If you’ve been a fan of arty rock music during the past four decades, chances are you’re a fan of a musician who is also a fan of Seattle bassist and composer Jherek Bischoff. On his most recent album Composed, you’ll find guests like avant gardists Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) and Nels Cline (Wilco, the Nels Cline Singers), Brazilian singer/songwriter and political activist Caetano Veloso, and legendary Talking Heads talking head, David Byrne. That Bischoff, at only 32 years old with a career that was spent busy but mostly in the background, could command such a impressive guest list speaks to not only his talent and the quality of the music he creates, but also to his unassuming sincerity and love for music — and the people who make it.
Composed is a grand, exuberant record written for a 70-piece orchestra that can sound like Morricone writing for Morrissey at one moment and Bacharach asking Schoenberg if he knows the way to San Jose the next.
At Length spoke to Bischoff about his childhood on the high seas, his extremely DIY approach to recording an orchestra, and how he does it all for love.
The website of Jherek Bischoff’s performance of Composed at the Ecstatic Music Festival can still be found here, along with photos from the performance, background information and a link to the full archived simulcast by WQXR. The video clip below features a performance of Composed‘s “Young and Lovely” from that concert, featuring Zac Pennington and Sam Mickens on vocals.
Also, click below to check out “Eyes” from Composed, featuring David Byrne.
At Length: Even though you’ve been playing music for quite a while now, you’re not exactly a household name to most people.
Jherek Bischoff: That’s for sure. [Laughs.]
AL: For those who aren’t familiar with your work, can you give a brief summary of your musical career so far?
JB: Yeah. I’ve always performed. I started mostly with this band The Dead Science that had a lot of branches. Sam [Mickens, the lead singer] and I both really like to play a lot of different kinds of music and we joined up with a lot of different bands together — we joined Xiu Xiu for a while; Parenthetical Girls, which I still work with; we ended up doing a tour with Craig Wedren of Shudder to Think, backing him up; and also with Carla Bozulich, backing her up. We were also in a musical collective called The Degenerate Art Ensemble for many years. In fact I’m still working off and on with them as well and that’s kind of a performance art and music group that’s always changing depending on what the show is.
JB: I’ve also been playing with Amanda Palmer recently and that’s been really fun. There are a billion other things, but my mind starts to go blank. Those are all the substantial things. Aside from just performing and in playing, I’ve always kind of taken a bit of an arranger’s role in bands that I’ve been in. I’ve always enjoyed figuring out how that works with whoever else we were playing with. I was doing that a lot.
AL: Did you start as a rock musician and then start getting interested in wider things? Did you have any conservatory training or other traditional academic training?
JB: I’m self-taught as far as my instrument goes. My main instrument is bass, but I play a lot of different instruments. I studied jazz for quite a while on my own, and then I went to college — I guess for about two years — studying jazz. At the end of it, I really wanted to get into composition classes, but I got into a couple of them and I just did terribly. I’m not much of a school person even when it’s something I want to learn about. I kind of figured out what I wanted to learn and then just taught myself those things.
That also ties into recording. I taught myself to record for my own purposes and then people started asking me to work with their bands, solo projects and things like that. I just kept saying yes, yes, yes, even when it seemed like it was something over my head and crazy, and just taught myself along the way.
AL: I think that’s the way to do life well. Say yes, and then figure it out. Your world just expands.
JB: I really enjoy teaching myself how to do stuff. I was raised on a sailboat my whole life. We did a long sailing trip and one on the things I had to do was correspondence school, where you are your own teacher, instead of your parents teaching you like with homeschooling. One of the most valuable things I was learning was how to teach myself. That’s one of the things that has stuck with me and shaped me as a person. So I’ve never been afraid to learn something entirely on my own.
AL: That’s really interesting, and sheds a lot of light on what you’ve been getting up to lately. One of the big stories about your latest album, Composed, is the way you put it together. Could you talk a little about that?
JB: I knew that I wanted to make this orchestral record, but I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to do it, especially financially. There were a few things that guided me towards how I felt I had to do it. One was that I hadn’t worked this way before, just layering and layering very few individuals to create this orchestra. I’ve done a lot of stuff on my own, playing most of the instruments myself and layering it to create a really strange orchestra [laughs] but I didn’t really know how to play all the instruments, I just kind of figure it out as I go and hope for the best. For this, I knew I wanted to get actual players that could really make the parts sound great, because I just wouldn’t be able to technically do the things I was hoping for.
