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Artist Interview:
Dave Menzo

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Dave Menzo

Musician Dave Menzo talks about his new project Shhh… with Benjamin Weatherston at the Leon Loft.

Benjamin Weatherston met up with musician Dave Menzo at the Leon Loft to discuss his awesome new project in cooperation with the Ann Arbor District Library.

Ben: Tell me about your new project.

Dave: I’m thrilled to say that I’m almost done with my next album Shhh… which was recorded entirely using instruments and equipment that has been checked out from the Ann Arbor District Library. The AADL has a Music Tools program that allows cardholders to sign out some really cool equipment for a week at a time, and my new album pushes the barrier of what can be done with these instruments to create a comprehensive piece of work.

Ben: Where did the idea come from?

Dave: (laughs) Well, I was on Twitter one day and saw that a local AADL enthusiast tweeted about the Cell 48 System 1 modular synthesizer that the Music Tools program had just made available for check out that day. “What?!?!” I thought. “You can rent this s*** from the library!?” At the time I didn’t really know about the music tools program and just assumed it was too good to be true. But, low and behold when I showed up and took a look, there were shelves full of unique, state of the art equipment that cardholders could check out. At that very instant I told myself I was going to record an album using only these music tools.

Ben: How has it been working with the library?

Dave: It has been such a cool collaboration working with the AADL and the Music Tools program to shape an actual album. When I first made the decision to record this album I didn’t know everything that their collection contained and I was being very ambitious about the whole project. I figured it would be so far from my typical scope that I would have to just jump in the deep end and swim. Luckily their collection actually has enough of a well- rounded assortment of synthesizers, drums machines, melodic percussion, effects, and a newly added guitar pedal collection that it turned into something very attainable. The kind folks at the AADL have been very supportive in the facilitation of the equipment and even asked me to make suggestions for the program itself and new items to pursue in the future.

Ben: How has your last album Color Wheel been received?

Dave: Since the release of Color Wheel in March of this year, I have had loads of positive feedback and have been granted many performance opportunities. It received many positive reviews, and the song “Looking Back at You” was featured in a “Top 20 Folk Love songs of 2014” article on Yahoo! I performed at Taste of Ann Arbor, Top of the Park, Ypsilanti Heritage Festival, Earthwork Harvest Gathering and a large string of venues in support of this album.

The most exciting shows that resulted was when I had the honor of opening for my favorite recording artist, Kishi Bashi. I played in Detroit, Chicago and Cincinnati alongside Scott Kendal on upright bass. Playing for larger audiences at more reputable venues gave us a taste of what the next phase of my career will hopefully look like. It was so incredibly exciting.

Since the album has so many layers, and I am just one man, this requires me to be creative when performing. I have done many solo and duo shows that are largely based upon looping to build the layers of the song. It gives me much more freedom to expand on the songs and shift them in unique ways, since I’m not performing them with a whole group. In this setting I play acoustic guitar rather than electric, and can still use a multitude of effects to make it sound like more than just a guitar.

For larger shows and festivals I have been performing with the Cave of Wonders, which is a seven piece band of close friends and excellent musicians that I hand picked to help me perform the album live. This version of the performance is much more electric in nature (there are three electric guitarists) and contrasts the layered looping sound in an interesting way. Having the different versions of the performance allows me to test new interpretations of the songs, and make the whole experience more interactive for both the band and the crowd.

Many listeners have said they enjoy the diversity of the album, as it has many flavors that are woven together into a common directions. Each song seems to speak to everyone differently and it’s fun for me to learn what stands out to everyone. It’s always something different, although many people will unite around the singles of the album in a more unanimous way. Some people latch onto the experimental tones, where as others are more interested in the traditional sounding elements.

Ben: It seems like a big jump from that to this new project. What are the biggest differences?

Dave: It is such a shift from anything I have done before. While I am no stranger to making a concept album, I’ve never put any limitations on the instrumentation or where the instruments came from. In fact, I always cast such a large net when searching for tones in any recording. Most notably, this new album Shhh… has absolutely NO GUITAR on it!

