For years, Jherek Bischoff has played in indie-rock bands, including Amanda Palmer's Grand Theft Orchestra. But on his new album, Composed, he found himself moving away from a rock sound and writing his own orchestral arrangements.
"I started recording my bands and my friends' bands, and we kept getting more and more ambitious," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So we would add a violin here and a cello there and just kept building these layers and layers of sound and, finally, at one point, I muted the actual rock-band elements of the recording and heard this kind of orchestral thing happening and I went, 'Wow, that's strange. I didn't intend to do that.'"
While the sound on the album is that of a full orchestra, Bischoff didn't have the budget to hire many players, so he would ask his musician friends to record parts multiple times.
"I knew that I could make a really convincing version of an orchestra by layering each musician with themselves, just recording them over and over and over again until we had the sound of a real orchestra," he says. "I would just ride my bike over to the violin player's house and put some sheet music in front of her, and have her record each part about nine times and build the sound of a full ensemble. And when I was done with that, then I would bike ride over to the oboe player's house and have her record, and then just worked my way through the entire orchestra, just recording each individual in their own living rooms."
Guest artists on Composed include David Byrne, Caetano Veloso and Nels Cline. Bischoff's album is unusual, but so is his personal history. He grew up on a sailboat and took a sabbatical from high school as a teenager to sail around Central America with his family — including his father, a musician who played in an avant-garde rock band in the '70s.
On how he celebrated his 30th birthday
"Right around my 30th birthday was when I kind of came up with this realization that I had started making orchestral music, and so I got about 35 of my friends together and rented out Town Hall in Seattle and just tried for the first time to do an orchestral show. And it was the most satisfying musical experience I had had up until then."
On why he composes on ukulele
"The biggest reason is that it's super-portable and I can take it anywhere, and also a realization that I came to recently was that... well, bass is my main instrument. And ukulele and bass both have four strings and, to me, I really come from — orchestrally, I guess — I come from more of a soundtrack background. And whenever I think about soundtracks, I think about big lush strings and that big Hollywood sound of the soaring violins and things like that. And so when I compose most of the time, it's very string-oriented. There's not a ton of brass and woodwinds and things like that. But I realized that the cello, the viola and then the two violin sections, you can kind of think of each ukulele string as an instrument section. And so when you're playing these, you're limited to four note chords, and therefore it kind of lays out a neat harmonic structure for you really naturally to write for strings."
On sailing around Central America as a teenager with his musical family
"We, as a family, kind of made a family band, and we would set up our instruments on top of the boat, because we couldn't all fit down below on the boat. And sometimes we would have little concerts where everyone would take their little inflatable raft and tie up to the side of our boat with little hors d'oeuvres and cocktails and stuff like that, and then we would perform some music and we would invite whatever other boats were around to come and join us. And so we had these kind of crazy concerts where there's 30 rafts just kind of anchored out in the middle of a bay, and we would play whatever tunes people knew. None of our family were really that keen on singing or anything, so we were always looking for people that just happened to have an acoustic guitar on their boat and sang and things like that, and we would be back them up. A lot of Jimmy Buffett songs, of course."
On how scenes in Ang Lee's Life of Pi reminded him of his experiences on the ocean
"That movie was incredible in some of its imagery. ... I don't know if the director spent time on the ocean or not, but some of that imagery was so close to things that I personally experienced, it was unbelievable. One time, I was helping a friend sail from Mexico to Hawaii, and I was out in the middle of the ocean, and suddenly the ocean went completely still and there was no clouds in the sky — which is actually kind of rare for out in the middle of the ocean. And the wind totally stopped and the ocean was perfectly glassy and, at one point, the stars were a perfect mirror image with the sea. And all of a sudden, I completely lost my sense of direction and which way was up and which way was down, and I felt like I was floating in space because it was just stars completely surrounding me."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of our producers, Amy Salit, keeps up with a lot of new bands and gives me some of her favorite recordings to listen to. So recently in my car, I popped into my CD player one of the albums she gave me by someone I'd never heard of. I was waiting to hear an indie band, so I was baffled when I heard this:
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: I liked what I heard, but I thought maybe the wrong CD was in the album jacket. It wasn't. The album is by Jherek Bischoff, who's played with several indie rock bands, including Amanda Palmer's, but has also written scores for short films and has found himself heading in a more symphonic direction. The rest of his new album "Composed" is songs, mostly his original ones, with his own orchestral arrangements.
