Jason Rubenstein has been writing and producing music since 1995. His latest release, “New Metal From Old Boxes” is a return to his progressive-rock roots with a loud, heavy, energetic and modern suite of instrumentals that evoke King Crimson, ELP, NiN, and classical music.
Jason has appeared on our Progstravaganza XVIII: Transforma sampler with the song “The Blow Off,” and he is offering “New Metal From Old Boxes” with a special 20% discount by using “progsphere” as a discount code on Bandcamp.
Jason Rubenstein answered the Progstravaganza Questionnaire. Read it below.
How did you come to do what you do?
I always wanted to create music. When I was a kid, I played woodwinds in school orchestra but also had access to an Arp Odyssey and a Moog Sonic. That, and raiding the local record store with my pocket money for synthesizer and rock albums, planted the seed for wanting to make rock and electronic (old school) music.
In college, I was in a progressive rock band, playing keyboards. We sounded a lot like Rush, with some Yes and Ultravox thrown in. This was the 80s, and prog really felt dead. We struggled, but I absolutely loved playing progressive rock.
Fast forward through more music school, more piano lessons, starting a jazz-fusion band in Chicago, and then a move to Los Angeles where I created a couple of mixed-genre (but mostly downtempo) CDs. There’s some prog sneaking through on my second CD, and some sailing close to the winds of heavy riffs. Those projects opened some doors for me in L.A., but those doors led me away from creating rock albums.
I finally came to creating the music I’m creating now, after a ten-year break from making music, because of a conversation I had with a friend. He’s a producer and mixing engineer, and he advised me to just do what I love. He asked, “If you could record one song from your past, which one would it be? Top of your head!”. First one that came to mind was “The Barbarian”, from ELP’s first record. It just reminded me of being happy, wearing headphones and listening to my record collection, getting lost in the music. So, my friend said, “What stopping you? Just do it!”. That conversation, and a book I’d read about the creative process by Dorothea Brande, was the final bump I needed to just get my ass back into the studio and do what I loved – making music. And to make music that I wanted to hear, in that moment.
My friend also told me something along the lines of, “Who gives a shit what other people think? Do this for you, not for them.” Click. For whatever reason, I needed to hear it from him at that time and in that place.
What is your first musical memory?
My parents always had the classical music radio station on in the house and the car, so I remember hearing the usual suspects (Beethoven, Bach, Mozart) all of the time. But my first memory of a piece of music really captured my attention, and grabbed me & wouldn’t let go was the original “Switched-On Bach” by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos (It was a collection of Bach pieces performed on an early-model Moog modular synthesizer). The sounds and textures were amazing. I was transfixed every time I heard it, and from that point on I knew I needed to get my hands on synthesizers.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
A wide range of things and places that elicit some feeling in me. I got a feeling of suspense and tension from a book I was reading and a movie I was watching, and I went and created the “heist” songs for my album (“Calculation and Walkaway”, “The Set Up”, and “The Blow Off”).
Anger and frustration inspire me fairly often. Something in my life will piss me off, and I’ll go and pound the crap out of the keyboards, or come up with some loud horrific riff and build a piece of music around it.
I’ll get inspired by music to which I listen: obviously King Crimson is a huge inspiration, but so are the 50s Blue Note jazz artists, the 70s ECM jazz artists and the 70s/80s fusion jazz musicians like Allan Holdsworth and JL Ponty. Classic progressive rock and modern progressive rock is a huge inspiration.
What message does the song on our Progstravaganza compilation carry?
It’s the third part of a “heist” story. The blow-off in a con or a heist, where you’ve set up your mark and it’s time to take what you came for and GTFO. Adrenaline is pumping, your heart is pounding at a tachycardial rate, your fingers are icy, and you’re making your way, cool as cukes, out. There’s not message, per se, as much as there is a story.
Every song, at least every good song, should tell a story or carry a message. Instrumentals, which are close relatives to the deliberately composed soundtrack, are story-tellers. And stories should evoke emotion, so the goal here was to evoke some feelings. Excitement, suspense, intensity. Elation and maybe relief at the end of the piece. That’s how I feel about it, anyway, and the story the song tells. Hopefully, everyone comes away from the song with some reaction, whether it’s this or something else.
Do you tend to follow any pre-defined patterns when composing a piece?
Not intentionally. But my default, subconscious pattern is A-B-A and, either a bell-curve or a ‘ramp’ of intensity. But, for this project, on some pieces, like “A Burden Of Secrets”, I focused and paid attention to a deliberate pattern – in that song’s case a suite of sections not always entirely logical or connected.
I’ve recently started to write down a more complex pattern before composing the basic riffs for each section. It doesn’t have to be nuts – A-B-x-A-x-C-B-A sounds plenty complicated but easy enough to work through.
What is your method of songwriting?
I turn off my phone. I turn off the internet. No email, no texts, no messaging. No television. No reference music. Just me, my gear, and the room. Then, I ask myself “What do I want to hear?”, and “How do I feel right now?”. Whatever the answers are, that’s what I play. If I want to just hear a Godzilla-sized tri-tone in 9/8 on a 9-foot Steinway, then goddamit that’s what I’m gonna play.
