A Sunday Conversation with Heavy Water Experiments

This week we are having an in depth conversation with a long time Ripple friend. David Melbye is the multi-instrumentalist and mastermind behind the quasi-psychedelic sounds of Heavy Water Experiments. David recently took time from his excruciating schedule to camp out on the interview couch and talk with us about everything music. Gather around kiddies and get comfortable, coz' this is an interview that you're not gonna' want to miss!

When I was a kid, growing up in a house with Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, and Simon and Garfunkel, the first time I ever hear Kiss's "Detroit Rock City," it was a moment of musical epiphany. It was just so vicious, aggressive and mean. It changed the way I listened to music. I've had a few minor epiphanies since then, when you come across a band that just brings something new and revolutionary to your ears.

What have been your musical epiphany moments?

My first two LP’s were Van Halen I and Cheap Trick “Live at Budokan.” My first instrument as a kid was the French Horn, but, after my older neighborhood buddy turned me on to Led Zeppelin, I was inspired to take up the electric bass. My room was plastered with Zep posters during my junior high years—not such an uncommon thing really. I remember my father taking me (he fell asleep) to my first midnight showing of Song Remains The Same. I think that was an epiphany for me.

Skipping ahead to my college years, I really had an epiphany with Pink Floyd and not only them but a lot of other psychedelic stuff from that era. What was a little unusual about this was that these epiphanies occurred in specially arranged settings. I formed a tradition during that time of building tents inside any given room in the house out of sheets and futons—a perfect setting in which to absorb all the visceral music I was discovering for the first time. It really was a listening ritual, and we tried to avoid too much party rant.

Eventually, we brought the ritual to an outdoor setting by finding a perfect little hollow in the mountains—an area completely surrounded by trees and thicket that could only be reached by carefully tunneling in through all the brush. I used to bring my big Cerwin Vega home speakers (which I still have) out there and power ‘em with a rented gas generator. Again, it was about listening—not simply partying, talking, and laughing. I would bring friends out to that spot once a year for about seven years running—until the whole area was decimated by forest fires. Those were some great times—I’d spin Cream, Hendrix, Neil Young, Moody Blues, Pretty Things, Gentle Giant, Yes, Mahavishnu Orchestra. All kinds of stuff!

Lastly, there is a small but long and narrow room off the garage at my father’s vacation house in Laguna Beach. We also had a lot of listening sessions in that room, which I decorated with tapestries on the walls and ceilings, red Chinese lanterns, futons on the rug, and beads on the door. (You know, the “Greg Brady” opium den sort of vibe.) I recall that it was in there one summer during my college years—probably listening to 60s Floyd and Donovan—that I had my strongest epiphany. It was an instinctive impulse for me to pursue original music—a feeling that I, too, could produce music on the same level with these artists I relished so deeply. Listening to music is still such an extreme passion for me. I still look for as many occasions as possible to gather my friends and band mates for this purpose.

What is you musical intention? What are you trying to express or get your audience to feel?

Emotion is by far the most important thing with me in music. But there are different shades and degrees of emotion, and, admittedly, I respond more to melancholic, minor key stuff. The genre of music isn’t as important—it could be anything from Debussy preludes to Nick Drake’s sparse Pink Moon material—as long as its moving. I don’t respond at all to light-hearted music, which doesn’t necessarily define “pop” but, rather, only trite pop. My sort of emotion is best communicated through quality melodic vocal lines—melodies one can find in so much of the Beatles music as well as in “baroque rock” artists such as The Zombies, Love, Billy Nichols, Kaleidoscope, and others. Mostly, melodies come to me once I have a chord progression or some instrumental tracks laid down, but, sometimes, a moving melody just appears in my head—and then I have to come up with the right instrumental music to support it.

