ARPEGGI: WHERE DO-IT-YOURSELF MEETS DO-IT-TOGETHER | Interview
Drew Cowen recently had the opportunity to chat with Gavin McIsaac of Arpeggi about everything from collaborating with pals to the creative process to the Senioritis tape release via Community Radio Tapes.
Drew Cowen of GrizzlyGround: Is this your main project right now, or is it more of a side project?
Gavin McIsaac: This is my main project. It kind of severes the line between a solo-thing and a band-thing. I’m primarily writing the songs, but it was set up to be this kind of collaborative project with friends. I usually come up with the lyrics and skeletal chords, and then bring it to my friends to figure it all out. But yeah, it’s my main thing right now.
I have a side project with my friend Parker, who helped on Senioritis. We’re kind of tongue-in-cheek-ly called Two Jews. We played a gig I think last year, and we actually incorporated the Arpeggi song “Get A Little Lonely” into our set.
How did you meet these musicians you worked with on Senioritis? How did you record it?
Gavin: Pretty much everyone on the record were just friends from high school that played music. I went to pretty arts-oriented high school — small and heavily focused on creativity and all that jazz. So the majority of my friend group were musicians. So I literally just asked all of them if they would want to help, and we got together and made the songs happen.
With the instrumental tracks, I would have takes that were thirty minutes long. And so the songs on the album are kind of vignettes that I would edit down, and try to make into a cohesive tune. Whereas tracks like “Songs Don’t Help,” “Get A Little Lonely,” and “impartial pendulum” were more focused efforts, where I had the lyrics and guitar parts, but we would workshop the melodies to seam out the songs. Usually the drums and bass were overdubbed after the fact.
I feel like the song people usually pick out is “Songs Don’t Help” because it sounds the least lofi, and that’s actually because it was recorded partially in a studio which belonged to my friend Elijah’s dad — so it has a bit of a higher production value. But everything else was basically recorded one take — done.
Are the friends you’re working with now the same ones who played on Senioritis last year, or is it different people?
Gavin: Yeah, it’s different people. I went to high school in Los Angeles and I’m in college in Boston. So it’s mainly just different friends that I’ve met from school. But still keep in touch and collaborate with the people from Senioritis.
I have a friend Max who has agreed to do drums on the new album. And my friend Jay is gonna be mastering and doing synths. But I think what’s gonna have to happen for new stuff (because of the distance and budget constraints) is that I’ll record barebones guitar scratch stuff and then I’ll send it to him and he’ll do overdubs. Unfortunately a lot of the new collaboration is in bits and pieces right now just because of time and space, but I still think we can make it work.
When did you start playing music?
Gavin: I really got into music when I was much younger, around thirteen. I picked up a guitar, but I didn’t really write any of my own songs, I mainly just practiced covers and such. But yeah, I kind of started making my own music in conjunction with Senioritis.
Are these new Arpeggi collaborations a similar sound to Senioritis? Or did you change it up?
Gavin: So I actually never anticipated that Senioritis would be my debut album as Arpeggi. It wasn’t something I really had in my mind when the project began. It literally started because I had to write some songs for a high school project, hence the name Senioritis. So the bulk of the songs and instrumentals on that album were recorded in one take, with one mic, in my friends garage. And we were all improv-ing. And I still really like improvised, post-rock stuff, but I have a whole set of new songs that I just need to finish and record. These are kind of in the vein of a few of the softer songs from Senioritis, sort of folk-y, indie rock stuff.
What are some of your influences when you make music?
Gavin: Well, I first got into music because I had a sixth grade teacher give me In Rainbows by Radiohead. My first guitar was actually a shitty off-brand telecaster, because I was really into Jonny Greenwood and his style of playing. But I think [my taste in music] has definitely shifted post Senioritis. I’ve just gotten a lot more into the process of making music. I also do mixing on the side, so interesting production is also something that catches my ear now. I listen to a whole gambit of people, but just in terms of songwriting itself, folk artists usually influence me. Elliott Smith, Sufjan Stevens and stuff like that.
How do you typically become inspired to write music?
Gavin: So on the new material for Arpeggi, I’m singing the music myself, which is new for me. But I think for a long time, because I wasn’t singing my own stuff, I would just come up with lyrics first based on some sort of emotional response. But a lot of melodies and harmonies and structures usually come from the collaboration process—improvising and playing with people—finding the right fit.
But nowadays I listen to music not 24/7 obviously but, you know, maybe 12/7. So hearing sounds I like and good production can really help when writing. But yeah I think the main source of inspiration is just collaborating with other people.
Do you want to keep the lofi, DIY feel for future music? Or are you trying to shift toward a more studio-tracked album? Future releases?
Gavin: I guess it’s more just a matter of money and access. So I would love to go into a studio, record it, and have someone else produce and mix it. But I’ll probably end up recording and mixing it myself. My school has a pretty small recording studio in the radio station where I’m a DJ. I think my plan is to record in there, because they have some really nice mics. Recording in a professional studio is nice, but I think it’s less about the gear you have, a more about achieving the best sound possible.
It’s cool because I’m seeing a big revival in lofi recording with the advent of Bandcamp. But I definitely like the DIY ethos and ethics, and I don’t think I’ll ever not want to make art with my friends. I mean sure, it’d be nice to have nice mics and stuff, but I’m just gonna use what I have. Especially because I’ve been mixing other people’s records, I feel like I have some experience under my belt. It’s also just great to have so many talented friends to work with. My friend Yana made the album art for Senioritis.
Senioritis is actually coming out on tape thanks to this label Community Radio Tapes. Shameless plug, but yeah shout out to Luke, the owner, for reaching out to me. My friend Amanda designed the j-card inserts too.
So [Senioritis] really is just a labor of love, and making art with my friends. Do-it-yourself, but also do-it-together.
You can now purchase Senioritis via Community Radio Tapes here.
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