Depending largely on the sway of one’s internal compass, a casually chaotic might extrapolate rather juxtaposed viewpoints from this statement. Is this disembodied Miller quote beckoning the normalization of an ever-present chaos? Or was he speaking to what it takes to manifest order within it?
Both leanings certainly have their merit, and find strong footholds in the devil’s music that is math rock. Some bands lean in to one approach or the other, but to accomplish both requires an immense amount of time and energy. Giraffes? Giraffes! drummer Ken Topham is no stranger to these extremes. One half of one math rock’s finest and most frenetic duos, the rhythmic complexity with which Topham imbues Joe Andeoli’s already acrobatic guitar riffs has helped the band develop a cult-like following since 2005.
Beyond his work with Giraffes? Giraffes! however lies a surprisingly broad spectrum of work, that ranges from scoring horror films and recording experimental solo albums, to managing Beef Studio while giving drum lessons. He even created a music program from scratch for a public high school.
In this fantastic chat, Ken elaborates on his relationship with multitasking, redefining education, and acknowledging the swirling ooze of chaotic potential within the universe.
FB: Thanks so much for chatting with us Ken, I know you’re busy! So at various times, you’ve sustained multiple projects like film scores, bands, and education all at the same time. When you’re firing on all cylinders like that, I imagine things can be pretty hectic, but also understand that pressure sometimes squeezes the best out of certain creative types. How would you describe your relationship with chaos?
Ken: Nice one! A solid first question. My relationship with chaos… I think it’s good. We’re on good terms. I am always firing on all cylinders because I don’t see or feel any reason not to be. I think everyone should be firing on all cylinders at all times. To me, it doesn’t usually feel hectic. I am always working on multiple projects. Sometimes, maybe, yeah, it can get a little hectic. But it feels so good!! I just always want to be doing something, or know that I will be doing something, to have something else to look forward to once I am done doing what I am doing. I am never bored. I don’t think anyone should be bored. There’s always something to do.
And about my relationship with chaos: I’d have to say there is always an element of controlled chaos to my creative process. There has to be. Right? I think it’s important to acknowledge and respect the idea that chaos is the true root of everything for me; the swirling ooze of potential, I guess (laughs).
And yeah, I’d say that application of some pressure can certainly assist in the squeezing of some good creative juice out of me. It’s great to feel that push because I feel that most of the time it’s an opportunity for me to expand upon my current abilities and perspective, and even break down some barriers I might not have even been aware of, had I not taken on a project. I learn a lot about myself when working under pressure. I get very excited at all the potential possibilities. And I have all this excess energy that I need to release! So it’s good for me to have a means to channel it and focus it on something productive. I just like to work on something with the idea that as long as I’m working, I am improving and learning.
I also like coffee. I think anyone who knows me knows I drink coffee. A decent amount of it. I love drinking coffee. It helps me a lot, most of the time. I feel fine.
FB: Now that was a solid first answer, mate. (laughs) So maybe for educational purposes, how would you say chaos factors into the classroom? Is it something that adds or detracts from the saying, “when one teaches, two learn?” I just heard that recently.
Ken: Another solid question. I’d say that learning how to adapt and act appropriately in a variety of situations is something that I think can be done, at least in part, by acknowledging the role of chaos, and being willing to surrender to it every so often. I know I can’t control everything and everyone in every situation, all of the time. I don’t even want to do that. Who would? That sounds really stressful.
My goal isn’t to instill absolute conformity and/or obedience from my students. That’s not why they come to me to learn. That’s not why I took lessons when I was a kid. I think it takes a lot of trust on the part of a student to feel good about letting a teacher into their space; to accept that what they are being taught is actually valuable and applicable in a practical sense, especially when we’re talking about performing arts. People guard their creativity.
Each student and each teacher brings their own respective chaos to the scene. But the student is there because they trust that the teacher will help them find and develop a sense of order and technique in their chaos, while still nurturing and encouraging their individuality. Chaos definitely reinforces the saying “when one teaches, two learn,” in my opinion.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach because it really is a different kind of game. It requires me not only to force myself to accept that I am actually a qualified musician and to act on that idea, but also to find fun and practical ways for my students to be better musicians. I want them to actually acknowledge the joy they get from playing and to want to be better musicians on their own. For me to hope to do these things requires constant introspection, critical self-evaluation, and reflection on my own practice.
