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Guest Column – Decrying the cult of artistic perfectionism, who the fuck needs perfect? A diatribe by Conrad Keely

Guest Column – Decrying the cult of artistic perfectionism, who the fuck needs perfect? A diatribe by Conrad Keely
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Set to release solo album Original Machines later this month (22 January), …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead frontman Conrad Keely argues in a guest column that taking your time doesn’t necessarily make for better records, plus offers some advice for artists who have a rose-tinted view of hours spent grinding creative axels in the studio…

If there’s one thing I hate more than those “out-of-the-office” replies from people who aren’t working when I am (look, if you’re going to be out of the office, just be out the fucking office. Don’t send me an email bragging about it, dickhead), it’s perfectionism. And to me there is no more annoying a person (besides people who actually refer to themselves as “artists”) than a musical perfectionist.

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Some of the worst records never heard were the ones that either eventually never came out, or took five years or more to come out because the artist was too nit-picky to release it. Maybe they weren’t confident enough composers to come up with 45 measly minutes of music, who knows? I don’t even have to name them, you can probably recall a few examples.

To me, that sort of perfectionism fits into one of many categories of Resistance as laid out by Steven Pressfield in his brilliant book The War of Art – an inner insecurity telling you why something you want to do can’t be done, that keeps you from potential future fulfilment.

What’s too long a time to record an album? For me, three months is too long. Six months, definitely. A year, come on seriously? Three? You’ve already failed.

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Look, recording an album isn’t like writing Melville’s Moby Dick. If you’re a novelist, sure take ten years, take your whole life, but the beauty of music is its immediacy. And if you can’t capture that in a single, magical take, then the moment passes. And when the moment passes? You embrace imperfection!

The beauty of imperfection is imperfection. Is being perfect even an ideal? Remember that snarky old 60s song “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life never make a pretty woman your wife?” Maybe in the end we tire of perfect things and perfect people, and it’s the imperfect ones we remember most. Their quirks, foibles, shortcomings.

People ask me why I relocated to Cambodia? One of my main reasons is, this place is amazingly fucked up. It’s beautiful, but ridiculously imperfect (I tell people it’s like living in a country run by high school kids). Living in the West is boring, why? Because everyone is trying so hard to make the West this perfect place, and guess what? It FAILS. Manicured lawns and ticky-tacky houses inhabited by soulless zombies? Police? No thanks.

Please Please Me, The Beatles first album, was recorded in one day. One day! The Velvet Underground And Nico, four days. Nirvana‘s Bleach? 30 hours of studio time at a cost of $606.17. These guys were crazy, even by my standards. So I’ve compiled some sound engineering tips for would-be self-producers that I’ve found work for me!

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  • VOCALS: People think you have to turn the fans and AC off in a room to record vocals. WRONG. People think you have to be in an isolation booth with no outside noise. WRONG. So what if there’s a dog barking in the background? No one will here it! And if they do? That’s cool! In French we call that “ambience”.
  • GUITARS: Guitarists going for the perfect guitar sound are idiots. Do you know what every distorted guitar sounds like? A distorted guitar. Fender, Gibson, Gretch. You put them through an amp, they all sound the same! You put that though a compressor and a chain of studio effects, and they sound even more the same! You spent three days getting a guitar sound? You just wasted your life. Go to the beach, dumbass.
  • BASS: Are you fucking kidding me? Plug it in, press record. Jesus…
  • DRUMS: Now, here is the only thing you might as well spend some time making sure gets played right. But you can do that with three mics. Five if you’re OCD. Take it from me, I’ve worked with 20 mics on a kit. Total waste of time. You think some 14 year-old listening to your track will miss fifteen mics? Trust me, they won’t.

I admit, I went through a phase once. My band, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead, recorded this album Worlds Apart. Some people say it was our best album, other say it was our worst. Personally, I think both sides are right. It was a very painstakingly recorded flop (in movie or theatre terms a flop is a production who’s profits don’t cover the costs). It was a very educational (and ridiculously expensive) experience, but it was also torture. That was us trying to be perfect, and I’ll never care enough again.

Truth is, listeners these days just don’t even have the ears for perfection anymore. Attention spans have shortened, people react to immediacy and their sound systems consist of two tiny computer speakers or a pair of crap earbuds. And for us recording artists, that’s great. It means less work! Sure, it’s depressing, but only if you spend time thinking about it. And in life, time is our most precious commodity. So why waste it on listeners who can’t tell the difference?

I’d like to dedicate this short tirade to my producers – those wonderful, amazing perfectionists I know who take the sloppy shit I give them and make it sound awesome.

Conrad Keely@conradkeely


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