Even though this week’s Data Breaker is larger than normal, it still doesn’t contain all of the material I was hoping to include about Jabon (aka audio engineer/Gravelvoice Studios proprietor Scott Colburn), who has a long, eventful history and an entertaining way of discussing it and his activities. So I’m going to post the whole thing here, for those Colburn fanatics out there (there should be more of you, but anyway…). The man is about much, much more than his credits on Animal Collective’s Feels and Strawberry Jam and the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible.
Judging from your website, you’ve been making Jabon tracks since 1985. Either I haven’t been paying close enough attention or you’ve been keeping a very low profile. Obviously, it’s impossible for me to hear everything you’ve done before I shoot you these questions, so could you summarize your Jabon output and how it’s developed/mutated over the years? What was the initial inspiration for the project?
Yeah, the project started in 1985 when I took a music appreciation course at Indiana University. The professor played Stockhausen, Charles Ives and [Morton Subotnick's] Silver Apples of the Moon in class. It really opened my mind to music forms beyond the standard.
A few years earlier I happened upon the Residents - Mark of the Mole, which probably was the seed that started it all. I was into Punk at the time and Black Flag was my favorite band. So these things came together to push me into experimental music. The tape trading culture of the mid 80's was just starting to take off and I met Hal and Debbie at Cause and Effect (a huge cassette label out of Indianapolis). It was there that I heard Controlled Bleeding, Negativland, Lemon Kittens, Current 93, Whitehouse, Viscera, the list goes on for miles. I figured I could do that kind of music, too. Fortunately, I had access to a studio in which to do tape loop experiments, so the first couple Jabon tapes are tape loop based pieces with bad poetry.
Very quickly after that the convergence of instrumental Black Flag (and Ginn's instrumental trio Gone) and the SF band Chrome started to take hold. So from there on out, my tapes were made of "rock" trio improvisation, weird Residents-esque pop songs, intercut comedy and general madness. Anything Goes! The releases were just a document of what I was doing and was never just one type of thing.
After 10 years of that, several city moves, college and other bands, I settled in Seattle with the Sun City Girls. That band alone gave me all kinds of weird feedings. I did a few tapes while I was recording them, but it became harder to find the time. I then joined an experimental outfit that fit me quite well (Climax Golden Twins). So I stopped doing Jabon as a project and just did little one-off pieces here and there as the opportunity arose. This was the period of 1995-2005.
In 2005 I formed Wizard Prison with Ben McAllister and John Vallier. Again, my musical output was with the core group and didn't leave much time for solo music. Also at that time, as a recording engineer, things were really heating up while I worked on projects like Animal Collective and Arcade Fire.
But this year, I just decided to do it again. The inspiration came partly from the multimedia shows that Wizard Prison were doing and a little program called Absynth. I discovered this soft synth and was immediately drawn to the sounds it made. I thought it would be fun to reinvent Jabon and do a project I call "Music Monday" in which I improvise on the instrument and post a completed piece every week for a year. This started in April of 2009. There are currently 16 pieces up.
You've earned a sterling reputation for your engineering/production skills. What are the most important concepts you've learned over the years about recording and how do they apply to Jabon?
The first recording I ever made was in 1980. Most of the early recordings were my own bands, friends bands and bands of the extended family of bands. I met the Sun City Girls in 1984, but it wasn't until 1990 that I started recording them. That period was instrumental in my approach to recording because we recorded all the time. It allowed me to hone my skills and try new things, push limits and be weird. It was probably around 1995, when I moved in with Jesse Paul Miller and Linda Peschong, that the world exploded and all kinds of musicians came by to record. The musical diversity was a golden time. A ton of creativity was going on in that house. Very quickly I developed a skill for capturing the essence of what any musician was doing. The term "Audio Wizard" stuck because it was a certain alchemy that was happening. Every recording was magical and everyone was in sync.
What gear are you using for Jabon material? It sounds very analog and possibly custom-built.
I mentioned Absynth already which is a soft synth. It is semi modular, so it has properties of analog synthesis. I also use the M-tron which is a sample bank of Mellotron tapes, which is stellar. I also use a VST plug-in called Mr. Alias, and I have a homemade contact mic embedded in epoxy, which is connected to a few multi-effect processors to make hellish vocals. The Alesis Air FX is used as a lead instrument and is quite expressive and looks good onstage, too.
