John Czajkowski Interview
Guitarist-composer, John Czajkowski, founded the critically acclaimed fusion-rock band, Hectic Watermelon in 2004. The 2006 debut Hectic Watermelon album, The Great American Road Trip, features Jerry Goodman (of Mahavishnu Orchestra and Dixie Dregs) on electric violin. HWM was quickly recognized as a fiery and creative new tour de force earning a number one ranking in the UK Alternative Jazz polls published by Jazzwise magazine. HWM has performed live with Jerry Goodman and more frequently as a power trio in Southern California and West Coast tours, festivals and clubs. Additionally, HWM has also performed live with Trans Siberian Orchestra founder and Grammy-nominated violinist, Mark Wood.
John has helped spearhead an historic multi-composer multi-CD project with German drumming phenom, Marco Minnemann named “Normalizer 2.” The composers Mike Keneally, Trey Gunn, Alex Machacek , Phi Yann-Zek, Marco and John each are writing and recording a complete album around a virtuosic 52-minute recorded drum performance. John’s album, West ZooOpolis, is a colorful and tightly woven trip that weaves its way though many Americana, Rock, Jazz and Fusion textures. John has also engineered Mike Keneally’s album, Evidence of Humanity, at his studio, Picasso By The Sea.
New York downtown composer, Scott Johnson, remarks, “John Czajkowski is a monster guitarist with a metal carapace and a creamy jazz center, sprouting hydra heads of classical picking, insinuating slide, and a particularly funky banjo. He leads us on a tour of the American landscape and all the music that grows here.”
John is presently writing for the next HWM record which will may include Jerry Goodman on violin, Mike Keneally on keys, vocals and pitched percussion, Marco Minnemann on drums in addition to the regular HWM team, Darren DeBree and Harley Magsino. John is an active BMI composer publishing both independently and with Sonikstep Publishing which places music on TV networks ranging from CNN to MTV and beyond.(www.hecticwatermelon.com
Randy Allar: This is Randy Allar and you are tuned to the Fusion Show on 89.3 WCSB. For those of you just joining in, we just heard the first gapless 7 tracks from a beautiful new album by John Czajkowski, from Hectic Watermelon, and now teamed up with drummer extraordinaire Marco Minnemann. The album is called West ZooOpolis. Wow, what a weird name…Here joining us live is John Czajkowski. John, I have to tell you: this album is absolutely stunning. The diverse sounds you brought in and the compositions just knock me out. I loved your Hectic Watermelon album with Jerry Goodman, but this is just awesome music!
John Czajkowski: Thank you so much, Randy. Yes, it is a very different album that was born from a very different compositional process compared to a traditional situation where you write 10-12 songs independently, record them from ground on up with your band, then go hit the road with it. Yes, this began with a raw drum track that Marco recorded in one single 52-minute seamless performance. My job was to imagine and create an album of music around this monster that sounds like it was written either before or concurrently with the drums rather than after them. Not a simple task. It was actually the most difficult musical challenge I have ever faced. However, as with most all challenges, the difficulties are often accompanied by hidden opportunities along the way. These opportunities often inspired me to bring in new sounds that I didn’t use on The Great American Road Trip album. Marco both challenged and inspired me to write and play things I probably would not have done if I were starting from scratch.
RA: So, that this album actually started with a drum solo – this didn’t sound very appealing to me at first to be perfectly honest. But what you’ve done with it feels like a jazz-rock masterpiece with banjos, these beautiful acoustic guitars, Nashville sounds – very unusual and very creative.
JC: Thanks again Randy. Well, what Marco is doing here is not at all a traditional drum solo either per se. When he first gave me the solo to check out I had no idea what to expect, I wasn’t familiar with what he does. We’d been introduced by mutual friend, Mike Keneally, and after hearing some of my Hectic Watermelon stuff one night after NAMM in 2007 Marco gave me some files to feast on. When I loaded his drum session into my ProTools rig, I was not prepared for what I was about to hear. I quickly realized this was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I mean, in my Master’s degree program, we’d analyze the most ridiculously complex serialized and atonal music of the 20th century like Boulez, metrically complex music of Stravinsky where he has different sections of his orchestra in different time signatures, and Elliot Carter with all his highly patterned metrical modulations, or Brian Ferneyhough who makes some of the most complicated music conceivable. But, with Marco’s drum track, I soon realized here is just one dude in a single drum performance employing many of these same techniques like a big funky octopus juggling all these different rhythms simultaneously. Unreal.
