What It’s Like To Dream (Boring Life Story)

Studio

The room in which I now sit has been the subject of my daydreams for the past decade. Around the age of 20, when I first started cautiously entertaining the idea of becoming a ‘creative’, among my lecture note sketchings was the image of a room with two large speakers mounted on stands, one to the left and one to the right. Also pictured was a large workbench, upon which was laid out the tools of my trade – a laptop computer, computer keyboard and various MIDI devices. As time crawled slowly on, as it only can in your twenties, the images became more detailed, including various other instruments, cables snaking along the floor, and eventually other musicians to adorn those empty corners left in my playful imaginations. It was all a bit of harmless fun, really, like a teenager singing into an empty toilet roll.

But the idea that I could become a performing musician and self-employed music producer has just never gone away. It is a thread that connects me to the unreal, the impossible. I haven’t studied music since I was 16. I never performed in school plays, or did really good impressions and accents. I have watched others form bands, and recognized with muted envy the face of my contemporaries in the sleeves of beautifully packaged CDs. I managed a to put together a band practice here and there, and every so often played an open mike, but ambition makes for a lonely and frustrating bedfellow. Everything I have done is tainted with amateurish inadequacy. I want to be free to do all these things on my own terms, and my imaginary thread is all I have. I grip it tightly.

I was small. When I was 16, I went to a doctor for growth hormone treatment. My mother took me in private; not even my siblings knew about it. The puberty guy measured the calcium in my bones and said I had the body age of 13¼. This would explain the changing room awkwardness, then. For the next few months, I had an injection in my butt once a week. I grew, but it was more like catching up. By then I knew that I was late in life, poor in physical competition and subsequently avoided all conflict. There was only submission and rage, nothing in between.

This made me desire a place where I would be the winner. To prove myself in a demonstration of skill. I had faith in my musical abilities, but had grown tired of relying on the notoriously unreliable reputation of musicians. Too many of my self-organized jams came out of my pocket and vanished into the air. I didn’t seem to understand how music was just a hobby to these others. In my mind there’s no place for it but at the centre of a musician’s life. Being able to play but not doing anything about it was as if you had a flawless diamond that you just kinda carried around in your pocket and played with idly at red lights. I am thankful that I’ve held onto this criterion for my interactions with other musicians, because it’s filtered out a lot of only partly interested parties on the way.

So at some point I decided to become a ‘go-to, all-round music guy’. In my vision, the room contained devices such as a mixing desk, a pre-amp and an audio interface, and I wanted to be able to explain how they worked without a moment’s hesitation should anyone ask. Knowledge. In 2005, at the age of 23, I had already been greedily gobbling up audio production tutorials on my new home internet line, so I registered for a short course in the basics of sound engineering. The community of committed individuals which surrounded me in those night classes did as much for my self-belief as the actual course work. Besides, it was easy, as things are when you find a place to call your own.

I was fascinated by the glow of LEDs from mixing consoles. Faith in something else was becoming faith in myself. I refused to entertain the idea that I couldn’t do it; that there was some God-appointed obstacle that would soon prevent me from creating The Room. The Room, with its four imaginary walls, was more than a space in my mind. It was the glorious potential of every human who has ever strived for something. It was an uprising against the falsity of directionless living, a stubborn refusal to let things just be as they are, a revolution against complacency. It was an oak tree trapped in an acorn. It was the truth, waiting to be unleashed. The truth. Pravda. Pravda23. Now I had a name.

A name is power. It’s Pavlovian. In one word, it summons from the most primal parts of our brains fears, hopes and desires. Finally, I had found something that was not going away, and I quickly began stashing the all the mismatched results of my creative endeavours under this one umbrella. The earliest Pravda23 website CreativeTruth.com, was a collection of logo, web and graphic designs, photos of my bedroom studio, web link mazes, audio clips of things I found interesting, all brought together at my publishing job, on company time. Thanks for the corporate sponsorship, 365Digital.

Only when I registered Pravda23.com did I begin to formalize a theme and become a little exclusive. While still posting anything under the broad label of ‘creative’ (including a how-to picture recipe for the famed Cheese-and-Bacon-Pizza-Burger-Pie), it was really intended as a patch of turf to release my growing collection of electronic music.

