Tobin Mueller is a long-time MJ member, one of the first to sign on. He has amassed the highest onsite participation point total to date (including 4640 comments), and, as an ardent MJ advocate, was sole Moderator up until last week (when he retired from that position). Tobin has released 4 albums since he’s been a member of MJ, and was involved in 15 recordings prior in his career.
He’s had 5 musicals produced on the New York stage (plus several more produced elsewhere), has written 2 novels and 1 political philosophy text, 3 poetry collections, numerous magazine articles, 2 symphonies, 1 ballet, and has recently begun selling his photography. (Additional career highlights below.)
Deeply involved in the international environmental movement, Tobin helped plan U.N. events from 1989-1994, composed the theme song for the 1992 Global Youth Forum, and his traveling theatre troupe was inducted into the United Nations’ Global 500 Roll of Honor in 1994.
Tobin is the founder of the artists’ collaborative site, ArtsForge.com, his first foray into online collaborative projects (more on that below). He’s a Dramatist Guild member (NYC), member of ASCAP, and has been involved in dozens of stage productions as director, musical director, musical contractor, and/or performer. Although he used to play nearly every instrument, he has concentrated on piano and organ in recent decades. He’s used Macs since they were invented…
Yes. And after hearing so many cool stories from other people, I kind of wanted to tell some of my own.
I guess most people won’t mind. You are a full-time musician?
Well, more of a full-time “artistic entrepreneur.” I consider myself a composer first, musician second, because that’s what I’ve spent the most time doing. I’ve made my largest chunks of money from musical theatre (scripts, music, lyrics), often in combination as the musical director of my own shows. Actually, I never know where my income will come from 6 months down the road, but it always works out.
I’ve also authored books (novels and textbooks) and straight stage plays; I do web design work and write product reviews; but mainly I compose music on commission. I’ve done studio musician work, taught, and used to perform quite a bit, as well.
I like doing large projects, complicated long range things, so I have to constantly think ahead, keep in contact with people, organize my time. I have a very supportive wife (Suzanne) who trusts that we won’t go broke (in the next few months, anyway). My kids (4) all have scholarships (3 are in or entering college, 2 have full scholarships), which helps. And my ex-wife is still a close friend.
Ok, too much information. What got you started in music?
My mother wanted to be a blues singer. After having kids, we became her main (only?) audience. Instead of normal lullabies, she sang Basin Street Blues, My Man’s Gone Now, and Satin Doll to us. Glenn Miller was always on the record player. She came from a fairly poor family and always said her children were the first things she ever owned, that weren’t hand-me-downs. It made me want to be ‘an original’ all the more.
Mom made sure I got piano lessons as a kid, but the dead octopus in formaldehyde and other jarred carcasses my piano teacher displayed in her waiting room totally creeped me out. Plus, I’ve never really liked playing other people’s music, even in 3rd grade. So, the lessons went on but I never applied myself. (I actually consider myself self-taught, which is both a self-deception and a fundamental truth, as it is for all of us). In 5th grade I added clarinet, because my sister had one and Dad didn’t want to spend any more money on me. When he finally bought me a sax (7th grade), I’d found an instrument to totally dig. Shiny and gold, and much easier to blow than the clarinet. I got into jazz and applied myself. Sax was my first love instrument. (Unlike piano, you only had to play one note at a time. Sight-reading was MUCH easier.)
When I was in junior high, Mom started putting on condensed versions of musicals at a local social club. She was a self-taught musician and unsure of herself, so asked me to help arrange and do all the notation work. I was maybe 14 but had already written a few things and was starting to understand music theory. (My older sister and 2 older brothers were always passing along music theory insights. Each played a different instrument and liked different music styles.) Mom and I partnered together and re-arranged shows like The King & I and Showboat. (I continued doing this with her until I was in my late thirties.) She also liked recording songs on our home cassette (and, later, an 8-track Karaoke machine). I would accompany her on piano. I learned a lot about arranging and song writing by emulating greats like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen.
But maybe the most important moment came just before my sister died. She was 19, at the end of a 10 year illness, and told me, “Learn to play the piano better. It’s the most complete instrument, a talent you will need. Learn Joni Mitchell’s River. Understand it. Once you’ve done that, you can begin…” I was 15 years old.
(The second song I ever wrote came just after her death, When You Left. The first, something with “Eve” in the title, I barely recall.)
Similarly, on her deathbed (11 years ago), Mom said to me, between labored breaths and expressions of semi-delirium, “Don’t… make… money. Make… history.” (I have a very dramatic family.) Mom never had a desire for grandeur; she wasn’t asking me to be famous. She could barely speak, and was having trouble choosing words. What I imagined she was saying: “Do what you want, what makes you happy. And make sure it’s something new.”
When did you know you were a composer?
Before I ever wrote anything that was any good, to be sure. I think we know what’s inside us before it comes out, like a promise. I knew I was a composer and wrote my first works back in high school to prove that to myself, more than anything else. I wrote my first 3-movement symphony in study hall as a senior in high school, but had already had pieces I’d written for band and orchestra performed during my Sophomore and Junior years.
Kind of ambitious for a teenager, nowadays.
If you start young enough, you don’t realize how hard something is supposed to be. You just do it.
Luckily, I don’t panic and am able to focus well, one project at a time. I’m really good at organizing a long-term project, breaking it down into what needs to get done first, second, third… and then sticking to a time line/schedule. Having obsessive traits comes in handy. (My ability to shut out the world while I’m working drove my first wife nuts.)
When I’m interested in something, I dive in full tilt. Nearly all my projects started with me wanting to discover something, with questions instead of answers. With those first compositions, I obviously had a lot to learn. But my desire to discover is an integral part of my creative process, that hasn’t change through the years. I still pick projects that require me to learn new things. I have to do a lot of homework to accomplish what I do, usually. In the process, I’ve learned all sorts of cool stuff.
You’ve said before to me that your life is sectioned off into “eras.” Can you give some examples?
Before I graduated from high school, I’d already written 3 straight plays [non-musicals], 2 of which were produced (one by my high school, one by a summer stock theater). The 3rd one (written in my Junior year) included original background music. I liked the way the score sounded better than the script, so I started composing music and stopped writing plays (for a while). (Also, I remember reading Hamlet and thinking, “I can’t do this!”) I used the score from my first symphony to get into composition school in college. I wrote classical music for the next 7 years, including a commissioned ballet (Milwaukee WI). That was my Classical Period, influenced mainly by my love for Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Copland, and my studies in colleges.
