Interview with Lisa and Ryan about Music, Life, and the State of Music Today

Interview By: Jeremy Balius

RYAN'S ANSWERS:

1. Are the lines "She was mute from the start / full of words, quiet like a girl / never able to let go" autobiographical? What inspired this?

Lisa's definitely the best person to answer this since she handles the lyrical side of things. I was in a prog-rock band years ago and that sorta forfeits your rights to ever write lyrics again. Guilty by association, I guess. ;)

But I can tell you from my perspective that those lines are biographical. I've known Lisa for years and when we're not actually working on music, we're talking about music and one thing I've learned from her is just how off-balance things are in the music industry for girls. It's the little things, too. Like if we go into a music store to buy something, the salespeople won't talk to her. Even if she's asking a question, they'll often respond by looking at and talking to me. And it goes beyond the music store, to interviews where people ask her about about "just being the singer" for Techno Squirrels when she handles 50% of the production just like I do.

The autobiographical nature of the lyrics come from Lisa growing up in a household where she was practically jumping on the sofa shouting "I want to play guitar!" and her parents took that enthusiasm and responded by buying her brother a guitar. It created some grudges that she's worked a lot get over but I think that's where the "never able to let go" part comes from. Of course, I could be totally wrong. Like I said, go to Lisa as the authority on this one.

2. There's a fairly obvious wide array of influences and styles you're fusing into your sound. In what sense are you building upon existent styles? In what sense are you forging your own?

I'd like to think that we're forging our own but it'd be ludicrous to ignore that we're building upon existent styles. In reality, we're standing on the shoulders of those who have stood on the shoulders of others before them. It's all a progression. Some of our influences are crystal clear because in the process of learning to make electronic music, we literally studied and mimicked others. Electronic music isn't like rock 'n roll or punk or jazz, even. Whereas all those styles have well established rules surrounding 12 bar blues, the generally accepted tones people get from their guitars, or the "standards" that people learn before they begin creating their own music... electronic music is all about trying "something" and "messing around" - eventually ending up with a sound worthy of pursuing. That's not to say that there aren't rules and styles in electronic music - one only needs to look at Euro-Techno to find 10 ideas perpetually rearranged for the last 15 years - but more daring electronic music is much more of an open canvas when you sit down to approach a song. You literally load a simple waveform on a synthesizer and start experimenting. You route the signal through a completely new path of devices. You add effects and layer them in new ways every time. You can't just plug your guitar into your marshal amp, turn it up to 11, and have your sound like you would in a typical rock band.

But how do you learn to do that - to let go and make weird sounds in a search for cool sounds? You do it by listening to the cool sounds that have come before you and emulating it until you find your own sound. In essence, we're still finding our own sound. I think our sound is continuing to develop. As we do each new track I feel we move further ahead towards forging our own sound, but we also find new influences that can't help but reflect in our new music. It's an ongoing process but that's what I love about it, too.

3. How did you hook up with Rave Police?

We hooked up with Rave Police when we said to each other, "What should we call our label?" ;)

Rave Police Records was created to handle the release of our debut single and future releases. The record industry is in flux right now more than most consumers can possibly imagine. That is, in large part, because most consumers aren't "consuming" anymore. They're downloading. They're sharing. And they're pirating. It's presenting enormous challenges for the industry, particularly for indie bands, to figure out. In many ways, indie bands like Techno Squirrels are in a unique position to adapt quickly and embrace the new technologies for distribution and music marketing. When CD sales aren't the main focus of the buying public anymore and when record stores start getting reduced to a couple aisles in Best Buy or the counter-items at Starbucks, physical product becomes less important. And as physical products become less important, record companies begin to become very inflated marketing companies and not much more. Originally, record companies were the companies that quite literally made the records. They had their own studios and they got artists in to cut their music directly to vinyl. Later, they were the bankrollers who paid for the artists to craft their album in external recording studios and paid the manufacturing costs to press the vinyl, tapes, and CDs. But what's their role in the new world where electronic music is created on a laptop in your bedroom and not in a big recording studio - and where music is not pressed to any format but rather downloaded to an iPod? The answer is that their role is to market the artist and they're still doing it very well. But for an indie act, we felt that at this stage we could market ourselves with the same, if not more, passion than a label could. It's easy for a band to jump on a label because being on a label is what every band has ever wanted. But there's a lot of bands who get lost and forgotten because they sign to a label that has other priorities and suddenly that great marketing machine is busy marketing someone else. So we set up Rave Police Records and we're doing fairly well running our own ship. That's not to say, however, that we'd forego signing with a label in the future. But during this transitionary period in the music industry, we're kind of waiting to see what a label even looks like in a couple years.