Another thing that guided the process was that I had built a crazy music community here in Seattle. Literally any instrument I could think of, I know someone that plays it, and someone who is excited to be working on interesting projects and working on stuff with me. It’s really, really fantastic. I wanted to finally utilize that and call in all my favors and just do everything with these people.
Yet another thing is that even though it was going to be an orchestral record, I really wanted to keep more of a pop sound, even though it’s all acoustic instruments. It’s frustrating for me when I’m listening to classical in a car or something because there are so much dynamics. I knew that I wanted to have the orchestra to sound more in your face, and very focused, and a little bit less dynamic than a classical cd, though maybe not as blown out as a modern pop record.
And then money, both to rehearse an orchestra for recording, to get them to a point where I could’ve been totally satisfied, was not even an option. So recording them one by one and then being able to fine tune each individual track, to really make it exactly how I was I was hearing it, was really time consuming — but really gratifying and awesome, too.
AL: I read that you were tossing your recording equipment in a bag and biking around town to these people’s places and recording them in their own home. Is that correct?
JB: Yeah, that’s right. Partly because I have been unemployed — other than being a musician — for a long time that it hasn’t been until very recently that I’ve been able to actually have a proper roof over my head. When I first started the record I was living in in my friend’s closet. So that brought about the necessity of recording in other people’s place because I didn’t have any place to record. I had to learn to think beyond my needs, take account of what I knew that I had and then try to create the biggest possible thing with my resources.
AL: it definitely succeeds in sounding grand. I had seen you perform with a full orchestra at the Ecstatic Music Festival and then heard the record when it was released, and then afterward read about the way you put it together. I was floored because it sounded very frustrating to me, just from other things I’ve done on the computer, where you get ninety-nine of a hundred pieces working fine and then when your adding that hundredth piece you realize you have to change thirty-five of those pieces you thought were totally finished. I imagine you must have had to make multiple visits to musicians houses to do second or third takes during the process of mixing it together.
JB: Amazingly enough, I didn’t have to do that at all except for one vocal thing that was totally my fault. I completely composed these songs before I even did my first recording session with any of the players. I made sure the arrangements were totally perfect in my head and on paper before I ever went over to anyone’s house, so it was just kind of like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. I knew what the picture was going to look like and I knew that the cellist needed to play with more dynamics here even though there wasn’t anything for them to be playing to at that point. They were just kind of playing by themselves and you’re like, “ok, more dynamics here,” because I knew the way I had written the dynamics out and I knew that’s what was going to be needed for the piece as a whole. I really tried to make that picture as clear for myself as I possibly could so that I wouldn’t have to go and redo things.
There are also a lot of manipulation things you can do inside of Pro Tools, though I didn’t really do all that much, really — just some little intonation things and stuff like that. It wasn’t a very frustrating experience. It was a little trying at times because it was such a time consuming process, but for the most part it was really fun to explore these very specific things as I was arranging the record. Because I can play a lot of different instruments, but I don’t play all of them, I sometimes play a cello line on my upright bass or a trumpet line on the trombone for the timbre. An orchestra is like this perfect puzzle where every instrument has its defined register and its place and its thing that it does, so I was really conscious of that. I knew if I utilized the orchestra in a good enough way it would kind of mix itself. I didn’t have to make things really loud to be heard as they would just naturally be heard on the correct instrument. Even mixing wasn’t insanely difficult, but again, very time consuming.
AL: So is that how you composed: you had a couple of instruments that you knew you could mess around with and kind of tease out your idea of what these other ones would be?
JB: Yeah, a little bit. It kind of depends. I do have a lot of the different orchestral instruments in my house that I can play. Especially string instruments because I’m familiar with them, especially violin. Sometimes you get something in your head and then you’re not sure if it’s actually physically possible. Or maybe it’s physically possible but it’s not going to sound very violiny — it’s more of a guitar line or something like that. So it is nice to have those instruments around to play the part a little bit, just to make sure it works on the instrument itself. I don’t know if you’re very familiar with recording but one thing that I did was I would have my friend Paris — who plays the violin — record that part maybe up to fifteen times. And then I would take those fifteen tracks and fine tune them to make each one really great, and then bounce all of those fifteen tracks down to one stereo track. So then the whole violin section would just be controlled by just one stereo fader. And then I would do that with each instrument. By the end of recording I was actually only mixing maybe 15 or 18 tracks or something like that — it wasn’t 300 tracks or something crazy. That really made it a lot easier to mix.
