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Thanks to Anthony “Ant” Bowles for the interview transcript.
Buy Plausible Cause on Damon’s Bandcamp.
AG: When I interviewed Damon Shulman about his album Plausible Cause in July 2017, almost two years ago, I had no idea that both he and I would face so many technical difficulties. But it’s really been on my heart the last couple of years that I never released the interview because Damon really is an artist that’s unique and worth your time and attention. Now if you’ve followed this site for any amount of time, you know that I like to try to release the highest possible quality of video and audio quality content, but that’s just not really an option on this one. Nevertheless, I really hope you enjoy the interview. It’s deep and philosophical, just like most of our other interviews, but it just has been difficult for me technically. Anyway, please enjoy this interview and check out Damon’s music at DamonShulman.bandcamp.com.
AG: Damon Shulman is a musician from the south of England and he has a new album out called Plausible Cause, which I heard when it came out and I think it’s fantastic. It’s a very adventurous and fun album and Damon is here to talk to us about it. Damon, thanks so much for joining.
DS: Hello, thanks for inviting me, Anthony.
AG: Can you share with us a little about yourself and a little about the album?
DS: Yes of course. Well my name is Damon Shulman as you said. I am from the south of England, as you said and I am a musician, a full time musician and composer, producer, recording artist and sometimes live artist as well. I’ve been playing for a very long time. I’ve been playing in bands for forty years when I was about eleven and obviously I did a bit of schooling in between but obviously, I’ve been playing for that long and I started off as a bass player and was writing songs as well during what was called the Punk, New Wave era and was, funnily enough, influenced by people like my brother and my father, who showed me all kinds of music and it had a big effect on me. I could kind of tell, really from day one that I wanted to pursue this quite seriously.
Music that is and so I have. There’s been periods when I haven’t done it but now I think it’s full-on till the end and I’ll keep going and keep going. I just love playing music, basically. And recording more than anything and writing. And basically that’s it. I come from, you probably know, I come from a musical family anyway. At least 50%. My mother can’t hit a note but my father was basically quite a serious musician at one point. His father as well - my grandfather. So there’s a tradition - Oh and my uncle as well so there’s quite a tradition in the Shulman family. So why not keep it going? My sons are also musicians, so we just love music. It’s a huge benefit, I think, to the world and I want to be part of it.
AG: That’s fantastic. Can you tell us a little about Plausible Cause?
DS: Plausible Cause, yes I have to count them off Plausible Cause is my sixth solo album project. I had a bit of a gap. I’d done a project with a band about three or four years before. The last solo album was done in 2010. I was due to do something and I wanted to give it some kind of concept. Actually, I tell a lie there [laughs]. I forgot I actually did an album two years before called Transition Process, which was actually supposed to lean to a new album, some new form of concept and that’s what it was called. I wanted something very definite to focus on and all I could think of is - I’m not a great person for anniversaries. You know, birthdays, decades - ‘Oh well done, you’ve survived’ that kind of thing. But I just broke through turning fifty and, well you know, let’s have a little review of my life. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to look at and what I thought was ‘What makes me me?’
I went through a lot of back history and things that had happened to me. You know certain behaviours that I’d had throughout my life. So I thought this has got some substance. And about half way through this process, I realised I was embellishing, in my own mind - in my own internal dialogue embellishing things, which is odd. You might do it over drinks, that kind of thing. You know the fish, the fish, the ever growing fish that you’d caught but I started realising this is a very odd thing that I’m doing. Everything I was thinking was true (and that was where the plausibility came in) was true to a degree but not the entire truth.
I found myself saying, you know, I don’t think I’m being entirely honest here. This is how I became THIS from THIS. So it kind of broadened out. I thought, ‘Well if I think like this, surely there are other people who think like this’. So I started looking at all kind of things. You start looking at history, you know, how history is reported, how differing views of history, politics current affairs and you always see there are two sides to something. Well if there are two sides, there’s got to be - well there are two sides to the brain but there’s got to be multiple ways you think about oneself and this was why I was interested in this and this was before I got to the music.
So this was all about literally, plausibility and what we think causes certain things. I didn’t have to be specific about it. I didn’t have to focus in on what I consider controversial which I kind of want to avoid. I’m not that, I don’t want to be specific about things. I’m not really here to upset people or anything like that. I just have a world-view of things. Kind of a well rounded view and what I consider… erm it’s just for the listener to decide on the impact, you know, of what occurred. I basically got all these ideas together - this is about, essentially people like myself, so I had to be musically quite accessible.