Much of the Jabon stuff that I've heard is dark and unsettling; it reminds me of Gil Melle's Andromeda Strain soundtrack, some of Morton Subotnick's more infernal pieces, and Lustmord. Is it your aim to disorient, disturb, and alter mind states? Or do you strive simply to make music that sounds good to you? ("Synaptic Fibrosis" is my favorite Jabon track, fwiw.)
I don't find my music unsettling, but I think it might be challenging in the mood department. I can't make happy music, but I CAN make funny music, so I think you need to approach it with a sense of humor and it will make a bit more sense. I like to call my project Dark Ambient Avant Garde Disco Comedy. That really sums it up. On any night, there's gonna be someone who is stoned out of their mind and will get into the drone. There will also be someone else that had a bad day and will appreciate the darkness. Someone else will just enjoy the whacky pop ditties and laugh. I guess I'm trying to appeal to the full range of human emotions.
At a recent performance at the Hideout, you wore a mask and a robe. What's the reasoning behind this?
This is a funny story. Everything one does in the past influences what you do in the future, so on one hand, I'm a big Residents fan. Their live shows are full-blown theater productions. Their music is sometimes dark but also very funny and goofy.
When I see bands live these days, and it doesn't matter if it's part of the new crop of noise artists, rock bands, hiphop or whatever, the shows are kinda boring. The bands that I like to see live are the ones that actually understand that they are in the entertainment business. You gotta put on some kind of a show to grab people's attention. It's not enough anymore to stand on stage and play your music. You got to own the audience and keep them with you.
Some bands have sheer talent that does it. Some bands have stage antics, others use props. In Wizard Prison, I didn't want to play a show unless it would be an event. We wanted to put something together that was unlike anything anyone had seen before. So we got a 9' high and 12' wide aluminum cage draped with a white scrim. We made Brakhage-like avant-garde films to project behind us so we were in silhouette. And we're wizards, see... in prison! And the music is the alchemy that allows our escape. You are out with some friends and you happen to walk into the Funhouse and you see this thing on the stage and you say "what the fuck?" and people remember it.
For Jabon, the concept is the same but a bit more versatile. I can play with or without films, with or without special effects, with any multitude of masks and disguises. Each show is catered to the venue. The best shows will be the ones where I can pull off the carnival. The Hideout was close to that. So the reasoning is entertainment. If you watch the video from that show, several people just walked right up to me and took pictures with their cell phones. Probably to send to their friends to say, ‘Look at this shit I saw tonight!’
What approach will you take in a summer outdoor setting? Jabon music seems like the antithesis of Saturday afternoon in the park entertainment. (I mean that in the most complimentary way imaginable.)
When I was asked to do this concert, I got pretty excited about it because it was the wrong venue for what I'm doing. I like the idea that it's gonna be sunny and hot out there and I'm going to get on stage in a wizard costume and make some sort of freak sounds. It just doesn't make any sense and that's a good thing. I'm preparing two different sets. The first set will concentrate on all my goofy pop numbers, the second set will concentrate on ambient improv. The most exhilarating thing about the Jabon project is that the Music Monday thing is all ambient improv, but the live Jabon is rhythm-based goof pop that I hope makes people smile. So in a way, the sunny day in the park is the perfect wrong venue.
I think it would be fun to play a laundromat, a parking garage, a beach, a forest, or the light rail!
What's on your agenda for the rest of 2009, including any bands/solo artists you're producing?
A couple records I did last year have just been released. These are Magik Markers, Decoder Ring, Ghost Lobby, Staxx Brothers, Sir Richard Bishop and Mt. St. Helen's Vietnam Band. Also, a film that I did sound design for, called Zombies of Mass Destruction, played at SIFF and is making the rounds on the festival circuit.
On the horizon are a new Feral Children, Can the Boy Tell Time, and Flowmotion. Later this year I'll be doing records with Karin Tatoyan, Dada Trash Collage. In September, I'll be doing a "super group" recording with Ben Chasny, Rick Bishop and Chris Corsano.
There is talk about sound designing a science fiction film, which will be awesome. I'm also promoting an event on Sept. 9 (999) which is a quadraphonic show featuring Special Ops doing psychedelic Black Sabbath songs, This Blinding Light (sounding like Spaceman 3), and Wizard Prison. Each band will try to utilize the quad system installed. Also, I will be playing cuts from quad records like Seastones (which is a Grateful Dead side project), Dark Side of the Moon, and a re-channelling of the Flaming Lips Zaireeka for quad (rather than octo-fi).