Most people know me for my guitar playing, and most of my live shows feature the guitar in such a prominent way. While the AADL Music Tools collection just added a whole guitar pedal collection, I decided at the beginning of the project to stay limited to what the AADL had in it’s catalog. The only thing outside of this catalog that I’m using is my recording setup (preamp, interface, recording software etc.) I have used some of the guitar pedals on my vocals, using the microphone and cables that come with the Vocal Transformer bundle that you can sign out. I wanted to stay as authentic as possible to the theme that this entire album could be recorded by anybody, and that no instruments whatsoever would be used that were not checked out from the AADL.

Furthermore, I have never used so many electronic instruments in my recordings prior to this point. People often comment on my past albums that I use a lot of synthesizer, but what they actually hear is my guitar or voice layered in a way that sounds like one. I love overdubs, and I consider that to be part of my sound. I have used synths in the past, but not nearly to this extent.

Aside from the electronic aspect of this album, a main theme of the album is using your voice in unconventional ways. Both your physical voice and the voice that you have as an individual in this world that can create a positive change. I made my voice sound like drums (I love to beatbox), guitar, synth, trumpet and other instruments on this album, by how I sang and what equipment I ran it through.

One song in particular is called “Voice Force” and uses only my voice, layered to create a full sound. I used my vocal range in combination with effects to give it an array of timbres that made it sound like a full arrangement of instruments. I surprised myself with the results, and am driving the message that one should “Use your voice, be a force for good”.
Ben: But you don’t want this to just be a synth noise soundscape experiment. How is the songwriting process similar to a normal album?

Dave: Exactly. I was very cautious in the conception of this album to ensure that the end result wasn’t going to just sound like “some guy rented all this whacky stuff from the library and threw it together” – I take a lot of pride in my work and compositions. That didn’t change. I wanted to uphold a high level of integrity with this album, and put the same heart and soul on it that Color Wheel or any other album I’ve recorded has.

One major similarity between Shhh… and my past work is that I am writing all the songs, arranging all the parts, and playing all the instruments myself. I have had a few musicians contribute their skills on previous albums (i.e. Scott Kendall played upright bass on 5 of 13 tracks on Color Wheel) but 99% of the time I am doing the whole thing myself.

The creative process was interesting for me… The psychology of limitations states that within constraints one is able to make quick decisions to be more creative and not be crippled by the paralysis of choice. This sounds heady and all, but for a guy who plays more than 10 instruments and writes in almost every genre, limitations were a positive driving force for recording Shhh… and getting it done faster than any other album I’ve recorded.

It helps that I write most of my music in my head before picking up the instrument, so even though I would have these long experimental sessions early on with trying out each instrument, when I was ready to record the actual song, the composition and arrangement still existed in my head as it always does.
Ben: What’s next after this?

Dave: I’m still finalizing some major details but Shhh… will be release late this year, and I will be doing some events in collaboration with the AADL in support of it and the Music Tools program. I’ll perform the album live, give some demos of the equipment, have interactive participation with the crowd and give them a chance to try these instruments if they haven’t already, and make it educational and fun for the community.

I always dream big, so I’ve envisioned taking this on the road and performing at other libraries and schools nationwide, and really trying to launch the story of how this album was recorded and the creative process that went into it. I want to spread the message that anyone can do this. Anyone can take melodies, beats, and sounds they hear in their head and record an album. I want to enable young minds to have the resources available to make their voice heard. Music is such a positive force and I’d like to make a positive impact on the younger generation and encourage them to pursuit music, the arts, and education. The library is where it’s at!!

It might sound crazy but I’m also well on the way into the next album currently titled Vision Quest which won’t be ready until next year. More on that later…

Dave Menzo at Top Of The Park

Dave Menzo at Ann Arbor Summer Festival: Top Of The Park. Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

 

Leon Loft

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