Music Mechanics

An interview with TWISTED HELICES' Ram Samudrala by TRIPinoki057.

Twisted Helices is the recording name of Ram Samudrala, a quirky musician out of Rockville, MD, who has become one of the first musicians to market his music solely through use of the Internet. I asked him a few questions via e-mail, discussing the dynamics of music theory and the use of the 'Net as a music marketing tool.

Me: Where does the name TWISTED HELICES come from?

Him: The name TWISTED HELICES comes from one of my passions in life: the study of proteins. All the letters in the name represent the one-letter codes of various amino acids which make up proteins.

Me: Why proteins?

Him: It's what I study and want to understand. It's what my graduate research is going to be based on. Look for a "protein song" using "instruments" unheard of coming soon!

Me: How would you describe yr music if you had to?

Him: I had someone recently pay me a compliment on my home page. They referred to my music as "the bastard child of Ween and the Residents". I think that's a pretty good description. I started off by calling it twisted pop, and it has evolved and mutated in something that's quirky and just plain weird.

Me: How long have you been making music?

Him: I put together a band in high school when I was 15 (we were called The Morons), but that ended fast. I then stopped making music until I began grad school. I've been seriously writing and recording music since November of last year.

Me: What are yr influences?

Him: Early Pink Floyd, Primus, Ween, John Cage, Kraftwerk, and the Residents are a few of the musicians who've influenced me to make weird and self-indulgent music. I'm also a big fan of Deep Purple, especially Ian Gillan's screaming, and I find Blackmore's sheer mastery of the guitar frightening.

Me: Where do you find the inspiration for yr music and lyrics?

Him: Everywhere, from movies and shows like The Jungle Book and Fraggle Rock, to listening to the modem connecting to my computer, to random posts on the Internet. I try to keep an ear open for weird sounds that I think will sound reasonably pleasing but yet maintain some dissonance.

Me: Explain the use of atonality & cacophony in yr music.

Him: The standard penatonic scales seen in rock have been beaten to death. After all, there are only a limited number of ways you can put standard progressions together. I, however, see no reason to restrict yourself to any scale or key. I think you should let your hands and heart run free when you play your instrument and if something sounds good to your ears, record it and share it! But invariably when you write a chord progression that sounds good to many people, it probably has been used by someone somewhere. When someone is listening to your song, they normally don't go "he's using the same chord progression that the Beatles used". They just listen to what it sounds like. And the more you alter the sound of the chord being struck, the less familiar it is going to feel. So in order to produce music that is fresh, you need to try something other than something that has become a standard (so it might sound atonal, but if you base it on patterns it will sound quite decent even if you're going over all the 12 notes on the chromatic scale). You also want it to sound unique; since I like things that unsettle me and keep me from becoming complacent, I use cacophony for uniqueness. I think uniqueness is the key to longevity.

Me: So what exactly is yr view on "theory vs. feel" then?

Him: I believe in thinking/analysing, to some degree, about what you write. But in the end, you have to just trust your ear and go with what sounds good. I think you do need to play and experiment, and thus have an open mind for trying out new things and this is harder when you're thinking of the theory behind things. For example, when I try to write a song, it is with some difficulty that I have to go off on an off-beaten path; I start going back to sets of notes that have become musical cliches. However, theory is important because it also gives you a good musical vocabulary and thus makes sure that you produce isn't total noise. At the very least, theory is good because once you know a lot, you realise what you should avoid!

Music is the bridge between passion and reason. Allan Bloom has written "To Plato and Nietzche, the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty for the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul." Ultimately, your goal should be music with uniqueness that represents you as an individual, tempered with some rationale.

Me: How do you accomplish yr unique sound, i.e., what equipment do you use?

Him: I've recently started moving into using a PC with a soundcard as a synthesiser, but for the most part all the weird sounds you've heard in the initial versions of the Twisted Demo are from my guitar effects processor (a Digitech RP-10). I process my guitar (an Epiphone Explorer) and my voice (and sometimes even my keyboards) extensively through that. I also use various tricks that my 4-track (Tascam 464) and computer let me do like pitch variation and playing things backwards. All these sonic alterations are layered against a steady, repetitious background of programmed drums and melodies; I think this is makes for a stark contrast.