Another quality that could be considered simply a facet to emotion is visceral sound. That is, music that imitates feeling in a way. For me, this is what “psychedelic” music really is. It is not simply “druggy” music that incorporates a lot of silly or “weird” noises. The best psychedelic music only sounds better to someone on drugs (mostly pot) because that drug is raising their visceral awareness. They are now in a position to “feel” more. But visceral music can be appreciated in any state of mind. There are many ways to make rock music more visceral. As I’ve already stated, emotional melodies are probably the most important factor, but, also, it derives from making the music “move” and pulsate in interesting and imaginative ways. Perhaps, this the art of being an inspired producer who knows how to make a few instrumental tracks in living and breathing entity rather than simply a “mix” that sounds well blended. Unfortunately, the term “psychedelic” also has for me a negative connotation in referring to a bygone, drug-oriented era in popular culture, which so many bands today have a stake in reviving. I think they miss the point entirely.

In songwriting, how do you bring the song together? What do you look for in terms of complexity? Simplicity? Time changes?

At this point in my evolution as an artist, I am able to pursue compositions from different angles. My first compositions were on a 4-track cassette recorder. I began with instrumental parts and then added a vocal melody on top. Later, I realized I could start with a drum beat, stack bass and guitar (or keyboard) parts over that, and then add a vocal melody. And then, as I mentioned, there have been times when a vocal melody came to me first and I would have composed instrumental parts underneath or around it. Lyrics are last for me. I have never tried to write a musical melody for preexisting words—though it would be an interesting exercise.

I think simplicity is (or should be) inherent to “rock” as a general category. When too much musical complexity or technical execution through classical or jazz influence is brought in, it isn’t really rock and roll anymore. Rock’s simplicity is what sets it apart from other genres. Such simplicity, in its most infectious moments, is also what makes being a great rock songwriter or composer so elusive. That is, it’s never as “easy” as it sounds. So, I try to keep the parts simple and not let the songs drag on too long. I admit that, so far, I have stuck to a traditional verse/chorus strategy in my compositions, whereas through their evolution Radiohead attempts a more progressive approach where sections don’t repeat as much as they morph into new sections. However, the latter can seem just as contrived unless it’s really organic to what the song is trying to achieve. Repeated verses and choruses are there to allow the listener to enjoy a good idea more than once in the course of a song, whereas allowing nice sections to happen only once simply forces the listener to replay the song. So, I guess it’s really just a matter of taste.

Before I move on to the next question, let me say briefly that time signature changes are a touchy thing. They can be really wonderful—as in Neil Young’s 4/4-3/4 compositions from Buffalo Springfield. At the same time, they can be jolting and make for stiff or blocky sounding results in a song. For a while now, I have been really invested in “groove” or R&B rhythms. (This is yet another way to make music more visceral.) Once you’ve got a nice groove going (and your head is bobbing), I don't’ feel it such a good idea to interrupt it with an abrupt time change. If you can create that nice head-bobbing feel, let it flow.

What makes a great song?

Inspiration—coming from a quality of genius that cites no direct influence from the past but seems to have come out of nowhere. The rest is merely what we’ve inherited through experience and culture.

Do you pattern your writing style after that of your "heroes?"

In terms of traditional verse/chorus structures, yes—but I may yet abandon these if and when I deem it worthy to do so. There are two kinds of influence—the kind that manifests itself in our writing whether we like it or not and the kind we consciously strive for. For example, I have a lot of progressive rock influence in me, which mostly manifests itself in busy instrumental lines, deriving from bands like Yes and Rush. I’ve been trying to excoriate this influence for a long time now—though I’ve allowed it to stand in a song like “Clairvoyance” for example. As for the conscious emulation of certain influences, I take a lot of compositional approaches and ideas from 60s and 70s Italian soundtracks (Morricone and others), which is some of the most imaginative music I know of. This is evident in a song like “Otherland” which could be a lot more paired down as a “stoner rock” number if we left out all the keyboard ideas you’ll find on it.

The business of music is a brutal place. Changes in technology have made it easier than ever for bands to get their music out, but harder than ever to make a living? What are your plans to move the band forward? How do you stay motivated in this brutal business?