Bischoff plays many of the instruments. Guest artists include David Byrne, Caetano Veloso and Nels Cline. Bischoff's album is unusual, but his life has been even more unusual. As we'll hear, he grew up on a sailboat. His father is a musician who played in an avant-garde rock band in the '70s.
OK, let's hear track two of Bischoff's new album "Composed." This track features David Byrne singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYES")
DAVID BYRNE: (Singing) Eyes or nose or mouth to make a face, my dear. Perhaps I'm wrong. I'm fascinated how your eyes go north and south beyond the temperate zone in the cold night air and (unintelligible)....
GROSS: Jherek Bischoff, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I really like the composing you've done on this. Your background isn't in symphonic music, and you've only recently become interested in classical music. What got you excited about composing for orchestra?
JHEREK BISCHOFF: Well, I came to it through a real roundabout way, where I come from a rock-'n'-roll background, and I started recording records for my bands and my friends' bands. And we kept getting more and more ambitious. So we would add a violin here and a cello there and then just kept building these layers and layers of sound.
And finally at one point I muted the actual rock-band elements of the recording and heard this kind of orchestral thing happening. I went, wow, that's strange. I didn't intend to do that. So, yeah, right around my 30th birthday, it was when I kind of came up with this realization that I had started making orchestral music.
And so I got about 35 of my friends together and rented out Town Hall in Seattle and just tried for the first time to do an orchestral show. And it was the most satisfying musical experience I had had up until then.
GROSS: You compose on ukulele, of all instruments.
GROSS: Why the ukulele?
BISCHOFF: Well, the biggest reason is that it's super-portable, and I can take it anywhere. And also a realization that I came to recently was that, well, bass is my main instrument, and ukulele and bass both have four strings. And to me I really come from - orchestrally, I guess come from more of a soundtrack background. And whenever I think about soundtracks, I think about big, lush strings and that big Hollywood sound of the soaring violins and things like that. And so when I compose, most of the time it's very string-oriented. There's not a ton of brass and woodwinds and things like that.
But I realized that the cello, the viola and then the two violin sections, you can kind of think of each ukulele string as an instrument section. Therefore, it kind of lays out a neat harmonic structure to write for strings. So it was kind of a fortuitous instrument to come across.
GROSS: So, you know, when it comes time for you to do the more orchestral recordings for your album, you didn't have the money to actually hire a lot of musicians. So, tell the story of what you did do to get the sound of a lot of musicians playing together.
BISCHOFF: So, yeah, I live here in Seattle, and through years and years of recording and touring and playing in bands, I realized I had this huge pool of musician friends that were insanely talented and that not only could play classical music but had interest in rock music and all sorts of different kinds of music. And up until making this record "Composed," I had always done everything myself because I was terrified to ask people to be a part of my own project. So at this point I kind of decided OK, never mind, I'm going to just ask everybody.
And I had very limited funds to make the record, but I knew that it should be a full orchestra sound. And so what I did was I had a little laptop and one microphone that I borrowed from my friend and first edition M-box, which is just a thing that you plug microphones into that connects to the computer. And all that would fit into my backpack. And so I would just ride my bike over to the violin player's house and put some sheet music in front of her and have her record each part about nine times and build the sound of a full ensemble. And then when I was done with that, then I would bike ride over to the oboe player's house and have her record and then just worked my way through the entire orchestra just recording each individual in their own living rooms.
GROSS: With David Byrne, you didn't bring your backpack over and record him at home. Did you send him to a studio?
BISCHOFF: No, he did it at home and probably in his living room, which is pretty cool. But yeah, he was just getting off of a tour, and at that point I hadn't met him yet, and although I would have loved to have been there, yeah, he did it and sent me the track. And I had kind of - with all the vocal tracks I had kind of laid out a preliminary melody idea that they could either stick to or not stick to. They had freedom in that.
But yeah, he just recorded it and sent it to me pretty rapidly. Yeah, I was so honored to have him be a part of this because, yeah, he was a huge influence as a musician and just as a person and artist, everything. He's amazing.
GROSS: So let's hear another track from your new album "Composed." I'm going to go for "Young and Lovely." And there's two singers on this, Zac Pennington and Soko. I don't know either of them. Tell us something about them.
