25 May 2008

Fourstones of Magnatune and ccMixter fame gives rare interview

Modern renaissance man Victor Stone, also known as his musical persona "fourstones" has just released the funky, yet warm "Chronic Dreams 2", his fifth album with independent label Magnatune featuring his remixes of works by artists from Magnatune as well as some exciting new talent.

Victor is also the main driving force behind trend setting web destination ccMixter.org, a Creative Commons sponsored project which has become the premier on-line artist's village for music makers from around the world, who sample, cut-up, share and remix each other's music legally, creatively and joyfully.

Recently I've had the privilege to conduct a rare question and answer session with this multi-faceted and fascinating individual. His self-deprecating sense of humor, sharp intellect and wit with the occasional shot of sarcasm is a breath of fresh air on and off the web.

The first part of the interview deals mainly with fourstones the artist / musician / remixer, and the second part of the interview touches on his role as main developer and head admin at ccMixter. org. I hope you will be as fascinated and entertained reading this as I was conversing with Victor.

As a special bonus feature graciously provided by Magnatune, you can optionally listen to the new fourstones album while reading the interview by clicking on the little play button of the music player right below this line.


Part1:

spinmeister: Hi Victor! Let me start by saying thanks so much for taking the time for this interview. It's a real pleasure to talk to you - but it won't be easy to address all of the topics I'd like to cover with you, since there are so many facets to your music and life story. So we better dive right in and see where this conversation leads us.

Victor: Well I'm happy to do it, I'll try my best not to put your readership to sleep.

spin: (laughs) I don't think that will be a problem! First of all, how did you get into making music in the first place?

Victor: I started playing Offenbach cello duets with my Dad and giving recitals in junior high. One day I was air-guitaring Stephen Stills' solo in Bufallo Springfield's "Bluebird" at a friend's house and he said that it looked fairly accurate and that I should be doing it for real. I've always had more passion than talent for music and that dates back to the very beginning.

spin: Do you still play the cello once in a while?

Victor: My cello is at my Dad's. He still breaks it out and drives everybody in earshot crazy playing “Sunrise, Sunset.” I don't think he's tuned it since I left it with him in the '80's.

spin: (laughs). Earlier in your life, you've had a few stops in the formerly thriving recording industry. What got you into that industry at the time, what kind of things did you get involved with and what ended up making you move on from there?

Victor: Well, as a 17 year old drop out my girlfriend got me a house hippie job at ABC Records in Hollywood and while waiting for the big break I stumbled around various publicity and video promotion departments of labels big and small. I left because despite having zero marketable skills I finally couldn't take the over the top institutionalized misogyny, racism, celebrity worship and backstabbing. There's no way to say these things without sounding bitter or like I have a grudge or something, I know that, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be said if it's the truth.

spin: (laughs) I don't think, you're the only one left with a bad taste from their experience with the traditional recording industry - whether artist, insider or customer. -- Ok, so here you were, you've seen the "dark side", decided not to be a part of it, and walked. -- But now what?

Victor: Yeah, great question (laughs) because after I had quit the music industry and finished music conservatory, the only jobs I could get were delivering sandwiches and cleaning toilets. My fianceƩ, a writer at the time, brought home one of those early cast iron IBM PCs and I lost my mind. I sat there for 6 months, never stood up, never shaved, never got out of my bathrobe - it's possible the smell has never been 100% washed out. The wedding was at the end of that and we broke apart the honeymoon so I could go on my first job interview. I went in my wedding suit, the only suit I've owned before or since, lied my brains out about my vast non-existent experience, faked up some references and started work as a professional programmer.

spin: Quite the turn of events, I'd say. It must have been a rather dramatic shift in environments and daily routine, but it sounds like it was quite a nice step up economically, and thus maybe a nicer ride than you had before, So how did you end up working for a non-profit?

Victor: When my wife and I had kids, I did the absolutely chicken-shit safe (A. K. A. responsible) thing and went to work for big companies for the steady paycheck. All of a sudden after 15 years of doing that, I hit the stock-options-lottery really big. It's kind of a pathetic dumb-luck thing because I had to have the options practically forced on me but again, it's the truth so there's little point in hiding from it. I don't pretend like I deserved it, it was just luck. At that point I was in a position to buy my way off of the corporate plantation and I got involved in the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Creative Commons.

spin: Did you make music during your days in the software industry?

