Chung Horn Lee interviews Jason Ball
1.What was the first record you owned?
Motley Crue “Theatre of Pain”
2. How did you come up with the name Hopeful Monster? It’s all mainly just you, isn’t it?
Hopeful Monster is a term that archaeologists use to explain gaps if the fossil record. A hopeful monster is the offspring of an animal of one species that is different enough from its parent that it has to be considered a different species. Like if a horse gave birth to a unicorn.
It was just me at first, then my room-mate Paul Aucoin helped me record an album of my songs. Now Paul is busy with other bands (The Sadies, The American Flag) but I have a 6 piece band that plays songs from the album and some new naterial. Their names are Andy Patil, Damien Moynihan, Dale Murray, Dave Christensen and Greg Fry.
3. You live in rural Nova Scotia. What is it like?
It’s beautiful, I grew up here so I can’t help loving it. My studio is near the ocean in a little valley called “Rocky Holler.” There are trees everywhere except a little marsh between my house and the beach. Mostly the coastline is pretty rocky and wild, I think its romantic. Very quiet too, I find it inspiring, easier to concentrate than in the city.
4. Why did you call your studio Nervous System and what do you use in the studio?
Because I wasn’t very confident about it when I started—but I also like the double meaning: it’s the nerve centre of all my recording projects, so in a way it helps me organize my inklings into gestures.
Basically its computer-based—I use a mac with Pro-Tools, and some other software. I like to use vintage analog pre-amps, amplifiers and effects to give the sounds some grit—digital recording is very clean, some people think its TOO clean, but if you can get good sounds at the input stage, they’ll sound EXACTLY the same during playback.
My friend Brenndan McGuire owns some of the studio’s best gear—he has recorded albums with Sloan, By Divine Right, Sam Roberts and A LOT of other Canadian artists. We use his mixing console, a YAMAHA PM 2000 from the mid-seventies. Parliament and Ted Nugent both recorded albums on it.
5. What’s it like now where you live--are people against the US-Iraqi war?
Opinion is divided, but most of my friends are artists and they tend to be pacifists. Plus they don’t have much to gain from it—many of the supporters of the war are involved in economic machinery that depends on the kind of foreign policy that this war is meant to protect. They lose their jobs when the companies they work for aren’t able to turn resources into profit. Artist don’t make any money anyway, so they have nothing to lose, and they’re used to looking at things with that in mind. Personally, I’m interested in the question of sovereignty versus world government.
6. I have a friend whom I played your record for. He was shocked because he felt that you existed for other people, because your music had touched him so intimately. Your thoughts?
I’m happy to hear your friend felt that way about our music. I think people carry around a lot of references in the back of their minds, they make categories of things they like and don’t like—when they find something that reflects their own preferences, it’s like they “couldn’t have said it better themselves.” I always think I’m too self-absorbed, but I kind of hope that by pursuing my own instincts, I will become part of a community made up of those whose instincts have lead them in the same directions. In the end, its really a big, never-ending conversation between me & you & your friend & Todd Rundgren & all the other artists who have touched each of us in the way your friend describes.
7. "Daily Electric" reminds me so much of the Elephant 6 bands--the baroque arrangements, the vocals, the harmonies. Are you a fan?
I’ve heard some Elf Power I really liked, but to be honest I’m not very familiar with most of the roster. That’s the third comparison though, so I better check it out!
8. How long have you been writing songs and making music?
I started playing piano when I was three or four—picking out melodies, just fooling around. I took some lessons for a few years when I was a teenager, started playing guitar and writing songs when I was about sixteen.
9. How did you get your record released on Brobdingnagian?
My friends’ band the Heavy Blinkers had a couple of records out with the label, so they introduced me to Dennis Stewart (label owner) and we talked about it, made some plans and out it came!
10. Do you have a day-job?
Not really—between producing records at the studio and working as a lighting technician for local film & TV productions, I’m able to dig myself out of debt a couple times a year. Now the record’s been out for almost a year, I’m starting to see some royalty money, and the band makes a little. I’ve never been able to fully get into my music projects unless I have some time and space to let the ideas sprawl—Contract work is better for me in that way, but the income is unpredictable, so it’s a double-edged sword.
11. If you had to give yourself a job reference, what would you say?
Depends on the job, I guess. I hope its one that will let me give them CDs instead of a resume—in that case, I’d give them the hopeful monster CD and the new Heavy Blinkers CD (produced at Nervous System), because they both demonstrate my ability to write and record music that is (I think) both original and accessible.
12. My favorite song on your album is "Universal Donor" .Since you referred to “my own blood would be rejected”, may we assume you know what blood type is a universal donor?
Yeah, again with the double meaning—I’m type O. Now I’m not sure if that’s the right blood type, but it doesn’t really matter if you take it metaphorically—it’s the self-sacrifice that’s the focus of the song. The idea is that we hope to benefit society by suffering all the big & little blows that fate deals us—it costs us, but we pass on wisdom to save others the experience.
13. But seriously, I love the pedal steel and the way the melody wends its way up and up when you sing “….but I missed the cup”.
14. This album sounds like it took some time to record. Would you work differently next time?
Definitely. I had to do it that way because it was my first record (as a producer, anyway…) but the next one will be a lot more stripped down. We’re working on songs now for a recording session in July—we want to get all our ya-yas out while we’re rehearsing and record only the best parts of these brainstorms. This way we do the exploring outside the studio. But there’ll still be plenty of experiments when we record—hopefully more sonic than musical though. I’d like to have a clearer vision of the songs, BEFORE we start tracking.
15. What do you think is holding back the Canadian music scene from taking the world?
There are plenty of Canadians who have made big impressions on the world music scene—Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Shania Twain & lots more—but mostly they have come into world focus through the American music industry. There just isn’t the market potential in Canada to pour the kind of money into a wide variety of artists that the American companies do. But more and more small-scale artists are able to create international opportunities in a grass-roots way: separate licensing for different territories, with each niche label promoting artists to the extent they can afford. In this sense, there may be dozens of people all working independently worldwide to promote a given artist. With email its not hard to create & maintain these connections. It would be nice to have the money to make a massive media blitz, cuz people will buy things if you tell them enough times—but its rewarding in a different, maybe more important way when there are so many people doing the legwork just cuz they love the music.