TimeSlip’s Mark Taylor at Birdy’s Live. (Credit: Jonathan Sanders)
In honor of tonight’s first of three “Battle Royale” second-round bouts at Birdy’s, in which TimeSlip will be participating, Hear! Hear! brings you four new videos, interspersed amid this fascinating conversation I had with the band’s lead singer and songwriter Mark Taylor. He had a lot to say about the band’s songwriting focus, their disinterest in being “mainstreamed” and how much he loves their southwestern sound being compared to the cinematography of Breaking Bad.
– – – – –
Can you tell us a little about how you started the band?
That’s something of a long story. I guess you could say it began when I was watching my granddaughter, who was about 4 at the time, playing with other children out back. It was clear she needed to learn some social skills in a structured environment. We couldn’t afford pre-school but Fishers United Methodist Church was nearby and I started taking her up there for Sunday school. There was a regular service during this time so I would hang out and listen to the message. I filled out a guest card and mentioned I played guitar and was subsequently hounded until I gave in an joined their worship band. Immediately the two people running this band bailed and left me holding the bag. I had to quickly assemble a group of musicians and that’s how I found Curt Grasso, who is a wonderful classical guitar player by the way. I got my friend Mike Haemmerle to run the sound board as he had deep experience. Once I learned he had played sax and bass clarinet in high school and could read music I hounded him to buy a bass. I knew he was a natural bassist – and he is! Eventually the worship band thing started getting old and they phased that service out. I wanted to form a secular band anyway because I had left a very good jazz band back in Tempe, Ariz., when we had to leave to come to Indianapolis for family reasons. We found drummer Tim Baumgardener through Craigslist. Tim has been very active on the Indy music scene, especially as a radio host. I met Brad Moore at a Christmas party and hounded him until he gave in and agreed to play keys for us. I met Guy Holbert through my friend Allen Stratyner who is very active in the Indianapolis blues scene and the best harmonica man in Indiana, hands down. TimeSlip in its present form has been together since last summer though some of us go back a couple of years playing together in that church band.
Tell me about your writing process and what you think makes a well crafted song?
First I have to tell you about our music and my overall approach. I write almost all the material we play though Curt is coming into his own as a song writer and has penned a couple of songs. Many of my songs originated as little motifs I created that were intended as instrumental pieces for that jazz band in Tempe I’d mentioned earlier. Timeslip started off playing covers to get a sense of one another and learn to work together, but my aim was always to get to originals using a sound that people would enjoy. I’m not a good enough guitar player to make it in the Indianapolis jazz scene but have a genuine love for jazz, artists like Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, etc. I got the idea to write music that would appeal to a rock audience but incorporate a lot of jazz elements, my stealthy way to get the typical pop/rock listener to listen to something like jazz.
But seriously, I want to learn something when I write and play, using jazz structures pushes me to increase my understanding of music in general. Other well known artists have done similar things — Steely Dan, Spirit and Zappa come to mind. The Police, who were very crafty in their writing, are probably the group with the most success. Anyway, most of the stuff I write comes from little instrumental motifs that I composed for the Tempe band. I simply expanded and added lyrics. Lyrics are the hardest part of what I do. I cannot write lyrics that are not genuine and from the heart so I refer back travelling in my earlier life, growing up in Colorado, living in the Arizona desert, and honoring people who have been important in my life.
TimeSlip – “Sad Joann”
Is it difficult to find songwriting inspiration?
I have found that I have to MAKE myself sit down at the piano and write, inspiration doesn’t often just appear in my head. I sit at the piano and begin experimenting with various chord-leading concepts with my left hand and then fiddling around with scales over those chords with the right hand – this is referred to as “key of the moment” where the scale is constantly moving based on the chord being played. I use very deliberate constructs like the V7 to the I chords to add tension and release at just the right place. I also experiment with various tried and true progressions like I IV V, ii V7 I, I vi ii V and look for different ways to mix and match these. I use a lot of chords with bV and V7 sus 4 because these seem to create a real sense of spaciousness and mystery. Those kinds of chords fit that kind of desert jazz rock theme I like to use in my writing. The band pokes fun at me because nearly every song has a Major 7b5 or a minor 7b5 somewhere in the chart. Eventually progressions and melody lines will shake out of that experimentation and I have things I can stitch together to make a song. My writing got much more interesting when I learned music theory concepts. They aren’t necessary for writing but as an analogy, if I’m going to build a house I want as many tools at my disposal as possible.