I may flip through a book of scales, or create some weird scale on the spot that serves the sound I’m feeling, and then I’ll start a riff from there. Usually on piano, sometimes on the B3 organ. Once in a while I’ll fire up an arpeggiator and start there. I’ll riff for a while to a click, and then start to arrange around it, adding drums, bass, other synths.
The absolute key, the most important part of this method is to just create. Create! No editing, no criticism, no comments, no second guessing, no doubts. Just make music. The editing and critical listening comes later in the process. It’s that simple, in theory. In practice, at least for me, it takes some work.
I think we live in a hyper-critical culture (in the U.S.). Everyone has a snarky comment, everyone thinks everyone else sucks, everyone can ‘do it better’, everyone else is ‘doin it wrng’, everyone just knows what is and isn’t rock, what is and isn’t metal, and so on. Maybe I just spend too much time with know-it-all software engineers, I don’t know. I do know that little voice of self-doubt in the back of my head needs to be smacked-down when it pipes up in the middle of a creative session. When creating, I must ignore the editorial mind – this is a critical part of the creative process of songwriting.
Once the track is in some basic, recorded state, that’s when I’ll go back and apply a critical ear, and an editor’s mind. Usually a few days or a week or so later. That’s the time to evaluate whether I like the piece or not, what has to change, what gets cut, and so on. And I’ll continue to polish the song until I’m reasonably satisfied with it. It’s the old quote attributed to Da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned”. I don’t try to finish a song, but I get it to a place that I dig, and abandon it for the next song.
Is the music good enough? It was for me. I think I have good taste, so if I enjoy the results then there’s a probability that someone else out there will also enjoy it.
How do you see your music evolving?
Getting more elegant in arrangement, and more consistent in style. There were a couple of techniques I used on NMFOB that I now think were too much. For example, since I’m also a programmer, for one song I wrote some code to create procedurally-generated riffs. I gave the program a set of parameters for scale interval limits, durations, “fuzz” in the timings and durations, and so on. It was cool to do once, and it does sound good, but it seems to me to be an over-wrought process. Simplify!
The forms of the songs are evolving, too. Smoother transitions, different structures. And more incorporation of the styles and textures from the minimalist school of classical music. The minimalist techniques, if I get it right anyway, really evoke an emotional response from me. I post some basic ideas and experiments to my Soundcloud, and some of those will make it to the next record.
I’m also working on evolving my music by borrowing things I hear from the progressive rock and metal bands and abstracting them in some way. For example, I’ll listen to a double- or quad- tracked guitar riff. And I’ll ask “Hey, what if I did that with two monophonic, distorted B3 organs? And what if I added two more of those tracks that run through Mesa Boogie (simulators) instead of Leslies?” So how can I evolve keyboard-centric music, borrowing from and inspired by the work of the current, talented, awesome bands? Great question. Who knows what will happen.
What advice would you give to other musicians, trying to make inspired music and get it out in the world?
Do your own thing. Write. Record. Post it online. Repeat. When you start, you will suck. As you keep going, you will suck less. And as you keep on keeping going, you will get good. Keep going, and you will get very good. And it will happen at your own pace. Don’t worry about how quickly it took someone like Bulb to get good – every artist has their own process. Practice every day and focus in your practice. One day may be scales, exercises Concentrate! Focus! Other days, focus on riffs. Other days, focus on improvisation. Work on your own voice by borrowing the voices from others. Don’t listen to the nay-sayers. And everyone is a critic, so don’t let that get you down.
Ask for help from people who inspire you, chances are good that they’re happy to help someone who’s eager, works at their art, and is cool. Find people who are better than you, and hang out with them. Collaborate with them. If you’re the best talent in the room, find a new room. And only hang out with positive people, not with people whose interest, for whatever reason, is in keeping you down.
Think of your progress as “leveling up”. Maybe level 1 is that you sound just like Dream Theater, or Porcupine Tree, or Karnivool, or Haken. Great, keep going, keep creating. Maybe level 10 is that you kinda sound like your idols, but now you sound a lot like you. And there’s no level cap. And eventually, help the noobs.
If you’re not a beginner (for whom the above advise is intended, more or less), then just keep at it. Keep getting better, keep challenging yourself. And listen to everything you can, read as much as you can, and go to art museums. Look for inspiration everywhere – things that happen to you in your life, the weird painting at the end of the gallery in the museum, that one song on Wake Rickman’s album about the 27 wives of Richard III. Always be recording. Play every day, and get it out to the world. Every day, what’s the critical inch you need to achieve to keep going forward? Find things musically that are hard for you to do or execute, and do them. Then share it. And be a member of your music community, helping and advising others.
As Matthew Woodring Stover’s protagonist Hari Michaelson said, “Inch toward daylight.”
What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to watching how bands like Animals as Leaders, Haken, Scale The Summit, and others all evolve and grow over the next few years. Some of these bands are so young that I believe their best, absolutely best work is yet to come. I’m also looking forward to hearing continued work from bands like The Fierce And The Dead, who are just unabashedly doing their own thing. And, I’m really looking forward to the ongoing work of the other bands and musicians on “Transforma”. Yeah, I know that this sounds like a plug, but I’m not trying to be cute here — there’s a hell of a lot of great music on this compilation, and some new-to-me music from artists I’m excited about.
And, on a personal note, I’m looking forward to creating more music and getting it out there.
Bands, send your music submissions for the Progstravaganza compilation series to firstname.lastname@example.org