Marc Hannaford : Audio File / Audiophile

Marc Hannaford releases two new recordings in February and March this year. Ordinary Madness (with Brooklyn-based altoist Tim Berne and Australian improvisers Scott Tinkler, Simon Barker and Philip Rex) and Sarcophile (Sam Pankhurst on bass and James McLean on drums) in digital format. We talked to him about why he chose to release these recordings in this way and about the kind of music you’ll hear on each release.

Miriam Zolin: I was interested to read your ‘D-day’ blog post about your digital releases. You talk a lot about the issue from the view point of the musician. But who is listening to digital releases? I think many of the musicians I know listen and share music digitally, from their portable devices, but that’s not true for some of my other friends who love jazz and improvised music. Do you see this move to digital as a trend across the board?

Marc Hannaford
Marc Hannaford

Marc Hannaford: it’s hard to tell. I think it’s wrapped up in identity and generation. I would say that its true for most musos who are younger than I am.

I’ve noticed with my students, they usually get to their music via online streaming. As in, they use YouTube or Grooveshark – online libraries of music – a lot of the time. And then when they want to find a specific artist it’s via online. Then there are other people. My generation is on the cusp of things. A lot of people my age have iPods. But there are also people in my generation who say ‘I just want the physical product’. But I still feel it’s moving towards a completely digital world. I do buy CDs and when I do, I digitise them immediately.

MZ: So what about the quality of sound on a downloaded or digitised file?

MH: I would say that’s true that generally CD and vinyl quality is nicer. But personally – and I can only speak for me – I just want to hear the music and I want to hear it now.

The resolution of digital audio files is also improving: there are already online sites such as HDTracks that offer HD digital audio downloads with audiophiles in mind. I, for one, am also looking forward to investigating 1-bit audio recording more, which, I’ve been told, has a richness comparable to tape!

MZ: Would you be unusual in that?

MH: Again I would say it’s mostly generational. I think people still understand the morality of getting digital music. I know people who will get the digital music from an artist’s website or Bandcamp or CD before going to iTunes. You know iTunes is notorious for only paying a very small amount to the musician.

MZ: I did not know that.

MH: Yeah, well they only pay a small percentage of the sale price, whereas if you use Bandcamp or Soundcloud or CD Baby, you get paid a much higher percentage. Apple take a huge cut, comparatively So I know people who are aware of that and go to the artist’s website.

I don’t know if I’m alone in that, but they are my general ideas. I just want to hear the music. Hearing the music and hearing it quickly are my main priorities.

MZ: What about the idea of a CD as artefact – as a beautiful package? Something that some book publishers are considering is the idea of doing a very small print run, beautifully packaged, as a collectible and that would then be purchased and enjoyed by collectors who were into that, while most readers would opt for the eBook. Is that something you’ve considered?

MH: Well it’s already sort of happening. The band Radiohead did a record a while ago called In Rainbows and it was released digitally. Even for the latest one they did this, King Of Limbs… it was available digitally for about $10 and then as high quality vinyl with a huge newspaper-like poster size printout and jigsaw puzzle of the cover for something like $50.

And so the audiophiles – I tried to say that in the blog post – who are really concerned with the quality of the sound, will go with vinyl. Vinyl is beautiful and warm. And then there are people like me who want the music now… it seems like it’s going to get polarised that way.

MZ: But is it polarised though? Won’t you have people who want to do both?

MH: I supposed it’s polarised in terms of portability. The vinyl record and the record player is the ultimate in not being able to carry something around. Where the digital thing is the opposite. Also, it costs a lot to do vinyl and doing it digitally for these releases I have no print costs. So I guess they are polarised in that sense.

I was thinking about books – nobody’s really digitising books. If you already have a collection of books, you can’t digitise them, can you? I have a lot of books at home… if I buy a Kindle I can’t just digitise the books on my shelves. If I have a CD I can digitise it easily. I think that’s a big difference between what’s happening for books and music.

MZ: Is there some music that would lend itself more to the sort of digital release you’re proposing for these two albums coming up?

MH: I suppose one of the big movements in digital music is the shift away from the album as a continuous whole, to a track by track thing. So the idea of thinking of your album in a linear progression I think is changing – is changing a lot.

MZ: So the idea of the concept album… is that going?