FB: In your website bio, it mentions you studied under composer Ted Mann: are we talking Ted Mann of Harp of David Records, or the Ted Mann of NYPD Blue fame?
Ken: Nope and No. My Ted Mann is wa-a-a-ay better than those guys (laughs). My Ted Mann is the composer and guitarist, based in southern New Hampshire. Ted has been my teacher and good friend
for about 20 years. He is extremely knowledgeable. A prolific composer and excellent dude. I was a student in several of his ensembles, as well as his music history and compositional techniques classes during my undergraduate studies. I was definitely not the most responsible student!
For some reason, Ted went way above and beyond the level of most professors, regarding his concern for my presence (or lack thereof) in his classes and ensembles. I remember him pounding on my door on more than one occasion to remind me that I need to be in class/rehearsal… or that I’d just missed his class, entirely. He definitely let me know that he gifted me with a “Gentleman’s ‘C’” in a few of his classes (laughs). He also bought me lots of cheeseburgers after rehearsals when I was performing his music. I think that might be how he ended up getting me to go to class! By luring me with food! (laughs) I learned so much just hanging out with Ted during the time I spent with him between rehearsals and classes.
Ted continues to provide me with a lot of opportunities to perform his original compositions in different venues, with different ensembles. He taught me advanced compositional and analytical techniques, from strict Renaissance Counterpoint methods to modern, microtonal notation and electronic compositional concepts. I still take private composition lessons with him. We’ve been working out of the “Theory Of Harmony” book by Arnold Schoenberg since the first day! My favorite book. I could study from that book for the rest of my life.
FB: I’m sorry, but just how many Ted Menn are there?
Ken: (laughs) Nice. Perhaps there are too mennyy Menn, my man. You ever see Highlander? There can be only one.
(Editor’s Note: It turns out, for all Ken knew about his friend and mentor, Tedd Mann WAS Tedd Mann of David Records fame, unbeknownst to him! But Ken let us know almost immediately afterwards in an email that this was the case, and if there’s two things we love around here, it’s math rock, and STONE COLD FACTS so here we are!)
FB: I actually did see Highlander, but only because of the Herman Cain Bad Lip Reading video. (laughs) For the majority of Giraffes’ musical journey, the band has released and recorded everything fairly DIY. What was the biggest noticeable change when you chose to work with Topshelf Records on the latest release? What’s the most important thing you learned from the label experience?
Ken: Working with Topshelf was a great learning experience for sure. They are super nice people with great intentions. They run a clean show. One of the biggest changes I noticed was the help they gave us with distribution and promotion. They were able to get our records out in more places around the world. They had connections that we didn’t have before working with them. Another really great thing I noticed about working with Topshelf was how supportive they were. There were times when they really made us feel like we had someone in our corner. It was a good feeling to have.
They were very supportive and sympathetic to the creative vision Joe and I had for our ‘Memory Lame’ record. They were pretty hands-off about the whole thing, which was very familiar at some points, and we were grateful for the space they gave us. Being on a record label roster, we obviously weren’t always at the forefront and center of their attention. Sometimes there was some waiting.
As a guy who likes to be firing on all cylinders, I want to be moving forward, constantly. I learned that collaborative effort on a project requires all parties to work together, make compromises, and respect each other on a professional level. Probably the most important things I learned from the label experience- be proactive, not reactive. Don’t compromise a creative idea. Ask for help if I need it. Don’t jump to conclusions. Be a pro.
FB: When you completed your double BA in Music Composition and Music History & Literature, did you picture yourself blazing a trail through the relatively odd world of math rock? Were you listening to any math rock at the time?
Ken: I have always pictured myself blazing my own trail… yeah, always. Incidentally, I love hiking and backpacking, by the way. It’s one of my favorite things to do- blazing trails for real. Literally. I spend as much time out in the natural world as possible. Anyway, so when I completed my undergraduate studies in 2004, the only thing I pictured was moving to Santa Cruz, California. That is it. No plan. I had a good friend who had moved out there the previous year. He played bass and had a portable Roland digital 8-track recorder. I could stay with him. I had no plan! Just move to Cali, get a job, and make just enough money to stay alive and write music in paradise. Joe (Andreoli) was friends with the same guy that I was friends with, and he moved out not long after me. Joe and I had been hanging out and noodling around already, for a little while, back in New Hampshire. But GIRAFFES? GIRAFFES! really was truly, spontaneously born in Santa Cruz.
