THE HIDDEN MASTERS OF EXPERIMENTAL POP

Corduroy Institute is an experimental pop band from San Diego, California. The band consists of two members – S.A.Morin and W.Ruiz. S.A.Morin plays the strings and W.Ruiz handles the machines. W.Ruiz is also responsible for the sourcing and sorting of initial lyrics as well as for the social media outreach while S.A.Morin’s responsibilities are graphic design and handling of the band’s archive of digital recordings. Both members are fully invested in the project and play equally important parts.

The name of the band was inspired by the song “Corduroy” by The Wedding Present and the high interest and love of the band members for research and academia. “The juxtaposition of Corduroy and Institute fosters an ambiguity that captures the nature of our explorations. It evokes something, yet it says nothing too precise”, – says the band.

We want our work to reflect both our enthusiasm for music along with our appreciation for the construction of knowledge

This interview has started in the middle of the summer and took all of us some time to finish. I hope you, as a reader, will enjoy it and thank you Corduroy Institute for your participation and patience!

How does it feel to be a musician in 2020? Does the internet make it easier for creatives?

In general, one would think there would be more efficient avenues for exposing one’s music to people who would be open to unconventional approaches, yet finding these listeners seems impossible even with all of today’s technology. There are people whose livelihood is music and others who are bolstered by promotional budgets. We are not those people. We are doing this as a labor of love. So, how do we reach our potential listeners?

There is one silver lining. We have been able to reach listeners across the sea at no cost at all. We have been able to find a handful of true fans, which confirms the validity of our efforts. Moreover, we have been able to put our music out there for next-to-nothing; this is a luxury that artists in the 20th century would not have had. We are not beholden to a label, we own our masters, we produce our own art, and we have control over all creative decisions.

When I was listening to your music, I thought it was sad but also inspiring and something that I usually call “music for an open road”. How would you describe your music?

You’ve made a few curious observations that have had some notable parallels. Sometimes, we take roadtrips to Los Angeles and put our as-of-yet unreleased pieces on the car stereo. They make a surprisingly appropriate backdrop to being on these roads, the brutalist freeways that traverse the dry chaparrals of Southern California. It is not our intention to complement the consistent forward movement of a car, but perhaps it’s just the unintended consequence of using tireless drum machines. Another parallel comes from the words of another listener who asked us, “Is your music always nocturnal?” He revealed that he heard our music while driving home at night and found our album Guilt in the Faithless Age fit the night time mood perfectly. We’d never thought of it that way, yet it felt like an accurate description of the end result of our efforts.

We chose the genre experimental pop from the get-go so people can understand there’s something different about this project. It’s pop music made by experimental means. We may not sound like others who use this label, but it would be disingenuous to tag ourselves only with the genres that inform our music (post-punk, synthpop, jazz fusion, industrial, drum ‘n bass, goth, krautrock, shoegaze, pop/rock). Ultimately, we do love the emotional tug of pop music and the intellectual challenges posed by experimental music, but we wish to avoid falling into the cliches of either. We exist somewhere in the middle, shrouded by the ambiguities.

We exist somewhere in the middle, shrouded by the ambiguities

How much does your environment influence your music?

In 2019, we had a brief email exchange with Martyn Bates of Eyeless in Gaza. He mentioned a phrase that brilliantly captured the sentiment of how we feel: to be other/elsewhere. Nothing else encapsulates this particular feeling, this disconnect. It was an expression so apt that we applied it to a song whose single stanza could be read as a tribute to Eyeless in Gaza.

Ultimately, we’re not directly influenced by anything around us. Quite the opposite: we find ourselves struggling to find inspiration from that which is immediately available to us. San Diego is beautiful to look at, but it lacks the artistic and intellectual spirit that we aspire to. This is not Berlin. This is not New York, Mexico City, or Santiago de Chile. It has a small-town mentality that is unbefitting of such an extensive metropolitan area and its cultural footprint suffers accordingly. Los Angeles in the north or Tijuana to the south seem to be more daring, and perhaps that’s where an audience exists. Nevertheless, we persist as a bastion of experimental pop in America’s Finest City.

Tell us more about your creative process. When you create is everybody on the same page?

Our creative process involves musical improvisation, additional layering, and singing based on lyrics derived from cut-ups. First, we use a Tascam multitrack recorder to capture an improvisation which often begins with just a drum machine rhythm coupled with a bassline from the Bass VI. Then, we improvise a second layer of music atop the first improvisation by using synthesizers and guitars. If necessary, we may then overdub additional parts ranging from percussion to more melodic content. All of this is done very spontaneously, often in less than twenty minutes.

The second part of the process involves singing atop these layered improvisations. We re-evaluate the music we’ve recorded and consider plausible points which imply the potential start of a verse or chorus. Our cut-ups provide the words which will be merged with the music. We use these lyrics to craft a metered structure and vocal melodies that will attempt to fit atop the improvisation. Both of us sing, often redoing takes, offering suggestions, attempting different approaches, creating harmonies, doubling vocals, and alternating different lines. This is the most deliberate part of the Corduroy Institute method since it requires a great deal of effort to integrate the uniquely disparate elements of our project.

When we convene, we have the same goal in mind. That’s why this works. We are not perfectionists: we want to capture a moment and put it out. We are on the same page since we agree on our choices of the parameters, our improvisation, and our wish to upend conventional pop mores.