4. Lisa, what sort of an effect has LA had on your music production? What sorts of things in LA have changed you / affected you lyrically and musically?

This question was directed at Lisa, but I'll answer since I'm also in LA (more on that in question 6). The big changes in LA for me have been in how and where I write. I don't know why but I'm writing in mobile situations much more in LA than I ever have. Maybe it's just the laptop becoming more a part of my routine but for the upcoming album I've started songs while on Jury Duty, at the auto-shop, and in the doctor's waiting room. I can't say that LA has specifically anything to do with it, but then again LA's a car town so the fact that I even own a car to put in the shop is LA's fault! (living in England afforded me the luxury of public transportation)

5. Do you feel like it's a step backwards when other journalists have described you as being Orbit-era Madonna and pop-Bjork?

Mostly I take it as a huge compliment. If they described us as "Lucky Star" era Madonna mixed with Bjork's less-accessible artistic experimentations, I'd be more bummed. We've also been described as Tiesto-esque, Paul Oakenfold meets Frou Frou, and a bunch of other people. To a degree, people describe music they like based on other stuff they like. And like I described above, we take influence from people as we continue to develop so I'd expect this comparison. People still like those styles and if we have that element in our sound, that's fine for me. Electronic music has a shelf-life much shorter than other pop styles, with perhaps the exception of disco or new wave. That same culture of experimenting on a blank canvas of synths and effects I described above leads to constant evolution in sound. In some ways, it's an effort to keep up with it. It's like you're always searching for the C-Wave. There's the A-Wave, the style and sounds that are on their way out of fashion... think of all those Cher vocoder clones we've heard these last years. Then there's the B-Wave, the styles and sound everyone's doing now which is that sort of Benny Benassi catchy bass hook which drives a song. And then there's the C-Wave, that's the sound which is yet to hit big. In fact, Benassi is a perfect example because their first album was released in 2002 and it went from forward-thinking C-Wave to a full-blown B-Wave success right now, years later. So that's always the goal, to come up with the C- Wave that you can release and have journalists write articles comparing new artists to "mid-decade era Techno Squirrels." ;) But until that time, I'm happy to get any comparisons to sounds as great at William Orbit or Bjork.

6. Is Ryan still in Liverpool? Your bio didn't say. If he is, how do you consolidate the distance?

This is a quick answer. I'm in LA too. So consolidating the work is easy but the explosion of the internet would make it so that distance wouldn't really matter anyway. But fortunately we don't have to worry about that.

7. It's obviously a production partnership and not just producer- singer. How would a song get composed between the two of you? You making something and then Lisa mangles or changes it or vice versa? Or everything together at the same time? Are there defined roles between the two of you?

First of all, thanks for saying it's obvious that the partnership is shared. You'd be surprised how many people give me undue credit for doing everything but performing the vocals. The way we work is very collaborative. Both of us start various ideas and they sort of collect and percolate on dictaphone cassette tapes with vocal ideas sung over them. Eventually they get put into the computer and reviewed. On any given day, one of us could be inspired to take an idea and develop it. Songs tend to go from 10% developed to 66% developed extremely quickly by either Lisa or myself working solo. Then we share the ideas and collaborate from there. Files are passed back and forth from our computers and we sit down together to hammer out the remaining 33% of the production. That usually takes much longer than the first 66% because by this point, as a song-writer or producer, you become so completely invested with this new idea that you don't want to screw it up. It becomes a process of fighting past the perfectionism, which can be paralyzing if taken to its extreme, and still achieving the vision you had for the song back at the 10% stage.

As far as defined roles, there aren't really any set in stone but to a degree, Lisa handles the vocal hooks and lyrics and I handle some of the chordal structures. Lisa also is really good at throwing away the rule-book and create sound designs. A good example comes from our song, "Om Mani", which is an indian flavored track. I had written a line on the sitar melody and recorded it but it didn't quite work. Then I tried reversing it and it still didn't work. Lisa came and heard it and said, give me a couple minutes. I left her to it and after 15 minutes she had chopped it up and layered it to form this totally perfect part that really makes the last half of the song, if you ask me. I was ready to abandon the sitar and now I can't imagine the song without it. And she's really good at that. Where I was thinking "Okay this is an indian track, I'll play an indian instrument." She just attacked with more focus on the textures she could create from it and less on the melody I was trying to write. But her building blocks came from my sitar part. That's the collaboration for us. Passing ideas back and forth until we're both happy with them.