The first program I worked in was Reason 2.0. It was introduced to me by my friend Brendon, for whom I later produced a piano piece. Double click that horizontal lane to add that piano note. Press play and hear it every four bars. Wanna hear something other than a piano? Change that patch, and now it’s a trumpet, see? Cool hey? We sat in the study of his parents’ house in cool, mossy Newlands for just five minutes, before I knew I’d seen my future. I got hold of it and dived into it with rabid passion, learning the founding elements quickly and practically applying them with gusto in the dusty, cramped attic of my parents’ granny flat. When I later learned other programs like Ableton Live, Cubase, Fruity Loops, Acid, Audacity, AudioMulch and loads of other virtual devices, the process was easy. There was nothing you couldn’t figure out, and if you were really stuck, there was no question unanswered by my online bedroom producer brethren. It was like stepping into a familiar world. Reason had taught me the basics. The rest was just tweaking knobs.

Pravda23 became a reason to do everything, and sometimes even a hindrance. I found myself unable to enjoy a mouthful of sushi because I should be saving for a MIDI keyboard. I wanted it all now. I wanted everyone who I jammed with to somehow be on my page, more interested in my thing than even their own. I dominated my private space, and in hindsight, this cut me off from a lot of potentially fruitful collaboration. I wanted to be somebody more than just enjoying being able to play. I turned down more than I agreed to, simply because it didn’t fit my poisonously grand vision.

But the ship sailed forward regardless, and I began to diversify even more. Inspired by the geeky relationship a person has with their online handle, I entertained the idea that Pravda23 wasn’t just a jumble bin of half-finished ideas, it was a character in my mind. A digital character I’d given birth to in the digital realm, and then miraculously downloaded into my offline self. The ghostly logo I’d designed perfectly fitted the image of a digital, sexless, neatly pixelated being which accompanied me as a floating head through my daily life. A constant reminding whisper, audible to me alone, of why I got up in the morning.

It hearkened terrifyingly of my Christian upbringing. Pravda23 was the Father God; a force, a concept, a trend to which I had given a face. Like every Disney movie with a personified animal protagonist. Anthropomorphosis. It scared me a little how trapped I was within the confines of my past, which I’d now long since re-opened for interpretation, but I ventured not to think about it, treating every steadily glowing LED light on my various devices as a tiny beacon for my new religion of rational belief in the unexplained idiosyncrasies of the Universe.

It took the form of two short, A6 comic books which I distributed to a lucky few people at the rudimentary shows I began doing as Pravda23. Drawing them was my first experience with a Wacom digital tablet, which I borrowed from my friend Angus for an abusively long time. I first sketched the complete idea in pencil, then spent mornings before work at the events and bookings company Overtone, simultaneously learning Photoshop and producing the digital artwork! The first edition introduced my relationship with the ghostly Pravda23 character. After being ‘downloaded’ into my mind, it (‘the program’) explains to me why I have ventured so far to meet it, and rewardingly encourages me to pursue my vision. In the second edition, in a colloquial tone hinting at a developed friendship, it tackles the philosophy of true value, and how being wealthy can at times divert you from the path of the heart. I published them online one page at a time, and also printed and packaged both editions along with home-burned CDs and small logo badges, handing them out to the occasional fan in little ‘limited edition’ sets. I hope I make someone rich someday.

A few people popped into the house, heard some of the music, and tossed comments like little pebbles into a pond. But I was searching for my eureka moment. The ability to do anything outstanding never arrives at once. It’s always wrestled from the ground like a difficult root. The more carefully I listened to the 90s electronica of my early influences – Underworld, Aphex Twin, Nightmares on Wax, Kruder & Dorfmeister, Fatboy Slim, Orbital, Faithless – the less confident I felt about my own. How? was the main question. How did they fit so much signal into a limited waveform so well, while still allowing so much space? By now I was desperately searching for the ability to create a track which actually hit people. On top of this, I wanted something unique. The era of simply DJing as an artform was coming to an end, and now, the bands which were gathering attention were those that had learned to use electronics alongside live instrumentation.

When I was three I began copying my sister on the piano. I took lessons in piano theory and practice from age 5 to age 12. At 10, I started the violin at a private school, and played for 5 years, giving it up in 1997 for the more ubiquitous and far cooler guitar. By then I was also playing drums regularly in the church band. I was comfortable with a musical instrument in my hands, and I felt the time had come to try harmonizing it with the newfound knowledge of sequencing electronic sounds. I’d always felt my violin lessons wasted, so I asked my mother what had happened to my grandfather’s old violin. She brought it out, and I christened her Viv after Vivian Cowley, who had restored her beautifully. From then on, I had a firm direction – violin electronica. It was unique enough, potentially beautiful to the ear, and ticked every box I had. The only problem was that I couldn’t play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, let alone inspire the rapturous passions of an audience. At first, I started practicing it only occasionally, but soon it became a new obsession. I decided I wanted to play well, and to be able to read music notation again.

