Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Tiny Vipers Interview

Recently, I talked to Seattle's Jesy Fortino, AKA Tiny Vipers, about her unique approach to songwriting and recording, as well as one good reason to peek into the bushes.

Where did the name Tiny Vipers come from?

Honestly, I just thought it sounded cool (laughs). I mean, it was like 6 years ago, and I need to come up with a name because I didn’t want to use my own. I had just sort of packed that away a long time ago incase I ever needed a name for something.

How long had you played guitar before you felt you needed the name?

Well, I had played on and off for a while. I had played for a little bit when I was a teenager, and then I played again when I was maybe 20. I started playing shows when I was 22, so, its been on and off for a while

At what point did you begin adding vocals?

When I was about 20 I started singing, but, you know, just really quietly to myself.

Did you sing or write poetry before Tiny Vipers?

Ya, I did before I had a name. But, I didn’t perform before Tiny Vipers. Before that I kind of wrote it at home.

So you just did home recordings?

I didn’t even really do real recordings. I kind of did, but mostly just to remember the parts. I don’t know, it took a long time for me to show people it.

Do you enjoy playing live, or do you sometimes wish you could just go back to the bedroom with it?

(laughs) No, I enjoy it. it’s fun, for sure.

Live, you often play additional guitar parts between songs. Is this a comfort thing or an aesthetic decision?

I don’t really know. I just started doing it one day.

Are they planned or improvised?

It depends. Some are planned, but others I just make up.

Would you ever like to do that kind of thing on a record?

Ya, maybe. I’ve been thinking about doing more guitar stuff on records; just instrumental guitar songs.

You’ve gotten a lot of praise for your guitar work, but I was curious if you feel as comfortable as a singer?

Ya, I’m pretty comfortable with singing. It takes me a me a long time to write vocal parts though. I want to make sure the lyrics are OK before I record. So, the songs where I sing usually take a really long time to write, whereas I have a lot of just guitar songs, but, I don’t usually do anything with them. I have so many of them. So, ya, I’m pretty comfortable but it takes a long time.

When it comes to vocals, do you usually start with lyrics or melody?

I usually try to find a melody that makes sense. Usually when you’re developing a melody it goes hand in hand with developing the right sounding words. So, they kind of go together.

You didn’t use as many stacked vocals on the second album, Life on Earth. Was that a conscious decision, or just what came naturally out of recording them?

I just wanted to keep it simple. I was tempted to make it sound bigger, because you can these days. But, then I decided I didn’t want to. I mean, the whole record almost done in one take, in one day. I was like, “let’s just record these”, and then just sat and played through them. Then, anything added to them just didn’t sound right, so I left it out. Just tried to keep it simple.

The other big difference between the two albums is that the first album has… is that a synth?

It’s the Oberheim two-voice synthesizer.

Where did you get that?

Actually I found it. One day I was walking and I thought I saw an amp or something in a bush. So, I peeked in and saw this giant thing. It was in a box so I pulled it out and saw this keyboard thing. I thought it was pretty cool so I dragged it into my friend’s bar and kept it in the back room. I had to come back for it later because it was so heavy. Then, when I got it home I found out its actually a pretty special synthesizer; its one of the first sequencers ever made, by that company Oberheim.

Someone had just left that in a bush?

Ya, I don’t know. I went on craigslist to see if anyone had one stolen or missing. I don’t know, its one of those rare collectors’ items. You think someone would say something because it’s so rare. There’s only so many of them.

That’s incredible.

Ya, and it still worked, so, I was pretty impressed. I didn’t even know what it was, really. I showed some of my friends when I dragged it into work, and they couldn’t believe I found it. They thought I had stolen it or something; they were like, “no way you found that” (laughs). But, I did. It was weird. I always peek in the same bushes now. But, it’s a part of town where people hang out constantly, so it’s weird that it was just hidden there like that.

That’s crazy. Did you find it around the same time that you were recording Hands Across the Void?

Ya, it was right before I went in the studio. It’s pretty funny. I just sat at home and played with it; it was just so much fun. I mean, I didn’t even know what it did. It looks like a piece of scientific equipment. It was made in the early 70's, and it just looks like an object you’d see in a lab or something. It was very weird.

