A newsletter for the Portland area Didjeridu player......May 2001 Volume 7 Issue 5

An Interview with Randy Graves

by Ed Drury

I caught up with Randy Graves for this interview just as he is finishing up a new solo CD project called Didgital and around a return to Australia. I wanted to get some glimpses into the Didgital project since I'd heard enough of it on MP3.COM to be interested in his vision for it. In this interview, Randy talks about his influences both traditional and western, methology as a recording artist and his friendships with the Yolngu. - Ed

[Ed] I'm curious about Didgital. Do you think it will have wider appeal and was that a conscious choice in the writing of it or just your reaction to it now that it's nearly finished?

[Randy] I think it has wider appeal partly because it's more polished than anything I've released thus far. Both Didginus and my material on mp3.com have some real gems, but there's stuff on there from when I was playing didge for only two years and was recording on 4-track cassette. A lot of it I did for my own practice, never intending to release, but since I still like it, I figured I'd put it out there. But it's really rough around the edges, or even right in the middle, I'd say. All of it would have to be re-recorded and rethought to make one good quality album. Still, there's a spirit and sound to it all that I really love. I like the fact that people can hear my process, and get to know me better through my music if they like. And I like music that's left a bit rough, as long as it conveys the spontaneity that went into it.

This time, I'm much better equipped and much more experienced in the recording process, so the quality is better. And it is a much more focused project- a full cd with one agenda. My playing is better, too. I've said to a bunch of people over the past 6 months that I'm just now beginning to feel like I'm a professional didgeridoo player- or a didgeridoo musician, rather than a musician with a didgeridoo. I've been recording and performing for several years, but I always knew I was a hack, and was willing to have my development on record. I'm just now beginning to stand up to my own standards, and hopefully other people's.

But apart from all that, I just think "Didgital" has a sound and consciousness that people are into these days. It's ambient electronic, yet from an organic origin that's very audible. I think I'm getting sounds that synthesizers want to get but can't. The response has been great so far from the few people who have heard it, including both didge and electronica fans. I've been invited to do chill out rooms at raves. I've had a massage therapist get really into it, and she swears it'll be a huge hit for that market. The track order is somewhat influenced by that. The most intense pieces are at the middle and end points, so it builds up to flipping over, then starts over again. Of course... she also said it'd be great for sex, which was useful feedback. I also think people looking for trance and shamanic journeying music will love it, as it really takes you places. Part of the advertising will be "Turn it Up and Enjoy Your Trip." I think that musicians who are not normally into the instrument will appreciate what I've done both with the didge and electronics. I've already experienced that with this unlike anything else I've done before.

I'd compare "Didgital" to Coyote Oldman. That project was various flutes and winds with electronic processing, but still a live feel. That's what I'm going for with didge, although I didn't intentionally make the connection with Coyote Oldman when I started. I think there's something attractive about the aesthetic. It's really just solo didge and a couple of rack effects, but the sound is very full, and very musical. When I say ambient, it doesn't mean it's all slow. It's got some aggressive didge playing with the effects around it, so I think it has something for every didge fan. Both meditative and aggressive and everything in between, but neither ruins the listening experience for someone who leans strongly in either direction.

Lastly, I think although it is solo didge, the resulting sound isn't so specific to didge fans. A lot of didge cd's are only enjoyable for didge fans. I think this one crosses over well into the ambient electronic world. Only a couple of the aggressive tracks really scream "DIDGERIDOO!" While others just say "music." Yet didge fans who know it's didge will enjoy the playing.

As for whether I planned for this to have wider appeal when I started, I'd have to say yes, and I'm just glad that I still think so now! It did evolve pretty naturally, though, not as a forced thing to try and sell more cd's. I was invited to play at Project Cathedral, a monthly multimedia ambient production at in downtown San Diego. I thought playing the didge with effects would be good for that, and ended up having a lot of fun with it. I performed there a few more times, adding a piece of gear each time, and got more and more interesting sounds. The more I worked with it, the more I liked it, so I just got into it more, and it seemed natural to make it a recording project as well. As I started working in the studio, I developed yet more sounds, which I now use live as well, so it really made the performances better too.

At the same time, I really don't want to get stuck being "the guy who does didge with effects." I really enjoy just playing straight didge, and of course guitar as well, and feel I've got something to offer there. What I really work on most in my own practice time is Yolngu styles of playing and integrating them with contemporary techniques. I don't plan on making "Didgital" the first in series of similar recordings. It's a project I wanted to do, and it's pretty much done. Not that I'll never use elements of it again. I've been thinking of using the setup in a band situation, and will be using it in the studio with other instruments. On several of the tracks, I've begun hearing other instrumentation in my head, but the goal was to stay with solo didge, so I did... except the last track, which has clapsticks.