Victor: I was pretty freaked -- ok, maybe a little bitter -- and stopped all playing for 10 years. Then as the first DOS MIDI programs came online, I got a synth and slowly started to get back into it.

spin: How did you first get into into remixing as your form of musical expression?

Victor: It was about 1997 and I was unhappy with synths and MIDI and came across a free pre-release beta of ACID 2.0. Around the same time I was falling deeply in love with Ninjatune artists like DJ Food and DJ Krush and I was completely hooked. By '99 I was co-founder of a virtual online band called The Blotter Brothers and an offshoot called Dip Blotter's Remix Factory on ACID Planet.

spin: You're obviously firmly entrenched with the philosophy / concept of "open music". And this has been for quite a number of years. What events and/or thoughts originally led you there?

Victor: My real devotion is to cultivate an alternate universe to the established music industry -- fine, bitter, there I said it. A very simplified version goes something like this: the Web serves as a replacement for radio and PR, file sharing replaces distribution channels, and commoditized DAWs replace recording studios. You need some licensing scheme to enable all that and standardized, court tested open licenses covers a huge chunk of the lawyering. At first, open music philosophy was just that, an idea, but now, five years later it turns out the most financially successful independent musicians I know are the ones with the absolute loosest licenses so we've moved from the philosophical to the anecdotal which is not a small step. As we speak I'm just getting news that one of the 'Tears for Fears' guys is releasing his solo album under a Creative Commons license. The current rate of major and ex-major label artists doing this is about once a month now and the rate is accelerating fast. It wouldn't surprise me at all if by the end of 2009 it is literally an every day occurrence.

spin: How did you end up connecting with Magnatune as your recording label?

Victor: I think it was five years ago now, I was searching the Internet for legal music to remix. I hit on Magnatune and realized their entire catalog was online and legal to remix. I put together a 40 minute mega-mix which became Ridin the Faders 1 and I hand delivered it to John Buckman. He pulled out the contracts right away. Truth is there are hundreds of remixers on ccMixter today that could have done a better job so I think this was just a case of being first.

spin: Switching the topic a little to your your creative process: How do you go about choosing the raw material for your remix albums?

Victor: The first thing is that I have to hear the source material's potential for being remixed. This is a very intangible phase of the process but basically goes something like "how would this vocal sound if backed by the Ohio Players?" I have several other important criteria that have nothing at all to do with music and everything to with exposing singer songwriters that I believe in and have taken the leap of releasing music under an open license.

spin: In your latest Magnatune album "Chronic Dreams 2", did you typically start with full mixes, or with a cappellas and other separate tracks? Did you work with source materials already available for download, or did you get some tracks "exclusively" from the artists you were remixing?

Victor: The process for 2 was quite different from the first Chronic. There I had to scrounge for pells and ended up driving a few hundred miles to record Lisa Debendictis in her living room. This time I got most a cappellas from ccMixter, asked for some others and was off and running. I used several separated tracks from DJ Vadim but otherwise I was just cutting from the Magnatune catalog and recording my own parts.

spin: While Magnatune artists as well as ccMixter artists give remixers the rights to work with their materials, (in most cases) that (Creative Commons) license applies to non-commercial derivative works. Since you are publishing your remixes as commercial releases, how do you go about licensing the needed tracks for your work? In the traditional music industry, that can be a dishearteningly complicated process. How does that work in your world?

Victor: For Magnatune artists it's easy, the label takes care of it all for me. The royalties of every sale or license are deducted from my account and funneled into sampled artists' accounts. For most other cases I'm dealing with individuals so I just pay cash up front, or like with the DJ Vadim tracks make arrangements with the label. If a big license comes through on a track they sang, played on or produced then I manually pay them. But I only work with artists who have put material into the Commons because that, to me, is a green flag that they are willing to be reasonable.

spin: OK, now you know what you're going to use, and the licensing has all been settled. You sit down at your computer, and then what happens?

