Apr 07

“It’s Time To Get LIVE Again!!!”



There’s been, with no doubt, a surge of talent in the electronic community in the past few years. New artists, new approaches, more production, and progressively bigger festivals are all happening. Is there any aspect that’s been overlooked? Is there any attitude that is lacking? Is there something more that can be brought to the experience? To isolate a defining focus of this piece, I am being rhetorical and referring to something intangible and not necessarily visible, something along the lines of: passion, intensity, and, to some degree, integrity. Greg Spero and I had a very interesting conversation about some dynamic qualities that he would like to see approached and presented, as an abundance of more live editing and mixing. This public vulnerability could help serve as a defined yardstick by which to more accurately measure an artist’s true merit. This system of gauging is not meant in anyway, by any means, to discredit the recognizable talent of producers and DJs, both past and present. It is merely suggested in order to ask them to share more of their heart and soul, via live mixing, with their respective audiences. Opening yourself up to the possibility of making a live mistake is a necessity to progressively honing your craft.


Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Highland Park, IL. It’s a small suburb just north of Chicago. It doesn’t have very much music, but luckily, I was just a half-hour drive from the city, and both my parents are piano players, so I was able to get into the music scene at a very young age. When I was 14, I joined my first professional band called the “Slackdaddies”, which was a blues band, and then a fusion band called “Bucket Shop” at 16. They’ve covered a lot more of that on my wikipedia page if you want to check it out :).


How do you feel where you grew up affected your musical stylings?

My dad is a country/rock keyboardist and producer, and my mom is a classical pianist and teacher. Every day, all day, I would hear my mom’s piano students playing in the living room. The house was small, so you could hear the piano from any room in the house. At some point, when I was about three, I started plunking out some of the songs I would hear my mom’s piano students play. Then I started making up my own little tunes, asking my parents for guidance along the way. I still am absolutely in love with Debussy, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, but have a huge place in my heart for Randy Travis and Charlie Daniels. Not sure if you can hear that in my electronica project though…maybe you can let me know :).


Who are some of your favorite EDM artists?

It really depends on what you consider EDM. Flying Lotus doesn’t produce “dance” music, but he’s my favorite electronic artist. Dilla is my favorite even more so…but we’re unfortunate to not have him in this living world anymore. There’s a young producer name Pogo who I’ve been checking out lately, who I think is amazing. His intricate use of samples is something I’m going to work on incorporating into my own improvisational techniques. Otherwise, of course I’m a huge fan of Deadmau5 and Skrillex. They’re amazing for very different reasons.


Who are some contemporary EDM artists that you would like to collaborate with or that you feel would embrace your attitude towards a live mixing approach?

Deadmau5. For sure. I love his music so much; the feel that he’s able to produce from his mixing technique, and his development of ideas is just superb. It also tends to incorporate vast landscapes of sounds morphing over time, which is something that I do relatively consistently by the nature of my project. One day, he and I will jam. I’m also a big fan of Skrillex, though I question if our techniques would really mesh. Maybe one day I’ll have the opportunity to find out. I hope I do. If we’re talking about practicality, EOTO is a group I’d love to collab with, and I think the improvisational systems we’re both developing could be really hip together. Oh, and Flying Lotus. I’m honestly a little intimidated at that thought, because I think he’s a musical genius, but I do hope he and I can play together one day.


