The 45 RPM setting on the turntable I have in my living room is broken — something I forgot as I placed the needle on the platter of Maston’s 2017 Tulips lp.
Publicly, I’ve rarely written about psychedelics as, with anything powerful, there is the issue of misuse and abuse. LSD, mescaline, peyote, mushrooms, ayahuasca: all have the potential to radically shift one’s consciousness and perception of “reality” – both inward and outward. Per dosage and circumstance, all can be used for myriad purposes; from healing and introspection, to the management of symptomatic depression and anxiety via micro-dosing. And then there are the less heavy benefits available to the psychonaut: getting inside music, art, nature and the beyond. The cumulative positive effects of these substances have very much bled into these virtual pages over the past fourteen years. To those with an eye out, I imagine this is fairly obvious.
Recently, on an uncharacteristic cold and rainy night in Los Angeles, my friend Sam and I spent 7-8 hours listening to records in front of my fireplace while casually nipping from a bottle of mezcal — paired with a brick of chocolate mushrooms. As you get older and responsibilities mount, such evenings are a luxury: free time with the sole purpose of hanging out, circular discussion, and what could only be described as genuine music appreciation. The depth and breadth of our conversations, and the menu of music that night scanned wide, serving up dub, jazz, slithering funk, several sides of Mozart’s piano concertos, Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley’s second Drinks lp, the North Americans’ album from last year, Ryo Fukui, and much more.
But back to Tulips. Mastered for 45, as the needle began to track on the record, something felt … off. Sam, unfamiliar with the recording, looked at me halfway through the first track: “What is this? it’s great.” And it was, so I let it ride. There, under the thumb of a potent, yet manageable dose of mushrooms we listened to the record (twice) as it revealed its shadow self at 33rpm. Amidst this languid and hypnagogic unfurling, we (naturally) surmised that its sonic architect must have created, recorded and released the album knowing full well someone would eventually crack the code revealing its true intent. I mean, right?
An American expat, Maston splits his time between Amsterdam and Paris. Calculating it was around 9 am in the Netherlands, I texted him, along with a bit of context. He immediately hit us back, and as it turns out a number of his friends had related similar stories since the album’s release. Later that weekend, re-listening to the album at 45 RPM, sans the psilocybin, I decided to dig deeper, and hit up Frank Maston to hear his thoughts. Our conversation, below.
Aquarium Drunkard: Nothing says “good morning!” like a random, drug-addled, video text…so, thanks for responding to that.
Maston: It was a pleasant surprise! Thanks for taking me along on the trip.
AD: I’ve listened to Tulips a lot since you sent it to me in 2017. We described it in our initial review as a “70s film score on a hit of acid, Elmer Bernstein sweating through a bad trip only to arrive at an ecstatic come up.” So perhaps my recent experience was inevitable. I’m curious, what does the term “psychedelic” mean to you?
Maston: It’s always felt like sort of a synonym for interesting. Or creative. A little bit out of the ordinary. The further out it strays, I think, the less interesting psychedelia is to me. But the psychotropic-experience-cliché is actually so accurate…because it’s the world you live in, the familiar world, but just slightly warped and distorted. And applied to art it’s really the same…viewing familiar things from unfamiliar angles.
AD: You’re a multi-disciplinary artist, involved in not just music and composition, but visual arts, design and film. In a word, your work has a defined “aesthetic.” How do all of these disciplines coalesce and inform one another in your music and beyond?
Maston :: Old Habits (33 RPM Version)
Maston: For me, the different mediums I’m working in kind of feel like I’m trying to say the same thing in different languages. Like trying to make an accurate translation of a very specific idea, and the idea itself is abstract. So there ends up being certain things that are easier to convey in this language, but this other language can have more nuance or subtext, and maybe this other language just sounds prettier. And I’m someone who really responds to these different art forms, so I’m always trying to decode what it is that I like about something and why. And whatever that thing is, I try to recreate in my work.
AD: One of things that initially struck me in terms of your recorded output is a sense of detachment from any specific time / era. And not just in terms of the production but in the overall feel. There is a nebulous difference between the two, and I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.
Maston: That’s good to hear, it’s definitely what I’m aiming for. I mean, I think the production and the actual notes are two different things in my mind…the production is very much an aesthetic choice. But everything really starts with the melodies and harmonies for me. And my criteria for filtering my ideas is really about what sounds the best removed from any context. I’m always asking myself “Can this be played in a different arrangement and still sound cool?”. Those are the types of ideas I have my eye out for.
AD: Do you have a short list of influences, or auteurs, you draw inspiration from? Not so much stylistically, but how they have navigated their work, creativity and the trajectory of career?
Maston: Kraftwerk has definitely had an influence on me…on kind of redefining what a band could be. And the way their aesthetic is so consistent. Like they were always playing the long game…thinking about how their catalog would be seen as a whole. It really feels a bit removed from time. And Jon Brion is another one, who sort of has one foot in the film world and the other in production. His career path and the way he has his fingers in a few different pots is inspiring for sure. Outside of music, I’ve really admired Wim Crouwel. He’s a Dutch graphic designer who created the identity for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. They called him Gridnik because he was one of the first to utilize the grid in graphic design. And some of his work is really wild and far out, but it always adheres to the grid. I love that dynamic of being really creative and rigid at the same time.
Maston :: Evening (33 RPM Version)
AD: You produced the PAINT album from last year, Pedrum Siadatian’s (from Allah-Las) side-project. As a work, it feels very much its own thing, yet your fingerprints are all over it. In terms approach, as a producer, are you interested in emulating the trajectory of, say, a Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois — in which their contributions are not only notable, but often a sonic hallmark of whatever the album is they are brought in to work on?
Maston: Yeah, I think Eno is a good example. His way of acting more as an additional band member than a traditional producer has really influenced the way I view that role. Part of why I love producing other artists is that the detachment from the writing process frees me up to focus on everything else. I can approach it as a fan and see more clearly where the music wants to go and how I can help it get there. And in the process I think my own pattern of decision making gets revealed a bit more and there ends up being echoes of me floating around sometimes.
AD: Switching gears, I want to address the idea of playing of Tulips at the “wrong” speed. As its creator, where do you stand on this?
Maston: I think it’s fascinating. I’ve listened to it a few times now at the slower speed and the experience is really trippy for me as well. This music is so familiar, and yet at the slower speed it’s just different enough that my brain hears it as something new. Its probably the most objective listening experience I’ve had…looking through the other end of the telescope. And I do agree that some of the songs can seem like they were intended that way. When I made the record, based on the running time I thought it would be interesting to master it to vinyl at 45rpm. There’s more surface area, so it seemed like I could get a higher fidelity at 45 on a 12” disc. I did think for a fleeting moment that (because it’s not really common) some people would inevitably play it at 33 1/3. But I didn’t really think about how it might sound.
The phenomenon is a unique combination of things — the rarity of a 12” LP playing at 45rpm and the music being largely instrumental. And on a technical level, there isn’t a lot of really low or high frequencies on the original record, so pitching it down doesn’t change it tonally enough to be instantly noticeable.
AD: When did you first get wind of listeners not only taking in the album in this way, at this speed, but actually preferring it this way?
Maston: I remember Robbie Simon texted me about that sometime last year, saying it sounded really good that way. And strangely some friends had accidentally only listened to it at 33 1/3 until they noticed the 45 on the center label much later on. It’s really interesting if someone’s first impression of that record is at the slower speed.
AD: Are there any recordings you can cite that you personally prefer at their unintended speeds? I’ve always liked Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” all slowed down.
Maston: I had the single version of “Roundabout” by Yes when I was a teenager and I would play it at the slow speed to figure out the guitar and keyboard parts. And I’d learn them and they would end up in the wrong key when I played the record at normal speed, so it didn’t really work. But I remember it sounding really cool.
AD: You mentioned when we were were texting about some of this other other day that you were considering having stickers made for the Tulips LP encouraging listeners to enjoy it at either speed. Has the collective feedback at all altered how you think about both creating and taking in recordings?
Maston: It certainly adds a 4th dimension to the music that I hadn’t considered before. It’s a good selling point for a record too…like a reversible jacket or something. And it plants the seed of possibly creating something like that intentionally, which would be a really interesting challenge.
AD: Lastly, what’s next for Maston? New record? Any plans to return to the states or do you see yourself remaining abroad?
Maston: I’m recording a handful of new songs at my friend’s studio in Holland soon. So those will be for a new Maston release this year. After that I have a few more projects coming up in Europe and then I’ll be settling back in LA this Summer. It feels like a good time to return – it’s definitely changed a lot since I lived there, enough to where I think I can discover it again. See it with new eyes.