Victor: I get bored pretty easily, maybe a touch of ADD, I don't know. So I switch up the process almost every song. Some tracks can take up to 6 or 7 weeks, like the "Clever" remix. I'm shaping background parts, harmonization, changing settings on effects and synths, re-re-re-re-re-recording guitar and bass parts. I don't have a lot of precision to my playing and arranging, heck, some might even call my methods sloppy, and by some I mean me, but "Clever" called for a level of precision above my usual bar so it took me an especially long time. On the other hand some tracks like "15 Minutes" are essentially done in half an hour because it's the sloppiness that gives it that, er, charm.

spin: In addition to computer software, what instruments do you play? Any favorites that you reach for more often than others?

Victor: As a gigging musician I made more money as a bass player than anything else and I can stumble why through "'Round Midnight" on the keyboard but if my hands hadn't crapped out on me I would probably be a full time be-bop guitar player right now and the whole sampling thing probably wouldn't have happened at all. (more here) As a result I have to be very careful about my playing time but for me it's always been about being the next Django Reinhart meets Jeff Beck.

spin: Do you do your own mastering?

Victor: Let's put it this way: I run everything through WAVES mastering tools at roughly the default settings. It makes my music sound "better." My son is working on a degree in sound engineering and I'm really counting on him to actually get what the heck is going on there.

spin: After you're done with an album project, do you suffer from post partem depression or more of a sense of relief of a completed project?

Victor: Both. I always have a bipolar period afterward of thinking I'm the hottest thing this side of Mars and a nanosecond later convinced I'm the biggest, undeserving faker ever. My shrink has many happy days sailing around the Bay on a boat paid for by my post-release psychosis.

spin: (laughs) Have you ever met any of the artists you have remixed on your albums in person?

Victor: Oh yea, several and it's always a treat for me. Of course I hesitate to mention names because you never know if feelings are mutual.

spin: (laughs) If they still talk to you it was probably ok!

Victor: (laughs) Come to think of it, not all of them are still talking to me.

spin: What's up next for "Four Stones" in his musical persona?

Victor: Nothing specific. When I started focusing on legal sampling I had to scrape and scrounge for every piece of legal source material I could find. Now, there's a world of CC samples out there and I no longer have to start my next major project by begging singers to give me a cappellas. So recently I bought some hard disks and I've been doing a ground up reorganization of my sample library, something I haven't done in over 10 years and never done with legal samples. I'm not sure where that will lead but I'm assuming at some point I'll be suicidal over the drudgery of organizing folders and cutting a terabyte of samples and at that point I'll start remixing.


Part2:

spin: If I may switch topics a bit to your other persona: Just like you ended up returning to music, you ended up returning to software development, too. -- How did the idea of ccMixter get born? And how did the connection with the Creative Commons come about?

Victor: CC knew me as the Magnatune remixer guy and a winner of one of their mini-remix contests so they brought me in to get my opinions on a prototype they had been working on. It was for a remix site for the WIRED CD that tracked attribution and it was clear how brilliant this concept was. They had no idea that I was a programmer - so after a little awkward begging and resume slinging Neeru Paharia sat me down and standing at a white board drew out the whole site, including database schemas, user interface - the whole thing. She really had the whole vision thing nailed and I was psyched, went off and built the site.

spin: When did you put up the first public version of ccMixter for others to join?

Victor: The site went live November 2005 in conjunction with the WIRED edition dedicated to Creative Commons music.

spin: How did you meet some of the inner circle and now fellow administrators of ccMixter?

Victor: Through the site, people just started showing up, some, like yourself decided they wanted to get more involved. Don't take this the wrong way but it's hardly an exclusive club (laughs).

spin: (laughs) If you're considering me part of it, it's definitely NOT exclusive! -- You wrote most of the software powering ccMixter, didn't you? Is it also published under an open license?

Victor: Lucas Gonze wrote the first take based on an established content management system and I worked with that for the first public release but then CC let me write it from scratch and that became ccHost. There have been two major upgrades in the last 3 years, all released under GPL.

spin: The GPL being an "open" license for software -- and arguably the inspiration for the creative commons licenses. -- What has the sponsorship of the Creative Commons organization meant to ccMixter, ccHost and yourself?