BISCHOFF: Yeah, Zac Pennington is a singer for a band called Parenthetical Girls, and that's a band that I've written a lot of songs for and typically sounds absolutely nothing like my record. It's more '80s electronic or sometimes kind of chamber pop-oriented, but much different. And then Soko is this fantastic singer-songwriter, I guess you'd call her, from France, now living in L.A. And, yeah, they're real dear friends of mine.
GROSS: There's like an old-fashioned waltz in the middle of this.
BISCHOFF: Yeah, I don't know where that really came from, but right before that waltz-y section, there's that cascading line that goes down, and then it goes through all the different instruments. It starts with the violins and then goes to the violin twos. And then as it goes lower and lower in pitch, it just trades off to lower and lower instruments. And I really - I heard that with a voice once, people doing that with voices, and so I wanted to try that with strings.
And then the waltz bit, yeah, I just, I always - I've always been a fan of waltzes. I played tuba for about seven years or something. So waltz is what you do.
GROSS: I played French horn in high school band.
BISCHOFF: Really? That's the toughest instrument.
GROSS: Oh, it's hard, I know, but it was always a tuba-French horn thing because there were a lot of things where the tuba would go oom, and the French horn would go pa-pa.
BISCHOFF: We should jam sometime.
GROSS: Yeah, really.
GROSS: So let's hear "Young and Lovely" from Jherek Bischoff's new album "Composed."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG AND LOVELY")
ZAC PENNINGTON - SOKO: (Singing) I lost a little weight and might have lied about my age, and nine months to the day my name escapes you. And you seem so surprised, and I've seen neither hair nor hide, a sight for sunken eyes. It's nice to see you. What, what's the rush? You've Said too much. Unsure of what's stirred such a fuss. You've heard enough from those of us no longer young nor lovely enough for love. Try Not to Scream, as strange as that must seem. It's best not to breathe, I know that's hard to believe. Just don't make a scene, at least until she leaves.
GROSS: That's "Young and Lovely" from Jherek Bischoff's album "Composed," and we heard Zac Pennington and Soko singing. Jherek Bischoff sings on one track but not that one.
GROSS: We'll talk more with Jherek Bischoff after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is composer, arranger and musician Jherek Bischoff. His new album is called "Composed." Let's talk about your musical background. Your father's a musician. Your mother, too?
BISCHOFF: Not my mother, no. She just puts up with all the noise, I guess. My brother is also a musician, and they're both drummers. So there's a lot of noise.
GROSS: And - right, so your father and your brother are drummers?
BISCHOFF: Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: And you chose the quiet instrument, bass.
BISCHOFF: Yeah, well, I was actually - we were a family that lived on a sailboat. So we all picked really stupid instruments for living on a sailboat because they're all gigantic instruments, the tuba and upright bass being probably the biggest instruments of the orchestra, as well as percussion. And so, yeah, I don't know why we didn't all just play flutes, but yeah, that's how it happened.
GROSS: How long did you live on a boat?
BISCHOFF: I think about 15 years, something around that.
GROSS: Seriously, it was that long?
BISCHOFF: Yeah, yeah, yeah, from when I was about five until 18 or something like that.
GROSS: Was it like a houseboat, or was it you were always sailing kind of boat?
BISCHOFF: No, it was a full-on sailboat, 37 feet long and I think about 12 feet wide. And so we mostly were moored on Bainbridge Island, you know, at a dock and had fairly normal lives. And then partway through high school we took a three-year - or two-year sailing trip through Central America and through the Panama Canal and into the Caribbean and stuff like that.
GROSS: So where is Bainbridge Island, where you were docked mostly?
BISCHOFF: Bainbridge Island is a ferry ride away from Seattle. So it's like 35 minutes from Seattle.
GROSS: I see. So when you were 15, I think, you and your family sailed to South America?
BISCHOFF: Central America, mostly, a little tiny bit of South America. But yeah, that was quite an experience.
GROSS: How did you feel about leaving your friends and where you were docked?
BISCHOFF: I was miserable for about a week and a half, and then I realized, oh, I'm, you know, snorkeling and surfing and fishing and experiencing culture everyday. This is much cooler than hanging out at Safeway and skateboarding.
GROSS: Describe the boat a little bit more?
BISCHOFF: So it's - yeah, a little sailboat. Inside it's a little living room, which is basically a couch, I guess. And then right across from that is the galley, you know, the kitchen. And that's about two feet by two feet. And then my parents had a room at the front of the boat, which was just a bed. And then at the back of the boat, my brother and I each had our own rooms.
