03. MUSIC INSPIRATION
Last time, I made alternate lyrics. This time, I just feel like blathering.
Math: Probably the only discipline I felt I grasped naturally in school/college, aside from creative writing I guess. I like that mathematics have formulas, and if you understand the concepts, you can solve any problems. There are very few gray areas.
In life, I find my interactions with people have an endless number of gray shaded areas. Instructions from employers are intentionally gray. As my luck usually has it, when I’m at work, the weather is beautiful. When I have a day off, it’s cloudy and gray. Most of my undergarments are black or some shade of gray (I never saw the point of “fun” undies, even if they were Ren & Stimpy themed – I’m too utilitarian I suppose). Relationships with family members are gray. My financial stability is gray. My future in general often feels gray.
Not math though. Math is pretty straightforward. At least the core disciplines like Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry. I’ve grown an affinity towards spreadsheets, budgets, and tracking income and expenses. I like balancing things and understanding the journey of money through a system. I enjoy tracking merchandise sales for the bands I’m in. Slicing and dicing the numbers gives me tangible proof of success (or lack thereof) and provides a clearer path to the desired financial goal.
Math in music is extraordinary. I find that almost all music is simply a form of math (though I understand that some truly avant garde pieces purposefully eschew such traditions). Any time someone tells me “I’ve always wanted to learn drums, but I just can’t do it. I don’t get it.”, I reply, “it’s just Math. Just count to 4 with your dominant hand, use your dominant foot on the ‘one’ and hit the snare when it feels good!” Usually, they have a mini breakthrough and they’re playing a beat and really stoked about it.
Over the years, I’ve come to love complicated rhythms. Jazz music is a treasure trove for such fodder. But what got me started and really digging deep were bands like Hum, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Toadies. Hum has all these really cool turnarounds and utilize time signatures that were baffling to me in my youth. 11/8? 7/8? They’d sit on a time signature for long enough for you to finally get it, and then they’d move on or end it. Dillinger’s first full length, Calculating Infinity, was a mind-fuck for me. That’s when I learned what a Polyrhythm was. Beyond that, they played with such speed, aggression, and intensity that it was impossible to ignore them whether you loved it or hated it. I’m of the former camp. Come to find out, the original drummer, Chris Penne, was very much Jazz influenced.
And then there’s the Toadies. Perhaps ostensibly a “yawn” compared to the previously mentioned group, but the Toadies have a great sense of songwriting, energy, and weirdness that isn’t alienating. Anytime I mention “Toadies” or “Possum Kingdom” people are like “who?!” and I say “the ‘do you wanna die’ song” and they’re “ohhhhh – yeah, I know that one” and a little part of me dies inside. Curiously enough, the song is a classic radio jam, but most drummers I know can never play the beat correctly. It’s just math! Three 4-counts, followed by a “one-two” and then three more 4-counts followed by a “one-two, one-two” and repeat ad nauseum. What’s so difficult about that?! But I digress.
The song that really popped into my head when I thought about this topic was “Little Sin” off of Hell Below / Stars Above – their second LP. It’s not a particularly stand out track, but what always struck me as genius about it was their ability to write a seemingly simple straightforward guitar riff, that didn’t quite match up with the drums. It’s a 5/4 feel on guitar, but 4/4 on drums, so every other measure, the turn around or resolve happens. But the in-betweens are so neat because the riff goes from leading on the kick, to leading on the snare, and it never feels uncomfortable. The listener is always bobbing their head in perfect time. It’s just enough to tilt your head sideways and pull you in, but not enough to feel exhausting. It’s just a song that feels good to me and the math behind it is what makes it really stand out in my world.
Writing insanely complicated riffs and beats for the sake of writing insanely complicated riffs and beats is all well and good, but my favorite songs or artists to listen to are the ones that find a way to simplify that complication. Like reducing a fraction, or taking the square root of something. I find great beauty in simplifying the complicated. I hope to one day simplify my own complications and enjoy that beauty within myself. Writing helps. Math helps.