Ideal set up, venue, and accompanying artists for the show of your life would be…

Ideal setup is a hard question, because I’m developing this system to incorporate any setup. I am excited to do shows completely by myself, but it will be incredibly cool when I can use a trio as well with drums and bass. In fact, I have a specific drummer and bassist in mind now, but I can’t tell you who they are yet. They’re some of the best in the world, though. I also plan to expand to horns and other percussion accompanists, and to eventually incorporate a full orchestra. I’ve scored for orchestra before, and am very excited to bring it into this context when the time is right and resources there. The ideal venue for me right now is a club with a stage and a KICK ASS sound system. I need lots of bass, beautiful crystal clear flat-spectrum sound, and room for people do dance. My music is meant to be moved to. Oh, and amazing lighting helps. The theatrical aspect is something I want to incorporate full-force. I’m also very excited to play festivals. In creating my improvisations, I feed on the energy exchange between my self and the audience. There is something very special about thousands of people with eyes fixed on you ready to take a musical journey right along with you, ready to jump up and down, ready to feel every beat and every note as its created. It’s an amazing human exchange that you can only get in a few very special contexts.


Can you explore your personal dichotomy between your preference for live performances versus pre-recorded “mixing?” Please speculate on how this spectrum is influencing the global EDM community.

I am an improviser. From the AACM (a Chicago based organization called the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; a free-jazz music organization) to playing in a Baptist church on the south side of Chicago, to improvising in just about every jazz setting you can imagine, my passion is expressing my humanity in the moment through sound. That’s improvisation; that’s spontaneous composition. Drawing without an eraser – what’s out there is out there, and you can either be honest in the moment or you can mess it up. That’s also how life works, and that’s why I live my life. So, when an artist spends hours composing the perfect thing, and then goes in front of an audience and presses the play button, that doesn’t align with my passion. That also doesn’t align with what I think the greatest musical expression is; a sense of unbridled honesty. Unbridled honesty can only be achieved when you can’t look back; you can’t change what you’ve done. Then you have to be vulnerable, risky, and most of all, 100% present. Throughout history, this has been the way music was made. In folk music settings, we only have vague documentation at best, because most folk music throughout the history of humanity was not written down. It was played live, which inherently incorporates improvisation, and was usually not even written down. I’m talking about music from the ancient Greeks through the late 19th century, when the phonograph was invented. The only music of which we have an actual record is early church music, and then classical music once the techniques for notation in the church setting were adopted by composers in popular settings. Even when the music was notated, it was still played live, and the live performances required the same deep intuitive specificity that improvisation requires, just in more intricate aspects of the creation of the music other than the note choices (such as dynamics, phrasing, expression, etc). So, what happened with EDM? We (humanity) developed the tools to create music that actually couldn’t be played live. The inherent nature of most electronic music is found in the digits of a computer. It’s not found in an instrument of wood and metal that you hit to make a sound; its nature is in a computer that tells a speaker how to vibrate. That vibration is very specific; the exact same thing every time. It can be amazing music. I’m a HUGE fan of Skrillex, Deadmau5, and even Porter Robinson, but in their performances (which I’ve seen and enjoyed thoroughly), I sorely missed the risk, passion, vulnerability, and connection of seeing someone telling their hearts story on the spot, right there with you. It was just a party. A great party, but just a party.

This is further exemplified by the fact that most EDM shows and festivals now are more about the party than about the music. They are about the amazing light shows, the drugs that everyone’s on, the camaraderie between the people in the audience, and lots of other wonderful things. My passion is music, and I want to bring it back to that. Don’t get me wrong. There are amazing electronic acts that are all improvised right now. EOTO is one of them. In this world, however, there is a lot of musical development to be done, and a lot of technique to be created. I’ve been working for three years now on developing my technique for live improvisation, in the context of EDM. It’s just now becoming fully baked and ready to be played for people. The beauty of it is that it’s not a composition; it’s a system. It’s a set of tools that I’ve programmed in the computer to allow me to create and loop my own playing on the spot, and then manipulate that which I have played in ways that will allow me to spontaneously compose for any amount of time. I could play this for 10 hours straight, which is one of my goals one day (to have a 10-hour nonstop dance party with this system).


Do you think there is anything that can be done to encourage more artists to embrace the “vulnerability” of live performance?

