Friday, 15 April 2016

Interview with Armen Chakmakian

Armen Chakmakian is an Armenian-American musician, composer, recording artist, and producer. A native of Glendale, California where he still resides, Armen attended the Berklee College of Music, UCLA, and USC. 

His professional recording career began in 1991 when he joined the GRAMMY® Award-winning band, Shadowfax as their keyboardist. It was his unique style of World Fusion blending indigenous Armenian and Arabic influences with contemporary jazz, and world elements that helped win him the prestigious job. A prolific composer, Armen began incorporating his signature style when he co-wrote the music for Esperanto. This led to him receiving his own GRAMMY® AWARD nomination when the Shadowfax production was nominated for Best New Age Album of 1992. For the next four years, he co-wrote, recorded and toured with the band as they produced an impressive body of work including the albums Magic Theater, Shadowfax Live and a 90-minute concert video of the Live album. 

Armen launched an indie label, TruArt Records in 1998 releasing his first solo album, Ceremonies to rave reviews. The album debuted #1 on the New Age/World radio charts (NAV Top 50) and received airplay on more than 600 stations worldwide. Two tracks from Ceremonies entitled Gypsy Rain and Distant Lands were featured on the European compilation CD series, Buddha-Bar, and Buddha-Bar IV, which were released in 2000 and 2002, respectively. To date, they have sold more than 700,000 units.

In 2004, the label released Armen’s second solo album, Caravans, a 12-track production melding the artist’s unique, contemporary jazz compositions with exotic world percussion and textures. Like its predecessor, this collection received dozens of glowing reviews continuing to build TruArts’ worldwide audience.

In addition to his solo career and time with Shadowfax, Armen has contributed to a variety of other productions including Cirque du Soleil’s flagship show, Saltimbanco. He has continued to experiment with various genres leading him to a new body of work composing source music and library music for television. In this area alone he has amassed more than 200 credits since entering the field.

1. Tell us about your inspiration and development as a musician.

I’m still developing!

I loved music as far back as I could remember.  I always wanted a drum set when I was a kid…in preschool.  So for my birthday one year, my dad bought me a cheap drumkit from Sears.  I was elated! The family gathered around as I sat on the stool and I started singing “Onward Christian Soldier” while bangin’ out the rhythm on the toms.  I got about 10 seconds into the tune before all the paper drumheads were torn and that was the end of my career as a drummer.  I had 2 older brothers; one a big band jazz fan and saxophonist/clarinetist; the other a lover of all things late 60’s/early 70’s rock. My parents always had music on the turntable - Armenian pop, Arabic pop, Armenian choir and some classical.  So I was getting it from all sides.  When I was 7 years old, my parents moved us into a new home, which happened to be next door to a woman who had kids coming and going.  I sat on the wall of our driveway and watched this happening for a couple of days before I finally walked over there, knocked on her door and told her I noticed all the kids coming and going and asked her what’s going on.  She invited me in, sat me down at a piano, next to her on a stool, and started to play.  That was the first time I’d been in the presence of a pianist and a musician of that caliber.  Nell Sansom Brown would be my piano teacher for the next 10 years.

A few years later my brother, the big band fan, started taking me to the USO gatherings where he’d sit in with musicians who had played with most of the famous big band leaders.  It was pretty incredible.  Then he taught me how to read basic jazz chord charts for some of those tunes and at around 10 years old we’d visited a couple of old-folks homes and played, as a duo, songs that were familiar to them.  I remember how they lit up and that felt amazing – to see all the smiles.  Age 12, my Uncle decided it’s time to start a family band playing some 50s tunes, Armenian pop songs, and some continental pop thrown in for good measure.  That’s when I started “gigging” and getting paid.  Picnics, Armenian weddings, birthday parties.  It was a blast to play with my cousins, brother, and uncle!  I was getting turned on to a lot of music from friends at the time too – Styx, Queen, Beatles…  then I heard Van Halen, the hair on my arms was standing on end. I’d never heard anything like that before.  I also loved Randy Rhoads who was the guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne’s first two solo albums.  I listened every weekend to the Dr. Dimento show and discovered Frank Zappa, which was the first time music made me laugh.  There was some 80s pop I loved too, but I was never really into lyrics.  I was too busy honing in on the groove and melody and what the instruments were doing to create that groove.  I was more into music than the piano or keyboards as an instrument so when my friend’s father took us to see Return to Forever – it blew my mind!