8. What sort of reaction or feedback have you gotten off of your first release?

We've gotten some pretty good feedback. Being our own record company means we have to work harder for legitimate press feedback because we don't have the benefit of a large rolodex of contacts or the back- handed favors that record companies often trade for good press. But in spite of that, we've gotten some great reviews in Regen Magazine and other online publications. We also showed up in the February issue of Future Music magazine. Obviously our biggest feedback comes from online communities like mySpace.com. The internet has made fan feedback so much easier than it ever was before but I'm still amazed every time someone sends us an email or posts a comment to our myspace profile telling us they like our music. We make it a point to keep in contact with everyone who writes us. They appreciate the personal contact, too, because mySpace is devolving into these spam robots that bands can pay to mass mail and mass friend request people to death.

We've also been getting a great response from the podcasting world. The iPod revolution is starting to branch out into a democratization in broadcasting where people can make their own shows... and other people listen! It's no longer kids begging for the 3am shift at the college radio station. We've been embraced by quite a few podcasts and we've embraced them as well because I think it's the future of radio.

9. What has been your stance on myspace? How have you embraced that approach? How has it helped?

I see I jumped ahead of you by answering this question a little, but I'll expand. We have a love/less love relationship with myspace. Mostly, we love it because it allows us to get our music out to people who would've otherwise never heard of us. I mean, our music has gotten over 200,000 plays on myspace already. That's mind-blowing for me. And to the extent that people can get in contact with us, it's just great. What it has added, though, is a daily task of managing the myspace account. I totally understand why bands hire people to do that but once you do hire a myspace assistant, you've defeated the point of having a myspace site for personal contact between artist and fan. However, keeping that contact personal means hours everyday responding to emails and comments. I have to give Lisa her due credit here because I don't have nearly the stamina she does to sit in front of myspace and wait for page loads and re-logins, and all the other quirks that are so common on myspace.

But it has certainly helped us. We have fans all around the country and world. They can put our music on their page and we even created a banner ad which people put up on their page. That's the weird one to me. I mean, it's a blatant ad for our music and fans voluntarily take that code and paste it into their profile to display it. Not only is it flattering to us, it's the best form of advertising because their displaying it becomes a form a word-of-mouth advertising to their network of friends. MySpace is great. I just hope it continues because it's definitely B-Wave right now so we're looking out there for the C-Wave site that might be coming up soon. Sort of like the way MySpace came up and took away Friendster's user base.

10. What does the future hold for the Techno Squirrels? Releases, live shows, etc?

We've just finished the new album now and we're working hard to get it out there. We've got live shows planned in the near future to try out some new material in front of a crowd. In general though, the future for Techno Squirrels is that we'll continue to develop who we are as musicians and producers, we'll continue to develop the label and look towards collaboration with some other great artists we know and love, and we'll keep supporting the people who support us through their encouragement and enthusiasm for our music.

LISA'S ANSWERS:

1. Are the lines "She was mute from the start / full of words, quiet like a girl / never able to let go" autobiographical? What inspired this?

Yes, it's autobiographical, for me, in my family I was not encouraged to sing or play or make noise although I knew I wanted to be a musician since I was 3 years old. When I did play the piano and sing I was ridiculed and seen as a disturbance. My dad was of the opinion that since I, a 6 year old piano beginner, was not as talented as Charlie Parker, music would be a complete waste of my time. On top of that, there were a lot of strange emotional undercurrent going on in my family home, many of which I still don't fully understand, but the end result was that I deliberately muted myself to the point of not even speaking for weeks at a time. I stopped doing music or even trying to learn to play an instrument. The only place I could take part of music was through singing in the church choir. As a protective instinct, my method of muting myself worked really well for a while. But when I was about 14 years old I had reached my breaking point and I got myself an electric guitar and went onto playing in several bands and going to music schools. This lyric is also a comment upon my own identification with femininity, as being silent. As a female person I have had the lived experience of being interrupted very often, and not listened to. When I write music it's the opposite, I get to say exactly what I want, as loudly as I want, no one interrupts (although they may turn off their stereos...lol). Either way, it's a strong breaking free from the old chains of silence. Deep stuff. lol.

