As Chrome Canyon, Morgan Z makes synthesizer music for the imagination. It’s music with stories and pictures leaking out of its stitches, and lasers and smoke shoot out where one might otherwise fill in the spaces with words. His Stones Throw release Elemental Themes makes you hunger for films starring Harrison Ford on a planet far away in search of bounty. He also writes jingles to pay the bills and has a few deep ideas about what it means to be an artist in the world of today. He has an awesome new flexi in the new L.A. RECORD and will play Saturday with Peanut Butter Wolf, Pharoahs and more at Los Globos. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
What’s up in the world of jingles?
It’s really competitive and hard to get into. Ultimately I don’t want to be in that world, but to tell you the truth, it’s kind of fun. I like to figure out how to write specific styles. They send you a video and you take a look at it and read the adspeak they send over. You have to decipher this meaningless garble and translate it into something really catchy. It’s also kind of cool because you can just not take anything personally with that. You know that 95 percent of everything you submit is going to be rejected and it has nothing to do with you. Just this random suit somewhere picks whatever he feels has more ‘whatever’ in it.
‘This one has more green in it.’
Exactly. ‘I feel like this one is a little more sparklier.’ Ultimately I’m trying to get away from the ad world. You can make ten times more than what someone makes off an album advance for a 30-second jingle. How much money is in branding is crazy. Compared to how much money gets put into the arts.
But at least you then have peace of mind to spend time on your passion without worrying about eating cockroaches for dinner.
I just think you shouldn’t have to sell out in that way in order to be able to then make a valid piece of art. You shouldn’t have to deal with the bullshit aspect of it. But I guess that’s what it takes to be an artist today.
But it would be nice if all your favorite artists could infiltrate the world of branding and be the ones creating the ads you see on TV and the jingles that live in your brain.
It’s surprising how many people are there. If you’re an artist it’s tough to use your skills in a productive way that actually makes you an income without going there. It’s very rare to find a source of income using your specific skills. If you’re a carpenter then you want to build things. If you want to build a certain type of artistic furniture that’s more rare then it’s going to be a lot harder without something to land on.
Ever have trouble resolving what you want to do with what you should be doing?
I think I made my record sort of with the mindset of doing exactly what I want to do. And I took the money that I made, however I made it, and did exactly what I wanted. I made that record from beginning to end with the people I wanted to work with. I did it all myself and then found a home for it at a label that was interested. It’s a balancing act. Especially living in New York, every friend that I have is in this crazy struggle. How do I balance my work life and my artistic endeavors? I think that’s something every artist faces. It’s tough to figure out. When I got into it when I was younger, I thought, ‘Well, maybe if I just tailor this music a little bit to what I think people are going to respond to then maybe I can get a deal out of it.’ Then I decided that wasn’t the way to do it and no matter what, I was going to make the record the way I wanted and put it out myself if no label was interested in it. Ultimately it ended up working out with Stones Throw. They’re amazing.
What’s it mean for you to say, ‘I’m an artist’?
I don’t see being an artist as making any particular thing—painting a picture or writing a song. I see it as accomplishing something that you set out to do. That’s pretty much the most demanding part of the task—actually finishing it. Not just talking about it or getting it really close. That was a big lesson for me to learn. You can call yourself an artist when you finish what you set out to do. That’s why I have a hard time criticizing people’s work. If they’ve done it, they’ve accomplished something, no matter what.
Some people make fast art that’s about being completed in the moment, and others make more elaborate, time-consuming art. Is one more valid than the other?
For me, there’s a threshold. If someone makes something really fast and says, ‘Now I’m an artist, I made this thing.’ … There’s a threshold of time that you have to be involved in what you’re doing. You wouldn’t call someone a doctor because they went out and bought some medicine that’s going to help someone get over the flu. There’s something to be said about learning about what you’re doing and applying that learning, even if you’re rejecting it. You have to live within the language of whatever you do. That doesn’t mean you can’t create a work of art in two seconds, if that’s what you’re doing. But it has to be within the context of a larger picture of a goal that you’ve set out to accomplish.
Do you believe in art for art’s sake?
Very much so. At the same time, even ‘meaningless art’ still has a purpose. I’m a big believer in the idea that philosophy surrounding art—I’m talking about visual art, too—I think we’ve gone past a tipping point where you have to examine art in a philosophical way. You have to prop it up on a philosophical structure so the two are merged. We’re in a post-art world in a sense.
Does art have to reference other art? Do you have to be able to name-drop as a reference for justifying your own art?
Some people think so. I’m terrible with art trivia and name-dropping. Which is funny because everyone says my music is so referential. Whatever compels you to create what you create should be justifiable in and of itself. But I do also believe that there is a linear storyline and I like thinking about that. I am intrigued when people situate my music in a certain trajectory of music. It’s a good conversation to have whether you buy into it or not. We’re talking about a music timeline of 20 or 30 years—when you zoom out of it, you realize that it’s really not that long. The standard of retro is weird. Would you call someone who is composing piano pieces retro? That’s a way older instrument than a Juno-60. I tend to like thinking about music more expansively.
It’s a matter of technology moving faster than it did before.
I totally agree with you. People get caught up on the fact that technology doesn’t die when new versions of itself appear. That’s the result of the way products get rolled out today. Instruments are different, but can stick around for a long time. There wasn’t anything like a synthesizer before synthesizers. Because it’s so specific it’s easy to make that association. You can create the references if you want to. They’re brand-new. Even the oldest ones are brand-new compared to a harpsichord or a cello. That’s why I like the idea that I’m pegged as doing something retro but I feel like I’m part of something new.
Do you have to find new ways to talk about your art according to the context in which you find yourself?
It’s a new experience for me to actually put something out there and see how people take it. I didn’t know how little control you have over that. You think you know what you’re saying and it ends up that people interpret it differently. Which can be wonderful or it can be hurtful.
You can create a vision of who you are that’s completely outside of reality.
I’ve just decided that it’s impossible to present a full picture and to concentrate on the thing itself and let people put the pieces together on their own. I was helping mix a friend’s music and we were talking about this issue. He felt that this particular music didn’t represent a complete picture of himself and I said, ‘That’s pretty much always how it is.’
Should it have to be a complete picture?
That’s what’s interesting. Because of the dialogue you can have with people through social media, you get caught in a weird trap. People want to know who you are. I don’t think it’s possible for someone to know you in totality through a piece of art that you’ve made. The art is something separate and is making a separate statement. While I like the interaction you can have with people—which elaborates on the art—it’s also dangerous because it takes away from the art itself and the statement that the art is making aside from who the artist is.
In a way it puts pressure on you to perform yourself and be conscious of whether you are being Chrome Canyon or being yourself at a given moment. I guess you can sort of get lost in there, huh? Then you become Michael Jackson and get really confused.
Yes! Then you’re a weird caricature of who you think you want to be. It’s important that you are at least genuine about certain things, and that you are careful to let people in to a certain extent. I made this record for people who love synthesizers. I love these people making YouTube videos of themselves as Giorgio Moroder. I want to have a relationship with those guys, but I also want this to reach out to everyone else. Having those interactions is different when you’re talking about someone who is reading Pitchfork and then coming to you. It’s going to be different from someone on a synthesizer forum. They like you or don’t like you for different reasons.
Must an artist always be defined by the art they create for it to matter?
Yes, but not necessarily. Some artists may prefer anonymity. That’s the conundrum that people get into a lot nowadays. Art is closely associated with the creator. Maybe that’s what is tricky to navigate. When people can directly get to you as the creator of the work, their interpretation of the work can easily be shifted. I don’t always think it’s a good thing. Me personally, someone asked me if I would ever do an acoustic folk record. And I was like, ‘Hell yeah. I would do that.’ Maybe it wouldn’t be a Chrome Canyon record. But I’m not just Chrome Canyon.
DONUTS, BEAT ELECTRIC AND VOLTAIRE RECORDS PRESENT CHROME CANYON WITH PHAROAHS AND JONAS REINHARDT PLUS DJ SETS BY PEANUT BUTTER WOLF, L.A. VAMPIRES, PICKPOCKET AND B.T. MAGNUM ON SAT., FEB. 23, AT LOS GLOBOS, 3040 W. SUNSET BLVD., SILVER LAKE. 9 PM / $12-$15 / 21+. CLUBLOSGLOBOS.COM. CHROME CANYON’S ELEMENTAL THEMES OUT NOW ON STONES THROW. VISIT CHROME CANYON AT CHROME-CANYON.COM.