Jonathan Snipes interview
Jonathan Snipes is an incredibly diverse and talented musician, from the groups clipping. and Captain Ahab, to a wide-breadth of solo, as well as collaborative, soundtrack work, Snipes has been busy, albeit perhaps almost inadvertently, proving he has one of the most innovative and original voices in the music industry for more than a decade at this point. I personally first became acquainted with his name when I wandered across the jaw-dropping OST for Room 237 on Death Waltz (review here) about a year ago, and immediately began exhaustively researching everything the guy had been involved with, or at least everything that I could find out about. The information out there was pretty spotty on the whole, but I set about assembling as complete a picture as I could. While he’s worked on such high-profile projects as Snakes On A Plane, Battlestar Galactica: Caprica and The Office (US), Snipes’ name may be one that you’re not overly familiar with, but I think it will be soon. With the impending release of the Starry Eyes LP through Waxwork later this year I think a lot more people are going to start to take notice of Snipes’ incredible talents. He combines just about every type of electronic or classical music that you can think of with these killer horror synth and giallo influences, Snipes then crams them all into a Lovecraft-ian blender and hits frappe to create the delectable brew of sinister synths and nightmarish electronica which offers up on a regular basis at this point. One of the best parts of Snipes’ music for me, though, is the fact that while he draws from many of the same late 70s and early 80s influences as a lot of horror composers do right now, he also brings with him an astoundingly varied bag of tricks derived from classical composition, house, dance, rap, rock, and of course soundtrack work, along with just about any other genre you could possibly think of. And he manages to accomplish all of this while still retaining that dark, eerie sound to his work which gives it the biting, glaringly original, and, at times, even unnerving and downright scary sound it posses. It’s artists like Jonathan Snipes that force me to broaden my musical horizons as well, listen to things that I might not ever have given a second thought to, and at times even offer an opportunity to get engrossed in and sometimes consumed by music that falls outside my normal spectrum of musical interest, and I can’t thank them enough for it. Drawing from everywhere, without sounding quite like anything, Jonathan Snipes’ music really does have to be experienced to be properly described. Not to worry though, there’s a link below to do just that; make sure you use it and check back in with me when you’re done, because nothing will really ever be the same. And hey, while you’re busy clicking links, make sure you pick up a copy of the Room 237 OST from Death Waltz for yourself and keep an eye peeled for the upcoming Starry Eyes soundtrack release on Waxwork, ‘cause it’ll be gone in a flash once it does drop. That’s enough words from me though, read some interesting stuff about Snipes and his music below, listen to some tunes and remember, keep It Psychedelic Baby!
– Listen while you read: https://soundcloud.com/jonat8han
You’re an extremely multifaceted artists to say the least, so I’m just going to kind of start at the beginning and try to chronologically move along and cover as much ground as we can before you get absolutely sick of me, ha-ha! Let’s start with the easy stuff first. How old are you and where are you originally from?
I was born in 1980 in Riverside, California. I lived there until I moved to Los Angeles to go to college in 2000.
What was the local music scene like where you grew up? Did you get very involved in that scene or anything? Do you feel like it played a large role in shaping your musical tastes or shaping the way that you play at this point?
There wasn’t much going on in Riverside that I was aware of. I went to some shows at the Barn; mostly third wave ska and punk, and I got interested in that kind of music but was never in any bands or anything. I didn’t really think I’d start making music myself until I got a computer and started listening to electronic music like Aphex Twin, Moby, Orbital, Fatboy Slim, µ-ziq, Squarepusher, Luke Vibert, etcetera. This is 1997 or 98. I started going to the all-ages goth club in Riverside around then too, and getting into Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails, VNV Nation, Laibach, Front 242, Frontline Assembly, etcetera. I didn’t find a ‘scene’ of people making music that I wanted to be a part of until college.
What about your home when you were growing up? Was there a lot of music around? Were either of your parents or any of your close relatives musicians or extremely interested in music when you were growing up?