I had planned to go a bit further off the edge but I felt there had to be some accessibility, sense of humour and just as if you were having a conversation with somebody, a long one. The album’s not all that long but you know those nights with a friend, you go through everything and maybe you’ve known people for a long time and someone points and says ‘No that’s not true.’ You know you could be talking to a friend and they say, you know ‘I was there.’ and ‘these things you’re saying are not true, what you’re saying.’ And it doesn’t have to be confrontational. It’s just like, it’s funny. You know the fact that you can have all these ideas and in a cold kind of sober moment, suddenly realise ‘Oh No, I’ve made a fool of myself.’ So that’s kind of interesting.
And musically, I wanted to convey that through various different means. I was most grateful for what you said about Clarity Phase, the second song on the album. Interesting case in point. I wanted to create a very simple idea of a diatonic, simple climb up a scale and then on the ride a simple idea, simply played - tritones in major sevenths on the way down and then 2-5-1 at the end. And I was playing this cause everything you play, I mean I enjoy messing around and I can tell you how my process goes for writing, in a minute but with that one it just amused me, the idea - ‘Oh this seems like something.’ and it’s actually not but it kind of develops into something quite maudlin at one point in the middle, you know. That was all kind of funny to me, really. Also - I mean without wanting to be too dramatic, it actually develops into something I wanted to sound quite touching as well.
So there you go, all those kind of things going on. It was all about - ‘Here’s a thought.’ It seems fairly valid, whether it be musical or not, there then is an alternative to that and you’ve kind of got to be accepting of that or hopefully be successful as a writer. Accepting both approaches. Does that explain some of it?
AG: Yeah, yeah. I think it’s fantastic. Actually, I have a big bookshelf right behind the camera and it’s full of books about what you’re talking about. We don’t ever make decisions rationally, at the time. We just make a decision and we rationalise looking back and we are often embellishing and believing things about ourselves in a positive light because we’re our own best friends. Whether we’re depressed or not. We tend to and have to, to survive we have to see the best things about ourselves. So it’s been a very interesting journey for my myself, the last few years of reading and researching. So a lot of that album’s material does connect with me in that way.
DS: That’s great. I absolutely agree with you as well. Funnily enough, when I’m writing, recording, just thinking about anything in particular - you know what, I kind of had the opposite kind of approach. I don’t read at all. I try and avoid those structures of influence because I want to be purely me. Without wanting to sound pompous, to create the art, because the art is, for me I suppose, although I don’t have a direct definition on me but the art for me is creating something from the imagination that is very much real, is insight - not insight but in our sight and we can develop it through the imagination and hopefully through some skills as well.
Like I say with my writing process, though you haven’t asked me the question but I’ll volunteer this - how I go about writing generally comes from practise. Believe it or not, I love to practise. I’m a guitarist first of all; that’s my first instrument. As I said I started on the bass and that was one of several things - I started on the violin when I was four. It was literally thrust into my hands as if to say ‘Well you’ve got to play an instrument.’ and I was alright because I learned some music from that. I had some tuition and I learnt some music, some dots and also the idea of how to make sounds that were interesting for me.
You know and then I learned trumpet but it was all uncomfortable for me all that stuff. Never learn the trumpet if you’re looking for an easy life, you know. It’s physically demanding and it’s just incredibly hard to play but that’s my father for me. He’ll do that kind of thing - ‘Try that son it’s what I play.’ ‘OK dad.’ but then it’s ‘No I don’t like this.’ ‘No, carry on.’ ‘No I really don’t…’ And eventually it was a case of I do want to play but no. And eventually a guitar was put in my hands and I did try a few things but funnily enough it was my uncle Ray [Shulman of Gentle Giant] who said ‘Try him on the bass.’ He was a bass player and I did and ended up being recruited into my brother’s Punk band, who were a bunch of sixteen and seventeen year old geezers from Portsmouth and wow, I had a great time at eleven and twelve. But what was I saying?
Practise, That’s where most of my music ideas come from. It’s like delving into, I’m interested in the whole process of music. I think it’s a fascinating thing. I think it’s fascinating when humans have created this amazing complex language that has so many variations. From a western point of view, twelve notes and you think this is unbelievable and you just think, wow so many combinations and the methods you can go around things and you can make it be the most complex thing in the world or the simplest thing in the world and vice-versa and through juxtaposition you can communicate with people, sometimes without a single word. That to me is fascinating.
I dive straight into it and use this in my practising and it becomes composition and that’s how it happens and how Plausible Cause was created - an awful lot of ideas from memories and influences. I’m deeply, sometimes burdened but deeply influenced by certain musicians and certain sounds as well. It’s sometimes the most obvious, if you like, popular music that I’m interested in. Also at the other end of the scale, the weirdest if you like. I think, at least I’ve been told that it really does come to fruition and you can hear those influences. You wouldn’t necessarily know exactly who the influences were. This is not contrived in any way, it just happens.
