San Francisco producer and musical artist PC Muñoz just released his newest album Physical Science, along with a companion chapbook, Inside Pocket of a Houndstooth Blazer. PC is also a sometimes Seagate guest blogger; when you get a minute you should check out his thoughts on how to reinvent the wheel when necessary, and how to keep your process simple to keep your creativity up.
This week Seagate editor John Paulsen spoke with PC about the various creative decisions involved in his latest endeavor:
JP: On your new album Physical Science you explore many modes of music making: electronic, acoustic, pop songcraft, pure improvisation, hooky melodies, raw noise. The one constant is a beat of some kind. You’re a drummer — are the drums the most important element in your music?
PCM: I always say rhythm and words are at the heart of everything I do. And those two things are related — rhythms inspire words, and spoken words have inherent or implied rhythms. Compositionally those two elements make a useful and organic starting point for me. So I’d make that distinction: rhythm — more than the instrument family of “drums”— is at the heart of the music I make.
And really, rhythm is at the heart of all musical communication. Without rhythm, a melody is just a curious and possibly pleasing series of pitches. Without rhythms and patterns, life itself can appear chaotic, disorderly. We mark our years by the rhythms of nature! Rhythm grounds things, and it’s universal — even people who aren’t blessed with naturally great rhythm can at least feel it when it hits them. Musicians often laugh at folks who can’t clap on the 2 and 4 or who struggle to stay on beat when they dance. But I love those people, ‘cause they’re moved enough to try!
JP: Another theme of your work is blending sounds not typically found together. Funk beats with avant-garde electronics, cajón drums with English horn, a John Donne poem re-imagined with techno beats. Are these conscious decisions — bringing together ostensibly disparate elements?
PCM: I’d say the conscious decision at play here is my disinclination to be bound by staid, traditional modes of creating.
I’m not sitting around thinking about “shocking” things to combine. I do gravitate towards things that haven’t been done before. Unique combinations are one of the few ways to do something truly original in music these days.
I put a high priority on originality, which really isn’t necessary in the business of music, but in my opinion is essential to one’s personal and artistic development. There is something very inspiring about a person who is fully, honestly, unapologetically his or her self.
I think that’s when we all shine the brightest. Everyone is a true original.
JP: Are there dangers of these types of unusual combinations being perceived as novelty and gimmickry?
PCM: That depends on the integrity of the execution and the listener’s level of sophistication. In some cases, the combinations serve a conceptual purpose. In other cases they are just an intriguing element in a soundscape; something that catches the ear.
Earlier you mentioned the John Donne piece (“The Relic,” a bonus track on Physical Science). That one is a deliberate attempt to take a piece of work from antiquity and frame it in a way that can be understood today. I’m sure there are a number of Metaphysical Poetry professors somewhere that would be gobsmacked and horrified by this effort and label it “gimmickry,” I can’t concern myself with that.
JP: This album is a digital-only release, but has a companion (physical) chapbook. Is there a reason why you opted for a digital-only release for the audio and are offering a completely different product as the physical product?
PCM: Over the past few years, it’s become clear that the folks who like my work prefer digital downloads and streaming. Most of my fans are over 35, and even that age group — they’re often using Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal.
And, you know, for every CD that does well, there’s another one that doesn’t, and you end up with boxes of CDs that didn’t move. So I thought this album was a good opportunity to go full-digital, and also to exclusively use Bandcamp, a service I really like. This album won’t go to the streaming services at all.
Also, I perform a lot, and I know people like to go home from a show with something tangible. A small book was the perfect solution in this case. It enriches the experience of the album, as some of the lyrics on the album are in the book, but it also offers additional content of a different kind.
JP: You’ve done a lot of production and percussion work in the contemporary classical/new music field, especially with the renowned composer and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. This is your first solo album since working with Jeanrenaud, and it’s a lot more starkly avant-garde than your past releases. Is it fair to say that working with her influenced your own approach?
PCM: Of course. Working with Joan has been one of the greatest joys of my career. She’s extremely experienced, but still very open, and we have a natural rapport that makes the work very enjoyable. She’s an inspiring person on a number of levels, so there’s no doubt that knowing her and working with her has had an effect on how I make music now. And I know fans of our joint projects often end up checking out my solo stuff, so I appreciate that as well.
One of the most exciting parts about collaboration is the inspiration you end up drawing from one another.
JP: On the technical side of things, I noticed that, counting the bonus tracks, you have 5 mastering engineers on this album, which is extremely unusual. Mastering is typically done by one engineer, who solidifies and coheres the sound of an album. What was your reasoning behind using multiple mastering engineers? Were you worried about damaging the cohesiveness of the album?