So that's you playing on the album?


Had you ever played synth or piano before?

No, but, playing this isn’t like playing a piano at all. There’s a lot of knobs and stuff. I mean, there’s a keyboard, but, it’s mostly, like, a switchboard. You just manipulate the current. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s very hard to use, and you definitely can’t play it like a piano; it’s too old. You can’t even hit two keys at the same time. (laughs) It’s pretty funny. so, you just make a noise and then manipulate the waves, modulate it and… I don’t even know how to talk about it because I’m so ignorant when it comes to synthesizers. But, its pretty awesome.

That’s so cool.

Ya, it’s really cool. I had never played a synthesizer before that, so I was pretty mystified by it. I’d just sit there at my house, because you can make it sound like anything you want. Like, you can make it sound like trickling water, if you know how. But I can’t make it make the same noise twice.

Oh, really?

It’s too hard. There are just too many possibilities.

So, were all the synth parts on Hands Across the Void done in one take?

Ya, they were just added, like, “oh we should add a synthesizer”. So I just hooked it up and did it. There’s just no way you can really control it, so once it was there it was like, “ OK, that’s good” (laughs).

That is fucking awesome.

Ya. I haven’t really used it much since. I mean, I play with it still, but I decided I’m not going to use it until it’s completely fixed. I don’t want it to melt or anything. My boyfriend has been researching it and he made me too paranoid to use it. He kept saying, like, “it’s a collectors item, don’t melt it”, because it was sitting in the rain in a bush. There’s a guy up here in Seattle who can fix it completely, just to make sure nothings chewed away. Like, the power supply looks like its going to mess up. So, I haven’t really messed with it since. But, I definitely want to do something with it in the future.

Ya, you really need to fix it and then put it on the next album.

Ya, its definitely beautiful. The tones it makes are pretty unique.

Seriously. I wasn’t even sure what it was most of the time. Sometimes it sounds like a cello, and other times a modern synth or something. It has such a unique sound.

Ya, it’s just really full. Like, you can make it the deepest, craziest notes that you can’t even hardly hear, that rumble the wall. And, you can modulate it to make beats and all sorts of strange sounds. It’s a two-voice synthesizer, so you can tune them together or away from each other. There’s a lot of weird stuff you can do. You can make extremely high frequencies too, that are almost inaudible. Its strange.

Ya, it just seems like there’s too much potential there to not use it.

Ya, for sure. I’m definitely going to use it again.

Speaking of the future, is there anything you’d like to do differently with the next record?

Um… I’m not sure. I’ve just been messing around at my apartment. I just have to see, I guess. I always kind of work on stuff, and if there is a record to be made, like, if someone wants to release a record then I look back at all the things I have and try to decide what would sound good together. I don’t usually sit down to write a record, like, “ope, I guess I need to write a record now”. I just compile material that’s already there. So, it’s a matter of how it was released, and what type of release it would be. I don’t know. I’ve been doing a lot of instrumental stuff, but I’m not sure if ill release any of it or not. I have to think about it, I guess.

As for the instrumentals, are they mostly single guitar?

Ya, mostly. Like, a lot of them are songs I’ve written but haven’t record, so there’s no overdubbing or anything like that. But, I might just keep them like that. I don’t know.

Do you think you’ll go back into the studio anytime soon?

I doubt it.

So, what are you up to these days?

I just finished a west coast tour, and now I’m heading to do one on the east coast. So, I’ve just been busy with travel logistics and stuff.

How did the west coast tour go?

It was fun. Me and my boyfriend went to Disneyland. (laughs) Very strange.

Ya, its kind of a creepy place after your like 7.

Ya, seriously. I also didn’t remember how many people were there. You know, when I was a kid it never seemed like there were that many people. This time I was like “holy…oh my gosh.” it just seemed like so many people were everywhere, it kind of blew my mind. It was fun though.

Its funny how you perceive things so differently at different ages.

Ya! But maybe there really is just more people. (laughs.) Because I was thinking about it when I was there, like, the people with kids are my age. You know? I’m getting up there. But ten years ago or so, none of them had kids. Maybe the population really has increased (laughs). I don’t know, I was probably over thinking it.

No, the population is definitely increasing.

Ya, I guess that’s a scientific fact.

As verified by Disneyland.

(laughs) Yep. Disneyland, population steadily rising.

So, do you still 9 to 5 it between tours?

I try to. Its hard to keep a job, for me. I had a really cool job for a while but I left for too long, so they hired someone else. I was like, “oh man, can you guys take me back?” and they were like, “uh…yeah… We’ll call you.” (laughs) I still work at the burrito restaurant. I’ve worked there for 6 or 7 years, and they always take me back. It’s funny, I can’t believe how long I’ve worked there. I’m always keeping my eye out for another job.

After that long it's almost a career.

(laughs) Ya, a fast-food career. Its kind of funny, because you know when your little and your parents or your school try to scare you like, “you’re going to be flipping burgers for the rest of your life”. Its weird when you reach a certain age, and your like “oh, they might be right”.

“Oh fuck, I still make tacos”

(laughs) Yep, still making tacos. It’s OK though, I don’t work there that often. I try to save money, so I work there when I can. It’s just hard to depend on music; I get too anxious if I don’t have a job. I’ve just worked for too long, so I can’t let it go. You never know, in a year or so people might not be interested in you. It’s just a fact of the art-world. It’s a very fleeting, temporary thing, so I definitely try to keep my foot in the door with any job I can.

How did you hook up with Sub Pop?

They kind of just asked me to do the record. I’ve two records with them now, and, ya, they just came at me and asked me to do it. When I first started playing shows, maybe a year after I first started, people were really supportive around town. You know, like, “ oh cool, play this show, bring your CD if you have any”. Things just kind of moved in my favor. It was weird. So then Sub Pop was like “ oh, can we release your record if you decide to make one?” and I was like “ uh…ya…(laughs), I don’t see why not. That’s crazy”. Ya it was funny, I sort of got pushed into doing music. I didn’t start out like, “I’m going to be a performer”. I never even thought about that. I mean, I like music, but I had never aspired to be on a label or anything. I didn’t even understand what a label was or did, I just kind of fell into it.

Wow, so now that time has passed, and you’ve put out a few records, are you happy you pursued it?

Um….ya, I mean, I feel like a lot of the stuff that I’ve gotten out of music I’ve just gotten really lucky with. But there’s a lot of superstition that comes with it to; I feel like I can’t depend on it, and its just something I have to appreciate while its there but not get used to. Its funny. It’s a funny process that a lot of the people I know who play music go through the same thing. You know what I mean? It doesn’t matter how hard you work, its just a bunch of random factors that decide if people like your music. I mean, I’m definitely happy that I make music, I really enjoy playing it and I love listening to other people’s music. It’s a fun experience, but there’s a lot of things to think about, being a performer. I guess I appreciate that too. Its an interesting thing to do.

Ya. And quality isn’t judge by mass appeal. It really is a luck thing. Just look at someone like Vampire Weekend, who blew up before their first record, when, in one reporter's humble opinion, there are thousands of bands more talented and interesting than them.

Oh ya, for sure. I mean, I feel pretty lucky all the time. I’m pretty happy. Like, when I play a show I’m just happy if people come at all. Every time I’m like “oh!”, even if there have been people at every show along the tour, the next show I’m still so happy that people are there to watch, and they seem to like it. I’m just happy to be a part of anything (laughs).

You’re listed as “producer” on both your records. Did you record everything yourself?

No. I mean, I came up with the concept, especially more so on the second record. I knew what sounds I wanted, and what techniques I wanted to use. I knew the vibe, the direction, the way I wanted to record it. But there was definitely an engineer there to help me. He was a really good engineer actually. Andrew Hernandez. He really helped a lot. He was really receptive to what I was saying, because sometimes people don’t know what I’m saying because I don’t know the technical terms. I mean, I know more than I did a year ago, but he was just really good about like, “oh, do you mean like this? Lets try this.” And if I had a wacky idea he would just go with it and not be like, “ oh…that’s technically not going to work.” (laughs) It was nice. He really helped out. And then, there were a few tracks I recorded myself.

Which ones in particular?

“Twilight Property” and “Young God". And then, on the vinyl version there’s a bonus track named “Audrey’s Well”.

And those are home recordings?

Ya. I was actually going to do the whole record at home, but I couldn’t get the sound I need in my apartment. I had bought some equipment, thinking it would be good enough, but you know, at the end of the day bigger tape is just going to sound better. Plus, I just can’t afford a nice mic. (laughs) It’s just not going to happen. It doesn’t matter how much money I borrow from everybody (laughs). I just can’t afford it. But, the studio I picked out, I had gone there to sing on my friend’s record, and I liked it so much I knew its where I wanted to record. So, I went to the engineer and was like “are you available?” and he was laughing like, “heck ya I’m available”. Which is great. It was a great studio. Instead of synthetic effects they used chamber reverb. And that’s kind of exactly what I was looking for. Synthetic reverb just sounds too digital, and I just didn’t want anything to sound digital on the record, I just wanted it to be an analog recording. I thought it would just do good with acoustic guitar and singing, with the analog quality of it. But it was really kind of stumping me, because I didn’t know it existed, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as chamber reverb. So when I went there I was like, “wow, this reverb you’re using is beautiful, what is it?” and he was like, “oh, it’s actually a chamber”. It’s a room in the back that has ceramic walls.Its mic’d, and then there are speakers in there that play whatever it is you want reverb on. Then, it rerecords everything. It kind of blew my mind. He was just like “ya, you can turn it up or down or anything you want”. So there’s nothing synthetic. I mean, the tracks I do at home do, obviously, there's all kinds of weird stuff going on. But the ones that are just the songs are just me playing straight onto 2” tape.

That’s awesome.

Ya, it’ pretty cool. It’ actually easier to work that way, because sometimes the computer has too many options. With a 2" tape you’re limited to however many tracks you have, and you can’t just rerecord it if you mess up. It can be difficult. You’ve actually got to get the performance down beforehand. But not in a high-pressure way, it just helps… I feel like the second album sounds like one recording, whereas the first record sounds kind of, I don’t know, it doesn’t feel like one solid record to me.

In what way?

It’s hard to explain. I mean, the songs each sound solid. But, I don’t know, its been so long since I listened to it. I just remember thinking “man, I’m going to have to do this a different way next time.”

Did you record on analog for both LPs, or just Life on Earth?

Just the second one.

Do you think you’ll continue to record on analog?

Ya, definitely, as long as I can afford to. I have a set recorder at my apartment, but tape just doesn’t sound as good unless it’s big. I don’t have one of those, but I have friends who do, so, I’m definitely going to try to use it any chance I get. I assume tape is going to get pretty expensive though. Who knows, maybe someone will start manufacturing it again.

Ya, its getting popular again. Apparently, and I may be wrong, but as far as I know when you record on analog you are capturing the entire sound wave, whereas with digital you are just catching the low, mid and high. That’s why digital sounds crisp, yet when you pull an old vinyl out it just has such richness to it.

Ya, that’s totally true. I think it also has something to do with how the signals are curved, they’re not fragmented. They’re not digital fractals. Its like when you look at a photograph shot with film, as opposed to on a digital camera; if you zoom in on the photo from the digital camera, it looks like little squares, pixels, but when you zoom in on the one from the film camera its just the natural, organic color.

So, are there any other types of art you enjoy doing?

Ya, I do some video stuff. Me and my boyfriend eventually want to do video installations, but we haven’t really followed through with it. We don’t have a projector or anything yet, so we’re just getting footage for now. I was thinking of doing a video for one of the songs, but nothing really popped in my mind that would work. I draw too. I try to do other kinds of stuff.

You had brushed upon it earlier, and I was just kind of curious, if, maybe, you ever reached a point where you couldn’t do it professionally anymore, do you think you’ll continue to make and record music?

I don’t know, probably. The lines are blurred for me; it’s hard to tell where the beginning and the end of stuff is. A career can begin and end with people’s interest in you. It’s really hard to navigate. So, I just keep doing what I’m doing and as long as people ask me to make records then I’ll probably keep going. And, if they stop, I probably wouldn’t notice for years (laughs).

--Zane St. James, June 4th 2010

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