What do you listen to while you work? I usually start the morning with Sesame Street (nothing beats that harmony between Bert & Ernie in their “Great Adventures” theme song). Then it’s on to NPR’s Morning Edition and usually I switch to John in the Morning on KEXP Seattle (streaming through iTunes) as soon as he starts. The afternoon is either listening to what I’m working on, or a lot of tangential playlisting. I usually have one strange 30-song playlist that makes sense to no one but me, and I listen to ad nauseum for about a week. Every time I get in the car with my wife remarks on how she’s “completely sick of this playlist,” and I’m always a bit surprised that she was even listening. I think the point is that music for me has a way not of being supplemental to my reality, but rather replaces a good deal of what I should be paying attention to.
How do you listen? I run everything through my Apogee One. iTunes, recording apps, the works. It sits on my desk in a little tripod stand, and it’s ready to listen to me whenever I have something to say. When recording, I listen out of that through my Sennheiser headphones (everyone needs a pair of good studio headphones). They put me inside the music, where speakers put the music near me. When I’m not using headphones, I had a custom cable made that lets me take the output of the Apogee One and run it through my Bose sound dock. Audiophiles will laugh, but I don’t care. Limited space, and sounds a a lot better than just about everything else that fits in my little apartment studio.
Also, it’s important to note that when I’m drafting a design proposal, it’s ear-bleeding metal through the headphones. I just write better when the music interrupts the rest of my brain, which is flicking through every other channel with the remote all the time. Somehow it calms and focuses me.
Do you have any favorite music providers? Where do you find music recommendations? I grew up on 95.5 BRU in Providence—back when it was amazing and Elvis Costello would drop in to DJ for the afternoon in the late ’80s. Now I have John In the Morning on KEXP Seattle. The man is responsible for me spending a ton of money on iTunes last year. He loves music, and turned me on to just about everything in the past year. I urge others to take the Pepsi Challenge with him—listen every day for a week (stream the station in iTunes)—and you’ll see what I mean. He’ll play Public Enemy, The Jayhawks, a band that I’ve never heard of but now love, Pixies and The Smiths and Nina Simone, all in one hour. It sounds disjointed, but he makes it work. I think he deserves the Nobel Prize for DJ’ing—it’s a dying art. I hate Pandora. Everyone loves it, but it feels so impersonal. Discovering music has always been, for me, getting invited to the party with every new band. It’s important for me to have a personal connection to it, rather than a server spitting out Nirvana because one time I gave a Soundgarden tune a thumbs-up. I want to trust my cooler older brother, and I don’t have one. So I listen to John in the Morning. Also, I pay attention to StereoGum, Pitchfork, and Brooklyn Vegan. And my friends. I mean, I live in New York; all it takes is a few nights out a month to hear something amazing.
Does music influence your work? Music is my work half the time, so I don’t know how to answer this. But what I have talked about with my design business partner (he’s far more visually talented than I am) are the similarities, the parity of visual and audio design. I’m always geeking-out about a drummer being deep in the pocket or somebody doing something in a way that I’d never hear but is brilliant and simple. (Listen to Wilco’s ”Ashes of American Flags.” That guitar part? Gorgeous. I’d never have heard that in a million years.) So it’s all the same to some degree. There’s a commercial objective to both design and a great deal of music at some point—it’s always about communicating. It’s always about knowing what you want to say and saying it artfully, rather than being arbitrarily artful and hoping people hear something in it.
If your work was a song or a musician, what or who would it be? I’m a collaborator. I’m no good on my own, but I can be brilliant with someone else. My ego would love to say “Tom Waits,” but wouldn’t we all want to be that cool. I would say Broken Social Scene. There’s a core there, but the end result always seems to be bigger than sum of its parts.
Shape Shifter, Local Natives
Silver Soul, Beach House
January Hymn, The Decemberists
Love Is Stronger Than Death, The The
In the Neighborhood, Tom Waits
7/4 Shoreline, Broken Social Scene
I’d Run Away, The Jayhawks
Image: Office image Matthew Thornton