James Kirsch aka
JK: Besides giving me a foundation on music in general, it gave me an outlet for emotions which ran a little high when I was growing up. Taking lessons forced me to spend time at the piano, and inevitably I would do some improvisation during the time I was supposed to be practicing.
AV: I’m sure all your time was not spent listening to and practicing the classics as you grew up. What was it that jogged your creativity in terms of music that you might catch on the radio or music that you might have actually bought?
JK: Early on, some peers turned me on to Ray Lynch and Susan Ciani, which was life changing. Only in the past few years did I realize that in many ways my music falls into the new age genre. I can draw direct lines back to those artists. I like to think of my music as new age music 2.0. I fell in love with Orbital and the Orb when I was 19, and those bands provided the framework for the type of psychedelic yet melodic music that I wanted to make.
AV: Was your stint at Oberlin College in Ohio spent strictly focused on music or were you taking a degree in other subjects?
JK: I actually attended the college, not the conservatory, but like many Oberlin students chose Oberlin because of the conservatory. I played in a rock band during my senior year in high school, and it was the highlight of my life to date. Playing with other musicians was something I wanted to do in college. I knew that there would be a lot of solid musicians at Oberlin.
AV: Tell me about stumbling upon the electronic music program (TIMARA) at Oberlin and what it was that this meant for you and the future of your music.
JK: While Oberlin is a very liberal and progressive school, the conservatory was a whole different world. It was very serious and competitive, and not the most pleasant place to be. The TIMARA program was relegated to the basement, and it felt like you were a outcast when you hung out there. It was great. The students were a fantastic and creative bunch of people. I tinkered a little bit with MIDI synths in high school, but TIMARA really taught me the foundations of electronic music and how a studio works.
AV: So did you finish up at Oberlin with this new program?
JK: I took two years worth of TIMARA classes, but I actually majored in computer science. I had no intention of having a career in music, and at the time didn't think electronic music was going to be such a focus in my life. You needed a lot of money to replicate the kind of tools we had access to, so I figured those tools would not be available to me after college. I thought that playing in bands would be my primary musical outlet after college. I played with some of my classmates in a band for a year or two after Oberlin which was great fun. We all had strong personalities though, and in end there was too much friction and we broke up. I was super bummed.
AV: Why was it so important and so inspiring to you when you came across the music software called Reason from Propellerheads?
JK: Reason came out right around when my band broke up. When I heard about it, I knew I had to have it. I think I had a serial number in #200s. I was able to pick it up right away with everything that I learned at Oberlin, and in many ways was advantageous to the TIMARA studio. You never had to configure any equipment. All your settings for the mixer, the synths, the audio routings were saved in a single file. You could program automation as part of your song. It was revolutionary, and as soon I knew my way around the software, I was totally hooked.
AV: Were you already working on the album that would just be called General Fuzz when you found this software or was the software the reason for this album?
JK: That first album was created during the first two years that I was working with Reason. I had no mentors to guide me nor community of musicians to bounce ideas off of. I didn't know anyone else using Reason at that point. It was a lot fun when ideas where flowing, and really painful when they weren't. Finishing the songs and the album was a real struggle.
AV: When you tell people that you are a musician and then they ask you what kind of music do you play how do you answer them?
JK: I usually say that I write mellow instrumental music that is good to listen to in the background when you are doing other things. I've tagged my music as "lush melodic instrumental electronica", but that's really not very helpful in describing it.
AV: It seems like, as it should be, that advances in software and technology move the art form of electronic music forward. What was it that a piece of software called Live by Ableton allowed you to do that you couldn’t do before and how did this change your music?
JK: Absolutely. Computer music is advancing at astonishing rate.
Ableton Live allowed me to work with external audio, so I could finally start recording some of my musically talented friends and incorporate their voice in my music. It also opened up the possibilities of working with VST plugins, which are limitless in their potential. The VST plugins that you can buy for $50-200 dollars are more powerful than any synthesizer you could buy in 2001. I'm often in awe of the tools at my disposal. Plugins like Melodyne and Ozone RX are game changers for working with recorded audio.
AV: What kind of learning curve is there when you add a new piece of software like this to your repertoire until you are able to take full advantage of its capabilities?
JK: For me the learning curve isn't too steep since I'm pretty well versed in the technology. Learning Ableton Live is a slightly different paradigm then other DAWs. It took me a year or so till I felt really comfortable in it. I'm not a master at programming the synthesizers or anything, but I know enough to be able to tweak sounds to get them the way I want them.
AV: Are you always seeking out the latest versions of these programs or do you hold pat at some point simply because you need to learn what you have before moving on to the next thing?
JK: I've written a little about this is my "lessons" posts. Ableton does a nice job of evolving their product, and I tend to upgrade since their new features are usually pretty compelling. I try not to collect software though. I'd rather know my tools well then have too many tools in my tool box. Everyone once it a while a plugin comes out that's simply too exciting not to buy. Spending a couple hundred bucks on a piece of software motivates you to learn how to use it.
One of the things I loved about Reason is that it was a fixed set of components which forced you to learn everything in depth.
AV: When you decided to explore the collaborative writing process more how did you go about it? Compared to composing music on your own how does the process change when there are more musicians in the mix both performing and composing?
JK: I work with other musicians in two pretty distinct ways. Either I write out very specific parts I want the musician to play, or I create a bed of sound with some chord structures and ask the musician to improvise over it. I find I'm doing a little bit more the former these days. If we are doing improvisation, I'll record a whole bunch of stuff and then carefully assemble montages from the recordings.
AV: So you have a new album that just came out not too long ago. Tell me about your 6th album which you called “miles tones” and how it reflects the changes in your music that have evolved over the years.
JK: My fifth album, "soulful filling", was the first time I consciously tried to create a vibe and sustain it through out the whole album. I really liked how that album came out, so I decided that I would try to do that again with my next album. I've been working on a lot of different type of music, but after I had about 6 mellow tracks coming together I decided to try and make another mellow album.
I will warn you that my next album will have a lot more bump then this one, since that's where all the not so mellow tracks are going to
AV: Is there an overall theme to the album that you wove through the songs as you composed them?
JK: Well, I now have 1.5 year old son. So in the past three years my wife got pregnant, we moved, had a child, and I became a grown up. It's been a really intense time, and of course that's going to impact my music since it is a major emotional outlet.
AV: Was “miles tones” a one man show or was it a collaborative effort?
JK: There are a number of amazingly talented musicians on this album. The collaborating musicians certainly brought the tracks to life. I composed, produced, mixed and mastered the album though.
AV: How different is it to use your computer to do all the mastering and the mixing compared to using a traditional studio? Do you feel that there is a comparable quality between the two experiences?
JK: I have no idea, since I've never really mixed and mastered in a studio before. I know you are never supposed to self master your music, but I always discover so many mistakes when I master my music. Even if I eventually outsource the mastering process, I was always to at least a cursory pass to find mistakes.
AV: Are the you the final judge of whether your music is ready for release or do you seek out other opinions?
JK: As I get older, I'm starting to ask for feedback from trusted sources a little bit more. Mostly I set my bar at "good enough", and that's been helpful in actually finishing tracks and albums. Another thing I've been doing more of is putting songs away for a couple months and revisiting them with fresh ears.
AV: Do you take General Fuzz’s music out on the road and if so how much different is it to play a show of your music compared to a show that features several band members and instruments?
JK: I rarely play shows anymore. I love live music, and see a lot of it in bay area. Since my tracks are so composed, its somewhat difficult to open up the tracks in a live setting, which is what my goal would be. On the other hand, there is nothing like the feeling a playing your music to an audience that is resonating with it.
I'm thinking about gearing up to play a couple shows in the future. We'll see.
AV: Do you have a wish list for what you’d like to see the music software do in the near future that it doesn’t do right now?
JK: Not really. I'm certainly not using what I have to its fullest potential. The tools at my disposal are unbelievable. The only realm which I hope will improve is the ability to collaborate with other people asynchronously. It is possible to do that now, but the process is somewhat manual and clunky.
AV: Anything else you’d like to share with your fans or with the readers of Ambient Visions about your music in general or your latest release?
JK: In case you didn't know, all my music is free to download off my website: http://www.generalfuzz.net . I've previously written up a number of lessons I've learned in the past decade of making music. Those lessons are available here: http://generalfuzz.net/blog/?cat=26&order=ASC
I want to thank you for the interview and for listening to my music!
AV: Thanks for making the music James. I appreciate the efforts you make to keep the music flowing. Glad to have you here on Ambient Visions. We'll be keeping an eye on what you have coming up next.