I don’t think that changing the landscape of what we now consider the “live” music scene has anything to do with marketing to artists. The current landscape of pre-recorded concerts is due to artists responding to audience expectations and wants, aka “the marketplace.” The problem is that the landscape is so new, much of it uncharted territory, and has evolved upon the basis of pre-recorded, pre-composed tracks played by a computer. Audiences haven’t been given the opportunity to understand the true value of the live music experience, within the context of EDM, simply because it hasn’t evolved there yet. Some groups, like my project, are exploring it, but it has so much room to grow, and honestly I believe has much to catch up with in terms of how we compose live on the high level of composition that composers do with their pre-recorded music. This is what I’ve been working on for three years now. It also touches on another issue. People don’t like being vulnerable. When we are vulnerable, we risk being hurt. It happens to each of us on a day-to-day basis, when we have the choice to interact with the world around us as who we actually are, or who we think society wants us to be. I try very hard to just be, to just exist, which inherently means being vulnerable, because being a human being is vulnerable. As artists, we can get up on stage with a pre-recorded track that we know is going to go great, and we can pretend that we’re really into it by jumping up and down, fist pumping at the audience, and leading the dance party. Or, we can get on stage and create something new, risk failing, risk being booed, risk being hated, but also risk creating a deep life-to-life connection with: our audience, our listeners, and our community that we would never have been able to do just by pressing the play button. I think audiences will inevitably experience this, and will want it more. The costs and risks of creating music live with eventually be overwhelmed by the demand of the public to hear music being cerated in the way that human beings have embraced musical exchange throughout almost all our history; through a true live performance.


How do you approach fine-tuning the methodology behind your improvisational technique?

The methodology has one specific goal in mind; everything that you hear will be something that I think of and play, right there, at that moment, on the spot. With that in mind, I’ve developed (and am in the process of still developing) sequences of manipulations to whatever sound it is that I play in the moment, which will assist me in the process of creating new amazing compositions every time I sit down at the system. Most of the time, though, if you look at what my hands are doing, you can see a 1-to-1 connection of everything that you hear. That direct connection is what I think is overshadowed in the EDM “live performance” world right now, and I’m excited to participate in the transformation, that is happening, back to a truly live performance experience. There’s so much to be done in the live performance experience that I have barely tapped into. You can control an entire light show based on the midi data that you send through a computer, making the theatrical aspect of a performance totally improvised in sync. You can control virtually ANYTHING in that manner, even physical objects in a room. All of this stuff is going to be part of what I’m developing, but I’m starting with what comes first for me, which is the music. This development and fine-tuning will be something that I’ll continue to explore for the rest of my life.


Any mentors or individuals that have been instrumental in helping you hone your craft?

There is a great jazz pianist/composer by the name of Herbie Hancock. I met Herbie five years ago. I snuck back stage at a concert at Ravinia Festival just north of Chicago where I was living. I found Herbie, and asked him if he would give me piano lessons. He said, “You know, a lot of people ask me that…” We ended up having great conversation, though, and in our conversation he introduced me to a form of meditation that he said helps him with his music, and his life. I figured, I’m not getting piano lessons out of this, but I might as well try the meditation that he talked about…what did I have to lose? Well, it ended up completely transforming my mindset on why I create music, and shifted my mentality from one of narcissistic ego-based composition to humanistic improvisation. It shifted the purpose from the self to the realization that there is no difference between the self and others, and every note that I play is meant to express that. If you don’t know what notes you’re going to play, you have to listen, and feel, and you’re expressing exactly who you are in that moment on the spot, which I believe forms a much deeper connection with the people you’re playing for. Since then, Herbie has been a very important mentor to me in life, and has shown me some amazing stuff on the piano that transformed the way I approach the instrument. But most of all, the guidance he’s given me in playing is the same as the guidance he’s given me in life, which is to be a human being before you are anything else. Human means imperfect, but it also means infinitely great. That is what we all can be in any given moment, and what we can express through our musical experiences.


How did your fascination with jazz begin?

