Seducing the Muse
Michael Beinhorn began his musical career as an original member of the visionary musical collective Material in 1979, performing live and playing synthesizer and other instruments on the band’s first four EPs and albums. Additionally, Beinhorn and Material bassist Bill Laswell were members of Brian Eno’s inner circle during that era and contributed to the opening track on his 1982 release Ambient 4: On Land.
Material was also the name of Beinhorn and Laswell’s record production team and the two helmed albums by artists such as Nona Hendryx and Afrika Bambaataa before being hired to help resuscitate jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock’s flagging career in 1983. Beinhorn and Laswell were the primary writers of the music on Hancock’s Future Shock album, including the mega-hit “Rockit,” which among other things introduced New York hip-hop sounds to a global audience. The single sold more than three million copies and won a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Recording in 1984.
After departing Material the following year, Beinhorn went on to produce dozens of major records, often pushing the artists to transcend the music on their previous albums. Examples include Mother’s Milk (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Superunknown (Soundgarden), Mechanical Animals (Marilyn Manson), Ozzmosis (Ozzy Osbourne), and Celebrity Skin (Hole).
Beinhorn provides invaluable insights into his production philosophy and strategies in his book, Unlocking Creativity, A Producer’s Guide to Making Music and Art, published by Hal Leonard in 2015.
In his role as producer, Beinhorn relied heavily on pre-production and artist development—once staples of the record business—helping artists to fully realize their potential and create truly self-expressive and meaningful work. This might involve practical considerations such as analyzing song structure and arrangement, song selection, and choosing and arranging instruments—but also interpersonal relationship skills more often associated with psychotherapists, career councilors, and shamanic healers.
Beinhorn is currently focused on evangelizing artist development as a remedy for the creative dearth resulting from the soul-crushing practices instituted by a music business driven exclusively by near-term profit. Here, we examine the essential nature of creativity itself, the creative process, and how it functions within the context of record production.
From your perspective, what exactly is creativity?
I thought I’d lob you a softball to get us started.
There are so many different answers to that question. Where am I going to begin? Some people think that creativity is essentially nothing more than a series of approaches to problem solving. Some people see creativity as this amorphous kind of mechanism that I guess is connected to the unconscious mind or God or whatever you want to call it. And you can see creativity as the basic force of the universe itself—the fact that it’s this unending series of events that happen and that everything’s in a state of constant motion. Things are growing and decaying and developing and ebbing. It really depends on what perspective you want to take. As it pertains to the creation of art, I can see it from all three perspectives because they all have some degree of engagement and validity within the creation of artistic works.
Do we tap into creativity or does it tap into us?
[Laughs]. That’s not something I can answer with any absolute certainty, as I can only speak to my own connection with it. When I’m engaging with creativity on a purely non-conscious, pre-linguistic, non-rational level, I feel as if I’m a component part in this vast matrix where I’ve essentially allowed something to pass through me. At the same time, I don’t think that you can belittle the value of the individual as being a participant within a universal framework of creativity, because at that moment you really are literally the center of the entire universe and something magical is happening through you. So, you can engage with creativity while also being engaged by it.
Is creativity an innate ability, or something that can be taught?
Again, it depends on what you’re talking about. Problem solving is definitely something that can be taught, but engaging with creativity is a different matter. If you don’t have an innate ability to do that then there isn’t a whole lot that’s going to get you any further along. It’s like having facility with an instrument. There are people who aren’t incredibly musically talented, but who have spent years perfecting that facility and are extremely good—yet there’s something essential missing. And to me, that’s where having sort of a natural acclimation comes into play. If you have that and you also have skills that you’ve developed over time, then you’re able to take whatever you do know about an instrument from a technical standpoint to a completely different level. And at that point you have people who become virtuosos and are known specifically as stylists. When you listen to them play, you can tell who it is because they have a sound or a style that’s immediately identifiable.
Material backing Daevid Allen as “New York Gong” in 1979
Would songwriting from, say, a Tin Pan Alley approach be more a problem-solving type of craft, whereas when something emerges without any clear precedent, that’s evidence of a different kind of creativity?
While it is true that people coming out of Tin Pan Alley typically had a certain methodology of songwriting down, those like Neil Sedaka and Carole King were also insanely talented, and able to communicate something that went far beyond whatever techniques they employed. So you may have your problem-solving skill set and something of value may arise from that, but there’s also a challenge to go further. If at that point you switch out of a purely analytical mode of dealing with creativity and let your intuition come into play, there’s a chance you might arrive at someplace new. To me, that’s where it starts to get really exciting.