I definitely did not know what “math rock” was by name. I don’t think Joe and I ever sat down and decided to do anything in particular, stylistically. He and I grew up listening to a lot of very different kinds of music. But… I mean, I’d been introduced to American Don by Don Caballero while interning at a summer music camp. I didn’t understand what was going on or how they were doing some of what I heard because I didn’t know that they were using effects pedals to do some of the stuff they were doing. I had no idea. Another friend had played me Hold Your Horse Is by Hella, which completely scrambled my brain, and then also Beautiful Rainbow by Lightning Bolt. All of these ended up being major game-changing albums for me and my approach to drumming and songwriting. I made no effort to find this music. It found me. I threw a lot of conventional shackles and garbage right out the brain window forever, and felt so validated and lighter, in a way. I’d been listening to “Calculating Infinity” by Dillinger Escape Plan– still a personal favorite. I love Chris Pennie. I love secretly putting “43% Burnt” on the jukebox at the bar and watching the unsuspecting regulars just get soooo thoroughly pissed when it kicks in, just glaring around the room, searching for the asshole who did it (laughs). I guess I’d just never really heard the term ‘Math Rock.’ It makes sense, I guess.
FB: Did you always see film score in your future? Or did you just seize the right opportunity and go from there?
Ken: Scoring for film has always been something I’ve been into. For as long as I can remember, I have always been very interested in the musical score and sound design in television, films, video games, and especially in cartoons. Did I always see it as something I would actually be doing at some point in my future? Not always. While I was at school, I decided to take an Electronic Music Studio class so I could have access to the production lab. No one else ever used it. No one. Never. There was this fully equipped and functional electronic music lab, hidden in plain sight!
I would get so immersed in composition projects while working in that lab that I slept on the floor in there on a couple of occasions. I was eventually partnered with a student in the Film department to collaborate and provide musical accompaniment and sound overdubs for one of his short film production projects. I remember it feeling so fun! I didn’t want to do anything else.
I guess, in a way this was me seizing an opportunity, but I feel more so that it was my teacher recognizing that I needed something challenging to work on, and providing me with an assignment to keep me busy. Because of this collaboration’s success, I was eventually contacted by the head of the Dance department and partnered with a modern dance student. I composed an original piece of electro-acoustic music to accompany her original, modern dance choreography piece.
Both of these compositions- the film score and the modern dance accompaniment- went on to be nominated for (and win) some awards for “academic excellence” or something similarly worded. I think my name might be on a plaque somewhere. The whole point of that story is this- I was presented with opportunities to expand as an artist and didn’t squander them nor did I come up with excuses to avoid the challenge of working out of my comfort zone. Stay in school! Or don’t! It’s your choice!
FB: For people unfamiliar with your solo work, or even GG, your score for Chris Almeida’s short film Bloody Mary might contain surprising levels of personality. Other than being a “unique electro-acoustic experience,” what can you tell us about the difference between writing movie music and writing drums to Joe’s guitars? Or perhaps they’re more similar than I realize?
Ken:Well, thank you for the compliment! Chris and I go waaaaay back. He’s been making these skits and short films for about 20 years. Much of the same core group of friends continue to take part in the skits and short films he makes. Chris and a bunch of that crew actually helped me out with the music video we made for GIRAFFES? GIRAFFES! “Hug Of Death.”
Chris is a guy who sparks creativity in me every time we get together. He embraces chaos and spontaneity. He isn’t hesitant to just capture the raw idea and move on. It’s always fun working and hanging out with him. This was the first of his projects to feature an original score. I approached him about it and he was very receptive to it. I think the collaboration on “Bloody Mary” definitely opened some doors for both of us.
I guess I’d say I see my role in both settings- scoring for film and writing with Joe- as purely functional or utilitarian more so than anything else. I think my role is to provide appropriate support to enrich and emphasize an idea. “What does it need?” “Where is there space to fill?” “How can I enhance this without being a distraction?” If I am doing my job right, everyone will benefit mutually.
