Charles R. Terhune, aka Cathode Ray Tube – abbreviated as CRT – is an incredibly talented and dedicated artist from the Northeast United States, who has produced volumes of wonderful electronic material on a variety of labels. He also has a great sense of humor. Upon asking for a bio I got a rather silly set of facts. According to Mr. CRT, he “grew up in a largely white entitled part of Connecticut which should have given him a predilection for khakis and Dave Matthews.” He has resided in Portland, Maine since 2005, and his writing has appeared in a variety of online journals such such as Igloo Magazine, Elephant Journal and Recovering Yogi.
His work can be found on both Bandcamp and iTunes – and on labels from Component Recordings to Heterodox Records. I caught up with Mr. Terhune on a cold December day, where he agreed to answer some questions about his art.
HA: What inspires you to create music?
CRT: Ah one of the oldest questions ever asked of an artist! “What were you thinking when you painted this or wrote this?” It’s an interesting one, too. Honestly, the real answer is inspiration for a song comes from everywhere. It could be a drum sample, a snippet of a conversation or video or it could be something I heard in nature. I once spent a year trying to capture the mood of “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” from the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack (which is hard to do with only synths as it’s an accapella song essentially) solely because it was so captivating. I’ve found myself running to the studio after hearing a song or sound then trying to copy it only to find something else entirely different in the process.
HA: You are known as a very prolific artist.
CRT: I am indeed! And it’s often been said more in a pejorative than as a positive sense. Some of my heroes are very prolific. Like Richard H Kirk was in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Or Prince! Prince is said to have hundreds of hours of music in his vault at Paisley Park. While I’m not at the level of Prince or RHK I have to ask is all their output top notch? Is every Prince album as good as “Purple Rain” or “Sign of The Times?” No. Nor is everything by RHK as good as “The Number of Magic” or “Virtual State” (my personal favorites of his).
Someone recently chided me for overproduction which really rubbed me the wrong way. Because often that implies more music equals more bad music. Which, if I may be so bold, is not the case with me. When you hear a track of mine on an album that’s only after it’s gone through almost a hundred listens by me where I’m hyper-criticizing every beat, note, squeak and bleep of every second of that song. Then I play it for my wife who has introduced me to a boatload of great music and also knows my music very well. I can literally tell if a song works from her expression or her voice if something doesn’t work. Then I go rework it. Then I’ve got a secret weapon which is a close friend whom I will only refer to as “The Ear.” When I play a song for The Ear and he says something needs work or the whole song sucks I listen to what he’s saying. Because he’s right 98% of the time. I mean, no shit. Honestly, I can count on one hand the times when I’ve disagreed with him and put a song out he didn’t like. “Ronnie James Dildo” off of the Brittney Sparse “Triumph of A Horse Called Radioman” is one. I just loved it so much I couldn’t keep it up in the woodshed even though he wasn’t fond of it.
Look, I put out a lot of music because I love making music. And I’ve been making music since early 1984 – that’s 33 years! And I spent the first 10-13 of that playing my music for very few people. Only after my wife accused me of hiding my light under a bushel and that more people need to hear my music did I start to seek other musicians or radio play (WHAT UP WZBC.ORG!!!). But these 33 years have taught me what I like and don’t like. And I’ve developed a very specialized workflow so I can both explore ideas but also keep the process moving along without getting bogged down too often. I think people suffer from the delusion that one should suffer over every note or second of a song in such a way that only the creme de la creme gets released to the general public. I mean Kraftwerk are infamous for spending years on tracks which is boring as fuck to me. If you can’t hear it after a certain amount of time you ain’t looking in the right place for it, y’know?
So I know how to work and express my ideas and put a decent amount of quality stuff out. Some people marvel at my productivity but I guess I just don’t see it as something extraordinary. Maybe because I work hard to let myself make mistakes and learn from them that I’m able to get to the root of a good song quickly.
HA: I also record and put out a fair share and have also been criticized for releasing too much – so I can definitely relate. Could you describe your process of starting a new musical project?
