by Ross Richardson
So, there you have it. The story so far of three musicians whose paths had long since diverged, and who found themselves at the same crossroads once again. 2020 was weird—like, really weird. I went from being part of the management team for one of the world's foremost whiskey bars with near zero free time for passion projects to being a glorified taxi driver/live-in maid for my partner, who was working in the laboratory at Oregon’s largest hospital. I didn’t have any idea if my career was ever coming back, and I had no idea what to do with myself.
Of course I was down to experiment with remote recording when Gabriel pitched the idea. What’s the worst that could happen? I miss out on a chance to totally rearrange our 600 sq. ft. apartment for the umpteenth time in a week? Being the one that had gained the most free time out of the group, I shouldered a lot of the busy work and monotonous deep-dive learning of the software, which led to me also taking over the majority of the rhythm section responsibilities. After all, the bassist and drummer do tend to be the most responsible for a song’s “pulse.”
There we were. Three dudes, absolutely limiting out the abilities of the Lite version of Ableton that came with our audio interfaces. Improvising every last piece of how to make this work, because no one we knew had done anything like this in the past. Gabriel certainly didn’t have a full vocal booth in his apartment; Alan’s entire effects suite was software, and he was using a semi-hollow guitar even on our heaviest songs; and I didn’t even actually play drums (hell, I still don’t—I’ve just learned how to tell a computer how to pretend).
We were on fire, but we wanted so much more. We could see the edges of the first major piece of this project starting to materialize, and in order for us to do it justice, we needed an upgrade. Ableton Live Lite was limited to eight total audio or MIDI tracks and had a very rudimentary suite of studio tools like EQ, compression, and reverb. Ableton standard held all of the basic building blocks that would help us really launch this project, including a more comprehensive effects suite and a near-limitless track count. The only problems: it was expensive, and we each needed a copy, since we all were recording in separate spaces. So we did what any millennials would do.
We asked our friends for money.
The goal that we set for ourselves was enough to get each of us full versions of Ableton Standard, as well as some role-specific software and plug-ins. And, as is the case with most professional-grade software, this wasn’t a little bit. How do you ask your friends for more money than most of us were paying in rent? With a GoFundMe, of course. And how do you make a GoFundMe more exciting? With a teaser track for the album.
I set about putting together some sample clips from each of the songs that we had close enough to pull from at that point in time, and then got it staged into a YouTube video so that we could ask our friends to give us a few bucks. In the very “one thing led to another” sense that we apparently do everything, a simple logo image would not suffice for the backdrop, but what sort of imagery we could use still eluded us.
New Beginnings in the End of the World
That “we were on fire” comment earlier, maybe that was foreshadowing. It was fall 2020, George Floyd had been murdered by Minneapolis police several months prior, and the protests against police brutality and for racial justice had come to a boiling point. There were violent nightly clashes between Portland Police Bureau and local protestors; neo-nazis were driving in from all around to “support” the police; the city was looking pretty dystopic.
Then the actual fires happened. In early September, unusually high winds and extremely dry weather set the state (and much of the west coast) on fire. In Oregon alone, more than 1,000,000 acres burned. Four towns were essentially removed from the map, and the smoke blotted out the sun in Portland for days. I had more material to work with for a YouTube visual than I ever could have hoped for.
There’s nothing like the very real fear of the world ending around you to really accelerate the next step of a creative project. In one of our meetings getting the details ready for the GoFundMe launch, I mentioned how many good (and terrifying) photos I had been taking during the smoke, and I pitched the idea of doing track art and making a digital CD booklet. We had the audio side of this creative endeavor on lock-down; now it was a whole damn story. How else could we really bring it to life, but with complementary imagery?
Thus the visual side of our story was truly born. We weren’t looking to do a full-on graphic novel, but the same way that each song in this project gives you a little bit more of a view into the expansive world of Archive of the Unbounded, we wanted to create something that really helped flesh out the depth of this world. Through the same unspoken communication that much of this project has existed upon, we agreed that every release of our media would be accompanied by some sort of a visual aspect.
While we were all pretty damn happy with the image I produced for the YouTube teaser, my amateur photography skills and free photo editing software certainly weren’t up to the task of creating the visage of this album. There were people and places that we were creating that needed the touch of a professional to really bring to life. Gabriel had an old friend who had helped on some of the original New Origins artwork from 2011, so we asked him if he was interested in helping out with this iteration of the band. The very first wireframe image that Marvin sent us blew us away. There was now going to be a very real, very cool face to our music. And, in many ways, just the initial concept drawing he sent us sealed the fate that this project was now very multimedia.
At this point, we had a clear path towards album art and a handful of supporting graphics. You are probably thinking, “It’s time to think about CDs.” We didn’t know it at the time, but it was one of the most logical things we could do. Producing physical media in today’s digital world to tell the story of a synthetic being and the computer voice inside his head might seem a little absurd, but absurdity may as well be our mascot. Once the idea was pitched, I couldn’t get away from the concept of being able to actually hold a copy of the first arc of an epoch we were creating in my hands. We all grew up in a time when physical media was the apex of accomplishment. Call it Blockbuster nostalgia or sentimentally Sam Goody, but we had to conceptualize fully self-producing our own CD, and that meant rounding out our whole visual experience.
I am sure that the area around Portland has all of the settings I would have needed to photograph in order to paint a scene for every song inside our CD booklet, but I wasn’t interested in acquiring all those trespassing charges or getting that close to the teargas that the police were wantonly deploying on my friends. Instead, Alan mentioned Creative Commons licensing. Creative Commons is essentially a soft copyright used for and by people who want to encourage collaboration and creativity. Through websites like https://unsplash.com/ and https://freesound.org/, our boundaries were seriously expanded. We were able to source fantastic base images for track art (to then be modified to help give that little view of the world we were looking for) and eerie sound effects to really bring our audioscapes to life. At that point, we made the choice to release our music on the same sort of licensing to encourage collaboration and the idea of free, creative use.
The next problem lay in the actual “releasing” part of it all. You want to release a finished product, right? Creatively, everything was going great. We had the software we needed, a fully formed concept of what the final product was going to look like, and a pretty good story to tell. However, none of us had ever “finished” something like this before. Fortunately for us, Alan turned out to be pretty good at formatting, so he pretty much handled the layout for all of the physical media. Mixing and mastering though, turn out to be a lot harder than you might think. As is very much so our style, we taught ourselves. Lots of guess and check, YouTube videos, and trial and error later, and we think we actually pulled it off.
From here, the story is going to get much more granular. In the following posts, we will be taking a closer look at each track on arc one of Archive of the Unbounded, and we’ll be talking about what specifically brought each track to life. From the creative process behind the songs to the turning points in the narrative, and everything in between, we hope to give you a better view of the individual creative aspects of each song in our story, along with lessons we learned along the way.