As previewed in today's paper, Jon Chinn is making his grand return to the Columbus stage this Friday with a show at The Tree Bar featuring Bicentennial Bear and My Orca. In an entertaining phone conversation last week, the former Pretty Mighty Mighty/Workbook Studios kingpin discussed his fascinating new line of work, his gleaming pop-rock album "The Tiniest Light" and the experience of transplanting from Columbus to NYC. Have a listen to the pre-release sampler from "The Tiniest Light" and get reading.
Alive: Where are you right now?
Jon Chinn: I’m at the studio here and all the rooms are designed to withstand nuclear attack, so we get dropped calls often.
Alive: Well, my home on Dayton Avenue also must be built that way because we get dropped calls often. But I’m on a landline. So anyway, why did you move to New York?
Chinn: My wife Lori used to live here. She used to work here. And then after 9/11, the company she worked for lost their business. And so when they downsized, she had to leave New York. And it was always her plan to come back here. And when the opportunity arose, of course I was wholeheartedly into it because being a music and theater guy, it seemed like not a bad place to be. (laughs) So for me it was a decision for us to take the opportunity that she had and for me to explore more of what was available for
Alive: You mentioned you’re at a studio. Are you running or working at a recording studio there?
Chinn: I moved here thinking that I would find more mixing opportunities or recording music. What actually presented itself as an opportunity was to manage an audio post-production facility. So the work we do here is all audio for television and film stuff. So we do work for HBO and ABC and a lot of network programming as well as specific audio technology for blind viewers. Which was a part of the audio industry that I hadn’t worked in before, was producing sound for blind viewers. Which, contrary to popular belief, blind people watch a lot of television.
Alive: Is there, like, extra description of what’s going on screen?
Chinn: Yeah, it’s called audio description. It’s actually sort of a new field. And the government has just enforced a mandate that networks now have to broadcast X amount of hours of description per week. And if you go to where you select the languages, like Spanish — like you can watch “CSI” and switch it over to Spanish, and it’s the same video but you hear the Spanish audio track that goes with it instead of English. There’s another selection now for description, and that’s what we produce. It’s an extra audio track of the show with an extra narration track that’s describing to you what’s happening.
Alive: Is that confusing for someone who can see?
Chinn: If you just close your eyes and listen to it, the result is you would totally understand what is happening in the scene. It’s a developing sort of science. So we have blind technology specialists — I mean, they’re blind — that do QC (quality control) work for us. And our script writers are specifically in this field of writing for a blind audience, so the language is chosen very specifically. So, for example, if you want to get “Star Wars,” you can get a set of “Star Wars” films that have description. Now the description is in the menu that you turn it on and set it up. Just like you use surround options or something like that, you can turn on the description track. But talking with one of the guys who does QC work for us who’s blind, he has a huge DVD collection of described films. And they’re excited and appreciative that people have taken the energy and obvious financial commitment to describe the film, but then the menu to turn the description on is not described. So it’s this whole, “Well, we’re getting there” sort of thing. So we produce that under a government grant. So about half the work we do is that kind of work. And then the other half is doing promos for HBO and regular network TV.
Alive: Is it just spots and promos, or do you guys get the episodes in advance?
Chinn: We usually do the recaps, like “Previously on ‘True Blood’” or that kind of thing. Another thing we work on here that particularly I get interested in is we also do surround sound mixing for Broadway shows that gets released on DVD or “Great Performances” on PBS. So we mix those shows.
Alive: That reminds me: You called yourself a music and theater guy. I can’t recall; were you involved with that kind of stuff in Columbus?
Chinn: When I was in high school and college I did some theater stuff. And then the last year I was in Columbus, I was the technical director at the Lincoln. So although I’m not really an A-List enthusiast on the Broadway watch scope, I definitely love any kind of live performance. Especially when you dress it up to the level of Broadway, it gets pretty exciting.
Alive: What’s the name of the studio you work at?
Chinn: It is called Onomatopoeia. And then the other company we operate for the grant stuff, it’s called Bridge Multimedia. And then other than that, I’m still still mixing and mastering bands on the side, getting to take advantage of the rooms here. So that’s the 9-5 gig, or 9-6, and then after 6 it turns into my little — that’s one of the perks here is I get to use the rooms.
Alive: You mentioned mixing and mastering. Have you been able to record bands?