(During that whole time, I also played jazz and wrote folk music on and off, keeping both loves alive. Both had very active scenes in Milwaukee back in the day. Folk music in the 1970s had a much more progressive feel than it does today. Also, I got married and had my first son [who would later tour the world with me and even sing lead in my prog rock band, but that comes later.] I also wrote 2 books, one historical fiction and one political philosophy text, lived on an Indian reservation, and used to take really long backpacking trips into the middle of nowhere during the summers.)
The Third Wave jazz and avant-garde classical music I was writing in college (music with no discernible key or melody) began to wear on me, became abstract and unemotional. (For years I had believed that overtly intellectual and complex music was the future of the art. I wanted to be a future-leaning artist, capture the Zeitgeist, be a man of my time and all that. But at some point I just wanted to play what made me feel good, Zeitgeist and genre be damned.) I was drawn to music that healed and lifted, or that searched and hungered. I took the style of Joni Mitchell / Keith Jarret and tried to fashion a new solo piano style - a style I had begun to work on since high school but had only used as incidental music for stage dramas or when playing alone in my home. I then discovered others playing similar styles: Liz Story (who kept bats in her apartment, uncaged!), Michael Hedges (a shining soul sorely missed), David Lanz and others. This was my New Age period, something I’ve revisited recently (and never stopped exploring, privately).
(I worked for 3 years as a private investigator during this period, too. Lots of great stories… And I had my second son, Will, who solos as a five year old on Hail To The Sheriff. But then got a literary agent and went back to writing books. I wrote my second novel, and a column published in a monthly magazine about being a househusband.)
After that, I started doing Artist-in-Resident work in schools. That led me to children’s music. In 1985, I was commissioned to write an educational musical for a start-up company. In the audience was a guy who had just sold Jansport for millions; his eldest son was in the play. (Actually, he was the only kid in the cast who could sing harmony, so he was in almost every scene. He’s featured as Friar Tuck in Lay Your Burdens Down, which was recorded about 5 years later.) The father had never been to a play in his entire life… and was overcome. He wanted to put my music “in every classroom in America.” We formed a company, CenterStage Productions. That was my Children’s Musical period. I wrote about 8 shows in 4 years and honed my writing chops (learning a few things about business along the way). Plus, my youth musicals have been performed and seen by over 600,000 people worldwide, which is kind of cool.
(I was still performing during this period, but everything I “wrote down” became the property of CenterStage Productions, because of my contract with them. From 1986-91, even a doodle on a napkin was theirs. In exchange, I received a salary, which was stable and nice. But in 1992 I had grown tired of writing for kids, something I never planned to do in the first place, and changed the contract. I also had two more children. All 4 of my kids were in my shows, traveled extensively with me.)
The actors in my children’s theatre troupe began to get older, better. I started to write more difficult shows, musical dramas that could be adapted to the adult stage. I used my contacts in New York to find venues for my shows in Manhattan. My first musical was performed in NYC 1992, then two in 1994, then one each the next few years. I wrote my last kid’s show in ‘94. (There was a busy overlapping period.) So, from 1993 to 2006 would be my Musical Theatre period, an outgrowth of my children’s stuff but qualitatively different.
(I was spending more and more time in New York. In 1999 I got a divorce, which was wrenching, to say the least, and moved to the West Village. But a major aspect of my self-image was as a father, a “stay-at-home” dad, even though I traveled a lot and would spend weeks holed up in studios. I’d been their main playmate, cook and organizer. Actually, our backyard was the main playground for the whole neighborhood. Now I was their no-longer-living-at-home dad. I began to work even harder, since I couldn’t sleep anyway, to prove to myself that by being productive I wasn’t wasting my life.)
In the year 2000, I made a New Year Resolution, partly motivated from this sense of guilt (following my divorce), to write one song a week for the entire year. I made it to October before petering out, but that was a very productive time. I often write in manic spurts. I remember that I wrote nearly all the songs to my original Robin Hood in about 10 days, lyrics and music. It took me another 2 months to orchestrate, arrange, and complete the script. That time could probably be called my Working Too Hard period.
After 9/11/2001, the bottom fell out of my theatre production team. I met an agent from Hong Kong who used to be a high mucky-muck with BMI and was starting her own agency. I began working with her writing Acid Jazz and Korean Pop. Even though I continued to write musical theatre, I began to let myself lean more and more towards jazz. I never thought I was very good at writing Pop (Asian pop is more like writing Tom Jones covers), but the experience gave me time to learn more about home recording, styling demos, and enabled me to meet a new group of talent.
(During this time, my eldest son moved in with me in the West Village, Manhattan, which was a blessing. I scored a few small films, which was great fun - 2 Canadian and 1 Spanish (shot in Bucharest). My son met his future wife at one of those events. I learned how to write Tango, which I never would’ve done otherwise.)
When I really think about it, there are no actual discrete “eras” in my life. Maybe I just like to organize stuff in my head. But there have been “last projects” in certain genres, after which I haven’t written anything more in that genre. But I might again, so, I’m not really sure if “era” is the right word. (Plus, as I reread this, I left out a lot of stuff. Sigh.)
What “era” are you in (or not in) now?
I think I’m in my Transition-Out-Of-Ambition era. I simply do what I want, these days. I’m in a place where I don’t want to write music for anyone else, on demand, and don’t have to. I’m writing just for myself. What’s in my head. Getting stuff down before its too late. I still have about 4 projects lined up. Every couple years, its all new again…
“Before it’s too late”?
You know. Mid-life and all. Less years ahead than behind.
You’ve released a few solo piano CDs based on commissions. Maybe its your solo piano period?
Right. I’m kind of returning to my classical period commissions era, even though the style of music is different. But I’m also rediscovering other keyboards, as well.
How did that come about, your “return”?
One night, sometime in 2005, I was eating dinner with Suzanne and lamenting how Broadway didn’t want new dramatic musicals anymore (my forté). Post-9/11, everything was a comedy, a revival, or a pop-rock music review masquerading as a book musical; no room for what I loved. That, and Disney was taking over 42 Street. Suzanne said, “Why don’t you just play piano? I listen to you every night. You’re fantastic. You wouldn’t have to collaborate with a committee, depend on so many other people, wait so long to mount a show…” That’s when I went out to find a commission. The 11-song cycle that resulted was what became Morning Whispers. It ended up being the most satisfying artistic project I’d ever experienced. Everything about it was positive, nourishing. So I decide to do it again, using a different theme (13 Masks, originally titled Chaos of the Sub-conscious). I hope to ink two more piano commissions in the next couple of years.
But it’s not just about piano. I’ve rediscovered electric piano, which I used to play (funk and jazz) in the old days. And B3, mainly as an outgrowth of the Audiocracy progressive rock project. Using my jazz ensemble Rain Bather, I’ll be releasing a jazz album in which I play organ. I’ve posted a few early mixes on MacJams:
- Lightning Strikes
- I Wanna Fly
- Finding No Path
- Caught In The Current - feat. BBarner on clarinet & Komrade K on fiddle
- and I’m thinking of including the WoodstockFest submission Seven Buttons On A Nehru Jacket and more like that, since it turned out so well. (Thank you, Feter!)
You’ve played jazz with some heavy hitters. What was Maynard Ferguson like?
Before I met him, I thought the guy was gonna be kind of square. (Compared to some of my other jazz heroes, he was pretty mainstream.) But Maynard was perhaps the coolest human being I’ve ever met. A true cat. Such a buoyant man, so giving and open. And when I played with him on stage, I couldn’t get over the volume he generated. I’d blow at the top of my lungs (I was playing sax at the time) and was barely able to hear myself. He had an aura.
How about Dave Brubeck?
Supremely competent. Infinitely unassuming. A genius. Timeless. I recorded an Easter Mass work with him and he was so humble, so nurturing. No ego, yet absolutely confident.
I also had the fortune of meeting and working with Entcho Todorov before Broadway made him famous. And players like Donny McCaslin, Sal Giorgianni, Dane Richeson, Woody Mankowski, Tom Washatka, Bob Levy and Ken Schaphorst (who is a fabulous arranger/composer). I’ve been blessed. Each one has influenced me.
Lots of jazz guys are inhumanly laid back. I never really fit in, either because I was never a pure jazz guy or I was just too wired all the time.
Any non-jazz guys?
When it comes to personal experiences, spending the day with Richie Havens in Cincinnati was a memorable event. He may be the most innocent adult human being I know. This was during my Environmental Movement period, when I was doing shows for the United Nations. He was the headliner, and we hung afterwards. His young woman executive assistant organized/decided everything he did - how long he stayed in one place, what he ordered for dinner, whether to turn left or right. Either his brain was fried or he chose to remain above the fray. My guess is that he enjoyed floating through the world, outside of all stress, giving over to the universe (and his personal assistant) all decisions, so that he could remain inside his head. He was free to tell stories, consider ironic insights, and love. He loves everyone, loves the world, exudes love. I saw him last summer and nothing had changed - a new young woman handler and his innocence completely intact. He remains one of my folk heroes and one of the best interpreters of cover songs (something he prides himself in, which is unusual in this day and age). He does Dylan better than anyone. Nobody can strum a guitar like Richie Havens.
Also, Victor Borge said he never took any money for playing music, never got paid for a single concert he ever gave - but was “paid handsomely for travel.” That taught me something. When I would get commissions that involved travel, I applied the same logic. I asked his son Ron (who lives down the road in Rowayton CT, where many artists of various disciplines live) what it was like growing up with a guy like Victor Borge as a father (Ron was also his road manager for 25 years). Ron said, “Exhausting. The only difference between what you see on stage (and after shows) and what we would see at home was… the lighting. Like living with Robin Williams. He was always a page ahead of everyone in the room.” Hard not to love that kind of energy.
What were your other influences?
As a pre-teen, it was mainly George Gershwin, Debussy and Beethoven. My maternal grandfather was a violinist and a banjo player who loved Debussy. Grampa John made up a new song on his banjo for every holiday and everyone’s birthday, or so the stories go. He died before I was born, but my mother wanted me to fulfill what she considered to be his unfulfilled dreams.
Another early memory: My oldest brother loved classical music. When we got our first stereophonic record (I was maybe 6) he sat me down in the middle of the room, stood the double album cover in front of us (it opened up to a huge photo of the full orchestra), and directed Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. Right there in the family room. He called out instruments as they came in and made me learn where each section sat.
As a teenager, it was Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Yes. My mother used to arrange songs for the family to sing, like the van Traps in The Sound of Music. That’s how I first became acquainted with Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, as a quartet for 4 kid voices (I was maybe 9 years old). But later, when I was 12 or 13, I remember listening to The Boxer over and over, 500 times, trying to understand why it moved me so, what he was doing in the writing and arranging that was so effective. I listened to every recording differently from then on.
But it was Yes that first blew me away, opened up my brain to anything. Then I got into combo jazz and all rules went out the window. I wanted to write music that no one had ever written before. Create. Dylan’s lyrics did the same thing: broke all the rules and opened up my brain. Plus, after Dylan, if you weren’t a singer-songwriter performing your own material, what were you?
What about The Beatles? Everyone else has mentioned The Beatles…
I didn’t actually like them very much until I was over 30 years old. I never appreciated simple rock and roll growing up and wasn’t listening when The Beatles evolved into more revolutionary stuff. I had one foot in Mom’s jazz standards era and one in what I called “Future Music” (progressive rock and jazz).
I do have a very powerful recollection of when Rubber Soul came out. It was a clear winter day, 1966, and I was playing basketball in my driveway (crusted with snow and ice). I’d just turned 11. My neighbor, who was 6 years older, came running over holding Rubber Soul, waving it in the air. He exclaimed, “Music will never be the same!” and we went inside to listen. It took me another 20 years to appreciate what he meant.
In 1986, when I got a commission to write a children’s musical using Pop Rock style music (something I’d never done before), I began studying The Beatles, especially Paul McCartney’s stuff, and fell in love. I’ve since studied everything they every did. The greatest band in contemporary music history.
Your music is sometimes quite complicated, very dense. How come?
I keep hearing things to add. I’m easily bored when relistening to things, replaying them in my head. Being boring is one of my deadly sins, which is stupid and not really true but it’s how I’m built. Plus, I really like the challenge of fitting things into a scheme, of creating organic density. I have written simple things, and some things that sound simple but really aren’t, but I lean toward excessive writing.
Also, I think writing complex music is something I’m good at. Others are better at other things; why write something that so many other people do better? Why not stick to what makes you unique?
Your first Audiocracy CD is very dense writing. How long did it take you to compose/arrange?
Years. But that’s mainly because of the evolution of the project, not that it took so long to write. It all started in 1992 when I began drafting a sci-fi musical, Dreamless. It was never staged, mainly because the concept was way too expensive. But I had these songs and ideas rattling around in my head for years. Then Alimar introduced me to some prog guys from upper state New York and I thought maybe I can put all this music together for once. When my son (twonicus on Macjams) electrocuted himself and lost the use of his right hand, I pursued it more intensely, since he was our lead singer and it gave him something to do, a way to forget that he’d never play bass professionally again. But the music is the kind of challenge I love. I sang in all the parts, since my son plays by ear, and he learned the parts that way.
Do you have more fun performing prog or jazz, musical theater or solo piano?
Actually, the most fun I ever had performing on stage was when I was an actor in Forever Plaid. I played the part of Sparky, a nerd with loads of energy who never gets anything right. My character forgot his lines and choreography, mispronounced things, and generally was overly enthusiastic. If I actually made a real error (as opposed to a planned one), the audience never knew; I had an honest outlet for all my nervous energy. I was totally free to do whatever felt good at the moment. I never worried I’d mess up. It was incredibly fun to let go like that.
The most fun I’ve had musically is in the studio. Live performance, even though I’ve done lots, always stresses me. (I have diarrhea before every performance.) In the studio, I relax. I’m much more comfortable when I have final say over a take, a mix. Maybe I’m a control freak at heart, even though I don’t see myself that way.
But, to answer your question: Jazz is most fun. Prog inflates me feel like a giant, a totally cool adrenaline rush. Rock music is about the groove, more so than any other style, so it’s kind of relaxing to play stuff that can sit in a pattern and just be loud and exciting. Music Theatre is a hellova lot of work (it takes at least 6 months to write a show and another 2-3 years to get it mounted), but the end product is incredibly satisfying (and I get to sit back and watch others perform). But solo piano is the most satisfying, meditatively and compositionally, at this stage in my life. I can play music to myself that I will never share with anyone and feel just as thrilled as I used to when performing for others. For me, creating stuff is a bigger thrill than sharing it, than having an audience. I just like making stuff.
Since you have experience with many different genres and players, I was wondering: Is there a difference in personalities between jazz, folk, rock and musical theatre musicians? (and where do you fit in?)
Now, that’s opening a can of worms. First off, everyone I’ve played with is an individual. All of them dislike being categorized, I suspect. So, these are generalized thoughts about people I don’t know based on ill-informed opinion meant merely to entertain, not to reflect actual beliefs:
Jazz guys are often mind-blowing musicians with incredible ears, backgrounds in many genres and an intuitive grasp of the moment. I can’t say enough good things about them. They are so relaxed they often appear stoned, even on the off-chance that they aren’t.
Folkies are often very sweet people who feel a strong connection to political currents and a sense of social place in their music, which I totally respect. When I lived on a Wisconsin Indian reservation in my early twenties, I used to jam with bluegrass players every weekend; great fun. My favorite part of the folk scene was “home concerts” which I helped organize for a while - living room concerts by traveling players needing a place to gig between Minneapolis and Milwaukee. (I lived in between.) Lots of stories told, to be sure. Sometimes I think folkies would rather tell stories than play, especially when it gets late. (Compared to jazz guys, who play more after midnight than before.)
Rock musicians are by far the most outwardly confident, ready to party. Some blazing talent. There is also a small subset of rockers who are the least schooled musicians, often as a personal choice, and are often far more intolerant of other-music, contrary to their self-image as rebels. These few often lack a certain sense of history, where the music came from. Of course, there are tons of exceptions. (And, again, this does not pertain to any rock musicians I personally know; but I’ve heard stories.)
Musical theatre musicians are often classically trained, technically gifted players, and, as accompanist, have a truly inspiring sense of service and care for whoever they are accompanying. Many musicians (as opposed to the singers/dancers) are doing musical theatre as a kind of side-line (their real love might be classical or jazz). They often have astounding recall of who debuted which character on what stage, etc. I have always been terrible about stuff like that. By far, musical theater types are the fastest talkers… and have a fine sense of irony.
All of the above like to drink. Musicians, you know. So, where does that place me? I like wine better than coffee (folkies), beer or whiskey (rockers), I don’t do heroin/cocaine (jazz) or pills/cocktails (musical theatre), so, after hours, at least, to the purists in the crowd, I’m kind of a dilettante. But I prefer to think of myself as a Renaissance Man, knowing just enough about each genre to be dangerous.
I guess most musicians think of themselves as outsiders, right? (…and, after saying all this stuff about other people, I will remain one, I suspect.) I’m blessed to have been able to drift from genre to genre and always be embraced. I have so much to learn from every player I collaborate with. I wish I could live three lifetimes.
You don’t play live much anymore. Any reason?
Arthritis. Stress. Musical goals shifted. Having less energy. Being happier staying home.
I had a series of collapse lungs, six in 4 years, which inhibited my sax playing. (I’ve since given my sax to my third son, Woody.)
I blew out my throat directing a musical in 1995 where half the cast couldn’t read music and I had to teach everyone their part by rote. That lowered my range by a third. I still get knife pains in my neck when I get tired. (I used to sing high enough to portray Nanki Poo in The Mikado and Frederick in The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. No more.)
My joints are going. Thumbs, wrist, even my neck. I have to pace myself. I even have tinnitus (which, according to William Shatner’s autobiography that I’m reading right now, is said to be “the voice of God” in certain parts of the world; and in remote parts of China is considered a sign of wisdom; and in rural Turkey is considered good luck; but it also drives people to suicide, especially in southern California.)
I want to compose more than I want to perform. If I suddenly get the urge to travel again, live in hotels, eat badly, stay up all night, fight heartburn and headaches, I might start performing more again…
You founded ArtsForge.com in 1998. What did you want that site to accomplish?