But I still felt like a drummer trapped in a keyboardist’s body, so I bought a drumset.  I was 15 and joined the high school marching band as a drummer.  Something very important happened to me in that band.  Three of the seniors turned me on to jazz, progressive rock, and music that you couldn’t really categorize.  Over the next month or so, I discovered Chick Corea as a solo artist, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, U.K., Michael Oldfield and Tubular Bells, Walter/Wendy Carlos, Tangerine Dream, King Crimson, Bill Bruford’s solo stuff, Alan Holdsworth, Mark Isham, anything Terry Bozzio played on and a bunch of other recording artists.  Those were the days where I’d go to a friend’s house and for hours, we’d sit on the floor.  I’d have the vinyl album cover in my hand for one record, and we’d listen and talk about what we were hearing. My friends would explain how the sounds were created, point out different things to pay attention to, and the time would fly by.  Those days were really important – extremely important to me and that’s when I started writing my own music on the piano.

My senior year of high school I took an analog synthesizer programming class at the local college and learned to program synthesizers and sequencers (1984), which was also huge.  Shortly after, I studied improvisation on the piano with Chuck Wild who later became the artist behind the Liquid Mind albums.  Chuck gave me great confidence because I never felt like I completely fit into a neat and tidy category as a musician or artist.  “What do you call that music you’re writing?”  I don’t know.  I was fortunate enough to always have musicians around me and would start my own projects.  Eventually, I met Chuck Greenberg and was part of Shadowfax from 1991-1995 until his passing.  What I admired most about my music heroes and Shadowfax is that they all had something unique about them… a style that was theirs and theirs alone. I wanted that and during my time with Shadowfax, I enrolled in a History of Armenian music class at USC and was introduced to hours and hours of music I’d never heard before.  I’d transcribe as much as I could and let it soak in…much of it was familiar to me already and then I would just improvise and play freely on the piano, recording everything I played.  Those improvisations and recordings eventually turned into my first solo album, “Ceremonies.”

2. Are you a Tolkien fan?

No.  I never gravitated towards that type of fantasy.  A part of me wishes I was because I see a lot of people who are total fanatics. I’m more of a sci-fi fan but I like sci-fi that can back up the technology – even if it’s technobabble that’s impossible.  Most of all I love biographies.  I love information.  I like reading a well-written manual too!

Shadowfax performing at CD101's "Jazz at the World Trade Center."

3. Tell us about Shadowfax.

If you asked me back then to name any band in the world that I’d like to be a part of, I would’ve told you Peter Gabriel or Shadowfax.  But Peter Gabriel isn’t a band so I’d have to throw that idea out.  As their keyboardist, I had free reign as far as sound design, coming up with parts, introducing music to the band, it was wide open.  There were no rules.  It was a great hang, I learned a lot about music, food, the music business and how to read a contract and understand every single word.  It was a band of brothers, a family, a school (I got schooled a couple of times!), and one of the highlights of my life.

4. Tell us about your label and studio albums.  

TruArt Records.  I started the label after going to 36 labels with “Ceremonies” and hearing, “That sounds great! What kind of music do you call it?”  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that almost everyone I talked to at all the labels asked me the same question.   Instead of saying “I don’t know” or “Good music” or “Music that I think doesn’t suck”, I started asking back – “What would you call it?” Then I’d hear, “I don’t know.”  Some of the people told me if I could come up with one word to describe my music, they might be able to “do something with it.”  I thought that’s why labels had marketing departments.

I called my former piano teacher and friend Chuck Wild, who I talked about earlier in the interview and asked him how he ended up releasing his own albums on his own label.  He already had success with his Liquid Mind albums and has a very organized and brilliant business mind.  He introduced me to Suzanne Doucet who I brought on as a consultant and we ended up releasing “Ceremonies” tied at #1 on the radio with an Anne Dudley album in 1998 and had a track, “Gypsy Rain” -two tracks licensed by the Buddha-Bar series.  At that point, it was 90% business and 10% music, which was frustrating.  It was a great experience.  I loved working with the people I had brought on, and most of the buyers at the stores, but I didn’t like that it was cutting into my music time.  So it was 6 years before I had released “Caravans.”  The business model in the music biz had completely changed and Tower Records, which was my bread and butter was going to file bankruptcy in two years unbeknownst to me.  So the label is “inactive” at the moment while I have a career writing music for television.

5. Why did you choose to create these albums, and what do you hope to give to your listeners? 

It’s fun for me to turn my friends on to something that makes them smile or feel good.  Writing this music, arranging it, getting the musicians together to record, mixing, mastering – I love the entire process and felt that I had something to offer that was uniquely my own.  The hope was to turn people on to something that they’d enjoy listening to that was something they hadn’t heard before and have them feel good about it.  It’s the same reason I enjoy cooking for people or making someone laugh.  It comes from the same place.

6. Is there an underlying theme or message in your work?

Beauty.  “Art” has different meanings to different people.  There are the “I’m going to paint a glacier red” artists or the “I’m going to dress up a mannequin in an NYPD uniform, turn it upside down and sell it for $90,000” artists – these are real projects.  Whether they qualify as art or not is not for me to say.  I’m moved by things that I find to be beautiful.  Seeing or hearing something beautiful makes me feel great. It can be soothing, exciting, healing – that’s what I look for in art and that’s what I want to express.  I’m hoping the listener finds something beautiful and healing in my music.  I write about that in my liner notes.  I’m big on liner notes, which is an endangered species now.  There’s an anecdote about every piece I write…another way for me to connect with the listener.

7. How would you describe traditional Armenian music to anyone who has not had the pleasure of  listening to it? 

There’s a long timeline of music that came from the area well beyond what are now the borders of this tiny country.  Once the largest country in that area, those borders have been eroded a great deal.  Verbally, describing the music to a layman is difficult for me to really nail.  The music that I have heard and the notation I’ve read – it’s very simple music.  It comes so much from the heart… a pouring out of emotions at times.  Some of it has a sense of humor or can even sound a bit mischievous. Now that I think about it, I’m describing the overall personality of the Armenian people.  Much of it was written for dance, in odd time signatures or no time signature at all.  Originally there were no harmonies with multiple instruments.  It was all unison until it was influenced by European music and it continued to evolve.  There’s the instrument that Peter Gabriel introduced to the world when he composed his score for the film, “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988 – the duduk.  He talked about this Armenian instrument.  It’s kind of become the “poster boy” instrument for Armenian music to the rest of the world.  It has a gorgeous sound in the right hands.

8. Tell us about your collaborations and the part your Armenian heritage plays in your work.
When I was taking the History of Armenian music class at USC, and really diving into it, my teacher, Lucina Agbabian-Hubbard asked me if I’d like to meet Djivan Gasparyan, the duduk player.  He’s also an amazing singer and plays other wind and brass instruments.  Of course, I said yes.  I picked him up from the airport, stopped at a dry cleaners shop to drop off a pair of his pants, then went right to my studio and we laid down the tracks for “Distant Lands.”  I had the rhythm track all laid down, and he played a collage of existing melodies from other Armenian songs.  That’s one of his specialties.  He can hear a rhythm track and start playing from beginning to end playing melodies from maybe 3 to 6 different existing pieces to create this new cohesive melody.  It’s pretty amazing to hear him do it.  Parts of the melodies might be improvisations.  But in my recordings, everything I grew up listening to comes out somehow and that includes the old Armenian choral, pop, Arabic popular music and everything else that’s in that cocktail of a thousand songs that is somewhere buried deep inside of my brain.

9. Tell us about the production of your Ceremonies video.  

Albert Kodagolian, the director and me were part of a group of mutual friends.  He approached me one day and said, “You need a video, and I’m the one to make it for you.”  I said ok.  We talked a little bit about it and I told him, I want to make something with an old man, a pomegranate, a baby and a good looking couple.  So we met at a later time and he had it all storyboarded - all, minus the baby, and he suggested we shoot it in the desert because of the lighting and also we wouldn’t have to pay for lighting.  I loved his ideas, so I recruit the band and a friend who I know will look good in the video and we meet out in the desert – El Mirage lake bed in California.  Albert had a van that he would use for most of the shots involving camera movement.  He would be hanging out of the van while there was one person inside the van holding on to his belt and another person holding open the door so he wouldn’t get decapitated.  It was crazy!  There were people riding motorcycles, ATVs, and other cars, so he took these incredible shots where it looked like we were all out there alone in the desert.  By the time he got to shooting the band, the sun had just set, and we didn’t have great lighting, but he used that to his advantage as you’ll see when you watch the video.  The old man in the video was Albert’s grandfather.  He was the sweetest man, and was thanking everyone and was expressing his joy for having met us all and working with us.  The following day, Albert told me that his grandfather remembered none of it because of his Alzheimers disease.  He’s my favorite part of that entire video.  Albert proved correct telling me weeks earlier that he was the one who should make the video for me.