Chinn: I’ve done a little bit of tracking, either just vocals or single instruments, but I’m not really doing any band tracking because I don’t really have a space to do that in. In the studios here, we have great vocal booths, but we don’t really have live rooms where you can set up a drum kit and stuff. Mostly just mixing and mastering, and I would say most of the side projects like that I’m doing are for previous clients I’ve worked with in the past.
Alive: So a lot of people from Ohio?
Chinn: Yeah, and littered throughout my past experiences in various parts of the country.
Alive: This new project you’re releasing, is it stuff you’ve recorded over trips to Ohio?
Chinn: No, I recorded with the guys in the band — Brian Moore, Brian Freshour, Brandon Hagan and Dan Gerken as well as Caleb Bandy — back in Columbus, all the way up until before I moved here. And then, since I moved here, through the magic of technology, those guys have recorded a few extra tracks — guitar tracks, keyboard tracks — and sent them to me, and I can just drop them in to what we previously worked on. And then the new stuff I recorded here, did the drums here, and then would send that back, and once again they would add on to it.
Alive: The sampler you released is nine songs long. How long is the actual album going to be?
Chinn: 14 songs. There’s a few more we just gotta put the glaze on, i.e. re-sing (laughs), or write lyrics quickly.
Alive: Is the stuff on the sampler all the older stuff, and you’re trying to finish the newer material?
Chinn: The stuff on the sampler is like half old, half new.
Alive: I noticed there were references to both Columbus stuff and New York stuff in the track titles.
Chinn: Yes. There’s one song called “Summer of High Street” that I literally just wrote a couple weeks ago. Dan was able to send me a great keyboard track and collaborated over the internet to make that happen, but that came together real quick. That came to me in a dream. There’s a lot of stuff about playing and living in Columbus that I really miss that was like hilarious and super fun and exciting, and not having as much of that currently, I guess I’m thinking about it more.
Alive: In terms of not having a community? Or specific people?
Chinn: It’s easy to connect people in Columbus because it’s a smaller ship, and there are fewer resources, and so everyone’s sort of drinking from the same fountain. Whereas here it’s so segmented across so many different levels and styles and genres and scenes and clubs. Instead of one radio station, there’s like a millions. Like internet radio vs. over-the-air analog radio. If you want to listen to Brazilian electronic Indian remix stuff, you can find your own station dedicated to that. That’s just an example, but it seemed like in Columbus there was this friendlier camaraderie situation because there’s X amount of clubs and X amount of bands and we all play the same clubs. And it’s awesome. I love it.
I mean, I can’t say that I’ve spent enough time immersed in the music scene here, or in any particular sect of the music scene here, to pass any sort of fair judgment or even form an opinion because it’s so vast. But it’s certainly not as easy to just stoll into it. I feel like the people I hang out with in the music scene that live here now.
Alive: Anybody in particular?
Chinn: Well, there’s Tyler from the Black Swans. Justin Crooks, who played with a bunch of bands. Megan Palmer’s here and plays out all the time. Aaron Lee Tasjan, J.P. Olsen.
Alive: So that song obviously was inspired by your experience here. What about “Brooklyn Shines”?
Chinn: That was more from my — it’s a battle here. I don’t know if there’s anything in particular that that song’s supposed to be about. But there’s a boxing ring reference or perspective in the second verse, maybe, that’s just like — I was here for a few months without any work, and it can be pretty depressing to go from working a lot with a lot of different great people and hanging out with friends. And with me associating my work with what I did musically and from a studio producer, to suddenly not working, I have my identity so wrapped up in my work that not working for a few months, it was really hard on me. And I think that song was recorded when I was like really frustrated with that whole situation.
Alive: Musically, it seems like this record isn’t some kind of crazy left turn. It’s got that signature Jon Chinn sound to it.
Chinn: Cool! (laughs) Must be the bad lyrics!
Alive: Oh, I don't know about that. Do you feel like there are changes from what people are used to?
Chinn: I don’t know what people are used to, but I think this sounds closer to what I thought we were trying to make with Pretty Mighty Mighty records. I think it sounds bigger, and more sort of richer textures, and I think that’s what I thought we were making with Pretty Mighty Mighty records, and now when I go back and listen to them, they sound a lot smaller than I remember. But I think this one was more toward what I wanted in terms of a heavier, bigger, richer kind of a sound with more complex stuff going on. I don’t think it’s as dissonant as what I like to go for normally, but I think after spending so much time trying to produce pop music for radio, I’m sure I took a few tricks of that trade and brought them to the table for this record. I think that’s easily identifiable.