There was a ton of music. My mother was a talented violinist, and she played in a couple of community orchestras. My dad was a great fan of opera and classical music in general. He always had really nice McIntosh stereos and a massive record collection, organized chronologically by period, baroque, classical, romantic, etcetera. I grew up hearing great orchestral music on great speakers.
What do you consider your first real exposure to music to be?
Too young to remember, I’m sure. My mom definitely read and sang with me from birth; folk songs and children’s songs. We listened to a lot of Smithsonian Folkways records for children, Tom Glazer, Sam Hinton, etcetera. In addition to being a fan of opera, my dad became very involved in the Riverside opera company, and we’d have singers staying in our house. When I was about three years old, I played some sort of wood-sprite (a non-singing role) in a production of Dvorak’s Rusalka that he co-produced. I have no memory of it, but evidently I couldn’t remember my blocking and had to be removed from the stage during a performance because I was misbehaving.
If you were to pick a moment, a moment when you heard something that opened your mind to the infinite possibilities of music and seemed to change every for you, what would it be?
Probably hearing synthesizers for the first time. I wasn’t really allowed to listen to pop music or the radio when I was very young, but my dad had Wendy Carlos and Don Dorsey records – synthesizer performances of classical and baroque pieces. These blew my mind. I couldn’t believe the sounds on those records. I remember bringing a Don Dorsey record to my music class at elementary school and the teacher saying, “You know this music is all played by one person?” I didn’t have any idea music could be made in any other way than real-time, it changed everything for me.
When did you decide that you wanted to start writing and performing your own music? Or was that just sort of a natural progression of being given an opportunity to create something and an outlet to express yourself?
I’m not sure it was ever really a conscious choice. When I finally got a decent computer I started making music on it in the same way I started doing anything on it, just exploring the possibilities of the machine. I was doing graphic design, making webpages, playing games, editing and modding games, writing little programs in Q-Basic. Things like that. Making music was just another one of the things I did for fun on the computer.
What was your first instrument? When and how did you get that?
Well, I started violin when I was about two or three years old, I’m sure because my mother played and I wanted to as well. That didn’t last for very long, and I couldn’t make a sound on one now to save my life. I’ve never been particularly disciplined or good at learning things by rote, so I was terrible at practicing. I think my mom got sick of screaming at me, trying to force me to practice, so we gave up on that. I also took trumpet and bagpipe lessons as a little kid, but only for very short times.
I love how some of your music almost boarders of sound collages at points but is more than capable of retaining it’s cohesiveness and holding your attention to say the least! Do you have any formal education or background in music at all? Or are you a self-taught musician?
My musical education is mostly self-taught and informed. I ended up studying theater sound design in school, and that’s where all my formal training is. I never intended to become a professional musician or composer, I just kept taking projects as they came along, then looked around and realized I’d been making my living from doing movies and TV for a couple of years.
As I mentioned before, you’re involved a ton of different kinds of music. I know you do soundtracks, which is how I originally became aware of your work to begin with, but you’ve also been involved in the rap groups CLIPPING and Captain Ahab, you’ve put on at least one musical that I know of, you do shows with Nilbog, who are a horror film score cover band, and there’s probably a literal ton of stuff that I’m missing! What all do you have going on right now as far as active groups and bands?
If I understand correctly Captain Ahab finally called it quits in 2012 or so but I know that CLIPPING’s debut album just came out on Sub Pop this past year and I’m curious what all you have up in the air?
Right now the only band I’m doing seriously is clipping. I still rehearse with Nilbog though, and we’re trying to get some shows together for 2015. Currently, I’m basically just doing clipping. and film scores. I’ve also been doing a few remixes under the name, “the party system”, but not much is out yet.
Where are you located at this point? I know that Nilbog plays out live, but how involved in the local scene are you? Do you book or attend a lot of shows where you’re at?
I live in Los Angeles, and I barely go out anymore to be honest. I used to go to shows all the time, but as I get older and more introverted, I’d rather just stay in with a bottle of wine and read SysEx specs on old MIDI gear, ha-ha. Touring is increasingly exhausting as I get older too, and when I’m back from tour the last place I want to be is out at a bar with really loud music. There’re a lot of great places to go see music in LA right now, though, and as much as I can force myself to I do try to go out to shows. I live pretty close to an amazing space called MATA, so it’s easier to motivate myself to go there.