Is intuition inextricably linked to creativity?
In my own subjective experience it is, yes. I can’t imagine working without having that sense engaged all the time and being highly aware of it, how it works, what it’s telling me, and where I’m being directed to go. The problem-solving approach is active in that you feel like you’re in charge and making the decisions. But that sense of ownership can lead to doing things in a more rote fashion, with more potential for conformity. When you are using your intuition, there’s surrender and vulnerability involved because you can’t really own something that came to you from the unconscious. And at least for me there’s a degree of humility because you realize there’s an endless wellspring of creative solutions out there if you just open yourself up to them.
Are there things you can do to make it more likely that sort of creativity will flow?
For me this approach is very much based on paying close attention to what my body is telling me, which is a practice informed by the field of somatics. For example, if you’re in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, you may think that the discomfort registers in your mind first, because you become aware of “I’m uncomfortable about something”—but really where it registers first is in your body, and that mechanism is employable in creative work. Meditation is one thing that can bring you closer to the sense of your body as a barometer for the world around you and also for being connected to the creative space.
Conversely, what are some inhibitors to creative flow?
Addiction to social media is one. And being immersed in your phone is another. Both tend to cut you off from that connection with your body, as well as from other people and the rest of the world. In some cases, drugs and alcohol used recreationally can also have that effect. I think anything that numbs you out and disconnects you from your body and from your senses can be a factor in inhibiting the creative flow.
As someone who has seen the affect that artist development can have on artists countless times, I can attest to how beneficial it can be to have another person that you trust involved in the creative process. That person may be able to see aspects of an artist’s work that the artist themselves can’t identify because they are too close to the work to view it objectively. Or in some cases they might be able to confirm things that the artist has been feeling but hasn’t been able to put into words. Offering that perspective can be particularly valuable to artists who for whatever reason may be floundering at the time, which happens more now than ever before, mostly because the people that might be able to help them aren’t going to make any money right away by doing it.
So much is expected of artists these days, but they are mostly left to their own devices because no one is willing to provide them with the information and other resources that they need to get to the next level. The late John Hammond is a good example of someone that was involved in artist development and got into it because he just loved artists and wanted to participate and to help them grow. It’s incredible the kind of inside track that sort of support can provide to an artist and really set them on their path with more certainty and more ambition.
Drill down on this and talk more specifically about some of the things that you think are important in terms of artist development.
There’s this idea nowadays that authenticity is all about what you do in the moment. “I wrote this song and now I’m going to knock it out. There it is. Boom. It’s authentic. It’s me.” I see so many people who think that their job is to throw together a dozen or so songs and then immediately go record them. I’m sorry, but in my experience that’s absolute nonsense.
If an artist has proven they are capable of creating that way and it works for them, great—but it doesn’t work that way for most people. Most people need to walk away from a song once they’ve written it, then come back and take it apart to figure out why it works, or, most importantly, the ways in which it doesn’t work. What are the problems? What makes the song drag in a particular spot? Would a different root note be better here? Why is that melody not working? There can be so many subtleties to consider.
There have to be very deep conversations that delve into these things, and these days the emphasis is on simply creating “content” that can be released as quickly as possible. Artists have no time to really invest themselves fully in what it is that they’ve created. That is a major problem, and what’s happening in terms of musical quality continues to prove me out. Artists are unable to maximize their talent and fully realize what their songs are capable of becoming. Paying attention to arrangement issues can often be the difference between a dreadful song and a really good one.
I enjoy listening to outtakes of artists like Led Zeppelin and The Beatles because you can see where a lot of their songs came from and how they went through this tireless process of perfecting and perfecting and perfecting them. And if a song wasn’t working they might abandon it and possibly come back to it later. There’s also music that had been kicking around for years but never got released, and when you hear what they were working on it is obvious that it got held back because it wasn’t going anywhere.
If an artist isn’t willing to apply that kind of ethic to what they do, then again, they are selling themselves short and their potential can remain very much submerged in that state, instead of pushing themselves to be the best that they are capable of. Taking sufficient time for introspection and artistic maturation is the only way that you’re going to create music that really moves people. You can’t fabricate that, which is exactly what people are trying to do. They are working overtime trying to fabricate something that resembles a feeling.
Beinhorn and Frank Filipetti working on Celebrity Skin at Quad Studios in 1998
Which leads to asking themselves who they are and why they are making music in the first place.
