As a musician, people ask me all the time about my musical influences. It's always hard to answer without having a full blown conversation because music, like any art form, gives you inputs from so many different avenues that it feels impossible to select just one. But after much narrowing, I think I've found my most succinct answers.
Music + Message
The music the most speaks to me is when an emotional connection is created through the mastery of pairing melodies and chords. Music truly is a language that some can speak more fluently than others to convey a message. It becomes even tougher when lyrics are involved. Now the music has to adequately reflect the emotional message portrayed in the words. To me, the band that first taught me this musical paradigm was California's heavy rock band Thrice.
As an angsty teenager Thrice's heavy sound and aggressive riffs lit me up, but in a way a lot of other heavy music didn't. I couldn't put my finger on why until years later when I started digging deep into their lyrics and breaking down their musical structure. That's when I had the realization: I was experiencing emotions they were conveying through music without me fully realizing the song's actual meaning.
Lead singer Dustin Kensrue's lyrics spread a wide range of topics from personal shortcomings and struggles with religion to putting melody to poems and short stories. Over the years their musical voice has evolved as much as their message, with each album sounding different from the last while always pursuing that emotional pairing of lyric and song. Here are a few lyrical examples:
I was so drawn to their music that I began to learn song after song on both drums and bass. Because of this immersion I would have to credit Thrice bassist Ed Breckenridge as one of my biggest influences when it comes to my approach to my instrument. His tone can be fierce or soothing, but it is always perfect for the song. And the way his riffs drive the songs or play off of the melodies and guitar parts keep his sound interesting without being muddy and busy.
In The Pocket
All of this ethereal emotional stuff aside, I don't think music always has to have some deep thought-provoking power to be great. Some music exists to set a mood, make you feel good, or simply for the sake of jamming with other musicians. I'm not saying all of his songs are like this, but the great Stevie Wonder falls into this category for me.
Talk about a legend, Stevie has been cranking out hits since he was eleven years old in 1961. Back in the glory days of Motown, being a studio musician was a highly coveted gig that sadly didn't credit the musicians the way it should've. But that didn't stop the great James Jamerson from laying down some of the sickest bass lines of all time for hundreds of artists, including Mr. Wonder himself.
While I have immense respect Jamerson's contribution, I have to attribute the rounding out of my musical mindset to Stevie's bassist and music director for the past 30+ years, Nate Watts. Magazines, interviews, and articles about Watts still stop me in my tracks – I need to hear whatever this man has to say about music.
Nate's ability to play complex and extremely thoughtful riffs that never detract from the theme of the song has always been perplexing to me. I can't figure out if it's his tone, feel, or musical approach that makes his parts sit so perfectly in the pocket but either way, Watts' riffs are my go to for warming up or practicing to this day.
CALL IN THE LEGEND
There was always a deep connection to music buried inside of me as a kid, as is with most musicians or music enthusiasts. With my own children I'm constantly trying to determine if they have the gift by exposing them to a large spectrum of music to see how they respond. My parents recognized my affinity early on and bought me a full drum kit for Christmas... only to box it up a few weeks later in exchange for a Casio keyboard, headphones, and weekly piano lessons.
I loved having the radio on anytime I could no matter what genre it was. Classic rock, oldies, country, folk, rap, pop, rock, latin – I wanted to hear it all. But for some reason I developed these emotional attachments to soundtracks. Shows and movies, but particularly video game soundtracks.
I grew up in a rough area so my parents gladly bought me games to keep me safe inside as much as possible. The first RPGs I played were Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, needless to say I was completely hooked. As games they are legendary and still hold up today, but I was more so drawn to their music so much that I purchased both soundtracks.
As I grew up and played more and more games, I kept being drawn to specific soundtracks like Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and pretty much every single game in the Final Fantasy series. It wasn't until I started making soundtrack playlists that I realized composer behind all of my favorite video game songs was one man.
Nobuo Uematsu. Referred to in the video game world as "The Legend", Uematsu has written and performed more music that you can imagine. His mastery over 8-bit and 16-bit compositions on 1990's era video games is astounding enough, but his recent endeavor has been to take these songs and adapt them to modern orchestral arrangements which he travels the world and performs with symphony orchestras.
The stories told in these games were so immersive and deeply creative that they demanded a soundtrack of equal quality. Uematsu delivered on that beyond their expectations, so much so that some people accredit his contribution to the games as one of the major factors to their success.
The interesting thing about video game soundtracks is that games take a long time to complete, meaning you'll likely be hearing the same song over and over. The tracks must be engaging and interesting without being annoying, they're allowed to be emotional and moving while also being quirky and different, and they must directly relate to the characters and story that is being told. There's something to that uniqueness that built inside me a need for story and song to align.
So who are my influences? Too many to name. But who were the foundational pieces? A strange combination of heavy rock, funk and soul, and classical video game compositions.