Indeed, it is easier than ever to make one’s music available, but an entirely different task to get people interested in it. There was a time when unsigned bands simply had to appeal to record companies for validation. Consumers only became aware of the bands that made it onto record labels. But now, myspace, iTunes, and other internet platforms have made everyone keenly aware of a seemingly endless multitude of bands desperate for a scrap of recognition. In this context, bands become more like pestiferous door-to-door salesmen or simply fleas. (I think that’s why a lot of non-musicians have transferred from Myspace over to Facebook—so they won’t have to swarmed by bands, bands, and more bands.

In this climate, I don’t really see a way for an independent band to make a living—that is, without a decent record label behind them. I think a lot of PR, radio, TV/film placement, and other companies perpetuate the myth that independent bands “can” make a living on their own, but the bottom line still remains—that no band is going anywhere without heavy promotion and exposure through established industry channels such as major commercial radio, press, and major film studio placements. Of course, there are those rare exceptions—like the guy in New York who wrote a corny song for every day of the year and achieved a viral on-line response thereby. Or a band like Brian Jonestown Massacre who had already forfeited all chances for a career until a little documentary film about them won an award at Sundance, secured international distribution, and perpetuated a mythical aura about the band all over the world. Indeed, there are exceptions, but one really cannot plot out a formula for success around them—they are flukes not to be repeated.

We have taken many steps on our own to strive for a career as an independent band (or, rather, to become more attractive to record labels). In the past, I have hired PR people, radio promoters, publicists—you name it. You find that it all helps, and yet it does not bring you that much closer to having a career, at least as an independent musician. A big problem with this nowadays is that a whole network of companies have been spawned in the last ten years or so who exist solely through the sheer desperation of unsigned bands. These companies do not have to promise that their efforts will achieve results—only that, for the right fee, they will solicit your music for you. Ultimately, their recipients, whether they are radio, press, TV/film, or major labels, receive so many solicitations from so many of these companies that they, too, become just as pestiferous as the bands themselves. Thus, their success rate is hardly ever commensurate with the fee bands end up paying for their services. The most loathsome of this new music industry phenomenon is Sonicbids, which exploits bands by charging a fee for soliciting their “Electronic Press Kit” to just about every aspect of the industry—radio, press, TV/film, music festivals/conventions, and even local gigs. (I wrote a longer treatment of this issue in our Myspace blog, entitled “Industry Advice for Musicians.”

(This referenced blog entry is a well written, must read piece for any and all musicians)

I have learned that much of what these companies can do can be accomplished without their “help,” but there is still no way around the expense of it. Even mail costs alone, add up to quite a figure when you are sending out packages to radio stations, magazines, and websites all over the world. It is also very time-consuming to prepare the outgoing packages with the necessary one-sheet, press release, or bio. Sadly, I have even heard some industry people say that a band without their own source of funding (initially at least) hasn’t a prayer for advancement in today’s market. The days of popping a demo cassette in the mail and then being greeted with a major label record deal are long over.

So, at least in my experience, “DIY” can only go so far. I have taken so much of the promotions process into my own hands—even booking tours for my band both here and overseas. It has all been so costly. But even if you had a never-ending cash flow to devote to their band’s cause, this would not necessarily place you in the higher network of companies that work together to promote bands effectively. Really, the only way to tap into this higher network is through a label that is already part of this network itself. Thus, I would say the purpose of “DIY” is only to attract a label—and should not entertain the myth that an “independent” career is to be achieved thereby.

Within such a bleak picture, I feel the only thing that can keep an artist going is being just that—a true artist with a unique, personal vision. In this state of mind and soul, one cannot conceive of any other form of existence. One must create and continue to create even when the world around them seems to scorn any and all effort. While being endowed with a strong degree of imagination and musical inspiration should feel like a gift, it can often feel like a curse.

Describe to us the ideal (realistic) record label and how you'd work with them, and they with you.