Victor: It's been everything. Running a music community website is hardly their expertise but despite that, I can't imagine a more supportive, encouraging organization for this kind of thing. It's a dream gig.

spin: Are any other sites using the ccHost software to power their sites?

Victor: There's been over 1,000 downloads of the software package and I know of several sites but I really suck at keep track of that kind of thing.

spin: There are some more commercially motivated remixing sites working with creative commons licensed music. What is your reaction to those?

Victor: That was the point. ccMixter was never meant as an end, it was supposed to be an example leading the way to what's possible.

spin: Have you ever been approached by a company who has seen your ccMixter/ccHost software to do some of that funky ajax programming for them?

Victor: I don't see myself as all that hot in programming and I'm constantly seeing things in ccHost that I could have done better. There's a lot of amazing, slick kids doing this stuff a whole lot better than me - my son is constantly getting work on websites nowadays, he wrote the Flash MP3 player we use on ccMixter. There's a lot of interesting projects out there and some have been in touch with me, I listen to every pitch but, for now, I always come back to ccMixter.

spin: As someone who does both in considerable depth: In which way to you see making music and writing software as similar and in which way do they really differ?

Victor: Well, for better or worse, I treat them exactly the same. The same mix of art and science goes into both and there's the same mix of precision and sloppiness in both, it's just harder to rationalize the sloppiness in the coding. And music has a more blatant emotional component but then if frustration is an emotion then software is an emotion factory.

spin: (laughs) That could be a title for a country song about software! -- Most people struggle to do either one well - you do both - is there much time left for a so called "life" outside of software development and making music? Do family and friends ever get to see you?

Victor: I do both? Or I do both well? (laughs) OK, well I struggle a lot with both and the jury's out on how well I do either. I go through dark periods where for months I'm doing one thing primarily, like the website upgrade or an album, very OCD. My cell phone goes off for a week at a time, my inbox fills up. But I'm also extremely good and practiced at doing absolutely nothing. In fact, I love doing nothing, I need nothing apparently more than most folks. I always make time for nothing and value nothing very, very highly.

spin: But maybe above all, ccMixter/ccHost is not really just a piece of funky software, but ccMixter is a thriving artistic community. What do you as it's founder and most influential force like most about that community?

Victor: What do I like most? That they tolerate me and put up with my neurosis (evil grin) - (spin laughs). Somehow, in 33 years of being in the workforce, this is the first retail gig I've ever had, so dealing with the public is all new to me. I'm used to people around knowing me and getting me which seems to make things go smoother. Nobody told me people had these things called "feelings" that I had to worry about. At the times I see myself as most hilarious is when I get into serious trouble.

spin: (laughs) smileys matter!

Victor: (laughs) Now they tell me! -- For real what blows me away is the quality of the music. This isn't just a community showing stuff off or a fan community talking about the inner meaning of episode #340 of Star Trek, we're all fans of each other and together we are making this music conversation happen. Lucas called it mixversation which is very different from collaboration. We take something someone has said before and incorporate it into something new and again, the consistent quality of the result is just amazing to me.

spin: Which way would you like to see the ccMixter community evolve next?

Victor: Not that I don't have ambitious fantasies but I'm pretty happy with things right now. We've added a lot of features this year geared toward consumers of music, like video makers and podcasters and I plan to make that even more of a priority but overall I think the basic formula of the site is working just fine.

spin: Have you noticed any differences in the remixes from the early days of ccMixter compared to now?

Victor: Musically there seems to have been a shift this year to more one-man-band produced re-interpretation and less sample-based remixes. The previous remixes seemed edgier, more modern and subjectively speaking, more interesting. Here's an example: Trifonic puts out an album of the kind of really edgy, cool, modern eclectic pop they became famous for on ccMixter. Last month they posted the studio tracks and a cappellas from their new album "Emergence" back into the Commons but the community remixes that come from their material are straight ahead, mainstream style. This is a weird 180 from how things used to work. until now we would get straight pop, R&B and rap vocals and then take them to this strange remix place, but with Trifonic we have a case where the original samples are coming from this outside, edgy place and the community pulls it back into a more mainstream style. I don't know what to make of that.

spin: Maybe it's a little like symphony orchestras having "Beatles Night", or jazz players doing Radiohead? Do you mind that happening?