Are you involved in recording or releasing music from anyone besides yourself? If so, can you tell us a little bit about that here briefly?
Yeah, I’ve done a bit of production and recording work for other people. I’d like to do more. I recorded and mixed most of the albums for the now defunct Foot Village, a band comprised entirely of four drummers and vocals. Those were fun and challenging sessions. I produced and mixed an EP for Maxi Wild, and an album for I.E. I also mixed the most recent EP by Signor Benedick the Moor, and some songs for Cooling Prongs. Some other things too that I’m sure I’m forgetting. I basically don’t say no to things, but I also don’t really go seeking out other production work. I’d love to do more.
I talked a little bit about it before, but your soundtrack with William Hutson for Room 237 is how I originally got introduced to your music and I seriously dig a ton of your soundtrack/score work, which has appeared on some seriously heavy hitting shows, including Battlestar Galactica: Caprica and the US Office to name just two! Mask Of The Ninja happens to be another of my favorites and I’m still hoping I can score one of those Fan Club CDs one of these days, ha-ha! But you’ve done some killer work for Starry Eyes which is attracting some much deserved attention in the industry finally and the song I heard that you contributed to The Storm was ridiculously killer as well. Can you talk a little bit about how you got into soundtrack/score work? Do you have a preference between working with a group on a project like Captain Ahab or CLIPPING and working, at least from what I would guess, is a little more on your own and with a little bit more freedom doing soundtrack work?
Funny you would say there’s more freedom in film scores. There you’re really locked to picture; everything you do is dictated by the picture. Is it good music? Who cares. Does it work in the movie? That’s the only question that matters in film work. Captain Ahab used to be my personal project, and film music was to pay the bills. Then a few years ago, I felt that switching. The film music became more interesting and appealing for me to work on, as Captain Ahab became a narrower and narrower focus. Probably the most freedom I have in any project is with clipping, though. There are no rules other than the ones we’ve made for ourselves. It’s a lot of fun.
You obviously draw some extremely heavy influences from John Carpenter, and a lot of people see him as the father of the modern synth horror soundtrack, along with people lik Fabio Frizzi and Brad Fiedel. For me, Phantasm was the beginning of my obsession with that kind of music and Myrow and Seagraves haunting score was one of the first albums that I ever bought. It’s always interesting to me to learn just how people got introduced to the genre, and in your case how you became so interested in it that you decided to dedicate a major part of your professional life to it. Can you talk a little bit about how you got into the horror soundtrack “scene” and who some of your major musical influences are as far as that goes?
I think probably the first synth film score I heard was Midnight Express by Giorgio Moroder. I got pretty obsessed with Moroder, which lead me to Cat People, Metropolis, American Gigolo, etcetera. I remember getting the Halloween III LP out of a dollar bin at a record store and becoming obsessed with that as well. I’m not sure what the first John Carpenter score I heard was. That or Escape from New York, probably. I just loved the simplicity of his music, simplicity that was born out of working conditions – fast and cheap. It’s funny how big an influential that stuff has become given how tossed off it seems to have been. Assault on Precinct 13 blew my mind the first time I saw it. I think I’d already done some film scoring, and I remember being amazed at how well some of those scenes work with just a single, long sustained tone underneath. No movement at all. I actually have been a pretty big soundtrack collector and nerd for most of my life. I got into film scores in the early 90s, maybe because it was a way for me to listen to orchestral music at home that still felt contemporary? I’m not sure, but I gravitated immediately to all the people you’d think – John Williams, Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, Basil Poledouris, Alex North, Marc Shaiman, Alan Silvestri, etcetera, etcetera. I remember when The Piano came out I heard that music, and that led me to Michael Nyman. I already liked Philip Glass; my dad had the Mishima soundtrack album, which I listened to a lot.