AL: So you go from all this one-on-one time and all this time mixing the album alone and then premiered it at the Ecstatic Music Festival. Is that correct?
JB: Yeah, that was the first time I played all those tunes. There was a few songs that I had written quite a long time ago that I played with different incarnations of different string quartets and things like that throughout the years, but that was the first time playing with the full orchestra. I also played maybe half of the songs at my thirtieth birthday party. I put together a fifty-person orchestra here in Seattle and that was the first time a lot of those pieces were played, but this was the first time that I played all the pieces together. There are several pieces that had never been played before.
AL: I noticed on stage several times you seemed to be really overcome with emotion. What was going on? Can you tell me a little bit about what you were feeling when you were up there with the orchestra?
JB: Yeah, absolutely. For me a big part of it is playing music with people that you really care about. A lot of those musicians were people that Ecstatic Music Festival provided, which was the Wordless Music Orchestra. And then maybe half of them were really great friends of mine from Seattle — all the players from the actual record and people that I’ve shared long musical histories with. Those friends of mine, along the Wordless Orchestra, were just an amazing crew of people. Being able to play music, especially orchestral music… I feel like there’s a perception that people don’t look like they have a lot of fun when they play it.
JB: It’s important to me that even if I’m playing music that is really serious and intense to still be having a good time. And looking around that room while I was playing and seeing everybody making eye contact with each other and eye contact with me… It was just a super beautiful experience, and got me pretty worked up emotionally. And on top of that my whole family was there. My dad and brother were both on drums and my nephew played gong.
AL: I remember that.
JB: My girlfriend and her entire family had shown up from all over the U.S. Feeling the amount of love and support from my musician friends and my family was really overwhelming. And not to discredit the emotion, but pretty much anytime I talk in front of an audience I start crying. [laughs.] I get real emotional when I speak in front of an audience, especially about stuff that I really care about, whether its happy or sad.
AL: When you put something of yourself out there artistically and then you ask people be a part of it, to invest their time and energy into it, it’s a lot of responsibility. You ask a lot of people to do something and they’re even happy to do it that’s a lot to take in.
JB: It is. The show taught me a couple of really important lessons. One of those was it showed me how important it is to play with people that I really care about. And really deciding to stick with that not as a rule but as a guide to make decisions by. There’s part of me that thinks walking in and playing with the Seattle Symphony sounds awesome and great, but the fact that I’ve got a large enough community to do this stuff myself and knowing everybody in the orchestra, and being able to look around and smile — it’s a no brainer to me. To put together my own orchestra and really approach it more like a really giant band instead of a bunch of hired musicians that might or might not like the music — you never really know. They’re there because they’re musicians and they’re getting paid. I know when I put together my own orchestra the people are there because they really want to be there. It’s not a job it’s a gig.
AL: Yeah, exactly.
JB: Another thing that I felt pleased about from that show was developing my feel for connecting with an audience. I’ve been working with a lot of musicians for a long time like my friend Jason who’s a singer songwriter and who is pretty theatrical — like how Amanda is. He really deeply connects with his audience and does a lot of stuff to pull his audience in. I’ve been thinking a lot about that myself. Both Amanda and Jason are these very serious extroverts and I’m much more of an introvert, but I’m still really attracted to that idea of really connecting to an audience, and really pursuing that as much as I can… but on my own terms.
JB: I saw the Dirty Three when I was in Australia, and Warren Ellis connects so deeply with the audience. He’s got his back turned to them and hardly does anything, but he’s got this thing, you know?
AL: He’ll be lost in playing and then suddenly turn around and tell the most amazing story, and then go right into playing again.
JB: Exactly. And I realize that’s his version of connecting. If he didn’t tell those stories there would be a pretty large void in what he does. He’s like, “ok this song is about…” and tells this big story and that gives the audience something to think about and feed off of and gets their imagination going before they even play a note. That was a powerful experience to me, to see how he does that. It’s an organic thing. At the show, I felt like things were naturally happening, like the audience was understanding what I was doing and could feel the sense of warmth that was happening on stage without me having to talk about it. I felt the energy in that room was a circular energy — not just me playing music at people, it was playing music for and with people. I think that’s what’s happened to me in the last couple years is making that change of not playing at people but playing music for people.
