll leave it at that for now... I've gone on long enough!

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