Alive: When is the final product coming out?
Chinn: I’m shooting for the end of October. I want it to be fall and not winter, but I’d say late fall/early winter.
Alive: Obviously you’re playing The Tree Bar this Friday in Columbus. Are you going to be doing any other touring?
Chinn: I can’t say I have any tour in the works, but there is lots of opportunities for shows here in New York, and I have plenty of people lined up I’d say regionally in the Northeast to book with. So I’m sure I’ll do some shows, but I don’t have a tour on the books yet. But I can say I’m definitely probably not hopping in the van for four months like I’d like to.
Alive: Have you been playing out in New York?
Chinn: Off and on. I’ve played some solo shows, and then my wife’s band, Lori, just played like two weeks ago at the Trash Bar. And the guys from that band now live here except for the guitar player, so I sort of became the new guitar player for that band. So we’ve been doing that and working on her material. But yeah, I’ve played a few solo gigs. And you know, with other Columbus guys here looking for something to do, I’m sure I’ll be putting together a New York-area act to do shows around here with a full band. I love doing solo shows, but the full band experience is just so much fun, to just crank up.
Alive: What does the title “The Tiniest Light” mean?
Chinn: It’s taken from one of the songs that’s not on the EP, but it is on the record.
Alive: What’s that all about?
Chinn: It’s another relationship song. Again. (laughs) I guess it’s about hope, and how you’re not special. I’d say the general theme is you’re not special. Of the whole record.
Alive: Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you think we should talk about?
Chinn: I’ve been keeping an eye on what’s happening back home. I’m pretty excited about all the cool stuff that’s been going on musically.
Alive: Anything in particular?
Chinn: Actually, there was a guy that I found online who does instrumental stuff. I’ll send it to you when I get back to my desk. I came across it like totally just on the internet, and it’s like, “I’m from Columbus, Ohio.” I’m totally into it. Check out the message boards, see who’s crying about what. Good to know it’s not too far off. The Rock ’n’ Roll High School Reunion, I loved that. I found it really noteworthy and inspirational.
The thing with that whole situation, the Rock ’n’ Roll High School Reunion, is like having some common perspective. Having the time and I would like to think wisdom that only time can give you brings a perspective that allows that to happen. So that’s a great thing to see going on, and I’m sure that’s really helping people out in a lot of ways.
NOTE: After our phone conversation, Chinn wrote with some additional thoughts on a few topics:
Another bit on Bandcamp, wix.com, wordpress, weebly, paypal: Releasing records since the mid-90's I've seen an evolution of the music industry going from physical products to figuring out how to manage the online world of music distribution. Physical media provided a lot of opportunities for excuses of why bands weren't making a commitment to getting out their music. Finding resources to produce, distribute & market your material could be enough to discourage anyone - especially when all you want to do is rock!. With the tools available now, anyone can engage their fans with a blog, interesting website or easy ways to instantly purchase (or not) and download the music. All this means is more than ever, there aren't any excuses. I found myself talking with Rob Duffy a lot about music and the Columbus scene & everything seemed to sound like it was in the past. I can't say I'm ready for that, and the only thing keeping me from being productive musically is me. The tools are there if you take the time to use them.
Shows/tour: I'd love to pack in a van with the band for a month and get crazy - who wouldn't? Unfortunately after several years of touring with different bands including my own, I wonder if that had genuine impact on getting the music out. It's great meeting and making new fans on the road, but I've had more success through licensing music for use in TV & film than in selling t-shirts in Wisconsin. However if someone in Wisconsin would like a shirt, I'll send you one with the new record. I'm content playing locally whether that means NYC or Columbus & spots in between. ...unless Sony wants to sport for the bus in Germany.
Licensing: This seems to be the new marketplace for bands. I've met a lot of people and made a lot of connections through seeking placements in the TV and film industry. If Warner Bros won't give you the money for a record, maybe Discovery Channel will. I honestly don't mind hearing my tracks in Celebrity Rehab.
On success: I was just thinking about a discussion Duffy & I had. His question was about when writing a song, if I envision it becoming wildly successful and it blowing up. I don't think many musicians would openly admit this, but my short answer was "absolutely." As introverted as most songwriters are and as much as you try to keep that emotion out of the process, any writer that's honest with themselves wants that. Otherwise you'd never have the nerve to walk on any stage.