One of the best voices and most consistently successful GarageBand self-recording artists on the site is Ridd Sorensen (member name rsorensen), also known as satellitetragedy and blinddogsky. (Satellite Tragedy and Blind Dog Sky are his bands’ names). He’s been everything from ‘Head of New Media’ for Weezer to the Senior Director of Atomic Betty (Cartoon Network), and even worked on some Scooby Doo commercials, among dozens of other cool cartoon projects.
I was going to interview Ridd last fall, but he wanted to wait until his SATELLITE TRAGEDY album came out. Not only was it taking up all his time (writing/recording the CD), it made sense to interview him right before I reviewed the CD. I’m not sure which has been more enjoyable, listening to his professionally polished CD or the homemade GarageBand tracks on his MacJams Playlist.
Ridd is an animation artist/illustrator who recently decided it was time to take writing and performing music to the next level. He lives in Vancouver, Canada, is 35 years old, and seems to be in the thick of many fruitful projects at the moment.
Ridd’s music is excellent, full of meaning, well crafted, flawlessly engineered, with lyrics and an audio hipness that is replete with the zeitgeist of the moment. Whether its edgy folk, alternative, power chord punk or hard rock, it is JUST SO DAMN GOOD. Every song is thought through, has a concept, a visual element, a back story, and a personal reason for being. Like an animation character coming to life through music, except is songs are mainly about very real people, very human.
The Satellite Tragedy recording, NEW BEAUTIFUL, is very pro sounding. Flawless, in fact. Please explain your recording and mastering process, etc.
Thanks. The majority of the tracks (1-6) were recorded and mastered with Cubase exclusively at Westwood Sound, which is Scott Davies‘ home studio, but the music for tracks 7-11 was recorded with GarageBand in my basement. I’d then send the individual tracks to Scott and he’d put em into Cubase and add his own parts, including replacing my drum loops with his far superior drumming. Somewhere in there I’d go over to his studio and record the vocals for these tracks and leave everything else to him for mixing and mastering. I’m telling you, Scott is a genius. Beforehand I gave him a couple of CDs and songs that I thought relayed the sound I was going for and he totally nailed it. If you really want the production details you should ask him because his methods are beyond me. All I really had to do was show up, play, and wait for the mixes.
How did you meet Scott?
I met Scott through his uncle, who is an owner of the company I work for. He brought in a CD one day that he said was of his nephew’s band, Ten Dollar Thompson. I had a listen and couldn’t believe how good it was. Why weren’t these guys signed and famous? That CD is still in my all time top 10 favorites, and was actually a big influence for some of the tracks on New Beautiful. Scott was later hired as the company number cruncher and shortly after we joined forces with a couple of other co-workers to form a cover band we called ‘numb$kull’. Scott joined MJ not long ago under the name 12parsecs and has already posted a number of very well received posts.
Satellite Tragedy, where’d the name come from?
Well, unfortunately there’s no cool little ‘Led Zeppelin’ type story to it. On one hand I like the visual connotations the 2 words together imply. The tragedy that might result if a satellite burned up and fell to Earth. On the other hand, I’ve always thought of the word ‘Satellite’ as not only a device orbiting in space, but the definition of it being “a country under the domination or influence of another”. Usually that’s a tragedy in itself. I like the double meaning of the name I guess.
New Beautiful almost seems like a concept piece. Can you tell me your vision, what was the focus, the meaning, the spin…
Yeah it definitely is a concept piece. We put a lot of effort into making sure the songs worked together sonically and lyrically. I won’t get into the ’story’ because I like to leave it up to the listener to interpret, but there’s definitely a story there and it’s in sequential order. Also, you could consider the first 7 songs as being ‘New’ and the last 4 as ‘Beautiful’. That’ll probably just confuse people more, but there you go haha.
How’d the gig with Weezer happen?
I got the Weezer gig after meeting Rivers backstage at one of their shows here in Vancouver. We had established an online relationship of sorts because I would help him with a variety of internet related things - such as setting up his personal website, sharing his unreleased demos with fans, and doing some online promotional things for the band. Needless to say that was OK by me. Anyway, he gave me tickets and a VIP pass to the show and after hanging out with him backstage and listening to music for a couple of hours he made it official and later asked me to be the band’s ‘Head of New Media’. So I did that casually for a while when he took over as manager of the band. They even flew me to LA one summer where I spent some time visiting and watching the band rehearse at SIR studios. Hanging out backstage was really cool but watching them rehearse was phenomenal. Now I know Weezer’s not some huge band, but you gotta remember they had been my favorite band for 5+ years, so this whole thing was a pretty big deal for me. I mean this is the guy that wrote Pinkerton and he was giving me all this cool, unreleased music. Anyway, even though Rivers hasn’t at all kept in touch on a personal level, I’m forever grateful for that experience, because it’s one I’ll never forget and always appreciate. But I still design t-shirts for them and get free tickets to their shows. Yay for me!
Has Rivers Cuomo heard your new CD yet?
I don’t know. I really hope he has because I think he’d like it. I haven’t talked to him for quite a while but Weezer was here late last year and I gave him a copy through his assistant. They did plug my CD on their site though so that was pretty cool.
Do you perform live?
I’ve performed live a number of times by myself and with other bands, but never as Satellite Tragedy. We’ve had a little pressure to get out there and start doing shows, and I’m not totally against it - but it’s just not the ideal time for me to be doing that right now, and I know if I go for it I’m going to go hard. I tend to get very driven about these things. I’m a family man right now and they need to be my priority. That said, if I could find a way to do a handful of shows a year with a handful of rehearsals I’d probably do it, but I’d need to find a pretty good band first. Right now it’d just be me and Scott. So that’s where I’m at - deciding whether or not form a complete band and rehearse. I’m just hesitant to do it because I know it would become an all consuming obsession.
How has MacJams inspired you, how did it lead to this CD release?
MJ has been a huge blessing. I have no idea where I’d be musically without GarageBand and MJ. I definitely wouldn’t have put out a CD and have so many songs written and recorded. Being an active member really motivates me to keep at it. It’s really a combination of the constructive criticism of my songs, the wealth of free and amazing music (50,000+ songs!), the gratification of instant positive feedback (hey I’m only human), and the community itself that keeps me coming back. I’m definitely a card carrying MJ lifer.
What is popuprecords? How are you promoting the CD?
Here’s the bio from their website, http://www.popuprecords.com: “Pop Up Records is an independent record label based out of North Miami, Florida. Our mantra is to give artist an outlet to distribute their music and get recognition without the dealings of corporate control or statistic placement. We believe in all that is Rock! The term “Indie” in the past years has been misinterpreted as a style or genre of rock or demographic of listeners. We are against that belief and wear the flag of the true meaning of the word which is to give you free thinking, original uncontrolled, unadulterated independent music which doesn’t follow commercial media Top 40 trends.”
We signed with Pop Up after they selected a cover we did of Failure’s song ‘Frogs’ for a tribute compilation they recently released. They asked if we had any other songs recorded and it just so happens we had a whole CD in the works. This label is all about the music, and although they don’t have a ton of assets at their disposal to promote the record, we really believe in them as they believe in us. Very realistic expectations on both ends. I hope to release many more records with them.
Did you do the CD artwork?
I did the layout and art direction of everything. The spaceman artwork on the CD tray and back cover was done by Garnet Syberg-Olsen, an animation industry colleague of mine. He’s also going to be an Art Director and Designer for the animated video to ‘This Unknown’ we have in the works. The front cover is an uncredited photo from NASA’s public Domain archives, and the inside photos were taken by me and Scott during our Westwood recording sessions.
What are you musical goals?
Since we finished New Beautiful I’ve written and recorded at least 30 songs, and I’d love to keep doing that. I want to put out a couple more CDs in the immediate future - another Satellite Tragedy CD and a more rock flavored ‘Blind Dog Sky’ one.
I’m also trying to find a way to make good money working in the music industry. I recently talked to an A&R guy from Island Records who was interested in Satellite Tragedy but that kind of petered out for some reason. I think he was hoping we were a young band chomping at the bit and willing to drop everything to go tour etc. and maybe was a little put off by the fact that we weren’t. I did assure him though that we’re very interested in following up and finding a way to make it work, but I haven’t heard back from in in a while. Even if I was writing songs for other artists I’d be happy. Oh - I’d also like to learn to play piano properly and take singing lessons.
I guess I’m pretty content being an Animation Director/Designer. It’s a real treat to get paid to draw pictures and make cartoons. I’d love to get one of my own creations on the air one day, so that would definitely be a career goal.
I will keep recording music, posting songs on MacJams, and making records. I’ll probably get a band together soon and start gigging, but that’s all a little uncertain right now.
Did you study animation anywhere?
I studied Commercial Animation at Capilano College in North Vancouver, BC. It was a very intense 2 year program that I pretty much put my all into, and it paid off as I landed a job before I graduated. It’s really an amazing program - probably the best in Canada - and it’s there I learned the principals and fundamentals of animation and design. My first couple of years ‘on the job’ though is where I learned the most about character design. I work for some very talented guys that have really schooled me on how to draw appealing, funny characters. I just need to start doing it!