What’s the songwriting process usually like for your soundtrack work? I know that you often collaborate with William Hutson and a few other people, and I’m curious how you usually approach the songwriting process for that kind of thing. There are a lot of people who meticulously work stuff out beforehand, but I’ve never been sure exactly how that works when you’re collaborating with someone else…
I’ve only done a couple of collaborations on film scores. With Bill Hutson and John W. Snyder. Usually when I collaborate on a score, we go through the movie and spot it, figure out where the cues are going, then divide them up. It’s usually pretty clear what each of our strengths are, and hence apparent who should start which cues. Then once the cues have been started, we trade and add sounds, give notes, etcetera. Working with Bill is a little different. We do most of the work together in my studio, but it always starts by dividing up who should start which cue. It’s funny, when I work with Bill I take all the melodic cues, and when I work with John, I take all the sound design-y ambient cues. Different hats for different people.
What are you working on as far as soundtrack work goes at this point that you can talk about?
My latest two projects are The Nightmare, directed by Rodney Ascher, and Excess Flesh, directed by Patrick Kennelly, both of which are playing at the SXSW festival this year.
I know that Light In The Attic is now distributing the incredible Death Waltz Records release of your soundtrack for Room 237 and I love your work but I’ve had a difficult time tracking down a lot of it, unfortunately. I did hear from a little birdie that Starry Eyes is going to be seeing a Waxwork vinyl release in 2015 awesomely enough though! I don’t know how much you get any say, control or even how much you keep up with those releases? I’ve come across some digital files, but it was pretty slim pickings as far as psychically released soundtrack stuff for the most part. What’s the best way for people to get a hold of your work?
Yeah, there aren’t a ton of releases. The Room 237 record on Death Waltz, and the Starry Eyes record on Waxwork will be my only film score releases so far. Most of the earlier stuff I’ve done I don’t really want released anyway!
We’ve talked a little bit about it, but can you talk a little bit about the recording of the material for Room 237? When and where was that material recorded? Who recorded it and what kind of equipment was used? Was that a fun, pleasant experience for you?
It was crazy fast. We had no money, and about two or three weeks, so I begged borrowed and stole a lot to get that score done. Taking inspiration from the John Carpenter school, I just said “We’re going to do this as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible, but we’re also going to compromise as little as possible.” It ended up being a pretty fun process, but it was chaotic; lots of sleepless nights. I basically just used the computer as a tape machine – no quantization, only small occasional edits. This was done both as a stylistic choice and out of practical necessity. Most of the music was written and recorded in my home studio with my analogue synths and a Rhodes electric piano. Then, we managed to sneak into a studio on one of their off days to do drums, and the guitars were recorded at the guitarist’s apartment. The flute we recorded in my living room. The day we did drums, our drummer, Nick Murray, ended up being almost three hours late, so we just started digging around through the studio’s collection of percussion instruments, and that’s where all the weird marimbas, shakers, xylophones, etcetera came from on that score; just because we were waiting and wanted to be getting something done.
What about one of my other favorites that’s supposed to be seeing a vinyl release before too long, Starry Eyes? When was that recorded? When and where would that have been at? What kind of equipment was used for that project?
That was also made in my home studio. That one features no other musicians. It’s one-hundred percent me in the studio. I didn’t adopt as much of a purist “analogue synths only, no quantization” approach to that one. I started using some old weird digital rackmount synths, a Roland D-550 and Korg Wavestation, as well as some softsynths and sampler instruments, mostly u-he Zebra, which is incredible, as well as a couple of custom Max patches I wrote. There’s only one preset in the score though, all the other sounds I designed from scratch.
We talked a little bit about your bands before, and I know that CLIPPING is signed to Sub Pop right now. What, if anything, is going on in the CLIPPING camp at this point? Are you working on any new material or releases, or anything?
We’ve got a new EP finished, and it’ll be out in 2015 – that’s all I can really say about it!
From what I can tell, and being a cover band of sorts it makes sense, the spotlight falls on live performances for Nilbog as opposed to recording. Are there any plans to release any material from Nilbog, or is that going to remain a live thing at this point?
We made a few recordings as a demo. Or rather, we tracked drums and bass, and then it fell on me to start mixing and filling in the synths. Which I haven’t done. It’s been years. I should do that. In all that spare time I have.