Me: What is yr writing and recording process?

Him: I don't have a particular formula for this. Sometimes I write riffs and wait for the lyrics. Sometimes I just write lyrics and keep them on the burner, and one day I find that the lyrics fit a riff I just wrote. Sometimes they all come at once (this is the best). Once I usually have a song with the lyrics that I can play with the guitar, I go about programming the keyboard [these days it's the computer] for the drums and the bass and other melodies. I then do the rhythm tracks, the guitar tracks, and finally the vocals. I use a DAT for bouncing, so this helps reduce noise in the 4-tracks. I sometimes use a computer for hardisk recording and editing of some of the tracks as well.

Me: What is in store for people who listen to yr music?

Him: More weirdness! As I write more, I find myself experimenting with eclectic and diverse forms of music, so things are gonna just get better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). In terms of actual material, a new song will be added to the demo and put up on my web page each month. I have a few other projects going and I hope good things happen out of that (I'd rather not say what they are until I see the final results). I will try to get a CD out by the end of the year, if time and finances permit (and it'll be 4 times or more cheaper than what you can get in a store).

Me: Do you plan to play any live shows soon and if so, how would you accomplish yr sound live?

Him: This is something I've been contemplating for a while. I do play for highly selected audiences [laughs] but I've been thinking of going out and actually playing the occasional gig. I've been toying around with two options. One is to just take my guitar and processor and do a show with those instruments and my voice. This will sound almost normal, but I think they will be refreshing to hear (I know that I like them). It's easy for me to do and it works well because I write all my songs with just the vocals and guitar. The other is to mix all the instrument tracks into a DAT and play it back while I do the vocals live. This would be kinda boring and so I thought I'd use a computer and project interactive graphics/animation to make it more of a visual spectacle (so I'd be manipulating the images on the screen realtime). I've not worked out the details on this yet, but I know it'll be more expensive than the first option. Maybe someday I'll be able to do both, but for now I think playing live is going to be limited to very small audiences.

Me: What are the best ways for new artists to market their music?

Him: I'm a reasonable fan of independent labels. I think this is really the way to go. There are many reasons that you shouldn't sign with a major label, and this is discussed in detail in the Maximum Rock 'n' Roll reprint Everything You've Wanted to Know about Major Labels. [It can be ordered by sending $2 to MRR PO Box 460760 San Francisco, CA 94146.] I recommend it highly if you are even remotely interested in making music.

But in general, the philosophy is that you try get your music out on your own (even if you hire someone---so long as you have total control). These days, even very small labels can hook up with a national distributor and get their music heard. And the Internet offers a powerful method for making your music known so people will go and seek out the CDs.

Me: What are some of the benefits of distributing music via the Internet?

Him: Well, it's hard to "distribute" music per se on the Internet. Right now, the best we can do is put out MPEG compressed (the kind that is used in the Sony DiscMan) files of full-length songs. This is far below the CD quality sound we are used to. I think people are always going to want their music in a separate medium. But the Internet can serve as a vehicle for making your music known. People will download your soundfiles and if they like it, they can either order your CD with a credit card or something.

Me: What does the future of music look like to you?

Him: I think DiY music is going to be the next big thing. Ween's Pure Guava sold over a 100,000 copies and it was recorded on a Tascam 424! There are many other bands who have done their music on 4- or 8-tracks and have become popular. This is mainly because good equipment has finally become cheap enough for the DiYers to afford it. DiY musicians also have some of the most innovative and refreshing ideas I've heard in music and I think some people are actually catching on the idea of strange and different music---music that represents the individual and not the genre. Just like the major labels took industrial, grunge, and now punk to the mainstream, I think DiY will also be watered down "mainstream". But I hope that will result in more bands coming up that are free of the major label tentacles and being as self-indulgent and creative as possible.

Combining this with the Internet's ability to reach diverse peoples, I can see it as a way where a small label with one or two artists and a major label with tons of artists are finally put on a level playing field. Hopefully, the only thing that'll matter is not how many times they are given airplay on MTV, but the quality and longevity of the music they make.

TWISTED HELICES || Ram Samudrala ||