What inspired you to become an Cartoonist?
My dad used to draw and taught me a lot of stuff when I was a kid. He also bought me the book ‘How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way’ when I was 11 and wrote on the front page ‘go for it’. That book really got me going. I still reference it to this day!
What are some of the things that you have worked on?
I’ve worked on a lot of different stuff over the years for Warner Brothers, Cartoon Network, Disney, Nelvana, etc. Some of the more memorable jobs for me though were The Zeta Project, The Oblongs, Dog in a Box with 2 Wheels, Chuck Jones’ Timberwolf, Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Toys, and of course Atomic Betty. I did a little in-betweening on a couple of Scooby Doo commercials which was cool.
Can you explain how you got to work on Atomic Betty, what it is, what you do/did?
Atomic Betty was a cartoon that aired on The Cartoon Network and many other international networks a couple of years ago. It was created by Atomic Cartoons Inc., the company I’ve worked for since 1999. It’s about a regular little girl that is actually a ‘Galactic Guardian’, who saves alien civilizations and the world from imminent doom on a routine basis. I was the Senior Director of the show. It was pretty well received and initially did really well, but TV is a cutthroat business and all about ratings so it eventually was cancelled. Still, we made 3 seasons worth and that’s pretty good for a cartoon, so I’m proud of what we did. I directed a lot of season 1 & 2 episodes and I believe some of them are available on DVD.
Is there a character design you have done that you are most proud of?
We did a storyboard test for Cartoon Network’s JLA a while back, where I had the opportunity to ink the board and design a new villain they were going to introduce on the show called Deadshot. He was a blast to design because I’m a huge fan of Bruce Timm, and it was a great exercise to reference the old comic books and design him in Timm’s style. Ultimately we didn’t get the gig for whatever reason, but I’m really happy with what we turned in. I would have to say the characters I’m most proud of though are ones in shows I’ve developed with a colleague of mine, Jeff Agala - Big City Birds, Freddy the Firekid, Buckshot Billy and The Misfits.
What is “The Beehive”? I noticed it as one of your Internet personas.
The Beehive is a blog I created to promote my artwork. Kind of like an online portfolio. I’ve gotten a few really cool jobs from it, including some work from Hasbro and Gama-Go.
You own Big City Cartoons. How is that as an experience, owning a small business? How has that impacted the creation and promotion of your music?
It’s tough because as soon as you think you’re making pretty good revenue, the taxman comes along and takes it all away.
What do you plan to do with bigcitycartoons.com, how are you going to develop it?
Heh well, it’s been ‘under construction’ for a loooooong time. I’m not sure what we’re going to do with it. We really need to get on top of that. There’s a lot of possibilities and ideas we have floating around, just gotta find time to do it.
What is “Dust and Static”? (I noticed that on the Internet too.)
‘Dust and Static’ is the name of the Blind Dog Sky record I’m eventually going to try and put out. You know when you take out an old record that maybe hasn’t been taken care of properly? Then when you play it you can hear all the dust and static. That’s where the title comes from. Again, I like the imagery and feeling it implies.
What do you have planned for Blind Dog Sky?
After we finished of New Beautiful I started writing and recording songs that ended up being more blues based. It wasn’t intentional but I think after so many consecutive months of writing and recording the alternative stuff, my brain wanted to change things up a little. Before long I had a pile of songs that sounded pretty good together and Blind Dog Sky was born. I haven’t played any of it live because A) No band, and B) I’m focusing on trying to promote New Beautiful right now.
How old were you when you got into playing music?
I started playing guitar at age 12 and never stopped.
Why did you get into it?
My dad is a big music lover. He would crank Pink Floyd, Supertramp, ABBA, Fleetwood Mac, Cat Stevens, Billy Joel, Meatloaf, Zamfir, Vangelis, The Bee Gees, Eddie Rabbit, and all sorts of stuff through the house every weekend all weekend long when I was growing up. Then when I got a little older I got into some of my sister’s favorite bands - Loverboy, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, all the poppy stuff. One day I discovered AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, and that’s pretty much all I listened to for a couple of years. My dad also played guitar when I was a kid so there’s also that exposure and influence as well.
Any previous bands?
I played guitar in a high school band called AaRRRg! We had kind of a ‘Tenacious D’ type thing going on, but not even close to half as good. I could quote some of the song titles and lyrics but I can’t think of any that wouldn’t offend…
I played some solo shows in my teens - some coffee house, festival type gigs, but one performance that really sticks out is playing a Hendrix style version of Canada’s national anthem before a High School drama production. It was my first time in front of a big audience and to my surprise they went a little crazy. So that was cool. My first taste of rockstardom and all that comes with it. Okay, not really. But still cool! I’ve played a few shows with a cover band I started called ‘numb$kull’ here in Vancouver, but I feel my all-time musical highlight is yet to come.
