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Ask a musician on cough syrup a straight question, and you'll get a twisted answer. Such was the case with Virginia-based composer, producer, and public-radio superstar BJ Leiderman.
“Call me anytime, but make sure it’s before I run out of Tussinex,” Leiderman emailed. When asked if he’d tried any homeopathic remedies for the worst flu of his life, Leiderman shot back, “Sure, but I couldn’t keep it lit.”
To talk for an hour with BJ Leiderman is to really like him, codeine or not. His insanely catchy themes have invigorated public-radio shows like Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, and Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me for years, as have his infectious jingles for HBO, MTV, Coca-Cola, General Mills, and Nickelodeon. Leiderman’s work with Fox Kids Network earned him an Emmy Award. And that unforgettable “Stump the Chumps” hook on NPR’s popular Car Talk? That’s his, too.
Leiderman recently became an in-house composer at In Your Ear Studio in Richmond, where he does jingles for radio and TV and some film-scoring. He’s also developing 4/4, a radio show about well-played rock ’n’ roll, which he hopes to syndicate nationally.
Although he’s been making music with computers for almost two decades, Leiderman continues to embrace new music technologies with equal amounts of trepidation and wonder.
You once called yourself a “theme music junkie,” so you must have come up with some interesting melodies this week, in your narcotic Tussinex haze.
Yes, everything is backwards! You know, those “I buried Paul” and “Turn me on, dead man” sorts of things: I, too, was one of those people who ruined a lot of needles playing their Beatles records backwards.
Selected Radio Themes
You’ve been a longtime technology junkie as well, haven’t you?
I’ve always wanted the latest and greatest technology. I’m the one who buys something as soon as it comes out. When the stuff works great, it’s wonderful, but when it doesn’t I turn into a person with Tourette’s Syndrome!
When I started out, there was no Macintosh. I played stuff onto a cassette tape recorder or a TASCAM 4-track to create demos. I would maybe then get together with an arranger and, if the piece called for a full orchestra, we’d meet at the studio, count to four, and the engineers did the rest. Then I bought a Mac in 1985, the year after it came out, and...boom! Believe it or not, at that time I had no idea it could be used for music.
What was your first software sequencer?
When Southworth Music’s MIDIPaint came out, I was one of the first who struggled with it, and I do mean struggled, working with 128K of memory in the Mac Plus. Today, this still relatively young music and audio technology we use is both wonderful and horrible, and it all depends on how it’s used. It’s like nuclear bombs and atomic energy.
Bombs? How so?
Technology has allowed people who can’t even play an instrument to now create music themselves with their computer. So, on one side of technology we can do so much with a single mouse, but on the other, these changes have forced a lot of composers in the middle ground like me to have to learn all this other stuff. I mean, come on: I never conceived back in ’85 that 20 years later I’d be forced to be steeped in computer technology.
But you seem to have been very successful in your use of it.
Technology can be a tremendously freeing experience for musicians—mainly because you can use a computer to experiment to your heart’s content with different instrumentation and effects and things. But the evil side is that it really can put a lot of space between you and your music. Not that long ago, recording music was as simple as sitting down at a piano and rolling a little tape recorder and then going into a proper studio with musicians to record it the right way. Now I have the entire orchestra coming out of my computer! And if there isn’t a producer or engineer handy for a session, I’m expected as the keyboard-computer guy to do all of that and arrange the orchestra, too.
But haven’t today’s tools made things sound better at least?
Maybe. In the beginning there was the word, the song, and no matter how much glitzy production you put on a bad song, it’s still a shitty tune! You can’t get a sharp photo out of a fuzzy negative.
So are digital tools actually interfering with you at a deeper creative level?
They haven’t changed the way I write. But I am at a crossroads right now in jumping from one DAW [digital audio workstation] I’ve used for years to another that has a reputation for having a very steep learning curve. It’s a really deep program—it took me a week just to figure out how to open the damn box! The manual is very thorough in documenting every keystroke you can possibly do with the program, but what I needed was a “how to” document. I bought a very good tutorial book and a DVD that has lots of video tutorials to walk me through everything.
But doesn’t having to stop and watch it distract you from the creative process?
What I’m referring to is more the negative way a lot of people use technology than the time it takes to learn it. I’m referring to loop-based, heavily quantized music that is taking a lot of the soul out of music—pop, rock ’n’ roll stuff, which is my bag. The building block of music in today’s productions is the loop. I bet if you put any one of the hit songs of today up on the screen and were able to call up a multitrack session from the ’70s or ’80s right next to it, you’d instantly be able to see today’s songs are made up of a lot of chopped-up, perfect little boxy loops. I’m feeling like my parents must have felt when their music gave way to the British Invasion and rock ’n’ roll. It’s like, “Where did all the good music go?”