AL: It’s very apparent. You can hear how much the audience is with you.
JB: Yeah… it was really lovely
AL: When you’re getting emotional they’re getting emotional with you. You can hear how they’re hanging on the music… its really great .
This all makes me think of how critics try to describe your music as “classical meets rock” and figure out how those things mix in your work. I’m sure I’m going to offend classical music lovers when I say this, but I feel like this favoring of in-the-moment emotion over absolute perfection — like when you were discussing the symphony vs. an orchestra of your friends — is the most rock and roll thing about your music. I think this is especially true of the vocalists you work with. Many of them are iconic rock vocalists, but they don’t have perfect voices. They’re very affecting and direct, but idiosyncratically imperfect in their own way. How did you go about selecting these singers and persuading them to be on your record?
JB: I have always been attracted to vocalists that aren’t perfect — I am really drawn to those cracks and showing the moment really influencing what’s coming out of your mouth instead of just training yourself to act a certain way when you’re singing. I feel like all the vocalists I wanted for the record are very in-the-moment singers. That is definitely what drew me to those singers in particular.
So when I was first starting to do the record I was working on it and composing almost all the tunes on ukulele, interestingly enough, and I would just sit there with the uke and sing along. As I would sing, my voice would start changing and I could start to hear other people’s voices within my voice. Like, “oh, I hear David Byrne’s voice singing this.” I’m terrible with impressions and I could not actually sound like him, but in my mind I was. I thought about how it would be amazing for him to sing that song, but then I thought that I’d just sing it myself, because there’s no way in hell I’m going to get David Byrne to sing my song. So I kind of went back and forth — by the end of composing the record, I had individuals picked out for most the songs — I knew who I wanted. Luckily, a lot of them were people that I worked with before and I knew that I could get some of them. At the same time, I thought it might be weird for me to sing five songs and then four of my friends sing other songs. It just didn’t seem quite right, especially since I didn’t necessarily hear my voice on these other songs.
Then my friend ended up being a dancer and guitar player in David Byrne’s band. He and I had worked together on some stuff and had been friends for years and I was like, “hey I know you’re touring with David, so could you pass this song on, if it’s not too weird?” He didn’t think it was weird and said he’d give it to him. I got a response back immediately from David himself saying, “as soon as I get back from touring I’d be really excited to sing on this song.” From that moment I knew that I would just go ahead and pursue everybody. It helped to be like, “hey David Byrne is going to sing on my record. do you want to sing too?” It made it a little bit easier.
AL: “What’s up Nels Cline, do you want to be with David Byrne on my record?”
JB: [Laughs.] Yeah…. So it made things easier. David was super supportive and asked if I had any other singers I wanted, and I knew that he was friends with Caetano [Veloso], who is one of my favorite singers of all time, so I was like, “well, can you get Caetano?” so that worked out well. Most the other folks I think I was already friends with.
AL: What about some of the other special guests?
JB: Greg from Deerhoof I was friends with already, and Nels I knew from working with Carla. Craig I had worked with; Zach and Soko I had worked with. I think everyone else were either immediate friends of mine or people that are in my sphere.
AL: That’s an amazing list. When I first decided to go to that Ecstatic Music Festival concert, part of the reason was that it looked like a very interesting group of people that had all come together in service of somebody I had not heard of.
JB: Yeah…[Laughs.] A friend of mine — I think it was Craig — wrote me a text the day of that show. He’s like, “man, it’s going to be so much fun! It’s like the Grammy awards for weirdoes!” Another really amazing thing about that show was that I worked with all these people through email or in person, but everything was just one-on-one. But to see all these people in the same room together backstage, just talking… and you know they’re all weirdoes, but they’re all really sweet weirdoes. It was incredible to see all these friends of mine from the last twelve or fifteen years, friends that I’ve made through my entire musical past, all conversing on the same backstage. Seeing them all together, I don’t know… The idea hit me that that’s my family. My family was there and my musical family was there. It was pretty overwhelming.
AL: Speaking of weirdoes, and I mean that in the same affectionate sense in which we’ve been talking, I wanted to talk to you about working with Amanda Palmer. Her Kickstarter campaign to fund her first album after she left her label is one of the biggest music industry stories of the year. I know that Composed was put out on Brassland (operated by the National’s Dessner brothers), which I imagine is a very supportive environment, but did seeing how that whole process unfolded in Amanda Palmer’s operation change your own opinions about labels and making records?