"Never able to let go" is a reminder to myself of how I battled suicidal depression that started when I was 7 years old and ended only a few years ago. Something in me was not able to let go of life. I think my love for music played an important role in my choosing life. The pleasure of listening to music is healing and inticing. Music also made me remember that I still wanted to express myself, in this life. I'm so happy and amazed that I'm still alive! :) My hope is, however, that the words I write can be interpreted to mean something completely different to a lot of different people. My narrow experience is just one subjective small one.

2. There's a fairly obvious wide array of influences and styles you're fusing into your sound. In what sense are you building upon existent styles? In what sense are you forging your own?

I always felt that the uniqueness of music is in the voices of people. Good or bad, every voice is completely unique. That's how I think we have our own squirrely "sound". If it wasn't for my voice I think we'd sound like so much other music and that's OK, but I always look for the personal in music, to identify myself with. I'm not a singer per se, I'm more of a composer/programmer but no other person has exactly my voice, good or bad.

When I program drums I often listen to other people's work just because I'm still learning and because it's a great way to get inspired. I do the same with basslines. I'll take a song that I like and I'll try to write something in that same style. At the same time, it's important to me that what I write is my own expression, my own creativity being allowed to come into material form. I often can't make up my mind as to exactly what style I want to write in so I borrow from all sorts of stuff that I like. I think today's culture is such a melting pot of people borrowing ideas, getting inspired across the board and then inside of you as an individual it will all be mixed around and when it comes out of you it's your own.

3. How did you hook up with Rave Police?

We simply started our own label. Today I think a lot more is required of the artist. You need to understand the industry, not only play live gigs. It's good to have a couple of releases public and show that you can get people's attention. Otherwise it's hard for a label to dare to invest in your music, especially in todays uncertain market when everyone is feeling the effects of illegal downloads. Even though it's a lot of work to run your own label, it's quite exciting and you learn loads. We have also been very inspired by the punk movement and their DIY attitude. Plus, today with internet communities like MySpace etc, it's actually not completely impossible for an Indie label/band to reach a quite substantial audience even on a minimal budget. The name Rave Police is my small revenge upon the Swedish part of the police department called "the rave commission". They successfully stopped the Swedish flourishing dance music scene by mass arrests and intimidation of club owners and strange laws, (you were not allowed to dance in public or the club/cafe would be closed, I kid you not). So when I returned back from the UK after a year, there was no dance "scene" anymore in Sweden. Still today there's no real scene. The police won. We lost in a big way.

4. Lisa, what sort of an effect has LA had on your music production? What sorts of things in LA have changed you/affected you lyrically and musically?

The sense of isolation and of being anonymous has been hard for me. In Sweden and the UK, everyday life is much more social. It's easier to just walk down to the local cafe and run into some friends in Europe. LA is so strange in that way because it's hard to get places and it's so huge it tends to become very anonymous. There is a lack of community spirit to say the least. I also think the experience of being stuck in traffic has been an extreme one for me. All causing me to look at myself and how I can handle difficult situations. On the other hand my love affair with the Verdugo Mountains has effected me just as deeply. LA's proximity to the vast, beautiful dessert is also a huge plus for me. The spiritual experiences I've felt in the American dessert landscape has deeply effected me in a positive way and it has also inspired me. So, it's just like everything else in life, it has both sides to it. I do think this has effected my lyric-writing a lot. The fact that there is sunshine every day here is a total luxury to a Swede like myself. It has effected me a lot too I think.

5. Do you feel like it's a step backwards when other journalists have described you as being Orbit-era Madonna and pop-Bjork?

No, not at all. I'm just so happy that we're making music and to be compared to anyone who is musically creative is amazing. I love Bjork and the Orbit style Madonna so it's a compliment to me. Those are some of the giants in electronic music so it could never be anything but a compliment to me. I realize that they are old, by now, dated artists, but hey, I can only do what I can do. Plus, their music is still good. I think Homogenic for example is a crazy beautiful album, and just because the pop world is spinning so fast, a track that was released a month ago is now old news, it doesn't mean I have to buy into that. Plus, judging from the reactions we get on MySpace it doesn't seem to matter to a lot of other people either. Most of our listeners are 14-20 years old and they don't seem to mind at all.

6. Is Ryan still in Liverpool? Your bio did't say. If he is, how do you consolidate the distance?

Nope, here in LA.

7. It's obviously a production partnership and not just producer- singer. How would a song get composed between the two of you? You making something and then Ryan mangles or changes it or vice versa? Or everything together at the same time? Are there defined roles between the two of you?

