AV talks with Tom Eaton


Tom Eaton

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Ambient Visions is proud to be speaking to Tom Eaton this month and we thought you might like to know a little bit about him before we get started. Tom has spent more than 30 years playing piano and synths which explains why when you listen to his latest release Indesterren you will get chills at how good the music sounds. Couple that with the fact that he has been running his own commercial studio for 23 years and you start to get the picture as to why his music sounds like it does. All of that is very impressive but let me add one more thing to dazzle you with. About six years ago Tom started collaborating with Will Ackerman (yes that Will Ackerman) at Will's Imaginary Road Studios and to date has had the opportunity to work on more than 50 albums including multiple ZMR award winners and Laura Sullivan's Grammy Award winning album from 2014. Now you get the picture. This year after a 25 year hiatus of recording his own solo work Tom has released not one but two albums over the course of 2016. Abendromen came out earlier this year and Indesterren came out in October. Both albums have been played on Echoes, Hearts of Space, Stars End and have charted on the ZMR Charts. Not too shabby at all. Well now that you have been primed with all of this information I'm sure you are chomping at the bit to get started on the interview. Shall we begin?

AV:  How does your work as an engineer/co-producer help you when it comes to composing and fine tuning your own music?

TE:  I started working with synthesizers around 1987 while in high school and it was that experience that started me down the road of thinking about how sounds go together.  When you create sounds from scratch it becomes apparent relatively quickly that the arrangement of timbres has everything to do with how clearly each part is heard.  After dropping out of college and working for a few years for a company that installed commercial sound systems, I opened my own commercial studio in 1993. By that point I was a pretty competent synth programmer with a reasonable sense of how to shape sounds to make them work together, and I took that sense of arranging sonic elements of a track into producing records for the acoustic world of the Boston singer/songwriter folk scene.


 Over the past 23 years I've worked on hundreds of albums in all kinds of genres and I continue to do whatever I can to balance the elements of a song in a way that seems to get the message of the music across.  Of course having a commercial studio at my disposal helped tremendously when I finally decided to turn my attention to my own music… and all that time between the speakers makes me pretty comfortable with the choices I made as I worked on my own material.

AV:  When you are composing your music and just getting a composition started are you thinking about how you might handle the sound further down the line with your producer/engineer hat on? Or are you focused strictly on composition?

TE:  Most of the time my composition process starts at the piano.  A chord progression or melody will emerge while I am improvising and I'll make a short video of the idea so I can come back to it when I sit down to record.  Once I start the actual recording I am thinking about all the elements: the producer is critiquing the performance, the engineer is making sure the sounds that I'm choosing are working in the context of the song, the arranger is making sure that the ideas aren't getting in each other's way.  On both Abendromen and Indesterren I have started the recording process by making a guitar loop in the key of the piece… an ambient landscape into which I will play the piano lines.  It's a trick I play on myself to keep me from playing too many notes on the piano.  When the piano is alone it can easily eat up all the space, but if I have the landscape painted in the background already I can allow the piano to breathe more without the sense of space falling away. 

AV:  You are used to doing all of those things for other musicians because that’s what you do for a living. When other artists come in to do their music do you have to walk them through all of the steps that you take for granted in handling your own music?

TE:  I think the various hats I wear come in and out of play when working with other people.  i have spent a long time dissecting my favorite albums to try to understand why they work for me, and so there's an underlying concept in my head about what makes a record good, what helps it connect (with me).  Will's sense of "what makes music connect with listeners" has been historically proven, and so I definitely defer to him when working at Imaginary Road Studios.  In my own world I really just try to help each artist sound their best...and in that case "best" is defined through a conversation about what the expectations of the recording are.  I think in both my own work and at Imaginary Road Studios we do have to do some explaining about the process, breaking the path into manageable concepts (record, overdub, mix, master, manufacture, promote), but much of the guidance of the art making is organic and simply in response to what the musician brings into the room.  Will and I have each been doing the record making thing long enough that the thousands of little subjective choices we make in the studio each day add up to records that reflect our aesthetic senses!

AV:  As you engineer/co-produce other artists are you making mental notes to yourself as to what worked well for them that you might try later in your own music?

TE:  Nope.  My musical voice comes far more from listening to music than being involved in the making of it over the years.  Brilliant records from David Sylvian, Tim Story, the Blue Nile, Harold Budd, the Cocteau Twins and Patrick O'Hearn taught me about space in music, about contrasts and about how I respond to melancholy and mystery.  Of course while I was listening to those records I was also absorbing and adoring Windham Hill and the sonic world that Will (Ackerman) was creating with acoustic instruments.  Those two forces, the ambient electronic pop and the elegant acoustic, pretty much define my aesthetic as musician, engineer and producer. 

