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Interview with sleepmakeswaves

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

According to Australian band sleepmakeswaves, trying too hard to be original can lead to not being original at all.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

sleepmakeswaves was formed out of a desire to be different. All the original members of the band came from different musical backgrounds and so our influences became a melting pot for the early sound of sleepmakeswaves. This included bringing together a love of punk rock, black metal, dance music, prog and post rock among others. We were also inspired by bands like Mogwai, Godspeed, Explosions and 65daysofstatic who were proving that you can captivate audiences without vocals. We took inspiration and queues from watching a couple of local Australian instrumental bands too and saw the potential to do something in a similar vein. Bands like Tinderbox, 1-2-Seppuku, Laura and Decoder Ring were all live-music influences. As an artist we knew our first EP/album/whatever wouldn't be bleeding-edge original concepts of music, we just played to our strengths and then were surprised with the initial reaction around the world with our two-track demo CD and subsequently our first EP In Today Already Walks Tomorrow. Since those two releases we found the drive to be better at what we do and create our own sound. But throughout our career we will always be inspired by music of others. That's what music is about, even what you hear to be truly "original" music all has elements inspired by other existing music.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
Originality is not an important quality in music for me and I think this view has changed over the years. Previously, I would dismiss new music if I felt it wasn't original or that it was too blatantly copying someone else, but now I've come to realise that we can all still appreciate and enjoy music regardless of how similar it sounds to existing works.  Don't get me wrong, if I hear something that I've never heard done before I am still impressed and the "wow" factor still applies to me like anyone else. However, I don't believe in degrading music just because that artist's influences are more apparent than another's.

What's your own definition of originality?
Standing out as clearly being the first, original concept, even after being cloned and copied by others.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
The idea of always striving to be original used to plague us, as I’m sure it does to many other artists when they are composing, performing and recording music. Over time, we have learnt to stop worrying about it so much and just listen to the music we have at the end of the process. I believe the members of sleepmakeswaves have enough trust in ourselves to know that if we start a song idea with let's say a guitar riff which sounds similar to another artist. We know that by the time we have finished composing the song in its entirety with all the other parts mixed into the pot, it will sound uniquely sleepmakeswaves.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
As an artist you're digging your own grave if you believe that you can be truly original all of the time. We should continue to draw inspiration from each other and enjoy the music which artists create for how it makes us feel, not purely for how "original" it is. I've seen terrible music reviews which dismiss an album purely because it contains a few songs which sound like another artist from 30 years prior. The ridiculous originality-competition sometimes gets out of hand. We should feel excited and appreciative that some of the new music we hear is a nod of respect to great artists of yesteryear.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
The biggest challenges to writing for us are making sure that the process is working amongst ourselves and that we are able to adapt to the ever-changing time constraints placed on us when we are touring artists. When we were writing our first EP and our first album we didn't have any deadlines and we didn't have an extremely busy schedule of band activity. Nowadays we have different phases of the year dedicated to touring in different regions and somewhere in between you need to allocate time to write and compose music for the next release. The challenge is being creative on-demand.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
Musical ideas can come from anywhere, sometimes you sit down with a guitar for hours and nothing song-worthy comes out all evening. Sometimes the first few notes you play are magical and you know it's going to be a keeper.  The idea of originality may be closely related to the understanding of the creative process but the trick is sometimes to disconnect that relationship and just play what you feel. There's no formula to originality, there's no equation to create originality, there's no pill you can take and no lesson you can learn. It just happens, and not always, but that's okay too.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
I think it's interesting you can't trademark or own the rights to rhythmic beats however you can do so to a melody. The industry says one is recognisable and unique, the other not. Is this perhaps the biggest insult to drummers everywhere? If an artist sounds like they are blatantly reproducing the melodic progression note for note, then the right thing to do is to at least acknowledge and credit it. That's a respect thing too. When the band Wolfmother started becoming popular, they copped criticism for sounding like Led Zeppelin.  People would say they were "ripping them off". But if you listen to Wolfmother, nowhere do they copy the same lyrics, the same melodic progression, the same riffs or sequence of notes to Led Zepplin. They simply draw inspiration from the band in terms of the sound and their singer sings in the same register with a similar style. I can name hundreds of "original" artists who have done the same yet we just haven't drawn the connection yet. Artists reserve the right to protect their works from plagiarism and a right to therefore protect their income and livelihood, but they shouldn't reserve the right to withhold inspiration. I think the world of artistic copyright is one which will be ever evolving over time and needs to be kept up to date to reflect the needs of protecting rights holders.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
I create music when I'm inspired by an idea or need to express an emotion without words. Sometimes it's not even about expressing that emotion to others, in fact most of the time it's about expressing it to myself to reflect back on. Inspiration and originality don't have to lead each other hand-in-hand, the end product created from inspiration may not be original. But the fact it is the end product of any form of inspiration is art itself.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
We like computers. They are useful to humans and musicians.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
In my point of view, originality can sometimes be in it's purest form when it's not trying to be and it just is. The obstacle to originality is perhaps when one is trying too hard to be original.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
A part of me would love to work with a full symphony orchestra on our next album. If money was no object I would use all of my time spent on something artistic and enjoyable. Unfortunately the reality of the situation deems that I have a house loan, bills to pay, and family to care for so those basics need to come first.

sleepmakeswaves Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: sleepmakeswaves