Talks with David Helpling and
Jon Jenkins about Treasure


 

David Helpling

 

Jon Jenkins


Visit David's website
Visit Jon's website

 

 

Treasure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Treasure:
Ambient Visions Talks with....David Helpling and Jon Jenkins
©2007 Ambient Visions

AV:  It's always difficult to recount the genesis of a piece of music even when you are the only person involved with the creation of it but when it is a collaborative effort I would assume it becomes even more of a task. Who had the first inkling of Treasure as a viable project and what was it that made this idea jump out at you and pull you into it?

DH:  Well, the way we were brought together had us both creating music as a team to begin with. A filmmaker by the name of Chris Cummings contacted Spotted Peccary and was a fan of both of our work.  He was finishing his film False Summit, and specifically wanted Jon and I to create the score for it together.  We hit it off during those sessions and there was no shortage of ideas or inspiration. In fact we would often go off on this kind of furiously fueled improvisation thing where we were just coming up with ideas and parts and could barely keep up with it.  We never had a plan when this kind of thing was happening, and the result of most of those moments was gorgeous and inspired; and ultimately far too epic for what the film was calling for.  We would sometimes spend an entire day on a piece of music that we were both really excited about, never speaking of what or why we were doing it, knowing that it wasnít for the film.  After the film was completed we had a handful of ideas that were bigger than the two of us. My memory for details is much duller than Jonís but I think we both just knew that we had to see our musical relationship through in some sort of record project, but I donít remember when it was official.  So to answer your question Ė I donít recall exactly. We started writing a film score and then we were planning to produce a record together?  It was the songs that we had come up with that pulled us into the record. 

JJ:  I remember, weíd begun work on the False Summit score when the director decided he wanted to do a pretty extensive re-cut of the picture, which meant the scoring was put on hold for a while.  By that time David and I had realized we were working pretty well together and decided to take advantage of the break from the film to continue working on music while the ideas were flowing.  I think six of the tracks on Treasure came from those early sessions and three of those are pretty much unchanged musically since then.

AV:  Prior to Treasure what kind of working relationship did the two of you have and what was it that originally drew the two of you together in regards to playing on each other's projects?

JJ:  I've always felt a pretty strong connection to David's music, and I think there are certain similarities in our sound and the sonic environments we create.  In our solo works, we seem to be coming from the same creative place a lot of the time.  That's not to say that we sound exactly like each other, just that our music hits people in similar ways. 

When I was working on Flow, I knew I wanted to bring in a lot of ambient guitar textures but the only problem was that I wasnít a very good guitar player.  I didnít even own a guitar at the time.  So I called on guys like David, and Howard Givens and Jeff Pearce, because I thought they were all creating some of the best and most beautiful guitar based sounds I had ever heard.  My second record, Beyond City Light, was recorded after the False Summit sessions, so I knew from day one that David would be much more involved on some of those tracks.

DH:  Getting to contribute to Beyond City Light was a treat Ė the songs were so driven and bold.  Now that I think about it, I remember feeling anxious and really inspired to work with Jon after that.  The things he was doing on that record hit very close to home for me. I could feel a shift in everything after that.

AV:  Once the inspiration for Treasure solidified what were some of the initial steps that you took so that the two of you were on the same page in regards to where the project should go and what it should look like?

DH:  There werenít really any steps to take to be on the same page because I think Jon and I are always on the same page.   We just wanted to release a great record that was honest and fulfilled our musical desires.  My relationship with Jon is pretty awesome. He is the closest thing that I have to a best friend, yet he is so mysterious Ė a man of few words Ė and we understand each other completely.  Our egos are always out of the way, and we both just want balance and to have a good time creating music for ourselves.  Treasure was created out of our mutual desire to make music that we are excited about, so there was never a formal plan until we had to get down to release dates and artwork. 

JJ:  The project told us what it needed and where it should go.  We never tried to decide what it should be beforehand.  It simply developed and evolved as we worked, and over time it became clear what form it should take.

AV:  I know that it would be different for every collaboration but how did the two of you work together in writing the music that eventually became Treasure? Do you find it more difficult to do a collaborative project with another musician than it would be if either of you had done the project from start to finish by yourself?

JJ:  Treasure is a true collaboration in every sense of the word.   We started with a blank screen and nothing else.  I think I can safely say that just about every single note on the record was conceived and played while we were both in the studio together.  It's really an exciting way to work because of the instant feedback and response that happens. I can't tell you how many times one of us would be working out a part and the other would pick up on some cool little moment that would have otherwise gone unnoticed and been lost forever.  Working in the studio with David was a real treat.  He has an amazing ability to hear through the mess, and distill a phrase or a part down to itís purest, most honest and beautiful form. 