Victor: Er, now you're describing me (laughs).

spin: Maybe this evolution marks that more traditional musicians are discovering the joys of remixing. while it had its origins in the DJ community? So it is a new crowd joining ccMixter and remixing at large? An early stage of a new evolution?Is it just a matter of time?

Victor: That's right, I agree, for old school musicians, pre-DJ era, like myself, weened on The Beatles, Archie Bell and Marvin Gaye that is totally correct, we are, individually in a state of evolution, but I was whining about the site as a whole (laughs). Listen to Trifonic, hisboyelroy, cdk, teru, shaggruge who represent the type of producer that dominated the site's ratings charts for the first three years – as you imply, these guys are applying a completely different discipline from a different rule book and doing natively what the rest of us have to learn. We are Wendy Carlos, they are Kraftwerk. I'm not saying there's anything inappropriate going on at the site, far from it. But if musically, the end result of all this new technology turns out to be just a better way to make the same sounds you get by hiring 5 studio cats in an LA recording studio then that's a personal, artistic disappointment to me. The new stuff is amazing, truly, it's just a different kind of buzz that I was getting used to. I'll get over it (laughs).

spin: So what does qualify as inappropriate at ccMixter?

Victor: The one thing that I will actively push back against is any form of genre or process specific musical snobbery. I started in the classical world and especially in the 60's and 70's their noses were in the clouds. Imagine having Harold Budd on your teaching staff and forcing him to teach 17th century harmony which is the class I took with him. I then moved through the rock celebrity world, the hard core jazz world and the LA studio scene. Each had their own brand of we're playing real music, every one else is beneath us mentality. And sampling and remixing seems to bring this out like I've never seen before. I've had people show up at the site and say things to the effect of you're all just copying and reworking other people's stuff and all of a sudden I get hyper protective and defensive and the site becomes my house that needs protection. Of course most musicians are open minded and are willing to have their attitudes adjusted, I'm just extra sensitive to that special mix of ignorance, arrogance and alcohol where it doesn't matter if they've mastered the art of improvising over variations of the "Sweet Georgia Brown" changes or memorized every Paganini etude, if they don't recognize that turntablism and sampling is exactly the same level of composing, arranging, performance and artistry as anything that's ever come before in music then I suggest they move on.

spin: (laughs) - Now tell me what you really think? -- More seriously, I think your work with and around ccMixter is contributing a lot to changing attitudes on that front. -- Can others, who share those goals get involved in a helpful way?

Victor: Well, we have specific needs on ccHost, like CSS gurus and skin developers. At the site we are always, always, always looking for singers to put their a cappellas into the Commons. For musicians the most important thing is to care about the quality of their work and be willing and open to share because I'm big believer in a rising tide. There is no evidence that music appreciation, including the commercial kind where people pay for music, is a zero sum game. Your career is helped when those around you are making better music, not worse. You don't want to be the best track in a podcast if the rest of the music in that podcast sucks. You can afford to be the 3rd best track in a podcast where every track is a home run. And of course, every musician improves by sharing skills and samples with other musicians.

spin: Thank you so very much, Victor, for taking the time to share a bit about yourself, your art and your thoughts. It has been a delight to have this conversation! May you have lots of success with your new album and may ccMixter continue to thrive as the trend setting web destination for open music makers.

4 comments - add your comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow= I'm fascinated.
Just wanted to do a quick "peak";
I'm still in my PJ's with a cup of coffee in my hand - forgot to sip because could not stop reading.
This interview gives insight how a GREAT Visionary came into being and accomplished and also what' all is out there the ordinary little guy like myself has no idea about.
My contribution is very hidden (not visible to others) but I visit the site regularly.

gurdonark said...

Good interview. Although I am not much given to envy, I must admit that a class with Harold Budd sounds pretty cool.

The mixter is running along very nicely, and we're grateful to Victor for not only its initial implementation, but also the way it improves and grows.

Trapper said...

Great interview. Totally captures Vic -- and I mean this in a good way :)

Frank said...

Now THAT'S an interview! Very interesting, very funny and, best of all, very informative. From reading this interview, it just confirms what I figured out intuitively; Fourstones is DEFINITELY someone to know!