And our rooms consisted of a floor that was about a foot and a half by a foot and a half and a little closet and a couple little drawers and then a bed that was about seven feet long but about three feet wide. So it was just kind of this little coffin that you slip into. And, you know, as a kid I had to decide do I want a floor to step on in my room, or do I want my bass amp and my bass. And obviously I chose to have the bass and the bass amp.
So, you know, to get into bed I would have to climb over my bass amp, and yeah, it was a strange childhood, especially, you know, because my dad is 6'6", and I'm 6'5", and my brother is 6'5", and we're all these tall dudes. There's one place in the boat where my dad could actually stand up fully, which is right in the middle of the boat there. And so, you know, we would all kind of find ourselves standing right there face to face because it was the only place we could actually all stand.
GROSS: So when you were sailing around Central America, what were the musical parts of that voyage like?
BISCHOFF: We as a family kind of made a family band, and we would set up our instruments on top of the boat because we couldn't all fit down below in the boat. And sometimes we would have little concerts where everyone would take their little inflatable raft and tie up to the side of our boat with little hors d'oeuvres and cocktails and stuff like that.
And then we would perform some music, and we would invite whoever - whatever other boats were around to come and join us. And so we had these kind of crazy concerts where 30 rafts just kind of anchored out in the middle of the bay, and we would play just whatever tunes people knew. None of our family were really that keen on singing or anything. So we were always looking for people that just happened to have an acoustic guitar on their boat and sang, and we would back them up. And a lot of Jimmy Buffett songs, of course.
BISCHOFF: And of course I didn't really listen to that music at all, and I decided I wasn't going to listen to that music. So what it forced me to do was learn how to play really quickly on my toes. I would watch their fingers and anticipate where the chords were going to go. And it was actually amazing training because I could play "Margaritaville" and have never heard the song and not actually miss a beat.
And so very strange...
GROSS: I was expecting stories about indigenous music, not "Margaritaville."
BISCHOFF: Well yeah, there was that, too. There was that, too. There was that, too. Yeah, we would go ashore and find different singers or whatever instrument and try to play with different people from villages or cities and things like that. But, you know, sadly, a lot of them wanted to play American songs, and we were always wanting to play Latin songs and things.
So we would kind of trade off, and we would play a Doors song, and they would play something, something more traditional for them. And so I feel like my music always ends up subtly having a little bit of Latin sound in it. The rhythms and things like that I think I'll never be able to - not that I would ever want to get rid of them - but get rid of them.
GROSS: You actually have a Latin American singer on your album, Caetano Veloso.
BISCHOFF: Yeah, one of my favorite singers of all time.
GROSS: And why is he one of your favorites?
BISCHOFF: Just his voice is so silky smooth and beautiful and everything that I think of when I think of Portuguese and Brazilian music; he personifies that, and it's a beautiful sound.
GROSS: Jherek Bischoff will be back in the second half of the show. His new album is called "Composed." Here's the track with singer Caetano Veloso. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CAETANO VELOSO: (Singing) Torn from the mountainside and the mind we melt in the (unintelligible)....
GROSS: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with composer and musician Jherek Bischoff. His new album "Composed," features songs mostly written by him, with arrangements he wrote for strings, horns and percussion. The guest performers include: David Byrne, Caetano Veloso and Nels Cline.
Let's get back to your story.
GROSS: When we left off you were talking about growing up on a sailboat. And then when you were around 15, sailing around the coast of Central America playing with a lot of other musicians who you met along the way. Did you ever get lost or did you ever get into potential shipwreck situations? Any "Life of Pi" scenes?
BISCHOFF: Actually, that movie was incredible in some of its imagery that I don't know if the director spent time on the ocean or not, but some of that imagery was so close to things that I personally experienced it was unbelievable. One time, I was helping a friend sail from Mexico to Hawaii, and I was out in the middle of the ocean, and suddenly the ocean went completely still and there was no clouds in the sky, which is actually kind of rare for out in the middle of the ocean. And the wind totally stopped and the ocean was perfectly glassy and, at one point, the stars were a perfect mirror image with the sea. And all of a sudden, I completely lost my sense of direction and which way was up and which way was down, and I felt like I was floating in space because it was just stars completely surrounding me. And I had some amazing magical moments like that that were fairly close to that in "Life of Pi."
GROSS: Let's talk about your father's music, 'cause this was probably part of the music background, you know, part of the soundtrack of your childhood.
GROSS: He was in a band called Amra Arma.
BISCHOFF: That's right. Yeah.
BISCHOFF: Yeah. They were some crazy fellas.
GROSS: Yeah. Talk a little bit about his music.
BISCHOFF: Yeah. So yeah, my dad plays way weirder music than I will probably ever play. He and his band mates, to be in the band you had to build something gigantic, basically. So some of them would build these huge synthesizers and some of them would build enough speakers to completely surround an audience inside of a space. And some of them would build all these crazy contraptions. And back then synthesizers weren't really a thing and they were just starting to be developed, so they would build these masks and create synthesizers that you could play with your tongue and, you know, play synthesizers with their tongues while they were all beating on gigantic drum sets and things like that. And I've been told that the idea behind the band was to try to summon the essence of Conan, and try to get to a point where they were playing music and they could look out into the audience and see like a Conan civilization happening. And...
GROSS: And this is as in the comic book "Conan the Barbarian"...
BISCHOFF: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Not the, this was like before the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
BISCHOFF: Yes. Yes. Yeah. Yeah, they were all really into comic books and things like that, obviously. And, yeah, and they said they - or my dad says that they actually succeed once that they were playing and they all saw a Conan civilization out there. And so, yeah.
GROSS: Was it fun to have a father who was playing really eccentric music, and who had a really eccentric vision for the band, you know, of this kind of like sword and sorcery comic book fantasy? Or was it awkward? I don't know how conventional your friends were.
BISCHOFF: My friends were not conventional, for sure. So yeah, it made life pretty easy for me to feel comfortable and confident in what I was doing and they were always very supportive. And, of course, at one point the only way I could rebel was to be a sports fanatic, so I was really into baseball for a little while.
BISCHOFF: And they were supportive of that too. But then I quickly got the music bug and left the sports behind for the better. And my dad and my brother both play in my orchestras whenever I'm playing in Seattle and they came out to New York to play in one of my orchestras and so they're very close to what I do.
GROSS: So one more thing. Since we were talking about growing up on a sailboat that was usually docked, except for the couple of years you spent sailing around Central America...
GROSS: ...what kind of apartment do you live in now?
BISCHOFF: Well, currently, I have like I guess a three-bedroom apartment with my girlfriend and it's pretty much a standard apartment. But, you know, it's to me it's just super huge and, you know, being able to actually stretch out and things, it still amazes me every night when I go to bed and I stretch all the way out and I go, wow, I can really, really do this. But, you know, it's also made life convenient in the way that I struggled to be a musician for so long, and for a while I lived in my friend's closet and lived in these tiny, tiny places. But to me, like I remember this one time sleeping in my van and I had like a soda or something and I was watching "Amelie" on my laptop while I was laying there and there was the rain coming down on the car and stuff and I was like, this is not so bad, this is pretty good.
BISCHOFF: And, you know, living in my friend's little, tiny closet - which was literally the size of a bed; there was no place to walk, it was just a bed in the closet. And, you know, I recorded music in there. I did all sorts of stuff in there and it felt natural just because I've never really owned anything other than musical instruments, so it's just my clothes and my musical instruments, and so I can kind of fit into any space, even though I'm really tall. So being on tour buses or being in tiny little cars, it never fazes me.
GROSS: So you have an unusual name. It spelled J-H-E-R-E-K. And I've been assuming that it's an Eastern European name?
BISCHOFF: Yeah. That's the closest version, but it's actually science fiction. My dad is a big sci-fi fan and some of his favorite books were by a guy named Michael Moorcock and he had a character called Jherek in some of his books. And so, yeah, my name was either going to be Jherek, Elrick or Hawk Moon. And I think I kind of lucked out.
GROSS: You lucked out.
BISCHOFF: Yeah. My brother's name is Korum, that's the same author, same fella. So, and I actually just recently was put in touch with Michael Moorcock, so we've been exchanging emails and talking about my name and stuff. It's pretty cool.
GROSS: Well, Jherek Bischoff, thank you so much.
BISCHOFF: Thank you.
GROSS: Jherek Bischoff's new album is called "Composed." You can see a couple of videos of songs from the album on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, we listen back to an interview with Annette Funicello, one of the original Mouseketeers. She died yesterday.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.