As far at the collaboration being more difficult, I'd have to say not at all.  If anything it was easier.  We were constantly pushing and inspiring each other to new levels.  In addition, if one of us was having a bad day creatively the other would step in and keep the ideas flowing, or if one of us was really deep in the zone, the other would handle the engineering and technical duties that can often interrupt the creative flow when working alone. 

AV:  What are the advantages of working with another musician on a project? What is it that makes these joint efforts more than the sum of their individual parts?

DH:  Well, we were inspiring each other and the music was just happening all over the place.  The big thing for me was the whole self-doubt issue.  When I write alone I sometimes get into a less confident mode where I am constantly judging every part as I come up with it - wondering if it is good enough.  That kind of situation is artistically very unhealthy and usually leads to dishonest and contrived results.  With the kind of fun, open and totally creative vibe that Jon and I always seem to create in the studio, the music just happens.  We donít judge ourselves, we donít judge each other, we just create, and if something is not working or not serving the song well we just agree that it sucks and try something else.  Every single day that I worked with Jon on this record was looked forward to, remembered and treasured, the most fun Iíve had working on music, ever.  The music always reflected that, it was never a sum of its parts, it was like a third party. Some of the steps that led to the ultimate core of what the song was truly about were so random and inspired that it was difficult to remember what sparked the idea in the first place, but when it happened it was profound. We didnít have to say anything, we just knew that this was what we were searching for. 

AV:  Are the two of you physically near one another? If not do you find that working together long distance is a problem at all these days?

JJ:  We did everything at David's studio, which is a 20 to 30 minute drive from my place.  It's a great drive, mostly on two lane roads winding through the coastal hills.  Lots of open spaces and nice views, so it's a great way to prepare for a day in the studio.  Much better than sitting in traffic on the freeway for an hour, which was my other option.

AV:  What did each of you bring to the table, musically speaking, in regards to Treasure and how is that was reflected in the music that made it into this project?

DH:  Musically we are like cousins. We both play keyboards, percussion and guitar.  My stubborn and defined guitar style often has me creating bold, rhythmic guitar parts, while Jonís approach to the guitar is more new and discovery based. His textured-based guitar forms are totally magical.  We are much closer related in the synthesizer realm. Our chops are almost equal (though he kicks my ass most of the time in this department).  We share the same quest in sounds, expression and impact.  We are both percussionists and we have merged our boxes of drums, bells and shakers into a pile in the recording booth.  I am hung up on Eastern hand drums and bells; I guess thatís what I brought to the project.  Jon is keen on groovy, intricate shaker patterns and big Native American drums and heís all over the place in this record.  So we each have our own passions for instruments and techniques but on every track we are both playing together to create a larger part.  It was never on purpose, but our contributions to everything on this record are totally equal.  We just do what the song is asking for.

JJ:  We certainly brought our individual styles to the table, meaning those elements that make a person say, ďoh, that sounds like JenkinsĒ or ďthatís classic Helpling.ď  However, there was quite a bit of overlap in that area when working on Treasure, and I think people might be at least little bit surprised if they actually knew which one of us played a certain part.  In addition to that, I think there are also moments on the record that donít really sound like anything youíd expect from either one of us, which is something we both feel is important.

AV:  Tell me about the title and what significance it has to the music that is contained on this disc. Is there an underlying theme from track to track that the listener will be able to discern?

JJ:  The title Treasure was originally David's idea.  I liked it right away because it can be noun or verb, it refers to item or action, and thus works on different levels. Treasure can be some special thing that we hold close and cherish, it can refer to an intangible feeling or memory, it can be something that we are seeking, something that we posses, or something that can't be possessed.  In every case it is something special that, for whatever reason, is highly valued.  Itís a great title because it provides this palette of ideas that will hopefully inspire the listener to find their own meanings and discover their own treasures throughout the course of the album.

DH:  I honestly donít recall the moment when the word ďTreasureĒ came out of my mouth, or where the idea came from.  Like Jon said, it speaks of many things that all lead to one point Ė that thing weíve been searching for, a discovery that we value so highly and will never forget.  I suppose it is that underlying element within the record that is revealed to the listener as they go deeper into the cave.  Start with the cover, enter the cave and enjoy all of the profound things that happen on your journey to find this treasure, then go deeper and reach a point of understanding and stillness.  Emerge the other side ever changed and realize that the treasure was the journey itself - that which you now carry inside you.  This metaphor will mean something different for everyone.  For me it is the making of this record and my time with Jon.

