Hello Sean! Where do you hail from? How is life there at the moment? Is there much underground or extreme music culture going in your neck of the woods?
Hello, Ivan! While I do play the Scottish great highland bagpipes, I actually hail from Pennsylvania in the United States. Though I have had some Scottish instructors, including the late Jimmy McIntosh MBE and the late Alastair Gilles. I currently live in Pittsburgh, where there is an underground/extreme music culture. But between COVID and babies, I haven’t had any involvement lately.
I’ve been putting the bagpipes into extreme/noise situations around here for more than 20 years, though. My friend Jay Korber (of Nine Dog Dick and others) pushed me way back then to start pushing my bagpipe playing. I’ve experimented and evolved it over the years and only relatively recently (considering I’ve been piping since 1987) started to figure something out. Adding electronic bagpipes into the mix has allowed me to push that even further, broadening the tonal palette I can work from. And even more recently, I’ve discovered other…kindred spirits. David Watson (of NYC, originally New Zealand), Dr. Matthew Welch (Bay Area), and the late Martyn Bennett have made some great sounds and noise with Scottish Bagpipes. Huge leaps, really, from where Rufus Harley started with “jazz bagpipes” in the ’60s and ’70s.
What is it like to record works on the bagpipes? I’m curious about the technical challenges of capturing the unique sounds of this instrument!
Honestly, the biggest challenge I’ve found is not as much recording as mixing. It’s a distinct instrument, but some of the overtones can come through as harsh, especially in a more lush or electronic setting. A lot of people find the highland bagpipes to be shrill to begin with, so I want to make sure I’m getting pleasing sounds while not decimating the sonic palette of the pipes. It also depends on what I’m going for in a track. If there’s a specific sound I’m going for – just like with any instrument – I’ll play around with which microphone, microphone settings and placement, which room/space I record in, and so on.
It also helps that I’m not trying to get traditional/pure bagpipe sounds all the time. That presents its own challenges and options: Do I close mic each drone and chanter? Do I just use one room mic? Do I do a combo?
Do you usually record with electric bagpipes, or mic-up the more traditional kind?
I’ve been using both kinds for the past couple of years. This, too, depends on the track, how it evolved, and what I want out of it. Some of the tracks started without any notion of bagpipes, and when I decided to add pipes, I’d find it was in a key not conducive to the traditional (or even less traditional) pitch of the highland bagpipes. So for those tracks, I definitely used the electronic bagpipes. There is a great application (no longer on iOS, though) that had great bagpipe sound libraries and enabled me to get a good pipe sound while changing the key (or even the instrument, e.g., smallpipes). But some tracks started out as melodies or riffs that I’d come up with while playing the big/real pipes, so I’d record them.
How about bagpipe midi controllers? I didn’t know such a thing existed until a little while ago after doing some research, and the concept seems amazing!
Yes, this is a lot of fun. I didn’t do too much with that on this release, just the MIDI-to-bagpipe application that I mentioned earlier. But I’m definitely playing around with using the electronic bagpipes as a controller with my Korg MS-20 mini and other digital synth applications.
Do you work on the rhythmic or synth elements of your pieces first, and then lay the bagpipes over the top? Or the other way around?
Both! For example, the last two tracks on A Misnomered Pipe’s Dream started out with the beat. “Three O’Matic” began with my daughter’s in-utero heartbeat. I had the beginning of the main bagpipe riff also, and re-recorded it to that rhythm and built the track up from there. “Omar’s Dream” uses one of our cat’s snoring as its foundation. But then on “Old Hag at the Apothecary,” I was going for a specific thing: the effect that happens when you’re walking the grounds of a bagpipe competition venue and you hear dozens or hundreds of bagpipes – individual and group/bands – all practicing, rehearsing, and tuning at once. It’s dizzying and glorious, and I wanted to emulate that so I started with the bagpipes and added synths from there.
I was about to ask about influences, and already you’ve mentioned the heart beats of loved ones and snoring felines! Where else do you find inspiration or creative pre-cursors to your musical ideas? Would you describe A Misnomered Pipe’s Dream as a concept album of sorts? Given the play (forgive the pun) on Shakespearean comedy for the latest release’s title, I was curious if the tracks somehow draw upon some scenes of 16th century entertainment? At this point it seems timely to ask about the project’s name too, Six O’Matic, and where that came from?
I try to let inspiration find me anywhere, honestly. Sometimes it’s a rhythm or cadence that captures my ear, then my imagination. Next thing I know, it’s an hour later and I’ve been running it and some of its variations in my head so much I need to capture it. Sometimes I’ll be playing music by myself or with others (or recordings) and come upon a phrase or progression that I really like. I’ll mine that, see what else it feels like it needs. Maybe I’ll add way too much on purpose to see how I might trim it back, or sometimes it comes out pretty fully formed. Very rarely a song will come mostly formed in a dream.
There’s not an intentional concept for AMPD, beyond it being my first “bagpipe” album. I’ve been a piper since 1987, and I’ve been exploring non-traditional playing in one way or another for about 25 years. I don’t think I had enough life experiences and musical exposure then to confidently record and release anything with bagpipes other than sonic “cameos” here and there until my late 30s.
I do love a good (or bad) pun, though. The title came from me wanting to play with the phrase, “pipe dream.” I thought the twist on the play’s name worked particularly well for that, because the bagpipes on this album are pretty far from traditional. Almost as if the bagpipes, deep down, really wanted to be synthesizers and felt they were “misnomored” as bagpipes. So there’s probably an underlying and unconscious theme of being true to yourself.
As for Six O’Matic, I’d been wanting to release music but I A) wasn’t in a group, really, and B) felt uncomfortable and slightly egomaniacal releasing under my given name (again). When I’d started my last job, I found a pin button with the woman holding the scales and the words, “I’m For Six-O-Matic” on it. It was at a university, so it was probably a very old button for someone’s student body/law review leadership campaign. Having the same initials as I do and allowing for the Irish “O’Xxxxx” led me to consider it for a stage/project name. After reasonably exhausting Google for the origins/owner and finding nothing, I staked my claim.
With AMPD in the bag (sorry I really love puns too), what is next in your release schedule, or creative activities for the rest of 2023? Are you already finding new pockets of inspiration and laying down new material? Or are you one of those artists who likes to take a good well-earned break between releases? This leads me to another question. What do you like to do for fun, outside of playing and recording music?
Great pun, I love it 🙂
I’m not sure what’s next. I have a few things in progress. I have more ambient/electronic bagpipe tracks, so maybe another EP this year. I also have more traditional electronic tracks (traditional for me, at least), so maybe a more well-rounded album like my previous full-lengths, A Plague of Wealth and The Mayor of Yesterday. I also have a bunch of general ambient tracks (not necessarily bagpipe-related) that could be a follow-up to my full-length ambient piece, Aging. I’m also working on some tracks that will go toward a “compilation” album of Monkey Corner Records artists – namely my projects and my friends’.
So there’s no break, well-earned or not! I’m constantly working on stuff, trying out new stuff, and keeping myself busy. This is what I do for fun, to relax, and to distract myself when I need it. And at the moment, between a day job and a young family, this is what I can make time for.