Building the Memory Palace – My Story of the Album

Memory Palace Album - Front Cover

What’s a memory palace? According to Wikipedia, it’s an ancient “method of memory enhancement which uses visualization to organize and recall information.” It was especially useful to students and orators in pre-printing-press times. I’ve long thought it would make a good exploratory theme for an album.

The Memory Palace project began when I approached Chris Russell around Christmas 2010, asking if he would be interesting in exploring a groove-based collaboration. I had enjoyed Chris’ album Frozen and posted a brief but enthusiastic review.

My idea was a simplistic division of labor: rhythmic stuff by me, melodic stuff by Chris. We agreed to try our hands at one piece and see if we liked the result.

So, on a January weekend in 2011, I headed straight to the 31st-floor stairwell in The White Tower (my downtown Toronto day job venue), portable recorder in hand… as one does. Hit the Record button… check. Start drumming on the steel handrails, with bare hands… check.

You might be surprised how many different sound timbres can be obtained that way. The session yielded a righteous selection of grooves, a few of which – duly processed into something other, of course – formed the backbone of a piece which I assembled on my laptop. The laptop approach was hatched of necessity; all my instruments and studio gear were in Chicago, while I was exiled in Toronto awaiting my US visa.

Chris wove one of his characteristic synth atmospheres over my groove, and I hit on the title Particles and Waves, in reference to the two forms in which – according to physics – light is perceived as acting, if you zoom in closely enough. It was included in the Relaxed Machinery compilation reBOOT, released in Jan. 2014, along with The Rage of Reason, a piece I did with Peter James.

Chris and I were both so pleased with how Particles and Waves turned out that going ahead with a full album was … how you say … not needing any brains.

Musical frogs

Best wedding present. Ever.

In any event, I hadn’t even waited for Chris to finish his part for Particles and Waves, before embarking on two other pieces. For Primitive and Prime, I worked up a groove using mostly acoustic drum and percussion samples, and especially my much-favored wooden frogs. By contrast, Touchstone Array was made from samples which were also acoustic in origin, but transmogrified into an electronic crackle, and set to a racing tempo. The original version of that groove goes all the way back to the Christmas season of 2006, one of my first attempts at carving up a sampled-based groove with Ableton Live.

Our procedure was the same for the entire album: I sent Chris my finished parts, and he went to work. By the end of summer 2011, we had three pieces, half an album’s worth. Chris remixed my groove part for Particles and Waves and composed a completely new piece around it, which became Spatial Mnemonics.

A lengthy hiatus was then sort of forced upon us. I was finally able to move to Chicago at the end of September 2011. The next year’s music work was mainly playing live shows and finishing The Separate Ones.

The running order of the pieces on Memory Palace was pretty clear early on, with those first three opening the album, and they were intense enough to strongly suggest a non-rhythmic, purely-atmospheric interlude for the next piece, especially since I was planning a really ambitious closer. So I started off 2013 on the right foot, spending New Year’s afternoon in the studio to record about 15 tracks of atmospheric percussion elements, using objects like car keys, Go stones, bubble wrap, a handful of inch-thick branches, and so on. I did some drumming on an inflated yoga ball, among other things. Fun fun fun…

Memory Palace - inside panel detail

Memory Palace – inside panel detail

Fast-forward to the end of October 2013, on a week-long Indiana getaway. By this time Chris – who had raised his personal bar with an outstanding release, Portal – had recorded entirely new parts for two of those first three pieces, and I wanted to tweak one of mine. I spent most of my play time that week arranging my New Year’s Day elements – which had been recorded without any concern for their future structure – into what became Afterimages. For a bed track, I added a field recording which I really liked, of blowing wind and falling leaves, which I’d recorded at the same retreat place two months earlier.

The Afterimages arrangement took only two days, so I began work on the closing piece, Somewhere the Circle Stops. For this I’d dreamed of alternating odd-meter electronic grooves (flashing back to my drum kit days) with four-on-the-floor tribal drumming, flashing back and forth between ancient and present days. Once again, the electronic grooves (in 5/4, 7/4, 9/4 and 11/8) were all pieced together from samples. I need more vacation time, so I can get more work done!

Back to the city… I recorded the acoustic drumming and percussion parts early in January and sent my part to Chris. The piece was over 20 minutes long, so one of my most pleasant surprises ever was receiving the finished piece from Chris a mere three days later.

A shout-out here to one of my favorite singers, Sheila Chandra, whose song Question the Answer (from her album Nada Brahma) provided the title. I like the phrase’s apparently counter-intuitive nature; circles aren’t supposed to end! Nature, however, is full of … how you say … interesting paradoxes.

In the spring of 2012, some Buddhist monks visited Chicago’s Loyola University and created a sand mandala… as one does. Mandalas are gorgeous artworks which have always attracted me. I knew at once that this was the perfect subject for the Memory Palace album art. Since I couldn’t make it to the exhibit, my wife Dasi took some photos…

Memory Palace is available for pre-order now and will be released Dec. 8. It’s a joint release on Chris’ label Void Music and my Kalindi Music. We hope you enjoy it!

The Keep, in Nov. 2013

The Keep, in Nov. 2013

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