It's fascinating how often a self-imposed creative challenge leads to something bigger than a one-shot project: during his downtime, producer/engineer Jonathan D. Haskell decided to write and record original ambient compositions one day of the week. As the weeks turned into months, Haskell found he had assembled enough quality material to release an EP in 2010, and a full-length release a year later, each track executed on a consecutive Saturday.
Now operating under the moniker Seven Saturdays, Haskell has been exploring the realm of ambient, downtempo and soundtrack, creating a unique hybrid that has garnered him both critical praise and major club cred. On his latest, self-titled album, Haskell has added a new dimension to the mix by enlisting guest vocalists, and thinking more outside the ambient box than on previous work. I sat down with Haskell to talk about his process, the making of the new album, and the ever-evolving definition of ambient music:
DG: So share with me the trajectory that lead up to this latest album.....
JDH: Back in 2010, I made an ambient record, where I wanted to do everything on my own, challenge myself to play all the parts, and put it together as a strictly solo endeavor. The initial challenge, as you mentioned, was that it had to be done, completed in one day - Saturday. Love In The Time of Anticipated Defeat was the first full-length Seven Saturdays album, and mood-wise, was strictly ambient. For this album, I found my ambition was to do something bigger, more adventurous in scope. I teamed up with Daniel Farris (producer for St. Vincent) as he and I come from a similar aesthetic regarding how we approach the genre. We wanted to work with different singers, bass players and drummers for this album - not unlike what the guys from Zero 7 do, insofar as inviting outside artists to participate.
DG: Speaking of outside musicians, how the heck did you snag legendary drummer Jerry Marotta (whose resume includes Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, and the Indigo Girls) for this disc?
JDH: Daniel knew who Jerry was, but had no personal contacts - I, on the other hand, am the type who naively believes I can just reach out to someone, and get them to work with me. The thing about drummers, as you probably know, is they're session men first and foremost. So I shot Jerry an email, sent over a couple of tracks Daniel and I were working on, and asked if he'd be interested. He came in and laid drums on four tracks at first, but then, we just loved what he was doing, and essentially gave him the whole album to play on. A couple of pieces worked better without the added percussion, but his presence definitely contributes something substantive to our sound. Besides, it's pretty cool to say "Yeah, Jerry Marotta's our drummer", don't you think?
DG: No doubt. Did working as a producer for local indie outfits compel you to step outside that role and become a recording artist yourself?
JDH: I'm a good producer in the sense that I know how to pull people together and put them all in the same room to record, especially in terms of getting outside musicians involved in the project. And while I am comfortable composing my own material, it became obvious early on in the process, that I needed another pair of ears - a more dedicated producer to come in and work with me, and that's why Daniel's contribution to the new record was indispensable. He and I worked very closely as a team for nearly two years to make this album a reality.
DG: I also understand you are dabbling in the deejay waters, as it were.....
JDH: I'm just beginning to explore that now. There's a club over in Silver Lake, where vocalist Jim Evans (who appears on the tracks "One In 3" and "Dreamboat") has been doing a regular dj gig - one night, he needed a guest dj, so he kinda showed me the ropes, then handed over the reins. Honestly, it was the most fun I've had in a long time.....it's a totally unique approach to listening to and appreciating music. I'm sort of doing my internship there, thanks to Jim, and having a blast. It's also increased my appreciation of what dj's do ten-fold, now that I understand what's really involved in creating a vibe and playing off the energy of the room.
DG: Were there any particular challenges during the recording of Seven Saturdays, in terms of bringing a fuller, more orchestral sound to your ambient music?
JDH: At the risk of sounding pretentious (which I hope doesn't come across), what we really wanted to create was something sonically adventurous. Daniel and I spent the better part of a year working on making that happen. All too often when I listen to other bands, I hear good songs, but for me I need something more exotic, more experimental happening in the background - something unusual going on beneath the surface that makes me ask "Wow! How did they do that?" It became the most challenging aspect of what we wanted to accomplish, but also turned out to be the most fun. We plan on releasing an "ambient only" mix of the songs on Seven Saturdays later this year.
DG: Name some artists you listen to, that you feel employ the aesthetic you just described......
JDH: One of my favorites who I think embodies that is Jon Hopkins - I love that guy. Hammock, an outfit out of Nashville is another group I like, as well as Stars Of The Lid - Stars and Hammock are strictly ambient, and that's awesome. I personally enjoy the fusion of ambient with soundtrack and downtempo, which we did on the track "xxx" - that piece probably comes closest to the vibe I think marries those genres in a fascinating way. As much as I love the previous album, I felt the purely ambient sound limited our audience, or at least limited me, creatively-speaking.
DG: Most folks would be surprised to learn that when it comes to composing, your go-to instrument is not a synthesizer.......
JDH: You're right - when I sit down to write at my warehouse studio, everything starts on the Fender Rhodes. From that, I generally create a guitar loop and begin overdubbing. Once I have about a dozen tracks laid down, I bring it to Daniel, and then we bring in other musicians, whether that's a bassist or a harpist, or string players.......it all depends on what we think best suits the piece. What's great about the process for me is that no idea or strategy is off-limits, so it allows me to think expansively, and explore any sonic detail or instrument (or voice) that will make a tune come alive.
DG: How do you match up which vocalists should be on a particular track?
JDH: It all depends - sometimes during the recording, I sensed a particular voice would enhance what we were doing, though most often it kinda coalesced in an organic way. For instance, with singer Rain Phoenix (of Papercranes fame) I sent along several pieces to her, and didn't hear back. I really wanted Rain on the album, but I guess I hadn't picked the right song for her. So I decided, "What the Hell?" and sent along the demo for "Only Love." The piece was strictly ambient, and I'm not sure I even envisioned her singing on it. But three days later, she returned it to me with a finished vocal, and I was completely blown away. That just goes to show that sometimes it's the input of the vocalist that makes the difference: from my experience, I've learned that if a singer is not inspired by the track, however good it might be, it just isn't going to happen, and perhaps it shouldn't. And of course, some tracks on the new album remain purely ambient, and that's what I wanted. Pieces like "Quiet Days" are just as important to the record as "One in 3" and "Only Love" are.
DG: So you touched on this point earlier - is the ambient genre just too limiting as pure, sonic immersion, and therefore cries out for vocalists or contemporary pop/soundtrack infusion, or can it be valued on its own merits as a legitimate form of artistic expression?
JDH: That's one of the reasons we are releasing a purely ambient version of this album - that purely ambient sound is something I love to listen to when I'm driving to the beach in my car. In a way, it can become "background music" for other activities, but melodically, good ambient music has something going on for you to discover, should you choose to listen more carefully....
DG: Of course, folks like Brian Eno embrace the concept of it being something passively engaged in by the listener, and he has no problems with that.
JDH: Well let's face it, Eno is a tremendous influence, not only for me and Daniel, but on the genre as a whole. And his take is that the music can exist on its own terms, and doesn't have to demand anything other than being a conduit to creating an atmosphere, but isn't necessarily the focal point. I wanted something more from this record, however: I want people to put this music in the background, if they choose to, but I also wanted to make sure this music is genuinely heard, as well as experienced. I want to go out and do shows in support of the record. I want to convey an element of joy in sharing the music with my audience, and have folks respond to and be engaged by what I'm writing and performing, because to me that's the ultimate experience.
Seven Saturdays shares a bill with Western Bells and DJ Valida on Wednesday, July 17th at The Standard Hollywood. For more information and tickets, visit the link below: