An Interview with Ryan Olcott of Mystery Palace
Very few musicians enjoy it when their equipment malfunctions. However, since disbanding 12 rods in 2004, Ryan Olcott has made it his mission to “control the chaos” by modifying old forgotten keyboards and turning them into unique, one-of-a-kind tools of expression. As if that’s not enough, Ryan’s also managed to use this malfunctioning technology to create catchy pop songs with his band Mystery Palace. I recently had a chance to question Ryan on his music and the creation process.
Todd: When and how did you “discover” circuit bending?
Ryan Olcott: The ending years of 12 rods when I was looking for something else to do… A few chance moments and open Speak & Spell gave me a couple weird ideas about how I could utilize hacked electronic sounds and apply them to my already challenging songwriting style. It was just something else that wasn’t a guitar, drum set, market keyboard or computer, something that was still only a few years old in discovery so I knew there were lots of doors still to unlock.
In a way, circuit bending saved me as an artist and I’m a little shocked that more musicians haven’t dabbled in it. I see it like a modern day piano, not for the obvious reasons, but that bending is such a concept driven sound tool that I believe every musician should try to wrap their head around the art of malfunctioning technology. There’s so much tech around and we have obviously become slaves to it, so I think it’s my way of staying ahead of the curve and a way to retain a human power over technology.
“Too Much” by: Mystery Palace
Todd: How did Mystery Palace come together?
RO: James Buckley heard I was getting into experimental electronic music early on and simply beat everyone at the race to have me in their next band. (HaHa!) Luckily, James and Joey are incredible musicians. After a few improvised sessions at various clubs with various people, the James, Joey and me line-up was the most realized and strangely advanced.
Todd: Did you ever consider adding a guitarist or additional instrumentalist?
RO: Adding a 6-string guitar was the farthest thing from our mind.
Todd: How has Mystery Palace evolved since the release of “Flags Forward“? When can we look forward to a new release?
RO: Well, the obvious would be that the new MP material and sound is just better because of the few years we’ve had to work on our thing. It’s a process-oriented music with no presets or archetypes so it takes a lot of time to sift through the madness until I can see the light of song. I’ve also been spending a lot of time recording other people’s records this past year which has slowed down the record making. Sometime in 2010 there will be a few different MP releases, but that’s all I can say.
Todd: One of the most impressive aspects of Mystery Palace is that you’ve managed to compose pop songs around what is basically malfunctioning keyboards. Musically, how different is your thought process compared to sitting around and strumming a guitar? I get the impression that you’re almost like a DJ controlling the sound…
RO: It’s 98% different than the process I went through making songs for 12 rods. I use to strum the guitar until I stumbled across a sequence of chords that made me happy and then I’d build a song from the ground up. Now, I just rewire-up an old forgotten keyboard, hit a few buttons, flip a few switches and let a series of blips, scrapes and drones influence what may become a song. But there’s a lot more to it, the editing process is grueling… I can easily spend up to 50 hours on a song’s instrumental just editing anything to make it better. Luckily, I’m pretty good at hearing flaws and solving problems which, I guess, makes me a decent producer and engineer. I’ve never believed in the saying “you can’t polish a turd” and my experience with circuit bending has definitely helped me see that through. I turn projects into a never-give-up situation. Anyway, with today’s general state of audio tech, there’s no excuse to make anything sound anything less than it should be. If something sounds like shit on recording, it’s because of the inability or the vision of the recording engineer and not the equipment. All the audio tech answers are here for us and they’re easily accessible.
Pros and cons aside, and from a writer’s perspective… It’s been necessary for me within the past decade to impose rules on myself by focusing on a limited set of tools and sound sources. Circuit bending has challenged me to maximize that potential just by learning any chosen piece of gear to the point of having to add physical modifications in order to achieve musical satisfaction. Yeah, its a little OCD… hence my run on sentences… but it keeps me occupied in a positive way, both creatively and destructively. To be honest, I don’t expect anyone to ever learn the machines I modify; they’re all very abstract and personal. I rarely map schematics or make logical switch arrangements; it keeps me from having to think about it more so than I already have. All this in turn, allows me to realize an un-science in electronic sound with a possible usability for song creation… I dunno’, it’s all just an experiment.
Todd: On the subject of songwriting, are James and Joey around for the creation of a song or do they bring them in after you’ve built a basic structure for the track?
RO: Songs are generally conceived in raw form while recording FoodTeam Trio improvised sets. At that level, we’re a glitchy, dubstep, acid, blip-hop live group on a mission to find the most exciting beats and tempos. It’s all an even contribution and ultimately a sound that would be hard to achieve if any one of us were absent. Once every couple years, we’ll track a few hours of FT and I’ll work it for about a year fleshing out raw ideas and sounds. I frequently make hard decisions that luckily, the guys trust I make (so far), and I’ll add, subtract or move around parts that stay within the parameters of how we agreed our sound should sound. Yes, I may do the studio work, but it’s all within respect to the band’s vision.
Todd: I get the impression that you treat the vocals like another instrument. What’s you process for writing lyrics?
RO: Vocals are a whole other bag… I don’t necessarily aim to make my vocals the forefront instrument, but I don’t rule out the possibility of it being. However, I’m cool with my wispy falsetto and think it’s a very appropriate dichotomy with both MP’s music and my past as a rock singer.
