Jan Hammer Talks Tech | Jan Hammer
It's now several years since Jan Hammer gave up his day job as composer-in-residence for Miami Vice. In The Mind's Eye, a long-form computer animated video, sees him contributing to a quite different fusion of striking visuals and music, as Julian Colbeck hears.
When it comes to unlikely looking pop stars, they don't come more unlikely than Jan (pronounced 'Yan') Hammer. Yet we're talking about a man who has some ten gold or platinum albums to his name, who has had a worldwide number 1 hit single with the Miami Vice theme, has won Grammies, has collaborated on albums with the very cream of rock and jazz — Billy Cobham, Tommy Bolin, Al Di Meola, Santana... the list goes on — and who was of course one of the original members of that seminal fusion ensemble the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
There again, keyboard players are allowed to look a bit different. I mean, Tom Dolby, or Howard Jones, or Vince Clarke are no oil paintings, right?
Jan the man, the chubby Czecher, started playing the piano at age four, and by 14 was playing in a jazz trio that was working throughout eastern Europe. Eventually he went to the Prague Academy to study music formally, but the year was 1968 and thanks to the Russian invasion he soon left for the freedom of America, where he has remained ever since.
Hammer was already a player of note by the time of the Miami Vice theme, whose distinctive keyboard work and in-your-face edginess set a whole new standard for TV music. The theme itself was of course a massive worldwide hit, and Hammer went on to score the moody, atmospheric music for the famed cop/drug/pop video show for some 90 shows — many feel it was a major factor in the show's stunning success.
He gave up this gruelling schedule in 1988 to build himself a studio at his home in upstate New York and concentrate on solo projects like Snapshots, released in 1989, and an innovative collaboration with filmmaker Michael Boydstun on a long- form video piece entitled Beyond The Mind's Eye. This was premiered recently at the London Planetarium, which brought Jan Hammer to London to promote both the video and the album — and gave me a chance to catch up with him.
Beyond The Mind's Eye is an unashamed feast for the eyes and ears. There's no plot in an accepted sense (though there'll be no shortage of plot discerners), the work running as a short series of stunningly lifelike computer animated vignettes — with music, of course. The quality, invention and humour is of Peter Gabriel calibre. Only there's no Peter Gabriel, and indeed no vocals at all.
The publicity bumf for Beyond The Mind's Eye rambles on about precise music-to-picture work in a manner that suggests Hammer was using specific techniques, or at least making a concerted effort, to produce note to frame harmony. Jan looked surprised when I asked him about this, raising a quizzical eyebrow in the direction of a departing PR person.
"No," he said, "It was only as precise as any other scoring project. In fact, if anything it was looser in a way, looser in concept. There was much more freedom. I wasn't tied to a particular style or direction that a producer/director usually imposes. It was left much more to my own interpretation.
"As far as being precise, things only happened as a result of being able to go back and forth because the whole project was much more of a collaborative effort. In a regular movie they just tell you: this is the cut, and you work to it.
"Music and pictures have very much an equal role here. If you're a video freak or into computer imaging at all you must see it, as it's definitely got the latest stuff happening. On the other hand you can come into it from the music and just say 'I want to hear some cool music'."
Had the project perhaps been designed as a kind of contemporary Fantasia from the outset?
"In a way, yes. Music was always supposed to take a larger role than it has done in the past. It's difficult to categorise it because there aren't too many things like it, with such a shared spotlight and no story, no actual drama.
"There is an underlying storyline, though. Each segment is distinct; it has its own look and sound. And it's fun — it explores your dreams, your imagination. In one segment there are seeds flying through space, finding a fertile planet, exploding into vegetation. It looks at Genesis from another viewpoint. Then it skips into the silicon world of logic and computers. Then it gets more tongue-in-cheek, imagining if this were all going haywire on a piece called 'Too Far'. The music isn't serious in a sense, like, you know, doomsday. It's all quite tongue-in-cheek. Rocking and poppy. At the same time, the pictures keep it very entertaining.
"Then there's the segment on art, which is wonderful, with classic works extruded in 3-D. There's one piece about romance, with humanoid figures and how they react to each other, and another on magic, the theatre of magic. The final piece is called 'Voyage Home' where, even though you are supposedly inside your head, you appear to be travelling very far away, through space, galaxies, black holes, astronomical phenomena. Finally you arrive back in the solar system and you see our planet.
"It was great when we were actually in the Planetarium where they have these giant models of the planets, and it looked just like the images on the video."
One presumes that the Hammer House is an Alladin's cave of hi-tech. What was all the music for Beyond The Mind's Eye recorded on?