ArtsForge was an experiment in online community. I formed it mainly because my agent and the agents of several of my friends “strongly discouraged” any of us to do things outside our main genre. (A musical theatre guy is not supposed to play prog rock. Someone who sells music in the children/educational market is not supposed to write illustrated sci-fi stories that include nude women.) So we all took pseudonyms and just did stuff.
Then one of my business partners considered buying an eBook company. (Remember, this is 1998, before we knew ebooks would flop.) So we started developing illustrated stories, mainly sci-fi epics. Our work began drawing attention. I recruited some of the best illustrators on the web. When my business partner decided to take a pass on the ebook company, the prospect of making money went away and the team fell apart. One of the guys landed the first contract with Elite for a CGI character (our lead woman in our stories) and other good things happened to most everyone who took part. So it wasn’t a total waste of time.
We did devise a very cool space opera video game marketed by Ambrosia. And a nice jazz collaboration came out of the site. But Artsforge showed me how hard it is to keep a collaborative community intact. Participants start with great enthusiasm, but incentives wane quickly. When one guy wants to stop communicating, it’s really hard to know since he’s from Hong Kong and you actually have no idea how to contact him except via email/iChat. People drop out without warning. There is no real commitment, no financial incentive; its difficult to sustain a project over a long period.
Clive Thompson interviewed me and called me one of the grandaddies of online collaboration. My kids got a big kick out of that. I consider ArtsForge more a failure than a success, although it draws a lot of web traffic.
Can Internet communities really touch people?
That’s kind of beside the point, I think. Internet activities are different, they don’t need to be compared to real life activities. They let you do different things.
Having said that, it seems people are investing more and more time and emotion online. But I think most of those relationships are illusory, or at least far more transitory than people imagine. (Of course, most relationships are partly illusion if permanence is a prerequisite.) Most online communities are like meeting people for a temporary conversation on a subway; they rarely foster lasting friendships. Its too easy to create a false personality, to deceive, to disappear.
Macjams provides two things that changes this equation, at least in part: 1) an ongoing dialogue about something we all take very personally - our own song writing; and, 2) provides a context for creative collaborations, which results in a lasting shared product - a new song. Adding my organ to someone’s track, or having them add guitar to mine, is almost like real life studio recording (in which you are separated by sound booth glass, as opposed to miles of Internet cable). I have truly “worked with” those that have added to my tunes, and visa versa. Their contributions to the narrative of my music, in the form of comments, is part of the song’s history, growth, journey. It’s more real, in my mind, than most site experiences where people are often merely talking at each other, flirting, pontificating, making stuff up.
Also, random comments can have much more effect than I first imagined. The lead guitar from Korn used to be an active member of Macjams. He used the avatar “daeh” - Head in reverse - and was secretly experimenting with solo material, considering quitting his band. His music was well done, intense and brooding yet mainstream and driving. But his subject matter was all about destruction, full of hate-mongering judgments. I left a comment that suggested he could use his talent to uplift. (My ears were tired that day and I kind of let my own frustrations boil up.) As it turned out, Head had been thinking the same thing but needed just that sort of “push” to admit it to himself. He emailed me, introduced himself as Brian Welch, and we became friends. He ended up quitting the band, cleaning up his life (which was drug-addled, etc.) and then asked me to play on his solo album. Pretty cool.
Yes, pretty cool. Any other serendipitous connections come out of your web presence?
I take photos of my wife’s backyard gardens and chronicle our Cape Cod visits with panoramas. (See both Tobin’s Photography and Family Photo Albums.) I organized some of the better ones and put them on my website. Out of the blue, I received an email from Ernst Hoffmann, an interior design specialist from Germany who was looking for flower pictures for a new Savoy opening in Vienna. I started selling my flower photos in Europe for use in hotels.
They thought you were a real photographer just because you had your stuff up on the web?
Must be. Then, a week later, I received a phone call from an area art gallery to do a panorama of a river for the opening of their new gallery. It ended up on the cover of their first mailing. So, I guess now I am a professional photographer… just because of someone googled my web pages.
That makes me wonder: Why do you spend so much frickin’ time on Macjams?
I am an advocate of “Macjams Potential.” From the first moment I accidentally came upon the site, about 10 days after it went online, I had a vision of what it could become. At that point, it was just a posting board for Garageband mp3s and technical forum questions. I contacted Simon & Miguel and they expressed enthusiasm with my vision of shaping it into a collaborative community and song writing support network. I used to spend nearly as much time talking to them as writing comments and listening to submissions. As long as they remained dedicated to the self-produced music revolution concept, I wanted to do what I could to help. I realize their involvement is sometimes embarrassingly lax and the current site is full of bugs and holes; the interface and customer service does not speak to quality or professionalism; and, from time to time, comments in the forums can border on idiocy… but, if you look at it as an experiment in progress, it adds up to an entertaining online experience. The music quality juxtaposes beginner material with seasoned veterans, rough demos with polished material, below average attempts with top-notch craftsmanship - the horizontal nature of the site is part of what I appreciate, part of the charm. I believe in the idea, or, at least, what I think is the idea, that MacJams represents: self-produced music freely shared among musicians who want to help each other better their craft and find mutual inspiration. The earnest participation of our exceptionally nice membership transcends the shortcomings of the site’s administration and the trolls that pass through. In the end, it is about the people here, and I like the people here.
Over the past 4 and a half years, I’ve log in most mornings and played new music while I go through my morning email, etc. I almost never listened to MJ music in the afternoons (when I usually play piano) or the evenings (when I gig or record), or weekends (when I gig and relax). When I was moderator, I used my iPhone to check in on the forums, occasionally, between times. But, after retiring from the moderator role last week, I will spend less time participating and more time simply making my own music.
MacJams has changed a lot over the years.
I think wistfully of some of the talent that is no longer active. But there’s new talent joining all the time. I wax nostalgic over the early energy, the sense of being independent music revolutionaries, the common goal of site evolution and feature expansion shared by much of the membership. My view of MacJams is colored by my early enthusiasm and my expectations of what it could still become. All these ghosts are alive, inside of me.
Why did you retire as sole Moderator after 5 years?
First of all, let me say how honored I was to have the trust and confidence of the site administrators, Simon & Miguel, for all those years when I was moderator. I still work with them behind the scenes, providing ideas and beta testing, etc.
But as for being a daily moderator, I simply don’t have the time any more. If there were more than just me, perhaps I could’ve stayed on.
Also, as 2008 rolled on, I no longer felt inclined to defend the lack of administrative involvement. The willful lack of communication and disagreements over organizational structure began to weigh on me more than all the accumulating site problems, the time spent, the occasional troll. I kept my finger in the dike for months that turned into years, always expecting Simon or Miguel to figure out a way to either add more moderators, schedule more consistent participation for themselves, or update the design to where it worked the way it should. Perhaps some day they will make some of those things happen. I hope so. As it stood, Simon hadn’t responded to an email in 9 months and Miguel increasingly seemed to respond only if I sounded especially urgent (read: exasperated or choleric). If they did act on something I red-flagged, they rarely let me know it was taken care of (even though I would request RSVPs). I got tired of it. I no longer felt part of a team effort. I missed the older, more open participation ethic that Admin used to work under. (I have great hope that it will return in 2009.)
I come from a professional musician’s perspective and wanted the site to be more appealing to the professional and semi-pro songwriter, visually and structurally. The way the site is currently designed, very few professional artists want to remain involved, even if they join (most don’t). I tried to keep many of the old-guard around, telling them things will change. Most of the changes I’ve seen in the past 2 years, however, aren’t the ones I’ve hoped for.
I was off the site for two months when my father was dying early this year and no one seemed to notice. The site will continue on just fine. I have left pages of ideas for future designs and features, I don’t really need to add to them. My guess is that Admin is relieved I will no longer be bugging them with new ideas or constructive criticisms.
I remain an advocate of Macjams’ potential.
Are you going to continue your Music Blog?
Yes, but at a much slower pace. I will be trying to post 1-2 interviews a month, as opposed to 2-3 a week. Since I will be listening to much less MJ music, I won’t be adding to the Mining the Database series on a daily bases anymore. But I welcome Guest Playlists for the Mining the Database series, as well as guest interviews. I will continue the CD Reviews, too. Several CDs are waiting for me right now.
Has your Macjams experience changed you?
Yes. Obviously, it has taken up much of my time. But it’s also changed my self-image: I am a Macjammer. I feel a sense of ownership, responsibility, addictive connection. It is a true community experience, which is hard to find these days. It’s one of the reasons I am such a supporter. And I love how the site is inclusive, how pros and amateurs, young and old, rockers and folkies, classical players and experimentalists, worldwide, share side by side. It’s more than just a venue, it’s a virtual family. (I thank Alimar, more than any other member, for making me aware of that. Ironically, he is one of the old-guard that is no longer very active, mainly due to disillusionment with Admin, even though he is also going blind.)
How has the software, Garageband specifically, changed the way you create?
I had never used loops before using Garageband. Everything I ever did included live players. When I first started using Garageband, I didn’t want to just recreate a live session, but I wanted to explore how the software itself could affect the form of the song. Manipulating loops is kind of like moving around packets of conceptual moments, shish-kabob music.
The first songs I wrote using Garageband were just for fun, not intended to fit into a stage musical story line or film background. Not what I was used to. I purposefully used different techniques to construct my first Garageband songs, lyrics included, opting for a more impressionistic, organic, concept-collage style.
Even though the first songs I wrote were story songs - Forge a New Life Part I and Part II (about a friend of mine who escaped Communist Czechoslovakia, combined with feelings about my own divorce) - they were impressionistic collage songs, using samples and loops as well as stream of conscious lyrics and imagery. Of course, to make the thing sound the way I wanted, I had to manipulate many of the loops and samples. I think my best song using this technique is My Heart Still Beats. I’m not sure I would have written some of the impressionistic dream-driven solo piano pieces I did for 13 Masks if I hadn’t have experimented with Garageband a few years earlier.
The software and computer-based aspect of my music creating has had a direct effect on my music and career.
Any other career highlights you haven’t mentioned yet?
One of my early songs was performed at the rededication of the Statue of Liberty. I wrote that before I used the computer for music creation. It was scored for voice, piano and cello.
Meeting Steve Sondheim was pretty cool, too. He was like a gangly pirate, one eye opened, one closed, a deceptive killer wit. He kept telling people how his memory was shot and then would correct friends in the middle of their stories with blazing details. A master at depicting sadness, loss and hollow lives, yet is overflowing with hope and gratitude in real life.
You’ve often complained about how your memory is going. Should we believe you, either?
I’ve convinced myself that my degraded memory is balanced by an increased level of confidence and productive skill. If I forget something I’ve thought up, I believe that, undoubtedly, I’ll be able to come with something else even cooler, when the time is right. I used to remember almost everything. Now I rarely even beginning thinking unless I have instant access to my computer.
Lately, I’ve caught myself thinking of nothing at all, which is unusual for me. I’m content to let my imagination slide firmly away from whatever creative project that, in the old days, would be obsessively percolating below the surface. Imagination can wait for its proper office hours. Let me enjoy my wine and cheese, thank you.
Lessened memory has made me rely more on improvisation, on making it up as I go along. Trusting my under-consciousness. I actively embrace faulty memory as an excuse to think on my feet with jazz-like spontaneity, tapping into the infinite reservoir of the unplanned. It’s more fun. Sometimes.
A lazy man’s rationalization, perhaps. Or, perhaps I care less about sharing flashes of insight; I’m no longer certain they will lead to something important. Maybe it’s a result of me being more relaxed, content. The world is smaller. It has no need of me or my fleeting musings.
But, you interrupted me. Now I can’t recall what…
Other career highlights…
Oh, yes. Its hard to beat the first moment when my baton came down in front of a truly good orchestra. I was directing my first real orchestra, age 17. I almost fainted. I was a senior in high school and had been taking lessons from the composition professor at a local college (Lawrence University). He let me direct the symphony I’d written under his tutelage. I’d directed several things with my high school, but this was different: Everyone was in tune! They sounded perfect, exactly the way I heard it in my head. It was performed in a large hall with fabulous acoustics. A great feeling.
My best show, Creature, was going to tour Germany and then come back to NYC as my Broadway debut. Jesus Christ Superstar was in revival, Rent and Jekkyl & Hyde were still hot; the timing was perfect. But then Livent (a major theatre production company) went belly-up (in one of the biggest financial scandals in Broadway history) and my agent’s boyfriend (who was overseeing the project at Livent) was fired. The production/directorial team for Superstar began to implode (some of them still won’t talk to each other). And my agent quit representing theatrical talent and moved into TV/Film. Then 9/11 hit and my funding disappeared, funding I had without pause since 1987 or so.
Are your shows still performed?
Yes. Its cool knowing people are still singing my music, somewhere. Also, I have one more not-yet-produced show that may go up in NYC next year, but I don’t want to jinx it…
What do you use to write?
Believe it or not, I still like sketching out ideas on paper. I use scoring manuscript to draft group arrangements, passages at the piano. I use Finale to print out final copies.
For lyrics, I write first drafts on yellow legal pad paper. I like writing in the living room, not my studio. I record and perfect in my studio, but I like to improvise and think up new things in my living room, on the couch or at the piano.
What kind of computer set-up do you have?
I have two Mac desktops, a G4 that holds a bunch of sounds and software running OS 10.3/classic and another 4 x 2.5 GHz G5 that runs 10.4. I use a Roland A-90 controller, MOTU 2408 for audio input (on my G4) and PreSonus Firebox on my G5, a MOTU 128 for MIDI input. I have a stack of gear to plug into - Proteus I and II, Wavestation, U220, JV 1080, Vintage keys, Morpheus, Emulator II+HD. I use Rode NT1-a and EV 757 microphones.
I also have an iPhone, which is the coolest invention ever, and an old MacBook laptop that I travel with (and sometimes take into bed to write with).
Do you have non-musical influences, too?
Too many to mention, mostly writers, tons of writers. And personal acquaintances.
Some influences are not so obvious, though: Historical figures from the American Revolution: Tom Paine, Tom Jefferson, Ben Franklin. We know them as authors and political personalities, but they were all scientists, engineers, inventors, scholars, and most knew their way around several musical instruments. Today, we might label them hobbyists (except Franklin, who transcends all labels) in their non-political fields of interest. They “dabbled” wherever curiosity led them, but were never mere “dilettantes.” These dabblings were their true source of joy and continued energy. I’ve always tried to arrange my life around my curiosities, following their lead. Its part of remaining a child at heart: if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day. I still have several things I want to do before I die.
But Einstein is my only saint. Einstein and my sister, Toni. And Suzanne is my main inspiration.
I don’t mean to pry, but you’ll have to forgive me for being curious whether your divorce was purely personal or whether your musician life had anything to do with it.
The short answer is: No. We were married 20 years. (I married young, when I was 21.) She was an amateur opera singer and good pianist. (Her career profession was education; she was a principal by age 26.) We were in several shows together and shared a long list of interests. It was more a case of growing into different people. Yes, she resented my ability to spend time on things I loved, and she expressed that resentment a few times when things got stressed. But me moving to New York City was her idea, at first, because she recognized that I was no longer happy in Wisconsin, that I had one foot in New York anyway. She wanted me to be able to continue to grow as an artist. We mediated our own divorce, no lawyers. We continue to parent our kids together and have a strong relationship.
But if I would’ve been the type of guy who was happy working in an office and never wanted to leave home, I doubt that talk of divorce would have entered into it. So the long answer is not so easy.
In retrospect, I am so fulfilled where I am, I can’t imagine not having this second lease on life that Suzanne and the east coast have given me.
Any interesting stories you haven’t shared yet?
I remember once when I was playing electric piano/B3 organ in the pit of Jesus Christ Superstar - I was musical contractor and in charge of the rock group aspect of the pit (drums, bass, guitars, keys, and piano). The guy playing the acoustic grand piano was continually complaining about how the rest of the pit (electric instruments plus the entire string/horn section) kept drowning him out, wondering aloud why he bothered playing at all. (Most piano players know what he meant.) I sympathized but had no control, since levels were set by the sound guys on the board and determined by the musical director. One night, right before the big number - “Superstar” - right before the first chorus (”Jesus Christ Superstar / Do you think you’re what they say you are?”) the piano player stood up and walked out…! That cool piano arpeggio figure (which is kind of important) needed to be played in seconds. I had to switch sounds on the B3 and play his part by ear. I messed around and added stuff, thought I’d more than covered for the guy. But the director wasn’t too happy. Musical theatre people like things the same night in, night out…
Also, as a side note about that particular gig, the guitarist I was using was a great lead player, but, as it turned out, he couldn’t play the rhythm guitar parts well. I had to sample and play rhythm guitar for two songs on my Emulator II. Both experiences taught something about how to audition people.
What about all those auditions you ran, sat through, judged, in order to choose casts or players?
Oh, right, I forgot about those stories. Like when the woman who played Octopussy tried out for me and my colleague asked for her personal phone number (as opposed to her agent’s); or hearing Robert Goulet’s son sing and me nearly crying because his voice sounded so much like his father’s; or dealing with stars that had limos waiting in the alley and very expensive watches they kept checking; or the many, many times someone (male or female) tried to come on to us (almost always to the main director, not me!) in a vain effort to get “a leg up.”
When mounting a show, we’d often see 500 people in 3 days. You have to give an Equity actor at least 2 minutes to audition uninterrupted. We had a stopwatch and would often pass notes between each other in an effort to crack each other up, just to keep our sanity. Most were very talented and I loved hearing audition songs or script snippets that were new to me. But some people who auditioned weren’t so good (especially those who’d been in Cats toward the end of its run, or Grease in the middle 1990’s). We usually knew in the first 10 seconds whether we wanted someone or not. Then we’d doodle notes on each other’s clipboards like naughty little boys.
What are your weak points, musically?
I never liked auditioning. But I think its important to both audition and perform in order to remember how hard it is. Also, working under another director usually teaches something, or at least hones skills that enable you to respect and please others.
My greatest weakness as a musician is not being hip. I try really hard. I can play with true hip cats and not get in their way, but I am not hip myself. (Even if you think I am, Suzanne.)
Also, I tried writing jingles and failed miserably. That is an art.
What are your strong points?
Organizing large projects, directing everyone, maintaining energy and focus.
Synthesizing styles into something newish. I pride myself in being able to combine unlikely styles, although critics might simply call it a mish-mash. Not being a genre-focused guy has not helped my career, that’s for sure. But, as Walt Whitman said, “I am a multitude.”
