The pop song knows no boundaries or limitations, and few people more aware of this than Dominique Leone. Starting his career out as a music journalist for publications like Pitchfork and the All Music Guide, Leone was an early champion for people like Animal Collective and Devendra Banhart, and a strong supporter of artists like the Boredoms, Magma, and Bob Drake. Leone switched from writing about music to performing it in the middle of the last decade, creating two great albums, Dominique Leone and Abstract Expression, as well as a slew of EP's which you can get on his Bandcamp.
Leone's music is expansive, and much like the work of musicians like XTC or Max Tundra, full of songs that keep you guessing what will happen next. Predictable is certainly not a word I would use to describe Dominique Leone. To start his discography, I'd look at his most recent full length album, Abstract Expression, eleven songs which run the gamut from pop ditties to prog work-outs, always changing, always staying interesting.
I was extremely pleased to interview Mr. Leone over the weekend. You can check that out after the jump.
How do you feel about the notion of being known for music criticism when relating to the actual
music you've made? Do you feel like your music is approached differently when audiences know you first as someone who wrote about music rather than played it?
At the risk of going on a rant here, I would say that, yes, there probably are folks who know me primarily as a music journalist and that affects their feelings about my music. How's that for diplomacy? ;)
When I released my first music three years ago, I had already been making music for close to 15 years.
Growing up, I was obsessed with music, and was really introverted, so instead of, say, going to the prom, I stayed home and transcribed Beach Boys harmonies. I figured out ways of getting 4-part harmonies, and who knows how many layers of casio "backing band" onto a cassette tape w/only a boombox to record it (using the time-honored, tape-over-top-notches trick to overdub). I recorded hundreds of songs like this.
Then I got a real synth/sequencer in the early 2000s, which let me actually record multi-track instrumental music. I could do the track, and then do vocals on my old tascam 4-track. I recorded my first album like this about 3-4 years before it was released, and a lot of the stuff on Abstract Expression was done 2-3 years prior to it being released too-- because of my backlog of songs, I am perpetually presenting sides of myself that are in some way or another "outdated". This isn't the ideal situation, but I had a pretty firm idea of what I wanted my first couple of records to be, so I stuck with them even as time marched on. (note, the next one will actually be recorded w/a live band in the studio)
I think the music crit thing relates to this, insofar as whatever view people have of my music. You can't really control how people feel about you, and one's "image" is subject to so many different factors, trying to manage it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. I guess I have felt at times that my music gets categorized as somehow...non-legit, in a weird way? As if the fact that I wrote about music means my own stuff is coming from a place of manipulation, trickery, academic exercise, or worse yet, a dilettantish curiosity. Jesus, if I was a dilettante in anything, it was music crit! I don't regret any of my time as a record reviewer, and it would be foolish to think it hasn't served me at points in my own music career. But, it by absolutely no means sums me up as a person, and has not much to do w/me as a musician.
Under which process do you write and record your music? It sounds like you use a lot of different instruments, both real and synthesized. Is this mix something you look to go for in your music?
I do like a mix of synthesized and live sounds, though for the most part, my music has been synthesized, sans my voice, a tambourine here, handclap there. When I write music, it's usually just on a piano, or on my synth/sequencer (and sometimes Ableton). All of the first record and most of Abstract Expression were done on a single synth workstation. It's exceedingly, embarrasingly simple, but because I had been making tracks w/even less before that, I got really adept at squeezing the most of out what I had.
I'm not really very technical when it comes to recording, but these days, I do at least have Pro-Tools, Ableton Live, and better mics, so I can make things a little more "pro" sounding. In general, my approach is just to write a good song on the piano, to make something that sounds good to me with just the chords and melody, and then turn it into a "track" afterward.
I know you are a big fan of the Cardiacs, have you submitted any covers of Tim Smith's material for the "Leader of the Starry Skies" compilations? If you haven't, which songs would you cover?
I haven't contributed, but yeah I love Cardiacs! It's really tragic about Tim Smith's health, as I selfishly want all the new music from them that I can get. As it happens, I am going to play some covers for a show here in the bay soon, probably one of "Dirty Boy", "Wireless", "Wind and Rains is Cold", or maybe a
Spratley's Japs tune. My friend Kavus used to play in Cardiacs, so I am going to try to convince him for charts...!
I also know that you are a big fan of Boredoms, and in your journalism you were certainly a champion of them. Did you ever think, that when you were writing a review of the group, that you would one day be appearing on one of their records? How did that experience come about?
That was awesome! I was in Oslo a couple of years ago on tour, and Lindstrom said he was working on a Boredoms remix and wanted to know if I and my tourmate Maryclare would contribute. Of course I wanted to!! We listened to the track in his studio, talked about some ideas, and then I went back to our hotel and drew up a vocal chart and a simple horn arrangement. I was completely honored to be on that track, and yeah, it does feel kind of surreal knowing I'm on one of their records.
Do you consider yourself a singer-songwriter? It can be a strange camp, because on one side of that coin you have people like Randy Newman or Van Dyke Parks, but the term has also become synonymous with coffee shop peddlers clunking out lame lyrics over the same chords on every song... What do you think about the phrase?
Yeah, singer-songwriter is a tough label-- it's what I do, but..not...what I do. I guess "composer/producer" works just as well. Too bad it's hell of pretensious.
I have noticed that "Abstract Expression" thrusts your vocal and personality into the spotlight, something that didn't happen on your self-titled album. I really like that!! What inspired this new confidence?
Gosh, that record. I had written most of that music in 2005-2007, and in some cases I replaced the original vocal with newly recorded vox, and everything got mixed from scratch. Note to all aspiring self-produced artists: don't do this. It will drive you mad. It will make you understand hatred. Of yourself.
Anyway, I'm not sure I had a conscious desire to mix my voice higher per se, but I did (and do) consider most of those songs as, well, "songs". That is, melody + harmony and some rhythm-- and I suppose in my mind, melody is the most important thing in a song. Nevertheless, it was the first time I'd ever tried to produce anything like that, so a lot of it was trying new things out in the hopes that they would get me closer to where I ultimately wanted to be, production/mixing-wise. If not on this record, then the next...imo mixing is a never-mastered, perpetually re-learned art. However, another thing was that I'd just come back from touring Europe, and had played a ton of shows in the US before that, so maybe there is some truth that I was more comfortable behind the mic, as it were.
My favorite song on the record is "Nellie McKay." Can you talk a bit about how you put that song together and what inspired you to make it?
Thanks! Well, the obvious answer is Nellie McKay inspired me to make it. :) But I remember I had a desire to write a song called "Nellie McKay" before I had any music/lyrics. I made that track separately from that idea, but the chorus fit so easily into it, I was forced to complete it. And I kind of wanted a fake rap singing-style, like NM does in some of her songs. For a long time, I thought people would just think it was silly, but after a while I got over it. I mean, what's an homage without gushing, over-the-top adoration?
Here is a great live performance of Dominique Leone and his band!!