There is an episode of Futurama (my favorite show) in which the voice of ‘God’ proclaims to Bender “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” This means something to me. It makes sense to me. And I like it. When I’m scoring for film, I’m almost always left completely to my own devices. I am my own regulator. I typically write, perform, and record everything myself when I am working on solo projects, so I am free to compose and experiment, and express myself however I want. Since I don’t need to communicate anything to anyone in a collaborative sense, I don’t need to compromise any of my raw, personal, chaotic creativity. I can calculate my own work and compose at my own pace, in my own language, as I deem necessary and appropriate- ultimate freedom!
Yeah… sure Ken, real nice… BUT… This model of operation has proven many times over that it can be a blessing AND a curse. Sometimes I just feel thoroughly cursed. Sometimes the idea can be overwhelming and detrimental – the good ol’ ‘analysis paralysis!’ By obsessing, overanalyzing, poking, prodding, and teasing what initially feels like a great idea, I will just murder it and leave myself sitting there, all pissed off, with no one to blame but my own stupid brain, that I just wasted ‘x’ amount of hours producing nothing. Then I need to go for a walk; or
just go to bed and sleep it off.
Writing with Joe, our creations obviously exist within a loose set of stylistic parameters. We rely on each other’s parts equally throughout the creative process. It is 100% collaborative and we can always blame each other for screwing it up or taking too long or whatever else (laughs). We can work together and obsess over making an idea as good as we both think it can be. Sometimes this process of each of us lobbying our respective points for an idea can be tiring. But we respect each other’s opinion and always try everything before we decide what stays and what gets chopped. From time to time we will even trade instruments if one of us has an idea that we think the other one should explore.
Sometimes my angle of approach to a guitar part is very different from Joe’s. Sometimes Joe will sit down at the drum kit and play something I never would have thought to play. It’s very helpful to have a collaborative partner. I feel like we are constantly challenging and pushing each other into new territory. I am grateful to have Joe, an awesome friend and inspiring creative partner in my life.
FB: You have a solo collection called Synesthesia from 2010, containing some of your most sparse yet emotionally charged material. Is the phenomenon of synesthesia close to you personally? Was it close to the collaborators involved for those recordings?
Ken: To some degree, yeah, synesthesia is something I have always experienced. I get some cross talk between the wires of my senses when it comes to certain words, sounds, smells, textures, whatever. But by saying that I experience synesthesia, I seriously don’t want to seem like I’m attempting to make myself sound cool, or more interesting, or set myself apart from people, or anything at all, fancy like that. I believe that maybe everyone experiences the phenomenon to some degree? Maybe?
I think it could be from any number of experiences or influences over the course of my life. I don’t talk about it. I don’t bring it up at parties. I guess I don’t really go to parties, anyway. But, it’s just something that happens. It bothers me when people try to make themselves seem weird or remarkable or interesting by wedging something like this into conversation to influence someone’s perception of them. I’m bored already. I honestly don’t even know if the other players on the album experience synesthesia. I didn’t ask any of them! (laughs) I’d be willing to bet that some of them would probably say they do, to some extent. I don’t know. I would believe them. They’re not liars.
This entire project was completed in 31 days. This was my contribution to another musical game challenge Joe made up, called “Make An Album In A Month.” Of course I took the parameters of the game and went way overboard about it (laughs). I love games! This project was a lot of fun. It’s hard to make an album in a month and feel comfortable releasing it. A month is not a long time.
FB: You and Joe recently remastered your latest album, Memory Lame. Was remastering the album more for the sake of narrative approach or for the sake of changing sonic elements within the record? Was dividing the album into 37 chapters part of the plan all along?
Ken: Yes, it was part of the original plan. TS was into the idea, but stressed that it would be very beneficial for everyone if there could be some notion of a marketable “single.” See? That is definitely understandable! (laughs) Part of our original idea was to make it virtually impossible for people to stream it because the track index would be on such a micro-scale that each tiny section of each piece was its own chapter. So, a while ago The Melvins released an album called The Maggot where they indexed each song on the album as two separate tracks- the first half of the first song was track 1, the second half of it was track 2, etc. If you were to shuffle it, all the different sections would jumble up and you’d hear tiny fragments of each piece like you took the whole album and chopped it up in a blender.