"It's a Macintosh-based system. You know, all the Digidesign NuBus Cards, Opcode Studio Vision, wall-to-wall modules and synthesizers."
Do you have pretty well every synth under the sun?
"Over the last few years I've gravitated towards Korg. It wasn't like I was sold a bill of goods and, you know, 'we'll support you'. It was just that I wanted to use Korg gear because it sounded the best."
Would this be around the time of the M1?
"Just after, when the T-series came out. I got completely into that. It was just so wonderful, with a richness of sound that really rivals acoustic sounds as far as how intricate it can get.
"Then when I saw the Wavestation it was all over. There's Wavestation all over this project. You can hear it going in and out of all the segments."
Do you use clocked wave sequencing?
"Sure. It's a style of work that I've done in the past, except this instrument basically took it to another level so I was able to continue where I'd got to in the early 70s with crude sample and hold, jerry-rigged setups. Now, though, instead of just opening a filter you can have a new sample with every clock, which is just unbelievable. That's what I got into."
It's the start of anything which generally poses most of the problems, so I wondered how Jan normally kicks a music-to-picture project into life.
"I look at it. Look at the whole thing from top to bottom. I look at it again a few hours later. Then I forget about it — even work on something else. Do some housekeeping, er, electronic housekeeping, that is," he adds quickly, lest I leave with the image of Jan Hammer in a pinny in my mind's eye.
"Maybe I'll log onto a network, do something else. Do some music that's not necessarily related to the picture. Then I'll go back and try to put up things that may not seem obvious but synchronise to the picture. A lot of it is not written precisely for the picture. It's not nearly as tied-in as people would imagine."
Do you sometimes use pieces you've already written?
"Absolutely. You go back and find those sketches. I call them up and try different sounds. It's all trial and error — you have to be a kind of editor, and leave things out."
Do you make a sketch of the entire piece, or do you finish sections as you go along?
"I finish the basic form of it, so there's a whole skeleton on to which I hang things. It's just so wonderful with a sequencer, what it's come to these days. On a Mac screen with Opcode; I couldn't imagine working any other way. I spent years working on a multitrack where you just lay it and it's there. That sound, that performance — that's it.
"Now you can go in and say I don't like this one note. Or, dynamically, I didn't play this phrase as I wanted."
But is there a danger, nowadays — I began to ask the question, but Hammer was already straining at the leash with an answer — that you'll never finish a project?
"I thought you were going to ask the obvious one, which is about making things too perfect, which is a lot of baloney. But yes, that question is more valid — you can just sit there and option yourself to death."
So how do you avoid the problem?
"The best thing is having deadlines. It has to be finished. So you do it. The other thing that is hopefully you have the good sense to edit yourself, and know when you've gone far enough, saying that you're not going to fiddle with it any more.
"For some reason I've been able to do that. I'm very much a first/second take kind of guy. I don't just sit there and beat it to death and say, well, I can do better. If I can't do it now, what makes me think I can do it much better on take 80?"
Does it help in this respect to have experienced life before MIDI and computers?
"I think so, yes. When you didn't have the option of 2,000 different snare sounds, what you went after was the performance.
"What I try to avoid, though, is just doing a performance and then looking for sounds. To me the performance is intricately linked to a sound already. If I do drum programming, I pretty much start with the sounds I'm going to end up with because they inspired me, they gave it the right feel. The other way is really working ass backwards, and then you're defeating yourself.
"If you're doing really boring, straight backbeats and all that, and then trying a million and one snares expecting it all of a sudden to open up and sound phenomenal, forget it. It's going to sound, you know, marginally different — you're really wasting time. Try and start with sounds that are going to be the final ones."
How important is sampling in your current work?
"I use samples. I'm not saying I do all of them myself. I'm not even saying I do the majority myself, but I do some specific things for projects.
"I still use my Fairlight. But given the fact that it's sitting next to this incredible Macintosh digital audio system... Even though the Fairlight has hard disk recording capabilities it's not the same as having Studio Vision handle it. Basically the Mac takes care of all of that. I use the Fairlight as a sample playback instrument.
"I also use the S1100, and the T3 — I'll put samples in that. But a lot of the sampling is done directly onto the Mac. So it depends exactly what you mean by samples; performances on acoustic instruments, vocals and so on, go straight on to the hard disk."
Do you use many loops?
"Sometimes on this record, yes. Two or 4-beat loops. I'm not anti-loops or anything. I just think it's idiotic to sample somebody's composition — by that I mean a recognisable form, a complete riff and hook, 16 measures or something — and just say a couple of words over it and call it 'my record'.
"The new trend of course is people actually 'playing' loops. But the whole thing about loops is having all this background 'atmosphere' in the sample, in the gaps. That's what made it so interesting.