Where’s the best place for our interested readers to keep up with the latest news from your various projects and happenings at?
Are there any major plans or goals that you’re looking to accomplish in 2015?
I’ve got a couple more movies lined up, and we’ll be making another clipping. record.
Do you give a lot of thought to the visual aspects that represent your music to a large extent to people who’ve never heard it before, stuff like flyers, posters, shirt designs, cover artwork and that kind of thing? Is there any kind of meaning or message that you’re attempting to convey with that sort of thing?
Not one overall meaning, no. Every piece of visual material is different and unique to the project. I do worry about them a lot, but they’re all done by different people. I didn’t really develop an aesthetic or an eye until near the end of Captain Ahab. Some of the earlier records are a mess visually. Around End of Irony we hit upon a good ‘look’ for that band, then I promptly quit doing it!
Do you have anyone that you usually turn to when it comes to the visual parts of your music? If so, who is that and how did you originally get hooked up with them?
My wife Cristina Bercovitz does a lot of my graphic design and we work on a lot of videos together. She’s been a big part of the visual component of my work over the years, but often labels will have people who they want to design album art or do illustrations, and I’m always excited to see what they come up with. Jay Shaw is doing the Starry Eyes album art, and it’s incredible. I’m a big fan of his work.
With all of the various methods of release that are available to musicians today I’m always curious why they choose and prefer the various methods that they do. Do you have a preferred medium of release for your own music? What about when you’re listening to or purchasing music? If you do have a preference, can you tell us what it is and a little bit about why?
Every format is different, and calls for a different approach to arranging/assembling the music for it. That’s why all my projects have slightly different track listings depending on the format. A CD will have a different track listing than a vinyl record, and both will be different than a digital download. I don’t prefer any one format. I like them all for their unique virtues. I like different things on different mediums. I don’t buy a lot of orchestral or acoustic music on vinyl, for example. I like my classical music to sound as pure and clean as possible. I prefer vinyl for dance music however.
I grew up around my dad’s killer collection of music and he was always really cool about letting me listen to anything that I was interested in, but I think it was taking me out to the local shops on the weekends that really left the biggest impact. He would pick me up random stuff that I was interested in and I developed this whole ritual for listening to music! I would rush home, snatch a set of headphones, read the liner notes over and over, stare at the cover artwork and just let the music transport me off to another place. Having a physical object, something concretely connected to the music that I’m listening to has always made for a more complete listening experience for me. Do you have any such connection with physically released music?
Absolutely, yes, but I also have a frustration with physical objects and clutter in general. I still buy a lot of CDs and records, but I try to weed down my collection as much as possible. I’m down to probably fifteen hundred CDs and maybe twelve hundred records! I always keep digital copies of things, and I’m buying more and more music digitally; always full quality and directly from the artist, whenever possible. I’m allowing my obsessive-compulsive need to catalog and organize music to manifest itself in my iTunes library, which I spend way too much time arranging and editing tags on. It’s all lossless, all has album art, etcetera. I give myself that indulgence because it doesn’t take up any physical space. Music shouldn’t really be connected to any physical object anyway since it only exists in time. If I only want to be able to hear the music, I’m happy with a digital copy. If I need the physical object for some reason, someone special gave it to me, there’s an incredible booklet, it’s signed, it was a rare and surprising find in a record store, etcetera, then I’ll keep it. I still buy a lot of records, but I’m trying to increase the throughput and get rid of more stuff at this point.
Digital music is here in a big way these days, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in my opinion. When you combine digital music with the internet, that’s when it gets really interesting. I think it mostly depends on how you look at, and utilize things. On one hand, they’ve exposed people to a literal world of music that they’re surrounded by and it’s allowed for an unparalleled level of communication between bands and their fans, thereby basically eradicating geographic boundaries that would have crippled artists even a few years ago. On the other hand though, while people are being exposed to all this new music, they’re not necessarily interested in paying for it, and at this point I think people are starting to see music as this free soundtrack to their lives that will always be there. As an artist during the reign of the digital era, what’s your opinion digital music and distribution?