RA: Sounds pretty crazy…and scary!
JC: Absolutely. Although I was somewhat intimidated by the challenge of trying to get my pea brain around some of the most severe sections, I was immediately inspired by the musicality of it all, that I soon lost track of how hard I was working. If it didn’t grab me emotionally, the complexity would be of little interest, but Marco’s still manipulating traditional styles…just turning them completely inside out, upside down, and into pretzels! It’s the best of both sides of the historical equation – the complexity of high art music mixed with the primal urgency of popular forms and sounds.
RA: So how do you take this insanely complex drum solo and end up with something so fluid and seamless in the end? I mean, I can start your album anywhere along the 20 tracks you’ve divided and it just wants to play out until the end. It’s really hard to stop! How did you do this?
JC: Well thanks again Randy. Although I do have a high pain threshold for the mathematical elements of music theory, but when I write, I am most happy with my music that occurs with the most expression and fluidity. In other words, when I’m not thinking about it. I’m sure this is pretty common. So, obviously trying to write around this solo presented hazardous bait. With all the mathematical complexity inherent to this beast, it would be tempting to let the analytical brain hijack the creative process for me. However, I can bet this would end up in music that leaves me cold after the gee wiz factor quickly wears off. So, after leaping in and initially composing a few pieces over the easier drum sections, I stopped the presses and mapped out the whole thing with a beat map. This took forever, like a couple of weeks, but it forced me to sit down and thoroughly analyze all the levels and layers of Marco’s polymetric jungle up front.
RA: So the computer helps you analyze this?
JC: Yes and no. You still have to do most of the hard work with more difficult and abstract metrical stuff. Keep in mind, Marco recorded his performance in free time with no click to start with. So, a beat map helps a Digital Audio Workstation like ProTools, Logic or Digital Performer – whatever – tick along with a metronome click to what you determine to be the dominant beat. His playing is so complex and layered. He may be doing a 9/16th repeating pattern with one foot on a high hat and then a totally different and seemingly unrelated pattern in say 5/4 and maybe even in a different tempo will appears with the adjacent arm on the toms. So, you just have to decide which time signature and maybe tempo is the dominant or most consistent to get the machine to click along to it. The computer only helps line up the workstation’s general time reference. You still need to tell it what to follow and correct it’s errors.
This can be useful when tracking so you can actually mute a busy drum channel like the toms or something and focus on a particular part of the groove. When I engineered Mike Keneally’s album (another album in the whole group along with Alex Machacek , Trey Gunn, Phi Yan-zek), Mike made great use of this strategy a number of times Also, it helps you just see bar structures overlaid to help analyze it all visually, so you can more easily plat out arrangements. You could also use it if you wanted to sync up MIDI sequences with something recorded in free time. So, there are lots of ways it can be helpful. In the 40 hours or more it took me to map this out, I started to internalize the math of what Marco is doing so I could let myself compose more freely and naturally later in the end.
RA: Well, like I said, you would never realize that your album was composed to a pre-existing drum track. It has me fooled — regardless of how you figured it out.
JC: Nice. Remember that getting the beat map together is just basic preparation. Like getting your kitchen organized before you really start cooking.
RA: In addition to Marco’s amazing drumming, you have many new sounds here on West ZooOpolis that we haven’t heard on the first Hectic Watermelon album. There are banjos, steel guitars, all kinds of stuff!