Speaking of which, writing lyrics and melody would be another similarity I’d have between Mystery Palace & 12 rods… usually an after thought. Actually, I try not to think about melody, phrasing or lyrics when I’m writing and producing an instrumental. When the time comes, I’ll write in bulk for a bunch of songs and rather forcefully churn out some results. Usually I’ll start with phrasing phonetical nonsense into a melody that stays out of the way of as much of the song as possible, resulting in a minimal 3-4 note melody with an open half or whole note rhythm. I do my best to write lines that keep momentum rhythmically and that will tie together parts melodically while still keeping it as simple as I can. Once I decide on a melody, I’ll think again about the nature of how the song feels and use that mood as a basis for a topic. What I come up with these days is usually love and pain sorta’ stuff. I’d actually say they’re more coherent than the lyrics I wrote in the ‘rods… which was more stream of consciousness with big attempts to stay away from themes of love. Anyway, now a cleverly written love story suits me fine.
“Lose It All” by: Mystery Palace
Todd: You play around town as Mystery Palace, FoodTeam and the FoodTeam Trio. What are the differences and how do you approach them differently?
RO: FoodTeam is me as a circuit bending producer, equipment modifier and as a solo improviser, usually with two modified Yamaha PSS-470 keyboards in tandem and maybe a delay or reverb pedal I’ve tricked out. I usually treat my keys like a DJ would… matching beats by ear and creating a ghetto minimal acid house sorta’ sound. I try to pay as much respect to Cincinnati and Minneapolis funk, Chicago and Detroit soul and techno. NYC noise/jazz/disco, UK idm/ambient/trip-hop/d&b/grime/dubstep, German electro, Miami bass, etc… as I possibly can.
The FoodTeam Trio adds James and Joey to the mix. The sound is similar but also adds a rock, minimal fusion, r&b thing to it. I usually play a little less and sometimes with only one keyboard.
Mystery Palace is a refined version of the FT Trio, post all production. At this stage, I’ve produced songs and have presented them back to the band for us to relearn and perform. Ultimately, I’m a pop songwriter, and it apparently takes three bands to make a song.
Todd: How did you come up with the “FoodTeam” moniker?
RO: I forget exactly how the name came about, but I think Mark Mallman had something to do with it.
Todd: You mentioned you’ve been spending a fair amount of time recording other bands around town. Who have you been working with? What do you think you add to a band’s sound? How “hands on” do you get into the process?
RO: The past few months I’ve done production for Solid Gold, Claps and Nyteowl. I try not to add anything to the band’s sound but more so make the band sound realistically as good as they can. A good producer should be a transparent motivator by either pulling the best performance out of the artist or instrument or by having the know-how to fix any given problem that may arise. To achieve fluency, I try to adapt quickly to the speed of which the artists works and make the process comfortable by accommodating their needs. Really, it’s a different mind set, but it helps me see the big picture.
Todd: Who are some of the artists you hold in high esteem? Who/what inspires you to keep making music?
RO: I don’t really know anymore… I work with a lot of great artists and ones who aren’t artists, but I hold (them all) in very high esteem. There’s really no specific musical archetype that I aspire to be… there are a lot of important people in all the fields I dabble in and then there’s always the phase which my inspiration comes from trying to seek what others aren’t seeking. I spend a lot of time observing and dissecting to know by now what excites me and what to stay away from. Luckily to this day, I remain optimistic about the possibilities.
Todd: What have you been listening to recently?
RO: I recently listened to that Washed Out record something like 10 times on repeat and was impressed at the balls it took to record and master it. Dude did some great research on British Shoegaze recordings of the late 80’s and still somehow managed to take it easy on the guitar… and he’s from Georgia. Awesome!
Todd: You’ve been involved with the “music industry” since the early 90s with 12 rods. Obviously, this question is a little vague, but how do you feel things have changed? Has it gotten better or worse?
RO: I never really felt like I was ever an insider with the music industry… 12 rods got a little lucky, but we were too inexperienced to deal with it properly. So all I can say is that it’s still seems to be the same payola-based marketing that’s been going on for decades, it’s just shifted somewhat to the online world with a bunch of desk jockeys blogging for a higher power. These days, record companies are left solely to the integrity of their roster and the fan base that’s attracted to their sound. A perfectly successful band doesn’t necessarily need a label because all the resources a label could provide are all attainable through online networked services. However, a good label would instantly garner quick attention and would probably still provide a built in audience for the bands. The basic principles are still the same, there’s just less money and more services to apply to. I guess I don’t think about it too much like it’s a business… Maybe I am a cog in the industry, if so, a very small cog.
Todd: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?
RO: Don’t care about the industry too much. “Making it” is a farce, if you can simply do what you want to do in your life, you’ve already made it. If the industry decides to scoop you up quickly, good fucking luck! If you’re just good at what you do and happen to pertain to the industry, they’ll keep you in their orbit for as long as you live, which isn’t all bad… Because it sure as hell beats living on that God-forsaken planet.
Todd: Finally, when’s the last time you picked up the guitar?
RO: Today, but only for testing hardware. Seems to be the only reason I touch the guitar anymore. I’ve been making specialized guitar adapters for the iPhone and iTouch with a team of dudes recently. I’ve also been asked by Heavy Electronics to apply FoodTeam mods to a series of Boss effect pedals which will be marketed to guitarists worldwide sometime this year. These projects in particular keep me close to my guitar. Other than that, I don’t have any plans to write or perform on one anytime soon.
“Ryan Ear” photo by Erin Smith
Editor’s Note: Todd Millenacker performs in local electronic band Avenpitch and writes about the TC Electropunk music scene in Minnesota. He can be contacted at avenpitch[at]avenpitch[dot]com.