Do you recall the first song you wrote?
Well, the first one I really remember is called ‘Cold as Ice‘. I had just gotten a Tascam Portastudio and it was the first song I recorded on it. I think I had probably recorded myself before on crappy tapedecks - in fact I remember setting up two tape decks once and recording one part, then playing back and recording another part over it with the other boom box. The sound quality was of course terrible but that was my first venture into muliti-tracking and it sounded AWESOME at the time. When I got the Tascam my whole world changed and I was constantly writing and recording little songs on it. Mostly blues-based stuff because that’s what I was into playing at the time. Anyway, Cold as Ice was my first authentic muliti-tracked song with a beginning, middle and end. I thought it was pretty great at the time, as did my mom haha. I vaguely remember what it sounds like, so I couldn’t play it now. I’ll have to dig it up and have a listen. I’m sure it’s absolutely horrible, but my mom loved it.
Any people besides Weezer with whom you’ve worked that we might recognize?
I was in a blues band for a while with TV’s ‘Survivorman’, Les Stroud haha. Hmm, I guess the closest I got to greatness was playing with a bass player that once jammed with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Does that count for anything?
What obstacles have you overcome in your musical endeavors?
I never used to sing because I was pretty self-conscious, then one day I just decided I was going to do it and not worry about what people thought of my voice. Once I got over that the music really started taking off. That was in 2006 and I’ve written probably close to 100 songs since then.
What instruments do you use?
My main guitar is a Tobacco Sunburst Gibson Firebird VII. I got it second-hand and paid through the nose, but I would’ve paid double had I known it would consistently sound so good. The tones I get from that beauty are amazing. Acoustic wise I mainly use an Epiphone EJ200, the poorman’s Gibson. I tried one out in the store and it sounded pretty good, but I wanted black so I ordered one. When it came, I ripped it open and it sounded amazing right outta the box. This guitar might as well be the real deal $4000 Gibson I couldn’t afford because it sounds and feels just like it. I know everybody says that but it’s true in this case. Really! I’ve had offers from working musicians to buy it for good money.
I use an Epiphone Dobro for slide, but it isn’t the greatest dobro out there by a long shot. Still, it’s affordable and it stays in tune, so there you go.
My wife bought me a M-Audio KeyStudio 49i last Christmas, which I use for all my piano, organ and synth work along with percussion. It’s great but I find the keys a little stiff and they take getting used to.
I also started recently using my Taylor Big Baby acoustic for recording and it’s really blowing me away. It wouldn’t be an ideal guitar for gigging but it sounds SICK in front of a mic.
What gear do you use?
I use a Line6 Pod-XT Live for all my electric guitar stuff. I plug my keyboard and Blue Snowball Mic (which I HIGHLY recommend) right into the computer with no preamp. I have a preamp but I havent hooked it up yet. Should I? I really know nothing about setting up actually. But what I’m doing seems to work. As far as plugins, I pretty much stick to what comes with GB, but I’ve found some cool ones over the past couple weeks I’m itching to use. I’m really just startring to discover the world of plugins, so if anyone has any recommendations let me know!
How do you record/mix/master?
It varies, but I’ll usually record a rough acoustic & vocal scratch track first to get everything laid out. Copy, paste, repeat kinda stuff. Then I’ll go over it all track by track and record each part - usually guitars first, then keys, then vocals and drums last. The drums are usually heavily edited DOD and GB loops. Occasionally I’ll tap it all out on my keyboard but only when it works for the song. When all the tracks are there I’ll start refining the mix. It usually takes 4-5 passes before I’m happy and ready to master. Everything I do is done in GarageBand, though sometimes I’ll track everything and send it to Scott (12parsecs) to mix and master in Cubase. That’s how we did a few songs off the ST album and I think they turned out great.
Musically, what is your strongest point?
I think I’m pretty good at writing songs with a distinct beginning, middle and end. I strive to keep the listener from getting bored and skipping to the next track.
Your weakest point - and how you get around it?
I think I might tend to repeat myself a lot in my songs - whether it be composition, melodies or guitar parts. I’m trying to be more conscious of this but it’s hard to fight it when I’m recording and it’s what comes out instinctually, you know?
How do you come up with a song?
I always start with my acoustic guitar and some sort of scratch vocal (usually humming or non-sensical words). The lyrics come later in the recording process, after I’ve had a chance to listen to the song and identify the emotions it stirs up.
I guess the one tip I would give when performing recording is to be confident - especially when singing. Neil Young, Tom Petty, Wayne Coyne, Stephen Malkmus - not great singers but man are they confident, and it comes across in their performances. There’s a few artists on the site that are my favorites because of their vocal style - not because they’re pitch perfect or they run up and down scales, but because they sing like they mean it, you know? It’s like they’ve decided that’s the way they sing and they embrace it and use it to their advantage. Don’t get me wrong - you have to be able to hold a note and stay in key for sure, but it’s just not worth letting absolute pitch perfection get in the way of your performance. It’s something I had to let go up until fairly recently, but when I did it felt pretty good. There’s always going to be people out there who hate your voice. Screw ‘em.
How has your MacJams experience been?
Just having so much talent at our fingertips is inspirational in itself. I’ve learned tons about songwriting from listening to other artist’s songs on MacJams. I’ve been inspired many many times. MacJams is really what keeps me writing and recording so much.
I think the ‘MJ Experience’ as a whole is one of my favorite things to do. I log in every day to listen to new music, comment, read feedback. I love it all! Highlights are definitely all the collabs I’ve done and the challenges/festivals. I really like those. I think my favorite challenge so far has been the cover song challenge. That was just a great idea. Some of the message board stuff has been a blast too. I remember there was this one young dude who joined for like a week and called everyone out and told us we were stuck in the 70s. He wanted more of us to write Timbaland songs or something. That was a great thread to read.
MacJams and Garageband have hugely inspired me to write and record pretty much 24-7. I have a tendency to become obsessed with hobbies, and this is no exception. Before GB I was recording on the Tascam. It was such a time consuming process that I rarely had time to get anything really finished. Now with GB I can hammer out a rough demo in an hour, and post it on MJ for immediate feedback.
What MJ song are you most proud of?
Wow, I don’t know! I really like a lot of them for different reasons. I’m one of those guys that listens to his own music A LOT haha. Seriously. I think it’s important to be your own biggest fan when it comes to making music. I do a lot of listening to my own stuff for critique purposes, but most of the time it’s because I like my own music! Is that wrong? Anyway, I think the song I seem to get a lot of positive feedback for is ‘In My Head Again‘, so let’s go with that one for now. My ‘Chronicles of a Dysphoric Translator‘ project is another standout for me. That was a blast. I’m trying to pimp that around as Satellite Tragedy’s second release, but it might be a little too ‘out there’ for some people. Not very accessible perhaps.
Recently I’ve been challenging myself to do things out of the 4/4 time sig, so my last few posts have been changing it up a little. ‘False Prophet‘ is one of these in particular that I’m pretty stoked about. Lyrically too I’m exploring different themes other than relationships, which primarily is what ‘New Beautiful’ is about. ‘False Prophet‘ is a fictional account of the rise of the antichrist, but also a response to people putting men on pedestals and worshipping them as if they were Gods.
I am including In My Head Again as a teaser attached to my review of New Beautiful (coming soon). MacJams is about collaborations and community - how have those experiences been?
I had a great experience with every collab I’ve done on the site. ‘Prisoners of War‘ with Nick Flash is a highlight that comes to mind. ‘I Love to Hate You‘ with gail60 was fun. I’ve done a few now with michael2 that were very rewarding. We seem to be on very similar wavelengths when it comes to making music. I don’t know - I really like how all of them turned out and I’m really appreciative of the ones where people let me sing on their songs, especially when it’s in a genre I’m not used to, like ‘This Time‘ with craft. That was cool.
Any additional comments?
Just a big thanks for featuring me in this spotlight. I guess I’ll use this opportunity, also, to say thanks so much to those of you that fave my music and offer your feedback and support. It’s part of what keeps me coming back. Without you guys I’m not sure I’d be where I’m at musically, and where I’m at musically is really a good place for me to be.
When I asked Ridd to list 4 MJ songs he’d like me to attach to the interview, he listed these:
Of course, I picked the ones I wanted to anyway (see below), but wished I could’ve also fit these in:
Marriage of the Divine
I’m Not Really Here (Invisible Man)
Street Corner Salvation
Clouds (New Edition w/12parsecs)
If I Only Had a Brain
These Odds (w/alfalpha and Jim Bouchard)
I’m Comin’ Home
• New Beautiful (2008 Pop Up Records) - available at www.popuprecords.com
• The Nurse Who Loved Me: A Tribute to Failure (2008 Pop Up Records)
• Chronicles of a Dysphoric Translator (2008, TBA)
Blind Dog Sky
• Dust and Static (2008, TBA)