It took about a year just to learn how to hold the cursed thing again. There was no mercy; I’d forgotten everything. Everything, but the theory. All that remained were just the whispers of my former teacher Kathy Garrity in my mind, ghosts from twelve years earlier. Middle knuckle tabletop flat. Gap between the left thumb crotch and the neck. Look at the strings. Breathe. Things took shape, as they still do. In the words of my friend Amrik Cooper, learning an instrument is about efficient use of energy. It’s as important to strive for technique as it is to release muscular tension. Music is my religion, and the spiritual path is subtractive. Only now, four years later, am I prioritizing these elements equally. There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.

Since returning from my working holiday in the United States in 2005 and having the Pravda23 epiphany, I’d been doing web publishing, bar work and working with my friend Tristan Waterkeyn on his (then) startup, Overtone. Once I moved out of our group of friends’ beloved Kylemore Manor residence in Woodstock, I started teaching English part-time while staying back at the granny flat alongside my parents in order to afford more time for my music. Repeatedly seeing my father in his underpants was my penance for the satisfaction of having half the day to practice and produce my art. My morning English job at Cape Studies blossomed into a full-time English position at a public girls’ high school in Seoul.

I took Viv with me to Korea, also purchasing my first electric violin along the way. The rationale behind the electric violin was to be able to practice through headphones before work in the notoriously dense condo living in Seoul. It all went according to plan and in the two years I spent in my matchbox apartment alongside a permanently busy 5-lane road, I kept my regular practice on the boil without starting a war through the thin walls. But while it wasn’t exactly the room of my persistent imaginations, it was the first place that I’d lived in that was entirely my own, and the freedom of that privacy was a leap forward for my creativity. By the time I left, I had enough equipment, enough talent, more than enough motivation and enough money to be a musician, whatever that meant. The only missing piece of the puzzle was time.

You can go your entire life saying you’ll get around to doing something when you have the time or money. That’s how we are. I am fortunate enough to have a safety net – my parents. They’ve encouraged me thus far, always guiding my efforts, never suggesting I compensate for their failures. Without their help, I wouldn’t have come this far. I guess my voice may fall a bit flat on the ears of those who aren’t as privileged, so I will speak then to those who are. Stop making excuses. This means knowing what your excuses are – those old stories you keep telling yourself as you re-enact useless habits of behavior and watch others fulfill the hopes you once had – and intercepting them as they happen. There is nothing in your way. That’s all I’ll say.

Three weeks and a busy festive season after I returned from my two years in Seoul, I rabidly searched for and found a place to create a music rehearsal and production studio. It was a farm cottage on the outskirts of Durbanville. We went to check it out. Silence, blue skies and a lock on the door. It may as well have been a floating castle in the sky. I signed the lease for just two months, knowing that I would spend all my savings preserving this bliss unless I had a deadline to make a sustainable career out of being a ‘go-to, all-round music guy’. For the past ten years, I have spent idle coffee shop lunch breaks and lectures and trans-continental train journeys sketching a simple plan: to have the time and place. And now, for the first time in my life, all the pieces were on the table.

I moved in three days ago. There’s a kitchen entrance room, a bathroom, and now, finally, a studio room. It’s called Silencio.

If there has been one word that’s summed up my journey thus far, it’s patience. Strangely enough, I now have no desire to go and make this a career. I just want to know how it feels to actually be an artist rather than a hobbyist, if only for a brief period. I’ve earned that. I have no doubt these two months will be over before I know it, and I’ll be back to business as usual, working on someone else’s dream, but sketching the next step and humming still more ideas into my little portable recorder as I go. All I want now is to be able to offload the countless musical ideas in various stages of development into records. I look forward to sharing all these outdated relics with people. At the very least, time has distilled the plethora, and only the best melodies and have remained. I’ve watched bands, musical careers and voguish fads come and go in silence, always wondering what can I possibly do that’s new. I’ve passed up on so many opportunities to be somebody else’s vision that there’s no longer doubt that I’m only ever going to be doing the work for myself. And even if I’m last to the finish, by Truth I’m going to get the job done. If anyone needs me, I’ll be in my room.

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2 thoughts on “What It’s Like To Dream (Boring Life Story)

  1. Wow, I’m really happy for you John. Something tells me you’ll be doing this for much longer than the two months you’ve budgeted for; no more working to bring anybody elses dreams to fruition but your own. You continue to inspire and lead by example…

  2. Beaded Quill says:

    “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” Yup, we forget that in this day and age. It’s a tough lesson, but has great value.

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