"What's happening now is that people have got so gun-shy because of law suits and so on, so now it's like 'oh, we'll have drums playing this...' But drums playing those beats sound fairly boring. It's a giant step backward. You have some incredible drummer who rather than invent his own beat is trying to play loops on real drums. I call that pretty average."
Do you ever work with other musicians these days?
"It's basically been just me for quite a while now. A one-man thing."
"I work much faster. I go straight to what I want to do. I don't have to explain things, or rehearse. I don't have time for that because I lose all the excitement. I get bored. I guess I have the attention span of a kid.
"I enjoy working with other people on their projects, or maybe going in to write a tune for somebody else, but when it comes to a steady diet of working on something, I prefer doing it myself."
"I've been very lucky in that I can actually create guitar sounds and play drums and play some rudimentary rhythm guitar, so it's not just a one-dimensional sound."
Jan Hammer is a genuine multi-instrumentalist. Fine. But the brief of even a 'mere keyboard player' has these days become almost absurdly wide, not only in instrumental skills, but in terms of production, engineering, and programming skills as well. Has it, I wondered, all gone a bit too far?
"There's a role for everybody. There's nothing wrong in being a piano player, or an organist. Some people may be able to do everything under the sun, but if they're great keyboard players they should just perform, and get a great sound; a piano, an organ, even a synth.
"Personally I don't consider myself a programmer anymore. I was a programmer in the 70s. As far as digital sounds now, I can do things, but I wouldn't call it programming. It's all editing. It's all based on some wonderful patch that someone else, who devotes their whole life to programming, has created."
Of course this is all very well if you can afford it, but what if you can't to buy new sounds all the time. Any advice?
"I believe people should personalise their sounds if they can. There's so much depth in these instruments nowadays that it's in your best interests to reach down in there. Don't expect to be a genius programmer, because there are real genius programmers out there. But take a sound and make it your own.
"The funny thing is that it's not only the programming of a sound, it's also how you play it. That has so much to do with being recognisable."
At this point I launch into one of my favourite topics of there not being many (any?) recognisable young keyboard players coming through. Recognisable young instruments, yes, but not players.
'Well, what I'm doing is screaming and kicking, and usurping the role of the lead guitarist."
OK, but you've got the chops. Many people who've grown up with computers don't.
"Then it comes down to who we are. Are we musicians or are we keypunchers? Musicians will rise to the top. They may not necessarily become successful, but ultimately they will get noticed or even famous."
Is it fair to blame sequencers and their instant gratification? Can they be a problem in compositional terms?
"I don't see what's so wrong about having the computer doing the grunt work. In composing, the performance may not initially be quite as important as you being able to objectively assess what you've got there.
"I'm obviously not talking about writing classical music. But in pop music, something in 4/4, you can then detach yourself. It's the same with all these purists about automated mixdown. You've got to go with your instinct, and really feel the music — but while you're doing it, how do you know what you're doing? You're concentrating so hard on making the right moves that you can't even hear the music. So, you do the moves, then you can sit back and let the moves happen. It's the same thing using a sequencer."
Is it possible to keep on top of it all and not to become a slave?
"If you have to play the same thing over and over, it may be fun, but it's very hard to be objective. You don't really get any perspective on how it sounds without you actually doing it. A sequencer lets you separate the composer from the performer."
Many players, especially those who may feel that their touring days are somewhat numbered, are trying to break into film and TV music...
"So am I!"
Any tips for them?
"Move to LA."
What? There may be twice as much work there, but aren't there 10 times as many people chasing it?
"Yes, but you're still ahead of the queue. I've lost so many projects because I wasn't there. The people there will settle for mediocre anything as long as it's there, and they can make their frantic changes. That's it.
"It's very unfortunate, and I hope it will change. It's just killing me what I hear these days, but I'm just not going to move there."
"There's no getting around learning more about music. It's not enough to be able to wing things and improvise and have great ideas; you have to be able to organise them."
In terms of orchestration?
"No, there are people who can do that. But as far as putting together coherent ideas goes. You have to subordinate the music to the flow of the picture, and that's the hardest thing. There's always a temptation to let the music take over. Even if it's really cool music and you really like it, you have to be able to crunch it down and digest it — make it work. This only comes with experience.
"I think it helps to be educated musically. To know some classical music. Not necessarily to have studies harmony or something — although of course everything helps. But to have an awareness of classical music. To learn some of the tricks, the mechanics, how things are weighted..."
So you do need some tangible skills?
"Yes — but on the other hand you can be a complete hack and move to LA!"
Interview by Julian Colbeck
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