AV:  What is it that makes a good co-producer/engineer and how is that different than the mindset that you have as a musician composing new material?

TE:  The producer's job is always to get the best art from the artist… and of course that job varies wildly from musician to musician.  Will is a fabulous cheerleader, he's so good at getting genuinely excited as music is being made in front of us.  His real emotional involvement with every note is incredible.  When we are working on a record together these days we are almost always in sync with our responses to music, though I think he is more in emotional response mode and I am more in brain/critical thinking mode.  We are a good team… it's a good balance.  As far as engineering… I see that job as basically getting the technology out of the way as much as possible.  The less the performer has to think about the nuts and bolts the better as far as I'm concerned.  When I am composing… especially in the early sitting at the piano stage I want that same freedom.  Which is why I don't attempt to record my improv playing other than in a purely documentary way when I happen upon an idea I like.  I try to unload my critical thinking mind and just have a conversation with the piano…see where it wants to go on that particular day.

AV:  Does a good co-producer/engineer have to be fluent in the genres that they are working with or can they be good behind the boards regardless of the type of music that they are called on to work with?

TE:  I think it helps tremendously to have a familiarity with the genre you're working with.  I think a baseline of good engineering skills can help engineers genre hop, but there is no doubt in my mind that knowing the target audience you're working for helps you make the right choices all the way along.

AV:  What are the advantages of stepping into a studio to record your album as opposed to working the project at home on a computer using sound software?

TE:  Both are completely valid ways to make music.  You can make a record on an iPad.  The advantage to coming into a studio is working with people who have devoted their lives to the art… who want to help you be the best artist you can be.  Of course the technical side of things is there, too.  Having monitors you can trust, having great rooms, great instruments, great microphones.  I am a speaker evangelist…I can't emphasize enough how important monitoring (which includes the room the speakers are in) is.  Every single sonic choice in the process of making music in a studio is made based on what your monitors are telling you…knowing what you want to hear, what your monitors are telling you and how to use the tools at your disposal to navigate from one to the other is the key.

AV:  What kind of advice are you likely to give to a client at Imaginary Road Studios during the course of making an album? Or do most artists come in knowing exactly what they want from their music and you are just there to facilitate the process?

TE:  I love working in Will's world.  If people come to Imaginary Road Studios to have Will produce an album it's pretty likely they are open to his (and my to whatever degree) production input. Probably the most common comments we give are "slow down/breathe more" "use more dynamic variation" and "it sounds like you're thinking there."  

LtoR Will Ackerman, Tony Levin,
Louis Colaiannia and Tom Eaton. Why is Tom the only one with shoes?

Will obviously has a long career as a musician and an understanding of the genre pretty much unlike anyone else.  Just today he made a specific suggestion to an artist that I had never heard him make before (along the lines of "be less predictable") and it made a genuine improvement in the song.

AV:  Tell me about your own music and what you enjoy most about composing and producing the music that you write?

TE:  I like starting the pieces and getting lost in them as I layer and build little worlds in each song.  I love playing bass… adore that part of the process.  The electric guitar parts are always fun to play and to fit in.  Later it becomes more about massaging… about repeated listening and fine tuning until I can get completely lost in the the music and nothing draws me away from the journey.  Hopefully each song has its own identity inside the overall vibe of the album…and I definitely like making albums where the songs make sense as part of an overall package, a journey.

AV:  Since you are listed as the go to guy on your last album Indesterren do you ever seek anyone else's advice if you have doubts about how a composition is or isn't working out the way you thought it should?

Tom Eaton and Fiona Joy

TE:  Absolutely.  Jeff Pearce has helped me tremendously with feedback while I've been in process.  In fact it was Jeff who suggested that the lead instrument on "Waltz for the Seven Sisters" should be accordion.  I've played accordion for years, but using it as a lead voice wouldn't have occurred to me!  Another piano playing friend of mine, Heidi Osgood-Metcalf, gives me amazingly helpful critiques… and Kori Carothers, too. Kori responds to music with visuals which is a fascinating thing to experience.  She'll tell me what she sees when she hears a piece of music.

AV:  On Indesterren you also worked with Jeff Oster on one of the tracks. When other musicians come in to play on your album how does the creative process work between the two of you and the compositions that you are working on?

