(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Interview with Tom Compagnoni (Wax Audio)

Tom Compagnoni’s day job is being the Executive Producer of Video and Audio at Australia’s national newswire. He’s honed his audio skills developing a host of viral mashups under the name Wax Audio. His three Mashopolis albums collect a host of great tracks, including “Lady Judas” (Lady Gaga vs. Judas Priest). He has also created a set of politically oriented, spoken word/music mashups under the “Mashed Media” umbrella name. He was gracious enough to answer an emailed set of questions for this interview.

This is part of a Mashup Artist Summit. Highlighted sections were mixed with other interview segments to create a conversation between several producers.

Jester Jay: What was your first mashup project?

Tom Compagnoni: Before I'd heard the word "mashup," I used to call what I do "Cut & Paste Music." I created my first digital "Cut & Paste" project in 2004, a 5 track EP called WMD …and Other Distractions. The content was almost entirely political and anti-war themed. I cut up speeches from politicians of the time and mixed them with various beats and multi-track components taken from recordings of a band I used to play in. For a while, Wax Audio was as much a part of the anti-war movement as it was an art project. It wasn't until about 2007 that I did my first mashup - a blend of two distinct songs - Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." The track is called "Whole Lotta Sabbath.

JJ: What's your favorite piece that you've created?

TC: The piece that means the most to me and that I'm proudest of is 9 Countries. It's an album I produced by taking the skills I developed as a mashup artist and applying them to a huge archive of sounds I recorded whilst travelling across Asia. I used a Minidisc recorder and stereo mic to capture street ambience, temple bells, chanting, traffic, animal sounds, random interviews with people - everything. Using these sounds as my raw material, I sculpted them into original compositions. A single looped beat would comprise sounds from a procession in Indonesia, temple drumming in India, the bell hanging around a goat's neck in Tibet, monks chanting in a monastery in Laos, street hawkers in Myanmar, etc. The whole project took me about 4 years to produce. It's probably the least heard work that I've created, but the few people who have taken the time to listen have told me how much they like it and it's by far my favorite.

JJ: What music do you listen to for pleasure?

TC: Looking at the CD spines on my shelf, the most featured artists are AC/DC, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Bjork, Black Sabbath, Dead Can Dance, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Iron Maiden, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Pink Floyd, Queen, Van Halen and Frank Zappa. There's plenty more I like to listen to, but these artists are a pretty fair representation of my tastes.

JJ: What qualities define a perfect mashup in your opinion?

TC: The most important things are rhythm and pitch. If either of these are not perfectly synched, it makes the result sound amateurish and even painful to listen to. The only clash I want to hear is a clash of genres. If you can take two or more completely different genres and make them fit, rhythmically, harmonically AND thematically – do the lyrical themes or song titles compliment or cleverly contradict each other? – then you've got a perfect mashup.

JJ: How do you distinguish between mashups and sampling?

TC: Sampling, in the modern musical sense, is the act of using a brief snippet of a recording and inserting it into an otherwise original mix. The sample is used like an instrument. Great examples of this practice include Public Enemy, Nine Inch Nails and Portishead. In a mashup, there is usually no original material. It's a deliberate blend of recognizable source materials or songs, combined to give the impression of something totally new.

JJ: Which comes first for you? Is it the satisfying concept of a particular combination or the recognition of an overlapping sound?

TC: It's different every time, there's no formula. I collect bits and pieces: isolated vocal tracks, instrumental tracks and multi-track elements. I always try to work with music I'm familiar with or like. When I'm ready, I play around, layering things on top of each other. Sometimes the idea pops into my head long before even getting to the computer. There are a few mashups I've composed in my head, then gone to the computer to find the elements and see if it works. Two examples of this are "Thunder Busters" (AC/DC vs Ghost Busters) and “Enter You” (Bryan Adams and Metallica).

JJ: Have you set yourself a particular challenge as an artist? How do you measure your success?

TC: Most projects are a deliberate challenge - I decide in advance what the grand vision is, usually a concept for a complete work like an album. The 9 Countries album mentioned earlier is an example. I set the parameters before I started, deciding I would limit myself exclusively to that particular library of sounds. One project I've worked on for years is a mashup album created entirely from music and sounds from the year 1984. That's not finished yet and may never be. If I finish a project and am pleased with it, that's a success in my book.

JJ: Howard Stern had a lot of criticism about your piece "Sad But Superstitious" and other mashups. How do you answer critics who dismiss mashups as inferior or derivative art?

TC: I don't really have anything to say in response; it doesn't bother me at all. Mashups aren't for everyone. Most people are dismissive of lots of styles of music and art. I'm just happy he plays my mashups on the air. Despite his commentary, many of his listeners seek my stuff out afterwards and tell me how much they love it. I'm happy with any exposure. A former member of Nine Inch Nails recently called a mashup made with one of his songs "an insult" ("Call Me A Hole" by Pom Deter). I thought it was a brilliant mash, and the reaction just amused me.

However, there is the unfortunate fact that the vast majority of mashups posted on YouTube and elsewhere are poorly produced and amateurish. So unless you go to some effort to seek out the good stuff, you're left with the impression that mashups are mostly rubbish. What sets me and others like me apart is that I've spent hundreds of hours making the mashups you hear on my site. I've paid enormous attention to even the finest little details. That's what sets a good mashup apart from the hastily produced crap you find flooding the internet.

JJ: What do you feel you owe the original artists whose work you build on?

TC: Nothing, really. I appreciate their music. I credit them fully. I don't make any money from the mashups I make with their work, which is an important point legally. I've had positive feedback from Yoko Ono, Jim Vallance, AC/DC, Rob Halford, Herbie Hancock and Robin Gibb. I've not had any negative feedback from any of the artists I've mashed so far. So there seems to be a happy truce going on between my apparent lack of regard for their copyright and their apparent appreciation of good, free publicity.

JJ: Can you name some other mashup artists who you respect?

TC: There are several, but I'm hesitant to name names, there'll be people who feel left out! I will mention one though - The Who Boys were a mashup band from London. They've stopped working now, but they put out several albums of mashups and originals. Some of the funniest and well-executed audio lunacy I've ever heard. Highly recommended.

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