[Ed]Randy, as you know, I've been involved in retail sales of didjeridu music for a number of years. This question of what appeals more to didj players verses broad appeal is slippery ground. My observation is that most people I meet who are looking for didj music want didj music, not fusion or didjeridu with western instruments. I guess what I'm asking is what is your take on the didjeridu in the context of a broader market. Perhaps your answer would be your new CD Didgital. Maybe your music says everything that you have to say, but I'm curious if you have more to say. I guess the short form of my question is that if you want your music to appeal to a broader audience, why the didjeridu?

[Randy] Well, when I say "wider appeal," I don't mean that Nsync and Madonna are going to be shaking in their boots when this comes out. I'm not shooting for top of the pops, and I'll easily admit I could be wrong in even my modest hopes. I just think that the recording has the didge element to please many didge fans, yet will also please ambient electronic fans and lots of other non-mainstream-minded folks. Didgeridoo is the only instrument on there, with the exception of sticks on one track, and there is some impressive playing for aspiring didgers. Every track is live solo didge. Sure, some didge fans may skip the slow tracks now and then, but I think most of them will like most of what they hear. In the retail environment of a didge or Australiana store, it can honestly be said that this cd just has solo didge throughout, and there's some good playing on it. But, there are few smaller niche markets than the market for didge recordings. I'm not worried about having the best selling recording at a didge shop. If I can be an average seller at a didge store and number 200 at Tower Records, then I've gotten somewhere. It can also be said to non-didge-fans, this is a great trancey ambient album with a wide sound spectrum. A lot of ambient music fans are casually aware of the didgeridoo. If it's enough to get them to buy the album, I think they'll be hooked. So, on one level, I'm trying to use a technicality to bridge the gap.

Even so, I want to go back to your comment, "most people I meet who are looking for didj music want didj music, not fusion or didjeridu with western instruments." This is true in many cases, but my experience when performing varies. If I'm out busking or doing a solo didge appearance, people ask for recordings of just didge. People usually aren't interested in Didginus cd's in that setting. Yet at Didginus shows, I'd be lucky to sell a single solo cd. I was pretty surprised last spring when I went out to Florida alone for some shows, and performed with a group of local musicians, mainly percussionists. I did some solos, and was the featured guest who was the whole reason for the events, so I thought I'd be mainly selling my own cd's, but I ended up practically selling out of Didginus cd's instead. People had never heard of Didginus, but asked for the recording closest to the group they were seeing that night. So I think that the more people hear the didgeridoo used well with other instruments, the more they'll want it.

Meanwhile, in the context of only didge fans, your statement was proven true at the Joshua Tree Festival. Didginus (or rather part of Didginus with some subs) opened the show and was very well received... I'd say people went nuts. But the set ended with Phillip Perris playing solo, and man, Didginus was long forgotten. I think he sold fifty cd's during the intermission, and we sold something like two. Or maybe just one plus the one I traded with Phillip! So yeah, it varies by context.

As for the short form of your question, "why the didjeridu?" I've got to go back to what I said before, about this project being something that evolved. I was doing something that I enjoyed, other people enjoyed it, and so I've kept working at it. If I were consciously looking for the way to get widest appeal, I'd hire a fashion consultant, practice my dance steps, and move to Orlando to audition for a boy band. I can sing harmony really well.

But I guess I have to go further back than that to answer the question. I like the didjeridu, I'm drawn to it, and I think I've got a knack for it. I feel I can express well with it when I choose to, and other times it's just my preferred timbre to work with for creating sounds. I didn't start playing it because I thought it'd make me rich and famous. It's only a small curiosity in the larger music market, and will stay that way for many years to come if not forever.

[Ed]I was wondering if you would share some of the technical technicalities about the recording of Didgital? What equipment, special techniques and microphones etc....

[Randy] Well, it's pretty simple, largely because it came out of a live project. I prefer live feeling music anyway, and did want to maintain the feel of live solo didge. So I stuck to rack gear, no computer editing until the mastering process. I was involved in one project in college that had my didge playing taken apart and twisted around a million ways by what was at the time top of the line computer processing on an SGI machine, and the result was totally removed from the natural experience of the instrument. At its core, "Didgital" is about didge playing.

The main microphone was a BLUE Blueberry. It's got a good old-fashioned mic sound. Very airy, and very sensitive. At times I tried a number of mics at different distances and angles, but my selection isn't that varied. An AKG C3000 and some C1000S's got some use. Additional mics were either for stereo pairs or a room sound. Or, on the track "Wakal," there was a mic by the side of the didge to catch the sound of one stick clapping (against the didge). But other than that one, I didn't use much of the other mics, as the final product is so much about working with the effects rather than getting a natural sound of the room.

All but one of the pieces was based on improvs with different multi-effect patches I set up on a Digitech Studio Quad V2. I tracked to Tascam DA38's, with one channel of dry didge and a stereo feed from the effects processor. That way I was playing with the effects live, so I could interact with the delays, tremolo, and whatnot. Playing with tremolo is pretty weird.... these pulses you would normally create from your own breath are being forced on you by a machine.

From there would be just one or two more rounds of effects, then mixdown. This was the first time I felt like the mixing board was really an instrument for me, and I played it a lot. Other effects were usually more delays or reverbs from basic old units like the Digitech DSP256 and a Roland SRV-2000, and of course compression, and there's lots of pitch shifting as well. I picked up a Digitech Studio Vocalist after getting a chance to mess with my old roommate's. Man... what a waste that they market those things for voice, when they're so cool to use on other instruments! I need to relabel mine "Digitech Studio Didgist."

It's got a patch that allows you to control the notes with MIDI. So I would take the dry didge track, feed it to the harmonizer, and then play the notes of the didge on a keyboard in realtime, creating all the different notes you hear on the album. On most tracks, there's little or no direct signal from the harmonizer in the final mix, but instead I fed it directly to a thick reverb patch, so that I just have to briefly play a chord on the keyboard, and then a long ambient chord rings out. I started using this in the studio, and now lug along a keyboard to do it live as well. People will think that I'm using a sampler or synthesizer, but it's all just pitch shifting of the live signal.

That's pretty much it. A couple layers of effects, mix to DAT, dump to computer, and master.

[Ed] I wonder if you could talk a bit about the didjeridus you used on this project. Underneath the electronics there is an instrument, which had, it's own unique voice and playing characteristics. How many different instruments did you use and what are they like? Why did you choose them?

[Randy] Good Point. All of the tracks started as live pieces on the same didge that appears on the cd, and wouldn't be the same on another didge. There is one particular didge that shows up a lot, my first Aussie didgeridoo, an Eb by Tony Wilfred Warrgelark of Walker River, Eastern Arnhem Land. It's a pretty straight pipe, relatively short. It's got a really crisp, clear sound, with strong high harmonics and no low end boominess. It certainly works better than most of my sticks for playing fast through effects, since it doesn't get too muddy. But in addition to the fast pieces it shows up on, like my old solo "Sparky and the Gnu Hare Du," and the new tunes "Sparks" and "Another Didge on the Wall," it's also on "Bionic," one of the slow, ambient pieces. The straight ahead high harmonic tone cut through really well, and is easily picked up and manipulated by the effects.

The opening piece was played on a very rich B from Allan Shockley, which was my second instrument. I nicknamed the pipe "Migaloo," as it was a minor third away from my first pipe, so I could multitrack and play them together, as David Hudson did on the track "Migaloo Didge" on the Tjapukai Dancers' first album, my first influence. Later I was to find out from David that "Migaloo" is simply a local Aboriginal word for "whitefella," and he called the track that because he played a plastic didge on it. My first solo release, a cassette called "Beginnings," opened with that didge with lots of reverb, delay, and flange, and I called it "Bigaloo." So this cd begins with the sequel "Bigaloo Tu." Just by being a B, there's a serious low end to the didge, but again, it's really clear, not muddy. I was able to get great harmonies on this didge with the pitch shifter, including a particular sound I love, and used as a major theme of the piece... an intermittent note about 6 octaves above, which sounds awesome over the deep drone. You'd never guess that it was merely that same drone, pitch-shifted.

On one piece, "Spooks," I'm using a didge more as an idiophone than an aerophone. I'm slapping the mouthpiece a lot, and tapping the sides both with my fingers and wedding ring. I blow a few short drones in the piece, as well as blowing air down the pipe, before it evolves into the next piece, "Spirits," which is more straight ahead didge. The main effect is a pair of gated reverbs, slightly edited from a preset patch called "Ghostly Gates." Since the pipe needed to be solid yet resonant, and to be somewhat low to get the thuds I wanted from slapping the mouthpiece, I used a big C from George Jungrawangra. Again, a relatively straight didge with good clear harmonics.

Let's see, what else.... There's a D I picked up in Katherine, and used on the title track. There's a really rich 5th harmonic that at least one person so far thought I added with the harmonizer, but it's natural to the stick. I ended up having to turn the frequency way down in mastering.

On the last two tracks is the only didge on the album with a serious amount of bell or flare. It's a screaming high G# from NSW. I don't know anything else about its origin. I never thought I'd own an instrument that high, but it reminded me of a G that was Djalu' Gurruwiwi's son Winiyini's personal instrument in '99. Hearing him play made me consider higher didges more than I had ever before. When I came across this G#, its sound was very reminiscent of that stick in Arnhem Land. It also had the same perfect octave trumpet tone, which is really easy to hit. I use it for a piece called "Fanfare" which is just staccato drone notes, sometimes with quick double tonguing, and lots of drawn out trumpet notes. I then used the harmonizer to add other notes. So the didge choice was easy for that piece- it really came out of the fun of popping the trumpet note on this didge, and also the usability of that perfect octave for stacking harmonies on. "Fanfare" leads into "Wakal," a didge jam influenced by Djalu's son's style, mixing his riffs and techniques with mine, and a very simple traditional rhythm. So the choice of didge there is a no-brainer. I got this didge specifically for practicing that style.

[Ed] Can you talk a bit more about the playing influences? You said that some of the more aggressive playing on the tracks where influenced by Yolngu playing. How has that influence come into being and affected your contemporary style of playing?

[Randy] I was aware of traditional playing styles when I started playing didgeridoo, and liked them, but they always felt too foreign, and I had no idea where to begin working on them. It wasn't until I went to Australia and visited Arnhem Land in '99 that I really began to have an appreciation and understanding of the playing. Then there was no turning back. It's an inescapable influence, and totally addictive. I got to hear playing at least briefly in South Western, Northern Central, and North Eastern Arnhem Land, with Djalu' and his family being the largest influence that really stuck. But then a few days after returning home, the White Cockatoo group showed up at my house, and I had David Blanasi saying that it's better to play his way. So over the course of a month I was inundated with all kinds of traditional styles.

For several months after, I was blocked creatively. I had no idea how to play didge anymore. The traditional styles are so different than what I had developed, influenced by the likes of Stephen Kent, Graham Wiggins, and David Hudson, as well as the myriad of influences of non-didgeridoo music- a lot of what I do I owe to an innovative trumpet player I know. It seemed that I would either have to choose to proceed how I had been with the didgeridoo, or to give up everything I'd done. Part of me wanted to fully embrace only traditional styles. Part thought this was crazy. Part of me wanted to integrate traditional and contemporary styles, but (a) it's hard- I wouldn't say that anyone's done it very well or in an interesting way, and (b) it's very moving to see and be a part of the didgeridoo being used in its native context, and in ways it makes any other use of it seem silly. I got to see this happening to other people on this recent visit. It's really striking to see what the didgeridoo means to its originators, and how integrated it is with the culture. It can make you doubt what you've been doing with it. I also got to spend time with a Yolngu person, looking at some overseas didgeridoo paraphenalia, and it all just seemed ridiculous when sitting in Arnhem Land. But how was I ever going to fully be a part of it in its context? Why try?

The answer to these and other questions could only be: just live life, be respectful and have fun. So I mainly spent my own time practicing traditional styles with the goal of getting into them enough to be able to mix them with other styles, and admittedly with the faint dream in the back of my head of being able to someday play in a traditional setting. I felt the need to make the techniques part of my own native vocabulary before I could begin integrating them into my contemporary playing. Teaching lessons and playing with Didginus was plenty to keep up my contemporary chops, although Aboriginal techniques started slipping in, such as an aggressive tonguing being used where I used to use a cheek pop in a certain piece. So I've had some fun and at least some level of success. I think "Wakal," although it's a bit raw, and actually was recorded over a year ago now, is a good idea, and it'll keep developing.

On the visit to Australia that I just returned from, the work paid off a bit, and really felt justified. On my first day with Djalu', he was giving me lessons in his style, and then said, "play it again but change to your style." So without suggesting it myself, I was being told to integrate the styles on the spot. I started with his riff, but then added other techniques like trumpet-style double tonguing, I switched the rhythm from my tongue to diapraghm, popped a second toot, etc. The Yolngu were grooving along, clapping. I ended with their style of cued ending, and everyone heard it and knew when to stop clapping. It was great. Djalu' later had me do the same on an instrument he was preparing for ceremony, and told me that now it was not just his spirit in the instrument, but mine. He also gave some words of advice about integrating the didge with... life. Play it with people singing and people dancing. That's what it's all about, even if it's not old Yolngu songs. This whole experience left me incredibly encouraged.

So I'll keep working along, trying to better my skills at traditional styles while still enjoying contemporary work, like this new album. Only one track really shows this big influence that has almost totally taken over what I do in practice. I'll keep going back to Arnhem Land, keep studying the culture, and keep developing my relationship with the people there. I'll keep moving forward within my own context in the US, and keep sharing what I can with whoever wants to share back. Which is why I was so keen to get together a group of people from my own community, educate them a bit about the Yolngu, and then take them over to Arnhem Land. It's encouraging to know that there are people both in the US and Arnhem Land that want to particpate in that sharing in many ways, even though the connection may have started only with the didgeridoo.

Hear selected tracks from Didgital at www.mp3.com/RandyGraves, get more info on Randy and his projects at www.gingerroot.com, and feel free to email him at randy@gingerroot.com.

Questions about this and other articles should be sent to Ed Drury