To call multi-instrumentalist and label owner Jason Mullinax one of the most creative and prolific musicians in the DC region would be an accurate statement. But it would also be just part of the story.
Photo: Chris Videll
Mullinax is also equal parts educator and musical instrument builder. The two often go hand in hand. With his Music Discovery Lab workshops, Mullinax teaches all ages groups (often children) the joys of creativity and expression through making music. A frequent feature of these workshops is Mullinax’s proclivity for building custom-made musical instruments from disparate sources. He often eschews purely traditional approaches in favor of make-shift DIY creations consisting of household items and unusual sources.
The playfulness, enthusiasm and geeky adventurousness that defines his work as an educator and instrument builder is equally apparent in his solo recordings. “Living Memory,” released last June and “High Tide Falling,” released in December, underscore what makes Mullinax such a compelling musician. Both records boast their own sense of childlike wonder in the way Mullinax explores and combines new and old sounds together, fusing electronic and organic elements while obscuring which is which. Another record, “The Wandering Light,” will be released in short order. It’s clear the pandemic has proved to be an unexpected catalyst for creativity.
I can’t help but think that the drifting, circular sci-fi soundscapes of electronic pioneers Cluster have left an impression on Mullinax, though the latter’s work is far more percussive and grounded.
With Jason Mullinax set to play the Friday, March 5th Livestream edition of We Fought the Big One, I got in touch with him to learn more about what drives his creative process and how he ended up making such fascinating music. Read on…
1) How did you end up making the kind of music you do? Did you always have an affinity for more esoteric sounds?
Jason: I’m a true lover of music and have absorbed it like a sponge for most of my life. If I hear something that excites me it’s not long before I’m trying to incorporate those ideas into my own sound. Lately I’ve been really drawn to artists who create rhythmically and harmonically ambiguous music so you can really hear those concepts reflected in my most recent work. I try to create songs that are constantly shifting and moving in many different directions at once but without ever losing their shape or emotional content. It can be challenging at times but I think I’ve come up with a formula that works well for me.
When I first started writing my own music I didn’t really have a strong background in theory so it was hard for me to write songs in a traditional way (and if I’m completely honest, it still is). To compensate, I tend to focus more on rhythm, texture and form so I suppose that’s where I developed my love for nontraditional sounds and instrumentation. I’ve also been lucky enough to have assembled an amazing crew of collaborators who graciously lend me their time and talents when I need a hand. They give me invaluable advice and play all the amazing things I can’t so I have to give them credit for how much they’ve helped me to evolve over the years.
2) There is a tendency in the experimental music scene to make music that is largely conceptual and willfully difficult. You’re not like that at all. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I think your music is perfect for introducing pop listeners to experimental music. How important is it to you to make music for more than just the experimental cognoscenti?
Jason: As a fan of experimental music I can attest that it can get tedious and self indulgent at times. Especially if the conceit of the “experiment” overshadows the listenability of the piece. No matter how left field my music may get I’m always extremely aware of the listener. I firmly believe that experimental music can be palatable if you provide a foothold for people so I strive to make my records as accessible as possible but without compromising my overall vision. Primarily I make the music that I want to hear but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t also do it as a way of connecting to other people and turning them on to new things. I see it as a kind of energy exchange.
(Cover image of “High Tide Falling”)
3) Much of your work emphasizes percussion. I especially like the way you use rhythm as a focal point on “Wood Knot Eye,” the opening track of High Tide Falling. If you had to sum up your philosophy on how you approach percussion, what would it be?
Jason: Drums are my primary instrument so it would make sense that most of my music is focused through that lens. When I first started playing as a kid my mission was to be the “best drummer in the world”, whatever that meant. Over time, I stopped caring about how technical my chops were and I started focusing more on how creative I could be with the skills I already had. This isn’t to say that I didn’t want to get better but learning how to play 32nd note paradiddles with my feet at 250 bpms no longer seemed relevant to my musical goals. I became more interested in exploring different styles and seeing how far I could push myself creatively. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to play in marching bands, symphonic bands, jazz bands, and countless other ensembles and I’ve been drawing upon all of those experiences ever since. If I had to sum up my philosophy as a percussionist I would say it’s more important to be flexible and well rounded than to be super specialized in just one thing. Never be satisfied being just a drummer either and explore as much as you can!
4) I can’t help but detect a certain childlike wonder in your work, certainly in the sense of adventure and playfulness. To what extent does being a music teacher and working with kids infuse what you do?
Jason: I’ve always enjoyed infusing my music with a bit of playfulness, even when it’s sometimes more serious in tone. I guess that comes from my “anything goes” mentality to music making. At this point I’m not sure how/if being a music educator has affected how I create art but being the kind of musician I am has DEFINITELY affected my teaching. I stress to my students the importance of learning the fundamentals but ultimately those fundamentals are just a means to an end. In other words, I like to teach them what they need to know in order to do the things they want to do. Because of that I don’t have a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Once they get proficient enough I start emphasizing creativity and helping them develop their own voice because ultimately I want them to go out into the world and be adventurous themselves!
5) You were kind enough to share a preview of your next record with me. I was struck by how cinematic and harrowing it sounds. It’s quite different from “High Tide Falling,” and that was just released in December 2020. What is it that drives your musical evolution? How do you see your next record fitting in with your journey as a music maker?
Jason: I’ve always been a restless spirit and for whatever reason this last year has been a creative high point for me. I feel awkward talking about it because I know how much people have lost due to COVID (myself included) and I never want to trivialize the heaviness of all that. Yet somehow, I’ve managed to draw upon those negative feelings of dread and isolation and channel them into something more positive. LIVING MEMORY and HIGH TIDE FALLING came together much, much quicker than what I’m used to. I almost didn’t trust the process because it felt too easy. The reality was I just finally became comfortable with myself as a musician. With all the doubt and uncertainty about the future looming over my head, I realized that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed and I needed to make the most of every moment. I had finally found a voice so I threw myself into the work. I made sacrifices and compromises to make those records happen for sure but it felt like something that I needed to do.
The same with my newest one, THE WANDERING LIGHT, that’s coming out in the next several weeks. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at composing some extended tracks like my favorite 70’s prog bands and electronic acts but I was never successful making it happen. This time it just all seemed to fall into place and almost felt like a complete accident. While I know this newer album might be a bit more challenging for some, I think it will make sense at the end of the day once it’s placed alongside all of my other work. I’m not sure if I’ll ever make a record like this again but I’m certainly glad that I got it out of my system. It’s almost like recording THE WANDERING LIGHT has afforded me the freedom to go anywhere from here and nothing is more exciting to me than that.