The points of divergence appear when the flow of ideas might usually outstrip our ability or desire to execute them. These appear in the middle of the creative process. We often have to justify suggestions or give constructive criticism as we delineate where the methods or vocals appear to be going.

And what about the lyrics? What magazines and books do you usually use? 

We borrow from the cut-up methods of William S. Burroughs and David Bowie. However, we go even further as we try to place these cut-ups at the forefront of our band’s lyrical content. Rather than merely serving as a source of inspiration, the cut-ups become the very words which shall be sung. To do this, a massive array of phrases must be cut out then shuffled amid millions of others within a collection known as the B. Davis Archive. Then, random clumps are extracted from the archive. From that subset of cutups, random pieces are pulled out as we begin an intentional search for hitherto unseen connections. Most phrases are discarded, others are further cut-up, some may be added, and gradually stanzas will form. Eventually, those stanzas will be placed next to each other in order to become songs.

The majority of our words come from history, psychology, philosophy, photography, and travel books. As for magazines, many of these are from local publications in the San Diego area which cover cultural issues. Others include fashion, current events, and psychology magazines dating as far as the 1940s. At times we also plunder newspapers, advertisements, and brochures. 

Do you have any favorite parts of the creative process?

There are several things that make this a very rewarding project. We both agree that there’s nothing quite like the feeling one gets from having created a finished product. S.A.Morin’s favorite part of the process is the singing since it’s the act which transforms a freeform musical improvisation into the canvas for a nontraditional pop song. W.Ruiz’s favorite part is facing the sheer terror of venturing into unmapped musical territory and the indescribable bliss that arises when unexpected melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic structures emerge from our unconscious efforts.

What is the strangest object that you’ve ever used to make music? And what is that one instrument that you cannot create without?

On our dance song “Straddling the Dimness,” we used a series of guitar effects pedals as a musical instrument. Typically, these are meant to process incoming guitar signals. However, by cleverly using the Boss PS-2 Pitch Shifter’s tuner output, we ended up creating a modular synthesizer out of things that were never meant to be synthesizers. Rather than using it as a gimmicky noise source, we controlled it in a way that made it a useful musical tool. We also ended up sampling additional experiments with the setup, which in turn led to some of the musical fragments on “The Sculpted Beacon of Idolatry.”

The Bass VI is the third member of this band. It’s found on every single one of our songs, regardless of everything else around it. Ultimately, though, our Tascam Portastudios are what opened up the possibilities and our imagination by allowing us to record in crystal-clear sound, overdub freely, and allowing us to have a tactile connection to the process of making music. It’s miles away from just using computers and feels closer to a 1970s-90s recording studio.

Just because you do things your way doesn’t mean it’s going to be good.

What of your songs describe your aesthetic the best?

“As Brutal as Architecture,” “I’m Not Saying That,” and “To Be Other/Elsewhere” all display our attempts to merge improvisation with melodic pop vocals. They each accomplish this to different degrees of accessibility.

In early 2020, we released a compilation on Bandcamp titled End of Term Review where we collected thirteen pieces which serve as what we consider to be the best introduction to Corduroy Institute. It is also available on other platforms, including Spotify.

What do you think about the authenticity in music and how do you stay authentic? 

Authenticity relates to the whims of the artist. Creative needs may change, and as such, the artist doesn’t have to be accountable to future or past selves. What’s authentic to the artist now is what matters. Being true to the muse involves yielding to the now. There is nothing worse than being caught in a struggle against your past or your future; it squanders the possibilities of the present. A caveat: Authenticity is not a marker of quality— just because you do things your way doesn’t mean it’s going to be good.

We have an idea of how we want to do things. There have been changes about how we go about things, and there will probably be changes as we go forward. That in and of itself is just part of being creative. We’ve made small changes to the parameters: for instance, we no longer feel constrained to making lyrics in a single day or finishing a tune in a nonstop session. In addition, our current work-in-progress involves using random number generators to select pairs of albums that will inspire the direction of that day’s new piece. Does this contradict our methodology? No, it complements it.

How did the current situation (COVID-19) impact your work? Were you able to record more or was it harder to work creatively?

Between February and October, we were essentially unable to convene. We did this largely out of choice and prudence; we both live with other people and we did not want to put ourselves and others at risk. Due to our methodology and its dependence on on-the-spot improvisation, we were unable to create any new music.

In May, however, we did attempt to refine some tracks recorded in late 2019 and early 2020. W. Ruiz had been creating stanzas, and S.A. Morin arranged some of them into lyrics. He then sang them atop some of our instrumentals. These remain rough takes which still need dual vocals and final polishing.

In late October, Corduroy Institute was able to reconvene thanks to an opportunity afforded to us by vacated premises. We took the necessary precautions and endeavored to work on new material. In the span of less than a week, we created three pieces. As of today, two are instrumentals while one is a complete vocal song. It seems likely that this material will lead to a new EP. We want to present listeners with the urgency of this particular moment in our creative lives.

As a result of these developments, we now have two concurrent projects. Moving forward, we shall continue to craft these in whichever manner we deem appropriate to our moods.


Support Corduroy Institute by listening and/or buying their music on Bandcamp, Spotify, and following them on Instagram and Twitter

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