Photo: Greg Chow

High Fidelity: Jay Gonzalez and the Crowdsourcing Renaissance

Jay Gonzalez may be one of the more familiar faces of the Drive-By Truckers, but with a expansive new EP, he reflects on the sheer delight of crowdsourcing as a musician.
Jay Gonzalez
The Bitter Suite

A self-professed “sucker for short pop songs filled with hooks and devoid of filler,” Drive-By Trucker Jay Gonzalez has spent the last four years composing a five-song medley that incorporates influences ranging from the Beatles and the Who to Joe Jackson and Bread. Writing about life events, the five songs on The Bitter Suite are marked by the loss of a relative, a separation with a musical partner and missing his family while traveling the world.

Taking to Kickstarter last May to fund the pressing of The Bitter Suite to vinyl, the multi-instrumentalist with a penchant for kitsch songs and recording devices, Gonzalez fabricated what may be the world’s first acoustic keytar, nearly doubled his Kickstarter goal after showing his tongue-in-cheek approach to music and life in his campaign video.

The Bitter Suite marks Gonzalez’s second solo album since joining Drive-By Truckers in 2008. Gonzalez kibitzed with PopMatters about the album, his musical influences, crowdsourcing and the allure of vinyl.

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You just released your second solo album, The Bitter Suite It’s a concept album that’s been simmering for about four years. How do you maintain your enthusiasm for a project that’s gone on that long?

It’s done over four years, but it was spread out. Basically, when I was home from touring I would work on it for a while, and then leave it. It was done over four years, but it wasn’t a consistent four years. By the time I put it away for a little bit and then come back to it, it would renew my enthusiasm. Then once we started actually recording it, I was excited about doing the whole thing. It was really coming together at that point.

Listening to the album, it’s 13 minutes and five movements, if you will. But you span the last half-century of pop music, everything from the Beatles to Todd Rundgren, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, Young Fresh Fellows and even Weird Al.

Sure, I love all that shit. I had Weird Al in 3-D on cassette, and it was one of my favorites.

Aside from those, who were your musical influences when you are working on this project?

A lot of the ones you mentioned; I’ve always liked the genre-jumping records, pop records from the 1970s in particular, like Harry Nilsson, like Nilsson Schmilsson. A lot of those guys, like I said, Joe Jackson, too, seems to be a genre-jumper; Billy Joel and all these guys were pop guys, but within the span of an album, a short album usually back then, they jumped around from a lot of different things with Tin Pan Alley or pop or whatever. I liked that. Somehow making it work and not sounding disconnected or anything. That was the idea with this one. I had five different songs that were all thematically linked, but not intentionally. It was something where I just decided to see if I could put them together and in an order that would make them work together. It was sewn together. It wasn’t like I wrote it in a linear way from beginning to end, all working together. So lyrically it works together; it’s not like Tommy or “A Quick One While He’s Away”, where it’s a storyline going through.

You you talked about the music and how it’s consistent. There’s a circularity to it, I noticed from the first song to the last song. Are you using saw in the song?

Yeah, the intro is a sample of a saw that I played on a different song. I lifted it off a recording that I did that I never finished, and it fit right in. It was supposed to be the first song [“Light Side of the Leaves”] that does the whole tornado metaphor. It was written while we were playing in Memphis one time and a tornado was coming. I got some cheap percussion thing, where you pull on a spring connected to a drumhead, and it does this explosion sound. So I tried to combine all those and make it sound bad weather-y.

It works.

Cool, thanks. Then I try to bring it back in the end to tie the whole thing. Not that it’s going to tie together completely, but it hopefully helps. It ends in the same key as it starts in, so that was a happy coincidence. That’s the thing when you spend such a long time period of time coming back to something, you revisit it and see things that you hadn’t seen in it before, like if you’re cutting it in two weeks and trying to finish it. I wouldn’t have tried to do as much of the embellishments.

You and I are relatively the same age, so listening to the album for me was like a trip down memory lane of my childhood and hiding away in my bedroom listening to AM pop radio.

Totally. That’s the thing. Those seem to be what stick with you when you’re writing. It’s almost like, the more and more I do it, the more I seem to be revisiting that era, the first era that really grabs you. That’s definitely it, the AM ’70s radio, early ’80s.

Aside from that, what was your musical upbringing?

My folks are musical, but they didn’t play any instruments or anything. I have two sisters, and we all liked music a lot. My parents had me take piano lessons. It was when I was seven, and they forced me to the old lady down the street. It was cool, but she was a little strict. That lasted three or four years. Then I picked up guitar as a teenager, and basically played that from then on. Then when I moved to Athens, Georgia, I played guitar and bass in bands, but then the easier way to get into a band was to play keyboards. Even though I was out of practice and hadn’t done it a lot, fortunately playing in rock bands with several guitars, you don’t really have to do a lot. You just try to find the right thing and do it. The simpler the better.

I played in this band called The Possibilities. They were right up my alley musically, the ’60s-’70s pop thing. I could use all the keyboard tricks that I wanted to try, like the Cars‘ synthesizer lines or something like that, all the Mellotrons and finished keyboard sounds that I was wanted to use, but never had an outlet. I was suddenly able to attempt to do that. So I started doing this stuff after, it was basically continuing from there and trying to mix it all together, all the shit I learned from them and other bands. The first album I did [Mess of Happiness] was a demo, just home demo stuff that my friend Chris Grehan, who produced this one, helped me clean up. It was horribly recorded at home, but at some point I realized it was going to be like the finished thing. That was definitely a similar thing musically, but that demo spanned over like eight to ten years or something. It’s not as tied together. We did this one, it was Chris’s idea to … I had sent him the original thing I did at home, the whole demo. He thought it would be a good idea to go into a friend’s studio and really try to make it sound good. It was fun. We probably went back into that studio several times over the next couple of years and tried to tie together and layer stuff at home as well. He lives in New York, Brooklyn. It was long distance. It’s pretty common these days, I guess.

You talked about the samples with the saw and the keyboards. What other instruments do you use on the album?

I tried to do different ones for each song to try to differentiate it a little bit. On that first one is a buzzy sound and a velocity-sounding keyboard. That’s like a Stylophone, which is a little tiny keyboard that has a stylist. I think it was from the ’60s. It was a toy thing in England. They reissued them. When you touch the metal tip of the pen to the metal keys, it’s a pretty ungodly-sounding buzz. You layer it a bunch and then put a bunch of reverb on it, it has an interesting sound.

Did you use your acoustic keytar on the album?

I didn’t. The B-side of the vinyl is an etching that my friend who does all the artwork did, Jeff Owens. I think he just tied it into that. He thought it looked cool. I didn’t actually use it on the album. I haven’t really released anything using that yet, but I’m hoping to do it for the next album.

How did you come to devise that?

Boredom at home. I’ll always go into the kid sections of the Salvation Army and look for little cool keyboards that somebody missed. I feel guilty about it because some kids might really enjoy it, but probably not. I picked that one up. It was real small, and I was trying to think of a way to make solo shows more interesting. I don’t really do the singer-songwriter thing. I have a hard time stripping it down and playing and sustaining a whole show doing that on the strength of the song. I was trying to think of a way to make it so I could do both at the same time, using the keys and the guitar. So at first I duct-taped it onto an old guitar. That was the easy part; the hard part was figuring out how to play it. We just picked a couple of songs and spent a while doing it. You really have to tailor it to the thing. Otherwise … you can’t really improvise.

Have you talked to Scott Baxendale [Athens, Georgia-based guitar luthier who’s make custom guitars for Drive-By Truckers] about making you one yet?

Not yet. He fixed a guitar that I used that had Velcro on it. He was like, “Do you want me to take the Velcro off?” I was like, “No, man. It’s for that keytar thing.” He laughed. It would be fun to have something that slides in like a cartridge or something, like a real nice wooden holder or something that’s literally built into the wood. That would be pretty awesome. I might need to talk to him about commissioning that as the next one.

You had mentioned performing the songs live. You have a show scheduled next month in Athens. How do you go about that? Are you going to perform the songs of the album in its entirety?

Yeah. We actually did a couple of shows last month, and we actually played the whole thing a couple years ago before it was even released. The guys in the band, Chris, who recorded it, he plays guitar in the band. God knows he’s heard it a million times, so he’s got it down. We’ve got several other guys from different bands that have been in town playing. They really enjoy the challenge of just maintaining it and playing through the whole thing straight. So, yeah, we’re going to play it straight through. We usually put it right in the middle of the show and make it the centerpiece. Knock on wood; it’s been going well. It hasn’t fallen apart mid-song yet. You have to take a deep breath when it starts.

Given the background of the album with the power-pop influence, how important are lyrics to you? How do you view pop lyrics versus singer-songwriter or even Truckers’ type lyrics, where there’s a story there?

In my case, as I get older I try to make the lyrics … they generally seem to work the best when they’re actual autobiographical lyrics. All the ones in this suite are based on something and all from the same time. I don’t do quite as well storytelling and making up stories. I don’t think with that genre, with the power-pop genre, it’s as necessary to have a great meaningful lyric. I think people are mostly listening for the hooks, the melodies and the arrangements, which is good. I feel like that’s not my strongest suit, but I feel like with this one I felt like at least I had it all tied together. They’re not going to read like poetry on a page. It’s not going to be like, “Oh, this is great.” But hopefully you try to make it at least good enough with the lyrics tied to a good tune. I used to do the nonsense lyrics just to hang melodies on it, but at a certain point I might as well try to make it at least make some sense in some way. Like I say, I think it’s necessary in the genres that I picked on this. But the “Almond Eyes” love song, I tried to make it heartfelt. If you’re doing it, you really feel it. If it’s not a horrendously cliché lyric, then it’ll work.

The one thing that really sticks out about the album to me are its melodies. That’s where some of the influences that I drew from come in. You had mentioned “Almond Eyes”. The first band that popped into my head when I was listening to that song was Bread. It takes me back to listening to my mom’s cassette tapes in the bedroom.

Totally. Between the melodies and the chords, that longing. No pun intended, but that’s the bittersweet tune that tugs at you. I love Bread because of that. That one song, “Everything I Own”, he [David Gates] wrote it for his dad; it’s heartbreaking. And even “The Guitar Man,” which is like, if you read the lyrics to “The Guitar Man,” it’s fucking hokey, but with the melodies and slide guitar and that mood that David Gates gets, it’s heartbreaking. It totally changes it from “I’m a guitar man coming to your town” kind of thing to the loneliness and traveling on your own and playing music. It’s been done so much, but in that context it really works.

It never gets old if it’s done right. That’s the beauty of it.

That’s the key. Definitely, it’s great when the lyrics and the music are equal or level. A lot of the stuff I grew up on was pop songs, and you’re just trying to hold their attention for 3:50 or 3:10 or whatever or whatever a 45 would be.

And then as you grow older, you get into your puberty years and metal comes in and it’s a whole different world.

I don’t know how that one didn’t sneak onto this record. Maybe that’s the next project: move into the 80s and see where it goes from there. 80s synth-pop and mid-to-late 80s hair metal, which I probably could do as well or better, but I won’t. We had Sebastian Bach from Skid Row play at a club the day before we were there and the back room was trashed. I guess he’s doing it. I guess that’s what you do when you’re Sebastian Bach.

You’ve got to live up to that.

Yeah, he’s not going to get up there and sit on a stool and play an acoustic guitar ballad at this point. It’s not going to work. Either that or people are going to throw shit at him and walk out.

Crowdsourcing and more…

You used Kickstarter to fund the recording and production and pressing of the vinyl. The video you did for it was one of the funniest things ever.

Yeah, that’s all John Britt, my friend that does videos. He does a bunch of videos and has done them in the past for me, too. That was pretty great. I think it’s funny that one of the funniest things, one of the best videos he did for me, was a Kickstarter thing. I don’t know. I can keep it on the site, people can still check it out. I honestly think it got more money than anything else. I’m eternally grateful for that. It’s awesome. It was fun. We have our friend Jake who was acting in it, so it’s always fun to have buddies and just go around Athens. A lot of the videos are shot around Athens, so a lot of folks watch it and recognize the landmarks. It’s a lot of fun.

Going into the Kickstarter thing and then after it was funded, did your thoughts on the whole crowdsourcing aspect change at all?

I was a little hesitant at first. I feel weird asking folks for money and feeling like you owe this thing. It’s not radically different than any other Kickstarter thing. But I did try to make it where you could get the record for cheap at the base level. It’s almost like a pre-order; then if you did want the other level, I try to make them somewhat interesting. I printed up sheet music of the whole suite. You could get that and a t-shirt. Probably the most fun was the co-writing level. We had everything ranging from this young teenage girl that wrote a song, and her dad signed her up for me. I helped write a bridge to the song and then recorded it. Initially I thought I would write a song for whoever wanted it. It really ended up mostly being collaborations with folks. A couple guys who are Drive-By Trucker fans did real heavy instrumental bass and drums thing, and I put this weird surf guitar heavier instrumental thing over it. It ranged. This other guy was just like crazy synth-pop thing. So it really went all over the map, and it was a lot of fun doing that.

And the house shows, which I know a lot of people are doing house show tours. Will Johnson from Centro-matic and Anders Parker. I think even Pat DiNizio from the Smithereens has been doing it for years. It’s a neat way to get into that. I did three of those so far. Every one is radically different. One was quiet in the living room with a bunch of people, and I lost my voice. Then everyone sang along. I had everyone singing. I did one that ended up being almost like a teenage basement rock show. It was people sitting in the basement watching us next to the pool table cranking the guitar. I ended up finishing my set and our hosts had a band on their own, we ended up playing an hour set, doing “I Want to Be Your Dog” and all their songs. It was random and fun. In the end, it was a really cool thing. People were really supportive. Hopefully they’re happy with the stuff they got. I haven’t had any complaints so far.

From other artists I’ve seen who have done these, it seems like it’s a lot of work. You see pictures on Twitter and Instagram of all the records they’re boxing to ship out.

It was insane. That was stuff I never really dealt with. It was almost like starting your own little label. You’re figuring out how much it costs. The whole budgeting thing was not my forte. It all worked out, thank God. I didn’t realize LP cardboard mailers cost so much or figuring out to use media mail. It’s these little things that you end up figuring out.

Having backed a few of these projects myself, you see other ones that bands or artists are doing, it’s like once the campaign is fully funded, that’s the entire marketing campaign, there’s not much point or life to it after the campaign is over.

It is fascinating to realize. That’s the one thing I didn’t consider. Someone mentioned to me that it is in itself the start of a promotional thing. It’s releasing it that way that brings attention to it. It didn’t really occur to me. I don’t have a machine or anything. I thought if I did it all around the same time, it would help. The more of doing it at this point, I think for the level I’m doing it, which I can’t tour a lot behind it, having things come out over time, it seems to work out the best. It’s really keeping it out there on a lower level, as opposed to having a big bump of stuff written about it and then it’s gone.

You almost have to do a tiered marketing campaign for it now.

Exactly. None of it’s by design, of course. It’s just the way I work. It’s like I don’t know what’s happening the next day. Fortunately it’s worked out so far. It’s weird having it all done, too. I was focusing on it for so long, and now it’s nice to have it done, but now I’m already thinking about the next record and recording the next songs. I’ve got to have something in the next chamber. That’s where we are now.

Moving to the vinyl side of things, the album The Bitter Suite, it does work well digitally. There’s a gapless aspect of it but it’s really meant for the vinyl construct. Having lived with it for as long as you have to get it to vinyl, what are your thoughts on the digital aspect? Not necessarily for your album, but digital in general. Does it stifle the creativity from an artist’s standpoint? You mentioned this was a vinyl thing and the whole aspect of front to back, one-sided, a continuous sweep. You don’t necessarily have that in the digital format.

You can listen to it the same way. The weird thing about digital’s sonic façade or MP3s taking chunks of sound out of the actual music is the randomness and how the order of what you’re listening to can be lost pretty easily. They Might Be Giants, I heard an interview with them and they were saying the way iTunes loads the songs in, the order they get loaded in, a lot of times if you don’t have it in a playlist and you just hit play, it goes last song to first. Is it even worth doing that, trying to sequence it right or in a way that’s effective when people are going to be either taking a song out and not listening to the rest of the record or listening backward and forward? Maybe sequence it backward to forward.

But on the other hand, I am a singles guy. I do like the idea of the 45s, it’s not radically different. I like the idea that a lot of folks are putting out singles or one or two songs as a single. I do think it’s neat. You can really do that. The CD single never really seemed to take off.

It seems to be revisiting that 50s-era 45 pre-full length popularity. With The Bitter Suite, it’s really important. It’s almost extra important that you listen to it in order because if it’s not, it sounds like the endings are so abrupt because they flow right into each other. It’s hard taking it out of context. Each song is a little bit shorter than a normal song just to keep the flow going. If you cut a song out, it’s only going to be like two minutes long, which is actually fine. Some songs are a little long these days it seems. Part of me was going to put one side, the suite on the one side, and then do a bunch of other songs on the other side, which seems to be what a lot of the prog bands did or Abbey Road had the suite on one side and then the other songs. I did like the idea really of just trying to make the focus be on the one little group of songs and not dilute it.

Keep the focus on it.

It’s funny the limitations, what people love about vinyl, and it is cool, but it was also tough. I was like, “Maybe we can do a 45, but then we would have to flip it and it would lose the momentum of that.” It seemed to be that the only way to do it would be on one side. Maybe we can do it at 45 speed but on a 12-inch and have it sound really extra great. I do think the limitations really help sometimes. I do think CDs got a little ridiculous in the 90s when you’re getting a 75-minute full CD of stuff that could have been honed down a little bit. It works great with the longer sets, but everyone felt obliged to fill up the CD.

To justify the $18.99 price tag.

Right. For a piece of plastic worth 50 cents.

The resurgence of vinyl these days, what’s your thoughts on Record Store Day. I know it just happened. Are you a fan?

I am. We played a few Record Store Day things with the Truckers. It’s cool when I’m there, but I always seem to miss the stuff I want to get. I’m unfortunately too lazy to get up and wait in line. I do like it, and I like the idea of having specialized vinyl. There is enough of a fetishist in me that still likes the colored red vinyl or clear vinyl and limited-edition stuff, but I’m also not enough of a collector to really go out and do it. I do think it’s a good thing to promote it. I love that you can go into an appliance store and they’re selling vinyl now, which is a good sign. You should obviously buy it from a record store, but I do like the idea that it’s become popular enough that it seems like the record stores are able to sustain a little more than they were before.

I love going in and buying; just having the physical thing is a great thing. I like the sound of it. The natural compression of it, it’s a sound so good. I have a little shitty record player, but if you just bought a brand-new record, I’m not going to put a brand-new New Pornographers colored splattered vinyl record on with that little needle. Or maybe I would, and then regret it later. That’s the only thing, buying a bunch of them and having to wait to get home to check it out. It builds up the anticipation, and then you actually sit down and listen to it. It’s a lot of fun. I really enjoy it.

What are a few records that you prefer on vinyl over any other format? Not like remastered stuff, but the original.

I like 45s that are the real hot mastering that a lot of the older 45s have, especially I like a lot of the 50s and 60s instrumental stuff. I try to collect. Like I like “Telstar” by the Tornadoes. It sounds so much better on a scratchy compressed 45 where it’s mastered really loudly than a shitty re-recorded version. A lot of that stuff I really dig. I was listening to The Brown Album by The Band. It wasn’t even a great original copy, but it sounded so good. I was just playing it on the vinyl. And then the reissued Beatles stuff. I’m trying to collect all that, too. The mono stuff, I wasn’t able to get the whole box, but I’m trying to slowly get one by one. It’s so tough to pick. “Which one should I get first just in case?” It’s tantamount to torture. They’re all so good.

Two albums that really hit me as a different experience listening to them on vinyl would be like Steely Dan‘s

Aja and Pink Floyd‘s Wish You Were Here. Those are studio-oriented band, but it was a whole different world listening to those albums, having lived with them for 20 or 30 years, first on cassette or 8-track and then on CD, you hear the originals on vinyl, and it’s a totally different album.

Certain ones sound great. As a teenager, I had the first Black Sabbath album. Funnily enough I was talking about how you don’t want to play it on a shitty record player, but the only record player I had at the time was a little toy portable record player. It never sounded quite as good to me as that little tiny speaker. There’s just something about it, the resonance of it or Led Zeppelin II. At a certain point in my teenage years, I found my aunt and uncle’s stash of records in my grandma’s attic, and it was instant classic rock. It was Sabbath’s first album, the RamonesRocket to Russia and then Joe Jackson. That’s where the whole Joe Jackson thing started; I’m the Man and Look Sharp and then all the classic rock standard stuff, too. I would just sit there with the little record player. It wasn’t even a hi-fi thing for a while. And knowing the sequence of it … there are a lot of records I just listened to one side of the record.

Like memo-repeat on some record players, keep playing the same side over and over and over again.

Yeah. You don’t have to get up; you just sink into the couch. I have my grandma’s old standup furniture record player.

A console unit?

Yeah, a console unit. I need to get it fixed because you can stack up the 45s and it drops them one at a time. It’s been so long since I’ve had that. I think being spoiled by the iPhone-iPod digital age is being able to set stuff up on a queue or playlist and let it go. Part of the good thing about a 45 or records is that you’re getting up, you’re engaging, but there’s also, unless you’re playing DJ in your house, you have two minutes to walk away and come back and do it. Just dropping a bunch of the A-sides is fun, too. Or just go in for jukebox. That’s the dream.

Even those are digital now.

That’s the thing, the jukebox in your hand.

I’ve mentioned you and I are the same age. For you as an artist, having grown up and seeing all the different formats that have come and gone, the vinyl, the 8-track cassettes, the CD, does having your music on vinyl as an artist add any more validity to it as art, or is it just another format for you?

It does for me. It does because that was the first one I knew. I still do feel like it’s the most permanent. I did the cassette thing for a long time, and they just don’t last. I remember having the Nice Price CBS whatever greatest hits album, and after four or five plays it’s just squealing and feeling ripped off, then finding out that it’s tape and that’s going to happen no matter what.

Like leaving it in the car in the summer.

It’s all warped and shit. And again, with records it’s the scratches. There a lot of records that I have reissues of, and I’m used to the scratch. The Band album being one, “Across the Great Divide” on my original copy, there’s a skip that happened that I’m almost looking forward to. It doesn’t happen, and it’s like something is weird. I was a little kid and had a Billy Joel record, and it was the same thing. You get used to it. I remember being annoyed by it, and now I go back to it, “Where is that?” It’s all part of the experience. That’s why people get pretty into the vinyl thing, different pressings and stuff.

Fortunately Chris Grehan, we’ve been playing together since we were 18 or 19, he’s an engineer and he’s got great ears. I’m glad he did this thing when we pressed the The Bitter Suite, a lot of people will do MP3 downloads or whatever. We contacted the pressing company, and we were seeing if we could do high resolution downloads, too. You can get the low-level AAC compressed thing, but also you can get the FLAC with CD-quality wave files or 9624, real high fidelity ones. I’m all about the Pono or the high-res things. I heard it, and it sounds great. It’s good to have the option to do that. I see the rationale of “It’s just the download. You have the record.” But if someone wants to hear it in all formats, it sounds really good, especially when you spend so much time trying to make it sound as good as possible. I could see that it’s heartbreaking to know it’s mostly is going to be played out of a little tiny earbud. There’s not much you can do about it. Again, I guess it’s just holding onto that, getting it as close to the original experience intended as possible. There’s folks who still want it.

We talked about Record Store Day; in the Kickstarter video, you referenced that High Fidelity stigma of the record shop snob. Do you think that’s changed a bit just because record stores were on their way out, and now they are coming back in? They don’t have a cadre of employees; it’s usually just one or two people. It’s almost like they have to be friendly.

I don’t know if I’ve noticed that. I guess we are lucky, traveling around a lot with the Truckers, I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of stores and for the most part everyone is cool. A lot of guys get into the vinyl thing aren’t necessarily doing it to make money. You get a lot of the collector guys who don’t want to sell you the shit. But it is more rare. That’s like one out of every five guys. I do think it’s probably helped. I was in Dallas somewhere, and this young kid, he was so enthusiastic. He had to be like 16, and he’s like “Have you heard the new Dan Deacon?” I’m like an old man. I’m like, “I know it.” He’s like, “You’ve got to hear it. It’s great.” He was just talking about the young bands, and he’s like, “It sounds like this, and this guy is great.” I’m buying a Move record. It’s great in the sense that it’s not just oldies like us and we’re holding on. They sold hi-fis and they had the whole thing going. It was pretty awesome. It was funny. I was chuckling, but it was also endearing. He’s turning everyone onto stuff in the shop. Shit, there’s a lot of new stuff that’s great that I haven’t seen. Patterson’s really good in the Truckers. He keeps up with everything. I’m lucky through that, too. Through my friends I can keep up with the music stuff. Otherwise I’m stuck in a quagmire of the ’70s and ’80s.