JC: Yes! In terms of orchestration, with Hectic Watermelon, you are hearing my amalgam jazz-rock that can actually be performed in a trio or quartet setting with minimal modification. However, in West ZooOpolis, I am trying to evoke the image of my ideal vision of a 70s-esque Americana jazz-rock ensemble playing a folksy, through-composed program that flows seamlessly. This music would take far more musicians to perform live, but I didn’t let that constrain me whatsoever. With West ZooOpolis, the orchestration is such a huge part of how I hear the music, that in order to play it live, I’d need to add about three people to the Hectic Watermelontrio. We’d need a keyboard player plus one or two multi-instrumentalists for the acoustic guitar (both classical and flatpicking styles), banjo, baritone, pedal steel, and maybe marimba. It would be hard to reduce much of the album to a trio format, but some of the rock pieces could still actually work pretty well as is.
RA: This album also sounds great I’m terms of the mix and sonics in general. It has a nice 70’s open spatial thing going on.
JC: Thanks. In terms of the sonics of the album, I really worked hard to balance the modern expectations with the classic 70s production sensibilities in terms of space and depth of field. The mastering engineer, John Cuniberti, and I worked hard to ensure these elements made it all the way through to the CD. I have some buddies who are super freaky audiophile geeks who sweat all the details, so I want it to be a real treat to their ears.
Also, mixing West ZooOpolis was very demanding because of orchestration choices as well as all the variations of the drums. Due to the whole vibe I was going for, I sought both instruments and tones that had suggested classic sensibilities. There were times where I may have wanted to carve up a more modern metal guitar and bass tone, but doing so would threaten the unity of sounds across the album. So, I’d shape it so that it all fit together as a cohesive whole, but still with as much variety as possible.
RA: So, there actually is a lot of thought that goes into making this album flow so well from track to track.
JC: I wanted it to reward not only the audiophile guys, but more importantly, the dying breed of people who like to enjoy whole albums, or album sides in a sitting. So, I tried my best to create a through-composed program that flows seamlessly and feels like it is developing along the way. This happens best with contrast, variation and some repetition of orchestrations, but hopefully I’m not overdoing it. I do enjoy the idea of creating the image of performers coming on and off the stage and switching instruments along the way.
When writing a new section, I had to pay careful attention to where I had been, and where I was going with all this so everything had a purpose. Each new idea would have to be good enough to pass that initial test of, “Ok, do I like this idea?” Then it had to pass the test of “Next, is this thing serving a purpose in the macro structure of the album?” Then I’d consider more subtle things as well.
RA: Ok, so where do you get these song titles like “Midget Magi and the Bearded Hippo”, or “Elephant Emergency” or “West ZooOpolis.” I guess there are some normal ones too like, “Three Trains to Tennessee.”
JC: Well, with instrumental music, you are pulling the narrative element of lyrics away from the listener for starters, so with the title you can give them something to help hear your music so it’s communicating a little less abstractly. Sure, you can also be difficult and just call the piece “Irritant Number 5” for no reason in particular. I know some of my titles may sound random or whimsical, but I don’t usually roll that way. Speaking of which, Debussy would write a beautiful piece of music and then ascribe a title to it utterly whimsically – and totally after the fact. He’d be walking through the park and see his footprints in the snow and viola, (in French accent) “Ahhh, this is it! I will call it footsteps in the snow.” The funny thing is that such a title may actually encourage a listener to create a whole visual, or other sensual narrative to follow this. It’s how we try to make meaning of things I suppose.
I have to admit, I have a whole storyline created that could be animated later, so these animals do all suggest specific characters in the plot. However, I felt it was best to keep my liner notes minimalist to not try to direct the listener’s interpretation of my music either. I may just leave it open-ended. I think the role for titles is really just to suggest possibilities of interpretation rather than constraining the listener’s imagination. It’s no secret from reading my titles and the few clues from the album art and liner notes, that there are some strong suggestions of theme, plot, character and settings…Iguanas, American landscapes, Kodachrome 60s beaches, deserts, cold war spies, tumbleweeds, dwarfs, circus freaks, psychedelia, you know…the usual menagerie. But out of due respect to the creativity of my listeners, I’ll leave the rest up to your imaginations.