JB: Well, it’s interesting. I signed on to the Amanda thing partly because I knew good friends of mine were going to be involved. Also, I feel like the grass is always greener. I really love composition, but when I’m really deep in it I think about how great it would be to just play bass and rock out and not worry about anything. Then, of course, when I’m playing bass I’m thinking man I wish I was at home on my computer composing and working on that stuff. So at the point when I joined the band I was kind of feeling like the thought of just going on, not autopilot, but not having to personally round up a fifty-person orchestra sounded fantastic . When I do my own shows I pretty much do everything from the promotions to, you know, every little part of it. Thinking about being able to go on a tour and not have to worry about any of that stuff sounded great. So I signed on, and then also I’m opening all these shows.
AL: Oh, really?
JB: And I’m putting together a string quartet in every single city.
JB: Which is my little way of trying to kill myself. So that was also a big thing. I wasn’t even planning on touring Composed at all because its just kind of impossible. And then she was saying, “yeah, we were thinking about trying to get a string quartet for every city.” I was thinking, “ok, now this sounds pretty awesome.” So now I’m doing a U.S., European, and Australian tour.
Beyond that, she was talking about recording the record with John Congleton, who is someone I have crossed paths with a lot but never had a chance to work with. He’s a really fantastic producer and I kind of wanted to get a chance to look over his shoulder.
AL: It’s always good to learn some new tricks.
JB: So there’s a lot of different elements that led me to that decision to do it. And as far as using what she’s doing as a model for my own thing — it’s really strange. I’m still getting my footing on how things work in the Amanda camp. There are elements of it that are so, so great. Having a full team of people that are there to help you and help her and to get the word out about things. Having that system is incredible. And she obviously utilizes it very, very well. I don’t know if I ever found myself in the situation of being that much in the public eye. As I said earlier, there are different ways of connecting to an audience and she’s definitely found her way. One of her main ways is through Twitter.
AL: For sure. She’s a pro.
JB: I like twitter fine, I’ll go on a trip with Amanda and I’ll be exhausted and just be like, “ok, I need a moment of not having to think about things. I’m just going to stare out the window and just chill.” And then at the end of the day I’ll look at Twitter or something and she’ll have Tweeted like fifty times. I’m just holding on for dear life and I’m like, “wow.” I don’t even see her Tweeting. I don’t know how she finds the time or energy to do this. I know that’s not naturally me. But she does it really well and it’s an amazing resource. She can just Tweet, “we need a rolling pin here” and in five minutes thirty rolling pins will show up. Its unbelievable. As far as how much of the music I was involved in, I did a bunch of string arrangements for her record and I wrote all the bass lines. I also actually wrote one song as well, which is one in the middle of the record called the “Grand Theft Intermission.” It’s something that I had been playing around with for a while and when she said she needed a little bombastic intermission song that’s short, I said, “well, I have just the thing!” So we recorded that and it made it on the record. It’s a fun little piece and it sounds very unique.
AL: You’re out on tour with Amanda Palmer and then I see a lot of dates through the end of the year in America and Europe. Are you looking ahead past touring to any other projects?
JB: Yeah. I’ve got my own real big show here in Seattle on December first at the Moore Theatre, which is a big, beautiful theatre here. And that’s going to be an Ecstatic-style show — I’m going to get a lot of the singers that were on the record and put together a big orchestra and do it up. And then I was commissioned by Lincoln Center to do some new music for an ensemble called Why? Music, with Greg from Deerhoof on drums and me on bass. That’s going to be I think December twentieth over at the Atrium at Lincoln Center. And then I’m just beginning talks about doing an opera for Neil Gaiman, which is really awesome and terrifying and fun…
AL: That sounds amazing. Any other recording plans?
JB: I’ve got two or two and a half records in my head ready to record. I’ve got this ambient record and I’ve got this digital string quartet thing that I’m going to try out with that Why? Music thing. And then I have more kind of a more poppy record in my head I want to record. So I’ve got all the music I can possibly handle in my brain at the moment. I just need to find the time and record it.
AL: Well, it sounds like a lot on your plate.
JB: [laughs] Yeah, it’s crazy. I know where I’m going to be every day until the end of March I think. So yeah I won’t be recording anytime soon. I think after that I may slow it down a little bit… well see.