Over a period of years I just used to write songs, like we all do - write a song but that wasn’t enough for me. I really wanted to be interested. I kind of like the autodidactic process - teaching yourself and trying to educate yourself and pushing always pushing. In which case you have to be curious, I’m very curious - investigative. Looking at those intriguing little passages that are kind of dark and unknown to you. Go and research, go and have a look at them and I think that’s how you move on. Sometimes you reach a dead end, other times these tributaries really have gold at the bottom of them. So that’s what I do.
Plausible Cause was like that. There are different styles in there and the way I structured the pieces not songs. Does that sound snobby? But you know from one to seven you’ll find if you listen, the styles kind of, or this was my intent anyway, but the intent was to start with a kind of dissonance. The lyric in the first piece is straightforward and simple. It’s about confusion - a general observation of what people I talk to are saying - ‘What’s it all about?’ They don’t know anything yet they they carry on and tell you what they think they know - certain people.
So there’s a certain level of confusion that it always seems to be to leave me feeling perplexed. I thought, ‘Well I definitely don’t know anything having spoken to you. I know even less.’ So I have those sort of conversations. So I have these opening salvos of flat five arpeggios going up and down with a minor seven arpeggio and it sounded interesting to me while I was practising and I wanted to build something up with what was a fairly facile lyrical idea. You know it’s getting a bit dark really, saying ‘I don’t know what it’s all about.’ - just saying that. So I thought there was some kind of interesting contrast there and bit by bit that unraveled. It’s really quite jerky, quite quirky, the first piece.
There’s more fluency there and by the time you get to the end, it’s almost Rock and Roll. I mean track number four could sound a bit balladeery. Kind of a love song but it’s a bit of an acerbic lyric there. A bit self self pitying actually in certain respects. That is based on my love of old jazz standards. It’s not a tribute but it is a nod to it and how, in their syruppy sentimental way, they really do have some impact and that’s what I wanted. There’s really quite a serious lyric on that. I said self pitying but I really meant self deprecating.
It’s not entirely about me, there’s just two or three lines in there but you get autobiographical about these things. And that was what you really could consider a very straightforward song. This is track four called An Honest Man. Just thinking about that (because I skipped over two) Honest Man was in fact being earnest - being honest about something and musically, just straightforward. Just play this three, sixes dada da da dada da kind of thing, which sounded a bit, half Doowoppy - half Jazzy. But then it has that middle guitar and piano solo. I’m a real hack piano player by the way.
When I solo on the piano I have to use me left hand. And you build up to this, rationalising things. There’s a sudden rationalisation of the end by the time you get to track four to record. Just explaining, I’m doing them out of order. Which is probably how they came to me. Obviously I don’t write them and at the same time decide say this is track 2.
AG: You may be rationalising right now, I don’t know. [Laughter]
DS: But going back to the pieces, it almost became an exercise, initially and then it became a process of seeing both sides of an argument and the point was and the obvious cliche was a moment of clarity. The song doesn’t mention me having a moment of clarity. It’s all about making an initial decision and then doubting that decision. I might be right or I might be wrong. I’m not really sure about this and that’s what sends you into awe for the people of power, who are so assertive and affirmative with their decisions and of course, they’re not really that assertive. They’ve got to show that. Yeah, so that’s where it was going to.
AG: Some people become president like that. [Laughter]
DS: Absolutely! And what can you do about it? You can go march on the street if you want but all I can do is laugh. Because, what can you do? Write music I suppose.
AG: One thing I wanted to bring up - It takes a special kind of insanity to play every instrument on an album.
DS: Well, it’s because I have no shame really. I don’t mind embarrassing myself. I’ll give anything a go. I’ve been doing it for some time, that kind of thing. If I’m really honest, first and foremost, I am a guitarist and that is what I work on but I have in my time, played many different instruments. I’ve encouraged other musicians to do this, because if you’ve got a certain propensity for musical instruments, I believe you can give most things a go.
To be honest the drumming on this was written using drum samples. My setup, at the back of my house, you can’t get a reasonable sound there. That was one hell of an research job because I have strong ideas of how I wanted the rhythm to work. I don’t write it down on a stave or anything and that was difficult to sort out. Eventually, it all came together how I wanted it. And also I work on a budget of between seven and ten dollars [laughs] If I’m spending nine dollars fifty, I’m really stretching it. So you know I can’t go to a studio and play it. I’m not a great drummer but I’ll play it.
AG: So was that done on a keyboard, you program a MIDI grid? The drums sound really good.
DS: It’s Billy Martin playing - Billy Martin samples. All legal - all bought. My budget isn’t that bad really. It was all taken from his kit.
AG: I was really impressed with the drums and how they fit in and drive some of the songs along.
DS: I like songs like that - driving and also that kind of polyrhythmic kind of thing, working against the other side.
