We tend to think of recording technology in terms of linear progress—from Alan Lomax lugging 150 pounds of equipment around the world, to plush professional studios like the Hit Factory and the Record Plant capturing rock history, to the Pro Tools-fueled rise of the home studio built with affordable digital gear.
But while all these innovations have sent those pursuing the perfect sound zooming off into the distant horizon, they’ve allowed others to come full circle. As the digital explosion has allowed artists to make professional-sounding records at a fraction of their former cost—wiping out dozens of studios in their wake—the relentless drive toward smaller, lighter, and cheaper gear has also sent artists back into the wild, so to speak. There, they’ve started rediscovering what the Lomax generation always knew: you don’t need a pristine environment in order to create something beautiful.
It’s this kind of thinking that has helped fuel projects like the Playing for Change series or Béla Fleck’s documentary Throw Down Your Heart. And it’s taking new root through Mason Jar Music, a Brooklyn-based collective dedicated to, in their words, “preserving analog principles in the digital age.” The ways they pursue this ideal include Mason Jar Music Presents, a video series that places recording artists (the Wood Brothers, Abigail Washburn (above)) in unfamiliar environments—both musically and literally. We spoke with founders Dan Knobler and Jon Seale about the impetus behind the collective, how they pursue their vision, and—perhaps most importantly—the Kickstarter campaign they hope will provide some financial stability.
Let’s start off by talking about Mason Jar Music in general. In broad terms, how would you describe what you’re doing?
Dan: Well, Mason Jar Music itself is a larger organization that’s sort of a collective of a lot of young creative professionals—you know, musicians, producers, and filmmakers. A lot of us went to NYU together—Jon and I went to the Clive Davis Department there—and we put ourselves together under the idea that rather than being a bunch of freelancers, we could create one name, one reputation, and attract larger-profile work than we would have been able to as individuals.
We do all kinds of things, from the big Mason Jar Music Presents series, to production for bands, to film scores and music for TV. The MJM Presents series is kind of our “big deal” project, so to speak.
It’s a really interesting idea—taking artists and placing them in an unfamiliar setting, both musically and physically, and doing it by setting up in vacant buildings around the city.
Jon: Yeah, that’s a big part of what we do, and we were inspired by people like La Blogothèque, who had done these sort of takeaway-style videos where you’d strip away all of the industry stuff that gets in the way in a more conceptualized, narrative music video. We felt like that was something we could speak to, but our version is a little different. We took that in a bigger direction, and the spaces we use are a part of that.
We started out recording in an old church, just incidentally through a friend we made, and being in that space at night, and hearing what the music sounded like, and feeling the feeling of being in a cavernous room in the middle of Manhattan, where every apartment is about five feet square—it really amplified the idea that the place where you are really affects the music you play. We wanted to take that even further. When you take the recording to an abandoned building, how does it affect that feeling? How does it affect the sound? It changes the things you perform, and we found that really intriguing.
I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn just how many of these abandoned, empty spaces there are in New York City.
Jon: There are tons of them. It’s just about finding the right person who’s into what we’re doing, and will say “Yeah, absolutely, come by with a dozen musicians and a bunch of recording gear, and knock yourselves out.”
It’s a really vibrant example of the ways in which art can be used to reclaim, and revitalize, empty urban spaces. Have you given any thought to branching out into other cities? The potential in a place like, say, Detroit would be tremendous.
Dan: We haven’t yet, because so many of our resources are New York-based. We’ve spent the past four years building up a lot of connections in the music world—for instance, a lot of our friends are players we’ve met over at Julliard or the Manhattan School of Music. It’s a lot easier to ask them to take the subway a few stops than it would be to take a bus to Detroit. Everyone’s working for free.
But it’s interesting—since we’ve been covered on NPR, we’ve seen a big national response from people saying, “Wow, I wish someone would do this in my city.” I mean, in Detroit specifically, there are a lot of industrial spaces that have been abandoned, and I think that would be a really poignant thing. We just don’t have the resources to accomplish that yet.
What are some of the long-term goals you’re hoping to accomplish with this Kickstarter project?
Jon: The Kickstarter project is really meant to fund the Mason Jar Music Presents series and bring it to fruition. We’d love to create almost like a season of videos—to have 10 or so that we can show and say, “We’ve accomplished this idea.” That’s what the money’s going towards, although in the long term, it’ll hopefully be paying for equipment expenses that will allow us to continue pursuing compelling ideas.
It’s important to point out that you aren’t just involved in this series as filmmakers or producers—you’re also involved from a creative standpoint, in terms of writing arrangements for the songs.
Dan: I think that’s part of what makes this series unique—it isn’t just another version of the song by the artist. Another take on it. It’s actually a whole new interpretation. You come out of it with a beautiful video and audio, but a whole new way of approaching the song and hearing the material.
Part of what’s cool about that is that it makes the artist give a fresh performance. A lot of these acts have been on tour for awhile, and they’re playing this song every night for two months—and then they come in and hear our ensemble, with new ideas and really re-imagining the song, and I think it helps inspire them.
Jon: It’s something we think about a lot. We listen to the original versions and try and diagnose the lyrics a little bit—dissect them and build around their meaning. That takes shape in a lot of ways, right down to the clothes that the players wear to reflect an appropriate color scheme for the music. We want to engage the audience on a deeper level.