Aaron James Isbell is a 29 year old from Iowa USA who is better known to Macjammers as either ageofthedeathtree and a member of the duo Sons of Hypnos (with Greg Phelps). Aaron builds computers for a living but would one day like to make his living as an artist/performer, songwriter, or an engineer (on the recording/production end). He’s also a survivor - of his father’s suicide and of the current floods spilling over riverbanks in the Midwest. His aspirations and fortitude remind me of many MJers.
“Music is my life,” Aaron told me. “My family has been kind enough to accept and support that (and I severely love them for that)… I seriously long to one day be able to support them doing my music. Even if this dream never comes true, I will still be writing and recording music. Music has become my drug.”
His story also includes a very formative event in his youth: the suicide of his father. But more on that below…
With all your names, what am I supposed to call you?
“I happen to be a ‘man of a thousand nicknames’ - or at least it feels like it. My full name is Aaron James Isbell. I was one of 3 Aaron’s in first grade (we also had an Erin). My teacher was a good friend of the family, so he asked my parents if he could give me a nickname to cut down on the confusion. Somehow A.J. was suggested - and I was stuck with that name for the rest of school, and beyond. It was always kind of weird because my family still called me Aaron - probably contributed to the confusion I’ve been plagued with ever since (just kidding of course). Along the line other nicknames popped up here and there: Some of the more interesting ones were ‘Noid’ (given to me by my older brother who thought I looked like the Dominoes Pizza mascot - how very nice of him, huh? The nickname grew on me though) and ‘Weenis’ (no, it’s not dirty - get your mind out of the gutter). That second one a comedy skit a friend on mine and I put on. It was the name of my character in the bit, and for some reason it stuck around for quite some time….too long in fact. Some time before getting married to my lovely, lovely wife (whose brother has been one of my best friends for about as long as I can remember), her family decided to ’shorten’ the nickname A.J. and started calling me Age. It takes longer to spell, I know, but i guess it’s easier to say. The nickname Age has stuck ever since…although it really depends on who you’re talking to. I’ve learned to answer to just about anything…especially after being a bartender for many years (that reminds me, several older gentlemen I served on a daily basis called me ‘Abe’… I guess the nickname Age confused them too, but my facial hair probably didn’t help much either). On that note comes another interesting fact…I’m related to the former president Abraham Lincoln. My 4th great grandmother was his first cousin. I know that’s a little distant, but I still found it kinda cool and really interesting.”
So, what should I call you?
“I mostly go by Age Isbell when it comes to music, so that would probably make more sense to people for the interview.”
Age - cool name - when did you start making music?
“I’ve always been interested in music. I still remember my father playing his acoustic 6 and 12 string guitars while singing to me and my brothers. He would play us original compositions, as well as material from artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, James Taylor, Jim Croce, Van Morrison, and many others. My father died shortly before my 7th birthday (committed suicide… which might shed light on why my passion for music grew so intensely into what it is today). I really believe that my dream to one day become a ‘known’ musician is derived from the joy his playing and singing brought me. His dream had been the same when he was younger, but having a family and ever growing responsibilities really changed his life….things like that can sometimes make dreams seem unattainable or unrealistic, and cause people to stop pursuing them.”
Did your father perform?
“My father DID want to be a musician. I believe that dream stayed with him his entire life, since he continued to play his 6 and 12-string acoustic guitars and sing until the day he passed. He became a police officer to support our family, and with a wife and three boys it was hard, or almost impossible, for him to follow that dream seriously. I’m not sure if he ever played out live, but I do know that he would put on little ’shows’ for my brothers and me… and sometimes the rest of our family (aunts, uncles, cousins and such).”
Does making music somehow make your father’s suicide less painful?
“Composing, recording, playing, and singing definitely soften the pain of my father’s suicide. It’s something I’ve had 20+ years to deal with now, but something that I don’t believe can ever really ‘go away.’ I’ve written songs out of anger due to what he did and how it affected my family and me… And I’ve written songs out of pure love for him, so yeah, I’m still influenced by that whole deal. Music is really like medicine for me though, as it seems to get out the bad feelings and help express the good feelings I find difficult to get out. Music is a wonderful tool, and used correctly it can do truly wonderous things!”
How has this helped shape your world view?
“My world view is complicated, as is anyone’s. I try to live my life by the Golden Rule. I treat people the way I wish to be treated. I will ALWAYS stand up for the underdog, and really hate to see unneeded pain and anguish. I don’t like it when people gang up on others, or outnumber others… and I will take the side that is on the ‘lesser’ side in an attempt to even things up a bit.
“I am a ’spiritual’ individual, actually very much so, but am not ‘religious’ in the eyes of many. I don’t worship the devil or demons, and wish NO harm on anybody, but I also find myself truly disturbed by many individuals in the church. I grew up a christian, highly devoted, watching people preach one thing and act the opposite. I grew tired of that and decided to live my own life in the best way I could, and influence as many people as I possibly can in a GOOD way. I believe that is the way people can live eternally….through their good deeds and actions towards others. I was lucky enough to find a beautiful woman who felt the very same, and will continue to do exactly that till we pass on ourselves.”
What was your family like?
“I come from a family where I was originally one of three boys (myself being the middle child, with my older brother being 3 years older than me and my younger brother 3 years younger). My mother was a preschool teacher and stay-at-home mom, and my father was a police officer here in Vinton, Iowa. After my father’s death, my mother remarried (to an ex-marine/journeyman electrician who also VERY ODDLY happened to be my ‘real’ father’s older brother. I know, it’s really strange, you don’t have to tell me, I had to live with it) - adding an older brother and sister to the equation (they were quite a bit older than us boys, and resided with their mother in a nearby town). My mother and step-father later adopted 2 girls and a boy (at separate times)…both girls were only days old at the time of their adoption. Then just over a year ago my parents decided to adopt again……..this time 3 girls and one boy from Liberia, Africa. If my math is correct, that makes me one of 12 children. Luckily we’ve never lived in the same house at he same time…just imagine what a circus that would have been. Yeah, so it’s a LARGE family I have…you can probably picture what family gatherings are like. Kinda makes it difficult to keep your head on straight.”
That’s a lot of people. Was it a large house?
“I haven’t actually lived with my parents since I was just about to turn 17. I’ve supported myself since then, and just turned 29 May 12th of this year. Most of the additions were made after I was out of the house, so it was basically like my parents got a new set of kids after the first set, and then a new set of kids after that. They have a very nice, pretty darn large house, so they manage. I’m sure it can feel a little crowded at times, but that can really help people to grow in good ways at times. And although there have been hard feelings at times, my parents and I have a good relationship and see each other quite often (at least once or twice a week). I love them and they try really hard to do the best they can.”
How close are they and how often do you visit?
“They live just outside of the town where I, my wife, and my daughter live, so we see them often. My wife gives all of my younger siblings piano lessons, and one of my sisters and my mother take cello lessons from my wife as well. Every Tuesday (tomorrow), so I will see them all then. We also get together with the majority of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents for almost every holiday. Most of them live near here which is really nice.”
When did you start sharing your music with others?
“I began singing solos in church, grade school choir, and middle school swing choir. Singing has always been one of my biggest musical passions. My younger brother and I both started playing drums sometime in middle school (in the school band, marching band, and on our white piano finish ludwig 5-piece trap set). I picked up the acoustic guitar around the same time, but never got serious with it at all at that time. I gave up or lost interest almost immediately.
“I didn’t pick up the guitar again until about 5 or 6 years ago, when Greg (my band mate/lead singer in Sons of Hypnos) and I decided to start a band. We both happened to be vocalists, so I began teaching myself guitar to simplify things. We searched for other members in our area with no luck whatsoever. I learned to play bass due to this and began playing drums again after many years of being away from any set at all. This period (having to learn a number of instruments at once, AND having to write and record each of those parts for every song) was definitely the hardest obstacle I’ve had to overcome musically. It was trying, but I think I actually enjoyed it in a way…and looking back on it I’m really glad it happened. It taught me to be creative, and really sped up the entire process of getting familiar and comfortable with the different instruments. We were given an old Tascam 4-track Portastudio a short while later from a friend who hadn’t touched it since they had purchased it. That’s where it all really got started…and I have to admit it DID NOT sound pretty at times! It was definitely interesting to say the least…especially with the layers and layers of delay, phase, reverb, and distortion. Our material was very basic, yet very original… It was pretty darn psychedelic during that period of time, with the help of the effects I was getting into. Some of it resembled material somewhat similar to older Cure, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, or bands along the lines of those, only a bit different at the same time. Our equipment, compositional skills, instrumental and vocal abilities, and production got much better as time moved on - and will hopefully continue in that direction. You can find many Sons of Hypnos songs on my Macjams page, along with some solo material and collaborations I’ve done with people from Macjams and iCompositions.com. I personally feel it is very important for the contributing artists to get credit for what they did in the songs, as I feel they have really added a piece of themselves when adding to the different compositions.”