Independent musicians like myself have to wear too many hats in the current industry climate. Rather than simply songwriters and performers, we also have to be managers, PR reps, tour bookers, producers, and so on. Unfortunately, this leaves a lot less time for artistic development since we have to devote so much time to the “business” of advancing the band. Thus, ideally (and realistically), a record label should be expected to assume many of these duties—so the band can focus more on being a good (or great) band. A record label should have effective distribution channels to begin with, but it should also have the means to promote its artists effectively so these distribution channels will amount to real potential sales. Any label—and any band—can now place their recordings up on iTunes, but how are they going to get consumers to download them? Both consciously and unconsciously, consumers feel more comfortable buying music from a record label—as it would seem to guarantee an established standard of industry quality (even if this is so often an illusion).

A label should be passionate about your music and be willing to get behind you in a personal way—like a friend. Clearly, this would describe a strong “indie” label rather than a major label who, with so many employees and artists on its roster, might not be in a position to offer a close, personal relationship (though its promotional muscle is vastly superior to the smaller labels). I suppose another way to put it is this: if a label is going to collect as much as 80% of your profits (as if often the case), they really ought to be earning that money, right? Regardless of personal rapport, a label ought to be effective—otherwise, what’s the point in signing a contract with them?

Anyone can pretend to have a record label nowadays (with Myspace)—far fewer of the labels that would appear to be out there nowadays are able to really impact the careers of their artists.

Where do you see you and your music going in ten years?

I have never written for musical trends. I have focused on my own artistic goals all along according to the influences (mostly from the distant past) I have absorbed on the way. I am always evolving, and I have yet to accomplish artistic goals I have set for myself. Because I do not compose music for the moment, it has a much better chance of having lasting appeal (except when you consider the cultural phenomenon of revivalism, of course). In a more technical way, I believe that melody is the most important aspect of what makes some music have more lasting appeal than other music. I have always placed a great emphasis on melody and emotion—above all else. So, depending on my career path, my music could go in many directions. I have developed a relatively wide palette of musical tastes, and the range of my own music is relatively eclectic in turn. For the moment, at least, I would like to see this project (only recently renamed as Heavy Water Experiments) continue and thrive—since I cherish the musicians I collaborate with (like Roberto), and I really like where the music and vibe are heading. Regardless, I hope to look back in ten years and say that the music has improved—rather than becoming stagnant, predictable, or devoid of real inspiration.

Vinyl, CD, or digital? What's your format of choice?

I have a pretty good LP collection, much of which was handed down from my older siblings. There’s no substitute for the “original” ritual of having a few friends over, taking records out of their sleeves, throwing them on a turntable, and then sprawling the record covers out all over the table or floor for everyone to peruse and enjoy while the music is playing—with that distinctively warm, but scratchy sound. All the same, I embraced the rise of the compact disc and have assembled a rich library of mostly classic rock and 60s/70s soundtracks, with some jazz and classical titles thrown in. While I do have an iPod, which I use more as a portable music library to “spin” for friends in various settings rather than a personal headphones device, I have not really become a digital/iTunes consumer as yet. Many of the types of albums I track down are still only available on CD, and still like to have something palpable in my hands—though I realize this is only the result of habit and experience.

I would love to know people could get their hands on vinyl versions of my recordings—not just Heavy Water Experiments, but Fuzz Beloved and Ludivine. Vinyl is too expensive for a self-release—unless I really made a future commitment to developing my own label Intrepid Sound Recordings. This would require a lot more time and investment—which I would prefer to devote to my current project. It still behooves independent bands to print their own compact discs, but this may not be the case too much longer.

What's the best record store in your town?

There used to be a record store in Pasadena, which actually occupied a residential house on the corner of a small street and a main thoroughfare. It was called Poo Bahs. Many LA record collectors would remember it. It came before all the other Hollywood independents such as Aaron’s Records, which were all eventually wiped out by Amoeba. It was such a treat to walk into this old 1920s house and dig through the vinyl bins for a serendipitous discovery. Actually, Poo Bahs still exists but has moved to a location much further east and in a small outlet space that lacks the vibe and charm of its former spot. So, it is really more of the stuff of memory—not only for its unique, intimate setting, but moreover as an appropriate representation of a dying cultural phenomenon—the small mom n’ pop record store wherein one enjoyed browsing for its own sake (a pleasure that just cannot be duplicated on the internet).