MH: I think that will probably go later but definitely that idea is starting to fragment. That idea of the linear album, of ‘that track must follow this track’  and the classic thing of the concept album, where each track builds on the last in a sort of narrative form, I think that’s going to change. It seems to be changing already. I think that that is interesting in two respects. If you have an album that’s made up mostly of a few long pieces, it doesn’t really affect you that much. For example Cecil Taylor albums might only have one or two tracks. That’s not an issue, because you’re just going to still get those one or two tracks.

Putting aside that whole idea of attention span, which is also changing, I suppose the only thing that really changes is where you’ve conceived of it in terms of one track following on from another.

It also changes if you’ve conceived of one track coming straight in from another – people put track markings in the middle of long, continuous tracks. So maybe you’ve got a fifteen minute piece but because you want it played on radio, you’ve got a track marker in the middle. That’s not going to work any more because if you’re going to play that digitally, most digital players automatically put a gap of one or two seconds in between tracks…

MZ: …so that smooth flow-on doesn’t happen anymore.

MH: Yes exactly.

MZ: So these are concerns that you now have to think about when releasing a digital album?

MH: Yes, the challenge is to be aware of those things and figure out how you can still remain creative within those bounds.

MZ: Can you conceive of any album you might be releasing down the road where you would not consider a digital release – where you might put it out only physically.

MH: I don’t think so. That seems to run counter to so many things.

MZ: Like?

MH: Well financial considerations are definitely big for me. I put out the second Antripodean Collective release at the end of 2010 and I put that out myself just because we did a session and it was sitting there. It cost me a mint! For very little return.

And if you want to make more of a return on these things it’s quite labour intensive doing he mailout. And it’s more cost – postage – as well as being more labour intensive to get those things out.

MZ: Are you talking about mailouts to reviewers, radio stations etcetera?

MH: Yes. With a digital release it’s so much easier – a couple of emails.

MZ: So your approach to promoting the music is obviously different too. Tell me what’s changed now. And what do you think has to change in the mindset from when you promote a physical object. Are you talking to different people?

MH: I feel like I’m talking to different people because since I started putting this idea out there with various people, I’ve found that different people respond. Purely because of the idea. It seems that a few people are interested in that as an approach – they are interested enough to have a discussion about it.

I suppose jazz is often seen as an art music and therefore would traditionally resist modern movements like digitising music. But I think that one of the big things that has to change is that if people want to keep reviewing the music and writing about it, they have to be open to getting the music in a different way. Again I see that as a generational thing…

MZ: But your reviewer base might change. .

MH: Exactly. I think about reviewers … you know a lot of the people who write for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, for example are like a generation older than me and are of that generation where a CD is the thing that they would get on their desk. They are used to getting that on their desk. They’re probably not used to getting an email that says ‘here’s a link and a code, click on this link and enter the code and you’ll get 8 tracks. Burn the CD if you want…’  That process is maybe a bit scary for some. I’m also still willing to burn CDRs of the releases for the convenience of these reviewers.

MZ: Do you think there will be resistance to that, that people might not even click on the link and might not even hear the music?

MH: Well that’s a risk but I’m hoping that the things that it opens up, and the people that come to it at least equal the people who are alienated by it.

MZ: I’ve noticed that when I receive CDs for review they often don’t come with very good information… media releases often leave a lot to be desired. As though the musicians really do feel that the music should speak for itself, with no extra information required. I’m worried that digital releases are so easy that the information about the music will be even scantier. Do you think there’s room with this move to a more digital release to provided different sorts of information about the recording. Is that an opportunity?

MH: I think so … with everything being digitised more and more… the blog is a classic example of one way to get more information out about a release. You can create a website or a blog and put up your thoughts about things and hopefully develop a following. Then hopefully when the audio file comes out, those people are there with you and have read a couple of the articles and can understand where this has come from.

But going back to that idea of it being less labour-intensive … doing two releases I had time to do the whole album by myself, learn Gimp [image touch up software] as I go, and then have enough time to put out feelers to the press to find out if anybody’s interested in talking about the album. I’ve also got enough time to get a professional press release done, get photos done, get the website up…just for the sheer fact that I’ve done this digitally, on my own… The physical product takes so long and dealing with record labels take a long time…

MZ: So it’s not just the expense, it’s also a time factor?

MH: That’s right and it’s also a control factor. I have nothing against record companies, particularly independent companies like Jazzhead or Extreme, or whoever, I think they’re really great, and if they want to keep doing what they’re doing, getting physical products into stores, that’s great. But I just want to have my own timeframe. I don’t want to have to wait to hear back from people. I don’t want to have to get artwork and explain that I want more or less or whatever. I want to do everything as much as possible.