I think it’s critically important for artists to be aware of what their intent is. I’ve seen a lot of people who would like to have all the peripheral benefits that come with being a very successful performer, but aren’t necessarily willing to put in the effort to achieve not only those benefits, but also the actual gratification that comes with doing something that has real meaning.
To me the essence of music is communication—with self-expression being a critical aspect of that—and in some cases music can be a way to connect with divinity. Music can also be entertainment if you want it to be—but if it’s not saying something, if it’s not expressing something, if you’re not feeling something while you’re making or hearing it, then it really doesn’t have any meaning.
That’s not to say that all the crappy pop music that’s ever been made is completely useless. All the shit that’s on the radio right now has its place. But music is an ecosystem in which there has to be a balance, and currently there is an imbalance because the world is flooded with a particularly shallow form of pop music that’s imprinted on people’s lives, and if that’s all you hear then you’ve got a problem.
There’s got to be room for all types of music, including stuff that is serious, that speaks to the person, and the artist feels like they’ve achieved some kind of catharsis through. Somehow, we’ve managed to eliminate all those things so we now have popular music that is very clever and hooky, but it is missing the essential ingredients of creative expression.
This stuff is a lot different than the popular music of times gone by, much of which has had staying power. For example, people are still buying Beatles records 50 years on. How many pop records that were made ten years ago are not only still being listened to, but people are still buying them?.
Artists I’ve spoken with whose heyday was in the mid-to-late 1960s talk about accessing a powerful creative energy that was surging at that particular time.
Exactly. It felt as if they were riding a huge wave and then at a certain point the wave went away and it was like, “tough luck.”
Yeah, that’s it.
So maybe that helps explain what we are experiencing now. As significant as the contributing factors you’ve identified are, perhaps they are largely peripheral and the main problem is that a creative wave of that type has not been available for a while?
I think what we have right now is the diametric opposite of that wave. It’s like a gigantic cosmic vacuum cleaner that’s sucking everything into itself. Society—particularly Western society—has devolved to the point where we are reduced to a consumerist mentality and commoditize everything in our environment. There’s a deficit of emotion, a deficit of connection, and consequently we succumb to the addiction of constant consumption. So is it really any surprise that people value money more than the intrinsic spiritual value of artistic expression and music and communication and creativity?
Ironically, that same consumerist mentality and devaluation of music have precipitated the collapse of the record business. Is it possible, however, that the near impossibility of making a living from creating music will give musicians license to be more free and creative rather than discouraging them to continue?
It certainly creates the potential, though I don’t really see that happening very fully yet. And the missing bit in that equation is that while it’s all very well to say people are free now to do what they want, they may become a ship that’s no longer at the dock with the other ships, but that is also out to sea without direction or a compass, and no idea where the fuck they are going. Unless they know what the rules are before they start breaking them all they will have is discord. And, again, if they don’t understand the emotional connection they won’t understand how they might use their instruments to express themselves emotionally.
Think about John McLaughlin’s performance on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. On his solos he’s mostly playing a handful of notes, many of which are very discordant. You can detect his brain working and feel how he is moving out of a familiar range to do something that no one had really done before. It’s improvised and very free. Obviously he had the best bandleader in the world, so that’s inspiring—but there’s a real sense of knowing and trusting in his internal radar. It’s very expressive. It’s very powerful. If you don’t have that, then freedom is not really free.”
What is the most profoundly spiritual aspect of creativity that you have experienced?
I was working on a Korn record and was in the process of honing a guitar sound. A lot of the signal chains on the record were very complex, with multiple amplifiers and microphones, lots of complex signal processing, tons of EQ, etc.
At one point I was tweaking an API 550A EQ when I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing. My hands were moving, but I had completely disassociated. It was crazy. And I was aware that I had disassociated because the logical side of my brain was thinking, “How am I doing this?” The frequency numbers weren’t registering and nothing I was looking at made any sense, yet I knew that every move I made was the right move, and everything was falling into place.
Then suddenly I had this image of myself kind of floating in space with my arms outstretched and I experienced a state of total tranquility. It was a really amazing and beautiful experience, and it is very moving just talking about it now.
To me, that goes right back to the first question that you asked. That right there is the essence of creativity. It’s the result of a conscious reaction to a real temporal problem in a creative environment—getting a guitar sound—while at the same being part of a larger continuum of universal events that make up the constant flow of creativity we are all part of and participate in.
Beinhorn’s current pre-production setup.