CRT: No! It’s secret! Ha. Kidding. I work in Ableton Live exclusively so when I open up a new set I have everything in front of me, ready to go. It’s a blank slate. Some get intimidated by that but I dive right in! Maybe I have an idea in mind or I just start noodling. When one of the great classical composers – it was once of the Bach’s, I think? – was ready to compose he would sit at his clavier, pray for a bit, then lay his hands on the keyboard and play. If he didn’t like what he heard he’d stop playing, pray a bit more then play again. Over and over until he found something he liked. I’d say my process is similar but without as much prayer and a lot more cursing. I mess with an idea and if I hit a brick wall I leave it alone and go to something else. I never, ever, delete or erase a song. So sometimes if I’m not sure what to do I go back and look at older sets and see if something comes up.
There’s a quote by the writer John Irving where he says something like “Every time I finish a book I sit down to work on my autobiography only I get bored with telling my own story and I start to lie then suddenly I find I’m working on a new novel.” Cover versions are a bit like that for me. I find I’ve only copied someone else’s song or style when I’m not paying attention. But when I sit down and deliberately try to cover someone else’s song or style I end up doing something wholly new to me. The song “Tirade” off my EP “Tribal Malfunctions” is me trying to sound like Autechre and failing. Or “Abundance” off of “Life Among The Rust” started as a joke where I was going to cover “Hotline Bling” by Drake. But again I failed. I just can’t get out of my own way!
Once a track moves beyond the sketch phase then I start to flesh it out. It can begin with a beat or a synth line or something. Then I move on from there. For years, I spent a long time working on fleshing my tracks out. Then in the last year or two I reeled back from that and tried to keep things are, give each element their space. That’s both a mixing as well as recording trick I suppose.
HA: I also live in Ableton – it has defined my process flow as well. Have you learned any creative techniques to generate/start projects and would/could you share them if so?
CRT: Hmmm. Most of the techniques I’ve learned have come from playing with other musicians or reading interviews with musicians. I love that kind of lore, like what techniques Tony Visconti used when he worked with Bowie and Eno on the Berlin Trilogy. Speaking of which one of the best things any artist, not just musicians, should have is a set of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” cards in their studio or workspace. Make sure those are close at hand and refer to them often. They’ve made me do some things I wouldn’t normally which then changed how I approached a certain instrument or task.
As for starting or generating projects? Well, shit, it’s like Stephen King said: “Writing equals ass in chair.” Music equals ass in chair, hands on instruments, playing that shit. Simple as that!
HA: So many electronic musicians get wrapped up in gear, do you find that it hinders your process?
CRT: I am as much of a materialistic gear whore as anyone but I don’t have the budget to match. I’ve sold so much great stuff that I regret but at the same time feel like it’s not all about the gear and having the latest and greatest. There’s a story my dad once told me about this prince who desperately wanted this fantastic blue sword a blacksmith made. Well he got it and carried it into battle but then he either lost it or it broke but either way he thought the blue sword was crap and ran. Then some other dude picked it up, won the battle and got the babe, etc., etc. My point being that it’s not what’s in the gear so much as what’s in the person using it. I mean, fuck, we’ve been playing guitars for hundreds of years and I’m regularly hearing new shit that blows my mind on a guitar.
When thinking about gear I also try remember that the TB-303 was built with a specific purpose in mind as an accompaniment for guitarists. That didn’t work so well. So when it fell out of fashion you could get those for nothing in pawn shops and antique stores. Then what happened? An original 303 in good condition doesn’t go for anything less than a grand or more these days.
So I try not to fetishize new gear even as I’m often slobbering through the latest catalogs. When I get into self-pity about not having the latest and greatest (like right now I’m positively horny for those Roland Boutique units or the Korg Minilogue) I look at my gear and think which instrument do I know back and front? The answer is almost none of them. I mean I’ve had my Poly800ii since 1986 and I’m still learning new stuff about that. I also have an Elektron Analog Rytm which is such a deep device and in the two or three years I’ve owned it I’ve only gotten into about 25% of it if that!
Brian Eno has a surprisngly old setup with very few new things. I mean the guy stuck with the Yamaha DX-7 long after it was fashionable, well into when it was cool to hate it, and now when people are liking DX-7’s again he’s like “Yo, what’s good?” Eno is also fond of saying that if you gave a painter an entire art store they wouldn’t create anything which I agree with. I know guys who have closets of synths old and new but don’t do more than make fat brass sounds with them. It’s the same with plug-ins; I’ve got dozens of great synths but find if I limit myself to a certain group I get more done than if I peruse each and every patch on each one.
HA: I totally agree. Many gear collectors I know are buried by choice and produce less material. Less is more for me these days. So what do you do at the end of your creative cycle? (do you immediately move onto the next thing, take a break, etc).
CRT: Just your basic pallette cleanser: hookers, blow and booze. Ahem. If I have a couple things going at once when one is finished I go to the other. Or I may just stop playing for a bit, let the batteries recharge. Go walk the dog or something. Take a few days off and do some writing or drawing. Play video games. I find taking breaks is far better for the creative process than locking myself in the studio for hours and hours, hoping I make that cool thing I’m looking for. Not that I’ve had the time to lock myself away in a long while. Usually I like to space the works out so I have room to breath.
Right now it’s interesting because I moved a few months back and haven’t rebuilt my studio. It’s been almost five months since I made anything! Which is funny because before that I was so prolific. So when the studio is fully rebuilt I may have full tanks ready and raring to go!
HA: In addition to electronic music, are you currently working on any other artistic projects, or in other mediums?
CRT: Yes! I’m a writer and have written six books, four of which are self-published. I’m currently working on a comic book called Bunnyhead which I’m writing and drawing myself.
HA: What artists/musicians inspire you?
CRT: Oh man. Such a huge list. I’m fond of almost all music except for modern country like Alan Jackson or shit like that. And these days there’s so much really good music coming out all the time so it’s hard to keep up. If I must I’ll have to say it’s no secret I’m a fan of Autechre, Bola, Richard H Kirk, Cabaret Voltaire, Aphex Twin, Monolake, Kraftwerk and Deadbeat. There’s this kid out of England – okay, he’s 27 but I’m old enough to be his dad so he’s a kid to me – named Robert Logan who is incredible. I’m really a voracious listener so I’m constantly looking for new music and stuff I’ve never heard before.
My wife likes to say I only listen to old music which isn’t true but the stuff I play around her is stuff I know she likes and we can agree on. But most of the stuff I listen to is from Bandcamp artists or weird shit I find on Spotify. My daughter’s girlfriend turned me on to Run The Jewels so now I’m getting into that and discovering a whole new form of hiphop I haven’t heard before.
HA: If you could give advice to one artist on the creative process, what would it be?
CRT: Perhaps not surprisingly I had a long-winded answer to this but I’ve been thinking about it and really it boils down to two things for me: Listen & Explore.
Listen. Just listen. Keep your ears open and listen to the world around you. This applies to music for one, and listening to all sorts of stuff. The more you can suppress your prejudice the better. I’d have never discovered Sun Ra if I hadn’t given up my bias against jazz as something lofty or inaccessible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discovered an album or band that’s five, ten or twenty years old that blows me away and I scream at my friends, “How come no one told me about this stuff when it came out?!” Just listen and be open to what you hear and you will discover some amazing shit.
Explore. I’m an avid gamer and once when I was reading a review of one of the Fallout games the reviewer said this was a key to getting the most out of the Fallout universe: Explore! And I’ve found that applies to many other areas of my life. Exploring is part of my listening process but also a huge part of my creative process as well. I’ve played with other musicians who are either much better than I am or play in a diffferent genre. Those experiences have not only made me up my game but also exposed me to different stuff. When I’m in my studio I really force myself to abandon my tried and true routes and methods and go off into the unknown wilderness. It’s there that I find my hidden gems and undiscovered melodies. So if you allow yourself to explore without putting pressure on yourself for results you will find an immense amount of weight lifted off you shoulders, an immense amount of freedom given to yourself and from that good things will come. Trust me. I’ve been doing this longer than a lot of people have been alive!
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