AV:  Generally speaking how would you classify the music that the listener will find when they put a copy of this cd in their players?

DH:  Thatís a tough one.  Iíve been fighting the term New Age since the very beginning, straight-up Ambient implies that itís space music, Cinematic implies that we are trying to sound like an orchestra and Electronic implies that we are making the music with a computer.  The truth is that we are doing all of those things.  Labeling music is tough and I still have no answer as to our exact genre.  What do you think we are, Michael?
(editor's note: a review is forthcoming of this CD and I will let the readers of AV what I think of the music on Treasure in more detail. at that time)

AV:  You know David I have always been of the same opinion as both of you. I don't like to classify music by genre because it tends to be limiting in the sense that you have certain expectations just by hearing the name of the genre and if you judge the music simply by that written heading you might miss out on some great music that breaks the mold.  I have different types of music that I like for different things (slow, spacey, tribal etc.) and even blendings of these genres and to me it is either "good music" that I want to listen to over and over again or it is not good music regardless of genre that may or may not ever grace my CD player again. From my initial listenings Treasure is definitely in the category of "good music"  and deserves many listens to get a good feel for the project as a whole. It does cross genres moving from space to rythmic with a good sense for both of those genres. Add a dash of cinematic sounds and you begin to understand why David is having a hard time classifying the music and why he would not want to slap a single descriptive term on this music.

JJ:  Hopefully folks will classify it as ďgood musicĒ.

AV:  How long has Treasure been "in process" and is this a pretty typical time frame for music that you have been involved with in the past?

JJ:  About six years on and off.  Actually more off than on!  As David mentioned earlier, we started working on some of the tracks five or six years ago while we were working on the score for False Summit.  Some of the tracks like Treasure, The Frozen Channel, and Now More Than Ever, were pretty much completed back then.  Then we both got busy with other projects and life in general, so the record got put on the back burner for a few years.  In the meantime I finished Beyond City Light and released it in 2005, with David appearing on three of those tracks.  Working on those tracks together got us excited about getting back to working on Treasure again, so we started back into it whenever our schedules would allow.  We were writing a good amount of material but we were just not able to find the time to put into the project that it deserved.  Then, about a year ago, in June of 2006, we were able to dedicate a solid month to the project, and at that point things really started to come into focus. I did a podcast with David as a guest, and we played some of the tracks that were in progress.  The response to that podcast was so huge, and the tracks were coming together so well, that we knew we needed start clearing our schedules and commit to getting it done.

DH:   We got in some decent chunks of time after that Ė things were really starting to take shape.   We both pushed through the Holidays somehow and then as 2007 hit, things seemed to open upÖlike the universe was saying ďnow is the timeĒ or something.  We did at least 4 days a week for the next 4 months Ė it was a very magical time.  My scoring work became ďon the sideĒ one day a week and I felt like myself again.  Itís a creative way of living that I had not been able to enjoy since back in 99í - before I was a father.  Before we knew it, April was coming to a close and we had to wrap up the final mixes. 

JJ:  So now that weíve made a short answer long, if you add up all the time over the past six years, it probably amounts to about a year of working on the record, and yes I guess that would be pretty typical if we were just releasing albums and nothing else. 

AV:  I was interested to see that you purchased a new domain name to go along with the release of Treasure called http://www.deepexile.com Any message in the name Deep Exile?

DH:  Deep Exile is a name that I created many years ago.  It is the name of my music publishing company and what I call my studio.  I think it was one of the available domains we had in the running and it was the most acceptable.  I wanted something less me and more Treasure but Jon thought it was appropriate.  You should chime in Jon, we were in ďdeep exileĒ for the entire project.

JJ:  Yeah, we wanted a website that would serve as sort of an official ďartistís homeĒ for Treasure specifically, and the music of Helpling and Jenkins in general.  No message in the name.  DeepExile.com was available and itís an easy name to remember, so we went with it.

AV:  Did you have any snags in regards to keeping the Treasure project moving forward while working around your two different schedules?

JJ:  The reason Treasure took six years from start to finish was mainly because we were both extremely busy.  However, once we got to the point where we felt like we had something that was going to be a pretty special album, our schedules opened up a bit and we were able to work around whatever else came up and stay focused on the project pretty much from November of 2006 through April 2007.  It was really during that period that most of the work was done. 