TE:  I played all the instruments on Abendromen, and Indesterren has Jeff on one song and my two boys each appear on one song.  My older son plays tambourine in "Vervagen" and my younger plays crash cymbal on "Midnight Clouds and the Great Bear."  I knew I wanted those sounds in the songs, but I let the boys choose the sounds (I have eight or nine tambourines and a bunch of cymbals) and choose placements in the songs.  I wanted them to have some of their own choices represented on the record.  It makes me smile when I hear them in there! Jeff got very little guidance from me… I gave him a point to enter and suggested a starting note for one part of the melody, otherwise he's such a great player that I didn't have to do much!  His tone and phrasing are so singular… it was a blast to have him play on the song.  He and I have done a lot of work together by now and we always have a good time.

AV:  Was ambient music always your focus or was there a time that you had eyes for other genres of music as a musician? When did ambient become your mode of expression musically and what is it about the genre that appeals to you as a musician?

TE:  Electronic music and the piano always were the centers for me.  With Abendromen I found a way to tie those two sides of my music making together in a way that felt very honestly me, very identifiably my voice.  I have always been a melody guy.  I love melody and the ambient music I hold closest to my heart is the music that has strong melody surrounded by a world of questioning.  Tim Story is a master at that.  Jon Mark's "Standing Stones of Callanish," Dan Hartman's "New Green Clear Blue," and "The Pearl" by Budd and Eno are albums that I never tire of.  Albums that create unique and compelling worlds while almost standing still.  I like sad music, music that doesn't give you too many answers.

AV:  Considering your own music and the music that you have had a hand in co-producing and engineering in the studio, how has ambient/new age music evolved over the last 10 years or so?

TE:  I actually have no idea how to answer this question!  Probably the biggest change is with the music industry as a whole… and in that sense ambient is like any other genre.  There's a lot of it out there, it's impossible to hear it all, and finding the stuff that deeply connects takes more effort than when a trusted record label was vetting the work.  The early days of Windham Hill, Private Music and Hearts of Space were such an amazing period of growth in the genre, and Will, Peter Baumann and Stephen Hill, respectively, were the tastemakers.  These days Stephen's HOS radio show, and John Diliberto's Echoes among many other programs, are still uncovering new music, but being a physical media guy I wish I could walk down to my record shop and buy cds of the music I hear on their programs.  Distribution is gone in the internet age and it takes more time and effort to actually listen to albums.  Singles are easy, but I usually want to immerse myself in a long form work.

AV:  Where would you like to see your own music go in the next 10 years?

TE:  After 25 years of not putting out any solo music at all I am happy to be right where I am at the moment…I am sure I will change and my life will change in ways that change what I need to express or exorcise in my music.  I'm not trying to steer it in any direction and I work too much making albums for other people to spend too much time pondering my own composing career!

AV:  How did your music progress or grow from the release of Abendromen to your latest album Indesterren?

TE:  On Indesterren I allowed myself to embrace my electronics roots a little more.  Abendromen was more about the piano, more driven by that familiar sound.  Indesterren goes into deeper textures and at times leaves the piano to support the song rather than lead it.  I leaned on rhythmic elements more on the new album as well, four of the songs have some rhythmic time keeping going on compared to two on Abendromen.  I think I am still feeling out the boundaries of my own compositional world.  The basic template from Abendromen, the piano surrounded by textures from electric guitars and synths and underscored by electric bass, is a very comfortable zone for me right now… it feels like a nice place to write from. The next album will probably be a little less rhythmic based on the piano sketches that have been showing up lately.

AV:  I tried to look up the word but with no luck. What does the title Indesterren mean?

TE:  Indesterren is made of the three Dutch words for "into the stars" shoved together into one word.  I expect that all my albums will have titles that radio people will find unpronounceable.  There's a terra incognita thing going on as well…I hope the titles offer some sense of the unknown/uncharted places the music will go.  

AV:  Do you get a feeling of satisfaction helping others achieve their musical visions behind the boards?

TE:  Definitely!  Helping someone bring their art into the world is a huge honor.  I have carried a little mantra around with me for years now and it's the guiding thinking behind what I've chosen to do with my life: Create works of lasting beauty.  I hope in some small way the work I do for others and on my own adds value and beauty to the world.  This is what I have to contribute to the world my kids will inherit.

AV:  You have made a wonderful start with your first two albums and with such a great kickoff I can only imagine that you will also be credited with creating those works of lasting beauty that will be around for many years to come. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions and we will be looking forward to hearing your next album when it makes its debut.