For the lyric writing I sort of meditate on what does this music lead me to within myself, and then I’ll take that and run through memories until I find the appropriate story that goes with the mood. Now the problem with this approach is you have to remember that the listener needs to be able to relate the song to their own life experience. But that is essentially the process. Zappa used to drop little “doo dads” (his words) in his compositions like poodles, tweezers, etc. I have a couple of those too. I have successfully incorporated the word “ghost” in nearly every song I’ve written. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know. It’s just something I noticed cropping up in my lyrics (Jung would have loved this I’m sure) and now it’s very deliberate. I write the lyrics and think “how can I get the word ghost” into this song. It’s just something fun I’m doing.
Timeslip – “But You Weren’t There”
How has your writing shifted recently as you work on new material for the band?
Recently I have been experimenting with telling stories of a non-personal nature in a couple of recent pieces. I wrote a kind of “fractured fairy tale” book a couple of years back — shameless self promotion, it’s available on Amazon.com under the title MOOSE LIPS. So I just tried doing the same thing, tell an entertaining story but over a rhythmic form. “Day of the Dead” is based on a true story that happened in the old West near Prescott, Arizona. I took those events and added a ghost story. The song “Dos Cabezas” (Two Heads) refers to a ghost town in Southern Arizona, I added a supernatural bar (“where nobody cares about your name”) that appears if the visitor to the town is in the right state of mind, a kind of Twilight Zone story. I recognized a need to get away from introspective moods in my songs because so much of what we do is cerebral in nature and, you know, when people go to a club or a festival, they want to have some fun. I think the finest song I’ve written is SAD JOANN and there’s some pretty serious stuff in that song (child prostitution and exploitation). In order for me to write a song that is “cheerful” I have to sit down and say “lighten up Mark, write something that it fun already!”
I rarely write in straight up major/minor chords. Once you get that extended harmonic pallate that jazz is built upon under your skin it is very hard to think in major/minor (I iii V) terms – and that’s a problem because your typical listeners haven’t had their ears conditioned to accept those sounds. A quick story about this: I recall sitting in a parking lot in Salt Lake City while traveling with friends. They put on Miles Davis at Fillmore East and I said “I will NEVER like this shit!” Boy was I ever wrong. Miles is one of the key people I draw inspiration from today. His music informs almost everything I do though most listeners likely won’t make that connection. Miles is also all up inside Joni Mitchell’s music. Much (but not all) of what listeners respond to comes from conditioning by guys in suits who decide is “marketable” and “air-worthy”. That’s changing with the advent of the Internet. Jack Bruce is an artist I admire who has successfully bridged playing “pop” with a lot of pretty sophisticated musical devices. Most people know Jack as the bassist and lead vocalist of Cream, but even in that band, Jack wrote almost all of their music, he was able to bring elements of jazz into a wildly successful band.
The writer has to fashion the music and lyrics in such a way that it sounds familiar but has unexpected twists and lyrically you want the listener to apply the story to his or her own life. An example of this is found in our Song “But You Weren’t There” where the singer is telling someone that they waited all day but that someone never showed up. It could be a lover, a drug dealer, God, even a dog! Whomever, the listener gets to decide who that is. At the same time you want to expand that listener’s experience. They should feel:
1. I know this, I’ve been here (in this feeling) before
2. There is something different about it this time… oh! there’s a surprise I hadn’t expected
3. I know what this guy is saying! I can relate to it
You see, it takes both a musician and a listener for music to appear. This is why I shake my head when I attend a concert and see someone continually snapping pictures throughout the show. That camera is getting in the way of the process needed for music to appear. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious but it is absolutely true. My goal as a song writer and performer is to make the hair on the back of the listener’s neck stand on end at least once during a show. There is an energy that arises between a musician and someone who is really listening. I saw Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie many years ago in the Paramount Theatre when I was hanging out in Seattle. After the first piece they played you could have heard a pin drop in that crowd. That was so powerful of an experience. I want to make music that facilitates that kind of participation in the moment by listeners. And also to have a rockin’ good time too!
Does the band ever write songs together?
No, I typically come armed with a chart for the players. Curt is doing the same. It’s rather like creating a blue print for a home and then leading a group to build that house. I bring that and then the band builds the house together and each member gets to add their own ideas about how we decorate that house, colors, are the shutters, etc. The guys do whatever they like as long as the ideas stay true to the function of the song itself. Brad and Curt have been very helpful in arranging the songs I bring. Occasionally someone will make a little mistake and new ideas will grow from that. A good example of this is my song “Ajo Way”. I was listening to a rehearsal recording and the bassist made a mistake. That little flub inspired me to put together what we call the Ajo Interlude in the middle of “Ajo Way” where we have all of that beautiful, soaring guitar weaving going on. A real sense of setting out on the open road in the Sonoran Desert was inspired by a bass guitar flub.
What song by another artist do you wish you had written?