Music has been a part of my life since I was a baby. Like I said, both my parents are musicians; my mom a classical piano teacher and my dad a country/rock keyboardist/producer. Since before I can remember, I heard all the basic piano songs being played by my mom’s piano students all day every day. Somehow I just picked it up. I started playing them on my own. Then I started asking my dad how he played the things he was working on. I started picking it all up and developing it on my own. When I was three years old, I was improvising on the piano, messing around with different melodies, sounding things out, and having fun with it. I learned it like a language, and I used it like a language, to express how I was feeling, to connect with people, to interact. My middle school was terrible. They barely had a music program, and they didn’t have a jazz band. Against the will of the faculty, I created my own jazz band, and rehearsed it in the school. It seemed like a cool thing to do. Then when I got to high school, the jazz band actually was the cool thing to do. So I joined that, and was hugely inspired by my band director, Mr. Brame (now Dr. Brame), and the rest is history. I joined a professional blues band at the age of 14 called the “Slack Daddies,” and went on from there to join a jazz-fusion band called “Bucket Shop” when I was 16, cutting our first album when I was 17. All the rest of the guys in these bands were in their 30 and 40s. I was guided and mentored by the other musicians, getting more passionate about the musical journey every step of the way. So I made a career in Jazz. I majored in Music Composition and Jazz Piano Performance at UIUC, and then came back to Chicago, winning “Jazz Entertainer of the Year” award in the Chicago music Awards. It wasn’t until 3 years ago that I started getting into EDM, but it was a quickly growing and passionate romance, which brought me on an amazing journey of exploration and study, leading to where I am now, bringing all these influences into the current project that Electronica Life is the first to discover.


If you had to pick a vocation other that music, what do you feel would make you happy?

Nothing. Zero. I’m sorry, but I had to make this decision 5 years ago; I was doing stuff on the side to make money because I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it in music. I was designing websites, starting small businesses, and exploring the IT world. In retrospect, it makes me sick to think that I could still be doing those things if I hadn’t made the leap 100% into music. I’m so glad I did. I wouldn’t be happy otherwise.


Do you have any other artistic methods for expressing yourself?

I do love drawing, painting, and sculpting, but that’s not anything I’m comfortable showing to the public, at least at this point in my life/career :)


Any upcoming tours or projects that are in the mix?

This coming May, I’ll be going to the United Kingdom for nine shows with my quartet to celebrate the release of my upcoming album “Electric”. My quartet consists of Makaya McCraven on drums, Junius Paul on bass, and De’Sean Jones on Saxophone. You could call this upcoming release a “Jazz” record if you want, though it’s not jazz. It’s not electronica either. It’s not rock, or hip-hop either. It’s just me. My most raw voice in the moment, without any stylistic intentions. Lucky for me, there are a lot of people around the world who are embracing that voice, especially in the UK, enough to bring out my band from Chicago, with whom I feel very blessed to be playing. After the UK, we’ll go to Sweden, Berlin, and Paris to play more shows. If I’m lucky, I might be able to intersperse some solo shows with this EDM project in the various cities we’re playing, so keep an eye out for that if you’re in any of the cities above. After that tour, I’ll be traveling a bit with a great drummer named John Blackwell, and hopefully with some other acts. However, as my new improvised EDM project gains traction, I hope to do many more shows around the world with that, hitting both clubs and EDM festivals.


I like knowing that things are going to get interesting in the near future. It’s not as though a gauntlet has been laid down. Public challenges have in no way been made. This is not a chapter in the “Chronicle Of International Beef In The World of EDM.” This is a testament to elevating self-expression and putting yourself out there when you perform. This is not a excerpt from a manifesto on methodologies and political trends within the EDM community, and it should not be treated as such. Greg Spero is a gentleman who is prepared to make some pretty cool things happen. He loves that his craft is evolving and is definitely eager to bring it to the masses. How open are YOU to the next stage of experience?