So you’ve never used Reason or Pro Tools to loop an idea while writing melodies against the loop?
Oh, I have, and having said that, there is this song “Stupidly Happy” by XTC that I really like that’s based entirely on a single loop. Yeah, I just love it, so there ya go! They build little by little on top of that short loop throughout the song, adding a new instrument every four bars. It’s such a fascinating song and, as well, a great example of how you can use technology very, very creatively.
Do you think the internet has also helped the average musician by leveling the playing field?
Yes! But, thanks to the Web, we’re also living in a day when people have been raised being used to not paying for their music. The download phenomenon is simply another case of technology always being ahead of legislation. It takes people doing things en masse for a while before the law has time to catch up and react.
Picture a new campus quad between buildings, with its sidewalks laid in before anyone walks on it. Within weeks you start seeing all the alternate footpaths people wear in the grass between the walkways. So the analogy here is that everyone should wait to see where the first footpaths are worn before trying to lay any sort of foundation—for example, controlling how the consumers will eventually download their favorite songs.
How are you approaching the new distribution options for your upcoming Life at the Bottom of the Dial album?
As far as distribution, I’m lucky because I have this NPR name and exposure from all of my themes. It’s very possible that a local rock band putting out their first CD can create something beautiful with great songwriting, but the larger question here is what do they or I do with our music then? Regardless of what model you go with, you’ve still got to get on the phones and work those songs around! It’s very strange, all these new roles to learn and, yes, it can get between you and your creativity.
Are you working on any new radio themes?
There is one show I can’t talk about, but my main push now is to finish my album and increase its visibility. I’m planning to tour this fall during NPR’s member support drive and they can mention it during the pledge drive stops I do. Another way I’m enhancing the CD’s exposure is by negotiating for a syndicated radio show I call 4/4 that is basically playing the best in pop and rock and explaining to the listeners why it’s the best. I’ll be able to mention Life at the Bottom of the Dial on the show.
What about commercial radio? Will you try to get Bottom of the Dial played there?
I don’t know if people listen to commercial radio anymore, but I’ve gotten very into the new world of podcasting, which I think is pretty neat. Are you familiar with RSS? It stands for Really Simple Syndication. All you do is download a RSS newsreader and subscribe to these RSS newsfeed sources with it. You can tell it, for instance, to narrow down your New York Times feed to include only subjects you’re into, and then your newsreader goes out and grabs just tons and tons of information.
What’s amazing is that you can attach files to these RSS feeds. So when people discovered they could attach MP3 files, they started producing their own—for want of a better word—“radio shows” in MP3-formatted versions that they attach to the RSS feed from their blogs.
There are NPR podcasts, and a bunch made just by people in their apartments. A lot of technology-based podcasts are out there, too, though they’re more about Macs than PCs. The reason they’re called podcasts is because this reader program transfers the MP3 files to iTunes [the jukebox program]. So as soon as you put your iPod in its little holster, the computer transfers all those shows to it. It’s basically time-shifting for radio. All of this wasn’t even in existence just six months ago, and yet now there are already hundreds of thousands of podcasts! In fact, the cover of this month’s Wired on the subject is called “The End of Radio as We Know It.”
Do you think there’s a way producers can get paid for their podcasts?
I was thinking about that. Let’s just say if somebody wanted to create a radio show, whether it were an original podcast or something that’s already on one of the radio networks, they might go to somebody like iTunes and say, “Hey, sponsor me.” But in that case, Apple would agree only if I broadcast iTunes songs, and I couldn’t agree to that. I’m going to want to use every source and technology I can think of to distribute my music, including songs from iTunes and podcasts.
What are the copyright issues around playlisting songs in podcasts?
Well, we’re in quite a gray area now as far as podcasting copyrighted material is concerned. No, you cannot assume that you can legally play your favorite Beatles CDs on your podcast without getting adequate clearances. This thing is moving so fast, but already ASCAP has created a new license for vehicles like podcasts, so things are starting to sort themselves out.
In the music-publishing world, songs are comprised of two elements: the song itself, and the actual recording of the song. So there are issues of mechanical licenses to cover use of the specific recording, as well as writer and publisher royalties to consider. We’re basically in the same place with this issue that we were with piracy when people first discovered Napster.
I can’t imagine how much the record company execs’ heads must have been spinning the past five years! Technology is drastically changing their business. It’s just so bizarre. I mean, what am I? A composer? An engineer? A musician? Or, am I a lawyer? A PR guy? A label exec? I want to simplify my life.
But given your ambitious goals, how will you do that?
One of my plans for the radio show is to simplify and balance my life more with it. The show is based on my biggest beef with “classic rock” radio programming all these years: the way the program directors picked the songs from the albums they played. To me, they would never pick the best songs on the album! They hired consultants, who in turn used focus groups to tell them what cuts to play.
Are you able to keep your radio-theme composer side separate from your pop-rock persona?
Totally, but there are times when I’m in the middle of composing a pop or rock song and I’ll think, “Hey, wait a minute! This section sounds awfully familiar.” I’ll freeze and go back into my old tapes and discover that, sure enough, it is exactly like a radio theme I wrote 15 years ago! That, or the background music from a slideshow presentation I did for Coca-Cola or someone—my God!
Speaking of which, I understand you’re also directing church music?
It’s a strange side job for me. I’ve been the music director of Christ Unity Oceanside Church in Virginia Beach for four years. Every Sunday at 10 a.m. I’m singing pop and rock and hymns; it’s a very musical and appreciative church. They took me in because I’m probably one of only five piano players in town. What is it about people and their guitars here?!
“One way to test a song, if you have the luxury of time, is to put it away and not listen to it for a week or more after you do the final mix,” BJ Leiderman suggests. “Then, maybe after you’ve worked on some other songs, go back and listen to it again with your ears and your heart. Trust what you hear and feel—is that guitar lick just a bit out of tune? If you don’t fix it now, you’ll be sorry every time the song is played for a long, long time.”
Beyond the fixes and edits, how can you ultimately know if your hard-earned melodies, chord progressions, and hooks work over time?
“Does hearing that song or melody again put a smile on your face?” Leiderman asks. “If it does, then you’ve got a winner!”
Leiderman reminds us that when we’re writing songs, we’re sometimes limited by the habits we fall into when using a keyboard and computer. Instead of looking deeper into the desktop for answers, he suggests hitting Pause as soon as possible and getting out of the studio altogether.
“Pick yourself up a little mini-cassette recorder, take a walk, and write the tune by actually singing the melody into the recorder,” he advises. “You can makes notes about the chords, bass, and lyrics along the way because you’re freeing yourself from ‘hand memory’ on the keyboard. That may actually result in your writing a tune with a much freer flow to it that will ultimately require less looping and quantizing on the computer to turn it into a great song.”
Note: Clicking these links will open the songs in new windows.
Here are two demo songs by BJ & the Bit-Brains (Leiderman’s all-MIDI quartet). He explains, “I wrote ‘Pray’ as live video of the first Gulf War streamed into my living room courtesy of CNN. It just seemed unbelievable to me that here I was, halfway around the world, watching a war (that I had efforted to stop, by the way) unfold before my eyes in real time! The old saying ‘Truth is the first victim of war’ crept into my mind, and became the centerpiece of the song. You’ll notice that it has a no-nonsense structure: three verses, no chorus—I just love that about it—and no lead instrument break. The synth guitars are meant to be, um, real guitars, and each verse builds a bit from the previous by means of an extra instrument, ending with the string section on verse three.”
“Walking Down the Street” is a more recent tune,” Leiderman continues. “It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at a guy who, having just been dumped by his girl, jumps off the Empire State Building. And that’s just the first verse! The rest of the tune is a slo-mo play-by-play of what he sees on the way down:”
I peek into a window on the 50th floor
A man has got his office girl against the door
“I had to laugh at the prospect of the poor bastard thinking, ‘Man! I can see my house from here. Did I leave the oven on?’”
“I wondered how I could add insult to injury, so as he’s descending, he catches a glimpse of a woman in the crowd below. It’s his girlfriend, and she’s yelling that she’ll take him back.... Oy!”
“Alas, the song has a happy ending. How on earth, you ask? You’ll just have to listen till the end.”
Leiderman notes in a follow-up email, “Both of these tunes were done using Pro Tools and an odd collection of 1990s-era boxes: Korg M1, Proteus 1 (yes, the original), E-mu Proformance piano module, and Roland SRV-2000 (one of the last of the analog reverb units, containing some very lush sounds). The mics were Sennheiser 421 on ‘Pray’ and a Rode NT-2 on ‘Walking.’ I played drums on a DrumKat through a Roland TD-10 drum brain (who do I have to f**k to get a crash cymbal that doesn’t sound like a garbage can lid?) Wendel, in all probability.”
Randy Alberts is an author, musician, and photographer who lives on Lummi Island, Washington.
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