AG: Very, very interesting drum parts but I have to say the guitar parts are so adventurous. I’m a guitarist too. Like that whole last part of Clarity Phase…
[Clarity Phase excerpt]
AG: It’s so twisty, turny, adventurous. This is the most astounding guitar work I’ve heard in years. It’s just so different and you’re not trying to fit, you’re not trying to do anything idiomatic to the guitar. You’re playing like a written, interesting part on the guitar.
DS: I really appreciate you saying that and thank you very much. They were written parts, not improvised but the guitarists I love to listen to are improvising but I didn’t want to do that on this album. I’ve done that on recorded pieces but I don’t think it would have worked for where I wanted the guitar solos to be. I wanted the guitar to scream a particular message, whatever that may be, whatever the listener wants it to be. Therefore the use of certain scales against certain chords.
Certainly it was necessary to write the parts although if you wanted to hear my track recordings, it wasn’t two takes. The high risk of going through a number of bars, certain shapes and certain runs is enormous. You could be like ‘I got it, I got it, I got it. I haven’t got it.’ So it got to that twenty five, thirty take thing. But so what, I just had to do it. I’m really glad you noticed that. I thought long and hard about that. And that came from practise drills but it’s that intrigue and it depends how far you want to push it - how far you want to push that dissonance. How close you want dissonance and consonance work together. How close can you go? At what point does someone listening say that is dissonance and I’m saying it’s not? That’s what I’m doing and hopefully, it works. It worked for you and that’s good enough for me.
AG: It really works and it’s really interesting and it goes way beyond what other guitarists are doing. I can hear one who’s had a night of four hours just trying to play one part. I can hear the frustration coming through and you’re stretching yourself on certain parts of the album and I don’t say that in a pejorative way. It’s really cool to hear someone stretching themself to their own limit and it still works musically. But for a musician who knows about recording, who knows about performance, I can hear that you are really striving and I think it’s awesome that you put it out the way that you did. It’s a little bit messy at times and it’s just in a little universe that stands on its own and is pretty different from what’s out there.
DS: I really appreciate those observations because they’re correct and I feel, fortunately or unfortunately for me - probably unfortunately and that’s why I’m on a tight budget. There gets to a point when the striving bit is absolutely right. I got to my fifties but I don’t feel you can rest on your… I’m not a satisfied guitarist. I’m never happy with what I do. I don’t think I’m good enough, particularly when I watch someone.
My first influences on guitar - my dad introduced me to Robby Robertson - Give Me Some Time - harmonically played and with so much tenderness with the guitar but then when I discovered Jazz quite early, I was eighteen, nineteen and the first time with Joe Pass. A beautiful guitarist, beautiful harmonies. Fluid, the chord changes - everything about him was fascinating for me. And then Wes Montgomery and then later on Pat Martino - his ideas. Using parental forms and all that kind of stuff. Talk about pushing you - making your mind work, thinking ‘What’s he talking about ?’
Initially when you don’t know, it’s like WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT? And then after the elucidation - Ah! The revelation. You realise what these people are talking about, all of a sudden and that’s why these people play like that. They don’t use it every five seconds. They’re usually playing with what most people understand. Having that in there somewhere is really useful for you and of course - John Scofield, I adore. Fabulous guitarist. He’s one of those guitarists who, when he plays a note, you know instantly that’s John Scofield. So those are the types of guitarists I like.
AG: What about Allan Holdsworth?
DS: I know a lot of people like Allan Holdsworth and I appreciate what he does but it almost gets scientific. I like the approach.
AG: He’s exploring other boundaries to those other guys.
DS: He’s very much doing his own thing. I mean, poor fella’s gone now. You’ve got to appreciate people like that because they are very much doing their own thing and creating their own sound. I think the problem for me is emulation. I mean when people try to be Allan Holdsworth. I guess it kind of clouds my judgement. Yeah, obviously he’s a very good guitarist but not a big influence on me.
AG: I only brought him up because of the exotic scales you are using in some of the solos on the album. I was curious.
DS: I’ll take that as a complement. If I’m being compared to Allan Holdsworth, it’s a massive complement. Blimey!
AG: Your note choices are really different. So I love it; I thought it was great. So for people who don’t know about you and where to get your music and find out about you, where do they go to support you?
DS: I should have written this down somewhere. I’ll tell you what, I used to operate a small web site but it’s a complete waste of time business wise. It’s a lot of money to do these things so I literally just run off BandCamp. I have my BandCamp site, which is https://damonshulman.bandcamp.com/ and a Facebook, a Twitter account. That’s all I’ve got. No wonder I’m so famous. I can’t stop people knocking on my door all the time. [Laughter]
AG: Yeah the video I published recently with an artist called Shawn Persinger. He wrote a book called Nobody Knows I’m Famous.
DS: That’s right. Maybe we should get together and he could write a book about me. No one will read it.