I loved this idea. I think it pissed some people off when we did it to the degree that we did. We got into the concept of “what if we release/index it in a variety of consumable levels/formats?”
Thinking fractally: we wanted to have a version where the listener is able to zoom all the way in on each atomic micro-section of a piece, thus 37 chapters digital release. Then zoom out to a version where those little micro-pieces combined to form each of the six main compositional forms and were indexed individually, thus the CD version. Then zoom out further to a version where each half of the full album played without interruption, thus the vinyl LP version and I think the cassette(?). And then finally zoom all the way out to a version where there was no break at all, just a 42 minute piece where all the major sections segued and dove-tailed together with no pause at all, thus the ‘realized’ version of digital release.
An idea like this can only stem from obsession, relentless scrutiny, attention to detail, and too much coffee!!! (laughs) We had such a fun time messing around with all the possibilities. Mastering it was confusing (laughs).
FB: Confusing seems like an understatement at that point! (laughs) Speaking of statements, your artwork is immediately recognizable, and always does a great job at visually paraphrasing the complexity of the records they represent… that is to say, other than that UNHOLY image of a cloud of spiders descending a nondescript white wall, which graces the cover of your split with Goddard, and haunts my dreams forever. What prompted you to use this image?
Ken: (laughing) Oof. Oh man that picture… this was the one time I relinquished creative control for G?G! art and layout- not that there was any hostile takeover or anything! We let Goddard take the art/layout reins, since they were really managing a lot of the coordination for the rest of the manufacturing. I did not select that image. But I think it is certainly… effective… (laughs)
I think Anne (bass, Goddard) at one point said something about how our piece reminded her of spiders, maybe because of some of the lyrics. We mention “billions of tiny webs connecting everything.” That is a photo of…millions..?.. of baby spiders hatching from a single egg. If you’ve ever actually seen spiders hatching from an egg, you know that it is the essence of horror.
FB: When you make a piece for Giraffes, are we getting more of a subjective glimpse into the inner workings of your mind, or a snapshot of things you see within the music? I guess those two could ultimately be one and the same as well.
Ken: I would have to say there is always a balance between the two. If you look at my visual works,I’m sure you’d be able to identify some familiar, recurring themes. I think that would probably be a peek into the inner workings of my mind. But our music always evokes visuals for me that are usually the center that the rest of the piece will begin to build from. Again, I feel like my role in the process is to simply provide appropriate means to enrich and guide the idea as it evolves into itself.
Something I think about a lot when I am creating anything is that I don’t want to feel like I am informing anyone of how to perceive or approach the finished product. I always like being able to create
my own associations and interpretations and establish a unique relationship with the art and music I love. I’m not usually into it when someone I respect comes out to spoon-feed an audience and say “this is exactly what I meant when I wrote this. This is the literal connection of the art to the music. There is no other way to interpret it.” It can potentially take a lot of enjoyment out of a thing for me, when that happens.
FB: In a world where so much of the established order seems to sway in the breeze, what keeps education important to you? Do you have a favorite part of teaching?
Ken: Education is paramount. Education is the only way forward. It has the potential to be the most reliable way for us to improve the quality and integrity of our social construct. I believe that the idea of “education” is in need of redefining in the general sense.
To me, an education is so much more than just the memorization, recitation and regurgitation of systematic instructions. An education shouldn’t be anchored in social obedience, nor blind faith in authority. An education should be an enlightening experience. It needs to be. I don’t think this is something that can be established exclusively in a classroom environment. I think it is important to provide a person with both the tools and practical opportunities to succeed, and then for them to experience success, as well as failure, as a result of being given that chance and to use what knowledge and wisdom they’ve been provided in a practical and functional way.
I feel that this experience is something that stands to instill a sense of empathy in a person that enriches and provides depth to their character by giving them a sense of relation to their peers, which could then, in theory, stand to enrich the quality of everything.
FB: Do you have any advice for other educators or students on the merit of knowing the rules before you break them, or is that something you think is important?