We define it still as we go along. We joke that it's the person who "has the session" who controls it at that time. So, if I've started a Reason file , it'll be on my computer and I'll be in control of how the basslines are written, what sounds are introduced and what style of drum programming I'm going for. When it's on Ryan's computer he's in the driver's seat. In the end of production, tracks will often end up on his computer cause he's got the better version of Logic and the mastering software etc. But when the song really is taking shape, we'll take turns and the one not working will sit next to the other and complain and bug the person who's trying to work. lol. But, sometimes we'll do a more traditional cooperation where Ryan will give me an idea he's worked on in Reason and I'll try to write a melody and lyrics to it. I am a bit territorial about the lyric writing and most often I'll show Ryan my text and he'll basically help me refine it, adding a line or so. But it's important to me that it becomes my expression. The vocal melodies and the lyrics are so closely connected, they seem to come as a pair. It would be hard for Ryan to give me a melody for me to write lyrics too, I think. It's just not natural to me. But I'm trying to become more flexible on that point.

But, I've learned SO much from Ryan. He's an amazing musician, programmer, and producer. I continue to be impressed with his vast knowledge and creativity. He is also the master of everything tech. Despite me holding a Masters Degree in Audio Production (Westminster University, London), I still feel that I don't know enough. I'm guessing it's my identification with femininity playing tricks on me. lol. But compared to Ryan, not a lot of people know a lot. He's been a computer tech-nerd his whole life, so he's got a head start on most people anyway. Every time my computer/home studio crashes I wonder how I'd cope without Ryan's skills and knowledge.

8. What sort of reaction or feedback have you gotten off of your first release?

Really positive, except two negatiove comments. Those are of course the once that spring to mind during crucial moments of production when self-doubt has a nasty habit to occur. lol. But the over 2000 positive comments on MySpace for example, have been wonderful and I often print them out to encourge myself. We've received only good reviews in various indie magazines. It's been wonderful. Major radio, however, is still a closed door for us, as for most indies, and getting at least some major airplay seems to be necessary in order to break out of the underground. The underground is wonderful in many ways, but it certainly has it's problems. At least if you want to pay your rent on time. lol.

9. What has been your stance on myspace? How have you embraced that approach? How has it helped?

We love MySpace. It has been the place that has welcomed us with open arms. Given us a sense that we actually do exist. Providing daily encouragement to us and our creative selves. It has also, practically speaking, hooked us up with so may podcasts and web radiostations etc. I spend hours a day on MySpace responding to emails and looking for new friends. It's hard though, that it sometimes takes away from the time we need to write new music, but it's all worth it. I only have positive feelings about MySpace and I'll be eternally gratyeful to them for what they've given us. However, it has recently become the haven for all spammers in the universe it seems. I definitely think that is going to be the downfall of MySpace.

Another problem is that the audience on MySpace is highly likely to download your MP3 for free, but extremely unlikely to buy a CD or an MP3s. They are already so used to music being free. So, although it's really cool to have the exposure of MySpace, there are definite problems we all face when we're trying to survive in the music business, especially for us Indie artists, since it's still far from free to create and promote music. This is not a problem specific to MySpace though, but to the Internet in general. Of course the music industry itself has to take a lot of responsibility for creating this situation. They have been overcharging for too many years. People have had enough of the majors and seeing the excess of "cribs" on MTV. They are now flocking to MySpace for new and free music. It's a new world we're facing and no one knows how things will shape up.

10. What does the future hold for the Techno Squirrels? Releases, live shows, etc?

We just finished our debut album. Now we're just waiting for some remixes to be done and then we can send it off to mastering and printing. It's quite exciting. We'll have Sean McGhee our long time friend form Liverpool. He's the latest Guy Sigsworth protige who has worked with Frou Frou and is currently producing Temposharks' debut album. Also doing a remix is local Carmen Rizzo (Paul Oakenfold/Tiesto producer/remixer). We also are cooperating with loads of other talented remixers to be a part of the two upcoming single releases. After that I'm guessing we'll be hitting the road. So, there's a lot going on right now and a lot of new music is just around the corner.

"...good for those quiet nights at home with a loved one..."

- collectedsounds.com

Techno Squirrels is a "Carbon Neutral" band, meaning carbon dioxide offsets have been purchased to counteract the emissions generated in manufacturing and promoting their releases. For information on how to become "Carbon Neutral" yourself, visit www.carbonneutral.com