Do you play live?
“I played out live for quite a while in a couple different bands. Some were ‘original’ bands, others were ‘cover’ bands (that seems to be what people want to hear and see in this area). We’ve played live a couple of times as Sons of Hypnos with my little brother Ben Isbell on drums and my wife Karla Isbell switching off with me on bass and guitar.”
You started Sons of Hypnos about 5-6 years ago. Why do you think you stuck with it this time, unlike last time when you tried and failed with your brother?
“Maturity, basically. Having a teammate helped as well. Also, learning to express myself with the instruments instead of ONLY trying to ‘learn’ the instruments played a part. Using instruments as a tool to express oneself is critical in my mind. I see so many people that are only interested in the ‘normal’ way of playing, or always doing what you’re ’supposed’ to with the instruments….learning only what others have already written. A lot of them are very good players technically, but have absolutely no originality…I’d rather be the opposite (I’ve actually strived to be a good mixture of the two, with a little more emphasis on the original aspect).”
Who sings on Nighthawks?
“Nighthawks was one of Greg’s originals that he brought to Sons of Hypnos. One of the rare occasions for that to happen, but I think it turned out well!”
You identify singing as one of your greatest passions, yet Greg is lead singer. Why?
“Fear. I am a really shy person when it comes to exposing myself, and although singing is my biggest passion, it was also my biggest fear. Recording really helped in doing away with that fear…being able to get my voice out there a few times without having an audience right there in front of me. Greg, being a very outgoing person AND a vocalist stepped up and started singing on my little musical creations…and it worked. I’ve just started releasing some of my lead vocals since joining Macjams. I’m now well over that fear now, but I can still be a little shy about singing in front of others depending on the situation. Come to find out, some of my favorite vocalists were the same way. Learning this really helped me face the fear and overcome it.”
How does Macjams fit into the whole scheme?
“Macjams was the first music community I discovered, and I cannot express how happy I am about that! Since joining Macjams, I’ve been introduced to icompositions.com, and truthfully both have become like ’second homes’ for me. I have met so many different extremely friendly people, and so many extremely talented artists. I’ve also discovered so many different opportunities to collaborate with these highly talented musicians, gotten so much support and encouragement from all of them, and had the opportunity to listen to so much great music (that I’ve ended up listening to more than anything else - for quite some time now - even more so than the signed artists I’ve loved for so very long). Macjams is exactly what I needed to find to further myself musically, and I hope to one day repay that gift Macjams gave to me.”
Reciprocating comments and sharing music…?
“I have found that I now spend a LOT of time on both sites, talking to friends and other musicians, checking out new music, and checking what people think of my own tunes. Although I’ve heard others complain about that recently, I really don’t find it to be that bad of a thing. These sites have furthered my music, so for me giving back a bit by participating feels good. I, for one, don’t feel like it’s an obligation…for me it’s a pleasurable experience that I look forward to daily. The nice part is, being musicians, no one seems to mind at all if you’re ‘absent’ due to recording, family, etc., or, for that matter, ‘absent’ for any reason. Everyone seems to welcome everyone back with open arms, at least from what I’ve seen or experienced. This is just one of the many reasons I love it here. I have no plans on leaving anytime soon (willingly anyways, I’d probably have to be forcefully escorted out the door, kicking and screaming the entire way LOL). Thank you Macjams, you’ve become like family to me - a very large, somewhat dysfunctional family - but a family nonetheless!”
Well, it sounds like you’re used to that…
“I love it!”
Did you make music prior to Macjams and iComp with the same enthusiasms and aspirations, or have these sites changed something inside you?
“I was recording music and playing out live for about 6 years or so before finding Macjams. Macjams lit a new fire for me musically, and played a big part in the spark that helped create Sons of Hypnos‘ ‘Path of Sorrows’ album, which Greg and I finished up towards the end of January this year (2008 of course). Like I said in the last set of questions, Sons of Hypnos is Greg on lead vocals and an occasional acoustic guitar and me on all the rest of the instruments, composition, backing vocals, recording and engineering. I have to thank Macjams for that big time. It opened up a whole world for Greg and me musically, or I should say THE whole world. Thank you from both of us!”
Your stuff reminds me of Pearl Jam. Are they an influence? What other influences do you emulate?
“Pearl Jam are definitely an influence. As well as Alice in Chains, STP, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Failure, and some other alternative/grunge rock bands. I pull in influence from a lot of places that people might not directly pick up on though… such as Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Tom Waits, Howlin Wolf, VAST, Dax Riggs, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Tool/Perfect Circle, Bauhaus, God Machine, Clutch, Fear Factory, Killing Joke, Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Radiohead, Rammstein, Can, Barry Adamson, Alabama 3, Deftones, Depeche Mode, Faith No More/Mr. Bungle/Fantomas/Tomahawk (or any Mike Patton project), Pigface, etc. Even some soundtrack or more classical composers such as Angelo Badalamenti, Ennio Morricone, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Danny Elfman, etc. Then again, some great comedians have played a part as well… like Mitch Hedberg, Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Brian Posehn, etc. I am a true believer that lots of influence is vital to diversity, and I love to stay diverse and interesting. I love to throw something truly ‘new’ at people!”
What equipment do you use?
“Intel Imac with Garageband (I also have Cubase and Logic Express, but for some reason or another prefer good ol’ Garageband over all of them), Presonus Inspire GT firewire interface, Peavey Fury 4-string bass, Epiphone Viola 4-string bass (my wife’s brand new toy), Fender Strat electric guitar, Washburn P290 electric guitar, custom Ibanez electric guitar, Epiphone acoustic guitar, another VERY cheap acoustic guitar (can’t remember the name), OLD Aloha lap steel (brought back to life by a friend of mine and I), Silvertone 4-string banjo (once my great grandfathers), one-stringed ‘diddley bow’ (a present from my brother-in-law from when he was in the Appalachians), didgeridoo, African goat-skinned hand drum, Alesis DM5 Pro electronic drum set (my brand new toy), old 5-piece acoustic drums set (handed down CHEAP Percussion Plus set with modifications), MXL 990 condenser microphone, Shure SM57 microphone, 2 old Lafayette microphones, a few other misc. microphones (none of which are very high quality), Tascam DP-01FXCD 8-track digital recorder, MANY different effects pedals and multi-effects pedals, and probably more that are not coming to mind.”
What is your main instrument?
“This is one I have a hard time answering. I write and record all the music and vocals for my solo material (with the exception of looped drums…when I’m not playing the drums myself), and I also write and record basically everything (when it comes to the music anyways) for Sons of Hypnos. I love playing ALL of the instruments, and I love doing vocal work as well. Can I pick all of them? Is that an acceptable answer? It’s the only correct one. If it’s not acceptable…well, then I guess I fail this test. BUT, at least I’ve failed it with a smile… LOL.”
Tell us about your recording process.
“My recording method really depends on the song. Some of my songs start with the drums & percussion - while others start with either bass or guitar. Almost all of the songs that originate on the guitar come from me sitting around playing my acoustic. That used to be pretty much the only way I would write songs, but since purchasing my Imac and playing around with garageband, other methods have been experimented with and utilized. I’ve found that being able to have drums as the beginning or basis of the song has produced some more aggressive/heavier material. This material definitely wouldn’t have transpired without starting that way.
“As for vocals/lyrics, they’re always the very last addition to the song. I dig through my stacks of notebooks, searching out vocals that fit the mood or tone of the particular tune in process. I have so many lyrics already written (it’s one of the many things I find myself doing when I’m bored) that I usually don’t have any problem finding something that will work. The majority of the time it ends up as ‘a line from this lyric, 2 lines from that lyric, the chorus from this other lyric, etc.’ Surprisingly, they usually fit together (at least in my mind - but I enjoy lyrics that tend to be a bit more on the abstract side of the spectrum). There are also times where the tune requires lyrics written specifically for that particular piece.
“Oh, I also do EVERYTHING by ear. I have had no classical training for vocals or any of the different instruments I play. This makes it a trial and error situation most of the time, but that’s becoming less and less frequent the longer I play.”
You say you build computers for a living. What does that mean?
“I’m a System Builder for RJ Ender Computers; and a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. I build PCs for a small computer company, although I ABSOLUTELY HATE PCs and WILL NOT own one…unless it’s running Linux, but even that’s pushing it. I’m a Mac guy, and that’s it! I also enjoy carving walking sticks and statues out of wood, drawing, writing, and working on classic cars (like my ‘72 Olds Cutlass Supreme)…that is, when AND IF I can find the time.”
Has your ability to build computer systems helped you in computer music making? Do you plan to develop a music studio that others would pay you to work in?
“Yes, a bit anyways. I would love to set up a true computer based studio that I could work at, helping others get their material recorded and out there for the world to hear! That is something I might do in the future, given the opportunity…great idea Tobin!”
You want to make money and become a professional in writing, performing or engineering. What specific steps are you taking now to make that happen?
“I’ve been applying to some ‘local’ recording studios (within a 30-45 minute drive range). I’ve had some call backs, but nothing concrete so far. My wife and I are planning on making a move within a year or two out east (possibly Pennsylvania or somewhere near NYC) and I plan on applying to some studios in that direction in the near future. I’d like something that is somewhat steady before making the jump, as I have a wife and daughter that I am supporting. They must, and will, come before my dreams.”
What haven’t you done yet that you want to do, musically?
“Some of my favorite albums happen to be soundtracks, and many of my favorite artists do or at least have done soundtracks in the past. This is a route that I plan to one day explore a bit further… as it’s something I’d be really interested in getting into. It’s a musical direction I feel I might really enjoy/possibly be able to succeed in. Who knows though, as we’re all just passengers on this long ride..”
What is your family situation now?
“I’m happily married to my wife Karla (who is a florist, painter/artist, and musician) for 4 years. Karla holds a Bachelor’s degree in studio arts, with an emphasis on oil painting. We have a 3 year old daughter, Phaedra, who will be turning 4 in August. We have a hyperactive yet extremely shy dog - he’s a greyhound/vizla mix who was saved from the humane society (and had sadly been beaten by I’m guessing his original owners). We also have two cats (Leda and Blackavar), and an albino rat (originally named after the scientist E.O. Wilson, until we discovered ‘he’ was a ’she’ - now she’s named Lucy).”
Where’d the name Phaedra come from? (another cool name)
“My in-laws got my wife and I a HUGE baby name book when they found out we were expecting. We already had a boys name picked out (Atticus James….yes, after the character in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’), but we were having troubles with a girls name. We flipped through that book over and over and over. The only name that stuck out to us was Phaedra. It’s a Greek name (neither of us is Greek so that may seem weird), and it means ‘bright, or shining.’ We felt this was perfect, and was the way we hoped our daughter would affect people. She was born, we named her Phaedra Addison Isbell (her nickname is Phae, which I personally love), and she’s been a ball of light ever since. Curly hair that everyone seems to love, big brown shining eyes, a smile that can brighten up anyone’s day, and a personality that is so outgoing, positive and curious it is unbelievable. She is our love, and we are very proud of her!”
Is there something else Macjammers don’t know about you that you’d like to share?
“I am incapable of smelling skunk. I’ve read that this can be a genetic trait passed down through a family. I don’t know of anyone in my family this would have come from…and since my father died before I was able to learn if he could smell skunk or not, it will remain a mystery. It’s weird…I know. I guess it’s not really that bad though.”
That’s unique. Kind of like a superpower in reverse. We have a family of skunks that live in our backyard… Speaking of backyards, has the flooding in the Midwest affected you?
“Actually, my wife and I are actually heading to the Pittsburgh area over the 4th of July weekend to check out a town called Moon. we’re looking to move there or somewhere near the Pittsburgh area within a year or so. that is as long as we can find employment near there.
“Our town (along with some other Iowa cities, including Iowa City) were recently hit by some MAJOR flooding. you can check out pictures and video here. As you can see, being as the news station is in Cedar Rapids, Vinton got forgotten as soon as Cedar Rapids started going under water, which I think is kinda sad, considering we went through the same stuff and are still not out of it. Check out this link to understand. We’re running on power that is being generated from the back of semi-trailers (and costing from what I heard was $18,000 a day or more). It’s been weeks since the flood, where we had absolutely no power for about a week - and even if you aren’t good at math, that adds up to A LOT of money. Luckily, Greg’s and my families were some of the lucky ones and our houses did not flood. Sadly, Greg’s parents house is a complete loss (it even started on fire WHILE being flooded - from the dryer outlet getting hit by the water and shorting out), and several of my family are in the same boat (no pun intended). That is one of the reasons we’ve been absent from Macjams lately, there is so much to do and help out with here. But we’ll be back soon, and are trying really hard to still compose during this time. Just wait, or rather look forward to, a new one inspired by all of this: ‘Mother Nature’s on the Rag‘ …lol… ”
I’m glad you can laugh about it. Good luck, man.
“Thank you again. It’s a real honor, and I highly appreciate it, Tobin. I really hope you realize that. It means the world to me. ”