Ken: I believe in knowing the ‘rules’ before you break them. I’m pretty firm on the merit of the active pursuit of knowledge (laughs). But, being a person who is familiar with the ‘rules,’ I also understand there are always exceptions to every rule (laughs). Really though, I believe there is absolutely no good reason to not know the rules. This knowledge provides more options. Who wouldn’t want more creative options? An idiot, that’s who. Why wouldn’t you want to know more about how to communicate in a language? The more I know, the more fun it gets. I can really start to play. It becomes more of a game. More fun.
We don’t learn the function of our alphabet before we attempt to communicate. We don’t learn how to spell before we talk. We start talking first, because we have something to say. We circle back
around to the rules later on, once we’ve developed some basic conversational skills. In this sense, I am saying that I think it’s important for people to get out there and learn by doing. Play, write, perform, etc. with as many people as possible. You can always circle back around to learning the rules when you’re ready to have a more substantive conversation. They’ll always be there.
People who try to convince themselves that learning the rules will somehow hinder their creativity should seriously slap themselves in the face. For real. If you think that by spending time learning how to be better at something you like to do; by developing your comprehension of why you are enjoying doing it; by adding dimension to your existing appreciation of it, that you will somehow be worse off for having pursued that angle, you should walk to the closest mirror, look yourself in the eye and slap yourself in the face.
Frank Zappa said “without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” I think it’s important to know what the “norm” is before I can begin making progress.
FB: Do you have any mechanisms for breaking out of option paralysis when you have too many potential projects or ideas on the horizon? How do you choose where to focus your time and energy?
Ken: Time management is crucial. I’ve been using a calendar a lot more in the past couple years to help with planning and staying organized. I wish there was more time. I wish the days were longer. I wish the planet was a little bit bigger, and took a little bit longer to rotate. Or I wish my body could function without needing to eat or sleep. There just isn’t enough time to accomplish everything I want. I’ve decided that the best way for me to operate is to prioritize my work in order by difficulty.
I will knock all the quick and easy stuff out of the way in order to devote more of my time and creative energy to more substantial projects. I just need to control myself and plan my time to not allow a slow trickle of “easy” projects to keep me from the bigger ones.
I’m also a dad and a husband. Having a completely different set of priorities certainly helps provide some awesome opportunities for breaking out of the ‘option paralysis.’ Maybe I’ll just say “screw this, I don’t feel like doing it today. I have something far more important and rewarding to do with my time.” I’ll put everything on hold and just go to the park or to the aquarium with my family and have a great time bonding with my boys and some beluga whales. Or we’ll go hiking, or just throw rocks in a stream for a while. Completely unwinding. Spending time in the woods always seems to help me organize my thoughts. Sometimes it helps to just shut them off entirely and be in the wide open natural space.
FB: Are you working on anything exciting right now other than new stuff for Giraffes?
Ken: Actually yes! I’m working on a bunch of projects! I’M SO BUSY!!! (laughs) I’m working on a cache of new material for GG- we’re actually going into the studio to record something at the beginning of March and then we will be doing a few runs of shows this year. I’ve also been in the process of finishing up a bunch of material for a new collection of original music I plan to release sometime this year. I just had my entire solo back catalogue of albums remastered, and plan to release all that some time this year. I have been working on creating notated scores and parts for a lot of my music. I’ll eventually be making those available for download on my website. I’ve also been talking a lot with Joe DiMaio (bassist of Bulletproof Tiger) about a collaboration. He sent me a collection of pieces for drum kit and bass guitar duo setup to work on that is blowing my mind. He is such a sick player. I have been working on some percussion contributions to a piece by Ted Mann as well. Just staying busy…
FB: Alright, before we let you get back to it. What does it mean to you personally to always be focused on growing as a musician?
Ken: It means I need to keep my nets open. They’re always wide open. Like a spider web. Just ready to be inspired by anything that sticks, at any moment. To be focused on growth is to entertain any opportunity in any form that stands to provide growth, and add depth and dynamics to my abilities and perception.
I am growing by being willing to put myself in a position where I am not comfortable or familiar and must adapt to succeed or fail. I am growing beyond my physical borders by sharing my passion for the beauty of music via performance, composition, collaboration, and education. To be growing is to be sensitive and vulnerable to new influences; to remain receptive to any of the infinite possibilities within the chaos!