PCM: Pretty simple reasoning, actually. I wanted each song to have its own sonic character, and I am very aware that many, many people do not listen to albums in sequence these days. They loop their favorites on repeat, remove stuff they don’t like, put together playlists with other artists, stuff like that.
This album hangs together really well in sequence, but I know it’s a shuffle-and-playlist-world now. Because of that, I wanted each song to stand on its own, so I spread the mastering work around, matching tracks with engineers who would resonate well with a given piece. It was really exciting to me.
I love working with engineers. Recording, mixing, and mastering engineers are all really important collaborators in this process. I never worried about negative effects on the album because of that decision — there are none.
JP: You play most of the instruments and perform the majority of vocals on this album. In the past you’ve employed full bands or rotating session players. What was the reason for the “personnel shift” on this album? And what can you say about the 3 guests who did make it on to this album, SoVoSo vocalist Bryan Dyer, woodwinds player Kyle Bruckmann, and your son Miguel?
PCM: This album definitely explores what I can do on my own, with an explicit emphasis on rhythm, words, and texture. To bring a band in for these pieces would be to change them into things I was not trying to make. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to hear a full band render these pieces live at some point — I think I would!
As far as the guests, I’ve worked with SoVoSo many times over the years in live settings, and it was great having Bryan come in and sing on “Who Will Bury Me?”, which was originally used in a dance production by Robert Moses’ Kin. I always like working with Kyle Bruckmann too — the two pieces he’s on are from a theater production we did in Hong Kong together for the choreographer Allen Lam. My son Miguel played harmonica on “Wrong”; it weaves in and out throughout the song. There are a lot of sounds on that song, so you have to pop the headphones on to really hear the harmonica. I love making music with Miguel. He’s very good.
JP: The lyrics on Physical Science are not lighthearted fare. The press materials say the lyrics deal with “America’s darkest open secrets.” What does that mean to you?
PCM: America is in the middle of an identity crisis, a collective dark night of the soul. There are vastly differing perspectives on which overriding philosophies we should employ, on who should lead, on who is fit to be called an “American,” on who our allies and enemies are. And everyone is very certain that their viewpoint is the only correct one.
When you add the disorienting onslaught of content and the increasing difficulty to discern fact from fiction in that content, it gets even more confusing.
The title track of this album deals with the metaphorical disintegration of a segregation-era “Whites Only” sign — it falls and hits the ground, and then morphs into different modes of existence that are just as dehumanizing but not as overt and public as a sign on the wall. The idea that some people are less human than others is an idea that has stuck — though we often act like it hasn’t.
Other pieces deal with similar ambiguities of the American experience: “Rugged Individual” explicitly deals with the positives and negatives of the paradigms and themes of the Old West. It’s probably the most challenging listen on the record, but it’s one of the most important. “Big Winner” details an individual who feels that hitting the lottery is the only way to become a “winner” — in his view, other ways for him to succeed have been snuffed out. So — you’re right, not lighthearted fare.
JP: Critics often call you “uncategorizable” and “genre-defying.” What are the pros and cons of being so slippery?
PCM: The cons are obvious — nobody likes things that require a lot of explanation. And generally people don’t like being confused, therefore many folks won’t bother digging deeper into artists they can’t understand right away.
The biggest pro is that by virtue of sticking to my own vision and aesthetic, I have an identity, or “brand” — me. And it’s not a fabrication or a pose. I’m trying to be fully, honestly, and unapologetically myself — like what I was talking about earlier. People might have a hard time describing my sound, but they know it when they hear it.
JP: Are there any artists to which you could justifiably be compared, as a starting point of reference for someone new to your work?
PCM: A friend of mine — a music fan but not a musician — recently compared me to Meshell Ndegeocello. That’s a compliment, and it might have some legs: strong instrumentalist, distinctive vocals, wildly varied projects, foot in the funk, not for everybody. I have some significant things in common with people like Leonard Cohen, Don Cherry, and Antonio Sanchez as well.
JP: How do you decide what’s next after this?
PCM: First I have to tend to these new releases, see how they fare out in the world. Then maybe I can finally finish recording that country album I’ve been flirting with for years, The Country Side. How’s that for “genre-defying?”
PC Muñoz uses Seagate products to help bring his music to life. His newest album Physical Science is available exclusively on PC’s bandcamp page: pcmunoz.bandcamp.com. The companion chapbook Inside Pocket of a Houndstooth Blazer is mailed out with each download order. Visit pcmunoz.com to keep up with tour dates and new releases or join PC’s mailing list.