Gabriel: What made you want to become a songwriter/artist and could you tell us about your journey from music fan to where you are now?
Sham: Initially it was loneliness and not fitting in as a kid. Playing music made me feel better. When I listened to music that I loved, it took me to another world and I felt like someone out there understood what I was going through. I dreamt that maybe one day I could do that for another person just like me. I wanted to be able to touch their heart and emotions and make them feel something inside the same way that music made me feel, to be able to connect through this unspoken language of music and songs.
After music school (where I was studying jazz and classical performance) I was of the mind that being a jazz or classical musician wasn’t really the best way to accomplish this goal. It was at this point that I began to immerse myself in the study of songwriting which previously I hadn't paid much attention to. I began transcribing songs, their form and lyrics, the nuts and bolts of what goes into making the good ones.
When I was just starting out with songwriting I relied heavily on keyboards and computers. I had to turn on ten things just to start writing. The process took forever and over time I began to hate being bound by so much cumbersome technology.
On one batch of songs I really wanted to have guitar parts so a friend of mine loaned me their Telecaster. At that time I didn’t know anything about guitar and couldn’t play at all so I tuned each string to a note that I wanted and figured out parts from that. Around that time, as synchronicity would have it, my friend (Patricia Ossowski - you should check her music out, she’s an amazing artist in her own right) took me to see a Jane Sibery concert which totally blew me away. From that moment, I was hooked on acoustic guitar. Patricia had an acoustic laying around and she lent it to me. I just started playing that thing all day and night and writing like crazy. It was so much better and expressive and more productive than being bound by all the technology I had been using.
I started playing open mics and doing shows in New York City. This eventually led to a number of bands and the music gradually progressed towards a more rock aesthetic and away from the singer-songwriter vibe. I was a late bloomer finding my artistic voice and it was a very long way back around to my earliest roots.
Gabriel: Could you walk me through your songwriting process?
Sham: The first thing I would say is that I like to keep the process as simple as possible regarding technology. No computers are involved. Only my guitar, notebook, pencil, a thesaurus and dictionary, and a cassette recorder - I still have thousands of unfinished ideas on cassette tapes!
Gabriel: What are the inspirations for your songs? Where do your ideas come from?
Sham: I don’t know where the initial inspiration for a song comes from, but I am usually holding a guitar just stumbling in the dark and looking for some semblance of an idea and then all of a sudden I’ll come across a spark of something that evokes a mood or a lyrical/melodic idea. I like to believe these are gifts from angels or some higher power because I could never claim they come out of me. After that bit of magic happens, which can take seconds, days, weeks, even months or more, it’s all about the craft of bringing that fragile perfect idea into existence in the “physical world”. I have never managed to realize the true potential of any of these gifts of inspiration and so I keep writing - striving to get it right - maybe someday I will.
Gabriel: You produce and mix for other artists and also have a beautiful recording studio www.outpostrecording.com. In addition to being the singer, songwriter, and guitar player in Iris Pill, you produced and mixed their latest record Box So Tiny. What was it like juggling all of these responsibilities?
Sham: It is tough to juggle so many roles and responsibilities and do them all well - maybe impossible if you are trying for your "A” game. I don’t recommend it to anyone really if you can help it. lol
After the song and performance, maintaining perspective is the most important commodity in making a record. Wearing all of those hats, it becomes exponentially harder to see the forest from the trees. Making this record involved a lot of trying ideas and stepping away and coming back later to see if they were any good. There was a lot of going around in circles as well, and I am usually someone who can make decisions quickly as a producer. Probably a good 2/3rds of our "inspired and awesome” ideas ended up in the trash in the end.
The record (Box So Tiny) probably took 5-10 times longer than it would have with outside help. It can be really difficult to be confident without useful critique, without the ears and experience of someone outside of your inner world. Very few artists I know, including myself, believe there is any beauty or magic in their work and so they overthink things to compensate. It really helps to have someone in the trenches with you who will keep you focused on what matters.
Playing so many roles is like juggling the two sides of the brain, with your heart, soul and emotions. The artist needs to be free of constraints and needs the space and support to let go and explore untouched places in themselves and the songs. While at the same time the engineer is busy thinking “should we use a Neumann U47 or U67, a Telefunken V72 or Neve 1073, the Urei Blue Stripe or a Distressor”, about patch bays and recording levels blah blah… The engineer needs to be really meticulous and needs to pay attention to minute detail.
The producer on the other hand is looking at the big picture and is helping to create a mood, to motivate the artist, pick them up when they hit a brick wall, tell them when something is truly great and when it is not. A great producer knows how to build on something that is still in its infancy and very fragile and can recognize this fact. A great producer is bringing ideas and inspiration to the process as much as anyone.
On the flip side, say the chorus isn’t going where you imagined it would after trying all kinds of production tricks. The songwriter can step up to the plate with the realization…“this isn’t working because the song isn’t as good as we thought”. “Disappear”, the opening track on our album “Box So Tiny” is a good example of this. The chorus just didn’t have the impact that I thought it would and there was a lot of trying new lyric and melody ideas until we ended up with what you hear on the record.
The artist shouldn’t be thinking about any of this stuff really. I feel like the artist needs to be able to try anything and everything without regard for the consequences - that’s the only way the magic can show up.
Gabriel: What is the significance of your band name Iris Pill?
Sham: It’s a critique on the superficiality and escapism of modern society which values beauty, fame and youth over heart and inner substance. What we see on the surface is more important than what is inside. Materialism is the pill we take in order to feel happy and fulfilled, but its effects are fleeting and we are constantly searching for something new to take its place.
Gabriel: Who are your musical influences?
Sham: Songs on the radio of all genres have had a huge impact on me. Also, all the less mainstream classical wind ensemble and jazz music I listened to and played growing up affected me in many intangible and not so obvious ways. I’m not sure if somebody listening to my current record would guess or imagine these influences at all. Those like early Miles, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. They stir something in me to this day that I can’t describe and I think you can hear these modal influences in my songwriting. I spent a lot of time as a kid listening to my parents' records like The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Earth Wind and Fire, Boston and Aerosmith. I was really drawn to 90’s bands like Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine and Tool. I love the Dead Weather and Jack White and wish I could be more raw like that. At the same time I love Katie Perry and Maroon 5, Radiohead and Coldplay. There was a time when I wished I could be Jeff Buckley - That obviously was never going to happen but he was a huge influence on me.
Gabriel: What instruments do you play?
Sham: I grew up playing the clarinet, saxophone and flute but I don’t play them anymore.
These days it’s guitars both acoustic and electric, drum programming and a scant keyboard here and there.
I hate to say it but Pro Tools has become a creative instrument as much as anything else via the power of editing and more editing. It’s sad really… I’m afraid that I have become that which I despise, caught in the spider’s web of the digital workstation. Can somebody save me please?
Gabriel: Do you only use the guitar as your writing instrument when creating?
Sham: Yes, guitar is my go-to instrument and voice of course. I believe my notebooks, pencil, and cassette recorder should receive some mention here as well. I try not to be near a computerized anything when I am writing.
Gabriel: Do you write lyrics or melody first?
Sham: For me, the initial inspiration for a song comes from a mood and something that I might stumble upon on my guitar. The initial melody and the lyric ideas come somewhat together inside of that. I regard those initial ideas as a gift from somewhere outside of me. To this day I don’t know where the good stuff comes from.
Gabriel: How did you decide on your genre?
Sham: I think my genre decided on me and it is continually evolving. That said, I did listen to a lot of 90’s music growing up. It had the depth and angst and melancholy that I was feeling whereas a lot of music that came before and after just didn’t move me the same way. So I suppose it’s not a surprise that Box So Tiny sounds the way it does. To contrast that, modal jazz, Bill Evans, Miles and Coltrane captured that for me as well in the Kind of Blue era and these modal influences are all through my music.
Gabriel: How do you go about getting that great vocal? You can be technical here, tell us about your vocal chain, tracking techniques, inserts you like to use, even processing in the DAW with plugins.
Sham: You know Gabriel, I think that the great vocal comes from the singer. Their performance and delivery and how the producer pulls that out of them. I ask myself the question "Can I believe in what they are saying or is it bullshit?” To illustrate my point that the gear is somewhat irrelevant I’ll share this with you. I’ve combined performances recorded on a Shure SM57 with an original Neumann U47 and it’s hard to tell the difference in the finished track. That’s comparing a $100 mic to a $15,000 mic! That said, for my record I used an old Telefunken U47 with the original VF14 tube into a Siemens V72 mic pre patched into a Distressor and Urei 1176 reissue in series. I needed a ton of compression to compete with the wall of guitars that dominate Box So Tiny (my band Iris Pill’s latest record). It probably would have been smarter to wait until later for all of the compression but I don’t always make the best decisions when recording myself.
During mixing, which was done on the vintage 80-input Quad Eight console at my studio, the lead vocals saw a Urei Bluestripe 1176 for compression, SSL EQ and DBX 902 De-Esser, an Eventide H3000, Lexicon PCM 42 for short delays and a Lexicon 480L reverb. I also used Soundtoys Echoboy a lot on the record.
Gabriel: What is your favorite guitar insert (hardware)?
Sham: I usually get the best sounds from real amps and speaker cabinets. I tend to use my Bogner, Diesel, and old vintage Vox, Marshall, and Fender amps as much as possible, recording them with a ribbon mic like the Royer R-121 or a dynamic like an SM57. I love old Urei LA-3A and Summit DCL-200 compressors, and analog SSL EQ when mixing. I also use Line 6 Amp Farm plugin a ton for incidental parts. Sometimes a plugin just fits better in the track against all of the real amps going on. Too much plugin guitar though and you have a suck fest.
Gabriel: Favorite DAW/s, master bus plugins, VSTs, anything hardware or software related that you use all the time?
Sham: I am mainly working in Pro Tools for editing and production and then mix on the large format console with my favorite outboard gear at my studio.
I usually just do really simple things in the computer like McDSP Filterbank and Waves Renaissance for High and Low Pass filters and utilitarian equalization, Waves Renaissance De-Esser, compressor and the L1 limiter. The ubiquitous Autotune gets used a lot. I also use Soundtoys Echoboy all the time and Drumagog to augment my drum sounds about 10% mixed in with the real kit which I try to record really well in the first place - usually with an old Neve to tape if the budget allows. Box So Tiny was recorded this way as well.
My favorite hardware these days are the pieces that have remained in my studio and that have consistently served a function for me in my mix and recording process. They are the vintage pieces that many love and covet like the: Urei Bluestripe 1176, Focusrite Red 3, SSL EQ, SSL FXG 384 and Allen Smart C2 Bus Compressors, Neve Metal Knob 33609, Inward connections VAC RAC Tube Limiter, Pultec EQP-1A and Retro 2A3 Tube EQs, Urei LA-3A’s (I have 5 of them I love them so much), Distressors, Urei Black Face 1176’s and 1178 and Drawmer Gates (I don’t know why I can’t get in the box gates to work for me), Lexicon PCM 42’s and PCM 70. I also use the Eventide H3000 and Lexicon 480L, 224XL and AMS RMX16 reverbs a bit.
Gabriel: Sham Sundra, a warm "thank you" for your time and all the great info you have shared with me. I am sure a lot of songwriters, producers and studio engineers will find it helpful and will help them become better at what they do and come closer to their dreams of success.
For more information on Sham Sundra, Iris Pill and Outpost Recording please visit: