Recently Retronyms was contacted by Keith Madden, founder of the New York band A Million Years. Together with Andrew Samaha, Andrew Vanette, and Nick Werber, A Million Years has been recording and performing thoughtful pop music since 2007. On June 15th they will be releasing their debut full length album Mischief Maker. While this album is Retronyms-free, Madden has already been sketching out ideas for future songs, and some of the tools he has employed in his songwriting process are DopplerPad and FourTrack! His initial email to Retronyms was chockfull of great suggestions resulting from his practical use of the apps. Among other things, we discuss those suggestions in the interview below. Madden was also gracious enough to supply us with a DopplerPad sketch for a new song. Check the end for this insightful clip of a songwriter at work.
Retroblog: Tell us a little about how A Million years evolved from a solo project of yours into a four-piece band. What were the reasons for changing your structure?
Keith: In the time leading up to A Million Years being started I was only playing guitar in bands. I had never sung before, but I was pretty actively writing songs for them. It was difficult writing songs for someone else to sing so when the last of those bands broke up I made the decision that I was just going to try and do it myself. For a while I was learning how to write and though everything came out in this acoustic, Elliott Smith kind of way it was always on my mind that these songs would eventually take on fuller arrangements. It was never my intention for it to be a solo project — I knew I wanted A Million Years to be a real band that all participated in the writing process so it was only a matter of time before I felt confident enough to find people to play with.
R: When you are songwriting, what's your normal process like?
K: Well, one of the greatest sources of frustration (and excitement, admittedly) in my life is that there is no normal process. I often wonder about how much easier it would be if I could pin down some sort of writing routine and stick to it, but the truth is that I don't seem to have much control over the way each idea comes out. For the sake of being concise I'll say what ends up happening more often than not is I'll be walking on the street, or I'll be in the shower, or wherever and I'll start singing ideas into my recorder which get fleshed out out at home when I can sit down with a guitar or piano. I'll then record a demo on my laptop, which will ultimately end up in the inboxes of my band mates. If everyone's feeling inspired we mess around with it at rehearsal and get a song out of it.
R: Tell us about your new album coming out June 15th.
K: Mischief Maker is the very first full length that A Million Years has completed and we're excited about it. It was produced by Shannon Ferguson (of the band Longwave). It took us about a year to complete it (from spring 2009-spring 2010) because we've put a lot of time and energy into the details that make up each sound you're hearing on it. Towards the end of the mixing process we went through this phase where the songs became really precious to us and we had to learn to let go and accept that we had finished them. Definitely tough to admit but worth it for the sense of relief that it brought us. Our goal was make a record like the ones we love — a solid half hour or so of good music that takes you to a specific headspace and that you want to leave on repeat. I think we succeeded at that. For me, this one came out sounding like an autumn record but I'll have to wait till that time of year to let you know if I'm right.
R: How did you discover DopplerPad?
K: I've always been a gear nerd, especially when it comes to sequencers and synths so when I got an iPhone I obsessively read reviews for all the music apps that are available for it. DopplerPad has such a unique and eye catching interface that I felt like I had no choice but to try it out.
R: We understand you have been working on new song sketches with DopplerPad and FourTrack. How did this come about?
K: Living in New York City, I take the subway every day. I was excited about the idea of using my iPhone to make music because it meant that I could spend those long train rides working on ideas. DopplerPad is particularly good for this because of how quickly I am able to work. There are no menus obstructing work flow — I pick a sound and I hit record. And then once I have something good going I am able to drop it into FourTrack to add more ideas, or bring it to my laptop and finish out the song. And it's not like I need to go fishing for sounds to replace what I've done in DopplerPad because I'm already working with high quality stuff.
R: Why do you think DopplerPad lends itself to the work you are doing with it?
K: Despite the band having a pretty traditional rock setup (drums, bass, guitar) I have always preferred to use electronic sounds to create my demos because it forces me to think in a different way. When we try and replicate the sounds with organic instrumentation we might create something a little different than what we might have gotten had we just turned up the guitars and worked it out that way.
R: Your initial contact with us mentioned a few really thoughtful suggestions. Could you talk about some of those and let us know why you think it would help songwriters?
K: If you don't mind I think I'll just include my suggestions as they appeared in my email to you:
- An undo function would be really useful. Particularly because those trains I ride tend to move around a lot and I might fuck up the rhythm of something I'm trying to play. It'd be easier if I didn't have to start my loop over.
- The ability to record a session or song internally (as in, play/manipulate your song live and then have a wav or aiff of what you did).
- The ability to save different sessions — I've been using the program a lot and I can't always get to my computer to take stuff off to make room for more so the ability to save entire sessions would be great!
- The ability to save to or select from a list of scales. A couple of other apps have this function and I think it's great. It's just another thing that could speed up the process of coming up with music.
- This one is kind of weird but i think it could be a lot of fun — what if you could use the 'clear' function in conjunction with the Gate Arp. Instead of programming in notes that the program would play, it would erase what is already there in the beats you program. It would create a sort of "beat slicer" capability.
R: Do you think you will use DopplerPad beyond the "sketching" phase in future recordings?
K: The sounds of the app are pretty hi-fi, and the fact that I can build synths and effects means that yes, I will probably end up using this on future band recordings.
R: Have you been using any other iPhone music apps you like in particular?
K: Aside from DopplerPad, the two others that I find most useful and fun are Everyday Looper (amazing for when I'm just sitting around at home with a guitar) and Thumbjam (I have been using this in conjunction with DopplerPad and entire worlds have opened up me).
R: Give us a little background on the loop you have provided us with so the readers know what's going on.
K: The loops here are a pretty simple idea I had after maybe listening to Gorillaz a lot. I used the gate/arp function to get a rhythmic loop going and then played some melodies. Lastly I used the sampler in conjunction with some effects to try out a short vocal idea I had. In this sketch I've used the sounds built into the app because the idea most likely started when I was on the go and didn't want to spend time working out sounds.
A Million Years - Shifts by retronyms