Hearing more than one thing at once. I can go to the music library and read scores in my head. That’s pretty useful.
Creating fingerings to accomplish inventive piano phrases. My stuff has a signature Tobin Mueller sound, I think. I’m proud of that. That’s the double-meaning of “Talking With Myself.” It’s something I’m always doing. It’s also an outgrowth of the fingerings I use.
Favorite Macjams tracks?
Collaborations: Puzzle City (written with guitarist Bob Piper); Charon’s Requiem (opera-Industrial experiment w/SpasmodicMan and Alessandra Zwegler); Icarus II (transformed by Texasfeel’s guitar); Can’t Complain (lyrics & life by Suzanne; music w/my son; fiddle by Komrade K); I Sail On (arr: Troy, based on this track); Crazy Story (a kickin’ sax section by my NJC friend Donny McCaslin that was such a gas to record); Pilgrim of the Return (my son plays guitar, Woody Mankowski plays sax, and I love playing with those two); What I Was Thinking While You Were Talking (w/ Ziti, Mungo).
Firsts: When You Left (oldest surviving song I wrote, age 15 or 16); BorateZoned - Please Eat (fosod/tobin/ivanjs/Suzanne) first MJ Collaboration (the one that started it all! I added organ & Twilight Zone clips); Forge A New Life - Part I (oldest surviving MJ song and my first Garageband experiment); I Will Love (first song I wrote after the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 - which happened outside my window in NYC).
Most Overlooked: At Her Window (to my daughter after my divorce); House of Cards (written while gigging in Cape Cod for my album A BIT OF LIGHT but never used); Lucky Boy (perhaps my worst vocals); Final Words (about my father).
Favorite recordings of yours?
I think my first solo piano CD, Morning Whispers, is my favorite, if re-listening and re-playing songs is any gage. It makes me feel the happiest, most satisfied. Although I am prouder of the difficult tracks on 13 Masks. 13 Masks was written for musicians; it is harder to relax into, but has some very cool moments. I am thrilled with the response AUDIOCRACY: Revolution’s Son has gotten from the progressive rock community, some very nice reviews (some bad reviews too). That album took so many years to complete, it’s hard to put it in perspective as a single recording. And then there’s my forgotten solo progressive folk album, A Bit Of Light, which has very personal songs and some compelling contributions by fellow Macjammers - Komrade K, Texasfeel, McBoy, Bill Barner and Thoddi. Suzanne plays it in the car all the time, which makes me smile.
But current projects always take the cake when it comes to being a favorite. I imagine I will be listening to cuts from my upcoming jazz ensemble release, Rain Bather, many times over the next months.
Leaving the window open to my dorm room during Thanksgiving break. (1975? 1976?) My Wurlitzer electric piano got completely drenched. The rain swelled up all the pads and many of the wooden keys. I had to take the whole thing apart, replace every pad and sand down a bunch of keys. The piano almost electrocuted me a few years later (1982?). I threw it out before it exacted too great a revenge.
I also regret playing basketball between sets at a gig in Hawaii in 2002. I used to be a really good basketball player until I tore my achilles tendon (1990). It was my main way to keep in shape, relax, etc. I couldn’t play at the same level after surgery, but I still enjoyed pick up games. During a break, I joined in with with a bunch of the crew on a blacktop court outside the auditorium - and wrecked my knee. It blew up like a balloon. I couldn’t even get back up the stairs to the stage. My chauffeur (I had my own chauffeur as part of my contract, who drove a Prius) was Hawaiian and didn’t know any doctors; she took me to her healer. Although the healer never fixed my knee, she healed a knot in my post-op achilles tendon, a click in my jaw, and cured me of migraines. Maybe I don’t regret wrecking my knee after all.
Musical tragedies? Hmm.
In college, I was writing a double string quartet, 277 measures, for an end-of-the-year composition project. I had put the entire score, the rough draft, and every scrap of paper I’d used to jot notes into my briefcase (yes, I carried a briefcase in college, in order to keep scores from getting bent) and brought the briefcase to the music practice rooms to go over everything one last time, making sure I’d included all idea. I left the practice room for 5 minutes to walk someone to the lobby. When I came up, my briefcase (and my saxophone) were gone. Stolen. I searched every garbage on campus. Never found it. Used the insurance money to buy a better sax, but I never re-wrote the double quartet. I don’t even play any of the melodies, have never used one idea from it.
On a different level, I’m sad I never made a ton of money on a single show, money that would have freed me to do more large-scale musicals. Then again, I am so happy living my stress-free post-NYC lifestyle, maybe I’m glad I never popped the big one.
On an even more important level, the amount of time I lost with my children after my divorce is still a sadness beyond words. Divorce is such a huge failure; yet, such a grand new-start moment. So many things missed with my kids. I can’t think about that or it makes me ill.
Still, my life now is so nearly perfect, I would be afraid to go back and change anything. It might screw something else up.
Most of the tragedies in my life ended up adding layers of meaning that I’d never be able to mine otherwise. Death and loss are kind of built into life. I look at living as heroism in the face of ultimate tragedy, so day-to-day disappointments kind of fit in to the bigger picture without surprising me too much.
Oh, and one more major one: My college music composition professor, after hearing that I’d eaten lunch at a fast food restaurant, told me I must learn to cook, that I should be creative in every aspect of my life and that cooking will nourish my soul. (Also, my longest friendship in the world is with a NYC chef, world class, so I’ve gotten great pointers.) I have to mention cooking, since on many days the dinner I put on the table is my best creation of the day. I love to cook. I love to comb through weird shops that sell unusual spices. And I know where to buy the best fresh ocean fish, local vegetables, unusual sauces, all that.
A quote from Becket: “Fail. Fail again. Then fail better.”
Well, it’s been fun talking to you. I feel like I know you better now.
• Tobin’s Official Website
• Tobin on CDBaby
• Tobin on iTunes
• Selected Works list
• Tobin’s MacJams profile
• Tobin on Simig Media Records (solo piano)
• AUDIOCRACY on MySpace (Tobin’s prog rock band)
• RAIN BATHER on ReverbNation (Tobin’s jazz ensemble)
• Tobin on Facebook
• ArtsForge: an artists’ collaborative
• CenterStage Productions (children’s educational musicals)
• Audio Interview with Giovanni for Internet Radio (2006)