MZ: One of the problems is that as the technology gets better, as people are more able to create their own products and release them, there’s a quality control component that gets lost. When you’re dealing with a record company, there’s usually some sort of quality control going on, I guess. And it’s really hard – some say impossible – to quality check your own work. Is that a risk do you think of doing everything yourself, that you’ll skip those quality checks and something will slip through that shouldn’t?

MH: I suppose I have two thoughts about that. The first is that it would seem at least in the case of record companies, most often those decisions that are made are not made on the basis of artistic merit – more to do with marketability.

MZ: So what sort of commercial considerations…

MH: Well, Blue Note records is the classic example. You just don’t see any Blue Note records that don’t have a vocalist on them. And that’s an iconic label.  But they need to do that to try and stay alive. So the quality control thing is important, but who is looking to control the quality anyway? People who want to make money…

MZ: Not always, I know that there are decisions made about cover art, press release and those kinds of aspects of a CD… and they often as a component of music that’s released by a record label, are done by people who understand how to market the music. And if you’re releasing all your own stuff, are you outsourcing those aspects?

MH: Oh, you mean the extra-musical things? Yes, I suppose one thing that I would definitely have to think about – same way with the artwork – is to try and tackle that properly rather than just spend an afternoon writing a paragraph about the music; try and understand some marketing concepts. That’s the sort of thing we have to now think about – how we can be good at all those things

MZ: I guess in a way, you’re trying to reach a mixed audience – potentially not eager to login and enter a code or pay money, as well as people who are really keen to hear the music and savvy about the technology but not interested in reading detailed information.

MH: Well what I figure is that for people who are really keen, it probably doesn’t make so much difference… in a way, and this was one of the things that struck me about the Antripodean release a year and a bit ago… the people who are keen will get the music because they want the music.

MZ: Well how did they find out about it?

MH: They send me emails about or call me or we play in their town and they by a CD at the show. They’re in touch.

MZ: So this is word of mouth …

MH: Yes, and because the music is really niche, the people who are into it are really into it. There are a few people in Melbourne who bug me about doing another (Antripodean) record. which is really weird but then…

MZ: It’s fantastic!

MH: It’s fantastic but it’s weird to think about this music in that context. But I suppose that’s one of the benefits of being in a niche is that people who like the music are loyal, they’ll ‘get’ the music. So in a way the challenge is how to get it to those other people who either are scared of the music or are scared of the digital thing. That’s where I think the craft of the press release could play a pretty crucial role.

MZ: Well, perhaps we should talk about these two releases. Ordinary Madness is a quintet recording, fantastic lineup and you’ve worked with all these people before… so how did this collaboration with Tim Berne come about?

Ordinary Madness cover
Ordinary Madness

MH: It probably goes back to when I first discovered Tim Berne’s music in 2005 or 2006 or somewhere around there. I found his music on his website Screwgun Records and I remember thinking, ‘this interesting – the artwork is interesting, the fonts are interesting’. You know it’s run by him; it’s not just a page with some text on it. He has an artist who he works with and a designer…  All the artwork on his albums is recognisably by this artist but all different. I remember I went onto the website and I bought a pack of music – he does boxed sets with various artists. I bought a pack to do with this band that he had called Hard Cell, and he sent me a bunch of wrong CDs by mistake. I sent an email that said, ‘look I love all this music that you’ve sent me but it’s not what I ordered.  I’m happy to send it back and can you send me the stuff I ordered’. And he just said ‘keep the stuff I sent you and I’ll send you the stuff you ordered’. I remember thinking, ‘ this dude is cool!’ He just seems like a guy, who’s into the music’.

And then I just gradually listened more and more and more to his music and [Scott] Tinkler and I would get together and listen. These guys were amazing and interesting and playing music that’s really similar to the things that we enjoy in music, and that’s reasonably rare. Tinkler is a notoriously difficult man to please, musically…

MZ: The two of you have a kind of musical affinity, I think. That’s what he said in his interview in extempore, anyway.

MH: I really respect him a lot and worked hard and listened to him very carefully about what he likes and doesn’t like in music. He’s really been a mentor for me. But I remember playing that to him and he went, ‘wow, that’s really interesting’ and I remember thinking when he said that, ‘okay, this is a thing’.