AV:  Did the two of you share production duties on the final mixes and how the finished product would sound?  If not how did you decide who did what in regards to the technical aspects of this project?

DH:  The final production and basic balance of instruments and effects happened the same way the music did.  We each contributed our desires and just tried our best to get it to sound as it should.  Jon did the actual mix and all of the final Equalisation and leveling. He has amazing ears and has really built this skill.  He worked really hard the last 3 weeks or so. I would just chime in and say something like ďmore delay, less bassĒ or something vague like that.  I know I keep saying this but every little decision and tone that he was striving for was pretty much what I wanted.  We both like much of the same things in music and sound, I guess.

AV:  That is a great graphic on the cover of Treasure. Tell me about where that came from and what you were trying to communicate with that particular image in regards to the musical content on the CD?

JJ:   We went through a lot of different ideas for the cover image.  We wanted something stunning and simple, and we had a couple of concepts that we liked, but none of them were really saying, "I'm the one."  Then David pulled up this cave image that he had seen somewhere on the internet.  We put it up next to all of the other ideas we were working with and it really stood out. Itís iconic, epic in scale, and it speaks to the music.  Basically, the image says "Treasure", it's perfect.

AV:  As you were listening to the mixes and going back and forth between the two of you about the progress of the music how did the two of you decide that it was finished and that it was as good as it was going to get?

DH:  Well, you can never work too hard to get a track to be and sound as good as you would like.  These days you never finish crafting a song per se; you just stop working on it and set it free.  We would work really hard on a particular track and put it away and work on another as we felt inspired.  We would talk about it and we knew when it wasnít quite there yet, or if there was still something missing.  Donít get me wrong, Jon and I are quite different on many levels. There weíre several times when one of us really felt strongly that it wasnít right or it was missing something, while the other was more concerned about a different track.  Thatís why itís a good record - what we had in common gave it a bond and a strength, while our differences gave it a polarity and a sense of wonderment.  I think we were also trying to please each other to a certain degree; wanting to contribute something really stunning.  Working with Jon makes me try harder.

JJ:  Itís different with every track. In some cases the clock decides when a track is as good as itís going to get.  Once you are committed to a specific release date, there are certain deadlines that have to be met. When you hit that deadline, the track is as good as itís going to get, regardless of what else youíd like to do to it!  On a very rare occasion a track will be finished immediately.  Beyond Words was the last track we wrote, and it happened instantly.  I think the total time spent on that track from the blank screen to the final mix that you hear on the CD was probably one hour, for sure less than two. But thatís the exception, not the rule!

AV:  So how do the both of you feel now that it is done and it will be available to your listeners very shortly?

JJ:  Initially I was exhausted coming off of the final mixes and wrapping the artwork. It was four very intense and focused months putting everything we had into the project everyday, and we took it right down to the wire.  Now that I've had a few weeks to sit back, resume a somewhat normal life and hold the finished product in my hands, I'm really very eager to get it out into the world for any and all who will listen.  I think we have achieved something very special with Treasure.  I'm quite proud of it.

DH:  I too was pretty beat-up at the end there - leading a double life for the last of couple weeks of production dealing with work projects that I had somehow kept at bay.  Now that the record is off to the presses and things have opened up a bit, there seems to be a bit of a buzz going around about it already - itís an exciting time.  For me personally it is a much-needed return to what I am most passionate about.  To get this much response before
itís released and almost 8 years since my last record is amazing and very welcome. This is what I need to be doing.

AV:  Will the two of you be doing live performances of the material on Treasure in the coming months?

DH:  I donít know. We are both pumped to perform many of the tracks.  A couple of them really make us want to play live. We were listening to the masters and certain tracks got us going to do something.  To perform this stuff in a way that serves the music would be logistically tenuous, but totally awesome to do. I would answer yes, but I donít know when or how.

AV:  Is this the beginning of more joint projects between yourselves or was Treasure just a one-time deal?

DH:  I would like to hear Jon answer this one but I feel that this album is like an awesome first date and heís got my number.  We have talked, and there are plans for the next project, but itís time to get Treasure out there see it find its place.

JJ:  Treasure is a great start, but I think the best is yet to come.  I have no doubt that youíll be hearing from us again before too long.

AV: Thanks to both of you for taking the time out to talk to me and I hope that Treasure is the first of many great collaborations between the two of you.