10. Do you have plans to release more studio albums?  

I think about it but have mixed feelings. I have enough music for another four albums.  Since the music biz was turned on its head in the mid-2000s, I don’t see a way to do it without making it an expensive hobby for myself.  I’d love to release more music.  The music part of it is the easy part; having to handle the business part of it as well, that’s just no fun for me anymore.

11. Tell us about your work with film and television.  

I received two phone calls in 2004 that changed the course of my music career.  They were both for television shows.  One call was to license a track from Ceremonies, “Echoes of a Prayer” for the show “Malcolm in the Middle.”  The second call was from a production company asking if I’d be interested in writing music cues for their television shows.  I’ve been doing it ever since.  I’m writing music I would’ve never have been able to produce on one of my albums, or anyone else’s for that matter.  The variety of genres I’m asked to compose is endless.  I’ve been doing it for about 12 years now and it’s a blast!

12. What do you find most rewarding in the creative process?

The beginning steps are the most fun, but finishing up a work or project is the most rewarding.  I had a ritual when I’d finish any album where I’d take the finished album, get into my car late at night and take a drive down to the beach while listening to it beginning to end.

Doheny Blues Festival, 2008.

13. What do you find most challenging in the creative process, and how do you overcome it?  

Different projects have different speed bumps or different walls I might seem to come up against.  The key is to just not stop.  To keep on it until there’s a breakthrough.  Sometimes, the challenging part is to get everyone in the same room if that’s what’s called for.  Other times, it might be all the editing involved.  Staying up late nights can be another.  It varies quite a bit for me.

14. What have you done to promote and market your music, and what advice would you give to other artists?  

If you asked me this back in the late 90s, I would’ve had brilliant advice.  But now I wouldn’t know how valuable my advice would be in this climate of the music business.  I don’t take the time to actively promote or market my music from my albums anymore.  The advice I’d give to other artists is to simply do your thing.  Create what you want to create and what satisfies you.  Try to find what’s unique about what you do and develop that.

15. Who, do you imagine, would be your ideal listener?

Very simply, my ideal listener would be someone who enjoys the music.  Of course, as the artist, I would like a listener who would drop everything and give the music their full attention.  They’d notice every nuance and be curious about things that they hear in the music and aren’t sure what they are.  Then, they’ll call (do people call anymore?) all of their friends raving about it and post flyers in the neighborhood pledging their allegiance to it!  I once met a friend of a friend who spoke with me about the keyboard textures and sound design on the record.  It felt good to have that part of my creation noticed since I rarely use preset sounds.  I like to make my own synth patches.

16. What are your interests outside of music? 

I love sports, cooking, and tea.  I played sports growing up and have two older brothers that were always coaching me.  One of my earliest memories was my father taking me to a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game.  He knew the game well enough to understand what’s going on and I remember him jumping out of his seat when our team scored. He turned to the guy next to him and they shook hands.  I have some really great sports memories.  As far as cooking, I have a handful of some recipes I like to make but mostly like to try out new recipes and cooking for friends.  Tea:  I was really enamored by tea around 2008 when in one week I had an incredible Japanese Sencha tea and a Chinese ginseng oolong.  I didn’t know tea could be that amazing, and I’ve been in love ever since.  Dragonwell Lung Ching is my favorite.  It’s a green tea, I believe the most popular in China.  And, if I could pique your interest with this thought:  If you make green tea and it’s bitter, which was my experience for many years, you’re either (1) brewing it too hot (about 175 °F for green tea), (2) steeping it too long (3 gms for about 30-45 seconds for the first brew), or (3) using the dust that fell on the floor from the higher quality tea.

17. Where can we find you and your work? 

My albums could be found here:
CD Baby

Examples of my tv music can be heard at:
Armen TV

Ceremonies Video

Neda’s Calling Video Tribute
Read about it here:
Armen TV
Armen TV

Souls and Saints Video

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