And ah, then nothing really happened. We just kept listening to his music. And then I think 2007, 2008… it was after Wangaratta… I had proposed a project where Tinkler and I would go to New York and record with Tim Berne and Tom Rainey. They were both easy to talk to by email, very sort of ‘if you get over here, we’ll get it to work and it will be cool’  They seemed very similar to us. And anyway it didn’t work out. I didn’t get the money and then Tim Berne came for the festival here and Tinkler was asked to put the band together. He ended up putting the band together that’s on that album, with Stephen Magnusson. We all learned Tim’s music and played it for that gig, which was a blast. And Tim seemed to have a great time. In person he was just as cool and musically interesting as we thought he would be, which was a great relief.

We all agreed we’d like to do it again. Eventually he came back again for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival with his band Adobe Probe and I remember talking to Tinkler and said ‘I wonder if I should organise a session, do you think he would be into it?’, and Tinky said ‘yeah, just do it.’ And so I just sent him an email, booked a session and that was it! Got Simon down from Sydney…

MZ: Okay, so… Ordinary Madness…great name, but what about the name of the other recording, with James (MacLean) and Sam (Pankhurst) …

MH: Sarcophile yeah…sarcophile is sort of a… is the Latin name for a carnivorous mammal, usually used for the Tasmanian Devil – sarcophilus…

MZ: There aren’t many meat-eating mammals, I guess.

Sarcophile cover

MH: No, the Tasmanian Devil is usually the one. So it seemed really interesting. I picked that name because I’m really into food and I’m really into good meat! James MacLean is a vegetarian so it doesn’t really apply to him. And Sam Pankhurst is into meat so it sort of applies to him too. But that record is in a way, truly my album as a traditional leader because it’s all of my written material. For Ordinary Madness really I’m the producer in that I booked it and paid for it, but the trio one is mine… I liked the idea of it being associated with the Tasmanian Devil which is an Australian animal. It makes sense because I don’t think that the music sounds like contemporary American jazz I think it sounds different to that. Not to say it’s distinctly Australian because that’s really hard to talk about, but to say that it definitely is different from the trends in contemporary American jazz. I think it’s interesting sounding, phonetically, and it relates to me as a person.

MZ: And how would you describe the music on the Trio CD?

MH: Oh, I would say that it contains a lot of characters, I suppose…

MZ: Characters?

MH: Maybe narratives is a better word. Things happen for a while, that we explore and then I think the music probably sounds reasonably mysterious, because there are structures in play that are not always obvious. Things happen, I think, that seem to come from nowhere… I think the music sounds, for lack of a better word – tough – strong, but also not aggressive in the idea that it is incessantly sort of pounding away. It’s not Cecil Taylor’s or Anthony Braxton’s music which can be incessantly aggressive for a long time. Things change, and move on a dime in the music because of the way it’s set up musically.

MZ: Was it recorded in just the one session?

MH: Yeah, one afternoon at Bennetts Lane.

MZ: Ordinary Madness too?

MH: Yes, that has just three tracks and that’s all we played. We went in and we played those three tracks. That’s one of the things that the digital realm allows you to do. You’re not restricted by time, as to how long a release is … The one with Tim Berne is like an hour and a half, just because, we recorded all that stuff, we thought it all sounded interesting enough to release and we didn’t have to worry about it being a double CD release or anything like that, and amping up the costs.

Download tracks from Ordinary Madness and Sarcophile

MZ: Are you launching the releases with gigs?

MH: Yes, there are two launches.

On 16 February at Uptown Jazz Café, we’ll be launching Ordinary Madness with me on piano, Scott Tinkler (trumpet) Phil Rex (bass), Simon Barker (drums) and Scott McConnachie as a guest on saxophone.

 On 18 March at Bennetts Lane we’ll launch Sarcophile, with James McLean (drums) and Sam Pankhurst (bass)

You will be able to buy vouchers at the door. The live performance becomes a big deal because it’s one of the few things left that’s unique, that can’t be copied or pirated. And for me it’s important for me to have something at the gig that people can buy. I’ll have card there that people can buy. It has a sticker that people can peel off and stick wherever they want and then there’s a download code and my website address. Click, enter the code and get the audio.

MZ: Are you collaborating with somebody on the artwork for the card?

MH: Yes, with the Ordinary Madness release, I’m collaborating with a guy called Arthur Leeds Schmidt – a visual artist who lives in Northcote. He’s provided three images and they are very striking images. I’ve done the images for Sarcophile myself and it’s similarly interesting, I think.


Read Marc Hannaford’s blog ‘Dualism aside’

Download tracks from Ordinary Madness and Sarcophile

See Tim Berne’s website Screwgun Records