Well, all us pinko commie liberals are perfectly happy to scream about how awful capitalism is, and how terrible privatization is for schools, police, medicine, etcetera. But, we’re not so eager to say, “Hey maybe music shouldn’t be monetized in a capitalist way either.” And I actually kind of don’t think it should. Obviously I want to make a living, and I think musicians should be able to make a living, but I also don’t the capitalist model makes sense for music. Music should be free. I don’t have an answer, but I do strongly believe that there are a lot of important pieces of human culture and interaction that can be damaged by trying to monetize them, and music is one of them.
I try to keep up with as much good music as I possibly can, but I swear, with all the amazing stuff out there right now it’s hard to even know where to start sometimes. Is there anyone from your area that I should be listening to I might not have heard of?
I’ll limit myself to people I know. Some groups and individuals in LA who I love are Ezra Buchla, Pedestrian Deposit, Christopher Fleeger aka Cooling Prongs, Matt Sulivan, Sean McCann, Twin Braids, Lauren Bousfield, Twin Braids, Whitman, and Folktale Records in general, Damion Romero, Hellfyre Club – Open Mike Eagle, Nocando, Busdriver, and Milo, BLKHRTS, John Wiese… There are so many others. LA is a great place for music.
What about nationally and internationally?
Too many to name, but I’ll try. Again, limiting myself to people I know, Mincemeat or Tenspeed, DJ Skull Vomit, Terminal 11, Xanopticon, Sleeparchive, Patric Catani, Bitches, Fujako, Container, Unicorn Hard On, Eugenius, Dreamcrusher, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Not really a fair question, I’m sure I’m forgetting too many people.
(2009) Jonathan Snipes – Mask Of The Ninja – CD – Deathbomb Arc Records (Fan Club CD)
(2013) Jonathan Snipes – Room 237 – Digital, CD, 12” – Death Waltz Records
(2015) Jonathan Snipes – Starry Eyes – 12” – Waxwork Records
(2012) CLIPPING. – Untitled – Digital, Cassette Tape – Deathbomb Arc Records
(2013) CLIPPING. – Untitled – 10” – Not On Label
(2013) CLIPPING. – Midcity – Digital – Self-Released
(2014) CLIPPING. – ENDS – 7” – Sub Pop
(2014) CLIPPING. – CLPPNG – Digital, CD, 2×12”, 2×12”+7” – Sub Pop
(2002) Captain Ahab – Bot Pirate – 12” – Irritant
(2003) Captain Ahab/Rose For Bohdan – No More Hot Carls – VHS, DVD – Deathbomb Arc
(2004) Captain Ahab – The Sex Is Next – CD – A2 Audio
(2005) KIT/Captain Ahab vs Rose For Bohdan – Split 7” – 7” – Hug Life/Hello Asshole
(2005) Captain Ahab – I Can’t Believe It’s Not Booty – 12”+DVD – Deathbomb ARc
(2006) Captain Ahab – The Great Disappointment – CD-R – Hate State
(2006) Captain Ahab – Snakes On The Brain – CD – Deathbomb Arc
(2006) Captain Ahab/Bill Picket – Captain Ahab/Bill Picket – Cassette Tape – Deathbomb Arc
(2006) Captain Ahab – After The Rain My Heart Still Dreams – CD – Deathbomb Arc/Ravesploitative
(2007) Copy/Captain Ahab – Split – 12” – Ravesploitative
(2008) HEALTH/Captain Ahab/Foot Village/Jason Forrest – Remix 12” – Ravesploitative
(2008) Captain Ahab – Live At 12 Galaxies – CD-R – Deathbomb Arc
(2008) Captain Ahab – The End Of Irony Sneak Preview – CD-R – Deathbomb Arc
(2010) Captain Ahab – The Propagation Of The Gospel In Foreign Parts – Digital – Cock Rock Disco
(2010) Captain Ahab – The End Of Irony – Digital, CD, 12”, CD+12” – Deathbomb Arc/dualpLOVE
Interview made by Roman Rathert/2015
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