Depends on context. It’s always about context isn’t it? From a pure musical perspective it has to be Jack Bruce’s “Out Into The Fields”. There are several versions of Jack’s tribute to the great Otis Redding out there and they all make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I need to take the time to analyze that song and figure out how he’s doing that, it’s lightning in a bottle. The West Bruce and Lange version is literally Wagnerian in scope – you can find that on Youtube.
From a lyric stand point it would be words by Pete Brown (Jack Bruce’s writing partner) The words to “White Room” are so amazing “Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes” Are you kidding me? Jesus that’s incredible stuff in that song – look up those lyrics! I’m also very fond of Brown/Bruce Theme for an Imaginary Western. Those lyrics are cinematic in scope. I’m also a big fan of just about anything Adam Duritz writes – “Round Here” will always make my hair stand on end, especially his version with The Himalayans.
From a cash perspective it would be “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf or maybe “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter. Can you imagine the royalties those two songs continue to pull in after decades? Comfortable retirement for writing a song!
TimeSlip – “TimeSlip”
What do you wish someone would ask you but they never do?
Why do you feel jazz music is so important in American culture?
What would you do with your songs if given the chance to do a proper studio recording? is it difficult to get the spontaneous nature of a live performance into a recording?
I like to hear a lot of layers and small nuances in recordings and would like an opportunity to hear our songs produced with that in mind. I would also welcome the creativity of a producer outside of the band. I think you can get too close to your music and become somewhat possessive with little room for creative “evolution”
I think the live experience will always be more dynamic and organic in nature compared to studio work and that’s the way it should be. Recordings are simply reference points to navigate by when you are playing live. I’m not particularly interested in rehearsing the band to sound exactly like the recording. In my mind there is no creative growth in that approach. I don’t look at songs as being static in nature. It may sound a little mystical but I think songs appear and then take on a life of there own. Every performance of a song SHOULD be different. I’ll quote the late great reed flute man Eric Dolphy here: when you hear music it is lost in the air; you can never capture it again.
How have fans reacted to your evolving sound? Are you happy so far with the band’s progression?
Well we are really only just building a fan base though a few have been following since the beginning I think the are hearing the writing getting better and better; more sophisticated but without being pretentious or sterile. A couple of the fans have been to some of the places out in the desert that I write about and it gives me tremendous pleasure when they tell me ‘”Yeah, you really captured the spirit of the desert.” I’ve received numerous favorable comments about what we are doing so people “get it” even if they don’t necessarily understand the mechanisms we are using to get that wide open, spacious sound
I’m very happy with the band’s progression. We have the right musicians to manifest that sound I’m after. Tim can swing those drums exactly the way I hear them in my head. He’s really getting it together with sensing the power of dynamics instead of just pounding away. Brad is superb on keys and more importantly he keeps me on my toes and challenges me to write interesting stuff. Curt is great at complementing my guitar parts. I’ve never found anyone to play guitar with who really gets the concept of “orchestrating” through inversion of chords Curt and are are never playing identical guitar parts. Mike is a natural bass player. He started about two years ago and he’s rapidly reach a place where he’s doing interesting and sometimes surprising things with his bass lines. He’s worked very hard. He needs more confidence in his playing. Guy brings the soul and spirit to me, nothing is as personal and expressive as a wind instrument. I’ve given up some of my solo space just so I can hear more of his playing.
TimeSlip – “Day of the Dead”
I love the desert imagery you put into the arrangements of your songs. It’s almost like putting into music what Breaking Bad‘s cinematography did for showing the American southwest in a new light. Is that something you’re consciously doing, or is it just a natural offshoot from your time in Arizona?
I love that breaking bad reference! I write about the desert because I simply feel so connected to life, our planet, God or whatever word you want to use for a sense of the sacred. The places I sing about are in an area that the Tohono O’Odham people regard as the world naval where Li’Ito created the world. I can really feel that same stirring when I’m out in the Sonoran Desert. There is something of a deliberate “branding” we are doing with the Southwest. There’s so much to write about and it gives us something I think is rather unique in Indianapolis. We’re that psychedelic jazz rock music from the desert. I like that lable.
Any parting comments?
I only wish more American audiences could appreciate “jazz” music. When pop exploded in the 60’s, jazz artists got left in its dust and that’s a shame. Jazz takes the listener to a place that is very unique in that moment – very Zen in concept. It is SPECIAL! even SACRED! People are missing out on some wonderful music. It took me a while to “get it” and it only comes from being willing to open your mind up to new sounds. Jazz is America’s cultural gift to the world. It’s very popular in European countries and in Japan. Many of America’s great artists ended up moving to Europe because they could not find work here. That’s sort of tragic really but you know that old saying, “A prophetic is never accepted in his homeland.”